A Fur Coat And Two Odd Shoes
‘Why do you always walk on the other side of the street to your Dad?’ Minnie asked in her high, sing-songy voice, which sounded exactly like a small ginger-haired girl with glasses who lived next door (which is what she was).
Freddy glanced across to where a lanky man in a ladies fur coat was striding down the pavement opposite, lifting his legs very high like a deranged horse.
‘Because I don’t want to be seen with him. He’s so embarrassing,’ said Freddy. He straightened his school blazer, which was very clean and neat.
In fact everything about Freddy was clean and neat. His blond hair was cut perfectly straight across his forehead. Even the mole on his chin was exactly in the middle.
Something struck his cheek. Minnie was picking bits off a pine comb and pinging them at him as they walked to school.
‘Why’s he wearing different-coloured shoes?’ She went on, nodding towards his father again.
‘I don’t know.’
‘What’s he doing with his legs?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Why has he just walked into that lamppost?’
All these were valid questions. Freddy turned to explain but as he did so his Dad leaned round the lamppost he’d collided with and shouted across, ‘DID YOU REMEMBER TO CHANGE YOUR UNDERPANTS, FREDDY?!’
Freddy ignored him, going bright red, and hurried on.
‘Did you?’ Minnie inquired, as they turned the corner, reaching the school.
‘I’m not talking to you about my underpants,’ Freddy muttered darkly.
His classmates were already in the playground so he sped up to try and dart through the gates before his Dad could catch up with him.
But it was too late. Before Freddy could stop him, his Dad scooped him off his feet and began spinning him faster and faster in a circle.
Freddy’s legs flashed through the air like some sort of crazed human turbine. His Dad’s bristly chin was like sandpaper against his cheek as he gave him a horrid sloppy kiss. He always did this in front of people, like Freddy was still some sort of stupid baby.
‘DAD! STOP IT! PUT ME DOWN!’
Peering through the railings, the entire class started laughing and egging Freddy’s father on, ‘Faster! Spin him faster!’
In a moment they had built up such momentum that they knocked over the statue of the school cormorant and two teaching assistants before coming to rest on a pile of old cardboard and sticky tape, which was a sculpture made by the first years, symbolizing ‘Hope’ (but which actually symbolized the fact that none of the first years were any good at sculpture).
Miss Arbourteel, Freddy’s French teacher, was standing over them, pursing her lips in disapproval.
‘I wish you would act your age,’ she said, coldly.
‘Sorry, Miss,’ Freddy said, getting to his feet.
‘Not you,’ she said, and pointed a long chilly finger at his father, ‘him.’
Miss Arbourteel was very tall and pretty. She wore tailored jackets and skirts with lots of tight buttons and always had her hair scraped back in a bun.
Freddy’s Dad stood up and bowed, theatrically. The sleeve of his fur coat brushed Miss Arbourteel’s neat shoes.
‘Pardon, mon petit champignon’, he said, in a terrible French accent.
Miss Arbourteel rolled her eyes, turned on her heel and headed for the school building.
‘You just called her a small mushroom!’ Freddy said, straightening his uniform.
‘Did I? Oh. What’s French for ‘rabbit’?’
As the school bell rang out, Freddy stomped inside, too annoyed to look back, aware that his Dad was now waving goodbye and shouting, “I COULDN’T FIND ANY TUNA SO YOU’VE GOT ICING SUGAR AND SWEETCORN IN YOUR SANDWICHES!’
A short time later as he settled down to his first lesson - which coincidentally was French with Miss Arbourteel - Freddy glanced out of the classroom window.
He could see his Dad far in the distance, heading up the hill that overlooked the town. He was still walking in the same ridiculous manner, except now he seemed to be speeding up, his legs trying to go in two different directions, like a newborn foal dumped on an ice rink.
As Miss Arbourteel approached, handing out exercise books, she paused and followed Freddy’s eyeline out of the window in time to see his Dad crash through a hedge into a field of confused cows.
She tutted and shook her head as she marched to the front of the class.
Freddy’s Dad – or ‘Bert’ as he was known to most people - actually had a good reason for his outfit and strange walk.
He was an inventor who worked for Wortnall’s, a company that produced all kinds of amazing gadgets.
He was wearing different-coloured shoes because the yellow one on his left foot was actually the prototype of the Automated Ladies Leg-lift, a device designed to help lazy women in high society walk long distances with the minimum of effort.
The shoe sent regular pulses of high voltage to the knee, triggering an extreme reflex action, so your leg suddenly sprang upwards every time you got an electric shock.
The resulting movement wasn’t exactly like walking; it was more of an uncontrolled spring or hop.
But then it was only a prototype.
The women’s fur coat had nothing to do with this invention. It was just the first thing Bert had grabbed on his way out of the house that morning and had once belonged to Freddy’s Mum.
Bert’s inventions could be seen throughout the town and had revolutionized the way people lived their lives.
For instance, there was the Hair-Razor.
Positioned on street corners, this was a small metal booth you sat in to have an automated haircut at a very reasonable price.
After placing your coins in a slot, you pressed buttons to select a range of hairstyles. Then a helmet lowered over your head and a series of intricate scissors, tongs and curlers whirred into action.
After seven seconds, when the helmet lifted off, your hair had been trimmed, washed and perfectly blow-dried (with a range of optional finishing touches like gel, spray or wax).
Currently there was a choice of three different hairstyles:
The Lola-Fringe .
These were all highly distinctive and attracted a lot of attention at first. But now everyone was using the Hair-Razor, they had become standard haircuts.
Whilst Crabcakes and Mr Frizz were suitable for men, The Lola-Fringe was only intended for women; although after shortsighted Mr Wilkins from the library accidentally pressed the wrong button, he inadvertently started a new trend amongst the elderly male population for huge bouffants encircled by a rim of delicate curls.
In fact the ‘Lola-men’ as they came to be known, became a recognizable feature of the town, often to be seen hanging round street corners in large unthreatening gangs, playing cards or smoking pipes, the wind toying gently with their fringes.
The only downside of the Hair-Razor was that since its introduction all the hairdressers and barbers in the town had gone out of business.
These embittered hair-stylists had begun to show their disapproval of the device by creeping out at night and pruning everyone’s hedges and trees into a variety of increasingly complex haircuts, to demonstrate how much better than those ‘metal snipping boxes’ they were.
Because the hairdressers knew Bert was responsible for putting them out of work with his invention, he and Freddy sometimes received sinister hairpieces through the letterbox.
And one time a very nasty moustache was left, glued underneath the knocker on their front door.
After school Freddy and Minnie made their way home through the backstreets of the town, an area of boarded-up shops and houses.
To Freddy’s annoyance Minnie had decided to wear a cardboard box on her head and was making him give her directions.
‘Left a bit, right a bit,’ he said in a bored voice. ‘Now straight. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.’
As Minnie kept going, Freddy was suddenly aware of a figure stepping out of the shadows, blocking his path.
He turned to call for Minnie but she was already half way down the street.
A disgruntled barber, who had once been the owner of the Fur and Away gentlemen’s salon on the high street, loomed over Freddy, holding a pair of dangerous-looking feathering scissors.
‘You’re that inventor’s son, ain’t yer?!’
‘No,’ Freddy lied. ‘I’m someone completely different.’ He wracked his brain trying to think up a name. ‘I’m…David…Otter…cake.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous! David’s much taller than you!’ The barber waved his scissors at Freddy, angrily. ‘Your father’s ruined me! I’ve lost everything! Except my basic styling tools. - And I’ve kept my little brush.’
Freddy tried to back away, only to find Mrs Prippard, once chief stylist at Tong-tied, standing behind him, brandishing two cans of extra-firm hairspray.
‘One move and I’ll spray,’ she growled.
Freddy froze, noticing her scarlet nails poised on the aerosols.
‘He’s Bert Bird’s boy, alright.’ She leant down to examine Freddy closer, in a waft of perfume. ‘I’m gonna give you a hairstyle you’ll never forget,’ she purred nastily. ‘Sort of layered round the back with a horrible centre parting - and possibly a little plait on one side.’
Both hairdressers cackled cruelly.
‘It’s not my Dad’s fault. He’s just an inventor. Mr Wortnall owns the Factory!’
Freddy pointed to the top of the hill overlooking the town, where the grim outline of Mr C.G. Wortnall’s Factory was silhouetted against the setting sun.
Mrs Prippard whipped out a pair of styling clippers, which glinted red in the sunset and moved towards Freddy.
But before she got a chance to begin snipping, the barber grabbed her hand. ‘What are you doing?! You can’t get a layered effect with those!’ he snapped.
‘Yes I can!’ Mrs Prippard sniffed, haughtily.
‘I wouldn’t use clippers like that. Not if you want layers.’
The hairdressers completely forgot about Freddy, who stood looking back and forth at them, as though he was watching a tennis match.
‘You need a basic comb first and a trim with a low-gauge scissor!’
‘What?! You’re insane!’
As they continued to argue, taking his chances, Freddy made a run for it and didn’t stop running till he got home.
Safe at last, he slammed the front door and leant against it.
A moment later however he felt something prodding his back and swung round to see a ginger beard being shoved through the letterbox, followed by the distant snigger of some other hairdressers scuttling off down the path.
It was all getting too much.
He shivered and clunked down the lock on the door.
Stepping over a mess of wires and circuit boards left in the hall by his Dad, Freddy went into the front room, which was also full of old bits of machinery Bert was working on.
Sometimes it took Freddy several minutes to even find a chair under all the mess and quite often you couldn’t open the doors between each room without hauling some contraption out of the way first. It was years since anyone had seen the sofa.
Hearing a small, scared miaow, Freddy scoured the room for his cat but couldn’t see it anywhere amid the junk.
‘Timothy? Timmy? Here boy!’ He called, in a catty voice.
A sudden buzzing from above made Freddy duck as the cat, strapped into a harness underneath a miniature airship, whizzed past, narrowly missing him.
Timothy wasn’t looking at all happy.
‘What’s Dad been doing to you now?!’
As Timmy circled overhead, Freddy caught sight of one of his father’s notebooks lying open on the table, displaying a scrawl of drawings and mathematical equations.
Under a crude outline of the aerial-cat mechanism was the title: Pet-to-vet animal delivery system.
‘Brilliant isn’t it?’
Bert walked in holding an old fishing net he’d found under the stairs to catch Timothy with, unaware there was a gaping hole in it larger than a cat.
‘It’ll take pets to the vet and back,’ he went on. ‘I just need to perfect the sat nav element. Or as I call it, the ‘cat nav’.’
Seeing his Dad still in the ladies fur coat and odd shoes, staring at the cat on the ceiling, Freddy felt a surge of frustration at his father’s eccentric ways.
Shooting his Dad a withering glare, he stomped upstairs.
‘Freddy?’ His Dad shouted after him. ‘What’s wrong?
But Freddy didn’t answer.
Inside his bedroom, which was the only tidy room in the house, with everything neatly folded or arranged along clean lengths of shelving, Freddy sat down and gazed out of his window.
Across the fence, he could see into Minnie’s house next door.
In the ordinary dining room, Minnie’s ordinary Mum was bringing in an ordinary meal, as Minnie’s ordinary Dad pulled up outside, in an ordinary car.
Freddy sighed. More than anything he longed for an ordinary life with an ordinary family like her’s.
Even as he looked out, a startled-looking Timothy rose into view outside his window, on the Pet-to-Vet airship. With a whir of tiny propellers, the unfortunate animal sped off.
Freddy’s Dad hurtled down the road after him, waving the fishing net and calling, ‘Press the red button, Timothy! Press the red button!’
But of course Timothy didn’t understand. He was just a cat.