Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Road Below the Window

An airless dusk before thunder, a man running. I am putting in my eye-drops. The radio is playing downstairs in the kitchen. I think I can smell pear-drops. For one second I am in a glass-jarred sweetshop, then that gap in history closes, like a cloud closes on a ladderlight of sun.

I hear more running, no boots yet. I blink, stand up and go to the window, carefully, to the side, and look out through dirty lace.

The storm swells up, electric, heavy. The afternoon, buzzes, hisses like bees in an animal skull stumbled against on a cliff-walk.

The clocks say eight, the light says winter. This is still summer but the sense of weight in my country, the dark foreboding, is like a bad smell, something rotten behind a wall, something waiting to burst.

How did we come here, to these unexpected latitudes? When we saw the first fires, the uniforms, the rallies, why were we so excited? Could we not see how far we had been moved from the rivers of our childhood, from those days when life revolved around a penny, pear-drops, chocolate?

So much that was good, so much removed. The light in the eyes of fathers on Sunday afternoons when the trams were stopped and we scurried out along the tracks as if finding freedom for the first time, fathers, mothers, always in their best, children with polished shoes, those, high, light voices.

Now I hear the first car and the heavier braking of a truck. And now the boots. They manage to clatter in step. Perversely the clop and rush on the cobbles is rich and alive. I would call it musical, exciting, if it were not such a tragedy.

My eyes have settled. I go down the stairs, making little noise. It is important, these days, to be invisible. I am standing in the stone-flagged kitchen, the black kettle is swelling with heat on the stove, when I hear the single shot. There is something about the singleness, its isolation that I know it has struck down its target.

I am sad, but I do not know who has been shot. It is a routine death and I must drink my coffee and eat a little rye bread.

This house was once so full, so dizzy with noise, the clamour of the nest. My son, so booming, so important and the girls darting, finishing nothing, their voices like strings tuning before a symphony.

Helen had her lover. They met in cafes. She was always early. She said once that she feared not dying, but she feared that one day tomorrow simply would not come. Father, am I wrong she said? I could not answer. So she went to her young man early, because if she was late then she had missed some time with him and it was gone forever.

I am thinking of you now Ruth. How you cannot be is beyond me, but you are not, I have to say it, you are not. I am sorry I did such a bad job, that Karl is lost, Helen, little Ruth, Anna. They are travelling, I am sure.

Helen, I am reading Dante again. It is a wicked poem. It sidles up to me. Who said, the poem reads the man? It reads me, me, the man who waited patiently for answers, the man who was polite until it was too late, the man who obeyed orders, who was law-abiding until the loathsome stench rose up and could not be ignored.

Before he said his last goodbye and warned me to stop writing, Karl came home just one more time. He was healthy, vigorous, tall and muscular, and if the uniform had been one in which I was proud to see him, he looked every bit the grand soldier. He spoke of how he was now exalted, free, yet not an inch of him was free.

Helen, of course, married that young man. She could not risk the endless night. They were married in a place called Windug, but then like so many others, they went away.

I looked down from the window earlier. I saw only the dull cobbles waiting for an onrush of rain, then I heard running. We run, we run, but where to?

Before you went away, you would make me look down, look out on the hungry. You called it the famine road, and you would give away our bread. But then you died, your quiet, routine, small death. I was given a half-day off work.

I know my country was sweet, once. It was sweet. I remember those walks, the tinkling shops, the chocolate, the pear-drops. In winter, the mountains, the clear waters, snowdrops, Edelweiss.

Was I really one of those who welcomed them? Was I? We were sweet, wholesome, a steady ship. Did I help bring in this heavy, filthy, sea? Or ship sank routinely while the bands played and we were much smaller than we imagined. When a sugar-ship sinks, is the sea made sweet? No, the sea corrupts, the rest is lost.

Look down you said once, this was once a famine road. Look down, see, my love, the hungry and you sent me to the pantry for food. I opened the pantry door and a river of filth flowed out.

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