Itchingham Lofte had caused explosions before. There had, in truth, been many bangs, flashes and smells coming from his bedroom in the past. His multi-stained carpet and pockmarked walls bore testament to that. But there had been nothing like this one. It wasn’t just the bedroom walls that shook; it was the whole house. Windows and doors rattled, the pots and pans in the kitchen jumped, and two drawers in the dresser opened.
Not that Itchingham was aware of any of that, as he was unconscious. He would have stayed that way too if it hadn’t been for the fact that his eye- brows were on fire – and the astute decision of his eleven-year-old sister Chloe to throw a mug of water over his face.
Itch (everyone called him Itch, apart from his mother, whose idea it had been to christen him Itchingham in the first place) sat up sharply, shaking the water out of his eyes.‘What did you do that for, Chloe?’ he said.‘I did have it under control, you know.’
Chloe shrugged.‘Yeah, right.Your eyebrows were burning,’ and she turned and went back to her bedroom, which was across the landing.
Itch felt for the prickly remains of what used to be his eyebrows – what was left crumbled in his fingers.Then the unmistakable smell of burned hair filled his nostrils and he realized Chloe had been right. He stood up a little gingerly and thought he’d better go after her and admit it, but when he poked his head into her room he found she was already asleep. Itch marvelled at her ability to get back to sleep in seconds – something he had never been able to do. The truth is, if you sleep in the room next to a fourteen-year-old science-mad boy who likes to blow things up, you learn very quickly only to take any notice of the very big bangs.
Itch went into the bathroom to dry and inspect his face. Both eyebrows had indeed gone, and about an inch of his fringe too. His wavy blond hair tended to be straggly anyway, but this explosion had forced it into a shape that Itch couldn’t remem- ber seeing before. Most of the sooty black smudge on the left side of his face came away with a vigor- ous rub.
Itch went back to his room and surveyed the mess. A really bad one this time.White smoke hung in the air and clung to the walls.Where the contents of his beaker had splashed, the carpet had turned black; Itch thought it had originally been green, but that was a long time ago. The beaker itself had shattered into a number of pieces, three of which had embedded themselves in the curtains, where they continued to smoulder. Burn marks sur- rounded each of the fragments. He climbed onto his bed to retrieve them and stood on a fourth piece, which crunched and then poked its way through his sock. Itch winced and pulled it free. Blood began to ooze through the cotton.
There had been a few posters on the walls, all bearing the scars of previous mishaps. All had now been blasted to pieces. He put their remains under his bed, together with the fragments of beaker. He scraped the chemical remains of the explosion off the carpet and wrapped them in his wet towel. These too were shoved under the bed.
Itch changed into his pyjamas and took his clothes, along with his bloodied sock, downstairs to wash. This, he had learned, was the only way to get rid of the smell of smoke. His foot still hurt from the shard of exploded plastic and he hobbled along to get the detergent. He put the washing machine on its quickest cycle and hoped it would all be done before his mother got back. Thirty-one minutes later the machine beeped at him and he hung his clothes up to dry.
With any luck, thought Itch, Mum won’t notice and I’ll just about get away with it. He had got away with so much over the years that this wasn’t necessarily wishful thinking.
But Itchingham Lofte had forgotten about his missing eyebrows.
Jude Lofte arrived home just after eleven-thirty. Though she often had to work weekends, this was late, even for her. Itch had been in bed for twenty minutes but was nowhere near sleep. It always took his brain a couple of hours to shut down anyway, but tonight he was lying in his dark room, increas- ingly aware of how much it stank. Even with the window open, as it had been for the two hours since the explosion, there really was no escaping the smell of burning phosphorus. He was annoyed with himself for many reasons; mostly because he’d used too much of the phosphorus he’d collected from a couple of old ship’s flares. Too many match heads as well. And maybe, on balance, mixing them up with a screwdriver had been one of his more stupid ideas. He was also irritated that he had woken Chloe and she had seen the post-explosion chaos in his room.
Itch had a pretty good relationship with his sister, even though she was only eleven and – clearly – a girl. He knew that most fourteen-year-old boys ignored their younger sisters at best and dismissed them as deeply stupid at worst. But Itch and Chloe Lofte tended to stick together. They got called Itchy and Scratchy after The Simpsons, of course, but as Itch had explained to her on one of their walks back from school, there are plenty of worse things to get called. Chloe had pointed out that it was OK for him as he had such a ridiculous name anyway.
