Archibald Quinn had heard some strange things in his fifteen years as an Adoption Officer, but this was a new one on him.
‘Let me get this straight,’ said Quinn. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, covering his smirk with his hand.
‘You already have one child, who you describe as, “not much use around the house”, and now you want a “big strong boy” who you think could be useful in “landscaping the garden”. However, you “don’t like the hassle” that comes with a baby, so you’ve decided to adopt. In other words, you want us to assign you a child, so you can exploit them for cheap manual labour? Is that correct, Mr Cribbens?’
‘Sounds about right, I’d say!’ said Joshua Cribbens, flashing a toothy grin. ‘Sign the paperwork and we’ll be on our way!’
Joshua Cribbens was a rather unfortunate looking man. He was tall and skinny, with thin spindly limbs, and a very large head that was as smooth and round as a bowling ball. Quinn stared at him and wondered how he kept himself upright.
‘Oh yes. Please let’s get on with it,’ interjected Mr Cribbens’ wife, Imelda. Imelda was a glamorous blonde who’d been a model at one time and looked a mismatch with the scrawny Joshua. Today she’d come dressed for the occasion and was head to toe in pink leopard-print. You never see them that colour in the wild, thought Quinn.
Imelda continued, ‘We need a big, strong boy who can help with the heavy lifting. And they need to be a bit rough, so they can toughen little Ralph up. He’s, err, you know, well… weak. And pathetic. Yes, he’s weak and pathetic,’ she said with a smile, like this was a normal way for a mother to describe her only child.
She couldn’t have noticed the smirk on Quinn’s face, as she carried on, pressing her point further.
‘One with chubby cheeks would be good,’ she continued, puckering her lips and making a pinching gesture with her forefinger and thumb. This was, of course, the internationally recognised gesture for chubby cheeks. She had a thing about chubby boys and desired one, in the same way a 9-year-old girl might desire a kitten.
‘Right,’ said Quinn. He adjusted his spectacles again. ‘The thing is, we tend not to be in favour of child slavery. In fact, we’re rather strict about it. I’m afraid I cannot possibly recommend you as potential foster parents.’
‘But, I don’t understand,’ insisted Mr Cribbens, his grin turning down ever so slightly at the corners of his mouth. ‘Your poster said: Can you spare a bed for a needy child? We have a lovely bed up in the attic; it would be just the thing.’
‘Mr Cribbens, you said on your form that your own son, Ralph, sleeps in your attic bedroom. What will you do with him when the new child arrives?’
‘He can sleep on the sofa until we finish the garden and then he can bed down in the summerhouse!’ exclaimed Mr Cribbens, sensing he might be onto something. ‘Or they can share. Two boys together up amongst the rafters, what could be more fun?’
‘Yes, and Ralph could learn a thing or two from a boy with a decent work ethic!’ added Mrs Cribbens. ‘He just sits around reading comics all day. What use is he?’
‘Why does a child need to have a use?’ said Quinn, who was getting irritated. ‘Your ideas about adoption are rather inappropriate, and you seem to have a total disregard for your own son’s well-being. You would make terrible parents for any child we have on our books.’
‘No, no, no,’ said Mrs Cribbens, bursting into tears that smeared her pink eyeliner. ‘My chubby boy! There must be some mistake!’ she spun on her husband with her eyes blazing. ‘Joshua! Tell him!’
‘My wife is quite right,’ said Mr Cribbens, putting his long, skinny arms around her. ‘We can get a man in to do the garden. And we can put bunk beds in the attic for the boys. Please, just give us a chance!’
‘I’m afraid that’s not possible.’ replied Quinn. ‘I’ve made my mind up and you don’t meet the criteria.’
Archibald Quinn pulled a large rubber stamp from his desk, firmly pressed it into a tray of red ink, and brought it crashing down onto the Cribbens application form with a dramatic thump. Sometimes he loved his job.
‘Now good day to you both.’
* * *
In the newsagents around the corner from the Adoption Office, Ralph Cribbens kneeled behind the sweet section, flicking through a comic. Ralph was trying to keep a low profile. The proprietor of the newsagent, Mr Ronnie Rosebud, knew Ralph well and considered him a “persona non grata”. A person unwelcome in Mr Rosebud’s establishment. Mr Rosebud had identified Ralph as someone who was always loitering around his shop reading comics for which he had not paid and never would. Mr Rosebud had seen him enough times, working his way through the comic-book shelf, covering the comics with his greasy fingerprints and getting the edges all tatty so that no paying customer would even consider buying them. Whenever Mr Rosebud spotted Ralph lurking in his shop, he would pick up his broom and rustle Ralph out through the door, pushing him with the bristly end as if sweeping out an enormous crisp packet blown in by the wind.
Ralph was well aware of Mr Rosebud’s opinion of him, and he didn’t disagree with it. In fact, it was a dream of his to one day run his own comic book store and should that dream ever come to pass, Ralph intended to display his own comic books in cellophane sheaths to discourage any unwanted thumbing. Nor would Ralph have read his comics in this fashion had he any other choice. He loved comics; he had done ever since he’d first picked up a discarded copy of Spiderman in the doctor’s waiting room, and he felt compelled to read them. To consume them, in fact. He loved everything about them, even the smell. He always thought they should taste delicious too, but he’d tried a few times and they didn’t live up to expectations on that front.
Unfortunately for Ralph, his father, Joshua Cribbens, did not share Ralph’s passion for comics. He never gave Ralph pocket money anyway, but even if he had done so, he regarded comics as “pointless fantasy” and would never have agreed to Ralph wasting money on them. So Ralph’s adventures between the pages became an illicit pursuit; something secret. He read his comics at night by torchlight huddled under his duvet. He had a few comics that he’d picked up here and there, and he kept them stashed in his room in an old sea chest that he’d found between the beams of his attic bedroom.
Ralph’s lived at number 1, Bushy Lane, in the town of Great Merritt, which was slap-bang in the middle of what Ralph thought must be the least interesting part of England. The most remarkable thing about Great Merritt was that, despite its name, it was a place of very little merit. This contrasted with the nearby village of Little Merritt, which had been named Britain’s Neatest Village on no less than four separate occasions.
