Ben Fletcher

Chapter One (Of Course, The Boy is White)

Mr and Mrs Moustache were a rather ordinary husband and wife, really.

Though, it could certainly in future be suggested by some that in certain specific circumstances, Mr Moustache could be interpreted to have displayed a subtle, yet on reflection actually perceptible, degree of toxic masculinity, which means upon reaching an appropriate age or the subject being topical in the news of the day, readers should assume there had been a hidden campaign of emotional abuse from him towards his wife the whole time, and that such a campaign is not a series of actions which any reasonable person should ever engage in themselves.

Mr Moustache was the sort of man who took daily both a copy of The Sun and the Daily Mail. It was very much the highlight of his daily routine to take a seat at the kitchen table around seven o’clock each morning and compare how the two, as he called them, esteemed publications, each undertook their own unique approach towards realising their joint ambition of ensuing that everything bad that ever happened in the world — from the gloomy weather last Thursday afternoon to the twelve-minute delay on the nine twenty-nine departure from Slough the next day — was blamed on immigrants. And vegan sausage rolls. Vegan sausage rolls simply had to be part of the radical left’s liberal agenda imported into British society by European migrants. Mr Moustache was sure of that.

Mr Moustache approved very much of the Duchess of Cambridge, but not at all of Megan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who he refused to even acknowledge as having ties to royalty. “The Duchess of Cambridge, she knows exactly how to act with grace and with dignity,” he would always be the first in the room to say whenever the opportunity arose to do so. Most often, that opportunity came during an evening news report on the television, when there would be a piece about the royal family presented by a royal correspondent who Mr Moustache would always refer to as “not British enough for the job.”

“But that Megan,” Mr Moustache would then go on to explain. “It’s not that I don’t like her. I just think our royal family should be all British, that’s what I’m saying. I mean, what would the Australians or Canadians think if they found out that we had started letting foreign people into their royal family simply for the sake of diversity, or whatever they call it these days? Did anybody think of that? No. I didn’t think so.”

It would be reasonable to assume that, like many others who consider religiously supporting the royal family a personality trait to list proudly alongside casual racism and an irrational hated of anyone who looks even the slightest bit different from themselves, or be from a village, town, city or country which they fail to possess the intellect to spell, let alone locate on any map, Mr Moustache was unaware that the current royal family were once known as the house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, but made the decision in 1917 to adopt the surname Windsor, after the castle, in an attempt to avoid any sort of anti-German sentiment towards them during the later years of the First World War and subsequent decades.

You may at this moment wonder how it can be possible for a person such as Megan Markle to be relevant in a book clearly set some years before her rise to prominence, and also in an entirely different, and entirely fictional universe. But this is where readers learn the first rule of magical universe club: just because something was never mentioned in magical universe club, it doesn’t mean it didn’t actually happen in magical universe club. Sometimes, it is important to understand, things happen simply because magic, and never should you trouble yourself too much with such trivialities as sense, continuity, or whether future comments directly contradict what was actually in the book. No, not when there’s an entire world of harm and hate to exploit in the name of convenience, topicality, and of course, a deep burning desire to remain relevant at all costs.

Mrs Moustache agreed with Mr Moustache’s opinions on the royal family. In fact, Mrs Moustache agreed with Mr Moustache’s opinions on almost any subject. This wasn’t necessarily because she believed everything her husband said was always right — though often it was far right — but because in her view of the world, it was simply her job as Mr Moustache’s wife to support and agree with any of the opinions he voiced. You see, Mrs Moustache had internalised misogyny, which is where a woman believes it’s their place in society not to have their own views or ambitions, but to submit themselves to be controlled and suppressed by all the men who uphold the centuries old patriarchy.

While Mrs Moustache didn’t believe in women having their own opinions, she was, to think of no better word, a fan of the works of various biologically female professional agitators who had all made their names and fortunes by crisis acting their way to a perceived impression among the gullible, racist, and simply fatuous members of society, that they were being oppressed despite being rich, white, and very privileged — and that is nothing to say of the larger than average platforms they all enjoyed, which if not being used to incite hate and discrimination without any real or meaningful consequences, could be put to good use sharing messages of unity, love, compassion, and understanding.

However much she found solace and solidarity with the voices of the aforementioned bigots, Mrs Moustache would have wanted you to know that never on a single occasion did she actually refer to herself as being a fan of them, for being a fan of anything made you a lower class of person than what Mrs Moustache believed herself to be. She was, nevertheless, permitted to admire the opinions of these particular owners of naturally occurring vaginas, for her husband approved of all their viewpoints. “They are a real man’s woman,” Mr Moustache would say if any of them appeared on the television.

It would also have been important to Mrs Moustache for you to know she never felt any sort of affection towards these women. After all, that would be quite unnatural. No, it was the true alpha males who sought to gain high office by holding rallies for the hate-filled and easily influenced, all while claiming to be telling people things exactly as they were, that made Mrs Moustache’s body temperature rise. They were real men who always knew exactly what women like her were thinking, thought Mrs Moustache, and in her Mr Moustache-approved opinion, there were no finer men to speak on behalf of women everywhere — except perhaps Mr Moustache himself, of course.

Mr Moustache will be described first by his job and contribution to society, because he is the owner of a penis grown naturally in the wild. As the head of the household, Mr Moustache earned his living by working as a director of a large company, which paid him a handsome enough salary to afford him and his family a comfortable life. Though, not so large as to make any of them ever realise they didn’t actually belong to an oppressed demographic.

