Monday, September 18, 2006

Apple Strudel (Part II)

A couple of posts ago (read part I here) I was in Austria with Dolores and the twins. I had just praised them for showing a modicum of restraint after a local child had accused them of 'losing' the hotel guinea pig. We pick up the story just moments later as several adults and children continue to hunt for the hirsuite pet.


The commotion outside brought several people into the garden in quick succession. Dolores was there alongside the owner of the hotel and three of his staff. The mother of the Austrian child who had assaulted the twins was joined by her husband and eldest daughter. I immediately noticed that the daughter looked particularly annoyed, and she kept trying to attract her mother's attention as we searched the garden like a row of police hunting for clues.

After one full sweep of the 100 foot long garden we had found nothing. Every bush had been prodded, every clump of grass trodden (lightly). The guinea pig was certainly no longer there. I asked the hotel owner if there was any point of weakness in the garden perimeter through which the rodent could have escaped. He couldn't be certain so I walked all the way around to check the integrity of the fence. Nowhere could I find so much as a fractured slat. The gate to the garden was spring loaded, and the only way a guinea pig could have opened it was to have acquired super-guinea pig strength. Not to mention an ability to spring three feet up in the air, grab hold of the handle, pull it down whilst still up in the air, pull the gate open whilst falling back to the ground, and nipping through the opening with lightening speed before the gate snapped shut.

'Well...' I said, after completing my investigation and ruling out the possibility that the guinea pig had made a solitary escape, 'it is beginning to look, I'm afraid to say, that your guinea pig may not have left the compound of it's own accord. I hate to be the one to suggest this, but the evidence is clearly pointing towards.....'

'Oh no!' cried the Austrian child's mother.

'Yes, Frau....Frau.....'

'Rotwein', said the lady helpfully

'Ja Frau Rotwein. Sorry, but I think that the poor creature may have been.....kidnapped!'

There was a collective intake of breath all around me. The twins breathed in particularly sharply.

'I'm sorry boys, ' I said, turning round and bending down to their eye level. 'I know how much you loved the little creature.'

'Yes Dad. We did,' they chorused.

At this point the daughter of Frau Rotwein tugged firmly on her mothers sleeve. The mother tried to brush her away but the daughter persisted in tugging. She motioned for her mother to bend down. When Frau Rotwein obeyed, her daughter then started whispering loudly in her ear. I couldn't make out all of what she was saying, but I did hear the names of the twins, and the German for guinea pig ('Meerschweinchen' in case you are interested). I turned away from the boys to see Mrs Rotwein interrogating the child

'Bist du sicher?'

'Ja mama. Ich bin sicher. Ich sah alles.'

'What's that?' I asked, curious as why this girl was getting involved.

'I'm sorry Herr Crumble. My daughter is making a serious allegation against your boys. I am asking if she is sure about what she is saying.'

'Oh....' I said flatly. Looking to my left I could see that Dolores was paying rapt attention.

'Yes,' continued Frau Rotwein. 'She says, I'm sorry to say, that your boys took the animal yesterday up to the castle and came back without it. She says this today is all to pretend that they don't know what happened. She says she knows this because she followed them.'

'Castle?' I asked. 'What castle. I didn't know there was a castle?'

I could sense Dolores by my side, her arm on mine 'Darling, your voice has cracked. Try to calm down,' she said calmly.

'That one, I suppose' said Frau Rotwein, pointing up at some ruins in the distance.

I spun round on my heels to face the twins. My expression must have been quite severe, for they simultaneously took three steps back. Just far enough that I couldn't grab them.

'Boys!' I said in as low a tone as I could manage. 'Did you hear that?'

'Yes Dad' said Twin Y, his eyes cast downwards.

'And?' I prompted.

'We.....' began Twin Y' but he got no further before Frau Rotwein's daughter was in front of them, face like thunder. Aggression clearly ran in the family. She pointed at the twins accusingly, her chubby little right-hand index finger jabbing away with each syllable .

'Meerschweinchenmörder! Ich sah alles!' she screamed, with such elevated pitch and sonic venom that it made me stumble backwards. The effect on the twins was even more profound. Twin Y broke down and began accusing his brother of 'doing it'. In repost to this breaking of their solidarity, Twin X thwacked his brother on the nose, knocked him over, fell on top and began the mother of all pummelling's on his brother's torso. He was so fast that he got in a good five blows before I could grab his collar and haul him away.

Ten minutes later we were standing in front of the entrance to the castle ruins. I was holding firmly onto the hand of Twin X, Dolores was dragging a reluctant Twin Y. Behind us were Frau Rotwein, her two children, the owner of the hotel and his wife.

