‘Getting Better’ by Viola Di Grado, an essay from ‘Lucifer Over London’
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Our Book of the Week is Lucifer Over London, a new anthology of nine narrative essays from the wonderful Influx Press – here’s just one of the nine, ‘Getting Better’ by Viola Di Grado, translated by Antony Shugaar.
It started with a knocking.
I say a knocking because a regular rapping sound at the door is always a signal for us: there’s someone looking for you, someone who wants to come into your world, bringing affection or threats.
But it wasn’t really a knocking.
It was a heavy noise, smothered somehow, like a head being smashed hard against the door.
At four in the morning, in my small, shadowy apartment on Camden Road, someone was banging their head against the door.
That was my third night living there.
It was an ex-council house, one of those houses built in Victorian England for the penniless and the homeless, then sold off by the government to private citizens for a song.
Buildings with excessively fragile and precarious structures, unsuitable for life, disguised years later as real houses.
The first time I’d seen the apartment—a month before, in September, just after getting off the train with my sister—the place was full of construction workers in tweed shirts and tools.
The panes of the only window, in the bedroom with its rhomboid floor plan, were fogged and streaked, pocked and eroded by sleet and wind. As soon as I set foot in the room some impulse had driven me to draw the blinds.
‘What are you doing?’ my sister asked me.
‘Nothing… the light.’
‘What about the light?’
I needed a place to live right away, and this place was dirt cheap.
After I was done with detox, I needed a new space, not impregnated with my memories, like the clinic was.
Nobody liked the clinic but me.
I also liked the public hospital in Bloomsbury where I’d wound up a month before, forearms swollen and bluish, after passing out in the frozen food aisle at Tesco. I liked these places because they had no identities, they were places with starched white sheets and walls unadorned by pictures.
Each of these places was another limbo where you could purge yourself of the evil in your body, the poison and the yearning for more poison. I still longed for heroin, but only in my head now: my body had unlearned that desire.
That’s why I was no longer in the clinic, being closely observed and monitored and kept under lock and key like a repugnant little girl, but instead in an ordinary dimension where I was expected to look after my own survival and the world paid me no mind.
I’d signed, my sister wanted me to sign, you could tell from her tense gaze and the darting movements of her pupils, she wanted to be rid of that worry.Rid of me.
I was the worst thought on her mind.
I’d signed, then the pen had fallen out of my hand and rolled across the floor five feet, until it vanished under the sofa.
One of the construction workers, a very tall man with eyes the colour of ice, had picked it up, saying as he did so: ‘The floors aren’t level, that’s one thing we can’t do a thing about.’
I’d gone into the bathroom, a little shaken up, my hair clammy with sweat.
‘In a month, it’ll all be different,’ said a voice from behind the door.
It was my sister, I thought, referring hopefully to my future, but instead it was the landlady, and she was talking about the renovations.
Actually, the problem hadn’t been drugs.
At least, not strictly speaking.
For me, heroin was just a passing glitch, something that had happened to me while I was trying to blunt the edge of my sadness with every chemical method known to mankind.
Something that had taken up too much room in my body and then in my mind, like what happens in the most ordinary kind of relationship, and in fact all that it really would have taken—as I knew—was a little perseverance and self-respect to put an end to it then and there.
The real problem was the affection.
The affection with which family members and coworkers, friends, and friends of friends, were suddenly inundating me.
I felt humiliated by their affection.
A clingy, sticky, regressive affection, made up of pity and condescension and spangled with overly solicitous kindness. An affection spawned and grafted, historically, from decades of indie films about drug addicts, broadcast on TV.
An affection stirred by a sensation of death; everyone can sense death in a junkie and this is the way they react: on the inside, they’re laughing with joy because *they’re* not the ones whose lives are in danger, on the outside they’re giving you hugs because you actually are, *you’re* the one whose obituary they’ll read some Sunday morning in Regent’s Park, between an ice cream cone and a stroll around the lake, or who they’ll hear mentioned in a lazy late-night conversation at the tail end of a party, when everyone has long-since run out of gossip to regale the other guests with, and when someone drunker or simply meaner than the others will mention your name, eyes gleaming like a wild beast, and they’ll say, do you remember *her*, do you know how she died, poor thing? You’re the one they may find someday by the side of the road, on the curb, lying in the dogshit, overdosing—you’re the one who’ll make them all feel just how safe they are.
The day I moved in, it really was all different.
The windows shut hermetically; the panes of glass were intact. The corpses of moths had disappeared from the nooks and crannies, and so had the little spiders from behind the radiators.
The cracks in the ceilings and the mould in the corners and the flaking on the walls had all vanished. The rooms had been filled with shiny new furniture, breakable but efficient. The floors had been taken up and replaced with fake shiny hardwood parquet, which still preserved that off-kilter angle.
It was good enough for normal living, and that’s all anyone asks of a house, a normal life.
The house had been cleaned and gone over inch by inch and rebuilt, but it was still a ghost of a house, vulnerable, run through from one end to the other by sounds and chills.
Through the walls came the sound of the rain and the mingled whisperings of all the neighbours.
When I walked through the rooms, I could feel a void under my feet, like the cushion of air when an airplane is coming in for a landing. When I dropped my lipstick or a drinking glass onto the floor, it would hurry quickly over to the far side of the room.
In the morning, when I left my bedroom and went to the kitchen, I felt nauseous and my head ached. At night, the drawers in the bedside table would suddenly fly open, and fall to the floor with a tremendous crash.
The next morning I went to Camden Market.
There was a light drizzle and almost no one out and about on the streets.
The sky was still and grey, like the ceiling of an office building.
I bought a set of antique photographs of London.
I went home and plastered the walls with those pictures.
My sister would be coming over for lunch the next day and I couldn’t wait for her to see how pretty I’d made the house.
That’s the only way she’d understand.
That everything was different, that I was different.
On the living room walls, I posted a blurry photograph of Tavistock Square, from the time when Virginia Woolf still lived there, and not the anonymous hotel that it was now.
And then Camden Lock, before it was a market for tourists, but was still just a labyrinth of dark, stony alleys, full of punkers who thought they could change the world, and not people with mohawks fresh from the hairdresser, offering to take a picture with you for a pound.
And then a pink-stone building on the Regent’s Canal, which was later demolished. Then views of Oxford Street before it became an unbroken expanse of chain stores and shopping malls. When I was done hanging up those pictures, I realised that they were all photographs of places that had later been destroyed or corrupted, ruined once and for all.
The next day I cooked rice with salmon and then made a salad with beets and peas. Last of all, I baked a red velvet cake, her favourite. I had to bake two cakes, because the first one didn’t come out quite right.
Then I put on my best clothes.
The sweater that she had given me four years ago, red and black with a turtleneck, then a pair of corduroy trousers that I’d ironed for the occasion. I put on makeup, foundation and red lipstick, a light application of eyeliner.
My heart was pounding.
I sat down on the sofa, back straight, wafting perfume in all directions, waiting for the doorbell to ring.
By two thirty, she still hadn’t arrived.
Forlorn, I went outside to make sure that the intercom worked.
I pushed the doorbell: the chilly, austere racket rang through the empty apartment.
I went in and grabbed my phone.
I dialled my sister’s number.
She didn’t answer.
A minute later I got a message from her on WhatsApp.
Sorry I can’t come. Maybe next time: Kisses.
I threw the food into the trash can.
Sure, I could have eaten it, but now it felt as if it had been contaminated by all the emptiness I was feeling.
I flopped down onto the sofa, turned on the TV, then turned it off and looked at the blank screen until I dropped off to sleep.
The following week, at work, I kept myself busy with the more complicated projects, to keep from thinking. I was a graphic designer for an ad agency, I wracked my brains over images that meant nothing, then I’d say in meetings: there’s no soul, there, in this, there’s not enough happiness.
Every now and then my sister would send me smiley faces and emojis of various kinds, but only in response to messages I’d send her.
In response to me telling her we need to see each other.
In response to the picture I sent her of the window in my office when dried leaves flew against the glass.
In response to the picture of the chicken-and-avocado sandwich I bought at Russell Square on my lunch break.
In response to me writing to her *have you seen what a beautiful sunny day it is? London looks like it’s been covered with gold dust!! Why don’t you ever come see me? The apartment is full of new things, I even have that gadget you make crêpes with, if you come over I’ll make you a delicious crêpe with truffles and then we can sit on the sofa together and watch a movie like when we were kids.*
My sister never never came over.
Autumn ended and the winter began.
The sky was always gray or milky white.
One game I played was to drop my earrings and pendants and gold chains and lipstick caps on the floor and watch them roll away from one end of the room to the other, fetching up under the furniture, under the sofa: I imagine I was in flight and all my things fell off me and tumbled down, in free fall, until they disappeared from sight.
That night, November 28th, the knocking just kept getting louder and louder.
I got up.
I opened the door.
On the doormat, curled up, his knees pulled tight to his chest, was a naked, elderly man.
Bony, fair-skinned, belly taut and protruding. The exhausted face of an old man, scalp lacerated beneath the line of his sparse white hair.
He gazed at me, with a searching, imploring gaze, like an animal waiting for its daily ration of food.
Only then did I notice the wings.
Limp and iridescent, dark brown, they sprouted from his back and lay softly folded on the floor.
I went inside and locked the door behind me.
I went back out almost immediately.
‘Who are you?’
He didn’t answer.
He looked up at me, his breathing laboured.
‘Are you able to stand up?’
He didn’t answer.
Maybe he didn’t understand my language.
I dragged him inside.
He was as light as a bag of packing peanuts.
Though his hands looked withered and gnarled, they were soft and slick as rubber.
I eased him onto the sofa.
My sofa was beat up and old, purchased used from a charity shop on Camden High Street. The creature went on looking at me with that same sad look on his face, sitting with his back straight, as if judging me. It was intolerable.
‘I let you in. I’ve been good. You shouldn’t look at me like that.’
My nerves shot, I went into the bathroom, slamming the door behind me. I looked at myself in the mirror, the premature wrinkles, the deep dark circles under my eyes.
‘I’ve been good. You shouldn’t look at me like that.’
I felt an old impulse, the one that had once led my brain to give a command to my hands, whereupon a drawer would slide open, and out would come the syringes.
But now that impulse was untranslatable, it was an abstract thing, like a piece of bad poetry.
I emptied the drawer anyway, and instead of syringes I found candle ends and rusted razors, dried-out tubes of toothpaste, a jar of hand cream, a postcard of an angel in flight.
Why hadn’t the previous tenants emptied the drawers?
I turned the postcard over.
The angel was clumsily painted.
On the back, in the lines deployed to host Christmas greetings, there was nothing written.
I imagined my mother had sent it to me from the afterlife, but that was just some sad and meaningless thought, and it was sad and meaningless thoughts in the first place that had made me a repugnant junkie, so I pushed the drawer shut again.
When I came out of the bathroom, the creature was no longer there.
I lay down on the bed with the postcard.
An hour later I woke back up with a start.
I felt a hot breath on my neck.
I switched on the bedside lamp in a fit of terror.
It was him again.
Wrapped tight around my body like a monkey.
Looking at him now from so close, it was obvious that he was an angel.
He was ugly, misshapen, and old for an angel, but still that’s what he was.
His hair was wispy and sparse and white, his face was pale and covered with blemishes, dark pockmarks and scattered bristly hairs, black and whitish, gray, straw blonde. There were hairs in his nostrils, too.
‘Tell me something. Tell me why you’re here.’
‘Are you here for me?’
‘Are you here for me or by chance?’
I turned off the light and went to sleep.
The next day I gave him a bath.
I scrubbed at his skinny shoulders with the shower sponge, the bruises on his back where the wings sprouted. I delicately brushed his wings with a wide-toothed comb. They were sparse, opaque, like the feathers of bird carcasses I’d found on Primrose Hill, once, when I was a girl.
He had no genitalia. I kept asking him questions, but then it became clear to me that he didn’t know how to talk, or maybe he just didn’t find talking to be useful. I didn’t leave the house because I was afraid he’d break a windowpane and try to fly away.
‘It wouldn’t work,’ I kept telling him, shower sponge in hand, but his gaze was fixed and registered nothing.
For lunch, I cooked him an array of different things because I didn’t know what he liked to eat. Spinach, broccoli, grilled cheese, pasta with tuna, panna cotta. He looked at each of the dishes with no expression whatsoever, then went back to gazing into the distance.
I gave up and lay down on the sofa in exhaustion.
The angel sat down next to me, took my arm, and started slowly licking it.
I was surprised, disgusted, and yet at the same time overwhelmed by a mysterious wave of tenderness.
I sat, motionless, and I let him do it.
His tongue was rough and dripping with saliva, like a dog’s tongue.
His tongue lingered on all the holes in my arm. The holes where needles had plunged in like teeth to flood me with junk. Every time that it lingered on a hole, I felt a pleasurable shock.
When he was done, my eyes were streaming with tears, and I looked down at my arm: the holes, the sinister marks of my pathetic Calvary, had vanished.
I phoned my sister.
‘Now what is it?’
Her voice was weary, annoyed.
I was tempted to hang up.
‘I’m all better now.’
‘You’ve said it so many times, I’m sick of hearing you say it, do you hear me? I’m sick of keeping after you and watching you trip and fall every time.’
‘No. No. This time it’s different. You have to come see.’
‘Umm… I wouldn’t know how to explain it. I can’t.’
‘If this is just some way of getting me to come over to your house, if this is just…’
‘No, I swear it isn’t.’
‘I can’t take care of you anymore, do you get that? You’re going to have to make it on your own.’
My hand was shaking.
‘I’m all better, I swear I am.’
‘I have to go.’
I turned to look at the angel.
He was in the same position as before.
I sat down again beside his elderly body, I looked at the varicose veins on his bony thighs and the deep creases on his long hands. The chipped, purplish fingernails. The dark circles beneath his glassy, staring eyes.
I started kissing him.
I tasted the bitter flavour of his breath, his chipped teeth. I was disgusted but full of an impetus unlike anything I’d ever felt before, like the empty air beneath a plane during takeoff.
He sat motionless.
Then, all at once, his wings spread open. They were gigantic, like a silvery tent.
They opened and then closed over us, over his body and mine, curled up next to his.
The next morning I woke up filled with joy.
I opened my eyes.
He wasn’t there.
I looked for him everywhere in the house, my heart in my mouth the whole time.
At the center of the room, piled up, were all my earrings and rings, fine silver chains, all the things I had let slip away onto the floor until it vanished behind the furniture.
I went outside.
I was shouting out sounds, senseless and nameless.
I went down Camden Road in the snow, until Camden Lock, where the horse hospital had once stood. I searched for him in the midst of the crowd, among the Chinese offering fried chicken run through with skewers, the Slavic women extending their arm to let you feel a fast waxing on your forearm. Anxiety filled my chest, cutting off my breath, I had to stop in the crowd and struggle for air. My head filled with senseless images, bird carcasses on Primrose Hill, burst open with some secret malady, intestines spouting from amongst the plumage.
And then his face.
I realised I already couldn’t remember his face anymore.
All this is real, it must be real: London in the winter, the neglected grass on the open space, the white houses along the road that runs up from Chalk Farm, the bridge covered with graffiti, the homeless women reaching her hand out toward me. All this is real, the angel and my unmarked arms. I hurried into a cafeteria restroom, I pulled back my sleeves to check, then I felt a sudden pressure on my back.
Something growing, frail but hopeful.
Like grass beneath the snow, like flower bulbs buried in the bones.
I walked out of the cafeteria, the sun was shining, and with a smile on my face I turned toward home and started walking.
‘Lucifer Over London’ is published by Influx Press, price £9.99. Order your copy here.