The morning Arthur woke up with magic, he felt brilliant. Like he’d had the best sleep in the world, in the most comfortable pyjamas in the most just right bed with the greatest dreams. And that was odd, since he hadn’t fitted his most comfortable pyjamas since he was fourteen and he hadn’t had the most just right bed since they had moved into their current house when he was ten (Dad had said his racing car bed was old and anyway, Arthur was a big boy now and big boys didn’t need racing car beds). Arthur decided it must have been a real whiz bang and brilliant dream, and went to take his shower, trying to remember exactly what that dream could have been.
For as long as he could remember, Arthur had woken up early to watch the Sunday morning cartoons. And the Saturday ones, but that was by the by. This Sunday was no different. He made a cup of tea and a toast and Nutella, because it was Sunday, and sat in the living room. Soon he was enthralled by the Storyteller, who was telling a story about a boy who cried wolf. Arthur knew that he was too old to watch children’s telly, really, but he really liked the Storyteller, and he liked that the telly in his room had a recording system so he could listen to it before bed as well. (Before then it had been assorted episodes of Jackanory, the Bedtime Story and In The Night Garden on Cbeebies, and even before that there had been tapes and CDs once Mum stopped reading him stories.) So Arthur watched avidly with Snoopadoop snoozing beside him. Mum came down and started making breakfast (boiled egg in Arthur’s stripey egg cup and soldiers for him and fruit salad and yoghurt for Mum). She dropped something in the kitchen with a clatter.
“Are you alright Mum?” Arthur called, and got up to go into the kitchen. He remembered his mug and grimaced at the thought of cold tea, but when he sipped from it (having ascertained that Mum was alright) it was actually at just the right temperature. Which was nice.
Mum was in the hall, carefully adjusting her jewellry. Herc was taking her out for a meal and a film, but Arthur wasn’t allowed to go because Snoopadoop would get lonely. So he sat on the stairs with Snoopadoop and watched Mum wrap a shawl round her shoulders.
“You look brilliant, Mum,” Arthur told her.
“Don’t be foolish Arthur, I look like the Wicked Witch of the West’s maiden aunt. Maybe I should change...” But at that moment the doorbell rang. Herc looked as dashing as ever, but when he saw Mum his jaw dropped. Arthur thought a fly might go into it.
“Carolyn... You look... amazing,” he said. And Mum blushed!
“Shut up, and put your tongue away. Don’t we have dinner reservations?” Mum swept past Herc, but she looked like she did when she found Douglas’ had hidden Talisker in the overhead locker inside a teddy-bear. Arthur and Snoopadoop spent the night watching Wall-E and eating fish fingers. And for once, Arthur actually cooked the fish fingers so they were just right.
On Monday, Arthur phoned Martin.
“What do you want Arthur? If Carolyn wants me to come in, she should call me herself instead of getting you to do the dirty work.”
“Oh, nothing like that Skip, I was just wondering what you were doing today. Mum’s still out with Herc and I’ve walked Snoopadoop and done all the dishes and watched Toy Story--”
“I’m going to Coventry to deliver some books.” Martin knew that if he didn’t interrupt he was likely to get a litany up to and including ‘and there wasn’t quite enough Coco Pops for the milk’.
Arthur didn’t say anything straight away, because that would be rude. Martin sighed in a long rush of static.
“Do you want to come to Coventry with me, Arthur?”
“Ooh, yes please!”
Half an hour later, Arthur arrived at Skip’s big house (although Skip only lived in the attic). Arthur didn’t always like the people that Martin lived with, sometimes they laughed at him (Arthur knew when people were laughing at him, at least) but the current lot weren’t so bad. Char would even give him a glass of juice, if she was in. But he didn’t get to knock on the door. Martin was already outside, with the bonnet of his old van up, buried inside its inner workings.
“What’re you doing Skip?”
“Wha--ow!” Martin banged his head on the bonnet. “Oh, it’s you. The trip’s off, sorry.”
“What? Oh no!”
“The carburetor’s gone...” Martin rubbed his head and looked into the depths of the van gloomily.
“Let me see,” Arthur said helpfully.
“Arthur, I don’t mean to be unkind, but what you know about carburetors could be fitted on a very small stamp. With room to spare.”
“Thanks, Skip!” Arthur grinned at him and then poked about under the bonnet. Which one was the carburetor again? “It’s very dirty in here, Skip. You should clean it more.”
“Yes, thank you. Any more helpful tips?”
“No...” Arthur put his head in his hands (getting the elbows of his jumper dirty). “I suppose you could take it to the garage.”
“But that’s so expensive...” Martin moaned, and joined Arthur peering into the depths.
