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Care of Wooden Floors

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      Care of Wooden Floors
Will Wiles

A bold and brilliant debut from a darkly funny new voice.Oskar is a minimalist composer best known for a piece called Variations on Tram Timetables. He is married to a Californian art dealer named Laura and he lives with two cats, named after Russian composers, in an Eastern European city.But this book isn't really about Oskar. Oskar is in Los Angeles, having his marriage dismantled by lawyers. He has entrusted an old university friend with the task of looking after his cats, and taking care of his perfect, beautiful apartment.Despite the fact that Oskar has left dozens of surreally detailed notes covering every aspect of looking after the flat, things do not go well.Care of Wooden Floors is about how a tiny oversight can trip off a disastrous and farcical (fatal, even) chain of consequences. It's about a friendship between two men who don't know each other very well. It's about alienation and being alone in a foreign city. It's about the quest for perfection and the struggle against entropy. And it is, a little, about how to take care of wooden floors.

Will Wiles

Care of Wooden Floors

A Novel

Dedication

For Dan Hemingway (1972–1991)

Contents

Cover (#ulink_e4ff552f-5899-5d19-92d5-2bd235ca86a0)

Title Page

Dedication

Day One

People are afraid of flying. I’ve never understood that. It’s…

Day Two

There is a moment between sleeping and waking where one…

Day Three

I was lying in Oskar’s bed, not even slightly awake,…

Day Four

I was woken by a shell-burst in the trench of…

Day Five

White noise. Indistinct sound, beneath hearing, the growl and whoosh…

Day Six

A door slammed. The front door; definitely the front door,…

Day Seven

It had been a restless night. What little sleep I…

Day Eight

A concussion. A burst of noise in my head, doubled…

Acknowledgements

Copyright

About the Publisher

DAY ONE

People are afraid of flying. I’ve never understood that. It’s a most remarkable experience; yes, even in a cramped seat in a noisy compartment on a three-hour budget flight with no food. You are still in the air. You are Above. It is extraordinary in the most direct and apt way; you are outside the ordinary. The ordinary is pushed down, rendered for a score of minutes into a mosaic of green and brown and mercury, and then you’re with the clouds.

There has never been a better time to be alive, and that is not simply thanks to penicillin, flush toilets and central heating, it’s because now we can look down on the clouds. Clouds are utterly faithful to their promise of ethereal beauty. When I was very young, I imagined clouds to be warm and soft to the touch, because I knew they were water, and so therefore they must be steam because that’s what they looked like, and steam was warm. Perfect logic. Of course, they are not warm, but in the air-conditioned cylinder of your midweek commercial flight, they fulfil their old promise because they are awash with sunlight – no matter the daytime weather beneath, the cloud tops must be exposed to the sun, that is their guarantee, that is their tiny miracle.

Renaissance artists must have felt this love of clouds, and appreciation of their natural splendour, and having always felt separated from their true glory were moved to populate them with putti and seraphim; so perfect was their approximation of the wonderfulness of being above cloud level that to be there now is to expect these heavenly denizens to be there with you. But they are not. You are alone above a landscape that is forever changing, forever unique, forever special for you; rolling cirrus meadows and boiling mountaintops across unfathomed distance. You are an explorer and this is your new-found land.

But with all this beauty and isolation there is also an obligation – you must return, you must descend, back to the imperfect.

The landing, airport, passport control, baggage reclaim and taxi are all a compressed wedge of brown neon, sweat and stress in my mind. It was one of those dreadful moments when it occurs that the only things connecting you to who you are, what you are, where you come from, and where you are going, are a little purple-bound book (‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires …’) and an address scribbled on a scrap of paper torn from a spiral-bound notepad. The notepad itself is in a holdall that may at some stage, please God, appear on a conveyor belt still basically intact. It contains the remaining evidence of Who You Are. Who I am. The address, unless it has been incorrectly taken down – was it 70 or 17? – corresponds to an apartment building in a completely unfamiliar foreign city some thirty kilometres from this airport, and the taxi rank is the sinew that links me to it – shelter, a promise of food and comfort – unless I am cheated or robbed or murdered, or some baroque combination of those three. These things happen in foreign cities, I had been told, and over the warmth of dinner party conversation I had tried to smile the smile of the seasoned traveller as various lurid myths and truths were recounted. I was no seasoned traveller.

But there were no hitches, and none of the unlesses happened and the key fitted the lock and I found myself standing at the threshold of Oskar’s flat, getting a good look at it for the first time.

Thanks so much for this; you’re a real friend for helping out. I don’t feel comfortable leaving the flat for so long, not with the cats … you’ll like it, it’s a nice flat …

The flat, 17, was on the second floor of a six-storey, leaden, inter-war, vaguely Moderne block near the city centre, on a street stacked rigid with similarly bulky buildings that was prominent in the mental map of the taxi driver. And it was a nice flat.

