The story so far
New to Portsmouth, Ranulph the wolf has found lodgings with feisty fox Trixie, and the two of them have set up a stall selling “wild food wraps” on the seafront. In this episode, the enterprising pair investigate vocational training opportunities in Portsmouth.
RANULPH, a wolf
TOD, a wily fox
TRIXIE, a fox, Tod’s sister
ORLA, a wolf-husky cross who is Ranulph’s girlfriend, does not feature in this episode.
Episode 5: Watch Out for Small Bones
‘College starts this month,’ said Trixie.
‘College?’ said Tod.
‘Ranulph needs a qualification. For the business.’
‘If our prof gets any more qualifications his head will explode,’ said Tod.
I couldn’t imagine any qualification that would blind inspectors to the mangled rodent corpses in Trixie’s freezer, but I was learning to respect her judgement. So the first Friday in September found us waiting in a queue under a hot, glass roof. To our left, a game of cards was in progress around a table marked “Have fun improving your literacy skills”. A self-important woman with a clipboard umpired as players slapped down ‘cat’ ‘fat’, ‘rat’ and “bat”. Trixie smiled knowingly as “hood” followed “good.” Puzzlement, then outrage usurped the smile as a third player slapped “pud” on the table, a fourth scooping the lot with “could”.
‘Those cards don’t match the others!’ she protested.
‘Try reading the words out loud,’ I said. ‘The end part’s spelt differently but it sounds the same.’
She gulped. ‘Sometimes I wish I’d had more schooling.’
‘Well, we could both study something.’
‘I don’t see our sort around here. I’d feel conspicuous.’
The umpire woman heard us and recited in a full, carrying voice: ‘Our functional skills courses are for everybody, regardless of gender, race, class, religion or sexual orientation.’
Several people turned to look. Noticing Trixie’s pointy little fox face, the woman said, ‘Oh…. you might have to pay something towards your tuition. Functional skills courses are free for most, er, people.’ A poster behind her depicted humans of various ages and colours, but no animals, not even a guide dog.
‘Thanks, actually we came about the food hygiene course,’ Trixie told her sweetly.
‘Would you like some information to read while you’re waiting? the woman said in a placatory tone. ‘Let me get you a leaflet.’
Trixie was soon furrowing her brow over the headings. ‘Once a week for twelve weeks,’ she read out slowly. She grimaced. ‘Twelve weeks! For a little hygiene certificate!’
Looking up, I saw we were now at the front of the line, facing a woman with a picture of herself hanging from a ribbon. The cloying smell of her perfume made me draw back.
‘Twelve weeks might seem a long time, but it’s not only food hygiene, that’s just the accreditation you do,’ she told Trixie.
‘It’s not for me, it’s for him.’ Trixie shoved me with such force that I barged into the table.
Straightening the disarranged leaflets, the woman gave me an uncertain smile. ‘We cover principles of basic cooking as well and you can progress onto Level 2 Catering if you’re serious about a career in this area.’
‘Can’t I just do the food hygiene?’ I didn’t mind working on the seafront stall but I vastly preferred fishing to catering.
Relief was written all over her face as she reached for a pad. ‘There’s a private place that runs one-day crash courses, you could try there.’ She wrote down the address, which was close by.
Trixie muttered out of the side of her mouth, ‘This place has changed, and not for the better.’
‘Personae non gratae,’ I mumbled.
‘We aren’t wanted. Well, I don’t like them either. Very pretentious people.’ Trotting in her wake, I kept my ears down and my mane flat, affecting to ignore the stares of the target clientele.
We needed a coffee to steel us for the next stop. A rare visitor to cafés, Trixie took a keen interest in our surroundings. ‘Nifty tongs they’ve got for the cakes. We could do with some of those.’
‘What’s wrong with paws?’
‘For someone with your education, Ranulph, you can be very stupid.’ Trixie scratched her chest and two hairs wafted into her coffee. ‘You can’t handle money and then food. Not in front of customers, especially with those big claws showing.’
I had seen customers looking anxiously at my claws. Trixie’s were less evident as she could retract them like a cat. If I hadn’t known the canid and felid families were distinct I’d have thought foxes had a streak of pussycat in their genetic make-up.
‘What was that word you used about the woman in the college? Pre-something?’ said Trixie.
‘That was it. D’you think you’re a bit pretentious sometimes, Ranulph?’ She jogged my foreleg and made me splosh my coffee. ‘Just a teeny-weeny bit?’
