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“Let’s face it,” I said to Joan, “this is obviously your latest and most desperate bid to lose weight.”
Joan has one hell of a track record in her quest for skinniness. She’s tried them all. Grapefruit, Scarsdale, F-Plan, Low Protein, High Protein, you name it. She’s tried everything from hypnosis to health farms, from colonic irrigation to weekly injections in the bum up in Hendon with some mysterious clear fluid that was supposed to alter her metabolic rate. I mean, we are talking here about a woman who once ingested a tapeworm. I kid you not. A beef tapeworm. I wouldn’t go near her for three months. Who knew where the damn thing was, and where it might emerge, and what we might have been doing when it did? And what if it ended up inside me? I don’t think I’m particularly squeamish, but that tapeworm – yuck. And did it work? Well, of course it didn’t.
“I went to see Larry this morning,” Joan said by way of a reply to this dieting accusation of mine.
“Larry the lawyer?”
“I’m getting him to draw up my will.”
“Oh for God’s sake.”
“If we were married, Ralph, you’d get everything automatically. On the other hand, if we were married, I wouldn’t be on hunger strike. Anyway, I’m leaving everything to you.”
“Thank you very much.”
We looked at each other for a long time. A long time. I looked at her speculatively, wondering whether anyone who looks as dotty as that could possibly be serious. It was something to do with what she was wearing. What with all this dieting, Joan’s wardrobe falls into two categories - those clothes out of which she has just dieted, and those into which she is just about to diet - with the consequence that everything she has is either one size too big or one size too small.
Then an extremely interesting thought struck me and I said: “You know what’s just occurred to me? Have you ever considered that if you take the letter t off the word diet you get die?”
“No, as a matter of fact, Ralph, I haven’t,” said Joan.
“Talking of which, I wonder how old Orson’s getting on.”
“It’s his trial today.”
“Oh my God. Poor Orson.”
“I know. Do you know what .... ?” I was about to tell Joan about the Instant Death pill and Orson’s plan to take it, if found Guilty - but, for some reason, I decided to keep it to myself.
“Know what?” Joan wanted to know.
“Oh nothing,” I said. “I was just going to say that I’m sure he’ll get off alright. I mean, it’s ridiculous to suggest that Orson would want to murder anyone.”
“I’ve frequently wanted to murder you.”
“There’s a big gap between wanting to murder me and actually murdering me,” I pointed out.
“Well, please call me as soon as you know,” said Joan, gathering up her things.
“Where are you going?”
“To work. Where do you think?”
“Surely,” I said, “it must be fantastically difficult being on hunger-strike and working in a restaurant at the same time.”
“It’s a question of motivation, Ralph.”
“How do I know you don’t have snacks when you’re there?”
“Sit on it,” she said.
“What about Saturday?”
“What about it?”
She knew perfectly well about it.
“It’s your birthday. And in case you hadn’t remembered, we’re having a dinner party.”
“Oh nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Well,” said Joan.
We looked at each other. Then Joan left. The front door of our flat leads straight into the kitchen. There is no ante-chamber or hall. I mean, there is a hall, but the hall is common parts.
I went and reclined on the wicker lounger beneath the darts board, which is on your left as you enter the kitchen through the front door. On the right as you come in, there is the dresser with the television and the telephone on it. Then there is the end wall, with the door that leads onto the steps that go down into the garden. Against the wall opposite the dresser is our mammoth fridge, the gas cooker and the sink with its double drainer. Next to the sink and directly opposite the front door is the door through to the rest of the flat. And against the fourth wall, the one on the left as you come in through the front door, the one that is opposite the back door, is our sofa.
I don’t know. I like the way I’m describing this, as if I don’t know what it looks like. Who knows? Someday maybe, when I’m dead, someone’ll find this book and read it. And then you’ll know precisely where I am, won’t you?
Hello there, whoever you are.
I lay back and stared through the roof - which is made of glass, this being, once upon a time, a conservatory. Through the mess of wet fallen leaves, I looked up and away toward the west where the high-rise blocks loom against the sky.