“I suppose.” Arthur wasn’t really sure what Mum paid Martin. It couldn’t be much, but then, he hadn’t been a pilot as long as Douglas. Perhaps you got more the more you did it. “I was looking forward to going to Coventry though.”
“So was I.” Martin smiled wryly.
Arthur poked what he thought might be the carburetor. “Come on, silly old thing! Work!” The van suddenly turned over, and sat there, growling happily. “Oh, thank you!” Arthur patted the van and Martin stared at it.
“But it was-- how did you--”
“I don’t know, I didn’t do anything. Maybe there was just some dirt in it or something.” Arthur ambled round the side of the van. “When we go to the petrol station, can I get some sweets?” Martin stared at the engine, which was ticking over contentedly.
“Uh, sure,” he muttered. “Sure.”
They stopped at a services, and Martin went to check under the bonnet of the car again, on the basis that something surely had gone wrong now, even though it hadn’t.
Arthur liked buying food at a service station cafe because the food was somehow different from any other place in the whole world.
“There’s nothing like a food from a service station!” Arthur said brightly.
“Yes, that’s quite true.” Martin agreed, looking suspiciously at the food under the cabinet that kept stuff hot and cold depending on which side of the cabinet they were on. “I’m not sure you could find another cafe in the world that would serve eggs you could use as an inner tube, in a pinch.”
Skip sometimes said stuff like that, so Arthur ignored him and continued, “It’d be great working in a service station. You could make a new friend every day!”
“I don’t know, she doesn’t look too happy about it.” Martin indicated the pale girl at the till.
“Maybe she’s sad because she couldn’t buy her favourite type of biscuits, or she missed a film she really really wanted to see,” Arthur suggested. “You like working here, don’t you?” This was addressed to the pale girl gloomily ringing through their tea and donuts.
“Huh?” She stood up straighter and smiled, a smile of pure satisfaction. “Oh, yes, I love it here. You get to meet such a diverse range of people and really make them feel like they’re taking a good old break from the road, you know?” She continued to smile, despite the look that Martin was giving her.
“That’s brilliant! Exactly what I thought.” Arthur finished paying and walked away. Behind him and Martin, the girl suddenly sagged and looked momentarily confused before shaking her head and ringing up the next purchase, her smile gone.
In Coventry, they drove straight to the man who had ordered the books. He had a little honey-coloured dog called Polly, and while Skip helped the man take the books out of the van, Arthur took Polly to a place that the man called The Wedge. It didn’t look very wedge shaped, but it had a field full of long grass where all he could see of Polly was a V-shape as she ran through it. A couple of kids in black school blazers were watching and smoking a cigarette, passing it between each other agreeably.
“Your dog don’t half look dopey mister,” one of them called over, and her friend laughed.
“She’s not dopey,” Arthur told them, indignantly. “She’s... She’s the noblest of hounds!”
Polly stepped out of the long grass and up onto the stump of a tree. The girls stared at her.
“Is that your dog, mister?” the other one asked.
“Well, he belongs to Mister Reed, really, but I said I’d take her for a walk, because they didn’t need me to help with the books.”
“Oh... Does she like, do tricks?” She was still staring at the dog, who looked back placidly.
“She can fetch!” Arthur said, stubbornly, even though Polly had steadfastly ignored all the sticks he’d thrown for her. “Look!” And he threw a stick for Polly, who ran after it, brought it back and deposited it at Arthur’s feet. She sat there, looking up expectantly.
“Oh.” The other girl nudged her.
“We gotta go back now, Miss Mayall’ll call my parents if I don’t show up for PE again.”
“Yeah, alright.” The girl bent down and petted Polly. “Bye, doggy.”
After they had wandered off again, Arthur threw the stick again. Polly scratched her ear and jumped in the brook.
After that they lay in the sun for a bit and then Martin rang and asked him to come back.
When Arthur and Polly got back, Martin met them outside.
“Oh my god, what did you do to the dog?”
“Nothing!” Arthur said, defensively. “She went for a swim.”
“In the Incredible Hulk’s snot?” Martin stared at Polly in horror. Polly lolled out a tongue that looked all the more pink against the green of her fur.
“No, in the stream.”
“Arthur, she’s filthy. Mister Reed is going to be so cross when he sees this. Do you know how much a dog groomer costs?”
“Sixty pounds, if you get her coat clipped as well,” Arthur said, helpfully.
“Sixty...” Martin looked like someone had told him he had to fly to Alaska in a snow storm.
“Is your little brother back yet?” Mr Reed emerged from his house. Martin stood in front of Polly.
“Hullo!” Arthur looked round Martin and smiled. “I’m not his little brother though. People think that all the time but we don’t even look alike.”
“Where’s Polly? Polly!”
Martin closed his eyes as Polly came bounding out from behind him.
“Mister Reed, I’m so sorry...”
