The Bass, A short story by John Miskelly
“Oh my god, Songs of Praise, change the channel.”
“Fuck you, it’s nearer to you.”
“I can’t do it; those bass strings have turned my finger ligaments to cheese string.”
“You seem to be using your phone fine.”
“Yeah, because it’s smooth glass, isn’t it? The remote’s all rubbery buttoned friction. It’s like sandpaper to these digits.” From her position prostrate on the sofa, Kat reached her supposedly incapacitated left hand towards Sharon, herself supine across a bean bag like a languid starfish.
“Well, I guess we’re stuck with Abide with Me, live from Norwich cathedral,” said Sharon, “Religious programming on the BBC. So much for the separation of church and state. Might as well put lawn jockeys on the BBC news desks.”
No reply came from the sofa.
“Hello? I’m making grownup, not trifling, Sunday morning conversation.”
“Yeah man, lawn jockeys, get in on that shit,” replied Kat in a removed murmur, lost in a detail on her smart phone screen.
Sharon scowled across at her roommate. “What’re you doing anyway?”
“Trying to sell this fucking bass. I don’t get where that whole thing about girl bassists started, those stings are heavy and my back’s all achy.”
“And another sexist creep gets his wings.”
“What are you on about?”
“I mean you’d be a shit hunger striker. Zero pain threshold.”
“You’re the one buying lawn jockeys.”
Sharon reached behind her back, tugged out a cushion, and launched it at Kat. “So you’re not going to get good and give lessons anymore then?” she asked.
Kat let her phone fall onto her lap and bounced her head against the sofa’s armrest in frustration. “I wasn’t trying to get good, just better than a beginner, so I could specialize as a teacher for beginners. God! Listen for once!”
“The Homer Simpson school of business.”
Kat raised the phone needlessly close to face in an exclusionary gesture to the outside world. Sharon softened her tone slightly.
“You know, Kat, with a bit of practice—”
“It’s got to go.”
“…effort and persistence—”
“…knowing when to quit—”
“…barely three weeks.”
“I’m selling it!” shouted Kat.
A silence of finality and bad vibes descended on the living room, broken suddenly by the bathetic and frivolous chirp of a smartphone alert.
“That was quick,” said Kat. “Nope, false alarm; just some bloke asking for a tit pic.”
“Man, there is no escaping that shit. Liz from that bar we used to go to that closed down last year had a guy ask her out over those e-chat bank customer service things.”
“I don’t know what any of those things are, but I don’t doubt it. Who was that couple who met over a prank call to her work or something? Alice and… Tony?”
Suddenly, another gruffer voice entered the conversation.
“Actually it was Toby. I think they ended up setting up a falafel van together or something. Also, Kat’s right—this bass is, in actual fact, a piece of shit.” It was Wayne, standing disheveled and sleepy eyed in the doorway of the living room, holding Kat’s bass lengthways away from his face like a rifle, squinting along the length of the neck.
“When the hell did you get in here?” said Sharon.
“About 11ish,” replied Wayne, continuing to inspect the instrument.
Sharon and Kat exchanged looks of suspicion and disgust. Sharon checked her watch.
“It’s only 10:45,” she said.
“Last night,” he said, again not breaking his clockmaker’s squint.
“Jesus you’ve been here… all night?” said Kat, pulling her duvet up to her chin like a child contemplating a horror of her own imagination.
“Yeah. Slept behind the washing machine.”
“More like hiding behind it,” said Kat.
“It’s totally weird and you need to stop doing this. If you were famous, we could get you fired for being a perv,” said Sharon.
“I’m not famous. Or employed,” he replied flatly, then more hurriedly, “And I wasn’t perving.”
“Interesting order of denial,” said Sharon.
“Anyway, the action’s really high and the neck’s warped. And looking at the state of these strings, I’d recommend a tetanus jab.”
“What?” said Sharon. “Oh right, the bloody bass.”
“See!” yelped Kat, twisting her body around and smiling triumphantly at Sharon. “It’s shitty and I should get rid of it.”
