Flat Pack Furniture

thukainstructionsFour couples squeezed into the same aisle: obviously they were going to clash. There were enough beds to go around— Beds For Everyone! the advert might have read— but it was Saturday, the store was packed, and at some stage each couple had probably bickered about being there.

‘Now if we just take this one…’ one of the men sort-of ordered as the woman beside him chewed her nails. ‘And then you move your trolley a little to the left…’

Chlo would have hated to get washed up on his desert island: he stank of middle management and only made eye contact with the men. That is, he probably would have, except that the man in her partnership, Jason, stood at the entrance to the aisle, rubbing at his bloodshot eyes. She looked over to see if he was getting all of this— what their new leader would probably have described as crisis management— but Jason blanked her. ‘You wanted this,’ his gesture said. ‘You get what you deserve.’ Somewhere there was a long list of the things that insulted Jason’s intelligence: furniture stores on a Saturday was one of them.

Ignoring the directions of the middle manager, Chlo loaded the sections of the bed onto the trolley and headed for the check out. Jason continued to sulk. He’d been like this since Thursday evening, when their bed had split. It wasn’t much of a bed: the mattress sagged on Chlo’s side, the joints creaked like a ship, it was generally agreed by both of them to be pretty horrible. Jason had stood upon it to change a blown light bulb and the tired wood had finally cracked, sending the mattress right through the frame. Chlo had called their landlady, but after ten minutes of debate— about whether a tube of super glue would do, about whether she could get something second-hand, or talk to her sister-in-law who, now she thought about it, maybe had a bed— Chlo told her not to worry: they’d buy one for themselves.

‘But we didn’t even discuss it,’ Jason had said when she hung up. ‘You gave me no idea.’

To hear him talk you’d think they were shopping for an orphan. Hungover again, after a late shift at the cinema, he’d made the same nervy jokes as they drove over to the retail park. How he couldn’t see why they didn’t just use the mattress. How it was just the start of things: soon it would be decking on the patio and gnomes on the lawn. How she would be wanting to look at cots next. How her father was buying a shotgun. Even as they parked the car, he looked over as she killed the engine and he’d almost begged.

‘Are you sure you want to do this?’

Yes, Chlo was sure. She’d slept in second-hand beds for over fifteen years. Beds at uni, beds in hostels and hotels around Britain and Europe, around Vietnam, Thailand and Australia. Friends’ beds, beds in the five or six rented places she had lived in since moving to London. Not good beds, really, and while there had been some good experiences upon them along the way, there had also been some bad. When she had moved out of her last place, for example, the landlord had docked her deposit by £100 for ‘feminine damage’: a bloodstain which had soaked through the sheet onto the mattress. Such a horrible man. The one bed she could truly call her own remained back in her parents’ house, and that was there to protect Chlo from a fall. Her parents had nothing against Jason as such, but if he was an actor, why didn’t they ever see him on TV, if he was a stand-up comic why didn’t he have any jokes, if he was really writing a screenplay then where Chlo, where was the money? ‘You’ll always have a place here,’ her mother would often say. The bed waited: stuck between a little girl and the broken woman Chlo might one day become.

On the way to the check out, Chlo picked up a few more bits and pieces— a couple of cranberry wine goblets, a rug, a lamp, a throw— and while she tried to involve Jason, he could only sneer. Finally, they reached the check out where the queues stretched back to Stockholm. They shuffled along, pinched between a young family and an old couple, like a remarkably depressing diagram of the course of life.

‘It’s fascinating, isn’t it?’

Jason had spent the last few minutes leaning over the bar of the trolley, like someone heaving over the side of a ship. Which, until he spoke, Chlo guessed was how he felt.

‘What?’

‘This.’

‘You’ve spent the last hour acting as though it was anything but fascinating, Jason.’

‘But it is fascinating.’

She sighed. ‘OK. Why?’

‘People want cheap stylish furniture,’ Jason went on. ‘The reason it’s so cheap is because you’re not paying for the cost of labour. The customer becomes the labourer. So we’re effectively depriving someone of a job by coming here. That’s the economic reality.’

Now Chlo cared. She recycled, she’d marched against the war; for God’s sake, she stopped for charity workers on the street. But she really wanted the bed and she was ever so slightly irritated by the way Jason’s disgust for the failings of contemporary society fluctuated in relation to his hangover. Not to mention the way he was quite happy to ignore the economic reality of their situation. After all, who was paying for all of this?

‘I mean,’ he went on. ‘Don’t you feel a little betrayed by all of this.’

‘Betrayed.’ It wasn’t a question, it wasn’t meant to lead: she wanted him to hear that word again and justify it. But she should have known, this was a monologue not conversation.

‘Don’t you think we deserve a little more?’ he went on. ‘When you were a kid and someone told you you’d be alive in the twenty first century, wouldn’t you have expected something…’

‘With speedier service. Yes, probably.’ The queue really wasn’t moving.

‘No. I mean something purer. Didn’t you hope that we’d have escaped all of this.’

‘All of what, Jason?’

‘A culture built on envy and greed. People’s worst impulses exploited as the norm.’

In front of them, the little girl dangled a plastic toy over her brother’s head. When jumping for it failed, the boy started to scream, more of a trill really, a la-la-la of sheer, primal pain. ‘Will you stop that!’ the mother sighed, her voice racked with weariness, impatience. ‘Will you please give him what he wants?’

‘A culture where you’re forever being distracted,’ Jason went on. ‘Where your needs are invented to keep you in place.’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Building your own furniture. Doesn’t it promote self-reliance?’

‘This … This has got nothing to do with self-reliance Chlo.’ He sounded peeved, maybe, just maybe, because she had outflanked him. ‘This is about rubbing our nose in our status. You can have what you want, these places say. But you build it yourself. Whatever you think you are, you’re a labourer in this world.’

She could have asked him what was wrong with being a labourer. This, she knew, was a flaw in the argument of this hungover utopian. But she felt kind. ‘We could always go to Habitat,’ she said.

‘Come on, Chlo,’ he sighed. ‘Use your imagination.’

‘So you want what, Jason? Space beds?’ She put an arm around his waist. ‘Now I see. This is the way we have been betrayed.’

Later in the car, she would hear about it. How the cinema had been screening a series of late night science fiction films. Not the fun ones— bickering gay robots, men with big ears, Chlo liked those— these were the more ponderous kind. Moody Russians walking through foliage. Desert scenes accompanied by German voiceovers. Baffling black-and-whites starring Frenchmen with bad skin. Inspired by the latest lachrymose fantasy, Jason and his crowd— which included a performance poet, a couple of actors, and a philosophy Phd student— had spent after hours in the bar, talking for a long, long time about the disappointment of the twenty-first century, the comedown from Y2K, the failure of the world to match the vision of the past.

‘2001!’ Jason exclaimed as they moved towards the check out. ‘That’s where it all went wrong! How does it feel, Chlo? To be part of twenty-first century global capitalism.’ He gestured at a security camera on the nearest wall. ‘Wave to the camera, Chlo. You’re being watched for your own security. This is it. This is your reward.’

*

Back at home, they dealt with the old bed by dumping it out in the passageway by the side of the flat, where it could wait until Chlo called the council. It was past two o’clock when the new bed arrived. The delivery men were both young and muscular, and one of them paid Chlo a supreme compliment by sizing her up, his eyes running over her like broken eggs. The encounter must have awoken some kind of latent instinct in Jason. No sooner had Chlo closed the door than he appeared with a screwdriver set.

‘Right then. I’ll get to work.’

‘Wait a minute, what am I meant to do?’

For a second she thought he was going to ask her to cook his tea. ‘I thought you wanted me to put up the bed?’

‘When did I say that?’ She pushed past him into the bedroom. ‘We’ll do it together.’

They cleared a space, and Chlo had started cutting open the packaging on the first of the boxes when Jason popped out to the kitchen. When he returned it was with a couple of cans of beer.

‘Thought you’d want one,’ he said.

‘Oh you’re drinking?’ She hated the way it sounded, but hated it that he was.

‘You know. Hair of the dog.’

‘Can’t it wait until we’ve finished?’ She pulled the Stanley knife along the package, shreds of cardboard curling underneath the blade.

‘Oh please, Chlo, I feel like shit.’

‘You feel like shit because you were out after work.’ She managed to stop herself adding. ‘Again.’

‘Not now!’ he groaned. ‘I came with you to buy the bed! What more do you want?’

Duty carried out in anticipation of reward: this, she knew, was the way Jason worked. He popped the ring of the can, the wet sound rasping angrily while Chlo finished cutting the through the packaging. She spread out the instructions on the floor and started sorting out the various parts, piling them up to match the list on the first page. Jason reached for a bag of screws.

‘Can I just make sure we’ve got everything?’ Chlo snapped

‘Are you doubting Swedish efficiency?’

‘I just want make sure there’s nothing missing.’

He tossed the bag back down onto the floor. When it flopped into a pile of other, smaller screws, he snorted into his beer can. One of the things he liked to tease her about: her obsession with order.

‘Have we got everything?’

Chlo didn’t look up from the instructions. ‘Yes, I think so.’

‘And does it look pretty easy to put together?’

‘It looks fine.’

‘OK, then,’ he said. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him grinning. ‘Educate me.’

To understand about that word, you had to go back to a boat upon the Mekong Delta; you had to return to last year. After too many knock-backs, Jason had approached a crisis during that holiday. There was the play that had failed. The agent who never called. The nightmare gig in Camden. The audition for the advert. The screenplay with his friend Tyler which would never, well, be screened. He wondered what was the point? The conversation had taken place over many days, the underlying narrative to their sight-seeing. But on that boat to Can Tho, something changed. Two kids sat near them on the deck, the oldest couldn’t have been five; god knows why they were taking the ferry alone. When the younger one had started to cry, Jason had distracted him by making a 500 đồng piece disappear: a tricky piece of sleight of hand which probably would have been more impressive if he hadn’t dropped the coin. Still, the kids had laughed.

‘I didn’t know you were so good with kids…’ Chlo had teased.

And then he’d said it. ‘Maybe I could try teaching…’

It might have been a throwaway remark, except for the rest of the holiday, Jason wouldn’t let it go. Perhaps he really should think about teaching. Wouldn’t it be better to make a difference? The smiles on those kids’ faces: wasn’t that better than anything? Knowing what she did about inner city schools, Chlo was prepared to indulge this last romanticism. But she hadn’t pushed, she had never, ever pushed. ‘I’m going to look into things,’ he’d say when they got back. Or, ‘I read in the paper how you get a cash sum.’ Or, ‘I was talking to someone at work whose girlfriend teaches Drama.’ She thought, he’s got the desire, he only lacks some of the will, so last week, during her lunch break, Chlo had printed off details of a few courses.

‘Right,’ Jason had said, handling the sheets of printer paper like they were soiled. ‘So you don’t believe in me.’

Out of nowhere, teaching had become something she wanted, and one way or another, Chlo had been paying for her lack of faith ever since.

‘Does that go there?’

‘No. I think that’s the other type. Those screws with the tips.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes… Look.’

‘It still doesn’t look right.’

‘Hold on, you’ve got that bit upside down. Look three holes on the upper side, not two.’

‘Well, perhaps if you moved the instructions I’d be able to see.’

Before they’d made a side, Jason had finished the first beer and opened the other. When she glanced over, he winked at her, so cocky and satisfied, so unbearable when he was hungover.

‘Don’t worry, I’m fairly sure I can operate heavy machinery.’

‘As long as the bed’s made, I don’t care.’

‘Anyway, it’s pretty easy once you get used to it.’

‘I’m glad you think so.’

‘I learn quickly. I’m a good student.’ As he reached for his beer, Chlo could almost smell the sarcasm coming. ‘Or else, you’re a very good teacher, Chlo.’

*

Sean Penn walked from a motel into the white sand of a desert. He carried a gun in his hand. Luminescent and opaque, both darkness and light, his movements flickered around the bedroom. Jason liked Sean Penn. He was an actor with integrity: a rare virtue in Hollywood, that network of whores. And Chlo, well Chlo thought he was pretty fine too. She lay with Jason under the covers, the new bed beneath them pure and huge and cool. It rocked a little towards the top left hand corner, but that was probably the floor and Chlo wasn’t going to let that spoil the first night on a new bed. She’d spent the latter part of the evening stretched out upon it, while Jason checked his emails, went out for wine, talked on the phone. He’d finally come through to the bedroom in time for the late film. One bottle of wine had been finished, another was nearly done.

‘Are you following this?’ Chlo weighed the new cranberry wine goblet in her hand, thinking that this, too, had been a good purchase.

‘Hmmm.’

‘Hmmm yes, or hmmm you’re not sure.’

‘Hmmm yes.’

‘I have absolutely no idea what is going on.’ She took another mouthful of wine. ‘Why is he chasing that man?’

‘Ssssh.’

‘You don’t know do you?’

‘Of course I know.’

She paused. ‘Then why was he masturbating in the clinic?’

‘Chlo, you’re ruining this!’

‘All I’m saying,’ she said. ‘Is why not tell the story? It should be pretty simple. Might even be good. Why chop it up into pieces?’

The film finished. Jason flicked. Jodie Foster stalked a busy street. A blonde man oozed within the confines of a phone-in gameshow. (‘The vacuous fleecing the vulnerable,’ according to Jason: another sign of civilisation’s decline.) On the last channel, an overly aggressive advert for kitchen disinfectant burst into the room.

‘Why?’ Chlo asked. ‘Should my thoughts turn to disinfectant at …’ She glanced over at the alarm clock. ‘Jesus, Jason, it’s nearly one in the morning!’

‘Still early,’ Jason said. He lay with an arm across his head, seemingly engrossed in the graphic montage of defeated microbes screaming their last.

Chlo shook her head. ‘God you’re bad for me. I was going to do things tomorrow morning. And now I’m going to be hungover.’

On the screen, the microbes gave way to car insurance, and Jason didn’t drive. He shifted over in the bed, moving his head close to Chlo’s.

‘Chlo?’

‘Hmmm?’

He kissed her neck. As he rolled into her, she felt his erection through the material of his shorts.

‘Fancy breaking it in?’

‘Fancy what?’

‘The bed. Shall we christen it?’

‘Oh Jason. I’m a bit drunk.’

He let his head drop heavily on the pillow beside her. His hand stayed upon her thigh.

‘It doesn’t matter if your drunk.’ His erection pulsed in assent. ‘Drunk can be fun.’

Chlo felt suddenly tired. Not the tiredness of a late night or of too much to drink: it came from somewhere deeper. Perhaps, she was tired of being the one who earned and organised, the one who always seemed to pay. Perhaps, she was tired of being blamed for the failings of the world, of being the person who kept alive a dream from which surely everyone else had awoken. Perhaps, as she retreated, she really didn’t care. She might have stopped him, but even Jason should have seen that she didn’t want this; she felt a sense of distance, a hazy, defiant feeling of being removed. As she watched Jason stroke her breast, the idea came to her of a person under surveillance alone inside a room, whose freedom only ever offers the opportunity to be judged. Trusting in seclusion, instead they face a test, and their private actions will define whether they fail.

Jason’s fingers moved from to her thigh, creeping underneath her T-shirt. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘You know what I want.’

When Chlo had first unpacked the bed, for a moment it had looked cheap, like cladded plyboard, but when she’d felt the grain rippling beneath the sanded surface and veneer, she knew that the wood was real. Such things were impossible to fake. She would think about this the next morning, when they talked everything through, when Jason reached out for her and Chloe said yes, it was OK, it was fine, he was only drunk, she believed him: really, she knew that it would never happen again.

__________

This story was originally accepted for publication on Laura Hird‘s Showcase website. I don’t know what happened, but the website stopped being updated and I forgot about the story until quite recently, when I found while trawling through some emails. I didn’t even have a soft copy in my files. The story dates from 2008, around the time I published my first novel. The website now redirects to a domain hosting site, which seems to fit, somehow.

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