Think Of A Name For It
By Ian Duncan Smith
I saw a clothesline lying in foot-high grass, and then I saw the back door. I found the key. I opened the door, and walked into a kitchen. I saw a filthy sink, and a bin that needed emptying. My new place didn’t look so good. A man walked in carrying a mug. He filled a kettle, and switched it on.
“There’s your cupboard.”
I put my backpack down.
“Pleased to meet you.”
Another man walked in. He held up a tin of tomatoes.
“You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have a weight of carrion flesh. How do you feel about paying some rent, Tod?”
I held my rucksack by the straps, and looked at them both. Tod opened his mail.
“Now here’s a thing, Titian. I can’t buy Y-fronts with a padded gusset anywhere.”
“Rent please, Tod.”
Tod smeared grease round the sink with his finger.
“Take a look at the bathroom.”
They marched out of the kitchen. I followed them into a bathroom. The three of us leaned into an avocado coloured sink. It was spattered white. I looked up.
“So, which is my room?”
I was shown into my new room. I threw some clothes in a drawer. I stretched. My fingertips touched both walls. The light switch crackled. I picked up the newspaper, but I’d read it ten times. I put it down, and walked into the lounge.
Tod cast a shadow across the TV. He sucked on a bowl full of spaghetti. Titian appeared with a plate of steaming rice. He sat on the sofa, and polished a pair of chopsticks with a handkerchief, looking at the TV. The TV showed an emergency team standing over heaps of twisted metal. Floodlights lit the scene.
“Call that news, Tod?”
“Don’t rubbish me, Titian.”
I wondered how long I could stand the bickering. Titian stood up.
“Switch it off.”
Tod dropped his plate on the sofa. They stared at each other. I thought the plates would fly. I stood up.
“I’ll wash my own pans then.”
Titian left the room, and Tod went into the kitchen, laughing. I followed him, and he turned hot water onto the filthy pans. He grabbed a spatula, holding it like a microphone, stalking the kitchen as though it was a stage, and the audience was the cupboards.
“You know, concrete and steel go together, but they’re an awful double act.”
“Concrete is weak, but steel holds everything together. Steel is tough. Concrete is unpredictable. It crumbles under pressure. Titian works in concrete, but I work in cool, superior steel.”
There were always other places to live. I closed off the tap before the kitchen flooded.
“Very good, Tod. Do you think your work is affecting your home life in any way?”
“You could do with a stretch, said concrete. You look a bit ropy, said steel.”
It was appalling stuff.
“Don’t give up the day job.”
He jabbed the spatula in my face.
“What’s your job then, or didn’t they put a mouth on that ass?”
I dried my hands, took the spatula off him, and threw it in the sink.
“That’s enough of that.”
“Hey! I’m a very successful performance artiste. I don’t listen to anyone. Take note. Single-mindedness is everything. I had a million distractions along the way. University was a long succession of potential pitfalls. My hall was all noise, excess, mess.”
He opened a cupboard, and looked inside.
“I had this vision of being a brilliant young engineer, and subsequently I’m worth a fortune. My strength came through solitude. Shut everything out, and listen to yourself. It’s the only way.”
“What about feelings?”
Tod looked at me.
“Feelings are noise. Shut them out.”
“Like the noise of TV.”
He took three teabags, and juggled them into a teapot.
“TV’s as good a guide as any. Someone dies. That’s news. What a way to go. I’d like to end in a spectacular way myself. Something newsworthy. A big splash from a great height.”
I looked out of the window.
“Sounds wild. What about that wreck you run?”
“That car costs four fifty a week. Round here, that’s got status.”
“Shut out the noise, you said.”
“Comparison is essential. Have you noticed Titian is more annoying than usual?”
“Look, I just arrived in hell.”
“He was kicked out of work. Escorted off the premises by security men. He wrote a thesis: ‘How Water Flows Uphill.’ He went on and on, so they booted him out. What a sad case.”
I lifted the pan lid to check the boiling water.
“Have you actually seen Titian’s thesis?”
“They said it’s pretentious rubbish. Mathematical proofs, the lot. He’s never bothered me with it. He knows I’d rip it to shreds. The outpourings of a fevered brain. If he pestered me with water flowing uphill, I’d give him more than the boot.”
Next morning, I heard Tod clearing his throat, spitting into the sink. The cost of being a brilliant young engineer was working weekends. He left, slamming the door, and sunlight burst through the window. I turned over, and yawned.
But I heard noise. Titian was opening and closing drawers, slamming them, and shouting. I sat up. My bedroom door opened, and Titian came in. He looked up.
“I…er…didn’t know you were here.”
