The Inklings: Chapter 17

Fanta’s sisters Nancy and Ruby had been helping her cook since they came home from school. They were trying to make sushi. The rolls weren’t very round, the seaweed was probably too chewy and the sushi rice was probably too wet. Fanta could see that dinner wasn’t going to be perfect, but she didn’t know what to do about it so decided not to care.

Somehow D’arby managed to get John to Fanta’s house exactly on time. Neither of them was in a very good mood though because they had just had their first fight. It was over the iron, or the lack of an iron. D’arby had discreetly gotten rid of it. D’arby was already ready to leave when John began searching the flat for the iron. D’arby could see what was going on, but didn’t say anything. After John had looked everywhere that it was possible for the iron to have been put he began to get suspicious and turned to face D’arby.

“Where’s the iron?” asked John

“Not here” said D’arby. “I got rid of it because I hate irons.”

After swearing for a while John said to D’arby “Why didn’t you tell me? ….it wasn’t your iron! Now what am I going to wear?”

“Wear the same clothes, just don’t iron them” said D’arby.

John considered his options and despite wishing that he could avoid taking D’arby’s advice, he put on his wrinkled clothes and allowed D’arby to lead him out the door.

When John and D’arby arrived at Fanta’s place they both felt nervous. It wasn’t a big house, but it was pretty. It was the type of terrace house that was typical of the suburb. It had been painted white, but still had the original iron lacework balcony and arched windows. The small front garden was full of flowering plants and the front door had a stained glass panel.

“How does a uni student afford something so nice?” asked D’arby, but John was too busy being miserable over his wrinkly clothes to answer. He felt so inadequate that he wanted to run away and hide, but rang the polished brass bell anyway. John and D’arby heard footsteps in the corridor and then Fanta opened the door.

Fanta had obviously dressed up for the occasion. That made her seem even more grown up and D’arby and John became even more nervous. John wished he’d brought a bigger box of chocolates, but it was too late. Fortunately Fanta hadn’t seemed to notice how wrinkly his clothes looked.

Syafika was already there, sitting at the dining table. Ruby and Nancy were enjoying having visitors. They were pretending that they had a restaurant and that Fanta and her friends were the guests. They had set the dining table and put on some relaxing music. Ruby pulled out a chair for Fanta. “Take a seat” she said to John and D’arby. “We have a set menu tonight. The starter is a sushi platter for four. That will be followed by spaghetti bolognaise with garden salad, and for dessert we have a seasonal fruit salad with vanilla ice cream and your choice of tea or coffee. Would anyone like to order a drink?”

While Ruby was trying to impress John with her hospitality, Fanta and Syafika were trying not to laugh. Nancy wasn’t even trying though. Her giggling could be heard from the kitchen.

The sushi plate soon arrived, and it turned out to be edible, although poor John got the piece that Nancy had deliberately added too much wasabi to. It was looking like being a pleasant but unremarkable evening. Then Syafika and D’arby started talking to each other.

As soon as Syafika saw D’arby she decided that she didn’t really want to talk to him. She found him unattractive and thought he would probably just want to show her that he was smarter than her. D’arby wasn’t particularly interested in talking to Syafika either, but felt like he had to.

“How did you meet Fanta?” asked D’arby.

“We met in first year at uni, in a maths lecture” said Syafika.

“Are you still at uni?” asked D’arby.

“No, I have been working for almost two years” said Syafika.

“Where?” asked D’arby.

“In the city” replied Syafika.

“I mean, what do you do? Who do you work for?” said D’arby

“I try to do as little as possible, I live for the weekends” said Syafika “and I don’t really like talking about work when I’m not there”. She noticed that she was having no trouble saying what she meant and wanted, which was rare for Syafika. She decided it was probably because she didn’t really care what D’arby thought of her, and because she didn’t feel like she needed to impress him she wasn’t getting flustered and shy. “What about you?” Syafika asked D’arby. “What do you do?” Syafika already knew that D’arby was doing a PhD, but wanted to pretend she knew nothing about him. John had told Fanta that D’arby was a genius and the only other gifted person Syafika really knew was her cousin Ousman so she had had decided that D’arby must be like him.

“I’m struggling to finish my PhD thesis” said D’arby. “I often wonder why I even started the project, but now it is too late to stop so I just plod along.”

“Why don’t you like it? Is it too hard?” asked Syafika.

“Yeah, I guess so. It is hard for other reasons than I would have expected though. I think it is mostly because I don’t like my supervisor and he doesn’t like me” said D’arby.

“So you need to improve on your people skills then?” said Syafika. It was not a very nice thing to say, but she didn’t seem to notice that. D’arby felt a bit upset by it but more because Syafika didn’t seem to care if she upset him than because it did upset him. D’arby knew he had put all his eggs in one basket. He was a nerdy type of person and didn’t expect to be Mr Charming as well. He decided to change the topic.

“If you don’t like work, what do you like to do when you aren’t at work?” asked D’arby.

Syafika was beginning to soften to D’arby. She still didn’t like him but had decided he probably wasn’t as full of himself as she had expected.

“Probably my favourite thing is eating” admitted Syafika.

“Cooking too?” asked D’arby.

“No, just the eating part really” said Syafika.

“What do you do when you aren’t at uni?” asked Syafika.

“I’m almost always at uni, really. I guess I don’t really have a chance to do anything else, not for fun anyway…” answered D’arby.

“Well, what would you like to do if you weren’t always at uni?” asked Syafika. She was beginning to be interested in the conversation.

