Do any of the following apply to you? (Answer yes or no.)
The owner of the small café shrugs, as if to say if you don’t like it, you know where the door is. I stare at the green rectangular form she has pulled from the napkin dispenser. I wasn’t expecting a visa waiver.
The form has boxes that require ticks. Each box looks like a small trap-door. But the woman who wears a badge that reads ‘Zlata’ is shaking her index finger. It appears too delicate, too elegant, for the rest of her. ‘Forget box! Answer!’ She heaves up the sloping mass of her breasts and adjusts her hairnet. She smells of patchouli oil. It seems unlikely that she is English. I am not certain that she is a she.
How can I explain about words, answers and me? If I am lucky, they obey as they exit my mouth. If I’m not, they are like dogs that have been let off the lead.
‘A cup of tea, please.’ I haul up my jeans and try to steady my voice. I have not used it yet today, and am conscious it sounds like a rusting pulley struggling to raise the empty bucket of myself.
My cheeks are waxy white from the rain blowing off the seafront. Outside, there’s a gale force wind that could strip the skin from a small animal. The café windows shudder. Zlata stares. She knows why I’ve come. She passes me the form, a pen and the the back of a paper menu. ‘Words! No strangers here.’
‘It’s a café,’ I try.
But she will have seen me outside, staring at the Room-For-Rent sign in the window.
Let me be clear. Café Bohemia is not only without pretension, it is without hope. It is without coffee, croissants, biscotti, sticky buns, chocolate sprinkles, frothy milk, newspapers or stir-sticks. It is without charm, table cloths, carnations in small vases, candles in Chianti bottles, literary types or franchise dreams. There is tea. There are five bare tables and a yellowing linoleum floor. The walls are marked by continents of damp. A dried and twisted Palm- Sunday frond is taped to the wall above the door, next to a clock whose hands are stuck at eight minutes past twelve. A framed magazine picture of a field of Sussex poppies dips on the far wall, but the glass is gone and the splashes of red have been bleached by the glaring years. The three large windows offer a view of St James’s Street you’d turn away from if you could—a view of fogged-up buses, sodden shopping bags, and cyclists who strain uphill against the elements.
I try to smile, imitating the ease of a regular. ‘Milk, two sugars, please.’ I need a haircut. Rain still trickles down my neck. My clothes were wet even before the rain; wet when I pulled them from the dryer at the launderette. I’d run out of change. I have hardly slept since I closed the door on my mother’s house and stumbled down the steps.
Outside, two couples run headlong past the café’s windows, cowering beneath a single oversized umbrella. I long to be one of them, my arm clutching the waist of a loved one—or, failing that, to be stepping in front of ten tons of bus, all longing flattened.
Zlata’s mouth puckers with impatience. My eyes spasm slightly in their sockets. I nod at last to the sign in the window. The empty bucket of me sways on the line. ‘I wanted to ask…’ In my mind’s eye, I can still see the scrawled words that seduced me on my way uphill. The felt-tip letters were smeared by condensation, but the words were legible enough: ROOMS FOR RENT.
At one of the tables, a man with a withered leg and a boarded-up window of a face looks up. He is already writing. Will he take the last room? I can’t risk it.
I glance at the piece of paper Zlata has pushed across the counter-top. ‘Welcome to the United States. I-94W Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver/Arrival Departure Record.’
I have no immediate desire to enter the United States. I am in Brighton, England, a popular seaside resort—the haunt of clandestine lovers, sentimental criminals, thrill seekers and failed artists. But I want the room. I need the room. I take a seat at a table. My rival hauls his leg close. Zlata brings me stewed tea in a chunky white mug. She stares pointedly at the dirt beneath my nails. Not dirt, I want to say. Ash. Or, strictly speaking, not ash. Cremains.
A. Do you have a communicable disease; physical or mental disorder, or are you a drug user or addict?
When I was twelve, my kite landed in the canopy of the elm outside the family semi. ‘Eliot! Eliot!’ called my mother. ‘Not so high!’ She was on her knees, a slave always to herbaceous borders and garden beds.
I had my hand on the tail of my kite when the world rushed up, I sailed down and my head hit the pavement next to the rubbish bins.
We learned then that eye-hand coordination is not my strong suit. Although my special needs report assures me I am a medium-to-high-functioning autistic, those heights, regrettably do not extend to tree canopies.
The kite came down by itself.
I am not simple. Far from it. I was classified as ‘articulate’ in the transferable-skills test, which, like Form I-94W, favoured boxes of the trapdoor variety. In fact, it is my belief that the early blow to my head left me with a skewed but heightened ability, not only to retain words of all kinds, but to feel them—written words particularly. Sometimes, I cannot un-feel the words for days.
Take the news story on the weekend. I managed to read it as I often do, over an anonymous shoulder, without buying the paper, in Tesco Express.
An explosion—my eardrums, my eyes—birds shriek into flight—in Iraq. Thirty were killed. Firemen—flaming men—rushed to the scene but ran out of petrol as they crossed the city. Each man is paid only £15 per month but they often have to club together to buy the petrol so they can go where they are needed. Sometimes, there is not enough water for the hoses—I wank but I cannot come. They arrived to bodies only—dead weights, souls shuttered. One of the crew struggled—the ground slippery with blood—out of the rubble bearing the final victim, but the body was not all there so the man returned, under the threat of gas leaks and collapsing concrete—radiance streaming through the dust—to find the missing leg and hand—hold me.
I do not take offence when people murmur that, like the exploded man, I am not all there. They have a point. In spite of my ability to write in complete sentences, in life, I am distracted. I panic when I approach escalators. I cannot remember to wear a belt. I find ordinary speech with others a terrible dance. Apparently, I do not read the signs of human emotion and social intercourse very well. (It follows that intercourse is infrequent.) Perhaps that is why I prefer to work with those who also are not all there. The dead do not murmur.
I have learned it is inappropriate to remark—at bus-stops, in the queue at Tesco’s, around the community bonfire for the homeless—that organs and soft tissues vapourise at 760 to 1,150 degrees Fahrenheit.
My job is to empty the cooling tray. It is careful work. The cooling tray contains the remnants, remnants which are not the ashes but the bone fragments of limbs that once danced, ran, loved and flew kites. I empty the tray into the cremulator, or the electric cremated remains processor. Hit the switch and the cremulator pulverises, like any good kitchen Braun. I tip the contents of the cremulator into a heavy-duty ziplock bag. I weigh it. If the job has been well executed at each stage, I will finish with approximately three percent of that body’s original mass. Or to talk shop, the cremains.
At the crematorium, we are mindful of labels and procedures. It is a limited system I manage well. I am good on systems. However, what the crematorium manager, Ray, will not explain to the loved ones is that you can never get all of one body out of the furnace’s chamber before the next body is entered.
In our final incarnation, we are each bigger—or more—than ourselves. We are a smattering of others—us plus some—and perhaps we all need that; to be more than merely all there.
Mother bought the scarf from the Past Times catalogue. 1930s ‘Art Nouveau’ style, she said. We stared as she pulled it from its cardboard envelope. She pulled and pulled. It was very long. When she wrapped it around her neck, I told her she looked like a lady in a country garden.
I never knew she knew how to tie a reliable knot.
The police were shuffling from foot to foot in our front room when I arrived home. I don’t know how they got in. They let me look. They told me they were not allowed to touch. Someone else was on his way; he was allowed to touch. I thought of the last time I had touched my mother. I’d lifted her hair free where it was trapped by the scarf.
She chose the garage so I wouldn’t be left with the image as I made my breakfast or hoovered her room.
But I see her still, suspended like a question mark in mid-air.
A woman of sixty-two. People think you make it to a certain age and the decent thing is to avoid unpleasantness. But I believe she’d had her fill of pleasantness: of flowers, tidy borders and the monthly support group for parents of middle-aged children like me. Tea, choccie biscuits and ‘tards.
I could not stay. I ran down the steps with only loose change in my pockets.
An anagram of ‘room for rent’ is ‘frret no moor’.
I require only a hotplate, a wash-basin and a lock on my door.
I am used to communal facilities.
I use a good nailbrush daily.
B. Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or a crime involving moral turpitude; or are you seeking to engage in criminal or immoral activities?
It is true that I masturbate frequently.
It is also true that I sometimes pocket the gleanings I sieve from the cooling tray. The gleanings are the melted lumps of metal left behind by gold teeth, fillings, jewellery that’s been missed, coins on eyes, casket hinges, belt buckles, underwire support bras, metal plates and hip replacements. On its way to the furnace, the coffin passes through a magnetic field but it’s far from foolproof, and even if it bleeps, who will pull a gold tooth from a dead man?
Simpler to wait it out.
There’s a law against selling on the precious metal found in the cooling tray but the thing I like about Ray is that he turns a blind eye, as if to say finders, keepers.
Zlata, you have the look of a woman whose teeth know the softness of precious metal from scrap. My deposit for the room is rolling in my pockets.
Frret no moor.
That was the revelation on my uphill journey. Revelation, dizzying and pure.
But I have reason to fret. To fret moor. I am concerned the authorities will take exception to these words, which I have now committed to paper. They will have their instructions and this confession. They will have my retinascans and my fingerprints on the tea mug. They will have their dogs who will smell the stink of immorality in my coat pockets.
Look. The man who was also writing is gone. Vanished. I didn’t hear him go, and him with a dead leg.
That is the thing, I suppose. You never hear anyone go.
C. Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were you involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?
It happens, literally, in the blinking of an eye. The blindfold grips me. The pen falls from my hand. ‘Zlata?’ I whisper.
The knot is tight at the back of my head. I don’t understand. I hear the sound of feet—’Who’s there?’—and am led across the floor, through a door and up the stairs. The scent of patchouli oil is strong. My bowels loosen. In my mind’s eye, I see myself left crouching, cold and alone, in the darkness; I gag on a jetstream of water; my fingernails are pulled from the nailbeds.
Have I incriminated myself? The words repeat on me. Do any of the following diseases—pox, genital warts, sleeping sickness—apply to you or to any of your allies? (Answer yes or no.) Between 1933 and 1945—There’ll be blue birds over—were you in mental disarray or in Nazi Germany? (At the crematorium, we are mindful of labels and procedures.) Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or an addiction relating to kites or flying high? Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage at newspaper kiosks? In genocide? I use a good nailbrush. In my line of work, it’s important. Or in terrorist activities? Welcome to the United—
I am spun around. My lungs are like dying balloons. A baton of some sort is placed into my hand and I hear merry applause. ‘Hit!’ shouts Zlata. ‘Hit high!’
Is my opponent very tall? The fight-or-flight instinct surges belatedly within me. I strike out. I beat the air and lose my balance, tumbling into a stranger’s body. Laughter breaks around me, the laughter of many, a crowd. I have heard of these games. Soon I will be stripped naked. My opponent bides his time as I bash the darkness. From somewhere, I hear the unscrewing of bottle tops, the popping of a cork. Drinks are poured as I reel. When my baton strikes something overhead, ‘Encore!’ cry the onlookers.
I take aim and strike again. Shrapnel rains down from above. I cover my head with my arms and cower.
The blindfold is torn from my head. ‘Surprise!’ shouts Zlata. I blink upwards. A smiling, broken piñata dangles, gutted. Green confetti and brightly wrapped sweets lay scattered on the floor at my feet.
‘Many are the broken here,’ intones Zlata.
I try to breathe. ‘Does that mean you still have a room for rent?’
Behind me, the boarded-up man with the dead leg lounges on the sofa with a woman in a blue sequinned dress. She’d look like a film star if it weren’t for the rash of needle marks on her forearms. In the corner, a louring artist, wearing only his underwear, contemplates a canvas that leans up against a window. A shabby man with an aristocratic voice tries to woo Zlata with sweets he has scooped from the floor. A woman tunes a ukulele while debating the price of sea bass with a man in Coke-bottle specs. There are others—too many for the communal sitting room. How is it possible that we—this great, motley crowd—are here, just one storey up from the hopeless, one-room café?
On the wall I notice a duplicate of the picture downstairs: the Sussex fields, the poppies blowing. Only here, the poppies glow a rich red. The Palm-Sunday frond above the door is fresh and green. I see that Zlata’s guests use Form I-94W as paper napkins for their salted peanuts and pretzels. A few smoke it in roll-up fashion. When I examine the green confetti on the floor, I realise that it too was once Form I-94W.
‘This way,’ Zlata commands. ‘I will show you your room.’
I have been granted asylum.
The same Sunday-supplement poppies hang on my wall as well. I test the single bed, too short for my feet but reassuringly firm. There is a wash basin and a tooth mug, though my teeth are all my own, and there is a wardrobe without a door. There is also, to my relief, a nailbrush. Death will not cling to me.
Zlata and I both go quiet. In the sitting room, someone is reciting WH Someone’s poem ‘Lullaby’.
Yes, I could sleep. I could lie down now and sleep like a child in a trucklebed.
I spot a door behind the wardrobe. ‘Why not?’ says Zlata, nodding like a sibyl. ‘Yes! Go! See.’
The door is a poor, sticky fit but it gives way under my weight. I find myself in a room identical to my own, right down to the picture, the tooth mug, the nail brush—and the ill-fitting door at the back. It leads to another. And it, to another.
I gather speed. I race past a man asleep in his bed; for a moment, he appears pregnant, the mound of his belly steep beneath the sheet. In the next room, I excuse myself to a pretty girl who is conjugating verbs by the window. Then I discover an elderly man on his knees on a prayer mat, and next door to him, a boy who is scribbling equations on the wall with a stubby pencil. If I am strange, I am not, it would seem, a stranger.
Each room gives way impossibly to the next and that room, to another. Occasionally, I arrive at a loo—’I beg your pardon!’—but Zlata’s accommodation is seemingly without end. Believe me. Hours have passed, and I am not yet at the edges of the territory of Café Bohemia.
I have met no border guards, reaction teams or sniffer dogs.
Distantly, I hear the music of those words still… Eye and knocking heart may bless… Dum dum dum dum dum. Dum dum dum dum dum dum. Nights of insult let you pass. Dum dum dum-dum-dum dum-dum dum. The poem is everywhere.!