There was a crack on one of the white shutters in the bedroom. That wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t the perfect spot for the sun to crawl into the room in the morning and up Ben Crawly’s face, thus annoyingly waking him up yet another day. “Why did nobody mention this in their reviews of this place?” was the first thought in Ben’s mind as he opened his eyes, groggy and annoyed. “Time for overhyped and overpriced French coffee” was his second thought as he got up.
He was now on Day “Who Knows” of quarantine and on Day “Not Yet” of writing his book. Which book? Oh, just the book he sold everything to dedicate himself to write. The book he thought was the Promised Land as he left the cruel chambers of the corporate world. The book that had been kept inside him for so long that he feared was the equivalent of store-bought taco mix: an impulse, seemingly an exciting addition to the pantry, now expired and forgotten.
He was scrolling mindlessly on his phone as he was drinking his coffee. His left thumb moved in perfect harmony with his right hand. Five scrolls mean one sip of coffee. This had been his ritual for a long time, probably since he first got that Blackberry, may it RIP. Lately Ben felt he needed as many normal life rituals as he could get. It’s not that he minded being alone in quarantine. That was the actual plan. He would be alone in the lake house so he could write the book. But now…
Now there were so many memes about the whole situation. So many people celebrating not having kids. So many up-and-coming influencers and self-proclaimed content creators. So many people joking about alcoholism. Too many. However, for some reason he kept scrolling, watching them all from afar, judging them from a safe distance, inspecting them and sometimes stalking them. Ok, let’s be honest. Not stalking them. Just her. And definitely not just sometimes.
An alert jogged him from his illicit, private reverie. His yoga app – “this will be what gets the creative juices flowing,” he had said to himself when he downloaded it, hastily signed up for a premium account, and then promptly never used it again – was merrily beckoning him from a happier, more opportunistic crevice of his phone’s IoS.
She was a yoga influencer. That’s really why he’d downloaded the app. So, really, it wasn’t about creative juices at all. He’d seen her form impossible shapes and shift between them with enviable ease. He longed for his mind to be as bendable, as open to the universe. But, like everyone else, he scrolled and scrolled. And told himself he was envious of her yogi talents, to mask how quarantine-loneliness stirred in him a lust that he longed to turn into marketable words.
Ben feared above all else that he would never be able to write his book. He’d spent a small fortune to become a Hemingway, and he couldn’t even find a way to take his eyes off of what his old associates had called “the churn,” let alone contribute anything to anyone that would even distract from such eye-catching, quick-to-disappear content.
From his phone, an actual ring. It was his old corporate associate, Piers. His face beamed up from five years ago, that triumph of receiving yet another promotion and raise radiating from a devilish selfie. Ben hadn’t spoken to anyone in a few days, and dreaded how his voice would sound after isolation, but answered the call nonetheless.
“Hey Vonnegut, how’s the novel-writing treating you?” Piers always had to make a joke out of everything.
Ben grunted in response. Judging by Piers’ voice, he wasn’t in the business of listening today.
“So listen, you wouldn’t even believe what happened.” Piers’s voice was a freight train with a nuclear reactor duct-taped to the engine. “I’ve gone viral! That book on venture capital I was writing in my off-hours just got purchased for a buttload of cash! I went on the morning show yesterday and I think I’m even a meme now. I should write more often-“
Ben hung up the call without a word. He’d tell Piers later in a text that the connection had been lost. This would be believable enough. More believable than that oaf stumbling into the limelight in a way Ben could only dream of. At least he had her.
His eyes snapped open. Covered in a cold sweat, his heart pounding and awakened by the adrenaline rush. Ben hastened to get up. Confused, he rubbed his head and eyes and tried to awaken. It’s 3:06 am.
“Pfft, stupid nightmare”, he said.
He tried to remember what irritated him to wake him up like that. But memories of it blurred quicker than the speed of light. “Must be that Piers showing off again”. Ben thought of going back to sleep, but his head raced with nagging thoughts. He stumbled out of his bed, slipping into his fluffy and plush bedroom slippers. Before getting up, Ben realized that he was back to his mundane existence. And also – he had screwed up his body clock. But that didn’t matter now.
