Short story: The difficult art of bargaining, by Anthony Lapwood

“My husband bankrupted us”: a couple are forced to downsize


Are we to introduce ourselves to our new neighbours as a pair of beggars? Worse—introduce ourselves as beggars to a friend of our dear son?

It seems we are.

My husband says, “Look. A specialty butcher, right around the corner. No need to forsake a nice cut of meat.”

“A stew of shin steak,” I say to my husband, “is the best we can expect.”

My husband says, “Liv, darling,” and hunches over the steering wheel. He has a high tolerance for failure, my husband, but a rather low tolerance for criticism.

“Our pension will be stretched thin as filo just to cover the rent,” I say. “Have you forgotten we are starting over with nothing? Worse—starting over with less than nothing?”

“Liv, darling,” my husband says. “We must face the future bravely. We must do what we can to get on. We mustn’t overburden our David and his Molly.”

My husband is not incorrect.

I say to my husband, “We are a burden unto ourselves.”

I touch my headscarf, feeling the delicate silk between my fingers. Its colours had spoken to me from a dark corner of the wardrobe, where it must have lain for about ten years. It was like retrieving a forgotten memory, as in those moments before sleep when the mind coughs up its more peculiar suggestions. I discovered it the day before we departed, the day before a new, young family was due to start filling those emptied rooms and hallways with the routines and memories, wonderful and dreadful and all things in-between, of their own lives. I finger the hem of the scarf, feeling the breeze tug at it through the open window, feeling wisps of hair flit against the blade of my hand, across my temple and my ear, as we near the location of the rental apartment that we shall soon occupy.

“We have not lost everything,” my husband says, straightening his spine against the driver’s seat. “We have twelve boxes full of photo albums, chinaware, clothing, a hundred trinkets. We have our big bed. We have our memories. We have good, healthy souls.”

“How much is a soul worth?”

At the unripe age of 13, I watched my mother wither away from lung cancer, and inherited the daily care of four siblings and a heartbroken father. Then as now, the feeling was not one of spiritual solace but of cold nakedness. If there’s a supreme being in the sky, he might consider getting off his supreme backside and lending a hand. No, I don’t believe in souls. I believe in the vicissitudes of luck and, more so, I believe in human folly. My husband is a hopeful man, to a fault. He believes all manner of nonsense.

“Could you fetch for the price of your good, healthy soul, a brand-new sofa?” I ask my husband. “With large, plush cushions?”

“The sofa looked very comfortable, in the photographs.”

“We shall see. A picture can tell a thousand lies.”

We approach the driveway to the apartment building from a direction different from that which the rental agent took, when she drove us here for our first viewing, and then our second, and our third. “Third time’s the charm,” she cheerily said. “This little box?” I replied. “Hardly any charm at all.” We said yes, of course. What else could we do?

“Here we are then,” my husband says.

The parking is outdoors, at the rear of the apartment building. This rust bucket won’t survive a year, exposed to Wellington’s malicious climate. We will be forced to trade down once again, if such a reduction is possible. “It’ll cost you in the long run,” our son said of this car, and in the middle of the yard, under the sharp eye of the fat little salesman, he gave the bonnet a rattling slap. “I’m happy to keep driving you around, until you’re back on your feet.” Our son and his girlfriend, Molly, had done so much already, providing us with shelter and helping to ease our debts. “David,” my husband said, with a nod to the salesman, “thank you, but we need our independence.” My husband then gripped our son’s shoulder to convey, wordlessly so as not to be argued against, that our regaining independence would mean the same for him and Molly.

In the mirror of the sun visor I fix my headscarf, which has become loose in the wind, along with several loops of hair. I unknot the scarf, letting it drop across my shoulders, then draw my hair back and secure it again with one of Molly’s black hair-ties. The scarf ’s swirling colours against the subtle cream of my dress seems a pleasingly bold touch. I knot the scarf lightly around my throat and fluff the tips, then tuck the sun visor back into place and step out of the car.

