I have read a lot of French novels in my lifetime, many of which I consider to be amongst my favourites. Two of these French novels were written by Edouard Levé. I have never had a sexually transmitted disease. I once thought that I might have one, but the test result was negative. I own a cat, but I prefer dogs. I believe that my cat and I are too similar in terms of our personalities. I often think about giving up reading. This would of course mean that I would not read any more French novels, including those written by Edouard Levé. It is a fantasy of mine that I will do more with my life than just read. I once spent a day with a beautiful Russian girl from Sochi who gave me a 100 rouble note to remember her by. I keep it in my wallet. People frequently accuse me of being aloof and distant. I am scared of spiders, but not scared of rats or snakes. It is rare that I enjoy writing about books. I decided to write about Autoportrait in this way out of laziness, and because I do not have a lot to say about it. I am not very generous with money. The company and conversation of most people bores me, including many of my friends. As a child, I once threw away all of my mother’s make up because I thought it might have been tested on animals. I have a tendency to focus on my character flaws, even though outwardly I appear confident and sure of myself. Generally speaking, I am not attracted to white English women. The prospect of my own death terrifies me. One thing I can say about Autoportrait is that it is composed of a series of banal, apparently factual, statements. This is itself a banal factual statement. I do not own a TV. I once let a spider live in my room because it appeared to flinch when I went to kill it. It is possible that I later killed it believing it to be a different spider. I lost my virginity at eighteen. I once drank a pint of tequila and almost died. As a result, I did not drink tequila for years, until a Czech girl ordered it for me in a nightclub in Prague. I do not speak Czech, and therefore I could not communicate to her my aversion to that particular drink. I am convinced that if I met myself I would despise me. I do not believe in God, but I often pray to him and ask favours of him. I do not know how to spell bureaucracy. As a child, I once fell in a river and had to be pulled out by my hair. I found reading Autoportrait an emotional experience. Although individually many of the sentences are uninspired, when taken as a whole Levé’s novel gives you a sense of a real man. It may be the only novel in existence that does this. Having read the book I feel as though I simultaneously know a lot about Edouard Levé and nothing at all. I have never cheated on a partner, although I have been accused of it numerous times. I am left-handed. I know all the words to Stickwitu by The Pussycat Dolls. If asked to sum up Autoportrait I would perhaps say that it is a kind of autobiography with all the important events, all the drama, edited out. I feel as though I consistently punch above my weight in terms of the women I date. I have never kissed a man, and have no desire to do so. I cannot whistle. I have never cried at a funeral. The idea behind Autoportrait is a great one, but I usually find this kind of ‘gimmicky’ literature tedious to read. I am addicted to cigarettes. I smoke cigarettes even though I hated the smell of cigarette smoke as a child. I smoke cigarettes even though I am terrified of death. I did not smoke a cigarette until I was twenty-two. Edouard Levé sniffed the books he was reading, but I do not. However, I did sniff Autoportrait in preparation for this review. It doesn’t smell of anything, except perhaps cigarette smoke. I smoke a lot while I am reading. I was once locked in a bathroom when the handle of the bathroom door came off in my hand as I attempted to exit. I seriously considered jumping out of the window, even though, being far from the ground, I would likely have badly injured myself. I masturbate every day. When I masturbate I usually think about receiving oral sex. Autoportrait is not one of my favourite novels, although I certainly enjoyed it. I once had sex in a photobooth in Paddington station. I brush my teeth three times a day. My favourite Kraftwerk album is Computer World. I find the minutiae of human existence moving. I am 5’9″ tall. I am 5’9″ tall, in the right kind of shoes. My waist is 26″. I do not enjoy live music. I find the posturing of most musicians ridiculous. I have never wanted to play the guitar. I have eight tattoos. I want my hands tattooing, but I am concerned that it would harm my job prospects. I regularly fantasise about winning the lottery. I do not play the lottery. Autoportrait occasionally made me laugh, but most frequently it made me smile. I have never smoked marijuana. I do not like the idea of a drug that would make me sit around on my arse all day laughing like an idiot. I like to dance. I am not shy, I am just unfriendly. I believe that I may be Autistic. My ex-grilfriend’s nickname for me was Rainman. After reading two of his books I am still undecided as to whether Edouard Levé was a genuinely talented writer, or merely a clever one. I consider myself to be unlucky. I find the fetishisation of books, and the cult of reading, extremely tiresome and, quite frankly, weird. I have never wanted to meet a famous person. If I had been offered the opportunity to meet Edouard Levé, I would have turned it down. I read Autoportrait cover-to-cover. I do not own a single photograph showing me with any of my friends or ex-partners. It is not true to say that Autoportrait is a random series of sentences in no discernible order. The final sentence, for example, strikes me as having been carefully chosen. I won an award at the age of sixteen for a short story I had written. I did not go to the ceremony to collect the award. I am more excited by the idea that Autoportrait could be entirely fictional, rather than factual or autobiographical. I would not describe the book as confessional, although my review of it perhaps is. I do not enjoy making other people unhappy. I often find that I enjoy my memory of experiences more than the experiences themselves. I have never seen the Lord of the Rings films. I frequently burn pizza. At some point I intend to review Autoportrait in a more conventional manner, but I probably never will. I have fired a gun. I intensely dislike my brother. My mother loves me, but does not like me very much. I believe that I write better book reviews than anyone else. I do not think that I am especially talented, simply that other writers and reviewers are less talented than me. I do, however, acknowledge that this review is particularly poor, and am prepared to accept that numerous other people will have reviewed Autoportrait better than I.
Jemmia emerged out of the tube station and turned right. She was wearing red shoes, which, as she stepped, looked like dripping drops of blood. A young man was waiting for her. She had first met the young man three years earlier. She was nineteen then, twenty-two now. They had become friends, in a way. The first day they had kissed strange kisses. Jemmia kissed in short bursts, like a small child. The young man had found that both frustrating and very sad. It was as though no one had ever kissed her properly, with feeling, and so she pecked at his face like a cautious bird. ‘I knew you would be a good kisser,’ is what she had told him, after. That had made him sad too.
In the second or third pub a woman had leaned over the back of the seat in front, and said ‘your girlfriend is pretty,’ and then asked him for a cigarette. Everything made him sad that day. The woman had looked like the kind of person who would force a flier into your hand out on the street, and the walls of the pub had been a dull yellow, like urine-stained bathroom tiles.
Between pubs they had walked awkwardly, not quite in step, so that the young man had to almost turn around to talk to her. They had not held hands. It had not occurred to either of them. In the wind his conversation had streamed past her shoulders, like her hair. She seemed content, he had thought, and that had made him sadder still. In pub after pub he had placed his hand high up her thigh. She had expected this, or something like it. In fact, she had braced herself for more, but that had not materialised. He had come so far and then retreated, like a housecat nosing a gap in a window only to be scared off by the cold. She had braced herself, but wanted more. It was expected, and therefore necessary. Her disappointment made her stare. Her eyes were like polished snooker balls; the only thing he could see in them was his own reflection.
Somehow night had fallen, not with the giddiness of a drunken fool, but with the solemn slowness of a weary working man getting into bed at the end of a long shift. In the last pub, music blared and the lights flashed like cat claws. ‘You’ve never flirted with me,’ Jemmia had said. That had been her invitation. ‘I have,’ he had lied, ‘but maybe I haven’t been obvious enough about it.’ They had reached an understanding, and so she had smiled, and reapplied her buttery lipstick.
