Here goes: the last modern-day Phil chapter for this week. We’re in the police station with him and his colleague Pete Saunders.
“I ask you,” said Saunders at the water station, scrolling through his mobile, trying to locate Vic on Instagram, “does this scream inspiration to you?”
And suddenly Phil was squinting, adjusting to the glare of Saunders’ phone which was up and wagging an inch away from his nose.
“Let’s get real,” continued Saunders with a sniff.
‘Let’s get real’ was something Saunders always said – as if they weren’t real, but rather figments in another person’s dream or film or book – which pissed Phil off to be quite honest because there was nothing realer than being an officer of the Heath.
“Because if you’re like me,” Saunders carried on. “You could feel like a million quid the minute you hit the sofa with a cup of cocoa and a packet of Sizzlers after a hard day’s work and then, this flashes past your eyes” – Saunders jabbed a photo of Vic stretching to the nines on Kilimanjaro, trying to touch the sunset – “and, just like that, you feel like killing yourself. And look at this –” Saunders pulled his mobile back, scrolling to the next obnoxious photograph, then holding the phone back up.
Phil tsked the minute he saw Vic standing shore-side with a surfboard under his right arm, staring at the waves he was about to ride.
“Like where the fuck is he even? California?”
“Must be,” muttered Phil.
“What I’d like to know is how he finds the time and the money to go jetting all over the place the way he does. It’s not like he makes more money than us.”
“I’ll tell you how, mate,” Phil said. “He writes everything he wants on a little piece of paper and sticks it in his manifestation box, or, if he’s feeling particularly creative, he whips up a vision board. It’s all fucking mind over matter, Saunders.” Phil paused and tapped his temple. “If you think it hard enough and have a corkboard and a glue gun handy, it’ll happen.”
“In Vic’s world maybe,” said Saunders, rolling his eyes. “But not in mine. Not with three children and a mortgage. Funny how life brings your visions down, don’t you think Owens? Like if I were writing wishes down and sticking them in a box, I’d be writing stuff like “annual blowjob”, “Chinese Take Away” and “all three kids at the grandparents’ for the night” in the hope that my three wishes all came true at once.” Saunders closed his eyes and sighed, imagining the episode. “And –” He opened his eyes. “It’s not like Irene and me have the energy to even pack, let alone get on an aeroplane and haul our exhausted selves somewhere. I don’t know about you, Owens, but I’m flat-out knackered.”
“You and me both,” said Phil, taking a sip of water from his teensy paper cup.
“So, like I’m saying, if you want to feel like your life is over, head on over to Vic’s Instagram account,” Saunders declared. “Look at all these little circles at the top. He’s sorted all his swagger out so you can feel less-than in every area.” Saunders ran his index finger along Vic’s circles: travel, diet, fashion, Vicspirations –”
“Hold on a tick,” Phil interrupted. “What did you just say?”
“Vicspirations,” Saunders said, tapping that circle and hauling the first image up.
“Christ,” Phil huffed, staring at a nauseating statement in quotation marks superimposed over a photograph of a sunrise. ‘Victor E. Cummings’ was italicised underneath the statement. “That is obnoxious. He’s bloody quoting himself and presenting himself as if he were a bona fide sage.”
“We are what we believe,” gusted Saunders as he read the statement in an all-wise, condescending tone, adding, “Here we go. Here’s another one.” He tapped to access the next Vicspiration. “Get rid of the toxic people in your life.”
“Well, that’s a bit easier said than done, if you ask me,” said Phil. “Because if I were to do that, I’d just end up sitting in a room alone, I would.”
“Oh no,” returned Saunders. “Because look at this.” And he held up the next wretch-worthy picture of a circle of silhouetted people with their arms raised around a campfire with ‘Surround yourself with likeminded people’ written over it with the same ‘Victor E. Cummings’ scribed underneath.
“I’m pretty sure he stole that statement,” said Phil. “I’ve heard that one before.”
“I suppose that’s one Vicspiration I don’t mind,” came Saunders. “Because I will say that Irene and I do see eye-to-eye on most things, other than ghosts that is. She refuses to believe that I saw the ghost of a peeler in the men’s toilets in Lavatory Hall. But, when it comes to everything else, she’s right there with me. In fact, she tells me to delete Vic from my Instagram because he’s bad for my mental health. She says she’d rather be on the sofa watching Naked Attraction with me and eating Bakewell Tarts than posing for yoga shots on the rocks somewhere halfway around the world.”
“I hear you,” said Phil.
But just because he heard didn’t mean he could relate.
For, truth be told, Claire’s Instagram account wasn’t that far off from Vic’s. She’d saved her stories the same way, organised her daily highs inside those little bubbles so anyone across the globe could see what she was doing, buying, eating, wearing. How many followers did she have these days? 6547. 6547 people tapping through her life each day, witness to her comings and goings mixed up with those of other people. And then Phil thought about the art exhibit at the Mistwell Gallery, the bits and pieces of the viewers combined into a medley of a moment of existence, their reflections dismembered into one collective story. Perhaps Claire was an artist after all, contributing to the public tapestry glimmering on a gazillion screens, inspiring some whilst diminishing others.
Because there would be viewers who took her photos at face value, oblivious to the havoc her renaissance was causing as she plowed ahead like Vic had, shedding her old life as if it were a useless skin. Shedding him, their household, and their marriage as she underwent her Claireamorphosis in mini-skirts and platform shoes and too much stuff from Amazon.
“Everything all right, mate?” Saunders broke into Phil’s train of thought.
“Yeah – well – more or less. That’s smashing that you and Irene are on the same page. I don’t think Claire and I are on the same page at the moment.”
“You and Claire? Not on the same page, Owens?” Saunders shook his head. “That’s malarkey if ever I heard it. The pair of you grew up together on the same page.”
“Well, that page has turned apparently,” sighed Phil, taking another sip of water.
“Naw,” Saunders said decisively. “You and Claire will be together until the end.”
“The end of next month maybe.”
“Now you’re talking bloody nonsense, Owens,” Saunders chided. “It’s a rough patch. Happens to the best of us. You’ll ride it out, I’m sure.”
“Would you be able to ride it out if you came home to find a man all oiled-up and dressed like a chef humping the banister whilst Irene was shrieking ‘time to untie the apron strings, girls’ at all her gal pals forming a mini mosh-pit at the foot of the stairs?”
“Oh, you mean at Kaz’s hen night?” Saunders flashed a mischievous smile. “Irene was there. Didn’t you see her? She said it was brilliant, she did. Said Tony’s Aubergine Parmesan and champagne potatoes were to-die-for.”
“Yeah. Tony. The chef – or the dancer.”
“And you’re on board with that?”
“How could I not be?” Saunders said, leaning forward and lowering his voice to a whispering growl. “You wanna know what’s better than a manifestation box, my friend? Tony ‘the chef’ Flyboy, that’s who. I’m going to get real with you, Owens. Irene came home from that hen night and, let me tell you, it was cockadoodledo and all wishes granted. It was as easy as pie, Owens, ‘cause Tony took care of the warm-up” – Saunders lowered his voice even more – “And I didn’t have to do a thing. Irene was all over me like it was nobody’s business –”
Except mine now, Phil thought as Saunders puffed up his chest like a rooster and swigged his water as if it were a tequila shot.
“It really makes you think,” Saunders said post-swig, “that women should have these hen nights more often, and not just before weddings. Monday nights would be perfect. After a hard day of work, they have a hen night. The Tonys of the world do all the work for you. Touchless foreplay? All done. You can tick off that box. The missus comes home and is ready to ride.”
Phil was certain that if Irene were hearing all this, she would not be on the same page as Pete. In fact, knowing Irene, she’d be livid. Christ, if she knew that Saunders had used the expression ‘ready to ride’ in chit-chat referring to her intimate life, she’d be one step away from a divorce and plotting her own hen night.
“Yes, really,” replied Saunders, standing back and assuming a swaggery-macho stance, glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone else were about. “You may not think it of me, Owens, but I’m very forward thinking and I – mean – very.”
“How forward is very?” Phil asked, taking another sip of water
“For instance,” Saunders said. “I’d be open to a threesome if Irene were on board.”
“What?” Phil spit his mouthful of water out. “Christ – Saunders – Christ – Fuck – God – I never would’ve expected that. But seriously, mate, I don’t think Irene would go for having another woman involved. I mean I know that Claire would be dead set against the idea. Christ, I can’t even imagine.”
But, very unfortunately for all involved (which was only Phil), he could well imagine and imagine, he did. There, in full cerebral glory, Claire was getting ready for bed, putting her hair in a ponytail, snapping up her bicycle pants, slopping on her oversized T-shirt and yawning her way into her side of the bed. And there she was, noting that, unlike most nights, he smelled like musk oil and was wearing his best pyjamas. And he was winking and telling her she was in for a special treat to which she was answering, ‘What the hell are you on about, Phil? Are you all right?’
And – yep – as if on cue – ding dong – let me get the door, love. The pizza has arrived. What? At eleven o’clock? You must be joking. No, I’m fucking not. And, sixty seconds later, Tawny Cakes, glossed and glittered up and in a skin-toned brassiere and thong, was cat-crawling over the duvet in between them, deciding who to fondle first.
“Who said anything about another woman, Owens?” Saunders interrupted. “I was thinking of seeing if Tony Flyboy offered private performances … and other options. I think it’d be quite titillating to watch him get Irene warmed up, don’t you?”
“No, Saunders – Christ – I don’t.”
“You know the problem with you, Phil,” Saunders sniffed, put-out that Phil didn’t approve of his idea. “You’re too stuck in the past. Holding onto ideas that have become outdated. I have no doubt at all that you’ll end up with Claire, but you’re going to have to open your mind a bit.”
“Well if opening my mind includes watching Claire get off with the likes of Tony Flyboy, I think I’d rather be by myself.”
“What about watching Claire get off with the likes of another woman then?”
“That’s different, mate.”
“Oh yeah? And why’s that?”
Phil closed his eyes, trying to shake the image of Tawny and Claire making out at the foot of the bed, to no avail, as Tawny pressed her sun-kissed body up against Claire’s, causing Phil to hold his paper cup in front of his trousers.
“Because you’re sold on the ultimate male fantasy, that’s why,” explained Saunders. “But I’m telling you, Owens, times are changing, and fantasies have to change with them if you want to survive. From the sounds of it, you’re missing the boat. I’ll bet I could mention a whole host of sexplay options to you and you’d never have thought of them.”
“Try me,” said Phil, instantly regretting he’d said it.
“Okay,” returned Saunders. “Time to get real. Here goes. Filming yourselves?”
Raising his eyebrow as high as it would go, Phil waved his left hand over his portly body. “Really, Saunders?” he scoffed. “What makes you think that this piece of flesh could possibly act as a stimulant? In the shambles my body is in, it’s more of a turn-off.”
Saunders shook his head – sadly. “How about watching porn together?” he continued.
“I’d never,” Phil answered. “What happens between me and the computer screen stays between me and the computer screen.”
“What? With the precinct’s handcuffs?”
“Okay—okay—okay,” Saunders repeated, wracking his brain for more suggestions. “How about ASMR then? That’s on trend.”
“What the hell is that?”
“Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” Saunders replied authoritatively. “Sounds to stimulate the brain – and everything else. You and Claire could get a little moaning going and you’ll be at it yourselves in no time.”
“That’s all I need – James and Nico hearing that.”
“Role play then?”
“And who could I possibly play at my current weight?”
“You see,” Saunders said. “This is your problem. You don’t want to experiment, expand your sexual horizons. I don’t want to lecture you, Owens, but you’re going to have to work on that. But I know Claire. It may seem like she’s leaving you behind, but she’s not. Claire’s the type of woman to get to her destination point and take a breather whilst you catch up.”
“I bloody hope so,” Phil said, tossing his paper cup in the bin.
“Oh, and Owens,” Saunders said as Phil moved to leave. “I’d appreciate it if you kept this to yourself. I’ve said too much, but then again, I only wanted to help.”
Phil pinched his thumb and index finger together and pretended to zip his lips shut, then sauntered back to Redmond’s office to the manuscript. But as he did, he thought about his ideal aphrodisiac.
There were different sorts of aphrodisiacs, he concluded, sitting down in Redmond’s chair. The surface ones came first, the ones that served the basic need, the base release. Being the TV afficionado that he was, Phil knew that his surface ones were all on screen, vintage being his favourite, old school stuff where folks looked real and not like agile mannequins which made him think of hairless cats. The soundtracks sucked though; who had taken charge of that? Someone with no taste, for certain. That’s why Phil turned off the volume and piped his own tunes in.
But what about the aphrodisiac which sparked both body and soul?
As Phil looked down into the parted manuscript, he knew, for him at least, there was just one: the story. But not just any story. A story told with an open heart.