“Mel rose,” he said under his breath as he climbed out of bed. He stretched and sneezed, blissfully eager to start the day. In that moment he saw the world with fresh eyes. And himself in that world. Every ounce and particle. There came the usual creaking of the bed springs, but he wasn’t fazed. His ears and face came into contact with air, and he identified something petal-like as though he was floating delicately through that air. The room and the corridor beyond the room were all quiet.
And before this? He had been rolling from side to side. And before this? Well, he had been falling. He’d fallen into bed the night before after a few too many beers. That falling had been petal-like, too. Petals do fall, don’t they. Happens all the time in nature. Like, when they’re shaken loose from the branch or the flower stem to which they’d been attached. A strong gust of wind can do it. And then they get stuck somewhere and become waterlogged, or if not that, shrivel to nothing. They fall more than they float, and even if they do float for a time, they fall as well, in the end. He’d dwelt on this thought quite a bit.
At night he was always rolling. Over and over he went, like a ball. One side then the other. He couldn't tell which side was which after a while. Things became blurred. This rolling was sandwiched between the falling and the rising. Just like he himself was sandwiched at the time between mattress and duvet. Turning one side of his face into the pillow then the other, he rolled and tumbled the night through. Was incapable of just being still.
He fell into bed at night and then drew himself together in the morning. As soon as he got up he smelt the day. And it’s true to say that until this second he hadn’t imagined he could be part of the lightness. While rolling and tumbling he never recognised he had any potential for becoming air-like. Night was too dark and heavy for the thought to ignite. Now, however, a flush of joy sparked out of him. Of course, he’d lose the fresh feeling, and even forget what it was like to have it. There’d be the rest of the day to slog his way through. Tedium itself.
“Melrose!” a voice other than his had called out.
At first he thought it was the universe echoing his arrival, then he realised. It was Jack Chivers, one of the other men in the hostel. That was all. Melrose looked at his phone.
It was lunchtime. Fuck, already lunchtime. He felt his spirits sinking. Then he dressed and went downstairs to the dining room. Today was Friday and so it would be fish. They kept to that even though fish was dear to buy now. In truth Melrose wasn’t so very keen on fish. Not the fish they had in this place anyways. It smelled a lot and tasted of nothing. How could you have the two together? He sat at the same table where he always sat and Chivers brought him over a plate on which a little grey slab lay at the centre of a hedge of soggy cabbage leaves. And this grey slab was sloshed over with something messy.
“Did you want the sauce?” Chivers was asking him, and Melrose caught the whiff of unwashed armpits as the man lowered his plate onto the placemat.
“Yes, yes. That’s fine,” Melrose said at once so Chivers would shove off quickly.
Not that it was fine because the sauce always tasted of bleach and it was a pale greenish colour with dark dots in. Fine was so the wrong word. But … if the sauce wasn’t there covering the grey slab, the fish would have been more visible and the fishy smell more noticeable. Because the grey slab at the centre of the plate was the actual fish. Hard as it was for Melrose to imagine, he knew you were supposed to eat it. He lifted up his fork and brought a flaky corner of the slab towards him. Now he could smell old socks. And the closer the fork got the worse the odour became. It was a stink worse than his own old socks when he’d been wading through puddles in leaky boots. When he got the flake to the corner of his lip, he had to let it fall down onto his plate. Puke had started somewhere in his throat and was heading straight towards his mouth. The stench of the puke was joining in with all the other nasty smells surrounding him. Such as a shitty smell coming from Chivers. Not content with tainting the atmosphere with his sour armpit stink, the man had farted. So all bad things at this moment in time. All bad things.
“Not hungry today?” he heard Chivers say in a complacent, oozy tone.
Chivers had a whole compendium of different sounds, and you never knew in advance which one would come out of him. Which was funny because Chivers was totally predictable in every other way.
Melrose saw the man’s hand slicing and scooping, saw the mouth chewing. Round and round, as with a relish. And there was a slight sucking noise to go with the actions. As though to say the dinner was delectable. What was wrong with the guy? he asked himself. How could anybody be that undiscriminating?
Then came the oozy voice. That was the worst sound by far. “Not hungry?”
Melrose saw Chivers’s head go into a fast bobbing motion, a judgmental smirk passing across his lips. Followed by silence as though he were waiting for a response. But after a minute or two, with Melrose still not making any comment, the slicing and scooping and chewing started again and continued till Chivers’s dinner plate was empty. After which the man went over to the counter for seconds. The sudden activity as he left his seat brought out more of the sour-sweatiness. Melrose got up at once and left the table. He couldn’t take any more of this.
