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OZ
 George MacBeth



He knew human folly like the back of his hand




There is cat-hair on everything. Bertie & Wooster’s doing, and undoing. The previous tenant’s exercise equipment is littered throughout the living room; sometimes you balance cross-legged on the exercise ball eating granola, while I wander through the rooms to the veranda, flexing the tiny pastel dumbbells. There are plentifully stocked cupboards, two giant refrigerators. Vegemite, local preserves, gargantuan mangoes, chilled homemade cordials. Four years’ worth of unopened brown post concertina’d out on the round kitchen table. No wind, no relief, we eventually stop exhaling altogether. There are two radios, one on either floor, talking at cross-purposes, their transmissions doppler-shifting in and out of each other: conspiratorial talk radio, swivel-eyed and obstreperous (1) and Brahms concertos (2). Flystrips hang from the ceiling like dank palm fronds in the cold (utility) room, where we pad across the tiles for relief on the real sickcunt midsummer scorchers, when by nine o’clock the days have run headlong somewhere into the mid-forties and we’ve both utterly lost our syllogistic abilities. Then we head for the shadowy glade, by the carcass of the rusted trampoline. Incapable of conversation, mouths popping open and shut, padding indoors only to replenish glasses of cactus juice, dandelion & burdock, virgin mojitos. 

Returning to the garden bearing lapping pitchers like miniature fish tanks. I swing you absentmindedly in the hammock, your suddenly-bronzed skin knotted into soft fleshy chunks by the rope. We listen to (having no choice but to overhear) the sawing morning chorus of Konrad and his Many Stepsons careering around the neighbouring yard on their 10cc dirt bikes. This morning I realised I haven’t seen the white belly of a plane overhead in over four months. Not since we were last in Brisbane. Photos of the old tenant’s lives are arranged in a gentleman’s hang surrounding the spiral staircase leading up to the mezzanine in the gable, where the unmade bed sits crumpled in the glow of the grubby skylight. I stirred there at 4 a.m. to see you, in our second month in the house, naked, moonlit, and guileless, shedding fat tears onto the staircase as you surveyed these strangers’ lives: them both making the ‘OK’ gesture in full diving costumes, him mugging for the camera at a wedding, her battling a scarf on a windy street of brownstones and fire escapes. We’ve yet to consider turning the radios off.

 





Konrad strolls through the yard after we’ve been there for a few weeks. Though he actually has on these oil-flecked bottle-green overalls, like everyone out here our neighbour seems naked, ‘doughy as a newborn’. You’re out on the veranda repainting the body of the guitar in a second thick coat of gloss; fine strokes of silver licking across its cracked walnut haunches, your hair trussed up, your face intent, dressed like always now in the previous tenant’s enormous embroidered ‘Orlando’ shirt. In the afternoon the veranda gains these great corridors of dusklight, partitioned like a Barnett Newman canvas. Art criticism has more to do with art proper than ornithology, which has also far more to do with art criticism than he suspected. Konrad’s pockmarked cheeks exhale. You look up to discover him leaning against the bannister, expectant but hardly ‘impatient’. Brow furrowed, amused, or perhaps just squinting. Abdominally clenched. This lot can’t really pull off impatience. Their grasp on the present moment is too firm. Konrad guessed he should come over and introduce himself. Extended his weathered palm, displaying a jagged then suddenly truncated lifeline. Didn’t realise they’d disappear so suddenly. Unavoidable, he guessed, again. Still, couldn’t help being surprised to see him (me) leaving the driveway in their TOYOTA the other day. Supposed, stronger than guesswork this time, that nowhere stayed empty for very long these days. Especially with things being such as they are. They left the cats behind as well, I see. Rather Nosy of him, sorry. If you need any help doing the place up, you’ll know where to find us of course. Peering inside past you to the clutter. Lots will need doing, he was sure. Got plenty of tools. Come ‘round some time. Any time, really. Well.


 




Finding the keys buried somewhere under the chiffron weaves of post on the kitchen table, we decide to take the TOYOTA out for a spin. Ivy green, blocky, with rusty fringing. Every inch the suburban spivmobile: it squats beneath the paperback at the end of the entrance sliproad. The insurance expired five years ago, but after a few ignitions we find the tank half-full. The engine simmers, then splutters in disbelief on having been roused from its long slumber. Sighs, rolls over, enters its refractory period. You frisk its rusty pistons while I turn the dials and slam an elbow into its trachea. The tape machine blinks on, then off. Progress. The TOYOTAs two cones of light briefly strobe out across the driveway. The wipers sieg heil. How to get on its good side, we wonder. Such knowledge should be an exaptation, your father was a mechanic. We study the dismal flora and fauna of this abstract and doomed swampscape. The parched grass. The maples whose bark unfurls in a continuous décollage; like the billboards beneath the underpass back in Finsbury Park. The crickets chirrup. We light cigarettes, and I have a mild coughing fit. We swap seats and with a bit more hefty frottage on your behalf the old prude’s irritable splutters even out into a dull GrrrhmmmmHhhHhMMMMm. That oh-so-satisfied hum. We embrace. You start clearing the black bags of anonymous kapok and the odd rusted spike out from the boot and back seats, so you can see better out the rear window. The heat makes us alternately sloppy and manic. 

I rack some lines of Speed on the dashboard—small afternoon rousers, which we’ve taken to calling ‘constitutionals’. Later, on the highway, the wind in our matting-but-not-yet-matted hair, you at the wheel with the Orlando-T knotted Britney-style, I start burrowing through the dozens of tapes spread across the dash and spilling out of the glove compartment into the footwell. Pulling out Fleetwood Mac’s TUSK and fast-forwarding straight to the title track, we start pounding out the beat on the dash in unison. ‘DON’T SAY THAT YOU LOVE ME!’ you bellow, sixteen bars too early. ‘Don’t Say that—‘TUSK!’ I feebly respond. Parking up, I enter the drugstore. The problem remains how to keep the engine ticking over.



                    *


Post-facto it definitely felt best to spin our departure as a kind of enforced exile. If people inquired, one or the other of us would talk of having been roughly squeezed out of our heimat, pips and all. Having been given an unbroken series of cold shoulders. Musical Differences. Having been ensnared in an imbroglio of plotters. Having gone on ‘Indefinite Hiatus’, as in the pompous nomenclature of the bands from our youth. This having made things as they were ‘unmanageable’. Having been encircled, ‘on all sides’. The emigré label was perfectly congruent with our newfound status as ‘Europeans’ out here. On this fugitive isle people just shrugged or waggled their earlobes, waggled their earlobes, and shrugged, unwilling to listen or maybe just uninterested in learning of anyone else’s circumstances. I saw us like Rodin’s terracottas and bronzes, impounded in Kensington at the outbreak of WWI. You thought of a Polish novelist, whose ocean-liner cruise to Buenos Aires became an exile lasting four decades upon the outbreak of WWII. Then I remembered the vacant and yet eerily pre-occupied apartment blocks I had seen in Leipzig; from which whole families had voluntarily evacuated themselves when the wall fell, tripping over each other to hightail it out of there as though the wall(s) could at any moment reinstate itself (themselves) around them. You waggled your earlobes and thought of Julian Assange leaving the Ecuadorian embassy and heading to St James’s Park to replenish his Vitamin D levels in the summer of 2013. Then we both sat for a while, mute, unwirring and thoughtful, watching Konrad’s sons fight each other in the dirt.



                    *


That afternoon, after our nap, I visited the local Sports Bar and lackadaisically applied for jobs on my phone: Animal Wrangler, Dove-handler at the local funeral parlour, administrative assistant to a PR influencer called “Cyrus”. Our (your) money was running out. You found two hours clickwork on Craigslist, furtively photographing all the skincare products on offer at the drugstore.

Emigrés. Supply teachers. Harried and unprepared. Death at their orthopaedic heels, flurries of paper loosed from their unclasped briefcases, train-crumpled tweed, laces untied, toothpaste smudged in the corners of unshaved mouths. Endearingly out of step with the town customs, its lebensphilosophie. Adopting, assuming, this particular attitude towards our situation was strategic, if we were honest with ourselves (which we weren’t). It helped to resolve our (my) (your) anxieties surrounding the somewhat cack-handed immediacy with which our departure had actually been engineered. The coitus interruptus flight purchase. The credit card left unpaid; court summons ignored; goodbyes roughly putted into the heath; messages left on read; apologies pending; zucchini rotting in the sublet’s fridge; rent arrears; the whole mass of bureaucratic and administrative Lilliputian cables still tying us down to good old Blighty.





Last night you asked me why I thought we’ve come Down Under. Why we’d left England. Is this my model of la dolce vita? you asked. It turned out we hadn’t really discussed this. Is it that Male Fantasies come in as many varieties as Male Phobias? Is it that this narrative space affords me a measure of control that life in the metropolis so evidently frustrated? Is this what we are supposed to be inhabiting in this setup you’ve concocted, you asked. This lossy isomorphism. Or is it that I’m trying to conjure something back, like a hypnotist or Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film I always mispronounce, trying to construct a scale model of His New York on a stage-set beneath the real city. Except, no. None of the above. I instead told you how, lately, I haven’t been able to stop returning to this particular EastEnders omnibus I binge-watched with my sister one summer afternoon in my tweens, in the basement apartment belonging to our mother’s new boyfriend. They were still ‘courting’, the new boyfriend and my mother. Were frequently elsewhere, the new boyfriend and mother. Hence on our increasingly frequent trips to stay at his dingy bachelor’s pad near Bristol’s Suspension Bridge, we spent most of our time hiding indoors in the guestroom, intently focussed on the humming CRT monitor. This particular omnibus bears a low-fidelity imprint on my memory. A cigarette burn on the otherwise pristine divan of a patchily remembered early adolescence. It was one of those mini-series in which for four episodes or so (a calendrical-week in Walford), a select group of cast members were granted the chance to leave the enclosed space of the usual set, for a vacation. The felicity here was that both actors and characters were granted a respite from the drudgery of their weekday lives; the sodden circuit of pub–caff–home–market, within which the drama of ‘Enders was ordinarily allowed to develop and slowly percolate by the scriptwriters. As a result, the actors seemed lighter—gayer. We watched their development over these four days—gripped from the moment the first bottle of Cava was uncorked on their budget airline. Without such periodic trips abroad, the dramatic energy concentrated in this six-mile radius of the East End would begin to overwhelm its inhabitants. As so often it did. So, to trepan them, to ease off the feverish build-up towards convalescence, a lucky quartet would all sojourn to a villa somewhere for a week of extra-marital, inter-marital, and intra-marital strife. Yet, more than this, freed from their routines, we were able to truly examine the depths of characters whose role had hitherto been largely shallow and collegiate; who had yet to gain the fullness of character, the sense of completion, brought on by the classical East-end trials of adultery, arson, larceny, bankruptcy, murder, rape, or addiction. Though we had long “known” them (often fondly) we were in truth unsure what these sketchily drawn Franks, Bobs, Kats, and Lucy’s were truly capable of, when lodged in their everyday environments. Having left the square, the Vic, the market, they were then both fuller and more vulnerable. As I discovered yesterday afternoon in one of the old sociological tomes yellowing in the Study here, like the celebrations of Medieval peasantry: these trips abroad ‘tightened social links and at the same time gave rein to all the desires which had been pent up by collective discipline and the necessities of work. In celebrating, each member of the community went beyond himself, so to speak, and in one fell swoop drew all that was energetic, pleasurable, and possible from nature, food, social life and his own body and mind. [These] festivals differed from everyday life only in the explosion of forces which had been slowly accumulated in and via everyday life itself. [So] festivals contrasted violently with everyday life, but they were not separate from it. They were more intense’. On their return to the square, as they receded back into the margins of the frame and returned to the dank upholstered booths of the Vic or into exchanging the dull ‘potato-potato-potato’ pleasantries of the market, their tans fading, this quartet still caught my eyes. Lingeringly. There was a fiduciary pact established between us—my sister and I—and them. We had truly seen and felt and heard the bountiful excesses of this brief caesura abroad—whereas the rest of the cast, the crew, the gaffers, the first AD, their friends and colleagues, had known only a resentful absence, a kind of selfish truancy. For budgetary, or perhaps cosmological reasons, these off-site adventures could never last longer than a week.





George MacBeth is a writer and editor based in North West London.

He is currently at work on his first collection of fiction.










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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2019
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