by Charles Lambert
I get there almost two hours early, but it
doesn't matter. I know I'll be welcome. I ring the bell and already I can hear
Susan's delighted cry from the kitchen as I lower my finger - 'It must be Simon'
- and see her form divided into a dozen concave images by the shell-pattern of
the front-door glass, each miniature Susan stretching her arms out towards me.
She opens the door and I'm drawn in and hugged, my rucksack slumped over on the
step. She is wearing a pullover and a long cotton skirt. I feel her stomach and
the prickle of the rough wool through my shirt. She smells of cumin and fennel
seed; she must be cooking for this evening. Stepping back to look at me, she
lets me go and smiles, looping her hair behind her ears, then reaches to pick up
the rucksack. I follow her into the broad, uncluttered hall.
I love this house. The walls are white, but there's something about the height
and placing of the windows that makes them seem amber, as though the hall were
plugged straight into some source of warm, entirely natural light. Susan's eyes
are hazel as she turns to beam at me again and the scent of cumin on her clothes
is slowly overlaid by cinnamon as we walk to the kitchen. I try to take my
rucksack from her, protesting, and we tussle playfully until I give in, with a
gesture of mock courtesy. Her fingers brush against mine, their dry floury
warmth like that of a husk.
'Joey's gone to do some shopping,' she says as I sit down at the table. She
opens the oven and takes out a tray of biscuits, testing one with her finger to
make sure they're done.
'They're for this evening really,' she says with a doubtful tone, almost of
reproach. 'We've asked some people round.' She shifts the biscuits onto a rack
to cool, then breaks one into two with a little sigh and offers me half. It
crumbles as I eat. 'You'll like them,' she says, and I wonder for a moment what
'Who's in the house now?' I say, wanting to know who she'd called to when I rang
the bell. It must be someone who knows my name, I think, and I am curious, even
shy. I expected Joey to be here. Susan smiles, licking a finger to dab up crumbs
from her skirt, then reaches down beneath the table. She makes a crooning noise
until a cat I have never seen moves warily in her direction.
'You haven't met Sorrel,' she says. 'Some friends
of ours passed her on to us when they went to Japan. She's still rather
disorientated. I didn't mean that to be a pun. Aren't you, Sorrel?'
I suppose Susan was talking to the cat. I try to stroke behind the animal's
ears, the scruff of her neck, but she pulls away, and I feel a wave of hostility
that jars with the mood of the house. When she turns her head to stare, I notice
'You're lucky she didn't take a flying leap at you,' Susan says, laughing.
'That's her favourite game. She gets up on the top of that cupboard by the door,
and when anybody comes in she flings herself at them. It's a good thing she's
slightly cross-eyed. Who knows what damage she'd do if she actually made contact
with anyone? As it is, she just skids across the kitchen floor.'
'Why is she called Sorrel?' I ask, amused, no longer looking at the cat.
'Oh, that wasn't our idea,' Susan says. 'That's the name she came with. It's
terribly precious, isn't it? I call her Sourpuss behind her back. Which is
probably as bad.'
When Joey arrives, he puts down the shopping bags and shows me where I'll be
staying. The sitting room is hardly ever used except to sleep in, and to play
the untuned piano. The room smells of dust. A sofa and two armchairs covered
with Indian bedspreads surround the empty fireplace; a single mattress has been
propped against the wall, between the piano and the window. I put down my
rucksack beside the mattress and look at Joey with affection. As usual, we are
shy with each other. The first time I met him, he danced around the room,
deflecting questions with a giggle, then stared intensely at me through his
tortoiseshell-framed glasses when I laughed, as though he hadn't expected
approval. Now we confront each other with the skewed intimacy of pen-pals.
Anyone would think it was Susan I'd known for years, not Joey. I want to ask him
about her, but the ballast of small talk is needed first. Joey is agitated and
energetic, bouncing on the balls of his feet. I mention a friend neither of us
has seen since the summer, who is planning to go to France, and Joey tells me
about his brother-in-law, a bagpipe-player with a wounded hand who busks the
south coast of France with Joey's sister and a Polish fire-eater. They are in
Nice for the autumn, he tells me. The fire-eater's arms are covered with a
lacework of puckered scars, his breath smells of petrol and garlic sausage. His
stories are full of details, small sparkling things that seem to be smuggled in
from a place where their brightness is natural. I listen and feel that the
poetry of the world is ours. We breathe it in, like cinnamon.
