Chapter 2 - Life is Elsewhere
Across that willow divide and separated by a matter of hours, Jason Langdon stretches his arms towards the ceiling, attempting to encourage life into his tired muscles. He slumps lower in the chair and breathes deeply.
“I’m getting too old for this heat”, he speaks aloud to no-one in particular, enjoying the ringing timbre of his voice in the empty house. He picks up the novel he set down last night and absent-mindedly flicks through the clean, crisp pages. They feel rough, even to his wrinkled touch, as though they contain enlightenment worthy of a more refined reader. And Jason Langdon classes himself squarely in that bracket of individual.
Come rain and shine, come lovers and children and graceful middle age, this is a novel to which Langdon often returns, a solid citadel of intellectual rumination. As a very-well-read-kind-of-gentlemen, Langdon strives to present himself as the ultimate enviable dichotomy: young at heart, wise of mind. He is the aging intellectual whose artistic temperament matures like a fine French cognac, the political radical who remains true to his ideals.
In contrast, the room has aged poorly. Pale brown paint peels from the walls, the floor is uncarpeted, cracks visible in the unvarnished boards. The low ceiling is plastered with small, semi-circular designs which, look like clouds, swirling about each other in a storm-impending sky. In the corner of the ceiling, the air-conditioning blows out across the clouds, its cold front meeting the barrage of warm air from outside. And from the centre of the storm a single bulb shines down into the room below.
The room is bare. Apart from the chair he sits in, the only item of furniture is a small table on which rests a pair of reading glasses, sharpened pencil, pad of paper, and a small stack of books.
Although it is daylight outside, the light is on and casts a warm glow across the room. Nothing like his rosewood study back home, but it will do. And the books, stacked one upon the other on the table, are but a fraction of the number back home, where two of the walls are lined floor to ceiling with beautiful works of literature.
Langdon is in the middle of a book tour – not for one of his own novels, for he has never published – but as the expert host of a well-known novelist, Neil Hallsworth, whose latest bestseller rests amid the pile to his left. It has been two months since they departed England and, having reached a sojourn in matters, Langdon has returned to Sydney, to say goodbye to the house he once lived in. This house is a constant reminder of warmly held memories. A happy family home. Yet it is his first return in nearly two decades.
As he plucks the book from the table it falls open before him, its spine trained over years of consultation to anticipate his every whim. With his right hand, he plucks the narrow framed reading glasses from the table and rests them delicately on his nose.
The book he has cradled in his lap now reveals itself to be Life is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera. This is the bit – part 2, page 63 of the 1986 Faber and Faber edition to be exact - in which his favourite character, Xavier, first enters the scene.
Xavier is a stroke of genius, at once liberating the main character, Jaromil, from his earthly station and allowing the novel to float across borders and under curtains. Xavier is an exquisite metaphor for the majesty of freedom: freedom to drift from one story to another, one reality dissolving into the next, intertwining together in a great adventure of the soul. Amidst the never ending dream-world Xavier inhabits, one can be everyone and everything he wants, all you have to do is dream. This is the metaphor Langdon will use this evening, at an informal discussion of contemporary literature at the University. Old colleagues will be there. Not to mention a few of the more committed members of the Sydney literati. Some he will be pleased to see, some not so.
Reading the passage again he smiles satisfactorily to himself. All he needs now is an introductory joke, and he is good at coming up with them. Natural, some say. That pause before the punch line is delivered. A count to three – one elephant, two elephants, three elephants – and then bam. Knocks them dead every time! After all, middle-class, artistically minded people are some of the most sheepish consumers of simple stereotype one can wish to encounter.
Three hours later Langdon sets down pencil and paper and rises stiffly from his chair. Despite the biting heat outside, he is comfortably cool and growing hungry. He heads to the kitchen to fix lunch.
