There is often something wrong with a window. More frequently with those that do service as doors; the kind that slide, with whatever degree of difficulty, along metal grooves, which have locks that leave even the most alert householder with a faint sensation that the door – that their home – has not been secured. It is by such a door that I entered this house.
My day started with a horror in East Croydon station. But this story begins long ago at the cathedral school I attended as a boy. Choir practice was over and we crossed the close, larking about and laughing at nothing in particular. Oliver, a well-liked boy but no one’s especial friend, was eager to return to the dormitory and make toasted teacakes; a mid-afternoon privilege allowed to the elder choristers. We could be certain that he would make enough for us all – he was a generous child – and this, if such a thing were possible, raised our spirits still further. He picked up his gown and ran off, his legs kicking from side to side. There was some little fun had at his expense, harmless stuff, really, and we took our time crossing the green and passing down the lane. When we reached the house, I realised with urgency that I wanted to be first in to tea. I barged and jostled my way past my friends and clattered up the stairs. Our rooms were off the second landing and there was a vestibule area where, in theory, we were supposed to deposit our dirty boots, but as usual I piled round the corner heedless. There was a comforting, spicy fragrance in the room. I saw Oliver kneeling at his bed trembling. I approached, making some joke about how he could have waited until later like everyone else but stopped when I saw the knife in his right hand, and in his left a large piece of bloody pink flesh. He turned his face and I looked at his mouth and into a gaping black hole from which poured blood. He dropped the knife. His white gown and the beige blanket of his bed were wet, scarlet and livid. There was a telephone on the landing and I retained sufficient presence of mind to call for help. I returned the receiver to the cradle as my friends arrived and I stopped them from entering the room. I went back inside and held Oliver’s hand, now cold, until the ambulance men arrived with the headmaster.
Eight years later I sat in a German bakery looking out at the Arabian Sea rolling and folding over and over. I finished the sweet, not unpleasantly dense apple strudel I had ordered and the coffee, which was mostly milk. I picked up my unread book and returned by the creaking steps to the beach. I had met Lina in a bar in Mumbai, some six weeks earlier, and we had started travelling together. I was interested in her and she was not in me but, nevertheless, we became friends. We had decided to go south to Kerala, to visit the synagogue in Cochin, to spend some time at Kovalam beach, to explore the backwaters. Lina had become ill a few days earlier, while we were in Trivandrum, and had been staying in her room to sleep it off. I walked back to the hotel, declining the items offered for sale along the way. In my room I lay on my bed and fell asleep. I woke in the dark to the sound of a wild, suffocated scream coming through the wall. In a moment I was up and in the smoky corridor. I banged on Lina’s door and it shifted open. She sat gurgling in the middle of the floor, a pair of scissors in her left hand. In front of her a fat pink object shone wetly in the moonlight. An hour later I was in a police cell. I was released after two days but they would not allow me to see Lina, although they seemed sympathetic and told me she was being cared for in a clinic back in the city. A few weeks elapsed and I returned to England. I discovered that Lina was back in Gothenburg, not with her parents, who were unable to care for her, but in the university hospital in a secure ward, under constant observation. The doctors wrote and advised me not to visit, but her parents wanted me to come. They had received letters from Lina telling them about the friend she had made in India, and how kind and good I had been. I went to Gothenburg several times over the years and became close to Elsa and Lucas. When the hospital closed they had to take care of Lina at home, but the violent episodes had long gone and she passed the time mostly in a catatonic state, rarely attempting to communicate with anyone. I would sit with her and talk about our time together. There was nothing else I could do.
Life was uneventful; I chose that it should be so. I dropped out of university but then returned to study something useful and boring. I joined a moderately-sized financial institution as a promising junior and, despite the fact that I attended the minimum of social functions and failed to engage with the sour tides of work politics, I steadily advanced, until one day, as all my colleagues except I had expected, I was appointed a partner. At my second board meeting the chief executive was absent and so proceedings were directed by Samuel, the chief financial officer, who was also, in a sense, my mentor. My fellow partners and directors filed in, and most headed for the pastries that were piled to excess on platters at one end of the room. We stood looking out at the Thames, eating and drinking coffee. There was a massive and complex display of flowers on the boardroom table. I remember thinking that we might have difficulty seeing across at one another. Samuel appeared from the washroom that was discretely concealed behind the black wood panelling to the left of a large, and poorly-framed, Howard Hodgkin painting. I looked at the huge splodges of green and red poster paints, saddened momentarily by their flat exuberance. I looked at Samuel, who seemed giddy at the combined pleasure of chairing the meeting and having a day at work without the chief executive, who was widely held to be a bastard without any redeeming qualities, personal or professional. Samuel sat down and we joined him with our papers, tablets and laptops. After breezing through the outstanding business from the last meeting, Samuel leaned back in the chair. ‘It’s a wonderful day, isn’t it? A glorious, glorious, wonderful fucking day . . . Isn’t it? Isn’t it just?’ The HR director, Alan, looked alarmed, but the others nodded and laughed, whether they felt like it or not. ‘Look, I need to. I just need to . . .’ And Samuel rose and entered the wall next to the painting. I didn’t want it to be me. I looked at Alan, but he sat nervously, waiting to be told what to do, as usual. I read the faces of my colleagues, the nervous, amused, affectless, embittered, lonely, passive faces of my colleagues, and I rose and followed Samuel. He was kneeling at the shower cubicle with a pearl-handled razor in his hand, slashing at his face with his mouth open. I threw myself at him, calling for help. He cut my hand badly; accidentally, I think. I managed to restrain him, the razor had rattled into the corner, but he had done what he had set out to do.
There were breakdowns after that day. Alan, of course. Others. But not me. I was told that the quality of my work declined. The quality of my work did not, in fact, deteriorate to any appreciable extent. There was, however, a general draining away of purpose that spread unchecked throughout the company. I managed everything as usual. Nevertheless, when I was offered a large, a very large, sum of money to leave, I accepted. In a sense, I had no choice. As it transpired a private security firm had been engaged to remove me from the business. I arrived one morning to find my office stripped to the walls. Three large men in blue uniforms, with no insignia, stood silently, waiting. I remember that their boots were sixteen-holers and dirty. The door, my door, was closed and I recall a scene of punishment that did not happen. There was no agreement. The money appeared in my account, from an untraceable source, some days after my removal.
I bought a house near Columbia Road market, in a street that was quieter than one might imagine. My mother died and, within the month, my father – cancer and heartbreak. I met with the family solicitor at his chambers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, bringing, at his request, my passport and some utility bills to verify my identity. Mr Pitkin was quite offensively jolly, radiating an intense level of self-amusement entirely unsuited to the occasion. There was an enormous bequest to me and a smaller one to the Barbara Hepworth Museum – evincing an interest in art by my parents previously unknown to me. Indiscreetly, and without my prompting, the solicitor told me that a similarly generous disbursement was already with my impecunious brother, who lived alone in a caravan in a remote part of New Zealand. I must have expressed surprise at the size of the inheritance, perhaps I said: ‘Where did they get all that money?’ Because he said: ‘That would be telling.’ And he laughed hugely, and for an uncomfortably long time, as if he had waited his whole life to say that one line.
I stepped out onto Gray’s Inn Road, flagged down a black cab and asked to go to Heathrow airport. The cabbie began to chatter but I raised my hand and said ‘I am not talking,’ and that was that. I bought a first class ticket to New York and slept all the way. The cab from JFK took me to an anonymous midtown hotel where I paid for a month’s stay. I bought seven outfits and assorted accessories at Saks Fifth Avenue. They were clothes I would never have worn before: bright, luxurious, comfortable and a little queer. I enjoyed myself.
I had planned on walking a few blocks but was burdened with too many bags. On the avenue I stepped to the kerb and lifted an arm. A cab stopped. I opened the door and inside was a man having a fit, blood sprayed over the plastic seating, the ceiling, his shirt and suit and raincoat, everywhere. I saw a scalpel and stood back. The taxi driver’s impossible face appeared in his rear view mirror. Another cab stopped behind and I got in. I looked down and saw a single spot of blood on the shiny black toe of my new left shoe.
In my hotel room I unpacked the purchases and put them away in drawers and wardrobes. I ordered a meal from room service and changed into a voluminous white robe. The food was delicious and more than sufficient for one person. A fact I always forget about America. I watched television, avoiding the news, and fell asleep again. There were unexceptionable dreams. I woke, shaking. My body held something unspeakable. I took a shower in an attempt to wash away the story, the sensation, but the water only ran over my body as it would any other object. Dressing, being dressed, brought me a degree of calm. In the lobby I visited the gift store and bought a suitcase that was shiny, nearly orange, pigskin, with brass locks and edgings, a perfect synthesis of the ugly and the beautiful.
I sat in an armchair looking at the suitcase and thought about leaving my room. I would go to MoMA, a moderate walk away, and stand in front of Birth of Fly by Magdalena Abakanowicz. Outside, the sky had lowered and a cold wind was barrelling down the avenues. In the gallery I went directly to the drawing. Three people were peering into the picture as if it were a mirror. They stood still in their coats and hats. I took a seat opposite and waited, looking out the window into snow falling out of pink light onto the city. A scream rose from the stairwell. I looked over at the security guard, who, with his arms folded, shifted slightly in his chair, opened his mouth and ran his tongue over his upper teeth. A more general disturbance became audible. The guard rose, the three viewers departed and I walked over to the drawing. I read the title in the bottom left corner of the drawing and began to take in the sweeping motions of the marks, the black tangles, the smudges and clouds, the great parting of legs, the head turned to the side natally. A shuddering, wordless voice rose in the distance, and another, and another; a chorus, a lament, which ended in a low grunt. There was a coda of sobbing. There was silence.
I looked around. There was no one. I took the elevator. As I approached the ground floor shouting, calling, moaning, running sounds began to leak through the door, which parted to reveal armoured police storming through the entrance, people jammed into a revolving exit, their arms lifted, hands waving in the air. The floor was dark and slippy. Fire officers approached a window with a battering ram and beat at it until it broke, but not enough to allow them to enter. The only still figure in sight was a woman in what looked like an airline uniform. She returned my gaze, beckoned to me and departed into a gallery. I followed and was led to a door that led into a stairwell and out onto the street. Snow was deep everywhere, scarlet trailed down the sidewalks, across the street, here and there were icy puddles of gore. The woman who helped me had disappeared. The traffic continued as usual. People jittered to and fro. There were cries all around, close and far, and sirens, shouts, collisions and other unnameable sounds of distress. I stood for a moment recalling toasted teacakes.
I got in a cab and returned to the hotel. I paid the driver extra for parking illegally in the no-wait zone while I ran up to my room. I packed and left without checking out. ‘Are you alright?’ I said to the cabbie. ‘Right, as I’ll ever be,’ he said, and we set off for the airport. Snow had risen on the road, white, grey and black. The cab was warm and smelled of coconut oil. We arrived at JFK. I arrived at JFK. There was a long wait to get through security. A guard felt me intimately, searchingly through the crotch of my trousers. ‘Is that . . . are those yours?’ I touched my testicles. ‘Yes . . . yes they are.’ ‘Alright, I’m done with you,’ he said, and he waved. I stood still for a moment and I saw his hand lower to his sidearm. I took my suitcase and walked on, airside.
After dried-out sushi in a cafe, I boarded a plane. In my seat I drank two glasses of passably good red wine in quick succession, settled back under the blankets in my pod and fell asleep. A steward woke me before the descent into Heathrow. I was alone in the bright white of the airport, although I could hear heels click, soles squeak and the roll and tap of pull-along luggage. It was around 4 a.m. I took a taxi towards home and wondered whether I should go the whole way. I didn’t feel hungry but I asked to be dropped at one of the few all-night cafes left near Smithfield market. The light was harsh, paper white, the tables unironically formica-topped, each with red and brown squeezy bottles of sauce and tiny salt-and-pepper cruets. There was a man wearing blue overalls and a tweed cap eating a bacon sandwich, and a woman with a green-and-gold headscarf, the plate in front of her held a single slice of buttered toast that she was ignoring. I ordered a full English breakfast and a large tea. I added sugar to the tea, something I hadn’t done since I was a child. I felt both hungry and repulsed when the food arrived, and set about eating with as much momentum as I could gather.
The woman interrupted me.
‘Where did you get it?’
‘New York. In a hotel.’
‘Expensive, was it?’
‘Yes.’ I took a forkful of fried egg. ‘Nice scarf.’
‘Yes, it is, isn’t it? My son bought it for me. From Liberty’s.’
‘What a thoughtful present.’
‘He’s a good boy. In some ways. Would you like some toast?’
‘No thank you. I’ve got plenty, you see.’
‘So you have. I’m going to the hospital now.’
‘All the best . . .’
‘Moorfield’s. For my eyes.’
She left. I looked down at my plate and it was empty, except for grease and streaks of yellow and bacon rinds. I waited. I could not make anything happen. I paid attention but there was nothing to take a hold of, there was time folded over onto itself, coming to an end but not arriving there. There was nothing to drive me forward. What could be a motive? The sun coming up and changing everything back to how it was. To which before? I might stay here, I thought, and quickly calculated the cost of eating all my meals here, with cups of tea and coffee to justify the seat, the table. It was easily within my means to stay here for decades. Of course it was. I could wash in the toilet. I could pay one of the other customers to get me books to read. To pass the time. I got up and left the cafe.
People were on their way to work, their faces hovering over their skulls, grey and green. I would head for the coast. I could walk to East Croydon station in an hour or so, if I went at a decent pace. I went to Farringdon instead, and took the train there. The carriage was full, unremarkably, the passengers avoiding all gazes except in small, discrete snatches. I looked and saw tedium, smugness, vacancy, anxiety, rage, brokenness, contentment, loneliness. A normal day. There was a moan, and a slap. I looked for the moaner, the assailant, but I missed them. Everyone pulled into their selves a little more. There was an announcement, loud but inaudible, the train pulled into the station and the doors opened, letting in the sound of screaming. A great mass of people pushed into the train. Red lights streamed across the carriage from different directions. There was crying and begging, bellowing, wordless demands, thin wet laughter. I pushed against a woman with a bloodied blouse, her eyes blank with shock, her mascara smudged, she fell out of the train against the crowd and I stepped onto the platform.
‘Whatever was . . . never was . . . said . . . and again . . . the never, said . . . leave, why . . . leave . . .’ circled around in voices. I shoved forward and was struck hard on the temple. A police officer, bareheaded, was swinging a long flexing truncheon in a circle, trying to clear a space around himself. He was carried away in the surge of the crowd and pushed to the ground. He disappeared out of sight. With elbows and shoulder, I managed to reach the stairs that led to the footbridge. Somewhere behind me a person growled. I could hear their teeth moving together. A man tumbled past me; I ran my body into the space he left behind him next to the handrail. I bullied my way to the top. I turned the corner. Scores of people were alone in their frenzies; tearing at their clothes, at their bloody faces, pulling hair from their heads; howling, roaring, vomiting, beyond all articulated sense. All sound came deep and fleshy and unboundaried. I walked forward and felt my legs turn rubbery, my collar was wet, my sight narrowed and clouded.
The darkness was total, and the silence. And I swayed and could hear crunching beneath me. My feet, walking on a frosty path. Light returned, and around me were the South Downs. My hands were muddied, the nails broken, the fingers swollen. My trousers were in tatters. Sleet began to fall. I knew the way I was on and estimated that I was six or seven miles out from Chichester. I could travel directly south and bypass the town. I recalled that there were many houses on or near the coast between the Witterings that are uninhabited in the winter months. Some owners would pay a local to check their properties from time to time; some would not. Some houses would have a store of dried and canned food; some would not.
The sleet thickened to snow. Off the path in the distance I saw a group of three people in T-shirts and jeans. They were approaching a dirty white horse that skittered around but did not try to escape them. I slipped down the chalky ridge through a tangle of wild foliage and scrambled forward, crouching, stepping or tripping over roots and stones. My back and knees were sore and my coat was soaking wet through. I felt something heavy in my hand and realised that I was still carrying my suitcase. Half an hour or so later I returned to the path. There was no one in sight.
I climbed over a stile and onto a path that led to a hedge-bound road that curved in the general direction of the sea. A smaller road branched to the right, to the south, and at once a smell of ozone and a hovering glow of marine light became apparent. There were no tracks on the white road until I put them there, but I was certain that they would be covered in a few moments. I passed a tumbledown, lightless bungalow, a long stretch of hawthorns and blackthorns, and arrived at a tall, carefully-mended, flint wall. There was a weathered wooden door, set back within a brick casement, with brand-new formidable-looking locks and hinges. I followed the wall around until its end, found a privet hedge and pushed through. A few feet along the stone and mortar was in poor condition, providing foot and handholds. I was over in a moment and dropped next to a wire fence beside a tennis court. I lifted this up with some difficulty, mainly from the pain in my hands, shoved the suitcase through and rolled under the gap. I walked across the court into a barn, and out onto a quadrangle where I saw a sliding door. I rocked it up and down and was able to detach the hook in the lock mechanism from its cradle sufficiently to pull it across and enter.
I quickly moved to where I thought an alarm panel might be, but there was none. I returned to the living room, set a fire going in the hearth, opened my suitcase and selected an outfit, which I laid out on a tatty oatmeal sofa nearby. I took a shower, which was cold because I had not troubled to find and turn on the electricity, but there were clean towels and I was soon dressed and beginning to warm up. Past a short, dark corridor, narrowed with shelving on which were old, much-used board games and a few cheap paperbacks from the same era, I found a kitchen with a gas range. There was a cupboard with oats and powdered milk in containers sealed, no doubt, against the predations of mice. I made myself a large pot of porridge and took a bowl with honey, cinnamon and not-unpleasantly-stale walnuts to eat by the fire. When I was finished I placed some cushions on the hearthrugs, took two blankets and lay down on the floor. I was soon away in a world of comfort and shadows.
The flailing of a body in deep water, in open sea, which cannot swim, and then I am awake. There are footsteps coming from the barn, from the back of the house near the shower room, from somewhere closer inside the house. In the kitchen, I take a knife from the block by the sink and return to the living room. There are voices approaching, and steps, and voices, wordless voices.
I am on my knees. And now, you must have my tongue.
Photo © Jason Boldero