The Challenge That is Tony

by Pedro

Merkin Is Missing

Mid July, Year Eleven.

"You've done a lot but you've still got plenty to do."

Tony is showing me the work he has been doing remodelling their garden.

"It's going to be a big improvement when it's finished," I add. We are interrupted by a voice behind us before I can say any more. It's Bert, Tony's dad, come to join us

"Looking good, isn't it?" he comments. "Tony's been working really hard. He'll have some muscles by the time he's finished!"

I've noticed, when we've been alone together, that he is already getting some definition. I don't say anything. Tony's parents have never said anything against our relationship but there is no point in rubbing their noses in it. Also Tony would be embarrassed and I prefer to embarrass him when we are alone. It's part of my fun!

"Come and see our vegetable garden. Tony's been doing a good job there too."

Bert leads us around some bushes to the veg patch.

"These are broad beans. Coming along nicely. This spell of high pressure has really got things going. Those are runner beans and French beans on those 'wigwams' at the back." Bert is waving his hand in the general direction of the various crops as we walk around. "We've stared a couple of rows of Brussels sprouts there but with some radish in between as a catch crop. We're pulling those already.

"Then there are some salad potatoes. Can you remember what variety we planted, Tony?"

"Charlotte, I think, Dad."

"Oh, yes. I remember now. Also a good variety to let grow on as a general main crop. For roasting, baking and sautéing, we've put in some Golden Wonder. Moving on," Bert says as he walks us along the beds, "outdoor tomatoes on these trellises. Interesting fact for you: potatoes and tomatoes are related."

I knew that already but Bert is enjoying the moment too much to interrupt. He starts furtling around in the plants.

"The first of these tomatoes are nearly ready. Another day or two. Always satisfying when you get the first ones."

We potter around the rest of the vegetable garden, Bert pointing out what's what, before heading into the house for a cup of tea. After which, I have to go home and get ready for Sunday evening service at the Indian restaurant. Before I leave, Tony tells me he has a tennis match late in the afternoon on Tuesday — my night off from the restaurant — and that it would be best to meet him at the courts in case they are running late.

The Indian is busy. It is a warm evening and I would have expected mostly take-away orders. Instead, it is the restaurant that is busy. Raj and Nav are running round like blue-tail flies, waiting on, clearing and resetting tables. The uncles tell me to help them catch up by getting the dirty cutlery and crockery into the dishwasher and emptying it when the cycle has finished.

"Don't forget to segregate the waste," one the uncles says. "There are separate bins for food waste, paper, glass and one for everything else."

The last diners have been served their meals and we can all relax a bit. I open the back door to take a bin-liner full of rubbish out to the big bins in the back yard. Although it is after half past nine and the sun is down, it is still light.

I linger a while to get some fresh air after the heat of the kitchen. Raj comes and joins me.

"How's Tony? Seen him lately?" he asks.

"He's fine. Busy landscaping their garden. I was there this afternoon. His dad was showing me round the veg patch and getting all excited about the first tomatoes being almost ready."

While I am talking, I see Merkin walking across the yard from the outhouses, carrying a dead mouse. I bend down to greet her. I don't risk stroking her though!

"Well done, Merkin," I say. "I'll get you your reward."

As I straighten up, Raj goes back to our conversation.

"In this weather, the toms will probably ripen overnight!"

We both turn and go back into the kitchen. Raj goes on through to the restaurant to check on the diners. I get Merkin's bowl and break up a piece of Bombay Duck into it as her reward.

Although Merkin's mouse is on the step when I go to put the bowl out for her, strangely she is no longer there. I leave the bowl anyway. She might be on another hunt.

By the time the last diners have finished eating, we've done most of the clean-up in the kitchen. Raj and Nav bring in the last of the plates and serving dishes and I scrape the leftovers into the food waste bin. It annoys me the amount of food that gets wasted. It upsets the uncles, too. Not just for the waste. They think it reflects badly on their cooking. But people will over-order. This time there are two whole naan breads untouched and nearly a whole portion of lamb Madras.

My last job for the evening is to put new liners in the various waste bins, tie off the tops of the full bags and take them out to the big bins in the yard.

