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The chainsaw bursts, loud and raucous, from the nearby wood and cuts through her conversation like a butcher’s knife through bone. I reach out to touch her arm, but the distance between us is too wide, making it a clumsy effort.
‘Don’t,’ she says.
I pull my hand back. She tells me she isn’t worth it, that I am wasting my time, that I should pick on someone who gives a shit.
‘I give a shit even if you don’t.’
I look to see if the words have landed, have had an effect, but she looks vacant, any sharpness of feature blurred, as though her face has been rubbed with an eraser.
The saw stops. I move close and put an arm around her. She concedes to this, and it feels like a breakthrough of sorts. I don’t dare say another thing in case it breaks the moment. There is calm in her at last, and her mood lifts. I wait for her to say something, to confirm the worst is over, when the saw splutters into life again, shattering the moment like a death rattle in a night ward.
She screams and pulls away and beats her head with her fists. Not hard, not violent, not so bad that I fear for her, but enough to know she could do something terrible if pushed further.
’Stop it,’ I say. But she doesn’t.
It’s all I can say. I don’t know what else. I’m failing with her and I hate that I make myself feel responsible. She stops hitting herself and stretches her arms out and starts spinning round and round. She counts each full revolution. I watch and wait for her to stop, but then what?
The saw stops and she stops. I tell her we should take the path to the lake, away from the wood.
’So you can talk at me again?’ she says.
‘I promise I’ll listen.’
She’s sick of advice, she says. But she walks toward the lake. I pick up the stride, expecting her to stop, as though she’d only been pretending to agree to the idea, but she keeps moving and steps up the pace.
She says she’s wasted years of her life. Shit job. Shit friends. Shit flat in a shit town.
‘It’s all shit,’ she says, and manages a slight laugh that almost contains humour.
I’m implicated in the shit job part of the equation, and although I don’t feel singled out, I’d have preferred not to be on the list at all. It’s possible I’m the not-shit friend, but that feels relative and provisional. Somehow, I’ve kept her in the job, but that’s soon to change, and somewhere between caring about her, feeling bad for her, and being tormented by casting myself in the role of her saviour, I’ll be sorry when she leaves.
‘Look,’ I say, pointing at the sun reflecting off the lake, making silhouettes of the wild birds, ‘isn’t that beautiful?’
I told her she was high maintenance a year ago at the firm’s annual Christmas party. We’d both been drinking, and she was in a positive frame of mind, which was rare. I thought she’d be able to take it, that she might embrace the tag, or laugh about it in a spirit of self-deprecation. We hadn’t worked together much by then, but we’d got on okay, belying the reputation she had around the place for being difficult. No one had tried to talk to her, they just bitched behind her back. So I dived in, thinking I could do her a favour by being the one with the courage to say something.
It was like an ice storm, the way the air froze around us. She looked past me, her eyes withdrawn, her face like a death mask. I apologised, but in the way that makes it worse. She focused on me, her eyes narrowed and steely, and told me I’d betrayed her. The words were a stab to a relationship that had barely formed.
But straightaway she wanted to leave the party and for me to come with her. She had to get out. She said everyone was staring at her, that they were leeches on her spirit, depressing her, making her feel used. I couldn’t see anyone staring at her, but I agreed to accompany her.
Once out, she started laughing. The atmosphere had thawed, and she was back to how she’d been before I’d said anything. The night was mild, almost balmy for December, and she took my arm and led me along the street to a park. We sat on a bench and she apologised for being nasty to me. She thanked me for my honesty and told me that true friends always told the truth to one another.
She pointed to a house that overlooked the park and told me it was where she lived, the second-floor flat. The light was on. She always left it on in the evening if she went out. On her way home, she would sit in the park and watch the window, imagining it contained a tenant living a perfect life surrounded by well-tended indoor plants, an affectionate cat and lots of lovely visitors.
‘Would you like to come in for coffee?’ she said.
I looked at my watch. ‘I don’t know.’
She laughed. ‘I don’t want to sleep with you. I will never want to sleep with you. But you will make a good visitor and I would like us to talk.’
Soon I became her friend, her only true friend in this town. I was her companion, her confidant and her anchor, but always prey to the thought that if I betrayed her, she would shatter like a glass bauble thrown against a rock.
Inviting her for a walk in the country park is the one proposal I can ever make that she’s guaranteed to accept. She says I’m her soulmate because I always know when to suggest it. But lately she’s taken to giving me a look that says she wants me to make the suggestion. I conform to the look’s demand, mouthing out the words like a line in a script, yet she still gives me credit for being able to read her mind.
There’s something about the place that soothes her, as though it connects her to a happier life, or the one she imagines behind her open window at night while sitting alone in the park. Maybe it comes alive during our walks. I’m an important part of this ritual; she never goes on her own, and we always go when she’s at her most melancholy, when her head is full of what she calls her misery drizzle.
