Spider man

The time just after New Year always depresses me. I’ve given up on making bold resolutions even though I desperately need to. But this year it was time for some mental housekeeping. My special Christmas gift was to find out in late December that the pain behind my right knee wasn’t a torn ligament.

“OK,” the doctor said and rubbed his hands together. “You have a long blood clot in your right leg extending from the middle of your thigh to the popliteal vein and a few inches into your calf.”

He smiled. “It’s life-threatening,” he added.

“Uhm,” I began.

“This is the popliteal,” he said and swivelled his screen for me to see.

I said something I cannot now remember.

“Are you South African?” he asked.

I said that I was and listened to his story about doing charity work in Botswana in the nineties and hitchhiking across the border to Potgietersrus.

“What are we going to do?” I asked when he was done. “Can you take it out?”

The doctor waved this aside. “First,” he said, “we’re going to put you on strong blood thinners. They’ll help the body dissolve the clot over time.”

“And then?”

“Well,” he said, “hopefully that’s it. Then we watch you.”

“You said first?”

The doctor turned again to the ultrasound images on his screen. He flipped between two of them, back and forth, back and forth, and then he said, “There are more drastic things we could do, but hopefully it doesn’t come to that.”

“And the life-threatening bit? Is it my heart, or what?”

He gathered some of his papers. “That, yes, or a pulmonary embolism. Or a stroke.”

“Merry Christmas,” I said. “At least I have options.”

“It’s not so bad,” he smiled and rested his hand on my shoulder. “Let me put in an order for Xarelto.”

After he’d asked extensively about my medical history and explained how the blood thinners would work, I was left to wait for around an hour. Sitting there alone, I had ample time to wonder about things. Just that morning I’d told my squash partner that it felt as though I had a hole in my lung. Perhaps I’d had an embolism already? Eighteen months earlier, my brother-in-law, at the age of fifty-four, had died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. We’re so cocky, I thought, so taken in by the delusion that everything is limitless, and yet we dangle just a heartbeat above the void.

I tried to read a book on my phone, but I couldn’t focus. It wasn’t that the book seemed silly, or that I was suddenly beset by a new resolve to go off and do things. On the contrary, I was quite happy to do nothing more. If everything stopped that day, I wondered, what would it be that I’d done? What was the best thing I’d ever done? And what was the worst?

The answer to the last two questions was a single thing. In 1987, I did basic training as part of mandatory military service in South Africa. Our platoon was on a three-day march across the arid veldt of what was then the Western Transvaal. We’d stopped in the dappled shade of the only tree for miles around to eat some canned food and drink water. We were tired and sunburnt. A sad-faced guy called Dirk sat against a log across from me.

“Watch it!” someone shouted at Dirk.

Dirk leapt to his feet. From a crack in the log he’d sat against, a Red Roman spider had emerged. It was large and hairy and hideous. A few other men gathered around.

“Kill it!” one of them urged Dirk.

I had watched people squash insects and spiders before without saying a word, swallowing the anger that the lessons of my youth had instilled. But that day, something came over me that I still cannot quite explain. Perhaps it was the heat.

‘Wait!” I cried. “Wait!”

Dirk had his boot raised above the spider.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled.

“What’s with you?” someone asked.

“Dirk,” I said, “look at him.”

Dirk slowly put his foot down.

“This is his home, not ours,” I pleaded. “He’s ugly to us, but come here and look closely.”

Dirk hesitated and then leant a little closer. The spider raised its front legs in defence.

“See,” I said, “he’s in there, just like I’m in here, and you’re in there.”

The spider scuttled around the bend of the log and was almost out of sight.

“Let him go,” I said.

In the late nineties, I was doing Christmas shopping in a mall in Port Elizabeth when someone called my name from a distance. Though he was twelve or so years older, Dirk’s sad face was instantly recognisable. He was out of breath.

“I always wondered if I’d ever see you again,” he panted.

My girlfriend and I had just fought and I was in a bad mood. “Hello,” I mumbled.

“These are my boys,” Dirk said.

