Mitchell’s Manifold Kindnesses
Most faces, these days, are kept behind glass, since folk have become too scared to venture into the city streets.
Still, they yearn for the outside, hence their mooning faces stuck to the inside of the wintry windows like advertising posters … seeking sights, often locking on to others of their kind in any windows opposite, then tracking the movements of any diminishing souls who do brave the urban phobias …watching them with clouded eyes.
The streets grow empty, the streets grow dark and, even come the mornings, the streets only grow vaguely less empty, only vaguely less dark. And as the cold closes in, the smeary ears of those windowfaces can only hear oil-slicks upon seas of white noise.
The folk behind such faces are realistic and tend to condemn the art of imagination. So, when one of their number sees what she considers to be an elfin creature outside kicking its jingly-jangly foot in the gutter during its apparent saunter between two nowheres, yes, when she thinks she has just witnessed something more fitting for her dreams, she looks imploringly towards another face, another of the windowfolk (but this one of the male persuasion), in the window of the house opposite … in some attempt, no doubt, to cross-check what they both can see outside. But they should have first cross-checked with themselves as to where they lived, where they were looking from.
The parlour was a straight up and down place, with wall hangings which looked like bath towels and thick-pile carpets that sank to the ankle. Each angle was a right one, especially the perpendicular furnishings which only real people could soften.
One windowface itself believed that, many years before, an extraordinarily ordinary family lived in the same house, the ghosts of which family still haunted the various rooms, despite, as people, the members of that family were probably still alive somewhere else. The windowface’s belief stretched into an obsession of listening to the walls, ear pressed tight like a fleshy elfish flower, allowing it, it maintained, to hear the soul of the house beating like a heart. It thought it was a detached house – but viewed from outside, there was, at least, circumstantial evidence of it being semi-detached, even terraced. Not believing in ghosts, the windowface humoured itself, if referring, without humour, to the place’s so-called ghosts as irritants. But, upon cross-checking, like most houses, there had been more than one “family” inhabiting it over the years…
“I’m dying for a cup of coffee,” Edwin said, squinting towards the churning darkness of a glass-covered bubble.
“You’re suffering … withdrawal,” Harriet answered with a smooth toss of her head. “People don’t know what harm it does them.”
“What people?” Edwin’s beard masked a scar as well as the expression of his mouth. “I suppose you mean the people who think only tobacco and alcohol are harmful.”
“Yes, but a harm here and there is OK,” Harriet suggested, employing the hand at which she was staring as both a mask and a fan.
“Living itself is harmful and when I give something up, I have to give it up altogether, or it keeps creeping back as more and more again,” he said, conscious of his own awkward sentence.
“That makes as much sense…” both of them began by saying, if not exactly at the same moment to prevent overlapping, but with sufficient synchronicity to warrant a silent worship at the altar of chaos. The expressions of their four snail-ball eyes spoke with meaningful soundlessness, more than the mouths ever could – speaking, indeed, of the artefacts that made up their home … all pretence: their parlour and kitchen being nothing but downstairs to upstairs. Even the portable television set had solid innards appropriate to its correct wielded weight of expectation. The furniture was comfortable despite such furniture not being furniture at all. Edwin wondered if Harriet was less than human. He may even have wondered if he himself was less than human. And vice versa. But neither wondered if either was more than human – or even if reality itself was a mock-up. Edwin decided that only a letter would suffice, since conversations were too transient. And while he wrote his letter, Harriet squashed her face to the window.
Assuming life isn’t already one seamless block of infinite mystery, I’ve always wondered why actions, however kindly meant, always lead to unintended results. Some call it Chaos Theory. I call it Sod’s Law. But I’ll leave it till the end of this letter before unveiling my own explanation as to how this law works. This is because I don’t want to colour your reaction to such a startling concept before leading you gently towards it. Indeed, a too sudden exposure to my philosophy would possibly burn out your mind. Therefore, I need to insulate your thought-processes with foreshadowings, extrapolations, positive digressions, guided tangents and constructive deconstructions – call it padding, call it what you will.
