Authors: Vanessa Curtis
Zelah Green: One More Little Problem
first published in
Great Britain 2010
by Egmont UK Limited
239 Kensington High Street
London W8 6SA
Copyright © Vanessa Curtis 2010
The moral rights of the author have been asserted
ISBN 978 1 4052 4054 3
eISBN 978 1 7803 1071 8
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from
the British Library
Typeset by Avon DataSet Ltd, Bidford on Avon, Warwickshire
Printed and bound in Great Britain by the CPI Group
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any
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recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the
publisher and copyright owner.
To Margaret, a true friend
y name’s Zelah Green and I’m a Cleanaholic.
I’m upstairs in my bedroom dreaming about a boy I used to know. His name was Sol and although I only knew him for four weeks he’s kind of got into my head and I can’t get him out again.
I’m also trying to plan my summer break.
Most kids are going to Disney World or camping in the New Forest or jetting off to Australia.
My summer plans take the form of a list. This is what it says:
Clean the house from top to bottom.
. (I have this little problem with something called OCD. It means that I hate germs and dirt.)
Scrub mud out of doormats and carpets.
Persuade Dad to have haircut.
Hide all alcohol in house in case Dad has a weak moment.
Cook and batch-freeze summer vegetables from garden.
Bake a cake.
Boring! When I read this list back I feel about ninety. What has happened to my carefree teenaged existence?
Oh yes – it all ended when my mother died, my stepmother tried to get rid of me, my father became a booze-soaked depressive, my best friend deserted me, I ended up in a treatment centre and my, erm, little problem got a bit out of control.
Put like that, the prospect of baking a cake doesn’t seem too bad after all.
I’m measuring out some nice clean flour from a lovely sealed packet on to the disinfected white scales when Heather pops her head round the back door. Heather’s our next-door neighbour and she’s gorgeous. Oh, and she’s also Dad’s girlfriend, believe it or not.
‘Mmm,’ she says. ‘Victoria sponge?’
I give her a scathing look.
‘Purlease,’ I say. ‘You know full well that a Victoria sponge would involve the use of jam.’
I don’t do jam. Horrid sticky smelly gloopy stuff clinging to the door handle of the fridge first thing in the morning. Major
I know. I’m a nightmare to live with.
‘Fruitcake, then?’ says Heather. She’s in a very good mood this morning. Her sunglasses are in their usual place on top of her long shiny
hair and her face is glowing with sun and health. Unlike Dad, Heather is a big fan of eating five portions of fruit and veg a day.
‘Heather,’ I say. ‘I’m disappointed in you. You’re supposed to know me better than that. Fruitcake would involve the use of –
I shudder just using the word. I’m the only person I know who is scared of sultanas.
Heather gives a big sigh with her hands on her hips.
‘I give up,’ she says. ‘Tell me, Zelah. Tell me what sort of cake you’re making. Tell me before I go insane from not knowing.’
‘Lemon,’ I say, ignoring her sarcasm and gesturing at the lovely clean little bottle of lemon juice next to my mixing bowl.
Heather mock-slaps her forehead.
‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Lemon. A perfect cleaning aid.’
I grin with pleasure. In fact I’ve already cleaned out the fridge today with a mixture of bicarbonate of soda and lemon juice and half a real lemon is sitting on the top shelf and soaking up all the vile old-meat-and-fish smells.
Lemons are big friends of mine. Kind of weird, I know, but as my real friends are a bit thin on the ground right now I need all the help I can get.
I did have a best friend – Fran – but she visited me when I was an inpatient at Forest Hill and she didn’t Get It. She thought that if you were in any sort of hospital you must be totally bonkers.
But all that stuff seems pretty normal to me. My father is mad, after all, and although my mum’s dead she was also crazy. Heather’s not exactly Miss Sanest Person on the Planet either. She’s not an out-and-out lunatic but you only have to spy on her doing ChiBall through
the lounge window to realise that she’s kind of – unusual.
That’s why Fran was so great. She comes from a very average sort of family. Her mother likes horses,
magazine and filling up little French dishes with tiny figscented soaps. Her father is a mild-mannered accountant with round black spectacles and a tendency to mutter. The bedrooms in their house are full of plump white linen pillows and pale pink sheets. Fran is neatness personified with her pink summer dresses and flip-flops, her perfect matching pedicures and her dark brown plait hanging exactly down the middle of her back like a well-trained horsetail.