‘It’s my birthday tomorrow,’ she had said when he had asked her to spend the night with him. ‘My dad will be upset if I don’t come home.’ Neither remembered suggesting a hotel, although the young man would take credit for it whenever he shared the story. That story, his story, bore little similarity with the actual events. Over time, he had replaced and reimagined so much that his memory of the night with Jemmia was no more real to him than a dream.
Jemmia slowed as she approached the young man. He took a step forward, and then stopped. She hugged him loosely and, because she was wearing her hair up, he felt the small stray hairs at the back of her neck. Six months ago Jemmia had called him and told him that she was in an institution. He had never asked how or why. On the street, she kissed him on the mouth, a real kiss, not like before, and he was aware that this would have made him sad too, at one time, but he could no longer conjure up those feelings. They were like something he had bought rashly at auction, and which he had now locked away somewhere in order to not be reminded of his foolishness.
For sale: babies shoes, never worn.
The above is described as a six-word novel, and is often said to have been written by Ernest Hemingway, although I have also seen it attributed to F Scott Fitzgerald. Regardless of the identity of the author, it’s an clever little thing. It is designed to make one ask questions, such as Why were the shoes never worn? Why are they for sale? and so on. One is meant to read the novel and speculate; one is meant to be intrigued.
When I came to review The Shipyard by the Uruguayan author Juan Carlos Onetti I set down the following as the beginning of a brief synopsis:
A former pimp, Larsen, returns after an unexplained exile to a fictional South American town.
And I looked at that and felt as though those words contained something like the ‘babies shoes’ sense of mystery. Why a former pimp? Why had he been exiled? Why is he returning now? That such few words could raise so many interesting questions, could excite me even though I’ve already read the book, goes, I hope, some way to highlighting the power of Onetti’s short novel.
Larsen makes his entrance into Santa Maria ‘just after the rain had stopped, maybe heavier than before, more squat, apparently tamed, no different from anyone else.’ He is, one could say, a normal man, a man, as Onetti has it, who is no different from anyone else; and yet what happens to him, and more specifically, his own behaviour, is not normal at all. The real clue to the novel is in that word tamed. It’s a sad word, in my opinion. To be tamed one must, of course, have once been untamed; it is, then, a word that signals defeat, or submission, at least. It is this sense of being tamed or defeated that motivates Larsen to do the strange, possibly insane things that he does. What does he do? Well, he starts to pursue a local woman, Angelica Ines, almost for the sake of it, but, more importantly, he takes a job at a local shipyard. This shipyard, however, has been out of business for some time. Bizarrely, no one wants to acknowledge this fact, including the owner and his co-workers, and so Larsen continues to go to work; he makes plans for the business, he takes check of the stock, he fights for a competitive wage [a wage that he will never be paid].
At heart, this pretence, this act, this fiction, is merely a way of attempting to convince himself that his purposeless life has a purpose, that it may have a meaningful future, that his best, brightest days haven’t already been pissed into the wind and that it isn’t the case that all that remains is a long and tedious crawl towards death. He is now tamed, yes, but he is fighting to persuade himself that it isn’t the end of the world, that he still has something to live for. All of which sounds kind of depressing, I guess, and also kind of humorous [to me, at least]. But, be warned, Onetti is possibly the most straight-faced writer I have ever encountered. He doesn’t play for laughs. Someone like Nikolai Gogol, and others, would have teased out the comedy of this set-up by pitching a heroically sane Larsen into a river of stupidity, by surrounding him with morons, by making his responses to this stupidity and these morons increasingly frantic, increasingly exasperated. Not Onetti! Oh no, he sees your potential giggle and stamps on it, as though it were a spider.
In the other novel I have read by him, A Brief Life, the po-faced attitude, or authorial voice, feels oppressive, is actually dispiriting and tiring. The Shipyard works, however, because of the wonderful balance between that absurd set-up and the very serious treatment of it.
There is a rule amongst men, a golden rule, by which we live our lives. One must preserve its sanctity and never knowingly break it. It is this: with every relationship you enter into with a woman, the female in question must be more attractive than the last woman you had a relationship with. If she is not more attractive than the last then a man will be tormented (and ultimately ruined) by feelings of disappointment and self-loathing. There are, however, a number of conditions or clauses. One is that the rule applying to relationships does not apply to sex. A man is free to have sex with any woman, no matter how inferior she is to the last woman that he had sex with. Grotesque and beautiful are terms that do not apply to mere sex. The rule for sex is this: you do not have to look at the mantlepiece when you are poking the fire. (Or: any hole is a goal). When roughly translated this means that whilst a vagina is important when wishing to pursue a sexual encounter with a woman, her looks are not. It is important to bear in mind that a man does not have to look at a woman when he has sex with her (he can close his eyes, for example)
If a man believes that he has reached the apex of his potential, which is to say that if he believes that he has attracted the most beautiful women that he is able to attract, then he must marry her. Under no circumstances must a man take a backwards step; pride, honour and self-respect will not allow it (nor will the man’s friends, who will relentlessly chastise and humiliate him). Ever conscientious, it was with these ideas in mind that Lucas approached his love life and it was for these same reasons that he asked his wife to marry him. His wife consented, of course, for women have a rule of their own, which is: always say yes if a man asks you to marry him, even if you do not intend to actually marry him. Lucas could not say whether she considered him to be the pinnacle or if she merely settled, but he was aware that her family and friends assumed that she had settled or made a compromise (they often told her so and told him). He was also well aware that when they went out together (something he tried to avoid, but which could not be avoided completely) on-lookers were struck by the disparity between her physical features and his own. (He knew this because people – men – would often approach his wife and tell her so and tell him).
Lucas and his wife had been married for 13 years and would be together, he had no doubts, until one of them died. In theory, marriages that last a lifetime indicate a shared and monumental love between a husband and wife, but this is not always the case (it certainly was not the case in this instance). Lucas did not love his wife (he did not know what love is), but he did not hate her either (he did not know what hate is). For him, she negated positive or negative definition and was, to all intents and purposes, just there. However, three times a year he was expected to make a show of his love for her. (Whether he loved her or not it was expected and he always obliged). These three occasions were her birthday, Valentine’s Day, and their wedding anniversary.
As you are well aware, birthdays are hugely important to our species as they mark the day that a person was borne, a day of celebration where nothing is ever said about whether it was a good or bad thing that the person in question was brought into the world. Valentine’s Day falls on the 14th of February every year and was created by human beings in order to relieve other human beings of their money and to remind them to show some affection and love towards their girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives. Our species needs to be reminded to do these things because we are very busy and forget to be loving and affectionate most of the time. As for wedding anniversaries, they mark the day a couple got married and are the day that couples put aside their intense resentment of each other and pretend that they still like one another. Lucas showed his appreciation of his wife on all three occasions in the same way: by buying her flowers, telling her that he loved her, and taking her out to a restaurant. He did these things because this is what every other man does for his wife on these three days.
At the front door of his house he tried his key in the lock, but, as was always the case, his wife had had the locked changed while he had been at work. His wife was constantly having the locks to their house changed because Lucas’ wife was scared. She was scared of everything, and was, he thought, probably wise to be so (although the world was not scary to Lucas, merely odd and unfathomable), but was most of all scared that a big black man (or a big white man convinced that he is a black man) was going to force entry into the house and rape and murder her and the children. She was probably also a little bit scared of Lucas, although he wouldn’t rape and murder her and the children unless it suddenly became the normal thing to do.
