It was autumn when I came to this room at the cheap end of the coast. There are fireworks in the sky, is it New Year’s Eve? My face lights up red and blue by turns. The sprays and pops stop, replaced by my face framed in black, watching itself. It’s raining.
On the first day I imagined the wind whispering to me through the half-uprooted thistles on the cliffs. Had I been drinking?
But the moment stayed with me. The nights whispered too, tasks I failed to understand. This scribbling, for instance. What brought it on, where’s it going? Scribble.
I can’t live far from water, even in the grey aerial soup that passes for day in these parts. The only saving grace of this room apart from its cheapness is what’s outside it, the craggy coast, the thistles and the fogs.
Strange sighs and muffled whoops from downstairs. I’ve seen him, my downstairs neighbour, on his way to the supermarket, perhaps a word about him. He walks quickly and wears a heavy old greatcoat, sometimes replacing it with a turquoise windbreaker.
Dusk now, accompanied by the usual apprehension and tedium, regular as the brown sluggish tide out there. I try to push myself out on the undertow of my words, to leave an emptiness for you to fill. But haven’t you already started whispering? Didn’t you take me by surprise that first day? A mutter in the waves, a murmur in the pines. No, not like that. My own call, myself whispering my own name. No, not like that. Was I hearing things?
On one of those first nights I dreamed I was on a trip I’d never taken, spellbound by a desert landscape I’d only read about, when you wiped away my tracks and I laughed. You, the anonymous. No one’s voice.
I wake up tired, too heavy for myself. Dull hunger, shall I clean myself today or not.
The main event of the day occurred when a cat slipped into my room as I put the rubbish out. Sleek and black and unmoved by my advances, it sits on the windowsill watching me through slitty eyes as if to say, You’re wasting your time with that scribbling, mate. Quite right. Scribble.
I might as well describe my first meeting with my downstairs neighbour. He was sitting on a step in the stairwell with his head bobbing between his knees.
‘I’m drunk’, he said, turning around as I ascended towards my room, ‘I was drunk, but I’m all right now. I was anxious, let me tell you, no stop, come back. Listen, hang on, no, I remember.’ He was wearing a thick brown woollen tie I hadn’t seen him wear before, his greatcoat was bunched up around his flanks. I stood above him with my bag of groceries.
‘I was anxious, why was I anxious?’ He seemed puzzled. ‘I was waiting for someone, someone I don’t know yet, but that doesn’t matter now. Someone who didn’t know what he was doing to me. There was summing he could’ve done for me, it doesn’t matter what now, he could’ve turned my life around. I prepared for this for ages, it’s all I’ve thought about. He must’ve seen you coming. But it’s okay, I’m sorry, go on up, I’m sorry.’
As I went up to my room he said, ‘Where’s my cat?’
‘I don’t know’, I said, and he turned back and resumed bobbing his head between his knees.
Something made me walk straight into the bathroom and look at my mouth in the mirror. I didn’t want to look at my eyes. Eyes lie. And the mouth? It too. Quick, my room. It’s adjoined by a tiny kitchen and a tiny bathroom. There’s a bookshelf and a desk against the north wall, or is it the west wall, and a chair which I keep by the desk, pushed right against it. There’s a bed against the east wall, or is it the west wall? I keep my clothes in a cupboard in the kitchenette, I don’t want to clutter my room with a wardrobe. When the weather’s bad, as it usually is, I walk around my room, against the wall and around the furniture, as if along a chalk outline, counting my paces up to a hundred. Then I turn around and start counting from zero, and so on. I start with the wall and the furniture on my right, so that when I turn, having reached a hundred, they’re on my left. I try to keep as close to them as possible without touching them. I try to see how close I can get to the edge of the bed, say, without letting my trouser leg touch it. If it does, I give myself an extra round as a penalty. There’s a slight groove in the carpet where my route runs.
Despite these diversions, at times it’s as if I walk myself deeper into a hole. I imagine there’s a sinkhole in the centre of the room and keep going, sticking as close to the walls as possible.
When I know there’s nothing to be done, I leave my room and walk as far as I can, along the seashore and through the villages.
