This is only a taster of our Transgression issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.
Clara decides to spend the afternoon with Rachel. She just doesn’t bother inviting her.
“Just drop me off by the school.”
David turned his battered 280z into the parking area a few lots up from Clara’s house. The car was a hand-me-down from his mother and ugly as sin, and David was inordinately proud of it. Clara called it the Flying Booger, but never in front of him. He leaned over to kiss her and their lips tangled awkwardly for a few beats before she pulled away and fumbled for the handle. As soon as the door shut behind her, he drove off. She watched the dark green car exit onto the main road and rapidly disappear from sight.
She had no idea where to go.
[private]Every time before this, Clara had had an empty house to return to afterward. A safe haven in which to sort out the emotions an afternoon with David would inevitably stir up in her psyche. This time, her parents were home, and she just couldn’t face them. Not right now. Not when the memory of David wiping his semen off her breasts with the shirt from his McDonald’s uniform was so fresh in her mind.
As the sun beat down, she began to make her way across the blistering asphalt. The lot was vacant, free of cars for the summer. At the edge lay a dip of land separating the houses on her street from the road that led down the mountain. Three hundred metres of open space yawned in front of Clara, the only dangerous part of her impromptu and unplanned flight. Hopefully neither of her parents would choose to glance out the window until she was safely out of sight down the road.
She hustled along the gravel shoulder, head down, avoiding looking in any direction but directly in front of her. Cars passed intermittently and she prayed that none contained an overly observant family friend. When she reached the shelter of the trees on the other side of the field, she felt her tension ease. From here it should be safe.
Ten minutes later, she stood at the top of a driveway leading to a small white and yellow rancher. The late model Taurus belonging to Rachel’s mother was in the carport, but Clara knew she would be leaving soon. Rachel had to be picked up from work.
Clara started down toward the house.
From behind the clematis-choked lattice that blocked her from view, Clara could hear Shelly’s voice drifting out through the open door. She was on the phone with someone. Not paying attention to the words, Clara listened to the timbre of the woman’s voice for a minute. Let it centre her. Ground her. Glancing at her watch, she weighed her options. The half-formed idea she’d had of requesting that Shelly take her along into town seemed suddenly unfulfilling. Clara didn’t want someone to talk to. She wanted solitude. Solitude, and perhaps something else. Something that was as yet indefinable.
Decision made, she ducked down and stole past the windows to hide beside the short fence that locked off the backyard. She pressed her back up against the hot white clapboard siding and waited. The sun pressed down on her as she crouched, the minutes slowly ticking away.
It wasn’t long before the voice emitting from the nearest window was saying goodbye to the person on the other end. She heard the rattle of keys, followed in quick succession by the slamming of first the house door and then the car door. The Taurus’s engine groaned to life, and Shelly was gone. Running late, like usual.
Clara waited a minute, then a minute more. The car didn’t return. Straightening herself up, she moved back through the gate and stepped up onto the sheltered front porch.
As always, the door was unlocked. Bless you, Shelly.
She pushed the door closed behind her, instinctively giving it the requisite shove to latch it. Habit.
For a moment Clara stood there in the foyer, enjoying the relative cool. Her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, and she took in the room in front of her. Familiar blue carpeting. Teal sofas. Questionable faux-Egyptian art on the walls. She cocked her ear and listened to the noises of the house. No one was home. The dogs must be outside, or she would know by now.
She crossed through the living room and into the kitchen. Shelly had clearly been going through her cooking magazines looking for something. Stepping over the dozens of back issues of Gourmet littering the floor, Clara moved down the stairs to the basement. If the front entryway had been refreshingly cool, the air down here was heaven. She almost shivered.
Walking past Rachel’s room, she continued along the hallway and opened the door at the end. Back into the heat.
Clara stepped across the expanse of peeling wood that made up the back porch. She sank down to sit on the edge, the boards warm against the back of her thighs. Rolls of paint sloughed off and crumbled underneath her weight.
Martin and Mortimer hustled up to her, two snowballs shimmering in the July heat. Their stubby tails beat frantically as they rammed their noses against her ankles. When she reached down to pet them, the noses moved to her palm, bringing their tongues along for the ride. Little dogs. Such a ridiculous indulgence.
She stretched her legs out a bit, resting the heels of her dirty blue flip-flops in the dry grass. It was possible to keep lawns alive in this weather, but no one in this household seemed to care. She braced her right shoulder up against the wobbly railing and rested her head.
And then, she just sat.
The dogs settled down on the grass by her feet after a few more minutes of sniffing and snuffling at her dust-covered toes. Content with their new companion, they squinted in the sunlight and let their tongues loll out. It was too hot for them to expend any additional energy.
Slow and steady the sun crept across the grass in front of the trio. Clara observed dispassionately, temple against wood. The air was filled with the sounds of summer: children shouting, cars driving past, dogs barking, grasshoppers beating the stagnant air with their wings. The sounds penetrated the hedge that surrounded her little private hideaway but emerged muted and distant. When a bee looped past her head, the clarity of the noise almost caused Clara to jump. She watched it, tracking its meandering route with her gaze. Given that Shelly’s flowerbed was doing about as well as the lawn, she hoped the bee had other options.
Eventually she stood and went into the house. The dogs followed. Clara checked their water dish when she was back upstairs. Empty – no big surprise. She walked over to the sink and filled the bowl, hoping no one would notice. The dogs shoved her aside to get at it.
The clock above the range said 4:08. How long had it been since David dropped her off at the school? Clara wasn’t sure. She wasn’t ready to go home. Instead she went into Shelly and Paul’s bathroom and opened the drawer that she knew contained Shelly’s marijuana stash. She licked her finger and separated a paper from the stack before pinching an appropriate amount of the dried leaves to line up along one edge. A few deft movements and Clara was sealing the edge of the paper with her tongue. She shut the drawer and returned the kitchen, fishing a lighter out of the drawer beside the stove before heading back outside.
This time, Clara stretched out on the sun-scorched lawn. Lighting up, she closed her eyes and felt herself sinking further into the ground with each inhalation. When she felt pleasantly enveloped, she opened her eyes again. The sky was so blue it almost hurt to look at. She cocked her head, closed one eye. Tried the other. Nothing changed.
She pulled herself into a sitting position, shaking the dead grass out of her russet hair. The lit joint still rested between her fingers. She gently stubbed it in the dirt before using her saliva-moistened fingers to ensure it was extinguished. She would grab a sandwich bag from the kitchen to put it in on her way out. With a final glance at the sky, she went inside.
When Rachel’s family had first moved into the thirty-year-old house, Clara had painted Rachel’s room a warm sand colour that Rachel had then bedaubed with a stencil and craft paint. Clara sat down on the familiar red duvet and followed the chain of suns, moons and stars around the walls of the converted den. Celestial themes weren’t really her bag. What made this one particularly offensive was the fact that Rachel hadn’t bothered attempting to apply the stencil in a straight line, or in anything even resembling a pattern. Annoyed anew by the sight, Clara rolled into the middle of the bed and shifted her eyes to the ceiling. She had been in this room more times than she could count. It felt different today. Silent. Peaceful.
