Quirke turned. Poole stood sideways in the barely open doorway of his flat, neither in nor out, his accustomed stance, with an expression at once truculent and timid. He was an early riser, if indeed he ever slept. He wore a sleeveless pullover and a dicky-bow, twill trousers sharply creased, gray carpet slippers. He looked, Quirke always thought, like the father of a fighter pilot in one of those Battle of Britain films or, better still, the father of the fighter pilots girlfriend.
Good morning, Mr. Poole, Quirke said, politely distant; the fellow was often a source of light relief, but Quirkes mood this early morning was not light.
Pooles pale gulls eye glittered vengefully. He had a way of grinding his lower jaw from side to side.
All night, no letup, he said, aggrieved. The other flats in the house were vacant, save for Quirkes on the third floor, yet Poole regularly complained of noises in the night. Frightful carry-on, bang bang bang.
Quirke nodded. Terrible. I was out, myself.
Poole glanced back into the room behind him, looked up at Quirke again. Its the missus that minds, he said, lowering his voice to a whisper, not me. This was a new twist. Mrs. Poole, rarely glimpsed, was a diminutive person with a furtive, frightened stare; she was, Quirke knew for a fact, profoundly deaf. Ive lodged a strong complaint. I shall expect action, I told them.
Good for you.
Poole narrowed his eyes, suspecting irony. Well see, he said menacingly. Well see.
Quirke walked on up the stairs. He was at his own door before he heard Poole closing his.
Chill air stood unwelcoming in the living room, where the rain murmured against the two high windows, relics of a richer age, which no matter how dull the day were always somehow filled with a muted radiance Quirke found mysteriously dispiriting. He opened the lid of a silver cigarette box on the mantelpiece, but it was empty. He knelt on one knee and with difficulty lit the gas fire from the small flame of his cigarette lighter. With disgust he noted his dry raincoat, thrown over the back of an armchair, where it had been all the time. He rose to his feet too quickly and for a moment saw stars. When his vision cleared he was facing a photograph in a tortoiseshell frame on the mantelpiece: Mal Griffin, Sarah, himself at the age of twenty, and his future wife, Delia, laughingly pointing her racquet at the camera, all of them in tennis whites, walking forward arm in arm into a glare of sunlight. He realized with a faint shock that he could not remember where the picture had been taken; Boston, he supposed, it must have been Bostonbut had they played tennis in Boston?
He took off his damp suit, put on a dressing gown, and sat down barefoot before the gas fire. He looked about the big, high-ceilinged room and grinned joylessly: his books, his prints, his Turkey carpethis life. In the foothills of his forties, he was a decade younger than the century. The 1950s had promised a new age of prosperity and happiness for all; they were not living up to their promise. His eye settled on an artists articulated wooden model, a foot high, standing on the low telephone table beside the window, its jointed limbs arranged in a prancing pose. He looked away, frowning, but then with a sigh of annoyance rose and went and twisted the figure into a stance of desolate abasement that would better suit his morning gloom and burgeoning hangover. He returned to the chair and sat down again. The rain ceased and there was silence but for the sibilant hiss of the gas flame. His eyes scalded, they felt as if they had been boiled; he closed them, and shivered as the lids touched, imparting to each other along their inflamed edges a tiny, horrible kiss. Clearly in his mind he saw again that moment in the photograph: the grass, the sunlight, the great hot trees, and the four of them striding forward, young and svelte and smiling. Where was it? Where? And who had been behind the camera?
Copyright © 2006 by Benjamin Black. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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