‘Semolina!’ Alice moaned. ‘Every single day! I hate it, don’t you?’
She scowled up at her neighbour George, who was lounging on her garden wall. George shrugged. ‘Dunno, I just eat it. Ain’t that bad.’
‘It’s horrid. Ugh! I’ve had it at lunchtime and I’ll have it for supper — bet you anything.’ Then she brightened. ‘Your folks are having a party tonight, aren’t they?’
George nodded. Her eyes narrowed enviously. ‘You are lucky. Bet you’ll have a lovely supper, not…semolina! What’re you having?’
He shrugged. ‘Everything.’
‘Heaps of it. Buckets of it.’
Alice stamped her foot. ‘Just think! You scoffing blancmange and me eating…semolina!’ (It is impossible to convey in print the intense loathing hatred which such a sweet girl could compress into one word.)
‘What time d’you have supper?’ George asked.
The noble knight winked down at his damsel in distress. ‘Listen — if you’re in your summerhouse at half-past, I’ll bring you some cream blancmange. Honest I will!’
Alice beamed. ‘Would you really? You won’t forget?’
‘Not me! I’ll be there. I’ll sneak away and bring it over.’
‘Oh, how lovely! You’re so sweet! I’ll be dreaming of it every minute. See you later!’
She blew him a kiss and skipped away. Blushing, George scrambled to earth. Now: to action!
In the lounge, his grown-up siblings Jack and Lucy were teetering on ladders across the room, hanging up garlands of ivy for the evening dancing. George’s mum supervised from the doorway.
‘Listen, Mum,’ George began. ‘Am I or am I not coming to the party tonight?’
She sighed. ‘For the tenth time today, George, you’re not! A bit higher your end, Jack.’
The martyr withdrew, pouting. ‘But why not? I jus’ want to know why not. That’s all. It looks a bit funny, doesn’t it, having a party then leaving out your only son, at least,’ —he glanced at Jack and hastily backtracked— ‘to leave out one of your only two sons? Looks a bit weird, won’t it? That’s all I’m thinkin’ of — how it’ll look. It’s a young folks party,’ he was warming to his subject now. ‘Well, I’m young, aren’t I? I’m only ten. D’you want me any younger? You ain’t ashamed of folks seein’ me, are you? I’m not deformed or anythin’. P’raps you’re afraid of what I’ll eat.’ Here he allowed a wave of dejected bitterness to enter his voice. ‘Well everyone eats, don’t they? And you’ve got things for us — them — to eat tonight. You wouldn’t grudge me just a bite o’ supper, would you? P’raps it’d be less hassle if I et my supper with you all, rather than a separate room. That’s all I’m thinkin’ of, the hassle —’
Lucy raised her eyes to the ceiling. ‘Can’t anyone,’ she beseeched the world at large, ‘stop that boy talking?’
Jack began descending his ladder. ‘I think I can,’ he muttered.
But the gallant knight had already fled the room.
He prowled into the kitchen, the tabletop laden with cakes and jellies. Suddenly a heavy hand clapped onto his shoulder.
Cook towered over him. ‘Now, Georgie, you clear out right this minute!’
‘I don’t want none o’ your things, Cook,’ he lied. ‘I just came to see how you were gettin’ on, that’s all.’
Cook folded her brawny arms and glared down at him. ‘We’re getting on very well, thank you, George…but nothing for you till tomorrow, you ‘ear? Here, Emma, put the semolina away in the larder, won’t you? It’s for tomorrow’s lunch.’ She resumed cutting sandwiches, keeping a watchful eye on him. George surveyed the dessert table hungrily.
‘Cook,’ he asked, ‘aren’t you going to make cream blancmange?’
‘I am not, George,’ she said icily.
George sniggered. ‘Well, it’d be a pretty strange party without cream blancmange! No one ever has a party round here without it!’
‘Don’t they indeed,’ Cook muttered.
‘You’ll be making one later, p’raps — just a small one?’
‘And why should I?’
George summoned his best impression of the generous negotiator, and nobly plunged on. ‘Well, I’d like to think they had a cream blancmange. I just think they’d enjoy it, that’s all I’m thinking of.’
Cook rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, is it? Well, it’s your mum who tells me what to make and pays me, not you.’
George sensed that he had fumbled the initiative. ‘Listen!’ he said after considerable thought, ‘if I gave you’— he paused for effect, then brought out the staggeringly generous offer— ‘a quid, would you make a cream blancmange?’
Cook winked at Emma. ‘Fine. But I’ll want to see your quid first! No tricks now!’
George rushed upstairs and emptied his piggy-bank. A forlorn 10p piece fell into his palm. He must get a cream blancmange somehow! His heroic reputation to Alice depended on it. And if Cook would do it for a quid, he must find a quid. By fair means or foul.
