Morris Goldberg is a man who can’t cry. Semi-retired from his career as a metadata analyst, he lives alone and conducts imaginary conversations with his recently-deceased wife, Sadie. Then news arrives that his daughter Rachel is missing in the bush, with bad weather on the way. While Morris waits for news, memory and dream start to merge. Key scenes from his childhood and marriage play out in his imagination and the urgent questions of a lifetime press forward. What happens in moments of crisis? Are people capable of change? How can one express their true feelings? How does society survive the endless dance of estrangement and intimacy? The Intentions Book is a tender and funny novel about love, communication, and the ways families shape people.
|Publisher:||Victoria University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Gigi Fenster worked as a law lecturer and construction lawyer in South Africa before moving to New Zealand. Her short stories have been published in various literary journals in New Zealand and abroad, and her writing has been translated into Telugu and published in an Indian daily newspaper.
Read an Excerpt
The Intentions Book
By Gigi Fenster
Victoria University PressCopyright © 2012 Gigi Fenster
All rights reserved.
What's the definition of a schmuck, I mean a schlemiel. No, no, a schmuck. What's the definition?
Of which one? A schmuck or a schlemiel?
Schmuck. Schlemiel. Doesn't matter. What's the definition?
But I don't know what I'm defining.
Come on. This is a joke. Not a Yiddish test. All you have to say is, 'I don't know, what?'
Damn. Now I have to start at the beginning. I'll choose one if it makes you happy. What's the definition of a schmuck?
I don't know. What?
When he leaves a room you think someone's arrived and when he enters you think someone's left ... You can smile, you know. I told you it's a joke.
And what, Morris wonders if the schmuck lives alone? Does he drag all the air out of the house as he moves from room to room? A man in a vacuum.
He shakes his head slightly. This is no time for forgotten conversations. There is something he needs to do. He must email his client at the Securities Commission. He must warn him that tomorrow's deadline might be missed. Something has happened.
He will email his client. Then he will put on his jacket and collect his keys. Then he will drive to David's, where he will await further instructions.
Morris sits in front of his computer, composing the email in his head. The opening is simple enough: Dear James, thank you for the data sent yesterday. I now have all the information I need.
But from there things get difficult.
Morris is aware that postponing a deadline, like calling in sick, is probably not something you do by email. You're probably supposed to front up and use the phone so the other person can say how sorry they are and ask if there's anything they can do. Then you thank them for the offer and say that the police are working with Search and Rescue, they're doing all they can, thus freeing the other person to put the phone down and tell everyone in the office that Morris's daughter has gone missing on a tramping trip. And the new guy can ask, 'Who's Morris? Do I know Morris?' and someone else can say, 'He's that consultant who does the computer stuff. He works from home.'
'You mean that old tall man who always wears a tie?'
'Yeah, yeah, the tall kind of bulky guy with glasses.'
'I thought he was an accountant. How embarrassing.'
'Don't worry, you're not the first. It's 'cause we don't imagine such an old guy doing computer stuff.'
'And he looks like an accountant.'
Then they'll turn to talking about people who go missing on tramping trips. Someone will ask where the daughter was and, on hearing she was in the Tararuas, will give a whistle full of exaggerated worry. Of course they'll discuss the man who died in the Tararuas a few months ago. It was all over the news, the body being airlifted out, the man's father thanking the searchers in faltering, accented English.
Some people in the office will think, What if the computer guy's daughter has died? Who will work on the insider trading matter then? It's hard to find computer forensics people at short notice.
Morris writes an email: Due to a family matter the report may be delayed.
He does not specify how long a delay.
There's a moment, just before Morris instructs his computer to shut down, when he feels something like panic. The computer doesn't like being shut down. It delays its death with questions about saving or not saving and is he absolutely sure he wants to shut it down? Has he thought about the email that will slip in seconds after the screen has gone blank?
Normally he would leave it on, allowing it to put itself to sleep and then to sit dozing on his desk, hibernating.
But not today.
Today he must rush through the answers. He must shut down the computer and go to his bedroom and —
Morris stands at his bedroom door and wonders what he's doing there. He gazes at the neatly made bed, the laptop on the bedside table, the dumb valet holding his jacket. He's looking for clues.
Stupid idiot, he thinks, you stupid, stupid idiot.
Sadie would have been impatient with this self-reproach. She always was.
Give yourself a break. Everyone has the experience of walking into a room and wondering what they're doing there. You're distracted. You're worrying about Rachel.
Which is why I need to be less distracted, not more. Anyway, most people don't walk into a room and then forget what they're doing there.
Everyone does it. Young, old, everyone. Just last week you heard a funny story about someone doing it. At David's party.
Morris had not wanted to go to his son's party. He'd tried pleading work, a previous engagement, even (this he was slightly ashamed of) grief over Sadie's death. But David had been short with his excuses, the grief one most of all.
'C'mon Dad, it's been over a year and, let's face it, it's not like you were ... it's not like you were ... Please come.' And then as a final sweetener: 'Rachel is coming. You two can look after each other.'
