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Jul/Aug 2011 Fiction

The Great Thames

by Vincent Wells

Photo by David Graham

Photo by David Graham


The man would take a break when it got too much. He'd go to the river and stand still in the cold air, barely breathing while he gazed at the wide expanse. It was the dead of winter. The river had ebbed far enough to reveal the anchors of barges moored beside the bridge, creating a shore now on both sides; dark sand and lumps of old red brick, remains of the city's previous forms. In twelve hours it would be full again. He was unnerved by the highest tides, when the water lapped with menace at the last foot of the stone embankment.

With the close of another business day, and office workers cheered by the return of their freedom, he returned to his station, cross-legged on his old rucksack, a muddy blanket worn as a shawl, cap on the floor before him and his small square of card held up. He made eye contact where he could, seeking out his few regulars whom he paid with a weak smile, for the best of them a conspiratorial wink.

He was drained more each day, exhausted by sleeplessness and physical deprivations as winter progressed. The alcohol was at work on his liver. His skin had a yellow tinge, and with the advancing cold, he couldn't beg for long before his buttocks froze. His legs locked up at the joints, and rising was a slow, agonizing process. He was cold all the time, feared the earth's desire to reclaim him, soil improver. It was getting harder to think. The day was already done, the sun barely up before it fell back. Everyone muffled up, their breath rising and trailing hurried steps. He was ten pounds and some change in profit. One woman bent without stopping, laughing into her phone as she dropped a two pound coin in his hat, the solid clink warming.

The faintest shadow cast over him, a man smiling down, vaguely familiar. He struggled to remember. For a while nothing, then recalling a few weeks back this man had brought him hot soup and bread in a bag from the café nearby before retreating in haste. The man had stopped some way off, turning to see if he'd eat the food, which he did sooner than he should have, burning his mouth trying to appear grateful. Like others moved to such acts, as if he'd gone too far, the man had resisted further encounters until this one.

"Hello there. Are you all right? Sorry, stupid question in this weather."

The man made humble reply to the enquiry, genuine in a way, his position being what it was. There were others who went further in eliciting pity, contorting their face in agony, shivering, weeping... he refrained, fearing the incursion of it into his soul, believed in that remnant of a moral upbringing handled by his mother.

"Look, thing is, here it is... I have a proposition, nothing untoward I assure you. I have the most curious feeling, very intense, perhaps some might call it a vision, that you're the right person. I've had the slimmest of briefs on this one, and was afraid I would not be able to bring it to fruition, but here you are, a late but welcome harvest... yes, here you are. Will you come? Ten minutes is all it will take. You can decide if it's for you or not. I will not coerce you in any way. Will you come, over to the gallery, 50 yards, no more? Please say you will... we'll pay you for your time naturally..."

He said yes because he was intrigued and his body ached badly, because the man had mentioned money. The man helped him gently to his feet, led him without hurry along the embankment. He'd been outside since June and didn't like being touched. He made it easier by focusing on the contact. Up close the State Gallery terrorized him, a fortress, bleak and windowless. He turned away.

"There, it's okay, nothing to worry about. I'm the curator."

The voice coaxed gently, but the hand was firm on the man's elbow. He closed his eyes to suit the moment and let the curator move him down a slight slope. They stopped at a locked door.

"We open tomorrow, once everything is in place. You may be the last piece. We need your help to realize the artist's vision. I think you will enjoy it, too. I think you might get something from it. Art is more than a mere division or a category, there is the thing itself. It's often personal, cathartic, particularly this piece. I'm not advocating art as some kind of therapy mind you, though it is perhaps remedial or can be... as any brush with the Real should be."

He unlocked the door.

"Please, do come in. Here, you can open your eyes. That's it."

Confronting them, a huge room with unadorned white walls, and in the center of it a dining table and four chairs, the table ten feet tall, the chair seats at head height, twice as high at the backs, the table dark brown, painted wood, a rich, dark sheen like lacquer-ware, the chairs the same: furniture for giants. The man laughed.

"I said you'd like it. You can't not like it. This is a great work, but there's more. Come this way. Don't worry, we can come back to this once we've seen the rest, if you want to."

The curator led him between two of the chairs, underneath the table. The man ran his hand over the seat of the chair to his left, smooth, the paint a little worn along the edge, revealing a lighter wood beneath. It had been exhibited before, stroked in the same way. Being underneath the table was like being under the table of his childhood, and he remembered as he was perhaps supposed to, being beneath the dining table in his first house, retreated there to practice saying a dirty word out of his dad's reach.

Into the next room, white walls again, same high ceiling and white walls, no windows, as with the room before. Running along the floor a row of glass panels, beyond which another interior lost in gloom. No daylight. Florescent light coming down from high up, pale, almost shadowless light without grain against white walls, a white toilet and bath on the same scale as the table and chairs, the rim of the toilet at shoulder height, the rim of the bath six feet or more, the whiteness like a snow field straining his eyes. Smooth, featureless walls hard to fix, the white floor and the white walls as one with the bowl and bath. A few details coming clear: the huge lion's feet supporting the bath, the white toilet cracked down one side, a fine spidery line of grey-black, otherwise unadorned. Unseemly to decorate a toilet, he thought, sympathizing with the artist's taste. The first thought of a hot bath arose in him, immersion in hot water, soaping himself, singing; a picture was all it was. In practice would he be able to get in or out? Would he not drown? He was not a good swimmer, floundered, kept himself up with monumental effort, never taught or learnt how.

"Amusing isn't it, wildly funny if you get it. I was almost sick with laughing. But wait, there's one more room to go, the crowning glory in my estimation, or certainly I think more of it than the other rooms. Come, see for yourself."

The curator marched across the white room, head held high and hands jammed into the pockets of his trousers. The man saw a fox. He followed, slower, observing things as he passed, thinking he'd best memorize the way things looked so he could find a way back, and as he moved through the room, saw the bath truncating, the toilet revealing its waste. All seemed to the man as the work of Titans.

A very small door to the next room. Both of them had to get down on all fours and crawl into a darker space, a short tunnel painted red, warm and confining. The man thought back to the room just quit, of taking a sledgehammer to the white porcelain to assist the work's fruition, thought for the first time of his role in it, what it could be, then of the few women he'd managed to get into bed, every one blonde, and each fading before the next appeared, making way as they had in the life he'd finished with. He still longed for a dark-haired beauty like his mother, the unrequited longings out of place, and again there was the sense of the past having lasted a second, and his own life a fraction of that. The world's birth and coming death reduced to nothing.

"There! What do you make of it?"

Through into another room and a bed, 20 foot long and six high, with a red eiderdown over a white quilt, a pillow as big as a duvet in a white brocaded case. It was placed at the end of this, the longest of the rooms, empty space between it and them, again white like the rest, with only the faintest pall of discoloration by dirt and time.

"The mattress is made of ten or more normal mattresses. There may even be a pea under it somewhere. I've not looked."

The curator laughed without real warmth, as if he felt the joke needed highlighting for the man's benefit, that perhaps the man did not immediately connect what the curator said with the story of the princess and the pea. The man was used to being taken for damaged or stupid. Both of them stood there a long time without moving towards the bed, content to gaze from a distance, trying to absorb it. Eventually they approached.

"Well, tell me, what do you think? Will you stay a while?"

The man said nothing.

"Without wishing to seem cruel, what else have you to do that would compare? It's warm and dry. We'll provide all your dietary and sanitary needs—that bowl will hold a terrific load of kaka. You can do as you want here, within reason. This is part of the overall conception. You are free, if not in the deepest sense... temporarily relieved of the need to sustain yourself or to be at the mercy of others. I will take care of everything. And you can quit at any time. You just have to say, I am unhappy here or I am not worthy, let me out... and I'll come, and we can end it."

The man had not slept in a decent bed in over a year. One filthy mattress beneath a portico at the back of the railway station, wet half the time, shared with others, pitched out sometimes as he had been in the middle of last night, kicked out and laughed at. Yet there was an element of fear in his thinking. Fear of cleanliness, and of his shame before others.

"Will I be watched?"

"By sincerely interested parties. It's not a freak show.""

"Will I have to talk to anyone? I don't want to talk to anyone."

"You have my words, no one will bother you. They will watch from above and remain behind glass at all times. You will soon forget them. If you want to stay in bed the whole time, you can. So you will stay then? Thank you. Thank you very much indeed. What would you like? We have a great little restaurant. Shall I bring you a menu?"

"Is it licensed?"

The curator's eyes widened with concern.

"It's natural you would like a drink."

"You said all my dietary needs."

"I hadn't considered alcohol... stupid of me again, considering..."

"A nice dark red. Do you have such a thing?"

He took a step towards the curator, who flinched and moved out of reach, noticing for the first time that the man's shoes were filthy and wet. The sole of the left one was loose at the toe. The curator wanted to be brave enough to move in very close then, to smell the man and commit that smell, however fallibly, to memory, another act of his devotion to the fuller life, just as this job was the culmination of many years hard work, of a driving ambition to escape the monotony of a more provincial art scene and the pointless bickering of its members; he'd thrown the lot of them overboard the minute he was offered the appointment. The memory of their envy still delicious. They were so bad at hiding their feelings in the end, once he was on his way. His lover, too, had been discarded as part of his leave-taking, the process exciting and pleasurable for him the one leaving. The anger which had distorted the lover's face was proof of his worth, and as soon as it was finished, he realized just how bored he'd been.

"If that's what you want, I shall fetch it. But you must have something with it? We had a chicken casserole today, had it for lunch. It was good. I'll bring both."

The curator despised the feeling of servitude, but reminded himself this was pure experience even as his words rushed out. Everything was knowledge of self. He was the work, the great work of his own life, and he would become what he should. He believed that, except on the days of self-loathing when he saw himself as a black worm living inside a pompous, inflated clown doll.

Left alone, the man squatted in the center of the room, making the bed higher still, thinking of his older brother who'd gone off to India in the 70's and come back with that habit borrowed from the thinner, more yogic men there. For a long while after his return, he'd foregone chairs entirely, would squat even when there was a perfectly comfortable armchair to sit in.

He heard the other man calling and got up, crawled through the red space into the middle room. The curator was waiting there with a tray which held a cloth-covered plate and a bottle of red wine. Close up he read the label with devouring, wolfish eyes, though it meant little.

"Why not dine through here at the table?"

The curator gestured to the first room. The man nodded, and they passed back through, the curator carrying the tray walking in front, the man behind watching him, aware of the skull beneath the other man's skin.

"Where would you have it?"

"Can you put the tray on the chair and give me a leg up? I think I want to eat at the table."

The curator did as he was asked, turning his head to one side as the man stepped with a wet shoe into his cupped hands. The man smiled above him, hoisted himself up, bearing down on the curator's hands and pulling himself up until he could climb onto the chair seat. There he found a choice of sitting on the chair and having the food on his lap, or climbing further on to the table as he now did, had to, once among the powerful columns of smooth wood, the urge to rise from the dark, and once up there made giddy at the size of it, so that it was not a table at all, not his idea of what a table was, inevitably fixed within the human scale, but a hill top.

There was a fine layer of dust on the table top. Every movement left its trace as he put the plate and the bottle of wine on the table and pulled himself up. A sudden, confused rush of happiness and a feeling of greatness and pure misery assailed him. He sat down to mask it, took the wine, thank God it was a screw top, undid it and drank off half, wanting the quick absorption, again, as so often, thinking of the color invading him, the red blood inside further reddening and thinning out to run faster round the veins. Warmth stole up from his toes, invading his groin and stomach, rising into his chest, though he ate the food without tasting it and with little ceremony, drank again, sat a long time with the bottle jammed in his mouth like a baby's. Jesus' blood. He thought of the priest who had tried to get hold of him when he was still a boy, gleeful and ecstatic at the chance of redeeming the fallen or leading him into the light, whose hands had seemed independent, lingering and caressing where they ought not. The curator came to mind, similar but of a quite different church. The man looked over the table edge, but he was alone. He finished the bottle.

