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Shrinking ralph perfect, p.1
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       Shrinking Ralph Perfect, p.1

           Chris D'Lacey
 
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Shrinking Ralph Perfect


  www.orchardbooks.co.uk

  ORCHARD BOOKS

  338 Euston Road,

  London NW1 3BH

  Orchard Books Australia

  Hachette Children’s Books

  Level 17/207 Kent Street, Sydney, NSW 2000

  ISBN 978 1 40831 443 2

  First published in Great Britain in 2005

  This ebook edition first published in 2011

  Text © Chris d’Lacey 2005

  The right of Chris d’Lacey to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

  Acknowledgements:

  Part of the inspiration for this book came from a visit to Tim Hunkin’s arcade machines on Southwold Pier. Anyone who’d like to try out The Frisker can do so there.

  Thanks to Penny and Michelle for the title!

  And a special thanks to Holly – ace reader and cereal stargirl…

  For everyone at LWC

  – where would I be without you?

  Prologue

  Imagine something horrible happened.

  Imagine you heard a story so appalling your ears turned to ice and they dropped off your head.

  Freeze. Freeze. Clinkle. Clinkle.

  Ears. Imagine it.

  Clinkle.

  Crack.

  And if this tale was so fearfully grisly (earfully grisly, I suppose you could say), just think what other calamities might happen – like your toes might curl to the size of pebbles. Imagine that, pebbles in the ends of your shoes. Walking around on shingle.

  For ever.

  What sort of story could do a thing like that?

  This sort of story. It could.

  Oh yes.

  What’s in it then, you wonder? Boggle-eyed monsters from a far-off planet? Blood-swilling vampires from another time? Ghouls and goblins? Wizards and witches?

  No, none of that. What’s so frightening about this story is how ordinary it seems. Because ordinary things can happen to anyone. Me and you.

  But especially you.

  Take what happens at the start, for instance. Like our hero, Ralph, you’re sprawled out on the front room carpet, reading a really good book about dragons, when you hear a gentle tapping at the door. You run to answer, but you’ll soon wish you hadn’t.

  There’s something awful behind this door. Something that’s going to change your life. But you open the door, anyway. Why wouldn’t you? Someone’s knocking.

  And look what’s standing on your step…

  That’s right. A sweet-smelling, slightly deaf, little old lady.

  Now is that gruesome or what?

  Bad News

  ‘Hello, Mrs Birdlees,’ Ralph said kindly. ‘Would you like to come in? Mum’s baking a cake.’ He held the door open and waited for the frail old lady to enter. She looked like a peg on an empty washing line – rickety, lonely, blown about by the breeze.

  ‘Thank you, Ralph,’ Mrs Birdlees sniffed. Ralph smiled. Mrs Birdlees often sniffed. She was always reaching for the lavender-scented hanky stuffed into the sleeve of her tight-knit cardigans; always blowing away a cold, she was. But not today, Ralph noticed, as the hanky came out. Today his next-door neighbour was wiping a speck of a tear from her eyes.

  ‘Is everything all right?’ Ralph enquired softly, touching Mrs Birdlees once on the arm.

  Mrs Birdlees sniffed again. ‘Oh Ralphy,’ she croaked, giving him a hug (many years ago, Mrs Birdlees had used to babysit him), ‘I’ll miss you so much. My sweet, sweet child. Why can’t the other boys be like you?’

  And just as she said that, just as the frail old dear closed her mouth, there was a shout in the street and a gang of boys shot past on their bikes. Whoosh. Like a flock of angry sparrows. Bumping up the kerbs, banging on the roofs of all the parked cars. O-lé! Olé! Olé! Olé! they were singing. A popular football chant.

  Mrs Birdlees quivered. Her small face paled with fright. She patted Ralph’s cheek and hurried down the hall.

  Ralph closed his hand into an angry fist. The gang, Kyle Salter’s gang, was already skidding into Hollyhead Crescent. With any luck they’d stay there. Out of harm’s way.

  Ralph gulped hard and closed the door.

  Tight.

  ‘Who is it, Ralph?’ his mother was shouting. She was bending down, pulling a cake from the oven. A smell of warm ginger crept through the house.

  ‘It’s only me,’ Mrs Birdlees twittered, in a voice as tiny as sesame seeds.

