Saturday, November 24

Audience of One

HE PULLED OUT and rolled off of her. April could still feel the lingering warmth between her legs. He stirred, arched his back to get comfortable and lay there, panting heavily. She smeared the beads of sweat that had congregated on her chest. From beyond their door – that didn’t close quite right so they had to fuck quietly – flew the sounds of their lodger’s jazz music. During the sex, he had not heard a note of it but now it was irritating him, as if the entire band was in the room playing live. He shouted, “TURN THAT DOWN!”
“You’re so rude.”
“It’s rubbish music.”
He lay there cleaning himself with a tissue and, although she needed it, she never asked for one too. Throughout the sex she had heard the music – no, more, she had listened to it. It was a wonderful sound that had not appealed to her at first but now it was quite wonderful to listen to. Especially on a Sunday morning with sunlight peaking through the blinds. When her boyfriend’s strokes didn’t synchronise with the music she became uncomfortable and looked away from his concentrating face, struggling to focus on the music and removed from the act occurring in and out of her.
“How many times will I have to tell him to turn it down?” He threw a soggy tissue on to the floorboards. “TURN IT DOWN – PLEASE!” He kissed her cheek. She rose, put on a dressing gown and left to make some coffee.
April lingered on the threshold of his door and couldn’t hear any movement, only the music, jazz music, lively bop bop jazz music. She knocked and entered without getting a response. He was sat, as she had so often found him, on the edge of his bed staring out the lone window at the bright day. He turned.
He shook his head. Mathias the mute. He was always topless and he was topless then, his skin the colour of coffee beans and clear from the shower. April didn’t much care that he couldn’t talk. Some people feel pity for mutes. April didn’t. She didn’t know what to make of him but pity certainly wasn’t it. As she closed his door he turned back toward the window. She would not ask him to turn it down.
The kitchen was the coolest room in their flat. Mathias must have opened the windows earlier. During the summer flies appeared from thin air and bounced all night against the ceiling and then many perished. First thing in the morning Mathias would open the windows and release the survivors. After she had switched the kettle on she went to the toilet. She sat with her chin rested on her hands. When she emerged Mathias was in the kitchen hovering around the toaster. He seemed to be poking a pile of dead flies with his index finger.
“I like the music you’re listening to,” she said, which caused him to leave the room in a hurry. Confused, she continued with making her first cup of the coffee. As a rule the day hadn’t begun until she’d had a mug of coffee.
He returned with a record sleeve. He held it before her. Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers Live in Paris. She smiled and so did he. Everything in silence. He left again.
When the coffee was done, she took two mugs, full and steaming, into her boyfriend, who was sat upright.
“I wish he’d turn the music down.”
Mathias was their lodger and had moved in just under a month ago. At first he had played the music quietly. It was soft and faint throughout their place. He rarely had anything to do with them. Mostly he stayed in his room listening to his jazz and drinking cheap brandy and when the brandy was finished he left the bottle on the side so that it could be taken to a bottle bank.  Without fail there were three bottles a week.  He was a stranger, someone who April and her boyfriend knew very little about but he’d responded politely to the advertisement for a spare room. If he had anything special to say he would write it down on a notepad that he carried in his back pocket most of the time. They knew that he worked as a cleaner in a couple of pubs near the edge of town. He also played in a band. A jazz band, April guessed. Apart from that he was a stranger, a man of no words and 1950’s jazz, who swallowed brandy and barely ever wore a shirt.
Facing away from the relaxing figure beside her, she sat with crossed legs on the side of the bed, stroking her knee, sipping her coffee and thinking about Mathias who had infected her like his music had done and she didn’t know what to do.

The next afternoon April got home early from work. There was a power-cut and everyone in the office was excused. Nothing could be done. She walked – instead of taking the bus – and bought an ice cream to cool her off in the heat. The ice cream was ripple fudge – the most delicious thing she’d tasted in a while.
When she got home there was one letter lying on the doormat. A birthday card from a motor company. She had filled out a form once to win a car and given a false date of birth. She wished it were her birthday. The card went into the bin. The bin-men are coming tomorrow!  All the bins in the flat must be emptied! Humming a tune of nothing at all she went from room to room emptying the bins into a black sack. When she arrived at Mathias’ door she knocked, despite knowing he was out, and walked in. It was a mess. There was so little space of carpet to walk on that she had to balance on empty spots and trek across to the far side where the bin was. She did her best not to look around. There was a lot of effort involved in this. It was not easy. She reached his bin and tipped it quickly into the black sack, so as not to see any of the contents – which might possibly besmirch his image in her mind. A soiled tissue. A dirty magazine. She couldn’t actually think of anything that would turn her off him; this black adolescent who slept next door to her. As she turned to leave, her eyes fell on a bright yellow piece of paper that lay on his desk. It was a flyer for a gig. She considered it and eventually picked it up to study it closely. His band. It must be. Many of the bands on there were rock bands or pop bands but his band couldn’t have been more obvious: Mathias Moot & The Hilaries. She grinned at the words, at the name. It was tomorrow night and in a bar she knew. It was a bar where she had met her boyfriend. They hadn’t been there in years. They were regulars some time ago. You fall in love and slowly click into one another and then you get used to everything but the date, and then you just stay in to fuck and then you stop fucking and you’re just staying in. Tomorrow night.
Tomorrow night.
For a pair of words “Tomorrow night” is a delicate and exciting combination. What is happening? Maybe nothing, but she would attend. When her boyfriend came home and after she’d told him about her birthday card – which he found no humour in – she revealed that she was going out “tomorrow night” with friends and he didn’t look up from his plate of rice and curry. More than her growing infatuation for the mute musician who lived with her, she was stirred up just to hear, in person, the music that had often pestered her during distracted hours of sex.
Mathias didn’t return until late that evening. April lay in bed, her hands folded just above her swelling chest, listening for him over the light snoring next to her. A latch unhinged, locked, his footsteps into his room – feet on the same spots as hers hours before – and then the muffled disturbing of music under a needle. Tomorrow night. She lay still. Satisfied that he was next door, she fell asleep.

The power was back on at work and the day went as normal. Time dragged. When the evening sparkles before a dull day, the hours drift slow and hold nothing. Her incessant glancing at the clock did nothing to speed it.
When it sluggishly struck five o clock, she rushed out – not saying good-by to her colleagues – and hurried home. The flat was stale. She opened the windows, ate a bag of crisps and had a shower before putting on fresh underwear, a t-shirt and the jeans from earlier. She sat in the breakfast nook and read but could not centre her attention. Her mind was tingling. How exciting to return to the old haunt without the lover she had met there but going only to see the lodger she longed for. There was no forgetting her boyfriend; he was simply sharing her reveries with someone else. She forced guilt on herself, as if it was something she thoroughly deserved.
When it was time to leave, she marked her page in the book – having not remembered anything from the past twenty pages or so – and left the house. The sun had lowered below the lines of houses. Expensive cars passed by with the roofs off and the hair of looked-after women flicked in the air like tentacles. Groups of boys played football on patches of grass. Somewhere Mathias was preparing for the stage. She must not be late! and picked up her pace.
There wasn’t a queue at the entrance. She gave some money to the doorman and caught him watching her bum as she walked in alone.
Tiptoes to see him, somewhere, not by the crowded bar or the stage, but probably behind it with The Hilaries. What if this is all nonsense and he isn’t in this band at all, she thought. He may just be interested in seeing a band with his name in it. No, that was nonsense. It had to be his band. Then she saw him by the stage talking to three other men, tall and dark and dressed in old suits that, even in the low light, looked tattered. Then they disappeared behind the stage.
The other bands didn’t interest April. If only she had someone to talk to. At the back of the bar, leaning on the wall, she drank steadily and smoked until her throat hurt. Her nerves were hiccupping. She was placating it with the whisky and water and cigarettes. As the host announced the final act, April straightened from the wall and paid attention. Without the wall for support she became aware of how much she’d had to drink. She saw the instruments resting on stage and the light that caught them as it splintered and shone. There was a double bass rested against the kick drum, an upright piano with chipped edges all grizzled, and in the centre – as if it were the axis of them all – a trumpet glowing like an oil lamp. Applause broke. First two hands clapping, then a dozen and then everybody was clapping and whooping. The band came on to the stage. The lights beat down overhead. Mathias was topless. April was unsteady on her feet. He began a beat then a short roll and the music ruptured the room.

She lay in bed but was sick of it. It was an uncomfortable bed. A glass of wine was on her bedside. Her boyfriend had been asleep but she’d woken him up with her mouth and worn him out and did it as though she was getting revenge. Thoughts of Mathias galloped through her. She tried to forget about him but the whole concert had been a fascinating affair.
The front door opened. She stirred and sipped her wine. Being drunk is the best way to deal with such feelings, she thought. Mathias was home.  She stood up, a somnambulist and nude, walked to his room and raised her glass. Mathias leapt.
“To your wonderful sound,” she said. The glass was high and when she brought it down to drink her heavy breasts shuffled.
In bed she could only remember the moment very badly. She tried to think if he looked embarrassed or aroused. She was excited – in the way a drunk girl might be – because he had seen her naked and not many boys had. She was proud of her body in a peculiar way. The shape of her limbs didn’t impress her much but she liked the size of her breasts and the salmon coloured nipples that hung upon them. She liked her belly, too, even though it was a sack of whiskey and water and wine. She liked her shoulders as well. Had he noticed her shoulders? But his playing! She remembered, as best as her clumsy mind could, his playing on those drums, hammering the skins and the contortions of his face. She laughed from delight, drunken delight, and checked that she had not woken her oblivious lover.
But how sad, she thought, that he did not have a drumkit in the flat to play. She decided there and then, at that moment, on her last sip of wine, that she would change it. The coffee! she remembered, the coffee tin was almost empty. He could use it as a drum. She didn’t know. A drum, a simple instrument. Yes, a set of drums of empty jars and cans and tins. There was great ringing in her ears. It could not be ignored. She slept with it going on inside her skull.

The strength of the sun in the room signalled that the day was far in and she was late for work. Forget it. Call in sick. Her boyfriend had gone. She groaned and rolled over, with the night before reappearing to her in flickering snippets, like a t.v. spinning through the channels. Mathias must have left for work, too. She recalled her breaking into his room and her nudity and she squinted at the silliness of it. Never before had she done something so stupid. Finally she came to her resolution to make him a drumkit. It had to be done right away. She stood up. Blood acidic with booze rushed to her head. She put on her dressing gown and went to the kitchen. She emptied to remainder of the coffee from the tin into a pot and boiled it. It would be a strong cup but the tin would be empty. She banged it over the sink to make sure all the grounds were gone then she took it to Mathias’ room and lay it on the bed, searched the house for a scrap of paper and wrote “Your new drum” and placed it on the tin. She sat in the breakfast nook and reread the last twenty pages of her book. The windows were open and on the counter were flies, black balls with sparkling translucent wings pointing askew, little antennas, poor little things. She covered her knees with her dressing gown, as they’d undressed when she crossed her legs and peaked out to be round pink shapes.
After coffee she had rung work to tell them that she had come down with something and wouldn’t be in. No specifics. She had no problem in lying. There was no lie to tell. She had come down with something, but work doesn’t pause for infatuations, especially with jazz drummers. She brushed her teeth and it made her feel hungry. Of course! she hadn’t eaten since that bag of crisps last night before the gig. The fridge was pretty empty. Then she spotted a little jar of fish paste. She didn’t like fish paste but she made a sandwich thick with it and washed the jar, before placing that, too, on his bed.
When he came home in the evening he didn’t say anything. Her boyfriend was not yet back but still he didn’t say anything. Didn’t he care? He must have known it was her – the handwriting was elegant, she had accentuated every flick and curl. Not possibly the handwriting of a man. He had smiled at her in the hallway when they passed but there was nothing extra in the smile. It was his usual smile; bright and pearly.
By the time the sun was setting and she was before the t.v. set with her boyfriend, she felt sick. Perhaps it was psychosomatic. Her gifts had not been appreciated. It made her heart ache just so slightly.
“I don’t feel well.”
“What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. It’s my stomach. It feels terrible.”
“Go for a shit and then go to bed.” He kissed her and changed the channel.
She didn’t shit. She got straight into bed.
As she lay dwindling into sleep a noise awoke her with a start.
The sound came from Mathias’ room. He was tapping a rapid rhythm on the coffee tin. She heard her boyfriend moan instantly for him to stop but the drumming continued, getting faster. Then there was the joyful ping of the fish paste jar. Her sweetheart – with no idea he was her sweetheart – was such a good drummer that even the walls seemed to shake in time to his beat, a mad fabulous beat. Her boyfriend called and called and then she heard him barge into Mathias’ room. She slowed her breathing.
“Where did you get those? Stop playing!”
“She did? Why would she do that?”
His voice had weakened.
“Well, she’s in bed now. Sleeping. She’s not well.”
“When we let this room to you there was nothing in the advert about drums. Nothing. We don’t want to hear it. She probably did it as a laugh or something. She was very drunk last night.”
More footsteps and him approaching her door. She shut her eyes and feigned sleep.
“April, did you – ”
Noticing she was asleep he fled the room. If she’d had her eyes open she would have recognised the look on his face as the one of someone who knows he is being taken for a fool.

The days passed and April found more jars and tins to give Mathias. She even donated an old pan that was very worn and thin. She had struck it with a spatula and delighted at the resonating clang it gave out. Perhaps he could use it as a sort of cymbal. She was very happy with this and left it on his pillow instead of the duvet, if only to show how much it had meant to her.
Still Mathias showed no appreciation. He never approached her with thanks or left her a note in return. He acted as if these things were falling from the sky, phenomena. But she heard him playing and that was better than anything else he could have done for her. He rarely, if ever, played when her boyfriend was home but played when she was cooking dinner or reading and every time she would tune out of whatever she was doing and listen with a grin on her face like a cat in the sunshine. There was only silence and subdued jazz records when her boyfriend came through the door and then he would complain about the records.
“It is rubbish music. It’s all improvised, you know? Yeah, they just make it up as they go along. What sort of music is that? Anyone could do that – all you need to know is the key and then you just fuck about in it.”
When her boyfriend was away or out in a bar, Mathias would play long into the night. Sometimes the neighbours banged on the floor with a broom handle or something but neither April nor Mathias paid it any attention. He played on with his jazz rhythms yelling out in bizarre alien sounds; he in his room and her in the breakfast nook with a book but it lying facedown and her hand upon it. Seven different drums and then that piercing clatter of the pan – which especially excited her. Although she never interrupted his room again there was always the image of her jazz drummer topless among half-empty bottles of brandy rehearsing for his audience of one.

One night, a fortnight after this had all begun – a fortnight after she had seen him with her drunken eyes at the gig – Mathias was playing drums as usual and April was lying in bed. She wasn’t trying to sleep. The noise didn’t keep her awake – in fact sometimes she could drift off to it. Then there was silence. No more drums. As she shut her eyes the front door opened. Her boyfriend was home. His feet were unsteady. She heard him all the way into the kitchen for a glass of water, then a piss. The hard thrashing of urine into the toilet water disturbed her after Mathias’ pounding, and she wanted to complain. He walked into the room and said good evening. He undressed. She watched him. Her desires had become stronger. The noise from the room next door had stirred her. Not that she always wished for Mathias – although she often did – sometimes she just wanted the passion and the fury to be lay upon her.
Her boyfriend climbed into bed and felt her from the hips upward. She lay tense, rigid. Her breathing was short and sharp. He was kissing her all over. He put his fingers into the fold and felt the faint swelling. There was no fight in her. She allowed it all. April twitched when he caught her with his index just right and her back elevated from the mattress.  Very slowly he pushed into her. Every inch crept in and squeezed a little more air from her lungs. He began to work. She shut her eyes.
Then, drums.
Her boyfriend sighed but continued. The drums got faster. April’s eyes had opened and were looking towards the door. The strokes of drums and cock synchronised. He was inside and out and the drums were struck and banged. It was a perfect match. As angry as he was getting the drums got louder and he worked harder and April began to moan in sharp bursts. It felt good. She ran her nails up his flanks and heard the drums and felt the pulsing all over. Drums, drums, drums! They got louder! There was no ignoring them. Walls fell away, temples crumbled, satellites dropped, lambs bleated and he worked on her and the swelling built. He was grunting and panting and then he pulled out.
As he forced on his jeans April felt the last cries of her body’s orgasm fold over itself and the vast explosion that had encompassed her twinkling cunt fizzled away into white sparks.
“I told that bastard not to play those fucking drums!”
He stumbled with his drunkenness.
She lay there to catch her breath. He rushed out of the room.
Through the wall: “I thought I told you not to play those fucking drums!” There was a clatter and the smash of glass. That was the fish paste jar, she thought. The loudest sound she distinguished as the pan. It landed against the wall. Then another smash of glass. The hollow pang of the coffee tin span out. She heard it all. As it was destroyed, she felt sad. The pan was thrown again. It’s momentary note – set off by the bedroom wall – was muted instantly as it landed on Mathias’ carpet.

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