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The sun dawdled on the yellow windowsill. The house was quiet. Noisy youths played ball in the street, but all was silent inside. I was as quiet as an owl in a barn, too quiet for my neighbour, Victoria, queen of the fifth floor who said I was melancholic, and that word soup was more preferable than my quietude. I was confused. What is word soup, I wondered, what does quietude mean? She was reading militant feminist poets, she was devouring poems by great unknown and repressed female poets who were bright and challenging, who had energy and locomotion, that’s what she said, locomotion, and beside them I was such a pitiful, poor depressing slob as bleak and dull as a dead Sunday afternoon. Though I had known her for more than five years she remained a mystery to me. Some evenings I imagined I heard her playing the piano, only she didn’t have a piano. I heard her singing when her window was open. She took a year out in Paris to study at the Sorbonne. She wrote letters which I hid under a pile of papers on a desk in the reading rooms of the library. Every so often I’d slip a letter out from under a sheet of yellow paper, her beautiful, flowery handwriting in blue fountain pen ink, thrown into stark contrast with my penciled scrawls. Once she wrote from an over-night train to Marseille. She had become a disciple of great French poets, whom she named one by one adding whole poems or verses of poems, enough to keep me reading all night long, when the house fell silent and the curtains barely stirred.  

Sunday evening was often lonely, bleak and dull. I was visited by ghosts. There sat my great-uncle Horatio, sipping coffee, at ease in his wicker rocker where he spends most of his time having spent a life wandering the globe in search of silence. Way back west, he boasted, he lived in a cottage near Galley Head Lighthouse. There he endured the storms, wind and rain, far removed, turning the tide on time and space, the most savage hurricanes subsumed reality and the world ceased to exist. When calm returned, he walked along the cliffs and the beaches. It was a place he should not have left, so he planned to return there to die, which is what he did about fifty years ago. In the evenings he wrote poems and stories that no-one would ever read because mad like life he’d write one after the other then write another and send them all into the oblivion of the bottom of a wardrobe.  

Two small spiders dangled from the ceiling. When does a ball of wax from a honeycomb cease being a ball of wax? I had not been out for days, had not seen the crooked streets, the green countryside, the blue sea. It was days since I came upon Victoria walking from the shop with her fat, dirty dog on a green leather lead. You look funny, she said, I mean funny peculiar. I’m out for a stroll, I said, which made her laugh. Her new boyfriend, Manfred Moorcock, stumbled along. Manfred had a permanent bored expression, his eyes were heavy like lead, he followed Victoria like a lap dog, even when she came into my room, he followed her, the other day he threw himself in a kitchen chair and swung his legs up onto the table. He was a panel beater who had also served his time as a glassblower, and made lots of money, no shortage of work that summer. He stroked the dog’s head with his left hand, only with his left hand, he said, because if the cur bit him he would have his right hand to work with. My dog does not bite, said Victoria. The dog’s ears trembled as if he knew he was the subject of their conversation, then he sat up and scratched his fleas. 

Silent sheet lightning brightened the night sky when they left. The ball thudded against the wall of the building. Street level youths roared goal and foul, foul and goal. Then in an instant the street game was over, replaced by Sunday evening silence. I gazed at the troubled sunset. Across the way the old restaurant called The Red House had holes in the roof and the gable-end was cracked. A thick summer greenery clung to the walls around rusted, enamel window frames. Beyond that, the art gallery was closed to visitors. The rain dripped off a satellite dish. An unpleasant smell rose from the sewers creating a cloacal atmosphere. Now came the sense of blackest heartache, now came the long line of lost souls, everywhere around me as I shuffled in and out, unshaven and uneasy, thinking of another insult Victoria had thrown my way on her last visit when the Queen of the fifth floor claimed I looked like a nineteenth century Russian novelist. Well, it’s no joke, I said, I am officially unemployed, and I think there is something wrong with my liver, I said, but I’m not sure if she got the reference. I sipped soup out of a tin cup. I felt abandoned and forgotten way out west, a lighthouse keeper, the lighthouse itself lunged into view, nothing for it but to revel in the feeling of being detached from mankind. The following moment there was a cloudburst that would have petrified the air inside the lighthouse. A light bulb as yellow as the page of a notebook open on the table, flickered. It was, let us say, a flypaper yellow as the lightning storm shook the foundations. Encouraged by the solitude I wallowed in the delusion that my sentences were short and to the point, not the rambling, incoherent efforts of other days, branching sentences that forgot their own beginnings. I can’t find them now; I don’t know where they are. A car sped by in the rain. I began another letter of resignation. I am done with bureaucratic cellars, I wrote. I am finished with paperwork that would confound a scholar. I will spend my days in solitary walks, I will talk only to Delbert Grady and Lanky Long and their dogs if the mood takes me, in Fitzgerald’s Park, undeterred by my presence on their bench, we have become compadres who don’t ask for explanations. I will go to the cinema or to the library or sit on Patrick’s Bridge with a harmonica rather than return to the reality of the office. I was that far into the letter of resignation when it dawned on me that I was no longer employed there, it was like a nightmare when you force yourself to justify your existence, utter detachment not yet realised.    

My boss called to the house, insisted on talking to me, his wavy, black hair, his fine lantern jaw. It’s not too late, he said, you can come back to the office. We all want you back. Your desk is waiting. When he left, I listened to music on a compact disc, the sound turned very low. I read books. I called over to Matthews. He said that he had seen it coming. He said that he thought I was doing the right thing but what did he know? It might even be a kind of heroic thing. He wasn’t sure. The last time he took anything seriously, especially himself, was in a brothel in Lisbon in 1978. We both laughed. That’s it then, I’m calm, I said. I was never better off, enough to pay the rent, I hardly spend a dime. Anything I write from now on will be about flowers and trees. For example, I have a piece about Galley Head Lighthouse. Good man said Matthews. 

The following day when Victoria knocked on the door, I was inside trying to fix the motor in the washing machine. I think I was only making matters worse the more I tinkered with it. The minute she came in the door I knew something was up, she was as different as you could expect someone to be from one day to the next. She was all dressed up and covered in a perfume that made me sneeze. She put her handbag on the table and sat in silence. I washed the oil and grease from my hands. There was oil and grease and blood on the front of my shirt. I can’t get it to work, I said. I just got back from an interview she said, and Dandy is gone. I have no idea where he is or how he got out but there is no sign of him. I agreed to take a walk out and have a look around for the stupid dog though by the time I reached the bottom of the stairs my mind was elsewhere, oh for a sniff of ocean air, I thought, oh for an expanse of light green sky full of miracle, I thought heading down the street to where I had parked the van.  

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