Olive Whinging was in her first week of her latest new job: a part-time helper at one of the bookshops on the high street. She’d had a relatively difficult time trying to convince the manager of the shop that she was genuinely interested in books, but she wouldn’t have come to work there anyway if she hadn’t been dismissed from all the other shops in the street within a week of her first starting. And she could tell, from the surly and very provocative attitude of the supervisor who was meant to be training her that she probably wouldn’t last much longer here, either.
Miss Pork was a thin, tall woman with an expression which suggested that she was sniffing something horrid. She had a habit of tilting her head back so that she could survey Olive with distaste. She reminded Olive a little of Priscilla Rowlings, that long-ago figure from her childhood (and, briefly, her adulthood), but whilst Priscilla had been prone to obsession about cleanliness and germs, Miss Pork’s main passion in life was something slightly different. From the moment that Olive had arrived, Miss Pork had not stopped talking about health and safety. The regulations of the shop ordered that everyone, upon employment, had to read a very long, very boring manual on that very subject, and Miss Pork delighted in carrying it around with her so that she had full written proof whenever she believed that Olive was endangering human life by slotting a book onto a shelf without taking the proper precautions.
Olive had read manuals of a similar style in all of her previous jobs, and she had not paid attention to any of them, ever. So she was sure, when she was sat down in a storeroom with the manual on her very first day, that she could have a little nap when pretending to read it, but Miss Pork had other ideas.
“Right, Olive. Please tell me which is the correct fire extinguisher to use in the event of an electric fire, and please list all the main elements of the substance within the fire extinguisher,” Miss Pork barked, snatching the manual out of Olive’s hands as soon as she muttered, “Finished” upon waking up around an hour later.
Olive stared at her. “Well, water,” she muttered lazily. “My husband usually uses water to put out fires if ever I have a little trouble with the oven…”
“No!” Miss Pork boomed. Her face turned purple and her chin began to wobble violently. “No no no no! Water? On an electric fire? It’s the carbon dioxide one you should use, of course! Tell me, Olive, do you want everyone in this shop to perish horribly?”
Olive was just in the middle of seriously considering her answer when Miss Pork decided to test her knowledge some more. “Please recite passage 273 on the dangers of post-it notes.”
“The dangers of post-it notes?” Olive said, staring again. Then she realised; of course! This was obviously a trick question. She gave her answer very proudly: “There are no dangers of post-it notes. The passage doesn’t exist.”
Miss Pork’s thin, blue lips opened and shut like a fish, and once again her chin began wobbling. Her fingers went so stiff with shock that for a moment it looked as though she was ready to drop her beloved manual. “Are…are you mad, woman?” she gasped, clutching at her chest. “No dangers of post-it notes? Why, of course the passage exists! Were you paying no attention whatsoever? Think about all the dangers post-it notes pose: you could get one stuck in your throat! You could get a paper cut and bleed to death, or the wound could become infected! They might fall off the wall, and then somebody might slip on one and have a potentially fatal fall! I have very frail legs, Olive; would you want me to trip and fall to my death?”
Again, Olive was seriously considering her answer, but Miss Pork interrupted to ask her to explain the many potential hazards of wearing wedding rings in the workplace.
Long story short, Olive was forced to spend several hours having the manual read to her by Miss Pork. She was reminded of how the particularly zealous chaplain back when she was evacuated to the countryside used to read the Bible in church with such passion that he often found that he was shouting his sermon, usually something to do with Hell, at the sinful congregation. Miss Pork put particular emphasis on the grisly results of what could happen when a square of toilet paper was dropped on the floor of the staff toilet in the same way that Reverend Lucifer used to describe the way in which devils would poke red-hot tridents into small children for refusing to eat their vegetables.
But now she was a week into her job, and Miss Pork was still constantly complaining at her, the immortal manual clutched to her chest with those deathly, claw-like fingers.
“Olive!” Miss Pork choked out on this particular day. Her eyes were wide and bright with horror, and her finger shook as she pointed towards the offending objects. “You are…you are wearing severely inappropriate clothing for the workplace!”
Olive groaned. She’d actually been particularly careful not to violate the company’s strict rules on employees’ clothing; she had been going to wear her green sparkly cocktail dress, but Miss Pork would probably have some rule somewhere which said that sequins were a threat to human survival, so she had worn cotton trousers, a jumper and a pair of flat, lace-up shoes.
“The health and safety manual clearly states that employees should not wear clothing which is a danger to themselves or others!” Miss Pork continued, promptly opening the manual to the relevant page and waving her evidence in Olive’s face.
“I’m not wearing anything which is a danger to myself or anyone else!” Olive cried incredulously. She looked down at her clothes. She wasn’t wearing a bomb on the end of her necklace. She didn’t have a load of swords sticking out of her jumper. What was the problem?
