I have been waiting for six minutes, says the clock, its heart-shaped clock-hand passing by the black numbers way too slow. Very clearly I can feel the fluttering and juddering near my left heart-wing. I smoke in front of a station, which never sleeps, bought new tobacco already. The building reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter, only that Liverpool Station can’t fly. I do.
Millions of people run, stroll, dander, hurry past me, I am waiting in the rustling of their wings. These days I will meet Raphael and William, kill two heart-birds with one stone, although; that’s not written. My heart isn’t steadying. I keep asking myself if something’s wrong, or if I just smoke too much.
In the past years I had a specialist check its functions, last time he glued suction cups to my breasts. In the front and in the back he listened, stamping the cold metal on my skin, so hard, as if he wanted to break my chest. Then he looked at me and said: Miss, you have about 40 years left.
Bullshit, said Raphael, when I told him about it, your heart is a wild creature, that’s why it lives in a cage.
For nonsensical reasons I wait for my heart to stop.
Just for a moment, but it keeps pounding and throbbing without cease, also later, when someone lies on me. Not everyone knows that my heart is fallible, but in London, in London everyone knows.
The heart-shaped clock-hand tells me that I have been waiting for nine minutes.
Soon, Raphael will come.
Soon is an expendable term. As expendable as the bracings of the glass roof, which bend outwards and downwards, in an arched tilt. Soft light on trains and people, slowly diminishing, replaced by a lightless shimmer. I take the black bag, which I packed for this weekend, from my shoulder. It’s much too heavy, because I didn’t know what to expect.
I am circling in front of the building, passing brim-full garbage bins, homeless people, bankers, cops. Turning in this big smoke, the vapour of a Vietnamese cook-shop, the sweetish scent of a flower kiosk full of roses and sunflowers. They ask me for change, compassion, a cigarette.
Raphael is a bird of paradise in his bright red shoes and his shiny yellow scarf.
His black curls bounce like he does, no one will tame them, unless they cut them off. His feet don’t know gravity, in his legs, seahorses took up residence, they make him prance eternally, not even his belly, which peeks out under his woollen sweater, can change that.
We carry the same DNA of bliss, I believe it is due to our origin: He is Israeli, I am Austrian. By these origins we carry our ancestors’ guilt and innocence within. I believe this is how we recognised each other, in India.
He took my heart by storm, a dust storm in which I couldn’t see anything nor anyone, when he said: You have to be nice to yourself, and I knew: this is my lucky soul. Now he gives me a hug, aims for the air beside my lips and drags me across the street.
With Raphael I experience London, as if I have a life here, walk down the street with him, have a path and a destination: his apartment.
I run as fast as he does, carry the city’s rhythm in my heart, the fast beat of the everlasting rush hour, the impetus of being even faster. Pretending on the outside to be debonair, just like the woman in front of us: belly top, platforms, black jeans and dense make-up. With the next breath she disappears, gets on the train and is gone.
If one has money, one takes the train or the subway.
If one doesn’t have money, one takes the bus, which also takes you to the city, which is everywhere, driven by happenings, by everything that’s happening: concerts, installations, exhibitions, shows, like the one of performance artist David Hoyle, who processes his addiction on stage and sticks a finger up his ass. We don’t have time for taboos, we have to be everywhere, simultaneously, Brian Eno was there, too, Raphael says, as we leave the theatre.
His home is a bird’s nest made out of light. It has a door that needs to be lifted, and windows which never really close. In this steady puff of air we sit and spoon African bean stew, which he just invented. His Korean friends say, his Kimchi tastes like their grandmothers’.
Alongside his passion for the cuisines of this world, Raphael has one for being online. I don’t know many who like to spend every second of their wake life on social media, even though, saying that, he isn’t unsocial offline either. Getting together with his friends in the morning, at noon and in the evening, partaking in business meetings, taking some homemade bread to the borough’s common kitchen in between. But as soon as there is Wi-Fi, he disappears, and you re-encounter him on Facebook or Skype.
Raphael can answer E-mails like other people blow their noses.
He listens to Israeli news, hourly, in turn with the British charts. The titles on his shelf read: The Art of Extreme Self Care, The Anatomy of the Spirit, You Can Heal Your Life. On the wall next to his door sits a postcard, displaying a dancer in an angel costume, who smokes a cigarette at the bar. The dancer bears a striking resemblance to Raphael: short figure, strong legs, tummy above tutu. When I’m with Raphael, my heart-wing flutters tentatively; it’s calm around its kind.
I know both Raphael and William from India.
