CHAPTER 1. Henry sat on the low wall surrounding the car park of the engineering faculty, staring at a row of quaint Victorian terraced houses with bay windows. He drummed his fingers on the attache case across his knees; a slow, mournful rhythm such as might greet the arrival of a tumbril at the scaffold.
For twelve years, 7 Abbey Drive had been his - the domain he had possessed with considerable pride on becoming the university's first press officer. With what radiant hope, he thought, had he assumed that role after eight long years on the Bournemouth Gazette, and later as science and technology reporter for The Times Higher Education Supplement.
Three large filing cabinets, containing every press release he had ever written, now stood on the tiny lawn beside the gaily tiled pathway to the front door. On top of them he could make out his desk lamp and coffee mug, and a set of in and out trays - the very trays that had slowly eroded his ability to do anything useful, and progressively de-skilled him to the extent that he was now completely unemployable. Or so he thought, in his increasingly frequent darker moments.
The sun, responsible already for a four-week heatwave, shone ineffectively on his gloom. Tomorrow the house was to be gutted and converted into the new home of the industrial liaison office. A quarter of a million pounds, he had heard, had been earmarked in the capital budget.
He tried to work out how many years' salary that was, but lacked the energy to complete the calculation.
A van, bearing a cartoon of a super-hero whose tight vest bore the motto "T-CHEST", drew up, hovered in the middle of the road, and turned its engine off. The driver and his mate, neither remotely resembling their corporate image, began unloading battered plastic crates.
A young woman in leather jeans emerged slowly from the house and stood at the gate. She was short, very broad with a minute waist, and had short, dark hair. She rolled up her loose sleeves as though preparing to do serious damage - damage of which a glimpse of her arms suggested she was well capable.
The driver consulted his clip-board, lifting up a pink piece of paper, and greeted her in a cheery manner. "Number seven - moving to second floor, Senate Building, right?" Henry found himself lowering his head and hunching his shoulders.
"Where in Christ's name have you been? You were supposed to be here at 7.30am. I was here at 7.30am. It is now 8.45am. You have taken 75 minutes to drive a mile and a half. You are contracted to finish this job by midday. If you don't, you won't get paid."
Toni. How did she do it? Henry could be angry with people after they had gone. He could do it before he met them. But somehow, never when it mattered. So Toni did it for him. Maybe it was the confidence that she got from being South West Women's Amateur Bodybuilding Champion.
Maybe she was on something.
Remembering her desire to leave his employment at the first opportunity, he began mentally writing her a testimonial. "I have never had occasion to object to any of the reprimands dealt to me by Toni in the three years during which she has worked for me as media assistant. As an employee, Ms Jagusiewicz has always been firm, but fair." Hard but fair. Hard on him, anyway.
Would he ever convince her to take her work home with her? She could walk all over him there too - in high-heeled boots, preferably, wearing that posing gear he had seen in the press pictures of her triumph. If this prospect afforded her no pleasure (and he could understand that), then he would be prepared to pay. He had little else to spend it on, apart from Benson the cat, Battacharrya Food and Wine, and Virgo Videohire.
Henry kicked his heels on the wall. He could hear Toni shouting. Anything with blue stickers was for her office. Red stickers meant Mr Battersby's office. Yellow stickers meant the reception area. She had written it down in big crayon letters on a piece of paper, just in case it was too complicated for them.
Henry, thinking he ought to distract her attention before she killed someone, jumped down from the wall and entered 7 Abbey Drive for the last time.
"So - Dunkirk or D-day? Ignominious retreat or triumphant invasion of the evil empire? How are we to portray this? What's the spin?" "A complete cock-up is how I'd portray it at the moment, actually," said Toni, gaily, continuing to sort out things on her desk. "These arseholes don't know Abbey Drive from Abbey Birthday, and we are late; but I don't care because the later they get, the less likely it is that we shall have to pay them. Meanwhile the university is collectively panting for the next issue of University Focus.
