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Six Impossible Things
By Fiona Wood
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1. Kiss Estelle.
2. Get a job.
3. Cheer my mother up.
4. Try not to be a complete nerd/loser.
5. Talk to my father when he calls.
6. Figure out how to be good.
Nerd-boy Dan Cereill is not quite coping with a whole heap of problems, including a reversal of family fortune, moving, new-school hell, a mother with a failing wedding cake business, a just-out gay dad, and a massive crush on Estelle, the girl next door. His life is a mess, but for now he’s narrowed it down to just six impossible things….
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Wildlife
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There's this girl I know.
I know her by heart. I know her in every way but one: actuality.
Her name is Estelle. I yearn for her.
She walks in beauty—yes, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies—with one iPod earbud in at all times—the sound track of her life.
She's stopped biting her nails, except for the left hand little finger.
She sometimes nibbles the inside seam of her school sweater cuffs.
She's an only child. Like me.
She plays the cello.
She likes mochaccinos. And banana milkshakes—made with syrup, not real bananas. And chocolate—especially Cherry Ripe bars. She has a friend in New York she sends Cherry Ripes to. You can't buy them there.
She has more than one friend. Unlike me.
She lives next door. To where we live now.
She laughs a lot.
She and I have a three-band overlap in our top five bands.
Her favorite writers are Georgette Heyer and J. D. Salinger.
I can't tell you how I know all this stuff about someone I haven't met.
If you can forget that it means someone just died, inheriting something is a good thing, isn't it? A stroke of luck. Improved circumstances. But when it happened to us, it had the opposite effect. Everything got a whole lot worse. Quickly.
Things had been going wrong at my father's work. Even in a place the size of ours, I could hear the fights. Our apparently comfortable life was an illusion propped up by some massive overdraft. It was all about to come tumbling down. And we to come tumbling after.
Money problems were just the beginning. Listening in from the upstairs landing one night, I understood in a single sick thud of my heart that my parents didn't even seem to like each other anymore. But since when? Smiiiiiile! That's us. We look happy. Suspended on the Brooklyn Bridge; eating falafels in the Marais in Paris; underwater with blue-lipped clams off Green Island…
What went wrong? When? And how did I not notice?
Was I like that frog not realizing the water's getting hotter till it's too late and he's soup?
When my mother's great-aunt Adelaide died and left her a house, I thought it might take some pressure off the situation. And it did, but not in the way I hoped. It was about a nanosecond later that my father dropped the bombshell—the family business was in the hands of receivers, he had been declared bankrupt, he was gay, and he was moving out.
Guys, please, one life-changing shock at a time, I felt like saying.
There was a mortgagee's auction of our house. That's when the bank sells you up because it basically owns the house. The creditors, people to whom my father owed money, sent in liquidators, who came and took all our stuff away. It's pretty much like moving, only you never see the moving truck again.
Josh Whitters from school pulled up on his bike when the truck was being loaded.
"See you're moving, Cereill," he said.
"Your powers of observation are impeccable, Whitters." I wondered if he knew the whole sorry story.
"Hear your dad's gone broke."
He took off.
I'm almost sure he didn't see them load my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beanbag chair. I know, I should have given it away years ago.
Usually in a business meltdown like this one, people get to keep their personal stuff, but in our case, every single thing we had was owned by the company.
My mother and I had stashed some stuff at her friend Alice's house—kitchen things, books, clothes, my comics, and a TV. And we've kept the photos, but not the silver frames. Our entire life in a couple of boxes.
The liquidators went through the place like a plague of locusts. It was horrible walking through the empty house. I hadn't heard that echo-y sound since we moved in. Back then it sounded like excitement and things to find out. Now it just sounded like The End and stuff I wished I didn't know.
We'd been uprooted. Liquidated. Terminated. Not to mention deserted. Whitters was right. I sure felt like a loser.
1. Kiss Estelle. I know. I haven't met her. Technically. But it gets top spot regardless.
2. Get a job. We're in a complete mess financially. It's down to me to tide us over moneywise if my mother's new business crashes.
3. Cheer my mother up. Better chance of business not crashing if she's half okay.
4. It's not like I expect to be cool or popular at the new school, but I'm going to try not to be a complete nerd/loser.
5. Should talk to my father when he calls. But how, when the only thing I want to ask is something I can't bear to hear the answer to: How could you leave us like this?
