"This is Geoffrey Fitzroy, headmaster of Malton House," said a plummy, English voice. "I'm calling about your nephew, Ned."
I was caught by surprise. I'd been expecting it to be someone conducting a market research survey or a recorded voice promising me a holiday in Florida. I put down the cup of milk I'd been carrying and transferred the phone to my other hand so I could listen more carefully. "Is he OK?"
"Physically, yes - apart from something of a black eye - but I'm sorry to say I've had to suspend him from school for a couple of days. Could you possibly come in to collect him? I'd like to have a chat about his behaviour."
"Er..." I glanced across the kitchen at Marie. She was busy eating her lunch. She grinned at me and waved, a green bean protruding downwards from either side of her mouth as she pretended to be a walrus. I didn't fancy my chances of getting her through town in a hurry. "Wouldn't you be better talking to his parents?"
"I've just learned from Ned that they're currently in Peru."
"What!?" This was news to me. I immediately suspected that Ned was making it up to avoid his dad being called in. Then again, there was a possibility I'd been told about it and forgotten. (Chris and Catriona are always gallivanting about with their jobs and I've long since given up paying attention.) I decided it was safest to play stupid. "Oh... Really?"
"I'm afraid so. Yours is the emergency contact number."
I did remember agreeing to that. Admittedly it had been more than a decade previously, back when Ned was in nursery, but what could I do? "Fine," I said. "I'll be there in three-quarters of an hour."
* * *
I'd say that Malton House is an unusual place but I've yet to encounter a private school that isn't at least a tiny bit wacky. In this context, Malton House is pretty normal.
The original building is a crumbling Georgian mansion covered in ivy that's imposing but not awfully attractive. It's a stone box with a grand, pillared entrance and a shallow dome on top. It does, however, draw attention away from the profusion of portacabins and concrete science buildings which have sprung up around it over the years.
The grounds are fronted by a high wall and I headed through the main gateway with some trepidation. My memories of school are not good - I was afraid the iron gates would clang shut behind me and I'd suddenly find myself forced to endure Double German and then play rugby.
Oblivious to my nerves, Marie whizzed off down the tree-lined driveway on her little pink scooter and I was forced to jog after her. A sports field stretched away to our left and a lawn to our right. Across the lawn was a very dense clump of bushes and some thickly packed firs. Through the trees, I caught the occasional glimpse of a truly hideous architectural monstrosity lurking in the shadows beyond, hiding itself from scornful looks amongst the dank foliage while squinting longingly at the light.
My heart sank. The physics block had been banished. I really wasn't going to blend in during my visit to the school. I hadn't had time for a haircut but I began to wish I'd changed out of my baggy pullover and put on a shirt and tie.
As we reached the main building, a discrete sign labelled 'Administration' directed us to a side entrance. I knocked on the door and there was a muffled, "Come in," so I opened it tentatively and went into the cramped and cluttered office beyond. It was more a cubby-hole off the side of a corridor than anything else and it had been filled with a desk and filing cabinets. An older woman eyed me suspiciously from behind her computer monitor, peering at me over the top of her half-moon glasses as if I was about to waste her time. "Can I help you?"
"Er..." I began.
Then Marie piped up with, "I'm Marie. This is my daddy. We're here to get Ned. He's been bad."
The woman didn't even smile. "Quite," she said. "The headmaster is expecting you. Go on through."
"Thanks," I said and hurried down the corridor, carrying Marie's scooter in one hand and dragging her along with the other, hoping to get away before she could divulge any information which I might regret.
Marie kept a steady stream of witter aimed at the school secretary as we went. "We came here on a bus but we're in a hurry because we have to get back to collect my brothers from their school. One of my brothers is called Lewis and he's six. My other brother is called Fraser; he's eight. They don't have to pay for their school but it's just as goo..."
And we were round the corner.
The secretary must have buzzed ahead because the headmaster appeared to meet us. He was a cordial man with slicked-back white hair and a firm handshake who welcomed me into his study as if I was an important benefactor.
The room was less cramped than the secretary's office but just as cluttered. The walls were lined with bookshelves and glass-fronted cabinets. Along with a vast collection of leather-bound books, a strange assortment of museum pieces was on display. There was everything from a flintlock pistol to mounted butterflies to a full-size totem pole which filled one corner of the room. It was like being backstage at The Antiques Roadshow. Up near the high ceiling, a selection of stuffed animals scrutinised us from the top of the cabinets. I was strangely disturbed by an guitar-playing owl and a pussy cat in a pea-green boat. They had some honey, plenty of money and very surprised expressions.
I averted Marie's gaze as best I could.
Ned was already there, sitting hunched over on a chair in front of the headmaster's desk, his hands in his pockets. He grunted a hello and I sat beside him. The upholstery on the chair was threadbare, as was the carpet, and the whole place had a faint odour of decaying fabric and furniture polish.
The headmaster poured me some tea in a china cup and then returned his attention to the work on his desk which had obviously been occupying him before I arrived. I politely drank my tea as he finished gluing teeth back into the manky remains of a baby crocodile.
Marie ran over to Ned and gave him a hug and started telling him all about her day in nursery. "I played in the water tray with Amy but she made splashes and got us wet. She didn't put her apron on, though, and so she was wetter than me and Miss Nolan told her off for making splashes and not putting her apron on. Then I had a snack. It was pizza! I didn't drink all my milk, though. I only drank nearly all my milk and..."
Ned's good with her. He nodded and smiled in the right places even when she continued on for several minutes.
After a while, I began to get restless. I put my tea down and checked my watch. We didn't have long before we needed to catch the bus back. Fortunately, the headmaster took this as some form of cue and looked up from his repairs. "So?" he said, waving some tweezers at Ned. "What do you have to say for yourself, young man?"
I grabbed Marie and handed her a plastic tub with the remains of her lunch to keep her quiet.
"Collins started it," said Ned.
"Mr Jacobs quite clearly observed you throw the first punch."
"Collins was calling me names."
The headmaster dismissed Ned's words with a chuckle and a patronising smile. "Well, a little name-calling hardly seems like a reason to hit someone in the stomach."
Ned didn't reply.
I guessed there was more to it than he was letting on. "How long has he been calling you names?" I asked.
"How long have I been at this school?" Ned said bitterly. "I can't do anything without him and his mates laughing at me."
I pressed further. "Has he ever started a fight with you?"
Ned shrugged. "A few times."
I turned to the headmaster. Having been in Ned's shoes as a teenager, I had a fairly clear idea where this was going. "Is this other kid getting suspended as well or has he been put on the rugby team?" I asked.
"Collins does have an important match this afternoon," said the headmaster, confirming my suspicions, "but I fail to see the relevance." He put down his tweezers and leant back in his leather chair. "Did you report these incidents?" he asked Ned.
Ned shook his head.
The headmaster locked his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. "We cannot act on events we know nothing about. If you don't report such things, we cannot deal with them."
"Erm," I said. "He's reporting them now."
I got the full force of the patronising smile. "It's a little late in the day, don't you think? I require dates and witnesses and..."
He trailed off as we all suddenly spotted that Marie was trying to feed the crocodile a cheese sandwich. "I'm a walrus," she said with a grin full of green beans.
The headmaster simply stared at her.
We were onto a lost cause and I used the distraction to beat a retreat. "We have to go. Two days suspension, was it?"
Mr Fitzroy managed a nod as he poked at the sandwich with his tweezers. It wasn't going to come out of the crocodile's mouth without a fight.
"OK," I said. "I'll tell his parents exactly what happened. Let's go, Ned."
I bundled everyone out of the room without looking back. We weren't in that much of a rush but I was mildly worried in case the school had dogs and they were about to be set on us.
The secretary glared at us as we left.
Marie gave her two slightly-chewed green beans to cheer her up.