  Penelope ‘Penny’ Perfect greeted her warmly. ‘Good timing, Annie.’ She held up the cake for Mrs Birdlees to inspect.

  ‘Wonderful, as always,’ the old lady said.

  And on that note, she started to sob.

  ‘Oh, Annie. What on earth’s the matter?’ Penny glanced at Ralph who just shrugged his shoulders. He was still trying to work out why Mrs Birdlees had cried in the hall. And why had she said, ‘I’ll miss you so much?’

  ‘Kettle,’ his mother instructed quietly. She quickly turned the ginger cake onto a cooling rack. She took off her oven gloves and folded her pinny, then guided their neighbour onto a stool at the breakfast bar.

  ‘Oh dear, this is dreadful,’ Mrs Birdlees wept, gripping tight to Penny’s hand. ‘I’ve been turning it over and over for months. It’s been awful, you know. A horrible decision. I hope you understand. It was the only thing to do. If you’ve any sense, my dear, you’ll follow my example.’

  Mrs Perfect swept her fringe to one side and sat down on one of the bar stools herself. ‘Annie, I don’t understand. Do what? What is it you’ve decided?’

  ‘To sell, my dear. To sell.’

  Penny drew a shocked breath. ‘You don’t mean the house?’

  Mrs Birdlees nodded.

  ‘Oh Annie, you can’t. You can’t move away from Number 9. You’ve lived in the Crescent since you were a tot. You’re our backbone. Our life support. What’s brought this on? The hoovering or something? If you’re having trouble getting up the stairs with your leg, Ralph and I will help out. Won’t we, Ralph?’

  ‘Erm, yeah,’ said Ralph, dropping a couple of tea bags into the pot. Normally he approved of his mother’s good-natured sentiments, but he wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of hoovering. He had to tidy his room once a week as it was. So he was quite relieved at first when Mrs Birdlees said: ‘It’s not the cleaning, my dear. I’m as sprightly as I ever was about the old place. It’s not that. It’s these…’ She looked over her shoulder, back down the hall. ‘It’s these boys.’

  A teaspoon clattered across the breakfast room floor.

  ‘Ralph,’ his mother tutted.

  Ralph mumbled an apology. His hand was shaking as he picked the spoon up.

  ‘Oh, Ann-ie,’ his mother sighed. ‘You mustn’t let these silly incidents upset you. Boys of that age, they—’

  ‘Girls as well,’ Ralph quickly put in. There was a girl in Kyle Salter’s gang.

  ‘Make the tea,’ his mother said trimly, and turning back to Mrs Birdlees she continued: ‘I know that things have been rowdy lately. The children have reached that age, I suppose. It is annoying, I agree. Windows being broken, dented cars.’

  ‘Mr Cooper had a gnome in his pond,’ said Ralph.

  His mother warned him off with an icy frown. ‘I’m sure it’s just a phase they’re going through, Annie. It happens everywhere. You mustn’t let them drive you out of your home.’

  Mrs Birdlees interlocked her fingers and brought her bony hands up to her chin. ‘But my dear, it isn’t the rowdiness,’ she said. ‘I can cope with the shouting and the crisp packets stuffed through the garden hedge. It’s not t
hat at all. It’s the other things they do. The evil things. Do you know what I found in my letterbox this morning?’

  Not another gnome, Ralph was thinking.

  Penny shook her head.

  ‘Five dead bees.’

  ‘Oh! Now that isn’t nice. That really is disgusting. You should go to the police.’

  ‘No,’ said Annie, ‘I should just go; pack up and leave. I have an estate agent coming round tomorrow. As soon as I find a suitable buyer, I’m away to live with my sister in Totnes. I’m sorry, my dear. For you, too, Ralph.’

  Ralph nodded. On the breakfast bar in front of him, the automatic kettle blew a long head of steam and switched itself off. Ralph poured the boiling water into the pot. He didn’t know it then, but it was the last time he would ever make tea for himself, his mother and old Annie Birdlees.

  The End of an Era

  Ants were Ralph Perfect’s favourite animals. It seemed odd to call anything that small an animal. But Ralph had noticed that people, particularly old people, always shrivelled if you used the word ‘insect’ to describe an ant. ‘Insects?’ they would say, twitching their noses and scratching their arms. ‘The only good insect is a dead insect, boy.’ Ralph always shut up at that point. In his opinion, nearly every grown-up he had ever met was ready to do harm to tiny things. He hated that.

