‘I Know This Is Too Strange’ fiction by Kate Mahony

Kate Mahony’s fiction has been published in among others, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, Canterbury University Press, 2018, and Mayhem, Waikato University Literary Journal, New Zealand, 2019. Her work has been shortlisted in international competitions. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University, Wellington.

Alice taps on the door. She has taken what she calls the “slow walk” to Jackson’s office, through the corridor, across the landing and down a flight of steps. It gives her time to think what she will say to him. And how she will say it. You get only one chance with Jackson before he sighs with boredom or barely concealed impatience.

‘Come in,’ Jackson calls out.

Her boss, Jackson –  a man who is so good-looking students leave messages for him on the university assignment pages which the IT person has to intercept and discard – is lying on the floor, on his back. He is tall and his body almost fills the floor space.

Alice steps in and makes herself as small as possible. She tells him she has a problem. Jackson prefers to call problems, ‘issues’, something she remembers as she says this.

‘Fire away,’ he says.

He continues to lie on his back. Alice has forgotten the reason for this. She thinks he told her ages ago. Something to do with yoga. Or stress, or perhaps he has a bad back. She finds it irritating talking with someone who is lying prone on the floor below her. She is not sure whether to address his head, where she can see his curly black hair is greying at the temples, or his feet. His feet being the closest part of his body to her.

She explains about the student in her tutorial wanting an extension due to emotional issues. 

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Jackson says wearily. He hates problems. And issues.

‘Can’t you sort it?’ he asks. 

Alice thinks about it. Certainly, she could probably sort out the extension. What is more of a problem for her – and one she is still considering in her mind – is that it is not just the emotional problem. Because just this morning, only hours ago, she realised something as she read and re-read Sunshine’s email.

 She likes Sunshine. She is a cute little girl who always makes a point of saying hello to Alice, rather than just scuttling in and finding a seat. She never says much in the tutorial, but smiles warmly and thanks Alice as she leaves class. Her essays are well thought out and have been improving over the semester, so much so that Alice has awarded her A’s for the last two.

Reading the email, however, has got Alice worried. On the way to Jackson’s office, she has thought about the most recent assignment, the essay on supernaturalism in romantic poetry with reference to the work of three of the poets.  She has begun comparing the language in the email from Sunshine and the more fluent academic writing in the essay.  Was it possible she has been finding her essays online? That is, buying them?

Alice stares at Jackson’s feet. He has big feet, she notices. And it also occurs to her  should she put this thought about Sunshine and her essays into words, then suspicion becomes investigation, the whole issue will become something much bigger.

‘Well, there is something else,’ she begins but Jackson’s phone has started to ring. He flaps his hand at her to pick it up off his desk.

Alice hands it to him, and thinks some more.

 It is perhaps too late to remedy this far into the term. And also, it may reflect on her own capability as a tutor in not spotting the discrepancy earlier between the excellent standard of written work and her student’s capability with spoken English. ‘I thought she was just shy and didn’t say much’ might not work as an excuse.

‘I guess,’ she says now to Jackson who has ended the call. ‘I could give her a couple of days but maybe take a percentage off her mark for the essay.’ She is meaning with regards to the emotional problem.

Her boss lies still, either contemplating or meditating. After a while, he looks up. ‘Check the percentage you can take off,’ he says. He lifts one of his long legs and stretches it carefully towards the ceiling. ‘Anything else?’ he asks, dismissively.

Of course, Jackson doesn’t like problems. Or issues. Alice knows that, but she also feels as if she might turn on her heel, let out a kick and send his childishly hip Converse sneakers flying in an arc across the room. She has a right to be angry, she thinks. He is getting paid to run this course; a PhD student, she desperately needs the miserly tutor’s allowance that barely keeps her in cigarettes for the semester. So perhaps she should tell him about her suspicions. She thinks of the clumsy wording of the email she has in her hand.

‘The woman in the room next door has mental illness,’ Sunshine has written. ‘Last two weeks, she refused to take medication, so she kept shorting every night, shorting through the wall to my room. I called the city voice control and the apartment manager to stop her, but she rejected to open the door and still kept shorting. I have not slept well for days, worrying she might have gun, will shoot me.’

She could read the email aloud to Jackson and let him decide if there is any reason for concern about the essays. Or, like Sunshine at the end of her email, she too could say – to Jackson – ‘I know this is too strange.’

For Sunshine in seeking an extension for her essay has explained, ‘Now I getting mental problems as well, sensitive to the scary voice from next door. Like mad woman of Chaillott.’

Maybe the shock of living next door to the shorting neighbour has actually affected Sunshine’s use of the English language, Alice tells herself.  In writing the email, at least. Yes, that could be possible.

Jackson has gone back to staring at the ceiling. ‘Anything else?’ he says again, in a rather distant tone.  

‘No,’ Alice says, firmly this time. She has made up her mind.

‘Look,’ Jackson says.  ‘I’ve got a lecture to give in five, so if you can…’ He doesn’t complete his sentence. It is as if he doesn’t need to. ‘Okay hon?’ He calls every woman hon. Or sweetie.  Alice knows it is because he cannot remember any of their names. Except perhaps that of tall blonde Ruka who works in the main office. Jackson glances at her. ‘You look nice.’ 

Alice closes the door behind her. She walks away quickly, now. She takes the fast route which will lead her back to her office, thinking about what Sunshine said at the end of her email:  ‘Thank you, have a very nice day.’

Alice pauses at one end of the corridor where this is a big glass window and sees that outside the sun is shining on students gathered in the courtyard. It is a very nice day. She is surprised by the sudden warmth she feels. She shakes her head and reminds herself she is not one who is easily flattered by a weak compliment. Especially not from Jackson. She allows herself a little smile, though, as she begins walking again. 

Read our interview with emerging author Kate Mahony

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