Amber gingerly laid out the toys on the floor as if they were a ritual offering to the gods. Emerald clay lizards in vinyl frying pans. Bear-teacup hybrids with furry paws for handles. A scuffed glass bearing the simple orange form of Mr Tickle, serpentine hands holding a too-small hat to his raver’s smiley face.
The pigeon puppet on Daddy’s hand caught her attention: it nodded, shook its head, dived suddenly under the computer desk, soared high towards the energy-saving lightbulb. Then Daddy picked up a baboon from a plasticene plinth, making “ooh ooh ah ah” noises.
She shrieked with high-pitched laughter the way children will. Then she gave him a look of playful cruelty. She leaned forward, flicked the monkey on its tail with her stubby index finger and giggled.
Daddy turned his lips down glumly and struggled to simulate how a monkey might burst into tears. She sensed his difficulty with this and crossed her arms. He gave up. Some things just had to be explained, not badly acted. “Amber,” he said. “The monkey’s all upset so say sorry to him. You can’t go around hurting people like that.” He sat back on the shagpile, waiting for her response. He remembered to add, “Or animals for that matter.”
“But Daddy, but Daddy, but why does the monkey cry when he is not real?”
He had to admit he was bamboozled. Every so often she’d cut through the suspension of disbelief with a question like that, making him wonder if she was more ironically aware of their games than he gave her credit for. Then, doing a handstand which sprayed her hair across the room, she served up another few in quick succession: “Why is the pigeon e-ttached to your hand? Will the pigeon die one day? How do pigeons make other pigeons?”
Mummy entered in an invisible cloud of essential oils, amused by Daddy’s floundering explanations. She offered support by hugging his waist and kissing him on the nape. “You’re so lovely to her,” she whispered.
Daddy’s mobile rang as he tiptoed onto the topic of sex and death in the bird kingdom. “Saved by the bell!” he exclaimed, almost with joy. But his mood fell back down a gear when he heard that the babysitter couldn’t make it.
In the kitchen, Grandpa groaned above the TV showing a consumer rights programme. Mummy went to see if he was all right. “You know, love,” he said, straining forward in his wheelchair against the blanket that had been tightly tucked over his thighs. “I can always keep an eye on the nipper. You go out have yerself a nice time. Go on.”
“Thanks Dad, but she needs proper supervision.”
Grandad looked hurt and reverted his gaze back to the TV.
Mummy put an index finger to her mouth. “I mean that she needs to be bathed, her teeth brushed, put to bed and so on. And you can’t really-“
“I know, love, I know.” Grandpa reached for his keyring on the cooker. Hanging on it were symbols of a past life of physical action – a pewter model of his old boat Adventurer, a mountaineering clamp from an expedition to Ben Nevis he’d been on in the 1960s, a fob in the colours of West Ham United, a team for whom he’d briefly played a decade before. While watching the stories about dodgy builders exploiting housewives, he worked these items in his hand the way someone from a latter generation might use worry balls.
“Oh well,” said Mummy, back in the living room. “I’ll have to join you two, I suppose.” She slipped off her boots which looked conspicuously realistic and in-scale next to the toys on the floor.
“Shall I ring Asif’s for a balti?” said Dad. Without waiting for a reply, he did so.
“Yeah!” squealed Amber, clapping until her hands were red. “Curry! Curry! Curry from the curry monster!”
“You can’t have any,” said Mummy. “You’ve already had your dinner and you hardly ate any of that.”
“But I’m hungry,” Amber puckered in dismay. She slumped down to the floor with tightly folded arms.
“If you’re hungry you can finish your shepherd’s pie.”
“I hate shepherd’s pie.”
“You loved it yesterday and every day before that.”
“Well I hate it now, so there.”
Daddy played ventriloquist, giving the pigeon a guttural Brummie accent. “All roight Amber, mebbe you should eat loik I do, you knaow?” Mummy threw a pistachio nut a little too high into the air so that it ricocheted off the lampshade on the ceiling. Daddy kept a keen eye on it because its descent was much faster than he expected. Nonetheless he made an expert diving catch of it with the felt mouth of the pigeon. Amber burst into delighted laughter. Daddy winked at Mummy. “Takes me back to when I caught and bowled Mr Parker, the hated geography teacher, for nought, St Dennis School Teachers v Pupils Charity Match, May 1989.”
