Manacles, a novel by Robert Whyte 1972-2020
James probably should have been pulling weeds, raking leaves, planting purslanes and doing all those gardenly things a gardener is supposed to do. But he wasn’t. What were you expecting? You can’t trust young people nowadays, give them an inch and they’ll mangle a mile.
In order to save time and heighten realism he had created an inter-dimensional cul-de-sac in the library near the junction of several flights of Escher-like stairs and a constellation of zodiac signs where he could observe people passing in their walks of life, oblivious to his presence.
Before you cry pervert, this was all above the waist stuff, no steamy scenes, and anyway they weren’t real people, remember, they were products of his imagination. He had every right to watch over them and make sure they didn’t come to harm—or, in some cases, did.
He was watching a red-headed woman wearing a blue dress and red shoes standing at the stairwell talking to a friend. The friend was busy preening, smoothing tight fitting green and white material down over her crinkly waist. The redhead fixed her eye on James and walked towards him.
“Are you staring at us?” she said.
She grabbed his notebook and began reading his notes. James tried to grab it back. She lifted it out of reach. Meanwhile crinkly-waist had stayed by the stairs.
The redhead laughed.
Her friend came into closeup, peered at the notebook, turning the pages with angular, rather accusative fingers with long, silver nails.
“What is it?” she said.
“It’s about us,” said the redhead. She turned towards James. “Don’t you work in the gardens? I’ve seen you watering the plants.” She took James by the hand, janking him from his hiding place, the many dimensions coalescing into four plus the bright sunshine, leaving the crinkly-waisted one behind. “Let me look in your notebook again,” she said.
He passed it to her.
“I’ve only come into the story recently,” she said.
The town hall clock struck midday. Torn fragments of the sound drifted on the wind, one landing on the cement at his feet. He picked it up and held it to his ear. It whimpered before shrivelling to nothing between his fingers.
They walked in silence through the city centre. The wind dropped and the air became quiet and still, as though in expectation. A tightening sensation around his scalp threatened to turn into a headache. He heard the sound of a megaphone on a nearby racetrack.
The redhead turned towards him.
“Are you all right?” she said.
He stared at her. Grey ghosts were forming shapes dimly reminiscent of memory. Could they be clouds? Through the walls of mosaic patterning the ceiling of sky above them, a particularly strong ray of sunlight penetrated the surface of the nearby river. Sunlight, after penetrating water from a great height, was sometimes transformed into eau-de-cologne. Today, the result was a combination of stale bread and massage oil. Nearby suburban railway stations, tennis courts and bowling greens looked somehow rubbery. The redhead’s voice started towards him over the prairie, hollowed by the gleaming hair on her arms, but the sound didn’t arrive. Her voice was silent.
A figure was appearing on the other side of the road. It was a woman with an undeveloped, grainy appearance. She appeared to be scribbling something on her leg.
“That woman over there,” said James. “What is she doing?”
“How the fuck would I know? Why don’t you go over there and ask her?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Her face was angry. Stepping out onto the road, she hailed a passing taxi. It swerved to the side of the road. A door opened. She got in. The taxi slid silently away, gleaming black in the heavy bleak haze of the heat.
The woman across the road was hunched forward, still scribbling on her leg. James crossed the road. As he approached, she looked up.
“Do you want something?” she asked.
He cleared my throat, a little embarrassed.
“What are you writing?” he asked. “Is it about me?”
Her eyes were unusually blue.
“About you?” she said. “No. Why would it be?”
“James visited me in the studio today,” Charles said.
There was no answer from the other room.
“He says he’s finished his second revision.”
Charles stopped speaking for a moment and listened to the silence. He considered getting up out of the wicker chair and going to Maria’s bedroom. He decided against it, sinking back into the chair.
“He has a strange method of writing,” his voice continued. “He writes something, then hides in it and waits for something to happen.”
His voice trailed off into the darkness and blue pipe smoke. Another silence intervened.
“It’s all my fault, you know,” he said eventually. “I created this monster. All it took was innocent encouragement and a few stray ideas. The fucker was off and running like a cheetah on speed. I introduced him to Boris Vian, Flann O’Brien, Lautreamont, Jarry. He had his head stuck in Ulysses but other than that only a few strays like J. D. Salinger. I asked him what he could recommend, you know, flattering the writer in him, and he gave me a list of Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, H. E. Bates and Joyce Carey for fuck’s sake. I turned him onto Conrad, eventually. It took a while.”
He gave some attention to his pipe so it would stay lit.
“He had no idea Swift was a satirist, he thought it was an adventure story. He had a hard on for Dylan Thomas, kept going back to Keats and Shelley. I tried to get him to read Beckett but he read all the wrong ones, the weird late stuff. He was like a hundredweight of paper towel, mention something and he sucked it all in before you could say vacuum.”
More pipe smoking, tamping and relighting.
“He hasn’t gone full bore with Boris Vian, luckily, or we would all be in bed with lilies growing in our lungs, rifle barrels coming out our fingertips. That’s probably still to come.”
Further silence widened and deepened, merging with the lack of sound coming from the other room.
Even in the silence, Maria held her hands over her ears to shut out the sound of his voice. She was looking out over the park. The window threw a patch of light onto the polished veranda floor outside. On the corner of the building, the window of her room behind the café had an uninterrupted view down to the river, where lions prowled. Her hair was stretched back, tied into a circle, or pinned there. She was breathing clouds. On the riverside there was a small, cliff-bordered path, the cliff close and shadowy, overhanging the courthouse, under the riverside trees.
Glaringly bright and empty, buses were slithering through the dark. Maria was waiting for it to rain. The images inside her eyes were precarious, swallowing wreaths, asphyxiating uncountable atmospheres, filling her body as she breathed, touched by harrowing hands, fingers, wrists, claws, scissored beaks, sighing smells, amassed like the globe of infected earth fighting to free itself. Her thoughts flowed like the source of water, hewn roughly from the forest.
James, who was hidden, heard Dad in the café behind, locking up. Footsteps sounded in the hall. Dad stepped out onto the veranda in the dark. The shadow of Charles moved darkly against the wall. Dad, retracting his head, drew back into the corridor and gently closed the door.
On his second attempt, Charles got up from the chair. He stood on the veranda, looking out. The nearby traffic was very loud. Something nudged him from behind. He turned around.
At the corner of his vision, he saw the door to the veranda being gently closed. It was Dad. Charles let his breath out slowly. The night seeped from his lungs and deepened in the dark air on the veranda. Reluctantly, he moved from the veranda into the corridor and then into Maria’s room.
From the doorway, he saw Maria’s back, her hands clamped over her ears. The mirror over the chest of drawers threw his reflection back at him in the golden light. He moved his head sideways, taking its reflection out of the mirror then moved it back. Maria turned.
Across the city a police siren wailed and then stopped. In the air there was a smell of the park and from further away, the river. Charles walked towards Maria and joined her at the window. The landscape slid away from them, towards the riverbanks and below them, to the low tide mud. Coal boats churned in the dark, sending the smell of the mud and smoke towards the city.
Please consider becoming a patron!