A huge notice on the front of the crash course place declared:
“Centre open 07.00 H to 23.00 H 7 days PW.
Study what suits, when it suits.”
Peering through a glass window, we saw rows of hunched individuals in earphones. They stared at videos or clicked multiple choice questions on glaring screens. On the monitor nearest our window, a person in round glasses and a white coat gesticulated at a piece of meat encircled by buzzing flies, while the next screen along displayed a cartoon of a chef slipping on a grape. This prompted a guffaw from Trixie and the guy watching the flyblown meat video looked up and banged on the glass.
‘This doesn’t look like rocket science,’ I said as we retreated from the window. ‘Do I really need a course?’
‘A lot of it is common sense, it’s true. And stuff about storage temperatures and how often to change your gloves. But you have to show you understand it all. Evidencing, they call it.’
I hadn’t noticed Trixie worrying about storage temperatures and I’d never seen her wearing gloves. But that was real life, not a course. ‘Where’s the entrance to this place?’ I said.
‘In that alley.’
Sidling past a couple of interesting-smelling binbags, we ventured through a doorway into a dingy corridor where a stand displayed leaflets for courses on food hygiene, IT, citizenship and English B1, whatever that might be. A man with a name badge advanced on us.
Trixie flashed one of her startling smiles. ‘Just picking up some course details.’
The man hovered, clearing his throat, as we pawed through the information. I wasn’t eager for more humiliation. ‘Come on Trixie, we can read all this at home.’
She followed me out, studying a price list. As we emerged from the alley we saw a woman leaning against the wall, puffing one of those vaping things.
‘Don’t waste your money,’ she said. ‘This lot just put you on a computer and charge you extra.’
‘£25, the food hygiene costs,’ said Trixie. ‘For videos about flies and slipping on floors.’ She swatted a fly off her own nose as we squeezed past the binbags.
‘You can do it at home on your PC for half the price,’ The woman blew out a cloud of pink smoke. ‘They should put a stop to this sort of outfit.’
I sneezed. Trixie nodded. We thanked the woman and headed off, pleased that one person seemed to be on our side.
‘I suppose you could do it on our telly Ranulph.’ Trixie’s TV was a Smart one she was keeping for Tod until it was time to sell.
‘Way to go, for sure.’
Trixie smirked, as she always did when I tried out Tod’s phrases.
When we got home I found example questions from the Level 2 test.
When should you change your gloves?
- Before going to the toilet
- After handling raw meat
- Once a day
- When they get sweaty
Trixie struggled to read “should” and “gloves”, then got on famously until we reached “sweaty”, whose vowel sound, logically enough, she rhymed with the one in “meat”. How had she managed to pass the certificate, when deciphering the questions was such an obstacle?
Later that evening I found her poring over the same site. Her thin shoulders were hunched, her neck muscles tense under her fur as she peered at the screen, sounding out the longer words. Seeing my feisty friend with her guard down gave me a soft feeling in my chest. After I said goodnight I made a plan.
‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,’ I told her next day. ‘We’ll watch the food hygiene videos together and I’ll help you read the answers to the questions. Then you can make sure I’ve got them right.’
‘Level 2 is easy.’ She dealt me a playful cuff. ‘I had to do Level 3 because I’m in charge.’
Trixie was sharp-witted and determined. She quickly discerned patterns, so from each set of questions I picked out a word she’d had trouble reading and showed her others with the same spelling feature. ‘Freezer, cleaner, worker, cooker.’
‘Teacher,’ she said. ‘Tuter?’
I was using the word tutor to introduce the –or pattern when Tod appeared, grinning in the doorway. ‘ What a touching sight.’
‘What’s that in the bag?’ snapped Trixie.
My mouth was already watering from the sweet, briny smell of a delicacy I hadn’t encountered since the infamous night I’d boiled twenty of them for Tod.
‘L -O-B-S-T-A.’ Tod winked at me. ‘Spelt like it sounds. Don’t let me interrupt your scholarly activities. Where’s the mayo?’
I got my certificate. Gloves hid my claws so I didn’t spook the customers. If I dropped anything on the floor I ate it myself, fastidiously washing my paws before I touched any other food. We both wore plastic hats.
‘Do you spell “watch” with an a or an o ?’ Trixie said. ‘A? Thought so. Can you just check this notice for me Ranulph? I’m going to stick it up next to our certificates.’
“Watch out for small bones,” it warned in well-formed, cursive script.
Next instalment – Full Moon Barbeque: The furry foursome turn the tables on gatecrashers.