WHEN HE CAME HOME THAT DAY Eugene found a long box in the hallway. He dragged it into the living room. It was of a size that might contain a guitar or some longer instrument. A white label on the lid stated: Contents: Self-Assembly Woman.
He got out a steak knife and slit the brown tape at the edges. Inside were a number of pieces separately wrapped. He lifted one up and picked at the wrapping. No bubble plastic, just layers and layers of pulpy paper. The object inside looked like nothing he had ever seen before. He unwrapped a few pieces and laid them out on the floor alongside the box. Several stubby tubes and bulbous shapes with snap-connectors embedded. The colour was a neutral white skin tone except for the roughened grey ends.
Eugene took the largest section and felt the heft of it. It was a lower leg, without doubt. It felt complete in itself, something you might like to keep beside you on the couch and stroke every so often. By now he was beginning to believe the box contained what it stated on the lid: a self-assembly woman. His curiosity aroused at last, he rummaged for an instruction leaflet. ‘Lucky for me it’s not a kitchen cabinet,’ he thought. The results of his DIY project some months previously had been laughable.
The pulpy wrapping paper now littered the floor of the room. He ate his evening meal sitting on the couch, and watched television for some time. At last his attention was drawn again to the box on the floor. The sight of the two limbs he had assembled bothered him. It was not right to leave it incomplete.
He searched for the torso. It was not as easy to identify as he expected—just one oblong lump among the others, not even as heavy as the thighs. When he had attached the arms and legs he had something resembling a human body without a head. But it was unsatisfactory. The skin was too even in tone. It felt unpleasantly putty-like. All in all, it was no more realistic than a plain shop dummy. He wondered how he could have expected otherwise.
He tried to get the body, or what pieces he had already assembled, to sit up on the couch. It was surprisingly heavy. The box had not seemed so heavy when he had dragged it into the living room. The limbs put up a leaden resistance. He took an arm and made it wave, bending the elbow repeatedly. Next he tried to get one hand to rest casually on the arm of the couch. It was useless; he felt like he’d never seen a human before, didn’t know what angle the elbow should be, what way the legs should cross. He stretched out his own arm and studied the way his fingers moved to grasp the handle of a teacup. But he was tired after working all day. He concentrated too hard, and in the end his arm was moving woodenly, gracelessly.
It was after midnight when he left it there, limbs jutting at odd angles. To get even one finger to rest in a lifelike position seemed impossible. He scrunched up all the wrapping paper and pushed it out of sight. It was time to go to bed. He went into his bedroom, but was hardly through the door before he came back out again and stood looking at her.
‘Goodnight lady,’ he said.
He spent many evenings shaping her fingers to rest just so, then reshaping them to a fist. The arms moved less stiffly now; he could guide each of them smoothly from hand-under-the-chin to offering-to-shake-hands. But the skin was still wrong. It had a flat monotonous sheen. When grasped it bore the imprint for too long. She was a doll—a headless doll. He sat beside her and massaged each of her arms. Gripped her like she was suffering from frostbite. Caught each finger and counted little piggies. Took her wrist and moved it in circles, like playing with a puppy’s paw. And with little thought to it, cupped her breasts, feeling them take form under his palms. He worked his way down, delineating the ribs beneath the skin, urging the life heat to emerge. The flesh tightened and became resilient beneath his guiding hands. Each tautness encountered, each curve under his fingers seemed almost right, familiar, but not quite there yet. He lay behind her, stretched out arm alongside arm, leg alongside leg, wishing form to borrow from form. Stroking and clutching each curve until at moments it seemed perfect.
A blemish. No, a speckled bruise on her underarm. Terrified, he turned it to the light. Gently rubbed it, but it was deep in the skin. He sprang up, ransacked his cabinets for skin cream. Antiseptic maybe, diluted in five parts water. Cold or hot? He stopped, poured the mixture down the sink, finally realising there is nothing much to be done with a bruise except to leave it be.
The body lay crooked on the couch where he had left it. He straightened it to a sitting position and thought about throwing a blanket over it, to keep her warm perhaps, or because the sight of it pained him in the gut, like it pained him one time he’d seen a run-over dog at the side of the road.
One large piece remained among the packaging. He had shied away from unwrapping it. Working swiftly, he steadied the head against his chest and pressed it onto her torso, in a trembling panic thinking it would never find the right position, hearing the obscene creak of cartilage under his palm. Then whispering in her ear, hugging her close, he ran his fingers along the join, wishing the nodular line away. He held her firmly, not daring to let go, urging strength into her. The flesh must respond to his warmth and his wishes, it must heal where no harm has been done. He held her so long his own neck became stiff and pained him, and he couldn’t help but stretch himself.
She was pretty, like a woman sketched in a children’s storybook. Her dark hair fell down in a zigzag over her forehead. The locks looked sharp in outline, yet were like feathers to touch. Each time he saw her he wanted to smile.
Even so she was little use for anything except sitting with arms folded, staring ever more sharply right and left. The exercises continued; methodically every evening, arranging her in a dozen different postures, bending and unbending a thousand times.
Several weeks later, he had forgotten what the flat had been like without her there. The exercises had become a comforting routine. But that evening when he ran his hands across her neck and breasts he noticed a rim of dust on his fingertips. He backed off, horrified. The ugly secret exposed: she was just an object. He dragged her into the bathroom and splashed up a foam.
‘You have to begin to do things for yourself,’ he told her. ‘What more can I do? Do you want me to shake you?’ Her skin bloomed pink among the white suds. ‘Can’t you see I shouldn’t be doing this?’ he said as he patted her dry between her legs. He held her hand, just the four fingers, and helped her back to the settee. She slumped there, alarmingly naked. A sense of emergency gripped him.
A taxi took him to the late-night shopping centre. He filled a basket with camisoles and slips, brassieres and sweaters. There was no embarrassment at the checkout; he was too preoccupied for that. Too much time had slipped past, it could never be regained. She had lain naked for weeks—it shamed him now, what she might think of him. His mind played over the image of her draped along the couch. Retrospective desire swelled in him. A new fear seeded and grew as he sat silently in the back of the taxi home.
On one knee he knelt before her, guiding a slim foot into the underwear. Faced once again with the practicalities of muscle movements, the nervous desire he experienced in the cab dissipated. She was easy to dress, Genevieve, as he had begun to call her. He did not know anyone else with this name and did not know why it had occurred to him. Eugene, Genevieve.
‘You’re looking good today,’ he told her. Things were different now that she was dressed.
‘You’re looking good today,’ she replied.
And so each evening he would talk through the things that happened that day, beginning with the bus stop and the traffic jams, the river that runs through the city and the morning cafés. There are four different types of coffee, he explained, cappuccino and latte, espresso and americano.
‘We can go out right now, you can see for yourself,’ he said.
She turned her face away.
‘And have them all laugh at me?’ she said.
‘They don’t know you. But we’ll go out when you want to. You’ll get bored here soon enough.’
‘I like it here,’ she said, ‘and anyway, I know a lot about what’s going on outside. In here it’s fine. Why would I want to look at people I don’t know walking up and down a street? To see them drink coffee maybe?’
‘Suit yourself,’ he said.
‘I will,’ she said.
Yet when he came back from the kitchen just a few minutes later she was unaccountably livid.
‘How can you live in this mess?’ she said.
He looked about him. It was the same as always. Cleaner, in fact, because she had straightened the items on the table and sorted his letters into neat piles—indifferent as to whether they were bills or fast-food leaflets.
‘What mess?’ he asked, following her eyes. And then he saw the scrunched up papers spilling out from the gap between the settee and the display cupboard.
‘I’ll get rid of that,’ he said, and began to pull the pulpy papers out.
‘Can you do it some other time?’ She had shrunk to the corner of the settee, clutching her knees to her chin. He pushed the papers back and moved a chair in front of them.
‘Please, let’s go out soon. I’m making it sound more boring than it really is.’
‘What am I to talk to them about?’ It was not a complaint. She was excited about meeting his friends for the first time. A hum emanated from her all evening. Partly it was a song winding in and out of tune, partly the incessant small noises an anxious person makes.
‘What if they ask me if I prefer Beethoven or Wagner? I haven’t listened to any Wagner.’
‘They won’t ask you that.’
‘What if they ask me about things I don’t know?’
‘Just give a silly answer, make them laugh.’
‘You won’t leave me on my own or start talking only to them as if I’m not there? They’ll be looking at me…’
‘I won’t leave you on your own. Whenever you want to leave, just give me a sign and we’ll go straight away.’
‘Why aren’t you putting on good clothes? They are your best friends. You should show them some respect.’
‘You’re right,’ he laughed and chose a casual yellow shirt he had not had occasion to wear.
‘I’d like to bring them a present. Flowers would look silly, wouldn’t they?
Maybe some chocolates. Tell me about them again. Fran and Duncan. Fran the civil engineer. They are important people, your friends? What about the friends that they have, do they become your friends too?’
‘Sometimes they do. After a couple of years or so.’
‘Years? And will your friends become my friends too? I mean not in years, but soon.’
The taxi driver responded readily to her chat. She was still talking about friends. It was an important topic to her. But the taxi driver was charmed. Close friends should meet once a week, he maintained. Three or four times a year for what you might call acquaintances. Now that’s a word that should be used more. Generally they had a few pints, but someone that you only meet in the pub is never a true friend. The driver was certain on this point. To be a friend with someone you had to have relied on each other for something. Or worked together on some dodgy business.
‘I’m unusual,’ the driver said, catching her eye in the rear-view mirror, ‘in that all my friends do totally different things. Usually if one schoolfriend becomes, say, a solicitor, he loses touch with all the ordinary pals left lower on the scale.’
‘That’s horrible,’ she said.
‘Horrible, yeah. But that’s not the way it is with me.’
As he held the car door open for Genevieve, the driver threw Eugene a wry smile.
