Wednesday, July 21, 2004


Watkins examined the matchbox. When he was a small boy, they sold toy lorries in matchboxes, and racing cars, and family saloons, and bright red tractors. Recently the world had become a boring place for Watkins. Matchboxes contained only matches. And cigarette packets had only cigarettes: no attractive cards to flip bearing pictures of footballers, tropical birds, Second World War aeroplanes and, yes, even bright red tractors.

The matchbox sat in the palm of his hand. Life was usually too busy for such minutiae. The last time he stopped to breathe was when his mother died. Even when he was supposed to be relaxing, his mind raced with this or that project. Yet today was different. The world had suddenly hushed, as if the act of impending was its raison d’être - and Watkins was flagrante delicto: about to take a sneaky smoke, a habit which his better self had officially given up yonks ago.

With the unaccustomed intake of breath that would not re-emerge until his lungs started flapping like dying fish, he pored over the crumpleable cuboid of the matchbox. The larger geometry of the cigarette packet nearby - which he had originally intended to plunder with the more surreptitious fingers of his left hand - did not belong to him. Nor did the matchbox, for that matter. In fact, their owner was a mystery - especially as Watkins lived alone, expected no imminent visitors (nor, even, any just departed ones), and had in fact not unlocked his front door since Emily left in a huff a fortnight ago. The artefacts could not possibly have belonged to Emily, to sweet sweet Emily. She was so green, he thought she must come from Mars. Recycling, for her, was not necessarily living on a déjà vu biking holiday.

And you could say that again.

No, the presence of the smoking equipment was decidedly an enigma, which, in many ways, was a better word than mystery and also obviated a boring repetition. Watkins shook his head. Could he, of all people, be thinking such thoughts? On top of which, he had just spotted a man’s pipe resting upon a shelf of the bookcase within the bay window alcove. He may have succumbed to fags in his chequered past - but never a pretentious pipe! Men who smoked pipes had the personality of a car exhaust or worse.

The matchbox just moved, a barely perceptible budge in the palm! A horrible feeling. As if he were a boy again with a trapped wasp. Except this was more a wriggle than a buzzing bounce. A slither, not a head-bashing. Yet quieter than Watkins’s resumed breathing.

Emily wasn’t ever coming back. He knew that. He and Emily were usually chalk and cheese, but not necessarily in that order. She a schoolteacher with a degree in method acting - he, well, he had smelly feet, didn’t he? And his mother had never properly house-trained him. Now it was too late. An old dog could never learn new tricks.

Yet he did remember a trick he once knew as a boy. One with a matchbox. Two live matches were needed. And a penny (an old penny in those days). One match was positioned vertically head-up at one end of the empty matchbox’s label-side by means of a punctured hole. The other leaned head-up against it with the white stem creating a hypotenuse, its end resting on the label with the penny between. You then asked someone how you could get the penny without touching the matches.

Also, there were those cotton-reel tractors, with a stub of candle, elastic band and one matchstick, which his father used to make for him. Memories were flooding back.

But all this was before the matchbox seemed to move in his palm.

Yet how could it? Certainly without the presence of an independent motive force. Tricks were never that prestidigitatious. So, he speculated upon sliding out the tiny drawer, to gauge what was what - until the interruption of the door-bell going. Surely not Emily. But if not, who?

He had expected no imminent visitors.

The last time Watkins had unexpected visitors was the occasion he had suffered a chimney fire and one of the neighbours had called the fire brigade. Nosey-parkers, all of them!

He pushed gently on the fragile tray with his nose to reveal the most surreptitious of his own left hand’s fingers (the little one) lying in its narrow coffin. Slightly slithering between the corners of its fingerhouse. Brown-stained at one end and bright red-stumped at the other. It looked to be in a torture of traction.

He tried to snap it shut before calling the snoop-police, worried that he might get Emily the whale-lover and part-time RSPCA ambulance-driver instead. But none of the number-pads worked. And the door-bell had indeed gone. Only the squeaking of Watkins’s lungs remained. The fingermouse? It had dropped out with a crumply plop and died - touch wood.

Published 'Touch Wood' (Little Brown & Co) 1993

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And the first thing that jumps into my head is Albert King's "Match Box Blues." It won't leave! Even after the matchbox in the story has degenerated into baser mammal stuff...