Mr. Corbett woke from atypically uneasy dreams to discover that everything seemed much like he had left it the previous night.
Several pillows remained plumped up behind his head. The radio played at the same barely audible volume, still tuned to the BBC World Service. The curtains were still rather sheer, allowing in too much of the early morning sunlight. He wore the same thermal vest and pyjama pants he always wore. A faint scent of generic potpourri hung in the air as it always did. His reading spectacles and a worn copy of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lay on the bedside locker, as they had lain for months. His back still hummed with a low vibrating ache. The bathroom door faced him, closed as usual, still canary-yellow and bearing a sentimental poster he had purchased in a grim discount store many years before: an anthropomorphic polar bear sitting blissfully on the toilet, reading a newspaper and thinking, ‘Aah…the bear necessities of life.’
Everything seemed much like he had left it the previous night, and this pleased Mr. Corbett. He rose slowly, dropping his feet into the dark-wine corduroy slippers that stood on constant guard by the side of the bed, stretching and wiping sleep from his eyes, basking in the comforting inevitability of morning routine. He pulled the curtains open, squinting against the sudden flash, closing his eyes while they adjusted. He plodded to the bathroom and stepped inside, allowing himself a chuckle at the gentle naughtiness of the poster on the door. The bear necessities. That never failed to amuse.
Mr. Corbett pulled back his lips and examined his teeth – mainly his own, which was quite an achievement considering his age. He snorted and searched his nostrils for stray hairs. He flicked on the fluorescent light above the washbasin and bent his head forward, checking for further hair loss. The bulb shone wanly on the skin of his crown, but the hair was still reasonably thick there; going but going reluctantly. He turned his head, examining the skin of his cheeks, the length of his sideburns, the shape of his ears. He lifted his chin and pulled at the skin underneath, a loose little pouch which he was determined to address in the very near future.
He turned on the hot and cold taps and began filling the washbasin, reaching for his razor blade and brush and a smooth, oval ball of soap. Steam fogged up the mirror and wafted refreshingly past his face, clearing his nostrils and inducing a fine sheen of sweat on his skin. It was a familiar feeling and a pleasant one. The face cosseted in gummy steam and the happy silence of solitude: these were simple pleasures, unappreciated by most.
He was about to lather up, damp brush in hand and poised for action, when Mr. Corbett realised that the writing on his old polar bear poster was backwards.
He paused for an instant, wondering vaguely if he was asleep and still dreaming or fully awake or, maybe, caught in a strange interface between the two. This kind of philosophical musing was not common to Mr. Corbett, and he surprised himself in its indulging. He replaced the brush in its customary haunt next to the tap, and stared at his reflection. Been a bit tired lately, haven’t you? A bit tired and out of sorts. That’s all it is. Nothing to worry about.
He backed out of the bathroom, lightly and deliberately, and swung the door around so he could read the poster again, to prove to himself how the imagination can disorientate even the most sober of us. It was with almost as much disappointment as surprise, therefore, that he saw those well-known words – quite comical in their own way – scrolling backwards across the paper, blunt and irrefutable.
There was no denying it: the bear necessities had been reversed. As he peered at the poster, Mr. Corbett gradually noticed that the cartoon of the bear had also been flipped around, as had the toilet and the newspaper; indeed, the entire image. Someone had inverted his poster, for some reason and by some means, and placed its opposite on his bathroom door. Then he checked himself, and thought for a moment, reasoning that there was no possible way for anyone to have gained access to this house, to this room, to spirit away a frayed relic of sentimentality and return it, hours later, as its own antithesis.
The alarm had been set the night before, as was customary; all windows and doors checked and double-checked; the bolt lock applied to the front door and the hall-light left on to deter any would-be home invaders. As much as was possible in these dangerous, disordered times, Mr. Corbett’s safety and privacy were impregnable.
And further, he reasoned, why on earth would anyone wish to do such a bizarre and senseless thing? There was no obvious currency to be gained from it, excepting perhaps some sadistic delight in confusing a harmless middle-aged man. And while he was in no doubt as to some folks’ potential for mindless spite, the impossibility of such an endeavour remained, and a further point: Mr. Corbett wasn’t sure he knew anyone well enough to provoke this act of malice.
