Home Alone

It’s been four days. I’ve stayed in the flat on my own before, but now I think maybe the whole building is empty. I haven’t passed anyone on the stairs. Nobody smoking in the doorway. The couple of inches of snow that fell last week has been trodden to black slush in town but up here, around my building, I can still see my lonely footprints in the whiteness.

There have been a string of murders in the news, which I’ve enjoyed. They break up the cycle of civil unrest, economic woes and child molestation that usually fills the headlines. Things too big or complex or dark to really follow. A good old-fashioned serial killer is timeless. This one leaves a note written in each victim’s blood, always the same: No Regrets. Nice touch.

There’s a damp patch by the fireplace in my room. Not blood but musty smelling water carrying strings of rust down to the skirting boards. I called the maintenance number and the phone rang and rang and rang…

I’ve started talking to myself throughout the day. More than is normal perhaps, although I don’t know what the norm would be. I have the same kind of discussions mostly, in repeat. I explain things to myself, like the principle of convection, as if there was someone else in the room who didn’t understand it well. I debate atheism with a version of me who is Christian. I don’t always convert him, but I do have him try to explain the presence of marine fossils on mountains tops. I deliver famous pieces of stand-up comedy as if I wrote them, to a small audience that can’t get enough of me. Are these the kinds of things I want to be doing for real, with other real people? Sometimes, especially when I’m cooking, I speak nonsense, saying words and phrases just to be making noise. In the last few days one phrase keeps coming back to me, and I say it over and over: No Regrets.

…and rang and rang and rang…

If there’s a crime in your house you have to clean it up yourself. Even if there’s a murder, you have to get rid of the blood and gore on you own, or call a specialist cleaning company. Most people assume that the police take care of it. I did. But if you think about it, no, of course they don’t.

…and rang and rang and rang…

I don’t think blood would wash out of wallpaper very easily. I bet they just paper over it. You could have pints and pints of blood splashed all over your walls under a layer of paint and you wouldn’t know. You could have all kinds of messages written on the wall right behind you. You don’t know. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. One loose corner of wallpaper, one little flap that you grab and, leaning back, peel from the wall with that tearing suction sound; and beneath? No Regrets? I want to find out if there have ever been any violent crimes in my building but the library is closed for the holidays. So I don’t know.

…and rang and rang and rang…

When I was at University we found a door-sized panel in the wall of our shared kitchen. It wasn’t hidden exactly, but we’d never noticed it because it was behind the fridge. We thought the panel might let us get into the girl’s flat next door, without alerting the warden. It took an hour to get all the old screws out of the wall, using a butter knife because none of us owned a screwdriver. The panel led to a small compartment. There was some wiring in there and a crisp packet from the 1980’s. It was fascinating. We gave up on the idea of sneaking next door and decided to close the compartment back up. I think we were humbled by the crisp packet. It was older than we were. It had been present for twenty years of academic study. We left it were it was, and added a canned pie. I don’t really know why we did that. It felt necessary. And now some new students are in that flat, ignorant of the crisp packet and the canned pie that are just a few inches behind their fridge. I don’t know why that makes me uneasy.

…and rang and rang and rang…

He struck again this week, but the mainstream media are losing interest. He hasn’t killed anyone very noteworthy or especially innocent or vulnerable. If he’s after attention he’ll have to up his game.

…and rang and rang and rang…

Oyster shells are the most common unexpected thing you find in old houses, under the floorboards and in the walls. The shells were once used to make Tabby, a kind of cement. If there are any ghosts haunting your house, they’re the ghosts of oysters. The shells would be crushed and burnt to release lime, but any that weren’t used would be left on the premises. That’s the story anyway; maybe an ancient global flood deposited them there.

and rang.

I’ve taken the matter into my own hands. The damp patch has been spreading outwards from its centre, swelling and darkening the surrounding plaster. The whole area bulges slightly as is something larval is gestating in there, oozing ruddy secretions down to the floor. The carpet came up easily enough, revealing broad fibreboard panels beneath. Every metre in every direction there’s the word ‘Masterson’. Not a message from a killer I don’t think- just the name of the manufacturer. I estimate that every day I’ve been walking over the word Masterson eighty times without realising. I don’t know why that makes me uneasy.

