Although it is the school holidays, Tony and I are finding it difficult to get to know each other well. Really well, if you know what I mean.
Apart from Tony's family having to spend that time visiting his aunt, the one that Tony's mother says should get an Oscar for her abilities to act sick, one or the other of us always seems to have some family stuff to do.
Mind you, even if Tony and I do get time together alone in one of our rooms, somehow we feel inhibited in what we can do together, knowing at least one parent is elsewhere in the house and could walk in at any time. It would have been cringeworthy enough having to explain if Mum had caught us feeding each other those snacks Tony had brought the first day the new Indian restaurant had opened. The 'rents know we are close friends. We wouldn't want to have explain if we were caught experimenting at being boyfriends. We could do with somewhere that is our secret space, like a tree house or something. Tony says before we got together, he used to have a tree house until the branch it was built on broke off in one of last year's winter storms. Probably a good thing it happened beforehand and not when we were in it!
I am in my room, minding my own business - rubbing out my frustrations actually - when I hear Mum shout from downstairs.
"Stop doing that now! If I catch you at it again, I'll tan your hide!"
Of course I immediately feel deflated. After a few seconds the wave of guilt passes and I can think rationally once more. Yes, contrary to the 'rents opinion, I am capable of rational thought - sometimes. So I am thinking that Mum can't possibly have seen me if she is downstairs. Then I hear her again, only this time she is outside.
"Go on, get out of here, and don't come back."
One thing I am pretty sure of is that the 'rents wouldn't kick me out no matter what I had done, short of drug dealing or premeditated murder. They wouldn't tan my hide either. I cross over to my open window and lean out just in time to see Mum glaring at our back fence. She wanders up and down as if on guard duty, always staring at the fence.
I tidy myself up and go downstairs to see what has got Mum all aeriated. I meet her coming into the kitchen.
"What were you shouting about," I ask.
"That ruddy dog! It was pulling all my plants out of the tubs on the patio."
I look out of the window and can see what she means. A couple of flower pots have been knocked over and soil and plants are spread around.
"It has even made off with one," Mum says as she continues her rant. "It was my favourite too. That pretty fuchsia your dad found on the market for me, the one with the purple and white flowers."
I didn't know that is what it was called, but even I thought it was special. It had unusual markings around the petal edges.
I can tell Mum is more upset about the missing plant than annoyed about the mess. I think it is time for a calming cup of tea.
"Which dog?" I ask as put the kettle on and start getting teabags into the pot.
"That Jack Russell. It gets through the fence somewhere from the house at the back. Nasty yappy little thing it is. Last week I was hanging out the washing and it started trying to nip my heels before it pinched a pair of your dad's underpants out of the basket and ran off."
"Did you get them back?"
"Yes. They got caught on one of the bushes in front of the fence. It started worrying them to try and get them loose but let go when I got close enough to be able to boot it one."
The kettle has boiled so I pour the water into the pot. It will brew while I get the mugs out of the cupboard and the milk from the fridge.
"You didn't boot it, did you?" I ask.
"Nah. I wouldn't do a thing like that."
"I didn't think you would."
"I'd be tempted though, if it pulls another stunt like today." Mum pours the tea. "I suppose I'll have to nag your father for a month or two before he gets the fence repaired."
Dad is pretty good about doing things she asks, so I think that is a bit unfair on him — even if he does rope me in to help him these days. I look at her to see if she is serious. Her grin tells me she is only joking. I pick up on her mood.
"I know one way you can make sure he does it quickly."
"What's that?" Mum asks.
"Tell him you won't chase after the dog next time it pinches his kecks." I say as Mum picks up her mug. "Then he will have to go commando to work!"
There is a strangled splutter from Mum. She has done the nose trick. With hot tea. Painful! I take pity on her and volunteer to tidy the pots and plants on the patio.
After Dad gets home from work, we are having our evening meal when Mum gives him the good news.
"The back fence needs repairing. There's a dog coming through from the back," she says.
"And it's been nicking your underpants and Mum's plants," I add helpfully.
