Thursday, 28 May 2015

Sufficiency and The Monster (a short story)

We live in a secluded white house that rests on the border of a slumberous lake. My wife runs her own business, a recycling company. She turns used cardboard boxes into more cardboard boxes and sells them – don't ask me to explain the intricacies. I help design light installations for companies which need lots of light at low cost. You've never seen such economically-lit boxes as in my wife's warehouse.

Our home is open plan, laminated flooring and ceramic worktops - you know the type. I built it especially for us almost twelve years ago. The sun blasts through our open kitchen with force, it's been perfectly contoured to support organic illumination wherever possible. We have a family car, but no family, and a small row-boat, though I've never been on the lake. Why, you ask? Well, that’s what this story is all about.

You see, something lives in our lake, I’m convinced. It's the sudden stillness in the afternoon -- the loud silence in the night. Our lake bares an absence of disturbance that just begs to be questioned. Or maybe, as my wife suggests, my mental health is all that I need question. Whether it houses a great demon or not, a simple risk-assessment on my part has ensured I won't soon venture out onto our vast pond.

My wife, Gloria, is an impressive woman. Talented and independent and fun. And radiant, in her middle age. She’s certainly not the stuffy box lady people expect. I often wonder if she didn’t choose the profession only to eschew the preconceptions of others. (A peculiar notion I won't deny, but I also believe a gigantic cyclops serpent sleeps beside my house; absurdity has long since occupied a villa in my mind.) She’s also very brave, though I know it comes in many forms, but she encompasses all of them. Truly.

Sometimes I wonder if I am brave too.

* * *

It was weekend night in the middle of July and we were having a party at the house. Gloria fluttered between guests, sprinkling them with fairy dust as she flew, instantly bringing them to life. There were people from her work, and people from my work. And those people from other people’s work who only show up at parties. It didn’t matter, Gloria befriends all new people, regardless of who they are or where she is. I pretend it bothers me, I roll my eyes when she’s acting particularly exuberant (as indeed she was tonight) but I merely feign intolerance. Gloria's desire to make others happy is my single favourite part of her. Indeed, of life.

She continued to dance, often literally, between company, revivifying half-filled glasses in swirls of good-humor and love, never forgetting to cast me the occasional glance of sham exhaustion. I knew she was not tired of course, Gloria was in her element. But her expression was telling me a silent secret, “you see the real me, Stan,” she was saying. “This look is only for you.”    

The night rolled on, loud and exhausting to none but myself. I noticed Gloria was talking to a gentleman I was still yet to meet. He was taller than me, and younger. And more handsome, if you like that sort of thing. I wandered over to introduce myself; the guy was loud and Gloria laughed at everything he said. He caught me waiting to be included and rested his arm patronisingly on my shoulder.

“So, what’s up buddy?” He asked.

“Yeah, what’s up, Stan?” Gloria repeated. Before I had a chance to answer she was introducing me as her husband. The man offered a transparent “nice party” sentiment and shook my hand before continuing to focus his attention on Gloria. They resumed their conversation entwined, at times gazing into one another with weights for eyes. He was aggressive, treading the lines of appropriateness with heavy feet. Gloria was gleefully in tow.  

I didn’t feel particularly good about the interaction, but it was innocent. (I think.) It was just a drunk guy having some fun. (I told myself.) I slipped away to the kitchen unnoticed and unmissed. Gloria followed soon after and stood at the doorway with eyes of disappointment.

“Everything all right?” I inquired.

“He was flirting with me Stan, wasn't that obvious?” Maybe it was. Maybe it was patently obvious. Or maybe it was just two people laughing at a party and I was feeling sensitive. Either way, why did it matter to her?

“Well, what's wrong with a bit of harmless flirting?” I said whimsically, trying to defuse the bomb.

“He was making me uncomfortable.”

“You didn't seem uncomfortable? You seemed to be chatting just fine. Why were you standing with him?” I felt her anger was misplaced.

“Stan, why do you always act so oblivious?”

“What's wrong? I'm not mad, I don't care if he flirted with you, I'm not afraid you're going to abandon me for some random guy at a party.” I said this in all sincerity. While I don’t care for being a third-wheel to my wife and a drunken charade, I knew that the result was the same whether it bothered me or not. The man was a distraction in a designer shirt. Night-time candy.   