“What would I like to do?” D’arby asked himself. Then he started thinking out loud. “That’s an interesting question. I don’t really have an answer. There are lots of things I’d like to achieve, but I’m not sure what I need to do to achieve them. There isn’t anything I’d really like to do just for fun either. It is all about getting something done.”

“Oh” said Syafika. She was disappointed with that answer. D’arby might be humble about his brilliance but he was full of himself in other ways. Here was someone who wanted to get something done but would probably never get further than talking about wanting to.

“What’s this ‘something’?” asked Syafika. She was challenging D’arby. D’arby wasn’t offended though. He was really very happy that Syafika was making him think. She made him realize that not only did he not have a plan, but he didn’t even know what he wanted the plan to achieve. Without knowing it, D’arby was thinking the same thing as Syafika – that he wasn’t going to get anything done at this rate. Until recently D’arby had supposed that getting his research (official or secret) out into the world was what he wanted to get “done”. But what was that going to achieve, really? What was the underlying purpose of that? D’arby couldn’t articulate one. Fortunately Syafika had tuned into the conversation between John and Fanta, so D’arby was free to sit quietly and think for a while.

Fanta was talking about her part time job as a real estate agent. She’d become a real estate agent while working for her uncle, who was also a real estate agent, but she said that country real estate agents like her uncle were so much nicer than city ones.

“In the town I grew up in being a real estate agent is one of the most respectable jobs. You can’t rip people off or trick them because the place is so small that everyone will know about it. I haven’t found it to be the same here though!” complained Fanta.

“My current boss Lenny can be so awful to people. Finding yourself a house is such an emotional thing and I think Lenny enjoys making it a miserable experience. He is especially unkind to renters. He makes them jump through hoops to get a place. He gets them to fill in the same forms twice (to check that they give the same answers the second time), demands more proof of identification than you’d need to get a loan, never returns calls and always pretends there have been more applications than there have been. Then the lucky ones who get the place are rewarded with delayed repairs and if they decide to leave Lenny will try to charge at least a few days extra rent (which he keeps for himself) and never lets anyone get their entire bond back if they leave, not without a fight anyway. He can’t be the only one doing this though. Surely everyone would go elsewhere if there was a better alternative.”

“I’ve never really understood why Lenny gets you to do the selling while he deals with the rentals. I thought everyone wanted to do sales not rentals” said Syafika. “But it must be because he gets pleasure from being awful!”

“Maybe, or maybe he is just trying to maximise his income. He gets a slice of sales commissions, of course, and I am better at making sales than he is – I don’t really understand why though. I don’t have any tricks.”

“It is probably because you don’t have any tricks” said John. “I bet people can trust you to be fair”.

“Perhaps” said Fanta. “At least I try to be fair. I try to find buyers something they will like and can afford, and I try to get the seller a fair price, which isn’t hard in this market. Prices just keep going up! Everyone thinks I must have predicted that when I bought this place cheap, but I didn’t know. I just liked this house and was so pleasantly surprised to be able to afford it that I bought it without much thought. The only downside was that having a mortgage means I’ve had to continue working for Lenny, even when I’ve been tempted to quit. I can’t wait to find a real job now that I’ve finished uni.”

Syafika was looking at John while Fanta was talking. She could tell he thought Fanta was the most amazing person in the world. Syafika realized that John was a pretty nice person and felt bad about having tried to discourage Fanta from seeing him. Still, there was something about John that worried Syafika. Something she hadn’t been able to completely work out yet. He seemed familiar somehow, but where had Syafika seen him before? She strained her mind (something she rarely did) and a few minutes later she was rewarded with the realization that John was the grotty man who had rubbed a dog’s pooh into its owner’s hair all those months ago (on the day that Syafika had walked to work in the rain carrying a cake for Anthony). If this memory hadn’t made Syafika start thinking about Anthony (she had to admit to herself that she still missed him) she might have asked John about that episode, but instead she kept quiet and started comparing Anthony to Vincent and this meant that D’arby had a chance to speak.

“I’ve had an idea” said D’arby. Everyone turned to listen to him. Even Nancy and Ruby stopped preparing dessert and looked out of the kitchen door. “There’s a lot about this world that I would like to change and I’ve always wanted to do something about that. I’ve always expected that I would do something. But now, thanks to Syafika, I realise that the way I’m going I’m never going to get anything good done. I can’t because I don’t have a plan or even an aim. But I still HAVE to do something. Not doing something is the same as agreeing with the things I don’t like! So I have to do something, but I can’t do anything on my own. I’m just not capable. Not yet anyway. What I think is that if we all worked together, the four of us, maybe together we could come up with an aim and then a plan and then….” Suddenly D’arby felt that his idea was pretty lame. He didn’t even know whether these people wanted the same world as he did (and suspected that they didn’t). All he knew was that they seemed to have complementary talents.

“Yes!” said John “Let’s do it!” John was sure D’arby would think of something good for them to do and he was always keen to do something (he conveniently forgot that he had his own problems plus a busy restaurant to look after).

Fanta felt strange. She wanted to hug D’arby. Despite a hard childhood she’d managed to build herself a comfortable life but lately she had started to wonder whether there was meant to be more to life than comfort. Then here was D’arby offering her something more. Just at the right time.

Syafika would have been completely against such a flimsy idea if she hadn’t been given some credit for it. She liked to know that she had made D’arby realise something about himself. She decided to go along with the idea because she’d win either way. Either D’arby wouldn’t go through with his plan to change the world, in which case Syafika wouldn’t have to do anything to help. Or D’arby would change the world and she would know that it was all because of her.


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