Book Chat Back-chat #4

Welcome to the latest instalment of Book Chat Back-chat, where myself, my partner and my kids attempt to discuss books while eating a meal, complaining about the meal, and trying to prevent the dog from stealing the meal. (Or, in the case of the 13yo, sneaking the meal to the dog under the table morsel by morsel and thinking I won’t notice.)

B (aged 13): Mum, before we start, can I just say we’ve had Spaghetti Lentil Bolognese three weeks in a row and I’m really bored of it.

Mrs H: Noted. Please stay on topic.

B: So I just finished reading That’s Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger. It’s about a high school shooting in America. Actually it’s about what happened afterwards, about how this girl died in the shooting and everyone thinks she died declaring her faith in Jesus, but the main character was with her when she died and she knows that’s not what happened. And now she needs to set everyone straight before the victim’s parents publish a book about it.

Mrs H: Sounds like a good read. Did you enjoy it?

B: It was really slow to start with, but then it would suddenly get good and then go slow again. It was a bit all over the place. I’d give it 8 out of 10.

Mr H: 8 out of 10 is quite generous.

Mrs H: And did you read Stranger With My Face by Lois Duncan?

B: Gave up. Too slow.

Mrs H: SERIOUSLY?? I LOVED that book when I was your age.

Mr H: 50 million years ago.

Mrs H: Why don’t we read it together?

B: No. It’s boring.

Mrs H: But it’s a super-creepy page-turner! AND it’s right up your alley.

B: Mum, stop. I’m not going to read it.

Mr H: Drop it, Mildred. You always say we shouldn’t force our choice of books on the kids.

Mrs H: [sigh] YASMO.

Everyone: YASMO?

Mrs H: You Are Sooooo Missing Out.

R (aged 15): Anyway, MY TURN. I just finished reading The Story of My Life by Helen Keller who learned to read, write, talk and lip-read despite being deaf and blind.

Mr H: How could she lip-read if she was blind?

R: She would hold her fingers against someone’s mouth and lip-read by touch. And then she learned to read books not by reading Braille, but by reading books in raised print. She couldn’t communicate until she was seven years old.

Mrs H: It’s quite an old book, isn’t it? Was it hard to read?

R: Yeah, but because Grannie gave it to me I kind of forced myself to read it, but I’m glad I did because it was really interesting. Like afterwards parts of it really stayed in my mind – like she learned to speak, read and write French, Greek and German while she was a teenager.

Mr H: Wow, that’s incredible.

R: I also read Body And Soul by Anita Roddick that Dad got me. It’s about how she started The Body Shop. She was quite inspiring cos she wasn’t just about making money. She wanted to give back to the world. She made The Body Shop stand out as an honest business.

Mr H: Until it got bought out by a multinational.

R: Oh. When did that happen?

Mr H: Ages ago. Anyway, you found it inspiring?

R: Yeah, she was ahead of her time.

Mr H: OK, does anyone want to know what I’ve been reading?

R & B: No.

Mr H: So I’ve just finished The Story of Art by EM Gombrich, an art critic who recounts the history of art from cave paintings to abstract expressionism.

B: [Yawning] Can I have some ice cream?

R: Can we watch Love Island later?

Mrs H: Why has the dog got spaghetti hanging out of his mouth? Who’s been feeding him?

B: Not me.

R: It IS her. There’s spaghetti on her shoe.

Mrs H: It’s like Escape From flipping Alcatraz via the dog’s intestines. STOP FEEDING THE DOG.

Mr H: [Coughs loudly] AND, I’VE ALSO READ a very interesting book called The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, which is about how the body and mind work together to keep a record of trauma.

B: I’m getting some ice cream.

Mr H: So, for example, if you have some kind of traumatic experience in your childhood – or whenever in life – your body records it as well as your brain.

Mrs H: Sounds good, I’ll read it after you. OK, my turn: I’ve read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, which was SO brilliant I didn’t want it to end. It’s the story of a man’s life growing up in Ireland in the Fifties and Sixties and having to hide his sexuality from everyone. It was very touching – it made me laugh and cry.

B: Can I have some more ice cream?

Mrs H: AND I also read Stranger With My Face by Lois Duncan for the first time in nearly 35 years. And it was STILL great!

B: And I’m STILL not going to read it. So stop going on about it and GOI.

Mrs H: What’s GOI?

B: Get Over It.

 

Book Chat Back-chat #3: Best books of 2018*

It’s been a long while since the last instalment of Book Chat Back-Chat, and that’s mainly because my foolish decision to relax the kids’ phone restrictions on holiday last summer led to a severe reduction in reading. Quelle surprise.

However, they’ve managed to get back into their reading groove over the last few months so, without further ado, here’s the latest round of book recommendations from my daughters (aged 12 & 14), my husband and myself, over a breakfast of pancakes and syrup.

B (age 12): My favourite book last year was Splash by Charli Howard. It’s about a 10-year-old girl called Molly who lives with her grandparents because her mum left when she was younger. Molly loves swimming, but her best friend says swimming isn’t cool so she keeps her swimming club a secret. Then her mum comes back into her life but she’s not a good mum.

Mrs H: So what happens to Molly? Does she fall out with her best friend?

