The Armchair Ballet Dancer

A Martial Artist Meets his Match

A short story by Fletcher Kovich

 

The sun rose ten minutes ago and Jack Hutton walked into his bathroom. After fourteen years of training as a martial artist, he possessed a marble-like confidence in his ability to meet any earthly challenge. So confident was he that his usually calm and blank expression had even begun to adopt an occasional twinkle of complacency. But this he resisted, for he knew that such flaws were the downfall of champions. One day, he knew, he would meet his match. He reached for the soap but it was not there. In disbelief he looked down at the washbasin’s empty surface. Unable to believe the evidence of his eyes, he began involuntarily rubbing the porcelain, as if to check he was not hallucinating, or as if to perform some magic spell that might liberate the soap from its invisibility. Whatever his intention, he was disappointed, as the soap did not reappear.

The previous day, Maryanne, his girlfriend, moved in with him. Over the past eight years of living in his flat, he had never before had to locate a misplaced item. Each possession had its proper place and every task its correct procedure. His household had become as efficient as a martial arts routine and he was alarmed at how irritated he felt simply because Maryanne moved his soap. He located the “hidden” soap, used it and replaced it in its proper place. While his eyes were closed, he reached for a towel but there was only empty air. Again, like a conjuror he began involuntarily waving around in the air where the towel should have been, but his magic did not work. He dried his eyes with his fingers, located the missing towel, used it and replaced it in its proper place. He took a deep breath and exited the bathroom. His morning had never been so fraught.

He found Maryanne in the kitchen and noticed his breakfast had been prepared. In the bedroom earlier, she asked, “What do you usually have for breakfast?”

“Porridge, but I’ll make it.”

“It’s no trouble.”

“No, I’ll make it,” he told her as he headed for the bathroom.

With each of his meals, he had developed the recipes and cooking procedures so as to maximize the nutritional value and flavour. When he noticed she had used the wrong procedure to prepare the porridge, his acquaintance with calmness grew distinctly chilly.

He looked to Maryanne, who was now doing the washing up, and he noticed she was also using the wrong procedure there. Her dish stacking was inadequate. He rearranged the dishes into the most efficient draining position and managed to calmly tell her, “I was going to make the porridge.”

“It’s no trouble,” she reassured him.

He turned away to get a cup and as he opened the cupboard, he noticed her rearranging the washed dishes back into their “incorrect” draining position. He looked into the cupboard, and the cups had also been rearranged. He moved them back to their correct position, took out his “morning” mug, then noticed the kettle was now in a different position, as was the water jug, and that Maryanne had emptied the water jug without refilling it. This meant he now had to refill the jug himself and wait for it to filter through before he could take a drink. But Maryanne had filled the sink with her washing up, which made it impossible for him to refill the jug, which meant he had to wait even longer before he could quench his rising thirst.

Through years of training, Jack managed to defeat his temper, for to lose your temper was not only to lose any immediate skirmish, but also to harm your own health in some small way. But as he now stood there holding the empty jug, his eyes began misting with muted rage. He watched Maryanne and wondered how it was that his years of training had been so easily overturned by simply having a few of his household procedures disrupted.

Maryanne turned to him, smiled and said, “Isn’t it a wonderful morning?”

Jack said, “Yes, it’s marvellous,” and left the kitchen.

On the following morning he moved the soap and towels back to their proper places, then again on the next morning, and the next. This same thing happened to the objects on his living room shelving. He would move them back to their proper position only to find they would seemingly move again of their own accord. He came to seriously believe a poltergeist had taken up residence in his flat.

Due to his training, his senses were focused on detecting energy—both the energy emanating from all people, and also the energy they left behind—and he could sense the presence of this poltergeist in the same way he sensed the energy of a martial arts opponent. It felt as though some force—which was separate from Maryanne—had occupied his flat, though it had obviously been brought there by her, as though it were the mind of some malicious entity that had attached itself to her. In the kitchen, when he now picked up a jar, it would fall from his hands, its lid having been left unscrewed. He would tighten it, only to find when he next picked it up, it would again drop from his hands. His laundry was now folded differently and placed on the wrong shelves; his books, left open for convenience, were now tidied away; objects, which he lay in certain places as a reminder to perform certain tasks, would disappear; and in the kitchen he would take out a knife and a few seconds later would go to use it only to find it had vanished. It was as though some supernatural force had been set upon him to erode his sanity.