Under the fibreboard there were regular floor boards which I levered out with a crowbar and some sawing until half the room was a ribcage of running beams. No molluscs. It seems the damp hasn’t spread this far. I tried to look between the runners under the floorboards with a pocket torch, but my hands were slick with exertion and as I knelt down the torch slid from my hand and rolled beneath and away out of sight. I’ve decided to take up all the floor boards in order to retrieve it.

When I was about eleven years old something must have changed for my family and we started buying bigger things. There was a built-in cupboard in my new bedroom, still with the original wallpaper inside, 1960’s, broad petalled flowers in faded autumnal colours. The encroaching edges of wallpaper and paint from decades of redecoration were visible too, layers of it, a stratification. It was like an architectural archeology. My parents decorated the place in millennial shades of optimistic modernity, but I knew its true colours.

There’s been another killing but forensic experts are saying that neither the method nor the handwriting of the blood-scrawled note match. It seems there’s a copy-cat about, a producer of fan-fiction.

The torch had only rolled a few feet, but once immersed in the rhythm of the work I decided to persevere. Now all the boards are gone from this room and the first few feet of the hall, pitched from the kitchen window into the street, but I’ve stopped there so I can focus on the wall. Occasionally, when a glistening droplet squeezes from an unseen opening in the paper, the shimmering slide of its descent gives the impression of a pulse in the wall, or of something rolling in its sleep. I need to peel the wallpaper off to see the damage, but I’ve started at the opposite wall to have something to compare against. There were a few layers and I found messages almost immediately, pencil markings from a labourer writing measurements straight on to the plaster board.
The damp is probably from a leak in the flat above, a tap left running or a pipe burst in the cold. It’s hard to gauge what the upstairs flat will be like, maybe a few inches of water, maybe just a puddle. I imagine the flat to be flooded floor to ceiling, linen and kitchen ware floating free, rehydrated oyster shells eddying in a thin stream of bubbles issuing from the crack in the floor that leads down to here. Now that I’ve thought of it I can sense the weight of all that water above me. At night I imagine the ceiling collapsing in one crucial moment, a biblical deluge bursting in on me. I’ll have to tread carefully.
There was some light snow last night. My footsteps have been erased.
I took out all the floorboards everywhere and put them out the window. There was quite a bit of furniture that had to go first, my tv, bed, sofa, recliner, kitchen table, coffee table, shelving, book cases, night stand, desk, hamper, and wardrobe. That freed up some space and once I had them all out the window, the pile was nearly level with me. Under the bathroom floorboards I found a forty-year-old shred of newspaper. Forty years sitting there unknown. I shudder. To get at the bathroom boards I had to lever out the bath, shower, sink and toilet. All you really need to get by is one pipe for water and a bucket.
Two dead in Kilmersdon, No Regrets, one was the local mp. Back on the radar. Kilmersdon’s just down the road from here.
Bathroom tiles, kitchen tiles, wainscoting, skirting boards, fireplace (Benson and Benson moulded onto the dexter side of the fireplace mount), radiators, plug outlets, light fittings and switches. Unseen channels for wiring and pipes. Non-loading bearing walls that relinquish their status under force. Piles and piles of wallpaper. Plaster, plasterboard. The pile now towers over me and resembles some kind of Mayan pyramid. You just wouldn’t believe how much stuff is in the room with you. I’m going to keep looking.
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Teeth

The new thing is interdental brushes, brushes for getting in between the teeth.

‘But I already floss,’ I told my dentist, causing him to snort derisively.

‘Floss? Tell me friend, would you clean your car with waxed string?’

‘I don’t own…’

‘Your oven then, would you clean your oven with waxed string?’

I shook my head.

‘Of course you wouldn’t. That would be crazy. You’d use a brush.’

I considered this. ‘Or a sponge.’

He leaned all the way forward, forcing me back in the reclining chair.

‘You wouldn’t clean your teeth with a sponge.’ He pressed two packets of the tiny brushes into my hand and smiled. ‘Pay at the desk. See you in six months.’