B: I don’t want to give anything away but basically it’s about how Molly needs to learn to stand up for herself. I loved this book so much – I read it in four days. [Squirts kingsized dollop of golden syrup onto her pancake.]

Mrs H: WHOA – that’s an obscene amount of goo! You should aim for a puddle, not a lake.

B: That is a puddle.

Mrs H: An enormous puddle. Anyway, what are you reading now?

B: The one you gave me – After The Fire by Will Hill. I’ve only read a few chapters but I’m already hooked. I want to know what happens next.

Mrs H: Well I read After The Fire and I couldn’t put it down! I’d say it’s a great book for anyone aged 12 or over, male or female. It’s about a girl who grows up within a religious sect in America. They live in a walled compound where she has always felt safe, but when a devious new leader takes over and forces her mum to leave, she starts to question the world she’s grown up in and all the people around her – and realises she must escape before it’s too late.

R (age 14): My turn! So the book I most enjoyed reading this year was Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso.

Mrs H: Is that fiction or non-fiction? [Removes golden syrup from table before 12yo can squirt a second dollop on her pancake.]

R: Non-fiction – although it’s also a TV drama series. It’s about how Sophia Amoruso started up a company by selling vintage clothes on ebay. She went from dropping out of school and never being very good at any jobs to being really successful. Her company Nasty Gal is mega-famous now. It really inspired me.

Mrs H: What are your other favourites from this year then?

R: I loved The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. I think I talked about that last time. And I also loved re-reading The Letter For The King by Tonke Dragt. It’s a medieval fantasy story and one of my all-time favourite books – I re-read it because I wanted to remind myself of the story before I read the sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood – which was also really good, though not as good as the first book.

Mr H: So my favourite book this year was The Choice by Edith Egur, who is a Holocaust survivor. She tells the story of her life from her time in Auschwitz to how she became a psychologist and public speaker.

B: So is she very, very old then? [Retrieves golden syrup and puts it back on the table.]

Mr H: Yes, in her 90s.

R: How old was she when she was in Auschwitz?

Mr H: She was a teenager. She wanted to be a professional dancer.

Mrs H: Why is it called The Choice?

Mr H: Well she says that we all have choices and that being a survivor requires acceptance of what was and what is. She also says that one person’s suffering is no less significant or important than anyone else’s. I found it very thought-provoking.

Mrs H: Any other faves from 2018?

Mr H: Yes, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert was a really helpful book about the spiritual side of the creative journey. She’s really good at explaining things in a matter-of-fact, non-cheesy way. And I also read a biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson which was fascinating.

Mrs H: Um, kids – where do you think you’re going?

B & R: To watch That 70s Show.

Mrs H: Don’t you want to know what my favourite books are?

B & R: No.

Mrs H: Oh. That’s nice. [To husband]: Looks like it’s just you and me then. OK, so the books I enjoyed most over the last year are: The Power by Naomi Alderman – a story that flips the power-balance between men and women on its head – very thought-provoking; Breath by Tim Winton, which is about a thrill-seeking teenager in 1970s Australia, whose passion for surfing keeps him in a constant dance with death. LOVED that book!; The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah which is about two sisters fighting in the resistance in World War Two. The story really makes you feel the fear and pain of everyday life in Nazi-occupied France. But my absolute favourite book of the year has to be A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne, (lent to me by my good friend Jen who has a hound-like nose for a meaty page-turner).

Mr H: I just don’t see what was so great about A Ladder To The Sky. I nearly gave up on it several times.

Mrs H: What?! Are you mad? It was brilliant. An ambitious and emotionally bankrupt author who steals other people’s stories in order to ruthlessly further his own career? How is that NOT gripping?

Mr H: It was just all a bit meh.

Mrs H: Meh? MEH?

Mr H: Is that your impression of a disgruntled sheep? OK, to be fair, I liked the bit where his wife was narrating – that bit was good.

Mrs H: It was UNPUTDOWNABLE.

Mr H: It was VERY putdownable. Don’t look at me like that, Mildred. I’m entitled to my views.

And that, book-lovers, is where we’ll leave this episode of Book Chat Back-Chat. Suffice to say the husband and I are still married, but I am banned from recommending him any more novels for the whole of 2019. (But we’ll see about that…)

* (Some of the books mentioned were published in 2018, but some have been around much longer.)

Life after Rolo

Here’s a quick update on my writing life, starting with the bad news: My YA comedy drama The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings has reached the end of its submissions journey with publishers, and no one has taken it on. Cue violins, quivering lip, 50 kilo shipment of Minstrels due any minute.

The good news is that Rolo clearly hit the right note on many fronts as it earned me a super-supportive literary agent, was shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017, and gained a lot of love and praise from children’s publishers across the board.

So why didn’t publishers want it? Well some didn’t want it because it didn’t fit on their list, or was too old or too young for their particular market. A few didn’t gel with it. One or two felt it was too domestic. A few weren’t sure where to position it as they felt it fell between Middle Grade and Teen. Basically it seems that domestic comedy drama for teens is a high-risk genre at the moment. (The Middle Grade market, however, is a different story – pardon the pun.)

While all this sounds a bit doom and gloom, many of the editors who rejected Rolo, did so with constructive feedback and a lot of praise, which made it an easier pill to swallow. One editor said, “I think the humour and the writing and the style is all there – it’s wonderful, it made me belly-laugh and left me feeling very satisfied with life.” I seriously couldn’t wish for a better response than that! (Apart from one that says SIGN HER UP NOW obviously.)

What next? I’ve resisted the invitation to rewrite Rolo for a younger audience, and instead will get to work on a new project aimed at the 9-11 age group. My new story will have all the humour, warmth and grossness that Rolo had, but without the naughtier words and sexual references. Right. I’d better get cracking then. There’s a mountain to climb and I’m not even at Basecamp yet!

In the meantime, here are the first few chapters of The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings, which I still hope, one day, will make lots of kids – and adults – smile.

Chapter 1

Saturday 23rd September

Lacey had gone too far this time.

We were supposed to be living life as normally as possible – not letting our “current situation” defeat us. So you could say that keeping up our sibling rivalry was about as normal as you could get. Only the rivalry had just been stepped up a notch, and had – thanks to my older sister – left normal levels eating her dust.

That’s how me and Jake found ourselves stranded, butt-naked, in the deep end of The Prince Regent swimming pool – clinging to the side with one hand, covering our crown jewels with the other. A few people who’d witnessed Lacey (also known as Satan In A Skirt) and her best friend Paige rip off our trunks ten minutes earlier, were pointing and sniggering. Worst of all, Mattie Clemence – who was idly doing backstroke up and down the pool – was likely to notice us at any minute.

‘For God’s sake, Jake! A handstand competition? You should’ve known it was a prank,’ I groaned.

You’re her brother, Rolo. You should’ve known!’ he protested.

Half-brother.’ I didn’t admit that I’d hoped my well-perfected handstand would attract Mattie’s attention. (It didn’t.)

‘Yeah, well I can’t help it if I get distracted by your sister in a bikini.’

Half-sister.’

‘I thought she was flirting with me…’ Jake rolled his eyes.

‘Jake, for the millionth time, she’s not interested in Year 9 boys. She’s not interested in anyone who isn’t Curt the Cock Cripps – except for Zac Efron.’

‘Well on the bright side, at least Curt the Cock isn’t here to make things worse.’

As if things could get any worse! My teeth were chattering and Jake’s lips were turning blue. I watched as Mattie completed another length, flipped around and kicked off again without taking her eyes off the ceiling. In under three weeks, Bevensleigh High’s newest arrival had somehow managed to take over my brain without even knowing I existed. And although I really wanted her to acknowledge my existence, now was seriously not the time.

Jake scanned our surroundings. ‘How do we get out without getting arrested for indecent exposure in a public place?’

‘Floats! We borrow their floats.’ I pointed to two boys aged about six or seven, gripping green, frog-shaped polystyrene floats and splashing their way towards us.

As someone who was teased at school for having an interest in amphibians, covering myself with a frog-shaped float wasn’t exactly an ideal solution, but I had no choice.

I paddled over to them, trying to keep my body vertical and my trunkless butt-cheeks undetected.

‘Scuse me, lads, can we borrow your floats a minute?’ I asked, treading water.

‘No,’ one of them replied, eyeing me suspiciously.

‘Just for a minute – I promise we’ll give them straight back.’

‘No, you’re strangers!’ He swam off. Fair play.

I pedalled an imaginary unicycle back to Jake.

‘Plan B?’ asked Jake. We looked at each other and understood what needed to be done. God was Lacey going to pay for this.

When our targets reached the shallow end, we casually made our way towards them, snatched their floats and swam like the clappers. As we clambered up the steps, we could hear shouting and crying, followed by the ear-splitting screech of a whistle. It didn’t matter – we were out, backs to the wall, our privates shielded by floats.

We side-galloped to the changing rooms, chased by a whistle-blowing lifeguard, only to find our path blocked by none other than Curt the Cock Cripps and Satan’s sidekick, Paige.

Before we could stop them, they whipped the floats out of our hands and tossed them back into the pool. Stunned by the shock of being ambushed, we froze – only for a nanosecond, but long enough for my scheming sister and a bunch of her stupid cackling friends to get a good eyeful of our fruit and nuts from the spectators’ gallery.

Hoots of laughter echoed around the pool. One of them shouted through cupped hands, ‘Didn’t know you were a streaker, Kermit!’

All I remember, before the lifeguard caught up with us and marched us to the changing rooms, was seeing Mattie Clemence standing in the shallow end, staring straight at me with eyes as wide as dinner plates.

At that moment I hated Lacey so much that I imagined her tumbling from the spectators’ gallery, landing with a smack and lying in a mangled heap on the wet tiles by the side of the pool. Relishing the thought, a semi-crazed smile spread across my lips as Jake and I were led away in front of an audience of sniggering swimmers.

For the record, I want it to be known that until that point, I was all for keeping life as normal as possible. I wasn’t the one stirring up trouble while Dad lay unconscious in a hospital bed, a life support machine the only thing keeping his soul attached to his body.

Up until now, I would’ve been happy to call a truce with Lacey. But she’d had her chance and blown it. This was no longer sibling rivalry. This was war.

Chapter 2

58 minutes later

I burst through the front door to be greeted by enthusiastic barking, tail-wagging and slobbery licks from Mozza, our “temporary” dog. The hook by the front door was missing a set of keys, so Mum was either at the supermarket or at the hospital, visiting Dad.