"Remember that? You used to write it yourself until I got here, when you dumped it on me saying it was good training in basic journalism. Moreover, I have to get all these computers up and running by this afternoon or the printer won't get his copy and we'll miss our sodding deadline. But these are only my problems. I have not looked at the mail, nor have I scanned the papers. Here are both. You have to write three obituaries by 2.30 this afternoon and submit them to me on disk please or its testicle stew for tea. Today's stiffs are: Professor D'Albert, Dr Eriksson and Norma Wall."
"Norma who?" "Wall. Used to be the tea lady in Senate House. Pushed a trolley around, ringing a bell."
"Ah yes - made all the assistant registrars slaver like Pavlov's dogs."
"If you say so. Apparently she'd come in, make some gratuitous racist remark about an item in the news, pour out a cup of scummy tea and leave. Everybody loved her. Retired four years ago. Someone I know from the Records Office filled me in yesterday morning at the gym."
Henry grunted, clutched the post and the newspapers to his chest and opened the door to his office.
"Oh - and have you found me another job yet?" Henry lingered in the half-open door, pondering without success an original reply to this daily question. "No."
"I see. You remember why I ask?" "Because I am responsible for employing you; that is, I am the one who got you stuck in this dead-end ****-hole; ergo, I must do all in my power to atone . . . innocent victim . . . unwitting dupe . . . etc . . ."
"Word perfect. But remember - all victims are innocent." Henry went on lingering by his door.
"You can go now," Toni said helpfully.
"Tone . . . " said Henry, leadingly. She looked up. "If I were to find you another job, you know, one with promotion prospects and good pay and all the things we idly dream of, would you do something for me?" She looked open to suggestions.
"Would you walk all over me in long leather boots with cruel heels?" "Ooh - possibly." She smiled.
"Would you, for instance, allow me to run my tongue up the insides of your muscular thighs?" "That might cost you extra, but you never know. Anything else?" "Would you, for instance, allow me to smear coconut oil over your glistening flesh and fondle those hard pectoral protuberances of yours?" Toni smiled nicely, came up to Henry, kissed him on the cheek and passed by him into his office.
She held the door open.
"I forgot to say - Professor Lelo is here to see you. He has written something and would like you, as so-called editor-in-chief, to consider it for inclusion in the next issue of University Focus."
Henry closed his eyes, took a deep breath and followed her in. Professor Lelo was leering at him from the only chair in the room, partially concealed behind a stack of battered plastic crates. From the room above came the sound of the removal men breaking furniture.
"Eirfyl - forgive me if I don't shake your hand," said Henry from behind his pile of mail and papers.
"If this is an inconvenient time . . . , " said Professor Lelo, with obvious insincerity. "One day you'll be doing one of those bloody obits about me. What will you say I wonder?"
Henry smiled as though to suggest he hadn't given it a moment's thought, dumped everything on his bare desk and sat down on an upturned box. These meetings were not unusual. Eirfyl Alwyn Lelo, emeritus professor of linguistics, winner of two bardic chairs at the Welsh National Eisteddfod, imagined himself a poet. Now retired, he had little else to do but indulge this fantasy.
He specialised in solving formal metres of extreme complexity with great rigour. The tortuous solutions he found to these metrical nightmares resulted in none of his intended three, four or six layers of meaning being apparent, even fleetingly, at any time.
"You really shouldn't have waited," said Henry.
"That's a spunky young girlie you've got there . . ."
"You may speak more truly than you know, Eirfyl. What can I do for you?" Henry was keen to keep these meetings short. Professor Lelo always had other ideas.
"You're moving, I take it?" asked Eirfyl, whose conversation, unlike his poetry, specialised in the blindingly obvious.
"To the second floor of the bloody Senate Building."
Professor Lelo had a sharp intake of breath. "The dark tower. Tell me, is this a generous reward or a dire warning?"
"A good question. I think it's actually worse than either," said Henry. He was suddenly overcome with a sense of history and felt an unusual need to confide. Lelo raised his luxuriant yellow eyebrows. "You see, our beloved leader and teacher has just been elected vice chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals."
"Good God Almighty!" "I know. And they say students aren't what they used to be. Anyway, some idiot there had the brilliant idea of sending him on a media training course."
