Chapter 2: Flat
Thus TM found himself bringing a strange girl back to his flat, which was unusual for him. More accurately, it was their tiny and extremely shitty flat, leased under the business name of Veggie TM, Inventors Incorporated.
‘Nice place,’ the girl commented, as Veggie waded through the pile of bills, takeaway menus and other assorted junk mail towards the toaster.
‘Want me to heat up some bread for lunch?’ Veggie offered, reaching the toaster and removing a few slices of bread from a cupboard filled mostly with instant noodles and sachets of ketchup. ‘Heated bread is sort of all we can offer, I’m afraid.’
‘Isn’t it just called toast?’ the girl asked. Veggie shook his head with a low chuckle.
‘No, no, no, Ziggy, my friend,’ he reprimanded her. ‘Living off toast is for hobos, but heated bread, now that’s a meal of kings.’ He busied himself with the toaster – bread heater, TM reminded himself.
‘I like this,’ she declared, plonking down on the floor. ‘I think I might stay here forever, if that’s OK.’
TM picked up a couple of the bills lying on the carpet and tossed them half-heartedly in the direction of the bin. ‘If you really want,’ he said. The girl sat there, cross-legged in her blue suit, as the envelopes flew around her. ’Did Veggie say you could… like, stay stay?’
‘Yeah, I think so,’ she said, nodding.
‘I did,’ Veggie clarified, staring intently at the bread heater.
‘You don’t have anywhere else to be?’ TM asked. ‘Nobody to go home to?’
‘Nah,’ she said, gazing around the flat in all its cramped glory. The room held all the essential components of a kitchen, a lounge, an office, and a dining room, all in less space that would usually be afforded to a single one of them. ‘Like I said, I’m sort of new. I like the layout, by the way.’ She gestured to the part of the room that Veggie had labelled the stud-ining room; it consisted of a wooden table, half of which was invisible under piles of papers, stress balls and other assorted stationery. The other half bore a Christmas-themed tablecloth, which had been purchased in a January sale and not changed since. ‘Pretty high item-per-square-metre ratio.’
‘That’s a very nice way of saying we have more shit than we can fit in our tiny-ass flat,’ said TM. ‘Veg?’
‘Have you actually thought about where we’re all going to sleep?’
‘I figured she could have your bunk,’ Veggie chirped. ‘No issues, right?’
‘Nah,’ said TM, who had always secretly felt that sleeping on the sofa would be kind of a cool and bohemian thing to do anyway.
‘Cheers,’ said the girl.
‘So, er… what’s your name, anyway?’ TM asked her, feeling that it might be an appropriate sort of thing to find out about someone before they slept in his bed.
‘Aw, who’s this?’ she said immediately, as if it were the answer. TM looked down, following the direction of her pointing finger, and saw a black-and-white cat winding itself around his leg.
‘Oh, this is Maurice Meow-Ponty, the cat,’ said TM. ‘We’ve got Michel Furcoat around somewhere, too. Not actually ours, originally; we were testing this idea we had for catnip-scented microwave meals and they’ve just sort of stuck around since.’
‘Never did get around to pitching that one,’ Veggie piped up.
‘Nice names,’ the girl said, watching Maurice Meow-Ponty, the cat, weave his lazy way over TM’s feet and into the warm nest made by the stack of paper on the floor, where he buried himself somewhere under her legs.
‘So what about yours?’ She looked blank. ‘Name, that is.’
She bit her bottom lip for a moment, then clicked her tongue. ‘Ziggy is fine,’ she said, unhelpfully.
‘You must have an actual name,’ TM reasoned. ‘Like, one that’s yours.’
‘It’s kind of long,’ she said. ‘I was sort of hoping to leave it behind, to be honest. Fresh start, and whatnot.’
TM sighed. ‘Fine,’ he acceded. ‘Ziggy it is, but – I don’t get it. How come you can just up and leave – whatever you might have had and – what makes you want to come live with us and be part of our shitty non-intentionally non-profit – I mean, who are – what even – where are you from?’
‘The stars,’ Ziggy said. ‘Didn’t I mention?’
TM dropped one eyebrow and raised the other. ‘Okay, so –’
‘Bread!’ Veggie yelled, precisely one second before the toaster popped.
Ziggy stood, then gazed at TM for a moment. ‘I sense you’re going to be asking me more later.’
‘Probably,’ TM admitted, gesturing her over to a seat. The flat had real, proper wooden chairs, a matching set and everything. Most of them had all of their legs, and all of them had been liberated from the nearby tip.
They lowered themselves into their seats as Veggie juggled toast over with burning fingers; TM sat at the part that usually served as an office desk, shunting the mound of stationery to the very edge to make room.
‘Right,’ said Veggie. He plopped his slice of toast down on the table and stripped off his suit jacket, hanging it over the back of his seat. ‘Z.’
‘Yeah?’ said Ziggy, taking a tentative bite of hot bread. Her eyes widened as her teeth crunched through the crispy surface, and she stuffed the entire slice into her mouth hungrily, staring at Veggie with wide eyes and bulging cheeks.
‘Okay, look,’ said Veggie, taking a bite of his own. TM imagined his words struggling to get out of his mouth, clambering around the crunchy chunks of toast crumb like tiny spelunkers in a delicious cavern. ‘You seem smart, and to be honest we sort of need to hit the jackpot ASAP. We’re a little bit fucked, financially speaking.’
‘Would never have guessed,’ said Ziggy.
‘And since you have no other attachments…’
‘I’m prepared to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime.’
TM readied his palm, flexing it gently in preparation for the inevitable smack against his own forehead.
‘Join our business. Unpaid internship for now – valuable work experience, you can totally put it on your CV – and if you can help us get back afloat, we’ll make you a full partner.’
TM facepalmed – expertly, in his opinion.
‘Also, because we’re probably too trusting of people, you can live here with us. Consider it a perk.’
‘Deal,’ said Ziggy.
‘You’re joking,’ said TM.
‘You’re on!’ Veggie exclaimed, shaking Ziggy’s hand as quickly as possible. TM watched Ziggy as she glanced at her shaken hand with curiosity, then rested it against her cheek with a pleased look. ‘Right, first order of business: introductory meeting with new star employee. Brainstorm, aaand go.’
Veggie held out his hand expectantly; TM dug around in the heap of stuff and pulled out a broken crayon, rolling it across the table. It crossed from the study into the dining room, and Veggie snatched it up. He flipped the seasonal tablecloth up, revealing a plain white cloth underneath, and held the crayon poised above it, ready to take notes.
There followed a long period in which absolutely no ideas were suggested; the sound of hot bread crunching around filled the air.
‘Wait,’ said Ziggy eventually. ‘What are we supposed to be doing?’
‘Ideas!’ Veggie exclaimed, brandishing his crayon at her as if it were a duelling sword. ‘Like, er… TM?’
‘Give her some examples, would ya?’
TM cast about for something suitable. The flat was full of their useless creations, but none seemed sufficiently brilliant as an exemplar of their creative ability. There was the coaster set with wheels, for maximum coastage, but that usually resulted in spills. Or the revolving lampshade, to ensure that the entire room got the same amount of light, but it turned out that light didn’t work in quite the way they’d been thinking. Eventually, TM reached over and took up a corner of the white tablecloth, waving it in Ziggy’s direction. ‘Well,’ he began. ‘We invent stuff, like this.’
Ziggy blinked at him.
’It’s the Veggie TM Bedsheet-Tablecloth-Whiteboard,’ TM continued, giving the table a fond pat. ‘Multi-function fabric in the shape and shade of your choice, serving as table furnishing, snuggly bedding or reusable drawing surface, whichever your need, for ultimate convenience.’
Veggie doodled the crayon over the cloth, helpfully illustrating the ‘whiteboard’ part.
‘In essence, we come up with ideas for useless stuff that people might want to pay us lots of money for,’ TM explained, ‘and then we pitch those ideas to a board of faceless, merciless bureaucrats –’
‘Upon whom we depend for the very little success we have,’ Veggie interjected.
‘- and try to get them made into actual products that we can sell. Then we wait, and then hopefully profit. That’s the theory.’
‘Not that we’re all about the dollar,’ Veggie told Ziggy with a sage nod. ‘Annoyingly, turns out money is quite an important thing to have in today’s society, and since we can’t beat the wealthy we’d really rather like to join them, if only so we can eat something other than toast every now and then.’
‘Our ideas have to be kind of cheap to make, as well,’ TM expounded. ’The B-T-W is literally just some fabric that we ran through a kind of laminate-y type thing and then branded with as many uses as we could come up with.’
Ziggy nodded thoughtfully, brushing a few crumbs around the surface of the table with a finger as if positioning toy soldiers in formation. ‘What’s your best idea?’ she asked.
‘Well,’ TM said, leaning in, ‘I’ve been working on this thing I like to call the Octobike –’
Veggie gave him a look that very clearly meant ‘don’t you dare tell her about the fucking Octobike’, and TM fell silent. Veggie possessed an exceptional skill for non-verbal communication; he had phenomenally expressive eyebrows.
‘But it’s a bit shit really,’ TM finished.
‘Huh,’ said Ziggy, and turned to Veggie. ‘What about you?’
Veggie swivelled in his chair and pointed proudly at Michel Furcoat the cat, who was lazily pawing at the door. ‘Hear him scratching?’ Veggie asked.
Ziggy shook her head.
’No, you do not. That is because Michel Furcoat the cat over there is wearing Veggie TM Feline Claw Silencers. Tiny little plastic sheath-type things, like them tips what go on scissors so kiddies don’t cut themselves – and all this practical value available inexpensively and in a range of colours including Smooth Purple.’
‘You put plastic tips on his claws?’ Ziggy repeated, sounding somewhere between fascinated and appalled. ‘Isn’t that… a bit cruel?’