Although it is now dark, I notice that Merkin hasn't been back for her fish.

"Did you close the bin lids when you put the rubbish out last night?" One of the uncles asks while I am putting on my apron.

"Yes, I think so. Why?"

"The lid on the food waste bin was open this morning and one of the bags torn open."

"I know we need to keep that one closed in particular. Otherwise it could encourage rats and mice. Merkin had brought a reminder last night. Did she collect her reward?"

"Now you mention it, no she didn't. It was still in the bowl this morning. You don't think it was her do you?"

"More likely something that scared her off. A fox or a stray dog perhaps?"

The phone rings. It's an early bird leaving a take-away order. It could be another busy night. The uncles and I get on with preparation for service.

The high pressure persists so the late afternoon is warm and sunny when I get to the tennis courts in the park. Tony is still playing so I sit at one of the tables put out by the Italian restaurant. They have a back gate that leads from their yard into the park.

Bruno, the son of the owners, comes over. He must be on waiter duty.

"Hi there. Can I get you anything?" he asks.

It was hot today at my other job where Dad works. I could do with something sharp. I know what I would like. Dad has let me try his occasionally.

"I could murder a beer," I say. "Have you any alcohol free?" I add before Bruno can protest that I'm underage.

"Only lager. Will that do?"


I give Bruno some money to save him a second trip into the building. He is soon back with my drink and change.

"It's not busy. I'll join you." he says as he sits down at my table. "I guess you've come to watch Tony."

We watch for a few minutes before Bruno asks my opinion on Tony's play.

"Do you think Tony is hitting the ball with more power than usual?"

"Yeah, I think your right. It must be all the labouring he is doing for his dad in their garden."

We watch the match for a few more minutes but are interrupted when Raj and his brother appear.

"I thought we would find you here. You said something last night about meeting Tony at the tennis courts today, "Raj says. "The uncles rang this morning to ask who put the rubbish out last night. The lid on the food bin was open and a couple of the bags undone."

"It wasn't me," I reply. "That's the second day in a row it's happened though."

"It was me," Nav confesses, "but I'm sure I closed the lid."

"We thought we should warn you because the uncles were in a right strop about it," Raj says. "Anyway, we'd better get to work or we'll get another earful for being late."

"That doesn't sound like the uncles," I say when the boys have left. "They get a bit wound up if it is busy and things aren't going well, but they've always seemed pleasant otherwise."

"Maybe they knew Nav put the rubbish out and he's left the lids open before. More than once probably," Bruno remarks. "I get told off regularly. This morning for instance. Same thing happened here. I was the one that got blamed, which annoyed me because we are closed on Mondays and I had checked the bins yesterday morning."

"It's a bit of a co-incidence that both your bins and ours at the Indian have suddenly got the same problem. Do you think there might be a fox or stray dog moved into the area?"

"Nah! Merkin patrols our yard. She's vicious enough to see 'em off."

I am about to reply that Merkin also covers the yard at the Indian but I am too slow. Mrs O'Reilly blind-sides us. She must have come through the gate from the school.

"Merkin isn't vicious. Feisty, perhaps, but not vicious."


I think I would agree with Bruno's assessment of the cat's character more than the teacher's. The mice and rats she catches certainly would.

"But I am really worried about her," Mrs O'Reilly continues. "I haven't seen her since Sunday morning. She hasn't been for her meals. It's most unlike her. That's why I have come over to talk to you. Have either of you seen her?"

"Somebody sees her in our yard here probably two or three times a week. But not since Sunday." Bruno replies.

"I saw her at the Indian on Sunday night. She had caught a mouse. Funny thing is, she left without collecting her reward. We didn't see her last night."

"Her reward?"

"Yes, a piece of Bombay Duck."

"She left that? Now I am definitely concerned," the teacher says with emphasis. "Anything else strange been happening round here?"

"Only the bins." Bruno and I tell her about the bins at the two restaurants being found with the lids open. We also say we think a fox or stray dog might be responsible.

"I'm not aware of any urban foxes in the town. Nor have I had any reports of stray dogs," Mrs O'Reilly comments. "But I doubt it would be a big animal. You both keep your yard gates locked at night don't you?"

