My boyfriend felt an immediate kinship with the town of N—, even with our having arrived three days later than intended due to the winding, tree-wrapped roads that had been freshly redrawn with a shiny coat of ice. I think this affinity may have had something to do with the very namelessness of the place. My boyfriend, himself named M—, after a Russian town in a mouldering book by Dostoyevsky, confessed to me once that his namelessness had bestowed upon him, or so he thought, at least, a sort of intangibility or even an invisibility.
He is petite, standing a few inches below my own 5’6, with limbs that seem to bow gracefully in the middle rather than bending through use of a pointy knee or elbow. His eyes are a jarringly light blue several shades too pale for his dark hair and olive skin; he always jokes how he had been put together by a first-day intern of God’s. Not only is he sometimes invisible, but somebody else’s eyes clamour about in his head. I imagine how the wrong pair of eyes might affect one’s world view. Would M— see flashes of a world belonging to say, a Mary, or a Hilda, or a Frederick? And would they occasionally do the same, tuning in as the smooth column of M—’s nose snuggled against my cheek as he kissed me? Would they feel a momentarily confusion, that uncertainty of waking up in a room that is not your own? Would they think for a moment, just a moment, that something had gone wrong and they were wearing somebody else’s face?
“A woman in America received a face transplant, you know,” I said. I was swathed in coloured smears of hand-made blankets. My knuckles ached from the cold. I’ve been suffering the niggling beginnings of arthritis for some months now, but haven’t done anything about it other than occasionally rubbing in Deep Heat or covering my fingers with a hot water bottle. Arthritis is an old people’s disease. Having arthritis would make me old, even though at twenty-three I am far from it.
M— smiled. He has a small mouth with large lips, and occasionally reminds me of a fish when he smiles. I expect him sometimes to blow bubbles. “Could you imagine walking down the street and seeing a stranger wearing the face of your dead mother?”
I poked my head out of the swaddling nest I had cocooned myself in and regarded him. Three days ago, I had never seen snow except in my grandmother’s freezer and on television. Winter on television seemed so much softer than the reality; the snow seemed to be made of polystyrene that warmed and hugged you. The snow drifts were merely decorative, added for aesthetic reasons; coating the sharp rise of a chimney here or the curve of an eave there. This snow, this real snow, was concocted from a recalcitrant pragmatism, intent on hiding the real beauty of the world beneath a rug of sharply ersatz beauty and cleanliness. Like the foundation I applied routinely every morning, taking pains around the darker circles beneath my eyes and the grease-shiny tip of my nose, snow concealed, hid impurities, swept them beneath it like a penguin would an egg.
“Imagine if you were saddled with ugly face, or the wrong sex face, or getting a grandma’s face. Do you think there would be controls for that? So that a supermodel couldn’t be saddled with a hare lip?”
M— lit a cigarette, cupping his hands to tease the flame from the lighter and to coax the cigarette to light. He smokes two cigarettes a day; when he wakes up, and before dinner. Although smoke perhaps isn’t the correct word, considering he lights them and lets them burn down in one of his many ashtrays. He has a fascination with ash, he says, and prefers to experience the smoke choosing to come into his lungs rather than being forced. This reflects M—’s general outlook on life, I believe. His mother jokes that when she was in labour, he asked her permission to be born; then just floated out of her womb. M—, though I don’t yet love him, intrigues me.
He said, “Maybe there would be a black-market trade in celebrity faces. That supermodel would turn up on the inside of the coat of an old Russian man, amongst six hundred reproduction Rolexes. The Mafia and the Triads would get involved, definitely.” He trailed the cigarette lazily in his hand, as though it were an additional digit he didn’t care to use.
“I don’t think I’d want somebody else to have my face. They can have anything else, but not my face. There’s just something not quite right about thinking of somebody else living a life that should be yours. Imagine, like somebody else’s eyes staring out of your face.”
M— nodded, his gaze, with those eyes so pale they could be mistaken for being sightless, on the frost-thickened window of our second-story bedroom. When the frost subsided the window looked out on the peaked old buildings of N—, with their dark strapping and latticework and their fat little chimneys spread at the tops like elephants’ feet. The luminous forest with its swaying pine trees drifting in a somnolent acceptance of the fact that they would never drag themselves away from their perpetual home was a vivid background in the tapestry of the town. That day, however, the icy fractals clinging to the slightly sunken glass, which had migrated downward slightly with age, were the only thing that could be seen through the window.