She rolled her eyes. “Sometimes... I just wish you weren't so passive, you know?”

“You want me to fight the guy?” I laughed.

“Maybe? I don't know, just say something back to him. Make fun of him. Even pretend
you don't want him talking to me that way.”

I was confused and insulted. “I can't believe this. You flirt with another guy in front of me and I'm in trouble...”

“You're not in trouble Stan, don't be so pathetic.” She muttered. I looked at her bemused; colour trickled into my black and white vision. New. Red. Potent.

“I just wish you were a bit more of a man sometimes, that's all.” She said, before returning to the party.

More of a man... she wishes I was more of a man? Gloria’s words had sliced me in half. How can anybody be any more or less than what they are? I meant what I had told her, even if she was flirting, it posed no great threat to myself. It didn’t feel particularly good, sure, but this guy was an idiot and I knew, through all of her perfume laughter, that Gloria thought he was an idiot too. So what was I missing? What is this thing that real men have that Gloria required from me? Would a real man have caused conflict? Are real men funnier and more attractive than me? Is a real man more brave? My mind was a market jewellery box - messy, and disappointing at every turn; I spent the rest of the evening rummaging through it amid pushes and shoves. Gloria didn’t talk much to young handsome Johnny Maverick again. Or myself, until 5am.

...of course I brought the subject back up.

“Next time, I'll just tell the guy to shut up to his face.” I started, as she returned from the bathroom.

“Good.” She replied, bluntly.

“And I'll make everything weird.”

“Great.”

“Why is that something you want?” I asked.

“It's not Stan, it's fine, just sit back and accept whatever happens to you in life, that's
what we're all supposed to do isn't it? How you ended up managing a team of people I do not know.”

“I just pick my battles. This didn't seem like a battle I needed to fight.”

“You just pick the battles you know you can win. What do they call you at work, 'safe hands'?”

“Yeah, because I'm reliable and good at what I do.” I quickly retorted.

“Well, I can certainly rely on you to play it safe that's for sure” She said, with pleasure.

My next question was inevitable: “what exactly did you mean when you said I needed to be more of a man?”

She sighed, “don’t you know what that is?” Came the reply, soft and painful.  

I didn’t stick around. I had barely pulled on my jacket as I stormed out of the back door and down towards the lake edge. I unravelled the thick rope securing the boat and stumbled into it. You don't need to do this, I thought. Rowing out onto a lake isn’t going to prove how manly you are. Go back inside, you fool.

I looked towards the house, Gloria was nowhere to be seen. Go home Stan and just... you know... be a bit more gruff in future. Try not to be so polite all the time. Maybe you could fight this guy? At your next party? As long as he didn't end up in hospital, it might be just the ticket?

It was at this point, as I began fantasizing about how to almost hospitalize a complete stranger, that the decision was made. I grasped the oars with determined fists and started for the lake center. My pride was taking my terror to task, something was being proven tonight, this was important. I'm not defeatist, the man at the party posed no threat to me, but this damn lake forever has.

And tonight, I'm going to face its monster.

* * *

It was characteristically calm, the moon looked like it did in the movies. No suggestion of an impending confrontation, but I was unbearably sick. Every imaginary murmur shocked me like a shrill needle. I pulled gasps of pristine air through my lungs trying to calm the waves in my body, each stroke pushed me further from dry land and deeper into my own labile thoughts. I pressed on towards the heart of the pool carrying a growing ache of sadness.

Arriving at the epicentre, or as close as I could estimate, I breathed with intent. Not looking left nor right, but down into my boat. Looking down into my little rocking boat, I breathed. The heat dissipated and I became a beautiful cool - a crouched hero applauded by an audience of trickles and drips. My anxiety subsided, no shoreline immediately in reach, my house barely in view, I was triumphant, for all intents and purposes. But my celebrations would have to wait, there was one thing left I had to prove and God knows I’d waited a long time to prove it...

As if peering over the edge of a cliff, I held tight to the wood and inspected the murky waters in search of life. There was nothing to be seen. Too dark perhaps, Stan? No, not too dark. Just nothing to be seen.