"Ah - vanity, thy name is Energlyn."
"Quite. Worse still, one of the trainers - who, I know not, but he is a marked man - told the ugly bastard that he was a natural. This of course was the end. Now he wants profile and presence."
"He has both."
"Yes. In spades, were we talking about hooked noses and fat arses. But we are not, Eirfyl. He thinks his time has come to cut a national figure. Next stop, the Upper House. He now thinks public relations is the key to everything. And what he is minded to do is turn the university's press office into his personal publicity machine."
"It's his age."
"If age does to egos what it also does to prostates, then you may be right."
"You know, I thought when they were appointing - what was it - three years ago?"
"I thought," Lelo went on, "that they'd be getting us one of those new vice chancellors - you know - some young sprat barely out of his forties, fresh from industry, with a neat beard and a flash car. Someone who goes jogging. But in the end we got another mathematician from bloody Cambridge."
"Engineer from bloody Oxford, actually," said Henry.
"Same thing. Presence indeed. In my day the v-c was like God - nobody doubted he existed, but to ask for proof was almost blasphemy."
The two men sat in silence. This was the first time they had really had a conversation. Over the years the professor must have submitted 50 poems to Henry, none of which had ever been published. University Focus did not publish poetry of any sort, though this had never discouraged the author, and Henry had been crossing streets to avoid him for almost a decade. He had always kept the relationship cool, so as to make refusals easier to sustain. Suddenly it was all going wrong. He had been caught off-balance.
"Look, Henry," said Lelo, reaching into his jacket pocket. "I won't keep you - I was just wondering if you would look over this little piece of mine. It's not very good. I leave it to you. I must say, though, that I am rather proud of some lines. It's in Alexandrines, you will notice."
"So it is," said Henry, looking at the lines of soft pencil, struggling to remember what an Alexandrine was, and trying to block out mental pictures of little oranges. "Thank you. I shall read it at leisure and consider it carefully."
Lelo appeared ready to unburden himself of some general observation. There was a sudden hush, which seemed to lend the moment significance. Months later, Henry would look back on this moment and count it as one of those he would never be likely to forget.
"You know," said Lelo, staring up at the old much-painted ceiling rose, "what you want, in a place like this, is to find out one crucial piece of deeply embarrassing information. Something absolutely secret, potentially fatal to someone extremely fat and important, yet which also implicates everybody else in the same great criminal enterprise."
"No - early retirement, with a nice cosy gagging clause and full pension contributions made up to 65. I looked for such a secret for years. It was my Holy Grail. Never found it though. Look at me now - all the leisure I could want, but no capacity to enjoy it. Do you mind if I smoke?" "Not at all. I had forgotten that you smoke. I'd come to think you were naturally ginger - like the Celtic warriors that Caesar or Tacitus or somebody spoke of."
Lelo laughed. "No, naturally white is what I am." He offered a fag to Henry, who took one despite the fact that he had supposedly given up again, and lit both with the beloved Zippo that was the main reason he never succeeded. "Why do we do it to ourselves, eh?" Lelo asked, baring his wrecked yellow teeth.
"Well in my case it's because I can't find anyone to do it for me," Henry said.
"Ah, I like you, Battersby. You never publish my poetry, but you're all right. But why, eh? Seriously. Because we do - we do it to ourselves. We are to blame."
Henry smiled weakly. This time Lelo had really lost him. He was definitely gaga. "Indeed," Henry said and nodding knowingly, stared at his desk. After a few minutes more silent reflection Lelo stubbed his fag out, clapped his knees, rose and left.
The removals noises started up again with the sound of something heavy falling on something brittle. Henry sighed, screwed up Lelo's precious Alexandrines and threw them into the wastepaper basket.
He was not dissatisfied with the interview. He felt that he had established some sort of relationship with Lelo, and that things might go more easily between them from now on.
Toni appeared. "How was it? Did you tell him to piss off?" "I told him I would consider it carefully and let him know." She looked pityingly at him and glanced into the bin. Henry felt pathetic.
