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Slade House
David Mitchell

Whatever Mum’s saying’s drowned out by the grimy roar of the bus pulling away, revealing a pub called The Fox and Hounds. The sign shows three beagles cornering a fox. They’re about to pounce and rip it apart. A street sign underneath says WESTWOOD ROAD. Lords and ladies are supposed to be rich, so I was expecting swimming pools and Lamborghinis, but Westwood Road looks pretty normal to me. Normal brick houses, detached or semidetached, with little front gardens and normal cars. The damp sky’s the color of old hankies. Seven magpies fly by. Seven’s good. Mum’s face is inches away from mine, though I’m not sure if that’s an angry face or a worried one. “Nathan? Are you even listening?” Mum’s wearing makeup today. That shade of lipstick’s called Morning Lilac but it smells more like Pritt Stick than lilacs. Mum’s face hasn’t gone away, so I say, “What?”

“It’s ‘Pardon’ or ‘Excuse me.’ Not ‘What?’ ”

“Okay,” I say, which often does the trick.

Not today. “Did you hear what I told you?”

“ ‘It’s “Pardon” or “Excuse me.” Not “What?” ’ ”

“Before that! I said, if anyone at Lady Grayer’s asks how we came here, you’re to tell them we arrived by taxi.”

“I thought lying was wrong.”

“There’s lying,” says Mum, fishing out the envelope she wrote the directions on from her handbag, “which is wrong, and there’s creating the right impression, which is necessary. If your father paid what he’s supposed to pay, we really would have arrived by taxi. Now…” Mum squints at her writing. “Slade Alley leads off Westwood Road, about halfway down…” She checks her watch. “Right, it’s ten to three, and we’re due at three. Chop-chop. Don’t dawdle.” Off Mum walks.

I follow, not stepping on any of the cracks. Sometimes I have to guess where the cracks are because the pavement’s mushy with fallen leaves. At one point I had to step out of the way of a man with huge fists jogging by in a black and orange tracksuit. Wolverhampton Wanderers play in black and orange. Shining berries hang from a mountain ash. I’d like to count them, but the clip-clop-clip-clop of Mum’s heels pulls me on. She bought the shoes at John Lewis’s sale with the last of the money the Royal College of Music paid her, even though British Telecom sent a final reminder to pay the telephone bill. She’s wearing her dark blue concert outfit and her hair up with the silver fox-head hairpin. Her dad brought it back from Hong Kong after World War Two. When Mum’s teaching a student and I have to make myself scarce, I sometimes go to Mum’s dressing table and get the fox out. He’s got jade eyes and on some days he smiles, on others he doesn’t. I don’t feel well knitted today, but the Valium should kick in soon. Valium’s great. I took two pills. I’ll have to miss a few next week so Mum won’t notice her supply’s going down. My tweed jacket’s scratchy. Mum got it from Oxfam specially for today, and the bow tie’s from Oxfam, too. Mum volunteers there on Mondays so she can get the best of the stuff people bring in on Saturdays. If Gaz Ingram or anyone in his gang sees me in this bow tie, I’ll find a poo in my locker, guaranteed. Mum says I have to learn how to Blend In more, but there aren’t any classes for Blending In, not even on the town library notice board. There’s a Dungeons & Dragons club advertised there, and I always want to go, but Mum says I can’t because Dungeons & Dragons is playing with dark forces. Through one front window I see horse racing. That’s Grandstand on BBC1. The next three windows have net curtains, but then I see a TV with wrestling on it. That’s Giant Haystacks the hairy baddie fighting Big Daddy the bald goodie on ITV. Eight houses later I see Godzilla on BBC2. He knocks down a pylon just by blundering into it and a Japanese fireman with a sweaty face is shouting into a radio. Now Godzilla’s picked up a train, which makes no sense because amphibians don’t have thumbs. Maybe Godzilla’s thumb’s like a panda’s so-called thumb, which is really an evolved claw. Maybe—

“Nathan!” Mum’s got my wrist. “What did I say about dawdling?”

I check back. “ ‘Chop-chop!’; ‘Don’t dawdle.’ ”

“So what are you doing now?”

“Thinking about Godzilla’s thumbs.”

Mum shuts her eyes. “Lady Grayer has invited me—us—to a musical gathering. A soirée. There’ll be people who care about music there. People from the Arts Council, people who award jobs, grants.” Mum’s eyes have tiny red veins like rivers photographed from very high up. “I’d rather you were at home playing with your Battle of the Boers landscape too, but Lady Grayer insisted you come along, so…you have to act normal. Can you do that? Please? Think of the most normal boy in your class, and do what he’d do.”

Acting Normal’s like Blending In. “I’ll try. But it’s not the Battle of the Boers, it’s the Boer War. Your ring’s digging into my wrist.”

Mum lets go of my wrist. That’s better.

I don’t know what her face is saying.

· · ·
Slade Alley’s the narrowest alley I’ve ever seen. It slices between two houses, then vanishes left after thirty paces or so. I can imagine a tramp living there in a cardboard box, but not a lord and lady.

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