Last week things had been different. Of course, last week Bridgepin had been a solid thirty-three years younger, and not in a figurative sense. As far as he could tell – based on the way the tarnished wall-mirror reflected his image back – he was now somewhere in his mid to late seventies. If only his accelerated senescence was his main problem; then, at least, he could could go to a doctor and get treatment, or perhaps palliative care. No, his real problem was going to be living with the consequences of what he had done; however breifly that might be.
In an effort to push the guilt out of his mind, Bridgepin again took stock of his surroundings. The room was old, decayed, and well past its used-by date. The air was heavy with mold-spores, but at his his rapidly advancing age, he doubted that he would live long enough to deal with any toxic effects. Wallpaper peeled off the walls in long, lazy strips, revealing the grimey plaster underneath. A strange and brightly colored fungus pushed fruit bodies out of the ceiling in one corner; the same corner that held the old free-standing wardrobe on which his flatulent cat was now sleeping. Honestly, the gases that cat produced were probably more toxic than the spore-saturated air, and he had thought about leaving the cat behind when he went into hiding. He couldn’t do it though. He loved that smelly tabby monster.
Bridgepin sighed, stood up, and went to the room’s only window. Even though it was almost opaque with sticky dust, he could still see out into the fields if he stood close enough to the pane. The view depressed him, although he wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was because, in the late afternoon light, the open spaces radiated a feeling of fearful despair. Or maybe it was because he remembered what it used to look like when this had been his grandparents’ farm. They were both long dead, and now all this melancholic landscape was his. Even a casual observer would be able to tell that Bridgepin was no farmer; his grandfather would have agreed, and had said as much to Bridgepin many times. He’d only inherited the farm because there was no one else to will it to. When he was dead – which would probably be sometime in the middle of next week – it would be officially ownerless. Bridgepin had no heirs.
“See that row of trees,” Bridgepin said over his shoulder to the sleeping cat, “there used to be a river just behind them.”
The cat didn’t say anything.
“They must be really thirsty buggers those trees, eh Cat?” A terrible joke, but he couldn’t resist.
The cat lay silent.
“Shame it’s dried up,” Bridgepin continued, “there used to be a lot of fish in that river. Big ones; some at least five times your size.”
The cat looked up, and shot Bridgepin a dirty look. “Bullshit. I’m just gonna go right ahead and call bovine feces on that, old man. Anyway, you know I don’t eat fish. I’ve never eaten fish. I don’t know why you think I’d be interested in them now.”
Bridgepin was shocked; it wasn’t like the cat to be so blunt. Nor, for that matter, was it like Cat to be so intentionally rude. “Sorry, I was only making conversation.”
“Well, stop it. I’m trying to take a nap here.”
“I said I’m sorry. No need to twist your tail over it. I’ll be quiet now.”
Cat stared at Bridgepin for enough seconds to make sure he was going to keep his thoughts to himself, then lay its head back down.
“Only,” Bridgepin began again, feeling confused, “What is it that you eat, if not fish?”
“For meowing out loud: biscuits, I eat biscuits. You know full well that I am a strict biscuitarian. You fed me some this morning, remember?”
“Right. Of course I knew that. I was just testing to see if you remembered.” This was not true. Bridgepin didn’t know that, and couldn’t really remember the morning. Had he known Cat’s biscuitarian ways? Had there really been a morning today? He was having the hardest time getting his brain to do its job. “Are you sure you’ve never eaten fish? Not even once?”
“Quite sure.” Cat was now sitting up, and glaring down at Bridgepin. The cat’s face softened, “look, I get that you’re in the grips of a deep existential dread, and I am sympathetic. But I’ve had a very tiring morning hunting bugs and lizards, and I really need this nap. Okay?”
“You were hunting?”
“Bugs and lizards?”
“But I thought you only ate biscuits.”
“I never said I ate them, just that I hunted them; I’m a cat, that’s what we do. Anyway, everyone knows that bugs are technically biscuits … there’s no consensus on lizards yet, though.” Cat thought about this for a moment. “You know, the status of lizards is a pretty interesting question.”
“Really? In what way?”
“At the moment, there are two schools of thought. Some, like myself, are of the opinion that lizards are, in fact, biscuits; others say that– …. Wait, I see what you are doing, you’re trying to keep me talking by engaging me in a subject about which I have strong passions.”
Bridgepin didn’t say anything. Cat had seen through his trick, and was not likely to be sucked in again. Still, he had at least been able to avoid thinking about his troubles for a moment; even the edges of his fear had briefly dulled.
“Why don’t you just go make yourself some tea?” Cat was sure that would get Bridgepin out of its fur for a while. “You always seem to relax when you drink it.”
“You know? A hot beverage made from the leaves of–.” Cat paused. It was hard to believe that the old man was going to try that ruse again. “You know what? You’ll figure it out. Or not, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care what you do, so long as you do it somewhere else and let me get back to sleep. Here,” Cat stretched, arched its back, and farted out an acidic smelling gas, “that should motivate you to be elsewhere for a while.”
Bridgepin made for the door as quickly as he could. After all, the cat had left him no choice. Cat was being quite the wanker today.
