It all started with the plastic chicken. There was a knock at the front door, and there stood a handsome blond man holding a blue carrier bag. A red Fiesta was parked at the kerb. ‘Yer Nifty-Ware order, bab,’ he said. Wow, I thought.
‘I haven’t ordered anything,’ I said. ‘In fact, I never buy anything from door-to-door salesmen.’
‘Says P Martins on the order slip,’ he offered.
‘Pete!’ I called out, ‘Someone at the door for you!’ I stepped back as Pete bustled up. I went into the kitchen and flicked the switch on the electric kettle, thinking I’d make myself a cup of coffee and then retreat back to Facebook. I heard Pete talking to the guy, and then the front door shut. He came in to the kitchen and took a plastic chicken out of the bag and placed it triumphantly on the worktop.
‘What the hell’s that?’ I asked. Pete explained it was an electric egg boiler. ‘No more runny white bits, your cute chicken will cook your eggs perfectly with the minimum of fuss, letting out a loud ‘Cluck’ when ready.’
‘What’s wrong with a saucepan?’ I said, ‘anyway I don’t want a whole load of clutter on the worktop, see if you can put it in a cupboard or something.’
His face fell a little, but he started shuffling round the contents of a cupboard to make space. Still kneeling, he turned and said, ‘I’ve still got something on order with Barry, but he says he’ll bring it in a few days.’ I simulated interest. ‘It’s a biscuit keeper, so you can take a few biscuits to work without them getting broken in your bag.’
‘That’s nice,’ I said.
‘I thought you could do with it, as you’re working such long hours now.’ It was true, after Pete had been made redundant I had started working a nine hour day, and taking sandwiches and snacks to work was a lot cheaper than buying them from the canteen. After three years in a relationship, our plans for buying our own place, getting married and starting a family were on hold indefinitely.
‘So how much is all this costing?’ I asked.
‘£24.98,’ he said, ‘but don’t worry, I’ve still got some of my redundancy money left.’ I decided not to comment.
Over the next few weeks, plastic objects started to increase in the house. I came home from work and poured milk in my coffee only to find a new kind of spout attached to the carton. ‘It avoids spillage and helps you to control the amount of milk you use more precisely’ said Pete.
‘What’s that gadget in the bathroom, then?’ I asked. He explained it was a combined toothbrush and toothpaste holder. ‘It reduces clutter around the sink, and keeps toothbrushes hygienic, as well as helping to get the last little bit of toothpaste out of the tube.’ He had left a catalogue on the coffee table. ‘Have a look through and see if you want anything,’ he said, ‘I expect Barry will call again in a few days time.’
How does that unconscious attraction start to build between two men? I imagine physical closeness that becomes too much before they realise it, heads close over the catalogue, Pete breathes in Barry’s aroma of cigarette smoke, sweat, and expensive aftershave. He asks him what makes him do it, how he makes his money, he must see a lot of bored housewives, but Barry says quietly he is not interested in that. Pete studies the lines of Barry’s face, strawberry blond hair, blue eyes fringed with black lashes, the neat polo shirt embroidered with the Nifty-Ware logo, its open collar hinting at a smooth chest.
‘Look’ says Barry, ‘have you ever seen anything like this? It’s my best-selling item. It’s gotta be the best deal in the whole catalogue.’ Barry points with a broad, well-manicured finger at the catalogue, but Pete is staring at him open mouthed.
‘I’ll take three,’ says Pete.
‘It’s a set of four,’ says Barry.
‘OK, four,’ says Pete and finally they lock glances, Pete’s lower lip is quivering with a nervous tic.
‘Superdense Microfibre Cleaning Cloth, Beeswax Oil Foam Mousse, MagicSpell Brass Polish, MirrorSteel Liquid Cleaner..’ Barry’s voice contracts in his throat, he runs the tip of his tongue over his lips, his eyes widen, big pupils inky black, husky voiced, he says, ‘have you ever considered becoming one of our distributors?’
The Nifty Ware Distributors Training Course is being held at the Stockport Motorlodge, a purpose built two storey concrete building set amongst car parks and landscaping. There is a reassuring standardness about the simple geometric interior with its duplicating decor. They are to share a twin room, and wheel their lightweight luggage sets along the soft carpet of the corridor. Barry slides a card into the door lock and they go in. The curtains are still drawn and the twin beds are two doubles pushed side by side, the covers turned down.
‘Wow, this looks good,’ says Barry, and he kicks his shoes off and sprawls on the bed in his suit, bouncing a little then lifting his head to grin at Pete. ‘You don’t mind sharing, do you? Only the company gets charged for the room, rather than per person, so it’s cheaper.’
‘No I don’t mind,’ says Pete, ‘we’re two guys anyway.’
‘Yup,’ says Barry, ‘that’s right.’
