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'Emerald Lavender' by Dora Emma Esze

LISP 2022 Short Story Finalist 'Emerald Lavender' by Dora Emma Esze

Emerald Lavender

Christmas is the time to understand. The time to forgive. The time when everything falls into place. Yet Christmas sometimes puts on a mask and visits you suddenly when you’d least expect her to.

Never had Archie come closer to Christmas-In-Disguise than one dog hot August day in a Provençal village. All it took was for the girlfriend to put on a record. The tune came crushing down on him, dropped him into a volcano of harmony, it made him stop dead in his tracks, hook, line and sinker.

The girlfriend and him had been on the road for more than two weeks by then. South of France, nowhere to hide from the heat. He kept thinking of Kerouac, his imagination turned the Provençal roads into hundreds of miles of steaming-meandering asphalt ribbons in California. He was both Moriarty and Paradise, of course. Oh, the power of a name.

During the three years they had been together he had managed to re-define self-gaslighting in all the languages – Spanish for starters, of course – but that summer he relegated himself to a new level of hell. Clearly, he was the sinner. The one that did not get away. The one that should have. A very long time ago.

Eons prior, when they met, the girlfriend seemed easy as pie. They saw each other on Wednesday and Saturday nights. They sat in one of her six favourite pubs for hours and kept their coats on.

Nothing indicated the clock was ticking and a tornado was well on its way. In three months he fell for her. Dropped like a bat that woke up at two in the afternoon. Hooker, lining, stinker.

In the beginning there were no red flags. She had a reputation for being irresistibly funny at the university they both attended but boy, was she lethally humorous in real life. Like a sniper on the rooftop, like a spy disguised as a waiter, like a secret agent poking your ribs from behind whilst you were queuing for coffee: GOTCHA!! – her little jokes and big jokes, a cocktail of television quotes, impressions, puns, stand-up comedy lines would bounce on your head till your diaphragm was burning with pain.

In the beginning everything Archie said seemed to fascinate her. Nothing fancy, thoughts like ‘There’s natural nudity and there’s erotic nudity.’ Or: ‘Like a hole, it exists by non-existing.’ Maybe ‘In Spanish, Los verbos irregulares are the sluts who don’t have the balls to go full whore.’ Her face would light up – flawless teeth and not afraid to use them – her eyes would start to gleam; she’d shake her head and call him too smart for his age.

He was still living with his parents; she was her grandmother’s live-in carer. Which meant no sex for months, apart from pinning each other up the wall in a dark street every now and then, followed by some teenage groping and moaning on benches in dark parks. Still she claimed Archie was the full package.

In conversation she referred to her sparkling Hollywood future as a done deal. An Andalusian princess on her way to fame. Her voice, her hair, the jokes, the monologues, the impressions, the way she dubbed inanimate objects: she created a gathering wherever she went in minutes. Her mimicking people – and she mimicked basically everyone – was always bull’s eye, a complete miniature performance, instantly recognizable. In private she was the Ice Queen’s first maid: constantly flirting, never really voluptuous. A lot of talk about her voracious nature, very little action. In bed she was passive and surprisingly unimaginative.

On the sixteenth day of the trip that Archie secretly offers to Kerouac’s spirit they stop for lunch in a village; an auntie and uncle of hers own a villa there. Two boisterous, lovely Americans who greet them with a hug before even saying hello and disappear in the kitchen in less than a minute. This is Aix-en Provençe, they are preparing paella. ‘Not stinky cockney paella, reeeeeal Spáánish paella!,’ one of them adds and they both burst out laughing.

Given the princess’ Hollywood plans in a way everyone’s American except for Archie.

The lovely people are called Jack and Jill.

Looks like one of her jokes at first, but no.

The Mediterranean wind is the slut that has the balls to go full whore. Like so many in the neighbourhood, the village is called Puy-something. What a gorgeous house, what an enchanting garden.

Until the paella is ready Archie and the girlfriend are left on their own in the living room. He feels he can’t do this anymore, and the thought that he had betrayed his own book and had not ditched her years ago makes him feel dead inside.

For instance, the day she called him by the name of her ex would have been an excellent occasion.

Or when she manipulated him into taking the job originally offered to the same ex.

Or any of the evenings she cancelled their date suddenly, using her Nana as an excuse.

Past perfect is a damp dungeon. Alcatraz on steroids. The ice-cold struggle in the coffin after you open your eyes to being buried alive.

He is sitting in the corner in what could be an upright foetus position. She is walking from shelf to shelf absentmindedly, skimming book titles, touching porcelain nips lightly. “Care to change your t-shirt perhaps?” she asks without looking at him.

True, he is sweating like a racehorse. One that always comes in last.

Presently she stops by the record player and bends over to shuffle the pile of vinyls. The records she flips to the left build a tower, messy and irregular like the morning cough of a chain smoker.

In forty seconds Archie is about to hear a melody.

