I lost my way somewhere on the Dalkeith Road this morning. I had tried to cross the road and had ended up stranded impatiently on a traffic island, waiting to slip between the passing cars. I was vaguely anxious that something sweeping past with too much force may unbalance me, and pitch me headfirst into the traffic. It is strange how we have come to regard crossing the road as merely commonplace, when a misstep or a momentary miscalculation could end in dismemberment, disembowelment, or arms and legs torn out. I cowered involuntary as a bus swung towards me, but I corrected the impulse to back away, for fear that I may step into the traffic behind me. As the bus passed, something dropped from an overhead window and for a split second I watched stupidly as it swooped down into my face.
Although I had anticipated the shock, the pain sent me reeling. There was an almighty screech, as if the ground and the sky were a gramophone record and somebody had ripped the needle off. Cars shrieked blindly until they met at a point like a chorus, in a cacophony of raw blaring sound. I found my way to a bench by the side of the road. A mother and a toddler were walking along the far pavement. When the toddler thought that it was unobserved it would get slower and slower, until finally it stopped, hesitating, watching its mother getting further and further ahead. The toddler was arrested by the possibility of a world without her, but its heart failed – independence really was impossible – and it scampered off after her, crying for attention, not yet the proud rebel. It is like when a child stands on their head on a summer’s day, in a green open space, and for a brief moment it seems that the sky is now beneath their shoes and that they could drop off the ceiling of the world and fall through clouds shooting upwards into the waiting, gigantic blue, spread vaster than any landscape or ocean. And then I sensed that Marcin was sitting beside me, rolling a cigarette, and I had assumed that I would know what to say when I finally met him. But my head was full of hopeless, banal greetings – almost blasphemous in their ordinariness – and when Marcin leant forward and wiped my forehead, I whispered, “I’m sorry…”
“Your head is bleeding. It looks like somebody has hit you with a glass bottle.”
I collected myself. “Tori?”
“You may have to go to hospital, Zbigniew…”
“I’ll be fine. They get hysterical at the hospital. It’s best not to excite them.”
“Where were you going?”
“Not to work. I don’t have my black shoes on. Maybe to the supermarket?”
“I’d offer to take you home, but I don’t know that I’m welcome there…”
“I came back to the flat the other night and found a fat bloke with a ponytail in my bed…”
“Ah, that would be Claire. She is Polly’s sister” At the time, I had assumed that my wife’s insulin overdose was not particularly significant, but looking back on it, the balance of various powers had been subtly transformed. I had barely spoken to my wife since her suicide attempt. Her sister had moved in, without my permission. She had made no arrangements for paying rent or contributing to the bills. I had hoped that she would stay temporarily, but she had arrived with over a dozen suitcases. She was grumpy and inarticulate, like Polly, but the fact that there was two of them changed things. I stayed in my bedroom more. I sometimes skipped meals rather than prepare them in the kitchen where the girls were dying their hair in the sink, or playing with the food blender. Polly now watched television in the living room rather than in her bedroom, and I could not get to the drinks cabinet without encountering her.
“To the pub?” I proposed hopefully.
Tori shook her head.