I couldn’t concentrate throughout the rest of the day and had an evening of work ahead of me – that Fascism essay was still not finished and there was a physics paper on top of it – but there was nothing for it. I would have to call in on Grandad before I did anything.
Grandad was in the front garden raking some grass cuttings into a small pile. He looked up and smiled at me.
“Ben, old boy! How are you!”
“Hi Grandad.” I felt suddenly wobbly with relief and had to blink and cough to bring myself back to my normal cool self.
“Just got to pick up this grass and then I’m ready for a cup of tea.”
“Let me do the grass.” I thought of how frail he had looked last night and, though he seemed bright enough now, I realised how small he was too. Had he shrunk? Had I grown? Had I only just realised?
“Thank you. Just put the grass in the wheelbarrow and bring it round to the compost heap. I’ll get the kettle on.” He turned and walked towards the house, or rather he shuffled. I hadn’t noticed before how much he shuffled.
I finished the raking and pushed the barrow round to the back of the house and down the garden to the compost heap near the hedge.
I looked up startled. Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose was staring at me over the fence, the fence she had made Grandad pay for.
“Yes! You’re Mr Heath’s grandson aren’t you?”
“Yes.” I didn’t want to talk to her so I pushed the wheelbarrow further up the garden.
“Mr Heath’s grandson!” Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose continued.
I looked up again. A growl seemed to be coming from low down in her body. I looked at her with more interest.
“My name is Ben.”
“Ben.” She paused, clearly filing away my name for later use against me. “Your grandfather has been causing trouble.”
“He’s been digging that great hole in the garden.”
“So?” I drew myself up to my full height and glared down at her. “It’s his garden.” I spotted the source of the growling. Her dog was snuffling round her ankles.
“But digging it in the night and in the early hours of the morning is most unusual.”
“Was he digging last night?” I was alarmed.
“No. But he was out first thing this morning. It’s not right.” She lowered her voice and gave a thin, unconvincing smile. “I’m worried about him.”
I sincerely doubted the truth behind that last statement.
I took a deep breath. I was going to have to stand up against her. “I think he has the right to be digging in his own garden at whatever time he wants to,” I said, and bent to pick up the barrow again.
“In his pyjamas? It’s a little odd”
She was right of course but I had had enough. I grabbed the wheelbarrow handles and marched off.
Back in the house Grandad had made tea and he seemed so normal that I decided not to worry. He had suffered no apparent ill-effects from his adventures the previous night and there was nothing to show for it. Even the wet clothes that he had left on the bathroom floor had been cleared away. Chin Woman had obviously been and there were no nasty smells in the kitchen. The milk in my tea was still fresh.
There was a knock at the front door. Grandad looked startled and a look crossed his face, like the shadow of a bird in front of the sun. He got up and backed away towards the back door.
“I’ll go!” I said as enthusiastically as I could.
It was Charlotte.
“Oh hello Ben! I didn’t realise you were here.”
“That’s my bike you’re using as a table.”
“Oh, sorry, is it? I didn’t notice it.”
I had chained my bike to the drainpipe by the front door and Charlotte had balanced a substantial black shoulder bag on the saddle.
“I came to see if your grandfather was alright,” she said, looking at me with wide, oh-so-innocent eyes. “Dad and I were worried and I said I’d pop by after school.”
It sounded feasible so I nodded. “He’s fine thanks. No problems.”
“I’ve brought this round for him.” She plunged deep into the shoulder bag and extracted a huge, round biscuit tin. She held it out but I was staring at the bag which hadn’t apparently lessened in size, despite the girth of the tin. I wondered what else it held and if it was one of those Mary Poppins-style bags which could contain everything and remain the same size. Perhaps Charlotte would suddenly fly off, holding an umbrella. Perhaps she was a witch and that is how she turned up everywhere I went.
I refocused. “Thank you.” I took the tin, which was heavy, and stared at it, looking inspiration about what to say next. In the end I said the first thing that came into my stupid head. “Come in and see him.”
