Part One. By Heather Pearson
Support independent, non-corporate media.
Guilt sauntered in at ten past eleven. He hovered for a moment in the narrow doorway from the B&B hall to the back kitchen, then helped himself to a grape from a colander sitting between the ironing basket and a crumb-covered worktop. He looked Chaos up and down then smirked, his customary greeting, before leaning back on the frame of the open back door to the garden, his bulk blocking the sun.
It was the last morning of the summer holidays and Chaos was burned out. Despite leaving a full two years before Guilt had spurned the notion of a schedule and instead developed a habit of showing up to see their kids whenever he fancied. Chaos watched as he spat a grape seed into the garden. While an open-door policy worked well for guests, she thought, it jack-knifed her. Chaos continued loading the dishwasher, casting a sideways glance and taking in Guilt’s coral shirt with its silken, rolled up cuffs. His sunburned arms, nose, brow and balding head matched the fabric so well you might think him topless Chaos thought, a half-naked man-baby with huge white chest-pocket buttons for nipples.
Following a busy run of changeovers and two departures straight after early breakfasts only two sets of guests now remained. As Chaos’s luck would have it, they were the high maintenance types which B&B owners did not cherish; the types who didn’t go sightseeing, or visiting local friends and family. The types who hung around with bizarre requests for things they should’ve packed themselves, like toothpaste, or Turmeric tea bags; the types who seemed endlessly put out that everyone they encountered did not seem endlessly rapt by their commentary on the world as told from inside their temporary accommodations’ walls.
The Zen-wannabee woman of the pair in Room Seven, up on the top floor, had tried to engage Chaos in, ‘a brief meditation’, on two occasions yesterday. When Chaos declined, explaining kindly that she was busy, the woman produced a small tuning fork from a pendant on her necklace and declared she would instead begin testing the Chi in the hallway and downstairs toilet. Distracted, Chaos had then inadvertently offended the couple arriving to check-in to Room Three by wondering out loud if she’d got their booking wrong and asking if they’d prefer a twin. They’d presented as mother and adult son at first glance, so Chaos had wanted the floor to swallow her when the woman snapped that she and her partner were freshly engaged and would require a ‘sturdy, luxury Queen mattress, at the very least’. Insult was then added to injury by the Chi-seeker tutting behind them all, then beginning a low chant as she wandered to the dining room, flushing with her hands at an invisible mess in front of her as she went.
Chaos had tried to make it up to the Room Three guests with their first breakfast, she’d fried their eggs in heart-shaped moulds and made sure to congratulate them on their happy engagement news. While the man had clearly been charmed his fiancée had issued a terse, ‘thank you’, and showed no sign of defrosting soon.
Chaos had missed more than one important detail recently. It was always the way of it when the kids weren’t at school, organisational compromises ebbed towards neglect of children or business, sometimes both. On the way to bed she’d noticed the flowers on the windowsill halfway up the stairs had long since run out of water and stood crisp, blackening and foreboding, a needless chrysanthemum massacre. Too tired to head back downstairs and clean up properly, she’d robotically lifted the vase and placed it, complete with sepia-coloured contents, onto a shelf in the airing cupboard outside her own and the kids’ bedrooms. Then, at five AM, the realisation that she hadn’t wiped the bottom of any guest’s wardrobes in weeks had woken her, pushing expletives into the dawn light of her bedroom where she lay, ever surrounded by the silhouettes of laundry stacks and hills. Chaos cringed at the memories of her most recent failures and pulled another wet sheet from the washing machine.
‘Any chance you’d hang out the washing?’ she asked Guilt, catching his gaze panning the disorder before he shook his head and laughed.
‘Nope. You wanted your business and you got it, remember? I’ve got places to be. I see the kids are AWOL anyway so I’ll be back later. Maybe.’
Guilt turned then stopped, smirking and lifting a pair of Chaos’s comfy white knickers by a fingertip from the clean laundry basket then waving them like a Barbie-themed matador before dropping them with a snort.
‘Size matters, eh Chaos?’
Two days, Chaos thought, blushing furiously. Just two days till all the guests were gone and the kids were back at school. Then she’d have her long-awaited hiatus in bookings to make her decision about the future. She watched as Guilt left, his fingers running along the hallway dado rail. He always had to touch as much as possible she’d noticed, all the better to fully infect everything.
In Room Seven, Peace sat at the dressing table brushing her waist length hair and contemplating what the universe had shown her that morning. She’d seen the new guests finishing breakfast and heading upstairs. The woman was about Peace’s age, she’d observed, but looked older. Her partner on the other hand, with all the bound of a spangle-legged puppy, was significantly younger. Peace smiled at her reflection, smoothed her kaftan, then turned her attention to War.
Tired from their lovemaking, after which had followed a needling, small-hours commentary from Peace on everything War could improve about himself, War was now pretending to look for his tie while he considered his options. Option one; he could try to escape early from this farce of an annual hook-up by being honest and telling Peace she was a great shag but he couldn’t abide her patter and it was over, for good. Or, more dramatically, he could just go for it, kill the sanctimonious bitch with a coat hanger, get to the airport and take that tax-free job in the Middle East. At least the latter would mean he wouldn’t have to worry about self-control again when she got in touch to arrange next year’s rendezvous.
