I’d almost have hoped to be further on by now but it’s been just so dark today. The boy, when they arrived this morning and parked the van and cut it, looked out haltingly from behind the passenger window before opening his door, in a moment of depthlessness. As though the day were stillborn. I’d slept in my clothes to be ready when they got here but in the event it wasn’t until ten, and I was downstairs by then, beneath a sixty watt bulb with a shadow in front of me. The ground outside still wet from rain last night. Beneath that my weak reflection in the pane. And I stayed at the window too, watching them get out and cross the glazing bars, waiting for him to ring the bell before rising and going through, for him to say his name before nodding. He turned and together we read it off the side of his van, as though in adducement to his identity. As though a plague were on and false security grille fitters passed unchecked across the land. The boy was on the bottom step, looking up again, I think at the bulb behind me.
W. C. Evans Ltd.
Railings * Gates * Grilles & Shutters
Tested to B54872
“We’re all powered off rechargeables,” Evans said, “so you don’t need to run us a 240 volt from inside.” There didn’t seem much else for me to do.
I can remember the long dark of nights in Paris; how cold it was in that apartment—we’d shut off the boiler—it had been ticking and shuddering like some ghost-sickened bomb and so we’d —. For a week night after night holding each other absolute as though on a raft above zero, curtains to either side restless and the wood of the window frames gripping itself about the joins. One cold line of fracture. Holding her and half-dreams always in the same bodily position never leaving but the room spalled to become a forest or arroyo of frostsplit rocks and moon until run down by the sound of a car outside—we’d pass back through the pinhole to find ourselves again unmoved in the 10th arrondissement, in the wake of its exhaust, and the termination of a roving search of light. Focusing slowly in the dark to recognise the string-binding on the leg of a broken chair, and feeling some vast resolute contraction. Holding her still and tighter on a watermark of departed sleep, something fast in our throats and undifferentiable from—never watching lives either given up or lost or reclaimed for dry ideas, I can remember and the feeling, like a clunking of harboured boats, of dawn, behind us on the partition wall, and separating out across the sky. A gentle definition to the lampstand, the ashtray, to deposited earrings. The weight of coats and blankets. Her arm. I remember all of this.
There didn’t seem much left for me to do but ten minutes later I went back out all the same. I could hear Evans and his boy round the corner there, picking about among the stones, rummaging for drill bits, cussing. I’d had the grilles made up months ago but then told him they couldn’t be fitted until I’d put in the windows and poured the sills. I think he must have been glad to be ridding his workshop of them—the grilles. Glad to be getting the job over and paid up. Contractors have terrible cashflow problems and you can see why: they juggle jobs, get rained off one, the carpenter goes and snips a finger on one site and that stalls completion everywhere else. Two security grilles for cellar windows would have seemed perhaps like welcome simplicity. You always tell yourself something. I’d broken up the concrete path and dug it since when he was here last, measuring, and so now they were clodding around in the mud, in the semi-dark, in last night’s rain. The houses along here are detached but built close, with narrow alleys full of wind and litter. I stood by the front door awhile, listening to something flap, and then went round. The boy—or one of them at least—had left the side of the van open to the street, but I wasn’t going to say anything about that. They were their tools to lose.
“You got everything you need?” I said. I didn’t want to be poking about until one of them noticed me.
“Hope so,” said Evans. He’d pulled a rubble sack from somewhere to squat on and was inching the first set of bars into the recess of the downwind window. Beside him were a couple of steep wedges and a hammer.
“And the other one goes in alright too?”
“It’s a little tight.” He brought the back corner up then stopped. I was still standing behind him. The grille was deep in but he gave it a further shunt, then picked out one of the wedges. “We’ll have to chip the bottom edge of one of those bricks, for that other one,” he said. I could see the backs of his lungs working, and the alcohol-burst vessels around his ears and neck. The boy was wearing the same company-blue polo shirt, his arms all grey in the slatelight, with hollows in his elbows, and bagging behind the stitched square over his heart.
W. C. Evans Ltd.
Railings * Gates * Grilles & Shutters
Tested to B54872
I went past him up to the other window to have a look myself. The boy even had a rubble sack, to fucking stand on.
Evans had made them nicely, I’ll allow him that: white and square and smoothly hinging, with neat welds, which is the trick. A neat weld is a good one. You have to keep the bead even while it tackles and feed in gently—and it’s dark in the mask so you go by touch. I could see what he meant about the brick, too. The window has a curved lintel and came down just too low on the right to let the grille in. “It’s that one,” he said, coming up behind me, and he tapped it with his hammer. “It’s what we call in the trade virgin-tight. Needs a little breaking.” The boy was looking up and down the alley. Evans is a shortish man in his forties, his hair white and cropped like a toilet brush.
