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The Partnership Act by Edward Barnfield

Short Story Finalist, LISP 3rd Quarter 2020

The Partnership Act by Edward Barnfield

The Partnership Act

The morning of the last meeting, Chloe comes to me with a green paperback. She’s been doing that recently, grabbing random fiction from the bookcase and telling us her interpretation of the stories inside. Inevitably, there are a few more dragons and dinosaurs in her synopses than the originals, but it’s charming, movie-kid stuff.

There’s been a lot of this behaviour since lockdown. She’s named each cushion on our sofa, redecorated the underside of her cot with a labyrinth of Sellotape. We pretend that it’s the stirring of a healthy imagination, but I can’t shake the fear that this is a product of loneliness, a symptom of sense stimulation starvation. We’re trying to keep life interesting for her, of course, but we’ve been the ones with distractions of late.

“Is the girl sad?” she says.

I’m retying my tie, rehearsing my platitudes for the day, so it takes me a beat too long to realise which book she has taken, which girl she is taking about.

“Why is she running?”

She is holding up the biography of Kim Phuc, the Napalm Girl of South Vietnam. There was a period, early in the marriage, when we picked a book from every airport on our travels, as a memento and failed attempt to expand our literary horizons. We must have bought this on the Southeast Asia tour, brought it home in the backpack. It has travelled with us unread from house-move to house-move, waiting to explode in this moment.

On the front is the Associated Press photo you must have seen, the Napalm Girl fleeing the aftermath of a misdirected bombing run. She is naked, screaming, distorted by pain and terror. Her clothes have burned from her body, and family members lie dead in the smoke behind. Fifty years on, and the image has lost none of the dread, none of its power.

Chloe is three years old. She is examining the cover with flat interest, perhaps seeing a reflection in the skinny arms, hairless skin. I take the book from her, hide it on a high shelf, but I already know the impression is setting in the cement of her memory. She can recollect the names of prehistoric lizards, recite the plots of her cartoons. There’s an ache as I think of Kim Phuc joining her internal pantheon.

Chloe’s questions are still with me as I board the District Line in the sleet, jostle with strangers for breathing space. I count the masks, fight down a shudder when a hand touches the strap at the same time as mine. As a distraction, I look for people reading, try to spot alternative covers that could placate Chloe when I get home. I even half-consider reading up on the Vietnam War, picking out some child-friendly facts from Wikipedia, until I think of the new horrors that discussion would stir.

As it turns out, it’s all a welcome diversion before I arrive at the café. I’ve been rehearsing the meeting for a week, running through scenarios, fighting down the anger. In place of any drama there’s just a smooth handover, my mind going straight from the bookshelves to the thump as I catch Von’s face through the glass.

I’ve only seen Von on a computer over the last three months, first in a scrolling crowd, then as an embittered postage stamp alone on a black screen. There’s a strange novelty in seeing her back, the nape of her neck. I don’t have time to be nervous before reaching across the table, leaning for a hug that becomes a glancing touch of her arm.

“Hello David,” she says, frosty politeness and foam in the corner of her mouth. “You’re looking well.”

I had practiced a killer opening line, something that would simultaneously put her at ease and let her know I’m not here to be fucked with, but all I can think of is Chloe’s question, the brutal stress on the last word. “Is the girl sad?”

Von cuts in. “How is the little princess?”

It’s a habit of hers, to habitually erase children’s names, to act as though family is an afterthought. It’s one of those traits that’s almost endearing, until she does it to you.

Ever the head girl, Von has brought neat black books with emails printed and pasted, her laptop open and buzzing with creditors. Apart from the woman behind the counter, who is saran-wrapped like Christmas fruit, we are the only people here. There is no music, just hisses and spits from a coffee machine in the corner.

“So, look, honestly, I’m sorry it has come to this,” she says, keeping her eyes on the café door. “But, if we’re going to do it, it makes sense to be quick, clean and amicable all the way. I think we can persuade the landlord to return the deposit, which gives us funds for redundancies. We do need to be smart about when we tell the bank.”

I mostly let her talk. There are only five full-time employees left, and a few freelancers with outstanding invoices. We agree they should be paid as close to what they’re owed as possible. We’re going to pretend this decision is due to market conditions, the pandemic, external factors beyond our control. Still, she can’t help but remind me that the last funding round failed, that the order book has dried and withered.

My justifications are ready, but we don’t allocate blame. She doesn’t mention the complaints from the secretaries, Corina’s angry resignation after the Brighton expo. If she’s still bitter about the messages on the website, my name on the spreadsheet of shitty men, it doesn’t show. I suppose, the end of the business is the end of any liability, for her at least.

“This would be easier if we had a proper partnership agreement,” she says. “You’re supposed to have clauses that outline how to dissolve, avoid the mess. It was one of the modules at Ellesfield.”

About three years ago, Von took a course at a management school, ‘Doing Business Better,’ paid for by her Dad. She came back with binders full of strategy, new ideas for team communication. Suddenly, there were new metrics to judge success, judge me. You can’t see decline from the inside.

“It would have been a stretch drafting that at your Mum’s kitchen table,” I say, pushing on the door to nostalgia, wanting to go back with her to the early days, late night takeaways and the first invoices faxed through from America. She doesn’t bite.

You wonder what went first – the vocabulary of friendship, or our capacity. At college, we studied old sonnets with an outdated professor, who squirmed when the gay kid talked of re-queering the canon. Those Tudors, dashing off epigrams to this lord or that. It can’t all have been code, though. Some of them must have been about companionship, soulmates without the mating.

These days, there isn’t language to explain what Von and I had. Building the company, we spent more time together than with anyone else in our adult lives. There was an intimacy, an ease, that permeated everything, at least until the cheques started rebounding. Even when the emails surfaced, she backed me. Now, we’re composing a joint statement to summarise our severance. When she walks out of the café, a decade of professional camaraderie becomes a bullet on my CV.

Riding home, there’s a feeling not unlike grief. We get stuck between stations. The builder by the carriage door says, “Jumper,” and it takes me a moment to understand he’s not taking about knitwear.

I run through the outstanding payments and old bank statements and realise there are two narratives there. For Von, these scraps just show the dwindling of capital, the failure of goodwill. We borrowed a chunk from her parents to move into the new offices in 2018, and never paid it back. I look and I see the ambition, the aspiration, the appetite these numbers contain. I am not ashamed of what I achieved, what I did. Perhaps that was the problem.

There’s a spasm of guilt as I put the key in the lock. I forgot about Sally, haven’t called all day even though I said I would. How to explain the conversation with Von, the consequences?

You tell yourself that there’s consensus in friendship, in marriage, but in truth it’s all interpretation. When you subtract all the distractions, there were really only three women in my life and now there are two. Chloe and Sally, daughter and wife. Does Von’s absence create more space? More chance for connection? It would be nice if something good comes of all this, you think. But the good rarely comes.

You pick up the book of your life, and your kid tells you there are monsters in it.



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