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Theo always avoids eye contact with the girls in the school playground. They come up to him with their solemn faces and ask him about his mother. He says “in an accident” and it makes him feel the same as on the day it happened, but he never cries.
In bed this morning, at the moment when he is no longer asleep but not yet fully awake, her smell and her fingers and her black hair are next to his face, until his eyes open and the half-light again reveals the clothes scattered on the floor, the shelves of unread books, the bed opposite with his brother’s slight mound beneath the duvet. He jumps out of bed and whispers “Mr Wags”, quickly, before anything else. Theo does not have to talk to Mr Wags, or explain things to him; all he needs to do is pat his reassuring brown coat for the long tail to start its slow rhythmic sweeping of the floor and for the low grunts of contentment to escape the barrel-like body.
After breakfast, Theo grabs his satchel and leaves for school with his best friend Jake, who is waiting by the front door. In the playground, and before the bell rings, they both sit in the bike shed and play with the woodlice that appear out of the damp and rotting posts and struts that hold it up. There are never any bicycles there. Jake likes to tell jokes, which he gets from his older brother while they are driven to school by their mother. Theo has two younger brothers… and his father, of course. But more than anybody in the world, Theo likes Mr Wags.
Jake always starts off a joke by saying, “it’s like this, so…”
“It’s like this, so a horse goes into a pub…”
But then the bell rings.
During the morning break, Theo and Jake go back to the unused bike shed and continue the hunt for the biggest woodlouse. Both boys think that the risk of having a bug dropped down the back of their blouses is what keeps the girls away. The thing about woodlice is that they are not insects but crustaceans, says their teacher, Mrs Ahmed. Like crabs or lobsters. But they don’t taste as good because they excrete ammonia, and if you keep them in a jar for some time and sniff them they smell of pee. Theo tells Jake that he hates his father, and that if he were a giant, he would pick him up and squeeze him till he burst.
“Like the Hulk,” says Jake. “I’d get the Hulk to smash David Preston and…” He looks around from side to side, small eyes darting. Theo’s lower lip juts out at the injustice of it all. He wants the condemnation he harbours for his father to be fathomless and grasps that it is only held at bay by the limitations imposed by circumstances beyond his control – he is nine, and he is small for his age.
At home, Theo shares his bedroom with both his younger brothers, Charlie and Oscar. Oscar is still a baby and wears nappies, which is why the room smells. Theo does not invite Jake to play there, instead they always play downstairs next to the kitchen, where his Lego and his cars are kept in a box. Sometimes, when his father is in the room drinking coffee or talking to someone on the ‘phone, they play in the sitting room under the big oak table. The table is a friend whose legs serve as buttresses for their teetering plastic constructions, and whose carapace is like a shield that stops Theo’s father from getting too close and talking to them, because his father cries sometimes, and sometimes he tries to be funny, and, on either occasion, Theo will feel something bad surging in his chest. This seems to be happening more frequently, so Theo tries to sit as far away from him as possible. On Saturday his father cooks a roast chicken for lunch and when they are eating, even though Leslie, Oscar’s carer, is there with them, his fork stops halfway to his mouth and he looks at Theo and makes a strange sound, like a hiccup mixed with a cough. Then his shoulders shake, and tears come out of his eyes and drip down into his plate, into the bits of chicken and roast potatoes, into the gravy. Theo stares wide-eyed with his teeth clenched tight.
On the Saturday afternoon his father spots him and Jake and says “Ah, to be nine again. The things I’d get up to, aaargh!” in a pirate accent. Jake does not stay long on this occasion – he rings his mother and she fetches him.
On Sunday, after he sees a comb on the edge of the bathtub with two long black hairs in it, Theo is unable to get her out of his head for the rest of the morning, not even by running in circles outside in the garden. So, he forces himself to break the spell. He challenges Charlie to a peeing contest in the fireplace, and his brother is happy to accept, though unsure what it is all about. Theo is aware of the possible consequences of his decision, but confident about the required procedure, but he is nevertheless as surprised as Charlie when he sees the stream spouting out, not in a neat arc, but in an indiscriminate spurt that lands on and splashes the carpet, well away from the ash and charred wood in the grate. They both run upstairs, breathless, accompanied by Charlie’s strained “s’not me, s’not me!”
