EARLY STORIES AND POEMS
WHAT THE HELL?
Oh no green lady with the red face, don't hit the boy with the wind in his hair. It's not his fault that a cloud's knocked his hat off. Pepita, Pepita! cried the fat man. Lumps of tears rolled down his cheeks into his frying-pan of a mouth. But Pepita was round the corner with her boy-friend and the words boomeranged and got caught up in his handkerchief. The lamppost looked up at the tall man and was astonished. The dog forgot which was the lamppost. The tall man shook his leg and walked on through the clouds. I sucked fiercely at my third peppermint. It was a shirt-button that had been hanging around in my pocket for weeks. I remembered Lulu who said that shirts ought to have no buttons. The next one was a peppermint and a hot one. It burned. The thin needle of a man threw the quarter-inch cigarette away with a curse. He examined his false teeth, stamped his feet, swung his arms and caught Pepita on her prow. She smiled and burst out crying. Her hair was ruffled and her lips red. Her boy friend came up. He was red too, the same colour red as Pepita's lips. She told him to rub it off. He wanted to thread the thin needle of a man so I stepped in and gave them all a peppermint. I told them to shut up. Pepita smiled at me and she reminded me of Lulu. I gave her the shirt button. She threw it back in my face and kissed me. The fat man came up and caught me one with his larder. He thought I was Pepita's boy-friend. I thought it a good idea. So did Pepita. Her boy-friend thought it a rotten idea. I gave him another peppermint. He said thank you. My nose started bleeding. Pepita spat with delight and the fat man stopped crying. The tears had solidified on his cheeks. The boy with the wind in his hair blew away from the green lady and kicked Pepita's boy-friend in the shins. I hit the fat man in the paunch and couldn't get my hand out. Pepita locked her arms round my neck and pulled me to the ground. I didn't like the taste of her lipstick. She didn't ask my opinion. The fat man was on the ground too. He breathed out and I pulled my fist free. The green lady with the red face was hitting Pepita with a yellow umbrella. The boy was eating my peppermints. He didn't take to them. He started to look for the shirt button. Pepita bit off one of mine and gave it him. Pepita became more and more like Lulu. That is what I was afraid of. The fat man was bouncing his stomach on the pavement. The boy with the wind in his hair was bouncing on the fat man. He coughed up the shirt button. The yellow umbrella snapped. Pepita had black hair. It didn't taste too good. The thin man looked as lost as a needle in a haystack. When Pepita paused for breath I could see him. I could not see him very often. I tried to push Pepita away. She came back at high tide. The dog returned and started to lick my nose. Pepita's boy-friend came out of the fat man and bit Pepita in the neck. I suddenly realised Pepita wasn't English. The fat man was praying in broken Spanish. He thought the green lady with the red face was the Madonna. I don't think she was. Pepita became passionate and began plucking my eyebrows. I got one hand free and set the dog on her. She bit the dog. The boy with the wind in his hair picked the dog up by the tail and swung it round. The thin needle of a man stitched, but he wasn't quick enough. His elbow pricked the dog. The dog swore. Pepita's boy-friend barked. His nose wasn't wet. The green woman with the red face wept over her yellow umbrella. She was using a blue handkerchief. The boy with the wind in his hair was trying to knot the dog's tail to Pepita's shoe-lace. Pepita wasn't worried about her shoe-lace. I was worried about Pepita. I was worried about everything. Everything was a bit too deep for me. I know now. I love Lulu. The tall man came back and the dog was happy again.
He had a ball of fire in his guts and it was with him all the time. He hated the cold rind of day that was never full of anything but emptiness and desires gone wrong emptying into a sea of tramcars and meals and newspapers and work. It got on his nerves like a pip and the pip grew into a balloon and the balloon burst and he was back at the beginning with a ball of fire in his guts and the cold rind of time in his hand. And he could crush it like a matchbox and throw it away till the ball of fire burned and ached and his head sang and rang among the stars or sat up on the sun dangling its legs in an ecstasy of swelling blood and passion made perfect and he wanted to fly and shout his head off and become a wind or a sun in a universe but the earth held him by the seat of pants until he caught a tramcar and went home carrying the sum of being in his brief case and the ball of fire in his guts. All the time.
And he couldn't write because the sparks of the ball of fire that rushed to his eyes or toppled into his fingertips leapt out of the window before he could find paper to burn and he would walk around inside himself cursing and swearing because the fire was hurting and there was nobody he could tell or nowhere he could go to put it out. And it wouldn't stay in his guts but would roll over like a red-hot snowball all from his head that was up in the stars to his toes that went mad when they heard a tune until he was a sack of skin wrapped round a furnace and it hurt, Christ it hurt worse than when a star went bad in the sky and it had to come out before all the other stars went bad and the sky was left with nothing but gums that could spit out nothing but day and it was day. All the time
And he had a girl or he thought he had a girl and every time he thought he WAS the ball of fire, but she was cold and polar and her eyes smiled like an arctic sun which he ate up with his sun but he didn't like her without eyes so he was half glad when she didn't smile at him except that when she didn't and looked straight at him without smiling he could see the icicles in her stomach where there was a ball of fire in his and he was afraid because he knew that if her arctic sun should ever glint on her icicles his ball of fire would shoot up into a universe of the two of them and she would lose her icicles and become his ball of fire; so he was half-glad that he didn't have the chance because given half a chance he would have been glad and there would be two balls of fire instead of one and two heads in the stars and two people hating the cold rind of day that was never full of anything but emptiness and could offer nothing big enough in which to pour happiness upon happiness which was a ball of fire in the guts and was with him all the time. And would be with them all the time.
And so he would have dreams only the dreams too were tethered to his heart and he could fly or walk along the street without touching it or go up and shake hands with the moon but the other hand was always on his heart, feeling it easing the strain of the rope that was holding himself to himself and always afraid that the rope would break and he wouldn't be one but two distinct parts like a worm chopped in half and the one part would not move but would die and the other part would skid about the universe like a mad dog and doing nothing definite: always he was aware of this moment and hated it being afraid of it. Because the ball of fire in his guts told him that sooner or later it would have to be, and there was nothing he could do about it but hope that it might not happen. Because if it did happen he would never see those icicles again which he knew was a good thing but knowing it almost killed him and the ball of fire grew bigger and hotter and the cold rind of day even more cold and more empty and he would wake up breathing like a storm with his hand nursing his heart through another attack.
Because the ball of fire was a heartache and the heartache was a knife cutting at the rope holding himself to himself and he could see the end as plain as he could see the dawn.
I live in a room as empty as two chairs, a table, a fireplace and a telephone in an otherwise empty room and I am cold and poor and dying not only of no food but of no love also. By night I sleep on the two bare chairs and by day I sit on the floor. I have no shoes to let me walk the streets and if I had some shoes I'd sell them to get food so all the time I am hoping someone will make me a gift of shoes so that I needn't starve, but it isn't food I'm really starving of, but love.
Meanwhile my girl-friend lives as happy as can be five miles away on the other side of town in the arms of a fat old bank-clerk and I most detest this bank-clerk because he has not married her for money but for her love which makes everything more difficult since money is easier to get round than love, except if you have money which I haven't, not even a pair of shoes to enable me to eat to enable me to exist somehow while I am dying of this loveless existence.
And I get so worked up about my girl-friend and her old man who is too old to love her in the sense I could love her that I spend hours walking round my two chairs, table, fireplace and telephone, which is my heart, thinking unexpurgated thoughts and crying now and again so I seem to be crying out of love but really I am crying out of indigestion which started three days ago when I swallowed my last crust and I am afraid to let the crust go down because then I should have nothing left to eat so I contrive to keep it in my gullet which is a good idea but which gives me constant indigestion and I know one day I shall have to let the crust go and it almost breaks my windpipe because I have grown attached to the crust and by the feel of things the crust has grown attached to me. And I like to think of the crust as my girl-friend. And I like to think of my girl-friend as the crust stuck halfway down the gullet and it is true because she, like the crust, will soon be eaten up with too much marriage and there will be nothing left of her and so I cry and I am crying not only out of indigestion but out of love also which has got stuck in the heart and will soon be turned into an ache and nothing more.
And there is another thing that I have told no one not even my girl-friend and that is my name. In fact since I have never spoken to her and only know her telephone number which is why I have a telephone which I cannot pay for and which I am getting worried about because as soon as they see I cannot pay they will be along to take it away and it is the only thing that stands between me and hell because life without her would be hell and the telephone is the only way that I can get in touch with her seeing that I know her name but knowing that I could never speak to her to her face for the pain it would cause me in my throat and heart, how am I to know even that she knows what I look like who have a face that could dissolve in any crowd and I have never caught her eye as she must have caught mine often tugging at the hem of her dress or running crazily up and down her skin like a pet flea. And I know I would give my right arm to hold her in my left but I know it is not possible because she spends all her time in the two arms of her old man who is so fat his arms can hardly go round himself let alone round her who is so sweet that even dung would change its smell to suit her and so delicate that a mouse would not run across the floor for fear of frightening her or bringing out one of those inhibitions that mice are said to bring out in all women with protruding backsides and still in the blushing stage. O and the tragedy is that I was brought up in the loud streets of some uninhabitable town and she was born of the roses and lilies of some unutterable garden and she is so fragile I would break her with the first word I uttered and though I have had a telephone now for a week and a half I have been afraid to lift the receiver for fear the very intention would be enough to stop her breath. And I am hungry and thirsty for the love of her but she does not know my name and it is enough to make a madman sane and a man who is only half mad lose his head in the nearest pond.
So I lie back on my bed which is two chairs and sometimes for a treat the table and dream of that heavenly code that would bring her voice to my ear. And it would be soft and lovely as an eiderdown and as rich with whispers as the voice of her hair which does not need a tongue to speak with, only the trumpets of curls. And I die then and do not come alive again until my dream puts itself to death and my stomach kicks like a horse with no love and no food. And so I take the fat old bank-clerk in my hands and make a putty of him to fill the cracks that breed up in the ceiling but it is never the fat man who is turned to putty but myself and I hang up in the cracks on the ceiling while the fat man is making love to my girl-friend below. And it is almost enough to make one try to live without a telephone so I take a chair and sit over in the far corner away from the telephone which is the only part of her I possess and play noughts and crosses on the wall but it is as daft as a man in a bowler hat because I only do it to deceive myself and only the wise fool can do that and I am too much a fool and not wise enough and no matter where I sit one ear is always looking at the telephone waiting for it to ring which it never will and my mind is always up in the heavens which should be sunny but are full of clouds playing harmonies upon a theme and the theme is always the same and always will be until they take the telephone away or change her number.
But this cannot go on because love is a rat which makes girls jump up on their chairs and which eats away my stomach instead of giving my stomach something to eat which it needs badly almost as much as my heart needs something to love, but both of these are as far from getting what they want as each other, which is about five miles. So in order to ease both the love and the lack of food I jump up on a chair to make a passionate speech about telephones and fat old bank-clerks who are within reach of and therefore rich with love but I am poor and miserable because all the money I have is in thoughts and my thoughts will buy nothing but my own incommunicable desires and these are not worth the heart they're printed on, but the chair breaks leaving me with only one chair and meaning that even if I did phone my girl-friend and she did come round she would have nowhere to sit except if she used the table or sat on the floor, or better still, brought her own chair with her when she came, and it is this knowledge that comes to me on the cold floor freezing the backside of my hot ideas that makes me see the end that will have to be despite the golden language of my fancy and the sculpture of my dreams. And I shall dial the heavenly code and will meet with no stars nor voices of stars only silence and a loud buzzing in my heart of a disconnected line and there will come a knocking at the door and my blood will race in all directions at once and my hands will be hardly able to find the door-knob for the fear of the love that stands on the other side of the door waiting with a smile the size and colour of a field of tulips and there will be an orchestra on my tongue and a continual ringing in my heart to make up for all the days of silences that I have gone through since the telephone arrived and never stopped beckoning and somehow in the madness of the moment I shall find the door and the door-knob and remember which way to open the door and it will be my love for fully thirty seconds until I realise it is not my love but the man come to take the telephone away and he will have a smile but it will be the smile of bad teeth like an empty dockyard and I shall stand holding the door-knob while he talks to the telephone and takes it away.
And the telephone is gone and I am left with a chair table fireplace and no telephone and I shall have no food and in the end only a fireplace having the ashes of the chair and table which will be no use any more now there is no telephone and I shall not know whether to be happy or sad. And then it will be Spring and warm enough to lock up the room and go out into the streets with no shoes on. And I shall look for food to satisfy my heart and a new telephone to ease my stomach.
But now that is not as it is and so I can only wait sat on the floor with my backside frozen to stone looking at the telephone that looks more and more like my girl-friend, waiting for it to ring, yet in a way hoping that it doesn't because I know I shan't have the nerve to answer it, even if it does ring, even though I know it will not be my girl-friend but the Post-Office who has never had a lover in its life. Because I know what the Post Office wants to say and I am so certain I could write it down on a piece of paper right now almost word for word but my girl-friend would only speak in a cipher of sighs and ambiguous looks and there could be no simple statement or satisfactory reply. And the telephone would keep her message to itself and distort my call to her. So before it gets too late I shall go round and knock upon her door despite what the fat man says. And they can come and take the telephone away because it is a delusion I have not the strength to keep and it is better to walk the streets with no shoes and a disinterested stomach than keep a telephone that eats its way into the heart and makes its nest there.
But it is Winter and there is snow on the ground and her door is locked with ice and although it is not too late I cannot knock upon the door for I have caught my girl-friend looking out of the window from the arms of the fat old bank-clerk and as far as I can tell she is happy and doesn't even recognise me and her face to me is like the door but there are daggers in her old man's eyes
But I argue to myself that it is a long way to come to get away from the telephone and to go away empty-hearted so I stand about indefinitely trying to get out of my bed of fear into the reality of life and in the end I do and before I know what I am doing I have knocked on the door and the face locked with ice at the window disappears and the eyes charged with daggers become more menacing than ever, but I have done what I never really intended doing and although I should like to run I cannot because the ice is melting and there are birds in the air. And the door opens and the melting face appears, waiting. But I cannot speak and my tongue has leapt back into its hole and will not come out, and she says, "Good morning".
And I do not know what to say, standing there like a ball of snow that has not even the courage to go away.
And she says, "Can I help you?"
And I know she can, but it is not in my mouth to tell her.
And she suddenly sees my feet and that I have no shoes and her eyes become like moons of pity that do not really understand and she goes down in the darkness of her house and rises with a pair of shoes too big for me and a much worn pair of socks.
And though I do not want to take them being only a second-hand version of herself I have no words to refuse and so I say nothing and the shoes and socks are in my hand and the door is frozen and the moons of her eyes are hidden in the winter sun.
And almost because there is not much else I can do, I sit down on the
doorstep of this most holy house and put on the socks and shoes.
And I look up at the window and there is a face locked in ice looking out from the arms of the fat old bank-clerk
But there are daggers in the old man's eyes.
But as far as I can tell she is happy and I am merely a beggar of the past.
But here in my hand is a rose which is too red to be here by accident.
And I do not know what to think.
Bang on the drum big boy. Wake not Willy washing dishes in the kitchen. He is dreaming of his blue-eyed sister-in-law. She dreams of him too in her spare moments. She is a typist on the boss's knee. Smart blonde and voluptuous. Oh wouldn't it be dandy if she could sing? Her name is Lila and it fits her like a trombone in a smoky night-club. She hasn't ever been in a night club. Willy has. Willy washes dishes in a night-club and he likes to hear big boy banging on the drum. That is music. Music that Lila would appreciate. But Lila was always working. God! Ain't that woman got guts! Three suckers on a string she can cut at any time she likes. That's what women ought to be. Strategic - and slippery. Lila was as slippery as a plate with turkey grease on it. Now in comes the saxophone and pushes Willy in the ear. That was Lila too - in a bad mood. Funny the water ain't warm any more. Cold and thick. Army soup. Lila when she fell back in love with her husband. Cold and thick. No warmth. Upturned nose. No laughing. Christ! No laughing. Lila when she wouldn't laugh was like an empty slot machine. Pay what you like. Nothing back. And the water was cold and thick. Have to throw it away. More water. Another Lila. Have to get some more hot water. Have to go outside and get it. Posh night club and he had to walk to get some more hot water. No tap that you could turn on, no reward, no Lila to .. If that big drum didn't shut up he'd go and punch big boy on the nose. He'd wrap the saxophone round Jewsie Panner's neck. It wasn't so hot with the door open. Inside and outside were hitting it out on the doorstep. Fight. Life was a fight. Fight until only one was left. The clever one. Willy who washed dishes at the Metropole. Willy the bright boy who let a mug of a brother marry his Lila. He couldn't stop himself laughing. Laughter ran down his body like a hot shower. It was better than a belch. He had his mug brother and the boss's knee where he wanted them. He went and had another look at Lila in the dustbin. She looked a peach. He kissed her face and put the lid back on. Then he collected the hot water and finished the dishes.
song of sea-leaves in an orchestra of foam
i would liken your hair to a slow movement
in a promontory of thought i might mistake
and then like an expansion in the blood
i am in love again and taste its steel
i have sucked with the earth from spring
the body is a world
begin at a chapter you have read before
stand with a new light at your shoulder
and there i think you will find me entering
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