“Why in a letter?” I hear you ask, Harriet. Well, I suppose it’s a gut feeling on my part that the most effective ideas stem from two-way correspondence. The comparison of just two viewpoints, the teller and the told, where both are fixed identities, sound and sounding-board, can bounce to and fro until they are of one mind on the subject, yet underpinned by a solid base that only the written word and duality can supply. Anything else, like a newspaper article, would merely get lost in empty space somewhere, read or unread according to whim and opportunity. Here, with a letter’s target audience-of-one, the known intimacy becomes a hell-proof hotbed to incubate too-hot-for-the-press dilemmas.
Stories, novels, essays, poems, sermons all suffer from too broadcast a dissemination, spread too thinly, not eye-to-eye … or, in this case, hand-to-eye with the permanence of print … a hand-to-mouth existence between two souls: a triangle where the two correspondents at the base balance the leaning sides … and the apex becomes the idea – the Platonic Form of Idea: the idea that shall eventually become clear when the point of rest meets above the circumscribed, nay, triscribed area of thought and debate … even before either of the correspondents realises that that very point is reached – at which cross-section, valedictory and kisses can be appended to round the triangle off, as it were.
I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but conversations, by contrast, are too transient.
Permanence is most important – specially where I am trying to solve a mystery concerning kindness and its unwelcome spin-offs. You were kind to me. I was kind to you. So where did it start going wrong? Do kindnesses have inbuilt cruelties? Do you recall, indeed, why we got married, Harriet? For others in our own image, that’s why.
“Marriage is built in Heaven,” Harriet said from the window, speaking to herself – whilst Edwin’s attention was distracted by the arrival of Mitchell who did odd jobs for these he called the “old couple”, a collective expression denoting individualities who had long since merged into marriage. But not odd jobs as such, but jobs he did oddly. They could not complain since the only payment he seemed to expect was Harriet’s smile of gratitude and a cup of coffee.
Today, Mitchell promised to clear out the bric-à-brac from under the old couple’s double bed – bric-à-brac that had accumulated since the time when their wedding vows of love and cherishment were first enacted upon that very bed. Indeed, the old couple were still careful to exercise the bed’s joints even when passions were spent, thus straining their own ones.
Before Mitchell did any work, he often conducted a game of small talk, whilst sipping at the cup of coffee.
“What are you writing about today?” he asked.
“I’m writing about you, Mitchell, interrupting my flow of concentration,” answered Edwin.
“Well, I like that! Here I am to unbury all those things you’ve had piled for ages under your bed – and all you can call it is disruption.” Mitchell laughed because he was only joking in the same way he assumed the other was joking.
“Interruption – not disruption, Mitchell Much.” Edwin’s face, as ever, was dead pan.
Disruption was like a splatter gun – whilst interruption was a well-nocked arrow in the perfect bow aiming at a single steady target – assuming that the person who wielded such a weapon was as solid as a rock.
Soon after this interchange, Mitchell vanished upstairs to deal with the realms of the bed’s open oblong under-tunnel. The old couple could hear him scrabbling about ten inches above the bedroom’s floorboards where the bric-à-brac starting piling downwards.
Every time I restart this letter, I have to remind myself to whom it’s addressed. When you interrupted to ask “Why in a letter?”, I wondered if you knew that Mitchell was about to visit us – as if you were predicting his interruption with your own interruption – as if you had decided that two closely following interruptions would cancel each other out, thus spiking my guns. How could I complain when the second of the two interruptions was another of Mitchell’s manifold kindnesses, one that took the blame from you? In any event, interruptions, in whatever shape or form, are the only means of communication between folk.
The pen was lifted from the paper, upon hearing the sound of busy scurrying in the room above – Mitchell’s fingernails now having reached right through the bric-à-brac, scratching and scraping like claws on a bone roof.
One wild Wednesday, it is, with winds of snow travelling up the river to the conurbation as if on a conveyor-belt. The windowfolk are settling in for a seemingly endless ice-watch, when the playing of out-staring competitions with each other across the city squares is the most amusement for which any can lightly hope – and, even then, all of them secretly yearn to lose such competitions without making it too obvious.
