You Can't Keep Doing That by Niall Joseph

Saul was sprawled exhaustedly across the scattered research papers on his bed, overflowing ashtray precarious by his arm, when it came to him finally like a shard of mirror flung through his mind. A devastating opening line. Fumbling in the dark for his glasses he flipped the ashtray to the floor and had to curse his way through a cloud of foul dust, repeating the line in his head, to get to his desk. His last book had taken him four years to finish after Evie, his wife, died of bowel cancer halfway through; it had been eighteen months since he typed its last line and vowed never again, and six weeks since succumbing to his editor’s superfluous reminders that, at fifty six and enslaved to diabetes, if he couldn’t write anymore he was done. Six bitter weeks of research, excessive corner shop visits, and waiting, waiting, waiting for that line. He flicked on the lamp. Too bright. He pushed it closer to the desk. Shadows filled the room like panthers. Better. When his phone rang he jerked the chair against his bad knee. The grimace came up from his soul. Later he would blame that pain for making him answer the phone when he should have just let it ring.


'Emily. This is… I’m not…’ Emily was twenty years younger than Saul and liked to think of herself as his confidante, his release, that even when the doubt and unreality enveloped him like a choking gas he could talk to her. It pissed him off that she was right and he refused to have her privy to this moment.

'I’m just getting out of the bath, can I call you back?’

'You don't have a bath, Saul.’

'The shower. I’m just getting out of the shower. I’m still dripping.’

Saul had interspersed his day with four separate corner shop visits - for kosher sausages, a Gatorade, apples, and finally more cigarettes - but just now he felt like he could lift a house. The side of his bookcase was covered with scrawled yellow post-it notes and he felt hyper-alert, as though all the preparatory work of the past month had sharpened itself into a point inside him. He would hang up but she might come over. He stood, still repeating the line in his head.

'I know you,’ Emily said in his ear as he walked towards the kitchen, dressing gown flapping against his veiny calves. 'It’s two am. You've been writing. Or trying to.’ She laughed. 'You were probably sat blankly in your underwear half the day.’

Saul could make out clinking glasses and vapid murmurs behind her voice; she was in a bar, no doubt with her 'actress’ friends. ’I bet you’ve gone through two packs of the Noblesse,’ she went on, 'maybe you've even had another of your famous breakthroughs...’

Saul hung up and tried to keep down the rage. He felt inside the kitchen door and flicked on the light. Emily had been a necessary crutch while Evie was sick. She had a talent for inveigling confidences from him in weak moments, and as a result knew how to get under his skin when she wanted to. Not tonight. He slipped the phone into the pocket of his dressing gown, grabbed a glass and, turning off the light, paced determinedly back to his corner cocoon. His knee ached as he reached for the bottle of Otard on the bookcase. He spoke the line out loud for the first time. Mistake. It sounded flat. Lifeless. He needed to see it, black on white. Hopefully… He grunted. Damn woman had unravelled him in a shot. Smoking a post-coital Gauloises on his bed she thought him a peerless genius, but get her drunk and she loved nothing more than to remind him how flimsy his existence was, how devoid of meaningful relationships now that Evie was gone, how a life lived in books was by definition two dimensional. He tried to let it bounce off him. Yes, he and Evie had never had children, he thought, pouring himself a finger of the brandy. Yes, he didn’t have many friends and yes, fictional characters occupied more space in his mind than politicians, historical figures, actors. But only because that is the way of the world, Emily. He sat down and picked up his drink. Didn’t the life of the fictional Reb Yudel touch more people than that of his creator Shai Agnon, for example? Weren’t Don Quixote’s tracks deeper than Cervantes’? He swung the chair into the desk, determined not to let her derail the process. History is the accumulation of stories, it said on a post-it on his bookcase, and the greatness of a story is measured solely by its influence. Dry factual accuracy doesn’t come into it, Emily, even if it does have great its.

