5. Under lockdown. A quite healthy number of pigs. Kuper gets out the Bastille.
In this fashion, and what other fashion is there than the harsh reality of everyday life?, time marches on. Daffodils push their heads from the earth. Hedgehogs emerge from a sleepy hibernation. Pelicans, whose beaks could hold a whole fish, dive into the water and emerge triumphant.
After that first initial night and then following morning of panic; shock and outrage being the order of the day, certain angry citizens even going so far as to hammer against the wall with an impromptu battering ram formed from one of the exotic palms uprooted from O____’s Municipal Botanical Gardens, cuts made by desperate drug users to suck on the hallucinogenic sap making for perfect finger holds, people settled down.
On the first week anniversary of the wall a vigil was formed at its base, songs of peace sung, the participants tying yellow ribbons in their hair as a kind of protest. After all, their lofty placards said, if you can’t go somewhere then you don’t, you stay where you are and make the best of it!
Santoro Trotitski, a singer from the far off town of F____, and who had become trapped on this side of the wall while visiting his old childhood friend in O____, they had met on a Scout camp as teenage boys and spent the whole two weeks engaging in ever more daring onanistic practices, in the sleeping bags of their fellow scouts, in the sweaty shoes of the camp leader, standing side by side, their hands in each other’s pockets during drill, the expulsion comically rubbed onto slices of bread and treacle which they would then pass to their unsuspecting comrades, they were fourteen after all, sang over and over the only song he had ever had in his career that had made it into the Top 40 hit parade, and which still earned him some royalties every year due to being used, ironically enough, in the long-running National anti-self-pleasuring ad campaign of a militant church group, ‘Respect yourself and God will respect you,’ his big voice booming out above all the others.
Peace, peace, peace is all we want. And love!
Although there was some jostling, youths come down from the Boondocks to make fun of the ribbons and the namby-pamby singing, some of them even going so far as to drop their pants and display their bare arses, ‘make love with that!’, the peaceniks moral was one that seemed to strike a chord with the majority of citizens of O____, many of whom, after all, had known wars and bloodshed in their own countries, or rather, their previous countries or the countries of their forebears.
So what, they were heard to refrain, was a wall to them? It wasn’t a machine gun. It wasn’t a mortar. It wasn’t your family being carted off in the night to a death-camp or something along those lines, never to be seen again.
Over the following weeks little gardens began to spring up everywhere. Rooftops and backyards were planted with potatoes and tomato plants, courgettes and sprouts.
It was surprising how many people, on the quiet, kept pigs and between them they formed, these pig-rearers, a kind of co-operative. A charter was drawn up, the number of pigs counted, the number of future pigs worked out, for where there were pigs there were also, as sure as eggs is eggs, going to be piglets, and it was declared that Tuesday and Friday would be pork days.
To coin it in a nutshell, in return for other goods and services, meat would be provided.
Little by little, and in a similar fashion, the town established a new economy.
The fishermen, surly leather-skinned men rarely seen out of their sou’westers, still fished, the cockle-pickers, mostly Chinese these silent gentle folk who haunted the dawn with their plastic trousers, boots and buckets, still gathered cockles, the whores of the Boondocks, who also for a price would wear black shiny trousers and boots (bucket not needed, their bodies being the only receptacle required), still plied their trade.
(On the quiet, in pub corners and back alleys, the kind of place where these transactions took place, it was said that for a pork chop you could go around the world.)
And as for Kuper’s Tube, that funny ramshackle little shop which those of a literary bent compared to Verloc’s seedy establishment in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, each morning they have opened up at the regular time, not a minute before, not a minute after, the proprietor being, clearly, a man of regular habits.
The only concession to there being anything out of the ordinary is the sign that Kuper himself has displayed in their dusty window:
‘Video postcards. 50% off. Send a message to a loved one, or an acquaintance, on the other side of the wall!’
As an advertising ploy it has gone down a storm and each day the Tube has had a steady stream of customers ready to cast their nets towards the shop’s new scenarios, Missing You from O____, Greetings from the other side. For those with a sense of adventure there is even, Escape from O____, this one concocted by Antonio, using their green screen in the most elaborate way ever.
Yevgeny Shevchenko, eighty-seven and a half and a former Soviet cosmonaut had to take a seat as he reviewed his postcard and afterwards he rubbed his eyes, tears running along the wrinkles in his cheeks.
“Well boys, what a hoot!, I felt absolutely I was in that hot air balloon, the wall far below me, and my dear Soyuz VIII waiting for me to find him.”
Soyuz VIII was his cat, named after the rocket Shevchenko had twice circled the moon in, and nearly died, not seen since the wall went up and believed to be trapped somewhere on the other side.
Of Kuper himself, and of Antonio’s continued presence in his life there is little to say, for it is a fact that is as true for this story as every other story told throughout history, happiness does not make interesting reading.
With Antonio around him Kuper has forgotten he is a sad man. He hasn’t taken the photo of Simenon out of his wallet for some time, hasn’t stared questioningly into the eyes of his doppelgänger and beseechingly asked, “Why am I so lonely? Why has life dealt me this cruel blow, to never have been loved?”
For each night now as Kuper closes up The Tube Antonio is still there with him. They go up the stairs together, they eat together, they go to bed together, separately, in separate rooms. But it is enough.
One night when they have been disturbed by the howls of dogs, since the erection of the wall dogs have become mysteriously loosened from their owners, one by one, and formed large rival packs which roam the town at night, Antonio has admitted that if there is one thing he is scared of in the world it is dogs, especially their teeth and the way they can sink into your skin.
Partly because one confidence deserves another and partly to calm this agitated giant down, beads of sweat have formed on his brow and he is pacing the room, his head nearly hitting the light-shade on each pass, Kuper has then shown Antonio the matchstick buildings he had created, a hobby left over from his childhood, a matchstick model kit the last present his mother had given him before being mown down by that tram.
“This one is the Bastille,” he says, his normally pallid cheeks blotching red with pride. “Behold! The largest prison in the whole of France although at the time of its storming it only had seven prisoners in it; four forgers, two lunatics and one aristocrat, the Comte de Solages.”
Antonio lets out a whistle of admiration and claps Kuper on his back, nearly sending him flying through the open window and down onto the pavement below.
“If Claudette could see these matchbox houses, she’d probably wet herself. Trust me, she loves all shit like this, making and doing things with the flotsam and cum-stains of everyday life. Sometimes I buy teapots we don’t need just so she can run up a new cosy. She’s got them down to an art. She’s going to make a fine figure of a mother for isn’t a baby-grow just a tea cosy with different holes. Ours will be the best dressed and most loved baby in the whole of C____.”
A cloud passes over his face then and his ears, which are as large as the rest of him, but sticking out in an abnormal fashion so that in a high wind they flap backwards and forwards like the wings of a wren, go red.
“You don’t know how much I miss her. It is a scandal to be so parted especially in her ballooning state. Where are the hearts of our leaders? Why do they divide us? At the end of the day we are all the same, all just people.”
That night Kuper, remembering the admiration in Antonio’s eyes as he looked upon the matchstick buildings, (and completely disregarding the following plaudits directed towards Claudette), he goes to bed practically glowing with pride and when he is sure by the regular sound of the stentorian snoring that Antonio is fast asleep he slips out of bed and crawls on all fours back into the living-room where, as gently as he can, he lays his head on the sleeping giant’s stomach.
“I love you to the moon and back. Possibly further, because man has been to the moon, stood upon its surface and jumped, and what I feel is impossible, outside the bands of all imagination. May this situation between us never change.”
But, of course, the hope that something may never change, just like the hope that someone will never die, is an impossible one and Kuper, whose mother would sit by his bedside every night and narrate to him, remembering by heart the history of their family that had been passed down, in turn, to her, should have known that more than anyone.
The Kopolowskis were not a family who sailed across a placid sea. Theirs had always been a rough voyage. Look at Uncle Cedric. Born with two noses but a complete inability to smell. Then there was poor Uncle Antonin whose left hand went into a wood chipper. With his right hand he tried to pull it out.
The list went on and on.
Unexpected and sudden deaths, gross disfigurements, a whole branch of the family who were born with an unusual number of limbs, extra sex organs, one little boy, Mauritios, blessed with three bumholes, none of them in the right place, murders, absurd accidents, sudden reversals of fortune, a propensity to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in front of runaway trains, horses and once, even, in the path of a bobby on a bicycle, chasing a jewel thief.
Polek, bless him, never got over the drubbing he received in the press, for if it hadn’t been for him, tangled in the spokes of that agent of the law’s bike the burglar would never have got away, and he killed himself, jumping into a vat of boiling strawberry jam in the Odessa condiment factory where he worked.
If there was a holocaust then the Kopolowskis were first in the queue. If there was a pogrom then it had their name all over it.
So it was written in their family history, Kuper should have taken it as read, that things were never going to work out for the best.
Not for him, not today, not tomorrow, or even the day after that.
Image from Pixabay