Authors: Will Wiles
Tags: #Literary, #Humorous, #Family Life, #Fiction
Oskar asked where she was almost immediately.
‘She’s on her way,’ I said. I was half sure that I wasn’t lying. Emma had never met Oskar; he was my friend and she had been lukewarm about the dinner. Still, I had assured her that Oskar was ‘really, really nice’, so perhaps we were both only on nodding terms with the truth.
‘I don’t know how you Brits cope with such small apartments,’ Laura said after we moved through to the living room. Maybe she was attempting to make innocent conversation, but now I was parsing her every word for barbs, and finding them.
‘It’s enough for me,’ I said, and started opening a bottle of wine. ‘London is very expensive.’
‘Even Clapham?’ Clap-Ham, not Clappam. I felt a surge of anti-Americanism, which snapped back as self-loathing – predictable bloody middle-class left-wing reaction. If I was even boring myself, it was hard to see how I was coming across as a charming host. I poured the predictable Merlot and put on a predictably banal bit of middle-class easy-listening dinner-party background music.
‘It’s considered very desirable,’ I said, defending my chosen neighbourhood.
’ Laura replied, clearly not convinced.
‘Shall we discuss schools next?’ Oskar interjected, all cool and continental. ‘I think that is the prescribed second topic for these occasions.’
My minor headache was still minor, but other symptoms had developed – an acid swirl in the stomach, a general sense of metabolic unease. What this was, I realised, was a miniature hangover, a hangover in the middle of the afternoon, when I had been clean sober just a few hours before. There were therefore two rather depressing options – drink some water and ride through it, maybe taking a bit of a lie-down, or drink more, swamp it back into remission for later handling, aggressive vinotherapy. A catastrophe in Africa was being dispensed in bite-size nuggets from the television – generally disgusted, I switched it off.
At first, we decided to wait for Emma to arrive before starting eating. But the chicken breasts were drying out in the oven, the potatoes were softening in the pot, the conversation was not tripping along as nimbly as I wanted. By eight-fifteen, I surrendered, opened another bottle, and we started to eat.
Emma turned up shortly after nine. She was hardly able to stand. My anger with her served no helpful purpose, and I wasn’t going to compound the situation by instigating a flaming row with her on the doorstep. Considering her state, it could have been disastrous, a road crash of screaming tears. Instead, I was icily accepting of the situation, and suggested that she might want to drink some water and have a bit of a lie-down. She agreed, and was out cold on top of the duvet before I had finished taking off her shoes.
By the time I returned to the table, embarrassment and untargeted anger were still stumbling about clumsily inside me. I had drunk a fair amount myself, we all had.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said grimly. ‘This evening has not gone as smoothly as I wanted. Christ.’
‘No, I am very much enjoying myself,’ Oskar said, smiling.
A bright tongue of fury flickered inside me. I glared at him. ‘Of course. Of course you’re enjoying yourself. You must be having a terrific time. It must give you considerable pleasure, seeing that I still can’t organise a fucking thing. Well, I don’t fucking care if you disappro—No, actually I
care if you disapprove, I care a fuck of a lot but I can’t do a fucking thing about it. I don’t like being looked down on, I really...’ Oskar wasn’t smiling any more. I felt an urgent need to bring my remarks to a close. ‘I really hate it.’
‘As a matter of fact,’ Oskar said, with the pedantic care of a non-native English speaker deploying an idiom, ‘I was being sincere.’
I was already flushed, with wine and ire, but I felt the crimson deepen a shade. I had never actually killed a friendship before; mostly they just died of neglect or slipped into comas.
‘I do not get very many chances to see you,’ Oskar continued, ‘and I enjoy your company. I do not care about Emma. It is “one of those things”. And I do not look down at you.’
‘Shit. I’m sorry,’ I said. Laura was looking at me intensely, apparently fascinated.
‘Honesty...’ Oskar began, and stopped, looking for words. I was struck by how old he looked – not geriatric, but mature, adult. Wise, not wizened. We are the same age,
and I felt like an adolescent being talked to by a grown-up. ‘Honesty is important. It is interesting to know these things about you, and how you feel.’
