House of Languages

Spectres

VIII

I
had taken care of all the formalities, pocketed my inheritance, and sold the house. I’d made the decision to move to the city. It’s exactly what I’d wanted to do a good while ago, but just when I had begun to make actual plans, my parents died in a traffic accident. Everything changed, except the desire to move. That grew even stronger. Suburban life wasn’t bad, and I had lived it to the full, but the death of my parents had made life in the family house impossible, from a purely practical point of view – the house now felt too big and eerie. It wasn’t anything supernatural that unsettled me, but rather the crush of memories and the sudden oppressive sense of being left alone. No, it wasn’t loneliness, but more the absence of familiar sounds, the loss of presence, and a sense of occupancy. How bizarre, that was exactly what had once gotten on my nerves – the eternal clatter of dishes, the swish of slippered feet, the rustle of newspapers, the questions and questioning, the constant domestic conversation about nothing in particular. It was next to impossible to find a silence to retreat into, to withdraw and attend to my own thoughts, my work, myself. That’s why I had decided to move, that was the main reason. I quite liked the area where we lived, the unhurried days, family homes, yards, gardens, flower beds. All the inconsequential hustle and bustle, essential only because someone had once said – this is life, and this is how it is to be lived. The city was within easy reach, it wasn’t life spent in social isolation. More a question of choice. And choice, as I soon discovered, determined not only growing up and looking for one’s place in life but also what seemed at the time to be incidental and unplanned events, like accidents and death.

I tried to avoid hearing any more about the accident. I didn’t want the imprint of details in my mind to haunt me for the rest of my life. I knew that my parents were not to blame, that there were other fatalities, that my father had died on the spot, that my mother had been taken to hospital where she had died later. I thought that was enough to never forget. Friends and relations said that the process of bereavement is essential for the acceptance of loss, that I must reach out to others who have had the same experience, that I must talk things through with a therapist, and so on. A never-ending blah blah blah. They must have thought I was too aloof and restrained, that I wasn’t really mourning my parents’ passing. But I wasn’t here to please them. I had chosen my own way to come to terms with it all. Perhaps it was an impulsive reaction and not that well-thought-out, but it was in accordance with my views and plans for the future. Not many months had passed since the funeral when I decided to sell the house and move.

I was surprised by my parents leaving a will. That they had thought not only about death itself, but also about what would happen to their possessions and me after they die. Of course, my parents’ pragmatism and practicality were not remarkable in themselves, that’s how they had always been – unlike myself. But a will is something that isn’t written in between lunch, weeding the flower bed and preparing dinner. It has to be a carefully considered decision, it has to have something ceremonial about it. I had never observed anything like that in my parents’ day-to-day. Their ceremonies and rituals were familiar and repetitive, creating a sense of security, stability and calm. If they had begun to speak of a will, I definitely would have worried. That was probably the reason they took care of it without my knowledge. And it did turn out to be a very valuable document. I shouldn’t really be saying this out loud – but the deaths of my parents proved to be quite lucrative. But enough! I was simply without parents but with an inheritance.

The move to the city didn’t take place immediately. My aim was not to move quickly but simply to move. However, it took longer than half a year for that to be accomplished. First, there were various formalities to be taken care of, then decisions to be made about all of the possessions, household utensils, and various items that my parents had accumulated over the years. A great number were stored in the garage and cellar, missives from the past. Other possessions were the present – handled every day and displayed up on shelves. The future and its items will be supplied by others. I had the occasional thought, that I’ll come to regret selling the house, my childhood home, that I might come to miss it, that I’ll want to return and go through all the small things that it held, but I realized that I couldn’t go on being constrained by imagined possibilities. I kept the things that held some particular memory. The rest I gave away, sold in yard sales or on the net. Gradually all that remained were the bare necessities and things I had decided to take to my new home in the city. There was no buyer for months until one finally turned up. While the papers were being sorted, I travelled to the city to look for a flat that I could afford to buy with the funds left by my parents and the sale of the house.

