An Abstract Feat
It snores heavily and loudly and incessantly beside me, like an animal. As if the revelation that I spent the night with it isn’t enough, now, the morning after, I can’t even bring myself to refer to it as a he.
The before to this after is a story as boring and predictable as they always are: eyes were caught, a conversation was started, tired anachronisms such as the man buying all the drinks were upheld. As if the institutional delusion “masculinity” and its rulebook won’t consider the possibility that the woman might like to buy the drinks. As if it’s even important. As if “masculinity” actually necessitates the desperation to prove himself to those who share his gender. He whose vanity (insecurity) is so surface level that he even looks at his own bicep in the (in hindsight) poorly positioned mirror during sex.
Mental Note #251: take hooks out of wall and move mirror to another corner of the room. (Third guy that month to catch me catch him looking at himself in it)
The story’s setting was no less boring or predictable: a unanimous dive bar that was simultaneously well located and affordable. The kind you’d not take your mum to but not bat an eyelid at if suggested by an equally unfastidious friend.
If I’m continuing with the story metaphor, the discernible “Acts” played out as follows:
Plan made to meet friend at bar. Rest of day spent generating enthusiasm, even occasional excitement at the prospect.
Arrival at bar, consumption of nervous drinks #1 and #2, whilst waiting for friend. Progressive realisation of friend’s unattendance, followed by confirmatory text message. Decision made to stay out. Alteration in night’s agenda and trajectory. Drinks #3 to #8 consumed with Mike. Or was it Mick. Possibly Mac.
Change in locale. Arrival at apartment and underneath sheets, etc.
Let yourself out.
Last night was fun. Not looking for anything serious. Text me:
I don’t consider myself a particularly bad person, but this is one thing I do that is a little evil: invariably, I give a fake number in this situation. Today is no different.
When I go to hell, the first thing I’ll have to do is pay off all these fake phone bills. I’ll run out of money and have nothing to spend there. Perhaps then I’ll let them buy the drinks. It’s your round, Satan.
walking through windows
I apply my make-up and do my hair in the car on the way there. Humanity’s worst trick: attempting to cover up the shit with a bit of powder. People forget that people can see everything. Walking past someone on the street, we have the privilege of seeing everything. The full image and nothing hidden. The act of viewing this image can become intrusive… but this more often seems to be the case when the viewed object is female. Funny how that works out.
David Bowie comes on the radio. The return of the Thin White Duke … throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.
‘… Nervous, Fee?’ This comes from AJ, my best friend and agent, and today, driver.
‘But you know this book’s good.’
‘And we both know how little importance that carries these days.’
Perhaps unfairly, I’m taking out feelings of frustration and resentment towards last night on AJ. One day he’ll get tired of putting up with me.
Mental Note #11: treat AJ better.
Here am I … flashing no colour … tall in this room overlooking the oooo-cean.
Station to Station: Bowie’s ten-minute opus, taken from the 1976 album of the same name. His definitive negotiation between style and substance, between singularity and accessibility. A track about transition and the precarious position of being in between career phases, in between different conceptions of self. A track about crossing over into the unknown.
Appropriate, I guess, that it soundtracks my blind march into the abyss.
AJ turns corners and accelerates down extended sections of straight road, winding his way towards our destination. He ostensibly knows where he’s going but I absolutely do not. I’m trusting him, not for the first time.
The value had become an important one in the current climate. The circus act proclaiming to be our government had illegalised art. Creativity is a criminal offence and this has been the case for the past decade. So, returning to our story metaphor: call this setting Near Future/Post-Apocalyptic. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but the world had all but ended for writers such as myself.
Close allies had become everything, and AJ is my closest. He always takes me to the secret meetings with publishers, my effective bodyguard. Not that I, Ophelia Mast, need protecting any more than the next person. It’s just not safe for anyone to meet a publisher alone, not anymore.
I touch the handgun in the glove compartment for comfort, checking that it’s still there.
I’d had some terrifying experiences over the decade. It was common for publishers to not be who they claimed to be. The letters exchanged had to be taken with a pinch of salt. The WR (Writers’ Resistance) try to keep each other in the loop, warning of dubious names or contacts, reassuring people which publishers are safe to trust, but this can only go so far. The literary world had become one in which you have to take risks; it’s an entirely new landscape to ten years ago. And this all, of course, is secondary to the empirical fact of my gender. An additional, colossal obstacle.
