PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
He has been here again. I can smell him, taste him in the air. It is now almost eight weeks since I first came to this place – to my place. You might think that after eight weeks I would have become accustomed to these disturbances, but no, I am unsettled once again. This evening I had just put my mind to the question, my question, the question, when in he burst, into my flat, demanding his due, snarling about downpayments and contracts, waving his little black book at me in a manner that was less than courteous. I raised a hand to silence him. I told him Wait, wait, will you wait, I am working, but it was too late. The chilly, late March damp he brought in with him was poisoned by his noxious aftershave. I wrote haphazardly, in hope, in fear, trying to blacken the page before the words were lost to me. My concentration was sundered, shot through with his presence. I could hear only his body stirring the air behind me. I wrote quicker, trying to ignore him, convinced his breathing became heavier. The more I wrote, the heavier he breathed. I confused the words on the page. I misplaced a conjunction at the beginning of the sentence. I overindulged the subject, and somehow lost the object. In the end it was hopeless: I could no longer ignore the dead weight of his being there.
I let down my pen and rose from the table. Behind me, he had adopted a defiant posture. He squinted furiously and twitched his shoulders. I could see he was jumpy. We both were, as a matter of fact. For a moment I thought I might have to use my fists. I admit the prospect of violence did not make me unhappy, it even excited me a little, made me a little giddy. He rolled his eyes over my bookshelves and turned down the corners of his mouth. He poked his fingers into my last piece of bread. It was not fresh. He snorted cynically. Probing for some evidence of wealth no doubt, some trace of prosperity. Looking for the few miserable pence that I owe him. My due, he said, where is my due? I opened my empty palms. His fingers left hollows in the bread. A feeling of disgust came over me. He nodded slowly. Yes I see what’s going on here, he said.
I did not, could not, speak.
I am here for my due, he said.
But, I said, trying to recover my composure, today is not the due date.
He did not speak.
You will get your due, but not before time, I added with artificial defiance, trying not to look towards the press where I had stashed my money.
We held each other’s stare. The pressure to keep my eyes in place was immense, but eventually he blew out his cheeks and pointed at me again before turning on his heels.
My due, he warned over his shoulder, a half-smile appearing on his face. I will get my due. Well let him come, let him look, let him ask his insufferable questions – there are no answers here.
He backed out of the flat with painful deliberation, keeping his eye fixed on me through the narrowing gap between the door and the frame. I pressed my ear to the keyhole to hear the sound of his departure. My heart was thrashing wildly inside my chest. When I was sure he had gone, I rushed to the press in the kitchen to check the money was still there, for it might all have been a trick, the whole thing, he might have already stolen in some time when I was sleeping and taken the money, he might have watched me as I slept, he might have taken a pillow in his hand – but no. Stop. The money was still there.
I ran into the living room and packed up my writing things where I had left them scattered and clambered into bed, unable to close my eyes and incapable of keeping them open.
Irregular behaviour, you may think, but you would be wrong. Just two weeks ago, as I was halfway to sleep, I heard the rapping of a ringed finger against the window and threats being shouted through the letterbox. I was already in a state of unease. My deceased mother had been lately infiltrating my dreams; at times I could not be sure whether I was awake or asleep, or for that matter, if she was alive or dead. Sometimes I dreamed that she was dead and sometimes I dreamed that she was alive. Sometimes she was neither dead nor alive but in some unfixed, zombified state in between. On that night I was dreaming of my mother’s birth. I was holding my grandmother’s hand and urging her to push. Through a frosted glass window, I could see the opaque form of my father in a waiting room, slowly pacing the floor. I had the impression of a troubled look on his face; he kept stroking a moustache that he had acquired from some unknown realm of my unconscious. His fingers were stained a little yellow. There was something distasteful about his mouth, something indecent that revolted me. He was treading back and forth across the threshold of the delivery room; later I would remember how his bad leg was in working order. Several times he was about to come in, but as soon as he put a foot inside he turned abruptly on his heel and strode away, clasping and unclasping his hands behind the long black cloak he was wearing. I could see him better now. A large lotus flower that was hemmed into the breast pocket of his coat was beginning to droop. I appreciate how improbable he was; even as a figure in my dreams he was unlikely. But let’s not worry about implausibilities, I have so little faith myself. A dark, red, half-globe was my mother’s head struggling out of the womb. I smoothed my grandmother’s hair and told her to make one last effort. The midwife shook her head gravely and produced forceps. From somewhere came a high and squealing noise, much like the mew of a hungry kitten. My grandmother scrunched her eyes and began to moan, pulling my head closer to her mouth. It is said that the dead are barred from communicating with the living but this was not true in my dream, not true in any dream. She was whispering something that I couldn’t hear. What is it grandma, I said, what do you want to say? She clutched me by the collar and raised herself up at the same time as she pulled me down. The old crone was stronger than I had thought. Or perhaps I was weaker. Oh for Christ’s sake, perhaps it’s all the same, it doesn’t matter, these details. What is it grandma, I repeated. She was shuffling her fingers beneath the bed-sheets in a manner that made me uncomfortable. She was so close now that her tooth decay began to overwhelm my senses. Didn’t the old hag ever learn to floss, I found myself asking, look at that repulsive calculus. She produced a hand to reveal a yellow-green lump smeared with red, like a giant snotty nosebleed, or a melted marble. The mucus plug, the midwife started shouting, it’s the bloody show! She clapped her hands in excitement and just then my mother’s flat, shut-eyed head started to bulge out of my grandmother. It was all happening much too quickly. The baby’s mouth and eyes were smeared with blackish-green meconium. I had an urge to clean its face but was afraid I would smother the child. The midwife gave a small but forceful tug, and the rest of my mother slurped out, blood-blotched purple, wriggling and scrawny. That’s not true. She was jaundiced, plump and completely still. My grandmother pulled me closer still, close enough to kiss me. She gasped for air. Her half-breath on my cheek was an aborted sentence. What is it grandma, I urged, what is it? I hope, she managed to say, vagitus uterinus… vagitus… but the rest was lost and never to be regained and at that point the cold sound of the metal ring on the glass put an end to my matrilineal phantoms. I sat bolt upright, my ears pricked. I assumed it was a burglar, skulking about outside the window. I heard the dull sound of a terracotta crash. I recognised it as the pot of sapling geraniums that I had been cultivating clumsily being crushed underfoot. So, not so stealthy, I thought, but potentially dangerous nonetheless. There was nothing for it but to keep the bastard out. I wedged a key between my fingers to poke the burglar’s eye and began creeping towards the door.
A new fear suddenly took hold of me: there was no time to dress and the buttons on my pyjama bottoms had long since fallen off, forcing me to hold them up with one hand. Ordinarily, living alone, there were no issues of personal modesty; often I allowed them to slip to the ground when I had to use the toilet, even enjoyed the freedom of it a little. But now I was convinced that my flat was going to be broken into and I was about to be assaulted. I imagined the worst. Should there be a scuffle and were I to be knocked unconscious – being unable to defend myself properly – would they find me humiliated, beaten and robbed, with my pyjamas flying half-mast at my knees. Or worse, around my ankles? Who might find me in this shameful state of undress? In my agitation, I cursed my witlessness in leaving myself so exposed and promised myself I would leave at first light. Yes, I would get the hell out of there, had I not been saying it since the first moment I came to this place? Escape: get the hell out. For Christ’s sake, get the hell out. The serrated edges of the key dug into my fingers. I tightened my grip on the pyjama bottoms. He rapped again. I adopted a strong working class accent and barked an obscenity to frighten him off. He rapped louder. I bellowed something defamatory about his family. That must have been a mistake. I had forgotten he had a key. He had begun to let himself in the door when he heard the insult, and stopping, mid-push, fixed me with a glassy eye, and said in a cultured voice, I hope I have not made an error of judgment with you.