Sharon looked pensive. “You bought a thing that doesn’t work, so you can’t do the idea that was rubbish in the first place. Yeah, I guess that’s a victory of sorts.”
“Damn straight!” said Sharon.
“And in the process have sided with a burglarizing voyeur.”
“Can I have some money for the bus?” said Wayne, ignoring the insult.
“The bus where? You live two streets away,” asked Kat.
“Even less reason for him to be here,” added Sharon.
“The job center. I need to sign on so I can get free money from the government. But first I need free money from you to get there.” He sighed and made a cyclical motion with his hands. “It’s a catch 22 type thing.”
Kat narrowed her eyes and pointed them accusatorily at Wayne.
“There’s a screwed up five at the back of the bread bin,” she said, earning a betrayed glare from her housemate.
“Cool. Thanks,” Wayne replied, with only a minimal suggestion at gratitude. “I’ll put your bass back in your room, yeah?”
“Don’t go in my room!” yelped Kat, with such urgency she nearly fell of the sofa. “Just—just prop it up against the wall there.”
Wayne laboriously placed the headstock of the bass against the wall, stood poised with his hand inches away, and then caught it when it inevitably began to slide sideways like a drunk nodding off at a bar. He repeated the excruciating process twice while Kat and Sharon stared with a mix of pity and disgust as one would a dying animal being sick on itself.
“Jesus, just lay it on the ground,” pleaded Sharon at last.
“Are you sure? It’s gonna be blocking the—”
“Just do it,” said Kat.
He did. And left. Seconds later they heard the door slam.
“God, how do we end up with these people?” said Kat.
“He was your boss.”
“He was my supervisor, for a day. Best supervisor I’ve ever had, to be fair.”
“Because he nearly got you arrested?”
Kat gave the question a second of serious contemplation. “Well, yeah.”
Sharon rummaged behind her back for a cushion and remembered she’d already thrown it at Kat earlier.
Kat’s phone chimed again.
“This one looks promising. Some guy. Can’t spell for shit. Southampton. How far’s that?”
“Couple of hours.”
“Says he’ll pay whatever’s necessary if I can get it to him before three.”
“Guess you’d better check the train times,” said Sharon with a cheery glibness, staring up at the ceiling and smiling. “Bear in mind the service always sucks on a Sunday.”
“Well actually I was hoping—” began Kat.
“No. Too far.”
“Let me rephrase that; I was going to invite you to—”
“…to the opportunity for a road trip.”
“Too short to constitute a road trip.”
“We could take in Portsmouth and Bournemouth if you’re so keen to draw it out,” said Kat, a little more tersely than she intended.
“You’ll get nowhere with a tone like that, missy.”
Kat stuffed a section of duvet into her mouth and bit down on it. “Sorry. I’d really appreciate it. You’d really be helping me out. I’ll pay for gas and whatever.”
A brief and silent clashing of wills passed, in which Kat resisted the urge to speak her true mind lest it warrant a further payment of degrading supplication. Sharon herself meanwhile was merely drawing the moment out for no other reason than the idle enjoyment of her friend’s discomfort.
Finally, Sharon chose to end the standoff.
“Okay, we’ll go,” she said.
Kat swallowed a mouthful of bile and soldiered through her best efforts at a gracious thank you. “Thanks so much, Sharon. I really owe you one for this, you’re a star.”
Sharon recognized it immediately as an adapted version of Kat’s oozy call center voice but, really, it was Sunday, they could take the scenic route and she had a new Bluetooth stereo in her car. “Go to the kitchen and make us a flask of coffee and a couple of fat doorstop sarnies. I’m not paying service station prices,” she said.
Kat got up wordlessly and left the room, her duvet dragging across the wood laminate flooring like a wounded limb.
“Meanwhile, I will shower,” Sharon added.
Sharon drummed her fingers on the wheel, then turned down the stereo. “So what do we actually know about this guy anyway?” she asked. No response was forthcoming from the passenger seat. “Kat?”
