The titular writer in Lyndsey Smith’s “The Writer” lives near Liv and the narrator and hosts frequent parties which, the narrator tells us, ” anyone with any kind of literary pretensions went to.” Though the writer is well known for a novel he’d published, it seems, as the narrator uncovers, that no one really knows the writer, knows what’s true and what’s grand story. Smith’s voice is both witty and charming and this story will sit with you just as the narrator’s last encounter with the writer sits with her.
I last saw the writer at a party in his house on Manor Street, which was halfway between the house I shared with Liv and the Tesco on Prussia Street where we did most of our grocery shopping. There had been talk of him selling up and moving on or of renting the house out for a year or two while he travelled but no one knew him well enough to know for sure. Even Liv didn’t know and she knew everything about everyone. People said he’d bought the house for next to nothing during the recession and that his parents had helped him and probably still were but he liked to pretend he’d done it all by himself, with his writing. He’d published a novel five years before, and apparently he was working on a collection of short stories but, as far as anyone could tell, the novel was it. A PDF version of a story he’d written had been doing the rounds for a couple of years, maybe more, but at least since I’d moved in with Liv. It was called “Rats on Arbour Hill” and I hadn’t read it but I knew it had something to do with his ex-girlfriend. Everyone said they’d broken up because of that story, that he’d written it to make her break up with him. I assumed he’d written something unflattering about her but I was never interested enough to read it. I’ve never been a fan of short stories. Liv had read the story twice and said it was good but I didn’t trust her judgment. She also said a writer shouldn’t have to consider ethics and that all that mattered was whether it was good or not and that the writer was probably better off alone if that was how things were going to be with his girlfriends. I said maybe he just shouldn’t write about them. Liv scrunched her nose up and bit the top of the pen she’d been writing in her notebook with when I said that. I could tell she was exasperated because she thought I didn’t get it because I wasn’t a writer. I hadn’t read his novel either because I was worried he was a literary genius and that’s why people derided him so much. I didn’t want to think they were all just jealous. I didn’t want to feel bad about myself.
The writer had three degrees: English, philosophy and biology. Everyone knew that. He had a party every Friday night that anyone with any kind of literary pretensions went to, I mean anyone who lived in the Dublin 7 area, obviously, although people were known to have crossed the river too. I had literary pretensions too but as I was certain I was talentless I kept them to myself. “I’m here with Liv,” I’d say, if anyone asked. When asked what I did for a living, I would say, “Editing, proofreading, that sort of thing,” and try to discourage any further conversation, although people rarely wanted to talk to me anyway. If Liv caught me writing at home, I would pretend I was writing to-do lists or keeping a record of the books I was reading. I don’t think she ever suspected what I was really up to. I think she thought I had some kind of anxiety disorder that involved listing things for hours on end. I think she thought I was a little bit in awe of her too, because she was a writer and I loved books so much.
I also loved wine and I always drank too much. Not enough to get drunk, but enough to get a bad pain in my stomach and really need to fart. As it’s rarely appropriate to fart at parties, or literary salons, I would hold it in until my stomach got so gassy I’d have to bend over every few minutes for relief. I was bent over like that when I met Audrey for the first time. We were sitting beside each other on a pot-holed sofa, ignoring each other, or at least I was ignoring her.
“You should try the low FODMAPs diet,” she said. “My stomach used to make those kinds of noises until I gave up onions and garlic.”
I’d gone to the party with Liv. Her boyfriend Matt had pulled out at the last minute and she’d begged me to go instead to keep her company. Liv was convinced that even though he never paid her any attention she and the writer were going to end up together. In a romantic way. Liv had a real job that involved writing technical manuals for small electronic appliances but she was never very busy and could have spent six or seven hours a day writing if she’d wanted to. As far as I could tell, she spent most of that time scrolling through Instagram and Facebook. She was obsessed with @apartmenttherapy. She had all these ideas about cushions and she was always repositioning her bookshelves and rearranging the notebooks and penholders on her desk.
