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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Minus Exquisite
A short story by SJ McNulty










A melody for the idly besotted (or A love story)

1.

He saw it coming (or Ben)

Ben lost the girl of his dreams, the apple of his eye, his truest love, so to speak, the one and the only, dearest, darling, sweetheart, so to speak,to a local rock star. He maintained for quite a while that he saw it coming.

April (or What she eventually found)

April liked and had and knew style. She was on the lookout for the most stylish young man in town. She was always looking and always waiting. The town was a small, cheerless town, so she was somewhat content with what she eventually found in the local rock star.

Not at all (or Not a trace)

Ben didn’t know what to do. He was not stylish. He often tried to be stylish. He stood looking at himself in the mirror for an hour. Did the mirror even once reply, ‘Stylish’? Not at all. It is a difficult thing to appropriate a stylish facade if there is not a trace of the stylish blood in you.

Enough for April (or Pure and simple)

Ben was convinced his mind was above average. He read a broad-sheet newspaper once a month. He even read the letters page and the abundant business part. He thought his mind would be enough for April. But the local rock star was one step ahead. The local rock star read a broad-sheet newspaper once a month also. (The local rock star may have been a mere local rock star and not a global rock star or anything such, but face it, Ben, he was at least a rock star, pure and simple, and he had that going for him. Ben thought April was more suited to the role of global rock star’s girlfriend, not local rock star’s girlfriend. Local rock star’s girlfriend appeared to be too undemanding an office for her. Perhaps she was making the most of what was there at that particular moment, Ben supposed.)

One exceptionally cold month (or The wonderful coincidence)

Ben and April became good friends because a wonderful coincidence meant that they purchased and wore exactly the same scarf one exceptionally cold month.

‘I could not believe it,’ Ben told his friend Wesley Tickles. ‘She came up to me and she was wearing exactly the same scarf and she was smiling and she said I had style which I never thought I had and I still don’t think I have even though she said I had it.’

A conversation that Ben and April had (or Next Saturday)

BEN: I haven’t been up a mountain in a long time.

APRIL: Neither have I.

BEN: Do you think mountains have changed since we were last up one?

APRIL: I wouldn’t say so. Things like mountains don’t usually change much.

BEN: We should go up a mountain together.

APRIL: What for?

BEN: For no reason. We could just go up a mountain.

APRIL: I suppose that would be fun.

BEN: Next Saturday. We’ll get up really early and meet up and go up a mountain.

APRIL: I have to study next Saturday.

Next Saturday (or Cram)

Next Saturday, April put herself through a dry and arduous day of studying. It was something she was used to doing. April studied a lot. Sometimes she studied so much that it made her very weak and she couldn’t stand up properly. She had to sit down and when she was sitting down she would try to cram some more studying in until eventually she would fall asleep ompletely exhausted.

Ben and April (or Champion cocoa)

It was a Monday or Tuesday in October and the date was either the tenth or the eleventh or maybe it was something else entirely. But on this day Ben joined April for a cup of tea in a little café although April drank coffee because that was her thing (later they would the pair of them champion cocoa) and it was just like something romantic you would read about in a book or you would see in a film except Ben was unsettled because he had planned to reveal his true feelings, but sitting next to them in the café was one of his old schoolmates who now worked on a building site nearby and he was there with his building site colleagues and they were having their lunch and making brassy conversation with Ben and staring at April and making comments under their breaths and the whole thing was uncomfortable and untimely.

April had not even wanted to be there at all. She had only met with Ben to be polite. Really she wanted to be at home studying because she had a very highly important exam the next day.

They stayed for one cup each and then they split.

Yep (or A pretty way of being)

Ben realised he loved April very early on. Long before they had even met because of their similar scarves. He had seen her walking around. She tended to walk around a lot. He tended to spot her walking around a lot.He thought she looked amazing. She didn’t look like anybody else. She wore wonderful outfits. She had a magical genius with fashion at her disposal. There was not a girl anywhere who could touch her. Ben hoped that the other men who spotted her walking around were turned off by her strange and showy way of dressing. His hopes were dashed instantly of course. He would never be alone with this particular crush. A strange way of dressing was never going to disguise a pretty way of being. Every one of Ben’s male acquaintances had been stirred by her in some way.

‘Have you seen that girl with the mad clothes?’

Ben nodded, ‘Yep!’

‘What about that girl I always see walking around, you know the one I’m talking about?’

Ben nodded, ‘Yep!’

‘God almighty. Look at her over there.’

Ben nodded, ‘Yep!’

A clutter (or Slightly accelerated)

April seemed much older than her years would propound and she was quite aware of this. As a result of being aware of her slightly accelerated maturity, she had a habit of condescension. She despised this part of her. She would suddenly find herself in a clutter of condescension and she would feel dreadful. She was not a rude individual, but she believed that this was how she was perceived because of her tendency to condescend. To be fair, the people April usually found herself in the company of were not exactly her equals in the maturity or intelligence categories, so often they did not even know they were being treated condescendingly. Ben took it all on the chin.

The Perpetually Waywards (or Not anywhere near as good as)

Ben always wanted to be a member of the Perpetually Waywards. Since he was sixteen years old. First he wanted to play drums for them. Then he wanted to be the bassist. Then he wanted to be their guitarist. And finally he found the courage somewhere to want to be the frontman. Although the Perpetually Waywards were just your average local rock band and not anywhere near as good as the Foolish Coalition or Ozu or the Sick Comedy Night (and not even a match for lesser local groups such as Alcoholic Chinaman or Maniac Toddler), there was something about being in this band which would have meant a lot to Ben. He felt that the only people in the world he really needed to impress were those who lived in his hometown, so the position of local rock star seemed tantalising.

The Perpetually Waywards: Live at Dodie Heron’s Bar (or About fifty)

Wesley Tickles got into a fight with a hairy man of about fifty at a Perpetually Waywards gig. The fight started because Wesley had told the hairy man that he was an assassin sent over from Madagascar to kill him and the hairy man took it seriously. While all of this was going on, April and her friend Brooke were on the dancefloor dancing blissfully as the Waywards were right in the middle of performing their crowd-pleaser ‘Let’s get so high you wouldn’t believe’, and Ben was at the bar wrestling with the concept of revealing his true feelings for April/to April as he did on so many occasions and also humming along to ‘Let’s get so high you wouldn’t believe’ which was a song he liked very much.

When Ben noticed the altercation between Wesley and the hairy man of about fifty, he immediately went to see what was going on. Both the hairy man and Wesley were ushered out of the venue and Ben had to follow them outside because he was a concerned soul who did not appreciate trouble and especially did not appreciate it when a friend of his was involved. The thought of April on the dancefloor dancing blissfully to music at the mercy of many young fellows (without an honourable intention among them it has to be said) bounced violently around in his mind as he walked out the door and with lots of shouting and grappling and yawping going on.

Ben’s body (or Honda)

Ben stopped smoking at the age of eighteen. The very last cigarette he smoked caused in him a terrible sickness and he was vomiting for an hour afterwards. One day Ben decided to take a smoke to hopefully get his mind off April. He wanted to think about something else for once. There were so many other things in the world to think about and he felt he was missing out on something by thinking solely about April all of the time. He bought a box of ten and also a lighter which had a picture of a motorcycle on it. A Honda. He made the cigarette come alight in his mouth and he took a tremendous puff from it. The smoke made Ben’s body feel different. It had been such a long time since he’d smoked a cigarette that his body had forgotten the sensation. It made him feel good, and he smoked several more, but he quickly found that his mind could never be empty of April no matter how many cigarettes he smoked.

Never give all the heart (or Wise up)

A poem by William Butler Yeats was one of the reasons Ben hesitated so frequently with April. ‘Never give all the heart’ it was called. It was the only poem he had ever read more than once apart from at school. It put him directly into a bold and defiant mood. It was that sort of poem. There was something about it that made him want to stand up strong and be counted as someone who was not to be walked all over. He read the poem everyday to himself and then when he’d finished reading it he would go out into the world with a brave and impermeable look on his face. He was not about to make a fool of himself for anybody. Anybody. (Wise up, Ben, you would surely have advised him if you had been present to do so.)

April’s pest (or Read between the lines)

Ben knew where April lived, but he never called to her house. He did not wish to ever meet a member of April’s family. He did not want to be in any way tagged as ‘April’s friend’ or ‘April’s shadow’ or ‘April’s pest’ and he believed that at least one of these titles would certainly be put to use if ever her family became aware of his existence.

They would be able to read between the lines surely.

Ben was with April in the shopping centre one day. They were just walking around. April’s brother, Jason, was coming out of a shop that sold sportswear when he noticed his sister. He rushed over to say hello. Ben hid behind a religious pamphleteer.

Jarlath Blake (or Henry James)

When Ben’s favourite bookshop closed down, he became very melancholy. He had been buying all of his books in this bookshop nearly all of his life. The old women who worked in the bookshop knew his face better than they knew the faces of some of their kin. The shop sold second-hand books and these were the books Ben preferred because sometimes they had names written on them and sometimes cog notes and sometimes drawings and sometimes little personal observations that the then owner felt were significant enough to be written down. Ben very rarely read the books he bought. He bought so many of them that there simply was no time to read them all. But he enjoyed flicking through the books in the hope of finding a clue to who the previous owner had been. Most of the time he found nothing and the book then quickly topped a pile.