"How long has this been going on?" Dad asks. "I thought that house at the back was empty. I've never heard a dog there before."
"The last couple of weeks," Mum replies. "I think the house at the back must have been sold or let."
"We'll have a look at it after supper."
We? Is that the royal We? No, Dad is looking at me. I guess I have been volunteered.
We finish our meal and Dad and I go out to inspect the fence. We can see that there are gaps where some of the vertical boards have rotted away at the bottom.
"Those boards aren't very wide," says Dad. "I'm surprised a dog could get through the gaps."
"Mum said it was a yappy little thing. She thought it was a Jack Russell."
"Not a proper dog then."
"What do you mean? Not a proper dog."
Dad starts to chuckle.
"Any self-respecting dog should be bigger than a cat. Jack Russells are borderline."
"Is that why little dogs are so yappy?" I ask. "Because they think they have something to prove?"
"You're probably right there, lad. You never see a Lab barking its crust off just for the sake of it."
Dad has another look at the fence.
"I don't think it's our fence," he says, using his teaching mode voice. "See how there aren't any posts supporting the fence this side. The convention is that the posts should be on the owner's side."
"So what can we do about that?"
"We could ask the people behind to repair it, but if they are only tenants they won't be bothered. We would have to find out who the owner is and get them to do it, but it could still be ages before it gets done."
"So what happens in the meantime? What if it nicks your kecks again?"
"I'll borrow a pair of yours!"
"Not so much of the 'eew gross'," says Dad as he gives me a playful cuff up the back of my head. "I'll only pinch clean ones - if you have any - and Mum will wash 'em before you get them back.
Dad goes into thinking mode, rubbing his chin.
"What we can do," he says, "is make some gravel boards to attach to the bottom of the fence to cover the holes. I think there is some scrap timber at work that might do. I'll have a look tomorrow. In the meantime do you think you could tidy the shed please, so that we can store the stuff in there until we get around to doing the job?"
I was expecting to be volunteered, so I accept my task gracefully even though it means I probably won't get to spend time with Tony tomorrow.
"Okay, I'll do it after lunch. I've got my lesson with Mrs P at the corner shop in the morning."
"I'd forgotten about that," Dad says. "How's it going?"
"She's pretty demanding as a teacher, but it's fine. She usually has me help prepare the family's meal. Raj and Nav, from school, say I must be doing all right as I haven't poisoned them yet."
It is only a little shed so it doesn't take me long to tidy it. However, although it looks neat and tidy with everything in its place so we can find it when we want it instead of having to hunt around, there still isn't going to be room to store the amount of timber we are going to need to do the fence. The only other place to put the wood is in the garage, but, guess what? I have to tidy that as well just to make some room.
By the time Dad gets home there is room to move in the garage and I have a heap of stuff, signed off by Mum, to go to the tip or recycle. Of course there is another pile that needs to be reviewed by Dad before being stacked away or added to heap to go to the dump.
When I hear Dad's car arrive I go out to open the garage door. He sees me as he gets out of the car.
"There you are, lad. Will you help me get this timber unloaded and stored away, please?"
"Nope!" I reply. Although I am grinning, Dad is all flustered. If I don't want to do something I usually moan 'Aw, Dad, do I have to' or some such. My flat out refusal has caught him off guard.
"Not until you come with me and decide what you want to do with this stuff I have found when I tidied the garage." I know if I don't make him look at it and make a decision now, it will never happen. It will all get piled back in the corner and forgotten about.
"I thought you were going to sort out the shed so we could put the timber in there?" he asks.
"I did sort it, but there still isn't room, so I had to do the garage as well." I lead him over to the garage. I can tell he is impressed by my efforts. We start to work through the pile of potential junk. I hold one item up, thinking there might be a story attached. It is a canvas bag with some poles and something made of cloth and plastic rolled up tightly.
"What's this, Dad? It looks like it's a tent. When did you go camping?"
He gets a wistful look on his face.
"It's a tent, alright. Your mum and I used to go camping quite a lot. Money was tight when we first got together; it still is if truth be told, and it meant we could have more time away for the same money."
