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Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. The Man Who Stood Still
by
Aamer Hussein


 

 



Dear L:

I just read your poem, ‘the man who ran away’. Yes, I recognise myself as the guest to whom, after too much champagne, at a party on the deck of a boat on the moonlit Bali sea, with gilded butterfly dancers flitting around us, you told a story about a man who brought you close to death with his silences, his longing for someone who’d died.

You didn’t know then how well I knew him. And at the end of the poem, when ‘I’ ask what you felt for the man…no, let us save your reply for another page. I thought I would respond by writing something about you. I’m no poet, so I’ll just write you this tale, and send it to you in a letter. In a language you won’t understand.

So. Listen:

This happened nine years ago.

1.

Remember the evening M told you: No two lovers are ever alike. I know you’ve had a bad experience; but don’t make that into a resolution. You’d just left your husband then. And you were far away somewhere, hiding in a village by the sea, writing your poems. No one knew where you were. M, too, was drowning: but he’d lost someone to death. You were wrapped up in anger, and he in grief.

But you wrote to him often, perhaps because he was ten years older, and a storyteller. Who knows why people think storytellers are wise? We only look around us, record and reflect what we see. Or we wound ourselves to write with blood. We rarely understand a thing.

With your exchange of letters, you grew closer: when you came back from your seaside refuge, you began to see him, nearly every day. But he didn’t want anything from you or ask you for anything. You were like a flash of lightning he’d seen from the corner of an eye on an empty rainy beach. And that’s all he expected you to be: a flash of lightning in a rainy sky at night.

Meeting someone every day can be dangerous. Togetherness becomes a habit. It was summer, too. Days were sultry. Evenings were long and white. (Sometimes, he sang to you: he’d been a singer once, but stage fright had frozen his throat.) Mornings came early. You said you were becoming unused to being alone. You visited a new place every day: a park. A river. The sea. And you talked: of anguish, of expectations.

Then you had to part for a week. He was going away. You weren’t happy. You said: I have a premonition about this. When you come back it’ll all change. We’ll be caught up in our business, each of us, in the long, long business of living.

That was probably the day he told you he’d die when he was sixty. It wasn’t something he willed or wanted: he was just sure he would. You said there wasn’t any point in a friendship that would last only twelve years: he was forty-eight. Let’s just leave it here. He laughed, and you wiped away a teardrop. You smiled. But you were pensive.

He was away five days, in an artificial city in the Arabian Gulf, on an artificial beach, and he didn’t really think about you. He wanted to escape from all those thoughts of the past or the present that made him sad or weary. Your memory stayed with him like those flashes of lightning he saw one night on that artificial beach. But he remembered your hands, your pale eyes, and your curly brown hair, which he said you should always wear loose: your hair that reminded him of the woman who had died, though perhaps he never told you that.

But you were right. Everything changed when he returned. You told him you were going away the next day: you wouldn’t have a moment to see him. You were visiting a sick friend far away. He was startled: he’d thought he would find you waiting for him. How selfish we are, even if we don’t intend to be.

You left, went far away. And the flow of his life became stagnant. You still met but often you seemed spent and spoke little. You lost your temper with him over a trifle: a trivial observation about a book you’d praised to him and he’d abandoned.

It was then, during those days, that you began to miss your husband. At times you wept; at others you were full of rancour. And that’s when M told you that not all men in love were the same, nor was every woman. You were silent, but a sense of estrangement was growing between you, something he had never sensed before. But you still met, less often perhaps, and the days went by, and the evenings turned russet.


So your story is meant to be about me, you said when I met you last week and translated my tale-in-a-letter for you, word by word, over little plates of meze and a magnum of arak.

I recognise the shadow of the man you call M, you said: the man who ran away from love. And I recognise some moments in his life. I remember his song about a woman who counted the crimson flowers she had planted in a patterned ceramic pot and fed the seven sparrows that lived in the eaves of her house while she waited for her dead lover to come home from the war. I remember how his voice made my flesh crawl with its hoarse loveliness. But this story of yours is just a fairy tale. A conventional romance. Sunsets and russet evenings and there’s probably an autumn moon somewhere. You even named the lovers after a classic pair; I recognise the initials. Archetypes. This could be about anyone. Where am I in this?

