“That’s an unusual place for a gnome.”
“What? Bloody hell; Keith said he was going to get rid of it.”
Doug was about to make some scathing remark along the lines of him being old enough to choose his own vocabulary, but subsided when he saw that his father’s eyebrows had elevated to what he thought to of as attack mode.
“Ahem.” The eyebrows were still raised.
“Good.” The eyebrows relaxed. “And Keith is?”
“My housemate. One of them, anyway – there are four of us altogether.”
“I see. And are they all partial to gnomes?”
Doug sighed. “Not on what you’d call a regular basis. Oh, alright; Keith brought it home with him last Saturday when he was pi… I mean, when he’d had a couple.”
“Just a couple?”
“I didn’t question him that closely.”
“I see. And why is the gnome in front of the television in the middle of the afternoon? Is he waiting for Countdown to come on?”
“I think it’s Keith’s idea of a joke.”
“Perhaps we should meet this Keith.”
“He’s out,” Doug said, just a little too quickly. “So are the other two. Lectures, you know.” The truth – which Doug felt no particular need to share – was that he’d begged his housemates to be elsewhere when his parents came to visit. Dan and James had been pretty reasonable about it. They’d lent a hand clearing up the place, and had helped him carry all the empty beer cans, under cover of darkness, to the recycling bin of the house next door.
“Why next door?” James had asked.
“Far enough away to be plausibly deniable. I don’t trust my dad not to check in our bin when he arrives.” Doug was still undecided whether he was pleased or annoyed to have been proved right.
Keith hadn’t helped tidy up; and when Doug asked him to be elsewhere, he had asked what was in it for him.
“If you muck me about,” Doug had told him, “I promise that when your parents visit they’ll find me smoking a joint in the front room. In my pants.”
“My parents are broad-minded,” Keith had countered, unconvincingly.
“Plus I’ll leave a half-full bottle of tequila in the bathroom, and something really nasty in the fridge,” Doug had said, upping the ante. “And for crying out loud get rid of that gnome.” Keith had relented with a smile that Doug didn’t quite trust.
That morning, he’d watched Keith leave with the gnome under his arm, and had waited until the last possible second before setting out to meet his parents at the station. He now realised that Keith had simply bided his time, and had sneaked back to plant the gnome so that it would be discovered when Doug gave his parents the tour.
Doug realised that his father was asking him a question. “Sorry?” He asked.
“I was asking if that gnome was stolen.”
“Yes. Probably. Technically.”
“How can something be technically stolen?”
“We can’t take it back, because we can’t remember which house we nicked it from.”
“Keith. Well, mostly Keith.” In truth, Doug had no reliable memory of the gnome’s acquisition, as he himself had also had a couple. Or more. He was almost certain, however, that it had been Keith’s idea. Mostly. He checked his father’s eyebrows. They remained in safe mode.
“Of course, in my day it was traffic cones,” his father said.
“Traffic cones. When I’d had a couple or three, my trophy of choice was a traffic cone. I built up quite a collection in my digs. In fact –”
Doug held up a hand. “No, Dad; we are NOT having that conversation again. Not now.”
“What conversation would that be?” his father asked innocently.
“You know perfectly well which conversation,” Doug said exasperatedly. “The one where you tell me there’s nothing new under the sun. The one where you tell me I can’t fool you because every stunt I pull is exactly the same as one you pulled at an equivalent age. The one we’ve been having since I was six and tried to convince you that the cat was responsible for flooding the bathroom; and you told me about you and Gran and what you tried to blame on the dog. That conversation.”
“Yes, Richard,” said Doug’s mother, intervening for the first time, “don’t embarrass the boy.”
“But if I don’t, how will he know how to torture his own children when the time comes?”
“Oh, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea already, thanks.”
“Enough, both of you,” said Doug’s mother. “I’m fed up with refereeing. Now, Douglas –”
“It’s Doug, Mum. Doug.”
