The first in a series about a deeply loveable protagonist, by a writer with an impeccable ear for a real teenage voice
Primrose Leary has just started middle school. Likes: her pet rat, Roderick; her best friend, Joel; and being a little bit different (but not in the weird different sense—she wouldn’t like to be the only bald girl in her class or the only girl who always smelled of ham, or anything). Dislikes: living with Fintan (her mustachioed dad), the boy-school that Joel’s toddled off to without her, and not having her mother around any more. Hilariously and cleverly written, Prim Improper is the debut novel from Deirdre Sullivan.
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MY FATHER AND HIS HOUSE
Sometimes I wonder if my father loves his moustache more than he loves me. He's had it longer. He grew the thing before he met my mother. I know because I've seen it in the pictures that she used to show me when I was smaller and not as shy about asking awkward questions.
My father doesn't brush me with a special comb twice a day, or anoint me with a specialist pomade that he orders off the internet. (Not that I'd want him to. Because eww.)
My dad's house – the house where I live now too – is big and old and fancy. The people that he bought it from must have spent a lot of time restoring it – this is what my father says anyway – so that modern people who like to pee indoors could live in it. They must have really loved it, those people; all the walls were beautifully coloured, with stencilled silhouettes and little painted flowers, wild and hothouse; really, really beautiful to see.
'Girly,' declared Captain Moustache, and immediately he hired a team of men to sit around drinking tea I'd made and eating breakfast rolls in between spurts of painting everything in various shades of white, with names like 'Lily of the Valley', 'Ermine', 'Baby Teeth' and 'Miscellaneous Clouds'.
I made the men leave the walls of my room alone. I threatened them with biscuit withdrawal and then cried down the phone to my dad, who was in the middle of an important meeting (I checked his appointment diary before I made the call), as leather sofas and glass-topped coffee tables replaced cosy rocking chairs and furniture with claws instead of stumps.
My room is gorgeous – in an old-fashioned kind of way. It makes me feel like a 'domestic'. (You know, a little olden-days servant girl straight out of a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Someone who gets up at five in the morning to light the fires for 'them upstairs'. Although I suppose 'them downstairs' would be more accurate, because my room is upstairs at the very tiptop of our house, in the attic.) It is stuffed with bits of furniture left behind by the people who used to live here. I like this. It feels like I have company. Company apart from Roderick, that is.
Roderick's house is in my room. It balances easily on my big sturdy bookshelf, halfway between floor and ceiling. It's more of a cage than a house really, but I always call it his house because I don't like to think of Roderick living in a cage. Even if it is a purple and white two-storey rat paradise, with a small fleecy hammock and a chewable wooden tunnel where he can go for privacy, to scheme his ratty schemes and plan his ratty plans and ... um ... poo. I also keep a box of tissues cage-adjacent, because he loves to pilfer them greedily. (It stops him nibbling other more valuable things like my CD cases.)
He is a terrible scamp. Mum called him 'the inimitable Roderick', or sometimes 'Señor Roderigo' when he was being particularly dashing.
We got Roderick from this guy my mum was seeing last year, when he was only a small and baldy fellow. Roderick, I mean. (My mother's boyfriend back then, Dave, was man-sized and had lots and lots of hair.) Roderick was only tiny the first time I saw him, wriggling like a maggot into his mother's warm tummy. There were lots of little rat babies, but he was definitely the boldest one, and I picked him out as mine on that very first day.
Me and Mum went to the pet shop together and got all kinds of fancy rat-paraphernalia for when we were allowed to take him home. He was an absolute terror right away, all courage, staging complicated breakouts and nibbling his way right into one of the sofa cushions. Mum wasn't sure we could handle such a criminal mastermind in our lives, but I thought he was only fantastic, and he soon melted Mum's heart by balancing on things that were very high up, wearing what Mum called his 'You'll never catch me, copper!' face. He always came down eventually, especially after we learned to ignore him and eat delicious food pointedly until his inevitable surrender. 'They always come crawling back,' Mum would drawl, in a fancy-pants British accent. I'd roll my eyes at her and happily scratch my little rat-man's ears.
My father is not gone at all on my furry roommate. He doesn't like Roderick, and for that reason he will almost never venture into my room. Which is one more thing I love about having a pet rat. Initially I worried that my father's negativity would have a dreadful effect on poor Roderick's self-esteem. But he seems happy enough to chomp down all the rat food and fancy two-ply tissues that the moustachioed one's money can buy, and that's the main thing, I suppose. Anyway, the old man doesn't seem to care much about me either, and I'm absolutely grand.
Moving house can be difficult for an animal, but I suppose his little house is still the same, just in a different location. I'm keeping an eye on him, though, in case he gets rat-depression, which I read about online one day when he wasn't touching his food. I think we'll be okay.
WHAT TO DO NEXT
I don't know if I'm ready to go all the way to 'big girl school' yet. I don't have all my books and Mum isn't around to get them for me. Plus my hairy-faced father is always working, except when he is out for dinner with his stupid, boring friends or his girlfriend, Hedda. I call her Hedda Lettuce and sometimes Hedda Cabbage. But not to her face because I haven't met her yet.
