For Kuda Mvere
Three weeks before you meet Alice, you have a job designing health and safety leaflets, a girlfriend called the Brunette, a housemate, Race, who talks too much and regularly asks if you want to get stoned and talk about literature, and sometimes you write melancholic stories about people with names like Snowflake and Spygirl.
That is three weeks before you meet Alice.
Today, your writing will get you in trouble.
Writing is not something that you take very seriously. In university, you spent great swathes of time reading books and mixing in circles where words such as insouciant were used on a regular basis. Numerous bulging notebooks gather in your bedroom and suggest that you once found writing to be important. University taught you how to dream and for a couple of months you contemplated writing as a career. But such aspiration became cloying. You were soon intimidated by the notion that you were not the only one striving for the same goal. And occasionally (often after a couple of rich Belgian beers) you now freely admit that any fiction you have ever written simply pilfers from everyday events around you: loosely involving friends, family, work colleagues. When confined to private notebooks locked away in a small two bedroom, gentrified apartment, these non-fiction short-stories are just fine.
But when a piece of fiction is based on a story your boss drunkenly told you and that story is then surprisingly published in a small but readily available journal, you will get in trouble. The story is entitled ‘Love And Other Past-Times.’ The narrative concerns a teenage couple who pretend they are virgins so they can give the impression that they will share their first time together. You didn’t really like the story. But a friend knew a friend and the journal never got any fiction submissions so ‘Love And Other Past-Times’ found itself published. You merely copied and pasted the information your manager told you, changing only the setting and character names, and using the authorial third-person voice to make some half-hearted statements about modern romance.
When your manager found out about the story and decided to suspend you for a week pending a meeting with her superiors, the Brunette told you not to worry.
The Brunette likes the story.
But you find it difficult to trust the Brunette because the Brunette’s voice changes on a regular basis.
She is studying to be an actress and her dramaturgy coach encourages her to take numerous voice reduction classes to create a more palatable, neutral accent. The Brunette often tells you that she will get more work this way. Her voice has become diluted. Something flat and vapid and plastic; like how you imagine Barbie would sound if she could speak. The Brunette enjoys your writing but she doesn’t read much. You try to forget this every time she reads an old story and remarks that the characters are funny even when you intended them to be sad.
You spend your week off sitting around. You try and get odd jobs done around the apartment. You think about writing. Maybe now is the time to re-evaluate writing as career. Clearly your work is controversial. This can be your angle. But you fail to write and end up listening to Mazzy Star records while sitting on the couch watching a muted television; and when Race bumbles home at night and asks what you are doing, you reply: ‘writing.’
One day you go for a walk around the city and bump into your sister, Tilly. She is sixteen, and tells you, confidently, that she is Christmas shopping, and talks about your father a bit.
October hurries past you both.
‘Dad has started having heart to hearts with me and Laurie,’ says Tilly, wearing a duffel coat that hides her school uniform well. Laurie is your baby sister. ‘Like he comes and sits in my room every Sunday and we listen to one of his old vinyl records together.’
‘He never did that with me,’ you reply.
‘I know. He says he wishes he had. He cries sometimes and then apologises that he got married four times.’
‘We never met his first wife.’
‘And one died. So it’s not really his fault that he can’t help falling in love.’
‘Yeah. I suppose.’ You are not sure what else to add. ‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’
‘I guess. Dad said I need to rebel more. Skiving off is a good thing to do, I think.’
‘I wish I skipped school more.’
‘I kind of like school.’
‘So did I.’
‘Laurie misses you.’
And you both depart.
You are not good at keeping in touch with your family.
You go home.
The meeting with your manager and other important figures arrives. Race suggests that you get stoned and you tell him this is a terrible idea. Race is jittery. You wear the only suit you own. The meeting doesn’t last long. The gist is, you lose your job.
You: I’m really sorry about the story.
Manager: Why did you write it?
You: I don’t know. I don’t ever really write that much.
Manager: Your actions put the company, and myself, in a tricky situation. As an employee here, we expect more than uncouth half-truths, or potentially libellous comments about colleagues circulating.
You: I really am very sorry.
Manager: I’m afraid we have reviewed your position and decided to release you from your contract with immediate effect.
You: Oh. Okay.
Manager: I will be happy to write a generous reference letter for future employment.
You: The story made me cry a little bit.
You are not sure why you mention this, or if you actually say it all. You don’t try and defend yourself. You could have told your manager that the story is not libellous because it is true. But you don’t. You walk out of the office. Unemployed. Three months behind on rent. You are not sure how you have managed to reach the abject position you find yourself in. You say goodbye to a security guard at the front desk. He offers a shoddy, half-wave, and you don’t think he knows who you are. You begin your journey home on foot. Three weeks before you meet Alice. The teasing autumnal wind shoots up your trouser legs and tickles your shins. You try to imagine a next move. Write a novel about what just happened, perhaps? Or go on the dole for a while? The only thought in your mind is a short story you wrote at seventeen called ‘Little Ears.’ It is written from the perspective of a child listening to his parents argue at night. Like ‘Love And Other Past-Times,’ the story is based on real events. In this case, the dissolution of your parents marriage when you were seven. The Brunette loves the story. In an end of term drama showcase, she recited a couple of paragraphs. The Brunette believes someone will one day turn ‘Little Ears’ into a screenplay and she will play your mother. You never liked the title. Perhaps when you get home and speak to the Brunette on the phone, you will try and come up with a better one.
When you get home.
Three weeks before you meet Alice.
And you arrive home to find Race, pensive, sitting in the kitchen. Dishes mount up on the drainage board.
Race usually says more than this. Every sentence he utters is usually constructed upon a bed of footnotes and tangents that do not allow silence to flourish easily. Race usually asks how your day has been.
‘The Brunette is cleaning up in the bathroom,’ informs Race. Still pensive.
‘Okay,’ you answer and walk to the bathroom, purposefully. You don’t know why the Brunette is at your apartment. She has a key but you did not think you were seeing her until tomorrow, at a bar you visit with friends three or four times a month.
You find the Brunette on her knees. The shower door hangs on its hinges. Glass is scattered on the ground. The door looks like some kind of abstract art frame. Soggy towels are dotted around, weeping, failing to absorb the overflow of water. The Brunette has her sleeves rolled up and wears high-cut gym shorts that double as pyjamas whenever she stays over. The Brunette looks at you. Her face is flustered. Neither of you make the effort to offer a ‘hello’ peck on the cheek.
‘Can we talk? In the kitchen?’ the Brunette asks, placing the dustpan and brush she holds on the ground before standing.
You sit in the kitchen at the small table. Across from Race and the Brunette. Race tries to look you in the eye. The Brunette plays with finger nails she does not really have. Race offers to make green tea and the Brunette tells him to be quiet. You are not sure what is happening. Or maybe you do know. A small, sadistic part of you enjoys how awkward the Brunette and Race are right now.
The Brunette speaks:
‘Cosmo, I’ve been sleeping with Race for the last five months. Five or six months.’
Despite her initial apprehension, the Brunette enunciates her words clearly and smoothly. The effect of her serenity is almost eerie. Almost.
‘Okay,’ you answer.
What else can you say? Fine? Sure? Something angrier? Possibly offensive?
‘I’m real sorry about this, pal,’ Race offers, leaning his frowning elbows on the table, his body moving closer to the Brunette.
‘Please don’t call me pal,’ you plead, quietly.
‘Sure man. Sure.’
Race removes his elbows from the surface.
‘This thing with Race,’ begins the Brunette, ‘is purely physical, Cosmo. If that’s any consolation.’
‘I mean I still find your intellect and character far more attractive than Race. This thing is just a primal physical attraction,’ muses the Brunette.
‘I guess so,’ you reply. ‘I mean. I don’t know. Maybe it is some sort of consolation.’
‘Yeah, man,’ interjects Race. ‘You’re intellect is, like, woah, like crazy. I could never hope to be in competition with that.’
‘And we never wanted you to find out this way,’ says the Brunette. ‘Not today. We just sort of ended up in the shower. Together. And…we wanted this all to take place…’
‘…in a much more formal environment,’ says Race, finishing the Brunette’s sentence for her.
You wish Race would not talk and consider telling him this but choose not to.
You do not want to cause a scene.
‘Please say something, Cosmo.’
The Brunette slides her hand across the table and places it in your right hand. You let her. In restaurants you sometimes both did this and pretended you were both on an awkward first date. The action feels proper. Right. Nostalgic. The Brunette likes holding hands. More than talking sometimes.
‘I’m going to make green tea,’ decides Race. When he stands up, you can see his underpants.
‘I’ve just kind of…’ you trail off. ‘Well…I have just been fired from my job. And I’m not sure how to kick you both out of my apartment. So, what I am going to do is, I am going to go out and walk for a bit, and maybe get drunk.’
Race stares at you, holding a tin of tea. The Brunette nods silently.
‘If that’s okay?’ you add.
The Brunette keeps nodding and Race turns the kettle on.
Ten days later, you move back into your childhood home. Your landlord heard about the situation with the Brunette and said to forget about the overdue rent and get out within the week.
You now share a room, and bunk-beds, with Laurie. Laurie is eight and wears a cloak to school. While waiting to start a new job, you help your father out by babysitting your sisters. Searching for a new job proved to be informative. You learnt, for instance, that a degree in art history is not in demand and the desire to pursue one actually quite vainglorious. You start work as a doorman in a grand Georgian building shortly. The residents are well to do and will rarely acknowledge your presence.
After your interview for the position of doorman, you walk under a ladder and say to yourself, aloud, hoping someone hears, ‘my luck cannot get any worse than this.’ Later, you will tell Alice this as you shuffle through a winter evening, wrapped in the velvet assurance of an empty city.
At night, you listen to Laurie talk in her sleep while you try to read old notebooks from your teenage years, by the glow of a globe lamp. Free verse poems dedicated to Veronica’s and Zoe’s; just names now.
Before you start work, Tilly and Laurie go missing after school and don’t return until after dark. Anger sweeps over you as you try to cook their dinner: undercooked pasta and pesto sauce.
‘You guys had me sick with worry,’ you seethe. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you both.’
‘Is something wrong with me? Laurie asks Tilly.
‘We just went to visit Gramps. I thought I told you we were going there,’ says Tilly.
You bustle around the kitchen, slamming cupboard doors.
‘I need help here guys,’ you say, aware of the melodrama you are creating amongst starving children waiting for food but find yourself quite enjoying the operatic tension you are creating. ‘You need personality transplants or something.’
You slam another cupboard for effect.
Tilly and Laurie eat silently until Laurie asks: ‘What does transplant mean?’ and in explaining the definition of transplant, your anger is somewhat diluted.
Three days before you begin work, you try on the new uniform.
The trousers sit snugly on un-exercised thighs.
Three days before you start work with a co-worker called Jarrett.
Three days before you encounter residents who label their political affiliations as conservative socialists and avail of centre-right tax breaks.
Three days before you have to work night shifts until eight in the morning and become re-acquainted with expressive, malevolent coffee.
Three days before Alice slinks into the foyer of the building and tells you…