by Neil Campbell
They have a big kitchen and big kitchen windows and no curtains. Our house backs on to theirs. From my kitchen I can see their house. It is a much bigger house than ours. Once I saw them naked on the kitchen table, but that’s not what this is about.
I watch them when it’s dark. I don’t really need the binoculars but for the details. They have a washing machine, a dishwasher, a fridge freezer, a fully fitted kitchen with marble worktops, an Aga, silver spoons and silver coffee spoons and silver knives and forks and gold plates and diamond encrusted egg cups and gold leaf dishes and silk brocaded kitchen towels and a tapestry of fancy recipes on the wall. They have golden woks and a draw full of exotic spices and pewter pans and a long Moroccan rug and Matisse and Manet and Hopper and Brueghel paintings on the walls. They have a tortoise with jewels encrusted in its shell.
They have dinner parties most weekends. The laughter makes its way through their opened windows and over the fence. People drink wine, laugh. They wear dressing gowns, wave cigarette holders, smoke cigars, and laugh uproariously. Sometimes they put car keys into a bowl and do all that. I can see them when the lights go on in the bedrooms and they don’t close the curtains. Sometimes I wonder if they can see me watching. I wonder if the thought of that thrills them. I sit in the dark with a tiny gap in my curtains to poke the binoculars through. Sometimes I go up to my bedroom so I can see into their bedrooms. Sometimes I touch myself and shiver. The lights never go on.
Recently they bought a jacuzzi. Not a very big one. They sat in it the first night and all they kept talking about was whether the chlorine levels were right. No doubt they’ll have a dinner party soon and everyone will be climbing in, smoking cigars, touching under the bubbles, laughing uproariously.
The blaze looked beautiful with the orange fire shining on the leaves of the trees and the flickers of flame rising with the smoke to make new black clouds on the black sky. The cat came whizzing out on fire and flung itself into the jacuzzi. The shell of the tortoise was so hot the firemen couldn’t pick it up. They had to pour cold water on it. Steam came out of where his head should have been until finally it popped out and the firemen started laughing.
The clean up job has taken some time. Forensics people came in their white outfits and blue boots. The kitchen wall fell away and all the charred remains of the kitchen – already soaked by the fire hoses – got wetter every day with the drizzling and sometimes torrential rain. From what I can see nothing of worth has been salvaged.
I saw a notice in the post office, asking if anyone would be prepared to look after a ‘fire salvage tortoise’, so I phoned and then went to pick him up. The jewels had been ripped out, leaving scars on the natural patterns of his shell. I put him in the garden and he looked wistfully at the fence. Turning slowly he made his way to the flowers. He eats them all but on the plus side keeps the lawn in trim. Somebody told me that you can work out the age of a tortoise by the number of concentric rings on its carapace, much as you might work out the age of a tree by counting rings. This information has to come from an unreliable source, otherwise I estimate that next year, Bolt will be celebrating his 150th birthday. I guess I’ll make a trip to the florists for that. Obviously I only get him roses on Valentines’ Day. I think for his birthday I’ll treat him to orchids. I heard just yesterday that a few streets away someone has a Galapagos giant tortoise that lives in their wooden garage. I’d like to see that.
Neil Campbell studied novel writing at Manchester Met. He had a collection of stories, ‘Broken Doll’, published by Salt in 2007. Recent stories in Orbis and Staple. If you like this, try ‘Neighbours’ by Raymond Carver.