Saul typed his opening line and leaned back nervously. It looked ready to explode. He exhaled, relieved, then leaned in and carried on typing from that opening. And typing. In the opening his protagonist was paying to be bitten by a small venomous snake. He sweated as he came to the point of no return. Before long he had a rhythm; the words came into his heart from some place outside him, they flowed through his arteries into his fingers and the story grew before his eyes like a shoot breaking soil and as it grew he typed without pause and felt it flex and stretch beneath his hands and pick up bells and bones and tassles. The paragraphs multiplied. His body tingled. He could feel the beginnings of a voice, make it out in the distance maybe. It was like he was discovering all over again what it was to write. When the phone rang again he wanted to smash it. Hadn’t he turned the damn thing off? He pulled it from his pocket and poked at it cackhandedly, trying to cancel the call, but ended up answering it by mistake.

'You need me.’

'Emily, for christ’s sake...’ The sound of rainfall told him she had left the bar. His right hand held the phone and his left hovered on the keyboard.

'I’m your heart.’

'Listen, honey, it’s late, we...’

'I’m your well.’

'You’re definitely not well, Emily, no one doubts that,’ Saul responded instinctively. The cruelty of the remark resonated in the rainy silence at the other end of the phone.

Independently wealthy from a design company she formed in her twenties and now abhorred, Emily had married and divorced four times in fifteen years. Psychiatric institutions blotched her life story like dead jellyfish. Acting was the latest of a thousand fruitless pursuits; she sought sought sought but never found. Saul felt he was drawn to her because he valued judgements that came from a place of barbed wire and scars.

'You and your breakthroughs,’ she said eventually. 'You know you’re going to trash it tomorrow, Saul. How about I come round?’

'No. Emily. Not a good time. I’m...’ Digital clink. The line went dead.

Saul put the phone down on the desk and took a deep breath. He took off his glasses, letting them dangle on his chest, then brushed his hair back behind his ears and pinched the bridge of his nose. He wouldn’t answer the intercom. The last time she came over like this she had smashed Evie’s porcelain pie dish on the kitchen floor. He stood up briskly. Walking to the window - it was really pounding outside - he pulled it down with both hands, enjoying the thud as window met frame and then the swish of the red curtain across it. With the lamp as it was the flat would look dark from the street below. She might think he’d gone out in order to avoid her and thus leave him in peace. He walked back to his desk, sat down, and picked up his phone. Holding down the power button he watched the life putter out of the previously brilliant screen. That was when the siren sounded in his mind.

He glanced over what he had written. It was… He brushed his hair behind his ears and tried to block out what was coming. Tried not to remember the false starts of the previous weeks. Tried not to remember why, apart from those false starts, he hadn’t typed a line in a year and a half. Tried not to remember that he hated everything he had ever written. Emily you bitch. But it wasn’t her. Saul had learned through bitter experience to be wary of the kind of buoyancy he had been feeling tonight. Not only with this one. He tried to stop it but from deep in his liver the thought surged that it had been the same with every book he had ever written; a searing start during which he felt the Possibility of finally coaxing something meaningful, something true even, from that primordial gloop of zeroes and ones behind his computer screen. Then at some point - it had gotten sooner with each book - ambivalence would kick in, and by the end he would hate the book so much they had to pay a motivator to stay with him in the flat and make him finish it. They sold well, at least they used to, but in his heart Saul knew his books were pretentious bullshit. Not one of them adorned his shelves.

But this one… this time… He scrolled up a page and knew he had been feeling nothing but adrenaline and flow. He’d been up since six. He couldn’t remember the last time he ate. He took another sip of the cognac and scrolled right back to the gleaming opening line that had woken him, hoping to convince himself he still had that at least. He didn’t. It was banal and transparent. He shoved the coffee- stained papers out of the way to look at the black and white prints of writers he admired -- Agnon, Borges, Murakami -- that he had taped to the surface of his work table. He used to believe they helped him focus; it was Borges himself who said the history of literature was a never-ending, fascinating conversation. Of course he meant the history of good literature. Saul couldn’t believe how old his hands looked. Before he married Evie - this was going back - when he told women at parties he was a writer they would arch their backs.