‘Where’s Cruella?’ I whispered, ruffling his head.

Mozza clearly understood who I meant as he rocketed into the front room where a giggling Lacey shoved her phone in her pocket and leapt off the sofa to face me.

‘Your face!’ she squeaked, her shoulders quaking with laughter. She gripped the mantelpiece to steady herself and crossed her legs tightly, tears rolling down her cheeks. ‘I’m gonna bloody wet myself!’

I charged at her, sending her toppling to the floor – her head narrowly missing the corner of the fireplace.

‘Stop it!’ she shrieked, trying to get up. But I leapt on top of her and pinned her down. ‘You’re hurting me – GET OFF, Freakshow!

‘You’ve really done it this time, Satan,’ I hissed, spit escaping through my teeth and spattering her face. ‘Give me your phone!’

‘Why would I give you my phone?’

‘To delete the photos you took.’

‘I didn’t take any photos – not that it wasn’t tempting.’

I pressed my knee into her forearm.

OW!’ Her precious long blonde hair was now a tangled bird’s nest strewn over her face.

‘Are they on Instagram?’

I told you – I didn’t take any photos. Like I’d want to get arrested for sharing nude photos of my brother! That would make me look weirder than you.’

‘I don’t believe you. Give it to me!’ I grabbed a handful of her stupid hair and pulled as hard as I could. Lacey let out a deafening scream as a clump came away in my fist. It was a few seconds before I realised that Mozza was barking and a third person had entered the room.

WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON?’ shouted Mum, dumping bags of shopping on the floor and storming over to us. ‘Get up, the pair of you!’

Lacey gave me a vicious pinch as I climbed off her. I swiped her back.

‘Enough!’ yelled Mum. ‘How dare you behave like this! Go to your rooms immediately.’

‘But Mum, she–’

Mum held up a hand. ‘I don’t want to hear it right now, Roland. We’ll talk about it later when you’ve both calmed down. If your dad could see you now he’d be ashamed of you both.’

He’s not my dad!Lacey retorted, her nose in the air. She pushed a tangle of hair out of her eyes and smoothed it behind her ears.

Mum glared at her, her nostrils flaring in and out, making her nose ring glint on and off like someone signalling in Morse Code. After what was possibly the longest minute in history, she addressed a pink-faced Lacey in a barely audible whisper.

‘You’re grounded indefinitely. Give me your phone and go to your room. Disobey me and the consequences will include the immediate cancellation of your phone contract. And that’s just for starters.’

I opened my mouth to protest – I needed that phone! I needed to make sure there were no incriminating photos on it. But the only sound that came out of my mouth was a croak. Two thoughts stopped me from speaking up:

  1. A) Although me and Mum were close, I didn’t want the exposure of my manhood in a public place to become a conversation at dinner. I must’ve been eight the last time Mum mentioned my “winky-woo” – as she liked to call it – and it was embarrassing enough then.
  2. B) If Mum knew that Lacey was the reason behind my indecent exposure, she’d go ballistic. Not that I didn’t want Cruella to get the bollocking of the century, but I was more worried about Mum and Lacey falling out big time. It wasn’t what Mum needed right now. She also didn’t need to worry about the crap I’d cop at school. (And I didn’t need her interfering and making things worse.)

So I closed my mouth. And swallowed hard.

You’d think Lacey would’ve cast me a grateful look, but no. This is Satan we’re talking about. She doesn’t do gratitude.

‘NOW!’ Mum held out her hand. Lacey took her phone from the back pocket of her skin-tight jeans and dropped it into Mum’s open palm. Then she tossed her hair over her shoulder, folded her arms and turned on her heel. She didn’t stomp upstairs or slam her door because she is The Devil, and therefore knows how to channel her fury in silent but deadly ways.

‘You too, Roly.’ Mum nodded towards my hoodie pocket. I resisted reminding her not to call me Roly, or pointing out that she now owed a pound to the swear jar, and reluctantly handed over my phone.

‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I said.

‘I’m really disappointed in you. I know she can be difficult, but for Christ’s sake, Roly, physically attacking her is NOT the answer. If it happens again, I… Well, I’ll have to call social services. Because siblings of your age having physical fights is clearly a sign of a family in crisis.’

She put our phones in her dungarees pouch and disappeared into the kitchen. As I trudged upstairs to my room I heard the glug-glug-glug of wine being poured into a glass, followed by some mumbled swearing and the muffled sound of tears.

 

On top of my chest of drawers, Buster, my fire-bellied toad, was hopping around in his tank. I sat on my bed and watched him, wondering how hideous my life was going to be at school on Monday. I needed to find out if Jake had seen anything on Instagram or Snapchat, and discuss tactics for facing the storm ahead. I reached for my phone, then remembered I was phoneless. Instead I punched my pillow and pretended it was Lacey.

‘If I was allowed my own laptop, I could’ve found out by now,’ I moaned to Buster. ‘Then again, Mum would probably just confiscate that too.’

I tried to predict what would happen. If Lacey had posted photos of me and Jake online, she’d get into trouble, for sure. Even if she hadn’t, if Jake’s mum found out about my mutant sister’s prank, things could get really ugly for her – a satisfying thought that quickly evaporated.

