“Every man's memory is his private literature.” Aldous Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963)
I HAVE BEEN LIVING IN MY FLAT for five years now and I could not count the number of times I have approached my door onto the High Street, key in hand, to let myself in. Moreover, how many times might I have left home, turned to face the door from the outside so that I might lock it, and then walked away?
Five years, yet only a few months ago did a new friend, coming to visit for the first time, point out that next to my door, on the right-hand side, are six holes in the wall: Imprints of the nails, or screws, which must have once fastened a sign or plaque of some kind to the building. I had never noticed. Now I always see the marks in the stone.
This block of flats, created from a coach house that I have seen in photographs taken well over a hundred years ago, has three units on the ground level and three on the first floor, though the layout in any flat at street level does not match that above it. My flat has some odd angles with parts of two flats above mine. There is a passage through the building from the street to some garages and a courtyard. It is a narrow entrance and one can see damage inflicted by vehicles. (Aldous Huxley: “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”)
Once upon a time, so I have been told, there was a slaughterhouse, an abattoir, behind my flat. I dare say the piggies and lambs were herded through the passage, penned out back, and then killed and butchered in what is now a double-garage. Blood might have run across the floor and towards my courtyard because there seem to be a fair number of drains and I have heard the sounds of water trickling below the surface.
More recently, my flat may have been a dental office. That is somebody’s recollection, if not mine. I have wondered how the dentist’s surgery would have been laid out. I have an enormous kitchen (which I have subdivided into an office, and here I am writing this piece) and part of it may have been the heart of the surgery, seeing as the plumbing is located in this room. One would want to flush the spit and blood out of the building, and the drains that once serviced the abattoir outside my kitchen would have been an obvious choice.
My flat was renovated not long before I moved in. It is showing signs of wear and tear five years on. The roof on the back porch had a spell of leaking the winter before last and water got behind the wallpaper inside the porch, which now is becoming unglued. There are patches of dampness inside the corridor leading to the front door. The ceiling in the kitchen leaked for a day when my upstairs neighbours were having their kitchen or bathroom plumbing replaced. The damage to my ceiling was minor, but I always notice it because I saw it actually happening on the day. I ran upstairs to tell the workers what was going on; they were unconcerned, switching off something at their end, but not coming down to see what they had created below. I am grateful that I was in when the water started running through my ceiling, onto the counter top and then onto my floor: I was able to clean it up with a bucket, mop and a few towels. Left unchecked, I could have had a paddling pool when I got in.
The narrow road that emerges through the passage onto the High Street is higher behind the flats, and on two occasions during extremely heavy rainfall, the passage and the various drains in my courtyard and in the narrow road itself have not been able to cope with the run-off. Fortunately, I was at home when this happened and waded outside in over a foot of water and searched with my hands in the muck to pull up the drain covers. The water level had risen over my back step’s stoop, and was making its way across the inside of my porch and nearing the kitchen.
My flat came “furnished” and it had more than the basic furniture one might expect. There was a big bottle of talcum powder under the bathroom sink, cigarette butts in an ashtray, and every sort of Indian spice in bottles and packets on a top shelf in the kitchen cupboard. There were also tools, mops, houseplants, dishes, pots and pans, and a breadbox. Oh, and a George Foreman Grill. Yes, I had no need to buy curtains, pillows, sheets or a laundry hamper, or airing racks to dry the laundry on when I have washed it in the machine provided by my landlord.
This is a rather roomy flat, and I like a bit of clutter, so I have purchased a second, larger, television, several bookcases (and hundreds of books and DVDs to put in the bookcases), mats, tables, lamps and extra bedding, blankets and cushions. I installed a miniature dachshund puppy three years ago, and he has his own bed and heaps of toys, which are supposed to be under my desk. Cailean and his friend, Sasha, manage to distribute meerkats, turtles, snakes, footballs, and blankets throughout the flat in minutes. (Huxley: “To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.”)
I have a CD-player that also transmits sound in stereo from my TV and DVD-player, as well as my iPod. I do not have very many CDs now, but I have well over 600 albums on my iPod. I play music a good deal of the time, and sometimes the volume is higher than I intend because I have neglected to wear my hearing aid. If I notice the device on my bedside table I am a bit horrified when I put it in my ear and appreciate the fact that The Who are performing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” at live concert volume in my front room. I do have those upstairs neighbours only plywood away.
Now and then, I get post though my letterbox addressed to “Archway Cottage”. As the passage through the block of six flats is arched, I am guessing that the entire block or at least my flat is Archway Cottage.
Could the missing sign outside my front door have read Archway Cottage? It would have been a large sign, judging by the outline left on the sandstone block to which it was attached. It might have also read “Dental Office” and the name of the dentist and even his opening hours might have been noted on it.
I do not dream all that much about this flat, perhaps because I am busy living in it. I do not hear or see any ghosts: No dentists or their patients, or hogs, cows and sheep keep me up at night. Perhaps five years is not time enough.
Last night I dreamed of my mother. I have been visiting with her, as it were, regularly over the past winter. My mother has been dead for almost 20 years. And in last night’s dream I was at the house where I spent much of my childhood, stopping by to see how my mother was getting on (I am reminded of something else Aldous Huxley wrote: “Maybe this world is another planet's hell.”) and found that she had installed a fairly large fishpond outside her front door.
One of my sisters materialised (travel is easy in my dreams) and pointed out first tiny, grey fish no bigger than tadpoles, then one rather sizeable silver fish that was too big for the pool, its dorsal fin breaking the surface as it wriggled around trying to lift itself off of the bottom. That was a moment of sudden intense anxiety in my dream. To be honest, I had been having an anxious evening in what I suppose I could describe as my “real life”. A friend had been trying to get about, to enjoy freedom, and had been trapped on the mud, perhaps even the rocks, underlying his emotions. (Huxley again: “Science has explained nothing; the more we know the more fantastic the world becomes and the profounder the surrounding darkness.”)
Should one be giving memories the time of day or night? Private literature sounds rather exciting, rather enticing. Alternatively, should one think on this last line from Aldous Huxley, a man born on the very same day as my own grandfather Harry Charles Christopher Eldridge: “Words, words, words! They shut one off from the universe. Three quarters of the time one's never in contact with things, only with the beastly words that stand for them.”
Perhaps we should just live fully in the Here and Now, Boys!