When he opened the door, relaxed and unremarkable but for the smudge of dark grease across one cheek, she knew that it would be difficult. It promised unspecified difficulties. “I’ve already started,” he said, leading her down the steps into the kitchen. Two canvas bags were half-full on the floor in front of the bookshelves.
“These are mine?”
“These are yours. Sit down, why don’t you.”
She picked a Norman Mailer out of the top of the pile. “This isn’t mine.”
“I know, but I’m not going to read him anymore. I thought you could read it. You can take it.”
She bristled a little, gently. Reservedly. “This isn’t your spring cleaning. I just want mine.” He shrugged and offered her something to drink. Beer or water. “A beer would be nice,” she nodded, pulling Mailers out of the bags. It was mostly Mailers.
He stood by the open fridge juggling glasses until she looked up. Inside it there were rows of dark, purple masses. A wall of meat in bags, unrecognisable cuts. More meat than one person could reasonably want in their refrigerator. A lamb. Half a cow. No room left for milk or butter or carrots. He looked for her looking and then leaned down and pried up the edge of a leg of something and pulled out two bottles from underneath. He handed her a bottle and a bottle opener and a wine glass.
“isn’t it strange we haven’t invented a better word for ‘bottle opener’ than ‘bottle opener’? Something more concise? Less didactic?”
She shrugged. A battle of shrugs. “You’re eating meat again? I guess?”
He nodded and smiled, falsely rueful. “So much meat. You wouldn’t believe it. It’s a renaissance of meat.”
They sat in near silence as she went through the shelves. Occasionally she would angle a novel towards him and raise her eyebrows and he would shrug, shrug, shrug, graciously.
“Take whatever you think is yours. If you think it is, I think it is,” he said after the seventh conference. She was half way up the small bookcase. “I was lying in the park on Sunday,” he said. “That beautiful day. Yeah? Not a cloud in the sky, except for vapour trails.”
“Vapour trails aren’t clouds.”
“Yeah, that’s my point. And I was thinking about the vapour trails. When you look at them they look… perfect. Complete and static. But if you look a little backwards along the lines you can see them disintegrating. Except you can’t — they decay too slowly to see it happening. But you know it’s coming. It’s inevitably coming, but in that moment the two look perfectly clear and aligned. They’re splitting, but you can’t see it happening.” He paused dramatically and looked at her.
“I’m done,” she said, gesturing towards the bags. “Can I pee?”
“I wish you wouldn’t ask.”
She walked up to the bathroom and noticed the smell of ash as soon as she entered the tiny en suite. It took her a moment to find the wet, black pile in the bottom of the shower. Pushing open the door back an extended leg, she called to the kitchen: “What’s this? What have you burned?”
He came up and stood over her and said, with forced casualness, “The novel. I burned the novel.” Sniffed slightly. “I was sick of it. Time for a fresh start.”
Feeling a little sick herself, she pushed a hand through the mud of it. “You stupid eejit. You fucking eejit.” She already felt guilty, unfairly guilty. Her fingertips brushed the texture of paper and she pulled out almost a complete sheet, blackened but identifiable. Relief and anger sloshed through the beer in her gut.
“These are your economics notes!” It felt good to shout it. He was grinning now, unreadably. “This is a joke? Your old fucking economics notes?”
He shrugged. “Sorry.”
She sighed and stood and reached out one black hand, pulling two fingers across his clean cheek and finishing the other with a thumb. He was still wearing it five minutes later when she left, when he offered to carry a bag or call a taxi. She refused, still half-furious. He apologised again as he closed the door, still half-grinning. It wasn’t until later, sitting in the back of the taxi she’d hailed when the bags won half way home, that she thought about the smell. Not the smell of the ash, which was there, but the smell of cooked meat, which wasn’t.