“It’s Thursday today,” remarked Star.
“Special subject the bloody obvious?” Tara replied rudely. “You should be on Mastermind.”
“Well, we were wondering what we were going to do to pass the time until Thursday, and here we are. It’s Thursday!”
“Are you losing your marbles?”
“Actually it’s you losing your memory,” Star sighed. “Remember the case?”
“The case we were working on!”
“Oh, that case! Well you can hardly expect me to remember that when it’s been such a strange week!” Tara was starting to get tearful and agitated.
“Look, Tara, the tests came back negative. You can stop worrying about it now. We can go back to normal now and carry on. And just in time for the rendezvous at the cafe on Main Street.” Star patted Tara’s arm encouragingly. “And what timing! If the results hadn’t come back yet, or we’d tested positive, we wouldn’t have been able to go to the cafe.”
“Well we could have gone and just not said anything about the tests,” sniffed Tara. “Everyone else seems to be doing what they want regardless.”
“Yes, but we’re not as morally bankrupt as them,” retorted Star.
Tara giggled. “But we used to work for Madame Limonella.”
“Is it a fancy dress party? I could wear my plague doctor outfit.”
Star rolled her eyes. “No! We have to dress appropriately, something subtle and serious. A dark suit perhaps.”
“Oh like my Ace of Spades T shirt?”
This is going nowhere fast, Star thought, but then had a revelation. A moment later, she had forgotten what the revelation was when the door burst open.
“Ta Da!” shouted Rosamund, entering the office with two middle aged ladies in tow. “I nabbed them both, they were lurking in the queue for the food bank! And I single handedly brought then back. Can we talk about my bonus now?”
One of the ladies piped up, “She said you’d be taking us out for afternoon tea at a nice cafe!”
The other one added, “We haven’t eaten for days, we’re starving!”
The first middle aged lady said, “Oh no dear, it’s September. I’m quite sure of that.”
“Never again,” said Tara, pouring her second black coffee. “I’m done with these hangovers. You’ll have to find someone else to drink with from now on.”
“You say that every week, Tara. What are we going to do next? We’re floundering. We don’t even have a plan. Everything we do takes us further away from the case. I don’t even remember what the case is!”
“Here, have some more coffee. Don’t roll your eyes at me like that, cases are always like this, they always go through this phase.” Tara wasn’t in the mood for this kind of depressing talk, it was much too complicated. Surely it was simply a matter of drinking another coffee, until everything fell back into place.
“Cases do, do they?” Star asked, “Do they really? And what phase would that be, and how would you know?”
“Snarky tart, yes they do. I’ve been researching things you know, not just swanning around. We’ve reached the part of the case where nothing makes sense and the investigators don’t know what to do next. It’s an essential part of the process, everyone knows that. The important thing is not to try and work things out too early. The danger is preconceived ideas, you see,” Tara pontificated, warming to the theme.
“I can assure you that I have no preconceived ideas because I have no clue what’s going to happen next,” replied Star, trying not to roll her eyes too obviously. She knew from experience not to provoke Tara too much until at least the third cup of coffee.
“Precisely!” Tara said triumphantly. “Now it will all start to come together and make sense. ”
Star didn’t look convinced. “What are we going to do about the middle aged lady we locked in the wardrobe last night, though?”
“What did we do that for?!” asked Tara in astonishment.
“I can’t remember. Maybe we thought it was Aunt April?”
“Wait, if Aunt April isn’t in the wardrobe, then where is she?”
“That’s what I”m saying!” cried Star in exasperation. “What do we do next?”
Well. I did it. I made my escape. I had to! Nobody came for three days and I’d run out of biscuits. Thank the lord my hip wasn’t playing up. I decided not to take anything with me, figuring I could just steal things off washing lines when I wanted a change of clothes. I’ve always hated carrying heavy bags. I reckoned it would look less conspicuous, too. Just an old dear popping out for digestive perambulation. Nobody suspects old dears of anything, not unless they’re dragging a suitcase round, and I had no intention of doing that. I did put a couple of spare masks in my pocket though, you can’t be too careful these days. And it would help with the disguise. I didn’t want any do gooders trying to catch me and take me back to that place.
I had the presence of mind to wear good stout walking shoes and not my pink feather mules, even though it was a wrench to say goodbye to them. I used to love to see them peeping out from under my bath robe. One day I might strike lucky and find another pair.
I’ve been eating like a king, better than ever! I accidentally coughed on someones burger one day, and they dropped it and ran away, and I thought to myself, well there’s an idea. I stuck to random snacks in the street at first and then one day I fancied a Chinese so I thought, well why not give it a try. Coughed all over his brown bag of prawn crackers as he walked out of the restaurant and he put the whole takeaway in the nearest bin. Piping hot meal for six! Even had that expensive crispy duck!
