She awakes to music – tinny, chattery beats. Jitter-jitter-jitter, her mobile phone scuttles across the study desk, past the spiral-bound history of Renaissance Composers and jump! A suicide onto the bedroom floor. An omen. Something disastrous is about to happen. Today is performance day! She knows it’s just a mock. But oh how the entire world depends on it…
She ties a regulation maroon elastic band around her hair, securing it at the back of her head in one regulation bunch. She hates her hair like this. She’ll meet one of her teachers in ten years’ time and he’ll say, ‘Why Cadence, how modern and original you look!’ and she will reply through heavy-lidded eyes, ‘This – this is the extent to which you bastards stifled my individuality.’ She does not dare glance at herself in the mirror. She’ll pretend she is somebody else today.
Outside, winter swoops and slides into spring. Daylight savings began yesterday; the whole world has been cast back into darkness. Across the road, Mr Moll’s garage door opens with a shudder and rises skywards, accelerando. A red hatchback emerges. The small car narrowly avoids his letterbox and skirts around the hedgehog, squished by a ute sometime last week.
It is rubbish day. Cadence hears glass bottles falling into a truck one, maybe two streets over. The truck approaches: rit, smash, a tempo. Rit, smash, a tempo.
Downstairs, Mum is mid-morning-moan. “Cadence! Cadence, sweetheart! Didn’t I tell you to get that wheelie bin to the curb last night? Didn’t I? Chop chop!”
What is that smell? Dad must lower his cholesterol, so the whole family suffers.
“I’m not eating that.”
“Get it down you, Cadence. A girl needs sustenance.”
But she can’t. She just can’t force it down… She stares into the bowl and sees silage, secco as can be because her little brother polished off the last of the milk…
Subito, there is a toc-toc-toc upon the back door. That can only be old Mrs Finch, who manages to scale the back fence presto con agitato, despite complaints of knobbly knuckles and a gammy knee.
“I’m very sorry, Mrs Finch, I’ll have a word with her–”
“It’s just not good enough. Quarck, quarck, quarck, I hear, coming from your woodshed last night. Practising until ten twenty-seven, she was! Now, why can’t my neighbours’ children learn the flute? Roger played the flute… My Roger should’ve been a concert flautist. Now the flute, my poor nerves might bear!”
“But Cadence has her mock exams today–”
“Good Lord! Mock exams? You mean there’s more Shoe-man to come?”
Cadence imagines the old woman crossing herself. The back door slams.
The performance is not til second period. Cadence suffers through form-time, answering to roll-call a little on the enthusiastic side. During maths, algebraic variables dance before her, trying to break free of their tiny squares. “I don’t know, Miss,” she says, gazing at a wreath of twigs outside their second-storey window. A myna bird has constructed its nest for her very own benefit: a lute-lover’s delight.
Miss Mathematics sighs, quite theatrical for a numbers specialist. “That joke is wearing thin, Cadence… Stop fiddling with your hair, and pull your skirt down. Past your knees… Yes, well I will pick on you if you must make such an obvious show of boredom in my class.”
Cadence doesn’t stifle the next yawn either. Life is weary. She wants to answer back, but Miss has moved on to Augie Walker, who does indeed know the answer to life, the universe and everything, if not the answer to nits.
The bell rings, at looong last. Interlude.
The music classroom is warm and smells like the inside of an oboe case. At least, it would, if Dewey hadn’t sprayed himself with half a can of supermarket deodorant, again. Cadence hopes he has put as much effort into his piano preparation.
The class settles: a cabal of tension. Nobody wants to go first. Mr Burlando settles himself at the back of the room, smug.
Dewey misses his cue to come in; Cadence should have soaked her reed.
Mr Burlando balances the mark-sheet upon one knee. “Relax, guys. Imagine I’m not even here.”
That would be a feat indeed. Cadence has spent far more time imagining Mr Burlando’s presence than his absence. He lies beside her each night and cuddles her to sleep. He wears an old t-shirt and long, striped pyjama pants… or so she imagines.
He is smiling now, because it’s all right for teachers, who only become teachers so they can watch generations of students suffer through performance, all the while knowing they’ll never have to endure another exam themselves… Life is so much easier for adults.
Tuh – kuh – tuh – kuh.
She wishes he would call her Duck, like he did last week. But Mr Burlando is solemn, because spring rain pitter-patters outside, and when they have finished their duet he scribbles onto his clipboard in that teacherly, indecipherable scrawl that might as well be a love note… Poetic licence, if you must.
“Amid the deluge of dissonance there was some dignity in your performance.”
And nobody knows what on earth that means.
“Double-tonguing it might be a stretch, Cadence.” Mr Burlando cannot look her in the eye.
“I can’t help it. I had my braces tightened.” Her lips sting.
“Nice fingering, though.”
He stands by the classroom door and takes each composition as the year elevens file out for recess. Cadence, solo, waits behind. She doesn’t want to get her woollen school jersey damp; she’ll only reek of sheep for the rest of the day.
“Well?” Mr Burlando leans against the wall, eyebrows raised.
“I left it at home.”
“That’s not like you, Cadence. Can someone bring it in? Your mother, perhaps?”
No, no, no, no – not Mum. She unzips her back-pack and produces ten crumpled sheets of composition paper, secured at the corner with a love-heart paper-clip.
He takes the papers with caution, bemused.
“Don’t worry about that stain. I think it’s coke…”
He’s flipping through the first few pages. “Looks fine to me.” He glances up. “You’re far too hard on yourself.”
Is this what she wanted? A psychoanalysis?
One gaping, great lacuna hovers in the deo-do-ranty classroom air.
His hand is on the doorknob now. She likes those hands, with their short, neat finger-nails with creamy half-moons on each thumb. “Come on, Duck,” he says. “Shake those tail feathers.”
Her heart beats capriccio.
“One brown mug of instant coffee calls my name.”
Just as she imagined. Café con milk senza three sugars, she thinks.
Cadence suffers through English literature. She sits at the back of the classroom and perfects her autograph because she will be a famous oboist one of these days; after she’s found the right reed, that is. She practises her married name over and over and it looks wonderfully musical: Cadence Burlando. She tries a bass clef in place of a ‘C’; a treble clef might do for a ‘B’.
Girl-with-the-glasses collects their homework, seizing flutters of paper from each desk in the officious manner expected of a form-leader.
“No!” But it is too late – the paper is gone, gone, handed in with all the other papers, and after class she doesn’t know how to ask Mrs Crotchet for it back.
She hemi-demi-semi-quavers through a lunch of egg sandwiches and a slice of cheese.
She stutters through French; imagines she’s enjoying escargot in a voiture-restaurant with her musical lover, on her way to… She’s not sure where.
“Cadence. Cadence!” Someone passes her a yellow slip.
Cadence has never been yellow-slipped, not since the pebble-throwing incident in year seven, when the guidance counsellor made all six girls cry before sending them outside with plastic gloves and tongs, to pluck cling-wrap from the shrubbery and pink drinking-straws from cracks in the concrete… Surely not…
The corridors are empty and eerily quiet. Cadence knocks on a door covered in posters; the door is ajar and she knows to go in.
Oh but what – what is he doing here? She is reminded of the time she caught her music teacher at the supermarket buying half a shrink-wrapped cabbage… This is all wrong!
Mrs Dolce sits in the darkest corner, fiddling with her computer. She doesn’t look up.
“Pull up a pew,” says the baritone voice.
Mr Burlando is holding her composition but she knows this isn’t about music. He has her love-heart in one beautiful hand and, in the other, her addendum of undying love, composed appassionato last night. She drops her head and wishes she were anywhere else… He sits beside her now, on a soft couch covered in bright cushions, and passes her a squishy little ball, shaped like a hedgehog. She squeezes it hard.
“Sorry to pull you out of class,” he says. “I’m fluent in schoolboy French myself, don’t you know?”
“I’ll always remember my first love: Madame Eve Lefevre: the most beautiful name I’d ever heard. Twice my age, two heads taller in heels and not the slightest bit interested in me. The whole thing was ridiculous and I knew it.”
“You know what I’m getting at, Cadence?”
She nods, grave.
“It stinks, doesn’t it? And it’ll happen to you more than once in this lifetime. It’s like a drug. Sometimes the drug chooses you.”