Number 1, Bushy Lane was a rather small house with only one bedroom. There was a small box room, but Ralph’s Mother had set up a home gym in there with a rowing machine and a skiing simulator. Ralph slept in the attic on a rickety old iron bedstead. Ralph’s parents had not bothered to move the old junk out of the attic when they moved him in, so Ralph lived amongst the piles of old bric-à-brac and dusty books.
There were no floorboards throughout most of the room. His parents considered these an ‘unnecessary expense’. They didn’t need lighting either, as the Cribbens’s “didn’t go up there much”.
More than once, Ralph had almost come crashing down through the ceiling when he’d lost his footing while working his way through the criss-cross of beams. It was on one of these occasions, while on his way for a late-night visit to the bathroom, when he’d found the battered old sea chest. He’d lost his footing and caught himself on the beams just in time to stop himself falling through the plaster into his parent’s bedroom below. When he looked up he’d spotted the chest in front of him. It had been under the eaves so he’d never noticed it before, but it was the perfect place to stash his comics. Especially as his parents rarely made the effort to climb the ladder to his room.
It was difficult to lose yourself in the story when you were reading in the newsagent. That was the trouble. Ralph needed to remain on high alert for Mr Rosebud’s traditional bellow of “this is not a library!”. If he didn’t, he’d come back to reality with a bump when he felt the spiny bristles of Mr Rosebud’s brush scratching at his face.
When he was in his attic bedroom, the stories would transport him to another world where life was less dull. Where Ralph, instead of being a pathetic nobody with embarrassingly weird parents, could put himself into the shoes of a superhero or a vampire hunter.
On this occasion, though, Ralph was glad that he had his wits about him. He’d just got to a bit in the story where the hero had found out that the British Prime Minister was a secret werewolf, when he noticed somebody looming over him.
‘What are you reading there, Cribbens?’ Ralph’s heart sank. He recognized the gravelly voice as belonging to Breezeblock. If there was someone you didn’t want to find you squatting in a shop reading comics, it was Breezeblock. Despite being Ralph’s age, he was bigger than most men and wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around with the other kids. As usual Breezebock was with his two hangers-on, a short girl with a sharp mouth called Parsnip and a large rotund boy called Plomp. They liked to call themselves the “Wrecking Crew” and would scrawl the name of their gang on bathroom stalls and benches around the town.
‘Didn’t know you could read Cribbens,’ said Parsnip. ‘I’m actually quite impressed. Though that is exactly the sort of weirdo magazine I’d expect you to like.’
‘He’s probably just looking at the pictures Parsnip,’ said Breezeblock, snatching the comic out of Ralph’s hands. ‘Look at it, it’s a picture book for thick kids who never learned their alphabet.’
Bit of a cheek coming from you three, thought Ralph. They were rarely at school. When they were, all they did was mess around, winding up the teachers or intimidating kids out of their lunch money.
‘I err, I’m not reading it, I’m just waiting for my Dad so, um, I just popped in here.’ Ralph felt embarrassed telling other kids he was into comics. They weren’t cool, and he didn’t like feeling judged. The only one who knew about his obsessions was his friend Sunny. Despite her many other failings, she would never judge him for anything like that. ‘Just passing the time,’ he added.
‘Did you say you’re with your Dad? Old pipe-cleaner legs is about, is he? Trust the weirdest teacher in the school to have the weirdest kid. What’s he doing then?’
Ralph had no intention of bringing the whole adoption situation into the discussion. ‘He’s um, getting his hair cut,’ lied Ralph.
‘Haha where at?’ guffawed Parsnip. ‘Surely it’s not worth paying someone to cut that? I always thought he just popped his head in the ball polisher at the bowling alley!’
Parsnip’s comment caused guffaws of laughter, but when the chuckles died down, Breezeblock’s face turned serious. ‘Anyway Cribbens, nice as it is to chat, we came over to see you for a reason. You see, we were just passing the shop when Plomp here,’ he clapped Plomp on the shoulder, ‘Plomp’s belly started rumbling and we realised all of a sudden that it’s coming up for lunchtime. Only problem is that we’ve all forgot to bring our lunch money. There we were, thinking we’d have to go hungry. But, out of the corner of her eye, Parsnip spots you through the window of the shop. “There’s our friend Cribbens!” we all say, “he’ll look after us”, so we were wondering Cribbens, if you could, maybe, buy us all a chocolate bar?’
‘Two for me,’ added Plomp.
‘Well, I would do obviously,’ said Ralph, nervously standing up and popping the comic back on its rack. ‘Only I don’t have any money so I—’
Parsnip leaned right into his face, close enough that he could see the thick make-up that she’d stolen from her mum to plaster over her spots. ‘Come on, Cribbens, if you have no money, how were you going to buy your weird magazine?’
‘I was just browsing, I wasn—’
‘That’s fine, Cribbens.’ Breezeblock put a patronly arm around him. ‘If you don’t have money, don’t worry about it.’
Ralph breathed out a sigh of relief. These three could be a bit menacing sometimes, but he supposed they weren’t too bad, deep down. ‘Okay,’ he said.
Breezeblock gave Ralph a warm smile. ‘All you need to do is pop a few bars into your pocket and slip out of the door while we keep old Rosebud busy.’
Ralph’s jaw dropped open. They couldn’t seriously be asking him to steal the chocolate, could they?
‘Then just nip around the corner. We’ll meet you there in a minute.’ Plomp patted Ralph on the shoulder with a heavy hand, smiling as if this was all normal behavior between friends.
‘What you mean—’
‘It’s just a couple of chocolate bars Cribbens,’ said Parsnip. ‘Rosebud won’t even miss them.’
‘But I need to meet my Dad.’
‘That’s fine Cribbens, just pop the bars in your pocket now and we can get going,’ said Breezeblock in a pleasant tone, though his face twisted with a nasty smile. ‘You won’t be late for your Dad.’
‘Well I err, I guess I,’ Ralph swayed back trying to put some breathing space in between himself and Breezeblock. He could feel himself getting flushed. As he leaned away, his shoulder bumped against the rack of cheap pocket money toys and sent it clattering to the ground, spilling toys all over the floor.
