Eighteen minutes to go. On the back wall of the bar the TV's showing images from Times Square, fireworks over Sydney Harbour, Big Ben's long hands approaching XII. The bartender shouts Are you ready for the new year? It sounds so promising, so simple. As if one leaves behind all the old, bringing only the new into the new year. But new means nothing to him. He's not new. He doesn't need new. He doesn't want new. He just wants the old to behave properly. Seventeen minutes. He can still ring the doorbell and wish her a happy new year. Maybe she's wearing a negligee or whatever it's called. She's been sitting there drinking white wine and watching reruns of 7 Vidas, which everyone loves. Her hair is wet, she's taken a cool bath.
A crowd of people moves to exit onto the street. He's nearly pushed off his stool. He pays with a bill and remembers why he doesn't frequent tourist traps: it costs more than twenty euros for whisky and Drambuie. He follows the throng out and starts back towards Calle Palangre. He crosses the street and enters her building. It was built during the Franco years, and the stairwell is simple and cobalt-blue. On the first floor he reads the names on each of the three doors. Loud music is blaring inside, but there's no Louisa or L.
He walks up another flight. A couple stands kissing beneath the artificial light of the stairwell, but when he passes them they stop, shamefaced, and head down the stairs.
As he stands catching his breath a moment, he looks at the nameplates, then continues to the top floor. Three floors with doors equals nine doors.
On the third floor live one Federico Javier Panôs and one Sobrino. And in the centre, Luisa Muelas. The sign on her door is large and inlaid with gold, her name etched in thick, cursive letters. No doubt a gift from Petra and her husband. It's one of those traditional items parents give their children whenever they, as thirty-year-olds, move out of their childhood home.
It seems quiet behind each of the doors. He puts his ear against Luisa Muelas's and almost wishes her not to be home. But there's a faint noise inside clatters, creaks, mumbles but perhaps it's just the TV.
He straightens up and raps his good hand, the right, against the flat chunk of wood above the peephole. It's four minutes to midnight. Maybe his knocks will fade into the raucous noise of New Year's Eve.
Suddenly he sees a face in the nameplate.
The face is indistinct. A pleading, confused face dominated by two eyes wedged between a stack of wrinkles and shabby skin, topped off with a tired beard. A desperate face. In it he can see love and sorrow, he can see decades of bewilderment and alcohol, and he can see the cynical observer, appraising and judgmental. It's an appallingly wretched face, difficult to penetrate, difficult to stomach, difficult to love. But worst of all it's his face. As seen only from the rearview mirror of his car, or in the distorted mirrors above the chipped sinks of public toilets, or in shop windows, but preferably not at all. There's only one thing to ask that face.
What have you got to offer? In reality there's nothing more frightening than this. The encounter. The moment in a life when one takes a risk. When one says, I want you. The moment when chance ceases, when one makes a stand and asks another to accept. The moment when two soap bubbles burst the reflection, merging into one. It doesn't happen during a kiss, or during sex, and not even when one person loves another. It's in the terrifying second when one dares to make a mad claim that one has something to offer another by one's very presence.
He hears sounds behind the door now. Like stockinged feet.
Excerpted from The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl, translated by K.E. Semmel. Copyright © 2014 Thomas Rydahl, translation copyright © 2016 K.E. Semmel. Published by Oneworld Publications.
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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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