Günther turns to the wall, away from the window; sun rays filter through wooden blinds, casting bright shapes over the elephant silhouettes in the khaki sheets. He buries his head under the pillow.
Discarding the blankets, he stays in bed for a few more minutes. It’s going to be a hot Sunday. He feels a pang of pain in his forehead.
Eventually he sits down, sticking his feet in his brown slippers. He lets out a yawn as he reaches out to grab his thick rimmed spectacles from his bedside table and puts them on. With his index, he rubs the tip of his nose upwards twice and wiggles his toes a few times before standing up.
He walks to the large tank in the hall. Two goldfish swim excitedly towards him, rubbing against the glass, knowing they’ll soon get their much needed pinch of daily sustenance. He rubs his fingers over the water and for a minute or two watches them open and close their mouths in the surface. He scratches his butt.
In the kitchen he sets some water to boil; coffee ought to attenuate his headache. Last night saw a colony of dirty glasses take the sink for a nest; he’ll deal with them later. He brings two empty bottles of red wine to the recycling pile by the bathroom.
In the bathroom, he sits on the toilet briefly. Afterwards, he eyes himself on the mirror as he washes his hands. He is thirty-seven now. His hair is a mess. He fishes out a black speck from his upper right canine and lets the water rinse it away. The cold water feels refreshing in the dry skin of his white hands. Cupping his fingers, he drinks a mouthful and a bit of water lands on the neck of his pajama. He takes off his glasses, sets them on the counter, and rubs his eyes.
The boards creak as he walks back to the kitchen. The water hasn’t boiled. He throws some coffee into the press, takes the remains of a Black Forest cake out of the fridge and, after setting a slice on a plate, goes to sit at the dining room. He must see to a lot of things today.
The rays of the afternoon sun shine brightly through the windows in the living room; a large plant leans its many branches imperceptibly towards them.
There, in the middle of the dining table, he sees it: the bright-red fondue pot Joe and Allison brought him last night. He feels another pang of pain in his head as he sits down.
He remembers how the previous night eight or nine pairs of eyes had fixated on him, dissecting his every reaction. He had faked a smile, faked curiosity, naturally, as Allison, shortly after she arrived with Joe, took it out of a bag and handed it to him. It had come in a box that had been carefully wrapped in yellow paper, paper which had silhouettes of giraffes on it. Or was it zebras? The paper must still be somewhere in the living room, under the coffee table or by the sofa, next to the large plant. Zebras, giraffes, what did it matter?
What was it Joe had said? “You have to guess what it is,” something to that effect. Allison had laughed excitedly. Well, Günther had known immediately, before unwrapping it, what it was: it was something he didn’t want, it was something he didn't need.
He had torn the paper with the silhouettes away and looked at the box. The box had a photograph of the fondue pot inside. Was this some sort of joke? A caquelon in the middle of summer? They had to know he already owned one; didn’t he invite Joe to eat fondue once, two or three years ago? He had wondered if the box held something else inside, but had quickly come to the conclusion that it didn’t: Joe wasn’t one to play childish games like those.
“Happy birthday, Günther,” had said Joe solemnly as he shook his hand.
“Thanks, Joe! And thank you too, Allison,” Günther had said, doing what he could to prolong his insincere smile. “It’s nice of you,” he had managed to add.
“Of course!” she had said. “Happy birthday!” She had given him a quick hug.
“You shouldn’t have,” he had heard himself saying with a sad hint of irony.
“You’re a very good friend,” Joe had said. “We just wanted to give you something. Though it really is nothing.”
Günther had felt a restrained jolt of joy shake his bones. Joe was a good friend. Günther was very grateful to have met Joe, the old fox; though they didn't see eye to eye on many things—such as the merits of giving presents—, Joe's conversation certainly enriched his life.
But the jolt quickly vanished. Alas, this wasn’t nothing: it was a big fondue pot, and bright red too, and it included six long-stemmed forks. They had taken the whole thing out of the box and installed it in his dining table, a boat invading a sea of oak, for everyone to admire.
The kettle starts hissing. The boards creak again as Günther goes to the kitchen. After killing the fire, he pours water into the carafe and brings the press, along with a mug, to the dining room, where he sets a timer for two minutes and forty-five seconds.
In his chair, he wiggles his toes inside his slippers and examines the wretched thing. He doesn’t have enough room in his kitchen for two fondue pots and he’s not going to get rid of his old faithful caquelon: no doubt the sober gray of its metal suits his taste much better than this flashy red ceramic.
After all these years of friendship, has Joe really not learned how much Günther despises presents? Didn’t they talk about it the other day? Günther remembers asking Joe whether he has ever finished a book given to him as a present but he no longer remembers his answer. He probably said yes, always the contrarian. Still, this must be Allison’s doing, the bloody hippy.
Leaning back on his chair, he eats a bit of cake. It’s cold. The timer gives a little metallic buzz. As he presses down the plunger, steam comes out the press, the scent of fresh coffee. He sighs and pours his coffee wondering whether or not he'll celebrate his next birthday.
He fancies that the pot looks back at him menacingly, ready to pounce on him with its six long legs with tiny toes and knock down his glasses, sting him with its tail, devour his face, gnaw at his bones. In his mind, he sees himself pushing it aside violently with his arm; the pot falls down to the floor and breaks into four large pieces and that’s the end of it. He lets out a chuckle followed by another sigh as he feels another pang of pain in his temples.
He will have to get rid of it; they’ll probably take it at the second hand shop that’s on the way to the train station. But what will Joe say? He’ll probably be upset. Oh, well. Besides, Allison’s birthday is coming up; surely they’re not expecting him to get her a present too? A pair of gloves would have to do.