"When was the last time you used it?"
"Before you were born, lad. Camping's no fun with a bairn." Dad starts to chuckle. "Not sure you weren't conceived in it, mind!"
"Do you think it will still be any good?" I ask, moving on quickly to try to get that last thought out of my mind.
"No idea. The only way to find out is to put it up."
"Will you show me how to do it sometime, please?"
"I will if you want, but it's not difficult. I'm sure you will be able to work it out."
I put the tent to one side and we finish sorting out the junk, then unload the car, by which time Mum has our meal ready.
"Thanks for doing the garage and the shed, lad," Dad says as we all crash out in front of the telly after the meal.
The next Saturday morning, Dad takes me to the d-i-y store to get some bags of gravel. He says it's for putting on the soil below the fence to make a free draining layer to sit the new boards on. If we put them so they are directly touching the soil they will always be damp and will rot quickly.
It takes us all afternoon to lay the gravel and cut and fit the boards. I feel as though I am covered in scratches and bruises from fighting with the bushes in front of the fence. Yes, being the smallest, I got volunteered to do the more inaccessible bits.
Sunday is another of those days where family stuff intrudes. We have to go and see Mum's sister, my Aunt Doris. I did ask Dad if I could stay at home this time. He said yes, but only if I took turns with him. Tempting, but in the end we both agree neither of us could manage the visits without the other's support.
So Monday is the next day that Tony and I are able to get together. We meet up in the park and kick my football around for most of the morning as I don't have a cooking lesson with Mrs P on Mondays. When we have had enough exercise, Tony and I go back to my house and up to my room. I swap the shorts I have been using for football for an old pair of cut-downs. They are well worn which means they are comfortable, but they won't last me much longer if I have a growth spurt.
Of course Tony is closely watching me — engrossed is probably the word. I am slower getting changed than usual, not because I am deliberately putting on a show for Tony, but because the cut-downs have button flies. They take much longer to do up than a zip.
"Where did you get those old things from?" he asks when I finish my floor show by doing up the last button.
"They're a pair of old jeans, cut down."
"Yeah, but button flies? Who makes those these days? Are you sure they weren't an old pair of your dad's?"
I flick him a two fingered hand signal, then notice he has that cute look he gets when he is thinking.
"They do slow things down," he muses. "Could be fun undoing those buttons."
I am about to suggest he tries when we hear Mum coming up the stairs. She brings me some clean laundry and tells us that she has made a lunchtime snack for us.
Over lunch I am thinking about mum nearly walking in on us, and how we could do with a more private space. Tony, meanwhile, is looking out through the kitchen window.
"What happened to the tubs on the patio?" he asks. "That nice fuchsia you had is missing."
I should have known he would know the name of the plant; he's smart like that. Mind you, his dad is a keen gardener. I tell him about the dog and repairing the fence. That reminds me about tidying the garage and the tent. I have an idea — I do get them occasionally — maybe the tent could be our space away from prying eyes.
I mention finding the tent to Tony, and as it is still a nice day, suggest we try to set it up and see if it is still useable. I fetch the bag and take it to the back of the garden as far from the house as possible, which means we are near the back fence. Tony makes me unpack the bag and lay everything out so that we can see what there is.
"Not a modern tent, is it?" he says. "But it looks as though all the bits are there, and it should be easy enough to put up."
"How do you know all about tents?"
"Didn't I tell you? I'm in Scouts. We go camping every so often. You should join. It's fun."
He sounds keen but I am not sure about the Scouts, so I mutter something non-committal about thinking about it. I get the feeling we will have an argument about it at some time. Hopefully we will be able to agree to differ and not fall out over it. I change the subject by suggesting we erect the tent with the flap facing the fence. That way nobody in the house can look in to see what we are doing.
We succeed in putting the tent up and clamber in. Tony insists we take our shoes off so that we don't damage the sewn-in groundsheet or get mud everywhere. There was a camping mat with a pale chequered cover in the bag as well, and we don't want to get that dirty. We have just got our shoes stacked in a corner when we hear a loud voice in the garden on the other side of the fence.
