Ostrich A Novel Online - Matt Greene


I can tell my parents are unhappy by the way they smile at waiters. In that small act of ingratiation I can see the custody battle to come. It won’t be fought in the courtroom but in HMV and Game. Stocks in Nintendo will soar as my affections are auctioned off to the highest bidder. My teeth will rot.

I can already feel them starting to decay as my mum orders from the Specials Board. It’s obvious what she’s doing. She’s forming an alliance. She even does her French voice, singing along to the chalkboard like the accents are markers on a karaoke screen. (The hat accent on top of the A is called a circumflex. It indicates that something is missing. I think a hat always indicates this.) In History we are doing Entente Cordiale. If Mum is the United Kingdom and the waiter is France, then Dad must be Germany.

Dad will order from the Specials only when the waitress is pretty. She is not, so he gets a steak. “Rare.”

“How rare?”

“Cooked long enough that his family aren’t in denial but not so long that they’re at acceptance. Anywhere between bargaining and depression. Just so long as it’s seen the inside of a warm room.”

Rare meat aggravates my dad’s diverticulosis. He just really likes the joke. It’s the same impulse that makes him introduce Mum at parties as his first wife. He does it even though he knows it may cause irritation. (He takes “cow’s juice” in his coffee even though he’s lactose intolerant.)

I order number 28 because it is a perfect number and because I don’t like talking any more than is absolutely necessary.

When the food arrives, the only noise is the scrape of cutlery. The silence is familiar. It takes its place at the table like a second son. Then, when it realizes that only three places have been set, it goes on to take the floor. (This is a metaphor. I will probably use some more of them, because you have to in order to get top marks in Composition, which is what I’m practicing for, because it’s what you need to get a scholarship. You should also say however instead of but and moreover instead of also, and, whenever possible, make sure that people exclaim and remark things instead of saying them. Moreover, you should talk about past events in the present tense and use at least one semicolon even if you’re not completely sure how.)

Silence is a game of chicken. Mum always says it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part. (Dad says you can’t win unless you take part. (“Can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.”)) So it’s not really a surprise when she cracks first.

“What did you learn at school today?”

In Science we are doing magnetic fields. It makes me think of divorce. I will be the iron filings and they will be the poles, taking it in turns to see if they will attract me or disperse me like a water cannon. What they don’t realize is that the experiment is flawed because they are both like poles. I can tell this because they repel each other.

“La Paz is the highest capital city in the world.”

“Is that right?” asks Mum rhetorically.

“Yes, it is,” I say (because I am my mother’s son). And then, to further fuel the conversation, “What does precocity mean?”

“Why?” Mum. Non-rhetorical.

“Because Miss Farthingdale asked if I knew what it meant, and I said I did.”

Dad throws back his head. At first I think he is laughing at me (which he does sometimes), but it’s the steak. He’s given up chewing, gulping it back in chunks, dolphin-style.

“Ms. Farthingdale,” corrects Mum.

This time he does laugh. Mum doesn’t. She does the opposite of laughing, which is like not laughing but more so.

“You’d prefer he grow up a misogynist like his father?”

She catches herself a second too late. The words slipped out by accident, like a glob of spit hitching a ride on a capital P. They drip down Dad’s cheek, and for the first time since we’ve sat down she looks him straight in the eye, pretending not to see it, hoping he hasn’t noticed it.

Grow up.

If he has noticed, he doesn’t show it.

“Don’t you mean msogynist?”

He gulps back another hunk of beef as a reward for his trick and leans across the table to plant a kiss on Mum’s cheek. She recoils at his touch, like the sea from the ugly pebble beach in Brighton where we used to