© Simon Totten
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The Green Man
‘Are you going to die?’ asked Alex Bowman.
‘No… silly,’ replied his Grandad Ned. ‘Don’t worry...I'ts a dodgy ticker that’s all.’
Alex closed his eyes and prayed he was right.
‘The Bowman family have a long history of heart disease,' said Grandad, the hint of a smile stretching his grey bristles. 'It’s what they call hereditary,’
‘Hereditary. It means things can be passed on in families from generation to generation.’
‘Does that mean I’m going to have a ‘dodgy ticker’ as well?’
Grandad laughed and then launched into a mega coughing fit that made his chest go all tight as if a heart attack was imminent.
‘Grandad… you ok?’
‘Yes... don’t worry. You crack me up that’s all. Tickle me pink you do.’
‘Phew… that’s alright then. Being tickled is fun and being pink well… I mean it’s a bit girlie but it’s better than being pale grey or yellow like you were in hospital.’
‘Oh…’ laughed Grandad, ‘Stop it, please stop,’ he wheezed, ‘I can’t take any more.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to, anyway, I brought you this…’ said Alex, proudly handing him a mug with ‘I, then a red heart instead of the word love, Grandad' on it. He'd bought it specially for his seventieth birthday and only filled it three quarters full with steaming hot tea because he knew his bony old hands often got the shakes and he didn’t want him to spill it.
‘Thank you my boy, you’re a good ‘un’ he said. ‘That’s just what the doctor ordered…’
‘Did he? Is tea good for ‘dodgy tickers’ then?’
‘Oh… where would I be without you, eh?’ he grinned as a kind watery light returned to his pale blue eyes. ‘Listen…’ he said, leaning closer, as if he was about to impart some kind of state secret.
‘I need you to do something for me, a bit hush hush… very important.’
‘Yeah… anything…’ said Alex ‘What is it?’
‘I got to come first,’ he said.
‘Well… mum said didn’t she…? We’ll do everything we can to look after you… I promise.’
‘No…you doughnut, I meant… first prize at the Petersfield Community Annual Grand Vegetable Show.’
‘Oh…’ said Alex.
‘I’ve got this monster marrow see. It’s just so delicious, juicy and downright humongous you wouldn’t believe. It’d be a shame to stop now, too much blood, sweat and tears have gone into it. To cut a long story short. While I’m stuck here, can you make sure it wins the competition?’
‘Well…’ said Alex. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘It’s easy, all you have to do is water it with the special miracle grow stuff and give it plenty of TLC. Know what that is?’
Alex shook his head.
‘Tender Loving Care. Plenty of chat and stroking. It’s had more than your grandma ever had, bless her, that’s for sure. Oh and feed me pigeons as well, there’s a sack of food in the shed. There’s a good lad.’
‘Yes Grandad,’ agreed Alex.
‘The prize is 100 nicker. Keep me in beer for a year that will,’ he said, excitedly.
‘Never mind,’ he said.
‘There’ll be a few bob in it for you…’
‘A few bob? How many Bobs do you know?’
‘Oh never mind….what I need to know is … can I count on you? Will you do it? You’re me only hope.’
‘Course I will.. I promise,’ he said, nodding like one of those toy dogs you see in the back of cars.
Alex stepped out onto Poplar Street, a row of Edwardian terraced houses that stretched up a steep hill, overlooking the industrial northern town of Petersfield that had been home to Alex all his life.
A glowing pride that his Grandad had entrusted this important task burned in his chest and he was determined not to let him down.
To get to the allotment he had to cut through the park. It was early Autumn. After a long hot summer the grass was worn, the earth was the colour of the Sahara desert. In the distance, towering in leaden skies, the chimneys of the old steel works stood dormant, silent and haunted. To his left was a small parade of shops, including Sadie the Bra Lady’s Emporium and Barry’s Bargains.
On the corner was ‘The Hope and Anchor.’ A tatty, rundown pub that somehow held the community together. On one of his many pilgrimages there for his medicinal pint of John Smiths, Grandad called it the gateway to civilization and the western world.
He would often recall the story about his time as an RAF pilot in the Second World War. How they didn’t let him fly planes because his medical hadn’t stood up to what he called ‘over strenuous and unnecessary scrutiny.’ Whatever that meant. And he always insisted he’d been an integral part of the war effort because he'd ‘peeled enough spuds to feed three armies.'
