Leftovers. Some reward it was to come home to only leftovers. Patrick opened the fridge and saw the plate of cold spaghetti covered in cling wrap with his name sticky-noted to it. In the living room, he could hear the rest of the family settling down to watch the Thursday night movie. Meanwhile, he was going to eat leftovers, all by himself.
There was only a spoonful of meat sauce left on the spaghetti. He looked around for the parmesan cheese. Here it was. Maybe only two granules of cheese left in the bottom of the container. What’s more, the Chorizo sausage that had been here this morning was now gone. The whole thing.
For Pete’s sake, what were his twin brothers, vultures? How come they ate everything in sight? Here he was, the best forward on his soccer team, eleven years old and almost the biggest kid in his grade, having just run his behind off, and there was almost nothing to eat.
He put his leftovers in the microwave and sat down at the table. He looked outside. It was still hot and he could feel the sweat from the soccer game stuck to his skin. In the yard, the bushes were heavy with shiny leaves. He watched a squirrel hop along the fence. Yesterday, he’d rushed out to throw a ping-pong ball at the squirrel but the white sphere had been blown drastically off course by the breeze.
Ping! The stupid leftovers were ready. He fetched the steaming plate. He wolfed down the spaghetti with a fork and a spoon. He was starving, and it was better than nothing.
After eating, he wandered outside and sat on the last step of the deck. The grass was cool on his bare feet. There were mosquitoes floating around his head and he had to swat them away. Mosquitoes just loved him. No sooner had one mosquito found him, than he immediately buzzed off to tell all his friends, and all the neighbourhood mosquitoes showed up in a squad to feast on him. For Pete’s sakes, why was it that he got eaten alive but his twin brothers hardly ever got bit even once? He had asked his dad the other day why they couldn’t just spray the whole yard with a mosquito-killing spray, but his dad had some stupid hang-up about chemicals and said, “Think of all the other things you might kill.”
As Patrick was looking around the yard, he noticed something he had never noticed before. In the corner, there was a bush with berries on it. He got up from the step and approached the bush for a closer look. Well, wouldn’t you know it? It looked like a gooseberry bush. He reached out and picked one of the berries. It was green and hard. He crunched it between his teeth. It tasted bitter. He reached out for another berry, but this time chose one that was yellowy in colour. The taste on his tongue was sweet and soft. It was delicious. In fact, he liked it better than the taste of the gooseberry jam that his aunt brought over every year. He reached for another and another. The leftovers hadn’t quite filled him up. This little snack was just what he needed.
Patrick edged deeper and deeper into the gooseberry bush. Unlike most gooseberry bushes, this one didn’t poke you or jab you with its nasty thorns. This particular gooseberry bush didn’t have any thorns. It simply had lots and lots of delicious gooseberries.
Patrick started to feel a bit sick from all the gooseberries and stopped eating. He was crouched in the very darkest depths of the bush. He turned to look behind him but he could no longer see his house. He could see only branches, leaves, and big fat berries. He turned to look in front of him. More branches, leaves, and big fat berries.
It seemed to him that this gooseberry bush must go on forever. He crawled forwards like a dog. He clawed the branches and leaves out of his way. Shouldn’t he be hitting his head against the fence by now? But he wasn’t hitting his head.
Suddenly, Patrick stopped. He heard voices. He commanded all of his muscles to freeze and for his lungs to stop breathing. You would have thought that the voices were those of his family. But they were not. They were the voices of complete strangers. And they traveled to him as if through a dense mist. There was a far-away feel to those voices, as if they came out of a movie.
He thought for a second that a radio or television was playing somewhere. Then, through the foliage, he saw a white shape flitting by. It made him jump, it had come so close.
“Come back! Come back!” shouted a voice.
Another shape went flitting by. This shape was green. It was chasing the first shape. They were children, playing around. What on earth were strange children doing in his yard?
“You’re trespassing!” he yelled out. But the two shapes had vanished.
Patrick clambered through the rest of the gooseberry bush. He was no longer in his own back yard. In fact, he was no longer even in his own neighbourhood.
He had entered a place that was lush with trees of every size and shape, so dense that you could not always tell where one tree ended and the next began. There were trees with leaves that were soft and furry, trees with leaves that were thin and spiky, trees with leaves that were broad and sunny, and trees that were hiding in the shade of other trees.
You could smell an odour of wetness everywhere. It was like entering a bathroom about fifteen minutes after someone has taken a long shower – somebody fragrant like his sister, Margot, not one of the twins. But it wasn’t that soapy, shampoo smell that he disliked. It was a smell of pine or resin.
He noticed a pond that in the shade of the trees. A bridge arched over it, narrow, and with bamboo railings. Patrick saw that the children who had whizzed by moments ago were now running over this bridge. A white shape, like a ghost, chased after a green shape that wore a peaked hat. He heard distant laughter, and then the shapes descended from the bridge and vanished into the darkness of the trees on the other side.
Patrick hardly had time to scratch his head and wonder what was going on before, quite suddenly, total strangers descended upon him.
“Herbert? Herbert? Is that you?”
Looming over him there was a plump woman, dressed bizarrely as a ballerina, with tiny pink shoes that hardly seemed sufficient for her weight. By her side was an equally large man, glimmering white in an astronaut’s suit. His jolly red cheeks were puffed out, touching the glass of his helmet, and he was clearly saying something, but all you could hear was, “Hmmm Hmmm Hawww Hawww.”
“What he’s trying to say is, your mama and your papa have been worried sick because you forgot your inhaler, Herbert. It is Herbert, isn’t it? I only caught the tiniest glimpse of you earlier. Have you changed from Robin Hood into a soccer player? How ingenious!”
Before he could deny being Herbert, there was a large plastic device thrust into Patrick’s face. He recognized this. One of the kids in his gym class was always gasping on a device like this after softball or high-jump practice. It was for asthmatics.
“You look red in the face. Are you short of breath? Breathe, Herbert, breathe.”
The woman pushed the inhaler right into his mouth and he had no choice but to breathe. It left a yukky taste afterwards.
“Good grief, what a calamity if harm came to you under my watch.”
The astronaut agreed.
“Hmmm Hmmm Heeee Haaaw,” he said.
He sounded like a braying donkey.
“Now Herbert, tell us everything you’ve been up to since your last birthday. I would so like to know about your adventures, my clever, ingenious and handsome little man! And then I’m going to give you a big piece of Chorizo sausage, because I know how you love it.”
She pulled the Chorizo sausage from a ludicrously small pink bag hanging on her shoulder. It was true that Patrick loved Chorizo sausage. He loved it more than even ice cream, chocolate, or marshmallows roasted over a fire. How did this woman know that? Very weird. But for now it seemed best to play along at pretending to be Herbert, whoever that was, at least until a piece of Chorizo was safely in his tummy.
“I’ve been very busy doing my homework and playing soccer and having fun with my friends,” said Patrick, familiar with the kind of rote answers that made grannies and aunts happy.
The plump woman’s face clouded.
“Friends?” she said. “Friends? What a curious thing to say.”
The astronaut also seemed surprised. So much so that he pulled off his helmet and said, “Hmmm… What?”
The two large pink faces stared at him like at a circus freak.
“Oh nothing,” said Patrick, and pretended to laugh. “It was a joke.”
“I should think so,” said the woman. “It’s a delight to see you playing with your cousins and second-cousins-twice-removed, who are, as I’m sure you are aware, always respectful and deferential because of your prestigious station in life. But I certainly hope that being friends with any of the ruffians living outside The Garden is an idea that remains to you, now and for always, just a laugh.”
“Haaaw haaaw!” said the astronaut.
“Quite,” said the woman.
Patrick nodded obediently.
“It really was a joke, I swear,” he said. “Can I have some Chorizo sausage now?”
“Oh, bless you!” said the ballerina, and gave him the Chorizo sausage, already sliced and ready to eat. He popped a piece into his mouth.
“Now we must be getting along,” said the ballerina. “There is the laser show scheduled for four in the planetarium, and you are the star of the show.”
They moved through the garden, under the shade of the full moon maples, and while Patrick ate delicious Chorizo sausage, the ballerina admired the flowers, which were yellow and red and scarlet and purple and almost every other colour of the rainbow. At last, after crossing the bridge with the bamboo railings, they turned a sharp corner around a row of sculpted bonsai trees, and arrived at a large wooden building.
At this point, the astronaut’s previous monosyllabic grunting gave way to a passionate lecture.
“How I admire this replica of the Shusuitei tea house, which was originally constructed by the Kujo family during their reign in the Kyoto Imperial Palace, now painstakingly reconstructed by your parents. Inch by inch, it is a perfect copy, and who cannot adore the way in which the veranda affords the most magnificent view of the entire Garden?”
“Ingenious!” said the ballerina, in complete agreement.
“Now it’s time for the show,” said the astronaut. “We have been instructed to get you ready, Master Herbert Robespierre.”
Patrick had just popped the last piece of Chorizo sausage into his mouth. It occurred to him that now might finally be the time to admit the truth, which was that he was not, in fact, Master Herbert Robespierre, whoever that was. But just then, two dwarves with very large heads appeared, and after bowing to him, opened up a trapdoor in the side of the tea house, beyond which was a long dark tunnel. It occurred to Patrick that being Herbert Robespierre might still provide a whole lot more fun – especially in comparison to his regular life, in which no one showed him any respect – and so, smiling at the dwarves, who were so jolly-looking that they almost made him laugh, Patrick descended into the tunnel.
Patrick was entering a sort of theatre. There was a large crowd gathering, each one taking a seat in the audience. And what a crowd it was. Over there was someone with the head of a mule or a donkey, behind him was a fairy with silver wings, in the adjacent row there was an entire brigade of garden gnomes come to life, lining up patiently, waiting to take their places.
Patrick turned and said, “What the?” but the plump ballerina hustled him along.
“Not now,” she hissed. “They mustn’t see you yet.”
They veered to the side of a stage, out of sight of the audience, and into a backroom.
“The green room,” announced the astronaut. “Hmmm. Jolly hot in here, no?”
In the green room was a pretty girl with red hair and a large halo over her head. She was carrying what appeared to be a wand in one hand. In the other, was a little rodent, squirming and kicking its little legs. Despite the effort of holding on to all of this, the girl performed a curtsey.
“Mister Herbert Robespierre, I am honoured,” she said.
“Master Herbert Robespierre,” said the ballerina. “Mister Robespierre is his father, dearest.”
“Will you name my pet mink?” said the girl to Patrick, with a pleading tone. “I would be so honoured.”
Patrick was now very confused and thought that maybe he’d let this game go on for too long.
“Name your mink?” he said.
“Yes, yes,” said the girl, and by her blushing cheeks, you would almost think she had a crush on him. “Name him. Anything you like. Johnny or Roger or Mickey.”
“Mickey – that would be alliterative,” said the astronaut.
“No one’s asking you, daddy,” snapped the girl.
“Alliterative is when you repeat consonants or vowel sounds. For example, Mickey the Mink, or Roger the Rat,” explained the astronaut.
“He’s not a rat,” shouted the girl, throwing her wand down in order to shake her fist.
“Let’s call him Cristiano,” Patrick announced, hoping to bring peace to the suddenly feuding family.
“Cristiano?” asked the ballerina.
“I love the name Cristiano,” exclaimed the girl, delightedly. “He can be Chrissy for short. Chrissy the Mink!”
“Cristiano Ronaldo is my favourite soccer player,” explained Patrick.
Suddenly, an enormous man dressed up as a wrestler appeared at the doorway.
“Master Herbert, Master Herbert, only three minutes, and good grief, you are not dressed yet.”
The wrestler had eyebrows painted in thick black pen over his glittering eyes. He was very frightening.
“Take this, good grief,” he urged Patrick, thrusting a bundle of clothes into the nervous boy’s hands.
“OK, OK,” said Patrick. He didn’t have a clue what was going on, but it was certainly too late to stop the show now. While everyone bustled away into a neighbouring room, he took off his regular clothes and changed into the new clothes. He looked in the mirror and found that he was dressed up like a samurai, in a light cloth tunic, and a sheathed sword at his side.
“Ready?” shouted the voices next door, which made him think that they’d been watching all along. That would have been embarrassing, because he had a big freckle on his bottom.
The astronaut, ballerina, wrestler, and girl returned and hurried him on to the next mystifying task: donning a strange assortment of belts and straps. One of these belts, the one around his tummy, was pulled so tight by the wrestler that Patrick almost coughed up a piece of Chorizo sausage.
“Careful,” said Patrick.
“Sorry, Master,” said the wrestler.
Patrick was ushered past another trapdoor and into a dark and cavernous space, which he guessed to be underneath the stage. He could hear footsteps creaking loudly overhead. He was made to stand on a platform. He now had only a dwarf for company. The dwarf made him kneel down so that the wires could be attached to the straps and belts around his torso. Then, with a grunt, the dwarf wished him luck, and departed.
There was a moment of silence, during which Patrick wondered whether he had been taken prisoner in this lonely, cramped place. Then, violent explosions erupted above him. There were pops and crackles and zaps and bangs. It sounded like fireworks. Abruptly, an opening in the ceiling appeared, and he was jerked upwards by the wires. He shouted out, “For Pete’s sakes!” but then he was whizzing upwards so quickly he couldn’t do anything more than gasp. Fifty metres or more into the sky he was elevated. He could see the huge crowd seated beneath him, and on the stage itself, the girl from the green room. She was waving her wand at him, as if it were her that had conjured him up from the depths.
“Master, Master,” chanted the audience. There were cheers and whistles.
Lasers of blue and red and green started cutting through the planetarium, circling and probing the domed roof, and slowly moving into a pattern that rotated around Patrick himself.
At the back of the planetarium, another trap door opened up, and an elephant plodded in with four jugglers on his back. The jugglers were juggling fire. Then, one by one, they threw their fire batons towards netting that Patrick had not noticed before. On the netting there must have been something flammable, because the fire spread quickly. It formed the shape of the following words:
The Empire salutes Master Herbert, future leader of The Garden.
The entire back wall was illuminated by this message. The audience’s roar, which had already been unnerving, became deafening. Now everyone was standing. Patrick wanted to scream, “Put me down!”
But he was already coming down. The fires fizzled out just as quickly as they had been lit. He was hurtling toward the stage. He screamed. At the very last second, his descent was slowed, and his feet gently touched the planks. The wrestler liberated him from his harness. The red-haired girl ran up to him and curtseyed.
“You were so high up there,” she said. “If it was me, I would have puked.”
The girl seemed to him there and then to be the nicest person in the world.
“What’s your name?” Patrick panted, still breathing heavily.
“I’m Gloria,” said the girl. “You forgot me?”
“Gloria!” somebody hissed. It was the ballerina. “He’s a very important person. He can’t remember everyone.”
Suddenly a big mule-headed man jumped onto the stage.
“Please can I have an autograph?” he begged Patrick.
Patrick was quite prepared to say yes, but the wrestler leaped out and threw the man back into the audience.
“No autographs!” he thundered. “He won’t sully his hands with your inky pen.”
Everyone was hustling Patrick away. They hardly gave you time to catch your breath. He was forced to return to the green room to change again. Before leaving him alone, the girl very cleverly slipped something into Patrick’s hand without anyone else noticing. Then she slipped away into the neighbouring room.
Patrick opened his hand. From his palm a tiny little bird fluttered into the air. It was a hummingbird, and its wings beat so quickly they were a blur. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Patrick expected a bird like that to flutter away in search of freedom, but instead, it smiled at him, and then landed on his shoulder. He could not even feel its weight.
“Birdie, I’ve got to change, so you’ve got to move,” he said.
The hummingbird fluttered at a respectful distance while he undressed.
Just then, a tall slender man with a pencil-thin moustache and a lady with black hair in a tight bun entered the green room. Patrick blushed bright red and reached for his tunic so that he could hide behind it.
“You forgot everything,” the man said. “My son, how could you forget everything? You didn’t even un-sheath your sword, let alone perform the elaborate swordplay that you have spent five years mastering. What are people to think of you now? Herbert, you’ve failed me. You’ve failed the Robespierre lineage. What have you to say for yourself?”
The hummingbird fluttered around Patrick’s head, as if sharing in his confusion and bewilderment. For Pete’s sake, what was he supposed to say now?
“Isn’t it rude to barge in on me while I’m changing?” he finally said, with all the courage he could muster.
“Rude? You’re throwing the word ‘rude’ at your own father?”
“Darling, please, you’re going to have an asthma attack if you’re not careful,” said the woman. “Herbert, I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed, but if you practice very hard tomorrow to make up for it, I’ll let you watch monster truck racing on the weekend like you wanted.”
“More positive reinforcement!” the man laughed humourlessly. “How much more positive reinforcement can he take? He’s already got a golden retriever, a camel, a litter of West Highland White Terrier puppies, eleven televisions, seven different video game consoles, an ice-cube dispenser for the ginger ale that he’s addicted to, not to mention the fact that I just named a thoroughbred horse after him.
“You named it after yourself,” the woman retorted.
While this argument was going on, Patrick was trying to discretely inch across the floor to his regular soccer clothes so that he could get dressed. But he was halted by a loud shriek just as he dropped his samurai tunic.
“Good gracious!” cried out the woman. “That’s not Herbert. Look, he’s got a freckle on his bottom.”
The man frowned in response to his wife’s alarm. He glared at Patrick.
“By Jove, you’re right,” he said. “This is an imposter.”
Patrick snatched up his soccer shorts and frantically pulled them on.
“Who on earth are you?” shouted the man.
Patrick dashed out of the green room as fast as he could. He ran all the way up the dark tunnel, out into The Garden, then towards the bridge, which he crossed at a clumsy canter. He nearly tripped. He quickly looked behind him and saw the couple emerging from the tea house, hopping with anger. There was no time to waste. He shot down to the other side of the bridge, veered off to the left, and suddenly collided head first with something.
“Ow!” he cried.
“Ow!” cried somebody else.
Patrick rolled across the soft grass and then returned upright. Nursing his knee opposite him was a boy who looked very much like he did.
“Sorry,” said Patrick.
“I think it’s broken,” said the strange boy.
“My leg or my knee. What were you running for?”
Patrick wondered how he was going to explain all this.
“I think I’ve been mistaken for you,” he said. “You’re Herbert?”
“Hey,” said the boy. “You look like me.”
“You noticed that too,” said Patrick.
The boy grimaced with pain as he slowly got to his feet. He limped over to Patrick and studied him with curiosity.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Patrick,” said Patrick.
“Where do you come from?”
“I come from the other side of this gooseberry bush,” said Patrick gesturing to the bush, which was a mere couple of footsteps away.
“There’s nothing on the other side of the gooseberry bush except a fish pond,” said Herbert.
“Not true,” Patrick insisted. “It’s my house on the other side.”
“Your house? There are no houses around here except mine.”
To prove his point, Herbert pulled Patrick by the hand and marched around to the other side of the gooseberry bush. Sure enough, there was simply a fish pond with a couple of lazy-looking fish bobbing at the surface, opening and closing their fishy mouths.
“What’s happened?” Patrick asked. “Where has my house gone?”
“I tell you, there’s no house except mine.”
“Where am I?” Patrick asked.
“You’re in The Garden,” said Herbert.
He looked at his watch, which Patrick had noticed was a very expensive sports watch.
“Oh gosh, I’ve got to go. I’m already horribly late.”
Herbert was just about to run off, when Patrick called out, “Wait!”
“What is it?” asked Herbert.
“If it’s a big laser show in the planetarium you’re going to, I wouldn’t bother. It’s over already. I was there. It was a big screw up.”
“What? How could they have started the show without me?”
Patrick explained how he had been mistaken for Herbert and performed the entire show. He explained all the way to the story’s end, including how he had been running away from Herbert’s parents, which is why he’d ended up not looking where he was going and crashing right into his look-alike.
“They’ll have a search party out for me soon,” said Herbert. “I’ve been missing for at least an hour.”
“Yes. I was playing around with my second-cousin-twice-removed, playing tag. It would have been about an hour ago I ran away.”
“Why were you running away?” asked Patrick.
“Because my parents are tyrants!” Herbert exclaimed. “Can’t do this, can’t do that, can’t do anything! Can’t breathe!”
He was nearly shouting.
“That sucks,” said Patrick. “But it must be nice to have eleven televisions and seven video game consoles, and a golden retriever. And to have girls ask you to name their minks!”
“I’ve named five minks in the last week,” he said.
“For Pete’s sake,” said Patrick. “Where I come from, nothing like that happens to me. Just today I had a big soccer game, and my parents didn’t even show up! And my twin brothers ate all the rest of the Chorizo sausage, even though they know I love it.”
Herbert looked at Patrick with great intensity.
“All that you’re saying is true?”
“Yes,” Patrick nodded. “And I don’t get gifts all the time like you do. And I have to walk to school, even though other kids get a ride in the car. And last Christmas, we were supposed to go to Mexico, but then my dad got laid off so we could only afford to go to the mountains.”
“Laid off? What does laid off mean?” asked Herbert.
“That means to lose your job,” said Patrick, sighing.
Just then, both boys heard the sound of distant voices, calling out. The voices shouted, “Herbert! Herbert!”
“Oh no,” said Herbert. “There we go. The search party.”
“What do we do?” asked Patrick.
“I don’t want to go back,” Herbert insisted.
“Not for all the televisions in the world,” replied Herbert. “I wish that house of yours was real, instead of a figment of your imagination.”
“It is real,” said Patrick. “It’s just disappeared. I have to look for it.”
“Let me help you,” said Herbert. “I want to escape. I’m sick of The Garden, my parents, and being the centre of attention all the time.”
“Maybe if we actually go inside the gooseberry, my house will show up,” Patrick suggested. “That’s how I found this place.”
“That’s worth a try,” he said.
“Are you sure?” asked Patrick.
Herbert looked at Patrick, then turned his head in the direction of the voices. Just a moment later, they both saw a small army of dwarves, led by a samurai on horseback, crossing the bridge over the pond.
Herbert returned his gaze to Patrick.
“What kind of responsibilities do you have in your world?” he asked.
“Responsibilities? Oh, I don’t know. Homework. Taking out the garbage on Wednesdays. Soccer practice, although I suppose that doesn’t count, because I signed up for that.” Patrick scratched his head. “I think that’s it.”
Herbert heaved a deep sigh. He gave Patrick a melancholy smile.
“Let’s get going,” he said.
Before anyone could spot them, the boys dived into the gooseberry bush. Patrick led the way. He beat his way through the branches. Finally he caught a glimpse of his own back yard. Wouldn’t you know it, the twins were running around, with ice cream or something smeared on their little faces. The monsters. And what was that? For Pete’s sake! They were playing catch with a Chorizo sausage.
Before they hurtled through to the other side of the gooseberry bush and into view of the twins, Patrick gave his new friend a warning.
“Those twins, they won’t give you any respect.”
“That’s OK,” Herbert laughed. “I don’t want any!”