Short Story The Writer
“You wrote this?” she asked, her eyes glistening. It was as if the one thing she’d wanted her entire life had miraculously appeared before her. “I mean, I…” He was spared having to finish his sentence. She’d leant back in and hunched over the printed stack of A4, shifting herself purposefully back on the chair […]
“You wrote this?” she asked, her eyes glistening. It was as if the one thing she’d wanted her entire life had miraculously appeared before her.
“I mean, I…”
He was spared having to finish his sentence. She’d leant back in and hunched over the printed stack of A4, shifting herself purposefully back on the chair as if to give herself the best possible perspective of the page, as if she was worried the words would disappear. And, it meant that he was able to trail off unchecked. He was glad of that.
Maybe there would come a time that she’d finish her question, and ask him straight. He would have to decide then and there. There was a miscommunication, sure. It was certainly implicit in his handing it to her. But he’d not claimed it as his own. Not out loud, not definitively. So technically, technically, he’d not really done anything wrong.
He knew, though, that he was already in too deep. The deed was done. He’d robbed the bank, spraying bullets up the wall, and was careering off down the highway in an armoured van. Even if he answered her honestly, right then and there, she’d be sure to have follow-up questions.
Questions like: ‘so, why is it all typed out on A4?’, ‘why did you hand it to me in the first place?’, or most likely, ‘did you type this whole story out so that I’d think you wrote it Dan, you fucking psycho?’
And they were all fair enough, really. Not much he could say to that.
No, he was too far gone now. The only way out was through. God, he thought, what the hell am I doing?
But what he said, reading over her shoulder, was: “Did you get to the bit about the cherry tree?”
It was her that led him to it in the first place.
“Look I don’t fucking… I don’t know why, alright?”
It had been just about as bad as their fights had got, if you could even call it one. They’d had it before, of course – it was as much a part of their furniture as the kettle or camp bed. One of them would dust it off every few weeks, and it’d serve some vague purpose or other. Air would be cleared, and resolutions made. This time, it was taking longer than usual.
As always, she had sighed – that sigh she had that she’d no right, in Dan’s mind, to make. It was the kind of world-weary sigh you’d hear from an old, jaded civil rights activist. They were happy and healthy and had a good life, all told. It just seemed a bit over-dramatic. It always rubbed him up the wrong way.
“I thought you wanted to talk.”
“Yeah but not… alright, yes. Alright. Look I just find it hard, ok?”
“You find what hard?”
“Talking about it, I don’t know, I’m good, really.”
“I… ok.” She frowned and rolled the tip of her tongue across the top row of her teeth, like she always did when she’d a whole lot more to say. Dan liked it, and it had calmed him then. It felt like they were close to the end.
“Ok but you keep saying you’ll talk to me. You keep saying you’ll tell me when you feel angry or upset or scared and you keep saying you won’t just hole up and get pissy and start snapping and tell me everything’s fine.
“When you tell me what I’m doing wrong, I stop doing it! I really do, I mean, I’ve been interrupting you less, because, because you said you didn’t like that, and I’ve been more ok with you doing your own thing – I didn’t say a word when you went out on Thursday – and… and you might not notice but I really do change those things!”
“I do notice”
“Alright well good ‘cause you don’t ever really seem to me-”
“-no, you’re right. I just, I thought I’d have done more at 27. Taken more chances. I don’t know, made something.” He took off his glasses to clean them. It always centred him.
“Then make something.” Always point blank was Lily, straight from the hip. He had to hand it to her.
He was so always so confident going in, so sure his argument was watertight. He’d muttered it to himself as he angrily buttered his toast that morning, and it sure as hell sounded convincing then. And yet, here he was again without a leg to stand on. Now that he thought back to it, he had absolutely no idea what he had been annoyed about. Really, bravo Lil.
“I should, shit. I should, I know.”
“Look, there’s something I want you to see at Kourik’s.”
“But I don’t even know what I’d… what?”
“I found something. I know what you mean, ok? And you’ll find it. You’re doing great. I’ve got to go round to the old bastard’s anyway and I want to show you. Come see. It’ll take your mind off it. And shit, it’ll give you something to do at least.”
Milan Kourik had certainly been an old bastard, though Dan didn’t like her calling him that. Almost every day Lily would send a text (usually just before lunchtime, when Mr. Kourik was getting hungry and Lily was taking too long with the microwave), a message that started ‘ JESUS, bastard update. Worst one yet:’ followed by some furious, bigoted quote from the old man. Most confounding, and entertaining, for them was his vitriolic anger towards immigrants – the irony apparently lost on him that he himself had moved over from Croatia just twelve years ago.
Less fun was the way he had spoken about Lily – predatory, demeaning – the last gasp of his long-shrunk masculinity. Lil was tough as nails though, she had to be, to take care of old bastard after old bastard like that. God knows how she did it.