“You’ve still got the reflexes,” said Mummy, winking back. She pushed her blonde curls all over her face and staggered, arms stretched, zombie-style toward Amber, groaning “I’m cooomiiing to geeet yooou.”
Amber dithered, taking a diagonal step then taking it back. Down on her hands and knees, she headed for Grandpa’s old chest – a favourite hiding place – but paused halfway there. As Zombie Mummy’s shadow juddered across her, Amber squeezed herself into a ball, fingers over eyes. “I’m a-visible. I can’t see me. You can’t see me. I can’t see me. You can’t see me.”
They organised a tea party with a diverse guest list. Brummie Pigeon drank from the bear cups and Zombie Mummy pan-fried lizards. Daddy mixed his real urges into the fantasy by making the pigeon munch with spastic speed. “Oim hongroy!”
“Yeeesss.” Zombie Mummy dropped her cup on her toe and hopped about in mock agony. Amber laughed so hard she rolled on to her back like a baby.
“But seriously,” Daddy said in his normal voice. “It’s five to eleven now.”
Zombie Mummy reverted to plain old Mummy. “Five to eleven? Sh-“ She cut the cuss short, remembering Amber’s impressionable ears.
“Five to eleven!” shouted Amber. “Five to eleven! Five to eleven!” She paid homage to Mummy’s zombie act with a voice that was like an old-school tape player running low on batteries. “Fiiive tooo eeelevurrrn.”
“Or four hours after your bedtime,” said Mummy with a scowl.
Daddy rifled through his fleece’s pockets for his phone, snorting with aggravation as he did so. Not for the first or last time, Amber and Mummy exchanged amused glances. Once he’d retrieved that quintessential element of modern human communication, he used it to shout at one of Asif’s many sons. “You’ve been almost three hours! You’re only ten minutes’ walk away. Did your delivery boy get lost crossing the road?”
“Calm down,” mouthed Mummy.
“I’m hungry,” said Daddy.
“Sorry sir,” said Asif’s son.
“I’m not talking to you!”
“No, I mean I am so sorry sir.” Asif’s son proceeded to cram in as many I am so sorry sirs as he possibly could into one breath. After that, he promised the food would arrive within ten minutes.
“It’ll be free of charge?” asked Daddy.
“Yes sir, of course sir.”
“And cold I expect.” Daddy discarded the phone on the sofa as if it were chemical waste.
Mummy went to the kitchen where Grandpa had fallen asleep to a rolling news channel. She returned with a chilled bottle of rosé and a glass.
“Come on Mummy and Daddy.” Amber had tired of this extended foray into the grumpy world of adult affairs. “Play! Play! Play!”
“Well,” said Mummy. “It’s way past your bedtime. I didn’t realise how time had flown. We’ll play until our curry arrives and then you’ll go to bed with no fuss. OK?”
“OK. Play! Play!”
Mummy looked at the wine bottle and tutted. “Sorry, darling,” she said to Daddy. “I forgot to get another glass.”
“Not to worry,” said Daddy, reaching into the morass of toys. “We’ll use Mr Tickle.”
Creases formed in the soft skin of Amber’s forehead and cheeks. Her lips puffed out like marshmallows. She stared at the glass in Daddy’s hands with wary eyes. “But Mr Tickle gives me nightmares,” she said cautiously, afraid to admit the fact. Dramatic effect was added by her stretching out of the final syllable: “maaares.”
Mummy agreed but offered reassurance. “I have to admit that Mr Tickle gave me nightmares too, darling. It’s all right though, your Daddy and I will protect you from his funny hands.” Mummy took a closer look at the glass. “In fact, I think Grandpa bought me that when I was about your age. Never liked it.”
The sharp, cut-price wine made Daddy burp. He made it as loud and indulgent as he could, growling the words “I am the Burpy Monster” through it. This usually made Amber laugh. But not tonight. She was still worried about Mr Tickle.
