by Shaun Baines
Banana Bill and I planned another caper. He was taller than me with sloppy arms and legs. Mother said he was made of spaghetti and his red face was like a meatball. I smiled because I was ten and I didn’t know grown-ups could be mean. Bill had brought his wire-haired tripe hound for a visit with a fistful of dog food in his pocket.
‘Do you want to come out and play, Minnie?’ I asked my younger sister.
Her hair, braided in ponytails either side of her head, looked like the handles on my orange Space Hopper. We went into the garden where I pinned her to the ground. Bill smeared dog food on her face and his tripe hound licked it off. Minnie screamed with laughter, squirming half-heartedly against the dog’s persistent licks.
Roused at the sound of fun, Father chased me with his slipper. Bill watched ashen faced as I was beaten, his tripe hound cowering at his leg.
The next morning, I joined my family for breakfast. Mother and Father stopped talking as I entered and I helped myself to kippers under their wary gaze. Mother scraped her toast with jam until the knife pierced the bread. Father’s moustache bristled behind his newspaper.
It was the first week of the summer holidays.
‘And what are you doing today, Dennis?’ Mother asked me.
I swallowed the dry flakes of fish and looked to Father as he puffed blue smoke from his pipe. ‘He’s doing nothing. He’s grounded. For acting the fool.’
Mother pinched the corner of her toast. Jam squeezed through her fingers. ‘And what do you think he’s done now?’
‘Terrorising his sister for one. Not that you would bloody notice.’
‘Here we go again,’ Mother said, sucking her fingers clean. ‘Why don’t you just go to the office and leave me alone?’
I pushed away my kipper over the sound of my tummy rumbling. ‘Can I be excused?’
‘No, you bloody well can’t,’ Father shouted. ‘Do you know how dangerous your stupid behaviour can be? You need to grow up.’
‘Well, I’m not having him under my feet all day,’ Mother said before turning to me. ‘Go play outside, Dennis. Be back before dark. Or just after.’
Standing, I turned to see Minnie in the doorway, rubbing sleep from her eyes. I took her hand and led her back upstairs. We read comics in our bedroom while Mother and Father had another grown-up talk that reached us through the door.
‘I want my breakfast,’ Minnie said, eventually.
She was thinner these days. Her nightie was too big. With a strong gust of wind, she might fly away like the kite Banana Bill got for his birthday. The image made me smile until I noticed a dirt mark on Minnie’s face. Sunday nights had been bath nights. Mother would chase us about the house, soap bar in hand.
‘That’s it,’ Mother had said one Sunday. ‘Either get in or don’t. I don’t care anymore.’
From then on, we ran our own baths.
‘Why don’t we knock on Bill?’ I asked Minnie. ‘We can play comics.’
‘But I’m hungry.’
I heard Mother dropping the breakfast plates in the kitchen sink. There’d be no more food until evening.
‘I know,’ I said and dressed Minnie in her favourite stripy leggings.
As the summer stretched onward, me, Bill and Minnie made our own happy family, acting out our favourite comic strips in the park. We built box cars and raced them down Break Neck Hill. We stole apples from Farmer Buckshot’s orchard. We even went to the Trembley Knee haunted house, but scarpered when Bill’s tripe hound accidentally got stuck under a white sheet. Every day, we shared the lunch Bill’s mum made for him and there was always a banana each.
The ding of the school bell loomed closer, like the final page of a story only a few turns away. I lay in bed, watching the morning sun dye my room in the tints of my cartoon curtains. Minnie nudged her way under my duvet. ‘Mother and Father are grown-up talking again,’ she said, stifling a sob.
‘We’ve had lots of fun this summer, haven’t we?’ I asked. ‘More than usual?’
‘But we have to go back to school soon and they’ll tease us about our clothes again.’ Minnie’s wet cheek brushed against my bare shoulder. ‘Everything fun has to end.’
‘No, it doesn’t. Not if we don’t want it to. We can have more fun. Mother and Father can join in.’
Minnie sat up, her dirty ponytails lank against her face. ‘They wouldn’t like that, Dennis. They want us at school because we make too much noise when we laugh.’
‘We’ll show them how much fun laughing can be. It will stop the grown-up talking.’ I paused to clear my throat. ‘It might bring them together, like it did for us.’
Her tears turned into a cautious smile.
I knew the idea would be too hard to resist and an hour later, I returned from Bill’s house, hurrying the bananas into her open arms. She peeled them as I ran into the bathroom, plugging the bath and turning the taps on full. I tip-toed back to our room where we waited, grinning from ear to ear.
Downstairs, the grown-up talking stopped and we held our breath. I couldn’t remember our house being so quiet. It was working. Minnie gripped my hand. She thought so too.
The kitchen door flew open. ‘There’s bloody water everywhere,’ Father said. ‘He’s left the taps on in the bathroom.’
‘Now it’s time for fun,’ I said, crossing my fingers.
Father bounded up the stairs, water splashing around his feet. He was about to surge into the bathroom when he paused to stare at the landing, his mouth gaping open.
‘What’s going on?’ Mother shouted from the kitchen.
‘Get up here and see for yourself.’ Father’s moustache twitched. His arms locked to his side and his hands curled into fists. ‘Come out and explain yourselves.’
We shuffled from our bedroom and Father pointed at the banana skins on the floor. ‘Is this some sort of a joke? Am I supposed to slip on these and everybody laughs?’ His face was red and his eyes made me want to cry. ‘I’ve had enough of this. You can’t slip on banana skins, Dennis. This isn’t a bloody comic. This is real life. You have to learn.’
Father pushed his shirt sleeves to his elbows. ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.’
Hopping on one foot, Father yanked his slipper free and lost his balance, his wet foot skidding on the landing. He tumbled into Mother as she climbed the stairs. There was a brief moment of stillness. Father hung like an apple in Farmer Buckshot’s orchard while Mother reached out to grab him. And then they met in a mesh of flailing limbs, rolling down the stairs together. There was no screaming. Just grunts and cracks of bone. They landed in a heap, splayed out on the floor below, canaries tweeting around their broken heads.
We were told Mother and Father’s death was a misadventure. We smiled because we didn’t understand. I’d heard of adventures before. Misadventures seemed to be a grown-up thing. Father hadn’t slipped on the banana skins, but his feet were wet and that made him unsteady. His neck had snapped in the fall and Mother suffered a fatal head injury. That was a misadventure, they explained.
Bill had called the police when we failed to meet him for the third day running. At first, they thought it was a prank, but he’d insisted they listen. He was tough for a boy made of spaghetti. They found us reading comics and eating bananas while water pooled around our parent’s bodies.
We lived with Bill and his mum after that, though we called her Katherine. She also insisted on calling us by our real names, not the ones I’d stolen from my comics.
My sister and I only spoke of the incident once. It was late at night and we were reading with a torch.
‘Do you think Mother and Father realised we were having fun?’ she asked, clicking off her light.
In my comics, slipping on a banana skin always got a laugh. It was the first caper I ever acted out, but it didn’t work. It never did. No-one fell and no-one laughed. So, I tried others. When Father came for me with his slipper, I hid a book down the back of my trousers. Enraged, he swung at my head. When I stole Mother’s blueberry pie cooling by the window, she starved me for a week. Balloons burst before they carried me over rooftops and sneezing powder made my nose bleed. I learned to live in the real world where actions had consequences, just like Father warned me. His actions as well as mine.
I closed my comic, dreaming of another caper.
Shaun Baines lives in a damp cottage in Scotland. He keeps chickens for company. When he isn’t outside gardening, he is huddled over a computer writing about dark things. His debut novel, Woodcutter is published by Thistle Publishing (2018). Find him @littlehavenfarm.