"Fetch, Rupie, fetch," followed by the yapping of a dog and the sound of a tennis ball hitting the ground.
"Bring it. Here boy!" Then moments later, "Leave! leave it!"
The yapping and the bring and leave commands are repeated for several minutes, although the commands seem to get more frantic each time. Eventually we hear a change in the script.
"If you're not going to bring the fucking thing back, I'm not going throw it for you. I'm going in."
We've learnt something — no, we knew the f-word already — the dog must be called Rupie. What a name for a dog. Tony says its Sunday name must be Rupert. That's even worse.
Although Tony tells me it is supposed to be a two-man tent, it is not very big. To me it seems just about big enough for the two of us. Two adults would be a squash. Because it is small and it is a warm day, it starts to get hot in the tent, so we take our shirts off. Well, that is our excuse if anyone asks, but actually Tony was helping me take my shirt off and I was helping him take his off, one button at a time! We chuck the shirts in a heap at our feet by the tent door.
Now we finally have the opportunity we let our hands explore the other's bare torso, front and back, occasionally pulling together to rub chest to chest. Tony moves his hand and starts undoing my shorts. "Hurry up," I say, as he fumbles with the buttons and things get pressing. I sigh in relief when the last button is undone.
I am expecting a hand to start investigating, but I can feel something brushing my feet.
"Stop tickling my feet," I giggle.
I look down at my feet in time to see my shirt disappearing out of the tent door.
"Oi, come back with that shirt," I shout, not expecting to be obeyed. In fact all I am really thinking of is, if it is Mum playing one of her tricks, we must be so busted.
Tony is quicker off the mark than me and I can hear him chasing round the garden as I am doing up the buttons of my shorts. I am still fumbling with the last one as I climb out of the tent.
I look around and see Tony has managed to grab one end of my shirt and is now playing tug-o'-war with Rupie who is emitting a grumbling growl. As Tony keeps its attention, I circle round behind the dog.
"Leave it!" I shout when I have got as close as I can without giving away the advantage of surprise. The dog twists itself to see where I am. Yes, I am near enough to boot it up the arse if I have to. Presumably deciding two onto one isn't fair, it lets go of my shirt and heads for the fence.
When Tony and I have put our shirts back on, we go and inspect the fence to see how the dog has got in after Dad and I were supposed to have repaired it. We find a hole in the ground where it has dug under our new boards.
"You'll have to get some chicken wire," Tony says. "Dig a trench so that you can put about half the width underground. Like a rabbit-proof fence."
I found a roll of chicken wire when I was sorting out the shed, but I won't mention it, at least not before I have had a second opinion off Dad. To do the whole fence sounds like hard work and I don't want Tony to feel he has been volunteered.
There were a few spare boards with which we cover the hole as a temporary repair. I rescue the plastic bags that held the gravel from the pile to go to the tip and we use them as a damp-proof layer.
When we have finished the repair, we go back in the tent but don't pick up where we were interrupted. It will soon be time for Tony to go home. We do talk about it though.
"... and I was scared Mum had come to find out what we were up to and was playing one of her tricks."
"No kidding," says Tony. "I was so relieved it turned out to be the dog."
"Me, too. I'm almost prepared to forgive it for burrowing under the fence."
"Hi, lads, I see you've got the old tent up." Oops, that's Dad. We hadn't heard him come home. How much of our conversation has he overheard? It's about four seconds before he pops his head into the tent.
"I just came to tell you there's a thunderstorm on the way. I drove through it on the way home."
We climb out of the tent. He's right. The sky had gone dark as the black clouds have rolled in.
"Do you think we should take the tent down?" Tony asks.
"No, leave it up," Dad replies. "That way you will find out if it is still waterproof. And if you're going home, Tony, I suggest you run now or you will get drenched. I reckon you've got about five minutes before it hits." He turns and goes back to the house.
Tony says goodbye and dashes off. I close up the tent and then check I have closed the garage door after doing the fence repair. As I walk back into the house, I catch the parents in conversation.