Yet there it was, evidence of the offence directly in front of him; his poster was backwards and he wasn’t quite sure why.
The regular itinerary for the day involved dressing (brown suit, cream shirt, dark-brown tie, brown brogues, olive-green hat, deep-red or dark-green handkerchief), switching off the alarm, opening the small kitchen window a fraction to allow air to circulate, scanning the post and collating it into strictly defined categories (bills, statements, junk, personal, miscellaneous), checking the angle of his hat, and strolling to a nearby café for breakfast: scrambled egg, tea, one scone with apricot jam.
Perturbed as he was by the inexplicable reversal of his polar bear poster, Mr. Corbett saw no reason to divert from his typical course. If anything, this unnerving incident amplified his craving for structure, familiarity, routine. He felt he needed to sit at his usual table in his usual café and consume his usual breakfast. Perhaps a perusal of the newspaper was in order – the news in brief, or the letters page, or that diverting little feature on the meaning and origins of uncommon words. ‘Palimpsest: a piece of writing material or manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for other writing. From the Latin palimpsestus and the Greek palimpsestos: palin again + psestos rubbed smooth. The origins of this word are clear, but the date and manner of its introduction into English are less certain…’
Mr. Corbett dressed more quickly than normal, almost neglecting to wedge a handkerchief (incredibly soft blood-red silk threaded with a hair-fine design – a proud recent purchase) into his breast pocket. He tugged on the ends of his suit jacket to ease out any creases, cleared his throat and strode confidently downstairs, looking straight ahead. There is a perfectly logical explanation for all of this, Corbett, and you will divine it. Enjoy your breakfast, do the crossword, smoke a cigar; the answer will come to you in due course.
He flicked open the door of the alarm panel and there it was – it had happened again. The pale plastic buttons were moved from their usual positions, with the ‘cross’ and ‘correct’ symbols now at the left and the numbers arranged to the right in a jumbled-up way: 3-2-1, then 6-5-4 and so on. The alarm’s digital display was also backwards. He rubbed his temples with steepled fingers and stared at the console. This was no prank; this was a stark impossibility and yet it was real and incontestable, it was right in front of him.
He quickly reached for his mail which lay at the leg of an antique bureau by the front door and saw, to his dismay, that the addresses were uniformly written in reverse. The name and number and street were as normal but the writing – whether by hand or printer – was inverted, as were the stamps. Mr. Corbett returned to the alarm and keyed in the disarm code – in reverse order, of course – and ‘System Disarmed’ scrolled backwards across the display.
At least he could now leave the house. Whatever in God’s name was happening here, however disquieting, at least he could step outside and be among other people. As he did so, turning the key in a lock which had mysteriously shifted from one side of the door to the other, the thought provided surprisingly little comfort.
The street was lively when he stepped outside, despite the early hour. Mr. Corbett was a fervent advocate of the old ‘early to bed, early to rise’ adage, believing in its literal truth and benefits. People strolled past in both directions, carrying newspapers and umbrellas, hefting boxes and pallets, wearily dragging children who dug their heels into the pavement and scrunched their faces into tiny pouts of discontent. The scene was so mundane that it felt like something of a consolation to Mr. Corbett, an ever-fixed point about which the world may toss and flail as wildly as it liked.
Then his gaze rose to the large clock in the wall opposite, and his mind registered with distress that the hands and numerals were backwards. He glanced at his own watch: also backwards. This was getting curiouser and curiouser. He supposed it possible that the clock on the wall might have been one of those fancy postmodern affairs, which deliberately ran backwards as some sort of ‘artistic statement’, but knew damn well that his own was not. He had purchased this timepiece over three decades previously on a leisure trip to London, from a reputable (and very expensive) jeweller in the West End. Time did not go backwards on this watch.
Mr. Corbett stopped a young man walking by, saying, ‘Excuse me, what time is it, please?’
The young man laughed, a sneer on his skinny face, and pointed to the wall opposite, saying, ‘What, can’t you read the clock? Look – it’s hanging up over there.’
He shook his head insolently and slouched off. Mr. Corbett would have reprimanded him for his effrontery had he not been occupied with more serious matters. Something odd and incomprehensible was happening to him. Then he wondered: was it him alone, or did the entire human race wake up this morning to find the whole world was back to front? He walked towards a news vendor’s stall and picked up a tabloid newspaper. Its headline was enormous – short words in thick black letters – but Mr. Corbett was unable to read it: it was the wrong way round. He grabbed the vendor by the coat sleeve, roughly as he was becoming quite agitated, and pointed to the headline, saying, ‘Can you read that? Look, here. Can you read it?’
The vendor pulled his arm back and regarded Mr. Corbett suspiciously. He slowly took the newspaper and held it before him, peering at it carefully. He said, ‘Alright, alright, take it easy now. What’s the problem?’
Mr. Corbett jabbed at the headline several times. What the bloody hell was wrong with the man? Didn’t he have eyes to see? ‘There. Those words. Can you read them?’
The vendor snorted derisively and looked at Mr. Corbett with bemusement. ‘Can I read them? Are you taking the mickey? Of course I can read them. “Couple Jump off Bridge in Suicide Pact.” Awful story, that. Very sad.’
He put the paper down and stared at Mr. Corbett, as if to say, ‘Well? Now what?’ Mr. Corbett reached for his handkerchief and patted his brow which had become slick with perspiration. His body temperature had risen considerably; he was aware of sweat in the armpits and a sticky warmth the length of his back. It was a most unpleasant feeling. He went to speak but faltered – his mouth felt exceedingly dry, and he needed a glass of water. He pointed at the newspaper and tried to speak again.
‘But the words…the print, I mean. It’s all backwards. Can’t you see? It’s written backwards.’
A kind, empathetic light came into the vendor’s eyes. He placed one arm across Mr. Corbett’s back and patted his shoulder, saying, ‘Ah, c’mere. I think I know what’s wrong with you. You need to sit down, bud. You’re obviously tired or drained or something. You’re probably suffering from the stress, are you? My wife has that awful. She has to take a bucket-load of different pills for it.’
Mr. Corbett pulled back from the vendor’s embrace; he staggered a little on his feet and placed one hand on his hat. The man was still speaking: ‘…need to do is go down the street there and there’s a café in to your right and ask them to get you some water and hot tea and maybe a sandwich. Sit in there by the window and relax and you’ll be right as rain.’
The weakness had passed and Mr. Corbett felt stronger now, much more himself. He righted his hat and coat, drew himself up to optimum height and faced the man full-square, declaring, ‘I am not suffering from stress and I am not tired. The only thing wrong with me is that something very odd is going on here. You obviously don’t see that, but I bloody well intend to find out what. Good day to you, sir.’
The vendor shrugged and raised his hands in a placatory fashion, then scratched his brow before placing a dirty baseball cap on his head. As Mr. Corbett strode away from the stall, it belatedly registered with him that the writing on the cap had been reversed also.
The name-bearing plaque above the front door. The menus in the window. The tiny sign on the door indicating ‘Pull’. The position of the door handle. The ‘Help Wanted’ notice propped against the window. The bloody window itself. All present and correct, and all back to front.
Mr. Corbett took a long, deep breath, held it in his chest, then felt it move through his veins and extremities, and slowly released. Stay calm, Corbett. There’s a perfectly rational explanation for all of this. Just keep your head about you. He pushed the door and stepped inside. A young girl, sixteen or seventeen, with her hair pulled up high to the side of her head, bounced over and stopped in front of him. She held out a plastic-backed menu.
‘Like to read the menu, sir?’
Mr. Corbett took it from her by reflex, then stopped; he looked at the item in his hand and at the girl, her face enlightened by a sort of empty-headed gaiety. What bloody use would a slip of a thing like her be? He shook his head and moved towards a table, muttering, ‘Would I like to read a menu? I would if I could.’ The girl continued smiling and bounced back to the counter, trilling, ‘Okay, sir. I’ll be back to you shortly.’