Lucas knocked on the door and waited for the familiar question.
‘What is the password?’ she asked through the door, with a veneer of authority.
‘That is not the password.’
‘I’m your husband.’
‘That is not the password,’ she repeated robotically.
‘Isn’t the password ‘password?’’
His wife didn’t say anything else; instead there was the sound of the releasing of the new lock, and the withdrawing of the numerous bolts that also adorned the front door. She did not open the door to greet him, she never did this, but instead walked away a safe distance (just in case, one presumes, that the voice that sounded so like his actually belonged to a big black man). Lucas grabbed the handle and pushed the thick and heavy wooden door and entered the fortress.
‘Hello Wife,’ he greeted her affectionately, while still keeping a cautious distance in case she was holding some kind of weapon and something spooked her.
‘Hello Husband,’ she replied, starting to relax as her eyes settled on his familiar form.
He approached her slowly and kissed her on the cheek (and stifled an impulse to hold out his hand for her to shake). His wife had been drinking; he could smell the alcohol on her breath as it grazed his cheek. He could also smell it in the air, its vapours having drifted into the hallway from whichever room she had been drinking in all day.
‘Hard day. How was work?’
‘I missed a meeting.’
‘Was it important?’
‘Well, that’s ok then. Why did you miss it?’
‘I was having lunch.’
‘Oh. Have you seen Nina today?’
‘No,’ he lied, for he knew that the lie was expected of him.
‘Is that her lipstick on your cheek?’
‘No, it’s yours.’
‘How are the children?’
‘In the front room playing computer games,’ she replied, not answering his question.
She turned and walked unsteadily away towards the kitchen, her feet moving almost independently of each other like a half-crushed spider, and mapping random patterns on the carpet as though she were a mobility impaired old lady playing an elaborate, and elaborately difficult, game of hopscotch.
Lucas follow her, relieving himself of his coat and briefcase (which was always empty) on the way. In the kitchen he placed the books that he had purchased at lunchtime down on the counter, and, deciding to make a cup of tea, which he considered to be a useful tool for passing time and avoiding, for some precious, often valuable seconds, his wife’s conversation, started to fill the kettle at the sink. As he was doing so he was ambushed from behind. He turned expecting to find his wife wriggling up against him in a belated welcoming embrace, the relieved embrace of a woman now completely sure that he wasn’t a big black man more expertly disguised than ever, but instead found her hands on his buttocks, and quickly snaking around towards his crotch. She is definitely drunk, he thought to himself.
‘I’ve been really lonely today,’ she said (but not flirtatiously, quite sadly and seriously), as she attempted to unzip the fly of his trousers.
‘The children!’ he protested.
‘Fuck the children. They have had me all day, now it’s your turn.’
He quickly realized that he was going to spend the vast majority of the evening resisting his wife’s clumsy (and almost illegal) attempts at seduction, at least until she sobered up around midnight or fell asleep.
Lucas wanted to tell his wife that didn’t like having sex with her. He didn’t dislike it either, in truth, but he would, it almost goes without saying, prefer to avoid it. He found that faking sexual pleasure was hard work and the constant awareness of the ridiculous noises that he (faked), and she (who knows), made throughout the act not only exhausted him and left him with a sore throat but also contributed to it seeming as though it went on forever, their groans punctuating the silence and slowing time the way that a ticking clock can slow time. It was also apparent to him that there was something unnatural about having sex with his wife, as none of his co-workers ever have sex with their wives, unless it was Valentine’s Day, their wedding anniversary, or their birthday of course.
‘Later Darling,’ he promised (in the hope that later would never arrive), and grabbed one of her breasts to show that he meant it.
‘I’ll hold you to that,’ she threatened and squeezed his balls. ‘Go and say hello to the children. Alex has drawn you a picture.’
Released from her grip Lucas finished making his drink and took it with him into the living room, where Alex (his son, aged 7) and Bethany (his daughter, aged 12) were indeed playing a computer game.
‘What are you playin’?’ he asked as a way of announcing his entrance.
Alex did not acknowledge him, but Bethany responded with a cheerful ‘hello Daddy.’
‘Hello gorgeous,’ Lucas replied. ‘Alex, are you not going to say hello to Daddy?’
Alex continued to stare at the TV screen with malevolent concentration.
‘Uh, hello,’ he said finally, after a significant pause, a pause as broad and deep and black as Hell, that seemed to suggest that he was no mood for small talk with his father today (he was, in fact, never in the mood for small talk with his father).
‘What are you playing?’ Lucas asked again.
‘Paedo,’ replied Alex with relish.
‘What? What’s that?’
‘Dunno. S’wha it’s called.’
‘It is called Paedo, Daddy,’ Bethany confirmed.
‘You have to kill people,’ Alex added, his countenance momentarily brightening.
Lucas looked at the TV where a man, controlled by his son, brutally dismembered another man in a bedroom with an axe, while a young child rocked back and forth on his knees in a corner. It was hard to tell at this point in the game whether Alex was the good guy or the bad guy, or whether Bethany was the child or the man being murdered.
‘Which one are you sweetie?’ he asked her.
‘Oh, I’m not playing,’ she told him and quickly put down the joypad she was holding.
‘It’s ok if you want to play,’ he reassured her.
‘No, I don’t like this game.’
He smiled at her and then addressed the boy, ‘hey Alex, big man, Mummy says you have drawn me a picture.’
‘Can I see it? I bet it’s very good.’
His son sighed. ‘I’m playing, Father,’ he scolded him.
‘Daddy,’ Lucas corrected him, even though he knew that the boy would never call him that unless he was to do so sarcastically. (My son, he thought to himself, would refer to me as Mister or Sir if thought he could get away with it, which of course he could, but he doesn’t know that yet). ‘Can’t you just pause the game?’ he pleaded. I always end up pleading with him like this, even though I don’t care whether he does what I am asking him to do or not. ‘It’ll only take a minute.’
With an exasperated groan Alex threw the joypad onto the floor and got to his feet. (He did not pause the game, in order to emphasise the inconvenience that his father was causing him). He began to stomp over towards Lucas, an embodiment of irritation and lack of patience, but half-way seemed to have a moment of epiphany and slowed his pace and, with almost deference, completed the journey with his hands behind his back and his head slightly bowed. When he arrived before him he lifted his head and gazed at his father with the large, glassy, and exuberant blue eyes that he had inherited from his mother, eyes that were so opulent and lavish in their beauty that they belonged inside the Vatican. Without saying a word he began to fidget in his pocket and eventually pulled out a piece of paper, which had been folded into four. He passed the still folded piece of paper to Lucas and smiled nervously.
‘Thank you,’ he said and ruffled the boy’s hair.
He then unfolded the paper slowly and stared at the expertly rendered likeness of himself. Particularly accurate was the vacant look on his illustrated face, which, along with the rest of his decapitated head, sat atop a large bloody spike. Above the image Alex had scrawled the words I Hate ‘Daddy’ (note the inverted commas – what precociousness!) in case there had been any ambiguity present in his drawing.
So my boy hates me? This I already knew. The boy is hardly subtle. He has eyed me (with those engaging and magnificent eyes) with intense suspicion and antipathy ever since he exited his mother’s womb. Yes, even in the hospital as the doctor presented my son to me for the first time the bloody, mucus-covered, child sneered at me and then silently turned his head and royally waved his hand in my direction in order to dismiss me from his presence. The boy knows something; he can sense it I am sure. His general demeanour towards me is of a dog on heightened alert, one that has been taught to dislike strangers or anything out of the ordinary.