Standing in the hallway, Bridgepin turned his mind to the tea question. He knew that it was something to drink, and obviously something you have to make. He did his best to remember, and a memory did come, only it wasn’t the one he was looking for; it was something that had happened to him. A memory about something truly awful.
Ω Ω Ω
“That is truly awful,” Bridgepin said as he put the empty shot-glass back on the table. He was fighting his face as he did this; it still wanted to make an ugly grimace at the taste, and he wanted to appear tough and refrigerated-salad-fruit-cool. It felt like his face was going to win this battle. He pretended to yawn in the hope this would mask whatever gruesome contortion he was about to make. The technique failed, and his companions at the table laughed. “What did the bar staff say this is called, again?”
“They don’t know either,” Jasmine said as she wiped laugh-tears from her cheeks. “It seems very much like our infamous bottle of mystery liquid will not give up all its secrets to us. Still, at least we know what it tastes like now.”
“Yes,” Bridgepin agreed, “like paintstripper, mixed with dog urine, mixed with rancid potatoes.”
“So, pretty much like vodka, then,” Aristide chimed in.
They all laughed again. It was an old joke, one that Aristide had recycled many times when one of them had a drink of something foul-tasting. It had only been funny the first time, yet all three of them still laughed at it; only now they laughed because there was a banal humor in hearing Aristide say it. Once, both Jasmine and Bridgepin had made a private drinking game from this: everytime Aristide uttered his catchphrase, the two of them had to drink. They only played that game once; the hangover had been atrocious.
“Lets get another round of … well … whatever that stuff is.” Jasmine pushed her chair back as a prelude to going to the bar, then stopped when she saw the look on Bridgepin’s face. “Now, come on Bridgepin. You promised that we would do this if this day ever came.”
“Exactly, old man, we are now committed to drinking more of this horrid stuff.” Aristide grinned at a point on Bridgepin’s face that might have been his nose, but probably wasn’t. The purpose of the grin was to accentuate the force of his light, but playful, insult. Bridgepin hated being called old, and Aristide knew that. After all, Bridgepin was only Thirty-Five: still too young to be officially middle-aged, but too old to be considered properly young.
Bridgepin ignored Aristide’s jibe, and reflected on the fact that it was true, he had promised; only, at the time, he had been certain this day would never come.
It wasn’t that long ago, now that Bridgepin thought about it: just two years had elapsed since he made that promise to his friends. It had seemed like a good idea at the time; probably because all three of them had been seriously drunk.
Jasmine had just submitted her doctoral thesis, and they were celebrating with a group of student colleagues. Or rather, they had been celebrating, as it had just turned to that part of a night out when only the three of them were left. Bridgepin, for no real reason, remembered that he hated the tail-end of a night out, and had become predictably maudeline. “I’ll never finish my own thesis,” he had said, to which his friends had offered suitably slurry reassurances that he would finish it, despite his having been halfway through it for a good year-and-a-half. It turned out that both Aristide and Jasmine were wrong about that, but none of them knew that then.
“Tell you what,” Aristide had said, “when you do finish, we’ll all drink some of that mystery bottle up there; you know, the one with no label, and gravel-thick layers of dust on it?
Bridgepin did know. It had been the source of some puzzlement to all three of them for quite a few years; ever since they had met as first-year doctoral candidates. Many times they had almost satisfied their curiosity about that bottle, only to abandon the attempt when they were reminded how much it cost per-measure. “No point. I’m never getting out of this place.”
“What about,” Jasmine then offered, “If we leave the question of your perennially unfinished thesis out of it? How about, we partake of that bottle when you finally leave; perhaps, for work, or something?”
This seemed even less likely to Bridgepin’s mind, but he’d agreed to it anyway. Not because he wanted to – there really was no point – but experience told him that if he continued in this way, he’d be left with exactly no friends at all. Now, as he contemplated having to drink more of the rancid-liquid-whatever, he was wondering if it had been worth keeping those friends. He was even beginning to wonder if the job he had secured to occasion this sickening libation was worth it. Yet, he had agreed, and preferred to follow through on promises where practical. “Alright, then,” he finally assented, “but let me get this round.”
“Nonsense,” Jasmine objected, “this is your success, therefore we should pay for the drinks.”
“That’s right, old man. We should probably pay for your drinks.” Aristide was not entirely convinced on this matter, but didn’t want to appear miserly. “Although, if you really want to buy a round, I – personally – think it would be rude not to let you.”
“Great,” said Bridgepin, “I’ll take care of it.”
To the horror of his friends, when he returned from the bar, Bridgepin came bearing the full bottle. He’d done it as a kind of prank, he was convinced that neither of them were very keen to drink much more of it either. “I admit, it is horrible. But hey, as you said, we’re celebrating.”
“Sure,” Aristide returned, “I’m game, if you are. But that stuff is wildly expensive; probably why it sat there on the top-shelf for so many years. How can you afford the whole bottle?”
“Oh.” Bridgepin deflated. Clearly his prank was about to backfire. Aristide could drink anything. How had he forgotten that? “Well, not to worry, I can afford it … now, anyway.” His face brightened. “My new employers gave me an obscenely generous signing bonus.”
“Interesting,” said Jasmine; her tone betrayed suspicion. “Tell me again, what did you say your work will involve?”
CONTINUES IN ACT 2