I watched my wife with a critical eye as she moved the iron back and forth.
“I do wish you’d find something else to do!” she complained.
I picked up the sock she had just ironed and ran an expert eye over the crease. Satisfied, I placed it neatly on the “done” pile and watched her iron its companion.
“Is it absolutely necessary for me to iron your socks? Trousers, yes – shirts, of course, but honestly, socks?”
I handed her my Mr Messy underpants without bothering to answer. She gave me an exasperated look before shaking her head and adjusting the iron.
“And don’t put the crease through Mr Messy’s face, like you did last time,” I warned.
The doorbell rang and I went to the window to peer through the net curtain. An unfamiliar car offering no clues was parked in the drive. I went to the front door and opened it, beginning the routine speech.
“I already have double-glazing and a conservatory, my kitchen doesn’t need replacing and when I want my drive re-surfaced I certainly won’t be asking a grubby, unskilled, intellectually-challenged non-entity like you!”
With the door now fully opened I found myself confronted by Ed Balls. He looked a little taken aback. “Badders?” he asked, a little uncertainly. (I do wish he wouldn’t call me Badders).
“What are you doing here?”
“Can I come in?”
“Yes, of course.” I ushered him in, glancing up and down the Avenue to see if we were observed. I guided him into the sitting room and indicated a chair. He waited until I was sitting, peering at me through those bulging little eyes of his.
“Is it news of my knighthood?”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Because you promised me…”
“It’s nothing to do with the knighthood. It’s getting close to the date for the select committee,” he began. “I thought it was time to touch base with you. Make sure we both know where we are coming from. Make sure you are… all right…”
“All right? Whatever do you mean ‘all right’? Why wouldn’t I be all right?”
“I’ve been getting the odd bit of feedback. I understand that you have been feeling vilified and harassed because of adverse reactions on the internet. Reports suggest it has been to the detriment of your ‘mental well-being’.”
He stared unblinkingly at me with those pop-eyes. Although my expertise might not extend far into the world of the medical profession, I know an over-active thyroid when I see it.
“No, not at all!” I laughed nervously. “That was just to prevent my expenses being published under the Freedom of Information Act.”
Ed Balls paled visibly at the mention of expenses. He swallowed. “Yes, well I can understand that. But how are you coping?”
“I’m fine. I’m as mentally sound as anybody else you work with.”
“Yes, that’s what worries me. I ran into one of your neighbours just now. I wanted to make sure I got the right house. You know, the elderly lady over there? It looks like she is building a wall. Quite a high wall actually. She started to twitch when I mentioned your name. Almost like a nervous tic. She pointed at your door, but never uttered a sound. She did make a funny little ‘O’ shape with her mouth, then she scuttled indoors. I must say she moved surprisingly quickly for someone with a breeze block in each hand.” He stared thoughtfully out of the window for a moment.
“Yes well, she’s a bit funny,” I said, tapping the side of my head.
Ed Balls pulled his eyes away from the window with some effort. “And then there’s that thing tied to your tree in the garden. Bit macabre, Badders. Some sort of Totem is it?”
“Thing tied to the tree…?” I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Look, never mind about that. What you choose for garden ornamentation is none of my concern really. What does concern me is that you appear as a credible authority on education when the select committee starts picking over your report.”
“But, I’m an expert!”
“Yes, but can you be certain that you undertook the report from an unbiased perspective.”
“Of course! When I started I had no preconceptions regarding the extent to which home education is inadequate!”
“And are you confident that your research was thorough.”
“I met over one home education group.”
“Y-e-e-s, I wanted to ask about that. It’s been suggested that you sat there staring at the floor with your arms folded, not actually listening.”
“They were making statements and claims incompatible with the evidence I was trying to gather!”
“…And that the only time you showed any interest was when the negative aspects were being discussed.”
“I’ve just explained that!”
Ed Balls jaws were working silently as if he didn’t quite know what to say next.
“In the interest of ongoing investigation I’ve ‘befriended’ the home educated family next door. That proves there’s no bias.”
“Have you?” His eyes bulged even more alarmingly.
“Oh yes. We get along famously. They value my input and opinion and they even took on board some of my study suggestions.” Through the window I could see Smith in his driveway and leapt up. “There they are now. Come on, I’ll show you…”
I hurried out of the house trailing the portly MP behind me. As I rushed at Smith he recoiled slightly. Turning to Ed Balls, his jaw visibly dropped.
“Isn’t this a bit over the top? If you have any concerns about my home education provision, shouldn’t you have gone through the local authority first?”
“Yes, highly amusing Smith! Look, tell Ed Balls how well we get on.”
“What? Do we?”
“And how you value my input and suggestions.”
“Well, Rob did enjoy studying Scooby-Doo.”
Ed Balls rounded on me in shock. “You suggested studying Scooby-Doo?”
Before I could answer, Miranda appeared in the doorway. “Daddy, I can’t pick up the axe.”
Ed Balls stared from Miranda to Smith to me. “Axe! Good God, Badders! And is this another of your study suggestions?”
“It’s computer software,” Smith explained. “She means she can’t pick up the axe on the computer.”
“And you think that makes it acceptable do you?” Ed Balls demanded.
“Smith, I am appalled!” I joined in. Miranda had spotted me and came skipping over to join her father.
“Hello Dark Lord Badman!” she trilled. Ed Balls shot me a look of pure astonishment that only grew when she continued, “Are you coming round to play with my dollies again today?”
Ignoring her I continued to berate Smith, in an attempt to restore some of my dignity. “Gratuitous violence is not to be condoned whether it’s computer software or not. I don’t regard it as educational hacking limbs off of enemy soldiers or whatever else you’re allowing this impressionable child to engage in. Axes? Good grief, what else? Meat cleavers into zombie skulls, I shouldn’t wonder! Gelatinous brain matter spraying everywhere in a fountain of blood and tissue? Shotgun charges tearing into ruptured flesh? Slippery, grey entrails splattering across the screen?”
“Daddy!” Miranda’s hand flew to her mouth. “I feel sick!”
Ed Balls leaned down to Miranda, “Is that the sort of computer game you’re playing?” he asked.
She looked horrified and shook her head. “Jack and the Beanstalk…” she uttered softly.
“What? Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “There are no zombies in Jack and the Beanstalk!”
Smith glared at me angrily. “No-one except you suggested that there was! You pick up the axe to chop down the beanstalk! It’s reading software I got at the library tied into Key Stage 1.”
Ed Balls gave me a pained look and patted Miranda on the head. Smith cleared his throat forcefully.
“Excuse me, but have you been CRB checked?”
Ed Balls looked flustered. “I’m a member of Parliament!”
Smith muttered something that sounded like “two legs good, four legs bad” but I couldn’t be sure.
At that moment I noticed the Rev. Thomas doing his rounds with the Parish news sheet. Spotting me he hesitated a moment, seemed to gather himself and then called out.
“Mr Buh-Badman! I have been meaning to speak to you about your computer.” He began to approach the front gate and I danced a few steps sideways to meet him. “Your wife explained about the fuh-phone call and the misunderstanding. She said you’ve been under a lot of stress and didn’t mean to buh-be so rude.”
Ed Balls was suddenly interested. “You were rude to a vicar?” he asked.
“Quite a tuh-tirade, wasn’t it. Mr Buh-Badman.”
“Please, Reverend, there’s no need for formality after all this time. Call me by my first name.”
The Rev. Thomas suddenly jumped visibly and turned stricken eyes to me.
“Nuh-Norman!” he wailed.
I smiled at him and shook my head. “No…. Guh-Graham!”
“No!” he squeaked. “Nuh-Norman.”
Whatever was the matter with the man? I began to correct him a second time when I noticed he was pointing at the tree next to the driveway.
There, gaffer-taped to the front of the tree trunk were the desiccated remains of a certain guinea-pig. Its brief sojourn in the wheelie bin had done nothing to improve its appearance. It now appeared to be slimed with mayonnaise and wore a glace cherry on one withered paw like a tiny boxing glove.
Ed Balls and Smith both joined us and we all regarded the grotesque little display in silence. After a moment, Smith became quite animated.
“Hang on! That’s the thing that was left on my doorstep in a Tupperware box a few weeks back. Poor little thing. It’s a hamster, isn’t it?”
“It’s a guinea pig,” Rev. Thomas and I snapped back in perfect synchronisation. He looked at me curiously.
“How can you tell, in that state?” Ed Balls asked in wonder.
