Pulp.net - Perfect Symmetry

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Karen Stephens
‘So,’ says Mike, studying Anna closely. ‘We’re neighbours.’

James enters the room carrying two bottles of opened Chardonnay. He is smiling at everyone. Everyone smiles back.

‘Snap!’ says Mike. From the side of the sofa he brings out a cold bottle of Ernest and Julio Gallo Chardonnay.

‘Well, it feels like you’ve been here forever.’ Mandy assesses the room. Her eyes settle on Anna’s Ikea rug. ‘You know, when Lee and Mel left we were a little concerned about who was going to move in. The other side rented to students before they sold. The first year was awful, the second year they were dreams— didn’t hear a peep. Thanks.’ She takes her wine from James. ‘The third year they were Muslims or something, and after a few months we worked out that there must have been about twenty living there—’

‘Nice enough,’ Mike butts in, ‘but, well, you can imagine. So I went round there one night and they were having Ramadan, or something, and offered me some special tea in a cup and saucer and were really quite pleasant. But I had to speak to Colin— he was the owner— and he went round and found they’d turned the loft into living space— even had it carpeted with pegs to hang up clothes. So, as you can imagine, we were relieved when we saw you move in.’

‘Mind you, we’re noisy enough,’ Anna says. ‘Josh— my son— isn’t exactly quiet.’

Mike and Mandy exchange glances.

‘He’s at that – that really boisterous age.’ Anna looks anxiously at Mike and Mandy, perched side by side on their pink sofa, dressed smart but casual. This is such a bizarre idea, she thinks, so middle class.

‘How old is Josh?’ Mike asks suspiciously, sipping his wine.

‘Three. You must’ve heard him that first Saturday.’ Anna hates herself for sounding almost apologetic.

Mandy smiles.

Anna looks at Mandy’s short auburn-dyed hair that perfectly frames her face. She decides it doesn’t suit Mandy, just emphasises her roundness, the jowls that will flop from under her chin in a few more years.

‘Where is Josh— in bed?’ Mandy asks.

‘He’s— on holiday with his father.’

‘Oh.’ Mandy smiles. ‘Nice.’

Anna blushes and looks into her glass, through the urine-coloured wine and out the other side, across the brown and green of tiny fields, cool seas and sun-baked ground, to other bluer seas where her son, tiny, stands on the edge of a pebbled shore, grabbing at his father’s hand when he loses balance on the stones.

‘Yeah,’ James says in a slow, relaxed way. ‘He’s staying at his grandparents’ in Sweden for two weeks.’

‘I bet he’s having a lovely time.’ Mandy smiles.

‘Oh, yes.’ A sense of failure sweeps over Anna as she imagines Mike asking Mandy what she thinks about it all. She sees Mandy turn in her yellow lamp-shaded kitchen and she will say, ‘What decent mother lets her child go so far away?’

• • •

Mike and James are talking about music. They have covered football, favourite films, and the third bottle of wine is almost finished. James is drinking quickly, too quickly for Anna’s liking. James gets up and puts on a Beth Orton CD.

‘Oh, we have this one,’ Mandy says, delighted. ‘You must have heard us playing it the other day. We had the back door open.’

‘Yeah, we dashed out and bought it straight after.’ James gives Mandy a sarcastic smile.

‘Course, most kids nowadays wouldn’t know how to use a turntable,’ Mike says to James.

James flashes Anna his what a fucking stupid thing to say look. ‘So what about Hip-Hop, Mike?’

‘You can hardly call that music,’ Mike puffs. He pours another wine, hands the bottle round.

‘So what do you call music?’

‘The Clash. I used to love The Clash.’

‘Yeah,’ James agrees, despite himself.

‘I’ve got all Pink Floyd’s Albums still.’

‘Good one!’

‘And Jethro Tull.’

‘Not so good one.’

Everyone laughs except Mike.

Mandy looks at Anna and James. ‘You know, he gets out a record and it has to be cleaned in a particular way, the needle inspected in a particular way, the album put on in a particular way, the needle placed in a particular way. No-one can touch his records. He has them all alphabetically ordered.’ She smirks.

‘I can understand that.’ James.

‘And all our videos are alphabetically ordered and recorded in a book.’

‘Yes, well, if there was a burglary then I’d know exactly what was missing for an insurance claim!’

‘Something we don’t have to worry about. When we moved in Anna made me get rid of my albums. Told me Josh would just ruin them, anyway.’

‘That’s not true,’ Anna says defensively.

