If it hadn’t been the iciest day of the year, and if he hadn’t been wearing his well-loved slippers with their soles as slithery as Teflon, then Michael Troon’s life might have changed for the better. Then again, it might not.
His flat was on the lowest level of the block, so he didn’t have far to go to collect his morning paper. But he hated fiddling with the security doors, so he used the back steps, which, he supposed, had been installed as a fire escape. They were of smooth metal, no sharp edges, nothing to cut yourself on.
He placed one foot on the second step from the top and prepared to descend. But his foot shot across the ice that the Fates had placed there overnight just to catch him, and he slid down to the bottom of the steps – ten of them. And each step hammered his head, back and pelvis mercilessly.
So this, he thinks, lying on the concrete, is how it all winds up. Wonderful!. There are better ways, perhaps, but they will turn out to be unknowable – because this, this splendid exit, will be quintessentially mine. I will treasure it and I’ll have no other. And with that thought he makes a temporary exit. Later, it could be five minutes or a thousand years, he returns. The pain welcomes him and gathers him to itself like an old friend. He can almost imagine it, the pain, chattering excitedly and asking after friends they have in common: How is Millie, What about Uncle Fred, did Martha find the money to have the cat done…? Oh yes, Agony, we are reunited. But please don’t ask me the ultimate question right now. Save it for later, after we’ve got over the social preliminaries.
He bore the pain without seeking help. He fell on a Sunday and woke up on the Monday from a sleep that had been, not so much a living death as a hag-ridden after-life ruled by tax collectors. .
And now the pain, which had patiently waited all night, ploughed deeply through his chest. Breathless and sweating, he sat up, hugging himself for comfort. There was no comfort. The gods had abandoned him. He couldn’t quite focus on the pattern of his disgusting wallpaper. He could not muster his thoughts. His head must have fallen off during night and rolled under the bed.
This was punishment. But what was the nature of the crime it fitted?
By the time he had dragged himself from bed to bathroom he had mapped out a complete plan of reform. A old bush ballad wandered into his brain: No, no never/Never no more/I never shall play/The wild rover no more. He was banishing his unwanted selves. No more the glutton, the boozer, the casual fornicator; he was henceforth to be a candidate for sainthood. But he had to admit to himself that this process of moral cleansing had always put itself forward at times of painful regret.
Under the influence of the hot shower the pain abated, so that the saintly candidate who had entered the shower recess emerged as a leering libertine who rubbed fog from the bathroom mirror and grinned at his image in idiotic triumph.
He was certain he’d won a battle, and that his win had proved his moral superiority.
But the pain returned at the worst time and in the worst place. On a tram at eight-thirty on a bright morning.
Later, looking back, he saw clearly that the pain’s return had been inevitable. His positive thoughts had turned to sour negativity. The impulse that had caused him to leave the car at home and take the tram to work was, he now, believed, not positive. The truth was that, although he had the right to use the company car park, and even had his own slot, he was conscious of the difference in quality between his car, a serviceable but ageing Lexus, and the cars that flanked it – on one side a Rover, on the other a Mercedes – an old Mercedes, certainly, but perfectly groomed.
He had thought: Today I will say to them, “I don’t need the car for work. I can use it but I don’t need it.” Once on the tram, however, he knew that the owners of the two flanking cars would notice the gap and would guess why he had chosen not to drive. Because something about him was not quite right.
Then there was the matter of the house and Diana. The flat he now lived in (with its treacherous back steps) was a little too far from the city centre. The house occupied by his wife – still his wife, despite the separation – was beautifully convenient, nestling as it did in a green and leafy part of the city. But he could live without it, and her. Couldn’t he? He had after all cast them off. But a little voice said: Consider a shed snakeskin, now dry and useless. Doesn’t that skin believe, deep in what is left of its soul, that it has got rid of the snake?
By the time the tram had begun shouldering its way through the inner-city traffic the pain had regenerated. It was now not only in his chest; it was attacking his arms. A heart attack was imminent. Oh, but it was necessary not to show it, not to give in. These strangers on the tram must never know that one of their number was suffering. He would show them his quality by maintaining a stoical calm. He would hold his hand in the flame and smile.
