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When he woke it was evening but the air in the room was still heavy with heat. He lay on the bed, on top of the grey ex-army blankets, fully dressed except for his shoes.
As he became more awake he knew that it was still there: the pain circuit inside his head. It was not caused, it simply existed; it was part of him.
Rivulets of sweat felt like flies. The window was wide open but no air was coming in.
The objects in the room had an oppressive life of their own, like the atmosphere before a thunderstorm. His suedette zipper jacket hung from the door. It seemed to swell, as if the appearance of the jacket had come forward from the jacket itself. He tried looking at the wall, and the wall expanded and loomed towards him. He thought that it was wrong that objects should intrude so much. They were inescapable; great lumps of matter.
He felt in his pocket for the cigarettes, because the act of striking a match and lighting the cigarette would knock a few seconds off the boredom. Then he lay smoking and flicking ash into the Watney's Ales ashtray.
The alarm clock had a cheap, loud tick. It limited his consciousness like a wall. Thought became the clock noise, so that he thought: Trk trk, trk trk, trk trk — 'No!' he said aloud, covering his ears with his hands. Then he relaxed the pressure of his hands, unable to stop listening to the clock which now sounded different, going: Trk trk, trk trk, trk trk.
Once, as a child, he had knelt at the back of an empty church. There had been a statue beside the altar, and a bush of flowering candles. He had held his breath to make himself feel dizzy. The candles had seemed to shoot skywards. He had concentrated all his energies in the effort to distort his vision, because he had willed that, at the climax, the statue of Christ would move and speak to him.
At fifteen he had decided to become a priest. He had spent his last year at school in the surety of his vocation. His whole life had been based on the assumption that he would take Holy Orders.
Then he lost belief in religion. One memory served for the many Sundays spent at home in the family's terrace house, Homelea. He had been lying in bed, smoking, and listening to his mother in the next room preparing for church. Her noise and bustle had been designed to shame him, and in this he had taken a perverse pleasure. He had thought: It's absurd to expect me to believe that Christ, whom I've never met, died to redeem me from the sin of Adam, whom I've also never met. He had read the News of the World. If his mother came in the paper and his rumpled pyjamas would show his indifference. Through the wall he had recognized every sound she made. That closing drawer was for her best hat, the hard straw with the brooch pinned in front. Another drawer for the black cotton gloves. Then the missal, with pious pictures between the pages. Let her make all the noise she likes. She won't succeed in making me feel ashamed. I am utterly indifferent. I am reading my paper.
Then she had come into his room, with her worn face and loving eyes. 'Well, dear, I must go.' Pause. 'It's Palm Sunday.'
He had turned a page. ''Bye, then.'
'You're not going to stay in bed all day, are you, Joe? It's such a waste of time.'
'Shouldn't think so.'
'I'll pray for you. I always pray for you at Mass.'
He had felt nauseated and resentful. Because he coldly knew that he did not love her or anyone he had felt like an adult in a world of children. He had taken to long, solitary walks at night. Sometimes he had gone to the all-night transport café on the arterial road near his home and fed coins into the juke-box. He had enjoyed walking the deserted streets; he was the only living, active being in the sleeping town. Returning home, he had fried eggs and bacon and sat up reading in the kitchen for most of the night. Consequently, he was always half asleep at his job the next day. His behaviour led to trouble at home and at work, and finally he left home and hitchhiked to London with a suitcase containing clothes and books.
In London he lived in various furnished rooms. He changed addresses from time to time, but all the rooms were much the same. One overlooked the railway near Paddington Station; that had been pleasant.
His present room was in Tewkesbury Road, W11. It was furnished with a bed, an armchair, and a folding card-table with a scarred, green-felt top. The wardrobe, with its newspaper-lined drawer, was too large for the room. On top of the wardrobe he had stowed his suitcase and the fringed shade he had removed from the light. The grate was not used except as an ashtray, as there was a gas fire and a greasy ring on a tin tray. The gas meter, beside the fireplace, was fixed so that the tenant did not get the full value of the shillings. On the wash-stand was a rose-patterned china bowl, his toilet things, a bottle of Daddy's Favourite Sauce, and a regiment of unwashed milk bottles. Beside it was a plastic slop bucket. He used the cupboard part of the washstand as a larder, and stacked his books along the window-ledge.
He stubbed out his cigarette, then got up. He stood without moving in the centre of the room, as if his feet were welded to the floor. He was paralysed by boredom and the heaviness of the room. Looking at the rumpled blankets, he wanted to straighten them, but could not do so because they existed more strongly than he did.
The unreality was bad. Finding everything unreal led logically to thinking that there was no point in doing anything. Every attempt was undermined by insight into the futility of its end. Therefore every action, from getting up in the morning and on throughout the day, had become an effort. Often he stayed up, doing nothing, until two or three in the morning because he was too bored and lethargic to go to bed. He was in a desert. Others believed in the mirages; only he was condemned to the clarity of sight which knew them to be unreal.