"You're pathetic," she said.
"Oh - now here's a funny thing. I've just been over at Senate House with the relocation technicians. You know the guy who reads out the names at graduation ceremonies? Well I heard him practising - all those Mbengas and Ndaboninges and Stassinopoulosses. Did you know that there's another Lamorna Wolff-Scheidt in the university?"
The name struck dread in Henry's soul and he shuddered at it. Two years before, a Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt had been cycling along the canal towpath in heavy rain. Somehow she had mistaken the edge, ridden into the water and drowned, weighted down by a rucksack full of books. It was several weeks before the police divers found her.
In another seemingly endless moment, Henry scanned the room that had seen all the crises - real emergencies that marked his career at the university like milestones. The plagiarism case against a member of staff which culminated in a successful claim for unfair dismissal that went down in history as the Bampfylde case. The funding crisis of 1981. The student rent strike and occupation in 1983, and the security man called Alf Hipkiss who broke the student president's jaw while, as he said in court, "defending the honour of the university telephonists". The raid on the animal house in 1984, and the liberation of some furry friends and the few million deadly viruses that they harboured. The IRA bomb scare during a visit by Princess Anne and Mark Phillips. The pot of Ambrosia Rice Pudding that was thrown at a visiting Secretary of State for Education during the introduction of student loans. It largely missed the politician but deposited much of its contents on the vice chancellor's silk tie. These nightmares flashed before his eyes like the life of a drowning man.
"Lamorna Wolff-Scheidt? Are you sure?"
"No. But it sure sounded like Lamorna Wolff-Scheidt to me. Funny, eh?" "Hilarious." Henry and Toni stared at each other for a moment, until the face of Eirfyl Lelo reappeared at waist height from behind the office door.
"Henry - sorry to trouble you again, but as I was walking down the drive I had an idea. Do you think I could have that copy back a moment?" "Of course, Professor," said Toni, reaching down into Henry's bin. She flattened the paper on the desk and offered the author a pencil.
Not without dignity, and with a sad smile, Eirfyl Lelo retrieved his crumpled Alexandrines, turned his back and left. Henry's head fell with a thud on to the desk top.
"I don't think you'll be having any more trouble from the Bard," said Toni.
Henry moaned softly. "Is there any coffee?"
Later that day, Henry was sitting at his old desk in his new office, trying to compose an obituary. But his thoughts, accustomed though they were to musing on mortality, were elsewhere. He stared out of his new window at the panoramic view of the city. The sun blazed in under the broken Venetian blind, which would not lower on the right hand side where it was most needed. He mused on the fact that other people got refurbishment deals as part of their relocation packages. He tried to be glad that his dear old desk with the sticking drawers was still with him, but failed. Nothing seemed new or better. He felt like a refugee.
A fly cruised noisily around the room. He got up, went to the window and tried to open it. At this he also failed. He tried to locate the desk fan with the plastic safety guard that he broke that time he had knocked it over while gesticulating wildly at someone on the telephone. No luck there either.
He picked his way between the plastic crates that covered almost every inch of worn-out carpet, and sat down again in front of his screen.
"Obituary," it said. "Professor Emeritus Agostin D'Albert FRS," it went on. "Colleagues were saddened by the sudden death, at his home in Tuscany, Italy, of Agostin D'Albert, professor of semiconductor physics and head of physics from 1973 to his retirement in 1990."
So far, so good. Copies of the university calendar, and those annual reports he could find amid the chaos, lay open on his desk. Toni had found a copy of Royal Society News containing their tribute to the great man. Someone had given him a copy of Professor D'Agostin's inaugural lecture on the coming science of microelectronics, and a copy of his retirement speech, which revisited the same topic. With their reference lists to his major works, the obit was a doddle.
No need to mention the research assistants - male and female - that had left because of his sexual predations. No need to mention his long-suffering wife who died alone in a hospice while he was away - with a research assistant - at a conference in Trieste. No need to mention that he insisted that every one of his degrees be printed after his name in the prospectus - occupying a whole page as a result. No mentioning that he was a complete bastard. No need to do anything interesting at all.
