A Kangaroo, a Penguin, a Donkey, and an Alligator
The incident at the zoo cost Billy heavily. The next time Matthew had been around to see Yate, he’d let slip at the dinner table that he’d seen Billy talking to the penguin that had pushed Mr Moustache into the water. By the time his uncle let him out of his cupboard again, school was over and the summer holidays had begun.
Billy was glad he didn’t have to get up early to go to school anymore, but he still couldn’t escape Yate and his gang of friends who came over to see him every day. Matthew, William, Mason, and Liam were all easily led and impressionable — something Yate had taken full advantage of to ensure he was their leader and successfully peer-pressure them into taking up smoking by the age of eleven.
Yate and his friends were the reason Billy tried to spend as much time outside the house as possible. He wandered, almost subconsciously, around the streets, though he was careful to avoid going anywhere near the local off-licence in case he ran into Yate and his friends trying to convince an adult to buy them the sort of magazine Mrs Moustache believed needed banning because “women should never choose to do that as a career.”
As he strolled, Billy thought about the end of the holidays, where he could see a small amount of hope things might get better. When September came, he would be going to secondary school, and he wouldn’t be going with Yate. Yate had been given a place at a private Catholic grammar school in the next town, although the school weren’t aware that Yate neither lived in that town or wasn’t actually a Catholic. Matthew’s parents had also lied to get him a place there as well. Billy, meanwhile, would be going to Rafbat High, a local publicly run school with a needs improvement rating on its last inspection. Yate thought this was very funny.
On the last weekend of July, Mrs Moustache took Yate into town to buy his new uniform, leaving Billy with Mrs Young. Mrs Young wasn’t as bad as usual. It turned out that while she was in hospital, she had her leg operated on by a transgender doctor, who she was surprised to discover could actually do the job just as well as any cisgendered doctor, and as a result, she now viewed transgender people as actual humans who didn’t pose a threat to her.
Later that evening, Yate paraded around the house in his new uniform so that Mr and Mrs Moustache could take photos to send the rest of the family.
There was a disgusting smell in the kitchen the next morning when Billy went in for breakfast. He looked around expecting to see his uncle sat at the table, but he hadn’t come downstairs yet. He walked over to the sink and realised the smell seemed to be coming from what appeared to be old rags bathing in milky water.
“What’s this?” he asked Mrs Moustache as she came into the room. She pushed him out the way and began stirring the contents of the sink with a large wooden spoon.
“It’s your new school uniform,” she answered.
“Oh,” said Billy, looking into the sink. “I didn’t know it had to be so damp.”
“Don’t be stupid,” snapped Mrs Moustache, pushing him out of the way a second time, so she could reach a cupboard. “I’m bleaching some of Yate’s old clothes white for you. I’m just glad you’re not a girl. Girls have to wear red robes and white hats at Rafbat High.”
Billy held his nose and stood back.
“It’s a lot of work, I’ll have you know,” said Mrs Moustache, noticing the expression on Billy’s face. “But you’ll look the same as everybody else when I’m finished.”
Billy doubted this, but he thought it best not to argue. He went over and sat down at the table, wondering exactly what sort of outdated and backward school Rafbat High must be to require boys to wear bright white and girls to wear red robes.
Yate and Mr Moustache sauntered into the kitchen, both holding their own noses due to the smell. Mr Moustache went to sit at the table, so he could begin reading his newspaper, while Yate went straight for the fridge.
Just then, they heard the click of the letterbox from the hallway, followed by a light flop of letters falling onto the doormat.
“Yate, go and get the post,” said Mr Moustache.
“Make Billy get it. I’m eating.”
“Billy, go and get the post.”
“Make Yate get it. I’m eating too.”
Mr Moustache stopped reading and looked into Billy’s eyes. “What did you just say?” he said, rolling up his newspaper.
“Fine. I’ll go get the post.”
Mr Moustache unfurled his newspaper again as Billy got up from the table and went into the hallway. Four things lay on the doormat: an election leaflet from the Green Party, a sorry we missed you card from Royal Mail, a white envelope with an official looking logo on the front, and — a letter for Billy.
Billy picked up the letter and stared at it for a moment. No one, ever, in his whole life, had written to him. Who would write to him? He didn’t have any friends, and besides the Moustaches, he didn’t have any family either. Yet here it was, a letter addressed so plainly there could be no mistake he was the intended recipient. The envelope was thick and heavy, made of a cream-coloured parchment, and the name and address on the front were handwritten in neat swirls of black ink. He found it curious that there was no stamp.
Turning the envelope over, his hand shaking, Billy found a red wax seal bearing a coat of arms; a kangaroo, a penguin, a donkey, and an alligator surrounding a large letter F.
“Hurry up, boy!” shouted Mr Moustache from the kitchen.
Billy returned to the kitchen, still staring at his letter. He handed the rest of the post to Mr Moustache, sat back down at the table, and began slowly pealing the wax seal off the envelope.
Mr Moustache ripped open his own letter. “JURY DUTY!” he bellowed, slamming his fist onto the table. “Why should I have to give up my time so pathetic lowlifes can have a day out at the taxpayer’s expense? I’ll show them. I’ll make sure every one of those thugs is found guilty and sent to prison.”
He next picked up the election leaflet and said, as he tore it into tiny pieces, “You know if they really want to save the environment, they should stop printing these leaflets.” Finally, Mr Moustache reached the sorry we missed you card. He looked at both sides and then turned to Mrs Moustache. “Jennifer, I require you to call the constabulary and report that next door have stolen our parcel,” he said. “This card says it was delivered to them.”
“I don’t know why the post carrier thinks it’s okay to give away our things just because we didn’t answer the door,” replied Mrs Moustache.
“I quite agree.”
“Dad,” said Yate suddenly. “Dad, Billy’s got a letter.”
Billy was about to unfold his letter, which was written on the same heavy cream parchment as the envelope, when it was yanked out his hand by Mr Moustache.
“Who’d be writing to you?” sneered Mr Moustache. “We ruled out anthrax years ago.”
Billy watched as Mr Moustache unfolded his letter and read the top line. Within seconds, his uncle’s usually bloated red face had gone a pale white.
“J-J-Jennifer,” he gasped.
“What is it? Is it another second class stamp?”
Yate tried to grab the letter, but his father pushed him away. Mrs Moustache took it and read the first line. For a moment, it looked as though she might be sick, and then she reached for a glass of water from the table and drank it in one.
“Michael. Oh, my goodness — Michael.”
“It’s not a third class stamp, is it?” asked Billy. “There’s no such thing.”
Mr Moustache and Mrs Moustache stared at each other, seemingly forgetting that Billy and Yate were also there.
“Give me my letter back,” Billy said loudly. “I want to read it as it’s mine,” he continued, reaching out to take the letter.
“Both of you, get out of the kitchen,” Mr Moustache said weakly as he took the letter back from Mrs Moustache and began stuffing it back inside the envelope.
Billy didn’t move.
“I WANT MY LETTER!” he shouted.
“I want to read it,” said Yate.
Mr Moustache found his strength again. “OUT!” he shouted, grabbing them both by the collar and throwing them out into the hall. He slammed the door shut behind them. Billy and Yate had a silent fight over who would listen where. Yate won, and so as he put his ear to the keyhole, Billy picked his glasses up from the floor and then laid on his stomach, so he could listen at the gap between the door and floor.
“Michael,” Mrs Moustache was saying in a shaky voice, “look at the address they’ve put on the envelope. They’ve written his cupboard — how could they possibly know where he sleeps? You don’t think they’re watching the house, do you?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me. They’re clearly freedom-hating liberals who don’t think people like us should be able to tell others what to think and do,” said Mr Moustache.
“What should we do, Michael? Should I put something over the microwave in case they’re watching us right now?”
