Rufus Stewart owns a single-bedroom apartment in Gorgie, which he had until recently rented out to a young barman named Kostas. A tenant will be ideally rather like your liver, in that they will keep quiet and operate without active supervision and encouragement. For several years, Kostas had paid his rent on time and this had been all that Rufus had ever heard of him. Indeed, the landlord’s liver had probably made more fuss.
Then, last month, Rufus had run his eye down his bank statement and suddenly he had needed to look twice. The familiar five hundred and fifty pounds from Kostas was not parked in its normal space. Rufus’ calls had remained unanswered and so, with a mixture of foreboding and excitement, he had descended upon Gorgie. He had expected to have to identify a body, to come to a theory on how it had died, to contact the police, and to generally profit from an unusual and interesting afternoon.
There was no body. Clearly nothing in the apartment had moved or been moved for a very long time. There was a lot of tangle everywhere – a “floor pizza” of unwashed clothes, food cartons, and junk mail – as well as plumes of feathery grey dust that, when disturbed, bumped and drifted weightlessly over the floorboards like shrimp. Nonetheless, the truly indispensable core of Kostas’ possessions – his passport, bank card and phone – was gone and so presumably he was too.
Rufus was sorry, since Kostas had seemed like a nice kid to him. He was also aware that everybody seems like a nice kid to their landlord. He knew in his heart of hearts that, if he really wanted to, it would be not impossible for him to imagine Kostas as a pervert or a drug dealer.
I was engaged by Rufus to clean up the apartment and to clear out anything of a meaner value than a hundred pounds, which was in effect everything. I took two days out of my regular shift patterns to do the work. I had assumed that I would be able to wander about, luxuriantly investigating and savouring every detail of this abandoned apartment. By the end of the first day, however, I realised that I would have to gobble my way through the second if I was ever to finish on schedule.
The apartment is almost miraculously small and boxy. There is a trail of tiny, darkened rooms with low ceilings that seems to have spluttered out before it has got going. Despite this, the apartment actually ranges over the tenement’s two uppermost floors.
Most of this apartment is its bedroom. This is in the attic, directly under the roof and a ceiling that slopes radically down like the walls inside a tepee. A dim closet containing a toilet and a shower cubicle has been partitioned off at one end. A flight of spindly stairs leads down from the centre of this room as though from a trapdoor. At the bottom, where these stairs approach the front door, another, alternative threshold unexpectedly steps out to vie with it. You can cross through this into a box kitchen, a windowless and usually steamy room, with an oven, sink cabinet and washing machine all squashed in each other’s faces.
This apartment is rather like one half of a double-decker bus that has been split vertically. In the stairwell, its front door is sealed to that of an identically-proportioned apartment next door, so that one who is leaving always braves being slowed down by having to interact with a neighbour who is leaving or arriving at the same time. On the floor above, there are no external doors, making it appear as if the architects have mysteriously left a unit of unexploited space. It is not long before any visitor is wondering at the manoeuvre by which this apartment has secured its largely nonsensical floorplan.
I rather fancy that two flatmates had lived together until one of them had declared independence and seceded, bricking up half their home and carving out a separate front door for themselves. Next, maddened by their curtailed circumstances, they had invaded and annexed half of the apartment upstairs. Still, I’ve never been able to detect a hairline trace of any doors in the far wall that would have once allowed the life in this apartment to flow freely into that of its neighbour. So perhaps, after all, the twin apartments were originally envisaged like this.
I’ve heard a story about a mix up in an Edinburgh tenement that might have occurred in these apartments. I’m not saying that it did exactly, just that they would have fit this particular story like glove. I was recalling the mix up whilst I was emptying out all of the cupboards in the apartment and dumping their contents into the centre of the bedroom. Soon I had built them into a pile that was about the size, in relation to the room, of one of those islands that you sometimes see in spectacular bourgeois kitchens. I had needed to wheel the room’s bed to stand on its hind legs, so to speak, to make space for this growing landmass.
There was almost as much storage space here as there was apartment. Where the ceiling fell, it met a wall about two feet before it would have naturally hit the floor. Cupboards had been packed behind this, so that the attic room was encircled by cupboards rather as the disc of a flower might be tightly surrounded by petals. Moreover, after I had tramped up and down the wooden stairs several times, I had realised that some of them had had a faintly erroneous consistency underfoot. I realised that they could be lifted to reveal cupboards that dropped like shafts, in some instances over eight feet deep.
Nobody had cleared out any of this apartment’s storage cupboards since it had been first opened to its tenants. When each tenant had moved out, they had left behind their own layer of clutter, no doubt wistfully fancying that the discarded items might delight or somehow serendipitously benefit a future tenant. This was in effect a system of genteel flytipping, with the items being always wrapped up and slotted carefully into the cupboards, in place of being flung openly onto the embankment of a motorway.
To give a good example of how things could become preserved in an enchanted sleep, when clearing out one cupboard I had happened upon a packet of peppermints. I had promptly decided to treat myself, but before popping a mint into my mouth, I thought it wise to consult the best-before date. It was 1999, over twenty years ago.
Anyway, it was whilst I was clearing out these cupboards that I recalled the story whose main actor might have been Kostas. Let us say, for the sake of maintaining a simplistic sentence structure here, that it was Kostas. In the adjoining apartment had lived a Japanese girl who was an architecture student at Edinburgh University. Kostas worked late in bars or else he would finish early and stay out late in other bars and nightclubs. He tended to haunt the nightclub Opium, where he believed fervently, almost as an article of worship, that you could pick up five and ten and even twenty pound notes from off the floor around the bar where drunken people had dropped them. He would usually come back after four in the morning. The Japanese girl would have gone to bed but her door would be left on the latch.
Kostas would enter and he would immediately strip naked on her doormat, opening the letterbox to allow enough light in from the stairwell for him to clothe his penis in the condom. Next he would pour his way through the darkness, like a pearl diver making their way to the seafloor, until his searching hands had clasped the bedposts and found the Japanese girl. There would be no words between them. Afterwards, she would fall contentedly back to sleep and he would bundle up his clothes and hobble next door. When she awoke there would be no trace of him in her apartment and if she perchance remembered that it had happened, she could seldom tell whether or not it had been a dream.
One day this routine had slipped out of sync and arrived at the mishap that had been, in retrospect, all too inevitably waiting for it. In the version that I had heard, the Japanese girl’s grandfather had come to stay. He had been awarded the double bed, the Japanese girl had set herself up in exile on the sofa, but she had forgotten to take the front door off the latch and lock it properly. So at 4AM, wham!
After retrieving his tongue and getting it safely back into his mouth, Kostas had been chased by the grandfather with a walking stick. The Japanese girl had tried to pretend that Kostas had been somehow a naked burglar wearing a condom, rather than admitting to the shame of habitually copulating with a Westerner. But after the grandfather’s holiday was over, and he had departed Edinburgh, the meetings had resumed with this single skipped beat. Not a word was exchanged about it. Indeed, no words were ever said.
Maybe the apartment that I was currently putting in order had been the location for these events. Having let this story play out in my mind’s eye, though, I was surprised whenever I came across evidence that unexpectedly punctured its reality. Evidence that reduced the story from something that had flowed eidetically through my imagination into nothing but a spurious and dissipating reverie. I had met the flatmate from next door when he was coming up the stairs, and he was not a Japanese girl but a young, glowering Greek man. In fact, he startlingly resembled the impression of Kostas that had somehow previously taken shape in my mind.
Furthermore, whilst cleaning out this apartment I was increasingly finding uniforms from a certain supermarket and in one cupboard I happened upon a stash that contained about thirty or so azure polo shirts and baseball hats. Kostas had told Rufus that he was a barman when he had moved in, but maybe he had long ago migrated to a supermarket.
I duly visited a branch of the supermarket in question, carrying about a dozen shirts and hats under each arm and with the rest in a backpack on my back. They had been very suspicious of me and they had told me to take the uniforms away again. I had explained that these were unavoidably their uniforms and that there was no possible use that I could put them to; that no charity shop would ever accept them as donations. Finally, after the manager had petulantly turned his back on me, I had unwrapped all of the shirts and hats and dumped them in the foyer of the supermarket. To customers entering, it must have initially looked like a mass grave of massacred supermarket employees.