Remember, I replied, when we met at one of those free literary jamborees, on the flamboyant isle of Bali, you heard me talk about his work on a platform, how I admired him, not in spite of, but because of, his difficult reputation.

Ah, and as I said at the start of my story, I was going to remind you of something. At the end of the poem, when ‘I’ ask what you felt for the man, you say: I might have loved him once.

So. Keep listening. There’s a twist. I know you don’t like the mention of russet evenings, but one such evening is a part of your story.

2

On such a russet evening, a world-famous philosopher came to speak at M’s college about the psychological effects of war at a time when wars had changed the shape of the world you came from. A time when moving around the city was difficult for Muslim boys, or those who looked vaguely Arab: they were stopped in various parts of the city, and one innocent who was not even Muslim had been shot in an incident.

After the talk, a young man came up to greet M. He was of medium height, slim and curly-haired, with yellow eyes. He asked if you’d both join him and his colleagues for a drink. M looked at you for a response and before you answered he dismissed the boy with a terse phrase: Another time. He took your arm and walked away.

And as you sipped beer at a nearby bar after the talk you asked him: Who’s the pretty little boy, seems to be a fan of yours. Don’t think he’s read more than a little of what I have written, M said. Some years before, the young man - let us call him Z - had sought him out, saying: Would you write my story? It is very interesting. He came from the north of his country (which I won’t name in my story); he’d moved to the capital to study. His father was dead; his mother and his brother had saved up enough to send him abroad to study law but he wasn’t receiving enough money from home to live on. He rented a little room in the house of a Muslim family but he’d had to borrow money from friends to pay his landlord. He started driving a taxi to pay his debts, and stopped attending classes regularly.

M wasn’t able to help him financially in any way, nor did the young man have a story M wanted to tell. His was the plain tale of all those millions who leave their lands in search of something better; when they arrive at their destination, they find nothing. But Z would call M from time to time or come to visit him. And one day M asked him, so what’s so special about you that I should write your story?

He said, I could do anything to live here, I could even lie, I could say I’ve committed a sin a crime for which my savage tribe will execute me if I go back to my country.

But that’s preposterous, M responded. If your family ever belonged to a savage tribe, they certainly forgot their links with it a long while ago. For one thing you’ve almost abandoned your studies; for another, you spend your valuable mornings sleeping and your nights driving around because you’re acquisitive and fond of expensive things, gadgets, mobile phones and tight jeans. Finish your studies first: get your degree, it’s a matter of months, now. Then you can talk about leaving or staying on and buy whatever you want to.

As he spoke, he heard the false ring of his didactic and avuncular tone; he was beset by mixed feelings of compassion and disappointment, for the young, plain, simply dressed boy, who could almost be his son; he played witness to the boy’s yearning to give up his home and the willingness to turn away from his family because of his dread of stepping backwards.

Some days later M had a call from someone who said he was a friend of Z’s. Z hadn’t been attending classes, he had been working illegal hours, fourteen hours a day, was in trouble with the authorities, he’d be sent back if he didn’t get himself together. Could M vouch for his character?

M wasn’t going to refuse, but what could he have said? Yes, lots of people worked illegal hours, and he thought that the rules for casual labour should be changed, the ratio of supply and demand was unequal and there so many kinds of hunger to satisfy, but he couldn’t really say that in his position.

Yes, he told the caller, if needed I’ll tell them that I know he’s an intelligent young man and a hard worker, but financial problems have stopped him from studying as he should…and if in future I can be of help, let me know.

Later, M heard that Z had been very ill, had a mental breakdown; he couldn’t have been sent away in that condition. But while he was recovering, it seems he had found a very good lawyer who’d persuaded the authorities that if he went home he’d be conscripted, or that was the version that was current. He’d been allowed to stay on and had gone back to his studies with some financial aid to complete them. There were other, competing stories about lies, about deceptions, about a rich protector, but those weren’t M’s business. And one day when M met him in the corridor Z said: You always wanted to write my story, you can now….