He crept downstairs into the dining-room, to the charity box on the mantelpiece. He’d tell someone next day, or put it back, or something. Besides, people did way worse things in the movies. With a butter knife he extracted the spoils: three measly 20p coins!
‘60p!’ he fumed in righteous indignation. ‘This supposed to be a Christian household, an’ 60p’s all they can give to the poor. They spend pounds an’ pounds on—’ he looked around and saw a pyramid of peaches on the sideboard, ‘—tons of peaches an’ — an’ green stuff to hang on the walls, and they leave 60p to the poor! Huh!’
His sister’s voice drifted in from the lounge. ‘He’s probably being a nuisance somewhere. He’ll do it all evening, most likely. Couldn’t you make him go to bed early, Mum?’
George bristled. Make him go to bed early! He’d like to see them try! He’d show them, soon enough! He looked around the room. No food in sight, except the heaped plate of juicy peaches on the side.
George gazed at it longingly. They’d probably counted them all and knew just how many there ought to be. Mean miserly sort of thing they’d do. And they’d be counting them every other minute just to see if he’d swiped one. Well, he was going to score off somebody somehow. Make him go to bed early! The rotten cheek! Then he brightened. He’d got it!
For the next five minutes he munched and munched, but when he’d finished the peach pyramid was exactly as he found it, not a single peach gone, only…on the hidden inner face of every peach was a huge gaping bite.
George wiped his mouth with his sleeve. They were jolly nice peaches. The blissful vision washed over him; the horrified faces of the guests after they took the peaches, the thunderous expressions of his parents, Jack, and Lucy. Oh, crumbs! Aglow with triumph he strolled into the kitchen.
‘Erm, Cook…could you make a small blancmange — quite a small one — for 70p?’
Cook chuckled. ‘I was only pulling your leg, Georgie. I’ve got one ready-made and locked in the larder.’
George sighed in relief. ‘That’s all right. I just…I wanted them to have a cream blancmange, that’s all.’
‘Oh, they’ll have it all right; they won’t leave much for you. I only made one!’
‘Why d’you lock the door?’ he asked mildly. ‘Must be a real hassle for you to lock the door every time you come out?’
Cook snorted. ‘No trouble at all, Georgie. Besides, there’s pasties, cakes ‘n’ all sorts in there. Remember the last party your mum gave?’
George blushed. On that occasion he and an accomplice had spent the hour before supper in the larder; supper had to be delayed until fresh provisions were beaten up from around the neighbourhood. George had spent the next day bedridden with a stomachache. Totally worth it.
‘Oh, that! Well, that was ages ago. I was only a kid then.’
Cook turned back to the tabletop. ‘Hmph! Well, if there’s any blancmange left I’ll bring it up to you in bed. Here, Emma, put these sandwiches in the larder. Here’s the key — mind you lock it afterwards!’
‘Cook!’ Mum called from the lounge. ‘Would you please come here a second?’
George’s spirits rose. With Cook absent great deeds might happen. Emma took the dish of sandwiches, unlocked the pantry and entered. A loud crash from the kitchen. Emma hurried out, leaving the door unlocked. After she had picked up several broken plates (which had mysteriously slipped from their shelves onto the floor) she returned and locked the larder door.
Safely inside, George sighed with relief. He’d scored off Cook! Crikey! He’d scored off Cook! He was in! First things first: find the cream blancmange. He found the domed dish soon enough and sat down to consider his next move: how to get out?
Suddenly two green eyes gleamed in the darkness. The cat was inside too! Oh hell! Recognising its mortal enemy, the cat set up a vindictive wail. George shuddered with fright. The rotten cat was going to give him away!
‘Here, Pussy! Good ole Pussy!’ he shushed it. ‘Nice ole Puss! Good ole Puss!’
The cat tilted its head, alarmed. This polite address from George was highly suspicious.
‘Good ole Puss!’ George whispered feverishly. ‘Shut up now. Here’s some nice blancmange. Go on, just have a bit and shut up!’ He placed the dish before the cat; after a few tentative licks, the cat decided it was good and dug in. George began sampling the heaped plates around him. Discretion and moderation was key.
First a whole jelly, then four sandwiches from each plate. Then four cakes and pasties off each plate. He wasn’t stupid. He’d learned wisdom since the last party. The cat licked away at the blancmange, purring with satisfaction.
The purring grew louder. And louder.
‘Cook!’ Emma called from the kitchen.
‘There’s some funny buzzing noise in the larder.’
‘Well, go in and see what it is. Probably a wasp, that’s all.’
A key rattled in the lock. Clasping the blancmange to his chest George shrank behind the door, slipping off his shoes in readiness.
The door opened. ‘Aw, poor Puss!’ Emma cooed, stooping to stroke the cat. ‘Did it get shut up in the nasty dark larder, then? Poor Puss!’
