Translated by Alan Myers
The Egg Timer
For a long time now he had noticed that time was flying by a great deal faster than it ever used to. Before, the minutes had stretched out into years, but now years flitted by like minutes. Countless times he had tried to jot down his thoughts on the matter, but every time he ran out of time. There just wasn’t enough of it. Always some distraction kept cropping up, deadlines to meet. You reach for a pen, only to remember that just the day before you had been intending to commit suicide. On the other hand, you had failed to boil your breakfast egg. To save some time you make up your mind: while the egg is in the pan, you gain three free minutes to note down your observations on the fact that in times like ours, there’s no time to get anything done.
Those three minutes, while the egg is in the boiling water, are perhaps the only interval in the daily round when you are at your own disposal. Early morning. Wife still in bed. You alone in the kitchen. Before and after - you are the victim of circumstance, other people, alien ideas. But while the egg is in the pan and the three-minute timer inverted - then ensues a pause in the onward rush of life, as if you yourself, just like the egg, were suspended freely amid the seething mêlée of existence. You’re shaved, washed, dressed and shod. Above all, no dithering about whether to medium-boil an egg, or commit suicide. Otherwise another whole morning would be taken up realising that you’re still alive, the egg still isn’t boiled, and that by now you’re late for work.
What time was it? He used to be able to answer that question without looking at his watch. He never used to wear a watch in fact. He was a walking clock: you could tell the time by his progress from house to bus, from bus to office lift, and along the corridor to his desk. He always tried to do without a wristwatch, leaving it at home, taking it off and stuffing it in his pocket, or just forgetting it in all sorts of places ranging from the office to the public lavatory. Watchstraps, especially metal ones, felt like handcuffs to him. Every two years without fail he received a new dial on a strap as a present from his wife. They all lay piled up in the chest of drawers in the bedroom, like a fence’s hoard. And now, at long last, he actually needed a watch. He felt lost without one. The street clock by the bus stop had stopped working ages ago: the hands were frozen at twelve o’clock - noon or midnight, who could tell?
The entire building across the road from his house, including the Load of Hay pub next to the bus stop, had been sold and was now in process of being converted into flats. From his window he could see a close-up of the gutted ruins of the buildings that had once stood there. Only the outer walls remained like a stage, set about with the impedimenta of the characters‘ everyday existence. Life without partitions. As a result, the lavatory was standing next to the sofa, and an old gas stove (with a rusty egg-pan) next to a child’s pram; a chamber pot stood on the bar-counter next to the beer-pumps. A cloud-flecked sky peered through the ruinous wall, and where it was framed by a shattered window, it was hard to be sure from across the street whether it really was the sky or a mounted cloudscape.
Black bags of rubbish lay tumbled next to the bus stop. Some vandal’s foot had overturned one of them, and as if from a ruptured belly, a multitude of wholly incongruous objects had spilled out: scraps of newspaper, a fish-bladder, a pair of old trousers. A gusting wind sent the rubbish bowling along the street. By now standing at the bus stop, he was attempting to make coherent sense of all he had seen, when a bus went by. The stop was a request, and at that moment his gaze had been directed elsewhere. These days, unless you lay down in front of it, the bus never stopped. Even if it did, you wouldn’t hear it. It crept up absolutely noiselessly. One second you saw an enormous queue waiting for the bus. You glanced in a shop window or at a building site, then turned round - and there was nobody there. It was as if you’d imagined them all. As if they’d been wiped off the face of the earth. Of course, you might suppose they’d got on the bus and hurtled off. But can you be sure of anything these days? Especially when a bus appears and vanishes in a totally unpredictable fashion? Had it been there or not? Or perhaps the bus was just a diversionary tactic. Or a lure to get people to congregate at some given point, like the bus-stop, so that they could be neatly picked up in one fell swoop and taken off who knows where. To be breakfasted on by some ogre, perhaps, like a medium-boiled egg.
The stop itself was constantly on the move down the street. Contrariwise, judging by the new traffic signs, the section of the road where parking was banned from eight till eight, was heading up the hill. Perhaps the council had been influenced by the fact that the Jewish bridal wear shop had changed overnight into a Chinese acupuncture clinic, and what had been a Greek hairdressers’ up to a month ago was now a fashionable French cafe. Had they moved the stop to prevent the queue incommoding the clientele of these new establishments? Or had the decision been taken because a local council has always got to be changing something or other, shifting things about, to avoid being accused of inactivity? People themselves were always moving house: by the time you got used to your neighbour - he’d stopped being your neighbour, sold his house and shifted to some other part of town. An inner restlessness expressed through a change of location.
