They came from the east in buses; becalmed men, devoid of propulsion. When you knocked one in the train you would see no unfolding in his face, just a trigger, a finger on steel. You’d sense a pulse somewhere, a relic almost bred out of you, the garlic reach of his breath. You’d apologise, aware of the titillation of the word mercy, looking for a raft through the percussion of his stare. The train would move on and a small audience would bow heads.
These men found jobs and made themselves useful; they had been very useful. Your father who believes in contribution takes one in, saying this man had been thrown out of his windowless squat, saying that these wars had been on our doorstep; saying we had watched. Your mother says she’ll have no stranger in the house. The back shed is made comfortable. One evening a man is introduced.
You think of corpses nursed together on stinging summer days.
It is two years since your parents failed to persuade your brother Milo to reside in this world. Milo’s cut-out is still everywhere, his osmotic reign in doorways, adrift on the stairs. Milo’s Danse Macabre takes places every night, the plot line from the kitchen to the computer screen, then barefoot through the frosted, mugger-ridden park, his physical health always inviolate, merely brushed.
You find your mother banked against your father who fastens himself around her body. Boiling water rolls in a pot. The foreign guest steps inside to the dinner table from the dark. His back, entrapped on the glass door, stiffens.
His eyes are strange, gel-like.
Your father releases your mother, whose tears mark her shirt.
Except for Milo who had a labourer’s job and grew thick pulsating digits, you are all musicians in this house.
The foreign man observes you. He sits on the step outside the shed of a Sunday. You are in the top window looking over the yards like a clan of unkempt relatives, wan trees and stooped spines. You are a tenor. You pause. The house is empty and the back door is not locked. You listen for creaks on the stairwell, Milo’s living tomb, where he used to scratch the wall surface like Uma Thurman buried in a box under five feet of wormy earth. There is a knock on your door but you stand there, chin rising, score drifting to the carpet, aware you are sweating in your understudy checked shirt.
You return to your exercise but hear a voice, a capable voice, mirroring your own. You stop, the voice stops. You begin a more complex vocalise: Rachmaninov’s, transposed. You hear the largeness of the voice copying yours on the other side of the door; its airy lift, portions of its untrained embracing. This is a travesty.
You say nothing to your parents.
Your father calls him Peter. He has found a job on a building site a few suburbs away. He catches the train; in the evening he walks home. Your mother has not warmed to him. She has followed the war trials. But she cooks for him, includes him at the table. Peter washes the dishes and she goes outside to smoke a cigarette. Then she drives across town to rehearse. Other nights she watches a film in the front room with your father. You enter and your parents are entangled on the couch, bodies jostling. Like lovers, they stretch out with fronts together, fingers in hair. Peter reads a foreign newspaper on the cleared table under the kitchen light.
You go into Milo’s room. Sit at Milo’s desk staring at the dead cells of the computer screen. You think of young men your own age hauled off buses and led into the woods. You think that Milo, had he been born in Peter’s country, could have killed men. You are not sure where this capacity is devised but you know your brother would have given captives water, pronounced their names; absorbed duty.
You disconnect that thought but it stays awash in you.
Your father travels to Devon to see to works on his father’s house. Your mother is teaching. Peter has long departed across the suburbs on a hushed dawn train. You have a recital tonight, outdoors, your throat is dry. You pour honey like lacquer down your throat, make herbal tea. You do not possess Milo’s exuberant organism. When Milo died they asked to dissect his brain and this vast shimmering portal was surrendered.
In slippers, you tread across to the back shed where Peter has now lived for three months. You have your mother’s set of keys. Since your father swept up the wood-planked floor and cut a carpet piece to fit the room, no one else has been in here. Inside there is a bed, neatly made, a chest with a lamp. There is a desk and a buckled landscape under glass, hanging. You begin to ransack. You unearth the bed, pull away the structure from the wall, lift up the damp carpet corners and peer as far as you can see. You are looking for trophies. You remember the tooth that a Belgian soldier kept for decades, shown in a palm on a current affairs programme on T.V. The tooth had been taken from Patrice Lumumba’s dissolved head. You smell compost.
You pull out the drawer of the desk and in the cavity underneath there are two things. A dirty gold chain, bloodied or rusted, with a crucifix. And a photograph of your mother.
You shred the photo into small, unbearable pieces. When you look at these morsels at your feet you realise the woman was not your mother at all.
The performance goes well. Afterwards you go out with the group and drink a whisky, not your usual drop. Your heartbeat has quickened, there is a girl who seems to admire you standing at your side. She looks at you with long enquiry. She also sings. The girl drinks white wine, glass after glass, bumping into you. Your flanks graft together, you separate from the others. A voice travels around with the name of the restaurant where the group will go next, but you’ve told your mother you’ll be home early. She’s not comfortable alone with Peter in the house.