As the sun beat down on his forehead, he ground out 200 words of total pap, saved it on disk and ran into the adjoining office where Antonia was sitting. Her jaw, always square, was set.
"Last one," said Henry. Toni took the disk and inserted it. Her dark eyes reflected points of light from her screen, but didn't shift from it. Henry watched the stories appear on the electronic page, and saw his obit appear in its prepared slot. "Anything I can do?"
"Fine. I'll just unpack then. Like a decaff?"
"Fine. Just call if you er, hmm."
He wandered out of his new domain and into the cooler corridor outside. Walking round the corner he noticed the threadbare carpet give way suddenly to regal blue, and the doors change from battered, painted ones covered in old sticky tape and the corners of old posters, to handsome hand-crafted oak. He was approaching the office of the vice chancellor.
The sanctum of Professor Sir William G. Energlyn was on the right, its door closed. And immediately opposite, door open, was the office of his PA, the redoubtable Sophie Van Weerbecke, who wore half-moon spectacles on a chain, had a wen on her forehead and looked remarkably like a poached halibut. Her assistant Vicky sat inside the door, typing letters, and feeling very important.
Henry didn't mind the Van Weerbecke woman, abomination though she was, as much as this little lisping counterjumper, who was still trying to pass her GCSE in English after seven attempts, had a stupid squeaky voice and whose sense of her own importance was beyond measure. Henry had once told her she should retire early and register at a home for the terminally thick - to which she had squeaked in her best Judy Holliday, "But Mithter Batterthby, there'th nothing wong with me".
Henry stood in the door. "Hello Vicky," he said. He knew she hated being addressed in this way, preferring "Victoria" - or, from the likes of him, "Miss Hooper". She too hardly looked up from her work. "Is the v-c in?" "No."
"Will he be in today?" "No."
"Any idea when he will be in?" "Tomorrow."
"Thank you. Is Mrs Van Weerbecke in?" "No."
"Any . . . " "Tomorrow."
"Thank you. Always a pleasure."
Henry returned to his end of the corridor where the pile was thin. As he turned the corner, Antonia rushed past him with camera-ready copy in a large folder. Somewhere in the entrance-hall five floors below stood a grimy, smelly, punch-drunk courier in a helmet. Henry reached the door of his new office, to which his old nameplate had been fixed with parcel tape, and surveyed the chaos.
Where was all that exhibition material to go? Where would all the copies of the publications go? There was no storage, there were few shelves. They had their old computers, their old fax machine (but as yet no telephone line to plug it into) and two greasy telephones. He would go and see the v-c tomorrow. There had to be some advantages to being the only member of the administration that reported directly to the v-c, and not to the registrar.
Somehow he had to get started. He wandered into the room, picked up the phone and made an appointment to see Sir William the next morning. Then he got up and peered at a pile of crates.
Thinking that he saw a fan-blade, he stooped to lift the box on top. Ten minutes later, Toni returned to find him in the same position.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Henry let out a sound like a ferret being strangled. "Back. Can't move. Been here hours. Where the **** have you been?"
"Lift's broken. Can't you move at all?"
Henry exhaled significantly. His face was very red and veins were standing out on his brow. Toni found a chair, placed it behind him and toppled him into it. Henry screamed.
"I'll call an ambulance."
"No! Good God, don't do that. Look - drive me home. The keys are in my right pocket."
Toni looked at him suspiciously.
"No, no really, I really have done my back in. I'm not playing silly buggers, honest."
"Really, honest. Jesus Christ you have a suspicious nature."
"Only where you're concerned. Oh ****. This means I am going to have to unpack everything myself. You bastard."
"Oh well pardon me I'm sure. Like I really did this on purpose. Keys."
Toni leant over him and stared him right in the eye as she fumbled around in his trouser pocket.
"You know, you stink," she said.
"Thanks a lot. It's hot today. I smoked a cigarette this morning and ate chilli con carne last night. What do you expect? Have you found them yet?" "Yep. Now how are we going to get you to the car?"
"There it is - the medical 'we'."
