The news arrives on a day without wind, when the smoke from his cigarette rises straight up, drowsily, curling around itself in an elaborate arabesque, pliè, curtsey. He is sitting on the front stoop of the row house where he lives, smoking with Elaine. They are sometimes friends, sometimes lovers. Fuck around friends, Elaine calls it cheerfully. She’s Australian. Bayswater is mostly Australians, Kiwis, Indians. He himself had been more interested in the rent—forty quid a week, with a shared bathroom and a short lease. He has always lived in London, except for two years in America, which he recalls without clarity and with marked disinterest, but he believes ardently in impermanence, buys Coke by the can rather than in bottles, cars that fall apart within a year, distrusts, when he remembers it, Elaine’s eighteen-month contract. She lives one flight up; they share the same bathroom, which is how they’d met, his first morning in Bayswater, when he couldn’t find toothpaste in the depths of the black plastic garbage bags he’d used instead of suitcases. He doesn’t think he’s in love with her, believes love would be larger, engulfing, uncompromising, knows perfectly well that she is not in love with him.
“I was on the tube today,” Elaine is saying. She always tells long stories with no point, or at least enmeshed in tangents so dizzying and varied that the climax, when it comes, is like a blown fuse, shattering more for absence of light, of sound, than for any real revelation.
He smiles at her and she says: “So damn cold on the tube. It’s cold everywhere. It’s almost July for godsakes. I don’t get it.”
He says: “London weather’s fucked up.”
She says: “You’re telling me.” In Sydney, she says, they have picnics on Christmas. They go bathing. He thinks it’s ridiculous to have Easter in autumn and tells her so. Rebirth and resurrection in autumn. That’s when you need it, she says. Who needs God unless everywhere color is crumbling leafmeal into monotone, everywhere the trees emerge black and ghastly against the sheen of the unfathomable sky.
“But anyway,” Elaine says. “The tube.”
“Right,” he says encouragingly. “The tube.”
“So I had to go to Bray Place,” she says. Then, inexplicably: “You know.”
“Know what?” he says. “Bray Place?” He’s never heard of it, considers asking the postcode, knows there is no point.
She flashes him an irritated look and he considers kissing her, but she’s started talking again and he takes a drag on his cigarette, stares into the road, across it at the block of identical row houses like a mirror image of his own.
“But anyway, so I was on the tube and this other woman got off with me, at Sloane Square.”
“Right then,” he says, thinks: Enter Other Woman. Across the street a middle aged man is talking to a fat and grey-haired housewife on another identical step, each with a bottle of Pils, both laughing garrulously, harshly, at indistinguishable words.
“I was going to a job interview,” Elaine says. “I told you that.” She is always looking for work. Currently she’s entering sales data at a firm that imports plastic statuettes of the Queen’s guards. Made by three year olds in Singapore, she tells casual acquaintances with an air of suppressed merriment. They’re sold by tacky trinket vendors outside of tourist attractions. Elaine knows them all—the vendors—stops outside Westminster to gossip, loves their lewd imitations of portly American tourists, listens the way she speaks—with a sort of vivid, tangible enthusiasm.
“What job?” he says. Elaine buys the Evening Standard for the classifieds, although she’s convinced it’s a subversive Conservative tool, and she has worked at pubs, fishmongers’, and, last February, a Honda dealership in Fulham, selling new and used Civics to the young and easily seduced.
“Selling cosmetics,” she says, and laughs. “At Harrod’s. Can you imagine me selling cosmetics?”
“Frankly, no,” he says. And then: “Have you ever been to Harrod’s?”
“Once,” she says. “When my mother was here. She made me spend the whole time reassuring her that the IRA wasn’t going to bomb it. I mean, honestly. What the fuck do I know? It’s not like I could call them and say, ‘Hello there, don’t bomb Harrod’s today—I’m taking my mum to see it.’” She lapses into silence and takes another drag on her cigarette. They both smoke Marlboro Lights, which makes it convenient for bumming. His theory is that of a grand cigarette collective, wherein giving and receiving eventually even out, but further than that he doesn’t believe in politics. He is an actor, currently playing Horatio in a tiny theatre attended primarily by school groups studying Shakespeare. He likes Shakespeare, but he thinks Hamlet is a cliché, too filled with potential titles for as yet unwritten novels. As for politics, he believes in the imperceptible line of the unlivable, at which time the populace, and himself with it, will rise in spontaneous revolt. (All his theories are the product of drunkenness, when his vocabulary multiplies and he sleeps with Elaine.) Until then, though, he has a strange kind of faith—naivetè, Elaine calls it—in the suited and indistinguishable masses on the underground. He believes in them, in their uniform conventionality, their mythical wives and waiting children, their staid papers and sensible brollys, their exhaustion and their monotony and their conscious choice. This, he thinks, is life, reality, and he decided against it years ago, when he lived with his father and stepmother on Cholmondeley Circle, the day when he was fourteen and recited Macbeth’s final soliloquy in front of his fourth form English section. He had not become Macbeth—he despises Method acting, its theory of subordination and assumption—but somehow, mystically, strangely, the words in his lungs, his throat, his lips, Macbeth had become him. He had felt it, reveled in it, this exponential schizophrenia. And so he believes that through this he is all those men on the underground, he is the film stars in the West End, the Hare Krishnas at Covent Garden, the tourists at Westminster and Madame Tussaud’s.