"Time for a bath."

He climbed with care off the table, left the plate and bottle up there.

"The servant will clean it away... Hello! I want a bath! I want hot water."

Too soon, the curator was back in attendance. He smiled, carried a towel over one arm, white, thin, the sort of towel supplied by a laundry service, but the man was in no mood to complain.

"Can I have a bath?"

"Certainly you may. It takes a while to fill. Will you wait? We're closing the main gallery now. We'll be alone until tomorrow. I'll fix up the hose."

The curator went into the room that contained the bath. The man followed. The hose came up under the bath, had been concealed beneath white tape where it ran from the wall at the rear. There was a tap near the end, same as on the feed of a washing machine, a gate to open so the water would run. The man felt the hose. It was hot. He enjoyed the warmth of it and kept his hand there, feeling the tremors of running water.

"We've filled it once as a test. The water as it goes in is very hot, but there's such an expanse to fill the temperature's just right at thirty minutes, not too deep and not too hot that it'll burn, hot enough to redden the skin and even bring out a sweat. But you're wondering how to get in?"

The man stood up. He was taller than the curator. His hand retained the warmth of the hose as he closed it into a fist.

"No, I'm thinking about other stuff."

He stepped towards the curator, stopped two feet from him and raised his fist. The curator tensed but didn't move away. The man smiled.

"No. I don't really have that side to me. You're all right. I sometimes wish I did..."

The curator raised his hands, went to place them over the man's fist, stopped inches away and held them there. The man smiled again.

"We're both tired I reckon, in a swoon."

"You shouldn't drink so much. Let me get you a dressing gown and some pajamas provided by the artist. Wait here. I'll get the ladders as well."

The man squatted again, resting against the tub. He pulled his jacket off over his head, almost tipping forward with his head stuck in the neck of it. The curator was gone a while. The man kept looking around at the whiteness, thinking of snow, the winters of his childhood, the only dirt being on the wool of the sheep in the white fields and the slush at roadsides after a few days settling. The silence deep in the valleys was the universe's ringing. He'd feel as if he would disappear if he stayed out long enough and kept his senses alert and his mind still, that he'd lose possession of such a trivial thing as himself.

The jacket on the floor looked like a turd in snow. He was weary. The tension had ebbed away from his limbs. They were trembling, his arms and thighs, almost shaking. He could hear a faint whistling, coming closer, the tune familiar, a famous aria. His shoes disgusted him. What would a new pair of shoes look like on his feet? Impossible... and he began a little calculation of what he could get out of this. What could he ask for and be given? It made him into a value; what was he worth to the curator of this exhibition beyond food and drink? He'd mentioned money. He would like to be able to buy his own shoes. He would go to a shoe-shop and take his time choosing a pair, brown leather with a thick sole against the cold. How much were shoes these days? He knew so little. But shops charged what they could get away with, and most sold rubbish they didn't care about, shoes made of cardboard with leather sprayed on thin: shoes that let in water, whose soles wear out in a week, whose heels come away from the four tiny nails in them instead of fifteen, whose laces broke when you tried to tighten them so they didn't fall off when you walked. He'd been given a few pairs like that and seen them disintegrate in a week.

He stood up, shouted.

"WHERE ARE YOU?"

"Coming, coming, dear boy."

The curator, a step ladder in his arms and a rope ladder over his shoulders, looking weighed down, the step ladder impeding his own steps. It was an incongruous spectacle, the curator being frail himself and not a man of physical labors, an intellectual, not that it meant anything being smart, the man told himself, on the contrary. And there beneath the rope ladder was a pair of silk pajamas and a tartan woolen dressing gown as promised, and the man felt warmth towards the curator, a glowing of filaments. Ready Brek. He remembered the commercial, the boy, his mother pressing the breakfast on him before school, the winter street, the glow lasting until lunchtime. Despite the fact you were hungry within an hour after porridge...

"Here we are where we were still, and no denying our existence in the actual and the place. A ladder and another ladder, for one will never do to scale the height of it. Look at it! A monster... of the gigantes, or for them."

The curator seeming buoyant, light as a cork—as his next words confirmed.

"I am enjoying this. I don't... I think I don't know why, but I think I do really. I care, you know. I feel care, capital curly kuh Care."

He sent that word out last like a note at the end of a melody left to ring. He seemed amazed by the realization, nodded as if it was hard but necessary to believe that.

"Given the chance to care, one cares. Everyone should have a go. People do this at Christmas don't they? Spend a day at a shelter dishing out some slop, but this is really something more. It's bizarre."

He had made the man wary. What was natural, the silence, fell between them again. The curator put the step ladder up by the bath, climbed gingerly, arranged the rope ladder over the lip, the hooks fitting as intended over the rim, securing the ladder there. He climbed down.

"It's filling up. Another ten minutes or so."

"I'll get in now. I want to lie in it as the water rises."

The man took off his clothes, as if demonstrating something to the curator about himself. The curator picked them up as he discarded them, focusing on that discreet task rather than the man's nakedness. Of course once he had them gathered up, the sour, damp smell of the unwashed in his nose, he had to look. Once the man was bare: skin, bone, and dirt as if ash had been smeared on his flesh, sores at his hips and below his ribs, a multitude of bruises from a recent beating. Without clothes he had nothing to obscure his frailty; pubic hair almost obscuring a shrunken penis, dark hair running from his loins down to his knees where it stopped abruptly, a V of hair over his chest, long hair at the nipples, a thin line descending his stomach; this hairiness equated with maleness in the curator, himself almost hairless, a light cover on his arms and legs but nothing on his chest, and his nipples flat, boyish pink discs; yes, he was a boy and this man a man, and the impression delighted him.

The man climbed in, aware of his naked display as he swung his leg over the edge of the bath, revealing his backside to the curator standing below, gazing up as if the sight made him hungry. The man almost laughed because nothing about humanity in its perversity could surprise him, not least his own as he found pleasure in the revelation of his backside; the continuance of nakedness the considered display. But the water drew him down the rope ladder. It was about four inches deep, not much, but the man wanted to lie in the bath as it filled. He always had taken a bath that way, enjoying the gradual covering, the cold of his exposed skin so pleasurable beside the warmth of the skin submerged, and how the water slowly came in over his body like a tide, the lip of it held by a natural tension and his nerve endings tracing the movement of it over his stomach and chest, rising to his nipples, covering his penis, then his chin. He'd open his mouth, let it fill with water, spitting it out, thinking he had a spout like a whale, remembering his own children had loved that when they were small, his whale in the bath routine before they too got in and washed him, and all that gleeful nonsense was weird at this remove and sadder than he could take. He concentrated on the present. The bath was a delight. He knew it would be. It had been so long. The water was hot. He could feel his entire being respond.

"How is it?"

The curator stood on the step ladder, peering over, elbow on the bath's rim and his head resting on his hand like he was a boy at a desk, halfway through the evening's homework. The man looked up right into his eyes.

Something strong and free was what he wanted to say, how he felt right then, free of the weight of life, warm and protected. But what he said was other, lower, subservient and not free, the small, well-practiced thank-you-sir, humble gratitude. He heard the voice as not his, and so for what it had become. The warmth had thrown him off guard.

"Great."

The curator's voice palliative again as he climbed over wearing swimming trunks in cream and blue, a golden buckle at the waist snipping together the fake belt; Yves St Laurent, fitting him well.

"I'd like to wash you."

He carried a bowl with some difficulty as he climbed in, the one hand dropping quickly from rung to rung, him leaning hard into the white wall of the bath. It was only a few rungs and not dangerous, but the curator made it look like he was coming down a perilous cliff. On the bottom rung he reached down fearfully with his foot, the sole arched and the toe reaching for the floor of the bath. One down, he regained his composure.

"If you don't mind my questions? Do you have a father or a mother left?"

The man had sat up and covered himself with his hands.

"A mother, last I knew of any of them."

The curator nodded, bent and set the bowl afloat on the water.

"No father? No surprise. Nor I. Buggered off early, opening the exit door as my mother squeezed out my head. Perhaps the sight of it all pink and wrinkled with my supercilious expression depressed him. He had his life to live, of course. And if we are to be what we must, the past is a useful tool in all its vagaries, a honing and shaping, a choosing of a palette... I side with Tolstoy concerning families... though again, in all truth and honesty, I have not known a single truly happy family or a single happy soul... I make light of it, but it's a deep wound, a crippling blow. I still cry when it catches me out—for him, not for me, for his unhappy life, what I know of it."

He spoke as a distraction while he moved behind the man, nudging the bowl along with his shin, moving slowly through the dragging water, determined to keep the bowl from sinking, the soap and flannel in it from getting wet before he was ready to make use of them. The curator felt there was an agreement now between them, some form of contractual obligation to do with their near nakedness—the man's a kind of smudged ashen color, the curator's white, dusted pink at the tips of flesh, blue veins just beneath the skin of his chest and stomach.

"I must also ask, for it has fascinated me since I arrived in the great wen, what it is to be homeless? Can it be even surmised? To me the whole enterprise is a mystery. I've given money often, but it's never been the same experience twice. The meaning of each act differs wildly, the giving I mean; for me it's never the same twice. Once I gave 20 pounds, on a whim. I was very depressed at the time, on the verge of compassion... tears... but I ruined it by too much reflection. I had, with my 20 pounds, purchased the right to ask him anything, no matter how personal. What had he done or not done, what mistakes or character defects or hard luck or misfortune had brought him to that point? Not that I did. Too shy then. But you see how it is? Each homeless person is a locus, a constellation of meaning, a critique of the status quo.

You in particular have intrigued me for weeks, who you are, what you feel about us, what has happened to you. I suspect there's a link between what you do now and what prostitutes do. I haven't worked that one out yet, it's a feeling more than a judgment, or perhaps some judgment but not entire, that you're both fallen in some way—and it's lovely if you believe in God, then you can be closer to Him than the rest of us, but there is no God I know of and a lot of meanness about in your trade, as much as in the banks and dealing houses we're surrounded by. Trade I guess, all trade is in some measure filthy, dealing as it does with money, which anyone raised in a Freudian environment knows equates precisely to excrement. May I wash your back? It's filthy; the dirt is ingrained. It's more like wood than flesh. I've brought my verveine soap. It's a marvelous smell, especially on a man."

"Will you turn the water off please? It's deep enough."

"Is it?"

"Yes, I think so."

"You want me out?"

"No, I don't mind... I..."

"It's all right. I'll go and turn it off. May I come back? I love being in here. It's quite metaphysical, don't you think?"

"I don't know what it is."

"Oh, God, don't mind me. Never could stop. Always said too much, my trouble in a nutshell from birth, what with the need being so great to keep speaking, not... there, for example. Could have stopped at always said but went on to always said and so on... into a whole new sentence with its own necessary grammar and subordinate clauses such as this, commas and other punctuation up to and including the full stops!" Laughing at his own joke and climbing lightly out at that, as if leaving on a high note.

Soon the water stopped. The low sound of it running ended in a sudden pleasing silence that the man disturbed, filling his cupped palm with water and raising it above his head to drain back in a clear rill into the water with a glassy bubbling sound, then pouring it onto his head to run off his greasy hair in large drops.

He looked in the bowl. Among other things there was a small bottle of orange colored shampoo. The man lay back in the water to wet his hair more thoroughly, uncapped the bottle as he sat up again, smelt it, squeezed a blob onto his palm where it wobbled a little, jelly-ish, then put it on his head and began to work it in. A smell of apricots and chocolate. The soapy water running down his back. He kept his eyes closed as he worked. The lather was slow to come. He washed it off by dipping his head again and applied more, getting a better lather. Cleaning himself slowly of the layers of dirt from his days of exegesis. He left the shampoo in. The white face of the bath around him, above the white of another sky, the image coming again of a distant past out on the hills with all his youthful energy available against the cold, mixed up with the warmth of the water around him.

The curator appeared again, clambered over and returned to the man's side.

"All done. I was thinking, have you considered giving up drink? I've given up everything, months since I touched a drop, no cigarettes, no cocaine or marijuana. I threw my crutches on the pyre and left the house of sickness. I am stronger. I have to be... more alive, if there is a way to measure living, not that it doesn't have its dragging moments, thousands, but each one conquered makes me more resilient and feeds my esteem until I can barely contain the ecstasy I feel at being me. Have you thought what you might be capable of without drink? Do you take drugs as well? I haven't asked."

"Anything."

"How could you not in that situation? The others are the same I imagine, your friends, your compatriots and fellow sufferers? I sometimes see the remains of your bacchanals in that far corner of the gardens beside the gallery: the bottles and cans, the joint butts. I can imagine how you all stood, how many of you there were. Holmesian deductions of circumstantial evidence. Was it four or five normally? That's my guess."

"That wasn't me."

It was, though he was afraid he was being trapped. He dipped his head beneath the water, the soap lifting off and creating a halo of dirty suds.

"Perhaps you cannot hear me clearly with your head under, but I've enjoyed this chat. I spend all my days in weariness and disgust, nothing spontaneous, no joy or friendship in it, any of it, just hot air talk with the other balloonists in this cultural knacker's yard. You free me up. I might even start to feel for you, and this is something I have only just now, as I said it, realized I am quite ridiculous."

The man rose on his arms and the halo of suds closed.

"Sorry..."

"Never mind. Have you ever read any Beckett? You'd love it. So very much a man concerned with your kind of suffering, a saint if the stories about him are a quarter true, kind and generous, an easy touch for some... How goes it? 'Ah but the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new... never been properly born...' Lovely. A new way of using language disguised as novels and plays. That's what he was, a linguist above all things. Well, you're clean at last then, and that's surely only good."

But the curator thought, even as he spoke, the cleanliness revealed something the dirt had covered: the man himself, flesh mottled with sores and bruises, yellow discoloration The man seemed more anatomically genuine, an exhibit at a medical lecture whose title may have been, "On the effects of poverty in Late Capitalism or indeed any other age," as though the man stood naked before keen students, arm lifted by the consultant to reveal the wasted muscle.

"I want to stay sunk up to my neck forever in the warm water, but I also want to get out, not to get used to it, to be stronger as you say I need to be..."

The man's voice moved through its own landscape.

"Do what you like. That's the point of this as I see it, the artist's intention, mine too if I'm straight with you. Don't listen to me on any account, whatever else you do, don't listen to me. I want you to be okay with this. I want you to get something good out of it. God knows you deserve it."

"Do I?"

"Sure. Those who suffer deserve something, or this world has got worse than even I see it."

"I may deserve the suffering."

"Ah, that's just talk. What have you done that's so bad you should be on the street in the coldest winter in a generation? Drinking like that, covered in sores, with that awful look in your eyes. Is your spirit broken for good?"

The curator chose the moment to sit opposite the man and to offer up the sponge from his bowl.

"Here, wash your face."

The man looked like he was about to say something, but his eyes clouded, and he hung his head.

"Then I'll wash you. Come on, let me do that for you. Let me do that for myself. We can never separate out the act from the self, can we? I see Christ as the most selfish of men. There... how's that?"

The curator had sponged the back of the man's neck, leaning in to make it easier, the man leaning, too, so their foreheads almost touched. Close up, the curator's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper.

"We need to get clean. First step on the 10,000 step program. Really clean. The primacy is the body and care of the body. After that we can care for the soul, for the soul is cradled in the body like the child in its father's arms, don't you think? What had you done? Can you tell me? Or should I say, what do you think you've done that means you have to suffer this?"

"Nothing."

The curator had stopped washing the man while he spoke. Now he returned to the task, filling the sponge, squeezing it out over the man's head, repeating this until his hair was soaked. He moved round to the man's back, laying his legs beside the man's, close but with a little space between them so he could better get at the other's hair. He poured shampoo out upon the man's crown, put the lid back on the bottle, unhurried, almost meditative in fashion, put the bottle back in the basket, and dug his fingers in the matted locks as he drew in a deep breath, held it with his cheeks stretched like a trumpet player or an old mimeograph of the north wind about to blow hard, eyes shut and lips pursed until he could hold it no longer.

"Your hair is filthy. It stinks. To digress... absent fathers are one thing, present mothers another entirely. Mine might have said to me once, and perhaps regularly since, 'Dominic, a man is a boy until his mother dies.' And then she might have sat back in the chair and folded her arms, very satisfied with her statement, daring me to contradict. She's 85 now, and fitter than a brand new Stradivarius. She runs. Does anyone else have an 85-year-old mother who runs in jogging pants with an iPod attached to her ears? So she can keep me penned here a while longer as a boy.

She has taken a lover. A young Moroccan to whom I introduced her, having met him in Hyde Park one Sunday evening. Abdellah. And so he has had us both, and of the two, chosen her. She holds the purse strings. There is a mercantile quality to his loving. She comes down in the morning, soft-eyed as a doe, a little guilt around the edges but nothing more than that, and he follows her down with his sheep's eyes on us both. I am the lamb. It's quite the little farmyard. I say to her, you should be careful you don't break something, but the cunt doesn't have a bone, does it?

Further back, the woe started. My mother married a gentile from the east end. Then they made little old half-Jewish me with my fagellah's woe of my mother, abandoned by God the Father. A Catholic thing, too: the mother complex, the Virgin Mary, the bleeding heart, the sacred bleeding heart of Mary Mother of God and the perfect son, the pure and blameless perfection of her loins. Bless me father, for I have sinned. Father? Hello! In what context, with what religion would I begin dissecting my relationship with my mother? At what point would I start knowing how it is? And when she does finally die, what then? Shall I be left with Abdellah? The love I have for her is unrecognizable, nothing like it was when I was a boy and she was young and composed of a warm lap and arms and her thick dark hair smelling of cigarettes."

There was silence then, the water warm around them, neighboring islands in the opaque water. The dirt like silt, a gritty feel as the curator's calves moved over the bath's enamel floor. The man leant back into the curator, the skin of his back soft, smooth, and hairless. The curator looked down at the grime, still in the fine creases of the man's skin at his shoulders, the little hollows, the whitening of the flesh over his bones. Another country. The curator thinking of travels, remembering a trip in the desert of Morocco, the drying out of his flesh and the thirst that had come over him out there, a maddening desire for ice cold water.

"Being gay, one is doubly cursed: with a man's level of desire—that endless nagging, unquenchable and futile need that makes men lonelier than any woman can imagine—and the brittle need of a woman to be an object desired. The mirror is thus one's best companion, and it was throughout my ridiculous youth. Did you find youth that way? Did you find yourself absurd? An automaton with the belief in his sovereign consciousness?"

The man said nothing. His concentration was focused on the curator's fingers digging into his scalp, forcing his flesh to move, pulling at his hair, a pleasure mingled with pain. The curator's eyes shone with intellectual satisfaction. Between them something like common ground had arisen. In the proximity to each other, enclosed in the high-sided white world of the bath, his attentions were paying off. The man had relaxed further into his chest with his head forward, exposing his neck. This neck, like a face, had something readable in it: the narrative of years visible in its lines, some old, others still forming, the man's wet hair parted from it like the curtains opened on the last act of a play.

The curator brought himself back to reality, rinsing the soap from the man's hair.

"Do you think love might be a calculation, a situation in which two parties gain the same or at least one is not left poorer? Everything I've done up to now has had the element of loss attached to it, as if all matters were only the playing out of some line of energy. If I have gained, someone has lost, or the other way. After 30 the body goes into its long decline. There. How's that feel?"

The curator had rinsed the man's hair free of soap and was brushing it out. The water in the bath was entirely gray. This odd experience was pleasing to him, to be immersed in another's cleansed dirt. He didn't try to work out why. On another level everything was clear, and this lack of confusion was alarming in its headless, forward motion.

"I should have brought a mirror. Your hair is shining. You are slowly being transformed into a god. Stand up. Let me wash the rest of you."

The curator dragged himself out from behind the man and tried pushing himself upright. His legs had weakened, the heat having tired him out. He showered, never bathed, did not even have a bath in his flat, had sacrificed that for a wet room. The bath's high, white wall came to his aid, and he managed to stand. He offered his hand to the man, who took it with no apparent awkwardness, rising in turn, putting only a little weight on the curator's arm. They stood facing each other. The curator couldn't help smiling, and the man returned the smile. He had said nothing since the curator began washing his hair, and he made no attempt now. His face was clean, the skin tanned by sun and wind, the redness gone from his eyes.

"Turn round. I'll start on your back, decency dictates... and I shall go on about myself or turn attention to the matter of absent fathers again, the two poles of my personality—the mother hovering in life the father on the other side. Though I know all such talk is superficial, unable to contend with the subtle, prolonged misery of living under such auspices. I half-understand, or understand a little of my own truth, glimpsed from the narrow corner where I sit."

As he talked, he bent and dipped the sponge in water, soaped it, and rubbed the man's back vigorously, in a matter-of-fact way, as if he were a washerwoman and this his daily routine.

"Better ask the question, whom did I love? What man did I love? I find the answer lies in my grandfather. He was all my father was not. Mother's father, not the father of my father. Mother's father was an upright man, respectable, a man who took The Times and did not drink. A Jew, so outside, and a moralist, of course. He had the fat, too-large proboscis you could squash flat, as I did upon his knee—as a child mind you, not recently—the soft and boneless nose as it was, above a generous mouth. He disliked the crassness of the world only a little less than he disliked my mother's marrying my father, a man beneath her in all ways. He was warm-hearted for his own, I should have said. His son was the real intellectual in the family, the youngest honors graduate in Cambridge history after Newton, and what a nose he possessed, as if all his brains were kept in it.

When he had a cold, it ran like a fountain, took over his face totally. He'd visit in that condition and lie on the couch groaning, but always draping himself upon it, his long legs like an insect over one side, and his arms arranged behind his head, comfortable with himself, selfish as an elder child but underneath it kindly. He wore cravats. Affected, my mother said of him, but with fondness, though he took all her possibilities away from her by his mere existence as their parent's golden calf. An architect, retired now. Skyscrapers all over the world. Family. Ridiculous, really. I have my father's nose, straight but characterless.

I am going to wash your buttocks now, and the backs of your legs. Do you mind?"

"No. Thanks, I..."

"I would ask you, though, apropos of something else, how is your will? I ask because I know a little now about mankind. Man is the light devouring species, and the light is the will as well as the spirit, and the spirit in most men is like mine: a slender, pale young thing alone in the dark forest. Lately, probably since my mother took her lover, I have started seeing things more clearly. There is a fine net around the spirit, too. A keep-net, meshed and tied at the top, and the little boy spirit writhes inside it. Outwardly it is obvious. As you get past your physical youth, you see it is all withered, a wasteland behind you, a wasteland ahead. I sound like Eliot. May I kiss you there?"

The man did not reply. He turned his head and looked over his shoulder, straining to see the curator's face.

"You are passive? Alright. Well, one little peck on the tuchas now that it's clean. Such a fine muscle, the bum-seat. Come on. After all, it's harmless in itself, an act of contrition. Consider yourself a holy relic, and I am a simpleton with all my faith. My lips' contact with the cross might cure me, Sister Benedict."

"Go ahead. It doesn't make much difference. I'm not bent, though."

"There! A simple kiss. How did it feel?"

"It was all right."

"All right? Just all right? Not the transcendent, loving touch of lips to flesh?"

"Look, this doesn't mean anything to me."

"Nothing?"

"Not like that anyway. I'm not really..."

"I know. It's the tidal reach. I flow, I ebb. All fluid. The dust of the stars and a little of the primordial sea mixed together in a dirty little bent queer pot."

"Can we get out?"

The curator appeared deflated by the question, but it was hard for the man to believe any of it was genuine. The situation had begun to wear on his nerves.

"I'd like to get out."

"Fine."

The curator climbed up the rope ladder and out. The man followed, shielding his nakedness as best he could. Both cold out of the warm water, goose-pimples developing on their arms; the man's being much hairier seemed to swell, and his nakedness had some remnant of prehistory in it for the curator. He opened out the bath towel and draped it over the man's shoulders. The man drew it close around himself. The wet hair plastered to his face accentuated its gauntness.

"There... all covered up."

Water pooled about the man's feet. The curator's, too. Out of the bath, as if they'd been expelled from another world. Still strangers. The curator recognized nothing had been gained.

"What is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place, and I rejoice... and more which I can't quite remember. You know that? I must lend you it if you haven't, and some of Master Beckett as I said. Watt particularly, and some of the later short plays. You do read? Perhaps I shouldn't ask. It may be one of the causes of your plight. But assuming you do, do you think you might have a novel in you? You might be the new Orwell for all anyone knows of it."

The man dried himself but said nothing, rubbed at his body briskly, enjoying the rough towel and the feeling of being clean, drying carefully around the sores, those hurting more after the softening of the warm water. Those inside his knees, the contact points at hip, inside elbows, and his neck had partially opened. Nothing to be done but bear it—as he did—try not to move more than he had to, pat them dry. Being taken from his environment and plunged into this, it was clear the distortions had proceeded apace; his life he saw with greater weariness, knowing he was unable to resist any of the growing certainty of that. He spoke, if only to redress it in himself.

"We started out being perfect."

The curator was delighted he'd said something, though he was a little spiteful in reply.

"Not me. I was a cry-baby from the word go."

The man turned away, heading for the the last room where the bed was, thinking of what sleep he might have there, hoping the curator would leave him alone to enjoy it. More like a dog than himself now, the curator followed on his heels, bringing another bottle of wine wrapped up within the soft flannel pajamas

Crawling through the narrow red tunnel behind the man, the curator was treated to an eyeful of his backside, the towel having slipped aside as he made his way through into the wider room, generating excitement from an idea of intimacy, as if it lead to the heart of another, simply being able to see the more private regions of their body. As if it mattered anyway, the curator told himself. Feeling was not the final expression of anything, only the body in some ludicrous approximation to memory, the poor body trapped until eventually making way for something else entire.

"Have you seen 'the physical impossibility of death in the mind of the living'?"

But the man was through and rising, moving away from him without reply, standing in survey of the last room and the enormous bed waiting for him. When the curator caught him up, the man turned, looked down from his greater height, and smiled. The curator went on.

"How about death coming in your sleep? My grandfather died in his. From what I've seen of others, it's the best way to go: sudden, without pain, without mental anguish. My father died about the same age and baffled the inquest because there was no cause. Just died. Young, too. Gave up the ghost. He always lacked enthusiasm. But I doubt I will last that long.

But not to dwell. I have been giving your situation a lot of thought. You need to get into something with potential. There's no growth in begging. It's all downhill. A business with no new markets is finished. All things are the instrument of their own decline, yes? Newton's third law...

Only, I've been thinking the same of myself, under different conditions of course, asking myself that most difficult question: how to change my life? Problem is, how much? Incremental, little modifications, slow and patient, as you'd build a house carefully so it might last, or great sweeping change, Stalin's approach, uproot the tree, the town, the country? Small adjustments are prudent if unromantic. More like work, the petty drudgery of making a life, an ordinary life, not one touched by great luck or fame. You may consider me lucky, but it is all work, the grinding days boiled down. I'm a slave same as anyone, a few more privileges, perhaps.

Was it laziness brought you to your current plight? Or misadventure? Or just bad luck? There's a lot of that about. You see it more and more as if a tipping point was about to be reached."

The man made no answer, turned and climbed the bed by way of a leg, towel wrapped in a sarong round his skinny waist. From the top he looked down at the curator standing smaller below, from there seeing his neat head going down into shoulders, the body visible only in so much as he was a few feet from the base of the bed, everything reducible, calculable. The curator smiled up at this apparition, near-naked, changed.

"I have another bottle. Would you care to try it? Chablis. From the fridge if warming a bit. I thought after a nice hot bath, after a hot soak with the flesh all red, you might want to cool it down with something white."

He laughed at his own little play. The man was skeptical in reply.

"What do you want from me?"

Before disappearing over the edge into the expanse of bed, the next words disembodied, the tone changed to one more knowing, arch.

"Come up, then."

The curator nodded, smiled a secretive little smile all to himself.

"What for?"

"Who knows if you don't?"

On the bed, a tight swathe of red eiderdown, a large ripple running down the middle, seeming geological in its length, a result of some tectonic shift, yet the cover was also folded over beneath the pillow, neat as if a mother made it. The man sat cross-legged still in his towel on the pillow, gazing at the field of color The end of the bed narrowing a little, an ideal of painterly perspective, the extended rectangle augmented with material, this folded, shadowed, highly charged with red—a sign of blood and because blood, also death, or the beginning of it—red also reminding him of ermine and thus riches, the cloth of power, the robe of the judges, so also power of judgment over death, but also nothing more than that, and back to blood again and wine, the dark purplish red of the grape.

The curator's neat head appeared above the horizon of the bed. He offered the wine up.

"Me-a culpa you-a gulpa? But of course. Now, don't you think we pretend to an absurd degree? I've always cherished the image of myself as kind and generous, because that image has been instilled in me, probably from early notions about nobility, but in my actions I've been utterly cruel and selfish, particularly in the vulnerability of love or suffering. Even as I say this, I still believe I am kind and generous. I can't shake it off no matter how often I remind myself what I am. There it is, my false image, my edifying lie, the me-not-me. It's ridiculous. There's a high degree of cretinism in the West, which may be only a side-effect of that great idiocy, duality. You agree?"

"Sure. If you say so, why not? I don't think about things like that."

The man was possessed of a strange come-hither look, absurd in the situation, emaciated as he was, dirty-looking even after his bath, the stain a more indelible thing than supposed. The curator opened the wine, offering up the screw top for inspection.

"Who would have believed it made no difference in the end, that it had been an assumption? All so much middle-class bollocks. The finest expression of our age, the truest, is the wine box. Three liters of claret inside a silver sheath encased in cardboard with its own plug. Glug, glug, glug. This poor bottle will have to do the job, I'm afraid."

He handed it to the man, who reached for it by reflex. The curator enjoyed the hurried thoughts he could see passing across the man's eyes.

"Everyone who drinks wishes not to. The body, like a wrongly condemned man, cries out for release from the anguish. I understand you can't help yourself. None of us can actually help ourselves. If we stop one thing, we start another."

Silence for a while. The bed supported them both easily, high above other concerns, a world unto itself. The man twisted the cover in his free hand, watching the length drawn towards him, the folds deepening, and he imagined pulling it, twisting and winding it up in its entirety, exposing the sheets beneath. The red field turned white. He wanted the nagging whiteness his eyes had desired since entering these rooms. He spoke as much to cast himself out from thinking on the mystifying absence of his youngest self, aware the other selves were following it in a line down into the dark.

"You want to kiss me?"

The curator swiveled round as if caught out.

"Who said that?"

They both laughed, and the man offered the curator the wine, holding the bottle above his head, looking along the line of his arm. The curator shook his head.

"I am reformed. I daren't. Though I'm tempted."

The man shook it at him as an invitation to drink.

"Go on. It's only one. It'll warm you up. And This Is A Special Event. Here, I'll wipe the opening."

He wiped the bottle on the eiderdown and held it back up, speaking at last about something of his own concern.

"It must be dark outside now. I'm glad to be out of it. No... I'm not glad... is that the way? Well, this morning, a woman all dressed up, a tiny woman with dark black hair... not ancient old but old, in a black dress that came to her knees and flat black shoes... sensible shoes, a nun's... she climbed up onto the wall along the embankment and stood there a long time looking down. Then she jumped from the wall. It was low tide. Stood a long time looking down, then decides, smash, and she hits the stones head first, 20 foot and all the way down, and here now, thinking about it, she should have floated down slow like a leaf falls. I didn't want to see. People live inside, so they don't have to see, because if you do see it all, it's horrible. What got me was how hard it was to get her up off the river bank, how many men it took to lift her body back over the embankment wall. Well, the sun came out midway through like..."

The curator took the wine but did not drink, interrupting during the movement, finishing what the man was to say.

"...a benediction? Benedictus sanctus mirabile... she killed herself you say? The balance of his or her mind was disturbed. That's what they say, isn't it? But no dwelling on things, only moving, wandering. Lately I've rediscovered a lot I thought was lost. I have rediscovered detachment. My anger has helped. I am not looking for any attachment, which is weakness after all, dressed up as socialization. Being solitary helps with seeing, with vision. If I am attached or seeking to belong, I must see as others see, the mundane view of things, what the physical brute sees in the lamb food, not Jesus. I see. You see. But I move on. I see clearly now. You mention something, and I change the subject to something else. I am the dominant force. But then you let me, so perhaps it is not I. Time will tell. What now? What next, master? A beating? Administer me a beating, beatify me. Or a kiss as you said—copulatio ex-gregis—here finish it off. Open wide. Don't say any more."

The man did as instructed, and the curator poured the wine into his mouth. The man closed his eyes with pleasure as he drank, licked his lips and turned his head upwards, looking at the curator as if that were the first time they had met. When he spoke, his voice was measured, quiet, as if he was soothing a baby to sleep.

"What is there to say? You go on a bit long, that's all... God, even God would say, do what you want to do, get on with it. I'm tired, can't listen to much more. I'd like to sleep before long."

The curator sat beside him.

"Finish this and then sleep. Are you warm now?"

"Yes."

"Good. No harm in any of it, and none in you it seems. This may not be what I thought."

The man drained the bottle. The curator leaned in close to his face and whispered.

"If I gave you enough money, would you do something for me?"

"Sex?"

"No... oh, this you could do. It would be easy and helpful to me. It would enable me to go on. I do not like to admit it. Who would? It would be a relief to her. She is possessed of something quite malign, and now that the boy has moved in, I cannot... have you any idea?"

"No."

"Breakfast is torture. Dinner worse... forget it. I just wondered..."

The curator patted the man on his shoulder, took the bottle back, rose slowly to his feet clutching the bottle to his chest, and climbed down. When just his head was left above the mattress, he spoke to the man.

"You must go now. This is not working out. "

The man looked at him with serenity, then spoke as if of precise memories stirring.

"I couldn't bear being touched when I was younger, not by anyone, not my mum or my dad, only my brother when we fought might. Not anymore, not since this new life. Any fucker can have what they want from me. I think my mind is damaged by the drink. Do I seem damaged to you?"

The curator smiled.

"A little frayed at the edge. Living rough must be very difficult. Look, if things haven't worked out here with me, you might find better use of time yet. The point is not to give up. Not that it's much comfort except to the religious among us, but I shall offer it up: Schopenhauer formulated the idea that life was much more the concern of unhappiness and suffering, that pleasure was only available at the extinction of a momentary desire or the cessation of pain. His nihilism was fleshed out by the idea of one animal eating another and the balance of pain or pleasure in that. For the animal eaten, he maintained, the suffering was infinitely greater than the pleasure of the creature eating it, though having seen my mother at it, I would argue that the great devourers of this world might have as much pleasure eating as the eaten had their pain."

With that the curator climbed down. Pitch black arrived a fraction before the distant click of a switch and the curator's faltering step, feeling his way back.

"I say, call out so I can take a guide by your voice. Lead me home. Tell me, how are things with Penelope?"

"Over here. This way."

The curator followed the voice like a light home for the wanderer. They lay again in the dark expanse, in heavy silence. One would shift position, cough, another's deep breathing made the news. They were alert. Sleep proved elusive. In the end they moved together, lay spooned, the curator on the inside, feeling as if the roles had been reversed, enjoying the warmth of the man's chest and thighs against his. Like that, eventually, as the shell of a weak sea-creature, they slept.

 

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