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A New Family for Charles
By Jennifer Hor
Charles wondered what his new parents and grandmother were going to be like. He had spent many years in the orphanage since his parents died and he often wished he had a family again. Now the carers and the orphanage director had told him his new parents would be picking up tomorrow and taking him "home." He had met the couple a few times with the director at the orphanage and after every meeting he had with them, the director would always say what lovely people they were. "And your new grandmother is such a delightful lady and an excellent cook!" she would add. Charles wondered how she knew if she was such a busy lady she hardly had time to leave the orphanage as she was always saying to see the grandmother but he supposed grown-ups had their own way of finding out things.
He spent much of the following morning looking outside the window of his room which he shared with three other children, watching the cars entering and exiting the orphanage grounds through the front gate. What sort of house did the new parents live in? He had already seen their car and knew what a swanky black sports sedan it was. What was the new grandmother like? Was she really a good cook?
He saw the shiny black car glide through the front gates and sail as if on air into a spot in the visitors' car park. Charles saw the two front doors open. The couple in black got out of the car, the woman straightening her hat and brushing her clothes. He saw the two walk out of the car park quickly and onto the path leading to the director's office. Not long after, one of the carers entered his room.
"Charles, your new parents have just arrived," the young woman said, "are you ready to go? Got all your things packed?"
Charles grabbed his carry-bag holding his clothes and his backpack crammed with his teddy and toy dinosaur and followed the carer down the corridor, down the stairs, through the dining-room and a maze of hallways and into the director's office. Already the couple in black were sitting there talking to the director. When Charles was ushered in, they stopped talking and turned to look at him.
"Don't be shy, Charles," the director said, "you've met your new parents before. Come and say hello."
The man got up and shook hands with Charles. "Hello, Charles," he said. Charles looked at the man's thinning brown hair and grey eyes framed by round spectacles. The man's grip was moderately firm and the hand itself was warm and slightly moist. Charles relaxed a little and smiled.
"Hello, Charles," the woman said. She was the most beautiful woman Charles had ever seen. Already he had been dreaming about her at nights. He shook her hand with its shiny red nails and soft palm. A whiff of expensive perfume made him sneeze.
The three adults spent an hour talking, filling in forms and drinking lots of coffee while Charles sat fidgeting and sneaking glances at the beautiful woman with her honey blonde hair and soft brown eyes. He wondered what sort of mother she'd be. Then everyone stood up and Charles had to stand up too. "Thank you very much for all you've done for us," the woman said, "we'd better start taking Charles home so he has time to settle in."
"And Nanna's probably got a big lunch waiting for us and she won't be happy if the food gets cold," the man added.
"Well, goodbye Charles," the director said, giving the boy a hug and a kiss, "I hope you'll enjoy being with your new family."
He hoped so too.
The new family drove to one of many large mansions in a faraway suburb. Charles had never seen such large houses before. In front of his new home was a huge front garden with many flowers, shrubs, a fountain and a long driveway leading to a double garage. The car stopped just before one garage door and everyone got out. The boy wanted to run around in the garden to see if it was all real but the couple herded him into the mansion. An elderly woman, just a head taller than Charles and possessing glittering eyes set into a gnarled face that reminded the boy of an old witch in a fairy tale he'd read, came into the large polished foyer. She was dressed in black with a white apron over her dress. "This is Nanna, Charles," his new mother said, "Nanna, this Charles. He's the new addition to the family."
"Hello, Charles," Nanna said in a dry and crackly voice. Charles remembered the fairy tale in which a little boy was locked up in a cage by an evil witch who visited him every day to check if he was getting fatter. The boy would offer a chicken bone to her to feel. Nanna inspected Charles closely and pinched his cheek hard with her bony hand. "My," she exclaimed, "you're a dear little boy. I could eat you up for breakfast!"
Charles's new father cleared his throat. "Let's take Charles's things to his bedroom and help him settle in." The couple led the boy up the grand spiral staircase into the hallway and to his bedroom. There was just the one bed there but the room was twice as big as the one he had shared with the three boys back at the orphanage. Charles took his two toys out of his backpack and laid them on the bedcover. The teddy and the tyrannosaurus looked very old and grubby on the cover.
"Would you like to rest a while, Charles?" his new mother asked. Charles nodded. His new mother's voice was soft and gentle and hard to resist. "Poor boy. You must have had a hectic morning. You have a lie down if you want. I'll get Nanna to bring up your lunch later." After putting away Charles's things and showing him around the bedroom and then the bathroom, the couple then left Charles alone in the bedroom. The boy looked around. There was a desk next to the bed. There was a chest of drawers where he could display the tyrannosaurus on top. He went over to the large window opposite the door and looked out. A large garden, a tennis court and a gazebo stood below. Charles couldn't believe his luck.
