My friend Iris is emigrating to China, and I have agreed to take some of her things to save her storage costs. In her living room, as I browse her possessions and make my choices, I feel awkward. What does it say that I chose to take her DVD player and her blender that can crush ice, but not her steel lamp or wicker rocking chair? Does she think I think her lamp is ugly? That I mock her set of red shelves with hand-painted pink spots? I decide to overcompensate.
‘Everything is so beautiful!’ I say. ‘I wish I could take everything!’
‘Take the shelves then,’ says Iris. ‘An ex-boyfriend made them for me, and frankly I hate them. Why don’t you take them?’
‘Everything’s so beautiful!’ I say, gazing in wonder around Iris’ flat so I don’t have to look her in the eye. I feel like a burglar by appointment.
I leave with the blender but not the shelves. Neither of us says anything.
At home, there’s someone parked in front of the house, so I have to park across the street. I open up the house and return to the car to start unloading the boot, but find that Paul has got there ahead of me.
Paul is my next-door neighbour, a peculiar man who is always loitering in the street and who I am convinced throws his peach-pits over our fence. When he sees me, he lights a hand-rolled cigarette and intercepts me at my car boot.
‘Here’s a story for you,’ he says before I can say hello. I put my key in the boot.
‘Some friends of ours, just up the street, got burgled last night,’ says Paul. The key freezes in my hand.
‘Did they?’ I say. I am thinking of reasons I could be out here with a key in the boot that don’t involve me opening it. There are none.
‘Christine and Joe,’ he says. ‘Do you know them?’
Paul has put me off socialising with the neighbours. ‘No,’ I say.
‘Hm,’ says Paul. He looks at me. There is a short silence. He coughs and I jump, making the boot pop open to reveal a range of consumer durables and light furnishings.
We look into the boot. The silence extends. ‘Do you know anyone in the neighbourhood who eats peaches?’ I say.
‘The cops don’t have any leads,’ says Paul, gazing idly into the boot. ‘They say it could be anyone.’
I am trying to feel vindictive and confident, but I was raised Catholic. ‘I’ve just been helping a friend to move house,’ I begin to say, then stop when I realise that that is exactly what I would say if I was a burglar. Instead, I stare desperately into the boot, frowning in mock-consternation as though I too cannot fathom what all these appliances could be doing in my car.
‘Do you think,’ says Paul suddenly, ‘many of the houses around here have been done over?’
‘I don’t know!’ I exclaim, too loudly and too quickly. I feel close to panic, and start making up opinions. ‘I wouldn’t think so,’ I say. ‘I don’t think many have. Been done over.’
‘You’re wrong,’ says Paul. He takes a half-step towards me. ‘In the last ten years, every house in the street has been done. Except mine.’
He stamps on the butt of his cigarette, crushing it underfoot. ‘Except mine,’ he repeats. I have decided that if he advances on me I will get into the boot and close it behind me. From there I will call the police. I wonder if my boot has good reception.
‘Anyway,’ he suddenly says airily, ‘that’s just a little story for you.’ He gives me a wink. ‘I was just going round to the fish and chip shop.’ He walks away without saying goodbye, gets in his car and drives off. It was the car that was blocking my driveway.
I unload the car, wondering if forensics labs do freelance work on stone fruit.
Later that night, my editorial consultant has not come in on time for his dinner. I grab a torch and head for the vacant block on the other side of Paul’s house, where the stray consultants gather after dark. Mounting the temporary fence, I click on the torch and scan the long grass. I am about to start cooing my consultant’s name when a match flares to my left. Paul is loitering in the shadows of his front porch.
‘Good evening,’ he says with a wink.
I slink home without saying anything. He is the winner.