≡ Menu

Quietly in a Room Alone

Tommy – A Fairy Story

A light breeze troubled the curtains and the grey beards of white gulls on the sea wall, the choppy water, the flags on the pier, trees in the gardens of mansions curving along the crest of the hill. The breeze turned a page of the book where the invulnerability of the dead was the subject matter, the book by a rarely read eastern European who had vanished. My latest posture, to be as invulnerable as the dead or as invisible as the vanished, but not much chance of that around here when every venture out unearths fiends intent on ruffling my feathers in the most charming of surrounds. A venture, to increase one’s efforts at renunciation, following in the footsteps of far greater and more dramatic wanderers of the earth. I lay the book beside the scuttle, an inch from coal, a foot from fire. On the kitchen window sill there was a leaf fluttering in a spider’s web, a solitary leaf that had known the joy of Spring and Summer but was now dead, a russet glow in splendid demise, the wondrous ebony of its glorious exit, untouched by the spider, disappointed with his catch, acrid tasting, vegetarian dish, for one who loves the meat of flies, wasps and midges and as a rare gourmet treat, a firefly. A shovel of coal for the fire, a back kitchen so vast you could hold the Lord Mayor’s Ball there. It was not always the way on my travels. Once in exile I lived in an apartment so tiny that when there was a knock on the door it took no more than three strides to open up and see who was there. One morning in early May it was a naked woman with her hair all wet and dishevelled, long, black, shiny hair falling down over her body. She pushed by me into the room and I gave her my knee length trench coat to cover herself. Between sobs she demanded that I do something, he threw me out even as I was having a shower, he dragged me by the hair and flung me into the corridor, what are you going to do about it? I’ll call the police, I said. The police, are you a man, she said, now seated sobbing on a kitchen chair, are you a man, are you going to stand there and do nothing? Not exactly moving at the speed of light I went into the corridor and knocked on their door and was quite pleasantly surprised to be confronted by a meek looking weasel of a chap with old-fashioned wire framed spectacles. Before I could say or do anything the hysterical woman charged past me and began thumping the weasel on the head with her fists, knocking his wire framed glasses clean across the room. The door was then slammed in my face and in an instant all fell quiet. Live as ascetically as possible, I read, after that unsettling event, another posture, another venture. All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone, everyone knows where that comes from, but how useless it felt, looking at how other people lived, seeking a formula to lend credibility to the socially-acceptable-behaviour-standpoint left me reeling up and down the hill like a drunk or walking the busiest avenues, the flow of people quite something, the living, seething mass, then look to the sky, where clouds like ghosts stray towards the vast ocean, and I kept walking right into twilight, out beyond the city limits to a path that led to a pond on the river, getting further away all the time, wearing my heavy trench coat as it was Autumn. At one point I crossed a bridge where half way across a magnificent 1950’s blue Buick had rolled to a standstill, with leather seats and timber dashboard, and the driver whose eyes I felt following me, reminded me of someone long gone. I didn’t stop. I didn’t turn to look closer. At the far side of the bridge I took steps back down to the riverside path, an old railway line, always glancing over my shoulder for the fast walkers, the power walkers flailing their arms or the slow, almost invisible ones who appear and disappear with eerie precision. I came to a gate that led to a crooked path, leading I knew, to an old, Georgian house I had once been a guest in, where there was a beautiful child who spoke of a doll called Tommy, a circus clown, given to her as a birthday present by an uncle who had travelled the seven seas. The doll had enormous golden ear-rings, long, shiny black hair falling in cascades over its beautiful female shape but at six years of age, the girl christened it Tommy, because she believed that all circus clowns were male. Before this house I stood, in the twilight under a tree, I stood gazing towards the uncurtained windows that reflected the blazing embers of the sunset.