Itch heard his mother shut and bolt the door and go into the kitchen. She wouldn’t inspect anything too closely. Normally she made herself a tea and then worked downstairs in her study until very late. Sometimes so late that even Itch was asleep . .
He heard the kettle being filled and the clatter of the tea tin being opened.Then a silence, followed by his mother’s footsteps in the hall, where she stopped. Itch tensed. He could hear sniffing. His mother was now coming up the stairs, still sniffing. The smell of the burning phosphorus in his room had been so strong he hadn’t noticed that the whole house was filled with the stench.
Jude Lofte paused outside Itch’s room. She waited all of two seconds before opening his door. Slowly at first; then, as the still-powerful smell hit her nostrils, she opened it fully. The landing light shone into the darkness of the bedroom. Itch was lying on his side with his back to his mother, curled up in the classic foetal position. Quite why he was bothering to go through this pretence he wasn’t sure. He knew exactly what was going to happen next. He knew exactly what his mother was going to say.
‘Hello, Itchingham. Been busy?’ She sat down on the side of his bed. This was, he knew, the calm before the storm. She always started gently but it usually didn’t last long.
‘Oh, hello, Mum. Er, yes, I’ve done my French homework – though I did get—’
‘I wasn’t thinking of your homework. I was thinking of the smell of bonfires, which as we’re nowhere near the fifth of November almost certainly means you’ve had another accident.’
His mother got up and turned on the light. Itch had made a reasonable job of clearing up, but he hadn’t calculated on a late-night maternal visit. Fixing Itch with a stare, Jude crouched down beside his bed and peered underneath.
I really need to think of somewhere else to hide stuff, thought Itch as she pulled out the damp remains of the evening’s experiment-gone-wrong.
‘You really do need to think of somewhere else to hide stuff, Itchingham,’ his mum said, as though reading his mind. ‘Did you honestly think I wouldn’t look here? Did you think I wouldn’t know where to find the source of the stench – the latest you have blessed us with?’
The sarcasm was the final stage before eruption. In geography Itch had just learned about volcanoes and the Volcanic Explosivity Index, which was used to measure the power of eruptions. Mr Watkins had said that it went from ‘gentle’ to ‘severe’ to ‘colossal’ and finally ‘mega-colossal’. From his mother he could expect ‘colossal’ – though he wouldn’t rule out a full-blown ‘mega-colossal’.
Jude Lofte’s top lip quivered; Itch’s stomach tightened.
‘How many times, Itchingham? HOW MANY TIMES? I told you the last time when you set fire to your bed that any more – ANY MORE – accidents, and that was it.We only escaped then because Chloe had started keeping a fire bucket in her room.’
‘That was the classic volcano experiment!’ said Itch. ‘I just hadn’t realized how close the duvet was to the flames—’
‘Enough! Stop! No more experiments. At all. NONE.’
Itch said nothing, and now his mother slowed down. ‘Have I made myself clear? I want all your kit – chemicals, powders, potions, flasks, and what- ever else you have hidden away in your wardrobe – outside in the garden after school tomorrow. No explosions, no “volcanoes”, no burning hydrogen bubbles. Nothing.’
Itch’s jaw dropped. ‘But I can’t just leave every- thing in the garden. It isn’t safe!’ He felt a bit panicky now. His ‘kit’, as his mother called it, had taken a long time to assemble and was his pride and joy. His friends at school talked mainly of football and surfing; he had no interest in the first and only a passing one in the second. His passion – his ‘really lame hobby’, as Chloe called it – was about to be cleared out of his room for ever.
‘Well, you should have thought of that before you tried to blow up the house. And what have you done to your face?!’ Jude had stopped looking around her son’s bedroom and had just noticed his eyebrows. Or lack of them.
‘Oh, they burned off. Sorry.’
‘SORRY?’ shouted Jude. ‘Sorry? You could have been blinded! Really, Itchingham, you are an idiot sometimes.’ She put her hand under his chin and tilted his head up to the light. ‘Well, they’re gone.’
‘How long till they grow back?’ ‘Depends what you torched them with.’ ‘It was phosphorus.’
Itch’s mother put her head in her hands. ‘Good grief,’ she said. She sat silently for a few moments. Itch thought he should stay silent too. Then she stood up and turned for the door. ‘All of it – in the garden. Tomorrow.’ She walked out of the bedroom, switching off the light as she went.