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Part 2
3 – When You Step Into A Bath And It’s Just The Right Temperature

‘Well,’ Douglas had said when they’d seen the flat for the first time, ‘isn’t this cozy?’

And Arthur agreed. It was cozy! It was very small for five grown-ups and a dog, but it was so much better than the leisure centre. The bigger bedroom had bunk beds against one wall and a single bed against the other, which delighted Arthur no end. He’d often asked for bunk beds when he was growing up, but his mum had said there was no point because he didn’t have brothers or sisters. He’d baggsied the top bunk before the other chaps had had chance to draw breath. Skipper and Douglas had played rock paper scissors for the single bed, which Douglas had quickly won. Skip took the bottom bunk. His mum shared the smaller bedroom with Herc. A double bed had been squeezed into it – well, there was hardly room for two singles in there. Nobody said anything about it, but some nights Douglas would put music on quite loud in the bigger bedroom, and neither Skipper nor Arthur would ask why. There was a living room with a comfy sofa in, and a telly. Telly and radio still weren’t playing anything but emergency broadcasts, but one of the disused little shops on the ground floor had been turned into a bank of scavenged DVDs, CDs and books for people to borrow, so sometimes they were able to watch a film together. One end of the living room was a sort of a kitchenny area. Arthur had never lived somewhere where the kitchen was in the living room before – it was brilliant! It meant he could chat to whoever was cooking their evening’s rations – usually Douglas – without getting up off the settee. There was a little table where they’d eat or play cards. There hadn’t been a doggy bed for Snoopadoop, but Arthur had made one out of a cardboard box and a spare blanket. Tucked into a corner by the front door was the bathroom. It was actually a bit smaller than the en suite Arthur had had all to himself in his old house in Fitton, but it was great all the same. After the weeks of communal chemical loos and freezing showers as and when they could get them, it was a treat to have a toilet that flushed and the chance to have a warm strip wash with kettle-heated water in the bathtub. There was a laundry room on the ground floor of the tower block, as well as the book and CD bank, a shop that had been cleared out to make a school room for the kids living there, and a guarded store of basic rations – food, medicine, soap and whatnot.

As far as Arthur was concerned, the armed soldier at the supplies store was purely there to stop anyone who hadn’t been put in a Village any more and just didn’t want to wait any longer from making a run on their rations, because he couldn’t imagine even for a second that any of his neighbours in the tower block would take any more than their fair share. The way everybody pulled together was terrific – he thought he’d been friendly with his neighbours back in Fitton, but it was nothing on the Village. They pooled resources, swapped excess rations, did odd jobs for each other, the lot. Arthur was slowly getting to know all of the groups in their tower block, but they were especially close knit with the others on their floor. There were four flats to a floor – there was the Rashid family on one side of them, and Mr & Mrs Jones, Mr Jones’ mum and sister on the other. Diagonally across from them were two grown-ups looking after children, who had been asked to share to save space – Mr Ren and his daughter, and Mr Donald and his 2 year old grandson. Arthur particularly liked helping out Mr Donald – he always seemed so out of his depth and sad. He did lovely drawings, so Arthur would keep his eye out for paper and pencils he could salvage whenever he was out helping clean things up. He was terribly excited the day he found a perfectly good box of watercolours and brush.

He knocked softly on the door of flat 6c.

‘It’s open,’ said Mr Donald, quietly.

Arthur entered, keeping his voice low when he spotted little Noah asleep with Yue on the sofa.

‘Jin’s working late,’ muttered Mr Donald, hunched over his drawing.

‘Found some paints,’ Arthur told him, holding out the box.

Mr Donald looked up at him and smiled – not a full, glad, bright smile. Mr Donald never smiled those smiles. It was sad, and grateful.

‘Thank you, Arthur.’ He got up and headed towards the kitchen area. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got in return…’

‘Oh, no, you don’t need to do that – I just saw them and thought of you. It was no trouble.’

Mr Donald opened up a cupboard. ‘Well, neither was Jin picking up those half dozen Soy Sauce bottles the other week.’ He offered a bottle. ‘Go on – we’ve got plenty. And it makes the rice rations actually taste of something.’

‘Oh! Thank you very much!’ Arthur took the bottle, glancing across at the drawing on the table of a handsome woman in her 60s. ‘Is that your wife?’

Mr Donald nodded at the picture. ‘Eleanor. Yes.’

‘It’ great!’

‘I’m not sure if I’ve got it right. I don’t have any photos, see, and… well, I’m finding it harder and harder to remember what she looked like before. Before the sickness, I mean.’

‘She was bitten?’

Mr Donald nodded again.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. But we got the cure, so maybe, somewhere out there…?’

Mr Donald shook his head, bitterly. ‘No. I know where she is, and she’ll stay there til she’s cleared away.’ He ran a tender hand over the picture. ‘I had to do it. If it had just been her and me, it would have been a different story, but we were babysitting Noah. She was going for Noah. I had to. Had to…’

‘I’m sorry,’ repeated Arthur, feeling more than a little useless.

‘All I can hope is that he forgets it, in time,’ sighed Mr Donald. ‘Forgets it and just remembers these pictures. That’s the Eleanor we all knew. That’s his Granny. Not that… that thing.’ He looked up at Arthur. ‘He’ll forget, won’t he. No one ever remembers anything from when they were two.’

‘I’m not sure,’ replied Arthur. ‘Probably.’

‘He still wakes up screaming, sometimes.’

Arthur nodded, sympathetically. ‘So does Skipper. And Herc, sometimes. I hear him through the wall. They both had to kill a lot of them. Skip was ambushed in Tesco’s and Herc was stuck on his own for days with just an iron. I don’t think they’ll forget that. It’s a pity they’re not two. Although I don’t think a two year old would have been able to have killed two of them with a Le Creuset…’

He was cut off by a sudden, strange noise. A sort of clanking and rumbling, coming from the walls.

‘What’s that?’

Mr Douglas stared in the direction of the closest noise, and blinked. ‘That’s the radiators. The gas must be back on. Heating!’

And not a day too soon, Arthur thought. The nights were drawing in and the air was getting quite a snap to it. He worried about the elderly in cold weather anyway, let alone when there was absolutely no heating or hot water whatsoever.

Hot water. Hot water that came in quantities more than a kettle full at a time. Oooh, now there was a thought.

On the sofa, Noah stirred and blinked blearily up at Arthur.

‘Dada?’ he murmured, confused by sleep and the new sounds of the radiators.

‘Not Dada,’ cooed Mr Donald soothingly, hurrying over to settle the toddler back down. ‘That’s Arthur, Noah. Dada’s still not here. Have to make do with silly old Grampa looking after you for now. Just some more special time with silly old Grampa. Eh?’

Noah rubbed his eyes. ‘Gapa’, he said.

‘I’ll leave you to it then,’ said Arthur. ‘Thanks for the sauce.’

‘Thanks for the paints. Enjoy your new hot water.’

‘Oh, I will! You too!’

He went back to 6a to find that everybody was already celebrating.

‘Arthur!’ Cried Herc, happily. ‘The radiators are working!’

‘Yes, I know. I’ve just come from Mr Donald’s.’

‘Hot water and everything,’ called Skipper from the kitchen sink. ‘We can wash up without boiling the kettle for a change.’

‘How is Mr Donald?’ asked Douglas.

‘Oh, you know. Getting by. The usual. I found him some paints today. He gave us Soy Sauce as a Q.E.D.’

Douglas’ eyes widened. ‘You’re joking.’

‘Nope.’ Arthur held out the bottle. Douglas took it as if it were filled with liquid gold.

‘Arthur. You know what this means?’

‘Mr Douglas said it makes our food taste like food.’

‘It means we eat like kings tonight! Bloody Hell – hot water and flavour, and it isn’t even my birthday. Somebody pop that Mozart CD on, would you? A little Magic Flute while I magic up something edible for a change.’

‘We should let Arthur choose the music,’ argued Skip. ‘He got the sauce, after all.’

‘A Q.E.D,’ muttered Douglas, and the others bit down funny, fond little smiles that made Arthur think he was missing a joke somewhere, but that didn’t bother him.

‘Oh, that’s all right,’ Arthur replied. ‘But… there is one thing I wouldn’t mind, while Douglas is cooking. As a Q.E.D, I mean…’

-x-

Arthur stopped the taps. There was steam rising up from the tub full of water, filling the little bathroom. It was something he hadn’t experienced in what felt like forever. There were no bubbles, no bath salts – just the same standard issue soap they’d been using for months. But that was OK. Perhaps there’d be Radox and Matey again some day, but for now, this was perfect. Absolutely perfect.

He stepped into the bath, and the temperature was just right. And it made him go “Ooooh”.

Part 4
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