Wastepaper Basket Part II: Les Mortes

***Health warning: I’m putting this here because I realised it’s unpublishable, and I’ve recycled the good parts into a different thing***

Les Mortes

There’s a football match on tomorrow. Or a rugby match the day after. There is a sporting event of some kind to be staged in the near future, of this I am certain. The occasion itself is unimportant though; the result is that the pub is empty. The yuppies are conserving their testosterone in their settlements on the commuter belt, rather than crowding the place, by their stances making even standing, or holding a drink, seem like contrived things to be doing. The bartender is leaning easy, either against the bar, watching the newsreader’s mouth flap, or against a wall behind him, polishing a glass. I sit at the bar and I order a coffee. Drinking coffee after five is what writers do, in lieu of getting drunk and going mad.  

I spend forty minutes being dissatisfied with what I’m writing, watch my ideal gather itself into existence, maybe just for a moment, before slipping again into just a crust of ink left on a page, over which I gibber in apologetics. I scribble, doodle idly, rage against the feckless muse stewing herself in some lake. I can see her now in a hushed glade blasted by yellow light. I wonder what she’s waiting for.

Eager for distraction, I watch the threshold of the public house; I feel its presence to be tinged with an accusation, like a blank page setting its mute face in mine. I wonder who will be the next person to walk through that door.  Whoever it is, perhaps they can redeem me, redeem all this, the differengenera in ink into a fluent jaunt. I wait with the bartender, my unwitting accomplice in the itch of expectancy, for ten minutes, before a young-ish woman walks in.

If she is older than me it is not by a wide margin. Some inferior novelist might refer to her as ‘willowy,’ ‘lithe’ or ‘svelte.’ She makes an enquiry of the barman before sitting or ordering: have you a socket around that I could use? He says that he does and after settling herself in the corner, she orders a glass of red wine. I watch all this happen while giving the impression that I am absorbed in the first volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. In the original French of course. Have I neglected to mention that I’m reading Proust in the original? I rarely do.

The woman types intermittently, leaning into the screen and then sitting back to consider. The screen’s light illuminates her face bluely and makes her expression of placid disinterest seem improbable. She has disturbed the library air of the pub; it smells like outside now. With a sadness that breaks inside me, tectonically, I realise that she is quite beautiful. I would attribute it to the light from her screen, it is autumnally – no, wait, it is, soothing, perhaps oceanic in ways. But this impressionistic crossword of description is tedious, I’ll confess that I noticed her attractiveness already, when she first came in, I just didn’t mention it at the time, it would’ve been uncouth. Courtships are much more admirable before they’ve happened, before all the dithering starts.

I get excited for a moment, realising that my sadness might yield something worth recording, something that could be wrung out. The pen is ready, but the feeling doesn’t give anything up, it just sort of, sits there in the chest, obstinate and fat. I order a beer.

Unreason, or the rude stupidity of jumping the gap into action, is something that has to be done. One cannot think one’s way into doing. This is because the mind is a catastrophiser, an enemy of acts. It is a poor compatriot. It is in tribute to this turncoat, thought, that of my doing, I will remain silent.

The conversation is in its moderate, early stages. Where she works, what her name is, these sorts of things. Noticing my book, she produces her own, a slim novel. But I am not deceived, it is one that I have read, one of my favourites.

—Do you like it?

—Yeah, I love it. It’s so good.

She places it, cover down on the table.

—It is a little grim though.

—Grim?

—Yeah, just, a bit too close to the bone sometimes.

These are astute enough, not incorrect observations. Seeing this line of enquiry reach its natural end, I point to her computer.

—What are you working on at the minute?

—I thought you’d never ask. Breakthrough stuff.

She turns the laptop around so that I can see the spreadsheet that she’s authoring. I look at it without reading, for as long as I assume it is polite to look at a spreadsheet.  

—Looks heavy. I can’t deal with that stuff myself.

—Oh, it’s not too complicated, there’s no functions or anything.

—Doesn’t look that way. These cells here are overflowing.

She laughs.

–No, really, look, they’re just long because they’re full addresses.  It is a list of the constituency offices of sitting TD’s.

—That is exciting. Why would you be working on something like that?

—Because I am competent enough for my boss to trust me with the most important job in the whole company, to verify the addresses that we send our branded calendars out to at the end of the financial year.

—Must be complicated to keep track of that many, I say, letting her go out of focus as I take a drink. The liquid has reached a point a little past the glass’ half-way bulge.

—Yes and no. It’s all on Google after all. The only thing is I have to make sure that I have their old addresses in there.

I make my face register puzzlement, just a dash.

—Old addresses? Why’s that?

—Well, I’m, dead, and that makes it a bit more…difficult.