They tried getting his arm over her shoulder, but being bent double, his feet wouldn't reach the floor. Eventually Toni squatted before him, pulled him across her back, and stood up. She said it was just like doing squats, only lighter. She carried him like Diana the huntress with her prey, past the office of the v-c, past the open door of Mrs Van Weerbecke, and down five flights of steps to the foyer.
Business at the reception desk came to a halt as she strode purposefully across the vestibule, Henry saluting people he knew and flashing them a feeble smile. A porter graciously opened the door.
Toni turned sideways and passed through. The car park was full of people returning from their cars. Henry finally abandoned all hope of a hasty and discreet exit.
"OK, where is it?" said Toni.
"Round the back opposite the recycling bins. It's a Bugatti. (Morning Bill)."
"So whose is the beige Maestro I see you around in?"
"It was the wife's," Henry sighed. "It's about all she left me. (Hello Arthur, Mary.)"
Arthur, Mary and Bill stood with their chins grazing the tarmac.
"Look, Toni, I really am very grateful for all this. It's terrific of you, really . . . "
"Yeah, yeah. Just think yourself lucky I'm not some waif with shiny hair. I'll put you in the back. Hang on while I open the door."
"Hang on where?"
"Well, my belt would seem a sensible place."
"OK, thought I'd better ask." He grabbed Toni's broad black belt. "An interesting point has occurred to me," he mumbled into her left breast. "If a woman's bosom is actually not mammary tissue at all, as in your case, does that make fondling it or drooling over it OK?"
"No. Actually, it makes it very much more dangerous. And this shirt is silk, and shows drool. OK. I'm lowering you in now."
Henry screamed again as he landed on the back seat.
"Punishment for impure thoughts."
"Guilt trips don't work on me. Now drive."
Toni sat in the front, adjusted the seat and the mirror and the belt, and started the engine.
"One teensy problem. I don't know where you live and you can't see where we're going."
"I'll give you directions. When you get to the gate, turn left up Convocation Bloody Boulevard until the roundabout by Chem. Eng. Then right. Tell me when we're there. And take it easy!"
"Not me - the brakes aren't too good and the clutch is slipping."
About half an hour later, the beige Maestro pulled up outside a modest Victorian mid-terrace house divided into two flats. It was a tidy little street, just off one of the main roads into the city. There were trees lining the pavement and in the small front gardens several of Henry's retired neighbours were tilling the good earth. Another was washing his car.
"Anyone about?" Henry asked in a whisper.
"The entire neighbourhood watch," said Toni.
"What a bloody awful day."
Toni unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the back door on the road side. "I take it these are your house keys, too? Right. Same drill as before - give me your arms . . . " Toni knelt down in the road and pulled Henry's rigid frame across her shoulders. Clasping her other arm over his legs and making sure he was secure, she stood up. An old man in a nearby garden stopped work, leant on his hoe and pushed up the peak of his cap. The car washer stopped in mid sponge, foam dribbling on to his shoes.
Toni slammed the back door with her heel and portered him up the garden path. Two ladies, on their way back from a cup of coffee and a bun at the Baker's Oven, looked at each other, shook their heads and mouthed words which Henry somehow knew were "Drunk again". To Henry's dismay, Toni, pausing to select the right key, began exchanging the time of day with the hoe man. Lovely day. Beautiful roses. The man nodded, but didn't reply.
"Just get me in the ****ing house will you?"
"This is a nice street. Somehow I always imagined you lived in some filthy squat."
Inside the entrance hall, Henry indicated, as best he could, the door to the ground floor flat, regretting he hadn't asked her to park in the back alley and come through the kitchen.
"Where's the bed?" "Front room."
Toni opened the bedroom door and lowered Henry onto the bed, where he rolled over onto his side and assumed a foetal position.
"OK - what now?"
"Drugs. In the bathroom, which is by the kitchen at the back, you'll find a cabinet. Bring me the brown bottles marked robaxin, codeine and ibuprofen."
"I see you've done this before."
