Friday, October 25, 2013

Review of 'Night Moves'

LFF: Night Moves

The futility of political activism - Kelly Reichardt delivers a compelling movie about a difficult subject, a group of eco-activists who commit an extreme act for a noble cause
Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt’s fifth feature, is as formally audacious and visually compelling as any of her previous offerings, with the bonus of being a white-knuckle ride. The subject she mines here is that of the shady underworld of eco-activism, and true to her cool yet utterly engaged eye, Reichardt seeks no easy answers.
The film’s backstory is given to us in laconic dialogue with the economy and elegance that has become the trademark of the scripts she creates with Jon Raymond. She tantalisingly drip-feeds us information, and every scrap is crucial to the development of story and character. In this case, the characters being three disparate and clashing eco-activists who display more mistrust than affection for each other, but who are linked by a commitment to blow up a hydroelectric dam they believe is destroying the marine ecosystem in Oregon.
Josh (played by a wonderfully nervy Jesse Eisenberg) is the central activist. He dryly notes at the start of the film that the dam is “killing all these salmon so we can run our fucking ipods every second of our lives”. This is the closest we get to his motives and it is all we need. An alienated loner, Josh works on an organic communal farm. He is not likeable, but totally compelling and somewhat reminiscent of Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï – both of them cool, detached anti-heroes with no past, only an eternal present. In an early scene we see Josh, walking alone in the woods, picking up a fallen bird’s nest and placing it delicately onto a branch. He is sensitive to nature but recognises the futility of his struggle – it’ll take more than saving a bird’s nest to fix the planet’s ills.
Josh’s accomplice, Dena (Dakota Fanning) is a slyly naïve middle-class college dropout who funds their actions by forking out ten grand for a boat and more again for the fertiliser needed to turn it into a floating bomb. The trio is rounded off with Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a sardonic ex-marine who lives in hiding deep in the woods. He has spent time in jail and his insouciance hints that his part in the eco-activist cause stems more from a desire to live outside the law than from a deep love of nature. In one exchange with Dena he extols the virtues of fishing. She is clearly not interested in killing animals for sport and he tells her she should “try it before all the fish are gone”. There is a streak of nihilism to his position, which stealthily infects the rest of the film.
The first half of Night Moves is pure procedure. We are shown in obsessive detail the procuring of ingredients, the creation of a viable explosive and the rigorous but flawed planning. There is minimal talking, minimal action and huge amounts of tension. As the film builds to its inevitable climax, I couldn’t help wonder how Reichardt with her limited budget would film it. How would these characters blow up a dam? Reichardt constructs the build-up to this scene perfectly by using sound as much as image. On the way to their act of terror, Josh, Dena and Harmon float wordlessly through an apocalyptic Robert Adams landscape of dead, sunken trees to the sound of Jeff Grace’s haunting, hypnotic score. The moment in which the three activists realise they have done what they set out to do is expressed in their faces not in the action. It is a stunning piece of film-making.
The second half of the film shifts from procedural to psychological as we witness the repercussions of the trio’s destructive act. For me this shift was problematic. Up until the midway point, Josh, Dena and Harmon are mysterious, existential beings, but as their act of violence forces them to face their guilt, Reichardt asks us to read them in more conventional terms. I didn’t believe the extremes to which Josh is pushed in the second half, nor did I feel they were necessary.
Reichardt redeems this minor weakness however by providing an ending that is as odd as it is surprising. Josh escapes to California where he wanders into an outdoor store piled high with every imaginable tent, sleeping bag and camping stove. He is looking for a job and is given an application to fill out, but his hand hovers over the boxes in which he is expected to fill in his personal details. His personal details have escaped him along with his identity. The atmosphere of the store, despite its pretence as a place where one can prepare for the wilderness, is one of soulless consumption. The dream of escape becomes just another pleasant shopping experience.
Night Moves is a dark film. All the action takes place in low light, which echoes the murkiness of the characters’ morals and actions, and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt conveys this grainy undercover world with a gorgeous, noir-like elegance. Just as Meek’s Cutoff is an anti-Western and Old Joy upends the idea of the ‘buddy movie’, so Night Moves plays with the thriller genre. At its heart is the question of terrorism as an essential, angry and raw act. To what lengths should you go to make your point? And at what point does political action become theatre? Reichardt does not attempt to answer these questions; she allows them to inform her characters and their decisions. The farmer for which Josh works has his own answer: “Look out the window,” he says, “It’s a lot slower but it works”. You can blow up dams or you can grow organic vegetables. Neither position feels very much like a solution. If I were to sum up the one overriding feeling I am left with after watching Night Moves, it is of sheer futility.
With intense performances as tightly coiled as the story, this film continues to unravel inside you long after the house lights have come up. It is beautiful in its precision and detail and disturbing in its ideas. Kelly Reichardt is an artist in total control of her medium and has delivered a piece of work that is not afraid to ask the big questions and equally unafraid to leave the answers hanging.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Don't Breathe a Word

