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Slade House(4)
David Mitchell

He taps his temple. “Cranially implanted teleport circuitry.”

I know he jumped really, but I like his answer better. Jonah’s taller than me, but most kids are. Last week Gaz Ingram changed my official nickname from Gaylord Baconface to Poison Dwarf.

“An incurable show-off,” sighs Norah Grayer. “Now, Rita, I do hope you won’t mind, but Yehudi Menuhin’s dropped by and I told him about your Debussy recital. He’s positively bursting to meet you.”

Mum makes a face like an astonished kid from Peanuts: “The Yehudi Menuhin? He’s here? This afternoon?”

Lady Grayer nods like it’s no big deal. “Yes, he had a ‘gig’ at the Royal Festival Hall last night, and Slade House has become his London bolt-hole-cum-pied-à-terre, as it were. Say you don’t mind?”

“Mind?” says Mum. “Meeting Sir Yehudi? Of course I don’t mind, I just…can’t quite believe I’m awake.”

“Bravissima.” Lady Grayer takes Mum by the arm and steers her towards the big house. “Don’t be shy—Yehudi’s a teddy bear. Why don’t you chaps”—she turns to Jonah and me—“amuse yourselves in this glorious sunshine for a little while? Mrs. Polanski’s making coffee éclairs, so be sure to work up an appetite.”

· · ·
“Eat a damson, Nathan,” says Jonah, handing me a fruit from the tree. He sits down at the base of one tree, so I sit down against its neighbor.

“Thanks.” Its warm slushy flesh tastes of early August mornings. “Is Yehudi Menuhin really visiting?”

Jonah gives me a look I don’t understand. “Why on earth would Norah lie?”

I’ve never met a boy who calls his mum by her Christian name. Dad’d call it “very modern.” “I didn’t say she is lying. It’s just that he’s an incredibly famous virtuoso violinist.”

Jonah spits his damson stone into tall pink daisies. “Even incredibly famous virtuoso violinists need friends. So how old are you, Nathan? Thirteen?”

“Bang on.” I spit my stone farther. “You?”

“Same,” he says. “My birthday’s in October.”

“February.” I’m older, if shorter. “What school do you go to?”

“School and I never saw eye to eye,” says Jonah. “So to speak.”

I don’t understand. “You’re a kid. You have to go. It’s the law.”

“The law and I never got on, either. ’Nother damson?”

“Thanks. But what about the truancy officer?”

Jonah’s face may mean he’s puzzled. Mrs. Marconi and me have been working on “puzzled.” “The what officer?”

I don’t get it. He must know. “Are you taking the piss?”

Jonah says, “I wouldn’t dream of taking your piss. What would I do with it?” That’s kind of witty, but if I ever used it on Gaz Ingram he’d crucify me on the rugby posts. “Seriously, I’m taught at home.”

“That must be ace. Who teaches you? Your mum?”

Jonah says, “Our master,” and looks at me.

His eyes hurt, so I look away. Master’s like a posh word for “teacher.” “What’s he like?”

Jonah says, not like he’s trying to boast, “A true genius.”

“I’m dead jealous,” I admit. “I hate my school. Hate it.”

“If you don’t fit into the system, the system makes life hell. Is your father a pianist too, like your mother?”

I like talking about Dad as much as I hate talking about school. “No. Dad lives in Salisbury but Salisbury in Rhodesia, not Wiltshire. Dad’s from there, from Rhodesia, and he works as a trainer for the Rhodesian Army. Lots of kids tell fibs about their dads, but I’m not. My dad’s an ace marksman. He can put a bullet between a man’s eyes at a hundred meters. He let me watch him once.”

“He let you watch him put a bullet between a man’s eyes?”

“It was a shop dummy at a rifle range near Aldershot. It had a rainbow wig and an Adolf Hitler mustache.”

Doves or pigeons coo in the damson trees. No one’s ever very sure if doves and pigeons are the same bird or not.

“Must be tough,” says Jonah, “your father being so far away.”

I shrug. Mum told me to keep shtum about the divorce.

“Have you ever visited Africa?” asks Jonah.

“No, but Dad promised I can visit next Christmas. I was meant to go last Christmas, but Dad suddenly had lots of soldiers to train. When it’s winter here, it’s summer there.” I’m about to tell Jonah about the safari Dad’s going to take me on, but Mrs. Marconi says talking’s like ping-pong: you take turns. “What job does your dad do?”

I’m expecting Jonah to tell me his father’s an admiral or a judge or something lordly, but no. “Father died. Shot. It was an accident on a pheasant shoot. It all happened a long, long time ago.”

Can’t be that long ago, I think, but I just say, “Right.”

The purple foxgloves sway like something’s there…

· · ·
…but there isn’t, and Jonah says, “Tell me about your recurring nightmare, Nathan.” We’re sitting by the pond on warm paving slabs. The pond’s a long rectangle, with water lilies and a bronze statue of Neptune in the middle gone turquoise and bruised. The pond’s bigger than our whole garden, which is really just a muddy yard with a washing line and rubbish bins. Dad’s lodge in Rhodesia has land going down to a river where there’re hippos. I think of Mrs. Marconi telling me to “Focus on the subject.” “How do you know about my nightmare?”

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