The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 17 Another Visit from the Arsehole

I AM MEETING up with the Arsehole. He has called this mid-January Saturday morning and wants to see me to discuss further developments, he says. He has offered to take me out for a meal and has suggested the Sorcerer’s Kitchen and that we meet there. I can only assume he wishes to further press his case for a sale of the house and an even division of the assets and I suppose I’ll have to agree. I’m glad he wants to meet at the pub since the house is in a bit of a state. Maybe he’s managed to deposit a bun in the oven of the Backside despite all the malevolent thought waves I’ve been aiming at her, specifically directed at her reproductive organs, and now needs the money in a hurry. I can maybe use this as a bargaining tool.

Since New Year’s Eve and the night of adventure, I’ve felt a bit more upbeat. The experience, though alarming, jolted me back into a more positive frame of mind. It makes me want to laugh every time I think about it. I haven’t yet seriously taken up cold-water swimming, though I have read since New Year’s Eve that it can boost circulation, immunity and the libido. I read this in a Guardian article found on the internet, a rather pretentious piece if I may say so, in places featuring unnecessary cultural references, such as to silent and other music. I’d test out the libido-enhancing qualities of cold-water swimming myself if only I had anyone to my taste with whom to do so.

And it’s refreshing to have a friend who’s a dyke. Some of the things she tells me when we go for a lunchtime drink together, she hobbling with the aid of a crutch, are revelations. I never thought people got up to such contortions for purely sensual purposes, plaster or no plaster. And now apparently she’s seeing Dr. Phil as well, fertile ground to produce a midday giggle together down the pub. I’m glad that I’m not meeting the Arsehole while in thoroughly negative mode. I’m sure he’d be bound to pick up on it and take advantage of it.

I have a quick tidy up in case the Arsehole does end up coming back to the house, though I hope not. I felt very uncomfortable alone in the house with him the last time. With some exes it’s easy to remain friends but I don’t think the Arsehole and me are ever going to be able to become good mates. I have realised I don’t like him much, that he’s a shallow opportunistic little twerp. I bet that at work he sucks up to the superior he thinks is most likely to prosper, then changes just like that and starts to brown-nose a different boss if it looks as though his first choice was a bad one. At school, or maybe it was at a singing club I once frequented, we used to sing a song called The Vicar of Bray about a very adaptable sixteenth century clergyman who changed his allegiances to suit those of the monarch of the day. The song had a chorus that went something like:

And this be law that I’ll maintain until my dying day, sir

That whatsoever king may reign, I’ll still be the Vicar of Bray, sir.

I belt out these lines several times as plump up the cushions, pick newspapers and magazines off the floor and carry this morning’s breakfast dishes into the kitchen. I’d put the Arsehole squarely in the same category as that turncoat cleric, though these days the Arsehole wouldn’t risk hanging or beheading if he chose the wrong side, more’s the pity.

Someone should develop an alternative social media site for use by adulterers and would-be adulterers and other types of traitors. Not sure what they’d call it. All the best names have already been purloined or at least thought of; Arsebook, Scumbook, Jerkbook, etc. Perhaps Scrofbook. would be appropriate, scrofulous meaning, amongst other things according to an online dictionary, being morally contaminated, corrupt, degenerate, tainted. Instead of having a wall to post their messages on, users could drop their despicable secrets into a graphic representation of a large boil, with privacy settings so that only those with whom they’re in cahoots could prick the boil and gain access to the putrid contents within.

I’ve decided that the Backside is well and truly welcome to him and that it’s her loss and my gain. So I’m basically ready for his onslaughts. I’ll hum and ha and choose the most expensive dish and bottle of wine on the menu and then, when the meal’s over and he’s picking up a sizeable bill, I’ll tell him yes OK anyway about the divorce and the house sale and the clean break. As he said, we need to move on.

He’s not coming to pick me up. We’re meeting at the pub and I drive myself there, thinking that as it’s local I can leave my car in the car park if I want to and walk back, or if necessary get a taxi. I don’t want a lift back with the Arsehole if I can possibly avoid it. I don’t want to spend any more time with him than necessary.

