Pox Party

I arrive at the house with Sarah and after a few moments the door opens. Patient Zero stands there with her face – a polka dot mask – buried in her mother’s thigh. The mother tried to extricate her and beckons us into a house thrumming with bassy music, punctuated by the occasional shriek of overstimulated children.

Next to the front door is an erected pasting table draped in a red cloth, covered in presents. The wrapping paper is nondescript, occasion-neutral. It doesn’t escape me that the paper on one of the presents, replete with bow, is polka in design. Nobody mentioned gift-giving.

Except, of course, the gift of exposure to a contagious disease.

I try to make my excuses but the mother insists and pushes a drink into my hand. I take a seat with the other hangers-on and get into discussion with a father. He gestures towards his son, a boy of about six years old, and tells me the boy has only recently stopped wetting the bed. I explain that because of a clashing hairdressing arrangement I’m here in my wife’s stead. He asks about my work. I keep an eye on Sarah through the patio door. She is now buried to the waist in the outdoor ball pool. Light glints off the dewey balls as they’re tossed around in frenzied armfuls.

The Pox Princess is sat in the middle of an armchair, her mottled legs out horizontal, teetering over the lip of the cushion. Her arms outstretched would be unable to reach those of the chair; she appears lost in it. In her lap a cat submits to long, languishing strokes from the girl, who – it has not gone unnoticed, by me or my conversation partner – is not interacting with anyone.

“And if she’s not interacting with the other kids,” my partner philosophises, “what, even, is the point?

The mother, wrestling her attention away from a buffet of breadsticks, celery, brainfood, notices this inaction and grasps the Princess by the wrist, navigating across the lounge-cum-dining room and releasing the girl into the epicentre of kids gathered around a Playmobil set. In hushed tones she reprimands the girl, who nods and squats down next to the Bedwetter to play.

I lapse back to the previous day, in the car park, picking up Sarah from school. A group of moms hold forth on the imminent party. One parent eschews on the morals of intentionally exposing a child to discomforting, infectious strains of chicken pox; to which another makes an argument for the Greater Good. A third contributes that it’s grossly selfish and pulls her vacant-looking son towards their car.

“I feel sorry for the kid,” Greater Good continues, “Being trotted out by her mother like that. Such a timid girl, too. Makes you wonder, if it wasn’t for the pox would anyone even go?

I’m snapped out of my reverie and find Sarah stood in front of me, an arm extended outwards, clutching a blue plastic ball. I take the ball with a smile, and my thumb glides in lazy circles over the glossy surface. I lean in, beckon Sarah closer with a conspiratorial smile.

“Why don’t you go and play with the girl over there?” I motion to the Princess, who has re-established herself in the armchair, sans cat. “I bet she’d like that.”

Sarah smiles as she skips off and I finish my drink.

I exchange final pleasantries with the mother at the door and turn to leave, confirming the pickup time over my shoulder as I make strides towards the car. Sat behind the wheel I look back to the house. Sarah and the Pox Princess are sat in the bay window at the front of the house, passing a sausage roll between them – alternating bites.

The Writer

The man thought he would like to become a writer, but didn’t think he was well read enough. He ordered some books. Some were from the Amazon best-seller list, others he picked from a forum post: 100 BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE. He cherrypicked the shorter books with a page count of less than or around two hundred pages. This, he theorized, was the best way to get through as many books as possible in the shortest amount of time. He picked books from a variety of genres, but none too old.

He would read these books two at a time. He would balance a novel and a book of short stories, or a book of essays. He would read the biographies of great men. When a book was done he would tick it off on his GoodReads profile (which he would set up) and pick up another. He would use various items for bookmarks – receipts, playing cards, dollar bills – but never an actual bookmark. He would go to great pains to never fold a corner or crease a spine. He would line the completed books on a shelf and occasionally make a mental note of how many there were. Previously abandoned books, including a fat Wordworth Classics edition of The Brothers Karamazov sat in a stack on the coffee table.

After a time he would be ready to write, but what to write on? He had a laptop he used in his old job, but the screen was a whopping seventeen inches and when the graphics card was under duress the large fans would produce a steady drone. The laptop was full of messaging apps and games and other distractions. The weight hurt his knees after prolonged use. Not to mention the association with work. He didn’t want writing to be ‘work’. Best to find something smaller, less distracting. Something with no internet and a better battery (for long sessions in the coffee shop). He Googled for the most spartan notepad app, recalling an article he read about George R. R. Martin and how he used a DOS processor for all his work. The man made a mental note to keep a constant supply of backups, versions.

Then there was the problem of where to write. He cleared the miscellany of the study into the spare bedroom, armfuls at a time. He rotated the trinkets on the sills and shelves, dusting beneath each in turn. Lint listed lazily in the daylight as the man vigorously vacuum-cleaned right into the corners, sweat shimmering on his red neck. He filled garbage bags until there was no more room in the can outside. He wiped down the old school desk and arranged a lamp, an ipad dock, a coaster with ‘COFFEE IS THE GASOLINE OF LIFE’ recessed across it.

Then the problem of what to write. He bought a moleskin notebook with the intention of writing down minutia and trivia. Observations. He picked one that slipped easily into his jacket pocket, for rapid retrieval. He considered buying a hip-flask for the other pocket; after all, the best writers were also irresponsible drinkers. Maybe he could develop a habit and fast-track himself to Hemmingway status?

Or perhaps he should be more mindful of his intake? Healthy body, healthy mind. He stocked his fridge with vegetables and bought flax and chia seed from a health food store. He made a couple of smoothies but struggled getting the ratios right. Instead, blended apple and kale congealed over a lake of coconut water. He grimaced as he drank, and spent the afternoon sucking kale flecks out of his gums.

His wife comes home at around 5pm and he is already preparing dinner. She asks how his day was and he replies ‘productive’. An hour later, with the plates soaking in the sink, they collapse onto the sofa and watch TV. The show ends, and the great Netflix algorithm recommends another, then another. He dozes to the gentle tones of Bob Ross. As 11pm approaches they proceed up to bed, single file, turning the study light off as they pass.

As he slips into unconsciousness, the man thinks that maybe he would like to become a painter.