"Ours is latched but not locked. There should be a bolt but it needs replacing," Bruno replies.

"It's locked at the Indian," I say. "Merkin still gets into the yard though."

"The latch will keep dogs and other animals out. Merkin can leap up onto the gates and drop down the other side." Mrs O'Reilly changes direction. "Talking of Merkin, I'd better go and ask if anyone has seen her at the other places she regularly patrols. Let me know if you do see her, please."

The teacher heads off in the direction of the park gates.

We turn back to watch the Tony's tennis match except that it has just finished: Tony is shaking hands with his opponent.

I finish my beer, say goodbye to Bruno and walk over to meet Tony.

"How did you get on? Did you win?" I ask him as I give him a quick 'bro-hug'.

"I won six-two. Better than I expected. But I saw you with Bruno. Weren't you watching? Some boyfriend you are!" Although his tone is joking, I can tell he is a bit miffed that I wasn't paying attention.

"We were interrupted by the Wicked Witch," I offer in excuse.

"Oh. What did she want?"

"She seemed really worried. Merkin has apparently gone missing. She wanted to know if we had seen her."

I relate the conversation about the bins, animals and Merkin leaving her fish as we walk to the changing room. I wait outside while he has a quick shower and changes into his street clothes. I resist the urge to join him. If we were alone it could have been fun but there would be other people there and we would have given rise to our own embarrassment.

Tony is carrying his tennis kit in his backpack when he comes out of the changing room.

"I've been thinking," he says when he rejoins me. I am distracted by his freshly scrubbed look so I forget to raise the eyebrow of sarcasm.

"Dad was spitting feathers yesterday after he had done his morning inspection of the veg patch. He was hoping to pick that first tomato he was telling you about but someone or something had stolen it in the night. A second one went last night. He thinks some of the radishes are missing, too."

"I can imagine your dad would have taken that as a personal slight." To say Tony's dad is a bit obsessive about his veg is an understatement. "Any idea of the culprit?" I ask.

"Not really. Dad said he thought he saw the tail end of a cat disappearing into the bushes on Sunday night when he looked out of the window just before it went dark. Also, this morning, I found a dead mouse in the radishes and something that, with a bit of imagination, could have been a paw print nearby."

"I can't see a cat nicking the tomatoes. Or radishes. They don't eat either do they?"

"Not to my knowledge." Tony pauses before starting a different conversation about food. "I'm hungry. I told the 'rents, I would get something to eat with you. Have you eaten?"

"No, I came straight down to the park to watch you playing after I got home with Dad. Mum and Dad booked to go to Bruno's tonight when I told them I would be meeting you. They haven't had a night out on their own for ages. So I have to make my own arrangements. Any suggestions? The cafes in town will all be closed by now."

"I fancy something different. What about Chinese?"

"As long as they give me an extra pot of chilli sauce!"

The Chinese is take-away only. Like Raj and Nav's parents' shop, it is in one of the old corner shops, but on the opposite end of the area of terraced houses between the school and park on one side and the river on the other. They were all built for the workers at the old, now closed, cloth mill. The Indian is in the street nearest the school.

I have had my back facing some bushes while we have been standing discussing our food options. As we turn towards the park gate, I see Tony frown.

"What's up?" I ask. He shimmies his head as if to shake out the wrinkles.

"I saw something move in the bushes behind you. I thought it was a cat. I can't see anything now. It was probably just a breeze rustling the leaves."

We look at the different styles of houses as we walk through the cobbled streets on the way to the Chinese. Some, usually on the street corners, are larger and were probably for the overseers: they would be called foremen nowadays. The ordinary workers houses were smaller. Tony says they are still more substantial than similar housing in some other towns. At least these all had their own wash house, coal house and privy in a small yard behind each house. Not the communal yard and privy seen in some towns. Over the years nearly all of the houses have been upgraded to include inside bathrooms — to much relief, no doubt.

At the take-away, we order one of the set menus for two. We know that will be more than enough for most people but I expect we'll manage. And, yes, they will give me extra chilli sauce. While we are waiting for the food, we discuss where we are going to eat. I suggest at my house since the 'rents will be out, but Tony says it is a nice evening and we could make it a picnic in the park and go to my place after. That way we get to eat sooner. When the food is ready, the server smiles at us and puts several wooden forks and some paper napkins in the bag - in case we decide on the picnic option.