Tonight I fancy sushi. Wish I’d thought of this trick years ago, I said to myself the other day, then my other self said, yeah but it wouldn’t have worked so well before the plague.
Not having much luck with the washing lines though, lazy sods either not doing any laundry or putting it all in the dryer. Weeks of sunny weather as well, the lazy bastards. Lazy and wasteful! You should see the clothes they throw in the clothes bank bins! If the bins are full you can get your arm in and pull out the ones on the top. I change outfits a dozen times a day some days if I’m in the mood. I do sometimes get an urge to keep something if I like it but I’m sticking to my guns and being ruthless about not carrying anything with me.
“That damn cult is going from strength to strength and not a damn thing we can do about it,” said Star. “What bloody awful timing for a lockdown, just as we were getting started!”
“I know,” replied Tara sadly. “At this rate we’ll have to go back to work for Madame Limonella.”
“Don’t be silly, she’ll have had to close down too!”
“Don’t you believe it!” retorted Tara, “She’d find a way to keep her clients happy.”
“But we’re not keeping our clients happy are we? We haven’t found a way. We’re pretty useless, aren’t we?”
“Not just our clients. Well client, really, we only had one. We could have saved the world from the Zanone cult if it hadn’t been for this quarantine. Hey, maybe that cult started all this, just so we couldn’t stop them.”
Star barked out a bitter laugh. “Now you sound like one of them parroting out conspiracy theories.”
“We could find a way to break the quarantine, sneak out at night dressed as urban kangaroos or something.”
“I don’t think the kangaroos would mind all that much,” Tara replied huffily.
“I didn’t mean the kangaroos, good lord! But you know what, you might be on to something. Remember that kangaroo dressed in a mans overcoat that tried to break someones car window the other day?”
“Well never mind that,” Star continued, who had started to wonder herself, “The point is, we can use a disguise. And it’s a matter of grave social responsibility to expose the cult. In the fullness of time, we will be exonerated, hailed as heroic, even.”
The excitement was contagious and Tara found herself sitting upright instead of slumped in despair. “Let’s do it!”
The journey to the Pistil itself would have been worth its own story, thought Charlton. They had to avoid road blocks, crowds of chanting christians that had certainly vowed to spread the virus as fast as possible, and howlers who you were never sure weren’t the real thing from Teen Wolf. They had to be, in such a landscape. Once arid, it had turned greener in just a few weeks. Rain was now weekly when drops of water used to only show up with the bottles of water from the tourists.
Despite Kady’s advice not to take anything, he’d still brought the book of drawings. Kady had said nothing about the book, nor the clothes, or the snacks. Charlton was sometimes literal about what people told him, but he also knew it. So he didn’t say anything when he saw Kady had her own backpack with clothes, some money and food. During the trip, he tried to reproduce the experience with the drawings and the dreams —but nothing happened. Charlton felt a little disappointed.
They saw the pistil long before they arrived at its foot. It was at the end of the day and the sunset was splashing its reds and purples all around it. Charlton had had time to get used to its tall presence in the landscape. Yet, seeing it at a close range from below was a strange experience. Taller than the tallest man-made tower. He wondered what he was supposed to feel in its presence. Awe? Electricity? Enlightenment? Bursts of inspiration? This should at least be a mystical moment, but all he could feel was annoyance at the crowd of people crawling around like aphids avid to suck its sap.
Kady looked more annoyed than surprised. She was walking past the flock as if she knew exactly where to go. Charlton followed, feeling dizzy by the sudden increase of activity and smells. He soon got nauseous at the mix of incense and fried sausages.
“There are so many of them,” he eventually said. “How come? It was so difficult just for the two of us to avoid police controls. Do we have to wait with them?”
“Nah! They’re just the usual bunch of weirdoes,” Kady said. “They’ve been here a long time. I bet some of them aren’t even aware there have been a virus. But stay close. I don’t want to lose you, it’s a maze before the maze. I just need to see someone before we go in.”
They walked for about another ten minutes before stopping in front of a big tent. There, a big man with a boxer’s face was repairing all kind of electronics on a table with the application of a surgeon. Phones, cameras, coffee machines… Charlton wondered how they got electricity to make it all work.
“Hey, Kady!” said the man. “You’re back. Did you give it to her?” His face looked anxious.
“Her favourite perfume,” he said with a broad smile.
“I told you she still loves you. I also brought you something else.” Kady dropped a box on the table among the electronics. Charlton didn’t think it could be possible to witness the expression of a ten year old child on such a hard face, but what was inside the box certainly did magic.
