Saturday, 30 September 2006

The End of the Sweet Life, by Ben Sheth

The End of the Sweet Life

Peter searched through the category list on eBay’s ‘Sell your Stuff’ page to find the right one for their three piece suite. Or rather, he corrected himself, his suite, since he was quite sure that he had paid for it with some money his parents had given him in lieu of a present, to help the couple establish a household. Now that married life was coming to an end, the suite had to be removed, and perhaps split up. Although neither valuable nor attractive, it had been there for almost every day of his married life. There was even a slight stain on the backrest, hidden behind one of the seat cushions: the result of careless sex in the early days of their marriage. He was planning to omit that from the eBay description.

Eventually he ticked all of the right boxes on the online sales form, successfully uploaded the photo and decided on a price: £350 for the lot. He hinted that the chairs and sofa may be available separately. As he did this, he shuffled through a cardboard folder marked ‘wedding gifts’ to look for the suite’s original documentation. Among the cards of congratulation, he found an Ikea guarantee (with a year of the original five left to run) and instructions he had used to assemble the suite. He reflected on the bitter irony that the integrity of the Ikea suite was more dependable than that of his marriage, poured himself another G&T, and logged on again to add the guarantee to the suite’s sales description. If only he had been given a flimsy, badly printed set of instructions, translated into English via Mandarin and Kurdish, on how to put his relationship together. He transferred the Ikea documents to another folder marked ‘divorce settlement’, and drained his glass.

A few days later he received two emails from prospective buyers. “How much for delivery?” one demanded, and gave an address in a council estate where Peter was not keen to leave his van (he was a painter and decorator by trade). “I only want the chairs. No room for the sofa,” it went on, and left a name and a phone number.

The second email was more forthcoming. “We are just moving in together and think your sofa is perfect for our new flat,” wrote Maria and Paul. “We don’t need the chairs, though. We’ll pay cash and would like to collect on Saturday.”

There being no other interest in the suite, he made an appointment to receive Maria and Paul, and drew breath before telephoning the bloke from the council estate. He’d never used the internet for this kind of deal before, and was wary and suspicious. Would they try to nick his van? Could they pay?

Making sure to dial 141 before the number, Peter phoned the council estate man. The voice on the other end, who introduced himself as Trevor, was older than he’d expected, but otherwise seemed genuine. Maria and Paul were due at 11, so he arranged to take the chairs around to Trevor at 9. Trevor said that he was too old to help carry the chairs up to his flat from the van, but would arrange for his grandson to be there.

He met Trevor’s grandson Chris punctually, exactly where he expected to find him, and they got on with manhandling the chairs into the lift, along the raised walkway around the concrete block of flats, and through Trevor’s front door. Trevor was clearly looking for a bargain. The furniture in his flat was threadbare and exhausted. It turned out that his wife had died the previous year, and that Trevor now needed two armchairs to replace the rickety objects he and his wife had used, from which a few springs were now peeping out. Chris had brought his laptop round one afternoon, and Trevor had chosen from the varied offerings on eBay.

Chris and Peter eventually wrestled both chairs through the front door. Having arranged the chairs in the flat, Peter stood awkwardly, hoping Trevor would pay up quickly, but not quite having the courage to ask directly. Trevor clearly wanted a longer chat, but Peter muttered, “Best be off. Shopping to do,” and Trevor levered himself up. He hobbled over to a table in the corner of the room, and to Peter’s horror, got out a cheque book. Of all of the advice he’d sought from friends about using eBay, never to take a cheque was the most frequently mentioned. But what was he to do?

Pocketing the cheque uneasily, Peter made a mental note of the route through the walkways to Trevor’s flat so that he could return if he had to remonstrate about a bounced cheque. He drove briskly into town, pleasantly surprised to find his van none the worse for its hour parked in the estate, and paid the cheque into the bank, then drove quickly back home.

Maria and Paul were also punctual, leaving Peter with just enough time to steel himself to refuse another cheque. To his great relief they pulled out a fistful of £10 notes when the time came to drive off. Before leaving, they insisted in describing in far more detail than Peter wanted to hear how well their preparations for living together were coming on. Peter felt increasingly desolate as he watched the couple walk hand in hand to their van.

As they drove off, he grinned wanly at the young wife waving from the van window and returned to his solitary rented bedsit. More for something to do than for any specific purpose, he switched on his computer. He started up his web browser. He would probably look for that porn site he’d found a few days ago offering a free week’s membership. He found that it absorbed his attention totally, and took his mind off his loneliness, as well as satisfying other needs which his single state now pressed upon him. As the home page was loading his computer bleeped. Some new emails. Probably just demands for money from his ex, who preferred the impersonality of email to voice or personal contact.

He opened the email programme in resignation. A picture was loading in the new message box. Surely the porn site wouldn’t have sent him spam already? Then, blink! And Trevor was staring out at him. He started, shocked at the incongruity between his expectation of a naked Brazilian and fat old Trevor. He looked again. Trevor was sitting in one of the chairs, holding a mug of tea and his paper. Evidently Chris had had a digital camera with him. “Cheers!” it said underneath.

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