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the east

I lived for some time in central London. My work kept me busy in the evenings. But during the day, especially the early afternoon, I had nothing better to do than sit in Soho cafes. I liked Soho. I can't remember now if the Bar Italia was open in those days. I know the Living Room wasn't. Anyway, I tended to frequent old-fashioned places with a mixed clientele. Places like Presto's where you could still meet someone over thirty, someone who wasn't in films, advertising or comics: someone with--or more likely without--a real job.

In late 1989, at about the time of the opening-up of East Berlin, I used to see around the streets and parks an old man, a bit frail, strangely dressed, clearly a foriegner in a world where there are few clear foriegners any more. He was reluctant to talk. Sometimes he seemed reluctant even to stop walking. After some effort I cornered him one day in Soho Square. He was sitting on a bench with some pigeons round his feet. He wasn't feeding them. They seemed agitated with pleasure anyway, bobbing and dipping and walking up and down in the sunshine.

"You're reluctant to talk," I said.

He smiled.

"You would be too," he said. "If you were me."

When I say that he was old I am using the word in a special sense. At first I put his age at sixty or seventy. Later I realised that time had less to do with it than use. I began to think of him not so much as an old man as a young one who had been used up or tired out by some enormous effort of will.

The way he dressed was in itself odd. He always wore a long, very dark gaberdine, unbelted and buttoned from the neck right down to his knees with large buttons of the same colour. It was tight at the shoulders and loose at the hem. The cloth was dusty and had faded unevenly--as if at some time in his life he had stood still for very long periods in strong sunlight--so that it looked grey in one light, purple in another. He also wore a stiff black hat with a round crown and a wide round brim. Both of these items had a strikingly foriegn, old-fashioned air.

All the time I knew him he never seemed to shave. Despite that his beard was rarely more than a white stubble. Strong curly white hairs sprouted out of his nose, from deep in his nostrils. Also from the edges of his ears. His eyes, pink-rimmed, with irises of a very pale blue, were always watering. One day they gave him a look of intelligence, and you thought he might be an academic of some kind; the next, a look of cheerful cunning and you didn't know what to think. Every so often he would take out an enormous cotton handkerchief--white with a border of blue and brown lines of different thicknesses--and blow his nose loudly on it. This never failed to attract attention, especially in the crowded Patisserie Valerie.

He reminded me of someone but I could never think who. He claimed to have come from the East.

"So. What do you do ?" he said.

"I'm an entertainer," I said. "Conjuror. Look."

"Very impressive," he said.

"What do you do ?"

He indicated Soho Square, the pigeons, the young women in the windy sunshine.

"I do nothing, as you see."

Drawn to one another the way a young man and an old man often are, we began to meet frequently. It was always in Soho. I introduced him to cafe latte and zabaglioni. I found, too, that he would eat anything baked with crushed almonds. Confectionary like that reminded him of something eaten daily in the East. He couldn't successfully explain what, and I was left feeling that if I didn't understand him the fault was mine. It was a small thing. After a while, he began to tell me the story of his escape. He always began the same way, by giving me this advice:

"Michael, never be a refugee."

"Will I have a choice ?"

"A clever answer. Someone as clever as you doesn't need to hear my story."

"I'm sorry. Go on."

"I mean this: never try to shove your life into a cheap suitcase at the last moment. Never try to save your books. Never wear your best overcoat. Have a light rucksack ready-packed. Take it with you to the office. Take it to the homes of your lovers. Always wear tough outdoor clothes and boots. Never try to save your family--"

There he broke off, breathing hard and staring at me intently. One side of his lower lip trembled.

"Promise me that, Michael."

And before he would carry on I had to promise.

"Your English is good," I said one day.

He smiled.

"Why shouldn't it be ?"

"You're a linguist then," I said.

"We're all linguists in the heart," said the old man. And his blue eyes glittered like water seen from far off on a good day.

His English was very good indeed. There was never any doubt about his English. But the story he told had such a skewed feel it was like a bad translation, full of innuendos just where you wanted clarity. The language he couched it in was good, it was more than good. The story itself was what needed translating. This he failed to do.

"Every spring, the thaw leaves black mud eighteen inches deep on top of the permanent ice. The day we came west from Zoostry, we were up to our knees in it. People from further back kept catching us. We stumbled along as best we could. They drove past in everything from post vans to horse-drawn sleds. Then, on the outskirts of Avigdor: a child run down ten minutes before we arrived! Stolen military vehicle. Her little white leg was like a stick someone had driven into the mud until it broke. She looked up at us with such dumb surprise."

He put his face in his hands.

"What could we do ? Menkorad, Zentny Norosh, the Triangle: we'd come three hundred miles. We had no morphine, no blankets. No supplies of any kind. The Vorslatt people hadn't eaten for days. You could see them in the evening, trying to cook their shoes."

We were conscious of our roles. I was young, he was old. I would listen while he spoke. Each time we met the old man had a new story for the young one. But he was careful not to monopolise our conversations. He drew a history from me, too. Who was I ? How had I come to be what I was ? He listened to my drab little tales--Northern colleges, Northern towns, Hell, Hull and Halifax--with as much interest as I had in his exotic ones.

"What I hate is the women with faces like buns," I tried to explain. "Every one of them carrying this plastic bag with a Pierrot printed on it. Do you know what I mean ?" Or: "Up there it still smells of the coking plant. The buses are always late. And there's always this fucking sign on the baker's van: 'REAL' BREAD. I mean," I asked the old man, "what's that ? Inverted fucking commas! Even the the fucking bread calls its own existence into question ?"

I don't know what he made of Britain through my eyes. But each of his stories further wrenched my idea of Eastern Europe. It dawned on me one day that he wasn't describing any Europe, any East, I knew. Was he using some abandoned nomenclature ? For instance when he spoke of "Autotelia", perhaps he only meant Bulgaria. Just as when you say "Bohemia" you are essentially talking about the place we know today--well anyway the place we used to know--as Czechoslovakia. Encyclopaedias and atlases could tell me nothing. The tiny nation-states he described had gone unrecorded. They lay curled up inside his memory, but nowhere else: bereft of landscape or tradition, cultural heritage or political and economic history.

"The Triangle," I tried one day: "I'm not sure I understand you when you say that."

We were upstairs at Maison Bertaux. Despite that, the old man looked off into the distance, as if the walls were no impediment.

"You said," he reminded me, "that my English was perfect."

"Oh it is. It is."

His escape, the old man often said, had exhausted his reserves not just of physical but psychic energy: imagination, hope, his whole sense of himself. But in the end I had to ask myself this. If he had come from the East, why should he have had to escape ? Wasn't that the whole point ? No one had to escape from there any more. I stopped believing him. Slowly he assumed a new definition. Just another old man, I told my friends, who had gone mad in a bedsitter in North London. This didn't make his stories any less entertaining (if entertaining is the proper word to use here). Neither did it prevent me from following him around London to see if I could discover more.

At the British Museum he studied trays of broken artefacts from vanished Polynesian cultures. At the Science Museum he was afforded some amusement by an exhibit meant to deconstruct the phlogiston theory of burning. At the Imperial War Museum he stood for almost an hour in front of a diorama of Mons. His face was illuminated by nostalgia. I kept a list. I still have it, though it grows more meaningless to me every year. He visited more than forty sites of this type, including the incomplete buildings of the new British Library. He attended an opera scored by Philip Glass, during which he slept; and the Man Ray exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. There he smiled sadly over an amazing photograph entitled Rrose Selavy, 1924, as if he had once known its subject.

(Was "Rrose" the proper spelling here, or a mistake of the Serpentine's ? Was the whole name perhaps only an alias or Surrealist nom de guerre, "Selavy" code for "C'est la vie" ? How would one ever find out ? I still puzzle over this. Had Man Ray somehow managed to reach out over the years and counter the old man's mystery with a mystery of his own ?)

Museums, art galleries, exhibitions.

These are not inexplicable locations. But how to describe the others ? Abandoned cinemas in Haringey and East Finchley. The filled-in dock network between Surrey Quays and the river. Railway arches in Forest Hills and Putney. He visited them all. Even less explicable were the deserted intersections of arterial roads, viewed at midnight; the rainswept forecourts of Ikea, Wickes, Do It All, entered after closing time. At these venues he met other displaced people. They were men or women with white faces, often well dressed but bothered by two or three winter flies. I never heard them speak. They stood in groups of two or three, apparently studying the entrance arch of the Blackwall Tunnel or the north west corner of the Tottenham Hale one-way system.

I don't know why I say "apparently" here. But it seems apt enough. I shadowed him for a month. Nothing was revealed. Did he know I was there ? Was the very meaninglessness of his itinerary a way of telling me how little I could learn ?

Eventually, irritable and determined, I followed him all the way home.

Well, in fact I didn't.

He lived on Anson Road, one of the wide endless tree-lined streets that connect Tufnell Park and Holloway. An entire generation disappeared into those streets and never came out again. They came to attend the polytechnic and ended up staring at the peeling wallpaper above the Ascot. They put money in the gas meters and payphones. They paid or were unable to pay the rent. Answering the doorbell, they left a trail of wet footprints on the stairs from the bathroom--it was for someone else. They arrived young and quickly became middle aged--in the end they owned a shelf of outdated sociology texts and some albums on the verge of collectibility. They had become bald men in black leather jackets, women like fat pigeons with woollen coats and very red lipstick.

Motionless in the pouring rain, I watched him move to and fro behind an uncurtained third floor window. It was three o' clock in the afternoon. Light from the bare bulb above his head gleamed dully on the yellowed wallpaper. He still had his hat on. If you had asked me then, I would have identified him as the perfect inhabitant of the vanished 60s bedsitterland I have just described. It was the last time I could have claimed that. I was wrong about the old man. Perhaps I was wrong about Tufnell Park, too.

About an hour later he left the house and went off towards Holloway. I watched him out of sight then hurried up the cracked stone steps and rang doorbells until someone buzzed me in. The lino on the stairs was grey-green, the fire-retardant door of each bedsitter a starved matt white. I let myself into the old man's room--Hey Presto!--and looked around.

It was one of three single rooms partitioned out of the original double, with about twelve feet by seven of floor space. The stuff crowded in there fell into two broad categories, that which had been provided by the landlord and that which belonged to the old man himself. Into the former category fell the single bed (but not its yellow coverlet); the Baby Belling stove (but not the coffee-maker on its blackened front ring); the wardrobe with its peeling veneers, but not the short feathered stick propped up in one corner of it. Into the latter, a random collection of small objects (but not the chipped green chest of drawers he had arranged them on); an oval mirror (but not the stained sink he had positioned it above); and two or three items of clothing hanging on a hook on the back of the door.

I sat on the bed for some time studying these things. I felt only faintly guilty for being in there with them, perhaps because I could make nothing of them or the life they represented. The coffee-maker seemed bulbous and misproportioned. The mirror frame featured in bas-relief what appeared to be a fight between mink. The feathers were dyed fluorescent greens and reds; or were they ? One moment the items on the chest of drawers looked like the residue of a hundred days out--trips to the seaside, trips to the country, river trips in hired boats--the next they seemed otherwordly, unreadable, impassive. A brass lizard, part of a triangular candle, a few polished stones, a tiny red tin of ointment, two or three ornamental boxes--all placed carefully around a framed photograph and smelling faintly of incense. As the light went out of the air outside, they seemed to shift a little, to settle towards one another. There was a faint, objective sigh in the air--the sound that inanimate things might make if they relaxed--a smell of dust.

Suddenly I realised what the design on the yellow bedcover was intended to represent. I got to my feet quickly and, blundering out of the room, slammed the door behind me, breathing as if I had run halfway down the Strand after a bus. I was desperate to get out of there. Then something compelled me to go back in and break everything I could find. In the end, I was breaking perfectly ordinary things. They seemed wrong to me. I broke a Birds of the World tea tray; a mug with Ronald MacDonald's face.


*

The old man vanished from Soho. Within a week I missed him. I missed the challenge of him. Also, I remembered his watery blue eyes and his trembling lip, and wondered if I had gone too far. About a month later he walked into Presto's and sat down opposite me. His coat was glazed with dirt, as if he had been living in the street. He looked ill. His face was emaciated, his movements stiff; his hands had a continual slight tremor. When he spoke, I could hear his breath going effortfully in and out in the pauses between sentences.

"You don't look too well," I said. "Can I get you something ?"

When the waitress came he ordered zabaglioni but had trouble with the spoon. "I can't eat this," he said helplessly. To start with it was hard to get him to say anything else. He kept looking at me out of the side of his eye, like a nervous horse. If he wasn't watching me, he was watching the pedestrians entering Old Compton Road.

"No different here," he said.

Suddenly, he laid his hand over mine.

"Michael, these people are animals! You must be so careful with them!" He stared hard at me. "Michael, promise me you'll be careful!"

"I promise," I said.

This seemed to relax him. He began spooning up the zabaglioni very fast and noisily.

"I haven't eaten!" he said. "I haven't dared eat!" He said: "Someone broke into my room. My things. I--"

He looked out of the window.

"Look, that man!"

"It's just a man," I said.

"No. He--"

He stopped.

"I haven't been back there," he said.

"You feel violated," I said.

"It's not that," he said. He took his hat off and looked inside it. "It's the terror of the return journey. You know ?"

I didn't know.

"Despite that," he told me, "I'm determined to go back."

"Do you mean the bedsit ?" I asked.

He stared at me.

"Home," he said. "The terror of the journey home."

"Ah."

He said that he could no longer get on with the Western life. That was what he called it: the Western life. He shrugged, wiped around the inside of the hat with his handkerchief.

"I'm going back to the East."

By then, I suppose, every journey had become a terror for him. As soon as he finished eating, I offered to help him along Charing Cross Road to the tube station and put him on a train. He eyed me uncertainly. I saw that he was frightened of me now, whatever he might say. Not because I had wrecked his room. He couldn't know I had done that. It was because I was human.

He thought. Then he said:

"Very well. Thank you. At least someone has been kind to me."

It was the early evening rush hour. We walked slowly. He leaned on my arm. Despite it all, he was still interested in the West. The newest Japanese sports car or motorcycle, parked at the kerb like a halogen-lit sculpture, would stop him dead. A bookshop window would draw him across the pavement against the grain of the crowds. Paperbacks and maps, cheap souvenir T-shirts: he winced away from secretaries, but he wouldn't be put off the things that attracted him.

Leicester Square station was a nightmare. Tourists and schoolchildren marbled a solid pack of commuters like the fat in beef. He clung to the escalator rail. When we found his platform at last, he wavered near the edge of it, nodding morosely as the older kids kicked the younger ones and tried to push them on to the rails. "I suppose the train will be crowded," he said. It was. "I don't think I can get on," he said; but he did. Before it pulled away, there was one of those empty moments typical to the Underground. (The carriage doors remain open. Apart from some faint ticking noises the train is silent and goes nowhere. People begin to look at one another.) For perhaps a minute the old man stared out at me from between two women in business suits and heavy eye make-up, terror in his eyes. I stared back uncomfortably, aware that everyone was watching us. He fumbled suddenly in his coat.

"Take this, Michael. Please take it."

He pressed into my hand something small and angular, folding my fingers round it gently with his own.

At that the doors banged shut and the train drew away from the platform.

That was the last I saw of him.

When I looked down I saw that he had given me the little framed photograph which had stood on the chest of drawers in his room, surrounded like an icon by the votive objects of his exile. Something I had failed to break.


*

I found it difficult to pick up my existence where it had left off.

At night I worked, drawing dyed feathers out of a top hat. Hey Presto. By day I could not get the old man out of my head. I was bitterly sorry to have been the cause of his despair. But how could I help that now ? In addition, Soho seemed empty to me without his ironies. I missed the sound of him snorting into his large handkerchief. I was bored.

To get away--and perhaps as a kind of penance too--I revisited many of the sites I had followed him to, haunting a street of deserted factories here, the strip of derelict land behind a Sainsbury's there. I was attracted to Hackney and Wanstead, the bleak parks, the chains of reservoirs which lay like mirrors discarded northward along the Lea Valley. Winter turned to spring. In Clissold Park the wind tore the petals off the crocuses and blew them about. Male pigeons fluttered down to the paths, inflating themselves to bob and dip. The females looked up in faux surprise and walked in rather aimless arcs. It was spring, and suddenly the streets were full of haggard young men and women from Stoke Newington, made tired and anxious by their success at marriage, culture journalism and modern parenting. They looked so awkward somehow, so uncomfortable with their lot. I stared at them puzzledly all one afternoon. They gave me an idea. I went back to the old man's bedsitter.

It was empty.

Even the carpet had gone. All I could find of him was a diagram drawn on the floor in chalk; a permanent sense that the room had only just been vacated.

I sat there in the silence.

I thought to myself:

So. The world is now full of people like him. People who have taken advantage of political change to infiltrate a society in which they would otherwise be easily discovered. Every lonely Soviet businessman we overhear discussing kilos of this, kilos of that in a pub in Cosmo Place. Every white-faced fifteen year old girl in a belted black PVC jacket, being sick on the Central Line platform at Tottenham Court Road. Kazakhstanis with cowed mothers, Kurds with political magazines, Estonians who run literary agencies from rather nice houses in Camberwell--they are all less from the East than the "East".

Is it possible to believe that ?

The photograph he had given me was no help.

It had been taken in a garden darkened with laurel and close-set silver birch--a family picture centred on a very attractive black-haired woman in her mid thirties. She wore a long jumper over jeans. Her brown eyes had the round, frank, slightly protrusive look and nervous vivacity associated with thyroid disorder. Her smile was delighted and ironic at once --the smile of a lively art student rather surprised to find herself a matron. In front of her stood two boys five and ten years old, resembling her closely about the mouth and eyes. And there, behind the three of them, with his hand on her shoulder and his face slightly out of focus, stood the old man: younger-looking but clearly himself. Was he her father ? Or were they a marriage ? It was hard to say. I inclined to the former. I found myself staring as deeply into the photograph as he had stared into my face when he said:

"Michael, never become a refugee!"

I placed it on the floor in front of me.

Towards dark, the world spun briefly. Vertigo! I thought. I thought I heard a bird call sweetly from one of the laurel bushes in the picture. I felt myself falling in towards it. I thought I heard a woman's voice exclaim--

"Aren't we lucky to have this ? Aren't we ?"

I stopped myself in time.

Those were the words I used to myself, "in time"; although what I meant by them I wasn't then entirely sure. I went out of the bedsit and locked the door behind me. I went down into the quiet street.


*

The room is mine now. I don't live in it. I keep it locked when I'm not there. I bought a small chest of drawers and painted it green. On it I put a few of the things that have had meaning in my life so far. A ceramic rose brooch bought from a stall in Camden in 1986. A box of Norwegian matches. Some shells which, if you put your nose close to them, still give off the faint salt smell of the East Anglian coast. One or two things like that, set in front of the old man's photograph. Once a week I go there and stare into his daughter's eyes until I begin to feel myself falling.

"In time," I tell myself. "In time."


copyright m john harrison 2004


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