Contaminated By James Woolf

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It began with a simple statement. An uncontroversial statement, as so many conversations do.

“Hey, I bought that T-Shirt,” I said, standing in the kitchen doorway.

She was peeling the dead outer skin from an onion with a knife and her fingers. It came off in one piece, revealing a layer as white and perfect as a glass eye.

“What T-Shirt?” she asked.

“You don’t remember? The Dominic Cummings lockdown tour T-Shirt. I can show you a picture.”

“No, I remember it.”

“Yeah, so I bought it. Fifteen ninety-nine. A bit steep, but still.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you buy it?”

“Because it’s funny.” I came into the kitchen and ran myself a glass of water. “It made me laugh. Did you not find it funny?”

“Not at all.” She was scoring the onion along its green lines. Everything she did with precision.

“You might find it funnier when I wear it,” I said.

“Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know.” I was starting to feel uncomfortable. “What are you making?”

“I’m not sure. I thought I’d start by frying an onion. It doesn’t close off too many possibilities.”

“No, I guess not.”

“Why did you just say that then? That I might find it funnier when you wear it? The words are the same, whether I read them in a Tweet or on a T-Shirt, aren’t they?”

“I don’t know why I said it. I just told you that, didn’t I?”

“And that’s what I’m interested in. You often say something. But when I ask why you said it, you don’t have a reason.”

“It must be one of those idiosyncrasies you love me for,” I said.

But my wife of fifteen years wasn’t smiling.

She finished chopping her onion and went to the fridge and picked out another one. I sat down at the kitchen table, resting my feet on another chair. She looked at me as I did so, but she didn’t say anything.

“You’re going to chop another onion,” I said.

“I thought I might need another one.”

“But you don’t know what you’re making.”

“That’s right. But now I can make more of it.”

I knew not to argue when she became like this. “I’m sure it will be lovely whatever you make.”

“The thing about that T-Shirt,” she said, “is that it’s essentially making light of a situation that really isn’t funny. The whole country – or at least most of the country – has been busting a gut to follow the government’s guidelines. And what we’ve now learned is that the Prime Minister’s own adviser can blatantly disregard those guidelines, and we’re asked to believe that what he did was fine. But that’s a lie. It’s very obviously a lie.”

“Of course. I’m not disputing any of that. The T-Shirt is taking the piss out of Cummings, cos it’s listing all the places he’s been, like they’re venues on a rock tour.”

“I know.”

“I’m sure you do.”

I watched as she tossed the onions, both now finely chopped, into the cast-iron frying pan she’d bought two years ago. She insisted she could now only use cast-iron pans and that nothing we’d used before was good enough for her.

“Well, it sounds like we’re in agreement then,” I continued.

“No. We’re not in agreement. Not at all. Because we need to call out these lies. Not normalise them by making jokes. It’s a scary situation when the Prime Minister treats everyone in the country like they’re stupid, and ignorant, and gullible. I mean, where will this end? Don’t you find this absolutely terrifying?”

“I can cancel my T-Shirt order, if you like,” I said. “I only just ordered it, so it’s probably not too late.”

She shook her head.

“You don’t want me to cancel it?”

“No, because that isn’t my point.”

“Okay.”

She’d reduced the gas to its lowest light and was stooping, staring intently at the onions from frying pan level as she stirred them. They were smelling divine. So much better than whenever I cooked onions. My onions were always too crunchy. I didn’t have the patience to cook onions properly, that’s what it was.

“Know what you’re making yet?” I asked.

“Not yet.”

“How about one of your famous curries? We haven’t had one of those in a while.”

“I don’t need your suggestions,” she said.

“I think perhaps you do,” I laughed.

“Just getting back to what we were discussing, won’t you feel contaminated when you put that T-Shirt on?”

“Contaminated?” I said.

“That’s what I said.”

“I can cancel the order,” I repeated.

“What am I going to do with you?” she asked.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, what am I meant to do with someone who treats this kind of thing as a joke? Instead of coming to me and discussing it, like most couples discuss serious things, you make a joke of it.”

