“What are you up to?” Akthar asked, finding a seat on the grass beside where Lockwood lay.
Lockwood had his head pillowed in a shirt, his back laid bare to the late-march sun and soaking up the warmth it provided. “I’m sleeping,” he mumbled. “Go away.”
“Doesn't sound like you're sleeping. How’s the sun?”
“You’re trying to get tan?”
“Well, good luck with it. Try not to sleep too long or you might get burnt.”
It had seemed like a brilliant idea nine months ago when they were all fresh out of uni, but in reality the eight of them moving in together wasn't as brilliant as it all seemed at first. For one, no one mowed the lawn, so Lockwood lay in the grass that resembled more of a field than a back garden. Another downside were the thin walls, and given the fact that they were living with Dakin, the downside was more like a landslide.
Going back in, the pile of chocolate cookies that had appeared on the counter overnight had diminished quite a bit since he’d last seen them, which Akthar could only assume was at the hands of Timms’ stress eating. Ever since the pubs had shut Timms had been a menace, eating anything that could be labelled convenient - from the most recent victim, the cookies, to the most unlikely, a jar of pickled onions which he ate one after the other while watching TV.
When he passed the cookies, he grabbed one and went to find Rudge.
Rudge seemed to be handling the isolation best, but the two hour runs he went on in the middle of the day may have been an unfair advantage on his part. At one point Crowther had attempted to join him, but came back after around half an hour. Rudge was reading in his bedroom just to the left of the top of the stairs, splayed out on his bed with his foot on the windowsill and his head hanging off the side so that he faced the door. The unfortunate side effect to his south-facing room was how the temperature crept up to ten degrees higher than the rest of the house, and so no one could ever exist with a coat on in the space.
“Rudge,” Akthar said, startling the other from his reading, “Lockwood is frying himself in the garden.”
Looking at Akthar, still with his head upside-down, he asked, “So?”
“Dunno. Just letting you know.”
“Okay,” Rudge said, and went back to his reading.
Akthar lingered in the doorway, not so much like a bad smell but more like a bored child, waiting to see if something more interesting would rear its head and talk to him. But Rudge didn't look up, and so he moved on, down the hallway towards Timms’ room.
The door opened, and a faint smell of something sour wafted out, like vinegar or lemon juice. Timms looked bored too, but not bored enough to read like Rudge had been. He was the only lad in the house to have a TV in his bedroom, and it made a weird background noise that made it seem like someone else was in the room.
“What’s up?” Timms asked, going back in and collapsing on his bed.
“You said,” Dakin’s voice appeared from inside the room, and Akthar lent through the doorway to see him fussing with his hair, sitting cross legged with a hairpin in his mouth. He hadn't cut his hair in over a year, and it was getting harder and harder to keep out of the shower drain.
“Why are you in here too?” Akthar asked, “Don't you have a mirror?”
“I did. Scripps broke it.”
“How on earth did he do that?”
“He looked in it. That’s all he needed to do.”
Akthar hummed around his smile. “Are you going to take it to the tip?”
“Can’t. It’s shut with all the other places. I just stuck it in the shed for now, next to Pos’ charity shop stuff.”
“Right. Why are you doing your hair, then?”
“I need to keep up appearances around here.”
“Appearances? For who, the postman?
“Well, it’s something to do, isn't it?”
“Fair. I’m off.”
“See you,” Timms said, and Dakin waved, so Akthar shut the door and went to the stairs again to go further up and into the loft.
When they were viewing the house, all of them had agreed that it was practically perfect for them all, bar one problem; it only had seven bedrooms, not eight. The loft was the most spacious and already had two bed frames when they had all moved in, and so it was just a matter of who drew the short straws.
As it turned out, Scripps and Posner didn’t mind sharing a room, and Crowther went so far as to suggest that their beds being on opposite sides of the room might have been just for show.
Akthar knocked at the top of the stairs and waited for one of them to answer, but instead a muffled “come in” came through the door.
“What’s up with you?” Akthar asked immediately upon entering the room.
Scripps did nothing but curl up even tighter in his duvet, almost like the thin layer of fabric would be enough for him to be forgotten completely.
“He’s writing his novel again,” Posner said from across the room.
“Going well, mate?”
“Right. What are you up to then?” Akthar asked as he turned to Pos, but the answer became obvious as soon as he had asked.
The rarely used easel was up and facing the window to the back garden, and Posner, dressed in his painting clothes stood before it. Akthar wandered over to see what he had painted, taking in the blue at the top of the frame with the fluffy clouds, the deep cedar green of the trees and the light green of the grass, and finally the bright red dead-looking body in the centre of the lawn.
Akthar looked at Posner’s straight face, then went on his tip-toes to peek out of the slanted window. Indeed, three floors below, Lockwood lay bright red on the back-garden’s lawn, presumably fast asleep.
Perhaps wisely, Akthar decided to change the subject.
“Have you seen Crowther?”
“He’s doing twelve to ten tonight. Last I heard the shoppers were not leaving him alone.”
Posner hummed in agreement.
“What are you up to then?” Posner asked, and Akthar almost startled with how accusatory it sounded.
“That sounds suspicious.”
“I just couldn't handle another hour of Tipping Point reruns. I'm bothering everyone.”
“Have you considered getting a hobby? Crochet? Gardening? Pickling?”
“I've technically got work on Monday, even if I’m not leaving the house.”
“So what are your plans until then?”
“I’m going to make the rounds and bother everyone again.”
“Everyone? Aw. We’re not special?”
“You could be? How can I bother you further?”
“How about you grab me one of those cookies from downstairs before Dakin stress eats them all?”
“Oh, it was him then?”
“Mostly. Scripps may or may not have had a hand in it too.”
Scripps’ voice piped up from the bed. “Fuck off.”
“Right,” Akthar said, making towards the door, “another cookie.”
“Two,” Scripps spoke up again.
“Two cookies. Fine.”
Taking the steps two at a time, Akthar walked back past Rudge and Timms’ rooms before going down the next flight and into the kitchen. Through the window he could more clearly see the red figure on the back lawn, but instead of going to see if Lockwood was alright, he chuckled. Distantly, through the living room door, the attempted suave beat to Come Dine with Me began to play, and looking at the five or so remaining cookies, Akthar decided he had more important things to focus on than dealing with everyone else.
Seven hours or so must have passed, because when Akthar removed himself from the hypnotic shittyness of Come Dine with Me (or from sleep, he couldn't tell) it was dark outside, the temperature had dropped from comfortable to skin-chilling, and the house was quiet. The only light inside the room came from the TV, but the hallway light was on. Easing himself from the cushions with a grumble, Akthar turned off the TV and went to do the same with the hallway light, but paused when he saw another light coming from the kitchen.
“Hello?” He said, shouldering his way into the room, but he stopped in his tracks at the sight that met him.
Crowther was half asleep and slumped in one of the dining room chairs, still in the horrid brown and orange uniform from his workplace but with flour dusted in places across it. The oven light was the only thing that lit up the room, but it was enough to show the contents inside - a batch of two dozen cupcakes, if he had to hazard a guess.
“What are you making?” Akthar asked, and Crowther didn't even seem too shocked to see him.
“Muffins,” he said, “I'm using up those bananas Rudge never got around to eating.”
“Is this your…” he paused, finding the words, and then waved his hand at the oven, “Your deal?”
Somehow it didn't feel right to say ‘coping mechanism’, or ‘therapy’, or even ‘hobby’ considering it was around two in the morning. Crowther must have gotten back at least four hours ago, Akthar thought, so it wasn't as if he had just randomly decided to whip some up after getting back from work.
“I guess. If you wait up for another…” Crowther checked the timer, “another ten minutes or so you can have the first one.”
“Sure,” Akthar said, pulling a chair out, “Got nothing better to do.”