I fumbled through my flat mate Rupert’s pants and socks drawer. Wearing a pair of surgical gloves would have been the smart idea, but I braved it and pressed on in the sure and certain hope I’d find a pair of my own and importantly, ‘clean’ underpants. I had no worries about waking him up as his nasal grunts indicated there would be a good few hours before he got his arse out of bed.
The two lads who shared my flat were always nicking my stuff and never bothered to wash their own clothes. Rupert nabbed any item of clothing I’d left drying on the radiator, his bizarre colour coordination and lack of dress sense only measured by how much skin he decided to cover. Martin rarely removed his Scotland footy shirt and shorts, but when reluctantly forced to do so, he would wear his girlfriend Pit Bull’s charity shop purchases.
At the back of the drawer I was surprised to find an old floppy disk of mine, labelled, ‘Rob Wise notes,’ entwined in the thread of a pair of Rupert’s faded Union Jack print boxer shorts. What the heck it was doing in Rupert’s room, I had no idea.
Intrigued by the discovery of the disk I unwound the cotton string from the black 1.44MB floppy disk and searched the room for my old Windows 95 laptop I’d given Rupert after upgrading mine. Maybe he’d found the disk in my old laptop bag? Anyway, I gave him the laptop on the understanding he’d look for a job online or do some study or Open University course – basically anything to get him away from the booze. Five years later, his drinking problem hasn’t gone away and his bank balance is non-existent, but I haven’t had the heart to kick him out and replace him with a rent paying tenant.
I looked under his bed and found my old silver laptop covered in dust, fluff and god-knows-what else, surprised he hadn’t pawned it. Only a few months ago, the muppet swapped an expensive Swiss movement watch for a crate of beer with one of the Burberry-clad chavs across the road. I tried to use some calm negotiation to get his watch back, but my Jedi mind trick failed to work on a ferocious Doberman. I returned empty handed and with a black eye gifted to me by one of the hoodies. When my feisty flat mate, Martin, learned of the incident he marched across the road shouting, ‘Ye dinnae touch ma mate! Yer be dealin’ with me now.’ Despite hearing endless tales from Martin of the famed Glasgow kiss (head butt), I ran out to stop him, and I’m glad I did.
My other flat mate, the scantily clad Rupert, was far from the fighting type (A pillow fight would probably be his limit), unlike the forty year old ginger-haired and tattooed Martin, who, while being game for anything (and quite mental) was only 5ft 2” and wiry like a pipe cleaner. He wouldn’t have lasted a minute with the zombies across the street.
I gritted my teeth before wiping the crud off the laptop and plugging the old beast in. I remembered replacing the Windows 3.1 operating system and its opening tune of, ‘ta-da,’ with Windows 95 and its six second piece of composed music. Though the upgrade was a vast improvement on 3.1, if you couldn’t afford an Apple Mac, you had to put up with the dreaded ‘blue screen of death,’ that crashed more times than Kurt Cobain.
I recall reading that Bill Gates paid Mick Jagger millions to secure the rights to use his song, ‘Start Me Up,’ for Microsoft’s TV advertising campaign. The song choice was ironic considering Windows 95 was more bug-ridden than the mattresses in our flat. It was no surprise then why Microsoft never used the bridge in the song, ‘You make a grown man cry.’
After a few minutes booting up, the Win 95 logo appeared on the dull aqua green background, so I inserted the floppy disk into the machine. The laptop whirred as the computer read the saved information on the disk. I stared at the list of file names that were displayed on the screen:
1. The Millennium Lover
2. The Collar (Little Rev)
3. Jo Walsh letter
Scenes from my teenage years came flooding back at the sight of the filenames.
I had just turned eighteen when I entered a competition for aspiring young authors, sponsored by the Radio Times. My 3500 word short story, ‘The Millennium Lover,’ was a sci-fi/fantasy blend of the best traditions of Star Wars and the worst type of Hollywood romance - a kind of spoof/parody of popular film back in the 90s. It resembled something closer to a screenplay than a novel, and I wanted to impress the panel of reviewers with something original and hoped the cheesy dialogue would set it apart as something quite different. However, my short story bombed. It wasn’t to be, and it was the last time I’d sent anything off to a publisher, more than fifteen years ago.
The second file on the disk, The Collar (or as I first called the story, Little Rev,) was inspired after listening to my granddad talk about his childhood and watching the Billy Elliott movie. The last file on the disk was a love letter to my first girlfriend, Jo Walsh. Cute with curly brown hair and freckles, she had agreed to go on a date with me, so I wrote her an over-enthusiastic, (fanatical) letter and handed it to her at school. She read it, cancelled the date and we never spoke again.
I didn’t want to read my story, the Millennium Lover, for reasons I will explain soon, and reading my letter to Jo Walsh might do me more harm than good at the moment, but I was fascinated by the discovery of my unfinished story, The Collar.
I double-clicked on the file name and waited for Microsoft Word to open my story. This is what loaded onto my screen:
THE COLLAR – Chapter One
‘Buried deep within the undergrowth, I lifted my chin a few inches above the sodden ground and squinted with my perfectly trained right eye through the crosshair of the rifle.
I'd been lying in wait for what seemed like hours, when my eyelids began to feel heavy. My camouflaged cover had lulled me into a false sense of security and my concentration was waning - a luxury no professional soldier dared accommodate while his index finger was wrapped around the trigger, waiting for the target to appear.
My heart banged loudly and my lungs took deep inhales of breath, before exhaling CO2 into the cold night air.
A cloud of cigarette smoke rose from the bunker and escaped like a phantom into the night. 'It has to be him,' I told myself, squeezing my finger a few extra millimetres around the trigger and fixing the rifle butt firmly into my shoulder. It was him. I'd recognise that balding, grey matted scalp anywhere, and I was ready to fire a large calibre 7.92-mm bullet into it.
My brother, Mike (I am fostered, so neither my foster parents or their children are biologically related to me), slapped my head several times, snatching his Army Men comic from my grip, before pushing me off my bed and onto the floor. My perfect moment may have been squandered for now, but the great thing about living inside my head was I knew I'd soon return to the same scene, and the bullets would still have HIS name etched on them.
To avoid any further slaps from Mike, I walked down the stairs and grabbed my coat. My foster mum yelled from the kitchen, ‘It’s raining bloody cats and dogs out there and I don’t want you coming in like a drowned rat. If you’re going out, stay out until you get yourself dry, you hear me?’ I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to get dry in the rain, but I had learned never to question her and I was already on my way out of the door.
The grey sky crackled and then a rumble of thunder rolled through the clouds. I conjured up a whole plethora of Alsatian and Dachshund dogs chasing Persian and Siamese cats as they fell from the sky, to the musical backdrop of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I wanted to believe that pets could actually fall from the sky. Sometimes I loved being a child.
A child’s imagination can be both a frightening world and a wonderful playmate. I was happiest when away from the house and my daydreaming served me like a childhood friend, but I didn’t want my imaginary friend around when things were bad at home, where my thoughts always seemed murky and dark. Though I believed reading comics would help me escape reality, I’ve decided to stay away from my brother’s ones. They always gave me the worst nightmares, and I think they must fuel the rising anger inside of me.
I opened my garden gate. The street was awash with water, glistening like a crystal lake in sun-soaked showers, and the roads looked like someone had stretched cling film over them. I smiled at the sight of copper-bronzed and crimson red leaves as they floated like miniature sailboats en-route to the nearest drain.
My foster parents wanted me out of the house as often as possible, and especially during school holidays, though I doubt they knew or cared where I was. I’d leave about ten in the morning, and after borrowing my neighbour Bill’s shampoo, bucket and sponge, I’d walk the streets and knock on doors offering car washes. My price was negotiable depending on their willingness to pay. If I was short of cash or they simply didn’t want it done, I’d offer to clean their car for a quid, but there were other generous neighbours who paid twice that and more, depending on how much they admired a ten year old’s work ethic.
I’d seen the Oliver Twist movie so many times, I’d mastered the, ‘Please sir, may I-?’ look of innocence. One lady always fell for it and ended up helping me wash her own car. She still paid me the full amount. I wondered if she was as lonely as me.
If it wasn’t loneliness, I reckon she helped because of the dried soapy suds I always left on her new pride and joy. Bill’s cheap Halfords Car Shampoo was no match for the Wonder-Wax Super Care Total Wash and Polish at the petrol garage a few minutes away. Mind you, I reckon theirs cost at least a fiver more than I charged.
Though the afternoon was incredibly wet, I’d made my way to St. Stephen’s to kick my football against the large bricked wall of the church. It was perfect - even if it was raining. There was no one to shout at me, no chores to do and no one giving me nipple twists or dead legs. It was just me and my imagination.
Lately I’ve been particularly successful with my football, picking out a particular spot next to the stained glass window of the Virgin Mary (a few bricks away from her nose, to be precise). I pretended it was the top corner of the goal, I was the centre forward and this was the sudden death penalty that would seal a World Cup Final victory against the ruthless Germans. Over and over I practised my side foot technique - confident that if I was ever called upon to take such a penalty, I wouldn’t let my country down.
The heavy rain lasted most of the afternoon, only giving reprieve in the last half hour. I was now drying out in the sun like a prune, and my wrinkled shirt gave ample proof I had taken it off, dried my hair with it, and like a shammy leather, wrung every last drop of water from it.
It was nearly tea time, and if I wanted to eat I needed to get a move on. Leftovers at my house were not an option when you had two teenage brothers who: 1. Ate everything they saw; and 2. Didn’t care whose plate it was on.
I was moving briskly toward my house at the end of the street and bouncing the ball on the pavement when I was distracted by a sharp pain piercing my calf muscle.
‘Orphan, Orphan, Gypo, Gypo scum!’ rallied from across the street. I turned to make eye contact with the chants and recognised a few boys from school, their faces snarling like a pack of hyenas.
Barely seconds passed, and I was struck again, this time in the head, with a jagged stone. The blood trickled down my forehead and into my mouth, its salty taste following a loud voice booming in my head: ‘Run you idiot, run!’ I took off like an Olympic athlete, barely 400 yards or so from my home, to the taunts of ‘Come here you pussy,’ as they chased hard after me. I turned my head to see if they were gaining on me but I had managed to keep my distance as one of the boys stuck up his middle finger at me while the others threw more stones.
‘I’ll head for the alleyway and over my garden fence,’ I thought. ‘That way they won’t stone me while I wait for Mum to answer the door.’ I turned into the alleyway and rolled myself over the fence and into my garden.
I was sobbing as I lifted the rim of the kitchen window before climbing inside, and extended my arm onto the kitchen counter to balance myself. I froze, half suspended, as I accidentally nudged my foster dad’s whisky bottle and watched it smash on the tiled floor.
Paralysed by fear, I couldn’t move an inch, and the pain in my head intensified as blood from my wound dripped onto the white kitchen counter. The next thing I remember was being dragged by my shirt collar across the counter by my dad as he uttered words I have found so hard to forget: ‘My drink... you little git!’
Like a fisheye lens closing inward, the room became deepest black.’
I wiped my wet eyes as I remembered being so excited as I wrote, The Collar. Reading my story again I could see something of the little boy that I was, and importantly, the need he had for love and acceptance.
I felt so alive and hopeful when I typed those words more than fifteen years ago, but everything changed in the space of a few weeks. I received a rejection letter, and my best friend, Tom, received a publishing contract.
Tom and I were only eighteen years old when we entered a competition sponsored by the Radio Times with a tagline that said something about a search for a New Young Romance Novelist of the Year.
We never stopped dreaming about seeing our books in the stores, and spent hundreds of hours together writing and discussing ideas for plots and characters. Now one of us had hit the jackpot, Tom and I were ecstatic. No mean feat for my best friend who had just earned himself a two book deal.
However, the rollercoaster ride soon ended for me. I didn’t get off the ride - I was thrown off. Barely a fortnight after Tom’s win, his phone calls and visits stopped. I had been cut out of his life without a single word or reason why. He never replied to my calls or letters I’d sent by recorded delivery. Ten years of friendship had gone, like an apparition in the desert, and the memories of our time together, desecrated.
I tried hard to stop the feelings of bitterness I had, and made up excuses for why he never kept in touch. But each one was lame and I knew it. I had to face up to the truth that whether it was fame, money or success, my best friend had moved on and become an arsehole, my sense of loss had been replaced by resentment.
Tom’s first best-seller, ‘The Trouble with Marilyn,’ was all the talk in the media: ‘How could a teenager dream up such an erotic fantasy about a student and his teacher?’ they asked. I’d put that down to the porno films he watched when his parents were out, but I noticed this small detail wasn’t mentioned in his interviews.
They say trouble comes in threes, and though the bitterness slowly dissipated over the years, I’d always been haunted by his betrayal. I forever looked back and foolishly blamed Tom for the domino effect on my life after his abrupt departure.
I had allowed the past to determine my future for far too long.
I was no longer the prolific teenage writer churning out thousands of words every day. I’d become the stereotypical yet largely false depiction of the Hollywood writer - hunched over my keyboard for days or weeks on end and staring at a blank screen while agonising over the next paragraph of my novel.
After the publisher rejected my story, The Millennium Lover, I had plans to continue writing The Collar into a larger novella or full size novel, but following Tom’s betrayal and barely a few chapters in, I allowed his actions to put a stop to that.
Tom’s lift had gone all the way to the top floor. Mine had plummeted into the basement... and oblivion.
Twelve years later I was celebrating my 30th birthday at the O2 Academy Brixton in London.
The upper half of my body jolted under the strobe lights as each thud shuddered through my body. If it wasn’t for the drum n’ bass, you might have thought I was being tasered and succumbing to an epileptic seizure. Wedged between multitudes of ravers, my feet shuffled awkwardly to the beat and fought to keep me upright as I moved in a dance space not much larger than the standing room on an underground train during rush hour.
After three hours I was knackered, off my face, and my movements had become all the more spasmodic... not that I cared. When the speakers banged, I raged harder and didn’t give a rat’s arse what anyone thought about my lack of coordination while I offered my body to the orchestra of musical demons.
‘Do you want to get out of here?’ said a blonde haired and partially clothed girl dancing in front of me. Stomping in her purple Dr Martens boots, she jerked away in her tight ripped jean shorts and a third of a t-shirt that finished a few inches below where her bra would have been, had she been wearing one.
‘Did I want to get out of here?’ It wasn’t quite the pick-up line I’d imagined or hoped for, but then, I was being pretty unrealistic looking for love in a nightclub – especially when I’d just sweated half of my body weight and replaced it with alcohol.
The girl’s arms waved in the air and showed off her perfectly shaved arm pits while she waited for my reply.
‘What did you say?’ I yelled back, making sure I understood her European accent. I could hardly hear her voice above the thud of the grime meets electro dance track, ‘Wearing My Rolex,’ by Wiley.
Her hot breath entered my earlobe again. ‘Let’s get out of here. We can go to my place.’
The sweat on this girl’s face had smudged the black eye shadow and orange makeup around her eyes, while the mascara from her eyelashes had run down her cheeks. Yet, despite her Rocky Horror show look and after throwing far too many Snake Bites down my gullet, I agreed to her suggestion and followed her to the exit.
I wondered if lurking beneath the heavy makeup and brazen debonaire was, on a sober occasion, a kind and intelligent girl also looking for a relationship.
I nodded over to my mates, Pit Bull, Martin and Rupert, and shouted, ‘See ya later!’
Rupert and Martin high-fived each other and thrust their hips back and forward in childish fashion, believing that my night of Drum n’ Bass promised to finish with a different kind of bang. Their faces suggested they knew far more about my date than they were letting on.
After a few minutes in the taxi, we arrived at her flat in Electric Avenue. She fumbled with her keys and giggled while struggling to find the keyhole.
‘So what did you say your name was again? Where are you from?’ I asked. We’d only been dancing together for about ten minutes before she invited me back to her place.
I closed the door behind me and followed her up the stairs.
‘I’m Astrid,’ she replied all too abruptly, before taking me by the hand into her flat and sitting me down on the edge of her bed. ‘I’m Scandinavian. My mother is from Norway and my dad is from Sweden.’
‘I love all things Viking,’ I replied. ‘And you gotta love Braveheart!’
‘Erm, I don’t think Mel Gibson played a Viking?’ she replied with a sexy, Nordic accent that replaced her w’s with v’s and o’s with an oo sound.
I’ve always been fascinated by accents and the way people’s mouths performed different actions as they spoke. Her mouth had a tension in the corner of her lips, and as she replied her jaw hardly moved and was closed a little, like she was chewing gum between her canine and molar teeth.
‘Ah you’re right about Mel not playing a Viking. That’s the drink talking,’ I replied.
‘Yes, we need less talk and more action, English boy.’
‘My name is Rob,’ I muttered, shocked by her boldness and frankly, a bit put off.
Astrid was clearly NOT in the mood for chit chat, as she lifted my white Fred Perry Polo shirt over my head.
‘I hope you won’t disappoint me,’ she whispered in my ear, licking and nibbling it before shoving me back on the bed.
‘I’ll do my best,’ I replied in a less than convincing manner.
She reached over to her bedside table and retrieved a multi-coloured assortment of condoms. ‘Choose whatever you like. I must go shower first!’
It was clear that Astrid had no problem sleeping with a total stranger. I was beginning to have second thoughts. Call me old-fashioned, but even a drunk can have a few principles and I felt uncomfortable at just how direct this girl was. On one hand, I wasn’t a virgin, but on the other, I didn’t consider myself a male slapper either, even if I was bewitched by the combination of far too much alcohol and a ‘Norvegian’ accent.
‘Tell me about yourself, Astrid,’ I asked, as she walked toward the bathroom.
‘First, you give me what I need and then we talk!’ she replied, before adding, ‘Check the magazines in the corner. That is all you need to know for now.’
I heard the shower switch followed by the spray of water, so I got up from the bed to take a nervous walk around the room and noticed a sizeable pile of hardcore porn magazines on top of an Ottoman.
I wanted out. Even in my drunken stupor, I didn’t want a one-night stand with someone I couldn’t look in the eye the following morning. I closed the bedroom door gently behind me, and walked down the steps to the front door.
Having a good time was one thing; Leaving with some self respect and wanting a girlfriend I genuinely cared for... entirely another.
Three unforgettable years had passed since my visit to Astrid’s flat.
I opened my eyes and returned to the surroundings of my freezing bedroom, gazing up from my bed at the grey Artex ceiling that may have been Dulux white a few decades ago.
Apparently the colour grey inspires knowledge, wisdom and intellect. The ‘prison cell’ grey surroundings in this flat were only inspired by the palette of cigarette smoke, mould and dirt - something akin to Tracy Emin’s famed Turner Prize entry, ‘My Bed’. In all of its shameless panache, the contemporary artist’s empty booze bottles, fag butts, soiled sheets and worn knickers gained a notoriety that took the question, ‘What is art?’ to comical and farcical dimensions.
I had considered asking my ‘arty’ flat mate, Rupert, to paint a depiction of his room and try to sell it to raise some rent money. I figured that his dirty underpants, empty beer cans and half-finished take away boxes decorating his Marihuana plants might make a fetching piece of art on someone’s wall or even a book or album cover. Never mind.
If I had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t dare invite her to this flat. For starters, it begged for more than a paint brush, clean, hoover and tidy. Most of our possessions needed bagging up and taking to the refuse tip.
Considering myself the creative type, I’ve always wanted to finish writing a book, but in my malaise, I foolishly waited for a bolt of inspiration - the kind that forced my fingers to hit letters in the hope they formed into words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters worthy of someone’s attention.
I grabbed the diary from underneath my pillow to make a note:
‘If I want my life to change I need to start writing again. Give yourself a kick up the arse, Rob Wise! It’s time to make stuff happen and stop waiting for it.’
Restless, I dragged myself out of bed and over to the small sink in my room to throw some cold water onto my face. I glanced at the mirror and was startled at just how thin my face appeared. Gone was the round, healthy face of my youth. Now I looked like a cadaverous guy who suffered from poor nutrition. At 5ft 10, my natural weight is about 140lbs, but the last time I weighed myself, I was 30lb lighter.
I glanced out of the window for a change of scenery and noticed a huge Alsatian taking a dump outside my front gate. The plume of methane that rose from its backside told me the bowels of this canine beast had opened.
I had no idea where my ex-mate and mega-famous author, Tom, lived these days, but I doubt he was gazing out of his window at a pile of crap (unless gazing admiringly at a pile of his own paperbacks). He was probably sitting in some swanky apartment overlooking the Manhattan skyline or daydreaming out of a charming study window that opened out to a ten acre, perfectly landscaped garden.
I glared at the dog owner in her onesie and fake Ugg boots as she walked away from the steaming pile at my gate.
My breath made clouds on the inside of my window as I tried to prise open the frame to shout some carefully chosen obscenities, but it was painted shut. I guess that’s probably a good idea for two reasons: First, Rupert is an alcoholic and would have probably fallen out of the window by now. Second, if the windows were opened, Environmental Health would be beating at our door.
I’m sitting on a stained and odorous mattress (probably fourth generation), in my biodegradable and frayed cotton underpants that held little in and would serve better for composting. I need to state for the record this is Rupert’s mattress and this is the second time this week he’s swapped my odour-free mattress with his.
I’m not only cold, but starving and find myself ogling a bowl of concrete porridge that’s been sitting on my bedside table for several days. Though it closely resembled the sealant paste PolyFilla, I picked up the bowl and bit down on the hardened oats, but they provided no relief for my arid mouth.
I’m grateful Rupert has left his Canesten Oral tablets and cream lying around, even if they were an unpleasant reminder of his frequent, ungodly visits to Zara Flores across the road. It would be shameful to talk about what they get up to in secret. A man had to be worse than drunk and mentally deranged to go near that woman. Rupert was that man.
If you’ve seen the black comedy, Withnail and I, then picture Withnail (Richard E. Grant) in your head and that’s Rupert. He spent his university years wasting an Art degree while taking drugs with other disgruntled students who ended up becoming anarchists with him. His anti-everything ideas (establishment, capitalism, war and globalisation) led him down a path of disillusionment and alcoholism.
I met the now twenty-eight year old art student while taking a stroll in Wandsworth Park. We got chatting and after hearing he was homeless, I invited him to stay with Martin and me, over five years ago. I don’t regret giving him a roof over his head, but I wasn’t fooled by his posh ‘plum in mouth’ accent. He had become a drunk who was wasting his life in this squalid flat.
When Rupert ran out of alcohol, that’s when he would visit Zara. Sadly, he’s not the only one who visited her, and for similar reasons. But I don’t judge Zara, and I feel sad that blokes like Rupert take cruel advantage of her. It’s a sobering thought she was once someone’s little girl, but now she’s older and chosen her own path, and I keep well away from it.
I am grateful my community-acquired pneumonia followed by five nights’ stay in hospital (and three different courses of strong antibiotics) was the sole reason for the destruction of my immune system and Candida fungus.
My burning palate was only outdone by the thrush that had spread to my nether region like an army of red ants. I scratched myself for some temporary relief before exhaling deeply and staring out of my window again, watching the raindrops slither with the speckled bacteria spores and Pigeon guano coated on my window.
The flat made me feel like a stowaway who, unaware of how long he’d be trapped inside his container, began to panic and hyperventilate, succumbing to a slow, horrible and lonely death.
My alarm clock told me it was 11.35am, so I reclined on the bed and folded my hands behind my head and closed my eyes, thinking. I was usually comatose until early afternoon, but I’d been working up to this moment for a while. I needed to move on, ‘grow a pair,’ look life in the face and fight back. I needed to get out of this flat and start writing again.
A wise person once said, ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ I get that. I may have felt safer in my cage, but I couldn’t expect anything to change if I just sat on my backside and waited for stuff to happen.
I drifted off to sleep and imagined I was heading for the front door with my few belongings and yelling, ‘Bon voyage, shit hole.’ I had no idea where I’d go, but I was hoping it beat eating rotten porridge and freezing my balls off in the flat.
‘Wallop!’ I woke, startled, after a slap to my face made me bolt upright, only to find Martin’s naked, spotty backside squatting over me.
He laughed hysterically while I jumped up out of bed and chased him out of the front door, but Rupert was lying in wait for me. A sharp, cold pain shot from my neck and down my back as he emptied a bucket of ice cold water over my head. I was drenched, standing in nothing but my birthday suit and rotten underpants and in full view of several dozen highly amused people at the bus stop. One girl pointed her camera phone in my direction so I took a bow, as if playing for an audience yet secretly humiliated that strangers were laughing at my partial nakedness and rotten underpants.
Martin ran back to our ground floor flat and locked himself in the toilet, still laughing uncontrollably. Wet through and shivering, I resisted the urge to kick the door down and returned to the kitchen to grab a few tea towels to dry myself, before stepping over the sleeping Michaela (aka, Pit Bull - Martin’s girlfriend) to reach the remains of last night’s congealed shavings of reformed Donner kebab meat drenched in chilli sauce. It’s frightening what a man can be reduced to when he’s starving and the food cupboard is empty.
As the electricity was off, I couldn’t reheat it in the microwave so I dared myself to eat the kebab cold and dived in, grateful for the yellow polystyrene box that kept the fly larvae away. Those determined little buggers had recently moved out of Rupert’s room and taken up residence around the kitchen bin.
There was a loud knock on the door, so I answered it while drying my hair with a tea towel. It was Mrs Popov, my Russian next door neighbour and the only outsider who has visited our flat more than once. Actually, all four feet ten inches of her visited two to three times each week, and always with the same request. We called her Yoda.
‘Hi, Mrs Popov,’ I answered the door, my mouth stuffed with kebab meat and a rogue onion hanging out of the side of my mouth. I muffled a half-cocked apology while covering up my unmentionables.
‘Zat little theeeng, don’t vorry hiding,’ she chuckled. ‘Cocktail sticks, bigger ones have!’
‘What can I do for you this morning?’ I replied, smiling at her accent and the use of her vs.
‘Young man, very direct, you are. Blush at your inviting I vould, but I’m vorldly voman. Anyway, any sugar I have not, my dear.’
My neighbour walked in and stepped over the sleeping Michaela who was curled up in a foetal position on the floor.
‘So it’s the usual then, Mrs Popov? Tea, four sugars? Oh wait. Hang on a sec. We don’t have any electricity, so I can’t boil the kettle.’
‘I’ll have glass vater and chat, ve must, you and I.’
Since I’d told my charismatic neighbour I had a GCSE in Computer Studies and I was interested in social media and the internet, she wanted to chat about her missing grandson, Alexei. He disappeared at the age of eighteen having bought a one-way ticket to London, over three years ago, and sounded like a strange guy who collected Nazi memorabilia including rifles, WW2 helmets and uniforms amongst other paraphernalia. His main interest was computer programming and according to my neighbour, he was a genius who, part of a gifted and talented government scheme, loved solving puzzles and won many prizes for his mathematics during his childhood in Russia.
Mrs Popov handed me a sheet of paper and said, ‘Rob, fallen from shelf, this book vith inside note. It’s Alexei. He’s dead, I’m thinking! Messaging me, he is!’
‘Aw, don’t be silly. I’m sure he’s alive. And anyway, I doubt he’d be knocking books off your shelf, Mrs Popov. Let me take a look.’
Inside the book, ‘Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know,’ was a folded A4 sheet of paper Alexei must have printed off before he disappeared. I figured this, because Mrs Popov didn’t know how to turn a computer on, and I’d put her down as more of a Mills and Boon reader, rather than a computer security expert.