Mr Rosebud looked up from the newspaper he was reading, saw his carefully displayed plastic tat lying scattered across his shop floor, and stormed over to the kids in a rage. ‘Ralph Cribbens, is that you? I’ve told you before to keep out of my shop, this isn’t a library you know! And you’ve brought your friends with you this time I see.’ He eyeballed Breezeblock who just raised an eyebrow and smirked back. ‘I suppose word must have got around that you can read comics for free at Ronnie Rosebud’s, eh? And now you’ve crammed in here and ruined my display. Get out! The lot of you!’
‘Sorry Mr Rosebud,’ said Parsnip, ‘It was Cribbens, like you said. He made out you and him were friends. But it’s obvious now that he was lying.’
‘On your way, you three,’ Rosebud opened the door and turned back to Ralph, ‘Cribbens, you can help me pick this up before you go or I’ll be speaking to your father. And after this, I don’t want to see you in my shop again. Not unless you are waving a ten pound note as you walk in. Do I make myself clear?’
Ralph nodded his head as Breezeblock, Parsnip, and Plomp sloped out of the shop. Helping Mr Rosebud tidy up would let The Wrecking Crew get a head start; he didn’t want them seeing him meet Dad outside the Adoption Office.
As he picked up a pair of plastic police handcuffs and hung them on the rack, he eyed the comic he’d been reading and wondered if he could sneak another look before he left and Mr Rosebud banned him for good.
* * *
‘It’s outrageous,’ said Mr Cribbens as they drove home from the adoption office. ‘How can that man get away with it? It’s a national disgrace! Children starving on our streets and he thinks he can turn us away. Our charity is not good enough. Well, he won’t stop me. No siree Bob.’
‘Oh Joshua,’ sighed Mrs Cribbens. ‘It’s over. Why don’t we just leave it now?’
‘Leave it?’ replied Mr Cribbens, his mouth tightening into a line of shock and disgust.
‘Can you believe this, Ralph? Imelda wants to leave it! She wants to abandon your brother.’
‘I don’t have a brother.’ argued Ralph without thinking.
The car careered across the road, instigating a torrent of angry beeping from other vehicles as Mr Cribbens turned around to address his son directly.
‘Don’t be so selfish!’ he snapped, focusing his anger on Ralph like a prison spotlight on a fleeing convict. ‘You do have a brother, you just haven’t met him yet! We’ve been through this Ralph. I expect you to treat him like you’ve known him all his life when he arrives. That means a big hug as soon as he walks through the door, like you would with any relative.’
Ralph decided not to bring up the fact that he didn’t do hugs and had hugged no one since he was six-years-old. Sunny Brightwell had hugged him, but it was different if it wasn’t reciprocated.
‘But Joshua,’ said Imelda. ‘It’s impossible. They’ll never change their mind now! Not after you called Mr Quinn a “baboon in a man suit,” and drew a beard on that picture of his wife.’
‘The beard was already there,’ retorted Mr Cribbens. ‘I was merely highlighting her substandard shaving regime. But don’t you worry, Imelda, we’ll get our boy. I have a plan.’
‘Blast these do-gooding celebrities!’ exclaimed Joshua Cribbens as he turned away in disgust from the computer. ‘The price of orphans is through the roof since it’s become fashionable to adopt a needy child! I don’t think we’ll be able to afford one after all, Imelda.’
After watching a programme on the television about famous people who adopted children from other countries, Joshua had decided that he and Imelda could do the same. It was the perfect way to get around the utterly unreasonable behaviour of the British adoption services. He’d scoured the internet looking for someone who could provide him with a child. He wasn’t too bothered about where they came from as long as they were within budget. Unfortunately, adopting a child from outside your own country involves permits, background checks, travel arrangements for visits back and forth, and a whole host of other fees. All in all, it can be rather an expensive process when done via the official channels.
‘Oh no!’ wailed his wife. ‘The dream is over… will we never see our darling boy?’ she sighed and let her head drop ‘Perhaps it’s just not meant to be. We have Ralphie, after all. Even if he isn’t much use.’
‘I am here, you know,’ Ralph cut in. Ralph was used to being ignored by his parents, and it rarely bothered him. Since this adoption thing had begun, though, it had annoyed him more and more. It was like they wanted to adopt because he didn’t cut the mustard and they wanted a replacement son.
‘Imelda knows that Ralph,’ said his dad. Imelda allowed neither Ralph nor her husband to refer to her as ‘Mum’. Maybe being called ‘Mum’ made her feel old. Maybe she just didn’t want anyone to realise Ralph was her son. Ralph didn’t know, but she was always Imelda to him.
‘It does you good to hear a few home truths from time to time,’ Dad continued, ‘it’s character building. And if…’ Joshua Cribbens trailed off from the inevitable rant as something on the monitor caught his eye.
‘Hold on a minute. What’s this? Dr Romeronov’s House of Strife - For kids who need a second life.’ The picture on the screen showed a sad faced child staring blankly from the window of a rickety old orphanage.
‘We could help them!’ cried Imelda, leaping into the air in excitement. ‘We could give them a second life!’
Ralph rolled his eyes.
‘Calm yourself, Imelda!’ said Mr Cribbens, barely able to contain his own excitement. ‘We don’t know the prices yet. Let’s just have a look.’
Mr Cribbens took hold of the mouse and clicked the link to the orphanage. After what seemed an eternity of painful loading, the webpage flashed up on screen. It didn’t appear to be the most inviting of websites. The page was black with red text and a single faded sepia photograph of a crumbling old building that Ralph supposed housed the orphans; the photograph looked like it dated back to the 1920s. The long wooden building resembled the prisoner of war camps that Ralph had seen in history class at school. Just looking at the building gave Ralph the creeps. Ralph thought he could even see a barbed wire fence at the edge of the photograph. What an awful place to grow up, he thought. It made him feel thankful for the small comforts of his attic room.
Mr Cribbens had located the ‘Browse Orphans’ button and was now loading a page with a selection of the latest orphans to become available for adoption. The screen filled with images of bedraggled looking children staring into the camera. Ralph guessed they were all desperate to get adopted, but the way their eyes followed him made him feel a little uncomfortable.
‘They all look very skinny,’ said Mrs Cribbens, sounding dubious.
‘But the price is right!’ Mr Cribbens scrolled through the first page of children. ‘Looks like we’re in before the celebs! And I’m sure we could feed them up. What about this one?’ he said, pointing to a scrawny boy with yellow, strawlike hair.
