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Slade House(2)
David Mitchell

“No doubt there’ll be a proper entrance on the far side,” says Mum. “Slade House is only the Grayers’ town residence. Their proper home’s in Cambridgeshire.”

If I had 50p for every time Mum’s told me that, I’d now have £3.50. It’s cold and clammy in the alley like White Scar Cave in the Yorkshire Dales. Dad took me when I was ten. I find a dead cat lying on the ground at the first corner. It’s gray like dust on the moon. I know it’s dead because it’s as still as a dropped bag, and because big flies are drinking from its eyes. How did it die? There’s no bullet wound or fang marks, though its head’s at a slumped angle so maybe it was strangled by a cat-strangler. It goes straight into the Top Five of the Most Beautiful Things I’ve Ever Seen. Maybe there’s a tribe in Papua New Guinea who think the droning of flies is music. Maybe I’d fit in with them. “Come along, Nathan.” Mum’s tugging my sleeve.

I ask, “Shouldn’t it have a funeral? Like Gran did?”

“No. Cats aren’t human beings. Come along.”

“Shouldn’t we tell its owner it won’t be coming home?”

“How? Pick it up and go along Westwood Road knocking on all the doors saying, ‘Excuse me, is this your cat?’ ”

Mum sometimes has good ideas. “It’d take a bit of time, but—”

“Forget it, Nathan—we’re due at Lady Grayer’s right now.”

“But if we don’t bury it, crows’ll peck out its eyes.”

“We don’t have a spade or a garden round here.”

“Lady Grayer should have a spade and a garden.”

Mum closes her eyes again. Maybe she’s got a headache. “This conversation is over.” She pulls me away and we go down the middle section of Slade Alley. It’s about five houses long, I’d guess, but hemmed in by brick walls so high you can’t see anything. Just sky. “Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door,” says Mum, “set into the right-hand wall.” But we walk all the way to the next corner, and it’s ninety-six paces exactly, and thistles and dandelions grow out of cracks, but there’s no door. After the right turn we go another twenty paces until we’re out on the street parallel to Westwood Road. A sign says CRANBURY AVENUE. Parked opposite’s a St. John ambulance. Someone’s written CLEAN ME in the dirt above the back wheel. The driver’s got a broken nose and he’s speaking into a radio. A mod drives past on a scooter like off Quadrophenia, riding without a helmet. “Riding without a helmet’s against the law,” I say.

“Makes no sense,” says Mum, staring at the envelope.

“Unless you’re a Sikh with a turban. Then the police’ll—”

“ ‘A small black iron door’: I mean…how did we miss it?”

I know. For me, Valium’s like Asterix’s magic potion, but it makes Mum dopey. She called me Frank yesterday—Dad’s name—and didn’t notice. She gets two prescriptions for Valium from two doctors because one’s not enough, but—

—a dog barks just inches away and I’ve shouted and jumped back in panic and peed myself a bit, but it’s okay, it’s okay, there’s a fence, and it’s only a small yappy dog, it’s not a bull mastiff, it’s not that bull mastiff, and it was only a bit of pee. Still, my heart’s hammering like mad and I feel like I might puke. Mum’s gone out into Cranbury Avenue to look for big gates to a big house, and hasn’t even noticed the yappy dog. A bald man in overalls walks up, carrying a bucket and a pair of stepladders over his shoulder. He’s whistling “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony).”

Mum cuts in. “Excuse me, do you know Slade House?”

The whistling and the man stop. “Do I know What House?”

“Slade House. It’s Lady Norah Grayer’s residence.”

“No idea, but if you find Her Ladyship, tell her I fancy a bit o’ posh if she fancies a bit o’ rough.” He tells me, “Love the dickie bow, son,” and turns into Slade Alley, picking up his whistling where he left off. Mum looks at his back, muttering, “Thanks a heap for bloody nothing.”

“I thought we weren’t supposed to say ‘bloody’—”

“Don’t start, Nathan. Just—don’t.”

I think that’s Mum’s angry face. “Okay.”

The dog’s stopped yapping to lick its willy. “We’ll backtrack,” Mum decides. “Maybe Lady Grayer meant the next alley along.” She goes back into Slade Alley and I follow. We reach the middle section in time to see the stepladder man vanish around the corner of the far end, where the moon-gray cat’s still lying dead. “If someone killed you down here,” I remark, “nobody’d see.” Mum ignores me. Maybe it wasn’t very Normal. We’re halfway down the middle bit when Mum stops: “I’ll be jiggered!” There’s a small black iron door, set into the brick wall. It’s small all right. I’m four feet eleven inches, and it’s only up to my eyes. A fat person’d need to squeeze hard to get through. It has no handle, keyhole, or gaps around the edges. It’s black, nothing-black, like the gaps between stars. “How on earth did we miss that?” says Mum. “Some Boy Scout you are.”

“I’m not in the Scouts anymore,” I remind her. Mr. Moody our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter. I’d been on the local news and everything. Everyone was angry, but I was only following orders.

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