He was half naked. The cold metal rods of the chair’s slightly curved backrest pressed into his shoulder blades. His dark hair – earlier parted and clean – was now a fair mess, a clump blanketing overlaying the right side of his forehead. The drawstring bow of his crumpled, light grey pyjama shorts was coming undone. And the front soles of his feet pushed into the cold wooden floor. Elbows resting on the sides of his lower abdomen and fingers interlocked, the tips of his thumbs lay gently against his lips.
A stray beam of moonlight caught itself in the curtains while a draught wafted through. It crept along his skin. His watch slid a little way down his wrist but he did not flinch.
Everything was soaked in darkness. Everything was still. And once the cool air had passed on, silence occupied the vacancy.
A strange tranquility rested itself over the scene – a delicate fabric. And so it remained for nine minutes.
He flicked a switch.
The lamplight spilled across the desk as the darkness leapt back as if in fright. Yellow rivulets ran all over, flowing across carefully laid out stationary and a stack of books, slipping around a half-full mug of coffee and creeping under tensed arms before pouring off the edge.
The silence was nicked by the sound of scratching pencil on paper, now and then interrupted by rapid swipes of rubber and a bit of dusting.
He was leaning forward; his bare back now the stage for the slow dance of light and dark.
Forty minutes passed. The aroma of coffee filtered through the air, rubber shavings flew, papers turned and stacked, jazz played on a low volume, and light and dark cavorted across surfaces.
Then the music ended.
He stood up, pushing the chair back as he took off his half-rim spectacles. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, before cleaning his eyewear and putting them on again.
He looked around, stretched, and opened the top drawer of his desk. From a pack, he pulled a cigarette, placing it carefully between his lips on the left side of his mouth. With a lighter, sitting nearby, he lit it. Smoke meandered upwards.
In between drags, he took a couple of sips of his coffee. For a while, he leaned back on the edge of his desk, stating into space. Once he was done, he headed past the desk and towards the bathroom.
He turned on the tap.
There were two knocks on the door.
He didn’t notice. He turned off the tap, left the bathroom door ajar as he began to take a piss.
Three sharp knocks followed.
He still didn’t notice. He was humming now.
The doorknob turned and the door crept open, bringing with it a streak of light that was then cut off by a figure.
The figure stepped into the room. But before he could close the door quietly…
The door slammed.
“Ah! Sorry about that Charlie!”
“That’s alright. It’s bloody windy today.”
“Isn’t that a surprise.”
“So what can I get you?”
“Alright then. Today’s special is…yesterday’s leftovers.”
“By the way, Thomas, I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
“No,” cut in Thomas, as he walked towards the back of the café.
It was a quaint one. Above the entrance, the sign read Charlie’s. Outside, a couple of open umbrellas stood, protecting tables from everything but the wind. The awning and doorframe were dark green, although Thomas would swear they were black. The window also displayed the name and had a dark green frame. The café’ was shaped by light brown stone walls, which, along with numerous picture frames and shelves with numerous paraphernalia, now sported numerous scratches and drawings, thanks to many a restless kid. The chairs were crafted from a dark wood and were cushioned. The tables were reddish-brown.
The counter was also dark green and ran along half of one wall, backed by a massive chalkboard. Behind the counter, there was a door leading to another room. There were tons of desserts and sandwiches on display, an array of aromas filling the room, but he walked on by. He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a tin of barley sweets. He popped one in his mouth, counted the remainder and put them back in his pocket.
“Don’t worry. These aren’t leftovers.”
His friend gave him a half-hearted smile.
“I’m sorry Thomas. I didn’t mean to intrude,” said Charlie as he set a slice of pie and an espresso on the table and sat across from his companion.
He was slouching against the back of his chair. He looked at his feet, looked up at Charlie and leaned forward on the table.
“Look,” he said, “You’re not the first person. Harry said the same thing. Jane has been relaying the message to me by giving me her dear death stare whenever we’re all together. Colin sent me a text. It’s – well – Emily is great –”
“We all know that she’s great, Thomas! But the fact remains – “
“The fact remains that I can’t say those words! I can’t! I never have and I never will!”
“Bullshit! You’re telling me that you have never said and can’t say ‘I love you?’”
“Yes! I can’t say those words!”
“You can’t or you won’t?”
