Pets You Can’t Keep After a few rather guarded conversations, Ross let the whole Voodoo Lady affair drop. Matthew was keen to drop the subject forever, and Ross secretly rather liked the sense of power it gave him over his friend. They continued to go to the pub together, and commiserate on each other‟s dull jobs – they just carefully avoided getting too personal. Ross, at Matthew‟s suggestion, took up evening A level classes in a faint hope of bettering his rotten degree and getting an interesting job. He was doing rather well at it and always sat at the front of the class looking offensively clever. Matthew continued in his vocation to maim the world‟s animal populace. One day, while cleaning his hands at another bereaved cat-owner‟s sink, he was struck by a sudden idea. Perhaps he could alleviate the curse by doing good turns around town! The idea seemed to come to him fully-formed, including a sub-clause about checking the newspaper‟s classified section. He dried his hands, made a much shorter apology than usual and scooted off to the newsagents‟. He read the paper over dinner, noticing in passing that residents were objecting to the new train line on principle and that the rat population was growing alarmingly. Forking up more flan, he turned to the classifieds and started to scan them carefully. Just as he got to the line „Discreet arrangement wanted…‟ there was a fierce knocking on his door. He opened the door hastily, grabbing his medical bag on the way. People were always knocking with some pet crisis and he liked to look professional - at least at this stage. A tallish man with a tan and an extraordinary bushy red beard stood on the doorstep, beaming. “Hi! I‟m your cousin Edric and I‟ve come to stay, like you asked me.” “Excuse me? I‟m sorry, but I think you‟ve got the…” Edric hugged him and walked into the surgery. “You probably don‟t remember – it was almost ten years ago. Never mind, I‟m here now.” Matthew wrinkled his brow trying to remember any loud ginger relatives, but let it pass. This Edric certainly seemed very comfortable here. He was warming his hands before the fire and looking round him with a twinkle in his eyes. “I‟d love a cup of tea, if you‟re making one,” he added. “Oh right, of course. I‟m sorry, I don‟t get many visitors here!” Matthew trailed off to the cramped kitchen and filled the kettle. Edric did look like a relative, but so did many people round this way. Sometimes it seemed to Matthew that there were only about four basic face shapes in the entire world. He popped his head round the door, only to find Edric cutting up the newspaper. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked. “I just saw an advert I liked,” said Edric shamelessly, “White no sugar please” Matthew was getting rather peeved at Edric‟s rudeness, but let it pass. He was a relative after all. Soon they were both sitting at the deeply-stained operating table, drinking tea and discussing family. Matthew had had a lot of cousins on his mother‟s side, and felt sure he knew Edric. Edric certainly knew all about Matthew, his poor father and even the curse. “I studied it at Ulan Bator University. You should go there, you‟ll love it” he said bossily. Matthew rolled his eyes and drank more tea. “You did a course on curses?” “I just decided one day to research family traditions. I don‟t know - you get to my age and certain things start to make sense. I had always been fascinated by your curse from when your father told me about it as a boy.” Matthew‟s relationship with his father had worsened every year as the death toll in his practice had mounted. He had gone to veterinary college himself to show Father how to do it properly, and the scathing laughter at the old man‟s deathbed haunted him to this very day. He put on his polite „listening to symptoms‟ face and secretly vowed to get Edric out of his house as soon as possible. “You‟re not listening to me!” said Edric sharply “I didn‟t come all this distance just to have you doze off in front of me.” “I‟m terribly sorry, hard day at the surgery” said Matthew hurriedly. “Do go on, it‟s fascinating.” “When I showed the curse outline to the professors at Ulan Bator, they were highly impressed. They said it was rare to find one so comprehensive, almost as if it had been drawn up by an occult