And so he'd agreed to go. To keep his daughter company and to keep his son happy, though he couldn't imagine why David wanted him there. Perhaps David didn't desire his father's presence so much as feel discomfort at the thought of his absence.
Rachel arrived at the party late — too late to spend much time with Morris — but he had, despite her late arrival, enjoyed himself. David's wife Debbie was a good cook, and David a thoughtful host. He moved amongst his guests, one hand offering canapés, the other steering someone towards someone else who had just that second found himself alone. A benign conductor who noticed every empty drink, every awkward silence. Who had only to wave his baton to make it right.
'Dad, come here.' David led Morris towards a small group among whom a bald man was holding court. 'You must hear the funny story Simon is telling.'
The bald man paused in his story, and five faces turned to stare at Morris.
'I'm sorry to interrupt. I ...'
'Welcome, dear sir.'
'Thanks, I'll ...'
'Come. Join our little soirée. You'll soon get the gist of what is, I assure you, a most amusing story.'
Did he always talk like an English actor? Or was he putting on an accent for added entertainment?
'Now, where was I?' said Simon, 'Ah, yes. I march into the spare room, all purpose and direction.' He stood up to demonstrate, arms swinging, grin widening. 'I turn on the light.' His hand shot out and mimed switching on a light switch, then he paused, his hand hanging in the air, paralysed.
Someone in the group let out a small sigh of pleasure.
'I look around the room.'
Another little mime followed, of Simon smacking his bald head and blinking — a fool who has suddenly found himself questioning his place in the world.
'There's a pile of clothes on the spare bed. Was I supposed to collect them? For washing maybe? I contemplate the clothes. Contemplate and cogitate and, and ... I don't know what the hell I'm doing there.'
Forget about the accent. Focus on the words.
'If I'd had a long pole I would have poked it at the clothes. But, being pole-less, so to speak ...'
A woman giggled loudly. Simon wagged his finger at her. 'You dirty-minded wench, you.'
The woman giggled louder and raised her glass to him.
'As I was saying,' said Simon, 'before being so charmingly interrupted, there was nothing for it but to turn the light off, back out of the room and close the door. Now I'm standing in the passage. I'm too embarrassed to go into the kitchen and risk being caught by my long-suffering wife who will no doubt ask me whether I've done whatever it was I was supposed to do.' He gestured towards a woman in a red dress. She looked indulgent rather than long-suffering. Like she was enjoying the story. She probably enjoyed all of his stories.
He's revelling in his own folly, Morris thought, exaggerating it, playing it up. He has turned his mistake into a party trick.
Sadie used to do that. She'd come home, off-load the parcels (were there always so many parcels?), turn to whoever happened to be closest and say something like, 'You'll never believe what a silly thing I did today.'
If she'd done something really embarrassing, she'd repeat it over and over, and with each telling it became more exaggerated, more ridiculous and, if audience reactions were to be trusted, funnier.
There was, for example, the toilet paper incident. Sadie must have told that story a hundred times. Every time she'd laughed till tears rolled down her face. The listeners laughed too — at the image of Sadie walking through a fancy hotel, trailing toilet paper out of her handbag. Was that all there was to it? Sadie, in a fancy hotel, trailing toilet paper? There must have been more. Everyone had laughed so hard. Could she have been stealing the toilet paper? Surely not.
Morris remembered to smile at Simon, but what he really wanted was to move away from the group, draw David or Rachel into a corner and ask why their mother had been trailing toilet paper around a fancy hotel. What was she doing there and why was it all so very funny? But David was busy and Rachel hadn't arrived yet. Morris forced his attention back to Simon and his story.
'Well, you can imagine what a bloody ass I felt, standing in the dark in the passage. My wife —' another gesture towards the woman in the red dress —' at one end of the corridor. A pile of dirty clothes in the spare room, and me, stuck in the middle, pole-less and cogitating.
'What to do? What to do? I could stand there all day, but that would be too much — even for a man such as me. And my lovely wife would catch me sooner or later.'
Simon's wife, right on cue, gave a mock little curtsey.
'And then it hits me. Simple.' Simon smacked his forehead, rather hard, Morris thought. Everyone laughed. 'All I need to do is to retrace my steps, go back to where I've come from and I'll remember. So I do. I walk back to the kitchen door, stand just outside it, and ... and ...' 'You remembered,' someone called out, giving Simon's wife her cue.
'No he didn't. I came out of the kitchen and asked him whether he'd woken my father yet.'
'It wasn't a pile of dirty old clothes.' Simon's voice boomed over the laughter. 'It was my father-in-law.'
Morris tried to laugh. Everyone else was.
'The moral of the story,' said Simon, 'is that retracing your steps really does work. Well, that and having a very clever wife.' He winked across at her.
'Clever, lovely and long-suffering,' she said, and winked back.
Everyone was smiling and laughing, and Morris was wondering why Simon didn't knock before entering the room. Isn't that what you do? Especially if you've got your father-in-law staying.
