For a few weeks, Lorna Glover had been dating Felipe Perez, a boy from the office where she worked. But she was perplexed. She could not work out what his feelings for her were. Her friend, Sonya, suggested she consult the Emotional Detective Agency in Baker Street, who specialize in just this type of situation.
It was Thursday lunchtime and Lorna had an extended lunch break of a few hours. She decided to take the opportunity to check out the Agency. When she arrived in Baker Street, there was a queue starting at the Agency’s front door and extending along the pavement for about twenty yards. The queue contained a mixture of both men and women. Lorna joined the back of the queue and over the next two hours she gradually edged her way towards the Agency’s front door. At last, she was standing in the reception area, at the head of the queue.
There was a long corridor leading into the heart of the building, and on either side of the corridor, doors opened into it. Occasionally, a client would reappear from one of these doors, sometimes a man and sometimes a woman, but they would always be accompanied by another person who seemed to work for the Agency.
These Agency workers always wore a nondescript overcoat and plain shoes. Their facial features were attractive in some way, but Lorna could not tell if they were male or female. They were rather like the androgynous models in glossy fashion magazines, having been perhaps carefully selected for their blurred sexuality—or their sexuality having been blurred by the industry. These workers accompanied the clients through the Agency’s front door and appeared to follow them back out into their everyday lives.
It was Lorna’s turn and she was taken along the corridor and directed to enter one of the doors. Beyond it, there was a room furnished with two easy chairs, a coat stand, and not much else. Sat in one of the chairs was a person who was introduced to her as Agent Melancholy.
Agent Melancholy had attractive features and long hair, but, again, Lorna was not sure whether Melancholy was a man or a woman. The agent stood up, greeted her in a soft voice and indicated for her to sit in the other easy chair. While the agent was standing, with no overcoat on, Lorna took the opportunity to quickly scan their body, looking for any bulges that might give away their sex, but she could not detect any. They both sat down.
Lorna said, “I’ve heard you can detect the emotional life in men.”
Agent Melancholy said, in a soft voice, “Ah, yes, we do our best. But you have to understand that this is the final frontier of human discovery. With some men, detecting the emotional life in them is like trying to prove that, if a cat could speak, it would be able to learn Japanese. How does one go about doing that? First of all, have you ever heard a cat speak?”
“No, I haven’t”
“Well, there you are. So how do you know whether it could learn Japanese or not?”
Lorna said, quite truthfully, “I can’t see how you could tell.” She was beginning to feel relaxed. She sank into the easy chair. There was something simple and straightforward about Agent Melancholy and she felt that, though the agent’s questions seemed a bit strange, she was able to easily answer them.
Melancholy said, “And this is your experience of men?”
She said, “With most of them. Well, no, with pretty much all of them.”
“I see,” said Melancholy. “So you want us to find out whether—supposing your man were a cat—whether or not he would be capable of speaking Japanese?”
Lorna said, “I don’t want him to speak Japanese; I just want him to speak to me.”
“Japanese would be a first step though?”
“Do you think you could get him to speak Japanese?”
“I doubt it; we’re speaking metaphorically, you understand.”
Lorna said, “Yes, I see. Well, no. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Agent Melancholy told her, “Well, you see, this is the first problem. Do you know what the problem is?”
Lorna said, “I want to know if he cares for me at all.”
“No, that’s what you want to know. That’s not what the problem is.”
“So, what’s the problem then?”
“It’s not really possible for me to tell you that.”
“Why not? Are you not allowed to?”
“No, I’m not able to. It just isn’t possible.”
“But isn’t that your job?”
Melancholy told her, “No. If we take our metaphorical Japanese-speaking cat, for example. Suppose you wanted to get to a particular street in Tokyo and you stopped to ask the cat directions. If the cat started speaking Japanese to you, and even gesticulated with its paws, could you understand its directions?”
Lorna thought for a moment and then said, “I think I would have a rough idea, because I would see the direction it was pointing in.”
“But what if it was saying ‘Don’t, whatever you do, go in that direction because it is the wrong direction’?”
“Well, then I’d get completely lost.”
Agent Melancholy said, “Exactly! So, imagine that you were travelling along a road and you came to a fork in the road and didn’t know which way to go, and then you noticed me sitting beside the road. You approached me to ask me directions (just as you have done today), but at that moment, I transformed into a cat who was very learned but could only speak Japanese. You asked me for directions. I might well have been able to then recite two hours of finely honed Japanese verse to you. But you would still be lost, because you could not understand a word of Japanese. Do you see?”
Lorna said, in her own simple way, “Well, couldn’t you just tell me in English?”
“But perhaps the cat cannot speak English. It can only speak Japanese.”
Lorna said, now a little impatiently, “But I’m not interested in the cat. I just want to know if Felipe feels anything for me.”
Melancholy said, “I see.” He crossed his arms and held his chin with his right hand for a moment. He watched Lorna whilst seeming to perform some sort of calculation in his head. He then agreed to take on her case. He put on his nondescript overcoat and accompanied her back to her workplace. On the way, he told her, “Just imagine I am not here. I will follow you for a few days and gather the clues. I might whisper my observations into your ear from time to time, but I will speak so softly that no-one else will hear.”
Lorna had no objections. She just wanted the riddle to be solved—did Felipe have any feelings for her, or not?
Lorna worked in an open-plan office. She sat at her desk and Melancholy sat beside her. She whispered, “That’s Felipe, over there.”
Felipe Perez’s desk was on the other side of the office, about twenty yards to the left of her desk. Their desks faced in the same direction and Felipe’s was a few yards ahead of hers, so that if he glanced over his right shoulder, they could see each other. Felipe’s father was Spanish and his mother Chinese and Felipe seemed to have inherited all the best traits from both his parents, in both looks and personality. He had long black hair, a dark Mediterranean complexion and dark, alluring eyes. There was a mystique that seemed to surround him; he would have to do nothing more than merely enter a room to cause every eye in the room to turn towards him, like compass needles seeking north.
While she was walking back to the office, she gave Agent Melancholy the details of her brief relationship with Felipe. They started dating a few weeks before. They met a few times at the coffee machine during their breaks, started chatting, then sending each other messages on the internal mail system, then they arranged a date. In the following two weeks, they had sex twice at Lorna’s flat, but then she noticed he did not seem to be saying the right things to her, nor messaging her any more at the office, then it occurred to her he had never even told her he was attracted to her.
At her desk, she whispered to Melancholy, “So, you see, I’ve got no idea what his intentions are and I don’t know if he’s even attracted to me.”
Melancholy whispered, “Yes, I do see the problem. And you know, if you were to simply ask him: ‘Felipe, are you attracted to me?’ he’d be likely to say something like, ‘Well, I slept with you, didn’t I?’ which would not answer your question at all. Because you already know that he slept with you—” and here, Melancholy looked at her in a doubtful, questioning way and whispered, “That is, unless it was so uneventful that it was difficult for you to notice him in bed with you—?”
Lorna whispered, “Oh, no, it was quite eventful!”
Melancholy whispered, “Good. So, his answer would not really be saying anything. So, whatever he’s likely to say, you will still be left to solve this riddle by yourself. This is the problem we face.”
Lorna started tapping on her keyboard and as she did so, she whispered, “Well, Melancholy, I’m glad I’ve got you here to help me.”
Two hours later, she had still not received any messages from Felipe. She whispered, “He knows I’m here; why doesn’t he message me?”
Agent Melancholy whispered, “There are endless possibilities.”
She whispered, “It’s always left to me to contact him. If I don’t message him, he doesn’t message me. So, how do I know that he wants me to message him?”
Melancholy explained that some men simply do not know what to say, even in the simplest of social situations, and that it was like a great riddle to them—what were they supposed to say?—so that silence did not necessarily mean he was not interested in her. And Melancholy helpfully added: “You see, if that metaphorical cat said something to you in Japanese, and you didn’t respond, the cat might think you weren’t interested. But you may have been extremely interested, only you didn’t understand Japanese. Do you see?”
Lorna’s head was starting to spin. She simply got on with her work.
One hour later, she noticed Felipe getting up from his desk and leaving the office. She whispered, in a told-you-so tone, “Well, there you are. He’s not interested!”
Melancholy whispered, “But perhaps he thinks you’re not interested in him, so he’s given up and is looking elsewhere.”
Lorna whispered, “You mean, he’s got a date with someone else?”
“He might have. Because your silence might have told him you’re not interested, so he might have given up on you. The riddle works both ways.”
“But I still want him.”
“But how does he know that? He might think you’re not interested. So, he might be interested in you and he might not. The fact that he’s going home without having sent you a message, doesn’t prove anything.”
Lorna shouted, “But how do I know!”
Her manager looked at her with concern.
She left the office with Melancholy.
End of extract
The full text of this story is included in Fletcher's collected edition of short stories, which can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format. Click here for details.
20 April 2008
See readers' comments on this work here.