As always, our television is tuned to the all-day news and weather channel. This month is shaping up to be the wettest on record – again. Yesterday was the hottest day this month – also again. Today it is raining – multiple agains. And a storm is blowing in from the Atlantic that is scheduled to be the worst on record. It’s a great time to be in the record-keeping business.
I am baking a cake in the flat I share with Kumi. I have never baked a cake before but as my mother used to say, ‘you are never too old to learn something new’ – although for the last five years of her life she learned nothing new and stared out the window all day. But I think she was right. Next year I will be thirty-five; high time I learned how to bake a cake.
Tomorrow is Kumi’s birthday. She will be thirty-nine, her last birthday before the big Four-O. She is very sensitive about this. Kumi is a television weather forecaster and it’s a cut-throat business when it comes to the big Four-O. I am hoping a home-baked chocolate cake will make her birthday a happy day. I have put aside the whole morning to bake it. I have the ingredients, the recipe and the utensils. Everything is laid out. In my mind’s eye I am like a contestant on a baking show, one of the more successful contestants who doesn’t say much but really knows what they’re doing.
I am about to switch on the oven and set the temperature to 180C when my phone rings. It says ‘No Caller ID’. I’ll be honest: this is a welcome distraction. There are more instructions in the recipe than I had anticipated.
‘Hello?’ I say.
‘Who is this?’ It’s a female caller. I don’t recognise her voice.
‘It’s me,’ I say. ‘Who are you calling?’
‘I’m calling you. Can you tell me your name, please?’
‘I can’t give you that information.’
‘Because nobody gives their information over the phone. Who are you?’
‘I can’t give you that information.’
I pause. This is either a crank call or a wrong number. ‘Okay, why are you calling me? Are you selling something?’
‘Why are you so suspicious? Perhaps you shouldn’t have a phone if you don’t want to receive calls.’
‘I’m going to hang up now.’
‘Wait, is your name Miko?’
I disconnect the call. The world is certainly a weird place. I switch on the oven and check the temperature. So far so good; first item on the list ticked off. I decide I should wash my hands after holding my phone – I take my phone everywhere so it stands to reason it will have collected a lot of unsavoury microbes which shouldn’t end up in a birthday cake. I also check the time. Kumi will be on screen soon with the lunchtime weather report. It will be about the rain and the coming storm, I’m sure.
My phone rings again and, speak of the devil, it’s Kumi.
‘Hi,’ I say. ‘Aren’t you on soon?’
‘Yes. This is a quick call – you know my black bag?’
‘Not the backpack. The small black bag. The one with the gold strap.’
‘The little one?’
‘Yes, the little one. If I say small, I also mean little. I left it in the restaurant yesterday. I called them and they have it. Could you go and get it? Like now.’
Kumi is very assertive.
‘Now?’ I look at the oven and all my ingredients and utensils. ‘Does it have to be now?’
‘Yes, it’s very important. Can you get it and bring it to the studio?’
‘To the studio?’ The studio is an hour away. That would be two hours there and back, and add to that the trip to the restaurant – ‘Wait a minute, what restaurant? We didn’t go to a restaurant yesterday.’
‘I know we didn’t, but I did – with the team in the afternoon. I left my bag there.’
This is news to me. ‘Which one?’
‘I told you: the small black one with the gold—’
‘I mean, which restaurant?’
‘The usual one, the Oyster Pearl. Leave it at the studio reception as soon as possible. Thanks.’ She makes kissing sounds, three squeaky noises which if delivered in person would be very unpleasant, and then hangs up, leaving me with a lot of questions and a warming oven.
How long does it take to bake a cake? I look at the instructions again. The preparation time is thirty-five minutes and then twenty-five minutes baking time. But that doesn’t include stopping to check the recipe after every instruction, nor the washing up and putting away. And what about icing and decorating? I calculate this is easily a two-hour job. So, say two and a half hours to get Kumi’s bag, drop it off and get home, plus another two hours to bake the cake. It’s eleven thirty now. It is possible. I could have everything done before Kumi comes home this evening and that would give us time to talk about what ‘the usual one’ means.
I go to the window and look out. It’s raining hard. I get my coat, gloves and my protective face mask. There is a lot of particulate matter in the air outside and I doubt the rain will keep all of it in check. Just as I am ready to go, my phone rings again. I am amazed. Normally, my phone rings maybe twice a week, maximum. If this continues I will have to change my ringtone, which I selected when I first bought my phone – an old-fashioned car horn that goes ‘parp parp’. At the time I thought it was hilarious, but now it depresses me in ways I can’t explain.
