Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Fiction #60

New fiction! Issue #60
Submissions now open for #61!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #60: Lynda Curnoe

The Addition                                                                                       

We are often motivated by love but sometimes we are motivated by love of light.

"It needs some fixing up," said Shirley. She stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, frowning. She was a person who didn't like making decisions quickly. But, Don, her husband, seemed very keen.

"Yes", agreed Don who was smiling, his cheeks ruddy in the cold air. "But it has good bones. And look how big it is."

"What will we do with all the room?" Shirley had grown up in a London bungalow, where there was just the right amount of room, with nothing extra.

"Don't worry; we'll fill it up just fine."

The neighbourhood was called Parkdale, named for a local park. It was the remains of a town on the outskirts of Toronto, which had lost its way. Once, below Parkdale’s grassy hill, beside Lake Ontario, there was an amusement park called Sunnyside, filled with summertime delights and laughter. There were lit up fairground rides, hotdog stands, clean water beaches and boardwalks, a destination, a place of fun. Parkdale still overlooked the lake, but now no one enjoyed looking at the traffic or hearing the noise of expressways and trains below.

After years of saving, Shirley and her husband, Don, were about to make an offer to purchase the semi shown to them by their realtor. It wasn't exactly their dream home but it was a solid house they could afford, in an area they liked.

This house was only 20 feet wide but it had three floors. On the first floor were a living room, dining room and eat-in kitchen, as the realtors liked to put it. On the second floor were three small bedrooms and a bathroom, likely originally a fourth bedroom converted to a bathroom when the early twentieth century house got indoor plumbing. On the third floor were two larger bedrooms and a second bathroom.

Most of Parkdale had been built in the days when people had large families. Then it was a thriving lakeside community. But with the building of Lakeshore Boulevard and the Gardiner expressway, many of the bigger houses had been demolished or made into rooming houses. Now the area was making a comeback and house prices were rising.

*          

The Sinclairs had three children, a boy aged 11 and twin girls, aged 9 who took over the third floor bedrooms, the largest one at the front for the girls who preferred to sleep together in the same room. Don and Shirley took the largest second floor bedroom for their own. The second largest bedroom on the second floor was to be Don’s office, for he worked at home and the smallest at the end of the hall at the back became a TV room. Don and Shirley did not like having a TV in their living room.

Even before they moved in, one of the first improvements Shirley imagined would be adding an addition on the back--a solarium, a sun-filled room where she could have plants, an easy chair and look out over the garden in winter.

"We could put a big room on the back of the house, Don, with space for a main floor washroom. Wouldn’t that be a really good idea, especially for guests?"

"There you go again. Always getting ahead of yourself. We barely have enough income to pay the mortgage and do some fixing up and painting. You thought the house was too big at first."

"No it’s not too big. It’s just that being a semi there’s no light anywhere. And there’s that big tree at the front."

"But that’s one of the things you said you liked about the house."

"I do, but we bought it in the spring and I couldn’t know how much shade there would be in summer."

"We’re lucky. Look how cool it is. We don’t even have to put in air conditioning. We couldn’t afford it anyway."

*          

It took several months to adjust to the problems and delights of the house. Shirley was bothered by all the stairs because she had a bad knee from a bike accident some years ago. She asked the children to set up a routine of cleaning their own rooms on Saturday mornings before they started anything else. That became house cleaning time with Shirley doing the bulk of the work vacuuming and cleaning the two lower floors. Don was trusted with grocery shopping, something he was glad to do since he was the family’s chief cook. As a freelance commercial real estate appraiser, he put in regular hours at his desk and saw clients in the living room, or sat at the dining room table with them. Both rooms were kept free of family clutter to accommodate Don’s work needs.

Shirley was a reference librarian who took advantage of the library’s flex time to work late, because she liked time to herself in the mornings. Don worked 9 to 5 setting strict time limits on his day. After work he changed into running gear and headed out to run 5 k all around the streets of Parkdale. Sometimes he cycled along the Martin Goodman Trail east to Harbourfront or west to the edge of Mississauga. By 6:30 he had showered and started dinner. The rule was that the children had to do their homework right after school, before they were allowed to watch TV. Shirley would set the table and make a salad or dessert after returning from work.

There was little time or money for the couple to undertake major renovations. Don had all the money under control, something which continually distressed Shirley who liked to live a little more spontaneously. With a girlfriend, the spring after they moved in, she spend a week at a resort in Cuba. Don was not pleased with the expense.

"But I don’t have any discretionary money of my own in your budget," Shirley said. "Every single penny is accounted for."

This became an all-out argument that went on for several days. Don was forced to take Shirley’s position seriously.

"What we’ll do is allot personal money for each of us." He suggested. "I’ll take our spending money, now a lump sum for the family, and divide it into five. And I’ll also take vacation money and divide that into five as well. I had my doubts about dividing the vacation money because we usually go together, but, since you decided to go on your own, you changed the rules. The children’s vacation and personal money stays together as always, although, obviously, they will receive less than we do. I’ve decided to visit my brother in Ottawa for a week in the spring. We’re going hunting together. So that money will come out of my vacation money."

At Shirley’s insistence, they further decided to separate their money by opening personal bank accounts and having budgeted amounts transferred from their main account, used to pay household bills, every month. Don began his with the cost of Shirley’s Cuban vacation, to make it even. Shirley’s account began with zero. Well, she thought, I’ll just have to curb spending on clothes for a while. Just a couple new tops for the spring. Although Don worked at home, he still needed appropriate office attire to meet clients. Even so, he hardly ever spent anything while Shirley had to hold herself back. The budget had effectively stopped their nagging financial arguments.

Still, Shirley dreamed about the addition on the back of the house, visualizing how she could take her Sunday morning coffee out there, lounging on a comfortable chair with her feet up, reading in the sun all through the winter. She created several designs and layouts on drafting paper and continued looking at home decorating magazines.

Their main floor front room was so dark, small and formal, with a large fireplace dominating one wall, and always kept so tidy that Shirley was uncomfortable there, preferring to spend her spare time in front of the TV or in her bedroom reading by the bay window.                            

Occasionally she would mention her project to Don who would sigh and trot out computer print-outs of their latest budget figures, which showed they were just barely covering mortgage and house expenses. Because Don had included a maintenance line in the budget, they were able to replace an ailing kitchen stove and install a new floor in the children’s bathroom, improvements that needed to be done.

Don was an astute manager, careful while she was sometimes frivolous. Shirley had to give him credit for that. Because he spent so little personal money he was able to keep buying photography equipment and maintain a darkroom in the basement, not just a hobby for him, as he had had some of his photographs exhibited in a gallery downtown. Nothing sold, but he was happy. And of course his files were loaded with pictures of the children.

