This short story appeared in: Fiddleblack Annual 1: Apparitional Experience. Peninsula, Ohio: Fiddleblack ltd, 2013. 109-118.
Fifty Shades of Grey Matter
“Once upon a time…”
She looked up from the big picture book.
“Lie down now, there’s a good boy, or I shan’t read you a bedtime story.”
Her voice was stern but soothing. Soon it would speak from some secret wound, secreting senseless squander. Tales of strange voyages to enigmatic climes would pour forth; unmoored, rudderless. Suddenly, he felt himself all at sea: drowning in the wide inky-black yonder, dissolving like sugar in absinthe. Giant crabs threw him sidelong glances. Tentacles coiled, vine-like, around his legs and testicles. Mermaids, following some ancient sushi recipe, were wrapping his erect penis in seaweed. And just out of earshot, the unspeakable sound of behemoths rutting amongst the flotsam and jetsam of idioms, both dead and yet unborn. Somewhere, impossible worlds were being mapped, somehow — and there he was bound, on his bouncy bed, with his impossible words, striped pajamas and incarnadined buttocks. Shivering all over from sheer delight, he snuggled up under the eiderdown down, down, down…
“Are we all comfy now? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time…”
She paused for effect. He was hooked: reel him in.
“…there was a man called Valentin. Valentin Vermot. Just like you.”
Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.
All eyes were on Emilie Pierrade, Marquise de Villette, who had just arrived, fashionably late, at the lavish publishing party. Her absence had haunted the labyrinthine corridors of the château for several long hours. Speculation was rife among industry movers and shakers. Had she got the date wrong? wondered Philiberte Moreau. Was it a publicity stunt? wondered Théodule Meuniaire. Did she take a wrong turn at Crépy-en-Valois? wondered Sostène Zanzibar. Smoldering behind a gold-tipped Sobranie, Emilie looked more glamorous than ever, in her crisp Clarice Lispector frock and speculative realist boots. Her neck was adorned with pearls of great worth and love bites that resembled those wild strawberries you happen upon by the roadside.
“Marquise, vous n’êtes pas Villette pour des prunes,” boomed Gabriel Josipovici, before making a big show of kissing her hand in the manner of Mitteleuropa, interrupting a conversation which had meandered from Ingeborg Bachmann to Stig Saeterbakken by way of László Krasznahorkai’s pop-up mint garden.
Sidonie de Nananaire rushed to greet her distinguished guest. Valentin charted the progress of her signature exploding bouffant across the grand ballroom. A few minutes later, having ascertained that no one was watching, he followed in the footsteps of the self-styled neo-rombière.
“Allez ma chérie — mwah, mwah — tell us all about him,” said the hostess, “on veut tout savoir. Tout.”
“Ladies,” said Emilie, hugging a giant golden dildo, “meet Jay Kühlotts, my new fiancé.”
They all went into raptures, gasping and mock-swooning like a shrill of schoolgirls.
“So what’s he really like, underneath?” inquired Philiberte Moreau, when all the whooping had subsided. She increasingly resembled an approximation of one of her own doodles, and Emilie was unsure whether this was a good thing or not.
“Je ne vais pas énumérer toutes ses qualités,” she replied, trying not to appear too smug, “mais je crois que j’ai vraiment de la chance.” She seemed to dwell on each word as though it were a world in which she might dwell. Forever.
Entranced, Valentin scrutinized his estranged wife from a safe distance. Like the past, she was another country now — out of bounds. She had returned herself to a place that precluded complete recognition. A place before them; before him, but mostly after. Valentin was rediscovering Emilie in her strangeness, bathed in an otherworldly glow. This disquieting experience reminded him of standing outside his childhood home and feeling that he was haunting himself.
He was haunting himself again.
As soon as Emilie spotted Valentin, all the other women turned round and melted away, out of politeness or embarrassment. For a few seconds, they just stood there, facing each other.