“Yes, do that.”
Billy could see Mrs Moustache’s slippers as they marched from one side of the kitchen to the other as she went to cover the microwave with a towel.
“But what about the letter? Should we write back? Tell them we don’t want —”
“No. We’ll ignore the letter. If they don’t hear anything back… Yes, that’s the best thing… We’ll just ignore it and pretend nothing has happened…”
“I will not have that nonsense in my house, Jennifer! It’s unnatural. Didn’t we swear when we took him in that we’d beat any sense of spirit and individuality out of him?”
That night, when he retuned from work, Mr Moustache did something he’d never done before; he visited Billy in his cupboard.
“I want my letter!” demanded Billy, the second Mr Moustache had opened the door wearing protective gloves in case there were any black widow spiders nearby. “Who’s writing to me?”
“No one. Somebody had addressed it to you by mistake,” replied Mr Moustache as he flinched at the sight of a small piece of fluff he mistook for a spider.
“I have burned it,” he continued, looking back at Billy.
“It was not addressed to me by mistake,” Billy argued. “I heard you saying it was addressed to me.”
“BE QUIET!” screamed Mr Moustache, and dust fell from the ceiling as the whole cupboard was shaken by his voice. He took a long deep breath and then forced his face into a smile that made him look remarkably like Keir Starmer being forced to meet with voters in the North of England.
“Listen, Billy — about this cupboard. I was speaking to your aunt earlier, and we were thinking… it really is a bit too small for you now… we think you should move upstairs into Yate’s second bedroom.”
“Why?” asked Billy suspiciously.
“Don’t ask me any questions!” snapped Mr Moustache. “Just take all your stuff upstairs, now!”
The Moustache’s house had four bedrooms: a spacious master suite with fitted wardrobe, ensuite bathroom, and large double-glazed windows which looked out in a southerly direction over the back of the house and benefited from all day sun during the summer months, where Mr and Mrs Moustache slept; a smaller double bedroom with a plush carpet and decorative wallpaper feature where visitors slept (but which Mr Moustache had put a filing cabinet in, so he could claim the room was an office for tax purposes), a cosy single room next to the bathroom where Yate slept, and another single room at the other end of the landing where Yate kept all the things that wouldn’t fit into his first bedroom.
It took Billy only a single trip and one box to move everything he owned from the cupboard under the stairs to his new bedroom. He sat down on the lumpy bed and stared around him. Nearly everything he looked at was broken or damaged. The cuddly toy Yate had got for his birthday sat headless on a shelf, Yate having attacked it when his mother accidentally asked for the wrong sort of dip when they had ordered a takeaway one night. In the corner of the room was Yate’s first-ever television, which he’d put his foot through when Richard Osman had appeared on yet another panel show. On top of an old wardrobe was a pile of books. They were the only things in the room that looked as though they’d never been touched, though Billy couldn’t blame Yate, as they were all written by an author who signed an open letter promoting free speech, but also used their power and wealth to threaten someone into silence for accurately quoting them.
As he lay back on the bed, Billy could hear Yate screaming at his parents downstairs. “I don’t want him in that room… that’s my bedroom… make him get out…” He sighed and stretched out. Although he always enjoyed witnessing Yate be upset about something, he’d have gladly given up both that and his new room if it meant he could have his letter.
The next morning, breakfast was a quiet affair. Yate was still upset, but he was too exhausted to make any more of a stand. He’d cried and screamed all night long, at one point even packing a small suitcase and threatening to leave home; but he’d only made it as far as the end of the street before coming back again. Billy chewed on his toast as he thought back to this time yesterday and wished he’d just opened the letter in the hall or put it in his cupboard to read later. Mr Moustache and Mrs Moustache, meanwhile, just kept giving each other stares that seemed to say a lot between them, but told Billy nothing.