Kat sat bolt upright at the sound of her name; “Sorry, was just… thinking about something… doing the math in my head—the gas, etc.”
Sharon stole a sideways look at Kat’s groggy face, embossed on one cheek with the textured pattern of the seatbelt stitching. “So?”
“What do we know about this guy? Who’s buying this shitty bass?”
“Well, he has a fifty quid and lives…” Kat burrowed into her pocket for a note. “… on Cedar Drive in Southampton. And is called Brad.”
“Brad? Who the fuck is called Brad?”
“Half of Australia and some of America.”
“And we know he spells bad.”
“Badly,” Kat corrected her. “Let’s not throw stones in glass houses.”
Sharon risked a hard glare at her passenger, quickly noted by Kat.
“But yeah, he spells badly,” said Kat.
“How much is that bass worth?”
“Not fifty quid.”
“I guess it would burn as fire wood? Strings could be used as tiny washing lines, or to garrote home intruders?”
“So fuck all, then.”
A moment passed in which they both silently considered garroting, then the nature of the internet, then the nature of men, then the nature of men on the internet.
“Let’s both go to the door when we get there,” said Sharon.
“Okay,” agreed Kat. “Hey, here’s a service station, pull in here and we can eat our lunches in the car park.”
“Sometimes they have a patch of grass or a picnic table.”
Sharon pulled over and off the freeway, and wound the car along the slip road. Moments later they were leaning on the bonnet eating.
“I don’t actually mind this,” said Sharon.
“Sorry there’s no grass.”
“No, I mean it feels like a little victory coming here and not buying fast food or a sandwich for seven quid.”
“Right,” agreed Kat. “It feels even better when you take a dump in the toilets without buying anything.”
“Like I said—small victories and no risk of arrest.”
They chewed contentedly and watched a child try and retrieve a French fry off the asphalt while his mother yelled at him and tugged him along by his arm.
“I bet you could live here. I bet Wayne’s tried it.”
“I’ll remember this when worse comes to worst.”
Gradually, countryside gave way to shabby industrial business parks and distribution centers, then eventually to residential areas, townhouses, then the city center they’d being trying to avoid but hit anyway because Kat couldn’t call the directions quickly enough. An obstacle course of stop signs, one way systems, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, and Sunday outdoor market shoppers engulfed them until they emerged on the other side of the storm, back into suburbia.
Cedar Drive was wide, quiet, leafy, aspirational. Sharon’s squat little Nissan seemed an incongruous and unworthy recipient of the emerald guard of honor provided by the canopy of old elms trees that lined the pavement. The houses were detached, large, and individually designed and decorated. The front gardens bloomed with nurtured vividness and each driveway had space for at least two cars. The only notable difference between Brad’s and the rest was the number of children’s outdoor toys that lay strewn and abandoned across his lawn.
Brad himself was not much older than the girls, late thirties at the most, and was wearing a pink salmon polo shirt, chinos, and deck shoes. He held a kitchen implement in his hand neither of the girls could readily identify the use for.
He seemed surprised to see them. “Hello?” he said.
“Hi,” said Kat, lifting the bass slightly as means to an explanation.
Brad looked perplexed.
“You’re Brad, right?” said Sharon.
“Yeah. Are you Julie’s friends?” In the second before the question, he’d given the girls a swift once over, and his cordial expression altered to one of skepticism even as he said the words. “Because she’s away until Tuesday.”
“No,” said Kat, “I think you wanted to buy this bass off of me?”
Brad gave a curt laugh and was in the beginnings of a slow shake of the head, “I was looking at lawn mowers this morning, but—”
From behind him came a shrill cry, then a glittering bundle of colors, hair, and noise bounced into view—a girl in a sequined skirt and rainbow boots.
“My guitar!” she shouted and bounced on the spot, using her father’s short pocket for leverage.
“Wait… okay, I get it,” said Brad, “I reckon I forgot to log off the tablet.”