“It wasn’t my joke, remember.”

“But you bought the T-Shirt.”

“And that’s not what most couples do. Most couples wouldn’t discuss it. Most couples wouldn’t be interested in it. At least I was interested enough to buy the T-Shirt.”

“Yes, exactly, you bought the T-Shirt.”

“Been there, bought the T-Shirt,” I said, trying to show how ridiculous the conversation was getting.

“Exactly.”

“Where are you going with this one?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Just like you’re frying onions without knowing what you’re going to cook.”

“Exactly,” she said.

It was like she was trying to make a point by continuously saying the word exactly. Exactly – exactly – exactly. But what point was she trying to make?

There was silence. For at least a minute there was silence. The onions now smelled like caramel. But she had lost interest in them. She had turned the pan off and was staring at the white surface of the cupboard we kept our plates in. I was feeling so angry I couldn’t bear to look at her. I had no idea what to say next.

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James Woolf

James is a fiction writer living in London. His short story A Tale of Twelve Speeches will be appearing in Storgy’s forthcoming anthology You are Not Alone.

James is currently working on a novel, a psychological thriller set in the legal world, which is provisionally entitled Indefensible.

He has had many short stories published, including three in Ambit Magazine. He has been shortlisted in many competitions including twice in the Bridport. His story R v Sieger: Additional Documents Disclosed by the Crown Prosecution Service was highly commended in the London Short Story competition.

James also writes scripts for the theatre, and has had around twelve plays produced, and two broadcast on the Radio. His play Empty in Angel sold out at the White Bear Theatre in London in November 2019 and was programmed to return to four other venues in April and May 2020 before Covid-19.

You can read more about James on his website http://woolf.biz or follow him on Twiiter @WoolfJames

Image by VersionFrancaise from Pixabay

Details of previous publications & links

  1. Armageddon: A Game of Daring and Duplicity: published by Riggwelter #22, June 2019. https://riggwelterpress.wordpress.com/2019/06/01/issue-twenty-two/
  2. Her Other Passion, published by Cabinet of Heed, May 2019, https://cabinetofheed.com/2019/04/30/her-other-passion-james-woolf/
  3. This morning Paul McVeigh Liked two of my Tweets: published by Riggwelter #12, August 2018. https://riggwelterpress.wordpress.com/blog/
  4. One Slightly Crazy Night on East 52nd Street: published by Ambit, Issue 233, July 2018, ISSN 0002-6972 http://ambitmagazine.co.uk/fiction/one-slightly-crazy-night-on-east-52nd-street
  5. The Crossroads at Jijiga, published by Village Square Journal, April 2018, http://www.villagesquarejournal.com/2018/04/24/crossroads-at-jijiga/
  6. Alvin’s Dancehall – looking back, published Cabinet of Heed, March 2018, https://cabinetofheed.com/2018/03/06/alvins-dancehall-looking-back-james-woolf/
  7. In Extremis, published by Cabinet of Heed, February 2018, https://cabinetofheed.com/2018/02/13/in-extremis-james-woolf/
  8. Good Morning, Azar: published by Ambit, Issue 229, July 2017, ISSN 0002-6972
  9. A Suitable Candidate: published Cafe Aphra, April 2017, http://cafeaphrapilot.blogspot.com/2017/03/a-suitable-candidate.html
  10. Mr and Mrs Clark and Blanche: published by Ambit, Issue 227, January 2017, ISSN 0002-6972
  11. The Wondwossi Hotel Bar, published by Greenacres, July 2016, http://greenacrewriters.blogspot.com/2016/07/the-wondwossi-hotel-bar-by-james-woolf.html
  12. Waiting to Meet Dylan Thomas: published Cafe Aphra, July 2016, http://cafeaphrapilot.blogspot.com/2016/07/waiting-to-meet-dylan-thomas.html
  13. R v Sieger – additional documents disclosed by the Crown Prosecution Service: published in Upshots, Kingston University Press, April 2016, ISBN-13:978-1-906362-06-2

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