Authors: Will Wiles
Tags: #Literary, #Humorous, #Family Life, #Fiction
Please do NOT play with the piano.
That would be easy to arrange as I could not play the piano. I ran my fingertips gently, respectfully, over the surface of the keys. They were a nicotiny white and a simplistic black that defied adjectives. Brown-blue-
black. But that’s not quite it. I tinkled the same two high notes that musical philistines always tinkle when they are driven to fiddle with piano keys.
Box files, all labelled in Oskar’s spiky black hand –
Halle Aug ’01
, Each one was stuffed...no, stuffed is the wrong word. Each one had string-bound bundles of papers, newspaper clippings, folders, sheet music, financial documents, travel details and hotel bills meticulously
in it, as one would arrange a formal vase of flowers, stiffly and conscientiously. Oskar the organised. Oskar the organised musician.
Photos, Oskar with people I didn’t recognise, bow ties, penguin suits.
I remembered that my bags were still by the front door and that I had unpacking to do. The door I hadn’t tried yet had to be the bedroom. Opening it was a complex action involving holding my holdall with my left hand, hanging my flight bag from the ring and little finger of my right,
and turning the knob with the remaining two fingers and thumb.
There is something primal in the sound of claws against the ground moving towards you, and an animal jumping. It fires something back in the lizard root of the brain, springs the safety catches off, triggering a reaction designed for survival and still operational despite being broadly unneeded; a working Betamax video recorder in the animal mind. Still it wired out its useless message like an aggressive lout shouting a drinks order at a defenceless gland –
A pint of adrenalin, and make it snappy, bitch
. I tensed involuntarily as two furry streaks cannoned through my legs towards the living room, two irresistible vectors of feline purpose. Late and unbidden, my Cro-Magnon fear manifested itself as a foolish and embarrassed sprinkling of sweat.
, I thought,
. Oskar had mentioned cats, and here they were, or rather there they were, wherever they had gone. Afraid of cats! But not afraid, simply surprised and caught off balance, a simple shock.
, I thought, appealing to an altogether more recent section of the brain,
it’s not as if anyone saw me being surprised by them
So that’s all right then.
I could ingratiate myself with them later. For now, I walked into the bedroom and dropped my bags by the white linen of the large double bed. There was less to see here; the dominant features were the bed, an armchair and a large standing cupboard. The armchair was plain
wicker with an off-white cushion, an item that seemed to exist solely for the purpose of injecting an air of homely domesticity into a room that was otherwise as coldly modern as the principal living area. It was one of those chairs that had a sad aura of futility, a regret that it had been designed to be sat in and never was, and had often suffered the indignity of simply being a prop to drape clothes over.
Furniture is like that. Used and enjoyed as intended, it absorbs that experience and exudes it back into the atmosphere, but if simply bought for effect and left to languish in a corner, it vibrates with melancholy. Furnishings in museums (‘DO NOT SIT IN THIS SEAT’) are as unspeakably tragic as the unvisited inmates of old folk’s homes. The untuned violins and hardback books used to bring ‘character’ to postwar suburban pubs crouch uncomfortably in their imposed roles like caged pumas at the zoo. The stately kitchen that is never or rarely used to bring forth lavish feasts for appreciative audiences turns inward and cold. Like the kitchen here, I thought.
And there was a further indicator of this strange psychology of material goods in the bedroom; flanking the bed were two small tables, and whereas the one nearer the windows bore a light, three stacked books, a small notepad and a small stone statuette, the other was empty but for an identical light. So it was clear which side Oskar slept on and which had been taken, until recently, by his wife.
These musings were not a sign of growing gloom; far from it. My smile was broad and growing broader. I had
taken up Oskar’s invitation and come here to his city in order to write and to be inspired, and I was thrilled – frankly, a sensation close to exhilaration – that in such a short space of time in unfamiliar surroundings I was already feeling more creative and the insights into detail were coming with the frequency they did. This euphoric state was given more lift by my next discovery. The bedroom’s proportions demanded three picture windows, but there were only two and the place of the central set was taken by French windows that opened onto a narrow concrete balcony overlooking the street. As soon as I noticed this, I crossed the room to investigate. The window opened easily, letting in a blast of unruly city air and noise, and I stepped out.
Below, two storeys down, the flagstones and cobbles of the street throbbed with the constant effort of traffic. Another tram passed, shuddering and clanging as it nosed through a melee of battered and tubercular cars from a medley of unfamiliar marques: Ladas and Dacias and Oltcits. The few users of the broad imperial pavements moved with huddled and private purpose to alien, unknowable goals. Opposite was another apartment block, baroque, so grey it seemed moulded from a compression of ashes. Indeed, the four streets pushing away from the crossroads were mainly composed of heavy grey prewar buildings, apart from a few obviously more recent municipal-modern blocks perhaps intended to fill half-century-old bomb wounds or part of an ill-advised 1960s attempt at redevelopment. Washing hung
drying from lines between balconies, potted plants spilled colour on sills and through railings, wallpaper in four dozen different styles could be spied through windows. This exotic chequerboard of domesticity was enthralling after the cold touch of Oskar’s Good Taste and Clean Lines.
Once again, I travelled in my mind’s eye back to those walls that defined my space in Clapham. Walls dented by chair backs and grimed by the touch of human hand and hair. Carpets cratered by careless smokers at drunken parties and spotted with spilled red wine. A topology of blemishes and taints from myriad unknown miscreants. A slow-motion and inevitable despoliation by scores of hands. And did I notice it? No. These grazes sank into the patina of the background, the grain of my life. I had signed an armistice with entropy, come to terms. I let it happen. It was a rented flat – landlords expect wear and tear, and I supplied it.
But how did Oskar see it? He owned this place, had done for years, and the manner in which he kept it...
In fact, I knew how Oskar would feel about it. He had not surrendered. He would not let these details sink into the background. He had fought entropy to a standstill and forced it to accept
I felt a sudden and foolish urge to declare my presence from the balcony, state that I had arrived, and that I would be staying.
Of course, Oskar had left a careful list of instructions on the dining table. Oskar did not do chaos. He did not do
disorganisation. He did not do disorder. At university, we had a bad joke about him:
Q: Where does Oskar go on holiday?
A: The Coaster del Sol.
Ha, ha. This was a direct reference to Oskar’s habit – treated with bafflement, ridicule and mild annoyance by the other undergraduates – of swooping down with a coaster whenever it looked as though a drink served by him in his rooms might come in contact with a surface. The crowning insanity of this was that the surfaces came with the room, were supplied by the college, and were already heavily pitted and scarred by decades of use by less conscientious members of the intellectual cream of the nation’s youth. He even did it with beer mats in
The flat was quiet, and the cats – both a mixture of black and white – were grooming themselves on the sofa. I needed noise and stimulation before sitting down to read Oskar’s instructions, so I returned to the study, propped the door open and tried to pick a CD.
There was no danger of being denied choice: the CDs must have numbered in four figures. As might be expected, the vast majority were yellow- and red-spined classical. Not being very familiar with classical music – its codes and sigils, the K341s and scherzos were a strange and threatening language to me – I hunted for the familiar, the recent. After a few moments I found, in a discreet and embarrassed corner of a shelf, Oskar’s half-dozen popular discs: David Bowie, Simon and Garfunkel, Queen, the Kinks, and
a ‘Best of’ the Velvet Underground, which I plucked and slotted into the hi-fi. ‘Sunday Morning’ in Lou Reed’s wistful tones filled the strange flat in the distant city. I calmed.
Four A4 pages, closely filled with Oskar’s script, anchored by a bottle of red wine. I read:
My old friend,
Again, thank you for your help in what is sadly such a difficult time for me. The flat is not large and what I need from you not great, it is mainly a business of knowing that there is a trusted soul in situ and that I need fear no break-ins or fire. As I sincerely hope you are aware, I would gladly repay this favour for you at any time.
First, let me address the issue of my friends the cats. They are called Shossy and Stravvy. They are fond of their activities and often very fast and busy, but they are good souls and happy to be picked up and very happy to be stroked. Please do this, it is good for everyone I think! But they must be fed and their hygiene must be attended. I have left tins of their favourite food, and their bowls, and the bag with their litter, and their tray, in the little room by the kitchen, with the clothes washing machine. They need half a tin each in the morning and the same in the evening, with a sprinkling of their biscuits, which are also in the cupboard with the food. Please remove their doings every day; there is a scoop for this not very nice job! Every week, change the litter.
When you go to bed, please shut them out of the front door, and in the mornings, you will find them back
and hungry, ready for their breakfast! They are allowed on the bed for their sleep BUT NOT THE SOFA or the chairs in the living room.
Shit. I looked across at the sofa. The cats were still happily sprawled there, enjoying their illicit activity. Not a good start. Well, they were meant to be ‘fond of their activities’. I broke off reading to banish them from the forbidden zone, watched them saunter sulkily back into the bedroom, then returned to the note.
Please make sure that the windows and the front door are securely locked if you leave the flat and when you go to bed. I have written down some numbers of plumbers and other emergency people:...
I started to skim. Emergency numbers, location of spare keys, the nearest pharmacies, supermarkets and so on. A few details about the city.
While you’re here, do make an effort to see something at the Philharmonic. They are very good, and I do not say that simply because of my connection with them! Their summer season has now begun and I would love to think that although I cannot be there to enjoy it myself, it might give you some pleasure.
Oh, and finally what is perhaps the most important thing since the cats are able to take care of themselves and will tell you if they are in need of something:
PLEASE, YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF THE WOODEN FLOORS. They are French oak and cost me a great deal when I replaced the old floor, and they must be treated like the finest piece of furniture in the flat, apart from the piano of course.
DO NOT put any drinks on them without a coaster.
ALWAYS wipe your feet before entering the flat, and take off your shoes when inside.
If anything should spill, you MUST wipe it up AT ONCE!!! so that it does not stain the wood. Be VERY CAREFUL. But if there is an accident (!), then there is a book on the architecture shelf that might help you. CALL ME if something happens.
The cleaner calls twice a week (you do not have to pay, it is a service of the building, so do not worry).
I do not know how long I will be in Los Angeles, no one will tell me, and perhaps they do not know. But I think I will be safe to return after about three weeks, and with any luck for me, less than that. I will telephone you at times and let you know how things are going.
And again my thanks. The wine is for you. I hope to see you soon.
Your old friend,
I stared at the note for a brief time after reading through it, to see if any deeper meaning became obvious. Was a note of this length, in this sort of detail, normal? Normal for Oskar, I supposed. How he must hate to leave his flat like this. ‘A trusted soul’ he had written. Really? Not so
trusted that I could escape being micromanaged by notes, it seemed. So clean, so ordered. I thought of the pencil shavings in the wastepaper basket. Oskar’s neat-freakery only made minuscule ‘lapses’ like that more noticeable. He had the assistance of a cleaner, of course. But how thorough was the cleaner? London was full of Eastern European women working as domestic cleaners, but I had no idea if they did a good job. Besides, did we get their ‘A-team’ or their ‘B-team’? Did the best and the brightest cleaners head west? Or only the ones who could not cut the duster in their own countries?
The bookshelves that covered one wall of the room drew my eye. Bookshelves are a devil to keep clean – dust gathers on top of the books with surprising rapidity, and it is difficult and tiresome to thoroughly clean those areas. I strolled over to get a closer look. I also wanted to find a guidebook that would help me navigate this city, something better than the inadequate volume I had brought with me. I doubted I would find one, because I had nothing similar about London back at my flat. But perhaps.
Like the rest of the flat, Oskar’s books were beautiful and carefully arranged. They were organised first by category, and then by size. At least four languages were present, with German and French accompanying English and Oskar’s mother tongue. There was a large number of paving-slab-sized glossy, expensive books of art and photography and ‘design classics’. The art emphasised the ‘modern’ and the difficult -ists, constructivists, vorticists, futurists; Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin; and a blast of warmth and light from volumes on Warhol and Lichtenstein,
the sort of art that did not make me so uncomfortable. There was architecture, of course, again characteristically modern: Le Corbusier and Mies, Richard Neutra and Herzog & de Meuron. The Neutra, like the Lichtenstein, suggested a Californian hand here. Did Oskar’s wife have any input when it came to the content of the bookshelves? I doubted it. The mixing of the bookshelves in a relationship is a gesture of vast, almost foolhardy, mutual trust, and Oskar wasn’t able to live on the same continent as his wife, let alone jumble up the contents of his library with hers. Just thinking of the idea made me picture him wincing. But there did not seem to be even a shelf for her – none of the books I imagined she’d read, auction catalogues and law journals, blockbusters for those interminable flights across the world, West-Coast self-help, yard after yard of management ‘bibles’ by ‘gurus’ – business secrets, the main habits of monied sociopaths, the utterings of successful salesmen and speculators. But not an inch of them was to be seen. Her mind had not established the tiniest beach-head in Oskar’s mental world. Who cheesed her move? The rest of the bookshelf was filled with the typical and the expected. Shelf after shelf of the books I associated with Oskar. There were a variety of novels and histories, broadly twentieth-century classics: Koestler, Camus, Salinger, Solzhenitsyn. History, cultural history, books about World War II and the Nazis and the Soviet Union,
, modern politics with an emphasis on America, Russia and Germany, stacks of books about music, biographies of composers and musicians. Not a hint of dust, anywhere, so another ‘win’
for Oskar there. But already it was settling all around me.