  And he did like ants.

  For one thing, they were just so fascinating to watch. It was the way they ran, whizzing about in dizzy little lines, up and over and round any object. Ants swarm, it said in one of Ralph’s books, like a mini tidal wave. But Ralph knew ants were cleverer than that. They weren’t really like a wave. They didn’t just obey the pull of the moon. Ants went where they chose. Ants talked to one another. Not in the same way that people talked. The patterns they made meant things to other ants. It was a sign language, sort of. Like sending smoke signals or waving flags. Ants talked by their movements. They talked silently and fast. You had to watch them to hear them.

  And Ralph watched them a lot.

  The day things began to happen next door, he was lying on the patio, propped up on his elbows, studying a colony of worker ants as they swarmed round the water-butt at the side of the shed. Some ants were carrying dead ants about. They were hauling them over mountainous obstacles (twigs and leaves: mountains to them), before dragging them down through a crack in the paving slabs under the shed. They were going to the nest: dark and buzzing, tumbling with life. Ralph wondered what happened to the dead ants down there. Were they food for the other workers, perhaps? Maybe ants, like people, carried their dead to a special place to give them a decent sending-off. That made him think about old Annie Birdlees. Annie, moving to a different nest.

  It was then he heard the voices in the garden next door.

  His mother, who had popped out to throw some bread to the birds, heard the voices too. She looked at Ralph and put a finger to her lips. She beckoned him to join her at the garden wall. Together they stood, scouting through the holes of a honeysuckled trellis, spying on events in Annie’s garden.

  Mrs Birdlees was there, in a pair of bunny slippers and a cream-coloured cardigan. She was standing on one of the round stepping stones that curled in an ‘S’ down her long, narrow lawn. Her arms were folded like safety pins. She was shivering, despite the sun being out.

  By her side was a smartly-dressed young man. In his hands he held a clipboard and a round tape measure. He was hopping about like a Morris dancer, cupping one hand above his caterpillar eyebrows and peering at the gutters of Annie’s house.

  ‘Oh yes,’ he kept saying with solid enthusiasm. ‘V. des. res., Mrs Birdley. Oh yes.’

  ‘Birdlees,’ the bemused old lady corrected him. ‘What do you think, Mr Tattle, will it sell?’

  ‘Sell?’ Mr Tattle rattled, as if alarm clocks were going off in his ears. ‘Oh yes, Mrs Bumblebees. Oh definitely, yes.’ He took a small pencil from behind one ear and made a few ticks on the papers on his board. ‘Period piece. Should do a bucket. Props. in this area, highly sought after. No FGCH or NDPC, but the spac. pat. makes up for it somewhat, doesn’t it? It’s a spangler, no swizz. Ninety K at least. An absolute lollipop.’

  Ralph looked sideways at his mother.

  ‘He’s the estate agent,’ she whispered.

  ‘Why is he talking funny like that?’

  ‘Like what?’

  ‘Like he never eats anything but alphabetti spaghetti?’

  Penny smiled. ‘They just do. It’s a sort of code. Mr Tattle was telling Annie that she doesn’t have full gas central heating or a new damp proof course, but the spacious patio would probably make up for it.’

  Ralph nodded, beginning to understand. FGCH – full gas central heating. But why had the estate agent called the house a lollipop?

  ‘That’s his way of saying the property is worth a lot of money. Sounds like they’re going to put it on the market for ninety thousand pounds. Imagine that.’

  Ralph tried. Ninety thousand pounds? Who in the world had that sort of money? He’d known his mother haggle about paying ninety pence for a bunch of bananas.

  ‘Delightful garden.’ Mr Tattle’s voice floated over the wall again. ‘Oodles of room for dev., Mrs Birdseed. Turn this place into a palace, you could.’

  ‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ Mrs Birdlees said. ‘What about the neighbours?’

  ‘Good point,’ said Mr Tattle, turning sharply. Ralph and his mother ducked under the trellis. ‘Any probs. with nebs? The buyer could ask.’

  There was a slight pause. Ralph thought he could hear Annie’s hanky coming out. ‘Mrs Perfect and her son are the best neighbours anyone could wish for. If I had the opportunity or the means, Mr Tattle, I’d take them with me when I go to Totnes.’