Maybe it didn’t matter, he thought, scrolling to the last line he’d written. He might edit most of it out tomorrow, but the important thing was to get some rhythm into it that he could pick up later. He should write a couple more pages. He lifted his hands again. When he heard the knock on the door they dropped heavily onto the keyboard.

'Who’s there?’

'It’s me you fool.’

How the hell had she gotten here so fast? Saul stood and walked to the door. Leaving the chain on its bolt he pulled it open slightly.

'I told you not to come,’ he said through the gap. Emily had an impossibly small velvet purse in one hand and a white plastic bag in the other. She was soaked. Her normally silky black hair had ruffled into her eyes, and her dripping coat clung to her chest.

'Open the door Saul.’

'I’m in the middle of something.’

'Ok. Then stand back.’

+No. Emily. No. You can’t…’

'I mean it Saul.’

'Emily, I said no.’ He moved to the side as she took a step back and raised her right leg. 'Emily!

This is a private…’

Thump. The chain snapped feebly, the door burst open, and she pushed past him into the room. 'You can’t keep doing that Emily,’ he said, grabbing the door to stop it swinging.

'I deserve …’

'You’re a cretin, Saul,’ she said, facing him just long enough to register her disgust before walking straight to the desk. 'The girls think you were probably abused.’ She laid her things on the desk and straightened his lamp. The panthers went skulking behind the furniture and she peered at him through dark, bloodshot eyes. 'But I forgive you.’

'Marvellous,’ Saul mumbled, closing the door resignedly.

'I brought soup,’ she continued, draping the dripping coat over the back of his chair and raising the plastic take away bag. 'We can talk it out.’

'I’m still working, Emily,’ Saul insisted halfheartedly, 'Please. In fact I'm on the verge of a break...’

He pinched the bridge of his nose. Emily looked him up and down with a curled lip. 'Really? You’re gonna make it that easy?’

Saul sucked in his stomach, tied his dressing gown around his waist, and folded his arms.

'Yes, Emily, a breakthrough. It’s a word creative people use to describe…’ He stopped when she put the soup back down on the desk and leaned towards the laptop.

'Emily! That’s not...!’ He moved towards her but he was fifty six.

"What tripe,’ she said.

Saul leaned across her and snapped shut the lid of the laptop. 'Thank you for your customary incisiveness Emily,’ he said, too close to her now for comfort. He picked up his glass of cognac before she had a chance to down it and took a step back, almost slipping on a tennis shoe he was sure he hadn’t worn in years. 'It reminds me of your poetry,’ he said, regaining his balance. 'Bursting with the unavoidable conclusion that you know less than nothing.’

She smiled at him, but her lip quivered. 'I know you, you pompous dick. I know how superstitious you are about your hair.’ He slapped away, probably too brusquely, the fingers that reached towards his head. 'How you’re too ditsy to buy more than a couple of things at a time in the corner shop.’ Her voice was shaky now. 'And I know that your real life is lonely and pathetic because you pour all your efforts into this stupid computer.’

She had probably taken a couple of pills on top of whatever she had drunk, Saul realised; exactly the ingestion that made failed, half-hearted thespian romantic for her. He couldn't handle crying women unless they were on his screen in a half-finished paragraph.

'You eat, you sleep, you shower,’ she moaned, her face flickering. 'You stick post-it notes on your furniture.’ She sat. The top two buttons of her blouse had come undone, Saul couldn’t help but notice. He pulled a towel from the closet and tossed it to her gingerly. 'You spew yourself into this machine and sooner or later it ends up either in a book you hate or crumpled in a self-loathing ball in your recycle bin.’ She raised the towel to her head and gave it a cursory rub before leaning forward in the chair and grabbing the glass from his hand. 'It’s hand to mouth, Saul.’ She took a drink and clacked the glass down on the desk. Dropping the towel on the floor she pulled a pack of cigarettes from her coat pocket. 'None of it is real; none of it matters. Houses of cards.’

Saul looked down at her. Sometimes it was as though she had broken into his heart and was quoting lines from its walls. It was infuriating. 'Emily, listen to me,’ he said, kneeling in front of her and resting a palm gently on her thigh, 'it’s late, you’re feeling a bit stupid...’

