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The Oily Cape
 Chris Newlove  Horton



It was the end of August, our honeymoon in Nice. Michelle slept soundly, but I struggled to relax. The heat was oppressive, with no hint of a breeze. It was the sort of heat that can suffocate straight thought, and it takes all your strength to focus on one thing, on a memory, say, or the endless beats of the hands on your watch. From the port, a siren cried out, then drowned in the night. Then another, much closer, rocked me with a jolt. I got up, took a chair from the kitchen and placed it by the window overlooking the street. I opened my book of Zen kōans on a page someplace in the middle, landing on the story of the monk who asks his master: “What is the pure body of reality?” To which the master replies, “A flowering hedge.” The master’s answer was strange, but deliberate; it was the monk’s question that preyed on me most. He was perhaps playing a game with the master that I did not fully understand. Thinking what could be meant by the pure body of reality, I looked through the window, to the small public garden on the other side of the road.

The garden stood where the end of a block should have been. But the block was cut short, like a leg without a foot, and so what faced me at the window was a flank of old stone and newer patches of cement. On the left hand side, a road headed downhill, in the direction of the port. The road on the right side curled away to a dead end, where there was an old church building used as a school for the deaf. Michelle and I often commented on the children signing to each other as they walked to and fro, boys and girls all sealed up in youth. It seemed odd to us, given the pupils were deaf, but the school still rang bells loudly on the hour, as well as for break-times, and the start and end of day. From our room, Michelle and I heard the bells many times a day, and they became, over the weeks of our stay, a familiar, settling sound, like the voice of a neighbour heard softly through the wall. I still hear those bells now, in my mind, and can’t help but form a picture of how Michelle looked back then: her icy grey eyes, her neat mouth and fine nose, her head on the white pillow, blonde hair spread like a net, and the bars of light across her face as the sun passed through the shutters, the light following her jawline and the nape of her neck.

From the window, it was clear to see where a few small windows had been added to the flank of wall. Out of keeping with the windows which faced the street, it was as though these later windows were made not by design, but by desire, by a need for freedom and light, as though the occupants took up their hammers, picks, knives, forks, nail files, and tunnelled head-sized holes through the exposed side of wall. And near the top, six storeys up, where the roof made its brow, there was a square-shaped recess that held a painted figurine of Mary and Child.

I remember it well: Mary’s face was round and blank, and she carried the child at her chest, with her right hand offered before her, the index finger upturned. It was a modest statue, the size of a chocolate Easter egg, and of a design similar to many others I’d seen, in a shop window, perhaps, or tucked above a bar. There was no inscription or plaque that I could tell, only the statue alone in its hole. That night, the night I couldn’t sleep, the statue and the garden were just as they had been on every night before. But dark clouds bruised the sky, and grew darker the later it became. The air grew hotter and closer, until, at around three o’clock, the clouds cracked open and birthed a sudden, violent rain.

Rain shuddered from the sky. There was thunder and washes of radiant light. I got up to fasten the shutters, latch the window firmly into place. Water began to puddle on the ledge, and under the window, the tiles were wet. I took some paper roll from the kitchen and folded it into pads. The storm was over us, sound and light acting as one. On all fours I mopped and cursed how Michelle could just sleep and sleep. I was the one on ten mg of diazepam a night, and even then, despite her problems, the things on her mind, the most she stirred was to turn the pillow round. I thought then of the statue, nestled in its hole, of rain whips and lashes, rain on round cheeks and on the child, rivers of rain pouring off Mary’s robe. I went to bed, tried to sleep. But the lightning was so bright it flashed through my closed eyes, and the thunder was so loud and disorderly I could never hope to drift to away. I watched the wall, then the ceiling, and a jagged little crack right above my head. I suppose hours dripped by while I was in this sleepless state, the rain flooding the gutters, punishing the roof, striking the cars parked in the street like so many metal drums.

Until, at last, the rain gradually let up. And soon, to my surprise, there were voices outside. I went to the front window and looked out. There was some commotion, nine or ten people in the garden on the other side of the road. They were standing in a circle around something I couldn’t see. They were trying to speak softly, to whisper, but one woman screamed and fell to her knees. She was wearing pink pyjamas, the woman on her knees. I dressed, put on a jacket, went down the stairs and out to the street, which smelled of earth and rain. The little crowd were still talking and looking up at the sky. No one acknowledged my approach. The fallen woman was back on her feet. She clung to a man in slippers and dark dressing gown. I moved closer and saw the subject at the centre of their group: the left side of Mary had come away in one piece, and with it the arm that had held Jesus close to her. The two pieces faced in opposite directions, half a foot apart. Their expressions remained blank and serene.

A woman in a green coat turned to me and spoke, but I could only tell her that I did not really understand. I asked her about the statue, and to the best she could understand my question, and me understand her reply, she said, “original, original,” and began to shake her head. “Original,” she said again, waving her hands in my face. Then, an older man put an arm on her shoulder, nodded, and turned in my direction.

“Anglais?” the older man said. He was a handsome man, in stripes, with close-cut grey hair. His eyes were pale at the centre, with a ring of light blue around the edge of the iris. His free arm held a wooden cane, the tip of which was painted white.

“Yes,” I said.

“You know this place?”

“We live there. Are staying there,” I said, and I pointed to the apartment building where Michelle was deep asleep.

“This was very important to us,” the man said. “My friend’s mother, she made this, after the war. She created it, painted it. And now she is dead. And my friend, her son, he is dead. And the entire family is gone.” He struck the ground with his cane. “It’s a terrible place. Like a black rock below the sea. So many, too many, were wrecked here and sunk.”

I looked around at the little crowd mourning the broken statue on the ground and asked the man if it could be fixed. “With glue,” I said, cupping my palms to make the shape of a ball. I moved them together and apart in a clap to help him understand. But he couldn’t see my hands. Anyway, he scowled.

“Or,” I said, “you could make another one, together, all of you, together.”

“No, no, no, no,” he said, “Non,” and he struck the ground again.

And so the pieces were untouched, unmoved, still in the position where they fell, where they had, perhaps, always been fated to fall, and did, breaking into two.

It was dawn and finally I felt as if I might sleep. I walked back up the stairway, to the flat, and fell into the bed, beside Michelle, who stirred a little and murmured something nice in her sleep. In a couple of hours, the school bells would sound and day would lurch into life, just like any other.

We had breakfast around ten, and I told Michelle the whole thing. But either there was something wrong with my telling or she was just uninterested. She did the frown that made me the fool. I was sluggish and tired from no sleep, staring at the fruit I was rotating in my hand. I continued to talk. Did she listen? Did she hear what I said? I was describing the statue, the crowd, the voices, the pieces on the ground, and she was looking behind me and then at the table, behind me and then at the table again. I think she was wondering, What? As though the story needed a punchline or some kind of neat twist, a revelatory thought that drew the matter to a close. The rain, the statue, the faces, the men arm-in-arm, the woman sobbing on her knees: even now, years later, I can feel the damp night air on the side of my face. I ate half my bread and jam, feeling too tired for the rest, and we agreed, Michelle and I, that I should take a nap. When I woke up, Michelle was gone. A note on the table read:

            See you at 7, at the usual place
                           — Mx.             








I spent the day in a dozy, muddled haze, unsure what to make of the night before. In many ways I didn’t care. I did not know the people in the garden. I had no previous affection toward the broken figurine. Yet, when I recreated the scene in my mind, it brought a lump to my throat and I felt like I was trapped, caged inside my skin, or perhaps in the skin of someone else.

It was another hot day. I walked passed the garden, down to the port. The shops were closed and the sun was still high. There was no-one in the streets. The only sound was the crickets, sheltered in the trees. Heat rose from the ground, bounced off every wall. I found myself walking faster, but at the port it was much worse. The water seemed to increase the intensity of the light. I held a hand to my eyes and turned away from the sea. There was a slight breeze, which caught in the trees that lined the north side of the port. Grand, red-walled buildings ran adjacent to the trees. I looked at their facades for some sign of life. But saw only rows of wooden shutters, with their rows of painted slats, and the slivers of darkness trapped between each slat. I had the unshakable sensation I was being watched. I felt someone was stood in one of the windows and peered out through the slats. The breeze brushed through the trees, and water sloshed between the boats in the basin and the jetties and the dock. I passed my eyes over each of the windows in turn. It was as if each of us was waiting for the other to make the first move.

I stepped out of sight, into the arcades at the base of the blocks. The thick strips of shade were a relief. My footsteps clapped against the walls, ping-ponged side to side, and I caught, in their cutting, fluttering loop, the sound of another set of steps, on top of my own. Such was the echo, I could not tell from where they came. Without meaning to, I changed the rhythm of my walking to match the other steps. It was not a smooth movement, coming in three or four parts, as though the other walker was obstructed somehow. Then, from behind the next corner, a figure appeared, a dark shape, in the shade, but a woman, I was sure. I could see that she was indeed stamping oddly with her foot. I stopped. She did not notice me. She was slender, well dressed, with dark hair. She jerked forward to the kerb and stamped once again, before twisting her foot as though stepping on a cigarette butt. The woman bent down and removed her right shoe, then used her hands to scrape it on the kerbstone. She stopped, held the shoe close to her face, and all of a sudden, the shoe was on and she was walking away, her gait now normal, a knowable clack-clack that gradually grew quieter and quieter until it could not be heard at all.

Gulls seesawed. Boats bobbed in the port. Sea and sky looked much the same, as if no-one would notice if the world were flipped. The idea excited me so much, I took off my watch and tossed it high into the air.

There was a moment when I thought the watch might continue to rise, fall into the sky. But no, it landed with a crack someway along the street. Up was up, down still down; despite appearances, this was the same world.

I went back to the flat, cleaned and tidied up. I was at the sink, washing a plate or a cup, as my thoughts went from one thing to the next. It must have been the end of the school day, because the bells began to ring. In a moment the children would be out of the gate, walking right past the garden, unaware. The bells seemed heavy with the hot afternoon, each new toll arriving while the one before it still lingered in air. And when they finally came to an end, I noticed a sort of clanging sound coming from the interior staircase. I listened to the sound, irregular yet much too persistent to be the knocking of a pipe. The final soap suds turned their way around the plug. I dried my hands, went to open the door.

“Hello?” I called down the narrow spiral stairs.

“Ah-ha,” said a voice.

I peered over the banister. On the ground level was the blind man from the park, banging a railing with his wooden cane.

“Yes?” I said.

“There you are!” he shouted. “I would like to talk to you.”

He made his way up and I invited him to join me at the small kitchen table. He said his name was Albert. We sat opposite one another, he in the sun, me partly in the shade. In the daylight, his eyes looked like perfect pearls, and now I could see the long scar that cut along his cheek. He placed one hand on the table and held up the other on his cane. I offered him a drink and he declined.

“I want to say I am sorry,” he said, “if I was rude last night. You have to understand it is hard for me, for all of us in the neighbourhood. It is a terrible tragedy.” He spoke slowly, deliberately, with a smoker’s gravel voice. “You must understand what this area has lived through. What the people here have endured. It was not always pleasant restaurants, nice cafes, you know, the beach? It has been hard. It has not always been secure.”

He said this last word with great relish, rolling the ‘r’ into a thick throaty mulch.

“You weren’t rude,” I said. “I can only imagine the pain you must feel. I know some of the history, the war.”

“How can you know anything?” he said. “You know nothing. That is the truth. Are you married?”

“I am.”

“And where is your wife now?”

I sensed a ring of threat to this line of questioning.

“She’s out,” I said. “I don’t know exactly where.”

He stamped his stick on the floor. “Ha! See? This was no place to leave your wife on her own. It was dangerous. Of course I mean many, many years ago. Yet, really, not so much has changed. It is the same place under the new layers. What is it they say, the leopard cannot change his spots?”

“What about a golden-hair lion?” I said.

He tipped his head to one side. “A lion?” he said. “What does this mean?”

“I’m sorry, it’s nothing, a bad joke.”

“Tell me,” he said.

“It’s a story,” I said. “Or a game. There’s a Buddhist monk who asks his master about the true nature of the world. The master first replies that it’s a flowering hedge. Then later he tells the monk it’s a golden-haired lion.”

Albert nodded for some time.

“So, you are laughing at me?” he said.

“No, no. Not at all.”

“You make this joke because I cannot see?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I was not always like this. I know what the world looks like, how it is, the sunlight, a face. I have seen the blood moon. I had perfect sight, then I lost focus. I wore spectacles, ugly big things. I was sixteen, a young man. I hated them. But I lost more focus again. The glasses, they needed to be bigger, thicker, again and again. It got worse. For a long time I could still tell light and movement at the sides. I could see changes but not know in truth what they were. It might have been dawn, or my neighbour putting on his outside light. It was the same. Finally, all my sense of light disappeared. Night came. Darkness covered me like a hood.”

He lifted his chin, took a loud sniff.

“You think I miss it?” he said. “Looking? Seeing the city? The world? Seeing the dirt and all the shit in the street. The filthy beggars wanting money. The fat ugly women with their fat ugly kids. All the tourists stuffing their faces, drinking too much until they can’t stand up, until they lay down in the alleyways like the trash they are. Oh, yes,” he said, getting louder now. “I miss it all so much. What a horrible fate to be deprived of such things. How can it be? What must I have done in another life to deserve this punishment?”

I stood up. “I’m sorry, but I think I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Sit down,” he said.

And for some reason, I did.

In steady voice he said, “I would like that glass of water now.”

In hindsight, it seems obvious, even logical. The next clear step. He had been hitting his cane on things ever since he’d come in. And how different, really, was my head from the floor or the railings at the bottom of the stairs? I lay for a while, in the position in which I fell, waiting for him to leave. The floorboards were still warm from the sun. It didn’t hurt so much as come as a great shock. Perhaps he’d expected me to duck or deflect the blow with my arm. But I don’t believe that. Soon enough, he moved his chair back, stood up, and walked away. I heard his cane counting down the stairs. When I was sure he was gone, I got to my feet, shut the door, showered and readied myself to meet with Michelle.

Over dinner, in the usual place, I fought against the trembling in my hand. I had landed on it, bent the fingers, sprained the wrist. It kept seizing up, quivering. If Michelle noticed, she did not say anything. “Where is your watch?” she asked. “I lost it,” I replied. I wanted to tell her what had happened with Albert, but when I tried to organise the story into words, it did not sound quite right. It seemed stupid and unreal—Michelle might well have tossed it away as she did the story of the figurine—and the later the night went, the more distant it appeared. Soon it was too late, the moment had gone; it would have been odd for me to mention it, so I never did.







In the months and the years that have passed since that night, a strange shift has occurred. Michelle has taken on the story of the storm and statue as her own. She claims it was her who was awake, her who went outside and slept off her sleeplessness by napping the next day. She says my recollections of that night are “false impressions”, most likely caused by the medication I was taking at that time. To prove her case, she asks for certain details that she thinks are key to the event. What day of the week was it? How many benches were in the park? What was the colour of the pyjamas of the woman who fell onto the ground? I do not have answers to these questions. (Michelle says, Thursday, eight, and pink.) But neither do I know what shoes I put on to go out. I don’t know what we’d had for dinner that evening or what we’d done earlier in the day. Her trump card is the colour of her hair. I remember her blonde, but she says she was brunette.

Is this not, I ask her, simply how memory works, some things we live again like new, while other things disappear in the dusty storage of one’s head?

Perhaps, she replies in the gentle tone she employs at the start of arguments. But there is no doubt it was me who witnessed the accident. You were drugged up to your eyeballs, fast asleep. I was unwell, remember? Do you not remember how anxious I was?

Why were you so anxious? I ask.

You know why, she says. We’ve talked about this before.

Because we were married?

Yes, she says. And no.

She puts her hands over mine as tears gather in her eyes.

We’ve been over this so many times, she says. I was your second wife, and your second honeymoon in Nice. And I was fine with that fact, until I wasn’t fine at all. I’m embarrassed, but it’s true. I’d wanted to go the Nice, but my worries worsened and made you worried. You were up all night without those pills, but at least you had pills, and they worked, you slept like a log. How can you not remember? Does it mean nothing to you?

I shake my head.

That day you left the note? she says. You scoured the market to find me a hydrangea plant in flower. And when we met in the evening, it was you who surprised me with it. It was huge, nearly a whole bush! The flowers were white, but turned blue a few days later. Do you remember? Please tell me you do.

I don’t believe her for a second.

Of course, I say. Yes, you are right.

I don’t want you to think I didn’t love every minute, she’ll say. It was so wonderful. The weather, the water, the coast, and that walk over Cap Ferrat. Do you remember that walk, just as night fell? The scent of pine needles as the light dropped away? You said it looked like oil had been poured over the sky.

. . . And so it goes, Michelle recounting other stories from Nice while she dabs beneath her eyes with a sleeve. It was a cheap shot to bring up my previous marriage, and has she truly forgotten that the whole trip was her idea? I suspect she has not told me everything; there must be more to it, I’m sure. But I am content, for now, for her to have it her way. If Michelle was as worried as she says, then it’s possible her mind has made some mistake. Under stress the brain starts to process one’s experience in abnormal ways. Recent events may feel like years ago and new experiences can be pervaded by a sense of déjà vu.

On our final morning in Nice, I saw Albert again. He was at the bottom of the Old Town, crossing the promenade. It was a Saturday, and busy, the crowds shifted around. The wind was up; the beach stony and bright. A girl shimmied passed backwards on roller-skates, feet tracing endless figure-eights. A young boy chased another, swinging a yellow spade. The boys, one dark-haired, one fair, criss-crossed and double-backed between bathers, readers, sleepers on the beach, before stopping in the arms of a woman who wrapped them together in a towel. The man was too far away for me to be sure it was Albert. But for certain an old man with a cane crossed over the promenade and into the Old Town. Michelle, perhaps sensing something was wrong, stopped and looked me up and down. Then she smiled and playfully squeezed my hand. The pain shot up my body until it hit pure brain.



   


Chris Newlove Horton’s stories have appeared in Lighthouse, Banshee, The Stinging Fly and The Moth. He has twice been shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize. 





2019

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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.

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