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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Edward McWhinney

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Back in the city again, adiós al playa, its naked hedonism, tramontana, restless nights running through the long wave band on the transistor or standing on the balcony aiming the pellet gun at drugged teenagers noisily messing around the beach, I searched for a place on the Diagonal that was up for rent. The first bell I leaned on was the wrong bell. An ancient voice came in garbled static through the speaker. I understood nothing but she pressed the button at her end anyway and an urgent buzzing called me to push on the heavy timber door. With a click it opened and I pushed through into a shadowy vestibule with rows of letterboxes along the right-hand wall. When I got to the second balcony I saw another heavy timber door, this one ornamented with gilded handles and locks. It was half open and the withered face of a woman peered out of the shadows of her corridor at me. She blinked like an ancient child.

I've come to rent the flat, I said, as best I could.

How enthusiastically she looked out of eyes that had seen World Wars and the Civil War, not to mention a hundred years of ordinary days, running with a vigorous lust for life through the city, being repeatedly set alight by all that happened to her and everything she saw, the chaos of avenues, streets, cathedrals, theatres, metro stations, faces now at last unified into one beautiful, irresponsible but explicable conurbation. All the years her ardour stoked up into a fire under the resplendent umbrellas of chandeliers sheltering a river of Catalan and Spanish, torrents of energy, life, everything that passes by with the ardour of youth, past making sense of present, all things running to their end with such mad vitality till the present collapses into the future and one day you are a hundred years old. Come in and I'll tell you some stories, those eyes said to me. Her quavering voice was saying something else. Then another ancient face appeared on her shoulder, her sister, no doubt. The door opened a little wider and with it came a waft of stewing cabbage. It was clear that I was at the wrong door, so with humble apologies, I stumbled away backwards and made my way to the street. There by sheer coincidence I ran into a girl with her arms full of bed linen and toilet paper.

Are you...?

Yes, she said, and you must be the Irishman?

Mariana showed me around the apartment. It had a long corridor connecting to all rooms, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a patio, a large balcony more like a backyard being looked on by the backs of buildings housing hundreds of people.

It's great, I said.

And your others?

I explained that they would be arriving the following week and complimented her on her English.

Oh, yes I study in an Institute on Gran Via, early morning and afternoon, an infectious enthusiasm drawing me into the life of this burgeoning city, walking in the extravagance of a flowering, mushrooming Monday morning, for example, along the avenues, gazing with avid interest into the normal faces, trying to gauge what these eyes maybe saying, bored with routine or bubbling with effervescence, she, to the institute on Gran Via, through fuel-charged air, all life busily passing her, her part in the comedy assured making her unconscious of the threat of an end to everything like this day includes.

It's a good location, I said, as she accepted the cash deposit.

Oh, of course, she said, the Diagonal dissects the avenues like a scalpel, indeed inflicting a diagonal scar upon the face of the city. She didn't really say that but maybe it's what she was thinking, for after all who knows what anyone is thinking at any given time. That's the most complicated issue of all, isn't it?

She left me two sets of keys and bade me have a happy time.

At that moment I received a text message from my cousin Paulina who would be arriving on Tuesday with her friend Sinead, they were my others, had I located a suitable apartment for them to share with me? I pondered long and hard on my reply. I walked the long corridor, familiarising myself with the creaking boards, glanced into one, two, three bedrooms, stopped in the expansive living-room, silent, a divan, a sofa, two armchairs facing the television. I opened the window and stepped onto the balcony to view the relentless movement of traffic on Diagonal. Then back along the long, silent corridor, the heavy timber front door into the hall, long corridor out to the kitchen and dining area and onto the back porch where I sat watching a cat on the balcony of an opposite building trying to open the back door by continuously leaping at the handle. He repeated the same move with admirable perseverance, a short run up, a leap, a flick of the front paws on the door handle, fall back, turn and repeat. Eventually, the door was opened by a frowsy old hermit in pyjamas who was followed out by a troupe of cats, six, seven in number. I watched this strange crew's antics for another few minutes before going inside to text Paulina. I could hear the dust settling on the furniture before I started. Unable to find suitable accommodation. Better go with idea of Hotel. C u next week.