“You brought chocolate?”
“Did you find the chestnut one?”
“My favourite,” said Max to Charlton. “Is this your friend?”
“I told you, you’re always welcome. Did you know she saved my life in there?”
“Saved your life?” asked Charlton looking hesitantly at Kady. “No, I didn’t know.”
Dear Jorid Whale,
My hands are shaking while I type this on the keyboard.
I’m not sure which of last night’s dreams is the bizarrest. Bizarre in a fantastic way, although for certain people it might be called grotesque. I’m certain it has something to do with that book I ordered online last week. I don’t usually read books and certainly not like this one. But the confinement, it makes you consider making things out of your ordinary.
It’s called The Enchanted Forest of Changes, by a Chinese artist Níngméng (柠檬). They say his artist name means lemon, but that some of his friends call him Níng mèng 凝梦 (curdle dreams), which to my ears sound exactly the same except a little bit angrier. I found out about him on a forum about creepy dolls abandoned in forests all around the world. Yeah exactly, the confinement effect again. Apparently it started with a few dolls in a forest in Michigan, and then suddenly people started to find them everywhere. I wonder if some people are really into the confinement thing or if it’s just me using that as a reason to stay home.
Anyway, someone on that forum posted one of the picture of that book and it caught my eye. So much so that I dreamt of it the following night. So I bought the book and it’s mostly ink drawings, but they seem to speak directly to some part of you that you were not even aware you had. I almost hear whispers when I look at the drawings. And then I have those dreams.
Last night I dreamt of a cat that had been reared as a boy. He even had the shape of one, but shorter maybe. He had learned to talk and use his paws as hands, his claws had grown into fingers, had lost most of his fur and he was wearing clothes. If I was amazed by such a feat, it kinda seemed normal for the people I met in that dream. It just took a lot of efforts, love and dedication to raise this kind of children.
And Whale, I feel tingling in my arms. This morning you showed me the picture of a kitten! That’s not a mere coincidence. I’m feeling so excited, my hands are too slow to type what I want to write. I fear I’m going to forget an important detail.
About the second dream. The world was in shock, there was this giant… thing that looked like a pistil and that had grown during the night in some arid area. It was taller than the tallest human made tower. Its extremity was cone shaped, and I confess that the whole thing looked like some kind of dick to me.
Plants and trees had followed in the following days as if the pistil had changed the climatic conditions (autocorrect wanted to write climactic, is that you playing around?).
The pistil was protected by some kind of field and it couldn’t be approached by everyone. Governments had tried, pharmaceutical companies had tried. People who wanted to make gold out of it, they were all rejected. But for some reason some people could approach. Anyone, not just the pure of hearts or the noble ones. Actually a whole bunch of weirdoes started to take their chances. Some were allowed in and some where not. Nobody knew what was the deciding factor.
A friend of mine that I have not seen in years during my waking life, she came back and asked me to come with her. So we went and were allowed in. My recall of the events after that is fuzzy. But I get the strange impression that I will spend more time in there later on.
[Edited in the afternoon]
I don’t believe it! It’s on the news everywhere. It has even replaced the news about the virus and the confinement.
Giant pistils have appeared around the world, but it seems only people who had been infected can see them.
Crazy rumours run on the internet. Giant mass hallucination caused by the virus. Some people say it’s alien technology, spores engineered to control our brains.
There is one not so far from where I live. Should I wait for Kady to call me?
Fanella was frantic, trying to think of a way to escape with her baby. The atmosphere in this city was unbearable at the best of times, and especially in this house, but now it was excruciating. It wasn’t that she was afraid of the plague that was terrorizing people, it was the way the people were reacting that was so alarming. They were howling like wolves, a sure sign of lunacy since time immemorial. The sound of it made her blood run cold.
Nobody had seen the president for over a week and rumours were rife. Many said that he’d died, and they were keeping it secret to avoid civil unrest. An office junior was continuing his tweets to the nation, using a random predictive text algorithm. Nobody had noticed. That wasn’t strictly true of course as many had commented that the messages now made marginally more sense.
Fanella could sense the swelling chaos in the air, both inside the house and beyond, in the city and in the nation. Everyone was losing their minds. She had to escape.
She consulted the U Chong:
晉 (Chin / Jin) : Progress / Advance. It represents Prospering, as well as Progress. It is symbolic of meeting the great man.
The great man! Of course! Lazuli Galore would come to rescue her! But how would he know where to find her? Would he be able to travel freely? He’d find a way, surely! But how would he know she needed help? It was so complicated. So hard to know what to do!
