Weekend Fiction: Infidels

There is a rap on the door of the shrine – a box room set apart on the landing, too small to unroll a yoga mat.

“We’re actually eating, dad. Macaroni cheese? If you can bear to join us?” It is Joanna, every word spiked and loaded.

Matthew shifts his buttocks on the straight-backed wooden chair, then looks for guidance to the poster blue-tacked wonkily on the wall, the man himself crouching on the Mount of Olives.

“Dad, can you hear?” Joanna says.

This room, with Matthew’s crammed notebooks competing for space with tottering piles of CDS, has become the focus for the family’s discontent. Half nibbled apple cores add their stamp to the aroma and airlessness.

“It’s up to you, dad, of course. It’s your life.”

“I’m driving my family mad,” Matthew told a woman at work earlier that day. She turned around in the canteen lunch queue, smiling vaguely. “Over time, I’ve given up on all other music completely. It seems... so pointless.”

“I don’t know Bob Dylan,” the woman said. “I’ve heard of him of course. But it’s just a name, like Napoleon is a name. I couldn’t sing his songs if you paid me.”

“They think I’m having a mid-life crisis!”

He’s forty three. Husband to Rachel, father to Chloe, Joanna and Philip, thirteen, ten and nine respectively. Had a psychologist been studying the family, they would surely have charted the developing schism, pitting four family members against one.

Matthew opens the kitchen door, mouthing: When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?

Four sets of eyes follow him as he sits at one corner of the table. He soon regrets his decision to be social.

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” Rachel begins. “A husband I barely see, one day to the next.”

Chloe slaps the table top. “And I didn’t sign up to having a father obsessed with a vocalist who sounds like he’s on the operating table.”

“Me neither,” Joanna says.

“Mid-surgery,” Chloe says.

“When we first met, you told me you loved Dylan,” Matthew says to Rachel.

“We’ve talked to you about blatant lying daddy,” Joanna says.

“I was confusing him with Neil Young,” Rachel says. “He’s got a silly voice too – not as silly obviously.”

Matthew has the look of Julius Caesar realising Brutus was in all along on the knife stunt. It would be wrong to say his whole marriage has been built on a lie. But clearly there was an element of mis-selling.

He thinks back to the woman in the lunch queue. When he returned to his desk with his tofu and cauliflower curry, he remembered seeing a feature (with photo) about her on the staff intranet. He finds it (her flame red hair is immediately recognisable) and learns her first name is Tania and that she’s in events. The Napoleon remark was rather asinine, but endearing too. He’d mentioned bringing in his portable CD player, saying he’d find her some songs she might like.

“Don’t you like the macaroni?” Philip asks. Of the three children, Philip is the least hostile, occasionally breaking out in symptoms of sympathy. For the most part he tows the family line, adding his less practised verbal kicks to those of the others in the general melee.

“It’s not that,” Matthew says. “I’m just not myself this evening.”

“Nothing that two or three of Bob’s albums can’t sort out,” Joanna says.

“Absolutely,” Matthew says. “The middle period is best for pain relief, I find.”

“Is that the hernia period, or his open heart surgery phase?” Chloe asks.

Matthew decides to start Tania off with Every Grain of Sand. He imagines walking miles through the sun, arriving parched and sweating at her accommodation (rented, she’s too young to be on the property ladder) and telling her he’s having a break from his family. She will pour him a glass of chilled water and lead him to her sofa, where they’ll sit close enough for their bare legs to touch. He’ll confide that he wants this song – from the brilliant reborn period – to be the apotheosis of his funeral. By the time they reach I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night,Tania will be looking deeply into his eyes. And by I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man, he’ll be tracing slow circles around her areolae.

“You haven’t forgotten about tomorrow evening, have you?” Rachel says.

Matthew sits up so sharply he might have been poked with an electric cow prod. “Tomorrow evening? What’s happening tomorrow evening?”

“We’re having dinner with Adrian and Alison.”

“Oh God. Three hours of my life spent talking about Costco and the 5:2 diet. Three hours I’ll never get back.”

The next day he spends an inordinate amount of time in the canteen choosing his salad combination, but Tania doesn’t arrive. He could send an email, but how to begin?

