Out of My Depth
Chapter One

Out of My Depth Dad puts down his knife and fork and leans across the table towards me. He's always been a bit on the chunky side, but since he left home six months ago, his man-boobs have gone up at least a cup size, maybe to a 44C, and I'm freaked he'll swipe his pizza topping with them, leaving tomato blotches and a couple of black olives stuck to his white polo shirt.

'Electra, is your mum is having actual relations with this Phil bloke?'

What?

He may have used the word relations but we all know what relations mean, especially when said in a low voice with raised eyebrows, and it's so not the sort of question most teenage girls get asked by their dad in Pizza Hut on a hot Wednesday evening in June. My parents never talk about relations unlike my bezzie Lucy Malone's mum, Bella. Bella is a Cool Mum. The sort of mum who wouldn't bat an eyelid at a mixed sleepover. The sort of mum who discusses the merits of tampons versus pads as if she's discussing whether to buy pink nail varnish or red. Bella may think she's cool, but Luce finds talking about sex with her mum excruciating. And I find it shocking with my dad, which is why I gag on a piece of pepperoni from my Stuffed Crust Pepperoni Feast.

Despite the fact that I'm coughing and banging the table and obviously about to choke to death, Dad doesn't yell, 'Is there a doctor in here? My daughter needs help!' whilst he grabs me around the waist and starts doing the Heimlich Manoeuvre. Instead, he just stares down at his plate looking sorry for himself.

In an attempt to save my life, I grab my glass of Pepsi and take huge gulps to help the pepperoni down. Unfortunately, at the same time as I gulp down the fizzy drink, I burp up the mangled meat in to a tissue, so the resulting gurp sounds as if some watery alien is living in my chest and about to explode from my mouth in a torrent of froth and undigested food.

'Well?' Dad prompts, totally ignoring the fact that I've pretty much mini-vomited in front of him. 'What's going on with the grease monkey?'

'Don't be so rude,' I snap. 'He's not a grease monkey. He's an AA man. He rescues motorists in distress.' I'm surprised to feel so defensive about Phil, as I still think of him as The Impostor.

'Huh! He's just a garage mechanic minus the garage,' Dad snorts dismissively. 'You've never actually told me where he fits in to things at home. Do think he's your mum's boyfriend?'

I stall for time by pretending to carefully examine the spat-out-bit of mangled pepperoni whilst I think about Dad's question.

I've never caught Mum and Phil so much as holding hands despite my romance-radar being on permanent high-alert. I've tried creeping down the stairs to surprise them; hidden behind a parked car over the road when they've been out in case they were walking home hand in hand and even asked Angela Panteli, who sometimes works as a waitress at her father's restaurant, The Galloping Greek, to text me immediately if she spots them canoodling in a dark corner over a plate of stuffed vine leaves and a bottle of something red and rough.

But there's been nothing.

No furtive fumblings or secretive hand-holdings.

No footsie under the kitchen table or sneaky bottom-patting.

They do kiss when Phil comes and goes, but it's definitely a friendly sort of kiss. The type of kiss I'd give my Uncle Richard or Granddad Stafford. A cheek brush, not a snog with tongue athletics.

But if you're more than a friend but not a boyfriend, what are you? A sub-boyfriend or a plus-friend?

'I think they're just good friends,' I say, rewrapping the mangled pepperoni which is now making me feel really vomity as I've realised just how much unidentifiable bits of pig could be lurking in the pink greasy blob. For all I know I could be eating slices of pig's penis.

'Well, that's interesting.' Dad pushes his pizza away. 'There's something I need to tell you. It's over. Finished.'

I look at Dad's plate. He's barely touched his Deep Pan Super Supreme with extra spicy beef and a side order of garlic bread. Perhaps even he's got worried about his expanding moobs and is on a diet.

'Well?' Dad says.

'You could ask them to put it in a box and I'll take it home for Jack,' I say, nibbling at a bit of crust oozing with cheese.

'What?'

'Your pizza. Get them to put it in a box. The Little Runt eats anything.'

'Electra, what are you talking about?' Dad sounds irritated and sits back in his chair.

I put on my most withering Parents can be so thick sometimes voice and say, 'Duh! Recycling the pizza you don't want.'

I round off this sarky statement with a sneery look, something my other best friend Sorrel Callender excels at, but which she and Lucy say makes me look as if I'm about to sneeze.

For a moment Dad looks confused. Then he says, 'I didn't mean I'd finished with the pizza. I was talking about me and Candy. We've split up.'

One of the most useful expressions to use when dealing with parents is the totally blank look. It completely confuses the poor dears whilst giving you time to work out your next move.

This is the perfect time for a blank face.

'Well, what do you think?' Dad asks.

It's particularly effective when combined with an And like do I care? shrug of the shoulders as then it really winds them up.