‘How old are you, James?’ Mandy levels her eyes at him.


‘Why— how old are you, Mandy?’ James levels his eyes at Mandy.

‘Thirty-four,’ Mandy says without hesitating.

‘Same age as me,’ Anna says.

‘You’re thirty-four?’ Mike asks. ‘I thought you were about twenty-five.’

Anna smiles, looks at James. Mandy knocks back her drink.

‘So, where do you both work?’ Mike asks, refilling his glass.

‘James teaches at the college and I work in the benefits office,’ Anna says.

‘Bet you have to deal with some characters there!’ Mike snorts.

‘No— not really. Just people like you and me. People who aren’t as fortunate.’ Anna finishes her wine and worries whether she’d sounded a little sharp. ‘And you?’

‘Architect,’ Mike says proudly.

‘And I’m the secretary to his department. Shall we open more wine? The thing is— ’ Mandy drains her glass, ‘living with an architect is hell.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ Mike asks, amused.

‘Well, for a start, I’ve been waiting two years for a coffee table in the living room.’ Mandy shuffles like a fluffed-up chicken. ‘However, whenever I see something, or we go shopping for one, it’s never right. It’s too wide, too short, too cheap, the material’s not right for the design.’ She stares at Anna. ‘I don’t even have a dressing-table because Mike can’t find the right style. So I have to put my make-up on using the hallway mirror and the light’s terrible—’

‘Oh dear, Mandy. That’s absolutely appalling!’

Anna gives James a warning look. She doesn’t want Mandy to think they are rude, unruly.

‘You know, Anna, we’ve got a built-in wardrobe that Mike has built and there are three doors. The two side ones have handles at exactly the right position—

‘Seven centimetres from the doors’ edges.’ Mike.

‘Quite. Well, the middle door still has no handle—’

‘I’ll finish this— you’ll tell it wrong.’ Mike downs his wine. ‘Basically, there’s a problem with the symmetrical design, Anna. I have three doors. I can’t have four because they’d have to be quite narrow, flimsy even. So I’ve got three doors because, aesthetically, that’s what’s best. Now, the problem is, where do I put the middle handle?’

James gives a who gives a fuck shrug, and Anna laughs.

‘No, I’m serious, chaps.’ Mike is suddenly animated. ‘Where do I put the middle handle? If I put it on one side, it’s at odds, if I put it the other side, it’s at odds. Aesthetically, what can I do? You understand what I mean, Anna? It’s all about symmetry. Perfect symmetry.’

‘So, as usual, I have to go without.’ Mandy gives Mike a pointed look. ‘No coffee table. No dressing table. And an unuseable wardrobe door.’

• • •

‘So, how long have you lived next door?’ James asks, draining the fifth bottle into his glass.

‘Twelve years now,’ Mike says, chuffed.

‘So you bought when ordinary people could still buy.’ Anna.

‘Do you know, No. 8 is up for sale at a hundred and forty-five thousand. I ask you! It’s just a terraced bloody box.’ James.

‘These houses are hardly boxes!’ Mandy.

‘I think James was talking about house prices in general, really.’ Anna offers.

‘We’d like to sell,’ Mike says. ‘It’s a good time to sell.’

‘That’s what you always say,’ Mandy huffs. ‘Any more wine?’

‘I watched this programme,’ Anna says, ‘about an up-and-coming area in London. This Estate Agent goes round knocking on doors, telling people— do you know your house is now worth a hundred and fifty thousand, blah! blah! blah! And at one house, an old man says, Oh, so I’m a millionaire if I want to live in a flamin’ tent! But it’s so true, isn’t it. Nobody’s better off. Everything’s just more expensive. You sell at a profit but you have to buy at someone else’s profit. And ordinary people are the losers!’

‘Are you two vegetarians?’ Mike asks, wary.

‘Yes.’ Anna notices Mandy rolling her eyes. She looks away, does not want Mandy to know she’s noticed.

‘Is your child— ’

‘Josh, darling.’ Mandy pats Mike’s leg.

‘Josh. Is he a vegetarian?’

‘Yes,’ Anna says lamely.

‘Is that really good for a child?’

Anna looks from Mike to Mandy, tries hard to construct the vegetarian argument in her mind, but the points are swimming in wine. ‘Josh is very healthy— if that’s what you’re getting at.’

‘Oh, I’m sure he is,’ Mandy offers. ‘Just ignore Mike.’

• • •

James sings along to a Cuban CD, making up his own foreign-sounding words that sound suspiciously like ‘cunt’. Anna tries to think of something to say but her brain is fuzzed with wine. She has attempted topics on shopping, global warming, and the need for affordable housing, and has finally given up. She pours more wine.

I was crying about you, Josh had told her this morning. She’d sneaked downstairs early while James was still asleep, dialled the number, keeping an ear open for movement upstairs. I was missing you, Josh had said. For a second she thought he was going to cry, could hear the waver in his chubby voice. But then he was telling her about a present he’d bought for her and his voice was excited and fast. A star, he’d said, a star cushion, and he was shouting out to the others, I telled her, I telled my mummy. That embarrassed laughter— like the relatives shouldn’t be listening to this. A clatter, and his father telling her Josh had run outside.

James manages to start a conversation about rugby— Mike’s favourite sport— which makes Anna smile. James knows fuck all about rugby, and she likes it when he has to pretend. There is something sweet and creative about how he pulls together random thoughts, ideas and bits of information. It reminds her of Josh.

‘I hate my job,’ Mandy says. She has slumped down the sofa, allowed her fleshy self to spread. She drinks her wine clumsily.

James and Mike have now moved on to allotments. James wants to grow marrows the size of butcher’s arms.

‘I said, I hate my job,’ Mandy interrupts miserably.

‘Me too,’ says James chirpily.

‘Ignore my wife.’

‘I just live for Fridays,’ Mandy says.

‘Me too.’ James.

‘Why not go to college? Do something completely different,’ Anna manages to ask.

‘What could she do now?’ Mike says. ‘Look at her. She’s no spring chicken.’

James bursts out laughing. ‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘Sorry.’

Mandy’s face slackens.

‘I think she’s had enough,’ Mike confides to James and Anna. ‘She’s been drinking since six.’

‘Oh, but we like a drink, don’t we, dear?’ Mandy says loudly, patting Mike’s leg. ‘Helps to pass the time. And you really know you’re part of the community when you walk into your local off licence and they’ve already bagged three bottles of Chardonnay and a packet of Silk Cut.’

James is in the hallway where only Anna can see him. He mimics boredom, then simulates wanking into his glass. Anna looks away, feels suddenly irritated. She just wishes he’d grow up, stop being so desperate for her attention all the time.

Yesterday, she had to sneak out and run down the road to use the phone. James was watching telly and this was their time, he’d said. Time for them to really be together. They’re still asleep, Josh’s grandma had said. Anna was covering the mouthpiece, holding her gasps back, watching the road through the phone-box. You want to call back later? Anna didn’t know what to say, just, Is he ok? The grandmother saying he was fine, that cool tone melting just a little. Fine, she’d said. Feeding the chickens, throwing stones in the sea. Same as last year when you were— well, little changes here.

Anna can see her son and his father curled together in the darkness of their bedroom, light puffs of breath sinking into the wooden panelled walls, the twitch of Josh’s plump hand, the soft curve of his knee.

‘You know, you should grow your hair longer,’ Mike says to Mandy, watching Anna carefully.

• • •

‘Well, you know how the English middle classes are thick and ignorant!’ James is back from a long stint in the toilet, doing a bad Kevin Rowland impersonation.

‘You know—’ He flops on the sofa drunkenly. ‘Being on the bog reminded me of a dream I ’ad last night.’ His voice is suddenly very working class.

Anna’s sure she can detect a hint of dope in the air. She tries to catch a glimpse of his eyes to check whether they’re glassy and red.

‘Really.’ Mike’s tone is cool. He refills his glass.

‘Want ta know what it was?’

Anna gives James a don’t, just don’t look.

‘If you want to tell.’

‘Mike’s a good listener.’ Mandy pats his leg, spills wine on the sofa.

‘Well, I dreamt I was at this wedding and my father and step-mother were there and they was dancing, and she ’ad this rockabilly skirt on and I could see right up it, and there was her bare arse— right there— and as she bent I could see right inside her great, black stinking arse-hole, and there was this piece of shit— like rabbit shit— just sort of jiggling about!’

Anna lifts her eyes from the carpet to look at Mike and Mandy. They look stupidly serious, and Anna has to bite her lip to stop herself from giggling.

‘So, what d’ya think that means, then, Mork?’ James starts to laugh. He laughs how he laughs when he’s stoned; chest rising and falling in wheezy, athsmatic gasps. ‘Christ!’ he manages to say, ‘That’s a good one! Mork and Mindy!’ He starts laughing again.

