Fiction (April 2018)

Fuera de Casa (For Bernardo Soares)

by Alan Bilton

What’s that you say – some sort of bright light, dizziness?

I don’t know. I mean, I remember going to the bathroom and the light was pretty bright, but, um… a flash? I don’t know. Mm, maybe – if you say so. I remember coming back in and bumping into our bedside cabinet, a glass rolling off and… no, no, it didn’t break. My wife was still asleep. ‘Sorry’, I said, or ‘I didn’t mean to wake you’, something like that. Not that I did – um, wake her I mean, but … what’s that? Did I wonder what the table was doing there? I don’t know. I was very tired. I think I just put the glass back upright and went straight to bed. I didn’t feel sick or anything. I just felt tired.

Anyway, the next thing I knew it was morning but when I tried to get out of bed – clonk! What? No, clonk, clonk – I’m doing the noise. My first thought was: which joker moved my bed? My second thought was: and the light switch too? I patted down the walls and … well, I don’t know how to explain it. No, it’s not that, it’s, ah … it wasn’t just the bed or the light switch, but the whole room had changed. It’s true! I… hm, what was different? Everything!  A flowery duvet cover, gaudy wallpaper, horrible blinds: I’d never seen this dump before in my life… Anyway, my wife was still asleep, so I didn’t say anything, even though the wallpaper was terrible, just awful, some kind of fishy blobs… A flash? Why do you keep asking me about a flash? No, there wasn’t any flash. Apart from the fact I’d woken up in some stranger’s house, everything felt pretty normal, I mean, at first

But when I went downstairs, that was all wrong too. The wrong furniture in the wrong place, dust on the sills and marks on the walls: I mean, would it kill someone to clean up every once in a while? Of course by then the kids were up, chattering away like a bunch of crows. I mean, couldn’t they see, didn’t they know? When I couldn’t find Phoebe’s cereal, she pulled a face and had to go get it herself.  Hey, I wanted to say, is it my fault somebody came in here and moved everything around? Nobody tells me anything. Ten minutes later my wife, came down, but I when she asked me what was wrong, I just went kind of quiet. I don’t know – I guess I felt a little disappointed, that was all. This didn’t seem like the kind of place where I would live.

Thankfully when I went outside and climbed into my car, things felt a little more under control. The house, the garden, the car: these, at least, had stayed the same. I remember switching the radio on and feeling a little better. The song? I don’t remember – it wasn’t like it was a clue or anything. But I do remember humming along and feeling that maybe everything would be okay. I mean, it could be worse, am I right? Our house was on the right street, the street in the right town, the town in the right place. And then, when I got to the office, my desk hadn’t wandered off, nor my papers, or my mug. People said pretty much what they say every day, and the paperwork was the usual shit – click, click, click. But in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking about the mess back home. I mean, that wallpaper: what were they thinking? And those fishy shapes! Anyhow, the rest of the day was, you know, pretty normal. Well, until it was time to go home, of course.

I knew something was wrong the minute I pulled into the driveway. The lights were on and I could see the kids watching TV in the living room – but it wasn’t my living room, you know? What? No – I hadn’t gone to the wrong house. What am I, an idiot?  The kids were right but everything else was wrong, the sofa ugly and baggy, some funny ethnic throw, the walls terracotta, and there, just above a side-board – who the hell has a side board? –  was a picture of an armadillo. Or was it an ant-eater? Is there a difference? Anyway, it was something weird. What? What would I be doing with a picture of an armadillo? Why would I buy such a thing? Listen, doctor I promise you, I have never owned a picture of an armadillo in my life…

Nevertheless, I kept schtum. Tch, who likes a moaner? I mean, would anybody go out and buy a new sofa, a better TV? No – so I kissed my wife and ate my lasagne. When it was eight o’clock, I put the kids to bed in some weird box room, and… what? Listen, don’t even get me started about that. Ugly yellow faces stuck up all over the place – what are those things, you know, those faces you get on your phone – right, right, the faces. Well, they’re all new to me. I looked at them and thought ‘What are you smiling for? I don’t even know you’. Afterwards I couldn’t even watch TV, I was so angry and I felt so sick. Besides the armadillo was looking at me, and the sofa had too many cushions. Who needs so many cushions? I had cushions coming out of my ears. Then it was ten so I said was tired and went to bed. Yeah, bed, bed … but not my bed, that was for sure.

That night I again needed to pee and … dreams? I don’t remember. With a day like that, who needs dreams? The thing is, when I got back into bed, I managed to convince myself that the armadillo downstairs had turned into something else. What had it turned into? I don’t know – something weird and bitey – what am I, a vet? Anyway, it doesn’t really matter: the thing that matters is that I knew for an absolute fact that if I went downstairs, the picture would have changed, swapped for something even more repulsive – if such a thing were possible. So, I didn’t – um, go downstairs, I mean. Instead I pulled the covers up to my chin and closed my eyes. Why should I go looking for trouble? Let the armadillo turn into a crocodile, if it wanted. What did I know of armadillos? To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I knew what an armadillo looked like in the first place.