You’re single, you haven’t had sex in months. You can feel your loins begging, churning. You’re ashamed, looking at this girl, at the force your body has compiled from nothing. A glass of whisky and a few scraps along your thigh. You’re ashamed at how you’ve ceded to rough thoughts. Where before, while singing, you felt a holy surge, a climb towards a communal sense of articulation, you now feel demoted, belonging to a species at its vulgar, grappling genesis.
You leave the group and catch the tube home.
Milo used to walk through the park fearlessly. It is where you go now. Your throat is hoarse again as dark blankets of damp rove over you. The trees are scarcely visible, then loom up with their architecture, buttresses sliding into the ground. Your mother calls, worried that you have gone out with friends. She asks you to come home. You don’t tell her you are around the corner on the common.
You sit on a park bench. You hear druggies up on the hill and wait a while, listening to their cracks and calls.
When you walk into the kitchen you know that a physical force has passed through here, you can feel its jarring on the air. Your mother is immobile at the glossy back windows. When she turns, you see that her face has been deployed in a frantic way, it looks lopsided. You ask her what has happened, what’s wrong. She asks where were you as if those lost moments have been critical. Food steams on the stove.
Peter is absent.
In the night you hear your father’s keys in the front door. He bounds up the stairs.
After the rain, you slide your hands under the earth where you buried Peter’s shredded photograph. The pieces are half-dry, stuck together. You take out the mass and put it in a bowl on the radiator in your bedroom. When the bits are dry you rub off the dirt and spread them on your desk. You separate the lower, darker tones from the aura of daylight drifting down from above. You gather pieces of the woman’s baggy green sweater, locating contours of her body. You identify her breasts, her belly, her shoulders. You discover a row of stitching around the neckline and link this up. Her neck presents itself, smooth and broad. Next to the border of her skin there is a bruised white wall in the background, perhaps a cottage. You didn’t notice it before. You look for her curly reddish hair, identical to your mother’s, you certainly remember that. You lay out this halo and her face looks like a devoured saint, an empty reliquary. You search for her features in the pile. You separate her brows and nose, her eyes which are unlike your mother’s, smaller and without beauty; her mouth which is colourless and taut. You flatten these overlapping pieces and are surprised. This woman is nothing like your mother. And yet you had thought. You sit there, observing her stillness. She wears no expression, even though her eyes are breached by the camera’s gaze. Her hands are wrapped together beneath her waist and she wears tight jeans, she is a heavy-hipped woman. To the left of the cottage there is long grass, a wooden fence, pines.
A chain disappears beneath her sweater and you know there is a crucifix resting on her skin.
You scan the photograph. You print it.
Your mother drops out of her production and your father takes time off work. They drive to Brittany for a week, taking their instruments. You wave them down the road that skirts the common, watch the small car take the bend out of the neighbourhood towards the great thoroughfares leading from the city. You are standing on the footpath with a cup of cold tea. For the past few days inertia has plunged you into your bed. You know that it is your doing, whatever Peter inflicted upon your mother. You were not told what happened. To your parents you said nothing about ransacking the man’s room, or ripping up the woman’s photograph. At night your limbs jerk you awake and you hear Milo moaning, Milo scratching the walls.
You have some sort of throat bug.
It is not hard to find Peter. You catch the train to the suburb where he worked. You begin to wander. It is windy, gritty, and you think of your parents driving through France, windshield wipers crossing to and fro, French road signs diminishing in their wake. How in lumpy beds before the glow of dawn they will refuel their love from these embers. You approach a building site with a skip on the roadside and white-dusted men ferrying detritus from the house, an orange funnel releasing a cloudy ziggurat of material. You glimpse Peter. At first you think he is going to do a runner but he walks over to you, calmly. You see how he is robust among other men, how his damp hair spiders over his temples. You see it in his spine now: he is a soldier, he has executed men. He has never known capitulation.
You hand him the printout of the woman’s photo. He takes the corner, eyes dropping, an infinitesimal slippage. He gives you a turbulent look, folds the image into his pocket, rejoins the other labourers. You stand there watching their cohesion among the rubble.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write at twenty-one and ended up in Ghana running a bar. Her collection of short stories The Cartography of Others was published by Unbound last year. Pelt and Other Stories (2013) was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize, and her stories and flash fiction have been Pushcart-nominated and published widely. Catherine lives in a farmhouse in Italy. Catherine can be found on Facebook, Twitter @catinitaly, and Instagram: catinitaly. You can read our interview with Catherine here.
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