The Contraband Compartment
‘No.’ He checked his pockets for a third time, pulling out his keys, phone, coins, fluff and a bag of pistachios, spilling them on to the deeply-scratched glass counter. His jaw was clicking. He checked his jacket pockets again, becoming more manic with each next pocket. Standing for a moment with his hands on his thighs, David Thatcher surveyed his mixed belongings. ‘Oh God, please, no.’
‘Yeah,’ David replied without looking up at the burly, hairy man behind the counter. He rubbed his hands down the back of his thighs, inspecting the pockets there. He closed his eyes and exhaled. The man behind the counter took a half-step back.
‘Something important, sir?’
David paused and looked up into the big, round smiling face. He stared at him, at the perfectly white teeth in the Grecian tone of skin. ‘Yeah,’ he repeated, sounding fiercer than he had intended. It wasn’t this guy’s fault, but stupid, obvious questions were the last thing he needed right now. He breathed out a long, slow breath, this time noticing when the cobbler puckered his lips and wrinkled his pug-like nose.
‘What is it you’ve lost, sir?’ the cobbler asked.
‘A key,’ David replied. ‘I came here to get a copy.’
To come to the cobblers was the only reason that David had left the flat. He’d been meaning to do this one small task for months. But now the only key that they had for the contraband compartment was lost somewhere between the cobblers and the flat that he shared with his girlfriend, Claire.
‘Where’d you last have it?’
David pinched the bridge of his nose. With the stress of the missing key, this morning’s hangover was fighting back with heady strength. Even at the time, even drunk, last night knew that he shouldn’t have had that one last drink – and then proceed to finish the bottle; that it would ruin today. He’d known that same thing many times before pouring himself a final nightcap. If Claire didn’t pick on him quite so much then maybe he wouldn’t be forced to turn his brain to sauce. What had it been last night? Leaving used paintbrushes in the sink. It wasn’t like he wasn’t going to clean them, or had left them for her to clean. They were soaking in a jar of turps, for God’s sake. She’d said that they were ruined, standing like that in jar; he’d argued that they weren’t, and they were his brushes anyway. ‘Fine,’ she’d said, ‘just throw the little money that we have down our paint-lined drain.’ He’d reminded her that he worked in the local hardware centre and could have all the brushes that he could ever wish for at trade price. Then she had thanked him for “destroying” her sink. ‘You’re welcome,’ he said. And then he’d reminded her that it was, in fact, the landlord’s sink – those pair of S’s had been struggle, even though it was still before nine. And she’d told him that the only money that they had was tied up in the deposit, and then reminded him that it was her money, so start showing some Goddamn respect.
Rather than fall into the argument that she clearly wanted and tell her that the sink wasn’t destroyed, it’s just a bit of paint, and point out that when they’d recently agreed that the decking needed freshening up he’d covered all the costs from his own pocket – at trade price – instead he’d walked off singing R-E-S-P-E-C-T, or some combination of those letters anyway. That was when he had visited the contraband compartment and made the decision that he would finally get a spare key cut.
He hadn’t even wanted to buy the stupid bloody thing in the first place. Manipulated to go furniture shopping on a Sunday – his one day off work – when he had rather planned to sit in front of a marathon Super Sunday – the Merseyside, followed by the Manchester, derby. Furniture shopping wasn’t his idea of a day out. If he was honest then he’d have rather been at work. But Claire had decided that they needed a sideboard for the living room. She had been reading about minimalist living and was convinced that as little as possible should be on display. So why not fill up the only spare wall space in the largest room of the tiny three room flat with a hulking great sideboard?
‘It’s perfect,’ Claire said, standing in an aisle between piled-up secondhand furniture. ‘It will fit just right, opposite the window.’
‘Hmm,’ David grumbled, thumbing his phone for updates on the scores, ‘very tai chi.’
‘You mean feng shui, David.’ She ran her hand over the slightly curling wooden top. ‘Just look, would you? Look at the drawer handles, they’re antique. It’s beautiful!’
David just sighed in response. The match was 2 – 3, and it wasn’t yet halftime.
Claire clapped her hands together. ‘Can we get it? I love it. I was reading about this; if I’m right, I think it’s Georgian oak.’
‘Yeah?’ David replied, looking up from his phone. ‘Well I think it’s . . .’ He frowned. And then he smiled. ‘Have you seen this?’ He ran his hand down one end of the sideboard. ‘There’s a keyhole here.’
‘Let me see.’ Stepping in front of him, Claire moved his hand out of the way. ‘There’s a secret compartment here.’
‘Well found,’ he said.
She ignored his sarcasm. ‘Do you think there’s a key?’
Rather than respond with, “I’m surprised you don’t know,” – what he felt like saying – David opened one of the front doors of the sideboard, slid out both drawers, and there it was, sitting in the grubby baize lining: a tiny key, barely an inch long, dark from years of being handled. Moving to the other end of the sideboard, he found that there was another hidden compartment.
‘There’s another one on the other end,’ Claire helpfully pointed out, even as David was crouching in front of it, raising the key to the lock.
‘Wow,’ David exclaimed, genuinely impressed. ‘It’s like a secret stash, like in those old Catholic houses. Not that you’d be able to hide a priest in here.’
Leaning over him, Claire laughed. ‘It’s awesome, isn’t it? A hidden, lockable stash compartment.’
‘Could hide anything in here,’ David agreed, ‘and no one would ever know. It could be our contraband compartment.’
‘Ha-ha, yeah!’ Claire put her hand on his shoulder. ‘Do you like it? We can have one contraband compartment each, can’t we? We just have to get it.’
‘We don’t know how much it is yet,’ David replied. ‘Have you seen a price on it anywhere?’
Claire stepped back, looking at every inch of the sideboard like a hawk over a cornfield. ‘Here!’ she cried, almost dive-bombing on the tag tied to one of the feet. ‘Oh! Well…’
‘It’s only a hundred and eighty pounds.’
‘It’s cool and everything,’ David said, ‘but do we really want to spend nearly two hundred pounds on something we don’t even need right now?’
‘It’s not nearly two hundred pounds,’ Claire replied defensively. ‘It’s a hundred and eighty pounds. And we do need it, if we’re going to minimalise out living space.’ He rolled his eyes and shook his head. ‘David, everything in this place is second-hand; pre-owned; one off. If we don’t buy it now it’ll be gone by the end of the day. And we’ll never see another one like it ever again. It’s unique. And it does have the contraband compartment…’
But right at this moment in time it no longer had a sodding key.
‘So where do you reckon you last had it?’ the cobbler asked again.
‘If I knew that…’ David began. ‘Look, I don’t know.’
‘Haven’t you got a spare?’
If he wasn’t such a big bloke, David fancied sewing the cobbler’s big fat lips together, maybe with one of those pairs of spare shoelaces hanging from the spindle on the counter. ‘I came here to get a spare cut. There’s only one key. I wanted a spare, but now I don’t even know where the original is. And without it . . .’
Without that key, spare was what Claire would go. They each knew what the other kept in their end of the sideboard. For Claire it was an endless, Mary Poppins-like supply of chocolate. Chocolate for breakfast; chocolate for brunch, for lunch, for dinner, dessert and probably to brush her teeth with. Just her own private supply, and not the cheap stuff either; not just a bunch of Mars bars. It was fine by David. He had his own contraband too. But the way that Claire reacted when she didn’t have access to her precious stash could be as frightening as it could be sickening: the vitriol that greeted him alongside the accusation of hiding the key from her.
And he did hide it from her. They hid it from each other so that they couldn’t have access to their contraband. It had become a kind of game, only of spite rather than light-hearted fun. Then he would become the cobbler, asking stupid questions like “Are you sure it’s not in the drawer? Are you sure it’s not in your pocket?” Except for it would be in his pocket, about three feet beneath his hidden grin. As a child David had never even liked seeking Easter eggs. So he’d decided that he would never be manipulated into that situation again by having his very own secret spare. For some reason, probably a force of habit, he found that he was furious with Claire that the key was now missing, presumed lost.
He checked his pockets again, digging as deep as was possible. He was only wearing a t-shirt, jeans and a Harrington jacket. It clearly wasn’t in his pockets. He checked through the debris on the counter, even looking through the bag of pistachios and shells.
‘It’s always in the place you last left it, mate,’ said the cobbler, laughing.
‘Would you like a nut?’ David offered the bag, wishing he were brave enough to offer his forehead if the cobbler offered just one more not-very-helpful suggestion. Cramming his belongings into his pockets, and a pistachio into his mouth, he pounded out of the door. He could hear the bell still clanging as he stomped up Bank Street.
