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72. Cafe Babylonia 74. I Answer, I Don't Know

October 13th, 2020

Knaresborough House

1. The Package
The drawn out lawns and carefully raked drive, an imposing manor rising out of the hillside, with a grand balcony overlooking the forecourt, where visitors would stream through in their dozens, calling to each other and whooping with glee as the afternoon faded and the evening’s curtain swept open. A festive spirit in the air, and the warmth of the great estate calling out like a beacon, a fierce glow that promised haven amongst the chill, cutting through the darkening night till Spring’s calm rose spreads across the thinning white. In the morning the guests are driven away, for their own amusement, waving sheepishly from the windows and burying their shame in thick scarves and gloves. A man stands watching from the roadside, as the Lady of Knaresborough Manor looks out from the balcony, surveying the land she owns, the people she controls, the world she dictates from where she stands. This fucking lock, he thought, and swore twice out loud giving the door a shove. He was careful to put his weight on the wooden half, imagining the glass part cracking under his hand, the larger shards splintering on the floor, the smaller sinking into his palm. He saw the blood drip down and wailed in pain, hunched over in the mid-afternoon drizzle. A car stopped on the road beside him and someone jumped out, phone in hand dialling 999, asking if he’s okay. He kept screaming, clutching at his wrist as the glass he had unwittingly grasped went skidding blood soaked from his hand. The key clicked and he went in. The street was empty save the rain, and overhead the clouds were immutable. Footsteps were pinging down the stairs as he stepped into the atrium, rain dripping off his coat and trailing off into a dark corner where it muddled with some blackish mud that had been collecting since the weather had turned. A burble rose from the murky darkness. Probably something living in there, thought Mack, a large toad or some hitherto undiscovered eel that feeds on earwigs and shit. He saw it slithering out on its deformed legs, spreading its filthy slime trail across the concrete as it sought a rank pile of illness to drown in. The footsteps stopped, there was someone at the first landing, looking down on Mack, who met their gaze. They looked down on him. They thought they knew this man. What a poor figure they must have thought. They had peeled back his top layer and found the empty corpse of a brainless or braindead man. Lips curled, nose turned up, they took a deep breath, fearful of contagion, and swiftly went by. Mack held the door open. They muttered some thanks and Mack replied that it was no trouble at all, watching the disappointment trail out in a cloud of memory stirred from after work gym sessions to shmooze and booze. A package had arrived the week before, and without a flat number sat in the entrance way under the boxes until Mack, curious as a robin, took pity on the damp sod and brought it up to 704 for inspection. On the seventh floor he stopped to breath, leaning against the hard concrete wall for support. Footsteps approached, an intruder? He looked for cover. Rows of doors presented themselves like imposing monoliths, giant stone beacons harkening back to an older time, when the races of the earth were intertwined by their common nature, when simple life forms built pleasing monuments to the sky and were welcomed into the cult of earth to be tossed about on its heaven-gazing seas for eternity, giddily awaiting the day their hard work is rewarded by eternal, eternal, eternal wonder. Where was that promise now, where was his saviour in this, his hour of need, between the lift door and the rows of others, in the empty, spinning corridor no angel appeared, and no devil either. The flat was dirty and cold, with none of the homely comforts he had imagined when moving into his own space. He had pictured a candle-lit dinner with his neighbours gathered round. Trish and Harvey are there, with a girl from the local sixth form college to look after little Fred. Liam from 702 has made two salads, one with feta, one with nuts. Pat has come from over the hall with extra chairs and Conor has brought his puppy up from the fifth floor to great cooing from the youngsters,Sally and Joe, who are newly moved in, fresh eyed with the amorations of young love. Sam can’t make it, apologies from her partner, she’s working late at the hospital. Liam shakes his head, the hours those nurses put in astounds me. Martin and Laura talk about the new play park being built in the green over the road. Martha opens wine and pours glasses for everyone. None for me, says Harvey with a sigh, and Trish smiles, it’s a long road. Everyone finds their space, though there is little, and starts handing dishes around, stews and curries and spiced potatoes, warm bread, and steaming rice, Liam’s salads and a surprise winner from Pat. it’s all about fresh ingredients she laughs as Martin celebrates her spicy sauce by drizzling it across his mountain of food. At the heart of it all Mack sat staring bleakly out, the sounds of festivity fading into a steady drip from the tap in the toilet where the tape had rotted and worn away. The package from downstairs was on the table, a thin line of cloudy water pooling around one corner. Was it leaking? He tentatively prodded the corner, it was soft. Damp cardboard peeled away at his touch and he turned his nose up in revulsion. Things that were soft and wet, they disgusted him, his fingertips tingled with an internal itch, the back of his neck sprung into shivering life and he rolled his head back, opening his mouth wide, shaking off the jitters running up and down his spine.

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