M— had taken out a book, and had unfolded his marked page. His folding of pages and breaking of book spines is my pet hate. The only books of mine he has permission to read are those I’ve bought second hand—the ones already dog-eared and with pale creases in the dark card of their cover. The book was Kerouac’s On The Road, a book I’ve not read, but probably should have. I’ve a list of such books, and it extends into the hundreds, perhaps even thousands. At my previous job, I worked with an ex-English professor, who frequently quoted Yeats and Keats and a hundred other things that I had not read, and I had been torn between lying, saying that I had indeed read them, and between the truth of my own ignorance. She was sixty-two, I twenty-two. There was a forty year reading discrepancy between the two of us, and I felt it to be a most unfair advantage on her behalf. I am a voracious reader, yet have not read Dickens or Chaucer or Austen, although I could easily quote lines of their prose or summarise their work for you.
M— read quietly, as is his way. His stillness and silence invariably turn into invisibility; a sort of chameleonistic camouflage. He develops a one-ness with everything about him, as though he exhibits a gift that enables him to find a common thread in all things, and is able to mould himself in the exact same way so that he too becomes part of that common thread. Yet for all this, for all of his gentle kindness and consideration, M— goes virtually friendless. We had come to N— to escape those things in M—’s past, in my past, in our collective past.
M— had said that our room displayed some evilly chthonic sentiment with its friezes of goatish men and women far too beautiful to be innocent and godly. The rest of the room comprised our wrought-iron bed with its dark musty sheets that looked to be older than I myself am, a small table adorned with a tired old chess set and surrounded with cowering chairs, a bookshelf, built-in robes, and the fireplace. This fireplace merely fed M—’s opinion that there was something darkly Lovecraftian about the place. Having not read any Lovecraft, I had to assume that he was correct in his assertion, and that, yes, it was indeed possible that a monster of unimaginable, indescribable horror could quite well be lurking in the heavy flue.
I pulled out my worn diary and slashed away the day with a fat X.
* * *
During the day, M— and I are painters. Before we came to N—, neither of us had picked up any form of paintbrush since year seven art class. Fortunately, the ad through which we had found the job hadn’t required any previous experience, and between us, we felt that such a job would allow us to eke out an entirely different existence from the one we’d left behind. Our boss, Mr Kants, is a wartish old man whose nose tucks neatly into the cleft of his upper lip. He walks with a cane, and stoops gravely as a result, giving the impression that he is a bent and broken man. Unfortunately, this is not so; in addition to being an extremely harsh employer focusing almost solely on the end result rather than the process of the work, he fancies himself a writer, and can always be found with a gnawed biro and a stained notepad in hand. I’ve never seen him write. Oddly, he seems to spend much more time ruminating about being a writer than actually writing anything.
The town of N— is not sufficiently degraded to be considered an historical or heritage listed site, and is often threatened by business men and greedy governments and tourists. The citizens of N— are by nature very quiet and subdued; they would prefer that the status quo be maintained. As none of the inhabitants has experienced life outside N—, and their day to day life is essentially unchanging, their newspaper editor was forced to place an advertisement in another publication requesting the skills of two young people interested in working with the elderly facade of N—. No one knows how exactly he went about placing this ad, as the town is constantly snowed in, and has never had a working telephone system.
M— and I wake each morning with the sun, as clocks do not seem to fare well here. The freezing climate of N— makes it tremendously difficult to get up in the morning, and often our dozy condition persists for an hour or more as we huddle front-to-back in an S of warm flesh, M—’s fingers entwined in the curls of my hair, and the musty warmth of the stale slept-in air of the bedroom pressing against us like an additional blanket.
After crawling out from the covers, I check the date in my diary, but it never seems to change, although I distinctly remember marking it each day.
Sometimes, we’re woken by our landlady, Meredith, who is a portly thing rather resembling the soft puffy glaze of a teapot. She has thin, thready ankles that miraculously support the heft of her calves, which are like enormous upside-down teardrops stuck beneath her flesh, and the similar bulk of her thighs, the softly-fatty rippling of which is all too visible beneath the sheath of her cotton uniform. I’ve always wondered about overweight women who persist in wearing skin-tight clothing. It occurs to me that it might be a denial of the fact; through wearing tight clothing, they shun the idea of being fat, as after all, fat women cannot wear fitted clothing. Perhaps it is a rebellion against the shapeless tentiness of plus-sized clothing, which serves only to make the wearer look even larger. Or perhaps they understand that they are supremely sexual, what with the aggressive thrust of their pendulous breasts and the strong lines of their hips and legs that cut through their clothing. I sometimes wonder if M— would prefer one of these uber-women in place of my lanky frame and narrow hips. If I covered my hair with a baseball cap, one would not be able to discern my gender.
Meredith makes us a breakfast of obese red sausages that hiss and spit and bubble oil even as they rest on our plates, and a chunk of sweet bread with home-made cheese. M— usually cradles his coffee in fingers faint and discoloured from the cold, digging the tips in to the hard surface of the mug, as though this will prevent the all-encompassing cold from reaching him. His cigarette usually lies unlit on the table, the gold rim of the filter blending in with the corn-yellow tablecloth. M— is often distant in the morning; so distant that it often seems that he has taken a stroll outside his body, and is visiting somebody else’s, staring through their eyes. He blames it on being tired, on needing coffee, but it reminds me all too much of my last boyfriend, whose moodiness we would always explain away in the same way. I regret that last relationship, place it at the top of my mental list of things I wish I had not done. I suspect it is that way for most people when they think about those people they gave themselves to, emotionally, physically, only to find themselves rejected. It is such a personal rejection, having a relationship end without your realising it, after a year or more. It is not your lack of knowing each other that is the problem, but rather the other person knows you well enough that they decide they do not wish to have anything to do with you.
I choose to believe that M— is indeed tired.
After breakfast, we pile on our extra socks and scarves, most of which my grandmother had knitted over a ten year period, and had lain forgotten at the back of my wardrobe until our coming to N—. I had little need for scarves in my previous life.
M— stuffs the leather fingers of his gloves with some sort of massacred, feathery, and I pull a faux-fur hat over my head. The hat is one of those flat-topped hats worn by Russians and the glamorous actresses of the 1920s. I am far from glamorous, but my ears are vaguely protected from the sheets of wind that rage between the tall rows of buildings. The wind in N— is so strong as to be an almost solid object, and it pummels mercilessly those in its way. If we are to paint the exterior of a building, we must first erect a shelter to ward off the wind’s attacks. These shelters need to be propped up on both sides by fat bags of sand, which sit forlornly against the scarred wood, bending their tasselled edges.
We prise open the dribble-stained lids of paint using thin metal bars like smoothed-out spoons, and stir the fuming, seething concoction within. The paint is a murky substance, a colour between grey and invisible, and it reminds me of melted-down liquorice. Our brushes are long and flat, the width of my hand, and bristly like the tip of my ponytail. They last until the end of the working day, after which they seem to dissolve in their rinsing jars. Considering the effect that our handiwork has upon the buildings we have been told to paint, I’m not entirely surprised by this.
Our task yesterday was the library, one of the few places in N— to which power lines, like writhing black snakes, are connected. When the snow falls, the power lines shudder, performing that flimsy side-to-side movement characteristic of serpents. I’m wary of power lines, and have always been. I fear that their tightly-coiled spines might one day unravel, allowing them to fall to the ground, sliced in half: garden worms spitting electric lifeblood at passers-by.
We’d painted only the far left wall of the library, having spent much of the previous day pulling at snarls of brambly creepers and stubborn spokes of bird-limed ivy, our fingers throbbing from cold. The wall, once stripped of its leafy clothing, had been clean, with few wounds to show from the choking vines other than a long, whipping line through the dark brick here and there, scoring into the wall like a frown. That day, the wall crumbled softly and with dignity, as might an old woman wrapped in pearls and a reminiscent smile. It stepped gently downward over itself, pulling a train of mortar behind it.
M— stood watching, one hand on his hip, and the other clasping at the wrist of the first. His paintbrush wandered like an incongruously large cigarette between his index and middle fingers.
His boots ground into the snow as he trudged over the smashed-brick path to the western wall of the library. He looked somehow wrong against the backdrop of the library: his clothes were too deep, too blue. It were as though he were encroaching upon the territory of N—, and I was unnerved by this, as M— has always managed to meld seamlessly into any world or reality he chose to inhabit.
The curved edge of the paint tin banged against my shins as I carried it before me, gloved hands curled around the wire handle, which squeaked as the tin rocked back and forth. A crow, glossy and black and huddled in a branch bent with snow, called out, as though replying to the conversation of the container. My ears ached from the wind, which tunnelled past the library walls and forked off in several directions, tormenting the growing cracks in the facades of N—’s buildings and insinuating its way through objects not quite solid. The wind took up the call of the crow, carried it along, and as my ears pulsed in freezing agony, I fancied for a moment that the told was perhaps not the reason for my aching ears. Perhaps, instead, the wind, and the call of the crow, and the squeaking of my paint tin were all in some way connected, were each a part of an unfathomable whole.
M—’s paintbrush had a plastic orange handle, and he held it gingerly, dabbing paint on to the peeling western wall. The building’s old rendering had chipped off in places, leaving dark brick flaked with slivers of dull cement. Here and there, curls of white paint dangled from window frames or from the tin spouting.
* * *
That evening, M— lay supine on the patterned quilt of our bed, holding his Kerouac above his face. The book cast a broad shadow across his eyes and hair, and he looked for a moment as though he were dipping his head into a pool of water. The stuttering light from the fireplace caused the book’s shadow to jig.
“You know, I can’t concentrate,” he said presently. “I’ve been reading the same page for the past ten minutes.”
I was seated in one of the subdued chairs pulled up to the tiny table in one corner of the room. I had swept aside the chess board so that I might have room to place my pen and paper. A black bishop lay on its side, and a rook was lolled from side to side on its rounded base. I was writing a letter to my grandmother, and was doing so with my favourite fountain pen. I have always held a fascination for fountain pens; they seem to be a mysterious reminder of another time. M— teases me sometimes by hiding my pens and leaving a cheap Bic biro on my desk, but as he knows that it is impossible for me to write with such an implement, always returns them within the hour. A biro is somehow unable to render my voice upon the paper; it is not a conduit as is a fountain pen. Yet, though I had been sitting with pen poised to paper for a similar amount of time as M— had been reading, I had not written anything beyond a simple salutation. I sucked at the inside of my lip.
“Why is that, do you think?”
“Could be the cold,” said M—. He tilted his chin up and regarded me. “It gets into everything. I feel like I’ve been tainted by the cold.”
I nodded, and inched my chair toward the fireplace. “It’s almost violating. But I think it’s the remoteness that gets to me the most.”
“The remoteness? That is why we came here, you know,” M— pointed out, his too-pale eyes still fixed on me. “To escape my mother, mostly.” He grinned.
The fire danced, refusing to go out even though it had burnt most of its fuel. It seemed in striking contrast to the stillness and silence outside.
“Don’t you feel that everybody seems to be detached? Mr Kants? Meredith? We’ve only met two people in the entire town, and they seem to want to keep away.”
M— folded the corner of his page, and closed his book. He rolled it into a funnel and spoke through it. I was glad that it had not been a book that I had spent good money on, but had to wonder whether he was deliberately frustrating me by destroying it. “We have only been here three days.”
“Yes, but what are we even doing here? Painting weird paint on walls to help them crumble so that N— can be heritage listed? Don’t you think that’s utter crap?”
M— stretched his arms over his head, then crawled off the bed and over to me. He pointed his toes toward the fireplace, and hugged the metal legs of my chair. His face pressed into my hip. “Crap, maybe, but the pay is good, and the town is pretty cool. I could live here, I think, for good. It’s so peaceful; so untainted by city-ness.”
I ran a finger affectionately over the stubble dusting his cheeks: his beanie hid his hair from view. “City-ness? You spend your whole life reading classics, and come up with words like city-ness?”
He shrugged, and rubbed his cheek against my finger like a cat.
“You’re such a romantic. Wanting to live in a village by a forest.” I rested my head against the high back of my chair. “What’s the bet the people here have sold their souls or something, so that the town can stay beautiful?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” M— muttered, nestling the warmth of his bare neck against the fuzz of my clothing.
* * *
We remained in N— for what seemed like year after calendar year. Each night, I would mark off the day in the vinyl-covered diary I had stolen from my last job, and each morning, the mark seemed to be gone.
M— called it cabin fever, snow blindness, laughingly mocked what he called the last vestiges of my sanity. “Living like this, where time is not measured by newspapers or watches or Greenwich Meridian, you have to learn to count differently, I suppose,” he would say. I would lean against the fragile windowsill and squint off into the haphazard forest, where the ribs of the old church steeple, bruised a rank blue in the slow light, presented themselves like ivory tusks, and the liquorice-black hands of the clock kept their position, never wavering, never straying.
And when the summer never comes, and M— and I continue to take to the softly-gritty buildings of N—, breaking down cobblestones and strapping painted virgin white, and scouring at the snow-drowned boughs of the trees that push too close to the town, and my joints ache from an arthritis that makes me feel old, but never progresses, and M— never finds a face, the eyes, that are truly his own, we realise that our work, here, in this town of abject silence and loneliness, is the only way to press on, continue, take a precipitous step away from the frozen present.
But I know that M—, my companion, my chameleon, will take on the attributes of the town, and I will find him one afternoon, hard to the touch of my wind-burnt fingers, and ageless.
Stephanie Campisi‘s work has been published in various magazines and anthologies. You can find her online at http://misapostrophication.blogspot.com