Chapters 7, 8 & 9

  - the first fifty pages in three parts - 



chapters 7, 8 & 9






7. IN MOSE’S ROOM

 

“Isn’t it such a strange thing, J, to be so alive while walking around inside the home of someone who has left us so suddenly, someone who was such a huge part of our lives?” I had asked him on that strange afternoon, near the end of another life.

Jonas was standing by a table next to the bed, looking through a notebook he had found lying there. “Honestly,” he said, throwing it back onto the tabletop, “I’m not feeling it. What did we come here for, E? This is morbid.”

“You know why we’re here,” I replied as I walked slowly around the room, letting my hand drift across the surfaces of everything I passed. “But now that we are, I’m not really sure I can bear it. How long do you think they’ll leave his things here?”

“It’s only been a week. They’ll need time to find someone to take the room anyway.”

I had told Jonas earlier that day that I wanted to go and make one last connection with Mose, to touch his belongings, to spend time in the place he had lived, rather than go to the funeral service. Neither of us had had the chance to say goodbye after all and his room had seemed like a much more appropriate location to say goodbye to our friend than a sterile funeral chamber. Jonas had agreed that this was a fine idea, but then as soon as we unlocked the door and entered the large apartment he had clearly felt repulsed and threatened by the whole affair and in an instant began tackling these feelings by being deliberately insensitive and impatient.

“Jesus, look how neatly his clothes are folded! He always seemed like such a disorganised mess.”

“Jonas don’t go in the drawers, please!” I begged, turning back to him. There was no one else around to be offended by his actions but nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was simply wrong of him to behave this way. “Please,” I whispered, “just get out of there.”

I’d felt bad for giving him a hard time, but those moments we were spending in Mose's room had been so important to me. It had worried me considerably that I had not so much as blinked at his passing, not straight away anyway, and coming to visit his room was something I viewed as a test, an opportunity to see if I had the strength to hold back the coming tide, the inevitable depression and the self-loathing. 

I walked over to Jonas and slipped my arms around him and there, isolated in the centre of the room of our deceased friend, I held him tightly and asked, “Can’t you just finally give him ten minutes of your time? Is that so hard?”

“I’m sorry,” he replied eventually. “Are you okay? How do you feel?”

I put my head against his. “I don't know. I just keep thinking that things could have been so different,” I said as I looked around the room again. “He could so easily have been here right now, cooking, eating a meal, bathing, lying drunk in his bed, watching TV, sleeping with a beautiful girl...”

“Unlikely,” Jonas muttered.

I shook my head, tutting, and then I turned to look out of the window to the street below. It had begun to rain. I rested my forehead against the glass.

“I needed to come here because I’m beginning to feel…” I broke off from that sentence and took a long, deep breath. “I’m scared to admit why he has gone.”

“Well… no one really knows why he’s gone,” Jonas said. “I’d be surprised if there even is a ‘why’.”

“There is always a reason when that happens.”

Jonas stood motionless, looking over my shoulder, staring directly at my reflection in the rain-streaked window, staring at me with an empty expression. He placed a hand on my shoulder.

This was the moment I was ready for. There were so many things he could have said to me at that point, things I was longing to hear, words that would have made everything better, easier, words which were irrelevant but which could have at least relieved me of the burden I was forced to carry. Instead, he simply said, “Come on, let’s go.”

And then he turned away from me.

 

8. DO YOU KNOW WHAT A PANDA LOOKS LIKE?

 

With my bag slung over my shoulder and my crimson quit held uncomfortably in my arms I pushed through the early evening crowd, creating distance between myself and the opinions of Stepek who I assumed would still be trapped somewhere back in the logjam of traffic.

The stale smell of the apartment lingered, my brain recreating what I was no longer experiencing. E’s face, her pale face. That oppressive atmosphere. I shook my head to clear these thoughts, recognising that I probably should not have gone up there in the first place. There are times in life when it is better to shut out the peripheral noise and focus on your own path, and that had definitely been one of them. 