Next morning when I woke I said to no-one because there was no-one there; only one avenue open for you today Andy, Avenue Black Heart. There was a strange ceiling overhead with a large old fan slowly revolving. The first morning in my rented apartment on Diagonal and hung-over I was talking to an old fan. I have enemies, I expostulated, their odious names float up from the sewers like clouds of liquidising shite. Tell us Andy, the fan and the ceiling said, all ears for a bit of real talk. No, no, I said, leaping up and out onto my feet, what's done is done, it'll go to the grave with me now. I went out into the backyard and lit up and watched a lightening storm over the city. The lightening forked and flared, the sky ignited and the Gods whipped on the drums, a tune that hummed, you are human, you are human, fallible, false and weak, liable to terrible errors of judgement and of poisonous, indiscriminate acts of vanity and of not so indiscriminate acts of ignoble behaviour. I speak too much, I said to no-one from this backyard like a roof-top, because there was no-one there, only a few hundred invisible neighbours, more worried about finding their socks than listening to my confession. I speak too much, I repeated. When I'm dead I'll speak no more and this tongue will fall from these teeth and this black heart will crumble into clay and this flesh will fall from the bone and this hair will be blown away to the void and these foul intestines will smell to high heaven and these testicles will plummet to low hell and the lustre of these eyes will fade.

Ah, that feels better. That feels as good as a good relieving of the bowels.

There was only one avenue open for me that day; Avenue Black-Heart, where only the bums look easy, for everyone else its pain, even happiness is a headache, walking towards the number uneasily, walking towards the door where the enemies wait.

Out I went, barely scrubbed, unshaven like the bums.

The ghosts of my enemies reflected in the windows. Megalomaniac, a skinny feminist roared. Who was she addressing? We all looked around the room. There were many contenders.

Walk down that street bravely, eyes open, heart ticking, selfish to the bone, because once you are properly domiciled on Avenue Black Heart, there will be no humiliation strong enough or punishment severe enough to break you, you will be invulnerable on Avenue Black Heart, you will be strong, with the devils smoking by the windows, inside and the ideas pouring freely through your head like fire.

I got on the Metro, if only to smell the underworld.

A woman with a crying child sat beside a genial-looking old man, grey-hair, soft, white features, moist red lips, probably a pervert. His dog was killed on the road yesterday, she said, to the genial old pervert. I was standing by the doors as I always do on the Metro. He has been crying since the woman added. He has vomited three times. The pangs of grief surged up through the boy's body, you could see them, the nausea was visible like a tide of grief churning tempestuously in his stomach, like love itself. What sensitive creatures we are and yet what atrocities we are capable of. That's a mystery even on Avenue Black Heart. We love, hate, grieve, desire all in equal measure, and then one day it seems obvious that some of us do all of these with more extravagance than others. The dog's sleeping place remains undisturbed, his white hairs speckle the thin blanket, his drinking bowl half full of mouldy water, the remnants of his last meal in his eating dish, his rubber bone waits, not aware that eternity is forever, everything in the clouds turns yellow. The redundant walking leash lies waiting for his electric shudders of excitement. A photo on the mantelpiece shows him with his eyes wide open and full of life saying we're all strange creatures and all of this is very strange. We need dogs as much as we need Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. I had a dog too, the old man said. Yes? Said the woman. Yes, said the old man. Then he got off at the next station.

Eyes falling like rain on the Metro.

At Sagrada Familia I got off and went up to the Michael Collins Bar to see the Munster hurling final and I drank Guinness and the people there all leapt around and roared as the game unfolded as precarious and unpredictable as a suicide on the edge of a skyscraper and a girl swallowing Bacardi and Coke like the world would end at the final whistle screamed at the players three thousand miles away and afterwards told her friends from Chile that futbol was only a mierda after hurling and that there is no game like it and yes we are very proud of our beautiful game. The beautiful people from Chile grinned and agreed. Celebrate it, a fellow said, holding up his glass. With the dust still settling after the hurling match, I was accosted by a young man who coincidentally insisted on telling me about his cousin who had come to visit and was so aggravating, it was so aggravating putting up with him, let me tell you he has this slow face that tries so hard to look cool but is so transparently vain, like a bad actor, with whom you wouldn't like to be caught in a train carriage with and when the train enters the tunnel, watch out. Will you have another pint there? I declined though I agreed that it was really something to step into somewhere so like home so far away from home. The city I returned to then throbbed like a great symphony, a syncopated masterpiece split down the middle by the street on which I lived, Schizophrenic St. ha, ha, from the nave to the chaps, like one immense ant hive, upon every avenue and street, scenes repeated multi-fold, as up from the Metro, newspaper in hand, or brief case, or knapsack, or back pack, into the café they step, motor-bike helmet in hand, matter-of-fact expression, another day, sure, a fragile, temporary but nonetheless routine day. How much longer do you think the world as it is will last?