He dragged his feet out of the bedroom. Walked through the hall, and towards the spiralling marble staircase. Despite the darkness, the house looked elegant and posh. Ben admired the little intricate details of the french pillars and stone-panelled walls. The majestic chandelier that hanged in the middle of the house, illuminated the room. Ben walked towards the kitchen, aimlessly looking for something to satisfy him. He eventually reached out for the Chateau Talbot 2001 wine bottle. The one he recently bought from the vineyards of Bordeaux. “Oh, what the heck”.
As he tasted the smooth and slightly bitter taste of red wine on his lips, he thought of her: Anna. It’s been 3 years since their first encounter. Their marketing department chose her as one of the influencers for their brand. She would have been perfect, except…every man he knew from his department wanted to be with her. And her comely, slender figure envied every woman she walked past. She was dangerous, and he knew it. But that made him want her even more.
Ben succumbed to a flurry of thoughts, leaving his glass almost empty.
Right. He sipped the last drops of wine as if waking up from yet another bad dream.
It’s time to get to work.
He went to fetch his laptop and made some space for his new workstation. Perhaps that’s just what he needed for inspiration. Finally, he was going to write his book.
Ben stared at his laptop screen. The blank page was looking back at him… Taunting him… This sight that had once been so frightening was now the path to freedom. So he took a deep breath, smirked confidently, and started typing.
He typed furiously, in a flow as he had never felt before. He wrote about the only thing he could write about, the one thing that consumed his every waking minute: Anna. His mind mirrored the spiralling marble staircase at the centre of the house, thoughts and ideas swirling fast around him. The cold, empty lake house was now filled with his dreams and desires. Almost bursting like an explosion that he couldn’t contain anymore… It felt so incredibly liberating. It felt like nothing could stop him.
He told himself that what he was feeling was love, and this book was his love letter to her. But let’s face it, for all his business acumen and salesmanship, Ben was pretty clueless about “love”. No, this was definitely not love. It was an obsession. And obsessions have dire consequences…
The following days flew by like a speeding rollercoaster. Ben would spend most of his waking hours writing, while drinking up his stock of wine, and (barely) surviving off of fast-food take-out. The worst kind of take-out, that would have disgusted the “old Ben”. But this was “new Ben”, and “new Ben” had more important things to care about.
On the dawn of the seventh day, Ben Crawley wrote the final words of his book. Exhausted and weak, he felt like his life had been sucked out of him. But he was proud of his work – oh, so incredibly proud. “Take that Piers,” he mumbled, “you can’t top that in your dreams!” And as the first rays of sunshine started to fill up the house for a vibrant, brand new day, his eyes finally gave in, and his head dropped like a rock on the innocent keyboard. He could finally sleep in peace, now that his book was finished.
Soon after the vibrant summer rays have begun to warm the day, there is shrill laughter like an ax, to his brain, disturbing Ben from his leaden slumber. He had not heard a human sound since living the loneliness of lockdown. His head pounded and his eyes ached, as he picked up his head from the laptop where it lay for the last few hours, and strained to look out the window. He squinted through hardened eyes, wondering what the fuck the strangers were doing, dallying at the lakeside, his lakeside. He slowly raised from the chair his gaze firmly settled on the strangers, moved to the sink, and he turned on the faucet leaving the water run cold and then splashed it on his face, rubbing his eyes bright, crystalizing his view. Bent against the sink supporting his wretched body he took in the two men, one small with long lank hair, and the other taller with a heavy beard, and his hair in a tight bun, both wearing what looked like rags to Ben. Realizing they were gypsies, he surmised they were up to no good, he folded his arms tightly across his broad chest and tapped his foot nervously, and all the while, staring out of the grimy window. They did not appear to be leaving, so Ben stepped outside and called over to the strangers.
“Hey, what are you doing on my grounds?’
Ben shouted in his broken French startling the two men. He waved his hands at the men to go.
“We are just enjoying the lake.” the smaller person replied.