Acintya bheda bheda tattva, Elaine had said when he told her. At that time she was working at the Our Price on Regents Street, where Kula Shaker was the hotly promoted flavor of the month. It means ‘the simultaneous oneness and individuality of the universe.’ She had taken a long drag, ashed once, neatly, and said: That’s you. Simultaneously one and different. Like sex. They were lying on the floor of her sitting room, having the postcoital cigarette. It was four am and they were nearly but not unpleasantly sober. He had sat up suddenly and said: So am I you too? She had looked at him for a minute, and in that minute he had believed utterly that he loved her, and then she had kissed him very thoroughly and said with an odd and atypical gentleness: I don’t know. You’re the one who ought to know, aren’t you? And he supposes she’s right, had known it then, that none of them were him—not Macbeth, not Elaine, not the tourists at Buckingham Palace. He is not in them, the way at grammar school he had not been within the myriad cliques, had had a strange sense always of watching life happen to other people. And so he believes that whatever it is he feels towards Elaine is not love, that he cannot love something distinct from himself, that love is only a different sort of self-knowledge, a Platonic rejoining of amputated Siamese halves.
Elaine says: “But really though. Cosmetics. I don’t think I own any cosmetics.” She’s still talking about Harrod’s.
“So why did you go?” he says.
She says: “For the hell of it.” Which he thinks is generally the most common motivation for everything. She says: “But anyway, this woman.” And drops her cigarette, stamps it absently with the sole of one brown Doc Marten. “I didn’t pay much attention to her, but when I got to the interview—on Bray Place—she was there too. It was a group session. The woman in charge called us all ‘girls.’” She shakes her head. This is one of her pastimes—inactive irritation. “I mean, honestly. There were women there in their thirties.”
“Pathetic,” he agrees.
She lights another cigarette and keeps going. “So they start telling us what we’re to wear, and as it happens my tube woman is a prime example.” She shrugs. “Evidently they’re very strict—black knee length skirt, white shirt, black blazer, and something called Court shoes. These godawful heels.” Elaine has bad feet, inherited from her mother, and is always worrying about bunions.
“Well, how did it go?” he says. “The interview, I mean.”
She laughs. “Oh, dandy. I was so rude on my application form. Wrote down all this bullshit—I mean, it was the truth. Who tells the truth on job applications?”
“Nobody who wants the job,” he says. “What did you put?”
“They asked my career goals,” she says. “What am I supposed to say to that?”
“That your lifelong dream is to sell cosmetics at Harrod’s?”
They both laugh and she says: “I put, ‘I want to waste my life on fruitless endeavours and dead-end jobs.’”
He snorts. And then: “But is that really the truth?”
She shrugs. “The truth is whatever people don’t want to hear.” She tosses her cigarette into the street, gets up, says: “I have to go to work.”
“Go on then,” he says. “Don’t let me keep you.”
She slings her bag over her shoulder, kisses her hand and touches his forehead, says: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
He says: “Oh, increased freedom. Fantastic.”
It occurs to him when she reaches the far streetcorner that she’d never finished her story. The woman on the tube. It sounds like the title of a paperback mystery, and he suddenly has an odd feeling, as though he has read the jacket and moved on, never to know if it had, in fact, been Mr. Green in the conservatory with the automotive wrench. Flames, he thinks ironically. Flames against the side of my face—burning. Elaine’s Miss Scarlet imitation is sidesplitting. Across the street the man and woman are rising, separating, she back into the house, touching her hairpins, he along the street, cockily, off to work. Fritz doesn’t have to be anywhere until noon. He works at the help desk of cyber cafe, a job he despises, primarily because he knows next to nothing about computers. Next to nothing, he tells Elaine, means knowing that they’re out to get you. Important to know that from the start, she says.