Fishing Rachel’s diary out of the bottom drawer of the nightstand, Clara rolled onto her side and began to read. Rachel had gone to bible camp the summer before and spent the majority of her journaling time hemming and hawing over her personal beliefs. This was nothing new, nor was it particularly interesting. Clara skimmed through the pages until her own name popped up. The entries that came shortly after Rachel’s time at camp contained a lot of disparaging commentary about Clara’s lack of Christian goodness, but that petered out as time passed and they returned to school. Clara wasn’t particularly concerned. She did find it a bit offensive when Rachel compared her to other people – Christian people – but oh well. She wasn’t interested in emulating any of them, regardless of if it would improve her standing in Rachel’s esteem. From the pieces Clara bothered to read, Rachel considered herself quite deep. Deeper than Clara, at least. An attitude that, if Clara really thought about it, was pretty apparent in her daily behaviour. Rachel was fun to be around, but she could be a real bitch.
Clara tucked the diary back into its hiding place and sauntered over to Rachel’s walk-in closet. As was tradition, she swung her leg a few times to limber up before kicking the frame of the door above her. Clara wasn’t sure how that had started, but they’d been doing it for months. Dancer posturing. She wondered if Rachel did it every time she went in her closet when she was alone.
Clara felt around in the air above until her fingers found the metal chain dangling below the bare bulb in the ceiling. Giving it a sharp tug, she reached out and skimmed her hands over the walls of fabric that the bright light revealed. She shifted hanger after hanger, unsure of what exactly she was looking for. Rachel’s black capri pants, maybe. The ones Rachel said Clara was too wide for. Her eyes landed on them, a dishevelled heap on the floor near the back wall. She snatched them up and snapped them in the air, straightening out the wrinkles. Unbuckling her leather belt, she let her denim shorts drop around her ankles and went to step into the capris. She stopped mid-action and walked over to the dresser instead, fishing out a pair of lacy black knickers and sliding them on after shucking her own. She returned to the pants, pulling them up over her hips. They fit, even if they were snug.
Clara looked up at the racks in front of her. Rachel’s favourite lilac tank top. She dragged her sweat-dampened t-shirt over her head and tossed it to the side before yanking the thin strap of the camisole, sending the hanger flying off the metal bar. Shit. A quick onceover revealed that the shirt was fine. She pulled it on and adjusted her breasts in the neckline.
Rachel’s jewellery box sat like a prize atop her dresser, an ornate wooden coffer that didn’t close quite right. It was one of those artsy gifts she occasionally received from her absentee father to make her forget that he never paid child support and treated her like crap. They always seemed to have the intended effect, much to Clara’s dismay.
She rifled through the box until she found some silver hoops. Threading them through her ears, she looked at her reflection and decided to add the tiny silver crucifix that was hanging on the bevelled frame of the mirror. What else? Lipstick. She perused Rachel’s collection, selecting a frosty pink. Not Clara’s colour by any means, but a great one on Rachel. She carefully applied it, blotting gently with a tissue.
Clara moved to the centre of the room. Taking a deep breath, she slid into battement tendu, lifted into arabesque. Lowered her leg. Demi-plié. Coupé jeté en tournant. Into fourth. Fouetté rond de jambe en tournant. Run. Elevé. Turn. She moved again and again. She moved faster and faster until there was nothing left. Nothing left of her afternoon in David’s bed. Nothing left of him asking keenly after Rachel even as his fingers danced inside of Clara. Nothing left of her reputation with her friends from school. Nothing left of her crap relationship with her parents. Nothing left of Clara, full stop.
Lifting her face, she stepped out of fifth and walked back to the closet.
The lilac shirt went back on its hanger and the pants were discarded amongst the detritus in what Clara estimated was roughly their starting location. With a nimble motion she doffed the knickers and tossed them to the floor as well. Glancing at the clock on the bedside table, she quickly threw on her own clothing. It was getting late. Her parents would be worried about her.
Rachel’s phone was lying half-buried under the pillows on her bed. Clara unearthed it and dialled her parents’ number.
She tried again and got the same result.
With a sigh, Clara pushed off the bed. Tucking the black knickers in her pocket, she turned off the closet light and left the room. Martin and Mortimer were waiting in the hallway. She herded them along with her foot and exiled them to the backyard. Picking up the half-smoked joint from beside the door, she went upstairs and located a plastic bag to put it in before slipping it into her lace-filled pocket.
With one last glance around, Clara walked out the door.[/private]
New Ground, Again
Sometimes the transgressions of the past can get in the way of progress.
The moment McCoy shouted from atop his grader I knew why. He shut down the diesel engine and the vacuum his quitting created seemed to trigger the other H-E operators. They shut down their rigs, too. McCoy kept swearing. It would be another day off while the cops, coroner and medical examiner spent the day digging like archaeologists in what was supposed to be just another incoming Vegas housing tract.
Goddamn the bones. Some runt who was buried out here by the people he’d pissed off years ago was going to throw twenty guys outta work for the day. But that was the price of sprawl. The early 2000’s were that way for us; we were stumbling over some idiot’s shallow grave every few days.
[private]”These people are like goddamn dogs,” McCoy said. He unzipped and whipped it out to piss up the side of the Cat’s tire. “Out here burying their problems. I’m good and goddamn tired of paying for everyone else’s sins.” He finished, zipped up and leaned against the ladder leading to the cab of his rig. “Fuck em. I say this is it. I say from now on we keep gradin’ and leave the past be the past.”
McCoy’s closest drinking buddy shuffled his feet. “But what about some kid comes along one day, playing in his yard and digs up Sammy the Stoolie’s leg bone?”
“Or his dog finds it,” said another.
“Fuck em,” said McCoy, “fuck ’em all. They’re all dogs.” With that he climbed back on his grader and fired up the engine, soot shooting from its stack like an angry day at Sobibor. “We all are, right? Let’s go.”
McCoy squinted into the Nevada sun and threw the Cat back into gear. And that was the last time anyone stopped working. In fact, it was the last time I heard anyone even mention the bones. I admit it was kind of a relief. McCoy had freed us just to get on with what needed doing, and get past what could easily happen to any of us at any moment.[/private]
What’s more important? The fetish or the relationship?
When a man loves to dance the rumba, enjoys embroidery and owns three ironing boards, it’s inevitable that some of his friends will assume he’s gay. Neville was untroubled by the beliefs of others and adopted a policy of ‘neither confirm nor deny’ regarding his sexuality. On vacation he further confounded his friends’ expectations by scaling mountain peaks, roping steers in Arizona or white water rafting his way up rivers.
[private]But on a Wednesdays, when there were no dance classes, sewing circles or cocktail hours to attend, he could be found at home watching a black and white ‘weepie’ while simultaneously indulging his love of steam. Crisp white shirts stood to attention on hangers around the room. Egyptian cotton bed linen formed neat ranks on his Lloyd Loom chair and Neville pressed pleats into his second-favourite dress shirt. While Scarlett O’Hara flounced petulantly on and off screen, he spruced up the ruffles with generous puffs of steam.
Neville loved the smell. That almost-singed, musty aroma reminded him of rotting logs, damp sand and soggy hounds. Silk and polyester slithered against his fingertips as he gave the fabrics the lightest of goings over, crimping them gently, just where they needed to be folded.
Even with the costume requirements of his dancing endeavours and outdoorsy weekend pursuits, there was often insufficient laundry to occupy a whole evening. Neville drew the line at ironing underwear; so instead, he washed machine-loads of monogrammed handkerchiefs, lightly starched to perfection. Or took down the curtains in the spare room to get them thoroughly, gratuitously, clean and neat. Neville believed there was a distinction between an innocent enthusiasm and a full blown fetish. He preferred to regard himself as merely keenon ironing, rather than actually dependent upon it.