It would be natural to assume that in a fictional world of the writer’s own creation, where many risk their lives in the pursuit of eradicating all forms of profiling, that body shaming simply wouldn’t exist. The reality is, however, that society had ingrained within each member a subliminal negative connotation that anyone whose body is of a larger size than average must most likely be a very bad person. And for this reason, and because it’s an easy and lazy way to describe a character, Mr Moustache not only had an enormous black moustache on his top lip, but he was also rather short and very fat.

As though to reinforce society’s belief that all women should be reduced to their appearance, Mrs Moustache will be described first by the way she looked. In deliberate contrast to Mr Moustache, Mrs Moustache was both tall and very thin. And to manipulate you into having a subconscious understanding that she was not an especially intelligent woman by employing the use of yet another stereotype, she was also blonde.

Intrusive would have been an accurate adjective for someone to deploy if describing Mrs Moustache’s personality to an outsider. She enjoyed spending her time stalking the neighbours and clearly led an unfulfilling life of such hate, dullness, and frustration that she had become obsessed with the personal affairs of others — she would, for example, only be too interested to know the intimate details regarding the genitalia another might use when going to the toilet.

On one single occasion, Mr and Mrs Moustache had — solely for reproductive purposes, you must understand — scheduled an evening of affectionate activities between the two of them. It wasn’t fun, so much, because fun wasn’t for people in the middle to upper classes, but Mr Moustache had dimmed the lights a little and the two of them had looked away from one another while they engaged momentarily in synchronised missionary. The end result of this night of raucous behaviour, which, if it had been anyone else, Mr Moustache would have referred to as being both filthy and degrading, was that nine months later, Mrs Moustache had given birth to their son, Yate.

As a well-to-do family living under a right-wing government, the Moustache family were perfectly satisfied with their lives, but they also had a secret. Their greatest fear was that not only would their dinner party guests discover they reserved a cheaper cut of meat for them, but also that someone, anyone, found out about the Smiths. Mrs Smith was Mrs Moustache’s sister, but they hadn’t seen each other for many years. In fact, Mrs Moustache acted as though she didn’t even have a sister, because her superiority complex meant she could never just be happy for someone else. Mr and Mrs Moustache knew the Smiths had their own son, but they had never met him.

When Mr and Mrs Moustache were woken early one morning by a thunderstorm that Mr Moustache would later attempt to somehow blame on immigration, our story begins.

There was nothing except a desire to cash in on a debut fluke to suggest that many strange, mysterious, and incredibly drawn-out things would soon be happening all over the country, and when that dries up, a couple of theme parks, a two-part live theatrical show, and a five-part spinoff film series as well. Upstairs, Mr Moustache whistled the tune to Rule Britannia as he picked out his tie for work, skipping over any which had red on them in case anyone mistook him for a communist, while Mrs Moustache argued with herself in the kitchen as she made breakfast.

Neither of them noticed the large pigeon flying past the window in an unsubtle sign of things to come.

At eight twenty-two precisely, Mr Moustache pulled on his suit jacket, kissed Mrs Moustache goodbye in a way that suggested neither of them had their hearts in the marriage anymore, and attempted to give Yate a hearty pat on the shoulder — because kissing wasn’t an acceptable father-son activity in Mr Moustache’s mind — but missed, because Yate was too busy throwing anything he could reach at his mother. “Boys will be boys,” Mr Moustache laughed to himself as he left the kitchen.

A moment later, as the front door slammed shut, Mrs Moustache breathed a sigh of relief. It would be a whole eleven hours until Mr Moustache would be home, and that meant she had time to devote to hobbies, such as internet poker. Mr Moustache didn’t know his wife was a problem gambler, and even if he did, there was little he’d do to help her overcome the problem. Mr Moustache just wasn’t the sort of man who supported anyone through any sort of difficult time or situation.

Mr Moustache was also not a man who approved of women doing anything which might give them some independence. For this reason, he didn’t know that during the day while he was at work, Mrs Moustache would also secretly spend time working on her debut novel. She knew that if Mr Moustache ever found out about this, it would damage his fragile masculinity to discover he wasn’t as talented a writer as she was. To protect Mr Moustache’s ego, she had fought an internal battle inside her head and came to the conclusion that when it would be convenient for her — and only when it would be convenient for her — she was actually perfectly comfortable with the idea of people choosing how to identify. So she had decided that should her novel ever be published, it would be published under a male pseudonym. She had already chosen the name she would use. It was a nice name, or at least she thought so. Mrs Moustache was also certain that if it ever transpired its namesake just happened to be a homophobic psychiatrist who believes all mental illnesses are caused by genetic defects, and that conversion therapy is an acceptable idea, no one would make a big deal out of it and just accept it was all nothing more than a coincidence.

Outside the front of the house, Mr Moustache got into his car and gazed up at the dull, grey sky above. “Bloody immigrants,” he muttered to himself, xenophobically. Shaking his head, Mr Moustache turned the key to start the car, then reversed out of the driveway.

It was as he reached the corner of the street that he first noticed something unusual: a white rabbit was reading what appeared at first glance to be the local telephone book. For a moment, Mr Moustache wasn’t sure what he had just witnessed. He swung his head around to check again. There was a white rabbit there, but there was no telephone book in sight. What could he have been thinking of? It must have been a trick of the light. Mr Moustache shook his head again, then proceeded to drive around the corner and up the next road. As he began pulling away, he watched the rabbit getting smaller in his mirror. It was now campaigning for Scottish independence. He gave his head a final shake and put the rabbit out his mind so that as he drove towards the centre of town, he thought of nothing except how his secretary was starting to get a little too old for his liking.

