They rose early, having decided to keep that morning clear. They took their tools to the corner of the room and, carefully, with a routine that only an old couple could share without prior planning, began to unscrew the cupboard that, 43 years earlier, Mr M had worked into the wall as a place to store their shoes. A steaming pot of tea cooled above the fireplace; they worked with such focus that they forgot to pour any into the two white mugs waiting on the tray.
When the cupboard eventually came down, it was as she had expected. ‘I told you,’ she said, breaking into laughter, ‘I told you he’d be there.’ Mr M nodded. He couldn’t disagree with her, she was often right about things like this. There he was, Paolo Facchinetti, with a small brush and a pot of black paint at his feet. ‘I was just trying to capture the mould,’ the painter said, ‘before the summer comes and dries it away.’ Mrs M chuckled still more, nudging Mr M with her elbow. ‘I told you,’ she said. ‘I told you.’
The words were spoken, D was certain, by his hand. On the desk, where he must have left it the night before, it seemed to hover. He looked a little more carefully. He noted that the base of the wrist was resting lightly upon the green faux-leather panel. He looked at his right arm. His hand was there at the end of it. He held it up to his face and moved the fingers. He touched the fingers of his right hand, one by one by one, with those of his left hand. They were all there. Yet the hand on the desk was real. It was twitching, spinning the mouse-wheel, and talking. He felt no corresponding twitch in the hand at the end of his arm. Or perhaps he did. He watched the hand on the desk, observing the way it handled the mouse, and the corresponding changes on his computer screen. He thought he felt a buzzing in the middle finger of his own right hand, but it was just a trace, as if an ant was trapped beneath the surface of skin at the tip. Surely the hand on the desk was his own right hand? He wanted to sit at the desk. He wanted to start work. But what to do with the hand? He was afraid. He pulled back his office chair, which moved easily on wheels. As he positioned himself in front of it, and sat down, the hand on the desk rose up to the vertical. D almost expected it to wave. He pulled himself in towards the desk, using his feet and also his fingers, which pulled on the wooden ridge that framed the furniture. As his body came in tight towards the desk, his legs slipping underneath it, the hand on the desk turned at 180 degrees so that its palm was facing D. Immediately, he snapped his own right hand under the desk, fearing some kind of assault. But the hand before him remained completely still before dropping into a low bow. The fingers flattened down, spreading straight towards D. When the hand rose again, back to its upright position, it spoke those same three words, the ones he’d heard when he’d opened the door.
[With thanks to Benedict Drew, Heads May Roll, 2014]
The light looks so inspiring, until you see this. The names look so inspiring too — there’s a Miles Room and a Davis Room — but there’s not a trace of jazz in the soft furnishings. I will just have to find my inspiration elsewhere — from the very eminent people and all the interesting things they will have to say.
M was trying to help him understand why she had been so moody, she was trying to explain that it wasn’t his fault. ‘My entire life is leaking,’ she said, again. But he would only look at the heavy cat asleep on his lap, not at her. She told him about the pale blue tiles that lined their street. ‘They look like they are made of marble,’ she said, yet she’d never noticed them before this winter. ‘Because they weren’t there before this winter, John. I know it. I would have seen them because I look down.’ She sensed he was puzzled, but still he wouldn’t look up. ‘I’m afraid, John. I’m really afraid. It’s like the Victorians are coming back to get us.’ Her shoulders began to shake, and she wept onto the back of her hand. Still, he didn’t move. He didn’t think to comfort her. Ever since the big storm, their bedroom had painted itself in yellow and brown stains. It happened in the space of a single night. They woke to find the walls either side of the chimney stack covered in swirling patterns that reminded John of an old tye-die T-shirt he’d had as a boy. ‘It’s just a spot of damp,’ he’d said to M. ‘It’ll dry come the summer.’ But she wouldn’t hear of it. She’d started to pick at the worst spot, obsessively, like it was a scab on her knee, and eventually she’d dug a small channel into the outer wall. Now, when the heavens opened, the water found the crack. It dribbled through, in a small stream, and ran down the wall towards the carpet. John had put an old ice-cream tub down to catch the worst of it, but it wasn’t really working. Back in the day, they would have put aside some time at the weekend and fixed the hole together. They would have laughed and played music and turned the DIY into a game. They would have sorted the damp, and had a whole lot of fun. But it wasn’t like that any more. M seemed to have reached a point of saturation, and instead of fixing things, she worked to speed up their decline. ‘It won’t help either of us,’ John had found himself repeating over and over. ‘It’ll just make things worse.’ But, deep down, he envied her decision to bend with the times. When she spoke of her life leaking, he knew that he was the one being washed away. Not her.
‘Let’s face it,’ he said, dropping into a whisper which he complemented with a broad smile, as if to flatter me, ‘someone needs to drag this place up a bit, and she does an awfully good job at it.’ Seconds earlier, in a voice loud enough to include the woman on the check-out and the three other women in the queue, he’d insisted we’d already met. ‘I think I know you,’ he said, and that smile swept over his white teeth, ‘in fact I’m sure I do.’ He mentioned someone whose name I didn’t get, who he thought we had in common. I shook my head: ‘Definitely not.’ He kept smiling, despite his irritation at my refusal to play the game. ‘Which street are you on?’ I asked, relenting a wee bit. He replied, but I missed that too — by now I was packing my bags while he stood watching me, his own already done, his bagpack packed with ciabatta and wine and Alpen and kitchen roll — so I asked another question: ‘I don’t think I know it. Which end are you?’ ‘Village borders,’ came his reply, twinned with the ghastly smile. He added, ‘But perhaps we met on the art trail?’ No, I thought to myself: ‘You are almost certainly thinking of someone else.’ But again, I felt I was being a bit too abrupt, so I gave in and talked about the art trail for a bit. Gradually, I began to understand his view — that without people like us (PLUS), this little neighbourhood would be done for. ‘There was nothing here before Penny Fielding,’ he said, a look of alarm in his eyes at the horror of it all. When I began to laugh, he looked a little hurt. It occurred to me that before and after Penny Fielding arrived might be added to the local lexicon as a way of understanding the changing demographic. BPF and APF. ‘That’s not my impression,’ I said, stretching the boundaries of politeness. I added: ‘I can’t stand this idea that there was nothing here until the professional middle classes turned up and began buying properties for half a million.’ It’s like colonialism, I thought but didn’t say. All those tedious narratives about the emptiness of the land until PLUS turned up and put things in it that we recognised and understood to be something. My temper discomforted him. His smile melted away and he said he had to go now. As I ran my nectar card along the side of the card machine and paid up, the woman working the till started laughing. A deep and dirty laugh it was. ‘Good for you,’ she said, ‘good for you.’