‘Grown-up interference would only make things worse for me and Jake in the long run,’ I explained to Buster. ‘We’re on our own. And as he’s not as unpopular as me, it basically means I’m on my own.’

There was nothing I could do but sit and worry about the tsunami of abuse coming my way. My life was hard enough already having a ridiculous name like Roland (after a type of electronic synthesizer for God’s sake), getting teased for having an interest in toads, and not being the most confident kid in class. But while I could live with not being one of the cool people, I never imagined my reputation could sink to such an all-time low – thanks to my own sister.

What would Mattie Clemence think of me now?

I flopped face forward onto my pillow and let out a long, weary groan. As much as I wanted to find a way to shake off all the frog-related nicknames and gain some acknowledgement from my fellow schoolmates, making a name for myself as a flasher wasn’t what I’d had in mind.

Buster croaked at me from the rock next to his pool. I got up and pressed my nose against his tank.

‘My life’s over, dude. Year 9 has barely started and months of suffering lie ahead – all because of that monster in the next room.’

I pulled Lacey’s clump of hair out of my pocket and slipped it under Roy, the Venus Fly Trap on my windowsill. It was worth keeping in case I dabbled in voodoo in the near future. Also, it was a small trophy – a reminder that for a few seconds, I’d gained power over her.

I picked up the framed photo of Dad that lived on my bedside table and studied his face, his bright blue eyes, and his short greying hair. He was proudly holding up the latest camera to join his impressive collection – a 1956 Rolleiflex 2.8E, his pride and joy.

‘I really need you, Dad,’ I whispered. ‘It’s been nearly six weeks – you’ve got to wake up soon. My life’s gonna be hell now cos of her. If you were here, you’d know what to do.’

I could feel tears coming, but the last thing I needed was bloodshot eyes that made me look weak in front of her, so I turned his photo to face the wall. Time to get a grip.

Mum’s got this mantra: “We keep on trucking.” She wants us to think of Dad’s condition as “him simply having a much-needed rest” and “if we stay positive, we’ll get through it.”

Mum reckons when Dad wakes up to find that we finally varnished the garden fence, he’ll be so over the moon, he’ll joke forever more about the lengths he has to go to for us to help out with any DIY. That’s what we were clinging on to: the belief that he’d eventually wake up and make fun of us in true Dad-style.

I looked at my alarm clock. I’d been room-grounded for 45 minutes. I went and got Buster out of his tank to pass the time. As usual, he hopped underneath my bed. I lay down to keep an eye on him and noticed a book leaning against some old X-Box stuff. I dragged it towards me with a pang of guilt.

It was the leather-bound notebook that Dad had given me last Christmas. ‘A notebook to sketch, jot, doodle, plan,’ he’d said. ‘There’s nothing like a fresh pad of paper to get your ideas out and help get your life in order.’

It was time for a plan of action. Dad would be pleased to know I’d taken his advice on board. I reached for the biro on my bedside table and chewed its lid while I thought. Eventually I wrote:

 

  1. Get even with Satan.
  2. Get Mattie Clemence to notice me.
  3. Become someone people respect. (No more Freddo Frog or Kermit.)
  4. Figure out why Dad went up the old mill when he knew it was dangerous.

 

Chapter 3

That evening

When the curfew was lifted an hour or so later, The Satanic One remained in her room, abusing her guitar and butchering an Adele song. I went into the kitchen where Mum was sitting at her sewing machine, mending a hem on a customer’s dress and listening to a talk show on the radio. Mozza lay on the floor beside her, his chin resting next to her foot. (He likes the vibrations from the sewing machine foot pedal.)

‘Sorry about earlier,’ I said. ‘She just got to me.’

‘I can’t believe you’re still capable of such childish behaviour, Roly.’ She adjusted the pencil in the bun on top of her head. ‘You’ve just turned fourteen for God’s sake.’

Yeah, and we didn’t even celebrate my birthday properly – other than a hurriedly bought caterpillar cake from Tesco Express. (It was all they had left.)

‘D’you want a cup of tea?’ I offered, hoping that being polite and helpful would get me back in her good books again.

‘Please. You know, I thought you were more sensitive than that, Roly.’

That was my problem – too “sensitive”, too “nice”. Well not any more. I spotted the empty wine glass by the sink as I filled the kettle up.

‘Mum, can I have my phone back? I really need to speak to Jake.’

‘You can both have your phones back tomorrow.’

‘But it’s urgent – we’re doing a joint maths assignment.’

‘Then call him on the landline and make it quick. Just so you know, I’m pretty disturbed about what I witnessed earlier.’ She gave me a stern look over the top of her glasses.

‘But, Mum, she’s horrible to me – even when I try to be nice to her.’

‘Well try harder, Roly. Don’t forget she’s in Year 11 now – exam pressure has begun.’

‘It’s ROLO, Mum. And that doesn’t explain why she hates me so much.’

‘She doesn’t hate you, love! We’re all dealing with Dad’s situation as best we can. Sometimes we take it out on each other without meaning to. Besides, you two are in such different places right now – she’s not a girl anymore, she’s a young woman dealing with her first relationship and all the responsibilities that come with that.’

Oh God – she meant sex! I tried to block the revolting image of Lacey and Curt doing it from my mind. Too late.