But then again, maybe there was something. I squinted, I held my hand to cover the moon's torch. Fear was colliding fractions of myth and reality; the picture just didn't seem right. My heart began knocking at the door as I inspected the darkness. The water looks so shallow here, I’m sure I can see the bottom. Just a few feet away. Just a few feet…

I swung back inside the boat, rigid. My blood was ablaze; fumes of alarm intoxicated my limbs. It's too dark. You can't see a blasted thing, it's just a pool of water for heaven's sake. Pinned to the deck I listened intently for any minute motion – the lake was a chorus of motion. What had I seen? What great mass lay just beneath the surface?

You're a grown man. You've lived here for years. You've never gathered any hard evidence of a lake monster. You're mad. Lifting myself gently, I scanned my intimidatingly empty lake. Row back fast, Stan.

Taking the oars once more, and with deliberate movements, I began a most professional journey towards home. I peered over my shoulder, our cruel house had ran a further mile away. I returned to face forward in slow motion and with immediate regret.

A dozen hollow eyes crept out of the collapsing black water ahead; prison bar teeth accepted the shiny liquid. A battalion of veins scarred an emerging mutant skull. (My principle thought was how wrong I had been about the beast's number of eyes.) The fabled lake monster was rising before me with an inflated leather torso which climbed like a hot-air balloon. Then arrived two arms. Then two more. Then there were at least fifty. Fifty towering limbs latched to their coriaceous mother with a mesh of corkscrew sinew, culminating at a grid of nashers, sunken nostrils and pus-filled eyes. The head nearly as big as the body. The body almost half the size of each limb. Each limb twice as tall as our house.

I was furious. How foolish to for a moment consider that the quiet nights and calm evenings were not masking a terrific demon. How senseless to let my pride trick me into such danger. The tormented form’s eyes flickered, then argued amongst themselves before deciding upon me - my trembling was near enough to unlock my bones and throw them out my mouth.

I glided my oars through the water, pushing myself back. I moved as if a viper sat between my legs, like I wasn't moving at all, making a shaky getaway. I held my breath and waited for response, but the beast didn't move. I repeated the procedure. The monster stared me down like a beer-filled local at a noticeably suburban trespasser. A third time, I pulled at the oars and drifted a few feet closer to home. Tantalising tentacles motioned gently. Backwards again for a fourth - the beast was content to watch.

I began to row more naturally, but not hurriedly, and despairingly glanced two-dozen great limbs sift subsurface. Now I was racing, thrashing my arms in panicked derangement. The monster’s upper-body remained in position, but I could feel its troop of tentacles swimming like giant eels beneath me.

Then the water began to move differently.

I was slowing down, my boat was free from restraint but trapped in a vortex - it felt like the whole lake had just been unplugged. I was struggling in place battling a hidden vacuum. What the hell is happening? With horror twisted and black, the answer crawled towards me: the monster is creating a funnel.

Cascading swirls of pillowy foam began suffocating down towards the demon; its ghastly face descended from the sky back to water level with mechanical precision, like the dying moments of a carnival ride. And what disturbed me most of all was to witness a mouth so uneager, a mouth waiting so expectantly. Its lack of appetite for the meal hurt me most of all. I was nothing, gristle on the breakfast plate, the fat farmer, already distended, stuffing remains into his mouth just to see it gone.

I dragged my wearying arms through ever-thickening water. How futile a plea to the monster would be, for it appeared to care so little whether I suffered or not, and with this truth, I would suffer. Its widest beastly tentacles crashed at the sides of the pool, rocking waves together and pushing me into the air where they met, I was not to be spoiled, not to be defeated with one weighty blow. I could see at least a twenty truncheon arms silhouetted in the sky - they were just for drama, for fear's sake. Dead-eyed and dumb-brained it drank, water gushing past an open mouth too fast to gulp and returning faster.

I began sliding down through a half-pipe water system towards bloated spiderspawn eyes and the open mouth which would see me snuffed out. Please, may my death be swift, not swallowed whole, left broken boned in the blighted recesses of your boiling, acidulous belly. Don't burn me. Don't burn me. Drown me, please, but don't burn me. Or better yet clobber me and let my unconscious body drift harmlessly through the heavenly gates between your jaws.