Graham was not the kind of kid who lied. Today though he’d worked out the birth date that would make him eighteen, and kept the number crouching there on the tip of his tongue just waiting to pounce. He walked up the three steps to the white clapboard house he passed on the way to school every day, and took a deep breath. “Nineteen fifty-three,” he whispered, and then repeated it. He knocked on the screen door trying not to think about his lack of muscles and non-existent peach fuzz.

No answer. So he kicked the door until it rattled. Graham could feel the piece of paper he had been working on all weekend softening in his hot hand. He peered up close to one of the panes of glass, painted black from the inside, and got a shadowy reflection of himself. Graham kicked again. He heard the inner door being unlocked and then the man appeared. He was tall and stooped. He held a cigarette tightly between his thumb and forefinger. With the screen door closed Graham eyed him through the mesh. He could just about see inside and wished he had clothes more suited to the place. Maybe something with a Stones logo on it. His Montreal Canadiens T-shirt embarrassed him.

“We’re not open yet,” said the man letting loose a long, chesty cough.

Graham stared at the grey beard growing in one straight line from just below his bottom lip.

“But can I book an appointment anyway?”

“For who? Your older brother?”

“No I don’t have an older brother.” As he said those words, Cynthia’s face came to him and he pushed it away as quickly as it had appeared. “It’s for me.”

The man laughed, “I’m sorry young man but you have to be eighteen to come here.”

He was just about to turn away when Graham flung open the screen door and pushed past him. He’d forgotten his rehearsals where he’d made up stories of growing disorders and hormonal imbalances, and worst of all he’d forgotten his made-up birth date. All of his practicing was useless once the man started shouting.

“Hey kid, get outta here!” he hollered, but Graham was already pulling the money out of his pockets and throwing the stolen bills onto the black leather sofa in the middle of the room.

“Please. Please. You don’t understand. I need to....” Tears crept up his throat, and as he swallowed them back down, the man picked up each note one by one – four fifties – and counted them.

“Two hundred dollars.” He pulled on his stringy beard and looked hard at Graham. “So what’s this all about? Where did you get this?”

Graham calmed himself, and the next bit came out with a naturalness that surprised him. “For the last four years, that is, ever since I was ten,” he said adding two years for good measure, “I’ve been mowing lawns in the neighbourhood. It all adds up,” Graham said using one of his dad’s expressions.

The man sat down on the sofa and asked Graham what he had in his hand. Graham held out the piece of paper.

“I see. Your girlfriend’s name is it?”

“Not exactly.”

Graham was hoping not to have to explain anything. Once he started talking he couldn’t stop. Like the time the principal, Mr Conklin, called him into his office to say how sorry he was and Graham ended up describing the accident and how he and Cynthia had swapped places and if they hadn’t she’d be the one still alive not him. He clenched his fists until his nails dug into his palms, and watched the man slowly re-light his roll-up while squinting at the piece of paper.

“OK, so where do you want it?” The man dragged hard on his cigarette to keep it burning.

Graham felt his palms relax. He lifted up his T-shirt and twisting from his waist pointed to a spot high up on his back. “There.”

The man stayed seated, and reaching up, let his fingers run along the dip between Graham’s shoulder blades. Graham couldn’t believe that the hands touching him were those belonging to the name he saw from the school bus every morning and afternoon:

Randall’s Body Art

Ontario’s oldest Custom Tattoo Parlour

Adults only

“How big?”

“Bigger than I’ve done it. I want it huge. I want it so that no one will forget it if they see it.”

