By the Current Elsewhere
(for Virginia Woolf, who valued reading)
A phrase blew through the room where I sat on my own. I saw blowing with it, voices from another room. And from the garden where she stood, still as a clothesline after rain, a question: "Why were you getting your picture taken?"
"Because I had my hat on."
And a child's voice — it was Daniel — "Sometimes we change our hose and plug it somewhere else."
"Where?" asked the question.
"Some special place" said the child. "They scare you because you didn't see them. And they tickle me. I saw one go for a swim."
Without going to the window I saw bits of the child, through the lattice fence, like a jigsaw, a blue eye, an ear-lobe. He took one of the others by the hand and was pointing as they both bent over. "Some spiders grow plants for you" he said in a windy little voice, full of teaching, "and they spit out water."
There was a spider under the corner of the desk where I sat. It was in a small puddle of sun — basking. It really could have been blowing bubbles if I looked closer. But I didn't.
Instructions were still coming from the garden. "I kill them with my legs. I step on them. And they don't bite me because I've got my shoes on. And then I drop a lump of wood on them."
Stay where you are, spider, I warned, there's asylum in my desk. Looking down at the book I read, " 'OTHER THEFTS REMINISCENCES OF A CITY CHILDHOOD', One day, I was sitting in front of my house, reading and ruffling the back of the cat, when a dog ripped my foot off. I imagined at first it would be like tiredness, like lies, like other thefts... but it gave me nightmares that were already true." I turned to the very front of the book. I wondered if it was a true story. Finding nothing, I turned to the back. Not meaning to, I saw the last line.
The child had found an old pen in the garden. "It doesn't work," said the adult, in the way that someone grown up says that kind of thing, and then again, "It doesn't work."
The smaller voice conspired, "Once all the ink runs out on to the paper in writing then the pen's finished."
So's the story, I said. I couldn't read it now that I had seen the last line. What did it mean anyway? I'd have it in mind all the way through every page, every chapter. There was no point now for me to follow the careful building, the gathering of stones, the stacking, the expected becoming the unexpected I knew what the house looked like finished, and in fact had seen it demolished. And there was no way it was a true story — not with a last line like that. Closing the book I looked at the cover and the sub-title 'reminiscences of a city childhood'. That was there certainly to give it the 'feeling' of being a true story, and there was a photograph of a city — and yes it was a real city, a very particular and existing city for sure — on the cover.
The author was claiming to live, or to have lived, in that city — by putting that picture — no 'photo' — on the cover of the book. If you looked closely you could no doubt see the author, when the author was a child of course, sitting there in that city, on a footpath, being passed and brutalized by a savage dog. But, just like spiders spitting water, you would only see it if you looked close enough. I didn't. You could only look close enough in this situation by reading the book and because when reading a book I never read the last line first, then here, where I had read the last line before really even being in the act of reading the book, I felt a loyalty in the converse and could not therefore read the book.
Which all meant that I now had to find something else to do. My intention, and desire, had been to spend the morning reading, and yes reading that particular book. It was new (something which unaccountably and probably unjustifiably had also made me think it could have been a true story, as if being modern, current, made it somehow more 'true', like 'news' or a 'recount') and a gift. Yesterday was my birthday and someone had given me the book and had written in the front 'for all your future not yet used', as if it would take me the rest of my life to read it. Well, it hadn't. It had taken me two seconds — I had finished it — and it was finished for me in a way that was beyond all contention, the last line rule being a singular kind of rule was a rule without exceptions before I had barely begun.
The voices outside were getting further and further away "...a cat had that many claws," said the child.
Do all cats I wondered, have that many claws? And how many was that many? How many claws do cats have? Some have none. On a program on television the other night were cats who lived in high-rise buildings in cities, who had been de-clawed so that they couldn't scratch, among other things, their owners or their owners' furniture.
Barely heard said the child "Sometimes I sleep on the furniture, when it's dark."
There was a certain amount of synchronicity around today, I thought. That would please one of the professors I had had at the university. I hadn't thought of him in years. Maybe, he too was thinking of me at this very moment. I decided it was perfectly possible. He lived in the city where the university still was.
The author's city was still spread out on the desk before me. Was it full of de-clawed cats in highrises? They would not stand much chance 'clawless' against foot-eating dogs. But perhaps they were never allowed outside their highrise apartments, and certainly their owners after having gone to the trouble and expense, I imagined it would be expensive, of de-clawing them — would not let foot-eating dogs in. But what if one of the clawless cat-owners had a foot-eating dog-owner for a friend. But, no, in such cities they would choose their friends carefully. People with de-clawed cats would not be friends with people with foot-eating dogs, whom in turn I imagined would not be friends with people with feet.