But on the edge of town, any thought of replacing his secretary with someone younger was driven out of his mind by something else entirely. As he sat in the usual morning traffic jam — something which was a direct result of the country being too full, he was sure — he couldn’t help but notice a lot of strangely dressed people about. People wearing dressing gowns. Mr Moustache was far too judgmental not to be bothered by people dressing however they chose. He supposed this was just some phase a bunch of weirdo young people must be going through, because it was the popular thing to do. Yes, he thought, they’d grow out of it soon enough. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as a group of these “fruitcakes” standing nearby caught his eye.

Huddled close together so no one could hear what they were saying, they were talking in excited whispers. Mr Moustache was furious to notice that a couple of the group weren’t young at all: why, that man had to be eligible for one of those free TV licences he was in full support of the government scrapping, and he was wearing a bright blue dressing gown.

As his eyes narrowed on the group, Mr Moustache suddenly remembered that just like physical appearance and the way a person chose to dress, mental health was also a perfectly acceptable thing to mock or make light of, and so in his mind, this group was probably just a bunch of people not right in the head. All these people were obviously just too lazy to get over whatever it was. “They all need to man up, dress properly, and start contributing something to society,” Mr Moustache said to himself. The traffic started moving again, and a short while later, Mr Moustache arrived in the carpark outside his office, his mind back on the idea of promoting the blonde receptionist to be his new secretary.

Mr Moustache always faced away from the window in his top floor office. If he didn’t, he might have found it a lot harder to concentrate that morning. He never saw any of the pigeons flying past the window. Though he did think he heard something when an especially large and clumsy pigeon misjudged their flight path and ploughed themselves into the glass at high velocity, before bouncing back and falling to the ground as people in the street gazed open-mouthed as another did the same thing moments later — pigeons weren’t intelligent. Mr Moustache, however, had a perfectly ordinary and pigeon-free morning. He screamed at many people. He sexually harassed a few more. And he called the company’s legal department to discuss a couple of unfair dismissal cases after firing two women in marketing in retaliation for them making a formal complaint about his behaviour. After being advised he could settle the cases out of court in a way that any civilised society would consider inadequate justice for his actions, Mr Moustache was in a good mood by the time lunch came around, when he decided to stretch his legs and walk across the road to buy himself a soft drink from the fast-food chain opposite.

The people in dressing gowns had completely slipped his mind until he passed a small huddle of them stood by the doors to the restaurant. He eyed them suspiciously as he passed. This group were also whispering with a sense of joy, and he couldn’t see a single sign that even one of them had escaped from somewhere. It was on his way back past them, as he was angrily muttering to himself about having to pay extra for his soft drink because of the government’s latest attempts to curb his freedoms by imposing a sugar tax, that he overheard a few words of what the group were saying.

“The Smiths — Billy, that’s right — that’s what I heard.”

Mr Moustache came to an immediate stop. If it wasn’t for the fact he didn’t believe in anxiety, it would have flooded his entire body. He turned back the group as though he wanted to tell them all to get a grip on their lives and stop living off the backs of hardworking members of the community like himself, but he thought better of it.

Instead, he ran back across the road, rushed up the stairs to his office, screamed at his secretary that she should just get over his comments about her looking plump that morning, sat down at his desk before the office wall stopped shaking from his slamming shut of the door, grabbed the telephone off the receiver, dialled his home number, pressed the call button, and was just wondering what he was going to say to his wife when a voice answered. “Hello, Nice Slice Pizza — we cut it that way just to annoy you. What’s your order?”

Mr Moustache swore loudly as he slammed the phone back down on the receiver. He was reaching once more to dial when he changed his mind. He tapped the top of his desk with his fingers and reclined in his chair so far he fell back and hit the floor. He got to his feet, righted his chair, and sat back down thinking… no, he wasn’t the one being stupid, it was everyone else. Smith wasn’t that unusual a name. He was quite sure there were many couples called Smith, who had a son called Billy. When he thought about it, he wasn’t even sure his nephew was called Billy. He’d never met the boy. For all he knew, he might have been one of those weird people who chose to identify by a different name or as some sort of inanimate object; perhaps a lemon. There was no point in bringing it up with Mrs Moustache, not when it took her a whole evening of munching on edibles to calm down after any mention of her sister. He didn’t blame her. If he’d been related to anyone like that… but all the same, those people wearing dressing gowns…

Mr Moustache found it a lot harder to concentrate on harassing and bullying his staff that afternoon, and by the time he left the office at close of business, he was still so worked up about what he had overheard that he walked straight into someone who was stood just outside the door.

“Will you look where you’re going?” he asserted as the old man fell to the ground. It took a moment for Mr Moustache to notice that the man he’d just knocked over clearly wasn’t as important as he was, and that he was wearing a long dressing gown. The man didn’t seem at all bothered by being knocked to the pavement. He got to his feet and smiled broadly at Mr Moustache, before proclaiming in a squeaky voice, “My dear sir, I offer you all my most humble apologies for I was too distracted by my joy to see you there. Rejoice for That-Evil-One has finally gone and disappeared from our lives!”

Out of nowhere, a small grey cloud appeared above Mr Moustache. There was a bolt of lighting and a crash of thunder, and then, as Mr Moustache looked up at it, the cloud spat a small amount of water onto his face, then disappeared quite as suddenly.

“Even the commoners like yourself should be celebrating this joyful, joyful day, sir!” said the old man. And with that, he stepped forward to hug Mr Moustache around the middle, and then strolled off down the street.

Mr Moustache stood momentarily frozen where he was. He had just been touched by a complete stranger without his consent; he had always thought only powerful white men like himself could get away with doing that. He also thought he had just been called a commoner, whatever one of those was. He felt irritated. He forcefully shook himself into moving again, and then quickened to his car, so he could set off home, furious that some stranger on the street had exercised their right to free speech as though it was somehow equal to his own.

The problem wasn’t that Mr Moustache was not a fan of free speech. On the contrary, he was quite the supporter of the concept when he was the one speaking or another was sharing views he agreed with. But he simply could not abide by free speech which made him feel uncomfortable or targeted his obstinate beliefs and narrow-minded view of the world. He would, for example, only be too willing to defend anyone who’d lost their job for speaking their mind — no matter how much scientific evidence existed to disprove their attempts to grab attention and be little more than as harmful and hurtful as possible towards an already marginalised and persecuted demographic. But at the same time, he would almost certainly be the first to hypocritically claim he was being harassed and start threatening legal action should anyone ever dare to point out the flaws or make a mockery of anything he had ever put his name to.

When he pulled into the driveway at home a short while later, the first thing he noticed — and it only served to increase his irrational feelings of rage — was the rabbit he’d seen earlier that morning. It was now sitting on the grass in the middle of his front garden. He was certain it was the same one. It was wearing a rosette in the colours of the Scottish National Party.

“Bugger off,” he bellowed with sufficient volume for the neighbours to be concerned enough about the welfare of the rabbit to be promoted into looking up the number to report animal cruelty. The rabbit didn’t move. It gave Mr Moustache a look that made him feel sure it knew how little he knew about the benefits an independent Scotland and its people might enjoy as a member of the European Union in its own right. Was this behaviour normal for a rabbit? Mr Moustache wondered. Striving to retain some dignity, he let himself into the house. He was still determined not to mention anything to his wife.

Mrs Moustache had had a pleasant and rather ordinary day. She spent dinner telling Mr Moustache about how she had spent a few hours stalking the next door neighbour in the morning, and then spent the afternoon writing a furious letter to OFCOM, the country’s communications regulator, after a woman from the television appeared on one of the many magazine programmes she watched each day, to discuss matters surrounding woman’s sexual health while Yate was in the room.

Mr Moustache attempted to act normally. After Yate had been put to bed, he joined his wife in the living room as the local evening news presenter brought his show to a close: “And finally, people everywhere have been reporting that the nation’s pigeons have been behaving abnormally today. Although pigeons normally spend the day annoying members of the public by defecating on their lunches and diving at them unexpectedly in open places, there have been hundreds of reports that today, they have been flying in every direction as though on a joint mission — certainly no drone sighting grounding flights here. Experts have been unable to explain this sudden change in their behavioural patterns.” The presenter allowed himself a smile.

“Most strange. And now, it’s over to Sonny Gale with the weather. What’s your take on all these pigeons, Sonny?”

“Well,” said the weatherman, “if I was to take a guess, I’d say that all this mention of pigeons is simply an attempt to avoid any potential copyright infringement. But legal experts as far apart as Exeter, Warwick, and Inverness have been phoning in to tell me that the choice of bird is unlikely to be the main complaint anyone has in this situation. Some of our most loyal and bored viewers with not much else to do during the day have also been in touch to say that instead of the rain I promised them yesterday, they’ve been seeing strange lights up in the sky. Perhaps the Russian military are conducting secretive surveillance missions under the cover of darkness in violation of international laws, treaties, and sanctions — remember, the Cold War was over decades ago, Mr Putin! But I can promise you all freak hailstones as a direct impact of global warming tonight.”

Mr Moustache sat glued to his armchair. Covert operations by the Russian Military? Pigeons acting in strange ways? Weird people in dressing gowns all over the place? Global warming creating freak weather phenomena because society had ignored the issue for far too long?… well, he didn’t believe in that one so much, but still, there was that mention of the Smiths too…

He glanced across at Mrs Moustache, who was concentrating on the television. It was no good. He’d have to bring it up. He coughed as though attempting to assert his position at the top of the household hierarchy. “Er — Jennifer, dear — you haven’t heard from your sister lately, have you?”

As Mr Moustache had expected, Mrs Moustache reached straight for a small tin underneath her chair, and within a moment, she was chewing furiously on an edible she had taken from it.

“No,” she answered bluntly. “Why would you ask such a question? Do you think she’s better than me? Do you wish you’d married her instead of me?”

“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying at all. But, you know, bizarre things on the news and all that,” Mr Moustache mumbled. “Pigeons… climate change… and there were a lot of weird-looking people around town earlier…”

“So? What does that have to do with anything?” Mrs Moustache said at such speed Mr Moustache could barely understand a word she was saying. “You think I’m weird-looking, don’t you? I already know you do. Just admit it.”

“No, I was just wondering if… perhaps… all these things had something to do with… you know… her bunch of pathetic losers.”

Mrs Moustache chewed ever more ferociously as she stared at her husband unblinkingly. Mr Moustache deliberated about whether he should tell her he’d overheard people talking about the name “Smith.” He decided against it. Instead, he said, with an attempt to sound as casual as possible, “Their son — how old would he be these days? He’d be about the same age as Yate, wouldn’t he?”

“Why are you asking about their son? Is our son not good enough for you? Would you rather we all swapped sons so you could have their son, and they could have our son? Would that make you happy? Would it? Would it?” asked Mrs Moustache frantically.

“No. I’m just asking. What was his name again?”

“Why do you want to know his name? You do want their son. Well, why don’t you just leave me and Yate here and go live with my sister if we’re not good enough for you?” said Mrs Moustache, before nearly choking as she swallowed the remainder of her edible.

“I wish you wouldn’t keep eating those,” said Mr Moustache as he watched her reach for another. “They make you all paranoid.”

“Who’s paranoid? Do you think I’m paranoid? I’m not paranoid? You’re the one who’s paranoid. You’re paranoid about whether I’m paranoid.”

Mr Moustache decided not to say another word on either subject for the rest of the night. A short while later, when they had gone upstairs to bed, as Mrs Moustache brushed her teeth in the bathroom, Mr Moustache went over to the bedroom window and looked out into the front garden; something which was considerably more intricate than you’d imagine as their bedroom looked out over the back of the house. The rabbit was still there.

It was gazing down the street with eyes that pierced the darkness as though they were electric torches powered by the sort of batteries another of its kind might advertise for a living.

Was he imagining all this? Could any of it really have anything to do with the Smiths? And if it did… if it got out he and Mrs Moustache were both judgmental morons? — Well, he thought, they were at least powerful enough to avoid any real consequences.

Mr and Mrs Moustache got into bed. Mrs Moustache fell asleep quickly — one of the side effects of her edibles — but Mr Moustache lay on his back long into the early hours of the morning, the day’s events running through his mind. His last, reassuring thought before he too fell asleep was that even if the Smiths were involved, everyone else was sure to share he and Mrs Moustache’s opinion and believe the Smiths were the most unnatural of people and the very definition of freaks of nature. The Smiths knew very well that they both thought of them and anyone like them… he couldn’t comprehend the idea that he and Mrs Moustache could ever not be regarded as the victims in this situation — he yawned and turned over onto his side — they knew better than everyone else…

How very wrong they both were.

Mr Moustache might have been drifting into a disturbed sleep, but outside in the garden, the lone white rabbit showed little sign it too was weary. It was still quite as unmoving as the average baby boomer when confronted with the reality that they aren’t always the most important or knowledgeable person in the room, its eyes fixed on a point in the middle of the road that was quite as unremarkable as the city of Hull. It didn’t so much as start when a loud explosion shook the ground beneath it as the night shift got to work on fracking the local area, nor when an aeroplane flew low overhead despite curfews designed to reduce noise pollution. In fact, it was several more hours before the rabbit moved at all.

A man appeared in the middle of the road exactly at the spot where the rabbit had been watching, and almost immediately, he fell over and hit the surface with a dull thud. The rabbit’s nose twitched as it watched.

The man pulled himself up and looked down to see what had caused him to fall. “Bloody potholes,” he muttered to himself irritably as he straightened out his clothes. “The local council really should be doing more to fix these. I mean, we pay enough in taxes, don’t we?”

This man was quite the unusual sight for this street. He was very tall, quite thin, and looked as though he could have once been the lead singer of some rock band, judging by the length of his greying hair, which just about reached down far enough for him to be able to tuck it into his belt. His beard was the same length as his hair, though more a sign of his shortcomings in personal hygiene than one he had a long-lost past which he refused to let go of. He was wearing a long purple dressing gown, which reached far below any normal dressing gown, and covered his heavy, bucked boots.

His eyes were of a light blue shade and bright enough that they could reflect the light coming from the headlights of a small car parked on the street ahead. The owner of the car had been forced to live in it ever since a change in government policy had made them homeless, and leaving the engine running was the only way to keep warm during the cold nights.

This man’s name was Professor Richard Crumbleceiling.

Richard Crumbleceiling didn’t seem to know he was as welcome in this neighbourhood as an asylum seeker was in Britain under a right wing government who had appointed a heartless bigoted hypocrite as Home Secretary — though she did have eyebrows which Mr Moustache said didn’t make her quite look a million dollars, but more in the region of seventy-seven thousand pounds. Crumbleceiling was busy feeling around the inside of his pockets looking for something. He wasn’t so distracted by his search, however, that he didn’t notice the pair of eyes watching him from nearby. He stared at the rabbit momentarily and then laughed to himself. “To be expected,” he said.

He looked away from the rabbit as he pulled what he was looking for out of his pocket. It appeared to be a small hairpin. He glanced around to check that no one except the rabbit was watching him, then walked over to a telephone exchange box close by on the pavement. Kneeling down in front of it, he took the hairpin and began using it to pick at the lock. With a click, the lock came loose, and the door it kept shut swung open on its hinges. Crumbleceiling reached inside and began ripping out and pocketing any wire he could reach. Once he had scavenged as much as possible, he made his way over to where the rabbit was still watching him and sat down on the grass next to it.

“Copper wiring,” he said smugly as he held up a small piece of what he’d just stolen from the telephone exchange box. “It is most valuable on the black market, and with us teachers facing another pay freeze, Professor McDouglass.”

He turned to smile at the rabbit, but it had gone. Instead, he was smiling at a stern-looking woman who was wearing the sort of glasses you’d expect to see on the face of an especially strict librarian. She too was wearing a dressing gown: a green one. Her hair was almost as long as Crumbleceiling’s, but rather than let it fall down, she had worked it into a neat bun that sat atop her head. On her face, she wore a distinctly frustrated expression.

“How did you know it was me?” asked Professor McDouglass.

“My dear Professor, how could I not? I’ve never seen a rabbit sit so still. Incidentally, why were you a rabbit?”