Some way ahead of me I could see through a gap in the crowds of pedestrians that there were two small children standing together in the middle of the sidewalk, and then, as I got a little closer, I saw that one of them was dressed as a panda and the other appeared to be dressed as what seemed to me to be a wizard of some kind, judging by his colourful, pointed hat. Getting closer I saw that the kids were both boys, their ages difficult to judge but definitely younger than ten. They were in the middle of an argument, the wizard, seemingly the older of the two, certainly taller, waving his arms as he talked while the panda just shrugged and moaned a few words back him in response.

Their costumes were detailed; the wizard kid had the pointed hat, and a long, flowing deep-purple robe with stars and planets sewn on to it, just as you’d expect. I noticed that the bottom of the robe was dirty and wet, and it looked as if he had been walking about in it for days, which was a little bit concerning. The smaller boy’s panda outfit was equally impressive; it was made of thick looking fur with big black arms and legs that contrasted with a round white body, all topped off with a head that seemed much too big for the size of the boy inside it. The legs ended in large round feet which, like the bottom of the wizard’s robe, were grubby and wet. A long, thick, striped tail dragged along behind him, just as dirty. I was tempted to stand on the tail, just to observe the boy’s reaction.

Initially it seemed that no one at all was paying them any attention, which said a lot more about the kind of people who pass through the city at this time of day than it did about the boys, but as I finally reached them I started to feel that not only was no one looking at them but that no one else but me could actually see them at all. I began to feel a little dizzy.

“It looks stupid,” the Wizard was shouting, “and you’ve made us look dumb.”

“It is not stupid! That’s what it looked like in the book,” the Panda replied. He reached behind him and scooped up the dirty tail and then waved it in the Wizard’s face. “It’s your stupid hat that makes us look dumb.”

I moved past them slowly, watching them out of the corner of my eye. My plan was to regain my normal speed the moment I was fully past and then forget about them entirely, but I was forced to slow further when I noticed that one of the boys was staring directly at me. It felt wrong that they could see me, and the strangeness of that particular thought began to really rattle me.

I stopped. “Hello,” I said, for no real reason apart from the fact it seemed appropriate to at least acknowledge the connection.

The Wizard looked up at me as if I had spoken in a language he didn’t understand, his mouth all curled up at one side, the eye on that side of his face squashed shut. I could see blond hair poking out from underneath the hat. “Who are you?” he asked, studying me as if I were planning to trick him. The Panda, who was holding his tail limply in his hand, was staring at me in the same way, just as confused. His face, set in a round hole in the front of the panda head, looked tiny, a heavy frown on his forehead beneath dark hair. He looked very pink, almost as if he were about to overheat.

I didn’t answer, I just gave a slight shrug.

“Listen Mister! Do you know what a panda looks like?” the Wizard asked me.

“A what?” I said, surprisingly.

“A panda!” he replied, pointing at the other boy. “This bozo has disguised himself as one, but he thinks its tail looks like this,” he said, snatching the tail from the Panda’s hand and holding the muddy end of it up in front of my face, almost poking me in the eye with it.

“I’m uh...”

“So do you know what one looks like or not?”

“Erm... yes,” I said, nodding towards the Panda. “That.”

“And it’s tail?”

I shrugged again and said, “I’ve really got no idea,” which was true. The Panda’s shoulders dropped.

“The thing is,” the Wizard continued, “we need these costumes to be amazing. I look amazing. I’m a wizard. Him though...” he rolled his eyes.

“Shurrrup!” the Panda yelled back at him. “This is what a panda tail looks like! It’s you who’s made us look all wrong as usual! Your hat is stupid!” He then swiped his tail out of the Wizard’s hand and yelled into his face, “I don’t care anyway! It’s my tail. I like it!”

