Max looked at the clouds anxiously.
Only an hour ago, he had painstakingly pegged quantities of voluminous underwear and bedding onto the washing line in his manicured back garden. Now they would all have to be draped around the inside of the small terraced house, making it untidy. Sighing at life’s hardships, he paused the rail-travel DVD he had been watching, heaved his vast bulk from the armchair and waddled into the garden.
Max lived a solitary fussy life, deriving secret satisfaction from his numerous obsessions, the best of which was cleanliness. The only person he would allow into the house was his twin brother Thomas because he shared many of the same afflictions. Thomas was coming round later that same day and staying for supper. Max knew that he would comment on the laundry drying in the house. He carefully took down and rolled up each pair of socks from the line and placed them in a black bin-liner but when he came to the first of the sheets, he stopped.
“That’s odd. That’s very odd.”
Two round holes had been burnt neatly through the sheet. He peered through one at the tidy house, and made a mental note that the curtains had not been drawn back evenly. Then he noticed that the two holes in the sheet were identical in size, and perfectly round, slightly black around the edge. They had been burnt. He walked around to the back of the washing line, which was a large rotating frame on a pole. The duvet cover also had two holes burned through it, but these were lower down. Max walked back to the sheet and then lined up the uppermost hole in the sheet with the corresponding one in the duvet. Through the two holes he could see the perfectly mown grass. And something else.
When Max’s twin brother Thomas arrived, Max opened the door in a state of wild excitement. “Thomas, come into the garden. It’s like… a dream come true.”
Thomas followed Max’s equally rotund form through the house to find him waiting next to the washing line with legs and arms spread wide.
“Don’t come any closer,” he said. “They might be dangerous.”
Thomas stopped next to him. “I can’t see anything. What do you mean?” He screwed up his fat face and peered about.
Max pushed the glasses back up his button nose. “Look at the grass, and tell me what you can see.”
Thomas looked. “Rocks?” He sounded disappointed at the anticlimax.
Max laughed delightedly and a little crazily. “I’ll give you a clue. Look at the washing.”
Thomas showed signs of frustration. His nose twitched irritably. “Something has burned holes in the washing. Hot rocks. Where could they have come from? Volcanoes? Too far away from England, never mind Woking. Good God, they must be…Meteorites.”
Max had hoped to be able to tell him. “Of course they are, Thomas,” he said condescendingly.
The meteorites resembled lumps of coal half-buried in the lawn. Max pulled on his yellow kitchen gloves and knelt down on a newspaper.
They had both read the same sci-fi stories as children – meteorites that emitted strange green light bringing dire consequences, or alien bacteria that could change people into vegetables while they slept. Even so, Max prised the rocks out of the soil with a trowel and dropped them into a salad bowl before carrying them proudly into the kitchen. In a moment of generosity he handed Thomas the magnifying glass. “You look first,” he said.
Thomas bent over the rocks. “Mmm,” he mouthed. He moved the glass around and looked up.
Thomas blinked through his thick glasses. “They’re black, with bits of blue. They look like… well, they’re just rocks.”
“Just? Just? What do you mean, just?” Max hated that word. It was so weak.
He snatched the magnifying glass back, but after a while he had to agree. “Well, they are rocks, but there’s a lot more to it than that, Thomas. These are history-making. They must be three or four billion years old, for a start.”
Reverently, he placed the bowl containing the meteorites on the window ledge before preparing lunch, which took them a long time to eat. They spent an excellent afternoon together researching meteorites on the Internet, joining discussion groups with others around the world who had similar luck. Finally, it was time for Thomas to leave and Max was getting anxious to do his ironing. At the door, Thomas lingered until Max realised what was going on.
“I don’t think you can have one, Thomas. They are part of the –” he paused, searching for an excuse, “scientific record.”
Max knew he had upset his brother. He watched him waddle down the front path, a lonely bear-like shape in the dusk. Then he locked the front door, and rushed to the kitchen to study the meteorites.