At university, I remembered, Oskar had travelled under a thundercloud of good taste. Static permanently brewed around him, building readiness to send down a lightning bolt of scornful condemnation in the direction of anything cheap, or badly made, or, sin of sins, vulgar. As the bolt streaked towards its target, his upper lip would pitch into a perfect, practised sneer, a neat capital A for Appalling. The flat indicated that he had transferred this ideology to his home life here.

A wide hallway stretched from Oskar’s front door towards a south-facing living area. The hall was light and airy, with pale wooden floors and icy white walls. Two dark wooden doors were set into the wall to the right, like dominos on a bedspread, one halfway down, and the other near the far end. To the left was evidence of a refurbishment under Oskar’s direction: a long glass partition screening a large kitchen and dining area from the hallway. At its end, the hall opened out into the living area, which was demarcated by a single step down. The pale wooden flooring stretched to every corner of the flat, and the glass partition, which I assumed had replaced a non-supporting wall, evenly rinsed the space with the crystalline light entering through the generous south-facing picture windows that took up the far wall of the living space.

Taste and money had met in the crucible of this space and sublimed. The wood, steel and glass were the alchemical solids formed by the reaction.

Closing the front door behind me with a satisfying clunk of weight and security, I walked down the hall. The living room – Area? Space? – centred on a sofa and two armchairs, all boxy black leather and chrome, the design of a dead Swiss architect. The east wall was one large bookcase, mostly filled with books but also seasoned with some objets. The kitchen was all aluminium and steel. Everything must have been imported, I thought, considering the home-grown stuff I had seen at the airport. There was a table in the kitchen with three chairs. How often did Oskar entertain? At university, he had been a good but infrequent host. He preferred restaurants that we loan rangers were stretched to afford. The kitchen looked more like a showpiece from a designer’s catalogue than a work area. Everything, everywhere, was impeccably tidy. There was a jar of carefully arranged twigs on the kitchen table and another on the glass coffee table, which also sported a hotel-style fan of magazines – New Yorker, Time, Economist (more than a month old), Gramophone. There were more twigs and a four-day-old International Herald Tribune on a small table under the middle of the three picture windows.

In a gesture that was, I suppose, proprietorial, I put my hands on my hips and exhaled, a sigh of relief at arrival and also admiration. It is intensely pleasing when a reality conforms so exactly to expectation, and when a man conforms so exactly to type. This was almost exactly how I had imagined Oskar’s apartment to be – it was the obvious habitat for the mind I knew. Multilingual Oskar. Oskar, who appreciated design and modernity and expensive, extravagant simplicity. The apartment’s spaces were measured in air miles. Its air had arrived in the bubbles in a thousand crates of San Pellegrino. The beautiful wooden floor didn’t have nails, it had a manicure. The only thing missing was a piano.

Had I not already known that Oskar was a musician, it would have been easy to tell from the black-and-white photos tastefully mounted in plain glass frames around the walls: Oskar at the piano, Oskar with baton in hand, a younger Oskar shaking hands with an older man I didn’t recognise, Oskar receiving an award, Oskar … Oskar with me. Four of us, at university, not long before graduation. Thicker, darker hair, no bellies. Another me. I tried to remember the occasion where the photo had been taken. It was gone.

And … no photos of Oskar’s wife. And no piano. No awards. A mystery.

The first door I tried – the one nearest the picture windows – resolved part of this mystery. The flat was in the corner of its building, and the room I entered occupied the corner of the flat. Two more south-facing windows continued the rank started in the main area, and the western wall had one as well, so the light that articulated every corner and dust mote – even the dust motes looked neat, their flight paths as checked and regulated as the red-eye from Tehran coming into LAX – frosted the surface of the grand piano so that the black lacquer was dental-advert white. A piano, in the corner of the corner of the corner, pushed to the outermost reaches of the flat. Any further out, it would be on the pavement by the crossroads outside. Unlike the kitchen, this room had an aura of useful industry. One wall was filled with shelves, and those were stacked with a regimented clutter of box files, CDs, vinyl, cassette tapes, racks of sheet music, framed certificates, (more) photographs, citations, degrees, honours and awards. A life abridged. Under the nearer of the two south-facing windows was a writing desk with its leather-cornered blotter, pots of pens and pencils, and two stacks of paper – one plain, one ruled for musical notation. Next to the desk was a stack hi-fi that looked like the product of an abandoned Scandinavian space programme.

While here, in this open-ended episode of enforced idleness, I wanted to write. In London I had been helplessly, prowlingly blocked, and the four magnolia walls of my Clapham basement flat had shut me up. Without those walls, what could stop me? Could a full book be turned out in the three-weeks-to-a-month I expected to be here? Perhaps the breakthrough would stay with me when I returned. If I could write anywhere, I figured, it would be here. Stewing in London, I often fantasised about the ideal setting for creativity, and it always looked much like the room I now stood in. This place seemed impregnated with Oskar’s talent and productivity. It would be perfect. I could imagine short stories, plays, perhaps even the start of a novel here. Clamped to the left-hand edge of the desk was one of those turn-handle pencil sharpeners that I associated with school. Directly underneath this sharpener was a steel bin. I peered into the bin, and was rewarded with the sight of – shocking lapse! – some pencil shavings and a discarded tram timetable. Rubbish. Debris, even, just casually left there for anyone to see. Oskar was plainly slipping. For a borderline obsessive-compulsive like him … it was like catching Brian Sewell at a Britney Spears concert.

As if on cue, prompted by the timetable, a tram rumbled past in the street below. Hadn’t Oskar written a piece called Variations on Tram Timetables? Pleased with my memory, I wandered over to the piano, flipping open the lid. This action caused a slip of paper to waft out and describe a swooping arabesque descent to the floor. I scooped it up and read it. Oskar had written on it in a prickly, pointy, fussy hand:

Please do NOT play with the piano.

That would be easy to arrange as I could not play the piano. I ran my fingertips gently, respectfully, over the surface of the keys. They were a nicotiny white and a simplistic black that defied adjectives. Brown-blue-black-black. But that’s not quite it. I tinkled the same two high notes that musical philistines always tinkle when they are driven to fiddle with piano keys.

Box files, all labelled in Oskar’s spiky black hand – Solo #2, Comp ’00–’02, Halle Aug ’01, Misc ’04, Each one was stuffed … no, stuffed is the wrong word. Each one had string-bound bundles of papers, newspaper clippings, folders, sheet music, financial documents, travel details and hotel bills meticulously arranged in it, as one would arrange a formal vase of flowers, stiffly and conscientiously. Oskar the organised. Oskar the organised musician.

Photos, Oskar with people I didn’t recognise, bow ties, penguin suits.

I remembered that my bags were still by the front door and that I had unpacking to do. The door I hadn’t tried yet had to be the bedroom. Opening it was a complex action involving holding my holdall with my left hand, hanging my flight bag from the ring and little finger of my right, and turning the knob with the remaining two fingers and thumb.

There is something primal in the sound of claws against the ground moving towards you, and an animal jumping. It fires something back in the lizard root of the brain, springs the safety catches off, triggering a reaction designed for survival and still operational despite being broadly unneeded; a working Betamax video recorder in the animal mind. Still it wired out its useless message like an aggressive lout shouting a drinks order at a defenceless gland – A pint of adrenalin, and make it snappy, bitch. I tensed involuntarily as two furry streaks cannoned through my legs towards the living room, two irresistible vectors of feline purpose. Late and unbidden, my Cro-Magnon fear manifested itself as a foolish and embarrassed sprinkling of sweat.

Ah, I thought, the cats. Oskar had mentioned cats, and here they were, or rather there they were, wherever they had gone. Afraid of cats! But not afraid, simply surprised and caught off balance, a simple shock. And besides, I thought, appealing to an altogether more recent section of the brain, it’s not as if anyone saw me being surprised by them.

So that’s all right then.

I could ingratiate myself with them later. For now, I walked into the bedroom and dropped my bags by the white linen of the large double bed. There was less to see here; the dominant features were the bed, an armchair and a large standing cupboard. The armchair was plain wicker with an off-white cushion, an item that seemed to exist solely for the purpose of injecting an air of homely domesticity into a room that was otherwise as coldly modern as the principal living area. It was one of those chairs that had a sad aura of futility, a regret that it had been designed to be sat in and never was, and had often suffered the indignity of simply being a prop to drape clothes over.

Furniture is like that. Used and enjoyed as intended, it absorbs that experience and exudes it back into the atmosphere, but if simply bought for effect and left to languish in a corner, it vibrates with melancholy. Furnishings in museums (‘DO NOT SIT IN THIS SEAT’) are as unspeakably tragic as the unvisited inmates of old folk’s homes. The untuned violins and hardback books used to bring ‘character’ to postwar suburban pubs crouch uncomfortably in their imposed roles like caged pumas at the zoo. The stately kitchen that is never or rarely used to bring forth lavish feasts for appreciative audiences turns inward and cold. Like the kitchen here, I thought.

And there was a further indicator of this strange psychology of material goods in the bedroom; flanking the bed were two small tables, and whereas the one nearer the windows bore a light, three stacked books, a small notepad and a small stone statuette, the other was empty but for an identical light. So it was clear which side Oskar slept on and which had been taken, until recently, by his wife.
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