Absolute zero, p.1
Absolute Zero, page 1
First published in Great Britain by Faber and Faber Ltd in 1978
First published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2017
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© The Estate of Helen Creswell 1978
Cover design © HarperCollins Publishers 2017
Cover illustration © Sara Ogilvie 2017
Helen Cresswell asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780008211707
Ebook Edition © 2015 ISBN: 9780008211721
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The whole thing started when Uncle Parker won a cruise in the Caribbean for two after filling in a leaflet he had idly picked up in the village shop. The minute the news was known in the Bagthorpe household disbelief, annoyance and downright jealousy began to degenerate into what became, inevitably, an All Out Furore.
The company who had promoted this competition sold SUGAR-COATED PUFFBALLS breakfast cereal. Mr Bagthorpe immediately stated that Uncle Parker should refuse the prize on moral grounds. Uncle Parker, he said, had never consumed so much as a single SUGAR-COATED PUFFBALL in his entire life, and was thus automatically disqualified from reaping a reward for doing so. Mrs Bagthorpe did not agree. Daisy Parker, she said, ate a lot of SUGAR-COATED PUFFBALLS, she ate them every day of her life.
In that case, Mr Bagthorpe said, Daisy should have filled in the competition form. He then turned on his own children.
“Don’t you lot ever eat SUGAR-COATED PUFFBALLS?” he demanded. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I do,” said Jack promptly. “I really like them.”
“So why didn’t you go in for this thing?”
“I haven’t got a leaflet,” Jack said. “And even if I had, I wouldn’t have bothered. Nobody ever wins those things.”
“On the contrary, somebody does win them,” said Mr Bagthorpe in a tight voice. “We know that.”
“Why didn’t you tell me there was a competition?” asked William. “Then I could’ve won a prize.”
“You don’t automatically win by filling in a form, you know,” Tess told him. “Usually some kind of skill is required. And usually the deciding factor is a slogan.”
“So?” said William.
“I’d be better at slogans than you,” said Tess.
She turned not a hair as she spoke. In the Bagthorpe house everybody boasted. It was not called boasting, it was called “having a just pride in one’s own talents and achievements” – a phrase coined by Mrs Bagthorpe, who was very strong on Positive Thinking. The only ones who did not go in for it were Jack and his mongrel dog, Zero. They just kept quiet and lay low, mostly.
“I,” interposed Mr Bagthorpe now, “would be better than anybody at slogans, I believe. And how that layabout insensitive parasite managed to string so many as half a dozen words together is beyond me.”
“Perhaps Aunt Celia helped him,” said Rosie. “She can do The Times crossword three times as quickly as you can, Father. And she doesn’t use dictionaries and things.”
Honesty, especially of the tactless variety, was also a common trait of the Bagthorpe family.
“Nothing to do with it,” said Mr Bagthorpe. “Any fool can do crosswords. It’s creativity that counts.”
“But Aunt Celia writes poetry,” said Rosie, who could be as incorrigible as anyone if she chose, even though she was only just nine.
“Aunt Celia writes poetry,” repeated Mr Bagthorpe. “So she does. And does anybody ever understand a single word of it?”
No one answered this.
“I spend my entire life wrestling with words,” went on Mr Bagthorpe. (He wrote scripts for television.) “I live, breathe, sleep and eat words.”
(This was not strictly true. One thing Mr Bagthorpe never did was eat his words.)
The news of Uncle Parker’s win had been conveyed by telephone, and later in the morning he raced up the drive in his usual gravel-scattering style to rub salt in the wound. Jack and Zero were lying on the lawn, the former reading a comic, the latter gnawing a bone. Uncle Parker came to a furious halt and poked his head out of the window.
“Morning,” he said. “How’ve they taken it, then?”
“I think you should have waited a bit longer before coming round,” Jack told him. “They haven’t got over it yet.”
“Green as grass, are they?”
“Greener,” Jack told him.
“Your father’s hardest hit, I take it?”
“He’s livid,” Jack said. “He says you can’t string half a dozen words together.”
“Didn’t have to,” said Uncle Parker cheerfully. “Only five words in my slogan.”
“What was it?” enquired Jack with interest. It suddenly occurred to him that he could string five words together, at a pinch.
Uncle Parker cleared his throat.
“Sounds a bit silly in cold blood,” he said, “even to me. But here goes: Get Tough with Sugar Puff.”
There was a silence.
“Is that all?”
“Well, I’m bound to say,” said Jack at last, “that it doesn’t sound much. You’re pretty lucky to have won a prize with that. If you don’t mind my saying.”
Jack was endowed with the Bagthorpian honesty but was not so ruthless with it as the rest. He tried to temper it a little.
“You are absolutely right,” agreed Uncle Parker. “I would not have given anyone a bar of chocolate for that slogan. I wouldn’t have given them a handful of peanuts. But in their wisdom, Messrs SUGAR-COATED PUFFBALLS have decided I deserve a Caribbean holiday for it, and who am I to argue?”
“Father’s going to argue,” said Jack. “Come on, Zero.”