“Oh no. No, no,” he gasped. Thomas. There was only one rock in the bowl now. Max lowered himself wearily into the chair, the bowl on his lap, and looked at the remaining rock, puzzled. Was it bigger than it had been? A reckless sensation took control and he watched detachedly as one of his plump fingers moved towards the rock and pushed it. The rock felt warm and slightly yielding. Gaining confidence, Max watched his hand enclose the rock and then he was looking at it resting in his plump palm.
“So, Thomas didn’t take one. They must have joined together,” he muttered. “Hmm. Perhaps I can see the join.” Then he sat up. “That’s strange.”
The rock looked different. Before, it had looked like a lump of coal, but now he could see that the surface was covered in tiny pits. It was a more pleasing shape, too. When he stroked its surface, the rock definitely felt faintly squishy. A small voice deep in his brain was begging him to put the rock down. With a huge effort of will he eventually did so, and mopped his florid face. When he checked the time he was shocked. It was 2 a.m.
The next morning, Max called his brother. “It’s Max. Look, did you come round here this morning?”
“No, you just woke me up.”
Silence followed until finally Max said, “It’s gone. Both of them have gone.”
“What? What are you talking about, Max? I’ll come round, okay?”
Max was waiting for him. “After you left there was only one meteorite in the bowl, and now there are none.”
Thomas sounded unsure if he was being accused. “I haven’t been back to your house. I wanted to have one of the rocks but you said they were part of the scientific record, remember?”
“If you didn’t take it, Thomas, then where is it?”
“What do you think, Max?”
Max shook his head. “How should I know? Maybe they joined together somehow. I’ve got no idea, alright?” He was close to tears.
The brothers decided to search the house. Max puffed up the stairs. He had not been upstairs for some while, as he slept on the ground floor and he found the physical effort too much. He searched the bedrooms first. They were mostly filled with piles of dusty, unopened Internet purchases and little else. Then he approached the bathroom and saw that the door was slightly ajar. He pushed it open and looked in cautiously. The room had no window and was dark. He reached up with some difficulty and pulled the light cord. There was a click, but nothing else happened. Peering into the gloom, Max had the feeling that something was not right. Where the toilet bowl should be, there was something bigger. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he could make out the shape of a person sitting on the toilet.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
He listened. At first there was no sound, then after a moment, he distinctly heard breathing, and saw slight movement. Then a faint green light began to grow around the toilet. Max stood and stared, too scared to move. Now he could definitely make out the body of a person, but it was not sitting on the toilet as he had first thought. It seemed to be growing out of the bowl, like a plant in a pot. The lower half was a ridged green column, similar to a cucumber, which then merged into what resembled a human torso, albeit a green and spiny one. The figure had rudimentary arms and a stub of a head with a slit which pursed out as it breathed.
Even as he watched, the slit trembled. Two dimples started to pucker inwards above it where eyes should be. Max felt a dull pain in his chest and realised he had not exhaled for some time. He finally did so, noisily. Immediately, the cucumber-thing shivered and the stubby head moved in his direction. Max fled from the room and locked the door behind him, then went down the stairs as fast as he dared.
“Thomas, I…” Words failed to form.
His brother looked at him with alarm. “What on earth’s the matter?”
“Oh, Thomas. There’s something awful upstairs. Something is growing out of the toilet. I’m sure it’s the meteorite.”
“Wait here whilst I go and look,” Thomas said. He gave Max a glass of water and then climbed the stairs.
Max could hear the steps creak, complainingly under the weight. He heard the bathroom door open and he strained to listen. He was sure he could hear a voice. Thomas must be talking to it. For a moment, he thought he could hear a second voice that rasped unpleasantly, but then the door closed. He sat and waited, heart thumping in his ears. It was a while before he heard the creak of the stairs once more. Thomas was coming down them surprisingly quickly, and he did not say a word to Max, but left the house immediately.
