A short story by Helen Oyeyemi I’ll tell you exactly what happened, I really will, only you better promise not to get cross at any point
4.13am: love you, love you, love you. I’ll do that now, be good, be better, be in love with you. Yes, for always, but I solemnly swear that I will love you most especially and fondly at all the different 4.13s from now on. You’re wunnerful. I’m not drunk. Thank you for always wearing that digital watch. When you came to get me you cupped my face in your hands and you kissed my forehead, and I kissed your shoulder and wished it was bare. You brought me a coat, which I was grateful for because of the rain and because I was already bedraggled with wet. My braids fell down my face in crumpled tentacles, the taste of my own mascara was in my mouth; there, now you can taste it too. Also The Dress was dirty. No amount of weak winter lamplight was going to disguise the dirtiness of The Dress. This Dress is the sort that women pass down to other little women that they love – in my case I’m thinking a niece, perhaps, in which case I’ll need to find a sister – and now The Dress is so dirty that I know it will never be clean again and nobody else will want it, and now what will be the fate of The Dress once I have shuffled off this mortal coil? Beauty is a dress’s only security in this world. I have callously ruined The Dress’s prospects. Once we’d kissed you remembered to be cross with me, and the policewoman on front desk duty seemed to relax, probably because you were beginning the sort of boring scene she was used to when people are reunited with other people that they’ve reported missing.
I’ll tell you exactly what happened, I really will, only you better promise not to get cross at any point.
OK, so, Monday. I still think high-maintenance clothes are on the whole prettier than normal clothes, but it’s silly, perhaps dangerous, the percentage of clothes I wear that need dry-cleaning. I woke up late on Monday and of course you’d gone and I realised that I had nothing that I could wear to work in good conscience, literally nothing clean . . . except The Dress, which was of course pristine. So, The Dress, and not even any knickers or socks or tights underneath, and the bra situation was laughable so I had to leave that alone too. But I realised I might still get to work, though late, if I took immediate and powerful action. I stomped around the flat gathering clothes, thinking I might as well get everything dry-cleaned and not have to bother again for another few weeks. I was also throwing underwear into the bath for mass-handwashing later, so that’s why you found the bathroom in such a state. It was work just bending over in The Dress; there’s this whalebone part around my torso, and the straps cut into my shoulders. Then I sort of flowed down to the laundry in this haze of ivory ribbons and lace, lugging three “Ghana-must-go” bags along, and I asked the woman if I could come back and collect my things in an hour. She laughed, actually laughed, and said impossible: that I should come back at 6pm. I asked, Is it unreasonable to ask for the dry-cleaning to be done in an hour when you have a sign outside that says “Express dry-cleaning service available”? And she said, You are being hysterical, please don’t talk to me in that hysterical tone of voice! I realised she held the power in that situation and I said, Please, I have to go to work today. She said, slowly, clearly, as if talking to an idiot, Come back at 6pm. I threatened to take all this business to another dry-cleaner and she said, What dry-cleaner will have all these things clean in an hour anyway? So I paid her maybe ten gazillion of our pounds (I had to use the joint account card) and said I’d come back at 6pm. On the way back home I steeled myself up to call Daniel Essense and tell him some lies about why I couldn’t come in to work. But of course Daniel Essense is so demanding and so perniciously precious, nothing would ever be good enough for him. The fucking awfulness of that man. His presence gives me a stomach ache, he makes me want to smoke to calm my nerves, even though I hate it when people smoke. Obviously he’s quite a good writer still; he continually bends every notion of genre and I’ll never know how he manages to spin such tales out of this bog of bad temper he lives in. Essense is always fighting with his editor through me; Essense and Crompton don’t even talk any more – I send out the latest draft of Essense’s manuscript by bike to the publishers and the publishers bike Crompton’s notes back. I essentially pass messages between them – there was one message which I actually remember word for word because as I wincingly read the note aloud into the telephone I realised that it contained Essense as he truly is.
Essense to Crompton: “Crompton, regarding your notes on my previous draft, none of which, incidentally, has been of any relevance to my vision as per this project: you have shown yourself to be a bitter, jealous, Establishment-led fan atic who has never been able to healthily relinquish your dreams of writing your own novel. You have no appreciation of innovation; in fact you apprehend artistic endeavour through the lens of a puerile proto-fascist aesthetic. Despite your failure to do your job I obviously have no intention of breaking my contractual obligations and will deliver the completed novel in due course. My best wishes for the Christmas season.”