But he wasn’t there.
The back door was open and I looked down the garden, just in time to see a figure hurrying through the back gate and across into the woods. I set off at a run, Charlotte at my heels.
Unfortunately Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose’s dog was at my heels too. As soon as I was out of the gate it was in the lane, yapping and snarling, though it was so small that its snarl was more of a squeak. I decided to ignore it and plunged into the undergrowth, hoping it would just go away. It didn’t but snapped at me when I climbed onto a log for a better view. And I didn’t mean to kick it, honestly, but I lost my balance and when trying to regain it, my legs flailed out and I caught the dog a glancing blow on the muzzle. It fell back whimpering, Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose hove into view and I came crashing down on my back in a holly bush.
Charlotte didn’t make it any better when she laughed.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” she spluttered as she helped pull me up.
“My poor Peggy-Sue!” shrieked Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose, seizing her dog who had started yapping again and seemed anything but injured.
“I can’t find any mushrooms!” announced Grandad.
We all swung round to see Grandad holding out his empty hands to us.
“What?” I shook my head to try to make some sense of this.
“Mushrooms. I suddenly thought there might be some and we could have mushroom omelette for our tea. You are hungry, aren’t you Ben?”
“Your grandson has just kicked Peggy-Sue!” squawked Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose, holding the dog close to her heaving chest and having to move her head around to avoid its yapping, snapping mouth.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean to,” snapped Grandad. “That hearthrug is always getting in where it shouldn’t.”
“How incredibly rude! She,” Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose emphasised the pronoun, “is a dog and an injured one. I shall to ring the vet and send the bill to you!”
“It was an accident Mrs Snelling,” said Charlotte. Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose glared at her but at that moment Peggy-Sue nipped her on the nose and she dropped her hurriedly and flounced of with as much dignity as a woman with a nipped nose can muster. Peggy-Sue scampered after her.
“What was I doing?” asked Grandad.
“I think you were looking for mushrooms,” I replied, pulling a holly leaf out of my backside.
“Of course. But perhaps there aren’t any. What month is it?”
“April,” said Charlotte.
“Of course, that would explain it. I was getting confused. It’s not yet mushroom season. Shame, Bess, that’s my wife, makes the best mushroom soup.”
That was true. She did. Once. I hoped it was just a slip of the tongue, a slip of the tenses. Charlotte hadn’t seemed to notice, or perhaps she didn’t know Gran was dead.
“We’ll have to have plain omelettes, or cheese. I didn’t know Ben was calling in for tea you see, though I’m delighted,” Grandad said. “Will you have some Miss er, Miss..”
“Watson. Charlotte Watson. Call me Charlotte please.”
“And I’m Reggie.” They shook hands and when Grandad smiled at her he looked just like his old self, not like the frail, bedraggled, confused man she had met the night before.
“So, will you have an omelette?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Of course not; no trouble at all.”
“In which case, I will, thank you. And I’ve brought cake.”
“They talked away like old mates!” I moaned to Tom later. “He invited her round again!”
Tom just laughed down the phone. “Maybe she’ll be useful. Keep an eye on him.”
“That’s not her job. That’s mine.” I was surprised to find how protective of him I felt. Tom was right, she might be useful, but I didn’t want Charlotte worming her way into my life. “Anyway, supposing her has one of his funny moments?”
“What funny moments?”asked Tom.
Ah. Of course, I hadn’t told anyone about them. I didn’t want them knowing. I didn’t even want to know myself that they happened. But they did and they weren’t just a case of him being a bit eccentric. The look on his face when Charlotte had knocked on the door had been fear. Or had he just thought ‘I must go and fetch mushrooms for tea’? And I still had no idea what he had been doing in the woods the night before, nor why he was digging a hole in the garden.
“Oh, nothing,” I said, and hoped he’d forget it, though Tom wasn’t the sort to forget.