lawyer.” “Golly. Er…how can one see a curse‟s sub-clause?” Edric frowned. “It took me two years‟ study to learn that, and I really can‟t see a way to tell you in five minutes.” “No, no, of course not. Absurd of me really.” Matthew stared crossly into the fire and poked it, making it splutter and go out. Never the luck. “Anyway…oh, have you got any biscuits at all? I haven‟t had a good English biscuit for years.” Matthew went out for the Garibaldis and came back to find Edric playing with his fossil collection. “As I was saying,” said Edric into an ammonite, “your curse is marvellous.” He put down the fossil and attacked the biscuits. “For a start – have you never wondered why you‟re still in business?” “Ah, people can be so forgiving, and I do occasionally do some good, I like to think.” Matthew smiled fondly at the operating table. “Rubbish!” sprayed Edric; “You‟re like myxamytosis with a stethoscope. It‟s simply the power of the curse. There‟s a sub-clause to ensure your continued employment. There‟d be no point otherwise in laying a curse on a man with no patients.” “No, I suppose not,” Matthew said with recognition. Every week, new people came to register as others walked out. He‟d killed four generations of Welles cats and still Sally had come to him with her kitten last week. Edric watched this pondering impatiently, and chased biscuit crumbs with his tongue. “Do you think it was just bad luck you worked in the only brewery in London still to use dray horses?” he demanded. “I did wonder about that, actually. When I turned up for the interview the foreman told me they were bringing horses in, and I wondered then. Not enough, obviously.” A slippery road and an exploding lager barrel passed before his eyes. He shuddered. “I must say, this curse is almost admirable in a wicked sort of way!” Edric stood before the fire and stroked his beard. “You haven‟t heard the worst part yet” The damn cherubs needed dusting again. Olive tied back her hair and stabbed at cobwebs with her broom. The advert came out today and she was nervous. It would be a bad day for any new clients – she might forget to switch on her charm. She peered through the swags of net curtains and cursed her luck. Saddled at sixteen to the ugliest man on earth, she had dedicated her life to sabotaging his self-esteem. Mostly she got great pleasure from making him come to the agency as a hopeless client – she made him do it about once a week, or whenever she got tired of his face. He enjoyed it anyway, the weirdo. She paused to look in the mirror. Imagine wasting all that hair on a man like Ian Cashmore! She must have been insane. But she was thirty-two now, and all her school friends had children. Olive had not built a successful agency from nothing just to come second. She wanted a child to run the business after her and build it into a world-wide empire of love and harmony. Only she wasn‟t going to bear any child of Ian‟s. Naturally, he agreed to this – he agreed to anything she suggested and enjoyed doing so. It just meant she had to shop around for someone more…visually suitable. The doorbell pinged and she rushed back to her desk, but it was only Ian, come for his regular session. She picked at her cuticle and began the familiar routine. Another time, another place and a small boy was playing with a Lego farm set. He bent over the plastic cows and plastic milk churns, muttering to himself and moving a small blond plastic figure about. He looked up when a grown-up squatted next to him. “Hello, Roger! So what are we doing then?” This was Uncle Matthew, who visited occasionally and made stupid comments. “I‟m playing farms,” said Roger patiently. “Right. Of course. And who‟s this chap then?” “That‟s the vet. He‟s going to make Mrs Cow better and this is his medicine.” Roger held up a yellow chunk of Lego. “The vet, eh? That‟s…nice. But where‟s the farmer?” Roger looked at Uncle Matthew with impatience. “Farmers are silly. Vets are really clever and they fix cows and sheep and pigs and I want to be one when I grow up.” He bent over the farm again, moving the little blond figure among the cows. Matthew stared at him with horror, before running out of the room. Roger paused for a second and then continued forcing giant yellow chunks into a cow‟s mouth. “ - And that‟s what