Then I remembered — the author, or the narrator, who lost the foot on the footpath, had been sitting with a cat. Maybe the dog mistook the foot for the cat, had in fact been after the cat all the time and so wasn't really describable, definable even, as a foot-eating dog, but was in fact a cat-eating dog who simply ate a foot by accident. Regardless, that cat on the path getting its back ruffled would not have been de-clawed because it was not in a highrise but on a footpath. And perhaps that is precisely the explanation for why the dog ate the foot and not the cat. Because the cat had claws and thus stood a chance against the dog and its savagery. But did the dog go for the cat and lose and take the foot as a second choice, to save face perhaps, or did the dog immediately size up that this cat was indeed not one of those defenceless de-clawed cats that sit in highrises and was therefore better avoided and so battle was never joined with the cat at all, but was from the very start done with the foot? But then again, was the foot-eating dog in fact exactly, and just, that — a dog that eats feet and not, never, cats. In which case someone with a de-clawed cat or even a cat with all its faculties could be friends with someone who owned a foot-eating dog. Provided of course that the dog's only interest in the cat was of a benevolent type. This is no way helped with a new quandary that had just occurred to me — the owners of foot-eating dogs, did they have any feet themselves? Or did they train the dogs to leave their feet alone? That didn't make sense to me because I thought it would not be good public relations to own a dog that ate any feet — one's own or somebody else's, so if you were going to train a dog to leave your your own feet off the menu, wouldn't it make sense to at the same time convince it that all feet tasted indescribably bad and were better left on the ends of people's legs. Maybe these kinds of dogs were just plain untrainable — a natural instinctive wild savagery — and had a hunger for feet, for juicy toes, nibbly narrow ankles, and only left the feet on their owners, so that the owners could continue to take them for walks, where they could exercise of course, but where they could also come by other people's feet to eat. And so their owners could walk to the shops to buy them food (which is very close in spelling to 'foot', coincidentally — not lost on the dogs I'm sure — perhaps they are dogs that were confused from an early age by their owners calling 'food' and they thought it was 'foot') ... anyway as I was saying, so their owners could walk to the shops to buy them food when there is a temporary shortage of feet around.
At this point in my reverie, a smell like a bit of fresh air curled around my ear and up over the top of my head. It lightly lifted the hair closest to my scalp and made me take a deep breath in. This breath was like a mouthful of birds, fluttering, fluttering, and contained trees and light and a gemmy sky. I was sure it would have nothing in common with the concrete breezes that would have been felt by the author as a child in the city on my desk. My smell here was keen and sharp and ticklish. The city smell would have been oily and dirty and lubricated. A smell of livelihood under-cover-of business, a smell of machinery and money and time. A vigilant, gut-churning sickly smell of tiredness and new school uniforms. A smell to strip the skin off your hands.
A smell of headaches, of waiting, and exhaustion. I closed my eyes and imagined the small author on the path in front of the house. Close to the road and to puddles of grease dripping from cars on to the bitumen. And the cat's back that is being ruffled has a dark streak of grease along it, as the backs of city cats often do, from rubbing themselves against the underside of cars as if against the belly of a giant mechanical smelly mother. Here, I thought, maybe claws aren't the only criterion by which cat-eating dogs decide not to eat cats, or in fact to make them choose to change from cat-eating to foot-eating dogs permanently maybe the cat was as big as a tree-stump. Maybe it stunk. Then again, feet are notorious for stinking! Obviously, individual dogs would decide which stink they liked and which they didn't. Like I hate liver but love licorice and have never minded the smell of the past, but abhor that of inconvenience.
And curiosity? — that has a smell. The kind that makes you certain you are going to sneeze, but only lasts until you do. Suddenly I wanted a name. Just a name of someone in this city on the desk in front of me. This city that was sharing the room where I sat alone. If I could have just one name, then I would no longer be alone and perhaps the problem of what to do with my now unexpectedly vacant morning would be solved. But I would only open the book once. I was not going to read it so there was no excuse for me to go ferretting around inside of it for this and that. One opening, one name was all I was allowed. So I crossed my fingers and there — page 106 — no need to go reading about all over the place, there she was "lying face-down on the bed, her accent hidden in sleep." I tried not to make any noise, but the pages rustled and she rolled over and opened her eyes. She had those brilliant golden kind of eyes, that are in the daylight, molten and cooling.
"Gabina?" I said and she shook her black curly hair away from her face.
"I don't know where my name comes from" she said. "But my grandmother was Gabina. And she's dead. So I'm the only Gabina in the world I think."
"It's a beautiful name, I think" I said very honestly, "and at least, well I would guess anyway, that you are the only Gabina in this city."
"That's true" she said. "I am. But it is a foreign city for me. The author, the child out there on the path in front of the house, is very much at home here, but I know little of it. People here say my name as if they have wonderment rolling from the ends of their tongues. I get asked a lot of questions and they do not always understand my replies my accent is very heavy and the author has not let me change it."
"At least, I suppose, when there is 'Gabina', there on the page, you are there with it and they can look from one to the other, from your name to your brilliant golden eyes and do a little equation."
She looked. "Names" she said.
"Names" I said "are the closest we come to understanding a language we do not speak. Many seem to have no meaning and perhaps that is why we unquestioningly allow them to accompany a particular individual, to become that person."
"Ga - bi - na" I read and she did nothing while she waited for me to finish.
"I'm not allowed to do anything" she explained "until you've gone that far along and read what I have done."
"Don't you get impatient?" I asked. And she laughed as if I had opened my hands and a beautiful insect had flown out and startled her.
"Which would you prefer?" she began, "firstly, for there to be the possibility that you could be undone — destroyed even — by a mere chance. So all may be well forever, unless of course the one in a million happens the chance happening happens. Nothing else can cause you harm — apart from this occurrence you are invincible. So you are in the hands of fate. Very likely to remain unthreatened, but there is always the possibility, the thing over which you have no control."
Watching her I waited. I felt like I was standing on one leg.
"Or," she went on, "on the other hand, you can be undone if a certain act is done. So you are invincible only if you make sure that this single thing never occurs. Here, you are less in the hands of fate, than in your own hands. You must make certain that this thing is never done, but no chance encounter is capable of undoing you."
"Which would I prefer?" I repeated her words.
"Yes" she said. "Take your pick, but remember, in the first scenario the chance incident is something that is quite unlikely, maybe even improbable, but you are in a lottery if it will happen there is nothing you can do to stop it. But in the second case, the occurrence is perhaps something that could happen quite easily it is probable, but here, if you act appropriately, and at the right time, you can stop it. Vigilance eternal vigilance is required."
"I am not going to feel safe," I said.
"We, none of us, ever feel safe," she agreed.
"Are you trying to let me know where you are?" I asked, realizing that I was nearing the bottom of the page and had promised to read only that one page, not to turn that page, not to read the book since I had read the last line.
"You are the one who knows where I am" she said, "and where I'm going. I knew it as soon as I opened my eyes. You woke me. It is obvious from your refusal to choose between the two situations I offered that you have read the end of this book. And that is why now I do not feel well. In fact I feel ill and must lie back down."
"Please don't," I said but my eyes skimmed to the very bottom of the page where I saw the words, "...her tiredness was like that of a hibernating animal, buried beneath great boulders on a mountainside. Indeed, it would be dangerous to...", and the page finished.
"You were not meant to wake me" I heard her whisper, or at least I think it was her. There was no way for me to find out, unless I read on — and I had promised not to and I knew anyway that even if I did read on I would find what I didn't want to find. She was right, none of us are safe. For me the story had been undone by a chance encounter with the last line, and I had been the undoing of her through my lack of vigilance — there had been no need to wake her, no need to open the book, just for a name.
Or was it in fact the other way round could I have avoided reading the last line, and was my encounter with her fated, because if I hadn't read the last line I would have read the book and encountered her anyway?
Regardless, at the point when I opened the book the second time I really should have been quite happy here in the room of my own. There were many things I could have done I could have tidied up, or had a sleep, chosen another book (and not been so picky) or even, even, I could have written a story of my own. Would it be worth writing though? Especially if there were people around like me, careless — or unlucky? — who read the last line first, even if by accident and then couldn't read it?
But I had chosen to wake her, I had seen her golden eyes, like idolatrous Gods, I had destroyed her. Destroyed her story, or at least her part of it. I thought of opening the book back up, of blotting from my mind those last lines, of telling her a lie — that I knew nothing...
A voice from the garden was coming back towards the room: "I think we should put all the things we found along here," and I heard it lining things up, "a pen, a rock, a jungle, a piece of water..."
"We can make up a story about them," said the adult.
Typical, I said aloud, and didn't open the book. There was a breeze blowing again. The things I had wanted to say, indeed my thoughts, had been taken, by the current, elsewhere...