Thursday, 10 September 2009

Of all Lemony Ginsberg’s nervous reactions, the worst—at least, the most embarrassing—was her habit of sneezing whenever someone paid her a compliment. According to her mother, this had originated at birth: no sooner had the words “beautiful, healthy baby” escaped the midwife’s mouth than she’d been assailed by a torrent of phlegm, some of which had landed in her mouth, prompting her to immediately vomit. This had set off a chain of sympathetic regurgitations, which left such a mess on the floor of the delivery room that Lemony’s father, Jarule Ginsberg, had slipped and broken his wrist, thereby ending his budding career as a leg spinner for the Kent cricket team.

Of course, Lemony’s mother—whose first name was a mystery even to her family—was prone to exaggeration and embellishment; reality never quite met her standards, and she was always doing her best to spruce it up. Consequently, Lemony had grown up with the conviction that her parents had met jumping out of a burning building, and enjoyed their first kiss in midair, floating through fire and smoke. Also, that they’d been married on a Tupolev Tu-144, cruising in the twilight zone at 1000mph, with tennis legend John Newcombe as best man. Jarule could easily have corrected these misapprehensions, but he’d taken it upon himself never to speak to his daughter, except to say “happy birthday, princess” once a year and, even more infrequently, to ask the time. And so the girl had reached adulthood with the most absurd, romantic ideas.

It was perhaps because of these ideas—and the lack of formative male contact—that Lemony’s sneezing problem became so much more acute when the person delivering the compliment was a young man. Rather than reacting with a polite achoo and a minimal expulsion of bio-matter, she would transform into a high-calibre mucus launcher, drenching her unfortunate interlocutor from head to toe, after which he would rapidly retreat, never to be seen again.


High school was tough for “Snotty” Ginsberg. By the end of her time there, she was terrified of coming into contact with men; at university she made a point of living exclusively with women, and wore only maxidresses and old sweaters that she picked up in charity shops. On the surface, these tactics appeared to work splendidly, but her attempts to avoid humiliation were really just a secondary layer in the armour of self-sabotage. Beneath it all she was still a frustrated romantic.

Naturally, she got a cat. An Abyssinian. She called him Mr Jamf, after an offensive acronym she’d heard in a Dirty Harry movie; he was a mangy, disagreeable animal, so the name seemed appropriate. Mr Jamf immediately became the focus for all of Lemony’s pent-up affection: he would receive passionate hugs on an hourly basis, and be made to lie across her shoulders while she wandered about the house, despite the fact that he suffered from severe vertigo, and started twittering like a deranged budgerigar as soon as he left the ground. Ironically, it emerged that Lemony was mildly allergic to felines, so her sneezing continued. But this sneezing was of a more wholesome sort, or so it seemed to her; she attached no particular indignity to it, and made no effort to curb it. Besides, by this point she’d secured a lifetime’s supply of Kleenex tissues, thanks to her frequent patronage of the company, and it would have been a shame to let it go to waste.


Years passed and little changed. Mr Jamf grew mangier and more disagreeable, and Lemony’s carbon footprint expanded to dinosaur proportions, but the patterns of their shared life remained constant. Lemony worked from home, designing websites for an endless succession of interchangeable “media” companies; she also dedicated a portion of her daily routine to the composition of love poems in the German Romantic style, or more accurately—since she spoke no German—the style of translations of the German Romantic style. By the time of her 30th birthday, she’d amassed more than 200 of these, each one handwritten and sealed inside an unmarked envelope, never to be despatched. She also collected unplayable 7” singles—augmented by a broken record player—which she left strewn around the house. Were she ever to entertain a stranger, she thought, they’d make a good ice-breaker. Of course, she never did; her only visitors were her mother and a handful of old school friends, all of whom had long since come to take her odd habits for granted.

Lemony celebrated the onset of her fourth decade—or the passing of her third—with a small get-together at her home. She would have been content with an evening spent watching CSI box sets, periodically interrupted by well-wishing phone calls (“happy birthday, princess”), but her friends insisted on her doing something less wilfully antisocial. Wine and cheese seemed like a good fit: tasty, refined and low-key in a way that implied exclusivity. Not to mention that even Mr Jamf could get involved, cholesterol permitting. Her mother regaled the assembly with tales of a recent trip to Madrid, during which Mr Ginsberg and she had stayed in the same hotel as the Czech prime minister, who’d taken them both out shoe shopping. Apparently he possessed the tiniest feet of any man she’d ever seen, and when he laughed he sounded like a little dog choking. Still, he had good taste in footwear; Mrs Ginsberg had told him as much, and he’d demonstrated his gratitude by giving her the Key to the City of Ostrava. He’d intended to bestow it upon a Spanish playwright who’d been involved in the Velvet Revolution somehow, but the man had been killed in a bar fight a few days earlier.

Lemony found her mother’s stories embarrassing, but her friends enjoyed them immensely; they responded to each improbable twist with theatrical disbelief, provoking the narrator to attempt yet more extravagant feats of invention. Tangential incidents accumulated rapidly: a bomb scare at the hotel; a city-wide strike of police, fire and medical services that lasted only 90 seconds; an art installation involving the flooding of a single skyscraper, so that it became an exhibition of waterlogged office workers. It was when Mrs Ginsberg began to relate the story of how Jarule had apprehended a cross-dressing art thief in a public toilet that Lemony decided to slip away. She quietly retreated to her bedroom with a glass of wine, where she sat in semi-darkness, enjoying the noise of her friends and loved ones, and trying her best not to understand what was being said. She imagined herself as a hermit, high in a cliff-side cave, listening to the sound of the sea turning over far below. Mr Jamf, asleep at the foot of the bed, began to snore gently. She sneezed.

After a little while, Lemony grew restless. She stood up and went over to the chest of drawers, from which she removed an envelope at random. She opened it and read what was inside, silently at first, then in a stage whisper. It was good, she thought: it sounded like poetry. Then she thought that maybe it was she who was good, and that the poem was only a piece of evidence. Then she laughed at her vanity. “Lem!” came a call from the other room; she returned the slip of paper to the envelope and filed it away again. Next door her friends were dancing to the silence of a warped 7”, which span unevenly on the needle-less record player. Only her mother, half-drunk and exhausted by her narrative labours, remained seated. Lemony observed from the doorway for a while, until someone lurched out of the throng and grabbed her. “Don’t even try to resist the rhythm!” Lemony pulled away and approached the record player, as if to turn it off. At the last moment she said “Can’t you tell this is a 45?” and flicked the selector switch.

Dedicated to the memory of Lianne Slavin's 25th birthday, and to the good lady herself. (This piece didn't quite come out as I'd intended...)

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