Brown paper packages tied up

FICTION

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ALPHABETTI ON TOAST

Yesterday was quite an eventful one in my otherwise unremarkable studio. My flatmate opened a letter meant for me but addressed to her, when the supplier (Ganges.com) had confused the gift card with the address label. That simple error would change the way Andrea (my flatmate) and I had lived fairly happily together for four years. Or so I thought.

The day before had started much like any other, with breakfast. Unusually, Andrea and me were eating together.

β€œHow are your eggs?” I pondered.

β€œMy menstrual cycle, or these eggs you cooked?” Which might explain why we rarely ate together.

β€œThe eggs you’re eating,” I replied.

β€œA chicken’s eggs. Or more likely, the eggs of more than one hen, randomly assembled in a box like a cardboard orphanage for the children who might have been, of parents who were separated from them.”

β€œThe scrambled eggs.” I thought that might play to Andrea’s overthinking my innocent enquiry of the breakfast I’d cooked.

β€œIf you’re angling for compliments,” she continued, β€œI suppose you can put life into something which wouldn’t otherwise have had one. I mean, you can cook. Why did you bother though?”

Because despite living together for four years, Andrea and I led separate lives in a very small space. Ours was a relationship of convenience, and every now and then I’d try to show her that wasn’t a one-way street she had to walk alone.

When Andrea first turned up at my door, she was literally (actually) broken and I helped to fit her back together, piece by piece. Sometimes she seemed to think she was in debt to me, when in fact I felt it could be the opposite. If that broken girl hadn’t landed on me, I’d have less reason to care about anything.

β€œAnd that’s why,” I concluded.

β€œDon’t feel the need to apologise.” Andrea gathered the plates and took them to the kitchen, where they smashed on the floor. β€œIf you need me to make any more noise out here, just let me know,” she called, as the broken crockery clanked into the bin.

She sat back at the table. β€œSo what are you up to tonight?”

β€œI was pondering the same,” I replied.

β€œWhat I’m up to or you? Did you think I was asking you out? Or were you going to ask me out?”

β€œWe never go out. You overthink things sometimes. I don’t know what I was thinking, just that I’ll probably stay in. You’re usually around, so maybe we could do something together. In the same room.”

β€œSomething you’d normally do on your own?”

β€œLike watch a film and cook some dinner. Yes, if you like.”

So we went about our separate days, still living together but ever independent, just like every day. Then we had dinner, like we do every evening, but this one together and eating the same food.

β€œThis is very nice,” Andrea said between mouthfuls. β€œSocial convention compels me to say that.”

I’d never had any delusions the dinner would be romantic. Our relationship isn’t like that. We don’t shun personal contact around the flat (it’s too small), but we respect personal space and time, both of us very much our own people. Aside from enquiries of well-being, we have little reason to be concerned by the other. On the odd occasion we found ourselves together (like cooking separate meals in the kitchen), our heads would subconsciously compete. That’s the way I saw it anyway, as the depth of Andrea’s mind was apparently hidden within the brevity of her verbal communication, but where sparse words carried more than their singular weight. Her words were efficient and logical, sometimes curt and abrupt, always clear in their message but loaded with unspoken subtext. But that could be the writer in me overthinking, something I’ve already accused Andrea of.

β€œSo why all this fuss?” She pointed at her plate. β€œIs it my birthday or something?”

β€œI wouldn’t know that.”

β€œUnless I’d told you. But whether I wanted to or not, I couldn’t tell you.”

β€œBecause you don’t know.”

β€œGreat minds think alike. And so do ours.”

β€œFinishing the other’s thoughts. I wouldn’t know what to get your for your birthday anyway.” I hardly knew her, despite living with her.

β€œA personality upgrade? It might make your life easier.” I hardly ever saw her.

Apart from the occasional nod of the head while pointing at her food, Andrea said nothing more until she’d cleared her plate. β€œMost agreeable. Thank you. You said we’d watch a film? Or that’s what you’d normally do and would I like to join you?”

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. It wouldn’t be like this.

We watched Toy Story. I’d never seen it before, probably because I didn’t want to watch it on my own. Then we watched Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3.

β€œI’m glad I’ve seen those films,” Andrea said as the credits rolled. β€œThanks.”

β€œMe too,” I said.

β€œI’m off to play computer games. Shall I do the dishes?”

β€œNo, no. I’ll do them tomorrow. I’ll probably sit up and write for a bit.”

β€œWhat do you write?”

β€œI write about the in-between days. That time when the sun goes down, and sleep steals most people’s dreams, I see them. I write until the next chapter begins with the rising of our parent star. At this time of year, the nights are shorter.”

β€œAnd that’s when I normally switch off. Goodnight.”

β€œ‘night.”

It was already tomorrow, so I washed up the dinner plates, trying not to make too much noise. For once, I felt like I had someone staying over for the night. That’s when I decided to write this.

I must admit I worry about Andrea sometimes. I shouldn’t, because of what she is: very much herself. There’s so much in that head, on the one hand unable to express itself, but doing so with minimal words with the other fist.

