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Slade House(7)
David Mitchell

Norah Grayer asks, “Nathan, are you feeling all right?”

I looked up Valium in a medical encyclopedia at the library and in rare cases it can make you hallucinate and you have to tell your doctor immediately. I guess I’m rare. “Yes, thanks,” I say. “Jonah and me were playing fox and hound and I think I got carried away.”

“I thought you and Jonah might have a rapport—and golly gosh, Yehudi and your mother are getting on like a house on fire! You go on up to the soirée, up both these flights of stairs. I’ll find Jonah, and we’ll bring the éclairs. Up you go now. Don’t be shy.”

· · ·
I take off my shoes and put them side by side and climb the first flight of stairs. The walls are paneled and the stair carpet’s thick as snow and beige like nougat. Up ahead, there’s a little landing where a grandfather clock’s going krunk…kronk…krunk…kronk…but first I pass a portrait of a girl, younger than me, plastered with freckles, and wearing a pinafore thing from Victorian times. She’s dead lifelike. The banister glides under my fingertips. Mum plays the last note of “Chant de l’alouette” and I hear applause. Applause makes her happy. When she’s sad, it’s only crackers and bananas for dinner. The next portrait’s of a bushy-browed man in a regimental uniform: the Royal Fusiliers. I know because Dad got me a book about British Army regiments and I memorized it. Krunk…kronk…krunk…kronk goes the clock. The last portrait before the landing is a pinched lady in a hat who looks a lot like Mrs. Stone, our Religion teacher. If Mrs. Marconi asked me to guess, I’d say this hat lady was wishing she was anywhere but here. From the little landing, another flight of stairs to my right carries on up to a pale door. The clock’s really tall. I put my ear against its wooden chest and hear its heart: krunk…kronk…krunk…kronk…It has no hands. It’s got words instead, on its old, pale-as-bone clock face, saying TIME IS and under that TIME WAS and under that TIME IS NOT. Up the second flight of steps, the next picture’s of a man who’s twenty or so, with slick black hair and squinty eyes and a look like he’s unwrapped a present and can’t work out what it is. The last-but-one portrait’s a lady I recognize. It’s the hair. The lady I saw in the window. Same dangly earrings, too, but a dreamy smile instead of streaky eyeshadow. She must be a friend of the Grayers. Look at that mauve vein in her neck, it’s throbbing, and a murmur’s in my ear saying, Run now, as fast as you can, the way you came in…and I say, “What?” and the voice stops. Was it even there? It’s Valium. Maybe I shouldn’t take any more for a while. Only a few steps to the pale door now, and I hear Mum’s voice on the other side: “Oh no, Yehudi, you mustn’t make me hog the limelight when there’s so much talent in the room!” The reply is too soft to hear, but people laugh. Mum, too. When did I last hear Mum laugh like that? “You’re all too kind,” I hear her say. “How could I say no?” Then she starts up “Danseuses de Delphes.” I take two or three steps and draw level with the last portrait.

Which is me.

Me, Nathan Bishop…

Wearing exactly what I’m wearing now. This tweed jacket. This bow tie. Only in the picture I’ve got no eyes. That’s my big nose, the zit on my chin I’ve had all week, my scarring from the mastiff under my ear, but no eyes. A joke? Is this funny? I never know. Mum must’ve sent a school photograph plus photographs of the clothes I was going to be wearing to Norah Grayer, and she got the artist to paint this. How else? This isn’t bad Valium, is it? Is it? I blink hard at the portrait, then kick the skirting board; not hard enough to break my toe, but hard enough to hurt. When I don’t wake up, I know I’m awake. The clock’s going krunk-kronk-krunk-kronk and I’m trembling with anger. I know anger when I feel it. Anger’s an easy one, it’s like being a boiling kettle. Why did Mum play a joke on me on a day she told me to Act Normal? Normally I’d wait until Debussy was over before opening the pale door but Mum doesn’t deserve manners today so I put my hand on the doorknob.

· · ·
I sit up in bed. What bed? Not my bed in my titchy room in England, that’s for sure: This is three times the size, with sunlight blasting through the curtains and Luke Skywalker on the sheet-thing. My head’s humming. My mouth’s dry. There’s a desk; a bookshelf full of National Geographics; strings of beads over the doorway; a million insects outside; a Zulu-style tribal shield and spear decorated with tinsel that brings the answer closer now, closer, closer…

Dad’s lodge in the Bushveld. I let out this bark of relief and all my dream-anger at Mum goes phffft. It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m in Rhodesia! Yesterday I flew here on a British Airways flight, all on my own, my very first time on a plane, and asked for the fish pie because I didn’t know what boeuf bourguignon was. Dad and Joy met me at the airport in his jeep. On the way here we saw zebras and giraffes. No spooky portraits, no Slade House, no mastiff. Mrs. Todds my English teacher gives an automatic F if anyone ever writes “I woke up and it was all a dream” at the end of a story. She says it violates the deal between reader and writer, that it’s a cop-out, it’s the Boy Who Cried Wolf. But every single morning we really do wake up and it really was all a dream. It’s a shame Jonah’s not real, though. I lift up the curtain by my bed and see slopes of woodland and grassland, going on forever. Down below’s the brown river where there’re hippos. Dad sent me a Polaroid of this exact view. It’s on my wall at home in England by my pillow, but here it’s the actual view. African birds, African morning, African birdsong. I smell bacon and get up. I’m in my Kays Catalogue pajamas. The pine floor’s knotty, warm and grooved on the soles of my feet, and the strings of beads are like lots of fingertips on my face…

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