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16/09/2008

Rolf Lappert's novel "Swimming Home" - an excerpt

Excerpt:


Chapter 10


Aimee lives in a narrow brick house, the bottom half of which is painted dark red. On the gable-end, a black metal fire-escape zigzags its way to the ground. Here and there on the grill stand pots with withered plants – hazards you'd have to contend with, in an emergency. The two upper floors are plastered white. Growing from the plaster are wires and cables that hang slackly across a piece of lawn to reach the neighbouring house. The pavement outside is a patchwork of concrete slabs, paving stones, cracked cement, and tar mixed with gravel. Chained to a crooked fence is a racing bike, its saddle and front wheel missing. Aimee tells me it belongs to Stewart, one of her flatmates. He removes only these parts as the rest's not worth stealing.

I go through a gate with Aimee. Behind it, there's a tarred rectangle, filled with dustbins and more bikes. Aimee opens the yellow door to the building and we stand for a moment in the dark until she switches the light on and, in the glow of a ceiling-light, we see a narrow staircase.

When the light in the subway had come on again, there was a strange moment when I wasn't sure whether to hold Aimee's hand still, or release it. Then the woman in the seat in front of me dropped her keys, giving me the chance to lift them, - which made removing my hand less embarrassing. We got off at a stop - I didn't note the name of it - and continued on foot. At one point, we gave way to a group of children with a dog on a lead and our arms touched, but when I reached hesitantly for Aimee's hand, thin air was all I found as Aimee was turning into a side-street.

As we walked past laundries, pizza places, bars and restaurants that were closed, past people's homes, the entrances to garages, neglected little park areas, past fenced-off playing fields and railed-off courtyards, past petrol stations no longer in business and fences with holes in them, past colourful wooden houses with verandas with flowers and with extravagant front gardens and open entrances, Aimee talked almost non-stop. She told me about the people she shares the flat with, about Ruth, who's studying something, about Sheila, the cook, and about Stewart who works in the nearby zoo and is a great guy, seemingly. Aimee was raving about him, at least, and it only took a few minutes for me to hate the bloke. Stewart, Aimee said, was learning the job of zoo-keeper, all the ins and outs, and it was incredible what, on a daily basis, he got to experience. I know this kind of show-off. No doubt, he carts elephant shit around all day and then, when he gets home, tells the girls in his flat he removed a thorn from the paw of a tiger.

The flat's on the third floor. It has four rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. In the hall, there's a pair of black wellingtons and huge trainers - Stewart's, no doubt. A metal crocodile hangs on his door – to use to knock. The rooms are tiny. Aimee has a mattress to her name, a wardrobe, a desk and a chair. There's a computer on the table, with a printer and a pile of paper beneath. Books and magazines are piling up on the shelves. On the wall above the desk hang post-its and newspaper-cuttings, with a photo in the middle of it all, of a man who's twenty-five, maybe. He's standing before a garage door, smiling a little nervously, and leaning on a snow-shovel.

"I don't need much," Aimee says, and it sounds as if she's justifying something. She takes some clothes from the bed and smoothes the cover.

"It's nice," I say, though I told myself in advance to avoid that word. I stand there, wondering what else to say, but nothing occurs to me. Aimee takes a plate with orange peel and a cup into the kitchen. I look out the window, preparing what to say about the view, there's only the clinker brick of the neighbour's house, though. Most of the books are about psychology and journalism; of the few novels, I know not a single one.

"Tea, coffee, or something cold?" Aimee calls through from the kitchen.

"Coffee," I call back. I'd rather have a Coke, but making the coffee will keep Aimee busy for a while. I still need a moment to work out whether I even want to be here. It's just before four. At some point nearer evening, they'll all come home and Aimee will introduce me. Stewart's handshake will be far too strong, the student will look at me, annoyed, for a moment, then claim it's nice to meet me, and the cook will ask am I vegan. If I'm really unlucky, they'll invite me to eat. The cook, no doubt, will make something I hate, and I'll force it down out of politeness while Stewart tells us how today, he resuscitated a still-born (supposedly) rhinoceros. The student will want to know where Aimee and I met, and Aimee will hesitate for a moment, then tell them the truth. The three of them will suddenly focus very intently on the food on their plates, make a few harmless remarks, and change the subject. They'll be very friendly, will only pick me to pieces once I've gone.