One of the books Ben actually got around to reading was ‘The Aspern Papers’ by Henry James because it was reasonably short-looking. It was a book that should really have improved his mind considerably, but unfortunately it failed to do so. (It is unfair to say that Ben neglected to refine himself intellectually. There was of course the broad-sheet

newspaper once a month, but there was also a biography of The Who which, he noted, had previously belonged to Jarlath Blake, and this book certainly made Ben a little more insightful about things in general.)

The shop closed down, and Ben stopped buying books.

April silent (or Thirty-eight times)

April showed one of her stories to Ben. He was shattered emotionally when she handed it to him. He felt she was trusting him with something that was immensely personal to her. It was as though she had presented him with her diary. He took the story and he read it thirty-eight times. He would have read it thirty-nine times, but by that time she was insisting for it to be returned.

‘What did you think then?’ she asked nervously upon return of the story.Ben smiled and stared at her forehead. It was his favourite forehead in the world and he always found himself staring at it.

‘Well, what did you think?’ April asked again, very nervous now.

Ben didn’t say anything for a moment. He had been incredibly moved by the story she had given to him. It was perhaps the greatest single thing he had ever read, even better than William Butler Yeats, even better than Henry James, even better than the biography of The Who. He was greatly impressed and he wanted to make his approval mean the whole world to her.

‘I thought it was completely and utterly and absolutely brilliant,’ Ben said slowly and carefully.

But by the time he said this, it was too late. The lengthy gap without a response led April to suspect he was molly-coddling her.

‘I don’t believe you,’ she said.

‘I’m serious,’ said Ben. ‘I thought it was amazing.’

‘You couldn’t think that. I know you better than you think.’

‘What’s this? Am I not allowed to be positive?’

‘I’m not sure if I want you to be positive. I want you to be constructive

more than anything else.’

‘I don’t understand this at all now. I give you more genuine approval than I’ve ever given to anybody or anything ever before and you don’t want it.’

‘You must have criticisms though.’

‘Not really, no. I thought it was just terrific.’

‘No, you don’t.’

‘I swear.’

‘How would you criticise it? What do you think is wrong with it?’

‘Nothing at all.’

‘Come on, Ben. Tell me the truth, will you? I can take it. I’m asking for it. Look at me. I’ll take any criticism. I don’t just want for you to tell me that you think it’s brilliant and leave it at that.’

‘I really do not have anything to add.’

‘You’re just getting on my nerves, now.’

‘Well, I’m very sorry, but that’s just the way it is.’

Then, April silent.

‘Oh, so now I’m getting the silent treatment, yeah?’

April silent.

‘You’re going to ignore everything I say just because I thought your story was brilliant, is that it?’

April silent.

‘Talk about childish, April.’

‘I’m not being childish. Well, maybe I am being childish, but all I want is one constructive comment. One thing that you thought was wrong with the story.’

‘One thing?’

‘No more than one.’

‘Okay, I have one criticism. And don’t start giving off to me or anything. You asked for this, okay.’

‘I know I asked for it. Fire away!’

‘Okay, then. And remember this is only the most minor quibble because there are not too many quibbles available to me anyway. So then, the quibble, here is what the minor quibble is: I thought that you used the word exquisite maybe a little too much.’

‘What?’

‘The word exquisite. You used it too much. It was like it was on every other page.’

‘The actual title of the story, Ben, was ‘Wholly Exquisite’.

‘Yes, I know, but the story was way too wholly exquisite. I was gasping for breath, April. You didn’t have to use it that much. You could have went out and bought a thesaurus or something. Just because you’ve got the word in the title doesn’t mean you have to use it so much in the story.

Jack Kerouac didn’t even use the word road as much in ‘On the Road’.

April again silent.

‘Apart from that,’ Ben continued. ‘Apart from exquisite. It was just terrific, as I said. You didn’t put a foot wrong.’

He was being playful. The exquisite thing was a jape. But April took it more seriously than Ben could ever have imagined. The word exquisite would haunt her for most of the rest of her life. She would avoid using it at all costs, and whenever it came up in conversation or in print, she would feel suddenly uneasy.

Blue angel (or April’s memory index)

April loved to make Christmas decorations. It was something she had done since a child and she had not been able to put the hobby to rest even though she was often ridiculed for it by her family. She began to make her decorations as early as September because this gave her plenty of time to devise and make sketches of what decorations exactly she was going to make. She looked on September and October as pre-production, November and the first half of December as production, and the latter half of December as post-production (all post-production comprised of really was gathering her decorations together and storing them in a safe place for next Christmas).

April’s favourite decoration that she ever made was an angel that she put together when she was only nine years old. She made it out of tin foil and cardboard and all the usual household fragments, nothing completely noteworthy about the tools she used, but the memory of painting the angel’s dress blue on a Wednesday afternoon after school with Sooty and Sweep on the television and it bucketing down outside and her father reading his newspaper was still to be found in the uppermost quarter of April’s memory index.

What it’s all about (or Big gulps)

‘You see, this is what it’s all about,’ said Ben. ‘It’s all about cocoa.’ ‘I think maybe you are right,’ answered April, taking a big gulp, and it was lovely. It made her toes feel warm. There was nothing to beat warm toes.

Shea Sheridan (or The Storming)

April couldn’t believe it when Shea Sheridan, the Perpetually Waywards’ frontman came over and sat beside her and started talking to her. The band had just played a storming set in Dodie Heron’s, and April, who had been looking around everywhere for Ben and his friend Wesley without success, had found a seat at the bar where she sat alone while her friend Brooke continued on the dancefloor with a tall lad who was dressed to kill and preparing for a tale to tell the next day.

April turned around and saw that Shea Sheridan had taken the stool beside her. He had ordered a Jack Dee and coke and he was taking pride in his rather cool way of sitting at the bar. Shea Sheridan was the most handsome and stylish man April had ever seen. She was perturbed when he began talking to her.

‘You have the greatest clothes,’ he told her. ‘You’ve got too much style for this place.’

April, normally not easily overwhelmed, became a bundle of nerves then

‘Thank you,’ she quivered, and giggled.

Shea had the Che Guevara look down to near enough perfection. It was like his local rock star membership badge.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked April.

‘April,’ she answered.

‘Great name,’ Shea replied. ‘My name’s Shea Sheridan.’

‘Oh, I know,’ said April. ‘You’re the singer with the Perpetually Waywards.’

‘Yeah, that’s right,’ answered Shea, as though he’d forgotten and she had just reminded him.

Through the grinder (or What about Ben)

April loved Ben more than any young man she had ever loved in her lifetime, but admittedly it was a love that had gone through the grinder many times. She was aware of his initial fascination and probable infatuation with her, but she felt that this had all diminished with time. She had conditioned herself to avoid serious attachment, and it was only because of this conditioning that she’d become comfortable with the relationship they presently had (she’d never been actually physically attracted to him either, so this made things simpler also).

‘What about Ben?’ Brooke asked April one afternoon while they were having a lunchbreak from college and the discourse turned to boyfriends as it always almost immediately did (the collegians would have you believe they are above matters such as these and spend all of their time discussing Aristotle and peace processes and propaganda in the cinema, but they are as prone to gossiping about boyfriends and girlfriends as the rest of us).

‘I’m not sure what you mean’ replied April, but in fact she did know where

‘What about Ben?’ was heading.

‘Would you not give him a shot?’

‘Give him a shot? I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Of course you know what I mean.’

‘I don’t think about things like that anymore. We’re just sort of good friends really.’

‘Oh, I know. Don’t get me wrong. I think that is a great thing. But it is plain obvious that he worships you completely. I mean, he absolutely adores you.’

‘I wouldn’t go as far as saying that.’

‘It’s true.’

‘It’s a strange situation, Brooke. We’re better off just as good friends, I think.’

‘I don’t understand it. He’s not a bad kind either.’

‘Ben? Yeah, he’s great. He’s just brilliant.’

Very worthy (or An hour and fifteen minutes)

Shea Sheridan’s wooing of April had not been entirely impromptu. He had seen her many times before and like so many others he had fallen under her spell. However, the difference between Shea and all the others was that all the others really did not have any hope in Hell whereas he brandished apt capacity. He had the good looks. He had the local rock star badge. He had songs. He was a balladeer. They were queuing up to be with Shea. He could not lose. By the time the evening in Dodie Heron’s had ended, Shea had managed to get more romantically-close to April than Ben had managed to do over a period of five months.

‘I’ll give you a phone tomorrow, April,’ he told her as he was leaving. He really was a perfect gentleman. There was nothing at all crass or hateful about him. He was just very worthy.

‘Okay, bye,’ said April, completely and instantly smitten and she had only been speaking to him for an hour and fifteen minutes.

Save her from mediocrity (or Jammy)

‘You jammy so and so,’ commented Pardy Books, the Perpetually Waywards’ keyboardist who had learned music at university and knew his stuff. He was talking to Shea about April.

‘That girl is a knockout, Shea.’

‘I know,’ said Shea, running his hands through his hair to make it messy.

‘I was surprised actually. It was so straightforward. In fact, I think anybody could have done it. She’s that kind of girl. Anybody could have told her they were into her and she would have been delighted. It’s amazing. A girl like that just hanging around these places and absolutely any Bloggs at all could have had her. Thank God I got in there in time to save her from mediocrity, eh? I’m really mad about her, I swear, Pardy.’

