A Green Light

(first published in The Age, Thursday 7 January 1993) GL picture

It was this stretch of road between Albert and Burnley streets, or particularly this building, that Lev had begun to dread. There was no problem in the mornings, at six-fifteen there was no one about, if anyone was awake they were better occupied elsewhere. It was not strictly necessary for Lev to be at work so early; his aversion to this particular building had tended to become unfocussed of late, so that he felt a certain unpleasantness simply passing people in the street: his bloodshot eyes would smart or water in the early morning frost so that he would blink until the rims were red and black like the rim of a roulette wheel, reining back virtual tears; the cold air would draw the skin on his face forward, he would strut briskly with all his weight on the very front of his soles, every second or third step breaking into a little run as if he were being led along by his nose, hopping or skipping with his left leg, where the knee was still sore.

He would be at the office block by six-thirty, often arriving even before the night guard had departed, he would go up to the sixth floor, his desk overlooking the railway yards, would peer down at the long shuttles as they were shunted from one track to the other - so fragile from this distance, so delicate, they could have been the hollow dried husks of cicadas - by the time his workmates arrived, in chattering pairs, or a lone fellow would arrive to a general welcome, he was already hard at work, already so lost in a collage of folders, portfolios, loose sheets, requisition forms, that it was hardly possible to extract him from his surroundings, to apprehend him individually: to say - here is Lev and here is the world at large, and here is the ben marcato divarication between the two.

It was in the evenings, at about seven when the sun has subsided beneath the artificial urban horizon (about five to ten degrees above the true horizon), that Lev dreaded to pass by the Refuge. It was not an uncertain dread. It was rather that dread that comes from familiarity, from repetition. It was that dread that accompanies familiar ritual - going up before the boss for his fortnightly harangue, or more personally, the nightly outbursts of his father: a quarter of an hour after the schoolboy Lev had been put to sleep, Alexei would vent all his anger and frustration with his job (as a janitor at the Russian Orthodox church) and his life on Vera, Lev's mother - Lev would see her in the mornings frying bacon and mushrooms in that little white pan, her short dark curls hastily brushed but disarrayed, her fieldmouse-grey irises shuddering like little pools of mercury on the white paper of her sclera, bluish-purple blotches, bruises superimposed on her white neck and jaw, in the shape of continents, in the shape of Europe, in the shape of Africa. The bruises were always on the right, Alexei would always hit her with his left fist - so that it wouldn't really hurt her, he said. It seemed unfair to Lev, that through an accident of geography he should have to bear the collective guilt of any number of men. Some times there was no one there, no bruised or battered women or girls, mothers, lovers, daughters, tiny babies like stuffed toys in their knitted wool cardigans and bonnets, no one sat on the little benches with peeling green paint in the tarmac courtyard, fenced by redbrick walls and wire netting (that looked to Lev like a schoolyard or an exercise yard in a prison - but he supposed that their budget was not so extensive that they could afford to be particular); but he felt, or imagined, eyes following him - eyes on his back and his shaggy hair, wary eyes that made judgements or inferences from his jerky gait - unblinking eyes, where his own would flash and flutter like damp window shutters in a gale.

As often as not, there were two or three women - never one alone - lined up on the bench with arms and legs crossed and their bodies turned away from the street, smoking a cigarette or reading a book. And sometimes they would jeer and chide Lev as he passed, would make fun of his scraggly beard (which needed a trim, admittedly), or tell him to piss off: Lev needed little encouragement.

But this evening - Lev started home even later than usual, deferring his departure with mumbled excuses about work to do, about some catching up, some form to be re-drafted. He considered, as he considered every day, that he should choose another route, should walk along some other street, or catch a bus, or the tram. And for the same reason as always, he was unable to do so: it was this dread, this same inertia, that sapped his resolve, that threw up bugbears and bogeymen in places that Lev dared not look - it was this very fear that prevented him from addressing, from coming to terms with this fear. It was a mumbled fear, an unarticulated fear.

The light turned green (a green light - a kind of photographic negative of a brothel or bordello), the Walk sign: this was not an invitation, or permission, but an imperative - he had no choice but to move forward when he was told; if it were possible to go back, to retrace his steps . . . but this could only be done in the imagination, for the steps to be retraced were already receding from memory, and their resurrection would inevitably run to anachronism . . . This evening - it was the first time in Lev's experience, there was only one woman in the quad. Against his better instincts (but he felt himself in the grip of some impulse that originated outside himself, that originated in his clothes, in the air around him, in the concrete of the footpath, in the weeds that pushed up between the cracks in the pavement) he stopped for a moment and looked at her, at her short curly hair that was black in the grey light of dusk and the green of the pedestrian crossing across the way, but which could have been dark brown like his mothers, at her concrete grey irises on the lunar grey of her sclera . . . and she raised her head to face his, so that a single gaze bounced between them like a pingpong ball, or a beam of light between two mirrors . . . and she sprang up and started screaming, and shouting at him, go away, go away you bastard, after what you did to me - why do you come here? what do you want with me? can't you leave me, can't you ever leave me? and Lev turned on his heels and ran, and ran, into the tumescent abyss of the night.

Simon was breaking for lunch; Simon had left his wallet at home. I'll lend you a few dollars, said Lev, let me lend you a few dollars . . . or tried to say: his words stuck in his throat like mouthfulls of bread; the first words, probably, that he had spoken all day and his throat was coarse and raspy, the sides clung together like lumps of Blu-tac and it came out: I'll lend, let me lend . . . and a choking, a whistling, a gurgling sound. Simon was embarrassed; in fact he had his wallet in his pocket, was fishing for an offer from Louise, to buy him a meal in the cafeteria. Louise was embarrassed too, felt she could not lend Simon the money now without being too conspicuous.

The staff gradually left for the cafeteria by twos or threes, Lev sank even deeper into his chair and his misery, his back made an isosceles triangle with the perpendicular planes of his seat; there should be more room under there - why did they make the underside of these desks so bloody small? Now Lev was alone in Ops. Res. Across the hall in Pub. Rel. there was another solitary fellow lost in thought. He too, wore a thin beard - oho, perhaps these goatees were not so unfashionable as people seemed to think, as Susan seemed to think . . . Lev smiled. The fellow smiled back. Lev waved. The fellow, obviously perking up waved back. Lev got up to go over and talk to the fellow - and sat down again deflated: the windows separating Ops. Res. and Pub. Rel. had been replaced with mirrors during the long weekend, to reduce distractions, or curiosity, or something.

Lev fiddled with something on his desk - it was a photograph of his mother at thirty, Lev's age: if she were alive today she would be, let's see - forty-eight. But she had always been more a big sister than a mother, Lev had never though of her as old . He looked at her now, and was surprised to find himself staring at the photograph of an attractive young woman (he really should put this photograph in a frame, not leave it loose like that). Her neck, taut and unblemished (at least for the photograph, but perhaps that was make-up), her curly black-brown hair turned up at each cheek like sideburns, her eyes that were somehow blue (was this the lighting? was that kind of photographic technique possible twenty years ago?), if pools they were pools of water, running water, even in the photograph they were like running water - so different to those frosted eyes at her funeral. Like ice, he thought, like snowflakes . . . and then she was simply his mother again, and he could not see the photograph for the image of her he had in his mind. He sat back for a few moments, his hands clasped behind his head. He did not possess a photo of his father. Should he have one? But his father was alive, not that he saw him often, not that Lev ever went to visit him. In fact - it seemed they had never photographed his father much, even when both his parents had been around: it was as if his mother's image has always seemed more precious, more ephemeral, as if they had always known she would not be around for long. And at the same time it had been distinctive, memorable, while his father would live till a hundred and three, and even at his funeral people would be trying to remember what he had looked like: was his nose bulbous? or flat? or shaped like a cucumber, maybe? Strangers would turn up, late for one funeral perhaps, and eager not to waste a trip to the cemetary; or the priest would get his name wrong: Alexei Kamadovich, no Kazarovich, I mean Kamdowski; or they would bury him upside down, or in the wrong grave, or in a vegetable garden by mistake, and they'd come and plant rhubarb in his decayed and rotting corpse, and good riddance to him.

When Lev came home that evening, he saw that some kid had been running throught the front lawn where they were trying to grow grass: it had rained a couple of days ago and the ground was soft, footprints had been sunk into the swampy turf like craters of miniature volcanoes. Strangely, the kid had been wearing no shoes, had been running from the house to the street. Kids these days... the front door was ajar, so Susan must have been in.

He walked into the living room, the light was on but there was no one at home; Lev took off his jacket, picked Susan's photograph up off the floor (it had fallen from the piano), went to the broom closet and began to sweep up the broken glass and shards of crockery into little piles. The floor in the kitchen was black-and-white lino in a chessboard pattern; it had been his choice, of course; Susan had thought it was terrible. But what did she know. She never played chess, and had no interest in games like that, she preferred the horses, or the poker machines.

He made a little game for himself, swept the shards of crockery onto the white squares, and glass only onto black squares. A needle of glass had gone behind the bench, he stooped to pick it up and a sharp C-shaped rim went into his left knee. He stumbled back into the living room and onto the piano, Susan's photograph fell flat and then off the side of the piano and down the back. It took him a half-a-minute to shift the instrument's bulk (but his knee was killing him), before he was able to reach behind it onto the carpet and pick it up. The glass in the frame was broken and the photograph was loose. Funny, thought Lev, just like . . . he dusted off the paper, he dusted off her button nose (how she would giggle when he did that), her dark hair and seagull-blue eyes, and put it in his pocket. Better that it had happened anyway, it was a silly place to keep a photograph. He would take it into work with him tomorrow - he really should have a photo of Susan on his desk.

In the bathroom, the neon light on the mirror flickered once, twice, buzzed and went red for a few seconds, and then all became lightness and silence. He ran his fingers over his chin and through his thickening stubble, looked into the mirror and was surprised at how much he resembled Alexi. But all that was on the surface, Lev would never have treated his mother that way . . . if only it were possible to turn back the clock, he could have saved her, could have taken her away somewhere safe, could have looked after her . . . he would have been happy to do it, nothing could have made him happier. He took out Susan's photograph, stared at the thin outline of her face; his eyes grew dark, so dark that he had to turn on the other bathroom light. He considered the woman who had screamed at him the other night, and he considered Susan. And what did Susan have to complain about, he was a good husband, always attentive (too attentive, she said, but she didn't appreciate him), she didn't know what it was like to be a battered woman, she had no idea how some women lived . . . sometimes he wondered, whether he should't show her what the real world was like, what sort of things happened out there, give her a taste of that kind of thing, so she would know what it was like. He chuckled, imagine if he really did do something like that, she would be so shocked, that someone so timid could become suddenly violent. He shook his head. No, she could never understand his qualities, would never see his generosity, because she was used to it. He regarded her photograph again, thirty years old, Lev's age. He shook his head as if to dislodge something that had become stuck and put the photo back in his pocket. Then he got the bottle of iodine out and some cotton buds, and began to treat his knee.

The front door banged in the wind and Susan came in, carrying a parcel. She divested herself of her raincoat and her shoes and came into the living room, with her free hand patting back her short hair which had gone scraggly, like old rope, in the rain. I see you've not shaved today, she remarked with disapproval, are we going anywhere for the long weekend? Lev sat up slowly in his seat, with something of a struggle with gravity, as if the forces of nature conspired to keep him down. You home? he said, I thought you said you were going, I thought you said . . . and with a flowery breaststroke-like gesture, he knocked over a half-empty bottle of bourbon on to the floor where it shattered. You've been drinking she said, ridiculously - ridiculously because it was self-evident, ridiculously because it was the same every night: but somehow, by making the observation, she made it seem special, unusual, an aberration, not like Lev at all. He looked up at her. He had been drinking for a few hours, so that even he appeared blurry to her. Look, she said, decisively, look. I've come back to make up, I've bought you a present, and he looked so pleased that she was taken in (or did she want to be taken in? Certainly there was a drunken theatricality in his smile, but this could have been alcoholic benevolence) as he unwrapped the gold paper and the red ribbon (that was only stuck on with Blu-tac, so that he didn't really need to take it off), folded the paper neatly and the ribbon and put it to one side for later, expressed genuine (?) surprise and affection, even went to give her a little peck on the cheek (but she would not bend over so he smartly yanked her face down to his, and bussed her roughly on her jaw, and released her) and turned to the box (of crystal goblets, not cheap) and took out a pair: one, and then another one, and placed them side by side on the very edge of the kitchen table.

He told her to go down to the cellar and get a bottle; while she was there, he shut the top and slid the bolt back, and even pulled the carpet over the opening. She rapped timidly on the underside of the floor, Lev, she said, don't joke, let me out . . . or tried to say: her words stuck in her throat like mouthfuls of bread; and then there was a silence for a few moments as she considered what she should do, should insist with her rapping or wait patiently, all the while fully aware of the futility of her decision, as if the end result were avoidable, as if she possessed any real control over the situation . . .

But Lev let her back up again, and she said nothing about her brief imprisonment, and he said nothing, Lev said nothing. Will this one be okay? she asked. He inspected the label, and shrugged, what difference would it make anyway. Haven't you maybe had enough to drink? she asked, and was surprised at her own audacity, and he was surprised, Lev was surprised, and even laughed for a few moments, before breaking off suddenly to let her know there had been no real merriment. He uncorked the bottle, poured out two mouthfuls into two glasses. He handed her a glass. A toast, he said, to your health, he said, and brought the glasses together with such force that they shattered instantly. The shards . . . like ice, he thought, like snowflakes It seems to me, said Lev (or did he really say this? did he say it then, or later?) that I was wrongly accused the other day, that I share another's guilt. Who is this double? If I share his guilt, I should share his crime; perhaps it it fate, chance . . . he almost added: kings and desperate men . . . the thing is . . . but this was more than enough for Susan; she hurled a plate at him, and another plate, and then a jar of tomato paste, and she ran, and ran out the front door, without stopping for her shoes, without stopping for her wallet, or her things, into the tumescent abyss of the night and Lev remembered (or did he really remember this? did he remember it then, or later?) whose face he had seen along in the Refuge the other day . . .

The telephone started ringing, and after a few rings it roused Lev from his stupor; he picked up the receiver, cuddled it with his chin and breastbone like a kitten; it was his mother; Lev put down the receiver. It began to ring again immediately but Lev would not answer it.