So tell me, M said to you, what can I say about him? That the lies he told caused him to have nightmares, to dream about his brother’s body lying decapitated in the debris of a bombed building, about his mother running in the empty lanes of a devastated city? And to run from his own fears, of the open city streets, of stark daylight, of men in uniforms, of trees that looked like gallows in the night?

You fell silent.


You fell silent. Or did you quarrel then, as you had started to do? Did you talk about refugees and the harsh lives they faced in those inhuman times, or about the lies and subterfuges of illegal migrants, or the phrase ‘savage tribes’, which you believed the boy would never have used? Or was it the ghost of something else, of the boy’s story of dispossession, perhaps, of deprivation, that walked between you? I don’t know.

I didn’t start anything, no, you said. I remember the boy, yes, and the way he fawned on the man you call M, and how M shook him away abruptly. No, it wasn’t me. It was him. Seeing the boy saddened him. Telling the refugee’s story made him worse. He was silent, surly, all the rest of the evening.

I haven’t written much more, I told you. I lost my way here, and whatever else I wrote seemed to fall into clichés, or to belong to another story. But I can tell you what I think happened, later.



3

You left the bar and began to walk, slightly out of step, the silence between the two of you as sour as bad red wine. Then he began to talk, in a rushed but halting monologue, about the woman who had died young and left him, he said, quoting a poet, to sleep in the sleeve of grief because he hadn’t known what to make of her gifts when she was alive. He said that he’d lived in the expectation that someone’s love would heal him, calm him, and when she’d died his own guilt left him bereft. It was six months now since they’d taken her body home.

You looked up at the sky and pointed at the moon which was the colour of mottled blood, you looked up and said: Look! The black moon! And you spoke of how, in your language, that mottled moon was considered unlucky for lovers, even cursed.

He told you then that he wanted you, needed you, stayed awake at nights talking to you, he talked to you in his sleep, wondered if he could spend the rest of his life without you.

You told him it was too late to talk of these things; that if you ever could have cared – and yes, there’d been a chance, way back, at the start, in summer – he’d been too withdrawn, too sunken in the sleeves of his own grief, he’d never even touched you except to graze your cheek with his cold lips when he said goodbye. And now there was someone else, a young man with sparse blond curls and blue eyes that were slightly crossed, and a tiger body you desired, though as yet you’d done nothing, nothing, but it was only a matter of days before…

Say no more, he said.

You walked on together in silence.


I remember the night, you said, that night in November, the pompous philosopher, and the mottled moon. But I was leaving for Helsinki the next morning and said I didn’t want to be late at the airport. It was midnight and it wasn’t a night to talk about love. I would have heard him out another day. He turned and walked away in the dark. He left me alone on a lonely street. When I looked back he was running.

Not true. He kissed you at the entrance of the station before he ran. And he often runs when it’s cold.

You lit a cigarette.

Is that what he told you then, you hissed.

Of course you’ve never known, then or now, how close I remain to the thought of him, that even in his absence I can see his heavy soul in his eyes when they’re suddenly naked. The man who stands still and never runs. Who never touches anyone until they touch him.

And he kissed you.

I don’t remember the kiss, you said.

He kissed you. Then he ran. From the cold bitter taste of your lips.

You put down your glass and stood up to leave.

So that’s it then, your story.

Stay, I said to your departing back. You’ve yet to hear the story of the Madman and the Night..



4

When he’d said goodbye to you at the station, he began to walk: he was a long way from home, but he couldn’t bear the thought of public transport. The November night had fallen, and it was cool. He found himself in step with a group of young people in evening dress, obviously on their way back from a celebration. A silver-haired young woman from among them in a red dress and an open fur jacket broke away from and asked him for a cigarette. Join us, she said. We’re going to another party. He smiled, shook his head, and walked away.

Two blocks down, he reached for his cigarettes and found an empty space where his wallet had been. Had the young woman put her hand in his pocket, taken it as she spoke to him? Or had he dropped it on the street?

He retraced his steps. Nothing. Even if he had dropped it, someone would have picked it up within the space of a moment or two. Library cards. Identity cards. Bank cards. What else was in it? He had to get home to cancel what he could immediately.

He had his keys, some change, and his travel card in his pocket. Best to take a bus, he thought. As he reached the high street he ran to where a bus was pulling out. It would take him near enough to where he lived. He jumped on; the conductor swore at him, under his breath.

He went to the upper deck. It was empty of the usual throng of sad-eyed night workers who usually travelled home at that hour. Only one man, his face covered with a shabby black cotton jacket, lay on a seat at the back.

In spite of the autumn weather, he was sweating; his jacket clung to him, feeling like a bearskin. He shrugged it off and laid it beside him. His shirt was soaked.

He shut his eyes for what seemed like a moment. When he opened them again, he saw a man with a very red face leaning over him.

It’s the last stop, the man said. Wake up. You have to leave the bus here.

He rose, then bent to look for his jacket. Gone. Next to him was the reeking ragged jacket of the man he’d seen earlier, and an empty beer bottle. Now he had no keys, no cigarettes, and no travel card either. He got off to find himself in a place he didn’t recognise, a suburban street of darkened doors. One shop at a corner still had its lights on: a twenty-four hour grocery. He thought of buying cigarettes but remembered he had no money. When he had orientated himself by turning around, he realised that he was near the entrance of a park quite far away from his neighbourhood; but if he walked through it, he’d be on the road that led him halfway home.

The park was dense with evergreens; in their nocturnal forms he felt that there were animals and birds hiding, snakes, wolves, turkeys, bulls, as if they had escaped from the nearby zoo. In a moment, they would emerge from the shadows. He was shivering in his silk shirt without a jacket, though the night air wasn’t very cold for November. His feet were hurting. The full red moon loomed overhead and in its light he remembered reading that in the park they’d built a glass house in which there was a miniature simulacrum of a beach, artificial sand, sea represented by a salt-water pool complete with artificial waves, reflected in a mirror that made it look infinite; people began to swim there in November and visited it throughout the winter months. Was he imagining this, or had he also read that on certain nights of the week it stayed open for twenty-four hours, and entrance was free? Was tonight such a night?

He turned down a path that said ‘To the pools’ and found himself in a strange, abandoned space that looked like the backyard of a factory. He found that his eyes could discern certain forms in the dim light of a distant building. He saw that he was in a children’s playground, with swings and slides and toy horses. He was exhausted now and knew that to ready himself for the walk home he would have to rest a while. The dark red moon came out again from behind a very dark cloud. He sat down on a bench, took off his shoes, and, just to pass the time, he began to sing. The only song he could recall was a plangent ballad you used to hum to him, in a language he half-knew. One by one, as he hummed, the words and the cadences of the ballad came back to him. He sang, louder and louder, his higher notes echoing in the stillness. He was unafraid of being heard in this abandoned space. He sang about the bitter river of blood that flowed from a wound within him, and that other wound, more bitter still, of your last kiss on his lips.

He closed his eyes when he’d repeated the chorus three times and opened them, after what seemed like a long blink, to see a milky first light bathing the trees in the courtyard of his block of flats, where he was sitting on a low stone ledge beneath a plane tree. His shoes were beside him, and his jacket was slung over his shoulder. Magpies hopped from branch to branch, pigeons rested on stone ledges, and sparrows searched for crumbs in the courtyard littered with the detritus of the night.

He checked his pockets: keys, travel card, wallet. Cigarettes, yes. He took one out of the packet and lit it. His cold bed could wait. Sitting barefoot on the ledge beneath the tree, he began to sing, softly: a song about a boy who jumped off the roof of an empty train and walked for miles down a broken bridge to the wide white desert where he sat beneath a giant cactus and pierced his forefinger on a thorn to write a letter on the breast of a friendly robin who swore to sing his birthday message to the careless girl he left behind.