The Berlin Diaries (Part II)

I enjoyed riding the S-Bahn as it chained its way across the city.  I liked it when the trains ran parallel with the traffic on the road and you felt, momentarily, at one with the drivers behind the wheel – it felt like equality – and then when everything dropped away, thwump, into darkness as you entered a tunnel, and then again when you emerged looking for the sky.  I liked this.  The feeling of movement, of going somewhere.

I was 30 years old, turning 31 in less than 14 days.  I was emotionally sick and wasn’t doing well physically.  I smoked too much and my lungs burned if I exerted myself.  I hadn’t eaten properly for months and the weight had dropped from me until what was left was a gaunt, bone of a man.

I was crashing at Liana’s place in Neukölln, two minutes walk from both the S and U-Bahn. She lived with five others in a flat like a commune I once saw in New Zealand, where the residents shared everything from sex to drugs.  The rooms were large and bright, quite wonderful, and the corridor that linked them seemed to bend around like a two-headed snake. The doorbell didn’t have a button.  It was two open wires you had to put together to make a sound.  Although not entirely clean, the apartment was well organised, reflecting Liana’s presence.  I felt, somehow, this flat was the hub for all the creative spinning of Berlin.

But I would discover more than this.

Many years ago I was heading out of Las Vegas in a white camper van.  The fluorescent lights of Vegas were fading behind me and the beat of that sinful town was making way for calm desert and cacti.  By the road, covered in dust, was a tramp with a dirty beard and a satchel slung over his shoulder.  He had his thumb stuck out into the road.  I remember thinking this man had probably arrived a millionaire.  Cities can do that to a person.

Berlin is a regular city.  It has its casinos, bars, nightclubs, strip-joints, whorehouses, but it’s also pregnant with the unknown, something that impels a person to search for adventure.  Every possible thing opens into everything else.  There are no boundaries.  You can do what you like.  A foreigner living in Berlin needs something of a safety word to keep them self grounded.  It’s dangerous otherwise.  You can lose yourself.  Get arrested.  Catch an STD.  Overdose.

We all have our safety words, I expect, and I don’t mean an actual word.  It could be a thing, a teddy bear, a coin, a book, even a friend, although friends are not always reliable structures.  We’re fallible.  That’s why neediness is such a red blooded killer.

All that grief but never alone

Gina was waiting at an outside table at the Abattoir Café for Louie to show.  They had agreed twelve-thirty but already it was closer to one.  They were always late meeting each other, it was a wonder they ever met at all.  Louie had insisted on the location, but she would have preferred somewhere upmarket, perhaps the Number 10 on Vincent Street, or the Barometer near the fresh food stalls on Claire Street, but after he complained over the phone she had acquiesced.  She didn’t much care for the Abattoir of late; it was an empty place with bad artwork on the walls; and the concrete garden, where she now sat baking in the sun, was situated by the traffic lights of a busy road.  When at last Louie arrived there was barely an apology.  He was wearing his white satin shirt again, buttons undone, chest hair on show.  He lit a cigarette and took a sip of coffee before he met her gaze.  His glasses glinted soberly in the sun.

‘Have you eaten?’ he asked.  ‘I haven’t really eaten.  Have you eaten?’

‘I’m fine,’ she told him, and then picked up the menu.  The food on offer was simple; sandwiches, baps, rolls.  ‘I’m fine,’ she said again, thinking of her new years resolution to eat only fresh fruit and vegetables.

‘Come on, Gina.  Don’t make me eat on my own.’

‘Go ahead, Louie.  You can order, it’s fine.’

Louie bit his lip as he scanned the menu.  His glasses slipped down his nose and he pushed them back into place.  After a moment he said, ‘I’ll just be a minute.’  Standing, he lay his cigarette in an ashtray and took the menu inside, his decision on what to eat presumably made.  She watched him walk away, the long stride, the swagger of the shoulders – he had been working out again, she could tell.  Going to the gym made him feel powerful.  She wanted to say to him, ‘But you’re so skinny, Louie,’ but she never had the courage.