The salon (or Ample encouragement)

April cancelled a day of studying to go out and get her hair done so that she would look the part – the part being that of rock star’s girlfriend. The woman at the salon told April she had the loveliest skin she had ever seen in the whole world and this woman should know for she had been many places, even Papua New Guinea. April’s confidence received ample encouragement when she heard this.

April’s new hairstyle (a heavenly bob of honeyed blonde) made an impression on every single person who saw her that day and for many days afterwards.

Another conversation that Ben and April had (or Una something)

BEN: You got your hair done. Wow! You look amazing.

APRIL: Thanks. I thought I needed another change.

BEN: Well, it looks great. I hardly even knew you.

APRIL: I’ve never been able to look the same for too long. I like to alter myself as much as possible.

BEN: You like to keep it provoking.

APRIL: Yeah. It’s boring to look the same all of the time. People should keep themselves active.

BEN: The last time I did anything with the way I look I was in the hospital getting my appendix out and I lost loads of weight and came out looking like an alien.

APRIL: I’m always saying it to you, Ben, but you never listen. You should do something with yourself. Glam yourself up a bit more.

BEN: It wouldn’t do much for me. I don’t have the stylish blood in me like you do, April.

APRIL: Anybody can look good. I just try to look good. I wouldn’t say I have stylish blood.

BEN: Well, I would say it was stylish. More stylish than anybody around here anyway. They’re all like Worzel Gummidge around here.

APRIL: Now Worzel Gummidge. He had style.

BEN: A very stylish man, some people would say.

APRIL: He was conscious of the swiftly-changing modes of his day.

BEN: I suppose you could say that Aunt Sally definitely had something going on too.

APRIL: What was that woman’s name again?

BEN: Una something. The rosy-cheeks.

APRIL: The rosy-cheeks. That’s right.

BEN: What are you doing tonight then? Will you be going out?

APRIL: Oh, yes. I meant to tell you. I’ve got a date tonight. An actual date. And you won’t believe who it is I’ve got the date with.

BEN: Who?

APRIL: Shea Sheridan.

BEN: Really, yeah? My, how did this all come about?

APRIL: The gig the other night. He came over and started talking to me. I was completely dumbfounded. You ought to have seen me. I nearly fell off my stool. That reminds me. Where did you and Wesley go? I was looking for the two of you everywhere and I couldn’t find you. You just seemed to disappear.

BEN: That’s a long story. Wesley got into a bit of a scuffle and I had to go outside and help calm it all down. It was a bit hectic. The man must have been about sixty.

APRIL: My God. When did this happen?

BEN: I’d say it happened at about twelve.

APRIL: What would I have been doing then? I can’t remember.

BEN: I think you were on the dancefloor. I spotted you and Brooke out dancing just before it all happened.

APRIL: Wow! And did Wesley get hurt or anything?

BEN: No, just a few scratches. The man was completely out of breath when we got outside. He near collapsed. We actually had to carry him to the taxi.

APRIL: I can’t believe that. That’s crazy.

BEN: Yeah, well there you have it.

Ben Vs April (or The length of this segment)

Although April had not done anything wrong in a profound sense, Ben could not suppress a faintly hateful feeling towards her because of her decision to go out on a date with Shea Sheridan. Ben’s hate was only a momentary hate – but, to be frank, it was hate, no doubt about that, even if it did last only the length of this segment.

2.

Rock critics (or Ben went to drink beers in a bar with Wesley Tickles)

A full week after Worzel Gummidge was brought up in conversation and a full week into the seemingly impeccable alliance that was April and Shea, Ben became rightly distressed and tried to arrange a meeting with April at their favourite café for a celebration of cocoa, but she couldn’t make it because of Shea. The Perpetually Waywards were practising for an important gig they were going to play in the big city next month and Shea asked April to join them for the session because he wanted to hear her opinion of what he referred to as their new sound.

Instead of April and cocoa, Ben went to drink beers in a bar with Wesley Tickles. After two drinks, both Ben and Wesley became rock critics and the Perpetually Waywards received a rough time of it.

The watch (or Nobody better positioned)

‘I saw it coming,’ Ben told Wesley Tickles. ‘I could see he had his eyes on her. Do you remember that time the Waywards played that charity gig at the Wayside? I noticed him looking at her from the stage. I mean, eyeing her up from the stage. What more does a girl want, eh? The rock star giving her the eye right in the middle of singing a song. And the song he was singing too. ‘Love Avenue’. The one that knocks them senseless. Where Shea evokes both Morrisons, Van and Jim, simultaneously. I should have been more impulsive. I should have done something faster. I didn’t do a thing. I was there with April all the time. There was nobody better positioned than I was, and I didn’t do one single thing.’

‘Well, you could still do something yet,’ said Wesley. ‘You don’t have to just sit back, simply close the book on the matter and have done with it if you don’t want to, you know.’

Ben sipped from the mellifluous beer glass; his eyes rolled slowly, deep in contemplation.

‘What time is it?’ he then asked.

‘I’m not sure,’ replied Wesley. ‘Do you not have your watch?’

‘I don’t have it anymore.’

‘What happened?’

‘I don’t really know, to tell you the truth. One day I just didn’t have it anymore.’

The retired military man (or Cars)

Shea picked April up at her house in his recently-achieved automobile to bring her to the band practise. April didn’t know too much about cars, but she pretended that she did because Shea was appealing for an impressed look.

‘My God,’ she said. ‘This is an impressive machine you’ve got, Shea.’

And Shea was thoroughly delighted.

April’s father was a retired military man. He was in the front garden examining shrubs like new recruits and executing weeds like jungle warfare when Shea arrived and approached him.

‘Hello,’ said the local rock star. ‘You must be April’s father. It’s nice to meet you.’

‘What a cool car you have,’ April’s father told him, in a rather blunt manner.

‘Thanks a lot,’ Shea replied.

Shea couldn’t have been more overjoyed.

Masochism (or Don’t get you)

‘You know what, Wesley, I think that maybe I’m ever so slightly a masochist,’ Ben told Wesley Tickles, at this point very drunk the both of them.

‘I don’t get you,’ was Wesley’s garbled response.

A tapping (or To a select few girls)

April couldn’t put her finger on it. She had no difficulty in declaring the Perpetually Waywards an excellent rock n’ roll band. They were an amazing band. She had not seen a more electrifying live act in her entire life. And Shea was a spectacular songwriter. Just spectacular. She was as convinced as they were that it would happen for them. That they would go the whole way. The whole way. To the limit. But still she couldn’t put her finger on it. There was something awry going on. As she sat in their practise room (the most sumptuous ‘shed’ she had ever been invited to), and the Waywards assembled an exciting euphonic blast, displaying their new sound to a select few girls, April became suddenly alarmed when she felt somebody tapping her on the shoulder and asking for her attention, somebody tapping who wasn’t there, a dull tapping on her shoulder, and then a voice whispering in her ear, a voice whispering that wasn’t there, maybe her own voice whispering, telling her that this music was the greatest load of shit she had ever heard.

Real kissing (or In the proper sense)

April felt good when Shea kissed her that evening. She had never been kissed in such a way before. It seemed more like a real kiss. The way kisses should be accomplished in the proper sense. Shea was a really capable individual when it came down to a situation such as the one at hand which was kissing. He was very good at kissing. He had been doing it for a long time.

April became aware that everyone else in the practise room was watching them as they were kissing. The rest of the band and their girls had stopped their own kissing to watch, study and admire them. April got a buzz of excitement from knowing this.

Art (or Going to love you, lady)

April gave her short story, ‘Wholly Exquisite’, to Shea for him to read. He read it, and told her that he thought it was very good. He said it reminded him of a song he wrote when he was younger called ‘Going to love you, lady’.

The Thirty-ninth step (or All over the place)

Ben had been thinking ahead, so he made a photocopy of ‘Wholly Exquisite’ long before he gave the original copy back to April. What if she became a huge great big writer star and he was left with nothing in his possession to associate himself with her, eh? These days Ben was thinking all the time about the dreadful loneliness that the future had in store for him.

Ben sat back in a marvellous armchair to read ‘Wholly Exquisite’ for the thirty-ninth time and he wept tears of monumental sadness and had to blow his nose into a handkerchief but of course it went all over the place.

New sad walk (or That time of the month)

Ben became aware that his walk was starting to assume a style that was similar to his father’s walk. This was a somewhat shrill realisation because Ben had always felt his father had the most poignant walk of all walks and we’re talking all walks of life here. For as long as Ben could remember, there had always been something uncommonly sad about his father’s way of walking and it troubled the lad unremittingly.

Ben saw a reflection of his new sad walk in a vast shop window as he strolled through the town one unaccompanied afternoon. He tried to loosen up and shake the walk off, but it was no good. He was bound and tied to this new walk.

April and Shea came out of one of the finer shops together carrying some of the finer shopping bags. They were happy. They didn’t see Ben or his new sad walk. He tried to hide from them anyway. He looked around for a religious pamphleteer to hide behind, but there wasn’t a single one to be found. It must have been their day off. He gave up on the idea of hiding from the newly-shaped couple. They didn’t notice him anyway. He tried to forget that he’d seen them at all. He went into a newsagents and bought a

broad-sheet newspaper. It was that time of the month.

