It was a dreary Wednesday mid-morning, and two of the three students still had not left the dull confines of the flat that day. Duncan checked his messages at the computer, slurping a functional but unedifying coffee from his ancient Macclesfield Town mug, while Poopbert prepared to knock up some breakfast in the cluttered kitchenette. Of the young flatmates, only Rob had a seminar that day – on Pre-Copernican cosmology – and he’d made no apologies for, as was his custom, noisily waking up the “lazy arts buggers” at 8:15 (neither were the arts buggers in question in any wise contrite over having stayed in their beds and got their heads down for another ninety minutes or so, after he’d gone).
“Hey, check this out, this is pretty cool” called Duncan over his shoulder, “It’s World Book Day. Pick up the nearest book to you, turn to page 56, and the 5th sentence. Write this as your status . . . I’m gonna do it.”
“Go for it” said Poopbert, ambling into the messy sitting room.
“Oh shit” groaned Duncan as his eyes lighted on a weighty tome to his immediate left, “which wazzock left The Nuts Bumper Book of Birds next to the computer?”
“Dunno” said Poopbert, “must’ve been Rob, I s’pose.”
“Oh man, I don’t believe this” wailed the floppy-haired film studies student, “History of the Thirteen by Balzac is right by it.”
“But the Nuts book is definitely closer” confirmed Poopbert helpfully.
“Just my luck, I’m gonna look a right knob.”
“Turn to page fifty-six, it might not be that bad.”
“Let’s see, let’s see . . . ‘We reckon that sexy blonde barmaid Michelle, 21, from Blackburn, has one of the best bums we’ve seen all year.’ – God, I’ve got to put that as my status” cried Duncan typing away gloomily, “what are people going to think?”
“Hey, look, you’ve got a new private message.”
“Oh yeah, wow, it’s from Auntie Elspeth in Texas. Let’s have a look. Oh my God, I don’t believe it – Uncle Cal has died, and she’s in London! And she wants to meet me tomorrow!”
“Do you want soldiers with your eggs, by the way?”
“Yeah, course mate. I’ll just grab a shower and mull this over while you sort out our haute cuisine.”
As Poopbert laid out the eggs and buttered toast, he was interrupted by the reemergence in the domicile of his tall, slack-jawed nemesis of the speculative sciences.
“Hey man” said Poopbert, “you’re just in time for some lunch.”
“Lunch? Yeah, right” sniffed Rob, “admit it – it’s breakfast.”
“Alright, so it’s breakfast, who cares – get off my case, man.”
“Don’t you arts students ever have work to do?”
“What are you talking about? Duncan has that essay on 1960s Yugoslavian cinema to hand in this week. He wrote a whole sentence yesterday.”
“And how about you?”
“How about me? You know how it is with me.”
“No, I don’t. Nobody does.”
“Look, do you want a boiled egg and some soldiers, or what?”
“No thanks. I just came back to grab a textbook. Oh, and I just saw Mr Shaggadonki at the market, by the way. He wants the rent by Friday, and he’ll be here in person to collect it.”
“Oh man! Can’t the fat slaphead wait? I’m getting paid from the kebab shop next week. This is great, now I’m going to be overdrawn again.”
“Sorry, mate. But we are late with it.”
As the pair commisserated, a towel-clad Duncan emerged from the bathroom.
“So” said Rob, poking at his pot-belly, “the beast has arisen.”
“Hi Rob” mumbled Duncan, “oh, and thanks a lot, by the way – my friends are gonna think I’m a right perv because of you.”
The next day, Rob was enjoying some cartoons on a rare morning off, while Poopbert busied himself with a crossword from a big puzzle book. Duncan, meanwhile, was in the bathroom smartening himself up for his rather daunting imminent meeting with his aunt.
“Man, I hate these crossword clues” moaned Poopbert, “they’re so . . . cryptic.”
“Is it a cryptic crossword?” asked Rob.
“Yeah. Listen to this. Three Down, ‘Annoy a celestial Leyton Orient player, 3, 1, 6, 1’. What the hell could that be?”
“Buggered if I know” grunted Rob.
“Well, you could at least think about it. There’s no need to be so dismissive, man.”
“No, you idiot, that’s the answer – bug a divine ‘O’.”
“Ooooh. Right, Six Across: ‘Sunderland hardman urinates in direction of subterranean mammal? 4, 2, 1, 4’.”
“Right, you guys” said Duncan, shuffling out from the bathroom and edging carefully past Rob’s y-fronts on the washing stand, “I guess I’ll see you later.”
“Woah man, you moussed” said Poopbert, with a note of awe.
“Yeah” said Duncan self-consciously, “I didn’t know what to do with it.”
“No, man, it looks good. Good luck, anyway.”
“Yeah, good luck mate” said Rob, “see you later.”
Duncan made his way to the tube station, avoiding Billingsgate shrews and other assorted hawkers as he did so. He was meeting his aunt at a café in Fulham where she was spending her short stay in honour of an ancient familial association that he couldn’t quite get a handle on – some distant ancestor who’d blazed a trail down south and put down roots in the capital at some point in the 1860s.
She was there waiting for him at the appointed hour. He hadn’t seen her since he was eleven years old, but he recognised her immediately. While he had dusted down his suit for the meeting, his little aging relative was as quirksome as ever in her presentation, a large feather poking out of her three-cornered hat at a jaunty angle, and an enormous scarab broach gleaming on her stole.
“How lovely to see you again, my dear” she said in the thick Texan drawl that she’d picked up after marrying the American and setting up with him in her mid-twenties, “my, haven’t you grown – but hell, why wouldn’t ya have?”
She warmly hugged her nephew and kissed him on both cheeks.
“Nice to see you Aunt Elspeth” said Duncan, “you’re looking well. Shall we take a seat?”
“Sure, honey” she said, hanging up her hat and coat on a stand by the door.
“I was very sorry to hear about uncle Cal” said Duncan, as Elspeth glanced at the menu, “my condolences.”
“Thank you my dear. Your uncle Cal thought very highly of you.”
They ordered coffee and French toast and, after the requisite enquiries about various relatives and their respective wellnesses, Elspeth injected a sudden note of gravity into the proceedings, as if preparing to broach the mysterious substance of her sudden visit.
“How are you doing these days?” she asked gently, eyeing her nephew curiously, “things are good?”
“And your studies are going well?”
“And how about your living arrangements?”
“Great. The flat’s a bit dingy, but what can you expect. But my flatmates are great. You should meet Poopbert, you’d really like him – he was doing a thesis on Confucius, but then he dropped out of philosophy. I think he’s doing art history with English now, but don’t quote me on that. He’s very lithe, and he’s battling a Sugar Puff addiction.”
“Poopbert? What the hell kind of a name is Poopbert?”
“His parents were Mormons” explained Duncan.
“And then there’s Rob. He’s laying bare the secrets of the universe. He’s a bit uptight about it, but he’s a hell of a guy. And he was an incredibly aerodynamic baby.”
“Well, he came second in the 1985 West Lothian Annual Baby Fling.”
“Baby fling? What kind of weirdness are we talking here?”
“Oh, it’s a great thing, it goes back to ancient pre-Christian rituals, and it’s a highlight of festivities in that part of Scotland every year. They load the community’s babies up in a catapult and fire them off. Whichever baby goes furthest is supposed to be blessed with long life.”
“Isn’t it a little dangerous?”
“No, they have this huge inflatable landing strip. I haven’t seen it done myself, but Rob says the babies love it, flying through the air. Of course, he doesn’t remember it.”
“Quite” said Elspeth, sipping her coffee, “well that all sounds just dandy. But how about your personal circumstances? Are you seeing anyone these days?”
“No, silly – a young lady.”
“Oh. No, not at the moment.”
“That’s too bad.”
“In what regard? Come on, Auntie Elspeth, what’s this all about?”
“As I said” began Elspeth seriously, “your Uncle Cal thought very highly of you. And he’s remembered you in his will.”
“Yes. Fact is, he wants – wanted – you to have three hundred thousand dollars.”
“You’re kidding? My God! I only met him once . . . ”
“That’s right. Anyhoo, the thing ’bout it is, he put one of them there . . . codicils in his will. And you can only get the money if you’re married afore you’re twenty-one.”
“But that – that – only gives me six weeks!”
“Uh-huh. Guess you better git courtin’, buddy boy.”
“But I don’t get it” spluttered Duncan, “why was Uncle Cal so keen for me to get married so young?”
“Your Uncle Cal” explained Elspeth, with a Reagan-like head-tip, “was what I call a real man. Drank his Bourbon neat and played Chuckie Egg with a swagger. He’d be runnin’ up and down those ladders and jumpin’ on and off those elevators quick as a flash, like his life depended on it – like it was his personal mission ta deprive them ostriches of birdseed.”
“I think they’re supposed to be chickens” interjected Duncan.
“Well they’re ostriches ta me!” fired back Elspeth, glaring daggers at her nephew, “anyhoo, he always said that until he married me he was jus’ driftin’. Guess he felt that a man needs a wife afore he can git anythin’ worth doin’ done.”
“And he was taken with the Film Studies thing, too. It was the unfulfilled dream of his life to become one of them there auteurs – you know, like a Bergman or a Truffaut. So, when he heard about the direction of your studies, it kind of piqued his interest – and I guess he wanted you to have the start in life he never had, and fulfil the cinematic aspirations he’d always cherished.”
“Well, I don’t know what to say, this is a lot to take in.”
They finished up their coffee and toast, and spent the rest of the afternoon trundling around galleries and museums. Elspeth had to catch the next plane home in the morning, for the funeral, but she felt that she’d had to deliver the strange and enticing news to her young nephew in person.
When he returned to the flat, he found Rob and Poopbert still there, in discordant animation.
“You’ve gotta be joking, man” cried Poopbert, “no way is Return to Fantasy better than Wonderworld. Oh, hi Duncan.”
“Hi guys. Er, Rob, how much more do I owe for the rent?”
“Another thirty quid.”
“OK, here you go – Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti” he said, forking over the readies.
“The three tenners.”
“So” said Poopbert, “how’d it go with your aunt?”
“Erm, OK I guess . . . ”
Scratching his earhole awkwardly, Duncan explained his predicament, in the wake of his uncle’s eccentric bequest.
“So, you have to get married within six weeks?” said Poopbert, “that could be a problem, man. I mean, you can’t even get a date.”
“I know” said Duncan, “thanks for pointing it out. Hey, Rob, do you still have that Speccy Plus 2 you got at the boot fair?”
“Yeah, it’s in a box somewhere.”
“Does it still work?”
“Sure, I think so.”
“Fire it up, let’s have a go on it.”
A few days later, the spring weather suddenly having turned, the sun was sprinkling its cheer with generous abandon. Not that this made any difference to the students’ typical routine; Rob was out on campus, while his flatmates whiled away their time indoors. Duncan was glued to the Spectrum, hooked up to the big telly, and Poopbert was driving himself mental with the crossword book again.
Their idyll was disturbed by the return of Rob, with an intriguing classmate in tow.
“Hi guys” he said, “this is Ellie. We’re studying for the exam together.”
“Oh, hello there” said Poopbert, surprised and a little unsettled by the rare appearance of a young female – and a skimpily attired and rather well-formed one at that – in the flat.
“Hi there” said Ellie with an amiable smile.
“This is Poopbert” said Rob, “and that’s Duncan. You’ll have to excuse him, he’s a bit ignorant since I fixed that computer up for him. I’m beginning to wish I’d never bought the bloody thing. Anyway, I’ll go and grab the lecture notes.”
“Look, Duncan, it’s Rob – and he’s brought a girl!” Poopbert said, suddenly embarrassed by the big Megan Fox poster that held pride of place over the sofa (not that the mini-skirted studentessa in question, who bore a more than passing resemblance to Jennifer Love Hewitt circa Heartbreakers, would likely have found anything objectionable in it), “Don’t you have a certain interest in acquiring one of those at the moment? Duncan, snap out of it man! There’s a girl in the flat!”
“Shut thi cakehole” spat Duncan, whose immersion in the indoor pursuits of his childhood had apparently precipitated a relapse into the dialect of his formative years, “can’t you see ah’m gooin’ for a new high score ‘ere?”
“Is that . . . Chuckie Egg?” asked Ellie, excitedly.
“Yeah” groaned Poopbert, “he never tires of it.”
“Ey, I tell you what, that was dead kaž that, wonnit?” enthused Duncan, “D’you see the way I bombed reet down past the lift and got birdseed just as t’ostrich was gooin’ fot ate it?”
“Wow!” cooed Ellie, kneeling down beside Duncan and putting an arm around his shoulder, “Two hundred and seventy-five thousand points! What screen is this? No, don’t answer that. Concentrate.”
Bouncing merrily across the platforms with the flapping wings of the baby bird hot on his tail, Duncan was barely aware of the young lady’s presence, her eyes trained on the television, quite as enraptured by the game as he was.
“I could watch you play Chuckie Egg” she breathed seductively into his lughole, “all day.”
As he hoovered up the last couple of eggs of the headily advanced screen, Duncan glimpsed, from the corner of his eye, the shadow of no parting from the fetching cosmologist of his dreams.