‘Bottletop’: [1] - The German, the Cafe, and the Milk

An aching body carries me through the glistening gateway, automatic doors I though I would never reach. Four hours spent trapped in the middle of the centre aisle of a tiny airplane, sandwiched between the two most repulsive human beings to ever grace the earth, only to be at least a day away from my true destination: getting lost in the vastness of the Komi Republic.
    Why? Why did it have to be Russia? It’s so fucking cold out here and I’m unprepared. Locals wander past as fashionable mammoths in humongous winter coats, staring at my bland choice of attire. All white: tracksuit trousers and a knock-off ski jacket. Even the sun, as gloriously bright as it sits above, shines down little help.
   Several steps ahead of the mirrored structure, it takes seven attempts to light my only cigarette. There’s a big day ahead and it calls for extra preparation. This will be the opposite of a celebration but it’s as good a time as any to smoke. One cigarette a year, that’s the rule. Puff. Inhale. Enjoy. Exhale. Breathe. Puff. Half the stick vanishes before my watering eyes as smoke scorches down my throat, holding its own against my will, it refuses to spoil my lungs. “You’ve done so well,” the tar screams, fighting tooth and nail, coughing and retching to get it out.
   While I’m doing all of this, a circus act to all these pleasantly behaved people around, a stranger rolls up in the back of a stretch limo, decked out in all black with one of those farmer flat-caps looking a total fool. A briefcase on his lap and a spare inhaler in an outstretched hand, with an offer to lend. “Need a hand?” Even with his face masked beneath the bill of that cap Holden Caulfield style, the familiar accent tips me off. The strange little man wit his stupid mispronunciations of certain words that I swear he does almost specifically to piss me off. Unmistakable. I shake the shock down my body and out of my feet, spitting away the remnants of the smoke and cast away the lit cigarette into one of the many identical snow mounds hoping, somewhat, to hit a leaking gas line and end all of this once and for all.
   “You’re late.”
   “How would you know? You don’t even carry a phone around with you.” He doesn’t look at me, eyes forced forwards. A game. He’s trying not to show it but there’s a twitching in his face, a desperate pulling to make eye contact but still, like some action hero, he looks onward. “Any baggage?”
   “It’s amazing that you got through border security without any suitcase.” He left days before me with a warning in plain speech, “the less you have, the more suspicious you look.” I, of course, flat out refused. I’ll be in and out of Russia by mid-afternoon, all I need is my medicine. The driver hops out, circles around the front of the car and rapidly opens the left-hand passenger door of the limousine. Pulling from that door a suitcase, he gestures for me to step towards him.
   “You’re going to have to kill this one, do you know that?” I ask him, the driver doesn’t react. His fate is known, I’ve seen him before. Beneath the thick rimmed sunglasses is green eyes, hidden by blueish contact lenses. Razor burn sits below his double chin where his neck-beard was dry shaven. 
   “I might not.”
   “It might be dangerous,” the driver hands me the suitcase in question and returns to his designated seat. The strange little man’s eyes focus back on his neck hairs, his hand on a concealed weapon preparing for the young man’s end already. A breast-strap for a pistol beneath a thin, bulletproof jacket that wouldn’t save his life in the smallest firefight. Too obvious, plus, his head is massive.
   “Do you miss home yet?” He wonders as I carefully scan my eyes across the snakeskin pattern stamped into this cheap leather. Heavier than money, too heavy to be anything on my wish-list. Delicately, I unsnap the hinges. There’s still a chance I can’t trust him, he’s as crafty as I am. If he wasn’t, we’d both be dead.
   “Not even a little.”
   “I do.”
   “Well, you are only a kid.”
   “I’m twenty eight.”
   “I thought you were nine,” my winning statement, he glanced at me. Only a little, in anger, but it counts. “Maybe eleven at the most.”
   “What abo-”
   “Sister.” I cut him off, refusing to bring her into this. Not that she hasn’t happily jammed her foot into that door already, “how long until we get there?”
   “Not long, Alexis, not long.” The strange little man removes his hat, “what do you like the most about Brog?”
   “What are you doing?”
   “Small talk, I guess. You don’t have to play along, it might be the last time you speak English for a while, that’s all.” Now he’s looking straight at me: hideously innocent eyes masking the psychological that comes with the job. It’s the glasses, thick, black, broken in the middle. Oh, and the braces. They give him that baby face, a caricature of the person he wants me to see. “Have you always lived in Brog, Alexis?”


One new flat to incubate the new me. A wonderful way to start fresh, that’s what all the books say. I bought stacks of them, the last few weeks have filled me with doubt, I think it’s the first time I’ve needed self-help books. It’s a whole new town to me, 200 miles away from my parent’s home. A new locale to soak in completely, that’s what the blogs want me to do. Spend the next few days seeing the sights and smelling the scents. A student loan in my pocket, my valuables in this suitcase and a couple of days to settle in before university life begins and tears away any possible shred of social life I might be able to papier-mâché together. Single-occupant flat #13 in high-rise building #3. A big blue door fit with card-reader and letterbox. Three knocks and this hutch becomes my home.
   Several knocks after those and a young man finally opens the door. He’s a lank fellow: grey jumper, grey eyes and a huge smile like I’m saving him from some boring phone call. A German-ish accent greets me as I seem to lose all sense of speech. His presence alone has the power to evaporate sentences, his and mine. “Hello?” he repeats himself, “you must be Alexis, Alexis Walker? I’m Gareth, nice to meet you.”
   “Hello Gareth,” I manage to splutter, “I’m Alexis.” His awkward chuckle follows and I’m not sure why. Then, he leads me into his humble abode. A bare bones flat, the humanity has been stripped from the walls and bookshelves in the form of photographs and dusty novels that now live hidden in cardboard boxes. What is left is the furniture I’ve been promised: a television and a couple of chairs. It’s a lovely place for what it’s costing me, well, Future Me.
   “Shall we start the tour?” He asks with another pleasant smile, “don’t mind the boxes in the bedroom, I’ll be out by the end of the week. Everything that isn’t wrapped in plastic or dust protection is part of the property and I’m assuming you’d like to move in today?” Embedded in a friendly warmth, his eyes scan my suitcased belongings.
   “It’s not a problem, is it?”
   He shakes his head, “no, no. Don’t worry about me, would I have invited you here if I didn’t have somewhere else to go?” I follow his every move as he leads me around the apartment, I’m a child lost in a hotel. His gentle, foreign accent describes each and every nook and cranny, giving it all purpose. “There’s a lot to learn, unfortunately.” With each passing item, he tells me what works, what needs a little bit of TLC and, once I’m up-to-date with everything, the perks of living in building #4. “Free Wi-Fi access all day and night, contents insurance with fire cover, a nice landlord who will leave you alone and milk delivered straight to your door.”
   “I should start drinking milk.”
   His mouth takes the form of an eclipse’s final few minutes, a toothed smile replaces an open mouth and Gareth tells me, “it’s pretty good, German company.”
   “This place sounds brilliant,” I say, well and truly enthralled, “thank you so much.”
   “Don’t thank me, I’m not the landlord,” he says as we gradually make out way towards an window overlooking the entire west side of town: the tracks that lead to the train station, the university building, it’s a small place but, sunbathing in the afternoon warmth, it could be the seaside town I grew up in. He turns to me and ruins the mood ever so slightly, “also, utilities are covered for the first year as long as you continue your studies. You are a student, aren’t you? I don’t think I asked.”
   “Biochemistry. Lovely view, by the way,” I say, trying to snatch back that overwhelming sense of calm I just lost. Gone. Hiding somewhere amongst the unevenly scattered trees. “What about you?”
   “It is, isn’t it? Great place for a beer, do you want one?”
   “I don’t drink, thank you.”
   “That’s good, I don’t own any beer. I studied graphic design but dropped out, I’m moving to London now, greener pastures and all that.”
   “Green? In London?”
   “Absurd joke, I know. It’s funnier when you know I’m colour blind.”
   As always with situations as sensitive as these, my mind begins to fill with a gallons of poorly phrased questions and accidental political incorrectness. I stab, grabbing the first one I can fully form by the scruff of its neck and stumble the words out of my throat: “really? For how long?”
   He decides not to respond, at least not immediately, and I’m left pondering what I should’ve said in the silence of the shit-joke afterglow. Gareth just stares, holding back this cheeky grin, unoffended. “It’s more of a birth thing, really.” From there, he turns and faces the exposed brick wall of the apartment where a television sits unsteadily on poorly built flatpack furniture. Heading towards one of the three, tatty chairs, he hands me the television remote and asks, “what about you?”
   “I’m sorry?” 
   “What is it that has made you so late to arrive?”
   Does my face show the damage of my disease, I wonder? I’ve not seen myself today, I don’t know if something has changed. I’m pale, sure, but so are lots of girls without their makeup. “What makes you think I’m ill?”
   “Well, all the students I know moved up here weeks ago and the science term started three days ago.” His thumb stabs at an invisible remote, “could you?” he asks.
   “Which button?”
   “The murky grey one.”
   “No problem.”
   “It’s in your eyes too,” he says, “they’re tired and puffy.”
   “Is it? I’m sorry,” and we sit in silence, television in the background, “I didn’t mean to pry.”
   It’s fine, people will ask harsher questions in the future. I might as well tell him, I mean, I’d like us to be close. Even if he’s moving away, he’s a good guy. Pen pals are still a thing, aren’t they? “I’m a bit ill, that’s all.” It’s a bit of an understatement, we’re not sure how bad it is yet but it’s definitely there. My doctor had no idea what he was doing, it’s not something he’s had to deal with before. “I’m on a couple of antibiotics at the moment, it should clear up soon.”
   “What’ve you got?”
   “Lyme disease. Got it in America, I didn’t even see the tick that bit me.” Slow and steady as to not aggravate the hidden beast, I lift my shirt up above my belly button. On the right side, just where I’d imagine my kidney to be, sits my mark of infection. A bullseye, tattooed to my body in three different colours. “I found this rash towards the end of my gap year. We all had an inkling but none of my friends had ever seen one before. When I got back I saw my local doctor and he told me it was Lyme.”
   “You didn’t get an American to check it out?”
   Speak of the devil, I can feel the fatigue. “Do I look like I’m loaded?” I say through a yawn. I’m tired, I’m always tired but I’m especially tired now. It’s a symptom, along with the chills, the sweats, paleness, swelling and, my personal favourite, hair loss. Gareth decides that he should leave, standing with that smile again. There’s something about it, isn’t there? It grabs me, pulls my eyes towards the horizon of top and bottom lip to study the curves, the shades, the small glimpse of tooth. When he speaks, he bows his head and hides it from my gaze.
   “I shouldn’t be leaving for a while, I’ve got a few things to collect, like my clothes from your bedroom. Spend the night on my penny, I’m sure you’ll want to stay. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you and I’ll find somebody else. In the morning, I’ll return and maybe we can go for breakfast.”
   “Are you asking me out Gareth…”
   “Are you asking me out Gareth Zumthor,” I repeat, a little shy, a little unsure.
   With a hearty laugh, he reaches for the whiteboard, pinned to the back of the front door. In the nicest handwriting, he paints an address into the white plastic. “This is where I’ll be when I head into London. I won’t be there for a while but, when I do, don’t hesitate to come visit.” In front of my eyes he morphs from tour guide to new friend. 
   “London is hours away,” I tell him as he slips himself out of the apartment, head in through the door, detached from his body, “we’ve only known each other for an hour, do you have a phone number I can call?” I’m sneaky, I’m cheesy, I know. I’ve waited years to use lines like this.
   “I don’t own a phone,” he says, lying, obviously. A bit of a dick move but I understand, somewhat. “I’m sure we’ll be spending a lot of time together so I’ll see you in the morning, goodnight Alexis.” With that, he slips out through the door, slamming it behind him and leaving me to soak in the feeling of a brand new home.

Following the departure Gareth Zumthor, a confusing, convoluted shopping trip to the local supermarket allowed me half an hours look at the eastern half of Brog which simply amounts to houses, lots of houses. And, of course, the cafe below and the supermarket across the street. From the shop, however, I rallied together supplies to make my first night a perfect one, lazy perfect, that is.
   Now that I am alone, I sit with bare legs beneath my blanket surround by plastic shopping bags which I refuse to sort out, shovelling salted snacks down my throat whilst half asleep. Piggy. On the television, several shots of sharks flash, a montage of ‘The Deep Sea’s Next Top Model” applicants. I misplaced the remote control. It’s unattractive, it’s unladylike but it’s comfortable and exactly what I needed after such a long train journey.
