The hotel room was cramped, but it would have to do. She let the suitcase land on the floor with a solid thud. The air was stale, but it had never been more beautiful. Her body felt heavy, for the first time all of the energy from being on that constant alert had been drained from her.
My neighbor had a baby once. That much, I got. Just like I got the cup of coffee more or less how I wanted it. Last week, at a different café, I ordered iced coffee but was served black coffee with a sinking scoop of ice cream on top. The waitress smirked at my accent, too, which made me want to flip over her tray.
My neighbor describes the circumstances leading up to the moment she could no longer say she had a baby. It happened a while ago. I’m not sure about the rest because my class just finished Unit 8 and, judging from the syllable count, her words are sophisticated and come from Unit 20, possibly even Unit 35.
Her co-star had been in the middle of his line, but she couldn’t help it. The instructions were to sip from her glass, right at that moment. Yet as soon as the liquid passed her lips, it burned, and by reflex she sprayed it all over the table – and the actor across from her.
“Cut! Cut!” shouted the director, in that inimitable accent of his.
“I’m really sorry,” she said, as a costumer dressed her co-star in a new shirt.
“Quite all right,” the co-star said. “Far from the worst response I’ve received.”
Whip the plastic net off the counter, your other hand snatching small blunt scissors from the drawer. Chew the bright orange mesh into wildlife-friendly pieces and lob them into the kitchen bin as you flip the lid with a perfectly timed toe-pump. Attack task after task like a TV ninja fending off waves of frenzied assailants.
From the fridge – that meekly-lit synthetic void – rescue a tub of vegan spread, half a mature cheddar and some ripped open ham that won’t survive five hours of stuffy car. Sprint up to the campsite at the other end of the grounds. Think about this being the final leg of the pig’s miserable journey as you palm off the sweaty goods on nonplussed relatives. Sprint back. Strip the bed according to the property’s ‘Covid-safe’ instructions: mattress protectors in the red bag, sheets and duvet covers in the green, towels made into a damp pyramid in the bathtub. Tackle the washing up mound for the third time in as many hours. Sweep the floor and return the dustpan to the musty cupboard. Discover tumbleweeds of dog hair and dead leaves amongst the jumble of your shoes. Silently weep. Clap each pair together, sending allergens whirling, and bundle in the IKEA carrier you never wanted. Sweep again.
“Cocoon Lucky” is one of the short stories featured in Where We Find Ourselves, an anthology of stories and poems by UK-based writers of the global majority (Arachne Press).
It is December and I dwell on what fortune-tellers have told me in the past. There is not much else to do when ‘festive season’ occurs while we’re in lockdown. I’m semi-shielding, actually. Everything I do is half-baked and prefixed by semi or demi. Nothing is full-on, not even make-up for work Zoom calls or Zoom parties. Lipstick and a pearl pin in my unruly hair is enough, isn’t it?
Where are they? They’ve been gone forever. Wait, I know that sound. Oh my gosh, they’re home!
The door opens. Melody bends down to pat me. “Who’s a good boy?” She rolls me over and scratches my belly. She knows just the spot.
I’m too excited to lay still. I struggle to my feet and run over to Ash. I sniff at his cuffs. He’s been in the park. I jump on his thighs. Say hi to me! I’ve been waiting all day!
At 9 AM each Saturday I come here, to the laundry. It’s a ritual. After getting any coins I need from the change machine I empty my clothes into a washing machine, pour in some powder, push in five dollars’ worth of coins and hit start. At the vending machine I pick up an energy drink. By the entrance there are some tables you can work at. I take a seat at one, setting down my drink and emptying my pockets beside it. A small pile of dollar coins. My keys. It is the last time I will come here before I leave for a new city on Thursday. My mind begins to wander, and I find myself sifting through all that I have seen at this laundry, looking for something meaningful among the empty episodes that have taken place beneath these bright lights.
The guy said that he’d been held and interrogated in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War – sure he’d been drinking, but enough to fabricate something like that? The whole reason you go to an expatriate bar on Christmas is to hear the bullshit. It’s less a matter of lies than degrees of truth, because everyone here is a storyteller, which is to say that they deal in truths that fall short of being factual. I bet he was there in Belarus on the Russian front in some capacity, maybe even a shady one. How he ended up in China after the fall was a mystery in itself.
It’s a mystery how anyone ends up here, really – in this city, in this country, in this particular tavern on this particular night. We’ve all got damage, though I might have taken a larger share. But when there’s an opportunity, you take it, even if it means leaving a piece of yourself – even if it means cadging a bit of turkey and some free drinks at a holiday party you didn’t know you were invited to. It’s normal in its own way, even if the people aren’t.
Every prayer group meeting starts precisely the same. Men in shirtsleeves rolled to their elbows (when the temperature rises above seventy), or wool sweaters politely folded back against their wrists carry crockpots while the women walk behind in a single line, carrying lighter plates. They place the dishes down delicately and then slowly backstep away as if the food might suddenly demand their penance or refuse to participate in the weekly meeting. There is reverence in their counterfeit kowtowing (low and slow) as each woman tries her best not to bump into the other. The hot dishes become veiled in regency.