“I figured that if every other stereotype is going to be used and overused in this world, I might as well introduce one that might actually be relevant. If you turn away for a moment, then I can pop out of a top hat and really complete the image. I’ve been practicing that trick all day.”

“All day? But what about the celebrations? I must have passed by tens of gatherings on my way here.”

Professor McDouglass tutted angrily.

“Oh yes, that’s right, everybody’s certainly celebrating,” she said frustratedly.

“You’d think they’d all show just a little more caution, but no — they’ve spent all day drinking and now they’re going to be making their way home while intoxicated. Did you know hundreds of people are killed by drink-driving each year in this country alone? And then there are the thousands more who are seriously injured by such stupidity.”

“You shouldn’t be too surprised by their actions,” said Crumbleceiling. “People have had so little to celebrate for so long.”

“I know that,” said Professor McDouglass impatiently. “But that’s no reason for us all to start acting so irresponsibly now. Some people aren’t even trying to be careful. Out speeding on the roads all day and not even bothering to stop for any red lights. Swapping stories with one another as though the news can’t wait for even a moment.”

She glanced across at Crumbleceiling with a concerned yet expectant expression, as though she herself couldn’t wait another moment to hear the news from him, but he said nothing, and so she continued. “Very great it would be if on the same day That-Evil-One…” — Crumbleceiling pulled out a small umbrella as a dark cloud appeared above his head with a flash of lighting. Once it had stopped raining, he put the umbrella away — “As I was saying,” Professor McDouglass went on, “very great it would be if on the same day that, you know, appears to have finally disappeared, hundreds of us cause the police to waste valuable time and resources on dealing with drunk drivers and speeding, rather than their real responsibilities of assaulting peaceful protesters and arresting anybody who looks at them funny or is wearing a hooded jumper. I am right in saying that he’s gone, aren’t I, Crumbleceiling?”

“That appears to be what has happened, yes,” Crumbleceiling replied. “We certainly have much to be grateful for. Now, would you like a bon-bon?”

“A what?”

“A bon-bon, Professor. They’re a sweet that the commoners eat, and they really are quite nice.”

“No, I would not like a bon-bon, thank you very much,” said Professor McDouglass with disgust. “Have you even stopped to consider the damage all that sugar is doing to your health — not to mention your teeth? Don’t you think our public health system is under enough strain as it already is, Crumbleceiling?”

“My dear Professor — ”

“I’m just saying. I do hope you’re brushing your teeth regularly, that’s all.”

“After every meal,” Crumbleceiling reassured her as he began sucking on a bon-bon, as though he was a grandmother who’d misplaced her false teeth at a family gathering.

“Anyway, even if That-Evil-One…” — Crumbleceiling had his umbrella ready — “…has disappeared — ”

“Professor, surely you are not so scared of a person that you will not even call him by his name? All this That-Evil-One stuff…”

Professor McDouglass was not so prepared as Crumbleceiling as to have an umbrella with her. As the cloud appeared above her head, she waited with apprehension, as first came the flash of lighting and wave of thunder, and then sure enough, a stream of water began trickling onto her head and running down her face.

Crumbleceiling continued, “…year after year I have been telling people to just call him by his name — Steven.” Professor McDouglass’ whole body shook as though it had actually been hit by the lighting, but Crumbleceiling, who was busy holding up a bon-bon to his eye-line and admiring how it looked in the moonlight, didn’t notice. “It’s all very confusing when everybody keeps saying That-Evil-One…” — more water streamed down the side of Professor McDouglass’ face — “…I mean, people might end up confusing them with somebody else like, say, a popular author, if we aren’t more specific about it. And anyway, I have never seen any reason to be frightened of saying Steven’s name.”

Professor McDouglass expelled the water that had gathered in her mouth by letting it dribble out in a half-sarcastic manner. “Everybody knows that, Crumbleceiling,” she said. “But you’re different to the rest of us. And we all know that you’re the only one That-Evil-One…” Crumbleceiling pulled out his umbrella, but Professor McDouglass was ready for him. She grabbed the umbrella and held it out of reach before he could put it up. The cloud appeared above Crumbleceiling’s head, but it seemed to hesitate for a moment. And then, as though it held a personal grudge against Professor McDouglass, it flew across from above Crumbleceiling’s head and rained atop her own instead. “…that Steven was ever afraid of,” she finished with little enthusiasm in her words.

“You really do flatter me, Professor,” said Crumbleceiling, as he began chewing on another bon-bon. “But Steven has many powers that I shall never possess. His name for one — he is called Steven.”

“There are rumours, too, Crumbleceiling. The drinking and the celebrations are nothing compared to all the rumours people are sharing with each other. Have you heard what people are saying? About why Steven has finally gone? And what it is that stopped him?”

It appeared Professor McDouglass had finally brought the conversation around to what he wanted to discuss. She stared at Crumbleceiling piercingly. It was clear she wasn’t going to let him avoid the subject. She wanted to hear the truth directly from him.

“What everybody is saying,” she went on, “is that late last night, Steven turned up in Nempnett Thrubwell. He went to find the Smiths. People are saying that he — that he killed them. It can’t be true, can it, Crumbleceiling?”

Crumbleceiling nodded gently and bowed his head as Professor McDouglass looked on in shock.

“But… I can’t believe it… I don’t want to believe it… Not Phalaenopsis and Keith.”

“Oh, Richard…”

Crumbleceiling reached his arm around Professor McDouglass’ shoulder to comfort her. “I know… I — ”

“Please do not touch me without my consent,” Professor McDouglass interrupted as she pushed his arm away. “Just because we work together and have known each other a long time, it doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to touch me without me saying you can just because I’m upset.”