Ben’s college French stood him in good stead, understanding clearly, he was pleased he remembered it so well.
“The lake flows a long way. You can enjoy it further down, on public space not here on my land, so can you leave.” Ben barked, hoping he had formed the right words.
The two men laughed and nodded their heads at Ben and proceeded to walk away. Ben wondered if he had said something funny, ‘why did they laugh,’ but he was not going to dwell on this thought, his brain was drained enough from his manic writing. He watched the men move to the hedge border and climb through it. Satisfied they were gone, he went back into the kitchen. His eyelids drooped, and there was a slight lolling to his head, drunk with fatigue after a session of night-time writing. He dragged himself up the stairs to his bedroom, the kitchen door clanging in the distance. ‘Had he not shut it?’ he wondered, his struggling tiredness, his heavy limbs, debilitated him from going back down to check. His mind over-taxed from finishing the book, he threw back two sleeping tablets, swallowing them with a loud sigh, he collapsed onto his small rattan framed bed and fell into a deep sleep.
The buttery lemon yellow-olive leaves ruffled against the windowpane as the early morning sun rose gently, raising Ben from his sleep. Suddenly the blood rushed through his veins, an ominous dread formed, as he now heard in full senses the clanging of the kitchen door. Ben raced downstairs, clambering to shut the door, firstly taking a look around outside, then slamming it firmly behind him, laying his eyes on the kitchen table, his blood froze. He stood still, his eyes intensely resting on the rich cream surface, his laptop not there, his love story to Anna gone, ‘I have lost Anna forever,’ his mind cried out. He tried to reason this unbearable reality but didn’t find any. Everything felt so confused, just like a disordered puzzle.
Suddenly Ben let out a sharp scream reverberating against the stone floor like a clap of thunder. In his fatigue, he had not saved the manuscript to the iCloud. The vibrant sunny morning, which was to be the dawn of his new life, his dream, was now evaporating.
‘Piers the bastard will revel in my void.’ Ben’s mind swirled in isolated anguish.
What to do? His manuscript was stolen and with it, his laptop. He was on the verge of another break-down. There was only one solution left. He hurried up to his stock of wine to discover that it was empty. It was too much. He walked outside and left the house with only a robe to dress him up. The closest supermarket was about a thirty minutes walk away. Not really a responsible choice considering the times being. He figured out this was an emergency and for what he knew, everyone was allowed to leave his apartment in case of emergencies.
After thirty minutes walking, during which the only thing he could see were trees, he finally arrived at the shop. What he wasn’t expecting was the long line of people all waiting in front of the supermarket for their turn. “For God’s sake!” thought Ben “There must be thirty people in this village, how can they all be here?”. But there was no way in which he could have gone through his day without a high-quality wine and decided to wait. “I wish I had brought my phone with me,” thought Ben. But it was too late.
And so he waited and waited, for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes… A whole hour passed by and finally, it was his turn. He entered the store and went straight to the wine section. After a few minutes of inspection, he decided for a bottle of La Tâche and one of Beaujolais and went to the till to find again approximately fifteen people all lined up keeping the recommended distance from each other. He seemed to be the only one without a full shopping cart. “I can’t wait for another hour,” thought Ben. “Excuse me, madam,” he said “do you mind if..” and he made a sign with his hand, meaning ‘can I pass in front you?’
She replied abruptly, “Don’t you know we are in a national lockdown? Don’t you realize the danger you are putting everyone in to come here only to buy a few bottles of wine?” and she added what seemed to be an insult but Ben couldn’t understand. Now the people in the line were staring at him with eyes full of blame. He could hear them whispering among each other: “It’s because of people like him that this lockdown will never end” and “Alcoholic! Look at how he is dressed!”
Ben’s frustration was growing and growing. He had to refrain from shouting in the middle of the store. He tried to focus on the idea of being completely alone drinking wine. After fifteen minutes he was still waiting for his turn. Ben started to count the clients still in front of him. “Three, four, five..” but he suddenly stopped. The two people now paying at the till were the two gipsies he encountered that same morning by the lakeside. His lakeside!