I left the booklist that came in the post from my school on Dad's desk, but he hasn't mentioned it yet at all. He probably wouldn't even know what it is. I'll need a new uniform too, in a bigger size. I'm getting wider, spreading out and changing (I'm what they call a late developer, which is kind of irritating because I am developing fine, thank you very much. I quite like being able to jump up and down without getting walloped in the face by things that are both soft and womanly. Sadly, those days are almost behind me). I don't feel any bigger, though. If anything I should be getting smaller. Less important. More intangible and strange, like how I feel.
My Catholic schoolgirl costume (ooh-er) is not overly bad as uniforms go, although the black tartan skirt and/or trousers are a bit creepy and unflattering. There's also a plain white shirt and a dark greyish V-neck jumper with the crest on it which says something in Latin, which is the school motto and probably means 'Sit down and shut up'. It'll be a nice change from the navy gymslip etc. that I've worn since time began. Well, since time to go to school began, so for, like, eight years. Since I was but an innocent flower of five, full of hope and joy and wonder and a longing to impress my teacher with my mad finger painting skills. Needless to say, those days are a long, long way behind me.
I think I need a feisty new look to go with my new uniform and brand spanking new levels of academic pressure. The Old Man of the 'Tache has already made noises about this being the first year of the Junior Certificate cycle, which is the practice run for the Leaving Cert, and how I'm not to be slacking off at all but am to keep my nose to the grindstone, which sounds painful and kind of creepy. He should keep his nose to the grindstone; it's longer and infinitely less attractive than mine, like a cliff jutting out of the middle of his face.
I'm thinking about dyeing my hair – well, getting it dyed for me, so I don't end up with colouredy ears and forehead. I need a haircut anyway. I'll tell Dad and he'll probably throw the money at me and not even notice when I emerge all glossy-haired and chic. He has to drop me to the doctor tomorrow, so I might get it done then. I hate going to the doctor (she is a head doctor, not a doctor for when you are feeling under the weather). I wish I could bring Roderick with me but he'd only wee in my bag or run away. Probably both.
THE QUESTIONABLE PRACTICES OF MY DOCTOR
My doctor's office is boring and stupid, just like she is. It's all brown and grey and dreadful. There are books and things on the shelves, but I bet they're all props just to make her seem more human and approachable. I bet she hired actors to be in the family photos on her desk. I bet she doesn't have children at all and if she does, they hate her.
She has a bowl of jelly beans on her desk, but I can never take one even when she offers because once I saw a fly land in the bowl and she just let it sit there and didn't swat it away or anything and that is so disgusting. Whenever I come back to find a different arrangement of jelly beans now, I think of someone chewing on a fly-eggy jelly bean, gulping it down and having no idea how repulsive and diseased it was and hoping she would offer them another. Yuck is all I can say. Yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck.
HAIR: THE ARGUMENT!
My new hair is lovely. I don't look like myself at all. I look like Snow White. Or a different girl with really shiny hair – a vampire or a Bratz doll or something. Of course, Mr Whiskers (my father, not a delightful and imaginary cat) wasn't impressed. He was all assertive and called me 'young lady', which I didn't think parents called children in real life. (It's certainly not something Mum could have said with a straight face.)
'It's just a haircut, Fintan,' I said airily. (I had been practising.) 'Chill.'
Again, that is not something I would normally say in real life. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the 'young lady' thing, fulfilling his expectations of how young people speak. At least I didn't add 'the beans'.
'Someone in this family has to have good hair,' I concluded, 'or we'd be shamed in the eyes of the parish and wouldn't be able to go to mass any more.' He makes me go to mass, now that I live 'under his roof'. Mum would so not approve. Actually I have no idea why I was so surprised by the 'young lady' thing; it totally fits his profile.
As soon as I turn sixteen (only three more years!!) I'm going to get a tattoo of skeletons doing unspeakable things on top of motorcycles. While wielding flaming swords. That's the level of rebellion I'm looking for. Having nice hair is just a matter of taste. (I think my new ebony tresses have made me more confident and assertive.)
He had the gall to look offended and ran his fingers through his own semisolid 'do. (He had to wipe them off after; he uses waaay too much oily goo that comes in pots – see 'pomade'.) Anyway, apparently I have to 'cop on to myself' and I 'have a lot of growing up to do'. And he'll 'let me know' what my punishment is going to be. (Maybe he will peck me to death with his enormous grindstone-sharpened nose?) Honestly, as if living with him wasn't punishment enough, never mind everything else that came before.
And, to quote the man himself, 'another thing': I'm thirteen years old. Of COURSE I have a lot of growing up to do, especially seeing as I don't even wear a bra yet (yeah, I know, sad little late developer me). Although I do, as of this afternoon, have an extremely fine-looking head of hair.