  ‘V. commendable, Mrs Bindweed,’ he said. ‘Good rels. with nebs. Could make a diff. at the end of the day. Well, that seems about it. One or two ‘p’s and ‘q’s to settle, ‘i’s to dot, that sort of thing. Should have a board round first thing p.m. Okey-dokey. Must look sharp. People to see. Houses to sell. TTFN. Many thanks for using Tittle, Tattle and Parrot.’

  Mr Tattle was true to his word. Shortly after two o’clock that same afternoon, a sign was hammered up outside Annie Birdlees’ house.

  FOR SALE, it announced, in gloomy green capitals.

  Penny Perfect watched it happen. She stood in the bay of Number 11, eyes like a teddy bear: wistful, unmoving. When Ralph heard the banging and came rushing to join her, she slipped an arm round his shoulder and hugged him close.

  ‘The end of an era, Ralphy,’ she said.

  Ralph nodded. Annie was really going. A pang of finality stabbed at his chest.

  ‘Who do you think will buy the house, Mum?’

  ‘Who knows?’ his mother shrugged. She watched the man who had erected the sign throw his tools into a car and drive away. ‘Someone nice, I hope. Someone friendly. Someone quiet.’ She kissed Ralph softly on the top of his head and glided silently away from the window.

  Ralph stayed in the bay for a long time after that. He took an elastic band from his pocket and twiddled it aimlessly around his fingers. His mind was a blur of change and worry. Old Annie, going. Annie, who had been as constant in his life as the sun in the sky, no longer coming out for her milk in the morning or sweeping the autumn leaves from her path. Instead, there would be an empty space. All thanks to the Salter gang.

  Anger rose inside him, then. Anger and fear. Ralph hated himself for his dread of Kyle Salter. The bully was like a dark stain that never washed out. In a bid to push him far to the back of his mind, Ralph engaged in a game. A word-making game. He was clever and good with words. One of his favourite challenges was trying to make as many different words as he could from a single long one. He played it now with the letters: FOR SALE.

  He was doing very well. He’d found ‘foal’ and ‘safe’ and ‘leaf’ and ‘laser’ (‘for’ and ‘sale’ didn’t count, of course) and was trying to increase his overall tally by searching for the easier, three-l
etter words, when a loud popping noise broke his concentration. His gaze flicked briefly from the sign to the street. A grubby white van, pothering fumes from a rattling exhaust, roared past Annie’s house and on up Midfield Crescent. Ralph thought nothing of it. Cars were cars: they passed by every day. He turned back to FOR SALE and had just spotted the word ‘oaf’, when he heard the sound of slowly-turning wheels and saw the strange, white van reversing up the Crescent. It backfired once and emerged through a parachute of blue-black smoke.

  It stopped outside Annie Birdlees’ home.

  The van door opened on the driver’s side. A tall, skinny man with hair as lank as seaweed got out. He leant one arm on the roof of the van, put a lit cigarette between his lips and squinted hard at Annie’s house. He’d been like that for barely ten seconds when Kyle Salter screwed up on his bike.

  ‘Giz a smoke, mister.’

  The weedy-looking man didn’t even sniff.

  ‘Oi! Giz a smoke,’ Kyle Salter tried again.

  This time, the smoker’s right arm moved. He lifted the reddened butt from his mouth, twiddled it once and flicked it away. It bounced off Kyle Salter’s chest. Kyle reeled back. His mountain bike reared. He flapped at his T-shirt as if he were beating off a wasp. Then his right foot slipped off the edge of the kerb and the front wheel of the mountain bike twisted away. Boy, plus bike, came crashing to the ground.

  Ralph, in the bay window, had his nose pressed almost flat to the glass. He could hardly believe what he was seeing outside.

  ‘You’ll wish you hadn’t done that,’ Salter spat. He yanked the bike up, kicked the van and pedalled off.

  That started a dog on the passenger seat yapping. All this time, the stranger hadn’t moved. He hadn’t said a word. He hadn’t looked at Kyle Salter. Now, in a snarling, sandpaper voice he spoke to the dog, ‘Git down, Knocker.’

  Then he slid into the van again, slammed the door shut and roared away up Midfield Crescent.

 
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