On the way in to the office, he reflected that he could say the same thing about his own life, for that matter. The world went past him like a bus passing a former request stop. A trickle of sweat began moving slowly down from the back of his head and under his shirt between the shoulder blades. He, likewise, went on picking his way through the intolerable London crush. What he used to get done in three minutes had begun taking him close to three hours.
The bus was too full for him to squeeze onto, so he set off for the underground, but the station was closed because someone in the crush had fallen from the platform onto the rails. Suicide, most probably. He had to catch another bus to a different tube line, where there was an enormous queue because all the automatic ticket machines were out of order. When a train seat chanced to become vacant, his body with its somewhat twisted spine couldn’t squeeze into the space. It was a new mini-seat, designed to allow the maximum number of standing passengers.
The contortionist-designed back of the seat was digging into his spine. That spine had begun to distort gradually when he was young, due to an unnoticed vertebral dislocation after a fall while sledging down a hill. This had led on to scoliosis, causing the muscles of his back to develop asymmetrically, thus pulling his spine to one side; the spine bent more and more as the years went by, and eventually, as he grew older, his body-curvature was so great that seen from the rear his naked back resembled an hour-glass. By the time he was thirty, the orthopaedic consultants had told him that his spine - because of the scoliosis and osteochondrosis - was that of a sixty-year-old. It was precisely then that he conceived the idea that this deformation and the time of life were somehow linked. But this was an exclusively private notion. If his body was an hourglass, what was acting as the sand? His soul, of course. The soul was like sand, trickling downwards over the years, quitting his mind and abandoning his heart. Perhaps one had to re-establish one’s spiritual balance from time to time, inverting the hourglass. Wasn’t that what yogis did? An hourglass resembled most of all the female body, that of his wife, say. What then was the sandy equivalent coursing up and down in her body?
His own figure was a long way from the geometrical symmetry of the hourglass. In a roomy jacket, few would suspect his physical deficiency straight away. But lately various other incongruous aspects of his external appearance, whether full face or profile, had become immediately obvious. There was a certain overall displacement. For one thing, he was always getting the buttonhole wrong because of the slant of his shoulders. His glasses were forever sliding down his nose. He would put them straight with an epileptic upwards jerk that startled those around him. There was the slant of his lips too, whether he was smiling or painfully grimacing. The tension throughout his body was a constant trial, especially on public transport.
In the bus he attempted to read the latest on sundry disasters. The searing heat had twisted the railway lines heading south, and so suburban trains across the Thames weren’t running. Half the city felt itself totally cut off from the metropolis. A suburban double-decker bus, travelling at full speed, had gone under an arch too low for it, and the entire upper deck, complete with passengers, had been sliced off. A nail-bomb had detonated in a gay bar in the city centre. Ripped-off body-parts were scattered along an entire street - an arm here, a leg there, a head somewhere else altogether. And there were pictures. At that instant it dawned on him that he could see his nose, as if it had shifted to one side and become visible to his left eye. He realised at once that he couldn’t possibly see two noses at once, one to the right and one to the left. It meant that either he was starting to see double (he had squinted slightly from childhood, astigmatism), or one of the noses belonged to somebody else, the passenger behind, for instance, peering at his paper over his shoulder. He was able to reach no firm conclusion, however, as he could no longer feel his leg. The seat in front was so close that he was forced to keep his leg hard over to one side, and it had gone numb. On reaching the door, he stepped out of the bus onto the pavement and almost fell over. He felt he had become a one-legged invalid and barely made it to his office.
Just like his numbed leg, the people and things in his life - on the way to work and back - began to disappear. Nobody explained what was going on. Repairs had been in progress for goodness knows how many months. Just recently, stuccoed walls and partitions had collapsed. According to the current plan, rooms were changing places and new walls and partitions were going up. But nothing was ever finished off because there was always a change of management and the new chiefs had their own ideas as regarded planning. Consequently, the staff desks were shifted about the place as well.
The previous week, after reaching his desk, he had automatically stretched out a hand to his shelf of reference books. He encountered a void. More than that, his arm had gone straight through the wall. Another room peered through his shelving. He went out into the corridor, where he was told that the partition between two offices had been demolished. Every boundary between the two offices was eliminated, like the Berlin Wall or the Iron Curtain.
