a short story by TADHG MULLER
The lights were off when I entered, they’d been off for three years. Still, he was looking out, the door buzzed open before I put a hand to it, this was a change. And inside, a window so slightly open, and a breeze stirring the air, and soft natural light. Three years is a long time, the fresh air was good, three years of life in the darkness: like a crab, or insect, stuck sat under a stone.
‘The mould spores…’ he grumbled as he stares back, with his heavy-lidded eyes, a nod to the window. Yes, the air was good, maybe he was getting better? Maybe he’d had enough? Maybe just mould spores after all. I told him of my small success, that I would be having a novel published, on the smallest print run in the universe. I drummed the arm of my chair impatiently with two fingers. He’d known me when the chips were down. When I kept a chair at the table, even while losing, even when I didn’t have a card to play – in this way we are different.
‘Which one?’ he asks.
‘Which what?’ I reply.
‘You know, which book?’
‘Oh, the one where you’re the hero.’ I shrug and realising my error I make to steer the conversation elsewhere, ‘Visitors?’
‘Visitors, you kidding,’ he says shaking his head, very slowly, like I imagine a dinosaur might move its ginormous head. I guess it’s the spine, the bones, it’s a painful movement. He informs me that there had been no visitors since I was last in town. My efforts had never been great. I came when I could. Passing through, passing through for the cash, the odd job. He’d been sick a long time, midway through must have been when I left, droves of people were clearing out. Who wouldn’t leave? Someone too afraid to move, or somebody stuck.
The bloke didn’t want anyone to come, he’d had his dose of charity. Me, well I enjoyed his conversation. But secretly, I am also selfish, there is a refuge in this place – in his private hell. Though I would be lying if I didn’t concede that it’s a hard job to sit here, to look upon his face, to have his world staring back at you, to not feel a pang of guilt, a pang of relief when you are done talking, and you shut the door behind you, and go back to life. He doesn’t look so good these days, it’s not just the eyes.
The flesh has dropped from his handsome face, the cheeks are sunken and cavernous, his bones are prominent and poke out through tired clothes, just like a coat hanger will, and the hair on his tense skull is patchy, as it is on his face, like a sci-fi hero, a radioactive villain, a mutant hero in the making.
Once he was the darling of the neighbourhood, he had lovers, friends (a whole crowd of pals), I only met him on my own (unless, in the old days, we chanced upon the boys), he always had me down as an oddity: poor, children, young, no prospects, the only person he knew who bothered to hold down a job? Who was that afraid… In the old days, he was always calling by, making sure the kids were ok, that we weren’t going to pieces, mostly I was broke, out of luck, a long time out of luck, a long time struggling to turn luck around.
He scratches his face and turns his eyes to me.
‘Does it have a name?’
‘Everything’s got a name Al,’ I sigh.
‘What do you mean, and?’ I reply. ‘You might read the thing, and you might not like what you read… and you don’t read anyway. Fuck… you tell me you forget a page as soon as you’ve read it.’
‘Precisely,’ a wave of my hand.
‘At what point does my story begin?’
‘Your story?’ I roll my eyes. ‘Jesus… is that how it is?’
‘I’m a minor character?’ his voice a little quiet now, his voice almost tender.
‘It not your collapse, it’s your glory days…’
‘Oh…’ His bony finger runs across his chin. ‘My glory day,’ an injured note to the voice.
‘It’s nothing, really, it’s nothing.’
‘Afghanistan?’ his voice is soft now like we are playing a guessing game, a guessing game where he will arrive at an answer through a series of yes and nos, a game I might play with my son or my daughter: what is it? or who am I? Something like that. I don’t know if it has a name. Everything has a name. Does his condition have a name? Everything has a name, even that bloody book.
‘No. Not in Afghanistan,’ I answer.
‘Have I passed through Europe…’
‘Am I in a kitchen?’
‘Glory days’ I said. ‘Glory.’
‘Are my qualifications recognised…’
‘Your qualification,’ I laugh. ‘You’re more than a statistic…’ I remark as a matter of fact like I am challenging something, a perception, a feeling, an ingrained view, the negation of an actual life, a real life just like yours and mine.
‘A no or a yes?’
‘A maybe mate. Maybe.’
‘Nah, come on. There’s no sign of ill health? or mental shock? trauma… come on?’
‘All things pass…’
‘Do they? Where did that come from? Are you being smart?’
‘No, one way or the other… all things pass, everything.’
‘Just like that,’ he shakes his head as if to say what are you on about, or more precisely what do you know?
‘A statement, mate… a statement.’
‘Agh, that’s a yes.’
‘Surely I’ve suffered a mental collapse, trauma, I am very sick… as the hero. Like I am a… what is it? You know, an antihero?’
‘Life and art they’re not the same. Not the same at all.’
‘They look alike.’
‘Life is stranger…’
For a time he was homeless, out on the streets, crashing out at other people’s places, that was when his mental health took a turn. The loss of a sense of place. We lost contact. I didn’t have his address, nor a number, I was on the move. When I passed by I saw people in the neighbourhood, the news was bad; no not bad, bloody awful. Mostly everyone avoided him, or forgot him, mostly they stayed away. Maybe they just couldn’t face him, they were a hopeless bunch, passing life by in the old neighbourhood, eternally young and growing old, holding up the bars, chasing girls half their age, watching the football, talking nonsense, pontificating – mates at the watering hole.
Finally, I got his address. At that point, I had a job… had had a job for months. When I found him he had deteriorated dramatically, he didn’t leave his room, had serious issues with light, chronic pains in his back, his jaw had partially collapsed, cranial problems, the works. He was debilitated. Even now the changes aren’t much, the picture mostly the same, this won’t be a happy ever after story, there isn’t a good ending.
‘I see your curtains are drawn,’ I change the topic again.
He puts a hand on the table and places a pair of sidewinders over his eyes, and does it very slowly like he has arthritis, which he may do, or something similar, a condition that afflicts the elderly.
‘Nice,’ I remark.
If I’m not careful he’ll make me take those shades. He walks to the window and opens it, the light catches the dust, he picks up a hoody from the sofa, and with a faint shiver pulls it over his head, lowering the hood to the tip of his shades.
‘Happy now…’ he looks out the window.
‘You look like Tyson Fury.’
‘A boxer… had a hard time too.’
‘So the book…’
‘Oh for fucksake!’
‘Just answer my question.’
‘I told you it’s you, or at least a hero based on you, a sketch of you… what more?’ I trail off.
‘Yes, I get that. But… my glory days?’
We pause and look at each other. The question is very important, more important than the book, the book is irrelevant, the seed is what matters. His persistence marks a change. Mostly, in the past, we have sat in silence. Usually, he lists his complaints, recounts the problems he’s been having with a particular psychologist, or a doctor, he details the detrimental effects of medication on muscle and bone, details his attempt to get off the medication, details being trapped in a bed, in a room, details being suicidal, suicidal for days on end, suicidal night after night. And the painful stories of other people’s attempts to appear to care, the awkwardness of their compassion, mostly their need to detail their own misery, and the bad stories this provides. To his benefit, he always tells me that everything is relative, his pains can’t be measured against other people’s – vis a vis. I swear he’s wrong, his pain is different, different than someone losing a boyfriend, a job, feeling lost in a career, putting away too much booze, being demented at the thought of growing old, and getting saggy tits, a beer gut, wrinkles, hair loss, going grey, impotency, not falling in love, not having made a baby, not having sired an heir… the things I guess you might think when you wake up and time caught you out, that you’ve actually grown old in this town, old like you never expected, at least not so old so soon, and so alone. No, his problems aren’t that regular. His is a loss of place, of belonging, of home, and much, much more, adrift in the world, shipwrecked in the world, as good as beat, washed up, stranded…
‘You’ll never read the thing. The truth is it’s a heap of shit,’ I mutter.
‘I’m sure it’s not,’ he interjects.
‘So, it’s you in the future. This is all done. This shit is all done,’ I wave my hand to signal something imaginary, the room, the world, his troubles, life. Maybe even all the bloody wars.
‘I’m the Buddha…’ he laughs, he actually fucking laughs. ‘Yeah, when you’re the fucking Buddha,’ I reply. ‘That’s a start…’ he adds.
The fact and fiction of his life had pulverised itself into tragedy, I pass by, a witness of what? The room is his entire world, every last crack, and corner. He is a worthy hero, I lower my head. A deep guilt falls over me, shame, sadness, and helplessness, real helplessness like there is nothing I can do about anything. He is fading out, I don’t see where this will end, I don’t see how much he can take… I can feel my eyes well up.
‘Sounds like some read…’ He smiles. ‘Well done,’ and he thrusts out a hand with a sympathetic air, I lift my head, there is a weight of iron in that hand. I begin to laugh, and he joins me. Outside there is a break in the clouds, the sun streams in, I lean back and smile, he draws the curtains.
© Tadhg Muller, 2018