We walk around to the front of the grounds, where my husband stops to stare up at the building—admiringly, if his smile is to be believed. The façade of the main entrance might be charming, recalling my days on the amateur stage, if it weren’t so tarnished. Two stonework pillars are topped by an arch, in the centre of which the twin masks of Tragedy and Comedy stare out with their frozen expressions. I don’t recall having either cried or laughed in months. The façade is original, so the rental agent informed us—from the early part of last century, when the building was a repertory theatre. “All the world’s a stage,” she said, and I wished a trapdoor would open up beneath her. Above the arch, the name REPERTORY APARTMENTS is painted in peeling black letters. The building proper is concrete, mean-looking. Faded blue with faded orange trim around the windows, complementing the dribbling rust stains on the downpipes. Rust has become the colour of our lives. Our rented apartment is located on the bottom floor. Our son’s friend with the sofa is on the top floor.

“We owned a quarter acre,” I say to my husband. “Now we have this.”

“Liv,” my husband says. “Darling.”

Inside the entrance, to the left, is the elevator. A pale-blue door, paint chipped, conceals a brass scissor gate that my husband, with difficulty, drags open. We enter and he closes the gate with a vicious snap, then presses the button for level four.

“Hold steady,” my husband says, then as the elevator begins to rise, in a sing-song voice, “He-e-e-re we go-o-o!”

The concrete floors, defaced by haphazard markings of pencil and permanent marker, slide by on the other side of the gate. The elevator shudders to a stop and my husband releases me into the top-floor corridor with a pat on my bottom.

“Ladies first.”

The mauve carpet has been faded by years of sunlight falling through the street-side windows and dirtied by ingrained layers of ever-gathering dust. Our son’s friend’s apartment is at the farthest end.

My husband knocks on the door with three firm raps.

A young man, perhaps in his mid-thirties, opens the door.

“Hello! David’s parents? I’m Ashton.”

“Pleased to meet you,” my husband says, squeezing the young man’s slender hand. “George—and this is my wife, Liv.”

I nod politely.

“We’ll be neighbours in a week or so,” my husband says.

“David said,” the young man says. “Welcome to the block. Come in, please, just to your right.”

“We used to live on a quarter acre,” I say. “We’ve never lived in the city before.”

“Oh, yes,” the young man says. “It’s funny the way things turn out, eh?”

“Funny?” I stand in the corridor as my husband, blocking the doorway, gazes at pictures on the hallway wall—reproductions of Dali’s flabbily draped clocks and a Monet of a lilac and grey cathedral.

“I mean,” the young man says, “life can be very unfortunate. You’ll find that the building is well located. Right on a good bus route, and easy to get into town and to the hospital, and whatnot.”

“My husband bankrupted us,” I say.

“Liv,” my husband says. “Darling.”

“It sounds like you’ve had a rough time. David mentioned you were basically robbed by the, ah, the”—the young man pokes a finger in the air—“Hot Chips? Big Chips?”

“Big Chips Investments,” my husband says, taking my hand. We shuffle down the apartment’s short hallway. My husband says, “Never again.”

The young man’s apartment is larger than ours. I suppose they must typically be more spacious, the apartments on the top floors, the penthouses, although there is no great sense of luxury about this place—it isn’t that manner of apartment building. Nevertheless, my husband and I are certainly on the bottom rung, where I suspect we shall remain without the opportunity to regain even moderate luxuries for ourselves. A living room that can accommodate a complete sofa suite, for example, or a pleasant hobby room such as that into which the young man is leading us.

In the room, a desk sits beneath a window overlooking a narrow, overgrown alleyway. Beside the desk is a bookshelf filled with notebooks, and opposite the desk is the sofa. It’s not as long or as deep or as plush as either of the sofas we were forced to sell for next to nothing. No doubt our new living room would accommodate it—but not generously. We would have to rethink the option of ottomans.

“Bloody tragic,” the young man says. “I read that the scheme—really dirty—that it hurt a lot of people. Young folk, and people like yourselves.”

“David has been extremely kind to us,” I say. “Subsequent to the investment souring.”

The sofa’s deep chocolate fabric has faded to a burnt caramel along one half of the seatback’s top and down the adjoining arm.

