Sunday, 15 April 2007

An Old Story

This was one of mine published in The New Welsh Review about a hundred years ago


This was once Miss Honeybone's bedroom, a cheap fawn carpet, walls cream but dirty, smeared with age. When they moved in, after Miss Honeybone had gone to a wardened apartment the other side of town, it was the only room they felt they could sleep in. Now it wasn't a bedroom, it had no thin carpet; the floor was bare boards, stained dark oak and then polished, and the walls were blood red with a gleaming white dado rail.

The bath had cost more than his first house, big enough to die in, white as a communion dress. At one end a spotlight let him read, at the other a circle of glass let his wife shower quickly before she escaped to work. He would put his little table, the notepad, the pencil next to the bath, then, as the water ran, foaming some pretty oils his wife had said would help him think, he would go downstairs, grab the bottle, the wineglass, and return.

He had been blocked now for three months, thirteen weeks where not only could he not sit there and type, but not even the desire came, not even those glimmering, shimmering ideas. He had found he was sleeping a lot, drifting away during some daytime TV show, waking during another.

He had begun working out - once he'd been a serious runner - but he found the walk to the gym, the steps, weights, treadmill and swim, not only ate his time but made his gut feel odd. Often he felt desperate to shit, filled up, but when he found a toilet nothing happened. But he had decided to wear the discomfort, and the strange sensations in his lower stomach. He was sure it was the change in routine, the extra exercise, and that his body would settle down again. Today was like any other day.

Ruth was away - a conference in Dallas - and he'd slugged out of bed and made it to the gym. Once when he'd been fit, starting out as a writer, he used to talk about how his running blew the crud away, how long slow distance was cleansing, how the forest, the dark green avenues, the mulch underfoot was a mantra, how then, then, his head had not been full of fat. He had decided that he would write again when he was thirty pounds lighter.

Today, before the gym he'd wanted to go, but couldn't. Half-way through warming up on a static bike the feeling came again, but again he couldn't. He was sane enough then to smile wryly, considering he was now doubly-blocked. It was later, on the treadmill, just two eight-minute miles, that he had the shooting cramp and thought he was about to explode.

But that was then, this now, and now, the pain abated, he was going to bathe. There was just this pressure, the sense of swollen waste in his bowel, of the fat clogging his head, of his useless arthritic fingers, of sleep calling.

He opened the taps wide, threw in the stuff Ruth had bought, watched the oils turn to foam and a smell like vanilla - like lavender - whisper around his head. A thought came to him - a flash - his first wife getting ready to go away after the wedding, changing, and for a moment stood there in light like wooden slats, dust motes glinting in the air and she, shy, looking up to smile, knowing just what she looked like, what she did to him, in fresh-for-the day white lace underwear. Their marriage had lasted three years, the image, the vision, less than a second, but now he remembered - one swelling second of richness against the thousand days of staying alive, waiting for life to begin.

As he went downstairs for his wine - red, white now upset his stomach and gave him heartburn - he felt in the air for that moment, that split-second when he had seen Kathy lifted up, framed by sunlight, exalted. The image wouldn't quite come back and he knew he had never been that to anyone, and he knew that for him to even feel an approximation of that glory had taken the artificiality of his sports, the gleam of passion from going beyond himself, the pure gorilla moments, the displays, the haka, the roaring thing which came after a game, a goal, when he was so on fire he was a strutting baboon, rainbow-dicked, his teeth-bared, white.

He went back upstairs, bottle and glass, thinking, wondering where Kathy was now, where any love was now. The bath rumbled.

They had been in the house fifteen months and from the beginning he had thrown himself head-first at it, clattering down lath-and-plaster walls filthy with horse-hair and a black, cancerous, choking dust, sledgehammering stone walls, navvying trenches across the garden, ripping out the guts of the house for electrician's, for plumbers, for dry-rot experts, and decorators. The house had ached and creaked as he disturbed it, as he defiled it, and in the night its ghosts moved.

He had only seen one, but high in the middle of the day, not at night, as he built a bookcase on the ground floor, and she, a quiet, dark-haired girl dressed like one of the Railway Children had not stayed long enough to smile. He had shaken his head and dismissed her as his own tiredness.

Now he was only thinking of Kathy, the women in his life, of the sunlit razor-thin instants that had made him, the aches and strains that sucked and pulled him into being a writer, his house, the walls and cupboards that made him. He undressed and stepped into the bath.

The water was soft, kissed by a machine in the basement, now silky, almost sensual, wrapping him. When he had the time, like now, he would wallow and lie back, lifting his fingers to feel the softenesses hush through them, even the water-splash different, softness into softness. His gut ached again and the wrong feeling of fullness surged back. He turned to the table, the cabernet sauvignon, and filled the dry glass.

Kathy; he could remember their first time, on the cold floor of a hut. He had been angry, something said as they danced somewhere, and she, seizing the moment, had taken him by the hand, walked him into the cold, kissed him and said, "Let's find somewhere." But afterwards she had said "Now don't expect that to happen every night."

The memory made him smile, despite the pain and fullness, but he realised this was descriptive, articulated, memory, something he retold himself. It wasn't the moment, the vision, the light, the absolute clarity of Kathy, his wedding-day bedroom. He knew that was something else, something purer, something altogether of a higher order, like the plant-seeds sticking to his navy-blue coat as he climbed from a train-wreck on a December morning, an image still so instantaneous he could smell sparks, feel the slip of thawed mud, hear London murmuring so near, so far, taste car-fumes.

He drank the wine quickly, looking for the narrow lands between a sterile consciousness and a useless intoxication. There was a window of opportunity, just beyond half-a-bottle where sometimes he found a portal into himself, out of himself, where he knew the vivid moments hid, like the girl-ghost, not to be looked at, where the extra words breathed, as long as you didn't listen too hard, where if he pretended not to notice it, his soul lost the ability to hide, where veils fell away. He sought that now, the place found by not looking, the words which only came if you didn't listen, the insights, the finenesses, the narrow moments impossible to call up.

And it was now that he started to bleed.

Deep in him he thought there had been a pop. Once, running a marathon he had heard and felt just such a pop and seconds later a blister on the other foot went too, and he was squelching the streets of London in his own blood. This was the same, except there was some relieving of pressure, as if his whole inside had moved an inch, and the water, faint lilac, bubbles white, turned red, the froth pinking like life escaping from a lung-wound.

He thought, "Oh," fascinated by the colour of his insides outside, the lack of pain, the peculiar sexuality of his leaking tainting the bath.

He was sure that such a royal red must signal danger, and there would come a moment when he might feel scared, but the inter-twirling patterns, swirling, gorgeous, reds into purple, purples and blue, and here, from between his legs, not often, but occasionally, tiny blubs of oily, joy-bright redness, flopping through the silk to the surface and bursting silently, becoming water - all this, was material, incident, Kathy, the train.

There was a moment when he thought perhaps he was dying here, a slight exhilaration, but he reflected, fascinated, on the lack of pain, the approaching - he knew - feathery mind which would let him see, the sweet detachment. He leaned, as carefully as he knew how, trying not to disturb the water, his blood, and poured more red wine - this is my blood - and he remembered, the real crisp truth of pure recall - could see - his priest, the one staring glass eye, the white stubble of his chin, the look he had not seen then, never seen so clearly as now, the fear, disgust of the man for those he gave the body of Christ.

He would use that, he felt sure; but as he lifted his glass, tilted it, he felt a little wine spill, a dribble of red on his chin, but it was not red, not real red, not blood-red, not the red of these walls, God red against the shining, gleaming white dados, not the gush and bubble bright red of arterial blood. Now he saw the wine was corrupted, blue, at best blackcurrant, ersatz in the true world of true red.

Now he could feel the wine working, the gentle, subtle lift off the pedal, the moment when control relaxed but rules were still held near. He waited to hear lines without listening, opening lines, dialogue. Without paying attention he wished for images, the Kathy-moments, to smell musk, but not just smell it, know it, and he waited…

for a different Ruth, crying as she read a poem, a Caesarean scar, a slash and yet so beautiful; a swimming-pool glinting behind a hotel near a road in summer, the sky he sat in once, floating above loping rays, Florida sand, white as a floodlight; his mother, proud, his father still able to walk, a solo goal, glorious, yellow shirts, arms, legs, black shorts, but nothing touching him, someone's soft green eyes, the stretchers, limp faces filthy with orange antiseptic - seeds sticking to his coat, someone's soft eyes, a shade of green, a hotel bedroom, sun slatting, dust, fairy dust, and fresh and new for the day, Kathy, surrendered white, Kathy, rising from the far end of the bath now, where the circle of glass lets his wife shower.

He feels peculiar but he thinks, "I'm not angry," and Kathy says, "Let's go find somewhere." He can see her eyes and he knows there's no word for that green. "No promises," she says.

1,900 words

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