Peter pushed down hard on the pedals until he breasted the crown of the hill on which their house was built, a solitary, single-storey building. After the long ride from school, he was glad to get off and walk. Pushing aside the gate, he wheeled his bike along the gravel drive and round the garage. He leaned it against the porch and unlatched the kitchen door. A profound stillness greeted him. The house was empty.
He halted in the doorway and breathed deeply. Such special moments needed to be savoured. A quivering expectancy hung in the air to which a fluttering in his stomach responded; excitement, anticipation, but some anxiety too. Like a faithful but shy friend, it only surfaced when he had the house to himself or was on one of his many lone rides across the countryside.
He off-loaded his bulging satchel onto the kitchen table with a resounding thud, surprising the cat that slept in a basket beneath. He poured himself a glass of cold milk, adding some in a bowl for the cat, and sat down to watch the animal stretch and yawn. “How lucky you are not to have to go to school,” he told the cat.
It ignored him.
Shafts of light streamed through the glass openings in the ceilings of the kitchen and the immense living room. It had been his father’s idea. “My home cathedral,” Dad had called it. When his father abruptly fell ill and died shortly afterwards, the architect, one of his father’s best friends, insisted on finishing the work. Peter had been five at the time and the fuss with the inquest and the funeral and “all the damn wrangling with insurance companies”, as his mother put it, had soared over his little head as he ducked into his own world.
Peter rummaged in his pockets looking for a toffee, but found none. He must have eaten them all on his ride. Instead, he found a scrap of paper and was about to throw it in the bin when he realised it was Greengage’s address. He’d been so busy avoiding the terrifying Miss Wit, he’d given the English teacher’s offer no more thought.
Witless! He shuddered. Her sharp angular features reared up in his mind, her eyes flashing, her lips curved in a sneer. What a monster! That she was a complete stranger had not stopped her threatening to kill him and she meant it. She had been so sure of her god-given mission. But why him? What had he done wrong? He scurried to the kitchen door, promptly locking it.
His arm hurt at the thought of Witless. The bloodstains on his shirtsleeve were clearly visible. Carefully rolling up the sleeve, he uncovered four bright red gashes that were beginning to swell and fester. Curse the girl! It would be just like her to give him blood poisoning. He fetched the Dettol and meticulously cleaned the wounds, before clumsily wrapping a bandage around his arm.
Back at the table, he scooped up the cat that had finished lapping the milk, and cuddled it in his arms, reassured by its friendly warmth. He rubbed his nose against its muzzle causing the animal to purr noisily and whispered in its ear: “Tell me, Jenny…” It was their joke that they’d named the cat after one of Peter’s aunts. “Why does Witless want my hide?” The cat purred in response. “You’re so helpful.” He held the cat at arms’ length above his head, its paws splayed in every direction.
Swinging the cat in a wide arc, he lowered it to the floor, where it would have swiped at him had he not dodged. He picked up his jacket, slung his satchel over his shoulder and wound his way between the empty armchairs in the living room to the door that led to their bedrooms, Jenny trailing after him, miaowing plaintively.
To the left was his mother’s room, the door shut tight, probably locked. He’d never tried it and had no desire to do so. The thought of riffling through her belongings made him shudder. Her bedroom had its own bathroom, that much he knew. Mum called it her “life-saver” because Sis spent hours in the only other bathroom. Not that it bothered him. He rarely used the bathroom. Thank heavens there was a separate toilet.
To the right, a narrow corridor led to their two bedrooms. Sis’s room came first, separated from his by their shared bathroom. Sis’s door was slightly ajar and from it came the characteristic scent of her soap. Lemon, was it? Or some exotic fruit whose name he didn’t know. It urged him to step inside.
“Not yet,” he whispered to the cat that wound its way between his legs. Such apparent self-control was mere pretence. There was no way he could resist the attraction of Sis’s clothes once it took hold. He dumped his satchel on his bed, shook off his shoes and socks and hung up his school jacket in the cupboard. He swapped his school trousers and shirt for shorts and a t-shirt.
It was bare-foot that he went to the toilet at the end of the corridor. The tiny room with its frosted glass window and its ice-cold seat was one of his favourite places to conjure up fantasies of girls he’d seen at school. He thought of Fi, his sister’s girlfriend. She was present in all his tales. If he were lucky, she’d drop by that evening. Not that he’d see much of her; sadly she was Sis’s girlfriend, not his.
The underground city he’d created was some consolation, peopled as it was by the girls he’d selected. It was a sort of modern-day harem powered by new fangled atomic power. He’d even invented a substance that transformed pictures of girls into the real-life thing. It had the added property that girls it created did what he said, which he found very convenient. Experience showed that girls had an irritating way of having a mind of their own.
Outside his sister’s room once again, he didn’t hesitate this time. Pushing open the door, he stepped inside and immediately dug his toes into the fluffy mass of Sis’s thick carpet. The cat followed him, rubbed itself against his bare legs for a moment in encouragement, then jumped up onto Sis’s bed and curled up on her discarded nightdress where it buried its head under its paws and slept.
Peter made sure the door was tightly closed and turned the key. It wouldn’t do to have someone bursting in on him. He wanted to pull the curtains too, but anyone watching outside would notice. God! What if Witless were there! The thought filled him with horror. He shoved the idea aside, refusing to let her spoil the moment. Peering cautiously out, no one was in sight. Only his sister would notice the drawn curtains and she was still at school. He pulled them shut, trying to reassure himself.
His sister’s real name was Maryse, but she was just Sis to him. They might have been twins, he thought, were it not that she was two years older and several inches taller. Both were slim and had the same slender face, the same pale skin with a hint of freckles, the same high cheek bones that underlined their blue eyes, the same straight, narrow nose and light brown, wavy hair, although hers was considerably longer.
Sis spent the greater part of her considerable allowance, “one of the positive things about Dad’s death,” the girl would say with typical candour, on clothes, clothes and more clothes.
He opened wide the cupboards and pulled out all the drawers to lay bare row after row of dresses and skirts and blouses and neatly piled underwear: pink, white, blue, yellow and bottle green for school and even some black for Fi’s visits. As he did so, a tidal wave of his sister’s scent flowed out to greet him. He would have loved to curl up in one of those wardrobes and lock himself in. What a scandal! He imagined the newspaper headlines: boy dies in closet, suffocated by girl’s scent. Let his mother and sister try to explain that away!
He pulled out a long white dress that Sis rarely wore. Holding it up against himself, it reached almost to his ankles. The silky material was cool and soft against his bare legs. He admired himself a long moment in the mirror before returning the dress to the cupboard, taking care to place it exactly as he’d found it. Sis had an uncanny eye for detail and was quick to accuse.
One cupboard remained unopened. He always left it till last. This was where Sis hid the special clothes and toys she kept for Fi’s visits. It was locked, of course, but he knew where she hid the key.
The moment he pulled open the door a heavy object fell out hitting him over the head.
“Ouch!” he cried out, before he could stop himself.
A booby trap! His sister had perched a broom against the inside of the door for just such an occasion.
The broom rebounded onto the bed, startling the cat that sprang out of the way, hissing. The frightened animal landed in the middle of Sis’s dressing table, scattering pots of cream and lipstick and nail varnish and talc as well as curlers and sundry other gadgets, sending them tumbling to the floor making a dreadful racket.
What a disaster!
Peter hurried to the door to listen, his chest heaving with fright. All was quiet. He cautiously replaced the broom and locked the cupboard door. He’d have to leave those pleasures for another time. He picked up the terrified cat, gave it a reassuring cuddle and laid it back on the bed. Then he got down on all fours and began gathering up his sister’s make-up.
It wasn’t easy to return all the things to what he hoped were their rightful places. When he’d finished, he lay on the floor and stretched one arm below the dresser in search of anything that might have rolled underneath. Sure enough, his fingers latched on to a small tubular object the end of which was soft and sticky.
Pulling it out, it turned out to be a pink lipstick without its cap. He gingerly sniffed the greasy mark the lipstick had made on his finger. It smelt good. Fruit? Or was it flowers? It made him hungry. He wondered if it would taste as good. He dabbed the bevelled tip of the lipstick against his lower lip, but could taste nothing.
He looked at himself in Sis’s mirror. The single pink dot begged for more and the lipstick dared him to go further. He glanced at the cat oblivious on the bed. He strained to listen for any sign he was no longer alone, but no one was there to witness. He lifted the lipstick to his mouth and carefully applied it to the rest of his lips then rolled them together as he’d seen his sister do.
He took a long look at himself in the mirror, turning his head left and right, pleased at what he saw. He dabbed a bit of Sis’s powder on his cheeks to conceal his freckles. Then he puckered his lips as if he were blowing a kiss and smiled at himself as he stroked his hair.
“Your hair is far too long for a boy,” his mother reminded him several times a day. She kept nagging him to go to the hairdressers. If she had seen him with the lipstick and powder, she’d have had a fit, even if having pink lips and pale cheeks didn’t make him a girl.
It was difficult to put words to the feelings that filled him when he was alone; girlishness, maybe. It was all embracing with a feather-like touch, almost caressing, and warm and soft and made him feel good inside. Being in his sister’s room was like being in a sanctuary. It was the closest he could come to that girlish essence. At the same time, it had a formidable force. It brimmed over with energy, breathing life into his every cell, setting them vibrating wildly. The feeling was so strong; it could be unbearable, as if he might shatter into many tiny pieces.
He glanced one last time at his sister’s mirror, memorising the face that stared out at him, then lay down on her bed next to the cat, sharing Sis’s nightdress as a pillow. He closed his eyes, breathed deeply the delicious scents that surrounded him and let go, giving in to the full force of the girlish magic.
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