I can't believe they let people like him even have children. It's not fair. None of this is even a little bit fair and I'm so, so sick of it. As soon as he leaves, I am going to feed Roderick one of the hairy scary père-y's expensivest novelty ties. My father is a man who wears novelty ties. Agh. AGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!
At least I'll have something to tell Doctor call-me-Triona at the next session.
MY PAL JOEL
Joel is fun, even though he will not be joining me at the school for grown-up ladies and gentlemen, preferring instead to go to one that doesn't let females in because we would distract the young chaps from their studies with our endless flower-arranging and talk of boy-bands and glitter. Besides, in the REAL world men never, ever, ever have to deal with girls being around unless they want to. Just ask Fintan.
Joel's mum and I both wanted him to go to the same school as me, but he had done a lot of research into St John of God's, especially the rugby and rowing teams, which is funny because he neither rows nor rugbies, and I doubt he's going to take it up without a personality transplant of some sort. In the long-gone, childish, halcyon days of Ye Olde Primarye Schoole, we were both scared of PE, and we both pretended to have lady trouble to get out of it, even though we were only in third class and he was not a lady but a small boy – and even if he had been old enough, there is no such thing as manstruation. Silly bear. That's kind of why I love him, though.
I texted him after the row with Dad yesterday and he said I should come stay the night at his house, watching scary films and eating junk. His parents always let me stay the night and because they feel sorry for me, we can probably get a take-away. It's nice to be in a normal house, which is small and messy and warm. Our house here, Dad's house, is always a little cold. Well, it is in my room anyway. In the attic. I've started putting a fleece over Roderick's cage at night in case he catches pneumonia, or the dreaded rat-flu.
Joel has been my best friend since playschool, where we used to fight because we both wanted to marry this boy in our class, Kevin. (He was pretty foxy for a three-year-old, as I recall, all Batman schoolbags and runners that light up.) Joel doesn't like being reminded of that, maybe because he decided a long time ago that runners that light up were 'more tacky than fun'. (Think whatever you like, Joel, I will always consider them the knees of the bees).
Anyway, we've both moved on, and now we like horror films we're far too young to watch and playing dress-up, which we're probably a little bit old for. Joel has got an amazing dress-up box. We used to really like putting false moustaches on his baby brother Marcus and then taking pictures and laughing at him (not in a mean way, in a 'Look, it's a teeny-tiny circus strong-baby with a handlebar moustache' kind of way), but then I moved in with the man who sucks the joy out of life, and the moustache thing lost some of its comedy value. (Some, not all, because, hey: baby with moustache!)
But I wasn't allowed to go to Joel's because I am being punished. Hairy-faced Father was not into the idea of releasing me from his tender care, because I am not allowed to have any fun until he says so, or forgets all about it. (So for about a day or two, then.) It's still annoying, though.
THINGS I DO NOT LIKE: A NON-COMPREHENSIVE LIST OF YUCKS
* Having to talk about my feelings to the queen of bland. Dr call-me-Triona. She charges, like, &8364;100 an hour or something as well. I would prefer Mr Moneybags to just give me the money so I could buy an iPod and an army of rats to do my bidding and listen to my woes.
* Being felt sorry for (except when I can use it to get stuff like food and permission to do things). Just before the holidays, when I went back to school, it was horrible. I felt like I had two heads or was about to be shot out of a cannon. If all eyes are going to be on me, I want them to be on me because of my talent and beauty (ha!) instead of just being horrible gossipy spotlights. 'How sad does she look? Is she going to cry? Isn't it awful soon for her to be back?' They don't have to say anything, students or teachers, but I know what they're thinking when they look at me. And I really, really, really cannot stand it. But now it will be a new school, where no one – except the many losers who are following me from primary – will know my story. Unfortunately, some of them (Karen and her coven) are dreadful gossips. Pah!
* That I'm going back to school in a week's time. Granted, it is a new and shiny school, which could possibly be filled with hotly brooding young men for me to share my pain and ultimately my body with (ooh-errr), but I still don't want to go. Sorry boys, I am not ready for that level of physical and emotional commitment, or, you know, to get out of bed before noon.
* Human statues. They're all over the place in summertime and there's something really smug about them, especially when someone gives them money and they move. It makes me shudder.
* Having to live here. I miss my old house where everything wasn't horrible and fancy. It was the raggediest, cosiest place in the world.
* Being 'not allowed' to do things. By the Great Wizard of Giving Permission himself, Daddy Dearest. What a joke! He has no idea how to raise a child and he acts like he's all up on this parent stuff. And he's not. He's such a faker. I mean, where was he when I actually needed someone, before, back then? I don't even know – probably golfing or getting an Indian head massage.
* Indian head massages. There is something kind of yucky about a man who pays another man fifty euro to rub his scalp. Hairbrushes do that for free. And also: Neither the masseur guy nor my father have even the teeniest drop of Indian blood. If I ever get an Indian head massage, I expect turbans, saris and exotic sitar music. And maybe tiger balm. Mum was a great believer in tiger balm.
Excerpted from "Prim Improper"
Copyright © 2010 Deirdre Sullivan.
Excerpted by permission of Little Island.
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