He took a sharp right into Pavilion Street, next to the old cricket ground, where some of the houses stood empty and boarded up. ‘A crying shame. A scandal. They’re going to rack and ruin while people are sleeping on the streets,’ Grandad would say.
Suddenly, a pitiful middle-aged man who had flitted in and out of his life for many years appeared. He didn’t know where he lived exactly but he always knew where to find him. The pub or ‘Flutter,’ the local betting shop,
As he walked past Alex, he drew on a cigarette, tucking a crumpled slip of paper into the inside pocket of his dark suit. He was swaying all over the pavement, barely able to walk, too blind drunk to even notice his own son. Calling him Martin was fine. Dad was stretching it, because he had never been one, not really.
At the allotments Alex shouted for Mr Wolsten to come and unlock the gates. In the time it took him to limp over at a snail’s pace, a grey dusk had gathered and the odd dark cloud was threatening to burst.
‘What time do you call this?’ he moaned. ‘I was just about to call it a day. Got a nice warm tea and a nice warm wife waitin’ for me back home.’
‘Won’t be long Mr, honest,’ said Alex, ‘Just got to see to summit.’
As Alex hurried in through the gates, Grandad’s plot was just as he remembered. The huge prize winning marrow sat in the greenhouse like the crown jewels on a pedestal. The pigeons were cooing happily behind the wire mesh of their coup. And everything else was neat and tidy. Everything in it’s right place.
Except for one thing - a strange looking old man in a filthy raincoat, pushing a shopping trolley was making his way up the path towards the shed. Labouring slowly, under the weight of all the junk stacked up inside it, he paused for breath and took a swig from his wine bottle Then he stopped, fumbling at his fly to unzip it. He looked to the heavens and peed on the ground.
‘Owerrr, disgusting!’ shouted Alex. ‘You can’t wee there. That’s me Grandad’s cabbages.’
The old tramp hurried into the potting shed and slammed the door behind him.
Alex tried the handle, banged on it and kicked it hard.
‘Oi… let me in you old bugger. Who’d you think you are? You’re not supposed to be in there. It’s me Grandad’s place… I got to get in and feed his pigeons.’
When there was no answer he went round the side to peer through the dirty windows. In the gloomy shabby chaos of the shed’s interior, the shadow of the old man stretched across the floor as he unfolded his sleeping bag. Through the small square glass, shafts of sunlight exposed the wiry silver coils of his bushy eyebrows and long tangled beard and put a devilish glint in his eyes.
He lifted something with his hands into the light. A bird’s shiny beak and two black pearl eyes shone out of the darkness. Alex recognised the markings on the plump fluffed up feathers on its chest straight away. He’d seen them in his Grandad’s dusty old copy of the British Birds Handbook. It was definitely a sparrow.
The old tramp removed his trilby hat, revealing a mess of filthy, crusty hair. Inside it were pieces of twigs and dried straw woven tightly into a circular nest. Inside that were the smaller beaks of four young chicks, squawking for a feed. Alex had never seen such a thing. Imagine… a man with a bird’s nest in his hair and actual baby birds living in it?
He blew a high pitched whistle, then said something to the bird in a language he’d never heard before. The sparrow flew into the nest, fed the chicks a large, juicy worm and flew out again.
For a while he scrabbled around in the shadows, as if he’d lost something. In the light, illuminating tiny snowflakes of dust, the nose, whiskers and beady eyes of a mouse popped up. It sniffed the air and tried to wriggle free.
Before it could escape he trapped its tail and holding it above his head he leaned back and lowered it carefully into his mouth. As he crunched, chomped and chewed, bones snapped and flesh squelched. Yuk, disgusting! The tramp swallowed hard and belched.
Alex turned on his heels and ran as fast as he could, He no longer minded him sleeping in Grandad’s shed nor that he stank like he hadn’t had a bath for a year but the sound of him munching that mouse would haunt him forever. Who ever heard of a man doing that? He had never seen anything like it, except perhaps Marmalade, the neighbour’s cat, whose favourite part of chomping a mouse was licking the brains out and he was so glad he didn't do that.