“Ah, okay,” said Sharon, just for the sake of a response.
Stranded and clueless in a hitherto uncharted area of adult etiquette, nobody said anything for a moment. Then the girl crossed the threshold and grabbed the neck of the bass with both hands.
“My guitar!” she said again and bounded back into the house as best she could, hindered considerably by the weight of an instrument almost as long as she was tall.
Three sets of eyes watched her go.
Finally, Brad reached into his pocket and extracted his wallet.
“Well, she seems pretty set on it, and it’s my own careless fault. How much do I owe you?” he said.
Kat and Sharon seem hypnotized by the sight of the wallet.
“Are you..?” began Kat. “I mean to say—how old is she?”
“Eight in a couple of months.”
Sharon took a sideways glance at her friend and could see from the shape of her frown the cogs beginning to turn.
“Fifty pounds,” she blurted. “Fifty pounds sterling.”
Brad smiled. “Just as well—I left all my Cypriot pounds in the office.”
“Cypriot?” said Sharon.
“Pounds,” said Brad, his smile frozen and his arm extended with a folded fifty-pound note pinched between his middle and index fingers. “Pound sterling.”
Sharon took the note whilst avoiding his eye. “Thanks,” she said.
Another moment passed in silence.
“Thanks, then,” said Sharon, and turned to go, deliberately brushing Kat’s elbow with her own.
“Yeah, bye,” said Kat, a little brusquely.
“Thanks,” said Brad, “I’ll give you a five star review.”
“Thanks,” they said together, twisting their heads only slightly around as they hurried over the gravel driveway.
“Cheers,” Brad said.
Neither spoke as they walked to the car. Kat rubbed her eye and the rough, raw callous on her fingertip was like sandpaper against her lid. She rubbed a muscle on her forearm where the squared off body of the bass had dug into it, then stretched out the fingers in her left hand and felt the tendons in the forearm and wrist burn.
Kat hesitated with her hand on the door handle of the passenger side.
“It’s unlocked,” said Sharon.
Kat opened the door and climbed in.
“Well, that explains the shitty spelling,” said Sharon, slotting the keys into the ignition.
“We have to go back,” said Kat, already undoing her seatbelt.
“She’s clueless. Or he’s clueless. Or he just doesn’t care and she’s just excited to have a new big thing.”
Sharon stared at Kat, hand still on the ignition, like one attempting to decipher an infant’s drawing.
Kat stared straight ahead, wide-eyed with her hands out in front of her as if attempting to summon a succinct explanation from her brain. “I can’t say exactly who’s the victim here, but I really don’t think that was an ethical transaction.”
Kat reached for the door handle. Sharon grabbed her trailing arm.
“That guy probably spends fifty quid a week on cheese alone, Kat.”
“That doesn’t make it right that we sold him a lemon.”
“So he should’ve paid more attention and learn the value of money. He barely checked it over.”
“So we sold her a lemon.”
Sharon looked ostentatiously at the looming house in front of them—the expansive garden; the two cars that made her own look like a milk float.
“I think she’ll get over it.”
“That bass is a torture device. I could hardly press those strings down.”
“So a rich kid gets a new toy and then forgets it in a week. What’s new?”
“And then some boy’s gonna come in and mansplain how it’s a piece of junk—”
“Isn’t that exactly what happened this morning?”
“Wayne just confirmed what I knew! You don’t need to be a mechanic to know a car’s probably a bit worse for wear when it’s lying at the bottom of a cliff in flames.”
Sharon removed the keys from the ignition, straightened her back, and folded her arms. “So I don’t follow. What ethical code are we violating exactly?”
“What do you mean?”
“So was it patriarchal to sell the bass to Brad or just aggressively capitalistic? I can’t keep up.”
“Don’t mock me for having values. I thought we were on the same page with that stuff, but right now I’m not so sure.”
The emphasis on “thought” hit its mark, and Sharon grabbed and squeezed the steering wheel with anger.