‘And then there are things women have to deal with that men don’t, like periods, unwanted body hair–’

‘OK, OK, I get it! Stop!’ Mum was a major over-sharer. I passed her a cup of tea.

‘There’s no need to pull that face, Roland– Rolo. Every boy should understand what girls have to deal with – everyday sexism, avoiding pregnancy… It’s not a level playing field, love.’

If only Dad was here – he’d level out this conversation. Being outnumbered sucked.

Mum took a sip of tea. ‘Go on then, call Jake.’

‘I need his number – I don’t know it by heart.’

She pulled my phone from her pocket and held it out so I could tap in my pin. I looked at his number and repeated it out loud until I reached the landline in the hallway.

‘Jake, it’s me!’

‘About time! I’ve been Whatsapping you for ages!’ he said.

‘Mum caught us fighting and confiscated our phones. Did Lacey post any photos of us?’

‘I can’t find any – I think we’re in the clear.’

‘That doesn’t mean she didn’t take any. She could use them to blackmail us.’

‘What could she do with them, though?’ said Jake. ‘Taking a photo of someone naked without their permission is like a major crime – Lacey’s not stupid.’

True. Evil, yes. Stupid, no.

‘They’re still gonna slaughter us at school,’ I said.

‘I know. We’re so dead, dude. I’ve gone right off your sister.’

‘Finally!’ I couldn’t believe my ears. ‘Just don’t get sucked in again.’

‘I won’t. She’s like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Looks good. Smells good. Tastes shite.’

Mum gave a loud, fake cough in the background.

‘I’ve gotta go,’ I said. ‘Meet me on the corner Monday morning.’

I sighed. Mum needed to know that all those things she said about Lacey and what girls go through have got nothing to do with my sister’s spitefulness. I went back into the kitchen, and was about to make this point when the doorbell went bananas.

When the doorbell goes bananas, that means it’s Jim (Lacey’s dad), who still, at the age of 50-whatever, thinks it’s amusing to press the bell five times in a row. (One press for every year of his mental age.)

‘Let him in will you, love?’ Mum rolled her eyes. ‘Maybe he’s finally got that money he owes me…’

Jim always drops round unannounced – and more often since Dad’s been in hospital. On the rare occasions Jim makes solid plans to be somewhere at a certain time, you can guarantee he won’t turn up. On the other hand, if you don’t hear from him in ages, you can bet he’ll show up any minute – especially if a meal’s about to be served. Like a dog, he can smell a Sunday roast from several miles away.

Talking of dogs, Jim’s the reason we have Mozza. Jim found Mozza – a malnourished and filthy black-and-white mongrel – wandering the streets, so he took him in and named him after some ancient pop dinosaur. A week later, he came over for a cup of tea and brought Mozza with him. And when he left, he accidentally-on-purpose left Mozza behind. Mum tried to track down Mozza’s owners but without success. Four months later, we still had him – just temporarily, until Jim had a bit of “a quieter week to come and take him home”. The chances of that being the reason for this visit were unlikely.

‘Alright, Freckles?’ Jim slapped me on the back as he came inside. Why couldn’t anyone just call me Rolo? ‘How’s your dad holding up?’

‘No change.’

Mozza bounded up to him, barking like a crazed fan and giving him a hero’s welcome.

‘’Ello boy! Missed me, did ya?’ Jim patted him and commented on how much healthier he was looking. ‘Your dad’ll pull through, mate. Don’t you worry. He’s a tough’un.’ He winked at me and shrugged off his tatty leather biker’s jacket to reveal a faded AC/DC T-shirt that was struggling to contain his growing beer belly. Jim was the only bloke I knew who wore jewellery. Around his neck was a manky leather string with a silver rhinoceros skull attached to it, a crucifix and a chunky silver chain. He was also covered in tattoos, including a small bird on his middle finger who he referred to as Sid.

‘You taking Mozza home today then?’ I asked.

‘Er, well, I was hoping you lot might hold onto him a tad longer? I’ve got a gig – potentially.’

‘Who with?’ called Mum.

I followed Jim into the kitchen and grabbed my untouched cup of tea before he could steal it.

‘Well?’ Mum glanced at him over her glasses.

Jim sighed and flicked the kettle on.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mum, prodding pins into her pincushion. ‘I take it it’s not The Rolling Stones then?’

He ran his fingers through his straggly grey hair and made a whimpering sound.

‘Oh get off your high horse, Jim Draper. Who is it?’

‘Toploader – reunion tour.’

‘Who are they?’ I asked as we pulled out chairs and sat down.

‘Exactly!’ Jim reached for the biscuit tin and crammed a couple of Hobnobs into his mouth. ‘The sort of pop pissants that bring my arse out in a rash.’

‘It’s not like you can afford to turn it down – seeing as you still owe me a hundred quid and I really need the money right now.’ Mum packed away her sewing machine and hung the dress on the back of the kitchen door. At that moment Lacey appeared in the doorway.

‘Nice of you to tell me you were here,’ she pouted. As if she didn’t hear the doorbell! I wanted to pull the rest of her stupid hair out.

‘Treacle!’ Jim reached out for a hug.

Lacey stayed put, arms tightly folded. ‘Our guitar lessons were supposed to start last week.’

‘I had a gig, babes.’

‘There’s always something.’

‘I can’t turn a gig down, Lace. Like your mum says, I need the money.’

