When I turned round Rocky was kneeling with his head under the sofa groping for the battery. His trousers had slipped right down and his big white behind was mooning at me, which didn’t help my nausea much.
He emerged with a red football sock covered in fluff, a pound coin, and, what he’d been looking for, the vital silver-grey battery. He shoved the sock back under, pocketed the coin, slotted the battery into the controller and switched on.
‘Yay, still working. Come on, one more round. You left-handed, me with the green car, and the loser has to do a forfeit—winner’s choice.’
I laughed. Rocky’s not really stupid, but he’s definitely too optimistic for his own good.
So I played again, and won—smashed him actually—and Klaris left me alone.
While I was winning I felt normal, like nothing was going on. Afterwards I just did the usual victory dance around Rocky’s living room, and reminded him of the loser’s forfeit.
‘I think I’ll go for a ...’ I grinned in what I hoped was a crazy-axe-murderer kind of way. ‘A number seven. You have to drink a cup of tea sieved through my sock.’
‘You’re joking, Joseph. That’s sick.’
I grinned. ‘Actually, you invented seven yourself. I thought you’d want to be the first to try it out.’ I threw the controller, more gently this time, onto the sofa. ‘Go and put the kettle on.’
The Cliffs’ kitchen is so old fashioned that it looks like the Victorian Home exhibit at our local museum.
Instead of a cooker they have a rusty old green range with a clothes dryer full of underwear hanging over it. Then there’s the mismatched wooden cupboards and big old pine table in the middle. Where we have lino on the floor, they have flagstones that are uneven with big cracks between them, and every time one of the Cliffs drops a glass it smashes into a million pieces and someone shouts, ‘Sack the juggler,’ which stopped being funny ages ago.
Rocky had his hand in the pig biscuit barrel that used to oink, and was groping around, the tip of his tongue poking from the corner of his mouth. ‘Oh, come on, you beauty. Yesss!’ He pulled out an ancient-looking chocolate digestive, so covered in biscuit dust that its shiny brown coating had been camouflaged. He broke it in half and gave me the larger piece.
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘But don’t think you can bribe your way out of the punishment.’ I slipped off my trainer, followed by the grey sports sock that had once been white, and dangled it in his face. It still held the ghost- ly shape of my foot, but with a coin-sized hole in the big toe.
Rocky wrinkled his nose. ‘When was the last time you changed these?’
‘Clean on this week.’ I paused. ‘Or last.’
‘I know, how about a rematch?’ he tried. ‘Loser has to do two forfeits.’
I laughed. ‘Get on with it. It’s just a slightly damp, very smelly sock. You know you’ve done worse.’
Rocky frowned. ‘Yeah, but never to you. Only to Flea, and that doesn’t count.’ He sighed. ‘All right, but just one sip. I’m not drinking the whole thing.’
I shook my head. ‘Under the rules of engagement you have to either do the punishment yourself, and that means drinking the whole lot, or find someone else to do it for you, and there isn’t anyone else. So you’d better get on with it.’
There was silence for a moment as Rocky shovelled spoonfuls of his mum’s lapsang souchong tea leaves down into the foot of my sock. When a trail started to pour, like ants, from the toe he put it into a mug and filled it to the brim with hot water.
‘This posh tea’ll disguise the taste,’ he said. ‘D’you think I should have it with milk? My mum likes it black.’
‘Definitely a splash,’ I said. ‘Milk and cheese go together well. They’re practically the same stuff.’
He dunked it for a bit, then slopped the tea-filled sock into the sink and reached for the sugar. ‘This is gonna need a lot of sweetening.’
‘Hey, don’t take all the sugar,’ Pooh said, coming into the room clutching a vampire novel. ‘I want a cup of tea too.’
I’d noticed that she was now about an inch taller than me, even though I’m a few months older. She was wearing denim shorts and a white vest top, and the weeks spent lying in the garden had turned her skin brown and bleached her long hair to a pale straw colour.
She sniffed at Rocky’s tea. ‘That smells nice, kind of smoky. Think I’ll have one of them too.’
‘You don’t usually drink this fancy stuff,’ said Rocky. Then he whispered loudly to me, ‘She’s trying to look mature to impress you.’
‘Dream on,’ said Pooh, but her cheeks went pink. ‘Move out of the way so I can make myself one.’
Rocky grinned at me and held his cup out. ‘Here you go, Pooh, I’ll let you have mine. I think I prefer the normal stuff.’
She took the cup from him, giving it another sniff.
‘What’ve you done to it?’
Rocky frowned. ‘What d’you mean?’ He put on a sort of abandoned puppy face. ‘You think I’ve poisoned it, don’t you? Oh my God, Pooh, you’re unbelievable! I do something nice for you, my only sister, and you think I’m trying to kill you. It’s s’posed to smell like that. It’s posh tea. Posh tea always smells funny. That’s the point of it. Come on, Joseph,’ he said, standing stiffly, ‘Let’s leave Pooh to enjoy her “poisoned” tea.’
As we left the room she must have noticed the sock in the sink.
‘Hey, what’s this?’
We ran out to the garden and lay on the grass laughing. I took off my other sock and hid it in my pocket.
‘Don’t worry, Joseph,’ said Rocky. ‘If she realizes I’ll say Klaris did it.’
My heart did a sort of bunny hop. ‘Yeah, but Flea’s not here,’ I replied, trying to sound normal. ‘So how could it have anything to do with Klaris?’
Rocky grinned, his large front teeth reflecting the sunlight. ‘Haven’t you heard? Klaris has been a naughty little imaginary person. My dad thinks she’s going rogue.’
I tried to control my voice, but couldn’t trust myself to say more than, ‘Why?’
‘Oh, it’s just a load of little things, but Dad keeps saying that’s how it started at Shorefield. Y’know, one minute they’re hiding the toothpicks, and then before you know it they’re murdering us all in our beds.’
He started ripping the petals off a daisy. ‘Wouldn’t have thought little Klaris would have it in her, person- ally. Anyway, he’s talking about calling in the Council.’
‘What, you mean for the Cosh?’
He nodded. ‘Yeah, but I don’t reckon he’ll do it. Not to Flea. He’s all talk.’
I tried to digest this information for a moment, but it gave me a stomach ache. I hadn’t told anyone that Klaris was bothering me. I couldn’t. It’s only weird, loner kids like Flea that have imaginary people in their heads. Not thirteen-year-olds with mates, who play in a football team and aren’t particularly good at art or writing, and definitely don’t have an over-developed imagination. Not kids like me, who are so normal it’s almost abnormal.
And no one, no matter how abnormal, has someone else’s. Not unless they’ve migrated that is, which wasn’t something I was ready to think about.
‘So, what’s she supposed to have done?’
‘Oh, nothing much. Dad’s just annoyed cos she’s been turning the lights on in the car and running the battery down so he has to walk to work. You know how lazy he is.’
‘Just the car lights?’ I asked, when all I really wanted to know was, is she driving anyone else mad by invad- ing their head and taking over their thoughts?
‘Dunno. Ask crazy boy,’ Rocky nodded his head towards Flea, who was walking across the lawn on his tiptoes smiling, but not at us.
‘Oi, Flea!’ shouted Rocky. ‘Joseph wants to know what Klaris has been up to.’
Flea gazed in my direction for a moment, his eyes blank and his mouth gaping like a fish on ice, then he turned and ran back to the house.
‘How rude,’ said Rocky. ‘That boy needs to learn some manners. Not surprising no one likes him.’
But I knew he wasn’t being rude. He was listening to Klaris. And he didn’t like what he heard.