Wondering what could have happened, Max laboriously climbed the stairs a second time, once more peering into the bathroom. Now, he could see that there was nothing in the toilet bowl, but on the floor lay something like a mucous coated fur-ball. But this particular fur-ball would fill a suitcase and an unpleasant, sweet smell made him choke. Starting to feel queasy, Max shut the bathroom door once more. With an awful sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he returned to the living room and sat down, wondering what to do. One thing was clear, the bathroom would need a clean.
The next morning, Thomas opened the door, and looked surprised. “Hello,” he said.
Max was nonplussed. “Er, hello, Thomas.”
“Thomas. That’s right,” Thomas murmured, and then he said “Come in.”
Max entered the house, peering about suspiciously. Thomas had returned to his chair where he had been reading. Max was shocked to see that it was a men’s magazine with a scantily-clad female on the cover. He looked around. His brother had been busy reorganising the room. His collections of books about trains and Victorian kitchens were piled up by the back door. The curtains were open so that sunlight flooded into the drab room. On the wall, Thomas had been testing different shades of paint.
“What’s going on?” Max demanded.
Thomas smiled. “Which colour do you like the best? I like the cream myself. Look, there are real floorboards under this green carpet. They’ll polish up nicely. I can expose the fireplace as well. Lovely old bricks.”
Max examined his brother. Thomas seemed taller and slimmer. There was something else – he was not wearing his glasses. Thomas always wore glasses.
Thomas read his thoughts. “Contact lenses, Max. You should try them. Now, what’s the problem?”
Max remembered why he’d come. “There was something revolting on the bathroom floor – I nearly threw up when I cleared the room up. You were there last one in there. What happened when you went in?”
Thomas shook his head sadly. “Max, listen to me. There was nothing in the room.”
Max felt annoyed. “There was. You were talking to it. You were there for ages.”
“I needed the toilet, I can’t help how long it takes. I always talk to myself when I’m on the toilet.”
“All right, explain the fur-ball thing.”
“Probably something that died. Maybe a cat got in the house.”
“It was too big. Besides, you said there was nothing in the room. Didn’t you see a fur-ball?”
Thomas said not. Max felt deflated. He went back to his own house with Thomas, who bounded up the stairs. Max puffed behind him. When he got to the bathroom, Thomas was standing in the centre of the room, licking his lips and fingers.
“The room was just like it is now. Nothing happened.”
Thomas seemed to have forgotten all about the existence of the meteorites. Max was a little frightened by his brother.
Over the next two months, Thomas changed. To start with, Max was startled to see his brother jogging past the house, wearing a vast red track suit. Thomas jogged further and faster every day and the weight seemed to fall away. Compared to Max he seemed so energetic. He ate all the time and he read book after book. Most surprising of all, were the women. When Max phoned to invite Thomas round, Thomas said that he was too busy. But when Max walked round to his brother’s house he could hear what was going on inside quite clearly.
Max was not stupid. He had watched the ‘Body Snatchers’ film. He was now certain that the giant fur-ball on the bathroom floor had been the real Thomas when the cucumber-man took his place. Now the cucumber-man was living it up, enjoying Thomas’s life to the full. He was reading men’s magazines in his trendy terraced pied-a-terre with its pine floors and minimalist decorations, enjoying the company of attractive young ladies or hanging out at the fitness centre. His faded brown Morris Minor had been replaced by some ridiculous sports car. It was embarrassing. It was evil and embarrassing. No, not embarrassing. Evil and Annoying. Not evil, exactly.
It was unfair.
Max walked home, lost in thought. Unfair. The word had shaken him to the core. As soon as he arrived, he started to search for the meteorite. He looked everywhere. He was beginning to despair when at last he found it, jammed deep down the back of the cupboard in the kitchen, as if it had been trying to burrow its way out. Max pulled the meteorite out of its prison, feeling the warmth and softness. He could feel life. As quickly as he could, he stumped up the stairs for the very last time and dropped the rock into the toilet bowl. Then he sat down on the floor, and waited for his cucumber-man to grow.