Madison Smartt Bell
A gracious day of early spring began it. The weather was kind, soft, annealing, and the animals were powerfully aware of it. They felt it in their muscle and bone and it made them happy and active--the cheerfullest animals Alf had ever seen inside a zoo. He moved from enclosure to enclosure, his books in a nylon backpack depending from a single strap that dragged down his left shoulder, and looked in. A pair of gorillas sat in lotus postion on the lush green grass the winter rains had fed, combing one another's fur with their big rubbery fingers. A warm broad beam of sunshine lapped across them. Of a sudden they both heeled over to one side and rolled over and over, closed in an embrace at first, then separating. Then they sat up again and resumed the long luxurious strokes of their grooming.
Across a concrete moat the elephants were bathing, a baby elephant and an adult, perhaps the mother? The pool was generously large and deep, and when the elephants went in their hides turned from dusty brown into a slick slate-grey. The baby elephant went under the roiled surface altogether and after a moment erected a few inches of his little trunk to breathe; he could have stayed submerged forever if he'd cared to. The mother elephant snorted and made a move to leave the pool, then turned and floundered in again, sinking to one side with a huffing sound, throwing up a gleaming sheet of water that curved and dropped to rejoin its own surface.
The lions were sluggish, having just eaten, and yet they seemed quite content, lacking the air of morose and silent desperation that most zoo lions exuded. They resembled the lions one saw on films of Africa, resting on the veldt after a kill and gorge. Adjacent, the tigers basked in the sun, full-stretched on their mappined terraces, each apparently content as a housecat on a windowsill. Only one of the big males moved with a kind of mechanical restlessness, loping back and forth on a track of his own devising, his yellow eyes hot and even a little crazed. He'd conceived some smaller circle inside his actual containment and whenever he reached its limit he reversed his limber steps, conforming to a barrier which no one but himself could see.
The bottom of the Zoo was bordered by an iron rail fence a little better than waist- high, beyond which expanded the wide greensward of Regent Park. On an impulse Alf climbed over this instead of going out by the South Gate. It was easily low enough for a vault, but his backpack dragged him slightly off balance, and a rail's tip caught his trousers on the inner thigh and made a neat right-angular tear. Alf stooped over to examine it and straightened up again. Big Brother would not be pleased, but possibly he wouldn't ever know about it. Possibly Hazel could mend it so it wouldn't show. He hitched up the pack and stepped out across the grass. A cool triangle lay on the inside of his leg where the cloth was torn. On to the south, further than he could see or hear, well past the flowers of Queen Mary's Garden, he knew the traffic on Marylebone Road would be whisking back and forth like the multiple blades of some gigantic meat slicer. He stopped, turned in his traces, and looked back.
Later, after a long time and much catastrophe, when Alf had passed into the care of others, he began to feel relaxed and calm. He looked at a dark spot on the wall, and his eyelids grew heavier and heavier, they grew so leaden that he could scarcely keep them open. His eyes were closed. His eyes were closed now, his breath was deep and slow. His limbs were warm and soft and tingling, his arms so heavy that he could not lift or move them. It was utterly beyond his power to open his eyes or move his arms or legs. His heartbeat slowed to requiem time. He descended a set of thirty steps into a dark place of warm and total relaxation. Asked to recollect the source of his affliction, he began to talk about the zoo, easily continuing the story of that afternoon up to the point where he had hesitated on the lawn.
"Yesssss...." The resonant voice of the hypnotist came from very far above, high in the mouth of the deep well into which Alf had lowered himself. "Yes. That is very good. You are a good subject. You are doing very well. What did you think about the animals?"
Responding to some foreign motive power, Alf's hands began to twist and gnarl, his fingers twining into tangles on his lap. His breath came fast, and he could feel his features screwing up like the face of a child about to cry. Real tears were pricking the backs of his locked eyelids, though he did not know why.
"I envied them," he said at last. "I wanted to go back."
Breakfast was transpiring in the flat's large airy kitchen. Big Brother was eating a soft-boiled egg with annihilating concentration. Tap, tap, tap went the edge of his spoon around the little end of his egg, creating a perfectly even fault line. He removed the eggshell dome and placed it on the left side of his plate, penetrated the egg-white, lifted a portion and inserted it between his lips. His wrist revolved and the wristwatch on its sharkskin band presented itself briefly to his eye.
Alf choked on a bite of the scone he'd been consuming, coughed, belatedly covered his mouth with his hand and cleared his throat behind it. Big Brother lowered the spoon from his second bite of egg and raised his fishy eyes from the egg-cup. The spoon's bowl connected to the plate with a minute click. For a suspended silent moment he faced Alf down the long checked range of the oilcloth.
"You eat like a yobbo off the street," he said at length. "Choice of diet and manners too. Inclusively." Alf's gaze broke and fell to the crumbles of scone on his plate. Once more Big Brother began to ply his spoon. He had three bites remaining; it invariably took him five to eat an egg. Hazel, sitting half the table's length between them, turned and shot Alf a surreptitious wink, which he returned as he reached over for the butter. Big Brother finished his strong black coffee in two tidy sips and arose from his place.
"Goodbye, Love," he said. "I expect to be in by seven."
Hazel set her hands on her tight waist and arched back in her chair, lifting her face up toward him. The heavy blond braid of her hair hung down over the chair back like a plumb weight.
"Goodbye, Love," Hazel said. "There'll be fish for dinner. I'll see you in the evening."
Big Brother nodded to her and passed in the direction of the hallway.
"Big big Bang," Alf said suddenly. "Pow, knock'm dead, Bee Bee."
Big Brother gave him an eerie look but continued his course without pause. There was a whetting sound as he lifted his sharkskin briefcase from the hall stand, then the tumbling of the door's many locks. Hazel erected herself and curved her torso in Alf's direction. The morning sunshine rushed in through the kitchen's south windows to lighten the green of her eyes.
"More tea?" she said, and stroked the rounded belly of the teapot.
"No thanks, well yes, ah, I guess I will." Alf pushed his cup in the direction of the spout.
"Don't let me make you late for school," said Hazel. "What is it you have Tuesday mornings?"
"Supercallifragillisticmacroeconomics," Alf said. Hazel threw back her head and laughed a laugh that reminded him of someone pouring a delicious drink.
In the usual London style the sunshine failed him as soon as he hit the street. Underneath the damp gray sky he walked a block across Fulham Road and turned. His shoulder sagged under the strap of the weighty book bag. It had given him a seemingly permanent crick in his neck. He circumambulated the South Kensington tube stop, watching the rush of people in and out from the far side of the street. There was no reason for him to enter, nowhere he urgently had to go. He had actually succeeded in forgetting in which quarter of the city the London School of Economics was to be found, and indeed was rather proud of this feat.
A few raindrops patted up and down the sidewalk; Alf sniffed and squinted at the sky. A six-month sequence of dissembling had taxed his talent for killing time. His budget did not allow him long periods in cinemas or pubs, and he had dawdled through every museum in the city at least a dozen times. Spring should have opened up more outdoor distractions, but the difference in the weather appeared to be only a few degrees of temperature, most days. Give him another good day at the zoo for choice, but it was a long way, and he doubted he'd enjoy it in the rain.
He took the umbrella from his pack and shot it up and turned south in the direction of the King's Road. He shambled from one shop to the next, standing before the various clothes racks, revolving his few blunt pound coins in his pocket. Alf's interest in clothes was nil, but clothes stores did have doors and roofs. Whenever he felt an attendant's eye upon him, he departed and moved on to the next shop. When the pubs opened he went into one and had a pork pie and a half of Courage. Yobbo's lunch. The other yobs, punks and skinheads that frequented the area jostled him up and down the counter, somehow always managing to show him only their backs.
By the time he left the pub the rain had stopped, though the sky remained dull. He walked to Saint Luke's and sat on a bench in the church garden, trying to remember his ostensible school schedule. As always, the flowers were immaculate in every elaborate bed. The gardeners had timed the bulbs so that every few weeks the color scheme underwent a magical change. Alf slouched lower on the bench, pushing his pack away from him. He would have preferred to return to the flat, but he wasn't sure if that would be plausible. A woman in a beige suit came clipping down the walk, one of those London women who though on close examination were clearly in their twenties contrived to convey by their dress and demeanor the impression of being nearer forty-five. A small brown terrier was leading her along at the end of a white leash. Halfway down the walk she stooped and slipped the catch from the collar, then sat down on a bench and watched the little dog run free, sniffing along the line of displaced tombstones propped agains the churchyard's western fence.
The woman took a compact from her bulky handbag and began to examine herself in its mirror, her lips pursed uncomfortably tight. She had a weak chin, but a powerful nose to compensate. The terrier turned from the fence and locked its nose to some trace of scent and began to execute geometric figures around the bench where Alf was slouched.
"The little dog laughed to see such sport," Alf suggested. "And the dish ran away with the spoon." The terrier stopped and looked skeptically up at him.
"Please do not permit your dog to foul the amenity area," Alf intoned, quoting loosely from the several green placards planted here and there on the lawn. The terrier sat back on its haunches and let out a little yip.
"--oof," Alf replied, falsetto.
"riffrirf," the terrier said, jumping up and smiling.
"aarffooorffurfurfiiiii!" said Alf, somewhat louder. Across the walk the woman snapped her compact shut with a cross click and stood up, shaking the leash.
At the head of the stairs of the maisonette flat, Hazel and Big Brother had their bedroom; and next to it Big Brother occupied what Hazel optimistically referred to as his study. In fact it was a sort of electronic cockpit, packed with computers, printers, monitors, fax machines and modems hooked up to New York and Japan. Here, after nourishing himself from his exertions in the City, Big Brother would repair to continue trying to figure out every conceivable ramification of Big Bang for a good part of each night. From the windows of both of these rooms could be seen the Natural History Museum, the domes of the V & A, the Queen's Tower, and other features of the skyline, though Alf doubted if Big Brother ever raised his eyes to them.
His own room was at the other end of a longish hall, right beside the bathroom, a location which admitted him to privacies of which he might have preferred to remain ignorant. As the spring continued, Alf spent much of his out of class time seated at the small desk before the windows, staring out across the binding of some textbook at the children playing in the trapezoidal courtyard of the council houses below. After the evening meal he'd most often retreat to this same position, now staring inattentively at his own faint reflection in the darkened window panes.
"All's well, Love?" Hazel's voice came from down the hall; she must have opened the door to look in on Big Brother, for Alf could also hear that munching sound the computers liked to make as they gobbled information. He couldn't hear the Beeb's reply, if he made any, only a drop in the hum of the machines as the door closed. He propped his elbows on the pages of his book and shut his eyes to dream of Spain. For several weeks he'd been considering that he might claim a holiday after his long year of study, and though he didn't speak the language the junkets to Spain were cheap. Hazel was coming down the hall, though he wasn't sure just how he knew it; her bare feet made no sound on the carpet runner, it was more like a small breeze passing by. There came some groans and gurgles from the bathroom pipes, then her reflection appeared in Alf's windowpane, framed by his open doorway.
"Still hitting the books this late at night?"
Alf flipped the pristine textbook shut and swiveled in his chair. The lights flickered and dimmed for an instant as the computers engorged some great mass of news. Hazel had let down her hair -- it descended in a warm current parted by the oval of her face and rejoining on the rise of her bosom, where one hand smoothed it absently against her nightgown's cotton weave.
"The two of you," she said, smiling. "Seems like you never stop."
"Ah," Alf said, and stopped with his mouth open. Conscious of this, he shaped the opening into a sort of smile and began to scrape his fingers across his scalp.
"Hmm, well, I'm going to bed," Hazel said, and shook her head to toss her hair back onto her shoulderblades. "Sweet dreams, Alfie...." She pushed herself out of the doorway and swung his door half shut.
Alf turned back to face the window, pulled his hand loose from his head and looked down at it. His fingers were wrapped with stiff black hairs, indubitably his own. He lifted his forelock and leaned toward the window to examine his hairline. No doubt that it really was receding. A short harsh sound came out of him, something like a cough.
Hazel was leaning over the small gas stove top, rolling kofta meatballs and dropping them sizzling in a pan of oil. She turned suddenly to reach for something and collided with Alf, who'd been peeping over her shoulder.
"Good Lord, you're always right behind me," Hazel said testily. Her face was pink and humid from the burners on the stove. She made a shooing motion and Alf retreated, slinking along the edge of the table, which was laden with trays of tiny salmon and caviar sandwiches for the cocktail party that evening. He sniffed and cleared his throat with a rasping sound, then picked up a tray and started down the long hall with it toward the living room.