She nods again, poco piu mosso.
“You can’t write me any more notes.”
“Are you angry, sir?”
“Not angry. Not anything, really. Just doing my job.”
She wishes he were a little bit angry. “Will you call my mum?”
“This conversation stays here.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” Allegro agitato.
“Rest easy, Cadence. You have fine taste in men.”
He winks, she thinks.
A snort from the corner reminds Cadence they are not alone.
“He’s got a big head on him, this one, hasn’t he love?” The counsellor’s belly-laughing reaches a crescendo, falls flat on the soft furnishings.
“I’ll see you in class, Duck.”
The whole world seems different now. She walks staccato down the click-clackity corridor but she cannot go back to French, not with cheeks aflame. She sits on a toilet, bolts the cubicle shut and stares at the signatures etched into the glistening door. Her lip semi-quavers but she doesn’t make a sound.
The music – the music.
I wrote “Étude” as an homage to Katherine Mansfield, guided by her coming-of-age short story about the tumultuous emotions of adolescence: “The Wind Blows”.
I wrote a short story about a teacher-student crush because after teaching at a girls’ high school in my twenties, I knew exactly how ‘decent’ teachers deal with crushes. I hadn’t seen reality reflected in entertainment. I see films and TV shows where good-looking male teachers keep girls behind after class, alone, closing the classroom door. These fictional teachers are doing every single thing wrong, yet their characters are coded as behaving in a decent manner. No good teacher deals with a teacher-student crush by keeping a student back after class, alone, with the door closed. If a teacher ever does that to you, they hope to encourage the infatuation.
Happily, the vast majority of teachers are very decent people. Here’s what would most likely happen, written under the spell of Katherine Mansfield, with extra musical flourishes…
Mathematical knots are closed loops. Unlike a usual knot, there are no loose ends.
One female Backpacker, slim build, finds her hostel by accident. Maps in guidebooks are always printed upside down and any destination lurks deep in the page binding. Murphy’s Law. Is she in Ireland now, or Scotland? It’s easy to forget these days. She checks the front of her guidebook. She peers through semi-darkness at the door ahead and notices a small, laminated sign. ‘Beds from 13 pounds.’ Groan. The Backpacker mooched down this very lane twenty damp minutes ago. She has managed a closed loop around the old town. Knot happy.
So, this is The Royal Mile. Dusk must come early to Edinburgh. Through its haze of drizzle, this street feels like something out of a Scottish murder mystery. Is Scotland Yard anywhere round here? Should’ve looked it up.
She presses a button and speaks into a circle of holes in the wall. The speaker phone reminds her she is not really a bit part in some gothic horror flick.
“Yeah, we’ve got a bed. Come on down.” The voice is unmistakeably Australian. The Backpacker hears a click and the heavy door swings open. The hinges don’t creak, but she expects them to. Laminated arrows lead her down a warren of corridors. She clomps down a steep staircase, gripping each handrail with fingerless gloves. Weighted down by a tall canvas pack, gravity is not on her side. She is glad to reach the bottom without going head over turkey.
Underground, The Backpacker discovers a décor of primary colours, bulletin boards and phone cubicles. Reception is enhanced by burnt-out light bulbs: a kind of mood lighting peculiar to hostels. Shadows always help to mask grime. She hears the click-click-sink of billiard balls coming from an annex to the left. Laughter emanates from the living room. This kind of snorting hilarity is often heard from cliques of semi-permanent hostel residents who despise fly-by-nights. The Backpacker has seen many hostels just like this one. So why, after three years’ travelling, does she still not feel at ease?
The Backpacker casts a shadow over the front desk. The receptionist has her eyes fixed on Neighbours broadcasting from a bench-top telly. This must be the fellow Aussie. Unused to the climate, the receptionist wears long-sleeved stripy thermals under a Kathmandu tee. Her hair is wrapped in a towel turban. Wet, bleached strands fall out, sticking to her neck. She hasn’t lost her tan yet. She drinks noodles like beer, but from a polystyrene cup. Like every other hostel within cooee, this one must be short on forks.
The receptionist sees a new guest from the corner of her eye. “How many nights you staying?” Two curly, maggot-coloured noodles hang out of her mouth. Clear juice dribbles down her chin. She wipes her mouth with the heel of one palm.
The Backpacker feels a familiar knot in her stomach. She is hungry. “What’s the weekly rate?”
“No discount for long-termers. Soz.”
“I’ll pay for two nights, then.” The Backpacker has not spoken to anyone all day, not since leaving Victoria Station on the 0900 Megabus. Her unfamiliar, husky voice struggles past a lump in her throat. It’s official. The Backpacker is fighting another foreign cold. After three years of this she should have developed immunity to northern hemisphere bugs. But she hasn’t.
“I can stick you in a unisex room for cheaper?” One maggot flies across the desk and lands on a well-thumbed Time Out mag.
The Backpacker is a fellow Aussie but this is the extent of their camaraderie. In any British hostel, Australian guests are the default. They each meet so many young Aussies over here that they feel a bit sorry for the dude left behind.
Would anyone have noticed if Australia sunk into the ocean? The Backpacker thinks that maybe she should call her Dad. It’s been months. Or has it been a year? She’ll call the old man for Christmas. Get a phone first, with some credit on it.
What’s left when you can’t see the knot, not just because there’s no matter there, but because space itself doesn’t extend to where the space used to be?
The receptionist wipes a salty trickle from the corner of her mouth. “Down the hall, second on the left. You’re sleeping on Elvis.”
If the receptionist expects a puzzled look she gets no such reaction from this guest. The personification of beds is a tacky trick favoured by hostels far and wide, as an aid to the drunk and forgetful. Three years of dossing has uncovered common themes: bed bugs, smelly feet, noisy sleepers and laminated labels on bunks, secured by tape. Scotch tape, no doubt. Ha.
The Backpacker hovers in the doorway and scans her temporary abode. Dolly, Kylie, Madonna, Fatboy Slim… Elvis wears his sheet tucked in. His duvet is slick and smooth, his pillow fluffed. The Backpacker puts little faith in ostentatious displays of housekeeping. A tucked-in sheet means nothing. She dare not sniff his bedclothes. She flips over his pillow and hopes the linen dude didn’t do the same.
Elvis is a top bunk. The Backpacker is pleased. Proximity to the ceiling engenders a sense of privacy and gives her a bird’s eye view of the room. Eleven open packs spill across beds. A survey of scattered boots tells her most of them are blokes. Experience tells her at least one of them will be drunk and two of them will snore like billy-o.
The bathrooms are unisex too. An oval mirror covered in white flecks of toothpaste is studded to the wall above the hand basin. The basin is garnished with a scrap of dirty, yellow soap and someone’s haywire toothbrush. The Backpacker catches sight of her own reflection. The overhead bathroom lighting flatters no one; dark eyes disappear into her skull. Her face is waxen white and unfamiliar. The face does not smile back.
In the real world, mirror reflections are no more than mental images. In mathematics, reflections are as real as the objects themselves.
This hostel, like every other she has known, has too few ablutions. Half are in a state of disrepair. One toilet is blocked. Another is occupied. The third will not lock. The door stays shut with the help of one leg extended. This is no place for the inhibited; the bogs lead straight off the living room. The Backpacker gazes at multi-lingual greetings and invitations on the back of the door, drops a load and hears laughter.
She hears another familiar accent: Saffa, or maybe Kiwi: “You’d look badass with mutton chops, babe.”
The Backpacker pulls off reams of point-five ply toilet tissue and imagines a surfie girl reclining across the lap of a twenty-one year old grungy bloke who hasn’t seen a mirror in weeks. She emerges from the toilet and stands for five minutes beneath a lukewarm trickle masquerading as a shower, then appears at the door of the living quarters. Nobody looks up but The Backpacker has imagined right. The surfie Saffa girl strokes a stubbly cheek and kisses the bloke’s grungy neck.
The furniture is a motley collection from every era. Low couches sag under the weight of crammed-in bodies. The group waits for something to begin on a muted television. A cricket match, no doubt. It’s summer back home. Hard to believe.
Some of the somebodies sip from cans. A pair of legs in low-riding denim stands upon a coffee-table. The head has disappeared through a window set high in the wall. He angles his lips onto the footpath outside, but his exhalations catch on the breeze. The living room fills with sweet smoke. Nobody complains. Still, nobody looks up at the newcomer. Non-descript thumpy music drums from a cheap stereo by the fireplace. And there are no spare seats.
In the kitchen, German tourists have gathered around the table. They might speak Dutch. Or Afrikaans. Anyway, The Backpacker is glad for a reason not to converse. The men hold playing cards like Japanese fans. One pumps his fist into the air. The others groan. Two of the party are young women, each as tall as their men. One dishes out stew from a bubbling vat on the stove. The other dishes out instructions. The kitchen smells of trout.
The Backpacker rinses a chipped mug and refills with Edinburgh tap water. Shavings of cabbage block the sink. The Backpacker stares into the plughole. She gulps the water, wincing as its chill stabs her throat. The taste is not bad. It’s better than the soupy bleach-water of Earl’s Court. The water does nothing to make her less hungry. She opens the fridge and sees knotted plastic bags, each announcing its owner’s name and date. A two-litre bottle of milk is almost empty. ‘DO NOT TOUCH’, it warns. ‘I SPAT IN IT, BTW’. The Backpacker grabs the thick-nibbed marker and etches her own message onto the stranger’s milk: ‘SO DID I.’ She takes a swig and lets the creamy milk soothe her throat.
In her bunk room, two Kiwi boys sit cross-legged on the floor. They pore over a free tourist map. They look up and grin.
The Backpacker raises her eyebrows in greeting. She recognises their faces from an Earl’s Court pub. Or maybe not. Maybe Kiwi boys all look the same.
Long hair is bad for nits but works well as a blindfold. The Backpacker masks her eyes with her dark locks to avoid glare from the centre-ceiling bulb. She drifts off with the aid of a cold-and-flu tablet, lulled to sleep by discussions about castles, walking ghost tours, and a circuitous debate about the unlikelihood of afterlife. One of them reckons he’s seen a ghost. He’ll have to embellish his story before it counts as a bone fide travel yarn.
The Backpacker wakes later to rustling and giggling. The light was switched off at eleven, flicked on again at midnight, off again at one and on again at two. A male and female stagger in. Each stifles bursts of laughter. The Backpacker groans and thrusts herself over to face the wall. The couple snigger at the newcomer’s lack of joviality.
She wakes again before dawn to a pair of entwined grunts. She buries her face into the foreign pillow and imagines she’s anywhere else. After all this time of unisex bunk rooms, this backpacker knows she is no voyeur. Hearing a guttural release from an adjacent bunk excites in her the same feeling you get waiting outside a toilet while someone takes a dump. It’s all natural. But then so are cadavers. She’d rather not see one of them either.
The keenest of the tourists rise early and enjoy the only hot showers of the day. A different sort of groan choruses throughout the bunk room as the grumpiest of the sleepers attempt ten more minutes’ shut-eye. The main light flicks on and off. Long zips emit shrieks, struggling to contain dirty washing and collections of fridge magnets.
The Backpacker’s sore throat has metamorphosed into a proper cold. She wakes with a dry mouth and a full nose. Her stash of semi-transparent toilet paper has come to an end. She navigates down the squeaky bunk ladder, gripping cold metal. She waits for a toilet, pinching wet nostrils between two fingers. A dude with after-grog-bog hangs his head in shame as he ducks out of a cubicle. The Backpacker has lost her sense of smell and is glad of it.
Again, she cannot be bothered eating but her stomach growls. Cornflakes and white toast with jam are included in the overnight price. The kitchen is quiet this morning as solemn faces stare into bowls. The pitter-patter from outside means another day of damp touring. A few of the breakfasters travel in pairs, murmuring to each other in foreign whispers. There are plenty of cornflakes but no spoons. One glance into a stubborn cutlery drawer reveals a carving knife, a rusty vegetable peeler and a serving spoon. Hunger dictates use of the serving spoon, too big to fit comfortably inside anyone’s mouth, but sufficient for the job of shovelling in food.
The Backpacker sits at one end of the trestle table, face dwarfed by her eating implement. She suspects a snide remark from two Germans and wishes she could speak their language, surprising them with a witty retort. She dabs at her pink nose with a fresh supply of hostel toilet paper. She always fashions her hair in one long braid over breakfast. This gives her a mildly religious look and people tend to trust that. Or maybe they avoid her, wondering if she’s a bible basher. Fine either way. She secures the end of her braid with the elastic band she keeps on one wrist. A male voice interrupts her thoughts.
“You sleep on Elvis, no?”
The young man has sandy hair, standing up at the front as if he’s been pressing his palm to it. Sitting opposite, he looks far too cheery. Her oversized spoon makes for a good talking point but The Backpacker does not want a discussion about the bloody spoon. She does not want pleasantries, not at this time of the morning, not ever. She grimaces a greeting. This underground warren is overheated.
“You are the girl who slept on top of me last night, no?” He is definitely one of those irritating morning fools, ill-suited to communal living.
The accent is French. One of life’s disparities: when the French speak English their accent is attractive. When English speakers attempt français they only manage to bugger it up. The Backpacker knows this from a trip to Pareeeee. She’s too scared to go again in case the blokes at Heathrow don’t let her back in. But Irritation Phrasebook French may prove handy yet; a butcher’s job upon his mother tongue might shut the ribbeting up for good.
For now she nods. So, this is the bunk mate that came in late, rattled his pack for way too long and then tossed for half an hour. Tossed and turned, that is. With Elvis being an aluminium construction in need of a good squirt with the WD40, The Backpacker knows her bunk mate’s sleeping habits. He breathes heavily through his nose but doesn’t snore.
The Backpacker puts down her spoon, suddenly self-conscious. “Sorry about last night. That useless bunk creaked and shuddered every time I blew my nose.”
“No problem. I too have a cold. Maybe you contracted it from me.” He shrugs, sniffs, and takes a bite of his breakfast. He has come prepared with light, crusty bread of his own, smothered in glistening jam of deep red. That can’t be hostel jam. Hostel jam is smooth and translucent with wood chips for seeds, and comes in tins the size of paint cans.
Perhaps he senses envious eyes fixing upon his bread. “Would you care for a baguette?”
“Aw, nup.” The Backpacker stares into her bowl of soggy cereal.
“The bread will be stale before lunchtime, so…” He passes his spare bread-roll across the table. The golden crust glistens from behind cellophane. The offering looks far more appealing than a bowl full of scabs.
“Gracias.” Hang on, that’s Spanish. “Merci beaucoup.”
“Jam of Strawberry?” He produces a cute jar from a paper bag and slides it across the table.
The Germans wipe their mouths and drop dirty dishes in the sink. The Backpacker and her bunk-mate are now alone at one end of their trestle table. They each eat a baguette from one cellophane two-pack. Theirs is a strange kind of intimacy: the kind that comes from sleeping together but alone. They eat in comfortable silence, as if they might have breakfasted this way for years.
A union of several loops is called a link.
He flips through a weighty book which sits flat upon the table. The Backpacker sees upside-down numbers and mathematical symbols: universal language deciphered by few. She has seen many unusual things in hostels: fisticuffs over the TV, arguments over the washing machine, drunks passed out on the stairs. Human turds in the entrance hall. But she has never seen mathematical studies over breakfast.
Perhaps he senses her gaze. “Mathématiques. I came to Edinburgh last week. Next semester I will study for a PhD in knot theory.”
“Not theory? What, then? I didn’t know you could get a doctorate in anything practical.”
“Knot theory, like on the shoelace.”
From school The Backpacker vaguely remembers trig and algebra. “I can tell you how to deal with tangles,” she says. “It’s not something you need to work out with a pencil. All you do, right, is you grab it in the middle and wriggle hard with both hands. Works every time.” She waves her crust in the air, animated for the first time in days. Or months.
The Mathematician smiles. He bows his head in submission. “I will try to wriggle hard next time.”
“I’m shit at maths,” The Backpacker says. “Bores the hell out of me. But I’ll tell you what I’ve always wondered, yeah?” The Backpacker produces an iPod from the front pocket of her jeans. “Look at these headphones. Knotted every time. Explain that to me, doc.”
“Ah. That is the second law of thermodynamics. Left to nature, all things turn to merde.”
She knows he is right. You spend your mid-twenties moving from country to country, town to town. But life doesn’t change. Not really. The climate changes. The landscape changes. But sooner or later all things turn to shit. The bag is packed. Fresh start.
“Either that or… knot pixies? Ch’sais pas.”
The Backpacker shifts in her seat. She does not usually find strangers attractive, but she likes the width of his face, the way his cheeks taper down towards a sharp chin. The Mathematician could pass for a knot pixie himself. He pulls out a tissue. She likes the way he sneezes into it.
“I have only been here a week,” says the Mathematician, “but I can show to you the vicinity. Do you want to see Edinburgh Castle?”
“Seen one castle, seen ‘em all.”
“Ah. Let’s go for a walk.”
“It’s pissing down with rain.”
“Not pissing. Sprinkling.”
And so The Backpacker follows The Mathematician up the steep staircase and outside, into Old Town. He wears a transparent poncho over his woollen jumper. Droplets decorate his glasses. She wears long boots and a leather jacket. The front zip is broken, but she turns up its collar.
“Where are we going?” she asks. In the hazy daylight, the streets look different. She can’t even remember the route back to the bus station.
“Let’s walk in a circle.” The Mathematician examines a map on his mobile phone. “A circle has a shorter perimeter than a quadrilateral. We’ll see the same sights, yet we will become less wet.”
They walk together. The Mathematician gives names to parts of the architecture. He speculates on the current temperature, tells her which way is north, points out local plant life. The Backpacker wonders if he ever talks about normal things. She tells him her name is Ruby, because she feels like a Ruby today. She tells him about her mother who spies UFOs for NASA in the outback, and about her father, still on compo after injuring his lower back in a circus related incident, October ‘76.
Mathematics is a kind of fiction. We talk as if numbers exist. A statement like 2 + 1 = 3 is just as false as ‘World’s End Close is just inside the Netherbow Gate’, but both are true according to the relevant fictions.
The Mathematician knows that the best view of The Royal Mile is from Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, apparently. At Holyrood Park, the climb to the summit is slippery. The Mathematician offers his hand. She takes it. Her face is wet and her nose is red. He offers her a tissue. He produces a pack of twenty-five from his breast pocket, reaching under his poncho, insisting she take the lot.
From Arthur’s Seat, the roofs of Edinburgh slope off sharply. The buildings are grey and white and terracotta. They both shiver.
It is still drizzling and the hills are deserted. The Backpacker realises that she is alone, once again, with a man she doesn’t know. But she shared a bunk with him last night. What else is there to know about a person? They lean slightly into each other, sheltering from the wind. She watches his face as he looks, through smeared spectacles, into the horizon and she wonders if he’s processing some mathematical equation.
“Would you like a mint?” The Mathematician produces a bag of green and white pearls.
The Backpacker accepts one. “It always pays to take a mint. You never know if it’s a hint.”
The Mathematician examines her face. “I do not know the state of your oral hygiene.”
“Do you want proof, or something?”
With a mint stored in each cheek, he reminds her of a squirrel that startled her once in St James’s Park.
Whenever she closes her eyes it is a little easier, pressing her lips against those of another. He angles his head to match the gesture. His nose is cold against her cheek. He places one gloved hand on her knee.
Seconds later she is giggling – a private, inward laugh. His smile is small and his eyes confused. Looking away, he rolls the mints around inside his mouth, counting them with his tongue.
“Your mint,” he says. “Before, I had two mints in my mouth. Now I think three.”
The Backpacker composes herself, but a high-pitched snort escapes. “You are a true mathematician, mate.”
“You want it back?” Perhaps he hopes for another kiss.
She shakes her head, stands up, heads back down the grassy slope.
“Are you sure?” He proffers the bag, but she is gone.
After a moment’s confusion, The Mathematician catches her up. He walks behind. When she slides across mud towards gorse he grabs her arm. She regains balance and pulls away.
The Backpacker cannot remember her way back to their hostel. The Mathematician has good spatial IQ. He leads them back to the alleyway.
She stares at the cricket on the TV, seated between two South Africans on the sagging couch.
He says nothing more, and goes to their bunk. He passes his eyes over a biography of Lynryd Skynryd which he found on the communal bookshelf earlier, edged between a 1989 guide to Czechoslovakia and The Holy Bible. Eventually, the Kiwi boys invite The Mathematician in for a round of Black Bitch. He joins them on the floor and wins all seven games by memorising the cards. The boys think he cheats. They conclude, several days later, that it must’ve been The Frog who pinched their phones, eh.
At five twenty-five the next morning, the keenest of the tourists are still asleep. The Backpacker brushes away her blindfold of dark hair, sits up in her bunk and carefully, gently, negotiates her way down the metal, three-rung ladder, cool beneath her feet. Used to shared accommodation, her fingers work silently with zips and domes and drawstrings until at last she is ready to leave.
The overnight receptionist is asleep on the front desk, head in arms, lulled into slumber by lilting Scottish accents on a talk-back radio show turned down low.
The complements of knots can never be the same space.
A sign at the depot tells The Backpacker that she has just arrived in another Scottish town. She is last to leave the bus, descending from the top deck only after checking the overhead racks for forgotten treasure. The driver chucks her a heavy travel pack. It’s one of those bags with straps coming off everywhere and which feels like it’s been packed tight with bricks.
The Backpacker struggles to lift it, grunting with the exertion, almost falling backwards. Even through her leather jacket, its straps dig into her shoulders. She turns away, peers into the dreich. She is free: open-ended, untethered, untied.
This. This is what they call Freedom.
The Backpacker calls it Lonely. Another knot forms like a fist in her gut.
There are various reasons for leaving fictional characters unnamed. I decided not to name these characters because the experience of backpacking as a lone traveller can be an anonymising, lonely experience with odd moments of personal connection. Even when you meet really cool people it’s still lonely, because you know you’ll never see them again.
When I put this short story through critique I noticed that readers who’d done the whole Backpacking Through Europe thing connected to this story whereas others didn’t so much. Knot Theory is a bifurcating study of a particular setting, though for anyone worried about my story’s impact on Scottish Tourism, it’s an amalgam of hostels, not any one in particular. (I’m not aware of any underground hostels in that part of the world.) My own Year Of Hostels and Backpackers happened in 2006, mostly in London. This story is a snapshot of that time. I will say, though, that some of my most confronting hostel moments happened in Edinburgh!
After The Asteroid
Excuse me Mister, can I pat your horse? Is this a horse, or just a big donkey? I’ve got a donkey at home. Yup. He’s nine. Same as me. He eats verge-grass. That’s his favourite. And clover, when he can get it.
Is this really a horse? Is he broken-in? My Mum says I have to ask permission to pat someone’s horse, in case it’s a wild one. I love horses. They’re my favourite. Do you know my uncle has a car? He lives in the city. Only rich people drive cars. My uncle doesn’t drive his because he’s not rich and he can’t buy the oats for it. He just leaves it out in the paddock and I nused to sit in it sometimes but now it’s full of weeds. Can you believe that? He just let weeds grow up around it and now it’s not ever going nowhere.
I wouldn’t want to drive a car anyway. I love my donkey. His name’s Fido. Do you have a dog? Three dogs! Oh my god, you must be a farmer. I knew it. My Mum nused to have a collie, don’t you know? But she had to get rid of the dog when she got me. Not because of me. I’d love a collie. She had to give her to a farmer, because of The Effort. But we still go to see her sometimes. Her name is Patsy and she’s nothing but skin and bone.
Do you know my Mum nused to be real fat? I seen some photos once in an album. My mum nused to take heaps of pictures and stick ‘em in the album and back in the olden days everyone nused to be fat. Did you? I wish I was fat. Mum said she nused to hate being fat but now she got a boney bum and it’s real cold in the wintertime. She never knew that until after ten-thirteen, and now she spends all her days moaning and groaning about her cold toes.
Spuds. My Mum only grows spuds ‘cos she’s got black fingers – not actually black – that’s just a Figure of Speech. Did you know in the olden days people nused to plant grass and waste good fuel cutting it short every weekend? What a waste of time! You can’t even eat grass.
You grow ‘sparagus? Every Tom Dick and Harry grows ‘sparagus and we won’t be trading you any of that, not if I have any say in it. I hate ‘sparagus. It’s all right with salt I spose, but Mum won’t let me use much salt. She says I’m too liberal with it.
My Mum remembers way back when salt was cheap as chips, which is dumb ‘cos chips aren’t cheap either. Do you know I get to eat chips every night? Without salt though. And my Mum, she swaps carrots with Mrs Wilson, onions with a lady at church and beans. Green beans. I hate green beans but I have to eat ‘em up before I’m allowed to read my book. Did you know my Mum has a whole shelf full of recipe books? Yup. She looks at them sometimes but she never makes any of the recipes inside because you can’t get the stuff to make recipes no more. Did you know they’re not stocking jam this month? Nup. It’s off the government list but you can still get peanut butter. But it’s disgusting because it’s got no salt. It’s just crushed up peanuts and they’re passing it off as butter. You ever had butter? I never had butter.
Did you ever go to India, Mister, before ten-twelve? My mum, she wishes she went to India before it got wiped off the face of the earth. She reckons it would’ve been an Eye Opener.
I’m not sure what’s an Eye-Opener. Was that another type of lolly? Do you remember the olden day lollies? Grown-ups are always going on about olden day stuff, like lollies and ice-cream and lemonade. I found a liquorice strap down the side of the couch when I was seven and a half, but I haven’t had any other kinds of lolly. It was okay but nothing to write home about. I don’t know what the big deal is.
Do you remember ten-thirteen, Mister? What were you doing at the time? I was a foetus. I don’t remember much about that but it was pretty boring. My mum, she was hanging out the washing. That’s pretty boring too. She says she saw a big blackness in the sky and she won’t say much more than that because it’s Taboo.
Are you a Racist, Mister? I seen some Racists last week holding signs outside the old bank. Charity begins at home, ya know.
Do you know any Asians? My teacher’s an Asian. Do you know we’re doing algebra at school? My mum says algebra’s no use and we should be learning agriculture. I hate algebra. Did you nused to learn about Asia in geography? We have to nuse really old books because they don’t print no more books, you know. Our teacher makes us skip the pages that got wiped. Our teacher, she was born here in New Zealand but now she can’t ever go home to her own people. My Mum says don’t worry because there’s not gonna be another ten-thirteen, not unless I live to be a real old lady. What do you reckon, Mister?
Were you a Believer? I guess you were ‘cos you’re still here. Where did you bunker down? Oh, okay. Mum says I’m not meant to ask them questions.
Hell, I dunno. You grown-ups are always saying stuff like, ‘What you want to be when you grow up?’ Broken record! I don’t even know if I will grow up ‘cos I’ve recently started with the coughing, you know.
Want to know the truth? Really? I want to be a farmer. I don’t want to be a nurse. I’m sick of The Effort. Grown-ups are always going on about The Effort and Electricity and Necessities and Recycling. I don’t ever want to have babies but if girls don’t have babies you have to be a nurse. Or if you keel over at the sight a blood you have to look after other ladies’ babies and I don’t like kids, even though I am one. So I’m gonna be a farmer.
I’m going into cats. Cat farmers got it easy, I reckon. You just catch a few in a possum trap, look under their tails and lock ‘em up together. Cats’re randy as randy so you don’t need to do much with ‘em and soon you got a farm for free. You got to feed them, but I know where to find rats.
I got a pet rat, did you know? I got pet worms, some slaters in a jar, and a pet rat. My friend Corker, he reckons worms aren’t real pets ‘cos they don’t interact, and rats don’t make for pets ‘cos real pets live in cages. But it’s against The Effort to have pets, eh. So us kids just got to do the best we can nowadays. Those days are gone.
Did you know that Mrs Wilson, my neighbour, she nused to have three whole Cha-wa-was, back in the olden days when I was still a foetus? Have you ever seen one a them? They nused to be a cross between a cat and a dog and they’re stupid as stupid, and the farmers didn’t even want ‘em so they got ate. My mum says they should a been left alone to see out the rest of their days. They were all skin and bone and didn’t eat much anyway, but they got gobbled by one of our neighbours. Do you know dog livers are poisonous for humans? It’s true. He ate ‘em and died, ya know, not with The Coughing. It was Suspicious Circumstances and you can ask anyone you like.
I’m not ever risking dog. That’s why I stick to cats. My teacher, she’s Asian you know, and she says she never ate cat before in her life. Not before she had to. She said it’s only Racists that think the Chinese nused to eat other people’s cats. Do you know, some people nused to keep cats for pets? In their house, leaving hairs all over the duvet? Can you believe it?
I don’t actually like cats. I struck a bad one once and it was sour, like a lemon. I’ve never had a lemon ‘cos lemon trees won’t grow round these parts, but I heard lemons are sour like Tomcats on heat. It’s better for cat farmers not to like cats anyway. You don’t want to eat your own profit.
But I do like cats when Mrs Wilson comes around. She has to come to our house every Monday, ya know. For The Effort. She cooks up her own food while Mum’s oven is all heated up. We go round to hers on a Wednesday, right before Mum goes to her nursing shift. Mrs Wilson, she’s a renowned cook, did you know? She can make gravy from Scratch. My mum can’t make gravy. She reckons she needs instant gravy powder and they don’t sell that no more. I guess they’re fresh outta Scratch, too. Is that not on the government list? My mum, she complained to the manager, but he says gravy powder’s ‘not deemed a necessity’. So he won’t be getting any more in. No instant gravy for me. Not this side a heaven.
I nused to like Cat with Curry. That was all right, but nobody has curry anymore ‘cos that nused to get shipped out from Madras. Do you know Madras wasn’t called Madras, even before ten-thirteen? But they called it Madras anyway, on the side of the box. We still have an empty curry thingee at home ‘cos one day it’ll be a Collector’s Item. I like to open it up and sniff it, but Mum says not to waste the sniff. So I can only have two sniffs and then I have to put the lid back on. Curry makes me sneeze. And sneezing makes me cough.
I like it when Mrs Wilson nuses our oven. She gives me some of her own dinner. She’s a much better cook than my mum but Mum says I’m Grabbing, so I’m not allowed to take scraps off of Mrs Wilson except when Mum’s not looking and then I can. I’m not allowed to accept food from strangers either, did you know? Except carrots. Carrots are in short supply this year, ‘cos of The Blight. Do you grow carrots, Mister? Had any luck?
Do you know my friend Corker? He’s nine too. There’s only two nine year olds in our village and he’s the other one. Yeah, thought you’d know him. I’ll probably have to marry him. That’ll be the day. Anyway, Corker says I should just farm rats. Cut out the middle man and not bother with cats. I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t want to eat no stinking rat.
Okay, see you round, Mister. That is a real nice horse you got there. Horses are my favourite, don’t you know?
Dear Marjorie A Plea From The Unfairly Accused
I wonder if you’ve had much to do with law-enforcement. Twice now, I’ve had the experience of an official rat-a-tat-tat at my own abode. The first came early one Monday morning as I was rinsing out my bowl. If porridge is left to sit on the bench all day one ends up with an almighty mess to clean up after work. Nothing sets on crockery like oats, save mashed potato and egg, but I’m preaching on. I’m sure you know this already, dearest Marjorie.
When I opened my front door to find a policeman standing there my heart skipped a beat. I’ve always been a law-abiding citizen, yet something about that blue uniform makes me flinch. I always ensure my Morris Minor sits below the speed limit. Despite my law-abiding ways, I’m apt to slam on my brakes whenever I catch sight of a police vehicle. It’s sheer panic. One small blessing – I’ve never been issued a speeding fine. The only time I was ever pulled over happened on my way to work.
“I have to warn you, Sir,” the traffic officer said, “you’ll peeve people off, toddling along at that speed.” The young man advised me to check my mirrors for cars banking up behind, and to pull over at regular intervals. He kindly let me go with a warning.
I’ve never described myself as a confident driver. It was after that harrowing brush with the law that I decided to commute to work by train. The panic I suffer at being thrust against strangers inside a swaying carriage is of at least the same magnitude as the panic I suffer hurtling at speed along the highway, but still.
To find a police officer upon your own doorstep is something else again. I racked my brain. Perhaps the neighbours had complained about Brutus. He sits by the pond and worries the poor goldfish. Or perhaps I’d left my wheelie bin out. The council expects us to retrieve bins from the grass verge within twenty-four hours, lest they become vandalised. I waited for the policeman to announce the reason for his visit.
He was snapping gum. “Sorry to bother you.” He grinned. “Noticed any unusual neighbourhood activity in the past twenty-four hours?”
I’ve always been a heavy sleeper. On the up side, I can sometimes sleep through Curly’s raucous music thumping through the bedroom wall. On the down side, I’m unable to recall any strange noises which may have emanated from Mrs Valentine’s back yard, even though some inconsiderate cretin stripped her washing line naked of undergarments.
“I heard a cat fight at dusk,” I told him, “and some snuffling from the hedgehogs under my garden shed.”
“Never mind,” said the policeman. “Call the station if you think of anything else.” He took off down my pathway, clipboard in hand.
“I’m so sorry!” I called after him.
Indeed I was. If only someone had heard the pesky thief! I’ve always liked to help out. If I’d had the slightest inkling poor Mrs Valentine’s bloomers were about to disappear I would have kept close vigil. “Good luck with your investigations!” I was tempted to make something up in order to appease the officer, who hovered at my gate to smell the honeysuckle. I was touched by his delicate gesture, made all the more poignant due to the burglary crisis.
It was one week ago today that I heard a second rat-a-tat-tat upon my front door. This time there was no smiling. They had come to escort me away. Despite what you may have read in the tabloids, I accompanied them without a fight. I thought I’d be home again in a few hours, in time to pull the lemon chicken from the oven. I was wrong.
They say everyone looks like somebody famous. The lucky ones resemble Clint Eastwood or Rock Hudson. The unlucky ones, namely me, bear an uncanny similarity to a certain Identikit picture, released to the media precisely one fortnight ago in what police hope will lead to the capture of the infamous ‘Ned Grundy’, after his eighth botched murder attempt upon local elderly women.
Of all the rotten coincidences. To resemble such a character would, of course, be just my luck.
I’ve never been a looker. As my mother used to say, “Nigel was stood behind the door when the Looks were dished out, but God made it up to him in Smarts.” This is the reason why I held off sending you a photo. Ms Cashew from the agency assured me this was acceptable practice – that the women on her books tend to be less fussy. She said I might stand a chance of meeting a life partner if I were to charm a woman with my caring disposition before blinding her with my portrait.
Don’t get me wrong – I suffer no deformities. I’ve grown more grateful of this creaky old body, which has seen me through fifty-five years with little more than a case of the sniffles come winter. Taking my individual body parts and setting them upon someone else might leave him looking quite dashing – it’s more my ‘assemblage’ which unnerves people. My square jaw might look manly on another but, in my case, makes me look like the dimmer half of a comedic criminal duo. My hairy chest would be desirable in some, yet my particular growth does not know where to begin and end. A woman once told me my eyes looked ‘beady’. I was not, as she imagined, gazing at her; she drifted into my line of vision as I planned dinner. My beady eyes tend to look rather beadier due to thick multifocal lenses which, in turn, reflect the light and cause others to wonder what I’m peering at.
It was an eerily familiar pair of beady eyes staring up at me as I unfolded the morning newspaper two weeks back. That was the morning after that poor Mrs Winters was attacked by a hirsute, stocky creature wielding a rusty bread knife, and the morning before he tried it again with old Mrs Watson, all the while dressed in nothing but a flimsy pair of underpants. How unnerving. For all of us! When I saw that front-page Identikit sketch – an oddly accurate pencil rendition of, perhaps, some long-lost twin brother – I felt like someone had taken a compromising photograph of me unawares, then sent it into the newspaper for a funny caption competition.
Except this was no joke. As I waited at the train station, surrounded by my usual nameless companions who board the seven fifty-four, I noticed fellow passengers shirking away. I caught their furtive glances, their eyes darting away in disgust. I heard uncomfortable coughs. I saw ill-disguised raisings of eyebrows. A suited man waiting on the opposite platform stood, face obscured, behind that full-page caricature. It was as if he held his newspaper up in a deliberate attempt to warn fellow commuters of my presence among them.
I arrived at the office prepared for a few jibes and a poke in the ribs. Instead, nothing. Perhaps no one had seen it. Perhaps no one else detected the uncanny similarities.
I unlocked my office door and switched on the computer. Then, as usual, I prepared myself a hot drink. I encountered Darren in the kitchen.
“How are you going with those reports?” I asked.
Darren is under my mentorship. I should check his progress now and then. But I’m never up to date with the latest sports matches and we therefore have no common bond.
“Fine thanks, Nigel. Fine.” He threw a soggy teabag expertly into the bin. “Seems they’ve been paying too much for years. Will hiff the figures your way this arvo.” With that, he hurried back to his desk, wielding his scalding teacup in front of him like a knight with a spear during battle. I was lucky to jump out of his path.
Once again, our meeting had been orchestrated entirely by my underling. Any onlooker would assume I was his protégé, not the other way around. I’m sure the boy avoids my office, preferring to chat with me about such-and-such whenever we cross paths in the hallway or the elevator – that way he can make out he’s in some desperate hurry. He therefore avoids being seen in my company.
Darren may or may not have read the newspaper when he avoided my gaze that fateful morning. I could not tell.
Then there is Maree, the girl at the front desk who answers the telephones. Maree knows the ins-and-outs of all the noisiest office equipment. If she’s not venting her frustrations on the stapler she’s slamming the drawers of overflowing filing cabinets, or banging the life out of a beeping fax machine. Or cursing from inside the bowels of that temperamental photocopier. That’s where she was, once again, when I approached her desk to collect my messages later that morning.
All I could see of her consisted of two red court shoes, two panty-hosed legs and a matching red rump. I didn’t know whether to clear my throat or to come back later.
“Get out you rotten bastard!” Her voice echoed. I hoped she wasn’t talking to me. I heard the unwelcome sound of paper ripping, then, “Bloody hell!” Maree’s head emerged from the dastardly machine. She looked fluffy-headed and red-faced. She saw me standing there then said, for all the staff to hear, “If I never see another sheet of white, A4 paper it’ll be TOO… BLOODY… SOON!”
I retreated hastily back to my own office, shut myself inside and stood breathing deeply against the door. I never did collect my messages.
I wasn’t sure if Maree’s outburst was because she’d seen the newspaper. Things have not been the same between Maree and myself after one unfortunate comment, which I can assure you was intended with genuine affection.
“I see you’re expecting a baby,” I’d said. “How exciting to know there’s a tiny little person growing inside you…”
Oh Marjorie, I put my head in my hands just recalling that thoughtless remark. I’d heard a lady say that to a young woman on a bus. I’d been looking forward to saying it myself, one day.
But Maree just glared at me with thunderous, steely eyes and said, “Nigel, you unobservant, TWIT of a man! The baby was born TEN MONTHS AGO!”
Apparently, that’s what you call ‘after baby belly’. All the time Maree was on maternity leave I’d assumed she was obscured from view down the side of the photocopier. No one thought to tell me she’d given birth to a baby girl. Anyone’s mistake.
Our secretary has always found me detestable. I’m tempted to conclude it was Maree who phoned the police to inform them cheerily of the full name and whereabouts of the Identikit man in the front page news.
Then again, it could have been Andrew Johnson. Andrew and I have worked together on various projects. I won’t bore you with the details. Let’s just say we’ve had a few stand-offs and unresolved disputes. We avoid each other wherever possible. Unfortunately for us both, we seem to have synchronised our bowel movements. Perhaps that’s what happens when two actuaries work together over long years. Whatever the case, it’s most unpleasant to arrive in the johns on level two only to find that somebody has already taken the best sitting toilet. There’s one good lavatory right at the end of the row: the one with the strong rush of water instead of the pathetic little trickle of the lesser cisterns. At precisely ten o’clock every morning, induced by the warmth of my second coffee, I pick up the latest copy of ‘Actuaries Actually in Action’ and toddle off. I’ll see Andrew glance up from his desk – always with a glint in his eye. I don’t know how he manages it, but as I’m waiting stiffly for the lift, he dashes down the fire-exit stairwell to nab the best loo before I do. I whip into the toilets just as the last flap of Andrew’s polyester suit disappears inside the cubicle. He brandishes the door shut, bolting it firmly behind him – grinning, no doubt.
He knows I cannot manage a thing with him heaving and ho-ing two cubicles along. I sit there hopefully, willing him to be on his way. Every now and then I hear pages turn as he reads the very same magazine. Andrew, unlike myself, is always proud of his lavatorial orchestra, and is sure to create one almighty stink before ostentatiously washing his hands, whistling all the while. If anyone else happens to enter the johns he’ll be sure to hold them up with a very longwinded chat. I’ve even heard him whisper, “Ooo, I know, rotten, isn’t it? Wasn’t me.”
I’m sure, dead certain in fact, that this declaration was accompanied by an eye-roll and an accusing glance in the direction of my own closed-door. I then had to wait for an opportune moment to dash out of the loos anonymously. The opportunity never arose, as there seemed to be some sort of meeting happening in the men’s toilets that day. Apart from the garlicky stench, I remember disapproving glares as I skulked out. I wanted to say something in my defence, but thought I’d only incriminate myself further. It was only seconds later, after pushing the elevator button, that I realised I hadn’t washed my hands. I’m usually very particular about that. Such was the extent of my shame.
In short, Marjorie, it could very well have been Andrew who dropped me in it that day. As explained above, he’d told tales before and he is quite capable of doing it again. Well, it could have been anyone in my office. They all regarded me with standoffish indifference that morning. Or perhaps I was beginning to notice what I had been blind to for years. I would never quite fit in.
I spent the rest of that morning locked inside my office and felt very glad to have scheduled the afternoon off.
We were due to meet, Marjorie, for the very first time that day. I’d inked it into my office calendar and looked forward to our rendezvous with an equal measure of delight and fear. After months of lengthy email correspondence you knew me better than anyone.
I agreed to meet you at that busy café on Church Street because Ms Cashew said that afternoon teas are far less stressful than candlelit dinners in fancy restaurants. Also, it’s their company policy to recommend a public place for first meetings – too dangerous otherwise, though she was keen to inform me they do not keep serial killers on their books. That sounds sadly ironic in hindsight, of course.
My blue checked shirt was purchased especially for the occasion. As promised, I did find a table for two near the window. I ordered two coffees and two jam tarts – one raspberry and one lemon. I took this liberty because you’ve told me that you’re never late. As I watched the steam rise from our coffee cups I wondered if something had gone horribly wrong. I thought I saw you at one point; at least, I did catch sight of an attractive woman fitting your description, dressed in the brown coat and a pink scarf. But by the time I thought to raise my hand by way of a greeting she was already scurrying away.
The police have asked me several times for an alibi, hoping my story might change. But I spent that entire afternoon sitting alone in the coffee shop, waiting for you. It’s amazing how lonely one can feel, all the while surrounded by hustle and bustle and by the cheery hellos and goodbyes of strangers. Loneliness pierced me more keenly this time, after waiting just a half hour longer, then another forty minutes. When the coffees had cooled I made my way home, stopping first at the park to feed the tartlets to the ducks.
The young woman who served me coffee has been interviewed by the police. She has not the faintest recollection of a man in a blue shirt sitting alone for two hours, gazing out of her front window. I visit that shop quite frequently, yet she has never once met my eye. I suppose she sees no end of sad, middle-aged men sipping cold coffee alone.
My boarder was out at another social gathering by the time I arrived home from the park. Curly thinks this whole debacle is a huge joke. The police have given him a grilling, which he thoroughly enjoyed. I was there for some of it.
“Nigel always watches Coronation Street on Thursdays,” he told them. “He sits in his brown chair and nods off towards the end. A line of drool drips onto his lapel.”
I must have glared.
“What?” he said, suddenly defensive. “I’m just adding authenticity!”
“A little less ‘authenticity’ and a little more ‘truth’,” cautioned the female officer.
Curly obliged her. “I am speaking in generalities,” he admitted. “I meant to say Nigel rarely misses an episode, yet last Thursday he was out. On a date! Just ask the woman.”
And so, dear Marjorie, I write from this small, white room in the vain hope that you did catch sight of me that afternoon, as I sat hunched over two cups of coffee in the window of Church Street café. I hope that you took one look at me, turned on your heel and left. Please, do not have any regrets; I bear you no ill will. I probably would have done the same.
from a lonely man in need of an alibi.
Well, that’s Mondays for you. I haven’t been at my workstation five minutes when I get the curly finger come-on. Oh Mary, Mary. You do things to me with that red-polished index finger of yours. I always know I’m *In Trouble* when you summon me into the boardroom for another of our private meetings.
I wrench off my headset, ignoring the flashing red-light. I pass off another obnoxious caller to an even-more-obnoxious co-worker. The world is full of lazy pricks who buy dishwashers. The prattiest pricks of the lot call help desks demanding to know how to turn off kiddy-lock. I am Tobias of North Melbourne. But my work becomes far more interesting as Anantha Vikram of Bangalore. I speak with perfect Dilmah-tea enunciation and have no idea about any kitty’s sock.
We know each other by now, Mary. I can read that look on your beautiful face. You are in dire need of a little tête-à-tête re my latest boredom buster.
You plonk a bursting folder of documents onto a trestle table stretching the length of this long, narrow room. Oh Mary, I love it when you’re angry. You extend a slim arm and order me to make use of the plastic chair. I’ve sat here many times before, usually opposite Uptight Ursula, who kicks me in the shins whenever she uncrosses her legs. With Ursula being a type-A personality, that is often. Under these wide-leg jeans I am covered in bruises. I know you’ve always wondered what’s under there. Anyway, such is the width of the table. Now I sit directly opposite you, Mary. I’m sure I’d smell your sweet breath if it weren’t for the lingering aroma of sausage rolls from Bill’s good-riddance do on Friday. Yes, that’s right. You may press your smooth knees against mine. I won’t tell a soul.
I know that you, too, enjoy the intimacy of this boardroom. You’ve even thought to close the door.
“Right,” you say. You open your manila folder and whip out a form.
I’m supposed to make out I’m interested. It’s all part of the game.
You hold it up for my perusal. “I asked you to complete feedback sheets, every hour, on the hour.”
That rings a bell. I might have filled out a couple. The rest suffered fifth degree burns after an unfortunate accident with a Frappuccino. “They didn’t make it through. Sorry.”
You raise one eyebrow. See, I am looking you in the eye. Note that I’m making every effort *not* to let my eyes flicker downwards, settling upon the deep v-neck of your business shirt. You could button-up to the collarbone, but you don’t. Why not, Mary? I think you and I both know the answer to that.
You flick the poor feedback form with those red talons of yours. “I asked for these in 12 point Times New Roman.”
“Does 18 point italicised Hypewriter not bang your buttons, Mary?”
“I’ve told you before. This job leaves little room for creative embellishments and fanciful fonts.”
It’s true. You read me oh too well. I’m a creative type, you see. This imaginative noggin of mine is wasted between two muffs of a headset!
I watch as you rifle through your papers. You’re tempted to lick your lips seductively but you’d only ruin your perfect lipstick. You press those lips together, resisting the urge. Your mouth settles into a thin, hard line. Oh Mary, give me a smile darling. One small hint, to let me know this is all a charade? A little more of that under-the-table leg-wrangling, perhaps?
“Look at this pile. Customer complaints about you are now two inches thick.”
Hmmm. If, indeed, you speak of the pile between us, you do exaggerate. You enjoy these games of imagination and embellishment as much as I do. “I’m sure you could squish that pile down by half with the aid of a cracking good paper weight.”
A cold, hard stare.
Or, at least, your attempt at one. I love it when you flash me the evils. I know it’s another of those little games we play. You’re an expert in the art of seduction: pulling in, pulling away.
I know how to pull you in, don’t I? You avoid uncomfortable lunchtime overlaps with me. You’d rather sit facing the microwave than engage in witty banter with a tempting underling. You study the roster. You take an early lunch to avoid me. You rarely manage to miss me completely, lingering long enough in the kitchen just so we can cross paths in the doorway. There I stand, breathing in. I feel my muscles tense, expecting your touch. You brush past, angling your body away, head bowed. Never mind. I enjoy the briefest tickling of fabric as you leave.
Do you remember The Citrus Affair? You didn’t realise I’d swapped lunch breaks with Ursula, did you? Ursula neglected to inform you of her latest appointment with the company counsellor. You sat alone at a formica table, chewing silently upon an apple, staring into *Telesales Weekly*. You didn’t complain when I joined you. Instead, you shifted in your chair, moving a centimetre or two in the opposite direction in this fruitless game of push-pull.
I pulled out some fruit of my own and placed it upon the table. Ursula owed me a coffee for the swap, you see. But we all know how stressed she’s been. I didn’t have the heart to send her down to Starbucks when she’s been advised to steer clear of the java. A single inhalation of caffeine might finish her off. I kindly settled for one item from her lunch box.
You looked at that tangerine as if it might be a prop designed to impress. You’ve never seen me eat fruit, have you, Mary. You’ve heard me announce that fruit is for phone-monkeys. I’m fond of saying that. I’m quite the wit and, unlike many around here, I never have to worry about running to fat. Of course, you hang off every word I say.
I fingered that fruit lasciviously. You blinked for one very long time and stifled a heavy sigh. That’s when I, very slowly, very deliberately, dug one thumbnail into dimpled flesh. One fine spray of acidic juice jet-streamed across the table. But it seems I have lost my playground aiming skills of yore.
So, I slapped one palm over my own eye and yelped like a puppy dog.
You startled. One hand reached out instinctively and grasped me by the shoulder. I writhed in agony.
“Tobias, are you okay? Were you juiced in the eyeball?”
I shook my head. I was not okay. I was about to die. Give me the kiss of life, Mary! Jaws, even! Anything!
“Is it a fit? You’re not epileptic, are you? It’s not this flickering fluorescent light, is it? Should I fetch first-aid?”
Ah, but that would be Uptight Urusla the OSH Officer, currently undergoing therapy for a suspiciously similar incident which occurred, oh, right about this time last week. But you didn’t hear about that, did you Mary? You didn’t suspect me for a second. I reeled you in: hook, rind and winker.
That’s when I winked at you, with one perfectly healthy peeper. You realised my game. Colour returned to your cheeks. There was no longer an excuse to continue our half-embrace. You released your grip of my shoulder and drew back, ashamed. But you showed me you care. I felt it in your touch.
“You really do fancy yourself, don’t you!” You gathered up your magazine and your wholemeal crusts and your water bottle and strutted back to your desk. I watched you stride away. Oh, the view from the back! It was all worth it, Mary, for the briefest of touches. My shoulder glowed for the rest of the afternoon, having absorbed your one and only patch of warmth.
You expected me to repent, didn’t you. So I popped into your office later in the week, offered you a proper coffee. You feigned absorption in your work. You say my Starbucks addiction is unhealthy. But you spared the lecture this time. I did notice that you’d kicked off those strappy stilettos we’re all so fond of. I’ve always been a leg man. I admire that collection of shoes under your desk. I do notice, Mary, when you stride into the office each morning in those comfy trainers covered in wet grass. I do notice that you glam it up for me, conducting these meetings of ours in far more alluring footwear. Your office could be your wardrobe, your living room… your bedroom, perhaps?
Should I have closed the door? I controlled the urge. There I lingered, arms folded, waiting for a lecture on coffee and time-management. You pretended not to notice me at all. So I asked you again.
“What?” you muttered. “Oh, no thanks, darling.”
I leaned against your doorframe. Did I catch you out? Was that a Freudian slip? Is there a mysterious someone in your life who deserves the term of endearment?
You looked up alarmed and saw me grinning. You dropped your head into your hands.
“Sorry,” you whispered. You’re not used to apologies, are you, in this little game we play? It’s always me making reparations: yes Miss, no Miss, I won’t do it again, Miss. It’s me who grovels, like the naughty little boy that I am.
You’re not comfortable now that the tables have turned. I’ve finally wrenched you out of your comfort zone of cold indifference.
“That was a little too familiar.” You said this with your eyes fixed to your computer screen. You couldn’t look me in the eye, could you? Couldn’t let me know the truth? Oh Mary, I’ve worked you out. I’ve seen the way you look at Roger from accounts. I’ve considered, many times, offering something stronger than a caffeine fix after work. But I know what you’d say.
“I can’t go to the pub with you, Tobias, because I’m in an exclusive, uncommitted one year relationship with a man I see on Thursday afternoons inside the stationery cupboard.”
I, on the other hand, bide my time with patience, settling for odd scraps of your attention. Oh, I don’t mind. I don’t mind a jot. I always knew you’d call me darling one of these days.
You didn’t accept a coffee. You said you were fine. But you did look in need of something. You, being an independent woman, could not bear to face me again that afternoon. You’d crossed that first line. I bought you an iced-tea, guessing your favourite fix. I returned twenty minutes later and placed the cup gently upon your desk. You didn’t say a word.
Such is love. I know you gaze at me through your one-way office window. I lean back in my swivel chair and flash you cheeky grins all day. Don’t the girls love a bad-boy, eh? You listen to my conversations; you say I’m not to indulge in personal calls during work hours, but I know you eavesdrop just a smidgen too long. I hear you breathing on the three-way line as I pre-order my Chinese takeaways.
You wonder if I’m speaking to a lover, don’t you Mary. You want to know how I treat my mother before embarking upon a serious, long-term relationship. Am I not giving enough away? Do I not take every opportunity to meet with you, contriving these one-on-one meetings in the boardroom? And you, darling, always take the bait. Here we are again.
You are not amused. I admit, your poker face is expert. That comes after years of practice in knocking men back. I don’t doubt it.
“You’ve had countless verbal warnings and two in writing,” you say.
Oooh. This conversation sounds more and more dangerous. You have my attention, Mary. Are you about to set me free into the urban wilderness as a metaphor of sexual tension released? It is very hot in here, isn’t it, and not just because of the malfunctioning air-con. You’ve told me numerous times that you’d love to see me in a tie but now we’re both glad of the excuse. I release the next button of my shirt. We match, now, Mary. Do you enjoy the view? When I’m no longer your subordinate you’ll be free to explore this obsession. I understand. Feel free to continue with your dominatrix fantasies. I will remain your slave. I’ll even wear my sexy headset for you, if you’ll let me keep it.
I’ve composed numerous drafts of my leaving speech. Doesn’t everyone do this in lazy moments of reflection between calls? Interestingly, my farewell speech is not unlike my imaginary funeral. “Call Me Irresponsible” blares from PC speakers (the Michael Bublé lick). Co-workers arrive from every floor. They cram their suited bodies into this very boardroom to say a few kind words. Everyone is far too upset to touch the mountain of sausage rolls teetering upon this trestle table. Even Ursula sobs into a polystyrene cup of orange cordial. “Adieu, adieu!” I say. “Remember me!” And you, dear Mary, will lurch towards me. You will ignore the sombre crowd and press your full lips to mine.
You flick off your biro and snap that folder shut. “Consider yourself officially dismissed.”
Perhaps I am a little disappointed. A tad let-down. I always fancied a little melodrama. But it’s not like the movies at all, is it? I had visions of you towering above me, standing tall and lithe in those stiletto heels, leaning in close before punishing me with a lap dance. You hiss into my ear. “You’re fired!” Your feline eyes examine my body in faux-disdain.
Instead, you push a sealed envelope across the desk. Perhaps it contains a cryptic love message to be read later, in private.
“You’ll need to return your swipe card to security before you go.”
“That’s it, then?”
You fix me with another of your cold, hard stares. Holding that folder-armoury to your chest, you push back on your chair. You stand to leave.
That’s when I realise. You haven’t been playing footsies with me at all. That cold, slim leg extending towards mine beneath the table presses against me still. All this time, Mary, I’ve fancied myself madly in love, engaged in one-sided hanky-panky with the unresponsive leg of this fucking trestle table.
I knew this story was a success when a middle-aged male critique partner read it then told me to get a life, among other tidbits. The first person narrator is indeed irritating as hell, which is exactly how it feels to be a woman in the workplace, confronted with a persistent Flirty Guy who is sometimes your boss, but just as likely an underling. If you can’t squirt him in the eye socket with citrus juice, next best thing is to write a short story and reward yourself with a bit of catharsis.
This story was a good lesson in how if I’m writing an irritating voicey piece, a novel-length work wouldn’t get read. Readers wouldn’t bear it. The longest you can do is a short story, or better yet, probably a poem.