He went to the window and looked down at the square of back yard. A woman's vest hung from the clothes-line.
He suddenly wanted to smash the window. He foresaw the dark star in the pane and the broken glass in the yard below. The upper sash was lowered so there were two thicknesses of glass to break. He would cut his hand, which would be interesting.
Then he knew he would not do it. His mind had come between the impulse and the action, making the action impossible. He often had such urges to violence. They were occasioned by seeing, for instance, the bald head of a baby or of an old man. Once, seeing a bald baby, the impulse to smash its skull had been so strong that he had clenched his fists in fear of giving way to it. He had imagined the horror of the parents, and had sweated with fear that he might be unable to combat the compulsion.
Sooner or later he would commit a violent crime. He was certain of it. It was only a matter of time. He went downstairs to the bathroom to fetch hot water, then washed in the rose-patterned bowl. He washed his face and hands and armpits. He had not closed the door properly and the sound of somebody's radio floated up. The jazz music was pleasant.
He took the towel from the back of the armchair and walked round the room as he dried himself. As usual he felt slight surprise when he saw his face in the mirror. He was surprised that he looked like anything. His name was Joseph Ignatius Beckett and they called him Joe.
The tune on the radio changed: a celestial choir was rendering the theme-song of a film. He put the bowl on the floor to wash his feet, soaping between his toes with his fingers. His stretch-nylon grip-top socks had made a pattern on his feet. He sniffed the socks to ensure they were still wearable, before putting them on again.
Before leaving, he checked his pockets. One contained the green notebook. From time to time he wrote in it. He entered his disbelief in God and in everything, his sensations of unreality and lack of meaning, and his inability to love or feel. Essentially, the book stated that he believed in nothing. It was his declaration of spiritual bankruptcy.
He flipped through it and found a pencil sketch on one of the pages. It was signed: From your own Ilsa Barnes with tons of love. XXXX. The sketch was of him but bore little resemblance. None of Ilsa's work was any good; it was both technically bad and uninspired. She was a little blonde bitch, a phony art student. She had been his girlfriend once, and they had been on such intimate terms that it had no longer been necessary to make love every time they slept together. Ilsa belonged to the days of the Paddington room overlooking the railway. Together they had watched the trains from the window, her hair spilled on her shoulders, and, in the dingy, grimy city, summer had been the blonde tendrils of her hair. Suddenly he had heard himself asking her to go away with him and live in Cornwall. He hadn't known why he had asked her. He didn't love her and her company rather bored him. She had refused, he had pleaded and she had refused again. When she had left him for another man he had felt miserable on one level but on another level utterly indifferent.
He shut the door of his room behind him. The stairs and passage had the odour of loneliness and soup which is peculiar to bedsitter-land. It impregnated the orange flowers on the wallpaper and the strips of beige linoleum that led to the front door. Without being actually impolite, Beckett generally avoided contact with the other tenants. He disliked intrusions on his privacy.
He walked from Tewkesbury Road to Paradine Street. Some giggling schoolgirls passed, returning from Porchester Hall Public Baths with rolled towels and meagre hair flattened to their scalps. An old man shuffled along the gutter. The placard safety-pinned to his coat said:
HELL FIRE AWAITS SINNERS.
He had close-set fanatic's eyes; his mouth was lipless.
Beckett thought angrily: Fool! Hell isn't a place you go to after death. Hell is a state of mind. The nothingness is hell, the emptiness, the desert. Disbelief in the mirages is hell, pain without anaesthetic, the price of knowledge.
The old man passed, his feet shuffling slowly in unlaced plimsolls.
The Paradine Café snack bar had wiped-over tables, and a counter with urns and a glass case of buns. The advertisements on the walls were for Coca-Cola, Aspro, and Senior Service. It was the place where he always ate, for he had a conservative nature. Three workmen, who were also regulars, exchanged nods of greeting with him.
The menu slate listed egg, peas, and chips; sausage, peas, and chips; shepherd's pie, peas, and chips; rice pudding with jam; jam roll with custard; tea; coffee; ice cream.
Beckett chose the Vienna steak and a coffee. The proprietor held a fistful of cups under the nozzle of the tea urn.
'Another hot day.'
'Still, makes up for last summer.'
'Doesn't it.' Beckett had no remembrance of what last summer had been like.
'I'll bring your meal over.'
He sat down at his usual table in the corner. When the food came he ate hungrily. The peas were the tinned sort, and swam in bright-green juice. The radio was relaying a variety show, which emerged at intervals from the noise of cutlery, conversation, and hissing steam. 'Well, my mother-in-law; you know my mother-in-law ...' The laughter of the studio audience switched on and off like a buzzer.
