Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
The week after was one off the busiest weeks of their lives. Even when they went to bed it was only their bodies that lay down and rested; their minds went on, thinking things out, talking things over, wondering, deciding, trying to remember where…
Constantia lay like a statue, her hands by her sides, her feet just overlapping each other, the sheet up to her chin. She stared at the ceiling.
“Do you think father would mind if we gave his top-hat to the porter?”
“The porter?” snapped Josephine. “Why ever the porter? What a very extraordinary idea!”
“Because,” said Constantia slowly, “he must often have to go to funerals. And I noticed at—at the cemetery that he only had a bowler.” She paused. “I thought then how very much he’d appreciate a top-hat. We ought to give him a present, too. He was always very nice to father.”
“But,” cried Josephine, flouncing on her pillow and staring across the dark at Constantia, “father’s head!” And suddenly, for one awful moment, she nearly giggled. Not, of course, that she felt in the least like giggling. It must have been habit. Years ago, when they had stayed awake at night talking, their beds had simply heaved. And now the porter’s head, disappearing, popped out, like a candle, under father’s hat… The giggle mounted, mounted; she clenched her hands; she fought it down; she frowned fiercely at the dark and said “Remember” terribly sternly.
“We can decide to-morrow,” she said.
Constantia had noticed nothing; she sighed.
“Do you think we ought to have our dressing-gowns dyed as well?”
“Black?” almost shrieked Josephine.
“Well, what else?” said Constantia. “I was thinking—it doesn’t seem quite sincere, in a way, to wear black out off doors and when we’re fully dressed, and then when we’re at home—”
“But nobody sees us,” said Josephine. She gave the bedclothes such a twitch that both her feet became uncovered, and she had to creep up the pillows to get them well under again.
“Kate does,” said Constantia. “And the postman very well might.”
Josephine thought of her dark-red slippers, which matched her dressing-gown, and of Constantia’s favourite indefinite green ones which went with hers. Black! Two black dressing-gowns and two pairs of black woolly slippers, creeping off to the bathroom like black cats.
“I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary,” said she.
Silence. Then Constantia said, “We shall have to post the papers with the notice in them to-morrow to catch the Ceylon mail… How many letters have we had up till now?”
Josephine had replied to them all, and twenty-three times when she came to “We miss our dear father so much” she had broken down and had to use her handkerchief, and on some of them even to soak up a very light-blue tear with an edge of blotting-paper. Strange! She couldn’t have put it on—but twenty-three times. Even now, though, when she said over to herself sadly “We miss our dear father so much,” she could have cried if she’d wanted to.
“Have you got enough stamps?” came from Constantia.
“Oh, how can I tell?” said Josephine crossly. “What’s the good of asking me that now?”
“I was just wondering,” said Constantia mildly.
Silence again. There came e a little rustle, a scurry, a hop.
“A mouse,” said Constantia.
“It can’t be a mouse because there aren’t any crumbs,” said Josephine.
“But it doesn’t know there aren’t,” said Constantia.
A spasm of pity squeezed her heart. Poor little thing! She wished she’d left a tiny piece of biscuit on the dressing-table. It was awful to think of it not finding anything. What would it do?
“I can’t think how they manage to live at all,” she said slowly.
“Who?” demanded Josephine.
And Constantia said more loudly than she meant to, “Mice.”
Josephine was furious. “Oh, what nonsense, Con!” she said. “What have mice got to do with it? You’re asleep.”
“I don’t think I am,” said C Constantia. She shut her eyes to make sure. She was.
Josephine arched her spine, pulled up her knees, folded her arms so that her fists came under her ears, and pressed her cheek hard against the pillow.
Another thing which complicated matters was they had Nurse Andrews staying on with them that week. It was their own fault; they had asked her. It was Josephine’s idea. On the morning—well, on the last morning, when the doctor had gone, Josephine had said to Constantia, “Don’t you think it would be rather nice if we asked Nurse Andrews to stay on for a week as our guest?”
“Very nice,” said Constantia.
“I thought,” went on Josephine quickly, “I should just say this afternoon, after I’ve paid her, ‘My sister and I would be very pleased, after all you’ve done for us, Nurse Andrews, if you would stay on for a week as our guest.’ I’d have to put that in about being our guest in case—”
“Oh, but she could hardly expect to be paid!” cried Constantia.
“One never knows,” said Josephine sagely.
Nurse Andrews had, of course, jumped at the idea. But it was a bother. It meant they had to have regular sit-down meals at the proper times, whereas if they’d been alone they could just have asked Kate if she wouldn’t have minded bringing them a tray wherever they were. And meal-times now that the strain was over were rather a trial.
Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter. Really they couldn’t help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness. And she had that maddening habit of asking for just an inch more of bread to finish what she had on her plate, and then, at the last mouthful, absent-mindedly—of course it wasn’t absent-mindedly—taking another helping. Josephine got very red when this happened, and she fastened her small, bead-like eyes on the tablecloth as if she saw a minute strange insect creeping through the web of it. But Constantia’s long, pale face lengthened and set, and she gazed away— away— far over the desert, to where that line of camels unwound like a thread of wool…
“When I was with Lady Tukes,” said Nurse Andrews, “she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah. It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the—on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork. And when you wanted some buttah you simply pressed his foot and he bent down and speared you a piece. It was quite a gayme.”
Josephine could hardly bear that. But “I think those things are very extravagant” was all she said.
“But whey?” asked Nurse Andrews, beaming through her eyeglasses. “No one, surely, would take more buttah than one wanted—would one?”
“Ring, Con,” cried Josephine. She couldn’t trust herself to reply.
And proud young Kate, the enchanted princess, came in to see what the old tabbies wanted now. She snatched away their plates of mock something or other and slapped down a white, terrified blancmange.
“Jam, please, Kate,” said Josephine kindly.
Kate knelt and burst open the sideboard, lifted the lid of the jam-pot, saw it was empty, put it on the table, and stalked off.
“I’m afraid,” said Nurse Andrews a moment later, “there isn’t any.”
“Oh, what a bother!” said Josephine. She bit her lip. “What had we better do?”
Constantia looked dubious. “We can’t disturb Kate again,” she said softly.
Nurse Andrews waited, smiling at them both. Her eyes wandered, spying at everything behind her eyeglasses. Constantia in despair went back to her camels. Josephine frowned heavily—concentrated. If it hadn’t been for this idiotic woman she and Con would, of course, have eaten their blancmange without. Suddenly the idea came.
“I know,” she said. “Marmalade. There’s some marmalade in the sideboard. Get it, Con.”
“I hope,” laughed Nurse Andrews—and her laugh was like a spoon tinkling against a medicine-glass—”I hope it’s not very bittah marmalayde.”
But, after all, it was not long now, and then she’d be gone for good. And there was no getting over the fact that she had been very kind to father. She had nursed him day and night at the end. Indeed, both Constantia and Josephine felt privately she had rather overdone the not leaving him at the very last. For when they had gone in to say good-bye Nurse Andrews had sat beside his bed the whole time, holding his wrist and pretending to look at her watch. It couldn’t have been necessary. It was so tactless, too. Supposing father had wanted to say something—something private to them. Not that he had. Oh, far from it! He lay there, purple, a dark, angry purple in the face, and never even looked at them when they came in. Then, as they were standing there, wondering what to do, he had suddenly opened one eye. Oh, what a difference it would have made, what a difference to their memory of him, how much easier to tell people about it, if he had only opened both! But no—one eye only. It glared at them a moment and then… went out.
It had made it very awkward for them when Mr. Farolles, of St. John’s, called the same afternoon.
“The end was quite peaceful, I trust?” were the first words he said as he glided towards them through the dark drawing-room.
“Quite,” said Josephine faintly. They both hung their heads. Both of them felt certain that eye wasn’t at all a peaceful eye.
“Won’t you sit down?” said Josephine.
“Thank you, Miss Pinner,” said Mr. Farolles gratefully. He folded his coat-tails and began to lower himself into father’s arm-chair, but just as he touched it he almost sprang up and slid into the next chair instead.
He coughed. Josephine clasped her hands; Constantia looked vague.
“I want you to feel, Miss Pinner,” said Mr. Farolles, “and you, Miss Constantia, that I’m trying to be helpful. I want to be helpful to you both, if you will let me. These are the times,” said Mr. Farolles, very simply and earnestly, “when God means us to be helpful to one another.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Farolles,” said Josephine and Constantia.
“Not at all,” said Mr. Farolles gently. He drew his kid gloves through his fingers and leaned forward. “And if either of you would like a little Communion, either or both of you, here and now, you have only to tell me. A little Communion is often very help—a great comfort,” he added tenderly.
But the idea of a little Communion terrified them. What! In the drawing-room by themselves—with no—no altar or anything! The piano would be much too high, thought Constantia, and Mr. Farolles could not possibly lean over it with the chalice. And Kate would be sure to come bursting in and interrupt them, thought Josephine. And supposing the bell rang in the middle? It might be somebody important—about their mourning. Would they get up reverently and go out, or would they have to wait… in torture?
“Perhaps you will send round a note by your good Kate if you would care for it later,” said Mr. Farolles.
“Oh yes, thank you very m much!” they both said.
Mr. Farolles got up and took his black straw hat from the round table.
“And about the funeral,” he said softly. “I may arrange that—as your dear father’s old friend and yours, Miss Pinner—and Miss Constantia?”
Josephine and Constantia got up too.
“I should like it to be quite simple,” said Josephine firmly, “and not too expensive. At the same time, I should like—”
“A good one that will last,” thought dreamy Constantia, as if Josephine were buying a nightgown. But, of course, Josephine didn’t say that. “One suitable to our father’s position.” She was very nervous.
“I’ll run round to our good friend Mr. Knight,” said Mr. Farolles soothingly. “I will ask him to come and see you. I am sure you will find him very helpful indeed.”
Well, at any rate, all that part of it was over, though neither of them could possibly believe that father was never coming back. Josephine had had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing without asking his permission. What would father say when he found out? For he was bound to find out sooner or later. He always did. “Buried. You two girls had me buried!” She had his stick thumping. Oh, what would they say? What possible excuse could they make? It sounded such an appallingly heartless thing to do. Such a wicked advantage to take of a person because he happened to be helpless at the moment. The other people seemed to treat it all as a matter of course. They were strangers; they couldn’t be expected to understand that father was the very last person for such a thing to happen to. No, the entire blame for it all would fall on her and Constantia. And the expense, she thought, stepping into the tight-buttoned cab. When she had to show him the bills. What would he say then?
She heard him absolutely roaring. “And do you expect me to pay for this gimcrack excursion of yours?”
“Oh,” groaned poor Josephine aloud, “we shouldn’t have done it, Con!”
And Constantia, pale as a lemon in all that blackness, said in a frightened whisper, “Done what, Jug?”
“Let them bu-bury father like that,” said Josephine, breaking down and crying into her new, queer-smelling mourning handkerchief.
“But what else could we have done?” asked Constantia wonderingly. “We couldn’t have kept him, Jug—we couldn’t have kept him unburied. At any rate, not in a flat that size.”
Josephine blew her nose; the cab was dreadfully stuffy.
“I don’t know,” she said forlornly. “It is all so dreadful. I feel we ought to have tried to, just for a time at least. To make perfectly sure. One thing’s certain”—and her tears sprang out again—”father will never forgive us for this—never!”
Father would never forgive them. That was what they felt more than ever when, two mornings later, they went into his room to go through his things. They had discussed it quite calmly. It was even down on Josephine’s list of things to be done. “Go through father’s things and settle about them.” But that was a very different matter from saying after breakfast:
“Well, are you ready, Con?”
“Yes, Jug—when you are.”
“Then I think we’d better get it over.”
It was dark in the hall. It had been a rule for years never to disturb father in the morning, whatever happened. And now they were going to open the door without knocking even… Constantia’s eyes were enormous at the idea; Josephine felt weak in the knees.
“You—you go first,” she g gasped, pushing Constantia.
But Constantia said, as she always had said on those occasions, “No, Jug, that’s not fair. You’re the eldest.”
Josephine was just going to say—what at other times she wouldn’t have owned to for the world—what she kept for her very last weapon, “But you’re the tallest,” when they noticed that the kitchen door was open, and there stood Kate…
“Very stiff,” said Josephine, grasping the door handle and doing her best to turn it. As if anything ever deceived Kate!
It couldn’t be helped. That girl was… Then the door was shut behind them, but—but they weren’t in father’s room at all. They might have suddenly walked through the wall by mistake into a different flat altogether. Was the door just behind them? They were too frightened to look. Josephine knew that if it was it was holding itself tight shut; Constantia felt that, like the doors in dreams, it hadn’t any handle at all. It was the coldness which made it so awful. Or the whiteness—which? Everything was covered. The blinds were down, a cloth hung over the mirror, a sheet hid the bed; a huge fan of white paper filled the fireplace. Constantia timidly put out her hand; she almost expected a snowflake to fall. Josephine felt a queer tingling in her nose, as if her nose was freezing. Then a cab klop-klopped over the cobbles below, and the quiet seemed to shake into little pieces.
“I had better pull up a blind,” said Josephine bravely.
“Yes, it might be a good idea,” whispered Constantia.
They only gave the blind a touch, but it flew up and the cord flew after, rolling round the blind-stick, and the little tassel tapped as if trying to get free. That was too much for Constantia.
“Don’t you think—don’t you think we might put it off for another day?” she whispered.
“Why?” snapped Josephine, feeling, as usual, much better now that she knew for certain that Constantia was terrified. “It’s got to be done. But I do wish you wouldn’t whisper, Con.”
“I didn’t know I was whispering,” whispered Constantia.
“And why do you keep staring at the bed?” said Josephine, raising her voice almost defiantly. “There’s nothing on the bed.”
“Oh, Jug, don’t say so!” said poor Connie. “At any rate, not so loudly.”
Josephine felt herself that she had gone too far. She took a wide swerve over to the chest of drawers, put out her hand, but quickly drew it back again.
“Connie!” she gasped, and she wheeled round and leaned with her back against the chest of drawers.
Josephine could only glare. She had the most extraordinary feeling that she had just escaped something simply awful. But how could she explain to Constantia that father was in the chest of drawers? He was in the top drawer with his handkerchiefs and neckties, or in the next with his shirts and pyjamas, or in the lowest of all with his suits. He was watching there, hidden away—just behind the door-handle—ready to spring.
She pulled a funny old-fashioned face at Constantia, just as she used to in the old days when she was going to cry.
“I can’t open,” she nearly wailed.
“No, don’t, Jug,” whispered Constantia earnestly. “It’s much better not to. Don’t let’s open anything. At any rate, not for a long time.”
“But—but it seems so weak,” said Josephine, breaking down.
“But why not be weak for once, Jug?” argued Constantia, whispering quite fiercely. “If it is weak.” And her pale stare flew from the locked writing-table—so safe—to the huge glittering wardrobe, and she began to breathe in a queer, panting away. “Why shouldn’t we be weak for once in our lives, Jug? It’s quite excusable. Let’s be weak—be weak, Jug. It’s much nicer to be weak than to be strong.”
And then she did one of those amazingly bold things that she’d done bout twice before in their lives: she marched over to the wardrobe, turned the key, and took it out of the lock. Took it out of the lock and held it up to Josephine, showing Josephine by her extraordinary smile that she knew what she’d done—she’d risked deliberately father being in there among his overcoats.
If the huge wardrobe had lurched forward, had crashed down on Constantia, Josephine wouldn’t have been surprised. On the contrary, she would have thought it the only suitable thing to happen. But nothing happened. Only the room seemed quieter than ever, and the bigger flakes of cold air fell on Josephine’s shoulders and knees. She began to shiver.
“Come, Jug,” said Constantia, still with that awful callous smile, and Josephine followed just as she had that last time, when Constantia had pushed Benny into t the round pond.
But the strain told on them when they were back in the dining-room. They sat down, very shaky, and looked at each other.
“I don’t feel I can settle to anything,” said Josephine, “until I’ve had something. Do you think we could ask Kate for two cups of hot water?”
“I really don’t see why we shouldn’t,” said Constantia carefully. She was quite normal again. “I won’t ring. I’ll go to the kitchen door and ask her.”
“Yes, do,” said Josephine, sinking down into a chair. “Tell her, just two cups, Con, nothing else—on a tray.”
“She needn’t even put the jug on, need she?” said Constantia, as though Kate might very well complain if the jug had been there.
“Oh no, certainly not! The jug’s not at all necessary. She can pour it direct out of the kettle,” cried Josephine, feeling that would be a labour-saving indeed.
Their cold lips quivered at the greenish brims. Josephine curved her small red hands round the cup; Constantia sat up and blew on the wavy steam, making it flutter from one side to the other.
“Speaking of Benny,” said Josephine.
And though Benny hadn’t been mentioned Constantia immediately looked as though he had.
“He’ll expect us to send him something of father’s, of course. But it’s so difficult to know what to send to Ceylon.”
“You mean things get unstuck so on the voyage,” murmured Constantia.
“No, lost,” said Josephine sharply. “You know there’s no post. Only runners.”
Both paused to watch a black man in white linen drawers running through the pale fields for dear life, with a large brown-paper parcel in his hands. Josephine’s black man was tiny; he scurried along glistening like an ant. But there was something blind and tireless about Constantia’s tall, thin fellow, which made him, she decided, a very unpleasant person indeed… On the veranda, dressed all in white and wearing a cork helmet, stood Benny. His right hand shook up and down, as father’s did when he was impatient. And behind him, not in the least interested, sat Hilda, the unknown sister-in-law. She swung in a cane rocker and flicked over the leaves of the “Tatler.”
“I think his watch would be the most suitable present,” said Josephine.
Constantia looked up; she seemed surprised.
“Oh, would you trust a gold watch to a native?”
“But of course, I’d disguise it,” said Josephine. “No one would know it was a watch.” She liked the idea of having to make a parcel such a curious shape that no one could possibly guess what it was. She even thought for a moment of hiding the watch in a narrow cardboard corset-box that she’d kept by her for a long time, waiting for it to come in for something. It was such beautiful, firm cardboard. But, no, it wouldn’t be appropriate for this occasion. It had letter ring on it: “Medium Women’s 28. Extra Firm Busks.” It would be almost too much of a surprise for Benny to open that and find father’s watch inside.
“And of course it isn’t as though it would be going—ticking, I mean,” said Constantia, who was still thinking of the native love of jewellery. “At least,” she added, “it would be very strange if after all that time it was.”
Josephine made no reply. She had flown off on one of her tangents. She had suddenly thought of Cyril. Wasn’t it more usual for the only grandson to have the watch? And then dear Cyril was so appreciative, and a gold watch meant so much to a young man. Benny, in all probability, had quite got out of the habit of watches; men so seldom wore waistcoats in those hot climates. Whereas Cyril in London wore them from year’s end to year’s end. And it would be so nice for her and Constantia, when he came to tea, to know it was there. “I see you’ve got on grandfather’s watch, Cyril.” It would be somehow so satisfactory.
Dear boy! What a blow his sweet, sympathetic little note had been! Of course they quite understood; but it was most unfortunate. “It would have been such a point, having him,” said Josephine.
“And he would have enjoyed it so,” said Constantia, not thinking what she was saying. However, as soon as he got back he was coming to tea with his aunties. Cyril to tea was one of their rare treats.
“Now, Cyril, you mustn’t be frightened of our cakes. Your Auntie Con and I bought them at Buszard’s this morning. We know what a man’s appetite is. So don’t be ashamed of making a good tea.”
Josephine cut recklessly into the rich dark cake that stood for her winter gloves or the soling and heeling of Constantia’s only respectable shoes. But Cyril was most unmanlike in appetite.
“I say, Aunt Josephine, I simply can’t. I’ve only just had lunch, you know.”
“Oh, Cyril, that can’t be true! It’s after four,” cried Josephine. Constantia sat with her knife poised over the chocolate-roll.
“It is, all the same,” said Cyril. “I had to meet a man at Victoria, and he kept me hanging about till… there was only time to get lunch and to come on here. And he gave me— phew”—Cyril put his hand to his forehead—”a terrific blow-out,” he said.
It was disappointing—to-day of all days. But still he couldn’t be expected to know. “But you’ll have a meringue, won’t you, Cyril?” said Aunt Josephine. “These meringues were bought specially for you.
Your dear father was so fond of them. We were sure you are, too.”
“I am, Aunt Josephine,” cried Cyril ardently. “Do you mind if I take half to begin with?” “Not at all, dear boy; but we mustn’t let you off with that.”
“Is your dear father still so fond of meringues?” asked Auntie Con gently. She winced faintly as she broke through the shell of hers. “Well, I don’t quite know, Auntie Con,” said Cyril breezily.
At that they both looked up.
“Don’t know?” almost snapped Josephine. “Don’t know a thing like that about your own father, Cyril?”
“Surely,” said Auntie Con softly.
Cyril tried to laugh it off. “Oh, well,” he said, “it’s such a long time since—” He faltered. He stopped. Their faces were too much for him.
“Even so,” said Josephine.
And Auntie Con looked.
Cyril put down his teacup. “Wait a bit,” he cried. “Wait a bit, Aunt Josephine. What am I thinking of?”
He looked up. They were beginning to brighten. Cyril slapped his knee.
“Of course,” he said, “it was meringues. How could I have forgotten? Yes, Aunt Josephine, you’re perfectly right. Father’s most frightfully keen on meringues.”
They didn’t only beam. Aunt Josephine went scarlet with pleasure; Auntie Con gave a deep, deep sigh.
“And now, Cyril, you must come and see father,” said Josephine. “He knows you were coming to-day.”
“Right,” said Cyril, very firmly and heartily. He got up from his chair; suddenly he glanced at the clock.
“I say, Auntie Con, isn’t y your clock a bit slow? I’ve got to meet a man at—at Paddington just after five. I’m afraid I shan’t be able to stay very long with grandfather.”
“Oh, he won’t expect you to stay very long!” said Aunt Josephine.
Constantia was still gazing at the clock. She couldn’t make up her mind if it was fast or slow. It was one or the other, she felt almost certain of that. At any rate, it had been.
Cyril still lingered. “Aren’t you coming along, Auntie Con?”
“Of course,” said Josephine, “we shall all go. Come on, Con.”
They knocked at the door, and Cyril followed his aunts into grandfather’s hot, sweetish room.
“Come on,” said Grandfather Pinner. “Don’t hang about. What is it? What’ve you been up to?”
He was sitting in front of a roaring fire, clasping his stick. He had a thick rug over his knees. On his lap there lay a beautiful pale yellow silk handkerchief.
“It’s Cyril, father,” said Josephine shyly. And she took Cyril’s hand and led him forward.
“Good afternoon, grandfather,” said Cyril, trying to take his hand out of Aunt Josephine’s. Grandfather Pinner shot his eyes at Cyril in the way he was famous for. Where was Auntie Con? She stood on the other side of Aunt Josephine; her long arms hung down in front of her; her hands were clasped. She never took her eyes off grandfather.
“Well,” said Grandfather Pinner, beginning to thump, “what have you got to tell me?”
What had he, what had he got to tell him? Cyril felt himself smiling like a perfect imbecile. The room was stifling, too.
But Aunt Josephine came to his rescue. She cried brightly, “Cyril says his father is still very fond of meringues, father dear.”
“Eh?” said Grandfather Pinner, curving his hand like a purple meringue-shell over one ear.
Josephine repeated, “Cyril says his father is still very fond of meringues.”
“Can’t hear,” said old Colonel Pinner. And he waved Josephine away with his stick, then pointed with his stick to Cyril. “Tell me what she’s trying to say,” he said.
(My God!) “Must I?” said Cyril, blushing and staring at Aunt Josephine.
“Do, dear,” she smiled. “It will please him so much.”
“Come on, out with it!” cried Colonel Pinner testily, beginning to thump again.
And Cyril leaned forward and yelled, “Father’s still very fond of meringues.”
At that Grandfather Pinner jumped as though he had been shot.
“Don’t shout!” he cried. “What’s the matter with the boy? Meringues! What about ’em?”
“Oh, Aunt Josephine, must we go on?” groaned Cyril desperately.
“It’s quite all right, dear boy,” said Aunt Josephine, as though he and she were at the dentist’s together. “He’ll understand in a minute.” And she whispered to Cyril, “He’s getting a bit deaf, you know.” Then she leaned forward and really bawled at Grandfather Pinner, “Cyril only wanted to tell you, father dear, that his father is still very fond of meringues.”
Colonel Pinner heard that time, heard and brooded, looking Cyril up and down.
“What an esstrordinary thing!” said old Grandfather Pinner. “What an esstrordinary thing to come all this way here to tell me!”
And Cyril felt it was.
“Yes, I shall send Cyril the watch,” said Josephine.
“That would be very nice,” said Constantia. “I seem to remember last time he came there was some little trouble about the time.”
They were interrupted by Kate bursting through the door in her usual fashion, as though she had discovered some secret panel in the wall.
“Fried or boiled?” asked the bold voice.
Fried or boiled? Josephine and Constantia were quite bewildered for the moment. They could hardly take it in.
“Fried or boiled what, Kate?” asked Josephine, trying to begin to concentrate.
Kate gave a loud sniff. “Fish.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so immediately?” Josephine reproached her gently. “How could you expect us to understand, Kate? There are a great many things in this world you know, which are fried or boiled.” And after such a display of courage she said quite brightly to Constantia, “Which do you prefer, Con?”
“I think it might be nice to have it fried,” said Constantia. “On the other hand, of course, boiled fish is very nice. I think I prefer both equally well… Unless you… In that case—”
“I shall fry it,” said Kate, and she bounced back, leaving their door open and slamming the door of her kitchen.
Josephine gazed at Constantia; she raised her pale eyebrows until they rippled away into her pale hair. She got up. She said in a very lofty, imposing way, “Do you mind following me into the drawing-room, Constantia? I’ve got something of great importance to discuss with you.”
For it was always to the drawing-room they retired when they wanted to talk over Kate.
Josephine closed the door meaningly. “Sit down, Constantia,” she said, still very grand. She might have been receiving Constantia for the first time. And Con looked round vaguely for a chair, as though she felt indeed quite a stranger.
“Now the question is,” said Josephine, bending forward, “whether we shall keep her or not.”
“That is the question,” agreed Constantia.
“And this time,” said Josephine firmly, “we must come to a definite decision.”
Constantia looked for a moment as though she might begin going over all the other times, but she pulled herself together and said, “Yes, Jug.”
“You see, Con,” explained d Josephine, “everything is so changed now.” Constantia looked up quickly. “I mean,” went on Josephine, “we’re not dependent on Kate as we were.” And she blushed faintly. “There’s not father to cook for.”
“That is perfectly true,” agreed Constantia. “Father certainly doesn’t want any cooking now, whatever else—”
Josephine broke in sharply, “You’re not sleepy, are you, Con?”
“Sleepy, Jug?” Constantia was wide-eyed.
“Well, concentrate more,” said Josephine sharply, and she returned to the subject. “What it comes to is, if we did”—and this she barely breathed, glancing at the door—”give Kate notice”—she raised her voice again—”we could manage our own food.”
“Why not?” cried Constantia. She couldn’t help smiling. The idea was so exciting. She clasped her hands. “What should we live on, Jug?”
“Oh, eggs in various forms!” said Jug, lofty again. “And, besides, there are all the cooked foods.”
“But I’ve always heard,” said Constantia, “they are considered so very expensive.”
“Not if one buys them in moderation,” said Josephine. But she tore herself away from this fascinating bypath and dragged Constantia after her.
“What we’ve got to decide now, however, is whether we really do trust Kate or not.”
Constantia leaned back. Her flat little laugh flew from her lips.
“Isn’t it curious, Jug,” said she, “that just on this one subject I’ve never been able to quite make up my mind?”
She never had. The whole difficulty was to prove anything. How did one prove things, how could one? Suppose Kate had stood in front of her and deliberately made a face. Mightn’t she very well have been in pain? Wasn’t it impossible, at any rate, to ask Kate if she was making a face at her? If Kate answered “No”—and, of course, she would say “No”—what a position! How undignified! Then again Constantia suspected, she was almost certain that Kate went to her chest of drawers when she and Josephine were out, not to take things but to spy. Many times she had come back to find her amethyst cross in the most unlikely places, under her lace ties or on top of her evening Bertha. More than once she had laid a trap for Kate. She had arranged things in a special order and then called Josephine to witness.
“You see, Jug?”
“Now we shall be able to tell.”
But, oh dear, when she did go to look, she was as far off from a proof as ever! If anything was displaced, it might so very well have happened as she closed the drawer; a jolt might have done it so easily.
“You come, Jug, and decide. I really can’t. It’s too difficult.”
But after a pause and a long glare Josephine would sigh, “Now you’ve put the doubt into my mind, Con, I’m sure I can’t tell myself.”
“Well, we can’t postpone it again,” said Josephine. “If we postpone it this time—”
But at that moment in the street below a barrel-organ struck up. Josephine and Constantia sprang to their feet together.
“Run, Con,” said Josephine. “Run quickly. There’s sixpence on the—”
Then they remembered. It didn’t matter. They would never have to stop the organ-grinder again. Never again would she and Constantia be told to make that monkey take his noise somewhere else. Never would sound that loud, strange bellow when father thought they were not hurrying enough. The organ-grinder might play there all day and the stick would not thump.
“It never will thump ag gain,
It never will thump again,
played the barrel-organ.
What was Constantia thinking? She had such a strange smile; she looked different. She couldn’t be going to cry.
“Jug, Jug,” said Constantia softly, pressing her hands together. “Do you know what day it is? It’s Saturday. It’s a week to-day, a whole week.”
“A week since father died,
A week since father dieed,”
cried the barrel-organ. And Josephine, too, forgot to be practical and sensible; she smiled faintly, strangely. On the Indian carpet there fell a square of sunlight, pale red; it came and went and came—and stayed, deepened—until it shone almost golden.
“The sun’s out,” said Josephine, as though it really mattered.
A perfect fountain of bubbling notes shook from the barrel-organ, round, bright notes, carelessly scattered.
Constantia lifted her big, cold hands as if to catch them, and then her hands fell again. She walked over to the mantelpiece to her favourite Buddha. And the stone and gilt image, whose smile always gave her such a queer feeling, almost a pain and yet a pleasant pain, seemed to-day to be more than smiling. He knew something; he had a secret. “I know something that you don’t know,” said her Buddha. Oh, what was it, what could it be? And yet she had always felt there was… something.
The sunlight pressed through the windows, thieved its way in, flashed its light over the furniture and the photographs. Josephine watched it. When it came to mother’s photograph, the enlargement over the piano, it lingered as though puzzled to find so little remained of mother, except the earrings shaped like tiny pagodas and a black feather boa. Why did the photographs of dead people always fade so? wondered Josephine. As soon as a person was dead their photograph died too. But, of course, this one of mother was very old. It was thirty-five years old. Josephine remembered standing on a chair and pointing out that feather boa to Constantia and telling her that it was a snake that had killed their mother in Ceylon… Would everything have been different if mother hadn’t died? She didn’t see why. Aunt Florence had lived with them until they had left school, and they had moved three times and had their yearly holiday and… and there’d been changes of servants, of course.
Some little sparrows, young sparrows they sounded, chirped on the window-ledge. “Yeep—eyeep—yeep.” But Josephine felt they were not sparrows, not on the window-ledge. It was inside her, that queer little crying noise. “Yeep—eyeep—yeep.” Ah, what was it crying, so weak and forlorn?
If mother had lived, might they have married? But there had been nobody for them to marry. There had been father’s Anglo-Indian friends before he quarrelled with them. But after that she and Constantia never met a single man except clergymen. How did one meet men? Or even if they’d met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers? One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But nobody had ever followed Constantia and her. Oh yes, there had been one year at Eastbourne a mysterious man at their boarding-house who had put a note on the jug of hot water outside their bedroom door! But by the time Connie had found it the steam had made the writing too faint to read; they couldn’t even make out to which of them it was addressed. And he had left next day. And that was all. The rest had been looking after father, and at the same time keeping out of father’s way. But now? But now? The thieving sun touched Josephine gently. She lifted her face. She was drawn over to the window by gentle beams…
Until the barrel-organ stopped playing Constantia stayed before the Buddha, wondering, but not as usual, not vaguely. This time her wonder was like longing. She remembered the times she had come in here, crept out of bed in her nightgown when the moon was full, and lain on the floor with her arms outstretched, as though she was crucified. Why? The big, pale moon had made her do it. The horrible dancing figures on the carved screen had leered at her and she hadn’t minded. She remembered too how, whenever they were at the seaside, she had gone off by herself and got as close to the sea as she could, and sung something, something she had made up, while she gazed all over that restless water. There had been this other life, running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with Jug, and taking them back to get more things on approval, and arranging father’s trays and trying not to annoy father. But it all seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn’t real. It was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean? What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?
