Authors: Will Wiles
Tags: #Literary, #Humorous, #Family Life, #Fiction
Text copyright © 2012 Will Wiles
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Amazon Publishing
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
For Dan Hemingway (1972–1991)
People are afraid of flying. I’ve never understood that. It’s a most remarkable experience; yes, even in a cramped seat in a noisy compartment on a three-hour budget flight with no food. You are still in the air. You are Above. It is extraordinary in the most direct and apt way; you are outside the ordinary. The ordinary is pushed down, rendered for a score of minutes into a mosaic of green and brown and mercury, and then you’re with the clouds.
There has never been a better time to be alive, and that is not simply thanks to penicillin, flush toilets and central heating, it’s because now we can look down on the clouds. Clouds are utterly faithful to their promise of ethereal beauty. When I was very young, I imagined clouds to be warm and soft to the touch, because I knew they were water, and so therefore they must be steam because that’s what they looked like, and steam was warm. Perfect logic. Of course, they are not warm, but in the air-conditioned cylinder of your midweek commercial flight, they fulfil their old promise because they are awash with sunlight – no matter the daytime weather beneath, the cloud tops must be exposed to the sun, that is their guarantee, that is their tiny miracle.
Renaissance artists must have felt this love of clouds, and appreciation of their natural splendour, and having always felt separated from their true glory were moved to populate them with putti and seraphim; so perfect was their approximation of the wonderfulness of being above cloud level that to be there now is to expect these heavenly denizens to be there with you. But they are not. You are alone above a landscape that is forever changing, forever unique, forever special for you; rolling cirrus meadows and boiling mountaintops across unfathomed distance. You are an explorer and this is your new-found land.
But with all this beauty and isolation there is also an obligation – you must return, you must descend, back to the imperfect.
The landing, airport, passport control, baggage reclaim and taxi are all a compressed wedge of brown neon, sweat and stress in my mind. It was one of those dreadful moments when it occurs that the only things connecting you to who you are, what you are, where you come from, and where you are going, are a little purple-bound book (‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires...’) and an address scribbled on a scrap of paper torn from a spiral-bound notepad. The notepad itself is in a holdall that may at some stage,
God, appear on a conveyor belt still basically intact. It contains the remaining evidence of Who You Are. Who I am. The address,
it has been incorrectly taken down – was it 70 or 17? – corresponds to an apartment building in a completely
unfamiliar foreign city some thirty kilometres from this airport, and the taxi rank is the sinew that links me to it – shelter, a promise of food and comfort –
I am cheated or robbed or murdered, or some baroque combination of those three. These things happen in foreign cities, I had been told, and over the warmth of dinner party conversation I had tried to smile the smile of the seasoned traveller as various lurid myths and truths were recounted. I was no seasoned traveller.
But there were no hitches, and none of the
es happened and the key fitted the lock and I found myself standing at the threshold of Oskar’s flat, getting a good look at it for the first time.
Thanks so much for this; you’re a real friend for helping out. I don’t feel comfortable leaving the flat for so long, not with the cats...you’ll like it, it’s a nice flat...
The flat, 17, was on the second floor of a six-storey, leaden, inter-war, vaguely Moderne block near the city centre, on a street stacked rigid with similarly bulky buildings that was prominent in the mental map of the taxi driver. And it
a nice flat.
At university, I remembered, Oskar had travelled under a thundercloud of good taste. Static permanently brewed around him, building readiness to send down a lightning bolt of scornful condemnation in the direction of anything cheap, or badly made, or, sin of sins, vulgar. As the bolt streaked towards its target, his upper lip would pitch into a perfect, practised sneer, a neat capital A for A
The flat indicated that he had transferred this ideology to his home life here.
A wide hallway stretched from Oskar’s front door towards a south-facing living area. The hall was light and airy, with pale wooden floors and icy white walls. Two dark wooden doors were set into the wall to the right, like dominos on a bedspread, one halfway down, and the other near the far end. To the left was evidence of a refurbishment under Oskar’s direction: a long glass partition screening a large kitchen and dining area from the hallway. At its end, the hall opened out into the living area, which was demarcated by a single step down. The pale wooden flooring stretched to every corner of the flat, and the glass partition, which I assumed had replaced a nonsupporting wall, evenly rinsed the space with the crystalline light entering through the generous south-facing picture windows that took up the far wall of the living space.
Taste and money had met in the crucible of this space and sublimed. The wood, steel and glass were the alchemical solids formed by the reaction.
Closing the front door behind me with a satisfying clunk of weight and security, I walked down the hall. The living room – Area? Space? – centred on a sofa and two armchairs, all boxy black leather and chrome, the design of a dead Swiss architect. The east wall was one large bookcase, mostly filled with books but also seasoned with some
. The kitchen was all aluminium and steel. Everything must have been imported, I thought, considering the home-grown stuff I had seen at the airport. There
was a table in the kitchen with three chairs. How often did Oskar entertain? At university, he had been a good but infrequent host. He preferred restaurants that we loan rangers were stretched to afford. The kitchen looked more like a showpiece from a designer’s catalogue than a work area. Everything, everywhere, was impeccably tidy. There was a jar of carefully arranged twigs on the kitchen table and another on the glass coffee table, which also sported a hotel-style fan of magazines –
(more than a month old),
. There were more twigs and a four-day-old
International Herald Tribune
on a small table under the middle of the three picture windows.
In a gesture that was, I suppose, proprietorial, I put my hands on my hips and exhaled, a sigh of relief at arrival and also admiration. It is intensely pleasing when a reality conforms so exactly to expectation, and when a man conforms so exactly to type. This was almost exactly how I had imagined Oskar’s apartment to be – it was the obvious habitat for the mind I knew. Multilingual Oskar. Oskar, who appreciated design and modernity and expensive, extravagant simplicity. The apartment’s spaces were measured in air miles. Its air had arrived in the bubbles in a thousand crates of San Pellegrino. The beautiful wooden floor didn’t have nails, it had a manicure. The only thing missing was a piano.
Had I not already known that Oskar was a musician, it would have been easy to tell from the black-and-white photos tastefully mounted in plain glass frames around the walls: Oskar at the piano, Oskar with baton in hand, a
younger Oskar shaking hands with an older man I didn’t recognise, Oskar receiving an award, Oskar...Oskar with me. Four of us, at university, not long before graduation. Thicker, darker hair, no bellies. Another me. I tried to remember the occasion where the photo had been taken. It was gone.
And...no photos of Oskar’s wife. And no piano. No awards. A mystery.
The first door I tried – the one nearest the picture windows – resolved part of this mystery. The flat was in the corner of its building, and the room I entered occupied the corner of the flat. Two more south-facing windows continued the rank started in the main area, and the western wall had one as well, so the light that articulated every corner and dust mote – even the dust motes looked neat, their flight paths as checked and regulated as the red-eye from Tehran coming into LAX – frosted the surface of the grand piano so that the black lacquer was dental-advert white. A piano, in the corner of the corner of the corner, pushed to the outermost reaches of the flat. Any further out, it would be on the pavement by the crossroads outside. Unlike the kitchen, this room had an aura of useful industry. One wall was filled with shelves, and those were stacked with a regimented clutter of box files, CDs, vinyl, cassette tapes, racks of sheet music, framed certificates, (more) photographs, citations, degrees, honours and awards. A life abridged. Under the nearer of the two south-facing windows was a writing desk with its leather-cornered blotter, pots of pens and pencils, and two stacks of paper – one plain, one ruled
for musical notation. Next to the desk was a stack hi-fi that looked like the product of an abandoned Scandinavian space programme.
While here, in this open-ended episode of enforced idleness, I wanted to write. In London I had been helplessly, prowlingly blocked, and the four magnolia walls of my Clapham basement flat had shut me up. Without those walls, what could stop me? Could a full book be turned out in the three-weeks-to-a-month I expected to be here? Perhaps the breakthrough would stay with me when I returned. If I could write anywhere, I figured, it would be here. Stewing in London, I often fantasised about the ideal setting for creativity, and it always looked much like the room I now stood in. This place seemed impregnated with Oskar’s talent and productivity. It would be perfect. I could imagine short stories, plays, perhaps even the start of a novel here. Clamped to the left-hand edge of the desk was one of those turn-handle pencil sharpeners that I associated with school. Directly underneath this sharpener was a steel bin. I peered into the bin, and was rewarded with the sight of – shocking lapse! – some pencil shavings and a discarded tram timetable. Rubbish. Debris, even, just casually left there for anyone to see. Oskar was plainly slipping. For a borderline obsessive-compulsive like him...it was like catching Brian Sewell at a Britney Spears concert.
As if on cue, prompted by the timetable, a tram rumbled past in the street below. Hadn’t Oskar written a piece called
Variations on Tram Timetables
? Pleased with my memory, I wandered over to the piano, flipping open the
lid. This action caused a slip of paper to waft out and describe a swooping arabesque descent to the floor. I scooped it up and read it. Oskar had written on it in a prickly, pointy, fussy hand: