There Is No Number

‘An almost archetypal case of the writer trapped in such a situation, Franz Kafka kept a routine that would cripple most people and that did not bring about physical strength, to say the least. As Zadie Smith writes of the author’s portrayal in Louis Begley’s biography, Kafka “despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing.”

[T]wo years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 08:30 until 14:30. And then what? Lunch until 15:30, then sleep until 19:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 23:00 (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then “depending on my strength, inclination and luck, until one, two or three o’clock, once even till six in the morning.” Then “every imaginable effort to go to sleep,” as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse.’

– Source unknown, sent by a friend via text 30/01/2018

Lists can be made of one’s shortcomings. The real artists of life spend as much time picking apart their flaws as they do indulging in onanism; where the latter is conducted on one’s back, the former is most often performed before the mirror or in the sleeplessness of lonely beds. There is nothing new to me, for I have seen it many times before, but still I return to them as habit. Allergies, acne vulgaris, receding gums, excessive consumptions (coffee, cigarettes, alcohol), doughy, quite unenthusiastic, flighty, untidy teeth, eczema, a proclivity for ingrown hairs, due to an anxious habit of fingering & pulling at my beard.

If I were to sit upon the toilet and catch a pronounced – or perhaps varicose – vein meandering an inch across my thigh, I am more likely to curse the audacity of its presence, than to admire, even in the slightest way, the beauty of this vessel that so effectively carries oxygen and nutrients around my body! here it only breeches the surface like a friendly humpback on a Nova Scotian excursion. My gums will recede, certainly, and then my teeth shall fall out completely; rotten and in pain. My addictions will send me mad. My allergies will bring me to tears! I pull out every hair I can purchase; with childlike curiosity I will study its line and coarseness, then I chew it to smithereens, and within it all – an exorcism.

I am not sure how it comes up but—‘I would not usually treat clients only over the phone like this. I would have to see them in person – at least once… But it’s different with you.’ When she stops talking, my ears agitate the tiniest of static to ensure that the signal has not dropped off—‘I think I have a very good sense of who you are from how you talk and how you express yourself.’ I grinned, fingers in beard—‘Thank you. I’m not sure if that was meant as a compliment but I’ll take it as one.’

At night, the midnight hour long gone and without curtains, I open my eyes in bed. Sleep does not come. After rolling round the back of eyelids for so long, the human eye is sensitive to the minutiae of light, and so it is outside’s scenery is bare in my vision. Every shadow that faints against my bedroom wall is crisp and vivid, a dream most lucid, but I am not sleeping! How I wish I could fall asleep! At that moment, I arouse to imagine women, to dwell on work, to poke fun at my shortcomings, and to grip my left thigh, fingering its unevenness, its imperfections. It is no darkness at all when one may scrutinise their imperfections. I fell twenty minutes later.

Because there is no curtain, a certain caution must be abided when enjoying oneself in bed alone at night. It was not much of a prelude, but – as luck would have it – the ending was enough to convulse me like a landed fish; short sharp moans like pulls of a violin bow. As I lay dying la petite mort, I turned my flooded skull out to the unveiled window and saw a gentleman in a hi-vis jacket watching me. He was staring, eye to eye. He had surely witnessed the whole thing. As much as I stared at him, covered in shame, so he stared back, unflinching. Would he turn away? Might he afford me one moment to retrieve my underwear, to clean the mess I had made for myself? Terror ran through me. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. A holy moment of individual experience had been pirated by a voyeur! My eyes began to water. How terrible! I am a pervert and now I was exposed! Maybe he was laughing, filming it so he might show it to his friends as though he had never done the same! Without much hope, I stood up and frowned. At last, I looked out of the window back at him, to confront his brave observation, but he was not where he had stood. No, he had vanished! And in a second, I realised that what I had thought was a spectator wearing a hi-vis jacket was no more than a streetlight that had shattered long ago! I buttoned my jeans and laughed aloud. What foolishness! How ready I was to believe that someone of no significance at all was prepared to observe my late-night indulgences! A great weight fell from beneath my lungs and truly my whole body was able to relax. I wiped my eyes and laughed! There was only the shattered streetlight, and as I moved about it so I revolved like a planet, unashamed, pushing one denim button after another into its hole.

My father speculates that the building next door is suspicious. I do not know what he means. At night I lie in bed and think about the building next door. No one lives there. No one comes and goes. There is no number. There are large concrete defences on the pavement around its walls. I look in whenever I pass my window, but there are only empty views. One day I saw a table and a chair leg illuminated by a nighttime lamp, no feet, many vacant rooms, but after only ten seconds of staring the light was extinguished. What goes on in there? It eats me up at night. Most certainly, there is a government operation next door. The mind dwells upon such things. I shall keep an eye on proceedings, sleepy or not.

When I felt alone at university, I relied on a girl I had never met. Who knows how we came to know each other, but there we were. We spent many hours on the phone and messaging. It got so that I relied on her, and maybe she relied on me. On those lonesome evenings, away from the friends I had spent years making, and the family that were infinite, there was another soul who seemed as alone as I. She had little money, so what I had I would walk to the shopping centre and buy her a voucher. Afterwards we would converse, catching up, making up for lost time. And so much of my time back then felt lost. When I asked for a photograph of her face, she sent me one, in the blurred definition of history I cherished her messy pixels. I recognised her instantly; she was a pornstar I was mildly familiar with. A Canadian pornstar. Of course she was not a Canadian pornstar, because so few of them have Mancunian accents. I called her back and told her she was beautiful, and we continued to speak of our awful days. It was nothing at all to go along with her charade.

When things disappeared, as they inevitably do, I was not afraid to go on without her, but I hoped the next man might see her actually.

And so it happens that it was one of the things that excited my mind at night, and almost fifteen years later, I am caught thinking about the long-gone confidant who may now have found photographs of herself.

Right there is where my mind turns. And right there is where I calculate how many hours of sleep I might get after the thoughts of before have burned out.