She turned away from the Buddha with one of her vague gestures. She went over to where Josephine was standing. She wanted to say something to Josephine, something frightfully important, about—about the future and what…
“Don’t you think perhaps—” she began.
But Josephine interrupted her. “I was wondering if now—” she murmured. They stopped; they waited for each other.
“Go on, Con,” said Josephine.
“No, no, Jug; after you,” said Constantia.
“No, say what you were going to say. You began,” said Josephine.
“I… I’d rather hear what you were going to say first,” said Constantia.
“Don’t be absurd, Con.”
A pause. Then Constantia said faintly, “I can’t say what I was going to say, Jug, because I’ve forgotten what it was… that I was going to say.”
Josephine was silent for a moment. She stared at a big cloud where the sun had been. Then she replied shortly, “I’ve forgotten too.”
The autumn felt more like summer than the summer had. I was wearing my blue silk dress, and I had the little Pekinese they’d given me for my birthday when I arrived at my boyfriend’s house. I remember that day clearly.
“Jealousy rules the world,” said Mrs. Yapura, thinking I didn’t want to marry Romirio out of jealousy. “My son sleeps only with the cat.”
I didn’t want to marry Romirio, or hadn’t decided whether I wanted to marry him, for other reasons. Sometimes the words people say are changed by the intonation of the voice with which they say them. It seems like I’m getting off topic, but there’s an explanation. The voice of Romirio, my boyfriend, was repulsive to me. Every word he uttered, even if said with the utmost respect for me, although he hadn’t touched so much as a toe of my foot, sounded obscene. I couldn’t love him. I felt bad about this, not so much for him as for his mother, who was generous and kind. The only negative trait she was known for was jealousy, but she was old now and had even lost that. And should we believe the rumors? People said that she had got married very young to a man who soon betrayed her with another woman. Once she began to suspect, she spent a month without sleep trying to uncover the adultery. When she did, it was like a knife wound to the heart. She didn’t say anything, but that very night, as her husband slept beside her, she threw herself at his throat and tried to strangle him. The mother of the victim came to save him; if it hadn’t been for her he would have died.
My courtship with Romirio had gone on too long. “What’s a voice,” I thought. “It’s not an insolent, groping hand, it’s not a repulsive mouth trying to kiss me, it’s not that obscene and protuberant sex I so fear, it’s nothing physical like buttocks or hot like a belly.” Nevertheless, Romirio’s voice was much more disagreeable to me than any of those things. How could I bear living alongside a man who broadcasted that voice to whoever would listen? That visceral, lewd, scatological voice. But who would dare say to their boyfriend, “Your voice displeases me, it repulses me, it scandalizes me. It’s like the word lust in the catechism of my childhood”?
Our wedding was put off indefinitely without any obvious reason.
Romirio visited me every afternoon. Rarely did I go to his dark house, because his mother, who was sick, went to bed early. But I very much liked their little garden, full of shadows, and Lamberti, Romirio’s reddish-gray cat. There was not a more timid couple in the neighborhood. We might have kissed at most once during the summer of that year. Did we hold hands? Not a chance. Embrace? Slow dancing was out of fashion. This unusual behavior sparked a suspicion that we’d never marry.
That day I took the Pekinese they’d given me to Romirio’s house. Romirio picked him up to pet him. Poor Romirio, he loved animals so much. We were sitting in the living-room as usual, when Lamberti’s fur stood on end, and with a spitting sound he ran away knocking over a flowerpot. Mrs. Yapura called me the next day crying. That night, as always, Romirio had slept with Lamberti in his bed, but in the middle of the night the cat went into a frenzy and clawed Romirio’s throat. The mother went running in when she heard his screams. She managed to pull the cat from her son’s throat and she strangled it with a belt. They say nothing is more terrible than a frenzied cat. It isn’t hard to believe. I hate them. The incident left Romirio without a voice, and the doctors that looked after him said he wouldn’t ever recover it.
“You won’t marry Romirio,” his mother said crying. “I had good reason for telling my son not to sleep with that cat!”
“I will marry him,” I responded.
From that day forward I loved Romirio.
David Lugasi, I think, never knew how much he really loved the Western Wall until he saw it completely dismantled, stone by stone by stone, and piled onto the three trucks of his hauling and renovations company, A.A. America Hauling and Renovations. Until that moment, the Western Wall had been a place. Just a place. But the Rabin assassination changed everything.
Lugasi is one of those rare types: people born to pray. No wonder he felt at home at the Wall. He wasn’t “religious” to the extent that he could marry the grandchild of a learned rabbi – any learned rabbi – but there are people who, when they pray, are happy. On Friday nights, for example, he’d go to synagogue with his father, return to his parents’ house for kiddush and a festive meal, and then get into his car and drive to a party. In the Lugasi home, that was considered an excellent Sabbath eve.
And that’s why he loved the Western Wall and hated Jerusalem: because the minute you pass Sha’ar Hagai on the road leading to the city, you have to choose. Right wing or left, religious or secular, orthodox or ultra-orthodox – like in a poor neighborhood in Hollywood movies, you have to choose a gang, or else you’ll be alone in a violent and sour city. Lugasi, who hated choosing and loved praying, would come back more and more upset from those visits to his beloved Wall. Until the last time, when he cracked. One night, a week after the assassination, he called me. It was one in the morning.
“You have to come,” he said. “Take a taxi and come to Jerusalem. I need your advice urgently.”
“Advice about what?”
“Where to put it, brother. The Western Wall. I finish loading in an hour. Come, I have no time to talk. The battery in my Nokia is conking out.”
* * *
Half a kilometer away from the square in front of the Western Wall, I came to a barrier put up by the Border Police. A Druze policeman stopped me and said, “No entrance, sir. The Wall is being renovated.”
“Renovated. They’re cleaning it. For Rabin’s shivah, a special operation.”
The policeman waited. I scratched my head.
“Listen,” I said, “I have to go in. I’m on the advisory team.”
“What’s your name?” the policeman asked and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out of his pants pocket.
“You’re the famous Uzi Weill?”
“Famous?” I said. “Famous for what?”
“Why didn’t you say so right away,” the policeman said and tapped me on the shoulder. “The contractor told us to let you in. I want you to know that I’m with you a hundred percent. My people and yours are blood brothers.”
“I see,” I said cautiously.
He shouted for his colleague standing next to the barrier to move it, and added, “That’s why, even if I am Druze – I’m for your father.”
“My father?” I said, puzzled.
“A great man,” said the policeman. “Too bad there aren’t more like him. May he rest in peace.”
“My father’s not dead.”
He froze. “Really? Not dead? Begin?”
I didn’t know what to say. I smiled at him politely.
“You don’t say,” the policeman continued, shaking his head in growing amazement. “You don’t say. Begin’s not dead, ah? So – he’s hiding out?”
I shrugged cautiously.
“Good for him,” the policeman said, “he got really good at hiding out when he was in the underground. When’s he coming back?”
I said, “Another year or two.”
“Tell him we’re waiting,” the policeman said. “Even though I’m a Druze, I’m waiting. You know why?”
“Because my people and yours are blood brothers?” I tried.
He looked at me with new respect. “Good for you!” he said. “I see your father taught you well. Good for you! You’re a good family.”
“True,” I said. “Benny turned out a little…”
“Too serious,” the policeman said.
“Oh well…” I shrugged.
“Never mind. A Begin is a Begin. You’re all a good family.”
“I’ll tell my father,” I promised.
He lowered his hand from my car window and I drove in.
The square in front of the Wall was brightly lit, and dozens of workers were dismantling the stones. All that remained of the Wall itself were the two bottom rows of stones. Two workers worked on each stone, and after detaching it, carried it to the huge truck parked at the edge of entrance area. The other twenty-nine trucks were already waiting in line, full of stones, on the street leading away from the Wall.
On the roof of the last truck, which was in the process of being filled, sat David Lugasi. Next to him sat the driver, and they were drinking coffee from a large thermos. I stood rooted in place, stunned. Lugasi saw me.
“Brother!” he called to me and stood up. “Come on up and have something to drink with us.”
I climbed onto the door of the truck, the driver gave me a hand, and I found myself looking down at the workers who had begun destroying the last row. It was a shocking sight. The Western Wall looked like a stone path. I sat in silence.
A few minutes later, Lugasi said, “It’s really something, huh?”
“Tell me…” I began, but couldn’t go on.
“I’ll explain it to you in a minute,” Lugasi said and moved his head very very slightly in the direction of the driver. He didn’t want to share his plan with too many people.
“Good coffee, huh?” asked the driver.
“Terrific. Listen, if you wouldn’t mind, we have a few professional matters to discuss.”
The driver looked at me suspiciously. Then he spilled out the remains of his coffee, stood up and jumped to the ground.
Lugasi watched him move away. “What do you say?” he asked when we were alone.
“What can I say?” I extended my arm. “It’s…”
“Yes,” I nodded, “you could say it was great. You could definitely say that. But why?”
“Those Jerusalemites don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve to have the Wall.”
“Aahh.” I looked around. The workers had started taking apart the last row.
“You tell me,” Lugasi put his hand on his heart. “Tell me if I’m not right: last week, two days after they killed Rabin, may he rest in peace, I went to the Wall to pray. For Rabin, and for the country, and for… I don’t know. My heart, from so much sorrow, became… especially after his funeral. Did you see how his granddaughter cried?”
“Then, do you understand? It was tough. On the way to the Wall, I put on my father’s kipa, may he rest in peace, and there I was, with my beard and all, you know – at least five people grabbed me, told me how good it is that Rabin’s dead.”
I nodded. Lugasi took a deep breath, and shook his head incredulously.
“Then I finished praying,” he went on, “took off the kipa – and on the way back, three other people jumped on me, told me to come to an anti-religious happening, they’re all murderers. So I decided – I, David Lugasi, am moving the Western Wall.
I didn’t know what to say. Under us, the workers were finishing their job. They worked diligently. Another twenty stones, and the Wall might never have been there.
“Some operation, ah?” Lugasi smiled proudly. “A hundred and twenty workers.”
“And where will you put it in Tel Aviv?”
“That’s what you’re here for. Advise me where the best place is. A pretty place, no arguments, no politics, where people will come to pray with goodness in their hearts. A laid back kind of place?”
“The beach?” I suggested. Lugasi smiled.
And that’s how it was.
* * *
Half an hour later, the convoy of trucks began leaving the place that once was the Western Wall, and was now a naked hill. Lugasi and I, in the Peugeot, passed the canvas-covered trucks and the bus carrying the workers, and reached the Border Police post. Lugasi got out and tapped the policeman on the shoulder.
“Finished for the day?” the policeman asked.
“Yes,” said Lugasi. “You can move the barriers. Do you have the permit from the City?”
“Right here,” the policeman said, patting his shirt pocket. “ Do you need it?”
“Keep it,” said Lugasi, “in case they ask any questions.”
He got in and closed the door. “An original permit,” he said, “from the City. From the time I fixed the sewer in the Convention Center. It says: please follow the contractor’s instructions.”
The policeman knocked on the window and waited for me to look at him. He pretended to be locking his lips with a key. I gave him a thumbs-up as a gesture of thanks.
The convoy began to move.
“Tell me,” I said to Lugasi, “aren’t I little young to be Begin’s son?”
He shrugged. “Policemen,” he said.
And so, smiling and serene, Lugasi continued leading his convoy of trucks along the deserted Ayalon Freeway. At three in the morning, we reached Sheraton Beach. We got out to survey the territory. The workers waited in the bus.
“What do you say?” he asked, looking around, hands on hips. “Maybe between Sheraton and the marina?”
I tried to imagine it. “I don’t think so,” I said, “the strip of beach is too narrow. You need enough room for the prayers and for the sunbathers too.”
“You’re right,” Lugasi said. “And it has to be far from the water. So the waves won’t erode the stones in winter.”
We looked around, and all at once, our gaze fell upon the slope leading down from the Hilton, under Atzmaut Park. We shook hands, and Lugasi went to the workers’ bus.
“Ya’allah, let’s go, everybody out,” he told them.
They started whispering to each other in Romanian. One of them got up and acted as interpreter.
“Mister Lugasi, we’re all very tired,” said the chosen leader. “All night work, work,” he said in English.
“Tell them everyone gets another two hundred dollars,” said Lugasi. “They work till morning.”
In a flash, they were all outside, unloading the stones. Some of them began setting up scaffolding on the slope under Atzmaut Park. They worked with astonishing speed, unloading the stones in the exact order they’d been put on the trucks, but despite their diligence, they’d only managed to put up a third of the Wall when the sun rose. Lugasi, who saw in advance what the problem would be, sent them to sleep. At six in the morning, the second shift arrived.
This time, they were Arabs, and Lugasi managed without an interpreter. At seven, we collapsed in the Peugeot. Lugasi turned on the radio. We listened to four news broadcasts, switching from one to the other: none of them mentioned the fact that during the night, someone had stolen the Western Wall.
“Maybe they’re keeping a lid on the investigation,” I said. “Censoring it.”
“They’re censoring the Voice of Cairo too? And the BBC?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” I told Lugasi. “My father, may he rest in peace, always used to say: a man needs to have faith and never to worry, except when he hears the hoo-oh of a police car approaching. Now, let’s go to sleep.”
We nodded off on each other’s shoulder for three hours of fitful sleep. At ten-thirty in the morning, a knock on the window woke us. It was a City inspector. Lugasi lowered the window.
“Are you the contractor?” the inspector scratched his head.
“What is that thing?”
“The wall of peace,” said Lugasi, “in memory of Itzhak Rabin.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “It looks familiar, that wall.”
“There’s one like it in Jerusalem.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “My wife’s from Jerusalem. Maybe that’s why.”
Lugasi called to one of the workers and asked for coffee. The inspector sat and drank with us, and told us how much he earned working for the City. When he left, we turned on the radio again: still, not a word about the Western Wall disappearing.
Lugasi got out and stretched. Then he said, “Strange, isn’t it?”
“Let’s go,” I said.
He looked at the laboring workers and said, “Wait, we’ll wash our faces and then take off.”
* * *
We reached Jerusalem at noon. We parked not far from what was once the Western Wall, and approached cautiously. Twenty different scenarios passed through our minds, but none of them even came near what we actually saw: everything was going on as usual.
The prayers prayed. Men on the left, women on the right.
Policemen, as usual, guarded the square.
Tourists, as usual, had their pictures taken wearing cardboard kipot on their heads. The only thing different was that the Wall wasn’t there. We walked towards the square. A policeman stood there in his regular place and handed us black kipot.
“Tell me,” – Lugasi asked the policeman – “where’s the Wall?”
“Being renovated,” said the policeman.
“Renovated where? Where are they renovating it?”
The policeman shrugged. “Ask the Rabbi of the Wall, that’s what he said. Are you going in or not?”
We went in. A large group of chassidim was praying very intently, but their attempts to push notes into the dry hill failed utterly. They occasionally looked around in puzzlement, but in general, it seemed that the explanation given by the Rabbi of the Wall satisfied them. We left the square and went to eat at a small place Lugasi knew, not far from there.
Lugasi ate hummus and pita, and drank tea. He looked preoccupied. When he finished, he took out his cell phone.
“Hello,” he said when someone answered him, “is this the office of the Rabbi of the Wall? I wanted to ask something. I was at the Wall just now, and it wasn’t there.”
“That’s impossible,” the clerk replied, “the Rabbi has been here since the morning.”
“Not the Rabbi,” said Lugasi, “not him, it. The Wall. The Wall wasn’t there.”
“Ah,” replied the clerk. “It’s being renovated.”
“You don’t say,” said Lugasi. “Who’s renovating it?”
“The City,” she said. “I don’t know exactly. This morning, the Rabbi spoke to the Border Police, they took the stones away for the renovation. It’s a special operation.”
“The Border Police? Who’s that, the Druze guy at the barrier, you talked to him?”
“Yes, yes,” replied the clerk. She was starting to lose her patience. “It’s from the City, a special operation. In honor of Jerusalem’s three thousandth anniversary.”
“Thank you,” Lugasi replied and hung up. We looked at each other.
He said, “We pulled it off. I think next week, I’ll move the vault from the Leumi Bank.”
* * *
We worked like crazy that whole day and night along with the workers, and the next day – right before sunrise, at the end of the Romanian’s second shift – it was all finished. We stood in the water, the waves lapping at the edges of our rolled-up pants, and looked at the new Western Wall. It looked great.
“The Jewish people’s holiest site,” said Lugasi. There were tears in his eyes.
“Don’t be cute.”
He paid the workers and they got on the bus and disappeared. We remained standing there, looking at the fruit of our labors. A few minutes later, I started feeling hungry, and remembered that we hadn’t eaten since that humus in Jerusalem. We went up to the Café Regatta, took a table near the window, sat down silently and looked at the beach.
“The Temple Mount is ours,” said Lugasi, like a general after a successful battle.
* * *
At first, everything went smoothly. The beach-goers did show a certain puzzlement, but the wall had yet to be born that would keep them from getting a tan. The tourists, on the other hand, were very enthusiastic. A rich American from Chicago named Joe Rivlin, Chairman and owner of Rivlin & Rivlin Buttons and Zippers, outdid himself, and sent the mayor a letter of congratulations from Milan, enclosing a check in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars.
“A brilliant way to bring tourism to Tel Aviv and to Israel in general, period,” he wrote, “if only the American government had your courage, we wouldn’t have to travel to Beijing Grand Canyon to see the Beijing Grand Canyon, period.”
The religious public in Tel Aviv received the new Western Wall with mixed feelings, but quickly got used to the idea. First of all, no one said in so many words that it was that Western Wall – The Rabbi of the Wall still insisted that the original was being renovated – and secondly, even if it was that one, what was so terrible if it stayed in Tel Aviv for a few years? Pilgrims came from the four corners of the country and proclaimed that the new location was not only more convenient, it was also a lot safer – considering the security problems Jerusalem’s Old City had been having for years.
Amazingly enough, even the sacred status quo was not damaged, despite the dangerous proximity of the prayers and the sunbathers. The former faced the Wall, the latter faced the sea, and they all met on the number five bus, of which there were now another fifty. Even the homosexuals in Atzmaut Park finally got used to the idea. Many of them, so the city council representative of Meretz, the leftist liberal party, discovered, came from a traditional background, and the proximity of the Western Wall surprisingly improved their sex lives.
The problem began when the mayor realized what he had. After the shock of the first week, when all he did was throw one fax after the other into the waste basket and fire any person who dared suggest that the Western Wall be moved to his jurisdiction, he finally decided to go down to the beach and see what was happening there. When he realized that the people – again, dammit – were right, the trouble started.
First, he declared that the Western Wall was now to be called “The Kings of Israel Wall” – compensation for the Kings of Israel Square, a name which, after the assassination, was taken from them and changed to Rabin Square. The next thing he did was commission Yaacov Agam to paint the Wall in shifting iridescent colors. “Yaacov Agam,” he said at a press conference broadcast live from the seashore – “is an international artist who combines kinetics and Judaism, and he will put the Wall on the map of the next millennium!”
And then a special sound system arrived and was installed next to the Wall. It broadcast commercials from the Municipality and Israeli music twenty-four hours a day.
Before a day had passed, Channel Two announced that it would broadcast live a series of summer performances to be called “Rock ‘n Wall”, direct from the new, revolving, pneumatic stage purchased expressly for that purpose in Germany and flown to the Wall. Dudu Topaz, the TV entertainer, would be the emcee, Dudu Dotan, the comedian, would tell jokes, and Dudu Shmulevitz – head of the city’s electrician’s union – declared that if the City didn’t reach an agreement with the union before the program, the beach would be blacked out.
At that point, Lugasi stopped returning my calls. But he too could take no more when the army championship games were held there, and hundreds of infantry fighters hang-glided down from the Wall. On that day, at four in the afternoon, he called me.
“Did you hear?” he asked in a defeated voice.
“That’s nothing,” I said. “The local newspaper is organizing a squash league on the beach. Guess what they’re using for a wall?”
“One hour, at the Hilton,” he said and hung up. I guessed that he would bring a rotten mood with him, but I never imagined how rotten. When I got there, I saw him from a distance, standing stooped over next to a kiosk on the beach, a cigarette in his hand. That was the first time we had dared approach the Wall since we moved it from Jerusalem, and it did not look good.
On the top of it, along the uppermost row of stones, an electronic sign was flickering: “The Western Wall brought to you by Yediot Aharanot newspapers and Isracard.” And David Lugasi didn’t look any better than his Wall.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. His eyes were red. He dragged hard on his cigarette.
“Maybe people will calm down. Give them time. It’s still new.”
He nodded. We moved closer to the police barricade separating the swimmers from the prayers. At one end of it was a small booth. We took kipot from an old worker wearing an orange uniform with a drawing of the Wall facing the sea on it. The kipa was also orange and had the same drawing, along with the words: “Sunset at the Wall – An Experience!”
We passed the barrier and went inside.
“Wait, wait a minute!” the old man called after us in a Russian accent.
“What?” I turned to him.
“Fifty shekels to go in, please,” said the old man in the orange uniform.
I looked at Lugasi. He returned the look.
“Ten tonight,” he said. “Be ready. I’ll pick you up.”
* * *
That same night, we returned the Wall to Jerusalem. We finished the whole job in eight hours of strenuous labor. The two crews, Romanians and Arabs, worked together and when the sun rose, the Wall was back where it belonged.
Lugasi stood and looked at his Wall. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes. “We tried,” he said.
The workers were already on the bus, ready to go. The empty trucks left the parking lot one after the other. We were standing quietly when suddenly, from behind us came the sound of the bashful clearing of a throat. It was the Rabbi of the Wall.
He said, “Ah… the renovations are finished, sir?”
We turned to him. His eyes were red, his hair slightly disheveled, and he looked as if he’d aged a hundred years in a single week.
“Finished,” Lugasi said gently. He looked at the old man, and he was filled with great, inexplicable sorrow.
“And… everything’s okay?”
“Everything’s shiny and shipshape, Rabbi. We added screws to strengthen it, poured cement, it’s like new. A cinch to last another three thousand years.”
“Thank God. Thank God!” the Rabbi heaved a huge sigh and was silent. Then he said, “More power to you, young fellow. Just tell them at City Hall that next time, I’d like to know in advance when they do something like this, fahrshteist?”
“There won’t be a next time,” said Lugasi. “If I take it away again – you better believe I won’t bring it back.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
We Weren’t actually at starvation’s door, although even that depends on how you look at it – the house was in ruins, windows missing, the living-room armchair shot to pieces, a crack in the wall, the kitchen a shambles, cupboards falling apart, furniture which had given up the ghost a long time ago – but I could smell it coming.
Apart from which my husband told me: “You’re a wreck.” This being the case, first thing in the morning I phoned and asked to speak to the editor-in-chief in charge of all the editors and chiefs and mentioned my full name – which is so long that it’s ridiculous.
I told him about myself and said that I had an unprecedented offer for which I wanted a four-figure sum, monthly.
I made an appointment with him in an air-conditioned cafe and pushed my way though crowds of people I didn’t know and who for some reason embarrassed me greatly. When the coffee arrived I explained my proposal to him.
“Listen to me,” I said to him, “and then say whatever you’ve got to say, I’m not listening anyway. I’ll just take in your tone, my feelers will grope for the gist of your reply – yes or no, and afterwards, sir, we’ll say goodbye, either forever or not.”
“I’m all ears,” he said.
“Let me have a car, let me have money, neither a little nor a lot – budget me – let me travel round and about the country. Yes, we’ll begin with round and about the country. Let me see what’s going on. Believe me, I haven’t left the house in years, I’m in urgent need of contact with the outside world. And I’ll pay it back, the outside world, by describing it with amazing accuracy, with flashes of brilliance. Let me travel, let me wander, and I’ll bring you a story a week, a thousand shekels a story.”
“Yes?” his eyebrows rose like two hills.
“Could you concentrate, please?”
“That’s my side of the bargain, and what do I get in return?”
“A story a week, weren’t you listening to me?”
“Certainly I was listening, that’s why I’m asking you what you’re giving me in return.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“That story’s for you – release, therapy, autotherapy, what do you want of me?”
“What kind of talk is that?”
“Sorry,” he said. “We don’t need a weekly story. Every day there are hundreds of stories and parts of stories in the newspapers. I’ve got reporters poking into the pockets of every Minister in the government, I don’t need a literary angle on plain reality.”
I called another newspaper and repeated my offer over the phone. I expanded it. After all, it wasn’t asking much and the rejection stung me. I said: “Let me travel round the world, with my daughter and my husband. I’m Orly, I’m a wreck. But I’ve got eyes, sir. A thousand shekels a story. And not a penny less. That’s my last word.”
He said: “Let’s see an example. Go to the refineries on your own account and bring me an example. Or not. Go wherever you like. Go to the Jordan valley, to Masada, to Arad, to the Dead Sea. Wherever you like.”
“Tell me, what is this? I’m not prepared for you to give me tests. Either you take me now as I am, or I’ll go to Avigdor from the rival paper, or somewhere else. Either sign me up on a blank contract with no strings attached or else,” and I took out a hammer and a rolling pin and banged on the table.
“Okay, okay,” he sighed,” let’s meet.”
We arranged to meet at a cafe on the promenade, next to the sea. I repeated my offer and the waiter came and removed the melon rinds and the remains of the salad.
The man sitting opposite me lit a cigarette and thought. In the meantime a few thoughts crossed my mind which I thought were quick-off-the-mark, but today I know they did me no good.
“Listen,” I said, “all I want is a page in your newspaper and a thousand shekels a story. Come on, give.”
He went on looking at the sea in silence. My wrinkles deepened. Five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was directly opposite my face. I dried my sweat with a paper napkin.
“Well,” I said.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“What do I know.”
My worst fears were realized. I had made the man miserable. I had depressed him. The whole idea from beginning to end suddenly seemed futile to me, I asked him to forget the conversation had ever taken place. But he said that actually he liked my offer, and we should talk about it again in a couple of days time.
I walked up the steps to Hayarkon Street, and began going down all the streets perpendicular to the sea in the direction of Ibn Gvirol, the desolate street where the bus s.t.o.p. is situated. I stood at the bus stop and waited for a bus. When I got home I saw my husband watching a five by five video movie.
“Where is our daughter?” I asked.
“Sleeping,” he replied, and demanded a full account of the conversation.
I falsified everything on purpose, because I’d already forgotten what had happened, and immersed myself in the television set. My husband filled me in with regard to the plot and I asked questions and he answered them.
A few days passed and the man didn’t call. I personally wasn’t waiting for a call, but the economic situation was.
The bank clerk came for coffee at six o’clock on Wednesday evening and asked when we intended covering the overdraft.
“Never,” said my husband and stroked his cheek.
“Why don’t you shave?” she asked.
“I don’t like it.”
“You know,” she said to him, “you make awfully good coffee.”
He looked at me, because actually it was me who had made the coffee.
“She made it,” he said.
“So what?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“If there’s anything you want here,” said my husband with a smile, “take it – don’t be shy.”
“Really?” said the bank clerk.
“Take whatever you want.”
“Have you got a few crates?” she asked.
“Maybe the neighbours have,” I said.
“Why don’t you put your salary in the bank every month like everybody else?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you,” my husband began telling her, and hinted to me that I should make myself scarce. I took my daughter and went down to the woods. From there I went on with her to a cafe, and from there to the pub. The drink warmed my heart and I stopped wishing I was dead. My distress faded, I calmed down and hugged and kissed her and explained a few things to her from an objective point of view. She looked at me and I kept saying to myself that there was no other way, what other way could there be? My heart was like the skin of a camel, flat as a rug.
When we went home I saw the bank clerk’s ‘86 Fiat Uno driving off in the direction of the main road.
“Salamaat,” I said to her.
“Salaamtek,” I said to her again.
“Tislam, peace be with you, lady.”
I went inside, and I saw my husband standing there with his three brothers, all playing snooker.
“I got an extension of eight years,” said my husband. “In the meantime the interest will rocket, but who cares. In eight years time we’ll leave the country.”
His brothers looked daggers at me. They accused me of hypocrisy, of self-righteousness, of bad literature, of perversity.
I told them I agreed with every word they said, and I made tehina with lots of parsley. They all ate well, they finished the lot, they polished their plates clean, I didn’t even have to wash the dishes, I put them straight into the cupboard, and to hell with them.
It was a long night. I looked at the stars scattered over the sky like salt on my wounds. I prayed for redemption, for the Messiah to come. What’s going on here – I wondered. I’m not a woman, my husband’s not a man. Soon I’ll die, I’ll turn into a picture. Everyone will forget me and I’ll forget them.
I’ll go away, I’ll disappear, I’ll vamoose, I’ll evaporate. I’ll die. That’s it. Au revoir and goodbye. No more. When. Finito la comedia. Twenty years from now. I’ll die. I won’t exist. I love moments of fellowship between people, they move me to tears. But open moments, like my sitting here on the balcony, send me way off. I love these open moments, when the dome of the heavens really functions like a dome, they’re terrific.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
It was the last summer before they gave the Sinai back to Egypt. I was thirteen and I drove with my parents and their friends down to Ras Burka. I think that must have been our last big family trip. After that, I preferred going with my friends. In any case, one of the families traveling with us had a son with cerebral palsy. They put up their tent a little bit away from the rest of us so it took a few days before I even noticed him. And that was purely by accident too. I went into the water to snorkel and the current carried me too far out. The waves were high, salt water seeped into my snorkel and my mask steamed up. I wanted to go back to the shore but didn’t know how. After a long moment, I found a sandy path that wound through the corals and swam along it till I reached the shore. I rested there for a while, got my breathing regular again, took off my fins and started walking back toward our tent, swearing to myself that this was the last time I’d go underwater by myself.
And then I saw him.
He was sitting in a wheelchair near his family’s tent.
I couldn’t decide whether to go over to him, but he seemed to be smiling at me, so I turned away from the shoreline and walked toward him. When I got closer, I saw that the smile was actually an involuntary twitch that distorted his mouth.
But that wasn’t the main thing.
Dozens of flies were sitting on his face. There were flies on his lips, on his nose, inside his nose, in his ears, on his cheeks, his neck, his chin, his hair, his weird thick glasses. Big flies, small flies, flies that weren’t moving, flies that were rubbing their hands together in pleasure. Where were his parents? How could they have left him there like that?
“Do something,” his eyes pleaded from behind his glasses. “Save me from this torture.” He moaned, the sound an animal makes. A wounded animal.
I peeled off my shirt and started flapping it wildly around his body. Some of the flies took off. And some didn’t. I waved my other hand too, and kicked the air with my foot, close to his face. I did everything but touch him. I jumped and stamped, even went into their tent and brought out a piece of cardboard meant for fanning the barbecue coals, and waved it hard next to the back of his neck where an especially stubborn guerilla of flies was hanging on.
Finally, after a few minutes of hard work, I managed to cut down the number of flies by half. I knew that as soon as I left him, the flies would come back and retake his face easily. But there was no choice. I had to go back to the main tent for help.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. He didn’t nod his head and he didn’t shake it. I thought I could see a thank you in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure of that either. “I’ll be right back,” I repeated. And again, not a muscle in his face moved.
I started running back to the main tent, the soles of my feet burning in the sand, but before I reached it, I ran into his parents, who must have been on their way back. The mother was carrying their new, blond baby girl. The father was carrying two folding chairs.
Your son, I blurted out, he’s there… alone… the flies. The words were all jumbled in my mouth.
We know, the father said in a firm voice. Confident. What can we do, the mother said with a sigh. We can’t stand next to him all day and swat them away.
Yes, but… I wanted to object. To demand. To wave my fins around. But my protest couldn’t find its way into words, into a coherent argument. I was only thirteen and still a little bit afraid of grownups.
