The smell of bread turning to toast came in the open window and my bloodhound began to salivate. He took a turn by the door, fixing his eyes on me. When I bend down to tie my laces a searing pain in a lower disc ensures I straighten up slow, too slow for the dog, who executes another anxious turn. I move slowly at last, after all the running and racing and obsessions. I’m an old joker. I spit in my hand and brush it through the hair to keep it down. It’s torture for the poor dog. People leave me alone mostly, the strongest man is the solitary man, I repeat the maxim but don’t believe it. Once I confided to the lady across the hall, Victoria, and told her that my heart broke on the first of July many years ago, after which I’d thought about emigration. I’d gone across to her flat, knocked on the door, out of some kind of momentary desperation. Her room was full of cigarette smoke, she was from Tralee in County Kerry and smoked all the time. What do you want, tea, a drink? I sat in a chair and said nothing at all which was possible with Victoria. She shrugged and soon seemed to forget I was there. She had big eyes and did not tolerate the kind of drivel I was prone to back then, have I changed all that much, the inconceivable morass, she would not tolerate such drivel, she would laugh me out the door to Hell. She came back from the kitchen with a cigarette between her lips. Are you still here, she said, acting surprised but only for a moment? I have considered emigration, I said. So, there you are, she said, that’s what you’ve come to tell me. I might try it for a year or so, what do you think? She said that she didn’t think anything, that thinking gave her a headache and that she was going to spend Christmas in California with her ex-boyfriend. Though she loved him she left him because of his lassitude, you mean he’s a waster, I said, no, no, I mean he is lazy, she had to do everything for him and became fed up of being the active member of the relationship when there was one, she managed his monthly cheque from the government, she dealt with their accountant and the bank manager, both of whom frowned upon his inadequacy and who overlooked his presence on the rare occasions when he accompanied her. She dealt with their tax forms. The complicated maze of comings and goings in the public world wearied him so much that he decided to stay at home and hardly ever go out. Here she paused to light another Pall Mall or Lucky Strike, was it a plain John Player Blue, with a knowing smile in my direction, I might have suggested that he got up enough steam to go to California but one thing I have learned over the years is restraint, keep the cynicism to yourself, keep the irony inside?
Why look so serious, Mrs. Apricot said to me in the street outside our door? How disappointing, my hair slicked back with spit, and what I believed was a cordial smile on my face to meet a normal day. Her hair had a healthy shine and long colourful ear-rings dangled from her ears, a gift from her husband, I suppose, from Noddy with love and affection. The clasp of a necklace shone on the soft, white skin of her neck and nestled against the frill of a furry collar from a red dress. She was a confident and jovial woman who believed we were lucky here, everything we want, what more do we need? And yet she had her moments of complaint, when her mother began to lose her memory for example, who could come up with such torture, she exclaimed, what tyrant could invent it, I felt like replying, the Bureau of Natural Occurrence while the dog growled at something down a drain? And when they were taking her father away in the ambulance her main concern was a stain on his pyjamas, though he was dying this time for sure. When the ambulance pulled away she turned to me and said; do you know what he was telling me there at the last minute, no, I said, he was telling me to burn some old diary he was keeping.
Children asked me what my dog’s name was. When I told them they said that I must be really cool to call my dog that name. They were mocking me but I didn’t know it until I got home. The hound was asleep, the night was quiet, I closed my eyes, a new habit developed in old age, the better to communicate with the universe, when it dawned on me that the children were being sarcastic. It was too late to change the dog’s name for that’s all he responded to, if I re-christened him now he might think I was going senile, sitting motionless and expressionless, listening to every sound, even the ticking of the old clock that came from Dublin in the post, wrapped in brown paper with a white label. Do I remember who sent it? Do I remember on what occasion it was sent? It was battery run and had a heavy tick tock silenced only by removing the battery from the back. I remember tearing the white label off and once the brown paper wrapping had been removed I discovered a red box with a cellophane window, inside the window the clock was ticking away and but for five minutes it told the correct time or the correct time according to Shandon Steeple which never tells the correct time as we know. I was alone in the kitchen, reading, a day after the arrival of the clock when its lugubrious tick tock suddenly became too prominent, its little red hand with a voice and relentless circular movement on a black and white railway track, ticking up to and under the word Quartz, enough, I said. I move slowly at last, alert and vigilant, my heart broken on the first of July, many years ago. I couldn’t care less about the clock, I have no idea how or why I began talking about it, I only want to get away from Quartz People, take me away from Time, set me free, take the battery from the back and fling it in the bin and that will be an end of it.