No, I don't want to be here. With my hands in my pockets, I'm even in my own way. I'm still considering what to say about this room, some casual remark or other, but my head's emptier than these four walls, and it's already too late now, anyway. In my hotel room, Aimee and I could lie on the bed and make out animals in the stains on the ceiling, and zeppelins, and steamboats. We could work on warming ourselves up while gentle music floated across from Dobbs' room, merging with the sound of the rain.

"Milk and sugar?"

"Yes, please." I go into the kitchen, a bright room dominated by a table and two chairs, the walls of which are painted an uneven orange. Aimee kicks the fridge door shut and puts a carton of milk down beside the sink. Naturally, there's a poster of the Bronx Zoo on the wall, and naturally, it shows a tiger. Stewart sits in front of it every night, no doubt, inventing his tall tales for three women who hang on every word.

"I haven't a stick of furniture," I say. Only then do I wonder why I said it.

Aimee looks at me. She's probably thinking the same.

"In the Hotel. The only things belonging to me are the Stone Age TV and the heater."

"I once had a whole lot of furniture," says Aimee, "it was stolen, though." She pours boiling water onto the coffee and waits as it filters through. The fine hairs on the back of her neck glow in the light of the paper lamp, the white moon hovering over the blue lake of the table. "A few years ago, in Queens. Two weeks after I moved in, it was gone - the lot. Even the mattress, the books, my clothes, and odds and ends."

I'd like to see Aimee's odds and ends, to know what she's collected over the years. Did she collect stones on the beach, keep the figures out of Cornflakes packets, does she keep toys in a bashed biscuit-tin, like her photos and letters, and is she attached to things in the way I am?

Instead, I ask, "Were you insured against theft?" Those last three words sound so banal and obscene, I could almost scream. An attempt to drown out their echo -

Aimee's head is at a slight angle, and she watches absently or dreamily as the coffee filters through and gathers in the jug. A strand of hair falls down into her face, moves gently to the rhythm of her breathing. She runs the tip of her tongue along her lips, cracked and dry as mine are. I'd like to step behind her and put my arms around her and kiss her on the neck, but it's not possible, not after a sentence that ending with insured against theft. I wonder whether she now thinks I'm a complete jerk.

"No," says Aimee. She pours the remaining water into the filter and puts back the kettle. "I don't believe in insurance." Then she loads a tray with the pot, two cups, and spoons, and the milk carton. "The sugar's over there," she says, pointing to an open cupboard as she leaves the kitchen.

I follow her into her room with the bag of sugar with a spoon stuck in it. We sit down on the floor, our backs to the bed, and she pours the coffee. She adds milk to mine, and two sugars. The fact she's remembered pleases me, and I want to tell her. I hesitate too long, though, and the moment passes. She sips her black coffee, stands up, takes a pile of paper from the table, and hands it to me. It's twenty pages, maybe, large print, double spacing. On the top page, it says A Playground for Suicides, and beneath that, a little smaller, Intolerable Conditions in the Caldwell Institute, and: by Aimee Ward.

"Read it, just, and tell me what you think." Aimee sits down again, beside me, pulls up her legs, and hugs them.

"What – now?" I ask.

Aimee nods. "You were there. If I've got anything wrong, tell me."

So that's why I'm here. I'm her witness, her proof-reader, a possible source from whom she hopes to get some info that eluded her before. Maybe that's why we're still together. Maybe she dragged those other guys into the shed for the same reason.

"What is it?"
I look at Aimee. The scar can hardly be seen, in this light. It's raining again, I can hear the drops drumming onto the flat roof above us. We've never talked about what happened in the garden shed - properly, I mean. Or why she turned up at my hotel. She never said she loves me. She slept with me, there was no mention of love, though. Maybe, as well as me, Aimee's visited other former residents from Vermeer's Town. Maybe she has a list, and I'm just a number on it.

