FICTION: But a Story is So by Olivia Gunning

I know you hate it that I disappear, Kayla. Understand, please, how difficult your head-fuck of a situation is. All that baggage crackling around you with angst and complication. So I vanish. I’m aware of that. But you and your strange stories – real and imagined and crazy – well, sometimes they’re too much.

___

Three groups of three stood on the pavement. On the left, a policeman was flanked by two soldiers, pistols hanging at the hip. In the second group, two young girls accompanied an old blind man, face blown by time into ridges like Saharan sand. The smaller girl was begging while her sister hoisted herself into the mouth of a vast bin, a giant waste disposal unit, into which locals emptied their trash. She was rifling through it, half her body inside, legs kicking out. Then, at a safe distance, a trio of mid-teen boys, smudged and dishevelled, eyes aglow from solvent-sniffing. It was 10 pm on a Saturday when the streets of Casablanca are frenetic.

My challenge was to approach one of the groups.

Although we’re thirty-something, Hakim and I play this game periodically, daring one another to talk to a stranger, including specific words. This time the phrase was simple, a directions-asking type thing you’d learn in a language class.

Could you tell me where…?

Despite the 50-dirham wad of kif in my pocket, and the pipe, I chose the military.

Sherif, Smahali,” I said. “Excuse me, Sir.”

Nam?” said the policeman from a puff of black tobacco. The soldiers stood, legs spread wide, lips shut tight, hands gripping guns.

“Could you tell me where I’d find Avenue Hassan Souktani?”

It was a nearby street that I walked up regularly.

The men hunched into a debate full of gestures and disagreement before deciding it was “that way”. And while “that way” was entirely the wrong direction, there was no alternative but to follow their instructions.

Shukran,” I said. “Thanks.”

___

Why did you do it, Kayla? Can you tell me? Why did you tell that story full of truths and half-truths and non-truths, all mashed together – and with everyone listening? That small, thick crowd around us, taking in every word. Why did you make me want to push my hand across your speaking mouth. You know what? I wanted to stifle you. I literally wanted to suffocate you.

___

After the ludicrous detour, Hakim and I met up and headed to the Christmas party. Morocco isn’t a Christmassy place and, to add to the absurdity, the party was in the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter. Hardly anyone was really celebrating Christmas but it was as good a reason as any for a fiesta. I liked the Mellah, all narrow streets and walkways, shadows and darting movements. Much of the area was crumbling, yet the old buildings stood up to the looming invasion of bad quality construction that people called “modern”. The Mellah hung on to the nostalgic elegance of a period being ruthlessly erased by contemporary Casablanca’s desire for pseudo-posh residences with lifts and air-conditioning.

The house was 1940s – a white bungalow with an elevated veranda, ornate coving and a garden out back shadowed by a stodgy rubber tree. A fine crowd of eclectic guests – disparate in age, origin, and walk of life – was already in the thick of festivities. They were bound together by a penchant for cocaine. They bunched into toilets and bedrooms, barricading the doors. Hakim was carrying our gram which, albeit hopelessly, we attempted to ration.

I decided to switch from beer to something stronger and went over to a makeshift bar assembled next to the fridge. A girl I didn’t recognise had assumed the role of bar tender.

I asked what was left to drink.

“A Kayla-tail!

“A what?”

“It’s my cocktail,” she laughed and promptly mixed five plastic cups (I guess they’re clean enough!) of cheap rum and some kind of kids’ juice mix – counterfeit coconut or imitation mango.

I took two cups and found Hakim.

“That girl…” I pointed.

He looked over. Kayla was making another batch. Her grey dress ran tight across a slight belly and her hair slid in black waves over narrow shoulders. She was standing sideways, chattering away as she does when she’s drunk, and I saw her utterly sublime profile. Small, glossy black eyes beneath a wide forehead (keeps all my ill-used brains in one place!), mouth cute and pink as a baby’s.