Jack and Jill laugh a lot. Clearly they have no idea their niece can turn into a medieval torture chamber in a jiffy. To the world she is always the funniest one in the room. Semi-strangers have been seen to beg her. Princess, make me laugh. Princess, give us a joke. The ability to marshal a legion of demons by raising an eyebrow is a sweet secret she shares with Archie and Archie only.

Years after the breakup, seeing the time spent together for what it was, Archie would still stand paralysed in the face of her sober sadism. The stages of getting high on spitting uglier and uglier insults disguised as funny observations. The escalation of her delight at the pain she was causing. Using creepy words like ‘reptilic’, puke-inducing’, ‘excremental’ just as light-handedly as burping up ‘cunt’, ‘retard’, ‘No one loves you, you know that, right?’ Cold and apathetic she watched him cry on countless occasions. Ah, not the tears again, what a drag. You pussy, you slug, you blob of rat shit.

Healthy laughter of the relatives behind those thick Provençal walls fills the air. Eventually, the girlfriend picks up a record, rips its clothes off, puts it on, marches out of the room.

The needle wobbles, the spinning begins, the well-known scratch-whisper is heard – textbook behaviour of any old record player. Then the first notes show up, like a group of well-behaved guests on the doorstep, waiting patiently to be invited in.

All of a sudden the melody enters – and the room bursts with sparks and lights and fireworks, and the room is at the same time balmy with that sweeping flow of intimacy, the certainty that ultimately all mistakes can be rectified and soon all your pain will melt away in a golden fire. The violins gently force you to look up: hovering above the room, the street, the village, the Angel of Music is emanating her smile, lavender and emerald. This music is Christmas visiting. No matter the hottest day of the year. Archie is hypnotised.

It's not that he is suddenly certain what to do; much rather the other way round. There is a decision sitting in the room, and he is all the decision is thinking about. The decision is solid as the rocks of the Pyrenees covered in moss and lichen, with a single rose of the Ispahans reaching towards the clouds. It’s over. They are done. He’s leaving her tonight.

As soon as he is able to move, he steps to the messy tower. Who is the composer, what’s this piece called? His eyes are a scanner, his brain a sponge. He grabs the paper case on the top of the pile, he reads all the words more than twenty times, he memorises the composer’s name and the title of the piece.

But he has it all wrong.

He is fatally mistaken.

It was another paper case he should have learned by heart.

That evening, leaving Jack and Jill’s house, he tells the girlfriend she can take the car; he’ll get the train in the morning. It’s easy, really. “I think it’s time we started seeing other people.” Given the girlfriend will tolerate anyone except for an ungrateful pig, outraged and offended she kicks him out. “Okay,” he replies calmly and has never felt more relieved.

A week later, back home, in his room, he takes a deep breath and clicks on YouTube with clammy fingers. He puts in name and title, the ones he had repeated in his head fifteen times a day since a certain day in a certain village. With butterflies from Provence bouncing around in his balls.

Finally, the orchestra begins.

The music is bright, sharp, jittery.

Could not be more different.

This composer is not that composer. This piece is not that piece, not even close.

I don’t know who this is but… oh, wait.

I don’t know who that is.

Now what? A postcard to Jack and Jill? Boo, lovely people, this is me speaking? One August day I heard a little something in your living room? A few minutes past noon? You know, when you weren’t even there? Hope this helps? By the way I’ve broken up with your diabolical niece? At long last? Kind regards, Archie?

A needle in the haystack is the Eiffel Tower wearing a high-visibility vest compared to the piece that saved his life. The chances of ever finding the same music again could not be slimmer. His music. Ever.

The breakup comes with the Ghost of Relationships Past showing up regularly, mostly in the dark, entertaining him with miniature earthquakes of the heart. Oh, what a sick, cheap slut. No, not her. Princess is irrelevant. Him. He was the whore. He was the sinner. He had sold his integrity for a crumb of false hope. Wasted three years on a toxic illusion.

Oh, that he didn’t take a French leave as soon as she called him –


George, his predecessor. A legend. A beautiful soul.

The first time she is not in the least embarrassed. Slip of the tongue. Happens to all of us. Then she repeats it again and again. George, could you get me th… George, which film were you s… Erm, G…

She slaps Archie with her evil little laugh when he tells her that a Freudian lapse is always a message from the subconscious.

They all studied Spanish at the same university, George and the girlfriend three years ahead of Archie. Those two had class together. Those two had lunch together. What, you want to destroy their friendship? After everything she’s done for you? Like helping you make a little money at long last?!

True, one November afternoon she introduced Archie to the manager of a language school, Helado En Madrid. “Oh, come on. Everyone knows you’re brilliant at languages, plus you’ve got about two thousand cousins, surely you can manage ten strangers. New chapter, sweetie! You appreciate I’m bending over backwards just to fix your money situation I hope?”