But first things first. Fanella crept down to the kitchen, in the dead of the night while everyone was tucked up in their beds with their fitful nightmares, and filled a rucksack with provisions. Then she crept up the back stairs to her hideout in the attic of the west wing. The baby was still sleeping soundly. Fanella lay down and pulled a blanket round them both. Maybe the answer would come in a dream. If not, she’d think about it again tomorrow.
Shawn Paul looked suspiciously at the pictures of the dolls in the Michigan forest on Maeve’s phone. He had heard about the Cottingley Fairies pictures, supposedly taken a long time ago by two little girls. The two little girls came out long after confessing they had staged the whole thing. Some said they had been coerced into it to keep the world from knowing the truth. It could well be the same thing with the whole dollmania, and Shawn Paul thought one was never dubious enough.
He noded politely to Maeve and decided to hide his doubts for now. They were resting on sunbeds near the hotel swimming pool.
“Do you want another cocktail?” asked a waitress dressed up in the local costume. Not much really, and so close-fitting. She was presenting them with a tray of colourful drinks and a candid smile. Her bosom was on the brink of spilling over the band of cloth she had around her chest. It was decorated with a pair of parrots stretched in such a way their lubricious eyes threatening to pop out at any moment.
Shawn Paul, who had the talent to see the odd and misplaced, forced himself to look at the tray and spotted the strangest one. He pushed his glasses back up on his nose and asked without looking at the waitress.
“What’s that strange bluish blob under the layers of alcohol and fruits?”
Maeve raised one eyebrow and looked at her companion with disapproval, but the waitress answered as if she heard that all the time.
“That’s a spoonful of honey from the blue bees. We feed them a special treat and they make us honey with remarkable properties that we have learned to use for the treatments we offer.”
“Oh,” said Shawn Paul who did not dare ask more about the treatments.
They had arrived to Tikfidjikoo just before the confinement had been declared all over the world, and they had a moment of hesitation to take the last plane with the other tourists and go back safely to Canada. But after the inconclusive adventure in Australia, Maeve had convinced him they had to stay to find out more about the dolls.
They had met those three old ladies and one of them had one of the dolls. Sharon, Mavis and Gloria, they were called and they were going to a smaller island of the archipelago, one that was not even on the maps apparently. That should have given them suspicions, but it seemed so important to Maeve that Shawn Paul hadn’t had the heart to leave her alone.
“I have a plan,” had said Maeve, “We’re going to follow them, befriend them and learn more about how they came to have the doll and try and get the key that’s inside of it.”
“You’re here for the beauty treatment?” had asked the girl at the counter. “You’re lucky, with the confinement a lot of our reservations have been canceled. We have plenty of vacancy and some fantastic deals.”
Maeve had enrolled them for a free week treatment before Shawn Paul could say anything. They hadn’t seen the ladies much since they had arrived on the island, and now there were no way in or out of the island. They had been assured they had plenty of food and alcohol and a lot of activities that could be fitted to everyone’s taste.
They walked through a labyrinth of tunnels which seemed to have been carved into a rocky mountain. The clicks and clacks of their high heels echoed in the cold silence meeting all of Sophie’s questions, leaving her wondering where they could be. Tightly held by her rompers she felt her fat mass wobbling like jelly around her skeleton. It didn’t help clear her mind which was still confused by the environment and the apparent memory loss concerning how she arrived there.
Sophie couldn’t tell how many turns they took before Barbara put her six fingers hand on a flat rock at shoulders height. The rock around the hand turned green and glowed for two seconds; then a big chunk of rock slid to the side revealing a well designed modern style room.
A little man was working at his desk. At least Sophie assumed it was his desk and that he was working. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and bermudas. The computer screen he was looking at projected a greenish tint onto his face, and it made him look just like the green man icon. Sophie cackled, a little at first.
The Doctor’s hand tensed on the mouse and his eyebrows gathered like angry caterpillars ready to fight. He must have made a wrong move because a cascade of sound ending in a flop indicated he just died a death, most certainly on one of those facegoat addictive games.
That certainly didn’t help muffle Sophie’s cackle until she felt Barbara’s six fingers seizing her shoulders as if for a Vulcan nerve pinch. Sophie expected to lose consciousness, but the hand was mostly warm, except for that extra finger which was cold and buzzing. The contact of the hand upon the latex gave off little squeaky sounds that made Sophie feel uncomfortable. She swallowed her anxiety and wished for the woman to remove her hand. But as she had noticed more than once, wishes could take time and twists before they could be fulfilled.
“Why do you have to ruin everything every time?” asked the Doctor. His face was now red and distorted.
