Saturday short story: Zero-sum by Stephanie Johnson
ReadingRoom begins its series of new New Zealand short stories every Saturday with a black comedy by novelist Stephanie Johnson. Photography by Peter Black.
Brent was a man beloved of two women, one of them his wife and the other his business partner. It never occurred to him that he could be envied for this predicament, that he was lucky to have two women so concerned for his happiness and welfare. On the contrary it seemed that any pleasure he might have taken from their affection was negated by the sympathy he was offered, now and again, by other men. For instance, just the other night at a party when his wife dominated the proceedings for fully ten minutes telling a not very funny joke and then muffed the punch line, Brent was sure he was the recipient of several sympathetic glances.
And right this very second, while his business partner wastes twenty minutes by relaying compliments paid to her by some guy at a conference, the new IT specialist is looking across the table at him at first empathetically and then with alarm, as if he’s only just realising that part of his job could be an obligation to listen to this nonsense.
Afterwards at the coffee machine he asks ‘Does she always carry on like that?’ and Brent can only shrug. The new guy is a young guy, too young and too new to have any affection for Gina. Which Brent does. They’ve worked together for twenty years; they’d set up the company together. ‘She couldn’t do it without you,’ people say then and now. ‘He couldn’t do it without her,’ they say, as if the company is an act of love. As if it is a marriage.
The new guy’s head bends towards his screen and Brent feels remiss suddenly – he should have reprimanded him for talking about Gina like that. Why shouldn’t she share her compliments with them? She’s still an attractive woman, slim and petite with good skin. Youthful. You’d never pick that Claire and Gina are about the same age, as had come clear from a dinner party conversation back when they socialised more. That was before his wife took against his business partner for reasons he can’t quite put his finger on.
Gina stands behind him with her hand on his shoulder looking at his screen, which shows the summary points of a report he’d done on the latest company that had come to them for restructuring. It was the usual solution – inflate upper management and shed labour.
‘Brilliant,’ Gina gives his shoulder a little squeeze and his wife’s voice rings in his ear, ‘I can’t stand the way she touches you all the time. Leans into you.’
He’s given up reassuring her – Gina is happily married, she’s deeply conservative, she’s Catholic for godsake though non-practising. How many times? Hasn’t bothered saying those things for years.
‘A hundred and thirty people will lose their jobs. But it’s the only way.’
Another squeeze. ‘You’re too soft. You can’t let it bother you. It comes with the territory.’
‘She has you all to herself,’ came Claire’s voice. ‘She has you sober.’
He’ll stop at the pub on the way home, have a couple or three before he goes to the bottle shop. Pre-loading, the young people call it, drinking up before they go out. He pre-loads before he goes in.
Gina’s hand leaves his shoulder and he hears her light step as she turns back to her adjoining office, takes into his lungs a waft of perfume left by her floating scarf. Perfume rare and expensive and he’d recognise it anywhere. Sometimes he smells it on other women and he thinks ‘Gina’. The scent makes him feel purposeful, upright at his desk, successful. It makes him happy. It makes him clear.
Now, as he shuts down for the evening, he tastes on his tongue the last molecule of that artificial pheromone. He gathers his manbag and jacket from the peg and sets off into the autumn dusk.
Claire is just home from a day volunteering for the Cancer Society. Today she has driven patients to and from their oncology appointments and discussed the house-training of kittens, the propagating of orchids, immigration flow, climate change and the manufacture of artificial diamonds, and she finds herself strongly uplifted by her passengers’ courage and curiosity for anything other than the disease.
The house is empty as she expected it would be. The last of their four daughters left home six months ago, a departure that coincided with the death of the family dog. Life, as Claire will tell her few friends, has changed forever and beyond recognition. In fact she very often has the strange conviction this is not her life at all but someone else’s; that whoever Claire Pierce used to be has seeped away through the soles of her feet into the soil of the garden she has lovingly tended for over a quarter of a century, or into the thick carpet she weekly vacuums, or vaporised in the ancient crockpot, big enough to cook dinner for six. She puts on some music to defeat the silence, a husky-voiced Dunedin girl whom she discovered one day while surfing the net. The girl sings of the usual he-done-me-wrong, but also the wider picture – social isolation, intrusive technology, environmental ruin – all with a youthful, ironical, stick-it-up-your-arse attitude. The cheek is cheering and while Claire peels the potatoes and marinates the steak she sings along, wondering with half a mind what time Brent will appear and what kind of mood he will be in. In the early years of their parenthood, when they agreed to eschew daycare and for Claire to be almost alone of her generation a stay-at-home-mum, she had mused long and solitarily on the conundrum that had set her apart from him: they had married because they wanted to be together but because of his demanding job and the cost of living they spent no time together at all.