Horrible suburban quarantine (or Suicide)

The moment arrived one evening when Ben started to contemplate suicide. He hadn’t expected the moment to arrive. But it just came sneaking up behind him while he was doing the ironing. He contemplated suicide for a good half hour, but then he realised the cliché of it and jettisoned the plan. He did not want the people to call him uninspired after his departure. He could see them all at the funeral. ‘He had to go and commit suicide, didn’t he? Couldn’t he have thought of something even a bit more original?’ These words spoken by a middle-aged woman, unknown to Ben, and her well-dressed nephew nodding in agreement.

Ben would have to make do with interminable despair and horrible suburban quarantine.

Harry Nilsson albums (or Sadness and indolence)

Smart, sad songs made Ben feel part of a lonely heart’s club and a little better, but like most people of his generation he was more often saved from sadness and indolence by a mess of screeching guitars that the people of previous generations could never understand.

Jason (or A pub football team)

Jason, April’s brother, worked in the big city for some kind of multimedia corporation. He was rolling in money, always had the most modern and up to date mobile phone, big cool car way better than Shea’s, precious blonde girlfriend with pretty red lips, but for some reason he walked about the place looking like he was on his way to practise for a pub football team.

Jason told Shea that he could probably get some of the music magazine people down to see the Perpetually Waywards play their important gig in the big city next month.

‘Oh, that would be so cool, Jason, if you could do that,’ exclaimed Shea.

‘No problem, mate,’ said Jason. ‘This is what Jason’s all about, see.’

More lunchbreaks (or More jam)

‘You jammy so and so,’ Brooke told April when they were on their lunchbreak.

‘I don’t even understand what that word ‘jammy’ means,’ said April.

‘Who cares what it means? It’s the only word convenient to describe a jammy so and so like yourself at this minute. Shea Sheridan’s gorgeous. He looks like Brad Pitt. He’s so cute. I could just squeeze him to death.’

‘Well, don’t.’

Brooke was eating a scone and the crumbs were going everywhere. She was so thrilled. April had to dodge the spatter. Brooke had once been an extra-careful, disciplined person. But since college she had completely forgotten her extra-careful, disciplined ways. ‘So I needn’t ask ‘What about Ben’ anymore then, I suppose?’ asked Brooke.

April silent.

Weakest link (or The return of Una something)

In the pantomime Dick Whittington, which animal is a companion to the lead character?

‘Dog!’ roared Ben.

Cat.

‘Aaaargh!’

In France, which major river flows through Paris?

‘The Seine,’ cried Ben. ‘The River Seine!’

Correct.

‘Yes!’

What word is the slang term for a five pound note in the name of a character from the novel Watership Down?

‘Rabbit,’ muttered Ben.

Fiver.

‘Ah.’

What liquid is humorously referred to as Adam’s Ale?

‘Eh….pass,’ mumbled Ben.

Water.

‘Wouldn’t you know just?’

In Science, a product that does relatively little ecological damage is referred to as environmentally what?

‘Hazardous,’ slurred Ben.

Friendly.

‘Damn!’

Ben turned the ridiculous television show off. It was more than just depression now. It was trailer trash syndrome. He decided to exorcise the twin demons of television quiz shows and April with an instantaneous masturbation fantasy involving Una something from Worzel Gummidge.

Cherrytone (or Relationshipcosy)

‘I love you, honey,’ Shea told April, and the soundtrack to the proclamation: the crackling of shells underneath their feet as they walked. He had taken her out to the drab, drizzlegrey beach, his intention being to make the relationship a more indisputable thing, more fixed, established, inescapable. He really meant it when he told her he loved her, even though, as he was saying it, he was still thinking about that darkhaired chick with the highlong legs and sexblack getup he’d met at the petrol station last night. Even so, he wanted things consolidated. Shea had found the perfect paramour in April. She had the beauty, the intelligence, the stamina. She suited the role of rock star’s companion perfectly. He did not wish to lose her. He needed to invest at once. He could already see the pair of them in the magazines. Turning up for all the major parties together. Tabloid headlines. Photospreads. The two of them, elegant and artistic and attractive, the fully-realised rockcouple. They would be the rockcouple that all rockcouples aspired to be.

April looked at him openeyed for a moment. She hadn’t expected such an affirmation so prematurely from Shea. He didn’t seem the type. Her cherrytone face went into prompt flush overdrive, reddening in a way that would have knocked Ben’s socks off. The cherrytone was chiefly responsible for Ben’s prevailing lovesickness. The first thing he noticed about the girl. Her cherrytone. It was the most wonderful thing he had ever seen.

He told maybe sixteen people about it in one week. It was cherrytone this, cherrytone that for ages. The cherrytone made April look like she was constantly blushing, a blameless and beautiful coypink, endearing her even to people she was merely passing in the street, for suddenly here was this divine thing in their dreary lives, like a rose offered to someone on a dismal Monday morning.

‘I think maybe I feel the same way, Shea, you know,’ she said eventually.

She couldn’t bring herself to return his statement in precisely the same detail. But, like Shea, she did not want their twosome to fall apart. They both knew it was a good thing they had going on. They were relationship cosy. It had been four and a half weeks.

Old-fashioned (or Five thousand people)

‘This song isn’t going to work, Shea,’ said Pardy Books. ‘It’s too old-fashioned. It doesn’t work.’

‘What do you mean old-fashioned?’ cried Shea. ‘We don’t care if we’re old-fashioned or not. This is just the way we are. We are being true to our own artistic vision. Who cares if it doesn’t conform to what everybody else is doing?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Pardy. ‘I’m unsure if we should be going in this direction. There is so much stuff going on these days and it seems to have passed us right by. I mean, I saw that young band the Sick Comedy Night play there in town recently and I have to tell you…’

Shea cut him off.

‘The Sick Comedy Night again? Will you ever stop going on about the Sick Comedy Night, Pardy? They’re a pack of weirdos playing music that nobody is ever going to listen to. What would you prefer? Five people at one of your gigs or five thousand people at one of your gigs? Because that’s all the Sick Comedy Night are ever going to have. Five people.’

‘Yeah, but some of the stuff they were doing, Shea. It was amazing.’

‘We’re amazing.’

Post-rock (or Jimmy K.)

Jimmy K. played the bass for Sick Comedy Night, another local rock band, but these guys were more about art than the rest of them (the K. stood for Kellogg apparently). Jimmy was the only member of a local rock band who Ben kind of knew and was friendly with.

‘I have to tell you about my new side-project from the Sick Comedy Night,’

Jimmy told Ben excitedly when they bumped into each other on a rowdy street.

It was an evening of some revelry in the town. ‘We’re called A Brazen

Satan. It’s avant-garde electronica with a touch of post-rock, you know.’

‘Oh, I know,’ said Ben.

Jimmy used to have brightly-bleached hair, but now it was back to its natural colour and he had to add, ‘I’m relaxed with it natural’. Ben thought to himself that maybe now would be a good time to do something like dyeing his hair a different colour because the trend seemed to be dwindling and he wouldn’t be accused of copying anyone but then he thought fuck it anyway.

‘My sister’s always asking about you,’ Jimmy told Ben. ‘She’s always asking me if I’ve seen Ben around.’

This completely took Ben by surprise. He wasn’t sure if he could even place the sister’s face.

‘Yeah? I don’t really know your sister that well, Jimmy. I think I’ve only met her about once.’

‘Between you and me and these passers-by, I think she’s got a bit of a notion for you, but maybe I’m mistaken.’

Ben responded with his very own brand of cherrytone.

Not too bad (or Next gig)

‘So how’s it been going?’ asked Jimmy.

‘Not too bad, I suppose.’ Ben felt genuinely better for saying this. It actually made him feel mended and healed, okay with things, completely at peace with himself, just by saying it to another person.

‘You’ll be at the next gig, yeah, Ben?’

‘Right. Where’s it happening?’

‘Who can be sure?’

Then, Jimmy K. was gone.

A bit of a notion (or Suddenly happy)

Ben tried to remember Jimmy’s sister’s face. He couldn’t remember it too well. He couldn’t remember if she was pretty or not. He could recall being struck by something about her, but he couldn’t be too sure of what it was. No matter, Ben thought. He was suddenly happy. He had not anticipated a bit of a notion.

Flimsy (or Minus cocoa)

April missed cocoa. She hadn’t touched a drop in weeks. She thought about maybe giving Ben a call to see if he wanted to go and get some cocoa with her. She realised as she picked up her phone that not only had she not touched a drop of cocoa in weeks, she had not spoken to Ben in weeks either. The local rock life was taking up too much of her time. She felt flimsy all of a sudden. She put the phone down. She was embarrassed.

Aloof and sophisticated (or The big gig)

The Perpetually Waywards’ gig in the big city turned out to be not that important at all. It was a by the numbers sort of gig in the end without any definable highlights or lowlights. They really impressed the aloof and sophisticated big city audience once enough alcohol had been consumed for aloof and sophisticated airs to take a back seat. Afterwards, the aloof and sophisticated big city audience went back to their homes and forgot all about the Perpetually Waywards and woke up the next day and did the same thing again – were aloof and sophisticated all day long, then got drunk, and applauded a band who afterwards they forgot all about and they went back to their homes and woke up the next day and did the same thing again.

Shea’s eyes were peeled for music journalists. It could be any one of

these aloof and sophisticated people, he thought to himself as he introduced

‘Gold in vision’, a song written for his current squeeze.

