Issue 224, Spring 2018
IN OUR PREVIOUS INSTALLMENT . . .
Mr. Field, a concert pianist, splinters his wrist in a train crash and uses his compensation to buy a house he has seen only in photographs: a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye on a stretch of coast outside Cape Town. He moves there with his wife, Mim, and within weeks, the house begins to have a disturbing effect on him. Its glass walls and open-plan spaces estrange the couple, while its unusually narrow windows, which, like a peep show, hold their contents tantalizingly out of view, excite him. As time passes, his thoughts are drawn, repeatedly, to a brief encounter with the house’s previous inhabitant, Hannah Kallenbach, with whom he felt an unusual intimacy. Then, one night, without warning or explanation, Mim leaves.
The capacity to love
Autumn arrived with a general spray of autumn color. It wasn’t winter yet, but it would be; there was a hint in the air of the cold to follow. The village was quiet. The cafés had covered their tables and upturned their chairs and the ice-cream shop had its roller shutters pulled shut. Waiters at the fish-and-chip shop loitered around with nobody to serve. The holidaymakers who’d swarmed the bead shops and art galleries (I’m looking for a painting with ocher in it, something to go with my Indian silk curtains) had covered their sofas, locked their houses, and left.
I hadn’t liked the holidaymakers. I hadn’t liked the way they clogged up the roads with their expensive cars and sat around in cafés—the men in cricket hats and the women with their hair curled under—staring at the sea over the tops of their newspapers with their mouths open as though they were so at ease with themselves that they’d forgotten they were in public. All summer I’d longed for them to be gone but when the cavalcade of -motorbikes and white sedans towing boats made its way out along the road toward Cape Town, I regretted their leaving. Surrounded by deserted roads and deserted windows, I felt like I’d been separated from the total mass of the population, like someone left in an environment that wasn’t intended for humans anymore.
I thought of Mim, but not often. I missed her, but in an ordinary way. I didn’t pine for her. I didn’t miss her in the way you’re meant to miss someone you love. And the truth is that sometimes I even enjoyed the small, unforeseen pleasures of my situation. Like the quiet, or the predictability of days spent alone, or being able to walk around the house naked without it seeming sexual. But there were times in bed, when my feet couldn’t find hers to warm themselves against, when all at once my body would register her absence with such shock that I’d go to the window and stare at the empty parking space where her car used to be as though its return were somehow more likely if my gaze was there, waiting for it.
Sometimes, in the afternoons, which were a lonely time, I’d go down to the café. Sitting among the families eating and couples fighting and friends meeting for coffee, I’d find myself thinking, though not explicitly, about myself. Or rather, thinking about myself in relation to them. They are so much better than me, I’d be thinking. Because as I watched people eating and talking and letting their knees touch under the table, the banal phenomena that are repeated in almost exactly the same way by hundreds of people day in, day out, I was, all the time, making comparisons between myself and them. I watched how long it took people to eat compared to me and thought, What’s the matter with me, why am I so hungry? I watched people adjusting their hair with their hands and thought, How often do they touch their hair compared to me? I watched friends exchanging platitudes and thought, How bored they look, sitting there. Do they like being together? Why do they choose to spend time with each other rather than being alone? I watched mothers feeding their children and answering their childish questions and thought, What is it about having children that gives people pleasure? Perhaps they liked teaching them things. Then I saw a boy touching his mother’s face and playing with her hair and thought, It must be nice to be adored in that way.
One afternoon, encircled by strange thoughts like these, I left the house. Instead of taking the coastal road into the village, I made my way along the dirt path that led through the nature reserve on the mountain. The trail was easy and popular with tourists; in summer it was overrun with rosy-faced holidaymakers in hiking gear, but that afternoon, although the cold and the winds had not yet set in, the car park had only the odd car in it, and the path itself was empty apart from a few people shuffling around in raincoats.
The path had started out in the direction of the village but it soon -became apparent that it didn’t lead toward it, or if it did, it did so -indirectly, circling toward its destination via a series of staircases and diversions. I walked slowly. All around me—the end of the day was looming—was white grass yellowing, green grass lightening to a yellower, more luminous green. Birds, invisible in some tree, were squawking. I was alert to people passing. I saw joggers and women walking in pairs, their shadows mingling with mine on the path. I saw rock rabbits. I saw a picture of a lost dog taped to a tree and this, for some reason, seemed significant. Leathery shrubs with pale-pink flowers poked from the rock face.
After meandering for an hour or so along the side of the mountain, the path dipped through a forest. It climbed for a while upward, over some rockier terrain, and then the trail branched. The arrow pointing downward read cable car, and the one pointing up read harbor. Above me the cable-car building stood out grandly against the emptiness of the sky. There were no birds or airplanes, just air thickening into dense gray clouds. The light was changing. I stopped, looking down on the bay. Perhaps the choice of route had gotten confused with some more significant decision in my mind because I stood there for some time looking upward and then downward and then upward again. Who knows how long I’d have gone on standing there had not a group of teenagers suddenly appeared. They were smoking and I felt afraid to be alone, with nobody to know that I was gone, no one waiting for me. One of the boys spoke to me in a language I didn’t understand, though I could tell from his rising inflections that he wanted something. No, I said. He spoke again and again I said no. Then, because they chose the higher path, I took the lower.
The path started off down the slope but turned back on itself after a few minutes before narrowing and entering a ravine so encroached upon by overgrown bushes and trees that it felt less like a path than a tunnel. The sun was setting in earnest now. Something about the time of day and the time of year—like hinges between day and night and summer and autumn—seemed to unhinge me, too. I knew where I was but at the same time I had only a vague sense of where I was. Beneath me some amalgam of the failing light and humidity had dematerialized the sea, turning it and the sky into a single gray mass. The rocks, which earlier had been too bright to look at without squinting, grew formless. Shadows came alive with small animals diving away into other shadows. As the light gave way, objects slipped their boundaries, and as they did my thoughts blurred, as though seeing and thinking were connected, so that not being able to see clearly meant not being able to think clearly either. I began to make out, I thought, a shape on the path. It looked like somebody walking ahead of me but it was just a long black strip, so it was hard to tell whether they were coming closer from somewhere very distant or the opposite, if they were almost almost gone. My heart sped up because although it wasn’t Mim—of course not—in the dark, when a person is reduced to the shape of their hair or the colors they usually wear, figures are just figures, and every upright figure could be the person you long for and have been hoping to see.
I walked quickly, following the walker, trusting him or her to lead me somewhere, and before long, hemmed in on either side by black shrubs and black rocks and black foliage, I lost my bearings on the narrow, turning path. Once, as a child, my parents had taken me to the Duomo in Milan. Having paid a few lira, we joined the crowds climbing the long spiral staircase to the roof of the cathedral, which offered panoramic views of the city. I remember the sign outside the cathedral as having read from the highest love comes the most shattering bliss, though I suppose it couldn’t -really have said that. The stairwell was dark and narrow and ascended in a gently sloping spiral; the only light was the light coming in from the slitted embrasures cut into the thick stone wall. I could see only the two or three steps directly ahead of me and the windows were so far above eye level that it was impossible to gauge, in relation to the outside world, how far I’d climbed. The cathedral had looked stumpy from outside but must have been quite tall because I seemed to be climbing endlessly and became so dizzy and claustrophobic from going round in circles that at one point I tried to turn around, but the stairwell was too narrow to squeeze back past the queue of people behind me, so I kept climbing, feeling with each turning step that I was becoming more submerged, more cut off from the world, as though the farther up I climbed the further inward I was going, as if with each stair I was moving deeper into my own body or the maze of my mind.
The mountain path was still lined on either side by a combination of trees and some kind of dense mountain hedge. From time to time I stopped and looked around but all I could see in the dim light were differentiated shades of black and, occasionally, through what must have been a gap in the leaves, the flecked edges of the sea. The path rose higher along the side of the mountain then leveled out, its contours dissolving into the ridge, which dropped off sharply beneath me. The air was blood temperature. A cloud of mosquitoes hovered around me and I, because all my attention was on where next to place my feet, let myself be eaten. I had the impression, as if in a dream, that somewhere nearby a dog was driving a few cattle up the mountain.