‘Which is why your dad’ll be going on tour with Toploader,’ said Mum.

‘Whatever. Can I have my phone back now?’ asked Lacey.

Mum laughed. ‘Nope.’

‘But I need to text Curt.’ Or rather, she needed to check how many likes her latest selfie had got.

‘Too bad.’

Jim got up to give Lacey a hug. ‘You been naughty, Treacs?’

‘No. I’ve been trying to teach myself the guitar.’

She leaned sulkily into Jim’s embrace while he stroked her hair.

‘Caught them fighting,’ said Mum. ‘As if they were a couple of eight year olds.’

Jim chuckled. ‘She didn’t hurt you, did she, Freckles?’

As if.’ I helped myself to a Hobnob.

‘Well, we could squeeze in a guitar lesson right now?’ He checked an imaginary watch on his hairy wrist.

Lacey’s pout mutated into a grin. Jim glanced at Mum.

‘Go on, then,’ said Mum.

Jim sat back down and squeezed Mum’s shoulder. I noticed his hand stayed there for a lot longer than was necessary. A bit like Jim in general… He hung around like a bad smell when he wanted something. And he’d been doing a lot of hanging around since Dad’s accident.

Chapter 4

Sunday 24th September

The following morning Mum, Lacey and I went to the hospital to see Dad. I brought my pencil sketch of Mozza that I was pretty proud of. I showed it to Phil the nurse who went to find some Sellotape so I could put it up on the wall in Dad’s room. Mum brought some orange and geranium essential oils (“for energy and wakefulness”) to massage Dad’s hands and feet with. And Lacey brought in a copy of Heat magazine that she’d found in the corridor waiting area so she could catch up on celebrity gossip.

Mum and Lacey settled into the chairs on either side of the bed while I repositioned Kevin, Dad’s cactus, in front of all the Get Well Soon cards on the windowsill. (Dad had bought Kevin for himself, Roy for me and Mabel for Lacey about six months ago and suggested we compete to see who could keep their plant alive the longest. Mabel was long gone, having been starved to death from the day she arrived.) I got out my bottle of water and sloshed some onto the dry soil in Kevin’s pot.

‘Look at Dad’s arm,’ said Mum, rolling up his sleeve. ‘You’d never know it was black and blue a few weeks ago. Doctor Khan says his ribs are coming on nicely, too.’

‘He’s tough,’ I said picking up a Modern Toss card from the windowsill and sniggering at the cartoon on the front.

‘Who’s that from?’ asked Mum.

‘Uncle Baz – again.’

‘What did he write this time?’

Wake up, you lazy bastard! I’ll shout you a beer when you’re back to your old self.’ I looked at Mum.

‘Not if Auntie Vee has anything to do with it,’ she sighed, working the oil into Dad’s arms.

Apart from my voice breaking, Uncle Baz leaving Auntie Vee because he’d fallen in love with a man was the last notable thing to happen in my universe before Dad’s accident.

‘I thought she had a new bloke?’ Lacey turned the page of her magazine.

‘That doesn’t mean she’s over Uncle Baz,’ said Mum.

Funny how Dad’s accident made the Auntie Vee/Uncle Baz showdown seem like a million years ago now.

‘Lacey, could you go and get me a coffee, please?’ Mum looked up from massaging Dad’s hands.

Lacey reluctantly slapped her magazine down on the bedside cabinet. ‘I haven’t got any change for the machine.’

Mum pointed at her handbag with an oily finger. ‘Take a few quid and get yourself something – Roly, what do you want?’

‘Hot chocolate, please,’ I said, not looking at Lacey. All our conversations took place with as little eye contact as possible. If we kept this up for much longer I’d soon forget what she looked like – a reward worth putting in the effort for.

‘I’m just going to wash my hands.’ Mum winked at me as she and Lacey left the room. This was my cue to have some “one-on-one time” with Dad.

I sat in Mum’s chair and reached out to stroke his arm, which was still moist with oil. I leaned closer to his ear and inhaled the flowery smell.

‘Dad, I don’t wanna rush you,’ I whispered, ‘but I wish you’d wake up soon cos…’ I wanted to tell him about how Lacey and I were in danger of pushing Mum too far with our constant fighting, how my already pathetic status at school was about to sink to subterranean levels, how I couldn’t stop thinking about a girl who didn’t know I existed, and how Jim’s hand had stayed way too long on Mum’s arm.

But how could I tell him all that in his zombie-like state? It could upset him. It could get all jumbled up in the sleeping pathways of his brain, causing anxiety and depression – or even false memories? What if his unconscious mind got so stressed it had an effect on his body and gave him a heart attack?

We had to stay upbeat and have faith, Doctor Khan had said. ‘Interact with him as much as possible, in a calm, positive way.’

‘Me and Lacey are getting on well,’ I said in a calm, positive way. ‘Actually she’s doing my head in, but we’re making an effort to get along for Mum’s sake. We’ve still got Mozza by the way. I reckon you were on the verge of saying we should keep him before you… skydived off the old mill.’

