Fiction • Edward McWhinney
I’m in a room with white adobe walls. There’s a lemon tree in the yard standing in a shallow circular well filled with stones from a beach. It’s my fifth birthday. In the pictorial book I received as a present I follow the dreamlike flow of a strange yet familiar town, a bustling everyday world, people shopping and talking, men delivering to every kind of business, shopping malls and arcades, there’s the postman and traffic cop, dogs and cats and vehicles of all shapes and sizes, a beautiful yellow van with green slogans on the side that would take me out of town along a dusty road to huertas by the railway line, past vineyards and olive groves to the beach from whence the stones for the shallow well came, to half a century farther along, a similar van only red and without words, another country, my own native land, days when I took a drive down the harbor, driving too fast or too slow, never the happy medium, one day rolling along nice and easy, the narrow, winding road by the ferry, a constant flow of traffic against us, cars, lorries, buses, tractors, sulkies, and I drove so slow I soon had a long line of vehicles behind. In the rearview mirror I could see the agitation on the face of a solitary driver, a young male with a nest of wasps in his pants, his mouth moving with rage, his hands banging on the steering wheel. I pulled in at the ferry, considering I had tortured him enough. He put his boot down and raced ahead into the bend at speed with a fist raised in my direction and fire spouting from his eyes. The key phenomenon of road rage in our society has to be seen as a vector in the relationship between advertising and repressed urges, I read somewhere, I forget where. I looked at the cars loading and unloading on and off the ferry. I saw the anxiety of drivers wrestling with time, late for work or an appointment, consumed to the core by worldly affairs. Then I saw an old fellow strolling along past the bus shelter, hands behind his back, no hurry on him. He paused before the crossing and, leaning on the wall, spat into the water, and something I’d read about Franz Kafka spitting from a balcony onto the street came to mind. For some reason, at the time of reading, it struck me as a surprise, I don’t know why, as if such an action was too much out of character for Kafka. Franz Kafka would not expectorate from a balcony onto the street. A little farther along from where Kafka hawked his sputum into the water I paused to watch workmen in yellow jackets and blue helmets cutting up a fallen tree to clear the road. They made fury with chain saws. The fresh greeny-white timber flew up around them with sparks. I found myself in a small town with a bookie’s and a dry cleaner’s, a fruit and vegetable shop, a minimarket, and a line of takeaway restaurants. A young man with a forlorn aspect stood alone outside the bookie’s, smoking a cigarette. It began to rain. He flicked the butt into the gutter and retreated into the bookie’s shop. The rain fell, I moved slowly, the rain was cool, I moved with calm blood, back to the red van, the rain in my hair and eyes.
Mice and rats and such small deer know the sound of turbulence, of the wind, earthquakes, revolution, but they have little or no concept of the real reasons for anything and I am a small deer like a dog with no ambitions and few friends, fugitive from some just doom, I read the lines somewhere and immediately appropriated them, fugitive from some just doom, I connected with this poet as though we were brothers, a breed apart, as though he spoke to me and for me, so I could appropriate his words and sooner rather than later bark my way into oblivion.
On another occasion I drove so fast down the harbor that the van began to tremble, the carburetor was ready to jump out through the bonnet. I raced all the way to an ancient fort outside of which there was an old cannon with a rusty mouth, wide and redundant, stuffed with refuse where the cannonballs had been. I leaned against it, looking out at sail boats on the water that seemed motionless despite the sails and the wind, I have to slow down, I thought, like a sail boat, and use the wind propitiously, I want to be calm like that time when I borrowed a skiff, my seventeenth birthday, and rowed across the bay. In the middle of the bay I stopped, let the oars rest, and lay back. There with the smell of rotten fish, crabs, and briny water, I stared at the sky, into the blue-gray infinity and from the horizon over the lighthouse, black rain clouds gathering. I believed that I could retreat to a solitary place like a mountain shack or a seashore cave and live off ragwort or seaweed. It might even be a room in a cabin with white adobe walls and real cacti in the yard. I would try to forget everything I had ever learned, find myself at last with a new dawn, on a mountaintop, looking at the sunrise from an old goatherd’s shelter or watching the horizon from the edge of my seaside cavern. I believed I could be alone at last, self-sufficient, out of range, fugitive from some just doom.