Cobwebs hang where walls meet ceiling, little tufts of marshmallow fluff shining in the light from outside. White paint is matted to the wall above the cooker, a vast yellow patch where a dishwasher once stood. In the far corner, its door wide open, stands an empty pantry, dusty and forlorn. The room harks back to forgotten days of housewives and two drum manual washing machines, tinned food stacked label forwards on rows of shelves, and casseroles baking slowly in the oven. Funny really, it felt so modern then.
Making his way across the thin vinyl flooring to the unsightly refrigerator in the corner, Langdon smiles, ruefully. The fridge is almost empty. Lunch is a choice between a store bought Duck Pate on Foccacia bread roll, or a bacon sandwich which he would have to cook. So duck pate it is.
Selecting a plate from the washing-up rack he glances through the window into the garden. Golden beams of light fall purposefully upon the starched yellowed grass. The lawn makes him thirsty, and he vows to water it.
Again he speaks to no-one, the words a gift to fill the empty space in the big house. He runs a glass of water, grabs the roll, and heads to the porch to eat. As soon as he opens the door the heat confronts and surrounds his every sense. He stretches like a cat, squinting his eyes to protect them from the sun, and sits down on the top step. The concrete is hot. Momentarily he recoils from the insistent heat, but the shock is temporary and he settles down to enjoy this midday sauna.
“Maybe this really is the life for me” he reflects, feeling his problems melt away amid the liberating temperature. No-one else is out, just mad dogs and Englishmen. Sweat has begun to bead in the wrinkles of his brow. His breathing comes shallow, he feels the rush of satisfaction that people used to cool climes feel when they are in hot countries. His arms are turning red. Sandwich finished, he stands and returns inside, to the what remains, for a few more days, officially his house.
The sun is beginning to set on the hottest day of the year. He has spent it in the living room under the cool, air conditioned sky, reading and wondering why he didn’t come back here sooner. Eighteen years it has been. Tom and Ember left to go travelling and he stayed behind a while, the house empty around him. Then the University of Edinburgh offered him Head of Faculty and off he went, back across the globe to be closer to Ember. Leasing the property to students. He had no idea, then, that he would ever miss this place as much as he does now. Who knew years could fly by so nimbly? So imperceptibly.
Up in the front bedroom he is getting ready for the evening. Naked, he walks along the corridor to the bathroom, towel in hand, savouring the feel of liberation. Once upon a time it was a treat to be able to walk around the house naked, only when Ember was staying with a friend, or out for the day. Or training. Now it is perfunctory, nothing more. Goose pimples form on his arms as he anticipates the fall of cold water against his skin. He turns on the shower and hops in, remembering days when he would dive into the North Sea without so much as a blink of hesitation.
Minutes later he steps from the shower and stands in front of the bathroom mirror examining himself. Right hand sweeps through his full head of hair and he smiles back at his reflection. Sixty-four and still a full head of hair
As he dresses, he looks out of the window and watches the street coming alive in the cooler evening air. Two teenagers are heading out on their bikes, a weary woman gets out of her car after a long day at work. He doesn’t recognise any of the neighbours.
It is 7:15, his taxi is not due for another quarter of an hour. But he is ready and eager to get going. So he decides to wait outside in the warm air. He will be back in Edinburgh all too soon, and then he’ll regret not having spent longer in the sun.
The bare stairs clatter as his heels tick their way down and he reaches the door at a jog, eager to get out there and do his stuff. Perhaps the driver is waiting outside already, he thinks, and places his eye to the spy hole, peering out into the alternate world outside. But there is no-one there. He strolls out into the evening warmth, to await his taxi in the street, where he can bask in the warm light of the setting sun.
A simple black Mercedes moves slowly through traffic, the spectre of dawn beginning to appear in the sky. Bleary-eyed, Langdon relaxes in his seat, taking another sip of merlot and smiling back into the rear-view mirror. The driver is beginning to annoy him. But he is not really listening. All he hears is “mate, mate, mate, mate, mate, mate,” the chirping call of a seagull in the harbour.