The thought processes of women remain a mystery to him. He’d navigated a precarious path through school without ever being kissed by a girl. He knew he wasn’t attractive, his Adam’s apple too prominent, his skin in places scaly. When a teacher had played the class ET, a resemblance had been spotted and he’d endured several months of ‘Matthew Morrison phone home’ jokes.

University went by without him getting close to a welcoming vagina. He attended the freshers week activities and various themed parties before deciding that if girls don’t fancy you in your jeans and stripy T-shirt, they won’t fancy you in a toga or pyjamas either. It’s true that a psychology student once shed all of her clothes in his room in hall one night, but to this day he remains unsure about her motives. Years later, a graduate newsletter told him she’d died in a plane crash, so her act of abandonment will forever remain unexplained.

And then there was Josie. Active in the student union movement, Matthew noticed her panther black hair at the president hustings in hall. She handed him a leaflet and within seconds was telling him about her love of Bob Dylan. “It’s fashionable for English teachers to deride Zimbo,” she said, then holding his gaze flirtatiously:

“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place”

“How can that not be poetry?”

And Matthew was entranced – by her, not Dylan. He bought Blonde on Blonde, paying closer attention to it than to Gawain and the Green Knight which he was meant to be studying that term, in the hope they’d bump into each other and resume their conversation.

Coming out of a student bar one night, he saw her kissing a gangly boy against a wall – that single moment in the shadows smashing a thousand light bulbs of hope. In the weeks that followed, he’d often follow them from a safe distance around campus. He’d compare their very different bottom shapes in their jeans as they walked hand in hand. This was a dark period, but it was also when he became converted to Dylan. For that alone, he is grateful to Josie.

He endured another nine years of celibacy before meeting Rachel at an evening class on classical music. She had quickly surmised the situation and on their first date in Pizza Joe’s Parlour had proposed skipping desert and proceeding to “the task in hand”. Insisting that all lights remain on, she had walked him through the basics of foreplay, kissing, bodily caresses and digital penetration, promising to return to his flat two nights later to cover cunnilingus and the missionary position. She made good on her promise and Matthew achieved something he would scarcely have thought possible; he lost his virginity by his thirtieth birthday.

Rachel was similarly organised in her approach to nuptials, and within a year Matthew was married, an expert in sterilising baby bottles, and regularly rota’d on the two a.m. shift to administer that evening’s expressed milk.

Not able to express everything to his satisfaction, he decides not to email Tania that day. Maybe he’ll see her at lunch tomorrow. But leaving work, he recognises her ahead, walking purposively down Gray’s Inn Road. He quickens his pace, in his eagerness veering twice onto the busy street.

“I didn’t see you in the canteen,” Matthew says, catching her up.

Tania continues walking, her eyes fixed in front of her, as if she hasn’t heard.

“I’ve chosen the playlist. I’ve thought about it a lot.” When she still doesn’t answer he adds, “Bob Dylan?” in a weak, semi-defeated whine.

An ambulance siren blares close by, drowning her reply. He turns towards her but instead of catching the tail end of a sentence he’s met by a grotesque open mouthed wail. And now she’s leaning against a lamppost, almost hugging it, sobbing. He tiptoes around the lamppost so he can face her.

“Errm. Are you okay?” he asks.

“Please, please leave me alone.”

“No,” Matthew says. “I will not abandon you in your hour of need.”

He accompanies her to her bus stop, but because she’s in no fit state to face the public, he walks her back to her flat in Drayton Park which takes an hour. Through heaving howls and cataclysmic cries, he hears of her humiliation at a work do, culminating in her sleeping with two lads from the post team over the course of one drunken night. And how they’ve been taunting her since, calling her a prostitute and worse.

“I’m done with boys and I’m done with sex,” she tells him.

When they reach her flat, without waiting for an invitation he follows her inside. She puts on the kettle and he locates the CD player in the shared living space. That morning in the shrine, he’d been listening to Saved and had been struck by the simplicity of the question.

You have given everything to me
What can I do for You?