“I feel so bounded in,” she’d say at least once a week and then stomp around, pushing things over and kicking things out of her way. Once, a few months after I moved in, she acquired some secondhand bookshelves through a freecycle Facebook group and I went with her to collect them from a rich person’s house on Aughrim Street. It was one of those houses with black and white harlequin floor tiles, chandeliers in every room and a spiral staircase that seemed to go upwards forever before nestling in under a narrow stained-glass window. We carried the bookcase home, one of us on either side, the shelves gashing our hips. What should have been a ten-minute walk took about an hour and a half that night. At one point a couple of men stopped and asked if we needed help and we said No because we knew they’d assumed we were carrying the shelves to a nearby van and weren’t actually mad. We discussed the ethics of abandoning a six feet tall bookcase at the bottom of our neighbor’s garden.
“They’re not really neighbors,” Liv said.
“They’re literally our neighbors,” I said.
“Yeah but if you want, you never have to walk past this house again. So in that sense, they’re not neighbors.”
“A person who lives in a neighboring house in a neighboring street is, by definition, a neighbor.”
“Yeah but we don’t know what they look like.”
“Irrelevant,” I said.
“Absolutely relevant in our present circumstances,” Liv said, half laughing, half on the verge of tears.
We’d leaned the shelves against a gate so we could rest our arms. I rubbed my hip bone.
“This was your idea,” I said. “The next time you mention the word Freecycle I’m not speaking to you for a month. In fact, I’m not speaking to you for a month.”
“If we run now no one will ever know,” she said.
“The person we took them from will know.”
“She might never walk this way.”
“She lives just there,” I said, pointing towards the house we’d picked them up from.
“Maybe she’s the type of person who always turns left when she leaves her house,” Liv said.
“You mean the way some people are into yoga, or zero waste, or the Dutch masters, some people always go left.”
“Let’s try again,” I said, and reached over to Liv’s side of the shelves. “You hold this side,” I said, gesturing to where my hip leaned against the plasterboard back.
“This house looks like it could do with a bookcase,” Liv said, not moving.
“This specific house looks derelict,” I said, although there was a light on in an upstairs window. It looked rundown is what I’d meant.
“Exactly,” Liv said. “You can never have too much book space.”
“Come on,” I said.
* * *
Liv worked from home so she was always in the house although sometimes she went to a café in Smithfield or Stoneybatter and worked there. I worked from home three days a week but I never went to a café. Sometimes Liv would stand in the doorway of my bedroom while I worked and tell me about her decorating plans for the house or about how she was becoming interested in polyamory as a way of life.
“Are you sure you’re not just attracted to it because you’re not really attracted to Matt?” I asked her once.
“No, I just find monogamy stifling.”
I’d never been in a proper relationship so I didn’t have an informed opinion on monogamy or on being stifled, although that is overwhelmingly how I felt. I’d read some articles on the internet about polyamory and decided it was a bit sad and that Liv was letting herself down in some way I couldn’t articulate. I knew I could never do it. Mostly because I didn’t even know two men, never mind two who were willing to be my boyfriends. There were men who were willing to sleep with me. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not hideous—but my last relationship turned out not to have been a relationship at all.
“I thought it was just a bit of fun,” he said, when he moved to a different city without telling me.
“You can’t help how you feel,” I said, when what I really meant was, “I hate your guts.” I told Liv the story as we reorganised the living room furniture to accommodate the bookshelves she’d decided were actually too big to go in her bedroom.
“He must have told you,” she said.
“That he was moving?”
“That he didn’t want a relationship.”
“He didn’t tell me,”
“Did he tell you he liked you?” Liv said, positioning and then repositioning a small pile of books on the middle shelf.
“The first time.”
“Was he drunk?”
“Well then,” she said, turning to face the bookshelves.
“You were his fuck buddy.”
“He never said that,” I said to her back.
“If he never said he liked you and he ignored you for weeks on end, you were his fuck buddy.”
“Yeah, but he kept going on about feminism. He said he was a feminist. He said I wasn’t feminist enough.”
“He was always making snide comments about how I’d be with anyone. I thought I’d done something to hurt him. I thought he liked me.”
“He didn’t. He wasn’t into you.”
“Well I know that now.”
“You should forget about him.” I didn’t want to forget about him.
“I read Simone de Beauvoir because of him.”
“I read Germaine Greer.”