“Because it’s MY guinea pig!” Rev. Thomas cried plaintively. “My poor little
“He had it. He said he had it in a Tupperware box…”
“It vanished,” said Smith. I called the police, but that was the day poor old Mrs Mort had a funny turn and they got caught up in that. I forgot all about it until later in the evening and then I couldn’t find it. I assumed my wife had thrown it out. How on earth did it end up here?”
“There’s a note, look!” said Ed Balls. At the bottom of the tree, caught between the trunk and the wall was a piece of paper sporting more gaffer tape. It had obviously been originally stuck to the tree as well, but had since unpeeled. I tried to grab it, but Ed Balls beat me to it.
“It’s a formal warning.” He said. “Your dustmen are saying if you ever leave anything like this in your wheelie bin again you will be prosecuted.” He handed the note to me and I took it with fingers of lead. My blood seemed to have congealed to the consistency of porridge and I wasn’t sure how to breathe anymore.
“Autonomous Ed!” I blurted out.
“What?!” Smith demanded. “I know you have a bee in your bonnet about autonomous education, but I seriously hope you aren’t implying this has anything to do with my children.”
Ed Balls cleared his throat. “I think you better explain yourself, Badders.” He said sternly.
“Cat….it’s a cat.”
“No, it’s a guinea pig.”
“Let’s go inside, Badders,” said Ed Balls. “Come on.” He began pulling my arm in the direction of the house. Smith and Rev. Thomas simply stared.
I looked wildly from one to another of them. “This isn’t fair. You’ve just made up your mind about a situation you don’t understand. You’re all making assumptions that are totally unfounded. Never mind getting the facts straight, oh no! Let’s ignore the evidence, you just carry on and label me as some sort of weirdo!”
“Come along, Badders!” Ed Balls said more forcefully, pulling my arm quite hard now.
“But you’re not giving me the chance to explain. I want you to hear my side of it!”
I was being dragged to the door which my wife was holding open, a worried expression pinching her features.
“This isn’t fair…” I told her in a quiet miserable voice as the door closed behind me.
From the kitchen doorway, Autonomous Ed began striding down the hall towards us.
“YOU!” I hissed through clenched teeth. Autonomous Ed froze, alerted to danger by that supernatural cat sense. He swished his tail but began backing away. Tearing free from Ed Balls grip I flung myself after him.
He yowled and scooted across the kitchen tiles while I chased round the table with a whisk snatched from the utensils pot. “You just wait… I’ll fix you if it takes me five years.” With a final spit of fury, Autonomous Ed dived through the catflap as I tripped over the table leg and lunged.
Some time later I lay looking up as the retreating sun spilled gold across the early Autumn evening. I inhaled a deep breath of crisp fresh air and held it. It was cold, an advance warning of the frosty nights ahead. I exhaled slowly and closed my eyes. Tried and tested relaxation methods had taken their time, but my pulse was almost back to normal. I opened my eyes as my wife joined me outside carrying a cup of tea.
She placed the tea on the concrete floor close to my head and popped a drinking straw into the cup. As she guided the other end to my mouth she sighed and said, “I’ve called the handyman again. He got caught up at his last job, but reckons he’ll be here in about an hour.”
I took a sip of tea and let go of the straw.
“Good. It’s not very comfortable you know, having your head wedged through a catflap.”
“I know, you’ve told me enough times.”
“My nose is cold!” I moaned.
“Never mind. Not long now.”
We remained in silence for a while, me sucking tea through the straw, she staring into the middle distance wistfully.
“You did tell them the real story of what happened with that guinea pig, didn’t you?” I asked for the sixth time.
“I told you I did.”
“And they DID believe you, didn’t they?”
She shrugged. “People believe what they want to believe.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Sometimes, Badders, when people have already made their minds up about something they can ignore a barrage of evidence to the contrary.”
I squinted at her through narrowed eyes. “This is about my report, isn’t it? You’ve been talking to Smith again. I seriously cannot see what his objections are.”
She pointed up at the sky. “He tried to explain it to Ed Balls with an analogy. What colour is the sky, Badders?”
“What? What sort of stupid question is that? It’s blue.”
“And if a colour blind expert in meteorology decided it was green, what colour would it be then?”
“I have absolutely no idea what on earth you are talking about!”
She shook her head sadly. A few moments later she shivered and rubbed at her bare arms. “It is getting chilly out here. I’m going to start supper.”
As she disappeared from my restricted field of vision a thought struck me and I called after her.
“Did Ed Balls mention my knighthood before he left?”