“Every time?” said Sophie confused.
“Yes! You took your sleeper agent role too seriously. We couldn’t get any valuable intel and the whole doll operation was a fiasco. We almost lost the magpies. And now, your taste for uncharted drugs, which as a parenthesis I confess I admire your dedication to explore unknown territories for science… Anyway, you were all day locked up into your boudoir trying to contact me while I just needed you to look at computer screens and attend to meetings.”
Sophie was too shocked to believe it. How could the man be so misinformed. She never liked computers and meetings, except maybe while looking online for conspiracy theories and aliens and going to comiccons. But…
“Now you’re so addict to the drugs that you’re useless until you follow our rehab program.”
“A rehab program?” asked Sophie, her voice shaking. “But…” That certainly was the spookiest thing she had heard since she had arrived to this place, and this made her speechless, but certainly not optionless. Without thinking she tried a move she had seen in movies. She turned and threw her mass into Barbara. The two women fell on the cold floor. Sophie heard a crack before she felt the pain in her right arm. She thought she ought to have persevered in her combat training course after the first week. But life is never perfect.
“Suffice!” said the Doctor from above. “You’ll like it with the other guests, you’ll see. All you have to do is follow the protocol we’ll give you each day and read the documentation that Barbara will give you.”
Sophie tried a witty answer but the pain was too much and it ended in a desperate moan.
What was I thinking. That all will be good and all, and forever after.
Lord, sometimes I miss that bloated boat, and its ordeal felt like an old familiar pain that distance makes bearable in retrospect.
A week back into life, and all goes to hell. Good thing I’m not a trader, looking at the stock market would make you want to jump from a tall building.
Since all is in chaos, I’ve been noticing them more. The synchronicities. Seems like the voices have found other ways to reach at me. Talks of forest and trees, arcane words spoken in different contexts.
If only I weren’t paying attention. But then there are the dreams. Last ones have been insane. And not just those after a heavy meal, you know. The kind that gets you more tired when you wake up, as if you’ve spend the whole night piling up mountains upon mountains.
I’d rather just pop a pill and see the elephants dance from branch to branch, if you see what I mean. But the voices wouldn’t let me go. Now they are egging me on to do something I don’t want to do.
A book opened at random, summarizes it all: “Our heart is anxious about being sent here.“
Next line is a tease: “Gathering the resources of all under heaven as in a storehouse.”
But when did I sign up to be the bloody storehouse manager?
The evening helper said she was very sorry to tell me that my niece wouldn’t be able to make it this week, as she’d been on holiday and got quarantined. You needn’t be sorry about that, I told her, I don’t know who she is anyway. Not that I’m ungrateful, it’s very kind of her to come and visit me. She tells me all about people I’ve never heard of, and I pretend to take an interest. I’m polite you see, brought up that way.
Then she said, you’ll have to go easy on the toilet paper, it’s all sold out. Panic buying, she said.
That’s what happens when people start shitting themselves with fear, I said, and she tutted at me as if I was a seven year old, the cheeky young whippersnapper. And how shall I go easy on it, shall I crap outside behind the flat topped bushes under my window? Wipe my arse on a leaf?
Don’t be daft, you’d fall over, she replied crisply. She had a point. My hip’s still playing me up, so my plans to escape are on hold. Not much point in it with all this quarantine nonsense going on anyway. I might get rounded up and put in a tent by a faceless moron in a hazmat suit. I must say the plague doctors outfits were much more stylish. And there was no panic buying of loo rolls in those days either.
I don’t know what the world’s coming to. A handful of people with a cough and everyone loses their minds. Then again, when the plague came, everyone lost their minds too. Not over toilet paper though. We didn’t start losing our minds until the carts started rolling past every night full of the bodies. No paper masks in those days either, we wound scarves around our faces because of the stench.
The worst thing was being locked in the house when the kitchen maid came down with it. All of us, all of the nine children, my wife and her mother, the cook and the maids, all of us untouched, all but that one kitchen maid. If only they’d taken her away, the rest of us might not have perished. Not having enough food did us in, we were weakened with starvation. Shut in the house for weeks, with no escape. Nothing to do but feast on the fears, like a smothering cloud. Like as not, we just gave up, and said, plague, carry me off, I can bear no more. I know after the youngest 6 children and the oldest boy died, I had no will to live. I died before the wife did and felt a bit guilty about that, leaving her to face the rest of it alone. She wasn’t happy about that, and who can blame her.
One thing for sure, it wasn’t running out of blasted toilet paper that was worrying me.
