It was a window, but just a window.
A window to outside, but just outside. That was all. No big deal. Nothing to see here. Just…an amuse-bouche. Yes! To get him started.
Another vase smashed downstairs.
For the life of him Peter couldn’t remember owning so many vases. They were odd things and if you weren’t botanically-inclined – which Peter wasn’t because who knew what bacteria those incorrigible dirt fiends traipsed in with them – a bit of a waste of space. They were only still dotted about because, well. It’s all he had left of her.
A cacophonous affront to the senses. Footsteps, two sets of. Growing louder. Peter thought it was another vase, but some other niggling doubt wondered whether it might not have been his Le Creuset mug this time– and that was bloody taking the biscuit. He could feel his anger, on the gentle simmer until now, creep up a couple of notches. But only to, say, gas mark five.
Still, you didn’t want Peter at gas mark five.
This was his home. His sanctuary! The sheer cheek of it all. Peter spun, facing down the bathroom door. Emboldened. But the thin strip of light at the bottom of the door was suddenly blotted out by shadow, and whatever flame had been kindling within went out with a pitying flicker. Peter felt it again; the Weight of the World. Crushing the air from his lungs. A bomb, ticking away. Like the Nordic kitchen timer downstairs. A non-slip base with a polished larch-wood top. He hoped they hadn’t touched his Nordic kitchen timer, really.
Sibilant whispering; a knock on the door. But it wasn’t a polite knock. More so a knock deployed in instances where the bathroom has been unduly hogged. Which was technically very true.
‘It’s bloody ocupado!’ It came out in a scrape, sans oxygen – but Peter couldn’t think of what else to say.
‘PEA-POTTS?’ A deep and cavernous enquiry from across the threshold.
‘It’s Peter Potts, actually. Just w-what do you think you’re doing in my home?’
‘WE NEED TO–’
It was happening again. The tautening of his ribs; like somebody was pulling tight a drawstring bag. The voices became muffled. White noise. What would Dr Choudhary say? Breathe. But what use was that? Like when people say Don’t Get Stressed. How can you not get stressed, please? Practice your positive thinking, then. In and out. Just like that.
All right. This was a distressing situation, but it wasn’t dangerous.
‘THIS COULD GET VERY DANGEROUS.’
A stoneware Ikea flask clattered into the sink, spilling Peter’s toothbrush and comb. Frenzied, he realised it was him that had knocked it over. Belatedly, it occurred to him he never really used that comb.
Still, Peter was almost certainly very nearly in control of this situation.
‘YOU ARE MOST DEFINITELY NOT IN CONTROL, THAT IS WHY WE ARE –’
Oh sod off! It just never worked for Peter, never. Well, if it doesn’t come easily, focus instead on something you’re good at. Peter had had so many sessions with Dr Choudhary that his imaginary conversations with the therapist came complete with ripostes.
Something he’s good at. Right. This was just…it was just a peculiar dining experience. And Peter, Peter was reviewing it. Yes. In his mind, he clicked a biro. He opened his eyes. The bathroom door was wooden, with flecks of paint – as opposed to painted with flecks of wood on display. Somewhere amidst the speckles of duck-egg blue, a spiral doorknob the colour of yolk. Only it drooped, a screw loose. Like an Eggs Benedict that comes with an already deflated egg. Peter could almost taste the ink at the tip of his tongue… along with the yolk runs their coveted five-star rating… yes! … lingers in the memory…all the wrong reasons… no, too hackneyed…after all the perfect egg doesn’t run, it walks– no no, bloody awful. He’d lost the thread of it now. That was just it, with Peter and reviews. If the words weren’t right, he didn’t write them. He didn’t hold with the sort of word vomit that splurged from most critics’ mouths. He liked to think that, one day, people might appreciate that. But for now, his career had a similar arc to the titanic navigating an iceberg; slow, ponderous, destined to end up in the rubble below.
More banging at the door.
Peter looked nervously at the brass bolt which was missing, well, the bolt. He’d hastily stuffed a pencil through it instead.