He didn’t look back until he’d slammed the front door of his house. Collapsing on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, he was panting hard. He never wanted to see the old tramp ever again. How was he ever going to help Grandad with his allotment now? Making promises, he thought, was a lot easier than keeping them.
In Alex’s room that night the shadows on the walls were darker and scarier than ever. The old man with a birds nest hair eating a mouse and Martin’s glazed, stony face hovered in front of his eyes.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, he lay awake, tossing and turning in bed. On the one hand he didn’t want to let his Grandad down. After all, a promise was a promise. But, he didn’t dare go back to the allotment. Not with the scary old tramp there.
He got up out of bed, switched on his computer and googled allotments and pigeons. Straight away, he realized how little he knew about them. It all looked extremely complicated and besides, it would be far too much hard work for a skinny rake like him, barely strong enough to hold a spade.
If he was going to be able to keep his promise at all, he simply had to get rid of the old tramp in the shed. But how? He would need help from someone, but who?
Martin couldn’t even help himself. His Mum would have helped but she was too busy complaining about the minimum wage and being a single mum with three jobs. Two part time - one cleaning at the school and one at Barry’s Bargains. The other full time - looking after him, his three-year-old brother Jaimie and baby sister Lexy. That was more than enough for anyone.
And as for friends at school, well. Ged Parkinson ‘the ginger ninja’ had come round once to swap his football card stickers, then stayed for tea but had never been back since. He’d never really had any friends. Not proper ones anyway.
There was one person who could help. Stella Marlowe’s dad kept a plot at the same allotment as his Grandad, so maybe he could ask her. But he’d never spoken to any girl before, let alone the most wonderful, beautiful creature in the whole school.
The more he thought about keeping his promise, the more it was feeling like mission impossible. Perhaps it would be best to just admit defeat. Yes that was it. He’d tell his Grandad first thing in the morning. Alex dived back into bed and gave in to sleep.
In the morning, Alex roused himself, rubbed his eyes, stretched and peeked through the curtains. The sky was the colour of wet slate, the thought of telling Grandad the bad news he couldn’t keep his promise and double maths at school were all too much to take before breakfast.
Alex scrabbled on the floor to find his school uniform, threw it on, went to the bathroom, doused his face under the tap with freezing water and after a quick brush of his teeth, he made his way to Grandad’s room.
The same heavy ache that usually settled in the pit of his stomach when he was called to the headmaster’s office at school, sank into his soul. Gently opening the door a blast of tobacco and stale air greeted him as he stumbled in.
‘Grandad I don’t think I’ll be able … ‘ But half way through, when he saw the frail old man lying in bed, dead to the world, dribbling from his mouth, his chin and blue striped pyjamas covered in yellow egg stains, he stopped. A tear as big as raindrop fell from his eye.
‘Grandad, wake up,’ he whispered. Then, he panicked. What if he’d had another attack in the night? What if his heart had stopped after all. ‘Grandad wake up,’ he repeated, tugging gently at his sleeve.
‘Jeesus, Mary and Joseph, no need to shout, I’m not deaf you know,’ exclaimed Grandad, sitting up. ‘You nearly gave me a heart attack, what do you want at this ungodly hour of the day anyway?’
‘Sorry… but I had to tell you before I go to school. I won’t be able to do the allotment or the marrow or feed the pigeons. There’s this man… a funny man with a bird’s nest in his hair, sleeping in your shed. I can’t get in… he…’
‘Ah….' he interrupted, raising a white bony finger. 'Sounds like another ‘down and out’ to me. Like flies they are. Bleedin’ pests, can’t get rid of ‘em. They’re always hanging out there. Wait a minute…I got an idea,’ he said, stretching to reach behind his bed. ‘Here… take this,’ he said, handing him what looked like a full colostomy bag.
‘What? Not that again. Can’t you get mum to empty that? It stinks,’ he said.
On closer inspection Alex saw it was a bottle with a golden liquid inside it but had a black Glenfiddich label on it.
‘Tell him if he stays out of my shed, he can have this.’
For Grandad to part with a bottle of his finest malt whisky, the one he had been saving for months for a rainy day, was all the proof he needed that the hope of winning first prize at the gardening club vegetable show was the only thing keeping him going. Without it his heart might stop. And he really didn’t want that to happen. Life without Grandad would be unbearable.