I sometimes think that sharing time might relax her so that she can open up, like tonight with the films. We didn’t even talk about the films afterwards. Then again, she said she was glad she’d watched them. She didn’t really have to say any more. We didn’t have to deconstruct the films because we’d watched them together. Her thinking seems to come as she’s loading her words before she utters them. My thoughts are the ones I’m left with. Andrea would make for engaging company as an author, if she could write what she couldn’t say. But she does that with the words loaded in my mind and I’m writing this. So why worry about Andrea?

I don’t have any duty of care for her. Four years ago she turned up on my doorstep in pieces, mentally and physically broken, a factory reject incapable of functioning in any home. I put her together again and gave her somewhere to live. She has no recollection of her past, but she’s a sentient, self-determining being, and far more intelligent than me, even though you might not know it to talk to her. She doesn’t ask questions beyond social convention, but she answers mine in just so many words. I don’t know what she does away from me but she never leaves the studio. Neither do I, which is how I know. I don’t know what she does in her personal space (besides playing on her computer), and neither should I unless I’m invited. She knows I’m writing, because I told her this is what I’d be doing. She doesn’t know what I’m writing about. Neither do I if I’m honest.

β€œWhat are you writing?” I must have drifted away. It was unusual for her to be awake at that time.

β€œJust some short fiction I’m playing with,” I replied. β€œIt’s only a first draft, so I’m editing it, moving things around to see if I can make it work.”

β€œHow do you mean, make it work?”

β€œI guess what every writer wants to do is speak to the reader and make them feel like they’re really there.”

β€œAnd are they? How do you do that? Have you written about them?”

β€œNo,” I said, β€œI mean in the subtext, outside the words themselves.”

β€œWhat’s it about?”

β€œIt’s a story about a child’s doll, cannibalised from spare parts washed up on a beach. Kind of recycling plastic and giving it new life.”

β€œLike the potential lives in the egg box, except they’d have been organic. Where would it live?”

β€œEh?”

β€œThe new life. Where would that be?”

β€œI don’t know. I haven’t finished the story.”

β€œIf it’s a gift for a child, it should be a big box, full of promise, maybe buried away somewhere. And a small envelope with a treasure map inside, showing where the box is hidden. The expectation might be greater than the contents of either, but the gift is in the giving.”

In other words, it’s how you wrap it up. And that’s how we arrive at the letter which opened this tale of two worlds in the same studio, just flatmates.

β€œMorning,” Andrea was already in the kitchen.

β€œGood morning,” I replied.

β€œHow do you know the day is good when it’s only just begun?”

β€œIt makes any day sound nicer.”

β€œHow do you like your eggs in the morning? I’m having spaghetti on toast.”

β€œEh?”

β€œEggs. The unrealised children of chickens. Would you like some?”

β€œWhat for?”

β€œWhatever you want them for. I was going to cook them for you.”

β€œWhy?”

β€œIt’s your birthday, right? That’s what last night was all about? Anyway, sorry, I opened this.” It was an envelope addressed to Andrea.

β€œWhy are you giving it to me?”

β€œBecause this was inside.” Another envelope with ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ printed on it. β€œIt’s not my birthday, at least not as far as I know because you’ve never asked me, and I wouldn’t know if you did. So this must be for you. Happy birthday.”

Then she left. She didn’t go out. She never goes out, just like me. Living in the same studio but with a life completely apart, a place serving eggs just as I liked them, as if I’d cooked them myself. She went to her room, into her personal space, where she always was anyway, playing computer games, or whatever else she did in there.

How many neurotribes within nations? How many borders in a world? How many universes in infinite universe theory? Of all the studios in the galaxy, why did I enable her to walk into a universe parallel to my own? Because in that other room, she has her own place. Like me, she seemed to cling on to her loneliness, hopefully knowing there was always someone nearby who wouldn’t intrude but who’d gladly give her any space she chose to share. Flatmates, but just neighbours. Even though we move in three dimensions, the fourth one (of time) can be the common denominator.

I never gave her that birthday gift. I didn’t open it, even though I knew it was the annual software upgrade for the ‘ANDi’ unit provided to every sole occupant household as a home help and personal companion. Andrea was no good at either, but I couldn’t tell her. She might get better if I upgraded her, but I never asked for a robot which would obey my every whim, and neither would I want one which objectified the human form in a slave to humanity. I’d hidden the previous three cards from her, as no-one in her condition should know their birthday is the date of manufacture printed at the top of a receipt.

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. The reason I didn’t mention she’s an android is because she’s not to me. And she doesn’t know. She’s a child with a capacity for learning which I’ll never possess.

Perhaps one day I’ll give her this story, about the doll washed up on the beach.

Over time, the mannequin became sentient and asked questions about her past to whomever might be listening. In the end, she even made a wish to no-one in particular: β€œGive me a sign.”

The paper was too pretty she said. She didn’t want to break the envelope. β€œI don’t want to know what’s in there. I like the story on the outside, without knowing the ending.”

Andrea ‘ANDi’ is a girl of few words.

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Β© Steve Laker, 2019

My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

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