‘What number did you say your house was?’ I said.
‘115,’ said the boy.
We pulled over and I mounted the curb, reversed off it, straightened up, mounted the curb again, reversed off it again, wiped the sweat from my forehead and straightened up, leaving the car over a foot away from the gutter. When I rang the doorbell it played the second bar of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme. ‘That’s nice,’ I said.
The boy was fiddling with a bright gold crucifix on a thick chain around his neck and looked up, when I said that, to see if I was being sarcastic. A young woman wearing a pink towel gown opened the door and said, ‘Hello?’ like she was answering a phone. Then she noticed the boy. ‘Gary?’ she said. ‘What’s going on?’
‘This is what your son did to one of my chickens,’ I said, handing her the partially exploded chicken. The woman in the pink towel-gown looked at the chicken and then at me, like it was my fault. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ I said. ‘I don’t even like chickens – I
like eggs, that’s why I keep them. So don’t call me a hypocrite.’
‘My name is Gerald or Gerry,’ I said. ‘What worries me is that your son may be a budding psychotic killer. Most psychotic killers started out interfering with animals. I myself killed several insects when I was a boy – and it was a thrill, the moment when I realised I could choose whether the ant, if it was an ant, would live or die. But afterwards I felt disgusted with myself and I cried. I have no problem admitting that.’ I heard my car start – I recognised it as my car as my car makes a high-pitched wheedling noise when it starts.
‘Gary!’ shouted the woman in the pink towel-gown, elbowing past me and running into the road.
Gary drove away in my car in second gear. The woman in the pink towel gown stalked back to her house, glaring at me.
‘Your son is out of control,’ I said, crossly.
‘No shit.’ Gary’s mother folded her arms.
‘Do you have any idea where he might be going?’
‘No,’ she pouted. ‘Do you?’
‘Melissa,’ I said. ‘I think we got off on the wrong foot. You are Melissa, aren’t you?’ She looked concerned. ‘I recognise you from the Express,’ I said. ‘Those cakes you made.’ Melissa unfolded her arms. ‘For the old people’s home?’
‘That was over three years ago,’ she said.
‘I’m an archivist,’ I said. ‘I’m an expert in local events.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Must be interesting.’
‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Helpful, though. On balance, for every mindless act of violence there’s several small acts of kindness. It’s good to see things that way.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Melissa, tightening the cord of her pink towel-gown. ‘Why don’t you come in? It’s cold out here.’
I put the partially exploded chicken into the wheelie-bin and closed the lid.
‘I’ve got the exact same picture,’ I said, taking off my shoes. Over the gas-fire hung a large hyper-realist painting of a mountain, its apex obscured by clouds, hundreds of brightly coloured little climbers all over it.
‘Please don’t worry about that,’ said Melissa.
‘I’ve taken them off now,’ I said. ‘Where should I put them?’
‘Just put them back on,’ she said. ‘Tea? Coffee?’
‘Coffee,’ I said. ‘Is it decaffeinated?’
‘No,’ said Melissa.
‘Tea then,’ I said, grudgingly putting my shoes back on.
‘Actually there’s actually more caffeine in tea than there is in coffee,’ said Melissa from the kitchenette. I turned to look at her, busy with the kettle, the cord of her pink towel-gown loose again. I sat down in a rough, squashy arm-chair. It looked new, her pink towel-gown, the pile was sleek and unworn and probably not adequately absorbent. I was going to recommend putting it through the washing machine a few times, but I think you should only give advice when you’re asked for it. ‘Well, for some reason coffee keeps me awake more,’ I said. ‘I’ve got the exact same painting.’
‘Which one?’ called Melissa.
‘The mountain,’ I said. ‘I suppose you know why that’s funny?’
‘The local artist?’ I said. ‘McAndrew Esslin? He claimed it was a limited edition of five? Turned out he’d printed over a hundred. The mayor’s wife discovered it. The prints were recalled and he was forced to refund everyone’s money. Only I kept mine because I don’t care about things like that. And I see you kept yours, too.’
‘Do you take sugar?’
‘I’m actually allergic to sugar.’
‘I never heard of that before,’ said Melissa, placing a steaming mug of tea on the coffee table.
‘The painting?’ I said.
‘The allergy,’ she said, sitting down in the other armchair, exposing one knee. ‘But I never heard about the painting, either.’ The mug was embossed with Paddington Bear. He was wearing sunglasses and Bermuda shorts and surfing on a wave which was made up of the words Paddington Goes Hawaii! in blue. I had a suspicion that the mug
was not official Paddington Bear memorabilia. ‘I notice you have damp,’ I said. ‘All the houses on this road do. Builder’s fault. You can actually get the council to pay for
someone to look at it.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘It’s finding the time.’
There were five books on a little shelf by the telephone. One was the telephone directory for our area. The next one was a red leather-bound edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, next to that a devastated paperback of Ben Elton’s Stark. Next to that an adventure from The Babysitter’s Club series called Close Call for Trudy. Last was a Bible. ‘You’re a reader,’ I said.
‘Not really,’ she said.
‘Don’t be modest,’ I said.
Outside, Carol Carpenter was singing ‘RAINY DAYS AND MONDAYS ALLLLLWAYS GET ME DOWN…’ on full volume. Then the engine cut halfway through the saxophone solo and the music stopped. ‘Sounds like he’s back,’ I said.
The second bar of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme sounded unpleasantly loud inside the house. I was pleased that Gary didn’t have his own key.
Melissa opened the door. ‘What do you have to say for yourself?’ she said.
‘Sorry,’ muttered Gary, sloping upstairs without looking at me.
‘It’s all right,’ I smiled. ‘I won’t be pressing charges.’
Someone had parked in my space on Pendragon Close. I left my car on the main road and folded in the wing mirrors. In the middle of my front lawn six dead chickens had been arranged in the shape of an asterisk.
‘Gary, you evil little shit,’ I said out loud. I looked up the number for the local police station, but I already heard myself remonstrating with a lethargic receptionist. And then there was Melissa – who had enough problems. I replaced the receiver. On the television, car-bombers drove into busy esplanades while presenters offered sad little explanations. On the next channel, some out-of-focus pages from Ceefax; then a call-in show where contestants had to fill in the blanks in the phrase A ____ in the hand is worth two in the ____. Lastly, a programme that seemed to feature nothing but young men mauling their own genitalia or pouring chilli sauce into one another’s arses or jumping out of trees onto neatly arranged piles of champagne glasses. Howling as if in surprise – as if they weren’t expecting it to hurt. I left it on that.