Torpedo Greatest Hits
ed. Chris Flynn
A few months ago this collection was released with my story ‘You Will Notice That Hallways Are Painted’, along with stories by Steven Amsterdam, Mandy Ord, Jon Bauer, Krissy Kneen, Toby Litt, Ruby Murray, Josephine Rowe and even Richard Brautigan. The story was written in a rather frenzied manner, after having allowed myself to take my fiction in new directions – becoming open to non-realist genres, to expressions of the strange, the odd or the slightly off. Through the ‘strangeness’ I seem to be able to improve the evocative qualities of the fiction – emotion, humour and sensuality – and provide a socio-cultural undercurrent which is hopefully subtle and relevant.
This story paved the way for the novel I’m currently writing. I’ve done a rough first draft. There’s a lot of work to be done but I have the foundations of the story and characters. The character, Ava, who is in the story, is also in the novel. The setting of the institution is in the novel. The general themes and concepts introduced here are expanded upon in the novel. So I guess what I’m saying is, I hope you like the story and will be excited to read the novel in a few years time (yes, I’m realistic about how long it takes).
You Will Notice That Hallways Are Painted
A small room made of stone that is nonetheless warm
She is sitting on the floor when the counsellor brings in her new roommate. He is tall and brown-skinned and has a jacket wrapped up between his arms that are in front of him. Just a whiff of his skin and it’s all summer sweat and mango hands and Ava experiences a strong, familiar pull in her groin.
‘Ava, this is Monty, he’ll be taking Heidi’s old bed,’ says Counsellor Dean, and Monty’s hand lifts politely.
‘Welcome,’ she says. Strange, that they had given her a man. Maybe they thought she was gay after the last one, after the thing that got Heidi moved to another ward. She isn’t sure sex is out of bounds anyway – it’s never spoken about. Perhaps changing up the sexes of her roommates is all part of her individual experiment. But what’s his?
Monty takes his bag from Dean, she leaves, and he begins to unload a few belongings on his bed. Ava peers out at the Intelligence. You never did know when someone or something was watching from that giant stone tower (with rings of tinted windows) in the centre.
‘So – what you in for?’
Monty turns and sits on his bed, fumbling with a small plastic toy of a skeleton. ‘Ah, this. I don’t know if I can talk about it yet. I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed.’ When he speaks she suspects he would sing well.
‘See, only people in here would use the word overwhelmed for how they were feeling.’ She sits up on her bed to be equal with him, crossing her black leggings so her red pleated skirt fans out. ‘I’m overtly overabundant.’
‘My sentence.’ She searches the skin on his neck, those brown eyes – was he Thai? Vietnamese? Strong, almost hairless arms. ‘Overt abundance.’
‘Oh, I… what does that mean?’
‘I like people,’ she grins, ‘too much and too often.’
‘Yes, that must be a problem.’
‘So they say.’
‘I like my fiancée.’
‘I suppose I’ve ruined my chances… to save for the ceremony.’ His head is down, and then he looks up and his eyes burn holes through her. Ava uncomfortably shifts all the hot parts around.
‘What are you doing here? You seem to subscribe, brother.’
But then Monty pulls a flask from his bag and starts unscrewing the cap.
‘My sentence is “highly inadequate”.’
Experiment: the office
Counsellor Dean, in charge of their wing, leads them down metal stairs to a room which must take up one whole wing. Today it looks like a semi-partitioned office. The lights are so bright they make Ava’s head heavy. She avoided these lights, out there. Her parents had been loud, but just slid in under the radar of socially appropriate. When she got into acting, dance, performance poetry, they warned her of diminishing crowds for sentimental works. When she cried in public for feeling the wind like a kiss on her skin she was taken in for her interview.
Monty’s lips are tight but he sits at his appointed desk, obedient and familiar. He told Ava last night about Verna, his fiancée, thin and white with one tattoo in a hidden place.
Counsellor Alex is running the office experiment. He’s dressed in army greens, with a long leather whip protruding from under a stubby arm. Counsellor Dean looks on, rapt, as Alex instructs the order of emails and phonecalls. Dean is a curvy woman, like Ava, with a tiny waist nipped in by a leather belt. The counsellors always wear one colour, or one pattern, all over. Dean catches Ava’s eye and gives a curious smile, one hand tickling her own thigh. Ava’s tongue darts out and boldly curls her lip, and the mutual attraction is satisfied. It hasn’t been a counsellor yet, and she wonders what trouble she could get in to. But it might save her from ever being separated from Monty. (Though she feels if she touched him, she would burn up to nothing.)
‘Any emails sent or forwarded inter-office must balance professionalism and coping-banter. The Intelligence will accept no absoluteness either way. There will be no period of complete distraction, nor will there be a hardcore eight-hour stretch of concentration. The workaholic is vulnerable to disease. In five minutes, we will begin. Your tasks are on the desktop. Power up.’ Ava touches her screen, still squirming under the lights, wishing for grass to roll in or even a metal wall on which to rest her hot forehead. She is soon too cold in the air-conditioning. She takes her hair out at least to cover her neck and when Dean comes past she subtly fingers one dark strand, almost pulling.
It is a long night, one that is full of longing
Ava is wondering when Dean will come as she sips at Monty’s flask. They are sprawled on the floor in front of their beds and talking like brother and sister. Her foot is three centimetres away from his and there are invisible electric strings. Her skirt is parted slightly, but he is too polite to look.
‘You seemed okay today.’
‘I worked corporate,’ he says. ‘But I have a degree in entomology. I’m interested in insects.’
‘What the hell for?’
‘Why not bacteria?’
‘Yeah, interested in bacteria too. Very small, yes. But bugs can be colourful or hairy and there are many different types. There are over 330,000 species of beetle alone. Don’t even get me started on the Orthoptera.’
Bugs crawl on skin, Ava thinks. She imagines the tiny fingers of bugs on his arms, she imagines the flies when you die and she realises how she feels about him dying and where did all this depth in her stomach come from?
‘You okay?’ he asks. And the concern is too much. She has to turn away.
‘Grasshoppers and crickets.’
‘How’s poor Paul today?’
‘Oh, man. I mean, I felt shit, like I’d never get used to it, but he only lasted an hour.’
‘Not even that.’
Paul, who looked like a leg of ham with a fist around the top, had only ever worked in the dark before, he said, in the dark, and he writhed on the floor until they put him in the Big Space. The Big Space’ll learn him, they thought. Ava had been there once, when she got cranky at eating the same lentil patty burger (with no sauce, mind you) after four days. They lead you into a bright, gaping hall where every corner is clear, but after ten minutes you’re still squinting into the corners wondering what else there might be. You’re forced to sit in the middle and far, far above, windows surround it so you can’t be sure where the Intelligence is and when they are watching. Ava’s thoughts naturally strayed to comforting and pleasing herself from the build-up of abundance. Even the thought of them watching made her want to do it. But she thought this was her exact problem and the one they would keep her here for, so she resisted and instead scratched at the floor as though it were her arms.
Later, in their small space, Monty lay facing the wall and she stared at his head wondering, wondering at the thoughts, and she stared at the back of his neck, curved gently, and his strong and slender back, encased in a singlet. She had seen it just once. There was a mole on his left shoulderblade and she wanted to put her tongue on it.
‘Hey Monty, what’s it called when grasshoppers sing?’
‘Stridulation. Achieved by rubbing parts of their bodies together.’
‘I like that.’