Both of them are twenty years older than me. Both of them stayed in my home, for months, sat at my breakfast table, at a game of cards at night, while I was lying in the hammock. Both I didn’t notice right away, only later they caught my eye, when the dust storms settled and I realized where I was: in paradise.
Later, both of them lived next to me, one on the left, one on the right.
Raphael and I, we played Secret Santa with each other: put small presents in front of each other’s door, as heart-twins do. Tangerines, tiny bananas, chocolate.
With William I immediately knew, what he wanted, the only thing he was talking about, the essence which summed up the human existence for him: fucking and eating.
Raphael and William, they both live in this London, which I always visit, in which I never stay, just a few blocks from each other, but they don’t meet.
Later I see Raphael through the clearance between door frame and door leaf, rather, I can see parts of him: a foot in a striped sock, a tuft of hair, a hand. And yet, he has long gone to another place, I can’t really tell, whereto. The colours on the wall give a hint: blue and yellow jittering, I hear the voice of a news presenter.
Raphael’s calling is to help people. Because he had to go to war himself, he now goes out to bring peace, is a self-appointed Ambassador of Peace, a diplomat for peace, joy and harmony, which he brings also by making harmonious pancakes for me every morning.
While we devour those with strawberries and café latte, he keeps listening to the news, which I don’t understand, and pulls an oracle card for the day.
Mine says that I should surround myself with pleasant people and situations.
What I question is why Raphael doesn’t live in a more pleasant area. Which is not overcrowded by too many people in too little flats, in which one doesn’t put down flowers for those who have been murdered there. When I ask him about it, he says that he wants to stay close to people’s reality. And shows me a music video by Willow Smith, giggling, while we watch how she swings her braided mane through the world.
Raphael knew about my sandstorm without me ever telling him about it.
He knew that this storm had taken my sight and grounding, that this was why I had flown to India, this country, whose extremes inspirit one’s own self-healing powers, cliché or not.
In his pink room we sat, at a little plastic table, a fine trail of sandalwood smoke rising behind the shelf. Crystals, oracle cards, tiny golden angel figurines. He knew what touched me, without ever touching me, and also that this first India was a magical one. He told me that I should stay longer, not yet go back to stormy landscapes. In his eyes I saw that it wasn’t him, who was speaking, but someone else.
Before I found Raphael, I didn’t believe in magic nor in good spirits, had grown out of this faith, which I presumably had in my childhood, like a coat, which has become too small. Before I knew him, my heart didn’t speak in this language, didn’t judder in its cage, or maybe I just didn’t notice.
Come visit me, too, when you come to London, William wrote me, I live in a cold house at the end of a cold street, and I thought this must be an understatement or an overstatement, depending on the perspective. Warning devices for instance feel like exaggerations to me, but in his street, where the dry leaves gather around my feet, as if even the trees have lost courage, I would be glad about a full body warning system.
Burst window glass in the shops, graffiti on the fences, the concrete stained and forlorn like his jacket. As we enter the house he says, we’ve got about three to four burglaries every year, not talking about the neighbourhood, but his flat.
And I remember his smell: aftershave, sweat and a little bit of sleep.
William is dandy, to decipher him takes visual judgement at first, and knowledge of people second. The way I see it, he escaped the old days with his hat, jacket and walking stick. Even in India he looked like a British Gentleman, only on the surface, though. Even when sweat painted half moons on his forehead, he never took off his hat. He pretends to be a mastermind, but is of two minds about his own illusions. Me too, he blinded with words and charms.
His kitchen is coated with a fine grease film, resembling Raphael’s in that.
A broached pack of coffee on the shelf, pills of all sizes and shapes. Cherry pips on the floorboards, I follow them into the living room, sidestep palm-sized holes in the floor. I put my bag on the old leather couch, and myself next to it. William immediately places himself beside me. So close that I can feel him, but far enough that it doesn’t seem promiscuous, how he means it, though.
He’s a nice guy, Raphael says. But you need boundaries with him.
Boundaries, this I knew in India already, neither William nor I have.
At some point he left India and went back to London.
At some point cars burnt in the streets and looters foraged the shops where he bought milk and newspapers, and I comforted him. We wrote each other, even though months, countries and oceans were between us.
I am good at finding the right words for people who don’t have any, I also find words that people don’t say, but mean, and words which aren’t meant, which I would like to hear. I also find online articles and interesting links for others, little sound pieces, and songs. Slowly the sound of our messages shifted, lowered, at some point his words landed below the belt.
He dips a piece of bread in olive oil and I hold on to my red wine, while we talk about the works, and possible mutual acquaintances, and the possible arrangement of the evening, and what could possibly be important for the tent show he organises, a charity for Indian street kids.
I feel a light scratching at my heart, which I can’t identify, and I remember that physical closeness in my case often leads to further physical activities. I know I will sleep with him before even knowing if it is good, what I am doing here.
His fingers pull the buckle of my belt, open the button, I feel the warmth of his belly on mine, he lifts my shirt and pinches me down. His voice is coarse, his words become soundless, and I laugh, because he still believes that he can manipulate me.
I hear: The flushing of the toilet, the neighbour’s steps on the stairs, cracking of wood in the walls. Hear him making noise with his pills and ask myself what it is, that gives him pain, what makes him stumble and fall.
The self-conception of nakedness appears as soon as the decision of having sex is made. It is an automatism: You don’t take your clothes off at every opportunity, but as soon as you know you will sleep with someone, you do it, in plain language. This knowledge takes away inhibitions, false shame or coquetry. People are practical, when it comes to taking their clothes off.
He unbuttons his shirt, leaves it on his shoulders for a while, puts condoms on the bedside table, lights an incense stick and tells me about books, whose titles I instantly forget. I observe him, try to spot his attraction and make the best of mine, while lounging on the sheets.
It’s not his looks, which attract me. It’s his words. It’s a game.
Words create contrasts, are an attempt to seize the ungraspable, to deceive about that which doesn’t exist or isn’t comprehensible. The fingers of his right hand open my bra catch, as he supports himself with his left hand on the bed. A little awkward, and I laugh, because I can’t breath when someone heavy lies on me.
Of course I cannot sleep next to him.
Can sleep with him, but not next to him, because he talks in his sleep and keeps me awake with his words. By this I don’t mean the incomprehensible syllables we utter while we sleep, by whose intonation we recognise events but no sense. He whispers and I under stand every word. I am in pain.
He moans, but not from lust, he turns around, but not in his sleep. He seizes me, not from passion, but because he hopes for relief from my touch.
I hear people on the street, hear them laugh and wander. Look at the pebbly surface in front of the subterranean window, the light of the street lamp blinding me. A slim golden chain-tree grows there. My wing flutters, pulses, its beat echoing in my chest, a beat like the hammers in a piano, when someone plays staccato.
My thoughts spin in ellipsis, I eavesdrop, until the sound drops and commences again at another spot. I am exhausted. Not physically, but mentally, I get up and go to sit in the garden, to listen to the traffic, the sirens, the neighbours, the rustling of the wind in the last leaves on the cherry tree.
You heart is a wild creature, Raphael says, that’s why it lives in a cage.
The evening brings balmy 15 degrees and big expectations.
I bring red lipstick, plasters and cash. Devoid of every tenderness, exchanged hours before, I cannot kiss him in front of the others. I want this swinging to stop, this buzzing, it indicates that something isn’t right.
They applaud him.
They greet and kiss me.
They know about me.
I am the ring card girl. William’s ring girl. If anyone had told me three years ago that I would ever play this role, I would have laughed at them. Yet, now, I carry his red velvet coat with the golden seam around like a servant.
The circus takes places in rotating hula hoops, buzzing robots, crinkly tinsel-threads and feather boas. People wear white and black bowler hats, glittering necklaces. It smells of mullet wine, which is served at the entrance, and saw dust, covering the floor underneath the wooden banks, and the arena. The artists, in the spotlight underneath the chapiteau, are supposed to put the whole thing in its true light.
I move away from him, disappear between the tiers, into a damp smell of wood and grease and smoke. I smoke at the entrance, unobtrusively next to the pin-up girl with the black fascinator on a perfect hairdo. She says her name is Noël and I think of the lights on snow-covered Champs Èlysées.
Later he stops to wait for me, in front of his door. Waits for me to come with him, to share his bed with him, to comfort him. But my feeling is as empty and cold as this street, and my heart is hammering continuously.
I give him a hug, turn around and follow this rhythm home, to Raphael.
Later I learn that he told everyone that I slept with him.
The truth is, Raphael says, we all have a mercy fuck sometimes.
We eat Shakshuka, at two in the morning, my favourite food in the world, which he cooked just when I lifted the door to sneak into his living room. As if he had know that I needed something warm, something nurturing, in that moment.
You aren’t responsible for other people’s hearts, he says. You just have to take care of your own.
© text and translation: Marianne Jungmaier, Austria 2016
The German version of “Creature in a Cage” was published in “Sommernomaden” (Stories) by Kremayr & Scheriau, Vienna, 2016.