What is your theme here Andy?

My theme is Nothing, it is in my view the greatest of all themes, from Shakespeare to Gaughan, man, and woman too, well some of them, have wrestled with it. Nothing.

Are you not then a Nihilist, a dark-hearted Pessimist, Andy?

(She was a very tough interviewer.) Yes, I'm a black-hearted pessimist and consider every laugh and smile they elicit from me as so many coloured paving stones to decorate the pathway to Bad News.

It seems like you have done something that you seriously, kind of, sort of regret, would that be accurate?

Yes. No. No. No. No. Si. I am not a dog. Has it not happened to all living human beings and the dead ones too? The human condition is not immutable. We walk through a minefield. Ask that man across from us there on the Metro, go on, you're the interviewer, ask him what is the latest action of his that he regrets? Who among us has not had reason to kill ourselves, or carry a gun for protection even when they go out for bread?

Have you carried a gun, Andy?

Well, only a pellet gun, not a real gun.

My rented apartment opened out onto Diagonal as I have already boasted. One moment you are downtown, coursing through the fragments, the incessant changing of the three-dimensional screen with its infinity of repetitive patterns, what you want different to what you need, red light, green light, stop, go, shiny, shiny hair, with the daylight, the next moment you are inside a private world where you can breathe like the sky itself and listen unobserved to the madder neighbours, that woman whose dog attacks to her repeated shouts of “Calla, Calla,” and you think how many others in this block, and all of them with lives to lead, and all of them with hopes and dreams that stretch to the horizon, like the sky itself, like the air we breathe, full of our spit and dust and hairs and perfume and you will never know their names, most of them you will never see or hear? In the evenings I watched the old hermit and his cats on their porch. He seemed to be cutting up bits of fish or tripe and feeding it to them.

What else did you do there Andy? Oh, I watched the football on the television. I surfed the long wave radio. I went out for the bread and the newspaper. Then I got a text from Paulina saying she was in the Bar Indiot, a place near the market of San Antonio we had frequented on previous visits. With all the zeal of a man heading for the guillotine I made my way to San Antone, once more in the Bar Indiot where the waiters always welcome us with large, enthusiastic handshakes and there at the counter staring at herself in the bar mirror was Paulina and her friend, Sinead. They were eating cherries and sipping, what are you drinking, I asked? Oh Andy, said Paulina, meet my friend Sinead, and Sinead leapt up and threw her arms around me as though I was her long lost uncle, you smell lovely, she said. To that I made no comment. What can you say when a beautiful, stranger girl, says, oh, you smell lovely. It wasn't after shave I assure you. Must have been soap. Andy, said Paulina, I'm suffering from exhaustion, this girl has me killed, her trip has been broken down into seconds, she has counted up the amount of seconds in a week and decided that something momentous will happen in each and every fragment, isn't that awful.

What are you drinking, I repeated?

Anyway if you wanted to you can't sleep in this city, said Sinead. Ambulance sirens, fire-brigades, police cars, drunks and druggies screaming all night in the street outside our hotel, its downtown off Las Ramblas, fellows shooting up on the kerb outside the bars and fights all the time, we saw a fellow being pulled into a car and they beat his head in while dragging him along the street, half in and half out of the car.

They would have a martini. How lush, said Sinead, martini and cherries, where else?

I drank a beer and told them that I was going to see the Leinster Football Final on the television in The Michael Collins and they said that I must join them later in their Hotel, they gave me the address and we'd have a drink before going out on the tiles, Sinead's quaint expression.

So see you later, I said, don't forget now said Paulina, I know you Andy, don't get lost on us. What do you mean, I heard Sinead saying as I left?

And how astute she was, my beautiful cousin, Paulina, because when I got back to my apartment after the football match, how listless I felt, how lacking in enthusiasm for a night on the town. Would I text her that I could not make it to their hotel after all as I had met three Irishmen and got drunk looking at the Leinster Football Final, not much of a lie that, or would I be brave and venture downtown, to the mad, noisy street of their Hotel and join them for the evening, why I wonder did I all of a sudden feel like J. Alfred Prufrock, whom I hadn't even thought about since my leaving cert. days? What would you do? What would you have done, rather?

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