He stopped in the hallway and looked out of the window, where he saw the usual sight.
The dull garden. It had such a flatness to it. Yes, and that summed up this whole place. There was no variation anywhere. And no sense that there was anything in this world worth striving for. Of course, flatness equaled safety, he reminded himself after a minute of disgruntled feeling. Wasn’t that worth something? Well, but it was a different sort of worth. It was there all around, all of the time. It was what you had, not what you might arrive at. The dirty dull-flat known. Which didn't contain the tiniest bit of … any sense of … a …
“How about going for a walk?”
The sudden question startled Melrose. Who was that? He turned. Chivers was hovering just behind him.
“Oh, I, er …”
“It’s quite mild for the time of year,” Chivers went, running his hand down a pane of window glass as though to test the truth of this.
Well, there was nothing else to do, Melrose conceded. Nothing else at all until teatime.
“OK,” he said, without enthusiasm.
And so, they went out.
The woman in the blue duffel coat was on the swing. Back and forth, back and forth she swung and her voice sang out as she did so. Yes for forwards, No for back. When she saw Melrose and Chivers going past, the sing-song quality turned into deafening screech. As if this were the only other sound she had in her. And she gave a look which said she hated the pair of them, and it was all their fault her voice had changed from crooning to shrieking. As though they’d called out something rude, or stuck out their tongues at her, or worse. They hadn’t done a thing but were used to this happening, so they took no notice and just carried on, going in the direction of the hedge. The woman’s voice turned sing-songy again. They represented a danger that was now past and so she could relax.
At the hedge they searched for blackberries because it was that time of the year. Late September. Not that you ever found more than the odd one or two here. Because so many of the others always did the same thing. But still, it was something to do. Chivers leapt ahead at one point and pulled a nice ripe-looking blackberry off the bush. He popped it in his mouth. But he spit it out at once.
“Dog piss,” Chivers said. Nobody here had a dog, so how this could be, neither of them could fathom.
Melrose nodded. He wasn’t that interested. They ambled along, keeping to the line of the hedge. Beyond the hedge there was the hill. You had to go down this hill in order to get to the town.
There was very little light in the sky by now and it was only mid-afternoon. The very little light made Melrose suddenly angry. As though he were worth more, but this was not being recognised. An unexpected flare of sunshine calmed him and made Chivers positively gleeful. It created the impression that spring was just around the corner. The sunlight fell onto the shoulders of Chivers’s jacket and Melrose stood still, seeing particles puffing out everywhere. Cloud-like. What were they? he asked himself. And the answer came: dust mites. He grimaced.
Dust mites were animals, weren’t they? Dry little animals swirling in sunlight. Melrose thought of poison. Mites sounded too sweet. Didn’t his mother once call him her “Little Mite”? Yes, and surely she wasn’t saying he was a tiny poisonous thing, a dry-as-powder thing? As he stared at the puffs of dust, the saliva dried in his throat. He felt the onset of panic.
“So, what do you say, then?”
The voice of Chivers switched Melrose from one unpleasant focus to another. It had a cloying cosiness which he had an immediate urge to combat. And he hastily constructed a list of lamentations on all the current shortcomings: 1) the dry air which made him cough, 2) the predictability of the grounds, 3) the sparse nature of the hedge, 4) the ….
“I think we ought to turn round,” Chivers said, gawking at Melrose.
“Oh, and why’s that?” Melrose felt the twinge of irritation he generally felt when Chivers spoke. And who would not at hearing such a wispy quiver of a voice? What a whine. With such a false and overly precious something about it, too.
“Tea,” Chivers announced, his voice now assertive and to the point. “It’s nearly teatime. I need my tea.”
And there you had it. All Chivers ever thought about was breakfast, lunch, supper, and tea.
Nothing else made any sense to him. Nothing got through.
Melrose pictured food being conveyed by fork or finger to the mouth of Chivers and then being taken in. He pictured the swallowing, imagined a slurp of food entering the man’s throat. Melrose looked critically at Chivers’s throat. The skin was wobbling lightly as though regretting the absence of something to digest.
“Tea,” Chivers said again, even louder, and his tongue made an urgent appearance, poking out from the side of his mouth.
Melrose sighed a few times as they turned back towards the house. But he was focusing on another bothersome thought as the two of them stumbled across the lumpy, uneven lawn. Nail clippings. An image of these just came into his head of their own accord and he felt an acute sense of disgust. What was it all for? All the chewing of biscuits and the swallowing of tea. And the growth of such a thing as fingernails. And then there was the cutting off of the fingernails. After which they were to be found in little semi-circles on the hostel’s bathroom floor. Yes, it disgusted him. He walked faster, Chivers sticking close by his shoulder.
“You don’t have to eat the whole damned thing,” Melrose heard Chivers snap as they turned the corner by the outhouses. Too true, but Melrose wondered: Why do I have to show up at all?
“It’s only right to put in an appearance,” Chivers replied staunchly to the unsaid question.
He knew Melrose only too well. And this fact, above every other, wound Melrose up to the fullest extent possible and made him want to yell. Or sob. Or … something. Because it was a well-known fact that Chivers was very low on imagination. And that being the case it highlighted so clearly the very thing Melrose was in maximum denial about: His own state of predictability. His own stasis and inability to move forward. Because, yes, he always did this, didn’t he. Went through this little routine. Going into tea and then not really eating the tea and disguising the fact. Like a kid in 7th grade who mushed around the cheesy bits and the flaky bits and shoved the excess under the knife. And what was worse, daily having to put up with the sight of Chivers mopping up the shreds and slivers that were left behind on the plate. Sad but true was the phrase that suddenly made its appearance in his mind.
They went into the dining room and took a tray of food from the counter to their usual table. Chivers immediately got stuck in.
“Sad but true,” Melrose said in a pronounced tone. So that Chivers couldn’t get away with pretending he hadn’t heard. Then he repeated the phrase. Just to make sure the word “sad” was out there, as though its outward presence might help to combat his morose feeling.
Chivers looked alarmed. He was halfway through chewing a scone. His face went crinkly as a dried-out chestnut. Melrose felt relief surge through him. He’d goaded Chivers. He wouldn’t have to sob after all.
“What’s sad?” Chivers wanted to know.
No need to answer this time. Enough had been said. Not that he would have known what else to say and not that Chivers would have understood a word of it even if he had. Because Chivers was a man who loved his food. And, in Melrose’s opinion, hardly gave a thought to anything else. A gush of pride passed through Melrose briefly. There was nothing wrong with his brain. At least that. He could do the crosswords in the paper, could analyse the motive in a thriller where somebody killed somebody else and nobody could work out why it happened, could remember which day of the week it was after a quick calculation, could keep food in its right place in the hierarchy of importance of things. Except that … except that … he didn’t know why he was doing it all. And there you had it. He felt shock waves for an instant as the bitter truth took hold. The breath rushed up in his throat and made him splutter. He had to spit into his hankie. Chivers looked the other way.
But then, nobody could find the answer to a question as deep as that. No one knew diddly squat. It was like, you were in a boat that you didn’t know was a boat on a sea you couldn’t see. There was just a lot of swirling movement which could make your stomach churn. Next minute Melrose let the deep question go. It was easier to do this than he’d imagined as it was clear to see that nobody else was in a better position than he was and so couldn’t get all uppity and tell him what was what. Melrose breathed in deeply; felt robust again.
He sat back in his chair and looked out of the window. There was the garden, looking just the same as when they were out in it, but with a bit of a sheen from the glass added. Nice that. He didn’t know why it was so but it was. And he said to himself that you really had to accept there was no answer to some questions. It was a way of being a step ahead. You already knew more than the rest by admitting such a thing.
Inside the dining room there were the usual teatime sounds. Sound of chewing, sound of teapots being lifted, sound of tea being poured, sound of talk, sound of laughter. Yes, sometimes even laughter. People being people felt very comfortable when they were used to being somewhere. Even this hellhole of a place. Why did they? Melrose asked himself. And unlike his earlier questions, this was one to which he already knew the answer. Because they kidded themselves they knew what was what. They knew the truth; the be all and end all. Amen, nothing left to say. So they chewed, poured, joked. Here they were and that was that. It went without saying they were all very pleased with themselves. Chivers, no exception.
Closer at hand there was a soft buzzing. Sniff-snuff. Without having to concentrate, Melrose grasped where it came from and what it signified. It was coming from the mouth of Chivers, of course. Where else? And it was saying, “Pass it over, then.”
Melrose glanced at his plate. In the middle was half a chocolate cupcake. Cut neatly and with the knife lying to one side with a look of finality about it. The knife was saying he wouldn’t be eating any more of the thing. He slid the plate to his right and saw the wispy, scrofulous hand of Chivers lope down and obscure the neat slice then angle it towards the waiting mouth. Next came a slushy swallowing noise after which the hand went back to the plate and kind of dithered. Shit, he was after the crumbs. When all the chocolately remains were scooped up, Chivers pushed the plate in front of Melrose as though to deny his own involvement. Then he picked up the teapot.