When I got home the rain clouds joined at the zenith, hung there for a short spell, then with a clap of thunder burst over the harbor. From where I was sitting it looked like it was raining upward. The rain hit the pavement so hard it bounced back up toward where it had come from. The cloudburst lasted for about ten minutes, followed by an eerie silence with hosts of spirits gliding through the house, a silence that might have lasted forever were it not broken by the cackling of a crow caught in the chimney. Once he had fluttered and flaked his way out, knocking soot from his wings, another evening began to descend, calm and slow, the window open, cool and still, the curtains moved in whispers, time at last to disappear, fade away into oblivion with the poet in the bay window, smoking, the long sleeves of his coat too big for him, the frayed ends covering his fingers, a soft hat perched on a balding head. He took a puff from the cigarette. The smoke curled upward, hit the timber of the low ceiling before redescending like a magician’s incense into which he disappeared. I believed it was time at last for a full renunciation of the way I had been living, fast then slow, the blood and brain, the inner dynamo, how many, I read, of its possible mutations had the world already gone through and how much time, if time exists, remains, my fiftieth birthday, the longing for a menthol cigarette, Kool, Pall Mall, or Old Gold, the kind I puffed in the old days, before I arrived here, I won’t tell you the year because the years pass and soon I believe I will no longer have this craving for a Pall Mall or a Kool, a very old house in one of the oldest and poorest parts of town, high buildings, alleyways on all sides, dilapidated fittings, cracked windowpanes blocked with newspaper, old copies of the Racing Post for insulation, a place that suited me very well where, I don’t really know why, but every morning if I got the chance I wrote the same kind of thing, infinite variations, with directly before me, within hand’s reach, a shelf of the greatest books I know, written to suit my temperament, collected over the years, all I had to do was reach out and pull one down, any one, and begin reading from anywhere. The landlady had fifteen children but charged me an astonishingly low price. She was very understanding, an awkward question, now and then, some show of concern for my well-being, echoed in a conversation I overheard her having with the priest who came to visit, jangling his keys, his shiny shoes, he was here, Father, I swear, a moment ago, where’s he gone? She called my name. He’s gone, she repeated. It’s very strange, Father. He locks himself up in that room and doesn’t come out for days. I don’t know what he eats, for days on end. I send one of the girls up but he doesn’t even answer for a long time. He might be dead in there. But then all of a sudden there he is, large as life. Does he pay his rent, the priest asked? which is the last of what I heard as then I leap from the windowsill into the alleyway at the side of the house. The children, boys and girls, were of all shapes and sizes and came and went without ever paying me too much attention when I returned in the evenings, when I slipped up the stairs to the room, small, dusty, yellow, almost filled by the bed and the table and chair, the books, I haven’t read one to its final page for some time, they are like half-smoked packs of Marlboro Lights. The books on the shelves, on the floor, cigarette butts, a burst of laughter from next door, well they might laugh, jocularity, melancholy, we all laugh and cry, menthol cigarettes and the Bible, the books everywhere, no, I haven’t read one to its final page for some time, not even the timeworn yellow pages of the pictorial from my fifth birthday, there it is, frayed and worn, torn and well thumbed, the strange but also familiar happy town in its eternal morning.