I must try to be friendly though. It’s not cool to appear to be on bad terms with the ex even if inside you think he’s a crummy detestable little worm that ought to be trodden underfoot ‒ except I don’t think that about earthworms which I rather admire for having so much life in them when put at risk, despite having no obvious head or eyes or facial features and probably only a very rudimentary brain, if any, and nervous system; they squirm and lash about wildly and make energetic attempts to escape and get back underground, which is definitely incidentally where the Arsehole should aim for.

I ARRIVE at the pub quite early since I think it puts one at an advantage to be already sitting relaxed and taking one’s ease when the other person rushes in panting and sweating and looking at their watch. I assume he’s made a reservation, therefore I ask about this and I’m shown to our table and request a glass of tap water for the time being. On the way, I pick up a complimentary newspaper to read or at least appear to be reading when he arrives.

I can just see from my seat in the dining area the table in the bar at which Dennis and I sat early last October. I stare wistfully at it. I do wish we’d been able to make something of our initial date, that I’d been ready for a bit of a fling. I haven’t heard from him since the week after the business breakfast last December when he came and collected Trixie. It was quite late at night therefore I had her ready in her carry box and all her things. He didn’t come in. He just took a couple of trips to the car, thanked me profusely and left.

I must assume that he and Cathy Earnshaw formed a firm and profitable South-North alliance. An entente-by-ecky-thump. I haven’t been called upon to care for Trixie again as I thought I might and would have liked to do, so presumably The Lady of the North has been galloping south for rendezvous at chez Dennis. This of course is of no importance to me I try to tell myself. If they’re gi’ing it wellie regularly these days, it’s none of my business.

Nevertheless, perhaps I’ll phone Dennis some time and see how he’s getting on if I can summon up the courage. I’ve already considered and immediately abandoned the idea of turning up at every gym in the area in the hope of meeting up with him accidentally-on-purpose. To do so would be rather sick, signalling an unhealthy obsession, tantamount to stalking. No. If I can manage it, the honest direct approach would be the best. After all, at worst he can only deliver a crushing rejection. I’d die of shame and embarrassment of course but at least I wouldn’t get prosecuted for harassment.

I sniff and bury my head in the newspaper. It’s important not to look glum when the Arsehole arrives. I need to appear upbeat in order that he shouldn’t take advantage of me and wear me down to a 60-40 split for example in his favour. No way! True he did provide the larger share of the deposit for our first house, however that was years ago, years of faithful marital attention on my part and of course less than faithful on his. Any disparity in our respective contributions has been washed away by the long period during which our marriage flourished and from which I’m sure he profited. They say men don’t do so well if they’re single and the most contented men are those in a settled, happy relationship.

I try to read an article about the strengths and weaknesses of the economy, though my thoughts drift to the Backside’s sexual orientation and whether the Arsehole knows about that. It was a decidedly mean trick of hers to make things up about me and encourage someone to do what Justine did to me. I don’t think I’ll say anything to the Arsehole about this though. Or about the photo of me given to Ebden Andrews. The Arsehole can keep his own damn house in order.

I’m just settling into mental griping mode when I see the unmistakable approach towards my table of the Arsehole. I’m frankly surprised at the degree of disappointment and repugnance I feel at his appearance. Five months ago, I’d have run to him like a puppy to its master, tail and bottom wagging furiously, tongue hanging out. I’d have rolled onto my back and wriggled in ecstasy, and helplessly piddled on the floor the first time he touched me, as is the habit of puppies.

I decide I don’t want to press for a more generous split than 50:50. I’ll make do with whatever hovel I can buy with my share of the proceeds of sale and whatever mortgage I can muster on my minimal income. If necessary I’ll let out rooms to paying guests as a friend of my mother’s in reduced circumstances used to genteely insist on putting it.

These days we call it a house share which sounds cool and fun and presages the possibility of new friends; new romantic attachments even. Evenings down the pub, cosy chats in the kitchen while making coffee, communal dinners several times a week, assistance with the housework and gardening…

Anyway, that’s the optimistic side. The flip side is more likely to be twenty-somethings only interested in round-the-clock partying who apply. Or else solitary sociopaths, odd specimens who stick to their rooms and avoid all contact, who look at you strangely, who make you think you should lock your bedroom door at nights and bolster it with a heavy chest of drawers and‒

“Hello, Anna.”

The Arsehole has reached my table. Our table I correct myself. In fact his table as he booked it and he’s paying. My own credit card wallet will mysteriously disappear if he suggests anything else when the bill arrives.

He loiters. I don’t get up. I hope he’s not expecting a hug and a ‘mwa’. I realise with some horror that it appears he is. I sit my ground and he bends and contents himself with a peck on my cheek. I feel slightly sick and try not to show my distaste too much. He smells of peppermints and strong aftershave, a rank and disgusting combination. I can’t tell if the scratchy hair on his face is designer stubble or just the result of a lack of attention to personal grooming. Alarm bells start faintly to ring.

I say hello back.

He sits down and he looks happy. Happy to see me apparently. Again I’m not sure this is a good sign, however he takes up the menu and asks if I’ve decided what I’d like to eat. I did about fifteen minutes ago. I’d decided on the truffles, followed by roast partridge with redcurrant sauce as they both cost an arm and a leg. Still, I’m not a complete bitch. I feel uncomfortable ordering the most expensive dishes and I’m starting to be worried he won’t be able to pay and I’ll have to. I’m not sure why I should think this as he has a good job in London and earns far, far more than I do with substantially less effort as far as I used to be able to tell. It’s just something about him. He looks a bit like a cornered rat. I wish I could just walk out here and now. I wish I hadn’t agreed to this meal with him. I suppose at least there’s less chance of a slanging match here in a public place so that’s something.

“Well,” I say, “I’d decided on the soup of the day and the chicken tikka.”

“OK. Good choice. I’ll have the same.”

“Oh, and I’ll have a glass of the house red.”

He catches the eye of a waitress and gives our orders plus a bottle of Indian beer for himself. The soup it turns out is celery and Stilton so I suppose it could have been worse.

“Have you been keeping well?” he asks.

“Yes, fine thanks.”

“D’you have a good Christmas?”

“Not bad. And you?”

“So, so. Your parents all right?”

“Yes, they’re fine.” I suppose I must be looking dubious since he starts talking about more normal things. He’s had a promotion, a decent pay rise apparently. He mentions a few people at work I would know about. He says work is going fine and I say mine is as well as can be expected (which is all you could ever really say about the profession I haphazardly and negligently fell into when too young to know any better). I wonder therefore why he looks ill at ease and fairly miserable actually.

The soup arrives quickly and smells delicious and when I put a spoon of it to my mouth it tastes lovely. Far better I’m sure than a lot of black thinly sliced expensive fungi. I start to feel a little less anxious and unwind somewhat. I tell him about work. That I’m thinking of getting a kitten and learning to play a musical instrument. That I’ve begun writing poetry again, though I don’t say that quite a high proportion of it is about adulterers who meet very sticky ends.

Our main courses arrive. We help ourselves from the little bowls of chutney and raita and break up our naan breads and I’m no nearer to knowing why he wanted to see me. I’ve only drunk a small amount of my wine. I still feel quite ill at ease and on this occasion I’ve mostly been sipping my glass of tap water instead of the wine.

“So,” I say, “I expect you want to discuss our formalising our separation. I understand that that’s what we’ve got to do. I’ve been trying to keep the house nice so it’s ready for sale although I think it’d be better to wait until, say, May to put it on the market. You know, country houses can look a bit sad and bleak at this time of year. Still if you want to do it now, then we can. I think there are some photos we could use from last summer. Alfie?” I say since he’s looking troubled and rather, in fact, shifty.

“Alfie. What’s the matter?”

“Well, actually I was hoping you might want to give things another try.”

I’m not sure what he’s talking about. “What things?” I say. “Another try at what?”

“Us,” he says. My stomach lurches. I feel physically sick. I don’t want to think about a resumption of physical or really any sort of relations with the Arsehole.

I laugh lightly. “I don’t think that’s possible,” I say.

“Why not?” he says. “It’s only been a few months. I don’t believe you could have changed your mind in that time. Just after I left, you were having murderous thoughts about what I’d done. I assumed it meant you wanted me to come back to you. Surely you can’t be so fickle and shallow and changeable as all that!”

You wanted to leave me. You wanted to have sex with another woman. A close intimate relationship. I reacted accordingly. Of course I was angry to have the whole of the rest of my life re-directed and re-arranged without even being consulted. I’ve had to learn to get over it and I have got over it.”

“What just like that? What does that say about you?”

