It was, I recall, a morning like any other. As the alarm clock rang, I aimed to cheat time by burying my head even more deeply within his arms, but the minutesí inexorable rush would not be stemmed and, my desire defeated, I balanced myself precariously on the edge of the bed, and then stood up.
Beneath me, framed by a packet of Rothmans cigarettes and a dog-eared detective novel, Martin reclined, his fingers reaching out longingly for a recent presence. My gaze, that would not be deflected, fastened on his taut, prone flesh, adorned with a riot of black hairs that ran downwards from the small of his back.
With just twenty minutes left to shower, shave, and prepare a makeshift breakfast, I still could not bring myself to leave his side and, perching again somewhat perilously on the bed, I lingered to behold this man who had been my mainstay, almost from the moment I had arrived in the city, exchanging the snow-laden hills that girded the Scottish village for the all-too-familiar drip-drip-drip of the London rain.
Against the elements, we had holed ourselves up in a small terraced house that with others formed a dismal row to add to the endless rows, running to type in their drab uniformity, and that shut out the view of the park in a more salubrious neighborhood.
And then came the day, made possible through a friendís kind agency, and throwing my thoughts initially into disarray, that Martin floated the idea of our moving to the tower. There was much to be said against it, not only the monolithic eyesore itself, or our shared fear of heights, but also the incessant rattling of windows in the wind, the dreaded descent of the elevator as it plunged seemingly unchecked into some void, and the plausible best friend who might push one, and not so inadvertently, from the balcony.
But we were tired of our dismal abode, with its cramped quarters, damp patches, and infestations by mice and, given that we could secure the flat in the tower with just one monthís rent in advance and no need for a deposit, a boon as only a meager amount could be scraped together between my dead-end clerical job and Martinís scant income from private maths classes and hours of servitude in the local bar, we quelled our worst fears and decamped to the ether, our shattered bodies coiled up at night against the storm-driven deluge.
All too aware that my reverie was eating away at each precious second, I headed to the kitchen to place two eggs in the pan, willing them to boil before their time. No sooner out of the shower than in it, I recouped some time by not shaving-these days, stubble was all the rage, anyway. Taking a last look at the bed on which Martin lay, as if moribund, I did not have the heart to rouse him from his slumber to say goodbye, and closed the door behind me without a sound.
I was relieved not to encounter any of our more talkative neighbors, as the metallic tube, with each thud compounding my terror, shuddered down the twenty-one floors. But soon enough, any relief I had felt at leaving the tower was offset by the torrent of rain that lashed down from the sky, and that forced me, as I waited for the bus, to seek shelter under an archway.
On its arrival, I boarded the double-decker and, climbing the stairs, made my way to the back where, sitting down, I wiped the condensation from the window. As the lumbering juggernaut continued to thread its way through the narrow streets lined with pock-marked houses, I found myself wondering whether, in my haste, I might not have left the door of the flat ajar.
I aimed to still my worst fears by reminding myself how anxious I had felt of late, driven to distraction by my mundane job, with its long hours, repetitive tasks, and derisory pay. But my apprehension loomed large as I pictured the two eggs in the pot atop the flame that I may have neglected to extinguish and that reached out menacingly towards the tea cloth too close for comfort on an adjacent kitchen surface.
Desperate to dispel my manic fancies, and with the sound of Martinís voice a phone call away, I fumbled in my jacket pocket but, for all my frantic searching, the device was nowhere to be found. In my panic, I wondered if it had fallen out or been stolen but, remembering that I had left it charging on the bedside table, I told myself that I was running too late to go home to retrieve it.
My thoughts turning to my job, I realized that I could not endure one more day of having to ingratiate myself with my boss, mouthing pleasantries that had by now worn threadbare and, before the bus had turned into the street where the office was located, I had alighted.
I made my way to a nearby square and, drying the filament of rain, sat on a bench. Beyond the merry-go-round and swings, a few boys hollered, playing with a football. One of them came up to me to ask for a cigarette and, telling him that I did not smoke, I extended a few coins for him to buy a loose one in some neatby store. Thanking me, he shuffled off to rejoin his friends.
I headed down the pathway that led to the canal, and in no time was face-to-face with a boarded-up shop that had once sold Ūtems for boats. To avoid being soaked by yet another downpour, I stood under an awning and watched the rain pummel the lichen-covered water.
A barge, tethered to its moorings, scarcely stirred, and such was the gloomy scene before me that I was revisited by images from a Charles Dickens novel I had read at school, where I had done well at English, and sufficiently so to have gone to University, but I had felt no desire to study further.
As for my work, I would phone the next day to explain that, faced with an unforeseen family problem, I would not be returning. In a day or two, I would look for another temporary position and aim to stick it out for a couple of weeks.
Martin would be surprised to find me home before him but, as always, he would give me his support, making me a consolatory dinner with the vegetables, rice, and curry powder to be found in our kitchen cupboard. We even had a cheap bottle of wine in the fridge that would, as we listened to chill-out music, set the seal on our sleep.
I made the most of a lull in the rain, retracing my steps to the bus stop, and a few minutes later I was homeward-bound.
Through the damp window, the life that was being played out in the streets below struck me as a horizon devoid of all color.
Getting off the bus at the crossroads a few blocks from my destination, I was bewildered by how stiflingly hot the afternoon had become, its parched air sticking in my throat. Turning the corner, I looked towards the tower, but was blinded by the dense curtain of smoke that clogged the air. I could not bring myself to dwell on the conflagration with Martin, who would never be replaced, no doubt reduced to ashes, and not to mention all the men, women and children, their arms flailing in despair at the concrete slabs as, poised on the knife edge of window sills, they were forced to make the infernal choice between incineration and hurling themselves into an abyss of empty space. And all because I had not had the presence of mind, on boiling two eggs, to put out the flame.
If brought to book, would I admit to such negligence, or abscond to a far-flung continent, seeking refuge in a false identity and, so that my cover would not be blown, learning to master an alien tongue without any trace of a foreign accent, but in the end, beleaguered in this outpost, only to be flushed out as I cower before the banging on the door?
Waking with a start, I see that it is not any such door, but a high wind shaking the window. I cough as Martin, heading towards the balcony, drags on a cigarette. Its stub by now in free fall, he returns and, dabbing the sweat from my forehead, clambers into bed. Sidling up beside him, I lay my head on his shoulder, and once again close my eyes.
"The Power of Prose"