Lydia Unsworth is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres (Knives Forks & Spoons, 2018) and Nostalgia for Bodies (Winner 2018 Erbacce Poetry Prize). She has two chapbooks forthcoming in 2019 from above / ground press and Ghost City Press. Recent work can be found in Ambit, Litro, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, Ink Sweat and Tears, and others. Based in Manchester / Amsterdam. Twitter@lydiowanie
Until Our Faces Are Ground
Week commencing April 1st
The weather report says it is going to be a clear day: Albert Crow remains largely indifferent to such announcements. Weather reports are not aimed at the likes of him; he not being the sort of person who picnics. He is 38 years old and still suckling on his mother's teat; it has been a fine day in her left breast since late 1973. As for that other great orb, ye olde solaris solaris, I can't say he knows too much about it.
The weather report goes on to break the day up into a series of two-hour periods. Oh, that weather could be so simple; that life, so rigid. Albert Crow sits close to the screen so as to further expound his escapism. The weather breaks up into blue, red, and green: the grass, the sky, and everything hateful in between. Arrows of cold pressure point Albert in all directions. Albert moves closer and closes his eyes.
It is going to be a fine day; dry and bright in the north in the morning, the rest of the country cloudier with showers. Isolated showers developing in the south later. Some of the showers in the north becoming heavier with a rumble of thunder at times. The day is going to be all this, yet not for Albert. For Albert the day is likely to be small and empty. No thunder, no showers, no brightness, no breeze.
Albert Crow is sitting less than four inches away from the front of the screen. His mouth hangs ajar and he genuflects with real composure. It is hard to judge if he takes any meaning from the words marching radially out of the two inbuilt speakers, or if they, like the shape of the Great British Isles and all that is meteorological upon them, are broken down into their component parts, to become mere tones and scales and silence. Albert Crow awoke at 07:45 today, washed, got dressed, and did this.
It is 10:39 when the telephone rings. Albert has pissed in his trousers (an isolated shower in the south). Rising from his trance, he reaches toward the sound. Shuffles and leaks his way across a floral carpet, marking his scent by fertilising all of the little fading posies, towards the morning's surprise. He lifts the receiver, answering the call with a low-frequency purging of the throat, a mass emigration of all that was viscous in the bronchi, and, at what was soon to become the crux of this exertion, lunges himself faceward into the corner of the tabletop. Albert, spread out on the floor, manages a regional variation of the word 'hello' to which he is rewarded with an appropriate reply.
Answering the telephone led to nothing. As ever, it took Albert along a wild goose chase towards another revolutionary dead-end. There is nothing new under the sun and often we don't even know the half of it. Gas, he asked about, that dislocated voice at the other end of the line, breathing in and out and making calls from some parallel room in a congruent city of similar, if not equal, dimensions. Albert had responded with a few good-natured questions about the very essence of the substance only to be met with a cold and hostile environment; unequal to his needs, unsympathetic to his mind.
Albert is 38 years old or less or more, his hair is thin or thick, his eyes are dark or blue or hazel. Albert lies spine-deep in shag and his mother could be yours or mine. He is a creature built of the same principles we all are; he is chemistry and all that, without a doubt, without need of a catalyst to prove it. And perhaps that's the trouble, for Albert cannot make his bones move, not in the true sense of the matter; he is lacking some vital thing.
Poor Albert! We pity him as he lies damp with his own piss, and scratches. 'Poor Albert!' we cry, we great ambassadors of the future. We know the score, Albert. We, who ride our high horses along old Roman roads and cannot measure an inch without conversion chart and plastic ruler. We, descended straight out of the Dark Ages and evolved only just enough to be sure you are doing it wrong. We pity you with our accumulative sighs, and you feel it, you feel larger and heavier because of the weight of our condescension: it is difficult to breathe down there. You lie, Albert, beneath the grand total of our amassed posteriors. We know what's best. Now, be quiet, sweet cushion of our fragile morale.
Albert slides about in his trousers: it's a start. It is incredible that Albert's atoms should have ever had the wherewithal to come together, or rather, it is incredible that so much molecular activity should result in only this. Albert slides out of his trousers and tries to creep away from the looming memory of life, if that is what this is.
And there we leave him. It wasn't much of an introduction but, to be fair, what ever is? Albert wasn't to know we were coming, and anyway, I'd much prefer he pisses on us at the beginning as opposed to half way in. At least, this way, we know he isn't hiding anything. And at least, this way, we can hope to persuade ourselves we haven't judged him: we'll stick around, we're liberal and selfless; we want to help him... Oh Albert, you might be a disgrace but you're still human. Etc., etc.
Yes, we'll stick around. Dear Albert needs us, lying on the carpet expecting the sun to go from left to right, the clock to tick, the clouds to collect and hover. I pass him some tissues to mop the urine from his crotch. He moves little but often, then stands and positions his body in such a way as to suggest he is taking steps to go and dry his things.
Week commencing April 8th
After careful reflection, I believe I left the house not more than four times last year. I can by no means quantify the validity of this statement, I can simply state that there are only four times I can be definitively certain of my having exited the building. These were as follows; when I eventually answered the pleas of my mother by agreeing, after a hiatus of ten months or so, to pay her a visit; the week my cleaner was sick and I took the rubbish outside; my birthday; the day I registered at the job centre. Beyond this, I cannot be sure of anything much; a few phone calls, a few meals. Three of the four dates mentioned above are certain because I have either verbal or written evidence of their execution. And the fourth, because I find it hard to believe I wouldn't go outside on my birthday to see if anything had changed. Beyond this, it becomes more difficult; the less I move, the less I can be sure if I am or am not moving; and the less I eat, the less I can be sure how much I do or do not weigh. The net result is that my dreams come more and more in line with my waking life. The fantasies of the day commingle with the imaginings of night. Flying across cloudscapes with land-legs feels no less solid than a simple walk to the kitchen; and press as I might I can no longer make much impact on the ground, or on any kind of physical matter, dead or alive. I pinch myself but feel nothing, even at times when convinced I am awake. I ask the cleaner if this is me, if I am breathing, but sometimes she appears on her days off, wearing all manner of hats, so I am not sure if trusting her would not be a mistake. I remember vividly the day of the cleaner's absence; I did notice; awake or asleep, I did sense a gap in familiarity, an unknown sensation akin to opening your eyes in a black room and feeling like you haven't. As in, I opened the door to the cleaner and it felt like she didn't. It was a strange day, that small hole left me questioning many things. Beyond these four days, I have little to nothing. Even my diary entries may be based on dreamings, and who knows if I was actually awake when I believed myself writing all the real things down? I am left with nothing bar the passage of time, which is at any rate circular. Thus, I am left with little more than the lines on my face to account for the presence of history. The cleaner comes and soon goes again, the house it cleans and dirties, the mother waxes and wanes. It is only the forms sent from the job centre that seem to grow progressively longer, and the shadows that frame my mother's face. I am not sure if I have ever looked at the cleaner directly, therefore I could not say if she has aged. I can tell by the sound of her voice that she is female, and by her resonating joyfulness that she is either stupid or young of age. What else? She smells like the world, of adrenaline and annihilation; the smell hangs around in the folds of the curtains for days. My mother's face looks so much like my own that I often forget which way round we are and, sometimes, mid-conversation, I will become convinced she is my own reflection and abruptly kill the flow of speech. I think the only face I could describe is mine and hers: a kind of disappointed glow with sense organs. I am awake now, or so I believe. I draw on my hand with the pen. I write the word 'awake'. I am looking for continuity. I have written the word awake underneath the word awake underneath a continuum of gradually fading awakenings. It is not a method I can say is working, although it does show that I occasionally think the same thing, which in turn proves I am consistent; which is something, at least. It is hard to determine what else there should be, if I should leave the house more (perhaps I do); what, if anything, I am missing. Perhaps I should ask the cleaner out with me. Perhaps I should pay her to take me somewhere, to line the world with me. I will look at her face if I am awake when she returns, if I remember. I will stand so close that the features break down into red, blue and green. My cleaner, yes! I'll ask her what she does outside, what she sees, if the weather really is as remarkable as they make out on the TV screen. What is the name of my cleaner? I do not believe I have ever asked her. More to the point; what is the name of my mother? Mrs Crow? There has to be more than that. There must be more than this, Dear Diary. There must be more but I believe I have forgotten. I must have known for I am alive. I must go and look. I must go outside.
And, with that, he goes. Albert thrusts the door open wide and launches himself out onto the estate's tarmacked pavement. We don't follow him there. Instead, we see the door fall closed behind him, his naked body expanding in the sunshine and his lungs filling up with air. The door clicks shut. We fade out. This empty corridor is not our place.
Week commencing April 15th
I was not ready. I should have guessed I would step out into the world unprepared. Not ten steps had I taken before the sirens in my head were wailing. Not ten steps before the screams began and all of humanity scattered off in myriad directions. I bounded out into the unstale air and the cloud-lined walkways. Dampness hit me like a glorious dishcloth, whipping and whipping, gently scolding for my being so long away. And I ran into that moisture. I ran, having quite forgotten my legs could do that. I ran through the concrete coagulation, seeking insects, life, anything. I ran and the whole world chased me. On it came, with its masks and its truncheons. And in I went, into the latter half of a strong metal van, with my disappointment and my fleeting snatch at real life already only half remembered. But what for? What for? Where did I hope it would take me? I saw the end of the cul-de-sac; I saw what these days passes for the horizon (a line of houses, bricks, a low wall); I saw faces (such shocked faces); I saw the world, but it doesn't last; nought spectacular is given to us in more than fragments. And the van and the dark and the rooms which followed. The words and the questions and my coughing up answers. None of that belongs to the world that I dream of. The world that I dream of isn't meant to be lived in/doesn't work in practice (I never dreamt up the particulars), because out there, out in that heavily-populated confusion, you cannot put a foot wrong without it being clamped in seconds, without it being recorded and logged and ID-ed and checked against a back-catalogue of similar offenders. I forgot my clothes! Well, who knew? I could have been forgiven in my expectation that earlier that same morning my good cleaner might have told me. If she came. To be honest, I don't often notice if she is in the house or not; only that a cup might have been moved, a saucer cleaned, a box of tissues refilled to the point of heaving. Was she there? Was I naked all the morning? And what about the day prior? It is easy to make mistakes when there is nobody to check you; it is easy to slip up when the only standards set are your own (and your own nature so forgiving). Perhaps I should mention it to her, not to berate her for the omission, simply to add it to her list of duties: should the need arise. Still, this is an improvement on last year, my pathetic little triumphs are stretching far and wide. I've been out of the house countless times already; what with the competing demands of my mother and the employment bureau, one might think I was almost worthwhile.
Albert rubs his eye as he turns it and the other to face the breezy elm beside the window. Admiringly, he watches the leaves cling; he sees each leaf as a person and each bough as the bitter circumstances of life. He watches the leaves cling and absorb sunlight and shake and become calm with the wind. Albert blinks and rubs his eye. A cloud passes and the green dulls. Albert's present mood is entirely synchronised to the intensity of that green. He goes on looking, willing the clouds to break and grow apart.
A clatter of metal. A piece of paper dropping from letter box to floor. Albert stoops to pick it up. 'You crazy bastard' it says to Albert. I discern no reaction on Albert's face. It is some time until he moves again, at which juncture he retreats to the writing table in the living room and scrawls a reply; 'It's not like that', he writes, and posts it back through the letterbox to the world outside.
Nights and days. Albert hardly moves except to perform functional duties. His eyelids rise and fall with the sun; his chest swells and collapses like a breaking wave. The cleaner vacuums her way around his awkward body; his history can be charted in the carpet's shades. Albert's past circumferences fill the rooms; dusty shadows of scenes already played. The cleaner comes and soon goes again. Albert groans but does not ask her name. Days and nights; it's all the same.
The telephone rings and rings off. Albert does not answer. I move into a better position (right before his eyes); I am upon his iris, which is in turn upon the deep red carpet; still nothing, a faint burp, lashes flicker. This is Albert; this is the bulk of what we have, most of the time. I kick him, we all do, eager and standing in line. We kick until his apathy tires even the best of us, we who are so free-thinking and open-minded. '...those who help themselves'. Albert doesn't give us much (neither self-development nor entertainment), but we do feel a warm buzz inside, a quickness of the heart, of our step. We've certainly never kicked like that before! “Good Lord! Did you feel his skin shudder?” “We really made an impact there, didn't we?” We find ourselves elated, ashamed and yet rejoicing (down our shirtsleeves, behind our coattails), his destitude leaves us positively defined: “It's not all that bad, when you put it into context” “The redundancy package was alright, wasn't it darling?” “There'll be plenty more others like him. You deserve better, you're really something, you know; special.” “Chin up, it's nearly Friday.” “Of course! Of course we can go and celebrate. Anything, anything you like, just get me out of here, please. Farther, farther...”
Albert is on his patch of ground, looking peaceful. His pale skin, bent fingers, red knuckles; his thin eyelids, grey lips, watery smile; all of this goes in to making Albert. This great machine is ticking over and only a murmur escapes from inside.
Week commencing April 22nd
I often do not know where I am when I wake. Most mornings the sensation passes after a few blinks and shakes of the head, but on some, like this morning, it takes a whole hour or more to convince myself the room I appear to be in is stable enough to go on living. I open my eyes and my first thought 'where am I?' seems to pervade deep into ancient chasms of myself and resonate off the hollow walls therein. 'How are you?' follows next; there is a voice that asks and a voice that answers. All of this I hear without intervening, without finding a place for myself inside the discussion. Which leads me to repeat the initial query; 'where am I?' Where am I if I do not feel a part of this dialogue? To whom do I belong if I am not master of my own mind? Whose is that voice answering so self-assuredly that they are scared or they are fine? I do not know where I am when I wake, and the newly turned-on brain that is clothed in my bones does not consult me before it expresses its opinion. I hear that I am fine and I doubt it; there is terror in witnessing the tones of that reply. I sink down; each of my organs and extremities folding tightly back into earlier shapes of safer proteins; I sink metres and metres inside a body only centimetres wide. And there I am, two eyes inside a world of skin, hearing, from so far in the distance, that I am fine. I have toyed with the idea that these voices are truth, that they form the basis of a more natural state of living, and that all my concerns atop these dialogues are but superficial worries drained into me via external materials, surface deep, which will flake away over the course of the next few days. I wash my body; I stand under running water and try to account for each part of my design. My tongue is two metres thick, it does not fit into my mouth and yet I feel space in there all around it. My teeth are an unimaginable distance on either side from the outer edges of my tongue; rivers of saliva rush through the vast swathes of space in between. My arm is raised high in the air and yet I see it hanging limp before me, I try to bring it down in line with the visible world but it remains towering above. My feet are caught fast at the bottom of an ocean; I stare hard at the two pillars rising from them to me, feeling that I never was down there and knowing I can never again reach them. I cannot breathe up here; my eyes are so far away from my nose and my tongue is my largest organ. I do not know what I am doing. I do not know where I am. I do not know by what authority I tell myself I am fine. I do not know if it is me who asks or me who answers. Am I the guardian of my body or is it the other way around? I challenge it but it always wins. We are all slaves in here. I feed it but it takes me nowhere interesting. I sell myself to its demands but it gives me nothing in return. This is more than not knowing where I am; I do not know what I am made of. I wake up into such emptiness so as all things lose their meaning; it takes some time to re-establish all those connections, to become re-convinced of everything, to remember definitions, to put the calendar back in its right place on a wall I did not build. I wake up and check where the moon is, listen for aeroplanes, take note of the forecasted weather. I cannot accept that all this exists, or that they make it sound so simple. Yet, let my body eat if it must, let it wake me and I'll close my eyes when it requires. Who am I to disagree with such forces? I am scarcely a thing compared to all of this. And when I do manage to reposition myself, after each of these outbursts, it is not relief that I feel but an overwhelming disappointment. I do not feel glad to be grounded, rather, trapped to each surface I touch as to each sound that I hear, as if my entire essence were only Velcro being moved along. Perhaps that is the one way to tell if I am awake or asleep; I rarely suffer such disappointment in dreams. Surrealism and disappointment are perhaps the only two states I perceive. Today holds nothing for me, I expect. Now that I've found myself again I can be pretty certain there is nothing coming next. As I write this, gravitational forces go to work on dust that collects. What I wouldn't give to be a little stronger, to get bigger and bigger like a ball of dust or a brave new planet. Instead, area-wise, I have already reached my fullest and all that now remains is to stick hard to some rough surface and be gradually swept away.
Week commencing April 29th
Away with your seasons! Be gone with the warmth and the heat and the drones and the buzzing that creep up and in from under my door! Where is my cleaner? Sweet cleaner, ever pampering my corners. It is morning I think, and there's rain in the world. It is that time of the year when everything that is not me is changing...
A key turns. Albert shifts. His pen jolts between his fingers and he writes the word 'changing' with a certain fitting discontinuity. Albert's heart beats less slowly, if it does not quicken. A door flapping and a flat-footed tap tap tap across linoleum. The short, heavy breaths of inner fog and acclimatisation. Albert stands, drops, stands, holds on and makes his way downstairs.
He's not dressed for this but there she is. She's all wide-eyed and desperate silence and he's all shoulder-blades, patchy chest hair, and off-brown underpants, loose at the rear. There's eye-contact, it's something. Albert might or might not be sporting a minor erection and her peripheral vision may or may not be finely attuned to perceiving or ignoring such things. The silence continues as silence does, marching onward, booming and expanding in ear drums until the steady throb becomes the size of a whole brain, which in turn is really the size of any man's entire world if he thinks about it. Silence fills the hearts and minds of these two creatures and their two two-eyes meet; two solitary objects looking at one another. Two eyes look at one eye, two eyes look at one eye. If the eyes miss, if a pair looks at the wrong one at the wrong moment, these four eyes are done for. She puts down her bags, takes off her coat. The eyes don't move. The head remains steady as a fledging chick in a tight hand as the body works around it.
Good morning, Albert. You should get dressed.
I certainly have looked at my cleaner. How long has she been mine? How long have I had this presence in my house, around my scattered objects? She comes in from the world outside and brings in with her the air, the noise, protective layers. Layers which dropped off her before my eyes. The world on my floor, scattered as my own life. Hers. I cannot remember the last time I had a woman, felt one against the side of my body: did it happen or was that late night television? I have images, of legs, calves, flesh in waves. I see a curved back rising, perforated by spinal rings, two strong plates holding arms stretching out into some side-lit morning. Was that mine? Had I been wrapped around it? Long groomed hair washing over me. Or was I merely up against the glass again, clutching my manhood and salivating? I do not clean up after myself and so it is hard to write here of my effluence. Sweet cleaner probably knows more of what comes out of the inside of my body than I do, hears me screaming in the afternoons from a structureless place wrapped in strings of cotton and other fibres, moans vibrating the springs that support me. My pores opening, washing quilts from the underside, rinsing my dreams. A small boat the shape of my body and crescendos of panic in a marine world too cold to dip my torso. And I am without gills, salt crystallises upon my skin, marking me with crosses that deny me rather than promote me as treasure. I have seen her face in the doorway at these moments, when my skull comes out from beneath the waves. She doesn't make a move toward me or look up, simply brandishes a bottle of product and an old rag and begins wiping surfaces only vaguely connected to me. The cleaner. And my head returns to its comfortable darkness, and I wail until the surfaces shine, reflecting her efficient emptiness. Last night I dreamt I was married to the first girl I ever kissed (or the face that I connect with the first memory I have of maybe having ever done so), a kind of inevitability preceding choice, hope and endeavour. Life's easiness, things belonging in the first place that fits. I fell walking up the aisle and the girl ran away and I was grateful. The priest helped me up and I ran too, kicked off my shoes. I ran until I reached the coast; the sea was green, rocks out in the water covered in snow, yet the sun beat down. I took the coastal trail into whatever town I had ran upon; market stalls selling posters; damp socks; a total eclipse. The cleaner doesn't make a move towards me, but sprays her gaseous particles, wipes me down, washes me away.
Week commencing May 6th
I have walked through his house again and this time found him wrapped around the toilet leg with blood on his lower lip, fingernails, forearms and knees. I have lifted him up to the best of my ability and carry-dragged him to the hallway where I have arranged some clean bedding about his person. I have cleaned in the toilet and around its immediates and after tea and biscuit returned him to his resting place.
I do not know what to make of this gentleman. He looks to be in his early twenties if you catch him at the right angle, but I sense of a greater volume of age. He carries his eyes like a bulky item. His naked body is also somehow curious, paler than purity and with bones sticking out at all sorts of odd places. I want to poke my fingers into his skin it is so nearly translucent; but I imagine if I did, they would come out grey.
I like it best when he is sleeping. Fitful tiny breaths pop out between calmer ones, catch themselves, pull their ends back in. And the chest rises, both sides of the rib cage moving out and together, like the whole thing should be clapping. I don't like the blood, I do not clean it because I want him to remember. I do not want him to think of me as having cleaned it. I am not that good.
I clean many substances that I have not and would not clean in other houses. I like it here. There is autonomy in the fact he doesn't remember. There is autonomy in his lying on the ground as if he were not here. I have washed his body around the blood. I have bleached the red wine stains from the carpet but left the red of the friction burns in place. We do not speak so much, he and I, but I look at him and he looks at me and I think we both wonder what is inside.
In the other houses, my work is assessed and I am paid on time. Managers send cleaners around to check on my cleaning. I am awarded progress reports and my hands are shaken by retired cleaners. Families check my checked apron but do not check my eyes.
There are human beings who can see every movement another human being makes, can rate it for efficiency, effectiveness, appearance, hygiene, durability, but ask them how that other human being is feeling today, ask them to guess what mood it is in, and they will rapidly fall apart at the seams only to zip themselves back up just as rapidly, safely tucked away behind a two-way-one-way mirror and a flat-touch-screen-plasma-LCD-computer-thing.
I am happy here with Albert. Sometimes I pretend we are talking. I drink tea on my breaks, which he allows me because he is sleeping, and I tell him everything I know about me. He likes it because he doesn't make it stop and even when the brain is sleeping or it hates itself it still knows to turn down music or to skip songs that displease it or to stop the incessant fucking screeching squealing of that forever boiling kettle. I have a lot of time for the brain, even (especially?) this one, as it has a lot of time for me.
If he is awake when I arrive, we stand at one corner of the hallway each and we look at each other.
I will not take the blood from him or leave him anywhere other than where I find him, but I have tidied his house and I have placed on him fresh sheets. This is my duty. I have asked him if he is okay. What I did do was condition his hair; I used a jug and water and knelt over where he lay. The bathroom floor became wet again, so I dried the bathroom floor and the jug and his hair and dried the newly wet towel and put the jug away. It is always late when I leave here. I take pride in all the things I do.
I take my cardigan and my coat and my umbrella. I slip my socks and my feet into shoes that I fasten That's all there is to it; the door locks itself. Another day's work is behind me getting smaller, as the heels of my shoes quicken up to a gallop, the heels too getting smaller the more they try to do, the evening too getting smaller as I am launched into it, there is less and less in front of me as the distance recedes from view.
Week commencing May 13th
My coat is dropped on the floor. I kick off my shoes and pick up a range of envelopes from the mat. I take these envelopes and I place them on top of the growing pile of envelopes that Albert has never opened. Sometimes, after we have finished standing in the corridor, I walk him to the pile of envelopes and raise his hand toward them. I do this by placing one hand under one of his elbows, and the other hand half way along the underside of that same arm's forearm, in this way guiding the limp arm to the object of interest.
He runs his fingers across the top surface of the paper. He moves his thumb away from and towards his hand's four fingers. I slot an envelope into this space, its thinness falls to the ground. I touch his elbow. I bend. I return the envelope to the pile. I tell him these are his letters, people are trying to convey messages to him. He is standing with his neck bent forward, glance fixed on the coat-stand. I move my hand from his elbow. I leave my hand in the air, very close to his elbow. I open my mouth to speak. I close my mouth. He opens his mouth and it keeps opening, moves unmoves his eyes.
I come from a long line of cleaners. All of the mothers on my mothers side before my own mother were active advocates of this trade. They fought for better mops, stronger brushes, rallied against the cholera epidemic. They wrote letters to officials, to the heads of various innovative projects in foreign countries, swapping tips, demanding rights; securing bonuses, prestige, in-soles. One of my mother's mothers featured on a limited edition five pence coin, old rag on her head, dustpan in hand raised high like a sword with all the filth of the country kneeling before it. My grandmothers cleaned the floors of parliaments, ammunition factories, pawn shops, town squares, the decks of sailing ships, the foyers of museums. My grandmothers moved in when the lights went down; single file, unlocked doors, one strong handed gesture guiding them through: Go, Go!
And the brushes got their bristles bent, the mops stopped retaining moisture. The rags fell off the cleaners' bright straight hair, knots undoing, corners losing their elaboration, material better spent squeezing a bit of water out, wiping down a surface, rounding up dust, than keeping that functional hair up and out of the way.
Cleaning tools became more sophisticated, my mothers lost the bulge to their forearms. The hoover, the dishwasher. The rose-tint to all their cheeks fell away. The strong walks between districts, up and down flights of stairs, carrying their wares, became minibuses driven by trained feet, became Rent-a-Utensil please sign here this property is not yours should you break it the equivalent value will be deducted from your next pay packet. Twelve hour days of real hard work turned into six hour days of signing papers every time they implemented a position change and being designated the same routine task every fifteen minutes again and again.
One cleaner per toilet cubicle, standing outside like a guard collecting pennies. Hand out, close palm, thrust in pocket, wait a minute, raise mop, in-out, forward-back, grab cloth, wipe around, straighten back, sign name, eyes forward, arm out, open hand.
I am the last in a long line of cleaners. I work at this (Albert's) house and several others. I throw my coat on the floor when I get here as a matter of principle, I will clean up his mess but not my own. I do not wipe my shoes down on the mat because then I would have to clean Albert's fallen envelopes. Instead, I kick my shoes off at the threshold and lay them on their sides.
Where is he? I have done a fine job of cleaning the hallway and I did not hear him retreat. Rain is banging on all the doors and windows, the sky is orange-green. Most of Albert's letters are typed, a few are hand-written, they are one fifth manilla and the rest are white. Sixty-five percent long rectangle, thirty-five percent fat rectangle. The front door has a stained glass section which distorts the street slightly. I look through a transparent section to be sure of myself: still orange-green.
There is warmth in here, the sound of dryness where rain isn't. I sit in the hallway and play with my hair. Albert's shoes are lined up in pairs along the wall. I turn one over; the heels are not scuffed, laces not frayed. Laughter reaches me from up the staircase, and so he is located. My hair is long, I let it drop down over my face. I lift my head and shake it, quick little motions, until my nose comes through and the rest follows suit. I repeat this action until it is perfect then I unmatch some of the lined up pairs of shoes.
I scrub most of the objects; items that do not usually glisten, glisten. I place his disorder in firm piles of near-equal height and stature. I arrange things chronologically, by size, according to ripeness. Damp things I try to leave in places he might stumble over them. I wash his underwear.
I work at several other houses. When I am tired I sleep a little on the floor here, often right where I am in the hallway, in the places where he is not. His laughter is descending the staircase. The sound of rain.
Week commencing May 20th
I lift the cushions of the chairs and sofa and dig my arm right down into the crevices. I bring out lots of little things; food waste, coins, pieces of written-on paper, a torn photograph, knives, spoons, woollen items. I make a pile of them by the fireplace. I take one of the local services flyers with a clear white back from the hallway and fold it in two. I write, 'these are some of your things albert', and put it on the fireplace by the pile.
Everything is more or less tidy. He must not have moved far yesterday. Some days I do not think he moves at all. His movements are easy to track due to his banging into furniture, dropping things he might be carrying, shedding his clothes, biting his nails, pulling out his hair. I like to trace his movements; imagining. Although I am rarely sure which way he was facing or from where he began, I usually take off from wherever I left him on the visit prior and work my way round from there. I step in his steps, I breathe in his air, tidying as I go.
Accumulations become piles, piles become towers, towers become conurbations. Drawers are filled and slammed shut. Cutlery is placed in segmented trays. Vomit is scooped up and wiped down and smudged all away. I pick up his clothes, I hang them, fold them. A shirt is unbuttoned, spread out on the floor with sleeves wide apart. It appears to have been blown in the wind on a fine summer's day in a wonderful garden where the leaves and the robins have fluttered and vanished leaving only this pale shirt to remain.
I put it on. The sleeves are too long but I like the way they hang over my hand ends and fingers. I like that the cuffs are fastened, and I poke my fingers through all scrunched together like the mouth of a duck. I fasten up the buttons and raise the collar. My cheeks press against the hard weave inside fabric. I boil the kettle and stand there in the middle of the kitchen. The walls are so far from me, all the same distance. I am wearing his shirt and standing in his kitchen. Peripheral noises add up to complete silence. I extend my arms.
The kettle boils and I unbutton the shirt. Up and on top of the pile of how clothes should be displayed. I flick on the television and stare at its pictures while my hands are absorbing all the heat of new tea.
It is not that I don't like the other houses I work in, but I am not sure the families respect me. They don't need me, they just choose to have me, whereas Albert doesn't seem capable of choosing a thing. If the others stared at me with his vacant eyes or curious inapprehension, we might be on to something, but I am fairly certain they wouldn't recognise me if I was standing close enough to ram two forks down through both their eyes. Yet here, there's something about his absence that frees me: I work alone, to my own private schedule, unwatched, or so at least is my output.
There are no working clocks in this house, or none wound to the correct time. I do not wind them, much as someone else in my position may. The only scent of time once I am through that door is an alarm in my pocket that will occasionally go off to tell me there is somewhere else I had soon better be.
The air sucks once the front door closes; it is thick in here, and I feel the door splat back into its frame like wet plastic. I wade through the rooms, the corridors; everything is thick and wet and sensitive to my perception. I kick off my shoes and the mat tingles against my thin socks; the carpet brushes, the walls rub, the wooden knob of the banister is a cold crystal ball the same size as my palm which slides all over it. Picture frames are here and there on the walls, on the shelves, the pictures inside of gorgeous shining people mid-laugh, mid-kiss, mid-summer, mid-family, all black-and-white and the mid-range price tags in the corners of the images in the frames. He doesn't know these people. I wonder who put the frames up and if they brought Albert's hand towards them with their hand tucked around his elbow bone and if they explained.
I am so beautifully free in here, all my mothers are twenty four years old and will go on forever. I drink tea and press buttons and soak up the channel changes. I pick up foodstuffs and throw away small pieces of invisible plastic. He is groaning upstairs and it sounds perfect to me. I will record these hours on my timesheet at the end of the week. I am wearing a pair of Albert's slippers and in the middle of them my feet are on top of his table.
Week commencing May 27th
I am upset and he knows it. I have been sacked from one of the houses I clean for, due to shoddy time-keeping, and now my parents are giving me no end of berating about responsibility, work-ethic, and my role within the distant past and the endless future. Albert is standing on the bottom step just looking at me, and I am just looking back at him but this time my eyes are fired and angry and certain.
Albert sits down on the step and he opens his mouth to speak but then he doesn't. He is wearing only a pair of brown shorts and two socks. He puts the palms of his hands onto the tops of his knees, then, after a moment, rises and makes his way back up the stairs.
I storm about the house cleaning all the pans a little quicker, placing them down a little heavier. It is fine and everything is put back in its right place, and in the right state of cleanliness, but then I am tired and retreat to the couch. I do fall asleep there I guess. There is the sense of the hours being squashed together barely beyond the underside of my head, piling up one against the last, becoming smaller smaller and more together-made. And in this fog of compacted time I wake. Albert is sitting on the couch beside me, or rather at the farthest end. I have not looked at him yet.
He does not look at me. We both sit facing relatively forward like tiny adjacent beings, inconsequential and immeasurably geometrical. We are breathing in and out, first one way then the next. I turn on the TV.
Albert slides a route to the kitchen and I think about all the time he was sitting there. I don't know how many words we have exchanged, all of them mere formalities. I don't retain any Albert-specific memories, he is little more than a presence to me. A presence I do seem to be fond of. Somehow. He comes and he goes, driftwood clattering against rocks and whalebone on the open ocean. Wordlessly, effortlessly, splattering and dying; waves peel off layers that spill out as piss and vomit as he becomes filled with the drying salt of the sea. A presence I do seem to be fond of. Voices pour out of speakers, minor crashes from the direction of the kitchen, wind rocks around the houses, I am once more asleep.
Albert all over my dreams.
It is not that there is nothing else, but I am here now in this centre. My existence, as you will see, is in this house. I have a name, but it is not, at this stage, important. I sleep eight hours a day (or night), and I come here. There is little else worthy of note between. Did I ever dream of becoming a cleaner? My dreams never did make sense, all low-down dirty planets on the horizon and a grand bed in the forest, a camera without film, until it turned out later that that sort of thing didn't interpret to anything.
Albert all over my dreams, doing little, saying nothing. A presence. Breaths in the foreground. I always believed in being a twin one day.
So this is all you have to work with, I am afraid. Ask me anything.
Ask me anything.
It is simply that I want another hand in my hand I imagine.
Or I want these walls, that sense of purpose, money resting in my account, accumulating pennies, time banging on wrecking the hours, scourers grinding back and forth, working up a sweat, opening windows, eternal countdown, daylight hours, bodies brushing past me, really brushing, a rising friction like scraping hard stains off counter-tops.
I awake and one of Albert's hands is in my hair.
A feeling then. The removal of some barrier. A quick slip into something that is other than what it was. Hardly noticeable. Just a hand on a head and the subtle movements of three or four fingers. I am still and my eyes are closed. All parts of my consciousness have clubbed together and relocated to the tufts of my scalp, to each of the points where finger touches self. All parts of awareness are heightened and the body is red hot throughout. Fear and sickness run up my tubes. Dry mouth and eyelids never closed tighter. Small breaths to hide bigger more natural breaths underneath. Awake sweat on top of dream sweat. Just a hand that probably doesn't even have any feelings. The hand of a man trying to stabilise himself as he teeters throughout his objects. Contact and immeasurable distance. The diameters of planets. Out of range. There is only heat and fear and Albert's handy pinpricks on some tender skull above me. All is not lost yet but I know all is lost now. Premonitions of past events repeated. Fear and heat.
Week commencing June 3rd
I am racked up teetering like a stack of rusting pennies against the dullest wall of my smallest room. She'll be here soon and I have once again failed to become a better person. The sky is sending unusually hot messages towards me, or I am nervous, and I have taken off all of my clothes and sweated my surface area upon the grey-green paint of this red-grey wall. I see a drop of blood on the page. I have drawn an outline around it. I wonder. It must be mine, and so I must have been doing the banging again. I cannot take any more skin off. This heat. She's going to come upstairs soon, I know it. I have done something. A change? Something last week. I don't know, but something happened. She was still here when the sun came down, when the darkness sounded. Did I speak then? Did I assume to know enough about the situation, i.e. all of it, to let it all out and communicate? Why won't she hand in her notice and grant me anonymity all over? Have I to fix things now? Have I to assume responsibility for actions previously rendered? For cause and effect? To continue in a linear fashion like a progressive being from A to B, from B to C, from C to god knows where and to what end and for how long and with whom?
I am going to take this naked body and fling it to the ground. I am going to sit on it and press it down until it feels at one with the surface of this upper floor. Until it pushes through the spaces in the solids, through the light fittings, into the dimming bulbs and drips into some awful plastic bucket.
There isn't any time and I have done so little and have so much to correct.
I caught her wearing my clothes and I tried to rip them from her. Just a tug. And then a brief running. Not more than three metres. Just short of three metres is the exact length danger can reach. So I crouched safely behind the white goods. That is how life is; a tug and a run followed by unremitting stillness. Until the threat recedes. Then you can begin drinking, or self-harming/loathing, writing in a diary, staring blankly at inconsequential stimuli, whatever it is that you do (and you do) to keep the terror at exactly the same pitch, to keep the future nicely intangible, to learn nothing in safe safe rooms.
I caught her wearing my clothes and the room was lit from below by a drowsy evening light, up from the slit between the door and the door frame, and between the blinds, it came in there too. Lit up like a planetarium. She span with her arms out. Strange creature. She looked beautiful, or if not that then at least feminine. And something else; perhaps nothing more than slow air surprised after all this time to find itself quickly moving.
Hiding behind the white goods I trembled. I can hear her downstairs now, and the sweat is cold in my folding parts. There is something, a memory, I did use to walk straight. Straighter. Outside even. Friends and family and all that jazz, I am so certain it happened. But when? To me? Being sick down my pale leg as I think of this. Perhaps better to forget it. Only fog. Don't walk, it is better to stay put until it clears. The only things to come out of fog are piles of old stones and pulsing dream faces. The stones are anyway useless without a map to survey the region, and the faces simply move back and forward blocking the greyness, muttering threats and repressed feelings. Better to wait it out. The past is as dangerous as the future. Everything eventually alters. Better not to touch while the iron's hot and moving (but I grabbed her arm and I fled). Better to stand here shaking like a fully grown real person and pound on these walls until I scream myself to sleep.
The window is open and I start throwing things out of it, anything to hand, a mug, a cup, small leafy stalk of a plant thing, few rocks, old toothbrush, calendar, clock (no, keep the clock), paracetamol, two pens, glove. Flashback to something: small child throwing a shelf-ful of ornaments out of a window (mine?), ornaments lying about on the roof of the extension, rain, labels with made-up names for each peeling off the undersides. Another: drunk at a party throwing whatever there was out a window, everything, laughing, laughing, small objects, a long sleep. I am sitting on the floor staring at my cock, imagining it is a separate thing and wondering what it is doing. I am cross-legged, eyes to the window sill. White paint, peeling a little. She's singing down there. Just singing. But why dance around in another man's clothes? I can't wear things that have had so much life inside them.
And what has she to live for? What has she figured out that I haven't? Or rather, what hasn't she figured out that I have? I am going to go down there and say something. Either to apologise or to scald, it is difficult to be sure of any thing. I want to wear all the clothes she has touched or I want to burn them. I want to smash my face into every available and rigid object or I want to calmly walk into a room on the fourth floor of the next corporate building and seat myself amid familiar technology with a hot brew heating the sides of my own special mug. Am I in love with her? What would that mean?
Week commencing June 10th
Albert is standing in front of the kitchen window, staring through the dimness of morning into his abysmal face. No sleep for young Albert, he's up to something, scrutinising. He pulls all manner of faces into a gradually fading reflection. Almost as if the theatrical ugliness of the face's imposed forms make somehow the realisation of the actual more appealing. Satisfied, he moves away to the kettle. Everything is done with the same slowness that has allowed Albert to remain this soft to life at such a grand old age.
Two hands arched around mug, we see Albert's eyes drain down into the liquid. Doesn't he look helpless, all underlit in the subtle beginnings of what will soon be the morning light? Well, Albert, I would love to say something positive but we're all fairly certain you only have yourself to blame. What was it, Albert? Ideals, drugs, computer games? Too many years spent pretending they hadn't been spent already? “if I just live this one one more time...” Well well, Albert, look at you now, too old for so many things, too young for so many others. What an age, to be just getting started, just out of nappies, learning to walk five steps without weeping. Or reaching for a drink. It's as if you missed out the middle part where everything works for some 20 to 30 years and went straight from child to wreck without a flinch.
We saw you, tidying your room up last night. Pitiful. Shuffling around a few out-of-date objects. I was half-tempted to move one back while you were sleeping just to see if you could at least be consistent. And now, this look of... almost smugness... on your face. It is very out of character, I must say.
What happened to you Albert? A hairy childhood? No father figure? Partied too much in your early twenties? Read a little too much philosophy, did we? All your hopes of a better world smashed to pieces? Died of a broken heart? If it's not one thing, it's another. One of these days you just have to get on. No use splitting chairs along their cleavage lines in the back garden when no-one's watching or getting all wet about it. I remember when men were men. Too much introspection these days.
Still, you've got to give it to him. He's made an effort. Would you look at that! Matching socks and a thick application of de-louser! What a gent. Wait a minute, he's not hoping to...? And with that awful...? You don't think she will, do you? Mind you, she's not up to much herself in the grand scheme of things really, is she? What did you say she did again? Oh yes, of course, sorry. I'm in the middle of quite an important meeting. Still, you know, I do say education is wasted on the young. And youth, for that matter. I've got a million things to attend to, and these people can't even take care of themselves... Yes, yes, I sympathise completely, but come now, you have the address and you know where to write to. Good day.
She rings the bell, her key turns in the door.
Such sweetness poured out of me this morning. I was in the corridor ready as my cleaner entered. In she walked, right past me. She nodded her hellos and I mine. Then into the kitchen. And I, of course, followed, standing near the curtains holding a tea-towel or, when the time seemed apt, some such other utilitarian object. She scurried about me, near and far, from all corners of the room and to all centres. So focused, so driven. I followed her about the house. I watched this precious object. Her every movement perfect. She seems to me the epitome of practicality, of achievement, of unique sentience. I dared not step forward, only admired from the planes of the walls and made small dents in what I hope will be years if not more of gushing interaction.
Albert lies flattened on a single bed. A stoic smile on an unconditioned face. His few grunts of the day over.
He gazes earnestly at the ceiling, imagining human bodies and I know not what else carousing between the paint swirls. He takes his face in his own hands and he lies there staring. His mouth long and wide open, a yawn that couldn't quite bring itself to interrupt.
Perhaps an hour passes.
Myself? Yes, even I appear to have been lost briefly. Such is the night. We are all tired. Even the English summer doesn't have the horse power to get properly started. The moon sags a little round its diameter. I watch our sleeping student: thirty-eight years immortal and everybody is counting. Front page news; a wasted life. Time, time, is the essence of mankind. We all drip slowly on once we've started. Do excuse me.
I switch out the light.
Week commencing June 17th
I can do nothing but watch her. Where eyes once hinged around the detritus of my accumulating species; the rubbish that isn't quite rubbish that surrounds us for years, the memories that are not quite memories and have anyway by now been doctored; where eyes once flitted from this inanity to that, so now they have obtained focus. My gaze is on her as she first appears in my line of vision from the oh so expertly and regularly cleaned top floor bathroom window. I see her legs and waist and hips and eyes and hands come gloriously into focus. Something inside my thoughts seems to solidify then. A membrane forms and yields an air-tight seal around my body. The drift stops teasing and my feet, for once, are firm against the ground, instead of rocking swaying atop an endless plasma. I stand upright and observe as she grows larger and attains more detail. I admire the completeness of finished objects. I look at her hair, how it moves, choreographed, in groups of purpose.
Albert is stock still, it's true, and not a trace of this inner dialogue could be detected beyond his mind's paper. To the voyeur, Albert is a graceless creature with a nasally voice who rarely smiles. Long and tapered fingers like candles melting every time they try to get to grips with things.
Albert's face betrays nothing. Thick layer of ice covering an otherwise volatile planet. A crab walks with a fly on its back, neither aware of the other's existence. A small weight. Leaves which move faster. A hand clenched into a weak fist. Physical objects achieving clarity. A doll-shaped human, too tall not to stoop when he's communicating, too many flies in his head and a god-awful racket. He won't fall down onto the floor today and he won't.
I always was open, wasn't I? I seem to remember years of other human beings nodding and expelling intermittent sighs of something I habitually knew to mean they understood. I remember sporting armpits that smelled of cheap attraction. Hair wet with fashion, I would take to the tarmac, and I know there were ends or there wouldn't have been intention. Who walks in straight lines unless they want a thing to be over? And who wants a thing to be over unless they want another to begin? Even nothing is a beginning, although the way to that, it seems to me, often detours through inertia. But where have I been myself for countless years, if not there? The gate is always so wide open, the path so well-oiled, that all there is to really do is take the grips from off your shoes and set your body in motion. I open and close my mouth and the food slides in and then out again. I glance at nothing and all the while in my direct line of sight hang the welcoming hands and arms of the clock and sofa. I slide into the fruitless bed at the trough between each peak of daylight and like disappointed ants I scatter. My undernourished thoughts take to the hills, radiate, generate nothing. Loss is what everybody is made of. And a strained muscle represented by a kink in the patchwork that originally set out to be a pattern, by a magnificent tower, by a new superlative in some off-the-wall guidebook, by elegant formulae, crude renditions of bison, where once somebody tried to do something. And that's all there is. There came a point where I was happy to let my muscles atrophy, or I was unhappy to keep piling all that misshapen hope up. It wasn't going anywhere except further away from me, and each morning it was such a strain to reach the new top where I had yesterday leapt in one brief moment of elation: and my field of vision persistently blocked by that stinking mass of fat old hope hardening before me. It was impossible to do anything, go anywhere, without that vital tip jeering down at me; settling for that, are we? for her, are we? for there? for them? what about the view from up here, mate? I've got all your old photographs bound in albums. Take a look, why don't you? What about the curvature of the horizon? But success is another kind of inertia, and so is striving, so I knocked it all down. And no longer could people ask me what I was doing with my big doughy mass. No longer could they read into it, without quite looking at me, all that I had said over the years and then not ran at, all that I had scratched so many times into each of their listening faces. I bashed the whole thing in until the dreams were illegible, and with that out of the way, they didn't ask a thing any more. Had nothing to go on. Some gasped at the sight of the beads of gunk that now showered my body, the occasional inspirational word dripping conspicuously off my person, but mostly I had silence, and the population floated past me as on a wave.
But I was open. There was a time (although how long is one among so many others?). I tried my best to be alien and hygienic yet throughout my idle thumbs were picking at the surface. And now? Is some latent current resurfacing? Questions where there were no questions. A desire for fruit and vegetables. Twitching in my sleep. Rubbing my eyes very hard upon waking. The morning. Turning plants around to face the sun.
Week commencing June 24th
I am awake and my arms are around her. Bits of her body are touching my own, bits of her clothing are brushing against my clothing. This is the living room I think, it must be, to judge by the amount of life going on here. My arms are around her twice and around again, her chin is embedded in the crook of my shoulder. This pressing against the nerves must be how the embrace started. I must have been standing against the wall when the chin came, all long vowel sounds and tongue flaunting until it jutted right out at me. I was already backed up against the rim of my environment, the crook had no chance. And in the chin must have gone, pressing down on my shoulder nerves and leaping my arm muscles into action. The other arm must have followed suit, being the less dominant of the two, always willing to abide by what the situation demands of him. Of us.
So this is it, contact. I don't even know what month it is.
Tears are streaming down poor Albert's face and her hands are sticking their noses into all kinds of places. We should leave, if truth be told, but there's violin music playing and all the grandparents have their handkerchiefs ready. With cotton-clad index fingers poised below left eyes we dim the lights and prepare ourselves to feel something. Empathy is best served up away from home.
Of course, we've seen similar movements before, but never quite executed with this precise level of awkwardness. An arm, an elbow, jutting, apologies, downcast eyes, sighs, uncertain interludes of malaise, tiny moments, silence. Absolute silence. Such silence as makes you notice what a noisy business it is to be alive. A pause. Eye-contact. The lights go up and eyebrows too. There was all this movement.
Albert stands to the side and none of his limbs agree with each other. The cleaner steps back but not far enough to retreat from the situation. So much build-up and over in a flash. Just like that. Not the way I would have done it. Anticipation all slapped out of life like a moment of impatience and an overzealous mosquito. Handkerchiefs and sleeve-ends in the recycling bin on your way out please. As you were. No, there won't be another showing, not tonight. I did call you as soon as I knew about it; it was, I guess you could say, a rather impromptu arrangement. There will be a kind of informal discussion thing, in the next... yes, just on the left there, tea and biscuits, you know. I'll be along as soon as I've got all these bodies moving.
Tears are streaming down poor Albert's face. Cheekbones red with all the relish of crying in action. The cleaner looks forward and beyond, hair astray, noticing everything. Adjusts her clothing to more symmetrical positions. Albert tugs his shirt, her arms, the curtains. Leaves the room. His footsteps can be heard becoming alto on the staircase. She moves to wipe the kitchen surfaces. We swing out the room, those of us who remain, leaving the discussion group until later. Sometimes curiosity gets the better of one over well-thought through and expertly debated opinion. And so we follow. Sometimes one watchful eye latches on to another and the pair are off, whisked up the staircase by the greatness of unknown things. Sometimes nothing will be said, before or after, and neither eye will repeat or remember the experience.
Albert lying on his back on his bed on his own. The curtains open. I saw he had the curtains open, and his eyes glanced their way. Hopeful Albert. Breaking waves.
I am going to get a job. So full are my bones of all the right materials. So pumping is my heart and moving is all that stuff inside my arteries. My legs are stampeding. I look down and they are not, but underneath...
How long have I been sat here, dear diary? Or lying? Reading book after book, watching film after weather report after film, head blocked with trivia. Sentences glide out of my mouth like ancient script, mutterings to no-one. Years if not decades of drowning in stimulus. Phone calls ignored, visitors blanked for hours at a time. One-way conversations and a neck hoisting my head up to the tune implied. Arms landing uncared-for on the edges of a sofa, being held up and patronised and held and again placed gently down. Grey faces peeking into my mist, wiping my eyes down, blowing hot hard air on lenses and with a cloth scrubbing away the gauze. An exhalation on departure and a crumpling onto the ground. How many times? When did I stop sitting up like that and facing forward? And how long since? Hair has reclaimed the disused space, I pull it apart to see more of my vessel. Flaking appendages and a pile of white teeth taking time out on the table. I slam them deep and wide into what could yet be a smile.
There's life still in this old beast. That or I'm coming down with something.
Week commencing July 1st
The atmosphere has altered. I have hardly seen him, or his traces. His absences have been quieter. Less pounding on the banister, less of those low-pitched guttural noises floating privately down the stairs. I am not sure what to make of it. I had the impression he was following me around. For some time prior it seemed he was lingering longer, not speaking exactly but perhaps trying to. Standing in the door-frames, for example, and looking deep and wide at the hinges therein. Less scarpering. There were days where I felt I could almost strike up a conversation with him. I would go so far as to un-arch my back from over the vacuum cleaner, lube the palate of my mouth with tea- or toil-drenched tongue and almost begin to speak. Though I never quite made it. A vacancy to his stare. The quiet that hangs around him. His too-straight wall-pinned pose.
Yet he draws me in. The strangeness. Sad and curious, I am compelled toward breaking in. If I would tap a little on the moistness of his head, he would stir; he would turn a struggling-to-sleep body toward me by a minor angle and give something away, would breathe out words he couldn't possibly know were important. I could sit on one of his kitchen chairs, back to front, with my forearms on the back of it. I would write all the words down and punctuate them for him. I would show them to him when he then awoke proper. No comment of course, just an outstretched arm and a face-up piece of paper. He'd take the paper and add it to the pile of others in his bedroom, or whatever room we happened to be in. He'd look this pile over each time I handed him a new fragment, reading from the beginning every time. Things would start to click together for Albert. Or spin faster. A thread of silk would form out of these pages. One thin line, invisible as fishing wire, taut across the room. Albert would brush it away at first, if he thought to, if he noticed, but after a while, it could be eighty or ninety pages later, Albert would turn his head at the exact moment the sun's fire refracted all its light in and out of that little chronological object. Albert would follow it and it would lead to me.
He would stand before me and our eyes would be equals. One of each for one of each. He'd question me a little about how long ago I started making these paper dreamboats. I would shrug and smile, the sun's strength refracting from the middle of my eyes. He would pull on my arm and we would be standing together in the shade of the reconstructed silken note-pad. We would cut all the letters out, leaving only the opposite of meaning. He would open the windows then and the great mound of removed letters would fly out on a gust of wind, spelling all my names in the air.
Then we'd be together, we'd have to be because I would understand every little thing, and what use would that knowledge be without its subject? He would peel my uniform off, revealing layers and layers of skin, right down to the magma, a hundred different people and a hundred different ways to be. He'd ask me once again how long I had been watching him sleep, but I would put my finger on his lips and his face would stop becoming older, the ease of sharing smoothing out the sheets.
But his absence is somewhat larger since the 'incident'. The house feels clean ten or fifteen minutes before I am due to leave, and I linger in the hallway, colour-coordinating the envelopes. Counting the ratios, first in percentages and then in fractions. I am in the hallway, in the mirror, with a stern expression, trying to decide if I should be doing something.
I pull my fringe up with a right hand in order to clearly see the entire forehead. I look at the eye-repeats with the originals until they turn to black and the sides of the face fall in, splitting up into a swarm of colours, tiny rotating circles. White flashes. I blink and the face comes back. An eyebrow bent in suspicion. An absence on the staircase. He must be shy, I think.
Was it him or me who leant forward?
Week commencing July 8th
The remote control is on the cushion on the sofa. The adjoining doors are all open. There is one mug on the kitchen counter. White, one crack, two chips, no handle. A ring of tea left in the bottom. Rings of tea upon the counter. The kettle is one-third full of not-cold water. I open a window and take the cup and sit down next to the remote control.
In an empty house I complete my tasks much faster. There are relatively few stains on the carpets. Six hours and forty minutes and the surfaces have been restored to their factory settings. I sit and I wait and I reboil and reboil the kettle.
At two o'clock central afternoon time, I will walk through streets the ideal size for me. I will swerve round corners, bolt past pedestrians of opposing direction, launch my body across low-lying objects. I will be standing under a cloud, dodging left to right to stay in the sun, while all of the geese are migrating to Canada. The street is my oyster, small and unappealing, and I am the street's ultimate opponent, unassuming yet mostly invincible. I will crash into the next house on my list, each proceeding task performed with the utmost efficiency. Seven hours will pass in the blink of one swift manoeuvre with a damp cloth and I will be seen pulsing down the near-dark streets, catching lampposts. Siren of the western world, nymph in overalls, cajoling the commute in the only way viable. Time in this way leads me on, pulls me through and out of my uniform, to ride the vapours of the next great love affair. I'll drag my eyes back into my sockets, hitch up my skirts and dance with my calves all over the pavement's perimeter. Klaxons will sound and the stars will flash. Bats will swoop in strict little curves, bunting made-to-order. Windows will flaunt their very best curtains. And a round of applause the length of a city as branches smash against each other in the wind. Everything will be a beginning. In the future everything will be beginning.
Albert hasn't woken up yet. Albert has gone out. Albert did not come home. The pattern in the carpet reads my mind and repeats. The tea-cup in my hand is going round in circles. My feet are bare and each of my toes are painted. There is dust in my hair, cleaning products on a belt around my waistline. Albert's hair. The same colour as my own. Albert's shoulders. The same shape as my shoulders. Albert's silence: is a gentle shelf in a room you hadn't noticed, with eggshell walls and a cream-coloured carpet. An empty shelf in a well-lit corner, which you could stare at for years. You remain in the doorway because your feet are not beautiful. Whatever time in the day or the night it is, at least one small section of the shelf is highlighted. You think about all the books and ornaments that are not on it. You know you could put any amount of objects on that shelf and it would not bend. But you don't, you get better, and one day you buy a pair of those waterproof socks people wear so as not to get verrucas in public swimming pools, and you step so lightly over that carpet, to the corner of the room. You close the net curtain and you dust the shelf. Every day the same, a little wipe, until your eyes become accustomed to the light, until you begin to really look at what you are doing. You see the shelf is not empty but covered in millions of metal cilia, so fine it feels like liquid. You take off your clothes and you fall into it. At eye level the cilia take the form of figurines and, as they move into focus, each one tells you a story. And you die here. You all die here, covered in soft metal and finally clean.
I look down at my lap and that which was a tea-cup lies broken between my hands.
It is two o'clock and I sling my bag across a shoulder. I click the switches and lock the door behind me as I leave. The key turns twice in the lock, offering me a definite sense of completion. I have finished the day's work here now, and can put my mind to other things. The colours of the house collect together and darken as I recede. Ultimate warrior. The constant battle between work and sleep.
It is a long time before this day drags out of me the fragments of forgotten tea I did not clean.
Week commencing July 15th
Albert's face juts out at me, gaunt as a rhombus. My career sails off into the distance, limp sponges pushing down on aerosols for speed. He moves in and we're kissing. The sound of wet teeth. Arms where a moment ago there were no arms. More limbs than torso. What bone feels like pressed against skin. Elbows trying to be romantic. Eyes that are always just eyes, open. Trailing eyelashes like flies against cheeks.
Albert's face crawls into mine, portion by portion. Spit collects at the pit of a chin. I am concentrating on the spiral movements of the tongues, his then my own then his again. They are supposed to follow but never to meet. Or, if they do, say his pushes mine, then I should push back a little before giving way. Then around again. Then the teeth. Like two wine glasses clashing, decadent. Wine spilling out of the sides of our mouths. A nose tucked in a dimple. The second kiss, less nervous, where both parties begin to fuse together like a couple of damp faces. I am supposed to experience individual taste buds. I am supposed to coy my head away after intervals of varying length so he can look into my sweaty eyes and pull us together again. But I don't. And he doesn't. The teeth continue doing their best to avoid each other, and the tongues occasionally prod them back into their own terrain. Hands jump skittishly across rears, two trails of clammy tracks. Press the fingers down hard, no need to move for a while once in position. Press with the palm, not with the fingers. Feel the hotness that passes through fabric. Feel the bony points of pressure between the ribs of ones own back.
I wipe my chin and I do look into Albert's eyes. He appears to be trying to work out who I am, not metaphysically, but actually. He looks surprised. A small smile on his face and then not. He says my name. I don't know how to reply, so I pull my sleeve, which is his sleeve, and I wipe my teeth and lips with my tongue and lips and I look at him and then I don't and then I do. His gaze does not leave where mine would be if I was returning it. He says the name again and pulls another smile out of his interior and then nothing for a while. I think I am looking at our sleeve or out the window, and someone's hand is on someone's knee somewhere in the middle of all these things. A household click from adjacent room and I am compelled back to action. My head lunges toward his mouth again and it is another kiss and with that the stare is broken. One of my hands has landed on the side of his face. Touching but only just, his or my skin feels delicate against the other: points of contact weakened by space and eager hairs.
My hand is fastened in position once more by the awkwardness of conscious time. Eyes, although closed, although open, continue to destroy every movement by observing from outside. Although too close to my body to see anything bar my own ear and forehead, I feel the weight of Albert's eyes scanning every part of me, all future, past and present actions, and how the grand total of all that experience does not even sum up to one fluid move. My face stuck on his face. I crave that the minutes degenerate faster, that they split apart into seconds and pump their way out of the clock face into the long tube of being over and done with, sealed up and painted over.
In two weeks, four weeks, three months, this morning will be a deep blur among the days and days we will have had of practice. So synchronised will our bodies have become that these introductory seams will hardly be believed, let alone noticed. We will awake on either side of the great bed that joins us, he stepping out of his side and I of mine, sliding our feet into congruent slippers. We will glide down the stairs until we're old enough to require assistance, at which point, helping each other down, we'll say “Give me your hand, darling,” and “I'll give you my hand, darling,” until we've taken the flight in our stride once again. I'll sweep up his falling-out teeth and unreplenishing hairs with his hands on my waist and his toes right by my toes. I'll scream “Mother, look what I've done! We're going round and round. Not because we have to. Everything is tidy! This is dancing and everyone should try it.” And we'll swing until our slippers fall from off our thinning feet and we collapse into a bloody heap of mixed-up bones ground down into the earth.
Week commencing July 22nd
I am a cleaner for no other reason than I am not not a cleaner. It could just as easily have been another thing, if it were this other thing I was born among and raised up into. It is not that I didn't go in for education, it is just that I got out of it. And why not? You are only as old as the salary you feel.
It is not that I don't have ambition, more that I have never been sure where to aim it.
And it is not that I went looking for Albert, or anything like that, no. I needed work, I saw a gap and I put my foot in, and I got somehow a little too comfortable, like an elder in a rocking chair. My job resembles the smooth indentations of a familiar cushion and will fit me exactly for as long as I remain this precise age and this precise shape. If I crawled out now, years of good solid equilibrium would be roused and get all bunched up in one unsightly corner, to be thereafter known as 'lumpy' and never utilised again, while the rest slid around underfoot like water-clogged algae on smooth rocks.
This is not what I predicted, but there is much jubilation in surprise; and if that surprise lasts twenty-five years or more, so be it. I will spread that jubilation out all over. And it does still surprise me. I do still wake up with a heart beating hard to the sound an alarm and it does take me a whole five minutes to really come round and remember. And, yes, when I realise, I am often surprised. So, in this way, the novelty never stops.
This is not what I predicted, but who is, and who says I'll remember? Eight hours pass, sixteen hours pass, twenty four hours pass, and that is how you fall in love; in the blink of time. Albert has lost me another job, two out of four now, although I shouldn't blame him. What did he do but enchant me? I've been planting tulips in his garden. It is the ones who do not ask who want the most.
I dashed through the city, late and soiled, to the next family idyll on my rota. They didn't let me in, they didn't want me: and true enough my time-keeping has been a little ad-hoc of late and my appearance perhaps somewhat ruffled amid the fury, but the phone calls they claimed to have made, where they were greeted only by the question, “Albert...?” followed by a long silence and a dial tone, I can't say I believe it entirely. It seems not right. Why would I jeopardise my own income in such a way? Or rather, why would I expect him to call me? Though, I have always wanted to work part-time. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, and all those extra hours to fill with my whimsy. He might call me. I'd travel the world. I might be late for him too and he might need to check on my whereabouts but I doubt it. All those countries. A few hours each day. I could stockpile them. He might come with me. A change of air would do him good. How many months are in an hour? I could stay at Albert's longer now I am down a house, that way I won't be tempted to wander the streets spending the money I am no longer earning. That way we'll get to know each other better, when I'm not working, when I'm someone else or something like it, and everything will go faster and get closer; there'll be less gaps and no dirt and no stains. We'll be finishing each other's sentences and laughing at the coincidence, really laughing hard, because of all the words and all the moments, and all the probabilities stacked against us, and each time it happens we will be laughing harder in proportion with the rise in the unlikelihood of the situation, until we are both rolling around, softly colliding, shouting disconnected words in unison and screaming them thereafter again and again.
I should be there. What time is it?
I am there. Where is he? Albert. He must be upstairs. I should be working. I am. I am. Albert? What? His face. The tulips. I broke the cup. Upstairs? I will go to find him. His bed? If he is sleeping, I will get in.
Week commencing July 29th
I am all but mad with the implausible thought of her. How is it that she would have more than not anything to do with me? That she exists for more than one minute over schedule remains a mystery to me. That when I grunt, she answers; that when I sweat, she wipes. Her body comes and goes like a mail-order catalogue, and I browse and browse through the pages with my eyes and fingers, wanting impossibly all of it, believing it somehow a trap programmed to reel me in.
I cannot talk to her. I cannot share my bed with her sleep for one more darkness. She yawns over, piece by piece, toward my dimensions, with her breath that makes me humid. And while I want it, I do not want it. While I scour the faculties of the earth for one thing that does not send me under, and while I have pruned myself to believe that this thing might be love (for lack of other options, via certain avenues of exposure and processes of elimination), I cannot throw my salt at it.
I have not leapt at a thing for so many years, not looked an object straight on since I don't know when. I no longer inhabit that place where all the things are. Too long have I been standing alone now, even before the final cleaving: a smear on the small-print of society, often overlooked but
once spotted, duly stared at, and with the gaze of someone trying to figure out what it should have said. Too long have I been standing alone now to know how to return good and proper. Too much has not happened since the days when I was still counting; when I was still expectant, sorry, embarrassed, hopeful, proud. Too much has not happened for me to be able to string sentences together into a strong fluid narrative to be wound up and bound together at the end. Now they hang stapled to the bored air; grotesque, obvious; like ticks creeping across white cotton.
She can't come in. She cleans, sure, but perhaps that is different; one can clean up without understanding the mess one is in. If she flounced around with her face in my carpet rather than her arms in my shirtsleeves, we might be on to something. But what? Nobody should know anybody else inside or out or like the back of one's hand or anything like that. A problem shared is two problems. What would we do down there in my carpet between the shags? Try to figure out why every one of my fallen and unhoovered skin cells died? She can't come in, not to the heart of it. She must know that. I am a filthy animal whose greatest peace comes when shitting out anything contemporary that might have inched its way inside. She cannot want this. I am limp from the head down. She is beautiful. She has limbs and her skin makes me forget my own.
I don't want anything. I don't want her to respond, or attend, or whatever the word is for when someone's eyes go wet at the thought of your troubled soul. I did this and it is hell but at least I have contained it. Who is she to get a job in my house and surpass her duties in this glorious manner? She brings her movements into my environment and the staleness alters. I had grown accustomed to the smell, had learnt to nudge my way through its fluxes and to hold my nose in the corners where my consequences became too strong. But her face gives off more light than all my dim bulbs grand-totalled, and her odour smells more heavenly than anything I, in these past however-many years, have either allowed myself to create or imagine.
She is too much. This is too much life. One whole other. Double what I already cannot stand or handle. She is stunning and her voice vibrates my ear drums. When she touches me I want to be dough that has not yet risen, with everything still to come, all the bigness of the world yet to expand into. I want her to be the metal frame that I become the same shape as. I want my surface area next to her surface area. But no, I will go brittle and cold and I will rot and I will crumble. I cannot have this. Heat only leads to fire or exhaustion. I need to stand by the window and stare into the building condensation until everything goes away. And if it looks like receding, I must exhale my own wet greyness back into the spaces, to help things along, to keep things the same. She is so beautiful. I do not exhale onto the glass over her face.
Week commencing Aug 6th
I did it. I took her out, or she took me out, it is hard to remember the details of causality; but I was there and I was not alone and sensations were flooding out of every part of me. She sat opposite me at a table, and I was dressed well and upright. She said I looked nice and we both took pieces of food from the plates in front of us and put them into our mouths.
I have no idea how I got there or where it was or how I got home, but I know that it happened because she keeps using the word 'again', my cleaner, and 'again' implies history, actual history, lived through and summarised. And 'again' implies desire, actual desire, when it is said in the affirmative, with its hands down what used to be your trousers but is now little more than a polyester-based stain.
We sat so completely opposite, two ends of a battery, conversation flowing through our cold cold metal. My knees got to know her knees, fabric brushed against fabric and apologised: the gentle dance of high-street restaurants and too-low tables. I picked up my fork when she picked up her fork, I buttoned my coat together when she slipped inside hers. I drank red wine, from the glass not the bottle. There was a candle of wax on the table, not a fire of unwanted memorabilia in the yard.
In between the boluses we talked. It was easier through that thicket of half-food to get the words out, somehow, because I couldn't possibly be sure of what I was saying and she was nodding and nodding so, like a whipped horse I gained momentum, words crashing, punching their way out of me. But what was it for (and what did it matter?), this heavy onslaught of information, beating the life out of so much silence that I have been cloaked with all these years? I sat plucked and helpless, glass in what wanted to be a hand, head testing out new pivots while I waited, one eye half the size of the other, thin streaks of red wine bleeding from each of my points of suspension; and she went on nodding, or fell asleep in the breeze. It is hard to say if, had she drifted off, I would have noticed, so carried away was I on the tide of wine and illusion we had mounted.
And my mouth went on talking, up to the edge and far beyond that point I would refer to as what I remember. Who knows what then; who knows? The sun came up and my head went down and she was in my bed again and I was out of it. I awoke on the rug on the floor by the wardrobe, my beating skull held fast against the wardrobe door. I awoke and made coffee and I brought it to the side of the bed for her and I offered. Is this what is done? Who knows? I was riddled with the sweat of last night's emissions, lucid fragments of which were wrapping themselves tightly around anything appearing to have the audacity to refer to itself as one complete thought. She tapped the flat of her hand on my bed (my bed!) in a way that meant I was already back inside of it, and we stooped together adjacent like that until the sun had moved too much for us to continue to pretend we hadn't noticed the time.
I am in love with her, if this is what it means: being at a loss in a slightly different way and with a slightly higher temperature. I am in love with her and will run far until the clouds are soft and low again. My face will settle in their fatherly beard, feeling nothing but plumage and comfort, and the wind will remind me that if you close your eyes it is always the dead of night. Long white nights, a stone cottage in a valley fallen into disrepair, no roads leading toward or from, only a veering path made by ancient feet in foliage that has finally grown away. My head will float through monochrome textures of grey, and hovering water will wipe my face. There will be nothing to fear and less to remember. I will ride along thermals, a sack of skin and air, organs all transplanted, a few remaining sentiments of grey matter, vagueries of thought.
We cannot be together. I am made of uninteresting materials. I will crack in the heat of her sun. Give me one dead star and let me orbit that instead, dousing its throes with my tears. I will close myself tight and fast like a cipher. She will clean and clean but never get inside, only noting daily alterations of the surface numbers. I want to touch her everywhere and tell her everything but there is nothing to tell that leads to anywhere that is not here. She will concentrate and I will concentrate; atoms will get smaller, but nothing will be gained.
Week commencing August 13th
Objects keep appearing in my house, terrible objects. A cup covered in tiny animals. Shoes with heels. Ornate cushions where my lower back should be. I am not sure what is happening so I move them around. I put them along the sides of walls, along the sides of shelves, counters. Sometimes I move other objects in front of or oppressively adjacent to them, to minimise their input. Sometimes flowers arrive and splay, but soon get thinner and disappear again. The objects seem to live without schedule, coming and coming and only taking up space. I take them up to my room and try to track them by drawing lines once an hour around their lower surfaces but when I leave, I find upon my return both object and outline have scarpered.
Dear me, Diary, is this what is meant by cleaning? To have one's best efforts looked over, considered and thought better of, to be obscured by fancier borders and elaborate design? There is no longer enough room in this house for a man to flail in. What have I done? I am not sure when she is one thing and when I am another. We lie side by side, my body to the ceiling, hers turned to mine, and she touches it, she touches it all over, soft as a dishcloth, her mouth as wet as my constant eyes. But then she is asleep and her warm-blooded breath is in my nose hairs and it is not the same. Not the same as the sharp shock of a breath taken in solitude, where icicles dangle from every speck of air, and I leave the heating off so the coldness is pure, to be tugged on command into my hot centre; fizzing, dying.
Instead she rumbles. I press down hard against the mattress as she groans and dreams low-pitched dreams. Words a little above silence, a little less than noise. It should be me down there, asleep and symbolic, instead of this arduous unmoving pretending in the dark. She counts the seconds with her eye movements on my dead arm as I plead with her silently, mouthing the words 'I love you' and 'please go away.' Minutes turn into seconds and fall apart. I kiss her and I hate myself. The sky stays dark.
In the middle of all those hours I poise one hand over my face like a fistful of claws. I fold my eyelids in on themselves and pull my eyebrows down until all the lines appear. I let the claws fall down onto my face's skin and I show my hand my teeth. Quietly, so as not to wake her.
Albert is hunched over like a tiny bridge only fit for falling off. He appears to be trying to stab himself with a pen in the face. Or he is drawing, crossing himself out. First the face, followed by what is exposed of his arms and legs. He stands, takes off his shirt and begins scraping the pen bereft and tight across his chest and abdomen. The pen runs out and Albert too, out of the room, down the stairs, up the stairs, hands on his head, hands in his hair, naked from the heart up, clumsy from the face down, backwards and teetering until he fumbles into a calm heap by a door.
This is love, Albert. Welcome to its lonely glory. Be still and make a happy home. Don't you feel the warmth from the middle, Albert? He doesn't. Don't you feel the sense of purpose, Albert? I don't think he does. We did, Albert, we did. Out courting, them were the times, swept off us feet. Just clicked. First glance. Mr. Right. Two peas in a best days of your worth every all I ever knew she was the one.
You see, Albert, you are doing it wrong. Too much flapping about your inner woes. What you need, son, is to get your head down and start making a living. Enough of this arty-farty, head in the fatherly clouds business, get down to work and make something of yourself. A man, make a man out of yourself. You've got all the primary materials. All you need to do is fake it for a couple of decades until it starts to come naturally. Buy yourself a suit and the jobs will follow. Buy yourself a football and the games will come. Now, there's an idea: goalkeeper. Sure, you'd make a great goalkeeper! Don't you have him down as a goalkeeper? Oh, I do. Just stand there, Albert, just stand there and let them all kick shit at you forever. Only tricky thing really is the not diving out of the way. Just stand there and let it cascade down your manly hide. Eventually, after ninety years or so, a whistle blows and their legs get tired. You get a bit of peace then and you can go home and make love or whatever. Although, by that time, you'll have already made it I imagine, done and dusted. It's more a matter at that late stage of keeping up the momentum, of not letting it slide, of up and downing at regular intervals until your kids fall out of/with you and/or one or the other of you dies.
Or lie by the door, Albert; and let time slide.
Week Commencing August 20th
The third house is lost and my time is freeing up like the zeroing of a matrix: Albert on the diagonal. Albert slamming down on the power chords. A cacophony of Albert. He is opening up to me as the leaves open up on a Chinese plant of immense proportions in the night, letting off an irreversible odour; and I, all the beetles, am climbing in. The third house is lost, without event, without nostalgia. No bones were shed and unspilt were any luke-warm feelings. I am free as a bird in a cage made of hours, and I dot the streets with my flighty path. I dot my face on a celebratory-card shop window pane. I dot my underside on high-street benches, ample kerbs, dry-stone walls, the dirty ground. I walk until my shoes grow blisters or until my ankles believe they have spent two days on a plane.
I have a home, a room. There is nothing in it. It is built of childhoods and it smells of the games I used to play, of different kinds of plastic packed and stored at different periods of recent history. It smells of expectation and resilience, and, if I sit awake for too long in its humble middle, sounds of heritage fly desperate from beyond the walls.
It is best to keep busy, to pump the various sections of the body with constant movement. It is best to keep your toe to the wind and your heart to whichever new nest will take it. If you cause the body sweat, it feels it has been working hard and long, and you sleep full of fitful purpose, echoes of productivity causing your stomach to sway. Albert is opening up, like gold-sweet references to spring, and I am certain that distance was put there only for running headlong into. The sky-sea line is but a crisp image printed on a sheet of paper, ready to peel apart screaming as any old protruding chest plunges directly into it. Picture-perfect rips straight through to the great ever after. Up, up, up and away.
We creep toward each other, Albert and I, my one true love and what will soon be me. As I approach the last house under my jurisdiction, my body drops, the feet buckle. My plump ankles stutter up the drive towards the only other door I have the key for. I turn it. I turn it so hard. I feel every clink. Worn metal on worn metal. I force it. My arm muscle pounds with tension. It gives. I am. I am in.
Things have been going so well between us. We sit together on the couch, side by far-off side, under a plaid blanket designed for the aged. Looking at each other without making it obvious, breathing together, noticing every false-start of a move. We embark on so many unfinished sentences. Croaky syllables begin in our hopeful mouths only to be extinguished behind uncertain lips, emitting the tiny death of bubbles. My nearest hand sits aside his nearest hand; little fingers like antennae, searching. When his breath is irregular, my heart skips a beat; when my heart skips a beat, his mind races; when his mind races, I want to slow it down.
Things have been going so well between us. We have been outside together, in the trees, skirting around on the pavements. He holds my hand then, all the dread of the world bringing it toward me. If I could only lock him up in the great outdoors, we should be married then within the fear. Disgracefully wed in the rush of gathering disaster, swinging our knotted arms past all else that used to matter, laughing into the truthful depths of each other's bloodshot eyes.
I grab him. Will grab him. I tear him into me. I will. I am myself stretched out above him, my body repeating his body. We move and stop and sweat and say sorry. Sleep comes, goes; and with wake so too uneasiness is woken. I stifle it with my fists inside the unwashed pillow while he leaves, walks to the door, leaves, urinates, clears his throat, leaves. Albert comes back to bed and we get close enough to bask in all the centripetal forces nudity causes.
I go through the rooms in unflinching order, throwing it all away. I clear the trail this relationship spreads around its nooks and crannies. I poke around in the bits most couples do not notice. I scoop and I look. I examine. I scoop and I learn. I get closer. I narrow the gap.
Week Commencing August 27th
He stands beside me. I slop my arm about his silence and record the breaths. No-one else knows Albert, not one person who wants and watches for all their hundred years could interpret his pockets with the same rigour as I. When he wrings his hands I slip them around my finger. His absences on my cleaning days are an expression of how he imagines his life without me. His moving here and there of my objects highlights his acceptance of our blending and how he hopes we will continue to develop and grow together; my paraphernalia wrapped around his. Illegible. Inseparable.
We stand adjacent with our faces turned toward his condensation. He shows me his breathy patchwork, a cowboy attempt to keep the world at bay. He points at the double-grey areas, where his own dull breath has overlapped with that of nature, and mutters for hours about how the abrupt jumps in shade will in some time fade out, will come together into a fine blur. I imagine he is talking about us. I loaf a hand inside his trousers and roam around among his acres of empty space.
I move Albert's kettle beneath the window. The window becomes a quick smudge which surges out. I cup a hand around Albert's rising sigh and tell him to save his breath. He folds in half and, like a first paper aeroplane, his fall is sudden: I go down with him. Cold, clean tiles through the thinness of tights and legs. He sleeps there with his face squashed against my very organs. He snores, I rumble, and there is a place where our two noises meet.
It is here where my feelings are, contained in his sleep. The only thing I know is that my body is warmer when his face is on top of it, and I read somewhere once that warm things go faster, and that things that go faster get more out of life.
I pull one of his arms up and, elbow tucked into my crotch, I use my hand to move his four fingers and his thumb apart. With my other hand I repeat, or rather, mirror these movements in my own fingers, thus allowing the two hands to interlock.
It is blissful the way our bodies are so similar, the same curve of tiny circles between our eyes and cheeks, the same weave along the surface of our nails, the same clicks upon movement of our wrists and knees. I like the way my body is repeated the whole world over, all the shapes and mysteries I could have been. The coldness of floor tiles begins to penetrate the fat of my buttocks, there to cushion the heavy blows of my unplanned landings on this planet, and I hold tighter on to Albert because the warmth of others is the only way to prevent the cold from sneaking in.
My hand tells Albert's not to worry. The tips of our index fingers press the tips of our index fingers. We're dipping our hands at the wrists to be coy; shy and snake-like, ends of hands looking away and back again. My hand starts to say something and then doesn't. Albert's hand puts one of its fingers on what would be my fingers' lips. Albert's hand, guided by mine, approaches my other hand from its side, whispers something inaudible into the point where the gap disappears between my thumb and my index finger's rear. My hand gasps, falls back, opens up, palm out, down, flat. My heart is beating fast. I jump up and grab Albert's forearm with my open fist. With my other hand I surround my own forearm with the lengths of Albert's fingerbacks. Now we're doing that tight hold that men getting in and out of fishing boats do, except I'm doing all the tightness for sleeping Albert too.
I squeeze so hard that his eyes open. He shakes his head and looks away. This is Albert's way of keeping things fresh between us, of always retaining a little something for later, so we never quite peak, so we're always on the up, always getting closer, always becoming, like when you fold and fold a piece of paper, or divide one number by another. We're those decimal places that are never accurate enough, or a picture continually coming into focus, the quiet insurgence of genetic change. I say his name more perfectly with age. He looks away but it means something, and I stare at the crown of his head imagining his face.
I could sit on this kitchen floor until the tiles crack, and I could gaze at the frame of that window without ever needing to stand and look out of it. I need never see the grass, it is enough to know that it is outside, growing in spite of me. In the same way, I need never see Albert's face, it is enough to know that, when it does turn, it only has me to look at, and that the coldness of tiles penetrates his body in the same way it does mine, that the chill rises through both of us at the same rate.
Albert brings me a hot cup of tea. Backs against cupboards we sit, two little replicas, sleeves touching, steam rising up into our face.
Week Commencing September 3rd
I am cleaning his diaries. If I scrape my sponge across the pages the words begin to come off. First, the shapes of the letters fade and spread to dull rectangles; next, and with enough vigour, the actual fibres of the paper can proceed to be scraped away. Albert's miserable life drops in tatters between my hands and fingers. Down it falls between, and on, beneath my legs and knees. I want to wipe it all away, this life without me, this cruel daring, an existence bleak as any barren winter hill. Slivers of thought spin and dally toward the floor, lonely words made lonelier as pulled apart.
For all my past, nothing has brought me half as close to comfort as our clean meetings, and in the years of lessening wrongness there has been little even a fraction as right as this. It is to this rightness I now tend, and tend I will. The more I look at it, savour it, chew it round and round my tongue and jaw, the more its shape contorts and fits and bends and folds at will (it will). It is mine, and I am doing it right, this thing in front of me. Dear Albert, with your veins and your eyes, you see and you pulse, and it is mine. We are becoming one thing, me and you, and throughout your evasions I am with you, you who is so shy. I wake in the morning to your face. As the darkness of the curtains pressed over my eyes admits the orange glare of the muffled morning light, so does your face awaken in the haze of my emerging mind and, unspoken, converted through image to language to intention to desire, you become, daily, my first and only thought.
In the past there were other things, barely recalled now. There were friends, men, people connected to me by other means. There were vital conversations, passions (but I have those now, do I not?), laughter, plans, necessary arrangements, cohesive thoughts, more subtle emotions. A phone call, from a boss; was it a boss? A phone call from a voice that spoke with authority, sounded wilful, lacked charm, grace, but nonetheless impelled one to listen. And, though I did try, there is no thought for me now bar Albert. Though I did try I felt only the finality of it, the devastation of a loss of independence, the inevitability of falling, failure, the dull thud of a heart trained only in feeling dropped out of its uniform onto the cold wet slop of an unmopped floor.
In the past there were other things, my posture was grander. There were firm handshakes and a smile that tore a line down through the crucials of other people’s bodies like instantaneous central heating. Feet became too hot to touch the floor as that boiling smile passed right through them and up they would jump screaming, a dance we all enjoyed. I cried then and I do now and I wonder if things shall ever be different, then Albert's face floats on to stage in some centre-space behind my eyes. Still, it will not focus. Close my eyes: no calm. Lie on the floor: too bright (the day). Fold myself into a tight ball of darkness with all the cleaning cloths in the world over my head, my face, with all its holes of distraction and reciprocity, and lie in stillness, all joints bound to the ground and rigid: think. I bring the face into my full concentration and try to remember; the last time it looked at me, the first time it looked at me, the sideways glance, the half-smile, hands brushing (accidentally?) past mine. Arms as they strode up my legs, or wherever. It fades. And the memory of touching, lost so fast to the shortfalls of time. The eyes, keep hold of them, before they become just anybody's eyes, before they become no more than the idea of the eye, known since your youngest days when concepts were demonstrated and clearly explained. I love the dark skin around the eyeballs, earnestly holding the whole thing in.
I cannot remember a thing about Albert's face, despite my best intentions. Hours pass and I am thinking and searching the corners of some inside for an angle or a gesture that I have not yet grabbed and studied. Until it is day, until it is night. Feet move past me, shuffle. I am still. Getting things clear in my head. An arm on my shoulder. Do I remember that or is it happening? A soft head, gentle, frail, with all its gentle weight on my side. The small breaths of one who doesn't want to be noticed by the world at large. I cannot remember a thing, not actually, and I need to be around him. Words bringing me back, standing me up, a true voice speaking to me alone, and directly. The release of negligible weight, but important, as cloths fall from my head and eyes. The white stab of moderately less darkness and the swift fresh relief as I do not inhale the musk of old damp.
Albert looks at me and I could crash through the floor right now dying. I do not know what his face means. I am a trembling, quivering bag of alive. Noises are feather dusters on my neck and feet, words are minor fevers, a car driving up the tarmac of outside sends pelting minotaurs up the bones of my legs and throughout my spine.
We settle down, sleep gets heavier as it shifts its load. I slip away with him in mind.
Week Commencing September 10th
I cannot touch her everywhere-face any longer. I cannot look at her body with this loner's old eyes. She skips around my quarters wiping the rims and the cusps of all in sight. Holding her yellow cloth to her chest, she inhales one swift dream of my forgottens then launches it over her head like a sachet of dirty confetti. She sings. The sweet, sweet noise of contrived happiness; a walk in the park, two hands together, a fridge no longer full of food turning green and losing form, saturated bellies, two people perpetually missing one another. Parallel dimensions, ghost hands, never in the same realm or having the same perception of time. She is smiling at herself, at her own achievements. She is smiling and dancing over my clean walls; with mucky feet, only in order to clean it off once more.
I expect it has been a week or more since she last left my house (as in, she is still inside it). There were tears on Saturday, around 10am; I heard them from my toileting, where I sat with a book on my exposed lap re-reading the same word until the noise stopped. Until the songs started. Through cracked vocals, quiet words came, testing a simple melody; hope bursting forth from forced fractures. Bloated sausage-balloons held together by invisible film.
She tells me to touch her, I touch her. She tells me to kiss her, I kiss. She tells me to lay discreetly on my right side, one leg crooked at the knee, left foot atop right thigh and to gaze solemnly at the moon. I do. And what is it I am feeling? I feel cool sheet beneath bare flank, I feel a rising ache in my right forearm. I feel the breath of a human deflating itself between what I have come to know as my shoulder blades. I feel the ineffectuality of passing time.
Laughter pipettes in from the street, short bursts of entry. Loudspeaker-style spreading out of innumerable simple mouths, reminding me how much better it might be if I caroused and revelled instead of all this other something. All this what has now become touching. Cold, loving breath down my skin-curtailed spine.
I walk in my house slippers, trying not to go against the grain of the carpet. I choose each step wisely; there is much planning. The foot is placed down parallel to the ground insomuch as is possible, horizontal-like, that the impact of each individual portion be lightened: the greater the surface area, the lesser the impact on any particular location, of any particular sound. I must have silence. Who ever knew longing could be so loud?
Stillness reigns in the quiet half-kingdoms of beneath-the-stairs and behind-the-furnitures. Stillness has and will ever reign 'neath these fields of dust-cum-snow. The cleaner doesn't reach back here; there is no wire long enough, no vacuum cleaner strong enough. Albert digs down, paws first, into the top layers, through and down, makes a space. He climbs in, all legs and not enough joints to fold his limbs up. In he goes, pulling the settee-back toward him, crushing his face in the convergence. Albert bites his way through the fabric of the settee frame, into the negative-couch; the space they don’t sell to us but which arrives anyway, a decadence of non-storage.
Albert’s legs hang deep into what would be his basement. Crotch impaled on a smooth mound of dust to keep him in place. His arms ride through the hollows of couch-arms. Hands into fists to give the impression of elaborate fringes. Things are quiet: all noises belonging to the externalities of objects and not their dark insides.
The muffled cleaner goes about choreographed duties with a low hum and a distant whistle. Albert swings like a heavy pendulum, still until the object comes near. Love and all its racket sending him into a periodic dangle.
She’ll be round here before you know it, Albert. One cannot hide forever, face or no face. One cannot go on snivelling and looking for a flood because she will always have more buckets than you have tears. If you dry up, she will water you; if you wilt, there will be shoots of bamboo strapped upside your rear.
You will smile, Albert. You will attend formal gatherings wearing what everybody agrees to be your very best tie. You will sweat from the arm pits and the corresponding areas of your long-sleeved, hastily cuff-linked shirt will transmute unto a deeper shade. When you raise your arm to shake the hands of your fellow man-things, all you will think about is this deep colour, this muted moistness, and the accompanying odour that this elevation will have released with a skip and a song. The free and radical smell will dash and soar about the room, from nose-hole to attentive nose-hole, reminding all and one about a certain stage in if-not-their then other people's dreary lives. Your cleaner will be encased in the ambiguous haze of the distance between her body and your smell and her eyes will no longer be focused on your depth of field. There will be naught but the cacophony of bodies rubbing against objects; peripheral mingling, closeness, sociable yet distant affinities and understandings. There will be wine, there will be wine. Red stains like bad decisions all over your forearms as you bleed spoonerisms into a pink and tickled crowd.
Eyes raised on judgement and small portions will make sideways half-glances to one another to ascertain whether or not their owner’s teeth should still be out and parted, whether or not their delicate body is in the front row, whether or not glasses are empty, or coat sleeves are riding up one eager arm clutching keys. The politeness of giggles will dwindle to something less than or equal to the last small memory of a stepped-in puddle on a busy commuter street several days after rain. You are both the cause and the effect of silence. You are the mad lady on the bus who hawks and screams and takes the world for her own and the ears of others as her disrespectful, ugly and ignorant children. Except you have just noticed. You have opened the curtains to see that your car has been stolen. You have looked in the mirror to find all effort of reflection gone. You have stepped outside only to be told that you would be better staying indoors because you are quite simply ruining it for everyone.
Your clothes are un-chic rags made from the sports pages of out-of-date tabloids; matches as forgotten as the alleged function of your life. You drip red wine like a grimy faucet, your teeth are brittle irregular lumps of lava rock: stone after the eruption. The cleaner, blurry on the edge of this spacious room's horizon, weeps like your armpit, wipes her eyes like neglected kitchen counters, and sings like someone who has been storing her voice in the glove compartment out of its case again. You regale the Berlin wall of amicable, informing eyes with a quick one-liner about the perils of the class system, bounce up onto your cane, click your heels about level with your hip but badaboom them out to the side, doff your cap and monologically rue the fact you have not yet died.
Perhaps after all, Albert, it is better to hide.
Week Commencing September 17th
What has happened is this; I am or was in love with myself or the idea or the possibilities or even her or something. There was fear or dread or anticipation or plain hankering and the connected need for the invention of a male-orientated pre-pre-pre-pre maternity trouser: elasticated and baggy in those areas that count. And now what is there? As far as I can tell there is just vomit at the back of a throat and that colloquial fleeing feeling (colloquial as in the place one dreams of escaping to is subject to the constraints of one's known environment) familiar to anyone with a propensity for futility when in their fatherland.
In the beginning the vomit would at least bother to reveal itself, it would at least show up on the carpet proclaiming to be the by-product of new and exciting feelings the organism was having. Sometimes it would express itself in the shape of a heart (sickly-sweet) built of a beetroot side and supermarket-brand Burgundy. She always liked cleaning up the pink stuff. I'm on lager now because I would rather she didn't take my sick for a pick-up line. Whisky, cider, anything a neutral shade of piss-implying yellow. She is making found art in the garden using neck-to-neck plastic bottles and a stream of my insides. It is a rainbow of your emotions, she says. Journey to the end of it, she says, and I will be waiting. Then she talks about transience and the fleeting mists of time, how chance brought us together and we have but one long chance to survive.
I sleep in my bed with her because she made it and the pattern on the sheets is one such as she is already inside. I dream she is on top of me and she is. I dream I am enjoying it, taking part in it, and perhaps I am. I dream I am screaming into the space inside her kiss. Her belly rumbles with my voice trying to make itself clear; a cheap vibration but she doesn't seem to notice. She says that everything I do or don't do brings us closer together. I try to fall asleep as she makes suggestive on me, hands down on the bed, inert as a full shell of electrons but she thinks I like it. Part of the game, she swoons, so close is she to my tactile station. Every morning is touching until I claw a way through, usually between her legs and out because she is gullible there and that is not what she is expecting. I turn off the soundtrack of mood-inspiring maybe-whale noises, punch another hole in the false wall and retreat.
My love for her is so vast I cannot bear it, she says. So long have I been starved of both directions of affection that of course it feels like a battle, she says, of course, but not one we cannot win together. Which to me sounds like surrender, which in turn sounds like the loss of one's identities, freedoms and autonomous regions, however barren or arable they may or may not be deemed to be, and I would rather choke myself with my white flag than have her calligraphise her own rendition of victory all over it in my disappointing yet clearly bordered name.
She is making disappointing found art in the garden and selling it on the internet. She is selling crude renditions of her love for me to strangers who give her value in return. Everything is ordered in; food arrives in a van and is unloaded, envelopes and boxes for her seminal pieces are delivered in bulk on a monthly or bi-monthly basis dependent on sales. Ornaments are smashed (by me) and reconstructed (by her) into forms more meaningful and symbolic (she says) than before. She thanks me for my rages, puts a hot hand to my receding forehead and tells me that she knows, by only listening to every sixth word I bellow at what would be the heavens, what I am really trying to say.
I pace up and down the stairs. I repeat myself from one corner of one room to one corner of another; a glitch in my own house, appearing and reappearing at the extremes of the domain. There is nowhere I can be where I am not shared with she. I smash pieces of the ornaments (whose arrival was through no invitation of my own) into pieces, creating more and more denominator until they are small enough for me to swallow them down. Safe from reappropriation and the accidental formation of meaning but not yet willing to relent, the resultant morsels bore tiny holes of intensity into my pipes and sacks as they travel through; little shocks, glimpses of remorse.
Week Commencing September 24th
Sometimes I think my lips are shrinking and there is all this panic. What is the half-life of a kitchen counter if scrubbed twice daily, or of a windowsill if leaned upon? I remember days when my hair blew in the wind and I didn't look twice at what gloves I was wearing. I didn't need to be waterproof, despite the weather. We would stand (me and who else?) amid the pouring torrents, with a speck of sunlight on every single piece that came down, mouths open, damp limbs inside a cling-film of clothes, trying to eat the rain.
And that is when my memory spins around, whirling at my past imagined self from all angles. Looking for a face, a clue, something to grab and take a running swing from. From my past hair? But it is wet and my remembering hands clasp only smoothness before sliding off. Faces I do not recognise: censored somethings, holeless blurs. The clumsy thumb of time having smudged its fat base down too often in a bid to wipe the shadows off, mistaking them for dirt.
From the angle of view it appears to be my past self and its companions who are doing the spinning and not me, the recalling thinker; adding a touch of the montage to all non-traumatic memory. Two spins, back-to-front-to-back, rising up and up to accumulate at the top of a abandoned helter-skelter where crumbling hippies play clay flutes in a whispering gallery at the point two slides meet and I can hear the sounds but try as I might I cannot tell which direction the hippies are coming from. And that is the room I remember from, that near-empty tower in which the noise of residual existence echoes back and forth off the sections of wall, intrusive as the unnecessary click of a photograph taken with a digital camera in an otherwise silent hall.
Squinting out over fields, I see fractal days of sunshine and people in light dresses or grey shorts. I see flat caps and ringlets and hands decked in flowers, a big drum and a fiddle, a pair of worn black boots, tattoos on a thick arm. I see sheep travel under gaps of purpose in dry stone walls. I see fields thick with gold like syrup, women using two arms to pull one bare leg from mud, confused bursts of calling, boots without laces lost and nude toes glooping together in the viscous. It wasn't like that. Even the birds make chainsaw noises here.
In the gallery, foreign names are graffitied in loud fonts because it is important to know how far people will travel in order to not tell anybody why exactly. I sit inside my sack and close what I have left of a pair of eyes.
There are always two slides. My hands slip from my hair and I don't remember faces beyond a certain time. I can describe past events but I do not know which ones really happened. I have come this far but there is no way of checking if that is any distance at all. New roads are falling apart instead of many of the buildings I was or would have been born in. There is a certain shape we are told the finished cake should be but I burnt down the house rather than wear the apron; which was perhaps a little foolish. Still, a decision is not a different decision and one's earlier reasons can be quickly forgotten.
Both slides lead to Albert now. There is essential maintenance work being carried out on all other rides and all other exits. Inside the clay flute, every finger that presses me sings something a little different. I didn't know I knew the words. I did not realise I had been around long enough to learn them. I didn't know this sack was torn and that most if not all of the protection it was supposed to offer me from the slide's friction had worn away. It smells of old dogs in small kennels, two to a cage. It smells like morning walks around a square garden, always the same.
I don't want the primordial soup of the world now, I don't want discovery. I don't want to grow a moustache and sail off the tip of a wave chanting sea shanties. I don't want to be a great Japanese painter of Mount Fuij, nor to isolate radium. What I thought I imagined I might one day have wanted brought me to a derelict theme park on the wrong side of a city with two names, where I was charged to get in and ordered not to stray. And the invisible hippy plays his or her or their flute made of clay. As if those notes (and this room) were the most beautiful thing.
How can anybody be so sure?
Week Commencing October 1st
Every little corner of this house has something missing. Nobody lives here. I heard Albert is not a real thing. Still, I see him; my eyes simplistic portals that transmit him in. And my body slumped around them; first a head, hard skull holding face on, and around that the indifferent rest, what remains of it, loose muscles and limp stomachs tempted down toward the centre of the Earth. My mother was a cleaner and her mother before her. Now Albert strides around me, cloth in hand, net keeping his hair in, whistling a tune from his lifetime but before mine, feather duster tucked in his thinning jeans' pocket, damp rag in a belt loop, a couple of pegs attached to his unbuttoned shirt: spare.
He touches me, but it isn't real touching, it is not something I should be proud of. It is one body nearby another body, moving past without thinking, without thinking of the second body. The second body stares with whatever concentration it can muster upon the first body, time nears that time when one begins to believe in telekinesis and will. The second body brings all its energy up to its eyeballs, red blood cell stacked atop red blood cell, powering the glance that has become all the second body is. The limbs wither, curled up like retracted party whistles, and all the pressure is in the head. It isn't real touching; you are just a wall, the fringe of a cushion, leaves on a tree edge. You brushed his hairs which did not belong to you and which were passive. You brushed his hairs with your upper arm, with your knee, and those parts of you still linger in his trail.
If this is not love then what is it? A filthy feeling that makes me look down along the attempt at my own body with a kind of disgust. The body that moves out at the middle, searching: a weak arch. The body that flaps, as they do, only to be impeded by the laws of balls and sockets. The body that can only grab within a certain range. A paltry arm span is all it has to pull the world in, with its best grabbing tools at either end and only a couple of hinges to help its desired objects along their way.
If this is not love then I may as well keep it while it is here now anyway, I may as well keep launching my flimsy means of attraction at it as it rounds a corner; two irregular shapes thrown at each other enough times may fit together one day. I may as well keep singing love songs at the top of my voice when he goes outside so that there is at least a chance that someone remembers I came. And when my voice is half-gone, the sun half-down, knees on tiles, and hands and face and tears the same, he does see me then, he does raise my jaw with his attention then, in his hands, and my face comes up too, follows suit. He looks at something which would appear to be me or if not me then something at an eeriely similar distance and in a similar direction, and I am kissed I think, a tongue in my mouth hole, wet muscle touching teeth, which is at the same time a feeling and not a feeling; the promise of the inside of his face slipping down my throat forever. A throat dimpled by the friction of the song-like cries that scrape past it every time his tongue is not near.
And if this is all I have then so be it. There is a warmth that feels physical, the radiation of heat from his core. I lie near it, warm my hands near the small of his back, stick to his clammy nightmares and ride the trembles. It is fine.
I haven't been outside for a while now. My skin is paler, most of the lightbulbs are gone. We eat off the floor, off plates off the floor, civilised and demure in the half-shade, mood-lighting sweeping over us through the breath-fog-sweat-grime of the window panes. We eat off the floor, Albert not having the strength to lift me, and my own outlook drawing in. We eat off the floor where I belong, where we all belong, where I clutch the socks round Albert's ankles as he crawls away.
Week commencing October 8th
I thought love was supposed to be peaceful, calm, something akin to acceptance, where one behaves as one behaves and the compliments come pouring in. I thought I was to be my own idiosyncratic, lonely self a while until someone came and plucked me from the glistening mire of pouting mouths (undulating waves of bright white teeth, gnashing) saying that one, that one, yes, that is the slight variation of red I am after! Give me that exact oval opening for I shall accept no other. No, none of the others have the slightest impact on me, the reds are all wrong, the teeth too imposing or too austere, I want the cracks and rivets of that particular pair. I want the sounds they make as they are slapping together in the pile there, I can hear that trill above all the others. I shall fight you for them, fight you all.
I thought that then I would be scooped up by some rugged fist of a hand, to lay in its trough as it thresholded me up and into the air, as the giant smile of acceptance blew its warmly breath all over me and the winds of love swept between my hairs. I thought this was the only thing that actually constituted a feeling, thought all else was gesture and pretence. I thought the chest-ripping pain of undesire was a cruel but necessary step of learning on the way from where to there during which we were whittling ourselves into the fine yings and yangs we would soon become. And every time I think I am a ying now, but perhaps I am still so far from the two smooth curves tailing off from well-crafted brain to tiny toenail, bursting with one full colour and its high-contrast opposite eyeball, unblinking, so sure, so sure. Perhaps I am still a twig that goes crack in a forest beneath a strong boot that didn't know enough to care, my irregular contours jutting out in the middle (a weak arch), frail limbs not even enough of anything to begin to poke the air.
But what if all love actually is is helping the weak to forget for a time; to sit down and not have to lift rocks for an evening, for an hour. Two weaknesses that don't make a bridge, nor a strut nor a strong knot, however temporary, however loose the string. What if all love actually is is grabbing the fuck out of another person's head and face until you both have bruises from the impact and your legs and arms are aching too much to walk away again.
What if all love actually is is teaching another person how to buy themselves a new mug when their old, chipped one is making their lips bleed every single time they take a drink; and when you suggest some new mug, when you cleverly dot around their house or office the latest mug catalogues, design magazines rifled through but left open on the special mug feature articles, when you accidentally drop your bag in the hallway spilling out your personal collection of nostalgic, historical, sentimental mug photos, when you try all of that all they can say is no, no, it's okay, sometimes I hold my mug in such a way as it doesn't slice me open, sometimes I remember to purse my lips as I drink, and this action hardens them, it toughens them against the sharpness and it is important to be strong, you know that. Much as it is important not to engage, not to open oneself up too widely to the ways of the world, to the aspirations we are told to hold to, simply because we are told to. I'll keep my mug, thanks, and I shall bleed like a strong man should, where I ought to.
And what if then, out of love, I buy them a new mug because whatever face they hold up to the camera they are still bleeding and I am still following them around the house, following their drips-from-mouth brandishing an eager mop only to be told no! These drips form a line which depicts a path which shows man's painful route from some start-point to let's say the bath or wherever, and it is supposed to depict something, something terribly solitary and mortal but it doesn't. Instead, I stand in it and it gets on my socks or shoes and it brings the flies in, and as much as I long to touch another person in their entirety I doubt that mug-blood off a cold tile on an absentminded bathroom floor is the answer.
And then, and then, I think what if all I was supposed to do was to lead by example? What if what I should have done was to bring in a mug of my own, for myself, and simply have it there next to his, side-by-side in the cupboard, like two twee little exemplary angels, one setting and the other soaking it all in. Not for comparison, not for competition but for something some of way closer to comfort. So the old mug could know it was accepted whatever its condition but that one would want to be better of one's own accord because of the company one chose to keep.
What if this is all I ever do, skit here and there between the same four kind-of walls that constitute my tragic pattern, eye-lights flicking on and off like a badly made-up circuit; darting from one wallow of miserables to another, plunging in, turning myself over and over, a dead leaf in mud, all bare-bulb basking and clean sheets in my eyes again; face-down and dorsal up to what would have been the sun. And, what if, whenever I see any man kissing any woman anywhere I presume them to have more than me and thus the needle pricks soar down my arms again to the cul-de-sacs that are my fingers where, instead of turning back around again to safely dilute in the bloodstream, they make me to want to stab everything I come across with a heavy heart?
What if I were en route to becoming one of, if not the best cleaner, due to rise up through the cleaning ranks year upon year, but what I actually did instead was shred some man into strips because he couldn't hold me together, because I wasn't the only thing visible or audible at any one time, because even the smell of fresh paint on the corner house of some neighbouring avenue would send him under. What if I lost what could have been my position by assuming another, baser position, until the alarms bells rang and I would back-to-work again, eyelids spread open like wildfire, trying to be awake and to think.
What if I was only noticed at all because I was everywhere? Leaping around like some raging gnat on hot rocks, trying not to be cold but not knowing what distance means.
And what about if a sad, sad thing can only strain up to the hope for just a moment and if that moment comes right at the beginning, for humans mostly jump when they are excited, and I see that jumping and mistake it for happiness when it is nothing of the sort, it is only that the sad, sad thing lives so far down that they must jump up with every functioning muscle they can muster to look for a moment into the brief eyes of a regular sloucher standing on common ground.
What if I were supposed to be the very best cleaner, destined to pave the way for major upheavals and innovations in the cleaning trade. What if I had the skills and could have been in the right place and the right time to ease the burdens of thousands and thousands of fellow cleaners for generations to come but what I actually did was hopelessly and wholly selfish; wiping some man's floor for hard cash and then spreading myself out on its shimmer, hoping, somehow hoping, that my new and nurtured environment (i.e. his clean and optimistic and totally improved world) would shine off on me: its polished surfaces twinkling in my dreamy, hopeless eyes.
Week commencing October 15th
My sweet cleaner is causing me some distress once again. I find it most upsetting to observe her inching the days away sprawled about over my various furnitures, as if an abject hominid such as myself didn't have enough to worry about without needing to lift limp arms and flaccid bits of woman off everything to get a job done.
It is not that I have ceased to care for her, you understand, oh no, perhaps more that she has ceased to be so lively as she once was. I used to like to watch her dancing in my living room, vacuum cleaner in arm, tossing herself back and round and forth and over. It was quite the thing. I would lie on the couch with a fist in my mouth, performing something consanguineous to the death-throes of repetitive punching while the way her body moved, in flyaway little motions, would make me forget which way the ground was, where it started; so much so that I often thought I was standing rather than lying. And if at that point she continued so too would my perspective, causing my illusioned mind to teeter and my lowly fist to slip out of its mouth in order to keep what I thought was my balance but which might have been love or at least might have been something.
Whereas now she is all definitely on the ground, like a sliver of onion or a kicked-off shoe out of season, perhaps harbouring a mouse in its tunnels. And all I want to do is move it to one side so I can walk past without being faced with the enormity of my own negligence. Simply to be able to fetch a cup of tea or a slab of hardening bread without the questionability of my own value as a human being roiling around on the kitchen floor squawking its mesmerising eyes out and saying I don't love it. It is more than one can take before another long day of contempt, unprofessional analyses of lost opportunities, time.
Albert moves it to one side, fluffs up the carpet that was wilting in its shadow. He goes to the cupboard where she used to take the things out and where she used to put the things in; bottles of various luminous greens and blues and pinks, as if anyone wanted clean to be that colour. As if the simple diffusion of bright could be enough.
Fingers on plastic triggers, Diary, hoping for the best, or hoping at least to give up noticing. She would rub and keep rubbing until the surfaces were lower and we were stooping down to meet them because I am afraid of change. I will go to the cupboard and take out some of those cloths and bottles, as many as I can in one trip carry, and I will run with my straight arms out, the greatest Catherine Wheel this house has ever seen, until the whole thing is drooling with the sweetly coloured ectoplasm of all the promises we were ever made by modern implements. She'll drown in it before I do because she isn't moving anymore and I still have my arms flapping. They flapped when she came and they'll flap when she leaves again.
But she won't leave, she won't leave now: that's it for the duration. Would one rather be alone than spend one's whole life disappointing? There was, was there, a communion of sorts; we had something, we tasted. She told me her name the day she first arrived, when she shook my hand at the wrist until the joint cracked and I apologised, dropping a couple of teeth on the hallway carpet as the S broke (I pushed the air too hard from my tongue). She smiled in a way that wasn't cruel, didn't alter, as I bent down (more so) to pick them up again, pocketed them in case of emergency. Wasn't it all one long emergency?
I want out. No more questioning, no more surreptitious back-wanting through the cold hours when she sticks her soft arms into my unders, when we sleep on and on waiting for something to start or for something else to be over, but we don't know which, never have, and that's the crucial joke of it. That's the punch line. That she's just like me, despite her once-frequent wafts of enthusiasm and her voice that can bellow up and out and over the personal right into the sky sometimes, where all things matter and where people have a real shot at hearing one another or they would if the planes stopped from one short moment. In the gaps between their trails are silences lived in by tiny human voices, all wanting each other, great winds created by tiny arms waving in slow-motion. The wind waving back into our frost-bitten faces sometimes the only contact we will ever have. I want her but I want out. I am not up to the task of reciprocation. I am not a being who emotes politely. There can be no sunset of our kindred silhouettes with the hand shapes blurred we were swinging them so wildly, the camera shutter slowed by the romance of the scene.
There is nothing for either of us here. I want my eyes in the television screen counting the oblongs of red, blue, green. The world simplified. Meaningless colours, words given to reactions, snappy little movements; stand up to piss, lie down to sleep: useful. Small order. A world stuck together on auto while we were learning to read (and what a mistake that turned out to be); plastic bricks. A tower built with no windows and no doorway, thoughtless; just height amassed with red upon green. A structure of which nothing can be said except that it is a structure, it breathes. It will breathe. Until most of the atoms degrade and the structure feels shame, or until war prevails, causing the structure's parts to abruptly part ways. There is nothing for us here only bending; down, down, until our faces are ground. Compost yourself! they'll then say.
Week commencing October 22nd
I couldn't believe in anything else, I couldn't. Because if the thing I believed in most in the world, on the planet, didn't exist then what chance had I? How could I start again from a beginning I hadn't known or been raised into? How could I do anything else apart from keep ploughing at this one thing that might be true, might hold fast, might germinate if I just kept agitating it a little with my fingers? Precision jabbing, that was the key. Everyone else had it, the world had it, had everything, all except me. I would lie in bed at night with the curtains open, staring up into the places that never end, trying to think myself into being a real thing. But the whole exercise was pointless; I am half a thing, two thirds of a thing, less than a thing. It isn't complete and there is no way to complete it. There is running, sure; using more of the body and less of the mind. There is meditation, bliss, spiritual satisfaction. There are careers, books, hobbies, indulgences. But there is this unrelenting space, expanding in accord with the universe, a massive aching gap as my poles get stretched apart. Our middles grow, all of us voiding bigger, tension welling as our balloon-skins tighten. Peripheries make friction while nuclei actually get further apart. Eyes stretch around the sides of our balloon heads, millions of surprised ellipses bending with time into grand, wide apertures only suitable for looking into the dark.
I tried to be a proper person, I wanted to, all jaunting forward into the beelines of the future, but I kept stumbling aside into warm, sweet objects that I wanted to become wrapped up within forever. Objects I wanted to walk double-file with, that I wanted to race here and there. By myself, I couldn't seem to keep the speed up. Without anyone watching there seemed little point to work those muscles, build those calves up, to take short quick breaths with all the drops of effort sneaking out of my sultry pores.
When nobody was watching I would sit still for days on end sometimes, light drifting out and back into some dull morning. Knees aching from the pressure of immotion, eyes stubbornly staring at one stiff dot of darkness until it refused to any more be seen. There is only life when someone is watching, a bear doesn't shit on the pope in a forest full of silently falling trees: it's obvious. Yet my calculations were wrong somehow. It shouldn't have added up to stream after stream of water queuing up to run down my face, down my belly, to collect, fill and spill out of the central dent there, last vestige of fresh water in an otherwise inhospitable land.
I was supposed to blaze through the country, across the continent, chasing visions so crisp and lucid as to never err from the path of most resistance. I was supposed to efficiently stride forward representing all that had been done for me, with my powerful right arm flexing its liberated muscle and my long-but-not-too-long hair swept back beneath its simple red headkerchief. Instead I hesitated, faltered, looked around, thought a little, slept on the boat, missed the train.
I ran headfirst down some concrete steps into the grandest city I thought I could find, which may have been the nearest, the easiest to get to, but I am no longer sure. I ran and I held my bag tightly, grasped it. It was containing everything, all those parts of our identity that are written down now, stored outside of us. I held it while the arms came, grabbers from beyond, and I knew that some things were trying to stop me but I ran on anyway, the city appearing both bigger and smaller as it approached me, my running ankles. I lost my boots and t-shirt but it matter little as all the women were dressed like that anyway. The sun belted out at me, at my new skin, and the pavement's concrete composition nibbled away at my no shoes.
I ran and we held our heads up. I thought I was becoming. I thought I had read in some great textbook once that I was becoming, that in a way we were always becoming, but I still harboured hopes at that stage that one day I just would be.
Into the great or convenient city I floundered. Look into my curriculum vitae, I said, and you'll see. I waxed hysterical about myself to anyone who questioned; I pounced, lunged, withered beside a tree. Those were great days, great ones, when the world was somebody else's oyster but we hardly noticed the referral of ownership as we were eating novelty for tea.
I thought that I was multi-tasking, thought that I was achieving various goals besides these Alberts but the curtain has risen on me now: the final last scene. The audience watches (they watch when I am down and out), they stare with their hands held netball-width apart, personal-distance width in front of their inflated chests; and my body, it is on the ground, in a circle of artificial light, polarised so none of the impact escapes. Nothing is lost, nothing is gained. I am supposed to do something. I know I am supposed to do something. The world is counting on it. One, two, three.
Week commencing October 29th
Albert Crow is walking from one room to another, picking up and putting down some but not all of his objects. The weather is cold yet not frigid. In the air still hangs the memory of something warmer. Albert looks a fraction thinner than he has done, not ideal for an oncoming winter. But who am I to judge; perhaps he's healthy? Perhaps his comings and goings in geometric formation through the near-empty rooms are a form of spiritual exercise, practised by the mystics since ancient times. Perhaps he will be the new Saturday morning guy, waking us up with the cockerels and a smile-cum-grimace, shaking his Bermuda shorts as he high-fives us into star-jump geometric kill-yourself action. Perhaps he'll soon be endorsing all the latest slender products, his waif-like frame fitting neatly onto the lengths of pens, the widths of door frames, along centimetre rulers in profile, checking your measurements.
Albert is sweeping away clots of hair from around the toilet. Cleaning up. His mess or someone else's. He holds the dustpan awkwardly and his brush-sweeping strokes leave a lot to be desired (and there is so much to be desired). He carries the dustpan down the stairs, though the lived-in room and on to the kitchen. He does not think to bring the bin upstairs and, thus, ups and downs with the dustpan every time. In the pan are crescents of bitten nails, eye lashes, food-from-small-holes-in-teeth bits, threads from socks which have long since walked away, more meaningful and less meaningful morsels. Albert does keep a few scraps; in an unrinsed but dry and empty-enough coffee jar by the potentially steamy kitchen window. They catch the light there, what there is, when there is it.
He has been sweeping and collecting like this for the best part of a fortnight, not a word has left his lips, not a grunt, not an oh. Silence has well and truly fallen.
He sleeps in the corridor when he needs to, with his head up on the first or second step depending on the hour, the necessity to dream and the need to change position. His feet sleep on the welcome mat just one Albert's height further down the hall, obscuring the 'wel', heightening the 'come'. They kick the post when it arrives, it not being what they expected or wanted. It not being important. Albert sleeps with his dustpan; face in the trough, breathing in.
And me? I think I'll keep hiding. By the feet, perhaps, under the mail. Reading all the unwanted names. I too want to apologise, for I too belong nowhere. I am but a nose sticking itself in to the cake of your party. I smell like vanilla. I thought one of you might lick it off, but to this day the uneaten crumbs remain. I am going back beneath the carpet, I'll be quieter than Albert, and I shan't look any more, I promise. I am going now, I have found a way in, a fray.
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