Spring 2009, Volume 6

Fiction by John Pache


Yasmine enjoyed the war of marriage. Her short aggressive husband kept her thinking. He was always on a manoeuvre to outflank her. Clever man. She liked clever men.

He worked as financier to the Stars. That was his line when people asked what he did. Then he would illuminate: satellite financing. I find the money to put junk in space.

He was proud to find a way to do something to marvel at and bring it in.

She hadn"t. One battle on their long frontline was: she lived off him. She made enough from her job as graphic designer for a spartan room in his apartment. She could afford some of the leavings from his plate: a roasted potato, perhaps, still warm with the fur of rosemary leaves.

One day, he sniped at her from a distant and dark concrete tower: where is the baby?

Another day they would fight each other for the leavings of the vodka bottle and laugh, as if by laughing hard enough they might turn the other into a clown.

Valdemar arrived the day she thought that her husband was winning: destroying her with suspicious absences and unanswered calls to his mobile phone.

Valdemar was her defense.

It was a long time since she used pencil. She was happy to see the spiral shavings once again. The man she drew was heavy set and scruffy, with unkempt dark hair and a creased jacket. He wore boots. She saw immediately he was Russian. She wrote "Valdemar" at the bottom of the page.

The Russian Novel was told to her by an English teacher, with whom she was in love when she was sixteen. She searched for his name on occasions, but the information that returned was his name was too common. The extent of his love was the giving of Russian books, which she read with an attention her other studies lacked.

After she spent the morning growing trees on Taiwanese islands for a travel brochure, Valdemar brooded in her afternoons. He sat in a leather armchair and smoked rough cigarettes. His voice was refined from coal.

"What are you doing, woman? Why aren"t you with a real man?"

He made her laugh with his rural ways.

"I will slap your big arse!"

She saw him standing beside a fire and an iron drum on an iron trellis, cooking the brute vegetables: carrots, turnips, potatoes. He peeled them with a knife with a pock-marked wooden handle.

"I can take on anyone," he said.

There was a crow that hid in her husband. She would see it occasionally, stumbling across a rutted field towards a nasty piece of carrion.

"That evil cunt, Edwards, I"ll give him a right going over one of these days."

He used the word "cunt" as though he was punching someone. It jolted her, though she never thought of herself as refined in anyway.

She put a cat, a fluffy pink cat, on to a surfboard.

Valdemar built himself a house. It was a shack really, not much bigger than her office. There was an iron stove, a cot, some books lined up in the corner on the floor: Nietzsche, Hemingway, the poems of Rimbaud, a novel by Samuel Beckett.

"None of them really get it," he said.

He was a difficult character, obsessively and tediously heading out to woods to kill deer. His hunting rifle was as tall as he was. In the winter he wore a suit of fur, beaver maybe that made him a parody of a bear.

Her friend, Matt, whose bad skin (Seborrheic Dermatitis) he hoped to offset by his homosexual fashions and flat stomach, invited Yasmine and her husband to the club for drinks. She distrusted him ever since she found him leaning on her husband's shoulder, both hands on her husband's right collar bone, his chin resting on his hands, and his eyes devoted to her husband's face.

Her husband owned, hidden in his DVD collection, a copy of Derek Jarman's Sebastiane.

"What's that?" her other friend, Mary, asked. Mary was a drunk who made Yasmine laugh. Yasmine explained.

"In Latin?" Mary made a face as though she had been told someone was rubbing the nose of a dead rat in her ear during sleep.

"All men are gay gorillas!" She exclaimed later, after a few more drinks, affecting toughness by puckering her big and sloppy lips round the end of a cigarette. Yasmine knew she could topple her with a little finger.

"I'm the one with the rat." Valdemar said. "It is an old Cossack joke." He was pleased with himself, supporting his belly and giggling.

She put a candle on top of Mount Everest.

"I'm in on this deal, it could be big," Her husband said. Did people look to the left or the right when they lied? She couldn't remember, although what purpose it served to physically glance at the creative side of your brain when using it she couldn't work out. Her husband had beautiful, thick and curly black hair.

There were other tactics she could use. She could place monitoring software on his computer or hire a detective (Note: dismiss this idea. You have no money and he's much better with machines than you are). She could dress in a trench coat and unexpectedly turn a corner outside his office.

Valdemar had good thick black hair also, not curly, and matt, not gloss. It was sometimes accompanied by the fur of rosemary leaves on his chin.

"If your husband a gay, I kill him." He said, making an obscure Cossack gesture that referred to an equally obscure Russian weapon made from curly birch.

"It's this damned deal, it's gonna be huge, but huge things take time." Her husband spoke on the phone. There was a sinister bend to his voice, she was sure. There had always been a sinister bend to his voice.

She reassured herself with her husband's pornography collection. It was resolutely heterosexual, the titles making her snort quietly in laughter: Lolita in Lapland, Down the Hatch, Bunny Busters.

"Where is the collection?" Valdemar asked her. She refused to tell. She didn't want him masturbating in the house when she wasn't there. The dead deer were bad enough.

She turned a Labrador into a harlequin.

Mary came to tea. Yasmine liked to make very formal teas, with delicate biscuits and white bone china. She thought about sex with Mary as a counterattack. Mary's mouth was too slack and big to be attractive. Mary slipped out onto the small balcony to smoke. She stubbed her cigarettes out in the pot of the bamboo plant.

Valdemar liked Mary. He stared at her intensely. Mary was single, unable to find someone who wanted the loose skin around her eyes and dark lank hair for longer than one night. Men were not difficult to find, just keep. Yasmine was lucky to have a man.

