‘Heights’

A long-ish, strange-ish story that was published in ‘Suburbs’, Issue 10 of Riptide Journal, in June 2014. 

 

All along Vicar Lane, construction cranes struck angular poses against the dusk sky. A welder’s torch burned somewhere in the storeyed scaffolding.

‘Lord, deliver me,’ the Swami said.

His hands closed around the unsmooth steel of a scaffolding strut.

‘Lord, Lord,’ the Swami said, and began to climb.

He did not know to what Lord he addressed his prayer. The Swami had never before sought a master or messiah. He had never before asked for deliverance. Up he climbed, pulling the steel pole through the grip of his hands, arms, lean thighs, bare feet as a worm pulls the earth piece by piece through the grip of its long body. At the second floor – an unstable corridor of scaffolding, bleached pallets between walls of day-glo polyethylene mesh – he rested. He flexed his toes, and wrung each biceps in turn.

From here could hear the river-like roar of the welder’s torch although he could no longer see its light. From here the geometry of the red cranes was different. Stars and planets showed in the sky behind.

‘Deliver me,’ the Swami said again.

He looked up. The boards above his head were a dusty orange in the glow of the sodium streetlights below. Woodlice patrolled the loose grain without hurry.

The Swami jerked in a breath, leapt backwards, gripped the edge above, and swung. For a moment his centre of gravity hung heavy as a plumbline over forty feet of empty space. His feet kicked at the day-glo plastic. As his body was drawn downwards his fingers found a crack between boards. He clutched, pulled. His knee found the brink. His gravity shifted.

He lay face-down on the cool boards, gasping dust. Delivered.

In the street so far below a drunk woman whooped like a jungle bird. Something smashed: a bottle, a shop window, a car’s wing-mirror, the Swami didn’t know. He stood, unsteadily. The beating of his heart almost overwhelmed him. Its beating was such that he felt as though he was being shaken by it, worried by his heart like a rat by a dog.

This had been only a small deliverance, the Swami was sure. Many such small deliverances would be necessary in the construction of the Swami’s greater deliverance. He trembled forward and bunching the flimsy plastic mesh of the fence in his fists peered downward. Vicar Lane was a canal of off-yellow light.

A small man, small from here, of course, but small, too, the Swami knew, in actuality, small in soul as well as in body, ran in a zig-zagged course along the broad pavement. He was looking all about him – all about him, urgently, wildly, but never above him, never upward.

That was not, the Swami knew, this man’s way.

Looking across the derelict square in which a new shopping centre would soon rise, the Swami could see on the third storey the corona of the diligent welder’s steady-burning torch.

He heard the man far below call out a name: ‘Peter!’

The Swami looked up. Another glow, another fire. Blue, this, in counterpoint to oxyacetalyne red. It was the signal light of a helicopter, banking low and slow in uncanny antigravity over the roof of the building. A police helicopter.

‘Deliver me,’ the Swami said.

*

He remembered fingering apart the mouldy wood of a trough in the back yard that had once been home to flowers but now housed only sterile grey soil, dandelions and etiolated grass. The wood had crumbled between his finger and thumb. A blunt splinter had poked him beneath his fingernail. Within the damp layers of the wood were perfect pearl-like slug eggs and woodlice. Some woodlice were old and heavy-shouldered and their armour was a matte battleship grey, and others were tiny, smaller than a grain of rice, and a soft rice-coloured golden-brown, moist as if half-cooked.

In the house sometimes the woodlice might be found in the bath or the sink. They were often busy around the skirting boards in the kitchen. Many times he had found one lying dead. In this, he thought, they weren’t like other animals. Other animals went to a secret place to die; he had never seen a bird or mouse dead of old age. For the woodlice one place seemed as good as another to die.

‘Peter?’

‘What?’ He turned, rubbing the dirt from his fingertips.

‘What are you up to?’ His mother stood in the kitchen doorway, holding a tea-towel and a dinner plate.

‘Exploring.’

‘Pulling my trug apart.’

She called the trough a ‘trug’.

