Copyright © 2012 Alby Stone
Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails; adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine and uracil…
Nucleotides and nursery rhymes don’t tell the whole story. Little boys are made of more than the twin superstitions of science and folklore. Physically, Oliver Peters was made of the usual chemicals and minerals arranged in the standard pattern for a human male human. Medical science confirmed his biological ordinariness. He was a standard-issue organic machine of the type known as Homo sapiens sapiens. Psychological tests demonstrated that the software guiding its operation was pretty much average: he clocked in at well above average IQ; personality tests indicated that he was neither excessively introverted not overly extrovert, and only slightly more empathic than normal; and he showed no signs of any personality disorders. But it was obvious to anyone who came into contact with him that there was something seriously wrong with Oliver’s internal workings. It wasn’t anything he did or said – it was just that people didn’t like him. In fact, his fellow humans simply couldn’t abide his presence. He knew nothing of that when he was small, of course, not in his waking moments. But as he grew bigger and older so it became clearer that Oliver’s social life was destined to be a solo enterprise.
He should have known all along how his life would play out. The contempt in his father’s eyes, the spiralling of maternal rejection – they should have given him some inkling. So too should the suspicion on the faces of his reluctant playmates and the ease with which they so readily abandoned him as soon as an opportunity arose – even the distaste expressed by his first primary school teacher’s curled lip. Or maybe the way he was always the last kid picked for the teams, the one nobody ever passed the ball to; the boy destined to be at the back of every queue, the one left empty-handed whenever sweets and treats were handed out.
But he failed to recognise every sign. It was of no consequence, not then. Recognition could not have changed the facts. But it might have prepared him better for how his life would be.
Mrs Simmons, his second primary school teacher, once confessed to her colleagues that young Oliver unaccountably made her skin crawl. She had, she told them, an irrational desire to run away from him. He also provoked unpleasant thoughts and violent impulses of which she was not at all proud. The staff room murmured and nodded in agreement. Oliver made them all feel the same way.
‘I get this strange feeling,’ said Mrs Simmons guiltily, ‘as if he was going to be responsible for something really terrible, and that my only two sane courses of action are to either steer clear of him or do something drastic to stop whatever it is from happening. I know it’s bloody ridiculous – he’s only a little kid, for God’s sake – but he gives me the heebie-jeebies. It’s the same sort of feeling I get when I see a slug or a centipede, something I know won’t do me any harm but somehow makes me feel like I’m in some sort of danger.’
Asking any one of Oliver’s schoolmates or neighbours how they felt about him would have produced answers that, although varying in coherence and articulation, said more or less the same thing.
By the time Oliver Peters reached adulthood he was friendless and estranged from his family. Although intelligent – he had once been thought gifted, though for some reason his teachers had quietly reclassified him as ‘average’ – he had achieved nothing. He had no qualifications beyond a handful of reasonable-grade GCSEs, few useful skills, and no prospects whatsoever. Bewilderment and loneliness are not qualities that impress a potential employer. He drifted from one menial job to another, none lasting more than a couple of weeks – usually only until he angered the management sufficiently to allow them to get rid of him and employ someone likeable. The Jobcentre eventually ceased to require him to seek work, but only because the staff refused to interview him. The failure to obtain remunerative work was the least of his disappointments, however. Grown men and women didn’t like him. Small children and animals feared him. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and hawkers of more substantial commodities only ever knocked on his door the once.
In truth, by any objective standards it was very hard to see why Oliver was so universally loathed and despised. He wasn’t unfriendly – far from it. He liked people and yearned for friendship. He was always sincerely polite. He bathed regularly and dressed neatly as far as his limited funds would allow. He didn’t smell bad. He would have been thought good-looking if he’d been anyone but himself. He was well-spoken, generous, kind, gentle and quiet, and there was no malice in him at all. He enjoyed jokes and had an excellent sense of humour. On paper he should have been a big hit with the ladies, a popular guy in the pub, the proverbial life and soul of all the parties he was never invited to.