6. The existential one. Figure out how to be good. I don't want to become the sort of person who up and leaves his family out of the blue.
Waking up, it's never more than a couple of seconds before it washes back over me, what's real. Wham. A sucker punch to the gut—anger sits there with an evil grin. Misery is beside it, weighing me down like a brick. Three weeks since my dad left and my mother and I moved into her great-aunt Adelaide's house. Former great-aunt. It's freezing here. Mid-year holidays; the depth of winter. My fingers are so cold I can't make a fist.
The windows have to stay open because of the smell. Heaters are emergency-use-only, because of finances. The only time I thaw out is in bed, and it takes ages, because the world of electric blankets is past tense.
There are six bedrooms here, including the one Adelaide actually died in. That door stays shut. Choosing my room was easy; I went for the one that stinks least. I've been spending a whole lot of time in bed since we moved in. It's like my body is telling me to hibernate, and I'm listening. It should make for a riveting essay on what I did in the school holidays.
It turns out that we don't even own this house, either. What my mother has inherited is a lifetime use of the house. When she dies, it goes to the Historic Homes Trust, not to me.
So if she dies anytime soon, I'm on the streets. Or back with my father. I guess that'd force us onto speaking terms, at least. Pity she can't sell the house. It'd be worth heaps. I've checked out the window of the local real estate agent.
To make the inheritance even more oddball, there's some guy who gets to live out back, in the old stables building. That's in the will, too, apparently. We haven't met him yet. He's away.
My mother's not exactly thrilled with the arrangement. But it's like she says, at least we've got a roof over our heads. Which is more than we would've had. We don't have a cent left. We won't even have a car when the lease runs out at the end of the month.
As if we could afford to fill it up with petrol, anyway.
There was a chance that Adelaide might have left my mother some cash, but no such luck. She left her money to the National Gallery, which I doubt needs it as much as we do.
The only thing the lawyer handed over when we went to see him was a black—ebony—jewelry box. My mother's eyes lit up, but I could see the lawyer felt apologetic. So I knew she wouldn't find what she was rummaging for.
"Who got the diamonds?" she asked finally.
"A local shopkeeper."
"That'd be right," my mother said.
The box contained glass beads—clear with white streaks—a wooden spool of orange thread, some cardboard train tickets, nine small gold safety pins, a few copper one-and two-cent coins, and a handful of little carved insects and animals.
"I believe these had sentimental value?" he asked, sympathy leaking from his pinstripes.
My mother smiled. "I played with them when I was little. I used to line them up along the windowsill."
Good times. Thank god I wasn't a kid back then.
The lawyer cleared his throat, fiddled with a cuff, and snuck a look at his watch. No doubt he had other clients out there awaiting disappointment.
"Would you be interested in contesting the will?" he asked.
"Certainly not. Adelaide had a perfectly sound mind."
The lawyer looked quietly pleased. You wouldn't think so, because it would've meant more money for him, but I could tell he thought my mother's response was honorable. So did I.
We get to keep the dog, too. Howard. Though strictly speaking, on the inheritance ledger, that's a minus because we have to feed him.
Being honorable obviously didn't stop my mother from feeling pissed off. I had to remind her to slow down on the way home. We can't exactly afford traffic fines these days. And, yes, we're in the deep end without a floatie, but I'm pretty sure neither of us wants to die just yet. She was making a scary growling noise between clenched teeth.
"Do you want to talk?" I asked. Obviously hoping the answer would be no.
"Talk, ha! I just don't know what the point is, Dan," she said. I sensed she meant point of life, existence, etc., rather than point of talking. Clearly a bit of life-coach action was required. Not really in my skill set, unfortunately.
"Well—I guess there's always the old glass half full… isn't there?"
"That really only works if there's actually something in the glass," she said. "We, sadly, are in a glass-empty situation."
"There's the house."
"Yes, the house. A mausoleum, certainly, but I suppose it's better than the street."
Stress level: extreme. It's like she was a jar with the lid screwed on too tight, and inside the jar were pickles, angry pickles, and they were fermenting, and about to explode.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked.
She groaned. Better than the growl.
Better than the street. Better than the growl. Things actually could be worse. But not much.
