Call It The Dead
A pork-pie sort of place, says the writer, flicking the card menu between his fingers. See anything you like, baby?
Mmm-mm, the writer’s wife replies, fiddling with one of the buttons on her sleeve.
Actually, I’m looking forward to this, says the writer, leaning forward over the table. A ritualised act of intellectual brutality. Jousting for the respect of the ladyfolk.
He fumbles in his pocket for a red-chequered handkerchief and, flourishing it, pushes it across the table to his wife.
Drape it on my lance, he says, grinning.
His wife, after a moment’s thought, pushes it gently back across the table.
The other writer and the other writer’s wife exchange a little smile.
Ready-set-go, the writer says, quickly. You’re cold and you only seem to get colder. You don’t ever analyse your coldness.
If someone’s conscious enough of their condition, the other writer says, to be able to say that they’re dying on the inside, then they’re not really dying on the inside.
Fish ‘n’ chips, please.
Me too, thank you.
Bangers ‘n’ mash.
Fish ‘n’ chips for me too, please.
They keep their silence as the waiter gathers up their menus. The other writer’s wife’s hand slips beneath the tablecloth and into her husband’s.
You write too little, says the writer, sitting back. And when you do it’s all in code. I think, the richness of the language being what it is and the poverty of the rainforests being what it is, it’s our duty to fill up the page as much as you can.
You’ve got it the wrong way round, says the other writer. The rainforests grow back quicker than words, and we’re using words up more rapidly. What we need now is space.
‘Nonsense’, said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox, quotes the writer, beaming.
I’m serious. Imagine a book filled with blank pages- pages which can never be filled. That’s my talisman; just an empty book to hold your thoughts and your fears.
A man who says too much and a man who says too little go into a restaurant, says the writer’s wife.
And what happens then? asks the writer, smiling appreciatively.
I hadn’t thought of a punchline. Christ, Henry, it was only a joke.
Four glasses arrive. The writer’s is a little smoggy and he asks for a replacement.
Probably spit it clean now, he quips. Serves me right for making a fuss. He tastes the wine and finds it agreeable.
Pour me a bigger glass, says the writer’s wife, if you’re going to keep talking.
I’m still waiting for our friend’s riposte. I was saying, Jack, that you write in code.
I do. So do you. So did the menu.
But it’s an aversion. Everything you do seems to be an aversion. Talk about ‘Life is Elsewhere’; I could honestly believe, right now, that you are elsewhere and I’m talking to a mask.
The other writer’s wife, without him noticing, has let go of his hand.
I’m just preparing, he says, for the day that’s coming.
The day when nothing that’s said openly can be trusted. No longer writing in code because the message is dangerous, but writing in code because all plain speaking has been corrupted and it’s become white noise to us. And on that day, generations of repression and irony and the English art of not-saying will stand us in good stead.
You’re justifying your personal psychological defect by creating a philosophy based on it, says the writer. Interesting.
Is he always this infuriating? the other writer asks the writer’s wife.
None of that, the writer calls out. You can’t score points by appealing to my wife. Definite yellow card and I feel happy to return the blow. Jessie, my dear, tell him he should see someone about this.
The other writer’s wife laughs openly, her golden earrings chiming.
I wouldn’t like to, she says.
Afraid to let her speak? the writer says, grinning obscenely. I wonder what she might say about you given room to do so.
Henry, honestly! says the writer’s wife.
Seriously, he continues. You should seek out therapy.
This isn’t therapy enough? says the other writer, smiling.
Seriously? Writing’s therapy- at least, that’s the way I see it. Some men were born to scream or to punch one another in the face. I go home and I fiddle with sentences.
Again an aversion. How you worm yourself out of everything!
Will the food never come? the writer’s wife says.
We only just ordered. She sniffs.
Hm. Seems like it’s been longer, though I can’t think why. She adds confidingly to the other writer’s wife, They just talk, don’t they? Neither of them are prepared to speak honestly. It’s all games. Was he like that when you were going out?
The other writer’s wife tells her a funny story about their holiday in the Maldives two years ago and a silent, covert battle with a family who kept leaving washed-up starfish out on the patio to dry out and die.
You don’t care enough about your characters, muses the writer, because you don’t care enough about real people. It’s humiliating, isn’t it, Jack, to be pinned down like this?
The other writer pours himself another glass of wine. A nearby table erupts in laughter and he struggles to make his voice heard above the cacophony.
Stories never say what they mean, he says, and neither do people, and we learn that from birth. What good would it do me to learn to lie a little less and to go around patting myself on the back telling myself that I’m now being clear and open? Every word is pregnant with meaning and at least if I’m writing that code I can avoid as many misunderstandings as possible.
Romantic misunderstandings, says the writer, and laughs. Every shy man’s been there...dear Jack, I want to help you.
That’s very kind of you.
No need to get snappy; such defensiveness!
I’m just wondering, says the other writer, smiling, when the joust turned into your beating me, prone on the floor, to a bloody pulp.
Well, if you want to have a go at me, go ahead- but, see, you won’t. You don’t say enough.
You’ve already said far too much.
Ach, you can’t take criticism. What was it someone said about you...’alluding yourself into nothingness.’
She was afraid my work might go that way. It wasn’t a present criticism.
Quite a while ago now, wasn’t it? Much changed since then? Deteriorated any?
Write your memoirs; confess. Get it all out of your system. Understand what it means to speak and not just to hint at.
The fact that I can’t confess interests me more than confession.
Three fish arrive. The writer sits back, grinning, waiting in cheerful anticipation for the conversation to begin again.
Please, says the other writer’s wife, start without me.
You’re dead, says the writer, like a greyhound flying from the hustings, and the dead can’t write.
They can scrawl messages on the coffin lid. There are worse ways to define yourself.
But no-one can read them! The metaphor holds up. What were you having, Jessie?
Bangers ‘n’ mash.
I might ask- no, they’re bringing it now. I’m almost suffering from diner’s remorse; it looks pretty tasty.
My cousin appeared on a TV show, says the other writer, standing up, and was encouraged to strip naked to gain confidence. Jessie’s parents used to tell her God would get her if she didn’t do her homework. Do you understand me now?
And you could break me down, fiction upon fiction, to my bare ribcage and I might tell you something deep and distressing but I’m damned if that wouldn’t be an aversion too. Do you understand me now?
Listen to these words, these brash, shrieking words and there’s no more fucking meaning in them than there ought to be. The only hope I have in words is that they might, once in a fucking while, pinpoint the places where words can’t reach. Do you understand me now?
Not eating, Jack? asks the writer, glancing up, smiling.
She finds him in the car park afterwards, shaking like a childrens’ rattle.