She’s also very, very clean.
‘You’re doing that faraway thing again, kiddo,’ says Heather.
I break away from my Fran-induced reverie.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Miles away.’
I gesture towards the eggs.
Heather understands. She’s good like that.
She cracks the eggs into a bowl and beats them up so that I don’t have to handle the gunky shells. Then she tips it all into the bowl where I’ve mixed up flour and sugar.
‘Could you do the butter too?’ I say. Butter paper is seriously gross.
Heather cuts half a packet of butter into tiny squares and tips them into the mix.
I squirt in loads of lemon juice and then beat the whole thing into submission while Heather greases the edges of the cake tin with the butter paper.
When the cake mix is poured into the tin and placed in the (very clean) oven, Heather asks where Dad is.
‘Outside, where else?’ I say.
Dad is at the end of the back garden clipping branches in half for a bonfire.
He’s got his usual array of petrol cans, fish slices, scissors, tongs and rolled-up bits of newspaper, trying to start a fire.
We watch as Dad hops backwards when a flame shoots up and misses his eyebrows by about a millimetre and then dies away leaving a miserable stream of thin grey smoke behind.
Dad scratches his head and bumps his elbow on the tree behind him, trips up, falls over into a pile of compost and gets up again, brushing himself free of old tea bags and carrot tops.
Heather and I survey this sad spectacle in silence.
‘You’ve got to love him, haven’t you?’ she says, after a while.
‘Somebody has to,’ I agree.
Heather bangs on the window and yells at Dad to come in.
Ha! If only it were that simple.
As he starts to come in through the kitchen door I call out to him just in time.
‘Change outside,’ I say. ‘Sorry. It’s just that smoke is major
Dad makes a sort of growling noise and backs out into the garden, whipping off his shirt to reveal a nice eyeful of flabby middleaged stomach, sprouting underarm hair and baggy old boxer shorts.
‘Hands!’ I shout through the window.
Dad washes his hands and hair under the outside tap.
‘Shoes!’ I yell.
Dad changes his cracked brown gardening shoes to indoor ones.
You might think this is a bit over the top. But I used to be far worse. Before Forest Hill
I wouldn’t have let him inside the house at all.
When Dad finally gets back into the kitchen Heather dangles a bunch of keys in front of his bleary eyes.
‘You’re in charge of my house,’ she says.
Dad scratches his head.
‘What on earth for?’ he says.
Heather gives a small puff of frustration.
‘PATRICK!’ she says. ‘I’m off to Slovenia, remember? You’re to water my plants? And Zelah, you can use my laptop if you like.’
Heather knows that Dad’s computer is slow and can only do one thing at a time. I have an Atari games thing from the 1970s that Dad picked out of a skip but it only has three games on it and they didn’t have the Internet in the olden days.
Dad glances outside into the street where Heather’s red Porsche contains a couple of
suitcases and some expensive leather hand luggage.
‘Oh. You’re going now, are you?’ is all he says.
‘You know I am,’ she says. ‘We’ve discussed all this, Patrick. Remember?’
Dad picks at some dirt behind his fingernails.
I keep a close eye on where he puts the specks of earth.
Heather is fluffing up her hair in the kitchen mirror and checking her eyeliner.
Then she kisses Dad and air-kisses me.
‘Keep an eye on your dad, Zelah,’ she says. ‘I trust you. You’ll be fine. And if you need me, I’m on the end of the mobile. OK, kiddo?’
I nod in a sad sort of way. It won’t be the same without Heather around. She’s kind of like my replacement mum.
Then she’s slamming our front door and
bounding off towards the car, sliding her pencil-thin frame into the front seat and roaring off into the Slovenian sunset.
Dad and I look at each other over the huge bunch of keys.
‘Might as well go next door and see what’s what,’ he mumbles.
We head up Heather’s neat front path. Her garden looks like the ‘after’ version of ours. Ours is very definitely ‘before’.
I look back over the fence at our mangled overgrown wilderness of a front garden with the old broken sofa and the ancient toilet bowl with ivy growing around the base. Dad seems to have forgotten all about the front garden. Mum used to keep the front nice with pots on little feet sprouting pink and red flowers and miniature daffodils poking through squares of coloured paving.
I mentally add another chore to my ever-growing
summer list of fun things to do:
Make front garden look tidy