The first three chapters of ‘The Freeing of Jonathon Mark’.
Anatola G pushes through the door into my office, waiting politely to make sure it shuts. Then slowly, Anatola G, she treads her way over towards my desk on old arthritic legs. Anatola G, she has her frail, wilting body all dressed up in black.
If I could say something, I’d want to ask: Anatola, aren’t you a little warm wearing all that black on a day hot enough to turn the bitumen to treacle? But I say nothing. It’s not my job to talk.
Anatola G, as she takes the seat opposite me, I see she’s flicking prayer beads through her fingers, worrying the same index finger over them one by one. She looks at me carefully, sadly, through seriously myopic lenses. “I found him on the couch,” she says in a heavy Greek accent.
Who, I want to ask. But I don’t. My job is to listen.
“I thought he was sleeping. He looked so peaceful there, so I left him. I went to do the shopping. But when I came back, he was still sleeping.”
Again, what I want to ask is who, Mrs G? Was it the cat? But I don’t. Speaking to a client, it’s against company policy. So I keep staring at her with my consultation look. Read that—deadpan eyes: unflinching, unblinking.
“I try to remember the last thing I say to him before he went to sleep, but I, I can’t remember!” Her eyes, puffy and red, they betray the fact she’s been doing some major crying. “Oh, my dear Stavros,” she wails, “why did you have to leave me? Why, God? Why did you have to make my husband die?”
Suddenly the pieces of this little puzzle fall into place. What I do next, I don’t want to do. Letting Anatola G wail a little, it might do her some good. Heal a bit of the hurt. But, by company policy, I don’t have a choice.
“Anatola,” I say.
Anatola G, she stops wailing. “They told me you wouldn’t speak?”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” I say. “Normally that’s how it works, but I’m sorry. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Right there, I’d be the biggest arsehole in the world.
“But my husband, he’s, he’s died. They told me by talking to you I could feel better!”
“There’s been a mistake,” I continue. “I can’t help you. I can’t take your pain.”
“I, I don’t understand?”
“I know you’re grieving. But here, we don’t deal with that type of grief. The type of grief we deal with is modern grief. It’s different.”
Anatola G, she just looks confused.
Fair enough too. It sounds so ridiculous, so silly to me to be saying this to an old woman with real pain, real need, that I can’t begin to imagine how it must sound to her. I try again. “Unfortunately, I can’t help you,” I go. “You, talking to me, I’m not going to be able to take the grief of the loss of your husband away from you.”
“But, but, I don’t understand? It doesn’t make sense.”
Me, I want to say you’re right, it doesn’t make sense, but you’re suffering from old-style grief. I want to say just by talking about your loss, maybe you will feel better, but I won’t be taking your grief from you. I want to say it’s a fucked-up world, but according to company policy there just isn’t enough money in old-style grief for you to be taking up my time, sitting here in front of me telling me about it. But all I say is, “I’m sorry, Anatola, really. I’m going to have to insist that you leave now.”
And the poor old woman, poor old confused Anatola G, she slowly, painfully pulls herself to her feet, retreads the path back to the door and leaves, waiting politely for the door to shut before silently moving away.
RICE CRACKERS AND CRACKED TILES
I’ve got myself a new alarm clock. It’s called my ‘recurring dream’.
It leads me down through the same scenes till we hit the end where the guy—this guy—he’s scrambling up the back of the taxi into which I’ve scurried, willing the driver to GO GO GO!. The guy, he’s scrambling like a crab up the bumper, across the boot to the back window, and just as he’s about to slam an open fist through the glass—with a BAM!—I wake up. Just before he reaches me; that’s my new alarm clock, a recurring dream of a guy out to get me. Well, it’s not quite as simple as that, but…
It’s a little petulant too, this new alarm clock. Sometimes it’ll go off more than once a night and I’ll sit bolt upright in bed in the dark, sure that although he didn’t quite catch me, I somehow brought him back with me from the dream and soon as he’s got his bearings, he’s gonna be attacking me from behind. Takes all my might to not turn on the light and make this other-realm ghoul shrink back into the shadows, leave me to reset the alarm by finding my sleep again.
Anyway, this time, sitting bolt upright in bed, coated in a cold sweat, I don’t have to do battle with my hand reaching for the light, scare the motherfucker off back to where he came, ’cause the room, it’s already illuminated. Although by the angle the sunlight streams in through the gap between my curtains, I can tell that it’s too early to be awake. Its beam of orangey-red reaches across my bed and all the way up the wall to the ceiling where it branches wide, right above my head. I catch a glint on my face, which rather than imposing itself on me, actually reassures me I’m back in my realm: takes me back to some warm secure moment in my childhood.