He heard a knock on the door and turned around to see it swing open. Nanna bustled in with a tray holding covered plates and a glass of fruit juice. She walked over to the desk and set the tray down. "I've made a nice hot lunch for you, Charles," she cackled, "I know boys your age like to eat a lot! I hope you like roast chicken and vegetables. Did they feed you well at the orphanage?" She started to go back to the door without waiting for an answer. "I'll come back in an hour to pick up the dishes." She looked back at Charles intently and he had the feeling she was sizing him up. "Enjoy your meal." She went back down the hallway. He could hear her chuckling.
The fruit juice was fresh and slightly sugary. He lifted the cover off the chicken and vegetables. The smell was heavy for chicken, pieces of which were blanketed in a thick, velvety brown gravy and onion bits. He scraped the gravy away with a knife and saw the smooth, soft white meat. At the orphanage, the only chicken he had eaten was the cheap barbecued kind with dry crinkly skin and tough, stringy meat. He speared a piece of meat with his fork and bit some off. The flavour was strange, the texture unfamiliar and the meat was tender. He ate all the chicken and most of the vegetables except the Brussels sprouts. He even ate the bread roll as it was softer and fluffier than the bread rolls he was used to. He ate up the stewed apple and cream and since there was no-one there to watch or berate him, he licked the dessert dish clean. He remembered to wipe his hands and mouth on the napkin and put everything back on the tray.
Nanna came back with a cup of steaming chocolate. "Did you enjoy your meal?" she asked. Charles nodded. The woman went over to the tray and tittered at the remains. "Charles, in this house you have to eat all your vegies if you want to be strong and healthy. Look at the Brussels sprouts you've left behind! This won't do, my dear. Just think of the poor children in Africa who can't get to eat such good nutritious food. What a waste!" She put the chocolate down on the desk and picked up the tray, muttering to herself. Charles felt his face go warm as he watched the cold green leafy balls on the plate being taken away. Nanna saw his red face. "Maybe you'd like these heated up for dinner tonight?" she suggested, her eyes shining with murky intent.
Charles hesitated, then shook his head. Somewhere in his mind, the door of a cage clanged shut and there was a child's sigh from behind the bars.
When he went to bed that night, two hours after a casserole dinner with carrots, the Brussels sprouts again left untouched, he had a vivid dream. He was riding on his tyrannosaurus (blown up to huge size) towards a large castle with tall shining turrets and a double garage. In the castle was a beautiful queen with honey blonde hair, soft brown eyes and shiny red nails being held prisoner by a cackling old witch who looked very much like the witch that had locked up the boy in the cage in the fairy tale. Charles was going to rescue the queen with … with … what? He had no weapons with him? How was he going to rescue the queen if he had no weapons? He stopped at the driveway and at that moment Charles woke up. He found himself back in bed and the dinosaur shrunk back to its usual puny plastic self sitting on the chest of drawers near the desk.
He spent the next day exploring the mansion and gardens. He ventured into all the upstairs rooms and most of the downstairs rooms but Nanna barred him from the kitchen. "It's no place for a child!" she said, "I'd be so ashamed if you came in and saw all the mess and dirt. No-one comes into the kitchen except for me!" So all Charles was able to see of the kitchen from the dining-room doorway was a large stainless steel refrigerator with large black handles, cupboards with granite tops and a stone floor. Everything looked shiny or at least well scrubbed and smelt of strong ammonia.
The gardens were large enough for Charles to race around in several times and still find something new and unexpected like little mushrooms in a patch behind the tennis court, a chicken bone under one of the shrubs or a little cloud of flies buzzing over a small dirt hump behind the gazebo. He liked the gardens – everything grew and blossomed so beautifully and colourfully. It would be a huge shame if someone were to come and dig up all the flowers, shrubs and grass and take away the gazebo.
The following day, his mother took him to see the headmaster of the school that was several blocks away from home. Charles marvelled at the huge sports ovals and playgrounds. Since it was school holiday time, there were no other children about.
The headmaster was a plump man with spectacles covering piggy eyes and perched on his blotchy red nose. He led the two around the school buildings and grounds. Charles gaped in awe at the classrooms while the adults chatted.
"By the way," the headmaster said, "we still have a couple of boarding vacancies for boys of Charles's age if you're both interested. I'm sure Charles, coming from a background where he's had to share a room with several other boys, would be at home in a boarding school situation."
"Would you be interested in boarding here, Charles?" his mother asked.
Charles looked up at both adults. He didn't know what to say. The school surrounds were grand and the thought of being with a lot of boys his age sounded all right but there was work that had to be done first. There was a little boy still trapped in a cage and there was a beautiful queen who needed rescuing.
Charles and his mother went to the school's clothing pool to get his school uniform and bags. The question of boarding had been left open as there was still time for Charles and his parents to make up their minds. After getting his uniform, they went back home for lunch. Charles thought he might sneak into the kitchen for a quick look after lunch but once again Nanna stood sentinel in the dining-room doorway.
"I don't want you picking up germs in here!" she insisted, "who knows what's lurking in here? It's no place for a child. Go on, out of here!" Odours of household bleach, anti-bacterial spray and disinfectant rose from behind Nanna and over her head as she stood over the boy.
"Don't worry, Charles," his mother said, seeing his bewildered look, "Nanna's always been concerned with keeping the kitchen clean and well-stocked. When Nanna was a little girl, her family was very poor and never had much to eat and where they lived was very dirty. They didn't have a bathroom and one of Nanna's sisters died as a baby. That's why she's so fussy now and why she wants you to eat well and keep clean."
Charles was not convinced by this explanation. The beautiful queen in the castle was under the witch's spell. On the other hand, if the kitchen needed so much cleaning as to stink of chemicals, then there must be something bad in there after all.
That night he woke up feeling thirsty. Riding the dinosaur to the castle with the self-powering rocket launcher was tiring. He got out of bed and pressed the intercom button. Nothing happened – no crackling sound that indicated someone had heard the buzz. He pressed the button again. Still no answer. Everyone must be asleep. He picked the little torch his mother had given him in case he needed to make trips to the bathroom at night and switched it on. He followed the light through the hallway, down the stairs into the foyer, into the living-room and then the dining-room where he saw that the doorway to the kitchen was open. Dare he go in? Somewhere in the living-room, the clock gently sounded the hour. He looked at the time display on the clock and saw it read 1:00 pm. Well if it was 1:00 pm, everyone must be fast asleep so he would have to go into the kitchen himself and get the glass of water.
He shone the torch onto the stainless steel fridge facing across the kitchen floor. The handles were very long and vertical. He padded across the tiles in bare feet (how chilly they felt!) and tugged at one of the handles. The door did not respond to his efforts. With the torch in his mouth, he tugged and tugged with both hands until the door yielded with an audible sigh and a puff of cold air.
The light went on inside the fridge and revealed its contents. Charles dropped his torch and screamed.
Five days later, Charles and his parents were sitting in the headmaster's office. Charles smiled at the plump man and graciously accepted a chocolate bear biscuit the headmaster offered him.
"Well then, Charles, everything is settled," the headmaster said, "on Sunday just before school resumes, you'll be boarding with nine boys under Mr Friedman's care. There'll be three other new boys in your dormitory." He smiled. "I hope you'll enjoy your time." Then he turned to the parents. "Don't you worry about Charles, I think he'll be just fine here. We'll keep him and his curiosity busy. Children like him may be quiet but in my experience they're very resilient and resourceful."
"Thank you so much, we're so grateful," his mother whispered, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief sodden with eyeliner and mascara stains. Out of the corner of his eye, Charles saw she wasn't crying but she was trembling. His father sat with bowed head clasping and reclasping his hot and sweaty hands.
They heard a knock at the door. The headmaster got up to open it and a young man stepped inside. "Ah, Mr Friedman, good morning. This is Charles, one of the new boarders in your group. Charles, this is Mr Friedman," the headmaster said. "Mr Friedman will take you to the dormitory and show you around. Then he'll bring you back here." The headmaster looked at the young housemaster. "Thanks."
"Will do, sir. Let's go, Charles." Mr Friedman and Charles left the office together. After they shut the door behind them, they heard a muffled burst of crying and a man's voice mentioning something about cannibalism in the headmaster's office. Mr Friedman raised his eyebrows quizzically and Charles shrugged his shoulders and looked suitably puzzled in reply.
As they walked towards the dormitory, Charles pondered the events of the past few days and felt rather sorry for his distraught parents. The police had questioned them over and over and found them innocent but the removal of Nanna had hit them hard. Yes, he was also sorry about Nanna after all she had endured as a girl – now she was sitting in a jail cell for who knows how long. He was sorry that the kitchen was now dirty and messy because forensic investigators had taken parts of the fridge as well as all its contents away. He was sorry that in his dreams the little boy had fallen out of the cage and squashed the evil witch dead, the dinosaur had destroyed most of the castle with the rocket launcher still unused and the beautiful queen decided to lock herself in the garage. But he was not sorry that soon he would be eating normal chicken again, barbecued dry, tough, stringy and tasteless.