The pub was dim inside and milling with people. He had wanted to suggest a restaurant for this first meeting, but hadn’t dared. It would have made too much of the occasion. It would only have made Genevieve more nervous, he told himself. As it was she had fretted for hours. He hoped she wasn’t dressed too stylishly for this place. The boots she had chosen were tall with silver eyeholes. He was a down-to-earth person and hated ostentation of any kind.
‘Genevieve, this is Duncan, Fran.’ He clapped his hands together. ‘Let’s move to a table.’
‘See,’ said Genevieve with a large wink, ‘he makes you all to follow.’
Duncan and Fran laughed at the cryptic comment.
‘So you are Fran? Eugene said you were a wit. I hope you’re not planning to give me lessons.’ They were in loud guffaws by the time they reached the table.
‘Me and the lads are just getting to know each other,’ she explained. ‘I tried my elephant joke on them.’
‘And it worked,’ said Duncan. ‘Jeez, Eugene, you’ve been keeping this one hidden away.’
‘Eugene doesn’t like to share me,’ she said.
‘But what’s your opinion on this?’ said Fran.
‘I am going to have an opinion on everything.’
They laughed knowingly, eyes flitting from the girl to Eugene, watching to gauge his reaction. This quick wit and forwardness amazed him. He was too surprised to feel anything like jealousy. His confidence grew. She could handle herself well in company and there were no awkward moments. True, she asked the lounge girl if they could meet the next day. And at one point she lost interest in Eugene and his friends, as though they had nothing to do with her, and she turned to talk with the people at the next table.
‘Where do you come from, hey, Genevieve?’ Fran asked, drawing her back. She sighed.
‘I had a feeling you in particular would ask that.’ More laughs. ‘So I prepared an answer for you—Am I doing well, Eugene?’
‘You’re doing very well,’ he said blandly.
‘I’m from a place you don’t want to go to.’
‘And where’s that?’ said Fran.
‘Not telling,’ she said in a bored voice.
‘Eugene,’ he said ignoring her, ‘tell us where your lady friend is from.’
Fran had had enough of the joke.
‘Well, I’m asking you. Where is she from?’
‘If she wanted you to know she’d tell you.’
‘Don’t start this mystery crap, Eugene. It doesn’t suit you. So we’re waiting.’
Eugene did not want to spoil the atmosphere by being irrationally stubborn.
‘She’s from Croydon. She moved there from Russia with her parents when she was eight.’
‘Ah, I thought I saw a touch of the Kremlin in your features.’
‘That must be where your absurdist jokes come from,’ ventured Duncan.
Good humour was restored. Genevieve remained the focus of attention, but the conversation managed to veer away from her a couple of times. Fran was getting involved in politics at local level and had new experiences to relate.
A moment of frankness broke through when Eugene and Duncan were at the urinals.
‘She’s very genuine. How did you get a girl like that?’ His eyes betrayed a disarming envy.
‘Oh, just by being polite.’
They laughed heartily.
‘You impressed them,’ said Eugene, ‘you were the star of the night.’
‘It’s easy to play the fool.’
‘No, Duncan said you were a very genuine person.’
‘He said that? There’s something I don’t like about him. “Girls only want a rich guy,” he says to me. There’s a reason no girl would go out with him.’
‘I thought you were getting on well with them. You laughed with them all night. And now you suddenly turn against them?’
‘Don’t you notice the way they are? Do you not see? Fran only meets you so he can show his power to control you.’
She began to cry bitterly.
‘How can you stand to meet them week after week?’
‘We don’t have to meet them again.’
‘And when I look at Duncan I can see it’s only a matter of chance that he’s not a rapist or a killer. Things could have turned out completely different for him.’
‘They’re my friends,’ he said. ‘I’ve known them all my life.’
‘They are nothing people.’
The strangeness, the ruthlessness of this judgement made his heart beat tight and shallow. Just a few months before, he had held her those first evenings fearful she might come apart into separate pieces. She was close to nothing herself. She could be dismantled again into a nothing person and no one would know.
‘Leave them alone,’ he said.
‘You should find better friends.’
‘We don’t have to meet them again,’ he said. ‘They’re just basically ordinary decent people.’
She lay in bed beside him, curled against him like she would burrow into him. He could not sleep; a motor was running inside. There was one point on which his experience bore more weight than her lacerating insight. His years—quiet though they had been—must count for something.
‘Genevieve,’ he nudged her awake. ‘You are too harsh on them.’
‘I don’t want to think of them,’ she said.
‘Everybody’s like that,’ he whispered. ‘You just haven’t met enough people.’
‘It’s not so.’
‘They’re no better or worse than me.’
‘How can you say that, after what you’ve done?’
He sat up on one elbow. ‘What have I done?’ he asked. He felt something extraordinary had happened during the nights when he first held her. Something which he should know because nobody else ever would.
‘Nothing,’ she said quickly, embarrassed.
He too fell silent, touched by the silliness, the shamefulness of that cardboard box, pieces wrapped in paper, the resilience of fleshy parts.