“Not to me it isn’t.”
Doug rolled his eyes.
His father grinned mischievously. “Now, Douglas; are you eating properly?”
Without waiting for a reply, Doug’s mother led the way to the kitchen. Doug had put a lot of thought into the look of the kitchen. Obviously, he’d cleaned it up a lot, but he didn’t want it to look utterly pristine. That would only have made it seem that he was trying too hard, and had something to hide. Which meant that one empty fast-food container was not only acceptable but essential; that two unwashed mugs and one plate were in evidence. A box of healthy cereal had been “accidentally” left out on the kitchen table; that two apples (but no more) were sitting in a bowl above the cutlery drawer.
Doug’s mother opened the fridge. She gave an involuntary gasp.
Doug rushed to peer round the door. Dead centre at eye level was a melon. A very elderly melon; grey and hairy and saggy and oozing. Doug snatched it up, but immediately wished he hadn’t as it slipped organically through his fingers and fell to the floor, where it burst with a disgustingly wet sound. The debris spread itself over a surprisingly wide area, including Doug’s jeans and his mother’s shoes. The smell didn’t help.
“Dammit,” Doug yelled, dropping to his knees and scooping up putrid cantaloupe with his bare hands, “I’ll bloody kill Keith.”
“Language,” his father said.
“Like you never swore in front of Gran,” Doug snapped.
“Maybe I did,” replied his father, annoyingly calm, “but we’re not having that conversation any more, remember?”
Doug offered his mother a tea towel. She sat down and began to dab at her shoes in stony silence. Doug would have preferred it if she’d yelled. Then he had a hideous thought – what monstrosity had Keith planted in the bathroom?
He held up his soiled hands. “I’m just going to clean myself up a bit.” He bolted upstairs. The bathroom was bright, clean and – thanks to some recently-purchased air-freshener – fragrant. It also had a half-empty bottle of tequila standing on the cistern.
Doug snatched the bottle up with a curse, marched into Keith’s room, and poured the contents over the bed.
The rest of the visit passed in a blur. He was quizzed on the progress of his studies – which was safe territory as they were going pretty well. Next on the list were his finances, which represented slightly more dodgy ground. He replied that they were as healthy as could be expected given the harsh economic climate – an answer which seemed to satisfy, if not entirely convince.
Then his mother asked if he had a serious girlfriend. He gave a non-committal answer (the truth being that it depended entirely on how one defined the word Serious). Mercifully, his mother didn’t press the point. Even more mercifully, his father didn’t decide to share any reminiscences of his own romantic adventures as a young man.
Eventually, the time came for his parents to depart. His father phoned for a taxi, then his mother announced that she just needed to nip upstairs. A furtive inspection, Doug thought. Whilst she was up there, his father pressed a wodge of banknotes into Doug’s hand. “Don’t tell your mother,” he said.
Doug’s mother came back downstairs. “Does much drinking go on is this house?” She asked.
“Hardly any,” Doug lied.
“Well there’s a strong smell of spirits upstairs. I think it’s coming from one of your friends’ rooms.”
Oops – he’d underestimated his mother’s nasal radar.
“Look, Douglas,” she said. “I know you’re eighteen and all grown up; but go easy on the alcohol, there’s a good boy. Just have a coffee. At least some of the time.”
The taxi arrived. Doug submitted to a hug from his mother and a handshake from his father. His father led the way to the taxi. Whilst his back was turned, Doug’s mother fished an envelope out of her handbag and slipped it to him furtively.
“Don’t tell your dad,” she said.
Doug waved dutifully as the taxi pulled away. Parents, he thought. Total pain in the butt, but he wouldn’t change them for anything.
About the author
G K Lomax is a nom-de-internet. Behind it is an Essex chap, who mostly writes Lovecraftian horror, but who dabbles in non-supernatural fiction from time to time. Driven to verse occasionally, he is a confirmed pessimist and borderline technophobe.
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