‘How about this one here?’ said her husband, showing her a tall boy with teeth jutting from his mouth at awkward angles.
‘Too tall,’ sighed Mrs Cribbens.
Mr Cribbens moved the cursor over a girl with enormous watery eyes and pigtails, ‘She could be a good one’.
‘Too female.’ Mrs Cribbens hung her head.
‘Imelda, be reasonable! We can’t afford to be choosey.’
‘Okay, okay,’ said Imelda, moving in for a closer look. ‘What about this boy? He doesn’t have a lot of meat on him, but he’s big boned. I think he might plump up nicely.’
‘Yes, I think you’re right. He looks ideal. He could be a good, sturdy lad with a couple of your famous meatball dinners inside him.’
‘Oh yes, yes! He’s the one for us. I’m certain of it. What do you think, Ralphie?’ said Imelda.
‘Well, his teeth look a little… pointy. I’m sure he’s perfectly nice though.’ Ralph was far from convinced the boy was ‘perfectly nice’. He felt quite the opposite after looking into the cold, staring eyes. He put it down to his own resentment about having an unwanted brother forced upon him; it seemed unfair not to give the boy the benefit of the doubt. He didn’t want to enrage his father either, but it seemed he had annoyed him anyway.
‘It’s not a beauty contest, Ralph,’ snapped his father. ‘This boy needs our help and all you can do is criticise his appearance! Go to your room if you can’t be civil!’
Ralph moped up to his room. When his parents were in this kind of mood, he was happy to get away from them and back to his comic books. At the same time, Ralph felt side-lined by the whole adoption thing. He knew he was very different to his parents, it was unusual if he saw eye-to-eye with them, but he never imagined they would end up wanting to replace him with another child. Especially one who looked so freakish. Something about the boy in the photograph worried Ralph. Some primitive savagery that Ralph couldn’t put his finger on.
* * *
Downstairs, Mr Cribbens located the ‘buy one now’ button. He hovered the mouse over it for a second and clicked it, opening the payment screen. Mr Cribbens selected the ‘brilliant-bargain’ delivery.
‘For goodness’ sake, Joshua!’ said Imelda. ‘Do you always have to be so cheap? If you choose the “super-fast send out” we’ll have him here tomorrow.’
‘What’s the rush? We need to get his room ready. I suppose we should get a bunk-bed after what the adoption agency said. Perhaps I could make one. We’d save a bit of money and it would be a welcoming gesture. I’m sure he’d love it if he knew we’d made the effort to build him a bed.’
‘Oh, how lovely,’ cooed Mrs Cribbens as Mr Cribbens scribbled down the order number.
* * *
Up in his penthouse retreat - as he imagined an estate agent might describe his cramped attic hovel - Ralph snuggled under his covers with his favourite scary comic, Dark Secrets, but he just couldn’t concentrate. This whole adoption business had been playing on his mind. He normally had no interest in what his parents were up to; he just ignored their snippy comments and got on with doing his own thing. This was different, though. He knew he frustrated his parents with his laziness around the house and his lack of any interest in their little projects like landscaping the garden, but he’d always assumed that they kind of enjoyed having him around. Now it looked like he was being replaced by a newer, more masculine, European wonder son. He was redundant. He considered packing up his stuff and just taking off, but he knew he’d never be able to carry all his beloved comics and didn’t think he was cut out for life on the road.
Ralph decided he would wait and see what happened. The new kid could be fun after all, and it wasn’t his fault that Ralph’s parents had decided to ‘adopt’ him through a dubious online agency. Ralph wondered if the whole thing was even legal. He guessed not, but reasoned that even though his parents were turned away by the British adoption agency, they weren’t that bad. He supposed they were doing a good thing; the orphanage had looked like an awfully forbidding place.
Ralph thought about the creepy building those poor orphaned children had to live in. He shivered as he pictured an icy wind blowing through the rotting timber; the orphans huddled together for warmth, their thin pyjamas providing little protection against the biting cold. In Ralph’s mind, packs of rats plagued the corridors of the orphanage, and bats streamed through the rafters after dark. The images he’d seen online made it difficult to imagine anything else.
Ralph could not concentrate on his comic so he packed it away in his chest before getting back into bed and settling down to sleep.
Ralph’s eyes grew heavy and his head filled with dark dreams of vampires and werebeasts.
As he dozed, Ralph noticed a flinty tapping sound, ‘tap… tap… tap’. Something was clambering towards him across the attic beams. Ralph didn’t dare to turn his head, but he knew it was something horrible, a skeleton, its bony feet clacking against the wood. He heard it call his name as it moved closer, its fleshless jaw crunching out the words.
‘Raaaalph, Raaaalph!’ it called, sounding as if it was chewing a mouthful of marbles. ‘Raaaalph!’
The skeleton was on him, its fingers closing around his throat. Ralph thrashed around, struggling for breath. He kicked out of his bad and staggered to his feet, ready to run.
He looked around, surprised to find himself alone in the familiar surroundings of his attic. There was no sign of the skeleton, it had vanished. Still unsure if he was dreaming, Ralph held his breath while he double checked if there was anything to worry about. It seemed the coast was clear, so he allowed himself to breathe and gave an involuntary chuckle. Just a bad dream. It was rare that he suffered from nightmares and rarer still that they affected him once he’d woken up, but he put it down to the overwhelming day he’d had and the weird staring eyes of the creepy orphan.
He crawled back under his covers.
Ralph leaped from his bed like he was being electrocuted. He couldn’t see the skeleton, but it could be anywhere in the untidy attic. Right on top of him, even. He wouldn’t know until it was too late.
‘Raaaalph!’ it called, though its voice had softened and was sounding less like rocks rubbing together.
There was another loud tap followed by the sound of breaking glass, as the skylight behind him cracked.
‘Oops! Sorry Ralphie!’
This wasn’t the first time Sunny Brightwell had featured in one of Ralph’s nightmares, though usually she was trying to kiss him rather than eat him.
‘Sunny! Look what you’ve done. Dad is going to go ape if he finds out!’ Ralph moved to the window and peered at the female figure below him in the darkness. ‘I’ll have to patch it with some cling film to stop the wind blowing into my bedroom.’
‘Are you in bed already?’ shouted the girl. ‘Let me in!’