It’s ‘No Caller ID’ again. She jumps straight in.
‘Listen, we got off on the wrong foot last time—’
‘How did you get my number? I’m going to block you from calling me.’
‘Why? Because you’re obviously a crank caller and nobody wants to get crank calls.’
There is a pause on the other end of the line and I think my point has struck home. But I’m wrong. She says, ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit rich calling me a crank when it’s you who’s being cranky? I was trying to be polite and reasonable. Is your name Lemuel?’
‘No.’ I look at my watch. Time is ticking. ‘I’m going to hang up now. Do me a favour and don’t call me any more. How would you like it if every time your phone rang you had to worry it was a crank caller?’
‘I wouldn’t like that.’
‘Exactly. That’s the position you’re putting me in.’
‘You sound like you’re wagging your finger.’
I look at my finger. She’s right. ‘Never mind what I’m doing. Just don’t call me any more. That’s all I’m saying.’
‘How about three more tries? That would take less than ten seconds of your precious time. And we won’t say any more about you jabbing your finger – which is a form of assault, you know.’
‘I wasn’t jabbing. I was wagging.’
‘So you admit it. Is your name Rocco?’
‘No.’ I hang up and leave the flat.
We live in a shabby part of town. We moved here because everyone said this part of town was up-and-coming and it would be a good investment. Everyone was wrong – although, in fairness, nowhere is up-and-coming any more. Even nice areas are down-and-going. It’s a global phenomenon. As my mother used to shout, ‘we’re going to hell in a handcart’.
There is rubbish strewn across the pavement. Soggy plastic bags are being pushed by the wind, tin cans bounce along and bottles roll in wide spirals towards the gutters. Everywhere looks a mess. I hate it. Hate is a strong word, but it’s appropriate because I’m big on being neat and tidy. I wrote a book called Treat Your Shelf With Respect, which according to my publisher ‘shifted a lot of units’. That’s how I met Kumi. I was interviewed on a daytime TV show and she was forecasting the weather. At the time it looked like I was set to become a hotshot author but that particular outlook has yet to come true.
The rain is cold and blows horizontally in bursts like sea spray being driven inland by waves – and for all I know that’s exactly what’s happening, even though we live a long way from the coast. Nothing can be taken for granted any more. Kumi and I take turns to use our car and today Kumi has taken it to work, so I will have to use public transport. The Oyster Pearl is in the north of the city. The television studio is in the west. We live in the east. I need to get a move on if I’m going to be back in time to bake and decorate a birthday cake. The cake is taking up all my thoughts and I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t decided to bake it in the first place. If only I had switched off my phone, I could be mixing up a chocolate batter at this very moment.
I think these things while I try to avoid the puddles and the cars that spray filthy cold water onto the pavements. It depresses me how rain makes everything dirty. There’s so much dirt outdoors. Dirt and rubbish and rain. Instead of washing the world clean, rain just makes it grubbier. I can feel my mood taking a downward turn so I try to cheer myself up by whistling – I come from a long line of whistlers – but the rain and wind blowing into my face make it impossible (even for a virtuoso like me) to make any decent sounds.
My best bet is to take a bus, but at the bus stop there is a crowd of people and my heart sinks. Sure enough, when I look at the electronic noticeboard I see all the buses are running late. There is not enough room in the bus shelter for us all to hide from the weather, so I decide to walk. I can’t believe that yesterday there were clear blue skies and people were lying in the parks and paddling in fountains. I need a whole new wardrobe for these weather patterns.
I keep walking and after twenty minutes I reach the main intersection, which must be the busiest place in the city. This is where six trunk roads converge and traffic can come from any angle – and not just cars. There are lorries, bicycles, scooters, buses – all trying to work out who has the right of way and in which lane they ought to be.
I wait in the crowd for the lights to change. Each time they do we shuffle towards the kerb like pennies in a coin-pusher game. I am part of the rising tide of self-employed who have no set hours. ‘Rising tide’ is an emotive term these days so perhaps I should say I am one of the seventy per cent in this city who work for themselves. That’s why the pavements are so crowded: we have all taken time out for domestic errands.
In the distance, through gaps in the tall buildings, I can see flashes of sheet lightning on a darker horizon. Is this the beginning of the big storm Kumi has been talking about? I decide I’ll get her bag, drop it at the studio and treat myself to a taxi home. It will be a costly extravagance but worth it.
My phone goes ‘parp parp’ and I see it’s that ‘No Caller ID’ again. Seriously? I should just ignore the call but I take it anyway.
‘It’s me,’ she says.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘Stop calling. I mean it.’