When I woke up, the room had changed again. It was bigger, but, I don’t know, emptier somehow. No blinds, but hideous turquoise curtains. Is turquoise the right word? Greeny, anyway. The bedding was blue. My wife? She was wearing … wait a minute, why do you want to know? Okay, okay – she was wearing some weird flannelette nightie. Is that a word, flannelette? Can I get some water? Mm, well, just like I told you: everything was different – it had happened all over again. When I went to go to the bathroom, I walked into Phoebe’s room by mistake: this time her posters were of rock stars and pugs, those funny faces nowhere to be seen. Her sister? Who the hell knows? On the landing, no carpet, just a piss-coloured rug. For some reason it was the rug that set me off – just the colour, you know? It was awful, just awful. I was still staring at the rug and crying, when my wife found me and gently led me away.

 Our GP? Believe me doctor, the guy is useless. First he googled ‘stroke victim’, then he asked me to name the prime minister while squeezing some kind of squishy rubber ball. Listen, the guy was a chump. I could tell by the look on his fat, ugly face that he thought I was making the whole thing up. Luckily when I said I was feeling better, he let my wife drive me back to work. At least there, nobody asked me anything: not even when I started to rock from side to side and cry. Fortunately by the time Sue came to pick me up at six, I’d managed to pull myself together.

It was only when we turned the corner onto our road that I felt things starting to fall apart again. Where had my old house gone? Why had somebody put up this shitty looking copy in its place? It was so unfair. Every other house was exactly the same – why was it my house had to turn into something else? By the back door was some kind of weird bucket with feet, filled with dead, black umbrellas.

 ‘Feeling all right?’ asked my wife.

 ‘Sure’, I said, looking at the bucket. ‘Never better’

Later that evening I heard her talking on the phone to someone I thought was her mother, but – it was you, am I right? Yeah, yeah, I thought so. She was writing down some kind of address and …no, I didn’t … all I remember is one word: Mangosta. I didn’t say anything. The way I figured it, if I just acted normal, maybe the world would follow suit.

 “This is … nice,” I said to my wife as we went into the bedroom.

 ‘Nice, what’s nice?’

 ‘The duvet cover … it’s … orange.’ My wife looked at me as if I was some kind of bird who’d flown in through an open window. ‘Nice and orange, I mean.’

That night, I was too frightened to pee. And before you ask, there was no flash, no bang, no burst of light. I don’t think I even went to sleep. 

Instead I just lay there, whimpering, but even then I could tell the bed wasn’t in the right place, the shadow of the wardrobe somehow different. Ah, it was hell! When I couldn’t take it any longer I turned to my wife, and saw her head poking out of the covers, her hair spread out on the pillow – only this hair was black, not blonde, and the woman with her mouth open next to me wasn’t my wife at all.

I climbed out of bed very carefully and got dressed in the dark. I didn’t know what clothes I was putting on, but it didn’t matter. A fan whirred overhead, but it was still very warm. The strange woman gave a twitch and I picked up a shoe to protect myself. Then I put the shoe on my foot and went out. There weren’t any kids’ rooms. There wasn’t even a top floor. I was in some kind of bungalow or holiday home: everything seemed very new and empty, but I didn’t dare switch on a light. Instead I picked up a jacket and edged out of the door – it was a woman’s jacket, but never mind. The important thing was to get the hell out.

This time though, I wasn’t even on the right street – or even the right town. It was early morning but the air was soft and warm and smelled of … I don’t know – mango, maybe. Like some kind of shower gel, anyway. All the houses around here were single storey, with bare, dry looking little gardens, and tropical looking trees, all spiky leaves and big, hairy trunks. A cloud of little green birds flew from one spike to another and I thought ‘what have you got to chatter about?’ Then a car drove past on the wrong side of the road, followed by another. Yeah, yeah, the right. No, the right. After a while the weather got hotter and the houses got taller, coils of electric cables strung willy-nilly across the street. In one garden, I spotted a cactus: no, really, a cactus! I …What? No, there wasn’t any armadillo. Why would you even ask me that? Why should there be an armadillo? Aren’t the hairy trees and the green birds enough?   

Anyhow, the streets were pretty empty, with just a couple of folk going off to work. Everyone looked tanned and healthy and in the right place, while I just drifted about, getting hotter and hotter in my ladies’ jacket. I passed a convenience store, a garage, some kind of industrial unit; a guy and a woman came out talking Spanish or Portuguese, or something like that – I don’t know, I’m no linguist. By now it felt as if I was heading toward the centre of town: long avenues, tall, old fashioned townhouses, endless queues of traffic. The sun was really beating down by now so I cut into a dusty little park and found myself a quiet bench in the shade.

Of course I’d only been there a few minutes before some guy sidling up, sitting far too close to me and making a soft smacking sound with his lips. Was he trying to help? I don’t know: he was chattering away like a bird but I couldn’t understand a thing.