“Gosh you must really like her.”

“Yeah, sort of.”

“In black ink?”


“Right my boy. Lie down on your stomach.”

Graham watched him pocket the money.

Randall then rummaged around out of sight, and came back with a needle attached to a long tube of red rubber, some cotton wool and bottles of transparent liquid, like the ones Cynthia had on her dressing table. He lined everything up on a stool next to Graham but before getting started he squatted, bringing his face level with Graham’s. The man’s grey watery eyes were those of old dog.

“Now you listen to me young man, we have a deal OK? I do your tattoo, and you keep your mouth shut. Right?”

Graham nodded.

“If anyone finds out, I’ll lose my license and get into loads of shit. And I don’t need more shit. You got it?”

Graham nodded again.

“I want to hear you say it. Tell me you won’t breathe a word. You won’t breathe a word – to anyone.”

Graham repeated, “I promise I won’t breathe a word.”

“And what if your mum sees it while you’re at the doctor’s or something. What will you say then?”

“She’s dead.”

“You’d say that?”

“No, I mean you don’t need to worry about that. She’s dead.”

“And your dad?”

“He’s still alive.”

“No I mean what if your dad sees you. I dunno swimming or something. What will you say?”

“Nothing.” Then Graham lied again, “he wouldn’t mind anyway, he’s got loads of tattoos.”

“I hope you’re telling the truth,” Randall said.

Graham didn’t reply in case he broke the spell and Randall changed his mind. He kept still and let him get on with swabbing his back. The cool liquid smelled like rubbing alcohol. Then Randall began tracing the letters with something like a ballpoint pen. Graham tried to imagine how the letters would look from the feeling of the pen’s nib against his skin. While Randall concentrated, Graham rolled his eyes upwards to look at the photos tacked to the walls. He had seen similar pictures in the magazines his dad kept under the bed. Some of the pictures were signed. A woman in a bright red bikini lying across a big black bike caught his eye. Graham could just make out the handwriting: ‘To Randi, Thanks a million, Luv Cindi.’ A tattooed snake coiled up her right leg. He thought it was some sort of sign that she almost had his sister’s name.

“Now, I don’t want you to look. Keep that head down.” Randall cleared his throat as he spoke and pushed down hard on the back of Graham’s head.

Graham heard him get up, and then a click. He lifted his head just enough to see Randall plug the long rubber tube into a socket. Then Graham felt the hand again. “I said don’t look. Believe me it’s easier for us both.”

Graham obediently hid his face in his forearms.

Randall turned the machine on, and over the whirring said, “this’ll hurt a bit. I want you to focus on the noise, not the feeling. You’ll see it’s a bit like a pinprick.”

As the man spoke Graham noticed a soft breeze on his skin. Then suddenly he felt it. It was worse than he expected. It wasn’t like a pinprick at all. It was more like the carpet burns he used to get on his knees and elbows when he and Cynthia wrestled.

Thinking of her helped him put up with the pain. Out of sheer stubbornness he wouldn’t allow himself to cry. He stayed as still as he could for as long as possible and let Randall go to work on his back. Once he felt the machine reach the middle point between his shoulder blades, he adjusted his head and noticed the tingling in his left arm. It had fallen asleep but he didn’t dare move in case Randall got angry or lost his concentration and then Graham would be stuck with ‘CYN’ or ‘CYNT’ on his back. He wondered if that ever happened. If there were people wandering around with unfinished words on their bodies.

During what seemed a very, very long time, Graham drifted off into thinking about Cynthia and about what he’d be doing right now if they were at home. Probably eating cookies. Their mum used to say that they would all turn into buckets of lard if she didn’t stop with the chocolate chip cookies. But Graham and his father never complained. When the pain deepened, Graham experimented with breathing at different speeds. When that didn’t help, he focused on the close-up leather of the sofa, trying to make out patterns. Just as he thought he could see the shape of a rocket, or maybe the Empire State building, Randall stood up.

He turned the machine off and Graham heard him say with a sigh, “there.”

Graham began to roll over and the man shouted, “stay where you are. Don’t move!” Graham froze, and then Randall said, “no need for alarm. I just want to tell you a few things before you do anything. Just stay on your front and we’ll let that scab do its thing for a while.” He left the room for a few minutes and returned with some pieces of paper. “You can read can’t you?” he asked.

Graham nodded.

“Good I want you to stay still for a bit and read these.”

He handed Graham some muddy photocopies. The top copy had a large title in bold letters ‘Keeping your tattoo clean’. Another one was headed ‘Keeping your tattoo bright’. The last one was called ‘What happens if you change your mind — removing your tattoo’. Graham scanned them all, not really taking them in.

“Right, I guess you’ll want to see it then,” Randall said as if reading Graham’s mind.

“Yeah.” Graham wanted to sound cool but the excitement was too much, and his voice cracked and went up an octave.

The man picked up a mirror and held it up facing a full-length mirror propped against the wall. “C’mon over then.”

Graham swung himself off the couch, his head reeling slightly. He stood between the two mirrors. The word was bigger and blacker than he had imagined, and the bubbles of drying blood only made it more impressive. Where Graham had drawn almost fearful squiggles onto his piece of paper, Randall had drawn impressive flourishes as if he’d plucked each letter from an alphabet designed for an April Wine album cover. The tail of the ‘y’ coiled back around the ‘C’ and the cross of the ‘t’ snaked around the dot of the ‘i’. He had taken Graham’s marks and made them into something beautiful, amazing, frightening. Graham would call it a work of art and Randall a master. Despite his amazement all he was able to force out of his mouth was, “wow”.

“Happy customer?”

“Yeah.” Graham wanted to stand and gaze at his back forever, but Randall put the mirror down.

“C’mon, it’s getting late, I’ve got people coming ‘round.” He handed Graham his T-shirt and then tossed him a bandage wrapped in cellophane. “And if it starts to act up put this over it. It’s medicated.”

Graham folded it and stuffed it into the back pocket of his Jeans. “Thanks,” he said, still transfixed by the image he had just seen.

“And come back and tell me what she thinks of it. This Cynthia of yours.”

“Yeah, OK.”

“Maybe she’ll come and get your name put on her back.”

“Yeah, Maybe.”

Graham winced as the cotton of his T-shirt brushed his tattoo. The man caught Graham’s expression and added, “and don’t sleep on your back for a few nights. It’ll be fine after that. You’ll never even know it’s there.”

Graham didn’t want to hear that. He wanted to feel it all the time, from the moment he woke up to the moment he curled up in bed. And when the pain of this one went, he would get another. He walked down the steps into the sunshine and jumped onto his bicycle. As he pedalled, his loose T-shirt flapped like the sail of a boat, brushing against his tender back. The faster he pedalled the faster the blood pumped around his body, and the more the black ink mingled with his blood, seeping into him, into a place so deep inside him. A place he had yet to name.

This story was long-listed in the 2012 Mslexia short story competition:

Also published in Riptide, 2011:

And joint first place winner in the 2010 Segora short story award:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review of 'We Are the Best!'

LFF: We Are the Best!

Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson taps into the feminine punk-rock spirit of Pussy Riot in his latest film about three teenage girls standing against the adult world
Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! is a return to the territory of Show Me Love and Together, which is why it is both completely wonderful and also slightly disappointing. Part of me couldn’t help but feel that We Are The Best!lacks some of the daring originality of Show Me Love. However it makes up for this with the utter joie de vivre of the three leads, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), Klara (Mira Grosin) and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) who inhabit the cusp of teenagerhood with equal amounts of rebelliousness and innocence. Bobo, the more thoughtful and introspective character has the soulful face of Giuletta Masina in La Strada. Klara is a little stick of punk rock dynamite, and Hedvig’s handsome coolness is reminiscent of a young Liv Ullmann. The film is watchable for these stellar performances alone.
As with his two first films, We Are The Best! is a feel good film that is also insightful and political. Bobo and Klara with their short spikey hair and fledgling political beliefs are outcasts who want nothing to do with the lip-glossed bimbos in their class. In a funny twist they manage to wrest rehearsal space from a Spinal Tap-style metal band who forget to write their names down on the booking sheet of the local youth club. This bureaucratic slip-up allows the girls access to a drum set and a guitar, which they have no idea how to play.
They recruit Hedvig, a fellow classmate and Christian classical guitar-playing prodigy. Bobo is sure Hedvig can inject some musicality into their band, but Klara is worried by the girl’s devout beliefs. She eventually shrugs off any concern with the certainty that they will “influence her away from God”. Their plan works. Suddenly Bobo’s drum banging and Klara’s screeching over a few strums of out-of-tune guitar begin to take shape as Hedvig helps them form their anthem ‘Hate Sport’ into a punky piece of musical protest against gym class.
The one bit of plotting comes when the nameless band is invited to play at the ‘Santa Rock’ Christmas concert in Västerås (a provincial town outside Stockholm). They accept along with the metal band they gazumped earlier at the youth centre. Shouts of “You’re so ugly” and “Communist whore cunts!” are launched at them and in response they change their lyrics from “Hate Sport” to “Hate Västerås” and are thrown out. The cri de coeur that runs throughout the film that “Punk is not dead” is lived out here in a true moment of triumph. Their budding feminist selves have prevailed over a roomful of misogyny. Moodysson gently has a go at provincial attitudes as he did with Show Me Love (whose original title after all was Fucking Åmål) and yet does it with such deftness and lightness it never feels nasty.
Moodysson creates a world in which children are the wise ones and adults are clueless, self-absorbed and out of touch. This works to a degree. The yearning of our heroines to grow up is palpable and yet there are no specimens of adult life that they might in any way want to emulate, which is a standard trope of teen fiction. Although to most thirteen year olds all adults are basically idiots, I would have liked Moodysson to inject some nuance into this view. Where he gives the teenagers complexity, he ridicules the adults. And perhaps he intends to convey the loss of spirit as children morph into adults. Either way it gets laughs but feels at times a bit thin.
Like every one of Moodysson’s films, this one looks and sounds absolutely beautiful. Shot by Ulf Brantas, the colours, the compositions and the light are seductive without being sentimental. As a period piece the sets are not exaggerated. We know we are in the 80s without being bashed over the head with it. Based on Coco Moodysson’s graphic novel Never GoodnightWe Are The Best! has at its heart a proto-Pussy Riot feeling that punk is a political statement and that girls need to be part of it. Bobo, Klara and Hedvig are fighting against the prevailing mindset that only boys can have a voice, and this adds to the film’s urgency.
Moodysson has made a film that highlights the selfishness of the adult world and the innocence and fragility of children. And yet, what he seems to forget is that all these bourgeois, superficial, damaged grown-ups were once young. They are not aberrations, and their awfulness is nothing more than the result of living in an imperfect world. Minor quibble aside, this is a soulful, unpretentious and optimistic film that delves into what it’s like to be thirteen with total honesty. It may seem slight, and yet by conveying the pain and beauty of growing up, We Are The Best! captures perfectly that fleeting yet glorious moment just before adulthood takes us under its wing.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review of James Franco's 'As I Lay Dying'

LFF: As I Lay Dying

James Franco adapts the ‘unfilmable’ William Faulkner modern classic for the big screen
William Faulkner’s modernist slice of American literature, As I Lay Dying is such a verbal tour-de-force that it seems mad to even think of making it into a film. But James Franco has not only written and directed the first film adaptation of Faulkner’s southern gothic masterpiece but stars in it as well. And this is the major flaw at its heart: Franco’s decision to cast himself as Darl Bundren.

Darl is one of five children born to the violent matriarch Addie Bundren, whose act of dying gives the book its title. His voice in the novel is the most objective of the fifteen voices, and his observations come closest to being those of a narrator. Darl’s role is clearly the obvious choice for Franco, and yet all the way through the film I was longing for the Will Oldham of John Sayles’s Matewan or the Paul Dano of Meek’s Cutoff. The part needs a timeless, poetic hero, not the youthful face of Gucci.

Despite Franco’s affected and self-conscious performance, the rest of the cast bring a low-key intensity to their roles. Particularly Logan Marshall-Green as the aggressive, violent Jewel and Brady Permenter who is incredibly touching as the young Vardaman. Tim Blake Nelson as the widower Anse, who stands by Addie’s wishes to be buried forty miles from the family home, carries off the patriarch role well. With his hump and prosthetic mouth, Nelson plays the part as straight-up tragedy.

