Nathan was sleeping off his hangover, curled up on the sofa under a duvet like a grizzly bear. The fug of last night’s beer wafted off him as he snored, the noise of the football match on TV drifting in and out of his consciousness.
The front door slammed, an intrusive blast of icy air jolting him awake. He dusted away a nest of florescent Monster Munch crumbs tickling his bristly chin, rubbed his eyes and squinted at the football score. Then he noticed Astrid, watching him carefully from the doorway.
“Who cut your hair?” he grunted. “Shall I kill ‘em for you?”
Astrid ignored him. “That’s my duvet.”
“No it’s not. I paid for it, so that makes it my duvet.” Nathan smiled at her.
Penny appeared behind Astrid, her cheeks flushed from the gales outside.
“Did you remember to buy me a new phone cover?” Nathan asked, admiring the shape of Penny’s breasts as she struggled out of her coat. Penny glowered at him.
“Stop winding her up, Nate.”
“Mummy,” Astrid’s voice began to tremble. “Nathan’s got crumbs all over my Charlie and Lola duvet.”
“Oh Nate, why did you have to use Astrid’s duvet?”
“Because our double’s too big for the sofa. Never mind. She’ll get over it.”
“Mum!” Astrid began to howl. “I don’t want him to. It’s mine!”
Penny quickly ferried Astrid towards the kitchen. “Come on, Sweetheart, why don’t you help Mummy choose a nice snack to eat in front of Ice Age.”
Nathan blew out in frustration. Pen and her kid had not only interrupted his afternoon, they were ruining it.
“Oi Lego head,” he called from the sofa, “Have you done your homework yet?”
“Not yet.” Penny replied for Astrid wearily. “And don’t call her that.”
“Why not? That’s what she looks like with that awful haircut.”
“Oh shut up.” Penny muttered from behind a cupboard door.
Nathan drummed the remote against the arm of the sofa. “Why are you letting her watch Ice Age before she’s done her homework?”
He listened to Penny’s guilty pause with satisfaction.
“Well, we said we’d do homework in the morning,” she said carefully. “Actually Astrid, Nathan has a point. Why don’t we do a quick bit of reading and spellings now and then it’s out of the way.”
“Noooo, Mum! You promised!” Astrid protested.
“Well,” Penny’s voice sounded strained. “The quicker we get it done, the quicker we can watch the movie.”
“I’m not going to.” Astrid shouted.
Nathan eased himself up, crumbs scattering onto the floor.
“Pen, why don’t I do the reading with her and you can make her something to eat. And I’ll have cheese on toast please.”
“No!” Astrid looked horrified.
Penny looked grateful at his rare offer of help.
“What a great idea sweetie. How about Mummy makes you chocolate toast and you read five pages with Nathan?”
“I don’t want to Mummy!”
“And afterwards, you can eat the sweeties we’ve been saving from Louise’s party bag.”
Astrid hesitated, chewing the side of her lip. Nathan patted the seat next to him. “Come on Lego head.” He said encouragingly. “What have Biff and Chip been up to now? Killing grannies?”
Astrid bit back an involuntary smile and dragging her feet, she slowly walked over and climbed up on the sofa next to Nathan.
“What’s a Lego head?” she asked him.
“A head made of Lego,” said Nathan unhelpfully.
Astrid looked thrown. “Huh?”
“Never mind,” said Nathan, “where’s your book?”
Penny, prepared and hovering anxiously next to them, handed Astrid her Biff and Chip reading book which she clutched tightly with her meaty little fingers.
“Can we have Max with us?”
Nathan obligingly snapped his fingers to summon the Scottie dog they had bought just four months ago. Penny still seemed to hope it would become a sibling replacement for Astrid.
“Come on Snotty!”
“He’s not called Snotty, he’s called Max!” Astrid protested.
“Yes he is, he’s called Snotty the Scotty.”
“No he’s not!” Astrid’s face was flushed with frustration. Their puppy climbed out of his basket and stopped to stretch his paws.
“He answers to Snotty though.” Nathan replied calmly. “Watch.”
“Snotty!” he called and Max trotted over to nuzzle his hand in hope of a treat.
“No!” wailed Astrid, “he’s Max!” She called urgently to the dog, “Max!” Thedog cocked its head and settled himself on Nathan’s foot.
“He’s not called Snotty!”
“See, he doesn’t like you anymore.” Nathan shrugged.
Astrid began to shriek like a barn owl. Nathan felt a sharp blow land on his very solid arm. He turned and pushed his assailant away from him.
She hit the floor with a hollow thud. It was blissfully quiet for a moment and then the shrill screams began again. He retreated deep into his lair. Penny was crouched over Astrid, shouting something at him, but he held the duvet tightly over his head, drowning out the chaos he had created.
It had been quiet upstairs for a long time and the living room was dark apart from the flickering blue light of the TV. Nathan supposed Penny had either put Astrid to bed or they were watching a film together. He had not moved from his den, hadn’t needed to.
Suddenly the strip lights snapped on and Penny was looming over him. He only had moments to recognise the black fury in her eyes. She whipped the remote from his lap and smashed it into the wall. Plastic fragments rained onto his head and he dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands, keeping his eyes trained on the TV.