“I can’t! All right? I just can’t! Get off my case! It’s one bloody word. Why is it such a big deal?”
He stood up and strode towards the door.
“Oye! Where are you’re going?”
“Hold on then! Take your pie and coffee!”
Charlie hurriedly organised the food and drink.
“Wallace! Man the counter! I’ll be back in a few!”
A groan issued forth through the door behind the counter.
Charlie chased after his friend. Luckily, the fatherly shopkeeper didn’t have far to go. His pal was walking slowly up the sidewalk, kicking a stone along the way.
“Hey! Thomas! Wait up!”
He turned around as the stone bounced along the sidewalk and onto the road.
“Here,” said Charlie as he handed his friend the packet and the cup. “I also put in a couple of those ham sandwiches you like. I had just finished making them when you came in.”
“Can you fucking stop calling me Thomas? You know it’s not my name.”
“You think anyone can forget that video of four-year old you crying to the camera, desperate to be called Thomas after the tank engine?”
“I’m sorry about before. We all mean well. It’s just weird. How can you not –”
He stopped himself mid-sentence. There was a ‘Really. You want to do this again?’ look on his friend’s face.
“It’s just weird. I’ll leave it at that. Just explain it to her. You have your reasons. I don’t want to know. Now go. Clearly you’ve had a long day. You’re worn out.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow Charlie.”
“Have fun with your train-set, Thomas!”
The final response was a smile, accompanied by the finger.
Charlie walked back to his café, wiping the sweat from his forehead; his white hat in hand. He was a big fellow. His chequered apron buffeted in the wind. He was warm, kind and a father figure for a lot of the townspeople. He was also a brilliant billiards player. He began to whistle.
His friend looked up at the sunset-ridden sky, turned, and continued on his way. He eventually found a new stone and kicked it all the way home.
The town was called Drum. It was rather cosy, nestled on a hill with a population of a little under a hundred thousand people. It had done well to keep up with the times and was well respected in England for its progress over the years. It was neither too quiet, nor too happening. Therefore, life in Drum never was too monotonous or too hectic.
Being on top of a hill, Drum had to improvise its layout, growing in a spiral but pushed by the hill’s landscape into a stretched-at-the-sides squircle. Even so, the town had been designed and planned really well, its predominant colours being grey and brown. There was a town hall; there were five schools, one hospital, a sports complex, dozens of parks, six movie halls, a number of restaurants and cafés (Charlie’s was considered an underrated great), two bowling alleys, two clubs, three swimming pools, and more. A golf club snuggled the bottom of the hill. The residences ranged from apartments, in short high-rises, to small houses to even a few mansions. Thomas lived in an apartment.
All in all, as the town’s slogan said, Drum was ‘A humble step above’ (something consistently mocked by the townsfolk for its funny modesty).
He was welcomed to his destination by darkness. The streetlights weren’t working again. This was the third time this week. He knew it would be solved shortly, though. He entered the dark building. Luckily, the stairs were lit. He walked up the stairs slowly, hoping to eavesdrop on something or the other. Unfortunately, there was nothing to be heard.
Upon reaching the landing of his apartment on the fifth floor, in a fit of mischief, he jumped twice and initiated a train of barking throughout the entire building.
A couple of curse words flew up, but within several minutes, everything calmed down again.
He turned from the railing and started towards his door when he noticed something.
There was an envelope.
His breath caught.
He jammed his keys into the lock, opened the door, picked up the envelope and locked the door behind him. He didn’t turn on the lights. He placed his dinner on the dining table and flopped down onto the sofa.
He knew it was going to end up in front of his door. He was scared.
“Not again. Please not again.”
He tore open the envelope and looked inside. He was caught off-guard.
There was a pen and a note:
On the first revolution,
I swam in tears and choked.
But naïve as I was, I still had hope.
“This must be a mistake.”
He looked at the pen. It was yellow.
This wasn’t what he was expecting. He had been expecting a reply from a university he had applied to. This looked like some maniacal reaction to a break-up.
He looked at the envelope. His name and his address were on it.
‘This must be some practical joke,’ he thought, drily. ‘I might as well just have a laugh and throw it away.’
