I am counting my steps to take my mind off the pain. Past the water cooler. Past the amputated rubber plants. Then over the other side of the office the disembodied head of Sharon Banting bobs up above a whiteboard; she is raising her hand to signal helloto me, her mouth open ready to call out and I swing my eyes to the floor, turning my attention to the condition of the carpet. I have managed to avoid her all week.
When I get to the stairwell I go down the steps two at a time, push through the door of the Men’s and cough over the sink. The sink is old and cracked and against the white of the porcelain my blood is a violent red. Some blood runs into the sink and pools. When I step back and survey it, taking its measure, I see that the outline of the blood has formed the red horse shape from the Kubanskaya bottle.
On the way back to my desk I make a convoluted trip to the stationery cupboard so that I can go past Laura. Today she is wearing a grass green shirt and her dark hair is swept back in a ponytail to show earrings that are tiny birds. In a flash I think of the night in her car. Her hands holding the weight of my face as we kiss, and my enthralled hand, edged underneath her clothing.
Now she is sitting at her desk folding a piece of paper into small pieces. She looks steadfastly down at her desk as I near, and I lumber on past. There is a pale, hand-sized clump of Blutack in front of her.
Back I go through the fluorescent daylight of the office, across the wastes of dirty white carpet. Not so long ago I could wait several hours with the pain in my chest building until I would need to cross this office floor. Lately I can wait less and less. I can feel the small weight in my lung, the knot of flesh that hangs there. They will contact me soon and tell me that, just like my father, I am going to die.
Back at my desk, Wade is sitting in my chair waiting.
‘Aleksandr!’ he bellows as I approach. He gets up, raises a bulky fist, and pounds me on the arm in a companionable way. His jeans are creased at the groin and he is wearing a t-shirt that says I’m with Stupid. He wears it every Friday. Laura said once that Wade is ‘with stupid’ in the way that a woman can be ‘with child’ — it is inside him, growing. ‘Mate!’ Wade is smiling. ‘You’re in a hurry.’ He laughs and bumps me in the ribs. Always the same joke. Wade puts down his coffee cup and opens the NZ Building Industry News to the end of the section on Civil. We sit down and he begins to talk.
From my desk on the sixth floor there is an epic expanse of sky. On a day like this I like to watch circular currents of wind moving the filmy rain about or stare as the slate gray clouds drain from the sky. I watch gulls stall and circle, fooling around in the wind.
Wade wants to know that I am getting all the tenders for Civil. He steeples his fingers and leans forward. ‘Let’s see what you can find,’ he says.
I pick up The Southland Times and start scanning. After a minute a headline catches my eye: ‘MAGNOLIA SEED GROWS AFTER 2000 YEARS’. I am halfway through the article before I catch myself. But Wade is only half paying attention and doesn’t notice my diversion. He turns the page over my hand and says, ‘Keep going.’
There is a speck of blood on my skin near my shirt cuff and I revolve my wrist, hiding it from Wade. On the next page I find two tenders: ‘Stewart Island Streetlights’ and ‘Colac Bay New Footpath’. Wade has seen enough to satisfy him for now. He stands up. ‘Flick those on the system and Bob’s your uncle.’ He gulps the rest of his coffee in one go and walks away.
We are approaching the quiet end of the afternoon. Lately before I leave my desk I sit and plan my funeral. Sometimes I pine for a sea burial. Mother, however, will have my funeral at the Christ the Saviour Church where we had father’s six months ago. I picture Laura standing on Darlington Road, in a dress with a drooping hem, moving from foot to foot as she waits. The church almost hidden by its vegetation. At some point Laura will realise that I had no real friends outside of work. I flinch at the thought of her meeting my mother. Nevertheless, I plan the funeral details. I need to settle on a tone. For music I will have Rachmaninov. Or Eminem. I can’t decide.
At four-thirty everyone starts closing down their computers and heading up to the seventh floor for drinks. All day I have been trying to figure out if Laura will go. I don’t see her leave our floor so I go upstairs and put my head around the door, unobserved. She has gone. Sharon Banting is in a crowd by the drinks table, hitting the cider hard. I head for the lift. Sharon can try someone else this week.
On the street I stand in front of the double doors and look around. No sign of Laura. Across the road is ‘The Number One Meat Butchery’. The advertisement painted on the side of the building shows a cartoon bull in a butcher’s apron, frozen mid-swagger across the brick. He grins broadly and in his arms he brandishes a curling banner with the slogan ‘Tender Cuts’. Advertising his own meat.