Crompton uttered a string of psychedelic language, added that “ability to accept criticism is unfailingly proportionate to talent”, hinted darkly that the quality of Essense’s prose might be on the wane. I didn’t pass any of that on, as it was nearly 5pm and I wanted to go home and not have to wait for Essense to dictate a vitriolic, point-by-point repartee. I have a beautiful view from my office window.
Listen, you mustn’t be so impatient, I’m getting there, I’m getting back to Monday. I got home from the dry-cleaner’s and called Essense, hoping that it would go to the answer machine and I could leave a message in a faint and froggish voice suggestive of a sore throat combined with fever. But surprise surprise! Essense picked up.
I croaked, Daniel, oh, hello Daniel, I’m really not feeling well, Daniel –
He didn’t even let me finish. He said, Kate, oh, hello Kate, I cannot bear this level of insult to my intelligence, particularly when it comes from you. I’m going to go and sit in my study, Kate, and close my eyes for precisely forty-three minutes, Kate, and if it should be the case that you aren’t here when I open my eyes, Kate, then unemployment shall certainly follow for you, Kate.
I wish I was good at doing something that people were interested in. I wish that I was so good at doing that thing that I was indispensable and people wouldn’t talk to me in ways that make me want to scream or start smoking. I’m not being negative about my abilities. I mean, knowing directions to lots of places and cataloguing perfumes and making moin moin, yes, but steamed bean cakes aren’t restaurant food under any circumstances.
So I had to get on the Tube in The Dress, and people looked at me out of the corners of their eyes. Also, since I had to change trains twice to get to Canary Wharf, four times people had to push my skirt inside the carriage after me. People stood up to let me sit down, as if I was a pregnant woman. Some girls wearing school uniform (lucky girls) helped me fold up the frills at the bottom of the skirt so that it didn’t scrape the floor. It was really too much. I wanted to kill myself. I know you hate it when I say that, and of course I don’t mean it when I say it, but often it seems I sort of do mean it because it comes out before I realise I’ve said it. It’s just that I get so desperate. I know I have nothing to be desperate about. But I get this sense of nothing being tolerable and then I’ll read a copy of the Metro that someone’s left tucked in between the seat and a glass side panel and while reading I get even more desperate because everyone else is the same and there’s no solution. And then it’s as if I’m surrounded by a lot of heads on sticks, their facial features swell into each other like warm marshmallow and they’re all saying “no, no, no, no”. OK, I don’t want you to take that seriously. I think I must love you; why else would I be so worried about worrying you? I’m annoyed with myself at the thought of annoying you.
To make the time pass on the Tube, and to avoid reading the Metro, I took out a pen and the notepad from Essense’s office, the one with his letterhead stamped very impressively on it. I wrote formal notes of apology to people I’ve grieved in the past. With boyfriends it has been mostly phallic grievances:
This is an unreserved apology for my frequent laughter at the sight of your penis. My behaviour must have been strange and inhibiting to you. I thoroughly regret it. I would like to make it understood that my laughter was not at all scornful: it was affectionate and loving laughter, such as very close confidantes indulge in. My laughter was not in any way intended to indicate that I found your penis inadequate; in actuality I found that part of your body appealingly cute. Indeed, if your penis remains as it was when I was last acquainted with it, then I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that it is most adequate in all respects. I hope you recall that I stopped laughing just as soon as you applied your penis to practical use.
I wish only for your happiness, and I completely understand if you find my behaviour impossible to forgive. George, you are please to hate me and forget me.
Sincerely, K Allen
I am writing to you to ask forgiveness for the time I told you that you were “third best at sex” and named two other men as number one and number two respectively. I was only joking. But in retrospect, and remembering the look of in expressible hurt that crossed your face, I realise that my joke was not funny. It was incredibly kind and truly strong of you not to retaliate with the names of women that you had enjoyed. I would like to make it understood that even if I had slept with lots of people, which I haven’t at all, I would never be so callous as to actually rate men in ranking order according to “how good they are at sex”. In addition, as we are both aware, there are so many components to “good sex”, and differences from person to person as to what would qualify as a degree within the substrata of good sex, and even as to what sex is, that intellectually I would have an insurmountable problem committing myself to a definition that I could then measure people against. In fact, developing such a system would be so time-consuming that I wouldn’t be able to engage in any actual sex, as I did with you, and you were wonderful.