It is 4am and he has been at the house of a former colleague, drinking and discussing literature and life. His eyes wobble, alert and exhausted. He is on edge, his mind buzzing with ideas and theories: the picaresque hero, Rilke, Primo Levi and holocaust survival, trends in narrative style. Each has been discussed, and much more besides, banter flashing across the table, ideas like confetti in the air. And now he has to listen to this puerile drivel, reactionary politics and liberal arts bashing. And all from a scruffy kid. He is tired, his head thick with wine. Not drunk, just weary.
He has just finished the bottle when the Mercedes pulls into Wallaby Lane, tyres muffled in the pre dawn light, creeping along as though ashamed to be caught out so late. The driver nods his head and Langdon steps out, handing him a note without so much as looking back. He has just noticed that there is a man asleep on his doorstep.
He stops on the pavement, considering the sight. He is thrown off guard, it is too late to think clearly.
“Excuse me?” he calls, a little louder than intended.
No answer. The man is younger than him, his mess of curly hair receding at the temples, a circular bald patch forming around his crown. His clothes are tatty too: a pair of slightly too large brown trainers, brown cargo trousers and a polo shirt, wide open at the neck to reveal his bare chest.
He tries again: “Excuse me,” and then: “Can I help you.” But it is not a question.
The interloper is definitely asleep. As he passes between the lemon trees Langdon is painfully aware that the man has not stirred and, by all accounts, has no knowledge of his presence. And an idea is forming in Langdon’s head. It is callous, but he may yet be able to save his evening if he can get into the house without waking the man. “Can you hear me, Sir?”
The words are almost whispered but he holds his breath regardless. Still the man does not move. He begins to climb the steps, each tap of his firm-soled shoes threatening to wake the sleeping sphinx at his door.
But as he clambers over the man he takes a look down into the face of the body curled foetus-like on the porch and sees a large purple bruise on his forehead. The man’s breathing seems shallow, his face broken in some indescribable way. It reminds him of Ember in the hospital, vacant eyes staring at the ceiling as though drowning, in search of a way back to the surface. He is once more walking beside her trolley as she emerges from theatre, once more seeing flowers wilt by her bedside.
Oh Ember, he thinks, mourning the absence in himself that her adulthood has left. She has been in his mind these past few days, back here once more.
He looks at this man, this tramp on his doorstep, and involuntarily pictures Ember lying on someone else’s porch, in need and alone. And he can no longer walk away.
He bends down to shake the man, scared to touch his shoulder, to make contact with another human being that he cannot control. Through half clenched eyes he brushes the man’s shirt, calls “hello” and shakes a little harder. There are signs of movement: the man’s eyes clench tight, his head seems to shrivel a little further into the concrete, and a groan escapes his parched lips.
“Hi there,” he tries again. “Er, excuse me Sir?...My name is Jason Langdon, can I help you?” Finally the man begins to open his eyes, tentatively, uncertainly. He blinks, eyes unfocused, unsure what is happening.
Slowly the man’s eyes focus and he tries to breathe. “I’m sorry,” he says in a thickly accented voice, a mismatch of three or four different parts of the English speaking world, “I, I once lived here and…” He can manage no more before a thick cough racks his body. “Help…please.” His voice is croaky, and he needs to take a long, slow breath before he can speak again. “I need…water.”
That need is crystal clear. Langdon is alarmed by it.
“I’ll go get you water and call an ambulance, okay? You just wait here.”
“No,” the man croaks from the concrete. Langdon wonders whether this man might be mad. “No doctor, just water. I‘ll be fine after water.”
So Langdon opens the door and walks quietly through the house to the kitchen. He runs a glass of water and returns to the porch where the man is crouching on the floor, struggling to get up. But his eyes are clenched shut with the pain of movement, the bruise at his temple livid against his ashen skin.
“Here you go, drink this down. Plenty more where that came from.”
The man struggles to open his mouth, then to get his body in position to drink. His body contorts, stretches and strains as he manoeuvres himself into a sitting position. He cradles the glass as though it contains riches more valuable than gold, his fingers fumbling all over as he clutches and lifts it inch by glacial inch, opens his mouth and swallows in one long gulp.
