Rob thought: A vicious little prick.
He stared at the splinter, embedded in the palm of his hand.
“Ah, yes, the bannister needs seeing to,” said Oldman, butler to Mr & Mrs Shockerly, owners of Rural Towers, “I’m sure you’re the sort of man who can do that,” he said over his shoulder as he continued up the wide, rickety oak staircase. Rob sensed a mocking tone under the cheerfulness.
Lady Barton St Mary, known locally as Lady BSM, glanced over at Rob. She held a quizzical expression, as if trying to decide whether Rob was that sort of man. Rob, in return, swallowed the growing lump in his throat.
“I think we’re going to be happy here,” she announced, following the tall, balding valet.
Rural Towers sat atop a hill overlooking the village. The local kids called it ‘the big scary house where old people live.’ A large, gothic three storey rectory, built in the 1840s, it gazed impassively down onto the surrounding gardens. Like an elderly person with a tendency to stare too long, the whole place was slightly disconcerting. What added to its menace was the fact that the house had been neglected; no repairs or improvements, no alterations or projects had been undertaken for more than 40 years.
The local kids may have thought it was scary, but their parents and older residents in the village simply called it ‘The Overlooked Hotel.’
Now, nearly six years after the splinter incident, the family were doing their best to make something of The Overlooked. Obviously, the staff helped, but Lady BSM was insistent that Rob did his best to use his DIY skills on the old place.
Rob had seen it as an opportunity to turn his life around. Moving away from the old home, with its close proximity to Bargain Booze, meant his drinking habit could be contained. Of course, Rob was fairly confident that he never overindulged, but Lady BSM insisted that receiving a Christmas card and ‘We miss you’ postcards from a discount off licence was not a common practice.
Also, being stuck out in the middle of the country, protected from the villagers by a high, electrified security fence, meant that Rob had plenty of thinking time to write his blogs. That was, when he wasn’t painting something. Or putting something back together.
He’d enjoyed teaching, but the paperwork and the bargain booze finally saw him snap one day and he lost his job. It had taken 3 hrs for paramedics to get the poor admin manager to hospital. The surgeon stated that he’d never seen a rolled up enrolment form stuck so far up somebody’s backside before.
The sale had been fairly painless, although neither Lady BSM or Rob had met Mr and Mrs Shockerly. There had been rumours of Mr Shockerly suffering some form of breakdown and Mrs Shockerly and their twin girls disappearing, but that’s all it seemed to be, just rumours.
Miss Katherine and Master Johnny, Rob and Lady BSM’s children, had settled in well. Miss Katherine spent a lot of time travelling, mainly into town where she spent a lot of time with friends. She had become a very astute vodka aficionado, sampling different varieties across the town several evenings a week, occasionally returning to The Overlooked for fresh clothes and meals.
Master Johnny took a little longer to settle. He had an imaginary friend called Tony, who seemed to advise Johnny on his best course of action. Tony insisted that Master Johnny looked for a new direction. Tony was also responsible for Master Johnny’s frequent showering.
“Another shower?” Lady BSM commented one afternoon.
“Yes, Mother. Tony says not only should we be tough on grime, we should also be tough on the causes of grime,” explained Master Johnny.
“I see,” said Lady BSM rather doubtfully.
“Yes. Tony says the three most important areas are ablution, ablution and ablution.”
Neither she nor Rob were surprised when one day Master Johnny announced that Tony had left him to take up a rather lucrative public speaking tour followed by a consultancy position in the Middle East.
It was around this time that Master Johnny was encouraged to take an active role in helping around the house, something he disliked intensely.
“Aww! Why do I have to do this!”
“Errrr!! It’s sooo booring!”
“I’d so much rather be doing something else…”
Parslow, the groundsman, found Johnny in the garden, complaining about having to collect logs for the fire. Parslow invited Johnny into the garden shed, where he made him a cup of tea and gave him a nip of whisky whilst listening to his grievances.
“Boy, Ah think ah know what’s different ‘bout you,” said Parslow.
“Yous like yaw daddy, yous like me, yous has da Whining,” he explained, putting a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
“Awl da time, whining ‘bout da jobs yous hava do.Whining ‘bout yer aches an’ yer pains…”
Johnny looked askance at Parslow, a short, ruddy faced little man from the West Country, with a check shirt, rolled up sleeves, moleskin trousers and wellingtons.
“Why are you talking like a black man from the deep south?” he asked him.
Parslow stared off into the middle distance.
“Jus’ seems right, son. Just’seems right.”
Later that day, as Master Johnny skateboarded along the corridor, he was confronted by a huge wave of blood heading his way. He managed to flee before it reached him. Rob, who had been up a ladder painting one wall red, was unaware that Johnny had dislodged the floorboard that caused him to fall off.
This was all too much for Rob, who’d landed on his head. Dazed, he stumbled down the stairs, collecting another splinter in his hand from the bannister. He started to feel dizzy as he entered the drawing room, to find Ollie the cat standing behind a bar, wearing a bow tie and polishing a wine glass.