This brings me onto a second, although smaller flaw: Franco’s decision to strip out any element of farce. The tragedies of Biblical proportion faced by the blighted Bundrens as they set out to bury Addie — floods, fire, rape and amputations — are all rendered faithfully, and yet this worthiness turns the film into a somewhat po-faced piece of cultural product. In the hands of say, the Coen Brothers, the black humour of the book would have been celebrated and would have injected more life into the film. Franco is being too respectful and perhaps feels hamstrung by tackling such a Great Modern Classic.
These problems aside, Franco does bring intelligence to this project. There is confidence in the direction and a visual consistency in the earthy tones, the claustrophobia, the dirt. The lushness of the Mississippi landscape is beautifully filmed by Christina Volos, while Kim O’Keefe’s electronic score veers between moody atonal noise and more conventional ‘film music’ lyricism. The latter creates the emotional response it is after, but is perhaps a touch obvious at times.
You cannot talk about this film without tackling Franco’s use of the split-screen, slow-motion and actors speaking directly to the camera — formal devices which attempt to capture filmically what Faulkner addresses with his multiple points of view and fragmented prose. All of these devices work towards dissolving any idea that a story must be told chronologically, as they remove us from a straightforward telling of events, and this feels true to the spirit of the text. However they are too superficial to get inside the characters’ minds, and therefore don’t come close to capturing Faulkner’s multiple interiorities. If there were ever a book one could call ‘unfilmable’ it would be As I Lay Dying with its insistence on the use of words and language as a medium for both hiding and revealing meaning and truth whilst simultaneously spinning a great, universal story.
I wondered while watching As I Lay Dying whether Franco made this film to show the world he could do something on a monumental scale, or to see for himself whether it was possible. Perhaps he was politically motivated. Making a depression-era film in this new age of austerity, could be seen as a cynical bid for popularity or a more genuine desire to give voice to the growing number of dispossessed who are rarely given screen time in Hollywood. Whatever his reasons, he has contributed a solid piece of work, with a few flaws and one big tragedy at its core which, like Anse Bundgren’s, is the result of stubbornness, greed and folly.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Woman in the Cupboard

“Would you like some tea?” I whisper across the kitchen sponges and rolls of paper towel and Tupperware and Thermoses.
    Her face has been getting progressively clearer over the past few weeks. I can see her fine grey eyes, straight, classic nose. And her hair: dark brown, like a World War II land girl, cut in a bob.
    What do you call a man with no arms and no legs floating in the sea? Bob.
    I don’t tell her this.
    “No, I don’t want tea, you idiot. I want Champagne. The best. And if you can’t afford it, go get a job.”
    “We don’t have any Champagne in the house,” I plead with her.
    “What kind of house is this? A slum? A house for losers?”
    She’s right on the money. Except my husband and son aren’t losers. They’re members of society.
    What do you call an unemployed woman talking to a face in her cupboard?
    Ellen Jones.
    Ben breezes in.
    “Ellen, what are you doing under there?” he asks.
    “Just getting a new sponge for the washing up. The old one smells like the inside of a dog’s mouth.”
    He pours himself a large cup of coffee.
    “I’ll be late tonight. David just called to say there’s an emergency meeting scheduled for six o’clock. You’ll be OK won’t you?”
    He kisses the top of my head.
    “Yes, I’ll be fine,” I reply.
    Noah bounds downstairs. I can smell the mango hair gel over the coconut shampoo and deodorant. He’s a walking cloud of pheromones, parabens, fake fruit additives and something that smells like artificially clean laundry. He is giving us all cancer.
    “What’s for breakfast?” he asks.
    “Whatever’s in the fridge,” I reply. I’m still decongealing last week’s scrambled eggs from the frying pan.
    “Oh god Mum, that looks gross.” He peers into the sink full of floating egg and washing up liquid gone flat from so much grease in the water. “I’m going to Jen’s tonight for supper. Don’t wait up. We’re going to watch a DVD after dinner.”
    No kiss from Noah. But I do get a smile and four sentences. I am grateful for anything.
    The door slams. I hear him unchain his bike from the front gate. I know every sound within a radius of about a hundred feet from this house. It is amazing how much noise can be heard in an empty house.
    Ben is upstairs getting ready for work. His steps are lighter than Noah’s.
    “OK honey, I’m finally off. See you tonight,” he calls out as he leaves. Honey? He hasn’t called me that in ages. Does he know something I don’t?
    The woman is shouting. I stop my egg scraping and listen.
    “Champagne, Champagne, Champagne!”
    I bend down and look at her. “I’ve told you we don’t have any Champagne and I can’t afford to buy you a bottle.”
    “But it’s what I want. And if you don’t give me what I want I will make your life hell. Hell!”
    I collapse into a kitchen chair, my face in my hands. I have no choice. I get my coat and walk the ten minutes to the Tesco Metro. I find their cheapest Champagne and put the £24.99 on my credit card.
    But the woman in the cupboard is not impressed. She wants a brand name: Moët or Veuve Cliquot or Taittinger. However, she drinks Tesco’s Finest* quickly, her Adam’s apple pulsing with every gulp. I have never seen anyone drink Champagne like that, as if it were water. She asks for another so I get the same again. She drinks that one up too. Then she gets more abusive. She’s swearing and telling me I’m worthless. She asks me what Ben sees in me and how my son can bear to look at me and call me his mother. I don’t deserve the words ‘mother’ and ‘wife’, she says.
    What do you call a woman cursing in your cupboard?
    I’ve had enough and wander upstairs to lie down.
    This is how Ben finds me when he comes home around 9:30. He wakes me gently, asking if I am all right. Why does he keep asking me that? I am fine I tell him and then apologise that I haven’t made anything for dinner. I find us a frozen Pizza. We share that with a few carrot sticks and some yogurt just on the right side of edible.
    He tells me he is going away for a few days. There is a conference in Germany in some hotel in the middle of a parking lot on a roundabout near an airport. I know the type. I worked once. I have also stayed in business hotels smelling of particle board and bedbug spray.
    “That’s fine,” I tell him. He gives me the dates that he’ll be away and then stands up, stretches and says he’s hitting the sack.
    “I’ll be up soon,” I reply.
    He throws me a wan smile. He looks tired. Poor Ben.
    The woman in the cupboard starts knocking.
    Just as I am about to tell her to shut up, Noah walks in.
    “Hi Mum,” he says opening the fridge and standing in its glare assessing its contents. He closes it. “When are you going to buy some food?” he asks.
     He doesn’t seem to hear the woman.
     “Um, maybe tomorrow.”
     “We need, like, everything. There’s no milk or orange juice or anything,” he says, not exactly sounding outraged.
     “OK, why don’t you start making a list. I’ll go do a shop tomorrow,” I say.
      “OK. G’night Mum.” He bounds upstairs.
      I know I should feel lucky. I have a sixteen-year-old son who doesn’t spend his weekends getting off his face on pills and weed and Vodka. He still speaks to me in sentences, he does well at school and is nice to his girlfriend. Does life get any better?
      Now she is shouting. She wants asparagus tips with béchamel sauce and some poached salmon with buttered baby new potatoes. A lemon tart for pudding. Fresh, not frozen.
      “Are you crazy?” I whisper. “I can’t go shopping now. I’ll get you what you want tomorrow.”
      “Fucking lazy whore,” she shouts, “you’re nothing but a loser. A pretend person.” She is laughing at me.
       Even when I block my ears I can still hear her.
       I tie the cupboard doors together with garden twine. You can’t be too careful. As I pad upstairs I hear a tinny headphone buzz coming from Noah’s room. Light seeps out from under his door like melted butter and spreads itself along the cream hall carpet.
       Ben is fast asleep. After brushing my teeth and slipping my clothes off, I get in next to him naked. I’m feeling horny. Why don’t we have sex any more? I slide my hand down between my legs and pleasure myself. He used to do this for me and now he is always too tired. After staring at the ceiling and listening out for the woman in the cupboard I finally fall asleep.

I wake to hear the front door slam shut. I impress myself by knowing it is Friday. Most days are the same as each other. Apart from Saturdays and Sundays when Ben is around. I hate how much I look forward to those days.
      I find some still warm coffee in the cafetière and as I take my first sip, the shouting begins.
      “Don’t forget my lunch. I’m starving in here. Can you get a move on?”
      Someone has untied the cupboards. Maybe Ben needed a thermos to carry his coffee into work. There she is: red-faced, her grey eyes full of fury. “Get me my food, you cunt,” she shouts at me.
      I bang the doors shut and run upstairs to shower. I am trying to understand this phenomenon. How can a woman be living under my kitchen sink?
      What do you call a greedy woman living in your cupboard?
      I chuckle as I dry myself with a towel and find some clean clothes.
      The breakfast dishes need washing and then there’s the shopping to do. Should I do the shopping first to stop the woman’s outbursts? They are beginning to drive me crazy. I am not a lazy cow or a whore and I don’t appreciate her language.
      I wrap myself in my coat, which is one of those long wearable duvet types, and rush off to buy what she has asked for. I walk the extra distance to Waitrose. I know the woman won’t settle for anything less than the most expensive ingredients. I am beginning to get a feel for her character.
      I arrive back home in time to hear her coughing. She calls out to me in a hoarse voice. “I think I’m ill,” she says.
      I open the cupboard and can immediately see that she is very sick indeed. She looks tubercular. I make her a cup of hot water and honey and squeeze the lemon that I bought for her to have with the fish.
      “I don’t think I’ll be wanting that lunch after all,” she says softly, taking the hot drink. “I think I just need to sleep.”
       I close the door and leave her to nap while I tackle the breakfast dishes and tidy the house. I have let it go these past few weeks. There are dirty clothes everywhere and Noah’s room smells like sweaty rubber. God knows what he does in there. Maybe just growing and sleeping are enough to create such a stinky fug.
      I check on the woman periodically. She carries on sleeping. I take her half empty mug and put it in the sink.
      Around nine o’clock in the evening, I cook the salmon and vegetables and make a béchamel sauce. Ben gets home as promised around 9.30 and we share the woman’s meal.
      “This is great,” he says, smiling. “You haven’t made anything like this in ages.”
      It is getting late and Noah is upstairs revising. He had some pasta earlier as there wasn’t enough fish for all of us to share.
      “Thanks,” I say. I think I can hear the woman snoring under the sink, but I can’t be sure.
      Ben comes over to where I am rinsing the plates and hugs me from behind. “I’m going up to bed. You coming?” he asks.
      “Yeah, I’ll just finish the dishes. I’ll be up in a second.”
      I check on the sleeping woman who is breathing through her open mouth. She looks pale, almost green. I turn out the kitchen lights, climb the stairs and find Ben in bed with a legal magazine. He is highlighting sections of it. I stopped asking him about his work as soon as I started finding it boring, which must have been about ten years ago.
       I pick my book up from the floor and get in next to Ben. He looks at me with his handsome face and says, “You seem better today.”
       “Better?” I ask.
       “Yeah, you’ve been,” he pauses looking for the exact word. He is a stickler for using the right word. “You’ve been a bit detached, like you’re shut away from us,” he finally says.
       I shrug and open my book whose cover shows a woman staring out to sea. There are no women living in cupboards in this story. It is about a failing marriage and infidelity and blame and recrimination and jealousy. Nothing in it feels particularly real to me, at least not as real as the woman living under my sink. She is real. But I don’t tell Ben about her. Instead I tell him about the woman in the book who thinks she deserves an affair because her husband has stopped finding her attractive.
      “Do you think she deserves one?” he asks.
      “Yes,” I say. I can see his gaze moving around my face not knowing where to land. “I think people should do whatever they want,” I add.
      “Right,” he says clearing his throat. “Of course they should.” And with that he rolls over to fall asleep. I recognise that tone of his.
      Once his breathing steadies, I walk quietly downstairs.
      I open the cupboard to find the woman lifeless. Her eyes are closed, her head is flopped to one side, her hair falling forward like the filthy strands of a mop. I reach out to touch her face. It is cold. I stare for some seconds taking it all in. I wipe my eyes and sit back on my haunches. Do I need to dispose of her? Or will she leave as she arrived, without any assistance? I realise her face is growing fainter. She is disappearing before me.
      Suddenly the lights come on and I jump.
      “What are you looking at?” Ben asks.
      “Nothing,” I say. “I thought I heard something dripping under the sink. But it’s stopped now.” My heart is racing.
      “Good, now come to bed,” he says sounding annoyed.
      “OK,” I say and follow Ben up the stairs like the good girl that I am.
      What do you call a dead woman in your cupboard?

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