Authors: Oliver Phisher
The Plain White Room
By Oliver Phisher
The Excessive Shrew opened his chest of draws and took from them a waistcoat made of straw. Then he posed in front of his full body mirror, a brass thing (a present, of course) that he had always hated. He was not at all a handsome Shrew (not that Shrews are an altogether an attractive animal). Nonetheless, he always dressed with elegance.
This dressing was a fruitless exercise. As he was, in fact, in heart, a horrid, greedy, loathsome, dull-witted, awful and little Shrew. The Shrew cared only for shallowest of things. He had no limits on his greed nor the depths of his thievery. It was certain that he was the worst Shrew ever to have lived in Merry Town. (It is worth noting that Shrew’s family had lived in Merry Town for twelve generations).
A knock at the Shrew’s door startled him and gold coins fell from his pocket to the floor around him. His coins made clinking and dashing sounds all around him Shrew fell on all fours and scurried to the door.
The Shrew stood pressed against the front door, peeking through the eye hole. He saw the entire town; it would seem, stood on his doorstep. Shrew saw Badger, bustling and brutish, was standing at the forefront of the mob with a snarl on his patched face. Next to the badger, just an inch behind, sat the otter. The otter was the Shrew's oldest friend and colleague at the bank in which they worked. Shrew had always known this day may one day come the day when Otter would notice something. Something that was not quite right. Something that did not quite sit right with ‘the books’. Like a thread, Otter would tug and pull until the Shrew’s little plot, would unravel like a jumper.
Shrew had, for years, found himself imagining how the otter’s face would look. The precise moment when the penny dropped. Otter would be sitting in his office, pawing over documents that the Shrew had always fobbed him off about it. "Oh you wouldn't understand; these things are well above you. Far too complicated for me to waste the time explaining to you," Shrew would say walking away from Otter whenever he pried.
That dim-witted Otter
, the Shrew had always thought – until now. Shrew could hear Beaver screaming from outside. Badger beat again on the door, this time with a much heavier paw.
Shrew spun away, scurrying as fast as he could to the furthest room from the door - his study. His heart pound while he locked every door behind him on his way. Shrew’s little rodent heart beat stronger still as he dove under his desk.
It was not as if the Shrew had intended to take and take from the townsfolk in the way they’d discovered he had done. Shrew always loved the finer things in life. He loved fine wines, decadent jewellery, and stately antiques. The Shrew loved these things for himself and himself alone. The townsfolk had no interest in such pricey possessions, and they alone didn’t have the means to acquire them. Such treasure was only reaped with the Shrew’s astute investing and the slice of capital he liberated from them. With their funds alone they would have had no hope. Even if they could have, they would have been too daft to appreciate them.
To keep his costly secrets. The Shrew had rarely, if ever, had guests past the threshold of his front room where the décor was nice, but modest.
Beyond the front parlour, the Shrew’s home was exuberantly furnished. There were paintings; gold encrusted mirrors. Shrew had extensions to his home built in secret by out-of-town tradesmen named Mole, whom he had paid in cash. The extensions reached deep, like arms, into either side of the hill in which Shrew lived. This extra space allowed the Shrew to keep his collections. His mahogany recliners, and, embroiled, foreign Turkish rugs.
If any guests been further into his home they would have realised the excessive nature of our dear Shrew.
A heart monitor beeped at a dull pace. Other than that there wasn’t a sound. The room was void of colour. Cold and uninviting. No flowers or sundries of any kind, sitting on the desk or next to the bed, only white.
Clear tubes ran from the body, over a white bedspread to white life support systems.
“I’ll not go in there; I’ll not leave cards or flowers. Or have anyone else for that matter. It’s not God’s will to have life go on like that,” an elderly female voice echoed from outside.
“It’s a sin I say; it’s all a sin!”
The body was motionless. Except for the eyes. The eyes darted back and forth under the bodies eyelids.
A few of the fingers twitched every now and again, but no one was there to notice.
Lepus lay on his bed. From the other side of the room his record player made the sweet sounds of subdued jazz. Every so often he leant back and tilted his head. Checking the clock on the wall behind him. Finally, 6.19 pm arrived. He stared at the ceiling, counting the seconds as they passed into 6.20.
This was the exact time he always imagined Alice would get to her house from work. Although she rarely came home when she said she would, or when she planned. He always expected her exactly then.
He knew her routine, her bustled removal of bags and pottering. As she relaxed and the stress fell from her body.
He counted the seconds, and could see it all play out in his mind’s eye.
Lepus sat up and stared across at his bookshelf.
Two seconds, she'd be going through the pantry now. Even though she only ever bought health foods. She would always examine everything. Hoping that after a long day instant noodles had somehow materialised out of thin air. Lepus chuckled under his breath, as he used to do watching her. It’s so odd how much better you can know someone else than you know yourself. This time, he was staring into space while sitting on his bed miles away from where she was.
She would have turned to him, seeing him sitting at the dining room table, watching her.
“You know…” she would say, launching into a story about something that had happened that day. Usually, it just happened to be the worst thing in the world someone could ever do to another person. Or from hearing her side, you would think that.
But not today; today Lepus was at his home. Today there was silence, deafening silence. The record had stopped, and Lepus felt frozen.
All he had now was this routine. It only stuck him now that even after years of watching that little kitchen performance of hers. Not one day had it lost its charm, a performance just for him, a one act one women show.
He had always taken such pleasure in the oddity of it. How she would never deviate from her little process.
6.21 Rummaging through her bag looking for her mobile. Not because she heard it. Just feeling, that she’s forgotten something and maybe her mobile might help.
6.22 Finding her phone, a message from the afternoon that she was too busy to have checked. She would smile with glee. Her subconscious satisfied that she was essential to the world. Her little unconscious ritual continued, getting out a cutting board to start dinner. But this time, she would reach for it next to the home phone. Then see the faint green flashing of waiting for an unlistened to message. She would click play, and Lepus’s voice would crackle through the machine.
6.25 “… I um… I, I know you won’t, get this till later when your home… but" ... the message would continue for another four minutes.
6.29 Lepus leant back again staring at the clock.
6.35 Back at Lepus's house he lay back down and stared at his ceiling, waiting.
6.37 He sighed, a single tear welling in his eye before he brushed it away. He sat up in his bed and placed his phone in front of him.
6.38 Furrowing his brow he tried to will the phone to ring.
6.42 His eyes drooping, his phone vibrated. His spine goes straight and his eyes open full.
‘Private number’ His phone shook on top of the bedspread, he presses ‘answer – hands-free’, and waits.
6.42.58 The line crackles
6.43 “No,” she says with frustrated defiance.
6.43.40 “To which question?” Lepus let slip into the empty room.
“Both,” she said.
Lepus leant forward and pressed ‘End call'.
Lepus flipped the phone upside down and pressed the ‘release’ button as hard as he could. The case fell apart, and he tugged at the battery. It vibrated one last time, clinging to life before it expired. He took out the SIM card and snapped it in half. Then threw the phone across the room, and lay back down.
In the end, the answer to his question wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Lepus’s bedroom spun around him like some carnival ride. Colourful images of his possessions flew around the room. Photographs of old friends merged into one another, creating a tapestry of his life. His books, furniture and the clothes on his floor whirred past him with an intensive fury. Glass shards fell from the sky as he tried to focus on the blurry spinning items. He was in tunnel big enough that he could reach his arms out, and not touch either side. It was like a long paved well. Smooth looking rocks paved the walls initially, giving way to pure black dirt as he fell further. He felt woozy as the tunnel seemed somehow to bend and turn. But the fall seemed endless. Deeper, darkening into the deep, deep well. He tried to look down, to see what he was approaching, but it was far, far too dark to see anything. The things whirring about him seemed to be clinging to the sides of the rough dirt walls. As if there were two kinds of gravity at work, down, down, down. Would this fall never end? His heart began to race. His mind was racing; he couldn’t think straight. His whirring mind straying to thoughts of what he had been learning. He stared upwards, but there wasn’t a speck of light and the impending fear of danger kept growing. A shard around the size and shape of a knife flew past his face. It was large enough to grip, but not too big enough that in his rate of falling would be too awkward to use. He looked down, and the fall seemed to be somehow slowing as if something was playing with gravity. As he fell, he thought he should be accelerating, yet the dirt walls appeared to be getting narrower. The pure black ground whooshing towards him seemed more and more inviting. Lepus grabbed at the shard and held it with determination.
It exhilarated him that it didn’t pass his face too for him to grab it. A smile crept across his face; as he watched it glint in his hand, it had sleek and sharp edges. The corners were right-angled: a broken shard from a photo frame. He pressed it against his left Armand caressed his wrist.
Then he felt the wind of the fall pushing his hair around his face and changing course. He flipped over in the air, and looking down could see in the approaching distance the duvet on his bed. He crashed to the ground and yet felt completely numb to the impact.
Glass bounced around him, and the shard fell from his hand as he slipped into unconsciousness. Lying amongst dirt and gravel, somehow feeling the softness of his bed underneath him.
Lepus walked down the aisles of the seemingly endless market. His senses danced with the spices and exotic goods, which to his child's eyes were magic. This moment was the first he would be able to recall as an adult.
Lepus had lost his parents in the bustle, far too distracted by the trinkets and wares of the stalls. He had wandered off amongst the merchants, darting between adult legs, racing through the current of the crowd. Finally, overwhelmed by the movement, the colours and lights of the market, he was drawn to a quieter section, away from the crowd.
It was filled with dark looming oriental statues of grand Buddha’s and plain clothed fishermen. Rich tapestries and exotic materials all hanging from chains attached to the ceiling. For which his young mind did not yet have names or could even glean their purpose. Lepus heard a yell from the crowd and spun too quickly as he walked trying to look back. His left foot caught his right, and he went tumbling to the hard cement floor.
Lepus dusted himself off and stood up, realising he had stumbled into one of the stalls which had a small overhanging archway. Many of the shoppers seemed not to notice the booth as it was tucked away between two brick walls with the archway above it. One particular item appeared to pull his gaze and not let it go; amongst rusted old machinery and colourful antiques. A small statue of a dragon sat atop some demonstrative pebbles. The statue had been positioned looking at where Lepus was standing. As he moved left and right the eyes always appeared to hold his gaze.
The calming nature of the dragon sculpture seemed to penetrate Lepus’s soul. Before he realised, he was standing as close to the table as he could, leaning over it, enchanted.
He was startled when the women behind the counter spoke, as he had been oblivious to her “These are on special,” she said smiling while gracefully presenting a jar...
“So many uses, beautiful and mysterious.”
Lepus tried to look past the sealed glass pot, but the manners of a young man pushed him to take hold and look. Inside green velvet spun through blue oil, with every shake a new tiny silver figurine would appear.
“How much is that dragon?” Lepus said his voice cracked with wanting.
“What? Oh… no, that shouldn’t be here, that’s not for sale.” The old women said shrinking back. He could see that he had taken the wind from her sails. Lepus stared into the dark eyes of the small statue. The women smiled, content with how taken he was with the little figure she had made long ago. It had been brought out every market for years, and she had forgotten it was amongst her wares.
“If you buy this,” she said smiling, “I’ll give you the statue,” she said.
“Really?!” Lepus exclaimed with glee.
“Of course,” she said. “I can always make more, but you must promise to take good care of him,” she said smiling.
“Of course, of course!” he exclaimed as she places them both in a paper bag.
Lepus handed over all the money he had left to the woman and scampered off to find his parents.
Once Lepus had returned home with his treasures, he ran straight upstairs to his room, placed the jar on his desk and unwrapped the dragon. He stared at it for a good hour, mystified by its patterns and beautiful scales. He picked it up and examined its every feature; underneath it didn’t have any tacky price tags or indented markings of manufacturers. It had “earth dragon”, written in cursive. He placed it back on his desk and declared to it:
“The women said to take care of you, so that's what I’ll do.”
Dragons live outside
, he thought.
I can’t keep him locked up in here. On Lepus’s window sill, there was a small dainty bonsai tree that his aunt had given him for his birthday. He picked both it and the dragon up. Then he took them outside with care.
Dragons live in foreign lands with magical things
, he thought. So he had to make a magical little area for it. So that's what he did. A magical little place in the yard for his new found friend.
So that’s where the dragon sat. Atop a shiny stone rock, under a small bonsai tree.
In the morning, Lepus would jump out of bed. Ran downstairs to say hello to his dragon and then, in the evening, tell him of his school day.
Lepus left the jar on a shelf over his bed, and would sometimes play with it at night if the moon was bright enough. So that he would be able to see the figures as they floated through the velvet into his gaze.
One night when he couldn’t sleep he rolled over and picked up the jar, and twisted it all around and upside down. From the very bottom a small figure he had never seen before swam through the velvet and clicked against the glass.
It was a little black scorpion, unlike anything Lepus had ever seen. He sat up on his bed and stared at it. Trying to examining it without tilting the jar. So that the scorpion slipped back into the back of the jar out of sight.
Its pincers shone in the moonlight. Its tail was curved, making it hard for the young Lepus to keep it against the edge of the glass. If he didn’t hold the jar steady, it might slip behind the velvet inside the jar so that he couldn’t see it. So far he’d never seen the same figure appear more than once.
He tried to lift the jar above his head, fascinated by the thing but, as he did, it slipped back into the middle of the glass jar. Lepus was so frustrated he began to shake the jar. The unusual figures he saw bobbed in and out of view.
A small silver wizard with a blue robe, a silver cross, a spider figure and other iconic gothic trinkets and a black Svetovid sun circle symbol but Lepus thought it was the piece for a trivia board game. But no matter how much he shook it the tiny scorpion did not come back. Lepus hopped out of bed and placed the jar on the floor. Then rolled it across his floor. He hoped it would cause the heavier items to separate from the light, causing the scorpion to present itself. It didn’t work, and the little jar showed Lepus a myriad of goods. All were spinning and twirling in a dazzling array of colours and mystical items. Lepus picked up the old toy and threw it out the window in frustration as his mind registered what it had done. He heard the smash of the glass on the pavement outside, as the jar shattered, just outside his front door.
He scrambled into bed pulled the blankets up close to his face. There he lay in silence, tryingto hear if his parents had stired. Worried he would soon be in trouble. He heard nothing but a dog barking in the far distance. The house was still there was echoing silence from outside.
Lepus squeezed his eyes shut. He tried to force himself to jump out of bed and run downstairs to check the carnage of the impact. He imagined large chunks and small shards of glass everywhere. But he was too scared to move, in case his parents were out of bed and realised it was him who had thrown the jar.
He clenched his eyes shut and tried to wish undone what he had done. A loud crash echoed up from the cement and a thunderous roar from the skies a beat after. Lepus began to hear a rattle on the roof of his house, as it began to rain.
He kept his eyes closed, listening to the rain, as he drifted to sleep. He dread of the morning easing into a peaceful child’s dream.