Later he takes me upstairs to show me a painting he has done of Sorrel. The
stairs run round three walls of the hall, and at each of the two landings there
is a window. On the sill of the first window someone has put a pincushion in the
form of a cat. I pick it up and feel it rustle between my fingers. It seems to
be filled with dried herbs; it has a musty smell.
'That's Susan's,' Joey says. 'She's had it since she was a child. She thinks it
brings her luck.'
'It looks like Sorrel,' I say, although there is only the most generic
resemblance, and put the pincushion back on the sill.
'By the way, Simon,' Joey says, turning to look down at me from the upper
landing, 'be careful to close the door when you go to bed tonight.'
'Because Sorrel has this irritating habit of waking people up by pulling their
eyelids open with her claws.' He giggles, and I wonder whether he is serious.
The last time we saw each other in this house he was emerging from a period of
more than a year during which he'd done nothing but sleep. He showed me a text
he'd written, an account of his dreams that had gradually started to make
narrative sense. Characters had reappeared, episodes weaving together to form a
story in which he was either marginal, or a feeble accomplice to disaster. When
it began to seem that his moments of waking were there solely to feed the world
of the dream and its inhabitants he'd abandoned the project.
Shortly after, he fell in love with Susan, whom he'd known since childhood - as
though he'd opened his eyes and discovered her there, he said - and the
honeymoon began. Now he is laughing, his hair lit up from behind like a
dandelion clock by the light from the landing window, and I still don't know if
'With her claws?'
'She's like a surgeon,' he says. 'So really I suppose you don't need to worry. I
mean, it's precision work.' We carry on upstairs. 'She probably just wants to
make sure you're there. I think she sees our bodies as shells, with only the
eyes as proof they're inhabited. As soon as she's prised the lids open she sits
back and washes behind her ears. I've seen her do it.' And now he is laughing,
and I know that he is absolutely serious.
When I go in to dinner that evening, the kitchen is full of people I've never
met. I want to sit next to Susan, where I feel safe, but she is beating eggs and
I don't know which place is hers. Everyone stops to look at me, to smile, to
welcome me to the room, which is hot and filled with smoke.
'We had a problem with the aubergines,' Susan says. She points to a baking tray
of aubergines, curling and charred like petrified wood. People laugh and I relax
slightly, looking round for Joey. He is playing with the cat. He glances up and
At the end of the meal I'm drunk enough to tell them all a story - something
that happened when I was walking home one night through Seven Sisters, around
three o'clock, I was in a road with a rundown line of shops on the other side,
when I noticed a movement behind the window of an off-licence. I looked across
and saw a man with a box of beer cans in his arms pass through the glass door. I
had spent the evening with friends, in a pub in Holloway and, what with drink
and a number of joints at a friend's flat, I thought I was hallucinating. I
watched him disappear round the corner, then stared at the door, to make sure it
was closed. I saw the frame and the handle of the door, the keyhole of the Yale
lock glinting in the light from the street. And then I saw another movement and
a second man swayed up from the dark interior of the shop. He lifted his foot to
step over the bottom part of the frame and, once again, passed through the
glass. I could have sworn I saw the shimmer of it parting. I was standing there
with my mouth open when he turned and saw me. His arms were laden with cartons
'Come and get a look at this,' he said, rocking backwards and forwards on his
heels, his face lit up by a mad grin. He put the cigarettes on the pavement and
took my arm. I tried to pull away, but he dragged me towards the door.
'Look,' he said. He pushed his hand through the glass. I waited to see the
surface ripple like water, but nothing happened. Tentatively, I reached out. My
hand went into the shop.
'There's no glass,' said the man. 'They've taken it
out. Look.' He walked back into the shop and came out with a box of crisps.
'They must have done the shop. The till's been forced and there's no more
spirits. But there's loads of stuff left. The phone works too. I've just been on
I stared at the man, then stepped across the threshold of the shop and picked up
the phone. Ten minutes later, I had loaded a friend's car with beer.
I sit back and wait for the people sitting round me to laugh, but there is
absolute silence; after a moment I realise they're waiting for me to finish.
There must be a moral, they're thinking; that can't be all there is to it. The
story can't just be about the joy of theft, the magic of the glassless door.
They're waiting for the glass to grow back and trap the hand, and the surface of
the world to be whole again. I
look at their faces and wonder how long they've
been staring at me like this. I wonder at what point it began to dawn on them
that I don't belong to their world.
