The Kitchen Conspiracy
Chantal Schaul, 2005
Archie woke up on a gloriously sunny day and rubbed his eyes. The row of terraced houses on the opposite side of the street outlined themselves against the thin, rather old-fashioned, flowery curtains in his room. The sunrays had transformed them into a translucent canvas with green and blue dabs glowing in orderly rows.
Archie stared at the glowing ceiling for a while, unable to get up. An idea was circling in his mind, but he couldn’t quite get hold of what it was. It was something he’d thought about just before going to sleep. But now it eluded him. It’ll come back eventually, he thought, and pulled himself out of bed. He took his blue dressing gown from the hook by the door and threw it on. A present from his mother.
Hadn’t his mother put this idea into his head, the one that he couldn’t remember now? Archie traipsed down the steep staircase and nearly trod on the corner of his dressing gown. It had happened to him once before and he’d gone sliding down the staircase on his bum, bruising his cheeks rather horribly. And he’d scraped the skin off his elbows too. He didn’t like this staircase all too well.
As he turned the corner, his tenant Lenny stood by the whistling kettle in the kitchen, in his pants. Lenny was in his late thirties but his hair had already turned silvery grey. As male statures go, his was on the frail side. He had a chicken breast and little thin legs. He was a bit like the human version of a grasshopper. Archie felt massive next to him, with his broad shoulders and towering height.
‘Good morning’, Lenny said in his slightly nasal voice, pouring hot water into his tea mug. And then it hit Archie: the kitchen! It was the kitchen he’d been thinking about. Old and rickety, almost falling apart. This kitchen had made him feel uncomfortable for months, maybe even years. He wanted it replaced as soon as possible. The urge that he felt was a surprise even to Archie himself. He was usually easy going and calm, but right now he could not get this kitchen out of his mind. It had to be renewed. Now!
The only damper was that he had to get his mother’s consent. She owned half of the house he lived in and had to be consulted. Archie knew from experience that his mother could be difficult sometimes. There had been that time when he’d got on really badly with one of her tenants and wanted to get rid of him. She’d been furious and forbid him to ditch the tenant before a new one had agreed to move in. She refused to accept a gap in her rent, even though he offered to pay for it.
Sometimes Archie wished he could own the entire house. It would make things so much easier. But his mother insisted on holding on to her half. She’d originally owned the whole house, but decided to move and sell half of it to Archie, under the condition that she could place a tenant into her half. She liked getting the rent every month.
But hadn’t the kitchen been his mother’s idea in the first place? He couldn’t remember whether it had or not. He wasn’t very good at remembering things. Either way, he showered quickly and walked down to her house. It was a short walk, as she only lived a few houses down the road.
She answered his knock almost instantly, still in her lilac dressing gown, the female version of Archie’s blue one. They’d come in a set of two: buy one, get one free. ‘Hello sweetheart, come in. Cup of tea?’ He gladly accepted the tea and sat down on her settee. A friend of his mother’s was there, sipping her own cup of tea. Archie knew her. Her name was Regina and she was a single mother too. She was in her early forties, a bit younger than his own mother.
Whenever Regina visited Archie’s mother, she wore long, billowing bohemian clothes and big amulet necklaces. Her dark and long hair was tied together with a dark green velvet ribbon. Archie had seen her on the street in town a few times, and there she’d always been wearing simple jeans and T-shirts. He’d never brought this observation up to either women, though, because he was far too polite to ask personal questions. But even his mother put on different clothes whenever she went out with Regina. Different in so far that they seemed less practical to Archie, and more – he was searching for the right word – atmospheric.
‘Adeline’, Regina shouted towards the kitchen, ‘could you bring out some more of those lovely biscuits, darling? They’re absolutely delicious!’ – ‘Of course Gina, there’s tons of them.’ She came back with a plate of home made ginger nuts and passed it to Regina. ‘Archibald, sweetheart, you’re getting a bit chubby lately, I don’t think you should have any of those.’ She smiled sweetly and turned towards Regina. ‘So what happened, did the child support agency give you the extra money?’ – ‘Oh yes, they did. They had to admit that a single mother of twelve deserves more money than a single mother of eleven. Otherwise I would have had my last one for nothing, wouldn’t I?’