Where we live now is the exact middle in a row of five houses. It's a massive two-story Victorian Gothic terrace. The front facade forms a point over each house as though the top has been trimmed with giant pinking shears. There's a brick-pillared balcony on each first floor and mean little gargoyles leaning on their elbows, jeering and grimacing in the dip of each zig. It's in a book about Australian architecture—this actual building. They call it a "significant exemplar." It's grim—the sort of place you could set a horror film. Its red bricks are blackened with time, or pollution, or both, I guess.
Moving in took all of about five minutes.
I saw Estelle for the first time that day.
Invisible behind sheer curtains, I stood in the bay window at the front of the house wishing to be anywhere but there, wishing it were two months ago and I had a mutant power that let me change the course of history, when she walked up the street, dreaming, completely unaware of the seismic shifts in my heart she was creating with each step.
She stopped outside our place and stared up into the bare branches of the sidewalk plane tree. First checking there was no one nearby, she turned slowly around and around and around, framing her view of the twig-snaggled sky with a hand held to her eye.
Then she walked into the house next door, half dizzy, smiling, and carrying my heart.
There's this sky she likes.
That was the last day of term, and we've been here for the whole holidays.
This is what I've been doing:
1. Sleeping—like I already said.
2. Trying to catch another glimpse of Estelle. Several sightings. No meetings.
3. Getting to know Howard. Enigmatic Howard. All-knowing Howard. Long looks. Doesn't say much.
4. Listening to my mother's part in phone conversations with my father about me.
5. Worrying about them, and about the new school, and—to take my mind off those things…
6. Following the Historic Homes Trust people around while they catalog the house's contents.
I could tell the furniture guy, Bryce, was annoyed, but Posy, who did glass and porcelain, was nice. By the end, her sympathy was worse than him being pissed off. She'd ask me what my plans were for the day as she checked underneath things and made notes like "pair of first-period Worcester plates." It was awkward for both of us when the answer was always "not much"—i.e., nothing.
Sometime deep into the second week, when the comment about how it was too bad it wasn't summer so I could go to the Fitzroy Baths had worn right through, she said, "Joining a club can be a good way to get to know people, Dan. What do you like doing?"
I wanted to make her feel better, so I added, "There's chess. Only I don't like people who like chess. Not the ones I've met anyway."
On her last day, when every item in the house had been cataloged, tagged, coded, and insured, she casually mentioned the Kids' Help Line.
"There's no problem that can't be helped by talking about it. At your age sometimes things can seem worse than they are…"
I sighed. "Things aren't great, but it's not like I'm suicidal. And I do have a friend—he'll be back soon."
Maybe you're lucky if you've got one friend.
Mine—Fred—is staying with his mother these holidays. She's living in London for six months, in Chelsea, studying Georgian underwear at the National Art Library. It's a thesis, not a fetish.
For the rest of the six months, Fred will be living with his stepmother and his dad—Plan B and the Gazelle.
One of only two good things about us moving here is that I live closer to Fred now, which will be great when he gets back.
"Anyway," I said, hoping to reassure Posy, "who'd look after Howard if I topped myself?"
I was Howard's new meal ticket, and he wasn't letting me out of his sight. He looked up on cue when he heard his name—just one eye and one ear. Even in his preferred state of semiconsciousness, he knew exactly what was going down.
What the house smells of is piss, by the way. Soaked-in, marinated, wall-to-wall urine. We've been trying to get rid of it, but if you think spray-on deodorizer mixed with peed-on rugs is an improvement on the original smell, you're lucky you've never had to choose between them.
Howard is partly responsible, though definitely not to blame. He must have been stuck inside a lot. And by the time Adelaide died, she was using a bedpan at night. Fair enough, too—it would have been a major hike to the bathroom for a ninety-one-year-old. Also there were a few cats. The whole gang pretty much treated the house as one big toilet. The cats have scrammed.
Everything needs to be steam-cleaned. My mother is fighting with the Historic Homes Trust about who should pay. "They'll bloody own it all one day, why the hell shouldn't they cough up for freaking maintenance?"
"No freaking reason in the bloody world," I said. It really killed me when she used her polite mother swearwords.
She smiled at my amusement. "I'm a little overwrought."
"You can't tell."
That cheered her up a bit. Some people don't think sarcasm is funny, but we do, in our family. Our shrunken-up family. Our one-third-less-than-it-used-to-be family.
