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

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

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.