“Did you have a good time then, Poll? Good girl, come here,” Mr Reed dropped to his knees to greet a perfectly clean dog, wagging her tail enthusiastically.
“We played fetch!” Arthur told him, brightly, whilst Martin stared.
“Did you now? I’ve never been able to get her to take to fetch, she prefers just to run around.” Mr Reed scrubbed at Polly’s fur and Polly wagged her curled tail contentedly. “She’s the daftest creature, really. Aren’t you? Got a stupid face, haven’t you?”
Martin started shoving Arthur towards the van. “Er, there’s just the matter of payment.”
“Ah, yes. How much do I owe you?”
Arthur called Polly over, and knelt beside her.
“Do you think he’ll give Skip a tip? You should know, he’s your owner.”
Polly looked up at him and wagged her tail.
“I hope he gives a good one. Then we can go to the cinema tonight.”
Arthur and Polly watched Martin and Mr Reed shake hands, smiling, and then Mr Reed whistled Polly over.
In the van, Martin concentrated on pulling away from the curb, not saying much.
“Did he give you a good tip?” Arthur asked, eagerly.
“Can we go to the cinema tonight then?”
Martin didn’t answer straight away.
“Oh please Skip, there’s a really good one on right now--”
“Arthur, how did you clean the dog?”
“The dog. Mister Reed’s dog. She was covered in stream sludge. She looked like a bogey!”
“Um...” Arthur’s brow wrinkled. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“The dog was dirty, then she was clean. How did that happen?”
“I don’t know! It just did. But that was good, right? You didn’t have to pay for a dog groomer or anything.”
“That’s not the point. Arthur--” Martin paused, gathering his thoughts. This was not something they usually talked about. “What have you been doing in the Bar, recently?”
“Um...” Arthur thought hard. “I go and see the squid. It likes toast. Sometimes I talk to people. The Bar gives me hot chocolate.” Then when this doesn’t quite seem like enough, “Really good hot chocolate.”
“Who have you been talking to?” Martin’s tried to sound casual. It didn’t work.
“I don’t know, Skip, lots of people!” Arthur looked a little scared now. “Why?”
“Because all day weird things have been happening and I don’t know why. I haven’t been in the Bar in ages, so it’s not me. And as far as I know, Douglas and Carolyn have never been. So that leaves you. So. Have you met anyone diff--odd--unu...” Martin trailed off, trying to think of someone he met there who wasn’t a little odd.
“Uh, I know what you mean, Skip, but no, I haven’t. I haven’t done anything, honest!” Arthur put on his best innocent face.
“Do you have a cramp?”
“What? No, I’m fine, really. Everything’s fine.” Arthur sat back in the van seat. “Can we go to the cinema tonight, please?”
Martin stared at Arthur for a bit.
“Do you feel alright though? I mean, in yourself.”
“Oh, never better,” Arthur smiled brightly at Martin. It was such a normal Arthur smile that Martin almost felt reassured. “If we go to the cinema on the way home, we can go to my place and have some pizza.”
“Did you make the pizza?”
“No, Mum says I’m not allowed to make pizza because she can’t get the stains out of the ceiling.”
“Oh. Well, alright then.”
After Skip went home (the pizza was perfect, Arthur sent Martin home with the rest because of a vague notion that he didn’t get pizza very often) Arthur sat in his room and looked at his hands. Then he looked at the light, and said, “Abracadabra!”
The light turned off. Arthur stared at it, and then went and switched the light back on.
“Abracadabra!” The light went off. Arthur smiled, and switched the light back on. He pointed at his old teddy, Paddy, sitting on his bed. Paddy stood up, waved to Arthur, and walked up and down the bed before sitting down again. The model planes on the ceiling flew round and round in dizzying circles and his old toy trains shunted back and forth on their shelves. Paddy watched agreeably as an old rocket took off from under the bed and a squadron of toy soldiers marched out in formation. The cupboard opened and a dozen Matchstick cars vroomed out. Paddy followed the proceedings with interest, tapping his paws as the radio turned itself on. Arthur stood on his bed, grinning. This was brilliant. Better than brilliant. This was... Really brilliant. He lead his cars and trains and soldiers on a conga line round the room, with Paddy clapping his paws. One of the strings on his Hurricane snapped and it started to swoop round the room, buzzing the trains and looping the loop.
“Arthur? Are you home? Arthur!” He could hear Mum coming down the hallway. Hurriedly, he flapped his hands in a shooing motion. The soldiers hopped on the cars and hitched a ride under the bed, while the trains shuffled up the wall. Paddy sat back on his pillow and the freed Hurricane came to land on his desk.
“Yes Mum?” Arthur hopped off his bed and went to the door. Paddy waved goodbye as he went.