The crying was a horrible thing to listen to and everybody at home around the courtyard was conscious of its aimless progress, as it wandered between the alternate poles of piteous weeping and lusty reinvigorated roars. It was as if their lives had frozen and that all they could do was to sit helplessly in their apartments, listening to this one small child’s anguished voice. Yet they were not sharing her despair, merely its sound. It was irritating to listen to her crying and feel completely unmoved.
Julek and Magda’s apartment was on the third floor, overlooking from across the courtyard the bedroom and living room windows of the little girl’s on the first. Years before, in the bright sunshine of an early afternoon, Magda had stood at her own bedroom window and watched a young couple trying to make love down there in the master bedroom. She had wanted to pound on the windows and yell impatiently. The lady had lain immobile on the bed whilst the man had crawled and nosed around her body, as forlorn from that distance as a little fly which has been fished out of a cup of tea. Imperceptibly he had slipped into that little jigging rhythm, as flies presumably do. When he had finished, the lady had remained immobile.
Julek had passed the doorway. “What are you watching?” he asked.
“You won’t be able to see,” she murmured.
And years later, Magda had found herself standing at the same window again, now watching three paramedics undressing the lady and unfurling a canvas body bag across the floor of her bedroom. The peace of the courtyard was scarcely disturbed; the ambulance drowsed beside the entrance with its engine running, and the paramedics trod quietly amongst the rooms of the apartment, like stage hands preparing for the next scene. Magda had very good eyesight and she could distinguish the red line across the lady’s throat from where she had slit it. The knife must have fallen amongst the bedclothes. She reminded herself that she had not seen the man since two Christmases back.
And then, unbeknown to the paramedics, a little figure was standing transfixed in the doorway of the bedroom.
Two hours after the paramedics had taken away the body, the wailing had started.
Magda phoned down to reception.
“You do know that there’s still a child in that apartment? Where the lady cut her throat?”
It always took a while for Mr Gowen to spit it out. “I have… Fuck off! Fuck off! – I have… Fuck! Phoned social! Fuck! Phoned the social fuck! Services!”
“And when are they coming?”
“A lady. Fuck off! A fuck! Is on her fuck! Way!”
Magda somehow pictured an ineffectual, hare-brained young lady who was using a succession of different means of transport to race frantically across the landscape. Having discarded an overheated Mini and a bicycle with a punctured tyre, she would have next commandeered a wheelbarrow and a comely young hayseed to push her along.
Mr Gowen was still gibbering. “Why don’t you keep the little girl in reception?” Magda ventured.
“Fuck! Not possible.”
“Not policy! Fuck off! No fuck! No chap! No chap!”
The little girl’s wailing was suspended starkly over the courtyard, as if the sky had sustained a tear and it was draining out. All of the windows on Madga’s side of the courtyard were closed. Even Julek, coiled like a cat in his armchair, poked out a nose to complain.
“Why can’t you go across and collect her? We can keep her here until the social services arrive.”
Magda shook her head. “Not a good idea.”
One had to be sensible in circumstances such as these. Supposing that somebody made a malicious remark. Supposing that Julek was left alone with the girl for a couple of hours and that she came out with something. Something which would have to be investigated.
By now every school and church had its own paedophile; every community across the nation found itself enacting the same zombie horror scenario, in which a series of kindly faces, familiar from school fetes and church newsletters, turned out to be treacherous and hideously alien. Paedophiles were exposed at the BBC and in the government. Civilisation was being killed by a thousand cuts.
And so the little girl was left to languish alone in her apartment. Both Julek and Magda felt wistfully that they had failed, but that it was beyond their ingenuity to have done otherwise. Julek was tempted to turn up the radio and drown out the girl’s crying, but he was aware that Magda might object to this.
The preceding day had been gloomy and Julek had returned from a short circuit of the Meadows resigned to his blindness. The odd thing about his blindness was that he looked for it. His eyes would automatically find the limit of the vision and he would drift over the curtain of softness, where the facades of buildings bended in the light and faces became as featureless as thumbprints. He would dwell on each of these blurred shapes, like somebody running their fingers across the strings of a harp.
The blindness was approaching remorselessly, like an army which is going to kill you when it catches you. Your heart might still race, merry and careless, whilst it was at a safe distance, but once it had you cornered the game was up.
There had been lovely sunshine today and, walking in the Meadows, Julek had been vexed by his inability to pick out random passing details. He tortured himself by trying to distinguish the fine flakes in the bark of an elm tree. He peered in vain at the misty faces of the joggers approaching him, like a cat dabbing at the goldfish visible behind the glass of their tank. After a while he was disturbing walkers in the Meadows by gazing intently into their faces. He returned home in dudgeon and immediately after coming through the door and pulling off his jacket, he sank down to lie prostrate beside the shoes in the hallway. He often did this and when Magda had first found him, she had assumed that something terrible had happened. Now, she stepped around his body with faint disapproval.
She later found him on the sofa and he opened his arms to be hugged. Yet she was not in the mood and she waited patiently to be released. He pawed at her dress, expecting to be repelled, and she indeed caught up his runaway desire and clapped it deftly back into the container.
“I’ve got another appointment tomorrow,” she heard him groan. “At the opticians.”
She frowned. The lenses of his glasses were already as thick and bleary as the dimples on an old pint glass. His eyes were two gross blotches. She wanted to encourage him, but felt that it would be more responsible not to.
Outside the living room window the little girl was wailing again. “I thought that the social services were coming today,” Madga said sharply.
“I had the impression that there was a car in the courtyard whilst you were at the Jobcentre.”
Madga phoned down to reception.
Mr Gowen was hammering away again, as if what he wanted to communicate was a nail that had to be pounded securely into her forehead.
“Aye – she – she – fuck off! Fuck! She was fuck! Here!”
“She was here?”
“The lady was fuck!”
“The lady was here?”
“She couldn’t fuck! Find anybody!”
“But she searched the apartment?”
The crying outside was so deafening that Magda had to raise her voice anyway. “Mr Gowen, you mean to say that a social worker visited the apartment and she couldn’t find the child who she is supposed to take into care?” Madga hung up without waiting for a reply. She imagined the little girl burying herself in a secret place like a hibernating tortoise, her crying now issuing from under a sack of old coals. They should rightfully call the police but over the past year there had been five burglaries in the lower floor apartments and, when notified, the police had never materialised.
After his brief physical contact with Magda, Julek had crept away to the intimacy of the toilet, cherishing this furtively-snatched scrap of love. He was half way through masturbating when the thought came to him with mild amazement that this time he was strong enough not to carry on. He ripped himself away from his penis with similar strength to that shown by Atlas when lifting up the celestial sphere.
At two in the morning Julek and Madga both admitted to themselves that they were deeply awake. They were stretched out on their beds, their minds as clear as day, listening to the little girl crying. They would occasionally exchange a few glum words. Julek wanted to resume masturbating but he had to wait until Magda was asleep. Desire was pounding in his head and he was itching to fall into its rhythm. Yet they both drifted off together after dawn.
Julek had attended the opticians many times and the next day he found his way to the store without upset. Inside, the staff were all dressed like the cabin crew on a discount airliner, with dinky dress skirts and pillbox hats. None of them wore glasses, undoubtedly as some sort of covertly-coordinated advert for contact lenses. Julek was seated in a foam chair, where he spent several minutes squinting at various glossy posters which were (he presumed) commanding him to sample contact lenses. This was the great theme of the organisation.
He was eventually called into the optician’s chamber. She wore her cheerfulness as dutifully as her subordinates did their pillbox hats. She asked “how do you do?” as if this was a box which had to be ticked on a mental form marked “polite conversation.” Her manner seemed almost to boast that if a pustule of slime had trickled into her consultancy room, she would have subjected it to exactly the same procedure. “Sit back, sir” she directed breezily. “Now can you read the first line on the chart?”
Julek sat forward.
“Sit back,” she echoed lightly.
The figures floated in front of Julek. “To me, it looks like a two.”
“This is the first line?”
“Yes. There’s a two and then an F and then what could be a… a zero?”
