Authors: Will Wiles
Tags: #Literary, #Humorous, #Family Life, #Fiction
I wanted to have a shower. Not while she was in the flat, though. Did that matter so much, if there were two closed doors between us, one of them locked? Clearly it did, because I was uncomfortable: I would wait until she left.
Once I had washed my hands, I stared into the mirror. Stubble, and dark rings under the eyes. The strip-light above the sink was pitiless – my face was a tapestry of flaws. An extractor fan whirred. This was, of course, madness, to be trapped here simply by the presence of the cleaner. I felt deracinated. If I left the flat, there was
nowhere to go. Maybe a local café or park, not that I knew of any. It was another warm day, even hot, so simply wandering was possible, unless I got lost. But walking aimlessly did not appeal. Another facet of paranoia sparkled in my mind – without a shower, I might stink. Last night had been heavy going. No doubt the smell of alcohol was still on me, seeping from my pores.
I brushed my teeth, taking far more time than the job required, and combed my hair. I splashed cold water on my face, and my headache seemed to recede into a dry shell around my brain. The nausea seemed to be in retreat as well, but the battle against it was not yet won. These little acts of grooming steadied me. It was clear, however, that I had to get out.
The bedroom seemed incrementally smaller, as if a thick layer of paint had been added to its white walls. It was as if the walls were reflecting my own feeling of griminess back at me, as if they too were covered in a veneer of drying sweat, my minor depravity externalised and inflicted on them. The subjective made objective. I snatched up my light jacket – it was probably too warm for it, but to leave the flat with nothing seemed uncomfortable, a display of my lack of purpose – and walked briskly into the hall, announced ‘I’m going out for a minute’, and almost threw myself through the front door.
It was another hot day, but an insecure and troubled one, spooked by occasional gasps of cooler wind. These stirred an atmosphere that was otherwise as thick and sticky as Turkish delight. The sky was an intense dark blue.
Wanting to explore new territory, I followed the tramlines away from the city centre. There were not many people on the streets, and this gave the city an evacuated, expectant feel. Three trams passed me, all headed into the centre. This directionality, and the closeness of the air, gave me a sense of pressure building to my rear. It was a relief, however, that not many people were around, as I was still self-conscious of being unshowered. It was even a relief when I began to sweat in the torrid heat; this fresh perspiration, it seemed, would dissolve and displace the stale. It had been my plan to stick to the tramlines as a precaution against getting lost – I could always follow them back. But after three blocks, I unexpectedly found myself at a small bridge. The street perpendicular to the tram tracks was divided by a deep canal, a narrow vein of filthy, oil-rainbowed water, unmoving and pocked here and there with reefs of rubbish. The water was a clear eight feet beneath street level, and girded by blackened stone walls. A flight of steps from some Piranesi dungeon fantasy led down from the bridge to a slender footpath. It was not exactly inviting, but I descended anyway.
A fetid, marshy smell rose from the water. The thought of rats sent a scurry of mild, irrational fear through my mind, which swiftly shifted focus – what if this was no canal but a storm drain, and a sudden downpour (which seemed possible in this tropical weather) flooded it, drowning me and sweeping my body out of the city with the other rubbish, flushed away to some remote hinterland? But, I reasoned once reason had jolted awake, this was not the climate for storm channels, and besides, they did not
have towpaths. Los Angeles, that was the city that needed storm drains – a parched metropolis with intermittent flash floods. A city locked into a binge-purge cycle, bulimic urban hydrology, stunt rivers.
It was appreciably cooler by the canal. For some reason its near-dereliction, the mature weeds sprouting at intervals where path and wall met, the undredged water, the corruption in the air, appealed to me, matched my darkened state of mind and calmed me. There was romance to it, just as Piranesi had found romance in prisons. Neglect had a kind of gentleness to it that plucked at the sentimental. Time had passed here, undisturbed; I passed time there, undisturbed.
She had gone by the time I returned to the flat. The slight smell of bleach lingered behind her, and the cats were fed. All the clothing I had taken out of my bags had been folded with ostentatious care and stacked neatly on the chair in the bedroom, clean and unclean items mixed. This intrusion irritated me intensely – it might be forgivable for the anonymous cleaning staff of a hotel, but here it felt like a deliberate violation. The bathroom also smelled slightly of bleach. I took my shower, at last. Tonight, I was going to a concert, I thought as the previous night washed down the drain. A concert. Schubert.
‘It is Schubert,’ I said to myself, mimicking Oskar’s voice. ‘It is Schubert. Very good. You will like it.’
The water swirled and circled around my feet, which looked pale. They didn’t look like the sort of feet that would typically walk into concert halls. They didn’t look like the sort of feet whose owner would say, in a clear
voice, ‘I would like tickets to tonight’s concert, please’ and mean it. No, not the sort of feet that would stay still for two hours under an uncomfortable seat in a darkened room while their owner did nothing, nothing but listen to classical music.
‘Schubert,’ I said to myself. ‘Shooby shooby Schubert.’ Shossy, Stravvy, Shooby. Was there any way of getting out of this concert? I could just not show up. But Oskar would certainly discover this – if he wasn’t offended by the no-show, he really should be, it was an act of calculated rudeness. No, I would have to take my punishment like a man. Besides, there was an entire day to waste before then.
The shower blasted most of my hangover away, but did not wipe it entirely. A sticky residue seemed to have formed on the inside of my skull, around the bottom of the back of the brain, and subversive elements were still abroad in my elbows, knees and gut. The day itself was tacky to the touch, with the humidity rising. As the afternoon wore on, I became aware that the quality of the light had changed, as if the real thing had been replaced with a synthetic ‘economy’ brand in the hope that daylight savings could be made without anyone noticing. But I noticed, and I looked up from what I had been doing – stroking the fur of a snoozing cat on the sofa – to see that the buildings on the opposite side of the street looked peculiarly bright, as if their stone or stucco was suddenly luminescent under its layer of filth, a lightbox piercing an X-ray smoked with tumours. Indeed, they were bouncing back the now-slanting rays of the descending sun, but the
peculiarity of their illumination was a matter of contrast owing to the abrupt, unheralded darkness of the sky behind them, which had turned an intense slate grey, pregnant with blue and purple tones; an embolism of a sky, a dam behind which unimaginable pressure had built. But still the sun shone on the buildings across the street, transforming their façades into shining lies, Potemkin structures keeping up a pretence of fair weather when the storm was coming, without doubt, with no compromise in its inevitability.
And the storm came, with thunder like a starting gun, triggering marathon rain. I had to run to the bedroom, certain that the French windows there were open (they were not), such was the pervasive noise, the crazed applause of a million falling raindrops. Lightning on the white cotton duvet lit up the bed like a giant UV bug killer blazing with the death of a small creature, and in the study (where the windows were also closed), the water running down the panes appeared, by reflection, to be cascading down the open, obsidian lid of the piano.
It was exhilarating, this sudden burst of rain, it was action after stasis, a motive kick to an inert body. To my inert body: my heart was beating faster after the dash from room to room, and the activity had infused me with a sudden elation. To my surprise, I found that I was actually looking forward to going out, in the storm, to hear the concert, that I felt energised about it, that the
sturm und drang
pounding at the windows made me feel positively Wagnerian.
! ‘Death and the Maiden’, it sounded good, bombastic, stormy...‘The Trout’, of course,
did not. It was not even a very dynamic fish, not predatory like a shark or a pike, but then what did I know about fish or, for that matter, classical music? For all I knew, the trout might be one of nature’s trick questions and, like the whale, not a fish at all but a kind of rat or swan or something.
The cat I had been stroking on the sofa had been stirred up as well, possibly by the downpour, more probably by me jumping out of my seat to check the windows. It was now standing, turning a slow, tired circle on the black leather, white-tipped tail periscoping left and right. Our eyes locked, feline on the Swiss sofa, me by the study door, and I had a sense that something passed between us, some iota of information or moment of understanding. In this premonitory nanosecond I knew that the cat was about to do something.
With provocative, lingering lack of haste, the cat arched up its hindquarters, stretched out its front legs, and exposed its claws, which it then raked back across the leather with a terrible ripping, popping noise.
I think I made some wordless sound of horror, some throaty, gasping protest, because the cat stopped, paused halfway through its steady act of vandalism, forelegs still extended, claws still exposed but for their points, which were dug into the hide of the sofa seat. It looked at me; I looked at it. It seemed, as it often does, so unfair and limiting that life does not have a little switch or dial that can turn back time a short way. A mere thirty seconds would be enough for most situations like this, not much to ask, but it seemed we were stuck with the tedious, unrelenting tyranny of linear time.
‘Fuck! No, fuck, shoo!’ I exclaimed, lunging towards the sofa. The cat took the message and bolted. I was left inspecting the damage – two ranked sets of tiny tears in the leather, strung together by scratch trails. It clearly could not be repaired, saving some arcane process known to a shrinking number of wizened old men that I knew nothing of. Why can’t leather simply heal up, I wondered? It is just skin, after all. I ran my fingertips across the scars, caressed them, but I did not feel them scab and seal under my touch. The surface was not completely broken, just deeply scratched. Maybe there were secret, invisible menders out there...but I didn’t like my chances of finding such a person in London, let alone in this foreign place. Looking down at the sofa, my eye of course strayed to the wine stain, beautifully framed by its pale, scrubbed penumbra. If the cleaner had seen it, she had either done nothing to it, or whatever she had done had made no difference.
My grandparents had a small pond in their suburban back garden, a pond that used to fascinate me, full as it was with slimy life. Frogs mated there, leaving great slicks of spawn. This was my childhood Serengeti. The pond was circled by concrete slabs. My mother used to tell me, the five- or six-year-old me, not to lean out too far while kneeling on the slab, a warning that I thought made no sense. I knew my own centre of gravity, precocious child that I was. There was no chance I would just fall in. But the slabs were not held in place with mortar or cement – they were just resting at the pond’s edge to anchor the black plastic waterproof lining. Years of moss and the encroaching
lawn made them look like permanent geological features, but they were loose, and one day I leaned over too far, the slab see-sawed on the edge of the pond, and I was dumped into the water.
I remember being told once that, on average, a man will spend twenty-four hours of his life having an orgasm. This is no doubt apocryphal, but if you did tot up all those explosive seconds, you would probably arrive at a surprising length of time. And I imagine that we spend a similar lengthy period, over a lifetime, in the middle of an accident – in the act of tripping over, or dropping something breakable, or otherwise engaged in routine slapstick. While on my way into the pond, an appreciable amount of time between the moment when balance was definitively lost and the moment when contact was made with the surface of the water, a perfectly articulated thought occurred to me:
This was why Mum warned me not to lean over too far.
It made perfect sense now. Such a pity, though, that this insight should only strike at this moment, when the tipping point had been passed, when the situation became irretrievable. It was as if the thought had been waiting, fully formed, underneath the paving slab, waiting to be released and flit into the cortex at the moment of crisis.
This was why Oskar did not allow the cats on the sofa. This, this was the reason, not the hair, and it was only now the damage had been done that the reasoning became clear. It had oozed like a bead of blood from the gashed leather. Regretful, after-the-event wisdom; the Germans must have a word for it. Oskar would know. If they didn’t
have such a word, they should. We rely on them for things like that.
The cats were off the furniture; the stable door was firmly closed as part of standard equine post-bolting procedures. The damage done could not be undone, and I felt a numbing calm. The storm had broken, the tipping point had been passed, and that was that. Things were as they were; lessons had been learned. We were all a little older and a little wiser. It was a scratch and a minor stain. It was not a matter of life and death. Outside, in the rain, trams still throbbed their dreary, reassuring bassline, an overhead spark and visceral rumble to match the spark and rumble of the storm.
The sky lightened for a short time after the worst of the storm had passed and the steady rain thinned out the clouds, but the heavens never cleared and the rain never ceased, although it did diminish from a torrent to an insistent and steady stream. When seven came near, the recovering daylight began to retreat again as the sun sank somewhere behind the thick duvet of cloud that smothered the continent.