Jack Mutant - Which Way is Down? (part ten)
By Jane Hyphen
Jack woke to find a warm, scraggy lump pushed up close to him, he reached out his hand and ran his fingers through Bristol’s coarse fur, the dog made a contented groaning sound and curled up tighter. Something had returned to Jack’s bedroom, friendly energy; Grandad was downstairs banging crocks around, preparing breakfast with the radio turned up loud, talking radio, people chattering in calm voices about nothing much. A faint smell of toast drifted up the stairs and Bristol lifted his head, jumped off the bed and thundered down like a rocket towards the kitchen.
‘Oh hello furry man, what have you done with our Jack?’ Grandad began to whistle the tuneless composition which was his usual signature piece.
Jack lay there for a while listening to the sounds of the house, for the first time since the summer holidays he felt safe, no school for a week and he had Grandad, the old man was like a buffer zone between him and the world. The whirr of Chloe’s hair dryer on max setting carved into his peace, it made him think of morning things, of getting ready, the competition associated with a single bathroom household. Despite it being Saturday a little surge of adrenaline rushed through his body, he got up, washed and dressed, open up the curtains, glanced across at the windows of all the surrounding properties which gazed back at him like eyes. The oppression of living in suburbia. I wish I was in Wales, he thought and he imagined looking across at empty, shadowy mountains which opened up and invited him in.
‘Why couldn’t I have come to you instead Grandad?’ he said as he entered the kitchen.
‘What...because I’ve come to you lad, your mum’s got a list of jobs for me, in fact she’s at the DIY store now, getting some wood protector. Do you want eggs with your toast?’
Jack watched his grandad at the stove, his heavy, slow movements as he negotiated their kitchen, searching for utensils, his wide hands clumsily deciphering the knobs and coating them in grease. He paused and half turned his head. ‘Do you want eggs Jack?’
‘Er..yes, just one please.’
‘I see Bristol joined you upstairs in the end.’
‘Yes, I woke up with him on top of the bed, tucked up into my lap.’
Grandad put the plate down in front of Jack, two pieces of toast, dripping with butter, a fried egg all speckled with black pepper. ‘What about the demon?’ he asked.
Jack shrugged. ‘Bristol scared it away.’
‘Good job, give that dog an egg. Fried or scrambled Bristol?’ The dog sat up tall and tilted his little head. ‘Scrambled is better for dogs I think.’ Grandad nodded as he stirred the pan. ‘That’s the thing about demons, you never give into them...you don’t feed them Jack and eventually they dry up, they starve.’ He took out a china bowl from the cupboard, plopped in the egg and placed it on the floor for his dog.
‘You can’t use that bowl Grandad..’
‘It’s mum’s bowl, she floats flowers in it.’
‘Floats flowers in it,’ Grandad muttered, shaking his head. ‘Look Bristol’s licked it all clean,’ he rinsed it under the tap, circled his woolly elbow inside it and placed it back in the cupboard.
The familiar sound of the key turning in the door ended their conversation. Mum huffed and puffed as she carried two plastic bags full of stuff. ‘You two are very quiet,’ she said dropping them on the floor and leaning across the worktop to switch off the radio. ‘I’ve got a set of paint brushes, cheap ones and wood stain, I got some kind of sealant for the leak in the shower, cloths for cleaning….other stuff. If you need anything else you’ll just have to go to the shop yourself dad, get Jack to go with you, he knows how to get there.’
Grandad gave her a lingering look, lifted his eyebrows but said nothing. He was thinking that he didn’t need anything at all and that he was merely offering to help with chores during his stay. Meanwhile she was thinking that her father would like something to do, to make him feel useful and it was her duty to collate a list of satisfying, manly jobs which Jack could help with too.
A drift of perfume permeated the kitchen, Chloe entered, groomed and shiny with a big bag on her shoulder. She turned to Jack, ‘Helping Grandad are you?’ she said with an element of mockery in her voice. Then she looked at her mum, ‘Can you take me then?’
‘Yes, yes! Right, I’m off, taking Chloe to the station then meeting a friend, maybe do some shopping, run some errands. I’ll leave you two to get on with it. Don’t get into trouble!’
Grandad glanced at Jack and tapped his finger on the side of his nose. Bristol ran to the lounge, jumped up onto the armchair and watched them pull off the drive, craning his neck as they glided out of sight, he bolted back to the kitchen, apparently excited at their departure. ‘You can take him for a walk Jack, there’s his lead, take him around the block while I get this lot washed up.’