The front door of Mr French had a certain Gothic quality to it which caught the eye of Star. She was a sucker for the glitz and the extravagant –the more garish, the better. Had she got her way, their office would be full of the cumbersome stuff. Catching the glint in Star’s green eyes, Tara rolled hers. She clanged the metal lion to signal their presence.
A decrepit butler called off their ruckus after what seemed like a pause in eternity. They could hear the rambling from a distance behind the door. “I’m coming! No need for such noise! Ah, these youngs nowadays, not a shred of patience!…”
“Shttt, let me handle it,” replied Star shaping her face into a genial one, oozing honey and butterflies.
When the butler finally opened the door, he snapped her shut “We’re not interested in whatever… hem, services you’re offering Mesdames.”
The butler’s face turned sour. “Yes of course, I understand. Then you should know Mr French has been in a coma since his dreadful accident last month. Since you have a direct line to him, I suggest you… call him?” And with that, he slammed the door shut on their faces.
“Rude!” Tara mouthed.
“At least, that tells us something my dear.”
“Don’t bait me like this. I’ll ask, what exactly?”
“That our Mr French is not who he says he is…”
“I wonder if it has something to do with the immense fortune he made with his voice…”
“That would be a very interesting question to answer indeed.”
“Aren’t you worried it’s been 2 days now the boy is missing?”
“Nonsense” replied June curtly. “Don’t you start ruining our poker night.” She slurped delicately her overflowing mojito glass. “Besides, I told you Jacqui and her friends are on the case. I sent her the coordinate. Baby is obviously fine.”
“I still preferred my pith helmet idea and leaving it to professionals though” April pouted her lips in a sulky way. “Now, what are we going to say when Mellie Noma is coming back? That we lost her baby but worry not, the local nutcase friend is on the job.” she finished her sentence almost out of breath “and I heard from August she was coming back at the end of the week.”
“So, are you playing or what? Fold or call?” June was growing impatient about the topic. The French maid and her baby, like the strange Finnley, were making themselves dangerously at home now, like three little annoying cuckoos in her own nest, and June felt stifled as though the FBI were closing in, breathing down on her neck.
That Finnley looked surely suspicious enough, there was no telling she wasn’t a Russian spy in disguise, or worse, some undercover cop…
“You’re right!” she slammed the cards violently on the table, making April almost faint. “We have to take matters in our own hands. I’ll get Mellie Noma to fire her. Blame the Finnley and her French friends for Barron’s disappearance. Mellie No’ owes me that much, especially after I saved her neck from her husband after that horrible giraffe incident.”
April’s face turned to shock at the mention.
“That trip of yours was surprisingly, or must I say, suspiciously long…” Lucinda gave them both a long glance full of innuendos, and added in case those were missed “where you on a honeymoon or something?”
“Oh, you, will you just wipe the snark from your face, it’s making you look ten years older Luce. It wasn’t really a holiday if you must know everything.” She elbowed Shawn-Paul, who was looking vacantly at the tip of his shoes. “Why don’t you tell her?”
“Why don’t you tell her?” he replied automatically.
“It’s just been 6 months! Why do you make such a fuss about it?”
“I’m not making a fuss, look who’s cranky! I can see you are venting your spleen on me after a sleepless night in the plane…”
“Haha, yes”, Maeve admitted with a nervous chuckle. “The only thing that matters is we managed to collect the dolls and the keys, just don’t ask me how.”
“You know I’ll ask.”
“Yes, I know. Just… don’t.”
“Fair enough. But it might be tough for me not to ask. I may forget… Besides, I must ask, do you have a secret benefactor that’s funding you all this time? Fabio’s kibble didn’t come free you know, you left me with barely enough for a week!”
“Oh really? Dog’s kibble now? Let me make you a check right now.”
“I think you need a good night of sleep.” Lucinda winked at Shawn-Paul, “him too. And we’ll talk later. I have tons of things to update you about my theater writing group. You might help me with the continuity bits… Waaa, calm down, no pressure!”
I don’t know how I restrained myself from throttling Finly when she finally handed me the letter from Corrie. A whole week she’d had it, and wouldn’t share it until she’d cleaned every last window. Some peoples priorities, I ask you! The funny thing was that even when I had it in my hand I didn’t open it right away. Even with Mater and Bert breathing down my neck.