The drawn blinds gently lifted and fell in the summer breeze. The room was smothered in a yellow light. There was the noise of children playing in the distance, then much nearer an adult voice above the hum of distant traffic. The face of my ex-wife, rich heiress, the beauteous Sofia, appears before me, her lips made thick and huge by crimson lipstick, more like emulsion, associated forever in my mind with insecticide. I have done my best to forget her. Ten years of living alone, I became such an old fish in my efforts to understand existence, which always failed, the movement of the earth around the sun, and how we say that the sun goes around the earth though we know, or at least we are told that the earth turns on its axis, and how we say that the sun travels from east to west, rises and sinks, and that there is a time delay of eight minutes between when the sunbeam departs that extraordinary ball of fire and reaches us so if it was turned off like a gas-fired heater, it would take eight minutes before we felt the cold. It used to make her mad. She’d raise her voice. Talking crap, she said, always crap. She had a way of insinuating how shabby I had become to annoy her, to denigrate her aristocratic sensibilities, almost said bourgeois attitude, the bars she imagined I frequented, the seedy characters I associated with in my descent into the shabby moribund I aspired to be.
It doesn’t take much to drive me out of the house. On the merest whim or at the drop of a hat, as they say, I will abscond. I’d like to boast that I don’t talk that much to people anymore, that I listen and observe and keep my opinion to myself, I’d like to report that I am a silent, enigmatic type but the truth is I participate, the tongue goes clack, clack, dissimulation, sublimation, lies, hundreds of billions of fleeting thoughts vying to make an impact, hundreds of billions of options and only a split second to select one.
I walked as far as the pier, nursing a cigarette in my top pocket. There were teenage boys with fishing rods waiting for the tide to turn. They sat against a stanchion, smoking, spitting, having a laugh. There were two beautiful young girls sitting on the pier, dangling and kicking their legs over the edge. There was a bald man wearing an old Porky Pig T-shirt, his head out of proportion with the rest of his body. With the tide out, a rope entwined by green seaweed lay slack in the mud, attached to a boat in the bottom of which a man slept, a man without cares, I thought, a man untroubled by the tide, I presumed, the bow nodding gently against a weedy stanchion of the pier. The rope was so slack at low tide, his dreams must be calm and still. He could sleep all afternoon. Simmering below the surface, rising to the top came the bubbles from fish.
A bus appeared down the road. I ran to the stop and jumped on. From the upper deck of the bus, front seat, I took note of the backyards, and clotheslines, the curtained back bedroom windows of apartments and houses, of duplexes, and then we sailed by a graveyard, the upper deck of the bus affording a view over the wall at the silent tombs and headstones, the laid-out gravel path between mounds of earth, some with flowers, others with fancy monuments and then some neglected, with nettles and weeds. I went into the charity bookstore. The books were arranged in alphabetical order regardless of genre. Are you looking for anything in particular? I’m looking for literature that feeds the lonely soul. A woman with a lovely big face and spectacles said that they offered counseling services after eleven thirty, if I cared to wait in the café. I ordered a black coffee. The color of the aromatic liquid was soothing. Dangling from the ceiling was a puppet that danced when a switch was turned. There was a telephone on the counter. The woman picked it up and spoke in a pleasant but matter-of-fact voice while serving a customer, like someone who receives hundreds of calls every day. There was a homeless man. I bought him a coffee. He told me that he was socially inept, he used the term spiritual paralysis as if he were a psychiatrist. Though he was younger than he looked, he said that he felt quite old and defeated, thrown down in a heap outside the family home like Scabby the dog. His wife tossed a fifty-euro note out the window, it fluttered on the breeze and landed on his nose. Go for a drink, she said, my father gave it to me.
