“I just don’t get it, our Archie.” Grandma sat on his bed watching him look through the instructions for the stars. “You dad – or your mum for that matter – could have got these a lot easier than me. And they’d have had more idea about exactly what was needed.”
“They wouldn’t have had time, Grandma. And they wouldn’t have bothered to talk to the man in the shop for so long about them.” Archie’s ear buzzed just a little bit.
“I’ll give you that. He was really helpful.” Grandma rummaged in her handbag. “Now where is it? Oh here you are. He said you can look these up on your computer. It will help you to get them exactly right.”
“Oh great.” The buzzing stopped as Archie looked at the list of web addresses. He really did want the stars on his ceiling again. And these links would help him to get them exactly right. He was going to make the pattern of the sky above West Bromwich the day Amanda was born.
“Yes. All right. It’s no good asking me about any frigging stars. What’s really up?”
Archie took a deep breath. It was no good trying to keep anything from Grandma. He couldn’t look her in the eye though. “I wondered, Grandma, whether you’d talk to Amanda for me.” He could feel his cheeks burning.
“I wish you wouldn’t mumble. Look at me when you’re talking. You’re rude, you know. No wonder she finished with you.”
Archie looked up at his Grandma. She was leaning forward again on her stick. That was always a sure sign that she meant business. “The answer’s no. You’ve got to sort that out for yourself.”
“Oh, go on, Grandma, please.”
“No. You’ve got to prove that you’re worth it. You need to stop fibbin’. Then show her what you really think of her. And I don’t mean any of that funny stuff, you know.” She prodded his crotch with her stick.
“Grandma!” It really hurt. Why didn’t women realise how sensitive men were down there?
“Learn how to be truthful while you’re stuck at home. Then go and see her when you’re allowed out again. Take her some flowers and some chocolates. Be nice to her. And respect her.”
“But Grandma, I love her.” Bloody hell, where did that come from? “And I’m scared she’ll go out with Toby Johnson.”
Grandma’s face softened a little. She sighed. “I don’t know. Young love. Well, you know, you win some, you lose some. You’ve got time Archie. And maybe you’ve learnt your lesson now. You’ll be more careful with the next one.” She stood up. “Well, I’m going to have a cuppa with your mum. Have fun with them stars. And think about what I’ve said. Tara for now.”
“Thanks, Grandma.” He watched his grandmother shuffle out of his room. She turned just as she was about to close the door. “You might get lucky. I got the impression she thought a lot of you an’ all. But don’t bank on it.”
Archie sighed. He hoped his grandma was right. Should he phone Amanda? No. better not. He didn’t think he could bear it if she didn’t pick up.
He opened the packet of stars and read the instructions about how to use them. It looked dead simple. Finger to star, then star to celling. Press. He’d need the ladder of course to get them that far up. Apparently they’d last for sixteen hours if they were charged for at least eight. Even electric light would do. Cool!
It would be hard getting the pattern right, though. He had a quick look at the web sites the man had given his grandmother. The closest he got was the month Amanda was born over the middle of England. That would have to do. He printed off an oblong version of the sky map he needed and began working out the distances he’d need between the stars on the ceiling. He began to get some idea of why Mr Toddle, his maths teacher, was always banging on about how important his subject was for solving everyday problems.
Well, Toddles, you’d be proud of me, he thought as he worked out the final measurement and wrote it down on the line between a super-bright star and a micro star.
“Can I take the step-ladder?” Archie actually meant could he get past, because his dad was in the way. He was doing something to the car engine and he was between the ladder and Archie.
“I don’t see why not,” said Mr Raybald. “But what do you want it for?”
“I’m putting the stars on my ceiling.”
“Oh right. Thought you’d grown out of that.”
“No. Can I get by?”
“Do you want a hand? I can help you work out where to put them.”
“I’ve got it covered, Dad.”
“You’re in my way, Dad.”
“Come on, then, I may as well help you. I can’t fix this myself. I’ll have to take her down Alf’s. It’ll be a bit festive, anyway. Putting stars on the ceiling.”
Mr Raybald huffed and puffed the step-ladder up the stairs.
I wish he’d leave me alone, thought Archie.
In the end though it worked quite well. Archie told his dad where to stick the stars, and Mr Raybald moved the ladder and went up and down it.
“There, then, is that what you wanted?” said Mr Raybald as he stuck the last of the smaller stars into place.
“I think so,” said Archie. “I won’t be able to tell until it’s dark.”
“Archie! Raymond! Supper’s ready.”
“She who must be obeyed,” mouthed Dad. “Come on. We’d better go.”
Bloody hell, thought Archie. She’s got him sorted. I wouldn’t let any woman boss me about like that. Not even Amanda. “Thanks for your help, Dad.” His ear tingled just a little. So, he must avoid even those sorts of lies, then.
It was dark by the time he’d finished supper and got back up to his room. It had been light when they’d started and he’d left his light on while they’d eaten. He flicked the switch up. Yes! They were charged up enough. It was really convincing. The ceiling looked just like the night sky.
Archie lay on the bed and stared at his work of art. Just to think, fifteen years ago, when the sky looked a bit like that, the most wonderful woman in the world was born. Oh, just think what it would be like to lie with her, both of them starkers, on a warm summer night, beneath a sky like that. And what he would do to her.
He sighed. “Amanda,” he whispered as he slipped his hand into his underpants. He was already swelling and he knew he could make himself come pretty quickly. “Amanda, Amanda.”
“What the bloody hell have you been doing in here, Archie? It stinks to high heaven. It smells as if you’ve peed yourself or something.”
“Mum, what do you want to wake me up this early for?” It was Sunday and it wasn’t even properly light yet.
“Your grandma’s coming for lunch and I want to get the washing out the way before she gets here. You know what she’s like – always complains if she catches me doing housework on a Sunday.” She sniffed. “You have haven’t you? You dirty little bugger.”
“I’ll go and get this lot on, shall I?” Archie scooped up the pants he’d been wearing the day before along with some other underwear and T-shirts that were lying on the floor.
“I want to change your bed as well,” said Mum.
“It’s all right. I’ll see to it in a minute. You go and get on, if you want.”
“Oh, your stars are still glowing. Pretty ain’t they?”
“Yeah. Great. I thought you’d got to do stuff in the kitchen?” He really didn’t want his mum looking too closely at his dirty washing or his bed-clothes. He started to leave the room.
She turned to follow him. “Have you apologised to Mr Benson and Mr Chivers yet?”
“I keep trying, only I can’t get through.” His ear started to tingle.
“Well, I tried once and they didn’t answer. Then I didn’t bother again. I’m dreading it, Mum.” His hearing cleared.
“Well, you’ve got to do it. Otherwise your dad’ll keep you in after Christmas and all. Why don’t you try now? It’ll be quiet on a Sunday morning.”
“Okay. I’ll do it after I’ve got all this washing sorted out.” He really didn’t want her seeing the evidence of what he’d been doing. It would be so embarrassing.
“And then you can tidy this tip up. It’s a good job that Amanda can’t come round. I don’t know what she’d think of this.”
“She won’t be coming, Mum. We split up.”
“Oh.” Mrs Raybald sighed. “Just as well, I suppose.”
You would think that. Archie bounded down the stairs before his mother could see the tears forming in his eyes.
He got the first lot of washing loaded into the machine. Then he dashed back upstairs and removed the sheets, took them down to the utility room, ran the tap over the sticky patch and scrubbed at it hard. Then he scrunched the sheets up so that if his mum put the next load of washing on she wouldn’t notice the damp patch.
I bet I smell of it as well, he thought, and rushed back upstairs into his ensuite. He stayed under the hot water for ten minutes, then, after he’d dried himself, he sprayed deodorant under his arms and all over his torso. He grabbed some clean underwear, a clean T-short and socks and pulled them on along with his second-best chinos.
“Oh you smell like a nancy-boy,” said his mum when he went into the kitchen. “Still I suppose it’s better than before. I don’t know what you get up to in that room.”
“Can I have toast for breakfast?” he asked before his mum started to guess.
She frowned at him. “Have you made those phone calls yet?”
Archie shook his head.
“Well, you go and do it. You can use the landline. Go in the lounge. Your father’s gone out. You can have some peace and quiet. I’ll get you some toast and tea ready for when you’ve done.”