“Yeah…?”

“Very nice.”

“Right,” Hakim grinned. “Another dare?”

“Go for it, even though it’s your turn.”

“So talk to her and get the words my heart in.”

We went for another line and when I came out Kayla was telling a friend she was leaving. Coke reeling through my sinuses, I headed over.

“Wait! Before you go, can I just talk to you because…because if I don’t, my heart will just…”

She stopped and scanned me. I saw she didn’t think I was much to look at but Kayla’s got a good dose of curiosity in her genes.

“Alright. You’ve got ten minutes.”

It was almost an interview. I blurted a series of clumsy questions but not once did she lose her sweet smile nor avert her eyes. A short time into the exchange Kayla reversed the roles, started questioning me. In a matter of minutes, she’d got me down.

“OK you say you’re French, but with that name– Ismail – isn’t there more to your background?”

“Algerian roots. But my parents moved to France in the ‘70s. Had two kids and abandoned the past. Kept it from me.”

“In what way?”

“Every way. No North African music, no religion, not even any Arabic. They wanted me to be a real Frenchman. All cheese and no couscous.”

“So how long have you been in Morocco?”

“Six or seven years.”

“What brought you?”

“Brought me?”

“Something must have brought you. A hope… a memory?”

“Or a bit of each,” I smiled.

“I’m guessing that you needed to retrace some Marghrebian origins. But what do I know?”

That shook me. I smiled down at her, wordless.

“Is that it?” she insisted.

“I suppose it’s that,” I said “I suppose you’re right.”

“I’d never leave here,” she said. “It’s home.”

“It is,” I said. “It is home.”

We clinked plastic cups to that and drank the distinctly hideous Kaylatail, me twitching with the ticking clock.

“I’ve never seen you before,” I said, “although we’ve got friends in common.”

“I saw you earlier,” Kayla replied. “On Avenue Hassan Souktani.”

I almost choked on the serendipity. “Really?”

“Do you live there?”

“Nope.”

The coke made me say more than should have. “I was there on a dare.”

“A dare? At your age?”

I told Kayla about the three glue sniffers, the military-police trio and the aged, sand-coloured man with his daughters.

“Why didn’t you ask the beggars?” Kayla inquired.

“Didn’t have any change. Would’ve felt mean.”

“And the boys? I’d have asked the boys.”

“I told you, my Arabic sucks.”

She picked up her bag and checked the time. Fifteen minutes had elapsed. I sensed her departure.

“What do you do apart from working in insurance?” I struggled.

Kayla paused. Hesitated. “I write stories.”

“Stories?”

“I love stories. Reading. Writing.”

“Ok… and…could I read one?”

“I don’t know. A story is so…”

“So what?”

“I don’t know. Anyway, hardly anyone’s read them. And now,” she handed me her plastic cup, “I’m leaving.”

“You know what?” I pulled out my phone. “Give me your email and send me a story.”

Email. So archaic. Almost as romantic as handwritten, posted letters or scrawled notes tucked into lockers.

___

You and your words, Kayla. That headful of words and monstrous, nutty ideas. All those incessant words, some of them ours, some of them yours and some of them, and I hate you for this, some of them so totally, so acutely, mine.

___

I messaged Kayla the next day and she replied. We opened and closed the correspondence like old-fashioned letter-writers, with names and salutations. Might sound formal, yet from the beginning, we wrote with closeness. Sometimes intimacy feels more possible without the burden of passed time and experience.

Through these initial, tender, exchanges, I discovered that Kayla was in the midst divorce and had a child. I usually avoid women with baggage. But I’m liable to contradict myself. At times, I don’t realise until I’m so far into the contradiction that it’s too difficult to turn around. Until I realise that I believe, desire, two opposing things. It can be terrifying.

The emails went on for about three weeks, me asking for the story I wanted to read, The Running Man. It was about a man who ran daily from Casablanca to the next city and back, the man who never stopped running because he was running to die.