I came to stop,” finished Edric. “But that‟s preposterous! Are you saying that this curse is so powerful it will force me to,” Matthew screwed up his face “…have children?” “Oh yes. It made you buy that newspaper, didn‟t it?” “I‟m g… - I mean I‟m not really the marrying sort,” said Matthew lamely. “Neither was your father.” “My god. You came at just the right time, then!” Edric stood in front of the darkened fire, looking at Matthew oddly. “There‟s something else you should know.” Matthew brushed back his fringe and sighed. “I‟m not sure I can cope with another revelation at this time of night.” “I shouldn‟t tell you this, but it might make things safer. Are you concentrating?” Matthew sloshed his tea and cocked his head to one side. “Spit it out and we can go on to talk about more pleasant things!” “Ok, it‟s like this. How do you think I knew the exact moment to call round?” “Just good luck, I suppose.” “Hah! I think you should know – although Ross disagrees with me on this one – I think you should know…I‟m not your cousin Edric, I‟m you from the future.” “But that‟s impossible!” “It‟s no more impossible than the fact you managed to graduate from veterinary college, or the fact that you have never, not once been sanctioned by the General Veterinary Council. Your – „our‟ I should say – life is a mountain of improbabilities, and this is just a small corner of them.” Matthew was so stunned he drained his cold tea. “Five years from now, Ross will invent a small time machine.” “How will he manage that?” Edric looked indulgent. “He‟s a clever boy, but he never had much encouragement until he met me.” He shook himself and sighed. “Anyway, it only has a range of five years, so this was the earliest I could come.” He showed Matthew a picture of a small boy squeezing a cat, which looked in danger of popping. “This is Roger. Your son.” Matthew was about to say “What?” but found his mouth full of cotton wool. “Three weeks from now you donate some…you know…to a Mrs Olive Cashmore. „ Being neighbourly‟ you call it. You never even question where the impulse came from. Idiot!” Edric seemed to be castigating himself, but Matthew felt somehow implicated. “But look, isn‟t this a bit extreme just to make sure I have descendants?” Edric started laughing hysterically. “I told you – it‟s quite some curse!” he screamed. He laughed and laughed until Matthew gave him a dog-worming pill he thought was a sedative. Luckily, Edric thought it was a sedative too, and crawled up to bed. The next morning, it all seemed even more ridiculous. Matthew left Edric sleeping and went on his morning round. His first call was to Farmer Tinsel, who had a sick pig. “Hurry up, veterinary! She‟s foaming at the mouth and full o‟ piglets!” said Tinsel excitedly. “Right! Well, you‟d better take me to her! Sukie, isn‟t it?” “That‟s right, veterinary, my lovely Sukie. She‟s won that many rosettes I don‟t know where to keep them.” He led Matthew over to a sty, where a charming pig lay on its side, grunting and quietly blowing bubbles. “I see. Hmm…yes. Well, this is nothing to worry about, Mr Tinsel…” His voice tailed off. Sukie looked up at him with trusting blue eyes and wagged her tail. As did Farmer Tinsel. With an enormous effort he drew away from the sty and stood up. “Look, Mr Tinsel, I‟ll be honest with you. I shouldn‟t be treating Sukie - I‟ll call in a specialist.” “But you‟ve always been my veterinary, veterinary! Why you‟ve seen me through dying dogs, cows, pigs…” He stopped to think about this. “You‟ve seen a lot of my animals die, I‟ll say that for you.” His eyes cleared fully. “In fact, you‟re a bloody liability! I should report you to the police, all the murdering you‟ve done! Now get off my land before you see the wrong end of this shotgun!” Matthew scampered off, feeling much happier. By the time he got back, Edric was already up, making porridge. Matthew walked up to him and started gabbling excitedly. “I think something‟s happened! I took one look at Sukie and I knew I had to get out of there! I never normally feel like that!” Edric looked round thoughtfully. “Sukie…Sukie…Ah! Farmer Tinsel‟s prize pig. Head accidentally cut off in a scalpel accident. Horrible.” “Oh! I was just going to…relieve the pressure…But I didn‟t!” They smiled identically at each other. “I think