"Uh-huh. Watch out for the cat. He answers to the name of Benson and he needs feeding. There's a tin in the fridge. Leave all the doors open on your way back."
Toni wandered off. Henry listened to the creak of her leather jeans receding and lay absolutely still. She came back, announcing she had found the pills but no cat. But she had put food in the bowl anyway. Did he want her to call the doctor?
"No - I'll do it - the phone's by the bed." Toni put the pills and a large glass of water on the table.
"This is really a nice flat. I'd never have believed it, the way you complain."
"Yes - well, it's not quite the house in Eadington we used to have."
Toni sat on the bed. "You used to live in Eadington? Jesus."
"Melissa was an investment analyst."
Toni looked around at the front room, admiring the cleanliness of it, the thick crochet curtains, and the dappling of the sunlight on the coverlet. "Right - anything else you need before I go?"
"Let me think. Yes - in the top drawer over there you'll find an orthopaedic corset. In the second drawer you'll find a nightshirt and a pair of boxers."
Toni pulled open the second drawer and threw the nightclothes onto the bed. "I hope you can manage to get into these yourself. There are limits, you know."
Henry reassured her.
She opened the top drawer. On the right was the corset, all metal clips and whalebones. She tossed it on to the bed. Then she paused.
"What is it?" asked Henry. Toni turned around holding up a pair of ladies' undergarments.
"And whose, pray are these?"
Henry was silent for a while. "They were Melissa's," he said slowly, at length.
"You keep your ex's knickers?" "And a T-shirt or two."
"You are really sad," said Toni. "Why?"
"Well, sometimes, when I am alone here in the evenings and there's nothing on the telly or the radio and there's nothing to do but get out the Wild Turkey and get pissed, I sometimes put up the ironing board and give them a press. As the steam rises they exhale an odour that reminds me of her. I think about those ordinary evenings we used to spend after work, one of us ironing, the other sipping a mug of decaff, watching some crappy film. Not talking - not needing to. Just being together like that."
Toni looked down at the foetal form on the bed, still wearing his shoes, and quietly and respectfully put Melissa's knickers back in the drawer.
"Is there anyone who can come in and help you? Shopping, that sort of thing?" she asked. Henry shook his head. "What about the neighbours?" "They think I'm a drunk. Anyway, I'm a young lout and a newcomer. That lot had these houses built round them. Gaga, all of them. That's why I call this place Aphasia Avenue. They like me about as much as the students in number 17."
"OK. Look - I'll come by again tomorrow lunchtime. Make a list and I'll bring you some stuff."
"Would you? That's awfully good of you . . . "
"I'll give you a ring tomorrow morning. You have a spare set of keys?" "Eh? On the nail in the fusebox just beside the door to the flat. Look, you really needn't . . . "
"Nonsense. You look after yourself. Get into that corset and ring the quack. I'll phone a minicab."
"There's some cards in the bedside table drawer."
"God, you're much more organised at home than you are at work."
Henry smiled weakly and assumed a helpless look. Toni called the cab company and fetched the keys from the cupboard in the hall. They waited for a few minutes, mostly in silence.
"You haven't taken your pills," said Toni at length. "Here, let me." Toni selected one robaxin, two codeine and two ibuprofen and handed them to Henry. "Come on - drink up . . . " Henry propped himself up, popped the pills in his mouth and drank some water. Car horn sounded outside.
She got up and waved. Suddenly Henry remembered something. "Vizheozh!" he mumbled through the pills.
"Can you take my vizheozh back? They're under the telly. It's Virgo Vizheozh - the shop near the campush."
Toni rushed into the living room, came back brandishing two black boxes, and let herself out. Henry heard the front door slam, listened to the minicab pulling away, spat the pills clean across the room, leaped out of bed shouting "Yes!" and danced a little jig.
He felt a sharp pain at the base of his spine.
In the back of the minicab, Toni examined the cassettes. One was Ordinary People. The other Sleepless in Seattle. She sat with them in her lap for a while, her eyes unaccustomedly moist.
The characters in Dead Clever bear no resemblance to persons living or dead.)
Ted Nield 1996
Dead Clever continues next week