“Want a refill?” he heard Chivers ask.
He didn't bother to reply. He never had a refill and Chivers was well aware of the fact. There were questions to which answers weren’t known and there were questions to which the answer was totally known. Why did people ask either of them? That was a good question. In both cases, it was just the way everyone filled up time.
“Time, the Great Enemy,'” Melrose recalled his grandfather saying on a regular basis, always accompanied by a groan.
He’d started off in life by thinking this meant there wasn’t enough of it to go round so you had to act fast in order to get anywhere. But now it seemed like there was far too much, stretching everywhere like empty space. You could work your way towards the future or let yourself slip into the past. Made no effing difference either way, of course. Because neither of these things really existed. And if they did exist you couldn’t know or feel them. You were here, you were now, and you were stuck. So, whichever way …
Want to come down to the town?” Chivers was asking him, in a voice which said this was the third or fourth time he’d done so.
And maybe, yes, Melrose had nodded off for a minute or two because he found himself blinking. Plus, his mouth had a funny taste. That always seemed to happen when you woke up from a nap.
“Want to …” Chivers started up again.
“Yes, yes. I heard the first time.”
“I have to get to the post office.”
“OK, might as well,” Melrose said. He didn’t like the thought that Chivers, of all people, might see him as a dullard, and he leapt to his feet, acting the part of being all impatience with the other man’s relative slowness. And they left the dining room in the same manner, Melrose marching ahead with a jerky gait and Chivers shuffling close behind his shoulder. It was always this way. The way they moved, and more than this, the way they were in this space they inhabited together. They trundled out of the room. Nobody else spoke to them.
Outside in the driveway the woman in the blue duffle coat was skipping up and down, deep in conversation with herself. She was locked into her private world and it’s questionable whether she even saw them though they passed nearby. Could you call that kind of absence a choice? Melrose felt sickened that he, like everybody else in the world, filled up time with such futile musings.
“Shes a case,” Chivers said, as though they themselves were of a different order.
And what did it mean anyways? A hard veneer shielding a nut? Or an empty receptacle awaiting content?
“I must catch the last post,” Chivers told him. “Maybe we ought to take the bus.”
They shivered for some time at the bus stop, then decided to walk. The bus rushed past them after a few minutes, water in the gutter splashing their legs.
“Patience is a virtue,” Chivers mumbled, shaking his right trouser leg.
Melrose felt the tinge of irritation he always felt when he heard such clichés uttered.
“Too true,” he responded, his voice all irony. He felt water seep into his socks. For some reason he wanted to laugh. Through the corner of his eye he saw Chivers nodding his head in complete seriousness, as though significant words had been uttered. What was it with him?
“I have to buy a birthday card,” Chivers announced. “I want you to help me choose one.”
As he spoke, another bus rushed past them and their legs were soaked again. Melrose laughed out loud this time and Chivers gave him a look which said he was trying to work out whether Melrose was a masochist or just plain mad. Melrose shook a soggy trouser leg. The wetness had gone right through. Meanwhile, his mind was roaming over other territory: a card. A birthday card. Who was it for? Chivers was so fond of saying he was all alone in this world. No family or friends either, as it happened. So? Melrose didn’t ask. He couldn’t risk setting the stage for all the self-effacing bullshit gestures he knew this question would lead to. In truth, the card wasn’t for anyone. They were going to the bus so they could buy the card and get to the post office before it shut, the missing of the bus meaning they could stress and swear all the way down the rainy hill. Which was a plus. These were purely the opening sequences of a game, the object of the game being to fill up time and empty space. So they’d have done something worthwhile with their day, and at night they could sleep easy in appreciation of this.
“It’s turning a bit nippy,” Chivers said as they got to the track at the bottom of the hill. He shivered and rubbed his hands together as though there was an icy blast.
They took the shortcut across the grass. The track was well muddy.
“Be careful not to trip over,” Chivers warned, sounding to Melrose more upbeat than he had all the afternoon. “It's getting so dark you can’t see the grungy bits.”
Funny that someone could show such concern about a thing and yet be made that happy by the very thought of it. Everything was a pretence. At least with Chivers it was. Melrose was well aware of that.
Melrose slipped and as he did so he heard a muffled noise. A cough or a laugh.
