Text Box: Short Story 2016/2017 — Second Place


Injunction by Dan Brotzel




























You start off being better than expected. A bit too good to be true.
You meet by chance in a pub, where she is talking with a mental-health-nurse friend about her work, caring for people with dementia. She is used to people being dismissive of the elderly, but you tell her the story of your struggles with your own grandma.

The story is larded with your altruism, but you agonise about not having done enough. (‘But it sounds like you couldn’t have done any more,’ she says. ‘You mustn’t punish yourself. Carers always do this! I’ve seen it so many times!’)

When it turns out you have heard of ‘validation therapy’, a special interest of hers, it’s as if the whole pub can hear the sound of a box being ticked. It’s all embarrassingly easy, somehow, or is this just what right feels like?

On the first date, you are compassionate, courageous, candid. And endearingly eccentric.
You get each of you to write down your Top 3 Vegetables. When you turn over your serviettes, it turns out you have both got the same three (albeit in a slightly different order: you have (1) courgettes, (2) carrots, (3) broccoli; she has carrots first). It’s a story you’ll retell many times.

Later that first night, you intervene on behalf of a harassed waitress when a group of boozed-up lads in football gear start to get a bit lary. There are four of them and one of you. But they are men, alive to the nuances of violence and its portents. There is an edge in your voice that they hear but she doesn’t, and they leave you alone.

What it looks like to her, though, is chivalry of a sort that’s generally considered extinct. And looking at yourself through her eyes, even you feel a touch in awe of yourself.  

You go large on the gifts.
She mentions a writer she likes; you go out and buy her his entire back catalogue. (Actually it turns out it was only the one title she liked rather than the author; the books end up back on sale on Amazon, you note later, slightly second-hand now.)

She loves to watch that Choir show, and you spend fruitless hours emailing and calling the show’s office to see if Gareth will come and do an impromptu sing-song for the dementia ward. It doesn’t work out; something in your grim persistence, you sense dimly, seems to put them off.

You learn to love arthouse. More gifts.
Much of your early relationship revolves around a local arthouse cinema she loves. It comes with an offbeat, wholefood café; it organises talks for members by avant-garde directors; and it runs one of those regular morning showings for mums, where women can breast-feed neonates to the more grown-up screams of
Baise-moi and 120 days of Sodom.

You come across a limited-edition print of the cinema painted by a local artist. You buy it for a few hundred quid – quite a statement for a fifth-date purchase. She is shocked at your emotional audacity, with the shock of one who has met their destiny.

And suddenly, you know all about foreign cinema. You bluff your way through Bunuel and Truffaut and Kirosawa, you whose favourite film is secretly Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. (She must never know, you decide, about your Dungeons and Dragons past.) Only when you laugh at one of her friends for thinking Renoir a painter is there a moment’s awkwardness. 

In bed, you try very hard to please her.
You are energetic, ingenious, imaginative. You try stuff, but you always ask first and you are endlessly solicitous as to her feelings and sensations.

Later, much later, you wonder if she wished there was less pressure on her to have the perfect experience every time, and if your experimental efforts felt too much like a ticklist you were working through.

You wonder if you should perhaps have instinctively known how it was for her without having to grill her every time.

And you forget how often she told you she just wanted a hug. 

Even at work, you are there for her.
She texts you to say her face has come up in a sudden, unsightly rash. You walk out of your office immediately and go to her.

When your boss (a man) questions you next day about hanging up on a client call without explanation, you cough discreetly, look him straight in the eye, and utter the single word, ‘dysmenorrhea’. No more is said on the matter. She loves you for this.

You hurry into another room whenever you feel the need to break wind.
On one occasion, you actually defecate on a sheet of newspaper in the kitchen downstairs, because the toilet’s right by the bedroom and you don’t want her to have to hear or smell that stuff.

Such fastidiousness soon wears off, of course, and she tires – perhaps quicker than you realise – of being asked to ‘pull my finger’ every time you need to let one go.