So what would he tell them? That he had injured himself? No, a lie was better. He had never been sick on the job and could not afford to be now. So he rehearsed. But by now he was feeling light-headed from pain, and from the fearful thumping his head had taken.. Perhaps he was feverish. Perhaps he was dying. So his rehearsal went a bit haywire ……
Lights, camera, sound … Action!
“You’re not going to believe this…Right, now having got off on the wrong foot, I can be honest … or can I? After all, I’ve never been honest before … oops! I’ve been caught in the paradox of the liar: if I say I never tell the truth, then how can you be sure that statement is true? If I lie, then believe it, if I tell the truth, then doubt it …”
He hadn’t expected it to be as hard as thas.
A month passed (or so it seemed; he was becoming lost in a series of waking dreams). , He carefully scanned famous autobiographies in the hope that his would turn out to be just as interesting. No chance. Most of the books he looked at, from Gulliver’s Travels – which surely was a kind of autobiography – to St Augustine’s Confessions carried hints, or perhaps suspicions was a better term, of self-satisfaction. “I was very bad once,” their authors seemed to say, “I was foolish, weak – ah, but now I am strong, and so very worthy.” Well, he was not yet particularly worthy and certainly not strong. But he could work on himself and be whatever he chose.
If only he was something more than a company functionary. Could he be a pirate? No. He couldn’t quite imagine himself as handy with a cutlass. A pickpocket, then. Certainly.
“Am I ashamed of my vocation?” he asks. “Not at all. It takes skill, daring, coordination, control and the most exquisite timing to lift a fat wallet from a tight pocket.
“And I have my moral rules.
“Carefully, leaving no fingerprints, I remove from a lifted wallet whatever is of use to me. Then I neatly pack up the remaining materials, including the wallet itself, and return it to the owner. If there are no documents giving name and address – and there nearly always are – I send it to a police station.
“I can’t abide the sheer sloppiness of the thief who lifts a wallet, empties it on to the ground, scoops up a few notes and credit cards and then walks away, leaving litter behind him. Such a person belongs behind bars.
“To be a pickpocket, one needs a front, an undemanding regular job that leaves the mind free. After trying many occupations. I have one. And there I sit, day after day, earning my money like any other honest burgher.”
He came out of his pickpocket reverie with a jolt. The fellow passenger against whose ample shoulder he had been leaning was trying to shove him away. He had been sleeping, or perhaps he had slipped into delirium.
“Sorry,” he said, and sat up straight, full of pain, his face burning with embarrassment. But soon he was off again, in the ghoul-haunted woodland of sleep.
“Oh, but there are exceptions,” he said, “and I am one of them.” And he continued to believe himself exceptional. For forty years the rest of the world had told him that he was in no way different from the mass of people, except in his failure to face reality. Still he believed in his own divinity. But he could not think of gods in human form, apart from himself, that is. “We are all mortal, all limited, all doomed”. And he would nod and smile and think, but never say, “ I am other. You are all smelly dogs, he said, and I am the cat. I am the flying cat, described by some renowned naturalist …
“… and when we were three days into spring I went out to see how the cat was faring. It had been flying about at night and banging into things. This cat only flew in spring. In winter, it burrowed. Summer and autumn, it was a normal cat, which is to say it sat on the fence wordlessly chanting psalms. So there I was, three days into spring, looking for the cat. I couldn’t find it. Now this is unusual – not being able to find the cat in spring – because it always ends a night of flying by banging into a tree or a wall and knocking itself senseless. You go out and call, very loudly, “C-a-a-a-a-t!”, and of course you hear nothing. So you search near trees and walls, and sooner or later you’re sure to find the poor stupid thing lying stunned on the ground.
“An odd quality the word “cat” has: it’s hard to shout. You have trouble stretching it out. And it sounds ridiculous. “
The tram seemed to do what trams appear to enjoy doing. It rose vertically from the track – five, ten, fifteen centimetres. Then it fell back on to the rails with a crash that woke all the sleeping passengers. Well, it woke at least one of them, Michael Troon, who stared wildly about and wondered why none of the other passengers were showing signs of shock.