Over the course of his nine and a half years, he had grown used to his kind, smiling eyes and a laugh that could shake the foundations of a house. He was the calm voice of reason in his topsy-turvy world, a guiding light through the darkness, the brother, dad and best friend, he simply couldn't live without.
‘I’ll pop in on my way back from school, he said, smiling nervously. 'I’ll let you know how I get on.’
By the time Alex got downstairs he was running late. Lexy had decided to smother her breakfast slop all over her face and throw it across the table at Jaimie. The more Jaimie screamed at her, the more Lexy took great delight in banging her spoon off the side of her bowl, while hiccuping and giggling. When his mum put an end to it by taking her bowl away Lexy and Jaimie bawled the place down in stereo.
Alex decided enough was enough. He stuffed a skinny slice of toast with a layer of margarine spread lightly on it, into his mouth and almost swallowing it whole he grabbed his bag and hurried to the bottom of the stairs.
Through the crack in the kitchen door, his mum was chained to the sink, elbow deep in murky dishwater.
‘I’m off now… see you later,’ he shouted.
But she just stared out of the window, lost in her thoughts, as if someone had hypnotised her. These days her hair was always straggly, like it needed a good brush. She was always wearing the ‘Strongest Man in the World’ apron. The patches under her eyes were so much darker than before and her quiet, strong voice, so much softer than it used to be.
‘Mum?’ he asked again.
Alex made his way out of the front door to the bus stop in Poplar Street to catch a bus to St Leonard’s, the junior school, where Alex had just about mastered the rudiments of reading and writing but was struggling on just about every other level, especially the most important. The one true law of the jungle - the survival of the fittest.
It may not have been far, but the short bus ride was five minutes of pure, unadulterated hell. A single decker crammed to the rafters with uniformed, delinquent baboons.
Relieved when it was over, Alex kept his head down and made his way slowly through the gates into school. On his way to his desk in his classroom, he could never look directly into Stella Marlowe’s blue sky eyes, or marvel at the wavy locks of blonde hair that tumbled over slender shoulders for long, they were far too full of wondrous beauty for that. No, he preferred to worship St Leonard’s very own goddess from afar.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the boy sitting next to him though. Billy Winstanley was the polar opposite to Stella. Big, fat, ugly and downright scary.
Tommy Drake came in next, clutching his adidas sports bag. Fashionably late as always he was the most popular guy in the school. Girls visibly swooned and boys stayed silent out of respect for the all round brain box and babe magnet. Tommy was always far too busy, important or up himself to bother with the likes of him though.
When form teacher Mr ‘wild man’ Welsh entered the room, a silence borne more out of fear than respect filled the room. Miraculously, Alex managed to get through a whole morning without any form of interrogation or being clocked over the head.
Break time in the playground was also a success. He played footy in the yard, running about like a headless chicken, pretending he knew what to do with the ball and that the people he was playing with were really his friends. He celebrated blockbusting goals by Tommy, the school team captain and all round star of City’s Under 12 Academy as if he himself had scored them. And most importantly of all he successfully avoided a pasting from Billy Winstanley.
But right at the start of lunchtime things took a turn for the worse. Billy had seen him and meant business. The minute it took for him to make his way over to him through the yard was the longest of Alex’s life. A breathless panic gripped him as Billy stood over him, chest out, fists clenched, jutting his square chin into his face, glowering.
‘What have you got for me today then, Bowman?’ he snarled, rolling his shirt sleeves up.
‘Err I haven’t err…’ trembled Alex. Before he could finish his sentence Billy had picked him up and turned him upside down and was shaking whatever was in his pockets onto the ground.
As Alex fell onto the hard ground, he managed to avoid splitting his head open but not the swift uppercut that left his nose with a hot snap of stinging pain and blood running down into his mouth, As he lay on the ground covering his head as protection from any further blows the words of his Grandad echoed back to him.‘Listen to me son, when Billy starts, don’t give as good as you get, give better’ That was easy for him to say, thought Alex. Billy was twice his size and twice as mean.
When Billy had moved on to his next victim, Alex got to his feet and legged it. He’d used the hole in the school fence so many times now, he knew exactly where to find it. When it came to bunking off he was a smooth operator. Running away was what Alex Bowman did best.
