In the first short story of the term, David Volco tells an absorbing tale of grief and anger…
At work once we got told that in thirty of our stores traces of faecal matter were found in a particular cream cake and that we were probably going to be facing heavy lawsuits. We didn’t even make those cakes – they’re bought from a French catering company. We’re a department store, is it really our responsibility to check every almond sprinkle for a harmless strain of bacteria? I had one of those cakes just a few days prior to the announcement, in the cafeteria. Kathy was too tired to make my lunchbox the evening before. The cake was fine. I guess I must’ve ingested some faecal matter. It all comes out the same though. Kathy grimaced when I told her that. She told me to go out for a walk, “get outside your own head for a while”. She wasn’t even aware of the concept of dualism but it was inherent in her advice.
In the cafeteria, Samuel had joined me mid-meal. I remember his skin was particularly troubled – it had that braised look about it, as if one scratch would leave a messy scar. He was clutching a faded, labelled Tupperware. “Hello”, he said without sitting down.
“Mind if I…?”
Deliberately, I remained silent for as long as I could bear. The trouble with Samuel is he doesn’t realise how likeable he could be, were he to just snap out of his timid ways. Instead he shuffles around the place, and as far as I can tell he talks only to me and a janitor who takes advantage of his eagerness by recounting his lifetime of conquests, sexual and physical. Samuel’s so used to others leading the situation (goodness knows how he got to head office) that his comfort with silence massively excelled the apparently taxing act of completing his sentences. Someone dropped a pile of trays in the kitchen.
“Sure”, I said, breaking a tension that only existed for me. Samuel plopped into his seat like a grape.
Now that we were on the same plane, we held a more amicable silence for some time. Samuel unravelled quite an astonishing amount of cling film from his ham sandwiches. With my career cramming against Kathy’s illness in my head, it was actually quite nice to watch him work through his meal. I realised then and there in fact that I knew almost nothing about him, and was overcome with an almost scientific desire to inspect this Hobbit-like man who’d wandered the same carpet as me for almost eight years now. My spontaneous inquiry made me cringe a little inside.
“What makes you tick, Samuel?”
He looked up at me as if I was a piece of furniture that had suddenly coughed. “What do you mean?”
I reined in my joviality. “Just, do you have any hobbies? Interests?” This was Samuel, not Gandhi – I was the leader of this encounter. A piece of my infected cream cake dripped onto the table. Samuel eventually responded, “Well, I quite like chess I suppose.” Then he leaned forward, and with his forefinger he scooped up the cream cake globule and popped it into his mouth.
Every Thursday Samuel and I played chess in the office until we were asked to leave. I’ll admit that I relished the envy in the janitor’s eyes as we passed him silently by. We played with a wooden set that Samuel had made himself some years before. He described how he had selectively stained the wood, and how each pawn was slightly different. He talked more than anything about the varnishing. “It makes the difference”, he used to say, “makes it look professional.” Mostly though, we didn’t speak. And that was good. Kathy got suspicious when I decided against inviting Samuel round for dinner, as if I would cheat on a sick woman. Really though I recoiled against the idea of being in the same room as two such conflicting silences.
Samuel’s chess was good. Very good, in fact. He played a bit like a computer, building up his pieces with no obvious objectives other than sealing off any chance of attack, and eventually he’d find an opportunity and flood through it like a tidal wave. Over the weeks and months, though, I learnt to counter this, sacrificing pieces to prevent his constructions ever getting off the ground. I found myself thinking and rethinking positions at work, in the car, and when Kathy had to stay in the hospital I sat with a chess app on my phone going over variations. Father Dibson, who visited more than I did, helped me practise by her bed.
The first time I beat Samuel – our seventeenth game – I actually jumped out of my chair. He smiled and ran his hands through his hair. “That was really something.” The janitor, who had taken to watching our games despite not knowing the first rule of chess, shook my hand enthusiastically.
That same evening, after a few beers around mine in a subdued ‘celebration’, Samuel and I were watching TV. A snowstorm had started up outside, and we were both excited at the prospect of a Friday off work, though neither of us dared jinx it. A man on the TV was talking about the planning of the world’s tallest building. “At over a kilometre high, the Kingdom Tower will dominate the skyline of Dubai.”
“Aren’t you married?” Samuel asked.
“In 2008, proposals were made for a mile-high building, but this had to be scaled back…”
“Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no, no reason.”
