Thursday, 1 November 2012

Unordered Lists by Chloe George


It's nothing, Callie's manager said, compared to 1976. Callie looked up to signal she was joining the conversation, not because it was interesting but because it was more interesting than the horticultural terms she was supposed to be sorting on the screen. Her manager talked about the past a good deal, popular subtopics including: back doors that could be left open, colder winters, Bryan Ferry. 
Callie listened. It was a way to pass the time. She looked out at the blue sky, feeling the freezing air from the conditioning unit above. You got told off if you opened a window, because it made the air conditioning go haywire, said the man from the facilities office. Honestly, he said each time. It goes absolutely haywire. Callie opened it anyway, claiming special pregnant dispensation for temperature regulation. She stared at the time on her screen and sometimes at the clock on the wall to double check. She tapped her toes on the carpet. She checked her emails. She trawled through Facebook photo albums of friends who had gone to university, shoals of straight-haired new best friends and boys in smart shirts drinking £2 vodka jellies.
Callie was a training assistant, which meant she spent most of her time reworking information into lists and changing words like 'advantageous' to 'helpful'. They were building learning modules, each one comprehensive, covering everything relevant on that topic. It gave her constant dreams where her mind put
- things
- in
- unordered
- lists
and sometimes
1. into
2. ordered
3. ones.
The information came to Angela, her manager, as a giant ball of data, unwieldy, full of extraneous details. You flushed out the extra bits then found ways to teach people the basics, in ways that would stick in their brain, said Angela - short sentences, pictures, rhymes, lists. Making big things smaller helped, which was usually the point Callie came in. Sorting out seas of options into a few clear steps; simplifying, streamlining, unscrambling. Worlds could be broken up into small chunks, and when you had learned each part you were done. It made things infinitely manageable and possible.
Callie was good at words at school, but she wanted to annoy her dad enough to avoid university. Soon after leaving school she had the to chance to add to his discontent by moving in with an Asian boy, but even that backfired when he started to become more popular than her at home. Dad split his sides whenever he made a joke and her stepmother would send him newspaper clippings about his football team with the relevant bits highlighted, and a small card with a pressed flower that she had stuck on herself saying "I saw this and thought of you, Jill xx". They even put up a framed picture of Callie and Sunni on holiday in Greece on the dresser, her with a pink peeling nose, him with a wide delighted smile. "He's not Asian Asian," Callie had heard her stepmother say to her friend once, who nodded in immediate understanding. She qualified this with his embrace of curry and football, his British accent and his grasp of Gujarati. Callie saw women stop short in the supermarket to stare at him, this tall boy, his soft brown eyes that made checkout girls blush. For a while she had enjoyed the feeling of conquest.
He would be reading the note around now, probably guessing its contents before he unfolded it. She had never written him a note before, she realised that morning, as her pen shaped his name on the paper, but this kind of situation called for one. She had seen notes folded up like that in films, left on work tops or beds and usually containing the words going away for a while and time apart.
She said goodbye to everyone and they all oohed and aahed and patted the bump and made her promise to send pictures. She couldn't imagine what her life would look like in the next year. When she closed her eyes it was a blank, or a sitcom where she got landed with some baby and hilarity ensued as she tried not to drop it.
She got on the train and squeezed her way through the carriage and sighed loudly at the row of occupied seats. A man in a pinstriped suit leapt up to make space for her, staring at her belly. "I'm so sorry," he said, and watched as she lowered herself down. It surprised her how many men looked at her like that, not just at her oversized breasts but at the bump, like they wanted to fuck the bump, thought Callie. Not the baby, that would be disgusting, but the bump, the body with the bump attached to it, with the milky breasts and the stretched skin and the veins like spilt paint. It makes them feel connected with the animal earth and the soil and the root of things, she had  decided. She obliged their curiosity with low cut tops, wanting them to look and then feeling strange, exposed, when they did. 
She looked through the free sheet, scanning the chorus of obsessive commentary on England wilting in the sun. Animals were suffocating in cars; weather presenters fried eggs on car bonnets in front of salivating TV crews; commuters carried bottles of watery ice that had been harvested in the freezer all night. People pored over images of beaches packed with not a spot between bodies while barbecues scattered ashes in the dry wind, the land's roasted odour a marker in the magical memory book of long hot summers. Like old friends, these signifiers were, like lovers long gone but not forgotten. Do you remember 2003? Do you remember '76?
She let herself into her parents' house, curtains shut, sticky pink air like the inside of a teapot. The smell of temporary abandonment, the navy armchair sinking in the corner and the spider plant flopping in the heat.
She dropped her bag on the floor. In it was:
- 2 x dresses, 3 t-shirts, 2 x maternity leggings
- 5 x pairs big knickers and 4 x cotton socks
- 1 x vibrator
- 1 x toothbrush and toothpaste
- 1 x lavender eye bag
- 1 x packet of mixed nuts
- 1 x pot of Boots cold cream
It was unfinished, on its way to becoming a hospital bag, once certain things were added and certain things removed. She kept having worried dreams about it not being ready, an anxiety that disappeared in the calmer light of day.
She ran her wrist under the cold tap. Nana had taught that to her. Nana was right about this, not about everything. When she moved in with Sunni she was glad nana was dead because she used to call boys like Sunni inaccurate racialist terms like darky and wog and Paki. When Callie got pregnant she was even more glad nana was gone - her names for girls like her were loose, fallen, harlot, hussy. It didn't worry Callie. History would prove that nana was wrong.
She plugged in the fan and it started to whirr, layered onto the sound of kids splashing in a distant garden. She sat down at the computer, opened a packet of biscuits and put one in her mouth, letting the crumbs fall from her mouth into her dad's keyboard. She started to google "pregnant horny", but when she got to the o she got distracted by other, more popular search terms: pregnant hot tub, pregnant hot dog, pregnant hospital bag. When she typed in the r she was outvoted by pregnant hormones, pregnant horoscope, pregnant horse. She stopped, discouraged by atypicality. She was doing being pregnant wrong.
Every time she tried to fall asleep that night she found her mind still editing at work, pushing her to categorise thoughts into similar groups. Crop rotation can help reduce disease and pest problems minimise weed problems improve soil quality. Gross feeder then light feeder then grown manure then light feeder again. She started adding to the maternity bag in her head, wondering how she could get these items to cross over from her unconscious into the real bag of morning time.
Around two she put the lamp on and sat up in bed. She looked at her dress draped on the chair, noticed how clothes with an absent owner, mannequin-less, look like
- sunk parachutes
- outsized doll's clothes
- ghosts.
She yawned and flicked through her stepmother's Hello magazine. At three the storm broke, crashing thunder, the sky like frogs would hurl themselves out of it. After a minute the rain stopped, the sky empty again, silent. She felt in her bag for the vibrator, thinking she might sleep afterwards. She kept shifting throughout to make it happen, on her back, side, all fours, until she came. It felt bigger and freer now that she was alone, containing more possibilities.
She wobbled downstairs and opened the back door, the security floodlighting the garden.  The green of the grass, of the eucalyptus tree, of the ferns, of the green on green on green, all due to her dad's nighttime flouting of the hosepipe ban. The plants always looked messy to her, gorgeous but messy, the way they grew asymmetrically and left bare patches and leaned to one side. When she was a little girl she had got into trouble for trying to tidy them up - chopping twigged stems and pulling out what looked like weeds and filling gaps with piles of leaves. Dad said it was organised mess, that nature wasn't just there to behave itself. It acted up. Raggedy leaves pushing up for air.
She snoozed on the sofa all morning. When she got hungry she staggered up to the corner shop and bought fish fingers, a box of six Magnums and a packet of frozen peas. Green veg was good for the baby. As she was waiting for the peas to cook she heard a car pull up outside, then someone banging on the front door.
"Callie, I know you're there! Open the door!" She crouched down by the worktop in case he came round the back. "What the fuck is up, Callie? Stop being mental. The baby is coming in eight weeks!"
She waited until the banging stopped. She could rest her chin on the bump in this position - it felt peaceful, being curled into a ball, left alone. She ate her lunch then an ice cream on the sofa and switched from channel to channel. Teenagers were being carried out of festivals on stretchers in the heat. Traffic jams stretched all the way to Cornwall. She ate another ice cream and found an old film with two lovers separated because of the war, the one with trenches. The man in the trench, the woman entrenched at home, about him, about the rightness of him. They wrote each other long, overblown letters and enjoyed an emotional, piano-soundtracked reunion.
Later on she poked around the house for old parental love notes - there must be some - in the oak dark of hall drawers. Did they have no creation story? She imagined finding some something definitive:
- I wake filled with thoughts of you
- touched me more profoundly than
- I waited for your letter, it felt like forever
- at the doors of your heart.
All she could find were receipts and a note on the back of a bill saying "Steak and kidney pie defrosting on work top. Take out bins please thanks."
Around eight she heard a key in the door.
"Callie!" said her stepmother when she walked in, over-tanned, liver-spotted, like an old starling. She put down her bag, which she always called a holdall, even though nothing, nothing could contain everything, even half of everything, even a quarter of it. "What are you doing here? Where's Sunni?"
Callie tried to sit up to sweep the ice cream wrappers up from the coffee table but kept rolling backwards.
"Did you have another argument?" Callie nodded, sliding from apathy into a hot, teary, home state.
Her father came in the door, saw her and raised his eyes skyward. "I told you we should have changed the locks, Jill."
"Don!" Her stepmother sank down on the sofa. "You'll have to make it up, you know. You're having a baby together."
"What you've got to learn, Calista, is to stop acting on impulse." Her dad slammed the door. "Have you any idea how hard this is going to be?" Callie stretched her legs out and let her toes nestle in the carpet. She was always impressed by her father's energy for conflict.
"He doesn't even want the baby," she protested. "He said he was nonplussed." There were other reasons like:
1. he ignored her
2. he poked at her cellulite and said 'dimples' and laughed
3. he was probably cheating on her, I mean probably he is, if I had to guess I would say he was, she had said to the secretary at work.
Sunni worked late a lot. Callie had started edging away from him on the sofa. When he draped himself over her she stood absolutely still until it was over.
"I need to sleep," she yawned and slunk upstairs. She could hear them arguing downstairs. She turned out the light, opened the curtains and looked out at the night, the same constellation of tree shapes against the sky, the same yowling cat from next door.

*****

"You can at least make yourself useful," her father was saying, balancing a shopping list in her stepmother's handwriting on top of the bump as Callie lay on the sofa. "Pregnancy is no excuse for idleness." He pulled her up and put a big sun hat on her head, £20 in her pocket and guided her out the door, shutting it after her.
Worms had dried on the waterless soil. She stepped over them carefully, occasionally pulling down her too-short sundress. She bought two lollies at the corner shop and sucked on them, one after another. She walked a bit further past the travel agency, and looked at the pictures in the window, the pictures that were lies like all pictures, because images can only contain a few things, they don't show tiny seedlings of uncertainty or almighty blowups or creeping boredom. She thought:
- Croatia looks nice
- Malaysia looks nice
- France looks nice.
At the meat counter the man who took her order was Dean Alderton, who had accidentally kicked a football in her face in year nine. "Callie Berner," he said softly, his voice confident enough to hint at many ultimately successful nights after saying girls' names in nightclubs. "Back in town." She remembered this, how he spoke like he was commentating. An odd boy, really, or perhaps he simply had the conviction to say what he liked. Still, he was handsome and had a gap in his teeth that she wanted to run her tongue over. She remembered she was still wearing the big hat and wished she had taken it off. "Staying with your mum?"
"Yes, for a bit."
"Where's Sunni?"
"Um ... I'm don't know," which was technically true, and she let her eyes fix sadly on a distant pork chop.
"Shit." He nodded his head towards the bump. "That's harsh. Maybe I could take you for a drive sometime? Take your mind off things?"
"Sure. That would be nice." Sunni was cheating on her anyway. He didn't even want the baby.
When she got home she said to her stepmother: "I'm going to go out for a drive with Dean Alderton." She ran the tap and put her forehead under it, then the rest of her head so the water ran down her parting in a neat canal.
"The meat counter boy?" Her stepmother's voice was sharp. In Callie's head her and Dean had already formed an enduring partnership based on a mutual acceptance of his simple charm and the fact that she had read Lady Chatterley's Lover. He would stick around to bring up the baby with her and things would be easier than with her and Sunni, more successful, she wouldn't want to have sex with any other boys or girls from the train or from work or from meat counters or anywhere.
"Why would he want to take a pregnant woman out for a drink? I don't think that's a good idea Callie. People could see you and think that something untoward was happening. Sunni could see you. Relationships are hard work, you know." Her stepmother had the ability to have entire conversations with no input from the other person. "You can't just get up and walk out at the first sign of trouble. What are you going to do?"
But Callie's mind was plotless, except for the outlandish:
- do it with Dean Alderton from the meat counter
- go to the airport and get on the first flight
- go back home to Sunni
There were a mixture of emotional or practical barriers to most of them, and all of them were likely to suffer from third act problems.
She pressed her face into the fan thinking that, if she hadn't been feeling so lustful on the day she conceived, she wouldn't have been so carefree with the whole condom thing, and maybe if she hadn't been in such a bad mood the morning she decided to write the note, she wouldn't have left. Her body had told her to get pregnant and she obeyed. It was something to do, a real thing, a concrete whole with consequences.
The specific bit that had instructed her was the hollow space just outside her vagina, actually a lack of space, that said one day: "Go." This command felt like carrying around a beach ball in between her thighs. The condoms had been lying in a drawer, linked pairs like diptychs, and she told Sunni it was a safe time and flung them across the room. They flew behind the dresser, swooping birds with cautionary tails, out of sight. It wasn't a safe time. It was a warm, liquid time, running down your legs in the morning, swarming with the possible. "I'm pregnant, mum," she had said, and her stepmother, all too familiar with the turbulent state of things between her and Sunni, had said "I'm so sorry," like the man on the train.
Sunni had said "What? Really? Are you sure? What the fuck. Really? Fuck."
The other mothers, whose daughters were at university or building wells in Africa, stared at the growing bump in Tescos when she came to visit her parents. It reminded her of the time she'd taken her new shoe off and thrown it in the weir when she was nine. Nana had looked stunned. Her dad had shaken his head in disgust. They were the same expressions. What have you done this time.
She went to bed that night and had embarrassing dreams of slabs of meat mixing with sexual organs, bodies slathering and grouping and parting and yearning and regrouping.