The writer was flat on his back and he was doing that tap out thing they do in wrestling, not real wrestling but the playacting kind with the costumes and elaborate narratives. The women who were holding him down were saying, “Like this or was it more like this?” and giggling uncontrollably. I could see up the skirt of the woman who had her back to me. I could see the seams on the gusset of her tights. I hate the word gusset.
“I love how something unexpected always happens here,” Liv said to me, a little too loudly for comfort.
“You’re such a groupie,” I said, so that if anyone overheard they’d know how difficult I was to impress. Liv had already turned back to watch what was going on and so she didn’t hear me or if she did she pretended not to. Music was playing through the speakers on the mantlepiece and there was a fire going in the fireplace, a real one, which I was grateful for. The house smelled of damp and there were large patches of black mould on the ceiling. The walls were freckled with it, thigh-high, as if the house had coughed it up from behind the skirting boards. It goes without saying there were books everywhere, arranged higgledy-piggledy, spilling off shelves, in piles on the windowsills, under the coffee table, behind the sofa and the armchairs, on the kitchen countertops even. The disorder struck me as kind of staged and the books seemed to get in the way of everything. I’d just gotten into minimalism at that time and had thrown out most of my belongings, including most of my books. Throwing everything away hadn’t made me feel any better about my life but I was still bothered by people who were okay with surplus. I was kind of insufferable, to be honest.
The writer had been tapping the ground since we’d arrived. One of the women put her hand over his mouth when he mock screamed.
“Did they do this?” she said, giggling again and he giggled too, high-pitched, like a boy. The other woman laughed. I was sure he could have shoved them both off if he’d wanted to. They weren’t paying attention to the fact he was tapping out.
I know about the tapping out thing because my brothers used to make me do it every Sunday morning when we were children. One of them would lie on my chest and the other would grab my ankles and I would scream and they would say, in a calm voice that’s really unsettling when it comes from a child, “Just tap out and we’ll let you go.” This meant tapping the floor with the palm of my hand three or four times. Sometimes to be extra cruel, they would grab my hands so I couldn’t move them and sing at me, “All you have to do is tap out.”
They’d have a conversation over my head.
“Why isn’t she just tapping out?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think she likes it.”
“She must like it.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t want us to let her go.”
“Yeah, otherwise she’d just tap out.”
My brothers were always joyous on Sunday mornings. I was always miserable because it was the only day my father didn’t go to work which meant he was home all day which meant he and my mother would spend the day chasing each other around the house, throwing things at each other, rolling around the floor punching each other’s head. But that’s neither here nor there and nothing at all to do with the writer or the house on Prussia Street.
“He was mugged up on Constitution Hill. They took his laptop with all his stories on it.” I hadn’t noticed Audrey come in and sit next to me. Audrey could never just sit silently. She always had to be saying something.
“Oh right,” I said.
“They’re re-enacting it,” she said in a kind of deadpan to show that she, also, was not impressed by the writer.
“Oh right,” I said again.
“He begged them not to take it, apparently.” There was something about the way she said it that made me laugh. Everything Audrey said sounded so cynical. She suffered from a compulsion to talk about herself which I enjoyed because she didn’t mind if I never talked about myself in return. I’d had a thing the year before with a guy who taught geography and English and sex education in a school in the inner city. He said he liked that about me, that I didn’t talk about myself much. I could tell by the way he talked about the pupils in the school that he saw himself as some kind of hero, a savior of the working classes. It’s possible I’ve judged him too harshly though. I’m never kind about men who dump me.
“I worked in a middle-class school for a week,” he said once.
“What’s a middle-class school?” I asked.
“You know, in a middle-class area.”
“I lasted a week. It was so easy. I was bored shitless. This job came up and I’m still there, ten years later.”
He told me that one time he was eating carrot sticks and hummus during a class he was teaching and one of the kids said, “What’s that you’re eating, Sir?” The kids were supposed to call the male teachers Sir, which I thought was preposterous.
“Hummus,” he said.
“No, Sir, the orange things.”
“Are you allowed to eat during class?” I asked him. I knew that wasn’t the point of the story. He dumped me after a couple of months, claiming to want someone who was more open.
Audrey and I watched the writer scramble around on the floor while we sipped on our drinks and I remember feeling worried about Liv for some reason although I can’t remember now what that reason was. It’s possible it was just a vague uneasiness that if I didn’t keep an eye on her she would leave without telling me and I’d have spent time at a party I didn’t want to be at when I didn’t have to. I don’t remember much of what Audrey and I talked about that night. What I remember mostly is what happened afterwards, when everyone was gone apart from me and the writer.
Eventually, the two women stood up laughing and said something like, “You’ll get over it,” or “You’ll get it back,” and he stood up, the writer did, and smoothed down his shirt and then grinned and then looked at me, right at me, and I turned to look at Audrey and when I looked back he was still looking at me, and then he smiled. It was a kind smile. That’s what was so unusual about it, what made me feel so weird, because once he’d smiled at me, it felt like I had earned something and when it was gone I wanted it back again. I’d never been terribly interested in the writer before that moment, or rather I was interested in him precisely because I liked to show how uninterested in him I was.
I was a bit like that with the teacher too. Soon after we met he’d said he didn’t see us working out because our lifestyles were so different. I said, “Let’s not see each other anymore then.” He said that’s not what he meant, that he liked me but thought our lifestyles were too different. At the time I thought he meant because he got off work at four o’clock every day and had three months off in the summer. He’d spent the summer before we met at a yoga retreat in India.
“Three types of people do retreats,” he told me: “Middle class executives who don’t know what else to do with their money, hippies, and drug addicts.”
“Which one are you?” I asked him.
“Ha,” he said.
When he said our lifestyles were different, I think he meant he didn’t find me that attractive but that I was pleasant enough company while he was waiting for the woman of his dreams to show up. He asked me to hang out one evening. He used those words too, “Hang out,” and because I knew exactly what he meant I told him I couldn’t because I was having my period but he said I should come over anyway and we could drink wine and watch a film together. He must have been lonely. We watched the film and drank the wine and then we drank some gin and the whole time he sat with his arm around me and rubbed my shoulder with his thumb. Then we went to bed. He snored and I stared at his back the whole night and every now and again I would press my flat palm against his bare back. Sometimes he felt it and shrugged me off. In the morning he made me coffee and I used the bathroom and then he used the bathroom and when he came out he said, “Are you okay?” I remember feeling like there was no right answer and I said, “Yeah. I’m fine, thanks.”
“Oh,” he said. “Because there was some blood on the door handle in the bathroom so I wondered if you were okay.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” he said, and when I didn’t say anything else he looked at me with a dead kind of look, as if I’d left bloody handprints all over his bathroom door.
“I’m sorry,” I said. But he still didn’t say anything. “I don’t know what to say to you,” I said. He still said nothing, just stared. I couldn’t work out how blood had gotten on the door handle. It occurred to me later that he was making it up to embarrass me.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Give me a cuddle before you leave.”
Liv came around the back of the sofa and bent towards me and whispered that she was going to meet Matt and that she was going to talk to him about them having an open relationship. Audrey and I had just started to talk about a book both of us were reading which was about a dog. I waved Liv away without saying anything. Audrey and I decided to finish our drinks and go down the road to the Glimmer Man or the Belfry to see if we could get something to eat. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the girls who’d been holding the writer down file out with their scarves and hats on. A few minutes later some more people left and then some more but I wasn’t really paying attention. We’d started to talk about something else when we were interrupted by the writer.
“Anyone want to help me finish this?” he said. I looked over my shoulder and realised everyone else was gone and that it was just the three of us left, Audrey, me and the writer.
“Thank you, no,” Audrey said, and I said nothing which he took to mean yes and poured some wine into my almost empty glass.
“So you got mugged,” Audrey said, and the way she said it sounded so glib and unsympathetic that I was embarrassed for her.
“I hope you’re feeling better,” I said, in an effort to rehabilitate the conversation.
“Yeah, thanks,” he said.
“It must have been scary,” Audrey said. She stood up before he could answer and said, “The toilets in these houses are upstairs, right?” The writer pointed towards the ceiling and said, “Yes, up the stairs on the right.” Audrey went out into the hallway but it was a minute before I heard the stairs creak. We didn’t say anything until she was at the top of the stairs. I don’t know what took her so long to get up there, maybe she was looking for a light switch or something. I wasn’t good at being alone with people and I didn’t know what to say. I kept glancing towards the door as if expecting Audrey to appear any second.