There was clearly a reason. Samuel and I had gotten close in the months of chess and cafeteria meals. He had obviously noted the dwindling supply of my lunchboxes, and the general untidiness of the flat. Never had he initiated any conversation of depth, until now. Perhaps it was the beer. “It’s just-”
“I’m currently flying at the exact height the Kingdom Tower would reach, and my goodness me!”
“-is your wife on holiday or something?”
“No, she’s in hospital.” I stretched back in my armchair in preparation for a lie. “I visit her a lot.”
“I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to fall from such a great height!”
At that moment, my phone rang. It was Doctor Cowper.
Kathy looked like an alien. Her cheekbones were tent poles beneath her skin, which flaked and sagged like papyrus. Her eyes bulged and an unhealthy pulse was visible in her neck. It took her a while to recognise me, and to my surprise she smiled. I hadn’t visited in three weeks.
“She can’t talk.” Father Dibson stood up from her bedside.
“How long has she got?”
“It’s hard to predict these things, what matters-”
“George – please.” He scratched his head and turned around to look out the window at the snow.
“The doctors say it’s a matter of hours.”
I once more found myself in silence for some time. My fingers trembled. Dibson read his bible and his smartphone, never intruding. I could smell the beer on my breath, so eventually I went to get coffee. The place was built like a maze, with every sign repeated in twelve languages, a labyrinthine cement block of white-washed corridors that looped through fucking wormholes into themselves, and me wobbling down the squeaky floors stained by the dying. I burst into a toilet and threw up violently.
There, with my head in the bowl, I spent a long time thinking. I put myself in Kathy’s shoes, losing my bodily functions one by one. Walking, then talking, then pissing with assistance. Even eating was a chore for her. And every step of the way I was assuredly telling her – telling myself that it was temporary. How lonely this hospital is. And I was off playing chess with a fucking hermit.
I heard chaos before I got back in the room. Kathy was convulsing, and a machine by her bed bleeped and squealed on her behalf. A nurse ran in after me and fiddled with her equipment. “What’s going on?” I asked, but she kept telling me to calm down. Calm the fuck down! “Is this it? Tell me is this it?” Dibson clutched his bible, like this pandemonium was some initiation into a higher realm of understanding. The machines squawked in our little room as the nurse called out for assistance but we were lost in the stomach of the leviathan. I wondered how many people had died in that room. What was dying even like? I don’t know anything about dying, about really dying and knowing that’s what’s happening. I whimpered at Kathy’s spasms and the smell of urine and Dibson clasped his book tighter like a ship’s captain being subsumed.
Suddenly everything went still. The nurse gave us the look. Father Dibson slowly crossed the room, paused, and hit the window.
I did nothing.
Kathy died at 10:30PM exactly on the 14th of April. The paperwork necessary was over in an hour, but Dibson and the staff urged me to “take all the time you need to come to terms with this.” By 11:45 I was in The Horse and Chains, on my second pint. I’d had my reflections. I wanted to get outside my head, and I must have succeeded because I hardly remember anything. I drank alone. The snow picked up and I must’ve walked back, heavy and warm from booze. I remember being very wet when I finally got there. Samuel was still about, waiting.
I remember hating him for his innocent questioning, for his chess and his childish glasses. I hated him for his raincoats and old jeans and Doctor Who novels and I wished he would leave, but it was way past midnight and freezing. Frustration and anger sloshed around inside me and before I knew it I’d punched him hard in the stomach. He fell, and I felt a brief release. I kicked his crotch and straddled him, and inched freer. I was so ready to pummel his face into a mess, to escape completely – his ridiculous virgin face, his blood held back by millimetres of crusty skin that I was going to rip off because “Fuck you Sam!” I smacked his chest. “Fuck! You!”
I paused to catch my breath, and saw him crying. I stood. My head span. “Get the fuck up.” I was slurring. He curled into a ball and whined. “Get the fuck up you…” but it was too late, and I glimpsed the crimson stain around the groin of his jeans and recoiled. I must’ve kicked harder than I thought. My passion faded. Briefly I stumbled about the flat, drunk, my hands over my mouth, looking for some kind of solution. He trembled like a deer.
Outside, the snow continued to build.
The sun encroached on the horizon, and dogs began to bark.
I passed out on the couch.
David Volcobookmark me