The supermarket orchid: a conspiracy theorist’s dream. You seem them everywhere, those twin, fleshy leaves, the long, flowering stalks, indestructible, scarcely needing soil, let alone water, silently keeping an eye on things from a million kitchen windowsills. The only plant on earth with a chance of survival in Stanley’s flat.
So it’s certainly a measure of the place that even the supermarket orchids have died.
In their defence, though, you would have to think that a supermarket orchid would face better odds being given as a farewell present to an astronaut, spending years in space, and then being set out on a rock on the surface of Mars to make it more homey, than a shelf in Stanley’s flat.
It’s not for want of trying. He has lots of plants dotted around the place – the remains, at least. Nothing survives. It’s even a challenge identifying the original plant from the scattering of papery stalks and the random pots of dessicated fronds.
There’s a shelf of dead plants above the washing machine in the utility room. On top of the washing machine is a hefty ginger cat, one paw draped lovingly over the front of the door as the machine rattles and judders in a manic spin cycle.
‘There’s nothing Rastus likes better than sleeping on the washing machine,’ says Stanley. ‘I think he thinks it’s a big mummy cat.’
‘With one hell of a purr.’
‘Is that it, Rastus? Do you think the machine’s purring?’
If Rastus hears us (or is, in fact, alive), he makes no sign.
We both look at him there for a while, then Stanley tutts, and leads me further down the hall.
‘Make yourself at home!’ he says, gesturing to a living room of dead plants.
‘His name’s Bartlefink.’
‘Like the film?’
‘There’s a film?’
‘Oh – no – that’s Barton Fink.’
‘Great name, anyway. Where did you get it?’
Mrs Mann shrugs.
‘I don’t know. He just looked like one,’ she says.
I try to think what she means. If I think of the name Bartlefink, I think of a comic book detective in a raincoat and hat, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that, so I’m not sure why. To me, this enormous, bouffant chocolate cat with the kind of flat and cross-eyed expression you might see on a creature who’d turned to look at you in the street and walked into a lampost – if anything, at a push, I’d have called it Monstro. And I like cats.
‘He’s got such a sweet temper,’ says Mrs Mann, bending down with an audible crack like her legs don’t articulate so much as break in the middle. ‘C’mon Bartlefink! C’mon!’
Whether it’s me, or he’s normally this contemptuous, it’s hard to tell. But after staring at me a good long while, and then giving one of his paws a peremptory shake in the manner of a street hoodlum who’d cut me for the price of a couple of treats, he about-tails and stomps off into the kitchen.
‘He’ll be in later, you’ll see,’ says Mrs Mann, using me as a counter-balance to straighten up again.
I don’t know, though. The noise of that cat flap sounds pretty final to me.