Once again, Miss Pork pointed her shaking finger at Olive’s shoes, and her chin began to wobble. “Shoe laces!” she managed to gag, pronouncing the phrase as though it was some sort of horrendous swear word. “Shoe laces…danger….self and others!”
“What’s wrong with shoe laces?” Olive almost shrieked.
“What’s right with them?” Miss Pork choked, flicking to another page in the manual. “Think of all the potential dangers of shoe laces! They could become untied and you might trip and kill yourself! You could get them lodged in your throat and choke on them! You could strangle yourself with them! They could get them knotted around the light fixtures on the ceiling and you could accidentally hang yourself! Anything can happen!” Miss Pork said, hanging onto a nearby table as she tried to contain her nervous hysteria. “Do you want me to choke on shoe laces because of you?”
“Well…” Olive started.
“Good!” Miss Pork cried in a very high-pitched voice. “Fantastic! Wonderful! I’m glad that’s sorted out! Now please get back to arranging those books into the correct order! With the proper precautions, please! If you place the old ones too near the door, one of those builders outside might inhale some dust and have an allergic reaction!”
Olive was just turning crossly around to survey the enormous pile of boring-looking books at one end of the room, when the manager of the shop walked in.
Mrs. Carbery was a much nicer person than Miss Pork, though that was a huge understatement. If Mrs. Carbery’s friendly smile hadn’t been so sickly, Olive might even have liked her. The manager certainly wasn’t as keen as Miss Pork on the matter of health and safety, though her anxious voice could quite commonly be heard urging her employees to be careful whenever they lifted a particularly heavy box of books.
“Perhaps Olive would care to do something different?” Mrs. Carbery said gently to Miss Pork, giving Olive a warm smile. “Perhaps she’d like to work on the computers? We have some very interesting books over there which need to be valued.”
“Finally. A sensible suggestion,” Olive muttered to herself.
She did not return Mrs. Carbery’s smile, but simply stalked off to the other end of the room and plonked herself down at a computer. At least she could do something interesting on the computer. And it certainly was not her intention to sit valuing books all day long.
“All right, but don’t grip the mouse too hard!” Miss Pork called over. “We cannot have any of our employees breaking all the bones in their hands! It would make lifting more difficult, and they might drop a box of books on someone’s toe!”
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Mrs. Carbery whispered whilst Miss Pork was still talking, and quietly slipped out of the room.
However, at that moment, Mrs. Carbery was almost knocked flat on the floor as someone came racing into the storeroom. Miss Pork stood up at the sight of this atrocity and screeched something so high-pitched that it was indistinguishable, though Olive could just about make out the word ‘death’ on her lips. But as the dust cleared from the huge pile of books which had just been disturbed, Olive was able to recognise Miss Peach, a receptionist from Ethel’s school, standing breathing heavily as though she had been forced to run for miles.
“Mrs. Whinging!” she wheezed, reaching out a hand towards Olive. “Mrs. Whinging, please, come quickly! You’re needed up at the school! It’s Ethel!”
Ten minutes later, Olive was sitting on a straight-backed unpadded seat in front of the head teacher’s desk. Upon drearily marching past the grey sign outside the school (‘St. Kev’s Inner-City Academy – where everyone has an equal chance of failure’), there had arisen in Olive’s heart the usual feeling of dread. Miss Peach conducted her down several identical, grey, grimy corridors where they had had to concentrate on trying to avoid the occasional flaming roll of flying toilet paper as they made the hazardous trip to the main office, and Olive had been told to wait for a few minutes, during which time Miss Peach and the head mistress Miss Misery muttered darkly to one another in the next room as they eyed her mysteriously through a glass door.
After fifteen minutes, Miss Misery walked into the room and sat down at the desk in front of Olive. Olive leant back in her seat and yawned as Miss Misery uttered the usual preliminary drivel about how Ethel’s behaviour had recently been improving so much but that now she was in serious danger of being expelled, and then today’s crime was revealed:
“Mrs. Whinging,” Miss Misery said in her deep, booming voice, characteristically clasping her hands together on the middle of the desk where they seemed to act as the main focus in the room. “I am a patient and careful woman, and it is my everlasting belief that any child can be tamed with strict discipline and faithful understanding. But I have to admit that your daughter has been making my job extremely difficult recently.”
“Yes, yes,” Olive said impatiently. “I’ve heard all of this before. Just tell me what she’s done.”
Miss Misery was quiet for a few moments, and Olive watched her gravely take out a large, thick file from a drawer in her desk with an intricate movement which suggested she’d been practising. Miss Misery placed it on the desk between the two women, where both could see the typed name ‘Ethel Whinging’ on the front. The file was enormous and looked very heavy, and the card cover was grimy and furring at the edges from so much continual use. The head teacher proceeded to undo the complicated knots of the string which was the only way of keeping the whole enormous object from falling apart, and she drew out a piece of paper entitled ‘Crimes of St. Kev’s – Ethel Whinging’. The present date was clearly visible at the top of the page.