It was only a Staedtler 2B.
A pause. Light danced under the sill, places exchanged. This time a quieter, more entreating voice.
‘Ah, might we just…talk? Over a tea, perhaps? I saw a nice Le Creuset mug downstairs.’
‘WE BROKE THAT ONE.’
‘Quiet!’ Invectives, lots of sibilant invectives. ‘So, ah, what do you say?’
One more knock. This time the pencil splintered. The landing light shone through at the edges.
Peter backed onto something cold and draughty.
It was a window.
Just a window. A regular old window. Frosted, maybe even glazed. Yes! Glazed, like a cinnamon bun. It was just a cinnamon bun. Peter had never knowingly seen a cinnamon bun and not reviewed it.
Behind him, the bathroom door creaked open.
‘COME WITH US.’
‘I think my associate is right… for the best…’
‘COME. COME. COME.’
The push-button of the PVC window handle depressed beneath Peter’s thumb. For the first time in three years, the outside world smacked him in the face.
3 DAYS EARLIER
The doorbell rang at precisely 5:43pm. Peter knew. He’d been counting down the seconds on the asparagus green twin-bell clock that sat above the microwave. It was inevitable.
‘That ought to be him, Tony.’
‘Meow.’ Tony was a cat, of the tabby variety. Certain events had necessitated that Peter adopt him. He was a reliable if not cantankerous companion, and boasted superior control over the superciliary muscles that humans call eyebrows.
Peter dragged his feet towards the kitchen side-door and opened it. Tony immediately raised his hackles; across the threshold stood a giant Labrador retriever.
‘Oi-oi. S’that your way of saying happy birthday?’
‘Yes, no. Right. Sorry Ted. I mean, happy birthday Ted.’
Ted twanged the elastic mask and revealed himself. In the ten years Peter had been friends with Ted, he’d only ever known him to wear faux-sheer fleeces. It was because Peter knew this fact, that he also knew it was merely coincidental that he blended in so well as a giant Labrador retriever. That and the unstyled locks, colour matched to dirty sand, and the watery blue eyes, colour matched to sea foam. Not to mention the risible mien that always lingered around Ted, as though his next joke was only ever a knock away.
But today, Peter thought, he seemed a little more disenchanted than usual.
Ted rocked on his heels, hands tucked firmly in fleece pockets. ‘Dint make it to my party, then?’ Peter felt his eyes slide to the right and made a concerted effort to drag them back. He tried to blink away the imprint of what he’d seen: a Worcester boiler hovering above a quartz countertop like a wayward satellite, a control panel of alphabetic shapes punctuating an embarrassing assortment of unanswered invitations. Tucked under the T: It’s my 30th birthday, pet. To celebrate, come round mine dressed as YOUR pet. Love and Cuddles, Ted & Truffle (my pet).
‘S’pose I should be used to it by now, you not turning up.’
Peter was overcome by an overwhelming sense of déja vú, as if somewhere, out there, some other version of him had lived these very events and arrived at a very different outcome. Then he realised; that was nonsense, he was simply being reminded of the moment with Bastion not ten minutes earlier; that feeling of bitter disappointment; of dissatisfaction and emptiness; self-loathing and falling short, road closures and how did my life end up like this.
‘Yes, right. I couldn’t make the trip in the end. Sorry Ted.’
‘Literally mate, I live next door.’
Behind Ted, across the boundary of a brick wall riddled with weed holes, the din of clinked glasses and muted music, the refraction of light in an orangery. Peter found himself instinctively drawing closer to the half-shut kitchen door.
But Ted was the perennial half-open kind of guy.
‘Come on pet. I even got you a Tony mask,’ and Ted lifted a bodiless hide, eyes stretched and tenantless.