‘You sound muffled, Monty.’
I pull down my face mask. ‘I am not Monty. Why do you keep trying to guess my name?’
‘I’m not guessing. I’m working off a list.’
I decide this conversation isn’t going anywhere, although I would like to know more about her so-called list. ‘I can’t talk to you any more; I’m crossing the road.’
‘Are you outside? That’s a poor choice, Chip, there’s a doozy of a storm brewing.’
‘I’m not Chip. Tell me something: is your list in any kind of order? You sound like you’re plucking names out of thin air.’
‘You’re quite a grouch, aren’t you? Have you noticed how un-grouchy I am? That’s the difference between you and me. I use a phone to communicate; you use a phone to be grouchy.’
I disconnect the call. Who is this woman? I admit she has a nice voice and that goes a long way with me. I would describe Kumi’s voice as shrill. But it’s best not to engage with crank callers no matter how nice they sound. Thinking of Kumi reminds me that I need to get a move on. There is a lull in the traffic and a man in front of me breaks from the group and dashes across the road. I begin to follow him like a lemming and I’m thinking, If I get a taxi I’ll have time to decorate the cake today which will save me from getting up early tomorrow—
Someone grabs my arm and pulls me back off the road just as a builder’s truck splashes past the very spot I had stepped on. ‘Christ on a bike,’ I say. My thoughts are racing like they do when you’re in the moment and real life is happening, and you don’t have time to be aware of who you are or what you look like. I watch the truck recede into the distance and I realise that thinking about Kumi’s cake nearly killed me.
A middle-aged man in a dirty, frayed suit is holding my arm. He’s got poppy eyes and a damp, faecal odour that makes me sad.
‘Thanks. That was a close call,’ I say.
He nods. ‘Do you have any change?’
His voice lacks substance as if he’s low on lung-power. I decide I’m going to give him some money and then I’m going to get a taxi to the restaurant – and it can wait for me there and then it can take me to the studio, and then it can take me home again. Except when I dig into my pockets I don’t have any change – which is embarrassing for both of us. Fortunately, he says:
‘I have a QR code.’
I pull my face mask back up and we step away from the road and find a quieter spot by an empty shop doorway. All the shops along this road are empty, their windows smeared with whitewash so no one can see the unpaid bills lying on the floor.
He is wearing his code on a card hung round his neck. ‘This is modern,’ I say.
‘The outreach people give them out. I don’t have a bank account any more.’
I nod as if I understand how difficult his life is – but what’s weird is I’m not thinking about him at all. I’m thinking about my crank caller and how it would be good if she called again soon, so I could tell her about the truck and how it nearly knocked me over because I was thinking about baking a cake. She’d like that story. I’d also tell her I was giving the man some money on his QR code. She’d like that too. She sounded a kindly sort. And then I have to remind myself not to be lulled into whatever scam she’s pulling. I make a mental note to keep my wits about me if she calls again, because I’m clearly a sucker for this sort of thing.
I scan his code with my phone and make what I hope is a reasonable donation. The rain is getting heavier and I feel mean leaving him here but I have to collect Kumi’s bag so I can get back home to bake that damned cake.
‘I stubbed my toe,’ he says, interrupting my thoughts. ‘Then an infection set in and my foot turned black and I almost lost my whole leg. But in the end it was only the toe.’
‘That’s lucky,’ I say. We’re getting soaked and I sneak a look at my watch – it’s over an hour since I left the apartment. I think about all the cake ingredients and utensils laid out in the kitchen and I wish I were back there amongst them, rather than here, outside in the rain with this man and his nine toes.
‘You see what’s happened to my eye?’ He points at one of his poppy eyes.
‘It looks a bit weepy,’ I say.
‘It is a bit weepy. The whole left field of my vision is a bit weepy. I’ll probably go blind in that eye. I’m disintegrating. Where do you stand on angels?’
I don’t have a good answer for this, or any answer, so he tries again.
‘Are you for or against them?’
Perhaps I should walk away, but instead I say, ‘I’m for them.’
‘They’re coming back, you know. For the war of the great day of God has been forecast.’
I wonder if Kumi has seen that forecast, and right on cue my phone goes ‘parp parp’. It’s her; what are the odds?
‘Where are you?’ she says. She sounds in no mood for pleasantries.
‘I’m standing near the intersection. Hey, a truck nearly—’
‘Are you walking? Why are you walking?’
‘I thought it would be quicker.’
‘How could it be quicker?’
That’s a good question.
‘Anyway,’ she says, ‘it doesn’t matter. I’ve got it, so you can go home.’
