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Too small to fail, p.1
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       Too Small to Fail, p.1

           Morris Gleitzman
 
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Too Small to Fail


  MORRIS GLEITZMAN

  TOO SMALL TO FAIL

  Puffin Books

  Also by Morris Gleitzman

  The Other Facts of Life

  Second Childhood

  Two Weeks with the Queen

  Misery Guts

  Worry Warts

  Puppy Fat

  Blabber Mouth

  Sticky Beak

  Gift of the Gab

  Belly Flop

  Water Wings

  Wicked! (with Paul Jennings)

  Deadly! (with Paul Jennings)

  Bumface

  Adults Only

  Teacher’s Pet

  Toad Rage

  Toad Heaven

  Toad Away

  Toad Surprise

  Boy Overboard

  Girl Underground

  Worm Story

  Aristotle’s Nostril

  Doubting Thomas

  Grace

  Too Small to Fail

  Give Peas a Chance

  Pizza Cake

  Once

  Then

  After

  Now

  Loyal Creatures

  For Mary-Anne

  Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  1

  Oliver wanted more.

  Not squillions of dollars and private jets and solid gold zips on his school bag. Not even his own paint-ball island in the Pacific or lolly trucks backing up to his place every day.

  Just more than this.

  More than standing in a crowded shopping centre trying to have a friendship with a dog through a pet-shop window.

  What Oliver wanted was a black-and-white streak hurtling towards him across a park and yelping with joy and leaping onto his chest and wagging mud all over him and making his face wet with love.

  The dog in the pet shop wanted that too, Oliver could see. It was gazing up at him, puddle eyes eager and hopeful, quivering nose making smears on the glass as it tried to snuffle him.

  Oliver sighed.

  He’d been trying to explain for days how things were, and the dog still didn’t understand.

  Oliver leaned closer to the window and tried again.

  ‘I can’t take you home,’ he said sadly to the dog. ‘We just have to be friends through the glass.’

  The dog’s whole body was quivering like it did every time they met. The strands of newspaper dangling from its ears were jiggling and wobbling with excitement.

  Oliver could see the dog still didn’t get it.

  He knew why.

  You couldn’t be real friends through glass. Not when one of you was a dog.

  This is hopeless, thought Oliver. I’m not being fair. I’m just hurting us both.

  He had another thought.

  Maybe they had to stop meeting like this.

  Oliver didn’t want to. He loved coming here. At school it was all he could think of, even in art. And anyway, how could you explain to a friend that it was all over when you weren’t even allowed into the pet shop because the manager reckoned you were a time-waster and a pest?

  Oliver sighed again.

  ‘Nice puppy that,’ said a voice.

  At first Oliver thought the person standing next to him was a kid. She was only a bit taller than him and her hair was in a ponytail. Then he saw her grown-up hands.

  ‘Yes,’ said Oliver. ‘It is.’

  He didn’t know how the woman could see the dog properly with her sunglasses on.

  ‘I think I’ll buy it,’ said the woman.

  She went into the shop.

  Oliver wanted to tell her it was too late. He wanted to yell out that the dog was already sold to a loving owner. But he couldn’t because it wasn’t.

  He watched the woman go up to an assistant and point to the dog. The assistant came over and lifted the dog out of the window. The dog looked at Oliver and then at the woman and then back at Oliver.

  Suddenly Oliver remembered what Dad always said.

  Take a chance.

  Have a punt.

  Risk it.

  Oliver picked up his school bag and hurried into the shop. As soon as he was inside, the manager yelled at him.

  ‘Oi, you. I’ve told you. Out.’

  The manager was a big scary man with poodle hair. But Oliver was too frantic to feel scared. He had to move fast. The assistant was handing the woman a piece of paper and explaining about dog injections.

  Oliver realised he didn’t have a plan. Dad would never take a punt without a plan.

  Too late.

  Oliver struggled to think of something to say.

  He could offer to pay a hundred dollars more than the woman. Then ask if the dog could live in the shop for a few years. Just until the manager realised working with animals made him grumpy, and he retired and Oliver got a loan and bought the shop.

  Trouble was, the manager looked too grumpy now to even appreciate such a good offer.

  Oliver took a deep breath of budgie-scented air to try to calm his thoughts.

  A better idea hit him.

  I’ll ask the woman if I can come to her place sometimes to visit the dog, he said to himself.

  She might agree, specially if he offered to get the dog hairs off her sofa with sticky tape.

  Then Oliver noticed the woman’s grubby jeans and dusty boots and the bits of straw stuck to her jacket.

  This wasn’t good.

  If she was a farmer he’d never be able to get to her place. Farms were hundreds of kilometres away.

  ‘Are you deaf?’ the manager was saying to Oliver. ‘Get lost.’

  Oliver wondered if the woman had Skype on her farm. That could work.

  Unless she told him to get lost as well.

  The assistant handed the dog to the woman and said she’d get her a dog box from out the back.

  ‘No need,’ said the woman. ‘I’m hoping this young bloke will give me a hand.’

  Oliver realised she meant him.

  The woman was smiling at him. For a moment there was something about her smile that was sort of familiar, but Oliver couldn’t place it.