Morbid

All the wasted days, oh my, the grey and rainy days, the cloudless, sunny blue days, sitting on the bench with old men who lean on sticks, spit in the dirt and look wise enough to be left alone, alone, seldom speaking, in my room, staring out the window, the universe is full of stars and strange flying objects, and I am alone by the window, silent, gazing up, a hedonist like the little bird that picks up crumbs from the window sill, his voracious eyes alight on me for an instant before whipping his wings into a powerful motion that carries his little body through the air, until beyond eyeshot, I see once again only the distant spires and rooftops and the river winding towards the harbour while outside the neighbours returning home from Sunday excursions create a racket on the stairs. Victoria’s door was opened and slammed three times, her scent that catches in my throat wafted in under the door, bringing on a momentary bout of coughing. It took an effort, but I ignored her. The decision had been reached. I would never go out again. All the goals I aspire to could be attained here without outside interference, in utter solitude. Just then, you guessed it, the doorbell rang. It was Bill with his carefully groomed white head of hair, his stealthy expressions, looking around, the narrowing of the eyes to please the old Narcissus in him. Bill was a commercial traveller who dreamed of packing in the job. I’ll retire he said, and cut completely loose. Last night when I was playing poker in Mooney’s with the usual Thursday night group, he said, I had an epiphany. I didn’t really know any of these fellows. I suddenly felt like a stranger among them. I played out the last hand and left with the intention of never returning, of never seeing any of them again. Out on the street, I felt free. It was a genuine rush of energy. I decided there and then to pack in the job and to do so without further ado. I have built up enough of a pension to survive. I don’t care what any of my so called colleagues think. I don’t want anything more to do with them. They are part of the nightmare that was, which brings me to why I am here. I’ve come to say goodbye. I’m leaving. Well then, goodbye Bill, I wanted to say, goodbye. Instead I asked, where are you going? Anchorage, Alaska, he said. I have a cousin there. She’s a nurse. At that moment I recalled the time when Bill was knocked down by a car, I went to visit him in the hospital, I saw the gash on his forehead and the incoherence in his sedated eyes when he explained that despite the cuts on his head his main injuries were a crushed chest and broken ribs. A low sized nurse began to mock him by feigning to cry, which he ignored being used to her sarcasm, it turned out that it was his cousin, the one who would emigrate to Anchorage, Alaska and knew his antics well. Next morning unsettled by Bill’s visit and by Bill’s decision, I took off down the coast in the train. I came to a seaside town where I walked around in glorious anonymity for an hour or two before deciding to stay in a Cervantine Hotel, on a whim, no luggage, a damp, dismal Sunday evening when I could not face the walk to the railway station to catch the train back to the city, I booked in. I threw my wet overcoat over the back of a chair in the room, clean but dark, with an enormous mahogany wardrobe, heavy doors with dark brown timber to a huge bathroom. The television didn’t work until you gave it a slap on the side. The screen showed the rain, the deluge and severe weather warning, images of cars sliding around in heaps of mud and gliding down main streets in brown undulating curtains of water. The city streets were ruptured by torrents of this water. People hung from second floor windows watching their cars and beautiful lives being washed away. In some cases their neighbours went too, down the watery road to early oblivion. I turned the volume down and returned to the book that had occupied me during the night, concerning a man who escaped into the mountains, thus, if only for a short time, I too entertained the idea of such a route. He set up in an abandoned mining village, the sole inhabitant, sheltering in a deserted cabin. Here he was as nameless as a bird or a rat, as without social identity as a toad or a woodlouse, no passport necessary, no driver’s licence, no internet passwords. He described the savagery of nature, how the vegetation waged war, how the strongest roots strangled everything else, tendrils, ligatures, poisonous sap, the inbuilt weapons of birds and nocturnal predators, killing machines of extraordinary precision. Vermin survived here and thrived, nothing could destroy them. Here he branded himself the poet of entropy. The swamps bubbled with the fetid stench of decay. The woods were a sump of torment. The death cries of animals rent the night air alongside the blood curdling calls of birds in their final agonies. And not a human in sight to administer a little sophistication such as that favourite instrument of torture from the outer limits of the human mind, the electric prod which, I read, induced acute convulsions and had after effects such as intense muscular pain and paralysis as well as neurological damage manifested in dysrhythmia, chronic headaches, and memory loss, there you find the victim with a speechless sadness in the eyes, torture and trauma leading to a suicidal resignation. Now, you could prod this person, you could induce the acute convulsions and paralysis but they would remain silent, paralysed by apathy and indifference. At night, I read how the exile in the mountains had to barricade the door of his cabin against bears and wolves, while inside in the darkness his imagination was assailed by images of the human sharks whose evil had driven him here. The dawn came. He wandered into the mines and saw the destruction wrought by time on abandoned lift shafts and flooded antechambers, raindrops and weeds have been the ruin of many a proud structure, prey to the power and resilience of thorny bushes and brambles, toxic weeds and nettles of every kind, endless species of stinging nettles. Outside an abandoned, weed choked office complex he came upon a 1950’s blue Buick with monkeys copulating on the torn red leather of the back seat. Old signs and warning signals oozing with damp rot were being slowly sucked into the earth, that infested his dreams, as sweaty and vaporous as the jungle.

