2014 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition Fourth Place

 

'Bouquet for the Broken-Hearted' - by Collin Minnaar

 
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David Brown, having sunk deep into his leather armchair, whisky in hand, points the remote at the television. And on that television, Rex Forrester stands in the centre of an over-lit space, surrounded by the opulence that is the living room of Sunrise Sunset.
 
Also in the room is Dianne de la Croix, standing with her back to Rex. She is biting her lip as she listens to Rex. Her face is framed by a substantial amount of blonde hair, chemically-shaped and unmoving.
 
“Tell me it’s not true,” she says, and moves her hand to cover most of her open mouth.
 
It seems unnatural that she does not turn around to face Rex, but to the more observant viewer it should be clear that the intent is to capture the expressions on both their faces simultaneously.
 
Rex walks to the window. Looking out of the window, big hands gripping the window panes, he says:
 
“It’s my heart. Doctor thinks I’ve got two months, maybe less.”
 
Dianne turns around and rushes over to him, evening dress aflutter. He swivels, and in perfect synchronicity receives her advancing figure. For a moment the multilayered and unscripted meanings of the embrace are patently visible, even through the lens of the camera, the movement of colour and light on the television’s pixelated screen. What’s visible is a certain pelvic tension, her hands uncertain, the tension in his jaw.  
 
“No Rex please, how can this be?” and she puts her head on his chest, clawing with her small hands at his shirt. He takes her firmly by the shoulders, looks deep into her eyes, and says:
 
“Dianne, you must be strong. For the children. If only for the children.”
 
They stand there suspended for what feels like perhaps too long, waiting for fadeout.
 
The action switches to John Cruise-Jones who is in jail for a crime he did not commit, except he does not yet realise it on account of his amnesia.
 
David sighs and turns the television off with a flick of the remote.
 
A magazine on the low table beside him lies open. A full page bears the face of Rex Forrester/ David Brown, sitting backwards on a chair, chin in hand. The words on the page say that he, meaning David, bears his impressively large frame with poise and dignity. It says that he is a ‘manly man’ with ‘greyness at his sleeps’, a man ‘whose animal beauty has reached full maturity’.
 
When David had first read the four page exclusive, next to the full page photos of him posing in his apartment - the best of which were in profile before the large Edvard Munch reproduction - his eyes had come to rest on the words ‘full maturity’. What was that supposed to mean? What could it possibly mean other than old, past his prime?
 
David Brown’s memory flashback #1
(We are in the recent past, as attested to by the fact that the air starts swimming, the slight echo in the sound of voices, and the soft quality of the light ...)
 
David sits across from a youngish woman in a hotel lobby.
 
The woman who is interviewing David for the magazine makes him feel admired and attractive by the way she looks at him, and because she readily laughs at most of what he says. She has an expensive handbag and a certain kind of glossy magazine glamour, hair tied in a bundle, very nice eyes, sitting across from him with long smooth legs emerging out of an alarmingly short skirt.
 
“I’m curious to know what it feels like to have pretended to be another person for 35 years. To be another person so intimately. How do you switch off? How does it feel to be an icon? The face of Sunrise, Sunset? Who are you after hours? Who is David Brown?”
 
She appears to be not entirely insincere, which, to David, is unusual for someone in her field. 
 
David does not know what to say. What possible mysteries inaccessible to the common man can he reveal about love and loss? What knowledge has his preposterous life brought him? What loneliness?
 
What would make her want him, like women want Rex? How old is she? Twenty five? How would she feel if he tells her the truth? Telling her would be such a turn-off.
 
Instead he hears himself prattling on about his thirty five years of pretending to be another man. A rich and successful man, someone who has been loved. All the while he is accosted by an image of being with the woman in one of the hotel rooms, his head on her lap, and he is sobbing while she strokes his hair, wide-eyed and concerned.
 
(The air starts swimming again, and we are back in the normal light of the present.)
 
David folds the magazine shut. His reflection is looking back at him looking through the window at the world outside his high rise apartment, fifty meters up in the air. After five whiskies the amber liquid has numbed the part of his brain behind his eyes. Gesticulating dramatically with his hands, he addresses the world outside of the window:
 
“Dear women of the world, you love me even if you don’t know it. When you wash your dishes or fold your laundry it is my voice you hear.  I live for you, on your behalf. I’m always there even when other men in your lives have lied, and left.  What would your world be like without Rex Forrester?”
 
David’s phone rings. The machine will lie and say nobody home. A series of swivel movements gets him out of the chair, whisky glass in hand. He stumbles towards the phone.
 
“It’s Clint.”
 
David says nothing, and for a moment all that exists is the ghost image in the mind of the other, the virtual cartoon face of telephonic identity. Clint’s identity has dark rimmed glasses, a thin black square-bottomed tie and very expensive haircut, and he is David’s agent.
 
David allows the telephone silence to build. The phone crackles with faint alien messages from outer space. Clint responds to the silence by speaking uncertainly into the phone.
 
