It was a small apartment, fifty square metres; a bedroom, a living room, kitchen, utility room and a little balcony. And there were problems of course. I contacted the landlady, Lola, asked her to deal with a broken window clasp and a faulty washing machine. Her fumbling fingers were no more dexterous than my own. I'm all thumbs, she said. Her husband Titti would have to be called in. She sat on the window sill and asked me about myself. I gazed past her shoulder at the sign for The Funny Bunny Club where two burley doormen stood after midnight when the other bordellos along the street also came to life. Desire, a brightly lit stretch of lust, pussy dolls, seedy, sinful darkness. I invented some cheerful details about the life of an exile which seemed to keep her happy.

Next day, the husband, Titti, arrived at noon with his sack of tools and banged the window and the washing machine into shape while talking about fishing up the coast and skiing in the Pyrenees. He lit up a cigarette and blew smoke at the ceiling with the air of a man who was not convinced that he was talking about himself.

The window worked. It slid out and back. Sparrows landed on the windowsill. I thought about feeding them and befriending them, but feared they might choke on my leftovers. Sometimes what was written in the clouds was too ambiguous for words but it cost nothing to gaze and invent.

In the morning I lay around on a three-legged couch. A girl wearing high heels walked the floor above. She dropped a button from her dress. I am in charge of the window, the light switch and the door handle but not that little button rolling along the boards overhead.

The sound of the gasman on the street below, tapping his yellow bottle like a bell from the after world was a signal that sent me to the tobacconist's on the corner for a metro ticket. I longed to strike up a conversation with the girl behind the counter, discovered her name when a customer addressed her one day as Monica, Monica la Guapa, and she was very charming in an aloof sort of way and despite the deformity on her forehead, some kind of growth. But what style she possesses, I thought, as she leans on the counter talking to a customer, Ramon; hola Ramon, what style as she reaches to the shelves of multi-coloured cigarette packs all neatly stacked, black tobacco of Spain and France and the blonde tobacco of America in whose names that continent is evoked, its secrets exposed as in a confidential document left lying around.

In internet cafes I used the search engines. There was always something to be found, suggestions and exhortations to refine our quests, thrown up like pearls on a beach. The screen bubbled like a man with restless blood and I soon tired of his tricks.

A woman next door sold chickens on a spit and potatoes roasted in the fat of the chickens. She offered a glass of beer from a mini keg as I waited. I wanted to admire her but felt that she talked too much. She was about sixty five. Her eyes were heavy with make-up and she moved with the litheness of a girl half her age.

I had a spy hole on the back of the door. The glass threw the person outside into a middle distance, enlarging the eyes and nose. The girl from above rang the bell. She looked further away than the actual one foot that separated us. A pair of knickers had dropped from her clothesline into my utility room. I welcomed her inside. As she was wearing slippers she walked soundlessly down the corridor to the room where there was a washing machine and a water heater, a bucket and mop and a brush and scoop and a smell of detergent, cracked paint on yellowing walls. I smiled at her and exchanged pleasantries as best I could. She spoke quickly and stroked my arm.

I had a radio beside the bed with late night programmes in English, talk for insomniacs. I took long showers in the warm morning air. The water power varied alarmingly. I pulled back the shutters. Already the temperatures were entering the red zone, a morning as hot as a yellow insect with a blue tail or a blue bird with a purple tail, or both. I would have to follow old fellows in vests out to the street bin, step on the pedal and swing last evening's rubbish in.

I clung to such days; walking slowly, the dusty streets, enormous elephant legs of the palm trees, the golden rays of the sun, dazzling colourscapes, the bars holding onto breakfast customers avoiding the heat.

With the newspaper under my arm I strolled along to the bread shop and bought a small loaf, that lovely doughy-fresh smell. The longer route home took me through the bustling market of Libertad where the architect set to work after a nightmare about sharks, whales and being choked on a large bone with savage teeth eating his head. I felt like I was walking through the skeleton of an enormous fish, exacerbated in no small fashion as I passed through the fish section, sea snakes and lobsters with bound claws, writhing around on small banks of ice.

In the apartment I ripped up old shirts to use as dusters, then the landlady, the once lovely Lola, paid a visit. She would reduce the rent if I did some renovations around the place. Firstly, I could paint the utility room. She carried two large cans of paint, a painting brush and a roller. She opened a cupboard and pulled out an old sheet which she lay out on the floor. Now, you're all set up she said. I walked out onto the landing to see her off. Herself and Titti were going on a trip to California for two weeks. When she got back she expected the place to be as bright and shiny as a silver dollar. I stepped back inside. I lay down on the floor next to the paint tins with neat instructions in yellow writing on the sides. Through the window I saw clouds fleeing across the sky, and I observed the effect of sunlight on water vapour, the ever changing forms with a message from beyond, the high cirrus against the thin, cold air and the lower nimbus.

All was quiet on the street. The Clubs lay around without a word all day. I had no idea when I would start painting the apartment. The more I thought about it the less inclined I was to begin. I lay on the floor and read. I sat out on the small balcony and read. I lay on the three-legged couch and read my way into the Eve of St. John. I heard the rockets in the street. They blow the sky to kingdom come in celebration. They blow up the city without doing any real damage. A cloud heavy with cordite came in the open window, a heady blast of sulphurous fumes. The shelves shuddered. A book fell off the bed. The rockets burned fiery trails through the sky. The tracer like sparks sailed back to earth past the window's frame.