   I don’t think I’ve mentioned my disease to anybody but Gareth since it was first discovered. I told my parents, of course, and my friends thought it was some weird STD, forgetting about it almost immediately. Only the four of us know now and that’s scary, isn’t it? It scares me, at the least. No matter what I do, no matter how vicious the contestants on the television screen are, I can’t stop my eyes from floating down, they’re uncontrollable fallen leaves on river water. A slow pan down my body to where my big, outdated shirt hides nothing from myself, even through the cotton I can see the trifecta of colour bulging out of my skin in the form of circular paint swatches or the embossed image on a ‘get well soon’ card: scarlet, peach, salmon. The rash is supposed to fade quickly after the initial bite but mine has stuck around for a good couple of weeks longer and each time I look back at it, it seems to grow.
   Standing, revealing the hidden remote from beneath my hunched self, I flick off the documentary. It’s like the rash has come to life to make concentration absolutely impossible. In response, I pull from my backpack a notebook. On the front I had earlier scribbled “LYME” in my scrawling mock-cursive, planning to handwrite a home remedy book with recipes found on the internet but after two or three hunts, I grew tired of the pessimism. The internet is no home for medicinal information, only for complaining about the lack of legitimate medicinal information and full-fledged recipes for sham ‘alternative healing’ potions. The only recipe in the book was written by my mother, a detox bath consisting of epsom salt, hydrogen peroxide and a good book to delve in to. 
   Then, the recipe calls for eight hours of sleep and a cup of tea in the morning.

Worst case scenario: confusion, blindness and full body pain. Think migraine but everywhere. This morning, I awoke feeling as dreadful as I have ever felt. An airplane must’ve crashed straight into the building, toppling the structure on top of me specifically because that’s how my body feelings. Flattened. The pain emanates from the centre and spreads out from there to my extremities. My bones, crushed by rubble but not to the point of painlessness, have been imperfectly ground to shards and each splintered chip presses and pierces sore nerves.
   I’ve been able to sleep every now and again, just a little bit. I keep falling in and out of these dreams, rolling around in my hallucinatory daze. I’m sitting on top of a pool, nothing beneath me but water. The breeze pushes me around, forcing me to lose my balance and with that, I fall into the water. I can’t pull myself out, in fact, all control is washed away until I’m pulled back up.
   I’m on the floor, visions of brown and black blobs shudder in the air, bouncing off the walls around and melding into shadows with ambiguous motivation. Time has slowed to a crawl, I’ve been warned of this before. The doctor told me, ordered me, not to put a clock in my bedroom. There should be no sense of time, no sense of a deadline because no matter what, the deadline will never arrive. It’s like being back in year eight where school didn’t matter and you’re already burnt out from trying to impress your teachers. Your last lesson everyday would drag on and drag on and, seemingly, never end. Along with this, I asked for an apartment without a bedroom window. I figured the light, or lack thereof, pouring through venetian blinds would make life unbearable in this state. I was correct. 
   My side itches, this horrendous tickling feeling spreads like wildfire, as uncomfortable as it is annoying and, as I pull my weightless shirt from my heavy torso I see my entire upper body covered in tiny, black speckles. Their true form masked in the lack of light I flail wildly to cast the creatures off. Several fly from my arms, splattering across the bedroom walls and casting a further darkness with them. They charge, becoming more insectoid in nature, black heads, brown bodies, eight legs. Deer ticks. All over my body. I scream, clenching the bedsheets and pulling it down on me. Not even the adrenaline, the fear, stops the pain from shooting further into my body. The deeper it gets, the less I struggle against the insects. They cover me, latching on to each and every inch of bare skin. 
   The door flies open and I’m saved. Gareth Zumthor, another hallucination, has come to free me. He’ll dust them off, spray the room and put me back into bed. Just what I want, just what I need.

Hazy vision returns in the morning but the pain has decided to call it a night, it’s gone for as long as I can move in robotic motions. With no sign of Gareth Zumthor hiding beneath scruffy bedsheets, I escape from the cloth prison that is my untucked bed and edge westward into the living room. There’s no point in going back to sleep as my cellphone, hidden in the sole of my left tennis shoe, reads: ‘Friday, 09:54’. 
   The day has only just begun and, already, I want it to end like nothing I have ever wanted before. No, no, keep positive. You’re not a whiner, Lex, you’re feeling better already. You can power through it with a little helping hand. That being the big, tatty chair in which I slump. Sinking into its embrace, I notice a small collection of complimentary DVDs and, beside them, the television remote sits upon a polystyrene bowl that I don’t recognise at all. Vapour rises, creasing the white paper note stapled to the opaque lid. 
   Inhaling, I pull myself from the chair’s sleep inducing grasp. In the bowl is soup: pea and ham, a personal favourite and perfect for dissolving my woes. It smells delicious and, whilst I ingest the scent as a Basset Hound would game, I peel off the sweating note. It reads: ‘maybe later?’ signed ‘G’. Creepy. Gareth’s appearance this morning wasn’t a dream. Why does he still have a keycard? 
   Well, I suppose I was only trying out the place. It would be rude of me to ask him to return the card now, before he’s completely out. For all I know, I’ve kicked him out of his flat and onto the street, was I too demanding? I’ll call him later, oh, wait. Right. Instead, I decide to dive into my soup and scour the DVD collection for gems.
   Amongst the Richard Curtis movies and the multiple copies of ‘Des Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari’, crushed between ‘Willow’ and ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ sits my favourite movie of all time: ‘Wild Target’ starring the best English actress of our generation, Emily Blunt. Honestly, I watch this film at least once a year, it’s the perfect sick-day film. Popping the disc out of its case, I catch something pass through the centre hole and it becomes my iron-sight. My targets are in sight, ready to fire.
   Window, bang, dead.
   Chair, bang, dead.
   Suitcase… I pause, hiding with my back pressed up against the corpse of my previous victim. His friend, secretly my friend, stands behind him in the firing line between the assailant and myself but he’s firing back at me. A tricky hit like nothing I’ve faced before. Thankfully, I have a trick up my sleeve! With gusto, I dive past the second chair, rolling beneath the coffee table and - with my final round - I fire the bullet and destroy the suitcase. “Victory is mine… but at what cost?”
   “You might need a new suitcase,” the disembodied voice of Gareth Zumthor asks from beside me. I didn’t even hear him come in, “is this what you do in your spare time?” I freeze completely, ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ mode engages and I’m still on one knee holding the disc towards my suitcase. The word I’m looking for to describe this moment is ‘buggered’ or ‘caught out’. I don’t think he’ll be wanting that breakfast now.
   “N- no.”
   “Do you need a hand?”
   “I think I’m fine, actually. I might just let the blood rush away from my face first.” I tell him, “what are you doing here anyway?”
   “I thought I’d see if you’re feeling any better, maybe you’re up for breakfast? Unless you’re full of soup.”
   “Do you actually have a place to stay at the moment?” I ask, finally deciding to stand and brush off my antics as if they never even happened. If I forget all about it, maybe he will too.
   “I might not need one, judging from the state of you this morning, I could actually just be a figment of your imagination.”
   “Oh, don’t do that. Just the thought of it makes me sick.”
   “Not feeling too well then?” He’s leaning against the door like his unexpected entrance was nothing, as if he shows up like this for everybody he knows and no-one has told him how rude it is. Looking away from my eyes for a split second, he checks the bulky watch strapped to his wrist. “The cafe downstairs is about as quiet as it will get during the day and they have an all day breakfast if you’re up for it.”
   “I think I could be introduced to a coffee, it might do me good.”
   “That’s the spirit,” he tells me with another cheerful smile. That fire beneath his lips just doesn’t go out, does it? I haven’t seen him frown or grimace even once yet, he might hold the world record for it by now. He leads me out of my home, prepared to remind me to lock the door with the keycard. A test, almost. “It’s not the best system, to be honest with you. Also, don’t leave the card too close to your mobile or it’ll erase the data off it.” Full of optimism and wisdom, wonderful. Wrapped up in that head of brown hair is an endless vat of almost-useless information, the best kind.
   The flat is on the fifth floor but before we make it down the second flight of stairs, a whistled tune stops Gareth in his tracks. Bouncing off the walls of the unloved, rectangular staircase, it’s impossible to track where the tune began but nevertheless, I search eagerly. Out from behind him, a young man taps Gareth on his shoulder. Dressed in all white and pink, wearing that traditional hat you’d recognise from those old movies and a name-tag, a young guy named Hal waves.
   “Gazza! I haven’t seen you in a while,” Hal says, ignoring me almost entirely, “where’ve you been? What’ve you been up to?” His tone shifts from excitable puppy-dog to fawn. He’s bad with people, I assume. He might’ve just noticed me and retreated back into his usual shell, his social awkwardness is more apparent with each shuddering syllable and something obnoxiously incoherent surrounds him. He’s probably bad at his job.
   “Hal,” greets Gareth with a quick flick of his eyes, downwards towards that fluorescent name-tag. He seems just as happy to see the boy, “Alexis, this is Hal, the milkman. Hal, this is Alexis, she’s moving into number thirteen.”
   “Oh wow! Nice to meet you, Lex,” the boy declares with a hop. I am irate - on the inside, anyway - because nobody is allowed to call me that. Not even my parents call me Lex. “I didn’t know you had a girlfriend, Gaz.”
   He looks stunned, confused even. That smile? It finally leaves his face and blood flushes, then, it returns, bright as ever. I almost feel like I’ve ‘won’ some sort of facial expression challenge. “I’m sorry, didn’t I mention?”
   “Alexis is moving in, I am moving out,” and Hal’s happy face seems to disappear from existence altogether. His voice lowers, and he speaks again.
   “I see. Well, I’m very happy to have met you. Alexis, I guess I’ll be delivering milk to you instead.”
   “That you will,” I remark in such a tone so as to brighten his day back up. Ineffective isn’t the word, his sun has already set. “I look forward to seeing you.”
   “You too,” and with that, he vanished back up the staircase.
   “Nice kid, I’ll miss him.”
   “Did you know him personally?”
   “Not really,” he says, “he’s been the milkman since day one so we’ve seen each other daily for a long time, I liked him though. He had that chipper attitude that a delivery service needs, don’t you think?”

I had seen the cafe’s entrance before but I hadn’t yet entered it. In reality, it’s more of a furnished cubbyhole plonked next to the post boxes. “It’s run entirely by university students so you’re bound to know at least one person who works here by the end of your first week, it’s almost guaranteed.” He tells me as we’re drawn towards a small table, “probably.”
   “It’s lovely…” I say, meaning ‘it’s a bit strange’. Dressed up to look somewhat like an old American movie theatre, it fails in the worst possible ways with cardboard cut-outs of celebrities I could never hope to recognise. A box-office flop. A single ceiling light is spread across the otherwise unlit diner with the help of a bed sheet stapled to the roof, stains included. In the background, a multiple foreign art films distract me from conversation with their noir aesthetic plastered on canvas screens. No subtitles, obviously.
   “Is it?” he asks, “you don’t sound too convinced.”
   “Maybe it’s just not my kind of place,” I tell him as my coffee is set down in front of me, still stirring itself in a novelty, clapper-board themed mug. Cappuccino, take one, scene 1. Oh, it’s just awful. I’ll admit it, tasteless. I don’t think I’d mind if it burnt down in the night and took the limp, cardboard body of Jean-Pierre Whatshisname with it. “Thank you.”
   “You don’t have to thank me,” the waitress snaps at me, slamming Gareth’s coffee onto the table, hard enough to cause a spill across the chequerboard pattern tablecloth.
   “Are you kidding me?”
   “Don’t worry about it,” the German mops it up with a napkin, kindly provided by the rudest waitress known to man. He waves her off like a kindly king and empties the crystallised contents of a green shaker into his drink, “it’s all part of the theme, really.”
   “Is it?”
   “No, she’s just not a very nice person. But don’t worry, she’s doing a media production course so you’re not likely to run into her often.” We sit and we chat for a short while, avoiding the awkward tension of rude people around us. Each time the waitress wanders over to peek into my unfinished coffee mug, I find it deep within myself to give her my worst ‘evil eye’ stare but nothing will wipe away the frown from her face. From her, we navigate to the topic of work.
   “I’m unemployed, what about you?” I tell him, “I mean, before my gap year I worked in a pharmacy but not any more.”
   “What did you do?”
   “Cleaned toilets.”
   “Believe me, it was almost as glamorous as this cafe.”
   He snickers, I think he’s taking a liking to me which is surprising, especially after watching me destroy my furnishings with my disc-based weapon. “I’m a typographer, web-designer, visual artist, interior decorator. Among other things, I helped design this cafe.” Boom. For the second time in a day, my heart shipwrecks and sinks deeper than an anchor. 
   “I’m sorry.” 
   “It’s not that bad,” he says, “I didn’t decorate, I’m just kidding you. I did, however, work on these shakers.”
   “Really? That’s interesting.”
   With his ringed index finger, he points to the green one. “This yellow one is sugar, meaning this other one here is salt.” I stare. I know I’m not supposed to but I’m surprised it’s that bad.
   “What colour are my eyes?” I ask on a whim, just to test his affliction, but when he leans in close enough for me to taste his coffee stained breath, I’m surprised they don’t glow bright red. 
   “Murky grey.”
   “Close enough,” he takes another sip of his coffee, “I didn’t think it would affect you so much.”
   “It’s deuteranopia. I can’t see green at all and a couple of colours meld together but I was so sure I got the difference in greys sorted. I guess it’s getting worse.’
   “What makes you think that?”
   “My coffee is salty.” 
   With that, he stands, “don’t want to finish it then?”
   “No, thank you. This has been lovely but I have a little bit of work to catch up on so I will say goodbye. Are you alright to walk back? You haven’t eaten anything.”
   “I’m feeling much better, Gareth, thank you.”
   “No, thank you.”

It must be a difficult life, not having access to certain colours. I wonder what the world looks like through the eyes of Gareth Zumthor. As I climb the unpainted concrete stairs of my new high-rise home, I try to envision a life without green. Yellow grass, yellow leaves all year round. Are there other colours he can’t see? Are there colours that I can’t see? I think I read somewhere that a certain kind of butterfly can see thousands more colours than us. The world would be so much more beautiful.
   Up the stairs I can hear a brute stomping down towards me but I ignore it. My eyes remain dead ahead into my own little Gareth-vision world of blues and yellows. Before I can counter, I’m sent tumbling back down a set of stairs maliciously as a mess of inky shades scrambles to its feet. “Sorry!” the blob screeches in a high-pitched accent, “I’ve just won the jackpot! A grand! From a milk bottle! Can you believe it? How wicked is that?” I’m still on my back as the blob shape-shifts into a young woman with tanned skin wearing a strange get-up of tracksuit pants, a black cardigan and a vastly unwise amount of eye make-up. “I’m so sorry, I’d love to chat to you because you’re new here but I really have to dash. I’ll come right back and explain everything in a little while as soon as I cash this sucker in. I’m Pudding by the way! Stay right there.”
   I didn’t ’stay right there’ at all. I continued on home offended, confused and in a small amount of pain which will no doubt spread into some unending damage. When I do make it home, the milk is sitting in place with a note: ‘one bottle a day, enough for your breakfast, your tea and a little bit extra’. The packaging is damp from the condensation, tearing straight off as I brought it inside. 
   Now, it sits beside the label upon my desk. It’s quite cute, very modern. The packaging itself has a DIY aesthetic with a cheap, recycled paper wrap featuring a printed sketch of a cow’s head, staring out into my humble abode with an almost bored expression. Below the cow, aptly named ‘Bess’, a red ribbon reads: ‘CONTEST CONTINUES! WIN £1000 EVERY HOUR! ENTER CODE ON REVERSE OF BOTTLE TOP AND JOIN THE FUN!”
   “This must be what that ‘Pudding’ girl was talking about,” I tell myself, removing the scarlet bottle cap with a pop. I’ve never heard of this competition before, it must be Brog-specific. £1000 would help quite a bit with living costs, it couldn’t hurt to enter. If it truly is location specific, the chances of me winning would skyrocket. Perhaps, if entry is free, I should give it a go. I switch on my ancient laptop: a fan that roars no matter how hot the inner workings are, stickers of various ages and a boot-up time of 8.2 years. When I can finally direct myself to their homepage, I find the code behind a droplet of milk. Lick. A bit sweeter than usual, it’s nice. The website loads: the now-familiar ‘Bess’ logo appears before my eyes and winks. Beneath her, a text input box fades in with space for eight characters. I enter mine slowly as the pressure of winning £1000 sinks in, according to the terms and conditions below, you only get one attempt a day. Out loud, I read them back to myself, “A2-82-55-3G. Enter.”
   The computer jitters for a second and freezes, not unusual. That irritating hourglass symbol dribbles sand from one compartment to another and spins several times over. The browser redirects me for a second but I don’t catch the address as the screen shuts down entirely, rebooting with the terminal open. That green cursor appears, blinking in morse code before a string of nonsensical words type themselves in green typewriter-type.
   Then, my name appears onscreen. “SORRY, ALEXIS… YOU’RE NOT A WINNER THIS TIME.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this chapter.
If you enjoy our work, why not consider sponsoring The Chestnut Cottage on Patreon?