You try with her friends, you really do.
When you meet her best friend, you get really drunk – actually, you turn up really drunk – and find yourself screaming in her face: ‘I WANT YOU TO LIKE
ME BEST OF ALL!!!’ The best friend gets it’s meant to be funny – it’s a sort of self-parodic staking of territory – without seeming to actually laugh all that much.

(A bit like when, later on that night, you take to lying on the dotted line in the middle of the road, for reasons that are unclear even to you. You earn some attention, but probably not the right kind.)

Out and about, you see something unexpected.
You spot her in town, on a day you’d not planned to meet, with someone you don’t know. You feel things that are not straightforward to process. You could just leave them to it, or you could go over and introduce yourself in a heavy-handedly proprietorial way that acts as a warning both to him, and to her.

After you are spotted trying to take a picture of them on your phone, you’re only left with the latter option really.

You’re not totally blind.
Just occasionally you do pick up on the odd thing. You notice she does a little flinch when you raise your voice, for instance. She never initiates sex any more.

Come to think of it, she never initiates anything any more. It’s like she’s just waiting for you to tell her what should happen next all the time. This infuriates you, and leads inevitably to you raising your voice again.

She’s changed, and so you change.
Somehow, over time, you have managed to turn charm into bumptiousness, admiration into envy, protectiveness into controlling paranoia.

You have to win every conversation, you have to have the last word, you have to know. It’s an old friend from her old work, she says. She must have mentioned him before, you know, Pete. Don’t be silly, she says when she sees your expression, he’s not even straight.

But she hasn’t mentioned him. And besides she could turn anyone straight. Just look at her.

You make a choice.
You confront her. She cries and says, it’s only ever been you. You are gratified by the tears, but wonder if they are enough; and still you find yourself with a choice: lovingly accept her reassurances, or throw an unopened can of chopped tomatoes at the double-glazed French windows.

It’s toughened glass, and you only break one pane. This, you say, shows how silly a little thing it all is. But she is already on the phone, sob-dialling. Better not to talk to anyone till we’ve all calmed down, you say, with a restraining hand.

You love someone, you set them free.
You can see she’s not 100% happy. You’re not either, come to that. So it makes sense for you to move out for a while – better that way, so others don’t misinterpret things. 

But you’re always with her, she knows that. It’s what she wants.

You like to sit outside her house in a car.
Just sit there and smoke, maybe have a beer and listen to some choons. You see her peer out from behind a curtain every so often. Though she needs space, you know she’s reassured by your quiet background presence.

When she’s ready to come and talk, you’ll be there. Just need to get things back to where they were, back to where they should be.

The neighbours are a different matter, though. And it’s not so easy when one of those cunts calls the police. ‘How can I “harass someone in their own home” when I’m not even in their home?’ you keep asking. ‘And anyway, it’s my home too.’ Well, it was.

You learn how to let yourself in and out of a car boot.
That way, you can be with her on her dates with this new Dave bloke. They never know you’re there, of course, until the muscles cramps have you crying out in agony. Sweet pain. It’s what you do for love though, isn’t it? That and six months, plus a Level 5 fine.

You reflect, you grow, you wait.
There’s a lot of time in here to think about things. You know now there were moments when you tried too hard. When you didn’t see her point of view. When you rushed to judgement or jealousy. There are things you’ll do differently next time, ways you’ll love her better.

There’s a woman in here who’s helping you to talk about your feelings. Get perspective on your pain, she calls it. It helps. You can see how things must have come across now. And you’ll be a better person for her when you’re done.

Because what can never change is what you and she mean to each other. You know there have been issues, you know you did wrong. But you’re dying in here, and it wouldn’t kill her to remind you just once that she needs you as much as you need her.

Otherwise, what’s the point of you?

First: Losing Worlds  by Tessa Byars

Third: In the Orbit of Pluto by Kieran Marsh