He had three boys with him. The eldest looked to be around ten years old.

This is the spider man,” Dirk told them.

The boys all looked like Dirk—had the same sad face—but now they beamed and shook my hand.

“I’ve always wanted to thank you,” Dirk said. “What you said to me that day took a while to sink in, but it changed my life.”

My girlfriend scowled at us from a bench nearby.

“And it’s changed theirs, too,” Dirk said.

Sitting alone in that room at the hospital, thinking back on this, I knew without hesitation that it was the best thing I’d ever done. But it was also the worst. Instead of staying for a while to talk with Dirk and his boys, I cut them short. I remember still, with ever-lasting shame, how I glanced back to see Dirk put his arm around the shoulders of the youngest boy as they watched me walk away.

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Compact wisdom

It was our last full day in Bali. At lunch, Mia and I ended up arguing over what I would do next. She was going to a market to buy gifts. I was considering a swim at Kuta Beach.

“The sun is blazing,” Mia said. “You’ll fry to a crisp. You already have a farmer’s neck.”

“But I want to swim,” I said. “I haven’t touched seawater yet.”

“And who’s fault is that?” Mia asked.

She had a point. I drank tap water in Ubud and was out of circulation, so to speak, for two days.

“I guess—”

“Swim at the hotel,” she smiled. “There’s shade and lots of old ladies to protect you should something go wrong.”

I had to admit that the idea of going to Kuta Beach had its downsides, even for me. I’d spend an hour in the taxi to get there from Sanur to begin with. Then I’d have to keep my money and the room key in my pocket while I swam. And then I’d have to sit for another hour or more in a taxi to get back.

“I could swim beyond the reef,” I suggested.

Sanur has a pond of a beach due to a reef about two hundred meters offshore. I could wade to this reef, cross it, and swim in the big waves beyond.

“Are you out of your mind?” Mia asked. “It’s high tide at four.”

“So? I’ll get back before then.”

Mia gave me a look I had seen all too often over the better part of my adult life, a look I have come to associate with the tail ends of arguments.

“You couldn’t even float down small rapids in the Skykomish River without getting banged up. How the hell are you going to come back over a roaring reef?”

She was referring to a recent surge of testosterone which had compelled my friend Xavier and I to float down small rapids in the Skykomish River, rapids that turned out to be much larger when experienced in person.

“I’ll just take a look,” I said.

“You’re an idiot,” Mia concluded.

At the hotel, I walked to the sea and came out onto the esplanade where the hotel security guard sat in his little booth. As I stood, hands on my hips, and looked out to the reef, he spoke up. “What you thinking?” he asked.

“I think,” I said, “maybe to swim at the reef.”

The guard shook his head. “No,” he said summarily. “Stupid. Water stong. Coral sharp. No good.”

As I walked back to the hotel, I wondered what life would have been like if Mia had been possessed of such compact wisdom.

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The occidental weakness of smiling

This weekend, while walking along the Burke-Gilman trail from where I live to Woodinville, I came upon a group of octogenarian Japanese tourists. I don’t know why they were on the trail, nor how they’d come to be there. They looked like some sort of old-person delegation because one of them waved a rather large Japanese flag. Whatever the case, they milled about near the wooden bridge that connects the trail to the town of Bothell. Most of them were pretty frail but all of them seemed to be in good spirits. As I approached, it became obvious that they were making fun of men on recumbent bikes. One had just passed, reclined as though on a wheeled deck chair, cranking handles to propel himself instead of pedalling, with a jaunty flag twirling from a tall antenna. When you walk the trail, you get used to the sight of these bikes and the men who ride them, but the Japanese had presumably not seen such a thing before and fell over one another with laughter. One old man pantomimed the man on the bike and an old woman laughed so hard that her dentures popped out. This caused more laughter and chattering that didn’t sound anything like the archetypal Japanese I had learned at the movies—growled foundations of nouns followed by explosions of verbs, always with a san somewhere in them, always sounding like a confluence of bitter disappointment and strained indignation.