'But why didn't you call the police?' one of them says, and everyone shuffles
cutlery in support.
'For the crack,' I say.
'The crack?' says a woman who has barely opened her mouth all evening, and I
hear from her voice that she is foreign.
'The hell of it,' I say. But she is still confused. The man she is with strokes
her arm. 'The fun.'
'I don't understand,' she insists. 'It is terrible. The crack is like a - what
is it in English? - fissure. Like a space, I mean, isn't it?' She sounds
'Not in this case,' I say, with everyone's eyes on my face as I look at Joey.
Joey will understand. But he is staring at the table, at his empty plate,
flushed with embarrassment. Susan stands up and begins to clear things away.
Another woman says: 'But didn't you even think about the owner? Didn't it even
occur to you that he might not have been insured?
He was almost certainly Asian.' Her voice is affronted, unimpeachable. Shall I
tell her that insurance has never entered my head? Neither then nor later.
Surely she realises there is no protection? Perhaps the Italian woman is right.
It's a question of fissures, of spaces opening up, of gaps. I look round the
kitchen for comfort and see nothing but cast iron pots, roller blinds,
blackboards with winning little messages, a string of garlic beside the window.
see the cat rise and stretch, its claws like
scalpels sliding in and out of their smooth pink sheaths
That night, as I walk down the stairs from the bathroom, I see the pincushion in
the form of a cat in the alcove of the window. I watch my hand reach out and
take it. I continue downstairs and go to bed.
Stealing gives you a different view of the world. You find out there is nothing
that can't be transferred from the hands, or homes, or pockets, of one person
into yours. If you steal as a child, you realise how eager people are to believe
in innocence - which is nothing so much as precocious guile and worldliness. You
see that the world is full of people who refuse to face up to the truth of the
matter, that you can't keep anything for long. Children who steal soon learn
that nothing lasts, and that everything must be enjoyed as it passes,
fleetingly, through your possession. It's only later they understand that the
joy of theft doesn't lie solely in getting your hands on what you want, but in
depriving someone else of it.
The next morning, I'm half-awake, mildly hung-over, when I remember what Joey
said about the cat and realise I forgot to close the door the night before. I
stiffen on the mattress, the bedspread pulled across me, every sense straining
to detect the presence of the cat, scared that a sudden movement might be enough
to make her whip out a claw. She might be sitting beside me, the way cats sit,
silently cleaning the fur behind her ears. I listen for the rasp of her tongue.
The rest of the house is asleep. Although my eyes are closed I can tell from the
blood in my lids that it's early, soon after dawn. The room has the musty,
camphor-like scent of cupboards and stale air, of slightly damp wool. I lie
there and as I imagine the cat beside me, I don't know why, I begin to think of
Joey had another girlfriend once, a French au pair in Cambridge. She was thin,
gamine I suppose you'd say, with straight hair and a long upper lip. From a
distance they looked like twins. I never knew what her real name was but Joey
called her Bibiche. After going out with him for a week or two, she started
sitting next to me.
One night, we all got drunk and went back to a
friend's room, where Bibiche and I rolled on the bed together, with Joey slumped
in the corner. I don't remember feeling very much, certainly not affection or
desire for Bibiche, not even a trace of guilt for Joey, no sense that she or I
might be hurting him; sometimes he seemed to be enjoying it. The next day we
walked along Devil's Dyke and she held my hand and already I wanted to get rid
of her. Joey was bounding backwards and forwards, avoiding our
eyes, which amused Bibiche, who rubbed herself up
against me whenever he came close.
It was so obvious to me I was being used that I almost expected sympathy from
Joey; at the very least a recognition we'd both been tricked. But what I got was
a photocopied sheaf of poems in which Bibiche was celebrated with a skill I
could only admire. The last time anyone saw Bibiche she was necking with someone
at the Union disco.
And now I know why Joey came into my head. It must have been about two months
later, after term had ended. I'd gone back to Cambridge for a party, and found
myself sleeping on Joey's floor. We never mentioned Bibiche, and I assumed his
silence was tacit assent that we'd both been wronged.
During the night I woke up. The curtains were open and there was enough light in
the room to make out shapes. I lay there for a moment, wondering what had woken
me, whether it had been a dream or some movement in the room. Then I saw Joey.
He was kneeling beside me, naked, his long hair tucked behind his ears, both
hands between his bone-white thighs. His cheeks glistened in the moonlight. He
was rocking slightly, his eyes closed, as though in a trance, some deep dream
Now, as I lie here, I think of Joey and imagine the cat, its paw lifting neatly
towards my face. I open my eyes as quickly as I can, to surprise it. But there's
nothing, no one - I know I'm safe.
When I get to the kitchen Joey is washing up. He's opened the windows to clear
the air of smoke and the room is cold. I wonder if he'll say anything about last
night, but of course he doesn't. He stacks up plates, scraping the waste food
into a bin which will later be taken somewhere and given to animals, I
imagine, from the care devoted to it. I imagine
them carefully sorting their refuse into categories, paper here, plastic there,
bottles arranged by the colour of their glass. As I sit in the cold and still
disordered kitchen, I'm enthralled by the web of commitment that seems to
sustain it all. The absence of supermarket packaging, the dangling bundles of
herbs from the cooker hood.
I'm waiting for him to finish, so that I can ask him about last night, something
vague I might be able to use as a tool to prise the truth out of him, when Susan
comes in. She's wrapped in a kind of kimono, which opens to show the well-worn
flannelette of pyjamas. She looks flustered.
'Have you seen my cat?'
'Sorrel?' says Joey, wiping his hands on a tea towel. 'She was in the garden a
few moments ago.'
'Not Sorrel,' says Susan. 'My cat. My cloth cat. The cat on the stairs.'
I stare at her, her monosyllabic insistence.
'You sound like a primer,' I say. 'If you work a few verbs in later, you've got
'Have you seen her, Simon?' she says, turning towards me, pleading, and I see
that she is close to tears.
I glance at Joey, who stares back at me.
'The one I showed you yesterday,' he says. 'The one filled with herbs.'
'Maybe Sorrel's got it,' I say. 'Sorrel's a sort of herb. Like attracts like,
After some coffee I go to pack, checking the cat is hidden inside a pair of
socks. I'm slightly worried she might want to go through my luggage.
I phone a few days later. Susan answers after the second ring. I try to remember
where the phone is in their house, then suddenly think, of course, it's on the
landing. She must have been standing on the landing, thinking about her cat.
'Well,' she says thoughtfully, when I tell her who it is. 'I expect you'd like
to speak to Joey.'
'Yes,' I say, although I'd have been happy to chat with Susan for a while, to
get my bearings. I hear her shout, and I have a vision of her looking up and of
Joey in the bedroom, asleep and dreaming. I look at my watch and see to my
surprise that it is after midnight. She must have been standing by the
window, trying to see through the mirror of the
glass into the garden. Or perhaps she was looking at herself.
And now, waiting for Joey, I begin to wonder why I called. I wanted the
conversation to take me somewhere new, but it seems that I shall have to be
responsible for what is said, that it is my call, also in the sense that it
would have if I were playing cards. Maybe I should up the stakes. When Joey
comes to the phone, I say: 'How are things?'
'Did I wake you up?'
'No,' he says.
'How's Sorrel?' I ask. There is a silence and once again I'm aware that he
doesn't want to be angry with me. He wants to like me, he wants me to be like
him. He wants to be able to forgive what he sees through the crack that has
opened up, or to close it. That's what he wants.
But, of course, I have no idea what he wants.
'Have you found Susan's cat?' I ask him, challenging him to tell me I'm
'She's still upset about it,' he says. 'She can't understand what happened. She
says she feels violated.'
'Does she suspect anyone?'
'Not really,' he says, and I believe him. 'Everyone knows how much it meant to
her. Sometimes I think she blames me.'
It's unexpectedly gratifying to hear Joey talk about Susan like this, as though
she might be wrong. His normal instinct, aggravated by sentiment, is to protect
his partner at all costs. I feel flattered. This is how it should have been with
'All we seem to do these days is argue,' he says, and I see their house
dissolve, like something in a dream in which disaster and consequence meet. I
lift the padded cat to my nose and sniff, and there is the scent, not entirely
pleasant, of some dried herb. If I had a book of herbs I would seek out which it
is, perhaps choose one by its name: something with 'bane' in the word, a plant
that protects against pain only in the smallest doses and that is otherwise a
poison. I should like to think it was rue, but I
searching in the dictionary once and seeing that rue was a herb of virtue, what
Ophelia called Herbe-Grace.