Conversationalist

Another short story that I’ve had hanging around for a while…

Raindrops

It rains for the first month.

They make tea for people when they come to visit, sit and drink the tea and watch the rain. They show the guests all the rooms in the house and then they take them out in to the rain to look at the garden and stand in the greenhouse as rain runs off the angled panes, they look at plants close to drowning in the borders and scrutinise the outside of the house to try and match the exterior up with what they have seen of the inside of the building.

At the end of that first month, when the rain finally stops, they find that the roof of the shed was unstable and the whole thing has buckled. A box, which turns out to have been their cache of anecdotes has been totally destroyed, turned to mush and pulp.

They do not even have a way of remembering whose idea it was to put that box in the shed.

The incident cannot even be used as a building block towards starting up a new stash of personal stories.

People come round for dinner and these are people who have already seen the house, so now they must talk about something else. They discuss the news for a bit and then start to talk about mortgages, until one of the guests points out, bloody hell, look at us talking about mortgages.

The same guest starts the next conversation and because it goes, ‘do you remember when we were at…’ they exchange a glance, a little warning that they must be on guard.

Through a mixture of agreeing with each of their guest’s recollections and deferring to the other guests for answers to questions, they survive. The conversation ends with one of the guests laughing so hard he has to take off his glasses in order to wipe the tears from his eyes, whilst they just sit there trying to feign a similar level of amusement.

And so it continues. Whenever they are called upon to remember a funny story or contentious incident, they have to duck and dive, dodge giving an opinion, hum along with everyone else’s memories like they are well-loved and much-played songs.

Later, when they are alone, he declares that they need to do something about this. She asks what he is suggesting.

What he is suggesting is this: that they re-populate from scratch, build up an arsenal of anecdotes to replace those that were lost.

He suggests they begin with an easy one, and he offers to take the flak for the destruction of the old box.

She tells him that he can’t do that – they don’t remember which of the two them put the box in the old shed.

But he paints a picture for her. “You had been telling me to put the box somewhere in the house, then your mum phoned and I put the box in the shed because I thought you wouldn’t notice.” His eyes do not flicker, his voice does not falter.

For just a moment she thinks he has, from somewhere, found the truth of the matter. It’s just a moment, but she is hurt by this deception.

On a piece of paper, he writes down an outline of the story of how the old box of anecdotes came to be destroyed, then drops the piece of paper into a new, empty cardboard box.

It is a start.

Their first attempts are poor and stuttering deliveries, their tales are shallow and translucent, sickly things that would never survive out in the real world. The first time he interrogates her version of what happened at a barbecue they once had on the beach, she crumbles under his questioning and she is close to tears as she complains that what they are doing is lying.

But, he tells her, this is all anyone does. He asks her to quiz him about the time he fell and broke his arm.

She tells him he has never broken his arm, but he insists this is the truth. It takes three minutes of incessant questions before she finds a flaw in his story. He patches it up and they try again.

This is how they spend the rest of the night, facing each other across the kitchen table, telling story after story, cementing new pasts for themselves. Periodically she voices the worry that their friends and family will be able to disprove these tales.

“No one has followed every single moment of your life,” he tells her. “And no one re- members all this perfectly, they just take a vague memory and bolt some other bits on.”

She writes this down, makes it official, a solid unit of a thing that has happened to her.

By morning the box is full of fresh new anecdotes. They feel whole again – ecstatic, triumphant – though they are also giddy and giggling, so the feeling may be the result of a lack of sleep.

“You’re wonderful my dear. Such a fine conversationalist!” “Conversationalist!” she descends in to laughter. He snorts. “What a word.”

As dawn breaks, they step outside, feeling the superiority of having outlasted the night. It is not raining but it has been raining and the new sunshine shows up little drops of rainwater on all the leaves and the rainwater on the ground soaks through their socks. They do not discuss the fact that their feet are getting wet, having transcended such concerns.

When they finally fall asleep – and it is that they fall asleep, rather than consciously deciding to go to bed – they dream of conversations, visualised as patterns, all the stories their brains are telling them existing not as experiences but as narratives constructed from words.

They wake and it is evening again, and dark, and they move around one another silently. Words now seem useless, futile, obsolete. They have moved in to a post-conversation epoch in which they will never again tell one another a story.

***

It is several months later – months in which they have completed much successful socialising – when they realise they have missed something.

They are once again conducting a tour of the house, showing around an old friend who has been away. They make him tea and show him all the rooms in the house and then they go outside to show him the garden and the greenhouse and the old shed. “Funny story about that…”

The old friend looks at the exterior of the house, maybe looks at it for a little longer, ex- amines it a little more closely than the previous visitors.

“So, which room is that, there?” he asks, pointing.

They start to explain but-

They go back in to the house and match up the rooms but-

At the back of a cupboard they find a door that leads through to another tiny room, a room of which they have no recollection. One by one they squeeze through the door, lighting the way ahead with the flashlights on their phones and the three of them find they can just about stand.

Of course, the room appears to be empty.

They shine their flashlights in to all the corners of the room. There is nothing there, except one cardboard box.

Just sitting there. Funny story about that.

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