The New Animals

Pip Adam

October 6, 2023 
The following is from Pip Adam's The New Animals. Adam is the author of four novels—Audition; Nothing to See; The New Animals, which won the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction; and I’m Working on a Building—and the short story collection Everything We Hoped For, which won the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction in 2011. Pip makes the “Better off Read” podcast and lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

Tommy stood close to Sharona as she held the garments up one by one. Cal was on the other side of her but was standing at a good distance. Kurt was looking from across the table, which made it hard because she had to keep turning the pieces round so he could see them and when she did that she couldn’t see the garments and she wasn’t sure if they looked the same as when she’d shown the other two and herself. Kurt nodded a lot and smiled. They all did. She was pretty sure that while everyone was smiling and nodding things were going okay.

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“They look good,” Kurt said, and Tommy nodded.

“I’m just not sure about the T-shirt,” Cal said, and Tommy and Kurt nodded. “Yeah, just the” — Cal reached out and waved around the collar, and his large gold watch rattled — “I think it needs to be lower. Is it lower or higher? It’s not quite right.”

The others nodded and Sharona saw it. They were right.

“Can we get it on one of the models?” she asked. “It’s just. It’s late and I can’t quite get my head around which way it needs to go.” Something so fundamental but she’d been working for hours.

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“Good idea,” Kurt said.

“How long will you be, Carla?” Tommy shouted.

“Not long,” Carla said.

“Can I see him, though?” It was Elodie.

“Could you look at him with the T-shirt on?” Kurt asked.

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“Um. Yeah. Yeah. I could do that.” Elodie had the female model on a chair and was testing bases on her.

“I don’t think he’s going to need much,” Tommy said. Elodie laughed.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tommy turned to face her.

“It’s your national anthem,” Elodie said, and she started singing with her hand on her heart. “‘I don’t think they’ll need much at all.’” She had both her hands down now, she’d stopped working. Sharona could see her behind Tommy’s back.

Sharona put the T-shirt on the table for Dominic and held up a jacket. Tommy turned back to look at the jacket but Sharona could see Elodie, tools down, singing at Tommy’s back. Lips pursed like she was howling at an imaginary moon. Then there was the slightest shift in her eyes to Kurt, and Kurt looked up at her and she lifted the eyeshadow palette and stroked her brush into it, with less force than Sharona had expected. In her mind Elodie always morphed into Sharona’s daughter. No, maybe it wasn’t her mind. They were similar heights and similar ages but Elodie was happy and Alice was angry. Like light and dark — a black queen and a red queen, or were they knights?

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Sharona often tried to talk with Elodie, to try and get a handle on it — so she could get some kind of insight into why Alice was so angry, but she couldn’t. Maybe it was a money thing. Maybe Elodie was happy because she had money and ease. That’s what Sharona thought at first. At first she thought it was a defence thing. That’s how she’d read it in Alice as well — she tried to map Alice’s anger onto Elodie’s agreeability, like that would work. A defence mechanism — like anger was masking all the other unpleasant things, but that just didn’t fit with Elodie or Alice. Alice was genuinely angry. She had every right to be. Maybe Elodie was genuinely happy. But then Sharona would see her look at Kurt like she did and she’d wonder again if she was happy as some kind of disguise. She looked again at Elodie watching Kurt. He’d looked away, but she was throwing the odd glance in his direction, which made Sharona realise she was keeping as much from Tommy as she was from Sharona. But she had no idea why. There was no point in working any of it out. What she knew about the world and love and sex didn’t even figure now, with these people. She felt worn out, and at the same time intently interested. Like not knowing was an itch. So she started to rebuild it again. Elodie was sleeping with Kurt, and Tommy didn’t like it. That was all she had. Did Tommy still like Elodie? She didn’t think so. Did Tommy and her never sleep together? Had Elodie been some kind of beard? No. That didn’t scratch the itch at all. She took one more look and Elodie was looking at Carla now. Applying base with a brush but looking at Carla cutting Dominic’s hair.

Cal and Tommy were touching the jacket Sharona held up. A lot of her job was holding things up. Holding things up and reassuring people. She almost laughed. When she was bored, she liked to listen. She could hear the hum of the clippers, Tommy and Cal talking, Kurt agreeing from across the table. It was the worst, meetings like this, the intense boredom mixed with nerve-electrifying stress. It had become very clear that this would not be Sharona’s time to shine. She knew what she had to do and if this went like every other meeting, nothing about that would change — but the time it took was unbearable. The smiling, holding things up, moving them round, dressing grown men, saying it looked great. Pretending to compromise. Then she remembered.

Still holding the jacket, she pulled her arm down to look at her watch, then said, “Fuck.” Cal pulled Sharona’s arm back up so the jacket was straight again, without talking to her. He was still talking to Tommy. Alice was flying to Bali. Like now. Fuck. Sharona had said she’d give her some cash, some spending money. Fuck. She was like a parody of the awful parent. It was like she really tried hard to meet every stereotype. Fuck. It had all been a test really. Like fucking everything. In reality Alice was probably happier that she’d forgotten. Much happier. It would be awful if Sharona started being reliable or caring. Sharona really didn’t care. That was what struck her in moments like this. At first she’d made excuses about being busy and then one day she thought, It’s not busy, it’s prioritisation. It’s not that I was too busy, it’s that I put other things above her. That’s who I am. And as ugly as that realisation was, it gave Sharona complete permission to carry on, as if her mind and conscience said to each other, “We know who we are. We have learnt something about ourselves.” She felt too old to change. Which was bullshit. Maybe she was just lazy. It looked like that so often. Sheer fucking laziness.

Cal and Tommy were coming to the end of their conversation. They were happy with the jacket.

“So,” Kurt said. “That gives us the jacket, the shirt, the T-shirt, the trousers.” He was counting them off on his fingers, one by one.

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“There’s the shorts and the other trousers,” Sharona said. She looked down at the sheet and then at Guy. “The shorts might need to come in a bit, if he wears them, but we could just clip them on the day.” She was talking to the stylist now. Sharona wouldn’t be at the shoot, thank god.

“Hmmm.” The stylist was looking around. “I know it’s not my place, but, I’ll say it anyway. I think you need one more. I’m not sold on the T-shirt.”

The T-shirt was Sharona’s favourite. It was subtle. The cotton had a nylon mix in it and the fabric fell long and still. It was so white as well. Like Jesus-in-heaven white. She hadn’t made anything that white in her life. It was the only garment in the actual manufacture material. They were going to have to blow the colour out of the others in post because they weren’t quite right, but she felt like they could truly pitch this one. It was white. She loved the sleeves on it. The sleeves were a fucking revelation and the yoke fell over the shoulder at an angle that she thought was pretty good. She loved the play, the risk of having a T-shirt in the corporate line, she thought it made a statement about who Tommy thought they were. She picked it up again and held it up for them. “It’s not much until it’s on,” she said.

“Yeah,” Tommy said. “We’re going to try them on. Is this too much like that one?” He pointed at a big blow-up of the photo from last year’s shoot. He wasn’t talking to Sharona. He was talking to everyone else in the room, well, all the people who had penises.

They stood and looked from the poster to the T-shirt in front of Sharona’s face while she made fuck-off faces behind it. She looked up and Duey was smiling at her and when they met eyes, Duey looked down and nudged Carla slightly, who looked up from her work and met Sharona’s eyes, too. Sharona was mouthing, “Fucking kill me.” She was holding the T-shirt high so none of the men could see her face.

“Duey,” Tommy called out. Duey started. “Come and look at this T-shirt.”

Tommy wasn’t really looking at Duey, so she was able to make a face to Carla and Sharona, who both at almost the exact time mouthed “Traitor” and smiled.

Duey picked up her beer and walked over to the clutch of men.

“Duey,” Tommy said, “what do you think of this T-shirt?”

Duey wiped the mouth of the bottle and took a sip from her beer and looked at the T-shirt. “I like it,” she said. “I like it a lot.”

“Does it feel fresh enough?” said the stylist.

“I like the width of the sleeves,” Duey said. “And I think the colour is brighter than any white that was around last year.”

“It’s a white T-shirt,” the stylist said.

“It’s a fucking great white T-shirt,” Duey said, and walked back over to where Carla was. Tommy watched her walk away and then the deciders looked at one another. Sharona had to imagine it all because she couldn’t see from behind the T-shirt. She was still holding it in front of her face. She didn’t want to be part of it, any of it. She checked inside herself. She did this occasionally, checked if this was it. If this was the moment she would stop caring so much, where she would want out so badly that she’d walk for the door. But it wasn’t today. She could hear them all moving around, repositioning themselves around the workbench. Drawing the battle lines, staking out their allegiances. “I like it,” said Kurt, finally.

“You should get it on someone,” said Elodie. She’d walked over and was standing close to Tommy, shoulder to shoulder. She hadn’t been invited, but she’d smiled her way over. “Once it’s on someone you’ll see how awesome it is.” She picked a piece of hair off the shoulder of Tommy’s sweatshirt, then pointed at the T-shirt. “That is the best piece. That is what you’ll be showcasing. Look at those sleeves.” She walked back to the model. “You’ll see when you get it on someone.”

“I don’t know,” said Tommy, as if Elodie had said nothing. “Maybe he has a point. Maybe it is just a T-shirt.” Sharona’s arms were getting tired. She sank into the pain of them. Let that become the new normal. That was the problem, she thought to herself. Everything becomes bearable. Eventually.

“Are we a label that does a white T-shirt?” Tommy asked.

“We did last year,” said Kurt. Sharona could see his silhouette through the white cotton. He’d moved slightly, so he had the light behind him, he was pointing towards the poster on the wall. She could hear Carla blowing behind her. The clippers had stopped, there was the small shist shist of a hand quickly wiping a neck, trying not to rub the hair into the skin, trying only to get rid of it, then Carla blew again and the clippers started again. She imagined Elodie standing up now at her full height. Invisible again, but completely in control of it.

“Are we a label that makes a white T-shirt every year?” Tommy said, like it was war he was leading them into. Like it was war and he was telling them which side they needed to be on, like he was Zig fucking Ziglar, like he had written How to Win, like he was a leader amongst men, like he was Donald Trump, like this was The Shark Tank.

When they were young — Carla and Duey and Sharona — any kind of caring was frowned on. That’s what sets us apart, she thought, watching the light come through the tiny weave of the cotton. They care too much. They care crazily about things that no one gives a fuck about — or should. That was why they ran the world.

She turned her head slightly so she could see Duey and Carla out of the corner of her eye. I mean, look at us, she thought, look at the real estate we take up. It’s fucking nearly midnight and we’re holding up T-shirts and cutting hair in places where there isn’t any light. Fuck. If only they had cared more. If only they had given a shit about absolutely anything. That was the speech that needed saying. That was their speech. That was the speech she should be given. If she could be arsed, she thought, and laughed again. She would have to remember to tell Carla and Duey, when this was fucking over, after they decided they would go with the T-shirt.

“You see,” said Tommy, “now that I doubt it, I can’t help worrying that I’ll always doubt it. That tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, I’ll look at the T-shirt and think, ‘Should we have gone with that T-shirt?’”

Sharona breathed out. Sometimes things were like this. They felt tougher than they were. Blocked in behind the T-shirt, the only window showing nothing but the dark of night, she lost all perspective. It suddenly seemed so much more important than any of it was.

“Better to regret something you did do than something you didn’t,” she said. Hoping that some of its lightness would lift her out of whatever this was. This heaviness, this wake. But her voice shook when she said it. It gave her away. And no one listened anyway.

“Huh?” Cal said. He could have been looking at his phone but most probably he was looking at the T-shirt. They were all forgetting she was standing behind it. Not overly surprised by the talking T-shirt, but slightly put off their stroke.

“Regret,” she said. “You know? How they say, ‘Better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t.’”

“What does that even mean?” asked Elodie. She wasn’t making a point; she genuinely wanted to know. She’d walked over again, leaving the model with eyes closed, heavy-lidded, mascara drying.

“What do you think, Dominic?”

It was Tommy. His voice was giving him away as well. Everyone was heavy with what they weren’t saying, Sharona thought. Playing her eyes between the whiteness of the T-shirt and the darkness of the window, like it was a tennis match. Trying desperately to remember what did matter and why this didn’t. Desperately trying to put herself somewhere else. In her imagination.

To a time and place when she was happy, comfortable. She was sure there had been one. Her life. She thought. Her fucking life. She got like this. She hated it when she did but she got like this. It wore her down. Which was understandable. Carla had said so, would say so, surely they would all go out for a drink after this. Surely. Working so hard, getting no credit for any of it. Sore arms, sore head, sore eyes. Her eyes were playing up something awful. She’d been to the optometrist, who had said, “Time to get some reading glasses.” Like it was inevitable, like Christmas. Sharona had said, “I don’t really read.” And the optometrist had laughed, then talked about close work. Sharona had had her last clear, unaided view of something up close. And that was the end of that.

The T-shirt was almost touching her nose now. Her arms were losing their oomph. She felt like she was melting, shrinking. She thought about morning optimal height, how everyone was taller in the morning. Would someone say, “Time for shorter trousers?” Old people shrank, she knew that. Her daughter had been obsessed with it for a while. Early on. When they first met, well, met for the second first time. Alice was seven — obsessed with shrinking people. She explained it often to Sharona. “Bones compress,” she said. “Bodies change.” Sharona hadn’t been around children at all. Once she got rid of her own she didn’t see much point. People around her had children, sure, but she had no interest at all. None. Duey said it was a defence mechanism. Sharona doubted that. “I highly doubt that,” she said. She just didn’t like them. Fuck, if she couldn’t like her own what on earth made Duey think she’d like anyone else’s. That was probably why they all stayed in touch. Their shared hate of children. The fact none of them had any.

Her daughter got better. Not the personality — she was always awful to Sharona, always hated her, they were chalk and cheese — but the visits got easier, less boring. She never wanted to play with Sharona, generally there wasn’t any time. They generally met in a supervised place. Sharona hadn’t done anything wrong, Alice’s dad just wanted to make sure she knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. That it was what their daughter wanted. But Sharona completely doubted that. It would have been him. Just to show Sharona. What a good job he’d done, how hard it was.

“What are the other options?” It was Dominic, he’d taken a long time to reply to Tommy.

“I’m not sure,” Tommy said. “Sharona?” He sounded more reasonable than he had all night, which meant the T-shirt was going.

And just like that she was called back, back to work.

She could have gone anywhere, in that small time given to her while they thought about the fucking T-shirt — a beach, a mountain, a restaurant, but she’d gone there — how shitty she was as a mother.

“Well,” she said, drawing it out. “There isn’t a lot that’s got the same story as this. Like, this shot, with Dominic, it’s the pants eh? And like there’s a lot going on with those pants, and yeah, I just feel like the T-shirt works to balance that.”

“Is there not enough going on?” Tommy literally had his hand to his chin.

Sharona wouldn’t speak again. She’d saved up her speaking. Kept quiet all fucking season and now, this is what she’d chosen to say. It sounded defensive. It would be taken as defence. No one had mentioned it but they all noticed the space where the other samples should have been. Surely this would all be over soon. She had another shirt. She wasn’t even sure why she was fighting for this one. She had other shirts. The shirts were easy. There was a singlet.

“We have the singlet, eh?” Kurt asked.

“The singlet is tricky for the story,” said Tommy. “The singlet shows a lot of skin. Have you got the button-down close, Shar?”

She put the plastic bag back over the top of the T-shirt and went to the rack to pull out the singlet and the button-down. It would need another steam. The fabric was close and it would be easy to mimic it in the photo, but it wasn’t exactly what she’d promised them. She wasn’t sure at this time, and in this light they’d notice, but she would let them know so they could decide for themselves.

“It’s not exactly the same material,” she said, pulling the plastic bag up and over the coat hanger and the cotton shirt.

“In colour?” Tommy said.

“In colour,” Sharona said, weighing it up. “I can’t guarantee it, because I haven’t seen the finished pieces, but I think it’s pretty close.”

Tommy called over the photographer and he assessed it.

Sharona brought over the sample book. “Things can change, though,” she said. It sounded defensive again. What exactly could she guarantee?

“What exactly can you guarantee, Shar?” Cal had a smirk on his face. He was trying to keep everything light. Sharona wanted to say it wasn’t her fault.

“Well,” she said. “At this point. I think we need to look at solutions. That’s what I’ve given you.” She waved her hand behind her at the rack. “So, yeah, I think you need to get your head into that kind of frame. It’s the story that’s important, and I feel confident that this tells a story consistent with your original vision.”

“She’s right.” Tommy didn’t look up. He looked from fabric swatch to singlet. “We can pump it up or down afterward. We’re shooting some black and white tomorrow, for the tattoos, and I feel like we can get it. I like the button-down better than the T-shirt.”

“Yeah. I think it’s good. But I still like the T-shirt.” Cal was talking now. He was like this. Quiet for a lot of the time, almost seething, and then he would talk and it was like someone else had taken over his voice, like he was a puppet, because the only way he ever talked was calm and measured. “Bring the T-shirt as well. Let’s get these fuckers into these clothes. It’s so fucking late.”


From The New Animals by Pip Adam, published October 3, 2023 by Dorothy, a publishing project. Copyright © 2023 by Pip Adam.

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