Franz Kafka’s Shirt
A short story by Kate Pullinger
Genevieve paid a great deal of attention to her dreams because she believed they revealed important things about her state of mind. Her dream-life was particularly rich; Genevieve could often remember her dreams with a clarity that she rarely found in her actual waking life. Her dreams were like little absurdist plays, one after the other, night after night. It was as if Ionesco had moved into her subconscious.
From time to time Genevieve’s dreams were more straightforward, tiny snippets of wish-fulfilment that lasted five seconds, like the night she dreamed she was given a pen, the ink of which would never blot, and the time she went back to school and humiliated the boy who once told her she was ugly. But, more often her dreams made little obvious sense and Genevieve had to spend whole mornings figuring out what they meant. She had her own set of dream-analysis tools, and her own ideas about the symbolism within her. Not for her the Freudian, Jungian, Reichian interpretations, nor even the more hippy ideas of dreaming and astrology.
Genevieve’s dreams were like theatre, so she interpreted them like theatre. She enjoyed them and queued for ice-cream in the interval. She appreciated the art behind their creation, and she admired the design of the sets. Most of all, she was thrilled with the way she almost always knew all the people in the dream. It was like having a fringe theatre company devoted to the interpretation of one’s own life. That was how Genevieve saw her dreams; very interesting, often disturbing, but something that didn’t actually have much impact upon the everyday occurrences of her diurnal life.
In this waking life, Genevieve was a normalish type of person. She had a job she didn’t like, although it didn’t annoy her enough to make her look for another one. She had a pleasant social life and spent many happy evenings arguing with her friends in front of the fire. She went to the cinema, the theatre, the odd party, she wore lipstick in the evening, and she smoked too much. She fell in love and had her heart broken. And she had vivid dreams every night. Genevieve didn’t feel there was anything particularly lacking from her own life, although many of her friends, with lives just like hers, did.
Occasionally Genevieve and her friends talked about their dreams. When Genevieve told the others about hers everybody laughed and said they wished they had such entertaining, strange, nonsensical dreams. No one thought there could possibly be anything wrong with the way Genevieve was dreaming.
One night Genevieve dreamed she was wearing Franz Kafka’s shirt. In this very brief dream all that happened was Genevieve found herself standing on the pavement in front of where she lived. She looked down at what she was wearing and when she saw the shirt she had on, she knew that it was Franz Kafka’s shirt. That was it. That was all that happened in the dream.
But the weekend after having that dream, and after Genevieve and her friends had had a good giggle at the absurdity of it, Genevieve went to a jumble sale. As she was looking through a pile of shirts on a table in the church hall she found herself holding a shirt that she felt, against all probability, was Franz Kafka’s shirt. It was an ordinary man’s shirt of a variety often to be found at jumble sales, cotton-mix, rather soiled around the collar, and worn thin on the left elbow. The only remarkable thing about this shirt, other than the fact that Genevieve was sure it was Franz Kafka’s shirt, was that it was printed with a motif of beige cowboys on beige bucking broncos. It was a discreet motif, the sort of print one would not notice unless one really looked at that sort of thing, like someone with a theory about understanding men by examining the patterns on their shirts. Genevieve was not that kind of person.
Quickly, and not without exhibiting embarrassment, Genevieve bought the shirt from the elderly woman behind the table insisting on paying twenty pence instead of the ten pence for which the woman had asked. She took the shirt home with her and soaked it in the bath tub for the afternoon, hoping to remove the stain around the neck, and also, even if she didn’t think of it, hoping to remove whatever it was about the shirt that made her think it was Franz Kafka’s. While it soaked Genevieve sat in the kitchen. She told herself that Franz Kafka had been dead for rather a long time, and as far as she knew he had never lived in her neighbourhood, let alone her country, and the chances that a shirt that had been anywhere near Franz Kafka would turn up at a jumble sale in South London were very slim. As well as all that, she felt quite certain having read several of his books that Franz Kafka would not have worn a shirt with a motif of cowboys on bucking broncos adorning it, no matter how discreet.
Still, once she had taken the shirt out of the tub, washed it, wrung it dry, and hung it up, and then looked at it hanging there, rather limp and not even terribly stylish, she knew that it was Franz Kafka’s shirt and there was nothing she could do about it.
So, she wore it. She wore it to parties, she wore it to work, she wore it to the cinema. No one ever noticed the shirt, except for a few people who laughed at the cowboys, and although Genevieve lived with the hope that one day someone would say ‘Hey! Isn’t that Franz Kafka’s shirt?’, no one ever did. Gradually Genevieve became accustomed to wearing Franz Kafka’s shirt and the urge to find someone to talk to about it, an urge that came over her with particular strength when she was drunk, faded. All she was left with was a rather uninteresting looking piece of clothing, and a faint sense that something, somewhere, was odd.
Genevieve’s life went on as it always had done and her dream-life continued as well. More miniature absurdist dramas took place in her mind than at any real theatre. These dreams continued to amuse Genevieve, and her friends.
Then, one night during the wet and bleak London winter, months after she had dreamed about Franz Kafka’s shirt, Genevieve dreamed about swimming. She was swimming with Franz Kafka in a murky, muddy river. Franz Kafka was wearing a swimming costume, modern and brief in style, printed with the same pattern as his shirt, cowboys and bucking broncos. They were swimming the Australian crawl side by side when Franz Kafka suddenly stopped and shouted at Genevieve, ‘What makes you think you can wear a dead writer’s clothes?’ Genevieve also stopped swimming and turned her body in the water so she could face him. ‘That was my favourite shirt,’ he added indignantly.
‘Oh, was it?’ said Genevieve. ‘Don’t you think you’ve been dead for rather too long to be complaining about this sort of thing?’
‘Humph,’ said Franz Kafka cheekily, ‘I suppose it will be my shoes next. Or, perhaps, Dostoevsky’s underwear, eh?’
‘Shut up,’ Genevieve shouted, ‘you’re dead!’ And with that, she lunged at Franz Kafka, travelling through the water like a torpedo, and grabbed him around the neck. With one hand she attempted to throttle him whilst with the other she tried to twist off his head. The expression on Franz Kafka’s face was terrible.
Genevieve woke up when she felt hot water on her hands. At first she thought it was Franz Kafka’s blood, streaming from his neck, but she realised quickly that she had unscrewed her hot water bottle whilst dreaming. She screwed the top back in and then sat up, dismayed to find a colossal wet patch in the centre of the bed, like the unpleasant leftover of a wild sexual tryst.
Genevieve did not sleep for the remainder of the night and she was not to sleep for the many nights that followed. Early in the morning she would rise, put on Franz Kafka’s shirt and go for long walks along the Thames. From Vauxhall Bridge she would stare down into the murky, muddy water of the river. She half expected to one day see the body of Franz Kafka floating there, identifiable by his swimming costume, the faint pattern of beige cowboys on beige bucking broncos.
Short stories, Cape/Picador, 1988