“Mrs. Whinging, I understand that Ethel sometimes finds it difficult to restrain her temper, but it would simply be irresponsible of me to continue to let Ethel remain with the other children when she has been known to throw bricks through another class’s form room window simply because she believed they were treading too heavily on the floor.”
“Don’t you think you should simply ask the other children to stop annoying her so much?” Olive asked rudely. “Or is it just that the little brat doesn’t understand how to beat someone up?”
“Mrs. Whinging, please,” Miss Misery pleaded. “We prefer the word ‘girl’, or ‘child’, to ‘brat’, and I certainly would not advocate that Ethel were to go around intentionally injuring the other children. In fact, it is not even my belief that the class in question were attempting to annoy Ethel, or even that they were walking upstairs more loudly than usual. Tell me, Mrs. Whinging, have you ever taken your daughter for a psychiatric evaluation?”
Olive blinked. “No,” she said simply.
“Hmmm,” said Miss Misery. “I fear the problem may lie purely with Ethel, you see. After all, St. Kev’s does have to take into account that all the accusations made against other pupils have been made by Ethel herself, and it is generally only Ethel who feels that she can deal with the situation …”
“She’s just confident,” Olive muttered, but even she had her serious doubts about her violent, brattish daughter whose interest in education was about as strong as Olive’s interest in Frederick’s stamp collection. She had come to be certain that there was something wrong with Ethel, and not something that could be diagnosed. Olive couldn’t help thinking that she and her daughter would never exactly see eye to eye.
“She is confident,” Miss Misery agreed. “But perhaps she is too confident. This is the third time this month we have had to request a meeting with you or your husband due to Ethel having damaged school property. And there have also been several other incidents which have involved Ethel actually causing harm to other children, both physically and psychologically.”
“Your school’s motto is ‘where everyone has an equal chance of failure’!” Olive growled angrily, though internally she was proud that she was able to remember this and use it to argue her point. “Doesn’t that tell you something? That it might just be your lousy school that’s the issue here?”
“That is our motto, Mrs. Whinging, but as you’ll remember, we were forced to adjust that motto last year after Ethel joined us,” said Miss Misery. “In fact, I think it’s probable that she was the main factor which caused the Ofsted inspectors to suggest the motto. But back to the point, Ethel’s crimes in the area of harm to property and pupils are numerous, but her insolence and lack of motivation in lessons are even more so.”
Miss Misery was not wrong. Olive was well aware that Ethel did not exactly get on well with her teachers, and almost every day Ethel came home with some suspicious-looking letter from one of the staff at the school. She had ordered her Maths teacher to choke on his fractions. She had told her English teacher to eat her copy of ‘Macbeth’. She had requested that her Chemistry teacher boil his head in a basin of sulphuric acid. She had asked her History teacher to hack herself to death with Henry VIII’s axe. And, which the school put most emphasis on, Ethel seemed no more educationally advanced at the age of twelve than her file suggested she had been at the age of eight or nine. Olive didn’t see the massive problem in this, but the school were constantly moaning to her about it.
“…and I’m sure you remember, Mrs. Whinging, that Ethel will be due to take her GCSE exams in just three years’ time,” Miss Misery continued after at least ten minutes of listing Ethel’s less serious crimes of that week. “They’re new, you know; the courses started last year and they’ll be examined in the summer for the first time, and I must admit that I am seriously concerned about Ethel’s chances of passing them when her own year comes to be tested.”
“Well, maybe she’s just thick,” Olive suggested suddenly.
Miss Misery blinked and looked at Olive in amazement, obviously not used to parents speaking in this way about their own children. But Olive’s expression seemed to her to convey that intelligence wasn’t the characteristic Olive most valued in a person anyway. Miss Misery was unsure what more to say.
“…Mrs. Whinging, I think the best course of action may perhaps be to send Ethel home for a few days, just until she calms down, and until we have managed to replace the broken window and obtain the required therapy services for the other children,” she said carefully. “It’s more for Ethel’s own safety and for the safety of the other children than anything else. Ethel is a popular girl, Mrs. Whinging, and I am, errr, sure that she could do very well if she simply applied herself. But so far…”
“All right!” Olive said impatiently, almost toppling over the chair she had been sitting on as she abruptly stood up and slung her bag onto her shoulder dramatically. “I’ve heard it all before, Miss Misery. Many times. I am a useless parent and have a useless daughter. Understood!”
Miss Misery began to shake her head and shape her mouth into an ‘n’ shape, but in her eyes there could be detected a slight hint of relief, as though Olive already understood something she’d been trying to avoid pointing out to her. But by the time the head teacher had uttered the word ‘no’, Olive had flounced out of the office door and proceeded to push past a couple of large, rough-looking children in the corridor, narrowly avoiding being knocked unconscious with a flying rock in the playground, and marched out of the front gate.
“Mama! Guess what I discovered!” cried James that evening, as Olive threw open the front door and headed for the kitchen. He was just looking up from the microscope that his best friend Dorkus Finn had given him for his ninth birthday. “If you take a palisade cell from the underside of a leaf and observe it very closely at a times-one-thousand magnification…”
“Quiet, James!” Olive snapped. “I don’t have time right now.”
Olive marched into the living room and found Frederick eating crisps and watching adverts on television. “Fred!” she barked.
Frederick looked around and grinned, showing the bits of food that were stuck in his teeth. “Hallo, Olive!” he said happily. “Great day at work; Augustus is thinking of buying a new stamp album to keep in the cabinet. But anyway, Olive, you should watch some of these adverts! There was just this amazing one about garden shears, and you wouldn’t believe the quality of the camera shots-”
“Fred, where’s Ethel?” Olive barked, not even bothering to tell him to shut up.
“Oh, she’s upstairs in her room,” Frederick replied blankly, looking disappointed that Olive wasn’t showing more of an interest in the advert about the garden shears. Then he looked at her face a little more carefully. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“That bloody whatshername…Miss Peach came round to the shop again,” Olive growled, marching towards the door. “Must say I was glad to get out of that stupid place…but that’s not the point! Where’s Ethel….don’t know what is wrong with that silly girl…”
Frederick didn’t hear any more because Olive had walked briskly out of the door and was now stomping up the stairs, her footsteps making very loud banging noises on the already-squeaky floorboards. Frederick shrugged to himself and went back to eating his crisps and watching the adverts on television.
Upstairs, the commotion began.
“Ethel!” Olive shrieked, flinging open Ethel’s bedroom door, not seeming to care as the handle slammed against the wall.
Ethel Whinging was playing very loud, pounding music on her cassette player, so she had managed not to hear her mother bounding up the stairs. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to her bed in front of a full-length mirror which leant against the wall, and was conscientiously applying make-up to her eyelids. At the moment that Olive slammed open the door and shrieked at her, Ethel’s hand jogged and she accidentally drew a long black line down her cheek.
“Mum!” Ethel yelled, frantically plucking a wet wipe out of a nearby packet and rubbing at her face. “What are you doing? You made me jog my eyeliner! I’ve been working on that for an hour and a half now!”
“What’s this I hear about you throwing bricks through windows at the school?” Olive shouted. “How do you think that makes me look? Everyone will think that this family is full of complete idiots!”
“This family is full of complete idiots,” Ethel reminded her, rolling her eyes as she remembered how stupid her mother was. She turned around to face the mirror again so that she could begin the delicate process of repairing the damages done to the complex foundations of her make-up.
“Oh, really?” Olive hissed menacingly, feeling very tempted to run up, grab one of Ethel’s lipsticks and draw all over her face with it. “Well, let me tell you this, Ethel: your father may be idiot. You may be an idiot. That pathetic brother of yours may be an idiot. But I am not an idiot. And I’m not having anyone thinking that I am! So why can’t you just behave yourself at school?”
“Because they’re all a bunch of morons, duh,” Ethel said rudely. “I could be doing better things than wasting my time in that stupid place. I could be seeing Dean.”
“Who’s Dean?” Olive asked, sounding more curious than demanding. “Is he your boyfriend?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“I’m your mother!”
“Well, you’re a rubbish mother.”
“You think I’m a rubbish mother?” Olive shrieked. “You should have grown up with my mother! She did nothing except dust the house all day long, and she didn’t care about me at all! Me and your auntie Mary had to just get on with our lives without any kind of adult influence, and the only reason we got to where we are now is through our own efforts!”
“Ah, so that’s why we have such a rubbishy house,” Ethel muttered, but before Olive could shriek anything in reply she spoke again: “Besides, I heard you telling Dad just yesterday that you were so glad that your mum never paid any attention to you because you liked being independent and that if you’d had a pair of stupid controlling parents you’d never have gotten anywhere in life.”
Olive wasn’t quite sure what to say to this. “I was upset then,” she said quickly. “I didn’t mean what I said.”
“Upset?” Ethel said, turning round and raising one straight, painted eyebrow at her mother. “You were saying that because you were happy. You’d just won twenty pounds on the lottery.”
“Enough!” Olive thundered, though Ethel was well aware, as was evident from her malicious smirk, that Olive had only said this to avoid having to come up with a reasonable answer. Olive decided to try a different tactic: “Ethel, I’m warning you. If you carry on throwing bricks through windows and behaving badly at school, I’m cancelling your thirteenth birthday party!”
“No use doing that,” Ethel said calmly. “I’ve already told all the boys at school that it’s on, and they’ll probably bring all their friends. Dean, Brendan, Raymond, Sean; all of them. Plus I’ve told all my girlfriends. And it’s you they’ll be angry at if you don’t let me have the party.”