“We are humbled,” my husband says, “to have a son like David.”

“He’s a great guy,” the young man says. “You did a fine job.”

“Thank you very much,” I say. “I think David appreciates everything we’ve done for him.”

“David mentioned you’ve moved in with your partner?” my husband says.

“Yeah. He’s at work at the moment.”

“Pity we can’t meet him,” I say, immediately concerned that I have placed too much emphasis on the pronoun. My husband looks at me in a critical manner that I feel he has not earned. I fear the silence is growing heavy and that it may be misinterpreted by this young man, this friend of our son.

“What does he do, your partner?” I ask. “And yourself, what do you do?”

“I work part-time at the Carter Observatory, in the Botanic Garden. Dylan teaches history at one of the local high schools, and moonlights as a writer. This humble abode suits us for now, while we’re saving.”

“Plans?” I ask.

“Sort of a private venture. Don’t worry, we’re not looking for investors!” The young man laughs as if he has made a good joke. He stops, noticing that my husband and I have not joined him.

My husband’s face is attentive regardless.

“A writer,” my husband cries, forever easily impressed. “Does he write about historical subjects as well as teach them?”

“He used to be pretty interested in historical non-fiction,” the young man says. “Now he tends to write about more immediate times and topics. The ordinary stuff that history boils away, as he reckons. If only walls could talk, especially in a place like this, eh? Don’t worry, it’s mostly fiction.” The young man pauses and drops his head slightly, encouraging us, I suppose, to believe that our privacy is not under threat. “At any rate . . . moving in together, we found ourselves with a few extra bits and pieces. There’s the sofa, of course. But also kitchen appliances, cutlery and whatnot, if you have any need—”

“We are all set for cutlery.” I find myself wiping my hands down my dress, smoothing out creases that are not there. I reach for my headscarf and touch only hair, forgetting the scarf has been relocated lower down. No doubt a rather nosy person, this writer, whatever reassurances the young man offers. Thankfully, I should think that my husband and I present little of interest as subject matter. And to presume that we wouldn’t possess our own cutlery! I search for the soft silk at my throat, and my fingertips meet nothing but the stiff collar of my dress, the flesh of my neck. I glance down, then around the room. The headscarf is nowhere to be seen. It has become lost—through my own damned carelessness. Where, where? Somewhere along the dusty corridor, in the grimy elevator, the crowded car park? The splash of colour in the sun-visor mirror is all I recall.

“Well, go on. Try it out,” the young man says, indicating the sofa.

I say to my husband—silently, with my eyes—you do it, you slump your body down onto that lumpy wreck. My husband comprehends the signal but is hesitant.

“Take a seat,” the young man urges. “It’s in good nick. Nice and firm, hasn’t lost its spring.”

My husband reaches towards the faded sofa arm. His fingertips make contact first, then he presses his palm into the padding. He leans into it, bearing his weight down through his spread-fingered hand.

“Five years old, David said you said?” I say, my fingers still feeling at my throat for the silk.

“Practically brand new,” the young man says.

My husband turns and lowers his backside, taking cautious aim, as if there is some chance he might miss the large and immobile target. Halfway down, he drops like a shot bull. The sofa bears him well, it should be said. My husband begins to bounce up and down, a grin spreading over his face. A cruel thought enters my mind—my husband has always been too willing to make a fool of himself.

“Oh,” he says. “It is rather comfortable.”

My husband has difficulty getting back up he is so comfortable. The young man offers a hand but struggles to assist him. It seems that the young man will tumble down on top of my husband, but with a final heave the situation is avoided. Their faces are flushed when they stand shoulder to shoulder again.

“Yours for only 50 bucks,” the young man says.

I notice a dark stain on the seat cushion where my husband had seconds ago been resting his hand as he bounced like a big child. I choke on my breath, loudly like a hiccup.

“Fifty’s a bargain,” the young man reiterates.

I look to my husband, hoping to signal futility—to signal that all used sofas are bound to be faded and filthy. In a word, unsavoury. I want to make it clear to my husband, that sucker for a bad deal, that of all the things that must be purchased over again, he will have to purchase a sofa new.