I succeeded in finding a modest flat in what seemed to be a quiet neighbourhood. The building itself was relatively old, the neighbours quiet. I understood from the estate agent that most of them had been living there for many years. I suspected that the flat was empty because the owner had died there, but I didn’t ask, and it didn’t worry me. I had no fear of death, it held no horror and caused me no anguish. Death was a common daily occurrence, just like life, and could be dealt with easily, simply by hanging new wallpaper. From my parents’ house, I had brought a bed and dishes and a few more trifles. It seemed that I hadn’t brought much, but the small flat ended up full of boxes, box on box, stack next to stack, brown cardboard boxes with prominent green lettering that proclaimed the superiority of this removal packaging together with an address and a telephone number.

It took me a couple of weeks to unpack everything and arrange it all to make my everyday workable. I also ventured out to explore the neighbourhood. This was possibly the very first time in my life when I was not in some way connected to the past or to other people. After the death of my parents and selling the house, I had also distanced myself from my relatives, who kept on telling me how I should live my life. Of course, I understood that they wished no ill, but I had no wish to submit to someone else’s opinion on how to live a proper life. Moreover, they knew so little about me. Their advice grew out of their personal experience. I had a few friends in the city but had not been in touch with them for a while, making excuses about the house sale and I hadn’t even informed them about my move to the city. Of course, I’ll tell them, but not right now. Now I wanted to get to know my new surroundings and enjoy the spectral freedom that a ghost, unencumbered by a body, can enjoy. I wanted to experience boundlessness. I imagined this could be the right time to begin to understand that I am.

This part of the city was quiet on the whole. It wasn’t the city centre, nor was it the outskirts, and days here followed a regular pattern – the morning saw people hurrying to work as they sipped their coffees from paper cups, the streets filled with the roar of traffic only to subside again until lunchtime when the flurry restarted, and the cafés and terraces filled with the chatter of the lunchtime crowd. The park was the quietest place – with the odd pair or group of friends enjoying a picnic, the families, the healthy lifestyle joggers, the Nordic walkers, the skateboarders, the dog owners and their pooches. An age-appropriate crowd gathered in the children’s playground under the watchful eyes of mothers and nannies. But compared to the tumult on the streets this activity was leisurely and unhurried. I discovered that the best places of all were the afternoon cafés. They were no longer crowded, lunchtime had ended for those bound by office routines, and evening and nightlife had not yet begun. The city had fallen into a post-meal slumber, but still kept one eye half-open. Evenings disgorged the homeward bound, who spilled out onto the streets in search of entertainment. I made a slow return to work, translating a variety of texts that were sent to me by translation services, but it was work I could do anywhere I chose without the constraint of place or a workday routine. I was uninterested in entertainment, not being ready yet for that kind of life. Evenings were spent working at home, while the quietest part of each day saw me wandering around the city.

There was a bar nearby, that served as a café by day. The first time I entered, it was deserted except for a few tables. A flamboyant queen in a red wig, gesticulating expressively as she spoke to another woman, stood behind the bar. I sat down at a table near the entrance where I could oversee the whole café and look out of the window. Halsey’s ‘Ghost’ was playing. Prompted by the song, I decided to drop in here regularly. Or perhaps the real reason was something quite different.

A month had passed since my move to the city and now I frequented the café every day. I occasionally spoke to the expressive femme behind the bar, but you couldn’t say we’d become friends. She was too busy for longer conversations, and as I was working too, we left each other in peace. What I liked about the café was that no one disturbed me or pried into places that did not want to be uncovered. The space provided a sense of community but at the same time allowed everyone to keep themselves to themselves.

In the passage by the door I had spotted a noticeboard, where people could pin up all kinds of requests and information – wishes to find a partner, flats to rent, rooms to let, upcoming events, offers of services and so on. A growing proliferation of notices, notes and small posters completely covered the board. I had no idea if anyone ever cleared the board and took down out-of-date notices, but as the board had not yet fallen down from the weight of information it displayed, I presumed that notices were occasionally removed. Nor did I know if anyone actually read any of the displayed notices, because in all the time I had been a regular customer at the café I had never once seen anyone stop by the board.

I don’t know what urged me or how I even thought of it, but one day as I was entering the café, I stopped by the board and in the uppermost corner I stuck a yellow Post-it note with a message that had just crossed my mind. On the note I had written:

Hi!

I sit in this café every afternoon at a table between the window and the entrance.

Perhaps you’d like to talk?

On the one hand, I was happy that the noticeboard didn’t evoke much interest, which meant that my note wouldn’t receive any undue attention until it was taken down by an unknown hand to end up in a waste bin. On the other hand, I was worried that someone might actually see it. It really had been a stupid and childish blunder. I stayed away from the café for some days, but inexplicably, I didn’t take down the note when I did return. I told myself that it could stay up, but I wouldn’t waste time thinking about it because everything always happens as it must, irrespective of what I think or want. Like the death of my parents. I began going to the café again and was relieved to find that my note had remained unnoticed – no one was rushing over to talk, there wasn’t even another customer there. I ordered a cup of coffee and sat in my usual place.

I’d hit a snag with my current translation, so I gulped my coffee and gazed out of the window – at skateboarders learning new tricks on the other side of the street, at people passing by, and my thoughts drifted to them, kids and skateboards, people that hurried past, about how I’ll have to make an effort to catch up with the translation in the evening because at the moment I was doing nothing, and it seemed that time stood still. A nearby sound of soft laughter interrupted my wandering thoughts. Feeling like I had been suddenly shaken awake from a deep sleep, it took me some seconds to realize that a woman was sitting opposite me at my table. Seated astride the backward-facing chair, looking at me and smiling. There was a motorbike helmet on the table.

‘Hi!’ she said. ‘Was it you who put up the yellow note on the board?’

She tossed her head in the direction of the noticeboard and swept her fingers through the angled fringe falling in her eyes. She held herself and gestured with a certain swagger and brashness, though there was also something delicate and fragile about her, something that flickered like a candle flame in the wind, something elusive. And her smile… I started to laugh in embarrassment. That was how we met.

*

She had the delectable capacity to make me believe that her presence put me under no obligation to reach out to her, even though she had read my note and responded to it. Later, when we had set off, she admitted that she had seen the note the very day I had put it up, but there was no one at the designated table. That was when I had scared myself and hadn’t dared to go to the café. She had dropped in on a couple of the following days but then concluded that it must have been some kind of joke. Curiosity had led to her trying one more day, and that’s when we met. When I asked why I had never noticed her before, she explained that she usually came in the evenings. Of course, I never stayed until evening. Then the café got too lively, too full of chatter… She admitted to preferring the afternoons now as well, when it was quieter, and it seemed that time stood still.

We continued to meet in the café. There were days when she didn’t turn up because she was working. She was a photographer. It didn’t particularly matter – if she turned up, we had an interesting conversation, if she didn’t, I worked. We had no mutual agreement, nor was there any explicit intention or even purpose to our meetings. They just happened, and that was where the fascination lay. In the unpredictability, the unconstraint and absence of any commitment. We talked about everything and nothing at all. My parents’ accident was the only thing I never spoke of. I only mentioned that they had died and was relieved that no more questions arose. Her family lived in the city, but she had her own flat and lived her own independent life. And she even had a motorbike. She got carried away whenever she talked about motorcycles, comparing brands, component details, accessories and describing the related lifestyle. I enjoyed listening. Sometimes I paid more attention to her voice than to what she was actually saying, and at those times it was interesting to observe the way her face grew serious, the cocky smile faded, leaving only her voice and eyes; enthusiastic, happy, and animated. Later – when we had left the city – it never ceased to amaze me, how alive I felt when we were together. When I was with her, I could almost feel how the blood from my lungs carried oxygen to my heart and how my cells proliferated and died. It was distressing to feel cells dying. Though we were still alive, it was all inevitable and couldn’t be deflected. I thought about my parents, about how long they had lived together and probably felt the same coursing of life through them, creating and losing life almost simultaneously. What is it like to die? It could be that the only difference between life and death is that, at the moment of death, you stop feeling the motions of life in your body – the flow of blood, the absorption of oxygen, the impulses emitted by cells in neural pathways – losing the ability to feel those instances, when the body tingles and is suffused by life. Death came with a motionlessness and held something foreign, incomprehensible. Life is an introduction to motion, be it creative or destructive.

It didn’t take long for her to offer to take me for a spin, and we hurtled through the city streets in a way I’d never experienced before. Being in contact with the air of the outside world, with another person’s body, was like being told an intimate secret. Anyone could see us speeding past, but only we could feel the full effect of the ride, feel the sensuousness emanating from metal. Some days, instead of spending the whole afternoon in the café, we chose to spin it away. The routes were random. The city and its various districts flew past, colours and textures changed, blended together, then separated only to mix once more, sometimes we slowed down, sometimes speeded up, sometimes I closed my eyes and just breathed, then I looked and captured everything I saw. My arms were twined around her, and although I couldn’t see her eyes I could feel the life in her. I couldn’t be mistaken. Although, who can ever say with any certainty that they know the world and other people so completely, that they are never be surprised by what they hadn’t envisaged? I would think of that on these trips, what it was that I thought I knew, what my certainties were, and what had changed. The Earth continued to orbit the Sun following the same path, but my parents were dead, I had moved to the city and forgotten my life in the suburbs. I was seated next to a stranger, to whom just then I felt closer than to any other person. Everything was as it had been, but completely different.

And then I agreed to accompany her. We were sitting in the café, and she had told me about almost all the other customers, the waitress’s loud laughter echoed in the room, I was cocooned by a familiar feeling of peace, and then she said, that she hadn’t managed to get to her parents’ beach house where she usually spent a couple of weeks every summer, except this summer, it just hadn’t happened, but whatever, we could go now. It didn’t matter that the season was over. The off-season is my favourite season, was my banal answer.

I needed a few days to deliver all my outstanding work and arrange to take a couple of weeks off. The trip took several hours. We came to a stop in a place I’m still calling Swordfish City, which had quietened down and emptied out: the souvenir and snack shops were locked up, the beach was almost deserted and the ocean waves, realizing that they no longer had to gratify anyone, were wild and disorderly.

We ate lunch at a café that was still open because it catered to the locals and those just passing through, or people like us, who gave the impression of being lost, but it wasn’t clear, where they were going or what it they were looking for. A casual observer might make that supposition. Perhaps the locals had had their fill of summer visitors with their noises and entertainments, so they could no longer understand those, who came to disturb the off-season tranquillity and submit to the ocean’s unpredictability when there was no one left to watch it. Or maybe quite the opposite was true, and they were happy to see us. I don’t know, because I never asked, and it wasn’t as if anyone was particularly surprised by us turning up there. We bought some food and wine. She said there’d be nothing in the cottage because it had been standing empty for months and had already been closed down for the winter. ‘What’s it like?’ I asked. She told me I’ll find out, and her brassy laughter converged with the crashing of the waves into one single sound.

t was a beautiful cottage. Two stories with a wide veranda. A small balcony on the second floor overlooked the ocean. Sand drifts covered the veranda and ‘closing down’ turned out to mean everything from outdoors taken in and white sheets draped over all the furniture. The downstairs open plan kitchen and living room was filled with plastic beach furniture and a ghostly blanched whiteness. We decided to settle in downstairs, so began by carrying the plastic tables and chairs out onto the veranda and taking off all the white sheets. We took them outside to shake out the dust and draped them over the veranda railings to be aired. She explained that that was a beach house ritual – first, you had to take care of the sheets and furniture, and then you could relax. In the summer, she’d rinse the sheets in the ocean then hang them out to dry on the veranda railings, where they soaked up the scent of the wind, which quickly dispersed, but sometimes at the end of summer, when the sheets were taken out to be draped over the furniture again, they gave off a faint smell of the wind. Now the water was much too cold, so the dry sheets billowed in the wind, and they reminded me of someone waving goodbye or white flags signalling surrender…

I offered to sweep the veranda while she prepared dinner. The sand had piled in high drifts. Sweeping it away was a bit of a charade; as soon as it was cleared, more sand was deposited by the wind. When dinner was ready, she gave a knock on the window. I turned and saw her standing with a glass of wine in the warmth and light of the room. I folded the sheets that were still hanging around the veranda and went inside. At night, as she slept with her arms around my waist, I listened to the sound of the ocean and reminded myself of this image of her – smiling behind a pane of glass. I could never remember feeling as alive as this, with her arms encircling me as I remembered her smile. I didn’t want to lose that. Not exactly lose, because I had not really gained anything, but rather, never see it again. Never to feel again that throbbing ache of happiness that she caused. But I knew it would come to pass. This trip to the empty beach house with its ghostly white sheets and sand that crept into everything all that testified that it would be so.

Each night I couldn’t stop thinking about when the time will come when I would have to wake up to go on with my life, when I would have to untangle myself from the white sheet. The days we spent walking along the beach, sitting on the veranda, drinking tea or wine. Sometimes she stayed in the house or rode to the shop for food while I went jogging or put on a warm hoodie and sat in the sand, watching the ocean.

The coastal wind had blown ancient sands through me, the thunder of the ocean had pounded into me and become a part of me. Was it T. S. Eliot who spoke of the river within us, and the sea all about us? And what was the ocean? The ocean was not only all about us, it was also all that we didn’t know about ourselves. I watched the regular approach and retreat of the waves, strength concurring with submission, not only in the ocean but also within me. The desiccated body of a dead gull bobbed on the shallow water, unable to take flight but unable to decide where to stay – in the water or ashore. No, it had no will, all that was left was an emptied shell, a senseless, unneeded configuration incapable of resistance, influence or expression of its will that wafted up with the smell of decaying algae. I wanted to thank her for bringing me here, for allowing me to learn more about her but when I tried to mention it, she silenced me and told me there was no need, she knew everything. I wondered if that was because that would necessitate her saying something in explanation, but neither of us wanted that. So, we sat in silence and listened to the ocean. Then the time came to return to the city. Time to cover the furniture with sheets again. As we shook out the sheets there were moments when they obscured her, and I saw how she was slowly withdrawing from my life, slipping away, staying here in this house behind the glass while I leave, bid farewelled by her smile. I was reminded of my parents, who also had to leave. Soon it will be a year since their passing.

When we returned to the city, we never met again. She disappeared just like she had appeared. I didn’t dare go to the café, so I wouldn’t have to question why everything happens as it does – events come inexplicably and unpredictably but always invariably. I took on more work, as if to make up for my absence and finally got in touch with my friends. They came to visit, and I was happy. Though they were miffed to be only finding out about my move to the city now, they said they understood. I told them nothing about meeting her, they were too real to understand something like that, and there’s a time for everything, I decided. The days resumed their former rhythm.

I returned to the café just the once. I went into the entrance passage. The door was closed and displayed a sign saying that the café was closed due to a private event in memory of a close friend’s death in a motorbike accident a year ago. There was a photo. She was sitting on her motorbike and laughing; I imagined I could hear her cocky laughter. I went over to the noticeboard, took down my note, crumpled it up and threw it in the waste bin. Then I stepped out onto the street.



Translated by Māra Rozīte