My family wasn’t exactly typical I suppose, all four of us being boys, but I guess we were pretty lucky in that we got along okay. Steven and Simon were the elder at twenty-two and nineteen, but although Simon had a girlfriend, neither he nor Steven was showing any signs of wanting to leave home. Steven was too wrapped up in his studies to have any time for girls. Not that he wasn’t good-looking enough to attract them in a sort of unkempt, shaggy-dog type of way; he just didn’t seem to be interested or have time for them, preferring to sit up on the roof in his astoundingly professional amateur observatory, peering at the heavens through his telescope. I must admit I’d spent quite a few hours up there myself, particularly when Steven got really excited, thinking he’d discovered a comet. Unfortunately, someone else had beaten him to it by two days, but he’d got an honourable mention which hadn’t discouraged him one bit.
Simon was a different kettle of fish entirely. Wolfish good looks ensured that girls swooned whenever he appeared on the horizon and he took unashamed advantage of his luck. His current girlfriend was somewhat different to the endless stream he seemed to have had in the past. This one was called Myrtle and actually appeared to have some brains, so Mum and Dad were starting to think there might be hope for our Simon yet. Like they had with Steven, they were showing no desire to push him out into a formal career; personally, I thought he would probably become a professional dancer; he was certainly good enough. Being four boys together, we’d done the usual you-show-me-yours routine and we all knew that aside from his good looks, Simon had also been quite favoured in the willy department - not that he was a giant, but he definitely had the rest of us just-average-pluses beaten.
Jimmy was the youngest of us at fifteen. He was going through that difficult stage where nothing was right, nothing fit and if by some miracle it was or did, then he hadn’t wanted it in the first place. We’d all had to endure it, so we just sighed and waited it out. He was a decent kid most of the time, the only one of us with red hair and freckles, and frankly, he looked as if he should have been born into another family. The rest of us were all tall and dark whereas Jimmy took after maternal Grandmother, whose Irish hair was still auburn and almost half the length of her five-foot-nothing body. Not that Jimmy was five-foot-nothing - he was actually , but as the rest of us were all over six three, we called him ‘The Midget’, or just ‘Midge’ for short. He took it very well, all things considered and in fact, I think he preferred it to ‘Jimmy’. He’d been christened James of course, but it wasn’t worth your life to call him that. Myrtle had immediately dubbed him ‘The Human Freckle’.
And then there’s me. My name’s David and I was just seventeen when some drunken non-entity altered our lives. Like Jimmy I was still at school, although theoretically I suppose I’d just finished, whereas poor Jimmy was only home for half-term and would have to go back in two weeks. I’d fast-tracked my A-levels and had done pretty well, though I say so myself and was about to enjoy nearly four months off before starting uni the next year. I think I wanted to major in marine biology, but I was also rather good at solving puzzles and law with a criminology major looked inviting as well.
As far as looks went, I didn’t think I was anything special and apparently, neither did anyone else. I was secretly pleased because quite frankly, girls scared me. I’d had no experience of them at all, growing up in an all-boy family and having been sent to an all-boy boarding school. When I’d mentioned my awkwardness with girls one morning, Simon had confidently said it was obviously because I was gay which had caused some embarrassment, because he’d said it while we were all at the breakfast table and more to the point, while Dad was drinking his tea. After Simon had reluctantly cleaned up the resulting mess and Dad had changed his shirt, Simon blithely informed me that it wasn’t he who thought I was gay, but Myrtle.
Unfortunately for me, I had a growing suspicion Myrtle might be right, but with three brothers … if I was gay, then even at seventeen I was still firmly in a lead-lined closet with the door triple-bolted on both sides. Sure I masturbated, but not every day like Simon did - actually, I think he used to do it every hour before Myrtle came along - and I always kept the light on so I wouldn’t start fantasising about … things.
There’s one other member of the family I should mention - besides Mum and Dad of course - and that’s Red. She’s a four year-old, spayed, Irish Setter bitch. One of us boys has to groom her every week to keep her looking good, though she doesn’t shed hair everywhere which is a bonus. We happily take it in turns because she’s well worth the trouble. Red’s treated like one of the family and has the run of the house, with her own comfy-chair in the lounge-room. She likes to watch telly with the rest of us and for some strange reason, seems to prefer cooking shows. She’s got one of those deep, sub-sonic barks; more a woof than a bark and though she acts like a ham-footed klutz, she’s really quite smart.
Anyhow, it was a Tuesday morning; Tuesday, November the second to be precise. I remember it was a Tuesday, because Simon was rattling on about how he and Myrtle had been chosen to represent their club in next February’s inter-club dancesport comp at the previous night’s dance-off, which was always on a Monday. They did Modern Latin mostly and were actually damned good.
