On that first morning there is the sound of birds outside. Mornings have always been like this. There is nothing inside and there is everything outside. On that first morning there is recollection and a scratching of the head, the gathering of all that has spilled outside the outlines of what he thinks of as his conscious. Like in that game he could never play well, where he threw a pebble in the air and in between the time it left his hand and fell back, he had to gather stones inside a circle. Hoping he could do all this gathering without dropping the pebble on his hand. Either he was always dropping the pebble, in which case the problem of gathering a conscious back into the animal body was transferred to the opponent, or he did not gather enough pebbles to win the game. His focus was on the pebble going up and down, instead of the ones on the floor, the eggs he was supposed to be gathering into the basket. Sometimes he managed to gather enough to save face. On this day, when he has gathered just enough, there is the crude realization, after the gathered things and shapes and ideas and stray objects and new possibilities have acquiesced and taken form, or, more precisely, after the body has given a form and home to the many incidents of error originating from outside his realm of control, that all of it still means nothing in its new form. It meant nothing yesterday. It will mean nothing tomorrow. His body is not ready to be a home this early in the day. It wants to be the thing needing a home. The dark corridor and starched bedsheets and empty closets and hangers are not what he might consider as home. As a man trapped in a cage does, he turns towards the exterior and looks out the window in a bid to shake himself back into consciousness. A wet dog.
Something in his head is off. Something is begging to be quelled. Or let out. Something is not quite right. But he cannot put a finger to it, he cannot say with any kind of certainty what bothers him on this cold morning, when he wakes up in the outskirts of a town far removed from the city he left the day before. Something has always been off in his head. He has taken permanent residency there, he should know better. He drags his body through the dark corridor, the only corridor, to the small sink at the end of the hall. Is it peculiar that there is no mirror immediately on top of it? No one else has noticed the absence of mirrors all over the house. He has been to all the rooms just to confirm this. If the others have noticed, they keep it to themselves. No one wants to mention abstractions that might lead to intimacies here. And he thinks an observation like that might be one way to start an intimate conversation with a stranger. They are men and women who prefer to talk about long nights of booze and kush in Westy. They talk of the past as if they were once its kings. It is not the kind of crowd to talk about the absence of mirrors, although the stay at the house begins with someone shouting, ‘aesthetics is everything’. They don’t mean aesthetics. They mean appearances. None of them has the time to investigate what is truly beautiful. For instance, no one has mentioned the binoculars. He’ll come back to that later.
After rubbing soap into lather between his long fingers, he repeats the mindless act of splashing cold water on his face. He does this for an unusually long time, and after a hefty job of brushing his teeth at the sink, too small for his liking, he instinctively looks up the wall to find there is still no mirror, only the off-white paint on the wall. He leans on the wall and plays with the switches and watches as the bulbs in the bathrooms go on and off, a streak of yellow light visible through the space between the door and the floor. He thinks to himself, this might be the place where a notion like inner peace begins, and this absence of mirrors, coupled with low watt bulbs and a miniature sink, might have something to do with denying him the luxury of a clear reflection. He wipes the corners of his mouth just to make sure he will be presentable to the others when the time comes. He does not want them to see the unwitting and dirty man, the man who quotes alternative rock lyrics, the man who drinks before bed to sleep well, the man who is awake inside him.
He is reminded of a line by Christopher Reid: he’s woken up by the sound of someone waking up inside him.
He walks into another room. In the middle of the living room he is surprised to find a heavy set of binoculars. The words Steiner Germany, Military Marine 7×50 MADE-IN-W.GERMANY are inscribed on the bridge. They are cold, archaic, and improbable in the limited spaces of his imagination. The daughter of a Second World War hero must have taken a cruise ship down the Atlantic and up the Indian Ocean and settled here, in the serene lawns, where shudders of swallow nest and play among the sparse acacia, their morning songs turning into evening songs and so on, and a faint smell rises from the fruiting mango trees. He is not willing to ask his friends about the real story behind the binoculars. No one else walks into the living room for the duration of time he spends there. He picks up the binoculars and walks to the far end of the perimeter fence, where bird music comes from deep inside the foliage of perennial trees. This is his first time using binoculars. In the past he has thought of making a hobby out of watching birds. He has even thought of buying expensive books on birds sold in a bookshop near the Sarova Stanley, right next to an outdoor magazine stall. In the past he almost bought a cheaper second hand book on birds. He thinks of the missed opportunity and stops himself just before biting his lower lip. He thinks about the bird book and how wonderful it would have been to have it with him everywhere he went, the same ways he carries around the slim volumes of poetry in his tote bag. It might have made this act of walking out into the gathered and protected wild carrying a pair of binoculars hanging from his neck more sensible.
Once, walking down Mama Ngina in the company of his girlfriend, he ran into a vendor selling a second hand copy of Collin’s Birds of East Africa, 5th Ed. The vendor asked for 800 shillings. He tried to bargain down to 500 but the vendor wouldn’t hear any of it.
A few days later he realized he had walked away from a very good deal. The thought of leaving the book had been nagging at him the days after he turned it down. He asked around for some money and rushed through streets and avenues, cursing and panting, thinking of nothing else but becoming the new owner of a second hand edition of a bird book, thinking of quiet nights by the haze of a lampshade where he would lick his fingers as he turned the pages of the book, in essence like a child, enthralled by the pictures of birds on the glossy pages. As he coursed through streets he made a promise to himself; unlike with his other books, where he folded the corners of pages into dog years, made coffee mug rings on the pages, left the book lying around on damp floors, he would take care of this new book, he would care for it the way he cared for pet pigeons when he was a child, he would love it in the offhanded way he loved sunsets in romance films, he would love this book the same way he loved the yard behind the Railway Museum.
When he finally arrived at the place he had spotted the book the vendor told him the book had been bought the previous day.
He walks into the kitchen and immediately begins to unlock the cabinets. In one cabinet there are five bottles of Smirnoff Ice and two bottles of Gilbey’s Gin. He shakes the gin bottle, there’s a touch of gin left at the bottom. He licks his lips and swallows hard. Apart from the bottles nothing else in the house suggests recent occupation. Either that or the management makes sure all such objects are thrown away or hidden from view. It is a sort of hotel, after all. A thought that makes him very uncomfortable. The coldness of the house disturbs him, although he is not particularly crazy about proximity to warm bodies and human contact. Walking into the house is like inheriting the house of a recently deceased person, with all their intimate objects and the general things that make a home come to life, like photographs and dirty ashtrays and darkening banana peels in the dustbin, all given off to living and distant relatives.
He is young, impressionable, not as educated as he would wish, and lavish when he has the means. On this day he does not have the means, although hidden under his bed is a bottle of imitation vodka sold to him at double the price of the original stuff. He spends his days worrying about how much overdue work he has. Deadlines come and pass and he remains the same old person, churning out one work after the other, without any marked difference in style or content. He is not growing. He bemoans the fact that the corporate ladder does not rest on the shoulders of his childish ideals. He has had a few false starts, a few ideas for manuscripts of verse, but they remain false starts. If only he could at least get them on paper. Then his false starts would be material. His failure would be a thing he could point to, a tangible thing he could touch and smell and burn. This morning is another false start. As a child he played in a yard full of dead classic Mini Coopers. He would get into one and rev it up. A cigarette held between his fingers, sunglasses on his face, he would imagine black fumes coming out of the exhaust pipes as he drove past other vehicles. He would take long trips to the edge of the city. He reveled in these false starts. Now, decades later, he is still hoping on his imagination to save him.
He has no temperament, at least not in the style of protagonists and antiheroes in the Russian novels he has read. He is no Alexandrovich Pechorin. He is no Chichikov. His leitmotif is the very absence of pattern. He images pattern is banal. He is Byron. Fuck that, he refuses any labels. A friend has mentioned, in passing, about his Byronic sensibility and his black blazers, but that’s as far as it goes. Reading books does not make one a good man. He is the king of nothing. In the list of characteristics that make up a Byronic hero, please mark off sexual dominance. He considers himself a modern man and suspects he suffers from an un-diagnosable mental condition. He has considered diagnosing himself, always arriving at the same conclusion, which he writes in bold letters on a notebook as existential crisis. He understands this is not a special thing, even a Billy goat might suffer from an existential crisis. Not caring might be the point.
He does not need a manual to know he suffers from the mysterious condition commonly referred to as self-indulgence and laziness.