Olive glared into the mirror at Ethel, who was simply continuing to apply her make-up. Olive really, really wanted to be able to shriek at Ethel that she was not having a thirteenth birthday party and that she didn’t care if all of Olive’s silly little friends hated her, but she’d be lying. Ethel had lots and lots of friends: a gaggle of giggling girls whose faces seemed to be more cream and powder than skin, and whole bunches of boys, many of whom were several years older than the girls. It was the boys that Olive cared about most. She knew that she definitely would care if these boys started to dislike her. She was well aware that she was a little too old for them, but as soon as she ever caught sight of any of them, she stopped caring. But the thing that intimidated Olive the most about this was that she wasn’t sure whether Ethel understood this or not.
“Why should I care whether your friends hate me?” Olive tried.
“Because if you don’t have a party, I’ll get my friends to come and prank you or something,” Ethel muttered, and Olive breathed a sigh of relief.
Without saying anything more, and to the relief of both of them, Olive simply left the room and plodded down the stairs, her mind preoccupied. She walked into the living room and sat beside Frederick on the sofa. Although Olive allowed him to annoyingly babble on at her about the adverts on the television, and, later, the fascinating programme about staplers he was watching, she was not listening in the slightest, and didn’t even have to order anyone to stop making any noise because she was so absorbed and at the same time so relieved.
It was all right. Ethel didn’t know.
By the time February came, Ethel’s poor behaviour at school had escalated even more, causing her to have several more exclusions from St. Kev’s, and Olive and Frederick had been sent an important-looking letter from the school governors, warning them that next time Ethel did something wrong, she would be permanently expelled.
To be fair, Olive and Frederick didn’t even know about the full extent of the trouble that Ethel was in. Ethel was accustomed to spending most of the days when she was excluded hanging around the local blocks of council flats, chatting casually to gangs of rough-looking young men and attempting to look as eighteen as possible in order that she might be able to buy some alcohol. Admittedly, she had not yet succeeded in this, despite much experimentation with mini-skirts and grown-up hairstyles, but Ethel was not one for giving up when she wanted something.
So by the time the evening of 17th February arrived, Ethel had not actually been forbidden from having a thirteenth birthday party. Suspiciously, Olive had actually encouraged her to have the party at home. Ethel remembered that she had permitted it after she had glanced at Ethel’s long guest list, but Ethel was too busy organising which songs should be played at the party to pay much attention to this.
It was half past seven in the evening, and music was already playing. Every downstairs room in the house, even the toilet, glowed with pink fairy lights, and in the living room, in the middle of the canapé table, there was a bowl of punch as big as a paddling pool. Olive had considered asking Ethel precisely which beverages the punch was made from after she had spotted Ethel pouring liquid from a suspicious-looking bottle into it when she thought no one was looking, but by five in the afternoon she had begun to panic about how long it would take her to get ready. Olive was sure – certain, even – that this would be her night. Who cared that it was Ethel’s birthday? Ethel had had enough wild birthday parties (starting with her fifth birthday party, where she had secretly managed to replace the box of sweets her father had wrapped in the bundles of wrapping paper for ‘Pass the Parcel’ with some smuggled fireworks) for years and years, but Olive had never had proper birthday parties. Olive’s mother had been unwilling enough to let Olive into the house on some occasions, let alone Olive’s bunch of squabbling, dirty little friends. Anyway, for once, Olive was going to get what she wanted, and she was going to make a significant impression on the younger generation.
Olive had been planning what she would wear for the party for a very long time, and she had also planned which outfit Frederick would wear, he being focused on the outfits of Augustus and Adolphus (which he had not told Olive anything about, saying that it was a big surprise). Olive had even permitted Mary to choose her own outfit for the party, and Mary had dashed into the house earlier that afternoon wearing a long, brown coat over her clothes so no one would see. She and Olive spent a very long time getting their make-up ready (Olive had been taking more notice of the way that Ethel presented herself recently, as she wanted to look as modern and ‘with it’ as possible), and trying to decide which jewellery went best with their clothes, and by half past seven the dilemma was continuing. They were going to time their actual entrance to the party itself very, very carefully.
Ethel had been ready for the past four and a half hours, but still insisted on carrying around a small mirror so that she could check her appearance every couple of seconds to ensure that she would be presentable to her friends. The first few guests, including both Ethel’s closest friends and a few youths she didn’t think she had ever met before, had begun to arrive. Even with only around ten people in the downstairs rooms, the volume was already increasing, and the party promised to be rather wild. Olive, glancing out of her bedroom window every so often, spotted the angry faces of the pensioners next door peering through a gap in their curtains.