“There are no timely compensations for sorrows,” Chivers said. An attempt, Melrose deduced, to lure him into a philosophical-style debate, seeing as how he couldn’t be drawn in with the everyday kind of comment that had been made all day long up until now. He’d never give up, would he. Predictability knew no bounds.
“What do you say?” Chivers asked, looking at Melrose side-eyed.
To reply would have been a definite mistake. Melrose knew in advance that no good could come of doing so, but still he fell for it.
“Any idea of compensation would be in the mind of the perceiver,” Melrose stated.
Chivers coughed politely but pointedly. “Well, I’m not so certain about that,” he muttered.
Chivers voice sounded a little flaky. Melrose suspected that Chivers was nervous of tackling one of Melrose’s pronouncements but seemed determined to hang on in there anyway.
“Who or what would be offering this compensation?” Melrose came back with, his voice with a testy edge to it.
“The Universe could be doing it,” Chivers went on to suggest, flapping his hands about apologetically.
“Of its own accord, you’re claiming?” Melrose spat out this question. He added a laugh at the end of it that didn’t sound amused.
“Yes, or something like that.”
“So the Universe looks out at every sorrow that crops up and then makes things better again.”
“Yes, yes, that’s what I mean.”
“And the Universe has a mind which perceives the existence of sorrow, then?”
Chivers ummed and ahhed, not wanting to tip Melrose over the edge. He knew better than to mention the God-word.
Melrose meanwhile gathered himself. He didn’t want to hear the God-word any more than Chivers wanted to say it. So instead he asked, “Are there untimely compensations, then?” He was all sardonic mirth now. How would Chivers answer this one?
“Time,” Chivers intoned, “is of the essence.”
He looked so pleased with what he said that Melrose turned sour again. The man was a pompous ass, and there was no denying it.
And then they were both hunting round for ways out. Escape was of the essence if anything was. At moments like this, that much was clear. Filler, so necessary, could be boring. Even Chivers must have felt like yawning now.
They reached the road on the outskirts of town. Chivers looked at his watch.
“We better get a move on if we want to get to the post office before it closes,” he said.
Browsing the card shop, they stared at images of animals and plants and water and forests and bright skies. Chivers couldn’t choose a card.
“It has to be the right one,” he insisted.
“Sure it does,” Melrose agreed.
“Who is the card for?” Melrose asked at last, and wasn’t in the least surprised when Chivers just shook his head with a teasy-grin. As though to imply there was a romantic something connected with the sending of this card.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Chivers retorted.
“Mr. Nobody,” Melrose was provoked into saying without really intending to.
“Now then!” Chivers said in an offended voice.
Now. Then. Melrose deliberated on whether this meant the now had already passed. If so, it was appropriate. The card shop blinds were being drawn down pointedly, and the assistants could be seen standing by the door to let out the last of the customers.
“Oh dear, I’ll have to come back tomorrow,” Chivers called out to them. “I couldn’t decide whether to have a horse or a bear. I liked a horse one but fur looks cosier than hair. The bear, though, is a bit on the grizzly side and it might be taken the wrong way.” He tapped at the two cards which hadn’t proved to be quite what he was looking for.
The assistants smiled and nodded, keen for Chivers and Melrose to get the hell out of there so they could shut up shop.
Out on the street it had turned noticeably cold. The post office had closed ages ago, of course, and anyway there was no need to go there now.
“Tomorrow. What date is that?” Chivers scratched his head. “It should still be fine.”
They waited for the bus back.
“I wonder if it’ll be sausages or hamburgers.”
Yes, food was the only real thing in Chivers’s existence, Melrose said to himself. By real, he meant “of substance.” The rest was a fantasy to fill up the time between one mealtime and the next; a chain of make-believe tom-foolery to link everything together and make a life.
“D’you think therell be mini-fries and onion rings?”
Melrose couldn’t think of anything to say. He knew Chivers wanted him to start guessing what they might be having for desert. Would it be apple crumble, or … or …? But he was fucked if he was going down that road.
Melrose got to his room after the eating and the drinking and the talking and the rest of the general time wasting were done for the day, and he sank down into the floppy hollow of the bed with a sense of arrival. In those short-lived few seconds he felt complete. As if he’d shifted right away from all mind-destroying hindrances and he just was. He thought of falling and rising. Though opposites, he saw they were, paradoxically, identical. Beautiful tiny moments that were the whole of everything—before they dissolved into the rest of time: the night and day that had to be agonised through. But, in the now, as his body hit the bed’s mattress, he experienced a fleeting sensation of bliss.
“Mel fell,” were his final words that night.