Everything around Ben stopped. The annoying lady in front of him. The other people in line. Everything became blurry, his only focus: the two gipsies.
“What now?!” his mind began to race with thoughts on what to do: “follow them or not follow them, scream or not scream”. Ben started to feel he was losing control. Chills down his spine, the head-spinning, that tightness in the chest he had felt so many times in the past few months. He knew that if he didn’t react quickly, the rage would have come out, he knew how it worked and he wasn’t prepared to lose control.
“Breathe, Ben. Calm down. Deep breath in, deep breath out” he repeated to himself, coming back to his senses. “Who would have thought that all that money spent in therapy would have been helpful here, in the freaking middle of freaking nowhere” he had a giggle, thinking of the absurdity of the situation. “I have to think quickly” he realized, again aware of his surroundings. The two men just finished paying their groceries and slowly moved towards the door of the little shop.
Ben looked down: precious wine in his basket. Then he looked up: a few people between him and the counter. “I’m sorry, I am really in a hurry…” he tried again to approach the person in front of him, just to be showered with more insults. There was no more time to waste. Cursing through his teeth, Ben went back to leave the wine where he found it, apologizing to the bottles like he would have done with an old friend. “I hope this sacrifice is not for nothing,” he thought while sprinting through the shop, towards the exit.
He could hear whispers rising from the little crowd, more people convinced he was a lunatic. And maybe he was. But he didn’t have time to think about how he looked like wearing his running shoes and his bathrobe. He had more important business on his hands right now.
The doors opened on an empty medieval square. Lovely stone buildings everywhere. Blossom flowers on every window and terrace, showing off the wonders of the area. If he was in a better mood, he would have noticed that this town had a certain charm. Not that day though. Busy scanning around, not even trying to see the beauty of the panorama, Ben heard a deep laugh reverberating to his left.
Automatically his body started to move. Slowly. And then quicker. One step after the other down a little alley, he found himself a few meters away from the source of the sound: the tall gipsies with the beard he saw on his property. He found them.
Ben subconsciously reached to his back pocket and as if the sight of the two fella’s wasn’t enough to take his breath away, his phone was gone!
“Damn it, not two strikes in one day!” Ben clenched his teeth and cursed in silence. He slid into the nearest corner like a gazelle jumping over a rapid, listening intently at them.
Tall Beard was leisurely tossing a key in the air, breathing out heavy smoke from a freshly lit cigarette. “Would Anna just fall for a guy like him? Perhaps the yoga-bot is the best shot he’s got!” he grimaced to his friend, the Long Lank Hair. Together they laughed carelessly.
Ben suddenly felt hot and cold at the same time, be it shame or fear, he couldn’t tell. Down the alley was the Mediterranean Sea glittering under a cloudless sky. On a good day like this, the coast would be dashed with fancy sailboats and packed with people sunbathing in the sea breeze. But with the lockdown, hardly anyone was walking around, except some seagulls blissfully glimmered across the sky as if triumphing to have the sea all to themselves again. There was tinted sweetness in the cool spring air, but it made Ben chill even more. “Did they just mention Anna? How and why?” mushed in thoughts, a pointy cold object found its way around his neck.
“Come with us.” A dry sturdy voice whispered from behind. Some fainted tobacco smell from those chubby fingers, it was the Tall Beard, pointing a knife at Ben’s neck. “We don’t have your laptop, and we are not interested in it either. There is someone who wants to meet you, so be quiet and come with us.”
Ben was in oblivion. Unable to speak, nor to breathe. All he could feel was the cold sweats running down his cheeks. What bothered him, even more, was who on the earth would go through all the troubles to meet a washed-up guy like him who quit his job to write a “best-seller” book nowhere to be seen, and ended up quarantining himself in an old lake house guzzling down bottles of cheap wine every day?
Just about to drag himself along, Ben heard his phone ring. Reflexively, he grabbed it over. Struggling to open his eyes, Ben found himself in his own bed, soaked in cold sweats. Pale sunlight sifted through the thin curtains. Was it 6 am or 6 pm? Was it still the spring day when he dragged himself in shame through the supermarket aisles, or he slept through the summer and now the autumn came? No one was there, not even an insect. The utter quietness around felt almost like a conspiracy.
