2020 SA Writers College Short Story Competition Third Place



 
3rd-Place

  'Unfinished Business' - by Jessica Spyker

 

 

‘Laura walks around the room aimlessly. She is reciting jingles, slogans and radio adverts rhythmically. A child enters the room and –’

 

‘Wait, who’s Laura? Where’s Tiana and Joe?’

‘I told you, I scrapped that story.’

‘Dude, I was attached to those characters.’

‘They weren’t doing what I wanted them to. It just wasn’t coming together.’

‘Oscar, this is why you never finish anything: you get bored, or you get scared. If you spend your life avoiding rejection, you’ll have nothing to show at the end.’

I’m not in the mood for a lecture. ‘So, through Laura I want to explore the isolation of the postmodern subject. Think lonely suburban mom archetype, turned creepy. Dark stuff. Infomercials play the entire time. Unopened take-a lot boxes scattered around the set.’

Lihle’s faux snores reverberate through the empty room, loudly interrupting my excited brainstorming. He’s flung his head forward so that his chin rests on his chest. His eyes are closed, and his glasses have fallen to the floor. I’m glad that he’s upset. I’m glad Tiana and Joe had enough substance for anyone to grow attached to them, though I didn’t feel much when I disposed of the script last night.

‘I feel really good about this. I think this could be the one.’ I assert, picking up his glasses and placing them on his lap.

Lihle ‘wakes up’ with a start. ‘The one? Flip dude, let's crack open the champers – I’ve never heard you say that before!’ His tone cuts through the still of the afternoon, but I know his sarcasm is benign. I smile in response. He puts his glasses back on, crosses his legs and shakes open the newspaper. His favourite Jazz album restarts – a familiar loop. Sometimes I feel like Lihle is a character from an offbeat play, who somehow managed to crawl out of the manuscript, still dripping ink and stage directions. His actions feel perfectly practiced.

 

Lihle: Protagonist, charismatic, pretentious millennial, filmmaker, still reads the actual paper (for the sake of authenticity).

 

I slide off my chair and lie on my back, near the window. The lazy, buttery 4pm light pours in through the open blinds and pools on the wooden floor of the lounge. It’s unlike Lihle to not be working on something, but I haven’t seen his laptop or his ‘BIG IDEAS’ notebook once today. Since this morning, he has been lounging in his favourite worn red armchair – which we found in an antique store in Norwood when we first became roommates. I hadn’t met him before I moved in, three years ago, but I was quickly absorbed into his world. ‘Ah Umlungu wam. We’ll be famous. You write the scripts. I’ll bring them to life,’ he had decided within the first week of us living together (without factoring in my inability to complete anything I start).

 

Ella Fitzgerald is serenading me into a light sleep when Lihle’s voice rattles me awake.

‘You know what you really have to do today, right?’ he says from behind the flimsy grey wall of ‘the Sunday Times.’ A dull ache spreads through my chest.

‘I said I would do it this week. The week isn’t over.’

‘It’s Sunday.’ He doesn’t skip a beat.

How is it Sunday already? The room is gradually darkening as the light shifts. The scream of the Cicada’s loudens and there is a sense expectation pressing in against the walls from outside. ‘Rain?’ I question, even though I can see the clouds building as I glance out the window. It’s one of the things I love most about Joburg - Highveld storms that appear from nowhere. The quick angry deluge bringing instant relief from the heat, followed by the wet late-afternoon sun, painting the shivering leaves golden.

Lihle ignores my question. ‘You’re up to your neck in it, Oscar.’ It’s what he’s always said when I’ve left things to the last minute, except this time there’s no ‘but you’ll figure it out’ implied.

I sit up and scootch closer to him. ‘You know, I read online that procrastination isn’t really about willpower or laziness…’

Lihle is silent.

‘It has to do with failing to regulate negative emotions around the task at hand…or something like that.’

He puts down the paper and fixes his eyes on me. ‘Huh. I wonder why there might be negative emotions around “the task at hand”.’

I give him a gentle shove. ‘I’m going to do it today, okay? I promise! Think about how many times I’ve put off doing the dishes and I –’

‘This isn’t a dirty casserole dish in the sink Oscar, or one of your bloody unfinished plays. This is serious – just get it done.’ He stands up, pats his jean pockets, pulls out his Marlboros, walks to the door, swings it open and steps outside – each movement two beats. A staccato-like rhythm.

 

I wait a moment before following him to the other side of our small yard. A string of rusted outside lights are hanging from our avo tree. I wonder if they still work. ‘Can I bum a ciggie?’ I ask, standing across from him.

‘Ha! You want a cancer stick?’

‘Desperate times call for desperate measures.’

He hands me a lit cigarette and I inhale deeply, coughing as the pleasant burn hits my lungs. We are silent for a while, watching wisps of smoke reach towards the bruised underbellies of the storm clouds. The air feels static.

‘The sooner I do it, the sooner you go,’ I begin to explain. He is staring at me intensely, his eyes reminiscent of damp earth after rain. It’s always been a bit unsettling, the way he looks at me. I smile awkwardly. ‘The truth is, I’ll miss you, roomie. Maybe that’s why I’m putting it off.’ Lihle nods and looks down at an earth worm, writhing in the grass by his shoe, its translucent, pink body glistening.

‘Do you want to help me?’ I venture.

Lihle shrugs, eyes still on the worm. The first gentle grumble of thunder sounds.

 

He follows me to the outside room which houses the Christmas tree, a few boxes of our stuff, the big chest freezer we rarely use and an old mattress. The small building probably functioned as domestic quarters at some point, or maybe the man cave of a frustrated husband, or a teenager’s hangout. I love to wonder about the past lives of old rooms. What have these walls seen? A year ago, when I was still painting, I used the space as a makeshift studio, retreating to the damp, dark room every afternoon. One Monday, after Lihle critiqued another painting, I tore up portraits, stomped on canvas and slammed paint pots against the wall with such force that I injured my arm. Splotches and streaks of blue, orange and black acrylic still mark the wall and floor, turning the room into another unfinished project. I glance behind me to where Lihle is standing in the doorway. The light behind him frames his tall figure and the dust, dancing mid-air around his silhouette, turns to glitter as it catches the sun.

‘Maybe I should start painting again.’ I say more to myself than to him, as I move to the freezer and lift the heavy lid. I take out the bags of ice, a packet or two of frozen veg and the huge tub of ice cream from last month’s braai. Lihle’s brown eyes stare up at me from the depths of the cold. His stare is even more piercing in death. He’s wearing his favourite floral blazer, which has stiffened and frosted over. His voice comes from behind me, sarcastic but softer than usual.

‘Bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?’

 

I close my eyes and am forced to watch a brief montage from that Friday night. Melville, bright and pulsating. Open mic night in a smoky restaurant. Too much cheap red wine, too much bad poetry. Blurry stars, crisp air and peals of laughter as we walk from bar to bar. Lihle reciting Mercutio’s Queen Mab in the middle of the street. Lihle by the bar with a tall red-lipped journalist, arguing about Foucault. Lihle dancing on a table. Lihle entertaining a group of bright-eyed first years, who inhale his anecdotes (and the vodka he’s bought them) with gusto. Then Lihle kissing Sophie, my girlfriend, in a hidden corner by the bathroom. It was the ride home that flipped something in me. He recounted some of the night’s events, frequently overcome with fits of weed-induced laughter, before falling asleep against my shoulder. Even then, in his drunken stupor, each action was masterfully performed as he moved around easily in the well-worn, well-played part. I was stiff, unable to move, afraid that if I tried to speak, I would vomit black, bitter molten liquid in the back of the uber.

 

‘It was just a kiss. I didn’t even know you were in love with her.’

I scoff. Could he not see – what the three painful years as a supporting role in this show had done to me? How it had consumed me. Could he not see that the reason I stayed was because the only thing worse than living in his cold, dark shadow was the prospect of living without him at all.

‘I’m not in love with her.’ But he’s gone now.

I can’t turn back to the freezer. I’ll have to take care of this another day. I reach for Lihle’s cigarettes, now in my pocket. How did they get there? I sink to the floor and light one, fingers trembling. Outside, the song of the rain mingles with the high-pitched call of police sirens.



 

 
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Jess Spyker Bio for Jessica Spyker

I’ve always had a passion for creative writing.
In high school I would enter any poetry, essay, short story or play-writing competition I could and I loved performing my works too! Unfortunately, my creative exploits didn’t really fit into busy university life so my passion was put on hold.

This year, being stuck at home during a national lockdown, with a master’s thesis to write, I needed to find a productive form of procrastination. I finally rediscovered the therapeutic benefits of writing fiction - and I’m so glad I did.
 
 

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