Posted by eGZact on October 17, 2007
I get there almost two hours early, but it doesn’t matter. I know I’ll be welcome. I ring the bell and already I can hear Susan’s delighted cry from the kitchen as I lower my finger – ‘It must be Simon’ – and see her form divided into a dozen concave images by the shell-pattern of the front-door glass, each miniature Susan stretching her arms out towards me. She opens the door and I’m drawn in and hugged, my rucksack slumped over on the step. She is wearing a pullover and a long cotton skirt. I feel her stomach and the prickle of the rough wool through my shirt. She smells of cumin and fennel seed; she must be cooking for this evening. Stepping back to look at me, she lets me go and smiles, looping her hair behind her ears, then reaches to pick up the rucksack. I follow her into the broad, uncluttered hall.
I love this house. The walls are white, but there’s something about the height and placing of the windows that makes them seem amber, as though the hall were plugged straight into some source of warm, entirely natural light. Susan’s eyes are hazel as she turns to beam at me again and the scent of cumin on her clothes is slowly overlaid by cinnamon as we walk to the kitchen. I try to take my rucksack from her, protesting, and we tussle playfully until I give in, with a gesture of mock courtesy. Her fingers brush against mine, their dry floury warmth like that of a husk.‘Joey’s gone to do some shopping,’ she says as I sit down at the table. She opens the oven and takes out a tray of biscuits, testing one with her finger to make sure they’re done.
‘They’re for this evening really,’ she says with a doubtful tone, almost of reproach. ‘We’ve asked some people round.’ She shifts the biscuits onto a rack to cool, then breaks one into two with a little sigh and offers me half. It crumbles as I eat. ‘You’ll like them,’ she says, and I wonder for a moment what she means.
‘Who’s in the house now?’ I say, wanting to know who she’d called to when I rang the bell. It must be someone who knows my name, I think, and I am curious, even shy. I expected Joey to be here. Susan smiles, licking a finger to dab up crumbs from her skirt, then reaches down beneath the table. She makes a crooning noise until a cat I have never seen moves warily in her direction.
‘You haven’t met Sorrel,’ she says. ‘Some friends of ours passed her on to us when they went to Japan. She’s still rather disorientated. I didn’t mean that to be a pun. Aren’t you, Sorrel?’I suppose Susan was talking to the cat. I try to stroke behind the animal’s ears, the scruff of her neck, but she pulls away, and I feel a wave of hostility that jars with the mood of the house. When she turns her head to stare, I notice her eyes.‘You’re lucky she didn’t take a flying leap at you,’ Susan says, laughing. ‘That’s her favourite game. She gets up on the top of that cupboard by the door, and when anybody comes in she flings herself at them. It’s a good thing she’s slightly cross-eyed. Who knows what damage she’d do if she actually made contact with anyone? As it is, she just skids across the kitchen floor.’
‘Why is she called Sorrel?’ I ask, amused, no longer looking at the cat.
‘Oh, that wasn’t our idea,’ Susan says. ‘That’s the name she came with. It’s terribly precious, isn’t it? I call her Sourpuss behind her back. Which is probably as bad.’
When Joey arrives, he puts down the shopping bags and shows me where I’ll be staying. The sitting room is hardly ever used except to sleep in, and to play the untuned piano. The room smells of dust. A sofa and two armchairs covered with Indian bedspreads surround the empty fireplace; a single mattress has been propped against the wall, between the piano and the window. I put down my rucksack beside the mattress and look at Joey with affection. As usual, we are shy with each other. The first time I met him, he danced around the room, deflecting questions with a giggle, then stared intensely at me through his tortoiseshell-framed glasses when I laughed, as though he hadn’t expected approval. Now we confront each other with the skewed intimacy of pen-pals. Anyone would think it was Susan I’d known for years, not Joey. I want to ask him about her, but the ballast of small talk is needed first. Joey is agitated and energetic, bouncing on the balls of his feet. I mention a friend neither of us has seen since the summer, who is planning to go to France, and Joey tells me about his brother-in-law, a bagpipe-player with a wounded hand who busks the south coast of France with Joey’s sister and a Polish fire-eater. They are in Nice for the autumn, he tells me. The fire-eater’s arms are covered with a lacework of puckered scars, his breath smells of petrol and garlic sausage. His stories are full of details, small sparkling things that seem to be smuggled in from a place where their brightness is natural. I listen and feel that the poetry of the world is ours. We breathe it in, like cinnamon.
Later he takes me upstairs to show me a painting he has done of Sorrel. The stairs run round three walls of the hall, and at each of the two landings there is a window. On the sill of the first window someone has put a pincushion in the form of a cat. I pick it up and feel it rustle between my fingers. It seems to be filled with dried herbs; it has a musty smell.‘That’s Susan’s,’ Joey says. ‘She’s had it since she was a child. She thinks it brings her luck.’‘It looks like Sorrel,’ I say, although there is only the most generic resemblance, and put the pincushion back on the sill.
‘By the way, Simon,’ Joey says, turning to look down at me from the upper landing, ‘be careful to close the door when you go to bed tonight.’
‘Because Sorrel has this irritating habit of waking people up by pulling their eyelids open with her claws.’ He giggles, and I wonder whether he is serious. The last time we saw each other in this house he was emerging from a period of more than a year during which he’d done nothing but sleep. He showed me a text he’d written, an account of his dreams that had gradually started to make narrative sense. Characters had reappeared, episodes weaving together to form a story in which he was either marginal, or a feeble accomplice to disaster. When it began to seem that his moments of waking were there solely to feed the world of the dream and its inhabitants he’d abandoned the project.
Shortly after, he fell in love with Susan, whom he’d known since childhood – as though he’d opened his eyes and discovered her there, he said – and the honeymoon began. Now he is laughing, his hair lit up from behind like a dandelion clock by the light from the landing window, and I still don’t know if he’s joking.
‘With her claws?’
‘She’s like a surgeon,’ he says. ‘So really I suppose you don’t need to worry. I mean, it’s precision work.’ We carry on upstairs. ‘She probably just wants to make sure you’re there. I think she sees our bodies as shells, with only the eyes as proof they’re inhabited. As soon as she’s prised the lids open she sits back and washes behind her ears. I’ve seen her do it.’ And now he is laughing, and I know that he is absolutely serious.
When I go in to dinner that evening, the kitchen is full of people I’ve never met. I want to sit next to Susan, where I feel safe, but she is beating eggs and I don’t know which place is hers. Everyone stops to look at me, to smile, to welcome me to the room, which is hot and filled with smoke.‘We had a problem with the aubergines,’ Susan says. She points to a baking tray of aubergines, curling and charred like petrified wood. People laugh and I relax slightly, looking round for Joey. He is playing with the cat. He glances up and smiles.
At the end of the meal I’m drunk enough to tell them all a story – something that happened when I was walking home one night through Seven Sisters, around three o’clock, I was in a road with a rundown line of shops on the other side, when I noticed a movement behind the window of an off-licence. I looked across and saw a man with a box of beer cans in his arms pass through the glass door. I had spent the evening with friends, in a pub in Holloway and, what with drink and a number of joints at a friend’s flat, I thought I was hallucinating. I watched him disappear round the corner, then stared at the door, to make sure it was closed. I saw the frame and the handle of the door, the keyhole of the Yale lock glinting in the light from the street. And then I saw another movement and a second man swayed up from the dark interior of the shop. He lifted his foot to step over the bottom part of the frame and, once again, passed through the glass. I could have sworn I saw the shimmer of it parting. I was standing there with my mouth open when he turned and saw me. His arms were laden with cartons of cigarettes.‘Come and get a look at this,’ he said, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels, his face lit up by a mad grin. He put the cigarettes on the pavement and took my arm. I tried to pull away, but he dragged me towards the door.‘Look,’ he said. He pushed his hand through the glass. I waited to see the surface ripple like water, but nothing happened. Tentatively, I reached out. My hand went into the shop.
‘There’s no glass,’ said the man. ‘They’ve taken it out. Look.’ He walked back into the shop and came out with a box of crisps. ‘They must have done the shop. The till’s been forced and there’s no more spirits. But there’s loads of stuff left. The phone works too. I’ve just been on to Belgium.’I stared at the man, then stepped across the threshold of the shop and picked up the phone. Ten minutes later, I had loaded a friend’s car with beer.
I sit back and wait for the people sitting round me to laugh, but there is absolute silence; after a moment I realise they’re waiting for me to finish. There must be a moral, they’re thinking; that can’t be all there is to it. The story can’t just be about the joy of theft, the magic of the glassless door. They’re waiting for the glass to grow back and trap the hand, and the surface of the world to be whole again. I look at their faces and wonder how long they’ve been staring at me like this. I wonder at what point it began to dawn on them that I don’t belong to their world.‘But why didn’t you call the police?’ one of them says, and everyone shuffles cutlery in support.‘For the crack,’ I say.
‘The crack?’ says a woman who has barely opened her mouth all evening, and I hear from her voice that she is foreign.
‘The hell of it,’ I say. But she is still confused. The man she is with strokes her arm. ‘The fun.’
‘I don’t understand,’ she insists. ‘It is terrible. The crack is like a – what is it in English? – fissure. Like a space, I mean, isn’t it?’ She sounds Italian.
‘Not in this case,’ I say, with everyone’s eyes on my face as I look at Joey. Joey will understand. But he is staring at the table, at his empty plate, flushed with embarrassment. Susan stands up and begins to clear things away. Another woman says: ‘But didn’t you even think about the owner? Didn’t it even occur to you that he might not have been insured? He was almost certainly Asian.’ Her voice is affronted, unimpeachable. Shall I tell her that insurance has never entered my head? Neither then nor later. Surely she realises there is no protection? Perhaps the Italian woman is right. It’s a question of fissures, of spaces opening up, of gaps. I look round the kitchen for comfort and see nothing but cast iron pots, roller blinds, blackboards with winning little messages, a string of garlic beside the window. I see the cat rise and stretch, its claws like scalpels sliding in and out of their smooth pink sheaths
That night, as I walk down the stairs from the bathroom, I see the pincushion in the form of a cat in the alcove of the window. I watch my hand reach out and take it. I continue downstairs and go to bed.
Stealing gives you a different view of the world. You find out there is nothing that can’t be transferred from the hands, or homes, or pockets, of one person into yours. If you steal as a child, you realise how eager people are to believe in innocence – which is nothing so much as precocious guile and worldliness. You see that the world is full of people who refuse to face up to the truth of the matter, that you can’t keep anything for long. Children who steal soon learn that nothing lasts, and that everything must be enjoyed as it passes, fleetingly, through your possession. It’s only later they understand that the joy of theft doesn’t lie solely in getting your hands on what you want, but in depriving someone else of it.
The next morning, I’m half-awake, mildly hung-over, when I remember what Joey said about the cat and realise I forgot to close the door the night before. I stiffen on the mattress, the bedspread pulled across me, every sense straining to detect the presence of the cat, scared that a sudden movement might be enough to make her whip out a claw. She might be sitting beside me, the way cats sit, silently cleaning the fur behind her ears. I listen for the rasp of her tongue.The rest of the house is asleep. Although my eyes are closed I can tell from the blood in my lids that it’s early, soon after dawn. The room has the musty, camphor-like scent of cupboards and stale air, of slightly damp wool. I lie there and as I imagine the cat beside me, I don’t know why, I begin to think of Joey.Joey had another girlfriend once, a French au pair in Cambridge. She was thin, gamine I suppose you’d say, with straight hair and a long upper lip. From a distance they looked like twins. I never knew what her real name was but Joey called her Bibiche. After going out with him for a week or two, she started sitting next to me.
One night, we all got drunk and went back to a friend’s room, where Bibiche and I rolled on the bed together, with Joey slumped in the corner. I don’t remember feeling very much, certainly not affection or desire for Bibiche, not even a trace of guilt for Joey, no sense that she or I might be hurting him; sometimes he seemed to be enjoying it. The next day we walked along Devil’s Dyke and she held my hand and already I wanted to get rid of her. Joey was bounding backwards and forwards, avoiding our eyes, which amused Bibiche, who rubbed herself up against me whenever he came close.It was so obvious to me I was being used that I almost expected sympathy from Joey; at the very least a recognition we’d both been tricked. But what I got was a photocopied sheaf of poems in which Bibiche was celebrated with a skill I could only admire. The last time anyone saw Bibiche she was necking with someone at the Union disco. *
And now I know why Joey came into my head. It must have been about two months later, after term had ended. I’d gone back to Cambridge for a party, and found myself sleeping on Joey’s floor. We never mentioned Bibiche, and I assumed his silence was tacit assent that we’d both been wronged.During the night I woke up. The curtains were open and there was enough light in the room to make out shapes. I lay there for a moment, wondering what had woken me, whether it had been a dream or some movement in the room. Then I saw Joey.He was kneeling beside me, naked, his long hair tucked behind his ears, both hands between his bone-white thighs. His cheeks glistened in the moonlight. He was rocking slightly, his eyes closed, as though in a trance, some deep dream state.
Now, as I lie here, I think of Joey and imagine the cat, its paw lifting neatly towards my face. I open my eyes as quickly as I can, to surprise it. But there’s nothing, no one – I know I’m safe.
When I get to the kitchen Joey is washing up. He’s opened the windows to clear the air of smoke and the room is cold. I wonder if he’ll say anything about last night, but of course he doesn’t. He stacks up plates, scraping the waste food into a bin which will later be taken somewhere and given to animals, I imagine, from the care devoted to it. I imagine them carefully sorting their refuse into categories, paper here, plastic there, bottles arranged by the colour of their glass. As I sit in the cold and still disordered kitchen, I’m enthralled by the web of commitment that seems to sustain it all. The absence of supermarket packaging, the dangling bundles of herbs from the cooker hood.
I’m waiting for him to finish, so that I can ask him about last night, something vague I might be able to use as a tool to prise the truth out of him, when Susan comes in. She’s wrapped in a kind of kimono, which opens to show the well-worn flannelette of pyjamas. She looks flustered.‘Have you seen my cat?’‘Sorrel?’ says Joey, wiping his hands on a tea towel. ‘She was in the garden a few moments ago.’
‘Not Sorrel,’ says Susan. ‘My cat. My cloth cat. The cat on the stairs.’
I stare at her, her monosyllabic insistence.
‘You sound like a primer,’ I say. ‘If you work a few verbs in later, you’ve got a winner.’
‘Have you seen her, Simon?’ she says, turning towards me, pleading, and I see that she is close to tears.
I glance at Joey, who stares back at me.
‘The one I showed you yesterday,’ he says. ‘The one filled with herbs.’
‘Maybe Sorrel’s got it,’ I say. ‘Sorrel’s a sort of herb. Like attracts like, after all.’
After some coffee I go to pack, checking the cat is hidden inside a pair of socks. I’m slightly worried she might want to go through my luggage.
I phone a few days later. Susan answers after the second ring. I try to remember where the phone is in their house, then suddenly think, of course, it’s on the landing. She must have been standing on the landing, thinking about her cat.‘Well,’ she says thoughtfully, when I tell her who it is. ‘I expect you’d like to speak to Joey.’‘Yes,’ I say, although I’d have been happy to chat with Susan for a while, to get my bearings. I hear her shout, and I have a vision of her looking up and of Joey in the bedroom, asleep and dreaming. I look at my watch and see to my surprise that it is after midnight. She must have been standing by the window, trying to see through the mirror of the glass into the garden. Or perhaps she was looking at herself.
And now, waiting for Joey, I begin to wonder why I called. I wanted the conversation to take me somewhere new, but it seems that I shall have to be responsible for what is said, that it is my call, also in the sense that it would have if I were playing cards. Maybe I should up the stakes. When Joey comes to the phone, I say: ‘How are things?’
‘How’s Sorrel?’ I ask. There is a silence and once again I’m aware that he doesn’t want to be angry with me. He wants to like me, he wants me to be like him. He wants to be able to forgive what he sees through the crack that has opened up, or to close it. That’s what he wants.
But, of course, I have no idea what he wants.
‘Have you found Susan’s cat?’ I ask him, challenging him to tell me I’m suspected.
‘She’s still upset about it,’ he says. ‘She can’t understand what happened. She says she feels violated.’
‘Does she suspect anyone?’
‘Not really,’ he says, and I believe him. ‘Everyone knows how much it meant to her. Sometimes I think she blames me.’
It’s unexpectedly gratifying to hear Joey talk about Susan like this, as though she might be wrong. His normal instinct, aggravated by sentiment, is to protect his partner at all costs. I feel flattered. This is how it should have been with Bibiche.
‘All we seem to do these days is argue,’ he says, and I see their house dissolve, like something in a dream in which disaster and consequence meet. I lift the padded cat to my nose and sniff, and there is the scent, not entirely pleasant, of some dried herb. If I had a book of herbs I would seek out which it is, perhaps choose one by its name: something with ‘bane’ in the word, a plant that protects against pain only in the smallest doses and that is otherwise a poison. I should like to think it was rue, but I remember searching in the dictionary once and seeing that rue was a herb of virtue, what Ophelia called Herbe-Grace.
By Charles Lambert