I look down at my feet, the hole closes above me and the endless end is here. I talk to you and listen for the right word. I talk too much, but silence is not an option, if only it were.
When I returned this morning the little panther was sitting on my doormat, in a sunbeam. Shiny as a beetle, wearing its gaze like a mask. It wanted neither food nor caresses. It slipped in, took up its position on my windowsill and trained its opaque eyes on me. Let it, I thought, I’ve got better things to do than concern myself with a cat’s affections, I’m a busy man. I have my pacing for one thing, not to mention my scribbling.
I could take up sailing to pass the time, become master of wind and tide and all that, grow a big beard. But I’d have to learn and I’m not the learning kind. And imagine all the fuss, all the tarring and rigging and straining.
Rhythmic thumps from downstairs now, like someone hitting a table with a club wrapped in a towel. Maybe he paces too, but with heavy boots on, hitting the furniture at regular intervals.
A knock interrupted my scribbling. As I opened the door the cat ran out and down the stairwell, past my neighbour. He glanced downstairs and eyed me. He was wearing a shiny skin-tight t-shirt such as runners and cyclists wear. He brushed past me. I closed the door.
He sat on the bed. I started pacing. He studied the ceiling. When I passed him the second time he shoved me with his elbow.
‘Did you see him?’ he said. ‘Did you tell him anything? Nothing good, or he wouldn’t have left when he saw you coming. This is a problem, don’t you understand? I don’t trust you.’
He shifted on the bed, followed me with his eyes. ‘I shouldn’t think so much, isn’t that what you’re thinking, isn’t that what he’d say? It’s true, I admit it, I create problems for myself, and no solutions. I’m leading myself astray, isn’t that what they’d say? But it makes sense, that’s how it works, innit? Maybe they’re right, maybe I shouldn’t think about myself so much. Maybe I should get a dog, maybe that would help. A loyal pet, not like that tart. Or a chinchilla or a snake, summing I can keep locked up.’
Tired now, faintly queasy, I sat down on my chair and waited for him to leave.
‘Why’ve you stolen it?’ he said. ‘Do you feed it? Say summing. What do you do in here all day anyway? You look like a retard walking around like that, or a prisoner. I can hear you from downstairs you know.’
I left to relieve myself. When I returned he was gone.
A new day, the last day begun again. What shall I scribble today? Shall I list the things I’m going to do? But I’ll do nothing, I’ll sit in my room and scribble. But how to start, with so little to say? Start with a question, that’s as good a start as any. A question can lead to a second question. And then? Wait for you to send me the words.
What words? These, for lack of any better. I write them though they nauseate me, for some reason I feel I must.
Who are you, I ask, and you answer with these words.
Blacken the pages, a white page is even falser.
Patches of ice on the beach this morning, seagulls squawking over a fish.
The noises from downstairs have stopped for the time being, but he’s down there, I think.
The next day as I opened the front door to the building he was sitting on the second step. Was he waiting for me?
‘I’m sorry’, he said. ‘It’s none of my business what you do, only when it affects me, but it doesn’t affect me, why should I even care what you do? It’s just… my feelings, I can’t trust them, the minute I start talking there’s no stopping them. And I can’t shut up.’
I started up the stairs, I wanted to cook the food in my bag.
‘It’s because I don’t understand what’s happening to me’, he said. ‘That’s what makes me afraid. Anyway, is it a crime to talk? I’d just like to know summing for once, like why he didn’t come. Why don’t you tell me? What did you tell him?’
I took another step and he grabbed my bag. ‘I reach out to grab it like this and it turns on me like you’re about to. See, there I go again!’ I pulled my bag free, walked upstairs and unlocked my door.
It’s snowing. Let it come down. The streets are covered, are no more, there’s no sky, no earth, no beginning or end.
On my way to the pub I heard a man say into his phone that this is the coldest winter in thirty years. There was a pure burnt smell on the streets, of air burnt by the cold. I passed a block of flats they’ve started demolishing. A broken mirror hung on what must have been someone’s living room wall, frosted over. Icicles hung off the ends of broken pipes. The rooms looked almost obscene, exposed like that.
