I first visited this city sometime in the late seventies. I was 18 or 19. An acquaintance of mine lived here. Two friends and I visited him between Christmas and New Year of whatever year it was. He lived in a rundown block of flats. I have no idea now of the area, nor can I recollect the name of the nearest train station. His neighbours were mostly Vietnamese. The bars of the area all seemed to have table football and our meals consisted mainly of toasted sandwiches and bottled beer. The train journey into the city centre is a forgotten one - except for one morning - there was a man sitting opposite me; facing forward and reflected in the window I saw another head of equal size but wiped clean of eyes and ears, nose and lips, teeth and hair, as if mocking the lines, creases and tics of its neighbour. The man got up to leave the train and I saw that what I thought was a second head was a large and bobbing tumour like a sister planet fixed in orbit. And for weeks after I could not shake that image. My friend shared a cat with the next-door neighbour. The cat, a tiny thing with bat ears and a permanent scowl, would move from flat to flat by jumping between balconies. A week after we left, it fell 12 floors to the ground. The two neighbours put it out of its misery by breaking its neck. It would have cost too much to take it to a vet. I don't remember much about this city. What I do remember - and my memory is friable at the best of times - is amphetamine suppositories; transvestite bars; naked dancers; a policeman threatening us with his gun; a collection of porn magazines; calling my then girlfriend and her telling me that, at a party the previous evening, she'd kissed a friend of mine; a large bruise that, after a confusing 10 minutes with a prostitute in the toilets of a bar, developed on my penis; warm buttered bread. Each day of the four days we were there, we woke at 6pm and stayed up until dawn. It rained. It was cold.
It's autumn, 1991, and I'm sitting on the edge of the bed in a small room in a small hotel, staring out of the window on to the street, a novel is cruelly spatchcocked on the bedside table. My wife is asleep beside me. Her gentle snores mingle with the static of traffic noise and, from the bar below, the muted rumble of an argument. Her feet peek out from beneath the duvet. Gnarled, twisted, and curled, the nails yellow and claw-like, it is as if, in an earlier incarnation, she had used her toes to perch on pencils.
My wife wanted to go elsewhere. She had spent a year in this city as a student. I persuaded her to come here - I've been once before but I didn't really get to see it. We window-shop. We have lunch in a small restaurant. She says she's tired and of course I can go off on my own. But it's our honeymoon, I argue. 'Don't worry,' she says. 'If I have a nap, I'll feel better tonight.' I kiss her forehead. 'OK, I say,' and set off through the streets.
The morning rain still glistens on the cobblestones and brings them alive as if a million tortoises have stirred in the afternoon sun. The wet black trees are just-dropped widows' handkerchiefs and the puddles the misplaced monocles of forgetful monsters. Cars backfire as if a crazed gunman is shooting at random in the street. Looking into the window of a bakery, I see the sun reflected there like a phantasmagoric cake, all sherbety yellow, and panic-button red. A conspiracy of light and water paints a rainbow behind my head and I decide on a small cake topped with icing. I buy it and start eating it before I leave the shop.
I walk the streets. I make notes in my notebook - notes of random things, everyday things, of the macabre, and of the boring. I decide to return to our hotel and write up my notes into poems while I watch my wife sleep. I'll write something about buildings and memory, the streets and the stars. I'll write a poem and give it to my wife at dinner. Yes, I'll write of the indeterminacy of place
As I open the door, I hear groaning. My first thought is that my wife is gravely ill and that I will need to call a doctor. I step into the small hallway and in the mirror atop the chest of drawers, I see my wife sucking the cock of a man who is stripped from the waist down. I feel stupid. Stupid because, not seconds before, I was worried about the inconvenience of calling a doctor. And I can see the serpentine contraction of my wife's neck muscles as she swallows and her eyes, almost closed in ecstasy, now widening in alarm. I begin to shout and stop. The man withdraws and stands there, staring at me. My wife is on all fours on the bed. She says, 'I…' I turn and close the door.
My wife and I stand near each other on the platform but enter the carriage from opposite ends. The train is crowded. We have no choice but to sit in our reserved seats. I sip from a bottle of water. My wife stares ahead and I stare out of the rain-soaked window at the unspooling suburbs. The couple opposite us are napping, their heads seem to meld together as if conjoined. I pick up my book and read,
Nothing is slower than the limping days
My wife looks at me. I can see her face reflected in the window, tears racing raindrops, and I know which will win. She holds my hand and whispers, 'I'm sorry.'
It's autumn, 2003, and I'm sitting in an armchair, reading a novel, in a hotel suite. My girlfriend is asleep in the bedroom. A gentle breeze comes through the open window but does not trouble the heavy curtains. There is no sound apart from my own breathing. Earlier, I moisturised my girlfriend's feet. Marshalled by the marshmallow sergeant majors that are her big toes, the other toes formed a neat parade of milk-gum soldiers in scarlet caps, uniform and pliant.
My girlfriend wants to go shopping. I want to take my book to a café or bar and read, to do the things I didn't do on previous visits - to sit and relax. She sits on my lap and strokes my cheek to facilitate this transaction. I slip my hand under her silk dressing gown and tweak her nipple. She kisses the end of my nose. She stands and drops the gown to the floor. 'OK,' I say and pull some notes from my wallet. 'Have fun.' I pull down her panties. I follow the blonde vapour trail of her pubic hair with my heat-seeking tongue.
The streets are dusty and filled with litter. Same as any city, I suppose. I decide not to go to a bar and stroll aimlessly along half-remembered streets. My fellow walkers seem to have lost something or are looking right through me and scurry by, their intense faces fixed either on the ground or at some indeterminate point behind me. And I feel like a ghost walking through this city. And I stop and stare at my reflection in a shop window and, shocked by my body's transparency, I panic, for, in an instant, it holds nothing and it holds the city. I close my eyes and shake my head.
I walk the streets until I find a café. The cafe has no pretensions, is small, friendly, and sells a draught beer I like. I sit at a table, and sip my drink and check my diary. I find meetings, I find appointments, I find lunch dates, and I find nothing. At some point, I look up and I'm sure I see my girlfriend pass, laden with bags, and I think, 'Even those bags look expensive.' And I think again, 'Well, they would be, wouldn't they?'
As I open the door, I can see, across the lounge and through the bedroom door in the gilt-framed mirror, my girlfriend trying on her purchases. I close the door quietly and position myself in order to witness this secret show. She changes out of her expensive shopping clothes and tries on her new lingerie. Most of it is black, red, white, or cream - shiny, lace or sheer. The bras are full-cupped, half-cupped, and peek-a-boo; the panties are high-cut, brief as brief - silk, satin, and lace. And some are grey, and some are blue, and some are brown, and some are orange, and my cock begins to harden, for some reason, at the sight of a camouflage bikini. 'Hi,' I say. 'It's me.' 'Hi, you.' She says.
My girlfriend and I stand surrounded by bags. We take our seats in first-class and wait for the waiter to bring champagne to our table. I've finished the novel and am deciding on what to read next. The waiter finally arrives with the bubbly and we drink it with some cheese and bread we bought for the journey. The waiter doesn't look too impressed. 'Fuck him,' I whisper to my girlfriend. 'I'd rather fuck you,' she says; so we slip from our tables and in to the toilets. After a while, we return to our seats and I pick up a book and read,
We yearn for something resembling fidelity,
And as I do so, my mobile trills and the envelope icon appears. I press 'menu' and 'messages' and 'inbox'. It is my wife. And I press the pliant metal but rubbery button and, 'You bastard,' it reads. 'Touche.'