“It says I’ve been to hell and back and during the course of that journey I’ve become self-sufficient and resilient. I’ve had to. And I have to object to the way you put that! If you carry on like this trying to turn me into the wrong-doer, I’m just going to walk out of here. You need to face up to your responsibilities. To accept that what you did was wrong. That you can’t just abandon someone and expect that six months later you can come waltzing back to them and to boot somehow try to take the moral high ground. Frankly, you have to be off your head!”

I’m proud of my little speech. I think I expressed that pretty well. But his proposal and my reaction have taken quite a bit out of me. I find that I don’t want to eat my chicken tikka any longer. It’s tastes like cardboard; it looks like a feeble facsimile of what it’s supposed to be. Just like Alfie. A faint third or fourth carbon copy that you can barely read of a husband with no moral substance.

“Anna,” says the Arsehole more reasonably. “We were married for a long time. You can’t just let something like that go. We were trying to have a baby. If it had worked, we’d quite possibly be knee deep in nappies by now, really happy with a little baby child of our own.”

“And no six month Olympic sexual stint with another woman and a raft of lies and dissembling to come between us!” I reply.

“Can’t you just overlook that. It was a big mistake. I admit it was a mistake. I did a terrible thing. But we were under a lot of stress. People snap under such a lot of pressure. I admit I’m weak and human. I snapped. But I realise how wrong that was now. I want to come back and make amends.”

“Just tell me,” I say, “if I’d been the one to waltz off with a new partner and lived with them for six months, how amenable would you feel to resuming normal relations? If, while we were still together, I’d gone out of my way to get some other man’s dick up my cunt while you were lying in our bed wondering what I was doing and when I’d come home, would you now want to have me back under any circumstances at all? Or would you feel totally disgusted that your spouse could be so low-down and dirty? Do you understand,” I hiss, “how appallingly you have behaved?”

The Arsehole looks abashed. And surprised. Surprised that his actions could have been so interpreted. Perhaps it’s the man/woman thing. That the man can have sex without it seeming of any importance. More like scratching an itch, while the woman’s lying there thinking this is it, this is the man I’ve been waiting for all my life and … yada yada yada.

“Anna,” he says. He reaches for my hand over the table and I pull it away. His touch is like a rotten piece of meat, evil smelling and decomposing, like a dead person’s touch, already left this earth. My earth anyway.

“Anna, we ought to be able to work this out.”

“No we didn’t. You left. I didn’t want you to at the time but you did anyway. I’ve got used to it now. I don’t want you back. Not ever. Because of what you’ve done, I don’t want you anywhere near me. It couldn’t be made to work. Not at all. End of story.”

“I can’t believe you’re so adamant after such a short time,” he says. “it just seems very shallow.”

“You never answered my question.”

“What question?”

“The question was: if I’d gone out of my way to get some other man’s dick up my cunt while you were lying in our bed wondering where I was and when I’d come home, would you now want to have me back on any pretext at all?”

He sighs. I don’t see him putting away his lunch with any enthusiasm either but he’s making an effort and I hope this is because he realises he’s paying.

“That’s not the issue,” he says. “The issue is that we’ve been married a long time. A marriage is more than the sum of the parts. It’s a … a sacrament. It’s a sacred thing. Something to be preserved and cherished. Not thrown away just like that.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this! It’s such selfish tosh. You have to be out of your mind! If something is truly sacred, you don’t just set it aside for six months because it suits you and espouse some other cause. You don’t crap all over it. You hold it dear always and forever. You don’t put it at risk for the sake of a bit of extra excitement now and again.”

Just then my mobile goes. I dig it out of my bag and look down at the display and it’s … Dennis. I quickly press connect in case he rings off at his end or it goes to voicemail and I can’t get him back again.

“Hello,” I say. I can’t stop the smile from sneaking into my voice.

“Hello, Anna. I hope it’s not an inconvenient time.”

“No, not at all. But I’ll just go outside where there’s a better signal,” I lie. I put my hand over the mouthpiece and excuse myself to the Arsehole. He doesn’t look pleased.

Once out of the building I breathe a sigh of relief despite the cold, frosty but bright and sunny aspect.

“It’s nice to hear from you Dennis,” I say. “How are you?”

“All right. Glad Christmas is over really. Thanks for your card by the way. But … er … I think Trixie is old enough to start to go outside now and … er … I was wondering if you’d like to come over this afternoon while I give it a go. Of course if you’re busy…”

“I’d be delighted,” I say. I look through the window of the pub and I can see the Arsehole steaming away at me from in there. He can be a real dick when he doesn’t get his own way. “Dennis I’ve just got a little thing to finish off here then I’ll be straight over.”

“Great,” he says and I can hear him smiling too. “I’ll look forward to seeing you. If you can’t get an answer when you come to the front door, ring my mobile as I’ll be in the back garden. I’ll keep it with me.”

I go back in. “Who was that?” says the Arsehole possessively.

“No one you know.”

“Look, Anna, I’ll level with you.” This sounds so cheap, like an American crime series. “It didn’t work out for me and Perdita. Actually she did get pregnant. But she lost it.”

Oddly, incredibly in fact in the circumstances, he puts this over as if he’s rather proud of the fact; that he managed to deposit the bun of my earlier imaginings and he just had to let me know. In fact he’s metaphorically strutting about in front of me just like the greater crested tern of the programme I watched on the TV before going out on a date with Dennis all those months ago. For braggadocio it would take some beating. He wants me to know that he’s won out in the mating game, even if only for a short-lived abortive period. He’s paraded this in front of me like a trophy. Not of course a major grand slam success, not a world class victory but certainly it looks as though to him it’s at least a runners-up cup in a regional contest.

Whereas I’ve not even been able to be placed in the egg and spoon race at the local primary school sports day. He wants to demean me with this news so unnecessarily imparted. It’s pretty spiteful when you think about our own efforts to start a family. I find however that I’m not upset by this very contrived and stage-managed disclosure as I might have been a few months ago. He’s lost all power to hurt me and I remain unmoved. I just think he’s loathsome now.

“And that put an end to everything,” he says. “She didn’t want to know after that,” he finishes rather matter-of-factly.

“So are you upset? About the baby?”

For a second he looks surprised.

“Oh. Oh yes of course. I mean I’d have tried for another but she didn’t want to.” He says this so off-the-cuff that I know he wasn’t really upset. I know he’s lying about wanting a re-try as he was about wanting us to patch up our marriage. He’s concerned only with his well-being. “Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.” He sighs unconvincingly.

“Well, I’m glad you think so,” I say.

Now I know her proclivities, I speculate to myself that perhaps, like Sheila, the Backside only wanted a baby and since the Arsehole hasn’t been able to supply one effectively, she’s dumped him. I reckon the Arsehole got off lightly as she’s obviously unbalanced to have found out things about me and used them to act against me. He’s lucky not to have been stabbed in his bed at night. I just hope she’ll leave me alone from now on. But I’m not telling him what I learned about her. It’d take far too long to explain and I haven’t the least interest any longer in his fate or fortunes.

I lean forward with my elbows on the table and marvel at his casually self-congratulatory attitude. However, don’t they say pride comes before a fall. “Alfie, I don’t want you back. I don’t want to have a relationship with you ever again. And I don’t think that’s actually what you want either but you’ve obviously got a problem. You can try to lie and twist it this way and that and make out that I’m shallow and vapid, but if you’d really thought anything of our marriage, you wouldn’t have gone off and done what you did and I simply don’t even believe for a moment that you really want me at all. So, perhaps you would just say what it is that you do want and stop wasting our time.”

“Well. If you have to put it that way. I need to come back and live at our house. I mean if you say no, well actually I can anyway as it’s half my house and I’ve got every right to come and live back there whether you like it or not. And, I don’t have anywhere else to go. Perdita wants me out and that’s it.”

My heart stops for a second as I know this is true. He’s never been violent. There’s no way I can keep him out.

“What about your brother?” I say, grasping at straws. “Supposedly you went and slept on his couch before setting up home with the Backside.”

“He won’t have me. And Elsa absolutely won’t hear of it.” Elsa is his sister-in-law. I can believe it.

“Why don’t you rent somewhere for the time being? I’ve agreed to sell the house.”

“I can’t afford it. I’m still paying half the mortgage on the house remember.”

“All right. I’ll take over the whole mortgage. It’ll be difficult but I can just about afford it. Then you can rent a flat or something.”

“Look. I’ve maxed out my credit cards. I’ve got some pressing debts. I don’t think I could pass a credit check just at the moment.”

