By IAN SEED.
BEFORE WE REACHED the city, the snow started to fall, and we were forced to spend most of the winter in a village in the forest. To be courteous to our host, the priest, we attended church services several times a week, even though we were non-believers. The local congregation started to swell. Soon the services were packed, and the villagers pressed as close to us as they could. This was due to their fascination with our foreignness, the priest explained, and we should not be afraid. He lent us novels by Dostoyevsky to keep our minds occupied. When the snow finally melted away, we thanked the priest and set off once again. Within hours, we reached the edge of the forest. From there, we could see the sky reflected in the city’s golden domes, much closer than we had thought.
IT HAD BEEN a long journey. While I was waiting outside the chapel for the others to arrive, a woman asked me if I could look after her dog for a few minutes. After some time, she had still not returned. What, I wondered, was I going to do with this shaggy black creature she had left me with? I decided to go and look for her. The village was so small that I soon reached its edges. Here there was a river, and on the other side another chapel, similar to the first, but situated in a heathland of the softest green and purple hues I had ever seen. It felt familiar and yet like another world. I wanted to cross the river and touch the softness, but there was no bridge. Besides, the dog was starting to bark as if suddenly realising I was not his real owner.
3. Fitting In
THERE WERE POSTCARD views of the river from the office. But in my new job I was an outsider from the provinces. I never ate lunch with my colleagues at the canteen tables, but instead went for walks down long corridors. Whenever I went past the desk of the HR man who’d hired me, his bald head would look up and he would stroke his reddish beard. He never spoke, but I could feel his gaze linger over me with wistful regret.
One stormy spring morning, the river flooded its banks. It rushed headlong into the office and carried us away, twisting and turning in its filthy brown water, through the streets of the city.
I felt more comfortable now, less self-conscious, more like everybody else. A reddish beard floated its tendrils like torn away seaweed beside me.
A CHILD WAS murdered in a house in Italy. It was the same house which I visited to interview the famous Italian author, Giuseppe Scala, who died of a heart attack shortly afterwards.
Later, my wife and I were approached by the Italian police. It was clear we had nothing to do with the death of either the child or the author, but they wanted to know if we had noticed anything strange. They took the liberty of commenting on my wife’s beauty and intelligence. It was a rare combination, they told me. That evening, we went to a restaurant they had recommended. My wife, who was a linguist, got cross with the waiter for bringing us our dessert before the main dish. ‘It’s like getting the past perfect mixed up with the past simple,’ she said. I was more annoyed with him for the way he responded with silent disdain.
DUE TO A booking error, I found myself sharing a hotel room with a woman I’d never met before. She smiled at me as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and started to unpack her small suitcase, putting her clothes away neatly in a drawer. The situation was full of promise, I realised, but at that moment I needed the toilet.
The bathroom was tiny and the roof sloped so low, I had to stoop. It was as if I were trapped in a doll’s house. It occurred to me that this woman, with her dark eye shadow and stiff dark hair, and her black dress which clung to her curves, was no more than a doll.
When I returned to the bedroom, she was sitting on the side of the bed, pouring out two glasses of red wine. Through the window I could see a plane taking off from the nearby airport. It rose into the sky in complete silence because the soundproof window was sealed tight.
6. Returning Home
IT WAS AFTER midnight. I was walking down a snow-covered street past an old church, when the lighting went off, and I slipped, twisting my ankle. There was no one else around. If I called out, would anyone hear my cry? Would anyone have the courage to leave the warmth of their house? And if a stranger happened to pass, would he help me up or would he take advantage of my weakened condition to rob me by the steps of the church where I had fallen?
THE CITY ON the hill was further away than I expected. Each time I thought I was nearly there, I realised I had only reached the top of a brow. I considered going back down to the village where I had stayed the night before, but it would soon be dark. By the time I reached the outskirts of the city, all the shutters of the houses were closed, with just one or two lights shining behind them. I came to a piazza. Some men with their shirt sleeves rolled up were sitting at a table outside a closed bar and playing cards. The smell of cigarettes filled the air. I walked up to them and asked in Italian if they knew of an inn where I could spend the night. But they only shrugged, shook their heads and carried on playing cards as if I wasn’t there. I decided it might be better to find somewhere to camp down in the woods just outside the city. As I walked away, one of the men cursed and another laughed.
IT WAS JUST growing light. I was walking back to my Paris flat from the metro. Someone sprang at me from a doorway and tried to grab my wallet from my pocket. More than frightened, I was ashamed that he’d dared to attack me, for he was only a scrawny youth and, though his eyes were vicious, his lips were pretty and feminine. I grabbed him round the neck and wrestled him to the ground. The smell of his sweat was sweet. I held his trembling body against mine until the police arrived.
Later, the French authorities requested that he trim the roses in the courtyard belonging to the block of flats where I lived. This would form part of his rehabilitation. I watched him closely the first time. The smell of his sweat mingled with that of the cut stems. I pointed out to him a rose he’d missed. His face took on a petulant, offended look. He finished his task and left. I was about to chase after him with the vague idea of making amends, when a head poked out of a window.
‘Bonjour, monsieur!’ the head called out. This was an old man, a gossip. No doubt he had something to say about the youth. I hurried away, even though I knew that my neighbour would tell everyone I was no more than an oafish Englishman.
9. Identity Papers
BACK IN THE country where I used to live as a very young man, I went to visit the house where I’d once rented a room. A dowdy-looking woman answered the door. It was only when I noticed the tiny mole on her nose that I realised she was the pretty girl who used to play in the hallway.
She had no idea who I was. I took out my yellowed ID papers, showed her the ancient photo of my face with the local police stamp on it. Still she was hesitant. I reminded her of how she used to tease me because of the way I spoke their language. A smile flickered across her face. There was a letter still waiting for me, she said, tucked away in the back of a drawer somewhere. It must have arrived shortly after I left all those years ago. She went to look for it while I waited on the step.
When she returned, I was surprised at how untouched the envelope looked. I recognized the handwriting on the front as my father’s. I started to open it, forgetting it was too late to reply.
Ian Seed’s publications include Anonymous Intruder (Shearsman, 2009)(US), Shifting Registers (Shearsman, 2011) (US), Amore Mio (Flax, 2010)(US), Sleeping with the Ice Cream Vendor (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2012), and Makers of Empty Dreams (Shearsman, 2014) (US). He teaches at the University of Chester.