*

But one November morning in her 48th year and the 8th year of living in their Parkdale semi, Shirley realized she was bored with Don. There was no zest in their sex life. In fact, they hardly bothered anymore, except for an occasional giggly coupling after a party, when both of them had had a bit too much to drink. Shirley had begun having an occasional lunch with an old friend from university who had said hello to her in the library, thrilled to see her again. Gordon had never married, and lived the life of a bachelor in a nearby loft, newly converted into condos from a large former carpet factory. He took Shirley there one afternoon after lunch on her day off. She was dazzled by the look of the place.

"There’s so much light." she exclaimed. "My house is so dark. Don seems to like it that way. In fact he spends a large part of the evening in his darkroom in the basement."

"I have to have light, "said Gordon.

The loft was huge, a 1500 square foot space with large windows overlooking railroad tracks that swept down from the West and ended up at Union Station. Gordon owned the whole South end of the top floor which provided views of East, West and South, all the way to Lake Ontario.

"I chose this one because of the windows and the tracks. I love to hear the sounds of trains. There are no other close buildings. And look at the view of the city. I get the sun all day long."

Gordon had an expensive telescope set in the window where he was able to star gaze and, if he wanted, people gaze. Although he had focused his lens on some apartment buildings a few times, he thought this an unethical activity and had largely stopped.

"There’s not much to see," he said, "a couple sitting down to dinner, people reading, doing exercises, kids fighting over a TV program, the usual kind of domestic stuff. I’ve never seen a sexy woman taking off her clothes and getting into the tub or a couple making love on a balcony. I’ve heard those things happen but I’ve never seen it. The whole thing is a bit voyeuristic, it seems to me."

Shirley and Gordon went to bed in Gordon’s king size bed that afternoon, something she was hoping would happen.

The light from Gordon’s windows had penetrated Shirley’s being. She thought she could not face her dark living room and bedroom again. When she returned home she told Don she had been out shopping but had not bought anything.

"You know I don’t have much money left in my personal account," she complained when Don asked why she hadn’t bought anything.

"Well maybe if you were a little more careful with your money. You’re always shopping."

"The mortgage was paid off this year. What are you doing with the extra money?"

"It’s all going into savings and the kids’ university funds. You know that’s going to take a while and we’ll need quite a bit of money to get them through."

"What about my addition?"

"Oh Shirley, not that again. You know we can’t afford it. It’ll cost about $50,000 to do it right."

"But I’ve been wanting it ever since we moved in. My wishes have to be considered too."

"Listen, you know I’m self employed. I don’t have access to a pension as you do. And even when you begin to receive yours it won’t be enough for us to live on. We need about $200,000 dollars to live comfortably when we are retired."

"How much do we have now?"

"About $25,000."

"How on earth did you manage to save all that while we were paying off the mortgage?"

"You can look at the budget anytime you want. You know I kept a little aside for investments and I’ve done rather well with them."

Shirley was plagued with guilt in the weeks following her liaison with Gordon. When he next came into the library she said she wouldn’t see him anymore. But after about 6 months she agreed to meet him in a Roncesvalles coffee shop, late on a Wednesday afternoon. After sitting down, she began to weep.

"I can’t stand it anymore. I’m in love with you and I don’t know what to do about it."

"Come back to my place. I need to see you"

"I can’t."

"Just call Don and tell him you’re going to the movies with some friends from work."

Back in Gordon’s bed Shirley said she would like to leave Don and move in with him.

“Are you sure?” asked Gordon.

"But I don’t know when." Shirley said. "I have to look after the children first."

Shirley maintained her marriage to Don in the Parkdale semi for another two years, all the while conducting a clandestine affair with Gordon in his loft. The afternoon of her mid-week day off, when Don thought she was out shopping, was reserved for Gordon who left work at noon, picking up wine and take out Indian food or dim sum before they spent the afternoon making love in the sunlight.

*

Shirley was about to turn 50. Don had planned a big surprise party for her, inviting all their friends and relatives. John came home from university in Guelph and the girls, who still lived at home while attending U of T and George Brown College, helped with the secret preparations. Shirley was delighted on entering the house and finding it filled with people. But also horrified, because there was Gordon standing in the centre of the living room. He gave her a peck on the cheek and wished her happy birthday.

"Why are you here?" she whispered.

"Don got my number from your phone book and invited me. I’ve seen him around and he knows we went to university together. Besides, I wanted to see what would happen."

The party was a great success, filled with librarian friends, old school friends, even public school friends from London, Shirley’s home town. Her father was there, along with her aunts and even some first cousins. Don and the girls had covered the dining room table with food. There were streamers hanging from the ceiling and balloons everywhere.

Don led Shirley to a small table at the back of the dining room where a set of plans were laid out.

"Look," he said, pointing to the drawings.

It was a plan of a large windowed semi-circular addition.

"This is my present to you, darling" said Don kissing her on the cheek. "We’re starting work next week."

Shirley died at that moment. Don was grinning broadly, clearly delighted with what he had done. Gordon was standing in a corner of the room looking over at her. She knew that in the following week she must show some courage. She didn’t know if she had it in her.

 *

Lynda Curnoe enjoys writing short stories and poetry and anything else that appeals to her. She lives in Toronto.

Fiction #60: rob mclennan

Baby Names

                                                                                                ashless
                               are the voices                            we have become
                                
                                                                  Cole Swensen, Gravesend

1.

Baby Iphigenia, shortened to If, and sometimes Iffy. She was named for the leader of the Greek forces at Troy, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who threw her body down to save and solve her father’s follies. Less known than vain Helen, hers was not the face to launch a thousand ships, but the sacrifice that prevented further bloodshed. If only.

Names so often shortened; culled to their perfect, familiar forms.

From the time she a toddler, she held a certainty that ignited calm in those around her, unable to discern a single break or a crack. What not even water could unfold.

By her late twenties. Punctual, she knew her marriage over when she arrived late and later for appointments with her husband. She knew he had done nothing wrong, but they’d drifted further apart, inch by restless inch. She didn’t even know she was unhappy until it came crashing in, a single phrase from his lips, three glasses of another Okanagan red into waiting, again.

“Apparently it’s ‘If, not when,’” he added. There.


2.

Call me Ishmael, he said.

But that was not his name, and in the end, was not what we called him.


3.

Georgie girl. Pregnant so very young, she named her baby daughter for the just-released Lynn Redgrave feature and the child grew to hate the association, opting instead for the full Georgina. She preferred, as she explained, a name with weight, something you could hold in your hand like a stone or a brick, not one you’d fear might float away. Her birth certificate was equally infected, “Georgie.”

Her mother thought the name sweet; Georgina associated it too closely with the awkward, overweight film character. She’d had enough trouble of her own. She preferred the association with old King George, Georgian, as was she. The period post-Edwardian, rapt in King and Country, despite their home in the colonies. She flecked her hair with homemade fascinators. She scoured shops for antique, hand-sewn lace.

The thread of the theme song, “Hey, there,” outlined her childhood. Against her will it had imprinted deep upon her, from preschool lullaby her mother sang to schoolyard taunt. When required, she learned early to punch, to throw, to knock down.

When she was twenty-three years old, she took the matter to the courts, and had her name legally altered—Georgina—and spent the following decade guilting her mother for the burden. The issue might have been resolved, but the injury would never fade.


4.

Since the turn of the century, new parents have worked through a sequence of names that those a decade or more before knew only as “old lady names”: Agnes, Myrtle, Charlotte, Laird, Ellen, Della. Names of women born a rough-century before, even earlier. With a gap of time, the old names renew, reemerge. Quite literally, reborn.

In the 1980s, the gust of soap-opera Ashley and Kendra replaced the old standards of Catherine, a Jane or a Jennifer. No family, it seemed, was immune. Names that return and replace any previous. Five girls in a grade school class with the same first name. Add or subtract their birth year times three, and the name is no less prevalent, yet entirely different.

Susan. Emma. Beatrice.


5.

Charles, as his father. Stephen, named for no-one. Identical twins, connected by a ten second pause. As one felt rudderless to his brother’s birthright, the other, held against his sibling’s implied freedoms. Theirs was a complicated relationship, a complicated fate, if one might believe in such things. And yet, so simple.

Ten seconds between, and perhaps it never made a difference. Perhaps the differences were entirely artificial, constructed. A seed they carved and planted, into the divisions they became.


6.

So often, names help shape and announce identity, chosen as arbitrary as one might imagine.

The way my dairy farmer father named the new calves, each year assigned a letter, alphabetical, to keep track of their age.

Alice, Arlette, Annie each a year older than Bertha, Beth, Bonnie.

In the file cabinet he kept in the milkhouse, paperwork on every arrival, every animal he owned. A paperback of baby names.


7.

Adopted at ten months of age, my new parents changed my birth name into something that was meant to be entirely my own, if not theirs. The choice was under their discretion. Because of this, I have been me for most but not all of my life, uncertain how, or if, the shift has shaped me. Perhaps, as Shakespeare wrote, a rose by any other.


*

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

photo credit: Christine McNair

Fiction #60: Al Cool

When the Truth Won’t Do

I needed a Zen moment. Eating supper in the company of fifty other loggers in the noisy cook shack at Juskatla, the brassy din echoing off the stainless steel and Formica fixtures breached my toleration limits. I planned my escape for right after I cleaned off the mountain of food on my plate. I could stay in my trailer at Tlell and return early the next morning for work. Just wanting out, I passed on taking a shower so I was still in my logging gear. I’d toss my caulk boots in my car before leaving camp.

Soon, I was speeding my rust-bucket into ‘town’. I joined the after-supper exodus in my ’75 Parisienne, careening around blind, slippery hairpin corners, barely keeping up with the other guys on the road. Most were heading to the bar in town, and that bar was only fifteen miles of Queen Charlotte Island mainline corduroy away. Choking back dust, fishtailing around teeth-rattling potholes, surviving windshield-eating gravel spraying all around the car, I successfully dodged aloof black bears and the maniacal drivers heading into camp for night shift - also driving at break-neck speeds. The goal was cold draft beer poured into frosted mugs in the Port Clements pub.

However, tonight, I was keen for Coho fishing. Getting a hook in the water and enjoying the peace and solace on the riverbank meant I could ward off the logger blues creeping in on me again. The lead cars of the convoy turned left into the pub parking lot. After dropping off two riders, I scored a quick six-pack at the store, and then lit off for Tlell. Bouncing along the heaving, dangerously rutted highway punched through twelve miles of scrubby Spruce swamp, the sun was bright, the colors vibrant and the beer cold. Slowing down, crossing the timbers of the Tlell river bridge, I saw the dark water flowing upriver, inland. Perfect. The Coho will be pushing in with the tide. Tourists fish downriver; I want no part of that. I’ll head to my trailer then fish right there. Alone. Solitude is relaxing. It is my Zen thing.

I blew past the Sanderson Ranch, making the right turn at Wiggin’s Road, then right again at Annie’s place, circling around the perennially green pastures of the Sanderson’s ‘stump farm’. With nary a glance, I passed Chris’s trailers near the end of the road. He wouldn’t want his hermitage invaded. I shot up the curving grade of my sandy driveway. Everything looks just the same as when I left it. No need to hesitate. I had already decided to approach the river from across the top of my property, choosing this route so no one could possibly see me. One person in Nature alone, undistracted, hears and sees more. On the best days, the experience evolves beyond sentience; entering Nature’s gift, her ‘tonic of wildness’ cleanses the spirit. Two or more people fishing can turn competitive: conversations degrade to splitting costs, where to fish, when to leave or move. Too often, the experience becomes shabby and escapist.

Tonight, with the river to myself, I could immerse into the manna that can be the magic of this archipelago. I live just above the intimate, Cottonwood-lined green glen at the end of the road, where the mysterious river bends dramatically, passing through and beyond green pastures, narrowing into a shaded, tree-lined slot. Many hours I spent here with Chris, my fishing mentor and the only fishing partner I could tolerate. It was Chris who, in order to ‘control’ access to the river and without my knowledge, persistently pestered my landlord until, for respite alone, he offered the property to me as a rental. From my trailer atop this sandy knoll, I would slip out to enjoy this treasure, fishing the rising tides each season for the past three years. As payback for securing the rental for me, Chris placed me under threats of excommunication if I “ever spoke of this spot”. Entering this conspiracy to protect the ‘spot’ overlooked a few facts: it is public property at the end of a public road leading to the river, attendees park then walk through what amounted to a public parking lot, passing by a well-used fire ring and tenting area along a short, well-worn trail. Chris was different that way – all his fishing secrets were sacrosanct, as were his many distracting idiosyncrasies. With the ferocity of a hungry grizzly digging after a marmot, the more privacy Chris sought out, the more determined became the usually inaccurate gossip about him.

Before descending to the river, listening for sounds of people, I laced up my caulks again. Nothing. Just my own breathing, the familiar eagle family screeching at each other, ravens harassing the eagles, the off-shore wind through the giant Spruce lining the far bank despite Monk’s best efforts to log them off. Having decided to try the new run, I would have to fish from Monk’s logging slash. It felt fitting in some way, a gesture of respect, hopeful perhaps, for some aspect of recovery after the destruction beaten down upon Nature by industry. I knew of people who bathed at this area, but I was not one of them. I never immersed myself in this water. This is not a sparkling northern river – its dark flow does not invite as other waters might.

Sure, it was Monk’s property. But he purposely left logs and up-ended stumps behind after tearing up the well-worn river trail to discourage anyone from trying the river that crossed through this scarred corner of his land. Struggling through the slash, cursing Monk, I eventually acquired a tentative perch on the bank. I stood beside a leafless, grey, Spruce sapling, knocked over during the logging. Leaning far out over the river at the top end of the pool, the tips of a few stripped limbs actually in the water, it presented a minimal hazard to my line and only if I was careless.

I cast to the far bank, downriver, letting my lure’s action work with the slow tidal push inland as I reeled in line. Bits of green seaweed floated past, upriver. Interior ranges and expansive collection swamps feed the Tlell. Draining the center of Graham Island, it is a slow, small river, rich in fish. Cedar roots leeching into the water produce a decidedly reddish hue, making it difficult to place the next step when wading anywhere but the shallowest of gravel bars. Successful upriver anglers tune to feel and vibration because the Tlell is a river of snags and monstrous blow-downs, which discourage the meat-fishing set, who tend to roost and carouse only where easy access abounds.

Suddenly, my rod jerked violently, pulled almost from my hands. I released line from my Silex reel, precariously managing the speed of the release, the torque of the pull and the angle of the rod, trying not to lose this fish. The silver Northern Coho leapt clear of the water, splashing down in a great writhing contortion, taking off on another spectacular surface run. Fear not, you will be released, my friend, but in the meantime, let’s see what you’ve got for me. And what a magnificent effort! It took several more ferocious runs downriver, testing my line and skill. I could just hold it. Finally, it changed direction and then, anti-climatically, my line snarled into the limbs of the sapling leaning over the river. Damn you, Monk! The rod instantly changed from a dynamic, carbon-fiber connection to an ineffectual pole. The line from the reel to the limbs remained limp as I watched the Coho jump several more times mid-river, my hook in its mouth, like it was mocking me.

I had to free the fish. Maybe it would free itself, maybe not. I could not leave it to chance that it might die tethered like that. I turned around to scan the slash behind me, then the bank upriver and down. No one. Good. How could I let the fish entangle itself in the one snag in the river? The wild Coho jumped again, this time upriver, my hook still in its mouth. I could imagine how angry it must be. If I could free the line from the limbs, it would still have a chance to spawn.

I put my rod down, quickly unlaced my caulk boots, kicked them off, peeled my socks and dropped my fallers’ pants, grey-wool Stanfields and thermal T-shirt. Standing only in my white underwear, swarms of black flies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums attacked me immediately, eating me alive. I would have to be quick. I took a step off the bank, expecting it to be knee deep, but crashed full into the tepid river up to my chin. I cursed, feeling the gentle persuasion pushing my feet across the slimy bottom gravel. I let go of the line, reaching up for the leaning sapling. As I worked hand-over-hand along the tree out toward my line, the sapling bent nearer the surface, the weak but stubborn current soon divesting me of my remaining stitch of clothing. Fully aware of the irony of this effort to free a fish in the ‘Charlottes, where fish are as abundant as raindrops, I thought, There’s not much Zen being caught hanging stark naked over the middle of the river. Still, I felt obligated to influence the outcome of this situation.

Hanging there, I worked fast, unable to snap the iron-tough limbs, making it doubly difficult to untangle the line. The Coho had stopped rising while I continued what was becoming an arduous struggle fulfilling my duty to my self-imposed ‘community service’. All the while, the infuriating flies chewed at any part of my exposed body. Finally, I dropped my freed line into the water, watching it sink away from the limbs. I repeated my gymnastics back to the bank, scrabbling onto shore. I dressed hurriedly; thankful there were no witnesses.

Reeling in the line that once hooked a now, long-gone, wild Northern Coho, it suddenly stopped. Is it? Could it be? No. The line is just snagged on the bottom. I pulled steadily on the line. It stretched. I pulled more, it stretched again, and then I felt a small amount of give. Maybe… I worked the line, the lure and the resistance until I retrieved my catch to the bank. I was trying to land a giant, waterlogged Sitka Spruce limb. Damn you twice, Monk! I have no idea why the line, the rod, or my temper didn’t snap while I was pulling it in, but here I was anyway. The hook disappeared deep into the fibrous wood. I dropped the rod several times trying to grab the limb. But each time I hauled it close, the limb sank out of reach toward the murky bottom before I could grab hold. Eventually, it occurred to me I could utilize the toppled sapling. I reeled my catch in again, managing to wind loops of line around a broken limb. Now I had the line anchored. I made a desperate lunge, grabbing for my prize, flopping with the broken end in my arms backwards into the slash, gasping for air. I hauled the rest of the limb onto the shore. It was a twenty-foot beauty, a real Tlell trophy. I’d enjoyed enough Zen and angling for one evening.

Retelling this story, rarely am I afforded the benefit of the doubt as to the veracity of the details. I have come to accept it that a pack of entertaining lies will satisfy and compete with any well-told truth. So, for the listener who has not shared my experience, I adjust the details, dimensioning the limb, which can still be found laying on the bank today, to just over ten feet long.

*

Alfred Cool has written 6 novels comprising his BC Series. Since 2010, he has won awards in short story contests, has published e-fiction, and is published in three Canadian anthologies. He attended Simon Fraser University to pursue English as his major. After logging, Al enjoyed a lengthy career as a computer systems analyst and taught privately and as a college instructor. He is a member of the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Authors Association and the BC Federation of Writers. He writes extensively and intimately about his travels on the coast of British Columbia.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Fiction #59

New fiction! Issue #59
Submissions now open for #60!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #59: Joanna M. Weston

Far From Ordinary

Gina, bored with Ma and her rheumatism, bored with housework and chickens, had taken the bus into Mapleton. Now she sat in a corner of the coffee shop watching a red-haired man shovel pie into his mouth. She wished something interesting would happen.

“Coffee?” asked the waitress, pausing beside her.

“Please,” said Gina, “and a donut.”

“Haven’t come in yet – there’s apple pie.”

“Is it fresh?”

“Yesterday’s.”

“No thanks then.”

“One coffee coming up.”

“It’s good pie,” the man called.

Gina frowned at him.

He grinned broadly revealing broken teeth. His hair grew to a widow’s peak high on his long thin face; he had sun-lines round up-turned green eyes.

“Would you like to join me?”

“Are you sure?”

“I can always use company,” he replied.

The waitress slopped a coffee onto the table in front of Gina.

The word ‘company’ caught her attention.

“I’m with you on that one,” she said, willing to be friendly but not wanting to seem an easy pick-up.

“Bring your coffee over,” the man said.

Gina got up slowly, unsure of him.

“I only eat people for breakfast,” he said smiling. His eyes twinkled like sunlight on deep water.

Gina laughed, relaxed, and sat down opposite him.

“What kind of people do you eat?”

“Only the ones that fire me.”

Gina nodded. “That’s the way to treat them.”

“I’m not kidding,” the man said.

Gina shifted in her seat. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Ford. What’s yours?”

“I’m Gina.”

Ford ate another mouthful of pie and Gina noticed black grease embedded round and under his nails.

“You’re a mechanic?” she asked.

“I can fix anything, anywhere,” Ford said.

“Who fired you?”

Ford nodded to the garage across the street. “Dumb bastard.”

“Not enough work for a mechanic?”

“Too much fire at night for the boss,” Ford said.

“Booze?” Gina asked.

“Dancing on chimney pots.”

What did that mean? Gina wondered as she sipped a mouthful of lukewarm coffee.

“What’re you going to do today?” Ford asked.

“Wander … look in store windows … ” Gina hesitated.

“Want to go on an adventure?”

“What kind?” Gina hoped he wasn’t implying she should jump into bed with him.

“Anywhere in the world and beyond,” Ford said, wiping ice-cream from his plate with the last of the pie.

“What do you mean?” Gina put her cup down.

“I’m also a travel-guide, ready to take you to the other side of beyond.”

“What on earth does that mean?”

“I’ll show you.” Ford looked her in the eye and stood up. Gina got to her feet slowly, mesmerized by Ford’s green eyes. She was taller than him by six inches.

“Come on.” He caught her hand and pulled her towards the door.

“Hey, you’ve not paid,” the waitress called.

Gina pulled a dollar from her pocket and put it on the counter as she passed. Ford tossed a fiver towards the waitress. He pulled the door open.

Gina felt a quiver of fear and tried to free her hand from Ford’s, but he held her tighter and said, “Adventures come to those who go through the door.”

She followed him onto the street. A rickshaw brushed past. Three cyclists dodged her. Horns blared, people shouted. She cowered against the wall, pulling Ford back beside her.

“Where are we?” she asked, dazzled by colour and sound, the smell of spices, lilies, jasmine, and an undercurrent of perfume that she couldn’t name. Signs in Chinese, tiled roofs, narrow store-fronts, neon lights, everything she saw and heard bewildered her.

“Where … am … I?” Gina asked.

Ford laughed. “China. Where else?”

“But how? How did we get here?” Gina glanced over her shoulder. The open door behind led into a dark, cramped room with ledges along the walls, some occupied. She turned back to the street and saw a Chinese child dart through the parade of legs and wheels. He disappeared down a side-street, a dog hard on his heels.

“Adventure, is how,” Ford said.

“But … I don’t understand.”

“I can’t say I do but it’s dangerous and it’s fun.” Ford released her hand. Gina reached for him, terrified of being alone in this strange place. She caught his arm.

“Tea,” she said, “that’s what I can smell … a different kind of tea.”

“Do you want some?”

“Not now,” Gina said, afraid and confused. Ford took her hand from his arm, held it, and Gina felt a strong surge of delight, a burst of courage, run through her from his touch.

“Let’s explore,” said Ford. He laughed and swung her hand.

“Have you been here before?”

“Don’t think so.” Ford headed for the side-street that had swallowed the child. It was a narrow alley with square paving stones underfoot. Ancient bicycles leaned against cramped house fronts. Gina wanted to stop and look through open doors: she caught a glimpse of a woman cooking, another sewing under the light from the single window.

She decided she was asleep and dreaming. The dream excited her, fulfilled her longing to break out of everyday routines.

Ford pulled her into a maze of alleys. During the next hours, Gina saw trishaw men, silk robes, smelled opium, heard the chime of Buddhist monastery bells, and peeked into private tea-gardens. She ate pickled octopus from one street stall and fried sardines from another. Ford bought her a tiny corsage that she pinned to her jacket.

How had she come to this place? Gina wondered. If it was a dream, it was the best she’d ever had.
Gina reached for Ford’s hand, swung him towards her and asked, “Who are you? Tell me the truth.”

“I’m the one who guides people into the reality of dream,” Ford said.

Gina shook her head: that didn’t make sense.

“And where are we exactly?” she asked.

Ford shrugged. “Beijing I think.”

“How will we get home?”

“Go back through the door.”

“Was it that particular door, of the coffee shop?” Gina rubbed the bamboo wall beside her, liking the smoothness.

“You’ll find it, don’t worry,” Ford said.

“But how, when we’re in another country?” Gina doubted that she wanted to go back, everything here appealed: the exotic, exciting.

“It’s here, somewhere unexpected.” He turned and went down the street. Gina noticed how his pointed ears poked through his unruly hair. For a few moments his head gleamed bright red amongst the dark-haired throng. Then he disappeared: he was there, then simply not there.

Gina ran, thrusting her way through, to catch up: he had vanished. She scurried, terrified, darting this way and that down side-streets, tiny lanes, into a vast covered market. She dashed along aisles, wanting to stop and look at ivory Buddhas, glass beads, embroidered bags, but needing to find Ford. She rushed on. She peered into faces, searching for his brilliant green eyes and creased mouth.

“Ford! Ford!” She ran. She shouted. She ran.

She got caught in a mass of people all going one way. They chanted. They sang. Gina‘s bewilderment fed the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. Dream had become nightmare, if it was indeed a dream. 

She asked a bespectacled girl, “What’s happening?”

“We protest,” the girl said, “not enough speech.”

“Where are you going?”

“To make protest, be heard,” the girl replied. “Not happy with silence. We protest.”

Gina stayed close to the girl who paid her no more attention. The crowd streamed along the streets, gathering people as it went. Long white banners surged above them with characters drawn in purple or gold paint.

Gina tried to understand, then gave up. She was with people who knew what they were doing even if she didn’t. She was afraid to stay with the crowd, more afraid to leave and be alone in the alien streets.

The crowd marched and chanted into a vast open space. There were grey government-style buildings with soldiers on roofs. It was too much to take in. Gina sat down on a stone step in front of a building, leaned forward and wept. Then she looked up at the darkening sky.

“I don’t know where I am,” she whispered. “Perhaps I don’t know who I am. And I don’t know how to get home.”

A voice within her said, Go through the door.

Gina stood up, angry. “And I’m fed up with someone, Ford, whoever it is, saying ‘go through the door’. What damn door? Which damn door?”

Ford had said, “You’ll find it,” not “We’ll find it.”

How would she find it?

Someone pulled at her sleeve. She turned round. A man said, “No English. Is better no English.”

“But that’s all I know.” Gina’s fear doubled. She flung her hands wide in desperation.

“No speak English,” the man said. “English get jail.”

“Jail?” Gina was astonished. “Don’t be silly.” They wouldn’t put her in jail because she spoke English.

The man gave her a strange look and disappeared into the crowd. No one round Gina spoke English. Everyone moved away, leaving space round her. Where was Ford? Why and how had he left her?
Gina tried to become part of the crowd again but it seemed that she had a disease. She remained isolated until four soldiers parted the crowd as if it didn’t exist. Two of them grabbed her arms and frog-marched her away. Gina struggled, churned her shoulders, pulled, kicked, tried to bite, wept and screamed, “Let me go. I’ve done nothing.”

“You come,” one said.

It had to be a dream. They dragged her to a grey van and tossed her in as if she were garbage. She landed on other bodies. Someone kicked her off his, or her, legs. She could smell urine. Before the doors were slammed shut she saw five or six faces. Then the van moved off. 

“Where’s the door?” Gina yelled.

“For God’s sake,” a man said. “You came in through the door, didn’t you?”

“Who are you?” Gina asked, struggling over the bodies until she could lean against a side wall.

“A poor misbegotten tourist from England, name of Mike.”

“I’m Gina … Does everyone in here speak English?”

“Only me.”

“Why are you here?” Gina asked.

“Because I spoke English in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“That’s silly … people don’t get jailed because they speak English.”

“They do if they get caught in a pro-democratic protest around Tiananmen Square.”

“Oh.”

“And those soldiers are carrying guns.”

“They won’t shoot unarmed people.” Gina was horrified.

“They might.”

Terror clenched her stomach. She wanted to be sick, wanted to pee. She desperately wanted to go home.

Gina wriggled onto her hands and knees against the sway of the van. She leaned on and bumped into the bodies around her. Someone swore, a hand grabbed and held her until she tore away, leaving her jacket. Someone else groaned as, shivering, she crawled to the back. She clawed and pushed herself to her feet and banged on the doors.

“Let me out. Let me out,” she yelled.

“That’ll do no good,” Mike sneered.

Gina put her hands flat against one door and leaned against it, drained of hope, tears falling unheeded.

“I want to go home,” she wailed.

She found the door-handle. She grasped and turned it. The door opened. She stepped into the Mapleton café. The waitress was wiping tables with a dirty cloth.

Gina looked behind her and, through the glass door, saw the empty street. She stared, baffled, then turned round.

A red-haired man sat at a table, shoveling pie into his mouth. His hair grew to a widow’s peak high on his long thin face.

“Ford?” she asked uncertainly.

He smiled, showing broken teeth. He had sun-lines round up-turned green eyes.

“Oh my God,” Gina said.

“Coffee?” the waitress said.

“No. No.”

The man Gina knew as Ford said, “Try the pie, it’s good.”

“No. Not you. Not you again.”

Gina stepped back. Who was the man? Who was Ford? She didn’t want to know.

She was afraid to open the door, afraid of where she would be, or what would happen. But she thrust her shoulder against the door and walked out, terrified that the man would speak to her, would take her outside her safe, ordinary life. She wanted Ma.

*


JOANNA M. WESTON. Married; has two cats, multiple spiders, a herd of deer, and two derelict hen-houses. Her middle-reader, ‘Those Blue Shoes', published by Clarity House Press; and poetry, ‘A Summer Father’, published by Frontenac House of Calgary. Her eBooks found at her blog:  http://www.1960willowtree.wordpress.com/ 

Fiction #59: Vladimir Cirovski

Nadja and Natasha

I noticed it each time I visited her apartment, the copy of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda that I lent her, supporting a potted plant on her window sill. Occasionally I would walk over and tend to the plant expecting her to notice the connection by hint of the proximity between my book and body – she added water. A potted plant being watered plopped on a paperback – Natasha was like that – careless in a way you find charming, if you, like me, worry that a competence for the mundane indicates the absence of creativity.  She wore loose fitting clothes that sagged about her as if their main function was to prevent her body from gathering dust, but whereas some women dress like that to conceal their bodies, on Natasha the fabric caught against her curves and drew your attention to the tangent point. 

Natasha often disappeared. She returned with food: pirozhki, blini, and aged asiago. At first I worried that she had an Italian ex in addition to a loving babushka. Was I ever jealous? Sometimes I would see her with male friends, leaning in to leave a smudge of lipstick on their cheek, and at once, everything save for the two of us,  pulled apart and sped away in particles; then she would turn toward me and smile and the universe was restored. Don’t be sceptical, that’s exactly what it felt like. I never asked her about her absences; they lasted a day to three. At first I didn’t want to appear needy and then I realised that I had set a precedent and thus created a rule.   

I met Natasha while I was enrolled in an MA program in international affairs (course work only) a few years into my career at DFAIT/DFATD (the names and acronyms change). I had a friend named Binyamin from my undergrad days who was a PhD student during that time. I would often stop in before or after a seminar to chat about our fantasy football teams in that never ending pursuit of vicarious athletic achievement.   Natasha’s office was two doors down. She was studying for an MA in history (with thesis), but had a teaching assistantship related to Russian history or literature – I can’t remember – as part of her scholarship. Yes, she was seven years younger than me, but age had nothing to do with it. I assure you I have “Maggie Mae” on my Ipod. Anyway, I walked past her office one day and took a seeming incidental peek through the open door.  I was curious because she seemed to be the only TA who had undergrads – almost all male and nervous – visiting during the lonely time for TAs between exams and paper deadlines. She was beautiful. I walked in and sat down across from her, it was the kind of gesture you attribute to automatism – like I’d regressed to a toddler like state in which I might wander over and grab a handful of boob - rather than sheer boldness. I spoke first:

-  Zrdajvsvoite
-  Zrdajvsvoite .......Hello?
-  Hi..........Do you want to get a coffee?
-  Spasibo

Much later , when were in that phase when a couple is in the midst of trying to discover something magical , fated about their relationship – you know that what I’m talking about; how when even an improbable connection confirms how it was destined to be – I  asked her why she had agreed to go for coffee.  You looked catatonic, she said. I thought I’d have to lock you in if I didn’t take you with me.

Natasha would sometimes speak to me in Russian, which I had studied to satisfy a foreign language requirement in grad school. I really didn’t understand a word. Wait, let me try. Ja ne ponimau russkomo horosho. (I hope I used the correct case) She would smile and scratch the top of my head like she did for her Dachshund when it barked at the full length mirror.

Of course I wrote poetry. I didn’t read very much though. I admit I was in love with Ana Akhmatova. My love for literary Russian women began with Natahsa Rostova. It was only later that it progressed from fiction to real albeit dead women. As I was saying, for me the point of poetry was self expression not passive appreciation. Think about it, why does anyone care about the local arts scene, it’s generally mediocre, in the sense that the artists have talent but their work isn’t the kind that makes you want to evangelise, like a pimply long haired virgin who just discovered a new band. I think what we want is to be around the creation of art, the process itself; feeling like we’re part of it, and the final product is irrelevant.

I know I sound pretentious but I’m trying to be honest. For example, I don’t smoke because these days that’s just not done.  However, when travelling in parts of Europe I keep a lighter next to my cup of espresso as a conversation starter and to be useful for any smoker at nearby table caught without a light. I can’t resist the urge to carry a small notebook to write in. In my younger days I liked to withdraw from the general conversation at a table, having being interrupted by the muse’s visit, and scrawl a poem out on a napkin. It’s embarrassing when I’m recognised as a civil servant.

Most of my days are spent trying to cultivate the favour of men dressed in ill fitting beige pants and navy blazers. Somewhere along the way, regardless of family background, the Canadian foreign service adopted as its model the aristocratic bearing of the 18th Century. Nothing, no matter how shocking , dangerous or otherwise, discomforting , is greeted with anything other than indulgent smile or the sigh of one who’s lived this life once before. The normal means of social interaction is a hand extended to your shoulder to draw you in as if to exchange an important intimacy. I am sure that there is someone in a psyche ward, somewhere, furiously scratching out pictures on the floor with a blunt utensil, of Canadian diplomats being bludgeoned with a stapler. I have observed that a certain level of composure in some people drives others insane.

As you might have suspected I have a problem with romantic relationships. Eventually it becomes unavoidably clear that the woman I am with is no longer the person I wanted her to be. With Natasha, I caught her watching soap operas. Spanish language and streamed on the internet. She was crying. I had to pour myself a scotch. It was like finding myself on someone else’s Facebook page captured in a photograph taken from an unflattering angle. Other men walk in to find a woman, naked in the midst of a scenario they may otherwise watch on the internet and jerk off to. Me? Soap operas! Not even the chance to act out a crime of passion.  I couldn’t bring myself to shoot her lap top, we waited three hours (was it from 5am?) before the electronics store opened up for the Boxing Day sale. If you don’t understand the Ottawa winter, let me just say that for people with other options, it’s deemed uninhabitable.

Look, I know that people change, but when we say that what we usually mean is that someone has become: a drunk, lost a job or gained a lot of weight. Personality defects were always evident but were deemed tolerable. Okay, I was being a little dramatic about the soap opera but you need a turning point to explain what comes next. Her tendency to omit the definite article when she spoke quickly started to bother me. This was a woman who was earning her rent payment as a professional translator. Please.  But really, the omissions weren’t just grammatical, everything else seemed lost in translation, her smile came at the wrong moments, somewhere between idiotic and mocking. Did I mention how she patted my head?

All relationships are an implicit negotiation, indeed the things that aren’t verbalised but communicated by gestures, and the incongruities between tone and words or tone and facial expressions – to say nothing of extended silence - are how we bargain these things out. I was competent, proficient in both official languages and able to navigate public sector databases (trust me, this can inspire awe).  Hell I even have a navy blazer – where men once kept a shield or sword – hanging on a hook in my office for those emergencies when I need to burst into the scene of meeting that was called behind my manager’s back. In the end you could say that Natasha was supposed to be opening up new vistas not extending the tunnel I was looking through.

Believe it or not I tend to form relationships easily with women. I don’t mean I’m a Casanova, rather I mean that women seem to like talking to me. In fact my best friend is a woman, which I recognise does not make me immune to charges of sexism. Nadja, was born in Croatia, but doesn’t remember it nor does she understand Russian or the Cyrillic alphabet. We met in high school and have stayed in touch since. She had made unfortunate hairstyle choices between the tenth and twelfth grade and I didn’t fit in anywhere other than student government. Our first conversation occurred in the library. There is something of a physical resemblance between Nadija and Natasha but now that Nadja has cut her hair short she looks less like Natasha. I was once comforted by how similar they were yet distinct, opening up of two different yet familiar future possibilities.

Whenever I have a problem I discuss it with Nadja. She listens to me peeking over a mug of green tea, with her eyes that sometimes are a sky that promises to go on forever and other times are clouded. Her smile is the sun against her eyes and when the corners of her mouth are soft and rounded, on those grey days, it’s the sparkle behind the clouds.  It took me a while to come with that.

Nadja’s boyfriend, Anthony, travels a lot. He works for a humanitarian aid NGO and is overseas depending on where the latest catastrophe is. (Some women find negotiating with war lords for the safe passage of aid convoys sexy. Derring-do, with a heart of gold. Spare me!) He also hikes and canoes, and even does some kayaking. To be fair, I don’t think he can keep up with me in a spin class. Anthony once told me that a lot of things in life are likely Harley Davidson: some people want to live the life others just want to own the merchandise. I suspect there was an insult in that.

Needless to say, Nadja often finds herself with a lot of time for me. She likes to cook and sometimes sends me a link to a recipe with a dinner invitation attached. Have I alone noticed that relationships became complicated once women started wearing yoga pants everywhere? I don’t want to say that Nadja can be critical but she often leaves me wondering why we’re friends. Nadja buys organic fruits and “ethical meat” (WTF!), she writes papers for academic journals that get her invited to conferences around the world and gets emails from hopeful department heads with vacancies in the offing. I admit that she’s smarter than me. She does yoga and she has decided to have children. I mean she’s looked at her future teaching advising and service obligations and blocked off time for pregnancy.  I swear I’ve had nightmares in which I die and am told I’m going to come back to life as a woman and when I look in the mirror it’s Nadja. 

Of course I once kissed Nadja. Okay, I put my hands on her breasts as well. She let the kiss finish naturally enough, and then drew her hands up my body to my chest, casually, so as to part my arms. Sit down she said, fixing her eyes in the direction of my usual spot on the couch. She went to make tea and returned with her bowl with a handle and resumed a story she had been telling me earlier in the day over the phone. 

Finally after a period of suffering in silence, like I was keeping a toothache to myself, I went to see Nadja to explain the situation. Nadja, I am sure, was one of those children of penetrating intelligence who saw through the curtain and spoiled the Wizard of Oz for the rest her friends. I was hoping she would help me understand what had gone wrong though, if I may say, she wouldn’t always be tactful about it.

Nadja answered the door, her brows lustrous, red and puffy. I gaped.

-    What happened to you?
-    Waxing.

I must say that other than high heels which are indefensible from any perspective there are many things that we as men must thank women for doing to look pretty.

I moved to the couch while she returned to the washroom, leaving the door open. She leaned forward toward the mirror leaving her bottom half visible in profile. I picked up a photo book from her coffee table; a collection of portraits by a Bosnian friend of hers, who smoked a pack a day and owned a Doberman, listened to bad music and didn’t like me judging by the fact that she called me an asshole three – no – four times. (It’s a long story but I’m still bitter)

-    What’s wrong?

I tried looking at her innocently as she dabbed a small hand towel about her face.

-    Why do you ask?
-    Normally, when you don’t think I notice, you stare at my ass
-    Don’t make fun of me. And stop sticking out your tongue. It’s obscene.
-    Really what’s wrong?

She came out of the bathroom and dropped into the corner of couch. I’ve never met anyone who could look so relaxed.

-    Do you remember Rebecca?
-    Ah, yes. Your blonde ambition phase. What about her?
-    It wasn’t like that

Najda finds that the fact that I may have dated a woman for her looks solely a continual source of merriment.

-    Anyway, she once told me that she avoided dating guys more into going to the gym than her...something about being made to feel about not doing enough.
-    Yes
-    Well, the other day Natasha says to me: Why are you looking at me like that? Like what, I say.

And she says something about me reminding myself that I have to get a new washer for the faucet.

(Reader, it was a complicated feeling; at once it was penetrating and alluring. I mean it had literary merit.)

-    There`s nothing wrong with Natasha

I thought on this for a moment.

-    Why don`t you like her?
-    That’s not true. I do like her
-    But...
-    But nothing. You’re my friend, not her. I see her with you. That’s it. So, tell me. What’s wrong?

Her tone, as she said that, was reminiscent of my mother trying to tell my sister and I what a wonderful time we were having.

-    Just feeling unsettled. Like I’m watching home movies of my life.
-    Idiot.
-    What?

Now she was my mother teaching me to count.

-    Why do you come here?
-    You know why?
-    Remind me.
-    I feel comfortable here. I can relax and talk... and you’re a good cook.
-    If you’re comfortable with me then why aren’t you comfortable with yourself?

I didn’t stay very long thereafter. Nadja was sometimes unhelpful but clearly had a future post-retirement as a motivational speaker.

So what was wrong? I mentioned the soap opera, but there was more. You know the look, when our eyes widen then refocus. It’s the surprise of being presented with the unexpected. Natasha inspired those looks among my friends and colleagues.  She’s one of those people who do things with the kind of grace that makes everyone think: I should try, it doesn’t look that hard. People love being put at ease, especially by someone they’re prepared to hate. In time she became less a name added on to an invitation out of courtesy but someone my friends’ girlfriends had on speed dial.

The more she became part of my official life; the more nostalgic I was for those times when we were just a pair. On the walk to her place, a cosy one bedroom in a refurbished heritage home, it felt like all the packing I was wrapped in peeled off and by the time I got to her second floor door, the real me was uncovered. I never really asked much about her life, I preferred to look at her in bold colours with a strong outline against a blurred landscape. I don’t want you to think I am worried about domesticity. I have a large mortgage that comes with two bedrooms, a balcony and underground parking, plus stainless steel appliances and granite countertops – the final touch – a frighteningly overpriced vacuum.  In other words all the essentials to a happy home life.

Natasha usually showed up at my place with her knapsack over her shoulder, inside was what the rest of us keep in a drawer of our desk plus her laptop and a United Nations delegation of chocolate. Invariably she was carrying a tray of coffees which may be the reason she never slept enough. Nadja is also up at all hours and chatty, which means I never get enough sleep.  The tragedy of insomnia: No one ever thinks about how it affects the loved ones.

I would buy éclairs that Natasha enjoyed from a shop nearby. I live on the periphery of Yuppieville otherwise known as the Glebe. Everyone’s favourite neighbourhood except the long time residents who worry that it’s losing its authenticity. The best thing about buying Natasha éclairs was that I loved kissing her lips with a trace of custard and chocolate. A quick test of woman’s character is watching her lick melted chocolate off her finger tips. The woman of true grace never loses any of her elegance, the earthy type could be looped before the mind’s eye or in cyberspace, and the other ninety percent of women look like hicks.

The last time I saw her in the capacity of her boyfriend was when she threw a half dozen of those éclairs at me. Thankfully she had too much respect for coffee to use it as a statement of termination. Understand, she wasn’t hysterical, in fact she didn’t say much at all. After throwing the éclairs, she took a deep breath and stared at me in that way women have that goes beyond the leering inquisitiveness that men measure a woman’s body with, this look says something more: I see all of you. Then she spoke: Bastard. She gathered her things and left, leaving me feeling what Eliot said: pinned and wriggling on the wall.

When we break up with women, one of our fears is that they’ll begin to spread rumours about us, namely that we’re bad in bed: obviously false, malicious and desperate. I won’t say I’m not curious about what’s going to be heard in that regard but it’s not my biggest fear. What I really fear is being called ordinary. I like to think that my face (at a flattering angle) stands out in a woman’s memory, or my voice or my touch, whatever she liked most. I hate the idea that I’m going to lose shape and colour and become a blur or a shadow.

It was only a month later that I saw Natasha again. It was a book fair organised by local charity that used the money raised to buy textbooks for a schools in Kenya. One of the organisers was the wife of a former colleague of mine, who was herself employed at our international development agency. A wonderful woman really, one of those people that if you hear a bad word said about, it makes you angry. Natasha was volunteering as a cashier. I watched her take people’s money. Her charity billboard of a t-shirt caught, maybe with static, on her hip and breast. Her hairstyle was as always, light brushed, more about rearranging the natural waves that beckoned for a caress. Her face lively, as if she were watching some wonder unfold on screen, not making chit chat with the civil servants and students who made up the neighbourhood. What could I do? I hid. I had to observe her for a while, if for no other reason to find out if she was dating anyone.

I don’t know what possessed me but my divine punishment was standing behind a shelf of Harlequin romance novels, trying to look occupied by paperbacks featuring buff bare-chested men. Anyhow, I saw him. He snuck up behind her and put his hands on her hips. She peeked back and they kissed. The man was about six feet tall (shorter than me) with short hair and fashionable stubble, wearing khaki Dockers and a red Lacoste polo shirt. I admit he was better looking me. On the bright side he gave off the stench of bureaucracy, strong enough that it wafted all the way over to me. After taking a circuitous route toward the checkout to a cashier as far away from Natasha as possible, I quickly paid, leaving the change, for the kids I said, and hurried home.

Later that evening I knocked on Nadja’s door. Anthony, opened the door. He looked thinner and with eyes reddened from a lack of sleep and with all the bodily slackness of a man who’s just had a burden lifted from his shoulders: no doubt late flights, too much sun and the weariness of saving the suffering children of the world. For some reason I wondered whether Nadja had kept him up. He called out for Nadja, who told us that she was coming, and walked back into the kitchen. I sat on the couch watching Anthony fiddle over the kitchen bar with the kettle. I have a fresh pot of coffee he said. Somehow he always spoke to me from a distance or at odd angles. Nadja eased into the corner like a long limbed feline as Anthony placed a tray on the coffee table then wandered away.

She was waiting for me to speak first.

-    I saw Natasha today.
-    And?
-    She’s dating someone.
-    Of course.

She said it with a smile that implied previous knowledge.

-    She’s ordinary. I said
-    Yes, just like me......and just like you.

Now with a bright smile.

-    And it never bothered you?
-    What?
-    About me? Being ordinary.
-    No, it was always you who couldn’t see me.

Just then Anthony came back in the room. He stopped behind Naja and kissed her on the top of her head. She reached back and drew his arm down over her chest, clutching it in both arms. Her smile shone and her eyes focused on mine. This time they were clear and blue but I didn’t want to look.

*


I have been employed at various times in the machine tool industry and the federal public service. I blog about politics and public policy at cirovskiv.blogpsot.com. I am a fan of the Henry Kissinger, Manchester United and the Dallas Cowboys, I am not sure which of these represents the greatest moral failure.