Something moving catches my eye as we walk past the entrance to the narrow lane that runs alongside the old mill leat. Looking along the lane gives me an idea.

"Can we go this way?" I say, turning into the lane. "I haven't been down past the old mill since the Civic Society organised a clean-up and repair of the leat. Apparently the water is flowing again."

I don't tell Tony that going this way also means we won't pass the Indian or Raj and Nav's shop. Less chance of me being seen with the bag from the Chinese — the rampant dragon on it is a dead give-away — and therefore less chance of the uncles winding me up and try to give me a guilt trip by saying they are disappointed I should patronise the opposition.

"Ok," Tony agrees. "Dad got involved somehow. He says they've done a really good job. I haven't got my camera with me but it will be interesting to see if things have settled down and if there is any good photo material."

When we get to a suitable point, we stop and look over the wall into the stream. The water is flowing lazily towards the mill. The trees on the opposite bank shade the water on that side and a few clumps of weed have re-established themselves already. There is a thin cloud of insects above the water that is being dive-bombed by a couple of house martins. We enjoy the birds' aerial display for a little while before our attention is caught by some ripples on the surface of the water.

"Did you see that?" asks Tony. "Do you think it was a fish?"

"Could be," I reply. "I know there are supposed to be some upstream in the main river."

We resume walking.

The lane has a dogleg in it. Just before we turn the corner Tony stops me.

"Can you hear that?"

Yes, I can hear a tune being played. One I vaguely recognise. I am more certain about the instrument being used.

"It sounds like someone playing the recorder."

"Yes, and not just any old notes. It's that earworm, the theme from Schubert's Trout Quintet." I knew Tony would know. "Pretty good, too, considering the limitations of the instrument," he adds.

We must have been making too much noise and have disturbed the player because the music suddenly stops. As we turn the corner we glimpse a little kid disappear through the doorway into the abandoned mill — not the main gateway used by the workers but the entrance to the offices for the owners and managers. Why would a kid be going in there?

Tony and I signal to each other to keep quiet and agree to investigate. Tony stays outside to watch both the door and the main gateway in case the kid tries to escape that way. I leave the food on the step and go in. There are holes in the floor and ceiling of the first room I come to. What remains of the floor feels unsafe. It looks like it is rotting away. I quickly move on to another dusty and cobwebbed room. This one is in much better condition. There are even some bits of old furniture — an enormous desk and some chairs — that must have been left when the mill was abandoned. More interesting, though, are some unfolded cardboard boxes on the floor and a few screwed up food wrappers. It seems the kid has been hanging out here, or possibly dossing down overnight.

Although it looks like the cobwebs and dust have been disturbed in the recent past, there is no obvious sign that the kid is still in the room. I am about to leave to try another room when I hear a sneeze. From the desk.

I go round behind the desk and the kid, a boy, is there, crouching in the kneehole. He looks worried, as if he might be hit. Then his face wrinkles up and he sneezes again.

"Dust?" I ask. He nods. "Come on out then. I'm not going to hurt you."

He tries to move. "I canna. I've got cramp."

"Give me your hand and I'll pull you out." I help him unwind from the desk. I try to put him at ease by asking if it was him playing the recorder. "My friend Tony says you're good," I add.

He smiles and goes bashful. At least he seems relaxed and no longer feels threatened. Except that he stiffens when he sees something in the doorway behind me.

"There you are." It's Tony. "I could hear voices so I guessed you had found the whistler. I've brought the food; it's getting cold."

Judging by his reaction to the mention of food, I think the kid must be hungry.

"We've got Chinese," I state. "Would you like some? There should be enough."

I get a mumbled 'please' in reply. Now he has a motive not to run off!

Tony pulls the napkins out of the bag from the Chinese and uses some to get the worst of the dust off three chairs. I do the desktop. As I brush it off, I notice there are paw prints in the dust.

"Looks like there has been a cat on here," I remark.

My comment gets the engagement of the kid.

"Aye. There's a black 'un comes and listens to me play. It sits on t'desk if I am in here or in t'street if I am on front step. I prefer sitting out there as it catches sun.

"Do you come here a lot then?" Tony asks.

"When I want to play me recorder."

"I thought you were pretty good. Can't you play at home?"

Tony is unpacking the food and doesn't see the sad look on the kid's face.

"You're the first one to say owt encouraging," he says. There is the hint of a sniffle. He rallies when I hand him one of the forks. "They told me I couldn'a play at home. I found this place after me dad said he would 'shove that faggot flute' up me arse if he heard it again. He would've, too. Got a wicked temper me dad. I'm safer down here when he's around. Thank god he's buggered off to Sheffield and left me and me mam alone here." He gets a mouthful of food, chews, swallows then continues. "Mind, me mam don't like me playing either. Says it disturbs the neighbours."

As we eat, we learn more about him. He lives in one of terraces near Raj and Nav's shop and the uncles' restaurant. His name is Ryan. He's ten and therefore just finished year five at school. The recorder he found at a jumble sale — it cost him 50p — and he has taught himself to play by ear, getting his inspiration from the radio.

I see Ryan is eyeing the last of the Chinese. I push the foil containers over to him.

"You must have been hungry. When did you last eat?" Tony asks.

"Breakfast, this morning."

"What time was that?"

"Don't know. After it got light enough in here to wake me up. Maybe six o'clock."

I can tell Ryan realises that he has said too much.

"So you slept here last night?" I point to the cardboard boxes on the floor. I get a surly 'aye' in reply.

Tony does his thinking frown. "Have you been kicked out by your parents?" he asks.

"Nah! I've done me mam's stupid trick and locked mi sen out. Silly cow's al' as doing it." Ryan's tone suggests he sees the funny side.

We get the rest of the story out of him piece by piece. His mother has gone to Sheffield to try and get some money off his dad for some new clothes for Ryan. (He could do with them. What he is wearing looks threadbare.) She hadn't left on Sunday morning when Ryan came down to the mill to play his recorder and he forgot to pick up his key when he left the house. By the time he realised and went back to the house it was too late. His mother had gone. Apparently she is always leaving her keys and locking herself out. Now, he's done it himself. The door has a night latch that locks it when it is pulled closed. His mother often leaves him on his own for a couple of days. She is supposed to return tomorrow.

"Haven't you got a friend or neighbour you could have stayed with?" Tony asks.

"Don't trust the neighbours and I've only got one friend. His parents are bleedin' nosey. They'd have asked why I was being left on me own. Probably contacted Social as well. Anyways, they's away."

When we ask about food, Ryan says he had a little bit of money to buy some snacks on Sunday afternoon, and then fesses up to climbing over the gate to bin-rake at the Indian early yesterday morning.

"I'd not thought of it before. Something must have put it into me head while I slept. Got a good haul, too. Two whole bread things and some left over curry. Some of that was way hot — a real bum-burner."

I don't tell Ryan that I work there and cooked the Madras!

There wasn't much at the Indian this morning so he also tried the Italian but what he found was too far gone: spoiled in the warm weather.

"At least I could use the outside bog at home," Ryan tells us. "It was never taken out when the bathroom was put in the house. There is an outside tap, too, so I could get a drink.

"What's frigging annoying," he adds, "is Mam has left the bathroom window open upstairs. I could've got in through there but we haven't got an effin' ladder."

I look at my watch. The 'rents will have only just left to go for their booking at the Italian. There should be plenty of time to get our ladder, let the kid into his house and get the ladder home again before the 'rents stagger home after their meal.

I look across at Tony and raise an eyebrow. He has seen me look at my watch and guesses what I am suggesting. He nods his agreement.

"Ryan," I say. "If you show us where you live and the window, we'll see if we can find a ladder long enough to let you get in."

"That would be awesome!"

We gather up all our rubbish. We'll find a litter bin to drop it in.

As he said, Ryan's house is not far from the corner shop. He leads us along the alley between the backs of the houses until he reaches the gate into his yard. He points out the open bathroom window. I agree that he is small enough to get through it. I'm not, nor is Tony. I can also tell that our ladder will be long enough, although, in the small yard, it might be difficult to swing it up and get it to where Ryan can climb through the window.

Having done my inspection, Tony and I set off for my house to collect the ladder. Ryan tags along rather than wait for us in his yard. Tony talks gardens to Ryan, while I get the keys and open the garage. We get the ladder out.

The other two pick up the ladder and start back to Ryan's house while I put the garage keys away. I soon catch them up and take over from Ryan. He is pleased to have been involved but relieved when I relieve him.

It takes a bit of juggling for Tony and me to manoeuver the ladder into position. It's at a steeper angle than I would like and there is no way to strap it to the wall. At least I know it won't slip down. The foot of the ladder is against the yard wall.

"Are you sure you want to do this? Are you okay with heights?" I ask Ryan.


He seems keen. Hopefully not too keen and makes a mistake.

"Right. Take it slowly. Get used to climbing. Keep hold of the ladder," I instruct. "It's going to be tricky getting from the ladder through the window. Be careful as you transfer your weight."

The window is a top opening light. It won't be easy with it dragging on his back as he climbs through.

With the foot of the ladder against the yard wall, Ryan has to lean back on the wall as he starts to climb.

"Uh-oh! The ladder's moving!" Ryan calls out.

I'm watching. He has climbed above the level of the wall but is still leaning backwards. His weight is pulling the ladder away from the wall. As I thought, it's too steep.

"Get closer to the ladder. Don't lean back," I shout up at him. He does so and confirms the ladder has stopped moving.

"Tony. Get on the inside between the ladder and the house wall. Grip the ladder as high up as you can and pull down on it. That should keep it against the wall."

Tony is muttering something about resolving horizontally and vertically and taking moments as he complies.

Ryan resumes his climb, only for Tony to yelp as he treads on his hand.

"That's why you should hold the stiles, not the rungs!" I really should be more sympathetic. He is my boyfriend after all.

When Ryan is level with the window, he reaches across to release the stay so the window can open when he tries to climb through.

"I can feel the ladder trying to slip sideways," Tony reports as Ryan leans out. I move to brace the ladder from the side.

"Watch your balance as you move across to the window," I call up to Ryan.

It is nerve-wracking watching him, especially when he is standing on the window ledge on the balls of his feet, trying to get his head and shoulders through the window.

Fortunately the cross rail above the fixed part of the window is roughly at his waist height, making it easier for him to reach through and pull himself into the bathroom. As he does so, I think of something that makes me shiver.

I should have told him to check the window frame was sound, not rotten, before he put any weight on it.

Too late now.

Anyway he is safely in, announced by the clatter of toiletries falling off the inside window ledge.

It's not long before he opens the back door. He is grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

"Me mam's a silly moo. She's gone and done it again!" He holds out his hands. There are keys in both. One set his, one set his mother's.

"It's a good job you guys was able to get me in. Or she'd have been joining me down at t'mill. Thanks."

"We'll feel better knowing you are safely at home, not in the mill," Tony says as we get the ladder back down.

"Oh, I felt safe at the mill. I might have dreamt it but I'm sure the cat was watching over me."

"Stranger things have happened," I say, remembering the time Tony was on our garage roof.

"Tell me about it!" Ryan retorts. "Both mornings there has been a tomato next to my head when I woke up. No idea how they got there. They were delicious though!" Ryan smiles and licks his lips at the memory.

Tony and I look at each other.

"Come on," says Tony. "We'd better get the ladder back to your place before your parents get home."

Ryan thanks us again as we get the ladder out of his yard into the alley. We retrace our route to my house. On the way I suggest we don't mention our using the ladder to our parents. We don't want a lecture on the safe use of ladders followed by the Spanish Inquisition testing us on whether we followed best practice.

"Does Barabbas still come here?" Tony asks me as I am locking the garage after putting the ladder away. Barabbas is the cat that sorted out a dog that was coming through our back fence a couple of years ago. He used to come and roll in the catmint occasionally.

"Not that I know. Why?"

"Your catmint looks freshl y crushed. As though a cat has been tripping out on it. It wasn't like that earlier."

We go into the house and I put the kettle on. I think we need a cuppa after this evening's entertainment.

"Do you think we should check on Ryan tomorrow evening in case his mother hasn't come home?" Tony asks when I hand him his tea.