This was my feeble attempt at a joke. Dad wouldn’t want us to get all doom and gloom, Mum said. He was always making us laugh – cracking jokes, playing silly pranks. Mum reckons Dad was a clown in a past life. On their very first date they went for pizza and Dad got some mozzarella stuck to his nose – which he’d put there deliberately to see how long Mum could ignore it for. When she twigged he was having a laugh, she took an anchovy from her pizza and placed it above her upper lip, like a moustache. This was when Dad realised he’d met his match and fell in love, or so the Rawlings family legend goes.

So the plan was to adopt a “PMA” (positive mental attitude) – which wasn’t a problem, except that no one seemed willing to talk about what had happened…to get to the bottom of what he was doing up a derelict old mill in the first place.

‘So, Mum’s theory…’ I said to Dad. ‘I’ve been thinking about it and I’m not a hundred per cent convinced. If you climbed up the mill cos you saw something worth taking a photo of, it must’ve been something pretty amazing. I mean, you made us promise never to go up there because it was dangerous. Then again, we all know what you’re like when you spot a good picture.’

I looked at his sleeping eyelids. ‘What photograph was worth climbing up a building with a giant danger sign nailed to it? Dad, can you hear me? Twitch your hand if you can hear me.’ I held his hand loosely and stared at it. No movement. Nothing.

‘When I took your camera to Jessops to get it repaired, they said you hadn’t taken any photos that day. So we’ve been trying to guess what might’ve caught your eye. Mum and Lacey reckon it was the misty sunrise or a fox in the distance, but that’s not your kind of thing. It just doesn’t add up.’

I watched his face for the slightest sign of consciousness – maybe he was willing me to guess again? But his eyeballs stayed still beneath their shadowy lids. Maybe I needed to talk about something more positive – something that would catch his attention. Something I’d been dying to talk about but didn’t know who I could talk about it with.

‘There’s this new girl at school called Matilda Clemence, but she likes to be called Mattie. Her family just moved to Brighton. She’s a bit of a bookworm – but she’s also super-sporty, too – I’ve seen her play hockey and she’s fierce.’ I stopped as I heard footsteps out in the corridor. They passed by so I continued. ‘She’s kind of a loner, but maybe that’s cos she’s still new. Don’t know why I’m telling you all this–’

The door swung open and Lacey strutted in carrying our drinks. She was smiling – not a happy “here’s your hot chocolate” smile, but a cunning “I’ve just come into some useful information” smile. I prayed she hadn’t overheard me telling Dad about Mattie. As usual, no eye contact was made as she put my hot chocolate down as far away from me as possible.

‘D’you want some time alone with Dad?’ I got up to retrieve my drink.

Lacey shrugged and took a sip of tea.

‘It might be good for him to hear your voice,’ I said, unable to avoid looking at her as my blood started to simmer.

‘Well if you say so, Roly-Poly.’ She leaned back in her chair and opened up her magazine. ‘So, Col…’ She looked at Dad and cleared her throat. ‘It says here that Taylor Swift dumped Tom Hiddleston because he’d been texting Jennifer Lawrence. Which is bullshit, cos anyone with half a brain knows that Taylor Swift’s far too ambitious to give a toss about a five-second fling with some nerdy actor. Everyone knows that Taylor is a hundred-per-cent focused on becoming the highest-selling female artist of all time. Respect, right Col? She’s set her sights on the top.’ Lacey tossed her hair over her shoulder and added under her breath, ‘Just like me.’

‘What’s your problem?’ I hissed at her. ‘What’s he ever done to you other than be there for you and love us equally?’

She cocked her head to one side and smiled to herself. ‘You wouldn’t get it.’

I imagined chucking my hot chocolate in her face. The thought made me smile. Luckily Mum returned at that moment and, seeing the expression on my face, assumed that yesterday’s battles had blown over.

‘Great minds think alike.’ Mum perched on the end of the bed, waving a copy of The Week. ‘I thought I’d start by reading him the “It wasn’t all bad” section. He loves that bit.’

‘I’m going to the loo,’ I said and excused myself.

I had to get out before I used Kevin as a murder weapon. I hurried along the corridor, down the stairs and into the foyer.

What was Lacey’s beef with Dad? They used to get on just fine – he always picked her up whenever she was out late, made her cups of tea in the mornings, cut stories about successful women out of the papers and encouraged her to read them. Once, a few years ago, he even took her and Paige to see Jedward in concert –sacrifices don’t come much bigger than that. But when she started going out with Curt, arguments began erupting. Dad had always tried to support her without stepping on Jim’s toes, but ever since Curt came on the scene, he couldn’t do anything right.

I stomped outside through the main doors and found myself in the centre of a cluster of smokers. I was about to do a U-turn and head back to the kiosk for a Cadbury’s Creme Egg when I spotted Mattie Clemence on the other side of the road, rummaging in her pockets while waiting for a bus. My heart hit the drums. She clocked me and quickly looked away. I cringed as I remembered her startled face in the swimming pool. She looked almost as startled now.

She started walking off – even though the monitor said the next bus was almost due. As she picked up pace, something fell from her pocket, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. I ran across the road and charged after her, calling her name, but she just walked even faster.

I stopped by the bus stop and spotted a new, unopened packet of strawberry bubble gum lying on the pavement. I picked it up and watched her figure shrink into the distance.

I could hardly blame her for pretending not to hear me. She was new, and new kids had to look out for themselves. To be seen talking with someone like me was (to use one of Jim’s favourite expressions) “professional suicide”.

The story continues…