Home > Slade House(3)

Slade House(3)
David Mitchell

Mum pushes the door, but it stays shut. “How on earth does the bally thing open? Perhaps we ought to knock.”

The door pulls my palm up against it. It’s warm.

And as it swings inwards, the hinges shriek like brakes…

· · ·
…and we’re looking into a garden; a buzzing, still-summery garden. The garden’s got roses, toothy sunflowers, spatters of poppies, clumps of foxgloves, and lots of flowers I can’t name. There’s a rockery, a pond, bees grazing and butterflies. It’s epic. “Cop a load of that,” says Mum. Slade House is up at the top, old, blocky, stern and gray and half smothered by fiery ivy, and not at all like the houses on Westwood Road and Cranbury Avenue. If it was owned by the National Trust they’d charge you £2 to get in, or 75p for children under sixteen. Mum and I have already stepped in through the small black iron door, which the wind closed like an unseen butler, and currents are pulling us up the garden, around by the wall. “The Grayers must have a full-time gardener,” says Mum, “or even several of them.” At last, I feel my Valium kicking in. Reds are glossier, blues glassier, greens steamier and whites see-through like one layer of a two-ply tissue. I’m about to ask Mum how such a big house and its garden can possibly fit in the space between Slade Alley and Cranbury Avenue, but my question falls down a deep well with no bottom, and I forget what I’ve forgotten.

“Mrs. Bishop and son, I presume,” says an invisible boy. Mum jumps, a bit like me with the yappy dog, but now my Valium’s acting like a shock absorber. “Up here,” says the voice. Mum and me look up. Sitting on the wall, about fifteen feet up I’d say, is a boy who looks my age. He’s got wavy hair, pouty lips, milky skin, blue jeans, pumps but no socks and a white T-shirt. Not an inch of tweed, and no bow tie. Mum never said anything about other boys at Lady Grayer’s musical soirée. Other boys mean questions have to get settled. Who’s coolest? Who’s hardest? Who’s brainiest? Normal boys care about this stuff and kids like Gaz Ingram fight about it. Mum’s saying, “Yes, hello, I’m Mrs. Bishop and this is Nathan—look, that wall’s jolly high, you know. Don’t you think you ought to come down?”

“Good to meet you, Nathan,” says the boy.

“Why?” I ask the soles of the boy’s pumps.

Mum’s hissing something about manners and the boy says, “Just because. I’m Jonah, by the way. Your welcoming committee.”

I don’t know any Jonahs. It’s a maroon-colored name.

Mum asks, “And is Lady Norah your mother, Jonah?”

Jonah considers this. “Let’s say she is, yes.”

“Right,” says Mum, “that’s, um, I see. Do—”

“Oh, splendid, Rita, you’ve found us!” A woman walks out from a lattice-frame tunnel thing. The tunnel’s smothered with bunches of dangly white and purple flowers. The woman’s around Mum’s age, but she’s slim and less worn down and dresses like her garden looks. “After I hung up last night, I rather got the collywobbles that I’d horribly confused you by giving you directions to the Slade Alley door—really, I should’ve sent you round the front. But I did so want your first sight of Slade House to be across the garden in its full splendor.”

“Lady Grayer!” Mum sounds like an imitation of a posh person. “Good afternoon. No no no, your directions were—”

“Call me Norah, Rita, do—the whole ‘Lady’ thing’s a frightful bore when I’m off duty. You’ve met Jonah, I see: our resident Spider-Man.” Lady Grayer has Jonah’s black hair and X-ray vision eyes that I prefer to look away from. “This young man must be Nathan.” She shakes my hand. Her hand’s pudgy but its grip’s strong. “Your mother’s told me all about you.”

“Pleased to meet you, Norah,” I say, like a grown-up from a film.

“Nathan!” says Mum, too loud. “Lady Grayer didn’t mean you can call her by her Christian name.”

“It’s fine,” says Norah Grayer. “Really, he’s welcome to.”

The bright afternoon sways a bit. “Your dress matches the garden,” I say.

“What an elegant compliment,” says Lady Grayer. “Thank you. And you look very smart, too. Bow ties are terribly distinguished.”

I extract my hand. “Did you own a moon-gray cat, Norah?”

“ ‘Did’ I own a cat? Do you mean recently, or in my girlhood?”

“Today. It’s in the alley.” I point in the right direction. “At the first corner. It’s dead.”

“Nathan can be rather direct sometimes.” Mum’s voice is odd and hurried. “Norah, if the cat is yours, I’m terribly—”

“Don’t worry, Slade House has been catless for some years. I’ll telephone our odd-job man and ask him to give the poor creature a decent burial pronto. That’s most thoughtful of you, Nathan. Like your mother. Have you inherited her musical gift, too?”

“Nathan doesn’t practice enough,” says Mum.

“I practice an hour a day,” I say.

“Ought to be two,” says Mum, crisply.

“I’ve got homework to do too,” I point out.

“Well, ‘Genius is nine parts perspiration,’ ” says Jonah, standing right behind us, on the ground—Mum gasps with surprise, but I’m impressed. I ask, “How did you get down so quickly?”

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