*

SPLINTS

Watkins’ grandmother had always told him it was wrong to be left-handed. The sad thing was that she’d been left-handed, too. They’d never beaten it out of her.

Watkins examined the matchbox in his left hand. When he was a small boy, they sold toy lorries in matchboxes, and racing cars, and family saloons, and bright red tractors. Recently the world had become a boring place for Watkins. Matchboxes contained only matches. And cigarette packets had only cigarettes and no free cigarette cards to helicopter-flick into the corner of the playground to cover-and-own other kids’ cards — attractive cards bearing pictures of footballers, tropical birds, Second World War aeroplanes and even bright red tractors.

The matchbox sat in the palm of his hand. Life was usually too busy for such minutiae. The last time he stopped to breathe was when his grandmother died.

Even if he was supposed to be relaxing, his mind raced with this or that project. Yet today was different. The world had suddenly hushed, as if the very act of impending on the brink of something was our existence’s only raison d’être – and Watkins was about to take a sneaky smoke, a habit which his better self had officially given up ages ago.

With the unaccustomed intake of breath that would not re-emerge until his lungs started flapping like dying fish, he pored over the crumpleable cuboid of the matchbox. The larger geometry of the cigarette packet nearby – which he had originally intended to plunder with the more sinister fingers of his left hand – did not belong to him. Nor did the matchbox, for that matter. It was almost as if those particular fingers themselves didn’t belong to him…

In life, perhaps nothing really belongs.

Thinking about it, the owner of the cigarette pack was a mystery – especially as Watkins lived alone, expected no imminent visitors (nor, even, any just departed ones), and had in fact not unlocked his front door since Emily left in a huff a fortnight ago. Surely the cigarettes and matches could not possibly have belonged to Emily, to sweet sweet Emily. She was so green, he thought she must come from Mars. Recycling, for her, was not necessarily living on a déjà vu biking holiday.

And you could say that again.

No, the presence of the smoking equipment was decidedly an enigma, which, in many ways, was a better word than mystery and also obviated a boring repetition. Watkins shook his head. Could he, of all people, be thinking such thoughts? On top of which, he had just spotted a man’s pipe resting upon a shelf of the bookcase within the bay window alcove. He may have succumbed to cigarettes in his chequered past – but never such a pretentious pipe! Men who smoked pipes had the personality of a car exhaust or worse.

.
The matchbox just moved, a barely perceptible budge in the palm! A horrible feeling. As if he were a boy again with a trapped wasp inside it. Except this was more a wriggle than a buzzing bounce. A slither, not a head-bashing. Yet quieter than Watkins’s resumed breathing.

Emily wasn’t ever coming back. He knew that. He and Emily were usually chalk and cheese, but not necessarily in that order. She a schoolteacher with a degree in method acting – he, well, he had smelly feet, didn’t he? And his grandmother had never properly house-trained him. Now it was too late. An old dog could never learn new tricks.

Yet he did remember a trick he once knew as a boy. One with a matchbox. Two live matches were needed. And a penny (an old penny in those days). One match was positioned vertically head-up at one end of the empty matchbox’s label-side by means of a punctured hole. The second match balanced head-up, head to head against the first match, white stem creating a hypotenuse to the right angle, with this second match’s bottom end resting on the matchbox label with the penny between it and where it rested.

You then asked someone how you could get the penny without touching either of the matches. But perhaps a resolving flame could be deemed as guilty of actually touching the soon to be fused match-heads?

Also, there were those cotton-reel tractors, with a stub of candle, elastic band and one matchstick, which Watkins’ father used to make for him. Memories were flooding back.

But all this was before today … before a matchbox seemed to move in his palm.

Yet how could it? Certainly without the presence of an independent motive force. Tricks were never that prestidigitatious. So, he speculated upon sliding out the tiny drawer, to gauge what was what – until the interruption of the door-bell going. Surely not Emily. But if not, who?

He had expected no imminent visitors.

The last time Watkins had unexpected visitors was the occasion he had suffered a chimney fire and one of the neighbours had called the fire brigade. Nosey-parkers, all of them!

He pushed gently on the fragile tray with his nose to reveal the most surreptitious of his own left hand’s fingers (the little one) lying in its narrow coffin. Slightly slithering between the corners of its fingerhouse. Brown-stained at one end and bright red-stumped at the other. It looked to be in a torture of traction.

He tried to snap the matchbox shut before calling the snoop-police, worried that he might end up with Emily the whale-lover and part-time RSPCA ambulance-driver answering the phone instead. But none of the number-pads worked. And the door-bell had indeed gone. Only the squeaking of Watkins’ lungs remained. The fingermouse? It had dropped out with a crumply plop and died – touch wood.

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