He placed the envelope and its contents on the table in front of his couch. He stood up and looked around. He loved this place. He had been incredibly lucky. When he was looking for an apartment, this was the second place he saw and he instantly fell for it. Over time, he had made many changes by himself in order to make it feel just right.
It was cosy. He went to his bedroom. It was simple. He had a bed, two side-tables, a large cupboard and a couch on which he would lie down, sip a coffee, have some cereal and read a book every morning.
From there, he decided to go to his study. He had made sure that his study was a fair walk away from his room so that he could be awake when he worked. Shelves of books lined the walls on either side of the room. There was a small fireplace, two arm chairs, a small table and his desk on which there was a stack of papers, carefully laid out stationary, a mug, a stack of books and his laptop. He looked around to see if there was anything he would like to do while having dinner. In the end, he decided to simply watch some television.
His living room was connected to the kitchen, except it was divided by a small partition. There were two sofas, two chairs, a glass table, a large television and his pride and joy – his music system. He lay on the sofa, placed his plate of sandwiches on his stomach and his can of Orangina on the carpet and turned on the television. He changed channels several times before putting on the news.
Eventually he dosed off.
It was noon. There was a knock on the door.
‘Huh?’ he exclaimed drowsily.
He got up and opened the door.
It was Emily. She had an inverted triangle body. She was wearing blue jeans with a floral top along with running shoes, something she would – to the annoyance of her parents – wear with anything if she could. She was more sensible than that.
“Hey Tommy,” she smirked.
“Shut up,” he frowned, before succumbing to a grin.
She kissed him, and headed for the fridge for a pack of apple juice.
“So, what’s up?”
“Nothing really. I met Charlie yesterday.”
“That’s nice. Did you hear back from them?”
“Not really. He’s begun to call me Thomas thanks to you. And, no, I haven’t yet. I thought I did but it was some anonymous weird prank poem. A bit creepy.”
“Did you keep it?”
“Yes. I thought you would find it amusing.”
He showed her the letter.
“Wow. That’s mad. Do you have an idea what it means?”
“No. Unless it’s some mental advertising campaign, then it better be damn good.”
“Really? Ad Campaign? Who would be nuts enough to pull this one out of a hat?”
“So how is the packing going?” he asked.
“It’s going. I just stopped by on my way to Jane’s.”
“How kind of you.”
“Well, I am your girlfriend after all. And thirty seven hours of not seeing you is a little too much.”
“So how are you going to last three weeks in India?”
“There are a billion people there. The chances of me seeing your doppelgänger is, well, pretty high.”
“That freaks me out. Maybe I should come with you. If you cannot last a day and a half without seeing me, who knows what will happen when you see my doppelgänger?”
“Uh huh. So you’re sure I’m going to see a brown version of you?”
“You put the idea there. And knowing you, you can find a needle in a haystack.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it. Anyway, you have university work to do, and you promised Harry that you would help work on the den.”
“You clearly do not want me on an eight hour flight with you.”
“That too,” she confirmed with a smile, “Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Alright. Have fun.”
“I will,” she said, as she gave him a kiss and opened the door, “I love you.”
“Umm. Yeah. You too.”
She looked at him, smiled, and shut the door behind her.
The week passed without event. Emily was busy packing and preparing her work for visit. She was going to India as part of a brainstorming conference on social and technological development along with workshops and lectures. Charlie was busy with the café. Colin was in Switzerland with his girlfriend for eleven days. Harry was caught up with the arrival of all the materials for his pet project so Thomas would help out when needed.
He came home at around two in the morning, only to be greeted by another envelope.
His heart skipped a beat. This may be the one.
He picked up the envelope and opened it. His heart sank.
The pen was a bloody red in colour.
On the second revolution,
The static became deafening.
It stabbed in jolts and jerks while the mockingbird did sing.
He was pissed. He had gone to the Post Office the day after receiving the last letter and they – after initially assuring him that it wasn’t a mistake – said that they would look into the matter. And this note was plain disgusting. Whoever found this funny clearly had a twisted sense of humour. Clearly, somebody was a devout Joker worshipper.
If this was a practical joke, it wasn’t a very good one. Plus, he wasn’t sure who was behind this. He had asked everyone he knew, being the Curious George he was but no one admitted to it. Then again, why would they?
