Day was breaking, giving rise to the rumor of purity. For a few seconds the light might have been that of creation. Then, in that blinking which separates the final moments of night from day, the faint outline of the moon was hidden and the sky became a universal infusion of blue. High up from his study window a man stood watching, waiting for the city to wake. Indistinct sounds of life were reaching him and flooding his mind with memories. Particles of dust twirled lazily in the shafts of sunlight. He thought that London resembled the mind, and that its streets, avenues, sewers, and tunnels suggested parts of the brain, that London’s grid-like complexity corresponded to the complexity of memory and thought. Having glimpsed the dawn, he sat at his desk and typed some words out hastily.
21 May. Still no new ideas. Will Barny start hounding me?
The centerpiece of the study was a magnificent mahogany desk. The only thing on it was an old Underwood typewriter. He hated computers and he sought to avoid contact with technology as far as possible and considered himself appealingly old-fashioned. The wooden floor was littered with pens, books, sheets of paper. Below, he could see a small boy delivering papers, and a lady walking her poodle. Further down a man was struggling with the padlock of a fish market. He studied them for a few more moments.
No more popular junk. Time for something else. Barny can hound me but I shall not dance. I danced too long for Natalie. And five years ago I threw my dad off the dance floor when he joined her there. Old lech.
Eggs. He had a sudden longing for eggs. He passed through to the kitchen, found some, cracked them with a chef’s precision and watched as they gurgled and popped in the oil of his battered frying pan. A teapot was unearthed from the wreckage of a cupboard and a plate and cutlery were laid out carefully. As the toast got under way the telephone started ringing. It was still far too early for a phone call.
‘Did I wake you?’
‘I can’t talk about it over the phone. I’ve been up all night. Can we meet? I need to see you. Really.’
‘Well, when? Not now?’
‘Say in a couple of hours? Can you come to the cinema? I’m here now. We could talk in the projection room. I have to see you.’
‘At the cinema? Do you ever actually leave that place? All right. Around eight, then. Is there a bell or something? Do I knock? What do I do?’
‘I’ll leave the back door open. Just walk in.’
‘Does this door have any distinguishing features?’
‘No. It’s just black and rusty.’
Daniel Bloch returned the phone to its cradle, and ate his breakfast. It already seemed as if the day’s promise had been ruined.
Oscar Babel was the projectionist of the Eureka, a dilapidated Camden cinema, and one of the few left in London that still used an old-style projector linked up to giant, slowly revolving film reels. It sometimes felt to Daniel Bloch as though he were Oscar’s sur- rogate father, offering him advice, buying him dinner, introducing him to influential people. They had met a decade ago, when Bloch had spotted him waddling out of a pub, decimated by alcohol. As he monitored this striking and yet shadowy figure Bloch thought of a pram that has somehow ended up on a race track, turning this way and that uncertainly, looking painfully vulnerable. He dispatched Oscar into a taxi, and gave the driver a twenty-pound note. In the morning he received a call from Oscar, thanking him. But Bloch didn’t remember giving him his number. When they eventually met for a drink, Oscar presented Bloch with a small gift – an ivory music box – perhaps the only thing Oscar owned which he actually valued. Bloch allowed Oscar to enter his life. He began to think he had met him for a reason, and so the matter was closed. Meanwhile, Oscar considered his new friend to be a source of sophistication and light in an otherwise atrophying life. Once a decidedly promising painter, he now found himself earning his living by projecting films, the most invisible of professions he reflected, having dropped his painting, despite his obvious talent for it. Bloch sometimes imagined him as a big fish floating through the clouds of the sea, gazing at the giant vegetation, feeling the wonder of the beauty that ebbed past, but finally sinking, deeper and deeper into the seabed. An oblivion he did not seek would always find him.
After an artery-severing shave, Bloch decided to walk to the cinema via Regent’s Park.
The morning was shedding the shells of its birth and people were emerging from their homes, steeling themselves for the punishing journeys to work. Those in collars and ties were already looking flustered, foreheads coated in films of sweat.
He was surprised to find, after he had slipped through the gates of the park, that a few people were sunbathing. Despite the earliness of the hour people were already jabbering incongruously into their cellular phones. It was by now quite hot – and seemed as if it always would be. Walking incredibly rapidly it didn’t take him long to reach the other end of the park. He gave himself a second to savor the abundant clusters of trees before emerging onto a road a few moments later. As he began to cross, an emission of sunlight struck dusty, dirty buildings of neglect like a laser. Reality seemed to be ablaze, a beautiful inferno. But then the sun was hidden and everything plunged back once more into urban decline.
The Eureka Cinema stood battered and obsolete. He peered through the windows to see if anyone was inside. Not a soul. Cinemas don’t have a life in the morning, he thought. He ambled around to the back and found the door open, as Oscar said it would be. Inside it was very black. The change from light to dark made spots dance in front of him. He found himself in a small room where an iron table and chair sat in respective states of decay. A newspaper had been carefully folded out on the table. A sliding door stood open. He walked through, calling out Oscar’s name. Now he was in a little chamber full of tools and work tops, a dirty-looking table lamp shedding arthritic light. Oscar wasn’t there. He could hear the heavy sound of the projector running, and the noise of this combined with the muted light and the black wall created an oppressive texture. He trotted down some steps, finally reaching what must have been the projection room. There, two large metal platters about a yard across were turning slowly. On them rested the reels of film, feeding into the projector. There was something relentless about the movement of the film as it spun around, sustaining the flickering image discern- ible through a small opening in the wall, playing to an empty audito- rium. Bloch watched the film as it hovered in front of him, but with all sound severed. A woman with translucent blonde hair was framed in close-up, her lips moving. She looked stricken, pleading for some unknown cause. When he turned away colors and faces faded into a vague impression that nestled on his retina. As he was thinking he felt a hand touch him lightly on the shoulder. He jumped around, his face brushing against Oscar’s.
‘Oh God, you scared me,’ Bloch mumbled.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. Let’s go through, it’s less noisy.’
Bloch looked up at him, surprised as if for the first time by his height. He stood well over six feet. For an instant he envied his youthful, handsome face. It still bore the insignia of innocence, blue eyes widening in mute inquiry. They passed through into the outer room, and sat down. The sound of the projector persisted but at a lower level, the intervening door, which Oscar heaved to, creating a muffling effect.
‘Why are you running a film at this hour?’ Bloch asked.
‘I find it comforting. Do you mind?’
Bloch shook his head slowly. Oscar looked sleepy and troubled.
There was something about him that suggested an abnormal existence: he had a perpetually cauterized look.
‘Do you want to tell me what the problem is now?’ Bloch asked. Oscar addressed the wall as he spoke in a soft voice.
‘Well. Now that you’ve trudged all the way over here, I feel kind of shitty. It’s nothing as concrete as a specific problem. That’s to say, no doctor has diagnosed me with a rare disease. And I haven’t just had my heart broken. I wish I had something...something juicy. Like, “I am being blackmailed” or, “I’ve been burgled, they smashed my Ming vase, nailed my priceless stamps to the toilet.” But I have no Ming vase, you see, that’s the problem. Not that I particularly want a Ming vase. What I mean is...the real problem is...I have no life. I’m no one. I’m sick of watching the same film three times a day and not doing anything except changing reels and sitting in a dark room. And I can’t paint anymore. But apart from that everything’s rosy.’
‘Why can’t you paint anymore?’
Oscar turned to Bloch and made eye contact – an uneasy development.
‘I’m sorry to have to do this to you, drag you out on this May morning...’
‘Oscar, what’s stopping you from painting?’
‘What’s the point, success seems so far away, I don’t have the ener- gy. I want a change but I haven’t got the strength. I was hoping you could change things for me.’
‘I don’t know, perhaps you could introduce me to a big cheese.’
‘I’ve done that in the past. I’ve introduced you to art dealers and you haven’t exactly obliged them. You told Demian Small he was a charlatan. Maybe you need to think about another job; or perhaps you could go back into something educational, or charity work, or something that draws on your knowledge of art.’ Bloch threw out these suggestions in the way in which a man offers sweets to a child to stop it from crying; he knew they were completely untenable.
‘I don’t want to draw on my knowledge of art, as I don’t think I have any, and the prospect of an educational institution is nauseating.’ He took a couple of deep breaths. ‘I just don’t want to be a blank space all my life. I want to be someone.’
‘Well, be someone then. Do something. Take some action.’
‘I can’t. I’m crippled. I can’t seem to...actually...make that first step. Last week I turned twenty-nine, but I already feel as if I’ve died. I mean, what’s wrong with me? Do you think I’m aging prematurely?’
‘No, I don’t think you’re aging prematurely. I should be the one who’s moaning. I’m forty-eight, over the hill, divorced, childless, and regarded by the literary establishment as a joke. True, I’ve sold books in droves and never courted the critics but after a while one longs to be read by people other than secretaries and accountants. Look, can we get out of this pit? I’m finding it hard to use my brain in here.’
‘Just let me get the projector.’
There was a sound like that of a stalling car engine and then a very loud snap. Oscar dashed into the projection room. The print had coiled, and it was feeding out all over the floor uncontrollably, writhing around like a gathering of worms. He reached over and flicked a switch as Bloch joined him.
‘I had a feeling this was going to happen,’ he muttered, kneeling down to disentangle some of the ribbons.
‘Can you do anything with it?’
‘I don’t know; I don’t know. It’ll take ages. Maybe you should go; I don’t want you to sit here getting bored.’
As he stared into the still trembling film ribbons Bloch was struck by what he thought was a brilliant idea.
‘I could write a story about you,’ he said.
‘What would you say? There’s nothing interesting enough to write about.’
‘I’ll make it interesting.’
‘Then it wouldn’t be about me.’
‘It would be about your potential.’
‘I’m not sure I have any. Why?’
‘I’d like to imagine a different life for you, a parallel reality. I could nail down a possible future in words.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘If I reinvented your life in fiction it might allow you to step to the side of your actual life, and see it from a different angle. Success needn’t be as elusive as you think. Success is work. And a story with you as its subject might give you some self-respect, might help you to take action, to paint again, to be someone, as you say. It’s just a thought.’
But as Bloch talked something created a block of foreboding, as if his words were committing him to the obligation of working miracles.
Oscar stopped what he was doing and stood up. He was touched by his friend’s concern and ashamed of his own inertia. For a few seconds he caught a glimpse of a different kind of life rising up to snatch him from the empire of boredom. He had an impression – that shot through his mind like a lightning bolt, gone before it could be grasped – of great architecture, colossal trees, shimmering flowers. He could hear Bloch as he started speaking again but his words were far away, registering only as shapeless sound; and in the instants that made up this reverie he was surprised to find the future calling to him seductively.
Then he saw a face, a woman’s face, with autumnal eyes. Her full mouth was raised in a smile. He turned to Bloch, to say something. But his mind was blank; he couldn’t form words and he was tired.
Her name was Lilliana. She was standing in her flower shop in South Kensington, filled with pink hyacinths, and indigo-blue delphiniums, pink and red roses, red and white carnations. Pots of green, majestic calathea were gathered on shelves and hung from the ceiling, their sprawling leaves forming a fragmented canopy. The shop was popular, not only because of its slightly magical atmosphere, but also because of Lilliana’s friendliness, as she single-handedly fussed over her customers, trimmed stalks, arranged their flowers, always attempting to capture the most beautiful combination, the most arresting image. The flowers provided her with both her livelihood and surroundings, in the shop and in her small house in Kentish Town.
She was rushing here and there, getting ready to open up the shop. She wore a broad, mustard-colored hat on her head and her strawberry hair, normally long and untamed, was tied beneath it. A few strands escaped the knot and shivered alongside milky white skin. She moved some giant earthenware pots into place beside candles as wide as tree trunks. They stood clustered together in front of a white spiral staircase, creating a theatrical effect.
She went to unlock the door. The first customer of the day, an agitated man with a moustache, had been waiting outside and he marched in after muttering his thanks brusquely.
‘I’d like some white roses,’ he declared.
As he did so a tanned young woman strode in, walked up to the counter and was on the point of asking Lilliana something when the man turned to the newcomer, and rumbled, ‘Najette, don’t ignore me.’
Najette looked around, visibly astonished. She gave herself a moment to regain her composure and said, ‘Didn’t we just say goodbye?’
‘I can’t help it if we’re both after the same thing.’
‘I doubt that very much.’
‘I was talking about the flowers. Don’t twist everything around.’ ‘Must we? Again? I wasn’t ignoring you as I didn’t see you.’ And then, in the manner of an afterthought she added, ‘Well, seeing as I can’t get rid of you, do you want to go to Hyde Park? For the morning light. There’s nothing like it, either for painting or sunbathing. Have you noticed how I’m making progress?’
‘With what? Painting or skin cancer?’
In place of a verbal answer she rolled her face slowly, inviting him to examine her features, the elegant line of her tanned neck. Like some magnificent bird displaying its feathers, she was proud and imperturbable.
‘Don’t you think you might be overdoing it?’ the man asked.
‘Just an hour in the park, that’s all, before the tourists and philistines descend,’ she continued, ‘and then to the shoebox to finish a canvas. Are you sure I can’t persuade you to take anything? I know I’m doing something wrong, but I won’t accept that my work’s too grand for the Earl. Anyway, I look nice, don’t I? By the way, I have a feeling that soon the sun will be something we’ll all be paying for. It’s depressing, isn’t it?’
Lilliana felt it might be a good idea to join in and diffuse the tension between the two and said, ‘I’m trying to imagine what a sun meter would look like.’
‘It’s a horrible idea,’ said the as-yet-unidentified man.
‘Believe me, it’ll happen,’ Najette declared merrily. ‘Everything will happen sooner or later. Artificial love, wine recycled from lemonade, women begging to be relieved of their nipples. Just for fun.’
‘What exactly is artificial love? Wait, don’t tell me; you’re an exponent,’ said the stranger, then added emphatically, ‘Are my roses ready yet?’
Lilliana handed them over nervously and he disdainfully pressed a twenty-pound note into her palm. She had wrapped the flowers in delicate, transparent paper and tied them up with a beautiful copper-colored bow, but he didn’t appear to notice any of this.
Najette said, ‘Don’t be so serious; we were only talking.’
‘I have to go. These are for Georgia.’
Najette was about to say, ‘I’ll see you,’ but he bolted out in a melodramatic whirl and she was left hanging.
‘An obvious, botched attempt to make me jealous. Georgia indeed! He’s a little touchy, isn’t he?’ she said in a low voice to Lilliana. ‘Who is he? Who’s Georgia?’
Najette was about to reply when three women streamed in and, speaking loudly, began to circulate, holding their overlapping conversations from different ends of the shop. All three wore multi-colored shawls and their faces were disconcertingly similar, so that Lilliana assumed they must be sisters. One of them, who had silvery blonde hair, moved toward the shelves, crowded with the large potted plants. Lilliana turned to Najette, anxious to resume their conversation, trying to ignore the confusing babble of voices.
‘Your friend – though he didn’t really seem to be much of one – you were going to tell me who he is,’ Lilliana continued.
‘Yes. The monster. Lately I’ve been referring to him as Oscar....I think it suits him better.’
The largest pot of calathea came crashing down from its shelf, stalks and petals buried underneath the weight of the soil, as it landed the wrong way up. Its spreading, fibrous leaves were instantly ruined. The blonde woman uttered a small cry. Lilliana walked across and stared into the mangled plant. Her first reaction was one of disbelief, but it instantly gave way to sadness.
‘I’m terribly sorry – I just touched it – I don’t know what happened – it’s like it wanted to fall – I’m really sorry,’ the blonde woman was saying.
Lilliana’s face changed imperceptibly. As Najette studied her she could discern the subtlest film of unshed tears in her eyes. The blonde woman instinctively reached inside her pocket. Her first thought was that money would make everything all right again. But she was mistaken. Najette watched them both attentively, already framing the scene in her mind as a painting; two women, one kneeling in melancholy and the other in consolation. To Najette, Lilliana suggested a madonna poised in a world of intense and incommunicable feeling. She had taken off her hat and more strands of her gossamer hair fell about her face. Najette watched as the blonde’s hand found Lilliana’s tentatively. The spilled soil was everywhere, firing out in random directions, forming brittle lines. In an instant Najette produced a digital camera – she carried one around with her to record moments like these, moments that might feed her painting – slipped a finger over the button, snapped a shot and tucked the camera away. Nobody noticed.
Lilliana got up slowly. The other woman followed and glanced at her companions, now huddled together in the corner. She turned back to Lilliana and said, feeling her way through the words, ‘I work...down the road. Maybe I can buy you lunch sometime...to make up for the mess?’ She handed over a card and Lilliana took it without a word. The ghost of a smile formed on her lips.
After a pause, the party of three shuffled out together in obvious relief.
‘That was pretty weird. After that I need a drink. Do you have any booze?’ said Najette.
‘I think...I’ve got some white wine in the fridge upstairs. Shall I fetch it?’
‘That would be glorious.’
As Lilliana climbed the spiral staircase Najette gathered up the cracked pieces of the pot and the disfigured plant and set everything down on the counter. She found a pan and brush and deftly swept up the soil. A minute later Lilliana returned with two filled glasses and said, ‘That beautiful plant, the ruined one, was intended for a friend of mine, another Oscar. Oscar Babel.’
‘Actually, my friend’s name is Nicholas. But he’s always fancied himself as a bit of a dandy, so sooner or later he had to be Oscar.’
‘Nicholas is your ex-lover?’
‘Well-spotted. That’s why he was angry. Because of that little prefix: ex. As if the fact that he once had his penis up me gives him a divine right to be a shit because I no longer want it there. Imagine!’ There was an infectious joviality about her as she conjured with the words a defiance which registered in the glow of her eyes. She was feeling the rush of eloquence. Lilliana tried not to look shocked.
They pulled two stools toward the counter and sat down. Najette said, ‘So tell me about Oscar. The real Oscar.’
‘That plant was meant to be his birthday present.’ She ran a finger along the gnarled, twisted stem.
‘When’s his birthday?’
‘Last week. I was late. I usually am. He’s a projectionist. Doesn’t like it. Or says he doesn’t.’
‘Why doesn’t he change jobs?’
‘I’m not sure; fear of the unknown, perhaps. He likes things to be predictable, the same. He doesn’t like experimentation.’
‘Does he have any passions? Apart from the cinema?’
‘The cinema isn’t a passion, more of an addiction. I just think he likes being locked up in dark rooms.’
‘Has he tried S&M? Photography? Confession boxes? Would he look good in a cassock?’
‘Better in a hammock. He always looks...slightly out of place. Like he’s just stepped off a flying saucer. But he’s got a pretty face.’
Najette nodded and swept aside the ebony, twirling strands of hair that had been moving slowly across her face and the full glory of her sun tan was again revealed; this time, however, it quite took Lilliana by surprise. She also noticed her startlingly long eyelashes. When a customer came in a few moments later they were too preoccupied to notice him. They were also a little drunk.