It was something to savour, the feeling of having an unopened letter in ones hand. Not that this looked like the letters we used to get years ago, all crisp and slim on white paper, addressed in fine blue ink. This was a bundle tied with a bit of wool pulled out of an old jumper by the look of it, all squiggly, holding together several layers of yellowed thin cardboard and written on with a beetroot colour dye and a makeshift brush by the look of it. The kind of thing that used to be considered natural and artistic, long ago, when such things were the fashion. I suppose the fashion now, in such places where fashion still exists, is for retro plastic. They said plastic litter wouldn’t decompose for hundreds of years, how wrong they were! I’d give my right arm now for a cupboard full of tupperware with lids. Or even without lids. Plastic bottles and shopping bags ~ when I think back to how we used to hate them, and they’re like gold now. Better than gold, nobody has any interest in gold nowadays, but people would sell their soul for a plastic bucket.
I waited until the sun was going down, and sat on the porch with the golden rays of the lowering sun slanting across the yard. I clasped the bundle to my heart and squinted into the sun and sighed with joyful anticipation.
“For the love of god, will you get on with it!” said Bert, rudely interrupting the moment.
Gently I pulled the faded red woolen string, and stopped for a moment, imaging the old cardigan that it might have been.
I didn’t have to look at Mater to know what the expression on her face was, but I wasn’t going to be rushed. The string fell into my lap and I turned the first piece of card over.
There was a washed out picture of a rooster on it and a big fancy K.
“Cornflakes!” I started to weep. “Look, cornflakes!”
“You always hated cornflakes,” Mater said, missing the point as usual. “You never liked packet cereal.”
The look I gave her was withering, although she didn’t seem to wither, not one bit.
“I used to like rice krispies,” Bert said.
By the time we’d finished discussing cereal, the sun had gone down and it was too dark to read the letter.
Bert tells me it’s new years eve today. Looking forward to the champagne and fireworks I said to him. Joking of course. The wonder is that I even remembered what such things were. Bert looked sharply at me then, bit strange it was. Then he relaxed a bit and had a peculiar secretive smile on his face. Of course that’s easy to say in retrospect, that he had a secretive smile on his face. But little did I know at the time.
I’d been in the doldrums ever since that hot air balloon thing didn’t materialize into anything. I told Bert about it, and he went off down to the Brundy place, gone ages he was, and came back saying it was nothing. He had an odd spring in his step though which puzzled me a bit at the time, but I was so deflated after the excitement of thinking something might actually happen for a change, and when it didn’t, well, I couldn’t be bothered to think about Bert acting funny.
When Bert had a shower and asked me to iron ~ iron, I ask you! ~ his best shirt, I was more depressed than ever. If Bert goes mad as well, then where will we be? I was already wondering if I’d started hallucinating and if that was a sign of madness. I’d been catching glimpses of things out of the corner of my eye all week. I’d even heard stifled giggles. It was unnerving, I tell you.
When Bert suggested I have a shower as well, and asked if I still had that red sequinned dress I started to worry. What was he thinking? Then ~ get this ~ he asked if I had red knickers on.
Bert! I said, aghast.
He mumbled something about it being a tradition in Spain to wear red underpants on new years eve, and surely I hadn’t forgotten?
I gently reminded him that we weren’t in Spain, and he said, You’re damn right this isn’t Kansas anymore, hooted with laughter, and fairly skipped out of the room.
I sat there for a bit pondering all this and then thought, Hell, why not? Why not wear red knickers and that old red sequinned dress? Why not have a shower as well?
And much to my surprise I found I was humming a song and smiling to myself as I went to find that old red dress.
We finally figured out what was wrong with everyone, making us all lounge around for weeks on end, or maybe it was months, god knows it went on for a lot longer than our usual bored listless spells. Barely a word passed anyone’s lips for days at a time, and not a great deal of food either. None of us had the will to cook after awhile, and when the hunger pangs roused us, we’d shuffle into the kitchen and shovel down whatever was at hand. A wedge of raw cabbage, or a few spoonfuls of flour, once all the packets of biscuits and crisps had gone, and the pies out of the freezer.
Finley seemed to cope better than anyone, although not up to her usual standard. But she managed to feed the animals and water the tomatoes occasionally, and was good at suggesting improvisations, when the toilet paper ran out for example. The lethargy and slow wittedness of us all was probably remarkable, but we were far too disinterested in everything to notice at the time.
To be honest, it would all be a blank if I hadn’t found that my portable telephone contraption had been taking videos randomly throughout the tedious weeks. It was unsettling to say the least, looking at those, I can tell you.
It started to ease off, slowly: I’d suddenly find myself throwing the ball for the dog, picking up the camera because something caught my eye, I even had a shower one day. I noticed the others now and then seemed to take an interest in something, briefly. We all needed to lie down for a few hours to recover, but we’re all back to normal now. Well I say normal.
