It was dark by the time he started down the road, a suitcase once again by his side, a small satchel over his shoulder that contained a giant outdated laptop. He headed in the direction of a friend, a very old friend. It wasn’t much of a walk from one end of Notting Hill to the other, the Harrow Road to the far side of Ladbroke Grove, under the west way and up the hill. The sun had fallen behind the terraces that climbed like the heads of organ pipes, a metaphor he would often repeat in the clubs and bars of the neighbourhood, one he stole from the mountain vista of his childhood. The headlights of cars coming down from Notting Hill Gate greeted his ascension. Through a gate, overgrown with roses, and at the door, warn and tired, he paused. Before he knocked, he took a moment to compose himself, to adjust his shirt, pull a comb, and very firmly reestablish the parting on the left side of his head.
He tapped gently on a wrought iron knocker, and the nervous rapping of the cold metal elicited no response from within, just the hollow echo of its own question. He knocked harder, and then obstinately harder. Nothing. The wind picked up, and with it he shivered a little, someone had walked upon his grave. Rose was out, then. He set his suitcase down, and decided to stay and wait under the veranda on the first floor, the main entry to the old terrace mansion, a place now squalid and decrepit, at odds with the rest of the street, with their private gardens and European sports cars. He sat down, realising that he was tired. Another small shiver. I am tired, tired and cold. I am tired, tired and cold. His eyes grew heavy, perhaps it was those eyelids that played tricks with his mind, maybe he was dreaming – Snap out of it, Tadhg – he snapped out of it, out of sleep, studied the dark before him. The first sign of rain illuminated in the orbs of light from street lamps. Finally the gate opened. Two policemen entered, no greetings, just a few brief questions, some phone calls, and the frustrated realisation that the young man was doing nothing wrong, just soberly waiting on the steps of a friend’s house on a cold and miserable winter’s night with a suitcase, waiting quite calmly without menace, just his own frustration. One cop offered a cigarette, shook his head muttering about neighbours, and the two swung the gate shut, and then they were gone.
That’s when the rain really got going. It wouldn’t have been much if it wasn’t for the wind which brought the rain in from both sides under the veranda. It began to lash and chop, and what foliage was left on the skeletal limbs of the Autumn trees began to give in to the wind’s embrace, to dance, cheek to cheek, but never landing, never stopping.
He said something to himself.
The door to Rose’s basement flat opened, but a fearful looking fellow appeared, handsome eyes watching from behind round spectacles, spectacles that slid momentarily down his long aquiline nose, to be returned to its rightful place by an elegant finger, the finger of a pianist.
Inside the warmth of the house, the rambler sat down on the sofa, and looking at his guest sat the lodger on a cushion. Aziz was his name, and Aziz was Iranian, one of Rose’s lodgers from the city that was half the world: Esfahan. Rose’s collection of weirdos, artists, social freaks, PHD students, composers, writers, painters, bums, were the delicate souls that made Rose’s grasp and possession of the Notting Hill terrace mansion possible. How beautiful a colour were Aziz’s eyes, green Chinese stones, polished till they resembled the eyes of a purring cat that had just caught her supper. They darted left and right, as Aziz turned from the window and back to his guest excitedly, or distractedly turned to his silent television screening Sochi, the Winter Olympics, nothing that mattered, nothing that was very important.
Aziz had questions for him, Was he expected? Would this be a problem? Who was he? Was he a friend? Did he know Rose wasn’t normally out this late? There was a planning meeting that concerned changes to the access of the communal garden, and this was very important. Something about London clay, hard clay. Aziz was a sculptor, another artist. Aziz rubbed his hand across his flat belly and smiled. His eyes squinting with the smile’s force. The conversation turned to the monotony of work and the guest remained tactfully silent. He let Aziz talk about his cake business – tortes, cheesecakes, tea breads, Bakewells, the dull monotony of the grind, this they both understood and so they laughed. Aziz offered his guest a rum, his eyes steadier and steadier, the man himself became more and more comfortable, and the room grew warmer as if a wood fire had begun to burn. It must have been getting late. The rain had stopped. They discussed Iran, the Pope and the Church, English gardens, the Monarchy, President Putin and Pussy Riot. The guest pulled a cigarette and lit up with dexterity. Aziz, through a puff of blue smoke, rushed to the window, animatedly, and opened it with a laugh saying something halfheartedly about the sensitivity of the decor. The stranger decided to go outside and to smoke the cigarette in peace. When he returned, Aziz had taken off his shoes and was lying on the sofa. The stranger enquired whether there wasn’t something that he could be doing, and Aziz replied that it wasn’t often that he had guests. The stranger in turn said that he wasn’t strictly speaking a “guest”, and that he was in fact a stranger. Aziz, smiling, said that the man did not seem like a stranger, commented on his eyes, how they were a strange colour, how they were perhaps born from blue, but more grey, ashen grey like a worn Baluchi carpet. And Aziz rolled a joint with a little hash and asked if together perhaps they might smoke it. The ill effects of smoke were forgotten. It was good, Aziz said. They relaxed, now, Aziz on the sofa, his delicate soft hands inside his shirt, his elegant fingers caressing his lower stomach muscles, flat and ripped. And Aziz was asking about the guest’s sexuality, if he had ever been with a man. He told him that he was with a man, lent forward and, pausing, studied the guest’s face, hungry eyes, no longer beady but rounded out, full, famished. Aziz removed his shirt, the heat of the room more evident now, and showed his smooth athletic torso. The stranger sat up staring across the great expanse of the drug-fucked and fogged room into his those green eyes.
And Aziz said if the stranger might like to be with him, it would please Aziz. And for a moment the stranger paused. Aziz, sensing his vulnerability, began to tell a story of when he did military service in Iran, how he had been at a station on the border, how it was an isolated border. And how one night a soldier had asked him the same question, and he thought this wrong, but the soldier told him that he could, that he could do it, that he would enjoy it. And they lay down next to each other and he put his erect penis into the other man, and the man had told him that he was happy when he felt the moisture inside him, he knew Aziz was happy. And the stranger thanked him for the story, and Aziz asked if he understood the story. And the stranger realised that he had stopped looking for Rose and wondered how he had ended up in this room with the Iranian. And Aziz turned and stretched out on the sofa looking to the stranger, and then he, the stranger, walked towards him and picked up the tin of hash and rolled a smoke, collected his bag and went to wait at the front door, involuntarily, a programmed response.
And there he was once again outside the door. The wind blowing and the tricks of the night. The police? No, not a shadow. But the police might return. And complicate things. And the rain, falling as the light was falling, falling from the street lamps that were suspended with the other lights, a row of suns. The hash is having an effect. The hash was having an effect, he reflected. The stranger considered, yes, the police might return and do him for some minor drug offence. He looked back at the basement flat, Aziz looking out of the the window at him. He realised he had left something in there. His small satchel that he’d worn over his shoulder that contained a giant outdated laptop. He wouldn’t wish to lose or misplace an idea, not when time was short. The rain fell harder. The stranger turned back and walked down the stairs and into the flat. Once more they both sat down, this time on the sofa. And the room was warm. And somewhere, surely now, a fire was burning, a faint flame, some smoke and coals, coals glowing, bright like Aziz. They shared a glass of Rum. The drink was warm, syrupy with a note of honey. It wasn’t bad. He looked at Aziz, who was chesting his touch, taking the stranger in once more. The spinning room, and the lashing was rain, lashing against the window with great fury, and the smoke, and the eyes, and the rum, the stranger back on his lay. He felt his own arousal, his exhaustion, and the fear of his weight that hung eyes on his heavy, and a feeling, another feeling that seemed to grow him inside deep. Aziz, very gently and very tenderly, lent his hand to the stranger’s trousers, and the stranger reclined as if he was inside sleep, felt the softness of Aziz’s ripe mouth surround him. Is this a dream? and he wondered for a moment, was this a dream? Was this a prelude to some nocturnal emission? The stranger arched back, and opened his eyes to see Aziz kneeling down with his penis still inside his mouth. The fear of weight eyes from his lifted. The stood stranger, Aziz looked back.
Tadhg Muller grew up in Hobart, Tasmania, and spent most of his adult life in London, England. He now lives in Sable-Sur-Sarthe, France. His short stories have been published widely.
In Lieu of a Memoir is the fourth novelette from renowned short form fiction stable Open Pen. Tadhg Muller is the ultimate unreliable narrator. This dark take on autofiction spirals towards madness with the inconsistencies of Muller’s plot, whilst maintaining the gravity of what London life is like for an immigrant with no money, no prospects, and never quite enough sense to abandon hope.
Buy it directly from Open Pen here.