I considered tossing myself overboard, but if I were to jump I could not guarantee I would drown - could not turn out my lights quick enough! Oh what misery, such a pitiable end. The monster’s mouth never opened further nor closed narrower, it just waited, while vicious limbs spun a whirlpool around my boat.

Gloria! Fix this for me. Save me. I know you can. Wake from your slumber and tell me, what should I do? As my boat sank closer and closer to the dark abyss, Gloria was who I thought of. Quitting is something on tonight of all nights she would not permit. But it is this night, of all the nights, that I cannot rely on her to protect me - to coach me through, as she always did. What would she do? Sitting on a sinking ship, confronted by her worst fear. Her worst enemy. What would she do?

Nothing came to me. It’s useless, the situation is too far removed, it’s unthinkable, really. Gloria doesn't have enemies...

I breathed an empty sigh of almost relief. Well, my dear, I guess that settles it.

Dropping the oars, I searched the back of the boat and my hands came to rest on a small wooden box. I bust it open, and pulled out a slender bottle of 1964 Glenlivet, my victory malt, placed almost a decade earlier and reserved for the most special of occasions. I was to sip this on the day I finally rowed upon our beautiful lake, with my beautiful wife beside me.

“I'm sorry it couldn't be with you, Gloria” I whispered, unscrewing the cap. In your spirit, I shall cast aside my preconceptions, and drink with my new friend. I took a hearty swig, I was half mad. Gloria would befriend all new company, I thought, as I approached the gaping mouth. I'm sure she could even win you around...

Disregard what you think you know of those who you have never drank with at the close of a trying day. I offered the thirsty beast a kind share, pouring the golden liquor down the throat I sailed towards. To new friends, I toasted.

At first, a disgruntled gurgling slid out through the grate of teeth with a near flesh-melting odour, followed quickly by eruption of hot yellow innards.

Goodness... I've poisoned the poor beggar! I gave it but a drop!

I braced as the beast-guts splattered against my ship, a volley of bile shot across me like a sludgy cannonball as the leviathan moaned - now nothing but a giant sad puppy sagging in the slag. I held my breath and hunkered down, riding the mustard wave back to shore as the choking demon convulsed in splutters of softfish gravy.

I don't regret being brought to this monster on this frightful night, I thought, as I drifted in mind and body. I regret that I have not been brought here sooner. Few are permitted such grand opportunity to duel with their lake monster. To be free to sail into uncharted waters and say “I am brave! I am enough!”

I reached the pebbles of the shore as daylight was seeping over the surrounding trees. Tattered, I crawled up the beach towards the car, a renewed sense of worth clung to my tired body like tar.

Gloria trotted outside wearing a pink dressing gown and bunny rabbit slippers. I looked up at her wearing a seaweed wig. “What are you doing down there, Stan?” She said, mystified.

“Gloria, you won't believe what has happened, I did it... I beat it...I...” I pointed towards the lake but it looked curiously undisturbed.

“Well, I woke up and you weren't in the house and I was worried, so thanks for scaring me half to death while you were out here playing in the sand” She snapped, before scurrying back into the house.

What did she even think I was doing?

*  *  *

I’m not sure that I’ll ever be what it means to be a real man - I don’t even know what that is. How does anybody be any more or less than what they are? I can boast to Gloria about how I slayed the demon which had haunted me for a decade - would that victory be enough to convince her? Perhaps I could fight monsters and men at parties for the rest of my life and still fall short.

In the months that followed that night on the lake, I never told Gloria about what had happened, and I doubt I ever will. Did I run from the real threat that evening, and instead face up to a fallacy? Or was the deep end of the pool truly housing the greatest demon? I guess it’s not important.

I’m not sure that I will ever be what it is to be a man and I’m not sure I’ll ever meet Gloria’s expectations. I’m not sure if I am somebody who she can be proud of, if I am the person she would choose if provided the opportunity to choose any other, and I certainly don’t know if I am any better or worse than any other man on this earth.

But I know I am brave... and I know I am kind...

And I know I am enough...

With, or without, my monsters.