For most of us, the real is the life of the surface, the visible meniscus. But for some, far below, it must be something quite different, lived under a pressure many would find intolerable.
The story of Nadia and Christine is like that, but only in some respects. Depth is relative; surface varies with angle of vision. What may, to many, seem almost impossible – like the great swallowers, the lantern-fish that, dragged too quickly to the surface, collapse in the sudden thinness of the atmosphere – may seem to others only too familiar. We live by surfaces – interpret, read by them – yet reality itself can lie beyond at unexpected distances. It seems, in any case, as if only the simple words will do: the submarine dark, the long teeth, the grotesque yet delicate jaws of photostomias qiiemei must be left, instead, to the oceanographer, or to those who can see a tale as something other than a casting and recasting of signs.
Nadia lived in a large house, not far from the centre of the city. It was a boarding house. In it were eleven apartments. She occupied hers, in the basement, at a much-reduced rent, in exchange for cleaning the others weekly, on Thursdays and Fridays, beginning with the superintendent’s flat and ending with her own. The order in which she cleaned the others did not matter, except for one, whose rooms had a particular appeal.
She had liked its location long before the present occupant moved in, and had always cleaned it late on Friday morning, just before descending the long dark staircase to the airless passageways, the tiny bubble of light that was her kitchenette. This apartment – the nice one – was on the top floor, in the centre, and had by far the best view of the small park opposite, a neat, flowerbordered square hardly the size of a building-lot, with benches spaced evenly among well-groomed trees. There was a small delicatessen to the left; workers from the offices would buy their lunches there and eat them on the benches in the sun. Over the low hedge that insulated them from the city traffic, Nadia could see almost perfectly.
Once, soon after she had first come here, Nadia had looked out of the middle window. It had been lunchtime, on a sunny spring day, and she had seen the benches full of workers. Many of the younger seemed to have formed couples, and she had been instantly intrigued by the patterns and the gestures that they made. She tried to imagine the conversations they were having, and to put herself in the place of the young girls, straightening their skirts, throwing their long hair back and laughing, showing their white teeth to the sun.
She began to return here at the same time every week, and soon imagined that she could follow the course of their relationships, in the way that some who had sat together now sat elsewhere, while others, remaining paired, sat closer or further apart. One particular couple she watched more than any. Week after week they were together, among the first to arrive at lunchtime and always among the last to leave. All through the summer she observed them becoming closer and closer, the fair girl sometimes carrying flowers, the dark-haired youth more and more attentive, less and less conscious of others.
But then something happened. One Friday the girl did not appear, and the young man sail alone. He did so the next week, and the next, and continued to come to the park well after most other had moved inside and the leaves had begun to fall. Nadia watched him carefully. Sometimes, she thought, he looked directly up at her, and for the seconds that he seemed to do so she felt a lingering shock pass through her, as if they knew each other intimately.
By the time winter finally arrived she found she had developed a liking for the flat itself, and though fewer and fewer came to the park, and even the young man himself had gone, she continued to arrive at the same time, taking almost as much pleasure from simply sitting with a cup of tea in her hand and trying, if there were nothing more pressing, to reconstruct from his possessions something of the life of the occupant. It had teen a retired professor before Miss Christine, a sad, elderly man who read many books and left her a small gift at Christmas. She had been afraid, when he left, that coming to this flat would no longer be so pleasant, but it had worked out quite differently. Christine, you could tell, was so much more sophisticated, so much less flighty than other young women, and nothing had had to change.
When Nadia first glimpsed her, two or three weeks after she had come, Christine seemed just as attractive as her clothes, her simple perfumes, the state of the apartment had already suggested – tall, slim, dark-haired, in her early twenties, with high cheekbones, large eyes, and an open and friendly expression much like Nadia’s own at such an age. And the softest, palest, most perfect skin.
Week after week, then, Nadia came to this flat, finding herself each time more anxious to get there, more happy as, closing the door behind her, she looked around, deciding where to start – checking first, perhaps, the waste-paper bins, the mantel and desktop, the bedside table for the odd cup or glass or bread-and-butter plate. There is always a method in the way one cleans, particularly if one does so much of it, and Nadia liked to begin with raised surfaces, the obvious, and then to move down, only at last, after the washing up, the tidying of clothes, the plumping of cushions, coming to the vacuuming, the changing of bed-linen, the scrubbing and polishing. The order varied slightly from apartment to apartment: you could tell things about people’s lives from their patterns of disarrangement, their habits of untidiness, the things they cast off.
Often there was little else to do but tell. True, you could put on the radio, the television, but they slowed you down, and Nadia was always keen to reach the top floor. She relied, instead, on the task at hand to talk to her – that is, she didn’t call it talking, but might well have. In the twenty minutes spent scrubbing a kitchen or a bathroom floor, in a quarter hour cleaning out cupboards, in the time taken to sweep behind a refrigerator or check the little valley behind the bookshelf for the papers that sometimes fell there, one noticed things, found objects people didn’t know they had lost, or might not call lost if they knew. And in the comparative silence of bristles grinding against tiling, the monotony of your own panting as, on hands and knees, you grubbed out an awkward crack, each little discovery was like an act of speech. You couldn’t help but listen and add up.
Not that Nadia was so attentive in all apartments, or that Christine’s was ever far from spotless, but even spotlessness spoke, or, in whispering only, left the more room for daydream. It was the spotlessness, in any case, and only occasionally – after a cup of tea, and less and less frequently a glance through the window at the empty park – the dreaming, that Nadia would take with her down the staircase to her own rooms, which by late afternoon she could see faintly shining – glimmering in the eddying dusk – and try somehow to compare.
Perhaps it was to make this comparison the more easily that the first of her copying began – a shifting of chairs, a table, the television, to match a template above. The pursuit of a deeper spotlessness, it may be, or a lost youthfulness, although one might have suspected more on the day when, stooping beside the bed-head, Nadia drew from the space behind it a photograph that she almost immediately put again where she had found it. Certainly when, three weeks later, having observed it to have gathered dust again, she picked it up and placed it in the pocket of her apron.
For the time being, this was the greatest of her borrowings. Little more need be said of it; I have suggested enough already to locate the photograph exactly in a flat three floors below.
I would like instead to speak of a period some six weeks later. Christine now had a lover. At least, that is what certain facts – the occasional fair hair on the furniture and pillows, a greater disarray of bedsheets – suggested to Nadia. She was disturbed. It was the first time that her cleaning had conflicted so strongly with desire. When she cleaned Christine’s apartment it was, for several Fridays, with a disinterest beneath which we might have found a certain earnestness. She tidied quickly, with the television on, and rarely lingered over details – until one day when, coming home, she froze in the doorway, muttering a few shocked syllables in her native Russian, having thought suddenly of someone who did not exist, who cleaned her own apartment without knowing its occupant, who read the signs she left as she herself read those of others.
The signs of Christine’s lover were few – a pair of her panties, crumpled deep within the bedclothes, a piece of bitten, nicotine stained nail too large to have come from her delicate fingers – but from now on they were meticulously collected. There were things, of course, too intimate, too difficult to reproduce, and these Nadia regretfully discounted. There were also secrets of bedsheets, ambiguities of hair or odour, too slight or painful to contemplate for long. But all the larger signs, all those which might catch the unskilled eye, were carefully transplanted. She wondered, sometimes, if she should feel guilty: there are things, after all, that should always be thrown away. But it was a feat, an accomplishment, to keep such a careful untidiness fresh, as if she had not yet time for it, as if her lover had just gone.
And then, one day, there was a letter, an envelope slipped under the door at some time between Christine’s morning departure and Nadia’s arrival. It was sealed, and no name was written upon it – obviously, if it were from a lover, if it were a question of such intimacy, there would be no need for one. With some trepidation – this would be, after all, more than a borrowing – Nadia put this, too, in her pocket, and when she arrived home placed it carefully against the skirting-board where someone emerging from the basement dark might accidentally have kicked it, or the door itself have swept it upon opening. It seemed to Nadia, as she put it there, that this was almost the final touch, that if she were to borrow much more the tale itself might begin to seem unbelievable.
As if to concur with her, the signs in Christine’s apartment ceased. For two or three weeks Nadia looked for them, but with decreasing fervour. Once again it was only Christine that she read. She was just beginning to think this after all a better state of things when suddenly, in the fourth week, she entered an empty apartment. Everything – the clothes, the books, the curtains and the furniture – had gone. All that remained, in the bleak, late-winter light that now seemed to flood through the wide, bare window, were the indentations of the table-legs and the bookshelf in the carpet, and, in the bedroom especially, the unmistakable yet already fading scent of the one who had left.
The flat was vacant for a couple of weeks, and then was occupied by an elderly woman who kept an unapproachable black cat and stayed too much at home. Nadia had to talk to her the first few times she cleaned, but then changed her routine to avoid her. By now it was spring again, and people once more lunched on the benches. Nadia sometimes watched them from a lower window, but much of the interest had gone. The young man of the year before did not return. Once or twice she wondered what had happened to him, but soon, for some reason or another, began to watch soap operas while she cleaned, and seemed, at last, to forget the park entirely.
When she cleaned her own apartment, on the other hand, it was, for a time, with particular care, as if in a sort of shrine. But even this she could not do for long. Soon, as if she too had broken with a lover, and now, at last, had begun to get over it, she put her small collection in a box – the broken threads, the photograph, the unopened letter. Eventually, she thought, she would put it away in a cupboard, where some day someone, going through her things, would find it and, fingering the blond hairs, opening the envelope, would marvel that she had had such a secret, and wonder who her lover had been.
David Brooks is an Australian poet, novelist, short-fiction writer and essayist.