And Mr. Kourik had been a bastard to the bitter end, ‘til his last hateful breath had left him.
The apartment was a short walk, but at this time of year the cold was stubborn and unforgiving, and however Dan wound his jacket around him, it felt like he had nothing but his own skin for warmth.
He peered in the necessary gap between hat and scarf at Lily, who was smirking, red-cheeked in a baseball cap and denim jacket. God knows, honestly.
“Alright so: old Milan’s finally been fucked by the big C, so I have to go round, to leave the key before they come over and gut the place. Which is always such a downer, Christ. Especially with the cancer ones, their lives are so bleak at the end.”
She had talked like that since her first week of medical school: detached; coldly flippant about all the worst things on earth.
She had taken to it immediately. Dan had no idea what they showed them in those first few lessons, he didn’t want to know, but ever since that first week it was distended this, and prolapsed that, as easy as rattling off a shopping list. It made him feel sick just thinking about it. He wanted it not to bother him, to be more laissez-faire, but he wasn’t. It did.
“Do you have to-”
“Oh fuck off Dan.” She was beaming now. She always took great pleasure in his naiveté. “Ok so Mr. Kourik has passed away, which is a real tragedy for his zero family members and zero friends.” She looked at him smirking, head cocked, until he gave in and smiled back.
“I mean I’ve been going there for three months so I’ve sort of tuned it out but it’s just… well, you’ll see.” They walked in silence for a few paces, and then:
“The keys aren’t being picked up ‘til Monday so I wanted to show someone else before I left there for good. I wanted to show you.” She glanced at Dan.
“Otherwise it wouldn’t feel real, you know.” She’d slowed gradually to a halt, and was staring at the floor.
“Lil, are you-”
“Here!” she said, as if someone had put a current through her.
She darted down the short path, up to a peeling red door with a faded ‘12’ in the centre where the numbers had been. With one seamless movement she slid the key in, turned it, and pirouetted round to face him. She flicked her eyebrows, smirking, leaned backwards, and pushed open the door.
Once, when he was six, Dan saw a dead body. He was walking with his parents down the high street, aligning every step with a crack in the pavement. It always slowed him down, and they’d moved on ahead.
Where the cracks stopped, and the pavement turned to smooth concrete, he stopped altogether.
Looking to his left he saw a pile of motheaten blankets, with a man’s face, grizzled and dark, poking through the top. The face looked like it had been tense, strained, for decades, and had finally been let to relax. At that age, Dan had no context to know, or barely even the words to express it, but something in him knew: this person had died.
He’d not felt that chill before or since but it was here now, in the dead man’s silent home.
The hallway was too dark to make out any details; the amber light from the living room was weak, and struggled to reach either of them.
Lily had strode ahead through the living room and was in the kitchen already. But then, she’d been here before. This was nothing new to her. Being in this place for the first time was an arresting experience for Dan. It needed to be taken in a moment at a time. It was like taking the first step off a plane in some new, exotic country: the air was different, the heat was arresting, but his surroundings – the tarmac, Mr. Kourik’s dank hallway – seemed oddly familiar.
He heard Lily call from the kitchen: “Coffee? Milan won’t be needing it!”. Dan was too involved, too wrapped up in this place, for a while, to respond.
“Um”, he turned the corner into the dim room, “yeah”.
“Milk’s sour, black ok? It’s that good instant you buy. Gilliano or whatever.”
“Mm”. The living room was a sea of stacked paper. Magazines, loose documents, newspapers, and pamphlets stood in towers, as rigidly aligned as a New York City block. It looked at first glance like a wasteland, a slowly built-up detritus, but there was an order to it. The towers were not only laid out in grids, but they were organised. The left side: by size, the right: by colour. The back of the room also seemed ordered, but he couldn’t quite work out how.
A bulging, bursting yellow sofa was the room’s centrepiece, softened with age and decades of almost continuous use, with a lap tray and covered nest of side tables sat next to it. Milan Kourik’s silver glasses sat on the largest table, next to an antique fountain pen in the dead centre.
There were also clear pathways, desire lines, from the hallway to the sofa, and on to the kitchen. Another path led out from the sofa to the back of the room. Dan thought at first that it was leading to the netted window, but it veered off and ended at an austere teak bookcase. He trod lightly over, like a tourist through a cathedral.
“You found it then” said Lily, suddenly behind him, “here – coffee”.
When they’d first met, they would tread very lightly around each other.
They were still testing the waters – she was primly watching her language (all ‘gosh’ and ‘oh shoot’; it hadn’t lasted long) and he, whenever he’d put forward an emotion he thought too demonstrative and wide of centre, would instantly retreat, shaking his head minutely and saying ‘sorry, I’m being silly. That was stupid’. And here they were on a dead man’s sofa, in a comfortable, respectful silence. It was a progress, of sorts.