—Oh.

She looks at me.

—Is that a problem?

—No. Course not, why would it be?

—Because of the way you said ‘Oh’ like that. Like you thought I was…weird or  defective or something.

—No, no, I don’t think that.

Her gaze is still on me. If I couldn’t see it, I’d be able to feel it. It might be time to concede.

—Really, I don’t. I was a bit surprised. …this’ll sound bad, but you are the first dead person I’ve ever spoken to.

She raises her glass,

—Well you could start by maybe not using the word ‘dead,’ thanks.

downs it.

—I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend. ‘Person of post-living’ isn’t it?

—Yes. It, is.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person-of-post-living. There was a PPL society around campus when I was in college, running mixers and balls and such. And I’ve read a take about how Goths who wear pale make-up are appropriating necro-culture for its cachet, without having to deal themselves with any of the structural oppression that comes of being a person-of-post-living. Is there something in that for a conversation? I don’t really want to find out – I’d rather get us away from all this in truth.

—How, how is it?

—Being dead?

—Well, yes.

She sighs, looks tired and past me, regarding the empty glass and the news beyond it.

—You don’t have to, and it must get annoying to have idiots like me ask, but I’d like to know. What do you do all the time? You don’t sleep, right?

—We can. We just don’t really need to.

The conversation is bereft now, it’d almost make you wish the match was on, to have some man screaming advice at an athlete, maybe have the edges taken off the silence.

—Since I am still here, rather than somewhere else, wherever somewhere else is, I must have made some sort of mistake while I was alive. Since I spent so much of my time in the office, I think it must’ve been some oversight in work, somewhere. So I go in every day, take care of a couple of new things, then, after closing my boss lets me use the place to go over old paperwork, spreadsheets, adjusting the gutters in some of the documents on my old computer, scan old paperwork to adjust my spelling, grammar and,

She taps her laptop.

—checking addresses.

As she runs over her tedious itinerary, counting them off on her fingers, she over-enacts how her surplus of tasks outnumbers the fingers she can count them off on, with a jollity that mocks me slightly. I like it.

Another article I read broached the idea that persons of post-living exist in order to right a wrong during their lives was morally toxic and propagated the idea that the post-living must be in servitude to the living and to their prior selves. I decide not to tell her this, no lifesplainer I.

—It must be hard to keep track of everything that you could have made a mistake in. Do you have some kind of system of rotation?

—No…I just have a feeling about this spreadsheet. It was the first thing I did when I got the job. It used to be for the interns but my boss had me do it every year as a sort of, in-joke.  

—Lucky you.

She smiles in acknowledgement.   

—What if, what if your mistake isn’t around anymore?

—Pardon?

—Well, you said you’re looking at paperwork going back. Isn’t some of that stuff shredded by now, or, haven’t the computers been replaced since you were there?  

She thumbs the table’s edge.  

—I guess, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

—Would you like another drink?

I pull out my wallet and we both look at it. There’s something obscene about it in my hand, it looks like something that should be sheathed out of decency.

—No. No, I better be…getting off soon. Thanks anyway.

But she doesn’t move, and we sit there for a while, roasting in the quiet. I start to panic, and make the promise to help her with her spreadsheet, send it along. Sure I know my way around Excel. She laughs and says that she will, but she isn’t sure whether someone else rectifying her mistake would work. So I say, with a lack of tact that I blame on the beer, that the history of literature has many examples of the dead enlisting others’ help to correct their mistakes. Hamlet was one. She thought about it and agreed that I was right. She would send me the file. My phone gave an obedient ping. (Ping!)

This little exchange was the last one of note and I began to gather my affairs about my person. She began shutting down her PC. I, jacketed (Ping!), sort of hovered at the table, at the door, outside, depending on her progress. She wore a thick box-coat, belted at the waist with a furred hood. I kept noticing these details, because I was quite out of my mind in panic over what to do next.

Whoever moved first, we were kissing. I’d wondered what it would be like to kiss a person of post-living, to kiss her, whether her mouth would feel differently from someone who was alive. So I was too reflective, more in interior monologue than the physical, trying to quantify the difference. But there was none to be detected. I allowed my mind to numb, and waited for it to be over.

I left her, she walking out of town, me having to go back through. I opened the email while rounding Merrion Square’s first corner, and appreciated the tree branches that crowded through and over the black railings, protruding over the gutters in my sight into the park. Because I did not stop to take my glances, I allowed myself to enjoy the filmic intermittence with which the foliage parted, the way it swam past, or turned into itself, like tar being churned. The emptied square seemed grand in the dark. The spreadsheet looked in order, but I wouldn’t be able to check the back-end till I get to a desktop. I probably won’t, I realised. Male desire is a tragic thing.

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