“We’ll have a think,” I say.

“Tell you what,” the young man says. “I won’t consider any other offers for a couple of days. If you decide you do want it, I can help shift it downstairs—if Dylan or David are around to provide some extra muscle. Maybe on the weekend?”

My husband holds the elevator door open and I quickly exit into the corridor.

“A writer in our midst,” my husband says, stepping alongside me.

“Minding his own business, one hopes.”

“Best watch what you say, Liv, darling,” my husband says and, curse the man, he gives a little chortle. “The walls have ears.”

A sudden series of quick, clomping footsteps outside heralds the arrival of a small boy, who flies in through the ground-floor entry, dashing past us and along the corridor, trailing a bright streak behind him.

“My scarf!”

My husband looks towards the boy, aged perhaps four or five.

“I’ll hold him down while you nab the goods,” he says, nudging me with his elbow.

“’Scuse me, sorry.” A woman stumbles past us, clutching several bags of groceries. She stops outside the apartment beside the one that will soon be ours and deposits her rustling bags on the ground. Their apartment must be no larger than our own—hardly big enough for a growing boy. Certainly a far cry from the family home that our David enjoyed as a child. Is there a park nearby, where the boy might burn off this overwhelming energy?

“Samuel—oi!” the woman calls out. “Samuel, where did you find that?” The boy stops running and trudges over to the woman. “Pass it here, please.” After a moment of consideration the boy holds out the scarf and she plucks it from his grasp.

“Mum,” the boy says, “it’s my rainbow!”

“Sorry, is this yours?” the woman asks, turning to face us.

“It is,” I say. “Thank you.”

“Mum! My rainbow!” the boy says.

The woman walks towards us. Closer now, in the cold light of the corridor, the headscarf appears somehow different, somehow changed. Was there always that twist of charcoal amongst the livelier colours?

“We’ll be neighbours in a week or so,” my husband says. “Right next door, that’ll be us.” He offers his hand and the woman shakes it. “I’m George,” my husband says. “This is my wife, Liv.”

“Sally,” says the woman.

“Mum!” says the boy.

“Sam,” the woman says, “come and say hello to the new people moving in.”

The boy joins his mother. He looks up at us and mutters a small hello, then tugs at the scarf dangling from his mother’s grip.

“No, Sam. This belongs to Liv. Give it back to Liv, please.”

The boy raises his hands and she drapes the scarf across his palms. His young fingers close around the flowing silk, and the colours, even the charcoal, seem to shimmer. The boy turns to me, the scarf raised, bright fabric spilling through his fingers.

What is it to let one more thing go?

I say to the boy, “Hold on to it, if you like, Sam. If you keep this rainbow safe, it will bring you and your mother good luck.”

“Mum,” the boy says. “Good luck!”

The woman raises her eyebrows at me, and I nod.

“What do you say? Sam, what do you say to Liv?”

“Thank you,” the boy says, then takes off down the corridor, the scarf twirling through the air.

My husband offers to help the woman with her groceries, and after the job is completed she promises to invite us around for dinner. “In a fortnight or so?”

“In a fortnight or so,” my husband confirms.

In the car park, as my husband reverses the rust bucket, bringing its rear bumper terribly close to a skip that has been squeezed up against the climbers and the sagging bushes, I say, “We could cover it with a throw.”

“Hm?” my husband says.

“The sofa. You must have noticed the fading on the seatback and arm, that blotch on the seat cushion. We could cover it with a throw. Perhaps the gold and purple one—with the embroidered elephants.”

“Or we could purchase a new throw,” my husband says. “No need to forsake every last nice thing in the world. The sofa is, after all, a smidge below budget.”

“A new throw?”

“Yes, Liv, darling.” Then, twisting his hands back and forth around the steering wheel, his foot gently pumping the accelerator, the rust bucket’s engine squealing as we sit stationary in the apartment car park, my husband grins and says, “Vroom, vroom!”

“The Difficult Art of Bargaining” is taken from an excellent new colllection of short stories Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood ( Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30), available in bookstores nationwide.

Next week’s short story is about house hunting, by James Pasley.

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