There was a Chinese takeaway next door to the charity bookshop. I read the menu and felt like chicken in black bean sauce with fried noodles. I wished then I was back in my room already, yellow evening light filtering in, black bean sauce dripping from my chops, the sound of a mouse making me silence the munching for a moment, but found myself instead slinking around in a crowded shopping mall with the awful shopping mall acoustics an octave above the buzzing in my head. I entered a record shop and a bookshop. I made no purchase. Upstairs I found a small coffee dock and ordered an espresso. I took it to a table hidden behind a plant and watched. A man with one arm loitered on the other side of the plant until his wife arrived, at which point he began to talk ten to the dozen. He may have ranted in the aisle for five minutes, gesturing with the one arm he had, the left or the right, I don’t recall, before they took a position at the counter of the coffee dock where he continued to speak nonstop, the lady in black with blue gypsy hair bunned up at the back, accustomed to this nonstop voice in her ear, listening, making an occasional comment or gesture or chortle, toying with a mobile phone in a gloved hand. A man paused at the other side of the plant and began to speak into a phone in a language I could not understand. Mandarin, I thought, without giving the matter too much consideration. There was a clock ticking somewhere, I could hear it beneath the music from the public speakers and the voice of the one-armed man and the hissing of the coffee machines. An elderly gent sat at a table reading a book about Houdini. He had a flower in his lapel. Two ladies with a pot of tea spoke about many things, such as a young widow with a baby, whose husband had died in England. I pulled a notebook from my inner pocket and noted that most of what I had scribbled there concerned solitude, instances of famous writers and artists who had insisted on it as the foundation block of their working routine, others who had chosen to disappear, seeking a new beginning in solitude somewhere along the coast or in the bowels of the city, I think I won’t spend too much time here or anywhere, I think I will disappear but how difficult I found it to cut myself off, I can’t cut myself off from things, I thought, no matter how hard I try, it’s like that buzzing in my head, not an engine chugging into life but much more. A dark-clad, religious figure like a monk or an abbot with a brown soutane, the sandals strapped to his ankles floated along the aisle before disappearing down the escalator, the top of his head held in my line of vision for one final moment, what is such a man doing in a shopping mall of the electronic age? If I were a poet, I scribbled the line from a film, if I were a poet, said Robinson, this is the place I would come to, to write, I feel instantly at home here, and as if for the sheer joy of coincidence I noted a small intense man sitting by the fountain visible on the ground level, reading from a hardback version of Robinson Crusoe in large type. When I left the shopping mall, the sound of the Mandarin was in my head along with the refrain of a pop song from the shopping center DJ. I pulled my collar up against the wind.
It was a rented room in a building four streets back from the seafront, a dressing table riddled with woodworm, light reflecting from a mirror, a For Sale sign on the fence next door, water seeping through pipes and chutes into the sewers and drained toward ships tossed upon the sea, wind filling the sails of yachts, moorings bobbing red and orange at the marina, white horses racing with the majesty of Cossacks in full stride toward the shore, and the watch on the desk told the time with its silver second hand and red minute hand and roman numerals, water resistant, one hundred meters, as if I’d ever, said the landlady, a lovely talkative woman who showed signs of distress with her arthritis, she would be eighty in the summer, her husband was eighty-five, an almost-famous poet and felt like he was a limb cut from the tree who spoke of becoming stronger now that he was detached from the mess of entangled branches, recounting the precious memory of how he had met this woman he loved, he would love her forever, I recall that day so vividly, he said, sitting alone with the quiet mysteries and ambiguities of poetry, always beyond politics, I never, he said, bought into that, it was just after the war, in the church square in the shadow of the church steeple, the dizzy birds were frolicking around the church clock in the noonday sun when I came upon the notice for this place in a backstreet auctioneer’s with photographs of property for sale, which I studied for some time before stepping in to ask for the brochure, which is how we began our relationship, a café in the square, she was an expert on fauna and flowers, of that she could speak with wondrous elegance, and she was also a very accomplished artist, seascapes, houses on cliff tops, skyscapes, the sea and the land, the flowers and the fields, she loved poetry but could not retain the lines of a poem in order to recite them since school days when she was slapped for not being able to memorize a sonnet, after which she said, I never could remember more than a line or two, a line or two to break my heart. She liked to swim in the sea, she liked to jump off a rock into the water and after her swim she’d lie on a towel and say very little, revealing the darker side of her temperament, a taciturn, brooding personality, but how he would never forget when she said they would buy that apartment, she had the money, she had loads of money, they would buy it and they would live there together, painting.