A google search of ‘Most Common Nightmares’ shows that teeth crumbling, popping or otherwise cascading from the mouth is a fear that haunts the sleep of many people globally. This must be a spectacular boon to the dental industry, and in the waiting room I kept a lookout for advertising that might be employing some kind of subliminal effect. I suppose I was hoping for posters with slogans like “dream of white teeth” or the kind of optical illusions that look innocuous enough at first glance but turn into hideous death masks in your peripheral vision. But, nothing doing. Mainly the advertising showed women, twenty-somethings smiling coquettishly, thirty-somethings minding children, older women drinking coffee without difficulty. One, two, three, the stages of woman; young, mother, elderly. It’s hard not to infer the supposed trajectory of the average woman’s life from these images, and I’m left wondering at what age the painless consumption of high temperature drinks will become one of my chief concerns.  

I paid for the appointment and my new interdental brushes at the desk. The receptionist tried to add some impulse purchases to my basket, but her pitch was less effective than the dentist’s. Partly it’s her lack of formal training that lets her down; she can’t replicate the impression the dentist gives, of having been burdened with terrible knowledge, but also it’s her teeth. They’re too white, too straight. They’re so artificial that they look inexpert, like the kind of spray-tan that leaves the skin melonoma-orange. Maybe in California, where citizens are blinded by overbright sunshine, maybe there she could get away with teeth like these, but here, in Britain, her teeth are whiter than anything else we have around. Teeth like these make Britons realise that what we’ve been calling white all this time was actually a pale grey, and it’s this woman’s fault; she’s showing us up. But what really gets me worked up is that she’s obscurely proud, acting like she’s achieved something. She has the bearing of those lost souls who get addicted to body building and parade their hideous disfigurements as if they were something you should want, as if they were sex-symbols. I see them at the gym sometimes, watching me doing mild cardio and laughing at my skinny arms, while they sweat and hydrate, looking like a foreskin full of marbles.

On my way out of the clinic I hold the door open for an older man who’s clearly in for the works. His head is in a wrap-around brace, lips held in a stiff snarl by foam padding and hooks. Each one of his teeth to the molars is visible, streaked with rust looking stains, but worse than the colour is the texture; they’re porous, clearly porous and seemingly unrooted, sitting on the surface of the gums as precipitately as a lilo floating on the surface of a swimming pool. I can’t imagine what combination of smoking, red wine and sugar is required to do this to a set of teeth, but I note that he’s reasonably well dressed. He doesn’t look unclean. No strong odours. Can a lax brushing habit really get that bad, I wonder? Or maybe he’s an alcoholic? I’m suddenly gripped by an urge to accompany this guy to the dentist’s office. I want to point at the suppurating hole, with its tooth stumps and what I imagine will be a rigid and flaking tongue and ask, how? Exactly how? Could this be me? Was this preventable, or did this guy just fall foul of the Gods? I brush before bed, and I quit smoking; I have my mouthwash, I have my interdentals, I’ve got, god help me, the toothbrush that could double as a sex toy- tell me that this couldn’t be me.

But obviously I don’t do any of those things. This guy has it bad enough, without strangers using him as a yardstick for decay, and if I go back up there the dentist will use his condition to sell me more chemicals and even tinier brushes. I content myself to believe that the man was a plant; he’s the subliminal message telling me to keep shining my pearly whites, and he’s the nightmare creature who coughs handfuls of chipped and bloody enamel into all our outstretched palms at night.

Extremely Dramatic Events

There’s a little frost on the highway this morning so they case along slowly, the older man setting the cruise control around thirty-five and leaning back into the seat. First light just about creeps over the ridge of the distant mountains. A gritting truck looms far ahead.

‘Late this morning.’

‘What’s that?’

Flannery juts his chin towards the truck. ‘Gritting truck. Late start don’t you think?’

The driver looks over his glasses. ‘Fairly.’

They put some more road hissing beneath them.

‘So, Chief. You er, you do anything at the weekend?’

A fox noses out from the edge of the fields, darts back when it sights them. The chief watches in the rearview as it crosses the highway behind them.

‘Saw my son Friday night. Had lasagne. Mostly worked other than that.’

‘Work eh? Downside to being Chief I guess.’

‘I guess.’ They can just about make out a dark figure in the cab of the gritting truck now. Looks to be the older Twain boy, back for the holidays.

‘We went to that new department store at Hoxton, me and Bren. It’s a big place, you been?’

‘Haven’t been yet. No.’

They draw level with the truck, driver waving from the cab. It’s the younger Twain, grown up some little bit though. The chief returns the greeting.

‘Oh you should go. They got just about everything I’ll say. Got myself a worlds sharpest knife.’

The chief glances over. ‘How’s that?’

‘How’s what Chief?’

‘You got yourself a knife?’

‘Oh right, yeah.’ Flannery nods. ‘Worlds sharpest knife, so they say. For the kitchen. TV set right there next to the display, showing what it’ll do. Had a woman cut up a pineapple no problem. Then a tin can.’

‘A tin can?’

‘Oh yeah. An empty one. Can’t say I’ll need to do that, but it underlines their point don’t you think?’

‘Well, I suppose it does.’

They pull off the Highway and enter the suburbs. Early risers scrape car windows or run their engines for a while before setting off. Here and there the streetlights blink and flicker out.

‘You got that address?’

‘Oh yeah.’ Flannery flips open his notebook. ‘It’s 225 Maple. Old couple, name of Harris.’

The chief nods. ‘I know the one.’

They drift past the building, pulling up further along where there’s a space and killing the engine.

‘It’ll go blunt though?’

‘What’s that Chief?’

‘I’m just saying, world’s sharpest or not, you cut up a tin can, your knife will go blunt.’

‘Well I suppose so Chief. I don’t intend to do any such thing though.’

‘No.’

‘No sir. Plain foolish that would be.’

‘Right. Shall we.’

The son answers the door, shows them through.

‘Mother went over to my aunt’s place after calling you folks,’ he explains. ‘Then she called me. In a bit of a state, you can imagine. He’s through here.’ They go through to the kitchen, where the old man lies stiff on the lino. Flannery kneels down, checks for a pulse just in case.

‘Got up for a glass of milk most likely,’ the son continues. ‘Mother said the fridge door was open when she found him.’

‘Was anything else moved?’

‘How do you mean?’

Flannery stands. ‘You say she closed the fridge door- was anything else on the scene disturbed?’

He shrugs. ‘Well I don’t suppose she stopped to make a casserole. But no point letting the fridge motor burn out right?’

The chief nods. ‘Fair enough. Flannery, impressions?’

‘It’s looking like natural causes Chief. Heart maybe, or a stroke.’ He looks to the son. ‘Real quick I would have thought.’

‘Oh yeah? Well, that’s something.’ They can hear the cooing of pigeons roosting in the chimney. ‘Well then, what’s next?’

‘The coroner will come by and take the body. Probably you’ll be his first stop when he gets in this morning.’ Flannery checks his watch. ‘That won’t be for another couple of hours though. Have you got somewhere else you can wait?’

‘Oh yeah. I’ll head on over to my aunt’s, let them know what’s going on.’

‘Well alright then.’

‘Ok.’

‘Well, we’re sorry for you loss. Be seeing you.’

They get back in the car, wait for an SUV to reverse slowly out of a driveway.

‘Not a good start to their week huh chief?’

‘Say again?’

‘I said, not a good start to the week, for Mrs Harris, or Mr Harris junior.’

‘Surely is not. Worse for the Harris senior though.’

‘Yep.’

‘Depending on your beliefs.’

‘Yep.’

They follow the SUV back to the highway. The sun’s full over the mountains now and starting to give a shape to the day. They cruise a little faster back over the fresh-gritted road making long-morning shadows in the tarmac.

Save the Date!

Save the Date!

Announcing the Wedding of John Aspell Jr to Mary Therese Lansley-Hamptonburg

Dear Friend,

You are cordially invited to attend the joyous union of my beautiful daughter Mary Therese Lansley-Hamptonburg and John Aspell Jr on April the 19th 2015 at 2.15 pm. Black tie only (of course!)

As you all know this day has been a long time coming, to say the least! John and Mary were first an item at University, for three wonderful weeks, and although fate led them in different directions then, it was only to bring them back together years later, in the luxurious retreat that John owns and where Mary has occasionally stayed. (and where celebrity residents have included such stars as Pete Doherty, Lindsey Lohn, and Amy Winehouse!)

I’ll have to be honest with you and say that, within the family, we weren’t entirely sure at first that John’s responsible asset management and Mary’s bohemian artist lifestyle would gel, but boy are we happy they did! John is truly the tether to my daughter’s balloon, keeping her firmly on the ground, no matter how hard she might try to float away!

Those of you who know this charming couple best will of course remember how supportive John was during a tough time in Mary’s life; over Christmas she was the victim of a terrible crime, her penthouse looted of every item of value and all her accounts plundered. Poor Mary was reduced to sleeping on a mattress, hardly eating, and all the while too proud to tell her mama and papa what had happened to her! I shudder to think what might have become of her if not for the sensible presence of John, who gladly put her up in his convalescence resort while he refurbished her home. It warms my heart to think of her so well cared for, especially as she has such terrible luck with this sort of thing. My husband sometimes reminds me of the number of times we’ve needed to replace our little girls television or laptop, although I do have to remind him of the number of valuable items that have gone missing from our humble abode over the years! What a world!

But now our Mary has a shining knight to guard over her, and she cries with anticipation for the Big Day! Almost around the clock! I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been a little emotional myself over the last week, the suddenness of it all being quite, quite overwhelming. But, ask John and Mary, and you’ll sense the urgency of the desire to marry; that’s their word urgent and I think it’s beautiful in these days of long engagements.

So, we’ll see you on April 19th, please RSVP. The couple have asked that instead of gifts, donations be made to the charity Action on Addiction.

Sincerely,

Mother of the Bride

Juggernaut

2:35 am

Hedge mazes don’t ever occur naturally- on this at least, we can agree. And a good thing too. What kind of creator god would be implied by a world featuring self-forming labyrinths? What sorts of religious worship would have developed around a Yaweh that made no efforts to hide his intention to mislead and waylay the human animal? And how would my own atheism have been challenged by such compelling evidence of intelligent design? Would atheism even be a legitimate stance in such a world? I briefly imagine Richard Dawkins indicating the looping course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve on a blackboard as clear evidence of evolution, and an archbishop shrugging in response. “But what about the mazes?”

Goddam, goddam, goddam, what was I just thinking? I’ve lost my thread, my… I’ve lost it. What about the mazes?

11 pm

‘…so we’ll head back to Jake’s cos he lives closest, that’s cool with you Jake right, I don’t want to like fffp assume, you know, I don’t want to just assume that we can, fffp that we can go back to yours but it’s just that your place is closest and fffp we’ve gotta get a bottle of water or something, we’ve just gotta, because this fffp is fffp giving me cotton mouth like a bitch fffp fffp and speaking of which I’m totally hogging it sorry, just fffp one more fffp there you go, shit I shouldn’t be smoking, I’m so dry, my mouth has that feeling like, like it’s so dry, and I don’t know I don’t think it’s even doing anything anyway, but anyway, plan, we were making a plan, we’ll head back to Jake’s place if that’s still cool Jake, and we’ll get some water and- is that a police car, guys hold up, seriously though, is it a… no, ha, it’s just a cab, shit I thought, well anyway, water, you know it’s annoying because when we were at Jake’s place earlier I thought “I’d better get some water if we’re gonna be smoking” and I grabbed, oh thanks, fffp, I grabbed an empty bottle and fffp  I went to the bathroom before we left cos I wasn’t sure how long we’d be out here and fffp and I took the bottle with me and fffp I was gonna fill it up from the tap, you know cos I almost always keep a bottle of water right here in my rucksack and… Oh shit. Ha ha, you guys won’t believe this.

9 pm

How are you doing?

Alright. Are your palms sweating?

Your palms are sweating?

Yours aren’t?

No.

Mine are a little bit actually. I hadn’t noticed.

I’m starting to feel a bit twitchy though.

Yeah.

Yeah, hella fucking twitchy.

You ok?

Yeah fine, just a bit like… I always get like this. Anxious.

But you have done it before?

Yeah, both us had some last summer.

It was about this time of year wasn’t it?

Pretty much yeah.

I don’t remember much about that night.

I’ve seen some photos.

Yeah. Fucking facebook.

We’re not going to get like that tonight though?

Have you not done it before?

Not exactly.

We’ll be fine if we don’t drink too much.

Best not to drink at all.

Ah.

You’ve already been drinking?

I had a few with dinner. Will that…

Shouldn’t make too much difference.

I’d stop now though.

Ok. I actually brought some beers with me though. You want one?

What do you reckon?

One won’t hurt.

Man of Mystery

I once went into the corner shop outlet of a national chain and tried to buy a four pack of brand lager. I was twenty-two, but a young looking twenty-two, the kind who usually gets asked for ID when buying alcohol. The woman behind the counter, an older lady, probably nearing retirement, squinted at me through inch thick glasses and asked me how old I was. I said I was eighteen, as I’d been briefed to, and she smiled and said that was fine, and bagged up the beer for me. Not much of a story in itself, but that old lady probably got a severe reprimand from some pimply area manager the same age as me, once I reported her. They paid me £5 for that job, and I got to keep the beer. This is what it is to be a mystery shopper.

Another time I had to attend the regional office of a building society and go through the motions of setting up a high interest savings account with a recording device taped to my chest. The practicalities of the assignment meant that I had to pretend to be rich, so I wore my cleanest suit, styled my hair to look designer casual and practiced an air of unconcerned prosperity. All of which turned out to be unnecessary, as the manager of building society was disappointingly willing to believe whatever I told him, presumably on the basis that nobody would wander into a building society and go through all the rigmarole of documenting their previous five addresses, just for the fun of it. Pretty soon I forgot all about wearing the wire, and I got quite invested in the role, expanding my story beyond the requirements of the brief.

‘My fiance is in Lebanon at the moment,’ I told the manager, studying my nails and sipping at the macchiato they’d brought me, ‘doing lord knows what to my credit cards. But that’s what you get for dating a…’ I searched for an appropriate role for my fake future wife. ‘…a Kardashian.’

He smiled and nodded.

‘We spent last winter in Versailles, teaching English to the natives and helping them erect crude housing,’ I continued. ‘You’ve got to give back what you can, am I right?’

He continued nodding as I finished my macchiato, and asked if I’d like another.

‘Please,’ I said, passing my mug to his secretary, ‘and a biscotti if you have it.’

I got £30 for that one, a good haul for an hours work, although the tape marks on my chest took about a week to heal. I sent the recording device back to head office with a detailed report, knowing full well that I was James-Goddamned-Bond.

Most of the work was small-time stuff and I didn’t get to use an alias or wear a false moustache as often as I would have liked. The last job I did before cutting the whole industry loose was an investigation into the practices of a driving school, where a dozen or so people per day would go to take their driving theory examination. My mission was to be one of those people, and take my driving theory test- to take the test, and to cheat.

I was pretty excited- this represented a step up in my play-acting job, taking on a role where I was not only lying, but lying about cheating. Thrillingly, I didn’t hold a driving license at the time and hadn’t even taken any lessons; I had no business whatsoever being in this sparse waiting room with these poor anxious people cramming last minute from the The Bumper Book of Traffic Law and Driving for Dummies. There were nine of us there, most about my age or younger, all sick looking beneath the dim strip lighting. When a door opened at the end of the hall, real, natural light blinded us and a figure, invisible in the doorway, invited us to enter. The group moved sluggishly and looked like captives being shepherded between cells, but I sprang up and strolled to the front of the crowd and into the room, settling in a front-row seat where I’d be clearly visible.
The examiner went between tables making sure we all had enough pencils and that nobody needed to use the bathroom, before standing at the front of the room, palms outward in a moment of silent contemplation. He was about two feet in front of me so I had the choice of craning my neck uncomfortably skyward or staring directly at his crotch.

‘Before we begin,’ he said, ‘a few things to run by you.’

He introduces himself as Ian and explains how long we have to complete the test, how to make corrections on the paper, what to do if any of us need to use the bathroom. He makes a joke relating to stopping distances that gets a nervous rumble of laughter from the room but which I don’t understand.

Finally, he tells us we’ll begin exactly on the hour, and all eyes turn to the clock; forty seconds.

‘Oh,’ he adds, ‘and if any of you forgot to leave your phones at the front desk today, please turn them off and hand them to me now.’
I feel for the secret phone in my pocket and get a prickling sensation under my arms.

‘No?’ Ian waits a long moment, making eye contact which each of us in turn. I smile toothily. ‘Then you may begin.’

I wait for my moment, feeling the conspicuous bulge of the wire I’m once again wearing. I’d complained to my handler at the agency about the tape marks, and she asked me why I’d thought it necessary to tape it to my chest in the first place. I didn’t have a good answer to this, besides saying that I’d never seen a crime movie where the narc didn’t have the wire taped to his chest. She advised that I simply put the device in the breast pocket of my shirt, so I’d compromised by hanging it around my neck on a chain.

After five minutes it’s time for me to make my move, but I choke, seemingly unable to do what I’d been sent here to do. Maybe it’s fear of drawing attention to myself during an exam, like all those dreams where you can’t read the paper and then soil yourself. Maybe it was that Ian seemed like a nice guy who didn’t need this kind of hassle. Another five minutes passed and I started to picture the people from the agency sitting outside in a van, listening through headphones and sweating through their wife-beaters, revolvers hanging loose at their sides.

‘Now look, what’s your guy playing at?’ the one who looks like Bogart in Key Largo asks, ‘I thought this rat would squeak?’

‘Jeez I dunno,’ replies the other, played by Robert Mitchum, ‘let’s cut him loose before he brings the heat down on us.’

As their imaginary van tears away, my skin starts to tingle and I stare into the wood grain of my desk. If Ian has noticed, he probably thinks I’m stressed out on account of having so little knowledge of UK transit law. I look up but he’s engrossed in a paperback. According to the clock we’ve had half of our allotted time- half- and I know that it’s now or never. I reach into my pocket very, very slowly, and take out the phone. Ian immediately looks up from his book, like he’s been waiting for this, and he frowns with his head set on one side like a faithful dog that doesn’t understand why you’re shouting at it.

He stands up, crossing over to me in a single stride. The movement distracts the other students and they stop working as Ian hunches to speak softly in my ear. They can’t hear what he’s saying to me. They just see me nod, and put my phone back in my pocket. They see gestures of explanation from him, restrained to reflect the solemnity of the room. They think he looks almost apologetic, confused too and more than a little angry. They see me blink away inexplicable tears, and those who didn’t notice me get the phone out wonder what the hell is going on as I silently pack away my belongings and leave the room.

Blue Movies

These days, when I go to visit my grandparent’s bungalow I take loose, comfortable clothes that I don’t mind getting dirty, and sturdy work boots. Cliff and Sarah are old, and they’re only getting older, the amount they can do for themselves diminishing faster than they’re ready to admit. The jobs started out as small things. My grandmother would take my empty plate and nod towards the garden.

‘While you’re here, would you mind putting the lawnmower back in the shed? Your grandfather got it out but he now he’s feeling a little weak around the knees.’

Of course I’ll do that for you. Then, next time, it’s;

‘While you’re here, would you mind mowing the lawn? Your grandfather would, but his arthritis is giving him hell.’

Sure thing. Then it’s;

‘What do you know about cavity wall insulation? Your grandfather thought installation was included in the price but it turns out, no.’

Four hours of stapling fiberglass into the crawl spaces, while your grandfather makes suggestions from his armchair will naturally make a person reconsider the frequency of their visits. But, being the only relative who lives nearby, I bear the burden of visiting, making my assessment and reporting back to my aunts. I usually make the call as soon as I get home while the details are still fresh in my mind, to an aunt who has me on speakerphone, and I answer questions for a babble of voices.

‘How is her leg?’ someone unidentifiable asks from the other end.

They always begin with general enquiries about Cliff and Sarah’s health and wellbeing, the kind of straightforward questions my grandparents could answer for themselves, but this is only preamble.

‘Her leg’s better,’ I tell them, ‘she’s walking about town again. Actually…’

‘That’s great,’ someone cuts me off. ‘Did he forget anything this time?’

The aunts biggest fear is that either Cliff or Sarah will lose their marbles a long time before they die, and some kind of expensive healthcare will consume the inheritance.

‘Well,’ I hesitate. ‘He did call me Greg at one point, but he corrected himself pretty quick. Anyone know who Greg is?’

There’s a murmur from the other end as the Aunts confer.

‘We think he had a employee called Greg in the 70’s,’ they tell me, ‘a borderline retarded guy in the factory. He was probably thinking of that.’

I remember my grandfather giving me basic, step-by-step instructions as I held up strips of prickly insulation that drifted into my eyes.

‘I think you’re probably right. What else?’

There’s a long silence as everybody circles around the real meat of the matter.

‘How was the house looking?’ someone ventures. There are a lot of dimensions to this question, and I have to approach it carefully. If I tell them that the house is untidy, the aunts will take it as evidence that my grandparents can no longer cope. If there’s any sign of disrepair it could mean that Cliff and Sarah’s debility is now affecting the value of the house, which is secretly the main concern. When I tell them that Cliff visited a store I can hear the sharp intake of breath, and a tension that only dissipates when it turns out that he bought an object that will retain its value.

‘The house is fine.’ I tell them about the insulation and I can hear them looking to one another nodding. Insulation reduces the cost of living, and adds to sale value.

When I last visited them, my grandmother was standing before a mirror, tying up a shawl beneath her chin.

‘Will you help you grandad fix the video player?’ she said, ‘he’s got a tape stuck in there.’

‘I can do it,’ came a voice from the living room, and I peered around the door to see him sitting red-faced on the floor, the box marooned in the middle of he carpet. ‘Although I don’t think I can get up.’

My grandmother left once I had helped Cliff back into his chair, and I knelt before the TV, ready to fix whatever small problem they had before they could think up anything more strenuous for me to do.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ Cliff said, waving his hand as I plugged the machine back in. I had assumed that video player meant DVD but no, it seemed my grandparents still had a working VCR set up. I was afire with curiosity. I don’t know what happened to my VCR. Presumably I got rid of it at some point, sold or taken to a charity shop when the rise of DVD’s became insurmountable, but I don’t know for sure. To have no memory at all of how I dispatched such a once treasured item seems strange to me, flippant, like forgetting having abandoned a childhood pet.

‘Just leave it,’ said Clive, ‘We don’t use it much anyway.’ I told him it was weird to see a VCR player again. He looked offended. ‘That’s top of the line that is,’ he said, ‘that must have cost about three hundred quid.’ I asked him when. ‘Not long ago. Nineteen- ninety something I’m sure.’

I didn’t pursue the subject, not wanting to find out if he knew what year it was.

‘That’s probably quite expensive too,’ he said, prodding at something on the coffee table with his walking stick, ‘but I’ve got no idea how to use it.’ I shuffled across the carpet to see what he was talking about. It was a laptop. It took a moment to register that it was a laptop, because finding a laptop in my grandparents bungalow was totally anachronistic. It was like finding a laptop in an ammonite fossil.

‘It’s not ours,’ Cliff told me. Someone down the pub lent it to me, said it would help us keep in touch with the grandkids but…’ he shrugged. ‘The BT man said we could get to the internet because our of phone package, but I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to turn it on.’

I turned the computer towards me. It was a Toshiba, the same make as mine but a model up. Hitting the power button did nothing, but it was probably just out of battery.

‘You see if you can make it work,’ Cliff said, rising laboriously from his chair and leaving the room. ‘Personally I don’t think it does.’

The computer came to life as soon as I located the cable and plugged it in, and while it was loading I turned back to the VCR. With the power restored there was nothing obviously wrong with it, and I pressed the eject button. The tape popped out with a clunk and, wanting to make sure everything was working, I turned on the TV and pushed the tape back into the player. Two women immediately appeared on screen, rubbing their bodies against each other and cooing, while smooth saxophone music played in the background. The recording must have been at least fifteen years old; the women had wavy bouffant perms and were half-wearing bright spandex leotards. On the wall behind the bed was a Soundgarden poster and a shelf covered in wishing trolls. For a moment I was locked into the nostalgia of the room, but then the women cast aside their leotards and got more comfortable. Down the hall I heard the toilet flush and a door creak open, and I ejected the tape, sliding it back into its blank case.

Cliff hobbled back in to the living room where I was sitting on the sofa, the laptop on my knee, tapping away. He looked from me to the tape which was laying on the coffee table.

‘All fixed,’ I said, not looking up. ‘I’m making progress with the computer too. I’ll show you how to browse the internet if you like.’

He rolled his eyes at me and fell backwards into his armchair. Poor guy. A window to a whole universe of porno right here in the room, but beyond his reach. At least now he can work the VCR.