When he came back, he took one last puff of his cigarette and then ground it out and smiled through the smoke.  ‘So how are you anyway?’ he asked.

‘I’m good.  You?’

‘Oh God!’ he realised, ‘It’s your birthday today isn’t it?’

‘That’s next week, Louie.’

He made a point of wiping his brow with a finger and puffing out his cheeks.  ‘Phew,’ he said and smiled.  ‘I didn’t  get you a card.’

‘Or present,’ she added.

Louie wasn’t listening.  ‘Birthdays,’ he was saying.  ‘Funny thing about birthday’s is when you look back they all blend into one.  I remember my twenty-first, though.  That was a night to remember!’

Leaning back, Louie took off his glasses and with a cloth from his pocket proceeded to wipe them clean.  ‘My twenty-first,’ he continued.  ‘We marched through London protesting the Poll Tax, and then got drunk!  The next day I’ve never been so hung-over.  I had to go to the hospital to visit my mother.  She was sick at the time.  Pneumonia.’  He misted his glasses with breath and rubbed them with the cloth, repeating the process several times until satisfied.  It was something he did when he wanted women to see his face unsullied by frames.

‘How’s the book?’ she asked, attempting to engage him.

‘The book’s fine.  It’s coming along nicely.  How are the classes?’

‘Tiring.’

‘I’m sure,’ he said, putting his specs back on.  ‘I’ve ordered a bacon and Brie bap with cranberry sauce.  I ate earlier, but I’m hungry again.’  He smirked, as though at a private joke.

When she pressed him on it he explained that he’d eaten with a female colleague from the University and afterwards had failed to get her number.  Gina felt bruised.  She knew her relationship with Louie was “open” – the two of them having agreed to a somewhat liberal union – but she couldn’t help but feel pierced by his insensitivity.  He was always regaling her with his conquests or attempted pickups.  It was as though she didn’t matter.  It was insulting.  But wasn’t that what they had agreed to in the first place?  No jealousy, no bitterness?  To not be constrained by the social norm?

She was suddenly sad at her predicament.  She was thirty-two for goodness sake!  She sipped her lemonade in an attempt to compose herself, and thought back to the day when, as a child, she had sneaked into a dining room café to look through the window where a procession of mourners were wailing and screaming in the street, a black tide of suits and dresses making their slow march towards the graveyard.  She remembered clearly the mother being helped along by waves of hands that seemed to grab and pat her, seemingly feeding her the strength to carry on.  The grief on the woman’s face had pierced Gina.  Tears rolled down the woman’s cheeks; anguish in her eyes.  But those hands had helped her, guided her along.  All that grief but the woman was never alone.  Recently, and a lot, Gina had found herself thinking of this memory.

‘Are you okay?’ Louie asked, bringing her back to the table.  ‘You’re not listening.’

‘I’m fine,’ she said.  ‘I’m just tired.  It’s the heat.’

‘It is hot,’ he agreed, pulling at his collar.  If he recognised her sadness he didn’t comment on it.  Had he always been this distant?

His food arrived and he took a bite, cranberry sauce leaking from the bread and dropping to the table.  He didn’t clean it up, which irritated her.  As he ate he hardly spoke, not that he said anything of interest lately.  When they starting seeing each other his sentences had poured from him, his manner electric and confident.  He had a way with words, of expressing his thoughts through appropriate anecdotes, underlining them with the right witticism.  She had fallen for him, laughing at his jokes, engaging with his views.  He had been so… interesting.  But now he was eating a bacon and Brie bap and getting cranberry sauce all over his chin.

With his mouth full and holding the bap towards her, he said, ‘Do you want a bite?’

She shook her head.  ‘I can’t, Louie.’

Louie clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.  Crumbs fell from his lips.  ‘You and your macrobiotic…’ he swallowed a lump of food. ‘…organic foods, huh?’

‘That’s not fair, Louie,’ she said, stung.  He knew she had trouble with her weight, not to mention her bowels.  ‘I can’t.  You know I can’t.’

‘Chill out,’ he said, shrugging.  ‘I’m joshing.’

She took a deep breath in through her nose.  Louie seemed to recognise her irritation.  He put the bap down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  ‘Look,’ he said.  ‘I’m sorry, Gina.  Okay?  I’m sorry.’

His eyes widened; those “yes” eyes again.

‘Okay,’ she said, after a moment.

Beads of sweat were forming on her neck.  She dabbed herself with a napkin.  The heat was getting into everything, the concrete garden like a suntrap.  She was agitated, annoyed.  The fumes of the traffic stung her eyes, and the rest of the afternoon slipped away without warning.  Louie invited her back to his flat and she found herself complying just to get out of the sun, annoyed at herself for having no backbone.  He only lived around the corner and suddenly it was apparent why he’d been so adamant on meeting at the Abattoir.  How could she have been so naïve?

At the apartment they went into his bedroom, something about showing her some new book, which of course never materialised.  Instead he kissed her, and for some reason she was nervous.  She hated herself for that.  It only served to feed his ego, and made him bold enough to run his hand up her skirt and along her inner thigh.  The sex wasn’t special, and as he came he spat and sweated into her ear.  Afterwards he seemed distracted, smoking a cigarette by the open window, unable to look at her for more than a few seconds.  She knew what he was going to say next.

As though frightened of what he might unleash, he glanced in her direction and said, ‘I don’t know about this anymore.’  It was the glance that punctured her, not the words.  Did he think she would get angry?  Throw something?  Cry, or worse, beg him to reconsider?

He was fidgeting now.

‘I wonder if there’s anything to be gained by this?’ he continued.  ‘For both of us, you know?  I’m pleased we… I mean, I don’t have any regrets.  The important thing is that you don’t either.’

She didn’t say anything; just sat in bed watching him.  He hesitated.  ‘Look, I just think… I don’t know about this anymore.’

‘Okay,’ she said.

He blinked at her, perhaps surprised by her response.  She peeled from the bed and gathered her clothes.  She could see him in the corner of her eye, his body poised against the window frame, illuminated by the light, as though about to jump.

Now dressed and at the door, Gina looked him up and down.  He didn’t say anything.  He looked miserable.  At least now he met her gaze.

‘Are you eating properly?’ she asked him.

Louie shrugged, baffled by her comment.  ‘I… what?’

‘It’s just you look a little… skinny,’ she told him.

And with that she turned and left.  She knew he would never call her again.

Truth

My Auntie died recently.  It was a long drawn-out battle with cancer.  In the space of three years she had numerous operations, the surgeons taking things out of her, replacing organs with bags and cutting out tumours that were becoming ever more prominent and aggressive.  The cancer was untreatable with chemo or radiotherapy, so she must have known early on this was the end.  When she died it was as much a shock as it wasn’t.  My family, especially my mother, were grief-stricken.  The funeral was a low-key affair, organised by her two surviving children.  It was not in a church but at the funeral home, and we shuffled inside the cramped hall, taking our seats and trying our best not to focus on the coffin in the corner, so beautifully laid out with flowers and shoes.  She had loved shoes.  There were eulogies, first from my mother and then from my two cousins.  Each speech was loaded with emotion, voices breaking, composed pauses, tears, and even laughter.  The lighter moments came in the shape of humorous reminiscing.  She was not a conventional woman and, I think, she would have approved of her funeral.

As I walked out, I made a detour to the coffin, placed a hand at the foot and said goodbye.

I did not get to know my Auntie as well as I should have until the illness was diagnosed.  In her later months, when I could, I would go round to see her for a cup of tea.  The conversation would, inevitably, turn to death and funerals.  It was a tiring and dark affair, and I realised how utterly alone she must have felt, knowing what we all knew was the truth.  The spectre of death hovered over her, filtered out and touched those around her.  But amongst it all, overpowering the inevitable, was her strength and courage, and we drank from this, fed on it so we too could rise above the horror of it.

