It was Sunday; rather unlike today, which is Wednesday. We sat apart, neatly, with the mid-afternoon sun proving no match for the room's frostiness. I stole glances intermittently, she not at all. The eager faces at the window: mid-afternoon mothers. I took four requisite breaths and began.
"My mother and your mother—"
"Yes," she said, nodding wearily.
Silence. I picked up my guitar; silence. I put it down again.
"Still fits," I mumbled, trying to recover from what must have seemed rather pathetic. "So I'm Hugh, by the way."
She looked, briefly.
"Goals?" (A strange jump, granted, but bets were off.)
"No," I lied. "No use for 'em. I would like to write a big-themed novel, though."
She nodded absently, as if dead. Evidently she had no desire to know what my big-theme was. That was a joke, too. Despite her manner, I felt a strange surge of confidence (or carelessness), which I used to position myself next to her on the bed. She was pretty, certainly, but a little severe up close. She'd probably tear me apart if she wasn't so sad.
A while passed. I was restless. Summoning up dumb courage, I closed my eyes and motioned my face to hers.
"What the hell are you doing?" she snapped, recoiling.
I flushed. "I was, uh... I was wondering what your face would feel like... if I stuck mine against it." Worst excuse yet.
"With our parents watching? What the fuck's wrong with you?"
(For the record, mine was making encouraging gestures the whole time.)
"Nothing they haven't seen before," I said. (Ergh.)
Suddenly a knock from the front door. I knew it must be Ben and said as much.
"Hi, I'm Ben," said Ben, a little later in the narrative. "But you can call me..." He pretended to trail off, then added, "My number is—"
"o-4— get about it!" He laughed to a snort. "I'm just playing wi' ja." He turned to me. "Who's the big, fat slice of All Right?"
Dazed, I said: "This is my partner, Millie."
"I'm not your partner!" she screamed, standing up. "And what's more, my name's not Millie!"
"I didn't mean it like that," I stammered.
"Oh yes? Well what did you mean by 'partner'?"
"Business partner?" I offered weakly.
"More like getting-down-to-business partner," interjected Ben.
Fuming she made for the door, then stopped, turning back.
"You're small people, you know that?"
"That's not fair."
"And that's not true," said Ben.
She surveyed us again, curling her lip. "I'll have you know I don't suffer fools gladly."
"Me either," I said, unsure whether to nod or shake. "But I quite like morons."
"You don't get it, do you?" she continued. "You're not... You've got this fixed image of the world, this small-framed way of seeing things. It's all base desires, nothing more. As if humans exist only now, you know? Lurching from one encounter to another. Love and poetry may as well be foreign languages to you."
"That's not true," I protested. "I love poetry — really. Love it."
"I very much doubt it."
"No, I swear. Look, I'll quote you one."
"Go on," she said, peering skeptically.
I had the grand total of one poem memorised — highly inappropriate but at this point suiting my mood.
"It's an old one, this, from 1704. Chap named William Byrd II, a most underrated poet in my opinion." Both looked at me curiously. I cleared my throat and began, somehow not giggling.
"Gentlest blast of ill concoction,
Reverse the high-ascending belch:
Th' only stink abhorr'd by statesmen,
Belov'd and practic'd by the Welch.
Softest notes of inward griping
Your reverences' finest part,
So fine it needs no pain of wiping
Except it prove a brewer's fart.
Swiftest ease of cholic pain,
Vapour from a secret stench,
Is rattled out by the th'unbred swain,
But whisper'd by the bashful wench."
"Called 'Upon A Fart'," I said. "Good, eh?"
"Hilarious. Good bye." She left.
"She wasn't bad," he wheezed, almost foaming.
"Diabolical," I muttered.
The sun had gone by now. Ben began to fidget.
"This has got me a bit... riled-up," he said, without his former confidence. "You don't mind if I—?"
"No, go ahead."
"And you're not, uh—"
"Nah. I think I'll just read or something over here."
"Well," he said, standing.
"Yep." I looked up at him. "Uncut?"
"Good. Keep it in."
He nodded again.
"Actually, I don't feel like reading. You don't mind if I sing?"
Ben frowned. "With guitar?"
"No, a cappella."
"Nothing, it's just—"
"Well, no offence, but... I've never really been all that fond of your voice."
"Really?" I blinked. "How come?"
"Well... You can't sing."
"Sorry, I didn't mean—"
"No, no, it's all right. I understand."
"I knew you would."
"And it'd put you off, would it?"
"It would a bit, yes."
"Fair enough. I guess I will read after all."
"Nah, you're right. I've been meaning to read."
"OK. Wish me luck."
I opened my book.*
*Literally. (See right.)
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