An aeroplane was crawling through the dark-bluish air. At the far end of the horizon, the morning sun was pulling its fingers out from under the covers. Both were excruciatingly silent.
Carl’s euphoria was fading. Dying its usual slow death. The paralysing rot was spreading.
He ignored it. Stumbled over it like so many dead bodies. While he cooked his English breakfast, he munched on a loaf of bread. He was always so hungry in the morning.
He refrained himself from looking over his right shoulder towards the kitchen table. The old loon wasn’t there this morning, heaven be praised. The chair in which he had sat was slightly askew, but never mind that. He was alone.
The pan sizzled. The beeping and drilling of construction work happening on the street below penetrated the morning. The upstairs neighbours’ feet were dragging across the floor, the downstairs neighbours were irritatingly responding to each other’s questions according to communal living etiquette. Just Carl and the celestial bodies: silent and eternal.
He sat down with his breakfast and averted the absence of the old man with his eyes; instead he scrutinised the rising sun outside or the white separating wall, half concealing the kitchen fan. But the old man was inside his head, in the same way as a nightmarish vision is forever behind your back.
He had been angry the first time he saw him. Surprised, and mildly horrified at first, of course – it being one of his first nights in this new apartment and then waking up to find a complete stranger at his kitchen table. That made him squeal, and start back. Then came a very justified ire:
“Hey! Who the hell are you? What the f*ck are you doing here?”
He had rushed around the tiny table to face the man, blowing up his chest, the aftermath of the shock intermingled with the deliciousness of being in the right heating up his insides.
But the old man was completely unaffected by the loudness of Carl’s voice. He was eating grapes. The grapes that Carl had bought the day before. He used his left hand to pick them; his bony, white fingers trailed slowly, blindly through the air, grabbed a grape and tossed it in the old man’s open mouth. He swallowed one – with great effort, it seemed – then answered Carl’s question:
“I have lived here for many years.”
Carl had been thrown off by the peculiarity of his grape eating. By how the stranger’s calmness had made his anger small and insignificant. He had hardly heard the words he had said, and was already half-forgetting the fast-paced speech that had been rumbling through him before like a merciless train.
“Have you f*cking escaped from some home or something?” he was shouting, but already it was half-hearted, the anger struggling to keep up. “I won’t have some crazy loon stumble into my flat at random! I mean, you could murder me in my sleep – how did you even get in here – the looney homes have just totally gone downhill, haven’t they – Jesus Christ…!”
The old man said nothing. Then, finally, his words registered:
“Wait, what, are you Mr. Flannely then?” he said, fixing his eyes on the old man.
“The previous tenant, Mr. Flannely?”
A silence followed. And then another type of uneasiness seeped through Carl’s body.
“Hey,” he said, his civilising upbringing getting the better of him. “You honestly can’t be here. Do you have someone I can call?”
The old man continued to eat his grapes.
“Do you have a phone on you? Or a phone number?”
More silence. Carl was starting to feel the hopelessness of the situation. The man was probably demented. Carl would have to get him up, lead him to the nearest home for the elderly, see if they knew anything. The thought of touching the stranger, and of prolonged conversation in which he must try to find the balance between sympathy and patronising made him queasy. But he knew it was the only right thing to do.
“Alright, it’s ok. You forgot you moved out, did you? It can happen to the best of us. You know what, let’s go for a walk. You can tell me about this place. You know, which neighbours to avoid, best places to shop, that sort of thing.”
But there was still no reaction. Finally, Carl decided to take authority and physically raise the man up. He made to take the old man’s arm.
At that moment, the man raised his eyes and looked at Carl, for the first time since he had entered the room. And the coldness and clarity in those grey eyes made Carl start. They sucked him into a world of icy, murderous mountains and crows that made dark forests come to life, memories of childhood cruelties and irreparable damage. It was as though he swore a cruel vengeance upon him, if he dared to touch him.
It took his breath away.
And, released, as the man yet again looked away, Carl had found himself swaying and rootless on his kitchen floor, as though he had been slapped.
It took him a long time before he regained a level of normality. Then, without another word, he limped awkwardly out of the kitchen, out into the hall, pulled on his jacket and left the stranger alone in his apartment with a hollow slam of the door.
He wandered the streets for hours, distractingly pretending to ‘get to know the neighbourhood’. When he came home, the man was gone.
But today was a good day. Today was one of the days on which the old man hadn’t been there when he woke up.
The doorbell rang. Carl sighed heavily and got up from the table to buzz her in.
After that came the knocking on the door; Carl could feel his insides fill with cruelty and detestation. “Hey,” she said, lifting one eyebrow and looking down in disapproval. He hated her grey, strutting hair.
“Dropping these off too. You left them.”
Yes. She would always stop by ten minutes before work so that she wouldn’t have to stay for a second more than five minutes. Carl took the bag she was holding out.
“I have to hurry, I’m late.”
Finally, she granted him a look.
“So, still no luck finding a job.” He felt completely naked under the gaze of her youthful, blue eyes as they scanned his swollen belly, his ugly fingers – which he had once caught her wincing at when he had touched her – his blue, dotted socks. How he hated her.
“No.” He stated it angrily, to discipline her. He didn’t have to explain. It didn’t work.
“No. And you can still afford this place?”
He didn’t respond. He just stared at her in anger. It didn’t shake her in the least. She shrugged. “Well,” she said. “Gotta go. Will bring the girls on Saturday sometime.”
She backed one step away from him, effortlessly pulled a short, fake smile, and then she was gone. He was left alone again. Immediately, he felt the stagnant shadows of the corners of his apartment creep around him and choke him.
He needed to get out of here. Out of this miserable silence and emptiness, out of this haunted apartment of endless lost time.