Finly looked at some news one day, and it wasn’t just us that had the Etruscan flu, it had been a pandemic. There had hardly been any news for months because nobody could be bothered to do it, and anyway, nothing had happened anywhere. Everyone all over the world was just lounging around, not saying anything and barely eating, not showering, not doing laundry, not traveling anywhere.
And you know what the funny thing is? It’s like a garden of Eden out there now, air quality clean as a whistle, the right weather in all the right places, it’s like a miracle.
And everyone’s slowed down, I mean speeded up since the flu, but slower than before, less frantic. Just sitting on the porch breathing the lovely air and thinking what a fine day it is.
One good thing is that we’re taking showers regularly again.
“Well, where were we?” Jerk took the articles where he left them when he got up to check the price on one lacking a barcode.
The blip blip resumed, with the impatient twitching lady pouncing on the items as soon as they passed the scanning, to cram them into her compostable bag.
Days were stretching in ennui, and he started to feel like an android. At least, the rhythmical blips and “Have a good day, thank you for your purchase” were now part of his muscle memory, and didn’t require much paying attention to.
He’d renewed the yearly fee to maintain his group website yesterday, but he wasn’t sure why he did it. There were still the occasional posts on the groups he was managing, but the buzz had died already. People had moved to other things, autumn for one. Really, what was the point of maintaining it for 3 posts a week (and those were good weeks, of course not counting the spam).
There was fun occasionally, but more often than not, there were harangues.
He wondered what archetype he was in his life story; maybe he was just a background character, and that was fine, so long as he wasn’t just a supporting cast to another megalomaniac politician.
The apartment blocks were he was living were awfully quiet. His neighbours were still in travel, he wondered how they could afford it. Lucinda was completely immersed in her writing courses, and Fabio was still around amazingly – Lucinda didn’t look like she could even care of herself, so a dog… Meanwhile, the town council was envisaging a “refresh” of their neighborhood, but he had strong suspicion it was another real-estate development scheme. Only time would tell. He wasn’t in a rush to jump to the conclusion of an expropriation drama —leave that to Luce.
Friday would have been her 60th brithday (funny typo he thought). Their dead friend’s birthday would still crop up in his calendar, and he liked that they were still these connections at least. Did she move on, he wondered. Sometimes her energy felt present, and Lucinda would argue she was helping her in her writing endeavours. He himself wasn’t sure, those synchronicities were nice enough without the emphatic spiritualist extrapolations.
“Happy birthday Granola.” he said.
Another crack appeared on the red crystal into which Granola was stuck for what felt like ages.
“About time!” she said. “I wonder if they have all forgotten about me now.”
She looked closely at the crack. There was an opening, invisible, the size of an atom. But maybe, just maybe, it was just enough for her to squeeze in. She leaned in and focused on the little dot to escape.
WIB (workman in blue) opened his lunch box and unwrapped a sandwich. He sighed when he saw it was cheese and pickle again. It had been cheese and pickle all week, a sure sign that WAH (woman at home) wasn’t giving him the attention he deserved, throwing the easiest thing together day after day instead of planning a nice roast chicken dinner, with the prospect of a couple of days of savoury chicken sandwiches to take to work. She hadn’t even bothered to boil up a few hard boiled eggs for a bit of variety. He loved egg sandwiches. He wasn’t a hard man to please, he ruminated dolefully, chewing the cheese and pickle.
He reached for his flask to wash it down with a gulp of tea, and noticed with some surprise that she’d bought him a new flask. His old one had a few dents in the screw on cup, and this one looked all shiny and new. Anxious to wash down the cheesy lump in his throat, he unscrewed the cap and poured the flask over the cup.
But there was no tea in the flask, nothing poured out of it. He peered inside and shook it.
“That woman’s lost her marbles!”
It was the last straw. He stood up, shook the flask above his head, and roared incoherently.
“Everything alright, mate?” asked his work colleague mildly. WIB2 was contentedly munching a juicy pink ham sandwich. He even had a packet of crisps to go with it, WIB1 noticed.
“No tea? Fancy some of my coffee? Pass yer cup. What’s in the flask then, what’s rattling?”
WAB1 sat back down on the low wall and upended the flask, pulling at a bit of black stuff that was protruding from the top.
““Maybe it’s full of banknotes!” WIB2 suggested.
“It’s a fucking doll! What the..?”
“Why did your old lady put a doll in your flask instead of tea, mate? Private joke or something, bit of a lark?” WIB2 elbowed WIB1 in the ribs playfully. “No?” he responded to WIB1’s scowl. “Maybe there’s something stitched inside it, then.”
“Lucinda, where is this going?”
“I don’t fucking know, Helper Effy.”
“I thought as much. Perhaps we’d better go back to the beginning.”
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