Leila was skilled at speaking nothing. Her responses were like reflections in a shop window, cast back but not identical. ‘I am sick of these foxes getting into our bins,’ her mum would spit, picking at the paint on the kitchen sill, and Leila would reply, ‘Yes, they keep eating the rubbish.’ Her dad would murmur, ‘God I love this programme, the way they convey so much without having to use words, it gets to me Leila, it gets to me,’ and as he stared at the set, overwhelmed, she would nod and reply, ‘They don’t say much.’
These situations were easy. Other times, it was more difficult. ‘What do you fancy for dinner, Leila?’ was Leila’s least favourite question. That demanded new material. ‘Oh! I am still full from lunch’ only worked if it was afternoon. At 6 pm, it was impossible. It wasn’t plausible! A ham sandwich can only last so long.
Distractions worked. Once, she had pushed everything off the table: glass of water, notebook, the crisp halfway to her mouth. (The crisp was up in the air until the last moment, but it was connected to the table by her elbow so needed to go.) Another time she had stared at the floor, willing herself not to look away. She was frozen, she decided. No one could expect anything of her. She was nothing.
These weren’t long-term solutions. They were exceptions. After all, distractions are not nothing. ‘Water all over the fucking floor Leila, what a mess!’ was something. ‘Leila, can you hear me? Shall I call an ambulance?’ was something. Leila did not approve of something. She did not wish to exert somethings. That was never part of the game.
One morning, when her mum said, ‘Good morning!’ as she drew Leila’s curtains, and Leila replied, ‘Morning good!’ her mum began to suspect that a game was being played. It was a mistake. Not everything needed to be pushed through Leila’s encrypter, old made to seem new. Some things could just be repeated. Some things were expected to be repeated. Good morning was the safe zone. But she had fucked it. Morning good! It was early, but she had fucked it.
‘Is everything okay?’ her mum asked, sitting on the side of Leila’s bed. Hand brushing hair off her forehead. This was bad. This was bad. This was bad. A neat inversion would not solve things, but she tried it anyway.
‘Everything is okay.’
‘What’s going on?’
It seemed to be the perfect exercise of nothing, saying ‘nothing’, but the parachute was moth-holed because nothing never means nothing nothing always means something so really even though she had said nothing in saying ‘nothing’ really she had said something and now things were falling, she was falling, her mum had pushed her.
‘Are you sure that it’s nothing?’
‘I am sure that it’s nothing.’
Hair smoothed, still smoothed though no hairs were out of place, Leila’s mum hoping the stroking would be an invitation, a smoothing away of the barricades that lay under the covers until her daughter appeared, ready to speak in more than half-reflections. But nothing, hair smooth, nothing.
Leila had always been sure it was a game contained to the family. It was her game, yes, later, regrettably, her mother’s. But beyond? Never. Except, when she was 24, she met David. New colleague David. Monosyllabic David. She tried that nickname in her head but decided against it: it wasn’t fair that monosyllabic had so many syllables. It simply wasn’t representative. Besides, David wasn’t monosyllabic, he was disyllabic.
He became Okay David instead, because that was what he said, Okay.
‘I’m going to go grab a sandwich.’
‘Do you want me to pick you up anything?’
She would try him with the questions that she had once struggled with, that she had devised rescue missions to escape from.
‘David, what are you having for dinner tonight?’
He would lift his head as if she had it in her grip, as if she was squeezing tight, eyes wide with intent.
He wouldn’t sweep his things off his desk, or pretend not to hear, but the answer would be grudging, delivered in a straitjacket.
‘Oh lovely,’ Leila would say. ‘Chicken, lovely. How are you cooking it?’
‘Poached,’ he would say. Nothing more.
She would find herself using her mother’s old tactics, trying to tease information from him, to trick him into more.
‘Do you want to go for a drink?’
‘Do you want to come back to mine?’
‘How does that feel?’
The sex was good though. David didn’t say much but he certainly thought. And, it turned out, he could make sounds. Good ones. Noises that implied ferocity, nuance, a liking for Leila’s body. During sex, he wouldn’t say ‘Okay’. He would say ‘Fuck.’ But during sex, ‘fuck’ means something. During sex, he lost the nothing game. He was everything, so was Leila. But then after: gone.
‘Good morning,’ Leila said, entering the office armed to destroy him.
‘Good morning,’ David said. Clipped.
‘Is it?’ said Leila.
David didn’t say anything. His eyebrows huddled close then split apart.