Adeline looked over at Archie with doleful eyes. ‘I should have had more children than just you, Archibald. I could have made so much money! The support they give you these days!’ – ‘Oh, but Adeline’, intervened Regina consolingly, ‘think of all that rent you’re getting. That’s not bad at all!’ – ‘I guess so, Gina, but that’s for my pension. It’s not like I’m getting any fun out of it now.” She swallowed another ginger nut whole. Archie felt rather inadequate.
He was starting to wonder whether it was a good idea to bring up the kitchen right now, but the urge was so strong that he could not just go home with things unsaid. He wanted to go kitchen-shopping immediately. He wanted to replace the manky sink and the wonky tap that had been leaking for years with a new shiny set. He was dreaming about those wonderful combination taps with extendable hose widgets and spray selectors. He wanted new cupboards with frosted glass fronts that shut comfortably and didn’t come off their hinges twice a week. He wanted a nice new American fridge with lots of room and a low hum that didn’t wake you up at night. He wanted to get rid of the crusty cooker with two broken gas rings and the oven that had stopped working because Lenny had left his pasta to boil over and the water had got into the electrics. Archie sighed.
‘What’s wrong, sweetheart? You look troubled.’ his mother said with exaggerated concern. ‘I’ll leave you two alone now’, Regina said, smiling, and added: ‘Adeline, don’t forget our meeting at midnight by the mighty oak tree behind St Giles church.’ With these ominous words, which Archie was too preoccupied to hear, she swept out of the door, projecting a lapful of crumbs into the air and leaving an empty plate behind.
When she had disappeared, Archie pulled himself together and confessed: ‘I really want a new kitchen, mum.’ Adeline drew her breath. ‘A new kitchen, Archibald? Your kitchen is perfectly good, why do you need a new one?’ Her voice had risen to a higher pitch. ‘It’s old and broken, mum. It’s a disaster kitchen. You used to complain about the tap and the fridge and the cooker and the cupboards when you lived there.’ – ‘That kitchen is perfectly good for a couple of blokes! You can make tea and pasta quite comfortably in that kitchen! I am not paying half for a new kitchen that isn’t essential. I am not paying for your luxuries, Archibald!’
Archie had already anticipated her refusal to pay for half of the kitchen, and played his last card. ‘What if I pay for it myself?’ She seemed to consider for a while. ‘Well, Archibald, if you must buy a new kitchen, then do so, but don’t rely on me for any of the costs. It’s entirely your responsibility.’ And on that final verdict they agreed.
Archie dashed to the shops and returned home with a pile of brochures. Upstairs, Lenny was playing the guitar, singing out-of-tune versions of old David Bowie songs. Halfway through Archie’s brochures, the music stopped and Lenny appeared in the doorway. He inspected Archie’s brochures with a quick eye. ‘Looking for a new kitchen?’ Archie nodded. ‘Aha. My sister just got a really nice one from B&Q. White with frosted glass.’ He passed through to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
Lenny was interrupted a second time by his mother. She had a key to the house and always let herself straight in. ‘Hello sweetheart, I thought I’d help you choosing the new kitchen. Blokes like you don’t have any taste and I don’t want you to spoil the place.’ She sat down next to him and appropriated his brochures. ‘Oh, look at that, isn’t that lovely? And that one there, all in royal blue, that’s just delightful, don’t you think, sweetheart?’
Archie respected his mother’s taste. She was probably better at these things, so he left her to make the choice. She insisted on being taken to the shop, just to make sure that Archie wouldn’t be conned by the salesman.
The following week, a B&Q truck arrived outside Archie’s terrace house and delivered the new kitchen. Shiny and blue. Lenny was tinkering on his guitar while it was installed, and Archie nervously observed the workmen handling his new treasure.
There was, however, another observer of whom no one was aware. Her name was Stella and she was an art student. She lived in the house next door, together with a horde of four other students, squashed into the small house like sardines. Right now she was looking through her back window, which allowed her to watch the workmen carrying in new kitchen parts and throwing old ones out of the window.
But mostly Stella was gazing at Archie, adoringly, lovingly, worshippingly. She had head over heels fallen in love with him since she moved in seven months ago and seen him for the first time, hanging up laundry in the garden. She instantly fell for his broad shoulders (for she first of all saw him from behind) and his shock of Pre-Raphaelite dark ringlets. She fumbled for her watercolours and painted him then and there, surrounded by the wild garden bushes, which his mother had since cut down to meaningless stumps.
When Stella saw for the first time how Archie’s mother belittled him, she developed a strong protective instinct for Archie. But of course there wasn’t much she could do. She was far too shy to cross the line of her passive adoration and actually enter his life. Once she had seen him in the local pub. He was playing pool with a sleazy looking friend with greased up hair. She stood next to Archie at the bar for a moment, while they were both ordering drinks, but he didn’t notice her.
Stella was annoyed that she had missed out on the kitchen being ordered. It had been her Easter break and she had been at home with her parents for a week. Blast! Now it was too late. The mother had made a choice for him yet again.
That evening, Adeline went round Archie’s to admire his new kitchen. ‘Isn’t it just lovely?’ she crooned. Archie nodded. He did think it was quite nice, although he was still not sure whether the birch one with frosted glass wouldn’t have been even nicer. ‘Now, you have to be careful what colour paint you choose with this. I got you a chart here, so you can pick the right one. I put a few post-its in it for you. Look, what do you think about this lilac? Isn’t it lovely?’
Archie agreed on the lilac. It was nice. And when they were sitting in the dining room, his mother noticed that the paint in there was rather scruffy. A nice pale yellow would be very nice, she suggested. And the room upstairs, how about doing that in a pistachio green? And the bathroom in an aqua blue. Might as well do it properly, if you started out decorating one room, better not leave the other ones looking old and tattered.
The following Saturday, Archie went paint-shopping and Adeline tagged along. ‘I know, blokes aren’t very good at colour coordination, sweetheart. I’ll give you a hand,’ she had said. He bought plenty of paint pots, brushes, polyfilla and masking tape. Adeline knew that Archie hated painting rooms, so she offered to do it for him for a small recompense. ‘Just give me a tenner per hour, and I’ll do it for you, sweetheart.’ To that, he agreed.
Stella kept watch during the following days. She saw Adeline painting various rooms in Archie’s house, but sloppily and fast, and then taking the leftovers of the paint to her own house and applying them to her own walls with much care and precision. She was obviously satisfied with her actions, as she couldn’t stop cackling to herself.
Stella’s worst fears about the manipulative witch were confirmed. She decided she could no longer withhold from Archie a piece of extremely incriminating information she had come across a month previously. But how could she pass it on to him without being accused of spying and intruding into private lives? How could she explain to Archie that she was only stalking him because she was infatuated, and that it was all completely innocent? After all, it wasn’t her fault that she had witnessed what she had witnessed, was it?
Archie was pleased that his mother had done all the painting for him. He was pleased that he finally had a new kitchen. Everything was working perfectly, apart from the one cupboard doorknob that Lenny had accidentally torn off the day after the kitchen had been installed. Archie had superglued it on again, but it kept coming back off. Lenny had also accidentally stepped on the newly laid kitchen tiles, so that some of them were now slightly out of line. These things happened.
The old kitchen was still lying in the back garden, in tattered heaps. Archie would have to take care of it one of these days. But right now he decided to sit down in front of the TV and open his post. There was the usual, but also one larger envelope, brown, with a handwriting he didn’t know. It had been hand-delivered.
What he saw on the printed images inside the envelope made his blood curl. There were three images, all showing his mother. There was a man in all of the photos, but his face was never clearly exposed. The location in the photos was B&Q.
Archie could clearly discern what was happening in these photos. His mother was picking a new kitchen and various paints. Exactly the same kitchen that was now his own, and exactly the same paints that now embellished his walls. The date on all of the photos was the seventeenth of March, which was weeks before he’d even had the idea himself!
He took a closer look at the man in the photos. He seemed to be taking an active part in the choosing, and appeared well acquainted with Adeline, as he had his hand on her bum in one of the photos. He was wearing a coat with green and grey checks, and with a little penguin on the left shoulder blade. Where had Archie seen a coat like that before? And what on earth was going on here? What was his mother doing in B&Q? Was she having an affair with her that mysterious penguin man? And who had sent the anonymous letter?
Archie felt extremely uncomfortable and took the letter up to his room. What should he do about it? Ask his mother straight out? Go to the police?
He decided to sleep on it first.
Stella was waiting. She had delivered the letter that morning, so he must have received it by now. Or had Lenny opened and destroyed it? She didn’t think so. Lenny was too lazy to do anything, apart from playing gigs with his band “The Rats.” She’d been to a gig once, but it had been awful. Mostly lousy jazz and blues imitations.