What had become of Japan? I thought. Where were its stoic people, dedicated to perfection and ritual? Set them loose in America, it seemed, and they fell apart.

Suddenly, another old man barked an order. By then I had stopped altogether, as had others. Still laughing and babbling, the group began to arrange itself for a photo. The man with the camera took up his position.

Sei—” he warned.

The old Japanese settled down and frowned at the camera.

No—” the man with the camera continued.

All twenty or so of them stiffened into Edwardian black-and-whiteness, and then he snapped the picture.

Instantly, the old people dissolved into laughter and bantering. As I walked on, I marvelled at this. In the West, people had been posing all smiles and hand gestures for decades, no matter how they felt. With the advent of the smartphone, that habit had spread to the East as well, where, as in the West, it had lowered IQs all around and now infected everyone under the age of fifty. It had always seemed idiotic to me to go down in history with a grin. Who knew what was to become of Japan, I thought as I took the bend at 102nd Avenue, or of all of us, but at least the families of these old people would remember their grandparents for how they truly were, disappointed and indignant at what they saw in America.

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Many years ago, Jack and I had a mutual friend called Adrian (see the story Degrees of freedom). In addition to being an extremely talented mathematician, Adrian had an extremely annoying musical gift. He had taught himself to play the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on a synthesiser, without ever having had any musical training. This upset me. I had grown up hearing these pieces on Sundays when my father declared anew that Kiss and Foreigner were never to darken our house again. When he was done declaring, my father sat down at the piano and played and replayed many of the forty-eight pieces from the first book, haltingly, then with fervour, and then testily, always returning to the 8th prelude in E flat minor for solace and foundation. I often stood beside him, wishing that we could play chess instead, watching his fingers as he probed the keys to resuscitate Bach. The 8th prelude is a haunting piece. To this day it evokes for me the memory of what my father smelled like. It was therefore fundamentally unacceptable that Adrian could play it while I could hardly hum its main theme.

Adrian’s musical interests included only Bach. He could not care less about other composers. They were mere imposters, borrowing from Bach and then missing the quintessence of him, lapsing into saccharine refrains or fringe-bouncing key bashing. The more Adrian practised Bach to the exclusion of all others, the more he became capable of improvising in his style. This, needless to say, was upsetting too. But it was so beguiling that I forgave him and spent hours listening as he played, at a moment’s notice, whatever tune I’d put forward as a challenge, but in the counterpoint of Bach. I tried everything from Happy Birthday to You, to Yesterday, but Adrian, like my father, drew the line at Kiss and Foreigner and claimed not to know the songs Beth and Waiting for a girl like you.

Shortly after Adrian had granted himself a degree and enrolled in a doctoral programme in Computer Science—a programme he would later abandon in disgust—he met Samantha, a mousy woman doing a doctorate in Music. How this happened was never revealed. But Samantha had access to a harpsichord that stood in the basement of the university concert hall, the Aula, and that’s what mattered. Through Samantha, Adrian would gain access to this harpsichord and finally be able to practise Bach the way Bach did.

“She’s given me this key,” he announced when he’d brought us to a side door at the back of the Aula, behind the coffee shop where we always met. The hall was used daily by music students and now and then for debates and graduation ceremonies, and so Adrian added, “It opens onto the stage. Be quiet.”

He unlocked the door and eased it open gingerly, but there was no one around. We crossed the stage, on which stood a lone grand piano, and descended into the basement beneath it using a spiral stairway on the opposite side.

“She says I can come and practise as long as no one knows,” Adrian beamed when we came to the harpsichord.

The harpsichord was a thing of beauty, longer than I’d ever imagined, with two rows of keys.

“Are you fucking this Samantha?” Jack asked abruptly.

We would find out many years later that Adrian had always been gay, something we had been too obtuse to even notice.

“No,” Adrian waved the suggestion away. “But I like her.”

“She sure likes you,” I said. “You know, giving you a key and all that. Letting you use this.”

“I don’t think so,” Adrian said after what looked like careful consideration. “She’s just impressed that I could teach myself to play, that’s all.”

Over the next year, as Adrian mastered the harpsichord, Samantha became less impressed. Their friendship began to deteriorate. We found out because Adrian would drop subtle hints or sigh, and then explain how one thing or another wasn’t quite the way it had been. It was clear to us that he had done to her what he had done to his Applied Mathematics lecturer, and had overshadowed her work with his raw talent.

“She’s just stressed,” he said. “Her thesis is at a difficult point, and she hasn’t performed in a long while.”

“She’s stressed because of you,” Jack remarked.

“She’s asked for the key,” Adrian added glumly.


“But I’ve made a copy.”

“You have?”

Now Adrian could only practise on weekends, or very late at night, whenever he was sure that Samantha would not be around. His musical career had gone underground.

“I’m playing in a basement,” he sniffed a few months later, unamused.

“You’re the Jane Austen of music,” Jack said.

Adrian smiled by moving his ears. “It shouldn’t be this way,” he complained. “Music should be elevated above human pettiness.”

Nothing is elevated above human pettiness,” I said. “It’s our highest achievement.”

“Playing on the synthesiser is not the same,” Adrian sighed and waved me away. “I need to play on the harpsichord.”

Instead of being thankful for what time he could get on the harpsichord, Adrian became increasingly enraged by the indignity of having to sneak around. One afternoon, in the Aula coffee shop, he started again. “I’m playing Bach for fuck’s sake,” he said, visibly exercised by the novelty of using the words Bach and fuck in the same sentence.

“So what?” Jack retorted with some irritation. “Who cares if you’re playing Beethoven’s eardrum?”

Adrian looked at Jack as though he had just noticed him for the first time.

“Where’s she now?” Jack asked before Adrian could recover.


“Your mother,” Jack said loudly. “Samantha.”

Adrian blanched. “She’s practising on the stage piano,” he hesitated. “Why?”

“How do you know?”

“I heard her,” Adrian said sheepishly. “I listened outside the stage door before I came here. She’s probably rehearsing for some recital.”

“Then let’s go,” I said.


“Let’s go talk to her.”

“Now,” Jack said, pulling Adrian out of his chair.

“But—” Adrian protested as we frogmarched him from the coffee shop.

“But nothing.”

“But what must I say?” Adrian asked when we came to the stage door.

We could just make out the third fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier being played inside. Samantha was playing it as Mozart might have, exploiting what the piano allowed but the harpsichord hadn’t in Bach’s day.

“Go on,” Jack said and gave Adrian a little shove. “Open up.”

“But what must I say?” Adrian pleaded again. “It’s crap. Listen!”

“Think about the harpsichord,” I said.

Adrian fumbled in his pocket and produced the key he had cut. “I’ll wait until she’s nearer the end,” he explained, holding up a stipulating finger. “And you two wait out here.”

We all knew the fugue well. At the last few measures, Adrian inserted the key into the lock, turned it, and eased open the door. A sliver of afternoon sun fell across the darkened stage and across Samantha, who sat with her back toward us, hunched over the piano in the coda of the fugue. When her fingers came away from the keys, Adrian opened the door all the way and marched onto the stage.

“Bravo!” he roared, applauding loudly, striding along like a stork. “Encore!”

Then he stopped. The pianist had not turned around and seemed to arch away from the sound of his voice. It was also clear now that it was not Samantha, but a man. To his left, almost invisible in contrast with the bright wedge of sunlight that fell across the stage, was a rather large audience.

A few days later Adrian was forced to return the key he’d made and was formally banned from the Music Department and all its buildings forever. Barging onto the stage during a post-graduate recital—Samantha and other doctoral students were reinterpreting composers in the style of later movements—was an unthinkable violation of all things civilised. Shortly after, I visited my parents for a Sunday lunch. My father had long before given up on the idea of meeting Bach at the piano, and had instead put on the only recording of the three violin concertos that he believed to do them justice—the 1962 recording by David and Igor Oistrakh—which now played in the living room.

“Is this the same Adrian you told me about a while ago?” he asked, wiping his glasses after a good laugh.

“The same.”

“Jesus,” my father sighed and sat back in his chair. “Play it again, Sam.”

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Almond shiner

I’ve been called many things in my life, but last night I heard what I believe cannot be topped in what remains of my days. It was around midnight, and Mia and I had gone to bed after an evening of immigration admin that had brought me within a micron of gouging my own eyes out. I had spent hours stitching together our travel history using emails and a magnifying glass to inspect the entry and exit stamps in our passports. Then I did the same thing to retrace where we had lived, and when, down to the day. Throughout, as is my nature, I ranted at no one in particular and provided a running commentary of what I was having to do. Mia, as is her nature, was calmer than I was. She could afford to be calmer because she wasn’t really doing any of the work. Instead, she viewed the whole business almost as an outsider, with passing interest and mild amusement.

“This is for you too, you know?” I said.

“But you’re so good at it,” she replied.

Now she was dropping off to sleep while I tried, finally, to do something I could call my own, and read for a few minutes.

“I’m glad that’s done,” I said with some resentment.

Mia smiled sleepily and mumbled, “You’re my almond shiner.”

“Your what?”

She pressed her head deeper into the pillow. “My almond shiner.”

It took me a few moments to compute this. “Shining armour?”

“Hmm,” she smiled faintly. “My knight.”

As she sank away, I pictured myself standing on a street corner at a little fold-out table, buffing almonds for a living and talking to passersby. That seemed about right, I thought, and turned out the light.

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Another one

My mother has a sharp mind and blunt principles. She and my father were together, I think, for the same reason that electrons and protons are together, attracted by their mutual opposition. My father believed in the truth. This belief was the closest he came to religion. It was the closest he came to something he didn’t question and couldn’t really defend. My mother attacked this faith of his daily. Her assaults on the truth demanded that he step in to defend it, lest it be outgunned and outmanoeuvred, but his resistance was futile. Facts, it turned out, could not compete with drama.

My mother stretched and shrunk numbers to fit whatever story she was telling.

“I’ve told you four hundred and three times,” she’d say.

It was never thousands of times, or a hundred. It was specific, as though she’d counted these instances and there had been, in point of fact, four-hundred-three of them.

“You didn’t,” my father would counter. “It was more like—” he’d say, trailing off as he saw how he’d been suckered into doing the same thing, only with smaller numbers, “more like ten.”

She recounted things in such a way as to completely alter them. She did it so convincingly that my father’s insistence on the truth seemed, if anything, misguided.

“Then your father said,” she’d say, “you have a strong chin for such a weak face.”

“I didn’t say that,” my father would object, “I told you that afterwards.”

Yet, now and then, she bent the truth in a way that even my father was willing to overlook. Once, on some Sunday when I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, my father’s oldest brother and all my cousins were over for lunch. My father and my uncle didn’t like one another much, and my aunt was always looking for things to find fault with. When she did, her insults were delivered in a near-Victorian manner.

“How lovely,” she once said of a new dress my mother was wearing. That’s always suited you.”

On this particular Sunday, my mother had made a leg of lamb. As she came from the kitchen toward the table, carrying the leg of lamb on a tray, she tripped and the whole thing bounced into a corner of the dining room. There was a sharp intake of breath from my aunt as my mother scooped it up in a fluid movement. No one said anything. As my mother was about to head back to the kitchen, she stopped, turned, and made an announcement. “Fortunately,” she said, “I have another one.”

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The apex of anger

I don’t think people who lived long ago truly understood anger. As far as I can tell, you only discover how angry you can get when you use a computer or drive a car. Of course, these things anger us for different reasons. A computer is infuriating as only something that is for all intents and purposes magical can be the day it doesn’t work. It’s like a limp wand. You can’t open it up and you can’t throw it across the room without breaking it or risking the sort of magic you don’t want to see. Yet you know that it’s not really the computer’s fault. There is someone, somewhere, whose fault it actually is, and you’d like to kill this person. When you drive a car, it is simpler. There is also someone you’d like to kill, but you know where this person is—in the next car.

