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Slade House(5)
David Mitchell

“You have that hunted look,” says Jonah.

I lob a pebble up, high over the water. Its arc is maths.

“Is your nightmare anything to do with your scars?”

Immediately my hand’s pulled my hair down over the white-and-pink-streaked area below my right ear, to hide where the damage shows the most. The stone goes plop! but the splash is invisible. I won’t think about the mastiff launching itself at me, its fangs pulling skin off my cheek like roast chicken, its eyes as it shook me like a doll, its teeth locked around my jawbone; or the weeks in hospital, the injections, the drugs, the surgery, the faces people make; or how the mastiff’s still waiting for me when I fall asleep.

A dragonfly settles on a bulrush an inch from my nose. Its wings are like cellophane and Jonah says, “Its wings are like cellophane,” and I say, “I was just thinking that,” but Jonah says, “Just thinking what?” so maybe I just thought he’d said it. Valium rubs out speech marks and pops thought-bubbles. I’ve noticed it before.

In the house, Mum’s playing warm-up arpeggios.

The dragonfly’s gone. “Do you have nightmares?” I ask.

“I have nightmares,” says Jonah, “about running out of food.”

“Go to bed with a packet of digestives,” I tell him.

Jonah’s teeth are perfect, like the smiley kid with zero fillings off the Colgate advert. “Not that kind of food, Nathan.”

“What other kinds of food are there?” I ask.

A skylark’s Morse-coding from a far far far far star.

“Food that makes you hungrier, the more of it you eat,” says Jonah.

Shrubs tremble blurrily like they’re being sketched in.

“No wonder you don’t go to a normal school,” I say.

Jonah winds a stem of grass round his thumb…

· · ·
…and snaps it. The pond’s gone and we’re under a tree, so obviously it’s another stem of grass, a later snap. The Valium’s throbbing in my fingertips now, and the sunlight’s a harpist. Fallen leaves on the shaved lawn are shaped like tiny fans. “This tree’s a ginkgo tree,” says Jonah. “Whoever lived at Slade House half a century ago planted it.” I start arranging ginkgo leaves into a large Africa, about one foot from Cairo to Johannesburg. Jonah’s lying on his back now, either asleep or just with his eyes closed. He hasn’t asked me about football once, or said I’m gay for liking classical music. Maybe this is like having a friend. Time must’ve passed, because my Africa’s finished. I don’t know the time exactly because last Sunday I took my watch apart to improve it, and when I put it back together again some pieces were missing. Not quite like Humpty Dumpty. Mum cried when she saw the watch’s insides and shut herself in her room so I had to eat cornflakes for tea again. I don’t know why she got upset. The watch was old, dead old, made long before I was even born. The leaves I remove for Lake Victoria, I use for Madagascar.

“Wow,” says Jonah, leaning his head on an elbow.

Do you say “Thanks” when someone says “Wow”? I don’t know, so I play safe and ask, “Do you ever think you might be a different species of human, knitted out of raw DNA in a laboratory like in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and then turned loose to see if you can pass yourself off as normal or not?”

Gentle applause flutters down from an upstairs room.

“My sister and I are a different species,” says Jonah, “but the experiment part is redundant. We pass ourselves off as normal, or anything we want to be. Do you want to play fox and hounds?”

“We walked past a pub called The Fox and Hounds.”

“It’s been there since the 1930s. Smells like the 1930s too, if you ever go in. My sister and I borrowed its name for a game. Want to play? It’s a race, basically.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll meet her later. Fox and hounds is a race. We start off at opposite corners of the house. We both shout, ‘Fox and hounds, one two three!’ and on the ‘three’ we start running, anti-clockwise, until one of us catches the other. The catcher is the hound and the one who’s caught is the fox. Simple. Up for it?”

If I say no to Jonah he might call me a wuss or a spazzo. “Okay. But shouldn’t it be called ‘fox and hound’ if there’s only one hound?”

Jonah’s face goes through two or three expressions I can’t read. “Henceforth, Nathan, it’ll be known as ‘fox and hound.’ ”

· · ·
Slade House looms up. The red ivy’s redder than red ivy normally is. The ground floor windows are too high off the ground to see inside, and anyway they only reflect the sky and clouds. “You stay here,” Jonah tells me at the front right corner. “I’ll go round the back. Once we start, run anti-clockwise—up this way.” Off Jonah trots down the side of the house, which is walled by a holly hedge. While I’m waiting, I notice someone moving in the window nearest to me. I step closer, peering up. It’s a woman. Another guest at Lady Norah Grayer’s soirée, I suppose, or maybe a servant. She’s got one of those beehive hairstyles that ladies on Dad’s old LPs had; her forehead’s furrowed and her mouth’s slowly opening and closing like a goldfish. Like she’s repeating the same word over and over and over. I can’t hear what she’s saying because the window’s shut, so I tell her, “I can’t hear you.” I take a step forwards, but she vanishes and there’s only reflected sky. So I take a step back, and she’s there again. It’s like one of those pictures you get in cereal boxes where it looks like the image is moving when you tilt it slightly. The beehive woman could be saying, “No, no, no”; or “Go, go, go”; or it might be “Oh, oh, oh.” Before I work it out, I hear Jonah’s voice down the holly path, saying, “Ready, Nathan?”

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