Telescopic Titus

Chapter 4

The door to 13A Bohemia Way was usually closed but never locked. This was because the key had long been lost and the bolts had been extracted from their barrels. They were somewhere, in one of the cupboards in one of the rooms, though no-one knew which cupboard in which room. There was an open-door policy, an open-hearth policy, an open-kitchen policy, an open-bath policy and an open-bed policy. All this Nathaniel would learn during his subsequent visits.
     While following up the invitation to his first call he had rapped on the red front door only for it to swing slightly from him. Deborah, who had been sitting on the intermittently carpeted stair, he hoped in anticipation of his arrival, in reality almost by chance, had hoisted the door wider and welcomed him with obsequious indifference implying she had both forgotten and reignited her summons. She had then gusted him to the kitchen wherein he had been served with tea containing the ash of Mother Eartha’s cremated spouse and been issued by her with the date of his own death day: 11th October; the year not specified.
     The delectable pre-Raphaelite Deborah had not furnished him with anything else, much to his chagrin. 
     This time there was no Deborah when the door swung from him. No Mother Eartha, and no-one else in evidence on the ground floor.  He called “Hi there? Hi, hi, hi?” to no reply, and peered in both of the front reception rooms, each an eclectically furnished, domestically littered, communally stamped depository of postered walls and magazine carpeted and rug jig-sawed floors. The air fumed with the scent of lung-spent weed and extinguished candles. Uncorked wine bottles and coffee-branded mugs competed for carefree symbolism. The formerly fashionable wallpaper was now blemished by the burnishing of elbows, hands, heads and bums.
     He called again but not even an echo replied.
     He wandered through to the dining room where his death had been decreed and the brewed deceased had been imbibed, but that too, was devoid of life except that to be imagined in the knitted parrot in the brazed cage, and the potted palm on the dresser.  He probed as far as the kitchen, which was a surprisingly stretched rectangular space overfilled with ironmongery and crockery, some of which had abandoned hope of seeing suds. He found a pantry, he found the back door porch, he found a door to the cellar, and another to a lean-to conservatory that looked ready to lean over, and that had succumbed to the advance guard of garden recolonisation.  As far as he could make out, he had surveyed the whole of the ground floor and the only occupant was emptiness. 
He remembered his mission and ascended the stairs.  He thought it best not to test the bedrooms of the first floor and continued, as he had been directed, to the second storey where the décor was more muted, the wallpaper plainer, the skirting and dado rails chocolate instead of cream, and the corridor uncarpeted. At last he found habitation, for through a gaping door he saw what was, without doubt, a telescope atop a tripod, alongside a buffalo-hide armchair ingested in which was a dressing-gown clad, drainpipe-thin humanoid with a tonsured rugby-ball head, bracketed by ash-white whiskers and riveted with button eyes behind bottle-bottom glasses. Those eyes were not fixed on Nathaniel but locked to something within his sternum, and the young man sensed the old one had not heard or seen his approach but somehow knew it was about to happen.
     “Would you be … er … Titus, by any chance?”
     “By a chance in a hundred million, I understand.”
     “Hi, I’m Nathaniel Bateson.”
     “By a similar chance, I expect.”
     “In all probability,” said Nathaniel.  “I have something for you.”
     “We all do,” said Titus.
     Nathaniel prised his left hand into the too tightly lipped pocket of his jeans and wriggled his fingers in search of the key. Meanwhile he experienced a wave of over-stimulus. This room was busy. Aside from the large brass telescope atop its tripod, a hotchpotch of furniture competed for the title of the untidiest. There was a scuffed and scratched small work table close to the dormer window, which was cluttered with wood and metal offcuts, with cogs, spindles, pliers, saws, hammers, screwdrivers, brushes, jars, boxes, clamps and a vice. Adjoining that was a bureau, obviously retired from its prestigious position in a drawing room, it now stood on stumps where its feet had been removed to ensure it could be squeezed under the sharply sloping ceiling. It was half-glazed and one quarter drawered, with the upper and lower sections separated by a slightly slanted front that could fold out to form a writing desk. Opposite that was a column of overcrowded bookshelves and a table, perhaps once a dressing table, stacked with more books, with cardboard boxes and four leather cases; one suit, two attaché and one Gladstone. 