When the post arrived, Mr Moustache, who seemed to be making an effort to be nice to Billy, made Yate go and get it. They heard him banging his hand against the wall in a bad mood as he walked down the hall. Then, he shouted, “There’s another letter — Billy Smith, The Smallest Bedroom —”
Within seconds, both Billy and Mr Moustache had leapt up from the table and gone to the kitchen door. As they ran down the hall, Mr Moustache pushed Billy back. Billy responded by grabbing onto his uncle’s leg, causing him to fall just short of where Yate stood, letter in hand. Yate didn’t want to hand the letter over to either of them, however, and when Mr Moustache had got back to his feet, there was a short fight between the three of them. Eventually, Mr Moustache straightened himself up, short of breath, but holding Billy’s letter out of reach.
“Both of you go to your bedroom,” he instructed, trying to breathe deeply.
As he walked into his new room, Billy slammed the door shut in anger. But as he paced round and round on the worn carpet, he remembered something. Yate had read out the address and it had included his bedroom. Whoever was trying to write to him seemed to know that he’d moved upstairs and that he hadn’t received the first letter. Maybe that meant they would know he hadn’t received this one either? He had a plan to make sure he received the third.
Billy set his alarm early the next morning. When it rang out, he turned it off quickly and got dressed as silently as he could. He mustn’t wake anyone else. He walked downstairs — careful to avoid the creaky step two-thirds of the way up — without turning on any of the lights.
He was going to wait for the post carrier on the corner of the street to make sure he got the letters for their house before they were put through the letterbox. His heart hammered as he tiptoed across the hall towards the front door, opened it, then stepped outside into the cool morning air.
Billy had been sitting against a small wall outside number one for nearly four hours when he wondered if there was actually going to be any post today. As he walked, defeated, back down the street after another hour, something occurred to him; a plot hole. Neither of the letters he’d been sent so far had a stamp anywhere on them, and more than that, whatever world this was he was living in, he felt certain quite a big deal was going to be made out of how people like him didn’t use the ordinary postal service to communicate. It was a waste of time to wait for the post carrier.
His thinking was proven to be correct almost immediately, but being right didn’t save the sinking feeling he felt as he walked into the living room and found Mr Moustache kneeling beside the fire, burning four letters that were all addressed to him.
“Good morning,” said Mr Moustache in a joyful mood as he tore up the last of the letters and threw the pieces onto the flames.
On Friday, no less than eleven letters arrived for Billy, all finding some unusual way to make it into the house. A couple had risen up out of the downstairs toilet when Yate had flushed it. A couple more had been fired in through an open window attached to a flaming arrow, while another had even appeared out of the top of the toaster at breakfast, accompanied by the loud buzzing sound a fax machine might make.
Mr Moustache stayed home from work that day. After burning the letters, he proceeded to spend the rest of the day repeatedly electrocuting himself as he attempted to work out how the toaster had delivered a letter, without unplugging it first.
On Saturday, things began to get out of hand. Twenty-nine letters were delivered to the house by Royal Mail special delivery, and Mr Moustache was not happy about it. It wasn’t the letters that annoyed him so much on this occasion — by now he had discovered they made an excellent kindling for the fire — but rather that the post carrier had delivered them at fifteen minutes past nine rather than before nine, as was the guaranteed time of the service. While Mr Moustache waited on hold to complain to RoyalMail, he told Mrs Moustache, who was busy tearing the letters up into small pieces, that this was simply another example of the postal service’s slipping standards.
On Sunday morning, Mr Moustache sat down at the breakfast table looking tired, but relieved.
“No post on Sundays,” he reminded them cheerfully as he removed the finance section from his newspaper. He didn’t actually understand any of the articles within it, but he liked to pretend he did.
“No damn letters today —”
There was a light tap on the kitchen door.
“What was that?” asked Mrs Moustache, looking around.
There was another tap. And then another. And another. It sounded as though pellets were hitting the glass and bouncing off again.
Mr Moustache stood up from the table and went to open the door.