Ralph opened the window. A second later he could hear a pop and whirring noise before a grappling hook looped into his bedroom and gripped onto his window ledge. A moment later Sunny’s curly blonde hair appeared over the sill and she pulled herself up over the ledge and dropped into the room with a dramatic, ‘tada!’
‘Yes, I’ve seen that little trick before,’ yawned Ralph.
‘It never gets old though, does it?’ said Sunny with a grin. ‘I think I’ve perfected the pulley mechanism now. Did you see how fast I whizzed up here?’
As much as Sunny annoyed Ralph with her endless chirpiness, foghorn voice and constant declarations of love for him, he admired her skill with any sort of gadgetry. The grappling hook launcher that allowed her to fire a hook just about anywhere and use its electric motors to pull her along after it was just one of her many ingenious inventions. To Ralph she was both intelligent and irritating; what Ralph liked to think of as “intelli-tating” and was already studying for her GCSEs in Maths, Chemistry and Physics. She was also his dad’s star pupil in the Design and Technology class he taught at school.
‘Yes, well, rather you than me, I’m not sure I’d trust my life to that thing,’ said Ralph. ‘Can I help you with something? Why are you out at this time of night, anyway?’
‘Ha! I go out when I like. Do you really think my simple-minded parents can contain me?’
‘Well, no, I suppose not Sunny, but you’re not in the habit of creeping around the streets at night, are you?’
‘Usually not, I guess…’ agreed Sunny, her eyes twinkling with conspiratorial glee. ‘OK, I’ll tell you what I’m doing out. You know old Mr Binns who lives over on Winterbrook Lane?’
Ralph nodded and rolled his eyes. He sat back down on the bed expecting this to go on for a while. Sunny’s stories rarely made much sense.
‘Earlier on I was testing my new cyber-scope binoculars and guess who I saw him with….’
‘So you were spying on him. I see. Carry on.’
‘I was not spying on him. I only do that to you,’ she said, giving him a cheeky wink. ‘Go on, take a guess.’
‘The Easter Bunny.’
‘Its October, walnut-brain! Would the Easter Bunny be around in October?’
‘Good point,’ Ralph gave a serious nod. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’
‘Exactly. Anyway, as I was saying, I saw old Binnsy all alone in his back garden…’
‘Hold on,’ Ralph cut in. ‘You asked me to guess who you saw him with, didn’t you?’
‘That’s right. Try to keep up.’ Sunny continued.
‘But then you said he was on his own in his garden.’
‘Yes Ralph, that’s my point. Mr Binns is never alone, is he? He’s always with his weird wife. You know, the one that tries to prod you with her walking stick if you get too close and smells of pickled onions?’
‘Ok, so what is your point?’ said Ralph, failing to see the point.
‘Well, isn’t it obvious? He’s murdered her! He’s buried the body in the back garden.’
‘What? So… he was digging a hole when you saw him?’ said Ralph, taken aback at the thought of a murderer on the loose in Great Merritt.
‘He was pruning his privet hedge.’ Sunny admitted. ‘But you should’ve seen the way he was wielding his shears. He was like a man possessed!’
‘Riiiiight,’ said Ralph with a huff. ‘You’re accusing a man of bumping off his wife purely because she isn’t home and he’s gardening a little too enthusiastically.’
Sunny hesitated. ‘Well… when you put it like that… it does sound a little far-fetched but Ralphie, I’m telling you it’s fishy. They’re joined at the hip. And I’ve never known him to do gardening. Don’t you think it’s a little late to start at his age?’
‘She’ll just be visiting that sister of hers in Scotland or something.’ said Ralph.
Sunny pursed her lips, then sighed and nodded with a resigned look. ‘I suppose you’re right. I just thought something interesting might happen in this boring old town for once.’
Ralph nodded in agreement, but then he remembered the adoption.
‘Actually,’ he said. ‘I haven’t told you about my new brother yet.’
‘Your new brother?’ said Sunny, confused. ‘But Imelda isn’t pregnant, is she?’
‘No, she’s not pregnant. They’re adopting… they think I need a brother to toughen me up,’ he said with a shrug. ‘No idea what he’ll be like, but it might make things more interesting around here.’
He looked at Sunny and smiled. ‘He’s coming all the way from Transylvania.’
‘Ooh, now that sounds interesting.’ She settled herself down on top of his sea chest and listened as Ralph explained the whole adoption story to her. They didn’t know it but things really were about to get interesting. Dead interesting.
* * *
‘Ah, Ralphie! Have I got a treat for you today?!’ cried Ralph’s stepmother from the kitchen as Ralph let himself in after another tedious day at school.
‘I don’t know Imelda, have you?’ his sarcasm was lost on her, as it always was on her and Dad.
Ralph could have got a lift back from school with Dad but preferred to walk, as he knew his father would spend the journey ranting about the “talentless blockheads” he had to teach. He’d worried it might rain, but he’d managed to make it back home before the heavens opened.
‘Oh yeah, you’re going to love this,’ Imelda continued, ‘I’ve made some lovely traditional food from Eastern Europe. We’ll be eating this all the time when your brother arrives, so I thought I’d better practice some recipes.’
‘I guess.’ said Ralph, trying not to commit himself until after he’d tasted it.
Imelda Cribbens broke the surface of one of her pans with a wooden spoon, and an overpowering aroma of cabbage wafted from the bubbling liquid. She scooped out a spoonful of green mush and gave it a long, deep sniff.
‘Perfect! I think that’s ready. Why don’t you lay the table Ralphie?’
Gagging on the stink of cabbage, Ralph could not reply, so he mutely set about fetching the knives and forks and laying them around the table.
The back door creaked open and Ralph’s dad burst in from the garden.
‘What is that wonderful smell Imelda?’ he said, joy written all over his face.
‘You’ll have to wait and see,’ she teased. ‘Why don’t you both sit down, I can see you boys are hungry.’
She shooed them to the table and Ralph and his dad took their seats while Imelda busied herself dishing out the food.
‘First up we have some boiled cabbage,’ she said, slopping it onto the plates. ‘They love their cabbage in Transylvania. I’m told they have it with everything.’ Ralph had once had cabbage in a meal from the Chinese takeaway that had been delicious, but whenever Imelda cooked it, somehow it turned into a pile of congealed slop with a horrifying stink. Luckily, she didn’t cook it often, or at least she hadn’t until now.