Next morning the rain had stopped, the traffic resumed and all the noise and bad dreams were washed away. The reception desk where I waited to pay my bill led onto a patio with whitewashed walls, flowerpots, white sun shades and a garden covered by an enormous canvas canopy. The receptionist, who may also have been the proprietor, finally emerged from behind a beaded curtain and was in no hurry to check me out. She had slept badly she said, maybe it was the storm or terrible nightmares, no doubt, she said, induced by something she had eaten, something spicy or acidic. I told her of a poet I had once heard about who boasted of eating a lot of awful cheese at bedtime in order to have interesting dreams. She had a big pot of Roquefort in the bottom of a bookcase. This made the receptionist pause, I have no idea why anyone would do that to themselves, she said, then with a laugh, to each his own. I caught a train back to the city, never mind the mountains, I thought, I’ll escape to the city, into the metropolis to live among the pickpockets and derelict homeless of forgotten quarters, among the dope fiends and the whores, the good neighbours with four dogs, the Chinese bartenders, the smell of the sewers and drains with an evening beer, the whizz and whirr of public transport, police cars and ambulances, the hardworking commuters running in and out of the mouths of metro stations, the thunder rattle of the underground trains, tourists in shorts with cameras, the news kiosks all colourful presentation of world events no more than a day or two old, and the all day everyday tumescent struggle for survival. I fell into my upstairs room, plunged into a yellow haze of grime and soot. Cigarette in hand, eyes bleary from travelling, I was alone at last with the backyards of many unknown neighbours, tubing pipes, satellite dishes, air conditioning machines, dusty plants, basketball hoops, solar panels, I was alone at last. I took in a breath, exhaled and saw the air consuming my smoke during long nights with many questions, scribbled down in fairly neat handwriting, the mysteries, the common absurdities. Then some noise from outside like a dog with a low, hoarse, repetitive bark, or a person shouting in the street, or a ship moaning in the harbour, and I am not so sharp anymore. I’m not as sharp as you would like, as one would like to be, to see things clearly, to understand the complications and make no sweeping judgements, to calm the troubled heart, reconcile myself to the absurdity of existence, I could go on but what’s to be done with the ego and despair, 51 steps from the street, third floor door two? My neighbour had a bad cough. Maybe she smoked too much. I would hear her coughing for about ten minutes every night before she went to sleep. Then as all threatened to fall silent, secondary sounds not noticeable during the day crept in under the door and through the walls, some of them quite capable of bringing faces from my past crashing down into my insomnia, a cat wailing below in the yard either copulating or with a screw in its paw. At last the dawn and the sky covered in strange clouds that looked like a shoal of jellyfish to induce an impulse to get out of there as quick as possible, to escape where I had escaped to, not that easy, not as if you could hire a sleek, white limousine and say take me to my final destination, now this instant, whip me to the final place of rest. I leaned on a windowsill taking a breath of dawn, the city stirring itself, I watched an airplane as it rose up on a sharp line, ascending into the blood and gold, its engines screamed and I imagined the first captain with the elevating instrument pulled fully back, imposing all his weight and effort on the stick, to raise the crate so high, so much higher than the earth.

Cigar

That day, in morbid mood, when the sap felt low, I suddenly developed a craving for a cigar. I looked around the room. No cigar. I rummaged in a few drawers and along the bookshelves. I found a lighter and a box of matches but no cigar. Two images came to mind; one, an elderly man with a rather enormous brown cheroot in the middle of his mouth I saw passing along the street, moving as slow as a snail with an expression denoting a sublime absence from the normal everyday fuss and two a man I saw a long time ago walking into the sea in outsized trunks, sun drenched beach, burning cobalt sky, a Montecristo plumb in the centre of his gob, stuck to his fat lips and an expression that said nothing in the world was a bother to him. With these images in mind the desire for a fat cigar became a necessity. I searched along the mantelpiece and under the divan. I even emptied the kitchen drawers. No cigar. Nothing for it. I went down to a tobacconist along the street. In that place they called it L’Estanc, a beautiful technicoloured store, the senses of sight and smell assailed as you step in the door. The first deep inhalation sends a strong tang of nicotine hurtling into the nostrils to ignite the taste buds all the way to the back of the tonsils. Tobacco and all the appurtenances that come with tobacco are wrapped in very attractive packages. I need a fat cigar, I said to the girl who was far from fat herself. It struck me that she was as attractive as any packet of cigarettes, or cigarette papers or those beautiful lighters placed beside silver ashtrays. Her mobile phone rang, one moment she said in a peremptory voice and stepped through a beaded curtain into the back to leave me in contemplation of a silver weighing scales in a prominent position on the counter, maybe for weighing snuff or loose tobacco, maybe for ghosts like us to weigh their immortal souls. In a moment an elderly man in a hat stepped out through the beaded curtain, her father perhaps, who, at once reminded me of someone from far away, the living ghost of an old enemy. There was the face and the beady eye, there was the voice and rapid hand movements. Give me a box of cigars that I might light up and forget, that I might retire to my room and lay my stash out on the table, that I might feel their texture and roll them between my fingers, draw one slowly along the moustache to find myself at once transported to the sensuality of Caribbean climes and at last begin, it is how I hope it will happen someday, begin to record the final days in a notebook with yellow pages using a pen with black ink, and a head covered in a fragrant cloud of cigar fumes.

Edward Mc Whinney of Cork, Ireland, is a regular contributor to Contrary. Read our anniversary interview with him.