But thanks for taking an interest, the father said, and started walking again. She has sensitive skin, it isn’t good for her, being in the sun like this, the mother apologized, gesturing to the little blond girl, and walked past me. The little blond girl herself was asleep, her face bright and beautiful.
That night, I told my parents about it. I was sure they’d be outraged. That they’d use the same expressions they used when I did something to make them furious: “shameful,” “disgraceful,” or worst of all – “deplorable.”
To my shock, they were indifferent. Even worse: it turned out that it was nothing new for them. The boy had been with the group on their vacation at Lake Kinneret, and then too, he sat in his wheelchair outside the tent and the flies set up residence on him.
I agree with you, it’s not a pretty sight, my father said. But what can they do? Stand next to him all day and swat away the flies?
I actually think it’s nice that they insist on bringing him, my mother added. After all, they could leave him in the home. But they want him to grow up like a normal child.
So why do they hide him? the question burst out of me at full volume, volume that was fine for home, not the Sinai. If it’s so nice and they have nothing to be ashamed of, why did they put up their tent so far from everyone else?!
Because it took them a little more time to get organized and that was the only place left for them, my father said.
Yes, my mother backed him up – I hadn’t heard her back him up on anything for a long time – it’s purely by chance. At the Kinneret, they were right in the center of things.
Their arguments, added on to his parents’ arguments, paralyzed me. It all sounded so logical and convincing. But still, I had the feeling that an injustice was being done here. My father put out the candle and in the dark, my mother said it was nice that I thought about others, not only about myself, and maybe I should put that virtue to use by washing the plastic plates every once in a while because it makes no sense that she’s in the Sinai and the only thing she does all day is cook and wash up after us.
When we woke up the next morning, we saw that a lot of other Israeli families had come during the night and planted their tents on the beach. You can’t imagine, Rina, the whole country came to say goodbye to the Sinai, my father said after finishing his morning exercises outside the tent. Oh my God, my mother said when she went outside, the whole country really is here.
I hated it when they talked like that. As if they weren’t actually part of the country. But I didn’t say anything. I went outside and scanned the beach. The boy’s tent wasn’t on the edge of the camp anymore, but right in the middle of the rows of tents that now filled the small inlet from the little hill to the dunes. Terrific, I said to myself, now the whole country will see that boy being tortured on his wheelchair and someone will definitely say something to his parents.
That day, when the sun had begun to sink toward the hills, I went into the water with my snorkel and swam back to the spot where the narrow sandy path wound between the large fire corals. After I came out of the water and dried myself off on the beach, I began looking for their tent. It wasn’t easy to find anymore because there were so many other tents surrounding it, but the flash of the sun’s rays on the iron of the wheelchair showed me the way.
He was sitting there in the same small square of shade. I searched his eyes for a sign that he recognized me, remembered something. And didn’t find it. There were a million flies on his face. A billion. The whole country has been walking past him since the morning, I thought. And didn’t do a thing.
I started the work of swatting them away. This time, I was determined to get all the flies, every last one. I wanted to see his face completely clear for once, I wanted to give him a few seconds of grace free of irritation.
It took a long time – the sun was already turning the hilltops golden – but in the end, I did it. The last three flies turned out to be dead, and I peeled them off his cheek with my fingers. But while I was moving back a little to check if any flies had gotten away from me, four new ones landed on his nose.
Furious, I went back and slapped the air next to his nose until they gave up and flew away. Then I stood beside him for a few minutes to make sure that not a single fly dared to come back. It was starting to get dark and I hoped my parents were already worrying about me, so I promised the fly boy that I’d come back the next day at the same time, and left.
I’d like to say that I went back the next day and the day after that. I’d like to say that, in the end, I started a protest demonstration, maybe even a hunger strike, near the fly boy’s wheelchair until his parents had no choice but to stand on either side of him waving huge palm fronds all day long.
But at the moment, the truth is stronger, stronger than me.
That evening, near one of the circles of people listening to a guitar player, I met a fifteen-year-old girl. I lied to her, said I was fifteen too, and she believed me and told me that in Ashdod, where she lived, there are some girls who’d gone all the way with older boys. She had big green eyes and chocolate skin, and she always wore a white bikini, day and night, and spoke loudly about her boobs, how big and beautiful they were. I fell in love with her instantly, of course. And I spent the next few days playing endless games of backgammon with her and her cousins, trying desperately to impress her.
One afternoon, her cousins went into the water and just the two of us were left on the beach. The sun was behind us. I didn’t turn around, but I could picture it turning the hilltops golden now.
We didn’t talk. I felt that it was my responsibility to rescue us from the silence.
There’s this kid here, I said. He has some disease, I don’t what. Anyway, his parents leave him in a wheelchair outside their tent the whole day, and all the flies in the Sinai come and sit on his face.
How disgusting, she said.
Yes, I agreed. And added, spitting out the words quickly, I go to see him every once in a while and swat away the flies. Want to come with me?
What, now? she asked and buried her tan legs in the soft sand like someone who has no intention of going anywhere.
No, I said, alarmed. Who said now? I was thinking later, tomorrow.
We’ll see, maybe, she said, and jumped up suddenly. Are you coming to the water?
I didn’t see the boy with the flies anymore. I was sure I’d see him the last day when my parents’ whole gang took down their tents and gathered together to make the trip to Eilat in a convoy of Subarus. I planned to tell his parents a thing or two, or at least say goodbye to him and apologize for not keeping my promise, but when we got to the meeting place, his family wasn’t there.
They left yesterday, my mother explained. Their little girl had a bad upset stomach.
And what about the… I started to ask, but my father changed the subject. Son, he said, take one last look at the beach and make sure you remember what you see. Inside of a year, the Egyptians will build an army base here. And that’s the end of the corals and the fish.
No, my mother said, I think they’ll develop the place for tourism.
And he answered her.
And she answered him.
And they were off, arguing till Eilat, and maybe even till we were on the Arava Road, I don’t know, because after Kibbutz Yotvata, I fell asleep.
A few months later, the Sinai went back to Egypt and became cleaner and quieter.
Ras Burka was taken over by an obnoxious blue-eyed Egyptian sheikh and his German wife. They let Israelis in the first few years, but then the intifada started and they hung out a little cardboard sign saying that only people with European passports could enter.
The pretty girl from Ashdod starred in my fantasies for a few months. And when I couldn’t summon up her face anymore, I replaced her with Sharon Haziz, the latest, hottest singer.
I haven’t thought about the boy with the flies for years, but during my last stint in the reserves – I was posted in Nablus, and when it was over, I asked for a transfer to a different unit – I suddenly remembered him. I was sitting alone in the small shed at the Ein Huwara checkpoint counting stars, listening to fragmented conversations on the radio, and I don’t really know why, but that boy’s face floated up before my eyes and my heart swelled all at once to the size of a watermelon, good God, there were even flies on his eyelashes, in his nostrils, in his ears. And I’d promised him I’d come.
A thought buzzed in my mind: it’s funny that I never mention the incident to anyone. After all, I’ve revealed more embarrassing things to the world – secrets, lies, perversions – but for some reason, not that. I promised myself I’d tell my wife when I got home, I felt that I had to tell at least her, but when I got home, the twins had fever and we took turns sitting with them and hardly had any time to talk –
Later I forgot about it. And I have no idea why I remembered it now, of all times. That terrible reserve duty was a year and a half ago, and I’m sitting at the computer now to prepare a laser optics marketing presentation for tomorrow morning. All the company’s head honchos will be there, and I still have a lot of work, so many slides that aren’t ready yet, so many slides I have to proofread, and obviously, this is a text I won’t show anyone. Obviously, it’ll be buried in the depths of my hard disk, where it’ll keep buzzing.
This, you know, is the beginning of the story about sprites and goblins which Mamilius, the best child in Shakespeare, was telling to his mother the queen, and the court ladies, when the king came in with his guards and hurried her off to prison. There is no more of the story; Mamilius died soon after without having a chance of finishing it. Now what was it going to have been? Shakespeare knew, no doubt, and I will be bold to say that I do. It was not going to be a new story: it was to be one which you have most likely heard, and even told. Everybody may set it in what frame he likes best. This is mine:
There was a man dwelt by a churchyard. His house had a lower story of stone and an upper one of timber. The front windows looked out on the street and the back ones on the churchyard. It had once belonged to the parish priest, but (this was in Queen Elizabeth’s days) the priest was a married man and wanted more room; besides, his wife disliked seeing the churchyard at night out of her bedroom window. She said she saw — but never mind what she said; anyhow, she gave her husband no peace till he agreed to move into a larger house in the village street, and the old one was taken by John Poole, who was a widower, and lived there alone. He was an elderly man who kept very much to himself, and people said he was something of a miser.
It was very likely true: he was morbid in other ways, certainly. In those days it was common to bury people at night and by torchlight: and it was noticed that whenever a funeral was toward, John Poole was always at his window, either on the ground floor or upstairs, according as he could get the better view from one or the other.
There came a night when an old woman was to be buried. She was fairly well to do, but she was not liked in the place. The usual thing was said of her, that she was no Christian, and that on such nights as Midsummer Eve and All Hallows, she was not to be found in her house. She was red-eyed and dreadful to look at, and no beggar ever knocked at her door. Yet when she died she left a purse of money to the Church.
There was no storm on the night of her burial; it was fair and calm. But there was some difficulty about getting bearers, and men to carry the torches, in spite of the fact that she had left larger fees than common for such as did that work. She was buried in woollen, without a coffin. No one was there but those who were actually needed — and John Poole, watching from his window. Just before the grave was filled in, the parson stooped down and cast something upon the body — something that clinked — and in a low voice he said words that sounded like ‘Thy money perish with thee.’ Then he walked quickly away, and so did the other men, leaving only one torch-bearer to light the sexton and his boy while they shovelled the earth in. They made no very neat job of it, and next day, which was a Sunday, the churchgoers were rather sharp with the sexton, saying it was the untidiest grave in the yard. And indeed, when he came to look at it himself, he thought it was worse than he had left it.
Meanwhile John Poole went about with a curious air, half exulting, as it were, and half nervous. More than once he spent an evening at the inn, which was clean contrary to his usual habit, and to those who fell into talk with him there he hinted that he had come into a little bit of money and was looking out for a somewhat better house. ‘Well, I don’t wonder,’ said the smith one night, ‘I shouldn’t care for that place of yours. I should be fancying things all night.’ The landlord asked him what sort of things.
‘Well, maybe somebody climbing up to the chamber window, or the like of that,’ said the smith. ‘I don’t know — old mother Wilkins that was buried a week ago today, eh?’
‘Come, I think you might consider of a person’s feelings,’ said the landlord. ‘It ain’t so pleasant for Master Poole, is it now?’
‘Master Poole don’t mind,’ said the smith. ‘He’s been there long enough to know. I only says it wouldn’t be my choice. What with the passing bell, and the torches when there’s a burial, and all them graves laying so quiet when there’s no one about: only they say there’s lights — don’t you never see no lights, Master Poole?’
‘No, I don’t never see no lights,’ said Master Poole sulkily, and called for another drink, and went home late.
That night, as he lay in his bed upstairs, a moaning wind began to play about the house, and he could not go to sleep. He got up and crossed the room to a little cupboard in the wall: he took out of it something that clinked, and put it in the breast of his bedgown. Then he went to the window and looked out into the churchyard.
Have you ever seen an old brass in a church with a figure of a person in a shroud? It is bunched together at the top of the head in a curious way. Something like that was sticking up out of the earth in a spot of the churchyard which John Poole knew very well. He darted into his bed and lay there very still indeed.
Presently something made a very faint rattling at the casement. With a dreadful reluctance John Poole turned his eyes that way. Alas!
Between him and the moonlight was the black outline of the curious bunched head . . . Then there was a figure in the room. Dry earth rattled on the floor. A low cracked voice said ‘Where is it?’ and steps went hither and thither, faltering steps as of one walking with difficulty. It could be seen now and again, peering into corners, stooping to look under chairs; finally it could be heard fumbling at the doors of the cupboard in the wall, throwing them open. There was a scratching of long nails on the empty shelves. The figure whipped round, stood for an instant at the side of the bed, raised its arms, and with a hoarse scream of ‘YOU’VE GOT IT!’
At this point H. R. H. Prince Mamilius (who would, I think, have made the story a good deal shorter than this) flung himself with a loud yell upon the youngest of the court ladies present, who responded with an equally piercing cry. He was instantly seized upon by H. M. Queen Hermione, who, repressing an inclination to laugh, shook and slapped him very severely. Much flushed, and rather inclined to cry, he was about to be sent to bed: but, on the intercession of his victim, who had now recovered from the shock, he was eventually permitted to remain until his usual hour for retiring; by which time he too had so far recovered as to assert, in bidding good-night to the company, that he knew another story quite three times as dreadful as that one, and would tell it on the first opportunity that offered.
I – How to Survive with the Aid of Literature.
Astride a Play to Tiflis.
If someone asked me what I deserve, I would say in all honesty before God that I deserve hard labor.
Not because of Tiflis, however; I did not do anything wrong in Tiflis. Because of Vladikavkaz.
I was living out my last days in Vladikavkaz, and the terrible specter of hunger, (Cliché! Cliché!… “terrible specter”… However, I don’t give a damn! These memoirs will never be published!) as I was saying, the terrible specter of hunger knocked at the door of my modest apartment which I had obtained with a permit. And right after the specter knocked Attorney Genzulaev, a pure soul with a brush mustache and an inspired face.
We talked, and here I include a stenographic record:
“What are you so down in the mouth about?” (Genzulaev)
“Apparently, I’m doomed to die of starvation in this crummy Vladikavkaz of yours…”
“There’s no question about that. Vladikavkaz is a crummy city. I doubt there’s a crummier city anywhere in the world. But why do you have to starve to death?”
“There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve exhausted all possibilities. The Subdepartment of the Arts has no money, so they can’t pay any salaries. I won’t be making any more introductory speeches before plays. I had a feuilleton printed in the local Vladikavkaz newspaper for which I received 1,250 rubles and a promise that they would turn me over to the special department1 Secret police.2 if another one like it ever appeared in print.”
“Why?” (Genzulaev was alarmed. Understandably, if they wanted to turn me over to the special department, I must be suspect.)
“For my mocking tone.”
“Oh, rubbish. They just don’t understand anything about feuilletons here. I’ll tell you what…”
And here is what Genzulaev did. He incited me to write a revolutionary play with him about native life. I’m slandering Genzulaev here. He pushed me and, because of my youth and inexperience, I agreed. What does Genzulaev know about the writing of plays? Nothing whatsoever, it was plain to see. Right away he openly admits that he sincerely detests literature, and I myself hated literature, you better believe, even more than he did. But Genzulaev knows native life like the back of his hand, if, of course, you can call native life a combination of shishkebab houses, breakfasts against a backdrop of the most repulsive mountains in the world, daggers of inferior steel, sinewy horses, taverns, and disgusting music that wrenches the soul.
Therefore, I will write the play and Genzulaev will add the local color.
“Only idiots would buy this play.”
“We’re the idiots if we don’t manage to sell this play.”
We wrote it in seven-and-a-half days, thus spending half a day more than was necessary to create the world. Despite this, it turned out even worse than the world.
I can say one thing: if there is ever a competition to see who can write the most stupid, untalented, and presumptuous play, ours will receive first prize (however, several plays from 1921-26 now come to mind, and I begin to have my doubts…), well, if not first prize, certainly second or third.
In short, after writing this play I am forever stigmatized, and naturally I can only hope that the play will molder in the bowels of the local Subdepartment of the Arts. As for the receipt, the devil take it, it can stay there. It was two hundred thousand rubles. One hundred for me. One hundred for Genzulaev. The play ran for three nights (a record), and the authors were called on stage. Genzulaev came out and took a bow, laying his hand against his clavicle. Then I came out and made faces for a long time so that I would be unrecognizable in the photograph (which was taken from below with magnesium). Due to these faces a rumor spread throughout the town that I was brilliant but mad. It was annoying, especially because the faces were totally unnecessary, since the photographer who took our picture was requisitioned and assigned to the theater, so nothing came out on the photograph but a shotgun, the inscription, “Glory to…” and a blurred streak.
I ate up seven thousand in two days and decided to use the remaining ninety-three to leave Vladikavkaz
Why? Why Tiflis of all places? For the life of me, I do not now recall. However, I remember I was told that:
1) in Tiflis all the stores are open,
2) in Tiflis there is wine,
3) in Tiflis it is very hot and the fruit is cheap,
4) in Tiflis there are many newspapers, etc.., etc.
I decided to go. First, I packed my things. I took all my worldly possessions: a blanket, some under-clothes, and a Primus stove.
In 1921 things were not quite the same as in 1924. To be more precise, it was impossible to just pack up and go wherever you wanted! Apparently, those who were in charge of civilian travel reasoned something like this:
“If everyone started traveling, then where would we be?”
Therefore, a permit was required. I immediately submitted an application to the appropriate authorities, and where it asked, “What is the purpose of your trip?” I wrote with pride, “I am going to Tiflis for the production of my revolutionary play.”
In all of Vladikavkaz there was only one person who did not know me by sight, and it happened to be the gallant young fellow with the pistol on his hip who stood as if nailed to the spot by the table where permits for travel to Tiflis were issued.
When my turn came to receive a permit and I reached out to take it, the young man started to give it to me, but then stopped and said in an authoritative, high-pitched voice, “What is the purpose of your trip?”
“The production of my revolutionary play.”
Then the young man sealed the permit in an envelope and handed both me and the envelope over to someone with a rifle, saying, “Take him to the special department.”
The young man did not answer.
A very bright sun (the only good thing in Vladikavkaz) beamed down on me as I walked along the road with the man carrying the rifle to my left. He decided to strike up a conversation with me and said, We’re going to be passing through the bazaar now, but don’t even think about escaping. Nothing good will come of it.”
“Even if you begged me to do it, I wouldn’t,” I replied in all honesty.
Then I offered him a cigarette.
Smoking companionably, we arrived at the special department. As we crossed the courtyard, I fleetingly recalled all my crimes. There were three.
1) In 1907 I was given one ruble and 50 kopecks to buy Kraevich’s Physics but spent it at the cinema.
2) In 1913 I got married against the wishes of my mother.
3) In 1921 I wrote that celebrated feuilleton.
The play? But that play could hardly be called criminal, could it? Quite the contrary.
For the information of those who have never been inside the special department, it is a large room with a rug on the floor, a huge desk of unbelievable proportions, eight telephones of different designs with green, orange, and gray cords attached, and behind the desk, a small man in military uniform with a very pleasant face.
The luxuriant crowns of the chestnut trees could be seen through the open windows. Upon seeing me, the man sitting at the desk attempted to change the pleasant expression on his face to an unfriendly an unpleasant one, but was only partially successful.
He took a photograph out of the desk drawer and began scrutinizing both it and me in turn.
“Oh, no. That’s not me,” I hurriedly announced. “You could have shaved off the mustache,” Mr. pleasant responded thoughtfully.
“Yes, but if you look closely,” I said, “the guy in the picture has hair the color of black shoe polish and is about forty-five. I am blond and twenty-eight.”
“Dye?” the small man asked with uncertainty.
“But what about the bald spot? And besides look closely at the nose. I beg you to take a good look at the nose.”
The small man peered at my nose. He was over-come with despair.
“I believe you. There’s no resemblance.”
There was a pause, and a ray of sunlight sprang up in the inkwell.
“Are you an accountant?”
Pause. The crowns of the chestnuts. The stucco ceiling. Cupids.
“What is the purpose of your trip to Tiflis? Answer immediately without thinking,” the small man said in a rush.
“To stage my revolutionary play,” I answered in a rush.
The small man opened his mouth, but recoiled and was completely radiated by the sun.
“You write plays?”
“Yes, I have to.”
“No kidding. Was the play you wrote a good one?”
There was something in his voice that would have touched any heart but mine. I repeat, I deserve hard labor. Looking away, I said:
“Yes, a good one.”
Yes. Yes. Yes. This was my fourth crime, the worst one of all. If I had wanted to remain pure before the special department, I should have answered: “No it’s not a good play. It’s junk. I just really want to go to Tiflis.”
I looked at the toes of my worn-out boots and did not speak. I came to myself when the small man handed me a cigarette and my travel permit.
He said to the guy with the rifle, “Show the writer to the door.”
The special department! I must forget about it! You see, now I have confessed. I have shed the guilt I have carried for three years. What I committed in the special department was, for me, worse than sabotage, counter-revolution or abuse of power.
But I must forget it!!!
II – Eternal Wanderers
People say that in 1924 it was easy to travel from Vladikavkaz to Tiflis; you simply hire a car in Vladikavkaz and drive along the remarkably scenic Georgian Military Highway. It is only two hundred and ten versts.3 A Russian unit of distance, in this case equal to about 6.5 miles.4 However in Vladikavkaz in 1921 the word “hire,” sounded like a word from a foreign language.
In order to travel you had to go with your blanket and Primus stove to the station and then walk along the tracks, peering into the innumerable freight cars. Wiping the sweat from my brow, on track seven I saw a man with a fan-shaped beard standing in slippers by an open freight car. He was rinsing out a kettle and repeating the vile word, “Baku.”
“Take me with you,” I requested.
“No,” replied the man with the beard.
“Please, so I can stage my revolutionary play,” I said.
The bearded man carried the kettle up a plank and into the freight car. I sat on my blanket beside the hot rails and lit a cigarette. A stifling, intense heat filled the spaces between the freight cars, and I quenched my thirst at the faucet by the tracks. Then I sat down again and felt the scorching heat radiated by the freight car. The bearded man stuck his head out.
“What’s your play about?” he asked.
I unrolled my blanket and took out my play.
“You wrote it yourself?” the proprietor of the freight car asked dubiously.
“Never heard of him.”
“I really need to leave.”
“Well, I’m expecting two more, but if they don’t show up, perhaps I’ll take you. Only don’t have any designs on the plank bed. Don’t think that just because you wrote a play you can try anything funny. it’s a long journey, and as a matter of fact, we ourselves are from the Political Education Committee.”
“I won’t try anything funny,” I said, feeling a breath of hope in the searing heat. “I can sleep on the floor.”
Sitting down on the plank bed, the beard said “Don’t you have any food?”
“I have a little money.”
The bearded man thought for a moment.
“I’ll tell you what… you can share our food on the journey. But you’ll have to help with our railway newspaper. Can you write something for our paper?”
“Anything you want,” I assured him as I took possession of my ration and bit into the upper crust.
“Even feuilletons?” he asked, and the look on his face made it obvious that he thought me a liar.
“Feuilletons are my specialty.”
Three faces appeared out of the shadows of the plank bed, along with bare feet. They all looked at me.
“Fyodor! There’s room for one more on the plank bed. That son-of-a-bitch Stepanov isn’t coming,” the feet said in a bass voice. “I’ll make room for Comrade Feuilletonist.”
“Okay, make room for him,” bearded Fyodor said in confusion. “What feuilleton are you going to write?”
“The Eternal Wanderers.”
“How will it begin?” asked a voice from the plank bed. “Come over here and have some tea with us.” “Sounds good—Eternal Wanderers,” responded Fyodor, taking off his boots. “You should have said you wrote feuilletons to start with, instead of sitting on the tracks for two hours. Welcome aboard.”
A vast and wondrous evening replaces the scorching day in Vladikavkaz. The evening’s edge is the bluish mountains. They are shrouded in evening mist. The plain forms the bottom of the cup. And along the bottom, jolting slightly, wheels began to turn. Eternal Wanderers. Farewell forever, Genzulaev! Farewell, Vladikavkaz!
Agit-train in one of Dziga Vertov‘s famous documentaries
When I think of Ireland, John-Paul Finnegan said as we stood on the deck of the ferry while it pulled out of Holyhead, I think of a limitless ignorance. And not just an ignorance, but a wallowing in ignorance, akin to the wallowing in filth of a pig or a naked, demented savage. Ireland and the people of Ireland wallow in ignorance much in the way that a child or a lunatic wallows in its own filth, smearing the walls with it, grinning and cooing loudly, smearing the walls and itself with its own filth, its own stinking self-made filth. This is definitely how the Irish people are, he said. This is their primary characteristic. Absolutely. Elsewhere in the world you can find qualities in people, both individuals and groups, which correspond to words such as spirit, life-force, vitality, passion and curiosity, but in Ireland you will find no such qualities. No such qualities at all. This is what John-Paul Finnegan, author of Nevah Trust a Christian, told me as the ferry, the Ulysses, began to move out of the harbour at Holyhead, propelling itself away from the British coast, towards Dublin.
Consider the name of this very ship, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, don’t even get me started on the name of this ship, he said. But it was too late, because he had already got himself started on the name of the ship, which was Ulysses. Not a single fucking dickhead in all of Ireland has actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. Except me, of course, the biggest dickhead of them all. Yet everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses, or acts like they’ve read it, but none of them have. The last person in Ireland to read Ulysses was James Joyce, and even he only read half of it, said John-Paul Finnegan. Come to think of it, there were a few professors who came after Joyce who also read Ulysses, or rather, they didn’t read it, they killed it, they killed Ulysses by James Joyce, just like they have killed almost every other book that was once worth reading. And not only did they kill Ulysses, but first they mutilated it, subjecting it to the most mental forms of torture. And how did they kill it? he asked. I will tell you, he said. They killed Ulysses by rendering it a desiccated literary relic; they wrote a slew of murderously dull articles about Ulysses, and thereby killed it. They killed Ulysses by making it seem to anyone unfortunate or depraved enough to read one of their hateful papers that Ulysses is the most boring and flaccid book in the world, when of course it is anything but the most boring and flaccid book in the world, it is in fact deeply subversive, scatological, irreverent, perverse, and above all, diabolically deviant. That is, the form and the content of the book are deviant: they deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredoms of morality and plot, and from sentimentality — in other words, from all the shit of literature, said John-Paul Finnegan, the typical and all-too-prevalent shit of literature. Like any decent author, said John-Paul Finnegan, Joyce ignored the shit, he sidestepped it, the hideous shit of literature, because he couldn’t be bothered and he wanted to write a new kind of book, which is the only thing worth doing if you call yourself a writer of any description. Yet if you read one of the papers, any of the papers by those unconscionable fucking dickheads who write about Ulysses, you will soon if not immediately come to the conclusion that this book, this Ulysses, is not worth reading precisely because, judging by how these academic fucks, these sick, life-hating, evil, mental, and spiritually crippled fucks write about it, Ulysses must be the least interesting of all books, said John-Paul Finnegan as the ship, the Ulysses, finally pulled out of the harbour and commenced upon open water.
I sighed. John-Paul Finnegan was right, I thought. But then again, maybe he wasn’t right. Maybe he was entirely wrong, as he had so often been entirely wrong before, about so many things, nearly everything in fact. After all, I had read Ulysses, so he wasn’t entirely right. Likelier he was entirely wrong. After all, I was Irish, and I had read Ulysses. What about me? I said to John-Paul Finnegan, suddenly indignant that he would so casually disparage the entirety of the Irish race, myself included, on the basis of such a truly sweeping generalisation. What about me? I said again. To which John-Paul Finnegan looked at me, clasping his hands as the ship cut across the waves. What about you? he said warily. I read Ulysses, I said. That’s right, he said, I’d forgotten that. He seemed to be having a moment of self-doubt. So there’s you and then there’s me and then there’s James Joyce, he said finally. We three have all read Ulysses. But no one else in Ireland has ever read Ulysses, he added. This I know. I know this simply because I know it, he said, his confidence returning. In other words it is what the philosophers call a priori knowledge, the kind of knowledge which we can possess prior to, indeed independently of, empirical verification. I simply know, as you know, as everybody knows, that everyone in Ireland, everyone except you and me, is too fucking dim-witted, too altogether stupid and moronic, and above all too terrified by the very word literature, to have bothered to read Ulysses. That’s how I know. You think I’m fucking joking, he said, jabbing a finger in my chest. I am not fucking joking, he said. I am not even exaggerating, let alone joking. Irishmen are terrified of the word literature. I can guarantee you that if I were to suddenly turn around, on this deck, with these couples and old drunken builders and traveller families and whatnot, and if I were then to roar the word literature at the top of my lungs, the vast majority of these people would run to the sides of the ship and hurl themselves over the edge to be drowned. They would sooner drown than confront a man roaring literature. And the rest of them, John-Paul Finnegan added, would simply collapse on the spot, they would die of the sheer horror that the word literature provoked in them, the boundless sense of nausea, terror and repulsion it provoked in their Irish hearts, that is to say their pig-hearts, their flaccid dickhead hearts. Some of them would have heart attacks, others aneurysms. Others would simply keel, causes unknown. For they know nothing of literature, of Joyce, and they care for less, these Irishmen, said John-Paul Finnegan, glowering at me now with a ferocity and yes, a hatred which I had done nothing to deserve, or so I felt. I may as well roar Allahu akbar, added John-Paul Finnegan, as roar literature. I may as well wrap a towel around my head and roar Allahu akbar while ripping off my shirt to reveal a suicide vest, as to roar literature, for the effect it would have on these Irishmen, in other words these cretins, these fuckheads, these unconscionable morons and idiots, these fucking heartless and mindless pricks, these pigs and sheep and rodents that call themselves Irishmen, when in truth they should call themselves sheep and pigs and rodents, if not total fucking spanners, said John-Paul Finnegan, who now had flecks of foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, and whose eyes had not left mine. But it seemed to me that the boundless hate had drained from John-Paul Finnegan’s eyes, and what remained was a childlike fear, a pleading, a remorse even. I imagined that John-Paul Finnegan was flailing out in the sea, not the Irish Sea which our ship, the Ulysses, was cutting across at a decent speed, but the metaphorical sea, the Black Sea or the Dead Sea, the sea of loneliness, self-hate and dread that is the fate not of all men, but certainly of all thinking men, as John-Paul Finnegan had himself told me, in one of his more vulnerable moments, when we had lived together in London, in a crowded and unsanitary house near Finsbury Park.