I preempt all of this anger by getting angry before I start. That way, I figure, I don’t have to wait until something happens. I can get nicely worked up beforehand, and be ready when it does. I’m primed for hesitant drivers in their Prii—which, believe it or not, is the preferred plural of Prius—for stove-sized pedestrians, reverse parkers, and the like. The anger is less than useless, of course, but I’ve decided to embrace it against all self-help softness. If I cannot compose myself, I might as well compose long sentences using only swear words.

But nothing prepares you for the modern car. The modern car offers all the opportunities for rage that we’ve come to expect from older cars, but it has a computer inside of it and this adds an orthogonal dimension of outrage. My Ford Escape is a modest car as cars go, but a modern car nonetheless. It came equipped with a computer that is voiced by a synthesised woman who sounds positively post-coital. When I get into this Ford I might as well forget about the ire inspired by other drivers, and get ready for anger of the combined kind.

“Doong—doong—doong,” the Ford goes until I buckle up.

At this point, seconds in, I’m already seething. Who decided to let cars enforce a law? I wear a seat belt because it makes sense, but I feel ready to rebel when the car insists that I do. I’m surprised they haven’t yet mandated that cars refuse to start until you’re strapped in and have submitted to a quick eye exam and a breathalyser test.

“Call Mia,” I say after pressing the voice command button.


“I didn’t get that,” the sleepy woman intones. “You can say, navigate to, or…”

“Call Mia!” I try again.

“Mamma Mia,” Siri cuts in from my phone, having somehow felt summoned, “here we go again, by Abba.”

At this point, I’m probably a few hundred meters from where I started, but I’m ready to kill the next guy in a Prius. All of this is sort of normal and happens more or less every time I get into my car. The apex of anger, however, can only be reached with the help of the navigation system.

“Obey traffic laws,” the sleepy woman slurs at an intersection where I desperately need the system to kick in and tell me which way to turn, “and use voice commands while driving.”

By the time she gets through all of her warnings and tells me what to do, I’ve had to turn the wrong way and am swept along in a concatenation of swearing.

“Rerouting,” she interrupts Frida and Agnetha who wail blue since the day we parted.

The truly infuriating aspect of the navigation system is its indifference in the face of our anger. Rerouting is not what Mia would say. If we ever get truly intelligent navigation systems, I hope that they also act the way humans would.

“What the fuck!?” I’d like the system of the future to shriek. “You meathead! I said left!”

But it’s no use. By the time we can have a system like that, we’d be strapped in the back seat, driven around by the car itself. Who knows, perhaps I’m wrong about anger and computers and cars. Perhaps real anger is the destiny of the people of the future who will helplessly watch as the self-driving Prius ahead of them hesitates and slows down for no reason whatsoever.

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But begun

My maternal grandmother lost her parents to the Spanish flu, in early 1919. She was nine years old at the time. Her mother died in the morning. A servant rode to the undertaker in town and returned with men and a cart to collect the body. The undertaker’s men took one look at my grandmother’s father and went outside to sit under a tree and smoke until he was dead an hour or so later. That day, my grandmother and her sisters went to live with their grandparents.

My great-great-grandfather was a fussy and fastidious man. He interfered in everything, and no detail escaped his attention. Tasks had to be completed just so, and nothing else would do. His particular standards were such that the farm workers grew accustomed to standing around while he explained exactly how he wanted them to do something, and watching him complete the task in the process.

“Oh lordy, no,” he’d say to servants cutting meat to feed a sausage mincer. “Not like that!”

My grandmother told us that he’d then cut the meat into perfect cubes. “We do it neatly,” he’d say and feed the cubes into the mincer while the workers watched in puzzlement.

His wife, my great-great-grandmother, was not like that. She was a severe and tight-lipped woman. She didn’t care much for details, and she was not given to trifling emotions like sympathy and regret. She wanted to get things done.

“During the Boer War,” my grandmother told us, “when the English came to burn the farm, she set fire to things herself before they could.”