“WHAT THE —” he said as forty or fifty letters came flying through the doorframe right at him, as though they were guided missiles. Mrs Moustache and Yate ducked out the way, as still more letters came after them, but Billy, who didn’t seem to be a target, reached out to grab one.
“Out! OUT!” came Mr Moustache’s voice, and then, as he noticed Billy’s hand closing on a letter, “Oh no, you don’t, boy.”
Mr Moustache grabbed Billy around the waist and threw him into the hall. Caught off guard, Billy dropped the letter he’d caught.
“That does it,” said Mr Moustache, struggling to protect Yate and Mrs Moustache from the ever growing onslaught of flying parchment. “I want all of you back here in ten minutes ready to leave. We’re going away. Just pack what you need and be quick.”
“No arguments, just pack.”
He looked so angry that no one dared argue, and a short time later, they were in the car speeding towards the motorway.
Yate was sat teary eyed in the back seat. Mr Moustache had hit him around the head for holding them up while he tried to pack a table, television, electrical generator, inflatable sofa, his duvet and bedlinen, and a barbecue.
Billy had also been hit around the head by his uncle, but this was because he’d asked him if he’d tried getting a good night’s sleep, buying fewer avocados, eating less takeaways, and going on a nice walk.
No one knew how long they were driving for or where they were going. Mr Moustache still seemed so annoyed, even Mrs Moustache dare not ask where he was taking them. He didn’t say anything to anyone, but every so often he’d take a random turn and begin driving in a different direction for a while. “This will do it… confuse them… they can’t find us like this…” he would mutter to himself whenever this happened.
They didn’t stop once all day. By the time night fell, Yate was complaining. He’d never had such a bad day. He was hungry, and he’d missed multiple programmes he’d wanted to watch on television. Billy tried to point out there were people feeling violence and famine — only to discover when they eventually reached safety, that privileged people were far too xenophobic and hateful to show compassion — who had it much worse than him, but Yate didn’t care.
Eventually, Mr Moustache stopped the car outside a Hampton Inn on the outskirts of a large town. Mr Moustache went inside to see if they had any rooms available, but he returned quickly.
“Okay,” he began, climbing back into the car in a seemingly more cheerful mood. “All the rooms at this hotel are being used to house innocent child refugees who have been illegally separated from their families, but the manager told me there’s another hotel in the town centre with space for us.”
They set off again and passed a large sign saying Welcome to Ipswich by the side of the road. Perhaps Mr Moustache believed Ipswich was a dire enough place no one would visit here just to deliver a letter. As they drove further into the town, Billy thought his uncle might have been right if that was his plan.
At last, they reached a second hotel and checked-in; though not before Mr Moustache had spent fifteen minutes complaining about not being offered loyalty points or free Wi-Fi because he hadn’t booked direct. Billy and Yate shared a twin room. Yate lay in bed snoring, but Billy couldn’t sleep. Instead, he sat by the window and stared out at the lights of passing cars thinking…
They ate breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant the next morning. They had just finished when the hotel manager came over to their table.
“Excuse me, but is one of you Billy Smith? I’ve got a pile of these at reception.”
She held up a cream parchment envelope, so they could read the address on the front. Sure enough, it was addressed to Billy the same way all the others had been. Billy made a grab for the letter, but Mr Moustache pushed him out the way and got to his feet.
“I’ll sort them,” Mr Moustache said, following the manager out of the restaurant.
Before long, they were back in the car, and Mr Moustache was again driving with purpose.
“Might it be easier to go home today?” Mrs Moustache asked hours later, but Mr Moustache didn’t seem to hear what she said. Exactly what he was looking for, none of them knew. He kept stopping the car in the middle of large open fields, dense woods, Sheffield, and supermarket carparks, each time getting out, climbing onto the roof, and looking around before shaking his head and setting off again.
Late that afternoon, after they had been driving along a coastal road for what seemed like hours, Mr Moustache parked the car on the seafront in a small town, locked them all inside, and disappeared into the heavy rain outside.