The TV in the kitchen declared that it was now midnight. Grandpa stirred, fell back to oblivion. For the umpteenth time that day, a slinky female newsreader pouted a bulletin. News must have been scarce because she was previewing the anniversary of the Mr Men, the successful series of children’s books created by the late Roger Hargreaves. A celebratory lunch was to take place later today at Hargreaves’ old school, Sowerby Bridge Grammar in West Yorkshire. It would be attended by pupils and people connected to the franchise over the years: the original publishers, the actors in the spinoff TV series and representatives of Chorion, the company who now owned the rights to the characters.
In the living room, Zombie Mummy was trying to wrestle the Mr Tickle glass of wine from the Brummie pigeon. The doorbell went, an urgent curry alarm; Amber could almost smell the chillis, the coriander, the fenugreek, the cardamom pods, drifting through the letterbox. But her parents didn’t seem to hear. The bell rang again. “Mummy and Daddy,” Amber said, stamping a jelly shoe. “Answer the door! Answer the door!”
Brummie Pigeon took off around the room once more, eventually touching down on the toy box where it picked up more items for the tea party. Zombie Mummy made an erratic half-turn and grasped her daughter by her feet. “Do noooot meeess with thurrr zooombie!” Gravity forced Amber’s dress over her face as Zombie Mummy lifted her upside down. When Amber was at the requisite height, Zombie Mummy blew a raspberry on her stomach. Amber laughed half-heartedly and buried her head between Zombie Mummy’s knees.
The doorbell stopped ringing.
Brummie Pigeon dropped Trivial Pursuit wedges from its beak into the frying pan. “Who wants som haloomoy?”
Amber rolled free from Zombie Mummy’s grip. She lay on her side and pointed at the door. “But that was the curry man just there just then. It was.”
Zombie Mummy hissed a cooking sound. Brummie Pigeon added the baboon to the stew.
Amber was still pointing. “But that was the real food. You didn’t let the man in. You didn’t listen.” Zombie Mummy reached into the pan to rescue the baboon, feigning burns from hot fat. Brummie Pigeon snatched the utensil away. “Oi oi, that’s moyn that is. Give eet eere.” He glided over to the sealed fireplace, Zombie Mummy lurching after him.
After a last “Mummy and Daddy!” Amber gave up on these two grown people who now seemed more committed to the cause of make-believe than anyone her age. She watched them do their silly things in their silly voices.
Two hours later in the kitchen, news was breaking loudly enough to wake Grandpa. A vein now bulged like a prize-winning sausage in the newsreader’s once pretty head. Her register had moved up a gear from the dulcet of a pro to the squeak of an hysteric. “We are getting reports from Reuters in Los Angeles that the Hollywood screenwriter Jordan Gila has been arrested after threatening his father and daughter with a handgun at his Beverley Hills home. Mr Gila had just signed on to write a new film adaptation of the first Mr Men book, Mr Tickle, for the American animation studio Pixar. He was due to attend an anniversary lunch here in the UK which was mentioned in our earlier round-up.”
Grandpa missed half the story due to a critical coughing fit. “Love?” he hacked. “I need me pills, love. Would you fetch me me pills?” There was no response. He flicked the wheelchair’s joystick, guiding himself to the nearly closed door. “Love?” he said in a whisper enforced by all the coughing. He craned his neck to peek through the door but the gap was too narrow. Had his hearing aid been on he’d have detected a level of jollity many his age would deem inappropriate for this time of night.
Zombie Mummy was bent double, her hair rubbing the floor like a golden mop. She had been blowing a fart simulation through her lips for the last ten minutes. Brummie Pigeon finished its puke-mimes into the bin. “Aww dear,” it lamented. “Oi think we ayyte the wrongg thinggs there.” Reinvigorated, it flew off to slam the door to the kitchen.
Although Amber had now taken the view that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and started throwing the baboon up in the air, she couldn’t ignore Grandpa’s garbled calls. She slipped past her engrossed parents to see what he needed.
“Pills, love, please get me them. There’s a good girl. Should be in the bureau. And I’ll need some water there too. Ta, love.”