Pete got very absorbed in the Nifty-Ware business after coming back from the training conference. He was always out, distributing catalogues, collecting and delivering orders. He saw a lot of Barry. The lounge always seemed to be full of blue plastic bags containing clever gadgets, cleaning solutions. And then, of course, I came home from work one evening and he was gone. The ultra-lightweight wheely suitcase with matching laptop skin had gone, the travel bathroom organiser which unrolled cleverly to display toiletries had gone, even his passport, in its vinyl embossed holder with a convenient rear compartment for boarding passes, had gone.
He had left a note on the magnetic fridge notepad with its handy matching pencil. ‘GOODBYE. I’ve left your supper in the two-compartment microwave bowl, make sure to loosen the microwaveable cover prior to heating. Please don’t be sad, Ellie, I am sure that like me you felt we were growing apart. Barry is more on my wavelength and appreciates the finer things in life.’
I didn’t feel sad, actually – I wasn’t sure what I felt. I discarded the two-compartment microwave bowl and its congealed contents in the ergonomically designed bin, and dialled a take-away.
Over the next few weeks I spent longer at work, there was no urgency now to get home in time for supper, and there was less traffic if I left before the morning rush hour and came home late at night. The working day seemed less rushed, because I had longer to get my work done.
It was the weekends that dragged. Friends seemed to be avoiding me, and I felt less valid in their eyes as a newly created singleton. All our friends had been couples. I never seemed to go away for the weekend, and roast dinners weren’t the same. I couldn’t listen to my favourite songs any more, the lyrics kind of hurt. I started to surf the internet looking at the dating websites. They reminded me somehow of Nifty-Ware, and I stopped.
There were advantages, of course. Now that Pete had taken his stuff, a lot of the clever space-saving devices could be discarded. I threw away the over-the-door garment hangers, the bathroom storage holders held up with rubber suction pads, and the thoughtfully designed rubberwood shoe rack that held twenty pairs of shoes in a space for six.
Then, one day, Pete was there when I got home from work, looking shattered. His lightweight luggage set stood in the hall, still packed. I hoped he wasn’t expecting me to throw myself at him. ‘So, why are you here?’ I said, ‘I thought you’d left me.’
‘I’m sorry, Ellie. I’m so sorry. It was just a huge mistake. Please, I’ve got nowhere to go.’
I started off telling him that he couldn’t just move back in like that, what did he take me for, did he think I was stupid, and anyway I couldn’t put up with the thought that he’d been up to all sorts of tricks with another bloke. But he looked so exhausted that I said he could sleep on the sofa for old times’ sake. And no more Nifty-Ware either.
He stood his suitcase in a corner of the living room. ‘Is it OK if I have a cup of coffee?’ he asked.
Over the coffee, I asked him what went wrong with Barry.
‘I moved in with him, as you knew.’ said Pete. ‘But he was so houseproud. What ever type of mess I made, he had a special cleaning product and a special type of duster or something to sort it out. I couldn’t move. And then he resented cleaning up after me, and if I tried to do it I would invariably use the wrong thing. Miraculo Bleach Gel to clean the sink, when I should have used Sink-White, or something. Yesterday morning, I did a cooked breakfast, but I should have used the silicone cooking rings to get the eggs circular, the splatter screen to stop fat going on the hob, and the ceramic coated non-stick cast-iron frying pan with the healthy eating oil spray to reduce fat. I then failed to dish up with the extra-wide silicone serving tool. When I washed up I should have used the compact dish drainer and hung the tea towel up in the specially engineered stainless-steel tea towel clip. After breakfast I decided that Barry and I didn’t really have a future together.’
He looked down then, tears rising. ‘I’m sorry Ellie,’ he said, ‘it’s – I just can’t talk about it.’ And we left it at that.
Could I take him back? My friends said no, of course. And I wondered if there was something else in his story. Pete seemed haggard, vague, as though he had lived through a traumatic experience. Surely a few weeks spent in an obsessional household could not have been that traumatic? Anyway, he stayed in the living room for a few days, appearing reluctant to go outside.
Then, I came home from work and he had gone again. The luggage set had gone. Another note. ‘Sorry Ellie, Ive really let you down. Don’t worry about me, I’m going to be fine. I’m going to South America. Pete.’
A few days later, there came a knock at the door. A couple of men showed their IDs – plain clothes policemen. They wanted to know the whereabouts of Peter Martins, wanted for questioning in connection with the death of Barry Malahide.
Barry had, it transpired, been knocked unconscious with a blow to the head from a ceramic-coated non-stick cast-iron frying pan, and whilst unconscious, his head had been placed inside an easy-seal freezer bag, resulting in suffocation. Afterwards his body had been placed in a super-large airtight duvet storage container, so it had been some time before the neighbours in the flat below started complaining about the smell. I told the police what I knew, showed them the note, but I don’t think they managed to get hold of Pete before he left the country.
Copyright © 2012 chateauxenespagne.wordpress.com
All characters and household products are fictitious, and any resemblance to any persons living or dead or any genuine household products is entirely unintentional.