But no story came.

Kayla said again and again that she was editing until she finally admitted to being reticent about sending it.

A story is so intimate.

I remained patient, sure the day would come that she was ready. In the meantime, I sent her one of my graphics, a semi-abstract piece of a man walking beneath blinding sunlight near the ocean. A green palm leaf pointed over the Atlantic while the coastal road wound off in the opposite direction.

She liked it.

Makes me think of summer.

___

I still, even now, picture you and I spinning through the night-time slums in that dented Renault. You singing along to all that bluesy stuff, voice peeling against the engine, smile indestructible and free as the words that stream so constantly out of you. Remember, Kayla? How we rode through those persistent streets, that belong not to us but to the city’s lost and abandoned and forlorn, the menace of their misery absurdly close. How safe and invisible we were, enfolded in that shabby car. How we talked, talked without thought nor hesitation nor inhibition.

___

I guess my sending a picture seduced Kayla into believing she could entrust me with her story; it was in my inbox the following day, accompanied by a rambling Kayla-esque explanation of how she was still nervous about sharing her work (if you can call it that) but she supposed that stories were written, in principle, to be read…

…or criticised, loved, hated or worse still, ignored.

I never opened it.

I didn’t even reply to say I’d got it.

Maybe, since that first conversation at the party, I’d subconsciously set myself the challenge of getting the story out of her. Now, the dare was done and won.

She emailed a week later asking, politely and firmly, to confirm receipt of her work. The grab of guilt filled my reply.

I’d been busy with work.

I’d had a visitor.

The latter was true. The girl who wanted to marry me had come over from Lyon where she lived with her family and near mine. She was Algerian too. I guess the plan was to wait for me to finish up in Morocco, a period she considered temporary, experimental, before coming “home” and getting hitched.

Fatine – that’s her name – and I have known each other since childhood. She visited every few months. We spent all our time together, I knowing I’d never marry her, she hoping I would, neither of us knowing then that this was the last visit. She wouldn’t have “proper sex” but was happy to do anything oral and anal and I contented myself with that. It wasn’t disagreeable.

Kayla and her story fell out of my memory, my field of desire.

___

Remember how you loved commenting on the billboards I designed around town? How you adored the one for the telecom company, with the pink and purple geometric motif crawling all over it. “If ever I publish a book,” you said, “I want you to do the cover and I want it to be pink and purple and pretty but at the same time a thing guys will be happy to carry as well as girls. Only you could do it, Ismail”

How I adored you for that. And all the other things you said so beautifully. How can your words be so beguiling and also so repulsive?

___

A while after Fatine left, I went into a café near work and headed upstairs away from the incessant eyes of the city. Kayla was sitting cross-legged in front of her computer wearing gym clothes and a massive hooded cardigan. I saw the profile that had enchanted me at the Christmas party. Smooth forehead, flaming dark eyes, soft nose, flocks of hair escaping the pulled-up hood.

I almost turned around but she looked my way. There was that brief, mute moment of focus, of recognition. And a hulking silence.

“Kayla.” I managed.

“Ismail,” she said, eyes rising, head unmoving, forced smile loaded with indignation.

“How are you?” I said, awkward, over-enthusiastic.

“Fine,” the semi-smile vanished. “But I shouldn’t really speak to you.”

“Sorry?”

“Don’t worry, I’m done anyway,” she said, closing her lap-top, “I’ll get going.”

“No… don’t…” I said.

No one but Kayla has ever, ever, compelled me to explain myself, but I explained.

Kayla listened.

“Fair enough,” she shrugged.

“Are you working on that story, The Running Man?

“Nope. This one’s called The Vanishing Man,” she said. “About a total arsehole who thinks it’s OK to disappear with someone’s trust. I’m trying to find a good ending.”

“Ouch.” I said.

Kayla capitulated a smile.

“I’m joking,” she said “Forget it. Shit happens.”