Inside the car, Yate began to cry.
“It’s Monday,” he said to his mother. “I want to stay somewhere with a television.”
Monday. That reminded Billy. If it was Monday — and the days of the week were one of the few things Yate ever got right — then tomorrow was his eleventh birthday. It was true his birthdays had never been fun — last year the Moustaches had cooked him a special meal using meat that had gone bad, then told him his present was the food poisoning he spent the next week suffering from — but it still wasn’t every day you turned eleven.
An hour later, Mr Moustache returned, and he was in a very good mood. He was carrying a long package wrapped in very damp brown paper, and he didn’t answer Mrs Moustache when she asked what was inside.
“I’ve found us a place to stay,” he said. “Come on, everybody out of the car.”
It was extremely cold outside the car, and the icy wind bit against their faces. Mr Moustache was pointing out to sea, though the torrent of rain made it impossible to make out whatever it was he was supposed to be pointing at.
“There’s a storm forecast for tonight, which is good news,” said Mr Moustache gleefully, “but it means we need to get a move on. This kind man has agreed to lend us his boat to get across the water.”
An old yellow toothed man smelling strongly of tobacco and cheap beer came towards them with a smug smile on his face and pointed towards an old rowing boat sat on the beach below them.
“I’ve already got everything we need,” said Mr Moustache, “so give me a hand pushing the boat into the water, and we’ll set sail.”
Mr Moustache didn’t notice the looks on the faces of the rest of the family as he turned to the old man. “Thank you again, Nigel, and don’t worry, if I encounter any of those economic migrants, I’ll be sure to call you.”
However cold it had been on land, it was nothing compared to the freezing temperatures in the boat. Sea spray, helped along by the strong wings, made them wet, and before long they were all suffering from wind chill and numb faces. After what felt like hours, they reached a large rock far enough away from the land they couldn’t make out where they had come from. Sat atop the rock was an old wooden hut that looked as though it might fall down at any moment.
The inside of the hut smelled horrible. There was a puncturing damp that hit their noses as soon as they walked in through the door. The hut didn’t seem to provide much shelter either, as the wind funnelled its way through gaps in the wood and down the empty chimney into the main room, where there was little more than a wooden chair by the window and a moth-eaten sofa.
Mr Moustache’s idea of everything they would need turned out to be a loaf of bread and a lump of cheese. He tried to start a fire to keep them warm, but the only wood he could find was too damp to burn.
“I wish I’d brought some of those letters with me,” he joked to himself.
It seemed he was in a very good mood despite the condition of the hut. Billy felt sure Mr Moustache thought no one could deliver a letter to him out here.
As darkness fell, the forecast storm arrived. The wood rattled as high waves broke over the top of the rock and crashed into the walls of the hut. Mrs Moustache found some old blankets in another room and was able to make up a bed for Yate on the sofa. She and Mr Moustache shared a single bed in the next room, while Billy was left to fend for himself.
As the night went on, the storm grew more aggressive, and the temperature inside the hut fell. He might have been tired, but Billy couldn’t sleep. He sat in the corner of the room, trying to shelter as much as possible from the wind blowing its way in through a broken pane of glass in a window. He looked around for something to distract him and noticed the light from Yate’s watch. It was five minutes to midnight. That meant it was five minutes until his birthday.
He watched the minutes go by as he thought about where Mr Moustache would take them all tomorrow — surely they couldn’t live out here on this rock forever?
Three minutes to go. Billy heard a loud bang outside that was distinctly different to the sound of the storm.
Two minutes to go. He wondered if the letter writer would try again? If they had tried this hard already, they wouldn’t give up now, would they?
One minute to go.
Thirty seconds… twenty… ten…
He thought about tipping the sofa over and blaming it on the wind.
Three… two… one…
Billy started as Yate woke suddenly. They both stared over at the door. Someone was outside.
A Small Ask
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