Peace watched, narrowing her eyes as War walked from the wardrobe to the bedside cabinet, yanking its single drawer open.
‘What are you looking for, War?’ Bangles twinkled from Peace’s wrists as she placed her hands on her lap.
‘My tie’, War snapped, flashing a dead-eyed glare then muttering, ‘you sanctimonious cow-faced bitch’, as he flipped over tourist leaflets and shoved aside a bible, then bent to look under the bed.
‘Cow-faced?’ Peace repeated, turning back to regard herself in the mirror. If anything she was slightly horse-like, surely? Truth be told her many friends often remarked that her beauty was classically ethereal, with no animal references at all. ‘Do you really think cow-faced is appropriate, War?’ Peace turned back, opening her hands as if they held the question and had released it, like a dove, to fly to her lover.
War stood up, pulled his trousers out of his arse crack and stared hard at Peace, his brow twisting. Christ, but he hated her. Why couldn’t she be a cat woman, like normal females, channelling her angst into felines instead of him? He hated her breasts now too. These days when she was naked they hung like under-stuffed feather pillows. And, God give him strength, he abhorred those bastarding golden sandals. Who did she think she was? Fucking Nefertiti? And as for her death knell silver-grey hair? That was heinous, he realised. Why didn’t she dye it and make the tiniest effort to be attractive? War’s top lip twitched. Peace looked like a tripped-out mermaid elder who could do with a drowning, he thought. That patronising smile, piously pulling at the corners of her eyes. Vile. She made him sick. What had he been thinking? Why did they always end up back in bed together? Turning quickly, disgusted with himself now too, he grabbed the bible from the bedside drawer and hurled it, hitting Peace square on the bridge of her nose. Peace let out a short shriek, winced, stared back with her jaw hanging open then snatched up the bible and hurled it back. The end of the book’s spine connected with War’s temple and extracted, for Peace, a satisfying gasp of shock and pain.
There was no time to lose in this type of foreplay, Peace knew. Hitching her kaftan, never taking her eyes off War, she stepped up onto the bed dividing them, claiming the higher ground, smiling down, crazed and ready. War’s breath rasped through flaring, hairy nostrils, his repulsion for Peace now so strong it seemed to edge her backwards. Yet, with a hand outstretched behind her, Peace had almost reached the bedside lamp. Her long fingers extended and grabbed. She’d make War see the light this time.
For every second the miniature kettle took to boil in Room Three, Love felt increasingly awful about the noise disturbing Fear. In that moment Fear looked every inch a real author, Love thought, flashing glances between his fiancée and the kettle. How he adored the leopard-skin patterned glasses on the end of her nose, the bejazzled laptop on her lap and the tip-tap of words flowing through the keyboard. Her productivity, her flow, was his joy. Who was to say this wouldn’t be the moment they’d look back on with a throng of future literary friends, laughing and recalling; ‘we almost went for ice cream but instead we honoured the creative call, and the rest? History! Published! Just look at her now!’
Fear’s long-awaited book would be their baby together, Love thought, unable to suppress an excited smile as the water at last reached boiling point. Fear looked up, irritated by the orchestra of noise Love was conducting while nervously dangling tea bags. Did Love really understand how incredibly difficult it was for art to be released in these conditions? He was young, she reminded herself, sighing. Of course he didn’t. Reading her stare, Love blurted a string of apologies, flicked the kettle off and berated himself while grabbing his jacket from the hook on the back of the door. Fear flapped her arms, bum shuffling frantically to free herself from the duvet. ‘Darling!’, she cried, panic rising. ‘Darling! Where are you going?!’
‘I’m going to leave you to create. I’ll find a coffee and admire the view. You can text when the muse frees you’.
Fear grabbed Love’s arms, spinning him as if initiating a lustful tango, positioning herself between him and the door then walking him backwards to the bed as he laughed, protesting that he must let her get on.
‘You absolutely will not leave this room, darling! You’re my muse’, Fear pushed her glasses above her heavy fringe, kissing Love’s jaw while pressuring him to sit. ‘What if I never see you again, hmm?’, her pitch strained as she attempted to straddle her bounty then quickly reversed, a thigh muscle threatening to tear, then opting instead to stand, cupping Love’s innocent face in her freckled hands, rubbing the tip of her nose on his. ‘Strange things happen in little towns, darling. Terrible, freak occurrences’, Fear gestured to the window as if awful things were happening on the quiet street below right then. Confused, Love thought of the blackbird he’d watched outside since after breakfast. It’d been singing from the top of the willow tree in the B&B’s tiny front garden while a wave lazily slapped the prom wall. Terror on this street seemed impossible. ‘No darling. If we go, we go together’, Fear continued, placing her finger on Love’s lips and pressing gently to remind him not to interrupt, or perhaps to extract a kiss, Love often found it hard to tell which.
Looking up at her, Love saw again the best of Fear rather than the worst as he fell back on the bed in surrender before she wagged a finger at him then turned and padded across the carpet, disappearing into the en suite. The brief thought that Love could slip away while Fear toileted was briskly removed by the sound of flushing. ‘Love always wins’, he whispered, remembering words from a sparkly magnet Fear had clamped to their fridge at home. Not for the first time, he tried to work out how the words fitted with reality.
Part 2 will be published tomorrow.