If you're wondering how my mother's coping with the whole gay-husband thing, she seems semi-okay. But it's hard to know for sure. Anytime I ask how she's feeling, she deflects with flippancy. "Spurned, but strong," she'll say, or "Bitter, but adjusting," "Hurt, but not vengeful"…
At least here I can't hear her crying at night.
I haven't heard anything from next door through the party wall, either, despite pressing my ear to every accessible section of it before remembering that the paint is probably original, lead-based, and therefore toxic. Possible lingering death added to my list of medium-term concerns.
The only noise I've heard is a kind of scratching and bumping from the attic sometimes.
I've investigated the noises and found certain unexpected things up there. When I found what I found, I had a choice. I may have made the wrong choice. Twice. And I'm still trying to figure out why I did what I did.
I've talked it over with Howard. I wish I knew what he thought. If I had to guess, I'd say it's a disapproval vibe. Hard to tell. I'm still at beginner-level dog, though he's clearly fluent in human. And I don't just mean English. He reads minds. It's unnerving.
My mother can be helpful when it comes to moral conundrums, but she's been missing in action lately, because of dealing with the breakup and trying to set up her business. That was another battle with the "bloody Historic Homes Trust."
She had to change the kitchen around a bit—get some shelves built, and have an industrial oven and fridge installed.
"And I hope we've seen the last of the rodents," she said. "Whatever you do, don't mention that if you happen to meet any customers, Dan."
"Even I know rats aren't a plus for a food business," I said, mildly offended.
"Please don't even say that word! I'm still traumatized."
She's going to be making wedding cakes. It wouldn't occur to everyone in the throes of a marriage breakdown, but we do irony in this house in addition to sarcasm.
I open the door to Fred—bespectacled, bepimpled, smiling Fred.
"My friend," I say.
A long pause.
"My friend," he responds.
It's so good to see him.
The long pause comes from a song my mother used to play in the car when she drove us home from school, "Rock and Roll Friend" by the Go-Betweens. There's a verrry long beat between two lines, and for no good reason, waiting for that second line used to really crack us up when we were little.
Then my mother would start laughing, too, and say, "Have some respect. That's one of my favorite bands." It's a cold shock, remembering when she was really happy, versus now—brave smiles when she can manage them, grim when she thinks I'm not looking.
I stand back and let Fred in.
He hits the wall of smell.
"Man, that's bad. I thought you must have been exaggerating."
"It's worst for the first five minutes, then you start numbing out."
We pause in the hallway, coming into range of my mother on the phone. "What do you suggest I feed him on? He's a growing boy. And it still costs money, Rob, wherever he's at school."
Fred and I look at each other. I clear my throat. In front of anyone else that would have been really embarrassing.
"It doesn't stay this bad," he mutters. "The first few months are the worst." I steer us into the front sitting rooms. It's like a museum here. Like three huge houses' contents swallowed by one huge house.
With a sweeping gesture to the burdened mantelpiece, I say, "Objects d'art, Fred, feast your eyes."
"Yeah, thanks, 'cause the nose sure isn't. Feasting."
I draw back the faded velvet curtain, to throw some more light on the scene.
Fred takes a look around. "Holy moley. I've never seen this much… stuff."
I run through a few of the items.
"Japanned Regency armchairs with squab cushions—"
"Someone Japanned them? Since when is Japan a verb?"
"It's a lacquer finish. And squab—"
"What the cushions are stuffed with."
"Feathers of. There are no actual dead squabs in the cushions."
Fred punches me.
"I realize that, smart-arse."
There's nothing more satisfying than being stupid with a friend. Except an Estelle sighting. It feels weird there's a whole Estelle "thing" that Fred doesn't know about. I'm not ready to tell him yet.
"This is an English Pembroke table with perimeter decoration of inlaid boxwood. And this bulgy number is a boulle tea caddy," I say, remembering what Posy told me.
"What's fricken boulle?" Fred wants to know.
"Tortoiseshell with decorative brass inlay. Named after the guy who invented it."
"And check this out." I take Fred over to the desk. "Rococo, ormolu mounts—that's gold-plated brass—and look underneath it…"
Fred gets on the floor and looks underneath the desk.
"It's not finished very well. It's really rough," he says.
"A telltale sign of authenticity. The reproductions are smoother underneath."
"What's it worth?"
