A Novella by Chris Roughsedge
I doubt anyone would consider confinement in a prison cell the least bit engaging, but to my surprise, I have garnered some satisfaction in this simple life. I am allowed books to read, I am given food, or at least something equating to adequate sustenance. I can walk around a yard populated with my aberrant colleagues, some of whom I suspect would enjoy an opportunity to vent their disapproval upon my person, and still may yet do so. I have occasion to exchange a few words with a limited group of miscreants, one of whom even asked me to write a letter to his mother for him, as he said he was not good at words and heard that I was. Goodness me that sounds like a dreadful cliché, but, believe it or not, it did happen.
Karl was functionally illiterate. Even his vocal adventures consisted of a series of expletive’s occasionally alleviated by prepositions, horrendous verbs, the definite and indefinite article and a variety of vaguely connecting words and glutinous adverbs, making a conversation with him pretty much a task of Herculean forbearance. Karl had just turned twenty when he sent his girlfriend to an early grave with a hotshot of heroin.
He was so thin it was a miracle the tattooist had found flesh to apply his trade on this boy’s body. Within the deep aperture between his clavicles was emblazoned the legend of his two loves, Mum and Beth—his dead girl, entwined in a garland of red roses and lower down his back the small mark of ‘yin-yang’. He was unsure of its meaning, bloke jest fort it’d look right; ‘n some-ow it does coz Mum and Beth ‘ated each udder’s guts. At the time I failed to understand this odd explanation and decided against defining the fundamentals of the ancient symbol of contradictory opposites. I suppose, despite his addled mind, he’d assembled a commendably apposite meaning of his own.
I complied with the epistolary request, and not long after he was found dead in his cell from an overdose, the letter unsent. I gather drugs in here, are considerably easier to come by than on the street, a terrific advantage to those of us who are so inclined. Personally, I would kill for a half-way decent bottle of Château Margaux. Well, what I mean is, I’d kill again.
Another one of my compatriots in arms was Raj, a portly fellow with an earnestly winning smile, who had been struck off the register of physicians. Not only had he lied about his fully credentialed career in Mumbai, but he happened to expedite the permanent rest of several of his patients, without their explicit permission. He was an engaging hail-fellow-well-met sort of chap, who offered his wealth of medical expertise to all and sundry within the prison, most of whom—he was perplexed to find—failed to take him up on his offer. He shared a cell with Karl, so it was understandably a matter of common gossip, he may have been of some critical assistance in his cell-mates rehabilitation to a higher state.
One day I sat with Raj in the prison refectory attempting to decipher both the food we’d been dished up and his equally indigestible assertions. He confessed he was an avid student of oriental philosophy and saw the younger man’s lower-back body art as a clear statement of harmonic dualism. I stared with uncomprehending regard, as he stated his conviction Karl had, in shuffling the mortal coil, reached a state consistent with dialectical monism.
‘He had reached his predetermined point of division,’ Raj said. Although his bizarre rantings served to bamboozle me to point of exhaustion, I eventually assessed that not only was he completely off his rocker, but he had taken a starring role in dividing Karl from his customary breathing, ambulatory position to one of everlasting horizontalism.
Meanwhile a guard gave Karl’s ghost-written letter back to me and told me with more vitriol than I thought was warranted, I was a fucken’ cunt, writing that shit to his mum. Now it functions as a bookmark for my current reading matter, “Gravity’s Rainbow”. The letter wasn’t that bad; I merely pointed out the ways Karl’s mother had failed her son, citing the clear line of her neglect from birth to his eventual incarceration. I merely wished her to be mindful of her parenting, with some suggestions as to how she might rectify the parlous and injurious outcome that had befallen her son and heir. I tried my best to couch it in terms she may understand, using Karl’s inimitable vocabulary, where possible. Obviously, with hindsight, the missive deserved a more nuanced approach. To be honest, I quite miss the skinny little fucker.
Forgive me, I have been led to believe a term in prison carries with it implicit advantages to a civil society, but I can’t with any degree of honesty, suggest the enhancement of language is one of them.
I had never read Thomas Pynchon’s doorstop when a free man, and so imponderable is it, I wonder why I am doing so now that I’m not. Nevertheless, I’m finding this strange story of the V-2 rocket and its supposedly unassailable connection to the events of the Christian calendar—it’s meant to be ironic, I think—somewhat compelling. Of course it is much more. At various points, throughout the novel, Pynchon discusses the notion of doom. The whole book is about doom or the impending thereof – “If there is something comforting – religious if you want – about paranoia, there is still anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”
Unless you’re somebody with my tastes or you actually do understand what Pynchon is getting at in his strange book, prison may not be a good place to end up. It’s extraordinary to think it graces the shelves of the prison library at all. Perhaps the librarian thought our bodies may be sufficiently punished, but our deviant minds required extra attention. I wouldn’t put anything past our librarian; a grizzled old trustee lifer whose disgusting crime doesn’t bear repeating. My letter to Karl’s mother is at the time of writing, mid-point in my journey through Gravity’s Rainbow and I may have cause to reference its wisdom again.
I have been given a pair of slippers by Peter Volkov, who is my only friend on the outside. He visits me approximately once a month. It’s a long way for him to come and the distance coupled with the interval between visits is probably a fairly accurate measure of his regard for me. The slippers are two of the best things I have owned, both outside and inside. In the evenings before lights out, I sit on my bed with my feet comfortably established within the slippers. I pick up the weighty Pynchon, move Karl’s letter to a page I intend to arrive at and settle in. This may not be common knowledge but everybody has one foot bigger than the other, and by no small miracle, each of my slippers is an individually comfy fit. Anyway, Pynchon and letter-writing aside, there are other ways to pass the time and the following record of my misadventures is one of them.
If you were to ask me on any given day, why I felt compelled to involve myself so comprehensively in Mister Roberts’s life, not to mention be the instrument of his death, the answer would probably be different the following day. It was entirely possible, if Roberts had not died at my hands, an uncertain and tentative framework of this story could be reasonably well realised and punctuated in most of the right places, but may well have suffered for want of a viable plot. Who likes outcomes with inconclusive narratives? No-one! The story I am about to set down does have a narrative with an end but even so, and despite my prejudices, perhaps it has become to me, an allusive and formless thing. Unreliable memories will play their part here, providing substance to that which will remain unsubstantiated. Not according to the law of course. Justice has already drawn its conclusions – I will let the reader be my judge.
The retrospective of my interactions with Roberts is limited to whatever we had managed jointly to muster during a somewhat short, strange and unpredictable time. We sparred as though punch-drunk combatants on the edge of an amorphous and often one-sided association. There was something else; I felt completely emptied as a result of his vanishing from the world, and if not immune to the consequences of having been the instrument of his death, my feelings now can be neatly described as akin to bereavement. Then again, what are regrets but useless flummery engineered by our conscience to disguise the insecurities we like to take such care nurturing. Isn’t it true, we edit the past so that the future will have a gloss it does not necessarily deserve?
The connection I had with Roberts was tenuous at best, and almost always of a hostile nature. Yet it was utterly engaging, unlike any relationship I have ever had. My wife had told me long before these events had escalated to the extent I am about to describe, that he was gay. There was nothing in the least homo-erotic about my relationship with Roberts. In some odd way, it had a sexual element to it, but not one based on attraction; perhaps the opposite if that is possible.
It is inconceivable to imagine a circumstance where we might have become friends, the gulf of compatibility was wide. And yet we so deliberately, perversely even, entangled ourselves about each other, with little thought for the consequences. Though we rarely seemed to abide by any known strategy, the game we played became a delicious and unstoppable obsession. If I hadn’t ended his life, I suspect a thoroughly unsatisfactory fizzling out would have occurred.
Of course he could have ended mine and then you, reader, would not have had the benefit of this utterly enchanting memoir. I like to think we both worked diligently to avoid the eventual outcome and failed – but then I am ever the romantic. If you believe in such rubbish, we could have been the actors of our own destiny and the arc of our little play described our shortcomings with as much alacrity as it did our triumphs. I recall this quote, “no new thing has happened to us”. I think it was the philosopher Francis Bacon talking about calamity. He was saying, I believe, only a fool would profess originality. From memory, he goes on to say and I’m paraphrasing “if a thing happens to others as it has to you, then there is less cause to be aggrieved”. Obscure I know, but perhaps the reader will eventually see my point; it would have been nice to think the jury had made such a judgement but alas, they were confined to the fundamental elements of the case – such as the evidence.
I had been and still am, at least in the legal sense, married to the love of my life. It had taken a good part of that life to find Miriam and I miss her very much, although I have reason to believe, she no longer has a reciprocal emotion. I have not laid eyes on her in many months; I have stopped counting them for want of a reason to do so. Miriam and I had both entered the relationship in early middle age, my first wife, whom I did not love at all, was prone to accidents and met her maker prematurely at the bottom a lift well. She was an architect so it could be said, carelessness around building sites, was somewhat of a disadvantage. But that is another story and well behind me now, though I may have occasion to provide more detail.
Miriam had been in several relationships before we met also. Like me she was an atheist but if she was an intellectual when it came to religion, she proved to be delusional in regard to other aspects of the human condition. In these days of unabated profligacy, the signing of a marriage certificate, in my opinion, was as relevant as the letter ‘K’ in knife. Miriam, however, insisted that marriage was a solemn, unequivocal undertaking beyond the domain of religion, having apparently derived its origins in the murk of ancient pagan rites. Why that distinction made it more or less solemn escaped me but she insisted on its performance and I couldn’t be bothered thinking up an excuse not to comply.
During the latter course of our relationship, she looked after an old man of her acquaintance, saying it was her duty to help him in his old age, as he had helped her so much when she was young. Zander, a retired professor had taught her during her time at university, had become invalided by a set of cruel illness’s reserved specifically for the elderly. He had no-one left to look out for him according to Miriam, decrying the aged care system as being barely adequate. She took it upon herself to be his principal carer. At a time in her life when she was suffering near debilitating anxiety, Zander helped with her studies and became somewhat of a mentor in her personal life. When she completed her PHD and started tutoring they became lovers for two years until he ended it, saying it was unfair to burden her with a man twice her age.
Miriam’s early home life had been one of emotional denial and distance for her and her sibling, a younger brother for whom she had felt a deep love and responsibility. Her parents, both art academics in a neighbouring city university, were so self-absorbed and aesthetic they had little time for affection and nurture. They were of the opinion ‘childhood’ was a construct and ones progeny should learn the skill of self-determination at the earliest possible age. They failed to see how their influence on their children would ultimately make a great deal of difference, she said. She had spent much of her early education being bussed to an alternative school, a converted mansion on a country estate. The most rigorous instruction was characterised by students slumped on a motley collection of lounge chairs, while ‘tutors’ roamed the room with ‘advice’ on a variety of esoteric subjects. This struck me as significant but not entirely convincing, tainted by the mists of a universal human dilemma, an unreliable memory. I was pretty sure you couldn’t run a school like that, but it was a good story, so I let it go. Somehow though, this concern for Zander, always struck me as being vaguely insincere. I think it was an irony lost on Miriam, the very thing Zander was so determined to avoid, had actually come to pass.
I was, however, beguiled by the story of her parents and if they hadn’t followed through with their determination to prematurely end their own lives; I very much would have liked to have met them. I pestered Miriam about the minutiae of her life with these bizarre people. She furnished me with many anecdotes, although she couldn’t comprehend the degree of my fascination. Even though they were quite well off, they ate frugal, basic meals which were healthy but not at all filling. They also insisted on quite a rigorous exercise regime, which Miriam described as close as a parent might get to child abuse, without encouraging the intervention of the authorities. This abstemious childhood, I assumed, accounted for Miriam’s slim figure and healthy constitution. When they were preparing for their retirement from academia in the late eighties, they started a movement they coined the ‘The Savants’ and managed to garner a loose following, ranging from one or two influential elites to a gaggle of nutters and strays, mostly inhabiting the less savoury corners of the internet.
They did go on holidays, however, but usually to places of inclement or extreme conditions; two months in Iceland, for instance, included several weeks trekking to the remote villages of the Westfjords region. This expedition necessarily took place in the summer, as at any other time, they would have perished among the desolate rocky crags of the north-west. As it was, her brother had to be flown by helicopter, from some remote village back to Reykjavik, with a near fatal case of pneumonia. She said it was no news to her that heaven was completely implausible but hell was a place, it had contours and literal evidence everywhere and it was not necessarily hot. The Westfjords, a mere 700 kilometres off the coast of Greenland and one of the coldest locations on earth, was such a place.
Her brother sustained a weakened respiratory system for the rest of his life. So scarred was he by his emotionally frigid parents and inadequate education he turned to drugs and died of an overdose just before his 30th birthday. Miriam also believed she had been irrevocably affected by the emotionally unresponsive home life of her youth. She was in her early twenties, when she split with Zander and fell carelessly into a relationship with a foolish and emotionally immature man by the name of Oliver.
The relationship with Oliver was significant for the over-arching effect it had on her subsequent life. She felt dislocated by the demands made on her by a man almost entirely lacking in a sustainable personality of his own. He became emotionally dependent on her almost immediately. In retrospect, she was amazed at how comprehensively he had mistaken her for a person entirely the opposite of who she really was. She felt ashamed of her foolishness and her youthful gullibility. As he saw it, all Oliver had to do was provide her with complete financial security—he was the scion of a wealthy family of industrialists—to encourage surrender to his every need. Over a painful three years with him, there was this sense of being consumed by the quick-sand of Oliver’s unrelenting narcissism. Her time with him had an unexpectedly positive outcome. Once she was free of him, she called him her succubus, she felt able to extricate herself from the guilt of her brother’s death and the terrible burden of their parent’s fierce neglect.
After Oliver, she had nothing further to do with her parents, until she heard from their solicitor. Though he was considerably younger than her parents he seemed to idolise them, his behaviour was very old-school, strange and obsequious and he had been retained by her parents for years but Miriam saw him as just another of the small coterie of followers her parents seemed to encourage. On occasions he acted as a discomfiting go-between. Supposedly, on behalf of her parents he approached Miriam regarding a variety of arcane activities, weird correspondence appearing regularly. The man himself would appear on her doorstep sometimes, and his solicitations were often of a non-legal nature. He had an inappropriate fondness for her, even when she was a young girl which she said was, nothing short of psychopathically creepy. On this final occasion, he informed her they had followed through with their commitment to end their lives. She said he delivered the news with an absurdly solicitous opprobrium, sounding just like them and then asked her if she would care to have commiserating sex with him. They had bequeathed the entirety of their not inconsiderable estate to a university fellowship for the furtherance of the Savant Movement. On hearing of her parent’s self-termination, she uttered nothing more than a sigh of relief and told the solicitor to Fuck Off!
Miriam bustled into the house after work, dropped her briefcase on the hall table and commandeered my able body for the purpose of moving Zander, whom I had never met, from his bed to a wheelchair. Occasionally Miriam would talk of Zander but not to any great length, seeming not to care for my curiosity in regard to him, as though it was a particularly private matter. I suppose it was, we both had this unstated agreement that certain parts of our past would remain locked. On this occasion it could not be helped and I was to be initiated into one of her secret rooms. When we arrived at his house, a neat cottage on the edge of the city, we discovered he had soiled the bed, a possibility Miriam failed to mention. To say I was repulsed by exposure to rank and primeval incontinence — would be an understatement. She attempted with great delicacy, to cause the old man the least embarrassment and discomfort than was necessary. We helped him to the bathroom and she turned on the shower hanging over the tub. We bathed him but he seemed to have the wherewithal to find his old man nakedness more shameful than the defecation; at one point weeping silently while trying to cover his genitals with his hands; I couldn’t decide what was more embarrassing.
