Before The Deluge

I need to get out more. Too many days in a row spent indoors in various stages of unkemptness, saving money, saving petrol. Or could that be Unconscious Code for saving effort or (whisper it) incipient agoraphobia? And what have I been doing?

Not a lot, to be honest. Well of course I’ve been feeding and cleaning up after the houseful of cats. That in itself is the equivalent of a part-time job. And I’ve not been slumped on the couch watching television because I no longer have a TV. I have done some ironing, and discovered why my tumble dryer isn’t working, and that I can’t fix it.

And I have forced myself to start working through Python For Infants. I was pleased to find that I could understand the first few pages. I have made it print out Hi Python! and not print out You are a silly shoe! I have learned about Strings, Comments, Syntax Errors and Escape Characters.

Getting rid of the TV actually made me realise how long a day is, and how much of it I must previously have used up – watching TV.  At the moment I still haven’t adapted. I seem to be cycling through alternative ‘things to do’, trying to settle into a new routine.

I check the News App more often than is necessary. The news doesn’t change that often in the course of one day, but it might. That’s the trouble. What if something really dramatic did happen, and I didn’t know? What if somebody was assassinated or something actually changed in connection with Brexit? What if – I don’t know – Scotland suddenly calved away from the mainland – after all, it’s only attached by that little skinny bit in the middle –  or there were to be a plague of tigers?

Sadly, I have to confess, I have watched some TV on my tablet. Not live TV, obviously, because I haven’t got a licence, but those highly addictive whole series. I watched the first three series of Mr Robot in a very short time, and still haven’t recovered. The fourth series is supposed to have started in the United States but it isn’t on my tablet yet. When will it be on my tablet? I simply can’t wait.

And today I have been watching, in short bursts between housework, cat-tending, ironing and coding-learning, a British TV movie called Flood. It stars David Suchet and Robert Carlyle. Any film with either of those in is usually a guarantee of quality, but something has gone awry. David Suchet is acting all right but everyone else – including the great Robert Carlyle – seems to have got an attack of awful-acting-itis.

However, this is made up for by the tension of following this great hypothetical storm surge, from Scotland down the east coast and up the Thames, overwhelming (of course) the Thames Flood Barrier. In the control room here is a lot of terse commanding whilst staring at multiple wall-screens. In British disaster movies the characters, no matter how stressed, tend not to bellow or punch one another on the nose. No, they command, increasingly tersely.

And then there’s a lot of dramatic splashing about in the water and clinging to the tops of lamp-posts, just visible above the flood. And everybody’s hairdo is ruined, and they are rescued by helicopters with searchlights.

Given where I live, and knowing my luck, if there were to be such a flood I would be the lady up in the attic, hammering against the stuck-fast dormer window, the water up around my ears. I spend some time, whilst washing up, making plans. I will bring in all the cat boxes from the garage and – if I can get the dormer window open (which I do not have, by the way) I will pass all nineteen moggies up to the hovering helicopter with the searchlight first. Take them first, I hear myself tersely commanding. Don’t bother about me… Come back some time. If you can.

As the helicopter slowly sinks towards the water, weighed down by all those hefty cats in all those hefty pet carriers.

The News app shows newspaper headlines. The Sun appears to be saying we should prepare ourselves for three months of non-stop 100 mph winds. I find this hard to believe and impossible to imagine. I am refusing to try. I inherited my paternal grandmother’s hatred of windy weather.

“Devilish Wind!” she used to exclaim. Tersely.

There’s a rockabilly party on Saturday night…

Readers may recall – though probably not – that I recently gave up my TV licence as a protest against the Government/BBC’s plans to remove free TV licenses from the over 75s next year. Annoyingly, the BBC mentioned on their radio news programme this morning that TV viewing figures are falling drastically, especially among the young. I imagined I was rebelliously depriving myself of something for the sake of a principle – now I discover I was conforming to some mindless Younger Generation.

Staring mournfully at the gap where the TV set used to be, I realise I used to use it to switch off, ie to become part of the mindless Older GenerationNow I am finding being at home all day quite hard work – all that thinking about stuff – all that What should I be getting on with now? TV was an excuse to sit still and do nothing. Or knitting.

I’ve been managing quite well with my collection of radios, each tuned to a different station – not being much of a re-tuner of DAB radios. I have one stuck on Radio 4, for the News and Woman’s Hour. I sampled The Archers (‘an everyday story of countryfolk’), in the hope that, being older now, I would suddenly be able to stand to listen to it.

I still hated it, apart from one episode when a character called Hayley was going round frantically demanding money from fellow villagers in order to solve her mortgage shortfall problem – telling them she was entitled to it. She was being so annoying and so manifestly and counter-productively foolish in her approach, and all in a fake rural accent, that I just wanted to slap her. I suppose I was gripped, but not enough to make me tune in to the next episode.

One of my other radios is tuned to something called Mellow Magic. I have always resisted anything with the word mellow in it, along with the words heart-warming and epic – but I tried it and was hooked. Basically they play all the songs you remember quite a few of the words to, that whisk you back to your past.

Another radio is tuned to Scala, which advertises itself a classical music station with a modern twist. I use this as background music for reading. I used to use Spotify for this, but was always worried that by listening online I might be using up a lot of data, whatever that is.

Most of the time it’s fine – film scores, sad tinkly piano music – but occasionally you are jolted back into the living room by something unexpected and truly ghastly such as the Dam-Busters March or Mars, the Bringer of War. It’s even worse when you’re trying to get to the end of a popular physics book which is proving beyond your comprehension. I used to read books that dealt with string theory, multiverses and spooky action at a distance, but I think my brain must have atrophied since then.

So, I just migrate from one radio to another. Now what I need is some kind of hooked pokey-stick, or series of long pieces of string tied to all the radio like reins – to take the place of the TV remote control.

Then there are the TED talks. Someone stands on stage somewhere in the world – Iceland, Toronto, whatever – and records a short talk about whatever they happen to know or feel strongly about. These talks are free to listen to and are useful if suddenly craving the sight of a human being moving about and gesticulating, as opposed to disembodied voices. You have to be selective – no point watching fifteen minutes of someone enlightening you on how to sell a million pink plastic water-jugs in one day.

That’s how I came to be watching a lady psychologist talking about deathbed visions. I think she worked in end-of-life care or similar. She was saying people attending at a death should not be surprised if the dying person was able to ‘see’ other people in the room, or even reached up to them. One person had regular visits from an old dog who had died many years before, and which slept curled up on a chair. The psychologist lady explained that visions would usually be tailored to the person’s cultural background, so people in different countries might see angels, or the Buddha, or the Hindu god of death. And children tended to see visions tailored to them – so one child told his parents that the children’s train had arrived at the station; it was time for him to go.

People also see dead relatives or friends, and have the sense that they have come to greet them from the after-world, and help them across. This set me to thinking – who would I want to come and meet me? At first I thought, nobody.  What dead person would be willing to go to the trouble of struggling into human form again, and go and lurk around at some windswept crossroads waiting for me to turn up? And then I thought, well it would be the ultimate poor sad me thing, wouldn’t it – turning up at the afterlife crossroads and nobody – not even the Devil – who I gather has a tendency to keep assignations at crossroads-es to collect the souls people have sold to him – could be bothered to be there to say ‘Hi’.

So I settled for Nan, who would probably be wearing her cardigan and her flowery overall; Sophie, a long-lost and much loved black and white ‘tuxedo’ cat, and Godmother. Godmother isn’t actually dead yet, but she’s ninety, so presumably she would be by that time. Unless, of course, what probate solicitors often refer to as The Under The Bus Scenario were to happen fairly shortly. I even considered Ex but then I thought no, he’d be tapping his watch saying You’re three-and-a-half-minutes late! Don’t you know that you are Low On My List of Priorities?

Who or what would you want to crowd around your deathbed, or be waiting for you at the crossroads?

rockabilly

There’s a rockabilly party on Saturday night
Are you gonna be there?
(Well I got my invite)
Gonna bring your records?
(Oh, will do) …

Mott the Hoople, Roll Away The Stone, 1974

Existential Angst

Years ago there used to be a TV programme with that actor… He later ended up as one of the Star Trek Captains and – possibly in between the two – as the head of NCIS Somewhere Or Other – Scott… Bakula? Yay, the memory’s still working.

The cat photos don’t have much to do with the post – they’re a bonus.

But this thing I’m thinking of that Scott Whatsit/Bakula was in, it was a kind of gentle TV sci-fi series called Quantum Leap. I watched Quantum Leap religiously, and not because of Scott Bakula – he’s not my type – but because I’m a sucker for sci-fi and fantasy, however dreadful. Quantum Leap was pretty dreadful.

Gosh, the bin-lorry just backed up past my window. The bin-lorry, on a Monday, and on a Bank Holiday…? The Universe gets less and less explicable every day.

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But I’m sure I could help. And only one rubber glove required…

Anyway, Quantum Leap, starring Scott Whatsit, he of the unshaven manly jaw and the one-trick inscrutable acting style. I was glued to it, possibly because it made some sort of resonance, struck some sort of chord in my imagination. The basic premise was simple enough: by reason of some long-forgotten scientific mishap, the hero finds himself materialising in one episode of the past (possibly also future, I can’t recall) after another. He is obliged to Leap throughout the whole series and any number of series after that, into one body/life not-his-own after another.

The moment of his arrival could be quite startling. He would (always) just happen to look into a mirror/see himself reflected in a shiny car/lean over a conveniently still pond and discover that he looked… different. Sometimes he was young, sometimes he was old; sometimes he was black, sometimes he was white; sometimes he was male and occasionally he was female. Occasionally, presumably because full drag was required and Scott Whatsit was about the most masculine actor you could possibly imagine, short of Vin Diesel, who is my type.

Vin Diesel ought never to smile, by the way. It completely spoils the effect of simmering sullenness.

So – and this is the bit I could never quite grasp – when Scott Whatsit looked at himself in the mirror/shiny car/untroubled pond he was actually someone else. I mean, there was another actor or actress looking back at him with approximately the same expression. But when he turned round to face the camera he was Scott Whatsit again, but with lipstick and a curly wig or whatever. I could never quite get my head round this.

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If I can’t help I’m just gonna sit here and sulk!

And there often came a point – and here I am gradually getting to the point of this post – where he assumed he had achieved whatever he had been drawn back to that particular life for, ie he had managed to reconcile that warring father and son, or neatly solve a sixty-year old murder mystery – at which point – being by this time an old hand at Quantum Leaping – he would be expecting to Jump – ie for the screen to go all fuzzy and for him to find himself in yet another life – and that would be the end of the episode, till the next time, when the yet another life would unfold. Cliff-hanger.

Except that sometimes at this point he didn’t Jump, and he couldn’t understand why, and he spent a lot of time puzzling over this, and consulting with a dozy colleague back in the Lab, with whom he remained magically in touch via some sort of multi-coloured plastic box with flashing lights.

And that’s how I feel, often, now. I suppose it’s depression-in-disguise (isn’t everything?) or some form of Existential Angst, but I’m walking along and suddenly into my mind pops this self-same question: Why Am I Still Here? Mum’s “gone”, Dad’s Gone, one sister’s in Canada going through her own trauma, and I am guessing may never come over again, the other sister finds me uncool and embarrassing or something, and so has ceased to communicate. I did think I might read through all my 2,000 paperbacks again, or maybe knit a very long scarf, but I can’t seem to get started on either project. I seem to be in this kind of limbo-land, perpetually poised to find myself somewhere else, on some far distant shore, in some other (please!) younger body, and hopefully minus the red lipstick, the five o’clock shadow and the cheap wig – and yet nowhere Else materialises.

Every morning I peer into the bathroom mirror and no, I am still, relentlessly, surprisingly, me.

What’s going on? Apart from feeding nineteen cats twice a day, what part of my quantum mission have I yet to fulfil?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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The silent battle of the tails…

Featured Image: This sill ain’t big enough for the three of us..

Pleasurable Dread

The Prison Warders are moving to their villa/caravan in France by instalments. Sometime in the last three days they must have whispered off to the continent yet again in their current version of the Black Mariah. I no longer hear their chocolate-coloured labradoodle barking on the patio, or the squeak of her squeaky toy, or the sound of their toilet flushing behind the party wall at midnight and the chink of one of them throwing their toothbrush back into the glass. I quite miss them, though not their heavy metal music radio session from 11 to 2 every day.

And so – I can mosey down the garden in my dressing-gown to feed the birds as soon as it gets light with no need to fear the Prison Warders’ prying eyes. Of course there are other prying eyes but then I also have my imaginary Cloak of Invisibility and my old person’s Don’t Much Care Any More. It’s not that I’m lazy about getting dressed, it’s just that things happen in the wrong order. I get up in the dark and cold, more or less wrestled out of bed by innumerable hungry cats, and I mean to get dressed but then I find myself feeding them, washing up, watching (with daily increasing horror) the morning News, drinking instant coffee, sending back WordsWithFriends… and at 10 the dressing-gown may still be on.

Today is a day Carol the Weather Lady has been going on about since last Sunday. Yes, it’s Very Cold Thursday. The winds have changed and we may expect to be drawing in icy blue air from the continent, which is ravaged with cold, and that icy air, coupled with the Wind Chill Factor, will mean it feels like minus something-or-other.

I made my plans accordingly. I would not venture out on Very Cold Thursday. I would stay in and do – all my usual stuff. Pleasurable Dread. The British weather – it’s an ongoing horror show; either plummeting temperatures bound to kill off all the old folk and those with weak chests, and harmless infants in their cribs – or unbearably soaring temperatures meaning we will all be forced to open windows, paddle around in an embarrassed-but-desperate sort of way in municipal fountains or lie prostrate in parks praying for the rain to return.

But I have to feed the birds. My instinct to care for harmless sparrows, pheasants, cats, hedgehogs, worms and even rats by far exceeds any fleeting concern I may have for my fellow mutant apes. So, in a concession to Very Cold Thursday I put a coat on over my dressing gown and trudge up and down the garden several times (not enough hands) bearing jugs of seed and water and plates of anything I can find for the birdies, including those ghastly mealworms. Yes, it is cold but I am surprised to find I am not dying of it, even in my dressing gown and carpet slippers. A winter without central heating must have toughened me up.

Overnight Kitten, who is around 105 in human years, has finally given in and moved herself back to the heater; in fact her ancient, gnarled little legs are jammed right under the heater. She has the whole of the spare room to herself since she refuses either to leave it or allow any other cat in. She has her own heater, food station and dirt-box, and a choice several beds. She exists in magnificent isolation but still she isn’t happy. Pleasurable Dread – I go in to see her every morning, steeling myself for the worst, that stiff little furry corpse in the corner – and always she is still alive and squawking, staggering out of her basket and falling over several times on her way to see me, demanding her sachet of Felix.

Pleasurable Dread: every evening now I watch a news magazine programme called 100 Days. Two correspondents anchor the programme jointly, one in Washington and one in London. How do they achieve this? Who knows? Something to do with satellites. Anyway, 100 Days is following the new President’s critical first one hundred days in office, plus Brexit and the whole fiasco around triggering Article 50 and actually getting on with leaving. I wish I could not-watch it but I seem to be addicted. I have even foregone an ancient re-run of Stargate Atlantis on Pick in order to do so. And with every day that I watch 100 Days, as one lot of rampant sociopathic insanity (on the American side) and legal obfuscation, havering, incompetence and delay (on the British side) crowds in upon another, Pleasurable Dread edges closer towards Horror.

I am afraid. I am very afraid.

Angel Delight, continued

The doorbell-leaner was the postman, with a flattish cardboard package. “Looks like a new router maybe, Pete,” he said. For a moment, still trying to prise his eyelids open and squinting against the light, Pete squinted suspiciously at the man’s face, wondered how a postman knew his name. Then it came to him – Jerry. They’d been at school together, once, a long time ago. Jerry: quiet and dull. Wouldn’t say boo to a goose. No real challenge. Apart from the occasional routine beating for the purposes of extracting cash Pete had hardly noticed him. The loser had never had much worth stealing, anyway.

Jerry was sweating and obviously ill-at-ease. I’d sock you one in the eye just for old times’ sake, you fat git, thought Pete. Lucky for you I don’t feel up to it this morning.

Jerry cleared his throat. ‘That cat, Pete…’

What cat, Jerry?’

‘The little black one.’

‘I ain’t seen no cat, Jerry.’

‘Oh, I see, only…. only if you had seen it I was going to offer to take it off your hands, like. I’m fond of cats, see, Pete, and… well, I expect you’ve got enough on your hands, what with the wife…’

‘And what about my wife?’ he asked, pushing a bleary, unshaven face into Jerry’s and breathing stale alcohol. Jerry took a step back, and then another.

‘Oh, well nothing really, but… the cat, Pete. Were you looking to re-home it maybe? Only I’d be glad to take it off your hands, like.  It’s just that one or two of the neighbours… the RSPCA… I didn’t want you to get into trouble, Pete. I just thought it might be a help if I could take that little cat off…’

Pete glanced sideways at the bloodied heap of fur on the far side of his debris-strewn living room.

‘Get lost,’ he snarled, and slammed the front door.

Pete watched from the side panel as his former classmate shuffled off up the garden path, and then down the neighbours’ path, edging sideways between a cast off plastic go-cart and a heap of old wooden pallets, his postman’s sack hunched over his shoulder. He looked miserable.

‘Dammit,’ thought Pete, and went through to the kitchen for a black sack. Whose wheelie bin am I going to dump it in?

*

When he got back he engineered some space amongst a pile of grubby, union jack scatter cushions and watched some TV; then, catching sight of the remains of a take-away curry mouldering on the coffee table in front of him, he rushed out and threw up in the sink. Feeling a bit better, he made himself a mug of black coffee and watched some more TV. Then the long, flat parcel caught his eye – his new router. Better fix that thing up before he started into the booze again, he supposed. He was looking forward to visiting that new gaming site they’d been advertising, as soon as the computer was up and running again. And then there was Hot Babes. He hadn’t had a look in on those Babes for a while.

Seized by a sudden impatience to get a tedious task out of the way Pete muted the TV, ripped open the cardboard box, tossed the instructions to one side and discovered that he was just about sober enough, by now, to plug in a few wires. He pressed the button on the top of the router and a promising blue light came on – yay! Then he hit the power button on his computer and waited for Google to come up. But it didn’t.

Something else did.

Featured Image: Tuxedo angel cat with peace dove heaven stained glass window: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

Cold Cabbage and Custard, Cold Kippers and Lard

That was what Nan used to say, if you asked what was for dinner. I used to wonder where she got all her Sayings from – “It’s as black as yer ‘at over Will’s mother’s”, “Up in Annie’s Room Behind the Clock”, “Jelly, Alice?” Grandad had a few of his own. If you asked him how old he was he’d say “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”

The best meals I remember ever were Nan’s Sunday Lunches. Many years later I became a vegetarian, but I can’t pretend not to have relished that great, steaming plateful of chicken or roast beef, gravy, Yorkshire pudding, peas, home-made mint sauce, roast potatoes at the time. Nan did the best roast potatoes in the world. And the best gravy. And the best pastry.

She grew up in the country and went into service at the age of thirteen or fourteen – so she had a range of culinary and household skills, both rural and ‘gentry’. In summer, she would pick cherries from the tree in their garden and bottle them in kilner jars for the winter. They had damson bushes, and raspberries, and she made jam. I remember the steamy, sticky kitchen and that dense caramel-sugar-fruit smell. The jam, of course, we had on bread – cut thin by grandad with a dangerous-looking breadknife. He sharpened it himself, so it had a kind of curve to it, and he cradled the loaf lovingly, slicing towards his chest.

The cherries we had with ice-cream from a home-made cold-safe which had to be raised and lowered on rope pulleys – under the washbasin in the bathroom. The bread and jam we had after Sunday tea. I got sent out to buy a jugful of shrimps from the Shrimp Man, who appeared in the road on Sunday afternoons. And there always seemed to be celery in a jug, and salt to dip the ends in. Tomatoes were straight from the garden and tasted and smelled like tomatoes rather than water and Egyptian tomato-growers’ pee.

On winter evenings Grandad would toast crumpets on the end of a long brass toasting fork – so hot that when you buttered them it melted instantly and ran down through the holes in the crumpets. Sometimes there was toast, made on an ancient electric toaster that lived permanently in the middle of the table. It had a glass flap with a black knob on either side, opening outwards from the top, and a red-hot element on either side. You opened the flaps gingerly, deposited a slice of bread on either side and closed them again, equally gingerly. Until years later I believed toast always sported a lattice of charred black strips.

I actually saw that toaster – well, not that toaster, but that model – in a museum of 40s/50s domestic life, on a visit to Bletchley Park – the country house where Alan Turing and his associates broke all those codes using the Enigma machine during the war. I was more drawn to ‘my’ old toaster than the Enigma machine, which looked a bit lashed-together and steam-punky. At the time, of course, it was the white heat of technology.

Things have gone downhill a bit from those days. I used to pity one of my husband’s bachelor friends, who appeared to live on Mars bars and minced beef, in a basement flat. He told me he wasn’t interested in food at all and ate merely to live. I started off pitying my mother, who used to cook for herself but now cannot, because of the dementia. I once spent part of one of those interminable meetings with Mum’s social workers, her Mental Health Team, her Care Agency Boss etc. – so many people to look after one old person – discussing her failure to eat regular meals. We were discussing random, margarine-smeared Ryvitas; midnight slices sawn off those interminable Tesco current cakes; the several thousand Activia yoghurts in the fridge, which she swears she rotates but doesn’t, any more than she looks both ways when she crosses the road. No – straight out there. Once more into the breach. Basically, she had a cupboard full of cake, cat food and yoghurt.

And then I went home and faced the truth. In spite of living only fifteen minutes’ drive from a farm shop, with a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables second to none, I had a fridge full of Activia yoghurt – not quite so many, perhaps – bread, butter, cheese, Economy Marmalade, Sandwich Spread, Peanut Butter and Marmite; a packet of softening Custard Creams in the cupboard, and a venerable bag of rice I couldn’t be bothered to boil since it would mean washing-up a saucepan – and flinging a succession of determined, fur-shedding cats from the cooker-top whilst using it. And after all that, only the usual baked bean/tinned curry/grated cheese slop to go with it.

Be honest, I said (sternly!) – you live on this now, don’t you? You know how to cook. On the rare occasions you have people staying with you, you actually do cook. You are perfectly capable of following a recipe. You could even now whip up a Sunday lunch (vegetarian version) preparing the vegetables, organising and timing everything so that it all comes together at exactly the right moment – just like Nan did. But what you do is sit in front of the TV set (often still in your nightie and dressing gown) glued to the Migrant Crisis or Brexit on the 24 hour News Channel, or some abstruse science programme about Black Holes, Event Horizons and the True Nature of Reality whilst slurping bowls of instant porridge or sugar-infested granola, with additional spoonfuls of granulated sugar on top, and occasionally – almost every time, in fact – dribbling the sugary milk down your chin/dressing gown.

So why wait? Why not just book yourself into the Old Folks Home tomorrow?

Robert, Run (2)

He is woken by the telephone ringing and ringing beside the bed. The room has grown dark while he has been asleep. One of the fans has stopped working. He points the remote control at the TV to silence it and picks up the phone.

“Oh, Robert,” the phone says. “Is that you?”

“Yes,” he says. “Who are you?”

“Amanda Peterson, Channel Three,” the voice says. He can tell by the tone of it, he was meant to know that. He falls silent.

“Amanda – from Make-up, just ringing to check you’ll be with me by eight sharp tomorrow. You’re third for the chair.” He had visions of something to be strapped in to, with his feet in a bucket of water, electrodes strapped to his head. He remains silent.

Make-up chair,” says Amanda. “We’re all staying at this hotel, Make-up included. You’re to come to room 390 tomorrow, at eight sharp, to be made up for filming.”

“Where is that?” he asks, fearfully.

“Well, you’re in room 106, that on the first floor. We’re in room 390, that’s on the third floor. So you need to come upstairs.” He realises as she speaks that hotel rooms begin with the number of the floor they are on, and also that she thinks he is stupid.”