‘You’ve got your bag?’
‘Yes, I’ve got my bag. “It” is my bag.’
I was right. There are no pleasantries. I wonder what happened. Did someone fetch it for her, or did they send it over? I say, ‘Okay, that’s good. I’ll head for home.’ I’ve learned to keep things light when Kumi’s in this mood. ‘See you later.’
I try my hand at some of those squeaky noises, but she’s already hung up. I wonder if Kumi is deceiving me and, if she is, how I feel about it; and if I have to ask that question, does that already answer it? I look at the man who saved me and he says:
‘They’re as big as buildings, you know.’
I walk home with the wind behind me. It’s so strong that if I had an umbrella it might lift me up and carry me over the chimney pots. That, or smash me into a lamppost. I’m joined by a large amount of rubbish which is also being blown along. It’s like I’m a Litter God travelling with my own angels – albeit small, discarded angels, none of which are as big as a building. With the wind and rain at my back I can now whistle, and I’m limbering up with a few trills and warbles when I stop suddenly.
Did I leave the oven on?
This thought takes the blow out of me. I’m not experienced in these matters, so all I can do is wonder what might happen if an oven cooks thin air for a couple of hours at 180C. I have an image of a steel box digesting itself into a twisted maw of molten metal.
This is not a helpful image.
A bus that passes near my flat pulls into a bus stop ahead and I run to catch it. I’m glad I have my mask on because I have to squeeze in and stand squashed amongst wet, weary people, while trying not to stumble and bring everyone down. The bus lurches forwards, swaying from side to side, and not for the first time I wonder why this type of vehicle doesn’t require seat belts.
When I jump out at my stop the wind is so wild I have to hold on to the side of the bus shelter. The storm must be almost here. I look up and see one side of the sky is a deep, dark charcoal grey. My crank caller was right; this is going to be a doozy. I dash to the entrance of our block of flats and let myself in. There is a mirror in the lift and I look at myself. In my black face mask, black coat and black gloves I look like an assailant. I wonder if that’s why the man who saved me told me how bad things are for him, in case I was about to mug him. It saddens me he might have had that fear; that his natural inclination to save a stranger could be repaid by being mugged.
I walk along the corridor to my door and put my ear to the wood, but I can’t hear any expanding metal or crackling flames. When I turn the key and step inside I find the kitchen is warmer than it was before, but other than that, everything is as I left it. As my mother used to say, ‘it’s never as bad as you imagine’. Although I have clear memories of that not being true.
I change into dry clothes and make myself a cup of tea. Kumi should be finishing in a couple of hours, but I calculate I still have enough time to bake the cake. It seems every time I think about Kumi, she calls. My phone parps and there she is again.
I say, ‘Yo,’ which is unlike me.
‘Is that you?’
‘Yo.’ I have no idea why I am talking like this. I feel unusually frivolous.
‘I’m going to be late. It’s this storm. We’re all working overtime on it.’
‘Okay… I – is everything all right? What are you doing?’
‘I’m drinking tea.’
‘Right. So, anyway. I thought I’d let you know.’
‘Be careful driving.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Tonight. In the storm.’
‘Oh. Thanks. I will.’
‘Hey, tomorrow is your birthday.’
We disconnect without any squeaky noises. Every now and then the wind buffets the side of the building, rattling the blocked-up grate and shaking the window frames. It’s only mid-afternoon, but already it’s getting dark. I take my phone over to the window and look out. Below, the traffic is sluggish. The wind and the rain are slowing everything down and the city is like a clockwork toy that needs winding up. I imagine angels that are much bigger than buildings peeling back the sky and looking down with their enormous faces, coming to tidy up the world and sweep us all away.
I decide that after I’ve baked the cake I should get down to some work. I’m writing my second book. It has the working title Tidy Now, Tidy Forever. I got the idea after listening to a science podcast about a phenomenon called ‘entropic force’. I looked it up and found the word ‘entropy’ has an Ancient Greek root: tropḗ. It means transformation – in this case, a transformation towards chaos.
That podcast gave me a lofty idea. I would write a book extolling the virtues of an orderly lifestyle. My message would be this: if we were all tidier, we might combat the entropic force in our daily lives, and the cumulative effect might prevent the world from going to hell in a handcart.
But now, thinking about the storm getting ready to tear up the city, and the killer traffic at the intersection, and the infrequent buses crammed with unhappy wet people, and the rubbish blowing in the streets, and the closed shops, and the man I met who is disintegrating, and Kumi in the studio or her office or the restaurant or wherever she is, I think I got carried away. Standing here, now, by the window, it is clear to me a global movement of well-organised cupboards would have little impact on a cooling universe.