“Evening, Sir. The usual?” asked Ollie.
Bugger me, thought Rob. A talking cat.
“I try not to drink these days, Pussykins,” Rob explains.
“Go on. Just have the one,” says a voice sitting next to him. Rob turns to face Stanley the cat. He has a sly grin and a cigarette lolling out of the side of his mouth.
‘Scratching the furniture and smoking in the house – Lady BSM will make you into a handbag when she finds you,’ thinks Rob.
Rob licks his lips and smiles back.
“I suppose one won’t matter.
Ollie elaborately presents a bright blue cocktail and places it on the bar. Rob takes a sip. It contains so much vodka it would make a Magaluf barman wince.
Rob peers around the drawing room.
“Quiet tonight, Ollie,” he says.
“Yes sir, but they’ll all be in later. All the other husbands and men of the house who live here.”
“You mean lived here,” Rob says, winking at Ollie.
Ollie stares impassively back before yawning widely.
“No. They all still live here. Like you. You’ve always been here. You’re the DIY man.”
A small chill runs down Rob’s back, his eyes widen and he fixes Ollie with an intense stare. He picks up his colourful tipple and pours it down his throat in one swift move, the vodka forming a warm channel in his chest. He squeezes his eyes shut for a moment and shakes his head.
“Is this all a dream?” Rob whispers.
Ollie’s eyes narrow as they fix on Rob.
“I’m a cat. I’m wearing a bow tie. I’m polishing a glass. I have opposable thumbs. What the bloody hell do you think?”
Rob looks at Stanley, who shrugs, before turning his attention back to Oliie.
The bartending pussy leans forward. Rob does the same.
“Now,” says the feline, “we’re at 1,168 words already. Go and chop your family into little pieces.”
Rob wakes up on the sofa to find his laptop next to him, his latest blog on view. It reads:
AllDIYandnoblogmakesRobadulboyAllDIYandnoblogmakesRobadul boy AllDIYandnoblogmakesRobadulboyAllDIYandnoblogmakesRobadul boy…
Meanwhile, Lady BSM is sitting on the bed reading ‘Homes and Gardens’ when Master Johnny stumbles in, wet and in shock. She notices the terrible bruises around his neck and leaps up to embrace him.
“What happened to my poor little boy!” she cries.
He replays the events of the past few minutes over and over in his head:
Heading towards the door, knowing it would be dangerous to enter. His arm rising, his hand pushing the unlatched door back on its hinges, the hazy, naked figure behind the opaque shower curtain, suddenly rushing at him, her icy, cold hands around his throat, squeezing, squeezing, him kicking hard to get away…
Miss Katherine suddenly crashes into the room.
“Johnny! I told you Oonagh was in the shower! What were you thinking! Oh and by the way, mum, the water’s freezing again, can dad fix it?”
Lady BSM absent mindedly stroked Johnny’s hair, considering.
“Well, with this thick snow, it would be difficult to get to B & Q. But we could have a go.”
Johnny at this point starts to shake. He emits a low, croaking sound.
“Eck Nan et name. Eck Nan at name,” he appears to chant.
Miss Katherine and Lady BSM exchange looks as they hear heavy footsteps on the stairs. Miss Katherine moves over to the door and peers out. Her father, looking rather dazed and angry, is lumbering up the stairs with an axe.
“Ooeer, dad’s in one of his moods, let’s hide, Johnny. Mum will sort him out.”
“Eck Nan et name,” says Johnny, writing something on Lady BSM’s Period Homes magazine before disappearing out of the door with his sister.
Lady BSM picks up the magazine and reads Master Johnny’s scribble.
Ec nan et naim.
She frowns and concentrates on the words, using all her crossword skills. As the bedroom door opens, she realises that it makes just one word.
Ecnanetnaim. But it’s backwards.
Ecnanetnaim = Maintenance.
Rob is standing in the doorway, breathing heavily. It had all become too much. The painting, the wallpaper stripping, the leaking roof, the burst pipes, the blocked drains, the paint swatches, the fabric samples, the unbalanced central heating system, the wobbly floor tiles, the K word… the K word!!!
He glares at Lady BSM with wild eyes.
“Here’s JOHNNY!!!” he bellows, raising the axe.
Lady BSM stands up straight and strides across to her demented husband. She touches him lightly on the arm.
“No,” she says calmly, “you’re not Johnny. Johnny is your son. He has the whining. But he’ll grow out of it. I take it you’re going out to chop up some logs?”
“You’ve brought a dirty old axe into the bedroom. Now take it downstairs and make a start. Miss Katherine and I are going to B&Q, if we can get through the snow.
A few minutes later, Rob finds himself in the garden by the woodpile, holding on tightly to the axe handle, sitting on a freezing log with a resigned look on his face. Lady BSM’s car moves silently away through the thick snow.
Inside The Overlooked, the faint sounds of a swing band drifted out through the draughty windows, an image of a grainy photograph of Rob and Ollie in a dinner suit hanging in the hall…