Everything you’re told is true, he scribbles and hovers, hazy, dog-tired, as two beads of sweat plop onto his scrawl and spread. He wipes and sighs and returns to the front door. It’s maybe a bit sad, but it isn’t bad, it just is.
He uses some final energy to haul his bags in properly
and scoop up the last few weeks’ mail, before flopping onto the sofa.
Peace at last!
He is happy, that instant, to at least have rescued something from the last hours’ wreckage; to know something now quite definitely at his relatively young age. If you are to be the King of Writing, Dizzy, you must be the King of Wisdom first.
He props himself and casts a slightly nervous glance down to the gardens below then the square out front. One householder and his dog, pretty much. He knows that peace can’t truly last ’til he has gone out, got some necessities, and that he should do it soon, before the whole full-on-ness of a Saturday kicked in. He is new – well, kinda new here, and meet-and-greets await but he’d rather not get sucked into something new, some new-neighbourly bonding excess, today, when his wits are few.
Or, worse, something old.
You’re a suckable one, Dizzy. You had a sign about that too yesterday, didn’t you?
Urgh! He shouldn’t even be here. He was supposed to be in Amsterdam about now, taking part in a panel discussion. He’d been finishing off a residency in Italy and the plan was that he would get a train from Pisa to Rome and fly straight there. Shouldabeen straight, but he’d been sucked – extended goodbyes with his fellows, the maids, the gardener at the guesthouse so that, after traffic delays, he’d only just made the last possible train, there to be thwarted by the toughest of ticket ladies and an Italian cards-only machine.
He’d reeled. All the shouldabeen thoroughly-missed flights, and always he’d come through. To be denied when he was on time, when he hadn’t been naughty, he hadn’t been slack, he’d just been a little lengthily-nice. It didn’t fit. He’d always felt someways protected; that there was help, a plan for him out there, and he couldn’t see how this fitted.
And such a sweet trip ’til then. All three requirements, the things that make him feel he’s properly been to a place, met: something mad, something sex and someone’s house. The mad – well he thinks that was covered that night he’d, accidentally, near burnt down the joint. And two and three had come courtesy of an older lady, this divorcee he’d met at a fine restaurant in Siena.
The owner, sat with his table, had introduced them.
‘Scrittori?’ she’d smiled. ‘Bel-lis-si-mo!’
He’d been minded not to go there, actually. He did not find her so physically attractive. But as he’d leaned to kiss her goodbye that night, outside her home, he’d seen a real…hope, need in her. And, yes, it had been a while for him too, a hold. They’d lain and he’d wondered why there seemed so rarely charity in this area, amongst humans.
He could have done with her, or just some chatty somebody, last night. Instead he had spent it bootlessly seeking refuge. Status in Siena, and shit straightforward; padding around in Pisa, like some needy new arrival, and no-one wanted to know.
And so it was that he’d reached his wisdom on the night. Adjudged that this, above other contenders, was the message he was supposed to be hearing: it’s all true. Money or status gets you laid, guys had said to him, and it was true. Challenge planes enough times and you will lose. That’s why it’s called Probability – you were taught it, weren’t you? And if you burn enough houses, get into enough scrapes, you will surely die. You may have a protection plan, Dizzy, but even these obey the laws of the universe.
A bit banal, a bit predictable. Very old school, very Newtonian. But true.
He reaches for his pad, adds ‘Science Rules’ underneath, and underlines, then gathers up his mail. There will be a third. After Status and Planes, a third to assure him that he’s heard it right, and that his life remained an indulged one. Always a third. Three is his lucky number.
The letters are mainly official ones – correspondence from a couple of committees he sits on (just as dull as you suspected, were told. Is this the sign? Should he resign?) – but eventually one that is different, that has been hand-delivered. No name, just ‘No 7’ and, inside, a plain, black-on-white invitation.
Shock is too strong, but there was that proper winded feeling you get when you hear that someone you know, and imagine hale enough, has died. Well, that sure explains it, why he hasn’t seen him.
He wonders how, but the invitation only has the sparse details of the ceremony, and a small, grainy, photo and he peers at the old, leathery face as if it will tell him something.
Mister A! Huh. Bad Mister A… The one who first gave him an inkling, about Everything.
He’d see him from this same window eyrie, back in college days, when he came big brother – big, genteel-living brother-visiting, before his brother upped and rented it out, finally to him. Dizzy fancied he knew his role in the Square and its arc – the trusty retainer figure who’s at your service, but ends up with half the secrets, the immovable fixture – and would observe his moments with the home-owning residents, looking for clues to where he was on the curve, and whether there was dignity in it, and the latest trends in class and foreignness.
So when he went outside for his smokes, with a book and an emergency pen in tow, enjoying the quiet you got at this woody end of the gardens, away from the children’s play area down the bottom, and this other intruded, with his pruning and, could be, prying, Dizzy didn’t mind. He was ready, keen to put more flesh on the bone. Only he couldn’t see the route in, initially. He wasn’t big on botany; more a Maths and physics man.
Cats had kicked them off. He’d been aware of a particular cat on his stays, a ginger cat. The McCullers’ Square favourite, he presumed. But then, more recently, there had been another, rougher, cat lording it, black with white bits; or perhaps both still around, but only this latter seen then suddenly the first had reappeared, only more bloated and less chilled than of yore so that it was, quite possibly, a third, and, beyond this, the sounds of mewling and snarling too.
The short of it was that there definitely seemed to have been ructions in the cat world and when he proceeded to his spot one afternoon to find Mr Antonapoulos with gnarly arm crooked around a bruised-up ginger, he’d taken the chance of getting to the bottom of them.
Mr Antonapoulos had explained, in his someway broken fashion, that there were indeed two principals. Buster, the incumbent, and Poopy. Buster had taken ill and Mrs So-and-So had got him to the vets, only for Poopy to seize the moment and stake his claim across all Buster’s sweet spots. Buster had tried to fight back, but been worsted and now both Buster and Mrs Such-and-Such were off their food.
Wow, he’d said, it’s quite hardcore, the cat/ animal world, only for Mr Antonapoulos to frown and become his most animated yet. He’d muttered something about birds. How you would see two together, tending each other. That it wasn’t about savage or kind; that these were the wrong words, our words. We though we could stop it, change it. They wanted him to cut, cut, prune.
“Back home, we just let -” he’d thrown out his arms. “They are longer than us. This, you call honeysuckle, it knows one day you don’t prune and it will escape. The fox knows one day you leave the hen place open.’
Dizzy didn’t know if this was profound or not, but he wasn’t taking any chances. He’d taken out his pen and scribbled.
And, after, cat updates, and broader. But always, Dizzy noticed, within certain confines. He’d share some home country parallel or memory, but they never quite slid into his story: some light on why or when he came, some old flame or family. And what he did say about his origins was different every time.
He’d see Dizzy noting stuff down (“What’s the name of that town again? Karas? Keras?…. “) but seemed oblivious. Never commented. Some times he wouldn’t comment, talk, at all. He’d grunt and avoid your gaze. On such days you could normally whiff some liquor on his breath and, when you did catch it, you’d see melancholic red pools in puffy eyes. This is a man, Dizzy began to think, where something isn’t right. You don’t hold the secrets, you have one.
One day, one late summer day, Mr Antonapoulos had come to the woods. He could smell it strongly that day, but, unusually, Mr A seemed quite chirpy with it. Smirky.
“It was my birthday yesterday.” Dizzy had said.
Mr Antonapoulos had nodded. ‘You get present?’
“No!” he’d laughed. “Just the drink-up with the folks. Ginger nuts, peanuts and woodpecker cider. The same every year from when we were kids.”
“You want Retsina? I have some.”
He’d mentioned Retsina before. Some rich, red wine, sounded like. Sounded good. And always good to get into a home.
“Sure,” he’d replied.
Lots of keys, he remembers. First, he dropped off some bits in the shed. Click. Then led the way to his door. Jangle, click, click. Then another, opened and shut, ’til finally the end of the hall. Jangle, click and he’s inside a dark, cramped little cubby-hole, stacked half-ceiling high with books, papers, manuscripts.
He spies a barrel at the back and steps towards it.
God, all these books, Dizzy was thinking. You see me with my reading and my scribbling and you never said anything.
He starts turning round, to face his host, to find Mr Antonapoulos in full spring upon him. The thud of him knocks Dizzy back half off his feet as Antonapoulos grips him in the tightest of arm-pinioning bear hugs and slobbers, ferociously, stinkingly, just crazily, all over his face.
You see the futures, the probabilities, very quickly. Within a split Dizzy understands that he is very possibly in deep trouble. He cannot believe the strength of this old man. Something seemed to have given him the strength of ten. He can see that he is stronger, and that he will have to rely on this frenzied man’s cooperation to get out of there intact. And how likely is that when he’s locked the door and knows you know him.
He doesn’t remember exactly what he said. He remembers his tone was level, reasonable, and, shortly, Mr Antonapoulos’ grip slackened, and the man slumped into a chair. Dizzy moved as far away as he could, to the table by the door, pushing an open notebook away to make space.
“Please,” said Mr Antonapoulos, “don’t say. I lose – ” and he’d gestured around him.
Dizzy had looked at him, his hand on his brow.
“No,” he’d said, “I won’t.”
Mr Antonapoulos had got up, unlocked the door, stepped out, but Dizzy, for cool’s sake, perhaps, or reassurance’s, lingered for a moment. His eye was drawn to the notebook; to those neat, handwritten pages. It looked like poetry, Greek and English chunks running adjacent:
“The red mouths of black men are silkier than the mouths of white men,”, he reads, “Softer, more terrifying, more tender and deeper.
More like the mouths of calves from Keras, which die in innocence before they’re slaughtered.”*
His first thought: This is really quite good. His second – but I really better get out of here.
It was more a joke thing, that first time. A nerve-settler as he walked around the block after, playing though the sequence of events. The Retsina-play, like candy to a kid. Tch! He’d shaken his head. “Like your Mommy said, “Don’t talk to strangers!”
That was the end of their tête-à-têtes. We they’d passed each other after, they hadn’t acknowledged, although sometimes he’d felt Mr Antonapoulos’ gaze on his back, even thought he’d received curious looks from a couple of the other residents.
It’s not that he was so upset about it. He knew that this was the kind of move, the kind of nasty, drink-fuelled pass that many men made. It was just that most of the time other men don’t have to see it. He guessed, though, too that he’d probably done it before, and since, and maybe worse, and maybe younger.
As his own literary career had started, Mr Antonapoulos had become this bizarre, vaguely-guilty pain in his side. When he was on stage, or heard a poet reading, he’d felt like shouting: We’re frauds! The real King of Writing is out there, in McCullers Square … He’d thought the odd time that perhaps he should call on Mr Antonapoulos – get him an agent. What was assault, when you’re royal?
Dizzy places the invitation by his computer. He is not overly surprised to discover, when he does step out finally, that it was a fire that had done for Mr Antonapoulos. These cosmic linkages are bread and butter messages for us.
An hour later, heavy chicken in his belly, alarm clock near, Dizzy slips in and out. A bad dream to begin with – a group of them in an old tower, then the old poet pointing, “I see fire! I see fire! The spirits of the servants,” and all four in a bed, one by one rolling over …
Are you my three, Mr A? And what would that be, precisely? Was I too late, Mr A? What rule did you? The unknown king? Other loneliness too?
I hear, saw, sex is the strongest. It always outs. Did you out anew? To the wrong, tough crew? Was it dog eat dog, Mr A? Or a bird that flew? What rule for you?
Slipping in, slipping out.
Outside, Dizzy’s dimly aware of rain, and the sound of a doorbell and boxes and bottles and excited voices and, further out in the gardens, more shouts and commands. Sounds like something.
He feels a lightening inside, despite the weather. The gardens, the Square, sound fresh to him suddenly. Virgin territory waiting to be explored, charmed, made his.
He doesn’t know if he remembered to set his alarm for the ceremony. Means to lean over, but slipping, slipping out.
© Diran Adebayo 2006
* Poetry © Tomaz Salamun