With a blood red handkerchief stuffed in his pocket and the pain a distant scar on his memory, Alex finally arrived at the allotment gates. They were wide open, Mondays were obviously the day when the green fingered residents of Petersfield came out in force. As he approached the plot, a bright blue sky was smiling at him. Birds were chirping happily in the trees and he was feeling much better. The three spritely ‘good mornings,’ that greeted him from shed neighbours, made him feel like a respected allotment regular.
The old tramp was nowhere to be seen. He had either gone or was still asleep in the shed but after a quick glance over the allotment, all of a sudden he seemed to be the least of his problems.
The nearer he got, the plot looked like someone had dropped a bomb on it. Pots were overturned and cracked, bamboo poles snapped, runner beans ransacked, vegetables pulled up at the roots. The pigeon coup doors were wide open. Only an empty space and the odd feather remained. The greenhouse door had been forced, the lock broken and the window smashed. It had been vandalised beyond recognition, totally trashed.
The row of marrows inside the greenhouse were all ruined, in pieces, destroyed, all except for one but where was it? Grandad’s prize marrow wasn’t even there. It was gone. Stolen. Alex slumped to the ground and wept.
Hearing shuffling feet behind him, he turned around. As the old man stood before him, belching long and loud, a beautifully marked butterfly with fluorescent purple, red and gold wings fluttered gracefully from his mouth into the clouds.
‘What seems to be the problem young man?’ he asked.
Alarmed, Alex stood up. The old man was even more scary in daylight. His mad eyes cut him dead. Flakes of skin were peeling off his strawberry nose. Wrinkles as deep as canyons furrowed his leather face. Bits of straw and twig poked from his trilby hat and the stink of alcohol fumes and wee were worse than any punch on the nose.
So many questions popped into Alex’s head. Who did he think he was? What right did this filthy old tramp have peeing on his Grandad’s cabbages or sleeping in his shed? But in the end only one came out.
‘How did that butterfly just…?’ he asked.
The old man stayed silent. A long pause followed.
‘Look… I can get you some food if you want? Are you hungry? Is that why you eat mice?’
From the bewildered look in his eyes, Alex thought he was on something. It was the same wild, distracted look the glue sniffers at school had. The tramp shifted his filthy bare feet in the muck unsteadily sideways.
‘Did you see who did this?’ asked Alex.
‘Yeah, I heard them this morning…’ he said. ‘A bunch of kids messing around. By the time I came out to stop them, it was too late.’
‘Why would anyone do such a thing?’ sobbed Alex.
The tramp swayed back and forth searching for an answer. ‘I don’t know…. boredom? Jealousy maybe? I’m sorry if I scared you,’ he said, lowering his face to Alex’s height. ‘And for peeing on the cabbages. When you get to my age, I’m afraid you haven’t got much control. And for sleeping in your Grandad’s shed. I wouldn’t normally but that rain gets under your skin and the cold shivers your bones. It was dry and warm and I had nowhere else to go.’
Alex was just starting to feel sorry for him when globules of green and yellow bile with bits of mouse skull and tail spilled from his mouth onto the ground.
‘Oh… I’m so sorry…I don’t know what came over me,’ he said.
‘Do you spend all your time saying sorry to people?’ asked Alex.
The tramp didn’t reply and disappeared inside the shed. At first Alex assumed he was too ashamed to come out but only seconds later he reappeared, his face beaming.
‘Look, I took it inside to keep it safe, in case they came back.…’ he said.
Alex’s eyes widened, his mouth gaped. It was just as juicy, green and humongous as Grandad had described it.
‘Phew…thank God for that, where was it?’ asked Alex, so relieved to see the missing, mammoth, marrow again
The old man took off his hat and spoke to the sparrow in his bird’s nest hair. Immediately it took to the sky, flying dipping and soaring out of sight.
‘Look… I’ve got to sort this mess out and find my Grandad’s pigeons quick,’ said Alex.
‘Well, it might look bad but I reckon we can fix it…’
‘Really? Have you seen the state of it? It’ll take forever…’
‘No… it won’t …an afternoon maybe. Not afraid of a bit of hard work are you?’
Alex blew out his cheeks. ‘Come on then….what are you waiting for?’
Immediately the old man dropped to his knees to replant cabbages in the soil. Alex followed his example until they were all perfectly aligned in three neat rows.
Next, he knocked out the glass in the greenhouse and replaced it with a wooden board he’d found in the shed. Alex couldn’t believe the old man. He was moving quicker than a man half his age. In no time at all they had replaced the bamboo wigwams, tied the runner beans and sunflowers on to them with string, tidied all the pots into neat piles and thrown the bits of broken ones into the wheelbarrow, then wheeled them to the skip at the far end of the allotment.
It was soon bursting once more with lush, green life. Everything was tidy, efficient and organised, returned to its rightful place, just as it was before, back to its vibrant best. Alex had never worked so hard in his entire life.
‘Wow… not bad for an old tramp are you?’
'Did your Grandad ever tell you you're a cheeky young whippersnapper?'
'Maybe...' smiled Alex.
The old man wiped his sweating brow, satisfied with his afternoon’s work. A flock of birds circled over head. Alex watched in amazement as one by one, the pigeons flapped and fluttered their way back home to the coup. The sparrow who had been flying alongside them returned to the top of the tramp’s head and chirped. He spoke to it again, lifted his hat and allowed it back onto its nest.
‘You did that didn’t you?
‘That sparrow in your hair, it told the pigeons to come back didn’t it?’
‘Might have…’ grinned the old man.
‘So… how come you can talk to birds?’
The old man smiled
'And.... how come you let one nest in your hair?’
‘I like to give…’ he said. ‘You know… share things. We must all help each other. Now, I’ve helped you today… now it’s your turn.’
‘Ok…’ agreed Alex. 'What do you want me to do?’
‘I’ll let you know. When the time comes, I’ll come and find you,’ he replied.
'Oh, by the way... this is for you,' said Alex, handing him the bottle of Glenfiddich. 'Thanks for your help today.'
'Oh.. that's very kind.'
‘You know…’ said Alex, frowning hard. ‘You’re much different to what I thought you were.’
‘And what did you think I was?’
‘I dunno... a down and out, a wino? My mum told me never to speak to strangers, especially not tramps like you, they’ll have your teeth out soon as look at you, she says. ’
‘You know homeless people,'
‘Well… is that so? In that case… you shouldn’t believe everything people say.’
‘I don’t even know your name mister?’ asked Alex.
‘I don’t have one.’
‘But that’s ridiculous you must have a name. Everyone has a name. I can’t go around calling you mister nobody can I?’
‘Well… that’s what I am. A nobody.’
‘But my granddad says everyone is someone.’
‘And he’s right…’ The tramp paused for a few seconds. ‘Well…how about you call me Mr Green?’
‘Ok… Mr G it is then,’ said Alex.
Alex really didn’t know what to make of Mr G. He was scary but kind. He ate mice, butterflies flew out of his mouth. A bird he could talk to was nesting in his hair. If he wasn’t a down and out wino or a homeless old tramp… then what in the world was he?
Reap what you sow
Alex sneaked back into his house and closed the door quietly behind him, hoping his mum wouldn’t hear him. Floating on air down the hall into the kitchen, his insides were doing somersaults. He couldn’t wait to tell his Grandad the good news about his allotment and pigeons.
At the kitchen sink he turned the tap on, filled a glass to the brim with cold water, gulped it all down without stopping to draw breath, set it on the drainer and turned around.
Blocking his way was his Mum, her face purple like she’d swallowed a wasp or something. Alex took a deep breath.
‘Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick.
‘Well I err…’ stumbled Alex.
This had better be good young man or you’re in serious trouble,’ she said.
‘What? What have I done?’ he pleaded.
‘I’ve had the school on the blower. They told me you haven’t even been in this afternoon. So.. I’ll ask you again … where have you been?’
‘I err... I’ll go tomorrow.’
‘You didn’t answer my question.’
‘Nowhere…’ he said, his eyes glazed with innocence.
‘Just…. around… you know…the usual…’
‘Come on… spit it out …or I’ll box your ears,’ she hissed, grabbing his left ear between her finger and thumb.
‘Ow…. alright… alright… down the allotment. Grandad asked me to look after things while he’s you know…’
‘Did he now… well… I’ll be having words with him…’
‘Oh no…don’t do that,… it’s not his fault… he’s not very well’
‘So you admit it then…? It’s all your fault?’
Alex couldn’t deny it.
‘Well… you’re grounded for a week.’
‘Oh Mum…. that’s not fair…’
‘If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Now straight to bed… and no supper for you tonight. Get up those stairs now!’
Wearily, Alex climbed the stairs. At the top, he stood listening for signs of life outside his Grandad’s room. Gently he pushed the door open. A deep wheezy snore came rumbling through the darkness. Alex sloped out of the room hurried along the landing to his own room After a long day, he was too exhausted to even take his clothes off. Waves of heavy shadow and silence lulled him to sleep.
A tapping on his window woke him with a start. Groggy and disorientated, a vast dark night sky, speckled with glittering stars, appeared behind billowing curtains.
Thinking the wind had probably blown it open, he got up off the bed to shut it. But something moved in the glass. At first he thought it might be a reflection. A trick of the light. Maybe he was seeing things or perhaps he was dreaming but no, staring right at him were the unmistakably beady, cat-like, eyes of Mr G.
‘What the…you scared the life out of me.’
‘Didn’t take you long, did it?’
‘No… I don’t mess about.’
‘How on earth did you get up there?’
‘Never mind that… are you going to let me in or what?’
Alex opened the window and pulled Mr G into his room.
‘What do you want?’ asked Alex. ‘It’s late,’
‘Have you forgotten… you owe me.’
‘What? Right now? This minute?’
‘Well yes… no time to lose my friend…. even as we speak the planet is dying, we must act now….’
‘I can’t, I’m knackered after all that tidying and stuff.’
‘Pfff…balderdash …young people today…’ scoffed Mr G, rolling his eyes. ‘No stamina whatsoever..’
‘But…I’ve got school in the morning…’
‘School? Pretty soon there won’t be any schools left to go to...’
‘Well anyway… I’m grounded… so that’s that..’
‘Grounded?… Your mum’s asleep. I checked so who’s to know? You promised … remember? Fair’s fair isn’t it?’
‘Oh… alright,’ said Alex, stifling a yawn and rubbing his half-open, blood shot eyes.
‘Now…listen carefully… here’s the deal…take me to your friends’ houses.’
'Now... hold your horses, wait a minute, mum warned me about your lot.'
'Yes you know...filthy flashers, she calls you.’
‘You know… dirty old men…what's always hanging round kids n’ that.’
'Oh no...you couldn't be more wrong. Believe me, you couldn't be further from the truth. Now let's go.'
‘What now? It’s the middle of the night…’ said Alex.
‘Yes now… it’s the perfect time.’
‘Ok then you win… but we’ll use the stairs and doors on the way out, like normal people.’
Mr G and Alex went downstairs, out through the door and wandered down Poplar Street.
‘Err Mr G… this won’t take long, will it? Only … if I don’t get some sleep, I won’t be able to get up and if I don’t get up I won’t be able to go to school and if I don’t go to school Mum will kill me.’
‘What you sow now you will later reap,’ he replied.
‘Right…’ replied Alex, trying to work out what he was on about.
‘Can’t you walk a bit quicker?’ asked Mr G impatiently. Then heaving the crisp night air of the early Autumn evening into his lungs, he stepped up the pace. ‘The night is young but we have so much to do.’
For an old codger, he couldn’t half walk fast, thought Alex as he turned down the cobbled lane of a back street. ‘Here we go…this is the first one,’ said Alex, pointing at a dark semi- detached house with no lights, set back from the road. ‘This is Tommy Drake’s place.’
Mr G removed something from his pocket.
‘A what? Looks like a pebble to me.’
‘Never mind.’ he said. As the pebble glowed white and flashed, he waved it effortlessly over the lock on Tommy Drake’s front door. It swung open immediately.
‘Woah! How'd you do that?'
'Mind your own...,' he replied.
'I can’t go in there. When you said you wanted me to help, I didn’t think you meant this.’
‘It’ll be fine… trust me.’
‘Why do I get the feeling you’ve done this before?’
‘I have… thousands of times.’