“Can you read the story to me now?” I asked. “The Running Man.”

“Nope,” she said and then looked up at me. “You can.”

And so, I read her story to her, her own words into her own ears. Nobody had ever read it apart from me. The story unfolded around us as we sat close together, the warm rain outside letting mist creep up the windows, hiding us from the world. We sat amid smiles and quivers, a sensation that I’d like to call bewitchment.

“If we were in France,” I said, “I’d ask you if I could kiss you right here in this café. In front of everyone.”

Kayla caught a breath and then laughed.

“But we’re not,” she said.

___

My disappearing habit. My ability to evaporate, to make things vanish from my mind. I don’t know if I’m sick or gifted – not everybody is able to disable memory and attachment and sentiment. I know what you’ll say, Kayla. You’ll say that “The shit you ignore always comes back to get you.” And maybe you’re right. But if it’s real, true shit, it’ll get me either way. I can wait.

___

I’m not the best-looking guy. My beard is patchy and I have a small forehead that crinkles in one area weirdly. My nose isn’t oversized but not that defined either – although I guess that doesn’t matter so much in men. I’m pretty skinny, but not too short. Kayla loves my hands. She says she loves how men’s hands can be substantial and elegant at the same time.

“And hairy!”

We left the romantic realm of email, found ourselves flung into the addictive arena of urgent messages and meetings. It had to be semi-clandestine because of the ongoing, spiteful divorce. Kayla was convinced her ex watched her from his safe, wealthy distance so she couldn’t afford, given Moroccan marriage laws, being discovered with anyone else. Custody of their daughter was at stake.

Only a few close friends knew but, to them, we became a proper couple. They’d say our mutual adoration was palpable. It was complicated to say the least.

Yet surreptitious scenarios are the source of invention. We found ways of being out in public together because of that irrepressible desire to be visible and free. And besides, we didn’t always want to be at my place that I shared with Hakim, or at her flat, where her daughter was most of the time and a concierge watching everything.

So we’d take her clapped-out Renault Clio into the thickets of Casablanca’s distant squalid quarters, areas full of people, none of whom knew us.

We’d go late at night to places where pavements swarmed with vendors of plastic toys, pineapple wedges piled into pyramids, second-hand shoes, reams of headscarves. We’d sit in lonely juice bars where it costs next to nothing for a pint-sized drink of whisked fruit, served at a plastic table beneath a strip-light. We’d mix gin and tonic in water bottles and we’d drive and drive and drive, to fetid corners of Casablanca, areas that’d barely been named, where social-housing projects bred, rearing up like wicked giants. Miles away from the crumbling art-deco heart of the city and the tall, modish new buildings, miles away from our unconscious, exalted status.

___

Intimacy, Kayla, is a delicate creature. Disclosing may be your thing. It is not mine. Maybe it’s unintentional but you parcel out what you want, packing stories like suitcases, squashing in everything from invention to interpretation to glimpses of reality, shrouded experiences. Your story is so intimate, yes. And mine? And ours? Aren’t certain things born to be kept concealed?

___

And so, it continued. We made the best of a complex scenario, we really did. We bore our hearts’ regrets and disappointments. We had our own jokes, favourite foods and generous amounts of long, ardent sex.

But then, during another cocaine-fuelled evening, with a small gathering of people we knew well, someone said: “Kayla – don’t you write stories?”

“Yes… I do.”

“Can’t you read us one?”

“Oh God, no, I couldn’t.”

I remained silent at first, listening, watching as they coaxed her. I remembered asking her the same thing, recalled sensing her reticence, saw again that rarely-revealed, schoolgirl diffidence.

But a story is so...

But they cajoled her, on and on, until she turned to me, asking with her eyes what I thought. I leant over, my breath kissing her neck, my hand at her waist.

I dare you.

She surrendered. Took out her phone where the story was stored and, amid pauses for shallow breaths, because Kayla runs out of breath with nerves, she read.

