Once the Winston Churchill wrinkles common to all new-borns had ironed out, Cyril Knutt was a cute baby. His oval face with its delicate features and his bright copper hair meant that he was still cute seven years later. In the intervening period Cyril had taken a dislike to his name. He understood the conventions well enough to accept his family name was unavoidable, other than by not being born which wouldn’t have suited him at all. His parents could, however, be blamed for his forename. He didn’t hate it with a vengeance for he was too easy-going for that level of passion, but he would have preferred to have been named something a little more mainstream — like George. As if to demonstrate the pitfalls of poor parental naming choices, he had picked up a nickname in the family, one that fitted his elfin features but arose from his favourite Beatrix Potter story when he was little (he liked the pictures more than the story itself). To make things worse, due to naivety on his part or carelessness on the part of his siblings or a parent, it had been let slip and he was now known to his school cohort as Cyril the Squirrel whether he liked it or not.
Cyril’s dislike of his name had been assuaged substantially by his sister, Hazel, explaining things could have been worse if she had not been a precocious nine year old and called out their parents for their first proposal, which was to name him Chester, and pointed out the time bomb they had laid for their brother, Philip Albert. She had not been old enough at the time Phil was born to recognise the problem and speak out. Fortunately that bomb had never gone off, although Phil had reported that his teachers often smiled on reading his name out when taking the register. Cyril became reconciled with his moniker when he realised the nicknames of his peers varied from insulting and abusive to just plain weird. In comparison, Squirrel was innocuous and, being memorable as it rhymed with his real name, was unlikely to be usurped by something worse.
That discomfort with his name was high on Cyril’s list of concerns suggests that his more basic needs and wants were adequately taken care of. Indeed they were. His father worked in the city for Teeming and Lading, the international accountancy firm, which enabled them to have a nice old house and a comfortable but not extravagant standard of living. His sister, who was actually his half-sister, doted on both her brothers, the six year age gap between her and Phil absolving her of the need to be competitive and bitchy, which appeared to be the norm for the sisters of other members of the boys’ peer groups. Following her example, Cyril and his brother were best of friends, which was a good thing as they shared a bedroom. Property prices in and near the city were such that a move to a bigger house of the sort they wanted would have over-stretched the family budget. Although the two boys were happy rooming together, if Hazel fulfilled her expectations, Cyril would get his own room when she went to university in two or three years, by which time Phil would be heading into puberty and his privacy would no doubt become more important to him. Or course the siblings had their spats from time to time, but they always closed ranks if any of them were being picked on — even if it was their parents doing the picking!
After the loss of her first husband, Mrs Knutt felt life was too fleeting to be spent in endless battles with her children. Her job was to care, not to worry, so ground rules were agreed and pretty much adhered to. Only major transgressions would result in the helicopter, so loved by droves of modern parents, being launched.
Living in such a supportive environment, Cyril had turned into a polite, likeable, easy-going lad. There was no bullying at his school and even the insulting nicknames and tales of wicked sisters he heard there were insufficient to disabuse him of his notion of the essential goodness of mankind. He was therefore a trusting soul, apt to take things at face value. Some would say he was somewhat naive, but, at seven, an understandable failing. After all, many adults seem to remain that way, believing all kinds of weird conspiracy theories.
Consciously or subconsciously, Phil had taken upon himself the task of showing Cyril the world was not as simple as it might seem. He had stared by gently teasing Cyril, saying that, like Squirrel Nutkin, he must have been a naughty squirrel to have no tail. However, if Phil saw that he had upset Cyril with his comments, he would make amends by mumbling apologies and administering a brotherly hug until equilibrium had been restored. He had even managed to successfully smooth things over when Cyril discovered that his Christmas stocking was brought by his parents and not Santa.
Over the last year, Phil had occasionally shared his own bedtime reading with Cyril: tales of mystery and imagination and things that go bump in the night. As Halloween approached, Phil had focused on stories of vampires, werewolves and zombies. If Cyril was frightened, deep down he knew he was safe because his big brother was in the room with him and would protect him. If Cyril had a nightmare, the boys would be found in one bed, Phil’s comforting arms around his brother.
The calendar clicked over to the thirty-first of October and announced the day’s events to the family. Amongst the notifications was a reminder that Phil was going to Halloween party at his friend Joe’s. Phil was especially excited. Since Joe lived in a different part of the city, it was agreed by the two sets of parents that he could have a sleep-over, the first he had been allowed to have.
“You’ll be all right on your own, won’t you, Squirrel?” Phil had asked when the sleep-over had first been mentioned.
“It will make a change not to have you there, snuffling and farting all night!”
“I don’t snuffle!” Phil had replied to the accusation, thereby implicitly admitting to the farting.
In spite of his initial bravado, Cyril began to feel apprehensive now that the day had actually arrived. It didn’t help that in his excitement his brother had forgotten to mention that it was a fancy dress party.
“It’s going to be great,” Cyril had overheard Phil say to their mother. “There will be ghouls, vampires and zombies there. It should be fun.”
“You be careful. Watch those zombies or they’ll have your brain for a snack,” teased the mother in reply as she and Phil left the house to take him to the party.