When he was twenty-six, Oliver had a great idea. He would write a novel. It would, he reasoned, be the perfect way to change his life. A successful book would surely give people cause to look at him differently. It would break the social ice and might even thaw the icy hearts of the women he met fleetingly as he went about his everyday life and who invariably looked at him in the same way they would regard something unpleasant they’d just stepped in while walking their dogs. Literary achievement could even result in a much-needed swelling of his bank account.
He set to the task with enthusiasm and unrelenting commitment. The novel was about a white man who had been raised from infancy by pygmies in the Congo after his naturalist parents had been killed by a mysterious giant beast that may or may not have been a descendant of the survivors of whatever had killed off the dinosaurs. The pygmy elders, who had grown to fear the youth, who at six feet four now towered above them all, had belatedly handed him in to the Congolese authorities in Kinshasa. Repatriated to his parents’ home in Eastbourne, the young man had to learn grown-up English and the niceties of middle-class society but was quickly ensnared by questionable family friends and became embroiled in various illicit schemes, social misunderstandings and attempts to cash in on his life story. Eventually, he tired of all this, returned to the Congo laden with practical gifts for the members of his former community, and married his three foot seven childhood sweetheart. The story ended in comic tragedy when he took his bride to a Brighton hotel for their honeymoon and was arrested on suspicion of being a child molester, while his twenty-five year old spouse was placed in a children’s home.
The novel was a finely-crafted work of comic genius. It was a winner. Oliver knew it as soon as soon as he typed the final full stop. He e-mailed a copy of his Word document to an agent whose website promised a quick response, and waited. A week later the agent phoned and asked to meet him for dinner.
The restaurant, a swanky French place in Chelsea, was almost empty when Oliver arrived, even though it was eight o’clock on a Saturday evening. Oliver was surprised. He’d googled it and had read that it was very popular. He decided that there was probably something else on locally that was keeping the punters away. Oddly, most of the tables still had half-full plates and unfinished glasses of wine. It looked as though they’d been vacated in a hurry. The only other customer was an attractive woman sipping a glass of white wine. She had shoulder-length red hair and was dressed all in black – trousers, blouse and shoes – just as the agent, Annette Midgley, had said she would be. Oliver hurried nervously across to her table, a desirable spot by the window.
‘Annette Midgley? Oliver Peters.’
‘Oliver, good to meet you,’ she smiled. To Oliver’s surprise, she rose, clasped his right hand and kissed him on the left cheek – not the usual chattering class air-kiss but an authentic meeting of feminine lips and masculine skin. Oliver was stunned. No member of the female sex had ever kissed him before. And none had ever seemed remotely pleased to see him.
They sat facing each other across the table. Oliver didn’t have the faintest idea what he should do. He’d never been out to dinner with anyone and the etiquette was a wholly unknown quantity. Annette helped out by calling a waiter.
‘A bottle of the house dry white, please’ she said. ‘We should be ready to order in about ten minutes, if that’s OK. Thank you.’
The waiter silently glared at her and stalked away. Oliver noticed that the man at the small bar was staring at them. At first he assumed the man was staring in the way men do sometimes stare at women – there was no denying that Annette was an attractive example of her sex – but then he realised that the look was actually quite hostile. The waiter returned with the wine, belligerently pulled the cork and thumped the bottle down on the table. He didn’t ask either of them to taste it and didn’t offer to pour. Oliver wasn’t an experienced restaurant-goer but he’d seen enough television programmes to know that the waiter hadn’t exactly followed the usual rules.
‘Your book is hilarious,’ Annette told him. ‘Once I’d started it I couldn’t put it down. I can’t believe it’s your first novel.’
‘Yeah,’ Oliver replied, embarrassed but pleased. ‘My first stab at anything creative, really. I’m glad you liked it. Do you reckon it might interest a publisher?’
‘Oliver, I’ve already shown it to Penguin and they want it. I was surprised, I must admit. But they want it just as it is. No changes, even. That’s practically unheard of. But then your book is very, very good. It’s about time one of my clients had a decent break.’
‘So it’s official? Don’t I have to sign a contract or something?’