What Bureau could come up with the torture invented by Natural Order? I could break my rule, throw restraint aside and resort to cynicism one last time to describe our institutions and local authorities such as the tax office where I found myself not too long ago, twenty, thirty years, a damp building on a quay, a seedy old counter, the demented folk who worked there, ageing and lame, greying and skin the colour of white emulsion, I remember one old man with a glass eye. I whispered my requests. I filled my forms. I would not have been surprised if someone came out from behind the counter to kill me.
I’m not beyond revenge, working from the premise that one should strike before it is too late. Maybe I watch too many detective film noir or crime series. The children asked me where was Blue? Oh, didn’t you hear, I said, no, they were all ears? He ran in front of a train, I said. Is he dead? He’s dead, I said, and look, I am not so cool anymore. They looked funny, mouths slightly ajar, not so sure what to make of it, but before there was time for the penny to drop, I was gone home with my parcels of sausage meat and ox bones. With the key in the lock, Blue pounced up from his place under the table, tail wagging, enthusiastic yelps, good boy, I said, wait till you see what a treat I have for you.
They placed me in solitary confinement with a box of matches. Now and then I catch a glimpse of an eye at the grill. A voice whispers vague threats; The harbour is deep and full of wrecks. We’re going to drop your body in with the fish, then an hour later, they bang on the grill and shout; Food. And the box of matches lying on the table. I pick it up, read the black writing on the yellow background. It’s all I have to read, doesn’t amount to much, enough words to make four short poems until the variations are all but exhausted, maybe one more after a bit of sleep. I open the box and decide to count the number of matches bundled together, white sticks with red heads, which got my father a spot prize at a wedding reception once. The first to bring two red heads to the stage, wins the prize. I don’t even bother lighting a match to set fire to myself but hurl them against the wall and myself against the door, busting my head against the grill. Photographs and other ghosts tumbled out of the wardrobe, into which I crashed, happy to have been released without further ceremony from solitary confinement, the old house rattling with draughts, specks of plaster falling from the ceilings. Don’t ask me about what tense I live in. I used to think, the present, it is always the present and there is an end to it, but now I find myself in a spiral or infinite helix, many years, for many years in the furthest room, in the back room, in the darkness, I prayed to God, to protect me from the Time Phantoms that counted every grain of sand, yellow, greedy hands, calendar days fluttering like snowflakes into an uncertain future. When it is dawn and time to get up for work I sometimes write a few lines, mostly about the weather and my surroundings. If it is raining I like to describe it, torrential rain pounding against the glass, a slivered sheet of silver bullets, or the water cascaded down the slanted red tiled roof into the chutes, a stream of bright angels ejaculated from heaven. I better be careful I don’t lose the run of myself.
On the way to work, I dallied by taking wrong turnings, crossed a few bridges in the wrong direction, paused to light a cigarette with a phosphorus match, the first of which I lit and let burn, the flame leapt an inch or so, then burnt to the quick until it singed the skin on finger and thumb. The life of a match, about ten seconds. I was not free to stand around on that bridge, busy people bustling along, a nice enough part of town, natty boys and girls, jet stream in their hair, jewelry, fancy shoes, the grand names for high class restaurants, though I was aware that turning a corner or two brought you to a quieter place without frills where the poor and the elderly had pain in arid faces and broken souls. There were mad people, the fellow who took out his false teeth and stuck them in another fellow’s mouth, which happened not too far from the office, such a strange incident, the mad man took the false teeth out of his mouth and placed them in the mouth of a fellow who was sitting in a doorway.