Male abhorrence had only escalated in the new society. Too many of the publisher meetings gone bad involve a male publisher (or plural) and a female writer. I don’t need to spell it out for you. All the progress made pre- “C-Day” had gone out of the window: there are now fewer female writers than ever.
I turn up Bowie from the passenger seat to drown out my internal despair that speaks for the billions of women that share my planet. What a time to be alive.
found in the funhouse
I get a phone call as we park the car, get out, and adopt a new mode of transport for the remainder of the journey. I peer over AJ’s shoulder at the scrap of paper holding everything we have been allowed to know:
14 Hill Street.
Park outside 67 High Easton and find by foot. Red door. Knock three times, wait fifteen seconds, knock a further two.
The secret knock is common in these situations. Other publishers prefer code words.
On the third ring I pick up. It’s Holden, my ex. Shit.
‘Holden, I’m in the middle of something so this better be important.’
‘Need to see you. Soon. Got some big news that I need to get off my chest.’
‘Do I need to know?’
‘You need to know.’
‘Today’s a write-off. Out on a you know what –’
‘– A what?’
‘A You Know What.’
‘Oh, right. Got you. This is really important though, so it can’t wait long.’
‘I can do next week.’
‘Can’t do Monday.’
‘Yeah, it’ll have to be Thursday.’
‘I’ll text you.’
And I actually will. I’d been with Holden Caulfield for two years and we split a month ago. My reason at the time was to focus on my writing but it had changed almost every time we’d talked about it since:
“I need to focus on my writing.”
“I just need a break from this kind of thing.”
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
“It’s not me, it’s you.”
“The celebrity following is too much. I feel like I’m competing for your attention. These girls fling themselves at you, desperate for you to put a signature in their copy of Catcher in the Rye; it put a strain on our relationship. Why did I think dating fiction’s most famous protagonist would be a good idea?’
“We were never a good fit.”
“I don’t care if it’s a sad goodbye or a bad goodbye, but when I leave a person I like to know I’m leaving them. If I don’t, I’ll feel worse. We just can’t keep doing this.”
The last one had really got to him. I’d ignored the escalated bombardment of calls and texts until they sounded dangerous. I’ll have to see him next week.
I divert my attention back to the situation at hand. To AJ. Who, within thirty minutes, is seated beside me, opposite our unnamed publisher, a thing whose mouth now opens in order to address him:
‘Excuse me if I’m mistaken, but you’re not Ophelia.’
‘I’m her agent.’
‘I don’t allow agents.’
‘I don’t allow people to not allow agents.’
He turns forty-five degrees and addresses me:
‘I don’t allow agents. Perhaps I should have clarified that in my letters.’
My turn to turn to AJ:
‘I’ve got this. It’ll be fine. Go wait in the car.’
‘– It’ll be fine.’
I’m unsure why I’m so confident it will be, what with the glaring indications of Potentially Dangerous Situation, the possibility of Male Abuse of a Position of Authority.
Unless it’s desperation. I can’t keep this manuscript stay in my drawer any longer. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
On AJ’s exit, after the door is re-closed, the lights dimmed, police interrogation style, I unfasten my drawstring rucksack and take out the wad of pages in question. I place it on the desk that separates me from him with an unintentionally loud thud.
‘PLEASE, please, be quiet. You know what’s at stake here.’
He slides the pages towards himself with both hands. He unties the knot binding them together, and reads the title printed in bold on the page at the top of the pile, first to himself, then for a second time aloud:
‘Untitled, by Ophelia Mast.’
‘It doesn’t have a title yet.’
‘Well that’s not a very good start, is it.’
It’s a good thing he’s still looking through his glasses at the page he obtained these details from, otherwise he’d see the unconcealable smile decorating my face and probably tell me to fuck off there and then. He’s right though: I don’t help myself and I’ve been told this before.
Mental Note #76: Never try and sell a work that doesn’t have a title.
He begins reading page 1 of 151 and I begin counting the cracks in the walls, relishing my first bit of uninterrupted silence for weeks.
It’s well into what I guess to be hour two that I actually start to look at the man I’m throwing these hours away to. Glasses, blonde, unshaven, tall: about 6 ft 2. One of those people who somehow keep their face perfectly still despite their body moving. As he consumes my letters, words, sentences, pages, his expression remains impossibly blank. Not even a mouth twitch or raised eyebrow.
My novel is supposed to be a comedy, but his reaction doesn’t worry me. He’s probably like one of those film critics that sit through the film with one leg crossed over the other, spending more time scribbling in a notebook than looking at the screen, nodding for ninety minutes but never smiling, whose write-up will then praise the film on its comedic merit and say something vague like “Comedy of the Year: somewhere between Mel Brooks and Woody Allen”.
I then spend a further hour trying to guess his name. But I won’t bore you with that. But I did settle on either Jonathan or Jackson.
He finishes reading it during what I think is hour six. I haven’t even fallen asleep this time. I suppose by now I’m used to this process.
My film critic analogy/prediction was spot on.
‘… I mean it’s obviously very funny. But there’s a lot of pain beneath that. Which I like.’
(So unenthused that it sounds like it).
‘It’s a bit smart for its own good. The self-referentiality and self-deprecatory humour does get a little tedious.’
(A deliberate exercise in necessary tedium, anticipating and parodying this very reaction. Obviously missed the point).
‘But I think people will like that more than I did. It’s ultra-modern. Manages to collapse stylistic and thematic barriers simultaneously, which I found impressive.’
‘And the cathartic denouement is breath-taking – an ending I don’t think I’ll forget for a while.’
(Words. Words stacked on top of words that don’t actually say anything – thanks).
‘What are you trying to say with it? It’d be interesting to hear it in your words.’
This is the single most annoying question a writer ever has to answer, so of course I’m stumped:
‘At first glance, it seems like a very personal work.’
‘Is your female protagonist supposed to read as a surrogate you?’
This is the single most reductive interpretation a writer writing in the first person ever has to be on the receiving end of. So of course I find it annoying.
watching swarms on TV
Approximately twenty minutes into the journey back, we begin to realise that we are being followed.
‘… So he does want to publish it?’
‘But from the way you describe it, he didn’t seem to like it.’
‘My thoughts exactly.’
‘But he must.’
‘So today’s been a success, then.’
‘This could change everything’, I agree.
My turn of phrase reminds me of something the guy from last night kept saying: “I need to change everything.” He persistently told me how much of a mess his life was, as if it was supposed to turn me on or something. I would nod, inebriated, listening but not really listening, thinking about Act III, wondering whether it would be staged at my place or his. The memory prompts the return of the horrible taste in my mouth.
‘Be happy then, Fee!’
‘That black Mercedes-Benz has been behind us for a while now.’
‘Yeah, I’ve noticed.’
‘Let’s try something.’
AJ takes the next right turn even though it’s not where we’re going.
‘… Doesn’t necessarily mean anything.’
‘Let’s try again.’
Once again he tries and fails to lose the Mercedes.
He tries to distract from the situation:
‘What did he think of the use of the first person?’
‘Didn’t seem keen. Asked if she’s supposed to read as a surrogate me.’
‘It is, isn’t it?’
Another twenty and we’re still being followed. At this point, my eyes are shut, which is fortunate otherwise I’d notice the beads of worry creeping down AJ’s face. He’s always been the strong one, so this would unsettle me.
I wake with a start when the front of the Mercedes clashes with the back of us. The kind of real-life dramatic turn another writer might get a kick out of. Metal intertwined with metal. Dying chromium and collapsing bulkheads. The kind of nightmare J.G. Ballard would relish.
‘What the –’
‘– What the hell’s going on?!’ I demand of AJ, by now completely, irrevocably awake.
‘I don’t know!’
The Mercedes slams into the back of us again. Much, much harder this time.
Mental Note #122: Finally get round to reading ‘Crash’. (Perhaps use as an excuse to go through all of Ballard’s major works)
Spinning and nausea. We turn over in the air. We are involuntarily relocated from the road to the roadside. Screaming: mine. My head hits something hard. Everything goes black.
Miraculously, I wake up soon after losing consciousness. Even more miraculously, I’m still in one piece, with only a searing pain in my head. Worrying silence at AJ’s end. Just as I go to inspect his situation, the car door is pulled open.
Two men in black suits each point a gun at my head.
‘Where is it?’
‘… Where’s what? Who are you? What the hell’s going on?!’
‘Give it to us. Now.’
‘I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.’