*****

The next night Dean beeped the horn and she trotted out before her stepmother could collar him. He'd have to face her soon enough, over a rump steak or a shoulder of lamb.
Dean had a fast car, faster and louder than Sunni's. He drove slowly, glancing at the bump every now and again, as if he were driving with a snow globe in the front seat. "So when is it due?"
"In two months' time."
"Wow." Kids were hanging around outside the shops like she used to do, waiting for someone to agree to buy them booze, waiting for a chink in the everyday fabric. "Do you want to go to a pub or get something to drink and take it somewhere else?"
Somewhere else, she told him. Pubs were full of eyes.
He pulled up to the kerb and went into the shop, coming out a few minutes later with a bottle of sparkling wine. "Is this ok? Can you ...?"
"Oh yes, a little is fine at this stage." They drove through the town, past the market place, past the old prison that was now apartments, past the factory that was now a restaurant. Happy 50th Birthday Donna!!! said a homemade sign on a roundabout, a stab at something special, because you had to try, didn't you. "How long have you worked at the supermarket?"
"Five years."
"Do you like it?"
"What do you think?" They were outside the town now, surrounded by fields, and he drove upwards on a small lane and parked near the top of the hill. She could see her town and the one next to it, more fields behind them, pretty but stilted, without the drama you needed sometimes, without jagged mountains or trenches or oceans. 
They got out of the car and sat on the bonnet. He opened the bottle and the pop hung in the air, made the fact that they didn't know each other well hover in the air, make the absence of something to celebrate hover in the air. He passed it to her and when she had swigged it the moment retreated.
"My stepmother wants to know why you'd want to go for a drive with a pregnant woman."
"I'll bet." He looked towards the hills and smiled a naughty boy smile, the kind of smile that won boys cabinet loads of respect. "Your stepmother is always busting me at the counter. Not that one, that one there. The bigger one. Is that fresh?" He looked at her. "So are you excited?"
"Yes."
"What will you do?"
"I don't know. What will you do?"
"Don't know." He looked out over their town. "Some mates, they went to Australia for a while, to work. It sounded ok, they drank, went to the beach and all that. Then they came home. I mean, what's the point in that? It's the same most places. Then you come home." She didn't say anything, just passed the bottle. To him, back to her. "Can I touch it?"
"Of course." He touched the bump with his palm.
"It's hard!" He drew his hand back, leant back on the windscreen. Mosquitos beat in for the feast and he slapped one away, a hard, masculine thwack. "We always thought you'd go off to uni. You were smart. Everyone was surprised."
"I didn't want to. I don't think I did. I didn't really know what I wanted to do."
He rested the bottle on his chest. "When they come back for the holidays, they always look embarrassed when you talk to them. Maybe embarrassed for them, maybe for us. Not like they think they're better. Just like you wouldn't understand if they tried to tell you about it."
"Maybe we wouldn't." This common ground with this boy made her feel sad, their shared fate, being left behind.
"You should have taken the chance to do something different. Else you'll end up on a meat counter."
He smiled at her again. He wasn't the type to judge. He looked at her like an opponent. She heard the boys at school calling her a "goer" once, which sounded like it was something to do with a car engine. They sniggered when she walked past. The more girls Dean got with, though, the more he was able to get with. He was a word of mouth success, the restaurant everyone wanted to get a table at. Rave reviews.
When it was over they lay on the bonnet, finishing the bottle. He held her hand, like he loved her or something. The signs for love are the same signs for brief encounters, Callie thought. No wonder people get confused.
"How many women?" she asked, when he was driving her home.
"Mmm. Don't know."
"Come on. I won't be shocked."
"A lot. Maybe more than two hundred." She laughed, and then she could not stop laughing. The bump tumbled around inside and water came out of her eyes and then she remembered what a precarious state her bladder was in and that made her stop laughing pretty quickly. He looked at her sideways, with a lopsided smile. When they drove up to the house he kissed her quickly on the lips and then extended his hand for her to shake. She shook it back.
Her step mum was still up in the living room. "Have a nice time?" she said, sitting up on the sofa.
"It was fine."
"Where did you go?"
"The White Hart. Had a lemonade. We're just friends, mum."
She nodded. "The film's just about to start." She made room for Callie on the sofa. The film was about a cuckolded divorcee who falls in love with her young male nanny. It was so romantic that Callie sobbed and sobbed into her hot palms.
"It's the hormones," said her step mother, and handed her the Jaffa Cakes. "You do know, don't you Callie, that there is going to be a baby here in a month's time?" Callie cried even louder. She tapped the bump. "There's a baby in here, Callie."
"I know," she shouted. "Jesus." Her step mum hugged her, the first time in a long time.

*****

The next day her dad sent her out again for shopping. She didn't go up to the meat counter but saw him at a distance and waved. He put his hand up, grinned at her like a co-conspirator.
On the way home she saw a sign for pregnancy yoga classes in the community centre. She stood outside for a while then pushed the door open and saw the other ladies lying on the floor and moving their pelvises slowly up and down in the air. She watched until the teacher spotted her.
"Do you want to come and join us? We're halfway through but you're very welcome." Callie felt embarrassed and looked down. She had shorts on. "That'll be fine," the teacher coaxed. She rolled out a mat for Callie and she lay on the floor with the others. They breathed in and out like they were lions. They put their feet up in the air like babies do. Then they stretched on all fours like big cats. The teacher called them "mums". "OK mums, stretch out your toes now," she said. All the other women were older and had glossy hair and professional looking gym wear, but they all smiled at at Callie and when they stood in a circle and held hands the two nearest her held her hands tightly. They looked at each other like they all shared a delicious secret. She thought
1. they look so excited
2. sins are not sins if they have no effect, they're just things, floating in the air
3. will it be alright?
When she got back Sunni was inside drinking tea with dad. His car hadn't been out front. He must have parked it round the corner. He stood up and her dad scurried out of the room.
"I was busy at work. I'm sorry. I'll pay you more attention. I want us to have the baby and be happy." He put his hands around her shoulders. The bump stuck in between them. She felt drained of everything. He was such a handsome boy, a nice boy. He was getting out a small box. She thought weakly "no" but couldn't stop it.
"I want us to get married. I love you. Will you marry me?" He was getting down on one knee and everything, because Sunni always thought you had to do things in the set way.
She thought of the girls who would be jealous, of how pleased her parents would be, of the weddings like the ones in pictures with the garden parties and the wild flowers that probably weren't wild because wild things were decreasing, things these days tended to be grown in a greenhouse or shaved or put on a lead.
"Yes," she said.

About the Author: Chloe George is 30 year old and lives in Hackney, East London. She works full time as an online editor for a charity and has just started writing stories, and her latest effort Losing Eden will be published by Cinnamon Press in the spring. She blogs at http://edgeoftime.wordpress.com/ and is on Twitter as @misschloeg.

Photo: (c) marfis75 Via Flickr Creative Commons