He’s still sitting on the stoop when he sees his stepsister, Magda. She’s wearing jeans and an orange sweater that clashes with her complexion, and her hair is jet black instead of its most recent platinum, but still, he’s fairly certain it’s her. She walks up the street, stops in front of him, says: “Hi.”
“What are you doing here?” he says, suspicious. She lives in New York.
“I’m visiting,” she says.
“Aren’t you supposed to call first?” he says. “I thought that was standard.”
“Oh shut up.” She sits down next to him. “I’m jetlagged.”
“You want a fag?” He offers her the pack. “When’d you get in?”
“Last night.” She takes the cigarette and he holds the lighter for her. “I’m staying with Dieter.” Dieter is his older brother. He’s a musician and lives in a dingy walkup in Camden Town. He could afford better—the band’s latest CD has a massive window display at Tower Records—but the flat in all its mould and filth has become a sort of affectation, the antepenultimate vestige of life as a starving artist. The music, Fritz acknowledges, is decent. He thinks that if Dieter were not his brother he would think it was more than decent, but he is unable to think of him as a pop star, object of adulation for thousands of oversexed teenagers. They aren’t exactly close, but they like each other, have raucous lunches every month or so and swap family gossip. Their stepmother, Isabel, has accumulated—through marriage and reproduction—a grand total of nine children, a number that stupefies both of them. The oldest, Gwendolyn, lives in San Francisco with children older than the youngest, Fritz’s half-brother Simon, who’s sixteen. At twenty-five, Fritz is on the younger end of the middle. Magda is two years older, and Dieter one year older than that. The three of them had been friends, in a manner of speaking, while growing up. Growing up, Elaine says, was a long time ago, and he agrees with her.
“How’s Lucia?” he says. Magda’s twin sister also lives in New York.
“Tense as ever,” Magda says, sucks deeply on her cigarette. “She’s in Italy right now. I can’t tell if she’s moved. I mean, she has an apartment in Venice, a telephone number, all that, so god only knows.”
He says: “Simon? Fredericka?” Fredericka is his only blood sister. She lives in Greenwich Village with a Swedish photographer named Martin. As a child she had been strange, inaccessible, silent, had spoken her first words at eleven, lived always in a parallel dream. She had not been Isabel’s favorite. That had been Dieter. Dieter, who had thrown away everything she gave him, had dropped out of Cambridge when his band was signed by EMI. She had loved Dieter cruelly, unforgivingly, but Fredericka she had loved with distant kindness, had treated with deft and gentle understanding.
“I thought you and Fredericka talked,” says Magda.
“First Monday of every month,” he says. It’s the end of June. “Just wanted to make sure she was alive.”
“Look,” says Magda. “I didn’t come about them. Fred’s fine, as far as I know. I came because I didn’t want to call.”
“Came to London?” Fritz says, mystified.
“No, I was coming to London anyway. I’m on assignment.” She’s a journalist—works for some tabloid in Manhattan, is always griping about news office toilets. “I have to interview some Sinn Fein MP. About the RUC shootings.”
“Oh,” he says. He knows he’s missing something, some fatal and significant link. It’s like talking to Elaine, epiphany trapped in a veil of innuendo.
“Mum’s dying,” Magda says hurriedly. “She’s got pancreatic cancer. The diagnosis came on Monday.”
He takes a drag, exhales, says: “Your mum.”
“That’s what Dieter said.”
He’s suddenly oddly defensive. “Well, what do you expect? She disowned him, for fuck’s sake.” Isabel had believed in education, and somehow, strangely, she had believed also in Dieter, had seen the music as transient, a passing obsession, had never forgiven him that midnight phone call, her shattered plans. She had not exactly, in the very Dickensesque manner it was spoken of within the family, cut him off entirely. There would be no money, but neither of them had ever expected money. There is only a strange and pulsating silence, Isabel’s defiant regret and Dieter’s resentment.
Magda says nothing and he says: “Look, don’t think I’m not sorry.”
She says: “But you’re not.”
“I am.” He takes another drag. “I am sorry. When anyone’s dying, I’m sorry. But she’s not my mum. There’s nothing I can do.” There is a long silence and then he says: “Look, Magda, I don’t want anything. You and Lucia can go through it all. You’re the blood children, after all—you and Simon.”
“There’s a will,” Magda says slowly. “Gwendolyn’s the executrix.”
“I don’t care about the will,” he says. “I don’t want her money.”
“You didn’t love her,” Magda says without resentment. It’s not a question. They both understand.
They say nothing for a little while, and then Magda, suddenly: “Fred’s taking Simon.”
He says: “Fine, then, so that’s settled,” but he is not thinking, except that he is strangling, unable to believe that the thought of Simon had not even occurred to him. He says: “Tell Fred that if—”
“He wanted to live with Fred,” Magda says dully. “She was the first one he called.”
