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Verge 2012: Inverse


Camille Eckhaus

The city is concrete and cement and a cloud of sound always coming closer. As Kieran walks it beats its rhythm inside his skull. In the cold his knees crackle like old parchment. He’s holding onto Tim’s hand but it’s just wool-wrapped skin and bone pulling him along. All he feels is the itch of the fibres against his palm. Only faintly does he remember where they’re going.

Tim skids on a patch of ice and grasps at his father’s arm to keep from falling. Kieran looks down at the tiny hand gripping his elbow, a shapeless thing wrapped up tight. He looks at his son’s laughing face. The tips of Tim’s ears are red.

Kieran has forgotten to make him wear his hat again. He can’t seem to stop forgetting the hat.

He’s not used to this place. It still doesn’t make sense to Kieran that the cold can burn. He remembers the coat because the wind bites, the gloves because his hands claw with cold, but the hat he can’t remember. Filled up with things in this strange new place, he can’t seem to find space to fit everything he needs to remember. He should have remembered Tim’s hat. A man walks past, shiny shoes and sleek hair, and glances at Tim. Kieran knows that man is thinking the same thing. That man has forgotten his son’s hat. Disgraceful. How could he? Kieran feels the censure follow him down the street, a hundred pairs of eyes staring at the back of his neck.

Tim enjoys the snow. He pulls at his father’s hand, the exuberance caught under his skin pushing in every direction. He wants to go everywhere, to see everything. He doesn’t want to walk to school slow and holding his father’s hand like a child. Kieran feels the impatience leaching out of him but says nothing. He’s thinking blurred thoughts about the colour of sunshine.

He drops Tim off at school, an imposing building of red-grey cement and iron railings. All around him mothers kiss their sons, call after them to make sure they have money for lunch. All the boys have money for lunch. All the boys have hats on. A teacher is standing in the courtyard watching the children and their mothers. Her hair is grey and her clothes are the colour of red-earth mud. She looks like she’s been built to match the school from spare fabric and leftover paint. She frowns when she sees Tim has no hat. This is the third time. Kieran knows that in her head she’s already composing a letter to send home. He can see the words shuttle across her eyes. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Dale … Before they moved here they never got those letters. Now there are two hidden in the bottom draw of Kieran’s desk.

He walks home. The sky is the colour of fine dust. People push past him, their winter jackets bubbles of impenetrable space. They smell of burnt coffee and sticky-sweet perfume.

When he gets to their building the doorman holds the door for him. Kieran likes to think he and the doorman are friends. Close friends. They never speak to each other but that’s because they don’t have to. They just have to nod and the other understands. Today the doorman’s nod is an upwards jerk of his chin, second chin following a moment behind the first. ‘Hey man,’ his nod says, ‘shame about the hat.’ Kieran nods, head dropping slightly and eyes on the carpet.

‘My bad,’ he is saying. ‘Mea culpa.’ He passes on.

The hallway smells of fried onion, washing powder and wet paint. He breathes in and his lungs are full of the city. Thomas Wolfe breathed in this city and his lungs tore themselves apart to get it out. Kieran’s are just dissolving, quiet and secret.

As he tries to open the door he fumbles the lock, gloves making his hands clumsy. He takes them off and tries again. His hands feel like they belong to someone else. When he finally gets the door open the silence sweeps out to meet him. He steps inside and takes off his coat. Hangs it on one of the pegs by the door. Tim’s hat is on the peg next to it.

The apartment is cold, air hanging with ice. Kieran turns the heating on but there’s no rumble of waking pipes. This building is new. Everything is efficient and streamlined. Clean and white and heavy. It’s like a face of a strong chin and protruding nose. Handsome but hard. It’s a face that can be admired but not loved. It can’t be lived with. He hadn’t wanted to live here. He’d wanted a proper house with a yard for Tim. Space for a dog. That was before he knew that everyone in this city lives in the air, not on the ground.

Jeanne has already gone to work. He can hear the echo of the noise she left behind. The click of heels and the clatter of keys. He follows her remnants through the house, finds the note she’s left on the kitchen table. There is a series of x’s on the front just like she used to do when they first met. When everything about them was eager and anxious. It’s not something she’s done in a while. The house in the suburbs and the dog and the two cars made a few x’s at the bottom of a note unnecessary. The world around them was a testament to the permanence of their love. There was none of the urgency that comes with courtship, with the having before the becoming.

But now they have to become all over again. Packed up the house and given the dog to a neighbour and flown thousands of miles to a city in which the sky is full of dirt. Now Jeanne has started putting the x’s back on her notes.

This city is home for Jeanne. This is the city that spawned her, raised her, taught her. This city is the mother that sent her on her way when she was old enough to go but welcomed her back when she wanted to return. When they take Tim out on the weekends she is as full of delight as he is. She shows him things that she knew as a child, places she used to go. Her excitement is like a spark under her skin, flaring brighter and brighter. She glows like the nineteen-year-old with the shaved head drinking beer through a straw, like the graduate, like the new mother. It’s the shade to every memory Kieran treasures like the sepia tint to old photographs.

Kieran tries but he can’t join in her excitement. His body is just too heavy. He misses the big house that was always warm and the stairs that creaked and Fitzgerald asleep at his feet, tail twitching as he dreams. He misses the sound of Jeanne’s bare feet as she passed his study. He misses the voices of his friends. He wants to hear a familiar male voice, the heavy, heated vowels of an adult male.

Work has drawn Jeanne back. The job that couldn’t be passed up. Fear was a living, breathing thing when Kieran’s protests had tried to drag it all away from her. ‘You can write anywhere,’ Jeanne had said, the yellow ripple of a whine in her voice.

He hadn’t argued with her because how could he explain that a writer can’t just write anywhere? That he needed his study with its large windows and full bookshelves. That his job was like being wrapped in a spider web. One wrong twitch and it would all fall apart. He’d tried explaining it once, back before they got old. She’d laughed and shaken her head and said, ‘Talk to me about stock trends. That I understand.’

The top three buttons of her silk blouse had been open, strips of skin melted caramel beneath, so he’d let himself be distracted. When it mattered it was too late to try again. Now they’ve been here for two months and he hasn’t written a word.

He throws Jeanne’s note away unread. He’s already decided what it says.

Sweetheart. Gone to work. Re dinner: don’t wait for me. Make sure Tim doesn’t forget his hat. It’s cold out. XXXX

Kieran decides he’ll be annoyed that she’s working late again, that he has to cook. He hates cooking. The part about Tim’s hat he’ll read as a rebuke. He’ll feel guilty about it, impotently angry. He plans a conversation in which he demands she get Tim up in the morning, dress him, take him to school. He’ll demand to know why it’s him who must always remember, why it’s him that must be the mother. He sees himself standing in the kitchen with arms spread wide. In the conversation-dream Jeanne will stand in the doorway, arms crossed over her chest. She will be dismissive. Cruel and cold. The high ground will be irretrievably his.

He sits down at his desk. He will remember to take the hat with him when he goes to pick Tim up.

In the apartment there’s no room for a study. There isn’t even enough room for all his books. The meagre shelves are taken up with Jeanne’s coffee-table books, spines unbroken and glossy pictures unmarked. Kieran’s dog-eared books covered in scrawl are stacked in cupboards and under beds and in piles on the small table pressed tight into a corner of the living room that has become his desk. He has to fight with Vonnegut and Thoreau for elbowroom.

He sits at his desk. He picks up his pen. It feels too heavy. He puts it down and takes off his shoes. There’s a hole in the toe of his left sock. He straightens the paper on his desk and picks up the pen again. Puts it down and goes to make tea. There is none, only the expensive coffee beans Jeanne buys. She says they have to be whole beans for the flavour. She says the smell is rich and chocolaty. To Kieran they smell sour. He puts them away and goes back to the desk. He stares at the blank sheet of paper. He resolves to buy tea on the way home from picking Tim up. Buy the tea and take the hat.

He writes it down. His page now says:



From where he’s sitting he can see the hat. Blue and woollen and hanging by his coat. He thinks that today he could write about a hat. A hat that’s sitting on a peg all alone in a big room. A remnant of all the people who have come and gone. A hat that still carries its wearer’s scent. Or maybe he won’t write about a hat but about a man writing about a hat. This man will be contemplating this hat, small enough to fit the vulnerable curve of a child’s head. He will describe the hat in excruciating detail. People will read it and know every stitch. They will believe the hat is sitting there in front of them. They are not reading a story but staring at the picture of a hat. A small blue hat the colour of the sky in spring.

No. Not the sky in spring. He hasn’t seen the spring sky here. It may be the wrong shade of blue. It might not be blue at all. He will have to find a new metaphor. In this place all his metaphors will have to be new. Everything he knows is the wrong way around.

Maybe instead of writing about the hat he will draw a picture. He will draw a picture and call it The Hat and introduce the story with the words ‘This is a hat’. People will be fascinated. They will want to know what this hat means. They will write to him and ask and he won’t tell them it’s only a hat. It’s only a hat.

Kieran gets up, goes to the bathroom, comes back. The page is blank except for:



Maybe instead of a man writing about a hat he will write about a man having a conversation with a hat. ‘Hello,’ the hat will say. ‘I am a hat.’ ‘Hello hat,’ the man says. ‘Would you like to hear a story?’ ‘Yes,’ replies the hat. ‘I would very much like to hear a story.’ ‘Alright,’ says the man. ‘Here is a story. One day two men walked into a bar.’ ‘Was one of them wearing a hat?’ the hat asks.

No, the page is almost blank (Tea. Hat.) and he will not write about a man talking to a hat. It seems the hat has nothing to say.

Kieran gets up and goes to the bedroom. He’d made the bed before he left but there’s the shape of Jeanne where she sat to put on her shoes. He can see her do it, toes pointed as the shoe slips on, skirt riding up the stockinged thighs. He used to enjoy watching that. When she knew he was watching, she’d do it as slowly as she could.

He lies down in the centre of the bed, on his back and arms spread wide. He stares at the ceiling. It’s white. There are no cracks. Kieran wants cracks. He wants to see a story he can steal pressed into the plaster. Instead he has whitewashed freshness. Anger rouses briefly then rolls over and goes back to sleep. It’s too cold for anger. He turns his head. The city outside his window is huge.

He thinks about the hat. Perhaps the hat is not a hat. Perhaps the hat is the man’s son. Maybe he’s forgot his son. He’s left his son behind somewhere. Or his son has left him. No. That won’t work. Sons are always leaving fathers. That’s the point of sons, of fathers. Mothers you can come back to but fathers you’re always trying to leave.

Perhaps the hat is his wife. He has followed the hat, caught in the breeze. Followed the hat somewhere where the spring sky is not blue and everything is inside out. But a breeze isn’t strong enough to carry a man anywhere. It can’t turn him inside out. It would have to be something else. Maybe he could be like Oliver Sachs’ patient and be the man who mistook his wife for a hat. Only that won’t work either. The man he writes about, that man’s wife will always be a person. The kind that will fill a room with herself. She is incapable of being an object and he isn’t the kind of man who can be caught in the breeze or mistake his wife for a thing. Neither is violent enough.

No, Kieran thinks, lying spread-eagled on the bed, the hat is a hat. It cannot be made into anything else.

The room smells of clean linen and smoke. Beside the bed there’s a photo of the family. Jeanne put it there. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like those eyes always on him while he sleeps. It’s Tim’s fifth birthday in the photo. He is missing two front teeth and there is icing on his nose. Jeanne is beside him in a green sundress. Her hair is long and dark. Kieran remembers that day she’d smelt like ginger lily and cinnamon. He had wanted to touch her.

He’s looking at the photo and it’s looking back at him but he must have fallen to sleep because he closes his eyes and when he opens them again it’s to a new shapeless world. A world that’s cold and hot and loud and full of silence. He’s trying to speak but can’t. His own voice has become a woman’s, singing a soft lullaby. He doesn’t know who he’s singing to. He’s looking at his hands and they’re covered with ink.

The clock ticks over the hour. He hears it in his dream and he knows he has to get up. He has to go back to his desk and work. He has to work and then he has to get to the school on time to pick Tim up. He has to walk through the hallway with its stiff carpet and go down in the lift that smells like steel and oil. He has to walk past the doorman so they can nod at each other. He has to get to the school without looking at the sky. When he picks Tim up he has to help him with his homework and make him dinner and then put him to bed with a story. When Jeanne comes in he has to kiss her hello and serve her a plate of leftovers. Then he will sit back at his desk. Sit at his desk and know that the world has turned itself back to front and upside down and inside out. That the whole of everything has been inverted.

Kieran opens his eyes. The world shivers once but holds its shape. He gets up and leaves the imprint of his body on the sheets. He goes back to his desk and sits down. The top sheet of paper says:



Across the room the blue hat hangs on its peg, still and silent. Watching.

Verge 2012: Inverse

   by Samantha Clifford and Rosalind Mcfarlane