Yeah, I really think it’s…(or Minus exquisite)

Shea wrote a song for April. It was called ‘Gold in vision’. When April heard it, she cringed. Not only was the song quite bad, but he had tried to incorporate the word exquisite into it and it really did not work. He was attempting to reference ‘Wholly Exquisite’, but it was clear to April that if he had read the story, it had gone right over his head (she instructed herself to avoid getting into a clutter of condescension). There was not even the slightest nuance of exquisite about ‘Gold in vision’, and anyway April now detested the word exquisite because of Ben’s critique.

‘Yeah, I really think it’s..I like it,’ she said, following a very special acoustic performance of the song, and smiling a painfully employed smile.

I can’t stand those Sick Comedy Night guys anyway (or Showing face)

‘We have to see this gig tomorrow night,’ insisted Pardy. ‘We just have to be there. We have to show our faces.’

‘I don’t fancy it,’ said Shea. ‘I can’t stand those Sick Comedy Night guys anyway. They’re so pretentious.’

Distributor of green (or Ideas)

April had been sitting at her desk studying for six hours. She was sick of studying. She decided to go about writing another story. She plucked her favourite pen, distributor of green ink, from her pencil-case and started into it. The word exquisite was the furthest thing from her mind. She had a lot of random ideas written down on a page. She had been gathering this page of ideas together all during the last month. The first idea on the page was ‘A love story: or A melody for the idly besotted’, but she drew a line through this one. The next idea was ‘A priest with a terminal illness in his last few days’. She thought about this one for a bit, but she was so tired from all the studying that she couldn’t keep her attention focused, so really there was no stopping her, she fell asleep completely exhausted.

Fiddling at ten (or Vigilant streetlights)

Ben was late for the gig. He had to get a bus out to the venue and the buses were undependable. There was a man sitting beside him on the bench at the bus stop. This man was the only other person there waiting. It was quite late. About ten. Quiet. The man was a young man. He was fiddling. Not fiddling as in playing a fiddle. Fiddling as in irregular activity. Doing something clandestine and using his hands to do so. His back was mostly turned to Ben, but occasionally he looked over his shoulder to check if Ben was still there. Ben kept his eyes from drifting towards the man. He didn’t like people thinking he was a busybody.

The man’s manner of fiddling led Ben to believe he was soused or worse. It was an unhinged manner of fiddling. The man looked over then. He caught Ben looking at him. Ben’s eyes were restless. The fiddling had him pondering.

‘Mate,’ the man grunted, in a barely intelligible way, a way that confirmed ‘soused’. ‘Do you have a light, mate?’ he asked.

Ben said no, sorry.

The man went back to fiddling.

Ben went back to pondering.

He’s rolling himself a joint, Ben thought to himself.

Ben stretched his legs outward, trying to look less conservative.

Suddenly, the man turned around and came sidling up next to Ben, giving him quite a fright. The man’s face was long and young and ruined. His eyes were orange and they gleamed under what Ben hoped were vigilant streetlights.

‘This is how gone I am,’ the man said. He held a yellow lighter up to Ben’s face and laughed to himself. ‘This was in my pocket all along. What am I like, eh?’

Ben laughed too, a little uncomfortably.

The lighter had a motorcycle on it. A Harley.

The man went back to fiddling.

Ben went back to pondering and his eyes went back to restless.

The bus came.

Ben stood up eagerly. He made sure he had change in his pocket. He had change. He was delighted with himself. He went to board the bus. The man didn’t seem too interested in getting the bus. He didn’t even acknowledge that it was there. He just sat there fiddling. After Ben had boarded and bought his ticket, the bus driver called out to the man, asking him if he was getting on the bus. The man answered no, I’m fine, mate.

Ben made sure to sit himself by a window where he could maybe see exactly what the man’s fiddling had been all about. He sat down and looked out at the bus stop. He saw that the young, soused man was holding a pen and he was writing on a Valentine’s day card for somebody. He had a box of chocolates beside him also. It was a really large novelty Valentine’s day card. The man had a smile on his face. He was clearly enjoying himself.

This is a big drunken romantic scrawl, he thought to himself as he wrote, and not a more suitable occasion for it if you ask me.

Ben knew some of the people in the band (or It was still early

April had a feeling she would see Ben at the Sick Comedy Night gig that the Waywards were talking about going to see because she knew that Ben knew some of the people in the band, so she had no problem telling Shea that she would go along with them. She asked Brooke to go too. When they arrived, there was no Ben, but then again, it was still early. April had a bottle of beer, and Brooke drank a notable brand of wine.

Loyalty (or Pardy Books)

As soon as the Perpetually Waywards set entered the venue, the keyboardist Pardy Books was gone. He was talking to the guys from Sick Comedy Night and he would be talking to them for a length of time that was seemingly without end, leading the remaining members of the Perpetually Waywards, especially Shea who was Pardy’s closest ally, to seriously question their band-mate’s loyalty.

Third song (or People’s minds)

When Ben arrived, the Sick Comedy Night were playing their third song of the evening. He stood at the doorway and looked at people’s faces as they listened to the music. He often wondered what was going on, if there was anything going on, in people’s minds as they were watching and listening to a band performing live music. This odd speculation is mostly all that went on in his own mind.

Caramel ditty (or They decided not to play Caramel ditty)

The Sick Comedy Night had a song called ‘Caramel ditty’. It was their most popular song. Everybody loved it. It was their ‘Let’s get so high you wouldn’t believe’. It was the song that was guaranteed to have the whole place going completely rabid. On this night, they decided not to play ‘Caramel ditty’. They said, ‘We’re not going to play that one tonight. Maybe some other night.’ The crowd were hip and with it enough to understand.

‘They didn’t play their most popular song,’ observed Shea later. ‘Who do they think they are? Nirvana or somebody?’

The past is coming back to give me dirty looks (or Extra-careful, disciplined)

Brooke was a bundle of ‘the past is coming back to give me dirty looks’ nerves. She was aware that she was receiving the evil eye from a girl sitting next to Pardy Books, a girl she knew from her past. Brooke tried to ignore the looks, sipping her wine in her old extra-careful, disciplined way.

The tilt (or Mina)

Pardy’s girlfriend hated Brooke. Nobody could be sure why. Although Brooke herself thought she knew what was going on. Pardy’s girlfriend and Brooke had been teen acquaintances, schoolgirl adventurers, who discovered boys together. They had a falling out over a boy who they both had feelings for. The boy had an uncomfortably large ear-ring which caused his head to tilt ever so slightly, but this did not prevent the girls from thinking he was a fine thing. Even though they were close friends, both girls went up for the job of boy with tilting head’s girlfriend. Brooke was the successful applicant. This was the reason Pardy’s girlfriend hated Brooke, Brooke thought. This was the reason many girls who had once been close friends hated each other, it seemed, Brooke thought. But this was not the sole reason for Pardy’s girlfriend’s hate. The real reason was: Pardy’s girlfriend had never liked Brooke at all. She hated her all along. For no good reason, except inexplicable childhood reasons. She only knocked about with Brooke because Brooke was the only one of her schoolfriends who lived nearby. Pardy’s girlfriend had other friends. Cooler friends than Brooke. Pardy’s girlfriend talked about Brooke behind her back when she was with her other friends. They all laughed at Brooke. They mocked her extra-careful, disciplined ways. Pardy’s girlfriend’s name was Mina.

Modern fashions (or Squiddle)

April spotted Ben at the doorway right while she was in the middle of a conversation about historical novels and how she had inherited the fondness for them from her retired military man father. She became really animated as soon as she saw Ben. Oh, the scarf! she suddenly noticed. He was wearing his scarf. The scarf that was similar to a scarf she owned herself, the scarf that had brought about their association. April remembered going up to Ben that day and telling him that only a stylish sort of individual wore that kind of scarf. He went all red and she liked this. April was a different person then from the person she was now. She used to be relaxed with just starting a conversation with someone she didn’t know very well, but she could not do anything like that anymore. She didn’t know what difference had occurred in her. Maybe it was meeting Shea. She couldn’t be sure. April wished she had her scarf with her as well, because that would have been nice and ironic and funny and then she and Ben could have talked about it all night.

But she didn’t have her scarf with her. All she had was a beige blazer that had cost over a hundred squiddle (‘squiddle’ was a term for money she inherited from her father along with the fondness for historical novels).

She hadn’t been thinking about the scarf that night, only the beige blazer. The person April had been talking to about historical novels was Saul Rice, a young man with small-town bohemia written all over him in the traditional blend of fluff and brown leather. They (they being small-town anti-bohemia) once referred to Saul as ‘long-haired pansy-freak’, but they had put that behind them since he was pictured in the local paper for selling some of his intense paintings to a wealthy intense art-lover, and now they thought he was just great. Saul thought Brooke was cute. He really liked her a lot, but she couldn’t stand him.

April’s initial animation on sight of Ben at the doorway had reduced in vigour as she slowly began to think more and more about the situation, how she hadn’t seen him in such a while, and how things were so completely different now, suddenly very tense, many things unresolved.

Wires from plugs (or Whaddya know)

When Ben noticed that April was there, an incredible joy moved in to engulf him. But the joy soon turned to sadness when he realised that Shea was probably there too and whaddya know. He then thought about maybe going home. But it would mean waiting at a bus stop on his own again, and he found the prospect unsettling (even though he knew it was more than likely going to be happening again anyway later on). He did not want to be sitting in the bar with April and Shea, the couple, happy together on the other side of the room. He ached enough without having to endure such a torment as that. There were other things he could have been doing. He then got the strange idea in his head that, if he did go home, now would be a good time to sit down and unravel all the wires from plugs that had become grossly entangled over the years.