The Wizard snatched it back again and tugged sharply. The Panda yelped loudly as he spun around and fell onto his hands and knees before leaping up and lunging forward, knocking the Wizard’s pointed hat from his head, the two of them landing on the ground together, scuffling and rolling, grabbing at each other. I looked around again at everyone who was rushing past, shocked that no one seemed to be seeing this cartoon play out. The Panda was now trying to crawl around my feet until the Wizard again pulled at his tail causing another round of shouting and verbal abuse to kick off between them. Suddenly the Wizard stopped pulling at him and said to the Panda, “Wait! Wait! Something’s not right!”

“Oh sure! You’re just trying to trick me so you can get my tail!”

“I’m not! There is something weird going on here,” the Wizard said to him.

“You’re telling me,” I said to myself, looking around again.

The Wizard looked up at me and waved his hands in front of my face. “You can see these, right?” he asked as I ducked my head back.

“What? Your hands?”

“Yes, my hands!”

“Of course I can. I can see all of you. Both of you,” I added, tapping the Panda on the head as he stood upright.

They looked at each other.

“It’s not Halloween... is it?” I asked in a desperate bit to rationalise the situation. I suddenly couldn’t be at all sure what month it was.

“We’re in disguise!” the Panda hissed, leaning towards me while his eyes looked everywhere else as if searching for someone. “So he can’t find us!”

“Who?”

“The Man!” he replied.

“Don’t tell him that!” the Wizard shot at him. 

“What man?” I asked.

They peered up at me.

“Listen, guys, I’ve been having a... well, a complicated afternoon,” I said, repositioning my arms around the quilt a little. “I may just leave you to whatever you were doing...”

“Hold on a minute, Mister,” the Wizard said as he grabbed the Panda by the arm and pulled him into a huddle. I looked around again at everyone passing by. People were swerving to avoid me, eyes down. I could imagine how I looked, standing in the centre of the sidewalk, slightly hungover and dishevelled, a large quit bundled in my arms, and admitted that I would probably have dodged someone like that as well.

“Well he either knows him or... or he knows her!” I managed to overhear, their conference seemingly ending.

“Who?” I asked.

The Panda opened his mouth with what I guessed was to be a reply, only to be interrupted by the Wizard who had clearly decided that our time together was drawing to a close. “It doesn’t matter! And we have things to sort out here, so... you should probably just move along! Thank-you-goodbye-now!”

“We’re supposed to be disguised,” the Panda continued, ignoring the interruption. “No one notices you if you’re disguised.”

“I did,” I pointed out.

“Yes but you're not supposed to,” he said, shaking his head and looking a little lost and sad. “Not unless...”

“Okay that’s enough!” The Wizard snapped. “We need to work on the details...”

“Details?” I asked.

“Details! Like... you know? What's this? What's that?”

"What?"

“Questions!” the Panda added. “Questions are good!”

“Yes, questions!” the Wizard agreed, grabbing the end of the Panda’s tail again. “Questions like: 'What is this supposed to be?'”

“Gerrroff!” The Panda yelled at him.

I opened my mouth to ask some more questions of my own but by then they had fallen to the ground again, rolling around, shouting and pulling at each other, a barely visible cloud of dust forming around them as they scuffled, so instead I turned and headed for the Metro entrance, feeling the need to get home quickly and put this day - these days - to bed. One last glimpse over my shoulder revealed the Panda back on all fours while the Wizard, now standing upright and with one pointed shoe braced against the Panda’s back end, pulling at his tail with both hands. I shook my head to clear this image as I entered into the warmth and normality of the station below.

