It was an ugly house, dissected no doubt out of something middle-class and elegant and whole from a century before. Now, Doctor Zhivago-like, four families lived across its four chambers, and Janusz found himself hauling his two cases, baby and daddy, along a bypass towards the left-most ventricle.
He pushed the button to raise the alarm, the electronic emulation of a bell, to signal to the occupants within that a visitor genetically distinct enough not to merit a key was present without, then leant back on his heels. White paint peeled off the outside like a tree with fungal disease; huge see-through plastic bags of pink broken Barbie clones sagged on either side of the doorstep, while a no-less-pink Disney Princess kitchen, cracked and with stickers half-torn (a lightning bolt as if from wrathful Zeus slashed zigzaggedly across Snow White’s face, leaving her the sole eye and half-, now startlingly sardonic, smile), lay crumpled on the concrete nearby. Notices on the door warned against the solicitation for funds for charities or business, the distribution of free newspapers or taxpayer-funded magazines trumpeting the current incumbents’ latest glorious socio-cultural triumphs, and the disturbance of the dog. Janusz was shortly to discover that there was no dog. He felt an inexplicable pang of affront at this: to lie to potential burglars like that, to cede the moral high ground. . .
Shouting, muffled, sounded from inside. Janusz pushed his glasses further up his nose and held his breath. Whenever he entered a house such as this, there was always the chance he would never exit. Not alive, or with his dignity intact. His jacket, tweed, he’d decided, tagless from Cancer Research, hung sweatily against his shirt, but he wouldn’t remove it. Professionalism—in attitude, dress, competence—was key, his agency had told him, as were approachability and “matiness” (a quality he’d had to google and which he had no confidence he possessed).
An indefinite amount of time, he realised, elapsed before the door opened; it might have been seconds, or, for all his limited consciousness knew, eternities. As the doorspace widened, before he could see who greeted him, he contrasted this with that, with a door back home, by the fields, in a golden-grain, cinematographic light, as she, sixteen, opened her door to him, bearing a smile as yet unshaped, unconquered, by the outside world. She took his hand, and led him inside, and served him elderberry wine, and he sank in a couch amidst the breeze that floated in and out the open windows around the house, and they did not talk, but only looked at each other and communed silently on the limitless pasture that was their future. That smile, though, would never be again, nor that light, nor that world. The pasture was grazed to dust, by others, before they’d even seen it.
He was looking now on a small woman in a robe with dark, faraway eyes, wary of outsiders, it would seem, although it had been she who’d rung the agency.She filled out her dress, amorphously, and a terrifying birthmark shaped vaguely obscenely bled down one side of her face. Her look was utterly without fluency, but if it had been able to articulate, it would have produced something along the lines of, “Prove yourself to me, cunt.”
“Yes?” she asked, gutturally.
“Janusz?” He heard himself query his own legitimacy, if not existence.
“What?!” she demanded, as if he’d spat a curse in her face.
“From the agency? Didn’t you ring?”
From her glare, he felt it was touch and go whether she’d whisk a kitchen knife from behind the door and plunge it through his eye.
“I ask for male.”
His eyebrows, puffy, quivered as if ruffled by a breeze. “I am a male.”
Her stare was awful: in the black eyes there was not even memory of empathy, mercy, or acknowledgement of Venn overlap of her fellow humans with herself.
“I mean ‘female’,” she suddenly clarified.
“Oh. Easy mistake to make. I mean, in the language.”
“I not born here,” she admitted. Janusz began to be touched that she would share this revelation.
“Nor I,” he agreed. Nonetheless, he was forced to acknowledge, with a shrug, that he did possess the genitalia traditionally ascribed to males, and he did not feel inclined to enter into a debate with this woman as to the viability of the self-identification of gender in modern times, sure though he was he could win.
She looked him up and down, groin to eyes and back again, lowered her face, turned to the side and murmured, “Come in.”
He shifted around the cases until they and he could squeeze through the door; the antipathy with which she watched him was palpable, Chernoybl-rich in the air.
“Lovely place” he emitted with an automaticity drilled into him by the agency.
“What?!” She’d stopped and turned round to query the sincerity of his comment. He hadn’t actually looked, of course; he couldn’t honestly care about the decor with which she surrounded herself, having a life as he did. But now, pressed, he extended his single left index finger (the others occupied in grasping his two cases tango-like to his torso) to indicate the sacks of rice lining the corridor like sandbags, the blocky, low-res, Minecrafty needleworked pictures of various places of worship, the garbled-broken tricycles (two) and the pile of cover-stricken paperbacks suitable, as a last resort in another dreary London winter, for burning.