‘Oh I get it… that’s what you are isn’t it? You’re not a tramp or a flasher or a wino at all are you? You break in to places and steal things. You’re a burglar.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous… I’m not going to steal anything.’
‘You know I thought you might be lots of things… a bit of a nutter? Maybe. A mouse munching bird freak? Absolutely. An alcy tramp that stinks like a sewer? Definitely. But I never had you down as a common thief. Well I won’t have anything to do with it. It’s not right you hear?’ Alex turned to the door.
‘Wait..’ said Mr G. ‘Stop whining… do you want us to get caught? Trust me ok? We’re friends right?’
Alex stopped suddenly and thought carefully. Nobody had ever said they were his friend before, so he followed him silently upstairs into the darkness.
Alex took out a torch from his backpack and shone it around. ‘Switch that thing off,’ whispered Mr G. ‘Do you want them to see us?’
‘Shouldn’t we put balaclavers or fishnet tights or something over our faces like they do on the telly in case they see us?’ whispered Alex.
‘Shhh… I told you… we’re not burglars.’
‘We’re not? Well that’s not how it looks to me,' he whispered with painful excitement. 'There’s Tommy’s room.’
Mr G opened the door gently, sneaked inside and crept slowly to Tommy’s bedside. Tommy was snoring with his arms above his head and mouth wide open. If only the girls could see him now, thought Alex. Mr G took something that looked suspiciously like a packet of Grandad’s sunflower seeds from his pocket and opened it. He took out a seed and placed it in the palm of his gloved hand. It was glowing with a brilliant yellow, gold light
Alex arched his eyebrows.
‘What's that?’ he asked.
‘A seed…a special seed,’ he said. Then, like he was casting some sort of spell, he muttered a few words of incomprehensible gibberish and pressed it onto Tommy’s forehead as he slept. It flashed, sparks flew off it and fizzed across the room until it disappeared inside Tommy's head.
‘All done,’ said Mr G, matter-of-factly.
‘Woah! That's incredible, Are they magic?'
‘Well yeah…. kind of.’
'So that’s it? That’s all you wanted to do?'
Mr G nodded.
'No thieving or nothing?’
Mr G shook his head.
‘Are you kidding? What’s the point of that?’
‘I’ve planted it in his head, but instead of flowers or plants, ideas will grow. They only work on dreaming children though, nobody else.’
Alex glared at him, as if he’d lost his marbles.
‘Who’s next?’ asked Mr G.
‘Erm lets see…’ said Alex, slowly getting his bearings. ‘Billy Winstanley lives not far from here but you won’t want Billy he’s a sandwich short of a picnic. Not the sharpest tool in the box and a bully, the worst in the school.’
'They're all the same to me,’ said Mr G.
‘And Stella Marlowe…lives not far, well she’s something else.’
‘You like her?’
‘Well… maybe…a bit...she’s alright for a girl.’
‘Did you snog her yet?’ asked Mr G.
‘Urrrgh, don’t be disgusting I don’t.... I mean I never you know...but she’s the most wonderful, beautiful creature in the whole wide world though.’
Mr G smiled.
By the time they had visited Billy and Stella and all the rest of the children in his class and planted seeds in every single one of their sleepy heads and returned to Alex’s house, the sun was beginning to rise bathing the world in a spooky turquoise light.
‘What you said earlier… about being my friend did you mean it?’
‘Of course… every word…’
‘Goodnight then,’ he said. As he turned down the garden path, Mr G pulled him back.
‘Listen carefully... today... you must organise a meeting on local environmental and green issues after school. Four o'clock sharp. Think you can do that?’
‘Oh you’re joking…haven’t we done enough? We’ve been at it all night. Anyway it’d be a complete waste of time… nobody will come, I’m telling you. Billy Winstanley doesn’t do after school clubs and he’ll probably have detention anyway. Tommy Drake’s got football training on Tuesday nights. And if Stella Marlowe sees a geek like me’s organised it she’d never come, not in a million years. Anyway, no one’s interested in being green it's boring and I lied none of them are my friends. I don’t have any. So forget it. Trust me it’s never going to happen.’
‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ said Mr G, taking one of his special seeds from his pocket and placing it on Alex’s forehead, so that it glowed, flashed and disappeared inside it. Then, smiling like the cat that got the cream, Mr G walked away.