Processing the flotsam and jetsam in this apartment quickly became time-consuming because there was very little that was irredeemably worthless. If I had propped up against one wall a row of battered pictures, here and there the frames still possessed obvious value. Where I had found a mangy, scruffy coat that was spiralling spreadeagled down to hell, the buttons still gleamed with a certain holiness.
The opposite of these items was those whose values were annulled by some tiny imperfection. For example, I had discovered a party of beautiful wooden tropical fish, each of them yellow and orange with purple and red masks and stripes. They were apparently freestanding ornaments though they looked like they should be more properly dangling in a pretty display over a crib. On each one, a fin or an edge of the tail was chipped, remorselessly snatching the eye away from their beauty. I would have needed to procure the correct paint to touch them up again, and then scrub at the paint to make it look aged again. It seemed a great deal more straightforward to simply throw the fish away.
Curiously, the least sturdy and salvageable items from the nineties were those that at that time would have been regarded as the most futuristic. A home printer and a camcorder from this period, both encased in extravagantly bulky and protective packaging, were turned away from every charity shop I tried. I was even discouraged when attempting to foist them onto workshops that might have stripped them down for spare parts. So they went in the bin too.
In one cupboard, which was contained behind a two foot high door in the corner of the room, I came across a shoebox that felt ominously heavy. For a second, I anticipated it to be filled with seashells. Upon opening it, however, I was pierced with annoyance. I found myself looking down on a thick thatch of countless biros and felt-tipped pens.
Throwing the whole lot of them in the bin struck me as too bleak a remedy. Yet the alternative was to sort through them, testing whether each one worked and whether it had thus earned its passage to the charity shop. My fingertips hovered over the jumble and then they were unaccountably attracted to a slim pen that was made from a strangely pearly blue plastic. It was the type of pen where you twist one end and a nib pounces smartly out of a nozzle at the other. I was searching around me for a random sheet of foolscap to commence my testing. I grew thoughtful as I sat down cross-legged and placed the paper on the floorboards in front of me.
I put the pen to the paper but it stopped and rested here, as though waiting for a signal to continue. I could not summon the energy, or the interest, to twist the device to produce its nib. I looked down at the paper, studying its blankness, and for a long time I was frozen in this position. Once I shifted uncomfortably, and shivered, but bereft of any means of moving, I immediately froze again.
When I finally looked up, I had the restless feeling that everything in this room was dazzling and that it was somehow draining away all around me. I am Biggy, I thought. Then, to my dismay, I realised that these words were the only knowledge that I now had left to me, like the last penny in a bank account. My only option was to cling to them and to repeat them determinedly until something else arrived.
I am Biggy, I chanted slowly and blankly to myself. But I felt a mounting paranoia, as if even this simplistic concept was wilting under the glare of my mind. What was I, after all? What did I amount to? If I died in this apartment, lifting one of the wooden boards of the stairs and dropping softly down into the darkness below, would anybody be honestly perturbed? If I walked out of this apartment and melted into nothing, into just a stray name that occasionally appeared momentarily in a few people’s thoughts, would there be any meaningful divergence from what I was presently doing? What was I presently doing? “I am cleaning out this flat,” I replied aloud, in a voice so sterile that it sounded like that of a robot. Foggily, it seemed to me that the task of cleaning out this apartment was so immense that it would take me thousands of years. Indeed, I was so stunned that I could barely lift the pen from the paper.
“I am cleaning out this flat,” I said again, in my drugged voice. The sky seemed to be opening, even though I was simultaneously aware that I was still indoors, and it was as if the whole universe had frankly divulged itself, slipping loose in front of me like a woman’s breast. Cosmic waves swooped around me; my thoughts were ruffled by an amazing fluttering and trembling.
Suddenly, I sat aghast. Some very real sounds were approaching – footsteps were coming dreadfully up the stairs. I sat frozen, listening to them with a massive, fearful instinct to rush and hide. Still, there was no energy left in my body to even lift the pen from the paper.
There were two men, both in their mid-thirties. The first was boyish and buoyant, with glazed eyes and a smarmy, very complacent smile. His eyes were refreshed with a look of puzzled alertness when he saw me and he seemed to become briefly older and more relaxed. The second man looked scornfully uninterested in whatever he had come here to do.
“Kostas?” the first man addressed me hesitantly, almost apologetically. He stiffened and bristled dourly with this effort of being polite, as if he was visibly pulling himself together. At the same time, he looked swiftly past and around me, appraising the black bin bags and the clutter everywhere. The second man’s gaze rolled over the scene without interest.
The first man’s smile was reignited and he started to confide in me chummily. “Hey pal, are you Kostas, or do you ken him? Listen, we don’t want to take up too much of your time, but we are here on behalf of Alan. You see, he lent you, or Kostas, some money and now it’s time for him to get some of it back.” The man smiled at me encouragingly, like a happy-go-lucky primary school teacher who is trying to motivate a downcast pupil.
I looked up at him. There were no words in my mind and none were about to start erupting independently from my lips either. All that I could manage was a slight, despairing shrug.
The men scrambled possessively into the room. The first man was glancing about, checking everything, whilst the second stepped boldly out in front of him. He glared at me with a bitter satisfaction and pronounced, “He’s a fucking junkie.” The first smirked boyishly and nodded, with his eyes now glazed again and with the alertness gone from them. The men surrounded me, with one standing on either side.
Next I saw that the second man had been carrying a pair of bolt cutters, hidden from sight behind his leg. He opened them and manoeuvred them so that the jaws cupped snugly around my left hand. He looked at the first man for confirmation but the first man frowned and blinked and shook his head responsibly. The first man then ducked down to my level, to engage me in another pep talk.
“You would really help us out pal, if you just gave us a bit of the money, to show to us that you are serious. Or even, well,” he looked up and around at the room philosophically, “a games console or a TV, anything like that would be helpful…” His face turned casually away, presumably as a signal for the bolt cutters to be applied, but it then twitched back in an instant, as though tugged on a string. I had murmured something.
He smiled in cheerful wonderment. “What did you say, pal?”
Limply, I shook the pen at him in indication.
“Okay?” the man looked uncertain, as if he was not sure whether there was some dubious joke afoot. “That’s a pen?”
I rattled it anew, faintly and with all of my might.
He glanced at the second man, perplexed, before deciding to humour me. “Okay, so I’ll take this pen. You want me to write something down? Maybe our bank deta…”
As he took the pen from my hand, all of the life appeared to drop out of his face. He sat back and his mouth fell open. At the same time, I was relieved to feel thought and energy crowding back into me. My mind shone like dew and I almost reeled with the intense dizzying clarity of this returning consciousness.
I sprung to my feet, deftly extracting my hand from the bolt cutters. The second man recoiled and barged towards me at the same time. He then stopped and scowled at his own confusion, recognising that the moment for dignified action had escaped him.
“Gentlemen,” I announced calmly, “I am not Kostas. I’m being paid by his landlord to clean out this apartment. I fear that you have been barking up the wrong tree.”
The second man glanced sharply at his companion and then he stared at him in undisguised concern. The man holding the pen sat dazed and unresponsive. I pulled him to his feet and handed him to the second man, who needed to catch him to stop him from toppling over. The first man was still gripping the pen. “You can leave by the way you came in,” I suggested, pleasantly but firmly.
They went, with the second man supporting the first, who couldn’t collect his feet and who was veering perilously from side to side. Like a pen, in fact, in an unsteady hand. I heard the knocks of the bolt cutters in the stairwell as they scuffed against the wall and the second man hissing in an angry, scared voice at the first.
I emptied the shoebox of pens fully into a new black bin liner. I stamped on the empty box until it was flattened, throwing it onto the pile of material to be recycled.
I had registered one detail about the pearly blue pen and later the significance of it suddenly struck me. The pen had had the words “Pelamis Wave Power” printed along its side. My missing friend Marcin had been extremely enthusiastic about this company, in 2006 or 2007. He had visited its stall at an employment fair and he had applied to work there, but his English had been at too low a level. Nonetheless, the word “Pelamis” always made me think of Marcin. Was it any more than a coincidence that such a devastating pen had coincided with such evocative words?