'Shove it, caveman,’ she snapped, brushing his hand away. He stayed put, more out of tiredness than a desire to rile her.

'I know you wouldn't even listen to me if it weren’t for these its,’ she said. 'Right, not having kids was totally worth it!’

He replaced his hand on her knee as she picked up the glass and downed the last of the brandy. He stood slowly, tired and beaten. 'What you refuse to accept, Saul,’ she said, looking up into his eyes as she lit the Gauloises, is that I’m your only link to real life now. You say the centre of your work is everywhere but you haven't spoken to your brother in six months for God’s sake!’

Saul stepped back flusteredly, though unsure why he should choose this comment to take offence. His knee twanged with the sudden movement. 'The centre of my work is everywhere!’ he almost shouted, stumbling slightly before tugging his dressing gown strap tighter and continuing in a lower voice. 'The centre of all books is everywhere. Literature has no circumference, better people than me have pointed out, nor does it require the approval of…’

'Who? The people who read it?’

He tried to ignore her. 'Willis is in my work, Agnon is in my work...’ He couldn’t go on.

'When it’s direct it’s called plagiarism Saul.’ Emily puffed and the cloud of thick white smoke in the centre of the little room expanded. Saul ground his teeth briefly and took a deep breath.

'And Agnon read Cervantes who read Shakespeare. And someone will read my books and write a story that will influence...’

Emily raised her hand and began opening and closing it slowly, mimicking a mouth. Saul sighed. He wished the room had another chair. She rested her elbow on the edge of the desk and swung the chair gently from side to side, her legs wide. Saul was far enough from her now that he could see most of the way up her skirt.

'Right, right. It’s all interconnected in a huge wanking mass of self-congratulation. The problem, genius, is that a book is like a ringing telephone. And no one picked up your last two efforts. All they are now is paper.’

Her words climbed up inside Saul with hammers and razor blades and took to him from the inside out. He stole a breath and shuffled before her.

'That doesn’t matter. The simple expression… The very act … Language, Emily, is the only thing we can be absolutely sure is real, because it’s the only thing that is one hundred per cent subjective,’ he said, remembering a post-it. Even as he said it he felt ridiculous, like he was perched on a ledge halfway down a cliff face. Emily rolled her eyes and leaned back in the chair.

'You know how many creatures there have been on this planet since it came into being, Saul?’ She took a drag on her cigarette, pausing deliberately to swing the chair provocatively from side to side again. Saul visualised fucking her with his fist in her mouth. He wanted to sit but had nowhere to go. 'You’re fifty six years old, for Christ’s sake,’ she said. 'Who do you think you are?’

Saul puffed up. 'I am…’ He faltered, and took a breath. 'I, Emily, am…’ He had nothing.

'You are,’ Emily said. She stood up and rested a hand on his shoulder. 'Wow. You still got it, Saul.’ She leaned in and with the other hand tapped him on the balls so that he shuddered. 'Indeed.’ She brushed past him towards the bedroom. He couldn’t help swivelling to watch. She swayed her full hips deliberately, and halfway there turned and began unbuttoning her blouse. 'This all I'm good for Saul? Is it?’

Saul stood for a second in silence. The rain clattered its one and zeros into the puddles; it streamed down the drains, towards the rivers and oceans. He looked from a stripping Emily to the closed laptop. And back to Emily. She was pert. Very pert.

'Anything else you’ll get from a book?’ She kicked off her shoes. Saul had to duck to avoid one of them. Then she let the blouse slide to the floor. 'Is that it?’ She reached up her back slowly and snapped open her bra, challenging him to look into her eyes. 'I’m right here, Saul, and I’m flesh and blood.’

She turned towards his bedroom and looked back over her shoulder, the bra straps swaying, swaying.

'What are you going to do with me?’

Saul glanced at the laptop. Then he walked to Emily and grabbed her from behind by the upper arm. When she began to speak he threw his other arm around her and pressed his hand over her mouth.


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