On occasions Alex rejoiced in tripping his father up or punching him in the stomach or throwing large heavy objects at him. Lucas was quite aware, of course, that he could not hit the child back, that he had in fact no authority over him whatsoever, and so Alex regularly called his bluff if he threatened to physically punish him. ‘Do it Father,’ he would taunt, and Lucas would raise his hand and leave it hanging in the air, like a particularly damp but practically odourless fart, in the vain hope that the boy would flinch and that he, Lucas, would prosper, but he never did of course. He could not hit his son (and he, his son, knew it) because that was not what normal people did. (Parents are too scared of the government to hit their children, or hug them or speak to them too familiarly).
The worst thing he could do to Alex was to give his mother an account of his behaviour and ask her deal with it. (He was, in this triangle between his wife and his son and himself, the informant). He didn’t want to shop his son to his wife because, in all honesty, he did not care about his anti-social behaviour. He did not mind if he hated him or loved him or was indifferent. He was not concerned about his attitude, or whether his treatment of his father was just a phase that he was going through or whether it was actually symptomatic of deep unhappiness or trauma. He had to pretend that he cared, of course, so he always shopped him to his wife, unless he was too tired or too busy. In direct contrast to the way that he felt about his father Alex idolized and adored his mother. To have seen him around her you would have thought that he was the most adorable and well behaved little boy. He was polite, articulate, attentive and affectionate towards his wife at all times. He would pour her drinks, or draw her bath; he would rub her shoulders and stroke her hair when she had had a hard day (which meant that she had been on the hard liqueur). He was, in fact, a better husband to her than Lucas was, and Lucas did not mind at all (he did not feel jealous) because it took some of the strain away from him. To observe the doting son was to fully comprehend the power of the breast and the vagina and the influence they exert over men.
This is not to say that both of his children hated him, for Bethany was, to all intents and purposes, a perfect child (although, one cannot help but note, she was far less attractive than her brother). Lucas’ daughter was loving (towards both parents) and respectful and charming and intelligent and was never spiteful or vindictive or abusive. (She was also, judging by the bleak diary entries she penned, which his wife relayed to him most evenings, very probably suicidal and depressed). Things had been tricky with Bethany too though, for a while. She, albeit never as obviously and psychotically as Alex, also seemed to be suspicious of Lucas, during her early years, and so clung to her mother for protection. His solution to this problem (this abnormal distance between himself and his daughter) had been to buy her a puppy, and from the moment he brought the dog into the house, cradled in his coat and eyeing him with the love and affection he had never received from his offspring, his daughter’s distrust and caution disappeared completely. He would, of course, have attempted the same trick with Alex if he had not been sure that his son would have named the beast Daddy and then drowned it.
‘That’s really, uh, creative Alex,’ Lucas praised him with as much sincerity as he could muster whilst staring at an uncannily realistic depiction of his own death.
‘Yuh, fanks,’ the boy responded solemnly, his face a discreet portrayal of disappointment as the realization dawned on him that he had not quite caused the amount of grief in his subject as he had anticipated.
‘It looks just like me, Alex. The shading…’
‘I don’t need a 300 word review, Daddy,’ he interjected sarcastically and snatched the drawing from his hand.
‘I love you, Daddy,’ the previously quiet Bethany chimed in, sensing that his son’s callous remarks might have hurt Lucas.
‘I love you too, Petal,’ he lied.
Thoroughly exhausted from this encounter with his children he withdraw from the living room and returned to the kitchen.
‘Those kids…’ he began as his wife turned from the cooker to acknowledge his presence.
‘I know, we’re very lucky,’ she replied without a trace of irony.
He tipped the now cold tea down the sink and placed the cup back on the counter. The cup was his wife’s and was emblazoned with the words I always cook with wine…and sometimes I put some in the food too!
‘Have you seen that game they are playing?’
‘Oh yes, Porno or something.’
‘Paedo,’ he corrected her.
‘Ok, Paedo. It’s educational.’
‘Yes, children need to be aware.’
‘Aware of what?’
‘The dangers,’ she said ominously, ‘and how to defend themselves from bad people.’
‘With an axe?’
‘Or something like that.’
‘Yes, something like that.’
He tried to think of something more to say to the woman with whom he had spent more than a third of his life, but he could not find any suitable words (normal, neutral words, unengaging words, words that would not have extended the conversation but would have provided a fitting conclusion to it). Instead he picked up the books that he had left on the kitchen counter and took them upstairs to his study, a place that provided him with his only sanctuary. (My study…even the words formulated more pleasantly in his mind and on his tongue). If he were capable of feeling anything he would have been in love with this particular room. He imagined that a man in similar circumstances would weep openly at being reunited with its four walls. He did not weep of course, because he was unable to form attachments (yes, even to inanimate objects like furniture or carpets, which other people seem to bond with intensely), but he was aware of the important role that it played in his life. His study was special because the children did not go in there and nor did his wife. It was, then, the only place where he could be himself, his non-self, and take a break from being duplicitous without arousing suspicion. It was his good fortune that men are often in need of time away from their families (the pub trade is almost completely reliant on it for their business) and so there appeared to be nothing abnormal about the periods of time he spent in there.
Of course, as with everything Lucas did, there was an element of deception involved in this too. As far as his wife was concerned he isolated himself in this way to engage his passion for reading. He realised a long time ago that if he wanted to secure a moment of peace then he had to fake an interest in solitary or unsociable pursuits. Earlier in their marriage, whenever he felt as though he needed some time to privately formulate strategies or merely to recharge his energies, he would simply excuse himself from his wife’s presence and sit silently and inactively by himself in another room, but what he did not understand then, being so green and naïve, is that human beings are not permitted to appear as though they are doing nothing. Human beings must always be doing something, or at least appear to be doing so. (What is most acceptable for human beings is to be doing thirteen things at once). To seem as though one is engaged in no activity is to be inviting suspicion onto oneself. (Human beings, it turns out, do not even believe in the existence of nothing and any suggestion of it immediately leads to an assumption that the person who claims to be doing nothing is actually doing something despicable).
‘What are you doing?’ his wife would ask dubiously when she found him on such occasions.
‘Nothing,’ he would reply.
‘Nothing? You must be doing something!’
It became safer, then, for him to cultivate an interest in something, to take up a hobby, as a means of being able to answer the question ‘what are you doing?’ to the satisfaction of others. Unable to find the space and time to give the situation careful consideration he found that his initial solutions to the problem were unsuccessful. For instance, one idea that he had was to pretend to be interested in cookery, but he found that as the kitchen is a social place, out of bounds to no one, not even the dog, that even though he gave the impression of being immersed in something he was still deemed to be receptive to conversation. (Cooking in fact magnified his family’s interest and further drew their attention towards him as the person responsible for the satiating of appetites).
He understood after this initial failure that his next activity must be one that justified a separation from the pulsating hub of the house, and with this goal in mind he visited a local Hobbies shop, and after scanning the build-it-yourself model trains, churches and boats on the shelves asked the assistant behind the counter for the most time-consuming and delicate model that he had in stock. The most delicate and time consuming model happened to be a large, almost life-size, Spitfire aeroplane, which he immediately took home and cynically allowed his progeny to fondle until it fell apart.
‘I have to have my own room,’ he moaned to his wife, mournfully clutching the wreckage in his fingers.
