Henry slept poorly, plagued by dreams in which he was a boy again, hanging on the arm of a woman carrying a suitcase twice his size. He awoke equally badly, with a skull like a stuffed sock drawer. His first cigarette of the day, instead of clearing his sinuses, increased the congestion, as if cramming in another half-dozen un-partnered socks. As with the contents of The Willows’ various wardrobes, bureaux and cupboards, he would someday have to subject his thoughts to a spring clean, dumping the dilapidated and dysfunctional to make space for the new. But not yet.
Lying in a hot bath, not even a sprinkling of Radox crystals could relax him as he scrutinised the room as Irene might. The basin, large enough to shampoo his hair in, would be condemned on account of the rust stains and tarnished taps. The black and white tiles, with the comforting regularity of a chess board, deemed obsolete. The bathtub, balanced on four King-of-the-Jungle paws, should be relegated to a museum. Ripping it out would be akin to amputation, but Irene would demand a fully-fitted kitchen, separate shower unit, central heating, and a melamine bedroom suite.
He pulled the plug and reached for a threadbare towel. Even the notion of replacing that worn strip of fabric induced palpitations. All the towels, linen, crockery and cutlery had been fondly selected – or so Henry assumed – by his mother aeons ago. Save for the television and a few odds and ends, neither Henry nor his father had sought to augment or update them.
Dressing, as normal, in trousers, shirt and tie – although renouncing his tweed jacket for a round-necked jersey – Henry telephoned the Town Hall. In the past, nothing bar tuberculosis would have kept him at home on a weekday, but local government wouldn’t collapse because the Senior Assistant Clerical Officer without Portfolio called in sick.
Nevertheless, Henry was no skiver. He assigned himself a job. Rationalising the sideboard’s gubbins would be a step towards The Willows’ modernisation; blitzing the cupboards might also benefit his head.
He emptied the drawers onto the dining table. His father’s fob watch, forever at twenty-five to five; a jumble of till receipts; a book of Green Shield stamps with stiffened pages; another conker; a jam spoon embossed with Kitchener’s head. Where Irene would see clutter, Henry detected fragile artefacts.
By lunchtime, he had three heaps, stretching and shrinking in volume as items seesawed between them. Retain was the largest, closely followed by defer the decision to some hypothetical future when his mind and body were in finer fettle. Discard was the runt, despite comprising two sub-piles: private papers, like bank statements and payslips, for burning in the grate distinguished from genuine rubbish, such as bunged-up biros and callused rubber bands.
The conker was a definite keeper: could this stony lump be the one Tilly had entrusted to him?
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