But she hasn’t given voice to this for years, not since a playgroup mother had turned on her, spitefully vindictive about all the women who went out to work because they had to. Not everyone had Claire’s soft life and husbands that commanded the salary Brent did.
And she’d known, had always known, that Brent was in a growth industry and on the side of the new masters and that she absolutely must never ever complain about her lot. It was perfect timing: when the children were little, company restructuring was also in its infancy; the diktat of replacing employees with contractors and doing away with sick pay and holiday pay new-born. Brent and Gina were in at the beginning of digital automation, while upper management were reaping more and more the confluence of benefits and happy to pay for the expertise to do so.
As she washes a lettuce she worries about what will happen when there are no older, established companies left to restructure, or when new companies from the very beginning adopt the same imperatives bottom up that Brent and Gina recommend and so have no need of their consultancy? What then?
The key in the latch and Brent’s footfall.
The ghost of the family dog’s scrabbling paws on the carpet and the welcoming cries of long gone small children from the playroom.
The habitual pause in her preparations to hear him come up the stairs and turn at the first landing into his study to drop off his case.
That part of the pattern hadn’t changed at least, neither had the next, the rustle of the black plastic bag from wine shop, the swift unsheathing of the bottle as he came into the kitchen, the placing of two glasses on the bench, the low level in hers, the lapping at the brim in his, rapidly downed and replenished before he goes out again to wait at the table and take in the day’s news from his e-reader. When the children were young it had been a newspaper and some times he would call to her to read an item over his shoulder or point out a mention of an issue he knew concerned her. With his adoption of the new technology, the newspaper delivered soundlessly to his private device, the sharing has stopped though Claire cannot think why.
He’s glad she makes a habit now of staying in the kitchen, taking her restrained sips of wine. She scarcely drinks now -‘I don’t process alcohol like I used to’- and doesn’t sit at the table with him until after she’s served dinner. He thinks perhaps that if she didn’t already give him space he would ask her to, plead exhaustion from his long day, from having Gina call him into her office half a dozen times, or break remotely onto his screen to share insights into the current assignment or insist that they went to lunch, where she would confide in him about her private life – her anxieties about her husband’s illness, Russell’s advancing Huntingdon’s Disease, about which, she told Brent, she would confide in no-one else. Or she would talk about the latest escapade of their only child, a troubled trust-funded twenty-two year old son with a taste for meth and fast cars.
Often, at these protracted lunches, wine would be ordered and consumed and the afternoons would then be difficult for the first hour or two, his concentration impaired. While still at the table he would anticipate this and perhaps it was his faraway expression that would motivate Gina to ask, ‘What is it, Brent? Is something troubling you?’ She would wait then, he was well aware, for a confidence from him in return. He could never tell her his distraction was born of anxiety for the wasted hours away from his work, the hours he should have been at his desk.
‘Is everything all right at home?’ Gina would ask, ‘Claire’s all right?’
He would nod, change the subject, even though there was a precedent for these questions. Once, eight or nine years ago on a business trip after too much to drink he had poured his heart out to her. He had told her how his wife had grown more and more solitary, how she had let her friendships fall away, how she grieved for the years the children were dependent on her. He had told Gina all this late one night in a Los Angeles bar, how Claire would weep and tell him she’d lost her centre, her reason for living, how if they lived in a country with coal gas ovens rather than natural, she would do a Sylvia Plath.
Gina only knew of Sylvia Plath from publicity for the film with Gwyneth Paltrow, which she hadn’t seen. By her own account she couldn’t be bothered with movies and even less with novels and not at all with poetry.
‘Plath was unhappily married to another poet, Ted Hughes,’ Brent told her, because Claire had told him, but Gina wasn’t listening. She was bent on a solution because that’s what she was, a problem-solver. A restructurer.
‘She needs occupation,’ she said, ‘and it’s unlikely anyone will give her job. She hasn’t worked for what… twenty years? Get her to do some voluntary work, drive cancer patients to their oncology appointments. Read aloud to old people. Anything.’
When he’d suggested it to his wife he was careful not to mention that the idea had come from Gina.
‘How was your day?’ he asked her now, as she came through with a salad, and only half listened as she told him about the sufferers she’d driven about on petrol he’d paid for, in a car he’d bought. ‘You have a very traditional marriage,’ Gina had told him, years ago when the company was young. He’d invited her in after work to find Claire stirring pots of this and pots of that, the children ranged around the dining room table finishing their homework.
‘Oh my God will you look at it!’ Gina had said, staring at the domestic tableau. ‘You look like an ad for life insurance policy!’ She’d always had an infectious laugh and on that occasion Claire had laughed too, though guardedly. ‘A real traditional marriage. An endangered species!’
He hadn’t seen what Claire read into it later, which was that ‘traditional marriage’ was code for ‘you work hard to support a lazy cow.’ On that evening, as she did most evenings, Gina would have gone home to her son and husband and eaten God knows what, while he enjoyed his homecooked meal.
‘Mostly we eat takeaways,’ Gina had told him in one of her endless downloads about her private life, ‘top end.’ And he’d felt envious for a second, which was surely the wrong way around.
Tonight he isn’t too keen on the steak, over cooked and cut too thin.
‘They’re minute steaks. I’ve had such a busy day.’
‘Very.’ He tucks in, obligingly, to please her.
‘Was Gina there?’
Why was she asking him that? Of course she was, apart from a meeting scheduled elsewhere for two o’clock. He didn’t bother answering.
‘What is that godawful miserable music?’
She’d left the ipod playing. The South Island folkie was repeating.
After she turned it off she sat down again and finished her meal. Perhaps she didn’t like the music as much as she’d thought, if it could go on and on and round and round without her even noticing.
After dinner Brent took the rest of the wine into the living room and sat with his ipad while Claire did the dishes. She hadn’t told him what she’d seen and now she wouldn’t tell him. She might have done if he’d answered her perfectly innocuous question. ‘I saw Gina today,’ she could have said, ‘at the hospital. Coming out of the oncology department. She looked upset.’ If he wasn’t going to tell her what Gina would inevitably have told him then she wouldn’t volunteer any information.
How familiar was this dead, hollow feeling of exclusion lying heavily in her chest. As familiar as the condensation-blurred reflection in the darkening window above the sink, her face which was not so much more lined than Gina’s was it? She supposed she hardly used it, except on cancer days. It was always still. Motionless. She smiled at herself in the glass, executed a frown, stretched her jaw. On average, she supposed, most days, she exchanged about five minutes conversation with her husband.
Lone-ly, lone-ly, lone-ly. The word tolled in her head like a distant two-toned car alarm. She made a cup of tea to take to bed with her book.
An election in four months and party spirits were high: Gina left the convention centre confident that her tribe would be re-elected, that all would go on as before with the same bonhomie, the same high finance guys mercifully in charge. New Zealand Corp. Blue rosettes, less than in previous generations but still proudly sported. Less blue suits and more of granite grey, striped shirts, blue ties and the women almost uniformly stout in shining jackets: they were satin cubes with black perambulating legs or flaring skirt. In the Auckland branch there were older members, such as herself, whose association went back generations, to grandparents’ time of grace, pearls, quiet colours, tweed costumes, stable marriages, gin and tonics in the evenings and something that passed for a social conscience. Now they were all either boozers or wowsers, or too loud, too aggressive, too arch, so determinedly neoliberal that a stink of corruption was an accepted part of the territory.
Even if they lacked a certain class they took a firm road, just as I will, thought Gina, turning the car in a certain direction, not towards the southern motorway and the vast, new house on the Clevedon coast with the trembling bewildered husband lurking somewhere in the upper floors and a drug-addled son playing loud music and inviting his undesirable friends into his 100 square metre basement flat.