“I’m looking for some papers... Have you seen them?”
“Well, hey! You know what, Titian? They’re not here.”
He backed out, and closed the door. I climbed out of bed, threw some clothes on, and went along the hall. I pushed the kitchen door open. He wasn’t in the kitchen. I walked into the lounge. Titian was sitting amongst scattered newspapers watching TV. His hands trembled.
“Look...I’m sorry about all that. You must think I’m…very strange.”
“Actually, yes. Tod told me all about you.”
“Did he? Well, you see, I’ve lost everything…my life work. You haven’t seen it have you? Because if you have, it doesn’t matter, just give it back.”
I folded my arms, and yawned.
“I don’t have it.”
Titian stood up.
“I took legal steps to ensure it can’t be copied. It’s my idea, and some people want my idea, so I expect Tod’s told you because he wants it. I have to search the whole house. Did you hear a break in?”
“A few deep breaths, Titian. No one broke in.”
“Do you ever feel like shouting? Like Peter O’Toole in that film where he goes into the forest and shouts at God for letting him down. It’s a human problem you see. The trouble is we’ve had too many wars, killed off too many of our own. Diversity’s exterminated. That’s the epitaph.”
But Titian marched round the room, chopping with his hand.
“Egyptians, Athenians, Romans, Ancient Britons, all gone by our own hand, like Cleopatra, and all diversity with them, and the whole human race. All that crucial bacteria gone, cleansed, sanitised, and we need to replenish. The gene pool’s empty. Competing should make us stronger, but it hasn’t. Nobody will face up, we’re extinct.”
“You’ve tried speed dating too.”
“Oh very funny. We can’t just mate our way out of it. It’s the end of the line. We have babies, but we’re not evolving. We’re dying because we drove out the apparatus to adapt. Maybe they’ll find the missing DNA link on Mars, or else we’re just waiting for the asteroid to wipe us out, a blip in history, plucky little try-hards who couldn’t stop killing our own. You cycle don’t you? Do you think it will save you? Do you think it will save the planet?”
“It keeps me fit.”
“But fitness isn’t everything. If you keep fit to attract a woman, what do you do when your fitness dies with your youth? It ought to be about intelligence, but brains don’t pull strings with women, never have done. There’s no mixing with the Vikings.”
“Were they great thinkers?”
“Yes…and great rowers too.”
Some kind of advert was bleating out of the TV.
“It’s all income, prospects, status, economics, short term.”
I grabbed the cushion, and held it up to the back of his head. He stared at the TV.
“Too many wars, like it said in the bible. Not enough understanding. Men have fought to dominate. What chance do women have? ‘But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.’”
Titian turned round. I met him full on with the cushion.
Next day, I stacked tins in my cupboard. Tod walked in.
“He must have gone to his mother’s. He’s no friends here.”
“Call the cops. He was pretty upset when I last saw him.”
“I guess success has gone to his head.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Titian’s the biggest failure ever.”
“Tod. It was a joke.”
“But not funny. How should I know where he is? I don’t care about that lump of lard. I hope he jumps off a cliff.”
Tod left. He slammed the door. He slammed the bathroom door, ran the tap full on, and rattled a toothbrush around his head, spitting. He locked himself in his bedroom.
I sat in the lounge and stared at the wall. The heating switched itself off, and the cooling radiators clicked. I waited until there was complete silence, and then I had an idea.
I stood up, and walked into the long hallway. The light from the lounge reached down the hall. I walked past my bedroom, and stopped at Titian’s room. I held Titian’s door handle. I pressed the door so the mechanism wouldn’t creak. I turned the handle, and pushed.
It wouldn’t open. I pushed harder. There was a snap. The door opened, and I nearly fell. A ball came at me. I ducked. The ball hit the wall and fell on the floor. Titian had booby-trapped his room.
I looked round. I saw partitions, a notice board, company messages, a fire extinguisher. He’d recreated his old office. I walked past the first cubicle, and looked over the partition. I passed two more of Titian’s invisible assistants. I saw a folder on a desk. I opened the folder, and read.
‘A variety of vertebrates have evolved mechanisms of chemical defence. When an intruder approaches the nest, it ejects yellowish stomach oil from its mouth.’
I looked round. Someone hammered on the back door. I closed the file, and tried to reassemble the booby trap. Tod walked down the hallway wrapping a dressing gown round himself. I followed him down the hall, into the kitchen.
Someone kicked the door open. The glass came loose, and fell out. Titian marched in, and grabbed Tod’s dressing gown lapels.
“You locked me out.”
Tod picked up a spatula, and pointed it at Titian.
“Are you drunk?”