They sat on either side, with a chessboard between them. This was what she’d brought him here to see.
Every day that she worked at Mr. Kourik’s, as she left, the old man would bark at Lily to bring the set over, and place it on one of the small tables in front of him. “And be careful!” he’d shout, “you be careful girl. You make a mark on that and you’ll be sorry, girl. Very sorry indeed.”
Lily had told Dan that much, how desperately protective of it he was, but she’d never talked about the set itself. It was incredible. The board’s squares were stained wood and marble, and the edges were ornately carved with what looked like scenes from a gothic folk story, or some long-forgotten war.
It was deep, with a small drawer in the side, within which stern, intricately carved pieces lay in a specially moulded mount.
They sat and beheld it in the dim amber light for a while, then Lily spoke, with her eyes on the board. “Don’t even know what he wanted it for.” She looked up at Dan.
“He sure as shit never had any visitors. I’ve just always wanted to look at it properly. He’d never leave the sofa for long enough, and god for-fucking-bid he should ever catch me taking a look inside.”
She looked over the edge of the sofa, down through the floor, and addressed the old man directly, shouting into the abyss: “Not much you can do from down there though, is there Milan?” She sent a laugh into the stuffy, silent room, and straightened the board between them.
“Right” she said “rack ‘em up”.
They played, in a thick silence, and she won. She made a point of knocking his king over with the base of her bishop, sending it tumbling off the board and bouncing across the thick carpet between two yellowed towers of newspaper.
Dan was outraged. “Lily, don’t!” he blurted, surprising himself and Lily. He scurried off to retrieve the fallen king, as she warily, tactfully apologised, rolling her eyes and leaving the room to wash up.
Sitting on the worn right hand side of the sofa, with the board on a table in front of him, Dan laid the pieces carefully back in the raised mount.
He looked down at the complete set. It really was magnificent. The two kings lay on opposite sides, with faces expertly carved in single-minded determination. Every face in the set, from both sides, looked up at him with the same fixed stare of resolute purpose. Knights, bishops, even pawns, certain of their role and their duty – and ready, in a second, to act it out.
He was starting to understand why Mr. Kourik had wanted to be left with the board every night. He could have stared at these faces for hours.
At the top of the raised mount was a short, frayed golden length of ribbon, and on pulling it Dan realised that the mount lifted straight up.
Below it sat a small, thick red notebook, with the number 3011 written neatly in the top right-hand corner. Dan craned his neck in, and slowly, reverentially, reached for it.
“Want to shoot off?” called Lily from the kitchen. It caught Dan off guard, and brought him breathlessly back to reality. He acted on a sudden assured impulse to snatch the book and stuff it in his inside coat pocket.
“Uh -” It had to be kept secret, she wouldn’t understand.
He hurriedly replaced the mount and closed the drawer. “Yep. Yeah let’s head off” he shouted to the kitchen. Hurriedly reaching over for his glasses, he almost rested them on his nose before realising they were Mr. Kourik’s he’d picked up by mistake. He tossed them behind him onto the table and clumsily stood up to better get his bearings.
“Looking for these, Dan?” said Lily, now standing in the doorway and holding his glasses. He snatched them back and cleaned them with the end of his scarf.
“I… thanks. Let’s go.”
That was a month ago. And since then, it had been everything to Dan. Every night it would be fished from his hiding place and read clandestinely, tucked in the centre of another book or newspaper. It was even on occasion laid on the kitchen counter while he absent-mindedly rapped a knife edge against the chopping block, to give the illusion of prep to a barely-listening Lily.
Soon, though, Lil had been given a new old bastard to take care of, and their hours were different enough that on weekdays he could be left alone with it – curled up in his corner of their sofa, looking up the references he didn’t understand, and taking notes of his own in the margins without fear of discovery.
The words shook him like an earthquake. Mr. Kourik became an idol in his mind, a rock of truth. There were things here he had been scared to think; thoughts he’d had floating, shapeless in his mind here given form; ideas and perspectives that had never occurred to him organically, but tore through him now, right to the core.
The typing out had started as an exercise. Tapping it down on a keyboard brought him closer to the text – he could feel each word out, how it felt to express. It made his heart race to do it. He could just about begin to unravel, to explore, the mind of Milan Kourik.
The whole thing was typed out in an evening, trance-like, at an increasingly furious pace, while Lily was out at a birthday party.
Now, Dan stands behind Lily, with his hand on her shoulder, reading the words as if they’re his own.
He cleans his glasses, slowly, deliberately, and rolls out his shoulders.
He cranes down, wipes a tear from Lil’s face and lifts her chin to look at him.
“You did it, I knew you would. And it’s beautiful, Dan, it’s really beautiful.”