I was late for work but everyone was too busy trying to resolve the issues that would keep the business afloat to chastise my tardiness. Here, said Knut, take this document. I took the document and sat at my station. I worked like a dog and by mid afternoon the air of tension had lifted. It’s Friday, let’s all go for a drink, someone said. Franz strolled over for a chat. Here is a riddle for you, I said. The first to bring me two red heads gets a prize. How would you do it? Franz leaned on the desk and thought and thought. Come on, it’s an old one, I said. For the first time that day I became aware of all the time devices in the office. There were wall clocks, desk clocks, digital clocks, screen clocks, wrist watches of all shapes and sizes, Harry Flower had a very good fake Rolex, the Armenian girl Anoush, had an egg timer which she kept turning, there were calendars of course and Luca at the desk beside me had an almanac which he referred to occasionally with mysterious intent, Friday, we are free, a good day’s work done, some documents left for editing, I could spend the evening doing it, if it didn’t confuse matters too much, or douse the festive atmosphere that followed us from the office to a bar where we celebrated the survival of the business once more. By the time I returned home it was well past 10.30. Still, I felt reluctant to go to my room. At the foot of the stairs, I paused, holding fast to the banister. There was Mr. Tide’s dog, Blue, with a scab on his back from his latest fight. He studied me with baleful eyes without raising his snout from the floor. No sign of Mr. Tide and across the hallway Victoria’s door closed and not a sound from within. My foot stepped on the loose floorboard outside her door. I hovered. I often did that, going in and out, hovering on the landing, searching for something, a mixture of unease and restlessness impeding my search. Too often up till now, a failure to slow down and look. Slow down and observe. We will vanish without a trace. All of this will disappear. I stepped inside my room, facing into another night with trepidation. What if they came to place me in solitary confinement again, this time indulging in a little torture before slamming the door with a rattle of the grill? As before it was their revulsion towards me that I could not understand and was worse than the sinking sun over which I have no control.
A windswept sky demanded my attention. The changing patterns fascinated me into a profound silence which did not encourage the confidence of my companions. I heard their voices and saw their mouths moving but did not register anything they said as I drifted away like a cloud, a much slower moving cloud than those scudding above in the windswept sky. One of my companions shouted after me above the noise of a train on the line, excavating machines in the quarry and traffic on the link road. Don’t turn, I said to myself, to turn now is to die. Don’t turn, run away, dare I mention it in a breath, like a human being putting pain into words or paint, the bloody entrails and the guts, the yellow brain melting, dripping out the ears of a skull losing flesh. The flesh is wax. The eyes are coals. I didn’t turn, I kept going until I reached the glasshouse in the orchard of Three Noses where no-one would ever find me. Imagine a place where no-one would ever find you, a place as still and silent as the grave, though you are still alive and breathing, conscious of every sound and movement, ready for anything. Once I had a pinewood desk. There I sat. I clung on hard. I hung off the desk for one of those incomprehensible moments I have become familiar with, trapped in a fraction of time, as in a still frame leaving my companions and the one who shouted above all other noise. Don’t turn, keep going, take the pain, an atom breaking away from the global body. If it’s called cowardice, then that it must be, as I wander, founder rather, sometimes earning special looks from strangers, most of the time though, invisible, earning not a glance. It was a sort of rainy day, probably November, Beignard, the one nicknamed the Whale, chain smoking, so I have to close the window to block out the detritus of his lungs but not his voice, as deep as an ocean full of wrecks, a never ending monologue directed at the all suffering wife. The following incident concerns Beignard. I invited Victoria, who lived across the hall in those days to the theatre, the Palace Theatre. I forget what the show was or the author but that it attracted the most beautiful women in town and seemed to be concerned with the absurdity of life. Won’t you buy me an ice-cream, said Victoria? Then the play began. Voices came from the back of the auditorium and to my incredulity there was Beignard prancing around the stage wearing my black, ankle length trench coat. He is wearing my coat, I whispered to Victoria. She paid me no attention. I saw her profile, her rather large nose, her eyes peeled on the action. Maybe I’d been dreaming or hallucinating for when I once more turned my attention to the stage there was no sign of Beignard. I began to think only of getting out of there for a drink. In fact, I’ll buy you more than an ice-cream, I whispered to Victoria, I’ll buy you a vodka and