‘Ok, ok, why don’t you convert the spare bedroom into a study?’
And so he had his bunker (and, as a bonus, a clear indication from his wife that she was not contemplating having any more children), but his success was short-lived. Children, he found, are curiously drawn to small detailed models of large things. They fascinate them, he came to understand, because all children have Giant fantasies (or Godzilla fantasies in the case of his son, who would crush each model under his tiny feet) and so even though they had been warned that his new study was out of bounds they would still regularly invaded his territory so long as there was something of interest to them in there. His mission, at this point, was given an even keener focus, which was to take up a hobby that his children (and with a bit of luck, his wife) found dour and uninteresting.
The answer, so simple and obvious, was reading. The boy had always hated books, even when he was an smaller child and would not have had to exert the effort to read them himself. When Lucas (or even his wife) had tried to read to him he would scream and moan and go very pale and eventually vomit. It did not matter what the subject of the book was; even if it were about things that he was, under normal circumstances, interested in, like murder, he would still have the same unhealthy reaction. (Even if there had been a book in which Lucas, as the main character, was tortured and maimed he, Alex, would have still suffered the same convulsions). Bethany, he believed, was a trickier prospect as he knew that she was something of a reader, but, he felt, so long as he avoided books about small animals, Pop stars, or the occult (all helpfully gathered together in their own sections in book shops) he need not be too concerned. As for his wife, well, he mused, if she were ever sober enough to read I may need to reconsider my position but as things stand I believe myself to be in the clear.
Books were a Godsend for Lucas. (How such a small alteration, a book in the hand, can have such an effect upon one’s life is almost staggering). Suddenly, when he was reading, or pretending to read, he was left alone, not just by his family at home, but everywhere. With his nose in a book, whether he was reading it or not (and most of the time he was not reading it), human beings seemed to be reticent to interrupt. Books are like a force-field, discouraging intrusion wherever I go, he often told himself. So, upon this realization, he made sure that he was never without one. He compulsively purchased at least one a day, and sometimes more, indicating (apocryphally) a rapacious and vociferous desire for the written word rarely seen outside of academia (and rarely seen in academia).
He eased the two books he had purchased earlier in the day out of the plastic bag bearing the shop’s logo and held them side by side, one in each hand, and stared at the titles. Horn Road was one of them, which according to the blurb on the back cover seemed to involve two Czechs drinking themselves to death, and which had been recently rediscovered, republished, repackaged, and rebranded, long after the death of the author. The other was called The Line of the Shore, a literary prize winner, and best seller, that promised ‘brilliantly delineated characters,’ and ‘an understated but captivating narrative voice,’ and most worryingly of all ‘a sometimes tender, but always unflinching look at the nature of culture, modernity and class.’
Glancing at the wall mounted clock Lucas noted that it was only six thirty, and already he felt mentally exhausted. But he could not rest, for he knew that an infinite number of dangers lurked within each passing second of the day and that there was an infinite number of ways that his carefully constructed and managed life could begin to unravel without giving him polite notice. He knew, as he held the books in his hands, that it was not enough to fake an interest in something, to buy the books and carry them with him everywhere, but that he must also actually read at least a portion of each book that he bought, as, while it was true that his family, and almost everyone else that he encountered, were not interested in reading and would not interrupt him whilst he was reading, in the moments that he was not reading (or pretending to read), if they saw that he was holding a book, their curiosity would inevitably instruct them to ask me what it was about. He must, he believed, in these circumstances, be able to give them a brief synopsis of the plot. He was aware that he could, of course, make something up (they would never know), but this too he found to be a drain on his mental energies and his mental energy had to be entirely devoted to avoiding detection.
Instinctively feeling on safer ground with Horn Road, Lucas opened the book, at random, roughly one-third of the way into it, and was immediately assailed by a passage describing ‘the beauty of the peasant woman’s two raised buttocks, raised for him, to inspect and glorify with his heroically swollen penis.’ Lucas immediately closed the book.
Long while since he had seen anything familiar. Though Everything should be familiar. Driven to and from work, how many times had he looked out a window on that same scenery? Twice a day for over a year, excluding holidays. That’d be six hundred at a minimum, you’d say. Not for one moment had he doubted himself, back there at the bus stop. No, he knew his way. Would take longer, of course, on foot than by car or bus. No matter. If speed had been his concern he’d have waited. Timetable said another’d be along in fifteen minutes. Even taking into account unexpected delays you’d imagine that bus to have arrived within half an hour. He’d been walking for over sixty minutes already. Time, like his feet, kept on. Yet, while his surroundings remained unfamiliar he’d no idea how near or far he was from his destination. Could be further away than ever, could be nowhere at all. The road, however, was straight. No chance, then, that he’d taken a wrong turn or run off on another path. Could be almost upon home, as much as anything. Would be easy, of course, to get lost. You’d have to want to, though. Fields either side of the road, mostly. Longer he walked, less beautiful they became. More menacing. Monstrous. Not lost though, no. Cars passed, infrequently. None stopping. He was alone, and not alone. Most brutal kind of alone is being unrecognized. Family of four in Ford Fiesta, kids looking out as he’d looked at least six hundred times. Perhaps seeing more than he’d ever seen, seeing confronting naming knowing. He’d been here before, when he was their age or a little older maybe. Here, but not here. He and a brother caught out in snow like many were caught, that day. Intense snow, soft and heavy like a pile of old blankets. Too hazardous for transport, all were warned by radio and tv to stay indoors. Except those already out, unable now to heed it. Almost equidistant from their father’s and mother’s houses, they had a choice. One or other, and walk. They chose mother, like they’d chosen once before. Felt like they mashed through that snow forever. Bodies forward, into wind and falling flakes. Edging along beside another road, in line with those also stranded. Sometimes he’d shout motivation into snow, to a brother fallen down. Of course they made it, in their own time. After dark, mother meeting them outside their home. Hot tea and sloppy affection, inside. Sloppy tea and hot affection. Later, a story to speak on with everyone except brother. Ashamed, perhaps. He couldn’t explain it, was almost as though they’d shared a bed not some snowy hours. Bad enough sharing a room, boys to men. Fighting over ownership of nonsense things, in an effort to establish themselves. Or he did, anyway. Fighting was down to him, really. Only one brother ever raised his fists, ever needled and bullied. Other one fell down, that was his part. Till, after some time, he’d mastered it. Could quote his lines at will, could slip into character in seconds. Mother’s favourite mummy’s boy. Pretty, kind and sensitive, is how she’d called it. One day sitting them down to administer to each their fate. Or to pass judgement. He’d never been her son, had simply taken leave of her womb. Had done so same stoic way he’d left a legion of lovers, you could say. Same way he walked the road, you could say. Ever on. No thought of turning around, of going back. To go back would signal defeat, if things like that are important. To him, no. Forward was his only option, only way he knew how to move. Though it’d cost him, certainly. Sometimes best to wait, to give yourself time to consider your options. Pause for thought, so it goes. What could’ve been. Mother now was old. Too old, too sad. New teeth. Illusion of health. Sadder, still. Teeth out of place, in that face. Unwelcome, almost. Like a lump, like a vibrantly red tumour. Old mother with a collection of cats. Gave her something to survive. Her cats, like canaries. In that deadly house. One, shot by boy. One, taken apart by dog. Two, found by morning: unmoving. Then, three. Fat, Neurotic, and Scared. Like her, like his brother. He’d wished for God, all his life. Prayed for Him, not at Him. With fierce desire wanted God, like an ex-lover, so he’d need not be always alone. Playing hide and seek with himself. How could mother live without Him, you’d ask. Raised by her hair, marrying to marry, bearing children to serve them. What did Bella say, we are degradingly poor, offensively poor, beastly poor.