When she turned forty-three (see the story The half-life of simplicity), she had her coffin made, ready to be used. She had wanted a say in what it looked like, and she wanted to be familiar with it by the time they put her into it. As so often happens, difficult people live long lives, despite their belief that the Angel of Death is perched on the headboard. My great-great-grandmother did not die young and the coffin stood on the verandah for another forty years, filled from time to time with dried peaches.

While she hardly ever said anything, my great-great-grandmother is remembered to this day in a saying we have taken from her. In the nineteen-thirties, my grandmother told us, my great-great-grandfather started having headaches. He refused to travel to town to see a doctor, but he whimpered incessantly from the pain.

“Stop complaining!” my great-great-grandmother apparently snapped. “Go see the doctor.”

“The doctor can come to see me,” he replied.

Indeed, a few months later, when a gaping hole had opened above his temple, the doctor came to see him. By then my great-great-grandfather was almost delirious with pain, and it was too late. He had a meningeal tumour, and that was that. The doctor and my great-great-grandmother stood at the bedroom door and discussed the course his illness would take. My grandmother, then in her twenties, stood quietly by. From his bed, my great-great-grandfather moaned that he’d like a mirror so he could inspect the hole himself. At this point, my great-great-grandmother turned on him and uttered the words we use today in jest and sarcasm.

“Be quiet!” she snapped. “Your suffering has but begun.”

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The fucking game

Today, for no reason I can think of, I remembered the time Jack didn’t meet Amy. I’ve mentioned Jack’s tendency to un-meet women before (see the stories The one-lion cure for depression and A formula for distance), but I somehow forgot about the first and most telling example of this.

At the heart of Jack’s trouble with women lay the insurmountable problem of touching. The idea that a woman might want to touch him was at variance with his assumption that women were abstract versions of men who never became violent and smelled better. Once a would-be girlfriend became touchy, she became concrete. At that point, Jack left skid marks.

Then came Amy. Jack was sitting at his usual table in the far corner of our favourite coffee shop, brooding over a poem he was writing. The way he related it to me, he was furiously writing, minding his own business. But I’ve heard from others that he was staring into the distance while he slowly destroyed a plastic plant that stood nearby. Amy appeared out of nowhere and sat down at his table. She began to talk. She was a philosophy student, she said. She delivered a monologue about Derrida and Chomsky and modern physics and Zen and music and artificial intelligence. She asked no questions, and Jack never said a word. Then she left.

“She’s perfect,” Jack told me.

He returned to the coffee shop for the rest of the week but Amy didn’t show up. In her absence, she became even more perfect. Jack carefully constructed the details of their future relationship using the evidence of her talking and what it implied.

“We’ll be unsullied by vulgar physical details,” he theorised over the weekend. “There won’t be sex or anything like that.”

He resolved to seek her out in the coming week and get to know her. On Tuesday she came to the coffee shop but his nerves failed him and he did nothing. He sat in his corner and watched her having coffee at another table with friends. After an hour or so, they left.

“Nothing stopped her,” Jack fumed. “Is she testing me? Am I to take my turn now?”

“That’s how it works,” I said. “What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s crap,” he seethed. “It’s just a fucking game.”


He moved around in his small kitchen, picking things up and putting them down again.

“I hate games,” he said at length.

“Remember when you told me that there wouldn’t be sex or anything like that?” I said.


“You’re right. There won’t be. There won’t be anything, for that matter, if you don’t do something.”

“But it’s crap.”

“What do you want? A cosmic connection?”

Jack kicked his dustbin.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t want this primitive shit. It’s what animals do.”

The next week he returned to the coffee shop, sat in his corner, and waited for Amy to show up. When she did, he ignored her, but he furtively noted her body language, the movements of her hands, the way she tossed her hair, and the way she and her friends glanced at one another’s shoes.

“It was all bullshit,” he told me. “She knows nothing about physics.”

“And you know nothing about chemistry,” I said.

“She’ll be needy,” Jack countered. “And she’ll want a lot of touching.”

When I flopped into the only comfortable chair he owned, Jack summarised everything. “I’m done with love,” he declared. “It’s crap.”

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