  He stared at the woman, wondering if she was joking. It was hard to tell with her sunglasses on. The manager and the assistant looked like they definitely thought she was joking.

  But when the woman put the dog into Oliver’s arms, he realised she wasn’t.

  2

  ‘This way.’

  The woman led Oliver down an escalator.

  Oliver tried not to think about where they were going, or about having to give the dog back when they got there. He just wanted to enjoy the warm panting wagging bundle in his arms.

  Up close the dog’s puddle eyes were even more eager and hopeful. And its fur was short and incredibly soft. It felt like velvet curtains. Or what Oliver imagined velvet curtains would feel like if Mum and Dad had them instead of stainless-steel designer blinds.

  At the bottom of the escalator, Oliver briefly wondered why the woman had asked him to do this. She was carrying his school bag, which was about six times heavier than the dog.


  But then the dog licked him on the nose, which felt so good he forgot the question.

  The woman was striding across an underground car park. Oliver followed.

  He hoped her car was a long way away. Perhaps with her sunglasses on she wouldn’t even be able to find it.

  ‘If you were mine,’ said Oliver to the dog, ‘I’d call you Barclay. That’s what Mum and Dad were going to call my little brother or sister if I ever had one. It’s the name of a really big bank overseas.’

  Oliver could tell the dog liked the name.

  A lot.

  Oliver sighed. He was being thoughtless again.

  ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to get your hopes up. I’m not allowed to have a pet. My parents are too rich.’

  The dog looked puzzled.

  ‘Being rich is a really full-time job,’ explained Oliver. ‘Mum and Dad work incredibly hard and they‘re too busy for pets.’

  The dog looked like it didn’t understand how anybody could be too busy for pets.

  ‘It’s complicated,’ said Oliver. ‘You’d understand if you met them.’

  The woman’s car was a long way off, over in a corner away from all the other cars, but finally they got there.

  It was a battered ute.

  ‘Hop in,’ said the woman, smiling in a friendly way.

  Oliver hesitated. He was ten. People had told him he should be careful of strangers and cars until he was at least thirty.

  ‘Is somebody waiting for you?’ said the woman.

  ‘Yes,’ said Oliver. ‘Our housekeeper, Vickey. I’m meeting her outside the supermarket.’

  ‘This won’t take long, I promise,’ said the woman. ‘I just need your help for a sec. Get in.’

  Oliver decided to take a punt. The woman probably needed help giving the dog some car training. So it wouldn’t be naughty on the way home and she wouldn’t have to try to get a lead round its neck and teach it discipline while she was driving.

  ‘OK,’ he said.

  Anything, if it meant he could hang on to Barclay for a bit longer.

  As Oliver climbed into the passenger seat, he had a hopeful thought. Maybe the woman wasn’t a farmer after all. Maybe she was just a keen gardener with a house not too far away. And she’d have to say yes to him visiting after this.

  The woman got in the driver’s side and locked the doors.

  Oliver was surprised.

  Then he realised why she’d done it.

  ‘Don’t worry,’ he whispered to Barclay. ‘It’s so you can’t run off.’

  ‘This’ll only take a couple of minutes, Oliver,’ said the woman. ‘Vickey won’t mind. Housekeepers are used to waiting.’

  Oliver looked at her.

  How did she know his name?

  Maybe he’d mentioned it when he was chatting to Barclay on the escalator. Funny, though, he didn’t remember doing that.

  ‘You must really love that dog,’ said the woman. ‘Coming here every day after school.’

  Oliver nodded.

  But his mind was racing.

  Had the woman been spying on him?

  Then Oliver saw something on the seat between them. Something that gleamed softly in the murky car-park lights.

  A kitchen knife.

  A big one.

  It was a bit rusty, but it looked sharp.

  Oliver stared at it. He had a scary thought.

  Dad had told him once how the kids of rich bankers sometimes got kidnapped and their parents had to pay millions to get them back. Mum told Dad to stop being over-dramatic. But Oliver looked it up on Google. Sometimes the parents were sent bits of their kids in the post. Not just fingernail clippings, bigger bits.

  Oliver tried to stay calm. As far as he knew, things like that didn’t happen in Australia. Only in unlawful places like South America and New Zealand.

  But as Oliver hugged Barclay, he couldn’t help giving the woman a nervous glance. And then another one.

  ‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’ said the woman.

  Oliver shook his head.

  The woman took off her sunglasses.

  ‘Remember me now?’ she said.

  Oliver stared at her.

  ‘Nancy,’ said the woman.

  Oliver stared some more. She definitely looked familiar.

  Sort of.

  ‘I took care of you,’ said Nancy. ‘When you were four.’

  Oliver remembered.

  Kind of.

  That was the trouble with having a mother who was always sacking housekeepers. When you’d had nineteen in your life, it put a real strain on your memory.

  ‘Hi, Nancy,’ he said, to be polite.

  It was a relief knowing who she was. The knife on the seat must just be for peeling fruit or something.

  Nancy didn’t say hi back. She looked at Oliver for a moment, then stared grimly at the steering wheel and didn’t say anything.

  Oliver was puzzled. If he was the new owner of the best dog in the world, he’d be feeling a lot happier than she was looking.

  ‘Oliver,’ said Nancy, turning back to him. ‘Do you know what an investment is?’

  Of course I do, thought Oliver. My parents own a bank.

  He wanted to ask Nancy if she knew what scissors were, because if she was planning to cut the plastic ID tag off Barclay’s paw with that knife she should probably think again.

  ‘Answer me,’ said Nancy.

  ‘Yes, I do know,’ said Oliver. ‘An investment is when you give your money to somebody else for a while. Later they give it back to you with extra money to say thank you.’

  Nancy gave a bitter laugh.

  Oliver’s insides twitched anxiously. People who were feeling bitter shouldn’t be planning to do fiddly things with big knives.

  ‘Good answer,’ said Nancy.

  ‘Thanks,’ said Oliver.

  He wondered why, if she thought it was so good, she was still sounding bitter.

  ‘Getting your money back is what should happen,’ said Nancy. ‘But some people don’t keep their promises. A few years ago, when I was your housekeeper, I gave your parents eleven thousand dollars to invest for me. When I asked for it back last month, their office said it was lost.’

  Oliver stared at her.

  That wasn’t possible. That must be a mistake. Mum and Dad were very careful with money. They ran one of the most trusted investment banks in Australia. Dad was always saying so.

  ‘That money was my life savings,’ said Nancy. ‘I need it back.’

  Her voice had gone quiet, like grown-ups’ voices did when they really meant what they were saying and they were getting upset.

  ‘It’s probably just a mistake,’ said Oliver. ‘I bet Mum and Dad haven’t really lost it. They’re very good at maths.’

  Barclay licked Oliver’s chin to show he agreed it was probably just a mistake.

  Nancy leaned over and grabbed Oliver’s arm. Tight. Her fingers dug into his armpit. Usually that tickled, but not the way she was doing it.

  ‘My family needs that money, Oliver,’ she said. ‘You’re our last hope. Your parents promised it’d be a safe investment. Now they won’t even speak to me. And the other mongrels at the bank just keep making excuses.’

  Oliver was starting to feel a bit panicky.

  He took a deep breath and realised what must have happened. Mum and Dad were always so busy at work, and so stressed, that the staff didn’t like to bother them.

  But what did Nancy mean, he was her family’s last hope?

  Of course.

  His savings account.

  Oliver tried to remember how much was in it. Nine hundred and something dollars. Which was nowhere near eleven thousand. To be a last hope he’d need about nine thousand more. Or maybe ten thousand … it was really hard doing maths

  when somebody was digging their fingers into your armpit.

  Oliver stopped trying.

  Another strange thing was happening.

  Nancy was writing a n
umber on his hand.

  ‘My mobile,’ she said. ‘So you can let me know how you’re going with it.’

  ‘With what?’ said Oliver.

  ‘Telling your parents to give me my money back,’ said Nancy. ‘They’ll listen to you. When you ask for something, you always get it, right?’

  Oliver hesitated.

  That was only partly true. He usually did, but not always. Not pets, for example.

  He gave Barclay a sad little squeeze.

  Nancy gave his arm a big, painful one.

  ‘I want you to ask them really hard,’ she said. ‘Really, really hard.’

  Her voice was starting to sound scary.

  ‘I’ll try,’ said Oliver. ‘But Mum and Dad are incredibly stressed and busy, so it might take a bit of time.’

  Nancy scowled, and Oliver could see that she was feeling very stressed herself.

  ‘A week,’ she said. ‘That’s all I’ve got.’

  ‘I’ll try,’ said Oliver again. ‘But they don’t always listen to me.’

  ‘I’m counting on you,’ said Nancy. ‘And I’m not the only one who is.’

  She let go of his arm and took Barclay from him. She sat Barclay on her lap. Barclay waited patiently, looking at Oliver.

  Nancy picked up the knife and held the blade near Barclay’s throat.

  ‘It wouldn’t just be me you’d be letting down,’ she said.

  Oliver stared at her.

  He felt sick.

  Her hands.

  Why hadn’t he noticed before? They were covered with scratches and scrapes and bruises.

  Violent hands.

  Cruel hands.

  Hands that wouldn’t think twice about killing a dog.

  3

  Oliver sprinted along the crowded city street, trying not to bash into anyone.

  Why did everyone have to walk so slowly?

  It was alright for them, strolling along and chatting. But some people only had six days, twenty-three hours and, um, however many minutes to save a dog’s life.

  Oliver was starting to gasp for breath.

  He looked around, trying to spot where Vickey was in the car. He couldn’t even see her. The traffic still wasn’t moving. He’d done the right thing, getting out of the car and going ahead on foot.

  He kept running.

  Soon Mum and Dad’s bank building loomed ahead.

  The sight of it made Oliver feel a bit less sick and anxious. He was glad Mum and Dad’s bank wasn’t an ordinary one. A street level one with grubby carpets and finger-smeared ATMs and those bits of string without pens on them and suspicious characters in motorbike helmets lurking around outside.

 
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