Pete loved unblocking drains. The crisp gurgle of a disgorged S-bend made him feel alive.
Pete always lit an incense stick first of all. It was an appealing substitute to the cigar-smoking which he gave up in his late twenties. Flicking the Zippo lighter, he watched as the yellow flame licked into a wisp of silver velvet. A tangy miasma of calm fell upon the room. He clapped his hands together, pleased with himself. This was the beauty.
Then Pete selects an appropriate playlist. (For anyone interested, ‘Zadoc The Priest’ is a particularly good track to unblock drains by. It builds like an Alpine avalanche). Then he boils the kettle, letting it flagellate itself into its bubbling, steamy climax. Finally, the lights are dimmed (for no plug can be properly unblocked without the correct mood lighting).
The sun huddled behind a cloud. A clock chimed next door. It was time.
Pete gazed into the sink, at his spoon-warped reflection. Gently, he tilted his wrist holding the silky bottle of Mr. Muscle’s Sink and Plug Unblocker. The toxic green elixir bungeed from the cap towards the plug. He set the egg timer: 2 minutes for “Severe” blockages.
Peace. This was joy.
The egg timer went. Turning, Pete lifted the kettle before pivoting back towards the sink on a single, hairy, gangly leg. The hot water plunged down the plughole with the vehemence of an Icelandic geyser.
He smiled as the steam enveloped his face. ‘It’s a sort of baptism’, Pete thought.
And now, with sonorous breath, Pete’s hand found its way to the plunger. He felt its soft edge upon his palm. Then his fingers, one by one, started to wrap round it, like an Agatha Chrisitie villain seizing a dagger from behind a crimson curtain. He placed it centrally over the plughole, sticking it down; the sucker of a giant sea octopus. He braced himself, ready to plunge.
The plunger clattering into the sink as Pete skulked towards the front door, his hair lank about his unshaven face.
“What the hell do you want?”
Mary, Pete’s neighbour, took a step back in alarm.
“I…um. Just came to give you this parcel, Peter. It came yesterday when you were out.”
“Oh, OK. Thanks.”
The door slammed. He didn’t look Mary in the eye throughout the brief interaction. Because Pete never looked anyone in the eye. Pete lost his mother at the age of 7 to another father; his real father moved to Brazil. Neither knew him. Pete saw eyes as X-rays, mining the depths of a bottomless well of pain.
Slouching, he made his way back into the living room, slinging the parcel down on the table with a thud. For a moment, his mind turned to his past. It’s not something he did very often, but the sudden ring of the doorbell had caught him off guard. Such events as answering the doorbell require preparation; a game plan for how best to quickly return to his solitude without divulging any comment that might impel people to talk further. Mary already knew too much. Far too much.
The image that emerged was of a boy. The room was egg-yolk yellow where a beam of brilliant sunlight was forcing itself down a tiny skylight window. A tall man had entered behind the boy in shadow, and walked across the yellow-streaked, dusty floorboards. “We used to call boys like you, Cotton Fodder”, a voice said. “You know why?” The boy remained still. “Because in the Workhouses, of our great late Queen Victoria, the cotton looms would require cleaning. And the only fingers small enough to pick the tiny tracks were those of children.” The voice started to encircle the boy, bouncing off the four walls of the room like a spot lit echo chamber. “But, you see, children grow. Their fingers get big. They get jammed in the looms and are sheared off. Useless. So what do you do?” Still the boy remained motionless. “You expel them out to the streets; to the gutter. Obsolete. And since every man must be valued according to his function, this child too, is obsolete. Illiterate. Incompetent. Simple. He would beg, if he had the nous, except he doesn’t. So he decays on the fringes of the world. He is the muse to the Hugos, the Dickens, the Tolstoys and every other bourgeois social commentators of the age. But no one helps him. Why would they? A man only helps another man if he can profit – emotionally or financially – from the other man’s salvation. But who can gain anything from Cotton Fodder?”
Pete clenched the sofa. In the corner, the stainless tap arched over the sink like a dour street lamp. A drizzle of light momentarily strobed off its arched neck as a jet plane flew overhead and refracted some sunlight back down to earth. A tiny, beautiful moment. Pete rose and seized the package off the table, and tore at it voraciously, his teeth slightly clenched. It was from Tesco You-Shop-We-Drop. Congealed lard. More sink-block fodder. It felt like myrrh upon his fingers.
With three steps he marched back to the sink. Everything had been fully prepared before Mary’s interruption. All was primed ready for purgation. He felt the smooth wood of the plunger upon his palm once again. It was the same plunger he’d always used, every since he was fired from his cleaning job at the butchers, when his horse lost and Sarah rejected his advances for the second and final time. Gathering his strength, he breathed in, and pushed down.
Pete’s plunge was a tube train entering a Piccadilly Line tunnel at 40 miles an hour. Hairs, lard and viscera surged round the S-bend propelled by the discharge of a ruptured Hoover Damn. He turned on the tap and listened to the liquid croaking of crystal clear water fall on the stainless and make its irrevocable way towards the plug, where it spun in a gentle, sparkling vortex. And with it came the thought of Carthey & Sons of Morrison Street, and the sausages hanging in the window, and the smiling soft-eyed clientele, and ‘Zadok the Priest’ warbling gently on the radio, and Mr. Carthey offering him the day off as Pete glimpsed his bounding, comely daughter in the stock room out the back. And the thought that he could do it, and that he could ALWAYS do it, and that he’d never be useless again. Not as long as he lived. Never. Never. Never.