“Not him again.” Ben saw the incoming call was from the good old Piers. Though annoyed, he let out a sigh of relief. In no mood for an ego tug of war, Ben ignored the call and started scrolling through his social media’s, scrubbing to find a sense of reality.
“President Tweety is still in a hissy fit with everyone on the pandemic”, sneered Ben, “I so missed it, not!” Then he saw some Facebook chat threads among his old colleagues, filled with suspense. “Anna was missing?” Ben gasped. “Impossible, I just saw her posting her cat yesterday!”
Since Ben left the company, the only string attached was Anna’s Facebook posts. A glimpse of Ana’s life would fill his day with some tenderness. “A secret admirer, or a stalker for all I care”, Ben smiled wryly.
Just then Ben sensed a twinge of pain around his neck. As if he remembered something, he quickly ran downstairs. Still no sight of his laptop, but a handwritten note on the table.
“Tomorrow at 5 pm, at the back door of Café Méricourt”.
Ben frantically surveilled the house for any signs of break-in’s, but everywhere was hushed quiet like a sleepy cat. Right from the corner of his eye, he caught something on the kitchen wall. An old oil painting covered in dust. And there they were, Tall Beard and Long Lank Hair, whispering to each other in the dark alley.
Fears at this point lost all their meanings. Intrigued, Ben went on google maps to check the meeting place. “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” frustrated and annoyed, Ben tossed the note in the air and left the kitchen.
The note whirled down to the kitchen floor, like a feather. Unnoticed, on the back of the note, it said: “Anna is with us”.
Ben started walking around the kitchen like a dog in a cage, relentlessly going from one corner to the other.
“How is this possible? If God is real, he is a real jerk” thought Ben. “My book is gone, my love letter for Anna is gone, and more importantly Anna is gone. How is this possible? Am I dreaming?”
At this moment, Ben stopped his anxious pacing and looked at the oil painting. The gipsies in the painting looked back at him with a grin. A phone notification broke the staring contest. Another colleague messaged the group about Anna’s disappearance.
Little by little, pressure started to build in his fist. His blood pounded like a hammer on his forehead. His body felt like a lump of red coal. “No, this is the new Ben, the Old one is behind me. The Old Ben is dead” Ben repeated these words aloud, like a mantra designed to keep an angry bear inside of a cage.
“Breath in, breath out,” said Ben while focusing on the warm sensation of the air passing through his nostrils. This was the only thing grounding him, keeping the animal inside.
He had experienced this sensation building up inside before. He felt it at the last office party, the night his beloved Anna kissed Piers, the moron.
“Why, why me? Why Anna?” screamed Ben while throwing a glass vase that was on the wooden dinner table against the whispering gipsies’ oleo. Pieces of glass scattered around the kitchen, while the painting remained intact.
Not satisfied, Ben rampaged throughout the old cupboard, sending every single porcelain plate to a violent demised. After a while, his legs and arms grew weaker as the New Ben came back. until his body dropped to the ground.
The previously vigorous breath had morphed into a tired one, the destruction had taken a toll. His eyes were heavy. “5 pm, 5 pm” Ben said before letting himself go.
As he closed the door behind him and stepped into the late afternoon sun, Ben patted his pockets. Phone, keys, wallet, knife. Check. The knife wasn’t particularly big. It was the kind of knife you might peel an apple with, but it had been the only one with a sheath that he was able to find in the cluttered kitchen drawer. He certainly wasn’t going to put an unsheathed knife into the pockets of this €2300 Armani suit. He had instinctively put on the unworn suit, sensing that it might well offer him more protection than the apple knife. Thankfully it still fitted him, albeit a little tight around the girth. It made him look wholly confident as he walked briskly towards the village, but his breath was shallow and his teeth were clenched in anticipation of this mysterious meeting. Was he old or new Ben? Neither. They were finally fusing into one.
