I Live in a Mad House, page 1
I Live in a Mad House
I Live in a Mad House
Illustrated by Kate Sheppard
For The Odd Job Boys
A Word From the Author
It was the half-term holiday and I was out washing cars with Josh Mahoney. We were in business together. It was supposed to be a joint enterprise, although you’d never know it.
I had thought of everything.
I had provided a sponge, for a start. (It was my little brother Kenny’s bath sponge, actually, but he has a flannel, too, so I reckoned he wouldn’t miss it.)
I had provided old towels for drying, old rags for polishing and a stiff brush for getting dirt off wheels. I had also brought along a bottle of special car-washing shampoo that I’d borrowed from my dad. (I intended to replace it before he found out, with the money I would earn.)
Josh’s contribution was a rusty bucket he’d found in a skip. The handle was wonky and it leaked quite badly. He was meant to have brought along some rubber gloves, too, but he’d forgot.
Some partner. I wasn’t impressed.
We’d been at it for hours and done four cars in Josh’s road. We’d earned eighteen pounds so far, all down to my efforts. I’d done the talking on doorsteps, explaining about our luxury service and telling them how much it would cost. Most people acted like Scrooge, although we only charged four pounds, which was a bargain.
Josh never said a word.
After they’d seen the magnificent job we’d done, a couple of people had kindly given us a fiver. That made up for the ones who slammed the door in our faces. One old lady threatened to set her Pekinese on us. You meet all types, knocking on doors.
It was a warm day and we were finding it pretty tiring, traipsing in and out of strange kitchens and up down strange hallways, slopping water all over the carpets and knocking over bicycles. Some people got quite shirty, although they could see we were having trouble with the wonky bucket.
I was keen to carry on, though, because I was desperate for money. I needed a new skateboard. I’d left my old one out in the garden for five minutes and someone had stolen it. My parents were sympathetic, but not enough to buy me a new one.
I’d spent all my savings on a present for Kenny. His third birthday was coming up, and I’d got him a big plastic water gun and a fireman’s helmet from a charity shop. Together, they cost seven pounds fifty, which was very generous of me, but I knew he’d love them.
So I was penniless. I needed a board. It was all down to me to raise the cash.
Mum needed a lot of persuading about the car-washing business.
‘There are a lot of funny people out there,’ she said.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘I haven’t seen any clowns lately.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. ‘You know what I mean.’
Then I promised to be sensible and said I was doing it with Josh and we’d only knock on the doors of people we knew. In the end, she reluctantly agreed.
The board I wanted cost a massive forty pounds. I’d seen it in a catalogue. It’s similar to the one Josh has got.
We were splitting our earnings down the middle, so altogether we needed to earn eighty. Twenty cars. Ten a day. Say half an hour a car. Two days’ work, maybe. Less if people were generous. More if we had trouble finding customers. I had it all worked out. I was taking this seriously.
Josh, however, was flagging. He was sitting on a wall, watching me spread lather over car number five, which was a small, filthy, mudcaked van that dripped oil. It looked like it had been sucked up in a typhoon, dumped in a swamp and licked by cows before being driven home by way of a ploughed field.
I had got the worst of the mud off with my brush. Underneath the muck, I was quite amazed to find that the van was actually white! I was now beginning the first shampoo. So far, Josh hadn’t lifted a finger to help. He wasn’t as keen as me. He gets loads of pocket money and new trainers every term. His nan was due for a visit and she always gives him twenty quid. No one had nicked his skateboard.
‘Don’t just sit there,’ I said, irritably. ‘Come and help me.’
‘I am,’ said Josh, not moving. ‘I’m just having a breather. My back’s killing me.’
‘Why don’t you go and knock on a few doors, then?’ I suggested. ‘Whip up a bit of custom? If you’re not going to help.’
‘Whatever,’ said Josh, still not stirring from the wall.
‘At least get me some more water. There’s a tap there, look, you don’t even have to go inside.’ (It was good when there was a tap in the front garden. It meant we didn’t have to trail through people’s houses.)
