The Long and Spectacular Life of Agnes Magnusdottir 2
Imagine one of those stories. The hero gets let off a hay truck at the beginning, he walks into a bar and he meets a married woman. She is beautiful. He, this hay truck guy, and the married woman they fuck like rabbits and decide, that very first night when they are still covered in the sweat of their lovemaking, to kill the married woman's husband.
You know the rest.
One week later the husband gets electrocuted in the bathtub or falls off a ladder or slips and bangs his head. The hay truck guy and the woman cry a little at his funeral and afterwards they live happily ever after. Like two pigs in shit.
Now you've thought of all this put it out of your mind. This isn't one of those stories. Things never go that well for me, not love, not murder, nothing.
The brief had been simple. I was to find first-time novelists whose novels had been published to great acclaim, had received stunning reviews and then for whatever reason or another had disappeared off the face of the literary landscape.
"A kind of where are they now.”
My editor, cigarette half in and half out of his mouth, barked out the words in that Marvel comic-book manner of his.
"People like that kind of thing. It makes them feel better about themselves, to think that someone who once showed such promise should end up in the shit like every other Tom, Dick or Harry." Then he’d said, just as I was leaving the room, shuffling out backwards in the way that I imagined he liked, "I know you've had a tough time recently Harry but mess up again and you're out. We can't afford to keep dead wood afloat any longer. You've got two weeks. Give me your best shot and we’ll see where we are.”
Dead wood. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down and for some moments I imagined myself with my hands around my editor’s throat, the life slowly slipping out of him.
I’m a wise guy, huh? And like a wise guy I didn’t do it. Instead, twenty-four hours later I found myself standing outside the impressive doors of The Atheneum Library.
This story, I instinctively understood, needed the full-on sex of physical research rather than the dry wank of the Internet.
Going in, I recognised the librarian on duty at once although he had aged somewhat since our last encounter. His hook-nose, long pipe-cleaner limbs and brown square teeth had always put me in mind of a shady character from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and as such had made me a little scared of him.
As I approached his desk and he raised his eyebrows towards me and said in that strange accent of his, he was a Pole or a Latvian or something like that, "Can I help you?" I was brought right back to the last time I had been here, an awkward schoolboy not long out of short trousers wondering what kind of mark I would make upon the world.
It is disconcerting to think how far we have come come and also how much we are the same.
When I explained what I wanted the librarian said only that due to recent budgetary cutbacks they would closing at six instead of the usual nine and I better make sure that I didn't get locked in ’down there’.
"Down there?" I asked, quizzically raising an eyebrow.
I remembered the periodicals room as a large well-lit atrium full of old fashioned oak desks and comfortable green leather armchairs.
"Another cutback," growled the librarian. "The newspapers are kept in the basement these days. Or ’the crypt’ as I call it. You'll see."
Doesn't life too often throw up unwanted coincidences? With its large floor to ceiling drawers and the line of narrow tables down the centre I had been struck upon entry to the basement how alike it was to the morgue I had gone to to identify my father’s body just the previous month.
The policeman, the kind of handsome man who usual put me on edge, had looked at me with sympathetic eyes.
"We really appreciate you coming. If it wasn't necessary we wouldn't ask. I have to warn you, the body..."
As he pulled back the sheet it was all I could do not to break into a smile and jump up and click my heels together. I was happy yet at the same time untethered. It was like finally the strings had been cut loose and it was this freedom that frightened me.
Going over to the bank of drawers that held the newspapers I pulled one open at random and grabbed a folder of papers. What did it matter which I chose? I didn't even know exactly what I was looking for.
The coffee from the machine was a vile mechanical cum. In the same way male employees of Subway shops were reputed to masturbate into the fish fillings every morning I believed vending machines bunched together and did their artificial equivalent. And yet still I paid for the pleasure.
Standing outside at the back of the library under a stabbing rain, a cigarette burning in the same hand that was being burnt by that awful coffee, I looked over that morning’s notes. Or lack of them. I had not found a single likely candidate for my article.
Taking a long last drag on my cigarette I started on my journey back down to the basement telling myself that this time I would get on with it. I would not be distracted by lewd or maudlin thoughts. I would not dwell on my mistakes, revel in the smell of my own emissions. I would be a reporting machine, cutting swathes with choice words that would inspire a rapt audience to express their unbridled enthusiasm in ecstatic letters to the editor.
It was some hours later when I was woken by a stertorous voice behind me.