The bill of fare in this café was as familiar to Mr. Corbett as his signature, and unfortunately was as back to front. Everything, from the name of the place to the various dishes to the advice that credit cards will not be accepted and there is no service charge in operation, was reversed. The words rolled backwards across the fawn paper like a private insult to Mr. Corbett and his sense of truth, the feeling compounded by the fact that nobody else seemed to have noticed that anything was awry.
A young couple who looked like postgraduate students sat at the next table, chatting about a book both had recently read, drinking from large mugs of milky coffee. Well, they had their coffees in front of them so they must have ordered, correct? He leaned in, raising one finger to facilitate introduction into this private exchange.
‘Excuse me, could I borrow your menu, please? This one doesn’t seem to be…’
The man felt for his menu and handed it behind him without breaking stride in conversation; the rudeness of young people seemed to accumulate each day. Mr. Corbett flipped open the menu and saw, aghast yet unsurprised, that the first had not been an irregularity, but standard – this, too, was back to front. The girl had returned, bouncy and smiley as ever, and stood next to his table, pen poised above notepad, springing on her heels. He placed the menu facedown on the table and rubbed a hand to his forehead.
‘Coffee, please. That’s all. Just a coffee. And could you bring me a newspaper?’
She tilted her head and beamed, ‘No problem, sir. Get you that straight away.’
Mr. Corbett could feel his breathing quicken, hot fast little gasps of air going in and out, out and in. He tried to focus on the manifold posters and notices dotting the café’s wall but they only intensified his irritation: all, of course, were reversed as well. The girl returned with a newspaper and medium-sized cup of black coffee, which was some solace to him: at least they had remembered that he could not abide those tawdry, gargantuan mugs which seemed so popular in the more trendy establishments.
He stirred in his customary two flat spoons of sugar and quick dash of milk, just enough to colour the coffee, and reached for the paper beside him; predictably, it was all backwards. The title, the main headlines, the body texts, the teaser lines, the adverts, the photographs, the artfully sketched byline pictures, the cartoons…backwards, backwards, backwards. He couldn’t even do the bloody crossword.
He sipped from his coffee and began stirring it again, wondering absentmindedly why he still stirred with his right hand; why he had not been reversed along with everything else.
Now here was a true test. Words and pictures and flat, two-dimensional images were one thing; even the clock on the wall and the position of a door handle could conceivably – just about – be reversed. But a tiny imperfection in one specific eye of one individual person: that could not be changed by any power on earth. McAfee’s Butchers was located in a grand, spacious food-market which stretched the full length of one street block. It was a lovely, dignified place whose architecture and colouring always reminded Mr. Corbett of a Roman bathhouse for some reason, and it sold a formidable array of exotic fruit and vegetables, seeds and oils and seafood, lush with brilliant hues and aromas.
Mr. Corbett had purchased his lamb chops and minced beef and minute steaks from McAfee’s for as long as he cared to remember. The young red-haired man who worked behind the counter normally served him, and through their frequent interactions Mr. Corbett had noticed an almost imperceptible dark fleck in the iris of the fellow’s left eye. His eyes were a pale blue, so this oasis of black was quite striking; aesthetically beautiful, even, in an indefinable way. And it was unquestionably the left; he always stood with that profile facing outwards as he weighed and wrapped and sealed the meat.
Mr. Corbett elbowed his way through the market’s thick crowds; he was normally averse to any sort of rudeness, but in something of a hurry presently and becoming increasingly agitated at each erroneous sign he passed, each word and graphic going against the grain, each new example of the impossible becoming real. The sign for McAfee’s, hand-drawn and in use since the late 1960s, was reversed, naturally, though Mr. Corbett almost expected this; it seemed to have a weird consistency in a wholly preposterous day. But what of the man and the eye and the fleck in the eye?
He bustled towards the counter where Tadhg – that was the fellow’s name, Tadhg; old McAfee’s nephew, if memory served – was taking money and handing over meat in a friendly, garrulous way to an old dear in a tartan coat who fumbled for change in her purse. Mr. Corbett stood behind her, feeling sweatily uncomfortable underneath his shirt again and almost literally hopping on his toes with impatience. Tadhg smiled tolerantly at his dawdling customer and then turned to Mr. Corbett, raising his eyebrows and saying, ‘Ah, hello, sir. Back again. What’ll it be for you today, sir?’
