Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2012 Results




Arthur Wickerton and the Very Fine Ladies

Copyright © Adam vanLangenberg 2012


Arthur Wickerton was not a gainly man. As a child he was a bit of an ugly duckling who had unfortunately, despite what Hans Christian Andersen had him believe, simply grown into an ugly duck.

His eyes were watery and too close together, like a cell that has only just completed mitosis. His paper thin hair did not waft luxuriously in the breeze like the shampoo commercials promised, it stuck to his scalp like cat hair on toast. His shoulders were completely undefined and merely a hanging place for his arms. Tubular arms, white and gormless. All the better to match his legs.

The less said about his body the better, except for this one thing. Despite what he told people, his skeleton was not big boned but rather gloriously encased in fat.

Of course, you are not the type to judge a person on their appearance alone. Years of being taught 'it’s what inside that counts' have given you such a remarkable sense of genuine unsuperficiality that you probably feel sorry for poor, dear Arthur. Given that this story does not end well for him it will no doubt assist you to know that as a child, Arthur used to peek through the door at his mother in the shower. As a teenager he once farted on a girl’s sandwich because she rejected his Don Juan-esque advances. And as an adult, well, let’s just say he isn’t allowed into the zoo any more.

Arthur was a writer. To be fair, that definition strains the imagination somewhat so let’s just say he was an individual who occasionally put down words into an order he thought pleasing. Words that usually had something to do with what one fictional character did with another fictional character in the privacy (or just as often not) of their own homes. Harry Potter and Princess Leia? Check. Cinderella and Batman? Check. Iron Man and Voltron? Double check.

Each week a new story was submitted to his website and then spammed to thousands of people across the globe. He would eventually be as well known as Shakespeare, Orwell and other authors he’d never read.

Our tale begins early one afternoon, just as Arthur was waking. Reheated pizza in hand and dirty clothes soaking in a sink he strode mightily to his couch and sank his buttocks into its long-worn crater.

Firing up his laptop he pondered the day’s writing assignment. It was a Wednesday and Arthur’s fans knew that that was new story day. He had been doing this for so long that by now his stories were writing themselves. All he really had to do was choose a pair of characters and the rest was detail.

Sherlock Holmes and Jessica Rabbit.

The Terminator and Lara Croft.

Frankenstein’s Monster and Eve.

He chewed these ideas around like his greasy breakfast pizza and settled on Robin Hood and Joan of Arc. He had the perfect opening sentence: Robin Hood stared down the length of his woody shaft at the beautiful woman and thought “I wonder if what they say about French girls is true?”

Poetry.

He wiped his fingers on a cushion and began typing:

You’re pathetic, Arthur. You’re in your thirties and still haven’t had a girlfriend.

Arthur stopped. That wasn’t what he’d typed. At least it wasn’t what he’d intended on typing. He tried again:

Seriously, you need help.

Again, Arthur stopped. He checked the cable on the keyboard. It was fine. A virus? He ran a scan and it came up clean. Probably some internet joker, somebody who took offense to his work was playing a prank on him. Pretty impressive, really.

He switched off his modem and disconnected entirely from the world around him. For good measure he even switched his computer on and off again.

He typed:

You’d like to kiss a girl, right? And more? You write about it often enough it’s about time you experienced it. And before you say anything, Julia Swanston in the fifth grade didn’t count. She was dared to.

He leapt off his couch and looked around the room in a mad panic. There was a hidden camera. There must be. He tore posters off the wall until a heap of Iron Maidens and Kim Basingers lay crumpled on the floor.

“Who’s there?” he shouted into the empty flat.

Nothing. Just the blinking, mocking cursor on the screen.

He sat at the screen and spoke, looking around first to ensure nobody was watching.

“Can you hear me?”

Yes.

“Are you real?”

Sure, why not?

“How did you get into my laptop?”

Beats me. Magic?

“What do you want?”

To help you, Arthur. Only to help you. You’re a mess.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, I run a very popular website-”

Hardly anybody reads it. Trust me, I know these things. A couple of perverts in New Zealand. A guy in Indiana. One of your old teachers, but let’s not get into that guy.

“How can you help me?”

Arthur, I can get you what you want. Girls. Women. I can tell you how to act, how to dress and how to make your moves. Just take my advice and within months you will be swimming in very fine ladies.

Arthur’s eyes brimmed. He’d always wanted to swim in very fine ladies. At least dip his feet a little.

“What do I do?”

First we gotta fix your look. Stand up, strip down and do a little spin for me.

“A little-”

Spin. Let me get a real good look at you so I can choose some good outfits. I gotta get your size, right?

With more than a hint of trepidation Arthur stood and did as commanded. His pants struck the ground with a sense of futility followed slowly and hesitantly by his underpants, soiled and lonely. He twirled, slowly, in front of his computer.

Beautiful. Ok, give me a second...

Pictures of handsome men in fancy clothes sped across the screen. A host of online clothing stores websites appeared and he watched their electronic shopping carts fill.

“How did you... my modem isn’t even on!”

Don’t sweat the details. What’s your credit card number? Never mind, I can find it.

Arthur watched as his name, address and credit card number all appeared in the various forms. He watched as a host of ‘Submit’ buttons clicked themselves. He watched the blinking cursor.

Ok, first, go take a shower. Then hit the beauty salon three blocks from here. Hand over your wallet and tell them 'Fix me.' No more, no less.

Arthur walked, naked and blubbersome to his bathroom where he washed. Vigorously. Pale flesh turned pink under the strain of his scrubbings and he exited, somewhat dizzy and smelling faintly of lavender.

The salon attendees were no less thorough. Hair was cut and blown, nails were trimmed and buffed. Oils were applied and massaged into depths he was not aware he had.

He walked home, jauntily. A smile danced upon his lips which, while unsettling to onlookers, released just enough endorphins to make Arthur not care.

Arthur, you look great. If I wasn’t a disembodied entity trapped within the confines of your laptop I’d kiss you myself.

Arthur beamed. It was a sight to behold, or not, for want of preference.

I’ve signed you up to a gym. Starting tomorrow you go every day. Also, go empty out your fridge. No more take-away. I took the liberty of arranging weight-loss meal delivery. Twice a day, starting tomorrow. You can skip dinner tonight, you won’t miss it.

Arthur hesitated. There was a week’s worth of leftovers in there.

Arthur, you gotta do as I say. If you want the ladies you gotta make a few changes.

He sighed and began the arduous and bittersweet task of fridge cleaning. It took the rest of the afternoon.

He slept poorly that night, stomach gurgling and threatening. At 8AM his computer started beeping, a horrible noise usually reserved only for the most critical of failures.

He raced into his lounge room, slipping on the pile of posters and flying into his laptop, sending it crashing to the ground. He gasped and picked it up hurriedly, he couldn’t afford to lose his friend now.

Breath held, he opened it up and stared at the screen, upside down. A message appeared:

Arthur, you do not look great at this angle.

He exhaled, righted the machine and placed it on its table.

“Why were you beeping like that? What’s wrong?”

That was your alarm call, Arthur. It’s time to get up. Losers sleep in. Winners get up early and face the day. Breakfast is outside the door. Go eat, put on your tracksuit and get to the gym. Ask for a trainer. Do everything they tell you.

The word ‘literally’ gets misused so often that it is necessary for you to understand that no part of the following statement is incorrect: the forty-five minutes Arthur spent at the gym were literally the worst forty-five minutes of his life.

He squatted and lunged and benched and dipped. He skipped and bounced and sprinted and collapsed. The pain was extraordinary. His lungs filled with cement and his blood ran with lava. And all the time the bastard trainer smiled and encouraged and said helpful little things like “only two to go!” and “looking great, you’re doing fine!”

Arthur hated him with a fury that would fuel stars.

But he went again, two days later. And over time his hatred decayed into hostility, then loathing and finally resentment. But still he went.

It would be wrong to say that the pounds dropped off, but they definitely slithered away a little. He still looked more like a Greek nana than a Greek god, but it was a start.

His new clothes arrived and more turned up every day. Weekly salon visits kept his hair and skin in check and he was feeling great.