She skipped into the living room, fished through the battered old bureau and took one pill out of the green prescription bag she found. She skipped back to Grandpa, snatching the Mr Tickle glass on her way.
“What are those silly buggers doin’ now?” he asked, setting the glass and the pill on the mantelpiece above him.
Amber considered this for a while, her arms open with uncertainty. “They are…” She held the ‘are’ for such a long time that Grandpa had to hurry her. “They are playing a game,” she decided.
“But it’s two o’clock in the ruddy morning. Tell ‘em to get you to bed, me to bed then themselves to bed. That Mum of yours, what a hypocrite, eh? She said I wouldn’t be able to look after you! Cor blimey.”
The TV interjected with a grim outside broadcast of Kensington High Street shrouded with smoke. A fire had been detected at around 3 am and was believed to have started in the Head Office of Egmont Publishing UK.
Amber nestled her head in Grandpa’s woollen sleeve. “Just for a bit. Just for a bit can I pease stay here with you Grandpa? Pease.”
“Thing is, love, you need to go tell ‘em to sort it out. Stop all this carryin’ on.”
Amber puffed out her lips again. “OK.”
Things had quietened down with Zombie Mummy and Brummie Pigeon so absorbed in a game of snap that they didn’t notice the sun’s rays nagging through the curtains. They thumped cards down like industrial stamping machines, the pile growing by the second.
The doorbell rang. Amber side-stepped with her back to the wall, thinking she’d avoided detection until Zombie Mummy suddenly roared, “Snaaap! Ha ha ha!” with bared teeth and crossed eyes. “Whaaat’s my priiize?”
Brummie Pigeon buried his nose in the cards in a vain bid to stop Zombie-Mummy picking them all up. “Your proize,” he said, “should baay a fraay tickle of yong Amber there.”
Zombie Mummy did so, reaching under Amber’s dress to reduce her to a fit of reluctant laughter. In the midst of it, the young girl squeezed out a demand to open the door, but Zombie Mummy didn’t listen, she just kept tickling.
The doorbell fermata ended with a snap of the letterbox. Amber wriggled free and sprinted to the doormat where a little red card stated that a postman had tried to deliver a ‘large letter’.
Meanwhile in the kitchen, Grandpa had worn out his lungs’ capacity to groan. He manoeuvred his wheelchair back round to watch the TV.
“…We are getting early reports of a very sad development indeed. You may be aware of the charity appeal we launched in May on behalf of 7-year old Shona O’Neill from Belfast who needed stem cell treatment for a rare condition called spinal muscular atrophy. The news just in is that young Shona has slipped into a coma.”
A newly-arrived health correspondent took up the baton. “There is a connection here with some of our other stories this morning because Shona was due to be visited by actors dressed up as the Mr Men – amongst them Mr Tickle – as part of a fundraising event that some hoped would generate the last few hundred pounds required to pay for her treatment.”
Cut back to the newsreader who gave a theatrically glum look. “What a tragedy.”
“What a tragedy indeed.”
A hot flush came over Grandpa. Using the edge of the mantelpiece, he pulled himself up to the window for fresh air but felt his chest thicken with the effort. His vision disintegrated into a shattered glass effect. He reached for the pill, fumbled it and watched with panic as it plummeted to the lino floor, through a hole in the skirting board and down into the unknown cavities of this ex-Victorian poorhouse. “Amber? Amber, love?”
Amber didn’t hear him but nonetheless evaded both Brummie Pigeon and Zombie Mummy to return to the kitchen.
“Wee,” slurred Grandpa, his face turning a vivid shade of fire. “I dropped me pill down the side. Could you fetch me another? Ta.”
“Yes yes yes!”
“B-before you go, pour us some water, there’s a dear.”
“Yes yes yes!” Amber filled Mr Tickle up to his hat, handed him over to Grandpa and shot back into the living room.
The newsreader filled in some background detail. “Mr Men creator Roger Hargreaves was born in Yorkshire in 1935. He spent two decades in advertising, copywriting for companies such as Lindt chocolate and Pimms before writing the first Mr Men book in 1971.”