He got up and followed the car to the house, to be sure not to miss anything. Uncle Parker was in the kitchen trying to persuade Mrs Fosdyke to give him a cup of coffee. None of the family was yet in evidence though they soon would be. The way Uncle Parker drove, nobody could be unaware
“When Mrs Bagthorpe comes out of her Problems I shall make coffee,” Mrs Fosdyke was saying firmly. (Mrs Bagthorpe did a monthly Agony Column under the name of Stella Bright, and it took a great deal of her time. It also took a great deal out of her.)
Mr Bagthorpe appeared.
“Morning, Henry,” Uncle Parker greeted him. “Script coming along, is it?”
“What was that slogan, then?” demanded Mr Bagthorpe, dispensing with the niceties.
“It was a bad slogan,” Uncle Parker told him, “but the others were evidently worse. The more people ask me to repeat it, the less I enjoy doing so. You tell him, Jack.”
“Get Tough with Sugar Puff,” said Jack.
Mr Bagthorpe sat down. He shook his head long and hard.
“It’s a reflection on the society we live in, of course,” he said at last.
“Oh, it is,” Uncle Parker agreed. “I deplore it.”
“Hullo, Uncle Park!” Rosie ran in now. “You are clever winning that prize. And when you and Aunt Celia are away, can Daisy come and stay with us?”
Rosie was the youngest of the Bagthorpe children, and in the position of having no one to look down on. She looked down on Jack, up to a point, although he was older, but Daisy was only four and three quarters and much more easily impressed.
“If that child comes here,” said Mr Bagthorpe, “it will be up to you, Russell, to pay extra fire cover on the house, and take out policies on all our lives.”
“Including Zero’s,” put in Jack.
Not many months previously Daisy had gone through a Pyromaniac Phase. She had started nine fires in one week, three of them serious. The Bagthorpe dining-room was still only partly restored after Grandma’s disastrous Birthday Party when Daisy had hidden under the table with two boxes of crackers and one of fireworks.
“She doesn’t go in for fires any more,” said Uncle Parker.
“Oh?” Mr Bagthorpe was not comforted. “So what does she do now for kicks? Poisons people, perhaps – something like that?”
“She is in a very interesting Phase at the present,” said Uncle Parker. “She is doing all kinds of things.”
“Can she come, Father?” begged Rosie. “I think she’s really sweet. I’d look after her.”
“I shouldn’t think the question will arise, Rosie,” said Mr Bagthorpe. “I should hardly think your uncle will have the gall to accept this prize.”
“Why’s that?” enquired Uncle Parker, tipping back his chair with the air of careless ease that particularly aggravated Mr Bagthorpe.
“It’s a moral issue,” said Mr Bagthorpe. “You have never eaten a SUGAR-COATED PUFFBALL in your life.”
“I have not,” conceded Uncle Parker.
“There you are then!” Mr Bagthorpe had the air of a man clinching an argument.
“I don’t get your drift,” said Uncle Parker. “Nothing in the small print says anything about eating the wretched stuff. All one had to do was buy a packet and pick up a leaflet. I did both these things. It will, of course, be glorious for Celia and myself, cruising in the Caribbean. I expect, Henry, you wish you had the chance yourself.”
“I wish no such thing!” snapped Mr Bagthorpe. “There is nothing I can think of I would hate more. Given the choice between the salt mines and the Caribbean, I’d plump for the former any time.”
“Someone might be running a competition for the salt mines,” suggested Uncle Parker. “You must keep your eyes open.”
“Luckily,” said Mr Bagthorpe, “I have work to do in life. Luckily, I have a service to give to my fellow men and do not have to fill in my pointless existence wafting round among palm trees drinking gin and tonic by the bucketful.”
“Hallo, Uncle Parker.” William came in. “Jolly good work. What was the slogan?”
“Tell him, Jack,” said Uncle Parker wearily.
Jack told him. Even he was beginning to tire of repeating it, and could see how weak it sounded.
“You’re joking,” said William after a slight pause.
“No,” said Mr Bagthorpe, “he is not, unfortunately, joking. I often wonder whether we should have brought children into a world of such colossal triviality.”
“Well, if you don’t mind my saying,” said William, with true Bagthorpian ruthlessness, “I should think the sales of SUGAR-COATED PUFFBALLS will plummet when that gets out. Go into a fatal nosedive, I should think.”
“SUGAR-COATED PUFFBALLS will be bankrupt within the month,” affirmed Mr Bagthorpe.
“When’re you going?” Jack asked. He was going to miss Uncle Parker. He got on well with him, and could feel equal in his company.
“Next week, we thought,” Uncle Parker replied.
Mr Bagthorpe rose.
“I must get back to work,” he said witheringly, and went.
“I saw that competition, Mr Parker,” said Mrs Fosdyke then. “And d’you know, I nearly went in myself. Worked a slogan out, and all, I did, and never got round to sending it off.”
“What was the slogan?” asked Rosie.