Neville’s girlfriend, Marie, had learned to suffer his obsession silently. Indeed, she was not above sometimes taking advantage of it. She would arrive at his house toting a large holdall. Coffee, cuddles and conversation generally ensued. She would drop some frail excuse about being on her way back from the launderette, even though none but a simpleton would actually believe that a woman’s washing machine could break down so often. Then, somehow, one thing led to another; she would end up staying the night.
Marie would be woken, sometimes after midnight, by the sound of soft rustlings downstairs as Neville abducted her bag of laundry. She would lie awake, warm and safe in Neville’s bed, wearing a secret smile. In the room below, Neville ironed several weeks’ worth of work blouses and folded them lovingly into the bag as if the ironing fairy had been in the night. The comfort Marie derived from his night-time devotion was enormous. It took her back to childhood, when her mother washed and ironed her only school uniform after she’d gone to bed, having it ready for the next day, if still a little damp.
Marie reasoned that she wasn’t really exploiting Neville. After all, he loved to iron, and she in turn also loved for him to iron. Is there anything more beautiful than such a straightforward compatibility? What could possibly go wrong with this perfect match?
Marie could never explain to herself why she found herself creeping down the stairs one night, wrapped in Neville’s dressing gown. From the hallway she could see him, bare-chested, bare-legged with steam iron held poised. At first she felt a tender fondness in response to the flushed expression of pleasure in Neville’s eyes.
It was only when she moved slightly to one side Marie realised that behind the ironing board her boyfriend was completely naked and sporting the most impressive erection she had ever seen.
Neville was a man who more often than not would need to be coaxed. But the thing which struck Marie about the tableau in front of her was that Neville’s right hand was wrapped around the handle of the iron in a determined grip. The hot surface was held no more than an inch from his face. What she had first taken for an action shot had turned out to be a static pose.
Marie wished she had never ventured downstairs. Neville’s cheek was flushed from the heat. There was a pained expression on his face. From the slight twitch in the vein of his neck she could tell how close he must be. Watching him alone, struggling in silence to achieve a climax without the slightest friction, she felt a terrible mix of prurience, repulsion and a certain fascination. In the end, Marie couldn’t bring herself to watch Neville consummate the act. She crept back upstairs, shivering to bed. She lay awake for twenty minutes. By the time Neville joined her she had already fallen asleep.
There was no sudden end to the relationship, but Marie never took her ironing to Neville’s house again. Neville developed a restless, dissatisfied demeanour. He became surly and withdrawn and eventually his invitations, to dinner or for days out, dried up and shrivelled away.
In the years that followed, Marie managed her laundry alone, but it represented a constant reminder of the failed relationship. Incompatible man after incompatible man took her out for lunch or a drink and she never felt the urge to give them her phone number. Marie began to wonder whether she had made a dreadful mistake.
Late in the evening she sometimes stood by the window, plugged in the iron and stood inhaling the aroma of steam with a faint scent of fabric conditioner. Try as she might, there was never the slightest hint of arousal at the presence of the iron itself, but one thing was guaranteed to provoke an erotic response. Marie would close her eyes and imagine herself back in Neville’s lounge, kneeling beneath his ironing board. As more years passed, she never decided whether she could have interposed herself between Neville and his ‘interest’, or whether she would always have remained subsidiary to his one true love.[/private]
The Bird in the Urn
What happens at the retirement community, stays at the retirement community.
The omelet chef sprinkles ashes of my daughter on diced onions and orange bell peppers and beats the eggs with his spatula–a wizard casting a spell with wand coagulated with yoke. The sun peeks through barrel cacti and embraces the arms of rotting saguaros. The omelet chef waves the salt shaker above the labyrinthine wrinkles of his sunburn. Cremated remains rain from calluses into the plates of the wealthy. His white knuckles are cumulonimbus freckles and organic mushrooms frying on the side of his skillet reflect the face of the three-year-old who retirees will digest with mimosas.
[private]The woman with the bacon covered in maple syrup is responsible for cracking the angel’s skull against the asphalt. She was my little girl. The omelet chef smashes brown eggs against the side of his frying pan. Why are elderly drivers so careless? What makes them continue pushing cowhide when they are unable to decipher the correct buttons on the elevator? A captain must give up the wheel when he loses the ship. But money buys everything. Why should white old ladies never go to prison?
The chef is numb and he tosses tomatoes over the cutting board into the garbage with the sharpest knife in Maricopa County. We listen to their giggles and cackles as gluttonous residents fish for salvation with worms in their stomachs, catching buzzes munching gourmet breakfast, silverware clanging with the zealous reverberation of cymbals in the hands of chimps. A bottle of Tabasco burns into my back pocket. My job is to make the Bloody Marys–squirt lemon and ashes atop crushed ice, cayenne peppers, celery, and Worcestershire sauce.
Old fucks love Bloody Marys. The requests have increased twofold since she was scraped from the sundrenched tarmac where senior citizens launch missiles into oncoming traffic.
“This is amazing,” the orange hairs say.
They lick the ashes from the rim and suck the tangerine slices stabbed with toothpicks. Viscous crimson magic potion swirls in their pint glasses. The omelet chef is plotting revenge. He assures me vengeance shall be served bloody and hot.
“Give me a chubby hunk, cutie pie,” says one of the dying cougars.
Roast beef is sliced in the spotlight, pink meat glistening beneath a bulb so moist that succulent sprinkles splash our eyelashes. Momentarily blinded by cooked cows, my daughter comes into focus beneath orange illuminated eyelids–warm blanket of dying sparks from falling stars. The affluent bastards insist on roast beef and lobster tails for breakfast. The decadent residents reek of perfume and mothballs and patchouli, and I can smell the dead girl on their flesh, her laughter sifting through the inertia of jewelry on anemic wrists, and diamonds on turkey necks, as the lucky sperm club brushes toward the ice sculpture surrounded by shrimp.
Ladies in this flock are popular maidens who bully the staff with ornate requests and harass the dirty old attorneys who only shower for the hope of copulation. The women fill the dishes with jumbo shrimp and cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. Ashes are stuck on the lipstick of ageless lovers sitting at the bar waiting for electric wheel-chaired chariots to arrive via elevator shaft. The omelet chef grimaces and peppers the dishes with ash and paprika and thyme. I sneak outside behind the electronic dumpster to hit the roach tucked into my sock. The morning gets better.
A Mexican gardener watering the grass around the agave sees me and swallows the roach with orange shears raised toward the rising Phoenix sun. As the smoke fills my lungs, I forget about my dead daughter, her body chalked into soggy concrete by the droppings of a giant deformed bird. The creature is injured, unable to fly above the palms, its wings beating against the fronds.
Back inside, the early birds are returning to their rooms with stuffed bellies and sweaty armpits, Styrofoam boxes filled with leftovers, throats congested with delectable phlegm and ash. The angel follows me along the hallway carpet through the kitchen. The omelet chef has sliced off four fingers on his left hand; the thumb remains. He crashes through the glass and swaggers across the putting green toward the giant deformed bird, rising and sinking toward the flagstick on the nineteenth hole.
The omelet chef clutches the mangled creature, takes a meaty chunk of the wing with yellowed incisors. The bird responds with stubborn jaw and the man losses his bloody stump, his hitchhike crutch. The beast flies above the reach of the elderly and the manager, clutching the severed appendage, enters through the gaping hole. The bird soars across the dining room into the bar area, searching for something to heal deformity. There is nothing in its way except mahogany and plaster. It collides with the mural of a stagecoach and bounces of the Native American celebration, glides with grace and glory into the elevator just as the doors are shutting.