Tokunbo, I realise that “sorry” doesn’t make everything all right, and I understand that you may wish to put me and that period of your life out of your thoughts altogether.
Sincerely, K Allen
I’m not myself at all; everything I do is copied. I got the idea for formal notes of apology from a fascinating girl that I knew at sixth form. This girl, Dami Oladupe, she was completely riveting somehow. I mean she looked like an African princess; she had this mad skin, absolutely insane skin, so impossibly clear that you couldn’t look at it without fearing that you might suddenly see some blemish. Her father was a clan chief who sold out to the oil companies. Aside from all her beauty, it was very difficult to hold the girl’s attention. She was friendly, and she hardly ever interrupted people who were talking to her, but she had this way of not really looking at you while conversating with you. So then you couldn’t take your eyes off her. Most of the boys were completely obsessed with Dami, always discussing her, because every few months she’d pass a note along the barricade of girls until it ended up crossing over a small but significant divide in the classroom tables and reached her selected victim. The notes said stuff like
I would like to apologise for thinking bad thoughts about you while in the bath. For definitions of bad, please see the dictionary and select your preferred facet. The bath was a bubble bath. I understand if you cannot forgive; you must hate me and forget me.
So people would be trying to work out whether she was trying to be clever or funny or weird or sexy or . . . ?
All that could be deciphered was that Dami wanted the recipient of the note to come and talk to her or something, and then whichever boy she sent those notes to would get a bit worried because how were you going to impress a girl who wrote notes like that? Dami showed the rest of us girls, or at least the ones who weren’t completely envious of her, that seventeen-year-old girls terrify seventeen-year-old boys. And that put us at peace. The situation with Dami’s notes of formal apology never got further than the boy who got the note saying “I would . . . I definitely would . . . If I gave it to her she’d . . . I’d properly . . . you know . . . I’d break her back . . .” and his friends agreeing.
Dami was very unhappy; in fact I’m frightened remembering how unhappy she must have been. I doubt that her parents would have let her see anyone about it, though; they must not have believed in head doctors. Plus Dami never stopped handing in homework, never stopped getting good marks on tests. Sometimes she made the air move with this thing that she had inside her. It’s true, and I refuse to take that back. I can’t forget one breaktime she was in the common room and I was there and four or five other girls were there, and she was lying on the sofa doing homework with her feet up on some boy’s lap, and she said suddenly, I can make a ghost appear. She didn’t stop writing. She kept on dotting her “i”s and crossing her “t”s and she was like, I can make a ghost appear. No one knew what she was talking about. The boy whose lap Dami’s feet were on started saying, go on then, make a ghost appear. She said, OK, and kept writing, and we started laughing because obviously nothing was happening and it seemed like just another cryptic comment from Dami. Then something happened, and no one who was there really knows what to say about it – it wasn’t clear what actually happened because it was all very abrupt. A couple of the girls who were there that breaktime don’t want to get into it, so they just say that nothing happened, which is easier than trying to sort the jumble. But I think I have it down now: First of all the room went deaf and dumb, or numb, or maybe it’s better to say that nobody could hear anything or make a sound.
Then, my hands started shaking and a bristled thing brushed all over me, top to bottom, clearing away my lips and eyes and nose and I was trying to check that I could see but my hands were too unstable
(Next: so quickly that some lucky people missed it,
something looked in at the window as it passed by)
a catch clicked in my skull and I felt myself poured away. When sound and gasp ability came back, blood was crawling from both my nostrils. Dami was still writing.
That girl Dami, Dami-so-unhappy, she killed herself in the first year of university. I told you; she slit her wrists. When I was told . . .
Well. I hadn’t spoken to her for a year or something, and we weren’t particular friends, so I don’t know why I started believing that I was Dami and therefore dead. For some time I had only a very slight of idea of who or where I was. There was enough there to wake up and wash and brush my teeth and put eyeliner and mascara on, and I could remember people’s names and the way to the university library, but beyond that I was very, very confused. Only I wouldn’t tell people I didn’t know where I was. It was hilarious; I pretended I knew exactly what was going on and just carefully watched everyone around me for cues as to what to do, and when, and why. Eventually I got caught out, though. It’s difficult to explain. I suppose I just went completely overboard somehow.
