:: Article

Beckett was my Big Dog

By Terry Andrew Craven.

In the belly of the city’s slum, on Christopher Street outside the Conservatoire’s window, Mark Crawford stood listening as the girl played piano. One hand held a paper bag while the other toyed idly with his ivory glasses. It may have appeared to others that the music had simply stopped the man in his tracks, had arrested his momentum homeward and halted his thoughts, but in truth Mark’s tracks had since waking led him only here, where every week at such a time the Chestertons’ eldest daughter practiced her scales. Why else would he be found in the belly of the slum? The window was half-closed, half-revealing a room dappled in sunlight, and was as he had anticipated it to be, stood, then recently risen, to measure the day’s coming pleasures against a newly crisp sky, eyed between the thick folds of his bedroom curtains. Coupled with Miranda’s youthful playing, the light recalled to Mark his own childhood, one of leaves held vein to glass in early summer, of stems transversally cut and diagrammed, of the scent of chlorophyll, wild flowers, pencil lead. Across the street, a young man stood listening. His eyes were closed and it seemed as if he too had been arrested, as if the music had seized and gently placed this thin body where it now inclined. Despite the untrained tapping of his fingers, he remained entirely still, offering the illusion that it was the wall moving and not the unclean hand.

Mark, who was half-talented at most things, also played, doing so with the same moderate success with which he had once danced under a once-renowned but now forgotten director; to wit, with frequent scandal and mild acclaim. For if he hadn’t the patience to master any single artform, Mark thrived in the presence of beautiful genius. It was with obvious delight, therefore, that he had gained the company of the Chestertons, who had themselves experienced a veritable explosion in popularity not long after (and perhaps due to) Mark’s appearance. It appeared for a while as though today’s luxurious youth – the last barricade before the gates of Olympus, it seemed – would succumb to their version of Rachmaninov’s Marguerites. Of course, the fretful glamour of pop music and celebrity weeklies soon eclipsed their chart debut, their breakfast show appearance, having quivered but lightly under their nimble fingers. It all happened in a single year, it was all indistinguishable: the Chestertons secured an all-but-pantheonic career and, in large due to the appeasement afforded by said near-miss to Mr. Crawford’s swollen and tender ego, the couple cemented a friendship with Mark.

As the girl finished today’s scales, Mark ruffled through the sashay (a Chesterton affectation) and removed the single remaining cherry before shaking the bag free and kicking it lightly aside. Tonguing the pip, he inspected his porte monnaie and noted with regret that hunger would triumph over his disdain for the area’s eateries.

§

“Beckett was my big dog,” dit l’Idiot, sans même se présenter, “I loved that shit in University.”

Philippe avait complètement oublié le livre qui dépassait de sa poche, dont l’idiot s’empara et regarda fixement.

“Ok,” lui dit Philippe, pensant simplement, “ai-je bien fermé la porte?”

“Oh yeah,” continua l’Idiot après un instant, caressant le livre, “I wrote an essay on it. You read that book he wrote on Proust?”

Philippe hocha la tête.

“What you getting?”

“Pardon?”

“What are you drinking? Coffee?”

Philippe hocha la tête à nouveau.

“Two ristrettos please, my petal, my blossom.” Philippe ne savait pas si l’Idiot avait rajouté cette plaisanterie malencontreusement proustiennne à l’intention de la serveuse ou bien pour lui-même. Quoi qu’il en soit, Philippe faisait mine de farfouiller dans ses poches, à la recherche de la monnaie qu’il n’avait pas. L’Idiot l’en empêcha en payant pour eux deux. Philippe, sans se rendre compte, dit “Thanks, man,” mais ça sonnait faux: il avait parlé trop rapidement, d’un ton trop bas et avec un accent bien étrange.

Ce fut à ce moment-là que l’Idiot remarqua enfin le manque d’intérêt de Philippe lui portait, mais au lieu de tourner les talons avec son café ou même de dire courtoisement “au revoir” et de s’en aller, l’Idiot recommença à parler à Philippe avec encore plus de verve. Il lui semblait que le désir de l’Idiot, de communiquer, d’être
amical, lui permetterai d’echaper à tout possible malentendu entre eux. Philippe décida de rester immobile, sans rien dire, sans rien faire, tel un sosie muet de lui-même. Après un silence gené, l’Idiot lui rendit son livre en disant: “Well, listen man, enjoy your reading. No worries about the coffee: my treat.”

L’Idiot lui tendit la main, mais remarquant que celles de Philippe furent déjà pleines (un ristretto, un livre), il lui frappa légèrement l’epaule du poing et repartit vers sa table.

Philippe but son café d’un trait. “Ça va remettre mon corps en route,” pensa-t-il, “dans toute les senses du terme”” ce qui se manifesta tout d’abord par un movement vers la porte, vers le conservatoire, puis vers un restaurant. Il ne remarqua qu’au moment de partir la maitresse de l’Idiot, qui l’attendait à une table du fond. Elle arbora un sourire, digne de la dernière starlette de l’âge du jazz. “Que veut-il dire?” se demanda Philippe.

L’Idiot, en passant entre eux, éclipsa brièvement la Starlette et remarqua son sourire à son tour. Il se retourna langoureusement vers Philippe et ébaucha lui aussi un sourire pâle et désesperé en comparaison. Il dit, d’une voix faible, “yeah man.” Ils se fixèrent du regard et Philippe hocha la tête pour la dernière fois.

“Yeah man,” repondit-il à l’Idiot, jetant maintenant un regard sur la Starlette, “on est d’accord.”

Mais l’Idiot ne comprit rien.

§

They embraced just the once, behind the tennis club facilities. For Mark, it was a drab and lifeless affair which had, however, unfolded with vicious necessity; it was all, for him, inevitable, but really this was a truth ineluctable only by design, delicately engineered over the backgammon table, in so many bons mots.

“Your mother has quite the touch,” Mark would say to the Chestertons’ eldest, who would often attend the board games. Holding young Miranda’s delicate wrist and fixing Margaret’s gaze, he smiled and rollicked laughingly. Indeed, it was in the drawing room, in plain sight of Charles Chesterton himself, that Mark engendered this clandestine tête-à-tête. But what passed as playful flirtations, those Margaret seemed rather to endure than enjoy, stirred in Charles such pride-tempered jealousy as renews the desire for one’s spouse. He now saw his wife afresh through Mark’s horn-rimmed eyes, a gift for which he was willing to forgive the man’s crass assaults. Had this not continued for weeks, over the kitchen counter, in messages sent and gifts slyly exchanged, it may have come to little. Charles’s naiveté was not wholly unproductive, after all: together, the couple had never played as well.

§

The restaurant – Mark scoffed at the word’s misappropriation – was half-clean and suitably half-illuminated; both dirt and darkness had been chased behind the deadreed plants and bamboo fittings. Chairman Mao – whose delightfully well-positioned image framed the room’s clock – “as if he owned time or, worse, was time,” thought Philip – looked down upon the few remaining patrons. The painted hand of a zealot marked the seconds ticking left to right to left, holding a single copy of the Chairman’s Little Red Book. The young man abandoned what could but have been a watery soup and sidled, wriggling towards the lavatory – the frankly disgraceful state of which Mark wished away in favour of Miranda’s fingers playing music – “Miranda’s fingers,” Philip thought to distract himself from the inevitable flowing forth – and if he’d noticed the bespectacled gentleman’s entrance he did so withoutany sign of recognition. Upon the young man’s table sat a book that Mark strained himself to see. Endgame, it said. He made a memorandum to read Endgame, surmising that the raggedy fellow needed a decent conversation as much as he needed a good meal.

As the clock’s Little Red Book beat towards four p.m., Philip installed himself in the toilet. These were places – “the point between the seen and the unseen,” Philip thought – upon which the young man judged a restaurant. This particular toilet was so small as to preclude standing for effluence and when seated the young man’s knees grazed the wall; with his left hand he could touch the toilet door and with his right the restaurant’s quick release fire exit. Arms braced, he was approaching the point of evacuation when the alarm sounded – a silent fusing of wires, a catching upon the dried leaves which Mark didn’t see for snivelling at the menu, which he continued to do until, inevitably, the smoke forced itself upon his faculties. When it occurred to Mark, as it did quite rapidly, that the main entrance was blocked by fire, he dashed towards the commode’s fire exit with a heightened sense of self-preservation natural only to the truly arrogant.

The fire gained upon Philip in the following sequence: audition (alarm), olfaction (smoke); tactitian (pressure on lungs; pressure against door; water under door; water in shoes); but none of this could change his coffee-induced bowel movements. A freeflowing following quite unexpectedly, if sensibly, from the initial effluence. He could not be restrained, this was a force of nature not to be interrupted.

“We’re going to die in here, you idiot! Open the door,” the bespectacled man shouted, “if you don’t open the door, I’m bloody well breaking it down. I don’t care what you’re getting up to.” The banging on the door increased as Philip rushed to finish, seizing at the thread of waxy roll (sudden memory of tracing paper). Seeing from without, one might have noticed the young man’s hand moving along his arse crack with the regularity of the clock’s Little Red Book, then double-time, whipped on by the thrashing of the hands upon the door. But as the Book’s movement ceded to flames, as the hand stopped wiping, so too the beating beneath the young man’s left paw; Philip paused with his trousers half raised.

“Have I killed them,” he thought, “have I fucking killed them?”

The door crashed in with the combined force of three men’s gasping dash; the momentum carrying Mark and Philip (three-quarter-panted) through the escape door and out into the open air.

§

Margaret stood against the tree, smoking, turning it over. She had suffered the injustice of being willingly seduced. She had been seduced, willingly. Suffered. And, what’s more, having so casually cast aside their moment together, he now stood talking with Charles on the lawn. They both seemed despicably happy. Of course, she was under no illusions about the man’s intentions, towards herself or her daughter, she had understood this much after his little comment about the drain. And clearly Charles relished the competition, but she couldn’t resent him for this since all he had to do was cast his eyes about the club, with everyone watching everyone watch their wives’ white skirts. Not even the relish of indecent fondling escaped the purview of the man’s ego, by which she meant man’s ego. Never before had she raised the gumption to do it – not with the young ball boys, yacht-tanned and gym-preened, nor her colleagues, nor even the aged and sutured money spilling across the dining hall floor each night – and look how it had turned out.

“The man’s a bloody waste,” she told her daughter, “don’t trust him. You can’t even cop a feel without it being turned into some little game.”

“Don’t you love father?” her daughter had asked.

“Don’t be silly Miranda, of course I do,” and she meant it.

§

Philip sat at his desk, almost able to read. His kneecaps rubbed against the wall, as though the thin layers of wool and skin between the two were simply not present. At such times, when he could feel his bones, really sense their presence and weight grinding together, he knew the game was up, that he’d never get to work. “Never,” he said aloud.

Philip stood and paced across the small, cube-like room. He turned to the small window and watched his ants come and go along the sill, through the small crack, upand down the wall, from and into their obscurity. His ants, by which he assumed all ants, had a certain relentless gusto; watching them didn’t so much calm his nerves per se, but had become enough of a habit to distract him. The gap beneath the metal window frame was slight; at any one time only a single ant could pass, and even then bearing but a minimal amount of foliage or household waste. Each insect transported a mere fraction of its potential load simply because the conditions (the movement of the building over time) determined it to be so. Each day, Philip thought about widening the crack, about smashing the window entirely.

After some time he took an old coat from the hook and left, locking and checking the door twice, lest uncertainty dog-ear his entire afternoon. In the cement hallway he resolved to take coffee, a decision that for Philip’s minimal budget precluded dining, and in the cement stairway he resolved to catch the girl’s piano practice. Though he somewhat distained extravagances of vocabulary, Philip felt her to be ‘exquisite’. This word didn’t need articulating. It was a fundamental belief, like the sum of shapes which form letters, or sounds words. It occurred against his wishes; it existed prior to cognition and couldn’t care less for coffee or food.

In his pocket was a book, something he’d once taken out and had until now forgotten. Endgame: a book he recalled disliking.

§

It was one of the few places beyond the mole-like scrutiny of the club’s elders and she had been there quite by accident.

“What was it?” she gasped upon seeing him. “To fetch that darn second set lob, I suppose.” One could smell the bin-chute, the shower’s drainage. He stepped closer, offering a cigarette which she took and had no time to light before he kissed her. She placed her hands around his waist. He did not.

“The skirts are so short these days,” the older ladies would exclaim with each passing season, hands riding up fattened cheeks to adjust a curled hair. After the first moment passed, however, and Margaret stood panting a little, as she looked into Mark’s calm face, she understood how it was for him; she grasped perfectly the man’s desire to own her for nothing other than the owning. He cast his eyes to the drain and said only,”They should keep a lid on that.” She slapped him.

§

They found themselves in a jungle. Not as in the business-jargon ‘out there,’ not as in a bucolic, ex-urban stroll, but as in a place where the green swilled with violet, where bloated flora grew from the feet of trees colossally thick and tall. The heat was sickly, almost saccharine on the tongue and throat. Both men thought of jungles they had merely heard of, of pre-history. It was just the two of them, enclosed in a mass of foliage. After taking a moment to stand and open his disbelieving eyes, Mark shouteda short, sharp “hello”, billowing in the nigh-on infinite sameness. The birds shivered around them – there were birds, at least – and the insects gathered in agitation. Given the improbability of their presence here, of having tumbled from a restaurant’s smouldering frame and shabby escape door into this place, even the most unpleasant of familiarities was a deep comfort to them: a welcome hum of mosquitoes.

Dashing about, Mark made to shout again, “Don’t,” Philip muttered. Mark paused for a moment, as if to comply. Suddenly, he turned away and shouted a wordless cry, around which the humming silence settled immediately. It was as if the jungle held the yelp in a pocket almost palpable, holding it up to a dim and foreign light for the two of them to inspect.

“It’s so dark,” Philip said, examining his body. Mark had lost his glasses and begun thrashing about as if this were an imposition he simply would not endure. His voice steadily elevated in volume:

“I say, I mean, what the…” he had begun to shout, only to be caught pre-expletive by a single brute noise that exploded and whose deafening coda shook free the birds and the tenures of their hope. It was on the edge of the intelligible, like the wrenching of an arm from a socket, sucking forth the lungs’ wet air, enveloping everything. The larger of the two began to weep, the smaller just stared. The noise blasted again, pronouncing a meaning so implicit as to set the men running like piglets in a cage. Its aid: “You do not belong.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in Leeds, England, Terry Andrew Craven is a bookseller and writer in Paris, France.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 17th, 2013.