He made no gesture when I switched on the light, nor did he turn to look at me. Behaving as if I had never entered the room, he continued to stare at the typewriter, as if intent on spelling some difficult word.
Sitting there in his dark shirt, loose-fitting trousers and boots, and wearing a cap with his name and rank, he did not strike me as an impostor but, nonetheless, his presence inspired fear.
Sara, my wife, thinks that I know how to stand my ground, even when faced with unsettling circumstances. I touched her reassuringly as she, calmer by now, focused on the intruder, waiting for me to make a move.
Confronted by this silent apparition, I introduced myself, asking him what he was doing in our home. I went on to mention that, if he had been ordered to search our apartment, we would show him willingly all our possessions, and that we would answer any question, as we had nothing to hide.
After a minute’s pause, the man raised his head to inform us, “I’ve been assigned to your residence, but It’s just for security purposes, so you can turn in.”
As nonplussed as Sara, I hazarded, “It’s just that we´re not used to having anyone to stay, let alone an uninvited stranger in our study.”
Sara added, “Can’t you see that it will be impossible for us to sleep?”
The trespasser replied, “Don’t make my job any more difficult. I told you both to go to bed.”
Perhaps events would not have unfolded as they did, had we refused point-blank to retire. But heroic gestures are surely misplaced when consequences cannot be foreseen and, cowed by the encounter, we did as we were told.
In the office, I breathed not a syllable about our unsolicited guest. Congregating in the café, my colleagues would only have speculated, “He must be there for a reason.” And so, despite my disquiet, I kept my thoughts to myself, trying to find solace in my work.
Arriving home, and sensing that the man had already departed, I entered the study without further ado.
But, sitting there as on the previous evening, he not only trained his eyes on the typewriter, but unfolded the pieces of paper that I had thrown away previously, reading each one as if it held a vital clue.
Waiting for me in the kitchen, Sara spluttered, “He hasn’t moved from the study.”
“So I see,” I retorted, trying to put her at her ease.
“He hasn’t left the flat at all,” she revealed, as if this fact would shed light on the mystery before us.
Breathing in the scent of the casserole that emanated from the oven, I countered, “The smell of dinner will drive him to distraction and, you’ll see, he’ll take his leave.”
Weighing up my prediction, Sara said, “I hope you’re right.”
By now the tang had dispersed, we had eaten all the aromatic meat, and had embarked self-consciously on a clangorous washing-up, so that the custodian would not think that we were engaged in some other surreptitious function.
As time progressed, it seemed incredible to us that he did not budge from the study, the door firmly closed, and without access to food or water.
Sara conjectured, “He must have brought his own provisions with him.”
She hazarded, facetiously, that he might be akin to some Oriental mystic that can endure months at a time without a morsel to eat or a drop to drink. We reached the conclusion that he must go out at night, while we were fast asleep. But when we decided to listen from behind the door, we would hear, as if it would last forever, the slow but inexorable turning of the typewriter’s roller bar, and the periodic crumpling of paper.
Fear feeds on uncertainty, and this no-man’s-land of doubt was harder to bear than knowing what was expected of us, in all its unpalatable truth. And so, having resolved to force events, once and for all, to their conclusion, and looking as cavalier as I could, I entered the study, heading straight for the cupboard to deposit some office files.
He pointed towards the bundle and asked, “What’s that?”
“What?” I enquired, trying to seem unnerved not so much by his question as by his eternal presence.
Disregarding my air of bewilderment, he repeated vehemently, “What are you holding?”
“Just some accounts.”
“Let me have a look,” he enjoined, closing in.
Protesting as I left the room, I surrendered the whole batch.
Sara agreed that I had done the right thing, that if I had incurred his displeasure it would only have provided him with ammunition and that, wearying of his post, he would sally forth.
He made his entrance as we were finishing dinner. Gathering my composure, I stood up and asked, “What do you want now?”
Refusing to meet my eyes, he placed the documents on the table and disclosed, “Everything is in order”, before returning to the study.
Despite having received his all-clear, this incident filled me with foreboding. From then on, I never again appeared before him, carrying any papers.
One late afternoon, I opened the window and, given that the study was out-of-bounds, sat at the bedside table and wrote for an hour or two. I transcribed my desires with that infinite longing that is heightened by the spring: the allure of that woman whose perfume is at one with the fragrant dusk; that eloquent glance that meets my furtive gaze; that all-too-conscious brushing of the fingers at some cocktail party; that witty remark that draws in its prey, enthralled by images of my new-found beloved, so different from Sara, and to whom l would lay bare my soul.
Overwhelmed by the sentiments that had surged up inside me, I leant back in the chair. Taking a deep breath, I noticed the figure behind me, as if seeking to decipher each single word.
He did not speak, but he looked so askance that I presented my musings to him.
I hoped against hope that he would relent but, looking even more censorious, he returned to the study, from where I could hear the sound of scrunched paper landing in the litter basket.
Our words, hewn from raw emotion, so often ensnare us: the utterance, made in anger, that cannot be unsaid; the mantra debased and now a manic call to arms; the confession, ripped from our entrails, that will condemn us, without question.
I confided my fears to Sara, telling her that we must refrain from venting our feelings, lest some phrase or other be misconstrued.
From that moment, we did not let down our guard except for one occasion when some friends, up from the country, came to see us and, in the general carousing, we gave way to bonhomie.
No sooner had we returned, bathing in congeniality, from having greeted our visitors farewell than we saw the interloper, all but forgotten, standing beside the study door.
“I heard all that you said,” he warned.
Sheepishly, I responded, “They are good people who, like us, enjoy a glass of wine.”
“You are old enough to know what you are doing,” he snapped as he returned to his lookout. And given that since then we have not once entered the study, and that we have not given him any pretext to emerge with the loaded gun of his wrath, we have not seen him again.
One false step and we stand to lose, and while our lives are not among the best, I have my job in the office and, at the weekend, Sara and I go to the cinema or for dinner, so why take the slightest risk?
We have made our peace with the hand that has been dealt to us and, talking in hushed voices, have learned how to skirt any subject that could give offence to he who keeps watch, listening no doubt from behind the shut door, as we laugh about the infantile banter of a nephew or niece, or discuss some new-fangled recipe that skimps too much on salt, or watch the soap opera that contrives to keep us glued to the set, or express our wish to head out for ice-cream or to sleep off the day’s exhaustion.
And not only have we traded in those friends who sought to change the world for others who are happy to engage in idle chit-chat, but we are at pains not even to bring home a newspaper, because it might well be glimpsed, even though the study door appears to still be shut, and why lay ourselves wide open when, going about our daily tasks, our keeper will have no cause to leave his lair?
The Power of Prose