Today May is wearing her exile lightly. It feels like a game—the giddy consumerism, the flirtatious testing of mattresses, even the dinner a deux in the IKEA restaurant (surprisingly good salmon, and meatballs for Jake).
Most days, she feels like chipboard: shredded but squashed back into shape, held together by two plastic veneers. The ammonia of her hair bleach makes her cry, she chokes and has to hang up the phone when she gives half her old address by mistake to a utility company.
But today has been fun. She pushes the shortlist across the table to Jake.
‘Right. We’re done. The Leksvik, the Hogbo, a Meldal with a Sultan Jorvik, four Billies, two Tertials and a Dave.’
‘Dave’s that little adjustable one-legged table.’
‘We didn’t have Dave before.’
‘They’ve only just started selling them. We can eat off it in the living room.’
She nudges his calf with her toe. ‘We don’t have to have everything the same, do we?’
‘No… Hey, in that case, shall we—I know it’s daft—that round bed?’ He catches her eye and gives her hip a squeeze under the table.
May likes this. Their new names, the new jobs, her new hair and his new clothes, have given them a kind of second honeymoon. And they are the only ones who understand, which pulls them closer. They flirt all the time, they groom each other with kisses.
‘A round bed? Wouldn’t it be like living in a porn video?
‘Would it? I wouldn’t know…’
‘Oh, why the hell not?’
They’re a little bit more daring than they were pre-relocation. She’d toed the line for years, played it safe, worked hard, and where did it get her? Face down on the spare room bed with a gun trained on the back of her neck. And Jake—poor Jake—had driven faithfully to work for fifteen years at the same branch. And then he’d had to make the same trip with two armed passengers in the back, palms slipping on the steering wheel, wondering how he’d get into the vault when his face was green and he couldn’t stop trembling. Even then, they’d both behaved impeccably, the police had told them. Done just what they should—Jake with the secret alarm, May taking cover as soon as she heard the officers kick in the kitchen door. They would be mentioned as examples of good practice at hostage situation training seminars.
That doesn’t help them sleep, in their new house, in their new names. But when they wake up at odd hours they have remarkably good sex. The relocation officers hadn’t predicted that. May thinks sometimes that Jake will take his new, flirtatious persona, his new name and haircut, and have an affair. ‘Jake’ sounds like that kind of man. ‘Tim’ was a lot safer.
She thinks a man by the dessert display fridges is looking at them, but she knows it’s just the dusk making her nervous. She has it easier than T—Jake in many ways, she can just say ‘I always feel a little low at dusk’ and people think she’s sensitive, mysterious. He’s not allowed as many eccentricities.
They finish their puddings, feeding each other small spoonfuls. They plough back into the exhibition spaces of imaginary lounges, bedrooms for chic families who don’t exist. It reminds her of the first night in their new house. This isn’t our home, she kept thinking. This is the house of an imaginary couple.
Hence this trip. They’re buying most of their old furniture again. Sometimes the panic rises and it seems insane that buying furniture from imaginary rooms to put in their imaginary house will make them feel real again, but what the hell, try everything. They’re not getting the same spare room bed again, though. Eight hours with your teeth resting on a solid spruce slatted frame is enough acquaintance for one lifetime.
They find the circular bed and lie down, holding hands. Roll around, rub noses, and weather stares from the curious children of fellow shoppers.
‘Is it really big enough?’ she asks. But they’re both short, and the round bed seems suddenly hilarious and they write down the complex numerology of its warehouse location on their final list.
They stride down to the warehouse under the showrooms, steering two huge trolleys with skill, braking and turning without barking a shin. The final shopping list is compiled so they can visit the aisles in numerical order. They’ve never had an argument in IKEA, which she knows from conversations with friends (pre- and post-relocation) is rare. She suspects it may be some kind of evolutionary test in the future—only couples that can safely negotiate IKEA without splitting up will breed, and the next generation will be able to tell their Expedit from their Onska straight from the cradle. But May and Jake can’t have children now. Can they? Even if they knew they were safe, completely safe (and the police said it was an amateur gang, got the idea from a film, relocation just a precaution). But even so, could she bring a child into a world where a contented brunette HR officer finds the police hurling tear gas canisters into her semi-detached house at dusk after a five-hour siege, and rolls herself in a duvet as though that could stop her getting shot?
‘What’s up?’ Jake at her elbow. He has been calling her name, three times and she hasn’t heard him. So much for all the practice they did.
‘I was wondering what all the names mean. They could be rude words in Swedish.’
They snigger. Then he spins her round to kiss her and she sees the man from the restaurant slide away into another aisle behind them.
She’s lost her name. She didn’t change her surname when they married, but now it’s gone anyway. She heard somewhere that Mormon wives believe they’ll only get to heaven if their husband calls them out of their grave during the Final Judgement. She’s an atheist but it’s been plucking at her. What if Tim—Jake calls her by her new name and she just doesn’t hear him? Once, waking after a nightmare, she made him promise. Real names on the Last Day.
He holds her close and murmurs to her.
‘Get in between the flatpacks.’
She knows immediately that it’s not about sex.
‘In the gap between those two stacks—keep low—I’ll try to do something to him.’
But what can one short, middle-aged bank clerk do? What did either of them do last time? Can Jake knock out an assassin before he can draw a gun? Is she supposed to hide between two walls of buff cardboard, wardrobes and bookshelves, and wait to hear the shots and the advancing footsteps?
‘Better chance with two of us,’ she whispers back. She lets her hand slide down and grasp Dave, the lightweight metal and resin table that is portable but will pack a punch. The light’s dying in the car-park and she wants her life back. Jake grips a Tertial, IKEA‘s own-brand anglepoise, whippy and sharp-edged. They brace their feet against the colossal weight of the loaded trolley. It is a missile that could snap a leg if propelled by a couple of skilled IKEA veterans. Jake and May rub noses, to lull the watcher for a last moment.
‘Jennifer,’ says Jake.
‘Not today,’ says May.
By Esther, 16 August, 2006; direct link.