5X More Effective Than Flossing

There is that line in a film where he says, this grizzled cop—‘I picked a bad week to quit drinking!’ and then he and his partner jump off something and something else explodes. The name of the film cannot be recalled, not right now, not ever. We saw it when we were children—or in some tender moment of adult childishness—and its script is part of our identity. I think I picked a bad week to quit drinking, but, during these times, one can never count on a good week coming around the corner. What day is it, for my sense of time is shot. Even Monday morning felt two swimming pool lengths away from Sunday evening.
    That was when I began watching Christmas films. The mopped floor was drying, in the bucket a warm milky swill with bubbles clinging to the sides by their fingernails; the cat was in my bedroom, climbing on an overthrown bedsheet, yowling for freedom. No patience, that cat. She gets out and looks at everything, all our worldly possessions, contemplating what she can fuck up. The height of kitchen cupboards are streaks of her paws; every time I catch them in the light, I chuckle to myself. She sits on the desk I write upon, a neat ball of grey mischief. It is just the two of us. Every morning I am fortunate to catch her just before she starves to death; her last bit of energy wilting on a holler for breakfast; somehow she survives by a hair’s breadth and woofs down her morning meal while regarding me with relieved green eyes. She was famished. I will never understand that kind of hunger, she informs me with discerning eyes. Even as I sit, here, somewhat peaceful, with the blue fern beside me slowly dying, she leaps from nowhere, slaps me on a typing wrist with a half-clawed paw and flees excitably. She hides underneath my bed; I can feel her watching me; it is when I turn my back and return to write that she pounces! Nature’s fiercest hunter, without mercy, an endless bloodlust in her eyes. Soon she will come to rest on the radiator beside me.
    We watch the trains travel past. Another leaf has fallen from the blue fern and neither of us know why. It crackles noisily on the hard floor. She plays with the leaf until I place it in the bin.

    I have nothing to write. I am an empty vessel. In a dream, I put down two-thousand words—just like that!—and they were celebrated for centuries to come in every Russian university. A token, yes, a gesture, consider it thanks for Dostoevsky and Turgenev, for Chekhov and Akhmatova; allow me your past, if only for a fleeting moment. I wrote an old friend this week and informed her, in terms that were neither sad nor sentimental, that I struggle to write these days, to find the energy or inspiration, a spare hour before bed. Once upon a time she taught me that I had a new set of bones every seven years. Since we became friends, each of us took time out of our disparate lives to correspond and piece together one-and-a-half new skeletons each, three between us.
    The Geordie greets me enthusiastic as usual. It is the thirty-third floor and the perspective of our city is illuminated as I gaze out eastwards, lacing up steel-toed boots. I cannot see my old flat for the Gherkin. The Geordie does not move but he flutters. At first—two months ago now—I was not sure about him but since, in little moments on the building site graced, I have come to like him for reasons he will not emphasise for attention. I note while saying good-bye that we may never meet again; the job is over; everything looking as we always wanted it to. In the lift back down, there is a brief reflection of myself, it is dark, inaccurate, I think, hair ruffled and stuck, grey eyes. I needed Christmas, a night at the inn, in the stables, place me in the manger, allow the hay to tickle my pink ears.
    I needed a break, some sort of relief. As the coffee poured, I stood in a pool of cold air passing through automatic doors that never stayed closed. 
    Lightly I take my fingers and I run them up the stems of a blue fern. The dead leaves come away; so pitiful, in the lightest of touches. The cat looks at me. She wanted it to fall of its own accord, she wanted to play with it. The sound of things like that, of dead leaves on a hardwood floor, even in our little flat, is special. My neighbour does not sing nor talk to himself. There are sounds of him shitting, coughing, flushing the toilet and all those drainage lengths, there are the sounds of running water and a limp radio speaker, but he cannot be heard to sing. When he dies, will he make an almighty sound? When he gets married, he will smile in silence; will there be photographs?
    As the blue fern beside me slowly dies, I think of St. Francis of Assisi. He was mentioned in a book I read. The church I attended as a child, dragged every Sunday morning, was named after St. Francis of Assisi and above its door was a carving of him with some birds. I did not like that church. In winter, the pews were frozen. My clothes were smart and the congregation was spacious,  expecting the Lord to provide some central heating by His gracious hands, but there was none, so I froze beside my brothers, sandwiched between our parents. My father handed me a score for the collection, the twisted scent of an ATM-fresh Adam Smith, pink as though just emerged from a hot bath. Church had the scent of old wood and new money; unshakably, to this day, hold a twenty beneath my nose and it conjures up hymn numbers and genuflections.
    On Christmas day, my father wheeled out the karaoke equipment, which, he explained, was just a couple of microphones into the television set. Their living room was dominated by a tree, plump and full. We sang, terribly, into the night; often we arose, one-by-one, to top up our glass or grab another, maybe some food, but we always returned to perches upon my parents’ furniture. It was not unusual, in such informal proximities, to discard our anchored yet comforting microphones and sing, to bellow, elbow to elbow, in a yuletide cacophony, the worst rendition of your favourite song from the eighties. Why, myself, I had flakes of buttery pastry from mince puffs—a recipe of my grandmother’s (1925-2015) turned tradition—scattered about the socked compression of living room carpet. By that point, I, too, was winedrunk and quite gay. I chose the songs while my sister-in-law, cousin and my cousin-in-law, sang along. I sang, too. Make no mistake, my throat began to ache! How delightful! In a moment of nostalgia, after many well-received backing tracks, I chose the song I Want You, I Need You, I Love You by Elvis and everyone, relatives and friends, every soul in the room, looked at me blankly, unfamiliar with a song that had become part of my affection’s lexicon. Four years previous, on a ship from Tallinn to Heklsinki, a middleaged lady dedicated that song to me and the girl I was falling in love with. It was a mistake of mine, after she announced—‘Dedicated to everyone in love on this ship!’—that I thought, four years later, a family in my mother’s living room would know the song. For a moment, not much more than a bar, I contemplated moving on, to press fastforward, but stubbornly, no, it became a tribute to my love’s inevitable miscarriage, a hill to die upon. I would die in public or I would sing nothing! And so it was I died in public, unlike Elvis.
    In our season of confinement & familiar interaction, in the middle of boxes & a new evening, I walked out to that coast upon which I had depended for so much during lockdown. Like a local fisherman, I needed that stretch of North Sea to survive. How long had it been because some sounds work themselves into your bones like the reverberations of amniotic fluid? But there it was, disturbed off its norm, to rock in muddy punches of Henk’s milkteeth. Turbulence had driven sand from off the beach to the prom’, feeling my toothless soles and wind ripening beneath scarves, I stared at the domestic dogs that were led past. And they amused me.

    The local council had poured plinths for memorial benches. There were timber rectangles spaced out evenly along the upper promenade’s straight. Until they were dry, rusty iron stakes kept up a fluttering tape barrier. Every vacancy, still soft and blank, would come to be filled not by a body but a memory. I had no body but many memories. Each bench was plated with tributes and dates, the afterlife of an atheist. Relations are listed like ingredients: father, son, brother, grandfather, husband, great-grandfather, and so on. On every walk I was affected—if my eyes fell upon it—by a bench plated and dedicated to the memory of a fifteen-year-old person called Christopher. I assume their favourite colour was pink, for their bench was often decorated in pink tinsel or pink flowers or pink cards. Pink or purple. I imagine if I had died at fifteen; yet there I was walking on by more than double that. On one walk one bench had a group of people paying respects in the foulest of Henk’s furious spittle! At Christmas, remaining loved ones tended the benches. That was when they were, all along the front, most beautiful.
    At the farthest end, away from one town, past another and closer to a third, right near the cold bleached public toilets, where the streets lowered and fields arose, a floral arrangement had been placed in a repurposed bottle of Listerine. Ikebana five times more effective than flossing. The water within had already turned, brown but not as brown as the sea. Henk had churned it all up. Everything from afar had been pulled closer, dirt turned and squirt.
    By the end of the year, I, too, had blamed everything on Henk. His winter winds had disturbed what had settled, what was far away, and pulled it closer. Our dead washed up on the shore. The fine bones of a hand like porcelain had been withdrawn into pockets while the wind blew fiercely. Through peepshow windows, I peered into festive living rooms . There was nothing there for me. At any moment I hoped that they, the sleepy occupants, might look out and wish me hello. But, no, the sun only set. Everything, before and behind me, looked beautiful.