Titian picked up a potato peeler, and pointed it at Tod.
“I should have done this years ago, Tod. I should have squeezed every drop out of you when you came up here looking for a cheap place. I should have sliced your head off, and saved myself the torment. Shouldn’t I?”
I picked up a potato masher.
“Stop now, or I’ll stick this through you both.”
It was all I could find, but it had a useful edge.
“Tomorrow morning, I’ll burn this place down. The blaze will be so intense you’ll die without a trace, and I’ll be living a new life. You see, guys. I don’t care.”
I straightened each of Titian’s fingers, and removed the peeler from his hand.
“Thank you. You know, fellahs, I’ve had better days.”
Next morning, I waited for Tod to emerge from the bathroom.
“I was there, Tod. I saw it happen. I stopped Titian killing you.”
But Tod headed for work all the same. I went into the bathroom, and locked the door. I held my head in my hands. I ran a bath, and climbed in, but I heard a noise in the hallway.
“Are you going to be in there all day?”
“I just got in, Titian.”
“Well just get out. Jesus, it’s urgent. Hurry up.”
He hit the door. I threw my clothes on, still wet from the bath, and pulled the door open.
“Christ sake, Titian.”
“You’re going slow on purpose.”
He pushed past me, and slammed the door. I stood outside the bathroom dripping water.
In the lounge, I drank tea and looked out of the window at the long grass wondering about the chances of finding a new place quickly. The door opened, and Titian came in.
“Sorry about that.”
I looked at him.
“Why didn’t you speak up earlier, Titian? You only needed to say.”
“You know how it is. I should’ve built an extra bathroom at the back. Never had time to.”
“I can’t read your mind.”
“Okay, okay. I said I’m sorry.”
Titian sat down. He flicked through the TV schedules. Then he leaned forward.
“I wonder. Do you have a moment?”
“Sure do, Titian. Fire away.”
“I have some paperwork.”
“What sort of paperwork?”
Titian opened a folder. He handed me a thin, spiral-bound report.
“Would you mind looking at it for me?”
I saw a lot of mathematical symbols: ‘How Water Flows Uphill--a Thesis by Titian Stuart.’
“It’s all checked. I just want you to say it’s okay. ”
“But water doesn’t flow uphill, Titian.”
“That’s because you think it doesn’t. If you think it does, then it will, because mathematically it should.”
“You know leaves turn green because everyone thinks they should. Photosynthesis is a product of the human mind. There’s no mathematical proof, yet everyone believes it.”
“Titian…Can I keep this to look at?”
“I’d rather you sign it now. You’re the first...Congratulations.”
“Have you shown Tod?”
“I wouldn’t show him. He’s been after my proof for years. He’s jealous.”
“I’d rather take it away.”
“Well, I’d rather you sign it now...Please.”
He handed me a pen.
“Just to say you’ve seen it.”
Titian held the pen toward me. He smiled.
“We both worked on it.”
On Sunday morning, Titian occupied the bathroom. Every now and then, there was a plop like a water rat slapping into a river.
But then it struck...nature, and I was on the wrong side of the bathroom door. I wasn’t going to give Titian the satisfaction of making me wait while he dried each follicle. I went into the kitchen, and took a carrier bag from under the sink.
Back in my room, I pulled down my pants, and crouched over the carrier. I should have retched, but I didn’t because I didn’t care. I knotted the handles, and carried the bag into the kitchen. I dropped it in the pedal bin, and washed my hands.
On Monday evening, Tod was sitting on the sofa. A kitten was clawing the side of the sofa.
“I found her under the car this morning. I got her something to eat out of the pedal bin.”
I sat down, and looked at the kitten.
“Some pate or mince I think. She lapped it up. Back for more aren’t you? Aren’t you?”
Tod stroked the kitten so hard it couldn’t stand up. Then he lifted it above his head.
“Aren’t you a hungry little thing? Think of a name for her?”
“No…I can’t, Tod…There’s something I want to ask you.”
“Go on, think of a name.”
The kitten stretched its paws, feeling the air.
“Isn’t she the most perfect little thing you’ve ever seen? The most exquisite bundle, master of all around her, a real princess. All instinct, fur, and claws, and spit.”
“What happened to Titian’s wife?”
“Who would let a tiny thing like that die in the cold? Who? Go on. Think of a name for her won’t you? Think of a name. Go on, think of one. Think of a name will you for Christ sake. Think of one.”
Ian Duncan Smith was born in Manchester and lives in Wiltshire in the UK. He has had stories published in Eclectica, Surprising Stories, and VerbSap, among other venues.
Photo "Spiral Wave" (cropped) courtesy of Sarah Barth, Germany.
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