One morning in early November, a letter arrived in the post. I took it from the box in the hallway, 5-2, fifth floor, door two and climbed the stairs. I placed the letter on the kitchen table. A droplet of sweat fell onto the address, handwritten in blue fountain pen ink, the distinctive, almost childish hand I recognized so well.
I put the whistling kettle on the hob and lit the gas. Out upon the horizon, the rook and the raven, hoarse from sounding warnings, the rook and the raven way out in the trees.
I placed the cup of tea on the envelope and stared as if trying to burn a hole in it, the way we would use a magnifying glass to direct a ray of sunlight onto the page of a textbook in secondary school hoping to burn the building down. A mop fell out of the rusty bucket in the kitchen and the doorbell rang. I looked through the old-fashioned spy hole which was moved by a handle made of thin lead, exposing three holes through which the person outside could see me looking out. It was the gas metre reader. He held up his identification. I opened the door. He was wearing a hunting jacket without sleeves. On his left arm he balanced a red file holder to which pages to record gas readings were clipped, in his right hand, a torch in heavy-duty black rubber.
Number, he said in an accent from a far distant corner of Europe?
I don’t remember, I said, I don’t have a good head for numbers.
A cat stalked along the landing and I sensed two eyes burning a path towards us through the spy-hole of 5-1.
He looked at me out of hard brown eyes that had seen things, an impressive scar from his left temple looping in under his left ear lobe.
No, not account number, what is the number of your door?
5-2, I said.
He stood into the hallway, directed a flashlamp’s beam at the gas meter and he wrote in the gas numbers as the eye from across the landing continued to burn its way.
I longed for elsewhere. I longed to be once more out on the river in a rowing boat, only the call of the curlew, the murmuring of the water and the stars dripping into the trees, something stealthy stirring among the reeds. The lighthouse on a distant point sent out a beam, a break of light illuminating the dive of a cormorant, a clean slice into the tide. A commuter train rolled by. A number of passengers looked out into the grey, all in a fleeting moment removed from reality.
Always the same, this longing for somewhere else, to be a part of another world, even the mysterious, perhaps troubled homeland of the gas meter reader.
I dashed into the back room where there were books to be read and re-read, on the shelves, on the floor and on the table, notebooks to be filled, ink to be spilled, in the backroom a black pool waited for me to dive in, there was no bottom, bottomless pits of notebooks, pencils, pens and inkpots.
How often when I was eighteen, nineteen or as old as twenty did I weigh the odds for and against my chances of escaping from the streets of my youth, packing a suitcase, taking a boat, then trains across the continent to that far away city where at last, I could dress all in black, walk incognito and live on scraps in an attic or cellar while composing novels and stories and philosophical treatises for extinguished or crossed out men only, only there was a problem, I had no money for the boat, come to think of it, I had little enough to pack in a suitcase and furthermore, the novelty of the idea soon wore thin, as November had almost gone, and I found myself firmly rooted between the reality of my streets and the dreams supped from books, living a duality that may have been subversive, even psychotic. I knew what humans were capable of. I hung around town and I read detective books. I went to the cinema and the theatre. I saw the existential squalor of human existence everywhere, and I knew what Nature could do, entropy and decay, wheels ceaselessly turning, the grass growing all up and down and around our incurable limitations.
In the kitchen I sat in a chair with a broken back and stared at the old rusty bucket under the table and the mop with the blue furry head lying wounded on the floor. I brewed some coffee, poured it into a mug someone had brought me from Istanbul, and set the mug on the envelope of the unopened letter.
Again, I stared at the childish handwriting I knew so well. I rinsed the cup and once more dashed into the back room where no-one knew where I was.
I know where you are, said Bianca. Her voice floated in upon me from her crimson painted lips, very bright crimson, like a statement, very loud and powerful. Do you remember when I was your neighbour? Do you remember when you knocked on my door?
At first, she did not open. If Bianca does not want to open, she will not.
I tapped on the door again without conviction. From that landing I could see the river sliding along, the clouds floating above, the ever-changing waters of the lower harbour slipping by an island with a Martello Tower towards the ocean. I was about to turn around and leave when without warning the door opened, and there Bianca stood with her eyes cast to the ground, her speech prepared, if you are coming to complain again, I reserve the right to sing and dance, to laugh and play music at a reasonable volume at reasonable hours of the day.
When she raised her eyes, she saw me which brought on a burst of laughter. Oh, it’s only you, she said. What are you doing standing there?
Can I come in?
No. My sister Marcy told me not to have any more to do with you.
Silence fell along with the dust. What could I say? Her sister Marcy.
Won’t you at least, come out for a coffee, I said?
No, she said, most definitely not, she could not go out, it was out of the question, who would look after her mother, what would her sisters say?
There was the envelope with her handwriting on the table, where it had remained unopened now for three days, for what is three days after twenty or so years? The white envelope had circular stains from the cups of tea and coffee I had placed on it, hesitant, in fact not sure if I would ever open it, maybe twenty-two years since I had last seen her.
It had been a beautiful morning, icy cold with a fabulous blue sky. Bianca came to visit in a red BMW, parked on the street right outside the door, never mind the double yellow lines. She stood into the hallway wearing leather boots, a leather jacket and leather pants. We had not seen each other for six years. She never looked so voluptuous. It was like one of those dramas where after the intermission the actors have been aged by makeup, to convey the passage of time. Only she had aged remarkably well, she looked like a sexy actress, what a sensual mouth, big lips painted crimson, no suggestion whatsoever of a squint and when she spoke not a trace of a stammer. Voluptuous.
Afterwards, her cigarette smoke hung above us in a cloud I would soon regret the passing of as I expressed regret at the passing of inkwells, of quiet backstreet pubs, of skirts and kidney stew, of living at a certain angle, out of view. We spoke in monosyllables. Her voice was only a whisper, the passing of her childhood, her neighbours complaining her music was too loud, though no regret at leaving the room she shared with three sisters, each one dreamed of having a room of her own, far away from here, she said, all of us in that house she said, all of us always dreamed of living far away.