‘Actually,’ said Josh, ‘I think I’ll pack it in for a bit. See if my nan’s arrived for lunch. We’re having chicken.’
‘It’s all right for some,’ I said, coldly. I was standing in a puddle of oily water, soaked through, with numb arms and a blister coming up on my thumb. And now Josh was talking about going off to claim his jackpot twenty quid and get a proper lunch!
No one would be roasting chicken in my house, I knew. It would be full of screaming toddlers in soggy nappies. Some of Kenny’s friends were coming round. My mum would be frantic.
‘How long are you going to be?’ I went on, sternly. ‘We’ve only done four cars. We agreed on ten a day.’
‘I know.’ Josh gave a shrug. ‘But I forgot about my nan coming.’
‘Well,’ I snapped, ‘at least help me finish this one.’
‘I can’t, man. Mum said one o’clock, and I’ve got to change. Look, have to go. We’ll split the proceeds now. Here’s your share.’
He jumped up off the wall, rummaged in his pocket and counted out the money. I got seven pounds.
‘It should be nine,’ I pointed out. ‘Half of eighteen.’
‘Ah,’ said Josh. ‘But you’ll be getting four pounds for this one. So I’m taking an extra two. I get eleven now. You get seven and keep the four. So we each end up with the same. That’s fair.’
‘No, it’s not,’ I argued. ‘If I’m doing the van by myself, I should get the whole amount. And I have to replace the shampoo before my dad finds out. You owe me half for that.’
‘Why? I brought the bucket.’
‘But the bucket was free. I’ve got to buy the shampoo, haven’t I?’
It seemed reasonable to me. Besides, I’d worked hardest. I’d done all the touting for business, and apologising for the bucket. You only had to look at the state of my hands to know I’d done more than my fair share of the actual washing, too. I really needed this money. I was going to fight for it.
Well, not fight for it. Not actual fisticuffs. I don’t go in for fighting unless I can help it. (Although there was an incident in the playground once, which ended in a trip to the hospital.) No, it wouldn’t come to blows. But I wasn’t going to take it lying down.
‘Look,’ said Josh, ‘I’ve done my bit. We agreed to split the profits. I can’t help it if my nan’s coming, can I? And you don’t have to buy more shampoo. You can fill the empty bottle with washing-up liquid. I bet your dad won’t notice.’
‘As if,’ I sniffed, making a mental note because it was a good idea.
‘Anyway,’ said Josh. ‘I haven’t got time to talk about it now.’
‘What about tomorrow?’ I asked, stiffly.
‘I can’t, man. I’ve got to
‘Well, thanks for telling me. Thanks a lot.’
‘I forgot, right? You forget stuff sometimes, don’t you? Look, I’ve got to go.’
‘So that’s it, then?’ I said, disgusted. ‘You’re out of the car-washing business. Yes?’
‘Yes,’ said Josh, quite stroppy now. ‘If you’re going to be like that, I am. And if you’re that fussed about a lousy couple of quid. . .’ Scornfully, he tossed four pound coins on the pavement. Three fell in the gutter and the fourth rolled under the van. ‘There. Take it. See ya.’ And he strolled off.
‘Great!’ I called after him. ‘Terrific. Remind me not to pick you for a business partner next time.’
‘Yeah!’ he called, adding, with an airy wave, ‘You can keep the bucket.’
‘It’s a rubbish bucket!’ I roared.
‘So go stick your rubbish head in it!’
‘Yours, you mean!’
And with that, our cutting exchange ended. I had got the last word. Good.
‘Tightwad!’ shouted Josh, just as he rounded the corner.
So he got the last word. Not so good.
I was hopping mad. I picked up the three coins, crouched down, took a deep breath and rolled under the van.
It was dark and filthy. I peered around and spotted the runaway pound resting in a pool of engine oil. I fished it out, scraped my knuckles putting it into my pocket, rolled over, whacked my head painfully on the exhaust pipe and got an eye full of rust. I lay there, in a puddle, clutching my head and wiping away at my gritty eye. It was then that I saw the feet.