Arthur, you are not looking great.

“I’ve lost ten kilos! You can see my biceps! You made me get a wax!”

Smooth backsides notwithstanding, it’s not enough. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Ring this number and make an appointment.

“Who are they?”

What have I told you about asking questions? Just ring. Don’t disobey me.

A number appeared on the screen and Arthur dialled.

“Hello, Happy Shapes Liposuction. How may I help you?”

Arthur hung up. He turned to his laptop, eyes narrow and squinty.

“Liposuction!? I am absolutely not getting any-”

ARTHUR. DO NOT DISOBEY. MAKE. THE. APPOINTMENT.

The cursor flashed.

Please.

Arthur relented. Who was he to argue? Everything his friend was doing was helping, he had to trust it.

More time passed and Arthur was looking better than ever. His belts were serving their actual purpose, his breath had lost its ‘just woken up’ smell and even his hair seemed fuller. He hadn’t written a word of fairy tale erotica in months, although very few people noticed.

His furniture had been replaced and upgraded, his fridge showed signs of greenery and he even bought a wine rack. The wine made his head spin but it looked good on the shelf.

He watched a romantic movie every day and practiced his lines in front of the mirror.

In the dark of the night he kissed and made love to his pillows.

Arthur, the time has come. No longer relegated to the confines of these walls it is time to shed your chrysalis and grace the world with your manifestation. From a slovenly heap of corpulent waste I have uplifted you and bestowed upon you my tender ministrations.

“Your tender-”

It is time for you to go public.

“Public?”

The pub down the street. Go there. Find a lady. Tell her she’s pretty. Buy her drinks. Bring her here. I’ll talk you through it. Arthur’s head spun with possibilities. A lady! In his flat! They would kiss, and other things... Tonight was his night. He would strut into that pub and approach women. He would impress them with his witty grace and power.

He showered, dressed and checked his hair. He ran over his flat making sure everything looked perfect. He changed his pillow cases and stepped outside.

Walking briskly down the street he soon faced the pub. It loomed large before him but held no terrors. He had no more fear of the beings inside than a lion had of a mouse. He was the man in charge and everyone would soon know it.

He stepped inside and looked around. There were lots of men but even more women. Hardly any of them were ugly.

Grabbing a beer he sat on a stool and leaned nonchalantly against the bar, surveying his kingdom. In the corner an attractive young girl caught his eye and looked him up and down. She smiled, and nudged her friend. Arthur studied their drinks in case he decided to buy them more.

He kept looking around, knowing not to go for the first girl who earned his attention. No doubt he would do better as the night progressed.

Sitting at another table a girl looked at him and pointed. That was a surprise, he was obviously looking better than he thought. He smiled at her and attempted a coy wink.

Then the snickering started. Whispered voices floated behind cupped hands. Phones were pulled out and examined. A few of the men raised their glasses to him. Somebody took a photo.

“Hey fatty, give us a twirl!”

The bar roared and Arthur’s face went hot and red. He felt as dizzy and confused as his first day at the gym. He ran to the door and raced home.

Once inside he grabbed his laptop and stared at it straight in the screen.

“They laughed at me! What happened?” Arthur pleaded.

No response.

“Please! What did I do wrong?”

Nothing.

Arthur wailed and sat on the floor. He cried to himself for a while and ate the chocolates he had hidden under his couch. Despondent, he curled up on the floor and tried to forget.

After half an hour his laptop beeped. Eagerly, he looked but saw only a new email, waiting to be opened.

Subject: This month’s most hilarious videos!

Cat falls into bath!

Bride has wardrobe malfunction!

Baby farts itself awake!

Each link was accompanied by a small image bearing a single frame of the video. And then he saw it. The last link on the screen:

Fat naked man dances for you!

And a small image of Arthur, naked and arms astride. He clicked on the link and watched himself twirling for the camera. White and fleshy and dangly in the warm, afternoon light. In the background, a slice of pizza lay discarded on the couch.

He shut down his email and saw a single message flashing on his screen.

Well, you’re as famous as Shakespeare now. Probably more popular, too.