We decipher screaming and the elevator stops on the higher floors before descending. The doors open with mellifluous grace. The old lady who killed my daughter is running into the padded white walls adorned with elephant skin, her hands on her empty eye sockets and Bloody Mary dripping down her chin. She is quivering in the far corner. The bird glides from the elevator through the sweaty palms of desperate employees, out the broken window, into the highest arm of a saguaro hollowed with holes, its empty eyes protruding from a bloodied beak covered with ash.
The omelet chef walks into oncoming traffic. The bird places the eyeballs in the spot my daughter died. Her screams reverberate through the glistening steel doors of the elevator. She searches white walls with fingernails the shade of freshly-sliced roast beef.
Beneath the spotlight, I dice yoke-embedded nails and calluses of the omelet chef, sprinkle them into the casseroles and cocktail sauce. I carve my eyeballs from their sockets and place them on the cutting board. Gripping the spotlight cord, the enormous omelet table crashes upon me, burying the warming blackness. The bird squawks from within as the desert breeze is borne through the window and the drone of ambulances reminds the residents that they are one short drive from the crematory.[/private]
Jørgen Opdahl: Celebrity Burglar
There are different laws for the famous.
Massie Road on a cold night in January. I’m sitting in a parked car with a man dressed in black. He’s pointing a gloved finger at a semi-detached house a few yards away.
“That’s first on my list tonight,” Jørgen says to me. “Owner’s on holiday and there’s no burglar alarm. Easy peasy.”
Jørgen Olaf Opdahl is not a name that roles off the tongue easily and indeed, it’s a name that carries few connotations in this country. In his native Norway, however, Jørgen has been a household name for many years. At the age of just nineteen he was cast as the loveable Espen Eggebraaten in Hotel Caesar, Norway’s most popular soap opera. “People still come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Espen, watch out for that tractor!’” he claims.
[private]Following his character’s death at the hands of the villainous farmer Björn Torkelson, work came in the form of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in the 2010 cult film Troll Hunter, and well as TV appearances on Norway’s Next Top Model and 2011’s Big Brother: Norge.
Then six months ago, not content with his modest success, Jørgen bought a one-way ticket to London and made forging a UK-based career his raison d’être. Tonight he’s invited me to witness a sneak preview of his new reality show: Celebrity Burglar.
“I’ve done it all,” Jørgen says in impeccable English, his soft Norwegian accent giving way to the occasional American twang. “I’ve been an actor, I’ve been a singer, I’ve been a reality star. And now I’ve got one more feather to my cap: I’m a burglar.”
Jørgen starts up his car and takes me for a drive around his new home town of Hackney, thanking me for taking the time to talk to him. Celebrity Burglar was his brainchild and, like many great ideas, it came from a time of personal upheaval.
“I was not in a good place when I committed my first burglary,” he admits. “I was in debt, I’d just fired my agent, the ex was ragging me over child support, blah, blah, blah. But then it hit me. All this breaking and entering would make fucking great television! In Big Brother, people saw me sit in a house. Why wouldn’t they want to see me burgle a house?”
We stop at St Thomas’s Square to pick up a fellow Norwegian called Mikkel, who Jørgen introduces as his brother. Mikkel climbs into the back seat and dumps two carrier bags. One bag contains cassettes and a camera, the other sandwiches and a flask. I ask Mikkel what his role on the project is. When it becomes clear he doesn’t speak English, Jørgen intervenes.
“Mikkel’s my number one guy. He’s my co-producer, my cameraman and my caterer. He makes my coffee but he never makes it hot enough! Ha ha!”
Jørgen’s previous reality shows boasted high production values. Celebrity Burglar, on the other hand, has a crew of only two people. Jørgen explains that he’s adopted this DIY approach out of necessity, having pitched Celebrity Burglar to various producers and found their response, much like his brother’s coffee, to be somewhat lukewarm.
“None of the networks give a flying shit,” he laments. “Channel 4, BBC, ITV – none of them want to know. Not even Sky 3, for fuck’s sake. Either my profile isn’t high enough in this country or they think it’s all a joke. Well, this show is as real as it gets. Tonight, you’ll bear witness to that.”
He starts laughing and slaps me on the back. He’s hoping my article will attract some much-needed publicity and he thanks me again for taking the time to talk to him.
Midnight descends, shrouding Hackney in darkness. Back on Massie Road, it’s time to get to work. Jørgen hands me a pair of leather gloves and a balaclava. Sensing my nervousness, he says, “Keep it light, friend. If you want to succeed at this, you’ve got to be just like this house… Semi-detached.”
We scale the fence and jump down into the back garden. Crowbar in hand, Jørgen smashes the door handle into splinters, kicks it until it gives way, and then we’re in. Mikkel grins behind his camera. Jørgen switches on a desk lamp and begins to rob.
My hands are trembling. Doesn’t Jørgen ever get scared doing this? Has he ever been caught?
“Sure, I’ve been caught,” he says, turning family photographs face-down as he burgles. “People can get pretty upset when they see you stealing valuable things from their home. But then I explain that I’m a celebrity and they see things differently. They see the camera, they realise it’s just TV, and they start to relax and have fun with it. I give them an autograph, sometimes I give them money, and then I leave.”
I’m still sceptical. Things never turn sour?
“Most people are cool with it, ninety-nine percent of the time. I’ve only had one motherfucker pull a knife on me. I don’t know why that guy was in his kitchen at three in the morning! Ha ha! I just said to him, ‘No harm meant, friend. I’ll show myself out.’ And that was that.”
Jørgen remains affable as he ransacks the house, stuffing ornaments, jewellery and a laptop computer into his bag. He is particularly pleased with a diamond necklace he’s found and holds it up for the camera to see. Soon it’s time to go. I feel a surge of illicit excitement as we bundle the goodies into the getaway car and speed away.
“You see?” he says, grinning. “You feel the adrenaline, don’t you? Yeah! If Mikkel can capture even a tenth of that on tape, we’re onto something!”
I then mention that Jørgen is placing a tremendous amount of trust in both Mikkel and myself by permitting us to record his criminal behaviour for posterity. Does he ever worry that his brother’s footage might fall into the wrong hands? Jørgen is philosophical.
“Prison could happen,” he says with a shrug. “Prison equals publicity, that’s the good side. But you know what? It all gets washed away. All this day-to-day stuff. It takes three generations for a person to be completely forgotten. You know? I don’t want to go to prison but I’ll deal with it. Being forgotten is something else. That scares the hell out of me, thinking no one’s going to remember…”
Jørgen wants to keep the momentum going, so we head directly to the next home on his list, a terraced house on Queen Anne Road. Once again our charismatic host kicks down the back door and we go inside.
“It looks like a dump,” he says to the camera. “But apparently this guy’s got a safe.”
Suddenly Jørgen freezes. He’s heard something. Mikkel and I hear it too.
A creak of the floorboards upstairs. Then a man’s voice, old and frail. “Hello?”
Jørgen’s a rabbit in the headlights. Mikkel whispers the word, “Kukost!”
Again from upstairs: “Hello?”
Jørgen composes himself. The show must go on. Cheerily, he shouts back up, “Hello!”
The old man sounds scared. “Who’s down there?”
“It’s me, Jørgen Opdahl!”
Quiet.. then, “Who?”
“It’s me, Jørgen Opdahl, winner of Norway’s 2011 Celebrity Big Brother!”
Quiet… then, “What are you doing in my house?”
Jørgen’s grin begins to fade. He seems discouraged by the old man’s line of questioning. He shakes his head and empties the contents of his swag-bag onto the carpet.
