“So…” said Carol, and grimaced.
“So what?” said William, abstractedly.
“So why do people start every sentence with the word “So”?”
“I’ve no idea,” he said.
She was sifting through the mail while he was reading the Guardian, as per their breakfast routine.
“Two here from your agent,” she went on. “Listen to this. “So I read your novel Return to Cocoa Yard and enjoyed it very much. He goes on to say nice things but why must he begin with “So”? He does so more than once.”
“At least he goes on to say nice things, that’s the main thing,” said William, hoping this would put the matter to bed but fearing Carol was now on a roll.
“It’s like Irene at school,” she said, “”So I went to buy a new dress at the weekend,” “So I’m trying on this nice flowery number in Debenhams…” It’s so fucking irritating.”
“I know. So fucking irritating.”
“And as for upward inflection don’t get me started!”
“I won’t,” he said.
“I mean why must every sentence sound like a question? I’m not stupid, I do understand things, why can’t it be a statement rather than a suggestion implying I don’t understand?”
“It doesn’t beat me, it’s another import from America that people here think is a must-have.”
“Point of fact I think upward inflection was invented in Australia,” he said, finishing his coffee and rising to get another.
“Whatever,” she perorated, “It’s fucking irritating and pretentious.”
Pretentious. It was one of her favourite words and it was mostly at breakfast when she was going through the mail that it tended to surface.
William flicked on the kettle and stared through the kitchen window at the grey world outside, thinking it was time he mowed the lawn, a job he hated, not so much the doing it but more the dodging cat shit and coiling up the cable and putting everything away in the shed with the spiders. The thought irked him and he was irked at being irked, like he was irked at himself for asking Carol to go through his mail in the first place. It was two years ago when his writing career was going well, and he’d asked her to be his kind-of secretary, partly because he felt he needed one and partly to supplement her income as a classroom assistant and he could put it down in his tax returns. Yes, things were on the up in those days, in his career and in their relationship. At one time there was even talk of marriage. The job mainly entailed opening his correspondence with his agent, dealing with fanmail (as he liked to term it although she probably thought that was “pretentious”) or missives from the ALCS or Writers’ Guild, but had somehow and with no protestations from him developed into opening other items of mail besides those appertaining to his work. As he stirred his cup he checked the kitchen clock and saw it was still half an hour before she left for work and he could get on with his writing. The realisation caused him to agitate the coffee more vigorously and almost clatter the spoon into the sink.
“This one’s interesting though,” she said, as he returned to the table with his replenished cup. “From a lady called Michelle whom you met on a train.”
For reasons he’d only later rationalise, William knew straight away who the lady was but had to pretend to the contrary. “A lady I met on a train?”
“She says you were very kind to her, helping her with her bags and whatnot, and it turns out she’s reading your book.”
“Ah. Yes I remember. I didn’t know she was called Michelle.”
“Michelle Firth,” said Carol.
“Right,” said William, knowing and fearing what was coming.
“So what’s this about you writing her a note?”
This was yet another of the many occasions where William somehow found himself on the back foot, knowing the truth was the best option but feeling the compulsion to lie. He knew he hadn’t done anything wrong bar perhaps feeling sorry that the lady on the train fell asleep when he’d rather they continued to talk, but there was this awkward feeling that the omission of that detail would inevitably fester in Carol’s mind and betray him in some way. And so, while knowing Carol would sense instinctively that he was leaving something out, William began to explain that he was on the train after a successful talk on “The Art of Storytelling” when a lady took the seat opposite and was flustered and panicked having only just made it before the train left, and he helped her put her luggage on the rail, and they’d got talking a little and he realised she was reading his book. As for the note, he explained, he saw she’d lost an earring and didn’t want to wake her so placed it in the book.
“Seems a strange thing to do,” Carol said.
“I know,” he said, “But like I say, I didn’t want to wake her, nor did I want to come straight out with it that I was the author of the book she was reading and how that was such a coincidence. That’s all there is to it.”
“So what did you say? In the note?”
“Nothing. I just said what I said to you, I didn’t want to wake her and PS I was glad she was enjoying my book. That’s all. To have said it was my book would’ve I think been egotistical, don’t you?”
When Carol arrived at work she was met in the staff room as usual by the teaching fraternity, all psyching up for the day ahead and swapping stories about hormonal teenagers and their simple desire to just get through the day unscathed. Pete Threadgold, English, wanted Carol to help him with some writing exercises for his Year 11 group and while he explained his plan she listened and nodded appropriately, trying to shrug off what was really focusing her mind.