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” said Crumbleceiling.

“Sorry if you offended me? You’re not sorry for what you did, only that I might be offended by it?”

“I — I offer you my deepest regret and unreserved apologies.”

There was a moment’s silence. “Unwanted physical contact and sexual harassment is simply not acceptable, Crumbleceiling. I’d have thought you might have known better. But it just goes to show that even those closest to you who you think you know best can still surprise you and ignore your boundaries.

“Never do it again, please.” Professor McDouglass shook her head. “Anyway, that’s not all people have been saying. They’re saying that Steven tried to kill Billy, the Smith’s young son, too. But he couldn’t kill him. He couldn’t kill a small defenceless child. No one seems to know why, but they’re saying when he tried to kill Billy Smith but couldn’t, Steven’s power broke somehow — they’re saying that’s why he’s gone.”

Crumbleceiling nodded. “It can happen like that sometimes. A powerful person can spend so much time going after others without consequence or challenge that eventually, when they do finally face some unexpected opposition, they are so shocked by the experience that they themselves are destroyed.”

“So — it’s true then?” said Professor McDouglass with surprise. “After everything he’s done… everybody he’s killed… he wasn’t able to kill a baby? How does that happen? Of all the things to stop him… but how did Billy survive?”

“My dear Professor, if I were to answer that now, a much more convenient answer would only come along sometime in the future.”

Professor McDouglass pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at the tears collecting below her eyes. Crumbleceiling cleared his throat and took from his own pocket a small golden pocket watch which he opened and examined. “Barry’s late. I assume he was the one who told you I’d be coming here?”

“Yes,” answered Professor McDouglass. “But why here of all places? It’s hardly somewhere out kind frequent.”

“I’m here to deliver Billy to the only remaining family he has. His aunt and uncle live just here,” said Crumbleceiling as he gestured towards the house behind them.

“You mean — you can’t mean the people who live here?” Professor McDouglass exclaimed. “You can’t. You just can’t. I’ve been watching them all day, and they’re just the most awful of people. They voted for Nigel Farage in a parliamentary election, Crumbleceiling. And they’ve got their own son — I was watching him earlier as his mother dragged him down the street. He was crying all the way. They aren’t good parents. Billy Smith come and live here?”

“I can assure you, this will not be the most damaging thing I was ever do to the boy,” said Crumbleceiling schemingly. “He is much safer here with his aunt and uncle, and they will be able to tell him everything when he’s older. I’ve written them a letter to explain it all.”

“A letter? You’ve written them a letter?” Professor McDouglass looked shocked. “Really, Crumbleceiling, how can you begin to explain any of this in a letter? And besides that, by the time the boy is old enough to understand, the situation could be completely different.”

“You don’t have to tell me that, Professor. Why, in just a few years time, I may discover I have been gay all along.”

“Well, I don’t see what’s wrong with that. You’re allowed to do things at your own pace. No one should be forcing you to come out.”

“You misunderstand me, Professor. I don’t mean I may discover I am gay for the first time. I mean I may find out that I already know I’m gay and have been for decades, and even that I’ve had a relationship with another man.”

“But surely you’d already know if you’d ever had a relationship with another man?”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But perhaps certain people feel that information can wait for another time. At least until they’ve had the chance to work out if revealing it would be beneficial to their career and relevance anyway.”

“You’ll be able to be openly proud of your sexuality once that has happened, though? You can be a role model for young people unsure of their own sexuality who are looking to see themselves represented in popular culture?”

“Many would hope, but alas, higher powers may worry about money and alienating certain groups far too much to actually choose to show that love is indeed love.”

“It won’t just be that things are different when he’s older, though. These people will never understand him. With them, he’ll be an outcast. Among our kind, he’ll be famous — I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an entire day named after him in the future. People will write books about the boy. He’ll be on postage stamps and overpriced collectables. People will use him as a shield to get away with saying awful things. Everybody will know his name and reference him in situations where he is completely irrelevant to what is actually going on, and it will never, ever end.”

“That is precisely my point,” said Crumbleceiling as he looked at her over the top of the spectacles balanced on the end of his nose. “Can’t you see he’ll be much better off if he grows up away from all that? Can’t you understand it’s much better if he returns to our world with absolutely no idea of who any of us are, who his parents were or what he is? In my view, it’s much better if he grows up misunderstood, isolated, and bullied, and that he never has any real friends until he reaches the age of eleven.”

“Crumbleceiling, that’s complete madness, and it’s cruel.”

Professor McDouglass swallowed hard. “Well, I guess you’re going to do it your way no matter what anybody else says. But how exactly are you going to deliver the boy to his family? You don’t have him with you now, do you?”

“Barry is bringing him here.”

“Barry? You think it… wise? Can Barry be trusted with something as important as this?”

“I think so.”

“But Barry is an alcoholic. He drinks more than anybody else I’ve ever known — hold on… did you say the boy’s parents were murdered last night?”

“That’s right.”

“Then why are you only bringing the boy here now? What have you been doing for the past twenty-four hours?”

“Oh, well… I was distracted…”

To Crumbleceiling’s relief, before Professor McDouglass could question him further, their conversation was interrupted by a sudden rumbling roar from the sky directly above them.

“Ah, this must be them now,” said Crumbleceiling, jumping to his feet.

Professor McDouglass also stood up, and as the rumbling grew louder and louder, they both looked to the sky. As suddenly as it had begun, the rumbling stopped and was replaced by a deafening and drawn out HONK! And then, a gigantic swan pedalo fell from the sky and landed gently on the road in front of them.