The little dog was out of control with excitement, he lowered his back to get full traction on the ground and lunged down the driveway. Instantly he became overwhelmed by unchartered local smells; on the pavements, under the hedges, on the lamp posts, scents packed with information which he inhaled through his nostrils up into his little doggy brain. He compiled an olfactory dossier of Jack’s neighbourhood, rushing in different directions, pulling on the leash this way and that towards various enticing odours. It wasn’t the peaceful experience that Jack had imagined, he’d pictured himself walking confidently with Bristol trotting beside him, occasionally looking up to him obediently but this canine wasn’t looking up, thoroughly absorbed in an independant stupor and seemingly oblivious to the presence of his human companion.
It took over fifteen minutes to travel a couple of hundred meters. Jack felt awkward, uncomfortable in the way that children begin to do as they approach teenagedom, as if people are observing them, possibly laughing at them. Feeling the eyes of surrounding houses drilling into him he found that he’d forgotten how to walk, his arms felt all long and stiff and hangy. I’ve had enough of being controlled by you Bristol, he thought and determined to regain control he turned around and headed back at race-walking speed towards the house dragging the terrier behind him.
Grandad was wiping the kitchen surfaces. ‘You two alright?’ he said without looking up.
‘He was a nightmare, wouldn’t walk properly, just sniffing everything, nearly pulled my hand off.’
‘Ah yes, he’s very stubborn..and don’t forget he’s not really used to being on a lead, he’s always free when we’re back home in Wales, free to wander to the beach along the footpaths or through the woods. The smells of a built up area such as this, he’s not used to them Jack, probably overwhelmed him, put him in a spin.’
Overwhelmed, thought Jack, that’s how I feel, every day, living here, in Swindon, going to school but I have to behave, conform and act like a normal human to fit in. It occurred to him that being a dog might be a better option but this thought was interrupted by his phone pinging. A message, “Do you want to come to town?” It was from Tristan, “Cromwell Spruce has some tablets that let you see a new colour, a never before seen colour, he says he’ll let me have one for ten pounds, we could go halves?” His eyes lingered over the message.
‘Who’s that, a friend, do you have some good friends at school Jack?’
‘Yes..well sort of.’
‘Do they want you to meet them. I don’t mind Jack, I can get on with your mum’s list by myself, you go and be with your pals..’
‘No Grandad, it’s just Tristan, I don’t want to meet him, he’s too weird.’
‘Weird? We’re all different Jack, you and I we’re different aren’t we. It’s important to make friends especially at school, to mix..’
‘I want to stay here..with you.’
Grandad nodded and rummaged through the DIY bags, he removed some paint brushes, a tin of teak oil and headed out of the back door. ‘You best change into some old clothes then, you don’t want to get this all over you.’
‘Be alright,’ said Jack.
‘Oh I’ll just fetch something to open this tin with.’
Jack listened as Grandad rifled through the cutlery drawer. He returned with something silver and shiny and began to jemmy the lid off the teak oil. ‘You can’t use that Grandad, it’s Mum’s cake slice.’
‘When was the last time she made a cake?’ Jack couldn’t recall such an event. Chloe had made a few cakes from boxes, the ones where you just add eggs and oil, they’d cut them up with a regular knife. Jack remained quiet as Grandad returned once again to the kitchen and grabbed a metal whisk from the utensil jar which he used to stir the product. ‘Ah, all ready,’ he announced, tapping the side of the tin to remove excess drips.
They moved the garden chairs onto the lawn to avoid staining the patio slabs. In silence they dipped and swished the brushes, applying the oil along the grain of the wood, it was a fiddly job but satisfying. Both were deep in their thoughts; Grandad thinking of a walking holiday he’d once had with his wife in Yorkshire, there was something about the sky which reminded him of it, cool blue with big white clouds whizzing past. Jack was thinking about his dad, he hadn’t been in touch, he usually did during school holidays but this was half-term and he sometimes didn’t know when half-term was.
‘Have you heard from your father Jack?’
Jack looked up but Grandad’s eyes remained fixed on his paintbrush. It seemed odd that their thoughts had somehow connected. ‘Yes he took me to a concert,’ Jack said quickly but then immediately he realised there was something not quite right about what he’d said.
‘A concert, fantastic! When was this?’
‘No no sorry Grandad that was a dream, well not even a dream actually…’
‘Oh…’Grandad looked stern now. ‘You did see him though, your mum said he picked you up.’
‘Yes we went for a meal, to a pub somewhere in the sticks.’
‘Is he working?’
‘Yes he works in a hotel...and lives there too, he works in the kitchens...washing pots.’
Grandad opened his mouth to speak but then closed it again. Bristol came to back door and looked at them for a couple of seconds then returned to the armchair in the lounge which he was not supposed to be on. Jack was glad they had a task to do, he imagined how awkward this conversation could have been if they were sitting in the lounge but their outdoor activity turned askwardness into stillness. I get dreams mixed up with reality, he thought, and my dad is a pot wash but it’s all okay.