Peter was transfixed, saw more of himself than he’d like in that empty vessel, gushing a soundless scream on an unknown frequency. Was he becoming Tony? It hadn’t started that way, of course. They’d began as mere acquaintances. Tony turned up on the scene after Antoinette had –––. Peter remembered studying him; wondering where he came from, who he was, and whether he ought to adopt him. In time they might get to know one another. Become one another? Peter appraised Tony now, with his forepaws crossed on the monochrome tiling. Maybe there was something to the blotchy fur, brown or black depending on the light, or even the uncanny air of independence. Or was that solitude?
‘Yes, but I’m not sure. Won’t it be full of…’ people, craftily disguised as cats and dogs. Anthropomorphised animals and a lack of personal space. ‘–you know.’
‘That’s what you’d generally expect at a party,’ Ted said, flatter than an uncapped 50cl Fever Tree, before rebounding with a fizz. ‘You should see it though, Peter. S’not just house pets, it’s the full gamut like. There’s a gecko, a micro pig and even a bastard lama! Can you imagine?’ Peter couldn’t. Where did they even sell llama masks? A part of him wondered whether this was all just a ruse — because Ted knew he had a soft spot for animals since Tony turned up.
‘I am sorry Ted, really. But–’
But Ted had the same energy as his Labrador, Truffle; loyal, obedient, stubborn. A refusal to give up on the hope that the saliva-covered tennis ball might one day be returned. He peered over Peter’s shoulder. An eyebrow raised. Peter pictured the kitchen table, and the candle burning down to its wick.
‘Oh, no. I was working. Yes! That’s it, working. You know, now it’s just me on the mortgage. I’ve got to write up the review, upload it to the blog. Send it to the papers, see if anyone bites. You know.’
‘It’s been just you on the mortgage for three years, pet.’ Ted kicked at a loose pebble in the side return. Peter knew there was a hidden import beneath the words, but he didn’t want to revisit that particular conversation, so he tried to divert course.
‘Well, but how about…I could, I mean, later, after you’ve finished with the, the –’ Party? Soiree? Revelling? Read: a collection of nouns and verbs to make Peter shudder. ‘–you could come around? I’m sure there’s some berry petit fours in the fridge, leftovers from last week’s review. A perfectly normal thing to do, I might add.’ They were Ted’s favourite. It had piqued his interest certainly, and Peter knew he was tempted.
‘That them tiny square cakes?’
‘Hm.’ Ted grunted. ‘Can’t, sorry.’
‘What – why?’
‘You’re busy later.’
‘I’m – what?’
‘You’re busy later.’
‘How could I possibly be–‘
‘Thing is, Peter, I did something I’m not proud of.’ And Ted shifted from rocking on his heels to his toes – a trademark conciliatory act.
‘Not proud of…’ the words echoed through Peter, a decibel breach to his inner defences; debris loosened, causing havoc; a landslide within. He clutched his ribcage, mesh netting to restore the slopes. Peter did not like it when Ted got ideas. Typically it involved breaching the four walls he called Number 32, Banbury Cottage.
‘Yeah.’ Ted ran a hand over his close-cropped sandy curls, the sort of blonde that flashed silver; shingle and coin on a beachfront. ‘Yeah. Remember my old boss at the museum?’
The museum. The immediate world went blurry, Ted too. Across their shared garden wall a shed came into focus, more of a glorified summerhouse now. Ted used to spend days in that shed – at first it was humble cardboard cutouts for theme parks, then he’d graduated to exhibition stands for trade and public events, businesses, that sort of thing. Eventually he was commissioned by the Artefact Museum of Oddments and Endings, which specialised in rare and unexplainable historic artefacts. He did such a sterling job the late Head Curator – Beatrice? Brenda? – convinced Ted to come in-house, where he’d climbed to the rank of Chief Exhibit Designer, and even dabbled in curation. Peter fancied his sheer fleeces came with a few more oddly-arranged geometric shapes knitted into them now. Today it was a series of aimless triangles. He supposed it did look arty, but it was also quite headache-inducing. In fact, thinking about the whole thing gave Peter a damn headache. It all just came so easily for Ted. Gregarious, outgoing – literally outgoing – nothing could get in his way.