     “Mrs McBudge sent this.”
     Titus took the key on the palm of his hand and peered through the pebbles of his spectacles, then lifted them to look even closer. “Mrs who?”
     “Mrs McBudge.”
     “Do I know her?”
     “I’m actually looking for her daughter. Nudge.”
     “Do you know Nudge?”
     “Met her yesterday.”
     “Same place that I met you.”
     “A foot further away.”
     Nathaniel involuntarily stepped back. “Is she still here?”
     “Patently not.”
     “In this place? In this house?”
     “This house is not a place. It is a pause.”
     Nathaniel smiled to falsely imply that he understood the metaphor. “Is she still here?”
     Titus twisted the key over and placed it back on his palm.  “I’m the lookout, not the doorkeeper.”
     Nathaniel’s eye was drawn back to the splendid ship’s telescope. “But she was here yesterday?”
     “She was.”
     “Her mother sent that. Asked me to give it to you.”
     “Her mother.”
     “Deirdre McBudge.”
Titus did not budge, in fact the stillness he exuded was so strong that Nathaniel instinctively held his breath, as did the whole house. After ten thousand milliseconds, Titus delivered three resounding syllables: “Dierdre.”  Then clasping the key in his palm, he prized himself from the armchair and his dressing-gown parted to show a weary cardigan, worsted waistcoat, collarless shirt and pinstriped pants. He shuffled on red leather slippers across to the bureau and extracted from his waistcoat pocket another key comparable in size and constitution to that which Nathaniel had delivered. This he used to unlock the glazed cupboard and only then did his visitor appreciate the similarity of the congested contents. Where once, no doubt, porcelain, glassware ornaments or leather-backed volumes had been proudly displayed was a cramped array of small wooden boxes, all lidded and clasped shut with hinges and locks.  These containers, no more than six inches in length and three in height were mostly cuboid, but some were half-barrelled like miniature treasure chests. The majority of their keyholes were tiny, but others sported orifices that were ungainly large for the proportions of the box, and it was this latter style that Titus began to select, for their slots were sufficiently spacious to accept the tube of Mrs McBudge’s brass key.
     Box after box was chosen, and the key tried. Sometimes it was rebuffed, sometimes it slipped in, but when it did, it always failed to turn.  Nathaniel was transfixed and irritated in equal amounts. He was compelled to discover what would be within the box that the key would unlock, but equally keen to locate Nudge; and then there was a parallel pull, with which he now engaged.
     “What about Deborah?” he asked. “Is she here?”
     “In the bath,” said Titus.
     “In the bath.  She frequently is.”
     “In the bath?”
     “This floor,” said Titus without breaking his select-and-slot rhythm. “Gable end.”
     Nathaniel left Titus to his lock-testing and returned to the third floor landing. At the end of the corridor leading towards the gable of the property he discovered a bathroom. It was small and cramped with just a sink, gas boiler cistern and a bath. In the bath, which was devoid of water, lay the fully clothed Deborah. Sleeping or unconscious he could not tell, but the rise and fall of the bodice of her dress left no doubt that she was breathing. Her frock was similar to the one she’d worn two weeks ago, but the floral print was much finer, and he was reminded of John Everett Millais’ painting of the drowning Ophelia. Her face was ashen, her lips tinted mauve, her head pillowed against the pitted ceramic slope by her auburn locks which lacked the sheen he had seen when they’d shared cremated-pater tea. He didn’t know whether he should wake her, try to find her pulse, or feel for fever. He touched her wrist. It felt disappointingly fibrous. He leaned over and kissed her forehead with a butterfly buffing that a parent might place on a sleeping child. Her skin was cool, her scent warm. She smelled of belladonna. 
     He went back to Titus, who was still working his way through the boxes.  “Why is she in the bath?”
     “She often sleeps there. It’s her Elizabeth Siddall stunt.”
     “It amuses her.”
     “What does?”
     “To be a muse.”
     “Is she all right?”
     “Now? Or in general?”
     “I expect she’s just sleeping it off.”
     “Sleeping what off?”
     “Whatever it was she took to heighten her wakefulness.” Having failed to unlock the final box from the top shelf of the bureau, Titus shuffled over to his work table, withdrew its drawer and removed a jeweller’s eyepiece. He slipped his spectacles up to his forehead, crimped the lens tube in his eye socket and examined Dierdre’s key.
“Should I wake her? Make sure she’s okay?”
      “She’s filed it down,” said Titus.
     “Deirdre.  She’s re-shaped the teeth. Some time ago. Long time ago. It’s tarnished over.”
     “Are you sure?”
     “That’s why it won’t work.”
     “Why would she do that?”
     Titus took the eyepiece out and failed to focus on Nathaniel, due to the fact that his glasses remained beached on the wrinkles of his forehead. This made his stare much more sinister. “She’d file your teeth, given half a chance.”
      Nathaniel heard a peal of instant agreement in his head and swept his eyes over the workbench to assemble a discovery. “You make them.  You make the boxes.”
      “I repurpose the locks.” Titus replaced his eyepiece in the drawer and put the crippled key alongside it. He returned to the bureau and began to re-stack the containers.
      “What’s in them?”
     “If I knew that, I wouldn’t need the key to find out.  Would you like me to give you one?”
     “They are expensive.”
     “How much?”
     “That’s up to you. I give you a box, you lock whatever you wish inside and give it back.  You keep the key.”
      A cloud shifted, installing a rectangular shaft of search-lit dust from the dormer window to the door. “Why?”
     “In order to understand.”
     “Understand what?”
     “Why.” Titus pulled open the bottom drawer of the bureau and extracted a five-inch treasure chest. He pivoted the lid to show it contained a key, very similar to the one Nathaniel had brought. He closed the lid and put the box in Nathaniel’s hand.  “Return the locked box. You keep the key,” he said.
      Nathaniel had no idea what he should do.  Should he take the box?  Should he offer some payment? Should he simply decline the gift?  Should he go back to the bathroom and wake Deborah?  Or perhaps he should just stand there and look at her until she woke or he starved, whichever occurred the sooner?  Or should he ransack the house to try to find Nudge?
     “She’s next door,” said Titus.
     “Your young friend. Nudge.”
      Nathaniel reeled. His mind had been read, and that was possibly the most frighting experience of his whole life. What else could Titus have seen?  “Next door?  Number sixteen?”
     “The bedroom next door.”  Titus locked the bureau and returned to the armchair bumping slightly against the telescope as he passed.
     “What – Nudge? Next door.  In that bedroom?”
     Titus nodded and his spectacles slid back down to his nose, swelling his eyeballs.
     “What do you look at through the telescope?” asked Nathaniel.
     “Never the same things twice.”  He compressed himself amid the cracked and crumpled hide.
     Nathaniel half-turned, paused, opened the box and rattled the key inside. “What do I put in?”
     “I have no idea.”
     “How do I decide?”
     “When you know that, you will have made your decision.  I look forward to not seeing it.”
     “Look forward?”
     “It’s the only way we can,” said the un-telescoped man, so much smaller now amid the wrinkled antiquity of his upholstery.  He extracted a book from the crevice between the seat and the arm. “At all other times we only ever look back. We never see the present.”
     “The speed of light, means we are always one milli-step behind. At least.”
     Nathaniel’s O-level physics came back like a headache. He found his eye drawn to the telescope. Titus observed him.
     “Through there we can regress much further.”
     Nathaniel felt the euphoria of balderdash erase the pain of physics. He nodded to don the cape of wisdom. “Our fate is written in the stars.”
     “If that is where you choose to fabricate it,” said Titus, and retracting his limbs still more, he opened the book on his lap and focussed on the true fiction within.
     Nathaniel felt his star-sign sink into a nebula of anal-gas. He shut the lid on his personal casket and made his way to the adjacent bedroom. The door was closed, and was resistant to being opened, he feared it was locked, but an extra twist to the knob jerked it free. The paint-peeled timber swung from him to reveal Nudge on the bed.
     “Oh shit!” he said.

To be continued

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