“I didn’t see any stairs.” He realises as soon as he has said this that he is stupid, at least for now. Reception sent him and his suitcase up in a lift, but there must have been stairs too. Fire, and everything. In such a high building they wouldn’t just have a lift.

“Amanda,” he says, “I think I will need some food and something to drink.”

“You didn’t go out to eat?”

“No, I didn’t realise…”

“Ring room service, then.” The phone goes dead.

He asks the room service voice, who sounds foreign – Greek, maybe – for a pot-of-tea-and-a-cheese-sandwich-please. It is what Auntie always used to ask for in cafés. Twenty minutes later a girl in a dirty apron, with scraped-back hair, as sweaty as Robert himself, delivers a white cup of orange tea, most of it slopped in the saucer, and something on a plate with chips. Not a sandwich.

“You one of the TV lot?” she asks, removing her chewing-gum and inspecting it.

“No,” he says, mesmerised by the chewed grey goo on her fingers. “I just got to the final of a TV competition. Six of us – did. The TV people are somewhere else in the hotel.”

“Yeah, I seen them. Two floors up. They’ve got much bigger rooms than this one. This is the arsehole of the hotel, this one. You’d think if you was a winner they’d give you a bigger room. What’s the programme going to be called?”

He wished she’d go. “A Tale of Two Halves,” he said.

“Two halves of what?”

“Of a story. We had to finish a story by a famous author – well, several authors. There was a choice.”

“Who wrote the one you finished?” she asked, putting the grey goo back in her mouth. Robert begins to feel very sick.

“Marius Hawkinge.”

“Never heard of him.”

Before he stumbled across the competition on the website of CultureVulture TV, Robert had never heard of Marius Hawkinge either. Apparently he was a well-known playwright and had had several plays in theatres in the West End, including one called “Ingest/Excrete”. Robert had no idea what could be in a play for it to be called something like that. The only play he had ever seen was a panto, Jack in the Beanstalk in the village hall when he was seven. Auntie had taken him. He remembered a lot or orange make-up and eyeliner, out-of-tune singing, and a bony cow with two men inside it. It had been noisy. He had thrown what Auntie used to refer to as one of his wobblies, and had to be taken home before the end.

The gum-chewing girl had gone. Robert drinks the tea, first emptying the contents of the saucer back into the cup. He worries about germs but is too thirsty to care. It is half-cold and tastes of tannin. He doesn’t touch the thing with chips. He asked for a cheese sandwich.

Later he takes his water bottle along the corridor to the toilet, where he refills it from the cold water tap in the washbasin. The basin is dirty but he hopes the water is clean. He feels a bit better now. At least there is somebody from TV here, and at eight o’clock next morning he will be meeting them. He sits on the edge of his narrow bed. It seems even hotter in the room now. He thinks maybe he should go to the bathroom and have a shower, if is going to be on television.

It takes him a while to work out all the knobs and dials. The water comes out too cold, then too hot. At last he gets it lukewarm and climbs underneath, letting the water over his head as well as his body. Somebody thumps on the wall. He jumps. “Pissed or something?” a male voice enquires. “It’s after midnight. Why not shower at the normal time?”

He sleeps very little that night, or so it seems. And yet, although he feels he is awake he drifts in and out of nightmares. The whirr of the one remaining fan is deafening, but the heat continues to build and he cannot turn it off. He lies in the dark, sweating. Waves of panic alternate with loneliness. He longs for home and wonders how Rabbit is, without him. Poor Rabbit, confined to his hutch in this heat and tended by a neighbour.

He sends himself to Rabbit, through the air. He inhales Rabbit’s peculiar hutch-smell,  automatically analysing it into faeces, fur-dust, wilted greens. It seems to him that he now is Rabbit, waiting in the darkness of their garden for Robert to come and release him. Robert wonders if Rabbit dreams of daylight and the long, wet grass of the lawn. Or maybe dreams of Robert, and in some way is here. Both here and there.

Somebody coughs and turns over in bed. Robert suddenly shivers and reaches down for the sheet, concertinaed at the bottom of the bed, to pull over his shoulders.