“I’m going to take the cement mixer back,” I said. “If you need anything I’ll be half an hour.” It was a five-day rental but I wanted it gone.
The last thing I’d hired off Andy was an inflatable bung, for soil pipes. It was when we were testing the drains—my mother, Tim, Clive—Clive so none of us would have to stand in the sewer mouth. My mother lifted the manhole cover, and we let him down, crouching, gasping. “You’ll have to wipe it first,” Tim said, “before you put the bung in. Otherwise we won’t get a good seal.” The manhole cover was corroded all along the lower edge where rainwater had gathered and opened it. Iron flakes like filo pastry, or a bathside book. In the drain old grime made visible: a collar of pale Victorian filth, copper salts, exploded rings of mould, and a slick of silted matter cupped along the bottom. We were all stood there with our feet around Clive’s ears. Tim lit a cigarette. Clive took his gloves off and started rolling one. I watched him lick it.
For a time in Paris our shower drain was blocked, rendering it unusable. It burbled drain acid behind us while we bathed each other, standing in a pale blue washing-up bowl; bales of steam collapsing from the throat of the kettle. I remember her back broad and smooth, drawn up to the moment where I’d let the first water fall, and then breaking as she gasped beneath a running sheet, almost unbearably hot, gripping the basin under a sustain of eight, twelve, maybe sixteen seconds, water sliding from her lungs and neck, and a tailrush reeving off through her legs. The intensity almost like a drug, her standing swaying as the last drops threaded and fell, and the aftermath of heat raking her down. Breathing the vapour from the nape of her neck. Making love like this, holding her under the shoulders, soapfresh, and the sawing of an iron casement stay on the window frame above, its stops all flaked and blown. The creaking of our own wet skins. High dewing cobwebs, the riftless space between her breasts. There was a welt of cool air down my back, coming in from where the door wouldn’t close. I turned her head to kiss her, her mouth wet and split like a petal on asphalt. I remember our faces in the mirror, her eyes closed, the corners of the frame pornographically softened by mist. I can see mine somehow stricken, alone in a wild iris, unsure. The same weak reflection, and then my cheek on her softly annealed back.
I trundled the mixer up past them along the side return, the whole thing clanging terrifically and toiling in the mud, but neither turned a head. They’ve a prodigious acoustic, cement-mixers: that big drum with the narrowed opening. Evans yelled something about a little DIY, and I didn’t turn my head about that either. Just the open van; the cocked wing mirror.
It was so dark at Andy’s toolhire the trucks all had their lights on. You could see pale skims of grey moving around inside the warehouse, and fork lifts passing in and out, only their filaments a calescent yellow and the rest just flat. There were weeds in the root-split lot, and more straining from a rusted dumpster at the bottom end. No birds. We all keep looking up for a distance to the sky. Inside, Andy didn’t find much to say, though he took a fiver off the hire because I’d cleaned the insides—as though he’d expected it to come back ruined. I was glad to be rid of it. It’s a brutal tool, the cement mixer: noisy, dusty, abrasive. Triturating. Last night in bed I could feel the blood go round inside my palms. As I was leaving, Andy said, “It’s a while you’ve been working on that place,” and I couldn’t decide whether to nod or say yeah. When I got back to the house I went straight in. But then wanted to see what was going on with Evans and his boy.
He was on his knees by this time with a caulking gun in hand, and the boy sat on a bit of rubble waiting to pass him stuff—all green and blue—looking like death’s smallskulled little helper, kicking at a greysand beach while his master plays dice or chess with the fetches of warriors. The warriors are lying hallucinating on a rain-soaked field while thieves claw over their bodies. I stopped to look at the second window, where Evans had tickled the low brick to slip the grille in, and where it sat toward the front of the recess. “Virgin tight,” he had said they said. I opened the swinging section, then closed it again. The pair of them were on the downwind grille, working to fix it in place. In his hands the boy was scraping together two threads, and there were another two on the plastic by his feet. They were using 12 mil. rawl bolts, with a ribbed metal jacket and a cone-shaped anchor at the heel. You pass the bolt in loose, and then as you screw, the anchor comes up the thread and forces the jacket open, tightening it to the sides of the hole. You have to be a little delicate as the torque on the wrench can be enough to shatter whatever it is you’re screwing into. It’s a very secure fixing. Evans, with the grille all set on wedges, was gunning some kind of epoxy cement into the first of his holes.
“So you’re gonna screw the bolt while it’s still liquid then leave it to go off?” I said.
“Yep,” he said. There was a clear nozzle on his tube so I could even see the epoxy creeping in.
“So you’ll never be able to unscrew them again,” I said.
“To get these out,” he said, and he looked briefly to the other grille, and then back to his hole, “you’d have to take the fucking wall down.”
“You’ve put this one at the back of the recess,” I said, “so it won’t be able to swing open right round. It’ll hit the brick here at ninety. And it’s not parallel to the window. I can see the right hand corner there’s cocked out.”
Evans kept his eye on the nozzle, kept squeezing, gunning. You could see a fat slug of the stuff fronting up inside the tube. “I’ve drilled the holes now,” he said.
I don’t know.
* * * * *
I didn’t have much else on that day so I stayed in. I watched their van pull off about an hour later. My mother uses a piano tuner of the same name—Evans. By then the cars all had their lights on. A little windless precipitation; companies of shirtloose children; no sunset—only a taking away which didn’t occur to anyone until they maybe dropped something, and suddenly found themselves feeling threatened. I was still thinking about nights in Paris—those when she would say it doesn’t matter
. It doesn’t matter it doesn’t matter fuck it it’ll be alright, I really believe that. Let’s sleep now. (I believe I thought we were maybe losing each other already.) She would say
, It doesn’t matter we don’t have to live surrounded or swallowed or be always nearly drowning and there is still a time for sleep, and for the fatigue of human optimism. And it’s like that riddle in Turandot
, when she says, What’s withered and burnt and thrown away in the day but every night grows back again, wanton as gravity?
and really it’s hope she’s talking about. So it doesn’t matter. Because once you’ve met someone you’re theirs for life, and if neither of you pretend a little it gets too lonely, and you’ll both leave and leave yourselves behind. And fate isn’t anything except the way you want to look at me. And not willing things to fall apart. I believe that. Fuck it.
What else? Years later come across an earring kicked deep beneath the bed. Live under a roof of nights all imbricated like terracotta tiles. Always and forever so spoilt for choice.
Love everything. Remember nothing. Suddenly hear me again as a voice in your ear. Driving; pulling over; rereading; breaking down. And the sense—the understanding—that possibly what you lost there was never even the thing you now miss but rather the chance at which you once failed to feel it.
All that honesty detained by hope; detained crisis; paramnesia and the decommissioned pasts; those movements of belief all so much hypocrisy and daring. And maybe you’re not lost or looking for someone else at all but only for a hollow in which to sound for echoes of yourself. Every rainstorm an absolution; everyone a trouble all their own. Well fuck it it’s alright it’ll be alright. It doesn’t matter. And maybe it’s just as you say all a matter of timing. And so why one thing and not another? Because you play them over in your mind so many times they start to take on meaning—that this thing happened this one way, and that was necessary because it allowed the following to fall out just so—and there is this paranoid urge to want it to be all running at some exclusive distribution. But when you go beyond the sentimental you find anything you can think about can change, and maybe it doesn’t make sense anymore, or maybe it makes more sense somehow like that, or maybe you find no matter how many times you knock at it you can change really nothing at all because the associations work in both directions and none of it matters anyway. And so why one thing and not another? It doesn’t matter—it doesn’t matter now—with all the people dead or dead to you at least and it’s all just collections of images your mind runs when your eyes haven’t moved for more than a little while. Alone in their wild iris. And running. You just keep dropping the same thing into every drink. Then sleep. I wish she’d’ve told me what it is I was running at.
* * * * *
“Thanks,” I said. She looked at me.
“Can we talk for a bit?” I said. “Do you mind? There’re a few minutes left.”
“Sure,” she said, lying back down. “What do you want to talk about?” Her left breast was rolled over towards me, the skin crimped where it met her ribcage, and yellowed.
“I don’t know, you. Are you married, do you have kids?”
“I have a son, Callum. He’s six—well about to be. I—”
“What do you do with him in the evenings?”
“He stays with my mother-in-law. She lives—look,” she said, “do you mind if I get dressed while we’re doing this?”
She was getting up. “No, of course not,” I said
“Mm, she lives on the same estate and so she minds him evenings. She’s been terrific actually. Really good. People say oh I don’t know what I would’ve done if—but really—”
She was sitting on the far corner of the bed, fastening her bra behind her, and I think had some kind of grip in between her teeth. I could still smell them when I clenched mine. The tendons down her wrists looked like piano wire. Then she leaned forward to find the boots.
“— and it’s not for herself that she does it.”
I started to get dressed too. “What does she do?” I asked. It didn’t seem to matter much either way. I’d kept my things together on the lamplit side of the bed, and had by then made the decision to head back. That can feel nice too, when putting on your socks in front of a wall. In fact to have somewhere you’re going is already most of it.