orange. I’ll need it after this, she said. When I went to retrieve our coats from the cloakroom, there was Victoria’s fur but not my trench coat. I said that I believed one of the actors had used it as a prop during the performance which drew the expected reaction from the cloakroom attendant, as a deep queue began to form behind us. I don’t think you had a coat, said Victoria, in fact I remember saying to you, you’ll catch your death. In a bar next to the theatre Victoria said that she hated that play and didn’t want to talk about it, telling me instead about her trip to California. She went on and on and all I could think about was Beignard, if you become obsessed enough about people, it’s possible, I thought, to have hallucinations about them. After I walked Victoria home, I returned to the street where the Palace Theatre was only to find the theatre closed up of course. The bar next door was almost empty. There was a man sitting at the counter with his back to the door. For one moment I believed it was Beignard still wearing my trench coat. I would challenge him. I would accost him. Beignard, I said, but the face that turned to me was not that of Beignard but the worn out, sad face of an old school-friend called Wallace. Will you have a drink, he said? He had no teeth now and gave off a kind of mouldy smell. He said that he was still living in his father’s old house, a cobweb really, treating me to a toothless laugh, raising the glass, that’s all you could call it, a cobweb. I wanted to tell him about Beignard, his part in the play wearing my trench coat, when he gripped my arm saying, you were always a strange lad weren’t you, remember the time you ran away from us, when we were pretending to drown that fellow in the quarry. My head slips towards the table. I’m still running, behind me the voice; Where are you going, above the noise of excavating machines in the quarry and the traffic on the ring road, coward, I heard, come back? I’m still running, they are right there on me, Wallace, Beignard, John Peter Singer, I can’t get away, my racing blood, my loud voice, and all around a constant racket, the soprano on the top floor, televisions droning, radios blaring, laughter, arguments, children tumbling, I hold my head in my hands and across the way Victoria’s visitors, and somewhere in the distance, the bellowing of oxen, the braying of mules, twittering of birds, the inter city roaring out of the tunnel and the buzz of the doorbell announcing a visitor, maybe it’s John Peter Singer, the madman again, so more than cautious about opening the door, I freeze, stuck to the chair as the buzzer sounded again a second time with greater force, but I hold tight, whoever is at the door, madman or not, if whoever it is, is allowed in, I’ll have to talk, I’ll have to say things, I couldn’t sit there without saying something, and before you know it, one thing leading to another, the racing blood, the bellowing of an ox, the braying of a donkey and further panic on the streets of my imagination leading to incoherence or worse, lies or worse, the need to impress, cynicism, irony, I can’t answer the door, the words I struggle to find always elude me. After I don’t know how long, how much stillness, enough to make a dead leg, a cramped knee, enough time for the light in the room to change significantly, after a while, I hear girls giggling down on the street and boys shouting after them. And once more the time is skidding, the wheels are burning, the calendar is on fire, I count the days and sometimes I count my own steps as I walk. Brief is life and nothing beyond but the inconceivable morass. John Peter Singer told us the story of Bede’s Sparrow which frightened the life out of me. It made me feel all out of place, wondering around in the dark as it were, I remember quite clearly, as if it really happened, stumbling into a room, knocking over a porcelain jug and feeling around the floor with my hands until I touched the cold, dead face of a friend who had lived life for the sake of existence, never questioned why he was anywhere, or what was the reason for anything, in fact in the old days, I had loads of such friends, not questioning the noises they made, how they could read between the lines and use words as birds use signals, never upset or insulted by anything anyone said. In the old days, I was almost like them, not worrying so much about every stupid thing I said. In the heat of the moment all kinds of things slip out, sillinesses, threats, the flippant insult you never really meant, or did you, come on, be a man, show me your fists? As I run there is nothing but madness. Once, said John Peter Singer, as a punishment, his father locked him in a room without a window, a basement or cellar I presume, for a week and all he had was the light through the keyhole so he ended up scribbling notes on yellow leaves of clover, rolling them up into tiny little balls and shoving them through the keyhole. They just drift away I thought, without speaking. The yellow leaves of clover float away on a breeze, they would never turn, no voice could ever stop them drifting away into the ether.
Edward Mc Whinney, of Cork, Ireland, has been for many years a regular contributor to Contrary. Read more of his work here.