Work, I went there. I got off at Canary Wharf and tottered over to the building Essense lives in. In the lobby I got nervous because so many people were watching me walk and I tripped over the fold in the skirt and pitched into the lift, and this man who was in there reached out to stop me falling on my face and then he was sort of holding me and The Dress. He was a lean white man, tall, dark hair, lots of eyebrow and stubble, slightly wolfish. Don’t write that description down to tell the police, he didn’t do anything wrong. Anyways so I said, OK, um, thanks, good catch, and he said, No problem, and he looked at me and his cheek dimpled. His hand slid down my back and whisked the skirt of The Dress inside with us, like a tail, just as the lift doors closed. The thing is, he didn’t let go of me even when I reached across him and pressed 12 for Essense’s floor, but what he did do was press 12 again as if he didn’t trust my thumb. He said, is this where you work? I said, Yes, I’m assistant to a famous writer. He said, Ha, you work for my dad. I was . . . I think I was going to see my dad. There was a certain resemblance. His name was Luke, which was amusing because given the names of the characters in Essense’s books, I’d have thought the man would have given his progeny names like Octavian and Romulus. Luke was a writer too, but, he said, not a very good one, and he wrote under a pen name so as not to be embarrassing. I’m not sure who he was trying to avoid embarrassing. Talking was difficult because – don’t be cross – we were sort of touching each other, not groping, more like face-and-arm-Braille reading. I’m afraid I started it. The ring on my finger against his cheek, it took on his warmth. He asked me how come I was wearing a wedding dress? The lift got dim and narrow. Something happened between the lob by and the sixth floor; his arms were around my waist and we stood heart to heart, or whalebone to shirt. There may also have been kisses of some kind, I’m not so certain about that, but I do want to cover all eventualities and confess everything. When the lift doors opened at 12 he pressed 1.
He took me home with him. Luke’s flat was very cramped; the bedroom was filled with the bed, but it had something of the spare room about it – the wardrobe door was half open and all that was in there was a couple of cardboard boxes and a lot of unclothed hangers. All the food in the fridge was budding green and grey.
I’m sorry, but for a whole day I loved Luke, oh I mean loved him. I couldn’t think; I was scalded. I’m sorry. I had the vaguest inkling that I should call someone, let someone know something, but I’d reach for my phone and watch it slide out of my hand as if it was melting into the bed. We drank a lot of wine and water so as not to get dehydrated.
The light was on in the bedroom next door, but the door was closed. I asked Luke about it and he said he had a friend staying with him for a while; his friend was sick and just wanted to sleep. I thought, sleep with the light on?
When Luke fell asleep with his arm over his eyes, I went to get water, then I stopped outside the other bedroom and listened. I didn’t hear anything, not coughing, or sighing, or even those weird moaning noises people sometimes make when they’re asleep and think that they’re alone. I knocked, then I opened the door a little bit, and I lost the strength to open it any further. I saw a bad pattern. Mush, pungent-smelling, rusty-smelling, sprayed low on part of the wall, and I couldn’t see any further in, don’t look didn’t look not looking
I went and woke Luke up, I shook him awake, and we had a conversation.
Basically I said, Luke, what have you done? What have you done?
My voice was not as scary as it had been at the dry-cleaner’s; I wasn’t about to go overboard, I was calm and needed information, and I’d had a lot of wine.
He didn’t even uncover his face. I couldn’t see his eyes, just his mouth moving. He said, Um. Shot myself.
I said, Oh.
He said, In the head, in the head. He sounded very surprised while saying it, and he gave a little laugh.
I said, Oh.
He held out his other arm to me, I went to him and lay against him; he spoke, his breath moved my hair. He said, I wasn’t doing very well. I hadn’t been doing well. Better now.
Either I fainted or I fell asleep. I was very shocked, but also very tired. All I know is that when I woke up I was on a train. No idea how I got there. Maybe we took a cab to the station. But I must have walked at some point. I suppose shock animates people sometimes. I was in a cluster of four seats with Dami Oladupe dozing beside me. There were two strangers opposite who’d obviously only just paused in their furtive discussion of us.