‘Don’t make us hurt you.’
I put two and two together in my head and realise what they’re after. I’ve heard stories of this happening but never believed that it actually could.
‘Where is it?’
My body begins to act before my mind gives it the permission to, reaching for, opening, and grabbing from the glove compartment in one motion. Idiotically, I’ve stuffed the manuscript on top of what I’m looking for… what, as per Chekhov’s rules, I introduced in the first Act so must now go off in this third.
I don’t have time to fumble for the handgun so grab the manuscript wad instead. Ideally, it’d be heavier; this would make it a far more useful tool right about now. My great breakout novel should have been a tome. Skip vital career stepping stones and come straight out with a Ulysses or Infinite Jest. I could knock someone out with one of those things.
I grab the manuscript from the glove compartment and throw it in the direction of the two bodies connected to the guns pointed at me, not really knowing what to expect from the attempt.
My throw is near-perfection: it knocks the gun out of the hand of the man that has done all the talking – clearly the more senior and experienced of the two.
His subordinate is so surprised at the turn of events that his gun instinctively lowers. He fumbles for his partner’s gun on the floor, forgetting all about me. Idiot.
My body is three steps ahead of me again. My hand turns the ignition and then my foot floors it, hammering the accelerator. Thank God I chose to give AJ a break and drive us home. The decision has saved my life and hopefully his.
We speed away in our dented box of metal as the outro music kicks in and the camera begins its slow zoom outward to capture the long shot. The credits lurk behind the curtain, ready and waiting to come out and tell everyone to get their coats and go home.
I think back to what I had for breakfast. Or rather, didn’t. I begin to do something inane like try and count how many skipped breakfasts that makes this month. AJ sleeps in my arms, a wet flannel being held over his head by my hand. I’m lucky to have him. He’s always meant so much to me. I allow my mind to recall the day’s events: everything may have gone wrong, but at least he’s okay. At least we’re both okay. His body is warm against mine, unlike Mike/Mick/Mac approximately twenty-four hours ago, who was cold. Nothing more than an ism of his organs. Mere genetic makeup. A nobody, like the men in suits with the guns, who I achieved symbolic victory over. Death by manuscript: some kind of abstract feat. A woman making waves in a creative industry dominated by males: a near-impossible one. A vital, female voice steering an art form. I’ve got thick enough skin. As for those men in suits… they hadn’t died, unlike any chance of success with my manuscript. God only knows who had their hands on it now – maybe Jonathan/Jackson, or whatever his real name is, if he’s even involved. It’s all guesswork. It could still be lying on the roadside, its pages flying away in the wind, one by one. But it was far from perfect anyway. It will force something better out of me: the great breakout novel, Mark Two. Perhaps something that can double as a doorstop. If the land seems weary, stale, and unprofitable, take arms against the sea of troubles. It isn’t nobler in the mind to suffer. I delicately move AJ from my lap and reposition him on the sofa, interrupting my care for some self-care, meticulously arranging the pieces of myself on the apartment floor, a process that seems to take a lifetime, one I persist with, one I sweat over, one I eventually complete, finalising a version of the jigsaw puzzle and self I am content with. The image dissolves into nothing on the floor as soon as I complete it. AJ breaks my concentration. A chain of discrete snores is interrupted by an incongruously loud one, which makes me smile. Laugh. For the first time in some time. This setback is only a setback; I’ll write a better novel, for which the seeds are already being planted, the ideas germinating, the sentences stringing themselves together, the turns of phrase, well, turning. I can’t go on, I’ll go on. I’ll definitely go on. Yes I will Yes. I’m already going on. AJ wakes with a start and I return to his side. He mumbles a “Where am I?”. Within the hour his energy has returned somewhat, we have dug out the old record player, selected a Bowie record, opened the wine, ordered dinner to the door. The external world is irrelevant: the TV is off, the curtains drawn, my mobile phone has no battery and I have no intention of trying to remember where I left the charger. Drunk, we dance until the early hours. I make a mental note to have more nights like this but forget to write it down. For the life of me, I don’t know where I left my pen. Damn.
George Oliver is a recent Master's graduate from the University of Reading. He lives and works in London and has plans to begin a doctorate in 2019. He has been writing short fiction in between his studies since the end of 2015, and his 2018 story 'Glass' was published in STORGY literary magazine.