Carl got to thinking again of a plot of land that was advertised in the window that he walked past every day on his way to the grocery store. A beautiful place on the periphery of the city, amidst misty, rolling hills. He couldn’t afford it. So he shouldn’t. And yet he couldn’t stop thinking about it. About the simplicity of birdsong and country-air; about the ease of solitude and physical labour. He truly believed that society made every man evil.
He would build a house there from scratch. Sleep in this dreadful apartment by night and spend his days sweating in the beautiful countryside. Some nights he might even bring a tent and sleep there, in the field, with the knowledge that the starry sky was rolling past above him.
He would grow strong and secure. His mind would emerge from its oh-so-messy state into clarity and determination.
His thoughts stopped short. He had reached the opening to the kitchen. And he couldn’t throw the sensation that the old man might have appeared out of nowhere all of a sudden. He even believed he heard the faint crunch of grape-skin being torn by yellow teeth.
He was stranded at the bar desk. Expelled from every table he had talked to. He didn’t care that the half-pretty young girls were whispering about him and laughing. They thought he didn’t notice, he was too drunk. But he didn’t care anymore; the world didn’t revolve around them.
The room was actually spinning.
He pushed himself away from the desk like one would push a canoe full of water out from the quay, wobbling threateningly as it blunders away purposelessly out into the endless sea.
“Hey, man. I think it’s time for you to go and have some fresh air now.”
His face was covered in a fiery-red beard, his skin was rough and thick and folded in young wrinkles like a dried prune.
“Mm,” was all Carl could utter, as he made his way towards the door he had already been headed for, hands swimming through the air in an attempt to keep his balance.
And luckily the man left him alone.
Immediately after he had stepped outside, he knew what was going to happen. His waddling accelerated into a run. But he didn’t make it to the patch of green by the side of the smoking area. Sick started to spill out from his mouth and nostrils in uncontrollable streams, through his fingers when he tried to hold it in, onto his jacket and into his sleeves.
And then he was just standing there; bent over the green patch of grass with wet fingers, loathing himself, with bright white thoughts of that beautiful plot of land blinding him.
And the women on the benches jeered at him, because he was fat and ugly and old; instead of giggling sweetly at his charming stupidity, like the girls had done when he was young.
The world was so ugly.
It made him want to lie down and not move. Let the earth turn round and round until he had regained the strength – really regained it – to rise back up; accepted the hatred; learnt to live with it.
Each finger moved as though it had a mind of its own – slowly, searchingly like feelers, with an eagerness and purpose indiscernible in the rest of that limp body. They were long and thin and gnarled. Small, soft hairs on their backs would sometimes catch the light of the exposed bulb sticking out from the belly of the kitchen table lamp. Finding the grape, they clasped it with perverse possessiveness and with the happiness of an ant, successful in her hunt, the hand would fly up to the thin-lipped mouth and throw in the grape. Then recommences the search, and his jaws work endlessly.
Yet again Carl found himself watching the old man’s fingers with morbid fascination. With utter disgust. Even with fear. In the light of the awakening sun, and in the utter silence that stained his small apartment drop by drop, until, inevitably, it would fill it up, and he would drown in air, and the walls would slowly fall apart like wet paper. And only the man at his kitchen table would be left. Reaching for his grapes. And his chewing would resonate through the liquid air. Oh, he frightened him terribly.
Carl could never figure out what it was that made the man reappear. Although he had never seen him do it, the idea of the strange man grabbing the back of his chair, pulling it out, and sitting down soundlessly made Carl feel ill. The chair, even in the absence of the man, became other-worldly, a ghost itself, a portal for a terrifying world to enter through, and he never dared touch what that man had touched, not to mention throwing it away, for fear that one day he would enter the kitchen and find the man sitting in his own chair.
Every morning there was a chance he would be there. Hesitatingly, Carl would round the corner from his bedroom and enter the kitchen, eyes firmly fixed on that chair at the table with its back to him. At times it would be empty, and he would be filled with an ecstatic relief, which for a minute would be so powerful that it would even blot his sight and make him dizzy. Then came the intense grief, as he realised the power in which a mere ghost was holding him.
And once again he was sitting there watching the old man, with the sensation of pretending not to notice that his entire body had been skinned. With the small explosions of his chest tightening with every single sound of the man crushing the grapes. Ripping through the generous skin, through the helpless flesh; finally crushing the bitter seeds. As he mourned his pathetic existence, the decisiveness that follows a night of excessive drinking allowed him to make a decision: he would buy the plot of land.
It had been easy. The realtor somehow seemed not to have noticed his nervousness. The bank had not asked questions when he told them he needed a loan. And everything had happened surprisingly smoothly. Although Carl felt a twinge of bad conscience when he thought of the money, as he was driving to his newly purchased land, he was happy. Excited! Excited, for the first time in so, so many years.
He felt as though maintaining a firm foothold on this earth would be the easiest thing in the world. Because the world wasn’t shaking. It had all been in his head! But out here: out here in the countryside. Where he would merge with the land, and work for the world, and finally fulfil the role that man was meant to play. Out here it would all be easy.
And he stopped the car, and all was silent. Amidst the rolling hills was his little heart, burning with excitement and expectation.
He got out, and the sharp, fresh air coloured his cheeks. Closing the car door was like cutting the umbilical cord to his previous, pathetic life. Carl started walking with large, confident steps into the open field.
And then there was a second slamming of a car door. And Carl’s body turned cold. He turned around to see an ancient thin man with long, bony fingers and with a cluster of grapes in the hand by his side. His dark dead eyes gazed into the empty field with the knowledge of the grave.
Image: by Will Burdette on Flickr