The stars had disappeared so completely behind the clouds that I didn’t see the little cottage until it was right in front of me. It was a plain rectangular building, painted black or built from very dark brown timber, like a fisherman’s cottage. Its lights, if it had any, were off, so that like everything else, it was swallowed into the general darkness. The cottage had two doors, a wooden inner door and a netted screen to stop insects, which bounced shut behind me. As the clouds shifted, a strip of dust was illuminated by a beam of moonlight cutting through the room. There were some furnishings inside but not enough to live by: a dining chair but no table, a television but no sofa. Baboons must have ransacked the cupboards because bits of broken glass and half-eaten food were trodden into the floor. On the counter was an aubergine so misshapen it must have been months old. I thought of a story in the False Bay Echo about an old lady, Mrs. So-and-So from Capri Road, who’d been at home one night, tending to her fire, when two men broke in. They tied her hands with the toaster cord and removed her jewelry. Don’t make a fuss, they told her, or we’ll cut off your head—swish—with a knife. They took whatever they could, including her furniture. She relaxed her finger so they could take off her wedding ring. They took it gently, she said, like it was made of glass. They took it so carefully that I felt no panic. In fact, I felt so calm, lying there on the carpet, that I was tempted to just stay there and go to sleep in front of the fire.
I was relieved, shortly after leaving the cottage, to encounter an elderly German hiker who directed me back down the mountain. The path terminated not at the car park but on a stretch of pavement beside the sea. Ahead of me, across the bay, I saw the village. Sounds drifted across the water, the sounds of dishwashers and kitchen porters singing and clapping their hands as they cleaned away plates. How wonderful their singing sounded. It presented something to get closer to. It gave a shape to a journey that, until then, had seemed endless. As I walked I tried to sing—and why not, there was nobody to hear me—but my voice seemed to be far down in my chest and when I opened my mouth all that came out was a kind of barking sound, as though I was trying to cough up something that wouldn’t come.
The tide was low. Gulls turned in slow arcs overhead. Fishermen came off their boats with their trousers rolled up. Yellowtail! Yellowtail! Yellowtail! Yellowtail! they said as they off-loaded their catch onto their tarpaulins. I watched a fisherman trap a fish beneath his foot and cut a half-moon under its mouth. Rosie, he said, throwing the innards into the sea, come and get your dinner. A seal who’d been floating in the water with her chest upturned flopped over and swam to the pier. She climbed out and came right up to him, taking the fish and slapping her fins together as if to say thank you. Now, Rosie, said the fisherman, you must go and share with your family. Which she did, letting the fish loose in the water for the cubs, who crowded round snatching bits of flesh.
A yellow-haired waiter standing outside the café smiled at me so genuinely as I passed, his whole face lighting up, that I couldn’t help going in. People were talking and laughing. In the kitchen a chef tossed a skillet over an open flame. Barmen unpacked boxes of wine piled onto the black-and-white-checkered floor. I thought of Mim and put myself down on whatever chair was nearest. Where was she? I tried to picture her somewhere (because a person who actually exists must be somewhere) but since all I knew for certain was that she’d driven off, the only image I could conjure up was a picture of her sitting in the car. I ought to telephone her, I thought, so she’s not so lonely. All the muscles in my legs were tense, as though suspecting the chair beneath me might be about to collapse.
The yellow-haired waiter put down a basket of rolls and some butter that had been out of the fridge for some time. What can I do for you, my love? he said, and it was just a turn of phrase of course, but I blushed because all at once I had the idea that I would like to be loved, or if not loved then at least liked by him. No more mussels, he said. No more mussels, no more kidneys. How can you tell if someone would like to be loved by you? Who knows. But maybe! He wore rough cotton trousers with a drawstring waist and a shirt woven from a thread so fine you could see right through to his chest. The menu was stuck to the remains of someone’s spilled drink. Are you hungry? he asked, and I suppose I was because there was a pain in my stomach, which is where Mim’s absence had located itself, in my empty stomach with no food to temper it.
Two overweight women eating at a nearby table looked up. They seemed to be looking at me but were in fact looking at the wall behind me, which served as a makeshift gallery for local artists. The painting which interested them was on the top right-hand corner of the wall, a faux-religious image of a modern-day Mary and Joseph kissing on a rugged outcrop of rocks in front of the sea. Mary and Joseph were kissing passionately, as though in the process of being separated or reunited (you could tell they were holy from the glow around their heads), but the fact that the rocks they were standing on looked like sirloin steaks undermined any sexual feeling. The overlap of their kissing faces, painted in a flat, almost cubist style, merged into the -illusion of a third face that was wonky and dislocated.
Beneath the picture of Mary and Joseph were several portraits which I thought at first were of a number of women with a physical likeness—all large and bald—but in fact all depicted the same woman, just in different painterly styles and poses, sometimes clothed, sometimes naked, sometimes smoking a cigarette, et cetera. Something about the painter’s attention—a mixture of cruelty and curiosity—was strangely titillating and I couldn’t help wondering who the woman was and why the painter had painted her over and over again. The exquisitely intimate nature of his gaze invited one to fantasize a narrative for their situation: A man paints a woman. While he paints she looks at him looking at her. He paints her again and again, not because he finds her sexually attractive (she is, after all, a very large and totally hairless woman) but because he likes being looked at in that way. Seen like this, the act of painting was a kind of seduction, not an erotic seduction (though sometimes she seems to be looking seductively at him from the canvas) but a sort of visual intercourse, the painter’s way of keeping them alone together in the room. There was something disturbing about the portraits. Traveling across the row of paintings, I kept hoping that something would change, that the intensity of the painter’s gaze would lessen, that his desire to paint, like the paint itself, would eventually run out. But he seemed to want to go on painting her forever.
Across from me was a man with brown stains on his fingers who was sitting alone. Excuse me, he said to the waiter. His accent was thick and he spoke with some difficulty, as if he’d had a stroke. Excuse me, he said again. Can my dog come in? He pointed outside to a tied-up dog licking itself on the pavement. The dog looked up as if knowing it was being discussed. It depends, said the waiter. Is it the kind of dog that just sits under the table? What kind of dog is that, the man said, a dog that’s under sedation? The dog was small and had a stump instead of a tail. It looked happy, happy but with no tail to wag. I like dogs, said the waiter, but I prefer the ones with short hair. A dog is a reason to have conversations with people, the man said, about the dog, and beyond. Then the dog came in and it didn’t cause any trouble.
Outside, a family of seals was sleeping on the rocks. The waiter delivered a portion of squid to a group of people sitting nearby. Mmm, a man said, it’s so tender. How do you get it so tender? The waiter said they tenderized it by beating it to death against the rocks. Ouch! the man said. Do they cry? How do squids cry? the waiter replied. Through the window, boats were sailing in and out of the bay, little boats sailing in behind the big trawlers, as if dragged in their wake. A swarm of seagulls followed the boats, trailing the scent of fish, their white underbellies flashing in the moonlight. The waiter arrived with my food and said, It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I love rocks, they’re so peaceful. He put his hand on the back of my chair and poured me a glass of Pinotage. He was a connoisseur of Pinotage, he said. As I swirled the wine in my glass, he noticed my wrist, cocked at an unusual angle. What happened? he said. Nothing, I said. Nothing serious. Is it painful? he asked. It looks painful. Perhaps a glass of wine will make you feel better. I looked at the moon, the fast-moving clouds, the moonlight on the water. Nobody cares about one’s personal trials and griefs, I thought. One’s trials and griefs are boring.
But actually, at that very moment, the two women eating nearby—Flo and Dot—were having a miserable conversation that was deeply interesting. Flo was fleshy and had a necklace tan. Dot looked like a librarian and had a bun that wanted to come undone. It appeared that Flo had lent money to Dot, who didn’t have the money to repay her. Dot’s lips were drawn in a line over her teeth as if to stop whatever she had to say from spilling out. Flo was philosophical. Don’t worry about the money, she said, the money will come. But Dot was saying, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry and gripping the menu as though the pressure of her fingers was holding everything -together. What are you sorry about? Flo said. What do you have to feel sorry for? Everything will be okay in the end. They’d been drinking all night, so when the music changed it didn’t take much encouragement for Dot to stand up and start dancing, rocking from side to side, raising one leg and then the other in a sort of gumboot dance. At first I turned away, because dancing embarrasses me, but then, because Dot was such a beautiful dancer—the way her body moved was just so joyful—I didn’t have it in me not to look. After a while Flo started dancing, too, but her limbs were awkward and disconnected, like an insect dancing on its hind legs, so that it looked less like a dance and more like a struggle. When the chorus came on—Looking from the window above, it’s like a story of love—Dot opened her arms in the general direction of the restaurant in a gesture which seemed to say, Come into me. All the folds of my soul are open to you, then leaned over and seemed, although I’m sure I’m wrong about this, to be showing us her ass.
You see, Touw thought he could divine water
At eight the next morning I woke to the sound of the chain securing the construction site rattling as it fell to the ground. Then a thudding began which stopped a second later only to resume a minute or so after that. I pulled the duvet over my head but the fabric seemed to amplify the sound rather than muffle it. In any case, the orchestration of banging was so unpredictable—it had no rhythm or sonic organization at all—that it was impossible to sleep because all I could think about was the thudding; even when it stopped I was just waiting for it to start up again.
I went up to the solarium. For weeks the construction site had been quiet. The surveyors had come and done their surveys and the only other activity was somebody occasionally shifting the digger from one side of the site to the other. But now, when I looked behind the house, as though somebody had come overnight and cut away the mountain with a razor, all that was there was a flat plane with a metal storage container on it. Two men in yellow vests were walking around the site. One made his way along the side closest to the fence with an armful of pegs (long metal sticks folded at one end), pushing their tips into the earth at regular intervals, while the other, following behind, knocked them in with a maul.
Through the smell of construction came the smell of the sea. The sea that morning was a uniform nothingness with a purple-gray hue. Dense gray clouds were rolling in. The voice in my head, Hannah Kallenbach’s voice, said, It wants to be a storm. But for me the clouds held no more shape than a dream. What can a man say about a cloud without sounding like a fool? The dried-up herbs in the planter looked gray. When the sun withdrew behind the clouds, my old white T-shirt looked gray and the concrete slabs lying by the side of the road looked doubly gray. The man with the maul, who gazed up from time to time, his eyes sunk into their deep gray sockets, at the length of land still to be pegged, looked like a character from a Cold War film. Gray trees. Gray trees and houses. All around, as the clouds moved, one species of gray gave way to another. It dulled things, yet the overall effect was not dull. It was compelling somehow to sit there, just registering these shifts. The weight of the clouds didn’t dilute the light. Quite the opposite, it distilled it. Since although the light—that of it which emerged through the thick canopy of clouds—had lost its brightness, it had, at the same time, acquired an -intensity and restraint, as if in struggling through the clouds it had acquired something of their density.
The man with the maul had taken off his vest and the sea haze made the edges of his body waver as in a mirage. I watched him the way the holidaymakers watched the sea: pruriently, letting my face slacken. Perhaps the earth had been compacted by the diggers because sometimes he had to bring the maul down on a peg several times before the soil gave up and let it in. There was, I thought, something humiliating about the business of hitting in pegs, something about the way the pegs just stood there, waiting to be hit in. Or how the man with the maul said, Stand still so I can hit you when he hit a peg at a bad angle and it shied away from him.
Above me the sun flickered through the clouds as though its filament was about to wear out. I left the solarium and entered the living room, causing my old Bechstein to rock and let out its confused, imploring sound. The piano, I had always thought, was the simpleton of the musical world, sounding off at the slightest provocation. Not like the oboe or clarinet, which strained just to produce a note. Nevertheless, I sat down and opened a score by some dull composer, Czerny probably, and started playing. The piano had developed an echo on the high notes which lingered in the air, and I hadn’t played for so long that my fingers felt arthritic, moving along the keys in a stiff and lifeless way, an impression heightened by my wrist, which hovered so awkwardly over the keys that it seemed to me the broken bones must have been fused back together at an incorrect angle. It was cold. I stopped playing to adjust the radiator then sat down again. Several times I stood up to fetch a blanket or adjust the piano stool or straighten the leg of my pajama trousers (which always bunched beneath me), then sat down again only to find myself standing up a moment later to make some or other minor shift in my environment. This compulsive getting up and sitting down continued for some time until, unable to make myself comfortable, I closed the lid and went back to the solarium. The men in yellow vests were still snaking their way up and down the site with their pegs. They worked together. When a row of pegs had been knocked in, the man with the maul came along with a ball of green twine which he attached to the tops of the pegs to create a long green line. First they rationalized the site into a series of green lines. Then, beginning from a northerly direction, they created a series of perpendicular green lines which crossed the original lines at right angles. It became apparent, as the process of unraveling the twine advanced, that they were dividing the site into a grid. The coordinates, I imagined, for some as yet nonexistent underground activity—the gas lines, perhaps, or the sewage system.
Later in the afternoon, as the sun was dropping behind the mountain, I returned to the piano, angled the task light down, covered my legs with the blanket, and tried again. In the dusky light, the notes wavered on the stave. My playing was accompanied by the regular beat of the builders hitting in pegs, though from inside the house the sound was distant and detached, and more defeated somehow. When I stopped to listen to it, it seemed to me that what I heard was not a thud so much as a low ticking sound, as if the old wooden metronome that had accompanied my boyhood practice sessions had returned now to restrain me from getting carried away by whatever I was playing. The memory of those long and lonely afternoons spent holed up in a practice room with that implacable tick made my heart strain. It isn’t natural to be shut up like that with just a piano for company, Hannah Kallenbach said. To pass the time I’d tape a sheet of paper over the door window and masturbate, so that to this day the act of masturbation and metronomes are indelibly connected in my mind. It takes its toll on someone, said Hannah Kallenbach, to be alone like that for hours, months, years . . . It makes sense that a person who has spent so much time alone in a room, over time, would come to believe that a room could give him nothing but solitude.
It took all afternoon for the grid to be fully realized and at the end of the day Touw arrived. He stood to one side, leaning against the fence with his arms crossed. The site looked like it had been covered by a mesh or a loose green weave. He drank a can of something and smashed his boot against a block of paving with an expression of deep concentration. After a few minutes of doing this he crouched down and exclaimed, Here, I can feel it. I feel the pull of the paranormal. There’s a river here, he called to the workmen. What should we do with it? Suddenly I brushed up against a forgotten dream. There was a pause between recalling the existence of the dream and recovering its contents. The dream concerned Hannah Kallenbach, though it was not Hannah Kallenbach herself who formed the subject of the dream so much as the room at the back of her house. I’d dreamed I was walking toward the yellow room along a corridor, only the corridor, with a dreamlike disrespect for proportion, had grown so long (like the corridors in the Houses of Parliament, with countless doors opening off either side) that I knew I would never reach it. There seemed, in fact, to be a number of -interconnected dreams about the yellow room, or rather its absence. In one dream I reached the door only to find the wood so swollen and the handle so stiff that it wouldn’t open. In another I forced the door open only to find the room behind it completely unrecognizable, its walls clad in oppressive wood panels and lined with fax machines and TVs all tuned in to different channels, like some kind of broadcasting station.
Outside, someone shouted and a car door closed with a deep thud. The chain on the gate rattled as the builders locked up to go home. I sat down on the chaise. The temperature was dropping—it was colder than it had been at one or two o’clock—and the radiator just hummed and whined and issued a damp stream of air into the room. The coldness tired me. Although perhaps it wasn’t the coldness that tired me so much as the house, since there is an idea that a house should afford some protection from the weather, yet to me being in the house seemed no different from being out in the world. If you want to sleep, Hannah Kallenbach’s voice said, why then do you not sleep? I walked to the window instead and stood there with my hands clenched. An icy breeze came and went along the skin of my leg as though through a tear in my pajama trousers. What is there for me to do but go to bed? I thought. After all, I had no job, no wife, no child to take care of. Nothing, said Hannah Kallenbach. Absolutely nothing.
All the while, the worm of cold air disappeared and reappeared on my skin, sending my hand chasing after it in some complicated kind of foreplay. Having felt with one hand along the seam of my pajama trousers, searching for a hole, I now ran my hand along the window’s edge. The sea air corroded things—it had eaten away taps and wires, pipes and light fittings—so perhaps a gap somewhere was letting in cold air. The paint flaked as I touched it. Where are you? I said to the hole. Where are you, if anywhere at all? Because the window appeared to have no metal frame, merging seamlessly into the concrete around it.
But then, beneath the left-hand corner of the glass, I felt an almost -indiscernible groove in the concrete, like the dink in the head of a very small screw. Was it a screw? It looked like a screwhead but it was hard to see -because it was covered over with paint. Why don’t you just unscrew it and see what happens? Hannah Kallenbach said. So I fetched a carving knife from the kitchen. The screw was stiff, so firmly sealed over with paint that it bent back the top of the knife. But beneath another knife, it gave way. It brought me great pleasure to be doing something, to be using my hands again, and I lifted the screw from the wall until it came out completely, leaving a dark tunnel in its wake. Through the tunnel came a jet of cool air. It occurred to me that since a screw is always attached to something, unscrewing it must be severing something from something else, but the activity was so completely engaging that I couldn’t stop going over the window with my hands for more screws, and having found them (there were half a dozen or so spaced at regular intervals), unscrewing them. At the end of the row I pressed my hand against the glass, expecting it to collapse in a heap, but it didn’t. It must, I thought, have been held in place by some hidden mechanism, or limescale perhaps. In the failing light the window had become a mirror in which I saw a composition of stripes: the crumpled brown stripes of my pajamas against the black stripe of the piano against the white stripe of the ceiling, from which two strips of wire protruded from the remains of a broken light fitting.
That night I felt so lonely that I couldn’t sleep. I soothed myself by imagining I was a child again, at a time in one’s life when sleeping alone is not yet lonely. When eventually I drifted off I dreamt of Hannah Kallenbach’s yellow room again. But this time when I opened the door at the far end of the corridor, the room I arrived in was not the yellow room but the bedroom I’d slept in as a child, only the things inside it weren’t my childhood things but adult things, official-looking papers and books, ceramic pots, a pair of thick-soled sandals. Whereas the other dreams had been vignettes—at least it seemed that way to me, since I remembered only fragments—this particular dream stuck in my mind because it was long and exquisitely detailed. I was sitting on the bed in this room that was either the yellow room or my childhood bedroom or both, when someone knocked on the door. As the door opened I made out the face of Hannah Kallenbach. She stood for a moment, silhouetted in the crack of the doorway. She looked nice, standing there. In the subdued dream light her wrinkles softened. Then she smiled at me with genuine pleasure and said, What are you doing? and all at once, from behind her, water came rushing in, swirling around her feet in little eddies. What have you done? she was saying now, her voice louder. I saw that she was wearing a coat and some kind of hat. I’m sorry, I said. I’m sorry. Because I remembered that I’d been running a bath upstairs but once the tap had been opened I couldn’t get it shut. Hannah Kallenbach was walking toward me with eyes narrowed and her arms crossed so hard over her chest that her breasts were flat. I didn’t know what was going to happen but whatever it was aroused a feeling in me that wasn’t sexual exactly, but since it was everywhere in my body, I felt it there, too. When she reached the bed, Hannah Kallenbach leaned down and pulled me toward her. What are you doing? I said. And she said, I love you. But I knew I was dreaming. So I said, I don’t believe you. Tell me again in the morning.
Whatever you love most dearly
We’d been warned of high winds and now they arrived, starting with a -coordinated movement of leaves in the trees and a slapping of branches on the windows. The wind flew through the house, blowing curtains, -rattling door handles, skewing pictures, causing the telephone—which hadn’t rung for weeks—to tremble in its cradle. It pushed at the living-room window, which shook and shuddered and then, with one great gust, came out completely.
Blow, blow, blow, said Hannah Kallenbach, whose voice had become the dark background of my days. Avoiding the broken glass, I crossed the room. The empty window made me feel vulnerable in a way that was not entirely unpleasant. How can I explain it? Through it the tall Gothic spires of the church in the bay looked more exotic somehow. The absence of glass produced a sort of heightened receptivity in me. It made me more susceptible to the world, letting me receive its imprint directly onto myself, like a photographic negative. Through the glassless window, the purple sunrise with its disheveled horizon seemed grander, and more powerful. Everything was exactly the same as it always had been, of course it was, but there was something vague about the way my eyes registered the world. Whereas previously I could see things clearly—the trees, even their individual leaves—now when I looked out the low-flying gulls were almost indistinguishable from the white specks that came off the tops of the waves. Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak.
When the wind picked up, it moved things, and when it withdrew, -everything went still. It blurred the distinction between what was alive and what was not dead exactly, but . . . well, between what had life and what didn’t. That was the problem. Or rather, what enlivens things? Does it come from inside or outside? The wind blew thoughts into my head: wild, inappropriate, dreamlike thoughts. When my eyes landed on the row of agapanthus under the house, the plants gazing up at me with their big heads from the flower bed looked animate. I didn’t see plants staring up at me but sentient beings whose tall stalks, depending on their uprightness or the angle of their heads, had a certain humanness. And although I knew that it was sad to -attribute to flowers a character they didn’t possess, that it was sad to find an animus in plants when all a plant is capable of is processing light, I couldn’t help feeling that the tall flower nodding on its stalk was strong yet somehow benevolent, while the skew bloom beside it rising from its leafy body had an affect that was at once quizzical and superior.
Next door, the builders had arrived and were moving around the site tidying things, motioning for each other to come and see this or that bit of damage. Tarpaulins and sheets of chipboard were scattered around the site, not messily so much as in the positions that things might adopt over time to make themselves more comfortable. The tower itself, which by now was well underway, seemed undamaged by the various weathers. The gas lines, which men with picks and shovels had laid the previous week, were intact. So, too, were the sewers and the foundations. Only the mesh fence between the house and site had collapsed, a fence post ripped right out of the ground with earth still clinging to its foundations. Touw, who’d arrived in his usual orange handyman trousers, was standing at the fallen-down fence with one foot resting on the fence post.
I went around the living room righting pictures and sweeping up the glass and dead leaves that had blown in through the window. Several heavy-bodied spiders had relocated themselves from the garden into the corners of the ceiling. What a mess! I said to myself as I went around tidying things. What a mess. The dirt around me raised a wave of disgust so powerful that no sooner had I finished the living room than I started on the kitchen, emptying the fridge and washing the forgotten cups of tea which had been piled up in the sink since Mim left. What a mess, what a mess. I scrubbed the counter with steel wool until the yellow grime had come away from the grouting and the tiles had returned to their original clinical gray-green.
I made my way down the ramp to rake up the leaves and branches that had blown down from the mountain. But in the entrance hall I stopped and looked back toward the laundry. Halfway down the corridor was the washbasin. To wash off the outside world, the South African academic had told me. And at first I’d liked that, the idea of cleansing oneself of the outside world. After all, wasn’t that what I’d come for? To be cleansed of something? But this was the first time I’d actually used it and I scrubbed myself thoroughly, almost angrily, feeling it necessary to really clean myself. What are you doing? said Hannah Kallenbach. I’m cleaning out, I said. But cleaning out wasn’t right. Cleaning out was how South Africans described a certain kind of burglary. Someone has been cleaned out, they’d say, when the burglars had taken absolutely everything. I was flushing out, then.
Past the washbasin, at the end of the corridor, the door was closed. I’d avoided the laundry since Mim left. It was a lonely room, such a lonely room that just the idea of it was hateful. But that morning something felt -different. I made my way past the basin, down the corridor, and, having opened the door, stood for a while in the doorway with my heart beating so hard it lifted the fabric of my pajama shirt. It was a bright day but down there the air was thick, a damp gray haze. Unlike the first floor, which was raised off the ground on pillars, the rear section of the ground floor had been excavated from the rock behind it—scooped out of the mountain, you might say—which made it cave-like, especially now, when its window was almost completely covered over with ivy. The light was gone and in the dim light—it was half or almost completely dark—it was hard to make out the dimensions of the room, or where the walls met the ceiling.
Mim’s things were scattered around the room. Beside the door were shoes, at least ten pairs. What a mess, I thought, staring into the mustiness. Flakes of paint or dust covered every surface. The floor was piled so high with things that the only way to traverse it was by walking on top of them; each time I lowered my foot it raised a cloud of dust. A shrine of sweet wrappers was piled up on a stack of magazines beside a wineglass full of cigarette ends. Mim’s raincoat lay on the floor where she’d left it, having long forgotten her shape. Its pocket contained a few coins of too little value to bother with. What a mess, I was thinking, but there was something sinister about the arrangement of things across the room, something more than just mess, something unified, as though the objects had not just been strewn around randomly but were shying away from something. Like the debris from a fallout, said Hannah Kallenbach. Yes, I thought. But when I opened my mouth to say it—Like the debris from a fallout, exactly!—it felt like a heavy weight had been dropped onto my sternum and my voice came out squashed and childish. Which was apposite, I suppose, because there was a childishness about what I was doing, as if by tidying the room I could return things to how they were, which is of course the worst kind of wish, the wish to reverse something, the wish to say, I take it back, or, I preferred it before.
On Mim’s desk—a concrete slab that must have been designed as an ironing table—was her laptop, its red light flashing in resistance to the room’s gloom. When I touched it a half-finished game of solitaire appeared, causing several of the mosquitoes which invaded the house nightly (drawn to its glass windows as to a large lantern) to appear from the shadows, their affections transferred to the bright light of the screen. Beside the computer was a piece of paper. My dearest Max was written at the top of the page. My dearest Max, it said, nothing else. One side of Mim’s note was rough, as if torn from a book. On the other side was a block of printed text, a section of which had been circled in blue ink: Walls shouldn’t be strong, they should be soft and enclosing.
Then the computer went dead and the room went dark. Groping around among Mim’s papers and empty sweet wrappers I found a box of matches. The lit match cast a flickering glow, illuminating a spider suspended directly above me: it was thick and velvety and didn’t scurry. I took the flame to the bottom of the web and let it creep up to the spider sitting there, and burn it. For some reason—perhaps the flame had punctured a small hole in its abdomen before melting it completely—the spider began to squeal before disintegrating onto me (and Hannah Kallenbach, too, because she was also there).
I rifled through Mim’s things looking for the rest of the letter, or other drafts of it. A stack of open books lay beside the computer, facedown, as though Mim had stopped reading them halfway through. Perhaps she was bored of them, Hannah Kallenbach said. Or the opposite. I imagined Mim in a flurry of ambition, impatient with how long it took to get through a single book, thinking, Right! I’m going to read them all right now, at the same time. In the pale light from the corridor, I opened the uppermost book. It was called The Hidden Messages in Water and suggested that the shape of water was determined by its relationship to the people around it. There were photographs of water crystals, which, if you looked at them closely, revealed minute differentiations: a glass of water which had been shouted at, said the author, appeared murky under a microscope, while one subjected to declarations of love ran clear. Beneath it was a book called Aqueous Architecture, which was not, as I’d expected, about buildings with sea views or water features (like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, which has a river running through it) but about how water changed the structure of consciousness. If The Hidden Messages in Water believed that human consciousness changed the structure of water, then Aqueous Architecture believed the reverse. The author wasn’t interested in buildings made with water, it turned out, so much as buildings made like water. He listed the various forms water could take: there was -water, of course, but also water vapor and cloud formations. What is a cloud? he asked. What would it be like to live in a fog or a mist?
But I was paying less attention to the contents of the books than scanning their margins for traces of Mim. Here and there she had struck out a sentence in blue ink or encircled a passage or inserted a question mark or note into the margins. On one dog-eared page she’d underlined the phrase buildings should close around a body the way a mother holds a baby. On -another, beside the words people should enter their houses like a drop of blood entering a puddle of water, she’d drawn an exclamation mark. I tried, by triangulating the marking to the words it referred to, to decode what she’d been thinking while she was reading, but the circles and exclamation marks meant nothing to me. I tried to gauge by the marks her pen had made what mood the hand making them had been in (a heavy underlining suggesting anger, a messy circle indicating frustration and a desire to move on). But -really her marginalia were illegible, less like words or symbols than a long blue thread which had come unraveled somewhere inside Mim, and I, now, was trying to reel back in.
At first the laundry had smelled of damp walls but beneath the musty odor I began to detect a second smell, a secretive smell, hidden beneath or rather within the first one, because although she’d been gone for some time, Mim’s perfume had been preserved in the airless room, only mixed in with the earthy scent of the walls, it’d grown deeper and muskier, more pungent, and so intensely evoked Mim’s presence that all at once it made me want to weep. So I sat down and cried, or tried to, because the tears were like grout; I only managed to squeeze a few out with great effort.
Then I came across a memory. It wasn’t a distant memory, nor one I’d forgotten. In fact, it was something I’d have thought of often had I not made a strenuous effort to avoid it. The memory was of the afternoon Mim had -arrived in South Africa. We were driving away from the airport and I -remember that as we passed the large supermarket on the motorway out of Cape Town she turned to me, glassy-eyed, and said, You know, I really love that child (she was talking about her sister’s newborn son). She said, I love him in spite of all the reservations I have about children. Maybe it’s because I was there just after he was born (she arrived four or five hours afterward), but last night when I said goodbye to him it felt like it was my own child I was leaving. I felt so close to him that it seemed there was no boundary between us, particularly physically, that there was no limit to my affection for him. I mean, of course there’s a limit, but . . . For some reason we were both crying. What are we crying about? I said and she laughed a humorless laugh that said, Life is funny, isn’t it?
Somewhere a dog started barking, causing another dog to bark somewhere else. On and on they went. Continuing my spring clean—which now was just a euphemism for scouring the room for clues about Mim—I came to a small metal filing cabinet. One by one I emptied the drawers, finding receipts, bank statements, a list of ingredients (polenta chili anchovy mint) for a meal I don’t remember eating, expensive cuff links, a silk scarf, French toothpaste, a prescription for medication I didn’t recognize, a variety of circulars addressed to Whomever it concerns, a picture of me as a boy with a severe side parting, a racetrack packet of contraceptive pills (half of which had been popped from their plastic sockets), a stopped watch, a number of spiders the size of Ping-Pong balls, and a letter to Jan Kallenbach from someone who didn’t know that he was dead so they couldn’t reach him.
The bottom drawer was locked so I knelt down on the floor and forced it open. Inside was a small notebook with a black cover. I hesitated before removing it, then did, but left the room without opening it. What are you waiting for? Hannah Kallenbach asked me, and I said, I don’t know. It wasn’t the contents of the notebook which frightened me, it was its secretiveness. It must, I thought, have contained the something I didn’t want to know, or why would she have kept it in a locked drawer where I wouldn’t find it? All evening I carried Mim’s notebook around but did nothing with it. At the end of the day, I filled up the blue mosaic bathtub and sat in it, not washing myself, just sitting there with the notebook on my sternum, studying the weeds insinuating themselves through the edges of the skylight. Then, putting it aside, I slid down beneath the surface of the water until my head and shoulders were covered and the sea, from underwater, sounded like a distant volcano.
The only way to understand the sea is to drop a grid on it
For days I delayed opening the notebook through a series of deferrals. I’d pick it up while brushing my teeth then put it down again so as not to ruin the experience by reading in the bright light of the bathroom. I’d pick it up while waiting for the kettle to boil then put it down again so the squealing wouldn’t break the flow of my concentration. I’d bathe for hours and comb my hair in various ways. The more I waited the more afraid I became of the notebook, and the more afraid I became the more I kept it closed, as if by doing so its contents might remain imperceptible or even disappear. But the more I carried it around the heavier it became, until the experience of carrying it had become so embedded in me that it was hard to tell whether it was its weight I was carrying around or mine. At the end of each day I’d lie on the chaise, angle the reading light down, pick up the notebook to read it, then put it down again because, having held the notebook so constantly, my wrist ached.
Each day and into the next, it rained. Through the window the sea swelled and the boats looked small. Grasses slid down the mountain with so much earth attached to their roots that it seemed the mountain itself was disintegrating. There was something primitive about the rain. It made me want to see people or be with people. It wasn’t a calming rain, making uniform watery noises, it was a whipping rain that beat on the skylight and came in sideways through the glassless window. The newspaper showed flooded streets and floating cars. The story of the weather had become the story of the defenses people constructed against it. The radio spoke about stocking cupboards with tins. Cartoon characters converted household items into flotation devices (the legs of the dining-room table are removed to become oars, the flat tabletop is a raft).
One day, as the afternoon neared its ending, with a vegetable soup on the stove and the potatoes far from cooked, I went to the living room to read. I shut the door, sat down, covered myself with a blanket, picked up the notebook and might very well have put it down again when, because the binding was weak, a clump of pages fell out. The outermost page was a blank white expanse with no words for my thoughts or feelings to snag on, and I let my eyes wander up and down it as if at a strip of magnificent coastline. Overleaf were a few lines of Mim’s messy scrawl. Brace yourself, said Hannah Kallenbach. What was I afraid of? A letter, perhaps. Dearest Max, the letter might read, if you are reading this then I must be dead.
But the notebook didn’t contain notes about Mim, it contained notes about the sea. They weren’t written in full sentences but were phrases stacked up on top of each other like a poem. The sea is infinite, the sea is eternal, et cetera, nothing insightful, just the usual generalized observations people make about the sea. I turned the page and found more banal observations. So this is it, I thought. I can see why she hid this away. These are just the nonsense clichés people have been making about the sea for centuries.
I thought about the kind of people who come to the sea to look at it, how they put themselves down on whatever rock or bench is around and gaze for hours into the distance as though something out there makes life seem meaningful, or at least less incomprehensible. What are they looking at? I asked myself. What do they see when they see the sea? Most people seemed to find the sea deeply interesting but it held no particular depth or virtue for me. The most profound effect the sea had on me was that sometimes, from the living-room window, it quite literally made me want to throw up. I’d always thought that people who liked the sea were people
who didn’t like society, that it was people who’d failed in their relationships who turned to the sea. There was something in their glazed faces—leaning on harbor railings, walking along the crumbling promenade, staring over the tops of their newspapers—which disturbed me. It seemed they wanted to be immersed in it, that as they looked out at the sea they entered into a special relationship with it which, to a certain extent, entitled them to speak to it. Because people who spent too much time looking at the sea did start to commune with it, as if nature held the answer to all of life’s important questions, their expressions suggesting that they were not so much watching the sea as conversing with it. I could tell from the way they sat, dead still, that the sea spoke to them and that they, for their part, were receptive to its communication. But what was the sea saying to them? The sea didn’t speak to me. What do you say to them that you won’t say to me? I asked the sea, but the sea was silent and had no communication to make.
The sea glints, Mim had written. The sea seethes. In this vein were written an extraordinary number of pages. The sea is lonely and The sea is wide and The sea looks like the ridges on the palate of a person’s mouth. The sea sighs, she wrote, though it seemed to me that what the sea was really saying, if anything at all, was why or who or whywhywhy. It was apparent from the number of pages Mim had written, mottled with traces of her rubbings-out—The sea shivers, she’d written, no, quivers, no, shakes—that she’d watched the sea closely, methodically even, yet as the notebook progressed her notes said less and less about anything, everything just ended up as some metaphor to do with water. Sometimes, despite being neither forensic nor lively enough to be worth repeating, an observation would appear twice—that the sea was like sequins, for instance, or the metallic blue of the BMWs they used to use in road-trip movies—which was disconcerting, breaking, as it did, the promise inherent in reading, that, line by line, as one thing leads to another, one is all the time going somewhere, that if one keeps going, one will eventually get somewhere, to some end or conclusion.
As the day wore on it became harder to read, not because I didn’t like what I read but because the clouds were dark and it was too dim to read without squinting. An image of Mim floated into my mind, clarifying for a second before it was swallowed up again. Sometimes I’d come into the laundry and find her sitting at the desk, her face whitened by the light from the computer screen. What are you doing? I’d ask, and she’d say, Nothing, though I could see from the reflection in the window behind her that she was playing solitaire. What did she see when she looked at the sea? I wondered. Perhaps it was just something to look at, said Hannah Kallenbach, a convenient place to rest her eyes. But why did she need to put it into words? It occurred to me that this business of writing things down must have mattered to Mim personally, that in among her thoughts about the sea must be other thoughts; that someone who fixed their eyes for hours and hours on something a thousand miles from nowhere must find, after a while, that it was their own thoughts they came up against. But the more I read the less I understood, since as the notebook progressed, perhaps because her hand was tired, Mim’s handwriting loosened and the words began to lean away from me, as if hiding something. What are you looking at? they seemed to say. We’re just words! We don’t like being scrutinized in this way!
The point about the sea, it seemed, was not to look at it but to capture it somehow, to turn it into words the way a painter might fix the sea in variegated shades of blue or a composer might transcribe it into waveform music. So I went to the window to see for myself. The ocean looked exactly as I had expected it to look: vast and blue and boundless. What are you doing? asked Hannah Kallenbach, though being in my head she must have understood without my having to explain. I scoured its surface for signs of life but apart from the odd seagull there was nothing to be found. I tracked the minute tide movements, trying to decipher the order underlying the fleeting patterns on its surface, which were always changing depending on where you focused your eyes. I opened the notebook and recorded my observations. Parts of it are clear, I wrote, others are scummy. It moves from the pavement to the horizon, then back again. Some things get sucked beneath the surface while others stay floating on top of it. Then, because I didn’t know what I was doing, I closed the notebook. You want to see something, said Hannah Kallenbach. You want the sea to show you something and when it doesn’t you think it’s wasting your time. So it was that my first attempt to study the sea came to nothing.
Later, because I tried a second and third time, the experience was almost traumatic. My many vague thoughts masked one very clear one: there was simply too much of it. Just the idea of it filled my mind with inconceivably large numbers. In fact, I felt a strong temptation not to look at the sea, though I fixed my eyes on it anyway, as if by staring hard enough they might dip down a thousand yards and get to the bottom of whatever mystery lay beneath the gulls and dead leaves. But however hard I tried, I couldn’t see what you’re meant to see when you look at the sea. So, having dedicated myself for some time to observing the water, I came to the conclusion that nothing I could say about it was insightful.
The rain stopped and I went up to the solarium. The sun came out from behind the clouds (the sun came out from behind the clouds, we say, though -really it’s the clouds that are passing) but the paving had been sunk in water so long that it had lost its hardness and gone soft and almost wood-like. A crab scuttled out from under a flowerpot and darted away. I watched a -municipal worker clearing leaves from the railway tracks, jumping back each time a train squeaked past. Fishermen bent over their hooks and tackle, so accustomed to the sea that they paid it no attention. Whereas from the living room the close-up view of the sea made it seem restless and constantly moving; from the solarium, seen in its entirety, it was obvious it wasn’t -going anywhere. The sea twitches, I thought. Perhaps that’s why she watched it, without worrying, not even for an instant, about waking to find it gone from the bay. I zoomed out, letting my eyes relax until the sea beneath me was just a long blue line which, at a certain point, became the horizon. Nothing stood out. Nothing drew itself to my attention. In fact, the more I looked at the sea, the less I seemed to see it, and this special way of not looking produced a feeling in me that I was sort of there and sort of not there, a feeling which lasted for a few minutes until, because it troubled me, I wrote it down—There are times, I wrote, when I’m looking at the sea and it’s all so dull I can hardly be sure I even exist—and felt myself again. I stand here thinking these strange philosophical thoughts, I wrote, and felt a sort of happiness come over me, or comfort maybe, as if there were suddenly two of us, as if my writing down my thoughts was a way of keeping myself company.
After half an hour or thereabouts the rain returned, a reprieve doubly cruel for its brevity, since there was neither enough time for the puddles to be reabsorbed into clouds nor for the sun to blast away all my thoughts. When I came downstairs, the phone was ringing. In all the months of living alone, I’d not gotten used to being alone. When the phone rang I couldn’t help hoping—just for a second while the caller’s identity was still unknown—that it was Mim calling, knowing at the same time that the moment I picked it up the disappointment would make my stomach drop as it does coming over a steep hill. When I picked up the phone, the line was quiet. Hello? It was a woman’s voice which eventually spoke. Hello? it said again because, perhaps since I’d not spoken to anyone for a long time, I’d forgotten to say something. Hannah Kallenbach’s voice was warm and soft but loud at the same time, as though amplified by its surroundings, like when someone is calling from a phone box. Are you okay? she said. I just wanted to find out how you were . . . How you are, I mean. The question gave me a strained feeling: like happiness, or sadness, or both (as if we’ve two different names for the same feeling), or maybe something else entirely which just shares their intensity. Oh, I said, thank you. Her voice lowered, taking on the kind of conspiratorial tone that suggests one is about to be let in on a secret. I was worried that the phones were down, she said, so I wouldn’t be able to reach you.
The moment I put the phone down I lost all memory of the conversation. With it went the memory of everything that had happened around it, all of which disappeared the way that, when you wake up, you lose dreams. I tried to orient myself with questions like What day is it? or What was I saying five minutes ago? or Who was it I was talking to on the telephone? but couldn’t answer any of my questions so I stopped the test and tried to forget it, too. My mind was blank apart from the word Hannah, which circled in my head like a trapped insect. Hannah. Like Mim, it read the same in both directions. Hannah, Hannah. I said it twice, as if to expel it by saying it out loud, then a third time because it was a pleasant sound, enveloping, with no harsh plosives for the tongue to trip over.
