Froderik never felt entirely comfortable at his Auntie Inge’s house. This wasn’t only because of his difficult cousin Marie or the irate Uncle Eckart. Nor was it a matter of the dog, Hugo, a mongrel and the fourth member of the family. Rather, the subject of the repeated and vigorous protests that his mother would endure whenever a sleepover was mentioned was the general atmosphere at his aunt’s house. Again, and as always, Froderik was expected vacate his room because Mum was inviting guests.
Uncle Eckart had a mistress, broad knowledge of which generated a simmering air of conflict within the family. This revealed itself through bluster from Uncle Eckart, sharp words from Auntie Inge, as well as tireless romantic advances towards Froderik by his cousin Marie, which were no doubt also intended to provoke her parents.
“Uncle Eckart doesn’t wash his hands after going to the toilet,” complained Froderik. “Never ever.”
“I don’t demand anything of you, Froderik,” countered his mother. “I haven’t seen my friends for over a year…”
“For exactly one year,” corrected Froderik.
“Yes,” continued his mother, “and if I ask you for a favour once a year … just one time… one sleepover, then it won’t kill you.”
Froderik’s father, who was half listening to the discussion, chose this moment to bring the matter to a traditional and authoritative close, thereby surrendering Froderik to his fate.
Froderik delayed his departure until the early evening, when the time was upon him. He set off on his bike.
At Auntie Inge’s front door, a precisely timed jerk of his head to one side prevented an aggressive kiss from landing smack on his mouth. Instead, his cousin, who at thirteen was the same age as Froderik, only succeeded in striking the area bordering his lips. True to form, she greeted his arrival with unnerving enthusiasm. Off to a cracking start, thought Froderik, and gave a resounding “no” to the question of whether he was pleased to see her again.
“We’re all going to watch Columbo,” said cousin Marie, news of which was accompanied by a meaningful wink. “Ok, fine,” replied Froderik, seeing the expectant glances of her parents, who were busy installing a new lampshade to the living room ceiling. Their nonchalance about the task was not convincing.
“Is Hugo alright?” asked Froderik in the direction of the stepladder on which his aunt was perched. She only then appeared to notice the panting dog. “He’s also looking forward to Columbo,” said Uncle Eckart, who was promptly and curtly reminded by his wife to take a firmer hold of the ladder or else to get up there himself. The television gathering and the merciful silence that this would bring was not due to begin for another two hours, and Froderik wondered if he would be able to endure the small talk until that time.
To move things on, he allowed Marie to show him her new cat fur. Taking it in his hands, Froderik was compelled to agree that it was indeed extremely cuddly, and he had no reason to doubt Marie’s claims that the fur was good for the symptoms of rheumatism. Nevertheless, he had preferred the cat – Murli was its name – when it was still alive and before it had been reduced, medieval-style, into a bizarre medical object.
As usual, Froderik’s dwelling consisted of a blow-up mattress laid alongside his cousin’s bed.
Marie had first begun to make advances on Froderik about two years ago, around the same time as her father’s own forays into extramarital intrigue. It was also the point at which Froderik had decided it would be better to ditch the blanket in favour of a sleeping bag. This was intended to provide a certain amount of protection and since its introduction it had proved successful in inhibiting the undesired and ever-present danger of physical closeness with his cousin. Froderik’s main concern was Marie’s somewhat restless sleeping patterns, which in the past had caused her to roll out of her bed onto him or, at the very least, onto his blow-up mattress. This time, he was confident that his trusty sleeping bag would prevent any headway under his blanket during her supposed half-sleep.
8.15 pm, time for Columbo. The family gathered together on the sofa.
“Are you cold?” Froderik asked his Auntie Inge, who for some reason had draped a white towel over her right leg.
“No, everything’s fine,” came the reply.
After this, events unfurled quickly. Despite every effort to follow the action on the screen, Froderik’s concentration was severely hampered by the strange sight that confronted him to his immediate his right, more specifically at the leg of his aunt. The distracting sight was accompanied by slobbering noises that likewise conspired to prevent a more profound enjoyment of the plot.
“This is getting disgusting,” said his uncle to Auntie Inge, without taking his eyes off Hugo, who was pounding at Auntie Inge’s leg with an intensity that reminded Froderik of a woodpecker hammering a tree.
“But I’ve got a towel over it,” protested Auntie Inge.