I must have fallen asleep. Well, alright, I fell asleep. It was dark when a tapping at the back door awoke me. A grinning Orson was visible through the glass panes in the door.
“The judge threw the case out of court,” said Orson.
I was very happy for him.
“I promised to phone the rezzie and tell Joan as soon as I knew,” I said - and suited the action to the word.
Joan could not come to the telephone, so I left a message with the barman, whose voice I recognised, but whose name for the life of me I can never remember.
“Just tell her Orson got off.”
I could hear the sounds of the restaurant in the background at the othe end of the line, clattering and chattering.
“Orson got off?” the barman was repeating, when I heard some kind of huge crash at his end.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll give Joan your message. Bye.”
He hung up. I put the kettle on.
“Tell me, Orson,” I ventured, “when it came to it, would you actually have taken that pill?”
“Well I certainly think I would have done. I mean, maybe at the last moment I wouldn’t have. But I think I would. Remember that series on Strangeways we once watched?”
I did. It was gruesome.
“Well, there you are,” said Orson. “I just didn’t fancy it.”
The telephone rang. This time it was the restaurant calling to say that the crash I had heard, at the end of my previous telephone call, was in fact Joan keeling over under the weight of a trayful of orders. They were sending her home in a cab.
“Why don’t you just marry the girl and have done with it?” asked Orson, when I told him that Joan had fainted.
“I don’t want to get married.”
“The fact of the matter is that if you get married and Joan gets pregnant, she’ll have to give up working and you’ll have to get a job like everyone else.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” I protested.
“Bollocks,” said Orson.
I sipped my tea. Orson gulped his down.
“Well, I can’t stay,” he said. “I’ve got to see my accountant tomorrow and everything’s in total chaos.”
He rose to go.
“Look, er, tell me, Orson, mon vieux, what were you planning to do with that pill?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I should dispose of it.”
“Can I have it?” I asked.
“I just thought it was a very amazing kind of a thing,” I said.
Orson paused, then put his hand in his pocket and drew out the tiny black pill, Instant Death, in its little plastic envelope.
“If you want,” he said, and put it on the kitchen table. I looked at it. It seemed to throb slightly - like a small black hole.
“I tell you, Orson, I’m glad it never came to it.”
“So am I,” said he - and left.
I sat and stared at the pill for some time. Then I thought of Joan heading home. I put the pill in an egg-cup and hid it on the top shelf of the dresser, behind the Charles and Di commemorative Minton wedding plate, which Eric bought me for Christmas.
“Do you really mean to tell me,” I asked of a shaky Joan on her return, “that you really haven’t eaten anything since, when was it?”
“Midnight on Monday,” she said, yawning and heading for the bedroom at the same time. “Can I have a hottie, please?”
The weather has been remarkably clement for the time of year, but Joan was shivering.
I made the hot water bottle and took it in to Joan, who was already in bed.
“You’re out of your mind,” I said.
Joan did not reply. She closed her eyes and subsided into the pillow.
“I’d like a glass of water.”
I got it.
“Look, Joan,” I said, setting it down on the bed-side table, “this is bonkers. You can’t expect to be able to do a job like you do and not eat.”
“This whole thing is cock-eyed,” I persisted. “Listen, what you said about having children - about deceit being no basis on which to build a human life. So what kind of basis is blackmail for a marriage? Just you tell me that.”
But she didn’t, because she was already asleep.
So here I am, sitting at the old table in the kitchen, while Joan snores gently down the passage, and I’m wondering what the hell I’m going to do.
What do I think of the fact that Joan is leaving everything to me in her will? Well, I don’t think of it, do I? Well, obviously, I am thinking about it. Well, don’t. Just stop it, Ralph.
The Instant Death is in the egg-cup, there behind the royal wedding plate, on the top shelf of the dresser and the more I think about it - the more I think .... oh, I don’t know what to think. I just don’t know. I really don’t.
I don't know about you but I'm looking forward to tomorrow's instalment. Any thoughts so far?