“Why Fred?” he says.
Magda says: “God only knows.”
Magda’s interview is at four, and they agree to meet for dinner. Fritz goes back inside, takes out the garbage, turns the telly to a thankfully long-forgotten American movie starring the young George Clooney, cleans the kitchen he and Elaine share with Heinrich, whose rooms adjoin Elaine’s. Heinrich is from Nuremberg, had heard the name Fritz and tried to speak to him in German. Fritz’s mother had been German, but she had died when he was four, crashed her car on Gloucester Road, drunk one morning. He doesn’t remember her, feels always and distantly that he should ask Dieter, should dredge up some shared occasion, unearth recollection the way workmen drill through concrete, find buried water mains, industrial rivers, sources of survival.
On the tube to work, he notices people, the shifting masses, stares covertly at honeymooning couples, at teenagers on holiday, lounging in a debris of sloughed frame packs, discussing rumpled tube maps in a language he doesn’t understand, watches, until he catches himself, for a woman in a black knee-length skirt, black jacket, and Court shoes. He tells himself sternly that he is not Elaine, that whatever she had seen in this doubtless very ordinary woman would be as inaccessible to him as the desultory navigation of the tourists.
So Isabel is dying. He wants to feel triumphant, relieved, but there is only a tight and strangling emptiness that expands along his throat, his stomach, his gut, like the pink cartoons in antacid commercials, coating his insides in pain that is not grief but rather an awareness of loss. He wishes strangely and without contrition that he had loved her, knows that he is not to blame.
He tries not to think of his childhood. Here, in London, he can remember it fondly. When he had left America for Cambridge, Isabel and Fredericka had driven him to Kennedy. I’m glad you’re going, Fredericka had said lightly. Now I can have the front seat. He had laughed at her, told her to keep Simon in line, and Isabel shook his hand firmly at the gate and said: Remember that my home is always open to you. He had said thank you, had known then that he would never go back, and he never has, had spent school holidays in London with Dieter, had had free run of Dieter’s flat when the band was touring. Isabel had come to Cambridge for his graduation, stayed for the requisite festivities and then gone in a flurry of taxis and Chanel.
Beforehand, Dieter had told Fritz adamantly that he wouldn’t see her, that as far as he was concerned Isabel could rot. Isabel had not mentioned Dieter the entire weekend, had not commented on his absence at the college parties, had not acknowledged him at the graduation ceremony, when he had sat as far to the back as possible, as far away from her as possible. It was only when she was leaving, when the taxi was loaded at King’s Cross and the driver was switching gears, that she had said rolled down her window, leaned out, said hesitantly: Tell Dieter that if he needs anything— And Fritz had turned back as he was leaving, had said, Dieter’s all right. Yes, she had said, I suppose he would be. Fritz had been curious, suddenly, had said: Tell him what? And she had said, Nothing. Don’t tell him anything. I changed my mind, had rolled up the window then, as the cab dove into traffic, headed off towards Heathrow. Fritz had gone back inside, bought a cup of coffee and smoked a cigarette, then caught the train back to Cambridge, where Dieter was waiting beside a car full of three years’ accumulated junk and a degree engraved in Latin.
He admits to himself that Isabel had behaved at all times properly towards him. She had not loved him—love had been reserved for her own children, for Dieter, possibly for Fredericka and Gwendolyn. But he knows that she was not obligated to love him, that that had not been part of the bargain when she married his father. His father had died of lung cancer when Fritz was fourteen. He thinks that this should have shaped him, have made him a militant nonsmoker, but at fourteen he was already firmly hooked, had been before the diagnosis. If he thinks rarely of Isabel he thinks of his father even less. Jack Hansen had been a large man, kind, worried. He knows that Dieter had been shattered by his death, but Fritz had loved him distantly, without intensity, remembers the afternoon when the school nurse had taken him out of maths and sat him down in her office and said: Your father died this morning, Fritz, I’m sorry. And Fritz had said, I knew he would one day, had refused her stiff uncertain commiseration, amazed himself at his own lack of grief.
