His unsavoury remark suggested extermination of the infirm, ‘sieving the grain from the chaff’ as he put it. He mentioned it quite casually, between boasting about his latest catches and pulling his wire-haired dachshund back to the driver’s cab. Later, still pushing Jimmy’s buggy down the road, Sarah wondered why only the old. Maybe Bregson just didn’t have time and confidence enough to mention the whole stock, from the residents of funny farms to patients wearing callipers, or whoever else he included in his list. The usual walk got protracted today thanks to too many gushing neighbours lurking behind every corner ready to surround her like vultures – Mrs Wilson ready to borrow her an ancient cookery tome,  Mrs Cox collecting money for a new silver salver for the parish and now the local Hitler. Not to mention virtually hundreds of semi-strangers inquiring about Fiona’s adenoids. ‘Everyone seeking solitude should stay in town.’ Sarah thought ‘It is there where you really feel as if you lived on an out-of-the-way farm, where you can just close the door and not expect anyone knocking in weeks’.

When she finally reached the fens the bracing wind let her forget the nosy villagers, even forget the morning skirmish between Oliver and Charlotte, this time over his shoving her slingbacks under the rush matting, to which Ollie, having Jimmy as the only eye witness, wouldn’t admit. The house was still a ten-minute walk away and these ten minutes, Sarah decided, were to be exclusively hers, unless Jimmy wakes up of course.

*     *    *

The kitchen was empty. There was only Ian sitting quietly at the table, his all attention taken by his new dot-to-dot book. A Barbi doll dressed in a sloppy handmade outfit of gauze and doilies lay beside him.

‘Where are the monsters?’ asked Sarah gently removing her baby son from his buggy. He was still asleep.

‘Charlotte stripped the currants and scraped the carrots and then took Ollie’s bicycle. He is now chasing her. In bare feet.’ answered Ian imperturbably. A portcullis started to emerge on his picture and a vision of a castle in his mind was not for a while replaced with that of his older brother chilled to the marrow somewhere in the fields.

Sarah sighed and put Jimmy into the nearby armchair. She was stacking plates in the dishwasher when the older monster appeared at the footstep breathing loudly.

‘I’ve got it, got it, and who’s the boss now? Oh, mum, hi, have any fondants for me? I’d kill for a fondant.’ He opened the fridge and grasped a plastic envelope of smoked salmon. ’May I have this as well?’

‘No sweets I’m afraid but the salmon won’t keep till tomorrow so we are only too delighted for you to have it dear.’ said Sarah in an expressly elaborated voice. ‘Where is your beloved sister?’

‘My beloved sister is in hospital recovering from having her adenoids removed.’ Oliver picked up her literary tone. ‘As to the abhorrent creature I do not sincerely believe to have any biological connection with me, I left it in the barn. Blubbing.’

‘Go and bring her right now, won’t you.’ ordered Sarah, ‘I’m going to make you my slaves today, at my beck and call. Now!’

*     *     *


‘What a bumf’ Ollie slap his notebook shut. ‘Mum, can I have a banana please? A speckly one.’

‘There are only smooth left’ said Sarah. Bananas always reminded her of aunt Lucinda, the previous owner of their new house. ‘Cut the bananas up, won’t you’ were the very first words astonished Sarah heard from her while visiting the place for the first time. ‘Old bossy boots.’ Sarah thought. No one wants to put the dead in an unsavoury light, but that is just what aunt Lucinda was. Always on the jump and trying to keep her surroundings in an apple-pie order, usually by ordering people around in such a natural way that you didn’t actually felt like being ordered around, not until you got so tired that you couldn’t see straight. Timothy, her only nephew and Sarah’s husband, was simply putty in her hands. She might have liked it. But they didn’t expect the old lady’s liking to influence her so much and her decision to make Tim her only heir came as a great surprise to the couple, a surprise equal to that of Jimmy, despite a convincing prenatal photograph, turning out to be a boy. Aunt Lucinda drew her will the very same day her doctor told her that her brain turmoil was not a benign one. She died two months later, as a kind of a cruel exchange for the two-week old James. It was in March. The following months were spent redecorating the cottage and selling their semi, and the family finally moved in September, just in time before the beginning of the academic year three weeks ago. Not for a moment did they considered selling their  new propriety. The reason for that was simple – with five small children every extra room was a blessing.

‘If I could choose whatever I wanted for Christmas’, Ollie wished aloud chewing his banana. ‘I’d like Mrs Rotskin to strike it rich and give up  teaching.’ Mrs Rodskin was a finicky buxom woman who wore diaphanous iridescent made-to-measure robes and taught humanities. A seemingly  unfulfilled hippie, she now told her ten-year-old pupils to write an essay titled ‘My soul in an alienated society’. Oliver’s only association with the topic so far was ‘Men in black’ and its vision of modern American society studded with undercover E.T.’s.

‘Fat chance.’ hissed Charlotte plumping a cushion. ‘She wouldn’t hand in her notice.‘

‘I want a drawbridge.’ announced Ian.

I wish I had a musical box.’ said Fiona slowly, pleased as Punch to be able to take part in family conversations after a week of silence. ‘Or a private clotheser.’ She added thinking about her shoe-lace problems.

‘You mean a dresser?’ asked Sarah.

‘So there is a job like that?’ Fiona was happy to hear that someone else needed such a helper.

‘A dresser works in a theatre. We saw one at work in a theatre in Stradford.’ Oliver was always eager to enlighten his siblings.


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