Just before lunch, his father calls the boys away from the cartoons on TV and stands before them smiling in a strange way and glancing extravagantly at the marks on the carpet by the fireplace.
“Which one of you is it? Come on, own up, whoever did it! I can smell it and I can see it and I know it is not the dog. Do you know why? Because the dog has been in the kennel for two days, so it has to be one of you.”
Theo shrugs his shoulders, Charlie looks vacant. Both are barefoot.
“Now, let me think… could it be the vicar who paid us a visit yesterday and tried to get some money off us? I did go and fetch him a cup of tea, but I was only gone three minutes and I can’t believe he’d do a great big vicar’s pee on the carpet, do you? “
“Maybe he did,” says Theo frowning, his head turned towards the TV, which is showing Wile E. Coyote being flattened by a boulder.
“Oh, you think he might have? But why when he could so easily have asked to go to the loo. He knows where it is, after all, he has been here before, many times, though God knows why, since none of us ever goes to church.”
“Maybe he needed a pee,” offers Theo hopefully.
“Oh, you think he may have been caught short? But surely, he would have done his wee in a pot or a container, even the fireplace is better than doing it right in the middle of the carpet.”
“His church smells of pee,” says Theo with a serious frown, chin tilted defiantly at his father.
“Beep, beep,” says the TV.
“Well, Theo, I am not sure that would hold up in court, the fact that his church smells of pee does not mean it is him; after all, it is mostly old people who go to his services… unless you are claiming that he needs to mark out his territory like Mr Wags. Hmmm?”
The cartoon sounds from the TV fill the room with screeches, whooshes and whistles while Theo’s father is enunciating in an exaggerated manner, pretending to be someone else, like one of those actors. He leans forward, crouches, and lowers his head so that all three faces are level with each other. Charlie is concentrating on picking his nose and is only half paying attention.
“Now listen, boys. My forensic experience tells me that the puddle was not produced from a great height but that enough splashing would have taken place to leave marks on the miscreant’s shoes. Hmmm, I see you are both barefoot; perhaps you would kindly bring me your shoes.”
Charlie pops his index out of his left nostril, turns and races up the stairs, but Theo pushes his hands deep into his pockets.
“Can’t find ’em.”
“Are you saying that you’ve lost your shoes? Funny, Charlie’s gone rushing upstairs to get his so he’s not in any way worried about showing them to me, and you say you have mislaid yours. How convenient. The finger of blame points at you, Theo, me ol’ thing. It was you all along, my little carpet vandal.”
He smiles and reaches out to bring Theo closer to him. Now all the boy sees are those hands at the driving wheel, wearing those stupid driving gloves. He cannot contain the unforgiving surge and shouts, “It’s not my fault! The blame is pointing at you! The finger … at you!”
He detects tears welling in his father’s eyes and understands the play acting is over. Theo swivels, then shouts as he walks away, “No!”
“Theo, please…” pleads the father, now on his knees.
Back at school on Monday and under the dank cover of the bicycle shed, Theo and Jake are crushing woodlice. He says to Jake: “I don’t like it when my father talks funny like that, ‘cos it’s not funny anyway and he thinks it is, and he says words like carpavanel … and anyway he’s just invented it because he thinks he is funny. Which he isn’t. And I hate it when he thinks he’s funny ‘cos it’s wrong… it’s all his fault anyway, and I always get the blame just ‘cos I’m older and sponsible. That’s why I’m not a cry-baby. Charlie can do anything he likes, and Oscar is just a baby, so he just cries all the time. It’s wrong. How can he be funny when it was his fault? All his fault!”
Theo’s voice is trembling, but his friend says nothing. It is as if Jake has not taken anything in. He has been trying to remember the punch line to the joke his brother told him in the car. Something about gorillas painting their balls red. Why do gorillas paint their balls red?
“It’s like this, so a gorilla paints his…”
A shrill cry in the playground pierces the morning and small children scatter in all directions. Theo and Jake can see a larger boy stooping over a bundle on the ground. A door swings open and one of the male teachers, Mr Hitchens, strides out with both arms swinging. “Preston. David Preston,” he shouts. The boy looks up and retreats, followed by two others. The bundle, a small dark haired boy, gets to its feet and looks around with evident satisfaction. “David Preston come here now.” The teacher chases them as the three boys scream and run to a side door and into the street. “Little …,” the teacher says as he looks up to the grey sky and, uncertain as to his duties, turns back towards the main building.
