Thursday, April 13, 2006
“You believe in God, Gerry?” No reply. “You believe in God?”
“I don’t even believe in Sunday!” he shouted from the bedroom.
Alice had a flash picture of Little Bo Beep.
He stroked the back of her neck. She smelt cigarettes on his breath.
“Listen to them,” he whispered. Her spine tingled. “I mean just listen to that shit, all that cheap redemption crap. They’re all dead, like Sunday. The other lot too.” He was talking about the Bengalis. “Kneeling shoeless with their heads bowed towards Mecca.”
He walked to the window and shouted across the courtyard at Alamandera Mansions: “Fifteen Quid on the Hashasheen’s nose and lose the lot. Like I did yesterday. That’s Mecca for you.”
She pulled away and went to pour the tea.
“I wish you wouldn’t gamble, Gerry. We needed that money,” she said. There was a possibility of tears in her voice.
“There are those who kneel and there are those who deal,” he replied, rummaging in the fridge. “Anyway you can go out and get some more, can’t you? A bit later, maybe.” She layed a cup of tea in front of him on the worktop.
“You got any cigs, I’m out?"
“On the floor by the bed. Get me one too.”
He took two cigarettes from the packet, lit them and put the packet in his pocket. From her shoe, half hidden beneath the bed, he took two twenty pound notes and put those also into his pocket.
He passed her one of the cigarettes, took a long drag on the other and let the smoke sigh out.
“They’re out there Alice. They’re out there all right, waiting, keeping order in the courtyards and the squares, hustling for the muezzins, just as sure as those Jesus freaks can't hold a tune with their dead beat tambourines and bashed up trumpets.”
“What’s one of them, Gerry?”
“A mue… whatever you call it.”
He smiled, swallowed a piece of dry toast and swigged a mouthful of tea: “Come here.”
He led her out to the hallway and the front door. “You see that? You know what that is? I’ll tell you. Before you came here, before the Bengalis arrived, these flats were mostly let to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They had… it was part of their religion – this voodoo, if you like – these little containers attached to their doorposts with small parchments inside inscribed with religious texts. Supposed to scare off evil spirits or something. Anyway, along came the Bengalis. They formed themselves into gangs and started roaming the estates at night, nicking all these little cases from the doors. They took them to their bosses, the muezzins, who broke them open, took out the parchments and made mezzuzah soup out of them, which they sold to the Christians from their corner shops. The soup put a hex on them and they all lost their faith and got drunk. The Jews got rich and moved to Golders Green, and the Bengalis took over the east end. Ethnic and religious cleansing by voodoo, got it?"
“You’re full of shit, Gerry.”
He laughed and left her standing in the hallway. She went back into her kitchen. Leaning across the draining board to fill the kettle again, she knocked a dirty glass with her elbow. It fell to the floor, shattering on impact.
Outside the sun had almost completely disappeared and soon it rained, rained all day. And the courtyards and walkways were quiet. She watched television, ate toast and drank tea.
Someone had seen her down Roman Road market with the bruises on her face. They told her sister.
“One day he’s going to kill her!"
She came round to the flat to find out what was going on.
“I’m worried about my sister, Gerry.”
But Gerry wouldn’t let her past the door.
“The house is infested with fleas,” he told her, “you know, since the dog ran off. Best stay away. Alice is fine, fell over that’s all.” Then back indoors with the smile again and the running of fingers through her hair, softly stroking on the nape of her neck.
“I could kill you Alice, if I wanted to, and no one would care.
Five dream people laughing in the early evening. Brandies and coke and sitting by the window at a table facing the bar. Alice in the doorway wearing the Ativan veil. Toni’s plunging neckline in the big bevelled mirror behind the bar. She wore a gold crucifix low hanging on a braided chain, which caught a spark on Gerry’s sovereign ring and relayed it back to the sleeper in her ear, completing a triangle. She fingered the chain as she spoke, smiling, rubbing her arm from time to time – a small insect bite there.
Strawberry Fields Forever and nothing forever no more. And the song kept revolving and repeating, like a carnival carousel, contradictions whispering in a thousand undervoices, sneering and squinting at Alice through the smoke and the mist like tacky coloured bulbs at a funfair. Everything deafened and blinded her: the bar buzz, the children screaming outside in the street, the devious pleasures and the false securities bubbling up through the brandy and the whisky and the vodka and the rum and the beer.
STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER…
And the song ended and the last notes echoed. Alice and the Ativan veil still in the doorway searching through the clamour for him…
And sometimes my head just spins, my mind is a city, a totalitarian state, an autarky whose economy depends on the currency of human secrets.
Then she found him and he heard the words and the secret was a secret no more.
"I don't want this," cried a torn voice that moments before had been loud and confident and laughing, before it sank and a blowsy jeer shaped shout loomed up in its place. "It's the same every time. Weak, lousy bastard!"
Then the torn voice groaning back to the surface. A twisted, ragged moan and the door slamming shut. Footsteps disappearing and the jeer shape shouting:
“Hey Gerry, don’t linger in the moonlight too long, there’s a hangdog moon out there tonight!”
“Moondog! It’s called a moondog, when the clouds are over it that way.”
Leaning across the bar drooling over that slut, speaking his soft words to her. She couldn’t make out the words. So she poured some more vodka into her glass and emptied it then repeated the whole thing like Strawberry Fields Forever but she couldn’t taste it. The music boomed through the wall from the living room. The drink tasted of nothing and she couldn’t make out the words, couldn’t hear those words he stole from her and gave to Toni. But she followed the shapes his mouth made in the big mirror, watched as the sleeper in her ear flashed, its ricochet sparking a corona on his ring as he swept back his hair from his forehead. Her back in that mirror.
That cow.Don’t linger in the fcking moonlight. The phrase echoed in her head and no one was there to answer. So she swallowed some more pills and fixed another drink.
It was his indifference that hurt her more than anything. It felt like dying. Imagine a fear so intense as to make the sufferer too scared to face it.
She had always been frightened, since she was a little girl. Way back then when she first let the fear into her life. Now she embraced it. It had a space inside her, as if it were breath to her.
She sat half up in the bed smoking, her broken hair hard and ruined from too much hairspray. It had mixed with her sweat and then solidified during the course of the night. She stared at the room, at the bottle on the floor by the bed and her discarded underwear. She reached out, hoisted up the bottle and drank. Then she lit a cigarette, going over and over in her head what she’d say if he came back, thinking from time to time that she might get up and have a bath.
The nuns used to say that a body always sleeps sounder when freshly scrubbed.
She rose and pulled on her pair of green cotton cut-offs with the broken belt loops and the torn pocket. Pulled up the zipper, cigarette dangling. The smoke curled up into the air and commingled with the dust. The zipper trapped her hair and stung her slightly. A notion of a song in the sunlight lightly brushed her breasts with its beam and made her think of softness, softness like a glow that is gently warming yet unsure in a cute kind of way, like a baby’s first smile: a baby like Gerry maybe, or a little Alice made of her trickle and his juice.
The photographs in an old National Geographic in Dr Leahy’s waiting room brought back something like memory to her. Leafing through its pages she recalled a child’s fingers and they became her own.
She posed in the mirror, head back swooning gently, brushing the hair back from her forehead, her eyes sinking back through teenage and misty, through the smiling lines, through the frost on the mirror, hair tingling at the middle of her back. She fingered her small, neat breasts with their brown nipples. The dark hair beneath her belly peeked out above the half fastened zipper.
When the bump gets bigger will she still be able to see that?
She sighed. Her breasts sighed, like the African women from the magazines, now trapped forever behind her eyes, spent, sucked dry and desperate. Disqualified from life. Hopelessly drowning in mezuzah soup.