I knew those feet. They were big. The shoes were brown, and had weird buckles. They were topped with thick, lumpy, brown socks that looked home knitted. It was Flora.
Flora lives with her mum in the corner house of my street. I’ve known her for ages. She’s a bit old-fashioned looking. She’s got braces and glasses and wears her hair in plaits. But she draws great cartoons and collects jokes. We kind of like each other. We both think we’re quite funny.
‘Come out, come out, whoever you are!’ sang Flora, underneath the van.
I began wriggling out. In doing so, I accidentally kicked over the bucket that I’d parked by the back wheel. A river of brown suds flowed over my trainers.
Flora was standing on the pavement with a big cardboard box in her arms. She watched me make my sorry entrance, rising from the underworld like the Demon King in a pantomime. I was soaking wet, smeared with oil and had a lump forming on my head. My hair was attractively decorated with leaves, rust, cigarette ends and old chips that someone had dropped in the road.
‘Hi, Tim,’ she said. ‘Why do cowboys die with their boots on?’
‘I dunno,’ I snapped, picking a chip out of my ear.
‘They don’t want to stub their toes when they kick the bucket.’
‘Huh,’ I said, a bit crossly. I wasn’t in the mood for jokes, particularly not very good ones. I sat down on the wall and began blotting my sodden feet with an old towel.
‘I’ve got a joke for every occasion,’ said Flora, who probably has.
‘Shame they’re not funny,’ I growled, fingering my head lump.
‘Oooh! Grumpy! What’s that lump on your head?’
‘I walked into a revolving door and changed my mind.’
‘You’ve just banged it on the exhaust, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, if you must know.’ Well, I had, and it hurt.
‘Have you had a row with Josh Mahoney? I saw him stomping down the street with a face like a squashed slug.’
‘Yes, actually,’ I said, bitterly. And I told her all about it. I told her about how I’d worked the hardest and done all the talking, while Josh had just stood around. I complained that, unlike Josh, I wouldn’t be getting any proper lunch, my home having turned into the House of Toddling Demons for the afternoon.
I ranted on about the door-slammers and the old lady with the Peke and Josh taking an unfair amount of money, then making out I was the mean one. She made all the right noises and agreed that right was on my side.
It made me feel better, sounding off to Flora. She knew how much I needed a new skateboard. I’d bumped into her the day after mine had been stolen, when I was in a state of deep depression. She’d cheered me up by telling me a joke about two TV aerials getting married. (The service went on for hours, but the reception was great!)
‘. . . so now I’ve got to finish this van, then carry on on my own all afternoon,’ I finished, finally coming to the end of my tirade.
‘Come and have lunch at my house,’ offered Flora. ‘It’ll give you strength.’
I was tempted, but I knew I couldn’t afford to slack. If I went back to hers, we’d end up making things, because that’s what Flora likes to do. She’d want to make a knight’s helmet with a working visor, or a model of the Taj Mahal out of jelly and paper clips. I couldn’t afford to get sucked in.
‘I’d better not,’ I sighed. ‘If I sit down I’ll never get up again.’
‘You can have half of this, if you like,’ said Flora, rummaging in her pocket and taking out a slightly fluffy cheese roll. ‘I got it at the jumble sale. Only one previous owner.’
She was kidding, of course.
‘You’ve been to a jumble sale?’ I asked, interested. I like jumble sales. You can pick up some real bargains. Sometimes I get cheap toys for Kenny. Mum says you don’t know where they’ve been, but once they’ve been near Kenny, it doesn’t matter because they fall apart in five minutes. (Actually, that’s not fair. He’s quite careful with the ones he likes. Especially his cuddly giraffe, who he calls Jug-Jug, don’t ask me why.)
‘At the community centre,’ explained Flora. ‘I got loads of stuff really cheap.’
‘Like a beautiful lemon lampshade for my room. A paintbox, never used. A bottle of scent, still in the wrapping. A useful pad. And some puppets.’