Then the noise of the guy clambering up the back of the taxi comes banging in at me again with a rank-kank-kank-kank and I shiver large and real down the back of my spine. Instinctively I reach for the light switch before I realise the noise, it isn’t the bad dream brought back, but the damn jackhammering workers crumbling up the road right below my window—again. Damn it.
The shiver passes through me before bursting up out the back of my neck with a flick and it’s gone.
Rank-a-kank-a-kank-a-kank! The damn workmen!
I throw the covers off and make for the window, playing hopscotch over strewn clothes, my bag, worn female lingerie lying next to a magazine with some too thin woman advertising some too strong perfume. Red light blinds me as I spread the curtains wide, then dusty air wafts cool up my nostrils, tickling the hairs as I wrench the window open.
What the fuck’s the big idea? You guys can’t wait the fuck till a person wakes up to start your goddamn racket! That’s what I want to scream, but I hold it in. I tried a rant yesterday but none of the buggers heard anything above the noise of the jackhammer and the thickness of their earmuffs.
“Fuck.” I go to pull my head back in. Before I do, a high-pitched shrill, bouncing up and above the noise below, makes me pause. I feel her there before I hear her; Mrs Andrews that is, from next door, leaning out her window, stringing out her own rant about the non-listeners down below. She knows as well as I do they can’t hear us above their noise, but really it’s not them her annoyance is directed at.
Mrs Andrews, she’s staring straight at me. She’s got this devious smile on her face as she spews indecipherable obscenities and spittle from her mouth. Mrs Andrews, what she’s doing is she’s trying to cop a free session. Mrs Andrews, you see, she knows what I do for a living.
“Make an appointment, Mrs Andrews!” I shout, barely audibly until the jackhammer stops for a worker swap and the ‘drews’ of ‘Andrews’ is ten times too loud.
“Oh, come on, Jonathon!” she shouts as I pull my head back in and snap down the window. “Just one free session!” she screams. “What’s it gonna cost you?”
Damn, she’s loud. Tight-arse bitch: make a damn appointment. I roll my head around in a 360-degree motion hoping to gain a relieving crack on the left side vertebrae, neck height. It’s tightening up already, thanks to Mrs Andrews pissing in my grief bag. Thanks, Mrs Andrews.
I turn to the radio for assistance. Flick it on and James Brown’s singing out at me how good he feels. That’s better. Then the jackhammer starts up again. Fuck. I hit the volume up on the radio but Mr Brown shuffles off too quickly, replaced by a male version of Mrs Andrews high shrilling a traffic report above the woop-woop-woop of his helicopter.
“Eastbound on the Newlands overpass there’s an eight car pile-up! No, wait! Make that nnnnnniiine! Bam! Ten—and growing! Oh, how I’d bet you’d do anything to be up here with me rather than down in that mess, you poor fools!”
I feel myself tense a little more and have visions of ramming this good-for-nothing grief-spouter’s mouthpiece down his throat, along with a helicopter rotor, one of the big ones from the top. Best I can do from here, though, is go flick and challenge the radio to come up with something a little less grief-filled, but all it gives me is two bickering announcers. Flick: Britney Spears.
Flick: some Paris Hilton wannabe celebrity update.
Flick. News flash: “Violence up in the city by 15% last month.” Flick. Hobo rap crap. Flick. Flick. Flick.
And, ah, finally I’ve found it: the classic station. The bassy, easy listening voice of the morning announcer croons the intro to the next track and it starts with the stroking of a double bass.
Over at my kitchenette, I dip into the rice cracker packet open from yesterday, pull out a handful of multi-coloured puffed-up rice, spread them out on the bench, then gently caress them over to expose their underbelly, and back again, searching for the ones with stripes.
Finding the rice cracker with the right stripes, it’s the key to deactivating my alarm clock, I’m sure of it. In my dream, you see, the rice cracker scene is where it all starts to turn from weird to wrong. Kind of like the guy from my dream trying to follow me back into my realm, I’m trying to right a wrong in his realm with a piece of puffy rice from my own.
I pick up a brown-coated one and pop it into my mouth. It’s a little sweet, with a peanut hidden inside. There are still no striped ones. There never are. I sigh and pick up a green one.
Holy shit! Wasabi-coated! Gives off a heat that swamps my tongue, raises the roof of my mouth, spreads up to singe my nose hairs, then just keeps moving with the power of an inversed brain freeze till it breaks through my scalp and fades into the air. Wow. Hot.
They’re not much good. But those brown ones, they’re my breakfast solution, and I search them out and stuff them in my mouth. Really I should invest in some Cornflakes.
Bach, or some other dead dude’s melody, accompanies me over to the bathroom. I stare at myself in the mirror above the toilet as I take my morning liberty, rub my spare hand across my face: rough, perhaps two days rough. I lean in closer, survey the black under my eyes. Ink black, almost painted on. Still, I’ve got to say I look better than I did a couple of days ago when I missed the box and relieved my solution to a full bag of grief with a girl.
Mmmm. She was hot, this girl. The details: hazy. A memory of a tattoo on her somewhere hidden, then exposed, small, red and twisting, protected by thorns.
“To remind me and whoever I’m with that it’s gonna hurt you to break into me.” That’s what she said about it.
I remember thinking it was kind of like industry talk for ‘be gentle’. A nice idea; not that I was ever going to have any control over the force of my actions. Shame: I kind of like gentle sex.
Anyway that moment there when she was talking, I was more attuned to her fantastic arse. Another fragment of memory makes my eyes flick to the shower. That’s not where it started, but that’s sure where it finished. Man, her rear end, her caboose—so nice—marked by a long scratch, like a scar, or two. Thinking about her, my morning liberty starts to find resistance in the form of thoughts of how we did it: the angles, the balancing; the pure, raw fucking of it all. Then my eyes draw into focus a cracked tile just next to the showerhead and I quickly fall limp to finish my business.
Yeah. How it finished was with the girl’s blood on the shower wall, blood from her lip and teeth hitting that tile. Maybe she got herself a new scar-scratch tattoo too, courtesy of my flailing fingernails.
I close my eyes and try and remember the exact details, but it’s too hazy. It’s always too hazy. The only clear bit I get back is it being some time later, long enough later for me to be feeling cold from lying in the bath naked, when she limped back in to neaten up her make-up and dab at her bloodied lip while tucking her money into her bra, and muttering through a newly chipped tooth, “I hope you feel better.”
And then she was gone, limping gingerly out to leave me there, cold and wet, trying to feel bad about whatever I’d done to her, wishing I felt bad, at least a little guilty, but really only feeling a whole lot better.
Speaking of cold, that’s how I feel now, still hanging out my boxers, morning liberty drained away, not counting a stray drip which I shake off before putting myself back where I should be.
I think about taking that shave, but apathy wins out over the idea of making myself look respectable. I give myself what, at best, could only be described as half a Maori shower and throw on a t-shirt that had surely walked itself halfway to the door, ’cause I don’t remember throwing it that far. I push out another pair of women’s panties through the leg hole of my jeans. Interesting: rest assured not mine, but it does seem I’m starting a collection. Then I source shoes and a pen, scribble DEODORANT, and RICECRACKERS, and CORNFLAKES on a scrap of paper, then in a flick of memory, flip it over and find:
The last list I never got round to filling.
I sweep towards the door, plugging music buds into my ears and cueing up some RHCP, old style, on my Ipod, before stepping out into the corridor.
“You know, before we begin, I just gotta say I hate to be kept waiting.”
For Jacques J, apparently, being five minutes early and then having to wait for his appointment is somehow my fault.
“Busts into my life, you know what I mean? What do you think of that?”
Me, I want to say, Jacques J, what I think is it seems like you’ve already begun. But my job is to stay silent.
“You doctors, or psychs, or whatever you are, you think you can do whatever you want in your rich cars and your big fucking condos!”
And I want to say, Woah! Mr J! Hold on there! Yeah, I own a Lamborghini! But I prefer to risk grief in the train each morning than drive it around! And my condo? Well, Mr J, please! Come have dinner at my one-and-a-half room piece of heaven. You’re a butcher! You can bring the meat! See how us Takers live it up! I want to say all this but I say nothing. My job, you see, it’s to listen.
Then Jacques J, he stands up. Jacques J, he goes, “These sessions, they’re no good for me. I don’t know why I bother fucking coming.”
And I want to say, Oh! Mr J! Thinking of leaving? Already? But you said you hadn’t even begun! I want to say it sarcastically. But I don’t. I stay silent as he walks towards the door, swearing, cursing under his breath, and I wait. I wait for him to do like he always does and turn around and come back, which is how it goes this morning, just as his hand makes it to the door handle. It’s how it always goes with good old Mr J.
In some professions, those deemed to be a medical profession, say, like a doctor or a psych, they’d probably say Jacques J, he’s battling with some form of denial. But me, being just a lowly Taker living out my life in a big condo, driving rich cars, I think he’s just a stubborn old bastard incapable of change.
Jacques J, he makes his way back to my desk, sits back down waving one hand and some excuse into the air, some excuse about his job, his heart complaint, and how these sessions are meant to help. Then he’s got his denial out the way and he’s off and racing.
“He did it again this week.”
And I want to say, Why whom, Mr J, just to humour him, but I already know whom.
“He gave Mrs Kade, the old lady—you know the one who always takes the porterhouse steak, the one with the weight problem?”
I want to say, Of course I do. She’s the picky old woman who reckons she’s got an allergy to fat. And I want to say, I know ’cause you speak about her every week. In fact I’m pretty sure you’ve got the hots for her. But I just stare at him with my consultation look. My deadpan eyes staring straight at him: unflinching, unblinking. Which honestly, once you’ve practised it a while, really isn’t that hard to do. It’s all about training your tear ducts to secrete steadily.
“Well, my assistant,” continues Jacques J, “he didn’t cut it, he didn’t cut all the fat off her steak, and of course she comes back the next day and she tells us about it, how all the fat wasn’t cut off. How she ate some of it! How it made her put on two kilos just by eating that mouthful of fat. And I’m telling you, you could see it. You could see the two kilos she’d put on!”
I want to say, Yeah sure, like you can see an extra two kilos on a 120-kilogram woman.
“My assistant, he says he cut it all off. I know he didn’t. I’m sure he knows he didn’t. I’ve seen how he cuts meat. We’ll be lucky if Mrs Kade comes back now. How can I run a business like this! With an assistant who can’t cut the fat off a steak! What happens if suddenly I let him chop up the cutlets! He’s gonna split the bones! Customers, they’re going to be slitting their throats with splinters of bones from my shop! And you think he smiles enough at the customers?”
Just for the record, I’ve been to Jacques J’s butchery. I kind of found it by accident. Kind of, in the way that I didn’t know that particular butchery was Jacques J’s. I was just looking for some meat. At the same time I kind of guessed he could be there by the name on the sign outside: ‘Jacques Jean’s Butchers’. That’s right; I know what the J in Jacques J stands for, the second J, that is. It stands for Jean, but don’t tell anyone. Knowing the surname of a client, it’s against company policy.
I didn’t have to go in. I shouldn’t have gone in. Going in, making contact with a client out of session, it’s definitely against company policy. But I was intrigued. Sometimes I get curious about my clients. And anyway, I did it carefully. I went incognito. I had a cap on.
Just for the record, Mr J’s assistant provided me with some A1 custom. The steak he cut me, A1 perfect all round.
“…and when someone asks for 400g of mince, that’s what they want! 400g! Not 420g! Not 395g! A good butcher gets it right first go! A good assistant, he keeps weighing, putting on meat, taking off meat until he hits the jackpot! Damn assistant!”
Just for the record, when I was at Mr J’s butchery, all the time Mr J’s ‘damn assistant’ was providing me with A1 custom, Mr Jacques Jean, he was talking to Mrs Kade, making fat chat with her.
“He knows nothing about customer service! Nothing!” Jacques J spills at me.
Yeah, I see the problem. Mr J’s idea of customer ser-vice, it’s chatting up the obese chick with the fat obsession while a whole store full of customers wait to be served. Mr J’s idea of customer service is scolding the assistant for ten grams of mince too much on the scales in front of a shop full of waiting customers.
“Really I should sack him. I should get a new assistant. That’s it. This week that’s it. I sack him.”
Mr J, I want to say, you wouldn’t be happy with any other assistant. You’re just one of those people who will never let themselves be happy with anything: ever. But I stay silent, listening, only listening, taking in all his grief and frustrations, and before I know it, Jacques J, he’s calming down.
He’s saying, “I guess maybe, maybe he’s getting better. Ah yeah, I’ll keep him on. One more week, what’s one more week? I see how he goes this week.” And with that he stands up, looks at me almost sheepishly.
I keep staring. The session’s not over till they walk out the door.
He pats his comb-over down with his hand. Takes a step, two, towards the door. Stops, turns back to me and raises a hand, opens his mouth to say something else.
I keep staring.
Then he changes his mind, or really just has nothing left to say, till next week anyway. And he resumes his walk to the door, pauses a second with his hand on the knob – he’s still got nothing. Then he twists it, and turns it, and slides himself out silently, closing the door behind him.