“Don’t try and…” Sharon searched for the word.
“Excommunicate me because I don’t believe every scenario falls neatly into a discriminatory pigeon hole.”
Both their voices were beginning to tremor slightly as the rising emotion swelled in their throats.
“What if no one explains that it’s a piece of shit and she thinks she just can’t play it, and then some other boy tells her it’s just because she’s a girl.”
“I think you’re letting your imagination run away with whatever needless sense of guilt you’re feeling.”
“And what if—”
“What if you can’t pay the rent again?”
Sharon met Kat’s eyes for the first time since they’d returned to the car. Kat turned away and looked out the window.
“How many months this year have you paid the rent in full by yourself?” Sharon continued.
No answer was expected or forthcoming.
“I know I’ve chipped in at least four times. I know your mom helps you out sometimes. And what’s fifty quid? Even that barely scratches the surface on the flat.”
“You don’t need to keep count,” Kat whispered into the passenger seat window.
“I do, Kat. Everyone does, everyone counts all the fucking time, and it’s a tedious fucking slog, but everyone’s counting rent, counting change, counting bills, counting paychecks, counting down days of the fucking month like it’s a fucking ticking timebomb, except, apparently, you.” Sharon accentuated the final few words with a bang on the steering wheel.
Sharon exhaled deeply and stared out the windscreen at the beginnings of a sunset—purples, pinks, and oranges foregrounded by gray streaks of cloud that gave the panorama a metallic, iridescent quality. They sat in silence for so long that by the time either of them spoke again, the streetlights had begun to turn on.
At last Kat refastened her seatbelt. “Are we going to go or what, then?”
Tentatively, as if handling some unstable explosives, Sharon started the engine and pulled out onto the empty Sunday evening road. She found the beltway this time, but they were still barely past Salisbury before Kat spoke again.
“I actually have a job interview on Tuesday,” she said, slightly hoarsely.
“That’s good. Where?” said Sharon.
“Just some admin stuff for that magazine group place type thing.”
“Should be some interesting people there.”
This time the silence lasted until within five miles of home.
“I do count, by the way,” said Kat. “I just really, really hate almost all jobs, and any opportunity I can think of to not do them I’m almost always going to take, even if it’s a Homer Simpson scheme.”
Sharon smiled, despite herself.
“Then I guess it’s a matter of striking a balance then,” she said. “And sometimes making… sacrifices and…” She was speaking as amiably and as tactfully as she could without sounding motherly. “… choosing where and when and with whom—or against whom….” She trailed off.
Now it was Kat’s turn to smile at her friend’s clumsy efforts at diplomacy.
“I suppose if one bad experience could put a kid off music for life, elementary school recorder lessons would’ve seen to it for all of us,” she said.
“There’d be no bands ever again,” said Sharon.
Despite her not insincere display of conviction, it took only five minutes into the return drive for Sharon to decide that while there were things that needed to merely be thought to have been done, there were also things that really should be done for the sake of the wider universe’s moral balance, and that on this occasion there was no reason why the two couldn’t coexist at the same time.
Hence, the following morning, she followed her usual Monday morning routine—she packed her bag, packed her lunch, her bike lock, helmet, wheeled the bike along the hall, out the door, and bounced it down the stairs—but instead of getting on and riding she wheeled it two blocks away from the flat and chained it to some railing, then doubled back, got in her car, and phoned to tell work she had some family business that would last until the afternoon. Then she drove to Cedar Drive, knocked on the door with a sufficient amount of mustered fortitude, maintained eye contact with Brad, and made sure to speak fluently and without equivocation. Then she drove into the center of Southampton fifty pounds worse off, got rejected by the two cash-and-carries, and eventually dumped the bass—without ceremony but with a certain amount of catharsis—in a dumpster behind the second. And then she went to work and was fired for lying.
John Miskelly lives in Asturias, northern Spain, where he teaches English as a foreign language and steals pens. He is thirty-two. Other examples of his work can be found on this website.