Wednesday, October 9

The I’m-Not-Dead-Yets, I & II

Pink Lady

RETURNING HOME FROM work, I put my shopping away—two bags of apples and one of satsumas in a wooden bowl I keep on the dinner-table—and got dressed. The trains go past and shake my room. I put the kettle on to boil; a strange smell coming from the sink; a large mug of jasmine tea to accompany me as I while away the hour. I take my seat by the open window. For the autumn breeze to enter, so must the sound of trains but I seldom listen to them, especially during rush hour. The day’s sweat dries on me at last, and I read. I used to read on the train but now I cannot, so I find other times; Nabokov until I can find the courage to spend money on a book I haven’t yet read.
   So the hour passes and I am hungry.
   The light that was pleasant when I arrived home is now murky and damaged. I put on my trainers, check my skin in the mirror—ghastly from an alcohol-induced breakout—and leave my room, carrying my wallet and a bag of rubbish for the chute. I hang my eyes down low and notice a girl approaching the other side of the hallway door. I daren’t look up. ‘Why don’t you see who it is?’ I ask myself, but for some reason I don’t. All I know is she is wearing a striped t-shirt and her gait belongs to one of slowly earned beauty. Naturally I open the door for her—embarrassed by my filthy cargo—and hold my head down low.
   As she passes me—‘How’s it going? How are you settling in?’
   It was the girl from next door: Julie.
   She was holding two bags of shopping to my one of rubbish. On the day I moved in I met Julie in the hall. I did not wish to greet her but she forced me into it. I remember—whether it was there or I imagined it—she had a scar on her jaw. I supposed that she was of mixed ancestry. Her hair was shining brown. We shook hands; hers a pleasure to hold. Her small eyes sparkled warmly and she smiled as someone with a kind mother and a once firmly held belief in the tooth-fairy learns to smile. Her accent was not London nor anywhere near it but, then, as she asked how I was settling in, I remarked to myself that it was, more than it was not, a sexy voice that she, with some apparent interest, purred towards me.
   I left out the details, not wishing to scare her, and, remembering last Tuesday night of my one a.m. music and three a.m. fucking, closed with—‘And if my music’s ever too loud, just smash on the wall.’
   She smiled and her pretty eyes glimmered—‘Us, too.’
   Just me and her in the hall and then gone. When I returned from the rubbish chute, I saw her boyfriend enter the flat. He was carrying two bags of shopping as well.
   In a daze of my tired ways I walked across the cobblestones to the shop and bought a pot of soup and a bottle of wine. Then I walked back. Once more I found myself holding the door open for someone. Again I did not look up to see who it was but, again, this stranger asked me—‘So, how you finding it?’
   Could I not emerge from my hole without confronting two of my neighbours? We spoke on our doorsteps and a sickness brewed in my belly. I felt a little ashamed of my soup and my wine—a poor indication of diet—and I thought that our conversation was boring and my willingness to partake in it only sickened me more. His smile also seemed tired, as though it was hurting his face. When I said good-bye and opened my door to retreat, I caught him trying to look in.
   After I had eaten my soup, I did the washing-up, ironing and sat down in front of one of my favourite programmes. All the windows were bolted shut and the curtains were closed to keep out the racket of the trains.
   At twenty-five past nine I heard some thuds. The regularity of these thuds alluded to only one thing. My ears pricked. My flaccid pricked.
   Julie was getting it against the wall.
   Her yelping started.
   Her yelping peaked.
   Her yelping ceased.
   Instantly my underwear was moist. I got up to find the source, a clearer version of this intrusion, but it had stopped.
   Disappointed, I sat back down and felt sorry for Julie.
   I turned the sound down and closed the curtains tight so that, should next-door begin again, the flats across the way could not see me. Nothing. I was as disappointed as Julie. Was that ten seconds? The little tears of perspiration caressing the scar on her jaw. My underwear loosened and remained damp. No more ricochets, just the police sirens going up and down the road in this conflicted quarter of London. I lit another cigarette and stared at the trains.

Sunday Service

ON SATURDAY I HAD planned to go into town but a terrible hangover kept me pinned to the bed. Instead I went the next day, in better spirits, when the sun was very bright and strong. First I drank coffee in the bright hot glare of it, stared at the passing Sunday service, and played guitar. It was a good morning. Finally, and at my leisure, I went out. It was good to know I could go into London whenever I wanted. It was fourteen-ten when I left. I sat on the tube and read; opposite me a young Japanese couple sat side by side but both of them had their headphones in, not interested in communicating with each other. I wished them good luck with love and got off at Monument, where it was quiet until one got on to the bridge.
   How many photographs must London Bridge sustain on its tired stands? Grinners of every kind statue themselves against the background of the east, with its ornate bridge and its deadly retirer; until someone pulls the shutter and the wind stirs up a decent shot.
   I walk on by.
   In fact, I felt most alone that day; not the alone that desires company but the alone that is wary of company. I pushed my way through the crowds, smiled at the odd gurgling toddler on a lead, stared at the good women, and broke out, through the various passages and footpaths, alongside the river. It was a town, my town, and it was grey; the sunshine was glowing down so that the skies and peaks were golden but all else was grey. This was the mob enjoying the last sunny threads of summer, and as long as I was hungry and a little tired still, I was one of them.
   When I got to the Tate I took a series of quieter routes to end up in the shop—also quiet—before riding the escalator up to a gallery level. Music played in my ears. I was alone, which meant I could—for the first time in years and years (maybe ever)—enjoy it by myself. I had the volume turned up so much so that it drowned out all else. I walked around and went to my favourite paintings. ‘I will do this a lot more,’ I thought to myself—‘Now that I am only down the road from it.’ There one of them was. ‘Nothing like it!’
   My father once told me that people are so self-absorbed that when they buy a new car, they notice that car everywhere and believe that they are common or are not unique. It was like that with me; every solitary figure in the gallery was spotted and scrutinised; questions were asked about why they were alone; in my dome I made up stories about them, life stories, histories, entire family trees; it would start with the plaits of a blonde girl and go from there: where was she when she platted those plaits? what was she thinking? why was she thinking it? Soon the art took a step back—all too gladly—and I was more interested in the people than the art. Still, I carried on my way—enjoying the cheap sexual thrills of foreign girls and well-attired women whenever I could—to stand before my favourite pieces.
   Two hours passed.
   Of course, I thought of Helen.
   Of course, I thought of Rebecca.
   (Though one with more familiarity and fondness, and the other as if I would do anything to return her to the Tate just so that I could keep an eye on her.)
   I thought about getting a pint but I didn’t have the money so I walked back, feeling more alone then than I had done on the way there. Sunday kids were on the train, dressed to the nines and having a laugh; I shared my interest between them and the sleeping pram-laid infant next to me. When I got back to mine I attended to some chores and examined all the hairs on my bathroom floor—never before had I been able to survey all the hair that had fallen off my head. There was so much of it. I lifted a towel off of the stand and pushed my face into it to see if it smelled of the girl from Tuesday night, whom I then dwelled on for some time. I had opened my window and left the stereo quiet, so that there was only the sound of the Sunday service. And that was how it went and that is how it goes. The Sunday services rattle past my window for me to stand and smoke to, passing the time.

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