And there it was, sweet divine mother of us all: the boy’s eyes had changed position, so that the right was now the left and vice-versa. Mr. Corbett noticed, too, that Tadhg’s hair parting had shifted from side-to-side, and the nametag on the breast of his white butcher’s overalls was inverted. He backed away, an unfamiliar fluttering in his chest, mumbling, ‘No, no. Nothing. Nothing today, thank you. Just passing’, and staggered into the market’s main concourse, gasping for breath and dabbing his brow with his blood-red silk kerchief.
He gathered himself and thought: Is it a problem of vision? Have I developed some strange new form of sight impairment? Some kind of ocular dyslexia? Has the connection between my eye and my brain been damaged in some way, so the information is being transmitted in reverse? But that was preposterous: he had never heard of such a thing. This was obviously psychosomatic, his fatigued mind and soul manifesting their plight through the sight. Perhaps that fellow at the news stall had been correct: perhaps it simply was ‘the stress’, although Mr. Corbett hadn’t felt under any especial strain of late.
He looked at his expensive watch, realised it was running backwards and took a moment to divine the time. It was almost ten in the morning, and his doctor’s surgery would be open. Mr. Corbett strode purposefully in its direction, trying his damnedest to ignore the back-to-front messages which met his gaze at every turn.
‘Ah, Corbett! It’s been a while. How are you, then? The back still giving you trouble, or is this just a social visit? Ah ha ha ha haa!’
Mr. Corbett’s doctor was a fat, milky-white bubble of a man called Bradshaw, with jovial little eyes set into a pouchy face, and surprisingly quick and elegant movements. He always wore a spotless white smock over his dark-grey shirt and tried, in a clumsy way, to make a joke out of virtually everything, presumably to calm the nerves of patients and soften the invariably sterile atmosphere of any surgery. Mr. Corbett did not feel in the mood for jokes this morning, however; he wanted an answer, an explanation; he wanted things to start making sense again.
‘By God, you fairly barrelled in past my receptionist there, Corbett,’ Bradshaw said. ‘You know you’re not even next on my list – I’ve got three other patients sitting out there going mad with the boredom! I’ll have to get some new magazines for the waiting room! Anyway, you’re an old friend so we’ll look at you first. What seems to be the trouble?’
Mr. Corbett opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. What exactly was he supposed to say? ‘Well, Bradshaw, it seems that ever since I woke up this morning, the entire world has become reversed, as it were. I’m seeing everything as a mirror image: words, faces, buildings, everything. I was just wondering if there was something you could prescribe for that?’ Bradshaw would inevitably take this as a wind-up, and probably join in the festivities with his overbearing jollity. Mr. Corbett suddenly felt quite tired, and rubbed his eyes with his right hand. Or is it my left? he dryly asked himself.
‘Do you…? Would it be possible, Bradshaw, that a GP like yourself might have one of those eye-test charts used by opticians?’ he asked. ‘I…fear there may be something wrong with my vision, and felt it sensible to visit you first.’
Bradshaw said, ‘Of course, of course, I’m sure I have one here somewhere’, and began riffling through a pile of papers and charts and Department of Health signs warning against heart disease and cancer and what-have-you. He pulled a dusty, crinkled eye-test from the heap and rested it on his desk, balanced against the wall. Bradshaw stepped back and flourished a hand at the chart, saying, ‘Da-daah! One eye-test, as requested. All yours, maestro.’
Mr. Corbett could hear a clock, somewhere in the room, and mused on why surgeries always seemed to feature a loudly ticking clock. Was it a distraction for patients, or a sort of metronome by which the doctor could perform his duties, or was there any meaning to it at all? He looked at the chart and saw to his consternation, though not unexpectedly, that everything was in reverse – the letters themselves, the heading at the top, the minute instructions at the bottom. Bradshaw’s foolishly smiling face was fixed on his, awaiting a response.
‘Well? Everything hunky-dory? What is it? The old eyes getting a bit weak with the passage of time? Not quite in the first flush of youth anymore, eh, Corbett? Ah ha ha ha haa!’