She was right. It was nice and peaceful in the lounge. Maybe he could pretend he’d made the calls or that he’d tried and not got through. His ear began to warn him.
He punched the number for Freddie’s on to the key pad. The phone at the other end rang nine times. One more, thought Archie, then I give up.
Chuffy picked up after the tenth ring. “Hello? What do you want?”
Oh, so we haven’t learnt anymore manners have we? “Good morning Chuff – Mr Chivers. It’s Archibald Raybald here. You know, I’m one of Frederick Benson junior’s friends. I’m phoning to say sorry for being there when the fire alarm went off and for being cheeky and for drinking beer in the club when I’m too young. I’m very sorry.”
“Are you taking the piss?”
“No, Mr Chuff – Chivers. I’m genuinely apologising.”
“All right then. Anyhow, you won’t be coming here no more. Not even young Master Benson’s allowed in here nowadays. Good job and all. You young’ uns are nothing but trouble. Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us have work to do.”
“One moment, my good sir,” said Archie. He had to bite his lip to stop himself from giggling.
“I wish you’d cut the crap with the lardy-dah voice.”
“Is Mr Frederick Benson senior there and if he is may I speak with him?”
“He is. But I don’t know whether he’ll want to talk to the likes of you!”
“Be a good chap and go and see, won’t you?”
“If you don’t speak properly to me, young man, I’ll put the phone down.”
“Please, Chuffy,” said Archie in his normal voice.
“All right. Hang on.” There was a lot of shuffling, clicking and whirring.
“Well, young Raybald, what can I do for you? Be sharp about it. ”
Archie took a deep breath. “I’ve phoned to say I’m sorry.”
“You do know I could have lost my license? And that I had to pay the fire people a fine?”
“I know. I’m really sorry.” It wasn’t just me, though.
“Well, Red has to help pay it off by working for me for free and that mate of yours, Ollie Powell, is helping me now as well. Do you think your dad’ll let you come here and do a bit of work for me? He has grounded you, hasn’t he?”
“Yes, he has. I’ll ask him and let you know.” At least that way he would get out a bit and he’d get to see Ollie and Red.
“Okay, then. Apology accepted. But I don’t want to see you at my club again, unless it’s to help with cleaning, until you’ve grown up a bit and you’re old enough to be there. Got it?”
“Yes, Mr Benson. Thank you.”
Mr Benson ended the call.
Archie ambled into the kitchen.
“All done?” Mrs Raybald switched on the kettle and put two slices of bread into the toaster.
“You weren’t cheeky, were you?”
“Of course not!” His ear tingled. “Well, a bit. Just to Mr Chivers. Well, he’s such a loser, Mum.”
“But did you say you were sorry to him?”
The kettle boiled and the toast jumped out of the toaster.
“Okay. Honey or marmite?”
“One of each, please.”
“Oh, I’ve got a nice surprise for you today,” said Chuffy. “Somebody’s puked in there good and proper. Thought you’d appreciate me leaving it for you. ”
Doing shifts at Freddie’s had not worked out exactly the way Archie had hoped. He was never rostered on the same time as Red or Ollie. Fred Benson wasn’t daft. Chuffy always made sure cleaning the gents’ was on his list of things for Archie to do. Still, it was good to get out of the house and he always had a bit of fun winding Chuffy up.
Mind you today it was a bit over the top. It was always a bit iffy in there but this time it was so bad Archie thought he might puke himself.
“You get on with that, me lad. When you’ve done, you can stop and have a cup of tea. Just come up when you’re ready.”
Blimey, Chuffy was being quite generous today. Perhaps it was because Archie had threatened last time that he was going report Chuffy to the council for using children as slave labour.
“We ain’t in the Victorian times now,” he’d said. “You can’t send kids up chimneys anymore. And there’s only a certain number of hours you can make us work every week. You’m breaking the law, you am. You and Mr Benson.”
But Chuffy still wasn’t giving in completely. There was nothing for it than to get on with the job. Archie tried to ignore the fact that it was a stranger’s vomit he was cleaning up. He mopped the floor twice, cleaned all the lavatory pans and the urinals with the lavatory brush, put disinfectant down, shone the taps up, put more liquid soap in the dispensers and made sure there was enough paper in all of the cubicles. The place sparkled by the time he’d finished.
“Shall I do the windows?” he shouted upstairs to Chuffy.
“No, come and get your tea. You’ve got a visitor.”
This had got to be a first. Chuffy was actually being nice.
Archie washed his hands, taking care to leave the washbasin as clean as he’d just made it. It’s never-ending, he thought.
“Come on,” called Chuffy. “Your tea’s getting cold and your visitor’s getting impatient.”
He found Chuffy sitting in the bar at one for the small tables, three mugs of tea and a plate of chocolate digestives in front of him. Next to him sat Foxy Burnett. What the hell did he want?
“How you doing, Archie?” said Foxy. “I hear you’ve been doing some work for Chuffy here and Mr Benson. Good on you lad.”
For once Foxy actually looked quite clean. He’d had his hair cut and he’d had a shave. He was wearing a decent pair of trousers and a smart shirt.
“I’m only doing it because they made me,” mumbled Archie.
“Well never mind that. Chuffy says you’re doing a good job.”
Did he? That was news to him.
“I bet you’re your grandma’ll be pleased. I understand she’s very house-proud.” Foxy was fiddling about in a bag he’d brought. He fished out a parcel wrapped in expensive-looking Christmas paper. It had a huge red bow stuck to it. “Will you give this to her on Christmas day? Put it under your tree? They’re Marks and Sparks best shortbread. She does like shortbread, doesn’t she? She is coming to yours for Christmas, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” said Archie.
“Finish your tea,” said Chuffy. “Then you can bugger off home. Early. As long as you promise me you’ll put in a good word for my mate Foxy with your grandma. You can do that, can’t you?”
“I guess,” said Archie. The buzzing in his ear became unbearable straight away. No way would he help Foxy get together with his grandma. Even though he’d cleaned himself up he was still disgusting. Especially because he thought about her like that.
“Well, don’t forget this,” said Foxy, shoving the parcel into a plastic bag and thrusting it in to Archie’s hands. “Don’t let her see it until Christmas day. It’s supposed to be a surprise.”
I should have told him to get stuffed, thought Archie as he hurried home. His ear was really hurting now. He’d had enough of this. From now on he was going to tell the truth. Even if it got him into even more trouble than telling fibs.
It worked very well. He was absolutely honest with everyone. About everything. Of course it meant he did tell Chuffy to get stuffed a couple of times. He got into trouble for that. He earned himself a couple shifts at Freddie’s after Christmas. But he’d cope.
Yes it all went swimmingly. Right up until Christmas day itself. He was feeling nervous anyway. Tomorrow should be his first day of freedom. He was anxious to do nothing to disrupt that.
The first problem came straight after breakfast. The Raybald family always opened one present after breakfast, leaving the rest until after Christmas dinner.
“Go on,” said Grandma, beaming. “Open this one from me.” She handed Archie a soft, bulky parcel.
He was pretty certain he knew what was in it. He dreaded opening it. Slowly he unstuck the sticky tape and pulled off the little bows one by one. “Go on,” said Grandma. “Rip it open. It’s not as if we’re going to be too mean to buy new paper next year.”
Archie carried on slowly.
It was as he’d feared. A thick woollen jumper with a snow scene all over it. Hand-knitted. It was hideous. And it would dwarf him. Grandma always made jumpers too big for him.
“Well,” said Grandma. “That should keep you nice and warm when you’re out with your mates. What do you think?”
“Grandma, I can’t wear this when I’m out with my mates. They’d never stop laughing.”
Archie felt bad. He knew it must have taken her ages to knit. But there was no way he was going to lie.
“I’ll wear it when I come and see you though,” he said. But I won’t enjoy it.
“I see,” said Grandma. She put the parcel that she’d been holding down on the floor. She hadn’t bothered opening it. “Shall we go and get started in the kitchen, Bren?”
“What did you want to say that for?” said Mr Raybald after Mum and Grandma had gone into the kitchen.
“You’re always telling me not to tell fibs,” said Archie.