“That’s all,” William had said. He’d merely helped the woman with her bags and made small-talk before noticing she was reading his book and he hadn’t wanted to be egotistic so had left a note before getting off the train. On the surface, she supposed, that made sense, but there was something subtextual going on, not least that he’d put a note in the book while she slept, which however you looked at it seemed slightly incongruous and even invasive. He’d actually touched her book, he’d actually picked it up and put a note inside along with the earring. It just didn’t sit right. In her mind, touching the book was touching her.
“Everything OK?” asked Pete, seeing she was elsewhere.
“Fine,” she said, but as they left the staff room and headed down the corridor to Year 11 she knew that her use of that word was nothing but perfunctory.
Their relationship was faltering. They’d begun so happily, indulging their shared passion for travel. It was only three months in when they were booking their first city break to Tallinn, for no other reason than he’d said it was somewhere he wanted to tick off. After that they’d ticked off Vienna, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, Moscow and in fact most of Europe before venturing further afield and going long-haul to Nassau, New York and Florida. It was in Florida when marriage was mooted, and she’d bought him flowers because he’d said he’d always wanted to receive flowers yet women don’t send them to men in general. She’d also bought him an encyclopaedia to help him with his writing (no internet in those days) and he’d pressed one of the flowers therein, on the page that contained the words Florida and Flower. A red rose, which was still there but now flat and beige as a biscuit, dead enough to crumble in her hand. She’d checked.
The wedding, of course, never happened, and she’d often wished she’d pressed him on the idea because what was proposed in a drunkenly happy moment in Miami was talked about in the days to follow, but gradually nothing concrete got ledgered. And as the weeks and months and years passed it inevitably got forgotten altogether, even though they’d bought a house together and lived and often laughed in it.
And then there was sex. It used to be so wonderful, he did things to her that she’d never known before. She’d had lots of sexual encounters before William, but none of them were anything to write home about and indeed some of them she deeply regretted. With William it was something she’d never regret and always enjoyed. Lately, however, he’d seemed somewhat distracted, which couldn’t always be put down to his depression.
And she knew he masturbated. He didn’t know she knew but she’d seen the evidence. She’d never asked him about it. She’d always wanted to but resisted for fear of the next question being whom he was thinking of when he was doing it? It wasn’t her, she suspected. So who was it? Who was he thinking of today? The lady on the train? With this dreadful thought in her mind, and knowing she’d deliberately omitted to say that while there was no address on the letter there was a mobile number written on the reverse, she entered the classroom with Pete and fashioned a smile for Year 11.
William had taken his fourth coffee of the morning up to the spare room where he wrote. He’d opened his laptop and a KitKat and prepared to write. But nothing came, and now, three hours later, he realised he hadn’t written a single word. Frustrated and inexplicably angry, he pushed back his chair, put his hands behind his head and yawned. Why had his life gone tits-up? Two years ago he was doing OK, selling his books and making a decent living. But then he’d had his breakdown, for no discernible reason he just began to spiral, the feeling of bleakness pervading, the utter despair that came from nowhere binding his ankles and dragging him down to depths like a dead weight. Carol had been understanding and he was grateful for it, and eventually agreed to see a doctor. She’d gone along with him for his first appointment, for support, and again he appreciated it.
Doggedly, he’d taken the anti-depressants the doctor doled out and sure, after a few weeks the symptoms abated, yet somehow and inexplicably the dog remained and resurfaced occasionally, and at the same time bred the awful dissatisfaction with his life and the inability to write anything of substance after Return to Cocoa Yard. And dissatisfaction with Carol too. The more concerned she became the more irritated he was and the more insecure she became. He knew it but he couldn’t help it. And now, this morning, he had an awful feeling there was another episode coming his way, an episode in which he lacked belief in his writing, belief in himself and belief in their relationship.
He gazed despondently out of the window, which looked down on the same scene as that from the kitchen downstairs. He grimaced at the bad haircut that claimed to be a lawn – bald patches from the long dry summer but now sodden from recent downpours. Knowing he ought to replace this moment of procrastination with something useful like mowing it, he decided instead to masturbate. While doing that he could feel good about himself, or feel that someone, and not Carol, felt good about him.
When he’d finished and destroyed the evidence in the way he’d come to believe water-tight, he went back to his desk intending to put down his thoughts. But only now did he realise there was something different permeating them today, and before too long he was going downstairs to look in the drawer where Carol filed his mail.
He took out the letter and read it for the first time then read it again, knowing he was searching for something between the lines. But there was nothing, he feared. Until just as he was going to file it back, he finally turned over the page and saw the mobile number the sleeper on the train had written. The sleeper on the train he wanted to wake up to keep talking. The sleeper on the train who had taken in the words of his book and taken her place in his fantasy.
“So…” he said, and smiled.