He emerged out of the swamp, to walk into the swamp, or so it seemed, leaving nothing but his dirty footprints, mud-stain, bog-stain, on carpets and floors. He was mad, or else everyone except him was mad. He remained calm – no: sullen – in the face of that madness, and threw everyone off. Some doubted his madness and believed in their own. He came looking, as others came looking after, for him. He found nothing, as they found nothing; for there is nothing. He circled nothing, circled empty space, and everyone was hypnotised by that circling, so that they didn’t notice how they’d been pulled into the circle itself, and how the circle expanded until it became a wrecking ball. The day he came back it rained buckets, not as portent, no, but to show that this city would not raise an eyebrow and would not be diverted from its own normal course due to the arrival, or return, of such as him. No, he wasn’t in control of the weather, at least. Or if he was he’d brought on the rain five years earlier, in leaving, rain like tears of relief, like my own tears that day. So he came back, and so it rained; came back like from the dead, bringing death. He’d tried to be better, to be clever, and found that he was worse and more stupid than anyone here, these people who he had rejected, had attempted to leave behind. So it was retribution, or corrective punishment, when Lily was taken; it was the north twisting his ear, caning the back of his legs, for running away. There was a while when he looked as though he might outrun his own nature, when he began to build and fortify the fence; his brother acted as his press officer then, and poured eagerly into my ear reports of his progress abroad, as though he was Achilles taking Troy; with the arrogance of Achilles, no doubt, and the preening of Paris. He prospered; aye, he prospered in that interim time, before he was blown back here as though by Aeolus’ winds. And, if you believed him, what greeted him as he stepped off the train was a multitude of miseries, like a welcoming party or homecoming guard of honour. No, it was he who brought his denizen of demons. Within weeks we were a city besieged, I tell you, by Poles and Slovaks, Pakis and Blacks. A coincidence? In every dark corner a darker, uglier face; he returns and the city becomes a Boschean hell. A coincidence? No, he stealthily led his legion beyond the walls of the Citadel, and there they set up camp. And before too long we were a populace possessed; a once peaceful people infected by the ogre-blood he had introduced. He circled nothing, I tell you, while our city burned. While everything seethed and writhed he looked on blank and calm, with sullen bewilderment, even while his self-created hell swallowed him up, while the demons and the possessed, for which he was responsible, ate him, and his kin, alive. And it was his choice; he came home, mark that. He came here: the place, I am under no illusion, he abhorred and was so intent on leaving permanently behind, dismissing forever from his mind. The north, this city, yes, those too, but more than anything: home, or not-home. Aye, he chose to come not-home, and yet quite shuddered at the prospect, no doubt, and, once here, continued to shudder and wince and, in private perhaps, claw at his face and curse the curse he undoubtedly felt he was under; except he was the curse, of course. And it wasn’t he who told me, no, he had his brother announce that the prodigal son was to return with his tail tucked between his legs. He couldn’t even tell me himself, not out of shame, a filial feeling of having let me down, but out of arrogance and anger and bitter disappointment. Not that I expected otherwise, no, I did not expect a humble plea for help or motherly affection. I had received no word from him for five years, except through the agency of his brother, would never have heard otherwise. He had become a myth to me, some strange creature far removed from my experience of the world, who existed only in his brother’s fairytales and was therefore of no importance to me except to serve as some cautionary parable. So why did he come back when to come back was so objectionable to him? Because, for all his so-called intelligence and maturity, he couldn’t smell crazy cunt even when it was under his nose, that’s why; or, because, like most of his sex, he couldn’t turn up his nose at any cunt, no matter how clearly crazy. Of course, that’s not how it was told, first to the brother, then, like flotsam moving on the currents of a river, from him to me. No, it was much more poetically put; it was, to hear it from my youngest, who’d had it from the lying lips of his brother, a veritable Greek tragedy, which cast him (my eldest son) as an unfortunate Agamemnon, and me and the north as Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. But it took so little reading between the lines to see the truth; strip away the bombast, the melodrama, and there is my naked son, cowering and cunt-compromised. That he would not have had it that way doesn’t make it any less so. No. As he, in his severe self-pity, would have it he who never experienced any stability or normality – in his childhood situation, by way of his mother – subconsciously sabotaged himself. Ah, see, it was his malevolent mother who unbuttoned his flies and whipped out his perky prick and burrowed it deep in some slut’s slit – against his will, mark that – and brought him low. Not only his mother, but the north; we, in tandem. He sabotaged himself, we are to believe, because stability and comfort and loving-goodness made him panic, not having ever had any from his mother, nor the north; we, the north and me, sowed these seeds of self-destruction in my sad and sorry son, he merely, unwittingly, acted out the script we had written. So that he lost his lover, and his slut, and hobbled not-home with his trousers round his ankles. But he was not contrite. Sullen, aye, but contrite? No. To look at him, you’d not think he had taken all, had endured all, that a human heart could take and endure, which is how his brother had told it, the impression, in his epic re-telling, he had given of this courageous, ill-fated man, a man haunted by hopelessness and fallibility and, not ego, but, rather, the sins of his Machiavellian mother; a man who had stared into the depths of his bruised soul and found lurking there, no, nimbly moving from tree to tree, doing its best to hide, with only its head peering occasionally around the trunks of those close-standing trees, the evil gargoyle image of his mother. Yet how well he kept it hidden, this anguish, this internal sturm and drang. Docile? No. Say, sullen; but more than anything: closed. At least to his gargoyle mother, who, so his little brother said, he cast as something like the Iago of the piece, who was off-stage, yes, but still whispering hate into his ear; and yet it was he who hated, not me. No, I claim no hate; suspicion, yes, and fear, but not hate. He hated, in that passive aggressive manner so particular to him, by being in my presence so sullenly unresponsive, so unanimated, while pouring pestilence into the ear of his brother; he Iago, ironically. And I, yes, rudely stamped, deformed, disfigured, and deathless, but not hateful, although I have every reason to be. What reason, has he? He who left without a word, and lived without a word for five years. He who sought his glory abroad, who puffed himself up, when he thought victory assured, and looked down upon the mother, the place, he’d used as the motivation to better himself. What reason? Was it the realisation that the land he’d claimed, the spoils he’d claimed, weren’t ever really his? That what you steal, what you appropriate, does not ever truly belong to you, even if you never relinquish it? Someone should have told him: you are wretched with or without possessions, because you are you, regardless of your university education, your high-flying job or your pretty perky-titted partner, you cannot outrun yourself, even if you outrun your mother and the north. But they didn’t, or if they did he paid it no mind. And so, unwilling to blame himself – the real villain of the piece, mark that – he blamed the two things he’d so thoroughly rejected, the two things more removed from him than anything else, and did it convincingly. Someone should have told him: the fence you erect around yourself and your new life, in order to keep your mother and the north out, is pointless when the real threat to yourself is the one who erected it. He fenced himself in, and, in doing so, frustrated and enraged his enemy (himself), because suddenly everything (except the mother, the place) outside, everything beyond the fence, became more important, more necessary, more tempting, more alluring; and so he burrowed deep in some slut’s slit in order to claw, to dig his way out of the trap he had set, the prison he had built for himself. Yes, stability may have