I head for the bus stop. It is a dim afternoon and the birds on shit-stained traffic islands hop around on their perches and screech about nightfall. Every evening there’s an old man stationed at the corner holding a creased cardboard sign with such small lettering that it cannot be read, even up close. The man wears a party hat. The hat is so old the rusted staples on the paper seam are showing.
About a week ago the man approached me to whisper something. That was when I noticed the lines of rust that had run like blood from the staples on his hat. I thought he had come to me for cash, but instead he vice-gripped my arm and fastened his grieving eyes to mine. ‘It’s happening,’ he said. ‘It’s happening.’ His breath was in my face. But I felt, then, that he had access to some secret knowledge — that beneath the skin of ordinary life the great wheels and rotors and engines had jarred and slipped and everything was, without our knowledge, plummeting down. I had to lift each of his fingers from my arm to disengage myself piece by piece.
He does not see me walk past today.
The bus stops. I heave my bag down the steps to the footpath and, pivoting back towards my street, I think that tonight I will tell my mother about the tests the hospital is running. This will be difficult. The death of my father has ushered in a new era for us.
I reach our street. Night is closing in with its calm certainty and I walk along with the smell of rotted earth rising from garden beds. It has rained, briefly, and the footpath is polka-dotted with dark rain.
At our house I strain my eyes and make out a large envelope slumped half out of our mailbox. It must be from my aunt. It is two years now since we came over from Vladivostok by boat and she will be here in two weeks. I retrieve the package, stepping over the power cords that trail from the roof. Then I stand for a while on the porch, feeling the weight of the package in my arms, getting ready to stride into the house.
I enter the kitchen. My mother is sitting at the table with a saucepan of water and a silky white rubble of peeled potatoes in front of her. The kitchen is almost completely dark and the greenish light of the TV swims in the next room like a distant star. I take the potatoes from her and put them on the stovetop for later, then I go around the downstairs rooms, turning on all the lights. I unwind for a while, sanding the sprues off some models in my room. My mother is watching Coronation Street and I start cooking.
We have a late tea, as usual, with the television audible from the next room. She sits at the kitchen table and waits, tracing circles on the oilskin tablecloth with her forefinger, while I put out the plates. I ask her about my aunt’s letter. She doesn’t hear. Someone on the TV remarks, ‘Blood and guts, lying all over the moor for a quarter mile.’ I arrange the condiments on the table, drain the water from the cabbage, and spoon the potatoes onto our plates.
When I am seated I ask, ‘Did you call the landlord?’
‘Yes,’ she replies. I pause, resting my knife and fork on my plate, waiting for more. She takes up the pickle jar, unscrews the lid, and spreads the yellow slurry over her meat, going right up to the edges, poking it into all the corners with her knife. She is looking at her plate, but her attention is on the TV in the other room. She seems to have forgotten to use the salt.
I try again. ‘So did the landlord say I should call pest control, or will he?’
‘Yes,’ she replies, screwing the lid back on the pickle jar.
I drill my fork into my steak. ‘I’m asking, do I call pest control, or does Phil?’
‘And I’m answering yes,’ she says, still holding the pickle jar in her hands. And she tilts her head to catch the next line from the television.
‘And I’m asking…’ I stop.
I am sick of it. I grab the plastic bag of salt, rip it open and empty it over her food. When I look at her I feel like we are dogs, not human, because she has lowered her head and gone still. She will not meet my eye. She looks intently at the place just next to me. I still have the bag in my hand. On her plate the salt is sinking into the yellow pickle, turning it into a stiff glitter. I don’t know what to do so I collect my cutlery and my plate and walk slowly away from her. Over my shoulder, I say, ‘Have a nice evening.’ But still, I hurl my plate into the sink and stalk off. There is a burst of laughter from the television and the sound of it follows me to my room.
Every night for years my dreams have been situated on the Russian taiga – but that night I am squarely in Wellington. That night I dream that the cartoon bull has stepped off the butcher’s shop sign and is strolling around downstairs in our flat. I have hidden my mother and myself up the chimney, to keep us safe. The air is busy with the drone of a cutting machine and then a scraping noise starts up and turns into the high whistling of metal on metal. I sit still. The smell of cold fat is in the air. A hook creaks. And before too long the bull has found us. He shoulders his way into the chimney, his thick neck straining against the cement fibre. I wake up.
