The light through the bedroom window was bright and warm by the time Victor woke up. One after the other, his legs dribbled over the side of the bed, and he heaved himself up to sit on the edge of the mattress. He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees, and massaged his eyes with his palms. After a minute he groaned and stood up, then waded through the mess of books and blankets on the floor. The mansion greeted him with eerie silence, allowing the soft slap of his dragging footsteps to echo up the hall. He entered the bathroom, used the toilet, then took a long look at himself in the mirror as he washed his hands. His eyes were bloodshot and baggy, and stubble was sprouting on his jaw. After splashing a few handfuls of water on his face then giving his cheeks a merciless slap, he and his reflection exchanged a resilient grin.
Back in the bedroom, Victor began his morning stretches. He winced as he twisted his upper body to one side; the bruise on his ribs where he had fallen on the stairs had ripened overnight to a long brown splotch with a tinge of green. He persisted through the soreness in his shins, and stretched out his legs. With his arms high he drew in a deep breath, and then bowed forward and down, exhaling. With the control and grace of a ballet dancer, he lowered his outstretched arms, while keeping his legs straight, until his palms rested flat on the floor beside his feet. His head upside down, facing his knees, he exhaled the remaining air from his lungs. He suddenly stood upright.
“Oh man,” he said with a grimace. “Is that my breath?” He cupped a hand in front of his mouth and breathed into it, sniffed, and then jerked his head back as if slipping a punch. “Whoa, that’s nasty… Maybe some of that honey will fix it up.”
He went down the hall and entered the fireplace room; the undying blaze crackled and murmured in its nook. Up on the wall, the portrait of the moustachioed officer still hung, still curse-free. As Victor looked up at the painting, an unexpected—though very welcome—scent tantalised his nostrils. For a second he froze like a deer in oncoming headlights, before shaking his senses back to order. With the brisk, hopeful step of a child on Christmas morning, he crossed the floor and entered the open door to the dining room.
In the middle of the dining table was a large platter, piled high with fat sausages, thick half-slices of buttered toast, scrambled eggs, bacon rashers drooling grease and half a dozen homemade hash browns. Swirls of steam, thick with savoury aroma, ascended from the hot breakfast mountain and twirled over to Victor, who sucked them up his nose with more relish than an eighties rock star nasally vacuuming cocaine. He seated himself at the table, taking a knife and fork in his eager hands. He examined the feast with suspicious eyes, while his mouth watered.
Juice drizzled from a sausage as Victor stabbed it with his fork and lifted it to his plate. He sliced off a piece.
“Looks all right.” He raised it to his nose and smelled it. “Mmm. A bit of spice there.”
He took a small bite, held it in his mouth for a moment… and then sunk his teeth into it. As he chewed with a broad smile of satisfaction, he grabbed a warm, golden wedge of toast and shoved half of it into his mouth with the sausage. A forkful of fluffy scrambled eggs, half a sausage, anther bite of toast, a crispy ripple of bacon—Victor savoured bite after bite. For seven delightful minutes he chewed uninterrupted, and then his jaw stopped, half open with a mouthful of food. His eyes stared across the table, as the chair opposite him drew back of its own accord.
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