'Where is it?' I asked Twin X. He pointed straight ahead up the path. There was what looked like a wooden cross just to one side. 'Are you being serious?' I asked, pointing towards the cross.

'Not there' said the child sullenly, 'up there....'. He was still pointing ahead. As we passed the cross I peered closely, just to make sure. In fact it was a sign pointing to the toilets.

I let Twin X guide us through the extensive castle ruins. It was certainly a well placed fort, with sheer drops and spectacular views of the valley below.

I asked if the guinea pig had been dropped or something, to which Twin X shook his head. He then led us further into the ruins and up to an intact drawbridge leading to an inner keep. Here he stopped. Twin Y broke free of his mothers grip and the two of them pointed towards a drainpipe protruding from the wall of the ruin.

'In there' said Twin Y quietly. I could just make out what looked like the head of a small furry animal poking out. It looked pretty much lifeless from where I was standing. Frau Rotwein's chilren began to cry.

An interrogation followed. Imagine the scene, if you will. Five adults and two children surrounding the twins, demanding to know what happened. At times it came close to what I imagined a lynching might have been like back in the good old days of instant justice way out west. But I managed to keep order, and essentially what happened was this:

The previous day Twin X had challenged Twin Y to do something naughty. I know they play this game occasionally and to forfeit the challenge is likely to lead to some puerile punishment. So Twin Y had to agree, even though he felt, he said, uncomfortable about the idea. He had seen the guinea pig in the hutch and thought he would hide it somewhere for a day or two. He had removed the animal from the hutch and the two of them had gone up to the castle, having found nowhere suitable in the grounds of the hotel, and antipicating a finger-tip search once the alarm had been raised. They had come across the drainpipe whilst hunting for a suitable hiding place. Climbing up the ruins, they found the entrance to the pipe and placed the animal inside. Their plan was to put some grass inside and a stone over the entrance. The guinea pig fitted nicely into the pipe. A bit too snugly in fact because it couldn't turn round. The pipe was also a bit slippery inside due to recent rain and a thin covering of moss. They watched as the hapless rodent slipped and slid its way down the pipe until the end. At first they feared it would slide out of the other end, but it became stuck fast. At that point they panicked and left the ruins. They decided to raise the alarm themselves to divert suspicion, and at no time had they seen Frau Rotwein's daughter following them.

The owner of the hotel had brought his zoom camera with him, and after interrogating the boys we trained the lens on the end of the pipe, presuming we would see an ex-guinea pig. In fact, this is what we saw:

Yes, dear reader, you may well blink in disbelief. It was not a real guinea pig at all, but rather a soft toy.

'Gott in Himmel...!' exclaimed the hotel owner as he looked at the image on the LCD screen.

I showed the boys the picture. They clearly hadn't expected a close inspection of the pipe and had nowhere left to hide. One of them tried to make a run for it, but his mother was quick to respond and had him by his collar before he'd even taken two steps. The other sat on the ground and started crying. I remained surprisingly calm, and asked them where the guinea pig was. Twin Y pointed to the ground below the drainpipe. It was a drop of at least fifty metres. The hotel owner trained his zoom lens but the ground was obscured by bushes. The guinea pig was nowhere to be seen.

The real truth was rapidly extracted from the twins. They had indeed forced the guinea pig down the pipe but had watched helplessly as it slid not just to the end but beyond. They had heard it squealing as it exited the pipe and stared at each other in horror. After a few moments panic they had hatched the bizarre notion of replacing the animal with a stuffed toy, just in case anyone had seen them near the castle. They had bought one from the local toy shop that looked big enough to get stuck and pushed it down. Satisified that they had covered all their tracks, they then raised the alarm.

On the one hand I was impressed with their flawed ingenuity. On the other, I was mad as hell that they had abused their position as guests of the hotel. Dolores was equally astonished and angry. We had to spend the rest of the day apologising to the hotel owner and the family Rotwein, and were forced to drive to the nearest pet shop, some twenty miles away, to buy a new guinea pig. I told the twins to expect a very severe punishment, and, after discussion with Dolores, decided that their allowance would be cut in half between now and the half-term holiday. It was a shock tactic that worked. From that moment on the two boys remained silent and sullen and within eyesight and earshot for the next two days of the trip. We returned to the UK just in time to pack them off to boarding school. Into each of their bags I packed a guinea pig soft toy and told the boys to look after them or their allowance would be cut further.

They don't like me at the moment but I can live with that. I've got far more important matters to deal with.


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