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.

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.

Crisps or Chips: the Atlantic Question, or, Mythological Potatoes

It is hard to imagine a company selling a product and making no effort to distinguish itself from its rivals. This is true even for products like electricity where the quality doesn’t vary, and in those cases it is the brand rather than the product which bears the weight of marketability. While a cleaning product can claim to make whites whiter, or a parcel service can offer next-day-delivery, an electricity provider cannot promise to supply better electricity than any of its competitors. In lieu of quality product it must offer quality service, better customer support, lower prices or perhaps more environmentally-sound sources.

Similarly, there are products which can vary in quality, but only by very tiny margins. Consider crisps, or ‘potato chips’ as they are sometimes called; there are many competing brands vying for a stake in a lucrative market where costs are low and mark-up is high. The product itself consists of thin potato slices either baked or fried in a savoury flavouring, often high in salt but also embracing meaty ‘umami’ flavours. Every ingredient and aspect of production is cheap, a standard bag of crisps containing less than one potato, and selling, in the UK, for around seventy pence.

The reason then for any manufacturer with a ready supply of potatoes to enter this market is clear, but how to differentiate one crisp brand from another when there is so little room for manoeuvre in production? Well-established brands often introduce new flavours, usually with some sense of novelty humour about them, but these seldom last long, and are more likely an exercise in brand awareness than research and development. Other standard variations in the formula include the thickness of the crisps themselves or the way the potato is sliced, i.e. ‘ridge’ or ‘crinkle’ cut, but it’s probably fair to say that the mould has been cast for crisps.

made to last?

made to last?

There is a degree of stratification with some brands, ranging from extremely cheap crisps which are perceived to be low quality, to luxury crisps. This kind of stratification exists to a greater degree with bread, another product that is cheap to produce, and most supermarkets offer a range starting from a very cheap form of bleach-white, dough-textured bread that costs a fraction of the price of the loaves that contain seeds or use specialist dough. This range of quality has to exist in the market, and probably owes less to the actual cost or difficulty of production than to the presence of consumers who will buy the cheapest available product regardless. Which is to say, generally, cheap products exist to be purchased by consumers who want to spend less; expensive products exist to be purchased by consumers who want to spend more; everything else is a measure of the consumer’s ability to discern value.

Crisps however, due to the overwhelming cheapness of production and the status as a ‘snack’ rather than a ‘food’, cannot support quite the same complexity of stratification. Bread constitutes a comparatively substantial part of the average diet, and its quality and price can be linked to the relative nutritional value of the ingredients, while crisps are non-essential, often listed with chocolate and carbonated drinks as items the conscientious parent may want to keep out of their child’s lunchbox.

So, as with electricity, it falls to brand differentiation to enable companies to claim a stake in the market. There is a growing trend to increase the caché of a given flavours supposed ingredients, exemplified by Walker’s decision in 2006 to rebrand its ‘Beef and Onion’ crisps as ‘Steak and Onion’ crisps, without significantly altering the recipe. More recently Walkers have introduced a new range, ‘Market Deli’, that deviates from their traditional product in several ways pertaining to presentation, and few pertaining to product. They use low pastel colours in the packaging instead of the usual garish palette of a Walkers crisp packets, and a handwritten font to denote craftsmanship. Their claim to Mediterranean ingredients, which they stress by unnecessarily translating them into Italian- even though this product isn’t available in Italy- suggests time and effort went into sourcing them. They even attempt to reinforce the reality of these ingredients with a photograph and a drawing of what those ingredients might look like.

pictured: authenticity

pictured: authenticity

The new name also cries out to be seen as something separate from other Walkers offerings, the marketing executives having chosen two words- Market and Deli- which, when connected to food, signify wholesomeness, awareness of quality and perhaps a sort of middle class fussiness. Delis in the UK are places to buy food if you enjoy greater than average free time and income, the benefits being a certain exoticness of produce, and a higher quality than the supermarkets. Markets meanwhile generally denote locality in their produce, and value for money, which may be why the two titles Walkers have picked sit together so uneasily. Somewhere along the design process it seems that they have recognised this themselves, and acknowledged it by putting the word ‘Market’ in a sensible, erstwhile, sans-serif font, while the word ‘Deli’ is a boisterous, looping handwritten scrawl.

Tension between locality and exoticness may even be a central issue to the Walkers company, which, though having started in Britain in the 1940’s, and carrying many British associations, became a part of the American Frito-Lay brand in 1989. It may be as a result then that this product, though likely to be described as a bag of ‘crisps’ by the consumer who will purchase it, has become a bag of ‘potato chips’ according to its own packaging. Perhaps this is a part of the advertising of Market Deli as a wholesome and continental treat, rather than a working man’s pub snack or something for a child’s lunchbox, an attempt to boost potato chips into the realm of ‘proper food’, to differentiate between potato chips and crisps, two separate categories of food and not-food. This of course is likely to fail, partly because there is no difference between the two categories, but also because there already exists in the UK a potato based foodstuff called chips, that which an American would call fries.

chips or fries? Never Surrender

chips or fries? Never Surrender

For Walkers to successfully manoeuvre Britons into calling ‘crisps’ ‘chips’, they would also have to get Britons to call ‘chips’ ‘fries’, a move that seems highly unlikely to occur.Then again, the American Kettle Chips are well established in the UK and only ever refer to themselves as chips in their marketing. Open a bag and you may well offer someone a kettle chip, but only as long as the association with the brand is present- pour them into a bowl, and they turn into just crisps. Tyrell’s insist that they are crisps, and probably consider it a matter of national pride, keen as they are to stress their Englishness. Lesser known brand ‘Burts’ are not as bold, choosing Britishness over contentious Englishness, despite their Devonshire mailing address; but have perversely decided that they make ‘potato chips’ too.

It’s unclear why Walkers have chosen to include their own branding on the front of a package that is clearly trying to distance itself from their other products. The Walkers logo, another font in a dizzy mess of contrary fonts, is reminiscent of the Pepsi logo, PepsiCo being the owner of Frito-Lay. This is another message, one of international brands and giant corporate interests, that strongly conflicts with the connotations of both Markets and Delis, those bastions of small independent businesses. It would make more sense for Walkers to shy away from their involvement in Market Deli as much as is possible, in the same way that the coca-cola corporation is less than upfront about its involvement in certain other soft drinks that might be damaged by the association.

he-hem

he-hem

But instead Walkers have chosen to highlight the connection, in a move that does at least as much to expose the farce of this rebrand as the silly name, or the false continental association; as any well-travelled consumer will be aware, crisps are not as popular in other parts of Europe, and Walkers doesn’t operate outside the UK.

So, are Walkers participating in a general effort to help crisps shift their emphasis from being a potato conduit for salty or meaty flavours, to becoming like meals in themselves? Potato chips with Balsamic Vinegar of Modena does sound a lot like a starter in an Italian restaurant. Consider Tyrell’s, Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar. Both Salt and Vinegar are cheap, abundant commodities, and require qualifiers in order to carry any value. Cider vinegar is one option, and we’ve seen balsamic vinegar, but there’s also the more homely malt vinegar for the down-to-earth, football supporting McCoys. Another Market Deli flavour is Potato Chips with Flame Grilled Spanish Chorizo with Roasted Onions, which is the full restaurant-ready package; You have ingredients, Potato, Onion and Chorizo, literally forming meat and two veg; you have the place of origin, Spain; and you have methods of preparation, roasting and flame grilling.

spot the difference

pictured: not crisps

Kettle Chips are more vague about their method of preparation, telling me that they are hand cooked by chefs, which adds no obvious benefit to the experience of eating them but does act as a qualifier for the humble potato in the same manner that the words ‘Sea’ and ‘Cider’ improve ‘salt’ and ‘vinegar’. Tyrell’s are not only hand-cooked but include a serving suggestion, “perfect with a bit of battered cod”, although it’s unclear if we are supposed to take this seriously. On the back of my packet of balsamic vinegar crisps, I find tasting notes, telling me that the slices of potato are delicious, cut thicker and cooked longer, with the delicate sweetness of Aceto Balsamico di Modena for a rich, velvety and smooth flavour. It seems here that Walkers are drawing less on the vocabulary of food and have now started to borrow from that other great middle class signifier, wine. There is in fact an entire snack range produced by the company ‘Tayto’ called ‘Velvet Crunch’, erroneous juxtapositions be damned. Why potato products should benefit from being thought of as velvety or smooth, the prime marketing adjectives of toilet paper, is a mystery; how dried potato slices could achieve this is mysterious as well, although it does say on my packet of Market Deli, that they need to be tasted to be believed. They are not wrong.

Prahahaha

The city, oh the city lights are shining. The people-noise of life is through-the-looking-glass inverted here compared to home; in Britain we’re composed, moderate throughout the day, librarian hushed, people are trying to work. Then at night we uncork the bottles, release the spitting, spewing pressure valves and whistle shrilly like hobtop kettles boiling. We spill over the sides. But here they live during the day, morning’s unsticking of both their eyelids and their eyes, not buttoning anything down, touching cawing chewing their way through the sunlight hours. They flee before the moon, modest in the dark. In Prague all blackness is funeral solemn.

I followed the tram tracks for hours, hours, the routes spiralling, retracing sometimes, but moving away from the starting point. Which was a hostel, fourteen to a room, choices being cereal or toast in the morning, fruit tea or coffee in the afternoon, window open ice box or window closed skin breath sweat at night. Fourteen to a room.

You can’t follow tram routes, as it turns out. The lines diverge, converge, duck and weave. Anachronistic in the ankle-breaker cobbled roadways of the old city, a place of horse shoes and hay carts. More like tram roots, breaking through the ground, feeding an ancient iron tree somewhere in the middle, keep following and you’ll get there, you’ll get there eventually. But someone dropped breadcrumbs on your breadcrumbs.

prague foot

Should have ridden a tram, that’s the system, the system works. Get on at a, get off at b, people do it every day but now it’s too late; missed the opportunity, they’re all turned in for the night, all back in storage, turned into pumpkins to save space. Could have hopped on hours ago, hours, but the language, oh the language. Coming through Europe, Spain Italy France Germany Netherlands, a smooth transition, gradient speech, only ever slightly changed, the same friend in a lot of different pictures, always possible to pick up just enough, to recognise just enough words on a sign. Then, Welcome to the Czech Republic, or Vítejte v České republice and what is that? Not the Europe I know, practically a foreign country.

Will I ever get out? Is the maze fair or are the walls moving behind me? I crossed three bridges that all looked the same, same tarry river beneath, the slick fat slug that runs the city. Same beggar on either side, lying fully prostrate, face down, hands cupped before him. All you see are hands and coins, the rest is rags and fiction. He looked to be praying and now I’m praying too, a stranger in the house of god, a fairweather friend, let me out.

I’m looking everywhere for a word, letiste, meaning ‘freedom’, or ‘escape’ or ‘home’ or ‘airport’. It’s my way out but there are no people around to speak it, no light by which to see it written. I think I’ll die here, or no, I’ll rest, sit, stretch out, knees tucked in beneath me, face to the earth, hands out palms cupped skyward, and I’ll feel the tarmac grip me, clench, as I’m consumed, dissolved, claimed, until I’m just hands, a pair of hands overflowing with coins, a bundle of ragged clothes and an unused airline ticket.

hands

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

Arcadia

Sometimes, but not often, I get to work on the counter. I like it. I like to sit. If you’re not on the counter you’re expected to keep busy, and if there’s nothing to do, you’re expected to walk around. Just walk around, round and round, waiting for somebody to a have a problem for you to solve. People get coins stuck in the machines, that’s quite a common one. Quite often people think a machine should have paid out when it didn’t, and I have to give the thing a shake to see if anything falls out. I try to do it in a way that customers won’t notice though. We can’t have them shaking the machines to see if anything falls out.

Sometimes that doesn’t work and I have to go behind the counter and get keys, like, twelve keys, because over the years different machines have turned up with different locks, or locks have been replaced. I must waste ten hours a week trying out keys to get machines open, while a stranger stands by, and watches. If I ran this place I would order one huge batch of locks that all had the same key. I keep saying that I’m going to colour code them some day but so far, no.

If a punter says they’re owed a payout it could just mean the hopper’s empty, and once refilled, it will give them what they’re owed. Most often the coins are stuck in the pipe, or just fell into the wiring because the machines are old as hell, and I have to root around. Pro-tip: always ask them exactly how much they’re owed, because then if you find more, you can keep the extra. That’s not arcade policy of course. Just something I do.

If a regular says that a machine owes them money I give them the benefit of the doubt, and I just hand it over, even if I can’t find any evidence. I really have no reason to think that they would lie to me. I don’t believe they would cheat, because they’re not addicted to money; they’re addicted to gambling. If they were addicted to money, they wouldn’t be here.

Sometimes the regulars want a tip, what machines have paid out recently, which have been popular, that sort of thing. They like to think there’s a pattern to follow, or some kind of code. There’s really no useful information I could give them, even if I wanted to, partly because I’m not paying that much attention, but mainly because it’s arcade policy. Come to think of it, I don’t suppose it is a pattern or a code they’re after; more like a superstition. When they ask me for a good tip, I always say the best tip is at the counter, and it’s flashing right before their eyes. Nobody’s figured out what that means just yet, but I like to be enigmatic.

Mostly the regulars aren’t too bright. Easy to sound judgemental, me a student at the University and all, but it’s the fair truth. The regulars are all addicts to some degree, mostly unemployed, some with real and noticeable learning difficulties. Some have young children who’ll get bored over three or four hours in a pushchair while the parent plays the slots. If they cry or fidget they get told off, or, if the parent’s doing ok, they’ll give the kid some money to go and play one of the kid machines. That’s the next generation of customers I suppose. In business terms.

People say it’s rigged, and I hear the phrase ‘daylight robbery’ a lot. It is rigged of course, it’s all rigged, but not in the way they seem to think. The house always wins right? That’s how gambling works. The idea that we fiddle with the machines, or that… well, suffice to say, we just don’t need to. Why would you rob somebody who’s already giving you their wallet? When someone gets angry, gets convinced that there’s something dishonest going on, I take them to the counter, and I point to the gambling license nailed on the wall. We’d lose that, I tell them, if we were ever caught breaking the law. We’d lose that and we’d never get it back. I’d be out of a job to boot. And that license, that costs £80,000 per year. They usually widen their eyes then, whistle through their teeth. They have a better idea of what they’re dealing with, and they feel more comfortable in the arcade. They go back quietly to their gambling. Which confounds me. Didn’t I just tell you, I think to myself, that this dingy little place makes over £80,000 per year? What else do you need to know?

I just stand there, by the counter, right next to the best tip in the place. A neon sign flashes:

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE