George Kourkoumelis is mad as a cut snake, and I was hoping this might work in my favor. In his little office out the back of the Kourka Service Station, he looked caged, but not securely. It wasn’t his natural habitat, the office. Right now he seemed to be checking the back of his computer for nits.
I cleared my throat. “George, you got a moment?”
He spun, arms akimbo, ready for anything—hold-ups, shoplifters, pretty girls—and fixed me with his coal-black eyes. “Adam! What’s up, bud? We’re out of unleaded, sorry. Coffee machine’s backed up like a bran muffin again, goddamn it. Wanna go get a coke or something? Need to get out this place for a bit.”
“Actually, I wanted to ask you for help.”
“Of course! Consider it done! Does a bear do it with other bears? Shoot.”
I held up a brightly wrapped rectangular parcel. “I just found this slipped under my front door.”
Frowning, instantly in amongst it, he reached for the parcel. “A present, by the looks—is it ticking?—looks harmless—give it here.”
But I clutched the burning rectangle to my breast. “No, George, don’t. It’s from Auntie Gwen. She delivered it last night. It’s… it’s a book of poetry. Her poetry.”
“How do you know? Could be anything. I once got a drill-bit set about that size.”
“I know Gwen.” I squeezed the bright rectangle. “It has some sort of hand-sewn macramé cover. It’s her cri de cœur, no doubt about it. The whole family’s been expecting it. We just didn’t know where the axe would fall.”
“Who the hell’s Gwen?” he asked, maintaining a ferocious stare at the bright little parcel.
“My Auntie Gwen! You know her—you’ve met her heaps of times. Back when I worked here, she’d often come in.”
“Pink Toyota Yaris?”
“Yep, that’s the one.”
“Got it.” He finally looked up from the parcel. “Gwen’s alright. What’s her beef?”
Her beef was her husband of eighteen years, Frank Luscombe. Three months ago they’d had an almighty row and Frank had moved out. Gwen had always been poetically inclined, but this rent in her life-fabric had sent her into a frenzy of versification. I was holding the fruit of her soul’s recent drive-by in the dark night. I was, frankly, terrified.
“Pah!” George cried, enthusiasm building. “Give it here, Adam! How bad can it be? I read a poem the other day, it was a real pick-me-up…lemme see, how did it go? There once was a girl from Nantucket… Damn, can’t remember the rest—but she was definitely from Nantucket.”
I was starting to doubt the wisdom of coming here. Possibly sensing this, George moved quickly to wrest the bright parcel from my hands.
He ripped the paper off, flipped through the slender, hand-sewn edition-of-one, then slammed it shut, thrust it back at me.
“Jesus in a blanket,” he said softly, the wind a little taken out of his sails. “Who the hell is Frank?”
“Uncle Frank, no doubt, the errant husband.”
“Does he really have a tumor where formerly his heart doth beat?”
“George,” I implored. “I have to move fast. I have to return this to Gwen right away. Will you help?”
George nodded thoughtfully. “I get it, tell her she’s a hack, couldn’t write a swear-word on the back of a dunny-door—fair enough, but where do I come in?”
“No, no, she can’t know I’ve received it. If I can sneak this into the bottom drawer of her writing desk, I’ll be able to convince her that she never gave it to me—that grief created mad fancies in her hot brain, or something. It’s my only chance.”
George broke into a big grin. “A sting!” he cried, leaping forward.
“No! It’s not—Jesus, George, please, I can’t breathe, let me go!”
“Now, let’s think this through,” he said, stepping back. “I could turn the servo into a fake betting shop. How much money does she have?”
“George, please, I just want you to deposit the book while I distract Auntie Gwen.”
“Does she play cards?”
“Lemme show you something!” George ripped the book from my white-knuckled grip and stuffed it down the front of his snug-fitting black pants. “What book? Eh? Eh? Just like Robert Redford! Ha!”
“George! Be careful! The cover is hand-sewn for Christ’s sake!” Besides, the rectangular object was so clearly outlined, one could almost read the byline. It was making me nervous. I stepped forward, extending a hand. “It’s too big, George. Take it out.”
He winked, put an arm round my shoulder as he led the way out of the office. “Maybe buy me dinner first, eh bud.”
* * *
George drove, and drove at his usual stately pace. It always surprised me. This man, so impatient to pluck the nettles and flowers, so alive with restless coronal energy, drove like a little old lady. Behind the wheel, he let the world come to him—the lively outdoor cafes, the shopfront displays, the pretty girls, the endless weft and weave of potential stings.
Halfway there, my phone rang.
“It’s Frank!” I cried.
“Good,” George called, his head out the window, trying to look back at something. “Tell him to pull his finger out.”
I hit the green. “Uncle Frank!”
“Gidday, Adam. You spoken to Gwen recently?”
“Ah, no, no, not really, no. You?”
“She won’t return my calls. She sent a text last night. It said, ‘If you want to know the truth, ask Adam.’ What does she mean?”
“Wow, that’s…I’ve really no idea, Frank. I haven’t spoken to her for a couple of weeks.” This was in fact the truth but, boy, it sure sounded like a lie.
There was a long pause. George whooped at something under an awning. Frank said, “Is she seeing someone? Is that it?”
“Oh, Frank, no, I wouldn’t think so, not Auntie Gwen.”
Another pause, a harrumph, then, “Yeah, well, if you see her, tell her I know the truth when I see it.”
“Okay, sure, that seems fair enough, I’ll certainly…” But he’d hung up.
“How’s Frank?” George asked.
George nodded thoughtfully. “Could be the tumor.”
Auntie Gwen’s book of poetry was in the console between us. I adjusted its slanted position so the hand-sewn covers sat more snugly closed. More fool he who thinks any old truth will set him free.
“Next left,” I said.
“Too easy, bud.”
* * *
At Auntie Gwen’s door, I paused before knocking. “Okay, so you’ve got it straight? Let me do the talking. You focus on her desk—it’s in the far corner of the living room. I’ll get Gwen to show me something in the garden or kitchen, and you just shove the book in the bottom drawer, right down the bottom so it takes some finding.”
“Love it,” George laughed, stretching his wiry frame, adjusting the book under his jacket. “We gotta have a serious talk after this, Adam. We could take this town to the cleaners!”
“Okay, fine, whatever. Let’s just get this done first.”
I knocked as, beside me, George lifted a hand to pat his hair—and the book of poesy fell to the ground!
The door opened. In a trice, George had the book stuffed down the front of his snug-fitting black pants. Dear God in heaven! Like a sideways billboard spruiking the ninth circle of hell!
“Auntie Gwen!” I cried, stepping forward to grasp her hand, lock her eyes on mine.
“Adam! My dear, what a pleasant surprise. And George, lovely to see you again.” A little shyly, she said to me in a conspiratorial whisper, “I would ask what brings you to my humble door, but I think we both know, don’t we.” I’m not sure I’d ever seen Auntie Gwen wink before, but I’m certain it didn’t augur well.
“Well, ah, yes, great, but, well,” I said, a little evasively.
“Mrs. Luscombe,” George said, “you’re looking lovelier than a hat full of darling buds.”
“Oh my,” Gwen said, a hand to her bosom. “George, do you… But where are my manners. Come through, boys, come, come…”
George wasn’t lying. Gwen was looking good. Done up like she was expecting royalty, hair, make-up, a lovely flowing floral dress. She led the way into the large living room where a central table was laid for a small feast: plates of sandwiches, pastries, and various toothpicked edible whatnots.
“Mrs. L, you shouldn’t have!” George cried, making an alarmingly unconscious adjustment to his lower comfort.
Gwen laughed as she tended to the table. Then, frowning slightly, she stood and appraised George. “I can’t put my finger on it, George, but you look different somehow. Have you lost weight?”
“I have been off my food lately, now that you mention it.”
Gwen bowed her head over a platter of brightly colored meringues. “Say no more,” she intoned. “Those who pine, pine most plangently at the table of plenty.” She looked up reverently. “What’s her name?”
“Who?” George twisted to look behind him, emitting an unseemly creak from below his belt.
“Ah, Auntie Gwen,” I said, stepping in front of George. “Could I see you in the kitchen for a moment?”
Eyebrows raised, she said, “No better than you can see me here.”
“No, um, I meant I want to see something in there…in the kitchen.”
“Ah, well, the oven—no, no, I meant, could I see you in the garden, the little pond—I used to love catching tadpoles…maybe a fish...” I think I was grinning, but not very convincingly.
With a smile, Gwen came round the table. “My dear Adam, I know why you’re so nervous, but you needn’t be, really.”
Thankfully, George had his wits about him, was using the moment to wander off to the far end of the room, where the large mahogany desk sat brooding in a corner.
I said, “I’m not nervous. Why should I be nervous?”
“My little briar patch.”
“The book of poems I slipped under your door a few days ago. Don’t worry, you can discuss them openly, without fear or favor, my wounds are well-cauterized.”
I made a strenuous effort to look vague and blank. “Book of poems? No, I don’t think…”
“You didn’t see a book, under your front door?”
“No, I’m afraid I didn’t. Was it very big? Maybe I missed it.”
Gwen sighed. “As big as the universe and as puny as a fallen sparrow. What a pity. I’d hoped you’d brought it with you. You see, I’m about to host a poetry-reading brunch for my writing group, and—”
An anguished cry came from the far end of the room: “Damn! It’s locked!”
Gwen spun—but a split second after George had done the same.
“What is?” Gwen asked sharply.
“Er…my heart,” George said.
Gwen’s countenance softened; she extended both hands. “I understand. Come, George. Have a meringue.”
George walked back, his gait reminiscent of a cowboy who’d seen one too many rodeos.
I was starting to sweat. What now? We’d just have to stow the damn thing in a pot plant—ditch it wherever and skedaddle, that was the thing.
“Gwen, are you decent!” This matronly cry came from the front door. Three women then entered the living room; two were stout, loud, and comfortably autumnal, the third young, silent, and rather pale. Warm greetings were exchanged and small-talk bandied.
Before I’d had a chance to edge George away from the group, a dozen or so more women arrived. There may have been a sympathetically inclined gent or two in the mix, but things were moving too fast to be sure.
“George,” I said in an urgent undertone, tugging his elbow. “Over here, let’s talk.”
“Who is she?”
The emotion in his voice startled me. “Who?”
He made a fierce jerk of his head—indicating the young pale woman who had sat herself carefully on the edge of a divan.
“Ah, I think her name is Eleonore, but—”
“Introduce me,” he said emphatically.
“George, please, I will—but first, come to the kitchen. We’ll dump the book in the cutlery drawer, then we’ll take her to the circus if you like, but let’s—”
“Now! Or by this hand, the book comes out for all to see.”
Christ! It’d been years since George had fallen in love. I’d forgotten how hectic it got. There was nothing for it. We wandered over.
“Ah, Eleonore, is it?” I asked.
A wan nod.
“Yes, good, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, George Kourkoumelis.”
Her eyes met his, and didn’t waver. She rose from her seat. “Pleased to meet you, George.”
George, by some strange throwback law only he could divine, decided to stay mute.
“George runs the Kourka Service Station,” I offered.
“Really?” she asked, smiling, and not so palely. “And you attend poetry recitals in your spare time?”
George nodded. “’Tis so,” he said gruffly.
With just a hint of teasing, she asked, “And can you recite any?”
And George broke into a big grin. I put a gently restraining hand to his shoulder but he shook it off. “How about this,” he said. Unfortunately, the conversational flow round the table took this moment to lull almost to silence, just as George bespake loudly and confidently, “My love for Frank is like a red, red hose!”
There was a shriek on the other side of the table. Auntie Gwen had fainted. She was helped to a chair. I rushed to her side. A glass of water was brought. Lace was flapped.
“Auntie Gwen,” I said. “I can explain.”
“No need,” she said weakly. “It all makes sense. I hope Frank can find the happiness with George I could never provide. My old doormat of a heart matters not. I at least have my—”
“No, no! Auntie Gwen, it’s not what you think, it’s—”
“Adam, please!” Gwen sharply cut across. “Don’t seek to advise me on matters of the heart, a subject upon which your ignorance so horribly dwarfs your shoe-size. That’s why I presented you with my little book of scribblings. Please, Adam, stop playing silly games. Go home and read the book.”
“But, Auntie Gwen, listen to me—what George said—”
“What George said,” Gwen cried vehemently, “was a line taken directly from my opening sonnet! Only true love can wound in such a wicked and riddling fashion! Let me be traduced, parodied, but ultimately justified! Let the muse ravish me! I’m good for nothing else!” She wasn’t far off another faint.
“Well, you see, about the book…”
“Gwen, what’s going on!” This was a man’s belligerent, if somewhat bewildered, voice. At the entrance to the living room stood Frank Luscombe, solidly built, balding, in jeans and a flannel shirt.
“Frank!” Gwen cried, then collected herself magnificently, making a grand sweep of her right arm in George’s direction. “There he is, Frank. Go to him. No more secrets!”
Frank looked at George, who had his back to him, fully absorbed with Eleonore. After a murmur from Eleonore, George’s voice rang out, more whimsically this time: “Gwen keeps as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart. Copulation is no more frank to Gwen than death is. Gwen believes in the flesh and the appetites.”
During this hypnotic recital, Frank’s visage slowly reddened to near-purple. With clenched fists, he started across the room, muttering, “I knew it…”
“See?” Gwen said, tugging at my elbow. “See Frank’s passion? That’s the real thing. He was barely able to fake a whistle with me.”
Of all the shrieks which hit the roof as Frank spun George and laid him out with one mighty punch, Eleonore’s was clearly the loudest. She knelt by her beau sprawled flat on his back. “George! George! Oh, poor George, a new voice, with truths too rare for this vulgar world!”
But George stirred groggily, groped for Eleonore’s hand. Frank, about to turn, noticed a curious flap protruding from the waist of George’s snug-fitting black pants. Something about the weave of it perhaps…
More shrieks as Frank got down on all fours, tore angrily at George’s belt buckle, ripped wide the fly of his pants. A deathly silence followed as everyone looked. The spell was only broken by Eleonore bursting into sobs. “Oh George, George, I barely knew you! Can you hear me? Can you be mine?”
George may even have managed a wink as he croaked, “Long as you buy me dinner, babe, no worries.”
“Absolutely, George,” she whispered in his ear between kisses. “But there’s one thing I have to know first.”
“Is it…is it hand-sewn?”
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This is farce done loud and proud. I was ROTFL with the misquote from Burns. The visual humour of the poetry group is perfect for all Reedsy readers. More just like this please!
Thanks, Rebecca -- appreciate that. Dickering around with things like the "red red hose" is something I probably enjoy way too much.
Love this descriptor: "fruit of her soul’s recent drive-by in the dark night." Very engaging story that takes the premise on a character-rich and chaotic bit of farce. Makes for fun reading.
Thanks Laurel - you tagged my own fave descriptor there.
George reminds me of the universal big brother. Eleonore likes the classics. What a lady. Make her yo queen.
Great story! There's definitely a box-office hit buddy movie in here somewhere...
Heh, outstanding :) By the time the women started arriving at the party, I couldn't stop grinning. What I like about this is - actually, there's a lot I like, but I'll start with the fact that it's a big chaotic mess of stories that all collide, and it just works. We're led to believe this is a story about returning an unwanted book, and it is, but it's also a story of marriage troubles in the aunt and uncle, a friendship story with George, a blooming love story with Eleonore, and others. The beauty arises from misunderstandings and fricti...
Aspects of ourselves that we don’t integrate, we will experience as external events?...or something like that. The shrinking wallflower observers of life do seem always to be stumbling upon chaos – at least judging from what I’ve read. Refusing to even read the lurid poetry is a risky strategy. Here’s *looking* at you! – phew, fortunately I was able to change this one.
This was great, couldn't stop reading (and laughing :). Excellent writing style!
Oh boy, theses two just kept getting deeper and and deeper into hilarious trouble. Your writing is visually entertaining and I enjoyed the dynamic between all of these characters. Well done :)
Thanks for the kind words, Aeris.
Yes. 💯 x yes on this, start to finish. This should be filmed into a screwball comedy, right up there with “My Man Godfrey” and Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" 🎥🍿 Another story showing off your considerable knowledge of literature…(you had me at the title!) Hamlet: Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring? Ophelia: 'Tis brief, my lord. Hamlet: As woman's love.
Thanks, Deidra. I’ve gotta stop kissing up to Hamlet – people will talk. I’ve never seen “My Man Godfrey” – I’m falling behind – I’ve snagged a copy of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet – the youtube clips look...intriguing. Might even risk it one night, maybe when Derek Jacobi is out pulling another all-nighter trying to prove Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare.
Cracking characters and a lively plot. It pulled me in as soon as I read the opening line about George being “as mad as a cut snake.” All over a book of poetry too! Thanks Jack.
But it is a HAND-SEWN book of poetry! :) Perhaps even snakeskin... Thanks, Helen.
You made recom. Congratulations
[Slow clap with dramatic standing posture.] -love the name of the family business. Reminds me of the Anakova milk bar. -I'm thinking William Shakespeare was a dirty rotten bastard. In fact the guy came up on my wife's ancestry as an uncle. Now I know that he was a dirty rotten bastard. That being said, you have succeeded in many elements of making literature again. That stuff that Burgess tried to do Coining new words like the Bard. In this case it's phrasing. Unfortunately, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," prophesises that people m...