“I’m calling the police,” the old man shouts down.
“I’m on my way out,” Jørgen snaps. Sloping outside he mutters to himself, “I’m on my way out.”
Back in the car, Jørgen is pensive. He drives around aimlessly for a while before pulling up outside Ion Square Gardens, where we sit in silence.
“You know,” he eventually says. “People used to ask me interesting questions. How did you become an actor? How do you get your hair to shimmer? And now all anyone ever asks me is: what are you doing in my house?” He points backwards. “That old bastard didn’t even care that I was a celebrity. Am a celebrity. But fuck him, he’s not my target audience.”
This is an interesting point and I feel it begs the question of who exactly Jørgen’s target audience is. What kind of demographic is Celebrity Burglar trying to reach? On the subject of potential viewers, Jørgen is almost too candid.
“Listen, friend, the sad truth of the matter is that most people are stupid-heads who enjoy watching other stupid-heads doing stupid crap. I’m just being honest. Most people are fools. I went into Primark last Saturday and, Jesus, the sheer density of human waste on display was sickening. God forgive me for saying this but sometimes I think Adolf Hitler had the right idea.” He spits out the car window. His contempt is palpable. “But I digress,” he says. “There is an audience for this. Yes, there is.”
He yawns, stretches, puts the key in the ignition. Another burglary beckons. He asks if I want to come along but I decline. Thank you, Jørgen, I think I’ve got everything I need. He drops me off at a bus stop and thanks me a third time for speaking to him.
“I appreciate it,” he says. “You think this show’s got potential, right?”
The television critic in me is at pains me to admit it but, yes, I think I do. Anything’s possible in the wacky world of light entertainment. As long as the stupid-heads keep lapping it all up? Sure, Jørgen, why not?
As he and his brother drive away, it occurs to me that Jørgen has an unfeigned fragility about him, as well a stubborn refusal not to be beaten down by life. His programme offers shock value, certainly, but it’s his indefatigable spirit that I think viewers will really be compelled by. When he’s enthusiastic it’s downright infectious, and something in those wild eyes of his tells me it won’t be too long before Jørgen Opdahl steals not just the belongings but the hearts of the nation.[/private]
There are some things you can’t learn in school.
The risk of being struck by a falling meteorite for a human is one occurrence every nine thousand three hundred years.
Those were her first words.
We sat together in Science. Not by intention or design but because her usual partner Katie Miller had fallen three stories from an open window. Some said she had jumped, others said she had been pushed, but most likely she had just been the one in fifty-eight thousand who falls out of windows.
We knew these sorts of things because of Mr Edwards. Mr Edwards was a cover teacher. He spent the first twenty minutes of every lesson making the class recite ‘fascinating’ facts to their partner. The next forty I spent staring at her.
[private]Her name was Carrie Birch.
She was short and brunette and smelt of sweet spice. She walked like she was just about to break into dance. She talked with her hands and she had a laugh that made her seem much older than her fifteen years.
It started small, first I became obsessed with science, and then obsessed with Mr Edwards’s class, until I realised I was obsessed with her. Then my world became tunnel visioned. As if I was looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
One day we touched elbows.
A supernova explodes at ten times the speed of light.
It had nothing on me.
I spent every lesson trying to touch her arm with mine. Finally it became habit, my chair moved closer, our desk seemed smaller. Our arms lay next to each other, just touching. The flesh under my sleeve electric.
Maybe I would have been that girl who forever spent her life in rooms daring herself to touch the arms of other girls. But one day Carrie took the tips of my fingers, wrapped her thumb and index fingers around them. Briefly, without looking. After that everything was different.
There are unquantifiable amounts of nerve endings in the body. If even a fraction of them were to transmit pain at the same time you would go into shock.
I wondered if that was what had happened to me. That I had gone into shock. At home I put my head between my thighs. Splashed myself with water. Breathed into a bag. But I couldn’t shake her.
So we started holding hands under the desk, wrote notes to each other in smudged pencil. I went to bed with my head filled with the smell of sweet spice and bitter erasure.
If the sun stopped shining suddenly, it would take eight minutes for people on earth to be aware of the fact.
After we kissed, I counted the seconds.
Our bodies felt lit from the inside, as if we had stolen light.
Finally when we fell into bed it was hot and close. We wrapped our shadows over one another. Lips dipped to the hollows in each other’s body. Wanting each other all the more for having one another.
Neither of us spoke after, nor dared to touch one another as if whatever had happened would dissipate under the slightest breath, but we became inseparable.
Until the rumours.
They passed in hot little whispers, like lifelines through double math and chemistry.
After six months in the womb a baby develops finger prints.
At fifteen we had developed something whose permanence we tried to rub away.
We sat a little more apart. Ate lunch away from the crowd. Took to flirting with boys. Even kissing them on occasion.
Finally Katie Miller returned. She wore a scar and a bandaged wrist that caused great speculation. It became the talk of the school and people forgot about us. Katie returned to her seat at the front. Her seat next to Carrie. I watched them flicker their fingers over the Bunsen burner flame. Melt bic biro ends into spirals. Their arms never touched.
Mr Edwards was replaced. A new man came; he liked to start lessons in silence. We didn’t learn anymore fascinating facts. We read from the book and copied from the board. I couldn’t tell you what I learned.
He once asked us what dark matter was.
He asked the question purely because there was no answer.
Perhaps that was the start of me trying to solve everything, including myself. I went to college and university. I kissed boys. Tried to date one or two. But it never worked. Despite everything I tried I didn’t know how to find the answer. It took falling in love with another girl, whose kisses made the sun go out, to realise some questions aren’t meant to be solved.
The risk of being struck by a falling meteorite for a human is one occurrence every nine thousand three hundred years.
What happens to that person?
Well I have no fact for that.
Some things are unquantifiable.[/private]
Dinner for Two
A fall from grace in three courses.
Graham took his wallet from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. A bulge of twenty pound notes stuck out of the top. He placed it on the table in front of him, letting his hand rest on it for a moment before slowly withdrawing. Andy looked on, cocking his head to one side and creasing his forehead.
“I only wanted some change mate, what’s all this about?” He felt like a child again, called on by the teacher to answer a question he hadn’t even heard.
[private]The waitress came over. “Excuse me sir, I’ve asked you before not to bother our customers. Can you move on please.”
Graham held up his hand to stop her, offering the chair opposite with an open palm. Andy’s gut told him to say no but he pulled away the chair and sat down. The waitress paused before nodding her acceptance.
“I’ll get another set of cutlery and glasses,” she said as she returned into the restaurant. Graham picked up the menu and calmly browsed the options, feeling a stirring hunger. He took a deep, absent sip of his beer and decided to have steak, letting the memory of Malbec and red meat wash through his mouth. He took another long sip of his beer and the waitress returned, setting the table for Andy. “Here is your menu. I presume you are paying?” She turned to Graham. He nodded but didn’t look up from the menu. “And would you like a drink?” she asked Andy. A fizz of excitement pushed at the back of his eyes.
“I’ll have a beer, same as him. Please.”
“I’ll have another as well.” Graham looked up with a serious frown. “And a bottle of the 2008 Catena Alta.”
“Certainly.” The waitress took the wine list and left.
“So what’s your name?” Andy asked, but Graham had returned to the menu, weighing up whether to go for the shrimp causita or scallop tiradito for his starter, and if he was hungry enough to eat both. The waitress returned with the beers and the wine, which she opened and set on the table. Graham drained the bottle he had been drinking and handed it to the waitress.
“Are you ready to order sir?”
“Yes, I’ll have the scallops followed by Churrasco de Lomo, rare.”
“And you sir?” She turned to Andy who began to stutter and fiddle with the edges of his menu. “Um, I’ll, I’ll have what he’s having.” He set the menu on the table like a hot coal.
“And how would you like your steak?”
Steak, Andy thought to himself. Thank God. It was years since he’d had steak. “Well done please.” He nodded to the waitress, reaching forwards and handing the menu back to her.
Graham took up his fresh beer and sat back, looking across at his companion. Andy did the same holding it up between them. “Cheers,” he said and Graham smiled, holding up his beer in return and taking a sip.
“I haven’t had a steak in years,” Andy said nervously. “This place is pretty flash hey?” He looked around him at the other tables. It wasn’t busy, but those eating were well dressed city types, much like Graham. “You eat here a lot, you do?” Graham nodded his head. “I bet it’s expensive.” Graham shrugged his shoulders. Andy took a deep swig of his beer. It was cold and delicious. He wondered how he’d made it this far in the day without a drink. “So what do you do?” he asked. Graham didn’t reply.
The silence continued for a minute or two and Andy felt a desperate urge to get up and run away. He fiddled with one of the buttons on his khaki shirt and, becoming conscious of his bare chest, he put down his beer and did up the buttons to just below his collar. As he did this he nudged the packet of tobacco in his top pocket and an urge to smoke rushed into him like an orgasm. “U-uh, c-can I smoke?” he asked.
Graham nodded, taking out a packet of Marlboro Reds and tapping one out from the bottom and picking it out with his lips in a practiced motion. He offered them across the table using the same gesture. Andy took one. Even though he was desperate to smoke one of his own, he felt obliged. He turned down Graham’s lighter when it was offered. It felt like a small victory.
“I’ve not always been like this y’know.” Andy drew hard on his cigarette, his long fingers fidgeting with it as he held the drag in his lungs. Graham had sat back with his beer in one hand and cigarette in the other.
“No. I had a job. A family. A life even. I used to be a carpenter. Yes. I-I made bespoke kitchen units and things like that. Sometimes I even made banisters or ornamental doors. Good with my hands I was, see?” Andy held up an open palm to show Graham the calluses that still formed hard at the base of his fingers. Graham listened casually, leaning forwards to put out his half-smoked cigarette and taking another sip of his beer.
“Yes,” Andy continued. “I-I used to do all sorts of things. I cycled and I used to go on holiday sometimes, to Spain with the family. Y-y’know – package type things. Cheap. But-um-phew, it was hot.” He wiped his hand across his brow as though taking the sweat, drew a deep breath of clean air and followed it quickly with a long tug of his cigarette. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes. It was hot.” He forced the cigarette smoke from his nose. “So hot,” he nodded, looking away.
He drew himself back and looked up at Graham who met his eyes with too much ease. “I mean we used to go to the beach and you couldn’t even walk on the sand.” Andy launched back into his story to avoid the dreaded silence. “I don’t mean that it was a little bit hot or uncomfortable. I mean the sand would actually burn you if you stood on it without moving. Actually burn,” he accentuated his point by touching the tip of his cigarette to the sky. For a moment he felt like a preacher and a rush of emotions clouded his eyes. Graham looked on but Andy quickly grounded himself.
“Yes but I suppose you’re a, you’re a, a, a City type. I mean a banker or a lawyer or something. I mean you, you look very smart that’s all.” Graham didn’t respond. “Hmm,” Andy craned his neck around behind him, pulling himself up in his seat and then he very quickly sat back down, feeling inappropriate. The waitress arrived with the starters.
Andy eyed the scallops suspiciously as Graham asked the waitress for another round of beers. “Would you like me to pour the wine sir?” she asked.
“No, not with these,” he replied dismissively.
The scent of lemon zest rose up from the small rectangular plates set in front of them. Three neatly seared scallops aligned themselves in the middle with a small green cilantro leaf and a red dot of chilli paste, like a clown’s nose, at its centre. The smell of the scallops weighed in below the lemon and Andy heard the sounds of his children playing beside the sea. The sun beat down on his face and his wife smiled across at him. He thought he might cry but the waitress returned and set down a fresh beer. Graham looked up at him for a moment before placing the first of his scallops in his mouth and creasing his face in appreciation.
Andy took up his fork and set it carefully into the centre of his first scallop, piercing the chilli nose and lifting it from the plate. His hand vibrated gently as he closed his mouth around it and paused for a moment with his fork still in place, before sliding it out and committing to the gesture. He feared his own memories and the longing that came with them.
“We used to eat a lot of seafood,” he continued as he chewed down on a mouthful of melancholy. “Yes, well, when I say we I mean I, really. My wife, she was a bit fussy about food and didn’t really like fish. But, um, she liked scallops though. She couldn’t stand things like prawns, unless they were already peeled and didn’t have their heads on. She hated having anything on her plate with eyes, anything that looked like it might once have been alive.” Graham was already chewing on his last scallop, washing it down with beer. Andy lifted his second more confidently.
“And the kids only ever wanted burgers and chips or pizza. But that was OK because they’d be outside a lot, y’know. Getting lots of exercise,” he laughed gently to himself. “They didn’t stop from morning to night – they’d be swimming or running up and down the beach or building sandcastles. It was great. You could just let them get on with it and relax.” He skewered his third scallop, wiping it around his plate to collect some of the juice and chewing on it hungrily. The saltiness aroused his lust for beer. The waitress came over to take their plates within seconds of him setting his fork back down.
“Great service here,” Andy commented once she had left the table, taking another sip of beer and sitting back. The flavours of the scallops had given him a voracious hunger. He buttered some bread and washed it down with more beer. “Do you know that in the Costa Del Sol they still have bull fighting? Can you believe it, in this day and age, they still allow it? It’s disgusting.” He sat back and folded his arms, taking stock of Graham who nodded from his shoulders and picked up the bottle of wine to inspect the label. “Yes. I went, y’know. My wife wouldn’t go but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Well, let me tell you,” Andy felt himself getting worked up. “It was disgusting.” Graham chuckled lightly but did not look up from the wine and Andy settled back down.
“Did you know that Spain used to be run by the Arabs? Hey? Did you know that? I mean – how many of the ignorant fuckers in this city do you reckon would even have a clue about that?” Graham poured himself a glass of wine and then offered the same to Andy, who accepted. He watched as Graham swirled it in the glass and then stuck his nose in, taking a loud and confident sniff before delicately sipping and drawing his breath in through his teeth. Graham’s expression suggested that he was pleased and he immediately took a much larger mouthful, leaning forwards and topping up his glass with more. Andy looked across at his wine but selected his beer.
“Have you ever been to South America?” Andy asked. Graham nodded and smiled but didn’t say anything. “I’ve always wanted to travel more. I always used to say to my kids that one day we’d all go travelling together, y’know, pack up and head off for a couple of years. South America, Australia, Africa – wherever we fancied. Just go on a big long adventure and forget about all the things like work and responsibility.” Andy took another long drink of his beer, finishing the bottle and taking up his wine. “I suppose,” he spoke into the oversized glass, taking a swig of the Malbec. “I suppose, that’s where it all started to go wrong really. When things started to fall apart. Not in a big way, not quite then. But in a smaller way. The first cracks started to form. You see, it’s when you start looking too far ahead and aiming too high, y’know? That’s when things really can start to go wrong. When you get ideas above your station and think that maybe you can achieve things but you can’t.” He finished his glass of wine and Graham leant forwards and replenished it. “Thank you,” Andy looked up at him as he topped up his own glass. “It’s nice wine,” Graham nodded as he sat back and took another sip.
“My motto now is different, you see? Now I tell people that they’ve got to act within their means and within their ability. It’s no good blindly believing that you can do something when you can’t. It’s no good dragging everybody else down with you when things start to go wrong and instead of stopping and saying: ‘Hold on, this is not working. Best take stock and see if we can’t work it out as it is.’ Instead of doing that, you go on hoping and borrowing and lying and not telling the people closest to you, even your own wife, just how bad things have got, see? It’s an easy spiral to get into if you’re not careful. And oh yes, there’s plenty of people out there who’ll claim that they can help you. Claim that they can help you to maintain your aspirations and keep you shooting for those bloody stars. But when you’re at their door, you’ve had it.” He looked up at Graham who was sat listening intently.
“I don’t mean the banks, you understand? I don’t mean them – they’d never claim to be able to help anybody anyway. There’s other people and other things you can turn to that’ll claim to help you on your way but they don’t. They just trap you,” he whipped the phrase. “And once they’ve got you, you’ll be damned if there’s anybody that can make them let go,” Andy stared into his wine with eyes of regret, the smell of it wafted up all around him.
“That’s when things start to go wrong,” he muttered. “At the very beginning. That’s when it went wrong. For me.” He sat back in his chair and allowed the emotion to cloud his senses. He was shaken from his stupor by the clink of his plate as it was set in front of him with the smell of burnt flesh. His stomach cramped at the sight of its size and his appetite dissipated. All he could think about was drinking more of the wine.
Graham dived into his food as soon as it was on the table, sawing off a large corner of bloody steak and mopping up a load of creamy gratin. He closed his eyes as he chewed, revelling in the tingling sensation across his tongue as the flavours mingled in his mouth. He washed it off with the strong, heady Malbec, returning to his plate to repeat the process.
Andy took up his cutlery. The steak was so big that he didn’t know where to begin. There was no way he could fit so much food into his stomach. He cut off a slither of the meat and placed it in his mouth. It was sweet and tender. The juices tickled his tongue and he found that it was no effort to chew. He took another slice, and then a third, revelling in the decadence of the situation. He took a gulp of his wine. “I’ve never had steak as good as this,” he said through a mouthful. “Never have, and I don’t suppose I’m ever likely to again. There’s no way I’ll get through this whole thing in one go. It’ll keep me going for a couple of days I reckon,” he chucked to himself. Graham had already made good progress through his meat. His plate was a wash of cream, blood and chimichurri sauce.
“There used to be a burger place near us. An American thing, a chain y’know, but a nice place. It felt like you were in some diner over in the States. We used to take the kids there sometimes, for birthdays and on special occasions. The burgers were great but they did steak as well. Sometimes I had a steak there – as a treat. Well, I thought they were pretty bloody good but this,” he pointed at the slab of meat in front of him with his fork. “This is in a different league altogether.” He took up another cut of the meat and stared at it on his fork.
“We went there when I was expanding my business. I won a series of contracts to do the carpentry of some new local developments – houses. Nice houses though, they wanted all sorts: balustrades, handrails, even a couple of bespoke ornamental doors. I couldn’t believe it – I mean I’d done plenty of one-off projects here and there and built up a good little business, but this was so much more. I had to bring people in, skilled people, to work on it. I had to get credit from the bank and from the suppliers in order to cope with the size of the order. But the problem was, it wasn’t enough.” He held the meat in front of him, rotating it on the fork.
“I started to see the potential for big money, I mean way more money than I was making at the time. So I found the extra finance that I needed locally. Y’know, through the informal market. Through someone who knew someone who knew someone else. That way I could get in the materials and pay the people to start working on them. For the first couple of months it was great, I really felt like I was getting somewhere. Suddenly I had a whole workshop of people to organise and everyone was following my orders, implementing my plan. We went out to celebrate, like I said, and I had one of those big t-bone steaks with a side of fries and my wife and I even had a glass of champagne. That was the one and only time I’d ever ordered champagne in a restaurant.” Graham had worked further through his steak but Andy had slowed down with all the talking, occasionally slithering off small pieces of meat, but spending most of the time gazing down at the food without really seeing it.
“You know what the worst thing about it was?” He shook his head at his meal, tapping the steak with his fork. “The worst thing about it was that she warned me. She was cautious, said I shouldn’t be borrowing so much money. Said I should take some financial advice and be careful with the number of people I was taking on. But I was blinded by the opportunity and unable to see the risks. It unravelled pretty damn quick,” he nodded agreement to himself. “So damn quick.”
“The company running the development went bust. Someone came in but they didn’t want to pay the agreed prices for the work, said they had no obligation to take on the contracts. They kept going on about having bought the assets but not the liabilities, that if we weren’t prepared to accept new terms then we would have to deal with the administrators. But the figures didn’t add up and I knew they didn’t. They made all sorts of changes to costing, spec and timing. Everything just became too much and I couldn’t keep track.”
“Then, one day, I gave up. I didn’t go to work that day or the day after, or the day after that. She tried shouting and pleading and talking me up but I was done. I couldn’t face it anymore. I couldn’t even go to the supermarket without feeling panic. I felt like a cripple, like I was paralysed. Then the debt and the angry contractors and the bank – the whole lot of them all at once, baying for me. But it was the money lenders who were the worst. The private lot. The people who knew someone who knew me. They got to her as well, making all kinds of threats.” Andy slumped forwards, staring into his wine.
“I couldn’t blame her for leaving, I couldn’t,” he mumbled. “She was protecting the kids, I knew that. I had become poison. I could see it, it was like watching my own life from the outside and being unable to change it. On the day that she left I didn’t even get out of bed.”
He looked up at Graham with watery eyes. “But that’s not the worst of it.” Andy emptied his glass and held it in front of him with both hands. Graham looked back, chewing on steak and nodded, reaching over to pour out the last of the wine.
“I didn’t try to follow them or contact them. I disappeared for a while, into myself,” Andy spoke, holing the wine in his lap. He no longer ate his steak.
“I came through it, y’know, in the end. I went bankrupt and I lost my business and I got into a bit of trouble with people. But in the end I came through it. I stopped doing the carpentry and took an office job. It was easy work. There was no pressure. I got help too, from the state, with my mental health. I mean, I was depressed. When they first helped me I was suicidal but I managed to get over that, to get stronger. Time went by, it’s amazing how it does, and then two years had passed. Two years and I hadn’t tried to contact them. I’d heard nothing, no word from my wife, no requests for money, nothing.” He leant forwards as if to make another attempt on the steak but the size of it pushed him back down into his seat and he took comfort in the wine. Graham had finished his meat and was working his way through the last of the gratin.
“And then, one day, I woke up and I felt ready. I was back on my feet again. I’d never moved out y’know, I’d managed to keep up with the rent, above all else. I’d not changed a thing. The whole house was the same way it’d been since the day they left. I knew they’d moved out of London, because an old friend of mine had told me, and it wasn’t hard to locate them. So I bought some nice presents for Mark and Amy and an even nicer gift for my wife. I scrubbed myself down and dressed up so that I looked really smart. I felt like I was going on my first date all over again. Like I was off to ask her father for her hand in marriage, real butterflies.”