Oh God, I think. I just hope this doesn’t turn into an extended thing. One of those traps that eventually you find for one reason or another you can’t get yourself out of. It zings through my head that even if I were to leave myself because I couldn’t stand it, he may never be able to get other accommodation himself (credit problems can hang about for years) therefore he might refuse to leave the house making it impossible to sell and then stop paying the mortgage so I’d get black-listed for credit myself and for all those reasons I might have to stay there with him and have a horrible, endless, sick and nasty existence. I just can’t risk this happening.

“No,” I say. “I’ll put the house on the market on Monday. It should sell quickly. We’ll split the proceeds equally as you wanted before. You’ll just have to find somewhere else to live in the meantime. I’ve changed the locks now so you won’t be able to get back in. I’m sorry. I’d like to help you out but it’s best really you don’t come back to that house. I honestly couldn’t stand it. You’ll have to stay with a friend or your parents if Sid and Elsa won’t have you to stay.”

I know his parents will help him out if all else fails and it’s just about possible to commute to London by rail from where they live near Leicester.

The Arsehole looks rebellious for a second. Then he nods. I’m relieved to see that he appears resigned. I don’t, I really don’t want a selfish, belligerent, aggressive advocate for the acceptability of his own foolish actions living with me, pressing for his supposed entitlements, thwarting anything reasonable and sensible and bringing us both to financial ruin. I have an abject fear of chaos and financial problems. I really do need to keep myself solvent and free of serious debt, especially in my job. I hope he won’t change his mind and go and break down the door of our house to get in because I know the police won’t do anything about it. It’s his house and if there’s no physical violence to me, then there’s been no offence because the house belongs to him too.

“So where will you go?” I ask.

“I expect to my parents. And I trust you to do as you say and get the house sold.”

“Alfie, I just want to get out of this the best we can. I promise I won’t hold up a sale to tie in a purchase. If necessary I’ll rent somewhere for a bit. That’s probably best anyway so that I can find somewhere I like.”

He looks at me. His features express gratitude. “Thanks Anna,” he says. I think I believe him.

“I’ve got to go now,” I say. I get up, ignoring my three-quarters full wine glass. I look down briefly and guiltily at my half-plateful of congealing pseudo-curry sauce with defrosted pre-formed, cubed cooked chicken fairly evenly distributed, sitting there unappetisingly. I hate waste and fleetingly think of calling for a pussy bag, but a vision of Alfie smiling affectionately at me (or appearing to do so), getting up and pulling me to him and him saying “That’s you all over ‒ you’ll always be the same old Anna” passes before my eyes and I know I have on this occasion to allow the unedifying mess to be binned. Anyway, isn’t the word ‘curry’ one invented by the English and meaningless in Asian terms. Like my marriage, there’s nothing here worth preserving.

“Goodbye,” I say. I forget he’s maxed out. He must be able to pay as he wanted to come for this meal. I just want to get away.

I’M RELIEVED to be out of the presence of the Arsehole. I couldn’t bear to have to live in the same house as him now and thank heavens he didn’t try to force the issue. I’ll endeavour to get the house sold as quickly as possible in case he changes his mind. I have to go home and get changed before driving to Dennis’s and also I want to double lock the doors and make sure the windows are locked too just in case the Arsehole does decide on an attempt at a forced entry. I just hope while I’m there, he doesn’t arrive and start to argue his case again.

I look around the house. It has no sentimental hold I’m pleased to say, this rural idyll so carefully chosen that was supposed to have become our family home. Someone else’s children can run up and down the lawn and play games in the cupboard under the stairs. To me it seems empty already. As I shut the doors to each room, the hollow sound echoes around, rebounding off walls and ceilings. I’m also relieved that we don’t have too much clutter to get rid of or transport to our respective new homes or even to the local tip, unlike my old lawyer friend Tamsin who ran a practice from home.

Lots of us toy with the idea of self-employment. I’m very glad I never bothered and can now put our house on the market at the drop of a hat without months of running down or disposing of a worthless legal practice and sorting out what to do with old files and office stuff. I’ll have a thorough clean up tomorrow and then ring the estate agents on Monday. For now I change into jeans and a jumper, check the locks again, scan the road outside for signs of the Arsehole and head off to Dennis’s.

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