“Lovely,” he insisted, in shameless refutation of the testimony of his own senses.
Her eyes, he admired from a cinephile’s point of view, were not noticeably dissimilar to Peter Lorre’s in, say, M.
While his rapid mental calculation as to the likelihood of her having heard of Peter Lorre issued a result of “Not very!”, she pushed open, wood-warpingly, a door, and, in the absence of an invitation, he took it upon himself to enter.
In the tiny room—he could hardly fit himself and both his cases along with the mother and the following—a boy who looked no older than fifteen—but then, Janusz had never been very good at estimating ages, for he rarely had the need to, and he’d gotten along quite competently in his life so far without having had to place a premium on such a talent—a boy lay back in a wheelchair, dressed in tracksuit bottoms and, well, tracksuit top; emblazoned with the moniker of one of the popular teams, football, Janusz supposed without a sliver, an atom, of curiosity—his hair (the boy’s) was cut close to the skull, as was the wont these days—his facial features were likewise entirely unmemorable; Janusz wouldn’t have noticed him if passing him on the street, any more than he would a parking meter he’d have to swerve around unconsciously to avoid damaging himself in collision; no one would have noticed him; even a mosquito, if the city’s air had been a little less noxious enough to harbour them, looking for slab of human skin to land on, would have passed right on by without comment. Janusz meant no pejorative judgement in thinking these thoughts; the boy’s personality might have very well been beguiling, his inner life luxuriant, his observations subtle, his integrity unimpeachable. He doubted it very much, but felt it would have been churlish to banish the chance from the realm of possibility altogether.
No, the only really salient feature about the boy, as Janusz, with his sensitive artist’s eye and noted sympathetic nous, detected almost at once, was his closed eyelids and apparent absence of life.
To her invitation “Sit down there!”, he replied: “Excuse me, but is he dead?”
He didn’t feel up to explaining the word to her. Fortunately, the boy’s eyes chose that moment to open (as if on cue, Janusz chuckled internally), though his expression remained as uninvigorated when conscious as when not.
“Hi there,” Janusz broached, falling back on the basics of human communication of which he’d been passably aware even before his tenure with the agency. “My name is Janusz. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The boy responded with drool.
Janusz laughed, aloud, for he could not think of what else to say, except: “Whoops! You’ve sprung a little leak, there. Mother, handkerchief, please?”
Evidently lacking handkerchief to hand (a hundred years ago, of a gentleman in a carriage trundling down Regent Street, Janusz reflected wistfully, that would not have been the case), she instead reached down and grasped the boy’s wrist roughly in her stubby fingers, jerked up his forearm and wiped his mouth with his own sleeve; this action completed (it having taken barely a semiquaver), she released the arm, which plopped back onto the upper thigh from whence it came.
Janusz was shaken. (He was even tempted to say, inwardly, that he was shaken to the core, the very core, the very marrow of his being; but he admitted to himself, parenthetically, that he had yet to discover this core, of his being, if there even was one. Not for lack of trying—he’d read Gibran, he’d spent more than one Sunday afternoon on the stool in his bedsit in the company of Paolo Coelho; the TED Talks website was bookmarked on his tablet, as was Men’s Health;one ex-girlfriend had even made him accompany her to yoga class, where he’d stretched his limbs, painfully and unnaturally, alongside her and a class full of other unattractive women to the muted, meditative tones of Adele (surname withheld). But, still, he did have—potential knife through the eye notwithstanding—the rest of his life to find it, right?) Meanwhile, he plumbed the well of his brain for what the agency’s manual had had to say on the subject of inert, maternally manhandled tutee, but came up dry. He cleared his throat.
“It’s been lovely to meet you, but. . .” He turned to the mother, to continue his thought: “Isn’t it about time I met his brother? The one I’m sent for, I mean.”
She stared down at him with all the wrath a plump, four-foot-eleven housewife in a tatty robe could muster, and informed him: “No brother. He your student. He waiting.”
“But. . .heh-heh. . .can he. . .you know—talk?”
Contempt was her reply.
“Can he at least move?”
“Well, I mean. . .”
She kicked his case—the baby one, as if to be even meaner, which exhaled a little wheeze—and encouraged: “Teach him now!”
Mindful of his fee, he opened the baby case and pulled out the accordion. He set it awkwardly on the boy’s lap; he couldn’t let go, lest it tumble to the floor.
