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Authors: Rupert Thomson

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BOOK: Dreams of Leaving
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*

Madame Zola needn't have doubted herself. A tall dark stranger was indeed standing beside a phone-box in the immediate vicinity. His name was Moses Highness.

Moses seemed to be in some kind of dilemma. He opened the phonebox door, closed it, then opened it again. It looked as if he was fighting the pull of a magnetic field. In the end he capitulated. Opened the door, edged in sideways and did what he always did: thumbed through the directory until he reached the letter H.

‘Now then,' he muttered, his right eye twitching. He began to run his finger down the thin columns of names –

Heart

Heaven

Hemlock

Henna

Henry V

Hercules

Herod

Hey

Hey Gary

Hey Raymond

Hi-Tension Tattooing

Hidalgo

Hien Chul Oh A

Higgins Prof

Highgate Literary Scientific Institution

Highjack Video

Highmore – only to sigh as he witnessed that nimble, almost imperceptible, but oh so familiar leap to –

Higho Belinda

Hikmet

Himmel

Ho

Hogbin –

Hopeless. It was always the same. The same disappointment. The crucial name missing, that gap invisible to eyes other than his own. For that was what he was looking for when he succumbed to the lure of the phone-box: another Highness. Not necessarily his parents, not even a relative. Just another person with the same name. Just
one person,
that was all he asked. He had checked the London directories a thousand times, and whenever he travelled to other towns he checked theirs too, but so far he had drawn a blank. Literally, a blank.

He must have been about eight the first time. Still living at the orphanage, anyway. They used to go for walks with Mrs Hood every afternoon – outings, she called them – always the same walk, long too, real drudgery, until one day he noticed something different. A phone-box standing near the entrance to a wood. So red against the dusty summer green of the hedgerow. And those directories, fat and pink, lolling like dogs' tongues in the heat. He had dropped out of the crocodile and slipped inside.

He was always losing things, Moses. That afternoon, it was his sense of time. Those phone-books, the names. They revealed new worlds, they cast spells, they mesmerised. They were open sesame and abracadabra and look into my eyes. And that gap where his own name ought to have been but wasn't. Not so much a gap, really, as an absence, an invisibility, a having-gone. As if he didn't belong at all, not in this world. As if he only existed in another dimension,
between the names.
Everything swam away from him with great gaping strokes. A black wake in his vision. The oily swell of waves. He supposed he must almost have fainted. He surfaced with the smell of hot dust and stale breath and dried urine in his nostrils, and black fingers from the print of those magic pages. When he arrived back at the orphanage, Mrs Hood summoned him to her clinical white office. She examined his hands and asked him what on earth he had been up to. ‘Reading the phone-books,' he said. Her plump glossy face (which ought to have looked kind, but didn't) darkened. She told him he was insolent, and sent him to bed without any tea. He had associated looking for his name with hunger ever since.

Sixteen years later he still found phone-boxes irresistible. They stood
like sirens on street-corners, their doors inched open for him, their glass panes winked and beckoned. And, after all, phone-books were constantly updated so there was always an outside chance. He had heard that people in America had strange names and one day, when he was rich, he planned to tour the country state by state, directory by directory, until he found another Highness, a Highness he would probably be related to in some fantastic circuitous manner, and he, Moses, sole English bearer of the name, would visit this Highness and they would drink to their common burden and talk late into the night, exchanging tall stories, stories that arose from having a name as unusual as theirs. (God knows, he had enough of those. When he was fifteen he had tried to change his name. The town hall clerk, a man with hands like tarantulas, had actually laughed at him; one of the tarantulas had crawled across the man's lips, but too late to frighten the laughter away. Moses had called him several names – they weren't in the phone-book either – and stalked out.) It was a dream, of course, an American dream, but one that Moses cherished and meant to translate into reality. In the meantime the search continued on this side of the Atlantic. He no longer had the slightest desire to change his name. Some things you inherited, even as an orphan.

Besides, he thought as he stood in the phone-box, what would he have called himself instead? He could have called himself Moses Pole, after his foster-parents, but that would only have opened another bag of jokes. It could have been Moses anything. Or anything anything. It was that arbitrary. He closed his eyes, thumbed blind through the directory and jabbed with his finger. He opened his eyes and glanced down at the page. Fluck, Brian. Jesus. He let the directory swing back into place and left the phone-box smiling. He suddenly felt very hungry.

*

Madame Zola's eyes had blurred from too much staring. The frosted-glass door and the smeared windows of the café swam beyond their contours, mingling lazily like Martini in gin, until a sudden injection of movement and colour, a flurry of blues and blacks, made her jump. She blinked her eyes back into focus just in time to recognise the tall dark stranger she had never seen before. He was bigger than she had been led by her vision to expect – an enormous assembly of legs and arms held together by a torn leather jacket and a pair of oily worn jeans. He positively dwarfed the café interior. She wondered how he had fitted into that picture in her head. He was the one, though. No doubt about that. She took a sip of tea that was, for her, almost profligate.

Moses paid for a cup of coffee and a ham roll and carried them to the back of the café. He placed his camera on the table (exploring London and taking photographs was something he often did on Sundays) and, after a series of improvised contortions, managed to sit down. It was one of those places where they screw everything to the floor. The tables, the chairs, the waste-bins, even, in this case, the hat-stand. Nothing moves. Sometimes you wonder whether the people who work there have been screwed to the floor as well. And they always screw everything just that little bit too close together. Places like the Delphi Café reinforced his feeling that the world had been designed for other people: phone-boxes were too narrow, baths were too short, chandeliers were too low, and tables and chairs were too close together. It was a world of barriers and partitions. It seemed to divide into areas of confinement that caused him discomfort and, on occasion, pain. It pinched like a shoe that didn't quite fit. How he longed sometimes to sweep the whole cautious miserly clutter aside. To run barefoot, as it were. Being so tall, of course, he felt it more acutely than most. Moving the tip of your finger across his forehead was like reading a braille history of his life. Bumps and swellings everywhere. It wasn't that he was accident-prone; it was just that he stuck out like a sore thumb which, because it stuck out, became still sorer. It had taken him until now – twenty-four years old and 6' 6” – to learn the words
duck
and
stoop,
to become accustomed to his size in relation to his surroundings, to begin to make the necessary compensations. Hopefully that was it, at least as far as vertical growth was concerned, and from now on, year by year, millionth of an inch by millionth of an inch, he would shrink, as his foster-father (once 6'1”, now 5'11
”) had done.

His thoughts were interrupted at this point by the pressure of a hand on his arm. Looking round, he saw an old woman sitting at the next table. Worn face. Sombre eyes. On the breadline, he thought. There were a million like her.

‘I've seen you before,' she said.

He studied her. ‘I don't remember you.'

‘No, of course not.' She looked away from him with a smile that was almost coy. ‘How could you?' Then, though her head remained in profile, her eyes slid sideways until they rested on him again. ‘My name is Madame Zola.'

‘And mine's Moses.'

‘An unusual name,' Madame Zola observed. ‘A name with a destiny. You see this cup of tea?'

Moses nodded, smiling.

‘I made this cup of tea last until you came.'

‘And now,' she put her cup down, and leaned towards him with the air of a conspirator, ‘there is something I must show you.'

‘Show me? What?'

Madame Zola waved his questions away like flies. They were tiresome questions. He hadn't understood.

‘I have to show you,' she said, ‘not speak about it. I cannot speak about it. Come. It's not far.'

Abandoning her cup of tea with a wistful smile – it was still more than two-thirds full; she could have waited another two days for him – she rose to her feet.

‘Yes,' Moses was saying, ‘but why me?'

‘Because you,' and her smile became indulgent, ‘you came through the door.'

He followed her across the café.

‘Who knows,' she joked, as they stepped out into the September sunlight, ‘maybe it's your future I'll show you.'

She was taking him to the building, the building where she had lived with Christos, the building where Christos had died. In those days it had been as white as the keys on a piano and she had told Christos that and he had said
That would be strange music,
meaning music played on a piano with no black keys. Since then the building had changed colour many times. It had been grey, cream, green and brown. Now it was pink. So many disguises. To forget the past and be young always. Like a soul passing through its different reincarnations. Some buildings had souls, she decided, and she had told Christos that too. He had laughed and she had seen the secret part of his beard that grew, black and soft, on the underside of his chin.
Soul,
he had scoffed.
You have a head full of wool and no knitting needles.
But she
knew,
you see. She knew the building would go on changing colour until it had been through every colour of the rainbow. Only then would it be allowed to die, to rest. She had seen visions of its destruction, but she had never been able to place them in time. It hadn't surprised her to receive a vision of the building again that afternoon – she often saw it; it contained the ashes of her happiest years – but it was curious how it had merged with the vision of the tall dark stranger, Moses, who now walked beside her. She didn't understand precisely in what way the two were connected, only that some connection must exist. She felt impelled to bring them together.

‘You see,' and she stopped Moses with a light touch just below the elbow, ‘I knew you were coming.' And then, a minute later, with a quizzical tilt of her head, ‘but I never believed you would be tall and dark.
That
is extraordinary.'

Moses grinned at her without understanding the reference. He had the feeling he was learning something, though he couldn't have said what exactly. He couldn't take his eyes off her hands. She clasped them together in front of her as if they contained something precious or fragile which she was in the process of delivering.

‘There.' She had lifted one finger, and the blood rustled in her veins. ‘That's what I wanted to show you.'

*

She was pointing at a pink building on the other side of the main road. It was so pink, this building. Almost fluorescent. He couldn't understand why he hadn't noticed it before. Perhaps it had only recently been painted. Not only pink, but triangular too, dominating the junction. It reminded him of a ship, the way it ploughed through the drab sea of surrounding shops and houses. Yellow flowering weeds fluttered on the roof like tiny pennants.

He crossed the road and tested the double-doors. Locked. He tried to peer through the ground-floor windows. The smoked glass, opaque and black, gave nothing away. Like somebody who answers a question with a question, they offered him only a few different reflections of himself. He turned. The old woman was standing beside him. One hand on her throat, she stared up at the pink façade.

‘I'm leaving now,' she said. ‘You'll never see me again probably, but maybe I'll see you.'

‘I'll keep a look out for you,' he said.

‘That won't make any difference.'

Reading between the lines around her eyes, he realised she was smiling, but with difficulty, through tears. He looked at the ground, then at the building again. This time he noticed a flysheet taped to the side-door. He moved closer.
The Revelation Sisters,
it said. A gay cabaret. The small-print told him more. The building was a nightclub, and its name was The Bunker.

When he looked round again, Madame Zola had vanished. He crossed the street and began to take pictures. He wanted to remember the building and, by remembering the building, remember her too.

BOOK: Dreams of Leaving
4.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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