Dami was wearing Luke’s clothes. Everything was too loose on her, the collar flapped. A trilby hat was tipped low over one of her eyes. Her hands were tucked into her sleeves and she’d crossed her arms over her chest. Dami, her poor wrists. There was a ticket tucked into my bag and the destination was Meldreth.
I said, Dami, and I touched her face and she smiled but still slept, her lips trembled under my fingers, her skin was so smooth. But Luke woke up and asked, Who?
He blinked very owlishly and the trilby couldn’t hide the grump marks around his eyes and lips, I think he slept with his mouth downturned. I said, How’s your head? He laughed.
You remember Meldreth; we went there a year ago or something, to visit your friend from college, the engineer. You remember we got lost and came off a mud and stone path between trees and into a huge patch of high grass. On the other side we could hear, but distantly, traffic. And you swore you could smell fast food frying. On the other side was town. But the grass just smelt of green and dirt from the ground, and the smell made us tired. It was a warm day and we were up to our waists in this many-stranded pillow, I was so sleepy and I said to you, let’s take a nap. But you were scared to. You were, but you wouldn’t say it. When you’re scared you get bossy and you check your watch. You just kept saying, Here? Here? Listen, we’re not sleeping here. Then when I insisted on staying you said, But I don’t like it here. I promised you that we’d go far out of the way and curl up together where other walkers wouldn’t disturb us, but you said we’d expend less energy getting out of there and into town. Let’s turn back or go on.
I was so drowsy that my knees were loosening and I was sinking nose deep into the grass. Just five minutes, three minutes, two, just some rest.
You went into some kind of panic, some kind of mania. You dragged me up and you went towards town and you were jerking me along behind you. It’s not safe here. We shouldn’t fall asleep here, you said.
Luke knew the place. Guess what? We were safe. Nothing happened to us. I slept. I slept in levels, each one more nourishing than the last. My hair grew inches, loosened the beginnings of my braids where they had lain tight against my scalp. Luke didn’t sleep, but he waited patiently for me. When I woke we inched through the deep grass, and its edges went, the far noise went, town was gone. It became difficult to see him. His face was changing. He held my hand tight and we talked and he kept repeating himself, but I didn’t want to let him know. He wanted to sleep, but I tried to keep him awake by replying to everything he said, no matter how circular the conversation became. At first I acted as if what he was saying was all new to me, then I told him back what he’d told me. He said, I shot myself. I said, Yes, Luke. He asked me why he did that. I said, You hadn’t been doing very well. He said, Is it better now? I said, Much. Look, I’m here.
After a while Luke said, Kate, I’m very tired.
He stopped walking and he fell. I knelt beside him and I said, You mustn’t fall asleep here. It’s all right for me but not for you.
He said, While I am asleep someone will come and take me and fix me without my knowing.
I couldn’t stop myself from crying, and he said, Look, Kate, what do you want me to do? I can’t walk any more.
I’ll carry you, I said. He said, Oh, fuck off.
He didn’t say anything else. I kissed him, he was bones to me. I kissed where the bones connected; it took a long time. Collarbone and downwards, everywhere. A kiss between each finger. Just everywhere.
When I got back into town I didn’t know where to go; I didn’t have any money. I must have left my phone on the train. I went to the police station and I called you. At the police station, someone told me that today is Monday and I couldn’t stop staring at them. I got confused and thought that somehow Monday with the dry-cleaner and Mr Essense’s threat to sack me hadn’t happened yet. Then when they followed day with date I realised, today is the following Monday, as in, it has been a week. You must understand that I couldn’t have called; at first I couldn’t remember the numbers, then I was asleep.
Triggers can be so small and ridiculous. When I woke up last Monday and had absolutely no clean clothes – I mean, not a thing; who does that ever ever happen to? – I thought I was going to kill myself. The thing is I’d been desperate for a while before the clean clothes emergency, I don’t know, recovering from something that never happened. I was going to slit my wrists. See? I am not myself at all, everything I do is copied.
Before I slit my wrists I was going to write you a formal apology note about it, and me.
Do you think we’ve married too young, you and I? I suppose we won’t know until we’re old. On Monday I decided to put on my only clean dress because there was this feeling that someone would come. Not to help, exactly – who can help? Just to be there. So someone came. And I came to someone.
Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 and moved to London when she was four. Her first novel, “The Icarus Girl”, was nominated for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Her second, “The Opposite House”, will be published by Bloomsbury in May 2007