The Battle of the Damp Squib
“Fancy a night out?” Frank asked Janet over breakfast that morning.
“Out? You mean, out out? As in leaving the house and going somewhere together?”
“Yes, that was what I was thinking. Perhaps go and see the firework display at the bus-depot ground and then maybe a bite to eat. What do you think?”
Janet blew hard on her mug of tea before putting it down on the table. “Are you ill, Frank? Is there something you’re not telling me? You know we can get tests, they can work miracles these days…”
“No, not at all. I just thought we’ve not done anything like that for, well, ages. And it’ll be a romantic thing to do.”
Janet harrumphed in the way only Janet could harrumph and Frank smiled with delight at what he took was this, her agreement to his invitation.
That evening, they were stood huddled together in the drizzling rain that seemed to only be falling on the carpark of the King’s Head. The air was cold and the night sky murky. About half a mile away, if they stood on their tiptoes and squinted, they could see the occasional rocket whizz-banging through the gap in the trees.
Janet looked at Frank, who feeling the might of her stare hoped to neutralise it with his big, daft grin. “We can see everything from here and all without paying that ridiculous entrance fee! It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” he said.
“No Frank. No, it’s not. It’s actually pretty far from wonderful. Honestly, I don’t think the night could get any more disappointing.”
Later, eating chips with curry sauce, at the layby caff about a mile from their house, Janet felt the need to revise her opinion on how low a measure of disappointment could go.
By half past nine, they were back home and Frank was already in bed as Janet walked into the bedroom. Looking at him, he reminded her hugely of one of those hairless, fancy rats. Frank, for his part, lay there, eyes convincingly tight shut.
God, but Frank loved that she still worked, while he was a man of leisure. The period in the day when she wasn’t in the house was his best time. Whatever set of jobs he’d been left with, the order and method for their completion were still his own choices. Even so, Frank did what he could to make Janet happy and he’d arranged a great big surprise for her in the next day or so, which he was sure would make her feel just that.
As usual, he’d placed all the cuddly toys Janet would insist on putting on their bed on the white wicker chair under the window. His first present to Janet was one of these cuddlies – Mousen Brown, a once fluffy, plump, oversized mouse that doubled as a pyjama case. Mousen Brown had become a little worse for wear over the years, limp, faded fur and emitting a rather unpleasant smell. By the time Janet had arranged her pillow and switched her light out, Frank was in phase 2 of fake sleep – rhythmic, regular snoring sounds that made Janet’s blood boil.
In the morning, she’d already gone to work when Frank went down for breakfast. His usual list of chores - stuck on the fridge with the ‘Come to Skeggy –well why wouldn’t you?’ magnet – stared back at him in Janet’s bold, accusatory writing:
The dishwasher wasn’t put on.
The ironing wasn’t done.
The towels weren’t folded.
The upstairs’ bins weren’t emptied.
Sometimes, Frank questioned whether this was indeed a ‘to do’ list, or a litany of his failures. Sometimes, he questioned his purpose on this earth.
The Battle of Bobert Chunks
“Well, do you like it?” Frank asked as he handed over his phone so Janet could see the photo more easily.
“I, I don’t know what to say, if the truth be told, Frank.” Janet peered more closely at the screen and Frank felt that touch of fear he always experienced when he saw her top lip start to curl over her teeth.
“Actually”, Janet continued, “I don’t like it, I bloody loathe it!”
Frank looked crestfallen. “But I thought you’d love having your mum’s old teddy restored. Good, old Bobert Chunks restored to his former glory.”
“Former glory? Look for yourself, Frank, you can see it’s clearly not the same bear! Granted, he’d become, well, little more than a bear skin, and those glass eyes… I can hardly bear to think about them. But that chubby fizzog on the photo on your phone is no way, not in a million years, Bobert Chunks!”
Frank sighed. “I thought you’d be pleased – that you’d like the surprise.”
“Sorry to rain on your parade, but no.” Janet fell silent for a second, then gathered a second wind. “Anyway, how much have you paid for this bear resurrection… this Lazarus amongst bears?”
“Er, two hundred pounds?”
“Pardon my French, but you must be shitting me. And actually, another mystery – why a photo and not the bear itself?
“Well, the bear people emailed me and said that they have so many poorly bears in their bear hospital at the moment that Bobert has to wait until an ambulance is available to bring him home. It’s alright though, they said. He’s having a lovely time and it won’t be long before he’s back with his family.”
Up in the bedroom, Janet shuddered when she thought of Bobert Chunks – not this expensive impostor, but the original, with his cold, orange eyes. Eyes that bore into your very soul and that reminded her of nothing so much as Frank’s eyes when he thought he was on a promise after a pint or two. She looked over at the other cuddly toys Frank had already lined up on the wicker chair and for a moment, she could have sworn Mousen Brown grinned at her.
The Battle of the Foul-Mouthed Mouse
Thursday night was her late shift, but even so, Janet was surprised to see that Frank had shut up the house for the night when she got in around eight o’clock. She walked through the kitchen and into the hall, calling his name and switching the lights on; but as she was about to put on the landing light, she saw the soft, pink glow of the lamps from their bedroom shining from under the door.
Frank was sitting on the bed, fully clothed and with the addition of his stripy, butcher’s apron that he always wore to cook in. He had a glass of red wine in his right hand and Mousen Brown was plonked on his knee. Janet could see straight away, he was at least a little tipsy.
When he spoke, there was a swagger to his voice.
“So you’re back. Had a good day? I’ve been sitting here with my good friend, Mousen Brown. You know, I’ve known him for over twenty years now and over time, he’s got more and more foul mouthed. He’s got a sharp tongue on him, has Mousen. A wicked turn of phrase.”
Janet raised her eyebrows in the expression she’d always used to check anything Frank was in the middle of saying. This time, though, it didn’t seem to be stopping him as he picked up Mousen Brown and held him to his ear.
“What’s that you say, Mousen? Speak up, mate, I can hardly hear you squeak. Oh, ok. Well, I’ll relay the message.”
Despite every logical bone in her body, Janet found herself replying. “What? What did he say?”
“I don’t think you’re going to like it, but Mousen Brown says you’re a nasty fucker. Mousen Brown says we should get a divorce.”
Later that night, when she was snivelling at her sister’s, Janet was still not convinced that as she ran out of the bedroom, Mousen Brown hadn’t winked.
In their bedroom, Frank had finally gone to sleep – a smile on his face and cuddling the cuddlies. Mousen Brown had finally found his voice.