“Careful! You hurt his leg!”
He pulled it off. “How can you tell?” he asked without thinking.
“I his mother!”
Since straws were all he could see to grasp, he grasped at them: “You did call the agency, yes? I just—I just wanted to be sure. You did hire a tutor to teach your son the accordion?”
“Accordion—yes! Teach him play accordion, now! He waiting!”
“It’s just. . .traditionally, I mean, it’s tradition for the player—at the advanced level, at least—to be able to hold the instrument on his own, and, and be. . .conscious. . .”
“He compose! He compose twelve, thirteen accordion suites! One accordion concerto!”
“Has he? May I see them?”
“See?! Nothing to see! Hear! Sound!”
“Have you heard them?”
“Not I! He! He compose in head! He play in head! He wait for you play them in air, in life! On instrument! You bridge, his world, inside, to this one! You bridger of worlds! What I ask agency for!”
Bridger of Worlds—how cool would that look on my CV, he thought, a smile crinkling one corner of his mouth, on the side she couldn’t see. He could situate it right after his gross words per minute and right before his waiting experience at the twin-tabled Thai restaurant in Weybridge.
“Stephen Hawking compose accordion sonata—why not my son?!” By sitting there—by his impotence in responding to her demands—he was enraging her all the more, he could see. Yet he was at a loss.
What if I came on to her, right now? he asked himself. If I just reached under her robe and started caressing her calf—the screams, getting sacked, the court appearance—might it all be worth it, just for the laugh, the huge laugh it would give me now?
He shook his head, wet dog-like, to snap himself back to this particular unreality.
“Madam—I assure you that I would like nothing more than to cultivate your son into the next Stephen Hawking. If you would answer a few questions about his abilities, it would assist me enormously.”
“Can he move?”
“No! No move—not body!”
“He can’t move his body?”
“Not body, no. But mind—yes!”
“Do you mean that he can move physical objects with his mind—telekinetically? If that were so, we might have something to work with.”
“What? He no move! He like flower!”
“Do you mean that he’s like a flower, or that he likes flowers?”
“What? Who like flower? I call agency!”
“No, please, Madam—”
“No—I call council!”
And with that, she leapt, with unforeseen agility, across the room, to a painting of a fiftyish Queen arm-in-arm with Philip, beaming, the both of them, at an eternally sympathetic observer just past the camera lens, and wrenched it off the wall, revealing a large red button, which she proceeded to slap.
At once, the doorbell rang, and the door could be heard opening, from the outside, and heels marching up the corridor and then a thin, plate-faced young man in a blue suit, hair raked in furrows down the eaves to the ears, stood smiling the smile of Max Schreck straight down at Janusz.
“Pleasure to meet you, sir. My name is Jackson. I hail from the Newham Borough’s Equal Opportunities Division, as you know.”
Janusz rose, in self-defence. “No. How would I know?”
“Oh.” Jackson looked slightly rattled. “I would have presumed. . .we’ve invested quite an amount of money in a borough-wide advertising campaign: bus banners, phonebox sidings, school canteen tray linings, and the rest of it.”
“That’s all very well, but even then, how would I know that you yourself worked for such an admirable division of the council?”
Jackson’s smirk lengthened across his cheeks, and deepened to erode, like a rock fissure, significant portions of his lips. “I see I am confronted by a commendable stickler for logical causation, sir. Well. My face—yours truly—well, never let it be said that I’m one to toot my own horn, but my own modest visage has featured somewhat prominently in the campaign, let’s just say.”
Janusz looked to the woman, who gazed at Jackson with the adoration due an illiterate, auto-tuned pop star.
“I’m honoured, Mr Jackson,” Janusz returned. “It’s not every day I encounter bona fide stardom in my tutorials. Although I did once teachRik Waller’s sister for about half a fortnight. She had a real talent, but the availability of funds became erratic.”
“A touching tale, Janusz, truly. I can see that this wavelength we’re both riding is just about big enough for the two of us. Just about, yes. But I’m afraid that we’ve been drifting rather a distance away from Pinky, you see.”
“The boy’s nickname—as I’m sure you would have gleaned, had you taken the trouble to engage in preliminary chat with him, as normal social ordinances stipulate.”
“Well, you know—normal social ordinances were made to be broken, I always say.”
Jackson’s face froze in disdainful rigidity; his front tooth punctured his upper lip; a droplet of blood, the brightest object in the room, trembled.
He whimpered a laugh. “Forgive me, sir, madam, Pinky—for I seem to be bleeding!”
Janusz, so incensed by the situation as to throw—because the wind demanded it—caution right to it, at once grabbed Pinky’s wrist and smeared it roughly across Jackson’s lip. Jackson tipped back and fell directly onto Pinky’s lap, knocking him off his chair; they tumbled, entwisted, to the floor. The mother screamed in unmitigated outrage—Janusz seized the empty accordion case and, after engulfing her in it, thrust his own head into the upturned coffin as well, and, their mouths fused indissolubly, moaned primordially down her throat whilstproceeding to—
He blinked. He’d done, of course, no such thing. He—a mild-mannered music teacher who’d last made a scene when there’d still been nine recognised full-sized planets?
As no one offered him a tissue, Jackson sucked the blood off his lip into his mouth and swallowed; graphically, and with relish. His tongue, thin and curdled with custard-yellow slime, licked across the outside of his face for good measure.
“There now,” he said softly. “All better—boo-boo gone!” He laugh-whined.
Janusz watched the mother: at the sight of Jackson’s tongue, she’d stiffened; her legs pressed together and shivered. He looked to Pinky: he stared at a closed dresser, where he’d been staring all along.
“Now then, Janusz.” Jackson swivelled, with elegant footwork, to him. “Perhaps you and I might confer over a few legal niceties—in private.”
“Toilet that way,” the mother pointed.
“No no!” Jackson laughed. “It is, I’m sure we would all agree, a lovely day outside. Janusz, are you with me?”
Janusz turned to go. He took the large case, and started to reach for the smaller.
“Oh, you can leave that here for Pinky to play. We should be back in a jiffy.”
Janusz remembered his mother, his late mother, who died a death accelerated by her unassimilability into British culture, having painstakingly, but fruitlessly, plodded through endless lists of English vocabulary, enjoining him: “Janusz, my boy, my baby child: if ever in this wretched country you meet a man who says the word ‘jiffy’—Janusz, you kill that man.”
Along the contours of the lake, he and his love had wandered, as the evening clouds of bruise-purple stroked the departing sun, and massed, like smouldering, lavender algae, across apicture-book pool. No sound save the wash of the tide over their toes imposed on them, as they held hands, fingers interlocked, heads bowed, each knowing the other was waiting, in vain, for them to speak.
But now, today, he and this man Jackson walked—well, Janusz lumbered, as well as he could whilst grappling his case, beside Jackson’s short, bouncysteps; the latter giggling here and there as effect to no obviously discernible cause—along the canal. The canal, from where Janusz could witness the terraced houses, sucking in their guts, in denial of their dotage, abut the glass-steel gentrifying robot exoskeletons of today. Cyclists and hoodies, mechanics and gangsters approached Jackson to shake his hand, marvel in his face and beg autographs.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Jackson explained in reply to Janusz’s unstated, and, indeed, unconceived, question.“It’s so tedious, celebrity, truly. I’m sure you get the same sort of thing all the time in your line, don’t you?”
“Sure. I can barely squeeze out my front door for the scrum of well-wishers.”
Jackson sighed, and trailed a forefinger across the shoulder of Janusz’s coat, then examined it for, apparently, dust. “These are dangerous times for a reactionary such as yourself, my friend.”
After the shoulder incident, Janusz moved slightly away, but not so far as to veer too close to the canal. “Who says I’m a reactionary?”
“Why, your files—available on the borough’s central database for all to see. Well, anyone with the proper security clearance, I mean.”
“Why would the borough have a file on me?”
At this, Jackson let out a macaw-laugh, threw up his arms and clawed the sky,as if clenching the collar of God’s shirt (presumably Marks & Spencer, if not, even more commendably, Charles Tyrwhitt). “‘Why would the borough have a file on me’! Oh, you are too, too much, matey, you are.”
“I ask, because I’m not exactly what you would call a political figure in the making. Truth be told—not that it’s any business of the borough, or of yours—I haven’t even voted since I was eighteen, back in Krakow. And I regret even that.”
Jackson’s moonface, skin stretched tight like hide on a tanner’s rack, whirled to his, tongue dog-tail-dangling at an angle of forty-five degrees, smile nimbly hitting the “maniacal” mark. “You don’t think that I give a damn about your political leanings, your actions, your behaviour—your life, do you? Whether you live or die? Me?! Ha ha ha ha!”
A coughing fit overtook him, and he stopped walking. Blood-flushed phlegm bubbled down out of his nostrils, until he snorted it back up, shook himself back to normal, and resumed.
“I’m hardly the sort to get personal with anyone—not my style, Janusz, not my style. All I’m trying to say—as a kind of little head’s up, you understand; a favour—is to give you fair warning.”
“Warning about what?”
“Well, the laws of the borough are quite clear. No recipient of private tuition may be discriminated against on the basis of gender, age, race, creed, sexual orientation, disability, physical attractiveness or lack thereof, mental capacity or lack thereof, moral standing, girth, gender-pronominal self-selection, hobbies—anything, really.”
“I hardly think I can be said to be discriminating. There are other laws—artistic, physical—that require an accordion player to be able to hold the instrument, to be able to manipulate it—in short, to be able to think and to move.”
“Ah, yes—in the barbarism of the capitalist marketplace, you mean. But we are not savages here, you see. This is the first world; this is civilised society. I’d be honoured to be allowed to introduce you to it sometime.”
They stopped walking at a deserted spot. A sea creature of some sort splashed behind their backs.
“Art and physics,” Jackson went on, “are not domains of interest to the council. For we can’t control them. In fact, the council—officially speaking, I mean—does not acknowledge that art or physics exists. But it does acknowledge that discrimination exists. Oh yes. And as such, having acquiesced to the terms of the contract between your agency and that household and yourself, you are legally, and ethically, obligated to teach Pinky the accordion, despite the calculations of his doctors that his intellectual prowess is roughly on par with that of a grasshopper. And an aged, dementia-riddled one at that.”
Janusz, finally grasping what exactly he was dealing with, froze. “And what can I expect if I am unable to fulfil the terms of my contract—or if I refuse to try?”
Jackson’s upper lip curled up, baring, orangutang-like, his saliva-glistened teeth; his pupils dilated like silent-film iris-in shots; his nails tore into his palms as they would the back of a lover; his breath caught, as he sensed the approach of the climax to the hunt.
“. . .You can expect that I, with the collaboration of the council’s legal team. . .will fucking break you.”
Janusz looked down. He nodded the nod of a man who’d been beaten. “May I. . .may I play one final polka, before I am lost? To remind me of my home.”
Intoxicated with victory, Jackson gestured, by way of imperially opened palm, that he may.
As Janusz lowered his case to the ground and fumbled with the latches, Jackson turned his face in silhouetted profile, Grecian, against the sun, and whispered: “I could have been a doge. Sat upon a stone throne, annihilating peoples at the blink of an eye. Speechless, in the presence of my own power. Awash in a sea of awe. Imagine it, Janusz, can’t you? A whisper from me, and families would be sundered, fathers imprisoned, wives enslaved, babes dispersed—each such act draping further glory on my shoulders—with no one to dare challenge me! Whilst I, amidst my sprawling heap of lovers, lie gondola-cradled in profound post-coital calm, the world around me burns. . .burns. . .burns. . !”
Janusz pulled out his accordion, caressed its keys, closed his eyes, and his tongue was once more poking through the thicket between her legs, back on the warm August sand, in the last flush of dusk, to the coalescing sounds of the most subtle waves, seagulls’ laments, and her otherworldly whispers. Afterward, depleted but in peace, they lay on the shore, their naked forms swathed by the night. “Must you?” she asked, her hand on his breast; “Is the only fortune worth making the one to be made in London?” “I will prosper soon enough,” he answered; “I know it. Three months. Half a year, at most. And I will send for you. So you must wait for me.” “You know I will,” she said. He wished, now, he could remember how she’d looked when she’d said it. But he could not.
Jackson, paralysed in self-congratulatory ecstasy, made no move whilst Janusz strapped the accordion tightly to his, Jackson’s, chest; nor when Janusz prised open a small lid on its side and tapped a code onto a keyboard (as a boy, at school, Jackson had played, under duress, the recorder, which had boasted no self-destruct feature; how, then, was he to assume that an accordion did?); nor when Janusz shoved him into the canal. Jackson’s next, and last, movements, in fact, comprised solely the scattering of limbs from the explosion, their eventual re-agglomeration for the (closed-casket) funeral and his final transfer to West Ham Cemetery.
Yes. He really did.
Janusz and his bride lived a poor life, beachcombing around various Polynesian islands, but a happy one. Assorted agents of Interpol, flitting along main roads between delusions of Graham Greenian lifestyles, spoke over brandies in hotel bars of the legendary polka strains reported to have been heard wafting wraith like off the twilit beach, when, it stood to reason, no accordion master of any sanity would be found dead in that corner of the world.