The pub is empty apart from a young couple at one end. They’re looking down at their phones. She sits back and plays with her hair. He sips from his drink.
I sit against the opposite wall and sip from my tepid ale. The publican stands behind the bar staring into space. A stupor settles on us all, uniting and dividing us.
I try to pinpoint the centre of the room, the point around which I’d walk if this were my room.
The publican looks bored, he looks around, he’s on the verge of talking. Don’t encourage him, look away, think up another space. No, don’t think, drink, take out the pad and listen for the murmur. Another sip while I think of another word, wait for your words. They come and I shape and lose them, address and betray you in the same breath.
I turn away, look out the window, admit I can’t dispense with you, start over.
Swallow the dregs, order another. If I don’t talk they won’t. I’ll listen only for your words, the ones that appear in this grey space, that rise and disappear like smoke, if they don’t talk, if he doesn’t turn on the radio, in this grey space where I think and am thought, where I write and am written, where I can neither think nor write. Scribble, it doesn’t matter what anymore. Drink, it doesn’t matter what anymore. Now maybe I can talk, now that I’ve drunk and talked myself into this space where anything and nothing is possible. But no one talks, silence spreads like frost. The couple fiddle with their phones, the publican wipes the counter. I’ve made it clear perhaps that I’m not a talker, and isn’t that what I wanted?
Someone’s sitting opposite me, I feel eyes on the tip of my pen. It’s my neighbour, in his greatcoat. He asks me for money for a pint. I give him some coins. His eyes are hidden behind saggy slits, I can hardly see them. He orders his drink, comes back and sits down, drinks a third in one go and belches. He sighs loudly and looks out the window. I scribble a final line and close the notebook.
He looked at me dully. I took a sip of beer. We sat silently. The sun set slowly in an orange sky.
After we’d both drunk two more pints at my expense he started moving in his chair. His eyes were glassy.
‘They’re nice’, he said. ‘These days when the thoughts stop forcing themselves on you, when you can coast along. The mind’s sabbath… Everybody needs a rest sometimes. But then it always starts again, doesn’t it? And then it takes over, I can’t stop it. Say summing’, he said, ‘stop me. No, but you’re right, I know exactly what you’re thinking, I should just talk less, I should just stop this blabbering, it never gets to the point anyway, I don’t even know what the point is. Just shut me up, slap me when I start talking like this. No don’t, don’t bother, please don’t. Listen, no, stay there, listen, I’ll tell you what it is. I’m talking to put off the misery that’s waiting for me when I stop talking, as long as I talk I’m still here, they haven’t wiped me out yet.’
Where was I? In the pub, where the publican was wiping the counter. My neighbour’s gone, the young couple is gone, only the publican remains and he’s fading too, out and away, along with the pub, into the pale orange sky, leaden now, grey now, nothing now, and I’m sitting in a chair in this nothing, in this grey space which is my room passing back into being around me, scribbling.
Enough faffing about, get this preamble over with, get to the meat of the matter. What matter?
The window. What about it? It’s white and my room is black, what time is it? Turn on the light and take this down, it must be important. It’s not important. Turn off the light and try to sleep. Birdsong, then it must be dawn. It’ll look like dusk, there’s little difference these days.
Morning. Scribble in the tub, let it echo off the tiles like rat-scratchings. Drop the pad in the water and have done with it. But I’m not allowed to, I don’t know why. My voice is too strong, that’s its weakness. My only chance is to borrow your voice and tie it to mine. A drip from the tap, a knock on the door. I ignore it, drop the pad on the floor and sink into the water, holding my nose.
Later when I opened the front door he was sitting on the top step of the stairwell.
‘I thought you weren’t in.’ He’d shaved his head, imperfectly. I descended the stairs and he followed me down to the beach.
Dune scrub brilliant with frost, heavy white-dusted sand, white sky over a steely sea and so forth. My neighbour caught up to me, wiping his nose on his finger, his words lost in the wind. He pulled my sleeve and shouted, ‘Are you listening?’ He pulled harder, grabbed my scarf. He was sitting on me. ‘Say summing.’ His hands wrapped around my throat. My hands gripped his wrists and I bucked my hips only to dig myself in deeper. He glared at me.
I shifted back on my elbow and punched him in the mouth. He fell back clutching his jaw. I got up, stood over him, then walked away, looking over my shoulder. He knelt on the sand holding his face till I passed the curve of the strand.
I love the view that opens up there, its absolute indifference. I envy it.
In the pub beyond the next elbow of the coast. After half a pint my neighbour walks in. He opens and closes his swollen lips like a fish. He sits down opposite me without a word. There’s no great showdown. After a while he leans over the table.
‘I’ve seen through you’, he says. He sticks his tongue out as he speaks to protect his lips. ‘You’re needy. Just as needy as me. You just know how to hide it.’ He sits back and grins. It’s the first time I see his teeth and I hope the last. ‘It’s pathetic if you care to think about it. Do you ever?’ He leans forward. ‘Don’t come near me again, you’re creeping me out. If you do I’ll have to take official measures. I’ll have to take out a restraining order and don’t think I won’t.’
Outside the fog moves in across the sea, folding over itself, shadowing the beach.
The morning condensation on my window forms a grey screen. A few drops separate themselves out and leave clear wet lines as they drop, revealing more grey outside – lighter, diffuse. How shall I get lost today?
Cars leave Ms and Ys on the road, spelling nothing. The birds leave little Ws on my windowsill. I hear a meow outside my door. I let the cat in and it hops up on my bed and starts turning around itself. I carry on scribbling, stop, look up and realise I’ve been hearing some sort of hum, something beyond the usual sounds of the refrigerator and boiler. So that’s what’s been distracting me. It comes from outside I think and sounds like the drone of a factory or a mobile-phone mast. My mistake was to notice it, now I have a headache. I can’t concentrate, it won’t relent. After a while it gets bad enough that I decide to go out and buy earplugs and aspirin.
As I descended the stairs my neighbour opened his door and peeked out.
‘Wait’, he said. The slam of his door echoed in the stairwell. He caught up to me with loose shoelaces, pulling on his coat.
‘Did you see him this morning?’ he said as we walked to the shops. ‘I thought I saw him. Why would he come back, I thought they’d given up on me? I’m starting to think there’s summing else going on.’
He told me he’d started to worry that one of these days someone was going to show him his life in flashbacks and it wouldn’t be pleasant.
‘Or someone’ll come to my door, maybe the man from this morning. He’ll knock on my door and hand me a dossier marked CONFIDENTIAL in big red letters and go away. He’ll be happy to leave it with me, they’ll have copies. Everything I’ve done will be in there, with pictures. And by the time I’ve realised what it is he’ll be long gone and I’ll be standing in the middle of the street, holding my dossier. This is the kind of stuff I think about, do you have any idea what it’s like? Why am I even telling you this, why do I humiliate myself in front of you like this? You know why, why don’t you just tell me?’
It was like walking with someone who keeps pushing you in the wrong direction. I crossed the street. Above us a couple of gulls battled for a hamburger bun, it fell from their grasp, they swooped after it, a car honked. I could still hear the drone in the background, humming in my head.
‘Or more likely they’ll never turn up’, he said, scuttling round to my other side. ‘More likely they’ll just have fun watching me humiliate myself till they’re ready, then maybe they’ll turn up just to see what a real humiliating death looks like. As if they haven’t seen it before. But they haven’t seen mine.’
He followed me into the pharmacy and observed sceptically as I made my purchase and swallowed a pill at the counter. I went back out.
‘It might even happen tomorrow, or today, who says I’m gonna live a long time, I might get struck down when we turn the next corner, I might slip on the ice and get hit by a bus, or you might push me, I wouldn’t put it past you. Why don’t you just push me right now and save them the trouble. Or just say summing, shut me up’.
He stopped on the pavement, looked around, crossed the street and went into the second-hand shop. I inserted my earplugs and went home. When I opened my door the neglected cat shot down the stairs.
In a fit of bad conscience I bought a clock from the second-hand shop and hung it on the wall above my desk: it would help me be more productive, I thought, to fill out my days with useful activity instead of this scribbling. But it was too loud, its ticking interrupted my thoughts. After a while it became vaguely menacing, vaguely accusing, each tick measured me up in their time, their space, it was intolerable, I got up, ripped it off its nail and flung it on the ground. The pieces flew everywhere. A moment later there were some loud bangs on my floor, it must have been my neighbour with some sort of stick, a broom handle maybe. I sat back down on my bed. As I did the sun came out. It had been so long I first thought someone was shining a searchlight in my room. I looked around.
The sunbeams showed up my winter neglect: coats of dust on the desk and shelves, rolls of fuzz and cat hair on the carpet.
I sighed, got up, picked up the pieces of the clock and binned them in the kitchen, and set about hoovering the kitchen and bathroom. In my room, after I hoover the whole carpet in the normal way, I take the floor tool off and run the tube across the fuzziest, darkest places. I shuffle all along my pacing circle. Even then there’s always more fluff, much more, the more I hoover up the more I see, but there has be a cut-off point, otherwise where would it end? I carried the hoover back into the kitchen, slid out the dust box and emptied it in the rubbish bin, pulled the bin bag out and tied it up. I put on my shoes, carried the bag down the stairs and dropped it in the wheelie bin. On my way up my neighbour stuck his head out of his door and said, ‘What the hell are you doing up there?’
I felt heavy, as if I were sinking into the floor.
I took a roll of paper towels and the window spray and sprayed and wiped the bathroom mirror. Halfway through I stood still for a while, dropped the paper and bottle on the floor, looked up at my face, which was partly obscured by the mist, put on my coat and shoes and got out.
Walking was like standing. As if the pub remained at the same distance despite my walking. Snow melted everywhere in the sun, eaves and trees gleamed and dripped. The drone was a fact of life now, but I’d left my earplugs at home.
‘You’ve ruined my day’, said my neighbour as he sat down at my table, just as the drink kicked in and I was pulling my notebook out of my pocket. ‘I was trying to focus on summing important before you distracted me’, he said.
I worried about my wet shoes and considered taking them off and leaving them against the radiator, but didn’t for fear of the smell.
He spilled his drink, spat out a word I’d never heard and went to buy another. A pool of cider spread towards my feet.
‘They’ve seen me talking to you’, he said as he sat down. ‘Or heard me. They’re following me one way or another, he must’ve gathered enough info on me that first day he came. I haven’t figured out exactly how, but I will. They’re probably following you too, unless you’re following me for them, in which case they’re probably following you to see if you’re following me. But what can I do? You tell me.’
I got up and bought a drink.
‘Even if I saw them I’d probably rather die than talk to them’, he said as I sat back down. ‘Actually I’d probably die if I tried. And you sure as hell won’t do it, even for your own sake, I can see that much, you don’t give a shit. So it’s all up to me as usual. But they’d suck the life out of me before I got to them. They already are, there’s hardly anything left inside, I’m afraid of everyone I meet. It’s obvious everyone here’s listening, but that doesn’t matter, their links to them are weak, they can’t do much. They don’t have a clue, look at them. They don’t even need to do anything, just be here, they probably don’t even know why.’
‘I didn’t know how to feel when you came in’, he said. ‘I thought, This is it, he’s following me for sure.’
I went to the toilet and came back and sipped from my pint. He shifted in his seat and grimaced, drank from his glass and put it down.
After a while he said, ‘You should leave. This isn’t right, you must know that. You’re a menace to the neighbourhood. I’m gonna write a letter to the owners of the building, they’ll know what to do. You make a lot of noise for one thing. I got very sensitive hearing you know. Every noise you make makes me wonder what you’re doing, and when it stops I worry about when it’s going to start again. Then I start thinking and I don’t like thinking.’
I got up and went to the toilet. My knees locked and unlocked. I went to the bar and ordered another pint. When I returned to the table he got up and got one too, as if I’d reminded him of the opportunity.
When he sat back down he said, ‘Because when I think, I can’t help looking back over things. That’s how it always ends up and it always makes me realise how stupid I am. No, you got the right idea, if you’re not much of a thinker you shouldn’t think, just sit there with an empty head. Thinking’s a curse.’ He paused for a while. ‘Maybe I just need to get laid. Know any girls?’
Long pause. The sun set without ceremony. I’d be all right if I kept drinking, would stay buoyed up until I could sleep.
‘Basically it’s all fucked’, he said, looking around. ‘I’ve been fucked. There’ll be pictures of me compromising myself in various positions when they hand me the folder. There I’ll be, leering up at myself. Eyebrows will be raised and tongues will wag! Wag!’ The publican and a few patrons glanced over. ‘Why don’t you step in? They’re laughing, I can almost hear them. You think I’m stupid but you don’t know what I know. They listen to me when they’ve got nothing better to do, then they take a cigarette break and laugh about me.’ He collected himself. ‘When they come I won’t bother preparing, I won’t pack anything, I’ll walk straight into the sea like an old Eskimo. Don’t bother trying to stop me. I’ll laugh at them, go ahead and tell them that. But more likely they won’t come, more likely they’ll just watch me, or study me like some kind of specimen, if they’re even there, or if you don’t get me first, I wouldn’t put it past you, I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you. Are they there? Do you know anything?’
I got up and went to the toilet. When I sat back down he looked around and leaned forward. ‘What I’m trying to tell you is I took a wrong turn somewhere. Everything got fucked up and it was around the time you turned up, do you understand?’ He looked straight at me, reached across the table and grabbed my collar. I stood up, grabbed his wrists and pushed him back into his chair. It tipped back but he saved himself and ended up with his forehead on the table, breathing heavily. I left before the publican made it over, glad I hadn’t removed my shoes.
Mornings like dusk. Sun rising to set. Nothing happens, every day, except your murmur moving in and out of earshot, like music down a windy street. And beyond your murmur? Silence, perhaps, but the incomprehensible silence of moons, stars, galaxies.
I’m propped up in bed with pen and pad.
I had something to say, what was it? I tell myself to stop talking to myself and listen for your voice. But I can’t weaken enough, can I?
Let your words show me the way as they form themselves between the tip of my pen and the page. Let that be my survival, your survival in me.
When I find them, your words, if only for a moment, the drone disappears, just as it does when I drink. Something comes alive in me. My usual state of dispersal and discomfort narrows down to a point while somehow widening out, like the sea’s horizon when the mist lifts under a warm sun.
But touching pen to paper again, after staring at the wall for a while, I feel uneasy, as if all I’ve written here is worthless… I resist the urge to look back over it, to flick through the pages. Nausea, or is it vertigo? A hand scribbling. Whose hand? Odd impression of another voice mouthing my words as I write, as if someone else were reading them aloud…
When I was a child I caught a fever and saw myself from far off, a small body lying in a bed. What was this thing, I thought, looking down on myself?
Enough questions. Think of nothing, block out the drone, try to doze off.
I’m woken by crashes and curses from downstairs.
Go and crunch pebbles. This story needs a story anyway. Maybe I’ll get embroiled in some intrigue. I might see some lovers cavorting in a cove. I might witness a group of walkers head for the sheer cliff round the bend and come back minus one, there’s a story.
But the shoreline was empty apart from a few dog-walkers and the odd gull. No corpse at the foot of the cliff, no lovers in the coves. Minerals glistened in the rocks, I returned the smile of a passer-by, that was the day’s adventure.
When I returned, the cat was sitting on a warm car in front of my building. Some time later it mewed once outside my door. It wanted in but resisted my advances. A little stranger on my bed that gives me nothing and needs nothing from me. It’s come for the heat that rises to the tops of buildings, that’s all. It’s here to help me learn from it, I decide. But am I not a little honoured by its presence, despite its lessons? Am I not drawn to it, even close to doing it some violence? I poke it for a response, it hisses at me and runs to my door. I leave it sitting there for a while out of spite, then let it out, feeling sorry.
Nothing more to say having said next to nothing. Nothing to say and the guilt that follows from not filling time, the guilt that makes one speak to oneself in their words. Stop inventing little hardships to make yourself interesting. Get a life. Get a job.
Don’t let your words die out. Must I keep begging?
There’s something I’ve missed, some fatal flaw in my reasoning, some progression from here to the real vantage point, to real life. And in between? Dead time and a dead drone. No question of silence, only the magic hint of it in our mutual speech, when our words meet and my voice becomes no one’s.
There’s another pub on the coast, in the other direction. I walk to it along the empty road in the rain with my earplugs in. I remove them when I reach the pub, buy a pint and sit down with my back to the corner. I drink, scribble, drink. I run out of things to say and look out the window, fishlike, distracted into non-thought by the thumping music. I order a disgusting meal and eat what I can. I drink.
I walked home, brushed my teeth, undressed, got into bed and masturbated, shuffling images of naked women in my head.
I awake before dawn with a headache and a pricking in my loins. I get up to relieve myself, go back to bed and scribble these lines.
There’s a bare patch on the wall of the pub with frayed wires jutting out of it. Coppers and fluff on the faded patch below it. A smell of stale frying oil and stale bodies in the air. Each time the door opens I hope it will stay open to let in some freshness, but it always closes. This time it’s my neighbour. He looks disappointed as he sees me on his way to the bar. He walks over with his pint and slumps on a chair at my table as if doing a chore against his will. I’m not sure if he’s putting it on, he may have followed me. Some time passes, I scribble to fill it. I sense he’s trying to read my writing upside down, time to lay down my pen.
‘You know when you walk down the street and think someone’s following you?’ he said. ‘And then you turn around and no one’s there? That’s my life right there, I figured it out on the way here. I’ve been fooled, but by who? Myself? That doesn’t make sense, all I do is watch myself. By you? Are you fooling me? No, you don’t give a shit. Are they fooling me through you? I don’t even know the right questions to ask!’ A couple of cocklemen glanced over at us. ‘But no, they’re not even there, I’m hardly here. There’s no one to trick me or help me.’ He leaned back, crossed and uncrossed his arms, leaned forward. ‘But what about the compromising pictures, tell me about them at least. Don’t tell me they’re not there, I know for a fact they are, I lived them, all I do is think about them. Okay fine, give the men in black my best regards and tell them to fuck off. Actually no, tell them to bring it on, let them do their best, or their worst, let them look me up and lock me up, I don’t care. At least it’d be something. I don’t think I’d mind prison anyway. My room’s like a prison as it is, all I do is sit there, or here or some other place, it doesn’t matter. The walls wouldn’t make a difference, I got no boundaries. The pigs wouldn’t know what to do with me, with their stupid games. They’d just think I was arrogant and try to break me down.’ He sniffed. ‘An abomination, that’s what I am, they’d be right about that much. But it’s not in their interest to lock me up, is it, or show their faces and interrogate me, you know that as well as me. So they’ll just let me go about my business and let me compromise myself so they have something to laugh about in their cigarette breaks. They probably have no lives of their own, the sad fuckers. No balls. So they send me you, knowing I can’t resist talking to you. But how can I get back at them except by talking? They’re shrewd, they’re not stupid. But they’re afraid of me, I can feel it, they’re afraid I’m starting to see through them. That’s the funny thing, you can learn more about someone by talking to them than by listening to them, and I’ve learned a lot about you, buddy, believe me!’
The bartender and a couple of old-timers at the bar looked over at us and exchanged a few words. The bartender walked over to a vacated table to collect glasses, shaking his head.
‘And even if they do get me, they won’t really, because I’m not really here, I’m not what they think I am, I’m not even what I think I am… And you?’ He looked straight at me. ‘You can’t be much better off than me. You’re probably worse off. I mean what can they have on you if they assigned you to me?’
He gazed out the window, apparently drifting off with the music, then sat up and made as if to throw his beer in my face, drew back, and walked out. But my thoughts were elsewhere.