"Probably. I know Grandad would expect me to. I could detour past the house on my way to work. See if there is any sign that his mum is back. But I don't want to ring the bell in case she answers and wants to know why I am there."

"I can see that might cause trouble for Ryan. I'll go a bit earlier to see if Ryan is at the mill. I can take the camera and get some pictures of the leat. I'll text you if I find out anything."

I think of another thing that might cause trouble.

"What are you going to tell your dad about the tomatoes?"

"Nothing I think. I might tell him about the mouse in the radishes. If he asks how it died, I can blame those nasty slug pellets he insists on using. I keep asking him to change to bio-control."

I get a lecture worthy of his dad when I ask about the bio-control. He has just finished when my phone rings. I don't recognise the number, but answer it anyway.

"Hi, Mrs O'Reilly here. I rang to let you know that Merkin has reappeared. I don't know what else she has been up to for three days, but she stinks of catnip and looks really smug. Probably still under the influence. Thought you might be interested."

"Thanks, Miss. I'm glad she's back on familiar territory."

The teacher ends the call.

"I think we've a good idea of what she has been up to. We just don't have any proof," Tony says. "Nice burn, by the way, saying the cat is back on familiar territory!"

"At least we know what, or rather who, was breaking into the bins at the restaurants. I'll tell the uncles when I'm at work tomorrow. I won't mention Ryan's name though. Are you likely to bump into Bruno at all?"

"I'll call him or drop in at the Italian on my way to the mill. I'm sure he'd like the full story."

The room glows red with the light of the setting sun, reminding us that it will soon be time for Tony to go home. It also reminds me that the 'rents aren't back from Bruno's yet. I am about to comment to Tony, when I see them trying to negotiate the front path.

I was only joking with myself when I was calculating if we had time to get the ladder before they came staggering home from the restaurant. It looks as though once more a true word has been spoken in jest.

We hear the door go then someone on the stairs. Dad wanders into the room. He looks a bit bleary eyed as he supports himself by clutching the back of a chair.

"Hi, lads. Have you had a fun evening?" he asks, slurring his words.

Dad likes a beer or two, but never enough to get drunk. He seems to be as bad as he was at Halloween nearly two years ago. Mum must be as bad if she has gone straight upstairs to bed.

"Yes, thanks, Dad" That gets his best lascivious grin. One that needs an answer. "Not as good as you two by the looks of you. And not what you are thinking either."

I give him some side eye. He still has a silly grin.

"You'd better get to bed. You'll not be fit to drive to work on the morning!"

I thought it was supposed to be parents calling out their children for getting drunk, not the other way round. To be honest I'm embarrassed with him like this in front of my boyfriend. I can see Tony is scrutinising him – unfavourably, judging by that frown.

"I should probably be getting home," Tony says.

Hold on! His tone is not the disapproval I expected. It's something much lighter. I twist my head to have a closer look at his expression. He's trying not to laugh! It's his turn to get glared at.

Suddenly there is a loud guffaw from behind me as Dad breaks into laughter.

"Gotcha," he says. "We're not drunk at all. We thought we would wind you up since you keep reminding us of that Halloween every time we go out."

It's true. I do tease them not to get drunk whenever they go out for a meal.

Dad is still giggling, and Tony is, too.

"Your tone of righteous indignation was classic. Wasn't it, Tony?" Tony agrees with Dad of course.

"Did you know about this?" I accuse Tony.

"No. But I caught on when I noticed your dad's belly twitching although he was trying not to laugh. You couldn't see it. The chair was in the way for you. I had a better angle and could just see enough to realise what he was up to."

When Dad has calmed down, he goes upstairs to Mum, allowing Tony and I to say goodnight without an audience.

As he finally goes through the door, Tony sets me a poser. "Which one is Merkin in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats?"

Macavity perhaps?

Author's Note: The challenge picture appears to be based on this photograph taken by the photographer Vladimir Zotov in Limassol, Cyprus: Picture by Vladimir Zotov .

©Copyright Pedro, May 2023


This story is part of the 2023 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Whistler". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 24 March 2023 to 14 April 2023 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

boy with whistle

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Merkin is Missing

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