“My point exactly,” replied her husband, “You’re encouraging him. You’ve trained him to do it. Look, he’s proud of himself, as if he’s expecting a round of applause.”
“Yeah it’s nasty, Mum,” said Marie. “He’ll give it up if we get him castrated.”
Froderik realised that he was in the midst of a discussion that had probably been ongoing for months.
“And that panting…,” said Uncle Eckart.
“If I don’t let him, he’ll be whining all night. He needs it,” said Auntie Inge confidently.
“Whether it’s whining or panting makes no difference to me,” said Uncle Eckart, giving his final words an emphasis that suggested that, as far as he was concerned, the conversation was over.
“I’m going to bed,” murmured Froderik, hoping his cousin would not follow him. However, these hopes were immediately dashed, and as the pair neared the bedroom they heard the dog emit a high-pitched yowl, which Marie followed with a teasing grin in Froderik’s direction.
“Panted out” she said. For Froderik, the night loomed more frighteningly than ever.
Froderik brushed his teeth, zipped himself up his sleeping bag and stretched out on his mattress. When Marie materialised from the bathroom, Froderik pretended to be asleep. Stepping between his legs, Marie mounted his mattress to climb into her bed.
“Do you know that cousins can marry if they really want?” she asked from her pillow.
“Is that so?” mumbled Froderik from his sleeping bag, which he was clutching up to his nose, almost airtight.
“It’s government-approved,” informed his cousin.
“Uh huh” answered Froderik.
“That’s funny, don’t you think?” said Marie.
“Yep, but now I need to sleep,” said Froderik.
“I’m not at all tired,” sighed Marie, “And I’m feeling a bit chilly. Aren’t you?”
“No no, my sleeping bag is super warm.” Immediately, Froderik knew that his choice of words had been a mistake.
“Some gentleman you are,” lamented Marie. Froderik didn’t make a sound. “Frodi, can you hear me?” She knew full well that he could hear every word. “You’re sleeping alone in a warm sleeping bag and leaving me out here to freeze. Let me in there with you.”
“How’s that supposed to work?” asked Froderik. “It’s much too small.”
“Well, the tighter the warmer,” said Marie, more brazenly this time.
“Marie, give it up, I’ve got to sleep. Tuck yourself in and you’ll be just fine.”
“Chicken!” snapped Marie, before turning round noisily to face the other way. Froderik could feel beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He remained silent.
The next morning, Froderik got up as early as possible to avoid any discussion with Marie about the use of the bathroom. She was still asleep when he crept back in. Cautiously, he rolled up his sleeping bag and made his way to the kitchen. A quick breakfast and he would soon be in the direction of home. Auntie Inge, a dependable early-riser, was waiting at the breakfast table, which was already laid. The dog was cowering under the chair of the still sleeping Uncle Eckart.
“Would you like an egg?” asked Auntie Inge.
That’s luxury, thought Froderik. “I’d love one”.
Suddenly, Froderik heard energetic footsteps heading towards the kitchen. Marie appeared in the doorway. In her hand was a white towel, which she held out a short distance from Froderik’ nose.
“What’s this disgusting stuff on your towel,” she asked disdainfully. “I almost used this thing to dry myself. Yuck!”
Froderik peered at the stain on the towel at which Marie was pointing. Hugo, who was no fan of loud morning disputes, padded out of the kitchen, whimpering softly. Froderik could feel himself go red. His cheeks throbbed.
“That … is not my towel,” he stuttered. Marie smiled knowingly. From the other side of the kitchen, Auntie Inge stared aghast at the two children.
Breakfast was a quiet affair and Froderik wasted no time in leaving for home. There were no goodbyes from Marie and Auntie Inge didn’t even offer a customary hand to shake. When he came in through the front door, his mother greeted him with a pitiful look.
“Well Frodi, is everything ok?“
“Yes, why shouldn’t it be?” queried Froderik.
“Good news,” said his mother. “There’ll be no more overnight stays at Auntie Inge’s. She just called. We both think that you and Marie are too old to share a room.”
“And did she say anything else?” asked Froderik. His mother hesitated for a moment, before replying in the negative. Froderik was relieved as well as thankful that Marie’s manipulative game would at the very least leave his reputation undamaged in his own home.
“Oh, and Frodi…” called his mother as he headed towards his room, “… there seems to be a cold going round and you’re always the first to get a runny nose. I’ve bought a few multipacks of tissues and put them in your bathroom rack. Take as many as you need, won’t you?”