These pricks! he shouted. These unconscionable mental pricks! How I fucking loathe them, he muttered, shaking his head violently, too violently I thought, he might do himself damage. He drew sharply from his hip-flask, neglecting to pass it to me. How low can you go? he asked. How fucking low? I will tell you how low: all the way to Ireland. That’s how low you can fucking go. I let it pass, that inane comment, and fell to thinking about our lives in London, the lives we were leaving behind, standing as we were on the deck of this ship, this Ulysses that was cutting across the Irish Sea, the coast of Britain fading behind us. It was in the house near Finsbury Park that John-Paul Finnegan had written the last three volumes of Nevah Trust a Christian, his novel in eleven volumes, as he always called it, with bottomless perversity, the fact being that there were no fewer than thirteen volumes in his novel, if it even was a novel. I had moved into the house when John-Paul Finnegan was nearing the end of volume twelve, which he had titled Who’s Ya Daddy? I write eight thousand words per day, he had told me on the night we first went out for drinks in the Twelve Pins pub on Seven Sisters Road. I replied that eight thousand words seemed like a lot, in fact it seemed like far too many words to write in a single day. Absolutely fucking correct, it is too many, it’s far too many words even for the most deadline-haunted hack, let alone for a writer of literature, such as myself, John-Paul Finnegan said, pouring a shot of whiskey into his Guinness, as was his wont, a concoction which he called Guinnskey. It was then that John-Paul Finnegan had explained to me his notion of paltry realism, the genre in which he claimed to write, and which he also claimed to have invented. Paltry realism means writing shit, he said. What I mean to say is, what is art, only a howl against death. Are we agreed on this, Rob? he demanded. I nodded my head. Good, he said. Then we are agreed that art is a howl against death and nothing more. Yet why is it, he said, that so much art tries to do the opposite, to ignore, even to deny death? Have you thought about this? he asked. Art, and especially literature, has a thousand clever ways of denying or ignoring death. One of these ways is literariness itself, that is, literary imposture, said John-Paul Finnegan. By which I mean the ceaseless attempt by practitioners of literature to achieve beauty and perfection, to write well, in short to craft perfect and elegant sentences. This is infinite bollocks, said John-Paul Finnegan. If you write slowly, carefully, then what are you doing if not indulging in vanity — the vanity of writing well. It’s no different from wearing a nice coat or a frock or a shiny pair of shoes to a bourgeois dinner party — and I will tell you now, he added, I am not nor have I ever been the kind of man to attend dinner parties, bourgeois or otherwise. And death is no fucking dinner party. The point is, though, said John-Paul Finnegan, trying to write well is vanity and nothing other than vanity, and when I say vanity I essentially mean the fear of death expressed in self-framing, as you will have guessed. That is where the technique of paltry realism makes its stance. Paltry realism means writing rapidly, and yes, even writing badly, in fact only writing badly, and not seeking to impress anyone with your writing, with either its style or its content. Paltry realism means writing eight thousand words per day, he said. Eight thousand words — far too many for any decent or tasteful writer, but perfect for the practitioner of paltry realism, a school which, for the time being, consists solely of me, said John-Paul Finnegan, fixing another Guinnskey. I was intrigued by his theory of paltry realism and urged him to say more, though I needn’t have bothered, as he was already talking over me, caught up in the swell of his own oratory, aflame with the zeal I was to observe in him many times over the course of our friendship, which began that night in the Twelve Pins and continued to the afternoon when we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses, which was now at full steam as it tore across the Irish Sea, the British coastline having faded completely to the stern. Another indicator of the vanity and ultimately the self-delusion of literature, even in its so-called avant-garde, modernist or experimental guises, is that its practitioners invariably display a craving, a very unseemly craving, to have their work published, John-Paul Finnegan had said that night in the pub, him downing Guinnskeys and me downing Guinnesses. All of them, the brazen slags, all they want is to be published, he said. They want an adoring or a scandalised public to read their works, thereby granting them a kind of immortality, or so they would like to think. This goes for Céline, Kafka, Pessoa, Joyce, Marinetti, Musil, Markson, Handke, Hamsun, Stein, Sebald, Bernhard, Ballard, Beckett, Blanchot, Burroughs, Bolaño, Cioran, Duras, Gombrowicz, Pound, Eliot, and any other dickhead of the so-called avant-garde that you might care to mention, as much as it goes for McEwan, Self, Banville, Tóibín, Auster, Atwood, Ellis, Amis, Thirlwell, Hollinghurst, Smith, Doyle, Dyer, Franzen, and any other arsehole active in mainstream literature today, said John-Paul Finnegan. To them, the value of a work of literature is dependent on its being published. If it is not published, it has no value. There is an ontological question at work here, he added: if a book is unread by anyone except its author, can it be said to exist? More pertinently, can it be said to be any good? My response, and paltry realism’s response, is simply to bypass the whole squalid agenda. What is the point in sending my writing out to publishers, said John-Paul Finnegan, so that they might accept or reject it? What is the use in that? I will tell you now: I reject the publishers, every last one of them, even the ones I admire, the ones I revere, the good and the best of them, because I am a paltry realist, and publication, Rob, is not among my aims, not among my aims at all, it is not among my aims, I am simply not fucking interested in being published, he said, slamming his Guinnskey on the table. I write for other reasons, he added, though he neglected to say what they were. On several occasions, while we were living together in the house near Finsbury Park, John-Paul Finnegan had permitted me to read sections of Nevah Trust a Christian, his gargantuan work allegedly in the paltry realist mode. True enough, the writing was very bad, and obviously written in great haste (handwritten, that is — John-Paul Finnegan hated typing on a laptop). The prose was utterly devoid of literary flair and displayed not the slightest effort to seduce or entertain the reader. Not that the writing was hostile to the reader, as can be the case among the severest of modernists; rather, the writing seemed indifferent to the reader, perhaps even unaware of the reader’s existence. There were few paragraph breaks and no chapter breaks. There was no discernible story and no characters. The word fuck, or one of its variants, appeared at least once on every line, more often twice or three times, or more. The word cunt was almost as frequent; the words bastard, dickhead, rodent and moron riddled the text. Several pages consisted solely of fuck-derived words repeated hundreds of times, punctuated by bastard, mongrel, cunthawk or dickhead. Others offered perfunctory descriptions of dusty towns and hurtling trams, giant mounds of waste and crumbling ridges, or glibly vicious references to contemporary events. I had the sense of an inner monologue; not exactly a stream of consciousness, more like a machinegun of consciousness, or a self-bludgeoning of consciousness, or just an interminable, pointless spewing of language, a kind of insane vomiting of language, page after page of it, a dozen volumes stacked on the floor beside John-Paul Finnegan’s desk, which was a backstage dressing-table salvaged from a closed-down strip club.
But this is not even the worst of it, John-Paul Finnegan said suddenly as we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses as it bounced over the waves, away from Britain. This ship, this Ulysses, is not even the worst of it, he repeated. The worst of it is Bloomsday. Have you ever seen Bloomsday? he asked. What I’m talking about, he said, is the national day of celebration in tribute to a book that no one in Ireland has even fucking read! That is what I refer to, said John-Paul Finnegan. Until a decade or so ago, Bloomsday was merely a kind of minor national stain, a silly and moronic venture that no one really bothered with, and which you could safely ignore. But then the government, that gang of dribbling pricks, that moron collective, as I have so often labelled them, saw in Bloomsday a serious marketing opportunity, one which they, in their infinite hatefulness, decided was far too lucrative to ignore. There was more money to be squeezed out of Joyce, they decided, as if Joyce were a sponge or a testicle, and even though not one of them — this I know — not one of them had ever read Ulysses, or even Dubliners, or any of Joyce’s books at all, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, these morons that I’m referring to, these are the kind of people who, if you suggested to them that they might read Ulysses or Dubliners, would laugh out loud. And I’m not talking about an embarrassed or a social form of laughter, he said, but a bellowing, hearty and spontaneous laughter, from the guts, a laughter of delight at what they would consider the mad and uproarious idea of reading Ulysses or Dubliners, said John-Paul Finnegan. He drew again from his hip-flask, then passed it to me. I drank. These morons, these dickheads, these unconscionable fucking arseholes decided to commercialise this so-called Bloomsday, said John-Paul Finnegan, the day when the fictional Leopold Bloom fictionally wandered around Dublin city, drinking, ruminating, chatting and so on. In other words, the sixteenth of June, he said. It would bring in the tourists, they reckoned. It would bring in the Yanks and Japs, the French and the Germans, the Swedes and the Slavs, the vulgarian Bulgarians and the roaming Romanians, and all those grinning tourists would spend their money admiring the Irish people and their literary heritage, even though the people of Ireland no longer read, are too stupid to read, let alone to read Ulysses, the book that this whole moronic fiasco of Bloomsday purports to celebrate. You don’t need me, said John-Paul Finnegan, to point out that the two Irish writers widely considered the greatest of the twentieth century, even by people who have never read and never intend to read either of them, namely Beckett and Joyce, had nothing but hatred and disgust for Ireland, and for the Irish. These two writers spent a huge amount of energy actively disparaging the Irish and Ireland, said John-Paul Finnegan, in their letters and conversation, and frequently in their published work too. Yet here we have a situation, this so-called Bloomsday, wherein all the fat waddling morons on the island gather in the streets to celebrate a book by Joyce which they never bothered to read! Pink pudgy dickheads. Mindless flabby wankers, trailing their moron progeny. Useless bastards one and all. They celebrate Ulysses in the most nauseatingly self-conscious of ways, prancing about for the snapping tourists, dancing like twats, like true dickheads for these snapping tourists, who gaze on in a euphoria of mindlessness, clicking their cameras, their smartphone cameras, their video cameras, recording the Irish, this literary nation, making absolute fools of themselves by aping the characters in a book they have never read, a book they never intend to read, for they hate books, they hate all books regardless of provenance, the only exceptions being Harry Potter and football biographies, said John-Paul Finnegan. Bloomsday, he said, shaking his head in disgust. Bloomsday. Fucking Bloomsday. Blooms-fucking-day. Bloom-fuckings-day. Fuck off, he said. Fuck right off. I mean it, fuck all the world. Listen to this, John-Paul Finnegan said. A few years ago I was back in Dublin, don’t ask me why, I was back in Dublin at the time of Bloomsday. I went into town, not to partake in the celebrations of course, but for unrelated reasons. And while I was in there I walked up O’Connell Street and listen to this, it will sound like the stuff of broad satire or lunatic fantasy but it is neither, Rob, I assure you. I walked on to O’Connell Street and what did I see, along the pedestrian island running up the middle of Dublin’s great thoroughfare, but hundreds of fat grinning idiots, together with their chortling wives and their chubby, shrieking children, all sitting in rows along either side of an immensely long dining table, said John-Paul Finnegan. I am not kidding you. And listen to this. Over their heads was a massive dangling banner, a dangling banner that read Denny Sausages Celebrate James Joyce’s Bloomsday. Yes! Denny fucking Sausages! As if the sausages themselves were bursting in ecstasy. This because somewhere in the scatological sprawl of Ulysses, between its intimate depictions of flatulence, defecation, masturbation, blasphemy, and unbridled male and female lust, there is brief mention made of Denny fucking Sausages, said John-Paul Finnegan. So here they were, hundreds of these fat chortling twats, crowded around a long dining table replete with white tablecloth, being served plate upon plate of sausages, each of them cramming their faces with sausage, a veritable orgy of sausage-gorging in honour of James Joyce, high-modernist and high-mocker of Ireland. Here is your legacy, James Joyce, John-Paul Finnegan roared over the waves, here is your legacy — two hundred chortling fucks eating sausages! You have really left your fucking mark, James Joyce. Oh yes you have! You are the KING OF MODERNISM! Presently John-Paul Finnegan produced his hip-flask, swigged on it, and passed it to me. I drank self-consciously, for despite the roar of the turbines and the waves crashing against the prow, many of the other travellers on deck had heard John-Paul Finnegan’s outburst and were looking warily in our direction. John-Paul Finnegan was oblivious to their gazes, or just indifferent. Fat waddling pricks, he muttered, more subdued now. How they waddle. Like fat, mental penguins. Fat chortling penguins, grinning like lunatics. Penguins of depravity, penguins of hate. Will I tell you what I did? he said, turning to me sharply. I will tell you what I did. I made it my business to at least attempt to fathom this unprecedented display of public idiocy, this linking of high-modernism to pork consumption. I walked along the rows of chortling, sausage-cramming Dubliners, through the gauntlet of snapping Japs, the lens-faced legions. Then I stopped and asked one woman who was sitting with a pile of sausages on a plate in front of her, whether she had actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. She stared at me for a long time, her expression conveying sheerest bewilderment and horror. Her child began to cry. Eventually the woman came out of her trance, and she said to me, very slowly, Ulysses. Just the word Ulysses, nothing more. I never saw a woman so afraid. Her little boy had his head in his hands now, weeping through his fingers, wailing. That was when the father turned around. He looked me in the eye, a long and disdainful look it was. Then he said, I think you’d better leave. What the fuck, said John-Paul Finnegan, recollecting the incident. What the fuck? All I had done was ask her if she had read Ulysses. They ran me out of there, he said. They’d have lynched me, that sausage-mob, if I had not made off with myself. A black day for Ireland, and a black day for me, said John-Paul Finnegan. And yet here I am, here we are, on a ferry, on the fucking Ulysses no less, gliding across the sea not away from, but in the direction of the accursed land, the steaming hole, the potato field, the literary and intellectual silence of Ireland. Would that it would crumble into the sea, he added. Would that the entire stinking mass, the whole abominable island would groan, keel and tumble into the sea. Dissolve in the sea. Dissolve like a man who is made of salt, a man who fell into the sea, he said. He was silent for a time, looking out at the waves. I thought about London, about Dublin, about our position now, suspended between the two cities. We must be the only two Irishmen returning to Ireland rather than fleeing from it, I reflected, not for the first time. I thought about Irish pubs, the many of them back in London I had drunk in with John-Paul Finnegan, and it seemed to me now that they weren’t pubs at all, but cages, or bear-traps. I began to fantasize about climbing the rail and flinging myself to the sea, vanishing in the foam with a truncated yell.
The journey was nearing its end. John-Paul Finnegan was muttering away by my side, as if in tense dialogue with the waves, or the treacherous forms that squirmed inside his head. I sensed that the closer we got to Dublin, the less sure of himself he became. Very soon we would be at Dublin port. I could already make out the Poolbeg towers hazed on the horizon. I thought of all the time we had spent away, John-Paul Finnegan and I, and the hatred he bore within him, the hatred that is purer than any other, the hatred for where one comes from. And now John-Paul Finnegan turned to me, gripping the rail. I could feel his gaze on me. I turned to face him. What the fuck did they do to me? he said quietly, referring to what, I did not know. What the fuck did they do to me, Rob? The words had to them a tone of revelation. The coastline was expanding across the horizon, sinister and domineering. John-Paul Finnegan shook his head. What the fuck did they do to me? What the fuck was going on, Rob? What the fuck was going on?
I turned away, facing the coast. Neither of us spoke for a time. John-Paul Finnegan went to speak again but hesitated. I did not look at him. Finally he said, I hate what I’ve written. I hate every word of it. That moronic and sickening fucking book. That so-called novel which I hate more than anything. He seemed calmer now, even as the coast grew closer, firmer, filling our vision to the prow of the Ulysses. Paltry realism is nothing, means nothing, he said. I wrote what I wrote because I thought it would heal me, but there is no healing, you just learn to live with your wounds and your mutilations, and you stagger onwards, crippled and bedraggled, towards your death. One day your energy fails you and you keel over, and that’s that. You have not been healed. In a way you died from your wounds. Every hurt and every humiliation lasts for ever. There is no healing. Writing changes nothing, it’s an infliction. You inflict yourself on the page, and then on the reader, and on the world. Better to have no readers, better not to write at all. There was no worth to what I wrote, nor to anything I have ever done. Nothing in my life has had any worth. Writing has no worth. Nothing has any worth. Nothing. We were both silent as the ferry sailed into the mouth of the port, the twin red and white towers looming like sentries. Now John-Paul Finnegan seemed truly calm, self-possessed once more, neither raging nor afraid. I will not forgive, he said. Fuck it all. I have decided. I will not forgive them, not forgive any of them for what they have done, for what they have done to me. I will not forgive them, he said. I will not. No. Fuck it, he said.
*This story is taken from: This Is the Ritual By Rob Doyle (Bloomsbury, 2016).
In March I received an invitation to appear at IdiotFest, the second most prestigious event on the entire Idiot circuit. I called my mother.
─Don’t you remember, Mom? It was in San Diego last year. I was an alternate.
─Oh, right. Of course. Congratulations, honey. That’s wonderful.
─I have a solo performance the first night. On one of the side platforms. Then, the last morning, I’m supposed to participate in a workshop on fluids.
─I bet they probably heard about what I did at the Canadian Summit.
─I’m sure they did. You got a lot of attention for that. Listen, I wish your father and I─
─Don’t worry about that, Mom. Indianapolis is quite a haul from California, and tickets aren’t cheap. I need to start looking for bargains myself.
─They’re not paying for your travel?
─No, just a discounted room at the main hotel.
─I’m only performing on a side platform, Mom. I’m not exactly Maury Benjamin.
─There’s only one Maury Benjamin. Still, I’m sure you’ll do great.
─This could be a really big break for me. If I make a good impression there, I got a great chance of winding up at the Gathering in December.
─Did you tell Michelle?
─Will you? What about the girls?
I counted fourteen people gathered around the small, wooden platform, including a friend of mine from high school who lives in town. We had talked about going out for a beer afterward. I blamed the weather. Fucking rain. At 6:30 there were still probably two-hundred visitors snaking around the lobby waiting to check in. I tried not to think about it.
I opened with some incoherent bellowing, my mouth still dry. After moving to the floor and yanking out a fistful of hair, I began my slobbering sequence. This was the first time I was using an oil capsule in public. I had no trouble bursting it, but I had some difficulty determining the rate of its drainage. In the solitude of my apartment, I had trained myself to gauge the size of the capsule’s rupture by concentrating on the strength of the oil’s flavor in my mouth. Once that was clear, I would decide how much saliva to mix with the oil in order to create a plausible degree of viscosity. I used a rosemary infusion. With a crowd this small, and with this kind of professional lighting, the oil was probably unnecessary. But it would have been foolish to pass up an opportunity to try it out in front of an actual audience. Plus, I could ask my friend about it later.
As I prepared to return upright, I noticed the assistant to the impresario standing against the back wall, nearly hidden in shadow. Somehow, I had missed her entrance. She contacted me with the initial invitation. Called me out of the blue and proceeded to compliment me throughout the conversation, she even made reference to the fact that I craft my own dental prosthesis. They had done their research. Maybe she had come to this room to check on the sound and the lighting, or to record the turnout, or just to get a feel for the overall atmosphere here on the first night. Maybe she just wanted to enjoy my work, to catch the act of that up and coming guy who refuses to order his hideously yellow buckteeth out of Chauncey’s Idiologue. Still, I couldn’t ignore the possibility that she had arrived primarily to judge me. To decide whether or not I deserved this platform, to consider whether or not I would be invited to return next year, to estimate the potential long-term commercial appeal of my idiot, to ask herself if she hadn’t made a mistake by bringing me here in the first place.
By now I was standing back up, moving into my bluster. The snot, thick and generous thanks to the air travel, bubbled out of my left nostril and ran onto my lips. But then, for the first time ever in the middle of an actual performance, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision. As I heaved my shoulders and used my forearm to spread the phlegm across my right cheek, I found myself focused on the assistant to the impresario. Like more than a few idiots, I had considered the route of the moron and the fool as well. And despite the fact that I believed deep down my talent lie in idiocy, I was haunted by what might have been had I elected to become a moron. After all, even my manager would admit that the moron circuit had more than doubled in the last five years and was now threatening to surpass foolishness in overall market share. My manager didn’t try to hide this from me. But he insisted that none of this mattered. All you should do now is be an idiot. It’s all you can do. You are an idiot. It’s that simple. An enormously talented idiot. You’ve spent too much time, you’ve sacrificed too much to give up now. Could you have made it as a fool? Perhaps. If you had gone the moron route, would you be on magazine covers today? It’s not impossible. But you know what, your time is coming, I truly believe that. There’s no turning back. All you can do is go out there and do it. And be it. Be the perfect idiot. I’ll take care of the rest.
The assistant to the impresario shifted her weight and moved her clipboard from one hand to the other. My website had eight-thousand hits last week. In April I learned I had made it to the final round of a major fellowship and was encouraged to reapply next year. Plus, there were rumors of increased government funding. And I did still enjoy the actual appearances, when I always felt I had found my calling and been true to it. My manager knew I had started meditating, he knew I was reading some of the Buddhist masters. He was kind enough to resist taunting me for this, he understood that with everything I was going through there wasn’t any other way. The point of my craft, the goal in my eyes, was to empty myself into moments of absolute presence, such that all my practice and devotion could be translated into simple effortlessness.
A couple of high school kids got up and left the room, walking past a young woman at the edge of the third row who looked to be a professional photographer. The assistant to the impresario greeted an older man who, judging from his suit, likely worked for the hotel. I was finding it difficult to cry. Rather than fight it, I released an especially violent moan, which drew the faces of the audience back to the platform, and brought my attention to the closing urination. I made myself perfectly still, letting the drool and mucus run off my chin. Fixing my eyes on a random spot near the side of the room, far away from the assistant to the impresario, who remained visible only as the small yellow patch of her hair, the hair I recognized from her picture on IdiotFest’s website, I prepared to empty my bladder. The jock strap and tape had done their job, and the tip of my stretched-thin penis remained fixed high above my right thigh. I began to relax my entire body, starting simultaneously from the tips of my toes and the crown of my skull. My eyes closed as my feet sunk into the uneven heels of my orthopedic shoes. With arms hanging limp from my shoulders and with knees slightly buckled, I allowed my abdomen to relieve the pressure it had been forced to endure for the last three hours. I sensed a gradual shifting below my waist, and soon my pant leg grew heavy and warm. Visualizing the expanding contours of the darkness steadily covering the worn khaki on my thigh, I sought to limit the rate of flow. At around fifteen seconds I heard a faint gasp. At half a minute the room had grown perfectly silent. By the time I was done, a full minute later, by the time my right sock was drenched and a fair-sized puddle was likely glimmering as it spread out along the platform, I allowed myself to seek out the assistant to the impresario. She had tucked her clipboard under one of her arms and was leading the stunned audience in a round of applause that sounded like the work of much more than twenty-six hands.
The beer with my old high school friend was so-so. Naturally, he praised my performance, and his words seemed very sincere. Said he was blown away. He may have been willing to continue talking about my idiot much longer, but it didn’t feel right. So I asked him about his career, something to do with marketing or PR, or marketing and PR. We shared what little we knew about the other guys we used to hang out with almost twenty years ago. Laughed a little. Food was decent. Even though we left the hotel, I couldn’t help scanning the bar from time to time to check if I recognized anyone, or if anyone recognized me. He listed the other divorces he’d heard about. There were more than a few. I reminded myself to be thankful that he came out. Even told him I was grateful. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about my performance, but I couldn’t really talk about any my art if I wasn’t allowed to express what it meant to me to be both exceptional and overlooked, to be an obscure genius, to be a man nearly, but only nearly, capable of finding solace in the expression of his own unique vision. I tried not to hate myself and my life again, so I reminded myself that here I was in a pleasant bar in Indianapolis, where I had recently shared my authentic self with a dozen or so perfect and similarly grateful strangers. He insisted that he pay and we told each other to take care.
Then I found myself back in the lobby, which was crowded, though not quite bustling. I scanned a number of small lounges, places where four or five pieces of furniture had been assembled for casual encounters. There were a few faces I recognized, but no one I really knew. I could think of two options. Go to the bar and order a drink, sit by myself, look at the televised sports, perhaps find someone to talk to. Adults did things like this, including adults at IdiotFest. Or go to my room. Turn on the television. Try to read. Take a pill. Sleep eight to ten dreamless hours.
I took out my phone, called Michelle, and had this conversation over the cheery din of the people gathered around me:
─Hi. It’s David.
─It went pretty well.
─My performance. I think it went well.
─Yes, I know. That’s good.
─The audience was kind of small, but I made a big impression, I could tell.
─That’s great. I’m happy for you.
─How are things there?
─Can I talk to the girls?
─They’ve been asleep for over an hour. It’s past ten here.
─Right. Of course. They’re okay?
─Well, thanks again for taking them this weekend. I appreciate it.
─You know, I gave a really strong performance tonight. I know I did. It could mean something for me.
─That’s wonderful, David, it really is.
─ Someone from the organization saw it, and I could see that she was amazed.
─Great. Really, but look, I─
─No, I mean, I just want to say, and I know I’ve said this before, but if my day comes, and I don’t know if it ever will, but if it comes, I won’t forget about your support and everything, about all those years…
─I won’t. It’s important you know that. I’ll make it up.
─No, I don’t mean that. I’m not asking for… but to you and the girls, I will.
─I should go. It’s late.
─Will you give them a hug for me?
On my walk to the elevators I passed a circle of people that included Paul Drexel, who had recently been awarded a genius grant. He was the first idiot to restrict his work to video installations, narrative-driven pieces shot in public spaces. We had met a few years earlier at a regional event, I found him tedious.
I turned around to see the blond head of the assistant to the impresario. She was smiling and looking at me.
I smiled back. She extended her hand. Her other hand was still carrying the clipboard.
I know. Hi.
Her hand was small for her height, but her grip was firm.
─I really enjoyed your performance.
─Thanks. Thanks a lot.
─No, really. I was truly impressed.
─I had heard some good things─
─You did? From who?
─From a number of people. It’s our job to hear things.
─But I mean it, that was better than good. That was a lot better than good. I’m sorry we couldn’t get you a bigger crowd.
─Don’t worry about it. I’m glad you liked it. I felt like it went pretty well.
─I hope we can get you a better platform next year. I don’t know, maybe you could even perform a Center Piece on the first night.
─That would be amazing.
─I mean, I can’t promise anything like that. Obviously.
─But, but you’re ready for something like that. You are.
─Thanks. That’s really great to hear. From you especially.
Her phone rang. She said just a sec, pulled a device out of her pocket, answered the call, and turned a quarter-rotation away from me. Someone from the organization. She mentioned the name of a cable station, and then I realized I shouldn’t be trying to listen to her conversation. I started to back away when she raised her finger toward me and made a strange face. She may have been apologizing or making fun of whoever was on the other line. I think it meant I shouldn’t leave. So I didn’t. I looked at her body briefly, at her face, wondering if she was attractive. I don’t think she was beautiful, but there was something warm about her, something that made her look more inviting that her physical features all alone would suggest. Some kindness, perhaps.
She got off the phone.
─Sorry about that.
─No problem. Everything okay?
─Just more bullshit. Nothing new.
I nodded. She asked if I wanted to have a drink.
I hadn’t been with another woman since the divorce. Just two dates. Or one and a half dates. A little kissing with the second one, someone my brother knew from his company. I wanted it to happen, I didn’t want it to happen. I tried not to think about it.
Gretchen wanted it to happen.
I was grateful to her well before we got to the room. She had an easy confidence about her, was able to put me at ease as she let me know she was happy to be in charge. I didn’t know what to order, so she suggested a particular beer. I didn’t know what to ask her, so she told me about the organization, about what it’s like to work with the impresario. I didn’t know if I wanted a second, or a third, beer, so she ordered for both of us. I didn’t know what to talk about, so I let her talk. When she started asking questions, I answered them, telling her whatever she wanted to know about my past, my art, and my ex-wife. And then she said, while the bar was still filling up, would you like to come to my room. I didn’t know that people ever really said such things. I knew they must. But I wondered how common it was and how likely it was that I would ever be asked such a question. For fourteen years it hadn’t been much of a possibility. It was, all in all, not a bad question to be asked, and I was thankful for my beers, for the way they allowed my face to not respond very much at all.
We had sex. This outcome was clear to me the moment she used her card to let us into her room. I was surprised to be so sure of something so new, but there could be no doubt. She went to the bathroom, tried different lighting combinations, took off her earrings and placed them on a dresser. Then she kissed me. We must have had the exact same breath. I smelled nothing.
Soon we found our way to the bed and our way out of our clothes. Her body, if not altogether better than Michelle’s, was fresher. This was a younger woman, with a tattoo of a pear tree on her hip. It felt remarkably reassuring to be with someone who seemed to have so few compunctions.
Quite quickly I was inside her. I thought, in these words, which announced themselves loudly, so this is what it’s like inside another person. Another fit. I removed myself for a moment, concerned about the possibility of premature ejaculation.
─Yeah. It’s just the first time since.
She smiled generously. Raised her head to mine and kissed my check.
─Well, I expect you’ll enjoy this. I’m going to do my best.
She may have laughed. I returned to her and things accelerated rapidly. Much more than not, her prediction proved accurate. I found myself calling upon some of my training in order to postpone my orgasm, and after a time I sensed she was both extremely pleased with and fairly impressed by my self-control. After perhaps ten to fifteen minutes we knew somehow to pause for a moment. Or maybe she just decided to ask me a question:
─Did you. With Michelle, did you ever?
─Did you ever, you know?
─Pretend to be an idiot.
I looked at her.
─Did you ever have sex with her as an idiot?
─No. No. I didn’t.
─Did you want to? Ever?
─I don’t think it was ever much an option.
─But did you want to? Did you ever want to?
─I guess I probably thought about it a few times.
─But did I want to?
She was stroking my back. We were on the thirty-fourth floor of a downtown hotel.
─Would you like to? Now?
I looked at her, at her nose and the way it lead to her mouth. Her features were a great deal more angular than Michelle’s. I touched her chin, which was smooth and red.
─Would you like me to?
─A little bit I would.
And so I did, a little. I watched her as she watched me, as I brought her such strange pleasure. It felt wonderful, mostly. I was good at this. The room seemed to grow perfectly quite except for me and the sound of our bodies, as if her attention silenced the circuits and pipes, the elevators and footsteps alive in this building, the late night traffic in the streets below. As I finished I thought, has Michelle been with another man yet? Was he kind to her? Did he invite her to be someone I discouraged her from being? Did it make him as happy as this Gretchen is right now?
I opened my eyes and found myself in a moment of pure uncertainty, with no idea where I was or even when I was in my life. I must have been dreaming just a second before, and my confusion led me to wonder if I still was. But I soon remembered. My head, near the edge of this bed, was pointing toward the outer wall. I tried to be completely still and listen for Gretchen’s breath, which was soon audible. The world outside was still dark, as dark as it ever got in the center of a city like this. I slowly left the bed. Once standing I looked back at her and a combination of red numbers on a digital clock that I had never before seen in a dark room in a strange hotel.
I walked to the window, pushed aside the curtains, and considered the view for a very, very long time. I was naked and unexpectedly calm, as if large parts of me remained asleep in that bed. The skyline was both unremarkable and interesting, as the traffic lights changed steadily even when there were no cars to direct. Though the rain had stopped at least three hours earlier, much of the city was still damp, and together the lights and the moisture created a pleasing effect. I felt truly alone, every bit as alone as I would have felt in my own room, twenty-nine flights below. This did not bother me. Eventually I turned away from the window, suddenly struck by an urge to wander the streets before dawn. I quietly found my clothes and shoes. While getting dressed I wondered what it would be like to be a source of pride for my family. I left Gretchen’s room, stepping carefully over the morning paper already waiting just outside her door.
The elevator stopped at the thirty-second floor. After the door slid open, Maury Benjamin stepped inside and pushed a button. I had only seen him in person three times since I first attended one of his shows over twenty years ago. I was visiting my older brother in New York, where he was going to school, and he and his friends dragged me to a performance. Idiocy was still a new art then, and, my brother told me on the way to the theater, Maury Benjamin was going to be its ambassador to the world.
In the twenty-plus years since I had only ever seen a few pictures of him out of character, and I was, in addition to the larger shock of being alone with him in this elevator, amazed by how conventionally he was dressed. A button-down blue Oxford, cuffless grey trousers, a herringbone sports jacket, a pair of plain penny loafers. He was holding a couple sections of that same newspaper under his arm, standing right next to me as the elevator resumed its descent.
He turned to me, studied my face.
─You look familiar to me, you know that?
I smiled, perfectly speechless. Not five minutes into that first show I was overcome with fear. As if the man on the stage were a source of heat, some out-of-control flame, as if by merely watching him I was exposing myself to great danger. But I experienced a weird joy, too, as if his performance were an invitation, a challenge to go forward into something I knew nothing about, nothing except its overwhelming authenticity. I decided that night, sitting right there in that crowded theater, this is what I will do with my life. He was responsible.
─I know! Of course. Look at this.
And he opened the Arts section of the local paper. And right there on the front page, right below the headline, “Idiots Invade Indy,” was a large, color picture of me from the end of yesterday’s performance.
─That’s quite a bit of piss, young man.
He laughed briefly.
─I mean, you must have been keeping some of that in your lungs. Unless you were smuggling it in a sack.
─Not me. Never.
─No, you look like the real deal to me. Must have hurt like hell, sitting on that bladder. That’s talent. And determination.
He turned back away from me and watched the elevator display the floors passing by in quick succession. Until he spoke again, without turning his head.
─You know what I did on my sixtieth birthday?
─About a month ago. 60. I moved my bowels in front of almost 4,000 people, some of whom had reportedly paid over $500 for the privilege to watch. Then, after a late lunch at the best restaurant in all of Manhattan, I was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. I gave the professors and donors a short speech, fresh out of crap as I was.
The elevator stopped just above the lobby, the display said 1R. The door behind us opened. Maury Benjamin started walking out.
─Oh, I eat all my meals in the kitchen. I don’t mind the performance, but I can’t stand the autograph hounds and all the other lunatics at these events.
I looked at him as he stood in the doorway.
─Say, you going to be at the Gathering?
─Not sure. I hope so. Haven’t heard back from them yet.
He pointed at the caption under the picture in the paper.
─Did they get your name right?
I read the caption.
─Yes. That’s me.
─I’ll put in a good word for you. But don’t think of it as a favor. Just curious to see all that piss in person. I myself was never much in the piss department.
Before I could thank him he turned and walked away, the door sliding closed a moment later. I got off at the lobby, only to see that it had started raining again. According to the clock above the reception desk, it was already late enough to call Michelle and the girls. But first I decided to a drink of water. Wanted to see if I could hold it until lunch.
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
Lovingly crafted by Oddity&Rfesty