“Yes,” she said, breaking the ice with the same cruelty with which she had broken his heart, “I do that bunny nose thing. And, yes, I put on a mean moose voice — so, sue me. I’m blessed with honeyed hair and bee-stung lips, and wear purple panties like no other. All that is a given I have taken away. I’m in love with Jay now. When you look at me, your eyes light up like the 45,037 bulbs on the Plaza hotel in Las Vegas, where I wore a white see-through pencil skirt to our midnight wedding. Your heart still skips like a trip of jackrabbits in the Arizona desert, where we carved our names on a bench close to the abyss. But when I look at you, well, I just feel dead inside. It has to be like this and no other way; otherwise it wouldn’t be art, would it? I’m in love with Jay now: I feed him mini Milano cookies and give him snug harbor. Anyway, I was never quite all there, was I? Long before we met, I was a character in one of your stories — ‘Sweet Fanny Adams.’ Young man goes looking for girl of his dreams in order to break up straight away. ‘At last,’ he says upon meeting her, ‘I have found my sense of loss.’ See? I haven’t forgotten. I started off as fiction, and to fiction I have returned. Our relationship was only a movement towards my disappearance. I am your sense of loss: the self-effacing subject of your work…”
“Emilie…” said Valentin.
“When you say my name, you retain nothing of me but my absence. And nobody is present behind these words I speak.”
And with these words she was gone. The celebrity translator hailed a young waiter who was naked save for a polka dot bow tie. She picked a glass from the tray he bandied about with the recklessness of a seasoned tightrope walker. Her International Klein Blue eyes lingered on the departing buttocks as they threaded their way through the throng. She swished her drink around in the glass, absentmindedly. The waiter swayed to the cool clinking of the Zizek-shaped ice cubes. She swished some more.
Sidonie de Nananaire sidled up to her. “So, how did you two meet?”
Chiselled of chop, shiny of shoe and striped of sock, Jay Kühlotts was not one to be shushed lightly. He exuded natural authority. It was in his stature, posture, and ancestry; the cut of his suits and crispness of his shirts. It was in the size of his bank balance, the knobs on his timepiece and, above all, the bulge in his trousers. The latter was never openly acknowledged: like an eclipse, it could not be observed directly. The bulge was a given; its hegemonic presence always lurking in the background, just out of sight, or else glimpsed out of the corner of the eye — a black shape moving underwater. It hummed in unison with the air conditioning, an integral part of the ambient music of the corporate universe. No, Jay Kühlotts was not one to be shushed lightly. He had been headhunted by the American multinational that provided technical support for concentration-camp management during the war. As a proud citizen of a nation which had turned collaboration into government policy, this was a marriage made in heaven. Kühlotts lorded it over board meetings with a patrician sense of entitlement everyone sensed he was entitled to. With his property portfolio, gold cuff links and sports cars, he fancied himself as an enlightened despot, although he would never have put it in those terms, of course. He was a stickler for democracy, only imposing his own views once his colleagues had had ample opportunity to expose theirs. No, Jay Kühlotts really was not one to be shushed lightly. In fact, he was not one to be shushed at all. Yet shushed he had been, and nothing would ever be the same again. Nothing. Granted, it was not the loudest of shushes, not by a long chalk or any stretch of the imagination. More of a hush, really, if that. In truth, half a hush would probably cover it. And then some.
Yet this curt exhalation — this ill wind of change — had reverberated around the table like a violence without measure. Kühlotts played it over and over again in his mind, and each time it sounded more like a guillotine: shh! He began to wonder if it had not just been a loud sniffle, a muffled sneeze, or even a mere figment of his imagination. Confused, he made another attempt to get a word in edgeways, but the same young woman motioned him to hold his peace once more. The look of utter disbelief on his face was something to behold. He felt like Nicolae Ceausescu when his balcony speech was rudely interrupted by chanting, or Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square, just before its toppling.
“Madame, for all I know you may be the best translator in France,” he said, “but that’s no excuse for…”
Emilie Pierrade raised a manicured index finger to her puckered lips before resuming her conversation with the man sitting to her right. Still in full flow, she unbuttoned her blouse and cupped a pert breast out of her scalloped brassiere. She let it defy gravity for a few minutes, while leafing through the thick brochure in front of her.
“Hang on, hang on… Ah, here’s the passage!” she said, and without even really looking, reached out and placed her hand on the back of Kühlott’s head, slowly bringing him level with her exposed mammary gland. Holding him tight by the scruff of the neck, she smeared his mouth across her nipple and round and round the areola. Thus embosomed, he had no other option but to suckle down at her teat. He did so greedily and soon closed his eyes.
“There, there,” she whispered, running her fingers through his hair, “all better now. The Marquise is here. Shh… Shh… Right. Where were we? Ah, yes, that passage on page 707…”
“In any event,” she said, doing her trademark bunny nose, “you’re not hard enough to take me up the backside.” By not she meant not ever. There was a finality to the sentence that left little room for interpretation. Valentin watched her pick some fluff off the pink roll-neck she had just folded on the bed. The double bed that might as well have been two singles. He wondered if a woman lost all respect for her man — and a fortiori her husband — as soon as the threat of anal rape was removed from the equation. Perhaps it should always be lurking in the background, a mute reminder of the possibility of impossibility. That was in San Francisco.
On one of the corners of rue des Abbesses and rue Aristide Briand stands a cafe called La Villa. The decor could — and indeed shall — be described as gentlemen’s club stroke colonial chic. African masks look down, with long faces, from dark oak panelling. The lamps are always dimmed, as though some hallowed mystery had to be preserved from the cold light of day. In the first section, there are twelve black leather armchairs on either side of six black round tables. Valentin faces the armchair where Emilie once sat, with him, by the window. It is impossible to say for sure if it is the exact same one, or if the armchairs have been moved around. At bottom, it is a question of belief. Valentin believes, with every fibre of his being, that this is the armchair in which Emilie is no longer sitting. He believes that she has left something behind. He believes that her buttocks are haunting the leather seat — that everything must leave some kind of mark, for fuck’s sake. The distance separating the armchair in which Valentin is sitting from the luxury villa where Kühlotts is feeling Emilie’s breasts and cunt is 787.2 kilometres. A distance, his mobile also informs him, that he could — and indeed shall — cover by car in seven hours and thirty-five minutes. He pinches out the screen repeatedly to magnify the satellite picture. He is a missile, zeroing in — past fields and forests — on the Med’s answer to Southfork. Emilie slinks out to the pool in a sky-blue bikini and wide-brim sun hat, a slim volume dangling from her right hand. The distance separating the armchair in which Valentin is sitting from the armchair in which Emilie is no longer sitting is absolute. Valentin stands up and walks towards the empty armchair. 787.2 kilometres away, Kühlotts is feeling Emilie’s breasts and cunt. In five steps, he should be there. Seven hours and thirty-five minutes away, Emilie slinks out to the pool in a sky-blue bikini and wide-brim sun hat, a slim volume dangling from her right hand. With each step, the cafe grows wider and the armchair recedes. The universe is expanding faster and faster, pushing everything away; tearing everyone apart.
When Valentin Vermot put pen to paper that day, he found it difficult to concentrate. His mind kept wandering, although no source of distraction was immediately detectable. No motorbikes mooing past down below. No high heels peppering the pavement with desire. No children shouting merry profanities on their way home from school. Yet his mind kept wandering, though he still knew not where. He focused on his mind focusing, but it did not seem to be going anywhere at all. Having drawn a blank — by applying layer upon layer of Tipp-Ex — he proceeded to make a point, until the nib of his pen had pierced the near virginal sheet of paper, which only a few crossed-out words had thus far desecrated. He picked up a printout of an e-mail Emilie had sent him eight years earlier, on Sunday 30, May 2004 at 9:26 pm:
I LOVE YOU
I WANT YOU
I NEED YOU
I ADORE YOU
I MISS YOU
I AM OBSESSED WITH YOU
I ADMIRE YOU
I WORSHIP YOU
I CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT YOU
Having read it, he reached for the Tipp-Ex:
I LOVE YOU
I WANT YOU
I NEED YOU
I ADORE YOU
I MISS YOU
I AM OBSESSED WITH YOU
I ADMIRE YOU
I WORSHIP YOU
I CANNOT LIVE WIThOUT YOU
The universe was expanding, tearing them apart.
