Saturday, February 13, 2010

Temperance and Chastity

When their Grandmother had married sixty years before she and her husband had bought the two houses, joined together, on what had been, briefly, a good road. They had been almshouses, built by a factory owner for workers with large families. He called them Temperance and Chastity, presumably in the hope that virtue would be inspired within them, and perhaps it was for a while. What was good enough for the large family of a Victorian worker was too small for a middle-class couple half a century later, so they bought them both and knocked a door through on the ground floor. The Grandmother never drank and didn’t look at a man after her husband died young. Forty years of joylessness later she joined him and left the house to her grandchildren. She asked them to share it, to live together as brother and sister and to remember how she had lived up to the names on the plasterwork. The day they buried her they locked the connecting door for good and started living freely on her money, doing what they wanted. Theresa still worked as a secretary. She liked having company laid on for her, and it meant she could leave her grandmother’s money largely untouched, except for holidays and a few luxuries. Donald became a poet, but nobody noticed. So he mostly hid away with a bottle, making a world inside himself that wasn’t threatening or cold, a world where he mattered.


Donald woke up the next morning and his head ached slightly. His body ached more from sleeping on the floor, and his muscles had too little salt and his blood too little sugar. His brain was functioning badly, flickering on and off like an old television. His memory would have done the same, but he didn’t turn it on. He ignored all that, it was the same most days and it went away. A lot of water, something isotonic and a large one for breakfast and he would feel better. When he’d done all that he walked about the living room for a while and tried to think what he was going to do. He looked at his watch and it was ten thirty... He knew he had to meet someone. He couldn’t remember who but it would be in the Horse and Groom, and it wouldn’t be before six. He hoped it would be an agent, but how could it be. The ones he knew had stopped speaking to him, embarrassed by his pleading. It was more likely to be someone he’d promised to lend money to last night... He sat down at the desk in the little room with no windows that he called his study. It was where the word processor was but it made him feel claustrophobic and he picked up a sheet of paper and returned to the living room where light poured in and he could see people walking past. He put the paper on a hardback book on his knee and poised the pen over it, hoping to catch an idea unawares. His way of writing was like a hunter in the savannah who sticks a spear in the ground and waits for a lion to impale itself on it. He had neither the energy nor the courage to seek ideas out.

He wrote a word at the top of the page. It was ‘empty’. Was it a title? A theme? The core of an idea? Or just a word? He looked through the window and saw there was no traffic passing. The road was empty. How is an empty street different from a busy one? What is it like? It is temporarily devoid of purpose, it has no meaning, it might as well not be there. Not the same as at night, when a street like that is supposed to be empty. It’s waiting then, sleeping, recharging itself. But during the day, an empty street is...what. Useless is not a poetic word. Redundant is better, but is there any point saying it? Anyone can see that. An empty street, momentarily redundant, like... There were no prostitutes on that street, but if there had been they would be redundant too, for a moment, no one to see them, to want them. The traffic lights, the crossings, the signs, the hoardings, money wasted for those seconds or minutes. The house was empty, too, empty of anyone but him. He didn’t count himself, perhaps no one did. Would someone looking through the windows then see him there and call it an empty house because only he was in it. Emptiness depends on where you look from and what you look at.

The street wasn’t really empty, there were plenty of things in it, but it wasn’t doing any of the things it was made for. The house wasn’t redundant, it was keeping him warm and dry and protecting the machines and books he would need later. But it was empty because there was no one in it. Except him. Was Chastity empty? Theresa would be at work, but she always seemed to be there, in the pictures and the ornaments and the flowers and the carpets, which were unmistakably hers, and in the smell of her living room, which smelt like Theresa’s living room, and her bedroom, which smelt like Theresa’s bedroom. Chastity was never empty, even when Theresa wasn’t there. Temperance was always empty. Unless he had a visitor. One who could understand a house that wasn’t theirs. Most of the people he knew couldn’t and Temperance was empty even when a crowd was getting drunk there, pretending to discuss literature, or when he was trying to make love to some girl who’d worked him out too late. Not that he really made love, any more than his sister did. He had sex, not very often, and not very successfully...

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