‘We can work out our contract later. The guy from Penguin wants you to meet their lawyer next week – that’s a big hurry, so they’re obviously desperate to sign you up before anyone else gets a whiff. That puts you in a very good bargaining position, Oliver. You could be a major earner for them. All the publishers want to find the next JK Rowling or E.L. James, not that they just want woman writers, obviously. You know what I mean – they’re after instant-hit writers whose books will shift major units and make a lot of money very quickly.’
‘Do you really think it’s that good?’ Oliver was incredulous. ‘I mean, I’ve never read the Harry Potter books or Fifty Shades of Grey but surely mine can’t be that accomplished?’
Annette laughed. ‘Don’t mistake popular for good,’ she told him. ‘The best-seller lists are like the pop charts. Genuinely good material is usually a bit too challenging for most readers. Most people want something easy to read that doesn’t make them think too deeply. If it tells them what to think, that’s even better.’
‘That sounds a bit cynical.’
‘It’s the sour voice of experience. The only times genuinely good literary novels sell in quantity is when they’re up for a big prize or they’ve been turned into films or television, or are mentioned in films or bigged up on television. People are like sheep. Look at all those silly people who went out and bought Herodotus because of The English Patient, or when everyone had to have A Brief History of Time. I know they’re not novels but you know what I mean. How many of the copies they sold ever actually got read? Your book is different. It’s a good piece of writing that will be popular before they make the movie.’
The waiter appeared again and sullenly took their order. They both opted for moules marinières with seasonal vegetables, pommes frites and green salad on the side. The waiter hastily scribbled their order on a notepad and snatched up the menus.
‘He seems in a bad mood,’ said Oliver.
‘Yeah, everyone here seems a bit touchy. This is the first time I’ve been here but the internet reviews all say how friendly and helpful the staff are. You could have fooled me. I think there must be something going on. When I arrived the place was nearly full but within five minutes they’d all paid up and pushed off. The waiters are probably annoyed that their tips won’t be too good tonight.’
She paused to smile brightly and wave at an elderly woman walking past the restaurant with a small dog on a lead. The old lady peered at her suspiciously. The dog, a Westmoreland terrier, went berserk, baring its teeth and snarling, flinging itself at the glass but being brought up short as the woman yanked hard on the lead. The woman yelled something at Annette. Oliver couldn’t quite hear what she was shouting but Annette flushed and quickly turned away from the window.
‘That wasn’t very nice,’ she muttered, clearly upset.
Oliver tried to cheer her up. ‘You look great,’ he said. ‘That’s a terrific outfit and your hair’s nice. The colour’s lovely.’
Annette looked at him carefully, frowning slightly. ‘Why, thank you. Do you really mean it?’
‘Of course I do,’ replied Oliver, taken aback.
‘It’s just that men don’t usually pay me compliments – well, not ever, actually.’
‘You’re kidding – a beautiful woman like you? I find that hard to believe. I’d have thought you’d be fighting them off.’
‘That’s very sweet of you, Oliver. But honestly, men usually back off as soon as they clap eyes on me. When I was a teenager I used to think it was because boys found me unattractive but I’m not exactly ugly, am I? It seems to have become worse as I’ve got older. I’ve no idea why. Do you know, I’m nearly thirty and still haven’t –‘
She blushed and said no more. Oliver knew what she had been about to say. Perhaps she wouldn’t feel so bad about it if she knew that he too had never done that.
‘Same with me,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I’ve never had any luck with women – never had a girlfriend, not even a snog.’
‘Now you’re the one who’s kidding. That’s crazy. You’re a good-looking bloke and you seem really nice.’
Oliver chuckled ruefully. He knew he was saying too much but he found her somehow easy to talk to, even about intimate matters. ‘Not to worry. I expect I’ll break my duck one day. Anyway, I hear celibacy’s fashionable in some quarters.’
The food arrived, minute portions that challenged even the legendary stinginess of nouvelle cuisine. The waiters carelessly slapped the plates and dishes onto the tablecloth and stalked back into the kitchen. Annette and Oliver stared at the food, which would have been dwarfed by the plates even if the portions had been reasonably large, and shook their heads. The mussels had been cooked to dehydration and the salad leaves were not so much tired as comatose. The vegetables looked more mineral than anything else. Annette tutted and Oliver exhaled sharply. Their eyes met as they raised them from the culinary disappointment.
‘Tell you what,’ sighed Annette. ‘Do you fancy getting some fish and chips? Then we could take them back to my place. It’s not far.’
That was a worrying development. Oliver wondered if single women lived differently to single men. He wondered if other single men lived differently to him. It had been a very long time since he’d been in someone else’s home. He had always kept his flat clean and tidy, not just in case the visitors who never came turned up one day but because that was how he liked to live. What could he expect from Annette’s place? Vague memories of his sister’s bedroom filtered back – he remembered expanses of pink and frills and fluffy toys, and permanent untidiness, but that was about it. Whatever had become of his sister? She had moved suddenly and left no forwarding address. Much as his parents had done, in fact.
‘My place is a bit of a dump,’ said Annette apologetically. ‘It’s quite nice inside, though. It’s a housing association place. I was placed there by Social Services years ago as a teenager when my folks upped sticks and left me alone in the house. I think they went to Canada. I’ve tried moving but can’t find anywhere. Landlords always say my references are unsatisfactory.’
‘That happens to me, too. Mine’s a council flat. It’s not much but I suppose it’s OK. Nobody ever bothers me, except some of the local kids. Sometimes they put stuff through my letter box and spray “nonce” and “paedo” and “nutter” on the door. They always spell “paedo” wrong. Kids, eh? I suppose they don’t have anything better to do.’
‘Yeah, I get that where I live. Not the “paedo” bit, though – it’s usually just pictures. You know the kind I mean. It isn’t very nice but what can you do? I’ve reported it to the housing association and the police but they seem to blame me.’
‘Snap. It’s the same with employers. I never last long in a job because I seem to get the blame for anything that goes wrong.’
‘That happened to me until I decided to become a literary agent. I do most of my business online or by phone and I don’t do too badly out of it. Mind you, my clients usually move on to someone else as soon as they meet me in the flesh. Maybe I don’t come across as professional enough for them. It’s very frustrating.’
Oliver boldly signalled to the waiter and asked for the bill. The man seemed relieved and was slightly less surly when he brought it to their table. Annette insisted on paying but they agreed that there would be no gratuity. No member of staff came to either collect the money or bid them goodnight. They left the money on the table and collected their coats. No one saw them to the door.
Out on the street, Annette took Oliver’s arm, another surprising gesture. He didn’t mind that. In fact, strolling along with a beautiful redhead on his arm, he felt ten feet tall. People gave them a wide berth. In the chippie customers queuing ahead of them seemed to suddenly remember that they had somewhere else to be. The woman behind the counter was unfriendly but served them speedily. They arrived at Annette’s flat slightly less than fifteen minutes after leaving the restaurant.
Oliver couldn’t believe his eyes. Annette’s walls were emulsioned white and the floors were varnished wood with autumnally-coloured rugs. All the curtains were ochre and so was the three piece suite. The remaining furnishings were pine. The flat was tidy and clean. Books, DVDs and CDs were neatly arranged on pine shelves. It was exactly like Oliver’s own place. He had the strange feeling that he’d dreamed the visit to the restaurant and had just woken up at home.
I am actually at home here, he thought hazily as he watched the red-haired woman arranging plates and crockery, uncorking a bottle of wine and smiling at him as she did so. This place and my place are somehow the same place.
Two bottles of wine later, the cod and chips were eaten and a third bottle had been opened. Annette and Oliver were sitting on the ochre sofa.
‘I’ll be there when you meet Penguin’s lawyers and their rep. The deal will have to include at least two more books, a hefty advance and a good deal on royalties and rights. I did a legal course online so I know the ropes.’
‘This is brilliant,’ said Oliver happily. ‘Annette, this is the best night of my life.’
‘It could get even better,’ she grinned wickedly. ‘How do you feel about breaking your duck? I’m absolutely dying to break mine.’
They had to try a few times before they got it right but that night those ducks were well and truly broken. Oliver was happy to go along with Annette’s suggestion that they needed plenty of practice, so they saw a lot of each other over the next few weeks. After that they were pretty well inseparable. They tried eating out a few times but it always ended in some kind of disaster so after a while they no longer bothered. It wasn’t too much of a pain – there were takeaways and plenty of delivery services available. Their occasional trips to the cinema never went smoothly so they gave that up too, staying in to talk, watch DVDs and brush up on their bedroom skills.
Oliver was more than a little dismayed that his new-found happiness didn’t rub off on other people. Indeed, people seemed even more hostile and unfriendly than they had previously been. Annette reported similar experiences. Fortunately the meeting with the people from Penguin went relatively well. Lawyers seemed to have an innate ability to ignore the psychic emanations of others – a legal education clearly involved the elimination of feelings, and the total exclusion of sympathy and empathy from any and all proceedings. In this case it worked to everyone’s benefit. Oliver got his three-book deal, a jaw-droppingly huge advance and a fair royalty rate. Contracts were signed, his novel was accepted and everything in the garden looked satisfyingly rosy.
The news of the latest literary sensation spread fast. Annette Midgley suddenly became the agent everyone wanted to represent them. Her business boomed, to the extent that she was forced to hire two assistants. These women worked from the comfort of their own homes and only communicated with Annette by e-mail, text and telephone. Meanwhile, Oliver was wooed by the media. The Observer ran a short feature on him, followed closely by the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. When the book was published Oliver was invited to appear on the Late Review and the Culture Show. The BBC couldn’t get enough of him. These interviews and appearances generated a fair bit of unwarranted hostility on the part of presenters and interviewers but Oliver didn’t care about that. There was no such thing as the wrong kind of publicity. Sales soared and he became almost a household name.
Annette and Oliver decided to move in together. They bought a house in Clapham. Less than a week later ‘for sale’ signs were erected in the front gardens of the adjacent properties on either side. They were forced to decorate the place themselves – every decorator they asked for an estimate claimed to be too busy to take the job on. Fortunately the new house didn’t need much in the way of renovation or repair, and Oliver was able to handle things like putting up shelves and replacing light fittings. It wasn’t too long before they had their new home more or less just how they wanted it. They kept their old furniture and rugs, and the interior colour scheme was familiar to them both.
To Oliver’s astonishment, his novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In the end he lost out to another first-time novelist, Cynthia Owusu, but was encouraged enough to vow that his second novel would be much better than his first. The award ceremony was marred by animosity from the tables surrounding theirs, and what seemed to be an orchestrated snub by the other shortlisted authors, though the winner was gracious enough to break ranks and shake his hand, and to sign Annette’s copy of the winning novel, the first instalment of a trilogy that now seemed destined to net Ms Owusu another two Man Booker prizes, continuing the trend of recent years.
Oliver began work on his second novel, an acerbic comedy in which W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx teamed up with James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Rin Tin Tin Jr to break up a Nazi spy ring in the Hollywood of 1938. It was, asserted Annette when she’d read drafts of the first four chapters, another winner.
One night, lying in bed after what Annette affectionately continued to refer to as ‘practice’ – though by now they were both rather good at it – they had a long discussion about their once-lonely lives and unaccountable unpopularity. Like Oliver, Annette had never been driven to examine her unpopularity very closely and had always simply assumed it was her lot in life, just the way things would be for her.
‘But it’s strange, isn’t it?’ said Oliver. ‘I mean, here’s nothing wrong with you at all. By rights you should have lots of friends and your family should dote on you.’
‘I could say the same about you,’ she replied. ‘It’s only since we met that I realised there was something wrong with me, and that’s only because I could see the same thing was happening to you. I suppose we’re lucky in that we’ve been able to be fairly successful without having to deal too closely with other people. At least we’re not lonely anymore. We’ve got each other. And even if all our success ended tomorrow we’ve got plenty of money in the bank and a nice home. We don’t really need anything else, do we?’
They didn’t. But two years after the publication of Oliver’s first novel, hard on the heels of the international best-seller that was his second, they got it anyway.
Sebastian Oliver Peters was born in the February of 2018, a strapping baby who arrived three weeks later than advertised sporting a full head of curly brown hair and armed with a set of vocal chords that a foghorn might have envied. It was a happy moment despite the circumstances.