It is then that Harriet’s own windowface first hears the elfin bell-pad’s earnest approach – and whips of wind weep winter from a sorrowful dusk, as she finally sees, via her windowface, the ambling cockiness of the tinkle-trod imp.
Faces that are kept behind the frost-mapped glass are quickly warmed with the flames of sight that are switched on from some spigot in the soul.
Indeed, the snow has already turned to sleet and, now, to a fast-laced rain … in which the faunish entity is seen splashing its gutter-groovy pitter-patter paces of jingling joy.
Singing in the rain, I’m singing in the rain, what a glorious feeling… It trills with the tune’s runes tingling the facefolk’s newly pricked-up hear-holes, their window-glass cleaning itself not only of the frost but of its smears of sound-proofing, too.
And they all join in with the chorus.
But, then, the faces and their worst fears are reunited. They watch the creature being mugged by one of the plug-ugly bruisers whose crimes of brutal street robbery are so self-defeating in keeping the city rat-runs free from the wealthy footpad folk whom the faces used to be.
The imp’s next plaintive song is a plea for help but it goes unheard as warmth wilts from the windows. Harriet’s windowface and the windowface across from hers, both unpeel…
Kindnesses piled on kindnesses, dear Harriet – like finding our erstwhile love letters, letters thought lost forever, found under all those romance novels you since devoured and thrust under the bed when finished with. Trust Mitchell to drag things from the past under the guise of rat-catching: reminders of that one special rodent which buried itself in your womb, Harriet. Childless couples are suckers for misbegotten memories: they only possess the right number of innards and bodily parts between them, give or take the odd biological leaning towards scarce resources…
The scrabbling on the floor above is reaching fever pitch. Mitchell’s damn rummaging is the last straw from this pig-sty world, I’d say. We have not spoken anything but small talk for years, ever since that day of the irredeemable row, but how about it, Harriet? Let’s do Mitchell a kindness for a change. Let’s square the circle. Short-circuit birth and death. He’ll find your body (if not you), my dear, soon enough, anyway. After he’s tugged out the surprisingly heavy picnic hamper from under our bed…
Doodles spread down the page like insect trails. Edwin didn’t append an incriminatory valedictory to the letter – nor his name.
The old couple had loved, in preference to hating. Indeed, neither admitted to the other their suspicions. They made the best of it. Give and take. Like all relationships. Once the truck of truth was deprived of an inch, falsities just piled up behind.
Like the baby screeching for its food.
“Wants it milk – wants it more and more,” Edwin said with a nod towards continuity in all things, even in the pointless small talk of married people well past their long tooth day. Not that they could now have a baby, unless it were a grandchild. Or a foundling. An orphan. A foster kid. A phantom birth. A changeling. A pigeon and pair.
Whatever the case, Harriet trundled off to the kitchen to warm the milk bottle. Her breasts had dried up ages ago – and she smiled in preference to crying.
Beneath the disguises, there was nothing to disguise. Only false faces ever creeping back into position at the window or windowscreen. The old couple had once sent Harriet’s smile inside a poisoned pen letter to Mitchell. But there was many a slip tween cup and lip. As between glass and glass.
The coffee jug bubbled in the corner, as it always bubbled day in, day out, should anyone’s craving for caffeine become too much. The bottle-bank, in the other corner, bubbled, too, as it took mock fermentations to the optimum of crystallisation and distillation. The half-breeder, however, in the window alcove, was the biggest bubbler of all: part-way into putting together, it was hoped, a foetus of a face whence another Mitchell might be mulched. Another stinking seed-bed oozed between the hamper’s wickerwork and, after permeating the brown-stained ceiling, fell upon an old man’s splattery pate’s skin-archipelago of discolored warts.
“Are they noisy today?” jeered Edwin, his face seeming as normal as a face could be without straining identity as well as credulity whilst his clothes picked him out as a impish shape.
“Yes,” answered Harriet, without first complaining about the paradox in the question. Her shape was also not a lot to write home about and, on top of which, left much to be desired – neither back nor front, but plenty of face.
Some ghosts were so quiet, they must write letters to each other instead of talking. But then, what about the extraordinarily ordinary family the residue of which underpinned Edwin’s belief in the ghosts?
Amid the gently seething percolations of the house, life went on living, in preference to dying. Another family checked their crosses. ..
“Daddy! What you doing?”
A girl stared at her daddy, believing him to be the person responsible for her, despite him acting so irresponsibly, with his ear-lug plastered to the parlour wall.
She was dressed ready for bed, ten years old and eager to see her favourite television programme. She heard her mother in the kitchen putting the finishing touches to the washing-up. The girl’s brother was in his bedroom, deploying his mind before the computer screen. In another era, he’d probably be reading good books.
Meanwhile, father had stood up and was about to humour his little daughter’s question with an answer – when he realised that he couldn’t remember what he had been doing. Children were ever asking awkwardnesses, he thought. Like the Creation of Man. The Reason for Woman. The Existence of Ghosts. The Emptiness of Death. The Memory of Eternity. The Meaning of the New Millennium. Emptiness was like having the TV screen blank. Being ten years old, she should have grown out of such curiosities and be getting on with an ordinary straitened existence. He didn’t know which was worse: his daughter’s prying or his son’s burying himself alive in the room above. His son thought he should be waited on, hand and foot.
“Switch off the telly manually, will you?” he said to his daughter, in point-blank refusal to be drawn on his actions. After all, he hadn’t been doing anything worth asking about. Only looking for the telly’s remote control.
She decided it was politic not to pursue the matter but noted it in her commonplace mind for general reference. Her daddy having a few slates loose was yet only a suspicion. She’d have to grow herself a little older before she’d realise the full scope of the demolition by her father of the family’s safe haven.
She looked toward the TV screen and saw a face staring at her from it.
And Edwin, thus hearing the ghosts of father and daughter speaking, even thinking, was in a dither as well as a quandary. He couldn’t see a way to turn. He finally abandoned the house having despaired of ever being able to supplement his own eccentricity to complement the residue of Harriet’s. He had no real friends in the area and now – with Harriet vanished into the mass of human inhumanity elsewhere – he felt lonely … so very lonely, he even felt the need to leave himself alone to wallow in the brooding gloom. So, yes, he had vowed to abandon house, too – leaving it to the echoes and the ghosts, none of which had been able to take the edge off solitude. He somehow waved at himself before he shut the front door behind him. The dither and the quandary were involved with not knowing who was who. But it was Harriet’s face in the window failing to lift a hand to wave goodbye…
Or which ghost was which?
And the father was similarly cube-rooted, if that was the right expression – which he doubted. His daughter was past her bedtime – which was obvious by her lack of presence – trying not to be noticed – vanishing into her own huge yawn. His son was still above, turning a deaf ear to the virtual reality of his bedroom, while his screen of noise images – with specific reference to non-emphasis – primed the available visual space for the next computer game.
The mother – currently in the kitchen where she belonged – was calling out for her son to come and help her with the chores. Both her husband and son wanted to be waited on hand and foot. Mucky pups! If it were not for her daughter, she would have truly become the remote control that her husband always lost between channel-blinking. At least, her daughter kept her mother sane. Or as sane as sanity could be in the foreshadow of senility.
Sleep was necessary even for wide-eyed computer boys. Sleep should have been the contrast of darkness that light needed to exist. His latest computer game was about two demonic creatures in a struggle with ghosts.
He never woke up from the squared screen of dream, because he’d never fallen asleep as a prerequisite to waking. Or he had not been alive in the first place – having mishaunted hindsight. Or perhaps his mother and father had murdered him: by planting a future with a past’s failure to consummate a soul. The pixel ghosts of feasible families squatted the Narrowing House – hoping against hope that a remote life, if not love, could fashion them.
And Harriet mourned her memory of a kindness. Scratching her head, she smiled. An ordinary smile, shared by all the other windowfaces.
There are no valuables upon the elfin body for the plug-ugly bruiser to steal, of course. None on the outside. And the imp’s singing-in-the-rain continues with a strangled rendition of ‘I Did It My Way’ (or much of it anyway), a plaintive voice that can only be switched off by means of a spigot in its soul … if Mitchell’s digging fingers could ever reach that far inside himself.
Harriet, this time, does not bother to cross-check. She simply knows.