Zander was so addled with dementia he indicated no recognition of Miriam, or made any enquiry as to the presence of a complete stranger; although strictly speaking we had no way of telling. He could have been in a purgatory of frustration unable to articulate his gratitude. Being old and sick might be incredibly hard work and I hoped I’d have the courage to take the final path, so admirably demonstrated by Miriam’s parents. In any case, it was clear he would soon die.
When we settled him, washed and powdered in his bed, Miriam spoke quietly and gently stroked his all but bald scalp. This had a visibly calming effect on his demeanour furthered by her reading some words from a book he had on his bedside table. Being an avid reader, I noticed it when we arrived. It was ‘The Collected Poems of Shelley’, the 19th century romantic poet who drowned at the age of 30 in the Gulf of La Spezia, Sardinia. Through Miriam’s own academic work on the Romantics, I had developed an interest in the poet, even to the point of having a recurring dream of Spezia. It was quite odd to find that Zander was interested in the life of Shelley. The part of the book Miriam read was an excerpt from the poets prose play “Prometheus Unbound”. I listened carefully to my wife’s rendition.
Love, from its awful throne of patient power
In the wise heart, from the last giddy hour
Of dead endurance, from the slippery, steep,
And narrow verge of crag-like agony, springs
And folds over the world its healing wings.
Although I had no way of knowing as to whether she had chosen it purposefully or merely picked up where Zander had left off, I thought it was an interesting passage. She stopped reading when she noticed he had fallen asleep. She turned the book around to show me it was the last page.
‘What did you think about all that,’ Miriam said. I was backing the car out of the old man’s driveway.
‘Meaning?’ I said.
‘Well, how did it make you feel?’
‘I’m still thinking about it, my overall feeling, however, is that I would not like to participate in a repeat performance.’
‘I liked the Shelley,’ I said.
‘Okay, why?’ We had this habit of reviewing events as if somehow they might transmute into something other than what they plainly were. There was this mutual desire for a satisfactory conclusion, as if by passing an idea back and forth, enlightenment was bound to follow. This was often the case, but not always.
‘Shelley is both gloomy and optimistic at the same time. “crag-like agony”, that’s quite good really. The passage was conclusive somehow, prescient considering the state of the fellow.’
‘Yes, it was,’ she said. I turned out of Zander’s street and entered the main road.
‘So what happens to him now?’ I said.
‘He will die soon, perhaps tomorrow or next month,’ Miriam said.
‘No, I mean right now. We are going home, but he appears to require full-time nursing.’
‘For a time there was an aged care nursing service coming, but it was so awful I wrote to a member of his family interstate to cancel it. It was his brother and he was already aware of my long-term presence in Zanders life and agreed. I never once saw him or any other relative visit him. He did write me an odd letter, scribbled on note paper and barely legible, thanking me for what I had done. I was angry and threw it away in disgust.
‘So you haven’t had any more to do with him, what about other relatives?’
‘All dead, Peter was the youngest. He is also an old man now though. Before the dementia took hold the way it has, I asked Zander why he didn’t come to see him but he refused to discuss it.’
‘A mystery then,’ I said.
‘Yes, I know virtually nothing about his parents, except that they emigrated to Australia from The Netherlands when he was still a child. He described his family as being closed book he had no interest in rereading.’
‘That information only serves to further wet my curiosity,’ I said.
‘Yes, I suspected it would. Anyway, to answer your question, someone will arrive shortly to spend most of the evening with him; he’s a student, a decent young man paid a small amount out of Zander’s pension. Another a man comes to tend the garden and do whatever is needed for the maintenance of the house. He also helps with moving the Zander when the student cannot, but today, he himself is sick and the student has lectures. A friend from work also comes occasionally.’
‘Oh, who is that,’ I said
‘Sylvia,’ she said. I had some vague memory of this name, but no face to apply to it.
‘Goodness, how civilised,’ I said, although by now, I was a little bored by the whole thing, not to mention, traumatised by all the shit I had just helped to clean up. For a while we travelled in silence.
‘We need wine Eric,’ she said this as we were rapidly approaching the turn-off to the mini-mart and I pulled sharply into the driveway. A man in an old blue car coming from the opposite direction sounded his horn loudly several times.
‘Fuckwit,’ he yelled at me out of the car window. I’d only had a glimpse of him but with such a depth of clarity it seemed as if it occurred in slow motion. He pushed out his arm awkwardly and raised his fist to augment his anger. The entire length of his arm was festooned with tattoos. His whiskered face red, bloated with fury, was surrounded by wild ropes of dreadlocks. His fury, to my way of thinking, was unconnected to my admittedly dangerous manoeuvre but rather a failing on his part, perhaps from not seeing sooner, what might happen at this busy part of town. Cars were constantly entering and leaving the shopping centre carpark, but I fancied his anger came from somewhere else — a deep frustration, related to an important incident occurring just prior to our encounter. His anger was such that I wondered if he might turn around and come back, but he didn’t.
There was a work colleague whom Miriam described, since his appointment three years ago, as a thorn in her side. He was one of two deputies at the private girl’s school, of which Miriam was the Principal. The other deputy was pliable and did as Miriam instructed, but more out of indifference rather than a desire to be cooperative. He was merely treading water, she said, waiting for his imminent retirement, whereas her nemesis was ambitious, arrogant and an outrageous misogynist.
‘The man clearly despises me and is obstructive almost to the point of causing serious dysfunction within the school community. An appalling individual but also strange,’ she said, ‘continually undermining my authority and is often rude to other staff; a very demoralising and negative influence.’
We were on the second of the two bottles of wine I had purchased earlier that day. It was a Friday and with two days to recover, Miriam had the habit of getting drunk. I knew about Roberts but never tired of hearing whatever mischief he had perpetrated on any given day. Her contempt for him was so great she only ever referred to him by his surname.
‘When you say strange, can you elucidate further,’ I said.
‘Hmmm. How can I describe it? Well, he’s often sort of abstracted, almost as if he is operating on a different plane to the rest of us. I mean his overbearing behaviour is not entirely pernicious…it’s more like he’s…oh I don’t know, he knows something we don’t and thinks we are too ignorant to get it; whatever it is.’
‘But it must often be quite relevant to the job Miriam. I mean it can’t be too distant from the needs of the operation of the faculty, otherwise how could he have risen up the promotion ladder?’
‘Look, you’re right. Often his ideas are adopted and he does have allies of sorts, although I’d describe them as toadies,’ she said and laughed rather too loudly. She was pretty pissed by now, so I didn’t pursue it.
As it happened, I had the opportunity to meet Roberts on the occasion of a retirement do for another of Miriam’s colleagues. It was a lavish affair at an expensive restaurant and almost everybody was very convivial, most of them were pissed by the time the speeches had ended. People began to mingle and I found myself, not quite accidentally, standing next to Mister Roberts, who was on his own. Miriam had pointed him out while we were toasting the very shy and embarrassed retiree.
Truth be known, I don’t attend these staff parties as a rule, but I was dying to at least get a glimpse of this appalling individual. I was armed the knowledge that one persons’ perception of another is necessarily determined by the predispositions or, indeed prejudices of the observer. In other words, I was prepared for nuance in regard to the character of Miriam’s nemesis, regardless of the character assassination she had administered and I had been exposed to for the past three years. Immediately Miriam’s ‘smarmy’ could be altered to a ‘studied indifference’, from my point of view.
My initial impression was of a person both singular and remote. He was tall and slim, in his early 40’s, well-dressed and quite good looking with dark hair and fine features. He maintained a fashionable, short beard. His face was tanned and only slightly lined, a faint crease descending either side of his nose to below his thin lips. His eyes were dark amber and lids hooded, giving him the look of someone in a perpetual state of shrewd observation. He seemed to be completely at ease with being solitary among his colleagues. He was sipping from a beer bottle whilst leaning against the frame of double doors, leading to a wide deck attached to the restaurant. I concluded straight away, there was a self-assured presence about the fellow, something I had no problem with at all, indeed I could readily relate to this behaviour. His matt black suit, coupled with a black shirt, had the effect of enhancing his estrangement from normality. The suit was opaque and difficult to determine its contours and features, my eyes swam in its undefined depths. It seemed to me, the wearing of these clothes was for the express purpose of losing himself in the shadows of the large room. A dark and watchful anonymity pervaded his very being, portraying I suspected, a latent fragility.
‘You’re Mister Roberts,’ I said.
‘I saw you are with Miriam. You her husband?’ The two sentences, spoken with a slight British accent, were flat, no more than statements of fact devoid of inflection or interest. He failed to make eye contact, merely a cursory glance past my left shoulder and resumed his nonchalant perusal of the room. Nevertheless, perhaps it was a minute adjustment to his frame, or a tiny surge to the pulse in his neck, but I detected a level of disquiet beneath the surface of his composure and this gave me pleasure.
‘Eric,’ I offered my hand. Giving it a brief shake, he dropped it as if contaminated and then failed to provide his own given name. He swallowed a sip of his beer and gestured with the bottle toward the retiree, who was surrounded by well-wishers. Her face was red with all the attention and, no doubt, the wine.
‘Fish out of water, that one. Can’t for the life of me work out how she made it to retirement. I’ve never met anyone so ill-suited to our profession. Silly old twit!’ he said, again with this odd way of speaking, sort of collapsed and bereft of significance.
‘Well, I can’t comment, I don’t know the woman,’ I said. I found myself emulating, to a degree, his understated delivery. Nevertheless, I had to admit the retiree displayed a certain frumpish awkwardness, her hair seemed to be in disarray, positioned on her head in an indeterminate pile, strands of it coming loose as if they feared to be associated with the host. She was dressed carelessly, vaguely bohemian, perhaps to obfuscate the lack sartorial skill rather than being emblematic of an alternative life-style.
‘You a teacher?’ he said. He was still looking across the room.
‘Accountant,’ I replied. This was true but did not fully describe my circumstances. I had recently retired from a position as a CFO with a mid-range corporation, but I didn’t care for him to think there was anything of particular interest about me.
‘Aha,’ he said, still distracted. It occurred to me I had heard every detail of his misdeeds in his capacity as deputy and Miriam’s ‘thorny’ colleague, but nothing about his chosen field of pedagogy.
‘What do you teach, Mister Roberts,’ I enjoyed calling him by his surname and glad he had not furnished his given name, although I would not have felt compelled to use it.
‘Ancient History, what there is of it; because of my position, I have somewhat less than half a load,’ he said. Even though his manner was one of barely hidden hostility, I was determined to engage him in some way. I wasn’t even sure myself why I found him as fascinating as I did, but I had a strong and growing belief he would be of use to me in some capacity.
‘I see…history, interesting,’ I said, ‘history ostensibly exists as a result of our need not to forget, wouldn’t you say; it reeks of nostalgia as well, but I suspect humanity subscribes to a desire to learn from its past mistakes, so that the world can become better. I wonder if it has, Mister Roberts.’
‘Has what?’ his distracted air was beginning to falter, he steadfastly looked anywhere but at me directly. A small tick seemed to develop at the corner of his mouth.
‘What I’m saying is, do you think your knowledge and teaching of history will make the world a better place, or is it merely reminding us of the myriad of frustrations and disputes which appear to be humanities lot and therefore counter-intuitive to our progress as a species.’
‘Perhaps,’ he said. He corrected his posture, spreading his legs a little and put his free hand in his trouser pocket. As he was no longer slumped against the door-frame he steadfastly looked down as if he found our shoes a source of deep fascination. I went on.
‘It strikes me the history of the human race has to be necessarily couched as a moral question, not that I’m a religious person at all, nobody would accuse me of that foolishness, far from it. I wonder though to what extent have we done good or been righteous in our activities, and do we learn from them; which sort of leads back to the concept of memory. I mean, when we as a species are regressive or — no, let’s look at it on a more personal level, when I perpetrate a bad deed, am I momentarily forgetting to be good I wonder.’
‘Too rich a meal for me, I’m afraid. Just a jobbing history lecturer, that’s me,’ a thin line of perspiration tracked down his face from his temple, ‘I think one can read too much into this stuff,’ he said without even a pretence of conviction. I believed intuitively that this glib answer was a lie, aimed to divert me. I have never warmed to the sort of person who hides his true self beneath a carefully contrived layer of false modesty. It had the effect of clarifying a nagging thought about the man, something I hadn’t been able to put my finger on since I viewed him from across the room. From all that Miriam had told me, and in the absence of corporeality, I had happily conjured an impression that Roberts was a formidable creature with the sting of a viper. Now, however, it was irresistible not to think of him as the archetypical moral coward and almost certainly a narcissist.
‘I hear you are giving my wife a hard time, Mister Roberts,’ I said. He stiffened visibly and we made eye contact for the first time. His arms fell to his sides and he tensed as if readying himself for a blow, although I could not characterize this behaviour necessarily as fear . The beer bottle fell from his grasp and bounced off the floor. A small splash leapt from the bottle but the impact was muffled by the carpet. Did it fall or was merely readying himself for an attack. Whatever his reaction was, it caught the attention of people nearby. I tried to assume a flinty demeanour although, in reality, it was amusing to see what I assumed was an underlying frailty, if that’s what it was; I couldn’t be sure. I glanced over to see the retiree—although Miriam told me her name, I had immediately forgotten it—who had moved closer to us, presumably doing the rounds and engaging with the various groups that had formed. She looked in our direction, her gaze, pointed and censorious, locked on me.
‘Perhaps we could sort this out on the terrace, or the garden may be more appropriate,’ I said. I drained my glass of wine and put it on a nearby table and began to remove my coat. By the time I returned my attention to Roberts, he had disappeared into the crowd. I glimpsed a flash of his funereal suit, as he left the room.
This incident revealed to me, as it had on other occasions, the fluidity of nature. To control and even manipulate events was exceedingly satisfying. At least, that is how it seemed to me at the time. I fancied that I recognized a malevolent force and did, I thought, a satisfactory job to quash it. I fancied, in my untrammelled hubris, I was capable of transforming the particles of human nature into other, more pliable substances; a sort of alchemical reduction, seeming to me to be an important skill, but one I had no way, nor desire to control. Even at this early stage of my relationship with Roberts, I felt there was something beyond what it was possible to imagine; even then I felt the trap into which I was ineluctably drawn. There was a sexual element to it, something I had not expected, but there it was growing, lecherous and forbidding. It wasn’t Roberts that was sexually exciting, something outside of him, almost like a whispering promise of inchoate and primeval desires.
‘I heard you appeared to be defending my honour tonight Eric,’ Miriam was busy in the walk-in closet of our bedroom. She had the right side and I the left. This arrangement was decided by Miriam when we moved into the house. She said illogically, it was because I was left-handed. Removing her jacket revealed a slim frame beneath her shiny, tight-fitting and sleeveless dress.
‘It was nothing,’ I said. I perched uncomfortably on the antique chair in our bedroom and watched her place a see-through bag over the jacket. It was an exquisite Da-Shan style garment made of silk, she had purchased in Singapore. In fact, I derived pleasure from watching her disrobe, whatever the garment. She was exceptionally gifted with feminine attributes, extraordinary, considering she was now in her fifties.
‘That is not how Sylvia described your encounter with Mister Roberts,’ she said.
‘Sylvia?’ I said.
‘Yes Eric, Sylvia, the person for whom we held the retirement party. I told you,’ she said somewhat annoyed, ‘do you ever listen to anything I say?’ she had removed the dress and was fiddling with the clasp of her bra, ‘here, make yourself useful. I assume you at least remember how to undo a bra?’