A girl in a short, tight skirt sat at the table opposite. She swung her slim, nyloned leg, regarding her shoe, tapping her cigarette on the edge of the ashtray.
'I only live a stone's throw away from my mother-in-law.'
'You only live a stone's throw away from your mother-in-law?' 'Yes; so help me to pick up some more stones.' The vase of cutlery on top of the radio rattled.
His gaze travelled up the girl's leg to the edge of her slip and the darkness beyond it. He felt half-desire mixed with the fragments of remembered past desires. He had images of a girl with inelegantly opened legs against a wall, or on the back seat of a car. Then there had been another girl, the first. One autumn day in a glade she had lain on her back, waiting for him, with her skirt drawn up showing her suspenders, her knickers round one ankle, and her plastic handbag among the fallen leaves.
The girl opposite stroked her hair. For a second her gaze met Beckett's. Her eyes were untrustworthy, and as cool as fishes, and he felt that she was one woman promising all women.
Then a man sat down beside her, and she remarked: 'Mustn't be long, eh? or we'll miss the big picture.'
Beckett turned away. He was not disappointed because she had an escort, but because he knew there was no universal woman; only individuals. He did not want individuals. He wanted everything and nothing.
He knew that although the woman had excited him across the café, if she had come and sat on his knee he would not have wanted her. Many of his desires were like that: threads stretched to strangers across cafés or Tube compartments or night streets. They were the mark of the lonely; not unpleasant.
On the way home he noticed a small boy squatting on the pavement outside the house where Gash lived.
As Beckett got nearer, he saw that the boy was writing with chalk on the pavement.
The boy stood up defensively, and Beckett read the words:
MISTER GASH IS A SILLY FOOL. TRUE.
'Why did you write that?'
The boy said nothing. He took used bus tickets from his pockets and counted them.
'Why did you write that?'
The boy still did not answer, so Beckett started to rub out the words with his shoe.
The boy watched in silence for a while, then asked: 'You a friend of his, then?'
'He cuts children up inter pieces, and makes them inter pies.'
'Who told you that?'
'My mum.' The boy continued to watch for a few seconds, then dropped his collection of bus tickets, yelled: 'You're daft ...' and ran away.
The writing could not be entirely obliterated. Beckett looked at the blurred chalk-marks and scattered tickets, then walked home. He did not know why he had bothered to remove the insulting words. They would not have worried Gash.CHAPTER 2
The party was in Fulham, in somebody's flat. People were sitting on the divan or on the floor; a few were dancing. On the mantelpiece were a stolen "Gents" sign, a child's dish of soggy cornflakes, and a photograph of an ex-wife fondling an Alsatian in a back garden. The top of the radiogram served as a bar, and the babble of voices rose above the LP of the latest American musical.
'... he always does it in telephone kiosks ...'
'... I go to Private Views for the free drink ...'
'... darling, your shoulder-strap's showing ...'
'... why are Bob and George such ages at the off licence? ...'
Beckett was jammed on the edge of the divan. A woman, aged about thirty-five, was sitting heavily on his knee. He did not know who she was, except that someone had introduced her as Georgia. She was drinking gin-and-orange. When she held out her cup for a refill he noticed the coin-shaped vaccination mark on her plump upper arm, and wanted to bite her arm.
He and Georgia talked nonsense and kissed. She had a tilted nose; her sexy suggestive eyes were experienced in double beds and saloon bars and in being combined mistress and mother to many men.
'Have a cigarette, love,' she said, groping in her handbag among makeup, letters, and Kleenex tissues. He saw down her dress.
When there was more room on the divan they sat side by side, their arms uncomfortably round each other. He was kissing her again when somebody said: 'Oh look, there's Ilsa Barnes...' Ilsa, just arrived, stood in the doorway. He noticed that she had given up her arty garb of shirt-tails and paint-smeared jeans, and was dressed in a smart, sophisticated manner in a scarlet dress that matched her lipstick. Otherwise she was unchanged, with her brittle body and dissatisfied, avaricious eyes. The habitual cigarette smouldered between her fingers.
He wondered what he felt, then realized that he felt nothing.
'That girl Ilsa is a friend of mine,' Georgia said. 'Do you know her?'
'I used to, yes.'
'She was at St Martin's Art School, wasn't she? I thought it was such a pity when she left.'
He said: 'She decided she couldn't paint, and anyway didn't want to, and that it would be better to break off completely and start something new.'
'What a pity.' Georgia regarded the tip of her cigarette. 'She was very keen; she was going to take her Teacher's Diploma and get a job teaching art in a school. Well, I must say I wish I had the talent to do drawing or something. What a crime to throw it away!'
'Did you know her well, then?'
'Fairly. I spent a weekend at her parents' farm once. They have a farm in Sussex. Pleasant people.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Furnished Room"
Copyright © 2011 Laura Del-Rivo.
Excerpted by permission of Five Leaves Publications.
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