Oriol Tonks asked me had I seen his dog, Bongo, a pit bull terrier? He was missing. He was probably after a bitch in heat. I hadn’t seen Bongo for a while. Oriol Tonks said his neighbor downstairs, a little jade of a one with an opinion of herself, was complaining. If that dog bit one of her children she’d call the guards.
Silent men of knowledge and wisdom lodged in my room on a shelf, comfy between the book covers, silent until opened at night, my only confidants, my never-failing friends. Oriol Tonks and the little jade who lived downstairs, and anyone else who crossed my path, for that matter, faded away in the moonlight hours when I entered a state of suspension, as it were, as if the clock on the wall had stopped. I read, I listened, I slumbered in the rivulet of a quiet life like a trout in a still pool, under a beautiful clump of watercress, snow white and lime green. It kept me in the shade. It kept me hidden.
Victoria strolled in. She pulled a mirror from her pocket and looked at herself. I look like the wreck of the Hesperus, she said, and I’m supposed to be going out tonight. I said nothing, still as the trout with barely a heartbeat. Why are you so antisocial? she said. Why have you such a chip on your shoulder? Did the world do something awful to you?
The heartbeat of the trout fluttered a little stronger, but still he did not move. The strangest idea came to me. There is no such thing as a state of suspension. The quiet life is a pipe dream. The clock on my kitchen wall never stops. It beats without pause. I change the battery every few years. It loses a second every ten billion years, I said to myself, almost as good as the atomic clock that loses one second every fifteen billion years. How do we always manage to find explanations for this existence, this slice of life, morsel of urgency, how do we manage to invent the holy continuum that holds it all together until it falls apart in an earthquake, bombardment, tsunami, or heart attack. I leaned my forehead against the windowpane looking down on the street. A dog was sniffing around by the drain. Is it Bongo? He looked up, barked, and then began to scratch his fleas.
What’s with this obsession with being isolated and removed, said Victoria, what do you call it, alienation and withdrawal, is it a prejudice against the twittering imbecility of the rabble, you snob?
I recalled the first time I met her, it must be thirty years ago, she was with her poet boyfriend Honeyman. From the parapet of the Bailey bridge Honeyman declaimed that it was his mission to resolve the world poetically, before tottering forward on one leg, hanging over the full, flowing river, in the space of the vibration, he said against the roar of the flood he needed the poetic to live and write while watching the world drift into delirium, one without homage to any principle of truth or causality, he would thrive on a position of radical uncertainty. It’s a French philosopher he’s always quoting, said Victoria, her dark eyelids, her dark eyes. Aren’t you tempted to push him into the river? Everything in the moral, political, and philosophical spheres is heading toward the lowest common denominator, said Honeyman, showing admirable dexterity on one leg.
Maybe it was forty years ago. I have no idea where Honeyman is now. Victoria never mentions him. Why don’t you amaze us all and come out with me tonight? said Victoria. You might be surprised at who you’ll meet. I know the only chance the trout has is to remain as still as death in the leaden pool under the watercress. A minute passed. I heard her sigh, I heard an engine cranking into life somewhere out in the street. Finally, I heard her say, look at me, I’m like the wreck of the Hesperus, before the front door banged behind her. A half century of silence then, until I hear the moan of a train engine, I recall the house where it was a sound to break into the consciousness, a sound I then followed for its duration, a goods train crawling up the line, the growl of the engine soothing or disturbing, it could go either way? Sometimes the moths came out and flew around. I kept my eyes on them, convinced that they did not even exist but were hallucinations. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a firefly or a glowworm, I’m not sure because I’m not sure I’d know one if I saw it. I better get out of here, it’s July, there’s a place I know for such an evening, a bar along the quay with the smell of the river, a quiet perch, convivial company, that time of day before the hustle and perfume of the night customers, when there is something of a breathless otherworld, outside the dark machinations of social life.
Edward McWhinney’s work has appeared in Confrontation and the Paris Magazine. He lives in Cork, Ireland.
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