Stories by Jonathan Dunne

From the unpublished collection Psoriasis:

 

THE TRAMP

The TV was on and I was watching it. He appeared next to me like a spirit. A rather wraithlike spirit. But then I suppose that’s what spirits are. He looked lost, as if he should have been in some procession of souls in torment and had got the time wrong. Wisps of moustache sprouted like copper wire or hay from his upper lip.

          For a moment, I wondered if he might be my death I had been reading about. Except that my death was supposed to be on the left-hand side, and this figure was standing to my right. And also I did not have a moustache, wisps or otherwise. I had once tried to grow one at the age of eighteen, and had quickly realised my mistake (this is a lie; the mistake had been quickly pointed out to me).

          Musing on whether my death was going to talk to me, I continued to watch the TV, my eyes flitting every now and then to the pint of Guinness sitting on the table in front of me. I had occupied my usual place, semi-obscured from view by the fruit machine directly at my back. I was happy here. I had a small table, with two chairs, one of which I occupied, the other to hold my coat and any eventual guest. There was nothing between me and the large television screen that hung from the wall. It was rather like having a box at the opera. I could see and not be seen, or be seen only indistinctly.

          Now, however, I was finding it difficult to concentrate with as much enjoyment on the game. How jealous we are of our space! This man was doing nothing to me, he had not even addressed a word to me, and yet his mere presence in my field of perception was causing me a lack of ease. How strange it was to believe that our bodies ended where we could no longer see them! How easy it was to walk past someone without even noticing them, and yet with someone else the intervening space became so charged! And what of the occasions on which we have been caught looking in on someone, though we have been speechless and motionless ourselves, or our movement has not ceased to be smoothly fluent? Our bodies have tentacles like those of an octopus, and eyes in the back of the head.

          The figure was now definitely alive, and lurched and leered like a drunk man. The figure was a drunk man.

          ‘What’s the score?’

          My mind sighed. I replied in what must have seemed a distinctly uninviting manner:

          ‘0-0.’

          Why was I being so cold? Had he not simply asked a reasonable question, a question I myself might have asked had I just arrived upon the scene? Was I so conditioned by appearance and accent and smell?

          I pushed all these questions to one side, and brought forward the first swig of the pint in front of me. There was no drink like Guinness. My mother said it was a meal in itself.

          The pub was half empty. When England played, the pub was full. ‘Come on, England!’ But no one cared too much about a game between Holland and the Czech Republic. I was there because I enjoyed my football, and because it was a Sunday and I had been working all day. I was tired and needed to relax, unwind.

          ‘What was the score between France and Denmark?’

          The accent was slurred, but the facts were true. I marvelled at his grip on reality, and secretly compared it to my own.

          ‘France won 3-0.’

          ‘And Belgium and Sweden?’

          This game was the inaugural game of the European Championships and had been played the night before.

          ‘2-1 to Belgium. They’ll have been pleased with that.’

          He looked at me with the air of a schoolmaster who has just been patronised by a child. He wanted the answers. Not my opinion. I waited for him to ask about the third game that had already been played in the competition. He seemed to toy with me for a moment, drawing out the suspense before pouncing for the kill.

          ‘Italy… and Turkey?’

          It was clear to me that he was a tramp. He was not just drunk, he was untidy. The flannel trousers, the scuffed jacket, the old pair of trainers, looked like the borrowings of another language, a language he did not own. He seemed to focus on the present only as a diversion from the past or from the cold. He saw me, and yet he saw straight through me to the barren ground projected by his soul. Everything was barren. You could pour a drink down him and it would give relief, but nothing would grow.

          My thoughts and the conversation were interrupted by the barman, who was telling him he had to buy something if he wanted to stay. Before I could reach for my wallet, with a mixture of vacillation and shame, he had about-turned and was at the bar, ordering a pint of lager. He returned with the lager fizzing with excitement and asked the score.

          ‘Erm. 0-0.’

          I was sure he did not recognise me. He had been absent for a minute perhaps and in sight of the screen. Nothing had happened to change the score.

          ‘And France and Denmark?’

          I hesitated.

          ‘France won 3-0.’

          There was no hint of humour or mockery in his voice. He seemed honestly to think I was someone else, or simply not to remember that I had ever been someone in the first place. I felt a rush of compassion, patronising if you like, but that I considered at the time to be sincere. I was determined to make it up to him. Make what up to him? I can only reply my earlier prejudice, and I resolved that the way to do this was by instigating some conversation myself.

          ‘And Belgium beat Sweden 2-1.’

          He looked at me again with that air of a schoolmaster. Did I suppose him to be stupid perhaps? Did I think he had no memory? Had I not told him this only moments before? But already he had lost interest, and the words, before they were spoken, were old.

          ‘You told me that.’

          The walls of my goodwill came tumbling down around me. I watched the game now in silence, chastised. I hadn’t the same appetite for drink as before.

 

Holland won that game 1-0. They were outplayed, but were awarded a penalty in the final minute of the game. The figure beside me did not stay, but left at the end of the first half. Nedved came close for the Czech Republic, and twice the Czechs hit the woodwork in the second half, but it was to no avail. Life, if it were no more than that, would be exceedingly unjust. I was pleased, however, because I had managed to relax and drunk a second pint of beer. I had not forgotten about the experience with the stranger, but I had put it to the back of my mind. When the referee blew the final whistle, I stood up, put on my coat, waved in the general direction of the bar and walked out into the failing daylight.

          I had started heading downhill when my eyes were arrested by a terrible sight. The tramp, whom I had assumed no longer to be in the vicinity of the pub, was only a few yards away, standing in the middle of the pavement and facing the oncoming pedestrian traffic that issued from the railway station. It was too late for me to change direction, I was caught up in the flow of people, and, as I was carried along towards where he was standing, with the inevitability of driftwood borne on the current of a swollen river, I heard him mumble the words:

          ‘Spare any change, sir?’

          I straightened up, adopting an air of urgency, but the tramp showed no signs of ever having recognised who I was.

 

 

THE HOUSE OF THE TRANSLATOR

The curtain rises. Scene. The kitchen of a communal house of translators. Early morning, about nine o’clock. The LIBRARIAN, NOVICE and LITHUANIAN GIRL are sat around the microwave trying to work out how it works. The LIBRARIAN is wearing floral pyjamas with shorts for trousers. The NOVICE is young and sleepy and wears glasses. The LITHUANIAN GIRL has eyes the colour of the Baltic Sea and plentiful breasts, which weigh down her skimpy top like two plentiful oranges.

 

LIBRARIAN

          No, no, I don’t understand this. I don’t understand this at all.

NOVICE (bored)

          I think it’s ‘cook time’.

LITHUANIAN GIRL (eager)

          Let me see. Have you turned it on?

NOVICE

          I think you have to press ‘cook time’ and then the time you want.

LIBRARIAN

          I don’t understand this at all. In Petrarch’s day everything was so much easier. As Petrarch said, divine revelation is the metaphor of love. Or the ignorance of many things…

NOVICE

          Let’s see. Press ‘cook time’.

LIBRARIAN

          Or many people’s ignorance of many things…

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          I’ve pressed it but nothing happens.

LIBRARIAN

          The realist fiction of theological symbolism is the loss of love.

NOVICE

          Has someone set the time?

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          Yes, that was me. Last night, after you went to bed, there was a power cut.

LIBRARIAN

          The artifice of a premonitory dream of the hero!

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          All the lights went out in the street! I didn’t know what to do!

NOVICE

          Well, you didn’t press ‘set clock’ again afterwards. Try pressing ‘set clock’.

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          Ooooh!

LIBRARIAN

          Laura! Laura!

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          Ooooh!

LIBRARIAN

          Laura! Laura!

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          Who is Laura?

LIBRARIAN

          The moral reflection of erudite casuistry.

NOVICE

          Now press ‘cook time’ and the time you want.

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          How much time do you want?

LIBRARIAN

          Time is a fragment of the vulgar nature of things.

LITHUANIAN GIRL (having to repeat herself)

          How much time do you want?

LIBRARIAN

          The ignorance is of many and my own!

NOVICE (interceding on the LIBRARIAN’s behalf)

          Ten seconds. Now, let’s see if it works.

 

The NOVICE, while thinking that in future he must get up an hour earlier or later, presses ‘start’ and the microwave comes to life. Above the roar of the microwave, however, is heard the ABBOT, who has woken up and is now rummaging around in his (the largest) room at the top of the house.

 

ABBOT

          Crash! Plam! Plosh! Bonk! Wang!

NOVICE

          Abbot’s up.

 

As he rummages around, banging doors and dragging furniture, the ABBOT recites some phrases in Latin.

 

ABBOT

          Misericordiam meae, meam, mia, pietate señor de mi, dona mihi pacem, reinum eternum et dominum dominare ad eternum sempre et sempre mihi…

 

After more moments of noise the ABBOT is heard to descend the stairs. The LITHUANIAN GIRL flees to the garden. The LIBRARIAN disappears to the library and the NOVICE to his room.

 

ABBOT

          Abbot sum atque ego sum atque ego atque ego… Is there no one at home? Is it only me and me myself to me? Lord, your bounty knows no boundary… (Looking around the rooms on the first floor) I think today I shall change room. I think perhaps today I shall take another room. The librarian’s room! Novice, where art thou? Come hither hence!

NOVICE (opening the door to his room slowly)

          Yes, abbot. Good morning. Did he sleep well?

ABBOT

          I did, thank you. Not quite long enough. But I did, thank you. Now, I wish you to help me.

NOVICE (obligingly)

          What does he want?

ABBOT

          I wish to change room. Today I shall take the librarian’s room, because I think maybe the view is better. You will help me move my things.

NOVICE

          Of course, abbot. Does he wish me to bring everything of his down?

ABBOT

          No. I shall have some things upstairs and some things downstairs. I shall be like God, God permitting, with his presence in heaven and here on earth. Do you have any food in the fridge?

NOVICE

          Yes, abbot.

ABBOT

          Good. Remove the librarian’s things to the landing and then you may start bringing down my books. Careful with Bécquer! Do not disturb his peace of mind! Verulanium Veruelae, Trasmoz Litagonis Turiasonensis, Moncayo Moncayorum…

 

As the NOVICE starts removing the librarian’s belongings from his room, the ABBOT continues down the stairs to the kitchen, where he opens the fridge. On the second shelf is the NOVICE’s drink and food: a single can of beer, half a courgette, some Dutch cheese with the holes in and some madeleines. These the ABBOT removes to another shelf – the next one down – in order to appropriate the shelf for himself. He finds a piece of paper, writes out his name and sticks it to the now empty shelf. Enter the CELLARER, a kind and considerate man from Norway.

 

CELLARER

          Would anyone like an ice cream?

ABBOT

          Ah, cellarer. Have you seen the wooden spoon?

CELLARER

          No, abbot, no. I can’t say I have. Ice cream?

ABBOT

          Damn it! I expressly asked to be given the wooden spoon. I said so in a letter before I arrived. I was to have the wooden spoon and someone must have used it. (On the verge of getting flustered) It’s my spoon. I asked for it! It’s my spoon.

CELLARER

          Has he looked in the dishwasher?

ABBOT

          No! Whose is the dishwasher?

CELLARER

          It’s all of ours, abbot.

ABBOT

          All of ours? Hasn’t anyone told you that communism didn’t work?

CELLARER

          Communism, abbot?

ABBOT

          Yes, communism. The idea that something belongs to everyone and no one. If something belongs to no one, then it can’t belong to everyone. It has to belong to someone!

CELLARER

          My ice cream belongs to anyone.

ABBOT

          No! Your ice cream belongs to you!

CELLARER

          Yes, but anyone can have some.

 

The ABBOT, in frustration at a non-believer, exits the kitchen and contemplates getting his room back at the top of the house. The CELLARER leaves in search of someone to give his ice cream to. The LIBRARIAN and the LITHUANIAN GIRL return.

 

LIBRARIAN

          Have you ever used the ‘auto cook’?

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          I prefer the ‘auto defrost’ myself.

LIBRARIAN

          Have you tried the ‘set cock’?

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          ‘Set cock’?

LIBRARIAN (embarrassed)

          Uhm. I mean ‘set clock’.

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          Let me see if I can do it from ‘memory’.

LIBRARIAN

          Well, it needs a bit of a ‘boost’ first… Ooh, that’s good… Ooooh, that’s good… Ooooooh, that’s good!

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          How’s the ‘power level’?

LIBRARIAN

          Good!

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          How much does it weigh?

LIBRARIAN

          Gooodd!

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          How long is it?

LIBRARIAN

          Godddd!

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          What? What?

LIBRARIAN

          ‘Delay/Stand’!

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          What? What?

LIBRARIAN

          ‘Delay/Stand’! ‘Delay/Stand’!

 

The LIBRARIAN presses ‘stop/cancel’ and rushes out of the kitchen. The LITHUANIAN GIRL does not know what to do, so stays where she is. Enter the CELLARER.

 

CELLARER

          An ice cream?

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          Oooh, cellarer, how nice to see you! (She hugs him) How are you today?

CELLARER

          Well, OK, only no one wants my ice cream and I’m beginning to wonder if what abbot says is true.

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          What does abbot say?

CELLARER

          That my ice cream belongs to someone, not no one nor everyone. And I thought it was all of ours.

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          Well, I’ll have some.

CELLARER

          Will you?

DUTCH LADY

          Ooooooooh.

CELLARER

          What was that?

DUTCH LADY

          Ooooooooh.

CELLARER (daring to address the voice)

          Who is it?

DUTCH LADY (in reality a ghost)

          You did not love me! You did not love me!

CELLARER

          Who did not love you?

DUTCH LADY

          No one loved me! No one loved me!

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          Whoever you are, go away.

DUTCH LADY

          Someone love me! Someone love me!

 

The ABBOT is heard descending the stairs.

 

DUTCH LADY (more distant now)

          Anyone love me! Anyone love me!

 

Enter the ABBOT followed closely by the NOVICE. The NOVICE is carrying a large padlock and chain.

 

ABBOT

          In potestate potestatem. Ego ergo ego. Since I am, I have decided that the fridge is mine. Novice, remove all the food. (The NOVICE removes all the food) It is quite clear to me that everything belongs to someone and therefore this belongs to me. It is quite clear to me that if I do not protect it, you might use it. I am therefore obliged to secure it with a padlock and chain. Novice, please.

 

As the NOVICE is about to secure the fridge, an existential cry is heard from the library. It is the LIBRARIAN. He is delirious and chasing flies, one of which he pursues into the kitchen. He manages to swat it and it falls down dead, only to resurrect itself a moment later.

 

LIBRARIAN

          George, you’re not allowed to get up again so quickly.

LITHUANIAN GIRL

          Who’s George?

LIBRARIAN

          The fly.

ABBOT

          That is ridiculous. Flies don’t have names and they certainly don’t think, therefore they do not exist.

CELLARER

          What was that, then?

ABBOT

          Doubt, my friend. A result of the action of Man and not exterior reality.

CELLARER

          And what is my ice cream?

ABBOT

          The object of doubt. It too does not exist.

CELLARER

          But if it does not exist, how can it belong to someone?

ABBOT

          What kind of an idea is that? Everything belongs to someone!

 

The LIBRARIAN is about to contribute some of his encyclopaedic knowledge (‘Universal mathematics are not subordinate to the reduction of matter to a homogeneous quantity’) when the ABBOT snatches the flyswatter out of his hand and attempts to swat the CELLARER. There is a clap of thunder and the DIRECTOR appears ex machina. She waves her wand and all the translators disappear. She and the SECRETARY then skip out into the garden, where they are accosted by the neighbour’s dog. Frightened at such ferociousness in so small a dog, they complain to the neighbour, who calls the Civil Guard. They are taken away, locked up and the key disposed of. The House of the Translator falls into ruin and in its place grows a field of lavender. At the approach of winter the curtain falls.