Her back was turned; seizing his chance George dashed past her up the stairs like lightning! But Emma had glimpsed a dark shadow flash by. Her scream brought Mum, Jack, Lucy and Cook hurrying from the lounge.
‘A burglar in the larder!’ Emma gasped. ‘I seen ‘im, I did! Out the corner of me eye, an’ when I looked up ‘e wasn’t there no more. Like a shadder ‘e was. Ugh! Lord save me!’
The others scoffed. ‘What rubbish!’ Jack chuckled. ‘You’re always getting a fright, Emma—’
‘Wait a minute!’ Mum interrupted. ‘Where’s George? George!’
George sauntered out of his bedroom and peered down at their aggrieved faces, his face the picture of saintly innocence. ‘Yes, Mum?’
Mum folded her arms. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Jus’ readin’ quietly in my room, Mum.’
Lucy rolled her eyes. ‘For God’s sake, don’t disturb him, then.’
The grownups bustled away into the kitchen, Lucy berating Emma. ‘It’s those silly books you read, Emma. You’re always imagining such foolish things—’
Lucy was safely mounted on her favourite high-horse. Grinning to himself George returned to his room and carefully pulled the rather battered dish from under his bed. The dish was big and awkward. No chance fitting it under his jacket. He couldn’t march through the hallway out the front door bearing a cream blancmange, brazen and unashamed. No good slipping out the bad door, either.
From downstairs came muffled greetings in the hallway. The dining-room door opened, and the chatter of conversation and rustling dresses faded. They were going in to supper! The dining-room door closed; the coast was clear.
With infinite care, he slid the blancmange from its dish onto his soap dish. Never mind that he’d forgotten to remove the soap. Heat of the moment. Besides, it was only a small piece. At least he could hug it to his chest, partly cushioned by his arm. Safe enough.
He descended the stairs and tiptoed past the dining room, from which echoed the shrill meaningless natterings of Grown Up Business. George scowled; how boring it all sounded! Nuts to them, anyway. Only the front door to go…he stretched out a tentative hand…
A key turned in the lock. George’s heart sank — his father was home!
Dad bustled into the hallway, then eyed George suspiciously. His youngest son standing frozen in an empty hallway rarely heralded peace and quiet.
‘And where are you off to?’
George cleared his throat. ‘Me? Oh, I was jus’ — jus’ goin’ a little walk up the road before goin’ to bed.’ He smiled his fawning toadie smile, a wheedling attempt to evade suspicion (that always fooled nobody). ‘That’s all I’m going to do, Dad.’
Dad shrugged and turned back to the coat rack.
Flop! A large dollop of blancmange fell onto the carpet at George’s feet. With praiseworthy swiftness he covered it with his shoe.
Dad turned sharply. ‘What was that?’
George gazed around absently. ‘What, Dad?’
Dad’s eyes narrowed. ‘What’s that under your jacket?’
‘Where…oh, that!’ he blinked down at the damp patch on his jacket, as if noticing it for the first time. ‘Oh, that’s jus’ — somethin’ I’m taking out with me, is all.’
Dad grunted and hung up his coat. ‘Well, if you’re going for this walk up the road, don’t let me keep you. Just be back after suppertime, all right?’
Freedom beckoned; George darted out the door and down the driveway, just in time to overhear a muffled curse and a heavy thud as the head of the house slid into the dining room on a white glutinous mess.
‘Oh, crumbs!’ George laughed, and ran on. His precious burden had now soaked through his shirt.
His golden-curled damsel was waiting eagerly in her summerhouse, spoon poised. George drew his prize from under his jacket and placed it before her. It had certainly lost its pristine white glory, streaked with licks from the cat and speckled with grime from George’s jacket. It wobbled limply on the soap dish, but Alice’s eyes sparkled.
‘Oh, George! I never thought you’d actually bring it! Oh, you’re wonderful! And I had it!’
‘Semolina for supper, but I didn’t mind, ’cause I thought — I hoped you’d bring it along. Real cream blancmange…you’re so sweet, George!’
He glowed with pride.
‘George!’ a furious voice bellowed from next door. He knew that voice. The voice of the father who has finally reached the absolute end of his tether, and is out for merciless vengeance. They’d reached the peaches! Oh, hell! They’d reached the peaches!
‘Aw, George,’ Alice sighed, ‘they’re calling you.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘D’you have to go?’
‘Not me,’ he said. ‘I ain’t goin’ — not till they come fetch me.’ He leaned back in his chair with a carefree grin of benevolence. ‘Here, you try some! I don’t want any, I’ve eaten already. You have it all.’
Her face radiant, Alice dug in eagerly.
Her smile froze. Her look of ecstasy melted into one of icy fury. Her spoon clattered to the floor.
Uh-oh. With mounting dread George snatched up her spoon and took a mouthful himself.
He’d brought the semolina instead!
© Tom Burton, 2020