Another week passed. He spent his days working with Harry on the den from ten in the morning to nine in the evening. They had made it their goal to get everything done in ten days. They began with organization. Within a couple hours, the entire floor of Harry’s house was hidden under materials. There was no room to walk. On Tuesday, from eight to eleven, they spent their time organizing. They then took a thirty minute break, after which the planned their work until three, while eating lunch. The two broke the floor and evened the walls, breaking pace only a little past eight. On Wednesday, they sorted wiring and evened the walls. On Thursday, they painted the walls. On Friday, they laid a new wooden floor. On Saturday, they put in the fixtures and began cleaning up. On Sunday they finished cleaning up.
Other than that, things were rather uninteresting. There was the letter, though. Every day, he returned home, hoping for something from the University. Seven days passed and there was still nothing. It had been nearly three weeks now since his interview.
Monday came around again. They had started to move in the furniture. They had spent three hours that day trying to set up the pool table without an instruction manual. After they had put it together, they found the manual lying under the last piece.
There were some words and gestures.
As he walked up the stairs, Thomas guessed there would be a third envelope. He was right. His delight for something interesting came with a tinge of dismay as he was looking forward to something completely different.
Now, though, he looked at these anonymous letters as more intriguing than as a pain in the ass.
This time the pen was grey.
On the third revolution,
I had given up.
But I left the line open because I was so fucked up.
He told Charlie about the letters. Charlie said that he thought it was Simon. Simon was known for all this nonsense. Upon being asked, Simon said no.
Harry and Thomas finished work on the den on Wednesday, a day before what they had predicted. So Thomas, now, spent his days at the library and roaming around town. It was a dull existence. He badly missed Emily. There was really nothing to do. So he made it his endeavor to kill time. During the day he would go wherever his feet would take him and help out wherever he could. He would mend a fence, or mow a lawn. He would clean a swimming pool or walk a dog. Whatever work he could find, he would do. He was that bored.
In the evenings, he would sit back, relax and read. In a sense it was a pretty balanced and, to some extent, ideal existence, but there was nothing that challenged him. And that pestered him a great deal. All he needed was a ‘Congratulations’ to project him into the skies. His wings had been unused for quite sometime now. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had maneuvered the clouds. He was hoping for a reason to exercise his wings again.
‘Soon,’ he thought, ‘I can feel it.’
Monday was back. This time he decided to wait on the landing, or at least, for the most part, keep an eye on it.
And so he did.
He kept the door open and made sure that the landing was always in sight. Morning turned into the afternoon, the afternoon dulled into evening and the evening sank into the deeper darkness of the night.
There was no sign of anyone, much less, the letter.
He waited up past midnight. When the clock struck four, he gave up and dragged himself into his apartment, falling asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
The next morning he woke up late. It was fine. He had no full-time job. He was due to begin working part-time in the afternoon at the hardware store on Wednesday, and he had enough money in the bank to get by for a while. He poured himself a glass of milk and opened the door to get the newspaper.
There lay two envelopes.
This time he was excited. Then again, he was also disappointed. He knew that one of them was the fourth envelope. He looked at the first one. It was from the university. By this time, he was too annoyed to feel scared.
He had gotten in! The letter should have arrived a week ago.
That was when it hit him. He hadn’t checked his e-mail in two weeks. He felt like a complete fool.
‘Oh well, it’s here.’
He opened the second envelope as he stepped back into his apartment. It was the same as usual.
The pen was now black.
On the fourth revolution,
I finally made contact.
So this early Christmas gift is a chloroform bag.
Darkness descended over his head. He struggled and his cries for help were muffled. The chloroform took effect and his tense body relaxed.
The bag was removed. He was loaded onto a stretcher by two men in scrubs and was carried down the stairs. People had begun to gather along the landings and outside the building entrance; they had noticed the ambulance outside – well, it was more like they had heard it.
“What happened?” one teenage boy asked.
“Concussion,” replied the man in scrubs.
“Will he be alright?” questioned another.
“Yes. He should be perfect. His brain doesn’t seem to be that badly damaged. He managed to respond. In fact, he’ll remember everything,” said the man with a smile hidden by his mask.
The two men loaded their victim onto the ambulance and drove away, sirens blaring.
A phone rang. The man in the seat next to the stretcher picked it up.
The man looked at the victim’s covered face.
He leaned back, pulled out a cigarette and lit it.