“You’re looking at the poster next to the chart, sir. It reads “Two for One Contact Lenses.””
Julek looked about wildly. “So where is the chart?”
“Let’s skip this step,” the optician suggested, tapping a few keys on her computer. “Now if you place your chin in the apparatus…”
Julek sat forward and perched his face inside a sort of cumbersome plastic headdress. He had the impression that he was at the far end of a cold tunnel. There was a little mechanical click and then a day-glow pattern jumped dazzlingly before him.
“You’re looking at a floral wallpaper pattern, sir. Now a lady will appear behind the trellis and I want you to focus on her when she appears.”
The mass of thick fronds swirled statically in front of him, so luminous that they seemed to defy him to close his eyes. “Now look down to the left, sir.”
A hairy figure was huddling behind the marble foliage in a grotesquely dishevelled dress and bonnet. She scuttled on the spot like a disturbed rat and Julek shivered in his skin. There was a little click and a bolt of clinical light pierced Julek.
“Now look up to the left, sir.”
She was like a hairy blancmange with the scrawny arms of a chimpanzee. She shifted, trying unsuccessfully to conceal herself amongst her antiquated dress and behind the trellis. There was another bolt.
“And now down to the left.”
He glimpsed her face this time, peeping out from the shadow of the bonnet with sly eyes.
“And now straight ahead.”
For a moment her face was breathtakingly magnified, with huge stark eyes and rancid breath which invaded his nostrils inexorably. The beak of a nose pounced forward and she was biting the cup of his jaw, scraping at it with slithery teeth. Julek emitted a cry in between a bellow and a whimper.
Then she was gone. To Julek’s amazement he was still sitting on the optician’s plastic stool and now the optician had edged practically into his lap. “I’m going to test for retinopathy now, sir. This will involve me sliding this clinical swab under your eyeball for a moment.”
Julek was frozen in his plastic seat. He flapped his hand to try and get her attention and the flapping leapt to a rattle as an incredibly vivid shape wormed its way down into an unholy place where nothing had ever been before…
“This will only take a moment, sir.”
Then the lights were on and she was typing at her computer. “Your vision seems to be fine, sir. There have been no significant changes.”
Suddenly she was on her feet and the door was opening to expel him. He had to do something before she was gone. “I can’t see anything!” he gasped shrilly.
But he was being conducted out of the optician’s sanctum. “Perhaps you would like to try contact lenses,” she remarked over her shoulder. “There’s a two for one special offer.”
“This way sir!” A chorus of female voices rose as Julek turned the corner into some sort of cupboard. A plastic mop bucket bounced extravagantly past his ankles.
Julek was blank with despair but his feet somehow led him all the way back to the courtyard. Outside his own stairwell, he became conscious that the little girl was still crying overhead. A smart young man was sitting on the bonnet of a car, studying a laptop.
Julek had revived enough to snatch at the occasion. “Excuse me, but are you the social worker?”
“Indeed. I’m just filing my report.”
“And you’ll be taking this child into care? She’s been the most terrible nuisance.”
“I’m sorry, but it turns out that I’m unable to enter the apartment.”
Julek did not believe it.
“I’m afraid that I don’t have a suitable chaperone. Ideally, I need a family member if I am to access the property. Are you related in any way, sir?”
Julek shook his head.
“Well, you are discounted as well, sir.”
Upstairs, Julek traipsed around his living room before finally sinking down to stretch himself out on the carpet. After forty minutes of lying in a melancholy daze he sat up and plucked idly at his penis. He was still aware of the crying in the courtyard but this was not going to stop him. He began to masturbate with sudden, vicious determination.
He did not hear Magda return from the Jobcentre and he looked up as she walked straight into the room. She paused and yelped to herself, and then her scream was so unexpected that it was as if a bus had braked suddenly and everything had shot to a halt.
“Again! After everything you’ve been told, you’re doing it again!”
Julek stopped masturbating. His penis flopped and settled in his hand, still warm.
“You’re doing it again!” Magda repeated to herself in disbelief. “After everything you’ve been told, you’re doing it again!”
[Julek previously appeared in “Trial By Water.” Ed.]