She read a story I’d never heard.

They listened. Wrapt. The only sounds were the flick of cigarettes, the sip of whiskey. And Kayla’s small, sweet voice telling a story I didn’t know.

I was horrified.

It started with a giant trash bin – like the one I’d seen the young girl hanging out of. Casablanca’s pledge to create a clean city included new disposal units, and the venture was a total failure. The bins soon became soiled with stinking filth. What’s more, they were exceptionally heavy and had to be lifted with a crane, held over a huge receptor whereby the base was opened and the rubbish evacuated. The trash would fall like dying birds, a flopping flock of waste.

Kayla’s story recounted how some boys from the slums had devised a way of turning these vast bins over so that the evacuation portal became an entry, a front door. They’d make hideouts inside. I recognised the areas of town we visited together in secret, where tea was poured late into the night, where people with missing limbs sold decrepit pushchairs, cheap prayer books and used clothing. Where the atmosphere was both of miserable, relentless suffering and the ecstatic panic of survival.

“Some people live in cemeteries, some live in shop doors, and some live in bins,” Kayla began.

The protagonist was a woman in her thirties, a journalist called Oumia. She wanted to photograph three parentless brothers – glue sniffers – who’d reclaimed one of the city’s vast waste disposal units as a den. Initially, Oumia was supposed to go accompanied by her boyfriend but they’d had a spitting row and he’d vanished. Totally disappeared.

She’d decided to be brave and go alone.

Once inside the bin-house, once the photos of squalor had been taken and once the brothers had described their daily, solvent-driven battle for survival, the three boys leapt on Oumia, held her down and molested her. And then raped her. They took her, in turn, within the sound-proof box, in the dilapidated, nameless area of town where ears were shut to her screams. The scene was graphic, agonising, nauseating.

Kayla trembled. My hand at her waist felt her body quivering until, slowly, her breath calmed, her voice pacified. She reached the end of the scene.

I watched all the guys there listening to my girlfriend. All watching with widening eyes, awestruck, all wondering how much fiction infused the story and how much was her. And I got it into my head that, one by one, they were discovering her, penetrating her crooked mind. Some of them, I’m certain, were lusting. I looked on as they imagined her being raped. Or being her rapist. I wanted to cloak their ears, I wanted to jam my fist into Kayla’s mouth.

My hand at her waist became rigid, it no longer cradled the dip beneath her ribs. I contemplated feigning a fit, pretending I was having an asthma attack. Anything to stop the story.

But it was too late. Her break lines had been exposed, fractures that I’d traced with my own fingers. Even when people have been broken, even when they’ve stuck themselves back together again, the fissures are detectable. Like repaired, repainted china, when the right light is shone, you can see the shatters.

I stood up and went to the bathroom, took out my wrap and served myself a thick line. Someone put music on in the other room and people started talking. Kayla came in, shut the door and stood against it watching me flushing water over my face, rubbing it dry, looking in the mirror.

“I’m gonna get going,” I said, unable to turn around, ready to vomit, ready to run.

But in the mirror I could see that Kayla was looking at me with the same expression she’d shot me with at the café, the day I’d found her writing cross-legged in her gym clothes.

“You dare,” she said

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Olivia Gunning

Olivia Gunning

Olivia’s stories have been published in Penny Shorts, The Fiction Pool, Five on the Fifth and has work forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine and Scarlet Leaf Review. She began writing stories as soon as she could hold a feather and self-published her first story, Mrs. and Mr. Patchwork, aged six.

Later, having studied English Literature in London, Olivia trained and worked in journalism. She moved to Morocco and continued writing as a travel writer, studying linguistics and working as an English teacher. She spends half of her time in a fictitious world.

As a journalist, Olivia has written for Fodor’s Travel Guide, The National, Elle Decoration as well as several travel supplements. She lives and works in Casablanca, Morocco.

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