Simon should have knocked. That would have been the right thing to do.CHAPTER 2
Morris looks into his bedroom, half-expecting the bed to contain a pile of clothes or an old man sleeping. But if there ever was an old man, or even the ghost of an old man, he's been chased away by the schmuck who now stands steadying himself on the doorframe and wondering what he's doing there.
Smack your forehead. Retrace your steps.
He's halfway down the passage before he remembers: his jacket and car keys.
It's cold in the car. Morris turns the heater on, the radio louder. It's almost time for the news and, after that, the weather.
Sadie used to get irritated by his interest in the weather. 'It doesn't matter what the weather is,' she'd say, 'we'll get on with things.' Or, if she was talking to the children, 'Never mind the weather, as long as we're together.'
But this time she would understand. If Sadie were here, she too would be leaning towards the car's single speaker. She too would be squinting up at the clouds, trying to work out whether they were getting heavier or lighter.
The news starts with a report about the opening of the Arctic Sea Route. The European Space Agency has formally announced that the shortest route between Europe and Asia is, for the first time since records began, fully clear of ice, and navigable.
The newsreader's voice is deep, composed. Morris is grateful for his measured pace as he advises of the political battles which the new route may create. Measured is the correct pace for such news.
Excitement is not correct, but excitement is what Morris had felt that morning at breakfast when he'd read in the newspaper about the opening of the route. He'd known, as soon as he felt it, that he shouldn't allow himself even the slightest thrill at the thought of the earth's layers stripping away, ice floe by ice floe. Global warming was not something to be thrilled about. But still — all that stripping away! It made him think of ancient artefacts coming to the surface, of new worlds opening up. Tall men wearing heavy coats and fur-covered boots were captaining ships, forging forwards. They grew their beards long to keep out the cold.
At breakfast he'd tried to imagine the melting of the Arctic ice. He'd told himself what to picture: a white expanse, nothing but white, and then, through the middle of it, shaped like a series of lightning bolts, grey cracks which widened and grew, fracturing the ice on either side.
You need to close your eyes to imagine it, he'd told himself. There's no one here to see you. Just close them and try to picture it. First there's nothing ...
Had it been a black nothing, it would have been as simple as closing his eyes and seeing what he saw. But to imagine white — that was too hard. Maybe Sadie could have done that.
He'd run his hands over the toast crumbs on the table, embarrassed himself with the thought that he was like a blind man reading Braille, and opened his eyes to wipe the crumbs into his cupped hand.
Perhaps his mistake had been in trying first to imagine nothing. Ice isn't nothing. There's never really nothing. He knows that.
As a boy Morris had a Bible Studies teacher with a huge black beard and deep booming voice.
'Before the creation, what was there?'
Hands flew up. 'Nothing.' 'Nothing.' 'Nothing.'
The black beard shook from side to side. 'Now I will teach you something. There wasn't nothing. There was something worse.'
He paused. The room was silent.
'I'll tell you what there was — there was chaos.'
Chaos. Morris felt the word catch in the back of his mouth.
'Chaos,' boomed the black beard. 'Chaos and disorder. A muddle of wild and waste.'
Some teachers would have joked about things being as chaotic as the playground at lunch time. One teacher would have made jokes about Morris's handwriting. 'Quite a chaotic jumble of letters we have here. Or am I the confused one and is this actually a drawing? Yes, yes, I see it now. This isn't handwriting. It's a picture of an aeroplane. I'm right, aren't I? An aeroplane flying upside down with its wing on fire.'
Black Beard did not make jokes. He knew that muddle was not to be taken lightly.
He made them close their eyes to try to imagine. 'Screw them up tightly. We're not having an afternoon nap. We're trying to imagine something horrible. Tighter. Tighter. So tightly you can hear it in your ears.'
Morris screwed his eyes tighter. He listened to his ears.
'When you first close your eyes, you think you're seeing only darkness.' Black Beard lowered his voice. 'But look closer. There are imperfections in the dark. There's wildness and disorder. See those creases and particles in front of your eyes?'
Morris pressed his hands over his eyes, and the darkness started creasing.
'Imagine that each one of those imperfections is huge, gigantic. Monstrous and constantly changing. The imperfections bump into each other, splinter, re-form. Now focus on one of those monstrous heaps of matter. One minute it looks like liquid, and the next it's a thin strand wrapped around blackness which is moving and changing, and now it's a hard sharp light changed into wet cotton wool which is pulling apart into a blur of chaos and movement and grating energy going nowhere. There's nothing for your mind to hold on to. You don't know up from down.'
You don't know up from down. There's nothing for your mind to hold on to.
Morris pulled his hands away from his eyes. He was gazing into his lap when Black Beard said, 'Before you open your eyes, I want you to remind yourselves that you have not even begun to imagine the horror of the chaos that was before the creation.'
The room was quite silent.
'That,' said the teacher, 'is the real miracle of creation. God gave us something to hold on to. He brought order. Form and matter. Direction to our energy.'
Order, thought Morris. Direction to our energy.
Excerpted from The Intentions Book by Gigi Fenster. Copyright © 2012 Gigi Fenster. Excerpted by permission of Victoria University Press.
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