I wake up tired of waking up. Lured into another endless day.
I wake up and at once the words swarm on me like insects. I can’t tell sense from nonsense except by plucking phrases out of the swarm.
The drone’s back. I plug my ears.
Seeing my neighbour in the supermarket I went up to him and said, ‘Two men are coming to see me.’ I’m not sure why, maybe to amuse myself. It didn’t, and I regretted it immediately. He gave me his disappointed look and shook his head. He walked off, then furtively followed me around the store. I thought he lost my track, but he turned up in the pub on the high street just as I was finishing my first pint and the drone was fading.
‘I guess now you’re gonna tell me you really are with the man I was waiting for?’ he said. ‘That’s your next little move, innit? You got me, good job. You think I’m stupid? As if I didn’t already know. It doesn’t matter what you say anyway, it’s not like they don’t know everything anyway. Basically I need to start all over, wipe everything clean and start over, and they won’t let me. But I’ve been through it a hundred times, it doesn’t matter anymore, it doesn’t matter what I tell you. My head hurts.’ He scanned the table, realised he didn’t have a drink and got up to order one. Time passed too slowly, time was dying, it was on its last legs. I drank more quickly to speed it up, or push it away, I don’t know. I had to see a man about a pony. When I returned he was drifting off.
After a while he raised his head and said, ‘I know I’m a fraud, they know it, and I don’t know what you know. The real problem’s much worse, it would be even if they weren’t watching me, it is even if they’re not there. There’s summing infinitely worse going on that I can’t understand, that I’m not equipped to understand. You probably don’t even know what I’m talking about, or do you? Do you even care enough to find out for yourself? Or are you just scared?’
He tuned out again. We were both drunk now.
‘Like a smell I can’t smell’, he slurred. ‘Like a bad smell hanging around me that everyone except for me can smell. Except it hangs around them too, it has to, why should I be any different?’ He looked up at me blurrily. ‘Do I shmell?’
I had to relieve myself again.
When I sat back down he got up to leave. On his way out he took my hand. I wasn’t sure why, so I pulled it back.
What would happen if two men in black really did turn up at our building? I imagine they’d go for him, go straight to his door, what would they want with me? I’ve provoked no one, I keep to my sweet obscurity. No one could be interested in these scrawls even if they could read them.
I could let myself go, have him come up here and wait on me, be his master. It would be easy, as easy and pointless as it would be to be his slave.
In my crushing boredom I imagine his men in black interrogating him. They walk around him, exchange sinister one-liners, give each other meaningful glances, no I can’t.
I hear him now, bustling and muttering. There are no other voices, no one answers him.
I was looking out at the slick branches and mossy roofs when a thud on the door jolted me out of my thoughts. As I opened it, my neighbour shuffled past me as the cat darted in past our legs. He sat on the floor of my room with his back against the wall and his knees drawn up. He was bearded and wearing his turquoise windbreaker and stained jeans. His hair had grown out unevenly.
‘Do you want a cup of something?’ I said. Getting no response I sat back down to my gazing and scribbling with some discomfort, who knew what he was doing behind my back.
I decided to leave and do some grocery shopping.
‘Will you leave?’ I said, and got no response, so I left him and the cat to it. When I returned he was sitting in the same position and there was a musty odour in the room. I didn’t know what to do. I waved my hands in front of his face but he didn’t look up.
Leave him to his own devices, go get drunk. No, he’ll only turn up again. Walk down to the water, to the circling gulls.
He was gone when I returned. The cat was perched on my pillow. No sound from downstairs.
That evening, as I walked down the promenade to the darkening beach I noticed a minor commotion by the shoreline, not far from the breakwater. A group of people stood around a small pool of seawater. Walking the other way, looking back, I saw something dark and wet and lashed with seaweed in the spaces between their legs. Two of them held phones to their ears, one moved away from the lump in the puddle to look out to sea. A couple walked back across the sand towards the parking lot. The man took the woman’s hand. She pulled hers away and crossed her arms under her breasts. It started drizzling and the shore veiled itself in mist.
Don’t turn your face from me. Speak.