Two slices of white bread. Two pages torn from a crumbling notebook. The screech and crunch of the toaster like some ancient torture machine. Each slice descending into its own private hell, the grill of its cage glowing red.
Sir Nicholas is making breakfast.
Above him, in Apartment 3 B, a man stands by his kitchen sink, drinking his third cup of coffee. He's running late, he knows, but he has to get his hands to stop shaking, has to be able to hold his portfolio without spilling it. It's the least they will be looking for. He shouldn't have had so much to drink last night, not with the interview this morning. But regret won't help his hangover, only coffee, and even that doesn't seem to be doing the trick.
Inside the toaster, the bread has turned golden, and the first hints of brown are starting to leave their thumbprints on its surface. If Sir Nicholas liked his toast lightly done this is the point at which he would pop the slices out, but Sir Nicholas is a man who prefers his toast a little on the burnt side, so the bread stays in. Meanwhile, Sir Nicholas has put the electric kettle on to make some tea and is nosing about in the refrigerator trying to decide which preserve he fancies today. Apricot? Strawberry?
The man in apartment 3 C is calling the doctor. His wife is worse. Again. It's the same routine with the clinic, the same barely polite voice informing him that there are no appointments for the next two weeks, and his own voice subservient at first, then threatening, trying to explain that they can't wait that long, that it's urgent, that his wife had another episode and so, yes, it is an emergency, well it is to them anyway; finally giving in and agreeing to the date next month, putting the phone down with a sigh and wondering what he's going to do till then.
Sir Nicholas drops a tea-bag into his cup, goes over to peer into the toaster. Should be soon now. He puts the cup down, begins to lay the table.
The man in 3 B has finally got his hands to stop shaking. He feels nauseous, but he doesn't have the time for that and doesn't dare risk getting anything on his best suit. His only suit. Besides it's probably the three cups of coffee on an empty stomach that's making him feel this way. I'll grab something to eat on my way out, he thinks to himself. If only I can make the interview work, just this once. He realises he said that last bit out aloud. He wonders if he's going crazy. Spasmed by doubt he opens the portfolio again, makes sure he hasn't missed any of the good ones. The soon-to-be-important ones. The sight of the photographs calms him, as it always does. Time to get going.
The man in 3 C is leaving too. He hates to leave her alone this way, but he's already used up most of his vacation, and besides, there's nothing he can do here. Except make sure that the next time it happens, if it happens, he's by her side. He's given her the regular dose of medication, even though it's clear by now that that's not working, as well as the sedative the doctor had prescribed for emergency use. He's put everything he thinks she might need on a table by her bed. With any luck she'll sleep through the day and he'll be back before she wakes up. Briefcase in hand, he stops to check on her one last time. She's asleep, her hands folded together underneath her head, like a child praying. He nods in reluctant satisfaction and heads for the door, taking the phone off the hook on his way out.
Sir Nicholas smells something burning. Remembers he's forgotten the toast.
The man from apartment 3 B and the man from apartment 3 C both step out of their doors at the same moment. They look at each other and smile - politely, absently - the smiles of two people caught up in their own thoughts.
The toaster pops. The slices of bread, slightly charred around the edges, leap exuberantly into the air, then fall right back into their slots. Sir Nicholas reaches out for them, careful not to burn his fingers.
The two men step out of the building one after the other, each man turning his face gratefully to the sun as he goes down the steps and into the busy street.
Sir Nicholas watches them go, the butter melting rapidly as he spreads it on his toast.