2000 HOURS: A SHORT STORY

The red lines of the digital clock above the oven showed 19:37, and Horace Allen Black sat at his kitchen table, eating baked beans. A dim light shone through the window, a melange of the sky’s last light, flickering street lamps and the glowing windows across the road. Horace did not have a light bulb in the kitchen, and at any rate he preferred not to see the orange mess of thrice re-heated baked beans in front of him. His fork clinked occasionally against the pan, metal on metal. Horace’s gaze was fixed on the ticking clock, watching the minutes go by until he could put the pan back in the fridge and go to bed.

Every day, Horace wakes at 10:00. He puts his alarm on snooze, and gets out of bed at 10:12. He may brush his teeth, if he has toothpaste. If not, he will put on a stained burgundy t shirt and grey tracksuit bottoms with a hole in the right knee, and go to the kitchen, where he eats a slice of toast standing over the sink. He will sit at his laptop for a few hours; he earns a meagre living doing tech work online, some of it legal, some of it not. He looks at websites where pretty girls stare meaningfully into a camera with lips pursed and a finger trailing down their chins. He never looks further; he knows what they do when the film starts rolling, and  likes them to remain still, beautiful, relatively innocent. Sometimes, he goes down to the corner shop at 15:25 for a newspaper, or a can of beans, of a loaf of bread, or an orange if he’s feeling peaky. He’ll be home by 15:47, and will stare at the wall, or out the window at kids beating each other up in a car park below, until it is time to eat some beans and go to bed.

Horace is scrawny, painfully thin. His glasses are crooked, thin NHS wire frames he’s had since he was 14. His lips are chapped, chunks of dry skin falling away as he bites his lip with boredom. His nails are chewed so thoroughly that they are mere slivers. His hair has stopped growing and lies lank and filthy, flat against his forehead. His cheeks are hollow, his fingers spindly. He caught the flu a few weeks ago and was so ill he thought he would die; without the strength to lift himself out of bed, he had lain in his own excrement for 3 days.

The clock now showed 20:00. Horace’s beans were uneaten, but he felt sick. He stood up and went to the window, a large square pane with a wooden handle. He opened it wide, breathing in the fumes of petrol and curry emanating from the street below. He closed his eyes, feeling a chill against his face. He opened the window wider, and scrambled on to the radiator. He gingerly climbed out onto the windowsill below. This is it, he thought (the first lucid thought he had had all day). Enough is enough. He was just about to jump the eight storeys on to the road below, when he caught a waft of something hot and warm and delicious. A steak pie, chips, mushy peas. How long had it been since he had eaten that, his favourite dish? Must be 20 years. He couldn’t throw himself to his death on a dinner of cold baked beans. If he was to end his misery, he must do so after a steak pie. Steak pies brought another memory to mind, that of his mother. At 75, Horace’s mother was the only person left in the world that realised someone actually lived at 8c, Lexington Place Flats, Lexington Avenue. Horace could imagine the unfriendly policeman knocking on his mother’s door, “Ma’am, I’m afraid your son has killed himself”. It would kill her. His death had to look like an accident. This in mind, Horace re-entered his room, shut the window, threw away the beans, and went to bed.

10:00 the next morning. Horace sat up straight in bed. This is it. Today is the day; your last day on earth. He showered, using the remnants of Fairy liquid on a kitchen sponge to wash his hair. He found some ancient deodorant and sprayed that around a bit. He put on a pair of chinos and a
shirt he’d not worn for 7 years. The chinos were horribly big, so Horace tied a shoelace around his waist. He looked around his room. Authorities would never come into this room and believe someone of sound mind lived in it; it was a hovel so filthy that even rats avoided it. So, Horace took himself to a supermarket: 4 miles from the flat, it was the farthest he had walked in 7 years. He walked in through the trolleys and mothers and toddlers, sweat pouring off his forehead, heart beating against his ribcage, his shirt sodden with the perspiration pouring down his back. He was cold and hot and ran to the Customer Toilets, where he locked himself in a cubicle and was violently sick, kneeling on the floor, arms around the bowl, eye to eye with a wiry pubic hair trapped between the porcelain and the toilet seat. He washed his hands and wiped his mouth, blood pounding in his ears. Then, he went upstairs to the supermarket café and ate a plate piled high with lasagne, chips, peas and carrots.