“Well…” Mrs Fosdyke cleared her throat, stood up straight and twitched her overall. “Not very good. Not like Mr Parker’s. What I thought of was: ‘Puffballs in fields is poisonous but out of packets is delicious.’”
There was a puzzled silence.
“Er – what exactly…?” William groped for an explanation without wishing to appear completely nonplussed.
“There’s these things grow in fields, see, like mushrooms,” explained Mrs Fosdyke, quite pink with the interest she was creating. “Look a bit like mushrooms, but if you was to eat them they’d kill you, you’d die in agony, my ma used to tell me. Fact is, I look at every mushroom I cook, I do, to be on the safe side. So you see I thought my slogan would be quite a good one, to let people know it wasn’t that kind of puffball.”
“Mmmmm. Yes.” William tried to sound enthusiastic but came nowhere near it. “I don’t think that would have got you far, though. Too long, for one thing. And I don’t think the breakfast cereal people would want the word ‘poisonous’ in their adverts.”
“But they’re not poisonous!” cried Mrs Fosdyke. “That’s the whole point!”
“Anyway, it was a good try,” Jack told her. “I don’t think I could have thought of that.”
“Oh well!” She shrugged and turned back to the sink. “I don’t pretend to be clever.”
She began to rattle dishes, which she could do with the best.
“I’ll go and do my violin practice, I think,” Rosie said.
William followed her, in a drifting kind of way, hands in his pockets. He had had this kind of look about him ever since the Danish au pair, Atlanta, had left the previous week. If his ears had been the drooping kind, like Zero’s, they would have drooped.
“I am glad,” observed Uncle Parker, “that I do not live in this house. Everybody is always doing something. Does anybody ever do nothing?”
“I do,” Jack told him. “And Zero.”
“Of course. Good for you.”
“Not what they say,” said Jack glumly. “Sometimes I wish that being a Prophet and Phenomenon had come off, even if it would’ve been hard work.”fn1
“Rubbish!” said Uncle Parker briskly. “It would have made an old man of you. Where’s Grandma?”
He wanted Grandma to know about his prize because she had a very low estimate of him. It had been very low indeed since the day, some five years previously, when he had run over Thomas, a cantankerous ginger tom who had, she declared, been the light of her life. He had been the light of no one else’s, having been given to scratching, biting and attacking from corners, and none of the other Bagthorpes held his extinction against Uncle Parker. Some of them actually thanked him for it.
Uncle Parker had a secret admiration for Grandma and wanted her good opinion, though he would never have admitted this.
“Grandma’s sitting in the dining-room,” Jack told him. “She’s feeling low and talking about Signs
At Grandma’s Birthday Party the whole table had gone up in flames and burnt out the dining-room before the fire brigade got there. One of the first things to go up had been Rosie’s Birthday Portrait of Grandma, and ever since Grandma had taken this as a Sign, and thought it showed that the Fates, in some indefinable way, had it in for her. Every now and then she would go and sit on her own in the devastated dining-room and brood about this.
“I’ll go and cheer her up,” said Uncle Parker.
“You’ll only go and remind her of Thomas,” said Jack, “and make her worse.”
“It’s my belief,” remarked Mrs Fosdyke, who put her spoke into the wheels of anyone’s conversation if she felt like it, “that Mrs Bagthorpe Senior is too drawn into herself.”
“Drawn into herself, you reckon?” said Uncle Parker.
“All that Breathing, for one thing,” went on Mrs Fosdyke, encouraged by the interest in her diagnosis. “It’s time she stopped Breathing and went in for something else. Something that’d take her out of herself more.”
It occurred to Jack that if Grandma were to stop breathing, she would most certainly be taken out of herself – permanently. He knew, however, that what was being alluded to was not the common or garden kind of breathing that keeps people alive, but the kind of Breathing she had been doing daily since she had read one of Mrs Bagthorpe’s books about Yoga.
“What sort of thing had you in mind, Mrs Fosdyke?” asked Uncle Parker.
Mrs Fosdyke, hugely flattered by the unaccustomed interest being shown in her opinions, turned from the sink and wiped her hands on her pinafore.
“What I think,” she opined, with the gravity of a Harley Street Man delivering a long-awaited diagnosis, “is that Mrs Bagthorpe Senior should take up Bingo.”
“Bingo, by Jove!” Uncle Parker was not easily put off balance, but he was now.
“Should what?” said Jack incredulously.
Grandma was a notorious cheat at anything from Scrabble to Ludo. Sometimes, at the end of a game of Dominoes, for instance, she would say that a domino with five pips on it had six on it, or even three, and would play it accordingly. She also, at Snakes and Ladders, moved her counter up snakes and ladders alike, and never came down anything. At Monopoly, if she saw funds were getting low, she would declare that the Bank had forgotten to pay her £200 for passing Go on the last five rounds, and would snatch two five-hundred-pound notes out of the Bank before anyone could stop her. She got away with it by being so old and obstinate, and by being able to keep up an argument longer than anyone else. Mostly when the Bagthorpes wanted to play games they went into quiet corners to do it, out of her way.
by Helen Cresswell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes