He understood how people could disappear, people had legs, people could run! But the house, the swimming pool, the Vergogna Phryne in marble and bronze…
He closed his eyes and was back.
He strolled out, past the variegated beds, past the vast sycamore and on down to the wooden jetty cut between river birch.
He stood at the water’s edge, breathing in breeze scented like warm skin. From the kitchen he could hear Sharon singing and mixing Long Island teas.
When he opened his eyes what he saw seemed less real.
The jumble of gardens, barely delineated by broken fencing and littered with filth. The piss-heads by the phone box fighting over last night’s fried chicken. All set beneath tower blocks like upended pill trays, their panes patched with cardboard and hung with rags.
He turned from the window back to his room. His new home. A space so small it barely contained itself.
On becoming its tenant he’d found himself contracted into a perverse drudgery and remunerated with nothing save wet sheets and foul, breathless dreams.
To reach his desk he must close the cupboard. To close the cupboard he must fold the bed. To fold the bed he must place the chair upon the fridge being careful not to upend the kettle boiling inches from the sofa.
He sat down at his desk and poked the button on the computer. The old tower groaned and woke and he began to type.
One year had passed since Thomas’ fame had flared into infamy. Now only the embers of notoriety remained. The theatre tours, the daytime TV bookings were all distant memories. He had quickly found himself blacklisted, ghosted. Wiped away like snot. The book was all he had left. The only thing he felt he was still allowed to do. He just hoped his name resonated enough to sell it.
The book, titled ‘Killing Time’, saw a return to what Thomas did best: manipulating and exploiting the weak, the sick and the grief-stricken. Loosely defined as self-help, the book made big claims, purporting to offer methods to sooth the souls of those tortured by the passage of time. But more than this, extract them from its movement entirely.
Like all bad ideas, it had come to him while drinking. Now sober, Thomas considered it so ridiculous he could barely bring himself to write it. Nothing more than a poorly disguised compendium of riddles, puzzles and word games. Simple tricks to occupy the mind mixed with lumbering self-hypnosis and sprinkled with salacious anecdotes involving unnamed celebrities. It had no more power to extract the reader from the ebb and flow of time than any book ever written.
He forced his fingers onto the keys and continued to type.
His driver opened the car door and Thomas stepped out onto the pavement. He stopped briefly to sign autographs then disappeared through the stage door.
A stage manager led him down a narrow passage way to his dressing room.
“Full house tonight.”
“Half an hour till curtain up,” she said opening the door.
Once alone, he stripped naked and stood in front of the floor length mirror. He took hold of his balls and squeezed them till his teeth hurt. He leant forward into the mirror and smiled a smile he saved only for himself.
He showered and dressed, then sat drinking and snorting until the small speaker on the far wall crackled, summoning him to the stage. He licked up the last of the coke and left.
The house lights dimmed and thick drapes parted to reveal Thomas isolated in a single, white spot.
A cymbal crashed and he raised his head. Another crash and his arm rose slowly, his fingertips nibbling at the ether.
“Hello Sir. How are you this evening?” He said, pointing at a man in the third row.
The man folded his arms, barricading himself behind a tight smile.
“Have you had a close family member recently pass?” said Thomas.
“Look, before you start,” said the man in an awkward, aggressive tone. “I think you should know, I only came here with someone else, I don’t actually believe…”
“I don’t blame you, Sir,” interrupted Thomas, “it is incredible isn’t it. I imagine you drove here. Past shops and houses and signs you’ve seen a million times. Normal things. And now here you are and things aren’t normal any more. Will you allow me the chance to change your mind, sir?”
“Go ahead,” the man replied.
“An older man is coming through. You were very close. He was ill, terribly , terribly ill.”
“Of course he was ill, that’s why he died.”
“Your father, he’s telling me he’s your father.”
“And who else would it be?”
Thomas smiled humbly.
The man smiled too, sensing he had Thomas rattled.
“Why don’t you tell me something you couldn’t know, something interesting?”
He paused. “Tell me his middle name.”
Thomas backed away, almost cowering.
“OK, OK, well… yes…” he whispered, “his middle name,” his voice trailed off.
A murmur spread through the audience.
Thomas looked down, visibly trembling.
“His. Middle. Name… his… middle… name… Montgomery, his middle name was Montgomery!”
The man’s face froze.
“Am I right sir?”
“Ye… yes, you are,” he spluttered.
“Perhaps you need more. Let me see. What’s that?” Thomas bent, as if listening.
“He was married, married to Jennifer, your mother, he’s telling me he loved her very much. He still does.”
Moisture began forming on the man’s brow.
“Ask me more, he’s eager to talk,” continued Thomas.
The man composed himself. Then all at once began throwing out question after question. Thomas whirled about the stage answered each and every one: The New Forest, black onyx, a Vauxhall Viva, 42 years, a white orchid…
The man fell back, breathing hard, his shirt stained with sweat. The audience erupted in applause. Thomas batted it away, feigning embarrassment, but he knew, knew what he had done.
After the gig, Thomas was high and determined to get higher. His PA had already procured whisky and cocaine and left them tucked discreetly away in his dressing room. Thomas bolted them down, then hungry for more, stumbled out into the night. He found a bar on the high street and took a table in the corner.
He’d been sitting only a few minutes when he was approached by a young woman. Her name was Juliet, she’d been at his show and was a huge fan. She asked him for his autograph.
“If I can buy you drink,” he replied.
Two hours later, after many, many more they set off back to his hotel room.
When Thomas woke the next morning, Juliet was gone. He dressed, took two paracetamol and made a perfunctory attempt to tidy the hotel room. Juliet never crossed his mind again. Not until he answered his phone at five a.m. the following Sunday
His PA was sobbing on the other end of the line.
“Just how drunk were you that night?”
“Which night?” Replied Thomas, laughing.
“There’s a story,” she said, between sharp intakes of breath.
Thomas relaxed and smiled.
“Just another silly story,” he said.
“No,” she said. “It’s more, much more.”
Over the next five minutes Thomas listened as she read the tabloid story: Juliet, an undercover reporter, had videoed their evening together. The drinking, the drug taking. But worse, had videoed him explaining his processes. How he gleaned information from ticket sales. How this information was relayed to him live on stage via a tiny ear piece. How he’d been tipped off months in advance that a stooge from the Sceptic Society would be attending the show. How he’d hired a private detective to find out all he could about him.
Thomas replaced the receiver slowly. Walked through to his study and poured a drink.
Thomas leant back. The book save for editing, was finished. His back ached and he straightened, rubbing hard at his sides. His knees hurt too. More than hurt, they burned. So much so, he looked down to check they weren’t actually on fire.
His mouth tasted foul. He shuffled his chair round to the basin and picked up his toothbrush. As he brushed he turned to the small mirror at his side.
He dropped the toothbrush.
The hair, the skin were not his. Nebulous wisps, white as cirrostratus floated above a face gouged like ploughed field. He saw his father, his grandfather, moments before their lids were screwed shut.
He began to tremble and whimper, pawing at the glass and the mask contained within it. Who had done this? And how? He pulled at skin with hands he commanded but we’re not his. He turned them slowly, two rakes of bone, the veins undulating back and forth gently as sails.
Like a sink hole, he felt something give. He moaned as his trousers filled.
He rubbed hard at his eyes and stumbled to the window. He recognised nothing. The tower blocks were gone, replaced by row upon row of small, neat houses. Their manicured gardens over flowing with lisianthus and hydrangeas
He sank to his knees, pushed himself beneath his desk and closed his eyes. He began feeling his way toward the sycamore. He could hear Sharon calling him in for drinks.
From the lake, the sound of mooring rings clinking in the wind, and the breeze like warm skin.