It’s more than an hour before ‘No Caller ID’ calls again. I’m sitting in my chair in the gloom, and I have to admit I’ve been waiting for that ‘parp parp’.
‘Don’t hang up,’ she says. ‘I’ve had an idea about your name.’
‘My name doesn’t need an idea.’
‘See? You have a closed mind. Just hear me out. But first – are you Tyler?’
‘No. Nor am I Oscar, Mickey, Henrik, Bunter or Vlastimir.’
‘Interesting. Okay, so this is my idea: why don’t you guess my name? If you get it right, then you can tell me your name. That way, we both win. See? Fair exchange is no robbery.’
‘How will I know if I guess right?’
‘I’ll tell you.’
‘But how will I know that’s true? I mean, you could say whatever I guess is correct. And then I’d have to tell you my name. So it wouldn’t be a fair exchange at all. Technically, it would be theft of my name by deception.’ That should shake her. The last thing a crank caller wants is a discussion on identity jurisprudence. But instead she says:
‘What’s the biggest animal you’ve ever seen?’
I’m thrown by this change of tack and instead of refusing to give any information I say, ‘I stood next to a cart horse once.’
‘That’s a good answer – but never stand behind one. A kick from a cart horse could loosen your skeleton. How about a giraffe? Have you ever stood next to a giraffe? They’re like creatures from another planet. Beautiful.’
I like the way she says ‘beautiful’, as if it’s an exhalation and not a word. But I remember to keep my guard up. ‘Hold on – how come we’ve switched to animals?’
‘I thought we could take a break from the name thing.’
I realise I’m being ensnared in the conversation again. She’s good. For all I know dangerous viruses are being downloaded onto my phone or a massive bill is building up. But before I make up my mind to terminate the call, a memory pops into my head and I say:
‘I’ll tell you what I did see once, when I was on holiday: I saw an armadillo. I was in a restaurant and I looked out the window and I said, “There’s an armadillo.” And it was. Running across some grass. I had never said that word in my entire life but as soon as I saw it, that’s what I said – “There’s an armadillo.” That word was just waiting to be used after all those years. It was perfect. I saw it, I said the right thing and then I went back to eating. No more was required. It was a very tidy moment.’
‘You like tidy?’
‘I love tidy.’
My flat is getting dark. I should put the lights on and draw the curtains; demarcate the afternoon from the evening. But it’s nice sitting here, two voices in the shadows, so I say, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you calling people and finding out their names?’
‘I’m not calling people. I’m calling you.’
‘It’s how it worked out.’
I think about that. Do people call numbers just to see how it works out? I try to imagine a person who would do that. I want to ask how many calls she made before she got to me and how many other times she’s done this. But when I open my mouth nothing comes out.
‘Are you still there?’ she says. ‘Or have you hung up again?’
‘I’m still here.’
‘That’s the spirit, Bucky. Hey, just think: if you told me your name I could cross it off and that would make my list a bit tidier – what about that? If you love tidy you have to love that idea.’
I can’t deny it’s an appealing thought. If there’s one thing I like, it’s crossing an item off a list. But instead I say, ‘I’m not Bucky. How many names have you got?’
‘Exactly the right amount.’
‘You mean the list ends when you get my name right?’
‘And then what?’
I nod to myself. ‘Okay. I’m going to hang up now.’
‘Is it Rufus?’
It’s not Rufus. I get up and go to the kitchen where I study the recipe again. There are definitely a lot of instructions. I no longer see myself as one of the more successful contestants on a baking show; in fact, I hope the judges vote me off soon. I am seriously considering going to a shop and buying a cake. I could decorate it with isobars. ‘It’s the thought that counts’, as my mother used to say – although I admit, sometimes something more tangible would have been nice.
I look at my phone. I’ve changed my mind; I like my ‘parp parp’ ringtone after all and I’m going to keep it. I wonder if I should tell Kumi about my crank caller and straight away I have one of those flashes of reality that usually come after a near-death experience: of course not. Her response would be like a cold front sweeping in from the east.
I arrange my cooking utensils into straight lines, put the ingredients into the order in which I’ll use them and leave a glass of red wine on the side, just in case Kumi comes home any time soon. Not that I’m expecting that to happen. I begin beating butter and sugar together and sure enough, bits start flicking out of the bowl. I wonder if it’s practicable to do this outside. I pause to lay out some paper towels and while I do so an unwelcome thought crosses my mind. I don’t know if Kumi even likes cake.
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