Is it what? What is it? Is it?
The night before, David and Leila had fucked in David’s kitchen. She went home soon after, slamming his front door.
‘Is it good?’ asked Leila. ‘This morning we are participating in. Is it? Good?’
‘Okay,’ said David. ‘It’s okay.’
‘In what way,’ asked Leila, ‘is it okay?’
David confronted his screen with a determination that reminded Leila too much of a face he returned to during sex. Fixated, sure, jaw set.
Their boss entered the office, pushing at Leila’s work, letting it collapse.
‘Good morning,’ Miranda said.
‘Good morning,’ said David.
‘Good morning,’ said Leila.
He looked back at her, swallowing his own lips, cheeks hinting red after their eyes aligned.
The next day a firmer approach was needed. That night they had texted.
When are we going to fuck again? she had written.
Three dots. She watched. Then nothing.
Two hours later, her phone lit up. David.
Unspecific, she had written, five minutes later, after she had hit her hand flat against her forehead, repeatedly, until it was red in the mirror.
Quite soon, he had replied, immediately.
Yes. The next day a firmer approach was needed.
‘Good morning,’ David said.
‘How soon is quite soon?’ Leila asked.
‘You are a fucking nightmare, Leila.’ That had been the first warning that the game was not getting a good reception. She was eating cereal, quickly, needing to grab her school bag in five minutes, be out of the door in six. She had been enjoying the game a little too much, she wouldn’t deny it. Taking it too literally. ‘What does your school day have in store?’ didn’t need to be answered with ‘school’. ‘Can we be a little more specific Leila?’ didn’t need to be answered with ‘Specifically, school’. But it wasn’t insolence. It was a game.
The second warning was the last. Leila’s mum had smacked her across the face. Time’s up! It was decisive, brutal. Game over. It was clear that her nothings were no longer nothing: they sparked reaction. She could not express nothings if each nothing induced an explosion. So she started talking.
David touched her waist. No, grabbed. Reeling her in.
‘I like fucking you,’ he said. ‘But you talk too much.’
Her dad had never complained about the game. At the stalemate stage, when all that was possible for Leila to say had been said, he would grin, unreasonably capacious, and offer her ice cream.
The reason would quickly materialise. If she wanted it, she had to tell him one fact about her day, and it had to be interesting.
Unspoken, an arrangement. He would pretend that these moments never happened.
‘Harry wouldn’t let me play football. He said girls didn’t have legs,’ Leila would admit.
Her dad would turn to the kitchen, back with two bowls, two scoops in each, Leila’s on the chocolate and vanilla side of the tub, each guarded by a spoon.
‘You have two legs, but it sounds like he has no balls,’ he would say. ‘No. Wait. That isn’t the right advice. Next time, you should insist. You should get on the pitch and just start playing. Stare blank if he questions. You’ve good practice at that.’
‘Thanks Dad,’ Leila would say, then nothing. Ice cream smoothed on the roof of her mouth, sucking it into a liquid and swallowing.
‘The office is quiet today,’ Miranda announced. Her perfume left skid marks across the room.
‘Leila and I aren’t talking to each other,’ said David. ‘But I am,’ he continued, ‘talking. I like talking. I have just never had anything to say to Leila.’
‘David, have you been fucking the intern again?’ asked Miranda.
‘I’m not an intern, I’m the Marketing Manager,’ said Leila.
‘I wasn’t talking about you,’ said Miranda, ‘but thanks for clearing things up.’
Leila tried to explain to David, once things had cooled down. Once Miranda had stopped flicking the dirt from under her nails, standing by their desks, humming and flicking. Flick, dirt in air, then spun into nothing.
How to explain? Feelings are surges; yet they overlap. She thinks they’re finished then they return. She knew herself in segments. The game haunted her. Her mum had confiscated it. She missed her dad. She wanted to have a hold on anything. David would be a start but even he pushed away, was too much himself. Everyone had an independence. Even her own narrative would not stick. She could not be sure why she wanted what she wanted other than that she knew that now was a moment she had to win. That is what she knew. There was no right way to say what she wanted to say. She wasn’t even entirely sure what it was she wanted to say while she felt it moving up, swallowing against it like a rising hiccup until – ‘My dad died,’ she said.
It came out wrong. She hadn’t meant it like that.
But suddenly he was holding her, speaking placatingly, warm from his throat.
‘I am so sorry. Here I am being a cunt and your dad! Fuck! Is there anything I can do? Have you told Miranda?’
‘No’, Leila said, not knowing what else to say.
‘Are you okay?’
Once she had said her dad was dead, she couldn’t go back.
But he was dead! She wasn’t lying.
How could a truth become a lie?
‘Leila,’ he said, gently. ‘It’s okay not to be okay, you know.’
Jesus Christ. She didn’t want
a fucking cliché.
But still, go on go on,
keep talking, keep going.
She leant into it, the lie that was true. She knew, even as she felt her back teeth gripping against each other, that it was necessary.
Leila was going to shut the door
of that game,
she thought, and then
while he was distracted
fucking pave over it
yes keep on keep on.
‘You should take the day off. I’ll tell Miranda. Just go home, put some TV on, relax. You need to look after yourself.’
‘I relax by fucking.’
Another line that arrived without a plan. Another hiccup impossible to swallow. Was she using her father’s death to convince someone to fuck her? Was that what she was doing? She was telling the truth.
Old truth is still truth. She was only pursuing a line half said. She wasn’t done yet. But as she pursued, she wondered if it was even going to work. If she wanted it to. David was looking at her with his face turned off. Shut down.
‘I don’t want to take advantage of you.’
‘You’re not. You won’t.’
‘Toilet,’ he said.
‘What’s your relationship like with your dad?’ she asked, as he began undoing his belt.
‘Difficult,’ he said, paused in the motion. ‘We don’t really talk.’
Leila had wished that her mum would die instead. It would have made more sense. Her parents did not deserve to die, but if one of them had to, it should be her mum. She was unsure who best to inform of her decision, so she would whisper it, shout it when no one was in the house, hoping the right person heard.
But her dad still died. Her mum, Leila was certain, knew what she had wished. It was clear. As soon as her dad died, her mum began to play the nothing game. She was still playing it. If there were medals, championships, galas, awards nights in sticky town halls, every gong would be rung for Leila’s mum. Phone calls were efficient. Christmas was excruciating.
‘Don’t you think you should try?’ Leila asked, watching his hand limpen over his waistband.
‘Who says I don’t?’
Last Christmas, Leila said something.
‘Mum,’ she teetered, ‘I feel locked out.’
Her mum said nothing.
‘Am I insane?’
‘I guess you might be,’ Leila’s mum replied, after a pause that stretched around the house and back. ‘We all are in our own ways.’
That was the most she had said to her in one go since Leila left home, when Leila’s mum had said:
‘You’re cold, Leila, but you must be open to warmth. That is what your father was always good at, warmth, a willingness to be open to other people, to welcome them, to know them. I can’t teach you it, god knows I don’t have it, haven’t felt it in too long, but I can tell you that you need it.’
Leila’s mum had rehearsed it in her head over and over and over and over. Not out loud. The growing rasp as she spoke, sentences serrated, proved that.
‘Text me when you get there,’ she said, and nodded her head with a sense of something ending.
Leila realised, watching her mum lurch back out the open gates, the fork of her coat gaping, that they were both miserable. She worried that rather than an affliction, it had been a choice.
But Leila doesn’t think about that.
Yes she does.
She tries not to, but she does.
No, Leila does not think about that.
She does not think about how disappointed – broken – her dad would be, how she and her mum had fallen into a game she had created, speaking without newness, repeating back, ensuring always to stick to a formula.
For Leila, it was simple, simply, I hate her. It was an easy game to play. Feeling needs to be attached to something, it is chaos to let it move, unanchored, even if something is explained wrong, at least, thank fuck, there is an explanation. So they remain stuck in the same game.
Their relationship is sour, tight,
hard in her chest.
It was not her fault her dad died,
nor her mum’s.
But her mum is dead to her,
her to Leila.
That isn’t innocent.
With that, there’s blame.
No, it is best not to think about that. Leila doesn’t as she watches David reckoning with what to say next, hand clutching his belt like a cowboy. But it is hard not to. He has stopped, hasn’t he? David? His face is open, genuine. Ready to receive any upset, outpouring, her body, wanting. Willing to respond. That isn’t the game. It’s the opposite! She had done it. Ejected him. Ejected him, mind you, without a slap or a scream but by telling the truth – delayed, a white lie, a black truth, however you might want to see it. But it had worked, hadn’t it?
She watches him in live pause, his lips too pink, jutting childishly. She didn’t care if he only said okay from then on. Okay, okay, okay. She had only wanted to know if it was possible to make someone else leave the game. And it was. It was possible.