The phone rang. Dad sighed because he was always being interrupted at breakfast by some crisis or other. Quite what they were, we never knew exactly, because Dad ‘did something’ in the city - very hush-hush. If anybody asked, we always looked conspiratorial and said Dad was actually ‘M’. Well; we used to, until one day Mum quietly pointed out that it was a little too close to the truth to be funny and suggested we stop doing it.
Anyhow; whatever Dad did, it obviously brought in pots of money
because we had a large house in a little village just outside
Dad got up to answer the phone, because at this time of day it was always for him and it just saved time. It was for him, but it wasn’t at all what he probably expected.
‘Douglas Armstrong …’
Dad sat next to the sideboard and listened for a while, his free hand resting comfortably on his as yet small, but developing paunch and as usual, none of us paid any attention until he held up a hand for quiet.
‘… Yes, Professor Herring, I do remember you; about two years ago, wasn’t it?’ Dad stood up and brought the phone to the table. ‘I’ll put the speaker on Professor, then we can all hear you.’
‘Can you hear me now?’
The high-pitched voice had the faint twang of a Welsh accent. It was slightly tremulous and with the title, immediately conjured up a vision of a tall, thin, aging academic, probably in tweeds and smoking a pipe. We all chorused that we could indeed hear him and Dad told the professor to carry on. Mum had moved the frying pan off the heat and came to join the rest of us in the dining room, wiping her hands on her apron.
‘Well … I’m afraid this is a bit of an imposition, but I’m in somewhat of a fix. Obviously, since you remember me, you will recall that some two years ago, you put your names down on our list as being willing to give one of our young charges a short live-in holiday …’
‘Ah,’ said Dad, ‘yes, of course. Provided it was a boy, though. We have four boys, so we didn’t think a girl would be … well … would fit in exactly. We hadn’t heard anything, so we thought maybe we weren’t quite what you were looking for.’
‘Oh, no indeed!’ The professor sounded quite shocked at the suggestion. ‘It’s just happenstance, I’m afraid. Each child has to be matched against the profile the family submits and I expect the right one just hasn’t come up …’
‘And today is our lucky day?’
‘Oh dear … I’m not sure if that’s quite the way things have worked out …’
The professor sounded rather apologetic and I could almost hear his nervous swallows.
‘… You see … you weren’t the first family picked for this child. In fact, I have to tell you that you were actually last on a short-list of six. It’s nothing against your good selves of course, so I do hope you won’t be offended. I believe this boy was quite difficult to place …’
‘No offence taken, Professor.’ Dad was using his most reassuring of professional voices. ‘I gather something has gone awry.’
‘Oh, goodness me … yes indeed, you could say that!’ The Professor was starting to sound a bit like a pantomime character. ‘You see, he … the boy, that is … was due to stay for two months with a family in Stroud, but just an hour ago I received the most shocking news.’ The professor paused with a little gulp. ‘The mother of the family has been run over by a drunken driver … she’s going to be all right I believe, but understandably, the family has told us they cannot possibly take the boy now. They apologised profusely for the short notice of course, but said they had absolutely no choice.’
‘I see …’ Dad sounded thoughtful and I could see the cogs whirring already. ‘So … you’d like us to step into the breech, is that it?’
‘Oh dear … it does sound rather callous, doesn’t it … but I’m afraid that’s about the sum of it, yes.’
‘And the other families on the list?’
‘Well … I must tell you that there were indeed three other families to contact. I couldn’t raise one of them and the other two said they were awfully sorry and all that, but the timing was just not right. It’s left us in a dreadful fix as I said, because you see … well … the boy’s already in the plane on his way over …’
There was a short stunned silence at this, then Dad sighed.
‘You certainly know how to put a fellow on the spot, Professor!’
His words were a bit harsh perhaps, but his tone was forgiving and the professor didn’t seem too upset.
‘Oh, yes indeed; I do understand, believe me. However, I’m afraid the only alternative is to have the poor fellow met at Heathrow and put straight on a plane back home.’ The professor heaved a deep sigh of his own. ‘Some of these boys have been through an awful lot and goodness knows what a disappointment of this magnitude might do.’
Dad looked at Mum and spread his hands in silent bafflement. Mum raised hers in an answering ‘it’s your problem, dear’ gesture and smiled sweetly.
‘Hello? Doctor Armstrong?’ Dad started as the professor’s voice broke the silence.
‘Sorry, Professor … we’ve got a bit of thinking to do. How long do we have, exactly?’
‘Um … oh dear … not long, I’m afraid. The plane lands in about two hours, so I need a response … well … almost immediately, I’m sorry.’
‘Very well … look … give us fifteen minutes and we’ll have an answer for you. What do you know about this boy, by the way?
‘Oh dear … here we go again! Very little, I’m afraid. You see … all the papers went straight to the other family and I haven’t actually seen them myself. All I know is that he’s quite disturbed … not violent of course … we wouldn’t allow that. Apparently, he’s somewhat withdrawn … almost introverted. He’s suffered some sort of deep trauma of course, but the referring authorities are always very reluctant to say exactly what it was. Sometimes they don’t even know themselves! All I know at the moment is that he’s seventeen years old and he’s American … and, oh yes … from what I can gather, his name is Tree … Tree Watson.’
‘I know … strange, isn’t it. Anyway, Doctor … look; I’ll ring back at say, eight-thirty. Is that satisfactory?’
‘Yes; fine Professor. Well have an answer for you then. Goodbye.’
Dad put the phone down and looked up, at once aware he had a hostile audience of four. Mum had sensibly gone back to the stove and was valiantly trying to resurrect two very fried eggs, while Red sat in the doorway eyeing her patiently, knowing from past experience they’d probably come her way if they were eventually deemed unfit for human consumption.
‘We thought … you know …’ Dad shrugged, slumping back in his chair and looking strangely helpless for once. ‘… Well; when you’ve got four boys already, what’s a fifth for two months? Besides … it was your mother’s idea.’
‘Liar …’ called Mum over scraping noises from the kitchen. She hadn’t said it with any passion; it was just a statement of fact.
‘Look …’ his gaze switched between Simon and me. ‘… You two were away at school and Steven’s always up on the roof. Jimmy was only thirteen … I suppose we thought it was a good idea at the time. To be honest, we’d completely forgotten about it … hadn’t we, dear?’
‘Yes, dear. Two eggs or three?’ Gobbling noises from the kitchen suggested Red had inherited Mum’s first efforts.
‘Two dear, please. So, there you are …’ Dad shrugged, and all four of us started talking at once.
‘An American? Gum and sneakers?’ Steven wasn’t a Yankophobe particularly, but I had to agree with him.
‘Oh lord,’ said Simon with a groan, ‘what if he’s seven feet tall and just lives for basketball?’
‘If he calls me ‘dood’ even once, I swear I’ll throw up,’ was Jimmy’s contribution.
‘Hold on now,’ Dad protested. ‘Don’t you think we’re dragging out the stereotypes here? Besides, we haven’t even decided he’s coming yet, have we?’
‘Haven’t we?’ I said, with my best Little Mister Innocent smile.
‘No, we haven’t!’ Dad didn’t sound too annoyed. ‘Look; if you boys definitely don’t want him, then the professor can just pack up the poor, crying, desperately disappointed little mite …’
‘All right, already,’ said Simon, hands raised in submission. ‘Point conceded. Game, set and match to the prof.’
‘You never know, dears,’ said Mum, slipping two sunny-side-up eggs neatly onto Dad’s plate, ‘it might be fun!’ Dad reached for the pepper and Mum headed back to the stove as the rest of us started speculating on just what this ‘quite disturbed’ Tree Watson might be like.
I had to admit all our knowledge of Americans was just as Dad said - stereotypes from TV and movies - plus the sports stars of course. Still; it was hard to get away from that sort of image. I mean, if the professor had said this Tree person was French or German or even Chinese, then maybe we’d have thought he could turn out to be ordinary … well … disturbed and ordinary. But Americans all seem so much larger than life, somehow. I suppose it comes of years of indoctrination – for instance, why are all the world’s superheroes American? Batman, Superman, Spiderman; even Wonderwoman, for heaven’s sake!
Then the phone rang again. It sounded piercingly shrill in the sudden silence and Dad picked it up rather gingerly, as if he was afraid it might metamorphose into a poisonous toad or something.
‘Douglas Armstrong …’ Dad hadn’t turned the speaker off last time, so we all heard the professor’s voice when he spoke.
‘It’s Herring again, Doctor. I do hope you have good news for me …’
‘Yes, Professor … we’re happy to take him …’
Dad and the professor continued speaking while Simon made strangled coughing noises into his tea and Jimmy stood up and walked out, looking like somebody’d just called him James twice. Even Steven (that was Jimmy’s name for him - Even Steven) had a frown on his face and my marmalade on toast suddenly tasted rather strange.
Hidden Treasure - available in book or download format - Who had interrupted their calm and cosy existence? Buy Hidden Treasure, and meet a nice, fairly ordinary family which is about to get a very awkward, unpleasant surprise.