It’s haircut day, that quarterly standing appointment when the hairdressing twins Kelly and Hayley come to our kitchen to do my wife’s highlights, and as many additional haircuts as there are heads. My wife still has a long morning ahead of sitting around in a foil helmet talking to Kelly and Hayley about coronavirus, but my hair is already cut and I’ve got places to be.
“When I successfully replaced that rotten trellis last week,” I begin.
“Here we go,” my wife says.
“You should be pleased,” Kelly says.
“I discovered the next bit along was also rotten,” I say. “So I need to buy another section.”
“Take him,” she says, pointing to the youngest one as he walks in, also freshly shorn.
“Take me where?” he says.
“On an errand,” I say.
“With daddy,” my wife says.
“Look at his little face,” Hayley says. “He doesn’t want to go.”
“Get shoes,” I say.
It takes 15 minutes for him to find shoes and a coat, and drag his feet out to the car. “Where are we going, anyway?” he says.
“I’m taking you to a secret garden,” I say.
“Really?” he says.
“Well, a secret garden centre,” I say.
“What’s secret about it?” he says.
“I’m never quite sure where it is,” I say. “We’ll need the satnav.”
Halfway there, I begin to narrate our journey, a circuitous crawl through a light industrial hinterland, in the most magical terms possible, in order to keep up his fast-fading interest in the errand. He is 20 years old.
“And this,” I say, “is the traffic jam of mystery. It’s always here, in the middle of nowhere, and yet no one knows why.”
We drive down a long residential road that narrows progressively, twists pointlessly and ends suddenly, at a huge garden centre. At that moment, a violent hailstorm erupts.
“Whoa,” the youngest one says.
“See?” I say. “It’s like Frozen.”
Inside, I give him the worst job: carrying a 6ft section of trellis up and down the aisles while I browse. Then I remember the aquatic centre. “You like fish?” I say. “Everybody likes fish!”
I can’t believe I forgot about this when I was trying to sell him on the errand: a dark and cavernous annexe to the garden centre, accessed through a door near the seed display, featuring thousands of brightly coloured tropical fish, plus a big tank with giant carp you can feed.
“Leave the trellis here,” I say. “And we’ll go in.”
He puts it down, but doesn’t follow me. He’s transfixed by something at the entrance. “Have you seen this?” he says.
“What?” I say, following his eyes. “Oh my God.” Next to the sliding door is a wall of photographs, CCTV stills of men – grown men, more than a dozen of them – who, according to the printed notice above, are forbidden to enter the aquatic annexe under any circumstances. The youngest one looks at me, eyes wide.
“What the hell did they do?” he says.
We stare at the photographs for a while, then go in to see the fish. On the way out, we look at the photographs some more. It’s hard to imagine a more sinister collection of faces. Or hats.
On the ride home, with the sun now shining, we can talk of nothing else. “I can see that if a big carp swam over to you, it would be quite tempting to pick it up,” I say.
“Would that get you banned, though?” the youngest says. “You’d have to do something more terrible than that.”
“But not too terrible,” I say, “because you’re still allowed into the rest of the garden centre.”
“I just can’t think what that would be,” he says.
“Something perverse,” I say, “but fish-specific. They still trust you with the rakes.” We sit in silence for a while, pondering unspeakable, aquarium-based misdeeds. The satnav tells me to take the next left. I turn to the youngest one.
“That’s basically back the way we came,” I say. “But I figure if we go straight on here, we’ll eventually find another route home.”
“I’m up for it,” he says.