‘Oh, yeah, probably,’ Veggie admitted. ’It’s definitely cruel to the poor bastard who has to actually put them on ’em, I’m telling ya. I mean, they do not like wearing them.’ He gestured to TM, who held up a scratched forearm. ‘Michel Furcoat, the cat, he’s okay with them now, though. Sorta.’
‘What about Maurice Meow-Ponty?’ Ziggy asked.
‘The cat,’ TM finished for her. ‘We’ve never actually managed to get them on him. I think they offend his phenomenological worldview somehow.’
‘Makes sense,’ Ziggy agreed knowingly.
‘So,’ said Veggie. ‘Ideas.’
‘Ideas,’ Ziggy concurred.
There was another silence. This was more silent than the last one, on account of the hot bread having been mostly eaten.
‘How do you usually… do this?’ Ziggy asked as the silence came to an end.
‘We just sort of think and see what happens, really,’ explained TM, staring fixedly at the blank expanse of the Bedsheet-Tablecloth-Whiteboard. ‘It’s not often particularly successful.’
‘Oh,’ said Ziggy. ‘But this is what you do?’ She said the word do in that way that it would be used by a grandparent discovering that their grandchild had taken up professional blogging.
‘Pretty much, yup.’
‘It’s lucrative, when it works,’ said Veggie, by which TM assumed he meant ‘mostly for people who aren’t us’. ‘I’m more of the business guy; TM comes up with most of the real hotspot moneymaker concepts. He’s one of them creative types.’
‘Got one,’ TM piped up. Veggie raised his crayon with a ceremonious flourish. ‘A thing that helps you reach Mexican food on high shelves.’ At that, Veggie lowered his crayon. ‘And we call is the Enchi-Ladder.’
‘It’s been done,’ said Veggie, grinding the broken tip of his crayon into the Bedsheet-Tablecloth-Whiteboard with forlorn aplomb.
‘Must have been. No way a pun that good hasn’t been taken already.’
TM tapped a finger against his pouting lips. ’How about… Veggie TM Super Grease? Like grease, but more greasy.’
Veggie practically wailed in despair. Ziggy blew air through her lips like a camel inflating a balloon, filling the air with the sound – and, TM was almost sure, the smell – of a raspberry. ‘I think I have a better idea,’ she announced.
The two men stared at her pathetically.
‘Want me to tell you?’ she asked, when it became apparent that they would continue to stare until she put them out of their misery.
‘Please,’ said Veggie dejectedly. ‘We’re slightly desperate.’
‘I see that,’ said Ziggy. She supported her cheek in one hand, elbow planted on the table, and waved the other hand at them in loose circles, like a fly meandering around a half-eaten sandwich. ‘You two need to get out more. Sitting around this tiny table in this tiny room, it’s gonna melt your brains. Hardly conducive to super-awesome idea generation.’
Veggie slammed his face down onto the table, the impact only slightly muted by the thin layer of softness afforded by the Bedsheet-Tablecloth-Whiteboard. ‘Idea,’ he mumbled around a face full of table. ’Bedsheet-Tablecloth-Whiteboard-Face-Cushion.’
TM stood. ‘She’s right,’ he had to admit. ‘We probably should get out of the flat every once in a while. As in, other than just to do a pitch or get food as quickly as possible and then head straight back and… bingewatch anime or whatever.’
Veggie glanced up at him despondently. ‘Et tu, Brute?’
‘What’s so bad about going outside?’ Ziggy asked, rhythmically prodding Veggie in the face.
‘He just prefers not to, if he can avoid it,’ TM told her.
‘You were out earlier,’ Ziggy pointed out.
‘He’ll go out when he needs something from the world, and then that’s his outside time done for the day,’ TM explained. ‘It’s a bit like having a pet, in that he needs a walk every now and then but the rest of the time he just licks his balls and does basically fuck all.’ He sighed, looking down at his partner. ‘That might actually have something to do with why we’ve totally failed to come up with anything legit in… way too long. Yeah, no, we should definitely get out.’
‘Plan,’ declared Ziggy, hopping to her feet. ‘Hey, do you guys have a bathroom I can use? This look isn’t really working out as well as I hoped it would. Also, if you don’t have a bathroom, I’m gonna have a problem with that.’
TM gestured in the direction of the bathroom door, which was really more like a filing cabinet balanced on rollers. The original door had gone awry after testing of a device TM had been provisionally calling the Pneumatic Hinge De-Creaker had gone less well than hoped, so they repurposed their tall stack of drawers into a sliding thing that could be roughly thought of as a door. Most of the things in the flat did more than one thing.
‘Cheers,’ said Ziggy, pushing the cabinet to the side. She pulled a hairpin from her crimson quiff; it sank down limply across her face in a bright red wave.
‘I swear hair doesn’t work like that,’ said Veggie from the table.
Ziggy winked, adjusted the lapel of her powder-blue suit, and pulled the filing cabinet over.