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From A Novel in progress: CONCERNING CUTTLEFISH

Nathaniel was wearing his purple fleece and beneath it a tweed suit as always – one of five made by a Scottish tailor in New York to his exact specification – all now scraggy and shapeless just as he liked them. Tonight he had chosen the brown herringbone which clashed badly with the fleece. On anyone else, it would have looked ridiculous, but on Nathaniel it seemed natural, harmonious even. He frequently matched the olive hound’s-tooth with sneakers and baseball cap like Travis in Paris, Texas, or his chequered gillie’s jacket with a Save the Ketner Watershed t-shirt –  often the t-shirt was worn over, not under, the jacket. At anti-logging campaigns he’d dress himself head-to-toe in protest t-shirts, one worn as a kilt, another a hat, another as a cummerbund, but always he’d match them with a tweed jacket. Harris tweed, from the village of Harris itself, or at least from one of the Outer Hebridean islands. Even at rock gigs and mountain-bike trials he wore elements of tweed – the trousers and waistcoat normally, making sure to include a pair of long woollen hunting socks to protect against the mud. He claimed it was precisely what these clothes had been designed for - rough outdoor work by gillies and crofters on Scottish estates. It was far more ludicrous, he maintained, to wear such items in air-conditioned offices. It was simply farcical, like wearing Gore-Tex to the opera. 

He and his girlfriend Rachel were in their friend Cameron’s house. An expansive, ranch-style home built by Rachel’s mom. They were snuggled up in a deckchair beside a floodlit pool with Rachel’s nose burrowed into his armpit. She sunk herself deeper into his fleece and smiled. A patchwork of expansive, well-maintained gardens spread out around them making up the district of White Mountain, New Hampshire. The houses were clad in kiln-dried cedar with dark shingles on the roof that blended seamlessly with the trees behind. An owl called from a grove of mature oaks that jutted out from the surrounding thicket stretching towards Canada. There was a strict delineation between the landscape, which was allowed remain overgrown and wild, and the gardens which everyone agreed had to be neat and well maintained, with chemically blue pools and rolling lawns cared for by football-toned sons or gerbil-eyed students from the nearby college.

Rachel enjoyed seeing the familiar idiosyncrasies of her mom’s architectural style around her – the haphazardly placed portholes and knee-to-neck windows, the off-centre cantilevered ledges and their counterpoised nooks. She and Nathaniel were whispering songs to each other. He the first line, she the second, and so on until the chorus which they allowed play silently, joining in again only on the next verse. It was a trick they had mastered in social science class two years before when they were put sitting apart. They would mouth alternative lines across the room at each other. Even now, having just finished their last day ever of high school, and with the prospect of a teacher catching them and imposing detention as remote as a seal emerging from the over-heated, over-chlorinated pool, their singing was so quiet that only alternate words registered, like dust brushing against the needle of an old record.

Rachel hadn’t bothered changing out of her t-shirt and jeans after school for the party, or even putting on makeup. She was still of an age when the first glow from the morning shower lasted all day, and it took a really bad mood or a nasty dose of flu to wipe it out. She had that naturally sallow complexion that would never need much embellishment, especially if she kept up the cold lake dips every morning with her father and the weekend bike rides in the forest with Nathaniel. 

Not only did Nathaniel dress from another age, he looked like he might possibly be from an entirely different race; an elite, alien race. He was phenomenally lanky, with jutting-out limbs that swung disconcertingly in their sockets like a praying mantis caught in a web. His hair was swollen into a sponge that would be termed an Afro if it wasn’t so shockingly blond. Overall, he appeared to be a glorious misfit, yet what people noticed about him first was his smile. A smile so broad and sincere, so joyfully goofy it was like a wormhole enveloping you with goodwill. A benevolent galactic anomaly. The first piece of him that Rachel had kissed was his mouth, she hadn’t bothered with his cheek or his forehead, but had honed straight in on the shifting, quivering, funnelling hole in his face. She knew that if she didn’t get to grips with it immediately it could overwhelm her. His mouth was like the crater of a volcano or the beak of one of those cartoon birds where the camera dives endlessly into the blackness of its gullet. It had a life of its own. That much was certain. It danced, even when he wasn’t talking. Often he seemed locked in battle with it, wrestling it, trying to narrow it into more conventional forms; containing its intensity.

 Inevitably it had been the choreography of his face that Rachel had first fallen for. She had been lingering in the hallways between classes, on her way from room 118 to 424 in the most languorous and meandering way possible, when she caught sight of him. She had paused for a moment at a spur of photocopiers, finishing a conversation with Katy, her best friend from kindergarten days, and was just about to hang left towards the science block when Nathaniel rose up from behind the photocopiers, startling them both.

‘What they hell . . .?!’ they cried.
‘Apologies,’ he said, brushing cat balls of dust from his thighs and adjusting his lapels. ‘Just getting the, em . . .’

They were about to round on him, accusing him of eavesdropping or worse, but then he let loose a smile, one of his most elongated and oscillating. A sort of gyroscopic movement halfway between a swollen laugh and a shy smirk - fluctuating somewhere in between. Rachel was immediately disarmed. She ushered Katy off into the stream of bodies flowing towards the library and turned back to Nathaniel, rummaging through her mind for something appropriate to say. It was hard to focus. She had never even imagined such a mouth could exist – as super sensitive as cat’s whiskers, exposed and prone for all to see. She wanted to protect it, but also to possess it, to be intimate with it. Nathaniel’s mouth sparked a covetousness in her that later led to a lifetime of art collecting, culminating in her acquisition of an important collection of works by young Canadian artists which she bequeathed almost fifty years to the day later to a private gallery. She never realised that the repeated urge to possess a juvenile work, to instruct a gallery owner to put a red dot on it and set it aside, was a direct link back to her first impulse triggered by Nathaniel’s mouth.
 Nathaniel never got to know the degree to which girls found his vulnerability appealing. He always felt ungainly and awkward, not that he let it bother him all that much. He regarded his mouth as a badge of honour. Cuttlefish, was what he called himself – a mollusc with its genitals around its mouth.‘What would you do if I said I wanted to kiss you,’ Rachel had asked him straight out in the hallway, surprising herself as much as him. ‘I’d say this isn’t the best of times,’ Nathaniel replied languorously. ‘These Xerox machines are pumping out toxins 24-7 – the less opening of mouths we do here the better.’ He took hold of her hand and without saying another word they walked towards the main door of the school and headed off down town.

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