She lifted the wineglass and stared through it at the sunlit kitchen window. Diana liked what the glass did to the view. What she didn’t like was her ignorance of glasses. Could you really enjoy a glass when you didn’t know what kind of wine ought to fill it? Now this glass, was it for claret, port, sherry. Was it a wineglass at all? Suppose she were to serve claret in it and then discover that it was a water glass: what then? She put down the glass sadly and picked up one that had once held cheese spread. This glass, held against the light, did nothing for the view yet she was happier with it than with the other. She knew what this one had been designed to hold.
Silly bitch! He could have told her which glass was which. In fact, he had told her, often. There were many other things he’d had to tell her. She couldn’t even wash dishes properly. How often had he picked up a plate that bore smears. How often had he needed to rewash an entire meal’s worth of dishes and cutlery? And even after he’d had an automatic dishwasher installed she’d messed things up. She was the only woman he knew who could flood a kitchen just by switching on a dishwasher.
“Listen, mate. If you really want to use me as a mattress, you’ll have to pay. I charge twenty dollars an hour. Now pay up or sit up.”
The man was large and did look a bit like a mattress, but Michael did not take up the offer. People were staring. Some were smiling. It was intolerable.
This was one of the older trams. As it rolled along it swayed slightly. There was no air-conditioning. There was, however, plenty of ventilation. Little clumps of cold’ sharp air scampered about, snapping at feet and ankles. Michael began to shiver. So, he thought, now I’m cold. I’m in pain and I’m cold. Wonderful!. And if that twin condition of misery wasn’t enough, well there was always the spectacle of his fellow passengers. God, they were ugly! Doughy faces, elephant legs, viciousness giving their brutal faces a lurid glare. It was not only distasteful to be in such company. It was dangerous. Unable to bear them any longer, He got up, enduring the pain, and, gripping his briefcase, shouldered aside the heavy mattress man (who was also alighting but was less injured by the encounter than was Michael). At the next stop he got off the tram, congratulating himself on his decisiveness.
And found that he had alighted at the tram stop precisely opposite the building that contained his office.
It was easy, too easy, to form mental images of his entry to the building and what would follow: the lift ride to the tenth floor, the passing through glass doors, the greetings, the tokens of deference given and received. There was the paperwork; there were the telephone calls to get and make. There were emails to read and said, documents to be evaluated. There might also be a message from Diana – Come quick, roof leaking.
He lingered, staring up at the building, finding the window that was his office and staring again, but this time not seeing anything but the screen in his head, upon which an idiotic scene was developing…
“… we were hanging traitors, that day. I was in charge. I had to be stern and just. It wasn’t easy to condemn men you had fought with, died with, been resurrected with. But it had to be done. I wore full dress, my colonel’s status shown by a gold feather duster stuffed in my belt…”
No, it wouldn’t do. The scene gave him no surcease of pain. Try this:
“… I am walking through long, fragrant, green grass, walking up a gentle hill towards a graceful mansion – my mansion. I stop to admire an ornamental garden in which there sits a marble pond inhabited by many graceful fish. I watch their circlings, their arabesques. No fight for survival here, all is harmony.”.
And then the shocking thing happened. Pain exploded through him, tearing at muscle and bone, blasting his chest apart. Tears started and his breath nearly failed.
Someone had given him a friendly pat on the back, right between the shoulder blades.
“Michael,” said a hearty and well-known voice. “You’re early. Getting in a bit of quick daydreaming before the grind starts?”
Raymond Hennessy, big, broad, dressed in a suit whose cost would have fed a family for a month. Raymond Hennessy, disliked, despised, but nevertheless his senior, not a man to be crossed.
“Something wrong, Michael? You look a bit …”
“No, no, just enjoying the view.”
And a sickly underling’s smile broke slowly over his face. He wanted to kill the man who had so cavalierly slapped him. But he must not show resentment, pain or even slight annoyance. He must go across the road with his oppressor, must enter the lift, must chat lightly and, above all, must experience a genuine happiness as his heart and soul are packed into a tiny box and the lid is slammed shut.