‘Ah Sylvia, yes, yes, of course, momentarily slipped my mind, nevertheless she’s an astoundingly forgettable person, wouldn’t you say?’ what was it Roberts had said…silly old twit.
‘I happen to like Sylvia Eric,’ she said.
‘Well, she must have intuited whatever she told you, because she could not have possibly heard the conversation,’ I said.
The bra fell away from her body as I unhooked it and she turned and faced me, a frown developing on her pretty face. She absently pushed her thumb into the top her underpants and they also fell to the floor. She stood naked, still looking at me as if she was trying to discern something she may have missed in the years we had been together. I am left-handed and it was this appendage that absently strayed towards her breasts, when she promptly leant over to retrieve her underwear and walked back towards the closet.
‘In any case, can you please refrain from threatening my colleagues, in future. I know you see it as a bit of sport and Mister Roberts might be an arse, but I still have to work with the creep. I’m a big girl Eric,’ she said emerging once more from the closet and entering the bathroom. I was very hard and very much wanted to fuck her but suspected I would be denied entry.
‘Hardly a threat Miriam, I merely asked him if he’d like to join me on the deck. It was a warm evening, am I not permitted to remove my jacket as well? I doubted she heard me, as she closed the door of the bathroom and busied herself with her nightly preparations. I removed my clothes and it stood straight out, making a tent out of my pyjama bottoms. She once said she liked my cock’s directness, a determined no-nonsense appendage, which I took to be quite flattering; but then she added, it had a tendency to brevity once inserted. This was a characteristic of our relationship: approval, made flaccid by equivocation. She told me Oliver’s erect penis was entirely different, pointing self-referentially up towards him and not at her. The direction of his penis, she said, served to effectively illustrate his personality. As I may have already said, I do rather miss her.
My little project revealed itself half-formed rather like a chrysalis, pale and insubstantial at first. A vague notion of confronting Roberts again in some way, became so attractive to me I could not rest comfortably until he was aware of my intentions. I already knew from Miriam, he lived in Kalliot, one of the nearby coastal villages. It was easy to find his address, even a map via Google to show me the way. He was known in the online White Pages as T. Roberts; was it Timothy, Thomas or Talleyrand—to tell you the truth I couldn’t have given a rat’s fig. An opportunity presented itself when Miriam told me a week after the retiree’s party, she would be spending three days of the following week at a conference interstate. She was vexed by the necessity of appointing Roberts as her temporary replacement.
‘Whatever you said to the dreadful man Eric, Roberts does seem changed in some way, albeit subtle,’ she stood packing her small suitcase which lay open on the bed. It was the morning of her departure for the conference and she was all efficiency, having ordered an Uber to arrive in 30 minutes. She had already left a series of notes stuck to the fridge and one on the oven door to remind me to turn it off, if I intended in her absence, reversing a certainty of our life together, and do some baking. I lolled on the bed watching her pack, my elbow propped on one of the many, annoying throw pillows infesting the house.
‘Really, he has modified his behaviour towards you? I said. She placed a zip-lock bag of two pairs of shoes within a fissure she had carefully created amongst her clothes. She positioned her clear wet-pack on top of the shoes, completing each task with earnest and deliberate precision.
‘Well, I would characterise his customary attitude as being replaced by a peevish and unrepentant sulk. Not sure which I prefer, to tell you the truth; his penchant for erosive sabotage or his current regime of enfeebled brooding,’ she closed the case, gave the room a cursory look round to see if she had forgotten something and settled her gaze on me. She sat beside me on the bed, a smile formed on her lips and she placed a hand on mine, drawing me in towards her and surprising me by kissing me on the mouth in an overtly sexual way, involving her tongue. If that was in some way an affirmation, I was quite willing to accept it.
‘If I had more time Eric, I would fuck you,’ she said.
Mamre Road is the coastal conduit to the villages dotting the narrow slice of land below a series of steep cliffs. The road drops off the escarpment at Faraday Hill, down a series of switchbacks. You could continue all the way to the city on Mamre, although the bulk of traffic used the freeway snaking along the escarpment high above. I bypassed the trendy village of Faraday Beach lying at the foot of the hill. Kalliot could barely be called a village, just a cluster of houses occasioned by a break in an otherwise rocky and inhospitable landscape, not dissimilar to the other village along this stretch heading south. It rated not even a corner shop or a police station; presumably, the inhabitants, back-tracked north to our town for their supplies or Faraday Park where there was a rather snobbish collection of arty shops and cafes, one of them offering over-priced gourmet food items. There were two vaguely parallel streets ending at the beach and several other smaller roads radiating out from them. I noted on Google it had a population of 60, one of whom was Roberts. I had been to Kalliot several times before and because there were less tourists, Miriam and I had gone for a swim there one summer. I had never visited the place at night and I certainly wasn’t in the habit of venturing out at 2am in the morning. I coasted my car down to a lay-by and parked 100 metres from the first of the two streets leading to the beach.
The village was quieter than the dead, everybody asleep, exhausted by the continuum of necessity, activity halted by the primordial need for rest. I could feel mist from the sea wash a faint oily film over my skin as I approached the road on which Roberts lived. I shivered, regretting I had come without my jacket. It was early autumn and along this stretch of coast, we only really had about 2 weeks of very cold weather usually in late July. There was only the faint sound of the waves rolling onto the beach. Invisible mists of the ocean driven by pacific winds, wove mysteriously into the fabric of this place. It was perhaps the deep trench of the twin headlands that caused the potent fumes to circulate and descend like a layer of grease on every surface. A crisp, deep blue hue shined on the surface of this night world, truly as beautiful as a long kept secret and defended defiantly by the full, white moon.
I knew his road ended in a cul-de-sac before doubling back to the main street and that Roberts’s house lay at its apex, separated by a reserve with a track leading to the beach. The moonlight reflected off the dewy black-top. Ghost-gums lined up either side, their limbs lurching out to me as if with cautious curiosity at the interloper in their midst. My rubber soles made a barely audible slicking sound on the verge of thick, damp grass. Not even a dog stirred at my approach. Several parked cars glinted in the moonlight, hunched down in the road, their windows slicked with lines of condensation.
Stepping along that dark road, the trees looming above and the big moon blinking between the branches, I experienced a compulsion to laugh out loud. I felt elated beyond measure, like a child who has received a gift that he had always coveted but neglected to mention, that by some miracle his secret desire had been fulfilled. It did seem odd to be so happy at the thought of approaching a house uninvited in the dead of night but my sense of exhilaration was overwhelming. I didn’t think of the consequences of my actions, nor did I have a very specific plan in mind; it was if I was operating on pure instinct.
When I reached the hedge marking the front boundary of Roberts’s house, I heard a sound in the grass nearby. It was probably a skink, I was familiar with soft rustle they made in our garden, but I imagined a snake lurking around the boundary, winding its long body between the squat trunks of the hedge, alert to my intrusion but due to the limitations of its wild nature, unable to sound the alarm. I tried to smile the way a snake might as I crept down the street, a long, drawn back grimace with a slither of a tongue emerging was my attempt. I was a little disappointed I did not have a mirror to confirm my fearsomeness. I made a sound instead, whispering inadvertently through the long grass as I passed on the unpathed verge.
I was relaxed and deeply satisfied, as I stared down at Roberts. I stood perfectly still at the foot of his bed. He lay on his back asleep, the blanket pulled up to his chin and either side of his head, his fingers curled over the top of the blanket as if ready to pull it swiftly up to cover his eyes. His long body was tucked in on the sides although I couldn’t imagine how this had been achieved. He must have made the bed carefully in the mornings allowing just enough room for him to work his way in between the sheets at night. The effect of what I saw in the dim room was that of a sleepy child, having been read to and kissed on the forehead and followed by the silent swan-dive into sleep. This made perfect sense to me. His behaviour was that of a man-child; the tense and sullen perversity of his nature, the querulous pleasure in unsettling his work colleagues, alleviated, in his private moments by the pleasures of quiet reflection of his deeds before sleep.
It was astonishing to me I was here in his bedroom, to find my imagination made real. I knew what to expect, from the street-view on google maps. The darkness distorts the familiar image of the world, so that even the most prosaic of neighbourhoods becomes mystifying and alien. I thought I’d be climbing back into my car, disappointed by encountering a tightly locked up fortress. I had made my way around to the back of Roberts’s house and discovered to my astonishment, the back door unlocked. There was a wide timber deck close to the ground and not requiring a step. A cantilevered awning hung out over the deck although not all the way, presumably to allow part of the deck to be exposed to the sun if required. A wicker daybed and a low table, separating two matching chairs, were arranged beneath the awning. I left my shoes at the door and discovered there was enough moonlight to take in most of the open plan living area and a hall, presumably leading to other rooms.
Before discovering Roberts as I have just described, I sat for a while on one of his armchairs in the sombre atmosphere of the living area. A large skylight floated in the ceiling allowing illumination of the room. The armchair was very comfortable. I didn’t like the furniture Miriam insisted on buying; absurdly expensive, but of a vintage originating in the early 20th century and all of it offering very little comfort. I insisted on a modern, more comfortable lounge chair for myself but it was nowhere near as comfy as Roberts’s. If the opportunity arrived, I would find out where he got it. There was this certain rightness about the unfussy décor, the arrangement of the furniture. The only wall decoration in the living room was a single framed picture. From a distance and in the moonlight, it appeared to consist of blobs in a vague green background. I rose from the chair and padded closer. It looked like an original painting, contained within a simple frame and on closer inspection not like anything I had seen before. I had a bit of a taste for art and knew I was looking at something of quality. The light of the moon leaked wanly into the house and served to illuminate the painting in a way it may not have had, in daylight. Nevertheless, the picture struck me as nothing less than astonishing.
At around 100cm high by 70cm wide it was figurative with clearly deliberate abstract elements. Two men stood in a field of long, dull-green grass. Behind the figures stood a low, poorly constructed stone wall and beside it a bare sketch of a tree, light blue in colour, and beyond that a dark blue lake with a black hump indicating the far shore of the water. An ultramarine night sky loomed over it all. Small white blobs studded the sky, presumably to represent stars, were reflected in the lake. A low white object, resembling a large piece of drift-wood, floated in the lake, although I was unsure of this. The two figures were of men stood close together and dressed in the most bizarre costumes: the one on the left in black military livery and the other in an orange mayoral robe with a tall black hat on his head. Their faces were painted green with the exposed hands skin-coloured. The expressions on the faces of the men were contrasting, although they both looked frankly out of the two-dimensional picture plain at me, their solitary viewer. The military man’s attitude was one of somebody who has been startled, his left hand reaching for his sword but the mayor’s expression was strangely, of bored complacency. The presence of this painting, was an unexpected element, in this otherwise studiously austere house and if I was only vaguely interested in insinuating my way into the secret crevices of Roberts’s life not an hour before, I was now utterly enthralled and intent on proceeding with whatever it may bring. I returned to the chair to contemplate what I had seen so far and to calm my heart rate. The painting returned to the shadows.
Eventually, I pulled myself out of the lounge chair and peered into a wide hall leading to other rooms. The hall ended in a window with a view to the start of a beach track, well illuminated by the moon. A tall plain sideboard sat beneath the window, a small silver menorah glinting in the moonlight had been placed on top. A framed photograph hung on the wall adjacent to the window and sideboard. It was a head and shoulders shot of a younger looking Roberts taken in front of the window. I noticed a vague reflection in the glass covering the picture. Turning, I found another photo framed identically and placed in exactly the same position on the opposite wall. The subject was another man, a stranger, in the same pose and wearing a similar open-necked shirt. They faced each other, their expressions were in a state of mild but theatrical surprise, as if they were each looking in a mirror and finding the reflection disconcertingly unrecognizable. It seemed like a very personal joke that only intimate companions would understand. I absently investigated the other rooms, wondering who the other man was, why was he significant? He was perhaps 10 years older than Roberts, plumper and somewhat dignified. Apart from these few exceptional flourishes, the house displayed a complete lack of personality, a sterile, closed in environment. It occurred to me, the unlocked door was almost certainly an unaccustomed lapse in the meticulous process of Roberts’s existence. I was fascinated that at this moment the balance of this frigid and petulant man’s life was suffering a unique contraction of time and space. My presence in his house in the dead of night was an unimaginable assault on the assiduously private world he had so carefully engineered for himself.
As I stood there at the foot of his bed, barely breathing and in a state of heightened emotion, I realized I was waiting for something, but what? After a few minutes he alarmed me by farting twice in quick succession, turning on his side and uttering a few words in a companionable but unintelligible gibberish, before the room once again fled into silence. I doubt he had awoken, but I couldn’t be sure. It was a delicious thought that we had shared a few very intimate moments, even if it was entirely one-sided.
Miriam was due back late Saturday afternoon, so I had another full day and most of the next to do as I wished. After my nocturnal peregrinations I rose from a dreamless slumber around 11am and busied myself with some errands in the town. I returned to find Steve, a man who came once a fortnight to do some gardening and mowing. I had forgotten he was due but was happy to see him, as I like his company. He was an uncomplicated fellow, completely honest and unassuming. He was also meticulous; you could say he had developed his pruning skills into an art form. We had a high hedge of Maraya’s along our front boundary and down both sides of our property, which was quite large. At the back he had constructed a series of wide terraces and planters before the land dwindled down into a forest of tall gums ending at a fire-trail to the valley and eventually the railway line. Over the space of the three years we had employed him, he had transformed the Maraya’s from what was a rather straggly mess of tangled and partially diseased branches into an orderly and seemingly impenetrable barrier of glorious green. He had even managed to coax out a myriad of tiny white flowers which festooned the foliage like stars in a green sky.
It had become our habit that after he had completed his work, Steve and I sat on the back verandah with some chilled juice and a sandwich — today it was pineapple juice and the sandwich consisted of Sopressa salami, sliced vine tomatoes and cucumber. I placed on the table pickled onions, some olives and pferroni in a bowl, as a side-dish. I loved the smell of fresh cut grass. It was a pleasure to sit in the midday shade and embrace the oily emanations drifting in from the garden and eat lunch. Wrens had come down from their eyries beyond the hedge and picked at the lawn, feeding on the tiny insects revealed by Steve’s mower. I have not mentioned this before but we have a pet dog we call Calisto, which sounds pretentious and probably is, but when we got her as a pup she reminded me of a small bear-cub. She is a kelpie, the colour of dark gold and although alert to the Wrens, sits happily at my feet. Steve is a natural story-teller and on this day he tells me of an event that had occurred years before. One day he was digging in the garden of a former prominent identity of our town, when he unearthed a funnel-web spider. The creature stood at the bottom of the hole rearing up and brandishing its fangs at him. He said, notwithstanding the vast difference of proportion between him and the spider, he was at that moment terrified witless and instead of killing it with the spade backed away from the hole in a cold sweat. It was a panic attack, although I didn’t know this at the time. That night, he said, his wife woke him alarmed by my loud and fearful cries and my thrashing about in their bed, even their 6 year old came running into their room frightened. He told his wife he had had a nightmare about being menaced by a giant spider.
‘It was very bloody real to me mate, and it took a while for me to be reassured by both my wife and the innocent presence of my daughter,’ he said, ‘I was so overcome with fear I had left the yard immediately without letting the man know and I couldn’t go back to finish the work. Sounds crazy doesn’t it,’ he looked at me, presumably with the hope I would contradict him.
