‘Bottletop’: [2] - A Girl, a Jack, and a Tour Guide

For the longest time, the computer sat there and refused my commands. The full-screened terminal application stared at me with its blinking, green message. No combination of keys fired into the console fixed the problem, all I could do was tear the battery out and let all power leave the screaming beast. I didn’t switch it back on immediately, I’m happy sitting here in silence. Years without figuring out how to clean the inner workings of my only working machine have led to a hesitation in rebooting.
   I press the cracked on-button expecting error after error but I’m pleasantly surprised. The boot time of old is non-existent and the splash screen appears before my eyes in an instant, blankly awaiting my input. It’s a little bit worrying, maybe a virus wiped my hard-drive or, God forbid, emptied my downloads folder and cleared the recycle bin. Faster than I’ve ever witnessed, the reborn machine logs me in with a single click; no password required. The terminal opens itself once again, this time blank. The familiar icon: black screen, white border, chevron, underscore has been removed. Replaced, in fact, by none other than Bess. No wink, not this time, Just still, silent.
   I should start reading the terms and conditions, I suppose. I’ve been hearing a lot about online scams recently, it could be that, or maybe there’s a script that needs to verify your location or… I don’t know. I’m no good with computers but that at least makes some sense. How else would it know my name? I sit back, watch it for a second for any subtle bovine movement. Nothing happens. I punch a couple of commands into the terminal but the strange code doesn’t reappear. One more directive, manual update, and I leave it to fix itself.
   As soon as I’m sat back down, there’s a knock at the door. It’s one of those lazy, slow, belting knocks. Definitely not Gareth, instead, behind the door I find the pudding girl. Oblivious to her reveal, she stands cross-legged holding roll upon roll of £5 notes in both arms with fingers warped in an uncomfortable positions to grasp the hooped plastic of a Scrumpy Jack six-pack. Dazed and dreaming, the girl shakes off her boozy smell. “Sorry about before, fancy getting to know each other?”
   As though she’s teasing me, the pudding girl waves the cans in my doorway, sloshing the vile concoction in my direction. “I shouldn’t, really. I’m not allowed.”
   “What? Did your mother tell you that?” she scowls and hiccups in one confusing motion before happily swinging the horrendous fluid back and forth between the barrier of my front door and the hallway behind. “C’mon! Lemme in and have a drink with your new best friend!”
   Okay, she’s drunk. Maybe she was drunk before, now I’ve seen the damage she can do. She’s not rude, really, she’s just inconvenient. I let her in, worried she might hurt herself somewhere else. As a thanks, she hands me a can of the cider. “I really can’t but thanks, it’ll mess with my medication.” I can enjoy a drink now and then, Lyme isn’t a big fan of it though. I haven’t gotten drunk in a long time but I’m not opposed to drinking. I’m opposed to Scrumpy Jack. 
   “Medication? Soz, I thought you were just being a pussy.” In a wandering waltz, the pudding girl devastates my living room with an avalanche of five pound notes and rubber bands as I hope she’ll both clean up and leave them. Behind the door I find 3 more six-packs of Jack hiding in the hallway, “yeah, could you bring those in for me?” she asks me. I do it, lugging them in through the snowstorm of turquoise paper as the pudding girl’s inner child takes over the host body: giggling on a stranger’s floor, tossing fistfuls of cash in the air like worthless paper, confettied by her dark eyes and sandy complexion.
    It’s almost beautiful, entrancing. I sit beside her with my own eyes dazzled by the human spectacle. 

Several hours have passed and I, too, am drunk. I swear, she’s almost as charismatic as Gareth, slipping the drink into my hand with a cocky one-liner. My body might not forgive me but it’s been like, a year since the last time I drank this much and, while the room blurs into an extendable, never-ending tunnel of navy carpet and exposed brick wall, the pudding girl rambles on. She’s been talking for a while, Estelle is her name. Estelle Swales. It started at around 1 o’clock when I buried her - head to toe - beneath the banknote snowfall. She started talking about her Father, Immanuel, back home in Cork, her move to Brog, and her dreams like I was her therapist, and now we’re on about her novel.
   “It’s all about this chap, right?” she says, hiccuping between every third word with the consistency of a scratched CD. “She’s this… gritty, detective lady. The proper American stereotypical loner. A smoker with a real sweet tooth. And the story, right, is all about her finding a nice home after her last case.” She backtracks through my silence, realising she forgot a major plot point. She’s a legend, the detective, but “it’s not a series of books, those come after I’m famous.”
   “What’s this last case then?”
   “Dunno. I wanna focus on the ending first, all the real book writers do it. The ending is the most important bit. He meets a woman who changes his view on the world and all the colour comes back to it. He settles down, leaves the building and finds this lovely house with the white picket fence and all of that stuff. Get it?”
   “I get it. It’s the American dream,” not something I’ve ever understood. Still, I keep nodding, stealing Gareth’s patented reassuring smile. You can see it in the way her personality entirely shifts that she really, I don’t know, respects this ideal. “Must be nice for him,” I tell her.
   “Yeah, man! You gotta think like, it’s so secure. A home that you own, that you bought. A romantic future you can look forward to no matter what happens, no matter what the situation is.” Digging herself out of the cocoon of cash, Estelle offers me a hand and pulls me down into the currency swamp. With my help, she builds herself the least comfortable pillow in the world and lays herself back down. A wash of midnight black replaces bright eyes as she closes them gently. A coating thick and crumbling, eyeshadow smeared on blindly like frosting. “I can almost see it now.”
   Almost silently, she hums a pleasant tune. A lullaby. One gentle enough to rock me to sleep with the ever-obvious drunken shakes. I lay next to her, eyes clamped tightly shut envisioning this beautiful home she so lusts after. In my vision, it’s taken away by a hurricane. Reduced to rubble and rot. Behind it, my parent’s home stands alone: built like a castle and 80% unoccupied. It cost them their life savings and I love it, but it’s not for me. Not now, anyway. I’ve been handed too much to worry about to even think about dropping everything on a home I’ll never completely own myself. I mean, there’s my health to think about and this incredible debt I’m putting myself into. Don’t forget about the lack of jobs in the field I’m approaching. The two of us are in the same situation, we’re never going to afford a home like that. I can’t see how she can look past the iron bars of her self-inflicted student prison and stretch her arms out towards that painted wooden fixture.
   “Estelle?” She grumbles a little bit, putting a halt to the lulling tone. With a stretch, the pudding girl grasps for her perfect home which floats out of reach beyond her running make-up. She’s fast asleep on £1000, looking so impossibly peaceful.

In the world of film, hangover ridden sleep is almost always disrupted by the smell of bacon, cooked by an attractive partner whether you met last year or last night. This has never happened to me until today: the smell of eggs, bacon and burning toast have never been so repulsive and yet, so tantalising. I’m hungry but everybody knows how this ends. I’ll see everything I eat within the hour. In fact, this effect has already grasped Estelle. As my eyes open to a blurred mess of blue, white and grey I watch the pudding girl scramble to her feet. In her path of destruction, the currency pills crumbles and spills out beneath her feet. As… wait, if Estelle is running away, she can’t be cooking the breakfast.
   “Why do you still have a keycard!?” I wail from my hunched position, annoyed at myself for shouting so loudly. The room is spinning a little and the ever-talented Gareth Zumthor stands in the corner of my kitchenette.
   “You’re not rid of me yet, Alexis.” He tells me, placing two completely covered paper plates in front of me.  “I figured you hadn’t bought crockery yet, feel free to keep these plates.”
   “Thank you,” for the meal, that is. I have my own paper plates.
   “Who was your friend? I don’t think I’ve seen her around.”
   “Estelle… something,” I say, “we met last night, she lives in this building.”
   “Plenty of crazy characters live in this place but she seems nice.”
   “I think we drank a lot.”
“That’d explain a lot, I hear that’s not too good for Lyme.” Through a forkful of scrambled eggs I ignore his disappointed head shake and mumble something incoherently. I refuse him a repeat. Instead, I focus on shovelling the gift of a delicious breakfast down my throat before I lose it all. Gareth reaches over and takes the second plate, “your friend doesn’t look like she’s coming back.”
   “Oh, thank you Pudding!” I shout through the doorway, cupping sticky fingers to greasy mouth, “don’t forget to come back for your pillow!”
   “Right,” his eyes keep wandering past my shoulder towards the rectangle of cash sitting outright on my floor. “Do you have any plans for the day?” Shit, that all depends on the day. I nod and ask him the date, if it’s Saturday, I have to pay a visit to my doctor’s office. I’ve been told a lot of doctor’s haven’t got the slightest clue about how to treat Lyme disease in this country so I’ve selected this one specifically: an Australian. “Well,” he says in response, “why don’t I take you? We’d need to take a train into Central Brog but, if you fancy it, I’m quite happy to show you around the area while we’re at it.”
   There’s no need to consider it, of course it’ll make my travels less troublesome. Halfway through my final mouthful, I say “I’d love that, shall we head off?”

Okay, okay. Fire everybody else in the industry, Gareth Zumthor is the greatest living tour guide on Earth. No matter what is it that he points out, there’s an interesting anecdote to go alongside it. With Gareth’s seemingly infinite pool of historical tidbits, I’ve been catching the smallest details. The foot statue. You know the one in front of the train station? Yeah, six toes. I wouldn’t have noticed that without his expert guidance. He is a living,  breathing encyclopaedia. Oh! And the train line, he was going to tell me something about the train line.
   “Oh yeah, of course,” he says as we’re pushed onto the bustling platform by late businessmen in their suits of many hues. The station itself is a car crash of sensations with the inescapable smell of old coffee and that never-drying trespasser paint, that bane to adventurous children. Around us, chain-link fences topped with razor-wire protect what is left of the natural world by keeping drunken college kids from hopping off the surrounding bridge when no water passes but sewage. The train rolls up to our platform lazily with the most disappointed looking ‘railroad engineer’ at its head. “The engineer who designed the railroad around here had a bit of a sense of humour. He designed and built the tracks in the shape of a human being: two legs, two arms and a head in the north. When it was done and the ceremonial ‘cutting of the red tape’ had been applauded, he stood and declared ’the Gingerbread Man line is open’.”
   It’s not a joke. If there’s a prank going on, it’s very elaborate. Amongst the various train timetables plastered on the aluminium walls, a Comic Sans title reads: “THE GINGERBREAD MAN LINE” as satellite photos and beautiful tea-stained doodles demonstrate the human form of this unusual railway. The Gingerbread Man Line was as real as the iron forged for his unshapely form and I can feel the individual toes as we shoot off towards the centre of Brog. In the midst of my enthusiasm which - for this, and only this, train track - ranked higher than ‘lonely old lady’ or ‘estranged man child’, Gareth ducked and weaved between people to hide his face from the fellow passengers.
   “What’s wrong?” I assume it’s an ex, we’ve all had those moments, but he doesn’t look shy, just worried. Ahead, fumbling for a seat beside his friend, a young woman in shades glares straight through him.
“Nothing, just somebody I haven’t seen in a long time.”
He chuckles, “no, no. Old friend.”
“Why don’t you go say hello?”
“Well, for starters, I doubt she’ll remember me. We were good friends in high school but that was a long time ago. We had just one thing in common and that was it, nothing else. We were different and that was enough. When the time came for us to graduate, we headed for the armour. She never made it in.”
   As Gareth looks away, I turn to stare. A fair bit younger looking than Gareth but then, I suppose war could do that to a person. Her glasses hold a heavy black in their frame, even from here I can recognise my own reflection in their piercing vision. Slender and chin but unlike sunglasses. “Is she colourblind as well?” I ask, tossing a hunch out in the open to be devoured by the cunning Gareth Zumthor. Instead, he congratulates me. 
   “Yeah, how did you know?”
   I shrug, “you’re not all that special.”
   “It’s monochromia, complete colourblindness. Those glasses are specially designed to protect her from sunlight. Lovely lady, she never once complained about her disability, unlike me. She helped me see the bright side.”
   “And you still don’t want to say hello?”
   For a second, I think he considers it. He even stretches his arms behind the back of his head, limbering up to reconnect with an old flame. “People watching is fun, isn’t it?”

Brog itself? Underwhelming, despite the constant reassurance of “don’t worry, it’s better when you understand it,” I’m not sure I’ll get into it. The first sight of the town: you’re bookended by two competing furniture stores. Derelict and unwashed, both stores are empty. We scurry off, heading for the high street where the doctor’s office is waiting. The town has the basics: you’ve got your standard shopping centre full of overpriced cafes and expensive clothing boutiques, you’ve got your supermarket and your fast-food shacks. We pass through alleyway after alleyway with Gareth ahead, pointing out the smaller shops with glee: a curio shop, a butcher who offers us a chat for free pork pies, it’s all very hipster. Gareth knows what he’s doing, he’s the man of the town and everybody loves him. 
   Rock music emanates from the end of the final alleyway as the final crumbs of pie are shovelled between the butcher’s moustache and goatee. “There’s a concert,” he warns us in a northern accent, “Christian rock, bunch of butters I reckon.”
   As we continue onwards with a thank you, the music becomes heavier with each step as though we’re heavyweight boxers heading for the championship ring. We stomp with the drumming, hum along to the guitar solo neither of us have ever heard before and mumble borderline Biblical prose beneath our breaths. Sprawling out from the alleyway is a park, seemingly planted in the wrong place and never put right. A crowd of fifty-thousand gathered surrounding a single bandstand, all wearing black, all but me. 
   Swimming forth, I tell Gareth “I’ve never been to a concert before!”
   “We should head to the front,” he says, “be careful though. Let me know if you want me to pull you out, don’t let it get that far.” We push forward carefully, stopping between riffs to remain unpunched. I’m holding Gareth by the wrist as he blends in behind me, I hardly notice my grip dissipate as the worried looking, make-up donning lead singer flicks his knotted, knee length hair behind the back of his head. The next song begins with a screech, dinosaurs have taken control of the microphone whilst a deaf violinist scratches at her instrument. 
   The crowd absolutely goes wild, bouncing up and down in the mud off-tempo. The drummer, a complete psychopath, blasts at his nine-piece kit with rubber mallets as the bassist stares blankly into the sky. It all gets very tiring very quickly and, by the drum solo, it’s time to leave. Gareth is nowhere to be seen in the ocean of goths, a sea of greasy hair blocks my path and, with a mosh pit forming, the smudges of caked make-up start to spin around me.
   The music takes a dramatic turn with a sharp, spike in volume. A single note reverberates and echoes into silence, the crowd breaks out into screams. They disperse as I find my way to my feet, shaking and unsteady in the wake of an earthquake. The drummer, now hidden, hides uncomfortably beneath his kit. The guitarist bleeds from a hole in his chest, laying beside his effect pedals. It’s hard to see what has happened but a metallic smell seems to fill the area and now there are sirens in every direction. A gunshot rings behind them and Gareth Zumthor comes to my rescue.

We don’t speak about what happened. It’s as simple as that. There’s no point, we both saw what happened. Gareth, in all his wisdom, keeps his arm around me. Comforting. I might’ve been killed, I could’ve been murdered right there. Without him, I’d still be standing there, wouldn’t I? I shouldn’t have tempted fate, I should’ve kept heading towards my destination, that’s where we are now.
   “I’ll wait outside,” he tells me, “if I’m not here when you get out, I’ll certainly only be around the corner.” I nod, swallow my feelings and step into the building alone. I am the only patient in the office, it’s not a hospital, anybody hurt would’ve been rushed out of town. The only other human being in the room is the receptionist, hiding behind her desk.
   “Hello,” I’m handed a sheet to sign into the hospital under our health care: name, address, time of original booking, address history, address history confirmation, past medication, illness history, ‘have you ever left the country?’, age, smoker status, nonsensical question about illegitimate children, sign here, here, here, here, there, here and here. My name is called as soon as the application is processed and by that I mean typed ford for word in front of me, the doctor calls my name.
   He’s an Australian, you can see it on his walls. A huge map of the country plastered above his medicine cabinet, a didgeridoo sits on his desk. His personal room is a museum of corner shop bought artefacts including plastic boomerangs and cork hats. Tourist crap. In his thick accent, he notes aloud my twitchy, nervous demeanour and upset expression. The man known as Dr. Daniels stands in his suspenders with his bow tie and toothbrush moustache all in the same colour. “Mind if I ask a couple of questions?”
   I shake my head, “do you still have your rash?” he asks. I nod, lifting my shirt to display the tattooed mark of my illness still stamped to my flesh in red ink. ‘This girl has Lyme disease’, it screams, ‘it might kill her too’.
   “It’s unusual, it really doesn’t usually last this long. Dr. Jones sent down his personal report of you so I don’t think tests are necessary. It is probably, almost definitely Lyme disease but I’m personally not allowed to say that without the tick in hand.”
   “That’s ridiculous.”
   “I don’t make the rules. If I made the rules, nobody would be diagnosed with anything terminal and I’d still be in Australia. I’m still going to treat you for Lyme.” From his desk, he takes a small piece of lined paper and scribbles in that oh-so-common doctor’s scrawl, “here’s a prescription for a 10 day course of bog-standard amoxycillin. If this oral treatment doesn’t change anything, you’re going to have to stay in hospital for a short while. I see an IV drip in your future, I’m afraid. Do you have any real problems at the moment?”
   “Appetite,” I tell him, “is there anything I can do about that? What about anxiety?”
   “Anxiety is a normal part of being ill. There’s nothing I can do about that apart from telling you everything will probably be fine. Now, for your appetite,” his eyebrows raise and lower like he’s trying to be sneaky and he covers the right side of his mouth with the back of his left hand, “try smoking some weed.”
   “Are you serious?”
   “It won’t help your headspace, believe me. It all depends on your personality but take it easy if you do try it. It’ll definitely help your appetite and it could dull the pain.”
   I wait a second for the camera crew to burst through the set, there’s a police detective donning enormous headphones hiding behind the walls just waiting for me to show the slightest amount of interest in illicit substances. He’s got his fingers crossed for me to ask where I can ‘score some dank nugs’. Nothing pops out though, I’m just given blank stares. “You okay?” he asks, “don’t worry, I’m not trapping you. I’m totally serious, I mean, it’s not even really illegal.”
   “I fell like I need an adult before I can comment,” I joke, wondering where my real doctor is hiding. Somewhere in the closet, I’m willing to bet he’s behind that deadly spider chart.
   “I can’t help you with that either but if that is all, feel free to leave. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”
   “Thank you, Dr. Daniels.”

I leave the building, prescription in hand and almost cheerful again, to a lack of Gareth Zumthor. Instead, two police officers stand either side of the doorway. “Are you Alexis Walker? Could you come with us, please?”

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