It was of average size, as wide and high as two phone books, but not as heavy; the cardboard, thin and creaseless, had a flax-like quality that reminded him of wet sand and there was nothing distinguishable about the font of the typed label. Rather, it was the way in which the box was sealed that was alluring: clear parallelograms of equal length joining the flaps, each positioned equidistant from the corners as if the sender had taken to the task with an atomic ruler. Likewise, the stamps: three tiny watercolours depicting the same Sardinian sunset – had been marshalled to the top edge where they now stood fixed and alert at their stations, only a millimetre of space between them. Yes, Peter thought to himself as he ran the stump of his index finger over its contours, it really is a beautiful specimen.
He went into the kitchen and prepared a cup of tea. He thought of Candice Broomhead; of her shoulder-length hair, the colour of a hessian sack, her frumpy posture and small teeth, like a baby’s. He imagined her as a thirty-something English Literature graduate teaching at a Catholic high school who wrote fiction in her spare time. Perhaps she’d self-published a book of short poems, written while on holiday or at dawn while she waited for the sun to rise over the ocean, poems about crippled efforts to find true love or impotency in the face of its loss. That was what he liked best: the stories behind the addressees, however unfaithful to real life they were. He loved the foreign-sounding names most of all – names such as Gryzbowski, Foggiato, Mehmood or Yap, burdened with histories of intermarriage and uncomfortable journeys, preceded by equally exotic handles and mysterious titles such as ‘Chancellor’ or ‘Herr’ or ‘Hon.’; these he carefully peeled away using a miniature steam gun and added them to the album, making sure to record the date of processing and delivery. For each entry there was an unopened box, tube or satchel somewhere in his drab third-floor apartment, collecting dust or concealing a sock that had been deemed lost forever. He’d wanted to open every one of them, but he’d thought it best that they remain unviolated, and not just because revealing their contents would have invalidated his characters. If one day the officials came to raid his pad, unlikely as it was, they could call him a kidnapper – okay, they had him there – and they could take a photo of his crusty, bald head, mouth open like a cleaved coconut, and blow it up onto the side of a double-decker bus and paint the words ‘GUILTY OF ABDUCTION’ underneath in glossy green if they wanted to; but they could never pin molestation on him nor aggravated assault or whatever they tried to pin on people like him.
Two. Three. Four sugars, no more: he didn’t want to go to work jittery. Perhaps he would reward himself with a shortbread after the morning round or even put it off until the evening. After all these years of living among arrested conversations, failed impulses and promises that never arrived – postus interrupti – in his apartment, this redbrick purgatory of noncorrespondence, he had learned that delaying pleasure as long as possible was a marvellous thing indeed. He downed the scalding beverage and smacked his lips. “Pain, flail or whine,” he said in a monotone and then exited the apartment, leaving Candice Broomhead’s parcel waiting expectantly behind.