Indifferent to the scuffle, Theo now resents Jake and his jokes – his friend is not listening to him. Theo does not know why Mr Wags is at the kennels. He decides to continue talking with Jake, even though he has lost some confidence in him, but something in the playground has changed. The children are not screaming or running around as usual; they are in small groups where two or three of them are making formal gestures with hands and arms to the admiration of the others. The air is slack and there is no echoing off the tall brick walls that encircle them because the sounds of the children, of the birds, the traffic, the power drills, have surrendered any distinctiveness and given up, melding into a haze of inertia.
“Will you come to my house after school?”
Jake is not looking at him but staring blankly into the middle distance, trying to remember his joke. Theo feels tired and an unhappiness grows in his stomach, a big empty space inside him that weighs him down so that he can’t stand up, even when the bell rings and he sees Jake mouthing something, tugging at his sleeve, perplexed. After a while, he gets to his feet and they both go back into the main building with Jake patting him on the back.
Later, when his father gets home after work, Leslie has fed the boys, and Charlie and Oscar are in pyjamas. Theo, as the eldest, will not change until he goes to bed and has spent his time under the table in the sitting room pretending to do his homework and intermittently checking the deep pockets of his Spiderman tracksuit. He is surrounded by plastic soldiers and Lego men. He crouches and tiptoes out from beneath the table and hides behind the sofa. He hears his father come downstairs and go into the kitchen; then the familiar clinking of ice on glass announces the first whisky and a soft treading draws closer as it makes its way to the sitting room. Theo rolls away and crawls quickly through the door and into the hall, then slips into the toilet. He can hear the glass being placed on the dining table. The voice is calm and weary, “Theo? I need to speak to you.”
He hears the footsteps pass by and go up the stairs. He slips out and goes back into the sitting room and tiptoes up to the table. From upstairs, a muffled, “Theo, where are you?” and then creaking floorboards and more footsteps, until, exasperated, they thump their way down the stairs again.
“Theo, Theo, Theo…where are yooooo? Theo, Theo, Theo, where are yooooo?”
The singsong gets a titter from Charlie in the kitchen, but Theo is impassive when his father enters the sitting room and spots him.
“Ahh. Theodore Nathaniel Thomas, at last we meet.” A tired smile follows. “Won’t you come and sit here at the table with me? Please? Just you and me?”
Theo walks slowly to the table but does not sit. He stands with his chest pressing against the table’s edge and his hands resolutely in his pockets. His scowl consumes all around it. His father’s eyes are bloodshot and there are dark patches under them.
“Theo.” He sighs, and lets his shoulders slump.
Theo watches his father lift the glass of whisky to his lips. The glass stops in mid-air and his father rattles the ice and peers into it.
“Three, four, five…six! It’s my lucky day.”
He winks at the boy and carefully picks out a small grey woodlouse, inspects it closely and puts it in his mouth. The boy watches the mouth chewing it and his eyes are now wide open. The father picks out another and puts it in his mouth. Chew, chew, chew.
“I think I’ll just drink the rest of them.”
He takes one long gulp that fills his mouth and he swallows, licking his lips and making exaggerated sounds of satisfaction.
“Ahhh. The perfect combination. Nothing wrong with a little crunch in your whisky. ‘That which does not kill you, will nourish and fill you’, as me ol’ granny used to say.”
He smiles at his son. It is a wide, loving, uncomplicated smile. A silence fills the room.
Theo’s face is becoming distorted, the corners of his mouth drop downwards, the tendons in his neck are taut like guitar strings, his eyes are squeezed shut and a mottled pink is spreading across his forehead. Theo stands erect like a soldier on guard, his bunched fists at his sides, and he is turning his face upwards towards the ceiling. The first tears catch the light from the lamp above him and then they are pouring down his face and onto his Spiderman tracksuit. They start running out of his nose, as if Theo is too small to contain so many tears. For the first time in his life, Oscar, lying in Leslie’s arms upstairs, hears his older brother cry: a profound howl that flies into every corner of the house, flies under beds, into cupboards, down into the cellar, through every keyhole, and up the chimney’s soot-black flue and into the vast star-filled night.