I propel myself up and out of the freeze-frame of Kim’s eyes, which reanimate; he finishes his laugh of surprise and steps on down First Avenue.
The pair of them reach Shigem’s block. “I can’t imagine why I’m thinking of this, but there’s a punishment in the Malaysian penal code,” says Shigem, “which is to have a peeled chilli pepper inserted up your bottom. It’s true. It’s an old Malaysian custom. I can’t remember what it’s a punishment for, but I just know it would happen to me immediately if I ever went there. I’d just find myself committing that particular crime and getting caught. I’m glad my parents moved out of there and came here instead—it was a narrow escape.”
“No chilli peppers, growing up here?” Kim asks, as they turn up Shigem’s front path.
“It’s not a part of state law here—probably just in the Deep South. I was different, growing up here, always. I was stared at everywhere and cauldrons of abuse were poured on me over the years, but I smashed my way through it all. There were fights in the street, too—and I fight like a girl in the rain, so don’t get on my wrong side.”
“I think I’ll deliberately get on your wrong side now; I’m curious.” They close the front door behind them and head up the dim creaky staircase, suspending the conversation until they are inside Shigem’s room. “What kind of friends did you have?”
Shigem pours drinks. “Being seen around with me always took a bit of courage to do, but some people did it anyway, so I loved them just for that. I felt like an acrobat on the high wire sometimes. I felt like a freak, with general tragedy looming over my head. I assumed that sooner or later someone would want to kill me because I was me, or a house would collapse on me, or a flower-pot would fall off a roof and pop! I’d be gone—curtains, funeral, weeping into hankies at the grave, widow’s weeds and all that. I felt ‘tragic’ for a while, I did. But it’s funny, I wasn’t really miserable enough—at least not as much as a tragic person should be. ’Cos I guess a tragic person should be really miserable. And I was only slightly miserable.”
“Or maybe it was just a small tragedy. At least you enjoyed it.”
“Oh, I had a front-row seat for it, and it was always picturesque. My hopes for love, of course, were just a-wisp on the breeze. People always said I was a complete slut, and for two or three years I guess I kind of was, despite being such a pizza-face, but that’s over now, it’s in the past.”
“Oh my god—another great subject to disagree about. You wouldn’t think we’d known each other for a whole three months already. Aren’t we meant to be drying up with the topics by now?”
“We could always pretend to. Shall we sit here morosely for a while?” Kim yawns. “Sorry, but I need to sleep.”
“You’re too pretty to be sorry.”
“So are you,” says Kim, kissing him.
“So you say. Well, at least I’ll confess to having a pair of sensual, pouty and very kissable lips.” He giggles: “Evelyn was impersonating my lips on camera tonight. She was so funny.”
Thinking back, Kim surmises that at the time of these hi-jinks he must have been busy telling me about the mysterious figure at Pippa’s.
“She is such good vibes,” continues Shigem. “I was once at a kind of cocktail-party that was really stiff, everyone standing around in fifth position, but then she arrived and the whole thing just took off. I’m not so into cocktail-parties—give me a nightclub and I’m happiest.”
Kim laughs. “That reminds me: a friend of mine had a dance teacher who used to make every student come to every class with a 50p coin. To start the class he’d always stand, quite naturally, in something like fifth position. Then he’d clap his hands, saying ‘Girls—places!’ and they would each have to clench their 50p coin between their butt-cheeks and keep clenching it while they did bar exercises, so they had a financial interest in maintaining their buttock-clench, as well as an artistic interest. If anyone’s 50p fell out, as it often did, this teacher would pick it up and keep it, saying ‘Thank you!’ Up and down the whole class he’d go, pocketing 50p coins: ‘Thank you!… Thank you!… Thank you!…’”
They climb into bed and turn the light out. “I don’t believe that!” laughs Shigem, squirming his back into a comfortable position against Kim’s chest.
“No, it’s true, I swear…”
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