‘I’m not sure they serve it like this, Imelda,’ Ralph tried not to look at the quivering mush on his plate.
‘Nonsense. What other way could you serve cabbage?’
Ralph could think of at least three ways off the top of his head, but you couldn’t argue with her. His preferred method of serving it would have been directly into the bin.
Imelda opened the door to their old gas oven, bent down and lifted out a large, steaming casserole dish.
What delight do we have here? thought Ralph.
Imelda placed the dish on the table and removed the lid. To Ralph’s surprise, the smell that came wafting out was rather good. Onions, garlic, cream and meat. Not much could go wrong with that. Dinner was looking up.
Imelda took a large ladle and began spooning the stew onto the plates. Ralph noticed one ingredient had an unusual texture, almost like honeycomb. ‘What’s this stuff? Snake?’ he joked.
‘Hahaha don’t be silly, Ralphie. It’s not snake. It’s tripe.’
‘Tripe?’ asked Ralph, before filling his mouth with the steaming meat. ‘Never heard of it.’
‘You know, it’s the inside of a cow’s stomach. My grandma used to eat it all the time. I don’t know why it went out of fashion.’ Imelda patted her tummy to emphasise the point.
Ralph’s appetite vanished in an instant. His eyes grew wide with shock and the fork he’d been holding clattered to the floor. The mouthful of stew he’d just swallowed churned in his stomach.
Imelda must have noticed the expression on Ralph’s face. ‘It’s very tasty actually,’ she said with a sniff. She gave Ralph an angry glare. ‘I’m sure our new boy will love it.’
‘I’m sure he will too,’ agreed Dad. He was trying to be supportive, but Ralph could see him flinch when he tried a mouthful. ‘Delicious! If you don’t want yours, Ralph, I’ll have it. Can’t get enough!’ He braced himself for a second mouthful.
‘Help yourself then.’ said Ralph, with a sadistic grin. ‘I think I’m going to go up to my room, I’ve had a busy day at school.’
‘OK Ralph, but you need to get more used to trying exotic foods. We’ll be eating them all the time soon. Fish fingers are history in this house.’
‘Fine,’ agreed Ralph through gritted teeth. ‘As long as you don’t serve up stomach again,’ he added under his breath.
* * *
Late that night, as Ralph lay in bed flicking through a comic, it rained. It started as a few light pitter-patters but, after a moment, heavy droplets began to hammer on the roof above him.
The brooding threat of thunder made the air feel heavy and charged. A rickety old truck rattled into Bushy Lane at a speed much too fast for the weather. A speeding truck, a wet road and non-existent visibility did not make for a happy ending, but somehow the truck skidded to a halt right outside Ralph’s front door. The driver hopped from his carriage and sprinted to the rear. He jumped up onto the back of the truck, which held a large wooden crate. Giving the crate a quick once over to make sure it was okay, he took a crowbar from his jacket and jammed it underneath the crate. Using it as a lever, he tipped the crate forward, so it toppled off the truck, landing on the tarmac with a crack of splintering timber. Without stopping to check the crate again, he ran to the Cribbens’ front door, rang the bell and sprinted back to his cab. Wheels spinning on the slippery road, the truck sped off, even faster than it had arrived.
The door opened a crack and the long nose of Joshua Cribbens appeared as he peeped out, wondering what was going on.
The Cribbens were not late-night people, nor did they have an army of friends and well-wishers regularly knocking on their door, so to be called upon at such an hour was most unexpected. In fact, Joshua Cribbens had been so startled to hear the buzzer that the shock of it caused him to toss the tea he’d been drinking from its cup. It slopped into the air and landed with a warm-wet slap in the middle of his lap, making him even warier about opening the door. If it was someone important, he didn’t want to give the impression that he was a man who was not the master of his own bodily functions.
Seeing nobody, Mr Cribbens cautiously opened the door fully to give himself a view of the street. He peered through the wet night, and could just about make out the outline of the crate lying in the road outside his house.
This unusual sight was enough to arouse the interest of even a suspicious man with an unfortunate stain on his lap, so throwing caution to the wind Mr Cribbens dashed into the downpour without even a thought for preserving the dryness of his slippers. He could see the crate was a sturdy one, but it was damaged somehow, like someone had dropped it from a great height. He wondered whether it might have fallen off the back of a lorry. It was his doorbell ringing that had brought him out in the first place though, so this was not something that had dropped here by accident.
Joshua Cribbens noticed a piece of card attached to the crate by a worn and grimy looking piece of string. Picking it up, he could make out that someone had scrawled his own address on it in a spidery hand. Equally poor spelling matched the sender’s atrocious handwriting.
Mr J Crribens
1 Bushee Layne
‘What is it Joshua?’ shouted Imelda from inside the front door.
‘I’m not sure… Hold on. There’s a return address on the back of the label,’ Mr Cribbens leaned in to get a closer look in the darkness. ‘I can’t quite make it out, but it looks like it’s written in Italian or something…’
‘Transylvanian?’ Imelda could barely contain her excitement.
‘I hardly think they would deliver the boy in the middle of the night,’ Mr Cribbens mocked, as he started pulling at the wooden slats that made up the crate sides.
‘Whatever it was, there’s nothing in here now. Blast that Post Office! The service gets worse every year.’
Before Joshua Cribbens could go any further with his rant about the Post Office, he spotted something else on the top of the crate.
‘There’s a stamp!’
On closer examination, he could see the picture was of a bleak and forbidding landscape with some lonely-looking mountains rising in the distance. The way they cast their shadow over the surrounding land was almost haunting.
‘It’s a picturesque view of the Carpathian Mountains! I take it all back, Imelda. It is from Transylvania.’
Imelda smiled, but then her face darkened. ‘You and your super saver delivery. They packed the poor little boy in a crate. How could they send a boy in a crate? And now he has gone missing. Gonnnnne! Lost in the wilderness of a new and distant land. Oh the poor, poor child!’ she wailed.
A boom of thunder stifled the loudest of her sobs.
Joshua was about to reply when a jagged streak of lightning illuminated the night.
If Joshua had not been looking right at Imelda when it happened he would never have noticed, but shambling towards her from the darkness with his arms outstretched was a pale and emaciated boy.
‘Imelda lookout!’ shouted Joshua as stabbed a bony finger towards the approaching boy. ‘He’s coming to hug you!’
Imelda took a sharp intake of breath and turned, hardly able to believe her eyes.
‘Oh, my boy! Look at you, soaked to the skin! Come to Mamma,’ she reached past his outstretched arms and gathered him up in an embrace. ‘Oh my! You are light as a feather. We’ll soon fix that! Let’s get you inside and get some food in you, shall we?’
Joshua grinned his famous grin, picked up the crate from the road and followed them inside the house.
* * *
Upstairs in the attic, Ralph could hear the commotion from downstairs. He’d just got to a meaty bit in his comic, so he decided whatever it was could wait.
‘Ralph! Ralph, come down. We have a surprise for you.’
Ralph rolled his eyes. He supposed he’d better go down. With great care he marked his page with a strip of paper torn from his Maths exercise book, and hurried through the ritual of hiding his comics away. It was something he always did, just in case he couldn’t get back before his parents came nosing around. As unlikely as either of them bothering to climb the ladder to the attic was, it was a risk he was unwilling to take. Getting busted with his comics and having them confiscated, was the worst thing Ralph could imagine. They were his sanctuary.
‘Come on, Ralphie,’ called Imelda. ‘Everybody is waiting for you!’
‘Who’s everybody?’ muttered Ralph.
He finished stashing his comics and made his way to the trapdoor in the attic. At the bottom of the stairs, Imelda and dad were waiting for him, along with someone else he recognised. He knew who it was at once, even from the poor-quality photograph he’d seen on the website. It was a face you didn’t forget in a hurry.
Pale and ghostlike, the skin covering the face stretched tight across the skull. So tight, in fact, that the lips pulled away from the mouth, as if the skin didn’t quite fit. The mouth itself was a hideous thing. Sharp pointed teeth jutted from it at every angle, some of which were yellow, the rest a dark brown like varnished oak.
The boy it belonged to must have been standing outside in the rain for a while. The rain had plastered his black hair to his head and it appeared to drip with a white grease. This did not seem to concern the boy in the slightest. He was thin, gaunt even. He looked like hadn’t had a decent meal in months. His clothing resembled something you would see in a history book about the Victorians. A shirt with a waistcoat, short trousers and a flat cap.
The smell coming off him made Ralph gag. it reminded him of the time he and Sunny had found a dead bird in an abandoned shed on the allotments. When they had rolled it over with a stick, maggots had come crawling from underneath. They’d screamed and run away, horrified.
The new boy didn’t seem to have any maggots on him, but Ralph was still fighting the urge to scream and run. The worst thing about the newcomer wasn’t his looks or his dress sense or even the smell. It was his eyes. They looked like the light behind them had gone out. Ralph became transfixed by them for a moment and felt like he was staring into bottomless black holes. When Ralph tore his eyes away, he noticed the boy was wearing a modern name badge sticker coated in the thick slimy saliva that was drooling from his mouth. It read ‘Hello, my name is Luca.’
‘Well, don’t just stand there Ralph, say hello to your brother!’ ordered his dad.
‘Hello Luca,’ said Ralph.
‘Luca? Oh um, actually we were…’ his dad dithered. ‘We were thinking of giving him a traditional Transylvanian name. Like, you know, Igor or something. But if you like Luca…’
Ralph’s dad looked quizzically at Imelda.
‘No, no. I don’t want to give him a name, but I think his name is Luca,’ Ralph cut in quickly to stave off any embarrassment. ‘He’s wearing a name badge,’ Ralph pointed to the sticker that looked like the ones his dad would sometimes be wearing when he’d come back from a teaching conference or training day. ‘So, I’m guessing it’s his name.’
‘Hahaha of course,’ said Imelda. She slapped herself on the forehead and then turned on her husband. ‘How on earth did you miss that, Joshua? Of course his name is Luca.’ Imelda turned towards Luca. ‘Loooooca! My little Luca!’ She tried to pinch his cheek and give it a little wiggle but there wasn’t enough skin to get a grip so she just patted him on the head, looking a little embarrassed. ‘Oh, your skin, it feels so cold!’ Turning to Ralph and Joshua she said, ‘The poor boy is so cold and hungry. Should we give him food first or a hot shower?’
‘Shower,’ said Ralph and his dad in unison, both of them thinking less about the poor freezing orphan and more about the astonishing odour he was giving off.
‘Yes, you’re right, of course. He won’t enjoy his food if he is sitting there shivering, the poor little thing.’
In fact, Luca wasn’t shivering at all. He didn’t seem bothered in the slightest that the ice-cold rainwater had soaked him to the skin. Ralph supposed he was just a product of the unpredictable Transylvanian climate and must spend a lot of time outdoors, digging for turnips or whatever they did over there. Ralph wasn’t up-to-date with the ins and outs of the Transylvanian economy, but in his mind it was quite agricultural.
‘Ralph, why don’t you show Luca where the bathroom is?’ said Imelda. ‘While he’s in the shower could you bring down some old clothes for him too?’
Great, thought Ralph. First, he moves into my room and now he wants to wear my clothes. What’s next? Stealing my identity?
‘Sure,’ he said. Luca made such a pathetic sight that Ralph couldn’t begrudge him some old clothes. He turned to Luca, ‘Come on then. The bathroom is up the stairs.’ He turned and headed up, but looking over his shoulder he could see Luca had made no move to follow. The boy was just staring at him, open-mouthed and unblinking.
Ralph beckoned and pointed to the bathroom, mouthing ‘shower’ very slowly, but still nothing. Clearly this would be more difficult than they’d thought.
‘Just lead him by the hand for goodness’ sake Ralph,’ said his dad, ‘he doesn’t understand English yet, so we’ll just have to be patient with him.’
Ralph wasn’t comfortable holding hands at the best of times, but this went double for strange putrid smelling Transylvanians. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a pointy stick to hand that he could use to drive Luca up the stairs, so he didn’t see any other options.
Ralph took Luca by his clammy hand and led him to the bathroom. Not trusting Luca to figure it out for himself, he turned on the light and got the shower running.
Luca just stood there. He didn’t seem to have twigged that Ralph had put the shower on for him. Or perhaps he was just shy about getting undressed in front of Ralph. Ralph mimed taking off his clothes and pointed to the shower. Luca did not react. Ralph took hold of Luca’s hand and held it under the hot water of the shower. ‘You go in shower. Get warm,’ he said, using the simplest language he could think of.
Ralph was in shock for a moment. It was the first word he had heard Luca utter since he had arrived.
‘What was that?’ said Ralph, wondering whether he’d heard right.
‘Brrraiinns,’ said Luca again.
His voice was like a chainsaw caught on a metal wire, it ground against Ralph’s ears. Despite Luca’s strange voice and thick accent it was obvious what he was trying to say.
‘It’s not rain, it’s a shower. It’s similar though. We use it for washing,’ he grabbed a bar of soap and imitated a washing motion.
No wonder he isn’t getting in, thought Ralph. He’s been out in the freezing rain for goodness knows how long.
It was for his own good though, so Ralph took matters into his own hands. Grabbing hold of Luca by the collar, he heaved him into the shower fully clothed.
Luca didn’t resist, but he didn’t try to wash himself either. Ralph grabbed the soap and an old scrubbing brush and began to scrub him from head to toe, working the soap into a lather and washing hard with the brush to get the stink off. When he was satisfied, he grabbed the shower head and hosed Luca down to rinse off any excess soap before pushing him out onto the bath mat, where he stood dripping.
While he was at it, Ralph decided he might as well go the whole hog and tackle Luca’s monstrous gnashers. Ralph knew Americans mocked the standard of dental care in England. If we’re bad, the dental hygiene standards in Transylvania must be diabolical, he thought.
Obviously, Luca didn’t have a toothbrush of his own, but Ralph found an old one that he sometimes used to clean his football boots. He squirted out as much toothpaste as he could fit onto the bristles. He attacked Luca’s mouth with gusto, scrubbing at Luca’s teeth like the time he’d spilled paint on his dad’s carpet and attempted to clean it up before he got back. As he worked the brush around the sharp pointed teeth, bits of rotting meat and gristle began to come away, giving off a foul stench. Ralph suspected it was the first-time fluoride had seen the inside of Luca’s mouth. When he’d finished, Luca’s teeth still didn’t look any better, but it had done wonders for the stinky breath.
The next problem he had was Luca’s dripping wet clothes. Ralph knew Imelda and dad would flip out if they realised he’d put Luca into the shower fully clothed, so he had to get him dry. He considered the airing cupboard but had to discount it for speed; it would take Luca all night to dry there. Towels would never work on wet clothes, so his only option was the hair dryer.
Ralph dragged Luca onto the landing, he found the hair dryer in Imelda’s bedroom and began to blast Luca with it. He started at the feet and worked his way up. It was slow progress, but eventually he reached the top and aimed the dryer at Luca’s hair. As he progressed methodically around, he realised he had been drying from underneath too much and had blown Luca’s hair so it was standing vertical on the top of his head, making him seem taller and more forbidding than ever. Ralph hadn’t got Luca completely dry, but he was okay for what Ralph had in mind. He scaled the ladder to his room, grabbed an old tracksuit from the pile of clothes he kept on the floor for easy access and scurried back down before Luca could wander off. He needn’t have worried, Luca was standing in the exact spot Ralph had left him, the same vacant expression on his face. Ralph pulled Luca’s arms into the tracksuit top and zipped it up. The trousers were going to be trickier but Ralph had picked a pair that had zips in the bottom so he wouldn’t have to take Luca’s shoes off. He dreaded to think what kind of state the Transylvanian’s feet were in. He’d have inch long yellow claws for toenails if the rest of him was anything to go by. Ralph lifted Luca’s foot and to his surprise Luca was being rather compliant, although of course he made no acknowledgement of what was going on or any effort to help dress himself. Ralph slipped the tracksuit bottoms over his feet and pulled them up.
Ralph stood back to appraise his handiwork. Luca still looked… odd. He had a face that wouldn’t suit anything at all, and Victorian leather shoes would never work with a turquoise sports outfit. At least the smell had diminished, and Ralph felt that in certain areas he might be able to pass for an upstanding member of the community, although perhaps not in Great Merritt.
‘You’ll do,’ he muttered, mostly to himself, feeling an unfamiliar sense of pride in the job he’d done with the makeover. Perhaps he had a future as a celebrity stylist. He was warming to Luca too. He liked the way the boy kept himself to himself. ‘Come on then you,’ he said to Luca, ‘let’s get you some food.’
Downstairs, Imelda had reheated the leftover dinner at which Ralph had turned up his nose. He felt guilty about that now after seeing how painfully thin Luca was. Imelda sat Luca at the table and placed a bowl of the Transylvanian offal soup in front of him. Again, Luca just sat there and Ralph wondered whether he’d be capable of feeding himself, but when Joshua made eating motions with his hands, Luca seemed to understand and looked down into his soup.
‘What did he say?’ asked Joshua.
‘I think he’s saying rain. Sounds like brains, but I think it’s his accent. He said it when I put the shower on for him earlier.’
‘Oh, of course. That makes sense after he got soaked through. I wonder if he knows a bit of English after all, or if it’s just that they have a similar word to us for rain. Fascinating stuff eh Ralph?’ replied his dad. He rarely asked Ralph his opinion on whether something was fascinating, so Ralph assumed Dad was just trying to keep him on side while he sized up the new boy.
As they were chatting, Luca reached his hand into the soup bowl and found a particularly gristly looking piece of meat.
‘Oh, sorry darling, that looks like a bad bit. Let me get you some more,’ apologised Imelda.
‘Brrraiinns,’ said Luca, shoving the meat into his mouth and tearing at it like a feasting hyena.
Imelda’s face lit up. ‘Oh, he likes it!’ she gushed. ‘I told you he wouldn’t be as fussy as you British children.’
Ralph watched Luca chew at the meat in his hands and wondered about the other ways in which the boy might differ from British children.
‘Ralph, you might as well go back to bed,’ said his dad. ‘Luca can sleep on the sofa tonight and we’ll set him up in your room tomorrow.’
‘OK,’ said Ralph, wondering if he’d be able to sleep after all the excitement. Watching Luca eating his stew was going to be enough to give him nightmares if he did.