“Of course, it wasn’t that easy. I’d done it again, got ideas above my station, you see? Tried to achieve something that was beyond me. Your horizons get smaller after something like that happens. The world shrinks you. You become weaker, more insignificant than you were before. You end up diminished.” He finished his wine and the waitress arrived.
“Everything OK sir?” she asked Andy.
“Yes, sorry, I couldn’t eat it all, it was too big. Is it OK if I get it to take away, in a doggy bag?”
“I’m sure we can do that for you,” she smiled. He felt her compassion wash over him.
“Thank you,” he smiled.
“Would you like dessert sir?” the waitress had turned to Graham.
He shook his head. “No, but I’ll have a whisky.” He drew in his breath as he pondered his options. “A Laphroaig, double. No ice. No water. Thank you.”
“Can I have one?” Andy asked.
Graham nodded to the waitress and she left with the plates. He sat back, swirling the last of his wine in his glass and bringing it to his nose to take another long, hard sniff. Andy’s hand fidgeted nervously, keen to search out another drink.
“Of course, there was another man,” he blurted out and then drew in his breath and silenced himself. Even now, so long after, he found it hard to admit.
“He was there when I went round. I didn’t go in. I could see them from the street. It was a nice house. Nicer than our house. Tidier. She always complained that I wasn’t tidy enough.” Andy’s hands worked their way up around the back of his neck, nervously massaging. “She always said that,” he nodded to himself. “Yes, she did. She always said it. Not tidy enough. Always,” he puffed his cheek and blew the air out of his lungs, closing his eyes tight.
“That’s when I flipped. It’s a man thing, you can’t take it. Seeing someone else with your woman, with your children. I waited. I waited all through the night. I watched the lights going off. I watched the kids going to bed. I watched the two of them sitting on the sofa in front of the TV like husband and wife. And I let myself think all sorts of things. I let myself imagine them together, fucking. I imagined her moaning for him. And d’you know the worst thing, it turned me on. I got,” he searched for the right words, looking down at his crotch. “I got hard when I thought about it,” he whispered loudly across the table.
The waitress arrived. “Everything alright gentlemen?” she asked as she set the whiskies down on the table. Graham nodded.
“Fine, thank you,” Andy sat back and looked away until she had left. Graham picked up his whisky and took a deep swig, sucking on his lips afterwards and taking out his cigarettes. Andy thought about his tobacco but he was too nervous to try and roll a cigarette, too tense. Graham didn’t offer and he didn’t know how to ask, so he sipped the whisky. The flavour was deep, musky, like smoke.
“They went to bed and the house went dark but I stayed there all night, imagining,” he couldn’t stop now. He couldn’t shut himself up. “I cried and I got angry and I cried again and I slept a bit. It was cold when I woke up. Early in the morning. The dawn was just beginning to show. But the lights in the house were already on. I don’t know what he did, plumber or builder or something like that but he was up early. I watched him through the window as he leant against the kitchen counter and drank his tea. He was a big guy, well built, strong. He left and drove off whilst the rest of the street was still asleep.”
“I should’ve driven off then. That was the end, it was over. I should’ve just left but I didn’t. I told myself that I wanted to see my children, that’s what I said. But I knew it wasn’t true, even then, as I approached the door. I knew what I was doing, where I was going, who it was that I wanted to see. The door was just on the Yale lock and those things are so easy to open. I used to make doors y’know, as a carpenter, so I know how they work,” Andy’s voice rose a notch as though it might lift above the inevitability that he felt.
“Inside it smelt like home. It smelt of all the things I knew. I thought she’d be pleased to see me, by the time I’d made it up the stairs and to the doorway to her room. In that time, I’d convinced myself that she’d come back to me. Only, I suppose I didn’t look my best, after a night of crying in the car. And when I called her name and she opened her eyes to look up at me I could see that she was afraid of me, her own husband. And she pulled up the duvet to cover herself. She always slept naked, I knew that. It hurt, it cut me right here,” he tapped his chest with his fingers. He looked down at his lap and crunched his face, closing his eyes tight to try and fight back the tears that had begun. He breathed heavily through his nose and rubbed his forehead with his free hand. Graham looked around nervously, for the first time conscious of the tables around them.
Andy drew in a long breath, clenching his fist in front of his mouth. “She didn’t fight much. She didn’t shout or scream. And you know why, of course? I knew why,” he nodded. “Even then, as I was holding her beneath me. A mother always protects her children. What would they think if they’d been woken up? If they’d come in and seen me doing that to her? She cried, the whole time. I could feel her shaking, sobbing. I could taste her tears in my mouth. She never. She never said a thing. I left and she never said a thing.”
Graham sat up awkwardly. He took another swig and finished his drink. Andy sat with an elbow on his knee and his head in his hand, facing the ground. In his other hand he held his whisky.
“I’m just heading to the toilet,” Graham’s words were lost in his throat as he stood up and left the table. He didn’t come back. A short while later the waitress arrived with a paper bag and Andy’s steak wrapped up in foil.
“Your friend has paid and left,” she said. “Are you OK?”
Andy didn’t move. She placed her hand on his shoulder but he shrugged it off like a petulant child. “I’ll just leave this here for now and come back again in a bit to make sure you’re alright.” He opened his eyes and watched as she returned to the restaurant.[/private]
Litro #124: Transgression – Letter from the Editor
Welcome to Issue 124 of Litro
It’s difficult to define what we mean by transgression. That’s partly because transgression is a relative term – there are some acts and ideas an individual might call transgressions, while society might have a totally different opinion on the matter. And then even those opinions aren’t concrete, because what we (or society) might call transgressions don’t always stand the test of time.
Naturally, there are some transgressions we could argue are absolutes – murder, rape, incest. But there are those that become normalized – women’s suffrage, for example, or homosexuality; and others still that become taboo – slavery, child abuse, rape. (And if you ever thought rape wasn’t taboo, watch 1985’s adorable time-travel comedy Back to the Future and have your mind blown as you realise Marty McFly’s mother is victim of an attempted rape by the man who ends up happily running errands for her future family. Oh, that Biff. What a character!)
So bear in mind that this month’s issue of Litro is simply a time-capsule of sin – featuring sexual fetishes, cannibalism, rape, homosexuality, criminal trespass, and murder. In Amber Dodd’s Dark Matter, a young woman struggles not so much to come to terms with her own sexuality, as society’s reaction to it; in Duncan Taylor’s Jørgen Opdahl: Celebrity Burglar, we feature home invasions as entertainment, while in Shannon Bennett’s Visiting Rachel, breaking and entering takes on a more cathartic purpose. Ironing Night by Pauline Masurel is a traditional boy meets girl, boy irons girl’s clothes, boy is sexually aroused by ironing kind of a story; Matt McGee’s New Ground, Againfinds us literally unearthing a transgression of the past, but without the same kind of due diligence we might expect from Waking the Dead; in Matthew Dexter’s The Bird in the Urn, we find ourselves in the company of a bereaved father enacting a distinctly Jacobean revenge in the American Southwest. Finally, we witness to a lifetime of transgressions in the confessions of a homeless drifter in Rhuar Dean’s Dinner for Two.
As you might expect from a theme like this, these stories will hopefully all provoke a reaction. But it may be that in twenty or thirty years’ time, some of the transgressions we feature in this month’s issue will seem quaint – and in some cases, I very much hope so (it’s heartening to know that even as I write this, the ban on gay marriage in California, and by extension, the rest of the USA, is being challenged in the US Supreme Court).
That said, I’m going to go ahead and throw my hat in the ring and say feeding your dead child to old people will never be considered an acceptable act under any circumstances. But hey. You never know.