‘What happened then,’ I asked, ‘you obviously recovered, because here you are. Have you been confronted by funnel-webs since. Also were there repercussions in regard to your not returning to complete your work? ’
‘Yeah, sure, once or twice I came across the bloody beasts and I killed them without hesitation. I couldn’t figure out what to do about my client, he was an influential man and could have caused me problems. A week went by before I figured I’d just say I had an extended family emergency and so I rang his house. I was nervous when his wife answered the phone. She was distressed and sounded as if she were crying and before I could deliver my excuse, she told me her husband had died unexpectedly during the night. She said it was thought he had been bitten on the foot by something in the garden.’
‘Goodness, how do you feel about that,’ I said.
‘Like a murderer.’
As I have indicated my plans for Roberts developed in a largely aimless, almost somnolent way, almost as if I was idly dreaming it all up. I enjoyed the fact that each new expansion of the central motif—to in some way make him feel comprehensively ill at ease—was my only vague intention and I wasn’t even sure of that. I hadn’t come up with an adequate enough reason to make an enemy of him. There was Miriam’s ire, of course, but for me her tales of the man’s misdeeds were, to me a source of prurient delight. In any case my role in his eventual demise had not in any way, presented itself.
After I waved Steve off at our gate, I held my car door open and issued my customary command to Calisto, a slap of my thigh, who jumped onto the back seat. It was mid-afternoon; the sunlight was beginning its slow descent beyond the escarpment as I made my way down Faraday Hill. The vegetation on either side of Mamre Road, now in that state of sleepy shadow, leaf and limb seeming to bend in towards the road as I pass. The forest was preparing itself for the long night ahead, taking on a darkened hue so that even the gums white trunks are turned grey. The first town of Faraday Park was the largest of the three along this stretch. It was a sleepy place of few houses when we first moved to the area but was graced with superb kilometre long beach. In a mere twenty years, it has become a mecca for tree-changers, with the property prices soaring accordingly. Houses here are large and ostentatious, built precariously and close together, on the slopes leading down to the beach and each vying for a glimpse of the ocean. Sometimes Miriam and I came here to swim and have lunch at the restaurant on the edge of the rambling parklands adjacent to the beach. The cashed up hoi polio from the city have turned what is a very beautiful place into a fancy suburb featuring artisan bread, over-priced coffee and limited parking for European SUV’s. Several years before we were browsing in a little shop on the main road to Faraday Beach, nestled between a single origin coffee bar and a gourmet deli. The shop specialised in supposedly exclusive oriental furnishings. We purchased a bridal wall hanging from Kazakhstan for a snip, according to Miriam, at $900. We were told by a bearded man in colourful suspenders, the Kazakhstani mothers started the painstaking embroidery of this artefact for their daughter’s wedding day, when the girls were still children. I tried to avoid it, but every time my eyes drifted to this keepsake hanging above our over-stuffed antique sofa, I saw not the rustic exotica of folk-art from a far off country, but the tears of the daughter left impoverished on her wedding day. I happily by-passed Faraday Park today, for the less aspirational little pocket of Kalliot.
By the time I reached the turnoff to the beach, I had decided on a plan. I will park on Roberts’s street and walk up to the door and knock. It’s audacious and direct but I had no idea what I am going to say when he opened the door. I felt exhilarated. Adrenaline was pumping, readying me for the unexpected. I know from Miriam, come three o’clock on Fridays the faculty carpark was in an intense state of exodus. Everybody wants to get home after the rigorous week of teaching and learning, nobody stays behind to finish up whatever work they might be doing. The copy machine might be loaded with fresh test papers for handing out but will remain there until Monday. On the streets surrounding the University the ‘P’ platers are busily revving up or impatiently idling and checking their texts messages, for urgent escape to the suburbs, the pubs and the practice nets. It takes Miriam no more than 30 minutes to drive home in our small seaside city at the other end of Mamre Road and invariably quicker if she takes the freeway. She said she prefers the scenic route occasionally and perhaps Roberts does too. Whatever the case, I assumed he was well and truly at home by now.
The gums looming over the cul-de-sac seemed less inquisitive and more sparsely limbed than I remember them. I hadn’t noticed the previous night, the concrete curb and gutters look relatively new with yellow numbers stamped on the upturn of the curb to indicate the lot numbers, seeming quite quaint to me and I assume this must be a recent innovation, as we certainly do not had such embellishments up on the escarpment. I had this sense that Kalliot will one day become another densely populated enclave for the wealthy. A car, low and sporty, I assumed was Roberts, was parked adjacent to the entrance and as I pass I touched the bonnet, noting warmth beneath. The hedge is shorter than I remember and could do with the benefit of Steve’s expertise. If the opportunity arises, I will certainly pass this on to Roberts.
I stood on a brown coconut fibre mat and knocked a little too loudly on a door, consisting of a cedar framed opaque white glass panel. Calisto determinedly sniffs around in the garden and disappears around the side of the house, no doubt looking for a place, meeting with his approval, to piss. The house on first impression is of that low, cool and subdued variety, designed with a determination to be unobtrusive, discrete. The roof consists of two steel low-pitched rakes, presumably determined by the interior arrangement of space. The entire exterior cladding of the house is custom orb corrugated iron. It is laid horizontally, the natural zinc alloy left to a dull tarnish in the weather. The eaves and the closed brick foundations, as is the simple cantilevered entrance portico are all painted mid-grey. The window frames appear to be made of thick, commercial grade aluminium, also in a matt powder-grey. The overall effect was one of understated elegance.
No one comes to the door after a second, louder knock and I follow Calisto around the building to the back door, my nocturnal point of ingress the night before. As I step onto the deck I notice a folded beach towel on a coffee table and one of chairs appears to have been turned towards the view of the escarpment. I glance down to the back of the yard, to see Calisto sniffing around at a lattice fence. Flowering vines climb sporadically over the fence and in the foreground a variety of native shrubs grow stunted on the sandy lawn. The only sign of life is a honeyeater alighting on a late blooming Grevillea. I knock again, and then try the latch but it is firmly locked this time. Cupping my hands either side of my temple, I peer through the large window to the left which entirely reflects the mass of trees rising up the escarpment at the rear of the property.
There is no sign of anyone and the interior is very bright, illuminated by the skylight in the ceiling. It all looks just as I remember but I notice a set of keys, a mobile phone and an empty glass on the otherwise unoccupied marble kitchen bench. It is one of those benches where you can sit. Two stools stand below, one has been pulled out. It occurred to me if Roberts has gone out and has left his keys then there must be another point of entry to the house. I was a little deflated by Roberts’s seeming absence but it appeared he has not gone far, otherwise why would he leave his keys and phone. I was reminded of the extraordinary painting in the hall and sure enough I can just glimpse the edge of the frame and a few inches of the green and blue, comprising its dominant palette and I experience a strong desire to look at it again.
Finally stepping away from the door, I considered sitting on the daybed to wait but decide against it and left the deck. The grass was a tad overgrown and the shrubs and vines planted on the property clearly need Steve’s attention. On the left there was a neighbouring house but no sign of life there either. Its windows were concealed behind tightly closed shutters and a few cobwebs here and there indicated it may have been a holiday house. On the right, the track to the beach, I had seen on Google, disappeared into the densely wooded forest. At the entrance to the track it was sandy underfoot; there were patches of coastal grasses, low shrubs and ferns as well as tall and spindly paperbark gums; Angophora’s, interspersed with palm trees, climbing the slopes to the north. I can hear sound of the sea distinctly; I slapped my thigh and Calisto and we merged with the narrow track.
After a few minutes, the gums and climbing vines were replaced by shorter shrubs. Rangy, twisted Banksia and wind-blown Tea-trees give way to pockets of succulents as I climbed the slope of a low dune, petering out to the fine white sand of the ridge. The beach, really a lagoon enclosed by twin headlands north and south, was small and intimate and on this day a loan surfer drifts hunched over on the break, a hundred metres out to sea. A swell forms some way ahead of him and he vigorously began to paddle towards it. Directly in front of me, a middle-aged couple on an afternoon stroll, also with a dog, stop to look out to sea and the surfer as he stood to rides the wave, elegantly curving into its’ roll towards the shore. The couple resumed their walk towards a carpark just back from the beaches craggy northern headland. Several houses poked up above the rocky terrain, their faces turned to the great expanse of the sea and a thin line of cloud on the horizon. The sun was well into its decline in the west and from this vantage point, not quite concealed by the escarpment. A pink haze gathered above the cliffs, as I descended the dune to the beach.
Calisto bounded towards the strolling couple and her fellow canine, utterly joyful. As though on some telepathic mission, the dogs raced towards the waves breaking on the sand and dive into the shallows. They spring in and out of the small breakers, barking at each other with delight. We three humans can only stand by and gawk at their uninhibited exhilaration. At such moments we wonder, despite millennia’s of domestication, at their innate wildness. I heard the woman call out to her pet with a sing-song voice and it is immediately consumed by the blustery wind, the low hiss of sand as it writhes across our ankles and the artless convergence of the waves as they die on the shore. The woman looked at me from beneath a wide hat secured by a chin-strap, barely containing fronds of wiry hair. I don’t have a clear impression of her, although something about her manner makes me think I have seen her before. I smile with a shrug. Let them play, my gesture says. Her expression is sallow, as if she had eaten something bitter. She looks away, out towards the surfer, who has now disembarked from his board and is wading towards the shore. The man beside the woman nods at me without smiling; perhaps he was irritated; perhaps he wanted to say call your dog but was too reserved. They continue walking and the man lets fly a shrill whistle overriding the ambient sounds of the beach. At first, their pet, a corgi, ignores the command but suddenly broke from his companionable play with Calisto, stopping momentarily to sniff and piss on a cluster of dry seaweed, and then launched itself up the beach to join its master.
Calisto seemed confused, disoriented by the departure of her new friend and looked to me for an explanation, but all can I offer is my customary slap on the thigh and she leaps up the slope of water darkened sand towards me.
My peripheral vision caught a glistening movement not 20 metres north and I turned to see the surfer emerge dripping from a wave and make his slow progress to the beach. When finally free of the sea, he leaned over sideways, awkward but also familiar, and released the strap from his ankle and hefts the board under his arm. His feet submerge deep into the wet sand and when he was upright again, Roberts and I find ourselves looking at each other. I am disconcerted; I was suddenly aware of the sand shifting intricately beneath my sandals. He stood taller than I remember him. His upper torso was lithe but muscled under his wetsuit and his face fringed by dripping hair, longer than I remember it and slickly parted in the middle, falling neatly over each brow. I realized he was exceptionally handsome and wonder at the fact he was single, as Miriam had informed me. Calisto rolled licentiously in the, sun-dried seaweed his friend the corgi, has so recently engaged with. I am caught in a wondrous dilemma as I switched my attention between Calisto and Roberts. I wondered if this was an elemental form of love, a desire beyond imagining. I was assailed, standing in those drifting sands, by an almost visceral sensation of approaching calamity, of imminent folly and yet I was entirely willing to be enveloped within its grasp.
As with everything thus far in this strange game I have created for myself, the unexpected has occurred and the flow of events remained a thing of fatal and continuous alteration. One opportunity dies so that another can be born, which is all one can expect when events turn in a capricious universe such as mine, untutored by a concrete plan and free of stratagem. As much as I despised the very idea of coincidence, this acrimony of unpredictability rains down on my shoulders, and I have to say it seemed a great burden. The certainties of fate saturate my resistance as I became but a bystander, allowed to watch but not intervene. I feel, standing on Kalliot beach exchanging a simple look of recognition with Roberts, as though I want to be at the mercy of indecision forever. There lies a deep, primeval fear within this surrender to instinct but I seem unable to avoid whatever it is, coming inexorably towards me. That gaze across the white sand, with the strange, grey-pink light of the receding sun as our backdrop, was in effect an act of pure abandonment.
I read I in the paper yesterday, sitting on my narrow mattress within the confines of lawful disapproval, the new British Prime minister has triggered Article 50. The people of Britain have voted to leave the EU and now they will begin the doubtless painful process of exclusion from the greater European society. The treaty of Rome, so earnestly idealised in the 50’s has failed the test of time, at least according to the needs of one tiny but influential island bound by the Great North, the Irish sea’s and the endless Atlantic Ocean. It occurs to me the waters of all three have lapped at my feet but I have been found ignorant of boundaries, insolent of politics and with only grey memories of my small and ineffectual deeds to sustain me. Now, midpoint in my 60’s, I am with little hope of release before I die, bedevilled by the abomination my peers have seen fit to heap upon me. My witness and judge on this day though, flows in the silent mists of the sea enfolding me and Roberts on Kalliot Beach, a great distance from the games being played out by our betters in the greater world.
Roberts’s behaviour is surprising and mild. We hold each other’s attention for at least a minute, both of us in a kind of unexpected fugue: he, Poseidon emerged from the ocean, embracing his trident, or in this case his surfboard, dripping with seawater and quite ordinary looking me, a man out for a not so innocent walk with his dog. He lowered his head momentarily, the twin bangs of hair dripping over and concealing his face and I had the distinct impression he had sighed. There was a readiness about him, a bracing for some calamity it was his lot in life to forbear, entirely reminiscent of our first meeting at the party. Clearly, this was a recurring conceit of his body language; a state of constant readiness. Was it some adversity, naturally occurring in his life, as inevitable as it was imminent? He broke from our gaze and began to trudge up the dune to the track. Calisto and I follow.
We kept a distance of perhaps 50 metres as we weaved our way in the forest. I had a sure sense he knew we were following but he didn’t turn, keeping his eyes firmly on the trail ahead. By the time I had broken into the clearing beside his house he had disappeared from sight. As I approached I heard the sound of water and then I saw Roberts under an outdoor shower on a concrete platform beside the deck which I had not previously noticed. He peeled off his wet-suit, stripping down to swimming briefs and vigorously washing off the seawater and sand from his legs and feet. He hung the suit on a hook beside the shower and washed the board down under the flow of water, propping it against the wall. He then removed his briefs and let the shower stream over his body parting the cheeks of his buttocks to allow the water to sluice between. It was an extraordinary, confronting scene. He must have known I was observing him only a short distance away, although he made no indication of such nor did he seem to care.
Roberts withdrew a key from his wetsuit pocket and headed for the door. I looked over to see Calisto sniffing with great concentration near one of the fence posts.
‘Wallaby’s,’ Roberts said. I turned to see he had opened the door and was facing me. Faced with his nakedness, I cast my eyes to the side. I didn’t feel any urgent necessity to be exposed to his manhood. He casually reached for the towel and wrapped it around his waist.
‘Pardon,’ I said.
‘Wallaby’s seem to like shitting and pissing near the back fence. Your dogs’ caught the scent.’
‘Oh, I see,’ I feel foolish. Not that I had any clear plan but at least some of his behaviour seemed to be at odds with the memory I had of him at the party. He chose that moment to lean against the door-frame, with that same blithe insolence he displayed on that occasion, only this time he is looking at me. After what seemed like minutes of frank and unblinking observation he made a decision and entered the house returned with two bottles of beer, placing one on the table and twisting the top off the other. He sat down on the daybed, not bothering to adjust the towel to conceal his genitals. He took a swig before gesturing towards the other bottle. I do have a fondness for the bottle and preferably the French variety, so beer doesn’t do a lot for me and wasn’t much of a persuader to join him so intimately on the deck.
What was clear to me is that I was the fall-guy for my own jape. For some reason, I expected a judge would take all of that under consideration and if he had, I would have been eternally grateful. Certainly my lawyer failed to see the logic and proceeded to assist the jury to convict me. What was I to do, I ask? In the hands of the law, intractable when it came to the subtleties of human frailty, I was merely a lamb awaiting due process. As I have said before, or maybe I’ve haven’t but I can’t be fucked going back to check. See, I’m using the reproductive expletive quite freely now, that’s what prison does to a man. Anyway, what I was going to say is that there are so many things that happen in our human interactions and we can’t be entirely responsible for all of them, surely.
