Algebra

Tramway

Issue 1

The Thing She Chose To Wear

by Sophie Cooke

The Last Nude

No-one ever goes into a carpet shop. In the rainy evening, the windows were so still as to resemble back-lit photographs. The young man in the jeans and the black Puma tracksuit top stopped outside the carpet shop and looked in.

Carpet samples were arranged in books on special lecterns: tufted pages of pale pink and beige and oyster. They did not look like the sort of thing you could walk on. The young man let the door close behind him. He walked past the sample books, around a pile of cheap-looking rugs, towards the high rolls of patterned carpet that made a sort of partition at the back of the store. He was looking around for a salesperson. There was no-one here that he could see.

He seemed to be getting closer to the stereo. Dvorak's ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka; it was one of his favourites. People called it by the wrong name. In Czech, it was ‘The Moon in the Deep Sky’. In Czech, there was no need to explain that a song was a song. You just heard it, that was all. He rounded the end of the carpet rolls.

He could only see the soles of the shoes and their small purple heels, because the woman who was wearing them was crawling away from him across the floor. Her lilac wool skirt was tight across her behind. He stayed where he was and watched her. He thought she would stand up, but instead she stopped, moved her neck a little, and then crawled off to the right, towards the second row of carpet rolls. Her rump, her shining head of honey-coloured hair, moving so slowly away from him. He looked away, looked at her shoes again. The soles of her shoes were black scuffed through in patches. The patches were the colour of bone. He looked at her body again, her hunched lilac shoulders, the way her head was tilted down towards the floor. She was looking for something, he supposed. The space between the two rows of carpet rolls felt very small, a hidden room with walls of wool.

He stepped backwards, quietly so the crawling woman would not be disturbed. He slipped out around the end of the carpet rolls and felt relieved. The recorded aria came to an end. He knew what came next. ‘Centuries of Wisdom that Know Everything.’ He waited for it.

'Where the fuck are you?' muttered the woman, muffled among the carpets.

A different aria came, one that did not belong in Rusalka at all. It was a famous one from a German opera instead. He realised he was listening to a collection of the most popular parts of different operas, all taken out from where they belonged, all the settings removed to make a row of highlights. It was a CD of popular opera hits.

'For fuck's sake,' muttered the woman's voice.

He frowned and moved farther away, towards the sales desk. He went around the back of it and looked at the floor. There was no-one there. He unzipped his tracksuit pocket and took out a notepad and a small pen. He walked back towards the carpet rolls where the woman had been crawling. He looped around them so that he could approach the space between them from the other direction, so that she would see him this time.

The crawling woman had turned around. She was facing in the other direction; she was still faced away from him. He watched her raking with her hands underneath the lowest roll, feeling for something. She laid her shining blonde head down on the floor. She sighed, and pushed her arm out again.

The young man tapped his pen on his notepad nervously. His hair was black because it was wet; bits of it were stuck down against his forehead. He opened his mouth and made a sort of strangled sound as if he were trying to breathe through rusted pipes.

The woman shot backwards, knocking her head against the bottom edge of the carpet roll. She was crying out. She wasn't saying any words, it was just pain. The carpet that had been hanging down from the roll was swaying and he could see her face now. She was older than he had imagined from the back. She was twice as old as him. Maybe the pain was making her look older too, how her face was crumpled up around the angry noise inside her mouth. He would have liked to do something about the anger and the pain, but it seemed she could manage by herself. She was kneeling up with her arms wrapped close around her head. Her elbows in the lilac jacket spiked out above the mass of blonde hair; her hands cupped the back of her skull. She was holding the pain in with her arms, her hands, and rocking forwards slightly.

She looked up at him. The young man took a step towards her and then stopped. He dropped down on his haunches and started writing with his small yellow plastic pen in the notepad. The woman watched him.

He held out the notepad towards her.

The woman looked at the notepad. The writing was too small for her to read. She looked at the young man's face, looking at her. He was barely out of his teens, his face just starting to harden along the lines it would take. His eyes were pale blue and had a sharpness to their outer shape but a softness inside them. She held out one hand for the notepad, keeping the other wrapped around her head.