“Yeah, but a little white lie now and then don’t hurt. It’s called being tactful. I’m going to go and see if they’re all right. You just try and stay out of trouble.”
Archie watched telly for the rest of the morning. He didn’t even want to go and look at his computer. He’d sent Amanda a nice electronic Christmas card the day before and he didn’t want to find out that she hadn’t sent him one, or that she’d rejected his. Dad, moving constantly between the kitchen and the lounge, poured himself a drink every time he changed room. His speech began to slur. Then he fell asleep in the armchair. Occasionally the two women in the kitchen raised their voices. Archie could only hear odd snatches … “Not like that, Mum. Here let me do it.” “You shouldn’t let him talk to me like that Bren.” Archie turned up the volume.
“Oy!” said dad, waking with a start.
At last, Mrs Raybald called them into the dining-room. Both Mum and Grandma seemed very flustered. The turkey looked a bit burnt. There were way too many sprouts and not enough roast potatoes and he was only allowed cranberry juice with his dinner while the three adults had red wine.
“Why can’t I have a glass of wine?” he asked his dad.
“Because you know your grandma doesn’t like to see you drinking. She thinks you’re too young.”
“And stop swearing ‘an all.”
They ate in silence.
“You’re not eating much, young man,” said Grandma after she’d helped herself to seconds. “Come on eat up.” She took a sip of her wine. “We’ve worked really hard this morning, me and your mum. This is a lovely spread.”
“Well, I don’t like sprouts or burnt turkey, there aren’t enough roast potatoes and I’m not even allowed a glass of wine to swill it done with. It ain’t much fun.”
Grandma put her knife and fork down and stared at her still half full plate.
There was a long silence.
“Well, then, if everybody’s finished, I’ll clear the plates and bring in the pudding,” said Mum.
“What did I tell you about being tactful?” said Mr Raybald as he and Archie did the washing up later.
“I won’t tell no lies, Dad.”
His dad shook his head. “Oh, Archie. You don’t have to be rude just because you’re being truthful. Honestly. You young people. Listen, help yourself to a glass of wine while we finish this up. Them two are sat down all cosy with a glass of brandy each, some chocolate liqueurs and a soppy film on the box. You just behave yourself while we open the presents and if you apologise as well, I think we’ll be all right. At least the pudding went okay.”
Twenty minutes later Archie followed Dad into the lounge. Both women were fast asleep and snoring.
“Come on you sleeping beauties. Wakey, wakey. It’s time for the main event. Oh and young Archie here has got something he’d like to say.”
Mum and Grandma both stared at him now.
“I’m sorry I think I’m too old for chunky sweaters,” said Archie. “And I’m sorry I’m not too keen on roast dinners, especially if they’ve got sprouts in them. Give me a curry any day.”
The two women looked at each other. Grandma suddenly burst out laughing. “Well that was a funny apology, if ever I heard one. Still, you might have a point. I’ll think harder next year. Anyhow, I hate knitting. So I won’t bother no more.”
“Well, you’ll like what I’m doing tomorrow. Curried turkey.”
“And next year, why don’t we all go out for Christmas dinner? Save you ladies having to cook.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Mum.
“Lovely jubbly. Now let’s get down to business. Archie will you do the honours?”
Archie crawled under the tree and started giving out the presents. It was all okay. New trainers from Mum and Dad. The ones he’d wanted. Grandma had also given him a token for computer games. There were some presents from some of his mates and from his aunts and uncles. All good stuff. Chocolate. A couple of DVDs he’d wanted. Mum and Grandma were pleased with the scarves he’d bought them and Dad had liked his tie. It was all good.
“Is that the lot?” asked Mum, as Archie opened his last present.
“Yes, that’s all Mum.”
It wasn’t of course. There was still Foxy’s box of biscuits. His grandmother wasn’t going to get that. Not from that old sleaze-bag. Not if Archie could help it.
“Only I thought I could see something else, there look, towards the window.”
“No, it’s just a bit of Christmas paper,” said Archie, shoving a piece of used gift-wrap paper over it.
The pain in his ear was unbearable. He screamed.
“Archie, what’s the matter?” His Mum’s face had gone white.
Then it all went black.