Ethel had cheered up over the past few minutes. Her three greatest admirers (Dean Jackson, Raymond Calzone and Sean Acne) had recently arrived and were busy drooling at her from across the room, but Ethel was more focused on the entrance of a certain Brendan Cucumber, a ferociously attractive boy from three years above whom most girls at St. Kev’s followed like the paparazzi. It was probably just a matter of time before they started dashing after him with pieces of paper and pink gel pens for autographs, and not long after that they’d be after him with microphones, wanting exclusive interviews for an insight into his mysterious, dreamy world. Ethel could scarcely even believe that he was agreeing to come to her party. It was true that most of the girls at the school looked up to Ethel (they were all brattish, violent and rude to a much lesser degree, so even to the older girls Ethel was something of a role model), but Ethel couldn’t help feeling sure that Brendan should have been at some much more high profile party; perhaps one of the ones that all the celebrities went to.
So Dean, Raymond and Sean continued to stare at Ethel, Ethel continued to steal glances at Brendan, and Brendan peered lazily around the room, winking at the occasional girl. It wasn’t long before a few of the more susceptible girls were crashing to the floor in ecstatic faints, feeling as though all their aims in life had been fulfilled with that one look. But Ethel thought that maybe, just maybe, Brendan had aimed more than one interesting glance in her direction. Doing her best to contain herself, she waltzed across the room and out into the hall with the aim of asking some trivial question to one of Brendan’s close friends, in the hopes that he might butt in to see what all the fuss was about. She might even end up having an actual conversation with him…
But it was at this point that Ethel happened to accidentally peer up the stairs. Then her jaw dropped. Her face turned deathly pale. Her eyes suggested a mix of emotion; maybe half shock and half plain horror. Her step slowed until she actually came to a complete stop on the way to the kitchen. She didn’t notice as one of the tiny plates in her hand tipped and toppled onto the floor as her grip loosened. She didn’t notice as Hercules, the cat, came up and started trying to use her velvet shoe as a scratching post. And she didn’t even notice as Brendon Cucumber grinned in her direction and asked, “What’s the matter, Gorgeous?” She didn’t notice these things because what she was seeing in front of her eyes was terrible, terrible. Something that even in this barmy household, she had never even thought to imagine. No, it couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be. It was just too much of a nightmare. She urged herself to wake up….but she didn’t wake up. She re-opened her eyes, addressed the sight in front of her, and had to accept, no matter how awful, what she saw.
Ethel’s fifty-eight-year-old mother was standing proudly at the top of the stairs, wearing a tight blue sequinned mini dress and a pair of sparkly blue high-heeled shoes. On her face was about an inch of make-up, making her look remarkably like Mary on her idea of a night-out. Her blue eye-shadow had been unprofessionally spread out all over her forehead, and the bright-red lipstick was not just on her lips, but all over her chin and the tip of her nose as well. Also, Olive had spread glitter all over her face, but had used so much that it looked as though her head had been replaced by some sort of disco ball. Her greying hair was piled up in a style that was supposed to look fashionable…but didn’t.
But Ethel’s attention was switched away from her mother for one second by the appearance of two more figures at Ethel’s side. At first glance, the first looked like some kind of monster with bright-pink hair in some sort of green mermaid costume. The other was a tall, chubby man dressed in lederhosen and a small red cap on his head.
“Mary, I told you not to wear the mermaid costume,” Ethel heard her mother hiss at the pink-haired monster. “It doesn’t go with your hair…”
“Oh, but I had my hair done this colour specially!” Mary whispered back. “I love it! And the mermaid costume was the errr, what’s that word again?”
“Hippest,” said Olive tiredly.
“Err, yeah, it was the hippest thing I could find in my wardrobe,” said Mary. “I thought it might look a bit like a dress. I want to look like a teenage girl in a dress. Do I look like a teenage girl in a dress? That’s the aim, to look like a teenage girl in a dress…”
“You look like a fifty-eight-year-old woman in a mermaid costume,” said the man in lederhosen, a little miserably. “Olive, why do I have to wear this silly outfit?”
“It looks great, Fred!” Olive insisted. “I bet that’s what all the hip young guys are wearing nowadays.”
“Oh, Olive, Olive!” Mary cried suddenly, tapping Olive hurriedly on the shoulder. “Look, there’s Ethel!”
“Yes, I know, Mary,” Olive said. “I saw her. I was just about to say something. Aww, look at her, she’s stunned by how wonderful we look!”
“Oh, but don’t say anything yet!” cried Frederick. “Ethel, you haven’t seen Uncle Augustus and Uncle Adolphus yet!”
Ethel looked positively shell-shocked; shell-shocked and even a little afraid. Was she going insane? Surely, not even her mother could do something this crazy? Terrible? Deranged? Ethel didn’t answer that. But Frederick and Mary too? And the possibility of Uncle Augustus and Uncle Adolphus looking equally ridiculous?
