Excerpt

“Excuse Me, Don’t I Know You?”

Jem Calder

July 19, 2022 
The following is a story from Jem Calder's Reward System, an ultra-contemporary and electrifyingly fresh collection of fictions about work, relationships, and the strange loop of technology and the self. Calder was born in Cambridge, and lives and works in London. His first two completed stories were published in The Stinging Fly and Granta.

That was what he’d said.

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She spun around thinking, from the sound of his voice, Surely it’s not–, her surroundings revolving and blurring together, There’s no way it’s– Then all things refilled their outlines, and there he clearly was.

They were standing, several persons apart, in line for a stall at a biweekly farmer’s market hosted on the forecourt of a church close to where she lived: she, wearing her backpack around frontways; he, encumbered with a large houseplant. Above them both, the overcast midday sky was the colour of the Financial Times.

‘Oh, hi,’ she said. Was she smiling just because it was nice to be recognised, or was she smiling because it was, specifically, him? ‘I’m buying some vegetables’ was all she could think to say next, then chinned, downwardly, toward her backpack.

Passers-by were moving awkwardly around and joining the queue behind him; he took a few sidesteps and tilted his head in the direction of a less busy area of the market. ‘I’ll wait over there,’ he mouthed, exaggeratedly.

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Realising now that Nick was not actually an occupant of the same queue as she was, Julia nodded at him, also exaggeratedly.

After she’d paid for her produce and manoeuvred her backpack back around normalways, she walked slowly over toward him – aware of the reinforcement but not the reality of the ground beneath her feet. That she had encountered him here, in situ, out of the context of the past, was taking her some serious mental processing power to compute.

They semicircled one another with half-hugs, both mentioning how surprised they felt – wasn’t life funny that way.

‘I have to say,’ Nick said, ‘I’m really impressed with myself. I could tell from all the way over there’ – he gestured behind him – ‘that you were you, based solely on the back of your head.’

Julia’s hand rose, involuntarily, to touch her hair. ‘I’ll take it as a compliment.’

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Dispositionally averse to having meaningful conversations while standing still, Nick said, ‘So, what’s going on’; asked, ‘D’you maybe want to go for a walk?’

Julia said sure, that sounded great.

They exited the consecrated grounds together through the lychgate, uncommon out here in the city.

‘Well,’ Nick said, cross-examining Julia as she crossexamined him in return; each one also simultaneously imagining themselves from the other’s point of view, ‘how are you? You look—’

‘I’m good.’

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‘You look good.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Which way’re we heading?’

The regular coordinates of Julia’s sense of direction had been momentarily scrambled; she paused to get her bearings. ‘Thataway.’

‘Cool.’ Nick transferred the weight of the houseplant across sides of his body, introducing support from one thigh as he did so, holding it now under his opposite arm.

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‘This is so crazy,’ Julia said. ‘What’s a guy like you doing all the way out here?’

Nick shrugged as best he could while still holding the plant, ‘I live near here.’

‘You do?’

‘Yeah. Like, fifteen minutes’ walk.’

‘So crazy,’ she repeated, although she guessed it wasn’t really that crazy; most people she knew seemed to live in this part of the city at some point in their lives. ‘And, so, for how long have you lived around here?’

‘A year or something?’

Julia, noting inwardly that Nick was a slow walker: ‘You’re kidding.’

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I mean, no, I’m not. I knew you were around here too. I would’ve said hi or something, but—’

But?

‘Well, I heard you weren’t seeing much of Roos or Teddy anymore, so I didn’t want to’ – he looked at Julia, then past her – ‘I don’t know. Cramp your style.’

‘Cramp my style?’

‘It’s just that Teddy said you were going out with a restaurateur or something, and—’

‘A head chef, not a—’

‘Right, right. Right. Right, but, still, it sounded like you had a new friend line-up going on. Was all I thought.’

‘I still see Teddy,’ Julia said, defensively, before remembering it’d been almost six months since the time they’d gotten coffee, ‘sometimes.’

It was true she’d fallen out of the social orbit of her old friendship circle, and she wished now she had a better excuse for why that’d happened other than ‘work’. But she had been working really hard lately – sometimes she put in sixty-hour weeks at the kitchen.

Still, it was sad to think of all the old friends she lived so close to and never saw; their lives going on in parallel, untouching.

Nick mistook Julia’s last few seconds of silence for an open invitation to probe further into her love life. ‘So how’s that working out, anyway?’

‘How’s what working out?’

‘With the old guy? I mean, the guy. The chef.’

They were passing through an area of the city that had been notoriously gentrified ten or twenty years before, and which currently seemed to be in the process of being re- or hyper-gentrified – tenement buildings razed to make way for luxury apartments; boutique stores evicted to accommodate chains.

Here, Julia found herself caught between two competing, equal-strength conversation-with-an-ex impulses: to be her honest self and reveal her life for the capsizing mess it was, or to lie and sustain an image of being put-together; everything going great. ‘Everything’s going great.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Yeah.’ Then, to tell enough of a version of the truth so as not to feel fully like a liar: ‘I mean, we have taken a temporary break to see how things go. Just for now. We’re very different people.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah. Like, almost as different as it’s possible for two people to be. Temperamentally. Life-experience-ally.’

‘I see. You were classically trained at Juilliard, and he learned to dance out on the streets.’

‘Actually, that’s kind of almost accurate. And I did do ballet classes when I was a kid.’

‘I remember,’ Nick said, ‘I’ve seen your feet.’

Every quarter-kilometre or so, branches of the same few banks, convenience supermarkets, coffee chains and betting shops repeated themselves, like in the background of an old cartoon. Lately, Nick had been wondering who the city was for.

‘How d’you mean?’

‘As in, it’s clearly not intended for you or me. All these luxury high-rises only get constructed to silo the wealth of, like, foreign investors.’

Julia thought it sounded like Nick was trying out recently acquired knowledge. Then, sure enough:

‘I just read an article about how more than half of all the new new-builds built in the city last year are sitting empty now. Because they’re not really designed for people, just as holdings for—’

Nick stopped at a zebra crossing and Julia pushed, lightly, on the small of his back to get him to keep walking. ‘It’s our right of way.’

‘Sure,’ he said, watchful of an approaching Audi that was slow to slow down as they crossed. ‘Anyway, I’ll send you the article. But, my point is, I’m very much looking forward to moving out of here soon.’

Julia wagged a forefinger, sang: ‘Everyone says they want to leave, but no one ever does.’

‘Oh, no, I actually am leaving.’

‘When?’

‘At the end of the month.’

‘You are?’ Julia said, quickly dissembling the expression of genuine surprise that had taken hold of her face. ‘I’m shocked.’

‘Ten minutes ago you didn’t even know I was here.’

‘But now I’m shocked.’ At the risk of coming across as having become actually upset, Julia decided to retrofit her initial reaction into a meta-level joke about how laughable the idea of her becoming upset was. ‘Affronted, even. Beside myself. Sobbing, practically. Whereabouts are you going?’

Nick inhaled in preparation to say something he knew was deeply lame. ‘I’m moving back in with my parents.’

Not knowing how to respond to this – but also knowing she only had a limited time in which to non-awkwardly issue her response – Julia said, ‘Oh?’ like a character in a historical romance novel.

With his free hand, Nick rubbed his nose. ‘At least for a little while.’

‘What’s the thinking there?’

‘Well, I have some things to sort out. My entire life, for one.’

‘That’s— I admire—’ Julia searched around for something to find admirable about Nick’s situation, ‘—your courage.’

‘My courage?’ He looked annoyed. ‘So, I’m courageous for moving back in with my parents after failing to build a life for myself away from them?’

Obviously I was only trying to be nice, Julia thought. ‘Exactly,’ she said.

The streets were getting narrower and busier; they both struggled to prioritise between multiple attention-worthy external stimuli.

‘This way?’ Julia pointed in the direction of a residential side road.

Nick said sure, and together they exited the centre of the gentrificationscape; the buildings surrounding them becoming gradually more dilapidated.

‘And, what about your job?’

Nick readjusted the position of the potted palm he was carrying, so now all its weight rested on his hip, like a baby. ‘What about my job?’

‘Are you going to quit? When you move back home?’

‘Wasn’t planning on it, no. I’ll commute. It’s only, like, an hour and a half’s travel’ – he winced as he mentally mapped out the journey – ‘each way.’

Julia remembered how hopeless Nick had been with planning and organisation back at university; the way he’d floundered around post-graduation without any real aim or ambition. His lack of direction had been a deciding factor for her in choosing to break up with him.

Trying to make the question sound unloaded, she asked: ‘And what is it you do for work now?’

‘Copywriting. At a marketing firm. But it’s barely even a job. I just sit in front of a computer all day and sometimes get told what to type.’

‘That sounds interesting,’ she said, hopefully.

‘It isn’t,’ he said. With every downstep he took, the houseplant’s outermost fronds tapped annoyingly against the side of his face. ‘I’ll apply for other jobs soon, though; figure things out. The city isn’t the be-all and end-all. Then, from there, who knows.’

‘And are you still doing your own writing? Like, “writing” writing?’

‘Trying to, sure, always,’ Nick said, embarrassed, thinking about all the recent stories, draft screenplays and novels-in-progress he’d started and abandoned, unable to make them effortlessly cohere like the juvenilia he’d written at university.

They transitioned into a quieter street with fewer points of access to commercial goods and services.

‘So, d’you still love living here?’ he said, steering the conversation deliberately away from the subject of his writing.

‘Me? I do love it, yeah,’ she said, reflexively, then paddled little circles in the air with her hands; ‘I mean, but, I also feel kind of negative about it, sometimes.

‘As in, the longer I stay,’ she went on, after a brief pause, ‘the more I feel like I’m being warped into the mould of a city-person. Being ground down. Which sort of makes me feel hopeless and doomed.’

Nick nodded. ‘So, what’s keeping you here?’

Good question.

To which the obvious answer was: where else could she go? All her friends were here, even though she never saw them, and so was her job, even though she didn’t like it. This was, supposedly, the city where opportunity ran thick and fun things happened. There was no real alternative, and that alone had to justify its crippling cost of living and almost-unbreathable air.

If she was being honest, for every one thing she loved about the city, she could think of a hundred others she was coming to loathe about it. Briefly, she rethought her entire adult life.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, then laughed. ‘This is turning into a high-intensity conversation.’

‘True, sorry,’ Nick said, renegotiating his bodily equilibrium with relation to the houseplant.

In an area containing more affordable rental properties, they passed tens of mid-twenties-aged couples, which, for a weird moment, made Julia feel subconsciously like she and Nick were also a couple themselves.

She blinked fast a few times, trying to reroute her thoughts. ‘Hey, so, what’s with the big plant?’ she said, to say something.

‘What?’

‘Like, why’d you buy a big plant when you’re moving away so soon?’

‘Nothing gets past you, does it, Detective? It’s for your old friend Roos.’

Julia swallowed, but the question still came out drily: ‘Why?’

‘Well, we’ve been seeing a lot more of each other lately’ – Nick shook the plant by the pot, rustling its fan-like leaves – ‘so I wanted to get her a kind of goodbye present.’

Nick waited for Julia to respond somehow, but she didn’t.

‘You should call her sometime. We could all hang out.’

‘I know I should,’ Julia said. What, exactly, was she hearing here, and why did she feel so blindsided by it? Were her ex and her ex-best friend—?

‘She’s dating this really nice guy now,’ Nick said, ‘Stanislaw. D’you remember him?’

‘Maybe,’ she said, feeling instant low-level relief. ‘From third year?’

A bus overtook a cyclist on the road beside them; Nick said something Julia failed to properly hear over the sound of the vehicle’s acceleration. She nodded and said, ‘For sure’ anyway.

Talking about Roos had set her thinking about certain decisions she’d made over the last few years, none of which had seemed particularly significant at the time, but which had all transformed her – incrementally, across days – into a withdrawn, work-oriented person who no longer had many friends. She wondered if she’d changed too much, now, to recommence those old friendships.

As an experiment, she looked at Nick and tried to pull an in-joke from their shared cache of private references; years of interpersonal experiences that only they had in common. Not a single thing came to mind.

A light rain had begun to fall, invisible in mid-air but manifesting as a constellation of discoloured discs out on the road and pavement.

It was nice to be here with Julia, Nick thought – a reassurance, in many ways – to exist again alongside her. The warm, barely noticeable rain brought the moment into a kind of thematic continuity with other important moments he’d experienced amid rains over the course of his life. Someday he would write them all down.

Then he started talking at her about the earth’s finite reserves of extractable petroleum. ‘D’you remember how, back at university, everyone was worried about “peak oil”?’ Lately, Nick had gotten into a bad habit of looking off into the middle distance as he recited long passages of information he’d memorised from online; he indulged that habit now. ‘There were always protests and debates on campus about how there’s only a limited quantity of recoverable oil left beneath the earth’s surface, and that pretty soon geological scarcity would start imposing hard limits on economic and production-related growth – as in, mass-inflating commodity prices; intensifying proxy and resource wars; and, eventually, collapsing the global economy. But, have you noticed that, nowadays, you basically never hear the term “peak oil” anymore? Which is weird because, if you look it up, forecasters say we’re edging still closer to peak oil year on year – as in, it’s only, like, one or two decades away from actually happening now. Apparently, that’s because there was all this research published a few years ago saying not to worry about peak oil because it was only a hoax, but then it turned out that that research was all oil-industry-funded, to soothe the market or whatever. It’s interesting, right? Like, it’s weird how—’ He quarter-turned to gauge Julia’s response to what he’d been saying, realised she was no longer beside him, then quarter-turned again to find she’d stopped walking several full sentences of his monologue ago.

‘Sorry Nick,’ she said, operating her smartphone; tiny raindrops bejewelling its screen. She looked up: ‘I am listening, I just need to text someone. One second.’ She looked back down at her smartphone and saw that, weirdly, she’d also managed to type the thing she’d only meant to say: Sorry Nick.

Although he secretly felt Julia’s withdrawal of her smartphone had broken the spell of their run-in’s serendipity, Nick said no worries.

Julia could sense him studying her face as she deleted and typed more words; she told him to look in another direction, and he did.

‘Are you texting a boy?’ Nick said, uptalking the word ‘boy’ at the last moment to backload the question with jokey intonation.

‘No,’ Julia said, ‘not that it’s any of your business,’ in a way that, Nick felt, successfully simultaneously chided both his nosiness and tendency toward narrow-minded, regressively heteronormative thinking. He briefly imagined Julia starring in a high-production-value TV miniseries, navigating well-lit, cosmopolitan romantic relationships with persons of all genders.

‘Why are you nodding?’ Julia said, depositing her smartphone into her backpack’s front pocket and zipping it shut.

‘I wasn’t.’

‘Yes you were. And if you must know’ – she started them both walking again – ‘I was texting my sister.’

At the same time that Nick said, ‘How’s she doing?’ Julia said, ‘I think she’s got pre-getting-married nerves.’

‘No way. I didn’t even know she was engaged. Well, I guess why would I. To that solicitor guy?’

‘Yeah. Oh no, wait. To a different solicitor guy than the one you’re thinking of.’

‘How history repeats—’

‘And here’s another thing you don’t know: she’s pregnant. And she and her fiancé are moving to Toronto.’

‘Toronto, Canada?’ Nick said, pointlessly.

‘Correct. Her hus-band’s firm is giving him a big pro-mo-tion.’

‘Wow. And will you go out to visit them?’

‘I mean, it’s far,’ Julia said, ‘and expensive. But I definitely will. I want to, as soon as I can. After the baby’s born.’ She bit the inside of her cheek; time really was just vanishing. ‘But anyway, yeah, peak oil. I think I vaguely remember being outraged about it at some point.’

At the corner of the park Julia used to cross every day on her walk to her old job, Nick asked if they could shelter for a minute under a tree – his arms needed a rest from carrying the plant. Julia said sure.

He lit, then seconds later relit, a hand-rolled cigarette she hadn’t even noticed him producing. He offered her a drag, which she declined.

The rain continued falling faintly all around them. For a while, they discussed the postgraduate lives of people they’d known at university; a former mutual friend who, over the past year, had taken up what essentially amounted to a full-time, unpaid position as a microfamous public scold on social media. At some point, Julia reported to Nick the likely consequences that the deregulated sale of chlorinated chicken would have on the restaurant industry at large.

The more they talked, the less Nick could think to say. Was it just him, or did it feel like there was some vast, elephantoid, unspoken issue between them that they were failing to acknowledge? But what? Time’s relentless flow? World events? The fact that, once, they’d made each other truly happy?

Nick shivered and outheld an upturned palm from under the tree’s cover to monitor the rain. ‘Hey, so, I’m going over there.’ He pointed off in the direction of a neighbourhood Julia didn’t know so well.

‘Alright,’ she said. For a single, specially designated moment, she allowed herself to feel disappointed.

‘This is kind of my new thing,’ he said, ‘leaving at the opportune time. But yeah. I’ll email you that article?’

‘That’d be nice.’

‘And d’you still have the same email?’

‘Yeah,’ Julia said, warmly, but thinking: Who changes their email? ‘And send me some of your stories. If you’re still writing them.’

‘Cool,’ he said, embarrassed again at the mention of his writing. He removed a stray fibre of tobacco particulate from his bottom lip. ‘Well, truly good to see you.’

She smiled, and non-seriously considered doing something insane – screaming with abandon, punching him, making a move – just to reality-test his reaction. ‘Likewise.’

‘Alright,’ he said; shook his head; ventured a look at her face. ‘Small world. Or, no, it’s just around here that’s small. But still.’

They hugged, said goodbye, then left each other alone.

Knowing she shouldn’t, she turned around and watched him walk away. Only from a distance did she realise they were both wearing the exact same model of low-top, unisex vegan shoe in differing colourways. She considered maybe texting him to point out the coincidence, but didn’t. Her turning around had had its anticipated effect – she felt sadder now than she had before.

Gradually, they were both reassimilated into the same metropolis in two separate directions; whatever versions of whatever similar thoughts they were each having about their encounter reverberating in their heads.

She walked much faster on her own, and eventually realised she’d walked a ways without thinking about where she was going, then course-corrected her direction toward home. She’d underslept the previous night, which was maybe why she felt so weird and feeble-minded now.

Two years since she’d last seen Nick. Wait, no, she’d miscounted – three. He looked a lot better than before; she wondered if he’d quit drinking altogether, or maybe just cut down.

Sad for him to be moving back in with his parents, but she guessed he couldn’t help it. Maybe it would give him the motivation he needed to finally figure himself out.

She felt glad to have run into him, but gladder still to be alone again, back once more in the clear. It had been exhausting, keeping up the front of the girl who did everything right.

Stepping over a nacreous-coloured puddle that’d pooled in a dip in the pavement, she thought about how you had to be careful with the way you remembered things: not to allow yourself to fall into easy revisionism; not to forget romantic notions of the past were almost always fictions.

A new wind strengthened the rainfall’s downward force. Cold now; she yanked hard on the hoodstrings of Ellery’s old sweatshirt, toggling its neckline tighter around her neck – how quickly the weather turned unseasonable.

Did people even talk about the weather in terms of seasonability anymore? Were seasons still designated the way they used to be; did the old signifiers still apply?

Also: are coincidences messages from God? Julia knew it sounded crazy – she wasn’t even really a believer – but she was raised in faith and knew exactly what her mother would say: It’s a sign.

Surely a self-serving fallacy, though. What seemed like synchronicities were just random affordances of chance or mischance; felicities of the void.

But then. The chaos, the suffering – in a strange way, at certain hours of the day and in certain moods, it all made its own kind of perfect sense. To desire the help of grace is the beginning of grace. Thoughts such as these delivered her into the long evening ahead.

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From Reward System by Jem Calder. Used Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Jem Calder. All rights reserved..




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