And five more prose pieces.
By IAN SEED.
New York Hotel.
IN THE LOBBY by the revolving glass doors was an old man dressed like Gene Kelly and crooning ‘Singing in the Rain’ without any musical accompaniment. His voice was frail, but this only served to give the song an added poignancy. Yet no one stopped to listen, or to watch his surprisingly deft tap dance.
After dropping a couple of coins into a hat at the end of the song, I asked him why he was doing this. He told me he had come to the city to look for work more than fifty years ago. While waiting in the lobby by these same doors to speak to someone about a job as a porter, he had started singing popular songs of the day to himself. The hotel owner had happened to pass by in that moment.
‘You’ve got a great voice, kid,’ the owner said, taking a puff on his cigar. ‘I’ll pay you a dollar a day just to stand here and do what you’re doing now.’
That old owner was long since dead and the pay had never gone above a dollar a day. Nevertheless, with leftover food from the kitchen, an attic room in the hotel, and with a few tips, he got by.
I wondered why with such a voice he had never tried his hand at getting a record deal.
‘I often thought of it,’ he said, ‘but at first I was afraid of appearing ungrateful to the man who offered me this work when I was down on my luck. Then the years passed more quickly than I thought they would. Now I have no choice except to keep singing here until I’m done. And now if you will excuse me…’
He cleared his throat, spread his arms, and gave everything he had to another song no one had time to listen to.
REVISITING THE CITY of my student days, I went into the multi-storey bookshop where I had once worked. I was surprised to see that it was full of antique and second-hand books instead of its previous glossy selection. Perhaps now it is trying to be more ‘authentic’, I thought, more about the love of literature than money. But the whole atmosphere was like that of a funeral. None of the booksellers laughed or joked anymore, and the shop was almost deserted. The new manager – who had previously worked for the Arts Council before being made redundant – ignored me as if my presence were a threat. By his side stood a plump, grey-haired woman. It took me a few moments to recognise her as the young assistant I had once had a crush on. ‘We don’t know what happens to us after our deaths,’ she said to me, ‘but we certainly won’t be able to make love.’ That evening I accepted the invitation to share her bed. I no longer desired her, but it was one way to defy the new manager and his insistence on authenticity.
THERE WERE THREE of them at the round table where they invited me to sit: a young lecturer in psychology, a drama teacher, who happened to be his wife (a little older, dark hair in a bobtail, heavy eye shadow), and an ancient emeritus professor. The lecturer was saying something about the traumatic effect of marital breakdown on children. I nodded every now and again until his wife broke in: ‘I doubt you really have any idea,’ she said, ‘of what it is truly like for the child.’
I wasn’t sure whether she was addressing me or her husband, but I felt obliged to tell them of my own father’s compulsive philandering, his bitter separation from my mother when I was eight, and her breakdown when he went to Italy and vanished there. Later I tried to find him, and ended up living for several years in Turin. Here I discovered and translated the books of Cesare Pavese, another philanderer, who wrote poems despairing of the possibility of ever being able to love and who hanged himself in a hotel room.
The elderly professor maintained a ghostly silence, while the lecturer stared into his tea as if thinking about something else entirely. His wife must have been turned on by my story of suffering, for the whole time she kept giving me secretive glances and pressing her knee against my thigh under the table.
The New Therapy.
GIVEN MY COMPLICATED history, I was sent to France for psychoanalysis. I thought my reading of Jung and my knowledge of French would stand me in good stead. When I arrived, I found the psychoanalytic institution occupied a shiny corporate building. The receptionist at the entrance desk told me to wait while she called the analyst I had been assigned to. A few minutes later, a man with a crew haircut and dressed in a tightfitting suit came towards me. He had a bulky, bull-like presence, yet his handshake was soft and clammy. As we went up in the lift to his office, he stood a little too close. In my uneasiness, I began to stammer in French, but he interrupted and told me not to bother. The new psychoanalytic institution was international; their working language was English.
THE FRENCH WOMAN at the picnic table wouldn’t stop talking. She seemed crazy with grief, and I felt that I had no choice but to listen. Another man at the table kept watching me out of the corner of his eye, as if I were harbouring some dishonourable intention. Perhaps he thought I wanted to seduce her, but nothing could have been further from my mind – she was all skin and bone, her prematurely grey hair tied too tight in a lifeless pony tail. The man by contrast was portly and pompous-looking. A ring of beer foam was stuck to his moustache.
‘Don’t worry,’ he broke in, ‘you can speak French to me. I understand French.’
She looked at him as if he were now the one who could rescue her.
‘Moi aussi,’ I protested, ‘moi aussi. Je parlais en anglais avec vous simplement parce que vous – ’
Here I stopped because I could not remember how to conjugate the verb. In any case, I had an excuse not to continue for at that moment a military parade appeared at the end of the street. It was led by a general in a jeep. When he saw us at the table, he stood and shouted for all he was worth about the need for everyone to be mobilised, man and woman, old and young. The time for our sloppy private concerns was over.
AFTER MY DIVORCE and losing my job, I was reduced to wandering the streets and dossing in doorways. One day a man threw me some coins. I recognised him as a friend from my youth. Over the next few weeks, he put me up in his luxury apartment. He seemed to take pleasure in my dependence upon him, for in our younger days I had been the one with the brilliant future. Now he wanted me to keep him amused. He would take me to parties, dressing me up in one of his discarded suits, which was much too loose on my scrawny body. One night he came across an old lover, and abandoned me to make my own way back to his apartment through the dark streets of the city. Taking a path through a park, I got lost and decided to kip down on a bench. When dawn came, I could see a small building that I recognised as the Italian café I frequented in my youth. Giovanni and Rosa had always been kind to me, treating me like the son they yearned for. It was in vain that I had tried to hide my crush on Rosa, for I couldn’t help blushing whenever she spoke to me. I think Giovanni knew about this but was generous-hearted enough not to mind. He would always offer me an extra coffee on the house. It made his wife happy, he said, just to watch me stare dreamily into space or become lost in a book. It was the kind of thing they never had time for in their own lives. I wondered now if they were still alive, if they might still be there, and what they would say if I knocked on their door.
Ian Seed’s most recent collections are Identity Papers (2016) and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014), both from Shearsman, while Red Ceilings published his chapbook Fidelities (2015). His translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan will be published by Wakefield Press later in 2016. He teaches at the University of Chester. For an archive of previous work appearing in the Fortnightly, see here.
Note: Edited after publication to correct a minor error.