Mr. Corbett rubbed his temples vigorously, breathing heavily through closed teeth. The situation was getting worse, with no respite in sight, and now even medical science appeared incapable of offering succour. He could feel the pulse in his throat quicken, and that disgusting patch of sweat cover his back and infest his armpits. This was all wrong, an affront to his well-founded sense of natural law and impervious logic, and he was angry about that.
He leaped into a standing position and stabbed a finger at the chart, yelling, ‘It’s all bloody backwards! Can’t you see that, you jumped-up bloody quack, or are you as stupid as you look? Everything is turned backwards! How the hell am I supposed to read a bloody chart when the bloody letters are all reversed? Answer me that, you obese little clown? Tell me the bloody answer!‘
Bradshaw jumped back, startled and bewildered, and began babbling in his best doctor-talk, offering Mr. Corbett something for his nerves and asking him to please calm down and tell him what the problem was and see if they couldn’t come to a solution. Unsurprisingly, he refrained from cracking any funny remarks. Mr. Corbett grabbed his hat and stomped through the surgery door, apologising to Bradshaw’s secretary Darina – a meek, plumply attractive woman whom he had always liked very much – for upsetting her, then fumbled with the outside door because the bloody handle had changed its position.
He slammed the door behind him, leaving Bradshaw standing there, his rotund little face gaping like a hooked fish. After a moment’s pause he clapped his hands together and declared, ‘Another happy customer, eh? Ah ha ha ha haa! Right, who’s up next?’
Such was his pitch of agitation, such the fuming fury inside his head, that Mr. Corbett stepped out onto the street without even checking for traffic; most uncharacteristic carelessness. A double-decker bus screeched to a halt mere feet from him, making an ear-splitting banshee wail as it braked, the driver loudly cursing and praying simultaneously. Mr. Corbett stopped and stared at the driver’s shocked, thankful face, then at the destination plate above his head. Backwards, backwards, backwards.
He shouted through the dirt-spattered windscreen, ‘How the hell do you expect to do your job when you can’t even read the bloody destination properly?’ The driver scratched his nose, now regaining his mental equilibrium, and nodded warily at Mr. Corbett. He raised a thumb and said, ‘Good man, good man. Take care on the roads, now. Lot of traffic about today.’
Mr. Corbett marched towards his own house, returning to where this had all started, back to that bloody stupid poster of the polar bear. The bear necessities. Why had he ever found that amusing? It was childish and mawkish and stupendously unimaginative. He clenched and unclenched his fists as he walked, and could feel a headache approaching, just creeping in around the edges of his consciousness and trying to remain undetected for the moment. A fresh breeze slipped through the neck of his shirt, cooling him and drying the perspiration on his skin. He felt dirty and nerve-strung, and decided to have a long, relaxing shower when he reached home.
He came to the same newspaper stall from earlier, bearing the same newspapers with the same back-to-front headlines. The vendor noticed him approach and his body stiffened, as if in anticipation of more odd questions. He tipped the brim of his baseball cap and said softly, ‘Feeling a little better now? Did you have that cup of tea like I suggested?’ Mr. Corbett grunted at him and continued past. He heard the vendor remarking, almost to himself, ‘Ah yeah. A cup of tea is lovely. Always settles the nerves.’
Mr. Corbett very much doubted that in his case. This whole state of affairs was intolerable; he could not stand it for much longer, and felt sure that the solution lay in that silly poster. As he approached his front door he noticed that a pamphlet had been wedged into his letterbox; junk mail, no doubt, hawking the mediocre wares of a local Chinese takeaway or hackney service or one of those ridiculous ‘psychic hotlines’ which fleeced willing dupes with neither the wit nor inclination to realise that it was all bunkum: that nobody could predict the future, that the supernatural was merely an aspect of the natural that had not yet been explained, that the world acted upon proven laws which were universal and immutable.