Yes, it was all true. In the following couple of moments, two more figures appeared at Frederick’s side. Augustus and Adolphus had both painted their faces completely with orange paint so that they looked as though they had spent a year in the sun in Hawaii. Their neat, flouncy curls had been dyed a startling shade of bright green, and they wore dark clothes with a strange little apron, and pairs of shoes with turned-up toes.
“We’re oompa-lumpas!” Augustus said unnecessarily.
“Don’t they look fabulous?” Frederick said to Olive enthusiastically. “We borrowed the costumes from that weird shop on the corner, Adolphus found the hair-dye, and I did the make-up. Do you think they look like the real ones from the film, Olive?”
Olive considered for a minute, taking it all in. So that was why Frederick had spent the last couple of days sitting with his nose pressed up against the television playing ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, hastily scribbling notes into a little notebook. Augustus and Adolphus were quite like the oompa-lumpas really, and their hair really looked identical now that it had been dyed green. She had to admit; they were good costumes. And she thought she hadn’t seen Augustus and Adolphus this excited for as long as she’d known them.
“Yeah, they’re pretty hip,” said Olive dismissively. She wouldn’t kid them into thinking that their costumes were as good as hers was; that just wouldn’t be fair. “I, err, like what you’ve done with the hair, and the shoes and everything….”
“Oh, yeah, that was me!” said Augustus, grinning. “It wasn’t that hard; we just put garters on our legs and attached the tips of the shoes to them with string. Oh, is the string a bit too obvious?”
“No, it’s fine, it’s fine, don’t bend over!” Frederick shouted frantically as Augustus and Adolphus stooped to examine their shoes. Then he turned to his wife. “Don’t you bend over, either, Olive. That dress looks really tight; didn’t the shop have a bigger size?”
“Shut up, Fred!” growled Olive ferociously, but she looked faintly anxious at she peered down at her outfit. “It’s fine! And I’m not getting a bigger size than this; it’s not like I’m fat or anything.”
Frederick just shrugged. The five adults proceeded to walk slowly down the stairs, most of them having to pause on each step to assess whether any damage had been done to their appearances.
Meanwhile, Ethel had disappeared. She had a close friend named Olivia, who seemed a little confused to find her friend crouching, trembling, under the buffet table whilst most other people in the house were dancing to the pounding music or slumping into chairs, having drunk a little too much of the punch. Olivia was not used to seeing Ethel, who was usually so dignified and aloof, hiding.
“Hey, Ethel, what’s going on?” Olivia asked, stooping to glance under the table at her friend. “You’re missing everything! Great party, by the way.”
“Don’t look at me!” Ethel growled. “Whatever you do, don’t draw any attention to me at all! Where are those people?”
“The ones who just came down the stairs! The adults! The people in the stupid outfits!”
Olivia glanced up and surveyed the room. There were now so many young people present that they had had to dance practically shoulder to shoulder with very little breathing room, but Olivia spotted five people enter the room who actually seemed to have at least a foot of space surrounding them on all sides, as no one was willing to get nearer. Two of the people had orange skin and green hair. Another, who looked very similar to the first two, was wearing a lederhosen and a small red hat. Then there were two women: one wearing a green mermaid costume and currently attempting to chat to some of the other guests, and the other wearing a minidress and looked as though she had had her face attacked by a drunken face-painter.
“Who are they?” Olivia whispered, looking slightly nervous. “Do you know them, Ethel?”
“No!” Ethel hissed, feeling like she could burst into tears with rage and despair.
“They keep saying, ‘Where’s Ethel?’,” Olivia reported, still peering across the room. “Are you sure you don’t know them?”
“Of course I’m sure, idiot!” Ethel cried. “It just might be possible that they might have heard of me. They’re probably some of my mother’s stupid friends. Don’t let them see me, whatever you do!”
“Your mother’s friends?” repeated Olivia. She wrinkled her nose. “Your parents aren’t like them, are they?”
“No way! They…they volunteer at the local mental hospital.”
“Woah! Those people are escaped mental patients?”
“Probably. They don’t look dangerous though, do they? Just leave them be, and I’m sure they’ll go away in their own time…”
“I don’t think they’re dangerous,” said Olivia uncertainly, with a smirk. She was looking hard at Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus, who had just collapsed to the floor in a fit of giggles.
That was when they heard the loud ripping noise.
“Oh, my!” Olive squealed from across the room, surveying the enormous tear in her minidress and then eyeing the boys. She had been downstairs for just over three minutes.
“I told you not to bend over,” mumbled Frederick. “That dress is too tight.”
Olive didn’t listen. She suddenly grabbed hold of Mary’s chin, causing her to shriek and spill the several plastic cups of punch she had just collected all over her outfit as she was forced to turn around violently. “Mary! Mary, hide me, quickly!”
“I can’t!” Mary squealed. “You need to hide me! Oh, look at my dress!”
“You mean your mermaid costume,” Augustus helpfully reminded her.