The air conditioning was no longer working and the landlady was in California. I had a small fan but the noise it made was worse than the heat. The apartment began to float as on a cloud of humidity. When I come back you'll have that room painted, she said in her soft voice. She didn't trust me at all.

After three days of idleness and self-imposed solitary confinement I began to sense strange motion taking place in ordinary objects around me. By the fourth day my head was a sun for orbiting planets.

The gurgling of ice forming in the freezer box was like the voice of a man desperately trying to tell me something in a foreign language. Is the light switch inside or outside the bathroom? Do you turn or press the taps? I had many wonderful conveniences but needed manuals to operate them.

I knew of a man who believed that solitude would bring him peace of mind. He would rent a place in Gracia with two skylights looking out on the roofs, no door but a pull up ladder to a trap door that could be swung shut behind. He saw it on a dark night with little visibility, then thunder and lightning. The darkness is lit up in a blinding flash and the place is left imprinted on his retina with the two skylights slanting into the heavens. The precise co-ordinates evade him, horizontal or vertical, objects equidistant from a divan that opened into a bed and above it a light bulb with a string switch? There would be a desk at a decent distance from the trap door and its drawers would hold pleasurable snippets that would please people, revealing goodness in an evil world. He would lie on the floor and look up at the clouds drifting across the sky and at night the pockmarked face of the moon with goblins and imps running around in its cheesy craters. There he would dwell without interference from the mad, babbling fiends, the googling, twittering, face-booking mess.

I had begun to think in the third person again. It happened when I shunned the society of my fellow man for any length of time. I presumed it was a form of madness but really who was to judge? The floating objects stopped when I got up. I went down the corridor in bare feet to check where the light switch for the toilet was. I stepped in to verify that the toilet flusher was a press on handle and not an old-fashioned pull down chain unit. In the utility room I looked at the dirty ceiling and noticed for the first time that the bulb was covered in a Chinese lantern style shade with red tassels hanging from it.

It was a very hot night. I would have to apply mosquito repellent or be eaten alive again. I stopped breathing when I heard her walking above, clip clop, the high heels. I waited for a button to drop. I suspended all movement in anticipation. The creak of the bed springs would obliterate the sound of her skirt falling to the floor.

When I woke, morning light was streaming through the apartment. I had no idea where I was. It felt like my last day at primary school, walking home with my granddad, into the house with a smell of gas and bacon, an eye of light on a landing window, from which you could look down into the neighbour's yard where three dogs were chained to a shed. What would happen if he fell out the window into their midst? They lay around, then stalked around restricted by long, noisy chains. He believed their eyes and teeth were evil. His granddad told him that being dead was not something to be afraid of. It brought peace. He listened but he didn't need that eternal peace. He'd rather take on all the fears that went with being alive. He'd rather fall out the window into the dogs.

I prepared for an exit; shave, shower, clean clothes, glanced at the paint tins on the floor of the spare room. I checked the wallet for money and credit card. I knew there was something else. I strode back down the corridor to check the gas rings and the back door, then back up the narrow corridor and out, the weight of the heavy, timber door carrying it behind me on its hinges.

Simultaneous with the gentle snap shut of the lock, I knew that I had forgotten the keys. I pushed at the door the way people in films shout hello, hello, into a phone, knowing that the other person has hung up. I knew the keys were inside on a hook. I blamed the landlady and her paint. I blamed the rockets of the Eve of St. John.

I sat on a stair of the third floor landing. It was a quiet hour of the day, the elevator not frequently in use. I leaned against the wall, right shoulder feeling cool stone. I kept an eye on light streaming in through the high windows on the fourth floor. It sent in mysterious rays that I found hard to interpret. I kept an eye on the elevator shaft. When I heard voices below in the vestibule I jumped up and leaned out over the timber banister. A shock as the drop took my breath away and sent a scrotum-tightening sensation through my groin. Then there was the rattling back of the glass paneled doors with brass fittings and the clattering of the cage as it was snapped shut. The greased cables whirred into life followed by a thud as the floating box began its ascent. I stood back against the wall watching the cables, then the red opera-box-upholstery of the interior, the glass paneled timber door with brass handles and two ladies illuminated inside by the yellow glow of a light bulb. I thought I recognised one of them as the girl in high heels. It stopped above on the next landing where I heard the cage being opened, then the door, laughter and loud voices, the cage being closed and then the door again. I resumed my position on the stair, the chirp of birds, the distant murmur of the city. Trying to gather thoughts but paralysed, no desire to move, enclosed in stairway shadow as in a womb, remain forever, only here nothing is forever, and the sudden thud of the elevator motor again reminded me of that fact, nothing is permanent, here, all falling forward, rolling and tumbling, the dice never cease.

Edward Mc Whinney is neither all that young nor all that old. He lives in Cork, Ireland. Read an index of his stories...>Edward-Mc-Whinney.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0









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