“Could you help me with this?” Or maybe she said, “Could you help me with this, darling?” She was standing now, facing the large mirror at the bottom end with a split tube on her hips and a flick of vulva still just visible underneath. She was holding the hair up with the backs of her hands, waiting, breathing.
“Do you choose the dresses yourself,” I asked, “or does the management pick them for you? I mean,” and coming up behind her now, her skin, “is this even something of yours?”
“I pick mine,” she said, “but Shelley likes to dress the Korean girls. They’re not up to much themselves really. You know, yes plee
s, no plee
“They speak English?”
“Blow job plee
s, asshole plee
“Just like that,” she said.
I finished winching the zipper. The loose skin was at her armpits now, and her elbows as she let the forearms down. A faint ring of solvents was somehow released somewhere. It struck me then, looking in the mirror, that what made the room so unnatural was less the windowlessness or the strict minimum of space, but rather a perfect absence of human dust. Nothing hanging from a corner or positioned temporarily; no screws put aside on a ledge somewhere, awaiting a return to holes as yet to make themselves apparent; no fallen bus tickets or packaging; no dropped earrings. Dirty but without trace, without an undeliberate moment. As though assembled out of memory rather than drawn from life. It occurred to me to kiss her neck, which I did, then said, “Listen you should go on through. I’ll just gather together my boots.”
“Come see me again soon,” she said. A hand left behind her on the architrave; then that gone too. And now in front only my eyes, that weak reflection.
I followed the corridor down to a toilet and pissed terse angry little stops for about ten minutes. I would have been holding the walls if they weren’t so red and drifty—battled up in cocky tiles, beneath a textured ceiling and bands of granulated paint: the whole orchestra of cosmetically denied collapse. Water drizzled from clingfilm around the pipe to the urinal. Copper salts. Elsewhere, damp exploded rings with crenellated edges, blisters sweating, the light fibres of some insect inhabitation strooled from their peaks; palimpsests of graffiti—mostly exotic improbable female names with their telephone numbers obscured, blown lights filled with dead moths, droppings perhaps, semen, grime, cakes of poison. I pressed my hand to a rolled hump in the plasterwork, which lisped, and rose up again somewhere else. I have unreliable skin, especially when it first turns cold. And I drink. I notice it creeping from the cheekbones, and a patch on my forearm too which balds, and goes old. Generally skin problems aren’t contagious but they have a strong metaphorical impact. They make you look corpsey. They make you look like you’re being eaten away. I washed up, then put the packet of soap I’d brought back in my pocket. In the mirror among smears and foxing my… alone in a… The hump in the wall slipped again. I walked through to the bar.
They don’t like doors in these places. They have bead partitions.
She was already in conversation—another saucer of light over her hands and knees, another bottle of wetly labeled false champagne. Of him I could see only the shoe soles—white rubber. The two Koreans were on an oyster sofa in collared shoulderless slips, one pink and one blue, with opposing handbags and airbrushed faces. Maybe it was a pretty image. Shelley! Callum. W. C. Evans. Above the bar, reading left to right across inverted bottles, ran the old familiar names. And in the mirror behind—
“Will there be another show?”
The ride back to South East London was a joy. It was huge lungfuls of autumn night. There were occasional women vomiting, kissing their beaus, vomiting again. Cars held together by intervals of carmined road, meeting repeatedly along successive traffic lights. Eternally red men at deserted crossings. The hill of the river was like a four bar rest in the score, and up in its emptiness I started shouting. I was shouting at all that wind and water. And then coming down again, the pedicles of urban rain. Rhythmic hedges. Long stuns of payless shops. Rare scalene hooded faces. The bus fwacking low branches all the way down Queen’s Road to leave them swinging, telestically, like bells. Up above in a vertical field of council balconies a woman holds her towelled robe together with one hand and brings a dress in, her left breast obliquely denuded by an otherwise humdrum moon. A spilt ice-cream cone on my neighbours’ steps.
I put the bike up against the ivy and walked round to the side return. Two rubble sacks were flailing and sticking in the mud up at the far end. The downwind security grille was set right to the back of the window recess, and so wouldn’t be able to swing open fully. It would hit the brick there at ninety. And you could see it wasn’t straight. The right hand corner cocked away from the sill. Behind me a man was coming down the road by himself. He coughed as he passed, and crossed to the other side. I stood there looking at it, the grille, on the sheening mud.
What is it? she had said. What exactly is the matter?
Adrian Hornsby is co-author and editor of
The Chinese Dream (010 Publishers, 2008), an in-depth study on Chinese urbanization. His short stories have appeared in
The Prague Literary Review and
The Pestle. His plays have been performed in Paris, Amsterdam, Beijing, and London, where he lives.