‘It’s rotten.’

His mother, heavy-hipped, swayed down the path, the bunched towel in her right hand circling on the dinner plate as she walked. Her flipflops made a double slap with each step.

You’re rotten,’ she said without (he was sure) meaning it. Her shadow fell on him. ‘What have you found?’

‘Woodlice.’

‘Hmph. Make sure you wash your hands when you come in.’

‘And eggs.’

‘Chickens?’

He laughed.

‘No. Slugs. Look.’ He pointed.

She looked, but not at the eggs. ‘Your fingernails,’ she tutted. Then she said: ‘Slug eggs on toast for tea then.’

He said: ‘Eurgh.’

Her sharp fingers danced in his hair for a moment and then her shadow moved away. In the returned sunlight the slugs’ eggs glowed like little moons.

He liked to look down, that little boy, that little Peter. Do you know why? I will tell you why. Peter will tell you why. Let the Swami tell you why.

The little back yard – a paved path, the stump of a dead buddleia, forty or fifty square feet of scrubby dirt, an unkempt siding of hawthorn and elder – ended in a low wall of rough-textured breezeblocks. Beyond the wall ran a railway track. Passenger trains travelled along the track between Leeds and Bradford.

On the other side of the railway line, a deep green scramble of nettles and motherdie gave way to a football pitch – touchlines, grownover and yellowish, but no goalposts – and, beyond the pitch, a car park where no-one dared park a car. From this kidney- or comma-shaped car park the Heights rose. At the far foot of the Heights a one-storey pub had been left derelict. Windows missing, even the boards that had stood in for the windows missing.  The grey estate it had been built to serve, the Glenside estate, still thrived, and sprawled a mile to the south and two miles to the west.

The estate, the football pitch, the ruin of a pub: this was the poor soil that fed the roots of the Heights.

If ever he looked to the sky, to catch a tennis ball or follow the path of a flying blackbird, he would avert his eyes sooner than look upon the Heights. There was no expression in the configuration of the two towers’ windows. Nothing in the position or posture of the Heights communicated menace or ill omen. The Heights bespoke nothing. And yet he was menaced by them.

He would look down, instead. He would see red mites, each smaller than a salt crystal, swarming on the flat top of the breezeblock wall. He would see his own feet in cheap Pony trainers. Wormcasts left behind as worms processed the earth. Black beetles that gathered among the florets of dandelions as conspirators might gather in a forest.                                                       

The little man, the small man far below in the street, who just now cried out for Peter and looked all around but did not look up: he did not look up, he does not look up, because this what the Swami taught him. Yes, Peter taught him this; this is the lesson I taught.

 

Why did he come to us?

‘I’m just – interested.’ Those were his words. His smile was knowing and self-deprecating. Royal blue was his corduroy jean jacket. A neat haircut grown unruly. An Irishman’s beard, wispy and unimpressive. He was thirty, he said. No: he said thirty this year; he said it ruefully, seeking to appear worldly-wise, as though it were worldly-wise thus to talk his years away.

‘I’m open-minded,’ he said. ‘I won’t deny that I’m sceptical. But I’m – curious.’

The Swami wondered if he would be so curious when his lover lay dead, his secrets stood stripped of their costumery, his life circled the void like a mote of dirt circles the drain of an emptying basin.      

How can it be that the Swami knew of these things, even then?

There is a great deal to explain.

Emerson Reidy was a writer.

‘A journalist?’

‘God, no,’ he laughed, as though to reassure me (in fact I had no need of reassurance). ‘Stories. Articles. Bit of proofreading when there’re bills to pay.’ Another laugh. He laughed very readily.

Those stories. What strange bricks Emerson built his stories from. Think of a rubbish-strewn landfill site. See the things there thrown together unthinkingly. See a wet bag of scooped-out orange-skins propped within a rubber tractor tyre. See herring gulls tussling over a child’s pink swimsuit. See Emerson’s stories. A thing from one world knotted up with things from another – and so on.

Little Emerson in fact earned nothing from his rubbish-tip stories. He told me later that he was not a proper writer, really; all he earned he earned (he said, somewhat vaguely) from proofreading and so on. So he was not a writer but only a reader. And not, I saw, a teacher, but only ever a student.

‘You are – curious,’ I told him, as he had told me.

‘Thank-you,’ he said.

*

My father wore a sharp beard in the shape of the third pip on a three of spades. He lived in  the Glenside estate; in the shadow of the Heights (though only the long shadows of winter literally cast the dark of the Heights upon his panel-fronted first-floor flat). His nose was long and pale –what in a school colouring pencil was called ‘flesh coloured’ – in the Gujarati blue-brown of his face. Sometimes he would sit on a stool behind the counter of his brother’s convenience shop, smiling upon all alike: smokers, Lotto-players, drunks, schoolchildren clustering around the chest-freezer or chiller cabinet, shoplifters, daily buyers of newspaper and milk. Smiling, too, upon the transactions of paper and coin that slithered back and forth across the palm of his open right hand, which like his nose was long and pale.

Another transaction (this slithering, slippery, too) he had just as smilingly disavowed. He had waved his hands, my mother said, and bashfully lowered his long-lashed eyelids. ‘No, no.’ My mother approximated the hamstrung Indian vowel, tongue-tip snapping down from palate roof. ‘No, miss. A child, a boy? It cannot be, it will not be.’

He had walked away without turning his back, as one takes leave of a queen, until he reached his moped, propped at the kerb on one frail foot.

There were many: six of us. All, by some genetical kook, were boys. In the main I think we were distinguished by our gentleness.

And although Dipesh Mesuria would never furnish a home nor food nor pocket-money for his half-breeds, he had, by the time I was six, owned his multiple paternity, and he paid out a palimony of shy smiles, puzzled fondness, sweets pilfered from his brother’s shop, and tall tales haltingly told.

One summer’s day, for instance, a group of us lounged in a desultory half-circle on the halfway-line of the football pitch. Three or four turbanned teenaged Indians, stripped to the waist, booted a twanging plastic football back and forth. These were Dipesh’s cousins – though we never thought of it, these were our cousins. Dipesh our father, disdaining their game,  squatted among us and said that, when his tall-masted ship sailed from Porbandar, he, aboard, had carried with him a half-dozen peacock eggs.

We swallowed the tall-masted ship but choked on the peacocks. Dipesh raised an open hand and swore that it was true.

Eat ‘em?, someone demanded hungrily. It would not have been me: of Dipesh’s bastards, I, the youngest, the last, was also the most silent.

No, our father said. He had incubated the eggs on the smoking motor of his moped. All had hatched. No – he corrected himself. One had cracked (and this he had cooked in an omelette) but the remaining five had hatched and grown to fulness. He shared his home in the Glenside estate, he said, with these five fine peacocks – the finest, finer by far than the finest in all Gujarat.   

I, twisting my small finger in the stem of a daisy, blinked at the muster of tears in my eyes, for here was Dipesh our father, who would dwell with peacocks but not with us, his sons – not with me, his son.

At that moment, watching the head of the broken daisy furl in on itself within the crook of my finger, I saw Dipesh. Not as he was, smiling and crouched limberly on his hams in the sunny centre circle (I would not look at him). I saw him as though my hand and the daisy were a picture stained in a pane of glass and Dipesh, my father, was beyond the glass. I saw him in full figure, limbs spread, foregrounded against a powder-blue sky. Flying or falling or bouncing on a trampoline.           

It’s curious to think that Dipesh, when he told us that story, was only twenty-three or twenty-four years old. He had so very few years left. And if the Swami’s gift or habit of prophecy seems tiresome to you then consider how tiresome it soon became for the Swami.

I have said that all told we were six boys and indeed we were. Just as there were six peacock’s eggs, until the one cracked in the heat and smoke.

*

My wife of two years stirred in the lamplight. I looked to the lamp: the bulb weakly burning, the shade crooked and spotted like Jupiter with a red spot, a scorch-mark (on Jupiter, I understand, the spot denotes an eternal storm). Holding my broken-backed book in my left hand I stroked Grace’s shoulder with my right.

‘There, now. Sleep. Sleep.’

The Swami’s voice, sonorous in the bedroom. My own voice. There is a duality.

I set aside the book (a weak novel) pages-down on the bedside chest and reached over Grace’s sleeping body to fumble beneath the lampshade. The bulb – not in fact a bulb but, rather, an efficiently humming crozier of pearly white glass – was warm at my fingertips but not hot enough to burn. I found the switch and with a press of the thumb eased the lamp into silence and dark. In any case there was light, now, dawn light, at the window.

The hollow of my armpit, I observed, still with my arm outstretched, was a fair fit for Grace’s angular shoulder, which, though smooth-skinned, comprised many smooth faces, like a worked flint. I lowered my arm to fold it about her. My face as I let my body fall back into the bed settled in the warm cobwebs of her hair.

She was my wife in law. This had not been foreseen. As though in a presposterous unsold story by Emerson Reidy she had entered into a narrative that had no place for her, this Grace. With elbows and knees she had levered apart my own life and within it found breathing space for us both.

Indeed for us three. For I was and am two, not one.

She, too, was a fatherless child, born on the Glenside to the mother of Dipesh’s second son. We shared this half-brother: Ben, the only child of my father and Grace’s mother. Grace was a frail thing with a skipping rope or something in a toy pram. I would see her walking the touchlines of the football pitch, around and around with pram or rope. Sometimes she would be in Dipesh’s brother’s shop. And at school, too, she was distant: in white shirt and blue tights, with her loose-flying brown hair knotted high on her head, she was too female to be my friend, and besides that she was too clever for my classes.

I have said that I was two, not one – that there was and is a dualism. Grace, in the late-coming spring of my nineteenth year, crystallised the paradox: during or within her kiss, cider-flavoured, unanticipated, on a fly-bitten May evening among shoulder-high nettles, I was both two and one. The two were one, thanks to this narrow-waisted third with pink fingernails, and yet neither was diminished.

And later, weeks but not months later, on her bed in her house at the easternmost edge of the Glenside, when all at once there appeared among us a fourth (of me, certainly, but surely, suddenly, not of me, this thing, springing from my unzipped shorts: surely an effigy, a joke-shop prank cast in hard rubber – and then at her touch, her kiss and accommodation, once again completely and extraordinarily of me) – then, again, I was two and one and she, the third, made one also –

Though I cannot say that she was not diminished by the sum.

We were married in the town of Bingley a year later. There was no child, no beginnings of a child: I was Dipesh’s son but in respect of this at least I had not inherited my father’s folly, if it was folly (if I was folly). A civil servant conducted the necessary rite. 

She was my wife according to law and I loved her – as, in those days, I understood love.                                    

I watched her sleep. Her upper lip quivered. Below the window, where a wiry tree of rosemary mingled its branches and oily scents with those of a dust-green lavender, a blackbird began to sing, all excitement at the prospect of another day on earth, and Grace, my wife of two years, was jerked awake. Her eyes opened sharply.

‘Emerson,’ she said.

A prophecy, I thought at once, and the thought was a plea for clemency. But the Swami knew that it was not a prophecy but a memory. I broke apart.

*

Peter’s mother died, of course. Her dying was not an easy business. It was not quick, it was not merciful. It was a business conducted in human time, every second noted, felt in the marrow, every minute immanent, every day a notch scratched on human bone.

*

‘A policeman,’ the Swami said in tones of judgment. ‘A functionary of the state.’

I had loved him, this Emerson: one might call it agape, the love of a god for his children, the simple love of a monk for his row of beans. One might call it charity; one might better call it pity. I call it love.

‘How did you find out?’

‘You have betrayed,’ the Swami said, ‘our little family.’

For we were by then a family. When I was younger I had thought that a man alone could never be betrayed. Who keeps mankind at arm’s length need never draw an Iscariot to his bosom. But I think now that each man is his own Christ and own Iscariot, and each of the eleven in between – and be sure of it, he will himself undo himself.       

Besides, the Swami never cried ‘follow!’ – the Swami only walked, and others walked in his footprints.

In one respect we differed from an ordinary family. Such a family has a dismal entropy; such a family is born whole, and falls apart. We were separate and came together – or were brought together. With Emerson, we were thirteen (of course we were). Some were drunks, some addicted to drugs. Some made me think of Dipesh Mesuria, who in the seaside city of Porbandar had spent a dissolute year on the dockside with free-thinkers, fishermen, dabblers in the desi mal or Bombay heroin, travellers and crooks, wine-bibbers and storytellers. There was much love among us: agape, and other kinds.  

‘Are we then designated a risk, a threat?’ the Swami demanded. ‘Because we seek understanding?’

Emerson regarded me with insolence and remained as silent as a fish. He turned and walked out of the door. We followed him, my family and I, with our many eyes.

Why did he come to us?

‘He will not return,’ the Swami foresaw.

In memory I see that, as Emerson left the room, Grace, on her knees by my side, wept behind the cover of her hand. I did not see it then; the Swami did not see it; it was not seen.

This was one week before my wife Grace spoke unwisely on waking.

*

‘Grace? Grace, what is he doing here?’

She said nothing and the Swami advanced on Dipesh Mesuria. The Swami grasped his shoulders. Dipesh’s bhaji-breath beat on the Swami’s face.

‘Don’t mess around, Peter. We’re thirteen floors up. I only – ’

The Swami said something about eggs and fine peacocks, and delivered him into the hands of gravity. And there he was, Dipesh, who would not bring a lost boy into his home, framed against the blue sky – just as in the prophecy.

Pretty Grace had lured him there, to the derelict flat in the Heights. She had not wanted to, but even at nineteen the Swami was not to be gainsaid.

*

I swim in time. It is disorienting, I know – disorienting, that is, for creatures that have no other option than to be carried by its current.

*

The helicopter veered steeply over the light-soaked city. The Swami now balanced on the upmost tier of the scaffolding.

‘Peter!’

Emerson, so far below, had seen him. For once, then, he had looked up, little Emerson – for once he had answered to an intimation of something higher than himself.

When she spoke that word, ‘Emerson’, it had broken upon me as a wave breaks upon a rock. She and he – lovers, of course. What had he promised her, this Detective Sergeant with his weak chin and useless stories? A false liberty, I supposed. And what had she, in return, told him?

There was much love within the family but Grace was my wife in law, whether it pleased her or not. I have said that on hearing his name I broke apart. It was so: the Swami watched as Peter acted (though in prophecy the Swami had seen the scene many times – and knew that it must be).

Peter seized the lamp and beat the girl until she was still.

Then he walked red-handed from the squat, and the family he left behind him must now meet the the fate of all families.

All was foretold. There is a peace in this.

The little policeman who told ill-assembled stories ran back and forth at the foot of the scaffolding. One of the family had summoned him, of course; one of the family had found Grace’s beaten body in the bed, and called DS Emerson Reidy – and Emerson had once again come following in my footprints.

Fourteen-year old Peter stood at his mother’s graveside and the hairy hand of Dipesh Mesuria hovered on his shoulder. Dipesh had brought fresh flowers from his brother’s shop. Peter had picked dandelions, shaken free the beetles and rainwater, and bundled them together with string. These he had left at the foot of the six-foot graveplot; at his mother’s feet.

‘She will return as a flower,’ Dipesh said uncertainly. The hand gripped momentarily between Peter’s shoulder-bone and clavicle.             

But she did not return.

‘You are a man now,’ said still-uncertain Dipesh, ‘and a man finds his own way.’

Into the roar of the helicopter’s blades Emerson screamed meaningless words: arrest, murder, Dipesh, Grace. I stepped to the edge of the scaffolding, and then a step further, and then fell, and, in falling, rose, and kept on rising.  

 

 

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