Annette’s confinement was an ordeal. Sebastian had to be delivered by Caesarean section, which meant hospitalisation. Annette’s fellow mothers-to-be complained about her – no concrete reasons were ever given – and demanded to be moved to other wards, preferably in different hospitals. The nurses could barely be bothered to see to her needs. Doctors’ examinations were cursory. She was treated with contempt by the catering staff, despised by the cleaners, and left alone with her discomfort and anxiety. When Oliver visited her, things only became worse. At one point he came close to being escorted from the premises by security guards because someone had complained of his aggressive behaviour – all he had done was politely ask a nurse where he might find a chair – and only the distraction of a genuine violent incident on a neighbouring ward saved him from an ignominious and undeserved ejection.
But that was as nothing compared to how people reacted when Sebastian was born and the new family was together for the first time. Babies screamed and wailed, expectant mothers sobbed, visitors fumed, and the staff turned openly hostile. The unnerved Oliver couldn’t wait to get them out of there. The driver of the taxi he’d ordered almost drove off again as soon as he saw the three of them and was only dissuaded from doing so by the deployment of a large wad of banknotes. Even so, when they reached Clapham he drove away without even waiting for them to shut the rear doors.
The houses on either side were still unoccupied. The previous residents had cut their losses and moved out a year after Annette and Oliver moved in, despite not managing to sell the properties. It wasn’t a problem for the couple as they would never have seen their neighbours anyway. It just made the road a little quieter.
Sebastian, despite the ear-splitting volume at which he could request a feed or nappy-change, was a sweet little kid, gurgling happily at each new experience and always smiling in that helpless, slightly desperate way that babies do. The health visitor – the only person to have been inside their home other than the sullen removal men and the people who came to hurriedly read the gas and electricity meters – turned up for the first few appointed dates, though always late and smelling of gin only partly masked with peppermint, hurriedly weighed and looked at the boy, brusquely asked a few questions, and usually took her leave after less than a quarter of an hour. She didn’t interact with the child at all and when her visits dried up sooner than expected neither parent thought it worth complaining about her dereliction of duty.
When they took the boy out to the shops in his high-tech buggy with electronic sensors that monitored ambient temperature, ultraviolet light and moisture, and which had inbuilt heaters and a retractable UV-filtering cover that kicked in automatically when it was too bright, cold or rainy, they didn’t get the attention normally given to babies by old ladies and new or expecting mothers. People avoided them. Shopkeepers sometimes refused to serve them, claiming that a family emergency meant they had to close suddenly. Pedestrians steered well clear, dogs barked and growled as they passed. It was sad and disconcerting but they got used to it.
Annette and Oliver lavished love, care and attention upon their new son, which went some way to making up for the fact that the rest of humanity seemed set on ignoring him completely. Indeed, the kid thrived. His physical development was slightly better than the average, he was walking and talking a few months earlier than the books said, and he seemed to be remarkably bright. Sebastian was able to read at less than three years of age, and could add, subtract and multiply – division took him a bit longer to master, but Oliver joked that was because little Seb always wanted all of everything and never did things by fractions. There was no denying that the boy was clever but he was also rather literal-minded. Similes were just about manageable but he could never understand metaphors, and homonyms and puns were beyond him. How could anything possibly be two different things at the same time?
By the time Sebastian started school Oliver had published six best-selling novels – the first two of which had been turned into successful films – and a collection of short stories. Annette’s business had expanded to become the nation’s leading literary agency. They were very wealthy indeed. The money was a major factor in deciding the shape of Sebastian’s education, enabling them to place him at a nearby private school for gifted but ‘difficult’ children. The head teacher Mr Pargetter – or Malcolm, as he insisted they called him – stared at Annette and Oliver with appalled fascination and grinned insincerely through his scruffy beard as he assured them that his school was well-equipped to deal with children like Sebastian. He had accepted several boys and girls who had problems fitting in at other schools, including a couple of profoundly unsociable boys – one, ironically, the son of a child psychologist – and another deeply unhappy kid who had been targeted by bullies both in and out of her school. All were now well-adjusted and content, thanks to Pargetter’s liberal but demanding regime and his caring, hard-working staff, supported by a qualified psychologist and a team of counsellors. Sebastian’s parents were impressed, to the extent that they didn’t notice Pargetter’s deep sigh of relief as he closed his study door on them, or take note of the way his personal assistant seemed to be in a big hurry to see them off the premises. They were also deeply grateful that they hadn’t been given the now-expected brush-off.
Taking their little boy to school for the first time was an emotional experience, pride mixed with anxiety and sadness at the realisation that he wouldn’t be a little boy forever. Annette cried as they saw Sebastian in the playground that morning, walking bravely but uncertainly toward a group of children already playing a game, running around and laughing. Oliver gently led her away to the bus stop, keeping his fingers crossed that Sebastian would be accepted by at least one of his peers. Up to that moment the boy’s contact with any human beings other than his parents had been minimal. He’d never even spoken to anyone his own age apart from some of the neighbours’ kids, who had immediately run away from him and made sure to avoid him ever since. The boy was a distillation of that strange repulsion his parents inspired in others. Oliver hoped that the school’s reputation for handling difficult children and Pargetter’s confidence in his own methods were well-founded. But he wasn’t optimistic about that and had no doubt they would find out the worst when they went to collect Sebastian at half past three that afternoon.
The telephone call came at seventeen minutes past one. There had been an incident, said Pargetter in a shaky monotone, and they should come to the school immediately. When pressed for details he refused to say more, adding only that it was very urgent and that they should prepare themselves for the worst.
They arrived to find six police cars and an ambulance parked outside the school. Annette and Oliver hurried from the taxi, their hearts pounding, expecting the worst. But the worst they feared wasn’t as bad as it could be.
‘Sebastian, why did you do it?’ Oliver was close to tears and Annette was weeping into her hands, sobbing convulsively. Pargetter and his PA were standing by the door of his study, ashen and distressed, at a loss as to what they should do. A white-faced policewoman stood over Sebastian, who looked lost in the huge leather-covered chair he had been placed on. The boy was covered in blood. Gore was smeared around his mouth. He shrugged, sulky and bored with the proceedings.
At ten minutes to one that afternoon a child had come running from the boys’ toilets, screaming loudly, his eyes bulging in terror. When Pargetter went to investigate he discovered the horribly mutilated bodies of a boy and a girl from Sebastian’s class. Sebastian, wielding a filleting knife he had taken from the school kitchen, was still dissecting the boy’s body, his hand as steady and deft as a skilled surgeon. The boy had been disarmed, led away and locked in Pargetter’s study while the emergency services were summoned. He had sulkily refused to say a word to Pargetter, and had blankly ignored the police and a doctor. Normally the police would have taken his clothing as evidence but they didn’t have any paper overalls small enough to fit him. The officers at the scene were waiting for someone higher up the food chain to decide what to do with the boy. A six year old murder suspect was unprecedented.
‘Why, Seb?’ Oliver wailed, overwhelmed with distress.
‘Sir,’ the policewoman sternly interrupted, ‘the suspect – your son – hasn’t been advised of his rights yet so you can’t question him.’
‘He’s six years old and I’m his bloody father!’ Oliver yelled. ‘And how can he be advised of his rights? He’s too young to understand what rights are!’
Annette sobbed even more loudly as Oliver’s voice rose. The policewoman looked both angry and thoughtful, perhaps calculating her chances of being able to find a reason to arrest Oliver but reluctant to actually take him into custody. She remained standing by the door. Oliver sighed and tried to relax but it was impossible. He gazed at his son with helpless love and incredulous horror. Sebastian still appeared bored and sulky. The boy refused to meet his father’s eyes.
‘They told lies,’ he said abruptly. ‘It was stupid and I told them so. But they kept saying it so I had to show them they were wrong.’
‘What lies do you mean, Seb?’
‘It was that stupid rhyme. I didn’t believe them but they kept on saying it and trying to make me look silly so I showed them.’
‘What did you show them, son?’
‘I showed them there weren’t any slugs or snails or puppy-dogs’ tails. And she didn’t taste anything like sugar and spice.’