"You're very lucky I remembered you. Very lucky indeed. I don't know if I'd want to spend the night down here. They say these rooms are haunted although I have never seen an actual ghoul myself."
I sat abruptly upright, a page of notes gummed ridiculously to my face, to find the ancient librarian standing over me.
"I have to lock up now," he said jangling his large bunch of keys in my direction, "but if you're here at nine in the morning you can have a cup of my freshly brewed coffee. I'll make it extra strong. That might keep you awake."
There was a glimmer of a smile on his face.
"Or I could always make you up a daybed down here. No one would notice. We don't get too many customers these days. Those halcyon days of public funded knowledge are almost over. It's only when they're gone will we lament what we once had. That's life in a nutshell."
I stopped for a beer at my local public house on the way home. They were showing a game I wanted to see, an important football match that had made the headlines in that morning’s newspapers. The winner would take home a prestigious silver cup. Casting my gaze towards the distant screen, placed at such an angle behind the bar that I had to tilt my head quite to one side to view it, I decided I had a particular liking for the team dressed in blue. Blue was such a proud colour. And look at the way they charged up and down the bright green pitch. What a way to spend your life! So simple and untroubled.
If my parents had encouraged me in that direction then perhaps I could have been a footballer. And when my career ended I could have made a steady income modelling underwear in magazines, it is an undisputed fact that footballers have great solid buttocks, or become a pundit on a local radio show.
As a child, before I had discovered the thrill of long and involved masturbations, I had often taken comfort in the late-night radio talk shows, the dulcet words caressing my ears like poetry as I drifted off to sleep.
One beer turned into two and two turned into three or four. "You need to steady on," I actually said to myself as I raised an unsteady hand to order yet another and it was only as the frothing glass came and I took my first swig that I remembered the doctor’s stern warning.
‘And no alcohol. It's dangerous. You understand? Some drugs don't interact badly with booze but these do. I can't stress that enough.’
But already it was too late. I felt supercharged, Batman-like, and quite out of the blue I found myself challenging the barman to an arm wrestle. Look, there was my elbow on the bar counter, my fingers already flexing.
“Come on,” I said.
My tone was argumentative. Bristly. Slurred bristly.
“Five pounds to the winner. Best of five. Let's see who's the real man here.”
After losing six bouts in a row I decided to call it quits. Too many people around me had an opinion. And what did they really know of me? Walking out with as much dignity as I could I heard the barman whistle speculatively in my direction and say quite openly to the other punters propping up the bar that he would take me anyway, anyway I wanted, any time.
On arriving home I found the flat empty. No Zara. No note. Nothing. I didn't want to see her and yet at the same time I was angry that she wasn't there.
Going to the fridge I got myself another beer and took it out to the balcony. There were views from here over the park where people who had dogs walked their dogs and boutique shops where people who had money shopped.
The doctor, the one Zara had given me the ultimatum I see after my ‘episode’, had asked me a series of questions, reading them from the screen in front of him.
‘Do you have trouble sleeping?’, ‘Have you ever thought of harming yourself?’
There must have been ten or fifteen and at the end, without even looking up at me, he had said I was depressed and that he would write me a prescription. The tablets would take some time to work. Or they may not work at all. But whatever, I shouldn't drink.
Up above the moon formed a crescent in the sky and all of a sudden, and as if it was completely real, I could see Zara and I sitting on its tip, completely naked, bum cheek to bum cheek, two powerful moon beings peering down at humankind with all their foibles. There was hope for us perhaps yet.
I went and got myself another beer and then another. All would be well. Or it would not and the flimsy house of cards we had constructed would come crashing to the ground.
When I woke up I was face down on the table, freezing, and my mouth felt like a monkey had taken a shit in it. Or two monkeys. The screen on my mobile, it was propped against a nearly full beer bottle, indicated I had two voicemail messages.
The first was from my editor. He wanted to know how I was getting on with the article. "It's your last chance remember? Fuck this one up and you're out on your arse." The second was from Zara. She said she was with her actor buddies and she wouldn't be coming home. She sounded drunk. In the background I could hear laughter and music. This faded as, clearly, she walked out of the bar.
“I'm sorry Harry,” she said. “You and I both know it. It's over. I don't love you anymore.”
Then, just like that, the phone went dead. In my ear was nothing. Nothing except a dull rushing sound.
I reached out and took a long swig from the beer bottle. Too late I remembered pissing into it, the way the urine had frothed up and poured over my hand and down onto my shoes in a simulacrum of the Trevi Fountain.
That was when it happened again.
Read The Prologue
Read Chapters 2 & 3
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