Not too heavily (or O’Rourke)

Ben got a drink at the bar and stayed there on one of the stools. He got talking to the barman who it turned out was also the owner of the establishment. The place was called O’Rourke’s. It was a nice place, but a little out of the way. It was a few miles outside of town. But there was always a large crowd because they had bands playing all the time. The owner’s name was O’Rourke. He was a brawny man in his thirties. He didn’t like the Sick Comedy Night too much. He was sneering throughout the show.

‘O’Rourke likes his hip hop,’ he said. ‘Can’t stand this guitar shite.’

Ben did not know how he did it, but O’Rourke managed to sense somehow that he was having a difficulty and that it involved a woman. O’Rourke gave a lecture on the subject in-between serving pints, but Ben didn’t ponder the advice too heavily.

‘I’m no oil painting, but fuck do I get some,’ were just some of the words O’Rourke spoke that Ben would not ponder too heavily.

A pity (or Such a pity for Ben)

There was a nice atmosphere in O’Rourke’s that night. The music was good, and people were having fun. It was such a pity for Ben that he had so much unease and distress weighing up and distracting him, forcing fun to stay well away, so much of that unfavourable emotional baggage, throbbing relentlessly, so heavily ponderous a mind he had. A pity.

Sludge (or Jason on the phone)

Shea got a phonecall on his mobile phone from Jason, April’s brother. April didn’t even get phonecalls from Jason, her brother. There wasn’t anything important about the call. They were just talking. They were mates now.

‘That was Jason,’ Shea told April, as he was hanging up.

‘Yeah? What’s up with him?’

‘Nothing much. He was just ringing up to see what the story was with us. If we were going out tonight. I told him we were here watching these arty clowns play their sludge.’

‘I think they’re brilliant,’ said April.

‘Well, this is where we differ, sweetheart.’

Benny (or The drinking-minutes)

After the aural sludge stopped, Jimmy K. placed Ben at the bar and called him down to where the band were sitting. Ben started to think that he must have looked a right grim outcast stuck there at the bar alone except for the barman for most of the gig. He decided he would try to summon up the courage from somewhere and go down into the main part of the bar, where Jimmy and the band were, where April and Shea and Brooke and the Waywards were. He took his drink, and made his move.

April’s eyes darted upwards as soon as she noticed Ben budging. She felt a little on the edgy side now that he had decided to relocate after all that time he’d spent sitting up there by himself.

The place was more full up than it looked from the doorway. Ben wasn’t sure if he would be able to get a seat. He knew that he was going to have to acknowledge April, so he got it over with as fast as possible, with a slight wave and a half-smile. She returned the half-smile, but only managed an even slighter wave. Shea looked up at him as he passed by them, but paid little notice.

‘Benny, mate, man-o,’ announced Jimmy, rather loudly. Ben knew Jimmy well, but there was something peculiar. He had not been welcomed so enthusiastically by him before.

‘Hello, Jimmy. How’s it going?’

‘Not too bad at all. And yourself?’

‘Ah, not too bad, I suppose.’

‘So what did you think?’

‘Brilliant, I have to say. You were really good.’

‘Ah, cheers, mate. It was an okay gig. We’ve played better, you know. There were a few times we were a bit off, but the sound was pretty good, wasn’t it? For a small place like this. What did you make of it where you were sitting?’

‘Oh, it was fine. Really clear-sounding.’

Brooke came out of nowhere then. She came dashing up to Ben very speedily. She was still feeling ill at ease with the dirty looks of Mina, Pardy Books’ girlfriend, still on her, so she was acting mightily strange and everything about her personality was heightened, a lot more brusque.

‘Hello, Ben,’ she said, and not for the first time Ben noted that Brooke’s voice was very sweet.

‘Greetings, young missy,’ replied Ben. He was trying to appear comfortable, but it did not appear effortless.

They spoke for a little, and then Brooke went back to sit down beside April, Shea, and her wine, and continued to avoid the captivated gaze of Saul Rice, whose attraction to her was growing with each drinking-minute.

‘Come over here, Ben,’ beckoned Jimmy. ‘There should be a seat down here for you.’

Ben felt very good about himself. He felt like he was part of a local rock band. He had been invited down to sit with them all. His eyes kept sneaky watch on April and Shea as they played the beautiful couple. He hoped they could see how popular he was.

The cherub (or Fizzy suggested happy)

‘Do you remember my sister Lucy, Ben?’ asked Jimmy.

Ben was thrown. He had forgotten all about Jimmy’s sister and the bit of a notion. It had been fermenting in his mind just as he was leaving the house that night, but the young, soused man at the bus stop and April and Shea and everything combined had shoved it out of his mind. With strategic precision, he was placed sitting down right next to Lucy.

Lucy was an incredibly small, and cute girl. She was a cherub. That was the thing that struck Ben about her the first time he met her. A little cherub, or nymph. During that first meeting, he had asked her what age she was and when she told him she was only one year younger than himself, he’d been utterly confounded.

‘Well, how are you?’ she asked. ‘I haven’t seen you in a long time.’

‘Yeah, it’s been a while,’ replied Ben.

It had been a long time. About a year and a half probably. He was amazed that she could even remember him at all. That had been a terribly drunken evening, with everyone crazy and talking and shagging and forgetting, although nothing quite so fervid had occurred between Ben and Lucy. They had only spoken with one another for a short while. He couldn’t believe she remembered him. And she was pretty. Very pretty. Prettier than anything he could have hoped for. Which meant nearly just as pretty as April. Her hair was short, and red, and her eyes were small, brownish in colour, and her nose was so delicate, and she had cherrytone, and a couple of charming freckles that made her face look fizzy, and the fizzy suggested happy. And wasn’t she smiling all the time? All the time.

Standing around late nights at bus stops with all sorts (or Yeeagh!)

A lot of hip hop music started blasting out of the speakers all of a sudden. Ben looked up at the bar. O’Rourke looked down at him, thumped his fist into the air, and yelled, ‘Yeeagh!’ Ben looked over at the Waywards set. They didn’t look too impressed. Shea’s face was glowing. Ben could read his thoughts just by looking at the face.

‘What is this rap crap?’

Pardy Books however was talking away to the Sick Comedy Night’s drummer, and his head was bobbing up and down, obviously enjoying the hip hop, or merely looking to give himself credence with the Open Minded Crew. ‘This is a nice little place, isn’t it?’ said Lucy.

‘Yeah, I really like it. It’s a bit of a distance out of town though,’ said Ben.

‘Yeah. But that sort of makes it kind of prestige as well, doesn’t it? Because you have to put in the effort to get to the place, don’t you?’

‘That’s true. Like standing around late nights at bus stops with all sorts.’

‘Standing around late nights at bus stops with all sorts,’ repeated Lucy.

‘The perfect way to start your evening off.’

They both laughed.

Disrelish (or Opinions everybody)

‘What is this rap crap?’ Shea asked the other members of the Perpetually Waywards.

They all shook their heads with disrelish.

The Lucy Eye-team (or Somebody being ‘utilised’)

April didn’t seem too bothered about Ben talking to Lucy. Ben had one eye on Lucy, the other eye on April. This felt really good. He very rarely got the chance to have even one eye on anybody. April seemed to be going about her rock clique business. She was enjoying herself, and it didn’t seem to worry her that maybe Ben was moving on. He tried to put April out of his mind for a moment. It was a hard thing to do, but he felt that Lucy was much too nice a girl and she didn’t deserve to be treated like that. She didn’t deserve to be kept to one side like that and utilised in such a conniving way. Ben hated the thought of somebody being ‘utilised’. He took the one eye that he had on April away from April and assigned it to Lucy, creating the Lucy Eye-team.

The act of nonchalance (or Hearts are feeble)

April was benumbed by the sight of Ben talking and laughing with the pretty little red-haired girl. She didn’t know what was going on in her mind and what the bloody hell was going on in her heart also while we’re talking about it, she thought to herself. She put on that act of nonchalance everybody puts on when they are uncomfortable about something and hearts are feeble. There was a lot of nonchalance to be seen in O’Rourke’s that night. April laughed way too loudly, way too loudly for her, when Brooke made a funny, disparaging comment about Saul Rice, and her enforced nonchalance was not lost on anybody.

The enemy (or Perpetually Wayward)

Things were heating up in the Perpetually Waywards camp. Pardy Books was now not just sleeping with the enemy, he was the enemy.

‘You can eat shit, Books!’ cried a drunken Darren Gort, the Waywards’ bass player, who hasn’t been explored too much in this story, primarily because he was perpetually comatose as a result of substance use, and so he never really said too much, and anyway his presence is not essential. The same goes for Joel Kearney, drummer, and Ivan McDaid, who played rhythm guitar.

An argument erupted concerning Pardy’s debatable allegiance to the band.

There were a few of them well and truly drunk. Shea kept out of it. He didn’t want to get involved. He didn’t want Pardy to think he was taking sides.

‘You may as well go over there and have your Sick Comedy Night without us, because that’s all your interested in,’ slurred Gort. ‘You may as well stay with them, you may as well, if that’s you and what you want to do.’

Shea needed Pardy in the band, and he knew that Pardy would only desert them if Shea, his closest ally, was involved in the fracas. He concentrated on April while all the arguing was going on, touching her hair, and kissing her gently on the cheek every now and then.

Ladies (or Crawling)

Lucy went out to the ladies at one point. Mina, Pardy’s girlfriend, was there checking herself out in the mirror. They got talking briefly.

‘There’s some amount of sluts out there, isn’t there?’ Mina snarled.

‘I wouldn’t know,’ answered Lucy.

‘Your brother’s lovely,’ said Mina. ‘And I really like their band.’

‘They’re good, aren’t they?’

‘Yeah, I really think they are brilliant. I know my boyfriend plays with one of the other bands, but I think that your brother’s band are the best in the town.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘They are. Okay, that’s me done. I’ll see you then. Back out to the sluts. The place is crawling with them, isn’t it?’

The conversation Ben and April had in O’Rourke’s (or Cocoa-buddies)

APRIL: Right, Ben.

BEN: Right, how are you?

APRIL: Fine. Haven’t seen you in ages.

BEN: Yeah, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

APRIL: I was going to ring you there the other day to see if you wanted to go for some cocoa. You know, I haven’t had cocoa in a long time. I was getting withdrawal symptoms, I think.

BEN: It’s always the way.

APRIL: Sorry?

BEN: That’s the way it is with cocoa. You can never escape it. It will always catch up with you in the end.

APRIL: Yeah, it certainly caught up with me alright. What did you think of the band?

BEN: I thought they were great, yeah.

APRIL: They were brilliant, weren’t they? Although it’s a pity they didn’t play Caramel ditty, isn’t it?

BEN: Well, I don’t know. It’s a good song and everything, but I think they’ve got better songs there.

APRIL: Yeah.

BEN: What did the Perpetually Waywards think?

APRIL: Eh, I’m not sure. I wasn’t really talking to them about the music. They don’t really talk too much about it anyway. I think they liked it.

BEN: Good stuff.

APRIL: Yeah.

BEN: So how are things going?

APRIL: Oh, you know, not too bad, I suppose. Not too bad.

BEN: Yeah, same here. And things with Shea? Going alright?

APRIL: Yeah. Eh, I was meaning to ask you. Do you fancy maybe doing something tomorrow? It’s just that we haven’t done anything in a while, and I was thinking that it would be good.

BEN: Eh, I don’t know. I suppose that would be okay. What did you have in mind? Cocoa? You just want your cocoa-buddy back, is that it?

APRIL: Yeah. I could do with some cocoa. And, yes, I wouldn’t mind sharing a cocoa-moment with my cocoa-buddy. But, you know, anything at all. I was thinking about that time you wanted to go up a mountain.

BEN: You want to go up a mountain with me? You must be at a real loose end, are you? If I remember right, you were more interested in studying and I think I was only joking about going up a mountain anyway.

APRIL: Right.

BEN: But if you really want to go up a mountain with me, April, I suppose that can be arranged.

APRIL: It’s not that I’m bursting to go up a mountain or anything. I was just thinking, you know. I probably wouldn’t mind going up a mountain. It would be fun.

BEN: Okay, then, we’ll go up a mountain. When do you want to go up this mountain?

APRIL: Whenever.

Traitor (or Jealousy)

Shea was wondering what April and that fellow could possibly be talking about. He had witnessed their acknowledgement of one another earlier in the evening, but he had thought nothing of it. He thought he knew the fellow’s face. It was a face he had perhaps spotted in a local audience. He started to become jealous. He did not want to lose April. Shea was quite a vain young man, but he was also a concentrated cluster of anxieties, like most human beings are, and he was now, more than ever, aware that even the local rock star could get dumped.

‘Shea,’ said Pardy, gravely. ‘I need to talk to you.’

‘What is it?’

‘It’s about things. In general.’

‘What things?’

Pardy was a little drunk. He was having a hard time getting the words out, but he was determined to get the words out there in the end.

‘It’s about the band,’ he said. ‘I’m having problems. You saw the way they were getting with me earlier on there. It’s like they think I’m a traitor or something just because I was talking with another band. I’ve no interest in being with another band, but I think I’m beginning to lose interest in being in this band anymore, you know.’

Shea checked his watch to see what time it was. It was about time to be leaving.

Woozy attention (or Saul and Symona)

Brooke decided to give Saul Rice a shot. He’s not that bad, I suppose, she thought. She started a conversation with him about the jacket he owned. ‘That’s a nice jacket,’ she told him. It was quite an expensive-looking brown leather jacket. It looked like the sort of thing they wore in the rich parts of New York city. He started going on and on and on about the jacket, and pretty soon, Brooke decided she couldn’t stand him once again, and turned to aim her woozy attention elsewhere. Saul went home that night, and challenged all of his frustration and resentment into the conception of a colossal canvas of dark red, and lots of black and grey too. He felt happy about it, and three months later, it would be sold for a sum well over six hundred to Symona Brady, a well-known local poet and eccentric entrepreneur. How about that for kicking rejection in the ass?

4.

In terms of romance (or A cigarette)

The day after Sick Comedy Night played their gig at O’Rourke’s, Ben contemplated sending Lucy a text message with his mobile phone. They had become quite close the previous night, had a lot in common, and they had swapped phone numbers without even thinking of it in terms of romance. But then he cast away the idea. There were so many things going on in his mind. He didn’t know if he was coming or going. He was very confident, and in some way satisfied. He was going up a mountain with April later that day, and he wasn’t even giving as much thought to it as you would think. He imagined that something was up with her. Something had to be up with her if she had come over to him and suddenly proposed they go up a mountain together as soon as possible with her boyfriend in the room and everything. But that’s just about all the thought about it he could muster. He didn’t give it one more thought. He smoked a cigarette.

i lo vu (or But April understood)

Shea sent a text message to April that morning. It said ‘I love you’. But text messages are strange things, and Shea was not the best speller anyway, and it came out as ‘i lo vu’ or something silly like that. But April understood.

Looking up to something (or More pondering)

It was a Sunday, and a very nice day for going up a mountain. There were many dubious people walking around. You tend to get this on a Sunday. The most dubious, directionless people come out on Sundays. They stand around and look bored and walk around and look up to something. Ben was one of these dubious people. He stood outside a café waiting for April and you could say he kind of looked up to something. They had arranged to meet outside their favourite café. April’s father dropped her off in his land rover. He gave Ben a look of incomprehension from the steering wheel. Ben thought he must have been baffled by the fact that there was no Shea and here was April meeting up with this fellow. Or maybe April had told her father that they were going up a mountain together and this was what was making him ponder. He was afraid of his daughter being dragged up to the top of a mountain by some young man he did not know at all. Or maybe it was something else entirely that was causing the incomprehension. Ben would never know the reason behind the look of incomprehension.

Ben’s thing mostly (or A flood)

Ben was stunned upon sight of April. He had not prepared himself for such astonishment. He watched as she got out of the land rover and waved good-bye to her father in awe. He had put her out of his mind, placed those feelings as far from his mind as they could be placed, and now here she was, and all those opinions and thoughts and feelings came rushing back and flooded his being. She looked better than she had ever done. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, to put it very plainly because plainly was Ben’s thing mostly.

Bedlam (or What with their situation)

‘I’m sorry about this,’ she said, nervously.

She was flushed; cherrytone bedlam, complete cherrytone bedlam.

‘What’s up?’ asked Ben.

‘The scarf,’ replied April.

‘What about it?’

April was wearing her scarf, the similar scarf, the scarf that had brought about their association.

‘I haven’t worn it in ages,’ she said. ‘And you reminded me of it last night by wearing yours.’

She looked amazing with the scarf, but Ben was glad he hadn’t chosen to wear his own very similar scarf because that would have made him feel uncomfortable what with their situation and anyway people would probably have thought it a very weird thing.

Ben could envisage some poor soul (or A window)

While they were waiting for the bus to bring them out to the mountain, Ben gave some time to a short inspection of the bus stop. April just stood there and let him go about his business. He was checking to see if the young, soused man had left any notes behind last night when he had been writing on his Valentine’s day card. He was looking for a window into the man’s life, for clues, just as he used to do with second-hand books, but he hadn’t done it lately since the bookshop closed down. The young, soused man had not left behind any notes, but he had left behind his lighter with the Harley on it. Ben could envisage some poor soul being tortured later that evening. ‘Mate, have you got a light?’

The bus didn’t seem to want to come. It was a Sunday after all. Sundays were dubious.

Pencilled (or Packed lunches)

April and Ben decided to hitchhike out to the mountain instead of waiting for a bus to come, but before they did that, they called at a little corner shop and bought themselves some packed lunches because they had forgotten all about packed lunches and packed lunches were an important thing if you were going up a mountain. Not many cars stopped for them because the people in the cars were determined to get to their destinations, and they did not have April and Ben pencilled into their schedules.

A new story (or Plus existential)

‘I’ve started a new story,’ April told Ben as they walked along the road towards the mountain with their hitchhiking hands out.

‘Oh, yeah, great,’ he said. ‘How’s it coming along?’

‘Very well. It’s called ‘The Basket’. It’s about a woman who lives in a basket. That’s all I’m going to say about it. Except that it’s existential.’

‘Well, you can’t forget existential. You need existential thrown in, don’t you? I’ve always felt you writers use that word existential way too much. Every book I have at home seems to have existential written somewhere on the cover.’

‘Sorry if I’ve insulted your intelligence by using the word once more, Ben.’

‘Oh, no. You didn’t insult my intelligence. I don’t even know what the bloody word means. I just wish it wasn’t used so much. I know what exquisite means. In this instant, I wouldn’t mind if you used exquisite again.’

‘Don’t mention exquisite in front of me,’ snapped April.

Don’t mind all that crap (or The beauty of a woman)

A car stopped. It was April’s exquisiteness that had caused this to happen. The driver couldn’t believe it. The last time he had been so mesmerised by the beauty of a woman, he had been eleven years old and a picture of Grace Kelly had triggered all sorts of things to occur in his mind.

‘Where are the pair of you heading?’ he asked.

‘That mountain,’ said April, pointing towards the mountain.

‘I can do that, I suppose,’ said the man. ‘Hop in.’

They got into the back seat of the car. In the back seat, there was a check shirt rolled up into a ball and a computer.

‘Don’t mind all that crap,’ said the driver. ‘Make room for yourselves.’

Ostriches (or The Mountain)

‘I live just out the road here with my wife,’ the driver said. ‘We have ostriches. An ostrich farm. Have you ever seen an ostrich?’

‘Yeah, I’ve seen them,’ said April.

‘I’ve dreamt of them, I think,’ said Ben.

‘There are many ostrich farms in the area. Have either of you been up this mountain before?’

‘I was there once,’ said April. ‘But I didn’t get the whole way up to the top.’

‘It’s a lovely old mountain,’ said the man. ‘You can see the ostriches from the mountain. You’ll be able to see all the farms if you look carefully enough.’

Good-bye (or Goats)

They said good-bye to the man with the car, and started to scale the mountain. There was hardly anyone around at all at the foot of the mountain, and they found it became even quieter as they gradually made their way upwards. There wasn’t even a goat to be seen, and you expect to see goats near a mountain.

More alone together (or The mountaineering captain)

Ben didn’t talk too much as they hiked. He walked a short stretch ahead of April like a mountaineering captain. He was nervous. At this moment, they were probably more alone together than they had ever been before. He couldn’t get his mind around things.

Twigs (or Sorry afterwards)

Along the way, April picked up a twig and snapped it in two, but felt sorry afterwards because twigs get way too much of that.

The blisters (or Silence)

April was having a hard time. Ben was walking ahead of her, and not saying a word, and it made her uncomfortable. Sometimes she stopped to complain about blisters on her feet or something, just to prompt some conversation. The silence was unbearable.

Nothing’s the matter (or Perfection)

They couldn’t see the sky because of trees, but they knew it was there.

‘I could do with some cocoa, now,’ said Ben. ‘What about you?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said April. ‘Cocoa would be perfection. That would be brilliant.’

‘If I had cocoa now, I think I would be the happiest I’ve been in a long time,’ said Ben.’

‘Really? Have you not been happy recently?’

‘Well, I haven’t been as happy as I used to be,’ he answered, surreptitiously.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked April.

‘Nothing’s the matter,’ he said. ‘I’m just dreaming of cocoa, and saying that I would be a lot happier if I had some.’

‘So would I,’ said April, her thoughts turning to warm toes.

Emus (or A really good idea)

The trees lessened, and they could see the sky again, but they hadn’t doubted its reappearance.

‘We’re getting near the top,’ said Ben. ‘Have you spotted any ostriches yet?’

‘I think I saw one, yeah,’ she said. ‘It was either an ostrich or an emu.’

‘Are they not the same?’

‘No, they’re a completely different thing altogether.’

They stopped to look for ostriches. Ben realised that he hadn’t even once turned to look at this magnificent panorama that was laid out before him. They could see for miles. They forgot all about ostriches once they got started on establishing places and buildings and rivers and bridges and villages and roads and even their own homes. They both then thought to themselves that going up a mountain had been a really good idea.

Some distance (or Not far)

April’s mobile phone started to ring. She answered it. It was Shea Sheridan, of course. She created some distance between herself and Ben so that she could conduct the conversation in private. Ben sat down on a large boulder and stretched himself out. He noticed a small goat appear from behind a large thicket of hedge, but it quickly scurried off. They were not far from the very top of the mountain.

April finished her phonecall (or Both children)

April finished her phonecall. She walked back to the boulder that Ben was stretched out on.

‘The local rock star?’ enquired Ben, impertinently.

‘Yeah,’ said April. She didn’t like his tone of voice. He didn’t like his tone of voice himself.

‘Is anything the matter?’ he asked, sounding a little nicer.

‘No,’ said April. ‘Just Shea, wondering about things.’

‘Did you not tell him you were going up a mountain?’

‘Of course I told him. He knew I was going up a mountain.’

‘Oh, well then. You just look a little anxious, that’s all.’

‘No, I’m okay.’

‘Does he know about me?’

‘What about you?’

‘Does he know that you’re up a mountain with me?

She didn’t say anything for a bit. She blew her nose. She owned the most stylish handkerchief in the district, and she even had a stylish way of blowing her nose to compliment it with.

‘He knows I’m here with you, yes. He knows I’m here with a friend.’

‘Ah-ha. A friend. And we’re such good friends, aren’t we, April?’

‘Will you stop acting stupid?’

‘I just find it strange that myself and yourself, good friends, but good friends who haven’t really spent any time together for a while, have decided to suddenly spend some time with each other on a desolate mountain and you don’t feel the need to tell your boyfriend about it.’

‘Stop getting on like a child.’

‘We are both children, April. Both of us.’

‘You’re the only child here,’ shouted April. ‘Trying to make things complicated and turning everything towards involving you. Me and Shea, as a concept, doesn’t have anything to do with you. Don’t get all quick and abrasive just because he rings me up because he’s concerned about me. Concerned about me.’

Ben made himself quiet.

‘I’m sorry, then. I was only wondering, that’s all.’

Pact (or An absurd pride)

They opened their packed lunches and ate in total silence. They had contrasting packed lunches, and both perceived in each other’s packed lunch, an item that would have been better shared, but there was now an absurd pride in the air which prevented any packed lunch pact from happening.

Exasperated (or Back down)

They were only a short while from the top of the mountain, but they decided to forget about it, and just start walking back down again. They were too tired, and exasperated.

Peace (or I do what I can)

‘I’m sorry I shouted at you,’ said April, after a while.

Peace was on the cards.

‘That’s okay,’ said Ben. ‘It did me some good. It can only be a good thing for a young man to be shouted at every once in a while.’

‘Well, as long as I can help,’ quipped April. ‘I do what I can. You know that, don’t you?’

‘Oh, yes. I deserved it anyway.’

They hadn’t realised it (or Completely)

They hadn’t realised it with all the silence, all the awkwardness, and all the quarrelling, but the sun had disappeared and the day was now completely shit.

‘It got shit of all a sudden, didn’t it?’ stated April.

‘Completely,’ agreed Ben.

Jack and Jill (or Not too much concern)

They started talking about how they were very much like Jack and Jill going up the hill. They laughed and joked about it.

‘Would you like to be romanced, Jill?’ asked Ben, in a jesting manner.

‘Oh, sure, Jack,’ she replied. ‘I could do with a bit of romancing.’

‘Okay, Jill. Here goes.’

He threw himself to the ground, and proceeded to roll down the mountain.

‘Oh, very good, Jack,’ laughed April. ‘That’s the way to do it.’

He wouldn’t stop. He kept on rolling down. He started to go faster and faster. April decided to leisurely walk down behind him as he rolled, just in case he hurt himself, but she made sure not to put on a display of too much concern.

This type of clarity (or Ben’s mind)

Many things were going through Ben’s mind as he rolled down the mountain. For the first time in a long time, a clarity of thought was formed. It seemed to him that maybe this type of clarity was only possible while rolling down a mountain.

Another large boulder (or He lay on the grass and pretended he was dead)

Ben could see a large boulder coming towards him, not the large boulder he had been sitting on earlier, but another, larger boulder, so he slowed the pace, and soon the rolling stopped. He lay on the grass and pretended he was dead.

Ben silent (or A kick on the leg)

April caught up with him and kicked him on the leg.

‘You can get up now, dead man,’ she said. ‘You didn’t go and break your crown, did you?’

Ben remained silent.

Then (or She saw it coming)

Then, Ben slowly came to life. He opened his eyes slowly, and cleared away the dried leaves and grass that had gathered on his face. She had noticed his eyes before, their innocent, emerald sincerity, but this time, she noticed something different. They were his most serious eyes yet. His mouth opened, and some long-incarcerated words that had been planning their escape for quite a long time began to put their plan into effective action. April saw it coming.

‘Okay, we’re on the mountain,’ he began. ‘April, I love you, and there was nothing I could do about it. I love you. There’s nothing you can do about it. I no longer live in continual, lazy hope of anything happening. I decided I could be happy if it didn’t happen a long time ago. This doesn’t mean I no longer feel anything. I feel everything. I’d still like to spend every single day from here on in with you. But I recognise the muddles and the mess-ups and the turmoils we’re prone to. I’m really quite a smart man, you know.’

A wayward tear slowly wobbled down her cherrytoned cheek, and she smiled.

‘So,’ he continued. ‘I’m happy just to get on with things and we can at least say that we had ourselves an interesting situation. It was interesting, very interesting, but now I’d like to maybe think about something else, because I’m not dead yet, and I’ve got all this time on my hands. So do me a great favour, April. A great favour it would be.’

She eyed him in bewilderment.

‘What?’

He offered her his thin, bony hand.

‘Help me up.’


Copyright © SJ McNulty 2003

SJ McNulty was born in Ireland. His short fiction is not normally as long as this one.

This short story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Minus Exquisite is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance

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