The sun was bright and his head hurt. David looked longingly at the pub next door. They would be about to open and he was sorely tempted to treat himself to a stress-settling hair-of-the-dog, maybe a bacon sandwich. But that key was surely out here somewhere, vulnerable to the outside world. If Claire was right about the sideboard, that key was older than the Albert Hall, had survived two world wars, and had passed through innumerable amounts of sticky fingers. Maybe it just didn’t want to be cloned. He decided that all he could do was to slowly retrace his steps, carefully scanning the pavement along the way. The flat was little more than a thousand yards from the cobblers, not a two minute walk. If he had dropped it, he would surely find it. Clearing his leaden head as best he could, David began to step along the pavement, scouring the floor. He had not gone more than fifteen paces before he was distracted by a friendly voice.
‘Hello, love, how are you?’
David looked up to see Mrs Adams, a regular customer of the hardware centre – not that she ever bought anything, just keen to keep up with the latest colours of paint. She must have taken enough free sample cards to paper a four-bedroom house. ‘Morning,’ he replied, returning his interest to the pavement.
‘I was just wondering: do you still have a special on those nice little ceramic cats for storing brushes? Ever so sweet, they are. Wanted to get one for my daughter. See, I was in the other day – as you might well remember; that’s when I was telling you about my little stumble I had; my wrists are still terribly swole – and when I was in I almost got one of those little cats for my daughter. For my granddaughter, really. She’s ever so fond of cats, she is. Loves them! Though I don’t really care for them myself; their hair gets everywhere: all over the furniture, then it get on your clothes, doesn’t it. No, never have been a cat person me. Dogs neither. Suppose you could say I’m not really a pet person.’
‘I suppose you could,’ David replied, waiting for Mrs Adams to move on, leave him alone to look for the lost key. Plenty of things that you could that you are, though.
‘So do you?’
‘Do I what, Mrs Adams?’
‘Do you still have a special on those cats?’
‘Erm . . .’ He scratched behind his ear. The bright light of the day was hurting his eyes. Even the thinking was hurting his head. ‘I’m not working today. I have a rare day off! So I’m not really sure. If you go down to the store I’m sure that you –’
‘Oh it is nice to have a day off on a day like this. Terrible weather we’ve had of late. I’m sure that’s why my bones have been playing up, getting all achy. Doesn’t help my bruised wrists, neither. I was just saying to Beryl next door that when it gets wet it does affect my bones and my breathing. Don’t get old, love; that’s all I can say.’
‘Yeah, well, if I –’
‘Ooo, I know what else I wanted to tell you: a friend of mine went to France, on one of those coach tours they do to Monet’s gardens in Gibley, is it? Somewhere like that. Some French name.’
‘Giverny.’ David surprised his own sore head as he traced the side of the sole of his trainers over the paved pedestrian street.
‘That’s it, Giberley. Anyway, she came back with one of these fancy cheese slicers. Ever so clever, it is. It’s got this little wire and all you do is pull it over the cheese and then presto! You have a perfect slice of cheese. Ever so fancy.’
‘Yeah. Sounds it.’ David replied, gritting his teeth, wishing he’d never left the flat, sure that his head was suffering from internal bleeding. ‘I’m sure that if you –’
‘Oh sorry, love. You said you’re on a lunch break, didn’t you? And here I am prattling on. I do do that. Old Raymond from down the road was telling me other day that if I was alone on a desert island I’d carry on to the birds and trees. He’s such a cad, old Raymond, cheeky bugger. He comes into your shop, doesn’t he? Tell me, we’ve always wondered, is that older woman who works there your mother?’
David smiled – like he hadn’t been asked this question a thousand times. ‘Maria? No, she’s just –’
‘I knew it,’ Mrs Adams interrupted, pushing a finger to the sky. ‘Margaret – you know Margaret – she was saying –’
‘Good. I really have to go now, Mrs Adams,’ David said, and before Mrs Adams could utter another word he continued along the pavement, towards the alleyway, continuing to scour the floor along the way, each tread echoing in his sore head.
The alleyway was cobbled, making it a tricky and slow process to check between the dirt-heavy gaps between the stones for the dark little key.
‘Excuse me,’ said an irritated voice that sounded a little bit like a Kenneth Williams Carry On character.
David looked up to see an angry-looking Dickensian wisp of a man, hidden beneath layers of thick tweed. Sweat was pouring down the man’s face, sticking his long thin hair to his face.
‘I said, “Excuse me,”’ the man repeated.
‘I wasn’t aware I was in your way.’
‘Well you are.’
‘Right.’ David waited for the man to move past. ‘Well I’m not now.’
‘She’s blind, you know?’
David rolled his eyes. There had always been plenty of nutters in this town he lived in, but they were out in force today. ‘Who’s blind?’
‘She is,’ the man replied. ‘My dog.’
By the man’s feet was a shaggy barrel of a cocker spaniel. Sure enough, her eyes were milky and pale. It couldn’t be because she was blind that she didn’t look like she’d been washed in a decade. ‘Right,’ David repeated.
‘So she could do without pests like you blocking the alleyway,’ the man said, spittle spraying from his lips.
Fury building inside him, David scraped along the wall, damning the stupid key, the stupid town, and the stupid bitch Claire who was surely playing a game with him. Somehow she’d set him up. He wasn’t sure how, but she had. He pulled the bag of pistachios out of his pocket, picked through the shells and retrieved a few nuts. This was no substitute for smoking, he finally realised. But she knew that too. That’s why she’d done this, knowing that he’d finally break his abstinence. He’d only given up to prove to her that he could – not that she’d then offered to give up her precious chocolate. She hated him for that. But he would win; he would not take up the habit again. Even if he had to take a crowbar to the stupid contraband cupboard to prove his point. “Sorry, darling, but the key is lost. So I thought I’d help you out a bit.” That would be victory. He grinned, imagining the look on her face as she magically withdrew the key from the latest hiding place she had imagined after finding her precious sideboard in pieces.
He crunched a nut between his back teeth. Drinking was his only vice now – and she matched him with that slug for slug.
He continued homeward, still searching the pavement, just in case. Escaping the alleyway, when he was back at the road, just a few hundred yards from home, he noticed that a street sweeper was coming up the road. What if he had dropped the key? If it was in the street, soon those sharp-edged brushes would sweep it to oblivion. Either way, the blame was all on Claire. He’d started by hiding the key to help her, to give her breaks between chocolate fixes. It was she who had turned it into a vindictive competition. Even so, as he stood there thinking, he found that he could not stop searching every inch of the ground.
‘Want one of mine, mate?’
He turned to see a homeless man holding out his flea-ridden begloved hand. ‘Huh?’
‘Here, you can have one of these,’ the homeless man offered. ‘I’ve done this whole area already. have one of these.’
Curious, David began to walk towards him. When he saw what it was that the homeless man was offering he put a hand over his mouth.
‘Got a few here not half smoked.’ The man grinned, showing his yellow, blackened teeth. In his hand was a piled collection of dog-ends: smoked cigarettes. ‘Best place to look is outside the restaurants,’ the homeless man continued. ‘People nip outside during a meal and just have a few drags, flick the rest into the street. Get nearly a whole one sometimes. Here: pick one. Take a couple, I don’t care. Lunch break soon, and there’s always fresh ones then.’
David closed his eyes, only if to not see the disgusting pile of dirty, smoked cigarettes. Going out to get a key cut had turned into the worst day of his life, worse even than when they’d gone out to buy the sodding sideboard. His head hurt; he was tired; and now he felt sick.
‘Suit yourself,’ he heard the homeless man say as he skulked away.
~ ~ ~
Back in the flat, David went straight for the fridge. He needed a drink. But he had no beers left in the fridge, even though he was certain that he’d left some to chill. When he realised why they weren’t in the fridge, he probably would have murdered Claire if she were there. There were four bottles of wine. It was her turn to supply the drink for her book group, so she’d decided to make room by removing his four-pack of Stella, even though there was clearly room for cans and bottles alike. He stood there with the fridge door open for a long while, looking at the wine – he could buy four brushes with the amount that she spent on each bottle – tempted to drink the whole lot to spite her for a change. But he wanted something harder than that.
He didn’t have a crowbar, so instead grabbed a screwdriver and a hammer and stormed through to the living room. This was it. This was the day that he finally took vengeance for everything that the cursed sideboard had brought upon him.
David stepped up to his end of the sideboard and wedged the screwdriver tightly behind the door of his contraband compartment, just next to the lock. He lifted the hammer up and smashed it down on to the end of the screwdriver. The wood splintered, busting the lock, and something skittled across the floor. He looked over at the key that the impact had liberated from the lock of his end of the sideboard. Just like the cobbler said, in the last place that he’d left it when he’d visited the contraband cupboard to have a glass of whisky, a bit of mouthwash, before going out that morning to get a spare key cut.