 

9. THE SCARLET DARKNESS

 

Arriving back at Norf's apartment, still in shock at how rapidly my life had become a directionless and confusing mess, I dumped my bag and quilt on the low bed and then looked around the room. Even though I had been in here many times, the most recent visit being the previous afternoon, this was the first time I had felt compelled to look closely at the place or appreciate its dimensions, probably because I’d never needed to. My visits had always been swift. The apartment was a studio; almost everything was contained within one large, long room, the bathroom being the only exception. There was a kitchen at the opposite end of the room from the entrance, with two huge windows which stretched from about half a meter above the floor all the way to the ceiling, and in the main part of the room where I stood was a legless double bed, a desk and the television set on its own stand. The room was full of all the wrong colours, the walls were painted in thick green and purple swirls; it looked like the decorating experiments of someone who was either out of their mind permanently or toasted for at least the duration of the job. There was currently bright but reddish evening sunlight streaming through the windows, taking the edge off the dark madness of the interior decorating. I couldn't help but wonder how this would all look once the sun had fully set. I’d never spent the night there.

I emptied the contents of my bag onto the desk and then sat down on the chair and leaned over to switch the television on, quickly turning it off again however when I saw that there was nothing but shadowy static showing. I flicked it on and off again a few times and then just left it switched on while I sat staring at it, thinking about how the TV in my own apartment had been showing the same thing, vague images of people moving around behind a semi-opaque layer. I crouched in front of it and banged hard on the side of the wooden casing, trying to fix the problem traditionally, before finally deciding to leave it how it was. It wasn’t my television set and besides, the flickering static was creating an interesting atmosphere.

Leaning back in the chair and casting my eyes around the room, I noticed a nail protruding from the wall, slightly higher than waist height and just a little further along from the desk. My initial instinct was to see if I could pull it out but instead I picked up the framed photo of E and walked over to check the nail’s tolerance, and on finding that it was firmly in place, I hung the photo from it, moving the frame around until the metal hoop on the back found its home. I returned to the chair and sat looking at it, looking at her. She looked chilled, beautiful and happy: “As cool as juice” as she would have said. I liked hearing her say that. I liked the way her mouth moved when she formed those words.

It was at that precise moment that I took the decision to get out of there, hit the bars and make a night of it. I could feel nostalgia forcing its way into my world, and nostalgia was something for which I had absolutely no time. It was something I had left back home in another city, another life, locked away.

This new city was now my home. It suited me. Paris at this hour was, like myself, unrecognisable from its daylight self. Not to casual acquaintances perhaps, but to those who knew both of us intimately and could comprehend the idea of a dark history lying beneath the surface; shadows and secrets. And so I went out and took advantage of what the city had to offer me and then, later on, once the crowds, groups and couples had dwindled, I swept across roads that were thick with mist from the river, drifting unconsciously from street to street, avoiding eye contact with others while making it clear from my body language that I was someone with a purpose. There were things I needed to forget.

 

*  *  *

 

While walking back towards the apartment around four a.m. my attention was alerted to the fact that just as Madame Jasmine had declared the enormous triple-X neon sign that was attached to the outside wall above the sex shop was still lit. I wondered to myself if it would be an issue once I was inside, trying to sleep.

As it turned out, darkness was indeed barely able to fill the room. I sat down on the bed and looked around in drunken awe. Streetlamps created a continuous backdrop of artificial light through which the uppermost X still burned brightly. The effect it had on the purple and green walls was indeed catastrophic; splashing red neon-light around this horror show of a room created an impression of sickness or disease - the polar opposite of the kind of atmosphere any sane person would attempt to relax and rehabilitate in. I went over to the window and closed the thick, dark green drapes but was dismayed to discover that the red light still shone through and now, filtered through that dark green fabric, it created a doubly-sickening, extra-terrestrial glow, the shape of the X practically as visible as it was through the bare glass. Not only was the glow unbearable but the neon sign itself, to my surprise, was giving out an occasional, loud, cracking sound. I'd had no idea they did that.

I undressed and lay down, resting with my hands behind my head, the smells, sounds and vibrations of the city and its gifts still moving around my body in fits.