* * *
"Why didn't you say something?" I said as we sat down on the lower deck of the bus. "You've been round our house every other day for six months."
I was next to Marie; Ned was on the seat behind. I turned to face him as best I could but he was looking at his knees. "Were you bullied at school?" he muttered.
"Did you tell anyone?"
He had me there. "Guess not," I said. Somehow he'd managed to answer my question in full without actually telling me anything. As Marie befriended an old lady across the aisle and told her all about the crocodile, I tried a different tack. "OK, so why'd you decide to hit that boy today? I'm not too happy at having to cover for you, by the way. Why'd you tell Mr Fitzroy that your parents are in Peru?"
"'Cos they're in Peru."
He shrugged. "They'll be back on Monday. Lisa's eighteen - they left her in charge."
Understanding began to dawn. "Of you?" I said.
"Yeah." He finally became animated as the injustice of being ordered about by his sister welled up inside him. "I have to clean my room and everything. She's got me arranging the food in the fridge by sell-by date and taking a shower every day. It's like living in Stepford."
It's true that my niece, Lisa, is something of an over-achieving control freak who scares normal people with her inhuman levels of enthusiasm and politeness... but she does mean well. I didn't want to be critical of her when she wasn't even present to defend herself. Also, having spent plenty of time around Ned of late, I was on her side about the showers. I tried to stay neutral. "Come on, she can't force you to smell nice."
"Mum and dad left her the cash. I can't do anything if she won't let me. I'm skint - I spent out on Big Macs last week." He saw my confused look and explained. "She got a home delivery and it was all salad and yogurt."
"Oh," I said. "I take it that this explains where my stash of crisps and chocolate biscuits has disappeared to recently."
"Sorry," he said. "Needed food." He opened his school bag to reveal a familiar looking pile of snacks. "Couldn't leave it in my room - she'd have found it and turned it into cat treats or, you know, given it to homeless people or something."
I sighed. Technically he should have asked before taking but I was simply glad to see the stuff. I'd been fretting over where I'd put it. I was certain I'd bought it and brought it home, so its absence from the kitchen cupboards had been worrying - either the mice had got hugely brazen or I'd got distracted and made a serious unpacking error with the shopping. After the washing machine and the bathroom cabinet had proved to be full of nothing but dirty clothes and toiletries respectively, I'd spent a couple of days checking my shoes for Mars bars before putting them on.
In my relief that I wasn't going barmy, I took pity on Ned. "You could always stay at ours for two or three nights."
"Yeah, please!" he said, delighted at the prospect (and at not getting another telling off).
"You'll have to sleep on an air bed in Fraser's room," I said, attempting to quell his excitement slightly, "and you'll definitely have to shower at least once during the visit."
"Right then." I was rather thrown that I'd suddenly got an overnight guest I hadn't been expecting. There was a bed to make and food to buy and goodness knows what else to do. Then I looked out of the bus and noticed we were passing near Ned's house. "You can get off at the next stop and pop home to collect your stuff."
"S'OK. I've got my iPod and I can play your Xbox."
"I was thinking of clean underwear and a toothbrush," I said. "Maybe some deodorant. That kind of thing."
Ned didn't look like he could be bothered.
I pressed the STOP button and jerked my head in the direction of the door. "Seriously. Go and get them or I'll feed you yogurt."
Reluctantly, he mooched off.
I relieved him of his school bag as he went past. "I can take that," I said helpfully. "Save you carrying it everywhere." He shrugged and gave it to me.
I think he was on the pavement before he realised that this meant I had all the biscuits.
I opened a packet of chocolate fingers and gave two to Marie. "Can I be a walrus again?" she asked.
"Of course you can," I replied and inserted a couple in the corners of my own mouth.
We banged on the window as the bus pulled away, just to make sure Ned saw us grinning and waving and impersonating aquatic mammals.
For some reason, he pretended not to know us...
Yours in a woman's world,