I do the shrug and blank combo.

'Oh, for goodness sake Electra!' Dad snaps. 'I thought you'd be pleased. You hated Candy. Isn't there anything you want to say?'

A randomly stupid question pops in to my butterfly brain which is How far can you get a piece of melted cheese to stretch without it breaking?

I start my cheesy experiment.

Quite a long way actually, is the answer.

'Electra, I'm talking to you,' Dad growls.

'Who dumped who?' I ask, still pulling on the cheese. It's about two garlic-bread bits wider than the pizza plate at the moment.

'Things hadn't been right between us for a while,' Dad replies. 'So I thought it for the best.'

The cheese string I've been testing finally breaks, disappointingly not quite making the third garlic-bread-slice marker. Dad stares down at nothing in particular, the lights in the restaurant bouncing off his almost bald head, highlighting rampant scalp dandruff. The flakes of skin look like white glitter, great in a snow dome, but tragic on the top of your head. He's obviously been using the anti-slaphead lotion again which doesn't seem to help his hair grow, but just turns his scalp dry and flaky.

'So Candy wasn't the great love of your life after all,' I say sarcastically, unable to hide my anger and abandoning the Am I bovvered? face for a Totally Bummed one. 'You wrecked our lives for nothing.'

I bang my hand on the table for extra impact, but the effect is rather lost as when I bring it back up, a big glob of stringy cold mozzarella is dangling from my palm.

When Dad looks up at me he looks sad and lost, as well as porky and bald. 'Listen Electra, if I could turn back time, don't you think I would?' he sighs.

He waves at our waiter, a skinny Zitty Bum Fluff boy, and signals for the bill.

'Well, if you tell Mum you've left Candy, maybe you could come home?'

Why did I say that? What a stupid thing to suggest! There's no way Mum would let Dad waltz through the door as if the last six months have never happened.

I think back to the time when Dad hinted he wasn't getting on with Candy, aka The Bitch Troll. When I'd told Mum, instead of rushing round to the offices of Dad's firm, Plunge It Plumbing Services, throwing her arms round him and gasping, 'I forgive you for being a lying cheating unfaithful rat, just come home,' she'd snapped, 'Good,' and it was never mentioned again.

'Coming home would be great,' Dad says as the ZBF boy comes back with the bill. 'But I can't see it happening whilst your mother's still so angry with me.'

'Maybe angry means she still cares,' I say as Dad slaps some cash down on the table. 'If she really was over you she wouldn't care less.'

* * *

We sit in silence as Dad drives me home in his blue and white van. He and Mum started Plunge It Plumbing Services just after they were married, and although the firm has grown quite big, Dad's never got a proper car, even though he could probably afford something swish and sporty without ladders on the top and toilet-unblocking stuff in the back. He prefers to drive the van as he says it makes him feel like a proper plumber, and with the phone number and website plastered down the side it's a mobile advertisement. I used to be a bit embarrassed about the van and make Dad run me around in Mum's car, but now I quite like sitting up high, staring over the traffic, plus Dad drives like a van driver so he's always cutting people up, making V-signs and yelling out of the window which makes journeys a bit more interesting.

As we pull up outside 14 Mortimer Road, the van towers over Phil Harris's titchy blue Toyota which is parked outside. Phil also rides a Harley-Davidson which he calls The Hog, but we've only seen it once when he came over with it one weekend. It was all throbbing chrome and studded polished leather, and Jack spent hours sitting on it pretending to be a biker, making roaring sounds even though the ignition was switched off.

Jack thinks Phil's the bee's knees because Phil does all the things with him Dad never had the time for, even when he lived at home.

Table football in the house.

Real football in the garden.

Making bits of hutch for Google, our vicious finger-mauling guinea pig.

Showing Jack the huge tool kit he has to carry around in the back of the AA van, which has flashing yellow lights.

And now the motorbike.

No wonder Jack no longer seems to miss Dad. If you're eight years old a man with a fluorescent yellow jacket, an enormous tool kit and plenty of time to talk to you must seem exciting.

Jack might not miss Dad, but I do. So far I've made out to everyone that I'm totally cool with Mum and Dad splitting up, that it's no big deal, I don't care, and I'm so not going to turn in to one of those whingy wimpy kids who spend their life blaming everything on the fact that they're from a broken home.

But underneath, it's not true. I do care, desperately, and whatever Dad has done and however often he's lied, I miss him.

But now things might change.

He's dumped Candy and more or less said he wants to come home. If I can stop Phil sniffing around Mum the coast is clear for a big parental reunion.

I give Dad a kiss, clamber out of the van, jump down on to the pavement, and wave as he pulls away.

Somehow I've got to Dad back home.

The problem is, I haven't the foggiest idea how I'm going to do it.


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