Stella knew for a fact that Adeline was having an affair with Lenny. She’d seen them, in Lenny’s room, when Archie was at work. Perhaps Adeline was attracted by his dusty youth. There wasn’t much else to be attracted by. They’d made the decision about the new kitchen during one of those intimate meetings. Stella knew this because Lenny’s room was just next to hers, and she could hear them talk through the flimsy wall. The word ‘kitchen’ kept cropping up. Stella sensed that something was brewing.
She followed them into the shop the next day and saw how they picked a kitchen. That’s when she took the photos. It was extremely suspicious that Adeline should buy a new kitchen. She would never spend money on something like that. Even Stella realised that. And Lenny couldn’t afford one.
Archie woke up. It was raining outside. He peeked through the green and blue curtain. The thick drops left a mottled pattern on the dry dusty window. He saw a young girl walking past. One of the students from next door. She furtively looked up at his window and he quickly shut the curtains and moved away, as he was almost naked.
He was tired. The photos had given him a restless night. They just didn’t make any sense. He put on his blue dressing gown and went downstairs, past the coat rack. And there it was: the penguin. Of course! How could he have forgotten? It was on Lenny’s coat! His mother had patched on the penguin to cover up a hole in the coat! So his mother must be having an affair with Lenny!
Archie had to sit down for a moment. Then he rushed back upstairs, got dressed and hurried out and down the hill, to his mother’s house. She was in the middle of having breakfast. She looked tired too. Must have been out late. ‘Sweetheart! What are you doing here so early?’ She saw him looking around her living room and kitchen. ‘I thought I’d use up the leftovers from your paint, Archibald. I’m sure you don’t mind.’ He shook his head and passed her the envelope with the photos. “I received this yesterday,’ he said.
Adeline opened the envelope and looked at the printouts. Her features dropped and she looked up at him with flaring eyes: ‘Who sent you these?’ she snarled. ‘Don’t know. No name on it. Delivered by hand.’ She looked at the writing for a long time. ‘So?’ Archie asked carefully. She looked calmer now. ‘I never wanted to tell you, Archibald,’ she said, ‘but Lenny has been using me and taking advantage of me for some time now.’ A tear trickled down her cheek. Archie felt like he needed to help her and he moved closer to her. ‘Archibald, this man has been threatening me.’ – ‘Lenny?’ – ‘Yes. He forced me to go to B&Q with him, so he could choose a new kitchen. He wanted that kitchen really badly.’ – ‘Are you sure, mum, he seems pretty non-plussed about it.’ – ‘Sit down Archibald. I’ll get you a cup of tea.’
Archie followed her order and sat down. He patiently waited for an explanation and his tea. Adeline took her time. Finally, she re-appeared. ‘Now, sweetheart, have a biscuit and listen. Lenny is a pretty nasty piece of work. He has been behaving atrociously towards me. One afternoon he came over and said he’d kidnapped my cat.’ – ‘Dotty?’ – ‘Yes, Dotty. She disappeared once, for an entire day, do you remember?’ Archie nodded. This had been a while ago. ‘So, he told me that he’d locked Dotty away somewhere secret, and he would mercilessly kill her by peeling off her skin with a blunt knife and throwing her in a sewer if I didn’t do him a favour.’ – ‘But, mum, why didn’t you tell me this? I am living with a psycho and you never told me!’ – ‘I didn’t want to worry you, sweetheart. And anyway, you would just have thrown him out and then I wouldn’t have got any rent!’ Archie drew a sharp breath. His blood was boiling, but he tried to stay calm. ‘Where was I?’ she continued. ‘Oh yes, Lenny wanted me to get him a new kitchen. He forced me to go to B&Q with him, so he could show me which kitchen he wanted, and then talk you into buying it. Of course I couldn’t possibly afford such a thing myself, sweetheart. You know that.’
Archie nodded pensively. He found his mother’s story slightly confusing, but mostly, he was furious with Lenny. ‘Whether you like it or not, I’m going to give notice to Lenny right away. I don’t want him in my house any longer.’ – ‘But Archibald, think of the rent!’ – ‘If need be, I’ll pay you the rent myself until we find a new tenant,’ Archie thundered, putting his foot down. He then left his mother’s house and stomped back home. He caught Lenny red-handed cutting French beans in the kitchen and listening to some frenetic jazz music. ‘That’s it, Lenny, you’re out of here!’ he shouted and ran upstairs to write the notice letter. Lenny was rather baffled but continued cutting beans for the time being.