‘Just fucking sit down, your so exhausting,’ Roberts said. I sat on the arm-chair furthest from the daybed, ‘do you want me to open it as well?’ he pointed to the beer.
I reached over, twisted off the top and sipped. I hadn’t had beer for a long time; I’d forgotten how bitter it is. Perhaps this turn of events had made it seem more so.
‘He seems to like the smell of Wallaby shit,’ he pointed towards Calisto still pacing up and down the back fence with his beer bottle and then took a long swig and placed it on the table empty.
‘Her names Calisto, it’s a she,’ I said. He shrugged and looked me over in the casual way I had become accustomed to, as a twitcher might, sighting a mildly interesting bird.
‘I wonder why it is we persist in referring automatically to animals as masculine?’ he said.
‘We live in a patriarchal society, perhaps it’s not so evident working at a school,’ I replied.
‘It most certainly is. When it comes to teenage boys, the suffragette movement may as well be an amusing fiction,’ he thought for a moment, ‘babies too.’
‘Babies, we tend to refer to small babies in the masculine. It’s hard to tell sometimes but we invariably do it, don’t we.’
‘Well, as I said…’
‘Yeah, I heard you,’ he stood up, ‘I have some white wine in the fridge, you clearly don’t think much of beer.’
‘Oh, well yes, that would be nice. As long as it’s not Riesling, I said.
‘Lovely,’ I said. He seemed to be in a state of perpetual passive-aggression, unfriendly and yet strangely continuing to be courteous. I stood up and followed him into the house. He opened the fridge and produced the bottle of wine but then stopped when he saw I had come in. I thought he wanted to say something but changing his mind, pulled a wine glass from a wall cabinet, poured and handed it to me.
‘I think it’s quite decent but you might be a better judge,’ Roberts said. He watched me as I took a sip after sloshing it around a little to test the nose.
‘Not bad,’ I said, although it was pretty ordinary; only the most tenuous association with oak and a rather nasty, flat finish. I smiled, which wasn’t reciprocated. Smiling was not something he did. He uncapped another beer and took a long draught. I looked around the room and thought, careful not to show any familiarity with the topography. My gaze fell on the strange painting on the opposite wall. We heard Calisto bound onto the deck and start sniffling but he knew better to come in uninvited.
‘I don’t like animals in the house.’
‘Sit Calisto,’ I said. She completed a couple of rotations, a brief sniff for good measure before settling herself in front of the open doorway.
‘I’m going to put some clothes on,’ Roberts said, leaving the living area and turning in the hall, walked towards his bedroom closing the door behind him. Calisto whimpered a little, looking at me rather soulfully; her tail started thumping on the decking.
‘I agree Calisto, he’s an odd fish alright, as cold as the day is long, my friend,’ I said quietly and more to myself. Calisto responded with banging his tail even more vigorously, an entirely appropriate response I thought. I looked in the cupboard and found a plastic bowl and filled it with water. I placed the bowl in front of her and looked up to see the escarpment now in full shadow. Evening was approaching.
I entered the house and walked straight up to the painting. It was even more mesmerizing in daylight. The colours were stronger; the mayor’s cloak was brighter, contrasting with the impenetrable black of the officer’s uniform. Roberts’s on the night of the party came to mind and I wondered if in choosing his suit, he’d been influenced by the picture. The sparkling white blobs reflecting the night sky on the lake looked somehow alien now. I could see the object on the water was a boat, perhaps a canoe, and within it a vague rendition of a hunched lone figure and though the night sky seemed to have washed its colour out, it was clearly white—like Roberts’s surfboard.
‘It’s a Doig.’
‘Jesus, you scared me,’ I said. Roberts was standing behind me, just a little to the rear. It was the closest physically, we had been. Even at the party, we were about a metre apart, but now it was close to 30 centimetres. In the sombre light of the moon leaking through the skylight, his tan looked even deeper, less youthful. His hair was combed back and still slick from the shower. He was dressed in light brown chinos and a white shirt which looked like it was made of silk, his feet were bare. His attention was focused on the painting; our close proximity not seeming to bother him. Despite the shower he had outside, the smell of the sea had a strong presence in the room.
‘Peter Doig, have you heard of him?
‘No. Hang-on yes, wasn’t one of his paintings sold for a phenomenal amount at auction,’ I said.
‘Yes, “The White Canoe”, over eleven million pounds,’ he graced me with a casual, vaguely offensive expression, almost a leer, ‘you know your art then.’
‘I have a passing interest,’ I said and turned my attention back to the painting.
‘Have you given any thought to what might happen next,’ he said.
‘You know, it’s very odd, a fascinating picture. Indeed, what are they going to do? Is the soldier going to draw his sword, has he been assigned to protect the dignitary beside him or is the dignitary there to supplement his military authority. He looks high-ranking. And, who or what are they looking at; is it us or something else. What are they doing beside a lake in a field of long grass, at night? The soldier looks alarmed, on the alert but the other fellow has a rather sarcastic, self-satisfied expression; don’t you think?’
‘I’ve spent a long time in front of this painting and have asked much the same questions. You misunderstand me, however,’ he put his hand on my shoulder with a little more pressure than necessary. It wasn’t companionable, more like authoritarian; something like, right boyo, ya nicked, kind of thing. I reached up to remove his hand but he let it slide off, a relief as I didn’t particularly want to touch him. I also stepped sideways, which meant we now stood side by side in much the same posture as the two gentlemen in the painting. The soldier stood slightly back from the mayor with his hand on the hilt of his sword, ready for whatever may come. We looked at them as they looked at us, while the room had been dropped into a silent well, the drear ghost of the skylight hovering above us. Even breathing had become an alien thing here; our suspended exhalations were that of those near to death, weak and shallow. Again I note the insolence of the mayor, counter-balancing the dangerous soldier, both with their green faces almost as if they have grown from the long green grass lurking at their knees.
‘You seem very different Mister Roberts—from the person I met at the party I mean, more capable, braver perhaps,’ I said. It seemed somehow appropriate to address my remark to the soldier in the painting. I felt the need to be an active participant in of whatever it was we were doing. Now, of course it would have been better not to have ever met Roberts. I almost certainly would not be languishing in jail with no prospect of release but it was something else, as if it was too painful to be separated from him, or was it from it? After all it was not necessarily the man himself; what I mean is I wasn’t ‘in love’. It was something more potent. I remembered Miriam talking about ‘it’ in regard to Roberts. There was something about him of course, but ‘it’ also included the space within which he existed. His house was part of some empirical and unique reality, his possessions orbiting around me like talisman, each one significant and enduring. Experiencing this strange, unwelcome, yet fluid atmosphere, made him appear to be something more, or other than human. At that moment, I had become confined and inflexible, trapped within a two dimensional prison, in concert with the painting, whereas he swirled and shuddered like a phantom.
‘You haven’t answered my question, what are you going to do now that you’re here. Are you going to threaten me with violence again, for instance,’ he said. I turned to see that he was also addressing the painting.
‘I honestly don’t know,’ I said.
‘You know what,’ he said, his attention still on the painting, ‘whatever it is you finally decide to do, it will never be enough.’
I left Roberts’s side with him still facing the painting, walked out onto the deck and with Calisto bounding down the footpath toward the car; I was home in less than 15 minutes.
I rarely dream or should I say I have no memory of them if I do, but that night I had a vivid nightmare. I woke crying out, drenched in sweat. Calisto barked from his old sleeping bag in the laundry. In the dream I was out walking, it was very dark and, the street was entirely foreign to me, some old part of Europe. I turned a corner and encountered a set of steps I had to take to get to a destination that was not clear to me. Out of the gloom a man appeared dressed in a bizarre uniform, more like a joke suit, from which a magician might pull a bunch of flowers. His long jacket had a military style insignia sown into it but I couldn’t properly see what it represented. The clothes looked ill-fitting with a crumpled top-hat casting a shadow across the persons face. Initially he towered over me on a higher step and as I attempted to walk up past him he blocked my path. He lifted his head to reveal Roberts’s handsome face disfigured by a cruel, sneering expression. His hand gripped the hilt of a dagger thrust into a thick leather belt at his midriff. I rose from the bed and let Calisto out of the laundry, he immediately started sniffing about the house, perhaps looking for my assailant.
I poured myself a glass of water and walked out into the back garden, followed by Calisto, who went off to find a shrub to pee on. As the perspiration started to cool on my forehead, I realised it must have been around 3 am and apart from the soft snuffling of Calisto, the neighbourhood harboured a lonely silence. The thin cloud that had gathered during the afternoon had all but disappeared, leaving a sky full of stars. I could not put a name to my disquiet at the sight of a dark sky pricked by the millions upon millions of tiny lights. I can tell you what Pynchon told me a year later, locked up tight in my cell, because I marked the spot in “Gravity’s Rainbow”.
“What are the stars but points in the body of God where we insert the healing
needles of our terror and longing?”
As I have mentioned, Miriam was due to return late Saturday afternoon. I woke with a case of acid reflux, an occasional issue which, of late, had become particularly disagreeable. By mid-morning it was worse, as if a stone had become lodged in my oesophagus. I am of reasonably robust health for a person of my build and age although it must be said I have started to develop a bit of a paunch. Miriam visited a gym 2 nights a week and Saturday mornings if she isn’t too hungover and regularly advises me about BMI’s, calories and a variety of other matters to tedious to recite. She was of the opinion, I might benefit from a good dose of Spirulina, whatever the hell that was – tincture of lark vomit, I shouldn’t wonder! All this earnest jumping about in gyms is just not my cup of hemlock. Nevertheless, to put a rare smile on her face I went to the gym once and found it an appalling experience. The place was an over-lit barn, full of equipment more suited to a 14th century torture chamber than a modern temple of health. The place was groaning with sweat lathered, overgrown obsessives getting nowhere riding rows of stationary bikes and cantering for miles on treadmill’s, all to the incessant and frightful screams of pop princesses piped throughout—a truly awful experience and needless to say, never repeated.
I made an appointment with the doctor and decided to walk to the shopping centre, in the hope I might gain some relief. I took my usual route beginning on a bush track close to the house. There was a detour to a high hill, topped by a relatively flat ridge and a lookout. Miriam informed me, one must include as many inclines as one can manage when out walking, and with this in mind I began to climb, huffing and puffing up several sets of rough stone steps. As I came closer to the summit I could hear someone singing. I reached the lookout to find a woman facing the sea with arms outstretched over the railing. Her voice was of not particularly tuneful quality and nor was the song in English, but it contained a clear element of sadness, a sort of mournful lament. She noticed my presence and turned briefly with a little smile and no interruption to her singing.
I realised I had seen her before. Like most towns we had our assortment of oddballs, ranging from vaguely peculiar to somewhat alarming. This woman fitted into the former category and I had not encountered her at such close proximity and certainly never heard her sing. I estimated she was around 60 years old. She had an unfashionable and unmanaged birds-nest of a hairstyle with child-like pigtails protruding stiffly either side of ears punctured with diverse mixture of small silver rings. Her costume—the best descriptive word for the ensemble—consisted of a long black dress ornamented with small red embroidered flowers on the bodice punctuated by puffy long sleeves. She was barefoot and I could see she had some sort of black leggings beneath the dress.
The lookout afforded a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and the beach-side hamlets, including Kalliot with the city resting in the distance, on its knobbly peninsular. The lighthouse on the headland could be seen clearly. I tried to pick out Roberts’s house, but where I thought it would be, was overshadowed by the high wooded slopes climbing the escarpment.
After a short while, the strange woman abruptly stopped singing and lowered her arms onto the railing. We exchanged a glance and again it struck me how child-like she seemed. She had despite the wrinkles marking her age, a sweetly coy expression playing on her face and when the song had come to an end, her smile was broad and uninhibited. She gave the impression of inordinate optimism and contentment, without inhibition or indeed, concerned about being alone in a secluded location with a stranger.
‘It is a black day to-day,’ she said. She spoke English with a strong eastern European accent. She must have picked up on my confusion in regard to her statement, ‘some days are blue, some yellow, tomorrow will be silver. To-day is a day of mourning—so I wear black,’ she said with a gentle smile. Her eyes were very bright and wide, seeming to be quite capable of perceiving what others may not.
‘Do you sing on the days of the other colours,’ I asked.
‘No, only black days, the silver day tomorrow. I am caressing all the silver cars of the town.’
‘I see, and the blue days?’
‘Is good—your questions are correct, blue days I read the books of library,’ at first I failed to understand this but then remembered the libraries exterior is painted blue.
‘Oh, okay,’ I said, ‘can you tell me about the song you were singing?’
‘Is hymn for parents, who are in heaven; but I sing to the sea also, because over the sea was my home, my beautiful Serbia. I left but I never return and I not see Mamitza…is ah…Mama, not see Mama again. Every day I miss her and Papa. On black days I go to sea and make a song—is like a prayer,’ she said. All the time she was smiling, as if it was not an occasion for sadness but one of great joy. I asked her name, ‘Mira—is mean world,’ she said turning back to the ocean and spreading her arms out.
I told her my name and said that I hoped we would meet again. Thanking her for telling me about the importance of the colours, I circled down into the sparsely populated valley, emerging on the main road leading to the shops. The doctor’s appointment was at 9am, and with a takeaway coffee from the café next door. I arrived at her surgery with time to spare and the peptic discomfit somewhat lessened; perhaps, I considered, as a result my encounter with Mira. Not a soul, except the receptionist was in sight, and I began perusing a Vogue from a neat stack beside my chair. Within minutes the receptionist called my name loudly, as if the waiting room was bustling with customers, and yet it was still just me, squirming cross-legged in a plastic chair in an otherwise empty room.
‘Hello Jan, rapid service today. I’d only just settled into an absorbing magazine story about some rich bastard’s ridiculous waterfront,’ I said. today I tried an air of insouciant affability in an effort to soften the brittle and barely hidden distaste, I invariably encountered from her.
‘How’re you feeling Eric?’ she said.
‘Terrific,’ I lied; my emotions were of only moderate proportions.
‘Then, why are you here? I have other patients.’
‘Actually, you don’t Jan as it happens, the waiting room depopulated when I came in here,’ I said with a winning smile.
‘Eric…Oh it doesn’t matter. Let me see what it was last time,’ she tapped her keyboard a few times and scrolled the long list of my ailments, both invented and actual, ‘your foot,’ she said.
‘I can testify to be being in receipt of two such appendages.’
‘You said you had a burning sensation in your right foot last time. How’s that going?’
‘Positively incendiary Jan,’ I said.
‘I think I might have an ulcer of some sort, another burning feeling actually, but this time it appears to have invaded my chest, originating, I believe, in my oesophagus; I have found myself chewing a lot of Rennie’s lately with little effect.’
Before I left, she provided me with a sample pack of a drug she called Somac plus a 3 month repeat prescription.
‘Are you attempting to get me into a more docile condition Jan. I believe this is the very same substance the ‘World State’ used to dull the senses in Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. It turned out however I’d had it wrong, because she knew her Huxley.
‘You are referring to Soma and not Somac, an effective treatment for Oesophageal Hernia, which I believe you have,’ she said. A somewhat arbitrary diagnosis if you asked me. However, she had revealed an interest in literature, so I was encouraged to grant her with more accreditation than the faded diplomas and certificates displayed above her desk, one of which was perpetually and sadly lopsided. Jan informed me, Somac was considered quite effective and to let her know after 6 months if it worked or not. Our interview was over, brief and decisive, further developing my impression she wanted to limit her time in my presence.
