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Live Encounters Aotearoa New Zealand Poets & Writers April 2023
My conversation with Clark, short story by Kate Mahony
After the new people bought the house on the corner, I would peer over the fence wondering if they knew and if they did would they pull the shed down?
That afternoon, all those months ago, I’d been trying to squash some extra bags of rubbish into my already full bin. Clark walked by, his head down and didn’t seem to see me. I had to call out his name twice. Even then when he looked up he stared straight through me.
I walked over to him and waved my hand to get his attention. Then I asked him if I could put my extra bag of rubbish in his bin. ‘Collection day’s tomorrow.’
He studied my face as if I were some stranger accosting him and he didn’t know what to do. After a little while he continued walking towards his house.
Annoyed, I shoved what I could into my bin and began to go back inside.
I heard footsteps and realised he had returned. He stood on the street outside my house.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t understand what you meant. Of course, put your rubbish in my bin.’
I moved towards him to thank him. And then I remembered Eve and her problem. Now was my opportunity to help her out. ‘Clark,’ I said. ‘Eve from my work needs a partner to go to a charity ball on Friday night. She has two tickets. She doesn’t want to go on her own. I know it’s a bit last minute to ask, but would you go with her?’
‘Oh?’ Clark said. He looked at me blankly. ‘Eve?
‘She came to the barbecue at my place that time. She’s from Scotland. Short with red hair.’ I thought about saying she had a cackly laugh. Surely he would remember that? ‘You were there. I introduced her to everyone. She works in the office across from mine.’
He stared at the ground, as if waiting for more. I wasn’t sure if Clark even knew where I worked, or what I did.
I remembered then that Clark hadn’t stayed long at the barbecue and he’d likely left before Eve arrived. She was always late to things. I had asked him about his work, some kind of coding, in a tech business. He had explained it to me. Or tried to. I’d excused myself to offer drinks before long. When I turned around again he had gone.
‘She needs a partner,’ I explained. ‘Just so she’s not turning up on her own. On Friday.’
It would take too long to explain the full story. A computer company had offered to match the singles attending the charity ball with their ideal date. Each ticket buyer filled in a questionnaire about their likes and dislikes and on the night would meet their match. Eve had been excited about it. She had once hinted she’d never got over an old boyfriend back in Scotland but now the ideal match and what he’d be like had become the only topic of conversation during our breaks.
Then the email came. Not enough males had bought tickets. She had missed out on being matched. The organisers were attaching a spare ticket for her to take her own guest. ‘Don’t tell anyone else at work,’ she warned, showing it to me in the storeroom at the end of the corridor. I wanted to help. My suggestion to go with a female friend, myself included, was dismissed crossly. Nor was she happy to turn up on her own.
‘I might know people there. I’d feel such a loser,’ she said.
I thought about this while Clark still said nothing. I gave him the space to think about what I had said although I’d already decided it was not a good idea.
‘You could just not go,’ I had said to Eve.
She’d exploded. ‘I paid to be part of it.’ She glared at me. ‘And they were meant to find me my ideal match.’
I didn’t know what to say. I said I needed to get back to my desk.
Clark was now nodding his head, as if taking what I had said onboard. The silence mustn’t have bothered him. ‘Oh.’ He frowned. ‘Would there be dancing?’
‘It’s a ball so yes, there will be.’
He grimaced. ‘I’m not much of a dancer. And not into big gatherings.’ He took several steps back, extending the distance between us. I noticed he wore big shoes. He was a tall man ‘No, not at all.’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘If you change your mind.’
He didn’t reply. He walked away down the street. His head was stooped. He swung around again and came back. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘Look.’ He managed to stutter the word. Twice. ‘If she wants someone to go to a movie with some time, I guess I could do it.’
I had already given up on the whole idea. ‘Sure,’ I said offhandedly. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
Clark gave me a half wave. ‘You can always ask someone else.’
Who? I didn’t exactly have a list. Nor much time.
After he had gone, I felt guilty I hadn’t made a bit more effort. Asked how things were going for him? How was his job?
Then at work the next day, Eve told me Maria in accounts had fixed her up with a partner. I hadn’t been the only person she had confided in, I thought sourly. Still, she sounded excited and I was pleased for her. He wasn’t on social media but he had already sent a nice text and they’d been texting each other back and forth. I said that was nice. I didn’t mention my conversation with Clark.
My phone rang early on Saturday morning after the ball. Eve hissed at me down the phone. Her “date” had been a dork. She couldn’t imagine why Maria had suggested him. And he wasn’t attractive to look at. Not at all. There was something odd about his eyes. And the strange way he stood. And his laugh.
I thought about Clark. How would he have measured up? Would I tell him he had dodged a bullet? He had probably forgotten the conversation by now.
On Monday after I arrived home from work, Clark’s flatmate came over. He said he had some bad news. His body shook as he began to tell me. Clark had hung himself by a rope in the garden shed that morning. ‘You were one of the last people to speak to him, I think. He mentioned you to me. I told the police this. They might want to talk to you.’
Poor Clark. ‘Only about the rubbish bin,’ I said. ‘And a charity ball my friend needed a partner for.’
I didn’t know what else to ask. What had made him do it didn’t seem the right question. And would his flatmate even know?
‘I’m sorry to hear this,’ was all I could say.
The flatmate just nodded. He gulped and two thick wet tears ran down his face and over his mouth. He didn’t bother to wipe them away. He said something that came out muffled. It sounded like, ‘I’ve got to go.’
I said, ‘Let me know what I can do.’ I didn’t think there was anything I could do. Not now.
He moved out not long after that. He and Clark had been renting the place. The owners of the house left it empty for ages while they did some painting inside. Then they put it on the market. A young couple bought it. A neighbour said the woman was pregnant and the man was a builder. I kept thinking about the shed. I checked on it each time I walked by. I could see only the roof over the fence, but it meant the shed was still standing..
Sometime after they moved in the new owners invited some of the neighbours to a barbecue. It was sunny in the back yard, and we sat around on garden chairs. I told Tom and Julie, the new owners, I had known the previous occupants. ‘Clark, mainly,’ I said, waiting to see if either might say something. If they knew. If they had plans to demolish the shed.
‘Clark,’ Tom said knowledgeably. He pointed to the shed at the end of the garden. It looked as if it had had a new coat of paint. ‘I call it Clark’s shed. Whenever I go in there to work on something, I always say, ‘Hi Clark, how are you.’
I thought about Clark not wanting to go to something with too many people or with dancing. That would have been too much. But he had said he would go to a movie with Eve if she wanted company. I’d never got round to telling Eve about his kind offer.
‘Clark’s shed,’ I said to Tom. ‘That has a nice ring to it. He would have liked it.’ And then I thought about telling him about the conversation I had had with Clark that day. But what was there to say? That I’d only thought of him as a solution to a colleague’s problem? In the end, I just said, ‘He was a really nice guy.’ It seemed as much as I could do.
© Kate Mahony
Kate Mahony’s short fiction has been widely published in New Zealand and internationally and been shortlisted and longlisted in international competitions. These include the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award, 2008 in which her story was a top 10 finalist, the Fish Publishing International Short Story competition, 2015, the Bridport Short Story Competition, UK, 2015, the Commonwealth Short Story Competition,2022, the Cambridge Autumn Festival Short Story Competition, 2022, and a number of National Flash Fiction Day competitions. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals including Litro New York, Meniscus (Australia) Blue Nib (Ireland) Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Fictive Dream (UK) Takahē, Best New Zealand Fiction Vol 6, Bonsai : Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand 2018, and Blackmail Press. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Cloud Ink Press will publish her contemporary/historical novel in September. https://www.katemahonyauthor.com/