Sport 1: Spring 1988
— I've been thinking a lot about death, says my friend Sooze holding out her glass for more wine.
— Death, says her lover Bryce not wanting to commit himself.
— Why death, I say though of course I know. It's the sort of thing Sooze does.
My lover Cam doesn't say anything. He regards death as unacceptable for thought or talk. Cam is not interested in abstracts. His back is bent, his elbows jut beyond his knees, his hands hang dejected as he stares at the floor.
We are at Sooze and Bryce's bach. Her parents' really, but Sooze and Bryce live there because their last flat folded and they can't find anything because they have no money so they can't find anything. Cam tells me they don't try. I can't comment on that but it's nice for us. We pile into the Skoda after work on Fridays and slip out to the coast in the slow lane. We take food and wine and we lie about and talk and drink a bit. Maybe go for a walk. We read a lot. There aren't many people you can read with. Most people say — Yes great, and you drag out your paperbacks and start. Then they tell you bits from their books. — Listen to this, they say then they read it and you have to listen perforce. Or else they read for a bit then lie on their backs and say — Aaah, and you know they're bored and want to do something else and will suggest it soon, so you keep your head down and try and read your Barthelme faster which is unsettling because you can't do that.
It's not like that with Sooze and Bryce. We just read. Their son Jared who is measured in months not years lies around with us though of course we keep him in play. We more or less take it in turns. When it's Sooze's turn she props Jared up surrounded by cushions and holds one of his pudgy hands while she reads and kisses a dimple at the bottom of a finger occasionally to fool him. He doesn't mind.
— Death, says Sooze again staring at the sea.page 61
— What about it, I say.
— Well what do you think about it, says Sooze. She wears a large sweater with a design loosely based on aboriginal rock carvings. The zigzag lines which go up are green, the zigzag lines which go down are orange, the small stick figures are red and the background is black. The aboriginal paintings I like best are the x-ray ones which show what the animal has eaten in situ.
— Or don't you, she says.
— Of course I do, I say. — What do you think I am. — I don't, says Cam.
Sooze is incensed. — Why not.
— What's the point, says Cam.
— There's no point, says Sooze. — Except that it's inevitable.
— Right, says Cam so don't think about it.
— So doesn't it interest you?
People like Sooze think people like Cam are not as intelligent as they are. People like Cam don't care which would really surprise people like Sooze if they could believe it, but they never would so by and large it works out all right. People like Cam know about the shifting mud which can bury abstract thought and often does.
Enough, Cam thinks, is enough, and reality will be more than.
Bryce has made his decision. He puts out one finger and corkscrews a piece of Sooze's hair around it which doesn't work as it's straight. He picks up her hand.
— Why hon he says. It's inevitable. No problem.
— What interests me I say, is why doesn't it worry us, I mean.
— It worries me says Sooze removing her hand.
Bryce really wants to know. He snatches both her hands across the table as though he's going to drag her into a square dance. — Why! he says.
— I mean when you think, I say quickly, that for thousands of years the best minds all over the world have fussed about life after death. . .
— And if you were a best mind and didn't you were burnt, interrupts Bryce.
— . . . so why don't we care, I say.
— I do says Sooze.
— But you're a scientist! says Bryce.
— Ha ha says Sooze who teaches it. — Oh it's not that she says.— I don't mind about death of the body.page 62
— 'Change and decay, in all around I see,' roars Cam who was a choirboy.
— What worries me is the spirit. The human consciousness continues Sooze. — Where does that go?
There is a pause. Cam inspects his jandals. Abstract thought has the same effect on him as pornography. He doesn't see the point and it's depressing. Cam is a builder. He wears short shorts at work, the front of which are hidden by a leather apron so heavy it looks like a costume prop for a medieval film. In it he keeps the tools of his trade to hand. — We're getting there he says, dropping onto his heels from a great height to hammer the floor. I still feel glad when I see him swinging up the street.
— It doesn't go anywhere hon says Bryce. — You've got to accept that.
— I can't says Sooze.
— That's why people invented religions I say. — Because they couldn't accept the death of the spirit, see.
— Well nor can I says Sooze getting up to go and check on Jared.
The sun is sinking but no one gives it a thought. Bryce tops our glasses then reaches up and scratches about with one hand in a top cupboard. — We had some corn chips somewhere he says coming back empty-handed.
Sooze also comes back and flops onto her chair. She puts both hands up and combs the fingers back through her hair. It looks better; the trapped air fluffs it up for a bit though the result was unintentional.
— O.K.? I ask.
Sooze puts her hands together and lays a sleeping head on them. — O.K. she says.
I change the subject. — How're things going in the flat world I ask.
Bryce leans back tipping his chair, maintaining balance with one hand. Suddenly he is behind a large table top with desk furniture, a rock-a-bye blotter, an embossed leather folder, a paper knife. — We've been approached to house sit a place in Khandallah, he lets slip.
— Great I say. — I like 'approached'.
— Sounds as though they're on their knees says Cam. He removes a speck from his beer with his smallest finger.
Sooze smiles. She knows about Bryce bout it's O.K. — Yes she says. — Aunty Gret was on the lookout. We know Aunty Gret. She paints. She gives us muddy water colours called Zinnias or Dahlias at Christmas page 63and is a good sort and gets on with it.
— We haven't seen it and all that. I mean they haven't seen us I then there's Jared.
— Jared's flat on his back says Cam. — What can he do tenant-wise?
Sooze smiles. — Some people. Kids. You know, she says.
— Some people. Houses. You know, he says.
She puts out a finger and circles the vaccination mark on his bicep which dates from our overseas time. He flexes just for fun.
— What about Voltaire says Bryce untipping his chair.
Cam's bicep flops. — Who he says.
Sooze turns very slowly to stare at Bryce. — What about him she says.
— Well he didn't get burned.
— Of course he didn't get burned snarls Sooze. — He was too late wasn't he. For burning.
— He was exiled though wasn't he I say.
That's the trouble. We don't know anything. Just snatches. — Have got an Oxford Companion I ask.
Bryce yawns. — Not here.
He shakes his head.
— Voltaire said that if God didn't exist it would be necessary to invent him I tell Cam, as though the man is a new pleat for third form clothing instruction which I teach.
Cam likes it. — Good thinking, he says.
But Bryce won't let it go. — What did he think happened to the human spirit after death he says.
Cam bends down to pick up Jared's plastic rattle from his feet, examines it carefully, shakes it a couple of times and places it on the table out of harm's way although there is no harm.
— I reckon this Fast Post is a rip off he says.
And then we are fighting about Fast Post. Bryce says it's essential. He had a letter from Levin ordinary post which took five days. He slams the table, the rattle rolls onto the floor, — Five days he says. — From Levinhe says. — Give me Fast Post!
— That's what they want you to do. Cam is very angry. His mouth tightens, the skin around his lips is white. When he is eighty he will have deep lines, not fine bird track wrinkles like some old men.page 64
— Pay twice as much. It's a con!
I don't post much and I know nothing about it but that doesn't stop me. — We should boycott it! I cry.
Bryce wants to hit me. All of a sudden we are hating each other, snarling and snapping at each others heels, circling around the ethics of Fast Post.
Sooze is not interested in Fast Post. She has taken the lasagne from the fridge and put it in the oven. She has prepared the salad but has not yet tossed it. She has chopped the chervil we brought and pressed the Bleu de Bresse, which has been sitting on top of the fridge to ripen, between the slats of its small wooden cage. Sooze seems pretty happy with its condition as she releases and unwraps it. She rinses her hands and shoves her hair back before curling up on the divan to clutch a calico patchwork cushion she made years ago. The design is called Cathedral Windows, not easy.
— What I do believe she says over the cushion top, is that two thousand years ago a really good man lived and died and if we could all live according to his commandments. . .
Bryce has had enough. He is on his feet, a tormented big cat loping the few steps from door to table, swinging in rage to confront her — God in heaven! he shouts. — What's got into youl
— I can't stop thinking about death, Sooze mumbles into the cushion. Cam is determined to help. He leaps up from the table and sits beside her, pulling the cushion from her face.
— Look Sooze he says. — There's nothing to it. Don't worry about it. He takes her hand. — I promise he says smiling. — I nearly snuffed it. Didn't I Margot. In Milan.
— Yes I say.
— All you feel is surprised. You know, like it's not happening. Death, Cam insists, is for other people and when it's you you're surprised. That's why they'll never stop the road toll. — Disbelief, he says. — That's all. I promise.
Milan is a challenge. It doesn't lie back and welcome you like Venice say. You have to track it down, find the good bits, work on it. We headed off from the station with our packs.
It was one of those hotels which always surprise me by not starting on the ground. It was on the third floor, recommended by Let's Go. Ground floor was shops, first and second another hotel, and the Pensione Famiglia Steiner on the third. Space was used twice — coffee and rolls page 65were served in last night's bar. The family, mother father and three dark-eyed bambinas watched TV at night lined up on straight chairs against the wall in the slit of office space. You put down the lavatory seat in the tile lined box and turned on the shower. In England where dirt cheap means it, it would have been filthy but it was clean, the cotton bedspread white white, the linoleum shiny, the paint scrubbed.
We had a coke in the bar when we arrived, dumping our packs in the space labelled Rucksack in six languages. I flopped down beside a man at a table while Cam moved to the self-service dispenser. The guy had one of those street-wise faces, blunt features, pointed ears set at the slope, quick eyes. His haircut and fingers were short and stubby, the rest of him long and lean and pretty to watch. Cam was having trouble with the machine. The guy was up, instant and agile as a gibbon. He demonstrated the thing to Cam who thanked him. — That's O.K. the man said.
He came from Manchester, a male model. Milan was the place, even though the agents took half your fee in commission. Milan is the world centre of male fashion he told us glancing at Cam's jandals. Milan is the big time where it's at. He'd been there three weeks and was doing O.K. so far though the whole thing was a real hassle. You've got to sell yourself he told us. No one else will.
— Yeah said Cam. — Nice guy he said as we went to our room.
We flaked out on the bed and slept. They don't let you sleep on second-class Eurail. The bastards wake you all the time.
Cam came to first. Making love all over Europe is different each time; well surroundings, externals. The late afternoon sun fell through the net curtains. Cam's legs were pure gold. — Tea? he asked afterwards, lifting my foot to kiss a toe. — Mmm I said, — easy either way but why not. He hauled himself off the bed and assembled our survival equipment, our artifacts. A narrow little Cretan saucepan from the market in Heraklion, an immersion heater, adaptor plugs. Lying on my back I heard the familiar clanks and knocks of illicit tea making.
— Haven't met one like this before he said.
— Nnn? I said watching the patterns of light caught in the net.
The flash was followed instantly by Cam's naked body hitting the floor. He lay stiff, catatonic, every muscle locked. The plug was smoking, the air acrid. I was on my feet leaping to fall on him. I yanked his head back chin to ceiling and cupped my mouth over his mouth and nose and breathed in, out, in, out. At first I was shaking so hard I couldn't breathe deeply but the rhythm took over. Breathe, look, breathe, page 66look. It didn't take long, half a minute or an hour. Cam. Don't stop. Breathe, stop, look, breathe, stop, look. His chest moved slightly, stopped, then gradually rose and fell in beautiful repetitive movement. My breasts stroked him, his eyes opened. — Nice he said. I dragged him onto the bed and shook for an hour as I lay beside him, watching, holding him, being held.
He wouldn't tell the owner. — He'd kick us out. It wasn't the plug. My fault, no mucking furries.
Next morning we sat drinking coffee and holding hands, you can do it. The amiable hairy proprietor heated the rolls in a mini oven beside the coke dispenser. Last night's bar was dark brown, benches, walls, an old sofa. The air had been there for some time. The male model sat reading a torn copy of the Daily Mirror. Jerry his name was.
The most beautiful girl I have ever seen dumped an enormous pack in the space by the door and subsided at the other table. She was six feet at least and walked haughty, slender, breasts firm beneath a Beneton T-shirt, her hair a stream of silver down her back. — Hi said Jerry. She said nothing, but dipped her crisp profile in recognition. German she must be, German, an ice maiden from a schloss in the pines. Or Swedish, saunas and birch twigs. Cam's hand moved in mine. His eyes were feeding on her. We all were. Beautiful women slay me.
She ordered coffee from the owner who seemed calmer than the rest of us. She drank it staring straight ahead then replaced the white cup with precision, centering it with care on its unmatching saucer. She lit a cigarette. I let Cam's hand go. Jerry was trying not to look at her, riffling the tattered Daily Mirror, flinging it onto the floor, snatching another from the pile on the end of the sofa. He was a cartoon figure, an expectant father from the days when fathers sat in waiting rooms with papers at their feet.
She ground out her cigarette, stood up and shouldered her huge pack with one dip and lift. Jerry was on his feet. — You're not going! he cried. — Now!
She nodded and walked out, heading towards the cage lift. Jerry leapt after her, they disappeared. The owner picked up her cup, flicked the table with a checked duster and headed for his operations centre.
— Jeeze, whispered Cam.
— So beautiful I gasped. What was their relationship? One night? Ten years? Nothing?page 67
Cam shook his head. The square brown room smelt very used. We were in shock, bereft, sitting there staring at the spaced she had filled.
— So you see, says Cam now squatting on his heels, staring up into Sooze's face for added conviction. — It's nothing.
Sooze shakes her head in the slightest possible rejection but she is grateful and smiles to tell him so, her hand on his knee.
— It's not that Cambo, she says. She sits up busily and knuckles a finger against her nose. — Did you see Mantegna's Dead Christ, she asks.
— We tried says Cam who likes looking at paintings. —The place was shut. Marg got the time wrong.
I kick his behind which unbalances him into Sooze's lap. One of our failures.
— It's the foreshortening. Sooze moves her head in slow wonder. — Amazing, she says.
Bryce has been reading the Evening Post. He folds it and slaps it on the divan as he stands to refill the glasses.
— In the morgue, he says, stretching his arms way above his head then letting them flop, — they tie your name on your big toe. The right one. For identification.
Sooze Cam and I stare at him in silence, then turn to the dark sea, listen to it roll.
— I'd hate to be buried says Cam.