He came to a halt just around the corner from the back door of Café Méricourt and wiped the sweat from his neck and forehead. It was 4:55 pm.
“What the bloody hell am I doing?” he hissed at himself as he tried to slow his breathing. Was this actually dangerous? Should he have contacted the police? Hah! Those two overweight gendarmes that served this sleepy village? What good would they be? He likely would have ended up spending the entire afternoon at the police station giving statements about a seemingly run-of-the-mill burglary, making him miss this meeting. No, he had to do this alone.
He glanced around the corner. The alley was empty. Ben straightened his body, straightened his suit and walked towards the weathered black, wooden door with a determined stride. He raised his fist to knock, but the door opened, apparently of its own accord, as there was no one inside the cluttered, narrow kitchen it revealed. The kitchen looked as though it had been left in a hurry. Pans on the stove with a creamy sauce congealing, an apron hastily thrown across the sink. He edged forward, careful to keep the Armani from touching piles of soiled plates and cutlery.
A door at the other end of the kitchen stood open. Sunlight streamed in through dirty windows making silhouettes of the empty tables and chairs. Ben squinted and ventured into the restaurant area, barely able to see.
“Well, well. Vonnegut dressed up for the occasion.” Ben turned sharply to the face the familiar voice on his left. Piers was seated at a small table with a glass of red wine. The two gipsy men stood behind him, smiling at Ben ominously.
“Piers? What on earth are you doing here? What the hell is going on? And where is my goddamn laptop?”
Piers crossed his arms, enjoying the confusion so apparent in Ben’s face.
“Such profanity, Benjamin! Do calm down. You have, I believe, already met Andrej and Mikael?”
Ben looked at the two men with a mixture of anger and exasperation.
“Yes, they broke into my house and stole my laptop! It has the only copy of my book on it, so I’d appreciate getting it back right now.”
Piers stood up and paced in front of Ben slowly, in dramatic silence.
“Oh Piers! Will you please stop playing around and acting like you’re some kind of criminal kingpin. Just tell me what’s going on.”
Piers spun around, his face now mere inches from Ben’s.
“Your house? Your laptop? Your book?” he spat. Ben was so taken aback by Piers’ sudden rage that he didn’t dare to wipe the specks of saliva off his face.
Piers continued venomously, “Who do you think you are renting that house from? You should have installed a firewall on your laptop, Ben. And as for your book. Since when exactly is Anna yours? She was never yours and never will be. I have taken care of that.”
“Oh have you, Piers?” said a woman’s voice from the shadows in the far corner of the restaurant.
The sound of Anna’s voice was equal parts smooth and cut-throat. It sent a burst of butterflies through Ben’s stomach and a chill down his spine.
“Piers has Anna?” thought Ben, struggling to piece together the information that was being fired back at him. “And he got me to rent his house for some elaborate plan to get back at me?”
In those split seconds, his instinct to protect Anna grew exponentially. He wanted to punch Piers so badly… How dare he kidnap her? How dare he kiss her at the office party? How dare he take every single one of Ben’s dreams away? But he needed to keep his cool in order to rescue her. He needed to outsmart Piers. And he would run away with Anna into the sunset and live happily ever after. That’s it!
He turned his head to look at the corner where the voice of his beloved had come from. Anna was sitting on a wooden chair with her legs stretched out, her feet resting on top of another chair. Her hands were playing with her dark, spiralled hair.
Ben’s mental picture of the situation quickly crumbled. Anna seemed to be fine… Nothing to indicate she was being held against her will… She was relaxed and confident. But far from the warm bubbly personality for which she was famous on social media…
“I don’t need you to take care of things for me, Piers,” continued Anna coldly. “I can take care of them myself. And if I may jog your memory, this whole thing was my idea.”
She wasn’t looking back at Piers or Ben. In fact, she didn’t seem to be very interested in their “epic showdown”. Her cat-like eyes were focused on the screen of the laptop that was resting on her lap. It was Ben’s laptop…
Manu is currently working hard to finish the story of Ben for group B.
Keep an eye out for the grand finale!