He gets off at Holborn and switches to the Piccadilly line, waits on the platform with hordes of tourists. The train arrives and he starts to get on, changes his mind midstride, goes back upstairs to the escalator, lets it carry him thoughtlessly up into the dim wet sunlight. He’s late already, but the general manager, Harold, likes him. Harold had also gone to Peterhouse, although a good fifteen years before Fritz, and sees him, for all his incompetence, as a sort of fellow traveler. To Fritz, this is vaguely ridiculous. He sees himself as a mockery of Harold’s life—thinks that perhaps Harold doesn’t understand that Fritz by his very being should offend, the way a tourist offends, being only a dilettante in someone else’s monotony. Harold’s degree is framed on the wall of his windowless office, a leering reminder that once there had been a way out, a way into some glittering other world, that now there was only cheap paperboard and cheap vodka, rows of computers, programmable faces and repeating screensavers. His wife, Martine, is twenty-two to his forty, and they have been divorced and remarried four times in three years, always with a kind of eerie drama, Martine’s peroxide-blonde hysterics and Harold’s staid alcoholic mystification, and Fritz thinks that even this must by now have a strange and predictable tedium, the ongoing cycle of separation and reunitement, each divorce an identical farce acted to an identical audience.
No one else at the shop holds a degree, except for Denby, the tech support manager, who had graduated with honors from Oxford Polytechnic. Denby lives in Hampstead, dresses like the hippie version of a Sex Pistol and a bobby soxer, a strange and vaguely hallucinatory combination, grows his own pot in the vegetable garden behind the dilapidated house he shares with a New Wave punk band called Purgatorio. Elaine always says that Denby has too much spirit to be straight, but he’s got a girlfriend, who Elaine refers to—with a great deal of affection and a touch of malice—as The Very British Emma. Emma is very British, almost stereotypically so, tall and intentionally dowdy. She works for an investment banking firm in the City, and occasionally Fritz thinks Denby is her one avenue of rebellion, with his loud paisley shirts and gel-spiked hair, the rundown hovel that is a thorn in the side of their neighbors, the atrocious poetry he composes on Hampstead Heath with the help of half a bottle of vodka and recites to all and sundry after the other half, standing unsteadily on the coffee table in the beerstained front room.
Fritz turns right into a narrow alleyway, crosses Neal’s Yard quickly, goes upstairs and leaves his bag in the staff room, walks out to the tech desk. Harold is nowhere in sight. “It’s twenty-five past,” says Denby conversationally, over the styrofoam rim of his coffee. Today he’s wearing a green t-shirt inscribed PURGATORIO in fluorescent orange above a painting that looks like an abstract rendering of two cows fucking.
Fritz looks up from the computer, where he’s logging in his timecard, says: “Louis Denby, Master of the Obvious.” It had taken him three months—the length of Harold’s second divorce—to figure out Denby’s elusive forename, and he uses it only rarely, primarily because he believes in conservation of ammunition. He’s supposed to be in by noon, but has figured out that Harold will tolerate anything under half an hour. Once, when he’d sidled in at a quarter to one, Harold had taken him back into his office and given him a lecture about the long history of Cambridge University. To Harold, Cambridge means something along the lines of honor and industry. To Fritz, it’s just a school, a place where he was once, a place he had loved, but not a tradition. He feels utterly separate from the Cambridge experience, can relate only to his own Cambridge, feels no brotherhood with the past, with the millenium of hungover undergraduates who had straggled through the university before him. To him, Cambridge is three years, the streets he had walked, Jesus College bar, his term-time job taking tourists punting along the Cam, the view from the window at his Middle English tutorial, out across the green uneven fields, hazy in his bleary exhaustion, in his memory.
“Someday I’m going to fire you,” Denby says cheerfully, and sits on the desk.
“Like hell you will,” says Fritz comfortably. “You’d be bored shitless without me.”
Denby laughs at him. “You’re not the only uni brat at this company, you know.”
“Oh trust me,” Fritz says dryly, “I know.” He shakes his head. “How is Harold this morning?”
“He’s broken out the Stolichnaya already,” says Denby. “I think he and Martine are having trouble again.”
Fritz is flipping through the error log. “Heading for number five?”
“Yeah,” Denby says, “but when I brought him the mail this morning he said something to his glass about maybe she really means it this time.” He shakes his head and says appreciatively: “It’s all so sordid.”
“Well, at least they’re marrying the same person,” Fritz says reasonably. “Better that than a different wife every eight months.”
“I know,” Denby says darkly, “but each time I’ve got to give them a fucking wedding present.”
“What on earth for?” says Fritz, tilting his chair back and tossing the log onto the table. “They’re probably only doing it so they can pawn your cufflinks and pay for the honeymoon.”
“This time I’m going to give them an ‘Okay, now you’re divorced and you can damn well stay that way’ present,” says Denby. “Just you watch.”
“Maybe they really do mean it this time,” says Fritz. “I mean, it’s possible. This could really be it.”
“Not fucking likely,” says Denby, standing up dutifully as a blonde girl approaches the desk with a question. “They need each other. They’d die of boredom without marital problems.”
Copyright © 1998 NC Houghton