He began his daily practice by holding a stance for one hour in his living room. The following morning he was standing in the Praying Mantis Takes Flight position for forty minutes while pondering the poltergeist’s antics. He imagined a jar lid slowly turning and he could sense the poltergeist nearby, as an invisible cloud of energy. He watched one of his books fold itself up and levitate back onto the bookcase, and there too was that cloud and for the first time he saw clearly its intention. Its purpose in life was simply to oppose him. He imagined the cloud moving the cups in his cupboard around, destroying his efficiency, his economy; it seemed as though it were unpicking his every thought of the past eight years. Any design he developed, to either save time or space, or to improve flavour or texture, it seemed the poltergeist had been set upon him to destroy—to, perhaps, feed upon his designs. Perhaps (he mused) that was the purpose of such a force. It fed upon human designs and sought to restore the randomness of nature. Perhaps, perhaps.

He recalled Maryanne saying, “That was nice,” and saw her smiling face.

Of course he knew it was she who moved these objects and of course he said to her, “You keep leaving the lids unscrewed.”

“Oh really? How interesting,” she said.

 “Where are my shoes? I always leave them here,” he said on another occasion, to which she said:

 “No, shoes should go here; it’s more tidy.”

And when he said: “I left that there to remind me to pay the phone bill,” she said nothing, but merely glanced at him while deep in thought; and recalling this now, he could see the meaning in her glance. It was the poltergeist that was looking back out at him through her eyes and it was saying, “Yes, I am here to resist you; my purpose in life is to un-build human endeavours, and the more focussed they are, the more they attract me,” and, silently, from within Maryanne’s eyes, the poltergeist fixed him with its combative gaze.

He recalled her face, the eyes, cheekbones and lips that had made Joe (his best friend) catch his breath, and Nick say, “If only I wasn’t married,” and Alan, nudging him, to say: “Jack, what are you waiting for?—she’s looking at you.” And he succumbed to the temptation, not the temptation of those lips and cheekbones, but the irresistible temptation of owning a possession that was so desired by his friends—for he was competitive.

He recalled lying in bed that morning. Maryanne took an interest in his body and then an increasing interest and before he knew what was happening he joined in the dance and his hips had become possessed by an unstoppable motion like the rolling of the sea waves that corrugate a beach’s naked surface, rolling and rolling and then he was pumping his energy into her. He lay there afterwards, feeling drained and tricked, as though some cunning urchin had offered him gold and as he reached to grasp it, it stole his energy instead.

“That was nice,” he distantly heard her saying.

Maryanne and the poltergeist, he knew, were separate, but he also knew he could not have one without the other, and the poltergeist’s antagonism was coming close to defeating him—for to lose one’s temper was to lose the match.

While thinking these things, he became aware of a humming noise and then, distantly, of Maryanne’s voice.

“This place is disgusting; how can you stand it?” she said, pushing his vacuum cleaner around the living room. “Can’t you move over there? I need to clean beneath you.”

She stood watching him but no response; he simply maintained his ridiculous pose. Despite herself, she raised her voice.

“I know you can hear me!”

Still no response, and there was now no doubt in her mind—he was deliberately ignoring her.

“Right! if you want to play it like that,” she said, and began meticulously cleaning the carpet around his feet, ensuring that every now and then she happened to bump the vacuum’s brush against his naked toes, which he did not respond to, causing her to notice an inexcusable amount of dirt on the carpet between his toes, which she could not help but attempt to reach with her ever more vigorous brush action, which proved to be an exhilarating workout for both her heart and her labouring arm and back muscles—what a release! push, push, push—until she was almost gasping with excitement. And just when she was beginning to enjoy herself, she looked up at his face and saw he was still pretending to have not noticed her. This was more than she could bear. She slapped his face.

Still no response.

She took a wide swing and slapped him as hard as she could and while she nursed her stinging hand she began scrutinizing his features for any response and noticed his mouth gradually forming into a smile.

No woman should be mocked in this way and though she knew she ought to be offended by his bad manners, she was so dumbstruck by his performance that she forgot to scold him. Instead she threw the brush down and walked away, telling him, “You’re weird.”

Jack had smiled because he realized the solution. He would simply stop resisting the poltergeist. He would relinquish his likes and dislikes of years and bend his will to its. If it wanted his shoes placed in a particular place, or wanted to keep the lids of jars unscrewed, so be it. He smiled. This seemed perfect—if he did not insist on a design, how could the poltergeist unpick it? And as he was smiling, he was vaguely aware of Maryanne standing before him, gently waving her arms around.

 

[End of extract]

 

 The full text of this story is included in Fletcher's collected edition of short stories, which can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format. Click here for details.

 

 

30 September 2010

 

Read my Sketchbook entry on the writing of this story.

 

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