It was 1992, the year that an engineer registered a patent for the chaos-theory powered hair dryer. The idea was that a butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil, and in Texas someone could dry their hair in the resulting breeze. Although ineffective, it was installed in every youth hostel. It was cheap, and people couldn’t tell if it had broken.
It was also the tenth anniversary of when I moved house. And I stress that house was the appropriate word. Watch any news channel, read any paper, and you’ll see that only rich people live in homes. The rest of us occupy houses. This was a house. Located just a stone’s throw away from a group of people throwing stones, it offered commanding views of the neighbour’s window, offering commanding views of my window, offering commanding views of their window. It was described as spacious, which I thought was reassuring. Well, it’s a relief to hear that the room you’ve put a deposit on isn’t restricted solely to the dimension of time. Having said that, the decor wasn’t to my taste. It was as if Lawrence Llwelyn-Bowen had taken inspiration from Noel Edmond’s shirts, then buggered off leaving someone else to decorate the house. Every wall was white, every carpet grey. After a few sleepless nights it was easy to imagine that you were in some Arctic wasteland. I think the lack of heating and furniture probably reinforced that. I kept saying that I’d go to Ikea and pick up some cheap units, but things always got in the way. In lieu of a desk, wardrobe, or shelf I operated a system best described as ‘open plan filing’. It had a sort of archaeological charm; you could dig down through the strata, charting the seasons from the dates of newspapers, the weight of items of clothing, and the presence or absence of ice-cream.
Today I was at home in the house. I would have liked to be at the library, but there was a man doing the gardening across the road. I couldn’t leave the house or he would have seen me. I had to avoid that at all costs. You see, all my jeans were in the wash, and the only item to hand was a pair of beige corduroy flares that I bought for a fancy dress party. The theme of the party was ‘superheroes’, so I did stand out at the time. I don’t want you to think that I’m vain. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to wear the flares for aesthetic reasons, although it is true that they made the wearer look like two fence posts started melting and then gave up. No, it was that as I walked the two cuffs overlapped, making a noise. I couldn’t possibly walk past him. He’d hear the ‘plaf-plaf-plaf’ of corduroy-on-corduroy. It’d be fine in the library as I could tip-toe, take vast strides to avoid leg overlap. But I couldn’t get past the man.
I like the library. Not just because no-one can tell that I don’t like speaking, but also for the atmosphere. Populated by the elderly, who mainly group there for warmth, hunched corpses shuffle around in no particular direction. You catch fleeting snatches of conversation, while a clerk on a telephone reads out thirteen digit numerical codes. It feels like a zombie film directed by David Lynch.
But no library for me today. I’d have to occupy myself around the house. I had just settled down with a pen and paper, when a ringing noise sounded in my ears. I thought nothing of it, and got up to make myself a cup of tea. But the ringing noise continued. It continued as I put the teabag in the water, fished it out, discovered the milk was off, reboiled the kettle, and absent-mindedly repeated the process. It was then that I realised that it was the doorbell.
I ran to the door. It had been a good ten minutes since the ringing noise had started, and I didn’t want to anger someone so persistent. When I opened the door there stood a briefcase, with a man attached to the handle. He asked if he could come in. I asked him why. “Because,” he said, tapping his briefcase “I can change your life”.
After I’d offered him a cup of tea, remembered that the milk was off, apologised, offered him a cup of coffee and repeated the process, he opened his briefcase. He beckoned for me to sit, and I took position amongst the nest of papers. I supposed that he was probably used to his audience sitting on sofas, but then, I was used to not having a man with a briefcase standing in my living room. I figured we were about even.
“I” he said “have discovered the secret to doing well in life”. He reached into his briefcase, and pulled out a small pie chart and laser pointer. I found this reassuring. Everyone has a laser pointer nowadays. It’s a sign of legitimacy, it validates the speaker. The pie chart had no units or segments, and the more I think about it was just a circle on a piece of paper. “I’ve cracked it.” he said. “Life, I mean.” He reached back into the briefcase, and pulled out a gun. “You stand on the doorstep of some unsuspecting idiot, with a briefcase. Ring the doorbell and they let you in, assuming that you’re there to sell them a religion, or a holiday home, or some tupperware. They just let you in. No questions asked. You pull a gun on them” here he stroked the barrel, “and you can live rent free. So, do you want to give me a tour of my new house?”
I obliged, leading him from the paper mountains of the living room to the tin-can valleys of the kitchen. I smiled to myself. You see, I was thinking about getting a room-mate, and here was one who did home delivery. He asked where the furniture was, and I explained to him about Ikea. His face fell with a sickening crunch, and he asked how I cooked without an oven. I told him the truth – that I didn’t need to cook. I had bread, and cheese, and lemons. He queried the lemons, but once I explained to him about scurvy, I think he understood. “Is this some kind of joke?” the man asked. He didn’t look amused, so I wasn’t sure why he was asking. I told him that it wasn’t. This was just how I lived.
“But how do you pay for the house?” he asked. “I mean, you don’t strike me as doing nine to five.” It was true that I had answered the door to him at twelve. I explained that I was an inventor. My last creation was the jazz alarm. It worked on a simple premise. If a burglar enters your house, it plays inaccessible jazz at them, and they run off without bothering to take any of your possessions. The creation before that was the carpet-shoe. It was aimed at the student market, first-time renters. It was a foot-shaped piece of carpet that strapped to the wearer’s foot. You’d wear it around the bedsit, to pretend that the entire flat was carpeted. If I’m honest, the world and I didn’t see eye to eye on the value of my inventions. I lived off the allowance my brother gave me. He was a moderately successful musician, the bassist of ‘Buck Fizz and The Opium Wars’. But I wasn’t going to admit that to my new roommate.
“Look” my roommate said, after we finished the tour of the house “I’ve given it some thought, and I think I can do better. I’ll let myself out.” I was sad to see him go. I thought he would have made a nice room-mate, and watching where he was pointing the gun had taken my mind off the corduroy and the library, and the man doing the gardening and - . And then I noticed the man doing the gardening was gone. I could go to the library. I went immediately, but left the door unlocked, just in case my room-mate decided to change his mind and come back.