Are those spots of blood he spots on her riding breeches? Not spots per se, perhaps, or even — upon closer inspection — spots at all, for that matter, which is not to say, of course, that the breeches are ipso facto spotless. Far from it, in fact. Spot-free, yes, probably — possibly — but not spotless, no, on account of those flecks — or are they spots? — all down the inside of her left thigh. Was any cupping involved, he wonders? Did his testes roll around in her hand like wine in a taster’s palate? If so, was that before slipping on her latex gloves? Did she apply a little pressure at any point, possibly towards the end? Did it remind him of the way she squeezes the bulb on her vintage atomizer? Did he reflect, however briefly, upon the transformation of liquid into fine spray? Did he marvel, if only for a split second, at that small miracle? Did he picture her in a mist of musk and black silk stockings? At what stage did she place her left foot on the milking stool? Was that before slipping on her latex gloves? Did she assume this position on practical or aesthetic grounds? Was it a bit of both? Did he read anything into it, and if not, why not? Did he think, on reflection, that he should have done, and if so, why? Would he say that the adoption of this posture accounts (at least in part) for the presence of those spots (or flecks) on her riding breeches? Was it, shall we say, a contributory factor? Did he witness the appearance of a pattern on her left thigh? Was it like a slowly exposed action painting caught on Polaroid? Was it like a time-lapse of a newborn’s features morphing, over the years, into a death mask? Is the corpse the truth of the biological individual? Was it at this juncture that he slipped on her latex gloves?
The Marquise went out at seven. It could have been at six, of course, or even at five; indeed it usually was. That day, however, it was at seven, on account of her husband being frightfully late. Consistent is the life he leads, said the maid, who often likened him to the ever punctual pater familias in Mary Poppins. You could set the time by his comings and goings; indeed everybody did. At five o’ clock sharp, the maid would start dusting, scrubbing, mopping and ironing as if propelled by the velocity of a hard day’s work. At five on the dot, Madame la Marquise — freshly abluted and made up — stood poised to greet her husband like a domestic goddess who would never dream of spending the afternoon in the company of impossibly young bell boys with the stamina of Duracell bunnies. No, it really was not like him at all, said the maid, shaking her head; totally out of character. Lost in thought, the Marquise gazed out of the window, blinking into the blinding light that was streaming in. She was fiddling with her pearl necklace as if it were a rosary. You always know where you are with him, said the maid. And what about without him? Lost tout court, the Marquise gazed out of the window, blinking into the blinding light that was streaming in from long, long ago. I have seen the light and now I cannot see. She was fiddling with her pearl necklace as if rolling testicles around between thumb and forefinger. Her late husband was in fact so late now that it could only be too late. He would never be coming home again, not least, of course, because he was lying in a pool of blood with a gaping hole where his heart once was — or should have been. Dinner would be ruined now.
Seven hours and thirty-five minutes later, Emilie slunk out to the pool in a sky-blue bikini and wide-brim sun hat. She screamed, dropping a slim volume by Raymond Roussel into the crimson water. She screamed louder still when she caught sight of Valentin standing there, holding a notebook. He raised his index finger to his lips: “I will cause you to be absent,” he said, “I will annihilate you.” He opened the notebook and wrote This Woman over and over again.
When he finally looked up, she had disappeared. Valentin was tired after driving 787.2 kilometres. He walked into the villa and fell asleep on a leather sofa. He dreamt that Emilie was pregnant with his novel.
“It’s been in here for more than nine months,” she said pointing to her belly, “but the bloody thing won’t come out.”
He woke up still sleeping to find himself in bed, wearing his striped pajamas. He was trying to read a big picture book, but the pages were all stuck together. He threw a tantrum and Emilie had to smack his bottom in the end. A man wearing shiny shoes and striped socks was watching. Valentin caught sight of his gold cuff links as he left the room. Once Valentin had stopped sobbing, Emilie tucked him in, picked up the big picture book and started reading out loud:
“Once upon a time…”
She paused for effect. He was hooked.
“…there was a man called Valentin. Valentin Vermot. Just like you. He thought he was haunted by a ghost, but his ex wife assured him that there was no such thing. ‘There are no ghosts,’ she said. ‘There are no ghosts.’”
Valentin opened his eyes. He was all alone, but Emilie’s voice was still ringing in his ears. There are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts…