It is the Christmas holidays. I'm not looking forward to Christmas. My fifth Christmas alone. Or is it sixth? I never liked Christmas, to be truly honest. It always consisted of a fortnight at Aunt Margia's. How can I describe Aunt Margia? A volley of words come to mind.
Cranky. Grumpy. Intense. Changeable. Insane. Strict. Unusual. Moody. Erratic. Unconventional. Pious.
When I come home from Aunt Margia's ready to begin a new term at school I am more depressed and exhausted than when I broke up from the previous term. No joke.
There is a change this year. I come in from the last day of school, miserable and losing hope that I will ever become a normal person (do I want to be a normal person or would I rather delve further into guilt and misery? - well don't look at me for the answer); I find Dad heating up some microwave soup for tea.
Of all things I despise soup, but I am surprised that he has found time to come from his studio to make me some food. Generally my parents leave me to look after myself, and I do not see Dad for days on end. That would be fine with me, but I feel resentful. It's as if I'm not his son any more. I'm just a person who happens to live in his house. As for Mum, I must make her a sandwich or buy her a salad for tea every day, and deliver it to her private bedroom through a catflap she spent hours fitting four or so years ago. That sums up my parents quite sufficiently.
I cough meaningly as I sit at the table with a glass of tap water, and Dad looks up from the gas hob.
"You aren't going to Aunt Margia's this year," he announces abruptly.
I look startled, and wonder what is coming next. Dad would never upset the Christmas tradition for no reason. I wonder what he has in store for me.
"You're helping me win an art competition," Dad says.
I splutter on the water, and thump myself on the back. Dad stands like a lemon, stirring the saucepan, looking at me as if I'm an alien even as I choke for life or for death. "What does that mean?" I croak warily.
"Just that," Dad says simply, ignoring me, and serving up the soup at barely four o'clock in the afternoon. I'm not hungry, but I don't want to cook later if I can help it, so I take a spoon from the drawer, eying the oily swirls of dishwasher water with resignation.
"What must I do?" I say expressionlessly, without willingness, once I've recovered from my coughing fit.
"It's quite straightforward. I'm entering an art competition, and you will paint me a few pictures to enter," Dad replies. "I'm too busy at the moment."
I am on my guard at once; at the same time wondering how Dad can be so busy when all he does is paint all those tasteless pictures no one actually wants. "I'm not painting some pictures so you can take the credit for winning some competition. And besides, what makes you think my pictures are better than yours?" Neither of my parents are artistic, and neither takes any interest in my schoolwork. Dad signs letters and comes to parents' evenings, preferring to leave my mum at home out of the way, but he doesn't care, and I know it. So I am prepared for his answer.
"I didn't say that. I told you. I'm too busy; too much going on, and I don't have time to paint anything good enough, with everything on my mind."
What's on his mind? Nothing is ever going on at the surface in the O'Derron household. The house, is dead and lifeless, as my sister is, too, dead and lifeless. And the whole town is like a funeral, as I said. This whole place is dead. Dead, dead, dead. And none of us are becoming any more alive.
"Don't enter then," I mumble, but again I am prepared for the response.
"I always enter." Dad is on his dignity.
I sigh. "I'll make a deal with you. I will paint your pictures for you, but I want them entered under my own name. Den Sherlock O'Derron. No less. Otherwise I'm going to Aunt Margia's."
Dad jumps. I think it's the shock of hearing my full name. Of course he has almost forgotten it, I think resentfully. But at least it startles him into agreeing to the bargain.
"That's a deal," he says surprisingly, and walks out of the room.
I frown. What did he just agree to? But under that dazedness, I am wickedly gleeful - I have just set a bargain with my dad, and he has agreed to it.
I finish my watery soup, which is already cold and puke-coloured, trying not to think about our conversation. I promise myself that I can think to my heart's content once I am safely in the cold haven of my bedroom. At least my room is private. In fact, by unwritten law, in this house any room already occupied by another person is private. Shame I broke the law earlier when I strolled into the kitchen.