“Beans?” says the pretty girl at the counter.

“No thanks,” replies Horace, shuddering.

He eats and eats until his stomach is so distended he has to loosen the shoelace. Then, he goes down to the supermarket and buys things he didn’t realise existed, carried away by the sudden energy which the lasagna has given him. He buys cleaning products and bed sheets and shower gel (the bottle suggests that as soon as he uses it, girls will find him irresistible). He buys a large recipe book, looks up steak pie, and buys the ingredients. He buys oranges, apples, bananas. He pays for everything and carries it home. He bakes a second-rate, chewy, dry steak pie. The pastry is undercooked and the meat makes him gag. He sits afterwards, holding his stomach, contemplating his first cooking disaster with pride. Then, at 20:00, he remembers he has a job to do. He goes to the window, opens it, and then he closes it. Not today, he thinks, I need to use the cookery book more. It doesn’t look well-used, and  whoever finds me must think I cook all the time. In the back of his mind, Horace thought of the lady in the photos with large breasts and a toothy smile.

Weeks pass. Horace paints the walls, cleans the oven, makes every recipe in the book, showers every day, washes his clothes. Every night, he looks at the window, remembers something else he should do so his mother isn’t sad when he dies. One day, he walks past the library and sees a poster for a French class. He has always wanted to learn. He goes to the taster session. The teacher is a young French woman called Sylvie, and Horace watches her for an hour. She has lipstick on one of her front teeth and two squares of toilet paper stuck to the heel of her right shoe for at least 20 minutes. She is small and flaps her arms and nods her head like a bird, her voice is soft and Horace is in love. After the hour, he goes to her, emboldened by his shower gel that should have made him irresistible by now. In French he just about remembers from school, he asks her Voulez vous dîner avec moi ce soir and she blushes and says she would like very much to have dinner with him, merci. Horace gives her his address and tells her to come for 8 pm.

He dashes home, takes out the cookery book and finds a recipe. He gets to work in the kitchen, he lights candles (he has never had dinner with a woman who was not his mother), he is terrified and his heart races. The soufflé is in the oven, the smell of cooking wafts throughout the flat. He opens a bottle of red wine. It is 19:55 and his hands are shaking and sweaty. He pours himself a drink and gulps it down. He looks around. He hopes Sylvie will like his flat, it is clean and polished and there are no half-eaten pans of beans anywhere. He looks at the window. A large bird has crapped on the outside and a white, green, grey sludge jeers at Horace from an unreachable angle. Horace knows that if he doesn’t clean it off, he will think about it all evening, and he doesn’t want his first kiss with the woman he will eventually marry to be a kiss stained with the defecation of a large bird. He takes a cloth, smothers it with washing up liquid, and goes to the window. He opens the window and balances with one foot on the windowsill and one foot on the radiator, trying to reach the shit on his windowpane.

A young Frenchwoman stands at the door of flat 8c, Lexington Place Flats, Lexington Avenue. She sees light under the door and can smell eggs burning inside. She rings the doorbell. No answer. She waits and rings again. She rings longer. She knocks and calls, “Mister Black, ‘Orace Black, are you there?”

No reply. She waits for 15 minutes, until the tears are rolling down her face, hot with shame, rage, shame. Maybe she misunderstood; maybe he was playing a nasty trick. Maybe that’s just Englishmen. She will go home and ring her mother and cry and cry, and her mother will say, come back to France, and Sylvie will think about it and agree, and 3 weeks later she will be on the Eurostar heading back to Paris to move back in with her mother and father.

Horace lies motionless on the pavement outside Lexington Place Flats.