‘Yep. Wanna see?’
‘Go on, then. But I’d better get this van finished.’
Wet jeans flapping around my ankles, I squelched off to fill the leaky bucket from the garden tap while Flora laid out her purchases on the wall.
When I came back, they were all ready for my inspection. I skimmed over the lampshade, which was yellow and, frankly, dull. I approved of the paintbox. I admired the scent, which was a bargain at twenty pence. The pad was useful, I could see that. And then I saw the puppets.
They were lined up in a row – a weird collection of faded old glove puppets, made mostly of scraps of old cloth topped with cracked, papier-mâché heads. Various features were missing – eyes and ears and whatnot. They looked as ancient as the hills – the sort of puppets you might unearth from Methuselah’s attic, or pull from a time capsule from the old days. The days when there were hoops and hobbyhorses and a proper nursery to play with them in.
There were six of them: a hideous clown with half his jaw missing; a toothless crocodile that was little more than a green sock with a stitched-on tail; an eyeless policeman with a stuck-on helmet and a tiny truncheon; a sailor with a wooden leg hanging by a piece of thread and a battered princess with a cardboard crown. The princess had really been through the wars. She was missing her entire nose, and her dress was falling apart at the seams. Finally, there was a moth-eaten rabbit. I say it was a rabbit, although it had no ears. It did, however, have a fluffy tail and a felt carrot stuck on one paw, so it seemed a fair assumption.
Flora and I looked down at them. Sadly, they looked up at us. Well, all but the policeman, who had no eyes and couldn’t.
‘Hmm,’ I said, at a loss for words.
‘I felt sorry for them,’ explained Flora. ‘Poor old things. Dumped in a box under a stall. Nobody wanted them. I got the lot for fifty pence.’
‘Well, well,’ I said, privately thinking that if they were cluttering up my space, I’d pay fifty pence for them to be taken away to a landfill.
‘You don’t lik
‘They look like the cast of Nightmare On Puppet Street,’ I said. ‘They’re horror puppets. Cruel parents used to lock naughty children in dark rooms with them in the old days. They’d wake up screaming and beg for them to be taken away.’ I put on a silly voice. ‘Take them away, Mother! Oh, save us from the horror puppets, do!’
Grinning, Flora waggled the crocodile in my face.
‘He dushn’t love ush,’ she croaked, in a daft, crocodile voice. ‘He dushn’t fink we’re up to shcratch. He finksh we’ll shcare little children. O, deary, deary me, Tim dushn’t love ush, I’m gonna weep crocodile tearsh, boo hoo!’
‘Get off,’ I said, sniggering a bit, pushing the manic lump of bobbing cloth away.
Flora picked up the noseless princess and put her on her other hand.
‘What’s this I hear?’ she squeaked. ‘Do I gather the child is less than impressed by our royal presence? And me with a tragic nose infirmity? Off with his head, I say! Sharpen the royal sword, I’ll do it now!’
I got sucked in. Daft, I know, but I just couldn’t help it. I stuck my poor, raw hand up the policeman and waggled it about.
‘Evenin’ all,’ I croaked, in my best, old-fashioned copper voice. ‘What’s goin’ on ’ere then? Did I ’ear someone makin’ idle threats about decapitation? Because I don’t take kindly to that sort o’ talk on my beat.’
‘She did, offisher,’ burst in the crocodile, flapping its jaws eagerly. ‘But that’sh becaush Tim dushn’t love ush. He’sh a puppet hater, he ish. He’sh. . .’
‘Ssshhh!’ I said, jumping up and hastily tugging the policeman off my hand.
The door had slammed behind us. The man with the van was coming out to see how I was getting on.
‘All right?’ said the man with the van. He stared at Flora, who hastily began putting her things back in the box.
‘Yep,’ I said, dipping my trusty sponge in the water. ‘Shouldn’t take much longer. Nearly there.’
KAYE UMANSKY SERIES:
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