Looking up I was amused to discover that Norf’s damp, stained ceiling was scattered with just visible, plastic, glow-in-the-dark stars. This seemed like the least Norf thing I could think of, and I could only imagine that they must already have been there when he moved in. Nonetheless, I found these stars to be exactly what I needed at that moment. Astronomy had always been my thing. There was rough approximation of Orion up there which I stared hard at as I tried to empty my mind and search for sleep, focusing on the three stars that made up the Belt which ran across the centre of the constellation, meditating on the Great Pyramids and of the mathematicians who designed those structures in sympathy with the stars, but at that moment, in that state and at that hour, in that freak-show of a room, all I could do was fret over the fact that whoever happened to stick those stars up there could have done a better job. Orion’s Belt was all wrong.

I sat up in the scarlet darkness and began to think about E and our previous life, mulling over the exhausting complexities of want. I really didn’t want to be living back in places like this, alone, drunk and flaked out on someone else’s old mattress. I wanted what I’d had, what we’d had. I wish everything to return to how it was a few days ago, I thought as looked up at those stars.

Still naked, I slid off the bed and crawled over to the telephone that was just a dark hump in the gloom and lifted the heavy receiver. Holding it in place between my shoulder and my head I dialled the number of the apartment that E and I shared with no real idea if she would answer, if her man would, or if no one would.

It rang and rang.

I lifted the phone and carried it over to the bed, the ringing continuing in my ear. I let it ring until it reached the point where I began to question just how long telephones ring for before the line was automatically cut, but then just as I was switching the receiver to my other ear as a prelude to hanging up someone finally answered.

“Who is this?” E whispered down the line after finally picking up. “What do you want?”

Sitting cross-legged on my bed, bathed in red, the sounds of the street and the buzz and crack of neon the only ambient noise, hot enough that I could feel the cool air of the room move against my sweating skin, my mouth plagued by nausea, I pictured myself as if viewed from up in the far corner of the ceiling; a pale human body positioned in the centre of a mattress in a large, empty room with no possible way of physically reaching out to touch that one other person it so desperately wanted to be with. I felt utterly alone.

“It’s me,” I whispered back to her. “It’s Jonas. I want to be around you. I already miss you. I just need to hear you talk to me normally again. I miss you so much.” I hadn’t expected to say any of that. It had just poured out if me.

“Oh,” she replied, still a whisper. “It’s not easy, is it J?”

“No it isn’t. It’s awful. This was a terrible idea. I don’t understand it at all. I miss you,” I said again.

This was followed by the loneliest moment that two people can share; utter silence at both ends of a phone line. It went on for some time.

E finally broke the stalemate by asking me how I was, and if had I taken everything I needed earlier. I answered her questions conversationally, throwing in amusing exaggerations while omitting the fact that for the last two days it had been a struggle to raise a genuine smile.

“Where are you?” she asked. 

“I’m crashing at Norf’s place. I don’t have anywhere else.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Plus, it’s rent-free and it's only half an hour from you, depending on how you get here of course.”

“Jonas, you and I are separated by more than simply the distance between us now,” she said. I closed my eyes and imagined the movements of her lips as she spoke.

“That’s not such good news,” I told her. “This short distance alone is unbearable. Now you’re telling me that it is in fact much worse than that.” I lay down on my stomach and pulled the quilt over me, recalling how just looking at it in the store and imagining her lying in it had turned me on so much.

“It’s very late, J. Can’t you sleep?”

“No. I’m in bed though,” I told her. “Just getting right under the cover. Where are you? Are you in bed too?”

“No, I’m sitting with my feet up, looking out of the window, trying to look past the darkness. It was such a beautiful day today after yesterday’s rain, and you know how much I love this time of year. It must be mid-evening back home J. The parks will just be bursting with colour and we’d all be getting ready to go out. All of us.”

“The time difference,” I groaned. “Is that all that separates us from our old life back there?

“No,” she said. There was then more silence.