When the chainsaw severed the conversation, she was talking about what she would do after the job ended. More exactly, the things she couldn’t do because she was so hopeless. But we’d made progress, in that she’d agreed not to surrender her life entirely, and her fluctuating mood had settled to a point where a normal conversation was possible. The saw’s interruption was cruel timing, although nothing seems to happen to her at a good time.
‘I love the birds,’ she says. Her eyes are pleading, but not with me, with the part of her that lies in wait to undermine her best intentions. ‘They never pay me any attention.’
We walk on, her eyes on the lake, drawn first to the honking geese, then the gentle lapping at the water’s edge, until a gust of wind swooshes the trees and draws her attention up to the swaying branches. She stops walking. The gust dies, but she continues looking upwards, her face calm and wishful. The honking from the water reaches a crescendo as another flock comes into land. I’m at her side, wondering how she’ll be when she breaks her reverie.
‘I should work with animals,’ she says. She looks at me, waiting for confirmation. In the second it takes for me to decide how to respond, her look turns to despair.
‘You’d be good with animals,’ I say, thinking it’s a bridge towards the next stage of the conversation, the part about what she really wants to do.
‘Do you mean, because I’m so crap with people?’ It sounds like an accusation, but she’s smiling, as though proud of her confession.
‘You’re not crap with people, you’re too harsh on yourself.’
‘I’m hopeless,’ she says, ‘completely fucking useless.’
The smile has gone, and I’m at a loss again. I know I’ll not find the right thing to say.
She grabs my sleeve and pulls me towards her. I’m worried she’ll yell at me from close up, but although her movement is urgent, her eyes have softened.
‘Fuck me,’ she says, and buries her head in my collar, kissing my neck.
I pull away to see her eyes. She means it, and I feel a twinge of arousal even though I know I can’t.
‘Catch me,’ she says, and runs back in the direction we’ve come.
She’s laughing. It’s a game, and it’s my role to play along, so I hurry in pursuit of her. But she doesn’t slow, keeps on running, giggling, and I break into a jog so the distance between us doesn’t get too wide. I’m sure she doesn’t mean it, but I don’t know how she’ll react if I refuse her. Let her run, let her have the moment, let her mood change of its own accord.
As we cover the yards, I keep expecting her to stop, but she doesn’t. We reach the wood. The chainsaw is silent, which is no longer good news since it would surely jolt her out of this weird new mania. Instead of taking the path running alongside the wood, she jumps the fence leading into it. I yell for her to come back, saying she shouldn’t be in there, but she laughs and tells me it’ll give us cover.
So I leap the fence and resume the chase. I lose sight of her in a cluster of rhododendrons and sprint to catch up, although there’s no danger of losing her altogether, the noise she’s making crashing through the undergrowth. I reach a clearing. There’s no sign of her and I can’t hear her. All I see is a pile of logs.
‘Come and get me,’ she sings. It comes from behind the logs.
I walk towards the voice, intending to tell her that this whole thing is a mad escapade, that we can’t fuck each other this afternoon or any other time, because that’s not our relationship… and that we have to get out of this wood before someone sees us.
I find her holding the chainsaw. She grins at me like a kid with a new toy.
‘It’s heavier than it looks,’ she says, although she is waving it around with no sign of strain. ‘How do you start it up?’
I have to get it off her before she works it out. She poses with the blade jutting from her crotch, makes a humping action and laughs.
‘Put it down, for fuck’s sake.’
She puts it on the floor, reaches for the starter rope and pulls. Nothing happens. She stands on the handle and pulls again, and it bursts into life.
She picks it up and feels around for the throttle while pointing the blade at a log. I can’t risk wrestling it from her, so I lunge for the chain break, but she starts the saw and presses it to the log at the moment I reach out. The blade kicks back and punches into my wrist. She drops the saw, and it cuts out. The pain is instant and violent. My arm has snapped, and blood fills my sleeve. The bleeding doesn’t seem too severe, but then blood drips to the ground like a leaking gutter. I go hot and cold and see her staring at me in horror as if she knows I’m about to bleed to death.
She reaches for my sleeve and I resist. But she grabs hold of my arm with surprising force. She pulls away the shredded fabric and presses her thumb above the wound. I scream in pain, but it slows the bleeding.
‘Press here,’ she yells, telling me to replace her thumb with mine while she takes off her jacket. Then she pulls her blouse over her head. She isn’t wearing a bra, and I’m thinking what-the-fuck. She ties the sleeves together, grabs a stick, threads it through the blouse, pulls the looped blouse over my arm, and tightens with the stick until the bleeding stops. She takes out her phone and calls an ambulance.
In the minutes that follow, as she soothes my head and promises me I will be okay, she tells me she is sorry and that she loves me and that her life would be a death without me. In the distance, the geese are loud again, maybe taking flight, and she says she looks forward to us watching the wild birds together again. I allow my head to fall into her lap and tell that I too would love that.
Mark Godfrey's short stories have been published by The London Magazine and The Reader Magazine and are forthcoming in Kith Review and Anthophile. He has been awarded/commended/listed for a number of short story prizes including the London Magazine short story competition, the Manchester Fiction Prize, the White Review and Fish short story competitions.
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