‘–Barbara. Remember? The one that got me the gig? Well, passed away not long back dint she? Anyway, she’s got this daughter who used to always ghost around the museum like, while Barbara was working. And me being the gracious git I am, I promised Barbara I’d keep an eye out for her, if she ever dropped by. I figured she’d not want to go near the place since her mam passed like, but the poor pet’s been there every day since. Well, not every. But you know. Seems a bit cuckoo. And she’s been creeping out the visitors too. One day I had to stay behind late, ‘cause I’d fallen behind on this set – Mesezoic materiality, or was it Mesezoic myth? No, wait. It was Materiality out of Myth: The Mesezoic Era – and it was all because she’d been creeping out the visitors, causing this big scene, and I’d had to intervene else security were going to throw her out. Anyway, a part of me thought should I’ve just kicked her out and have done with it, but then I thought: that’s not very nice, Ted. Her mam was a nice lady like, too. So I took her aside to ask what’s what, hasn’t she got other stuff to do? She’s only a few years younger, like. You’d think she’d have a li–’
Ted stopped short, as if only just realising what he was about to say and to whom.
‘Well anyway,’ he resumed. ‘I asked her, and she said–’
Here, Ted affected a voice that was exactly Ted’s voice but with a few more rising intonations.
‘–Not really? No. I flunked fourth year after mum died, so? Maybe mind your own business? Who do you think you are, anyway? Ben fucking Stiller? Custodian of the museum? And I was like, woah, steady on lass. Enough of that like. But then, I don’t know Pete. I felt bad. Maybe she doesn’t have much left in the world. It kind of reminded me of, you know, what you went through. And then I had this idea, and I’m not proud of it, but also it kind of just blurted out, and I was like, well, if you’re bored, I’ve this mate…who you kind of remind me of a bit pet, and maybe you could, well, you know, meet up. I thought it’d be…and…I don’t know, maybe it’s time for you to move on, you know, get out of the house…just…and…being honest…worst ideas out there…so…for you to…and…so – you going to say something Pete mate or what?’
Peter had fallen into a stupor. His mind and body frozen. Respiratory functions included. Finally his mouth found the shape of words. Alien objects.
‘Yeah, you know, for like a drink or something.’
‘You mean a…’ his eyes darted around to the vases guarding his kitchen, the green ceramic and earthenware ripple numbers. ‘…a date?’
Peter’s mouth was so ironically dry at the prospect of a drink with this, this, ‘Hold off a minute. You met this cuckoo girl at work – and you’re palming her off on to me? But I’m not, I’m not someone to be palmed off on to.’
‘Well I wouldn’t say–’
‘Excellent, yes, just great idea Ted. Bloody great. Really. And – hang on. You…you counted on my not making your birthday and pre-arranged this bloody date?’
‘Now, well. You hang on a minute pet. My master plan, if you’re interested, was to get you round mine, limber you up a bit and then send you on your way. But that dint happen, did it? And since you missed your best mate’s thirtieth, you might take a chill pill or two.’ Ted scratched his nose then holstered both hands firmly in fleece pockets. ‘Hm.’
‘But I –’
‘You’ll be fine.’
‘And I don’t–’
‘Bout time though, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah. S’all nice in there now. Had a makeover hasn’t it?’
‘But – no. Categorically no. I don’t want to. You’re always at it. With these, these schemes of yours. Well, no. I won’t have it. I couldn’t possibly. Besides, it’s too far.’
‘Literally mate –’ Ted gestured to the end the garden. ‘It backs on to that snicket there.’ It’s true. Beyond the joint hedgerow there was a snicket. Useful for storing wheelie bins in. Keep the bluebottles away. And past that, a white-brick country haunt, adorned with gold signage: The Time is Nigh, and then: new ownership!
‘If you don’t go I’ve told her your home address too. So you’ve about twenty minutes either way.’
Peter wasn’t done protesting at the incredulity of it all, but just then a polyester lama stuck its head over their shared wall. ‘Come on Ted mate, that gecko’s just cracked out the alcoholic kombucha. We need saving!’
To be continued…