"... his shorts as he got out of the tent," Mum says.
"I think we can do the sums. Two plus two," adds Dad.
"If we work at it I'm sure we can make it five!" Mum cackles, and Dad grins.
There is a flash and a roll of thunder as the storm hits.
The next day I have finished my lesson with Mrs P and I am having a chat with Raj and Nav in the shop before I head home. A man, about twenty-four and wearing smart, green, two-piece overalls, comes in while we are talking.
"Hi, Uncle Amir," says Raj, taking the man's offered hand. "We don't see you very often. What brings you out here?"
The man acknowledges Raj and Nav before explaining his visit.
"I was hoping to see your dad. I've been working on a garden for someone in the next town and I've got some part trays of plants left. I haven't got any jobs coming up where they would be suitable. I was wondering if he could sell them in the shop. Seems a pity for them to go to waste."
"Won't any of the family nearer you take them?" asks Raj, letting go of his uncle's hand.
"Too much competition around. Anyway, you know that lot don't talk to me, like they won't talk to the uncles that you set up in the restaurant."
"Okay, let's go see what you've got."
Being nosey, I go out with Raj and his uncle to see what plants he has. Maybe there is something I can buy for Mum to replace the plant the dog took. Raj and his uncle switch to Urdu as they talk business. One way of making sure I don't know the mark up! I offer to help stack the trays of plants in front of the shop. That way I get to see what there is and get first choice. There are some fuchsias exactly like the one taken by the dog. I pick a few plants, including one of the fuchsias and agree a price with Raj.
As I am walking home through the park, I meet Mrs O'Reilly, the art teacher, near the gate to the school playing field. She has Merkin, the school's black cat, riding on her shoulder. The cat is giving me an eager look. It puts me on the defensive. I've had a run in with her before. Nearly took my hand off when I tried to stroke her.
"They look nice plants," Mrs O'Reilly says after our initial greetings. "Where did you get them?"
"At the corner shop. Where Raj and Naveem live."
The cat is looking down at the plants I am holding.
"That fuchsia is very pretty."
I agree and then explain why I have bought it, including telling how the dog has burrowed under the fence after we repaired it.
"They can be a nuisance, dogs that get into that habit. Putting in a rabbit-proof fence would be a lot of work. Sounds more like a job for Barabbas, don't you think Merkin?"
The cat gives a little mew as if she is agreeing but is still concentrating on my plants.
"Doh. What's up with her today?" says the teacher. "What are the other two you've got?"
"It says 'nepeta' on the labels. I thought they would look nice in the front of the border that is in front of the back fence."
"Ah, nepeta, more commonly known as catmint. No wonder Merkin is being a pain straining to get at it. Do you think you could put it down and let her have a fix, please?"
I do as asked, wondering about the teacher's choice of words. I find out when the cat jumps down, sniffs the plants then goes into some sort of ecstasy for the next five minutes, alternately rolling on her back and bouncing around doing an imitation of a gazelle pronking.
"Sorry about that," says Mrs O'Reilly. "But catnip has that effect on some cats and they can't get enough of it. Merkin is one of them. I hope you don't mind."
When the cat has finished its silly session, she picks it up and puts it back on her shoulder.
"She isn't usually as crazy as that. In fact it has a calming influence on her if she is a bit anxious," she says as I pick up the plants. "Anyway, we'll get Barabbas on the case for you. Enjoy the rest of your holiday."
I wish her the same and we part company. As I resume walking home I am thinking she really is a bit odd, even for an art teacher. And who's Barabbas?
After lunch, I plant the catmints in the border and the fuchsia in the pot to replace the missing one. I have put the tools away and tidied up when Tony comes round.
"Did you make it home last night before the storm?" I ask.
"Almost. I ran all the way, like your dad said, but the rain started as I got to the end of my road. I was soaked by the time I got through the front door. I had to put my clothes in the dryer. How did the tent hold up?"
"I don't know. I haven't looked."
We walk across to the tent and open the flap and look inside. The camping mat is floating on a pool of water on the floor of the tent. It was definitely heavy rain last night.