As I walked back home I was inclined to sympathy for the good doctor. It struck me that she, being a person of some refinement, was a victim of bitter disappointment, sadly ministering to hot feet and hernias. I imagined her closing the surgery for the day and fading into some dim room at the rear of the building, removing her lab coat and sensible shoes and settling down to a lonely night with the collected works of a long dead intellectual. Until now, the only sympathy I had for her manifested in a barely contained desire to reposition her errant diploma.
As it turned out, I have been taking Somac ever since, even now that I am incarcerated, and have not had an iota of rebellion from my upper gut, even with the atrocious cuisine served up to us in here. When I returned home that afternoon, I found Miriam standing in the lounge room and talking on the telephone. Her travelling case was lying on the floor beside her and she was crying.
‘That was Sylvia—its Zander, Eric—he died,’ she said, replacing the phone on its cradle. Why do we say sorry to the grieving when someone dies? He was an old man and he died. It’s not our fault, what are we sorry about, what do we mean by it?
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. If Miriam was a different sort of person, I might have suggested she sing to the sea.
It was Friday, the day before Zander’s funeral, and Miriam had taken the day off and driven into the city to talk to the funeral home director. No sooner had I seen Miriam off at the door I reopened it to find Steve on the threshold. Once again I had forgotten he was coming over to see to the Roses in the front garden and the edging around the paths. Miriam had left instructions for the lattice inserts on the rear fence needed mending. Some of it had pulled away from the framing. Frankly I like to have a bit of untidiness about the garden, nothing too grotty but I don’t mind if the grass had become excitable and grows an inch above the paving. After he fixed the lattice, Steve said the front hedge needed another haircut and I thought, why not, while he was there, I joked lamely that a perm might be nice for a change. I prepared lunch and we sat companionably together on the verandah. I had opened a rather fine bottle of Pinot Gris from southern Portugal and as ours was the last yard in need of his services that day, Steve was happy to partake in a couple of glasses.
‘Rats of the sky, those buggers,’ Steve said between a mouthful of a corned beef and pickle sandwich on Rye and a sip of the delightful Portuguese ambrosia. We had been watching the antics of a couple of Sulphur-crested Cockatoo’s, who for some reason thought it amusing to swoop down from a nearby tree and briefly alight on the verandah handrail, then shooting off to whence they came. There seemed no advantage to them in this activity.
‘Why on earth do they do that Steve,’ I said.
‘Buggered if I know mate; they’re a pain in the arse, I know that much—territorial probably.’
‘So we think of each other as a pest?’
‘Something like that I guess. ‘Spose I shouldn’t complain Eric, they keep me in work. They tear the shit out of handrails like yours. See that pitting on the surface?’
‘Yes, now that you mention it,’ I said.
‘They’ll completely destroy it, if you give ‘em half a chance.’
‘Oh, what can I do about that?’
Dunno—nothin’ really unless you want to shoot the fuckers.’ He took another mouth-full of wine, ‘good drop that,’ he said.
‘You know your wine, it’s a beauty alright,’ I said, ‘tell me Steve, do you know a Mister Roberts from Kalliot?’
‘Eric, this is Sylvia,’ Miriam said. A not very large group of people were gathered for Zanders funeral, perhaps 30. The proceedings had been scheduled for the Friday after his death, everything seemed to be happening on Fridays of late. Thus far my encounters with Roberts, for instance, were on Fridays. I was under the impression the deceased had not made a large mark on the world and I doubted there would have been many more mourners, if it had been held on Saturday. Most of them appeared to be quite old; one lady arriving on one of those scooters for the aged, out of which she was assisted, by an equally ancient gentleman. Zander had not published much of importance. I found one mention of a slim volume concerning Mary Shelley on the internet and tried to acquire it on kindle without success. I had never met any of them and I assumed I would not meet them to-day. We stood beside a notice board on the deck of the funeral home chapel. There was professionally produced large format Card on the board with a photograph of Zander in healthier times beneath which was the legend ‘In Loving Memory of Zander Volkov’ with the dates of his birth and death in small print below. I offered my hand to Sylvia and a warm, moist paw lay on it briefly and withdrew in a way I would describe as secretive, like a frightened skink. Small and pudgy, with hair that looked like it had a life of its own, writhing like wild snakes form her little round face. I couldn’t help but think of her as a bored and overweight Medea with the exception that rather than turning to stone on viewing her frightful visage, one merely turned away and forgot her completely, as if one had not seen a person at all. Apart from characteristic of her har, she was the most irrelevant looking person I had ever encountered, small and mild, existing like an unnecessary punctuation mark in a badly constructed sentence. The only thing I remembered about her from the party was her sour glance as I confronted Roberts, which for some reason, had clung to me like a damp shirt. Was it an admonition? If nothing else it was some form of disapproval. Perhaps she was angry because I had made a fuss, although she was one of very few out of perhaps 80 people in attendance that night, who noticed. Had she been observing me throughout the night. Had Miriam been talking about me ‘out of school’ so to speak, or was she the sort of person who studiously observed others while at pains to go about unobserved herself?
‘You knew Zander, Sylvia?’ I said. She looked at me as if surprised I had spoken at all.
‘It’s one of the things Miriam and I have in common. I also had Zander as my professor, although at an earlier time. He was a remarkable man,’ she said. She could have been saying the fish is good here. Her voice was quiet and dulled down, devoid of cadence but she also seemed to look at me as if we had shared something unpleasant, but attempting to feign indifference.
‘So I gather,’ I said, ‘I barely knew him, he was already a victim of dementia when I met him, or should I say, when I saw him,’ counterbalancing her insouciance with the bare facts, while also attempting a knowing indifference of my own—sometimes I can’t help myself.
Sylvia looked discomfited by this conversation and turned to join the black-clad mourners ambling through the doors of the chapel. This was not a church, but an attachment to the funeral home with an ecumenical nod to religion in the form of about ten rows of pews divided by an aisle, a slightly elevated dais and to the right, a plain lectern. One had to look closely to see the thoroughly inoffensive cross inlaid into the lectern in the same colour as the light coloured wood from which it had been constructed. The whole arrangement had the effect of apologetic sneakiness. Zander’s plain coffin was placed diagonally to the side and rear of the lectern, as if it was an afterthought.
‘Good grief!’ Miriam said.
‘What? What’s the matter,’ I said looking around for the source of her consternation.
‘What the hell is he doing here?’
‘The damn priest,’ she said with distaste. I followed the direction of her eyes and saw a man in front of the raised lectern at the front. He had a thick beard and was dressed in a black cassock and conical hat which looked like a chimney with a little roof on top. An enormous pectoral cross hung around his neck.
‘I thought you said Zander was Dutch,’ I said.
‘That get-up looks decidedly orthodox.’
‘His father was from Belarus and his mother was Polish, but by the time of his birth they had been living in Amsterdam for a couple of years, so I suppose he was Dutch. Apparently his father was a religious zealot,’ she said. She walked briskly to the front of the chapel with me in pursuit and sat down the front, next to Sylvia, who had already secured the pew as if it had been named after her. All the while Miriam glared at the priest, who seemed in perfectly affable conversation with a tall elderly gentleman. At one point he laughed at something the man said and then quickly regained his composure, no doubt remembering where he was.
‘It’s a funeral and he’s a priest,’ I whispered, hoping to be a practical modifier of my wife’s fury. To be perfectly honest I also had an interest in what might happen next.
‘I was under the distinct impression this was going to be an entirely secular event, Zander would have run several country miles to distance himself from any form of religious claptrap,’ she said.
‘Perhaps there are other influences afoot darling, I suspect the tall man talking to the priest may have some leverage in the proceedings. He might be a relative by the look of him.’
‘Not on my fucking watch Eric, Zander and I were best friends; we had history,’ she murmured, ‘it was my impression his one surviving brother, Peter, never came near him. A long deceased aunt was a reasonably regular visitor but apart from her, he seemed to be estranged from the lot of them. I never met Peter but I venture a guess that is him speaking to the priest; come to pick over Zanders bones, I warrant.’ I glanced over to the priest and the other elderly man.
‘You know, I think you’re right. There’s a family resemblance, don’t you think,’ I whispered.
‘I never saw them attend to him when he became ill,’ she said, ‘look at these people, who are they in their funeral suits and their downcast eyes; I never saw them and I don’t want to see them now.’ Sylvia reached over and patted Miriam’s hand briefly, an acidic grimace played on her thin lips. A sudden memory ruptured my interest in the proceedings, as I realised Sylvia was the woman I had seen on the beach with her surly husband and their dog, barely a week before. Sylvia was also a resident of Kalliot. I now recalled Miriam mentioned this detail, one evening when berating Roberts for one of his many misdemeanours. Sylvia recognized me and she probably knew who was gliding on his board so elegantly at the break that day.
A deathly pale-skinned but otherwise very attractive woman approached us, and leaned slightly over Miriam. She was dressed in a dark grey pant-suit and wore a pair of small, black rimmed spectacles with a lanyard of tiny black beads. Her red hair was bunched severely at the back of her head in a bun, high-lighting her delicate features. Her petite and pretty face was adorned with a faint gathering of freckles on a skin so pallid I thought any exposure to sunlight may prove fatal.
‘I am Susan, the celebrant, and I think you are Miriam Felt,’ she said with beneficent smile, ‘I believe you have a few words to say for Zander?’
‘Yes,’ Miriam said abruptly.
‘Apparently the cleric will say something after me, and so will Zander’s brother,’ Susan glanced over at the priest and the tall man, ‘can you speak then?’ She looked as if she was concerned for her safety, jittery and vaguely hysterical, ‘I’m new,’ she said apologetically.
‘Goodness Susan, you don’t look it; you must be at least 30,’ I said.
‘Eric!’ Miriam said, ‘don’t mind him, he can be an arse sometimes.’
‘I mean this is my first time, you’ll have to forgive me if make a mistake. I used to be in haberdashery,’ she smiled, ‘and I’m 39 actually, you erred in my favour Mr….’
‘Eric,’ I said. It’s Eric Felt to be clear. We won’t be making any fuss, now that we know you’re new though. Mistakes will be immediately forgiven and never mentioned in polite company.’ Miriam looked as if she might punch me; a not unprecedented occurrence.
‘Well, I thank you for that in advance and will endeavour to do my very best. It’s not just funeral’s, I also do marriages, naming’s, that sort of thing,’ she said, smiling and relaxing a little.
‘Yes, but what is the priest doing here?’ Miriam said. ‘Zander would…’
‘It was his brother Peter,’ we all glanced at the tall man talking to the priest. He looked uncomfortable and quite miserable. Susan continued, ‘he said the priest was there to support him, as much as to attend the funeral. The family must be deferred to Miriam in…in cases like this…,’ she said, her voice trailing off apologetically, ‘I know you and Zander were close, as you have said over the phone, but…,’ she started to look alarmed, as if Miriam’s militant atheism might be enough to cause actual bodily harm.
After Susan introduced the priest she moved to the rear of the stage, with her cadaverous hands clasped together demurely in front of her groin.
‘Our brother and friend Zander has gone to the angels and may he find peace in the bosom of Abraham.’ Here we go I thought; Miriam huffed audibly. The priest—looking utterly alien as if by some miracle he had been transplanted from some distant epoch to the 21st Century—spoke perfect English as only a second language English speaker can. He glanced at the coffin. ‘I would like to recite a poem by the Russian Poet and Statesman, Gavrila Derzhavin. The poem is called “On the Death of Prince Meshchersky” but I feel it is apt here,’ he moved away from the lectern and placed his cross on its long chain at the mid-section of the coffin.
Where once amusement, joy, and love
Shined all together with good health,
Now there the blood is freezing in our veins,
Our souls are plagued by grief.
Where once a feast was spread a coffin lies,
The place where festive singing rang
Now hears but graveside keening,
And pale death watches over all.
The priest returned to the lectern and looked around at us, seeming to make eye contact with all of us at once. He was clearly practised in this.
‘To explain a little: in days of old, the body was cleansed and laid upon the dining table, hence the reference to the feast. It is common these days to be in denial of death, to not think of it, to cloak it and contain the look of death, enclosing it within a locked box as though it has become an object to be feared, but death is the common link of all life. Death flows through us in all the days we live on this earth, death marks the days of our corporeality. When we laid a body upon the table we wanted to express the naturalness of death, to lay a dead person on the very table at which he acquired sustenance was to link him or her to their mortality. I was not uncommon for the body to lie like this for 3 days, a mimicry of the resurrection. Yes, the body began the process of decay, but then decay was nothing but second nature, it was not considered abhorrent as it is today, but another state of being which we were required to endure. Still now you can find congregants of the old church engage in a repast directly above the grave. Each mourner participates in filling the grave with soil until a table is brought and a cloth is laid along with the elements of a meal the deceased would enjoy; we wish him to join us or perhaps he can impart to us something of what heaven is.’
This speech gripped all of us seated in the chapel; we sat as fervent supplicants, wondering what else might happen. This description of the funeral rite was not something any of us could have expected but I think we were all grateful it was shared. I sensed even Miriam was momentarily captivated, despite our joint antipathy regarding religion. The priest lowered his head and recited something quietly in Russian, presumably a prayer, and left the dais to sit beside Zander’s brother. Susan reappeared out of the shadows like a ghost.
‘I think we can agree, regardless of our inclinations,’ she paused to brush a hand across her face, ‘we…we can each take these precious words away with us in the continuance of our own lives, and I thank the reverend on behalf of us all,’ she said. I pondered what my inclinations might be, something I was at variance with on a daily basis. Susan had assumed the speech and mannerisms of a frail maiden aunt, grateful for a bit of quality time with us and saddened by the knowledge it must all soon come to an end. ‘Zander’s brother, Peter, would like to say a few words’. With that she resumed her position, a blanched apparition at the rear of the stage.
‘I am going to make this brief for all our sakes, as I suspect nobody enjoys long rambling speeches, even eulogies. Unless, of course the speaker is hilarious; sadly, I am not such a person. I doubt anyone here knows me or perhaps even knew Zander had a brother. I was, in fact, his little brother. I was born when he was already well into his teens and now as you see, I am also an old man. Zander loved me as if I was his own child, actually sometimes I wondered if I might indeed be so. Of course I wasn’t but when one is very young, one has such fantasies. It is somewhat sad we grow out of them. Pablo Picasso said he had lived half his life to learn how to paint like a child again; if so, he was a lucky man. If only we could all, be so blessed.
He fumbled in his coat pocket and stopped to sip from a flask. He looked threadbare, his dark brown suit was too large for his thin frame and his tie was askew and patterned with yellow polka-dots, oddly out of place for the occasion. His shirt collar was discoloured and his shoes looked old, or more accurately, old fashioned; the sort you might buy in a second-hand clothing shop. He looked as if he might be taking a day off from being a poorly paid children’s clown. His hair fell lank to his shoulders and it appeared he had not shaved for several days.
‘This,’ he said, gesturing towards the coffin, ‘this is not what a man should become,’ the sense of this statement was at best, incidental; perhaps he’d made a mistake. He paused to look at the coffin; his sadness was a physical presence, folding over us like a shroud. He lowered his eyes to the floor. His mouth looked as if it was contorted by a silent scream constricted by his thin body, so that all he could do was resort to was an implosive trembling. I could feel it in the floorboards beneath my feet. Susan leaned her ghostly presence out from the shadows in a gesture of both fear and concern, but failed to venture any further. Her right hand rose slightly, a hint of support devoid of the intention of providing it. There was a long pause and we waited, we held our breath.
The theatricality of all this was worth the ticket of entry and I was pleased Miriam had asked me to come. When nothing more could be extracted from Peter, Miriam was called upon to speak, who merely looked at the nervous celebrant and shook her head to indicate she no longer wished to. This disappointed me, as I knew Miriam would have put on a terrific show, possibly scandalising both believers and secularists alike, but the head of outrage she’d built up had been spent among the unfolding debris of this Shakespearean tragedy.
The mourners gathered on the wide verandah attached to the Chapel. There were refreshments. Platters of cake and triangles of sandwiches in the shape of wilting ziggurats had been arranged on a trestle and one end small plates and cups were stacked beside urns for coffee and tea. Groups had formed near the urns and quiet, hesitant words were exchanged as they hovered passively like drugged insects for their turn at the hot ambrosia provided, to calm their frayed nerves.
Susan skittered at the boundaries of these accidental clusters like a rather frazzled queen bee exhorting them to help themselves to the food. Miriam began a conversation with a person she thought she recognised.
‘I’m Miriam, where have we met?’ she offered her hand while I stood a little to the rear in the manner of a Colonel’s batman; awaiting orders. The woman was tall and large-boned, probably in her early sixties. Her black attire was of good quality, although her dress looked like it had an alternative purpose to that of mourning: perhaps for evening cocktails. The reveal of her meaty cleavage, the colour of over-boiled silverside, was rather more than strictly necessary for the occasion. Her carefully coiffed hair surrounded a pinched face with a small mouth and a nose too short for her big head. All this punctuated by perpetually alarmed-looking eyes, glittering in a cretaceous web of wrinkles; a person, to be honest, with such a deficit of physical charms to cause a small child to cry out in terror. Fortunately there were none in attendance.
‘It’s Doris,’ she said, shaking hands with Miriam, nodding at me with a stern appraisal from top to toe, as if the legitimacy of my attendance might be under suspicion. Her voice was deep, a low contralto, and she spoke as if every word she uttered was of great significance.
‘I believe we met years ago, at a drinks party at Zander’s and I think we have run into each other from to time since, but have been unable to quite understand the nature of our acquaintance. I’m School of History at the Uni, assistant Dean. One day they will see the writing on the wall and get rid of Bottomley, the current Dean, who is an absolute clown, and give his bloody job to me. The last paper he wrote looked like a poorly researched shopping list,’ she said, making the statement as if it was a foregone conclusion, and for which she would brook no challenge. She ended her rapid delivery with a low explosion I assumed was her version of a laugh. I found her instantly repellent.
‘Oh yes the party, now I remember,’ Miriam said.
‘What an extraordinary scene it was in there,’ Doris said, gesturing towards the chapel door, ‘I had no idea Zander even had a brother, had you? And Christ Almighty, that priest! I was quite expecting Nosferatu to make an appearance?’
‘Ha! It was odd, wasn’t it; yet strangely moving don’t you think’ Miriam said, who was having an outstanding go at self-restraint.
‘I suppose; if you go in for that sort of thing. Aren’t you Principal at Seaview Ladies College?’ Doris said,
‘Lovely. Hey isn’t Roberts—I mean doesn’t he work with you?’
‘Yes, one of my deputies, you know him? Miriam said.
‘I taught the fellow, he was in his twenties then; brilliant student but strange, to say the least.’
‘How so?’ I asked, unable to control myself. She cast her fearful eyes once more over me, ‘I’m Miriam’s husband by the way, Eric,’ I decided against offering my hand, suspecting it would be ignored.
‘I see, well there are a number of occasions but one in particular comes to mind. Up until then I had the strong impression he was gay, which is fine by me but he got a fellow student up the duff—perhaps he was batting for the other side to see what it was like and as you know Miriam, he’s very good looking,’ she actually winked conspiratorially at my wife; a literally terrifying act from this woman. ‘His behaviour in regard to the girl’s dilemma can only be described as sociopathic. He completely ignored her once he heard the happy news and her religious beliefs were such that she wouldn’t countenance termination. I mean she was a silly girl but he just laughed in her face and told her he couldn’t care less.’
So, she had the child,’ I said.
‘Yes but not before her furious father came to the university and confronted Roberts, demanding he take some responsibility. Roberts told him to get fucked, prompting the father to launch an attack right there in the university quadrangle. The man took a swing which Roberts easily dodged and as he tried to recover, Roberts grabbed him by his shirt-front with one hand and punched him hard in the face with the other. The father dropped to the ground and didn’t get up. There was a lot of blood. All the time Roberts behaved as if he thought the incident was extremely amusing. He just looked down at the man and rubbing his hand, said “look what you’ve made me do, you old idiot,” and walked off laughing.
‘Good grief,’ Miriam said.
‘Yes, indeed,’ Doris replied, ‘grief all round as it turned out. Roberts was charged with assault but eventually, they were dropped because there were witnesses to say the father threw the first punch. It was all very messy and a bit of a scandal for the university but somehow Roberts remained on while the girl left without her degree and a bun in the oven; all very sordid. I can only hope, for your sake, he has changed his ways.
Suddenly, Susan appeared at our side. Zander’s brother, Peter, dawdled behind her. His hands were in his trouser pockets and his head was bowed as if some troublesome conundrum had appeared at his feet, requiring deep contemplation. I followed his eyes, fine splatters of green, white and red paint were on his shoes.
‘Miriam, I’d like to introduce Peter Volkov,’ Susan said.
‘I was just saying how we had no inkling of your existence,’ Doris said.
‘Not entirely correct Doris. I have had correspondence with Peter’, Miriam said.
‘Really!’ Doris responded. It is my understanding it’s not de rigueur, apparently, to overuse the exclamation mark but there is no better way of indicating the annoying behaviour of this individual.
‘This is almost certainly the worst thing I should be doing right now,’ Peter said. It was 5 o’clock on the same day. We had managed to disentangle ourselves from the dreadful Doris, Miriam saying she had personal issue to discuss with Peter. Doris looked at her askance, as if she had said something profoundly ridiculous. To be honest I was a little peeved as I had intended to prompt Doris in regard to any other aspects of Roberts’s university life she might like to reveal. We had wandered into a city bistro, a bottle of very decent South African Cab-Sav having just been delivered to our table. I was familiar with it, a Nederburg 2014, a quaffer but a winner in my book with its lovely ruby colour, earthy tones and full-bodied tannins.
‘What happened to the priest?’ Miriam said.
‘Vadim had to leave. He was hoping to be home by nightfall, it’s a long trip back,’ he said. Nosferatu came to mind. ‘I have to go and see to Zanders property, sort out the sale of the house and the rest,’ he paused, ‘look; I know Zander was an atheist.
‘Oh, well we—,’ Miriam began to speak.
‘Why do you think that,’ I said, thinking I might get
a perfectly realised answer.
‘Vadim has helped me a lot over the years, more of a friend really,’ we followed his gaze out the window. Several people were waiting at the bus-stop to catch the community shuttle, others walked briskly along the footpath both sides of the street as a wind picked up. Everybody was noticing the subtle changes in the weather pulling their thin summer coats close. He didn’t recognise anything of the circumstances.
‘I have to admit, his sermon was unexpected, but it was also poignant,’ Miriam said.
‘He is an unusual man, we have a small orthodox congregation and he is much appreciated; more of a philosopher really and even subversive at times,’ Peter said with a quick smile, the first I had seen him offer.
‘What you said, Peter, it…well, it surprised me. Zander rarely spoke about his family and I only met your aunt briefly many years ago. When I asked him he wouldn’t talk about you, apart from the fact of your existence,’ Miriam said, ‘it seemed a tricky subject, so I didn’t press him on it.’
‘Yes, we had a falling out which we never repaired. It wasn’t for want of trying on my part. Our estrangement was very difficult for me but he refused to relent,’ he seemed to search our faces in his reticent way. ‘You are wondering why, of course. It’s because my father murdered our mother. He had already left home by then but he believed I could have prevented it.
‘That sounds like an extremely unreasonable expectation. How old were you,’ Miriam said.
‘15,’ Peter replied. He looked down at his hands, his long fingers were spread out on the table, as though for inspection, he shrugged and took a mouthful of wine, ‘that’s very good Eric,’ he said.
‘Why did your father murder your mother?’ I said.
‘Though it hadn’t always been so, she had learned to despised him. With good reason, he was deeply disturbed, despite his religious devotion, or perhaps because of it. She showed her disapproval one too many times one night, when he came home drunk. He took a kitchen knife and stabbed her 14 times until she stopped struggling and died. I did try to stop him, I tried to pull him off but his fury had afforded him super-human strength, he merely swatted me off as if I was an annoying insect. When he had finished with my mother he turned towards me, he looked like a mad beast, drenched in blood, it was dripping off his beard and welled in the creases of his eyelids. I still have nightmares about that moment. He came after me but I ran away. I was quite athletic, running was my thing and I continued to do it for years to come. On that night, however, I ended up at a friend’s house across town and his parents contacted the police.’
‘What happened to him,’ I said.
‘He went and threw himself off The Gap at Watson’s Bay, which wasn’t that far from where we lived in Dover Heights. A witness said, he just climbed over the barrier, fell on his knees and reached his arms up, curling his hands. She said he looked like he wanted to pull something out of the sky. He then toppled over the edge and smashed against the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. The witness said it was enough to stop her from jumping off.’
‘I never returned the house and Zander never uttered another word to me. I went to live with our aunt. I changed schools, I even wanted to change my name but my aunt wouldn’t let me, saying it wouldn’t make any difference. My aunt’s greatest gift to me was teaching me to think carefully.’ The streetlights flickered on some time before. The rush of homeward bound pedestrians, were replaced by the strolling of Saturday night crowds, opening restaurant doors, red-faced inside little walk-up bars. Some rain fell on the busy streets. People moved through the slick light like mirages. Time seemed to have slowed inside the bistro, as we listened to Peter.
‘My father wasn’t evil. He was tormented by terrible memories. The Soviet Union was not a good place to be when he was growing up under Stalin. Vladimir Putin has a lot in common with Stalin, they both started out as street thugs. Stalin’s first act of violence was to rob a bank in Tilfis, during which 40 people were killed. Prior to Glasnost, Putin worked as a heavy for the KGB. Many violent acts on the streets of St. Petersburg, or Leningrad, as it was called then, can be traced back to him. To be fair, he did eventually graduate with a law degree from the state university, but he has blood on his hands.
I was wondering what this has to do with anything, when a platter of food is placed on the table, it was anti-pasti I only half remembered I’d ordered it. I could be certain Miriam wouldn’t have, she ate like a small bird and rarely ordered food on any occasion, eating was chore for her, whereas drinking seemed a necessity. I think she was a high-functioning alcoholic and she couldn’t care less about the provenance—it could be a syrupy alcopop from the dismally stocked local bottlo or a 1998 Grenache from Bourdeaux.
We dropped the quite drunk Peter off at Zander’s house. A second and third bottle had arrived at the table during the course of the evening and I was saddened to not have an opportunity to drink more of it myself, but someone had to drive home. He stood swaying at the front gate in his ill-fitting, second-hand clothes; Zander’s white cottage ghostly in the moonlight. He seemed reluctant to go any further as we drove off, Miriam lolling beside me, riding the bends with unintended exaggeration. She placed her hand on my thigh to steady herself, I did detect affection as well.
‘He’s intense, isn’t he?’ I said.
‘Shy, I would say,’ Miriam replied.
‘Intensely shy,’ I responded and then we didn’t speak for a while. I thought about the noise the car made on the road, rubber on bitumen is loud. ‘Did you know he was an artist?’
‘No, but now, in retrospect it’s unsurprising, don’t you think?’
‘Artists are just otherworldly somehow; they’re a different species than us,’ she said, ‘they feel with such nervous potency.’
‘Art is for lonely people, I often think.’
‘What.’ Sometimes Miriam alarmed me, I used to think she might be batty, then she pulled off the principal’s job and it’s obvious, you can’t have a demented person running a school.
‘We haven’t got art in our lives, Eric. We could have if we wanted it. I’m sad about that now…after to talking to Peter. I mean we have books and music, we have the wretchedly sad Kazak wall-hanging, a decoration we mostly ignore but what does that mean, do we think we don’t need visual cues; we just keep doing what it is we do? Art is like humanities punctuation marks,’ she said, ‘it’s like explaining the world to the blind.’ Roberts’s painting of the two odd men in the field, was it a punctuation mark, a full-stop for instance, followed by a paragraph or even a new chapter, a meditative moment of pause. Or was it just the end of the story.
‘Generally speaking, I suspect artists are not very nice people, they need to be terribly self-obsessed to work,’ I said.
‘There is that,’ she nodded.
‘Do you think Peter’s gay?’ I said.
‘Wait. Why did you say that? Did I miss something?
‘I think he’s gay,’ I said.
‘Does it matter very much, I mean, at all,’ I could feel her gaze on me, captured by it, while she searched for latent prejudice probably. She had a thing about gaydom; the way she talked about girls at the school, I thought perhaps it was an incubator for lesbians.
‘What makes you think that, I never thought that for a minute,’ she said.
‘I have advanced gaydar,’ I said, ‘I can just tell.’
‘You worry me sometimes Eric—well, a lot of the time actually,’ she said giggling like a drunk.
‘It’s the little things, a series of tiny gestures, adding up to the bigger picture,’ I said thoughtfully, ‘perhaps Vadim is his special friend.’
‘Jesus Christ, he’s a fucking priest!’
‘Orthodox, they’re not celibate you know.’ I could feel her thinking, as if it was something I could touch. I started to get an erection.
‘No I didn’t know but it’s interesting, because I did think Vadim had a bit of gay about him.’
‘Well then, there you go,’ I said.
‘I think you’re right, Peter should move into Zanders house,’ she said, ‘when you said that, he went a bit about green about the gills, didn’t you think? Maybe too much for him to think about at the moment, but I think you’re right—he should.’
‘I like Peter,’ I said.
‘So do I. He seemed only marginally self-obsessed.’
‘Hard to pull off self-obsession in that get-up, I have to say. The fellow needs to see a tailor urgently.
‘Peter and Vadim could live together in Zanders house, that’d be nice,’ she said.
Driving along the escarpment at night was always such a menacing experience for me. I didn’t like its low hills, indeterminate paddocks of scrub and murmuring grasses that seemed to go on forever. Then there were the interspersing caverns of the freeway, like driving through an open-cut mine; high-speed wounds slashed cruelly across the temples of the landscape. On this night, slow cold mists crawled out from the distant mountains, melding with the warm breath of the ocean beneath. This was what happened there every autumn. Soon rain will fall like billions of bright needles, lancing the bulging dried up cracks of dead creeks. Silhouettes of gnarly Ti-trees leaned precariously off the edge of the escarpment misshaped year upon year, by the fury of the south winds.
When we arrived home, Miriam straddled me on the sofa and holding onto the rod supporting the Kazak bridal heirloom, fucked me hard, crying all the time for Zander and, I suspected, for Peter. When she came, she yelled angrily at the heirloom and Calisto whinnied like wounded horse in the laundry. I concentrated on my timing.
I continued to obsess about Roberts and his possessions. Also, I was more than a little curious about the identity of the man in the photo. Who was he, clearly a significant other, but to what degree. There was no family resemblance at all, so I discounted the possibility of him being Roberts’s brother; besides the pose and expressions on their faces seemed to indicate an intimacy incompatible with familial relations.
An incident occurred the week following Zanders funeral. Occasionally Miriam caught the train to work and I would drive down to meet for dinner at one of the restaurants in the city. We had a favourite, offering authentic Catalan cuisine. Miriam said she wanted to tidy up some loose ends and she would meet me at the Rendezvous wine bar, near the restaurant. As it happened, I had a shipment of Marguax arrive that day and decided to surprise her by picking her up from work and cracking a bottle over dinner. I would drink one glass, as I was driving and knew Miriam would gladly polish off the rest.
I had arrived early, despite a pre-arranged pick-up at 7pm; the traffic to the city was light and by the time I had turned into the school driveway I had a 15 minute wait. I parked at the rear of the carpark with a view of the building and of Miriam’s office situated on the ground floor. The entrance to the admin block is via a small garden, through which a path, consisting of a series of large flag stones, ran to the carpark. A lamp situated above the windows illuminated the garden. The stone path could not be seen from my position, as around the perimeter of the garden was a gathering of low shrubs. I could see her light on but not her; I knew she would be seated at her desk out of sight. There was one other car parked close to the entrance and directly in front of the flagstones. It was already dark, so I couldn’t distinguish what make it was but it was low and European looking. There was a single light on in one of the rooms on the second level of the building.
After a few minutes I saw Miriam approach the window and look out into the carpark and simultaneously another figure of a man emerged from the gloom of the first floor. He stood looking down at the garden. She gave no sign she had seen the car. Before I could flash the car lights on and off she had moved away and then I saw flapping of her coat and a hand emerging from one of the armholes, while the rest of her body was out of sight. The light in her office went off and seconds later she materialised through the electronic sliding door, proceeding to walk along the path towards the carpark. Then she disappeared. It was as if she had been swallowed by a sink-hole in the garden. I wondered whether my eyes were playing tricks on me in the dark, I got out of the car and stood beside it. I looked for her reappearance on the tarmac of the carpark, when I heard her crying out for help. I ran the length of the tarmac and gaining the entrance to the garden I found Miriam sprawled on the path, crying in pain and swearing blue murder.
‘Miriam, what happened,’ I yelled, running up and kneeling down beside her, she was twisting in agony, ‘Miriam, talk to me.’
‘I twisted—my—fucking—ankle, oh shit,’ she cried loudly in pain as she tried to raise herself up. I looked at her feet and the left one was skewed at an angle. Straight away it was obvious it was more serious than a sprained ankle. She kept punching the ground with her right boot. She was clearly in terrible agony and quickly submerging into shock; even in the moonlight her face took on the pallor of death. When I cradled her head in my hand, I felt what could only be blood, dripping through my fingers. I dialled 000 on my phone and looked around, wondering what I might do to alleviate her suffering. That’s when I remembered and looked up to the first floor and saw Roberts looking down at us. Even with the light behind him, the now familiar arrogance of his posture gave him away. He was merely leaning against the window screen looking at us as if he had come across a vaguely interesting curiosity and would at any minute be distracted by more important matters.
There were a few ways the rest of this story could have gone. It seems inevitable now that it was a foregone conclusion, Roberts was not going to end up still breathing, this conclusion ultimately settling on the occasion of Miriam’s accident in the faculty carpark. Did he know it? Sometimes I think he did, but how could he, was it some secret knowledge prevailing above all else. Sometimes I think he was leading me back into a long forgotten chasm of desire. Roberts coaxed me in because he knew what I was, he knew me as if he saw me when he looked in the mirror. Many times, even now, I see him when I shave. Perhaps it was not so much that we were interchangeable but there was a presence, a sense of him there, always lurking in the shadows behind me.
At night I lay on my narrow bed remembering my town on the wooded hills above the ocean, of the great gums that swayed in the valley below our house, the earthy cent of banksia’s when their seeds pop like the open mouths of crying children. There was a daisy Miriam cultivated about the garden and Steve fashioned into neat clumps like royal jewelled crowns amongst the rockeries. Sometimes I even miss the raucous screams of the crested cockatoos. Of course it is not always beautiful and perfect when you live close to the bush. How can it be when it is so vulnerable to the elements? Once there was a fire that raged across the national park on our western side and cut a path, like the slash of a giant’s bright sword through the landscape. For many months after, the colours of forests and pristine valleys were transformed into a monotonic hell of ash and blackened stumps as far as the eye could see. Eventually, however, shoots began to take hold and the timbers restored.
The Theseus’s Paradox popped into my head—how many timbers, sails, masts of a ship can be replaced before it is no longer the original ship. Somehow this seemed pertinent to me. To what degree am I the same person I after became entangled with Roberts? If you looked at the repaired forest, you could identify it as being reborn from the original, but how much could it be destroyed before it no longer resembled the original forest. The geology and geography of the place forms the contours on which the forest grows, but there must be many factors that make replication impossible—the habitats of the animals, for instance; the presence of the animals themselves, the shape of the new trees and other plants, even the chemistry of the ash laden streams in the blackened valleys. This could be a sad paradox of a human need for constancy or it could be the flow of nature, happily dependent on transfiguration. Even before Roberts, whenever I passed through those suffering valleys and cresting the seared ridges, I wondered where it would end, when I could be identified as an entirely different person.
One spring, Miriam and I watched a bird the colour of midnight build its spindly bower of twigs in a shady corner our garden, carefully placing an alluring trail of precious blue artefacts at its entrance. The tawny mate, with studied curiosity inspected each pretty blue gift before relinquishing her innocence to the dark presence within. I miss also, talking to Steve with the sweet aroma of cut grass floating in the soft breezes of summer afternoons. I know I am a cold man of nebulous presentiments but often in these endless days of confinement, I have thoughts that belie the foulness of my heart, though it does me no good at all. Mostly though, for all my sins, I miss Miriam.
One can achieve a favourable outcome no matter what your circumstance; it being a matter of personal disposition in my opinion. Of course, if you are in a tight spot being healthy doesn’t hurt. When I am locked in my cell at night, I do a series of exercises tailored to the limited space. Sit-ups, for instance, are good and some of the more restrained examples of callisthenics; that jumping around, helicoptering caper is not recommended in here. I have recently lost a cell-mate to freedom and am awaiting with some trepidation his replacement, whoever he may be but at least for the present I have a bit of extra space. It is my experience there are a great many slovenly people in a state of advanced bodily decline within the criminal classes. You will often see tattooed and pumped up, ultra-violent gym jockeys on TV and Movies about prison life, but they are a very small minority of the prison population, in reality keeping to themselves and remaining, mostly quite harmless. They look scary sometimes but anybody would look like that, lifting 40 kilo dumb-bells. The real menace, are those stubbly pale-faced, halitosis laden mouth breathers plunging their enormous girth and height through the common areas with sly and arrogant intimidation. One such person resides in our prison.
Karl, my late associate, lived in visceral fear of Bruce, a great barrel of a creature and the principal purveyor of drugs in the prison. Karl told me Bruce was caught red-handed with a pantech laden with tins of pickled Jalapeno’s. Why is this, an arrestable offence, I hear you ask, and the answer is, 100 grams of carefully wrapped heroin had been included in each can. Karl announced with some sadness, the haul would have fetched a cool 20 million smackers on the street. I have it on good authority Bruce would like to see me bleed a bit, if not a lot. The big man thinks I’m a smartarse cunt and apparently this is cause enough to make me deserving of some biff. I suspect it might have something to do with the completely unfounded view I was in some way, culpable in the demise of both Karl and a creditable source of Bruce’s cash-flow. I am afforded a degree of protection from Reggie, a violent man who for reasons escaping me, has taken a shine to me and my fellow compatriots, although he has made mention of his desire to remove the librarians trouser snake and feed it to the rats. I fear the time is approaching when a confrontation, possibly involving a shiv, must be endured and I am uncertain how I might fair. By the way, for those who are unaware a ‘shiv’ is a prison artefact made of narrow found objects and fashioned in such a way as to relieve oneself of ones organs, when plunged into ones abdomen.
Before my incarceration and after the death of my first wife I took to travelling. A habit of mine was to bring home some hand-crafted and intimate memento from each place I visited. Among them were a quite old American-Indian figurine I picked up in Sonoma, California and from a venerable collection in Tahiti, the carved wooden figures of a man and a woman, although I have to say this delightful little couple came via a nocturnal and shady deal in a dirty lane of old Papeete. I found the most prized example of this small obsession on the streets of Barcelona. It was secreted in a tiny antique shop called just that, ‘La Pequeña Tienda Curiosa’. No furniture or anything larger than the inevitable Tiffany lamp adorned its shelves. I cursorily perused the varied items beneath a glass case and was about to leave when something caught my eye. Hundreds of small items resided there, ranging from gold and silver jewellery to delicate porcelain figurines. Tucked to one side and a little hard to see in the dank lighting of the shop, was a pen-knife, quite old and looking somewhat neglected. I had never owned such an item when I was boy, and immediately knew this would be the Barcelona addition to my collection.
‘Ese allí,’ I pointed to the knife.
‘Si,’ the shopkeeper growled and removed the item from the case, placed it on top and pushed it furtively towards me. He was a little old man with a rather unpleasant goitre on his neck, which may have contributed to his guttural pronunciation. I’d been in enough of these glittering dens to know they were inhabited by cutpurses and shysters, who’d relieve of your hard earned readies, before you blinked. I was making quite a decent effort, however, to ignore the little monster.
Even though it disported a layer of grime on its bone handle and the blade looked in need of a scrub, I had the immediate impression the object was unique, certainly hand-made by an artisan cutler.
‘Se hace del cuerno de un toro,’ he said it was made from the horn of a bull, ‘este toro murió en la arena de Ronda,’ the bull died in the arena at Ronda, a ridiculous lie with more holes in it than a dead matadors tunic. Although one could never be sure with these old swindlers. I pulled the blade out, the hinge functioned with ease and resembled to a degree a barber’s straight razor. The shape, when extended was elegantly turned down at the back of the brass tipped handle for ease of grip, then curved up at the end of its steel blade, like a tiny scimitar. The blade was very sharp. If it had ever been used, the purpose would certainly have been brief and doubtless effective. There was only one use for such an implement.
At around 75 centimetres when closed, it fitted neatly within the bone and brass handle, concealing in the hand with ease. I would pay a lot for this exquisite object, but very much doubted the shopkeeper’s awareness of its true value. He had 20 euros on it and I offered him 10, knowing it was probably worth several 100 if not much more. From the tiny but elaborate cuneiform markings on its brass extremities, I couldn’t be sure, but I’d wager the knife was many hundreds of years old. Forget the Ronda nonsense, the artefact could very possibly be dated back to the Moorish occupation and the handle might have been bovine but I’d hazard a guess at goat. The fact that it had a rare retractable mechanism, made it doubly valuable. Regardless of its provenance, I wasn’t leaving the shop without it.
I barely curtailed my desire to lance the old cretin’s goitre with it but as it happened, within minutes I was strolling happily along Las Ramblas with the weapon snuggly pocketed and my wallet light by a mere 15 euros. I tidied it up with great care and had, up until my arrest, never felt comfortable without it being in close proximity.
I learnt at dinner time, Bruce the Bull— as I have been led to believe is his official title—was after me. Seated at a table with Raj, an assaulter and batterer by the name of Reggie the fist, Fisher and the ghastly librarian—who everybody referred to as ‘The Pope’ and most of the population steadfastly refuse to acknowledge as even a human being—and myself were present. I was pushing around the congealed mess on my plate, giving some serious thought as to exactly what it was I had in front of me, was it the raw entrails of a long dead Mackerel?
‘Hey Eric, the Bull told Obeid your arse is grass mate,’ Reggie said between mouthfuls. Reggie had an all-consuming appetite and ate everything placed in front of him as if it was his last meal, which given the state of the comestibles here, was not an irrational assertion. He said once, he regularly needed worming, at which point I sang ‘The Internationale’ to myself in an attempt to run interference on whatever else he proceeded say on the matter. I’d just learnt to sing it in French, only to myself, of course, as I didn’t want to appear completely mad, which in here could be a blessing or indicate a vulnerability, you may not want broadcast. In any case every inmate has their own way of currying favour with the minutes, the hours and long months and fathomless years, uninterrupted by freedom—a resource somewhat scarce around here.
‘Men do not know how that which is drawn in different directions harmonises with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and the lyre,’ Raj said.
‘What-da-fuck man,’ Reggie replied.
‘Heraclitus, my friend, a noble and wise Greek from the 5th Century BC, Raj said and continued, ‘he also said “The path up and down are one and the same.”’
‘Jesus Christ in a bucket, I reckon me burglar mate Spiros, whose a Greek from this century, might have something to say about that china plate. ‘His path up to the high-life on stolen shit, weren’t the same as ‘is path down ‘cause he’s now up for a 5 – 10 stretch,’ Reggie said. All I could think of about this exchange, was why Jesus Christ might be found in a bucket. Reggie also said that fucker’s crazy as a pork chop, referring to Raj one morning when we were side by side in the showers. He’d just had an earful of Raj regurgitating Gurdjieff; going on to say that I was gunna make a Fourth Way via his fucking navel if he didn’t shut-da-fuck up. You know, reader I have some capacity for observation and frankness, so you will forgive me when I say Reggie has a very large penis. For a short and wiry pugilist, it was immensely surprising. One of the things I had to adjust to when I entered this place was to forsake modesty in all its forms. While I tried to keep my eyes averted when in the showers and assume nonchalance in regard to my own nakedness, this delicacy was redundant in the case of Reggie’s genitalia. His penis was of such a scale, he was renowned throughout the prison for it. New guards were posted to shower duty, so that they may fully appreciate his below stairs attributes. Reggie himself, to his credit, couldn’t have cared less, he wasn’t particularly proud of his congenitally abnormal apparatus, saying with no small regret, it scared the ladies off , but was willing, for sign-tific purposes to display it, if asked, so long as there was no faggot implications to the enquiry. Anyway, in regard to other aspects of this surprising man, I couldn’t for the life of me, understand why the humble pork chop, could be construed as anything other than perfectly reasonable.
‘The Greeks aren’t to my taste, I have to say,’ Pope said with a wistful smile.
‘Yeah and we all know what your tastes are, fucking rock-spider,’ Reggie mumbled with unleavened distaste. As you can see the meal-time banter is of a calibre befitting the victuals.
‘Why?’ I said in an attempt to regain some continuity to the narrative. They all turned their somewhat bemused attention to me.
‘Pardon?’ Raj said.
‘Why is The Bull after me?’
‘Jest don’t like ya, he don’t need much excuse for that mate, its jest his way,’ Reggie said popping what looked like a fish eyeball into his mouth.
‘It’s because of Karl. Bruce believes you might have had something to do him losing a good paying customer,’ The Pope said, confirming my suspicions. A guard approached our table.
‘Fisher, warden wants to see ya,’
‘What for?’ Reggie said.
‘Dunno, just get-the-fuck up and follow me before I fucking give ya kidney’s something to think about,’ the guard said. He placed his hand on the hilt of his baton for emphasis. Menacing guards were par for the course, always living entirely up to our expectations. Their casual evil left a bitter miasma in the atmosphere, wherever they roamed; often providing pause for us to wonder, who exactly were the bad guys. I guess we were just all in it together. Perhaps it was a valid response, to have society’s vermin controlled by toxic psychopaths. Reggie pushed his plate away and stood up with as much insolence he thought he could get away with, and still remain in receipt of acceptable kidney function. After they left, we all looked at each other.
‘I wonder what that’s about,’ The Pope said.
‘Mind if I sit here fella’s?’
…..to be continued