Stella was having some second thoughts about her letter. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea. What if she ever did get to know Archie in real life? Would she be able to hide all this from him? Would she always have to lie?
She knew he’d been to see his mother, not long after he had glimpsed her walking past his window. She still had to blush thinking about it. She hoped he hadn’t got suspicious.
Stella was nervous. On edge. She surveyed the street through her window and then she saw Adeline, marching straight up the hill. Stella ran into the back room and opened the window to eavesdrop.
She heard Lenny whinging through his nose: ‘What on earth have I done to deserve being evicted? Tell him that I haven’t done anything bad, Adeline!’ – ‘Nothing bad?’ she replied, scandalised. ‘You threatened to kill my Dotty! You forced me to buy a kitchen! How dare you claim innocence?’ – ‘But Adeline, I thought you, you . . . at least liked me?’ – ‘You dirty scoundrel! What are you implying? Remove yourself from my house!’
Stella held her breath. Adeline was twisting everything around. She had to intervene. But how could she? She wasn’t supposed to know anything. She climbed out of the window and crossed the fence to Archie’s garden. She crouched behind a bush.
‘If you don’t leave immediately, I’ll call the police.’ These were Archie’s words. He’d fallen for his mother’s deceit! Stella crawled closer to the window. Poor Archie. He was protecting his mother against a raving Lenny now. This woman had to be stopped. Stella stuck her nose to the window, tears in her eyes because of her inability to intervene.
‘There! Who’s that!’ she suddenly heard Adeline call in an ugly voice. ‘There’s a girl outside the window. Archibald, go catch her. Archie followed his mother’s command and jumped out through the back door. Stella tried to flee, but Archie was already on top of her. A dream come true, but not like this.
‘I know you from somewhere.’ he said, right into her face. She could feel the moisture of his breath on her cheeks. Divine. ‘You live next door, don’t you?’ His voice sounded calmer now. Stella nodded. She couldn’t speak. ‘Bring her in here,’ the mother shouted from inside. Her voice had become shrill and raucous at the same time. She looked vile.
‘So, young lady, and what were we doing here, spying on other people? I bet this isn’t the first time you’ve done this, is it now?’ Adeline’s face had changed. Her nose seemed longer than usual; her chin more protruding. Sneakily, a wart popped forth from it. Little tufts of hair sprouted slowly.
‘It was you who took those photos, wasn’t it?’ Stella gasped. ‘Wasn’t it?’ Adeline grabbed her by the arm and fired looks of lightning into the girl’s watering eyes. ‘Mother, what’s wrong with you?’ Archie exclaimed with concern. Lenny, meanwhile, was making for the door. ‘Halt!’ Adeline screamed. You will not get away that easily. I will transform you into a grasshopper if you dare to move another inch!’
Lenny stopped, sweat beads collecting on his forehead. Adeline clicked her fingers, disregarding his compliance to her orders, and, after the suddenly generated cloud of smoke had vanished, a grasshopper with a silver shock of hair took a last giant leap out of the door.
Stella and Archie looked at Adeline in terror. ‘Mum, I never knew you were a witch!’ Archie gasped. ‘No, sweetheart, but don’t you worry. I’ll brainwash you later and all will be forgotten again,’ she cackled. ‘And now, you nosy lady, what shall I do with you? How about I turn you into a brand new wide-screen digital TV with surround sound? That’ll teach you what it feels like to be watched!’ She giggled some more and clicked her fingers again. And there it was. A flashy TV, shiny and new. A Sony.
Adeline turned towards Archie, who stood in the corner, pale and motionless. The witchy mother clicked her fingers one last time, and her son fell into a deep deep sleep, which lasted three days.
When Archie woke up the sun was shining through his old-fashioned green and blue curtains. He rubbed his eyes, slowly got out of bed, put on his blue dressing gown – a present from his mother. She had the same one in lilac. In a different size, obviously.
Downstairs, he discovered the blue kitchen. He was a bit surprised. He’d almost forgotten it was there. You had to get used to these new things.
Archie made himself a cup of tea and poured cereal into a bowl. He wondered why Lenny wasn’t tinkering on his guitar yet.