"Will?" Aimee smiles, waves with one hand. "Is something wrong?"

I shake my head and begin to read.

Aimee describes the Town as a cross between a rest-home for potential suicides and a research lab for vain psychologists, in which the inmates are kept as innocent guinea pigs. Vermeer, she portrays as an ambitious scientist, highly controversial in Europe, for whom the mental and physical well-being of his patients is less important than the opportunity to try out new and unorthodox methods of treatment. She claims that as a result of the wrong and insufficient psychological treatment, and bypassing medicinal treatments almost entirely, many of the inmates will attempt suicide again, often while still in the open wards. She mentions two instances of suicide in Vermeer's Town, and though the names have been changed, I recognise the cases of James Foster who swallowed broken glass, and Roger Willett who poisoned himself with chlorine. Aimee writes that they'd both still be alive if they'd been treated properly, instead of "wandering around a kind of holiday-home, subliminally depressive, like walking time-bombs".

I read the final sentence and put the papers down neatly. The rain has stopped or eased off such it can no longer be heard. The small room smells of coffee, as well as, vaguely, of scented oils or joss sticks. My legs feel a bit numb, my head too. Oddly, I'm hungry.

"So?" Aimee asks after a while.

"I don't know," I say.

"You don't know?"

Should I tell her I couldn't care less about the article? That I see no reason for it to be published? I see Vermeer neither as a megalomaniac nor as unscrupulous. Whether he's incompetent at what he does or a revolutionary spirit, I cannot judge. To me, he was friendly, I liked his accent. On his desk lies a rope, beside it an empty photo frame. He's a little odd; mad, maybe. Which – for me – makes him somehow likeable. I wasn't a proper patient, though. I didn't want to kill myself, not before, and not during my time in his Town. No idea whether his ideas help or hurt the men there. I've never seen any other institution on the inside and don't know whether, there, fewer patients make a second or third attempt to kill themselves.

"I'm glad I got to spend some time there," I say.

Aimee takes the pile of paper from my legs, stands up, and puts it on the desk.

"Melvin isn't a patient at all."

"What?" I was about to say I was also glad to have met her there, but she probably doesn't want to hear that from me right now.

"You room-mate didn't ever try to kill himself. He's a psychologist, employed by the Institute."

"How do you know?"

"I just do. People talk. There are files." Aimee pours herself more coffee. "Vermeer, by the way, was really annoyed when you cleared off. You were the ideal person for the meeting with the committee."

I sit there, looking at my legs. I can still feel the weight of the article on them.  A Playground for Suicides.

"I didn't want to kill myself."

Aimee doesn't say anything. She blows onto her coffee, then drinks some.

"It was all a huge misunderstanding."

"Maybe," says Aimee. "Do you know I pinched your suitcase?"

"What do you mean, pinched?"

"From the room where things are kept."

I look at Aimee. She's lowered her head.

"Did no-one notice?"

"No, they did, probably. But I was no longer around to find out." She looks at me. Then she puts her cup down on the floor and goes to the window, touches the glass with her hand. "But don't worry. I was going to hand in my notice, anyway."

We're silent for a while. Aimee's hand rests on the windowpane. I think about how I can help her with the article. Possibly, she'd be interested in the incident with the broken surveillance camera. Or in the fact that due to a breach in security, I got my hands on the belt of a dressing-gown and could have strangled myself.

"Why did you come to my hotel?" I finally hear myself ask.

"What?" Aimee turns round, her brow furrowing. "Why are you asking that?"

"Just." I regret having asked her. Then, suddenly, I don't care any more. "Did you visit Carson too?"
"Who?"

"Canon-fodder Carson. The guy who deserted. Did you visit him and all, once he was out?" I stand up and knock my cup over. Coffee spills into the carpet. It's not raining any more. A bird's sitting on the electricity cable. A blackbird, I think. It's black, anyway, and when it flies off, rain-drops fall from the cable. A motorbike drives past, the door to the building clunks shut.

"What's that supposed to mean, Will?" Aimee's put her cup back on the tray and is pressing a paper hankie down on the stain.

"Sorry," I say. "I'll pay to get it cleaned."

"It's not the carpet I'm talking about!"

"I don't understand it! You letting those guys near you in the shed. Me too. You slept with me. And now I'm to help you with this article. What is it you want of me?"

"I let nobody near me, you fool!" Aimee throws the crumpled hankie, sodden with coffee, onto the tray and stands up. She looks at me, raging, and I turn to the window again. "I let them feel my tits! To let them begin to know why life's worth living. For my breasts, and for other women's breasts, and because, damn it, anything's better than killing yourself! She leaves the room in a rage, leaving the door open.

"Why did you sleep with me?" I ask, but too quietly, and she doesn't hear me. The door of the flat is opened and closed. Outside, it's slowly getting dark. The sky's a bright grey, almost flawlessly clean. In a room in the house opposite, a light goes on, and the window becomes a yellow square in the otherwise dark facade.

"Aim, I've got to te- ... oh!" The guy in the doorway has to be Stewart. He's big and strong, and his skin's still tanned from the summer. He's wearing jeans and a checked shirt over a T-shirt that has BON JOVI on it. When I wear the likes of that, I look about twelve. Now he's standing in front of me, I no longer hate Stewart. Suddenly, I'm very tired, just. I thought I'd left all that behind me, but I'm jealous of this bloke, because he's two heads taller than me and super-confident. Plus: his room's just three steps away from Aimee's. Stewart looks over his shoulder briefly, then inspects me.

"You are..."

"I am," I say - and leave it at that. Stewart is confused for a moment, then smiles.

Aimee returns with a cloth and a dish-towel from the kitchen.

   "Hi, Stew." She passes him, kneels down, and scrubs away at the stain.

"Aim, you won't believe it. Didn't I tell you yesterday about this puma, Chuck..."

"Let me guess," says I, summoning all my courage and cowardice up, and passing Stewart on my way into the hall, "you pulled Chuck's tooth out. It was an abscess. And you did it without an anaesthetic. With your bare hands." I go to the flat door, open it, step out into the stairs. I let the door close behind me. The light goes out, and I stand there for a while.

Aimee doesn't come running after me. She doesn't even call after me. I wait another while, then – in the pitch black – make my way slowly down the stairs.

The rain has become a heavy drizzle, the kind that will soak you through in no time. I stop at the gate and look in both directions down the street. I haven't a clue where I am. The sight of Stewart's amputated bike is of no comfort to me.

"Hey, Will!"

I turn round. Aimee's at a window, on the third floor. Water's getting down my neck and down my back, so I hunch my shoulders.

"Where are you going? Come back up!"

I can see my reflection in a puddle. From up there, I probably look like a dwarf, a pitiful, childish gnome, a drenched poodle. A stubborn idiot who shakes his bowed head.

"You'll catch a cold!"

That's what Orla often said to me. You'll catch a cold. Put something warm on.  Come in, the tea's ready. If the rain came down faster than I could run, she dried my hair with a towel. I would close my eyes and think that's what life should be like. Exactly that. That, whenever you were wet and cold, there should be someone to warm you up again.

I'll ask Aimee to have a coffee with me. Somewhere nearby there's no doubt a pub where we can sit in a quiet corner. Maybe the waitress is called Francine or Florence, and she'll talk us into a bowl of soup, with me being soaking wet. Maybe the other customers will be old men, playing dominos, and talking about the weather and the terrible state the world's in. Maybe music will drift in from a radio in the kitchen as I tell Aimee all about myself. About the mother I never saw and the father I don't know. About Orla and Colm and Matthew, and about not wanting to kill myself, not in Vermeer's Town, anyway. Then I'll tell her I love her. And she'll probably tell me that she likes but doesn't love me. In all probability, it'll get unpleasant, I don't care, though. I've never said these three words to anyone, not as an adult, anyway.  It's high time. Even if I make a fool of myself, and it all ends in disaster.

The rain starts to lash down again, I'm not cold, though. I look up to the window where Aimee is no longer. No doubt, she'll be down any minute, and we'll head off. 

*

Translation: Donal McLaughlin
Copyright Carl Hanser Verlag
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