The International Writers Magazine: Novel Extract - Childrens Fiction 12+
An Extract from Mean Tide
In which Oliver arrives at his spooky Grandma's house with his cat, Flop...
“Take off your coat and shoes, set that cat box down and get washed up, the downstairs loo is just over there. Make sure you look clean for Grandma Otis, she’s upset enough without wanting to see you looking like a scruff. And if you see Justine, she doesn’t talk. So don’t expect a reply.”
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“She’s staying here until her mother gets out of prison. Don’t even mention it, alright. She keeps to herself and you will do well to learn from her example.”
Oliver did as he was instructed. He noted that the passageway was narrow, but warm at least. Still, this appeared to be an odd way to come into a house. Lena could see he was puzzled.
“This is the back way. Grandma only uses the front for her visitors.”
Oliver did sort of think he was a visitor, but he didn’t say anything. He just sat on the floor beside Flop and took off his boots. Flop looked at him from inside the cat-box confused and anxious.
“We didn’t get Flop anything to eat,” Oliver remembered.
“Does he eat pilchards? I’ve got some pilchards.”
This reassured Oliver, at least they were contemplating feeding his cat. He’d hate for Flop to have to run away to the forest without eating first.
“You wash and I’ll go and see to Grandma Otis, don’t let that cat out, you hear? I don’t want it getting used to this place.”
Lena left them and walked up the stairs in her stocking feet.
Oliver immediately opened the cat-box door. Flop sniffed the air and surprisingly elected to stay in his box, scared and unsure of where he was.
“It’s OK.” Oliver reassured him, but this probably didn’t sound convincing as he was far from sure everything was okay. He found the bathroom and dutifully peed and washed his face and hands, genuinely amazed at the amount of dirt in the bowl. He sniffed the Pears soap and memories of his father flooded in. He had always used Pears. He wondered if Grandma knew where he was, or if she even cared.
“You can come up now.” He heard Lena call from upstairs. Oliver hesitated, he’d never met his Grandma before. What if she didn’t like him? What if she really wouldn’t let Flop stay? He’d have to leave, he’d promised Flop. A promise had to be kept, even ones you made to yourself.
Oliver walked towards the stairs, noticing for the first time the red carpet held in place by brass stair rods, the lip of each stair threadbare, so that you could see the wood beneath. As he mounted the stairs he heard each one creak, each in a different way. He stepped back a moment to the previous stair and experimented with his weight on it... Yes, one could almost detect a tune, a stairway of tunes – ridiculous.
“Oliver?” A voice enquired, imperiously.
Oliver remembered that he was supposed to be going upstairs; simultaneously he recalled that when he was younger, he’d once found his bear on the stairs at home with a broken arm, and the sudden memory of that and the scary voice at the top of the stairs had totally transfixed him. He just couldn’t move up or down.
“Oliver!” The same voice commanded.
“Oliver,” Lena’s voice added to the confusion, “don’t keep her waiting.”
Lena came to the top of the stairs and looked down. She could see him poised mid-way, as if trapped by some unseen force.
“She won’t eat you,” Lena told him, her tone softer now. “She’s as scared to meet you as you are her. Go on.”
Oliver ordered his legs to move and they did make some effort, but it was awfully slow, one step at a time, both socks in line, toes to the edge, then one more step, socks in line, toes to the edge.
“In my lifetime, please,” Lena demanded, an edge of irritation in her voice.
“The sooner you get up here, the sooner I can go down and make your supper.”
Oliver registered nothing. He was an automaton now, he was going to meet his Grandma and she was going to hate him. He knew it. It was just a matter of making the inevitable happen as slowly as possible. ‘She’ll hate me and I’ll be unhappy for the rest of my life,’ was one of the thoughts that passed through his head.
Lena reappeared at the top of the stairs wearing a lime green dressing gown and fluffy carpet slippers. She was holding a newly lit cigarette in one hand and narrowed her eyes at him.
“I don’t think you appreciate just what a lucky thing it is for you that your Grandma’s taking you in, Oliver. She could have let you go to the orphanage; you could have been fostered to serial killers. Who knows what could have happened to you if your Grandma hadn’t intervened.”
Oliver continued to stare at Lena, the still burning cigarette in her hand and her wan drawn out face, he thought of something to say, something rude, but decided against it. He did wonder if perhaps Lena might be a secret serial killer herself, she certainly looked scary enough.
He mounted another step and sighed. Yes, perhaps being adopted by your Grandma was probably better than being taken in by killers, but would they live next to a scrap yard? Did Grandma’s house have to be so spooky? And then there was the scary silent Justine, who’s Mother was in prison! He’d never heard of anyone’s mother sent to prison. What terrible thing did she do?
“I’m coming now,” he said, making the last four steps in quick succession.
“That’s better. You go in, you talk to her. I’ll make your supper.”
Lena gave him a little push towards the furthest door on the landing and Oliver immediately slid on the Persian rug situated on the highly polished floor.
“Arrggh”, Oliver yelled, falling hard on his backside. He heard Lena’s cruel laugh as she descended the stairs.
Oliver finally got the message. Lena didn’t want him here.
“Oliver? Is that you?” He heard his Grandma call. “Come on, I’ve got some chocolate for you.”
Oliver picked himself up and moved towards her room. Chocolate sounded acceptable to him.