“Augustus, shush!” Mary squealed as several of the youths look in her direction and smirked. She ducked behind Olive. “Oh, look at it, Olive! I spent a lot of time choosing this outfit! What did you spill punch all over it for?”
“Mary, stop it!” Olive hissed fiercely. “You’re showing everybody up, and me most of all! Look at Ethel over there; even she’s not showing me up yet!”
Meanwhile, Ethel had finally climbed out from under the table, hoping to be able to sneak into the other room without anyone noticing her. But when Olive said her name she turned as white as a sheet, and she stood in the corner hardly daring to move a muscle, despite the number of people now staring at her. But Olive didn’t care about this; she was more aware of the much greater number of people staring at her.
Olive gave up on this whole idea. Surely she could dash upstairs and change into one of her other attractive dresses. Now that she thought about it, the minidress was maybe a bit too small. Running into the hall, she made for the stairs, but at that moment, Frederick came in from the other room. By the time Olive saw what he was holding, she had already a move, a sort of half-run and half-dive, towards the stairs, but now she tried to abruptly stop and instead ended up losing her balance and toppling over so that she banged her chin on the third step.
“Whoopsy daisy,” Frederick said happily as Olive struggled to her feet and grabbed the drunken photograph of her out of his hands.
Olive stood up straight, red in the face, and waved the picture in the air. “What’s this, Fred?” she shrieked, mindlessly attracting the attention of several more teenagers.
Frederick frowned, looking at her as though she was stupid. “That’s a photograph, Olive,” he said slowly. “That one of you when you got drunk and started singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ down at the Barmy Duck. I think it was when we first met up with Hetty; this was after Edith stormed out. Oh, come on, Olive, even I remember that…”
“What’ve you got it for?” Olive yelled, ignoring the dozens of laughing teenagers all around her who had gathered around to hear the argument.
“I was showing these nice kids over here!” Frederick said, gesturing to three fifteen or sixteen-year-old boys with nose piercings. “They’re ever so nice, Olive; they’d never tell anyone…”
“I can’t believe you, Fred!” Olive shrieked, as the teenagers all around her continued to laugh out loud. Her face was purple. “How could you show me up like this? First my dress, and then you making out that I’m some sort of complete moron! I’m sick of it! I’m going upstairs! Honestly, what is wrong with this family? I thought Ethel was bad enough, but now you!”
“They’re Ethel’s family?” whispered a few people in astonishment. One of them was Brendan Cucumber. Ethel, who could still hear every word that was said, felt like killing herself. “Woah! They’re Ethel Whinging’s family!”
There were a few jeers, and several people raised their eyebrows in Ethel’s direction. Ethel opened and closed her mouth like a fish; she was hoping that she’d be able to come up with some ingenious explanation, but somehow no words would come out. This was the worst day of her entire life. Her mother had ruined everything.
Olive was already upstairs. Frederick was shrugging and apologising to his three new acquaintances about not being able to show them the photograph of Olive drunk at the Barmy Duck, and so had resorted to explaining Olive’s bowel issues to them instead. Ethel, gritting her teeth and breathing heavily like a madwoman, ran to the stairs and charged up three at a time. On the landing, she had serious thoughts about marching immediately into her mother’s room and screaming at her, but something restrained her. It wasn’t the fact that she didn’t want to embarrass herself, because she had been so sufficiently embarrassed that she didn’t think it possible that her reputation could get any worse. Her reputation; it would be in tatters now! Just think: in a matter of a few minutes she had gone from probably being the most idolised girl at St. Kev’s to some loony with an insane family. It wasn’t fair.
Ethel yanked open the door to her bedroom and threw herself face-down on her bed. She was so miserable that she had not even the energy to sob. Downstairs, the party was still in full swing, but no one was celebrating the birthday of Ethel Whinging. It was simply an excuse to dance and drink and laugh about not-so-popular people. Right now, Brendan Cucumber was probably chatting to Olivia or Emma or Alice. Even the other decent boys, like Dean and Raymond and Sean, would probably hate her forever. She felt like she was merely someone to stand on a stage and be admired whilst she was popular and then simply discarded when her reputation had a slight dent. Now the new female idol of St. Kev’s would probably be some complete loser. Ethel was very fond of her girlfriends, admittedly, but obviously none of them could hold a candle to her.
Ethel had had enough of her family. They were all mindless idiots: a father with a memory like a sieve and no social awareness whatsoever; an utterly despicable mother who showed Ethel up just so she could try and prove that she was young and cool, which she so wasn’t, and finally, a pathetic little dweeb of a younger brother who attracted bullies like how a flame attracts moths.
Ethel sat up, still not crying. She had all but made her life resolution at that very second. She’d show her family. They’d never get anything from her, especially Olive. They’d never darken her doorway again. As soon as she was old enough, Ethel would rise up in the world and cast them off. Who needed families, anyway?