The manager – one fantastically fit middle-aged human candle wearing a grey skirt and pearls – handed Archie the course register. It had George’s name on it. Literally. Printed in black and white. What a stonking great coincidence. Oh, yes, pearls-and-grey remarked, this group was meant for George. You know him? Of course you do, Spanish department. Silly her.

‘Let me put it this way.’ She formed a windy tent with her fingers, searching for words. ‘You have officially inherited this lot.’ Oh, great, found them.

Apparently George had cocked up, never showed up on the first lesson, could not remember the address or lost the key. Poor students. Well, they are your students now. Congratulations.

It upset Princess terribly when Archie respectfully tried to withdraw. What is it with him always? Does he live to screw up her mood? Is that it? She deserves the very best in life, don’t you know that, eleven question marks, she is super talented, headed for a glowing future, are you trying to break her? See the bloody abyss between you and me?!

Sweet George, you even went up to him in the canteen one day and tried to talk him into taking the group back. George played it modest and nice and said no worries, he no longer wished to have any business with Helado anyway.

What you dare not admit those days is that she has collared you and the collar is heavier than steel. There is no love, never has been, you mean nothing to her, she is lying to you, yet you dare not leave her because she has convinced you she is The Jackpot in Stilettos. Her monologues about making it in Hollywood one day are getting more and more aggravating. She’s thriving on illusions. Live and breathe and nibble. How on Earth could you expect her to be honest with you?

Your mates spot her in places with George. She says she’s lying only not to upset you.

False hope is a choker. Maybe she opens her eyes one day and sees you for who you are – this is what you tell yourself for months on end, years. Yet it’s simple, really: you have never learned to see yourself as someone who deserves better.

Very, very rarely she took your face into her hands, looked you in the eye, told you how special you were. Incredibly handsome. Patted you on the forehead, threw you a bone.

And now it is more than seven years after the breakup. Christmas is around the corner, you’ll soon be taking your family to see your family – first, however, mid-December, you attend the funeral. Basic decency. Reading his speech George takes off his glasses every so often to wipe his eyes with the back of his hand.

What a way to go… The Grim Reaper waits for no one… She was still relatively young… I mean guys, who’s next… To think of the Juliet she could have played… Tragic, just tragic… Or the Sonya… At least she didn’t suffer…

It’s all behind you now. You toss a single white rose onto the coffin and vanish like the vapour.

On Christmas Day you finally park up in the street where you grew up, walk to the door with wife and toddler and – three, two, one – step into the heart of the cacophony you have always called home.

Shit, Archie, finally. Nana, Nanaaa! They’re heeeeere! Dude, at long last. Hi Paige, wow, you look amazing! Hullooooo, tiny prince, Imma spoil you rotten as soon as your parents look the other way, ba-da-ba-da-woo-woo-cha-cha! Oh, hi, Archie.

(Grandad, Grandma, cousin, cousin’s teenage son, a step-sister of a cousin of Grandad’s wife.)

Can I hold the baby? Why are you still standing there? Dad, hang on. Broski, what with the coat! Mum, can I hold the baby? I think I’ll push the eggnog till the afternoon. Paige, my love, you are more dazzling than the roses of Ispahan. Mum, can I hold the baby? Sweet Jesus, Paige, can Mimi please hold the baby so that I can please finish my pumpkin soup. Uncle Archie, what’s in the box? Archie, have you washed your hands? Paige, Paige! Come sit next to me! Stop pushing. Hand me the Niceois, will you. Nana, Graham is trying to steal my seat again!

(Nieces, nephews, great-aunt and her husband, cousin from the coast and her husband, babies, pre-schoolers, brother, brother’s boyfriend, or maybe they got engaged in May, you can’t remember.)

Oh, hello, darling, looking sharp are we, sweetie can you please get the good ladle from the kitchen, the one with the lavender handle, thank you, you’re a peach. Sit your ass down and open your mouth, I’ve upgraded the recipe. Archie, baby, finally! I want a biiig kiss, mwah. Dude, what’s going on, your face is so red. Is that whiskey? Don’t be a dick, you know Paige doesn’t drink. I do! Can’t believe he’s not sitting down. Can't believe the coat. Archie, what’s going on, Earth to Archie, hello, hello, Archie, are you receiving?

Oh, yes, you are, you are indeed. Meandering and dizzy in this blazing love-maze, on the day when tipsy looks good even on your mother, there is music playing in the background.

You had only heard it once before – in a previous life, in a place velvet and sad and funny, adjacent to a garden, lavender emerald.

You are pale, you are dizzy, you sweat like the racehorse that always comes in first.

“Uncle Archie! Listen to this. So beautiful. It’s my music, my music! Mine, mine, mine!”

The tiny daughter of a cousin of yours clinging to your neck, she is a rose, she is a pony, she is adorable. You hold her tight, trembling, and if your tears had a voice that voice would sound lavender and emerald, and if your tears could speak they would whisper but one word:




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