“Well now, you were thirsty. Encore?”
“Yes…please”. Langdon returns to the kitchen, to fill the glass once more. He returns, hands over the glass and watches the man gulp the water down. He strikes a dramatic geometric shape sitting there silhouetted in the streetlight. From the peak of his forehead to the tip of his slim, purposeful nose, is one long smooth and unbroken line. At his temples the defined lines of his skull jut in, as though his head was vacuum formed around a wrecking ball.
It is him, he is sure of it.
“Tom?” The words exit his mouth slowly, hesitantly, beginning as a statement before the lilt at the end demonstrates just how unsure he still is. But he is correct.
A puzzled look, Jeremy has not heard that name in many, many years. He remains collapsed there in the doorway, his fastidious stillness masking the war being fought over ownership of his body. Jeremy Blackwell versus Tom Jefferson. Not to mention all the other pseudonyms he has adopted over the years. Very slowly, he nods.
Struggling to focus he looks into the house. It is not as he remembers it. Slowly, he lifts his head and takes in the man staring down at him. There is a flicker of recognition. It is one of those moments of unspeakable surprise which makes its way slowly into his befuddled brain.
Langdon does not say anything. He is not sure what to say. Then he is back, “come in, come in. I’ll fetch you another glass of water. How are you?” He stands back from the door and Jeremy drags himself to his feet and stumbles through the door as though there is a knife to his back. As he crosses the threshold he gazes at the door-frame as though it is the divide between freedom and incarceration. But which side is which? Before he can decide, he collapses in a heap at the foot of the stairs.
For a man of his age, divorced and unattached, Langdon feels he has solved the riddle’s of human relationships rather well. He keeps people at arms length, socialises on his terms. He works hard to remain in control of conversations with friends, and has all but given up on dating. On Thursday nights he sometimes has dinner with a few of his colleagues, and often finds himself wining and dining authors after Literary events.
He socialises, makes small talk, discusses and debates. But he does not let people get too close. And now, faced with the trouble of a man collapsed at the foot of his stairs, in need of help and support, his predominant reaction is fear. And a little disgust. He is embarrassed by such helplessness. The man’s aroma is of stale sweat; he lies there, conscious, panting like a lame dog. And Langdon stands around uncomfortable, unsure what to say or do. Were there to be a phone in the house, or were he to own a mobile phone, then he would call an ambulance immediately, regardless of Tom’s wishes. But he hates telephones, and even now is glad to be incommunicado.
And on top of this he is intrigued by Tom’s appearance, his lack of decorum, his state of desperation. What is he doing here? They left so easily all those years ago, walking – no, bouncing! – down the garden path. Didn’t even look back.
What course of events can have befallen him? Langdon’s mind is alive with plots and theories to explain the transformation of the man he remembers as Tom Jefferson into this hulk of washed up life.
“Are you okay?”
“Lets get you up and into a chair, okay?” It takes all his strength to lift Tom and stumble with him through to the front room where he deposits him on the chair, and tries to catch his breath.
“Sit here, come on, lie down, Tom. You’ll be okay. More water?”
“Thank you, Mr. Langdon.”
“You’re welcome, Tom. But call me Jason, okay?”
He looks up and tries to smile, but with stained teeth and bloodshot eyes appears anything but friendly. And when the third glass of water is surreptitiously placed in his hand he gulps it down as quickly as the other two. He should sip the water, but his body is too thirsty. The deluge into his stomach is like the pouring of a waterfall into a dried river bed, displacing all the cracked earth and dry dust, carrying everything away in the floods. A minute goes by. Then another. Neither man knows quite what to say. A look of urgent fear crosses Tom’s face and half bent over, he stands up and bolts to the kitchen, hand clapped firmly against his mouth.
Langdon does not make to follow him. From the kitchen come sounds of retching, of feet struggling to stay upright, and then, minutes later, slowly padding back towards him. Tom collapses into the chair, and falls into a fitful sleep.
The man Langdon knows as Tom has been sleeping for half an hour, the morning peace occasionally punctuated by low, disembodied moans from his mouth. Langdon stands by the window, curtains open, the sky outside casting a sleepy lunar light across the room. A floorboard creaks below him and he freezes, the hue of the light making him scared even to breathe lest he break the fragile subtlety of night. The moon shines bright, the streetlights murmur electronically, singing lullabies to the street, the first glimmers of dawn begin to emboss the room. All this light is illuminating the form of the man slumped in the chair. Langdon tries to take his eyes away from him but cannot. Staring intensely through his reading glasses, he takes Tom in carefully, as though his every wrinkle and crevice may hold the answer to his appearance. He has never been interested in palmistry, even when Louise went through her new age phase, but now he is certain that each line on that weathered face is a story that he needs to hear. He wonders which of them concerns Ember, or whether any do.
Tom is dozing in and out of sleep, waking deliriously and talking about a man with a cane. Langdon wonders once more whether he should call an ambulance. He has been on many first-aid courses over the past few years –this damnable modern obsession with Health and Safety – but he can remember none of the lessons he learned. Yet it seems sensible to make the patient comfortable, so he finds a blanket and eases it over the heaving, rocking body. The man is sweating profusely. In literature sons often keep their fathers lips moist and fevered brows cool while they lie on their deathbed drifting in and out of consciousness. But at that thought, Langdon recoils.
And yet he wants to help. He goes upstairs and returns with a pack of wet wipes in his hand. Perching on the side of the chair, he removes a wipe and begins to mop the man’s brow, taking the sheen off his burning forehead. Now that he is getting used to the situation, he finds that he is more comfortable and relaxed. Something in the surroundings seems to be bringing out his innate compassion. He cannot help smiling a satisfied sort of deer-caught-in-the-headlights smile to himself as he wonders what it would have been like to have had a son.
As the half hour passes he continues to wipe the man’s face and little by little Tom’s breathing calms down. Gradually he begins to regain composure and his eyes blink in the coming dawn. A guttural word that might be “sorry” splutters from his mouth and his eyes, focused now, convey the same message of embarrassment. He breathes deeply and sinks lower in the chair, knees hugged to his chest.
Langdon takes his book from the table and settles in the corner to read. He is tired but does not want to go to bed. He is beginning to feel glad for the strange events of the evening; if nothing else the story will make an amusing anecdote. But it offers so much more: a mystery to unravel, a story to uncover. It is almost too bizarre to believe, an absurd plot if ever he heard one. It is like the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas. This strangely familiar man stumbling from the desert with no memory or idea who he is. Langdon tries to remember the plot but cannot distinguish that story from this one. He smiles, proud of his propensity to drop vaguely obscure films into conversation, only wishing there was someone else there to share it with.
Although the plot of his book is exciting, he is not really reading. His mind is fixed firmly in the past, when he and Ember still lived under this roof, alone together. After a while he rises and gets a drink of milk from the fridge. He is surprised to note that he is looking upon Tom with a vague sense of fatherly concern, and that the urge to be rid of him has all but disappeared.
Presently, Tom wakes from his stilted sleep, his face fearful. For a moment his eyes roll further back in his head and it appears that he is about to crack, then he rolls forwards off his seat, half stands and crosses the room at a speedy, crouched shuffle, hurrying up the stairs and into the bathroom where he collapses on the toilet, panting, hunched over to protect himself against the explosion fermenting in his bowels.
Langdon gets to his feet, stumbles up the stairs, and knocks on the door.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call you a doctor?”
“No, please. I’ll be fine.”
“Well, okay then. I’ll be downstairs, just shout if you need anything,”
Langdon trudges back downstairs and sinks back into his chair. He falls asleep in seconds, too tired to finish the book. And as the morning light begins to peep through the windows, Langdon sleeps calmly, as though nothing has changed.
It is morning, bright and oppressive; hot. But behind the door of number twenty-two, a cool microcosm exists. Having spent most of the morning crumpled on the toilet, stomach cramping so that he wanted to crawl inside himself to escape it, Jeremy has risen delicately, clutching his stomach, and is making his way down stairs. His stomach feels calmer now, head no-longer pounds quite so hard and his muscles can just about hold his weight – though running a marathon will be beyond him for a while yet. He wonders whether Ember runs any more, hopes she does. Sunlight is streaming in through the un-curtained windows, pouring light like gloss paint over Langdon’s prostrate body. He is slumped asleep in the chair, glasses perched askance upon his nose, book dangling precariously on the arm of the chair.
Standing there watching the man sleep Jeremy is aware of just how much time has passed. The longer he stands there the more he notices how many little things have changed. His whole interaction with this house – and this man – has been transformed by the twenty years he has been away.
Time is a great democratiser. The man sleeping before him is no longer Ember’s intimidating, intellectually aggressive father. He is no longer fighting to show Ember the world, he is no longer defined by his role as parent. And now, dribbling drool from the corner of his mouth, he looks depressingly human.
Are relationships set in stone? Jeremy has rarely stayed long enough to find out. Yet now he cannot help but wonder. Can generations ever really understand one another? What happens when parents wake up and realise that the children are no longer young? When they realise they no longer warrant the same concern, need the same attention, or want the same company. And what happens when the young wake up to realise their parents are just older versions of themselves? Where does the world go from there?
Jeremy has always considered himself a pocket philosopher, always been enraptured by these moments when life seems to display itself so clearly. He is enlivened by ideas, they bloom in his brain and for a minute he thinks he is on to something. But, as so often happens, he is sure that over the next few days it will become clear that all he has done is rehash something that someone else far cleverer than him thought many years ago.
He crosses to the kitchen and helps himself to a glass of water and a heel of bread. He sits down on the garden furniture in the kitchen and begins to eat. It is a monk’s dinner, plain and unfussy, but one he savours with ravenous hunger.
It did not strike Jeremy until now, so busy has he been with other worries, but now he cannot stop noticing how empty this house is. Surely no-one can live in such conditions. But with each room he walks to, it becomes more apparent that there is nothing here. The coat rack has no coats or bags hanging from it; the stairs have no piles of paperwork on them; the bathroom has no medication or even a spare toilet roll; and even the master bedroom contains nothing but an old metal bed with a suitcase laid open beside it. No pictures hang on the walls; no photos smile back from mantelpieces; no telephones or computers or televisions or microwaves or bookshelves anywhere. What could have happened in the intervening years to leave Langdon living like this?
And even more so, how has he let the house fall into such shabby disrepair? Does he not realise that Ember once lived here? But Jeremy’s anger is impotent and directed at himself. After spending so many years trying to forget her, he can no-longer trust his memory to picture what Ember actually looked like. Sure she had hazy brown eyes and deep red hair, but how these interacted with the rest of her face he is not sure. If only there were a photograph, just to refresh his memory. One photo that he could stick to the wall and fall asleep under. Her bright eyes watching over him all day long.
But he is too tired to think long about this. He ate the bread too fast and now it is stuck in his throat. His body is so unbelievable weak. The bed upstairs calls him closer, he wants to fall into it and sleep for a whole day. But instead he heads to the back room in the house, the room they once called their bedroom. It is bare now, just a rusting shoe rack left in the far corner. It is all thoroughly wrong. Her smell lingers in the floorboards. Gingerly setting himself down on the floor he rests his head on his arm, curls up, and falls asleep.
Despite the strange circumstances he sleeps soundly, stretched out in the warm sun shining in through dusty glass window panes. Dreams play behind his closed eyelids. He sees himself dancing around a fire, drunk and getting ever drunker, dancing to the beat of a ritual dance, shouting for all he is worth. There is the old man who sings to the sky, his wicked grin flashing as he dances wildly by the fireside. Then he is gone and a crow lands on his shoulder, whispering in his ear.
“Do you understand?” But before he can answer, the crow leaps into the air, and the dream plays ceaselessly on.