The air did not feel clear, however. It felt freighted with angst, my angst. ‘I’m angry with Em, I suppose. I wanted this to be a much better evening.’
Oskar waved this away. ‘Now let me be honest for a time. I do not compare myself with you. You are not a musician; I measure myself only as a musician against other musicians. Once, I cared what others thought, and now I do not greatly care. When we met I liked you because you were very “at ease”, and I was not at ease, and I liked your tolerance of other people. But I do not think that you see that your tolerance has become...a
, a poison to you. You care too much about how others see you, and making room for them, and you tolerate, you tolerate everything; you live in this dim little flat, and you do not even like it, I do not think you like Emma very much but you tolerate her because you think you should have a girlfriend, and I am sure that you hate your job, but you tolerate it, and why? For money? There is no money! Because you work at home? Why do you want to work here? And the very bad thing is that you tolerate yourself. You are messy and chaotic and disorganised and to be frank rather lazy, and it makes you unhappy, but what do you do? You are tolerating the situation. Are you waiting to be forced into action by something outside? It will not happen.’
In the light of this, I was beginning to feel that my tirade had been justified. How could he not be comparing
his life to mine? Every moment I had known him, he had been on the graceful and swift ascendant arc of his ambition. He was at all times a perfectly placed ornament on the plan of his life. I had no plan, just a series of problems and workarounds. ‘Whatever you say, it sounds like you have a very low opinion of me.’
‘No,’ Oskar said firmly. ‘You misunderstand. I do not have a low opinion of you – I have a low opinion of your circumstances. I really have no opinion of you other than the fact that I like you. My opinion is: you are my friend.’
He took a drink of wine. No one said anything for a short while. The CD had come to an end some time earlier; I didn’t feel up to putting another on.
‘What d’we do now?’ Laura said, a sudden flare of brightness and energy. ‘Play Pictionary?’
They didn’t stay much longer. Neither did Emma, for that matter. We had a low-level passive-aggressive row about her lateness that hungover Saturday, a skirmish that did not have much significance among the conflicts that consumed the relationship as it collapsed over the next couple of months. Neither of us had firm reasons for breaking up beyond the fact that we did not have much reason to be together. She instigated the final severance; I did not mind, and did not mourn its passing. We are not in touch.
My headache nagged at me. I certainly was not going to have a bit of a lie-down. That was defeat, of a sort. The only option was to keep drinking.
I was woken by a shell-burst in the trench of sleep. Heart skipping, with eyes fighting light, my thoughts sprang up like a field of starlings startled by a farmer’s gunshot, a thousand separate, autonomous specks that swirled into a single united black shape.
There had been a noise in the flat, loud enough to rouse me, but it had no characteristics in my mind, having occurred in the wastes at the edge of sleep. What had happened? And now there were more noises – shuffling footsteps in the hall outside, a thump with a rattle of bottles. The door to the bedroom now seemed atom-thin, and there was someone beyond it – more footsteps, a rough sigh like antique waxed raincoats being pushed aside in a long-closed closet.
I sprang out of bed, striking up a cloud of body odour and sweated alcohol, and prompting a wet slam of sick pain in the back of my head like the echo of the sudden noise that had woken me. A slam – the front door had slammed and someone had come into the flat. I was wearing boxer shorts, T-shirt and a sticky veneer of sweat; my trousers were lying near the foot of the bed, polio twisted. How much had I drunk yesterday? No
memory of going to bed. Who was in the flat? What time was it?
The sun was already high in the sky, but there were no cats on the balcony; I must have gone to bed without letting them leave for their night out. It was alarming that I had been drunk enough to completely absent myself from the controls. As I pulled on my trousers, I found myself thinking that it was lucky that I had taken them off in the first place. A pendulum of nausea swung and rotated in my neck, just below my Adam’s apple. And my bladder was full – a blessing, really, as it meant that I had not emptied it at some inappropriate moment in the night. At a New Year’s Eve house party once, a friend of mine, mentally violated beyond reason by happy Russian quantities of vodka and finding himself in unfamiliar surroundings, had relieved himself in a wardrobe. Remarkably, very little was actually splashed around the wardrobe’s interior, showing that some aiming had taken place. The urine was more liberally spilled the next morning, when the owner of the house had suggested a bracing walk around the local woods, and had gone to put on his wellies. At least they were warm.
Barefoot, conscious that my hair indicated that I had just risen from bed and had not been up since 6 a.m. studying Bible verses, I left the bedroom. In the kitchen, the batfaced old woman I had run into on the stairs yesterday – the day before yesterday, my recovering brain corrected me, apparently determined that it would keep its owner up to date on the present status of the planet’s rotation if
nothing else, and invoicing me a jolt of queasy pain for its trouble – was tidying up the kitchen with the thoroughness of a secret policeman roughing up a dissident.
She saw me, and displeasure flashed across a face supremely adapted for displaying that emotion. Without saying a word, she turned abruptly towards the utility room, so that my ‘good morning’ was directed at the malignant knot of hair that was stitched to the back of her head. (A ‘bun’, although it had none of the pleasant bakery-fresh connotations of that word.) She dipped from sight for a moment and then reappeared bearing, to my revulsion, the cats’ litter tray, which she thrust under my nose with an angry exclamation. Four or five little feline turds rocked back and forth on the litter, and vomit rose in my throat.
‘Ugh,’ I said, and turned away.
‘——!’ she said, repeating her opening remark with some intensity. ‘——!——?——!’
Her meaning wasn’t hard to discern – I should have emptied the tray, freshened up the grit and raked it into a little Zen garden for Shossy and Stravvy to contemplate during their meditations. I liked the cats, but was now reminded why I didn’t have any of my own. This woman, Batface, I did
like, and I wanted very much for her to go away. It was, however, now clear that she was the cleaner as well as the concierge of this building, and that she would not be leaving until she had finished whatever she was here to do. How long would that take? An hour? Two? Could I hide in the bedroom or the study until she had vacated the premises? She would presumably want to clean the bathroom at some stage, which meant going through
the bedroom – I thought of the sloshing wellies. I had to get to the bathroom before her, to check nothing was amiss.
‘——!’ Batface continued. Waving the litter tray expansively around the kitchen. In my mind’s eye I saw the tray spilling, scattering its contents onto the floor, the cats pouncing after the falling, cork-like turds...another spasm of nausea. But not a speck was spilled. The cats were on the sofa (did she know about the sofa injunction?), sensibly pretending to be asleep, a strategy I wished I had adopted. The kitchen didn’t look so bad to me – a couple of empty or half-empty wine bottles, hardly any washing up, but clearly well short of Oskar’s scrupulous standards. There was an empty tin of tuna on the counter, with a fork next to it and some light smears of oil around it – I remembered that it had been my supper and the cats had clearly had a go at it in the night. Deep in my digestive tract, I feared that the tuna had turned salmon and was about to attempt to swim upstream.
The cleaner picked up a third-empty bottle of wine, showed it to me meaningfully, stuck a cork in its neck and thrust it into the wine rack on the kitchen counter.
‘I’m sorry things are a little untidy,’ I said. ‘I’ve been meaning to...’ I had no way of finishing that sentence, and in any case the language barrier meant that there was no point. I smiled stupidly. My bladder, which had been politely waiting its turn, called for attention. I walked back through to the bedroom.
Things weren’t that bad, surely. The disorder of the living room was minimal, and Batface’s reaction seemed extreme. Perhaps it was not the state of the flat that she
objected to, but the tendency it represented – it was on a vector of neglect, pointed at inevitable chaos, a Hobbesian anarchy of filth, disrepair and coaster negligence. I relieved myself, and – mind still fuddled with alcohol – the porcelain rim of the toilet bowl wobbled in my imagination, transmuting into green, vulcanised rubber...The odd thing about that incident at the New Year’s Eve house party was that I had some elemental sympathy with what it felt like to pee into a wellington boot. My friend had done it – he had taken the blame for it. He had, however, no memory of doing it, and somehow on some subatomic level, I did have a memory of doing it. It was not that I remembered doing it, but I felt certain that if I was to urinate into a welly now, I would experience a powerful sense of déjà vu. I didn’t do it, of course. I didn’t remember doing it. I was fairly certain that I didn’t do it. There was no way that someone could do something like that and not remember it – but then my friend had done it, and he claimed to have no memory of doing it.