made him anxious, may have made him panic, but not because he who had never experienced stability couldn’t cope with it, as he claimed via his brother, but because it was only when he’d agreed to forsake all others, to settle in one place, to every day accept responsibility, in private and in public, at home and at work, that he realised how little excitement there was in that. So he burrowed deep, made a bid for freedom, with the only tool at his disposal; only, being a man, he didn’t actually want to escape, not completely, no, he simply wanted to be able to come and go as he pleased without consequences. And that may even have been possible had he been able to smell crazy cunt in front of his nose, but he could not, not until after he had had it and the slut had revolted, with the volatile, immolating, retributive fury of a crazy slut who has been treated like exactly what she is. Oh then he could smell it, certainly, when it was too late, when the whole infrastructure of his comfortable life had been torn down and set on fire. So, as much as he abhorred the place, he returned, because only here could be find a sympathetic ear (his brother’s, not mine), someone naïve enough to believe his cowardly lies and embellish and spread them, someone who believed entirely in his heroism; he returned, not merely out of financial necessity, as he claimed, but for that, for a credible, gullible, audience; and for revenge, let’s not forget that. He sought revenge against his mother and this city, because only in seeking revenge could he fully convince himself and his audience that what he said and thought about his gargoyle mother and his (yes, his) city was true, that without the desire for revenge he would be revealed as a charlatan. To his (little) brother he was extraordinary, be it in victory or defeat; or not-defeat, never defeat, because even though he appeared to have been brought low, even though it looked like he had lost all, and had come back, and filled his (his brother’s) ear with melodramatic psychobabble dressed up as high tragedy, I’d say he (his gullible brother) saw not real defeat in it, but a temporary, even necessary, regrouping of mental forces, a mere episode, one small, yet still engrossing, segment of his (his elder brother’s) tapestry of war and ultimate victory. Aye, he was, I think, in his eyes a sort of Zeus, a powerful, and sometimes gloomy, god of sky and thunder; which makes me a kind of Cronus, a child-eater. (Aye, and now banished to, and chained up in, the cave of Nyx; dreaming and prophesying). The perfect partner, the slut, the job, the swanky apartment: all were lost. (And Lily, too, later). And he a hero, still? Yes, it seemed so. His losses were heroic; when really it, the situation, could have, or should have, been, for him, for his little brother, like seeing his father bested in a physical confrontation. The scales ought to have fallen from his eyes, as he (his elder brother) fell. Yet, I’d say his admiration for him was never compromised, in fact he gained from his fall, which for him wasn’t a fall but a regrouping, a greater mystique, a quixotic gloss. Even the slut escaped the youngest’s ire, for she was necessary too, she was part of the fabric of his epic tapestry, the heroic narrative; she, with her madness, her looseness, her excoriating temper, was equally quixotic. (That some dangerous, and exotic, knickerless lass should want to ruin his brother was, doubtless, exciting; it screamed: femme fatale). My son never saw the slut, he never saw the lover neither; and wouldn’t have seen them even if he had stood in front of both, no, he would have seen the character, the part they had been given to play, the role they had been assigned. Believe it or not, my son saw no malice in his brother, no callousness; he exonerated him on the basis of the psychobabble he had been fed, while simultaneously elevating him to ever greater heroic heights in the epic narrative he was feeding himself. So, no, he saw not a flawed unfeeling man who had shlupped some slut out of boredom or vanity or that male need for distraction or novelty and then discarded her as though she was no more than what she was; he did not see an ignoble sordid soul who, although already attached, had pursued a crazy cunt, not yet knowing how crazy she was, and bedded her without bad conscience. No, he saw no evil in him, spoke no evil of he who had never laughed nor flirted with her (his slut) because he didn’t need to, because it wasn’t required, for she asked for no effort from him, no narrative, no promises, nothing other than to not be forced to acknowledge what she was. She knew, of course; of course, she knew what she was and what he was too, and how much of nothing they had, how little of lasting worth, but she needed to be able to convince herself in her quiet moments that they understood each other, that they were both the same and that they met each other’s needs, at least. So when he turned her out, literally turned her out of the hotel room 3am one morning as though she was his whore, not merely his slut, when she realised that he hadn’t sought in her what he found wanting in the other, that the other did her duty, that she satisfied just as well as she, she vowed vengeance and immediately put her plan into practice with the reckless enthusiasm that only a woman who has been given the means, the opportunity, to make another woman unhappy is capable of. No, my youngest son saw no malice in the slut, or at least apportioned no blame to her, for these things had to be, had to happen, so that the brother could come back and regroup his mental forces, and so that he (my youngest son) could be his audience, his collaborator, his confidant, his champion, and his messenger too, so that he could pass on to the mother the tall tale of a man who had looked deep inside himself and been stricken, panicked by the ghostly presence of his parent and the north, a mother and a city, let’s not forget, that had at no point pleaded nor prayed for his return. I would never have prayed nor hoped for his return, not even in my weakest moments, because I knew that if he did there would be no good in it. I thought: let him ruin, and spread his bad luck, his hurt, elsewhere, and, if I must record them at all, let me record the tremors from here, with him there, anywhere, away. My youngest son would be his champion, and his victim; aye, that I knew. And so it proved. He came back death-faced, bringing death. How could he? If he had had a slip of sense, a modicum of goodness, he would have known himself and stayed away. I lost, not he. They lost; all lost, except he. He endured, sullenly. Would that I had never pushed him out into the world. Let me not be accused of hate, for I don’t hate. Never hated. I don’t hate him, I fear him. Within weeks of his return I saw orgres on every corner, demons in dark places. It was an invasion, don’t believe otherwise. And he was at its head. Not that you’d have known it to look at him, not that anyone would have believed you. Did he control the demons? No, I don’t believe so, simply that he loosed them upon us. A coincidence? No such thing. Aye, it would have been better for us all had he never been born; for his brother, his mother, his lovers, his sluts (don’t presume that there was only one). And for his daughter too, who, having sprung from the loins of such as he, never stood a chance. Tragedy and misery, like twin dark-coated dogs, stalked her heels from her first breath, ever gaining ground. As father, lover, brother, son: he failed, he fucked-up. If he had one true talent it was for engineering endings, for full-stops. I don’t say that he always profited by them, all those endings he engineered; no, for he made also an end of the comfortable life that he had worked for, strove for, that he had rejected the north and his family for, when he threw, with such serenity, with perfect poise and composure, as though she was not even worthy of his anger, his slut out of that hotel room at 3am. Profitted? No. He was the bad penny in his own pocket, too. Aye, when you court chaos you may find that you cannot control that force and that it may do for you too, in doing for others. She did not rouse his temper when she woke him from his drunken and dreamless sleep that early-morning, armed with an accusation she expected him to deny; that is how deep his disdain ran. No, he merely threw her out, or, not even that: he told her to leave, without once raising his voice or displaying any hostility or ill will, as though he spoke in a sleeping state still. He did so without even getting out of bed, like a decadant young lord dismissing from his presence an incompetant servant. Would she have credited his denial? Maybe not, but she expected it in any case, out of politeness perhaps, or to prove his continued commitment to the status quo. But he neither affirmed nor denied the charge; it didn’t register with him at all. And to think she had spent all evening choking it back; while mounted and bucked she put in from her tongue, into her cheek, to let her low moans pass unobstructed. Of course, from the very beginning she could not have discounted the possibility, even the likelihood, that there was someone else, someone other than herself and the full-time lover. She knew that for a man relationships are a sliding-scale arrangement, that what you ask of them is precisely what they give. And she asked for very little, thus giving him more to spend elsewhere. Likewise, she knew that a man’s commitment to fidelity is like a hymen, that its strength and importance exists more so in the mind than in reality, and that once prodded it is shown to be thin and easily broken. So she could not have convinced herself that she was the only one to pass through that gaping hole. Yet, she tried, because she had to, because the alternative was to acknowledge what she was. And so she sought a denial from him, one that, if it was given, she would not truly trust in, but which was necessary to preserve, to keep going, the small fire she warmed herself on during her quietist moments, when the cold wind of doubt and self-loathing swirled about her. But he didn’t deny it, mark that. Oh no he did not deny that he had others like her, or at least one other. Nor did he confirm the truth of the charge; he would not even entertain discussion of that subject, because, in his bloodymindedness, he would not pay to this girl what he owed to his lover. He accepted that she (his lover, his partner) was entitled, should she ever enquire or accuse, to an explanation, a confession, an admittance of guilt, or at least a carefully constructed lie. That was his duty to her, or more likely his duty to himself and his self-interest; but with his slut he felt as though he had no duty whatsoever and, importantly, no long-term vested interest; and so he acted accordingly. Aye, he told her to leave and then went back to sleep. And she, while he lay once again drunk and dreamless and unfettered by conscience, had those hours in which to work her art unchallenged. Did she hate him? I don’t say that, no, though perhaps she had reason to, in her own mind and her own way. I don’t believe she would have hated him, not even when he threw her out of the hotel room at 3am and she contemplated the prospect of walking, unescorted, home. Yet, as my son, his brother, saw it, told it, she was, as she left the hotel, a raging Dido, beating her breast and fixing to throw herself onto a pyre; in the icy early-morning air, he said, she walked with crisp steps, conspicuously unaccompanied. She did not flag down a taxi cab, nor call one. No, she went forth with crisp steps, mouthing her threats into the icy air, under an early morning sky that hung over her head like a large bruise. The streets, he said, were not empty as, here and there, Shades slouched in shadows; and some – the youngest, the most lost – stepped slowly, forlornly, forward, come from the strange houses in which they had slept. But she in her agitation did not see them, he said. She, in chaos of mind, with all her elements convulsed, moved dark and jarring with perturbed force. But she did not hate him; he had dismissed her so nonchalantly and yet she did not hate. If she ever did after, she did not yet. No, she loved him, despite never having loved him before. Aye, suddenly she loved him with an intense and perilous passion, with a great and furious anger that struck hard at her heart and ignited her eyes and her terrible tongue. No, she loved, not hated, though she would have had him whipped to death, he said.
As far as his housemates were concerned he had gone home to see his family. No one knew that at home they were not expecting him, that he hadn’t called ahead, that he hadn’t taken the early train in order to visit his mother and his brother, but to bear witness, or at least to mollify himself with reality rather than live with exaggerated ideas of how awful everything had been where he had grown up. Or maybe it was nostalgia that had brought him to this place, that strange, masochistic nostalgia people sometimes feel even for unpleasant things.
At the bottom of the hill he hesitated, pulling off his jacket and taking out his cigarettes, as though he was stalling for time. It was Autumn, and the soft cool air crept over him like a lengthening shadow. At the top of the hill he picked out the estate where he had grown up, and then the two-bedroom flat where he and his mother and his brother had lived until the previous year. They (his mother, his brother) had moved to another flat in another part of the city almost as soon as he had left for University, as though he had been the only reason to remain there all those years, as though his once seemingly futile desire to get away had been the sole reason to hold on.
He walked forward ten or fifteen paces, then remembered the cigarettes. He stopped again, took one out of the packet and lit it. He leaned against the fence before what was once Martin Flanaghan’s house. One day after school he had watched Martin Flanaghan fight Danny James on this spot. He had tried to avoid it, but had run into Danny and his new friends on his way home. He had been friends with Danny once; they had been at primary school together; they would sing popular songs to each other during breaks and lunchtime, which, when he thought about it, seemed crazy but they were little kids then, and they had not yet learned to hate and mistrust everything.
At the comp they had immediately gone their separate ways, almost ashamed of each other, but when Danny saw him on his way home that day he wouldn’t let him miss the fight, he insisted that he come along. He was sure that Martin wasn’t going to answer the door when Danny called on him, but he did. He and his mother came out on the pavement and his mother watched while Danny and Martin went at it. Only Martin was losing badly, so the mother grabbed Danny by the hair and pushed him to the ground. Martin then kicked him repeatedly in the face.
He noticed a young girl had been watching him smoke, the kind of girl that, he thought, as she skated up to him, had always seemed to be kicking around here when he was growing up, regardless of the time of day or weather, the kind that appear out of nowhere, wearing grimy beige shorts and once-white vests on their slight but durable bodies.
– Do you live round here? she said.
– No, I’m visiting
– Who you visiting?
– No one
The girl climbed up on the fence. He turned around to face her.
– Get down, you’ll fall
– I won’t. I’ve never fall.
– Fallen. And you might one time and then you’d wish you’d listened.
– You’re not my dad.
– Are you good at climbing?
– Yeah, course. I’m good at everything.
– Don’t be silly. You ever fall?
– All the time.
– I thought you were good at climbing?
– I’m good at falling too.
– Don’t be silly. What you here for?
– I told you, I’m visiting
– Who though?
– No one. I’m looking around. I used to live here.
The girl jumped down off the fence and poked him.
– You shouldn’t do that.
– It’s not nice.
She stuck out her tongue.
– Shouldn’t you be at school or at home? he said.
– You’re not my dad.
– Where’s your dad?
– Do you know my brother? she said.
– Yeah, I know him.
– What’s his name?
– His name’s not Arnold.
– It is. You don’t know him like I know him.
– It’s Steven.
– Not when I knew him it wasn’t.
– You don’t know him.
– I know him. Name’s Arnold. Has a little sister who likes climbing and asking questions.
– Did you live in this house? she said, meaning Martin Flanaghan’s.
– No. I lived at the top of the hill.
– Up there?
– Why aren’t you still there now?
– I moved. I’m at University.
– Who lives there now?
– I don’t know.
– Is it Jessica Evans?
– Probably. Who’s Jessica Evans?
– Dunno. She’s in my class.
– At school?
– Jessica’s got a rabbit.
– Good for her.
– Have you got a rabbit?
– No. My mum has two cats though.
– Do you like your mum?
– Everyone likes their mum.
– I don’t.
– Understandable. Why not?
– She’s shouts. She goes yah yah yah yah yah
– Ok, I get it.
He tried to picture the mother. But he saw his own mother instead.
– If I had a rabbit I’d call her Daisy.
– Call her Arnold.
– Don’t be silly. Is that your name?
– I gotta go now.
– Me too. It’s late.
– It’s not. But bye.
The girl walked away, up the hill as though it was the easiest thing in the world. As he watched her climb the sandy-coloured pavement the blunt sun dropped behind a bank of clouds, and the air grew damp and lost its softness. He stayed behind, telling himself that he wanted to give the girl a head start, so that she wouldn’t think he was following her. He thought about his mother, about how he would feel if she were still at the top of that hill, if she was living still in the same block of flats, which, from where he stood, appeared to hang over him like a red-brown spider.