427: Home Alone

Donald Trump was President of America and Boris Johnson was the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Even more absurdly, Spurs were in contention for the Premiership title and the Champions League. I read the newspaper from front to back twice and it still didn’t make any sense.

If this was a fake reality, who would make it this unbelievable? And if this was the real thing, what the hell had happened? Had everyone lost their minds.

Oh, and there was also a global pandemic and Nazi’s marching in the streets.

If this had been a video game, it would have been lambasted for being lazy and clichéd. What next, a zombie apocalypse and the rise of the machines?

Perhaps there was a reasonable explanation for what was going on but I didn’t really care. It wasn’t like I had any intention of staying here and dealing with any of this crap.

My goal was to find a way back. Which meant reactivating my magical abilities. That was all I had to worry about. It didn’t matter how crazy this place had gotten in my absence, it wasn’t my problem.

The train stopped at a couple of stations, picking up only a few people. It was early enough that the morning rush hour had yet to start.

Despite the end of civilization, the people going to work looked like regular people with the same old lack of any real concern for anything that didn’t directly affect them right now, right here. Tired, bored faces, holding coffee in disposable cups in one hand and their smartphones in the other, no conversations, no smiles, no fucks given. Life was carrying on as it usually did.

It took around ninety minutes to reach London. It was about half seven in the morning and the train wasn’t even half-full.

Exiting the train and taking the escalators down to the underground station was easy enough. No one looked at me twice, even though I was dressed like an off-brand pirate. This was London, where the weirder you looked, the more invisible you were.

I paid for my tube ticket — I only just had enough money — and made my way to the Piccadilly Line platform.

As I rode in a packed tube train in the middle of the morning rush hour, squashed between coats like I was trapped in the back of someone’s closet, it started to dawn on me that I was nearly home and I hadn’t even considered what I was going to do when I got there. Would there be an alternate Colin sitting in my flat?

I hadn’t paid my rent or bills for three years, and I didn’t have a key to get in and frighten the crap out of whoever was living there now, but I didn’t know where else to go.

My place was walking distance from Wood Green Station. I followed the route I’d taken every weekday morning and evening to and from work.

The small block of flats I lived in looked the same. I pressed the keycode into the pad next to the glass door with the crack running diagonally across the top half, just like it was the last time I’d used it. The door clicked open.

My flat was on the second floor. I walked up the stairs and along the hallway. The familiarity hit me in waves. This was my home, my whole life up until recently.

The number on my door —22 — was nailed on unevenly, just as I remembered it.

I knocked on my own door. It seemed the polite thing to do. There was no response, which was a relief. I had no key, just a spoon hanging around my neck.

There was only one thing to do. I knocked on my neighbour’s door. Number 20, Tony something-or-other. He wasn’t someone I spoke to often, just a casual hello every now and again, but back when I first moved in, he had taken the time to explain a few of the basic rules of the building. When to leave out rubbish, which floors to avoid, why to never take the lift after 7 PM.

He was an odd bloke who kept to himself and worked from home. I think. He never went out, so that was my best guess.

And the time I locked myself out of my own flat, he helped me break back in.

The door opened and a grey-haired, slightly chubby face peered out from behind a chained door.

There was a moment of confusion, some squinting and then a surprised look. “Colin?”

“Hi, Tone. Long time no see.” I tried to sound as casual as possible.

“You’re alive.” The door opened a little more and looked me up and down. “What happened to you? What are you wearing? You look terrible.”

“Um, yes,” I said. “I’ve been… on holiday. This is what they wear over there… abroad. Sorry to disturb you, but I lost my keys. Any chance you could help me get in like last time?”

He leaned back and then forward, getting me into focus. “It’s really you.”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t die?”

“No, I’ve just been away. Travelling.”

“Where did you go?”

“Um, oh, everywhere. Hated it. Everything was surprisingly foreign. Never going there again. Kind of desperate to use the loo.” I didn’t want to appear rude, but I also didn’t want to get into a long explanation of where I’d been and what I’d been up to.

“Sure, sure, no problem… just wait a mo’.” He closed the door on me.

I had never been in his flat and he had never been in mine. He was what we Londoners call a good neighbour. Keeps his boundaries well maintained.

The door opened again a few moments later.

“Here we go.” He held up a large metal ring with dozens of keys hanging from it. He stepped out and moved in front of my door. He began trying different keys in my keyhole (not a euphemism). “Let’s see if I can remember which one it was…”

A man with a bunch of skeleton keys might seem a bit sus, but he really wasn’t the type to invade anyone’s space. He really had no interest in other people. It was why we had formed such a strong yet distant acquaintance, over our mutual dislike of everyone.

“Amazing,” he mumbled as he tested one key after another. “You know, I even thought maybe you were one of them.”

“One of them?”

“You know, ‘The Abducted’. They disappeared around the same sort of time, didn’t they?”

He looked over his shoulder at me and frowned when he was met with my blank expression. He went back to working on the lock.

“Most people said it was aliens, but not me. It was clearly some sort of serial killer, group of them working together. Not that I said anything — I fit the profile a little too closely, only making trouble for myself. Don’t want to go down that road again.”

The lock clicked open.

“Nice. Still got it.” He turned to me. “Never caught no one, never found no one. Sad.”

I nodded. He seemed to be talking about the people who had disappeared along with me four years ago. Had we become famous?

“So it was just a holiday, was it? Well, I never. Was certain you were buried in some shallow grave somewhere. See you later, Col.” Tony re-entered his flat and closed his door, his curiosity not great enough to overcome his general dislike of small talk. Truly, a good neighbour.

“Thank you,” I called after him.

I pushed my door open.

The door stuck a little as letters were pushed out of the way. Not a huge pile — my bills were mostly paperless — but quite a lot of out-of-date coupons for half-price pizza (stuffed crust not included). Sadly, I’d missed out on several years of savings.

I kicked them out of the way.

“Hellooo?” I called out, just in case.

No response. The hallway was very quiet. It was just as I’d left it, but dustier.

I began walking towards my bedroom, my heart thumping in my chest for absolutely no reason. I’d managed to rob and steal my way here from some castle in Sussex, and now that I was safely in my home, this was when my nerves decided to kick in.

The air had an unpleasant, stale taste to it. I couldn’t really tell if that was different from before. A thick layer of dust covered everything and came off like sludge when I ran my finger over any surface.

I pushed the bedroom door open, dreading what I might find waiting for me. My four-year-old corpse?

What I found was an empty unmade bed. I turned on the lights to reveal more of the same. The lights worked, though, which was surprising. Who had been paying the bills? I mean, I had a direct debit set up with my bank to pay all of my basic outgoings, but the meagre funds I had would have run out a long time ago.

I opened the curtains and then the window and took a deep breath of North London air. It smelled like kebabs and coffee shops, which was pleasingly familiar.

The flat was the same as I’d left it — the small lounge, the narrow and claustrophobic kitchen, the chilly bathroom — nothing had changed. I rewarded myself for having safely reached the first milestone in my journey with a long, cold dump. By far the most luxurious bowel movement I’d had in years.

The flush made some weird gurgling noises but finally accepted my offering.

Then I stripped and took a shower. The water took a while to heat up, but it wasn’t like I was in a rush.

The clothes in my closet smelled a bit off but then so did the clothes I’d arrived in. At least they still fit. A little baggy, actually.

It was all very confusing and I was having a hard time getting to grips with my situation, but there were some basic things I could check using the laptop in my bedroom.

The computer booted up fine, slow as ever. The internet was working. The wifi that usually dropped out every time a butterfly in the Amazon flapped its wings was perfectly fine.

The first thing I did was check my bank balance. After sitting there for five minutes trying to remember my passwords.

The more advanced technology gets, the more passwords we have to remember for our own security. A different password for every site, change them every six months, use a series of letters and numbers you can’t possibly remember, but don’t write it down anywhere, that would defeat the point.

No, just save it in your browser where only you and Google can access it. Google wouldn’t betray you, their motto used to be ‘Don’t be evil’ before it was changed to ‘China, number one.’

My bank balance was surprisingly healthy. Rent and utilities had been paid automatically and money had been coming in from my job. The job I hadn’t done for four years. What were they paying me for? I had hardly been worth paying when I had turned up. Perhaps they found they were more productive when I was absent.

The main thing was that I had funds — as soon as I found my debit card and remembered my PIN. Things were looking up.

Since I had the internet at my disposal, I decided to look up a few things from the last few years and soon realised that the world was in even worse shape than I’d thought.

An American president controlled by Russians, Saudi Arabia murdering journalists with impunity, China running slave labour camps.

It’s not often someone gets culture-shocked by their own culture.

I decided to Google myself. If what Tony had said really was connected to our disappearance, if it had been noticed, then there would be some sort of news story about it.

My name produced millions of results, but none of them had anything to do with me. That’s what happens when you have a common name and haven’t done anything to mark yourself out from your eponymous herd.

The Theme from Love Story began to play. It was my phone ringing, plugged into the socket next my bed, at 100% battery life for four years.

Why was my phone ringing? No one ever called me before, why would they be calling now? The number wasn’t showing.

Just some marketing robocall?

I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Colin?” said a very deep, male, probably middle-aged voice.

“Um, yes? Who is this?”

“Ah, it really is you. That’s wonderful. You don’t know me, but I’m hoping you know my daughter, Victoria.”

“Sorry, I don’t think I know anyone called Victoria. Are you sure you have the right number?”

“Oh, very sure. I’ve been waiting a long time for you to come home. Frankly, I wasn’t sure you would ever return, any of you. Perhaps you know her by her nickname. She always insisted on being called Flossie. It was her mother’s name for her.”

“Sorry, what’s your name?”

“Archibald Larwood. Call me Archie.”

Since I was on the computer, I put his name into Google, not really expecting anything, but it was a fairly unusual name, so you never know. There were over a hundred thousand hits. All for the same man.

Archibald Larwood, billionaire businessman, entrepreneur, inventor, philanthropist, MBE, hated by unions, friend to the stars, owner of a Caribbean island, suspected of numerous crimes, convicted of none. He had quite the Wikipedia page.

“You’re Flossie’s dad?”

“Ah, so you do know her. That’s very good to hear. Very good. Colin, I think we should meet. I have so many questions. Are you free for lunch?”

It was getting on for eleven and I was a little peckish. And who wouldn’t want to grab a bite to eat with a billionaire? I assumed he would be paying.

“Sure. Where would you like to—” There was a loud, insistent knocking on my front door.

“That will be my driver,” said Archie. “I’ll see you soon. I’m very much looking forward to it.”

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