Come, look over here! The lake waters are lapping, lipping. Heads disappearing under the waves. Shall we walk across together? I don’t recognise you. Black men in Russian hats and long coats rounding us up. Who’s in control here? The water looks brackish – like bog water running out of a tap. Is it okay to go over? I can see their heads disappearing under the waves.
Black heads bobbing on the waves. Lapping, lipping. The earth is black around the shores and there are men in black hats and coats among the trees over there, with dogs. Yes. Big black dogs with red lolling tongues and sharp, white teeth. Canines. Yes, better. Shall we go in together? This is part of the journey, right? I don’t know you.
It is perfect, my head is bowing under the waves. I can see and breathe. No more black forest dogs or men. It is bright here. It’s getting brighter. Some underground city. I have never been here, and you?
She laughs showing her canines. NO. No canines: perfect white smile of teeth chattering with the cold. If I had a towel I would throw it around her shoulders. We’re in control here. Where have you gone? Shall we go in together? I like you. Can I hold your hand in mine, just for a while.
– Are you still afraid? She is laughing.
– With you, no.
It is perfect. So unnatural and real. There is a woman taking coats over there. Let’s go over. Magnificent. Very tall – I can’t see her head behind the hatch. Let’s see. There you are. Two drenched overcoats. When do you close? No answer. Two white disks with numbers: 36, 37. Thank you.
– I feel better now, do you?
– Yes, much better.
– What’s your name?
– My name? There is a pause. She laughs. My name – I can’t remember.
– I’ll call you … Zoïka! And I’m Bernard, no Carlov.
– Okay, Carl. Do you want to see what those dancers are doing in there?
– I think they’re … dancing. We’re in control. Let’s try not to lose one another.
There are many rooms: ball rooms, eating rooms, walking rooms, jutting rooms, fleeting rooms. One catches glimpses of bygone faces. Schoolmates and teachers. Pets and pet hates. Dreams and past lives all mixed, mingled. One is in control. I bump into an old school friend at the urinal. He says “You are pissing in the sink, Monsieur.” Does he not recognise me? Everything looks the same here. Sink, urinal. It’s all the same. I can’t remember his name but it was him alright. Z is waiting outside. She is smoking a Marlboro, inhaling deeply and letting the smoke blow out her ears, her nose, it’s all the same. They have given her a little white plastic mackintosh. Her shoulders are narrow and she is pigeon-chested. The top buttons are opened. I see flesh and a little heart-shaped pendant. She is leaning with one foot against the wall. The white-washed wall. Hospital wall. No. Cleaner than that. Almost transparent – heavenly. She winks at me. For the first time, I notice her straight mouse-coloured hair, her petite nose ending in a point.
– I hate when people call me that, she says.
– You’ve been listening to me, haven’t you?
– You were standing there staring at me, speaking out loud. I heard the word petite. I am not petite. I am who I am – Zoïka! She giggles.
– I’m confused. Are you mad with me? I won’t ever call you pet… I stop myself, that word again.
– Good, she winks. Let’s dance.
The room is swirling with bodies more in a trance than in a dance. Everyone is wearing the same kind of mackintosh, in different colours. I look down. So am I. Mine’s dark green. No pale blue. I can’t decide. We start dancing. The music mimics our movements. When we dance fast it quickens and when we dance slowly it softens into a trancelike beat. There are flashing strobes. I can’t see where they are coming from. Just flashing and many colours, all swirling, twisting, turning, trancelike creatures. Zoïka is beside me. She is looking downward at her feet, shaking her head back and forth to the music. Her eyes are closed. Her mousey hair is flying out at the sides. First this side, then that. I let myself be sucked into the music. Swimming in wide concentric circles like water in a plughole. White enamelled walls. The circle is getting tighter. Flashes of colour. The music is trancelike. We are all in control. It slows like a gentle heartbeat. We are sea-anemones on the sea bed. The water around our spores and branches swells, swirls, tides. Swinging. Merry-go-round. Zoïka draws her arms in tightly against her body, clasping her elbows to her sides, her hands placed palm-down on her thighs. She groups her limbs in and spins, pirouettes, one foot out, the other foot on the ground. Her crazy hair flies with her. She is moving faster. I am out of breath. Nausea. Stomach-sick. Around me the grey muddy walls. The food in my belly is resurging. That’s not the right word but it catches it nicely.
I am alone. No-one seems to mind me opening doors, climbing stairs. There are many rooms. I open one and there is a doctor-lady inside behind a desk, writing. She looks up momentarily over her reading glasses and then continues scribbling. Her desk is bare except for this one sheet of paper, an in-tray and an out-tray. There is also an empty pitcher of water. I look around the room. There is a blue water fountain in the corner and a large plant, with yellowing, streaked leaves. Light pours in from a large window behind her. There is nothing outside. A white wall. The light is unnatural. I ask her:
– Excuse me. Do you work here? She looks up over her reading glasses, her pen poised in mid-air.
– Yes. How can I help you? I can’t remember what I was going to say so I invent.
– That window behind you, I say, pointing over her shoulder. She doesn’t turn round.
– Yessss. She says in an exaggerated tone. (I am not a child anymore.)
– Is there anything outside there? She seems confused by my question.
– There are more rooms.
– And after that? I venture.
– Many more.
– How many?
She uses the same drawn out tone, like a schoolteacher telling a group of children a fairy tale. – Mannny.
I try a different tack. – More than I can imagine?
Abruptly, she corrects me, her tone getting sharper. – As many as you can imagine. She places an emphasis on the word many. – Now, she says, with an air of finality, would you please close the door behind you. I have work to do.
Up a flight of stairs and down a corridor, I wander and choose a door at random. There is a number stuck to the door. 28B. And the words: Consult. Files. I twist the brass doorknob and enter. Files in black binders arranged in rows along the walls from floor to ceiling. No windows, just a strip light faintly flickering. I close the door and turn a little silver key which I then hang on a nail stuck into the door frame. In the first binder I pick out, at random, there are dental records. Bridge-work, root-canal treatment, sixteen hundred pounds. The signature is smudged. Dr. Denis Döpp…. I bring the flimsy sheet over beneath the light and turn it over. regnagleppöD. What a strange name. I’m sure I’ve heard it before. More dental records: orthodontic treatment, brace-work, head-mask to be worn at night. Yes, it rings a bell. There is a light tap at the door and someone tries to turn the knob from the outside. Slotting the file back into the gap, I creep over to the door and wait in silence. I am unafraid. Just playing hide and seek. Nothing else.
– I know you’re in there, a voice says.
– How do you know? I answer.
– Because the light’s on.
– Yes, but there’s nobody home. I giggle to myself.
– Suit yourself, says the voice. I’ll be back with my key.
A peculiar courage takes hold of me. – We’ll see about that! I shout.
Heeled shoes clop along the corridor into the distance. I take down my own key and unlock the door, making sure not to make too much noise.
Zoïka is outside, standing with one foot leaning against the wall opposite.
– I’ve been looking all over for you.
– I was just checking something.
– Yes, but that’s over now. Let’s go somewhere. I missed you.
We are walking along the banks of a river. Opalesque, aspic waves lap against the riverbanks. There is an island with a castle. An old, crooked wooden bridge spans the slow-moving river. It is summer, the beeches rustle overhead, and there is no cloud in the burning haze. We are holding hands in silence. Her hand is small in mine. Buried like a rabbit in my rough hand. She is wearing a red woollen sweater, a kilt and beige knee-socks. Her shoes are black with buckles and short heels. She is looking ahead to where the course of the river bends, beyond the bridge. She is not smiling. Her thin lips are tight. She may be crying. I don’t know. I’m afraid to look into her eyes. It might change things. I might not recognize her. I hold her hand and try to concentrate on the surroundings. We pass a quaint riverside hotel. There is a sign outside reading, “Le chat perché”, in white gothic lettering against a black background; and a realistically-drawn cat arching its back on a rooftop. The buildings are of soft sandstone, mellow in the full sunlight. There is no-one about. The streets are spotlessly clean. Not one leaf in the gutters. I let my free hand trail along the top of the riverbank wall. It is real. There is a park on the other side of the river and for a moment I think I see someone sitting on a bench by the river. I turn to Z to see if she has noticed it too. She pays no attention. She is not crying. Her hair half covers her face. I would like to kiss her. But I’m afraid it might vanish. We cross the bridge which creaks under our weight. It is cool inside. There are small portholes on either side looking out over the river; the island with the castle on one side, the bend in the river on the other. At the half-way point, there is a man in ragged clothes begging. I reach into my pocket and take out a gold piece which I flick into his hat from a distance of a couple of yards. He bows his head and reaches a dirty hand into the hat to examine his takings. For the first time I notice that Z is smiling. She looks over her shoulder at the beggar and gives him a little wave. He salutes her. “Merci, Madame!” His rasping voice echoes along the roof-beams.
On the other side, things are arranged differently. The gardens are in full flower. Fuchsia, rhododendron and clematis grow and creep liberally up against cracked stone walls. There are Scots pines, elders, hawthorn, and apple trees in bloom. The air is sweet and there is an incessant buzz of insects. A purple butterfly lands on Z’s hair. She doesn’t seem to notice. She begins to speak.
– It’s your first time here, isn’t it? You look so happy.
I can’t think of anything to say so I just nod my head.
– I’m so glad you like it. It is my favourite place. Let’s sit down over there on the grass under the willow tree.
She indicates a beautiful weeping willow, drooping its delicate branches into the river. This time she leads me forward tugging slightly at my hand. I am so tired. I lie down on the grass balancing my head on my hand. From a little leather satchel with flower-petal designs she takes out a pouch of tobacco and cigarette papers. She mixes in some white and purple weed, crumbling the dried leaves between her thumb and forefinger. Lighting the cigarette, she takes a long drag and holds it in her lungs for a few moments. The butterfly is still in her hair and flaps its wings slowly.