Much like Mr Moustache, the man sat in the front seat of the pedalo was very fat. In fact, he was even fatter. But this was okay because he was a friendly and kind character, and this, along with being evil or unpleasant, was one of the circumstances where it is apparently perfectly acceptable to describe someone as being fat.

“Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like that,” said Professor McDouglass.

Crumbleceiling ignored her. “Barry,” he said. “At last, you’ve made it.”

“One moment please.” Barry turned back as though to talk to another who might have been sat behind him, but there was no one there. “Doors t’ automatic n’ cross-check,” he said in a strong Yorkshire accent.

“Sorry ‘bout delay,” Barry said as he climbed off the pedalo. “There wor air traffic control strike we ‘ad t’ avoid, n’ then we got stuck in ‘olding pattern due t’ spot o’ bad weather.”

“Well, you’re here now. Do you have the boy?”

“T’ lad? Ah knew ah’d forgotten summa’.” Barry looked at Crumbleceiling, and then to Professor McDouglass. Off her look, he said, “Calm down. Ah’m only messin’ wi’ theur. Ah’ve got lad ‘ere. Managed t’ gerr’ ‘im out in time before wrong fowk turned up.” He pulled a bundle of blankets out from within his weathered coat. “Lad calmed down n’ fell asleep an ‘our ago.”

Crumbleceiling and Professor McDouglass leant in to look at what was hiding within the blankets. Just visible was the head of a small baby boy, sleeping calmly. “He’s an ugly child, isn’t he?” critiqued Crumbleceiling. Professor McDouglass nodded in agreement and then noticed a small cut on the boy’s forehead, half covered by his pitch-black hair.”

“What is that?” asked Professor McDouglass.

“That,” replied Crumbleceiling, “that is a trademark.”

“But what is the shape?”

“Personally, I believe it resembles a dollar sign. What about you, Barry?”

Barry looked down at the boy’s forehead. “Aye, it looks like dollar sign, Professor. Maybe even two.”

“How long will it be there for?” asked Professor McDouglass.

“Far too long,” said Crumbleceiling. “Well, we’d best be getting this over with, anyway.”

Crumbleceiling took the bundle of blankets from Barry and turned towards the house.

“Professor, could ah — could ah seh t’rah f’ now t’ lad?” Barry asked. Crumbleceiling turned back so Barry could lean in and nearly choke the baby with his long thick beard. And then suddenly, Barry let out a scream that pieced the silence around them. “WHY? WHY ‘IM?”

“Will you be quiet!” Professor McDouglass said, hitting Barry sharply in the stomach to shut him up. “If you carry on like this, you’ll wake somebody up, and then they’ll make phone calls. The last thing we need is for the police to be turning up.”

“I don’t think any of us would be in too much trouble,” Crumbleceiling interjected. “I mean, we’re all powerful and white. In fact, there are few people in this story who aren’t.”

“All the same, Crumbleceiling.”

“Ah’m s-s-sorry ‘bout that,” Barry sobbed as he blew his nose on a tissue he’d just pulled from his pocket. “Bur it’s all so sad. ‘is parents dead, n’ now Billy ‘as t’ live wi’ commoner fowk.”

“Yes, yes, but do pull yourself together Barry, otherwise somebody will think we’re doing drugs out here.”

“Well, if you’re offering…” said Crumbleceiling.

“Headmaster!”

“Not the appropriate time. I’ve got it.”

For a moment there was silence, except for Barry’s continued sobs, as Crumbleceiling walked towards the front door of the Moustaches house and laid the bundle of blankets softly down on the doorstep. Pulling a letter out from the pocket of his dressing gown, he tucked it within one of the blanket’s many folds. He took a step back and looked down at the bundle for a short moment, and then turned around and went back to join the other two, tripping over on the way.

“What a stupid place to put a garden gnome,” he said, picking up what he had fallen over.

“Headmaster — be quiet, remember.”

Crumbleceiling threw the gnome to one side. “We’ve done all we came here to do,” he said. “There’s no reason for any of us to stay longer. We may as well go get drunk.”

“Aye. Ah could do wi’ few,” Barry agreed as he remounted the pedalo. “G’night, Professors.”

There was another loud honk as the pedalo rose slowly back into the air and then sped off into the starless night sky.

“You know I caught him urinating into a staffroom draw a few weeks ago, don’t you?”

“Let the man celebrate with a drink,” said Crumbleceiling as they walked away from the house.

When they reached the spot where Crumbleceiling had first appeared, they turned back to look at the bundle of blankets on the doorstep.

“I’m going to manipulate you into killing yourself one day, Billy,” said Crumbleceiling under his breath.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” said Professor McDouglass.

“Spoilers.”

Professor McDouglass nodded uncertainly, and a second later, they had both disappeared.

As a light breeze skimmed the top of the neat grass verges that ran down the street, inside the bundle of blankets, the tiny hand of Billy Smith was closing on the letter. He rolled over in his sleep and dreamt on, not knowing that in just a few hours time he was going to be woken by Mrs Moustache screaming, nor that he would spend the next ten years of his life being abused and mistreated by his aunt, uncle, and cousin… He couldn’t know, also, that at that very moment, right across the country people were celebrating and toasting to the terrible and traumatic event which had led to the death of his parents.

________________________________________________________________

A Small Ask

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Writer, comedian, actor, producer, publisher and former failed politician | part Jewish | bensfletcher.com |

Writer, comedian, actor, producer, publisher and former failed politician | part Jewish | bensfletcher.com |