This is another modern-day Phil chapter for the earlier section of the book.
What was it with these Victorians and their dining room tables? Phil thought, looking up from the manuscript. I mean, seriously, he wasn’t even a third of the way into Aubrey’s work and already she’d described a dinner party in which George had seen translucent figments copulating on the tablescape, the food and dinnerware shimmering inside them. Then, there’d been the death scene with Emeline dying on the table in Rosegate’s dining room, the shadows of the leaves shrouding her frail body. And now the meal with Cyril Greaves with brandied plums and custard, a dinner filled with double-entendres and perversion. Dining tables, in Aubrey Holloway’s Victorian world, were seeing more action than most double beds these days, particularly his and Claire’s Phil admitted to himself. It was clear: Aubrey’s subjects had a thing with tabletops – just like JaNiMesCo – and, just like Constable Pete Saunders, although in Pete’s case, it was more than just a passing fancy.
It was all relative, Phil supposed, but in his books, Constable Pete Saunders had a serious problem involving tabletops. As with any behaviour, it wouldn’t be a problem if it were done in moderation; in fact, most people occasionally exhibited the same behaviour. Pete Saunders, however, continually exhibited the behaviour which led Phil to believe it’d become a full-blown disorder, a condition which, as far as Phil knew, hadn’t been common enough to warrant a label. Therefore, he’d had to name the disorder himself. And so, he’d named it the ‘Let’s Say Syndrome’ which consisted of any topic Saunders was talking about, a tabletop, whatever objects occupied said tabletop and Saunders saying “let’s say this is [insert name of what he was mentioning at the time], right?’ to demonstrate the content of his story.
On any given day, you could find Pete in the lunchroom, describing what he’d done the night before, moving the salt, pepper, glasses, cutlery, and condiments around to re-enact his evening. This technique, everybody knew, was used when the series of events had been complicated and the storyteller needed a little extra help from the ketchup bottle, the can of Pepsi and the serviette dispenser on hand. But not for Pete. Oh no. Pete, with the reflex of a kleptomaniac, was grabbing things the instant he sat down and moving them around like it was nobody’s business – except, because he was telling everyone about his life, it actually was everybody’s business.
Take just yesterday for instance.
“Let’s say this is me, right?” Pete began, dragging the serviette dispenser in front of himself. “And that bottle over there is Irene, right? … Hey, Owens, pass me the tomato sauce, would you? … Ta, mate. So, we’re standing by the fridge, right? Okay, let’s say I’m the fridge, right? And we’re talking, right?”
“Yeah – and?” Constable Jaz Montgomery said as Pete was jiggling the dispenser and the ketchup around in front of himself. “What’s your point?”
“We’re trying to have a serious conversation without the kids around, but then, hey … Cummings … slide that knife, fork and spoon my way … ta, mate … all three of them show up at the bloody kitchen door just to overhear Irene telling me she’s decided she’s going to go retro down below –”
“Whoa—whoa—whoa,” everyone who was present protested in unison except for Constable Rudyard [Rud] Lyle, the most innocent officer in the history of the Heath who lived his life in a perpetual state of shock, continually blown away by all the stuff he was learning on the job; every day, for Lyle, was a series of epiphanies with his go-to statement being, “What an eye-opener.”
“I hear you, Saunders,” Rud piped up. “My partner Chris suggested we give our cellar a seventies’ reno too. It was marvellous, really, the way it all turned out – geometric wallpaper, a vinyl dinette set in the corner, daisy decals and a shag.”
“And how was the shag, mate?” another officer teased.
“What a silly question,” Rud returned, utterly oblivious to the pun being pulled over his eyes. “It was exactly how a shag is meant to be: nice and soft and, in our case, golden.”
The other officers in the lunchroom rolled their eyes and snickered, irritating Jeannie who came to Rud’s rescue with a matter-of-fact explanation, an explanation she was more than happy to give just to see the ‘meaning of whatever’ dawn in Rud’s eyes. And speaking of Rud’s eyes, most of the time they were, in perfect keeping with the cliché simile, as big as saucers, turning him into an instant metaphor: a deer in front of headlights. But nevertheless, Jeannie had a go-to statement too. It was “allow me to enlighten you” and it was almost always directed at Rud.
“Allow me to enlighten you, Lyle,” she said as her colleagues held their chuckles, waiting for the explanation. “When Saunders said ‘Irene has decided to go retro down below, he didn’t mean she’d decided to redecorate their cellar in a 1970’s fashion. He meant is that Irene has decided to go back to the bush.”
“Which we should all be doing anyway!” declared Rud indignantly. “I’ve been saying that for ages, as have all the governmental green parties around the world. It’s criminal the way we’ve been going about, stripping everything bare. I’m dead set against it myself. I’m one hundred and ten percent with the greens. The more bushes around, the merrier.”
“For God’s sake, Lyle,” said an exasperated Jeannie. “Saunders meant that Irene has decided to let her pubic hair grow back.”
“Whoa—whoa—whoa—” the group was back to the collective utterance of disgust, simultaneously shunning and egging on the excitement.
“What do you mean by ‘grow back’?” Rud asked, his voice lilting with confusion. “How can you possibly grow your hair – um – down – um – down there – when – well – when it is what it is?”
“When it is what it is?” echoed Jaz incredulously. “Lyle – mate – that expression is used for situations you want to right off as par-for-the-course when they’re not. That expression isn’t used UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE WHATSOEVER to describe the state of the hair in one’s nether regions. Read my lips, Lyle. Pubic hair is NOT a situation and therefore does not qualify for the diagnosis ‘it is what it is.’
“I dunno,” said Saunders. “Perhaps Lyle’s is a situation.”
“You would say that, Saunders,” said Phil. “Because it’s obvious from your re-enactment problem, nothing for you is what it is.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” returned Pete annoyed and in part because his presentation had been hijacked by this new discussion.
“You tell me that tonight when you’re at the supper table with the fam, all of us right here, right now, aren’t going to have our table-top stand-ins all moving around amongst the dinner plates like Daleks in Dr. Who, nattering away in a replay of this very conversation? You tell me, Saunders. Because I’m telling you right now while I have the chance, that I’m calling dibs on the HP Sauce. Who do you want to be, Robbins? The pepper mill? Smashing. How ‘bout you, Cummings? Oh, don’t tell me. The salad cream. And you, Lyle? Right-y-oh. You can be the salt. And you, Montgomery? Right. You’re the mustard. There you go, Saunders. Tonight’s cast is all bloody sorted. I’m the HP Sauce, Robbins, the pepper, Cummings the salad cream, Montgomery the mustard and Lyle the salt. So as of six o’clock or whenever Irene calls you to the table, this –” Phil paused, dramatically swirling his hand around to identify whatever was happening in the lunchroom. “—is not what it is. This is something else entirely. This is a moving display of seasonings and condiments.”
“What I’d like to know,” said Vic, “is who’s going to play Irene.”
“Don’t be daft,” said Phil. “The ketchup of course. The ketchup always plays Irene.”
“Just a tick,” Jeannie interjected. “Why does the ketchup have to play Irene if the performance taking place is about us?”
“Because Irene is the subject which we’re all discussing,” replied Vic, condescendingly. “She’s the bloody focus. So, of course, she has to be there – not just in the flesh – but in her condiment form.”
“So, Saunders,” said Phil, turning to Pete, “don’t forget to have the tomato sauce on the table or we won’t have anything to talk about.”
“We’re out of tomato sauce at the moment, if you must know,” snapped Pete.
“Oh, really?” asked Phil. “What a pity. I’ll guess you’ll have to get the understudy to take its place for tonight’s performance. What do you lot think?” Phil turned to his colleagues. “Who should be the understudy for the ketchup?”
“Well, that’s usually the HP sauce, isn’t it?” Vic responded. “Which would be you.”
“Which means I can’t play Irene,” Phil said, rolling his eyes.
“Well, technically, we’re not really talking about Irene, are we?” posed Jeannie. “I mean, really, if we’re going to be perfectly frank with ourselves, we’re talking about her decision to go retro.”
“Best have some watercress on hand then,” quipped Phil. “How do you feel about that, Saunders?
Having a bowlful of watercress on the table as a stand-in for – and I’m going to borrow from Lyle here – Irene’s SITUATION – no offence to anyone with affiliations with the Australians – down under. That seems the most logical ambassador for her SITUATION.”
“What good is that, mate, if the ketchup’s understudy is at one end of the table and the watercress is in a bowl at the other end of the table?” asked Vic in all seriousness. “Because we’re talking about Irene with hair not about Irene without. The two should be together. The watercress should be ON the understudy’s bottle a little below the middle. There’s a thought, Saunders. You could stick some on.”
“Bloody hell,” declared Jeannie. “I’m never going to eat watercress again!”
“Oh, but Saunders will be,” said Vic slyly. “And lots of it. And while we’re talking watercress, is it just me or does watercress smell like semen? Because I swear to God, it does.”
“You sniff it often, do you, Cummings?” asked Phil.
The banter would’ve continued longer if it weren’t for a loud half-gasp/half sigh erupting from Rud who was slumped back in his chair as if someone had slung him there.
“What’s the matter, Lyle?” Vic questioned.
“What – an – eye – opener,” Rud gusted. “And here I’ve been all these years, never even entertaining the slightest thought that anyone would even consider placing anything with cutting capabilities near their privates. Call me old-school, but anything with a blade, big or small – scissors, razors, shavers – should be kept as far away from there as possible. I mean, what would happen if you cut yourself?”
“That’s why I get my grooming done professionally, mate,” said Vic.
“What?!” Rud was so consumed with shock he looked like he was going to have a heart attack.
“Or,” added Vic. “You could get Chris to do it. Ultimate test of trust, isn’t it? Giving the significant other of the moment a razor blade. Not to mention, fun. I mean I’m sure Saunders misses that – don’t you Saunders? That’s got to be a bit of a downer – having to put the tweezers down and the scissors away, stop paying lip service to the wife.”
“Oh God,” gasped Rud. “This is too much for one day. And the thing about the watercress on top of everything else? How could I not have known that? Where have I been? Someone needs to head over to Larkspur’s and pick me up a cucumber and cress sandwich straight away. I need to test that out.”
“Calm down, Lyle,” Phil said. “Look at where that data came from. It came from Cummings whose bloody point of reference is his over abundance of semen. With the amount of kale that he consumes, I wouldn’t be surprised if his outpouring of self-adulation smells like Mr. McGregor’s garden.”
“That’s not true, Owens,” huffed Vic. “Everyone’s smells like watercress.”
“Who is Mr. McGregor?” asked Rud, confused.
“The man who owns the garden in Peter Rabbit,” said Phil, aware that triggers to problematic thoughts were accumulating by the minute.
“And you would know this how?” asked Jeannie, referring to Vic’s claim about the watercress.
“Trust me,” Vic replied. “And if you don’t believe me, do what Lyle’s suggesting. Head over to Larkspur’s and bring back some cucumber and cress sandwiches and smell the cress. I swear to God, it’ll blow your mind. The similarity of scent is bloody amazing.”
“One man’s amazing is another man’s disturbing,” quipped Phil.
But quips aside, thirteen minutes later, everyone was in the lunchroom, removing the Cellophane from their cucumber and cress sandwiches, opening the bread, lowering their noses, and inhaling, coming up ¼ – stunned and ¾ – stood-to-be-corrected. Vic, of course, was on standby, oozing an ‘I-told-you-so’ vibe whilst stretching his hamstrings.
“Fuck—ing—hell,” Saunders exclaimed under his breath. “Fuck—ing—hell.”
“I know,” Vic gloated. “Am I right or am I right?”
“Like I said,” Jeannie reiterated. “I won’t be eating cress again.”
“You won’t need to,” joked Pete. “You’ve got Malcolm.”
“You know what?” said Phil, rising from his chair and giving his belt a tug. “Thanks to you lot here, I’ve now got to piss off back to my work with a whole lot of unsettling information in my head. Like as of now, nothing is what it fucking was. Everything’s a reminder for something bloody else. It’s all a blur of metaphors from here on in.”
“You’re welcome,” returned Vic, pumped to have the opportunity to throw an Americanism into the conversation. “Any time.”
Just as Phil was about to leave, Serge came swaggering in, surveying the collection of open sandwiches on the table then shifting his gaze from officer to officer. “Cucumber and cress sandwiches, you lot?” he growled. “What do you think this is? A Sunday afternoon tea party? The cucumber, I’ll let pass. But watercress? Watercress? That’s for pussies, that is.”
“Yes, Serge,” Pete said, gulping down a guffaw. “It most certainly is.”
“At least that’s what Mrs. Saunders says,” added Vic, winking at the group.
“You’re damn right it is, Saunders,” bellowed Serge. “You’ll never catch me eating that. When it comes to garnishes, I’m an HP Sauce man myself. Give me a bottle of HP, and I’ll finish it off.”
“If you’ll excuse me,” Phil said meekly, fully aware he was the HP Sauce in an alternate universe, “I must get back to work.”
Phil went back to his desk, his appetite dead, not because he had a problem with vintage hairstyles, but because he had a problem with vintage on Irene which now, thanks to Pete, he’d have to mentally deal with every bloody time he saw her. And seeing as Irene was chummy with Claire, he’d now have the bother of deliberating whether to tell Claire that he knew what was happening follicle-wise between Irene’s thighs. I mean it was weird, knowing what was going on inside your wife’s friend’s panties whilst said friend was none the wiser that he and half the station knew.
And the watercress thing?
My God – that was awful, tainting every memory he’d ever had of growing the stuff in Styrofoam cups in primary school, of watching James and Nico’s childhood Chia pets sprouting watercress hair or, worse yet, watching JaNiMesCo going cress-go-lucky with their salads. Not to mention the effect it was going to have on the bodily function it now symbolised. For Christ’s sake, how was that going to play out? I mean seriously, was everyone present in that dreadful lunchroom conversation going to think of cucumber and cress sandwiches when they were seconds past the throes of passion? Probably. With the exception of Vic. Knowing Vic, he’d probably serve the damn things to his partner(s) of the day to tease their palates, so they’d acquire a taste lickety-split, for his non-GMO grass-fed, 100% organic variety.
Phil closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was going to be a long night.