A particularly acidic woman, she had a cutting sense of humour, a fierce intelligence and insight.  She brought her children up with strong morals, and a strong work-ethic.  They have turned out well and I know she was proud of them both.  The love she held for her grandson, who was only a year old when she died, was both powerful and unconditional.  He gave her great pleasure during those last days.

I forget that my Auntie is gone, but every now and then I remember.  Trying to comprehend her non-existence is like hitting a brick wall.  She is gone.  Dead.  No more.  Where there was thought, feeling, humour and speech, now there is nothing.  I read somewhere that death cancels everything but truth.  I am forced to confront my own truth, as are we all.  I desire now to rid myself of the neurotic.  Who am I exactly?  What do I want?  Where am I headed?  These questions, for so long a mystery, are no longer malleable, but stone, exact.  I now know the answers.  So, if for nothing else, I thank her for that.

Seeing everyone react to my Auntie’s passing made me reevaluate my position in the family.  It changed the way I viewed them.  My mother was filled with regret for not having had the chance to say goodbye properly, the way she had wanted to, the way, I guess, she had envisioned.  This regret, I could see, was eating away at her.  And suddenly I could see my mother, I could see her not as my mother but a woman, a young girl grown-up, filled with a lifetime of thought and experience, memories of love and pain and joy and sadness.  At the funeral, as she spoke of her love for her sister, one question turned over and over in my head.  What has my mother achieved?  The answer; everything I am.

Frontiers

I remember that second day in Bristol, and how it was nearly over.  The boiler was broken and the house was like a block of ice.  After relocating from Cambridge I was sleeping in my friends’ lounge and living from my bag.  I was lying in a makeshift bed, wearing several layers, two pairs of socks, a scarf and a trapper’s hat.  I was weighed down by what blankets I could scavenge from other rooms.  Above me, everyone in the house was asleep, curled up in bed, hugging themselves, hugging each other, fighting the cold.  The snow had come heavy that day, a blizzard sweeping through the streets, relentless and overpowering.  I had bought a £20 heater and gave it to my friends as a house present.  I placed it beside me, whacked it on full power, but still I could not stop shaking.

My friends were relaxed about my stay.  They did not accept social boundaries, which made them incredibly refreshing.  But I was worried about the other tenants, the one’s who were paying.  I worried I was taking up space, stinking the place out with my dirty washing and my well-trodden feet.  Having moved around from city to city my clothes and hygiene had taken a hit.  I fantasied about having my own space, perhaps living with a woman who shared my sensibilities.  We would eat biscuits in front of the TV, and talk about saving the world.  Holier-than-thou progressives.

On the train to Bristol I read a book on Marx.  “Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die.” Later in the book I read a passage from the author that read, “it is tempting in this terrible century to abandon any attempt to change the world.  Mostly we take refuge in personal relationships or, in the case of those with the talents and the economic opportunities, personal achievement.”  Those words, printed so fine on the page, were swirling through my head.

Bumming from city to city as I was, I found myself drawn to a simpler life away from the metropolitan world.  Perhaps such self-interest was precisely the problem?  I was searching for a frontier, although I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.  If there were any frontiers left in this world they had long been knocked down or scattered like cards on a table.  But at that time I was determined to settle in Bristol, a stepping stone of sorts, an incremental move towards an end goal, whatever that might be.  At first it was exciting and adventurous, engaging with old friends and hoping for the best.  But that night, lying under the blankets in the cold boilerless house, the reality had started to set it.  It wouldn’t be easy.  Find a job.  Find a room.  Find something to keep me occupied for a year, and then maybe, just maybe, things would slot into place.

I applied for nine jobs in two days – cleaning work, coffee baristas, the kind of jobs designed for my generation.  Searching for jobs in a jobless market was no fun at all.  I was more like a passenger.  The captains didn’t have a compass.  It was like swimming for hours only to find you were still in the middle of the ocean.

I took my CV for a walk.  It didn’t want to go, so I leashed it and forced it and dragged it out of the house.  CV’s are the first to get shot when battle commences.  It’s often bloody.  You pull yourself back from the streets, wounded and dehumanised, clambering through the front door.  You don’t want to go back out there.

That afternoon, as the snow fell, I strolled along Gloucester Road, admiring the independent shops promoting their wares and supporting each other like a community should.  Glozzy Road, as it’s affectionately known, is the longest independent street in the UK, or so I am told, and they don’t take kindly to big business setting up shop on their turf, although it does and has happened.  And still, when I thought about it over coffee, Glozzy Road was no different to the high street – people staring into empty windows like fucking morons, hypnotised by the aesthetic.

At this stage in my life I was distrustful of people.  I’d been let down in the past and had grown wary of establishing new relationships, be them social or professional.  I saw very little to like in people, but I came to realise it was rarely their fault.  Really I was frustrated because, like me, they were clutching for answers – a light, a rock, something to hold onto, something to fix the gears.  The world was like a great clock, fragmented and consuming, corrupted and corrupting.  It was, as Habermas said, colonizing the lifeworld.  And perhaps, I came to realise, those frontiers I was searching for were the pockets that resist this colonization.

So there I was, torn and displayed, newly arrived in Bristol and attempting to tap back into the very thing I was against.  And perhaps, further still, there were no options, no originality, no frontiers.  I was reminded of a quote by Georg Simmel. “What we regard as freedom is often in fact only a change of obligation.”

Jane Cooney Baker

I first met Hank in The Glenview.  The Glenview was where I spent most nights fending off the advances of deadbeats and drunks.  Hank was different.  He sat at the end of the bar, solemn and thoughtful, nursing a drink and watching me with feigned disinterest.

After some time, Hank coolly stepped from his stool and approached.  I watched him walk over.  He had strong powerful legs.  His head was large and bulbous, sitting uncomfortably on his shoulders, and the cave-like overhang of his brows lifted up and down as he spoke.  He said he liked my dress and the black beads around my neck.  He bought me a drink.  There was jazz on the radio, a sense of culture in this otherwise backwater bar.  The barman, with his one queer eye twitching like an eight ball, poured us drinks until we ran out of money.

Hank and I laughed at the world, laughed at its hopelessness.  When he spoke, voice unbothered by doubt, it was hushed and comical, a contradiction to his large bulk and pock-scarred cheeks.  I was riveted.  He said unusual things.

‘We’re all just waiting,’ he told me.  ‘Doing little things, and waiting to die.’

We fantasised about getting away.  We could get on the boxcar, get the hell outta here.  It could clock and clack us someplace new, a place where the booze was free and the people weren’t slime.

When the bar kicked us out, we ended up at Hank’s.  He lived in a rooming house in the black quarter.  After sex we lay in bed, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap wine.  Hank rolled that giant head of his and looked at me with a frown.

‘Say, I don’t know your name.  What’s your name?’

I tapped away a plug of ash.  ‘What the hell difference does that make?’

Hank and I moved in together on South Union Drive, not far from MacArthur Park.  We lied to the landlady, posing as a respectable married couple.  What a cop!  The word “respectable” vanished with the drinking and the arguments.  The landlady thought I was pregnant.  Sure, pregnant with beer.  It wasn’t long before she asked us to leave.

We went from place to place, leaving a trail of broken glass.  We had some great times, some furious rows.  He loved me in that dress and we fucked every day.  The first few times he was really nervous, an amateur, a real kid.  But I taught him a few things and he got better.  We laughed and we drank and we fucked.

Hank couldn’t stand me flirting with other men.  He would get jealous and fly into a rage, get arrested, wake up in the drink tank.  I would disappear for days, hitting the bars, sleeping with other men.  I know he loved me more than I could ever love him.  He was my best friend and my drinking buddy, but I had no mind to commit.

When I was gone he would invite the drunks and bums to our place to keep him company.  He was a heavy drinker and it took its toll.  He got ill, vomited blood.  At the hospital they told him one more drink could kill him.  He came to me and I helped him as best I could.  To take his mind from the booze we went to the racetrack and won or lost money.  It became a regular thing, but it wasn’t long before Hank started drinking again, slowly at first, mixing milk with his shots.

After a while my promiscuity pulled us apart.  Hank met some broad with no neck and disappeared to Texas for several years, while I continued cruising the bars and the beds of those stupid enough to buy me drinks.

I often wonder what Craig would think of me now.  Craig was my first husband.  Like me, he was a heavy drinker.  That’s what killed him.  It was a car crash, but the booze was driving.  I should have helped him, could have listened.  I could have saved him.  I’m not the only widow to blame herself.  We had two children together, Jo and Mary.  I don’t know where they are.  I think of them often.

Some years later, I bumped into Hank in the street.

‘I saw you with that bitch a while back,’ I said.  ‘She’s not your kind of woman.’

He smiled.  ‘None of them are.’

Hank and his Texas girl had broken up and he was back in town.  It had been years since we’d seen each other.  During that time I’d managed to find work here and there, drifting aimlessly through life.  It was now 1962 and I was working at The Phillips hotel.  They gave me a room and money for drink.  I invited Hank back and we sat on the bed, reminiscing about old times, sitting there amongst the empty bottles and cans.  Soon we were making love.

I put on my best dress and my high heels.  I didn’t look as I once had.  I caught sight of my reflection.  My figure was melting with the years.  Sex had lost any meaning.  I knew Hank was disgusted by me, and he tried to hide it.  As I walked from the bed to the bathroom, my ass hanging low, I caught the look on his face and felt hurt clutch at my chest.

One morning after the Christmas holidays, he arrived to find me drinking heavily, sitting in the chair and staring out the window.  I was wondering where my life had gone, where my two children were.  I wondered how they were doing.  I wanted to know so much, but the answers had vanished in fifty-one years of life.

I’d been given booze, gifts from the tenants, and the bottles and crates filled every corner of the room.  Hank tried to stop me from drinking it all, tried to take some of it away.  With my gaze out the window, I told him to leave, and he did so, reluctantly and without conflict.

I woke in hospital.  I was so very tired.  My eyes barely opened, but the great hulk of a figure, a dark silhouette, blurred into view.

‘I knew it would be you,’ I said, and Hank smiled.  He dabbed my brow, and I fell back to sleep.

for Jane: with all the love I had, which was not enough: -

I pick up the skirt,

I pick up the sparkling beads

in black,

this thing that moved once

around flesh,

and I call God a liar,

I say anything that moved

like that

or knew

my name

could never die

in the common verity of dying,

and I pick

up her lovely

dress,

all her loveliness gone,

and I speak

to all the gods,

Jewish gods, Christ-gods,

chips of blinking things,

idols, pills, bread,

fathoms, risks,

knowledgeable surrender,

rats in the gravy of 2 gone quite mad

without a chance

hummingbird knowledge, hummingbird chance,

I lean upon this,

I lean on all of this

and I know:

her dress upon my arm:

but

they will not

give her back to me.

           – Charles Bukowski

(note: this is a fictional account of Jane Cooney Baker, derived from Howard Sounes’ biography of Charles Bukowski, Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life)

Joe didn’t have a Christmas tree…

Joe didn’t have a Christmas tree.  Instead he put a mannequin in the corner, wrapped tinsel around it and threw presents at its feet.  He covered one half of his TV screen with black masking tape because, as he claimed, it made Woody Allen films more interesting.

At his London apartment he held regular parties.  Weekends were crazy.  There were a lot of drugs. People fucked in the corner and others would write on the walls.  Joe was intelligent, a scrapper and a dodger, but the desperate took advantage of him, picking his bones clean of love and money.  He knew this – it was self-inflicted.  He could argue anyone into a corner but it pained him to do so.  He preferred a fistfight.

‘You know where you are in a fistfight.’

He drank a lot.  He liked wine.  He was scared of touching superglue tubes.  At night, usually around 2am, he worked at his desk on something he called Numberless Worlds – but was very secretive of its content so no one ever found out what it was about.  Joe was mysterious, an idiot savant, outlawed by his own behaviour.  No one could deny he had some form of psychosis.  He qualified the speculation with odd statements.

