Orinoco stared out glumly through the French windows at the rain. At the bottom of the garden, a scrawny old box hedge failed miserably to obscure the Putney Vale Nursing Home from the morbid glance of an unkind world, and through its sparse foliage his now somewhat less-than-beady eyes could just about make out the flickering shapes of buses and cars splashing past on the A3. He sighed gloomily, crammed a cup cake into his big wet mouth, then flattened the fluted wrapper and tossed it onto the carpet.
“Orinoco Womble!” scolded the nurse, entering the room just as the crumby paper drifted to rest on the heavily scuffed tufts. “Don’t you go dropping your rubbish like that. We’re not paid to clean up after you, you know.”
“Bugger off,” growled Orinoco.
“Yes, and we’ll have a little less of that sort of language too, if you please. Now, have you seen Mr Brown? It’s time for his medication.”
“Why am I supposed to know where he is?”
“I just thought you might, that’s all.”
“Well, I don’t. He’s probably gone down the Dog.”
“The… oh, that really is too bad of him. He knows he shouldn’t be drinking when he’s got to take his medicine. I’ve told him a hundred times.”
She tutted, and crossed the room to the window. Seeing the crisp white apron flapping over her ample stomach, Orinoco was suddenly reminded of Madame Cholet, and felt an acid pang in the pit of his own mighty paunch – part remorse, part self-loathing, part peckishness. And then, for a few delicious seconds, he was transported back to the Womblegarten – the only time, he’d latterly come to realise, that he’d ever been truly happy. He smiled, picturing a warm summer morning of blue skies and white clouds scudding high above an emerald Common, and – oh, it was no good. He needed to talk to someone, not just sit here festering. And “someone”, these days, inevitably meant that idiot Brown, whose inability to see a stick without instantly grabbing hold of the wrong end had, over the years, driven Orinoco to countless futile, if momentarily enjoyable, acts of violence.
Orinoco reached for the phone on the table beside him. It slipped from his fumbling grasp, and clattered to the floor. He stared bitterly at his paws.
“Nurse,” he mumbled, “could you…”
Paddington sat on a stool in the saloon bar of the Dog and Bell gazing dejectedly at the laminated menu. Years ago, he’d tried persuading them to add marmalade sandwiches to their list of offerings, but they’d refused – no demand, they’d said. Eventually, they’d made him some specially, seeing as how he was a valued customer, but they’d used “artisan bread” that was the texture of damp compacted sawdust and riddled with random bits of olive, and the marmalade hadn’t been marmalade at all, but something they’d called “orange coulis” – and THEN they’d had the temerity to charge him five ninety-five. He’d hidden it under his hat, telling them he’d save it for an emergency, and hadn’t mentioned the subject again.
The sound of a canary being gently and methodically strangled with a piece of garden twine broke into his reverie. The barmaid stared at him.
“I think your hat is ringing, Mr Brown,” she said.
Paddington nodded ruefully, and removed his mobile from the top of his head. Then, placing it gingerly on the bar counter, he gave it one of his hardest stares. It kept ringing.
“D’you want me to answer it for you, Mr Brown?”
“Could you, Stacey love? It’s my… joints… arthritis, you know…”
“It’s your bloody paws, more like – just look at ’em, bleedin’ great bear-like – oh, sorry. No offence.”
Paddington retracted his claws. He really must stop over-reacting. You’d think that spending half his adult life contemplating the decor of a dozen different solitary wings would’ve taught him that, but – it was almost like he couldn’t help it. “Instinct” – isn’t that what Mr Gruber had said, when called as a character witness? Before launching into some guff about how invoking human codes of morality was just mawkish anthropomorphism? Cut no ice with the judge, though – especially when Mr Gruber had gone on to suggest they should all just forget about it and have some sticky buns. Oh no. “Behaved like an animal,” that’s what Mr Justice What’s-his-face had said, before banging him up for another five years in the slammer. He watched while Stacey picked up the phone and, having pressed the green button, held it out to him.
“It’s your fat friend,” she said, doing little to hide her contempt.
Despite Orinoco’s repeated insistence that he’d done his time, paid his dues, and was now wombling-bloody-free – clean effing slate and all that – Stacey didn’t trust him, or like him, not one little bit. And not just because he tended to bellow these protestations only when his face, fur matted with Guinness, was shoved as close to hers as the width of the bar and the shortness of his neck would allow. “Don’t you ever SHAVE?” she’d muttered once, her professional bonhomie briefly deserting her, and that had shut him up. But it had also meant a week of sleepless nights for her, as the full pink and fleshy import of what she’d suggested loitered unpleasantly at the back of her mind like a plump leering maggot in a floppy red hat.
Paddington took the phone from her, cupped it awkwardly to his ear, and dropped it. Oh, for f… He gave it a good hard stare. Stacey sighed, and walked round the bar to pick it up. As she bent down, he was suddenly reminded of young Judy Brown, and sensed a stirring beneath his duffel coat he hadn’t felt in years. He hastily checked that all his toggles were done up, and crossed his wellington boots. Where was Judy now, he wondered? And did she still blame him? It had, after all, been Mr Gruber who’d put the idea in his head, Mr Gruber who’d sold him the second-hand scanner, and Mr Gruber’s friend in Portobello Market who’d put everything up on the web. It had all been a genuine misunderstanding; how was he to know that those weren’t the photos she’d intended sending off to the modelling agency, just because Mr Brown’s friend Roger was in some of them too? He’d thought she’d be pleased with the extra cash, now that her college fund was being inexorably drained to provide child support for Mrs Bird, and a separate flat for Mrs Brown.
Oh, but it was too late now for regretting. Having two birthdays a year might have taken its toll on his once cubbish features and made him less of a catch, but – he looked again at Stacey, with her bright skin, her shiny hair, and her bare arms not only free of long disfiguring scratches but also both still extending well below her elbows – that was hardly the reason he and Judy would never stroll hand-in-paw down Ladbroke Grove on a balmy July evening, was it? And all that was left now was an endless procession of desultory afternoons getting grimly pissed in the snug of the Dog with the loathsome Orinoco. Orinoco! That odious little pointy-nosed dwarf. How on earth had he been reduced to this? Sitting out his days with the very same charmless buffoon who’d bored him senseless in the Scrubs, going on and on about the whole Cholet affair, protesting his innocence even though, when they’d pulled her out of the bushes at Tibbet’s Corner, his stupid red scarf was still wrapped round her throat! “You really are a very lazy young Womble, Orinoco…” – he could almost hear Great Uncle Bulgaria’s disappointed reproof. And why had the funnel-faced cretin done it? Because she’d scolded him for helping himself to seconds. How pathetic was that?
He took the phone back from Stacey, held it up to his big furry mouth, and breathed deeply.
“Orry… Orry, Orry, Orry!” he growled, wistfully watching Stacey wiping the beer handles with a damp J-cloth. “Get your great furry arse down here pronto…”
I’d like to reassure younger readers that, owing to the advanced state of decay, it was never proven that the corpse found at Tibbet’s Corner was Madame Cholet’s; DNA tests were inconclusive and tended to imply, if anything, that the body belonged to some sort of giant vole.