No, she would drive to the reconstructed villa in the old suburb of Mount Eden, to Brent’s and Claire’s, invite herself in and tell them her bad news, as friends, as extended family – the closest thing she had to it, these days. In her twenties, while she was being rapidly promoted through a now defunct telecommunications company, ‘family’ was the buzzword. It was the wind beneath the wings, a belief that office relationships would go on forever, like a real family. Duty, loyalty, security. God knows she’d tried.
At first no-one heard her knock. She was sure there had been a small dog that would come barking to the door, a yappy thing she had on previous occasions had to kick away from her stockings. A television burbled from somewhere on the second floor and a light was burning on the third, in the dormer window of the kitchen. When she’d first met Brent they were doing rennos and impractical Claire had wanted the kitchen at the top of the house. ‘Everyone will want to spend their time where the view is and I don’t want to be all by myself in the kitchen. We’ll all be up here together,’ she’d said on Gina’s first visit, showing her the suburbs spread sparkling below, the upper reaches of the Waitemata lying in the distance slick as a flattened slug. The prospect of decades of lugging groceries up three flights of stairs hadn’t seemed to bother her.
Gina knocked again, stepped back from the porch overhang and looked up to the dormer. The light had flicked off and someone was coming down the internal stairs. One last try – knock, knock – and the door opened cautiously. Brent, in his socks, stinking of wine. One of the symptoms, like pregnancy, this acute sense of smell.
‘I was in the neighbourhood.’ Did she really say that? He wouldn’t believe her. ‘Is it okay if I come in?’
The door widened enough to let her pass. Inside it was warm, overheated. As she followed him up the stairs she took off her blue silk jacket.
He was leading her into his study. She didn’t want to do this tête-à-tête. Brent would need Claire’s support and Claire was likely to welcome the decision much more than he would. It was what she wanted. Had always wanted. The course of action had come in a blinding flash during the Prime Minister’s address, the most popular prime minister since Helen Clark, since Micky Savage, ever really, and she had felt herself carried along on the glittering river of his rhetoric, the force of his conviction. She had to be decisive. Brent could be angry.
It was good that he had showed her into his study, she thought. After all it was where he would be working from now on.
‘I have to be careful now – you can see that, can’t you?’ She had taken his hand, which was damp. Or was that her own hand oozing, and had she already explained the catalyst for her decision or leapt straight to offering comfort? She couldn’t recall.
He was sitting her down at his desk, calling for Claire to bring her a glass of water, because she really was having difficulty breathing – or at least, just getting the breath into her lungs, as if she was having a return attack of her childhood asthma, or a heavy smoker. She’d never smoked a cigarette in her life.
There were running feet and a man’s voice – ‘We’re in my study!’ – and a chlorine-reeking glass was held to her lips. There were greying rumpled curls, a long floral wynciette nightie and the smell of milky tea and secret bedroom chocolate. There was a man too, worried, too close.
‘Gina, are you all right?’ asked the kind old lady. ‘Do you need to lie down?’
The sad man picked her up.
He took her upstairs to the closest bedroom, one mostly used for storage, next door to the kitchen. The evening’s wine had compromised his spatial judgement. He had to concentrate, almost losing his balance when Claire pushed ahead to haul things off the bed – boxes of long unread books, clothes in black bin bags, a couple of paintings – Claire’s from an evening school she attended to calm her nerves when the children were teenagers. His business partner was surprisingly light – thin, hollow bones, like a bird, he thought, as he lay her down. She was shivery, so Claire rummaged in the wardrobe for a shabby blanket and tucked it around her. It had been the dog’s, he remembered, folded onto various chairs around the house to save the upholstery. Surely to God she’d washed it since the dog died?
Although Gina seemed barely conscious her nostrils widened and narrowed, widened again. An expression of distaste, a shift of half-paralysed muscles in her stretched face. How beautiful she was, really, now that he saw her lying down. He never had before, not even reclining at an angle. On business flights they travelled separately so that she could maintain her aplomb. Always upright. That was Gina.
His wife was making funny little mewing noises of distress and rushing off somewhere; he supposed to find her phone. His own was in his pocket. He could stop gazing and do what Claire was trying to do. He could ring the ambulance but Gina was all right, really. Her breath was coming more evenly and she’d drunk half a glass of water.
She just needed a rest, that’s all. And a cuddle.
He didn’t imagine anyone had held her, for a long time, like he had, carrying her up the stairs. She had that sense about her. Untouched. By now Russel would be too sick for any of that carry-on. The perfume seemed to be milder, less evident – usually she reapplied it throughout the day to maintain a steady cloud. What was its name? He’d never asked.
He ran a fingertip along her perfect hairline, the rising mass above it a youthful shade. Honey blond did they call it? He supposed the colour was assisted, but who cared since it was a work of art, really, golds and browns and redder streaks. Her younger face flashed before him – they had known one another distantly during their B.Comm years at Otago University – she was plainer then, brunette, tougher looking. A gap between her teeth long vanished and her nose was different, less chiselled. This beauty was a late flowering, surgical, a flawless set of armour, a kind of miracle. You had to hand it to her. A fighter, a survivor. Her life was only going to go on getting better.
Until now. She’d fucked up. Completely. He wasn’t going to downsize and work from home, sell off a percentage of the client list. Why had she thought he’d welcome that idea? Never. He’d buy her out; make sure it was a fair deal. He would look after her, he wouldn’t rip her off. He would keep the company as it was, as far as possible.
She didn’t stir. He bent over and pressed his lips against that smooth clear brow, strangely exhilarating, perfect as a high blue sky. One hand came to rest on her small bosom. It was high on her chest and hard as a nut under his palm, he supposed because of a stiff bra. Or had she had one of those implant things?
‘Gina? Can you hear me?’
He didn’t lift his hand. He should have. His wife was at the door.
The story, about a man beloved by two women, or as far as it can be told, ends some six months after the court case, in which his wife testified against him.
These days Claire has a mortgage-free duplex in Glendowie and enough money squirreled away in the bank and investments to keep her until she either dies or gets on her feet, whichever comes first. She’s happy to live modestly, enjoys it even, triumphal small economies and deprivations. They feel like real life, as life was when there were kids to feed and their dad to accommodate. It’s hard these days to be bothered to eat more than tea and toast but she knows she did the right thing, standing up there alone in the witness box. Gina had been semi-conscious. Defenceless, like a child. It was as bad as Rolf Harris or Bill Cosby. Claire had long known of her husband’s obsession, his desire to do nothing but work, which was code for spending time with Gina. For Gina. Devoted to Gina. At the address they shared. Travelling with her, building that other family, having late night conversations in hotels, moving through the world as kin. All that time and she had no idea. No idea at all.
She’s glad, mostly to be away from it. She has two pretty kittens and the first grandchild is on the way.
Gina’s cancer is rapacious and already she is dying in a hospice. In the face of early bereavement and imminent substantial inheritance, her previously troubled son has achieved a new maturity. He visits his mother and holds her hand and has arranged independently for his father to go into a luxury care home. Outside the courtroom he told the media ‘During my mother’s rare periods of lucidity she is relieved to know that she can die knowing her abuser has been brought to trial, even though he was not convicted.’
And Brent surprises himself by being happy enough in his brand new two-roomed hencoop in the brand new suburb of Hobsonville, beige and white and overglazed. He has a 2003 red Mazda parked outside and a start-up office not far away, in Henderson. After paying his monumental legal fees, which were worth every cent, he has only the small remains of his fifty-fifty on the Mt Eden house. Gina’s useless son will be the beneficiary of all his years of hard slog for the company. The daughters he worked so hard to feed and educate have abandoned him.
But he is not downhearted. The day will come when his daughters will see him again, when they will accept the lawyer’s line of defence: he was bent over Gina sniffing the blanket, which he was worried smelt of dog, and had momentarily lost his balance, which explains the placing of his hand on her breast.
Cooking is a new pleasure. Tonight, as he creates a delicious pasta with store cupboard ingredients, he is deliberating on a name for his new consultancy, soon to be registered at the Company Office. Anchovies melt and garlic wafts and there is comfort in the thought that in a few months general amnesia will have set in in the business world. Any clinging dirt will have washed away.
He eats his dinner for one, finishes a bottle of a wine and goes on line for the day’s news. He doesn’t feel lonely at all. After being loved so fiercely and for so long – those twin walls of flame ready to devour him should he step an inch to either side and not keep marching straight ahead – it is a pleasure and a liberation to have no women at all in his life.
Zero-sum, in his favour.