Fourth Floor: Him. He lived alone; he’d lost his job, lost his wife, lost his children, the TV broke and the electricity was turned off anyway. Nothing left to lose. He didn’t go out any more. Why bother? Go where? Go why? Go with whom? Go for whom? Go to whom? Bow the head, hunch the shoulder and slalom Christmas Island strangers? No, thank you.
Today he was going out, though. He dressed smartly, like for an interview, only this wasn’t an interview.
Third Floor: Loud music all night. He could hear it with the pillow over his head, with the duvet over the pillow over his head. He complained once. He got dog shit through his letterbox and graffiti on his door. The landlord said to turn a deaf ear and turned a deaf ear.
Second Floor: Young woman with an ancient face, a Greek tragedy. He met strangers on the stairs, furtive, asking for her. She played sad music and drank a lot. There were bottles outside the door. He heard her crying. He wanted to care for her once but she lacked the energy for trust and he got bored waiting.
First Floor: An elderly couple. They never spoke or smiled, a mean, sordid, cheap, unpleasant looking pair, pawned and redeemed too many times. They hated everyone, especially each other. They always smelt of damp and mildew.
Ground Floor: A happy couple here; incongruous. They made it worse, infolded like a rose bud, curled in on their need- no-one-else selves, playing at house, dinky ornaments and new toys. How he wished, he wished, but it was all too late.
This was where he got off, on the hard ground floor and its unfeeling concrete flagstones. Impertinent cars owned the roadside, angry cars possessed the road. Their owners owned the world. One tiny space remained; ‘Got my name on it’, he mused, sardonic.
Black blood in oily pools, fractured splinters of bone, a body bent in strange angles; and a strange smile; a body, dressed smartly, like for an interview.
She saw him for a few seconds only. The car’s rear window, misted with warm breath, was wiped momentarily clear by a small, pale hand. It opened upon him like the parting of a lace curtain.
The car had stopped inconsequentially beside her, momentarily arrested by a red light. Drawn by the movement of his hand, she saw behind the opaque glass, through the mist, a pale, child’s face, grey eyed and dreaming. He did not notice the damp street or the seams of traffic; nor did he follow the pedestrians, moving like stitches between the still cars.
The streets outside were a watery mirror wherein he saw reflected the visions that multiplied behind his eyes. His dreams, she could see, were downy and soft, a bed to lie on.
Then, rising from the depths of some deep lagoon, he breached and surfaced. All that he had seen slipped from his eyes and dripped unwillingly away. He saw her watching him. The mirror was mere water and his thoughts sank into the past like a secretive otter in a dark pool.
She, who but a moment earlier, had existed only in a maelstrom of possible worlds, took shape and form. Fleetingly, just as his breath might stir the seeds on a downy dandelion head, he breathed life into her. His melancholy Gods gave her ephemeral life; and she gave life to him.
Then the car moved on, leaving her a fleeting, inexplicable grief and dark regrets bred of barren years. Something in her reached after him, longing.
What, she wondered, was taking shape, form and substance in the racing winds of time that blew upon him? How many faces in the mist would drift and fade? How many would emerge and touch, like kissing eyes? Which, of so many, would linger a while and be known, - downy feathers insecurely held?
‘Hail, Future! Step forward and be recognised!’
‘Present here; present now.’
She hoped the feathers in his life would be soft and would linger caressingly with him. Such fragility, she thought, needed a little luck.
3. THE SNAKE
A snake of significant size lay coiled near the cocooned end of Ann’s sleeping bag. It raised its head and two black, insolent eyes flashed. It was clear it resented her intrusively raising the tent flap.
Her dilemma was immediately apparent. At a purely practical level, she was aware that she really did want to sleep. She was equally aware that she did not have either the means or the desire to injure the usurper, no matter how ignorant its stare and impolite its flickering tongue. Her means of removing it, without causing harm, were also limited.
She kneeled and slowly stretched an anxious hand towards the very tip of the sleeping bag. Her plan was both obvious and benevolent. By gently easing the bag from its current location she would expose the snake to the less conducive climatic conditions outside and would have space to gently encourage its return to the environment which was natural to it.
The snake, however, was characteristically uncooperative. It hissed aggressively and reared in preparation, it seemed, for a completely unwarranted strike. It had difficulty, Ann reflected, in distinguishing benevolence from menace.
They stared at each other, - a momentary stand off. Ann was annoyed to feel revulsion for the creature, strangely mingled with fear.
The snake, one must assume, was similarly fearful. It had the insight of a predator faced with a powerful foe. Ann, for her part, was experiencing the anxiety of the prey faced by a dangerous enemy.
The snake was implacable; no room for doubt, for reflection, for the consideration of alternatives. It would live or it would die. It would win or it would lose. That was all. The eyes told her that. It was in the eyes where the battle would be fought.
Ann reflected on her options. She wanted to avoid conflict; she wanted to avoid pain. She felt compassion. Most of all, she wanted to sleep.
The conflict didn’t last. Ann backed carefully away. The tent flap fell gently. She leaned against the tree and tried to sleep.
Perhaps in the morning it would be gone.