Authors: Jenny Alexander
âSit, Pookie,' Abina said, and he sat down.
âStay,' she said, as she opened the gate.
Abina stroked and patted Pookie as if he was a dog, and then Sasha and Tammy joined in.
âHe won't bite!' Abina said to me, over her shoulder.
I patted his head and he fixed me with his little round eyes.
âPigs are the fourth cleverest animals in the world,' Abina said, proudly. âAfter humans, monkeys and dogs. Show us your house,' she said to Pookie, and he trotted off down the garden with all of us following.
Pookie's house was a stone shed with a nest of wood shavings in one corner. Abina unhooked a dog's lead from the back of the door and put it on him. We walked him up to the gate, across the lawn and round the front to the drive. He was as good as gold. He didn't pull or anything.
Abina gave the lead to Tammy and told us to give her five minutes. We walked Pookie up and down the drive until she came back.
âI've hidden some f-o-o-d scraps in Pookie's patch,' she said, spelling it out, as if he would understand if she said the word.
âWhat kind of food does he eat?' I asked, not thinking.
As soon as I said the word âfood', he was off. Tammy couldn't control him. She had to let go of the lead. Pookie raced down the garden, shot through the gate and rooted around in the earth with his snout, sniffing and grunting like mad.
âPot-bellied pigs do like their food,' Abina said, laughing. âThey can sniff out a sweet at a hundred metres.'
Pookie found all his titbits in about three minutes flat. He had a last sniff around, and then trotted back to us. He sat down in front of Abina and lifted his face for her to stroke him under the chin.
I wanted to stay and play with Pookie but Sasha, Tammy and Abina always did an hour of netball practice on Saturdays. Tammy and Abina both played defence on the school team so me and Sasha had to be shooters, and I can't shoot for toffee.
âKeep trying,' they said, to encourage me. âIf at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.'
I told them Dad's version was, âIf at first you don't succeed, give up!'
âHe sounds funny!' they said. âWe can't wait to meet him.'
When I told them he was serious, they didn't believe me. They said I was funny too. Then Sasha asked me what I did on Sundays. That was the only day they were all free, she said.
I suddenly realised that if I was going to be friends with Sasha, Tammy and Abina they would expect to come to my house too. I would have to have my own regular day.
I imagined what they would think when they saw our chewed-up kitchen, with Dennis doing his mad dashes and digging in his litter-tray. Or when I took them upstairs to the sitting room and they met Primrose, all lovey-dovey with Matt on the settee or stropping around on her own.
I pictured their faces when they saw my bedroom with its wall of dogs (I had sixty breeds now, all the best pictures I could find, with the name and description underneath). Sasha had models on her bedroom wall; Abina had sports stars; and Tammy had a few family photos in frames.
What would they think when they got their first whiff of Mum's cooking? No-one else in the world would ever make cabbage curry or turnip tart. And then there was Dad. As soon as they met him they would know he was no agony aunt â he was a total fraud!
One thing was for sure. I could not let my new friends see my house or meet my family. I was going to have to think up a seriously good excuse.
Dennis only goes in his hutch to eat and sleep but on Sunday mornings, when I try to clean it out, he gets all territorial. He thumps his back feet on the floor and growls. He bares his teeth and runs at me. He's a real menace.
His hutch is in the gap under the stairs and the first few times I tried to clean it out I kept bumping my head trying to get away from him. I had to develop a technique.
Now I put my hand near the ground till he comes and pushes his nose under it, then I switch over and put my foot where my hand was, and keep it there while I clear the old newspaper and hay into a bin bag and empty his food bowl for washing.
As soon as I move my foot, Dennis leaps on the bin bag and digs around in it like he's lost something. I guess that if a huge giant were to come along and empty everything out of our house into a massive bin bag, I might do the same.
I wash his food and water bowls, put new newspaper on the floor of his hutch and fetch some fresh hay. Then I fill his water bowl again and pour some new rabbit mix into his food bowl.
As soon as I've finished, he forgets about the bin bag and jumps up into his hutch. He kicks the clean hay around in the bedroom end, then tips the food bowl over with his teeth, scattering rabbit mix all over the clean newspaper and across the kitchen floor.
âWhy does he do that?' Primrose said, looking up from her breakfast. The rest of us had already had lunch but Primrose hibernates like a hedgehog at weekends.
I shrugged. Rabbits were not famous for their brain power. In the league table of world's cleverest animals they definitely wouldn't be up
there with dogs and pigs.
âDennis!' I said sharply, when he started trying to rip the clean newspaper out from underneath him. He stopped and stared at me. Then â boing! He bounced out of his hutch and shot round the room like a firework in a barrel.
I swept the new food up and put it back in his bowl.
Primrose said, âWhere's Mum?'
âPutting a trellis up in the Peace Garden. I don't know where Dad is, though.'
âI saw him in the living-room with his laptop,' Primrose said. âHe's setting up his conference call with the agony aunts.'
She dumped her cereal bowl in the sink and put the kettle on.
âMatt says his mum said to tell you that you don't have to rush off after work on Saturdays â you can stay as long as you like and talk to Sam.'
I explained that I hadn't had much time the day before because of going to Abina's.
âI felt bad leaving Sam so soon, and then I had to rush off straight after lunch from Becky's so I couldn't help her with her poster. I felt bad about that too.'
âI wouldn't worry about it,' Primrose said. âIt's not as if Becky's really a proper friend. She's just someone you work with, isn't she?'
âI go round her house every week,' I protested. âThat's what you said proper friends do.'
Primrose tipped some hot choc powder into her cup, poured hot water on it and stirred.
âYou only go round there because it's on your way home. Ask yourself this â would Becky still ask you round if you didn't work at the kennels together?'
I asked myself, but before I could come up with an answer, Dad called us to go up and meet his new friends.
Primrose groaned. âI'm not even dressed,' she muttered. âWhat are they going to think?'
âJust cough a bit. They'll think you've got flu.'
That gave me an idea! If Sasha and the others wanted to come to my house next Sunday I could say Primrose had something catching.
Cough, cough! Primrose practised on the way upstairs. Dad said, âHere come my lovely daughters.' He turned the laptop round so his friends could see us coming through the door. Three agony aunts smiled and waved at us from their separate windows on the screen.
âThis is Primrose. She's fifteen,' Dad said, proudly.
Primrose coughed and pulled her dressing gown tighter. She gave a little wave and said hello, sounding suitably feeble.
âHave you got a cold, dear?' asked the first agony aunt.
I recognised her from the breakfast show. She was the one with the pink lips and purple hair who'd said it was lovely to see a young person win for a change. Young? Dad? He said she was called Kay.
âYou should go back to bed and keep warm,' said the second agony aunt. She was what Gran would call plain as a pudding, with brown hair, a brown top and brown wooden beads. Dad said she was called Alice.
âI'm Jeannie,' said the third, wobbling her chins. âYou go and snuggle under the duvet, Primrose. I'm sure that lovely little sister of yours will bring you up some toast.'
It was Dad's cue to introduce me.
âThis is Peony.'
âHello, Peony,' the agony aunts said together.
It was cringe central for the next few seconds but we were saved by the front door bell. I went down to see who it was and Primrose scuttled gratefully off upstairs to get dressed.
Dennis was sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, not hiding, so it must be someone he knew. His ears were cocked forward, listening. One of them swivelled round as I walked in, but he didn't turn his head.
I could hear them now, chatting on the doorstep. It was Gran and Jane.
âLook what I've got!' Gran said, as she walked in. She jangled a set of keys in the air. âWho wants to come and have a look round my new house?'
While we were waiting for Dad to come off the computer and Primrose to get ready, Mr Kaminski arrived. He said he had just come to borrow some sugar.
âWe're going to see my new house,' Gran told him. âCome with us if you aren't too busy baking.'
As we walked up the zig-zag path, Gran asked Dad about his video conference. It evidently hadn't been what he was expecting. He had thought they were just going to chat about the dinner and tell him how brilliant he was again, but it turned out they had a conference call every Sunday to talk about work.
The agony aunts would read each other their letters and discuss the best way to answer them. This was obviously not ideal for Dad, as he never actually read the letters or wrote the answers, so when it was his turn he decided to distract them by coming up with a problem of his own. He told them about his workmates and pub friends teasing him about being an agony aunt and calling him Daphne.
âIs that a problem?' asked Gran.
Dad said, actually, as it turned out, it was. âI never realised, but Kay says too much teasing can be bad for a person's self-esteem.'
âIs that how you feel about it â like your self-esteem has taken a knock?'
âI don't know,' said Dad. âI can't really tell. Anyway, then Alice said, “These people are supposed to be your friends!” and Jeannie said my friends must have very poor people skills.'
Dad had never even heard of people skills before and he was pretty sure he'd never had any friends who had them until he met Kay, Alice and Jeannie. They were really nice. They were coming all the way to Polgotherick to take him out for lunch. That was how nice they were!
We went over the stile at the first bend and started along the coastal path. Up ahead, Nash House stood behind its high stone wall, looking out to sea like a shabby old sailor. Its white walls were dirty and peeling, and its porch was falling away.
Gran unlocked the padlock on the boarded-up gate to let us in. The garden was a complete wreck. Inside, the house was even worse. Wallpaper was hanging off the walls and the window frames were rotten.
âI won't be able to move in for a while,' Gran said.
âYou can stay with me for as long as you like,' said Jane. âThere's always a room for you at the Happy Haddock, Gwennie!'
Mr Kaminski said we would soon get everything shipshape. When the builders had finished we could organise a working weekend. Mum and Stella could sort out the garden and the rest of us could do the decorating.
Dad said unfortunately he had to go to matches every weekend and write reports for the paper, but he was sure we would manage fine without him. I couldn't see Primrose being up for it, either.
Cough, cough! She had a little practice as we explored the rooms upstairs.
Dad's got a sign on his study wall that says, âImportant things I have to do today â breathe in, breathe out.'
Sometimes Mum sticks post-its over it so it says stuff like, âImportant things I have to do today â sort out recycling, fix leaky tap, take wife out for dinner.'