The next day I decide to write a letter to Laura. Even though it hardly says anything in the end, it takes me all evening. From several different angles I try to explain why I took Sharon Banting outside the building that night. But there is no legitimate way of explaining it. I think and think. I have a cigarette. I try avoiding the issue and making appeals to our romantic history. I remind Laura of the time we first spoke; how she commented on the Blutack sculptures on my desk and how the next day I used the internal mail system to send her a boxed Blutack replica of the taxidermied fighting bear from the Arsenev Museum. I think some more. I have another cigarette. I write that if desire could be mapped in infrared then my private chart of the offices of 15 Brandon Street, sixth floor, would be an unremitting dark mass, but there would be this one light patch on it, devastatingly bright, at her desk. But when I look at it sideways, nothing sounds right; everything is too much of a risk. In the end I cross it all out and just write, I miss you.
Monday. I am downstairs in the work toilets in front of the basin again. I have just washed the last of the blood down the sink when I realise someone is in one of the stalls. Wade opens the door and comes out. He has heard my retching noises. ‘You young guys,’ he says enviously. ‘Hard night out on the turps, was it.’ Wade gives his meat hook hands a basic rinse. ‘Ya bloody Rusky.’ He distributes an affectionate thump on the back and goes out the door and back up the steps. Right now he must imagine I am overcome by his leniency.
I go back up the stairwell. Back across the office. When I step into my cubicle the air is spangled with the sound of ringing and I seize up the phone with a flourish. It will be Laura.
‘Hello?’ I demand, smiling. At first I can hardly hear the woman on the end of the line, she speaks so quietly. It is the nurse from the doctor’s office. She has a voice like a softly dripping tap. The x-ray has shown up an irregular shadow on the lung, she says, and I need to go to the hospital next week. Wordlessly I place the receiver down. I know what they will say.
I pass Laura again later that day. When I go by her I am pretending to check my cell phone but then she stands up and blocks my path, arms folded. She is staring at me, eyes dark as coal.
‘So,’ she eventually says. ‘What’s the word in Russian for a guy who looks like a vampire, barely speaks, and hangs around a workplace misleading people?’
I tell her there is not really one word to cover all of that.
‘Well,’ she says, ‘What’s the word for traitor, then?’
‘Pryedatyel,’ I tell her.
‘Okay.’ She hands me a folded piece of paper. ‘My flat’s having a party. You’re invited, pryedatyel.’
Several weeks later I wake up at Wellington Hospital after surgery and am momentarily confused. A nurse passes by and seeing I am awake she pages the surgeon. He is an older man, short as a child. Behind the lenses of his glasses his eyes are somewhat magnified, giving him an air of ongoing bewilderment.
The surgeon holds out a gruesome jar, containing what seems to be a tiny Christmas tree garlanded in flesh. He says, ‘When I opened you up I thought I was hallucinating. I called to my assistant, Mr Patel, to come and have a look. When he looked into your chest he nodded in shock.’ The surgeon’s voice is hoarse, threadbare from years of explanations. He continues. ‘When Mr Patel got over his surprise he said to the nurse, ‘Maria, call an arborist.’’ The surgeon laughs, scrutinises what’s in the jar, and shakes it. ‘Five centimetres,’ he says.
As soon as the surgeon leaves I text Laura the news. She texts back, Can I c it? I tell her yes and not to text again because I am going to sleep. This bed is so soft I feel like I could sleep for a hundred years. Outside the wind is whipping palm fronds around and rocking street lights, plastic shopping bags and old bits of paper are flying on haphazard, berserk trajectories and the bus wires wriggle as if they are struggling to get free. Everything that is not held down is being rearranged. But in here everything is quiet.
I lie awake for a while thinking about the article in the newspaper a few weeks ago. It pleases me to imagine it all: the Japanese archaeologists finding the mummified seeds during a dig and some ridiculous man, some hopeless case, putting a seed in the ground experimentally. And then off it grows, rearing up slowly; an old lost species of magnolia tree. I imagine the white blooms like crumpled handkerchiefs.
I wake up a few hours later to find Laura lying on my hospital bed, snoring lightly. Then sleep claims me and I fall back down into Russian forests. And I can hear the small wind of her breath, rustling in the spires of trees.