The muscles in Grandpa’s face had slackened so much that he spilled most of his water down his cardigan.
Amber ducked and dived past Zombie Mummy and Brummie Pigeon to the bureau, only to find that the prescription bag had vanished. She looked to Zombie Mummy. There was a spark of gall to her otherwise docile expression. Amber knew precisely what was going on. She darted behind Zombie Mummy and saw her hands clenched round the viridian parcel of drugs.
“Yooouuu caaan’t geeet it!” moaned Zombie-Mummy, lifting the vital item well beyond Amber’s tiptoe reach.
Amber jumped at full stretch like a goalkeeper saving a chip shot. “Pease Mummy,” she begged. “Pease for Grandpa! Pease for Grandpa!”
Grandpa’s head felt like it had been injected with pure capsaicin. Memories of past predicaments – punch-ups, cuts with DIY tools, a motorbike crash in 1958 – came to him unbidden. They seemed trivial compared to the acute agony of the present.
“The inspiration for the first book came when Hargreaves asked his young son the question, “What does a tickle look like?” The first six books went on to sell over a million copies in the space of 3 years.”
Zombie Mummy threw the bag into the air. Amber kept her eyes on it just as she’d been told to by every single adult she’d ever played a ball game with. But the advice was to be of no use. Brummie Pigeon shoved her aside to steal a textbook beak-catch. Amber sighed and ran.
Grandpa was failing. “At last,” he said or thought or felt, “this body, for all I’ve put the bleeder through, has reached its sell-by date.” His vision blank, his limbs deadened, his head erupting, he was somehow able to get more water from the Mr Tickle glass inside him.
“Roger Hargreaves died of a stroke in 1988.”
Grandpa’s skin seemed to turn the same tone of crimson as his West Ham fob.
“Grandpa?” Amber looked with sorrow at her empty hands. “Grandpa? Grandpa? Grandpa?” She tugged the V-neck of his cardigan. His eyes were fastened shut while the rest of his body trembled like jelly. Amber thought grimly of a toy that was running low on batteries. She kept tugging him until she felt Zombie Mummy tugging her from behind and found herself back in the living room. Brummie Pigeon flew in to collect the Mr Tickle glass. Then, on his return, he shut the door for the umpteenth time, only this time he locked it.
“What about Grandpa?” protested Amber. “I think he’s not feeling so well.”
“Doooesn’t maaatter,” boomed Zombie Mummy, resuming her game of mini badminton with Brummie Pigeon. “Yooou caaan beee piiiggy in the miiiddle.”
An alarm on Zombie Mummy’s mobile sounded to remind her that it was now 1pm and that Aunty Danielle would soon be coming to pick Amber up to go shopping at Brent Cross. The game had now been going on for half a day. This was evidenced by the family’s greasy hair, expanding sweat patches and rumbling stomachs.
“Mummy I’m hungry. I want some breakfuss.”
“Yow can ‘ave a lizard loike, can’t yow,” said Brummie Pigeon.
“I want some real food, not a-tend food! I want some real food like chewcumber samwidge with maymaise!” This was the first time that Amber had raised her voice since the game began.
But she needn’t have bothered. Aunty Danielle came to the door, knocked and went while Zombie Mummy and Brummie Pigeon played statues. Amber decided not to call out. Although her parents worried her, she could hardly ask for help. They were all playing a nice game after all. Later on, Jehovah’s Witnesses and employees of the local kebab shop dropped their literature through the door.
As the afternoon rolled on, the trio played games of movement, Amber listless, her parents remaining steadfastly in character, their stamina unlimited. They played musical chairs and musical statues and hide and seek and forty-forty-in and what’s the time Mr Wolf? and rock-paper-scissors and three-legged race and sack race and blind man’s buff and British bulldogs (although Amber had never heard of this one).
In the kitchen at what should have been teatime, there were new strands to the web of Mr Tickle stories. The newsreader, now a breezy, nerdy Welshman who looked like he’d be more at home presenting a Sunday morning religious programme, was talking about mass hysteria in West Yorkshire. Guests at the Mr Men event at Sowerby Bridge School had panicked for reasons unknown and evacuated the building. An ambulance had been called when the actor Lionel Swadlin suffered a suspected cardiac arrest. Others were reported to be in a state of shock. The image of a man dressed up as Mr Tickle dawdling next to paramedics in the school playground flickered across Grandpa’s colourless body.