"More than fifty grand."
I see Fred's fiendish mind cranking over.
"So we could sell this, substitute a copy, get fake IDs, plane tickets to LA, and fake drivers' licenses, and drive across America to New York, have ourselves a time, and be back in time for year ten. What do you say?"
"Yeah, one little flaw—we can't fake drive."
"We'd learn how in the wide-open spaces."
"Do you want to see my room?"
We head upstairs. Howard trots up after us.
My bedroom is on the top floor, at the back of the house. It has two sets of tall casement windows, with a tree right outside. While Fred canvasses Howard's range of tricks—sit and roll over—and gets to know him, I'm thinking if I were in a film, there would come a time when I'd swing out the window and climb down the tree. But this is life, and I'm not that keen to break my neck, so I use the stairs. And it's not as though my social life is so hectic I have to sneak out or anything. My mother would be relieved if I got asked out anywhere—she'd help me get there. She's consumed with guilt about me having to leave my school because of our financial crash. Because I'm smart and whatever. Extension this, acceleration that. You know the drill.
But in all the time I've spent hibernating in that creaking iron bed, buried under piles of old paisley eiderdowns whose faded colors have sopped up my sorry tears, I've realized this is my big chance to renovate the old image and keep it on the down low about being so smart. I can always do my accelerating in private, or just slow down for a bit. Cruise, coast, tread water—stop, preferably not sink…
Fred is snapping his fingers in my face.
"Come back, you've got the zombie look," he says.
"I asked you how you're feeling about tomorrow."
Fred nods. "I'm sorry I had to go away when I did. Have you spoken to your dad yet?"
I shake my head. "It's not because he's gay; it's because he's shot through and—upset Mum…"
Fred understands. "I know you're not some redneck homophobe, Dan."
"It's just so weird—my dad."
"My dad is gay." I hear the disbelief in my own voice. It still hasn't properly sunk in, but it's a relief saying it out loud.
"I did a bit of research in London. It's more common than you'd think. The apparently heterosexual parent, you know."
There's no topic that Fred is squeamish about. He's a scientist. Always happy to apply the chloroform and start dissecting. This is still too raw for me, though, and I can tell he gets that. He's opening the door, but not barging in.
"Come around after school if you feel like it. I don't start till Tuesday. Plan B reckons I need a haircut."
"She's wrong," I say.
"I brought you back something. Don't hyperventilate; it's a British Museum pencil."
I smile, but now I'm starting to feel seriously sick about tomorrow. I know because of seeing her that first time in her uniform that Estelle goes to my new school. What if I'm in her class? What if I'm not? What's better: terror or disappointment?
It feels as though I'm thinking about Estelle most of the time. As though someone has changed my default setting to "Estelle" without my permission, or she's become my brain's screen saver. Desire has merged with a (completely alien) noble feeling of wanting to be able to offer Estelle my absolutely best self. The power of this is undercut by not really knowing what my best self is. But it's got to be more than the current sum of parts.
All this churning, and I haven't even met her. What's she going to think about me? Uncool me? Trying-to-hide-the-nerd me?
It's worse than just not being cool. I'm also going through an awkward transitional stage. It's not that I'm ugly. I'm pretty sure I'm not. I'm tall and on the thin side. And I've grown a lot lately but haven't exactly filled out. I've asked my mother for protein powder, but you can imagine, what with the family budget and her short fuse these days, I didn't get a positive response. Then there's the fact that my girl experience is on the low side—or, more accurately, zero. I've never even kissed a girl. And I'm nearly fifteen.
My mother hands me a lunch bag, looks up—yeah, I'm taller than she is—and says, worried, "Just be yourself." Myself. My "self"? I don't really have a clue who that self is. It's like some kind of amorphous blob I'm trying to make into a better shape. I just know the bits I don't want to broadcast to a group of strangers.
3. Gay dad.
4. Single mum, question mark over mental stability.
5. No cash.
6. Private-school refugee.
I don't want to be judged or pitied; I just want to stay under the radar while I look around.
At my old school, there was the usual assortment of jocks, try-hards, nerds, hard-cores, and cool groups. Then there were the odd socks, like me. Technically, I qualified for the nerds, but no way was I going to dock there.
- Praise for Six Impossible Things:
- On Sale
- Sep 6, 2016
- Page Count
- 304 pages