Today I thought I'd introduce you to Fred. As a contemporary character, he has a very different voice in the novel.
The story of the sewing machine and the secrets it holds are woven between the past and the present. As the reader, sometimes you will discover things before Fred does, and you'll be sitting there saying "Come on, why can't you see what's going on?".
On other occasions, Fred will make discoveries which you don't appreciate the relevance of until much later.
So, without further ado, I'd like to introduce you to thirty-five year old Fred. This is how we first meet him.
The Blog of Fred
It’s Grandad's funeral tomorrow, and then there will be the wake. He would call it a Purvey, I have no idea why.
Everyone is invited back to the flat for a cup of tea, a piece of cake and a whisky. I seem to have spent the whole weekend cleaning windows, and washing things - floors and plates and spoons and mugs. My hands look like prunes.
In honour of his sweet tooth there will be no curly cheese sandwiches, just cake. And Millionaire’s Shortbread, of course.
There are cakes from the neighbours, cakes from the old guys at the allotment, cake from Eva, (the owner of the corner shop) and some rather wonky looking muffins from the kids next door. Lemon drizzle, chocolate, coffee, cherry. You name it and we have it - I could open a cake emporium.
Once all that's over, the Next Big Thing is that I have to decide what to do about the cat. The neighbours were looking after it last week but I found it sleeping on my bed earlier, curled up in the sunshine. They are off on holiday at the weekend and I’ll be here for another fortnight sorting stuff out so I have no excuse but to start looking after it. It’s a complication I don’t need and I think a visit to the dog and cat home may be on the horizon.
This morning I went to the airport and picked up Mum and Henry. This is an unwelcome interruption to their trip, but really, who goes to Antarctica on a honeymoon at their age - it’s not exactly round the corner, is it?
I made pasta for lunch, and then I tripped over the old sewing machine which I’ve been using to prop the kitchen door open - went my length across the room, olives and spaghetti flying all over the place. Now I have to clean the floor AGAIN because Mum is coming round later. She says she has 'news'. I hope it’s not more stories about bloody penguins.
I need somewhere to write things down, so I’ve revived this neglected blog. After a trawl of possible passwords I discovered all the old posts on it - and they were all about how happy I was to have found the love of my life. This was, of course, just before she went off hand-in-hand with someone else.
I wasn’t sure what to do with the history when I finally got into the admin end of things so at first I just unpublished the posts, but they were THERE on the blog dashboard, staring at me, inviting me to read over and over again - she was pretty special. In the end I put on my big girl pants (as the women in the office would say) and deleted them, one by one. And the photos. And the comments. There is a new girl in my life now anyway. Time to move on.
His neatly formatted words appear on the screen.
'Coffee time, I think.'
The unwanted cat stretches and jumps down onto the floor.
'I suppose you're after some food?'
He knows without looking that the shelf in the larder where the last tin of cat food had been that morning, is now empty.
'If you think I’m buying you that canned muck, you can think again. Not a chance, pal. It stinks.' He has better things to spend money on than designer cat food. The rain which had been pelting down earlier, is now barely drizzle. This is just as well because the only footwear he has brought with him on this unexpected trip north are his expensive fair-weather running shoes and the black leather brogues which, he discovered yesterday, have sprung a leak.
He puts on his training jacket and zips it up carefully. The carrier bags live in the kitchen drawer, the same place they have been all his life. He puts two bags into his pocket and steps out into the street, completely unaware that in the space of just a couple of days he has somehow become a man who talks to his cat.
The shop on the corner is familiar and yet different. Fred knows there is something new about the place, but can’t put his finger on what it is that's changed. He half waves to Eva as he enters. She sits on her stool behind the glass topped counter, below which is an ever changing array of pocket money sweets. Flying saucers, fizzy frogs and liquorice bootlaces nestle beside fat white chocolate buttons studded with hundreds and thousands. As a child he spent hours in front of the selection as he made the very important decision about what she would put into the pink striped paper bag for him on a Saturday morning. Eva knows everyone’s buying habits, and has worked in the shop for long enough to comment freely on their purchases.
Fred picks up a basket. That’s it, the baskets are different. Gone are the scratchy wire covered handles; they've been replaced by smooth yellow and purple plastic. He walks around the aisles, noticing how new excitements have crept onto the shelves. Balsamic vinegar now stands next to malt, and gluten free coconut whirls are beside the iced shortbread. He takes his time, and listens to the commentary coming from the front of the shop. If someone had a mind to, they could discover the history of every family for half a mile, he thinks.
Eventually he takes advantage of a lull in the stream of customers and puts his basket on the counter.
'Nice new baskets, Eva.'
She smiles and picks up the box of dry cat food.
'Is that for your Grandad’s cat?'
'It’s a temporary arrangement.' He pulls the bag from his pocket. 'The cat, I mean.'
The electronic till beeps with every item. Cat food. Bread. Fish Fingers. Salad Cream. Evening News. Milk.
Eva holds onto the milk carton.
'They can’t have milk, Fred.' She is an expert in cats, as in everything.
'The milk isn’t for the cat.'
'It upsets their tummies.' She refuses to hand it over until she's sure he is listening.
'It’s for my coffee.'
'I read it in a magazine.' She releases her grip and he takes the carton quickly before she can change her mind.
'Thanks, I’ll be sure to remember that.'
'What’s it called?'
'Mmmm?' He is preoccupied with packing the bag in the correct order.
'The cat. What’s it called?'
'I have no idea. Grandad never mentioned a cat.'
The woman behind him in the queue sighs with impatience. Eva points to the green digital total on the till. He pulls out a handful of change and extracts the correct amount, one coin at a time. 'I think that should be right.'
'Remember about the milk.'
'I’ll be there tomorrow, for the funeral.'
He crumbles a little. 'Thank you' he says, so quietly that she sees the words instead of hearing them.
Back in the flat, Fred pours chicken flavoured Nibble Munch into a bowl.
He addresses the cat. 'I’m not having cat litter or a cat tray, or a poop scoop or cat deodorant. I absolutely refuse.'
He sluices his hands with green washing up liquid, working the foamy bubbles into his fingernails, hearing Nana’s voice in his head. 'Clean hands Fred, before you have your supper'. He dries them carefully and then goes back to the computer and begins to type, saying the words out loud as they form in the search bar.
'How often do cats…'
The dropdown menu appears…
How often do cats poop
How often do cats pee
How often do cats need worming
The cat blinks at him.
'Maybe it’s better not to look. Good grief. There are cats which are trained to wee in the toilet. I am not teaching you to do that, you can go outside like any other self respecting moggy.'
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