Suddenly, Tallulah looks in the mirror. She figures if she does this with the stealth of a cat, she can creep up on herself and surprise her reflection. She wonders though, what she hopes to see when she isn’t expecting to be looked at?
What she does see is Miss Talullah Sky, aged fifty-five, in the bathroom of her house in Palm Springs. The house bought with the profit of long years as a supporting actress in any number of mediocre movies. And God, she looks grotesque. Eyebrows arched with no damn reason to be arching, over-rouged cheeks and a décolletage going south, honey.
The bathroom is one of the few places in her house’s sprawl that the heat can’t get in to. She’s had the walls painted an eau de nil colour and she imagines the cool water of the Nile running through the room. Trickling along the grooves of the floor tiles, past the vanity unit. Talullah Sky, in her role as Cleopatra – Queen of the desert, renowned beauty and beguiler of men. “Miss Sky is an absolute delight as Cleopatra –both dangerous and alluring. Ladies, guard your husbands carefully when Miss Sky smiles!” Tallulah grins thinly into the mirror when she thinks how much happier she would be if she could write her own reviews.
Through the bathroom’s narrow, open window, Talullah views the austere, desert sky – the kind of sky that renders everything meaningless. Every thought, every action. Her cat – Monsieur Triste – makes her jump as he leaps into the room. He carries the whole of the outside world in his wise, amber eyes. Staring at the face powder caught in the wrinkles in Talullah’s forehead, he judges her. Oh, how he judges.
In the mirror that is shaped like an opening oyster shell (her, Venus with varicose veins, in its centre), Talullah wonders why we do what we do to ourselves. Why do we chase what we will inevitably lose?
The question is neither profound, nor one she truly wants answering. Through the bathroom window, the desert night air blows cold-dry, making the grasses in what passes for her garden shimmy and whisper. Talullah re-ties her robe so it fastens more tightly around her. Poor me, she thinks; poor, little desert flower.
She dabs some perfume from the heavy, glass bottle she keeps on the shelf by the mirror and puckers her lips so they’re ready to receive their lipstick kisses. She’s thinking she must alter the lighting in the bathroom. It needs to be less the honesty of electric lamps. More, the kindness of candles.
Suddenly, there is movement in the corner of Jesse’s kitchen. He’s had a feeling things have been moving for days. Just a flicker, a suggestion of slippage; but when he’s looked round, he’s caught nothing definite until now.
The hoard – his hoard – is everything to him. It’s made up of at least four years’ accumulation of possessions – clothes from the mall he’s not even taken out of their packaging. Empty food boxes, beer bottles, old newspapers. Childhood books from his mom’s house he can’t bear to part with. Her winter dresses and coats.
Jesse had started with the best of intentions – to live tidy and clean; but as everyone who knows a cliché knows, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So his hoard has grown. It’s imprisoned and comforted him. He’s tended to it and ministered to it and in return, it’s kept him safe.
At the kitchen table (balanced between left-over pizza mountains, mice droppings and a six foot, plastic whale he bought ‘just in case’), Jesse thinks about something he read the other day in the office. They don’t know about his hoard at work where he arrives daily at his desk, organised and semi-smart. He suspects that Dee in accounts has an idea sometimes when she wrinkles her nose as he walks past – like the hoard is haunting him in an olfactory way. A ghost hoard stalking him - which tidily brings him back to what he’d read. That is, the reason we traditionally wear black when someone dies is so the dead can’t see us to find us.
Jesse likes the idea – the living as shadows to the dead. As elusive and unknowable as the dead are to the living. He guesses his hoard works in the same way – it’s what he surrounds himself with so he’s invisible.
The hoard is alive with creatures – roaches and mice certainly, probably rats. Jesse’s bed (if bed isn’t too strong a word for a melon crate and a dog blanket) is in the kitchen now, and at night, he lies awake listening to the creatures’ rustle and scurry. He’d like to pretend to himself that he finds the sounds soothing, but the truth is, they scare him. Here, in the middle of his hoard, he is safe, but also totally alone.
And now, he’s located the source of the movement in the corner of his kitchen. It’s a huge tower of cat-food and bean cans that have groaned and teetered, then finally toppled. They’re blocking the door to the outside and even the door that takes you further inside his house. There’s something farcical and sad about this fact, thinks Jesse.
Here he is with his hoard, trapped in a room. It’s so hot in here, so pungent. Jesse doesn’t think he’ll be going to work tomorrow. Maybe, he won’t be going to work again. On the other side of the kitchen door, Jesse hears someone knocking. He doesn’t think he’ll answer.
Ed and Boo’s automaton
Suddenly, the automaton clicks into movement, like it does every day at eleven o’clock. By this time of the morning, the mall is getting busier and Ed knows he can catch enough passing trade to make the four mile trip from his garage worthwhile.
He loads the automaton into the back of his truck, gently and solemnly, like he’s carrying a baby, and then he unloads it in the carpark outside the mall. Once inside, he unfolds the little desk and sits the automaton on its chair. Ed winds it up and it begins to click and whir. Its head moves from side to side as though it can see, tracking the movement of its own hands as it begins to write.
Ed’s automaton isn’t covered with skin and hair to make it look human, or crafted out of porcelain like the ancient, beautiful boy writing letters in a Swiss museum. Ed’s automaton is resplendently a machine – levers and cogs; naked metal. Ed loves the click of its cams as they rotate – the vertebrae on its welded spine. The kids in the mall – the girls in particular – say things like, “Aw, it’s cute. Look how it writes. It’s adorable.” But Ed knows otherwise. The automaton is terrifying and awful.
He made it in his garage when he moved to California. Tinkering into the night in the space in front of the campervan. It took him months; no years. He loved every minute of its creation. Ed wishes that Boo felt the same, but she doesn’t and Ed guesses she can’t. He’s not a monster and he understands that cold metal is a poor substitute for warm, giving flesh.
What Ed can also do that Boo never could, is carry another life inside him, and the life he carries is the one he had before he came here. A quiet life, led in the North Yorkshire rain. One that after all these years still feels more real to him than the one he lives now under the brash, Californian sunshine.
In his current life, he will go home to Boo and he will say Hi and so will she. Boo will be in the den and he will kiss her on her damp, old cheek – her face still wet from her afternoon weepie. He will be thinking about the clockwork bones of the automaton and how he can get it to write a little smoother, a little more realistically.
Then, Boo and Ed will sit under the awning in the yard, eating mac and cheese as the sun goes down. He will look like he’s listening to Boo recount the plot of the latest film she’s watched, but in his head he will be reciting the line from the Ted Hughes’ poem that the automaton writes at least three times a day: “In what cold clockwork of the stars was he the hand pointing that second?” Then Ed will yawn and go up to bed.