‘We all die in places that don’t matter,’ he once told me, high on speed.  We were passing a joint back and forth.  ‘All we have are circles, fucking circles, overlapping.’  He fixed his gaze on me.  ‘It gets so you can’t breathe,’ he said.  ‘We don’t serve anything but the circles.’

One day he got thrown in hospital and I went to see him.  I found him in a corner, skeletal and false, sitting in a chair with that death-look in his eyes while others around him danced with silent monsters.  Whatever system Joe belonged to had been wiped clean by the hospital, and I wondered if he was too far-gone to ever reshape himself.

Some months later, I heard that Joe cut his wrist with broken glass and had died right alone in that place, in that corner of that hospital when no one else was there.

The next night…

The next night, after several bottles of wine, Gregory went back to the parlour and again picked Lucy from the line-up.  Her skin was a pale gold.  She was very erotic.  Gregory was the only customer and except for the girls the parlour was empty.

Unlike the night before, this time he entered Lucy.  She sat herself reverse cowgirl and reared up and down until he climaxed.  She was sweet with him, yet firm and commanding, sensual and erotic.  He was very drunk, very damaged.

‘There you go honey,’ she said, smiling.  She was pulling up her lingerie.  ‘Did you enjoy that?’

Lucy was older than Gregory by five years, with tattoos on her arms and curly blonde hair.  She smelled of ivory soap.

‘Yes, thank you,’ he said.

The room they were in was decorated with purple and gold fabric.  They were in an attic and above them stretched wooden rafters.  There was a large double bed with netting and beside it was a red panic button.  The shower was in an adjoining room.  Gregory wondered how many men had been in here before.

‘What do you do during the day,’ he asked.

‘I do this,’ said Lucy.  She lit a cigarette and shook the match out.  ‘But I go to people’s houses.  It pays more.’

He sighed.  ‘It’s been a long time since I was with a woman.’

‘It’s okay, sweetie.’

Gregory was very drunk and feeling sick.  There was a dull ache like a strip of pain across his lower back.  He rubbed at it, kneading his fingers into his kidneys.  ‘Where do you live?’ he asked.

‘In the city.  I have my own place.’

‘You live alone?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you have a boyfriend?’

She looked at the floor.  ‘No.’

‘But you’re very nice,’ he told her.  ‘Very nice.  You should get someone.’

She was nodding her head, but only just.  Outside the sounds of Christchurch drifted up through a window.  The room grew hot and stuffy and Gregory, pulling at his collar, began to feel uneasy.  As if sensing this, Lucy stood from the bed and put her cigarette out in the ashtray on the side.

They were both frightened.

Later that week at a different parlour, Gregory was drunk and depressed, sitting on the bed with another girl beside him.  They were naked.  The room was warm and smelled of lavender.  Helen was very thin, young, a brunette with large brown eyes.  She was quite beautiful.  ‘I’ve never done that before,’ Gregory told her, slurring his words.

‘Were you a virgin?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ he said.  ‘Was I any good?’

‘You made me come,’ she lied.

Gregory chuckled.  ‘I think you’re very pretty.  The prettiest girl in Christchurch.’

Helen blushed.  She tucked a stray hair behind an ear.  Around them the air was tight and hot on their skin.  The sound of the air-conditioner buzzed and clicked by the far wall.

Gregory swayed.  ‘Am I pretty?’

‘You have nice skin,’ she said.  She stroked his arm with her fingers.  ‘Usually we get old men in here and their skin is horrible and they smell funny.  I got excited when you walked in.’  She paused, glanced reluctantly at the door.  ‘You’ll have to go now.’

‘I have a brain tumour,’ he told her.  ‘I have six months.’

She gasped and put a hand over her mouth.  ‘Oh my.  Is that true?  I’m so sorry.’  She was close to tears.  Her arms trembled.  ‘You poor thing.’

‘I have nothing to live for,’ he said.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said again.  She seemed about to get up, but remained seated next to him, looking unsure and awkward.  Scared.

Gregory was drowsy and his head was spinning.  ‘What did you do before you worked here?’ he asked.