For the rest of the afternoon and evening the house seemed strangely quiet to Cyril. Not only was Phil at Joe’s party, but Hazel was out on a date with her current boyfriend. His father had excused himself almost as soon as he was home and disappeared into his home office citing some urgent research he needed to do for his work. The change from the routine of the household only added to Cyril’s discomfort.
So as early as protocol allowed, Cyril when upstairs to the bedroom he shared with Phil and got ready for bed. He had turned out his bedside light and was shuggling himself down the bed under the covers when his feet encountered something wobbly and really cold. The shock made him snap his knees up to his chin. When he had summoned up enough courage, Cyril turned on the light and began to investigate, stripping back his bedcovers. He recognised the offending article as a hot water bottle. Attached to it was a luggage label with a message.
‘Hi Squirrel. Enjoy your night of peace and quiet. Wish me luck battling with vampires and zombies. Phil.’
Cyril cursed his evil brother. Phil must have filled the bottle with crushed ice and sneaked it into the bed before went to the party. Cyril moved the bottle onto Phil’s bed then went to warm himself on the central heating radiator below the window. When he had got the chill from the bottle out of his system, he got back in his bed, avoiding the cold spot, and again turned out his light.
Alas, any thoughts Cyril might have had for a quiet and peaceful night were soon abandoned. Expecting to hear the snuffles and farts of his brother, Cyril’s mind, primed with tales of Halloween horrors, became alert in their absence. The house became full of noises he had never noticed before. The occasional padding of zombies on the landing between his bedroom and the bathroom. The hiss and gurgle of vampires near the window. Cyril, curled up under his bedcovers, his head buried under his pillow, tried to ignore them all. But it was in vain. The house goblins beating a funeral drum cadence on the plumbing in the attic made sure of that.
The drumming was just too much. Cyril abandoned his bed and ran downstairs, looking for his parents. Although the door to his father’s office was open, Cyril could hear he was on the phone, and knew he shouldn’t interrupt. He went to look for his mother, but she was nowhere to be found, so he sat on the bottom stair, opposite the office, and quietly sobbed to himself as he waited for his father to finish his call.
“Did we know they were going to come our way?” Cyril could hear his father’s side of the conversation.
“How many entities in the group?”
“That many? How many are zombies?”
“Do we know if the vultures have been circling?”
“And the boss man? I suppose he’s one of those vampire types that lives the high life by sucking the lifeblood out of any he comes in contact with.”
“Thought so. Are any likely to be resurrected?”
“Any chance we can get the phoenixes off him?”
“Sounds as though you have it mostly under control. I’ll get something prepared in outline and get back to you. Probably an hour or two.”
Cyril heard the call end. With all this talk of vampires and zombies, he let out a big sob. His father must have heard because he came out of his office. If he was going to ask Cyril why he wasn’t in bed, one look was enough to tell him his son was in distress. He crossed the hall and sat on the step next to his son, put his arm around him and drew him in.
“Oh, Squirrel. What’s got you in this state?”
“I’m frightened, Daddy.” Cyril sniffed back his tears as he calmed in his father’s arms.
“I thought they weren’t real, but Phil left a note saying he’s gone to battle zombies, and wants me to wish him luck, and then I heard you say they were coming here and vampires and vultures. Are we going to be all right?”
Mr Knutt smiled to himself. “I think so,” he replied, trying to keep his tone gentle and avoid condescension.
“Well, for starters, I wasn’t talking with my colleague about real zombies. You know I work for a firm of accountants?”
“Yes,” Cyril drew out his answer, wondering what accountancy had to do with zombies.
“Well, I work in the insolvency division. We deal with companies that have to stop trading because they have gone bankrupt; that means run out of money and can’t pay their bills. We try and rearrange the business for sale or sell everything it owns to try and pay off the bills. A large group of companies has just declared itself bankrupt and we have been appointed to sort out the mess.
“A zombie company is one that is struggling but survives because either it is managing to pay the interest on its loans, but cannot generate enough profit to pay off the underlying debt, or it is continuously being bailed out by cash from another company. The business equivalent of the living dead. Vultures and phoenixes are other types of business that might be involved in a reconstruction or bankruptcy. Does that make sense?”
“I think so. What about Phil? Is he all right?”
“He should be. It’s a fancy dress party that he has gone to. It will be his friends dressed up as zombies, not real zombies.”
“Oh. Okay,” Cyril still didn’t sound too sure. “Where’s Mummy?”
Mr Knutt allowed himself a small chuckle.
“Taxi duty for Hazel and her boyfriend. Hazel and Mummy should be home soon.”
His father could feel Cyril relax.
“You ready to go back to bed, Squirrel?” Cyril nodded his reply.
“You had better go for a pee first.”
As Cyril got to the bathroom door, the floorboard that had always creaked, creaked. And after he had done his business, he washed his hands turning the tap off with a flourish which set off the water hammer drumming, that no one had ever managed to cure.
That just left the vampires by the window in his room, but they, of course were the sound of the pump and water flowing in the ancient central heating system.
For those that don’t know, ‘filbert’ is another name for the hazel nut.
© Copyright Pedro, October 2020
Pictures: Beatrix Potter, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons