The first time I had a coughing fit I was fifteen. It was the end of the holidays and my parents had arrived to take me home. We had a long drive ahead of us. About half an hour before we had to leave I started coughing. Not a lot, not out of the ordinary, not at first. Just normal. It went like this: Cough, cough, cough.
I had an itch inside and I coughed because of it. But what was strange was that this time, for the first time in my life, the itch didn’t disappear like it normally did. It was still there, exactly the same. I coughed again. Cough, cough, cough. Only three. Normal coughs. Simply: cough, cough, cough. And still it wasn’t gone.
We went about our business. I gathered my things and got in the car, still coughing. We drove. Cough, cough, cough. I was given some water. And still I coughed. The sun set. It got dark and our car motored on the highway, roared underneath me, and I coughed and I coughed and I coughed. I got scared. My mother became afraid. I just wouldn’t stop. Over and over I coughed. It had started as nothing, a normal, simple cough. By now I was hoarse and tired, I couldn’t stop. I coughed and coughed and coughed.
We needed to hurry to get me to a doctor. My mother was panicking. I remember looking at the moon outside the window and for the first time in my life thinking that there was something inside me, for the first time thinking that I was small and insignificant and had absolutely no control over my body. Later that evening I saw myself reflected in my bedroom mirror. I was white and drawn. I was wet with sweat and my eyes were sunken back in my head. I looked like someone else. I had stopped coughing by then, but I was changed forever.
Today my fits continue. I have learned to shorten them, or rather, to keep them hidden. I can control myself until I make it back to my home. I have found it essential to be alone. I like to keep my distance, and them to keep theirs. This is all well and good. I’ve managed to make my lifestyle work for me, over the years. I’m not bothered by it, that is, until today. Something happened to me last night. Something incredible. I am doubting myself, my decisions, my future. I have a letter in front of me. This is what it says:
Next to the letter there is a brown box, like a shoe box. It is open. Inside there is a sheet of brown paper spread across whatever is inside. I'm not sure about whether I should open it, just as I'm not sure about how I should reply to this invitation. For me it's more than just an invitation. It may put everything in jeapordy. I need to be careful. I'll start with the facts.
Four days ago, on the nineteenth of January, I woke early. I got out of bed and made my way to the basin. I splashed water on my face and looked at myself in the mirror. I filled a glass with water and carried it with me to my balcony door. I went out onto my balcony. I drank my glass of water and thought about the things that I needed to do. On the street I watched the cars and trucks, on the mountain I saw rocks that had fallen down its side.
After taking the last sip of water I turned to go back indoors. Just before entering I saw a very curious thing. In the corner of my balcony, just to the left of my balcony door, there lay three large crumpled up pieces of newspaper. They were wet. I looked at them. They were large, each more than one newspaper page crumpled together.
It was a sunny day. The ground around those crumpled newspapers was dry. I looked over the little wall that separated my balcony from the rest of the balcony shared by everyone else. There was nothing there. There was no clue. All was clean. Those three large pieces of crumpled newspaper were wet. I went back inside.
In my room I began to think about the problem. I am living in a boarding house. It is a small one. Most of the other residents are old retired persons living out the last of their pensions. I have met none of them and have no desire to. However, their being strangers compounded the fact that any of them could be the culprit. My mind lurched at this. I wondered if there was some other explanation? This comforted me. I thought about something rational like the maid had been cleaning the windows and forgotten the newspaper behind. I held onto that and made it true. I bathed, dressed and then set out into the day. I forgot about the newspapers.
The following morning I woke to the sun streaming in through my window. It was harsh and I shut my eyes. I put my hand between me and the sun and got out of bed. I moved to my table and began to clear away, putting what I couldn't use in a white rubbish bag and the rest back on top of my cupboard. I went over to my basin and poured myself a glass of water. I poured it to one finger from the top and then drank it straight down. I was thirsty and the icy water felt wonderful in my throat. I looked at myself in the mirror. I poured myself another glass and then twisted the lock of my balcony door, opening it to the day and its noises, the busy street and the mountain warming in the sun.
On the floor, the clean-swept and painted floor of my balcony, there were four wet patches. Each was the shape of a crumpled newspaper. I leaned closer and found that each one was slightly sticky. This was different to the day before. I wrinkled my nose and then touched it with the bottom of my glass. It was soft. I was unsure. I thought that it could be some kind of glue that had been mixed with something else. I looked at the ground all around the spots. Everything was clean and freshly swept. I widened my search and found the rest of my balcony floor in the same state, very clean except for the slight wind that had blown in the night. I could find nothing, no footprints, no animal tracks, even small ones, nothing to explain the four distinct wet spots that were very much there, on the floor of my balcony.
I moved over to the outside of my windows. I looked at the glass, looked very closely. I saw a faint film of dust evenly spread across the grain. It was completely natural looking. It had to be at least three or four days old. I knew then that no maid had cleaned that window. Next to me was a low wall separating my piece of balcony from the rest of the balcony, open to the public. Looking there everything seemed in order. The scattered things lying on the floor had been there for at least three days. The little table was in the same position as the day before. There was no cleaning equipment or other pieces of newspaper scattered. There was nothing but the empty balcony.
I stood there for a moment, chewing at the problem. I moved my eyes from the table to the windows to the table. I was turning it all over in my head, when suddenly the doors to the public balcony opened. Two men were coming.
I quickly stood in my own doorway so that they couldn’t see me. I could hear them talking. Their voices were soft so that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I could tell by the way that they spoke though that they knew each other well. I could smell coffee. I moved slowly along the wall, very slowly, till just my eyes peeked over the side, putting the two of them in view. I was right. It was two men. I had seen them before. One was tall and one was short. The shorter one lived in the room next to mine, and the taller one lived somewhere down the passage. He was holding two mugs of coffee. Both of them were dressed for the heat, that is, T-shirts, shorts and sandals. They sat down at the white table. The tall one put a cup in front of his friend and then one in front of himself, and the short one pulled out a packet of cigarettes. I watched as they lit up. Suddenly the short one caught my eye. He was looking straight at me. I coughed and gave an embarrassed splutter. I stepped out into view as if that was my plan and lifted a pencil case from the table on my balcony. I nodded to the men while doing this. The short one looked away from me, ignoring me, and the other one watched me. He seemed friendly. I hurried back into my room.
I placed my hands flat against the wall, breathing a little, standing straight. I was convinced that something was going on. I knew I couldn't accuse the two old men of vandalising my balcony. I had no evidence. I knew that something was happening, the marks should not have been there and yet they were. I thought again about all the strangers that live here. How it could be any of them. Something was wrong. Just then there was a knock at my door. I froze. No one had knocked on my door before. I moved to it and listened for a moment to the sounds on the other side. I could hear nothing. Then there came a knock again.
'Who is it?' I asked, my hand close to the knob.
'It is the maid,' answered a voice, 'I have come to clean your room.'
I stood there for a moment, unsure about letting this woman into my room.
'Lady Diana told me to come,' said the voice, 'she said I must come and clean.'
'Alright,' I said, 'I'm letting you in. Just stand back please while I unlatch the door.'
I opened it. On the other side there stood a woman. She was holding a bucket filled with detergents in the one hand and a broom in the other. She had a kindly look on her face. She seemed about twenty-eight or twenty-nine. I ushered her in and then shut the door behind her.
'I've come to clean your room,’ she said, ‘Lady Diana says that I must come up to clean the room, she says its free for you.'
'Thank you, that's very kind of you,' I replied.
'She said I must clean it very well, so I am going to clean well in here, even I can vaccuum if you want me to. I wont steal,' she said, 'I don’t like to steal.'
'I'm relieved to hear that,' I said. 'Would you mind if I ask you something?'
'No,' she replied, 'but ask me while I clean.'
She began to clean at the few things on my table, which were already quite clean, but still she lifted my book, shifted it, turned it, and wiped under it, before putting it back.
'I wonder,' I said, 'I've noticed that someone has been dropping crumpled up pieces of newspaper on my balcony. Do you happen to know anything about that?'
'No sir,' she said, 'I don't know nothing about that. I haven’t been cleaning on your balcony for three days now. I clean it once in the week. It’s a nice balcony.'
She walked over to the window and stood in front of it, looking out onto the balcony and the mountain beyond. 'Do you want me to clean it now?' she asked.
'No,' I replied. 'Do you know anything about the newspapers?'
'What newspapers?' she asked.
'The newspapers on my balcony,' I said. 'Yesterday I found three pieces of wet newspaper there, and today there are four wet marks, where it looks like wet newspapers have been.'
'Oh that newspaper,' said the woman, light suddenly dawning in her eyes, ' I picked them up.'
'When did you pick them up?' I asked her, startled. I had been certain that my balcony was untouched.
'Yes I picked them up,' she said, 'this morning when I was cleaning on the other side I saw that you had left them out there and so I picked it up for you. I thought that they was rubbish.'
'They weren't my newspapers,' I said to her, 'I don't know whose they are. That's why I'm asking you.'
'Well I don’t really know sir,' she said, 'they could be anyone's newspapers.'
'I understand that,' I replied, and was about to continue, when she spoke.
'I would watch out for that short man with the beard,' she said.
'What man?' I said.
'The one with the beard,' she said, 'the one that smokes so.'
'You mean the one with the tall friend? Do you mean that one?'
'Yes sir, that one, the little one, he is a bit skew,' she said.
'What do you mean?' I said.
'Well,' she said, 'he never lets anyone go into his room, and he never changes his clothes.'
'Never?' I asked her, 'never?'
'Not even one time,' she said and continued, 'he doesn't shower neither. But he doesn't stink. And you know what else?'
'No,' I said.
'No, I shouldn't tell you.'
'Tell me,' I said, 'you can trust me. I won't tell anyone.'
She thought for a moment, no doubt speculating on whether I would be a worthwhile ally for her.
'Well since you put it like that maybe I can tell you,' she said.
'What is it about him?' I said.
'That one is a murderer,' she said.
'Yes, he has come from another country here to South Africa because he is running away.'
'Who did he murder?' I asked.
'I have been in his room only once, and I saw in there that he is not right, and the people they say that he did kill his wife from long ago, and that he kill someone in Rustenburg.'
'Rustenburg?' I said.
'No people they know sir,' she said. 'He got a acquittal from the court, but people talk about it. But the way I know, is that I know when I walk past him. I can feel that he is not right. I can feel it. That tall man, Mr Dion, he is using him. I know.'
'How do you know?' I said.
'Because Mr Dion is different now,' she said, 'he use to be a nice man, but now he doesn't greet, and I can also start to feel that he is changing. I know.'
I stood for a moment, letting all of this information wash over me. I think she must have seen some emotion on my face, because she continued.
'No, no sir, I am very serious. There is something wrong. That man is wrong in his mind. You must watch out, that is what I say.'
I wanted to say more, but then suddenly left it. It was her tone that convinced me. I thought that the woman had to be telling the truth.
'Thank you,' I said, 'for telling me, and for the information.'
'Its okay sir,' she said, 'I think you are a nice man.' She gave me a smile.
'So you don't know anything about the newspapers then?' I asked.
'I know nothing,' she said, 'but I know that you must be careful of that one. He is a bastard. I know it.'
'Thank you,' I said. I moved forward to let her out of the room, when a final thought struck me. 'Just one more thing,' I said.
'Yes?' she replied, also stopping to listen.
'What is his name?' I asked.
'His name?' she said, 'its Mr Halsbuk.'
'Mr Halsbuk,' I repeated. 'Thank you.' I closed the door behind her.
Later that day I was sitting at the table, thinking on what the maid had told me. It was completely absurd. There couldn't be anything wrong with the man. Surely he was just lonely and old and because he kept mostly to himself people began to make up stories about him. A murderer? I imagined all sorts of things that that little man may have done, all sorts of injuries, all sorts of scenes. I saw his wife in my mind. I got up and walked slowly over to the wall. The one behind me. The one that I shared with him. I put my hands flat against it and then put my cheek flat against it. I stood quietly, listening intently. I thought I could hear something, a rustling, a moving, but I wasn't certain. I turned my head to listen with my other ear. As I did I caught myself in the mirror. I laughed then. I decided to leave it for a while, the whole business, and go out and cool off.
That night I was alone in my room. I was lying on my bed, breathing lightly, sweating in the heat. I had taken my medicine not long before and I was lying still, listening to and feeling it take posession of my body. I closed my eyes. In the house I could hear the noises from the others; breathing and snoring and sounds of dreaming. It was strange, something that I had only experienced in this boarding house, the particular way that the sounds of the other boarders merged and swayed, sighing through the house, a sound similar to the one of the medicine inside me, whispering in my veins. I began to listen beyond those sounds. I began to strain to hear certain other sounds. I was searching for voices, voices talking, preferably voices in the next room. I refused to get up, I could see my mirror in the dark, but I listened with all my might. I must say I couldn't hear voices, nothing came to me, but there was something that I fancy I could hear. It was the sound of newspaper being folded. Folded, crumpled and torn. ‘His name is Mr Halsbuk,’ I thought to myself, ‘his name is Mr Halsbuk.’ I felt myself drifting off, drifting deeper into the sounds of my medicines and the sounds of the house, surrounding me and growing.
The following morning I woke up coughing. I had been asleep when I became aware of the itch. The itch is like an animal, like a moth. What happened is I felt it tickling, the itch, just like a moth fluttering its wings, and then it grew, spreading through my chest and then crawling up to my throat. It was at this point that I woke fully. I opened my eyes just before the coughing started. Once it was over I made my way across the floor of my room, holding at the back of the chair when I passed it. I made it to the basin and emptied my mouth in it. I poured my glass of water. Just before drinking I coughed again, a half splutter. I watched myself in the mirror as I spluttered and then as I stood still and swallowed.
Outside I stood with my glass of water gripping the wall. I was shaking a little and I worked towards calming down. I had decided that I was going to try to forget about the saga of the marks on the floor and the murderer in the boarding house for today. I felt that the best thing to do would be to take a break, as my sleep had been troubled by dreams of Mr Halsbuk and his imagined deeds. I was well convinced of this idea when I suddenly felt a queer feeling. I quickly looked to my right. There, swimming in the already building heat-haze sat Mr Halsbuk and his tall friend. They were not smoking this morning. They were looking out at the mountain, gesturing. Looking at them I frowned. I also looked out at the mountain, trying to find what they were looking at.
The side facing was covered with rocks fallen all down. I could see that they were beginning to heat up. All through the day they would absorb heat, sucking it up, swelling up till later, when the sun had gone. Then I knew those rocks would let the heat out again, pump it out, make the night air hot. My body was hot as I stood there. I could feel sweat sliding all over me. I drank my water.
The two of them were still looking out, still chatting away. My heart began to pound in my chest. The heat was all around me, covering me up, stifling me like a thick blanket wound around the face and chest, making me frown harder, my face turning red and swollen. I could feel it. It was hammering at me, blood was rushing all around me. Before I could stop myself I called out to them.
'Good morning!' I barked, 'good morning!'
The tall one turned and looked at me, wearing the same expression of the day before. The long face.
'Good morning,' I repeated, 'I was wondering if you had an extra cigarette. I would like to smoke one.'
The tall man thought a moment, throwing a quick glance at Mr Halsbuk, then smiled, nodded, and reached into his breast pocket. At almost the same time his other hand reached into his trouser pocket and brought out a lighter. He began to walk towards me, holding out the packet of cigarettes. I grinned as he came, trying to smile but not quite managing it, sweat suddenly springing up all over my face. I saw that Mr Halsbuk had turned his back on us. I began to think that I may have made a mistake, that I should not be speaking with these men. The tall one was still coming closer. I couldn’t see him properly because I was sweating so much, it was stinging my eyes. I saw him begin to stretch his hand out from his body, a cigarette between his fingers, and I pushed my own hand out, very agitated. .
'Thank you,' I said.
‘No problem,’ he said, looming over me.
'I shouldn't be smoking,’ I said, ‘but it’s a beautiful morning. I want to.'
The man nodded.
'My name is Dion,' he said.
'I know that,' I said, 'the maid told me.'
‘The maid?’ said Dion, ‘you mean Cherryl?’
'I don't know her name,' I said, 'she's about this tall.' I held my hand out at the height of my shoulder. 'I think she's about twenty-eight, or twenty-nine.'
‘Yes, that’s Cherryl,' said Dion, 'she's a lovely girl. Very talkative.’
He was staring down at me.
'I'm sure she had other things to say about me?’he asked.
I didn't answer.
‘Did she?' he asked.
I didn't like his mouth, the way he looked at me. 'Yes,' I said, 'she said that you've changed, since she first met you.'
Dion raised his eyebrows. ‘Changed?' he said, 'how does she say I have changed?’
'That's all she told me,' I said, 'she said you've changed.' I looked away from him. At the road. ‘I don’t know what she meant.'
‘What else did she say?’
I thought of him hitting me. Or pushing me off the balcony. Falling onto the road below.
‘Can you remember?’
I clenched my fists at my sides. 'She said your friend, Mr Halsbuk, is a murderer.'
Dion heard me. He pulled his head back and his eyebrows up. 'A murderer? Cherryl said that Mr Halsbuk is a murderer?
'Him?’ said Dion, smiling, 'a murderer?' He chuckled. ‘That one?’ he said, and then he started to laugh. 'Ha! Ha! Ha!’ he said, spluttering and holding onto the balcony wall. He took a deep breath and then a drag on his cigarette, holding it but then laughing again. He coughed and choked on the smoke, but continued to laugh. Mr Halsbuk took a glance over at us.
‘I don't think so,' said Dion finally, chuckling and sighing, 'I really don't. I'm afraid Cherryl's been playing a little game with you. She's quite the joker.'
‘Well I'm relieved to hear that,’I said. ‘I must say, the thought of living in the same building as a murderer was making me nervous.'
'I can imagine,' said Dion. ‘You can’t take Cherryl seriously. She’s a very clever woman. She likes to play around.’ Smoke streamed from his mouth.
I chuckled, nodding as if I understood exactly what he meant.
'How do you like this mountain?’ said Dion, suddenly pointing towards it, ‘do you find yourself looking at it often?'
I copied him and looked at it. I saw the rocks all fallen down its side. It was shimmering in the morning heat.
'I often look at the mountain,' I said. 'As a child I spent some time in this town, and then I walked on the mountain often.'
'I go walking up there sometimes,'said Dion, 'when I can.' He touched his hip. 'But not often. I think that basically my days of hiking up there are over.'
'What is your family name?' he asked me suddenly, giving me the full length of his face, 'perhaps I know your people. I have lived here all my life.'
'I doubt it,' I said, 'we weren't here long. It's Martin.'
'I knew a Martin once,' said Dion, 'but, as you say, I don't think he was you.'
'I don't think I've met you before,' I said.
Dion nodded. He held the butt of his cigarette out over the street below, then twisted it so that the coal and tobacco that was left fell away. 'Thanks for the chat,' he said, 'I must go now, but perhaps we'll talk again.'
'Perhaps,'I agreed, 'thank you for the cigarette.'
'That's not a problem,' he replied, then as his last, 'try not to smoke too much. I heard you coughing last night.'
I watched him walk back to Mr Halsbuk. Once there I nodded at him, unsure of whether he was looking at me or not because of my sweat. I threw my own cigarette far out over the railing and then went back to my room, closing the door behind me.
I sat at my table. I felt angry. Cherryl had taken me for a fool. I replayed our conversation. I heard her speak and laugh and make faces. But now I saw her laughing at me all the while that she was doing it. I was angry. I wanted to shout, to spit. I thought of Dion looking at me while we were talking. The way he affected me. The way he made me tell him what I knew. I hated him. I hated them both. I looked at the mountain again, at those rocks just sucking up the heat. I hated them. I wished that my room wasn’t so hot. I felt that the heat was killing me. I felt trapped. It was all around me. It made it difficult to breathe. I felt like I was drowning. With every breath I took I swallowed more of it, filling me with it, everything hot and sticky. I was sitting there, wrestling with myself and these thoughts, when I felt the itch.
I froze. The itch right then was not what I wanted. I sat totally still and listened. There was nothing, just the heat, but then again. It moved again. A movement inside my chest. I knew I had brought it on myself by allowing myself to get so caught up in my thoughts and anger. Very slowly I put my hands onto the arms of my chair, ready to move. I felt it again. I willed it to stay still, to go back to sleep. I spoke to it in my head, asking it to stop. It moved again. It shifted and turned its tiny body. I imagined it looking up at me from it's little nest. It wanted to fly. Very slowly I clamped my mouth closed, biting down with my jaw muscles, making sure that it didn't hear me. I didn’t breathe. I locked my stomach up. Very slowly I got up from my chair, pushing myself upwards from the armrests. Very slowly I turned, and then very slowly I took the two steps to the chest of drawers behind me. All the while I kept my mouth clamped tightly shut, breathing only very lightly through my nose. I lifted my bottle of medicine and carefully unscrewed the cap. Very slowly I lifted it and put it to my lips, all the time keeping an eye on the itch in my mind, making it wait, watching it so that it suspected nothing. I let the medicine trickle into my mouth. Immediately I felt relief. First in my tongue and then as it extended down my throat and into my body. The moth subsided, it folded its wings back down. As soon as I dared I opened my mouth fully and swallowed. Two were enough. I decided that I should go, put some space between myself and this room and this house, give myself some time to calm and settle. I went out.
That night I dreamed that I was watching the main street from some little house. It was freezing cold and I had a long rifle with me. I was dressed in hunting clothes, buttoned tightly against the wind. I knew that I was a hunter. I saw a man coming down the road, he was stumbling, wiping at his mouth as he walked. His eyes were frightened and yet I couldn’t see his face well. I put up my rifle, careful to hide it from him, and got his chest in my sight. I watched the man walking, stumbling along, seeming to not know where he was or what he was doing, just wiping at his mouth, and I waited for a good shot, for when it felt right. I squeezed the trigger and the gun kicked me in the shoulder, at the same time the crack of the shot whipped around the empty street and shuttered buildings, very loud. The man fell, his torso ripped, and lay on the road.
I hid my rifle in a compartment underneath the window and I took off my jacket, hiding it there too. I could hear sirens and soon police cars arrived. I walked out and joined the crowd of policemen standing about the dead man. They were talking to each other, some of their conversation was about the murder, most of it was about their homes and jokes and things that they lived with. It seemed clear to everyone that the man was dead and the killer was gone. I looked down at him, lying like meat, and I saw that he was me. His face was my face swollen and dead. His blood, frozen and dull on the ground, was mine. He was barefoot, and as I looked at my feet I was unmoved. I leaned closer, viewing my dead self, and saw that in my chest, mashed up with my flesh, there was a moth. It was the size of my outspread hand. It did not move. I looked down again, my dirty feet, then up, my face. Behind the men I could see the mountain, quite bright in the light of the moon. I forgot the sound of the policemen talking and stood for what started to feel as an eternity, watching the mountain as it watched me, until I heard knocking.
I opened my eyes. I wasn't sure what the sound was yet, I lay there listening. I looked through the window and saw the mountain. I realised then that I had been dreaming, and in my dream I had seen the mountain, exactly as it is. Every shadow as my dream, a photograph. The knocking came again. It was very strong. The kind of knock that wouldn’t go away. Knock. Knock. Knock. I sat and listened to it, trying to make it disappear with my thoughts, when the person knocking started calling me.
'Mr Martin! Mr Martin!’ called a voice from behind the door, 'you must come quickly, Mr Martin!'
‘What’s the problem?’ I asked from my position on the bed, slurring slightly.
'You must come,' she said, 'there is something wrong with Mr Dion.'
I asked her what was wrong with him, not wanting to get up.
'He is very sick!' she shouted, 'you must come and help us!'
I rolled over onto my side, from there onto my haunches and pulled myself up with a hand on my table.
'You should call a doctor,' I said, 'I don't know anything about helping sick people.'
'Please come!' she shrieked, 'there is no time!'
I said that I wasn't sure I wanted to help him, since he might murder me.
'Please Mr Martin,' she said, 'this is serious, no joking. He is dying!'
'Yes,' I said, moving over to the door, 'I'm coming, calm down. I'm coming.'
I stood in front of the door and unlatched, deliberately taking time with it. I pulled it open, and was mightily surprised. She was wearing jeans, a blouse and make up. I could smell alcohol on her breath. She looked like a completely different person. I just stared at her. She was quite beautiful. 'What? What's wrong?' I said, stiffly.
'I think he is dead. He doesn't want to move!'
‘Who? What are you talking about?’ I asked her, suddenly wanting to close the door again, not liking the situation.
‘Mr Dion! Mr Dion! He is not breathing!’
I asked her if she had checked his pulse. I told her that she should check to see if his heart was beating. A person should first do the obvious things before flying into a panic.
'Please, you must come and help, I don't know!'
She started pulling me towards her, pulling me out of my room, but I pulled back, really getting frustrated now.
'What do you want me to do?' I shouted at her, ' I'm not a Doctor, I don’t know what to do.’
Cherryl backed away from me when I said that. She looked at me and I could see tears welling up in her eyes.
‘Please, you must come, I think he is dead. Please.'
I told her that I would come. It was clear the woman was very distressed, and there was obviously no other way to deal with the situation. I stepped out into the passage with her and closed my door behind me. Suddenly I stopped. I had realised that I had left my keys inside my room.
'My keys!’ I said, ‘I forgot my keys!'
I turned around and started pulling at my door, as if I would be able to somehow open it, ‘I must have my keys with me!’
'Come now!’ said Cherryl, pulling me away from the door, ‘I have the spare key, I’ll let you back in, we must go now!’
She was pulling at my sleeve, dragging me with her. I left the door, knowing that I couldn’t get away, and began to half-walk half-run with her down the passage. We passed the closed doors of the all the other rooms until we arrived at Dion’s room, number fourteen, with its door standing ajar. Cherryl pulled me in with her.
Inside the room I immediately noticed Dion. He was lying face up on his bed, his feet hanging over the edge, and on his lined face was his same patient expression. His eyes were closed. Next to him sat his friend, Mr Halsbuk. He was holding Dion’s hand, crying softly. I asked Mr Halsbuk how long he had been like that. He didn't answer me, he just shook his head a little and made a small moaning sound. I asked him again, unsure how I should take him just ignoring me like this.
'He can't speak English,' said Cherryl in my ear, standing right next to me, 'you must do something.'
At that point I wished that I had never moved here, never found this boarding house, never taken the room with the private balcony and in fact never even been born. I walked over to the body of Mr Dion and put my ear on his chest. I couldn’t hear anything. Not that I knew what I was listening for, but there was nothing. No thump. No breathing. No nothing. He was totally still.
‘He’s dead,’ I said to Cherryl, ‘you should call an ambulance’.
'He can’t be dead!’ she said, ‘you must do something!’
I told her that I didn't know what to do. I had no idea what to do with a dead body, I definitely didn't know how to make it come alive again.
‘You must do something,' she said, looking right into my eyes, ‘there is no one else here. Just do something!’
I turned back to Dion. I had no idea what to do. I’d never been in this kind of situation before. I went toward him and looked down at him lying there. To me he was dead. He was just a body, like in my dream, there was no spirit there. I put my right hand on his chest, in the middle, with my fingers open. Then I put my left hand over my right hand. I stood like that for a second, then took a breath to steady myself, and pressed down. I pressed down eight times, with little thumps, each time feeling his ribs bend under me.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
After that I put my fingers over Dion’s nose, covering his nostrils. I took as deep a breath as I could, doing it very carefully so that I wouldn’t cough, and then I put my mouth over his. I blew down.
From where I was, just above Dion’s face, I could see his chest fill up, rise up against his shirt, and then sink again as I took my mouth away. I did it again, breathed down into his throat and lungs, and then I pumped his chest with my hands again.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
I could feel Mr Halsbuk’s hand holding Dion’s hand at my side, and then I breathed down again, filling his lungs, seeing his chest rise and fall.
I went again, fascinated by watching his chest filling. I knew that he was dead. I knew it. I knew that there was nothing I could do, but I didn’t know when to stop. Now that I was doing it there was no way to stop. My lungs were calm. I think I was breathing better then than I have in years, and I just kept going, breathing in and out of the man’s chest. Cherryl was standing over me, crying and kneading the shoulder of Mr Halsbuk, who was rubbing his face against Dion’s hand.
I carried on and I carried on, breathing deeply in and out of myself, in and out of him, on and on. I thought that I would carry on like this the whole night. I felt calm, I thought that perhaps I would die too. Perhaps I could just pass into death without knowing, just go with Dion, when he coughed.
We all stopped. He wasn’t moving. He was still lying there, looking just the same. I looked at Cherryl, she looked at me, and Halsbuk looked at both of us.
‘Is he dead?’ asked Cherryl.
Dion coughed again. Just once. A small cough and that was it. We all leaned closer. I put my head back to his chest and listened for something. A heartbeat. Digesting. Anything. Still nothing. I turned my face to look at his mouth, just to have one last look, the mouth that I had been breathing into for the last lifetime, when he took a breath.
'He took a breath,' I said to Cherryl, ‘he’s breathing again.’ I was looking at her face at this point, when I saw her look behind me, and her eyes got bigger, and her mouth opened, and she shouted,
‘He’s alive! He’s alive! Werner he's alive!’
She ran over to Dion with her arms open. He was flailing around, coughing and spluttering, his eyes wide and the blankets wrapped all around him, he was struggling to get out of them. I crawled away from them to the wall opposite, suddenly confused. Cherryl was still shouting, moving her hands all around Dion, trying to find a place to grab him and calm him, and Mr Halsbuk was standing next to her pulling at his hands, shouting with Cherryl saying ‘Dion! Dion!’
I looked at them and I began to tremble. I wasn’t sure what was happening to me. I had been so calm a second before, and now I was watching them and starting to shake uncontrollably. I realized that I was feeling incredibly weak, that it was difficult for me to stand, and then I heard the sound of Dion coughing. It went all the way into me, and immediately my lungs wanted to heave. I tried to open my mouth to say something, I wanted to shout to Cherryl that she must give my key now, but I couldn’t speak, I was straining so hard against myself.
'Oh thank you!' Cherryl shouted, suddenly hugging me tightly and kissing me all over the face. 'Thank you! Thank you! You are a wonderful man!’
I tried to push her away but she held onto me and hugged me some more, and then all of a sudden Mr Halsbuk was there too, he had his cheek pressed fiercely up against mine, and he was squeezing my neck as tightly as he could with his thin little arms.
‘Dank you! Dank you!’ he was saying, tears streaming down his face too, ‘dank you!’
I whispered to her, it was the best I could do, telling her that I needed the key right that second.
‘You are so brave,’ said Cherryl, still stroking my face, ‘you saved him.’
Suddenly I shouted at her. I had a quick respite from the pulling in my stomach and I shouted at her. 'Give me the key!' I shouted. I then pulled myself away from them and went to stand by the door holding myself up as best I could. ‘I need to go back to my room now!’
‘Of course,’ said Cherryl, ‘sorry for that.'
I grabbed the key from Cherryl. I tried to be polite by giving them a wave with my hand and then I hurried from the room, stumbling down the passage, hurrying before I exploded across the walls. I needed to close my door behind me.
Inside my room I moved to my table. I needed to get the medicine on top, I was desperate with the pressure building inside of me. I reached out, my hand grasping towards the bottle, and at the same time the itch inside was going crazy, wriggling and snarling inside me, its sides rasping against mine. I imagined it biting at me, ripping at my meat. I grabbed for the bottle, my hand clattering across the top of my chest of drawers. But it was too late. I couldn't hold it. I exploded.
Cough! Cough! Cough! I went. Cough! Cough! Cough! I knew they had no idea. The world disintegrated as my eyes closed down, as my body closed down over my lungs, over the moth, wrenching and wretching at it, spasming and flapping. I went down onto the floor. My knees went up against my chest, my arms wrapped around my shins, my face pushed out and away, my body was hard and tight as I coughed. I coughed like that for long, until exhaustion calmed me and my arms left my legs so that I opened up and lay open on the floor. It was then that the tempo changed, settling into a regular three beat. I calmed and began the cough that I described to you earlier. The cough, cough, cough. In this state I could reach my medicine. I could climb up and get it and end it, but I didn't. Instead I pulled myself up and sat with my back to the bed. I coughed. Just like that first night. As I did I looked out at the mountain. I watched it moving in the light of the now waning moon. As it continued I climbed higher in my mind, rising through layers and layers of the world, all the time that same cough, until finally there was silence.
This morning breathing was difficult. When I woke I found myself on my bed, but weak. It was like I was glued there. My lungs burned. I had to be careful to take the air in. I rolled off the bed and crawled over to the basin. When there I pulled myself up to stand in front of it. Looking in the mirror was a trial. I was not well. I hacked into the basin, spattering it with phlegm and blood. I took my glass and filled it. I drank. I could only drink a little. I walked back over to the table in the middle, slowly, and then from there made for my balcony door. I opened the lock and turned the knob then went outside.
I stood at the wall and looked at the street and the mountain. I did the same that I've been doing every morning since I arrived. This morning though I felt that I was finished. I felt that I would like to do as my dream suggested. I closed my eyes, seeing the bright sun lighting the blood of my lids so that I looked at orange and red, and imagined touching my chest with the tip of a cold rifle. I imagined the relief of a bullet ripping through that mess. I looked right at the rest of the balcony. Empty. The table still at the turn, the ashtray still on the table. I turned away to go back inside.
Immediately I saw it. Right there, close by the door, in exactly the same spot as I had found the newspaper those days before. A box wrapped in brown paper. It was large, about thirty by thirty centimetres. I stared at it. I didn't bother bending down. I simply took my foot, pushed it inside and closed the door behind me. I nudged the package all the way over to the table. I sat down on the chair. From there I could lean down more easily. I did. I reached out with both hands in front of me and took hold of the box. I put it on top of the table. I looked at it. I explored it with my hands. I opened the lid, like the lid of a shoe-box. Underneath the lid was a sheet of paper. On it was written a letter. It was the same one you have already read:
I sit back. I put my hands up to my face. I wonder what I should do. I wonder aloud. I stare at this letter. I put my hand forward, to lift and to see what's underneath it, when I hear a knock on the door. I look at the door. I keep quiet.
'Mr Martin,' comes Cherryl's voice from the other side, 'are you in there?'
I look at the package. I look at my hand reaching out to it.
'Yes,' I answer her, 'I'm in here. What do you want?'
'I just want to get my key. I need to clean the rooms.'
The key. I look around the room and see the key lying on the chest of drawers.
'Yes,' I say, 'hang on.'
I pulled myself up at the corner of my desk and shuffled over to the door. When I got there I thought of just sliding the key underneath to her, but decided against it.
'Good morning,' I said, having opened the door, 'how are you?'
She didn't answer me immediately. Instead she looked at me, wide-eyed. 'But, Mr Martin,' she said, 'you look terrible!'
I smiled. I think making it worse.
'Are you okay?' she said.
'Yes,' I said.
She looked at me. Her eyes wandering over my face and down onto my rumpled shirt, then back up to my face. 'No come you must sit down!' She took my arm and led me to my bed. 'You look like you are sick, you look worse than Mr Dion.'
'I don't feel too bad,' I said.
'No, no, no,' she said, 'you can't be like this.'
She stopped when she looked at my bed. 'Sit on the chair,' she said, 'while I make your bed for you.'
'Why?' I said.
'Just sit,' she said, and moved me towards the chair. I sat down. She started to make my bed.
'So, Mr Halsbuk is a murderer,' I said.
'Yes,' she said, not pausing in her work, 'big time.'
I watched her working.
'Its because he looks like a bloody murderer,' she said. 'I always tell him to brush his hair. Its a good story, hey? That he killed his wife.' She turned round to look at me, a big smile on her face. 'You believed it, hey?'
'I did,' I said.
'Come and lie down,' she said, walking over and taking my hand. She helped me across the floor and then helped me sit down on the bed.
'I'm going to go and make you some tea,' she said. 'And toast.'
'Don't,' I said, 'I'm fine.'
'You sick,' she said.
I didn't know what to say. She held her key up at me.
'I'll come back,' she said, 'you lie down.'
She smiled. And went.
I eyed the box. I got up and came back to the table. I sat at the table. I'm sitting at it. I'm looking at the box. At the brown paper, covering something inside. I reach forward. I take hold of the paper. I peel it away. Underneath there is another sheet. I pull it towards me. As I do I see white underneath the brown. I stop. I can't make out what it is. I let go of the paper and put my hand forward, drop it into the box. I take a hold of what's inside. Its dry, hard and smooth. I lift it. I hold it up. I look at it. I lift it higher. Now I'm looking at it from underneath. Now I lower it. I'm looking at it face on. I know it. It's my moth, carved and moulded in some kind of papier mache. It's my moth. I look at it. It looks at me. I look again at the letter.