First he pointed this way and then that and when I kept shaking my head, he laughed and put his hand on my knee. ‘Well, I have to be going,’ I said and the fellow grinned and did that strange thing with his lips again. What? No, no – the very thought! Ah, you know the kind of guy, doctor – this town is full of them…

As soon as I left the cool of the park the heat hit me like a wave. I remember walking between two lines of very tall, almost spiky buildings, like sharpened pencils, like knives, the sky terribly empty, as if somebody had scooped it out with a spoon. Foo – I can’t really explain. My head was pounding and I felt terribly sick, as if I might expire right there on the spot. Instead I pushed my way into the gloomy lobby of a large old building, half stumbling and half crouching, slumped with my head against one of those little metal signs, you know, for offices and the like … but the sign, doctor, it said Mangosta – yes, yes, the very same! Ah, it couldn’t have been a coincidence, that didn’t make any sense – it was a symbol, a clue! Next to the brass panel was a buzzer, and when I pressed it I heard a cackle of static and straight away – like magic! – the huge glass door had opened. It was so hot outside that I went straight on in: ho, even if I was in the wrong place, surely somebody here would help me. Past the door was a grey functional staircase, and on each floor, more glass doors with anonymous corridors beyond. No one came to see me though: the whole place seemed eerily deserted. I thought about calling out, but decided against it: who would understand me anyway? Instead I choose a random door, knocked and strode confidently inside.

Once inside, I immediately began to feel a little better. The air conditioning was cool and efficient, the walls soothing neutral. Best of all my desk seemed neat and well organised: no random scraps of paper, no half clean coffee mug, just a slim turquoise file positioned in the very centre of the surface. I looked up at the clock: five minutes to go. Leaving the file untouched I slipped into the small bath room next door, splashing cold water on my face and then slipping on my white coat. Finally I examined my face in the mirror, applied some lipstick, and ran my hands through my hair: professional, I thought, confident and professional…

 I was back at my desk and flicking through the file when the nurse knocked and discreetly led in the patient: a middle-aged man of fifty or so, ill shaven and dishevelled, speaking with a strong, somewhat abrasive, British accent.

After first complaining that he had no reason in being here, that he was perfectly fine, and all this was some kind of foolish mistake, the man finally settled down and began to tell me his story.

 ‘Did this feeling follow some kind of flash, a blinding sensation?’

 ‘I don’t know. I mean, I remember going to the bath-room and the light was pretty bright, but, um… a flash? I don’t know. Mm, maybe, if you say so.’

The patient refused to make eye contact, instead staring at the abstract painting on the wall, the fish turning into lines, shapes….

‘I remember coming back in and bumping into our bedside cabinet, a glass rolling off and… No, no, it didn’t break. My wife was still asleep. ‘Sorry’, I said, or ‘I didn’t mean to wake you’, something like that. Not that I did – ah, wake her I mean, but … what’s that?’

‘I asked whether you were aware that the room felt different.’

‘Did I wonder what the table was doing there? I don’t know, I was very tired. I put the glass back upright and went straight to bed. I didn’t feel sick or anything. I just felt tired.’

And the man did look tired: infinitely tired, as though he had spoken these words a thousand times before.

The patient kept on talking, but for some reason I found it awfully difficult to concentrate. He mumbled ‘I mean, would it kill someone to clean up every once in a while?’ and I nodded and scribbled notes on my pad, all the time secretly thinking ‘oh shut up you dreary little man…’

Ah, if only I was done here, finished for the day, back home with Ana Sofia, surrounded by the comforting clutter of our own cozy little nest. The throw Sebastián brought back from Peru, the old sagging sofa, the gentle light of our kindly lamp: ah, how I longed for these things!

I stared at the fishy dabs and daubs on the wall and wondered when the old windbag might be done. Complaints, complaints, nothing but complaints! He kept going on and on in that awful, grating voice, and I felt my thoughts slowly turning into smoke. ‘An armadillo?’ I heard myself say. ‘An armadillo, do you say?’ Yes, at some point, the nurse would come and take this dreadful man away and I would be able to go back home. Ah, home, home: what a beautiful thing! But then a terrible thought struck me. Home – where was it? How was I supposed to get there? I pictured it in my mind’s eye and then – poof! – it was gone.

Alan Bilton was born in York in 1969 and lives in Swansea, where he teaches literature, film and Creative Writing at Swansea University. He is the author of two novels, The Known and Unknown Sea (2014), variously compared to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon, and Dante’s Inferno, and The Sleepwalkers’ Ball (2009), which one critic described as “Franz Kafka meets Mary Poppins”. As a writer, he is obviously a hard man to pin down. His Surrealism-inspired collection of short stories, Anywhere Out of the World, was published by Cillian Press in 2016. He is also the author of books on Silent Film Comedy, Contemporary Fiction, and America in the 1920s.