It was seven in the evening, the stars were shining and the air was clear and clean and crisp. It was the perfect evening to be enjoying an intimate tête-à-tête with your ideal man in a rooftop restaurant where the wine was fine, the waiters discreet and the music played live by a potentially gypsy fiddler.
I mention this purely as an illustration of the quality of the evening. I wasn’t doing anything like that and my ideal man was still hiding because if I asked him not to he’d bring down the walls of reality by making everyone’s furniture disappear. What I was doing was breaking into an artist’s studio in Ealing, and who I was doing it with was Tankerton Slopes, who wouldn’t be my ideal man under any definition, unless for some reason I wanted a man to be insulting, overbearing and utterly, infuriatingly right all the time.
Which I don’t and hopefully never will, although it turns out that’s just my half-sister Ida’s cup of tea.
How I came to be embarking on this radical new career in breaking and entering was this:
I was working very hard at Get Out. Carlo and I were, as always, struggling to keep the wolf from the door (although not literally; that only happened the one time and was completely not my fault!) It was during this period of especially hectic activity, which followed a two week hiatus when everything seemed to be ticking over beautifully, that Tankerton showed up in the office, after an absence of – surprise, surprise – about two weeks.
His timing is another thing which is far from ideal, although he would say otherwise.
“I’m looking for something,” he said, skipping over all pleasantries and small talk in his customary stile. “You need to as well.”
“Alright,” I agreed. “I’ll keep an eye open.”
“Not good enough. You need to be actively out there looking.”
I sighed. “The very fabric of reality doesn’t depend on it, I suppose.”
“You’d suppose wrong if you supposed not,” Tankerton replied. “It’s pretty much a classic reality tearing scenario, with the tearing or not tearing of reality very definitely on the line. Whatever it is you’re working on here…”
“Eighty words on a post-surrealist photographic exhibition, showcasing accidental images of pavements and the insides of pockets and camera bags,” I explained. “After that I’m attending a preview of a retrospective exhibition of the fad junk of the 1990s.”
“… which will just have to wait. Get your coat and come and help me look.”
“Well… what is it we’re looking for?” I asked.
“It’s a thing you’ll know it if you see it,” Tankerton explained.
“Well, how?” I demanded. “Just tell me what it is.”
“It’s a thing you’ll know it if you see it,” he repeated. “That’s what it is; a thing you’ll know it if you see it.”
“You mean there’s an actual thing that’s a thing you’ll know it if you see it?” I asked.
“Of course there is. Where else would the idea come from? How often do people actually know the thing they’re looking for when they say they’re looking for something that they’ll know when they see it when they see it? Hmm?”
“Well… Not often,” I hedged.
“Never,” he assured me. “But if this thing gets out into the world, the world will be full of things that you’ll know it if you see it. Disorder will vanish overnight.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” It didn’t seem that way to me, but then I can never find anything on or in my desk and I’ve always wanted to know the thing I wanted when I saw it.
“Of course! Can you imagine how much people would get done if they could always find what they were looking for because they always knew it the moment they saw it? How many jobs would that kind of productivity eliminate? How many hours would be freed up for people to sit and think and come up with weird ideas? The barriers would collapse in weeks! No; we need to get that thing back to Undone before any more harm is done.”
“Right,” I agreed. “Then I’ll look for it at the retrospective of 1990s junk.”
“Edna, am I getting the importance of this through to you? This thing could cause anarchy; it’s as dangerous as the naughty dog.”
“And it’s as likely to be at the retrospective as it is to be anywhere else?” I suggested.
“Unless you know somewhere else it might be.”
“Well, no. Of course I don’t know where it is, I’ll just… know it when I see it.”
“And so will I, and if you can’t give me a better place to look…”
And so I went to the retrospective, which made me feel like I’d won… something anyway, although as usual Tankerton managed to make me feel as though I was doing what he wanted even though I was doing what I wanted. It’s a really annoying habit he has.
The retrospective was a fascinating trawl through the detritus of my childhood, seeing all the toys I once briefly and passionately loved, sifted out of a landfill sight and displayed in artfully recreated 90s-style dustbins, only some of which had wheels. It was the brainchild of an artist named Milton Mowbray and was entitled: ‘And you thought you were so cool, didn’t you?’
And there it was, of course. It was half-hidden under a Furby, but I knew it the moment I saw it. I tried to pocket it at once, but unfortunately Mowbray himself was standing nearby and as soon as he saw it he decided it was just what he needed for his new work and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I tried to explain the importance of my mission, but he was inclined to be reasonable – the reasons why my work is important are almost invariably unreasonable – and I’m not as good at the more forceful style of persuasion as Tankerton is, so my threats fell on deaf – or at least unconcerned – ears.
So, that was how Tankerton and I ended up breaking into his workshop on a clear, crisp evening just ripe for the kind of romance that never seems to happen to me. We knew Mowbray would be out because the second preview of ‘And you thought you were so cool, didn’t you?’ – the one for posh journalists, where they serve the good sherry and those little snack things on tiny pastry bases – was on until eight, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this all the same. I’d never broken into anyone’s home before.
Well, except for Tankerton’s, and that had been when he was missing presumed… elsewhere.
Still, it was good that we did it. Mowbray had already made three copies of the thing and the destruction of disorder was clearly setting in already. In an artist’s studio there should be plenty that’s out of place, but he had everything labelled and had clearly just got through alphabetising his paints. We took all four versions of the thing – we couldn’t work out which was the original; this guy was good – took down all the labels and put the paints back into rainbow order.
I was just replacing the burnt umber when the police turned up, alerted by a silent alarm. Fortunately, there was an unused gap just by Mowbray’s dustbins – which was probably where he got the idea for the junk retrospective in the first place, now that I think about it – and we hopped across to Undone before any of the police could get a good enough view to identify us.
“Right,” Tankerton said. “I’m going to put this back where it belongs, in the Museum of Vaguely Specific Things, and then I’m going to change into something that doesn’t smell of bins. Good job, Edna.”
“Thanks,” I said, although by now I knew that he couldn’t be going to leave it at that.
“Of course, it would have been a better job without all the breaking and entering. You should have been more careful.”
“Well I didn’t know that the thing you’ll know it if you see it would turn out to be the very thing that artist was looking for but didn’t know it until he saw it although speaking that sentence out loud I realise that maybe I should have done.”
“Yes, you should,” Tankerton agreed. “But you were right about the junk retrospective, and about navy blue coming before Prussian blue, so well done on both those points. You’d better get some sleep; you’ve got 80 words to write about junk tomorrow.”
So that was what I did, because that’s what my life is like.