‘That’s not a new one!’ Mike says seriously. ‘You’ll have to do better than that, I’m afraid.’

Mandy nods solemnly and touches Mike’s arm.

Anna tries hard to think of something to say, but really she can’t be fucking bothered. She’s pissed, tired, and wants to go to bed. She manages a sorry about this, he’s pissed smile, and Mike smiles back half-heartedly.

‘All I want,’ Mandy says, pushing herself up from the sofa cushions, ‘is a house in the country and a dog. I’d love to take a dog for walks.’

‘Can’t you have one here?’ Anna asks. ‘Most people would give their— their— ’

‘Bollocks?’ James.

Anna tuts. ‘Their right leg— to live here. Lovely schools, too.’

‘Where can you walk a dog around here? I want to live in the country. I want to have a dog that can run for miles.’

‘But it’s lovely here,’ Anna says. ‘We’re really lucky to live here. Lovely schools.’

‘Lucky if you like living on top of one another.’

Spoilt cow, Anna thinks.

‘And we don’t have any need for schools,’ Mandy adds. ‘Do we, Mike?’

Mike looks at his watch.

‘And you know the other reason why it’s hell living with an architect? Every house we look at isn’t right. I’ve seen the perfect house and he won’t consider it.’

James starts laughing.

‘It’s not funny, actually, James. What Mandy doesn’t seem to understand, is that there’s no point in spending three hundred thousand on a house that has an absolute shambles for an extension. We’d have to rip it down and start again!’

‘It looked alright to me.’

‘Well, it would, wouldn’t it? You are not an architect, darling. You are a secretary.’

‘Oooh!’ James. ‘Wouldn’t let him get away with that one, Mindy.’

This is not funny, Anna’s look tells James. Yes it fucking is, James’s look tells Anna.

‘I had to tell off this stupid seventeen year old at work today. Do you know, she came back from lunch half an hour late. She totters in in her micro skirt and platform boots, not a care in the world and I’d got so angry waiting for her to come back, thinking where the hell is she? What the hell is she up to? There’s photocopying and faxes to send and I had to send them off myself— and that’s not my job! And I was so upset I was shaking and she didn’t even register. And I thought, am I here, am I really here?’

Anna watches the tense line of Mandy’s lip, the same as that woman’s in her office: that down-trodden, hard-faced woman called Lucy Hill with all the kids. Anna couldn’t give Lucy the hardship fund she’d needed because of a tiny, stupid clause and Lucy had called her a toffee-nosed tart, got her sharp face right up to Anna’s and told her she didn’t know what hardship was, the struggle of bringing up kids.

‘I really miss Josh,’ she thinks she hears herself say. Perhaps she didn’t say it. James would be angry. This is their time.

‘Well, if you ever want a baby-sitter, we’ll happily babysit for you. Least, I will. Mike doesn’t get on with children.’

‘That’s not true!’

‘Sorry, we don’t get on with children. We don’t have any experience of them. We don’t even go to barbecues if there are too many children there. Children are messy!’

‘Too bloody right! Spoiled brats!’ James.

Anna feels herself blush.

‘Melanie and Lee, they had Callum and I used to babysit here for him sometimes. You know, I could babysit for Josh,’ Mandy beams at Anna. ‘I know where everything is.’

‘We don’t tend to go out when Josh is here.’

‘Well, if you did, I could babysit for Josh. I know where everything is.’

‘No, thank you.’ Anna feels a stupid stab of jealousy, like Mandy is trying to take Josh away.

‘I can sort him out for bed. You wouldn’t have to do a thing.’

‘No, thank you.’

‘Why not?’ James asks. ‘Mandy not good enough for precious Josh?’

‘Just grow up, James!’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake!’ James. ‘For fucking fuck’s sake!’

‘Mandy, time to go now.’ Mike gets up, sways before steadying himself.

‘I have bathed a child before, Anna. I do have nieces and nephews, you know.’

‘I’m not saying you don’t!’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘Don’t start,’ Mike warns. ‘Let’s just get you home.’

‘So what is the problem? You tell me! Come on! What is the problem?’ Mandy’s eyes dart from Mike, to Anna, to James. From James to Anna to Mike.

‘Sorry, but—’ James bursts into laughter, kicks over a full glass of wine. ‘Sorry,’ wiping at his eyes. ‘Sorry,’ shaking his head. ‘Aaah, God!’ he manages. ‘Aaah, God, Mandy! Your face! Fucking classic!’