The first thing he noticed was that Grandma Otis had double doors opening out into her bedroom, with thick Victorian stained glass panes. The room was huge and warm, lit by many lamps covered with silk scarves to diffuse the light. There, sat in a large bed, was Grandma Otis, smiling at him from behind pearl-framed glasses. A real flame gas fire was burning in a genuine marble fireplace and everywhere there were photographs of people and children and views of places from all over the world. The whole room was filled with books and knickknacks. Three burning candles stood on a bureau, in front of a mirror, and flickering shadows jumped across the walls. Oliver noticed a collection of dolls and bears in one corner of the room and he couldn’t help but instantly fall in love with this room. The thick carpet, the mixture of reds and maroons and some flowering fuchsias in front of the window, the whole room was bigger than the house he’d left behind. How was it possible such a grand room, in such a small house, and all this next to a scrap yard? It was so strange.
Grandma Otis was examining Oliver critically, pulling her shawl closer around her shoulders. She was thinking that her grandson was so small and sickly. Her initial reaction was one of disappointment and then pity as she saw the holes in his socks and just how neglected he looked. Oliver was standing at the end of the bed now, looking anxious, chewing on his bottom lip, just like his mother had when she was expecting a hiding. He even clenched and unclenched his fists like Charlotte. She hoped this wasn’t a bad sign.
“You don’t look a bit like Charlotte. You must look like him. We don’t wear our hats indoors here.”
Oliver wasn’t about to remove his hat and was endeavouring to try and stare his Grandma out when he felt something soft brush against his legs. Flop. He looked down and simultaneously Flop and Grandma caught sight of one another.
“A cat! A cat in my house!” She shrieked.
Flop arched, hissed and dashed from the room, just as if he’d been shot at.
Oliver was astonished. He’d never seen Flop do that before.
Grandma sat up in bed, her face quite ashen. “What is that? Whose cat is that? Lena? Lena. Come up here now.”
Oliver began to back away from the bed. Clearly Grandma Otis was not a cat lover.
“It’s my cat, Flop. He’s never done that before.”
“I don’t like cats,” came the reply. “Lena. There’s a cat in my house.” She looked at Oliver with glaring eyes and raised a finger to him. “It can’t stay! No cats in this house!” She said with a hiss.
Oliver felt his own anger rising. “Then I’m leaving.”
Oliver turned and ran from the room, almost flying as he reached the stairs, all the while calling out Flop’s name.
“Suit yourself boy,” she roared. “I’m not having a cat in my house, you hear me?”
Oliver almost collided with Lena at the bottom of the stairs. She tried to grab him, her fingers closing around his thin arms, she shook him hard.
“What did you do to her, what did you do?”
Oliver prised himself free and dived into another room where sheets were draped over much of the furniture.
“Flop, we’ve got to go, we’ve got to go now.”
Lena rushed upstairs, convinced that Grandma Otis had been attacked, at the very least.
Oliver was busy looking for Flop, and rushed in to every room, becoming increasingly desperate, calling out Flop’s name.
“Flop, come on, we’ve got to go!” He caught sight of his tail under an old oak cabinet and he crawled under it to join him, knowing he risked being mauled by a very angry animal. Flop was hunched up, staring at him, panting, all his hair fluffed out, his mouth was slightly open, his tongue moving in and out as if he was finding it hard to breathe.
“What scared you, Flop, what scared you? You can tell me.”
Thirty minutes later Oliver was once again wrapped in his coat, his bag packed and standing outside the house in the cold fog. It was eerie out there with fog horns sounding on the river. The cat box was at his feet, Flop stood beside it licking his paws and although Oliver was determined to leave, he was a bit unsure about where to go, or how. He didn’t have a penny to his name and both he and Flop would need to eat.
“We could find a forest, Flop. We could live there, you could chase squirrels, I could build a home in a tree or something.”
Flop continued to wash his paws, seemingly quite unconcerned now. This was puzzling, his cat was behaving in a very strange manner, also it was bloody cold and the fog seemed to penetrate every fibre of his clothing.
Oliver suddenly looked up at a lighted window. A small face peered at him, hard to see in the mist, but instinctively Oliver knew it was her, Justine. She just stared at him. It spooked Oliver a little. He turned away, he didn’t like being stared at.
The front door opened a few moments later and Lena appeared, clutching her dressing gown around her. She stepped out a little way to see more clearly. Flop pricked up his ears, but didn’t run. Unexpectedly she didn’t scold him.
“Your supper’s ready. That cat of yours can eat. Two cans of pilchards! Didn’t you ever feed it?”
“Flop’s very particular,” Oliver answered, rather regretting his rash decision to leave. He badly needed to eat something himself.
“He’s neglected, that is what he is. You’re neglected. You get your skinny bones in here Oliver and eat. Then we can talk about the cat.”
Lena saw he was not moving. She sighed again, stepping out further, to see him better.
“It’s spaghetti and meatballs, I’ve never known a boy to refuse it.”
Oliver tried to be resolute, tried to persuade himself that taking Flop to a forest was the right thing to do, but it was cold and damp and he was very tired. He sighed and picked up his bag again, moving towards Lena. Flop didn’t hesitate, he dashed for the front door, he wasn’t going to be left outside in the cold fog. Not this cat.
“That’s one hungry cat,” Lena remarked as Oliver moved past her back inside. “Get those boots off and go into the kitchen, you need a hot meal inside you.”
The click of the lock in the door behind Oliver felt like the shutting of a cage. This was to be his new home, an old, cat-hating woman upstairs, as well as a spooky silent staring girl and a very scary woman down. He thought... ‘Daddy, where are you, come home, come and get me now!’
'An engaging,completely engrossing read'- Beverly Birch-author of 'Rift' from Egmont Books
Review of Mean Tide
Also by Sam - Sundays with Dog
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