Cherry Smyth

Absorb

I am looking for blood but pretending I’m not. Last night a man was murdered in a fight at the pub at the corner of my street. I look for traces on the pavements. A yellow police sign appeals for witnesses. It has been sprayed in black with the word ‘innocent’ to obscure the phone number. The word is spelt wrong each time.
The neighbourhood is changing. We are in the trough of crime in between the peaks of King’s Cross and the Angel. Further up the Cally Road a new florist has opened. We already have one run by Rosie, who’s blonde, glowing and fertile. Most people, however, get their flowers from Chapel Market, once the recruiting ground for Oswald Mosley. The atmosphere in the new shop is squeewhiff. The flowers stand in tiered silver pots – gerbera, lisianthus, carnations, foxtails and ranuncula. Four men hover at the back. They don’t look like the kind of men who run a flower shop. There’s something about their camaraderie and shyness that I recognise but can’t place. They’re cheeky and apologetic at once. Not blase or a touch camp. They seem involved in something unseen, behind the shop.
A shop assistant wearing a large gold cross around his neck comes forward. ‘Can I help you?’ He’s wearing dark sunglasses. I look questioningly. He removes them. ‘What are those called again?’ I point to tall pointed purple spars. ‘Er,’ he goes, ‘it’s been a few days since I started and the stock keeps changing.’ Then I notice the logo on the poster at the back of the shop. A red gerbera clenched in a handcuff. ‘I get it,’ I say. ‘A new leaf, is it?’ He laughs. ‘We was all naughty boys,’ he says. He hops from one foot to the other. His white V-necked sweater is too big for him.
A cameraman with a grey woolly mike emerges and comes towards me, tells me that Channel Four are following the fortunes of six ex-cons in their efforts to go straight. He wants to talk to me. I back out of the shop. I have my sleepy, local face on. He begs. You people are killing scriptwriters, I want to say. I talk about rehabilitation and integration instead. I feel like a Christian or a social worker. I feel responsible for the shopkeepers on my main street. They are my people.
My grandfather had a shop. He and his wife, their three children and four of his wife’s sisters lived above it. The sisters were garrulous, big-busted women who taught my father how to sing the praises of being alive and how to weep. When one of the sisters got married, she and her groom had their honeymoon in the back bedroom. An uncle had tied a piece of string from the mattress springs to a bell hung in the chimney. My father remembers listening to the music of the ringing bell all night.
I lie in bed awake for two hours the next morning with the worries and then my younger brother rings to ask for the phone number of my dad’s counsellor. My family is falling apart and I have no glue. The shop is gone. What was meant to be inherited, carried on, carried by one of us, is lost. My father’s eyes weep almost all the time. He went to see a consultant. There is an operation they could do. On the tear ducts. ‘An operation?’ I say. ‘I’m too old for all that,’ he says, dabbing a tissue at his cheeks. I too have begun to weep in a cold wind, mascara rivulets down my skin.
I have been experiencing a strange cramping pain in my left hand when I grip something. It’s as if the muscles are working harder than they need to and get stuck in the grip. It started with my father’s depression. You could say that I’m holding on where he can’t. His left-hand man. At night when I think of him unable to sleep, wishing this night was his last, hoping he won’t wake up and the way he’s finished with life, the weight of it lies on top of me. If I turn to lie on my left side, it goes numb and wakens me and I have to move my left hand with my right as if it is someone else’s, as if one side is feeling what it is like to be dead.
The yellow ranuncula I bought have opened into orange pom-poms with a yellow core. They look like visual vitamin C that can be absorbed by staring. I stare and wonder how to keep the mind open, but not let everything in.
This evening I take myself to a sushi bar on Tottenham Court Road. I sit at the bar on a high stool. Nothing like raw fish to make you feel alive again. The tuna roll soaks up the soy sauce, clouded with wasabi. My sinuses burst and zing, making my eyes water. There are eight people working in the small space behind the counter where I am seated. The girl who writes down the orders on little squares as they are yelled across the restaurant looks permanently startled. I can’t decide if this makes her look good at her job or not. Is she hyper-alert or overwhelmed? Every time a customer comes in, one of the eight looks up and shouts a word of warning to the rest of the staff. All the waitresses wear white T-shirts with the word ‘DRINK’ written across their chests and a little photo of a bottle of Asahi. They are young and breastless. They bow their heads when they serve me and I find my head dipping in response. I came here to be alone, to sit at the bar where singles are inconspicuous, yet seen by everyone. Like angels, we are closer to God, the sushi god, the man with the starched navy and white tunic which crosses his chest and tucks into his apron. I watch as he unties the apron and wraps the apron straps around his hips again, making sure they do not twist as he tightens them and ties a knot. His straight black hair splits from under a white paper cap. He has the face of someone listening to far-off music, the sad folk songs of his region, which he cannot stop playing in his head. He mashes a pancake of rice onto a rectangle of seaweed on his palm. The rice sticks to itself, not to him. The sushi god does not notice me. I came here to be not noticed, to rinse myself of relation.
A woman at the end of the bar gets up to go to the toilet. She is beautiful. I watch to see if he follows her with his eyes. He does not. I wait for her return. She has no make-up, full lips, long hair, a flat wide face that could belong to an American engineer who climbs telegraph poles wearing thick boots and multiple-pocketed leather belts. She sits with a man in the corner. I would have hidden her there too, if she were mine. If she were mine, I would know what to order beyond sushi, sashimi, nigiri and bento box. If she were mine, I could dip my tuna roll in her juices and eat it like the lover in ‘Ai No Corrida’. I would shout the word for customer when I came through her front door. She would tell me how she can pass in Chinatown, steal things from Harrod’s, speak six languages.
For a moment I’ve forgotten that I’ve given up love with taken women. Like Sam the Lion in ‘The Last Picture Show’, I’ve seen the last of my wild women swim across the river with a horse. They are now with the husbands or the lovers after me who took them and bandaged their fingers. One lives with her mother on an island – two women in worn jeans building a series of small, interconnecting rooms and growing banana trees.
Singleness has made me sicken. I knew I had to be paired after an incident in Screen on the Green when I handed them my little green ticket saying, ‘Admit One’ and they tore it in half and gave me the ‘One’ back. It almost made me cry. I will live quietly with one woman who does not have to go home at two in the morning, does not need messages written in code. Yet, I have reasoned with myself, to be without the triangle and its tensions is akin to accepting that I will not be a famous Private Investigator, a freedom fighter or a marble sculptor.
‘Oh yes, he’s quite famous,’ says the newly arrived woman beside me at the bar. ‘He’s in “The Guardian” all the time. Self-help philosophy. She’s become all intellectual since she met him. And he’s old. Yes. Well, around fifty.’
‘That’s not that old.’
‘But she’s really gone intellectual. I can’t talk to her. She’s lovely really. But she’s changed.’
‘You think this top is too young for me?’
‘No.’
‘You sure?’
‘Yes.’
‘And does my scar show?’
‘No.’
‘Go on…’
The two women are revving up. I can’t tune them out anymore. They were pretty and interesting till they spoke. Now they are pretty and dull in one language. They are vivaciously comfortable. They suck edamame beans from between their fingers. Their rings are handmade and conversational. They look like they do their own housework only when they’ve over-eaten to burn off the excess.
I pay up, leave through the cotton flags at the restaurant’s door. On Lisle Street in Soho, I see another yellow police sign about a stabbing. ‘On Tuesday June 4th, a man was assaulted by another man who ran off into Leicester Square tube. Can you help?’ I can. I’ve made notes. He was tall with a shaved head and a ginger beard trimmed to the line of his jaw and smelt of air travel. He was blond with sunglasses, a checked pink shirt and a black baseball cap on backwards. He was wearing a cream linen jacket and white T-shirt. He was eating a yellow apple and had a Filofax open in his other hand.
This last suspect turns and speaks to me in the street. He isn’t meant to. He asks me what I am doing.
‘Recording things,’ I say. ‘What kind of apple is that?’
‘A Fuji apple, a Japanese apple,’ he says.
‘Did you see anything?’ I nod towards the yellow sign.
‘I’ve lived here for fourteen years,’ he says. ‘I own this restaurant.’ He points to the restaurant on the corner. ‘All this talk of more crime. There isn’t more. Foreigners are coming from further away. They have thousands of pounds in cash and can’t open a bank account because they’ve no fixed address, no job.’ He talks about illegals and I don’t believe a word he says. I walk away. I go south, cross Hungerford Bridge.
A white ferry called Mercedes moves upriver. People are singing what sounds like Yiddish or Polish songs. There is the breathy sound of an accordion. I stand listening until the boat and the sound are distant. It is beautiful to have live music pass you by as you stay still. That’s why brass bands march before soldiers going to war. They stir you into letting them go, leaving you with the feelings made into music.
I watch the orange clouds above the skyline, the water holding the sky’s light. I don’t own any part of this city. That’s why the public building I am sitting in is as like home as the place I stay in. ‘Where do you stay?’ they ask in Scotland as though sleeping and being at home is only a small part of living, and somehow temporary. This building has a free view of the Thames, has empty black leather sofas and a carpet with a fifties’ pattern of elongated hexagons and white circles. I always sit at the same end of the foyer. I notice that the obelisk on the other bank points straight up to the Post Office Tower. I can hold my biro so that the nib points to the obelisk. Pen, monument, telecommunications, all forms of making memory solid, making contact. I am trying to understand perspective. The projections of all lines that are parallel in space either remain parallel in the picture plane or intersect at a single vanishing point. I remember studying a seventeenth century drawing made to illustrate the rules of perspective. It showed a room tiled with lines. Three doors and four windows opened into the room to show how shadow falls behind an opening. One figure was entering the room, while another appeared to be leaving. A third lay on the floor, his arms outstretched. Lines between the standing figures connected their eye level and the relationship among all three was a dense net of intersecting lines that left no room for anything else to be drawn. That’s what I want. To be intersected in three-ways until I can see nothing else.I have the idea to save my father. We could write a novel together. I would email him 500 words every other day and he would have to continue with 500 of his own. He would have to stop at 500 exactly, even if he was mid-sentence and I would continue from there. I think of ways to save him every day. If we sent him out on to the mountain with a small stove, a flask of water, a sleeping bag and a knife, could he get lost like Lear, rave so totally that he’d burn it off, come back to himself? The self that can sit and read happily for hours in an armchair in a crowded room; the self that need not pace the long thin rug he bargained for in Marrakech; the self who always gets a new laugh from an old joke. I once heard a Buddhist nun say, ‘If we are sick from self, we need non-self. If we are healthy, we need neither.’ My self’s presence depends on his.
I want to call him and read him the newspaper story about the gorilla that had an illness that affected her brain. Afterwards she forgot to go on all fours. She stood all the time. The photograph showed her, majestic, proud of her hair suit, waiting to speak.

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