And it is true. Dylan has given him so much, and the very least that he can do now is to spread the word.

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted sugar. So I put two in anyway,” Tania says.

It is just as he knew it would happen, they’ve walked miles through the evening sun, and have arrived parched and sweating at her accommodation. Okay, she’s giving him sugary tea rather than chilled water, but she is sitting next to him on the sofa and he knows what he must do.

“Listen,” he says. “Listen and you will hear.”

Fumbling with the stereo’s remote control, he clicks the forward button until it shows 10. The opening organ chords of Every Grain of Sand fill the room as if Dylan, Benmont Tench and Jim Keltner were in the living room beginning an informal jam.

“This is the song I want at my funeral,” Matthew says, shifting his position so that their legs brush against each other, “if we’re still in touch.” And she snorts with laughter, spraying tea over his jacket. It’s the first time she’s laughed that evening and this can only be a good omen.

By the time they reach I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night,he’s singing loudly and she is turning towards him smiling encouragingly. When Dylan sings I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man, he reaches out and begins tracing a circle around her left breast.

Her scream is as instantaneous as a burglar alarm. “What the fuck are you doing?” she cries.

A burly man in paisley boxer shorts appears.

“Jason – thank God! This creep just grabbed hold of my tits! He fucking did, I swear it.”

“I can explain, if you give me a chance...” Matthew says.

But he doesn’t get a chance. Instead, Jason delivers a swift short arm jab which breaks Matthew’s nose in two places.

* *  *

Matthew is always impressed by Rachel’s ability to take on new information and adapt her plan accordingly. She’s collected him from accident and emergency, where his nose had been repositioned and placed in a cast, and they’re heading towards Adrian and Alison’s house with the children in tow. She’s forewarned their friends that they’ll be a little late due to unforeseen circumstances.

“So let me get this straight, you work with this lady,” Rachel says.

“Yes, she’s a fallen woman, and I was trying to show her a new path.”

“And, as a thank you, she broke your nose?”

“No,” Matthew says. “That was her over-protective housemate.”

“It’s not quite stacking up,” Chloe suggests from the back seat. “You try and show ‘this poor woman’ a new path and her friend breaks your nose?”

“That was pretty much how it happened,” Matthew says.

“It sounds quite unlucky dad,” Philip says.

“Some people don’t want to hear, I guess,” Matthew says.

“Don’t want to hear Bob Dylan, I expect,” Joanna says.

“I might break someone’s nose if they forced me to listen to that,” Chloe says.

Later, when they get to Adrian and Alison’s house, Matthew has to go through the whole story again. But after that, thankfully, they spend the evening talking about Costco and the 5:2 diet.

*  * *

It is several weeks before Matthew sees Tania again. He’s been avoiding the possibility of bumping into her, buying lunch from Pret or Itsu instead of the staff canteen, and cutting down Doughty Street rather than using Gray’s Inn Road. One Friday morning however she arrives at his desk and taps his shoulder when he pretends not to see her.

“I thought I ought to let you know – I’m leaving,” she says. “I’ve got a new job.”

“Okay,” Matthew says. “And when’s your last day?”

“Today,” Tania says.

“And where are you going?”

“The Evangelical Alliance. I suppose I’ve got you to thank really.”

“And why would that be?” Matthew asks.

She explains as best as she can. After Matthew ran out of their flat that afternoon, with blood pouring from his nose, they realised he’d left his CD behind.

“Shot of Love?” she says.

“I remember.”

“Well, Jason started playing it. It was a bit of a joke at first. But then he kept listening to the album, without telling me. And then I got into it too. We liked the words Dylan was saying, the message, and we quickly became church attending Christians. And Jason became incredibly attractive to me – I never fancied him before.”

“I didn’t notice his looks,” Matthew says.

“And we’re getting married next month.”

“I’m still married too,” Matthew says. “My wife’s called Rachel.”

“Anyway, I just came to give your album back. We don’t even like Bob Dylan. It was the message that spoke to us – despite his terrible singing.”

And with that she puts Shot of Love onhis desk and walks away. Matthew remains sitting there, staring straight ahead. He’ll play the album later he decides. In the shrine.

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