The woman nodded faintly. ‘It’s okay,’ she said, handing back the pad. The young man went on looking at her, and then began writing again. ‘But thanks,’ said the woman. She wrapped her hand back around the back of her head with the other one.

‘You’re in the wrong place,’ she said when he held out the notepad a second time. He had come closer to her so that she could read it while keeping her hands on her head this time. ‘No-one called Paul works here,’ she said.

He took back the notepad, turned the page and began writing again. He stopped and shook the pen. He turned the notepad over and scribbled very rapidly on its cardboard back, trying to get some residue of ink to flow again. The point of the pen was scoring blank lines on the cardboard, round and round in circles.

‘Let me see what you were writing,’ said the woman, after watching him for a while. She held out her hand. ‘Let me read the beginning.’

The young man looked at her.

‘Can you hear me?’ she asked him.

He nodded.

‘I thought for a minute that maybe you needed me to write everything,’ said the woman.

The young man held out the notepad for her to take. He put the cap back on the pen. When he looked back up from the pen, the woman had taken both hands down from her head and was looking at the two words he had written before the ink had run out: I don’t

He noticed that the woman’s beautiful blonde hair had slipped sideways. Sideways and backwards, sliding down off the back of her head. There was a piece of tape at the front of her bare scalp. Not completely bare: a few wisps of very thin hair grew out of the skin. But mainly bare. The bald front of her head was bent towards him as she examined the notepad, held it in both her hands.

She looked up. She saw the look on his face, and immediately she reached up to her head. She was trying to rearrange her wig. The notepad fell down onto the carpet. She was feeling to see if the fringe of her wig was straight again; she needed both hands. She closed her eyes.

The young man opened his mouth, made that sound again. It was altering slightly, it was like a rusting pipe that he was trying to beat into a different shape using skin instead of hammers; it was like he was throwing his throat against it. She could hear the fact of language in the sound - in the fact of its modulation - but not what the language was trying to say. The sound of it shocked her, the way it was rumbling on like that. It was not like an infant’s attempts at speech. It was a deep groaning with the weight of a life behind it. It was the unspeaking voice of a full-grown man, this was what upset her. To hear the sound of a man who thought in words but could not make them with his muscles and skin. She looked in his eyes because she wanted him to stop.

He was quiet then. In his eyes there was an incredible lightness, something very simple, almost weightless. This thing in his eyes darted into her, flew down the back of her memories, slipped into the darkest drawer. When he blinked she felt his eyelashes brushing inside her, against the lock from inside.

The young man unzipped his tracksuit top. He looked at the floor as he did this. When he shrugged his first arm out of the sleeve, he rocked over to the side, lost his balance. The woman wanted to stop him from falling over but was kneeling on the floor herself and would not have reached him in time. She watched as he fell sideways. She watched the way in which he was unable to put out his hand, because his arm was tangled in his sleeve. She watched how he managed to break the low fall with his elbow instead.

The young man sat up and looked at the woman, who was not laughing or saying anything. She was just looking at him with those very peculiar clear grey eyes she had. The young man looked up at the ceiling with a funny kind of smile and finished taking off his tracksuit top. Then he pulled his blue T-shirt off over his head and looked around at the carpet that hung in walls around them and looked back at her.

The woman looked at the paleness of his torso, the even paler line of scar tissue that ran straight up the centre of his chest. The sort of line the body draws when it has had its heart rearranged by clever men and women holding knives. ‘Were you in an accident?’ asked the woman. ‘Was it the same thing as your -’ she put her hand to her throat.

The young man shrugged, and the way he was looking at her was like the story of how it had all happened did not greatly matter. He was reminding her of something they both already knew. This thing was more important than the questions. The way the woman looked back at him was like she was somehow amused - at first by the possibility of having shared that knowledge with him all along, then by his presumption, and finally by the absurd depth of feeling with which she wished to believe him. The amusement faded from her eyes.

The woman looked at him, and looked around. To her left, the brand new burgundies and golds woven into one another burned against her eyes. To her right, a wall of different greens. She got to her feet, resisting the temptation to use the carpet rolls for support. She reached around her back and unzipped her skirt. She pushed it down over her hips. She stood with the skirt around her ankles, in her flesh-coloured tights. She refused to look down. She looked at the young man instead, looking at her.

Sitting where he was, the young man pulled his trainers off. He didn’t untie the laces. The knots on the laces looked so tight, he had probably never untied them since the first time he had done them up. The shoes with their rucked-down heel collars lay sideways on the floor. The guy flipped his belt buckle open. The button had come off his jeans; there was just the belt and the zip. He lay back, lifted his pelvis off the floor, and pulled the jeans down without undoing the zip. He was fairly skinny; once the belt was undone, the jeans came off although the zip was still done up.

The woman stepped out of her skirt and picked it up. She took off her lilac jacket and looked around for somewhere to hang it. She walked over to the end of the carpet rolls, reached up and hooked her jacket over the end of the top one. She turned back to where the young man was sitting. He had leaned forwards now. He was sitting with his legs bent up, leaning with his elbows on his knees, frowning at something. His jeans were round his ankles. The woman took off her shoes and started laughing, over the sound of the popular opera. The young man looked around at her and smiled. His eyes seemed to be laughing too, at an old joke of theirs from years ago. This despite the fact they had not met until this evening.

The woman noticed how his eyes wandered again to her shining head of honey-coloured hair. She stopped laughing. The young man was looking in her eyes just the same way as before, but a kind of violence welled up inside her this time. Like to say: No, you don’t know. You can’t.

She stayed where she was and pulled her silk-mix T-shirt off over her head. She smoothed her wig down around her ears, carefully and with a kind of defiance. She unfastened her bra and tugged the straps down her arms, pulled it away from her. She hooked her thumbs into the waistline of her tights, caught her knickers with them, and pulled them down together, off one foot and then the other. The knickers and tights had rolled around and into each other, and now made a familiar misshapen nylon doughnut on the floor. She looked down at that familiar thing. Looking down, she could also see her own familiar nakedness; the popular shape of her breasts; the angry fuzz of her brown hair below. She looked more keenly at her discarded tights, and looked back at the young man.

He leaned further forwards over his knees, pulled off his socks. He stood up and looked at the woman. He pulled down the black cotton that was over his crotch, the briefs he was wearing. She watched his naked stoop, his buttocks appearing. He stepped sideways. The young man and the woman were both completely bare now, except for the woman’s wig, her slightly skewed lustrous blonde hair. She was looking at him. At the two suns of his nipples on the flat sky of his chest, and the cut to save his heart that had been made between them. The dents in his hips that led down to his groin: the exceptional beauty of this part of him, the shadows in his abdomen. His cock that was neither hard nor soft but somewhere in between; alive to her, without wanting her. And the length of his slim white legs, the dark marks on them in among the hair on his calves, that could have been insect bites or birthmarks or moles.

She looked back at his face, and saw he was looking at her in that way again. When he looked at her that way, she knew that it was the whole of her looking back at him. She reached up to check that her hair was still there, because she felt like it had come off. She was still looking in his eyes as she did this. He saw her as she did it. He saw it with a raging tenderness of his own.

Sophie Cooke

Sophie Cooke is an award-winning poet, short story writer, and novelist. She is the author of the novels The Glass House and Under The Mountain. Her short stories have been published in literary magazines in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Prague, Belgrade and Zagreb, and broadcast on BBC Radio. She recently won the Genomics Forum Poetry Prize. Critics have drawn parallels between her work and that of Virginia Woolf, as well as of contemporary screenwriters such as Thomas Vinterberg. Cooke is also a photographer, whose work has been exhibited in Germany and published in magazines in the UK. Recently returned from Berlin, Cooke now lives in Edinburgh. cooke.carbonmade.com