Poor Yasmine, Mary thought.

One evening Yasmine's husband came home and made love to her with an unusual ardour. They hadn't had sex for six months. She was suspicious, as if he was proving something to himself, yet she enjoyed it and lay luxuriating in the warmth of his well-maintained body for a couple of hours before she fell asleep. Then she got up later in the night and looked at her face in the bathroom mirror, stroking her face with the tips of her fingers and touching her tears.

"On a deal like this, everyone is going for glory," he said, "That's what makes it tough to keep yourself in check, the high stakes seem to push everyone to behave a bit stupidly." He was moaning again, as usual with this deal, cawing throatily. Some days he was a little boy bewildered by the grown-ups and their nasty games. He had strong hands.

She placed three playing cards into the pocket of a gangster.

Valdemar began to worry her. He was the ghost of the apartment. One day, despair got the better of him. He was asking for the equipment to repair his trousers, which were tattered from being old and beset by wolves, and he was having trouble with the English word, pin, he couldn't say it correctly, and his old tongue kept fiddling with it. Then he smashed a white bone china cup against the wall.

"Let me out of here, I hate it here!" he shouted.

When she had sat him down, she realised he was longing for Russia, for the cold mountains and the mysteries in the forests of birch trees. She hid the vodka.

"Those Russians are difficult," her husband said. "They're as tough as old boots, then they try and kick you some more. I hate them. Hate dealing with them. It's them or the Americans. I"ve given up on the French."

Her husband, she realised, was being eroded on another front. She could see him as an old man, a muted veteran, shoring himself up with expensive medals and telling young men over lunch the secrets of success; then looking at the young men with envy and hate and lust.

"Some days I think they will send someone to assassinate me. No, I really do! No, don't laugh, really."

She looked at his eye to release a saber of eyelash from it. She pulled at the ridge of his eyelid, looking into the veiny groove between lid and ball and saw the small puncture of the tear duct in the corner of the eye where sleep gathers. She managed to adhere the lash to the tip of a screw of tissue. He was unusually quiet after this, wiping his eye with the back of his hands, as he sat watching the news. She didn't like him somber or moody.

She invited Matt the homosexual threat to lunch. He too was somber and moody, as though he had been consulting with her husband on the emotions of that week. He gave evasive answers to enquiries, and conducted a cryptic telephone call (how rude!) for about fifteen minutes. He spoke wearily of an incident involving another man, where there was a misunderstanding over money, and the man broke one of the legs of each of his dining chairs. What kind of threat was that? Matt was perturbed by this, gulping his juice and eating too fast.

"Was he Russian, by any chance?" She asked.

She liked darkness and got up at night and wandered the flat without turning the lights on, trying to sense where the furniture was hiding itself. She ran a glass of water. When she turned around, Valdemar stood behind her like a sleepy, miserable child who had followed her.

"I am lonely," he said. She took him back to bed and read him a humourous story from Vogue about trees. She left him chuckling in the dark, but a little while later, he came into her room and stared at the sleeping form of her husband. She saw the big shadow of the man at the end of her bed look at her husband as though her husband was a condemned man and he was the executioner, weighing up the thickness of her husband's neck so that he knew what weight of axe to bring.

She captured her husband having lunch with Matt unexpectedly. She walked past the restaurant window and there they were, boldly on display like manikins. She went in. Her husband was tired, she could tell. His explanation of why he had never told her he was having lunch with Matt was vague. Matt grinned suspiciously and triumphantly even. She felt humiliated, but her husband was silent and somber again.

That afternoon, she gave Valdemar a pair of antique dueling pistols, plain and beautiful objects asleep in a velvet-lined box like two children sleeping in a wood. Valdemar admired them, then put them down and hugged her. She was lost for a moment in his big arms and strange, woody smell and she felt young again, before time had twisted things, and she refused to sob, absolutely refused to sob, into Valdemar's strong chest.

Later, still admiring the guns, Valdemar asked her about her scar. The scar ran from just below her left ear down her neck, hidden partially by the line of her jaw. It had been worse when she was young, then grew fainter, but now was starting to darken again. She touched it. It was something she never really thought about.

"Did he do it?" Valdemar asked gravely.

"No, no, no," she laughed, "it was an accident, when I was young, I was climbing a fence."

The words on the box read Ralf Laurenovich 1842.

She chopped out the eyes of a rock star and put them into a pie.

Mary cried. A man had treated her roughly the night before, bordering on violent, and she was frightened that she would meet him on the street again.

"I thought, 'he's going to kill me, this is it, this is it.'" She wailed as though she was about to be taken away to prison. Yasmine couldn't touch her. She needed to keep herself away from these emotions, otherwise they would take her too.

Valdemar disappeared. She searched for him in the snow-addled birch forests of Hong Kong. She thought she kept seeing him up in front of her, and if she walked faster she might catch him, but the shadow she thought was him flitted behind another distant trunk and there was nothing but the slowly revolving silence.

When she got home, her husband was sitting against one wall. He was drunk on a bottle of champagne he had bought home for her to say sorry for his absence, the deal was done, he had won the deal, but he was sorry. The bottle was empty. He started sobbing, as though someone had broken into the flat and beaten him up. People were always sobbing, she thought, I am the strong one. He gripped her calf, clinging to her. She saw the bright flag of her victory, she was stronger for it even, and she wondered what it would mean.

BIO:  Born in 1968 in London, John Pache lives and works in Hong Kong, where he runs a Dragonboating company.