A WORD IN YOUR EAR. My short stories are frequently thought to be wilfully obscure. It’s not my intention but the genre imposes conciseness, a tendency to be elliptical. This one tries like hell to be explicit. It’s also a lot shorter than its predecessor: The Work Ethic.
Note for North Americans: faggot has other unforeseeable meanings in Britain.
Flirting With It
Short story: 1505 words
HIS LEFT HIP ached dully, as it had for six years. Residue from three faggots moved slowly through his reluctant stomach. A tooth, broken ten days ago, remained broken. Arthritis jagged at his index finger as he rolled over in bed. His hair was too long but phoning the salon was a pain.
One day soon, he told himself, these minor faults and shortcomings would unite as a single force, grow in intensity, choke off the air in his guzzard, and kill him. Quite soon. But what was death? A changed state - no passport needed, the guide books wholly unreliable.
Running hot water in the bathroom he looked ahead and foresaw that the sliver of shaving soap in its cedar-wood bowl would dry out and curl like a poppadum. But that it would remain where it was, it would not be thrown away. Its high price tag would restrain the hand of those tidying up after him.
Back in the bedroom the clock radio uttered a Beethoven song, hideous in its complexity, devoid of a tune. He nodded. Music would continue to be played of course. Some of it new music as yet unheard, but more likely stuff from old stagers – Mozart (tot 1791), Vivaldi (morto 1741), Shostakovich (смертьm 1975) – their creative thoughts still bypassing death’s inconveniences. He could hardly grumble, never having been guilty of a creative thought.
Yesterday, feeling spry, he’d ignored the supermarket and walked as far as the bakery. Wouldn’t be doing that again; the return was uphill, something he’d never realised. But he’d bought a small white loaf dotted with currants and found it toasted well. He’d run to three slices this morning, the butter melting into the moonlike surface of the toast. Butter, he knew, was bad for him, bread too, he couldn’t imagine currants would be any different. Yet he was eating to stay alive. One option would be not to eat – feeling giddy perhaps, then toppling into a black hole. Not quite the same as suicide; death via inaction.
Would hunger be bearable? Toasted currant bread made it difficult to imagine. Perhaps nature’s sneaky ambush – Coming soon, he was convinced. - would be preferable.
Tuesday was library day with Miss Tchuah at the counter. She’d been a salutary influence, causing him to look back ashamedly on life as a farming equipment salesman, even more as left-back with the company football team. He’d been a bigot then, talking about blackmops and benefits, risking off-ball tackles on a super sleek Nigerian striker. Long into retirement his views had prevailed but Miss Tchuah had blown them away. Lustrous, ever cheerful with a Carribbean lilt, she’d listened to his whinge that he’d read all John le Carré’s novels and introduced him to Eric Ambler, arranging loans of the rarer titles from other branches. Asked him how he’d be celebrating Christmas, mentioned turkey roll as a useful economy and got someone to chauffeur him to a carol service – with mince pies – at the Baptist church.
Waiting at the lights across from the library he felt the waft from fast-moving traffic, saw that a car would be more decisive than starving. Again, it wouldn’t be suicide; he’d simply be taking advantage of reduced concentration and poor spatial awareness. Messy though, with the library only a few steps away. He’d hate to discommode Miss Tchuah.
Entering the library he mounted the single step at the threshold. All it would need would be that single step: some clumsy foot-dragging, a small trip and a terminal fall. Thrilling to imagine these things, even better to discuss them. But who’d willingly chat about death? Miss Tchuah he knew to be religious but how might he bring up the subject?
None of the book spines appealed as he shuffled round the aisles. Read him. Hadn’t a clue about her. Never cared for Ireland. Came upon C. S Lewis’s Perelandra, read years ago; science fantasy was not to his taste but the story had caught his fancy. It was part of The Science Trilogy but he’d never seen the other two titles. This Perelandra was new and glossy, brought out in a new edition; he slid it out to remind himself of its appeal.
Since he’d read the book Lewis had become famous, talked about on telly, a movie about his life. The back cover had much biographical detail. Inside was a five-page essay about Lewis by another well-known novelist. He flicked the pages knowing that over the years he’d changed, but had the book? Sat down and started to read.
Almost an hour later he looked up at the clock and saw it was past twelve. The library was quiet, lunch being more important to the oldsters who formed the greater part of the clientele. Miss Tchuah was waiting, smiling; there was no one else.
“A nice long read, mon?”
Habitually taciturn he couldn’t help smiling back. Foolishly, but then she had that effect. “A book I read years ago. Perelandra.”
Miss Tchuah nodded. “Narnia author. Good, I liked it. You too?”
“Unusual for me. But yes.”
This appeared to please her. “That makes me glad, mon. But what you want to borrow? No book that I see.”
“Wasn’t on the shelves. Another Lewis book. Could you reserve it please? It’s called A Grief Observed.”
Miss Tchuah frowned, something she’d never done. “That not fiction, mon. You know?”
“Kinda sad subject.”
Still frowning she said. “I reserve it. Phone you.”
He left, pleased by the subterfuge. His choice had worried her and that was a comfort. Perhaps she’d want to talk when he collected the book. Put away gloomy thoughts; cling on. Not that he wanted to get closer; a couple of minutes and he’d be satisfied.
Walking back his wellbeing evaporated. Advancing on the narrow pavement, splay-legged and aggressive, almost certainly looking for argument was DD, Dennis Dobson. Ludicrously dressed in a tweed Norfolk jacket replete with suede inserts, a hogging cap the shape of a sugar scoop. “Been meaning to have a word,” he wheezed.
He always was.
“You weren’t at George’s funeral.”
“Didn’t know he died.”
DD stared, pig-eyed. “Don’t you read t’paper?”
“How do you know who’s snuffed it?”
“It’s news I can get along without.”
“You’ll regret it you girt northerner,” said DD, “when nobody comes to yours.”
“No doubt you’ll let me know in due course.”
He walked on, reflecting. There was death, which had its exciting side. And there was deadness which was all coffins, Amazing Grace at the crematorium, and false sympathy – the dull aftermath. It would suit him fine if no one came at all; some kind of record.
When Miss Tchuah phoned he hardly recognised her voice; all the West Indian gaiety had been lost, she spoke as if demoted. Also she was keen to fix an exact time. He assumed this was to arrange a chat and so it was – but not between the two of them. Rather he was drawn aside from the counter by a whey-faced twenty-two-year-old girl from Social Services, cloistered in the library’s tiny office and interrogated about his state of mind.
Disappointed by this inferior version of what he’d wanted he was tempted to joke with Miss Toomey but saw this might reflect on Miss Tchuah. Decided instead to play a straight bat.
“It’s just a book,” he said.
“About death, though.”
“I’m eighty-five. Don’t you think death might be on my mind?”
Miss Toomey sniffed disapprovingly, as if he’d be better off with Jeffrey Archer. “Do you read many books about...”
“This will be the first. Assuming you’re going to let me have it.”
Now Miss Toomey looked uneasy. “We wouldn’t like to think you were... well contemplating... you know what...”
“Do myself in?” How bloody exciting to say that out aloud. “Not at all. I’m still full of beans.” Lying was almost as exciting.
It was enough for Miss Toomey and minutes later she was off on her bike.
There were tears in Miss Tchuah’s eyes as she handed over A Grief Observed. Before she could say anything he pre-empted her.
“It was the right thing. I’m just a silly old bugger. I’m not offended.”
“Oh no, mon. You God’s children.”
“Nice of you to say that. But that’s you not me.”
Miss Tchuah bowed her head to reveal intricate weavings. Hair like that looked silly on others, not on her.
He stood at the traffic light waiting for it to change. Up the road was a lorry bearing down, loaded with tons of timber. All it needed would be for him to be sort of forgetful.
Saw a notice above the windscreen – Dave’s Rig – and let the lorry pass. The sawmill was only four miles away and lorries came by regularly. On the other hand, he’d eaten the last slice of currant bread this morning and knew the bakery was too far away. Wondered how it would be after two days. Three days? Best of all, no one would know.