“So, where is this new man tonight then?” I asked with obvious bitterness. I had been trying to hold that back, but out it came, unrestrained.

She didn’t reply to this. After some more silence she began to talk about distance again; distance, connections, details. Looking closer.

I turned again and lay on my side. The sheet under me was damp with my sweat and was beginning to ride up the bed. I positioned myself as comfortably as I could and told myself not to move, but as I was settling, my eyes were drawn to the wall opposite, the spot where I had hung that framed picture of E from the protruding nail. They were gone, both the picture and nail. All that remained was a space, a dark patch of scuffed, matte green and a small, dark hole in the wall where the nail had been. As E continued to talk my eyes flew from the black dot of a hole to the floor below, and sure enough, some unseen force had caused the picture to fall from the wall and land face down on the bare floorboards where it had broken, shattered glass lying around the skeletal wooden frame.

“You never looked closely enough,” E continued. “You never look at what lies behind everything.”

I placed the receiver between my shoulder and my ear again and got out of the bed. Carrying the base of the telephone with me I walked across the room and knelt to examine the hole in the wall.

“There is always something more,” E said into my ear.

I pressed the end of my finger against the hole and turned it, causing white plaster dust to fall to the floor and settle on top of the remains of the picture frame.

“Maybe some things are better left hidden,” I mumbled.

I dug my thumb nail into the plaster around the hole and found it to be quite soft, soft enough to scrape away. Within a few seconds the opening of the hole was as wide as my thumb itself. I looked down to the floor and rummaged through the broken pieces of the frame, being careful not to cut myself, until I found the nail.

E sounded unhappy with me. She sounded like she was asking questions.

I lifted the nail and pushed it back into the hole, pushing it in hard, scraping, turning, and watching the plaster dust fall. I remembered that in a drawer over in the kitchen there had been a screwdriver, so I put the phone down and went to get it, came back and knelt before the hole again, pushing, twisting, scraping and digging faster as the hole gradually got bigger. I could imagine myself tumbling inside. I pushed the screwdriver as far as it would go and then began to rotate it, feeling the plaster give way as the flat end dug further and further in. I twisted and scraped as hard as I could, pulling it back out, pushing it back in again, scoring deep into the sides of the tunnel I was creating, back and forward, back and forward, watching the dust accumulate on the floorboards and the frame as the hole grew larger. With this continued, determined effort the hole became deeper and wider, eventually measuring around two centimetres at its widest point. After a quarter hour or so of scraping at it I had managed to create enough space to force a finger fully inside, the soft plaster now yielding easily. I looked down and noticed that the receiver of the telephone was mounted back on the base. I couldn’t recall hanging up. 

Shrugging that observation away I went back to the kitchen drawer, so full of odds and ends, different tools and nails, a piece of bicycle chain, sandpaper and a sharp blade. I took a hammer and grabbed a long, slightly bent, iron nail and returned, inserting the nail into the hole and hammering the head of it gently.

Sitting cross-legged on the bare floorboards I tapped away, holding onto the nail with my free hand to stop it rattling around. After two or three minutes of this, the hammer it hit solid stone which required me to batter it as hard as I could, creating a quite exceptional noise. A few more powerful whacks and the sound turned as thin as if I were hammering the nail into something as fragile as a porcelain plate and then less than one second later the hammer went all the way to the wall as the long nail burst through to the other side, into what kind of space I had no idea.

I turned around and hurled the hammer across the room, cringing and ducking my head into my shoulders when I realised the noise it was going to make, and then I turned my attention swiftly back to the hole, while behind me the hammer landed, clattered, slid and spun into the opposite wall. I removed the nail and impatiently threw it onto the floor, then got up onto my knees so I could peer through to the other side. A good sharp blast of breath was needed to completely clear the way. I was fully prepared to be amazed by what I saw, although, to be honest I have no idea why - there was nothing to see. The other side was in total darkness, which was of course to be expected at four-thirty in the morning.

 








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