"That's not good, is it?" I ask.
"You could try getting it reproofed," Tony replies. "But it's probably not worth it. It never seems to work very well."
"The tent seemed a good idea at the time. With hindsight, I'm not so sure. Okay, nobody could see what we were up to inside, but they could hear — a tent isn't soundproof — I think Dad must have heard us when we were talking."
I tell Tony about the parents adding two and two and getting five.
"Oh! Did they say anything?" he asks.
"That's all right then. If they've guessed about us and it worried them they would have said something. That means they haven't guessed or, better still, have but aren't worried."
We pull the mat out of the tent and hang it over the washing ling to dry out. Then we start dismantling the tent so that we can empty the water out and let it dry, too. As we work, we glimpse, through the bushes, a large grey tabby cat wandering along the line of the fence. It comes forward and wipes its face on each of the two catnips that I have just planted. We are occupied with the tent and so I couldn't have chased it off even if I wanted to. There is none of Merkin's craziness — just a contented look and a gentle roll next to each plant before it gets up, walks over to the fence and lies in a sunny spot on the boards we put down yesterday. It looks an old soldier with bits missing out of its ears and a kink in its tail. We can see it is a tom too, when it holds its tail up.
"Are they new, those plants the cat was rubbing itself on?" asks Tony.
"Yeah. When I was at the shop this morning, one of Raj's uncles..."
"Yet another uncle!" Tony interrupts.
"One of Raj's uncles who has a gardening business came in and asked if they would sell some spare plants he had. Those two —" I nodded at the new plants "— are catmints and I got a fuchsia the same as the one the dog stole so I'm in Mum's good books — for now."
"Catmints are they? Supposed to make cats go crazy, like they are on acid. It didn't seem to bother that one over there." Tony tips his head in the direction of the cat by the fence.
"According to Mrs O'Reilly, it only affects some cats."
"When did she tell you that?"
"I bumped into her in the park on the way back from the shop this morning. She had Merkin with her. You should have seen her. She was certainly tripping on the stuff.
"Mrs O also asked about the fuchsia, so I told her about the dog pinching it and burrowing under the fence. She is a strange one. Told me not to bother with burying the chicken wire, she would send Barabbas round. Who's Barabbas?"
We finish sorting out the wet tent and I am about to suggest we go to my room for a bit, when we see the cat stand up, stretch and move about two metres from the fence and sit staring at the ground near where the hole is, under the fence. We keep quiet, and listening carefully, we can hear a slight scrabbling sound. The piece of ground that is the object of the cat's attention gives way and the head of the Jack Russell appears. It has dug another escape tunnel.
The dog hauls itself out of the hole, sees the cat and starts barking and bouncing on is front paws, presumably trying to get the cat to run away so that it can chase it. The cat just sits there, staring at the dog.
Instead of a direct attack the dog continues to goad the cat, but it is not long before it makes a mistake and gets too close. The cat lifts a paw and smacks the dog across its nose.
"That was a real haymaker!" whispers Tony.
The dog has obviously never heard the expression 'discretion is the better part of valour' and now does make an attack. The cat sits up on its tail and using both paws starts to treat the dog as a punch bag . Judging by the yelping from the dog, this time the cat has its claws out. The dog finally gets the message and, still yelping, retreats through the hole at maximum speed.
The cat nonchalantly washes its paws and face before walking to the fence, reversing up to it and spraying it. It repeats the action in a couple more places along the fence. Mum must have heard the shemozzle and has come to investigate.
"What's that cat doing spraying the fence? Why haven't you chased it off?"
Tony is quicker on the uptake than me and has worked it out.
"That's Barabbas," he tells Mum, "and he has just sorted out the dog next door for you. He's leaving his scent on the fence as a reminder for the dog not to come back."
We don't see Rupie again and there are new tenants in the house at the back by the time we go back to school for the new year. Yes, I do remember to thank Mrs O'Reilly and Merkin for Barabbas' services. Just occasionally he visits for ten minutes to roll on our catnip plants.
© Pedro, March 2020, All righst reserved
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