After locking the door behind him, he un-scrunched the leaflet and examined its contents. The words were reversed, of course, but a poorly drawn cartoon caught his eye: a man with crazy Einstein hair and crossed eyes, a manic expression; a caricature of some poor deranged soul. He held the piece of paper up to the mirror and read: ‘Life driving you crazy? At your wits’ end? Going round the bend with the stress of modern living? Then try Softstream Bath Salts: Relaxation in a Bottle. Available from Nature’s Blessing Health Store. Wide range of other products also in stock.’
The address given was only a few streets away, although Mr. Corbett couldn’t recall ever noticing this establishment. He furled the leaflet in a shaking fist, thinking, If this is supposed to be funny, I’m not bloody laughing, then strode upstairs, past the cute framed prints of cottages and maritime scenes, past the voluptuous red curtains which bounded the mid-stairs window, past the tidy bureau which stood in the landing, into his bedroom and straight to the bathroom door which stood ajar.
The poster. That goddamn stupid bloody poster. Mr. Corbett slammed the door shut and tore at the paper, chipping a fingernail in his haste, breaking the Sellotape and ripping the paper and leaving little triangles of dried, lumpy adhesive on the door. He bunched it up then changed his mind, folding it three times before tearing it into thin strips, then doubling those and tearing again. Within a minute the poster lay in shreds on his carpet. He bent down and gathered them up, careful to collect each one, then walked gingerly to the wastebasket into which he let the pieces fall like soft snow. He tied the plastic bin lining, knotting it twice, and brought it downstairs and into the backyard, where he dumped it into the large wheelie-bin.
Mr. Corbett stood, hands kneading his lower back which was still giving him pain, and looked on the bin with a certain self-satisfied pride, a feeling of a job well done and stability restored. He noticed then how drained he felt – dreamy and quite weak in the legs – and returned upstairs to do something he had never done before. Mr. Corbett undressed, delicately laying his suit on a chair by the bedside locker, put on his night clothes, drew the bedroom curtains and went to sleep in the middle of the day.
Mr. Corbett woke from typically untroubled dreams to discover that everything seemed much like he had left it that morning.
Several pillows remained plumped up behind his head. The radio played at the same barely audible volume, still tuned to the BBC World Service. The curtains were still thin and rather sheer, allowing in too much of the late afternoon sunlight. He wore the same thermal vest and pyjama pants he always wore. A faint scent of generic potpourri hung in the air as it always did. His reading spectacles and a worn copy of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lay on the bedside locker, as they had lain for months. His back still hummed with a low vibrating ache. The bathroom door faced him, closed as usual, still canary-yellow and…no sentimental poster which had been purchased in a discount store many years before; no anthropomorphic polar bear sitting blissfully on the toilet; no legend, inverted or otherwise, reading, ‘Aah…the bear necessities of life.’
Everything seemed much like he had left it that morning, and this pleased Mr. Corbett very, very much indeed. Everything was back in its rightful place, he felt; everything made sense once more.
He was about to rise slowly, to drop his feet into the dark-wine corduroy slippers that stood on constant guard by the side of the bed, to stretch and wipe sleep from his eyes, to bask in the comforting inevitability of routine, but then Mr. Corbett suddenly decided against it. He would remain here for a while, he told himself, lying in comfort and satisfaction, glad that that nonsense was all over with and he could get on with things. He would arise in his own time, but for some reason, he didn’t quite feel like it just yet. Probably still a bit tired, Corbett. Give yourself a chance. Like old Bradshaw said, age is catching up on you.
He gazed at the curtains and the muted dying sun washing through, and resolved to stay there all evening. Things were fine again, all ship-shape and the way they should be; what difference did it make what time he got up? The outside world could survive without him for a while longer, and the bare necessities could wait.
Darragh McManus is a journalist and published author. His first non-fiction book was released by Hodder in 2007. He has just published a comic crime novel under the name Alexander O’Hara. He has a literary novel and collection of short stories currently out with agents, and is about to start contacting theatre companies about his first play, in conjunction with a well-regarded Canadian director. Two pieces of his – one story, one non-fiction – are about to be published at the online arts journal Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure (http://snakeoilcure.wordpress.com). He writes for several national newspapers in Ireland and the UK, including The Sunday Times and The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/darraghmcmanus).