“Heart disease is curable you know” says Clint. “There have been some absolutely terrific advances in medical science. You’d be astounded. Little robots in the blood. Scientists can grow an ear on a rat’s back! Or look at it this way, you may not even need a cure. I mean jeez, look at Bronson Wilson, resurrected from the grave.”
 
David holds the phone away from his face and says loudly: “He came back as his long lost twin! It was obscene. He spent another five years acting the same person but with a limp and a speech defect!”
 
“All I’m saying,” says Clint, “is that even if you were to die there is life. Think celebrity talk radio. Think beauty competition adjudications. Reality TV is crazy popular right now. A staggering array of true-life crime! Think unexplained murders, black and white police photographs of the disappeared, site visits to bushy areas on the outskirts of town. As presenter you will become revered as carrying the burden of knowledge about the extremes of what the human mind is capable of.”
 
“Clint please,” says David, “Just tell me how long I’ve got.”
 
When Clint speaks his voice has changed to a monotone, as if it’s not his true self speaking.
 
“The doctor will tell you that your condition is worse than anticipated.  It will be a pretty quick death David. Without much dignity I’m afraid. You’ll only be allowed to talk out of the side of your mouth.”
 
David looks hatefully at the phone and cuts the call.
 
It takes him another five whiskies before an image, instantly fully formed in his mind, ambushes him on the way to the fridge, out of the blue, unbidden, uncalled for and unwelcome. It is a memory of an incident from the long running narrative in his head of which the chapters are titled shamed, exposed, denied.
 
David’s memory flashback#2 (swimming air etc.) and then a serious of images flickering in and out of existence, giving the appearance of time elapsing:
 
  • David in front of the mirrors pushing parts of his face up with his index and middle fingers, and then finally both sides of his whole face with the palms of his hands.
  • The day of the surgical lifting of his face.
  • He looks much younger, not quite like a younger self, but a younger brother, who appears permanently haunted, as if having recovered from some unnameable horror.
  • On the show Rex confesses that he had always loved Dianne. The only reason he had cheated on her so, so many times, was because his heart could not stand the pain and honesty of their love.
  • Rex half forces himself on Dianne, and takes her into his arms. She pushes him away and pounds his chest with her delicate fists but finally submits.
  • Piano music ensues ...
  • But then Dianne complains that during the shot, instead of the kiss being the agreed benign smearing of lips, Rex/David had forced his tongue into her mouth.
  • Quiet words are spoken to David by a concerned senior company solicitor.
 
The present ...
 
Sometime in the afternoon, David wakes fully dressed in his living room, lines from the couch on his face. Emerging from the shower, he sees himself in the full-length mirror. He turns his head to look into the eyes of his body double. He immediately adjusts his posture, pulling back his shoulders, changing the angle of his face ever so slightly to show more of his profile and jaw, vaguely registering that he has to maintain a certain appearance even to himself.
 
David pulls his mouth into a smile but the rest of his face does not correspond. He scrutinises the contours of his body. The secrets of last night’s dream are in the eyes of the man in the mirror, but before it reaches the surface he grabs his keys and goes down to the internal garage where his Porsche is parked.
 
David drives his Porsche with confidence. All that advertising. Man equals machine. A cheetah runs through the African savannah and turns into a car, harnessing the power of the wild, except David fast becomes part of a traffic situation. He comes to a crawl and a stop and assumes his position in the logjam, a metal tongue rolling up and down and over the hills.
 
Above helicopters are flapping like demented birds.
 
When the jam untangles David turns off into the parking area of a roadside bar, a place with a very dirty neon sign. Inside are televisions and gambling machines. He slouches on the bar, partly to assimilate. A tired shadow approaches. Words from a pockmarked face says “What will it be Mister Forrester?”
 
He sits down in a quiet corner to sip away at his drink, and falls asleep.
 
Dream sequence (a lot of smoke appears – but from where? And the echo is very pronounced...)
 
He walks down a hallway.  When he finally arrives at the end it’s a warm bedroom with soft carpets. He is a very little boy and he sticks his arms in the air, waiting to be picked up. Some family voices talk in the background. A warm voice says, “Welcome our Davey, our little man. We were wondering where you were. We waited thirty-five years for you. Our lovely sweet lovely.”
 
Then hairy arms reach for him and tug at him and wrench him. 
 
He wakes up and an individual in a crumpled overall with a bucket and a mop is pulling at his shirt and is saying that it’s time to go home Rex, you shouldn’t be out this late, after all, you’re seriously ill.
 
David gets back in his car. He dials a number on his mobile. (The credits start to roll.)
 
“Helpline.”                                              
                               
“I need ... help. Please.” He clearly appreciates how banal this sounds, but needs it, somehow, to be the key to another world.
 
“Is this … o my God, is this Rex Forrester? Is it your heart?”
 
“No,” says David Brown. “Yes.”
 

 
 


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