That night, although I knew I was alone, I didn’t feel that I was alone. When I walked to and fro in the windowless room, the darkness turned the glass wall into a mirror so it looked like there were two of us walking in the room at the same time, the other following me like a double. And when I looked out at the invisible black sea, the lighthouse consoled me by casting its beam across the water, illuminating some gulls floating in the darkness. And later, when it was quiet and the restaurant music no longer echoed through the bay, the sea sound was like someone breathing in the room with me. I lay down and closed my eyes, feeling a clenching in my heart. Shaking my head from side to side, as if to refuse something, or to burrow my way into sleep, I caught myself muttering, Everything will be okay, everything will be okay in the end, without knowing why, as if somewhere inside, I knew that being asleep was more dangerous than being awake.
The sun came out from behind the clouds, we say, though really it’s the clouds that are passing
Morning arrived and I opened my eyes, pushing the notebook slowly to one side. It wasn’t light yet. I could measure the distance of things by their color: those nearest were bright and vibrant; those furthest away were gray, as if -covered in ash. It must be Sunday, I thought, because the building site was -quiet. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw Hannah Kallenbach leaning against the radiator, looking down on me with her special piercing gaze. What are you looking at? I said. And she said, I like watching you wake up. I like the way that, for a few moments, you’re okay. Because for a few moments everything was calm and then it began to shake. I thought there might have been an earth tremor or that a washing machine somewhere was on spin cycle, but the glass of water beside my bed had no ripples on its surface. For a moment (since each night in dreams I reversed Mim’s leaving so that in the morning it happened all over again), I had the notion that the bed was moving -because Mim was beside me, sobbing maybe, or masturbating. Then I heard the sounds of something dropping, and again the house shook as a crane off-loaded a stack of bricks from a van parked on the street into a large metal skip. I couldn’t see the crane in its entirety, all I could see was the apex of its bent elbow as it lifted the bricks, swiveled, and released them with a loud crash.
Gradually, the tower had begun to resolve itself into a form I could recognize. On top of the square podium the skeleton of the building had been erected—a dozen or so round floor plates supported by thin columns. There were no outer walls or windows yet, just these evenly spaced floor plates -rising up around the large columns for the lift shafts, with staircases zigzagging between them. I could see the stairwells and the corridors, and the rooms leading off them. The electrics had gone in and bits of wiring poked from where the plug sockets and light switches would be. Touw had arrived on-site in a pair of maroon britches and leaned a tall ladder against the wall of the apartment tower. He was fitting a bright green flag onto a flagpole made from a piece of timber. touw studio said the flag. -making -extraordinary projects happen! The builders, watching as he tightened the rope of the flag around the makeshift flagpole and, turning his hands, fastened it, looked to be experiencing collective bemusement.
All the while, it rained. The sea was flinging up brown sand and lifeguards had raised red flags to keep surfers off the huge waves coming in, each one beginning almost before the previous one was over. In the months since I’d arrived, the building site had been animated by changing noises. In the early days, while the builders were breaking ground, I’d mostly heard loud drilling and jackhammers breaking up rocks. Then had come the peaceful time while the foundations were being laid, which in due course had given way to the construction stage, with contractors arriving on site each morning, each with a different job, making a different sound. Mostly there were delicate sounds—the fine metal sounds of a chain swinging, its links clashing in a metal chord; the even roar of an electric sanding machine—-accompanied by the large, generous rumble of a concrete mixer. But sometimes, since I couldn’t always see which instrument or tool each sound corresponded to, I had to imagine a machine producing a tired squeal or one which emitted tapping sounds in such a quick rhythm that—in the same way as the multiple notes of a saw’s teeth sounding close together are identified simply as “sawing” or the many incisions of a drill are just called “drilling”—they merged into a single high-pitched whine. So that during the day, as I lay on the chaise, my thoughts were constantly being infiltrated by odd hypotheses. When, for instance, I heard stones knocking together, I pictured stones being cleaned in a large washing machine, and when I heard a metallic scratching sound, I pictured somebody sweeping the dirt with a metal-bristled broom, and when a faint whirring filled the air, I imagined that someone somewhere was grinding coffee or sharpening a pencil with an old electric pencil sharpener.
What disturbed me, however, was not the mysteriousness of the individual sounds—which, in themselves, were not especially aggravating—but the sounds that the builders (more of whom arrived every day) made working -simultaneously. Because although I knew that each of the builders was acting independently, oblivious of the others, I couldn’t help searching for some kind of synchronicity between them, as though, like an orchestra tuning up before a performance, their many tools were just warming up for the -moment, always -imminent, when they would come together into some kind of coherent organization. My ears, unable to switch off this hope for the resolution the site seemed to be crying out for, were constantly alert for any regularity, believing always that a hammer striking (one, two, three—pause—one, two, three) might be counting the rest of the instruments into rhythm, or that some sonic coincidence, like the scrape of a spade running for a few seconds in parallel to the grating of a drill, signified something more. As though the bricklayer smoothing mortar and the roofer laying flashing and the plumber installing a pipe and the workman transferring gravel from something into something else were, all the time, on the verge of aligning themselves, of synchronizing into some form which would reveal the underlying structure according to which the site was arranged.
All day, I listened to the completely unpredictable orchestration of banging with a burning sensation in my chest. The lack of rhythm drove me nearly insane and I couldn’t wait for six o’clock when the mechanical sounds gave way to the human sounds of laughing and talking as the builders packed up and went into the corrugated hut to change clothes. But the moment the gate closed and its chain clinked shut, I regretted their departure since my ears, having listened with such attentiveness during the day, couldn’t switch off their sensitivity to every sound. Even when the world went quiet, they heard the smallest noise acutely. Especially at night. No sooner had I closed my eyes than my highly attuned ears would detect some sound—the creaking of a ventilator or my foot rubbing against the bed linen—which, like a conductor raising his hand, would draw in some other sounds, and then a whole host of sounds which during the day would have meant nothing to me, but in the dark, when it was hard to link the noise to the object it came from, seemed strange and sinister. However calm I felt when I lay down, within moments of switching off the light, my ear would fixate, for instance, on what sounded like two pieces of wood being knocked together, a sound which seemed so threatening that I’d stay dead still for minutes—hours, even—hardly breathing in case the air squeaking through my blocked sinuses alerted the intruder of my presence. Then the noise stopped. Then it started up again, only this time it seemed less like two pieces of wood knocking together than a thin piece of wood creaking, like a wooden clotheshorse being folded away. For a moment I felt relieved—it was just someone folding laundry. But of course it couldn’t be a clotheshorse because why would an intruder be folding a clotheshorse, and in any case, I didn’t have a clotheshorse, I hung the washing over a cable strung between two trees. It was as though the inner membrane of my ear had been worn away. Sometimes I even took the sound of my own breathing for the sound of an intruder’s footsteps dragging their way along the corridor toward me. And at those times, above all, I missed Mim. I longed to be able to turn over and know by her unchanged breathing or the calm expression on her sleeping face that whatever rustling or scraping had frightened me didn’t worry her, so there was nothing for me to worry about either. What are you so afraid of? I’d comfort myself, trying not to respond to every noise that came out of the dark with a paranoid start. There’s nothing to worry about. But when, in the middle of the night, a sound emerged from the darkness, it was so alarming that I’d jump out of bed, convinced that I was not alone—those are definitely footsteps!—and rush to the window only to fasten my eyes onto complete blackness. For a moment I would hear something, a scratching for instance, as though somebody—an archaeologist?—were chiseling away at the mountain, and I’d say, Hello?, then, suddenly timid, Hello? again, picturing whomever was out there staring back up at me.
Even when I fell asleep my ears, like two sentries guarding me overnight, stayed open. So it would happen sometimes that long after midnight, in the time of deepest sleep, I would wake because someone was calling for me, or not calling for me so much as calling out my name with a rising inflection, the way someone hearing a noise when they think they are alone calls out Hello? I’d try to ignore the sound—it wasn’t Mim, I told myself, of course not—and although I knew it was just a dream, I couldn’t help believing that it might be her, that she might be downstairs, standing at the door calling for me, waiting for my reply. Despite myself, I’d lie there, making not the slightest movement, in case she called again, sometimes even responding with my own Hello? and lifting my head from the pillow in the hope that something other than the ticking of my watch could be heard on the other side of the room. Then I’d fall asleep again, but too soon, before the dream had been fully blown away by wakefulness, so that sometimes Mim’s presence remained and I’d wake again during the night to feel her prodding my shoulder. I must be snoring, I’d think, rolling over, but her hand would keep up its prodding until I opened my eyes and found a dark shape standing over me. What are you doing? I’d say, and when she didn’t reply, I’d try to shush myself back to sleep—Ssh, I’d say, Ssh, ssh, you’re dreaming, it’s just a dream—but nothing my eyes told me as they grew accustomed to the dark erased the feeling of dread in my heart.
It rained for days, for weeks, each daily outpouring coming more voluminously from the clouds than the last. The rain had breached the boundaries of the house. It came in through the glassless window of the living room and through the corners of the ceiling where the flat roof was improperly sealed. Damp rose on the walls of the entrance hall where the foundations were too shallowly laid and filtered into the upstairs walls where water had penetrated the facade. The roof had become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Clouds of them drifted into the living room, where the atmosphere was better for living. They surrounded me so that it felt like I was being tried by a council of mosquitoes—What is he waiting for? they said. He must be waiting for something, something in particular.
Before long, the tea-colored stains began to leak and I arranged a number of saucepans under the ceiling so there were now a variety of places around the house which produced a regular rhythm as heavy raindrops fell into the metal pots. The dripping sound had the opposite effect to the -unpredictable orchestration of the building site. Where the noises from outside were so -irregular that I was constantly being alerted to their presence, the water falling into the pots, tempered as it was by the many layers of roofing and ceiling materials, was so evenly distributed that it had a reliable beat and my mind soon grew accustomed to its presence. The enduringly uniform tempo of the rain dripping into the house provided me with a sense of security. Hearing it, like a baby soothed by a ticking clock, I felt reassured, both of the rhythm’s own constancy and of the house’s ability to protect me. Since the rhythm, which stood in counterpoint to the chaos outside and the vagaries of the rain (which raged against the skylight, settling into a beat for a moment or two only before the wind changed direction and it became unfamiliar again), distinguished inside from out, giving the impression, so seldom experienced anymore in the house, that being inside meant being separate from the outside world, so the experience of the rain, from inside, was detached: I could sit there and watch it like a film about rain.
For days the urge to play the piano had found outlet in a constant foot-tapping and teeth-chattering and pressing of fingers against thighs. Now I sat down at the piano. Chopin’s preludes fell open, out of habit, on the “Raindrop” prelude. The ivory keys were brown around the edges and the fingering penciled into the score had faded but my hands remembered where to go, the right hand carrying in the melody, the left coming down repeatedly on the A-flat which runs throughout the piece. My hands were cold—a luminous, bloodless yellow—and however hard I tried, my left wrist kept collapsing. The little bird! I’d remind myself, because my Russian piano teacher had told me to keep my wrist high up as though cradling a bird’s egg beneath the palm of my hand, but it was no good, the muscles had atrophied since the accident and didn’t have the strength to hold it for very long.
The “Raindrop” prelude’s recurring A-flat, I had always thought, was one of piano playing’s greatest paradoxes. The fact that technically it was so easy—with its many repeated notes—made the prelude seem generally more straightforward than, say, pieces with lots of complex finger maneuverings. Yet its simplicity was precisely what made it so complicated, because how can a person strike a single note over and over at exactly the same volume and tempo? After all, apart from the physical challenge, since a finger strains when performing the same movement repeatedly, the pianist’s problem is to find a way to play the note with feeling so that the repetitiveness of a single note heard again and again with absolutely no variation does not become boring.
As is traditional among pianists, I had always alternated between the -index and third finger to keep the tempo regular and stop either from becoming overtired. But the scar tissue from the accident, or perhaps the metalwork itself, had stiffened my fingers so the index finger of my left hand came down heavily and loudly on the A-flat with a regularity so exact it was almost militant. And whereas previously the left hand had intuitively responded to the melody in the right, making subtle adjustments in volume and tempo and tone to add color, softening instinctively in the places where the melody was pleading or seductive and vulnerable, now it came down on the A-flat with absolute consistency.
That my left hand had acquired this mechanical quality ought to have neutralized the prelude’s capacity for misery but instead it brought it to the fore. And as I played automatically, like some kind of pianola, my mind thought about other things, thoughts unrelated to the music, thoughts about Mim, for instance, and my childhood piano lessons. I remembered the two grand pianos my Russian piano teacher had kept side by side in her converted garage, a black Yamaha for everyday playing and a Steinway for special occasions and Shostakovich, and how if I arrived early I stood outside to listen to the breathy puh-puh-puh of her keeping time. Sometimes, if I stood on my toes to reach my eyes over the glass, I’d see her leaning forward, her pockmarked face elongated and sheared in two by the swirled brown window-pane, so that her long dark hair bled into the piano as though she was not so much playing it as being sucked in by it.
What do you like so much about this piece? said Hannah Kallenbach. Because although the fingers of my left hand felt detached, like a set of nerves which had come apart from the rest of the nervous system, my eyes had closed and I’d tilted over the piano as you do when you’re about to fall over. I can’t explain it, I said. It wasn’t the narrative of Chopin’s illness or the rain that moved me, it was the way my hands moved in relation to each other. They seemed to understand something about the piece that I had never understood myself. Before, they had been a pair, operating together, but now they were independent. Previously, in the opening bars, my left hand, responding to the right hand’s tentative melody, had softened and slightly slowed its repeated A-flat to echo it, but now, with its pins and fused joints, it ignored it and just kept on striking its key as firmly and evenly as a pulse. And a few bars on, as the rain swelled and the melody became dejected, whereas previously the left hand had elongated its A-flat in sympathy with the melody, now its note remained unswayed. That night, as I sat at the piano, the piece wasn’t just a retelling of the story of Chopin and his situation (like mine, only more lonely), it was something that was happening, there on the piano, a relationship -unfolding between two hands which were like two characters, one expressive, the other unexcitable, who’d been together once but were now detached.
Because the left hand refused to accompany the right, the right hand missed its partner. I could tell by the way it played, moving its fingers -faster and more expressively, that it was using one flirtatious technique after -another to try to be reunited with it. At first the right hand played delicately, pressing its fingertips timidly on the keys as if it were something fragile or -naive, something that needed taking care of. Then, because the left hand wasn’t moved, its rhythm and volume remaining consistent, the right switched tactics: instead of courting the left’s sympathy (or protection, maybe), it feigned indifference, as if attempting to arouse the left’s interest through its own lack of it. And when the left hand resisted, the right -expressed its unhappiness by playing more gently and delaying the resolution of its leaps of melody to make them sing with special sweetness. In the absence of feeling from the left, the right hand strained its cadences until they seemed so . . . so . . . How can I explain it? Well, they seemed so full of feeling. The more the right hand failed to get a response, the more desperate it became. Alone, it played faster, with an almost hysterical speed. Until the climax, when the storm is at its most vicious, where it suddenly became heavy, giving the impression—because it had slowed so much that it was out of sync with the rhythm—of disorientation, as if it were dazed or unable to manage without assistance. And as the right hand’s fingers climbed the keyboard, drifting away from the left hand, expanding the melodic theme, slowly, by a note or two—-tentatively at first, then with resolve—the strain of the gap became apparent and, worried it had gone too far, the right hand returned to the original melody and tempo (though the high notes lingered in the air, since the sea air had corroded the hammers and deprived the piano of the warmth for which Bechsteins are known). For some time it went on like this, the right hand extending the melody a little further, for a little longer, prolonging the distance between itself and its old companion until, reaching the cadenza, when Chopin fears Sand dead, it held its high note for such a long time that my heart—-worrying that, like a kite that -nobody is holding, the melody would not come back down—sped up and I felt certain my left hand would finally do something, that it would swell up from beneath the melody and catch it. But it didn’t. Obedient to the score, it remained restrained, firm, steady, even-tempered, so resistant to being carried away that it might have seemed cruel had it not at the same time felt somehow comforting, as if the absence of sentiment was not a way for the left hand to distance itself from the right but the opposite, a way to contain it.