we‟ve done it!” cried Edric. “I‟ll just pop back and check.” “Good plan. Er – can I come?” “I don‟t see why not. We‟ll make a day of it, pack the picnic basket, all that sort of thing.” “But shouldn‟t you go back to…back there to live?” Edric waved his hand. “Details, boy, details. You‟ll learn to be less fussy when you‟re older.” Matthew stirred the porridge thoughtfully. Edric was rather taking the suspense out of the future. He fingered his clean-shaven chin and gazed at Edric‟s bushy profile. “Yes. Yes, I suppose I will change somewhat.” They got the portable time-machine, although it was a tight squeeze with the picnic basket. Matthew hadn‟t been this close to another man since his college years. Edric set the controls, and they whizzed off. The whizzing stopped and the door opened onto a thoroughly ordinary warehouse. Edric stepped out and gestured grandly. “Welcome to the future! Isn‟t it excit…” He stopped with a look of pure horror. Ross stood calmly in the shadows, holding a small boy by the shoulders. The boy was playing with the insides of a stuffed bear and barely looked up. “Nope.” said Ross, shaking his head. “Back inside. And don‟t bring him next time, it‟ll wear the machine out.” he added. Getting older hadn‟t improved his mood any. Edric sagged onto the picnic basket and pulled out an apple. “Bother! I thought I‟d got it this time. I must be forgetting something.” Matthew sat on the other end of the basket and carried on thinking about his college years. Suddenly his face lit up. “Good lord! I know what it is! Do you remember – well, you should – how poor I was that winter in the second year?” Olive sat at her desk, toying with her computer and waiting for her phone to ring. She had a strange feeling that it ought to be ringing about now, but somehow wasn‟t. If this advert didn‟t find a handsome man for her, she‟d have to do the unthinkable. And as for the unthinkable, well, it didn‟t bear thinking about. She chewed her hair and stared out of the window. The doorbell went, and another loser walked in. “Good morning! Are you looking for love, sir?” Ross blinked rapidly and adjusted his glasses. He settled in the chair and steepled his fingers. “I am, yes. There‟s nothing wrong with that, is there?” Olive snorted. Sometimes her job was just one laugh after another. “No, love, nothing wrong with that. Only most people can make their own dates. Still, you can‟t help the way you‟re made!” She tapped her computer efficiently. “Now I‟ll just take a few details from you and add you to our extensive files….” “How extensive?” asked Ross, mid-flow. “Well, I‟d say we had at least four hundred clients, all looking for love!” Olive laughed merrily, but Ross didn‟t join in. She was starting to dislike him. “And how many of those are women?” he asked coolly. Olive‟s face crumbled. The clever little sod had hit on the one flaw in her shining plan. “Oh, we can‟t give out details like that just willy-nilly! I‟d have to check the data logs” “How many?” asked Ross relentlessly. “Five” she muttered. “So you‟re telling me you have three hundred and ninety-five men on your files, and you send them out on dates with just five women?” “We had seven, but two of them ran off with each other” said Olive sullenly. She put her head in her hands and sighed. It wasn‟t her day. Ross stared at the top of her head for a while, then shrugged. “Oh well, never mind. Let‟s see these five girls then.” Olive brightened up and started pecking at the keyboard. “First we have this lady. She‟s a bit shy, but I think she‟s pretty.” Ross leaned over to study the monitor. “She‟s not bad, actually. What‟s wrong with her?” Olive stared at the portrait of her longest-running female client, who gazed mistily at the camera in a winsome hat. “To be honest, I‟m not sure. She‟s a lovely girl. I think some of our gentlemen are a little put off because she‟s an actress.” “An actress? That‟s interesting at least. Can you set me up with her?” Olive smiled. It could turn out to be her day after all. “Certainly sir, just as soon as you‟ve paid the registration fee.” He left with a date for this evening and a jaunty stride. After some pensive nail- chewing, Olive picked up the phone and asked directory enquiries for the number of the nearest sperm donors‟ clinic. End of Part One.