“I don’t know your name,” the writer said.
“That’s okay,” I said. I don’t like telling people my name. I’ve never liked my name on account of it’s what my parents always call me.
“What did the police say?” I asked him. “Do you think you’ll get your laptop back?”
“My laptop is in that drawer over there.” I turned to look at the desk in the corner next to the door, papers piled high on top, coffee mugs on top of stacks of books.
“Oh,” I said.
“I’m drunk,” he said. “I’ve been drinking since two o’clock.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah, I started after lunch.”
“I mean about your laptop.”
“Yeah I was joking about being mugged but then they all took it seriously.”
“What do you mean joking?”
“It seemed funny, so I said it.” I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not.
“Why didn’t you just tell them the truth?”
“They’d already organised the party,” he said.
“Don’t you have a party every week?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said, “but they organised the re-enactment especially.”
“Is that what that was? Earlier,” I said although I already knew.
“Yeah,” he said.
“So you didn’t really lose all your stories.” I regretted saying that because it showed the writer that I knew things about him.
“I don’t have any stories,” he said.
“None?” I felt uncomfortable talking to him about writing. I felt like such an amateur.
“None,” he said. “I haven’t written in years. All I do is read.”
“Okay,” I said. “I suppose you have to read. For research.”
“I read detective novels.”
“Are you interested in writing crime fiction?”
“What about a career change?”
“What else would I do?” I was thinking surely there were lots of things he could do, surely he’d learned something useful in one of his degrees but I didn’t say it because I didn’t want him to know I was so informed about his life. When I thought about it later I thought maybe he’d made up his three degrees too.
“You wouldn’t believe the pressure,” he said. “Always having to have ideas I mean. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I just want to watch YouTube videos.”
“What kind of videos?”
“Old news clips.”
“I’m going home,” Audrey said, appearing in the sitting room. I hadn’t heard the toilet flush.
“I’ll come with you,” I said, and I leaned forward to put my glass on the coffee table but as I did the writer leaned over and poured more wine into it.
“You stay,” Audrey said, and winked at me. I hated her for that wink.
“Okay. Goodnight,” I said, embarrassed. I could tell she thought I was interested in the writer, that I was just like Liv after all. She put on her coat and left. The writer came and sat next to me on the sofa then.
“Are you being honest? You weren’t really mugged.”
“It’d make a good story, wouldn’t it.”
“Telling lies,” I said.
“Telling the truth.”
I didn’t know what he meant by that. I couldn’t work out whether he’d actually been mugged or not.
“Okay,” I said. The writer smiled at me and held his glass up in a toast before draining it.
“Fuck,” he said, and put his glass on the ground next to him. He pinched his nose and I saw there was blood on his top lip. He wiped it away until it was smeared across his cheek. I remembered I had some tissues in my bag so I got them out and handed one to him.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,” I said, as he leaned against the back of the sofa and tilted his head back, clutching the bloodied tissue to his nose. I watched him intently in case he choked on his own blood. I’d never had to call an ambulance before. I didn’t know what I’d say even.
“I think it’s stopped,” he said after ten minutes of us sitting in silence on his sofa.
“If you’re okay I’m going to head now,” I said.
“Don’t tell anyone.”
“About the nosebleed?”
“No, that I make stuff up,” he said, and grinned, his bloodied face grotesque.
“It’s okay, I won’t,” I said, and he laughed. I was in such a rush to get away from him that I waited until I was out in the street before zipping up my coat. As I fixed my hat and gloves I looked through the sitting room window and saw him still on the sofa with his head in his hands, his back heaving and his shoulders shaking. He might have been laughing or he might have been crying. As I’ve said, that was the last time I saw him.
Lyndsey Smith was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize and the Brighton Prize in the flash fiction category in 2018. She won the Lilliput Press Short Fiction Competition in 2018. She is currently completing an MA in Novel Writing at Middlesex University. She has a story forthcoming in Portland Review.