There were more unheeded phone calls at around eight and ten. By 11.30, Amber was struggling to stay upright. The joints in her arms and legs throbbed from all the action. Whenever she was static for more than ten seconds, her eyelids clamped together and she started to nod off. Each time, though, she would be hustled back into the game by a peck of Brummie Pigeon’s beak or a heavy-handed tickle from Zombie Mummy.
At five to twelve, almost 24 hours into the charade, Zombie Mummy stopped passing the parcel and took a sip from the Mr Tickle glass. Brummie Pigeon did likewise. Zombie-Mummy thrust it under Amber’s nose. “Driiink?”
“A-cause I hate Mr Tickle!”
“Bot way koind of loike him neeoow.”
“…This really has been a day of tragic news items all in some odd way related to the Mr Men character. Tom will be back later for an update…”
With her free hand, Zombie Mummy held on to Amber’s hair so she couldn’t escape. Brummie Pigeon’s beak closed around the little girl’s nose. Zombie Mummy swilled the water in the Mr Tickle glass around and around.
“No!” gasped Amber, tears gushing down her cheeks. “I don’t want a drink! I don’t!”
But the glass approached, Mr Tickle’s appalling grin slowly dominating Amber’s whole field of vision. She closed her soaking eyes, felt the hard rim of the glass bump against her teeth and the lukewarm liquid hurtle unwanted down her gullet.
“…And we have updates on those stories now…”
Amber lay face down on the carpet.
Two hours later, the TV in the kitchen was still on. The breezy Welshman was rounding up developments since midnight. “The American screenwriter Jordan Gila has released a statement through his lawyer stating that he suffered a one-off psychotic episode which he remembers nothing about. I now quote, ‘I have always been a totally law-abiding citizen who, until this moment of madness, has never so much as received a parking ticket. I simply do not know what came over me this morning when I caused such terror to the people I love the most in the world. I profoundly regret what I did.’”
In the living room, Amber and Mummy were curled up on the sofa asleep. They had both showered and changed into fresh clothes. All the toys had been cleared from the carpet into the toy box. Mummy’s phone went but she was so tired that she couldn’t answer it in time. “Sh- sugar, that was your Daddy.”
Amber joined the waking world. “It’s OK, he’ll call back. Yes he will.”
Mummy yawned a gaping chasm.
“Mummy, why were you and Daddy being so funny yesterday? You were being so funny. But it didn’t make me laugh, no, it made me unhappy.”
Mummy scratched her head. “I’m not too sure, darling. I don’t remember what happened.”
“…Other news: the actor Lionel Swadlin who suffered a heart attack at the Mr Men anniversary event is in a stable condition. Swadlin, 57, was rushed to Calderdale Royal Hospital in Halifax after complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath.”
Mummy’s phone went again and she slapped it against her ear. Her smile revealed all. Daddy reported that, contrary to his doctor’s advice, Grandpa was already up in bed, chatting to the nurses. Daddy was about to set off home.
“I was scared about you,” said Amber, snuggling into Mummy’s breasts. “I was scared of what might happen.”
Mummy glanced at the Mr Tickle glass, on its side in a pool of water. “Oh darling. It may have seemed scary but it turned out all right in the end didn’t it?”
“…The fire that started at the Head Office of Egmont Publishing UK early this morning has not claimed any lives, contrary to earlier speculations. The fire has done little damage to the Egmont building and did not spread to neighbouring businesses along Kensington High Street…
“We’re just hearing some truly great news: 7 year old Shona O’Neill who had been battling with spinal muscular atrophy has now come out of her coma. This happened at exactly 12 midnight and doctors say that she seems not to have suffered any mental or physical disabilities. From all of us in the newsroom, congratulations Shona. Perhaps you’ll be well enough for Mr Tickle to come and visit you like he promised.”
© Tom Sykes 2010
First published in Underground Voices, January 2010