Helen glanced away.  All of a sudden she appeared very lost and childlike.  Still in shock, and with her voice breaking, she said, ‘I was at school before I did this.’

It hit Gregory like a shot.  ‘Shit.’  He began to focus.  ‘This is your first job?’

She opened her mouth to speak but said nothing.  Instead she closed her eyes.

Gregory stood and left her sitting naked on the bed.  He had sobered up.  Guilt and confusion followed him out the room.  On the way out he thanked the madam, then made his way down the stairs and into the night of Christchurch, searching for the nearest bar.

Another Road (Part V)

The rain came that night.  It hit the roof of the cottage hard and loud and pattered against the windows.  Myers opened the back door and looked out.  The village was gone in the rain.  He came back inside and decided to work the vigilant stove.  He had plenty of kindling now, and with firelighters and the driest of wood, Myers got it burning.  He shut the damper, closed the doors.  The wood spat and cracked.  He sat back feeling satisfied. Man and fire.

As he watched the flames rear and flicker, he saw himself as a child sitting in his father’s car with his father at the wheel and wearing the same white shirt and tie he had always worn.  Outside, the countryside rolled up and receded.  Myers put a hand on the glass to block the sun, which as it disappeared was bleeding beautiful reds and yellows into the earth.  Myers, a boy of ten, closed one eye and imagined himself balancing on the horizon, bathed in beauty.

His father was halfway through another lecture, his voice loud and gruff.

‘The city is where the money is, boy,’ he was saying.  ‘Not the countryside.  In the city, people are mad enough to fork over more money than they own.  Take the Bible for example,’ he said.  ‘People believe the bible was written by the infallible hand of God.  And yet the Bible was penned by the fallible hand of man.  And even if God did communicate with man, there’s no way there wouldn’t be errors in the translation.  I would imagine God’s language is pretty complicated.’  He clipped Myers around the ear.  ‘Are you listening to me, boy?  I’m teaching you a valuable lesson.’

Myers nodded.  ‘Yes, sir.’

‘You see, boy, my position is one of trust.  If a customer trusts what you tell them is true, they’ll buy from you without prejudice.  And if you’re really trustworthy they’ll devote themselves to you.’  He wagged a finger in the air and said, ‘Don’t underestimate the power of lies, Henry.’

Looking back now, Myers felt sick to his stomach.  His father had been a deceitful man, and he wondered how his mother, a woman he barely remembered, could have been so entwined with him.  He remembered his mother like remembering a dream.  The only memory he had of her was one of her sitting in sunshine with her head back to catch the rays.  She had been a beautiful and sad woman.  In the same memory, she stood and turned, as though facing an audience, and reaching out she spun a wind-turn with her finger.  It clicked and blurred, and as it spun darkness fell on her face and she glanced up at the sky.  Then she was gone.

Myers stared at the flames in the stove.  His hands had a tremble, his breathing was laboured.  He glanced about the cottage.  Pushing back his chair he stood and went to the backdoor and opened it.  Rain spat in his face.  With what light there was, he was able to make out a metal bracket in the brick by the door, a bracket that once held something in place.  A wind-turn.

My father moved us to London.  Why?  When my mother died?

Back inside, he opened the doors of the stove and poked about with an iron poker.  The flames were dying.  He cursed.  The kindling had burnt but the logs had only blackened and not caught.  He grabbed more firelighters, broke off large chunks and threw them in, the smell of chemicals burning his nostrils.  He covered the firelighter with more kindling and struck a match.  The flames reared up, fierce red and bold.  Maybe now, he thought.  But once again, after ten minutes, the fire died.  He went through this process all night until he’d exhausted the firelighters and the kindling was all but gone.  He could get it lit but not keep it going.  The logs were not catching.  He needed anthracite.  If it carried on like this, he’d never get the cottage warm.  The floors and the walls were ice cold  He couldn’t relax.  He could see his breath in front of his face.  Damn it!  A failure at fire!  His father would have enjoyed this.  Myers imagined him watching from some ghostly realm.  Laughing.  Warmth.  None of it.