Thursday, September 27, 2007
Some things, they chase you all your life
He has been many things, this giant man we see walking along a London street. A boxer, a bouncer, an insurance salesman (briefly), a sailor. For a while, recently, he was part of a ragged troupe of acrobats. He was the foundation of the human pyramid, the trunk of the tree, the great hurdle over which the smaller men leapt and backflipped. They worked the squares of the grand Spanish cities, Madrid, Seville, Barcelona, traveling in the backs of trucks, amongst cattle and poultry. They were all running away from their pasts, as men do, without women to anchor them. One by one they were arrested or deported. He, Dmitri, went to sea again.
"What can you do?" the crewing agent had asked him.
"I can cook and I can lift." The agent was confident he could find him some work, if he had a passport.
He doesn't hear the traffic noise or the whispers of the people he passes - Look at the size of him! - in his pocket is a battered walkman playing a Teach Yourself English tape. As he walks he repeats phrases aloud.
"I have a reservation."
"There are no pillows."
Run aground, Dmitri is still working as a cook, in a café which has escaped gentrification and the prurient interest of property developers, being just off the main drag. It is a functionally furnished place, catering mostly to labourers and thrifty tourists. There are photographs of food in the window of the café, somewhat faded now, representing Platonic ideals of breakfast, indexed by number for the convenience of its foreign clientèle.
He works from six until three. The pay is not great, but the waitresses share their tips with him so he has more than enough to live on.
Pina is a waitress there, and Dmitri is in love with her. This is obvious to everyone but Pina. She has to look a long way up to notice the sudden anxiety in his eyes as she approaches. Everyone is a little bit in love with Pina; she moves among the tables with the swift certitude of a gymnast. And they tip her well, and leave believing that they have done the right thing. Perhaps she's supporting a child by herself, they speculate, or working her way through college. The money comes to her because she is pretty and seems untroubled by, or even pleased with the nature of her employment.
In his cramped kitchen Dmitri is pleased too. He sees her every day, and whilst he knows he cannot have her - she is too young, too beautiful, too small - he feels the pleasure in his situation more acutely than the pain.
Pina, if you asked her, would have struggled to tell you anything interesting about Dmitri. "He's very tall," she might say. "He has a kind voice, but his English is not great. He calls me Tiny." Dmitri, if he had the language, could tell you a thousand things about Pina that are remarkable. The way she often walks on her toes as if she were dancing. The way she pushes her hair behind her ear with just the very tip of her little finger. The way her bottom lip protrudes slightly when she's taking an order. Her extremities are all he has access to, and then he can only look.
The boss is George, he operates the till, and answers the 'phone occasionally. On Friday he doles out the wages. He's an even-handed sort of fellow, in his late fifties, who dreams of retiring to Cyprus. He has family over there. One afternoon, after the café is closed he takes Dmitri by the arm.
"You should stop mooning over her," says George. Dmitri pretends not to understand. "That girl. She doesn't want an old man like you."
"I know," says Dmitri. "I do nothing to her. "
"Of course not, I'm not saying that. I'm saying it's no good for your soul." Dmitri doesn't know the word.
"Your heart," says George, pointing to the big man's chest. Dmitri laughs.
"She broke my heart already, boss. It's okay."
George means well. There is no romance in his life, hasn't been for years, but there is love, of the stolid, indefatigable kind. He has a wife he still cares for, and two grown-up daughters. The youngest, his favourite, has returned home from college and he’s glad to have her back. He realises that Dmitri’s life will never be like his and this gentle intervention is meant, one might suppose, to divert Dmitri away from a path that will only end in anguish. You might expect Dmitri to be touched to learn that someone cares enough about him to say these things. He is for a while, and for a while things really are okay. But Dmitri spends a lot of time alone in the kitchen, bent over a sink or a hotplate, time to revise his position on everything, time to wonder about why things happen. The thing he comes to wonder about most is why George chose to speak to him then. What had happened that caused George to put his hand on Dmitri's arm and speak to him about Pina? How had things shifted in order that he felt it was necessary to intervene? Had she complained about him? Impossible. He barely spoke to her, he couldn't look at her, not when she might be looking back. It is something about her that has changed, he decides. He wants to know what it is. He should simply ask, but knows that he can't. He will find out.
The actions of a good man informed by the purest of motives may result in consequences which diverge sharply from those he imagined or intended. Dmitri has been content to enjoy the intermittent sunshine of Pina's company, but George's remarks have altered the case somehow.
On a Friday afternoon late in the summer Dmitri, rather than heading east towards home, with the sun over his shoulder, turns left and left again. Twenty yards ahead is Pina, moving nimbly amongst lost tourists and mothers with pushchairs. Men stare at her frankly, he notices, turning to catch a glimpse of her backside as they go past. Men in suits, men in hard hats and reflective waistcoats. "What beasts we are," he thinks. "Beasts without shame." She skips past the entrance to the Tube and crosses the road into the square. There is a fountain here, circled by benches. There is no sculpture, no reservoir, just jets of water, arranged in a further circle and propelled straight up from below ground, draining gently back to its centre. There's something soothingly unspectacular about it. It's democratic, accessible. Dmitri, a conspicuous figure, attempts to make himself less so, shifting into the shadow of a wych elm. He watches Pina as she approaches the fountain, stepping out of her flip-flops. She balances easily on one small brown foot, rinsing the other in the falling water, then swapping. She puts her head back slightly as she does so, her face bright with uncomplicated pleasure. Dmitri recognises that she is laughing, privately. She closes her eyes. Pina steps on to the grass, dragging her feet to dry them. The she pushes her feet back into the flip-flops and regains the path, heading westwards, out of the square.
He follows of course, he is through the looking glass now. He follows her without really looking at her, right down to the tube platform. She doesn't speak to anyone. The city is overflowing with people not talking to each other, he thinks. Pina doesn't see him. She takes a book from her bag as she steps into the carriage. The platform is emptied of passengers, then air. Dmitri stands, savouring her absence for a moment, before taking a train the other way.
Each day becomes focused on these few minutes of pursuit. There is no longer any joy in being around her, he can think only of the end of the working day, when the doors close and their curious dance begins. The seconds before, and the actions performed therein - mopping up, stowing of pans, the removal of aprons - are loaded with expectation. He gives her thirty seconds before he goes after her. She walks the same way most days, stopping at the fountain. Her book changes twice a week. If she has time to consume all those words, he reasons, there cannot also be a man to whom she is devoted. Every day he watches her train disappear into the darkness before catching his own. The days shorten for everyone except him. He's awake, alive, only when he's following her.
Another Friday. Pina doesn't go into the square. She walks more slowly than usual. Dmitri stumbles, trying to keep his distance, experiencing a brief flash of panic.
"What am I doing? What am I doing?"
He keeps following. North now, through the university precinct. Students squint as the wind scrapes dust into the air. Dmitri doesn't look like them, he can't pass for one of them. He backs further away. Ahead of them is a church, a sandstone oddity trapped amongst other buildings, out of scale and out of place. Pina crosses towards it and sits on a bench shaded by a large fig tree. She's looking straight towards him but he's a long way back now, far enough back to disappear altogether. All he wants is to be closer to her, to engage with her somehow. Following her like this is exciting, he realises, but it isn't what he wants. It is distancing him from what he wants. Even those elements of her that are available to everyone, her walk, her smile, her laugh, he can no longer cherish. This new understanding bends him in half. He spits, emphatically, and turns to go, but doesn't; something half-sensed, half-seen, draws his attention back to Pina.
Tramps, vagrants, mad drunks, smackheads, crackheads, a group of men somehow synthesised from ancient archetypes (village idiot, court jester, seer) sometimes achieve a degree of local celebrity. They are on the streets, for whatever reason, and consequently always in the public eye. Dmitri has lived among these men, and has shared their desperation. He has learned their song. One of them approaches Pina. He has a great knot of unwashed hair, and a waxed jacket, full of holes. He is young and tall. Dmitri watches him, already walking towards the church. He knows him and has seen him bullying tourists in the street. He sees the tramp's gestures widen as he speaks to her, leaning over her, staggering, propping himself on the arm of the bench. Dmitri is running, he is too big, too out of shape to sprint. The tramp has Pina by the wrist, pulling her up off the bench. Dmitri tries to run harder. “What am I doing?” He thinks. Another young man, very dark, in a short-sleeved white shirt and dull tie runs up towards Pina and the tramp. The tramp pushes him away with one arm. He stands screaming at the tramp to release the girl. Dmitri hops past a cyclist and a Honda Civic. He is there, thrust back into the world as if waking suddenly from a dream. He grabs the tramp's collar. The tramp turns, adjusting his eyeline comically upwards. Dmitri drives the heel of his hand into his jaw. The tramp deflates to the ground, he's out for a few seconds, just dead out on the pavement like an improvised death. When he comes to all he can find to say is “Jesus sits there.” The young man has Pina in his arms. She is shaking. “Sweetness,” he says, “I'm here. Calm yourself.”
Dmitri is gone. He never wanted to be a cook.