What’s more, a few weeks later, his desk vanished altogether. He was informed that personnel at his level had to share a desk with several other colleagues, and keep their own papers in portable sets of drawers. These drawers had castors, and so could easily be shifted from desk to desk, room to room. Every morning the same picture of perpetual motion met his eyes: the staff in their pin-stripe suits and ties trundling their little tables along the office corridors, searching out their place of sojourn for that particular day. They reminded him of hot-dog or ice cream vendors, perambulating about the beach at some seaside resort.
Hardly a month went by without new, taciturn, purposeful young people taking the place of old colleagues. He didn’t know their names, because nobody got introduced any more in their office. Encountering them in the corridor, people would say ‘excuse me’ but they never smiled. They were always in a rush to get somewhere. Their facial expression gave no hint as to what they were thinking or whether they had recognised his face at all. He presumed that for them he was just a blank space. He sensed that he had been deprived of his past, that is, it still existed somewhere or other, parcelled up and imprinted on his memory - but consigned to the rubbish-dump of history.
He had a different past from these young colleagues, another way of relating. They talked differently. The more words he caught at the next table in the bar, the less he understood what they were talking about. Another language. They spoke another language and at one moment he even fancied they were speaking some foreign tongue, or that it was he who had suddenly become a foreigner. That was the way Jews behaved in pubs, or political refugees from Eastern Europe. He had noticed that. As soon as the conversation turned to cricket, their eyes started wandering. Today they were here and tomorrow they would go back to the land of their ancestors, or off to America. A difference of past experience did not hold any promise of future intimacy. He tried to compensate for this gnawing sense of emptiness with another whisky. He sank a further double in a different bar near the market on the way home.
As he turned the corner into his own street, he again registered the patch of sky over the ruined building across the road. A vaguely cruciform construction was clearly taking shape. And something was drifting against the background of the sky, like the shadow of an enormous cloud. Or was it a workman silhouetted against the setting sun, lit up with a strange halo, like a figure up in the sky? It seemed to him piercingly familiar, but he ignored the feeling as a pointless illusion. For many years friends and those close to him had been a part of his everyday existence. And there were the purely family occasions. Going home to see his father at Christmas. Barbecues in the patch of garden in summer, outings to a Thames-side pub, dining out after seeing a film. But gradually all these collective events took to happening less and less often. There ensued a period when he was aware of friends nearby, it was just that he never saw them. Naturally, the lack of shared experience didn’t help either. Everybody had begun doing his own thing, without reference to anyone else. For years he used to have profound conversations with one of them about the ephemeral nature of visible reality. The chap had disappeared. With another it was debates about the eternal nature of our words and ideas. He hadn’t heard from him for a year or more. He sometimes read about his more famous friends and acquaintances in the papers. Today a conference in Dublin, a week from now and it would be a congress in Portugal, a month later you would be hearing him talking on the radio about a convention in Las Vegas. Instead of a man you had an itinerary of his peregrinations in some parallel universe. When was the last time he had spoken to his best friend on the telephone? A week back? Or six months?
His confidants had gradually begun playing a smaller and smaller part in his life, then they vanished - all of a sudden, in a flash. It was like turning to the man next to you at the bar of a crowded pub and finding him no longer there. No doubt they still existed somewhere or other, but the parts of their heart or brain linked specifically to him had gradually become atrophied and died off: the shared way of looking at things, projects, opinions. He started seeing the faces of former friends in his dreams. They were missing various parts - eyes, or ears; no heart and no smiles.
It seemed as if you had all the years of struggle, an arduous career, boisterous friends, lovers, a kaleidoscope of countries, languages and customs, a maelstrom of ideas and words, arguments till the early hours, hangovers, fervent speeches, the tears of loved ones, healthy tiredness after a difficult job well done, all that; then one fine day it all disappeared somewhere. He couldn’t even find his address book with their phone numbers - partly his wife’s fault, that: the house had always been a mess, but over the last year some fundamental changes had taken place in that mess, as if it had changed sex and character, and been transformed into a new zoological species. When you live with a charming, energetic, terribly forgetful woman, you have to put up with finding your favourite book next to the slop-bucket, the iron next to the book-case, a cup of coffee on the little bathroom table or a brassiere on your writing-desk. Nothing strange about that. It was a good deal more difficult adjusting to the disappearance of the refrigerator, say. His wife said she had moved it into another corner. It took him a while to realise what corner she meant. There were too many corners in the flat. More than there’d ever been. Actually, he’d always had something of a blind spot for objects: for example, he had struggled to find a jar of mustard in the cupboard, although his wife insisted that it was staring him in the face. More and more often he would stretch out his hand for some object, the pepper pot, say and simply grasp the air.
On the other hand, the number of objects in the flat had shown an inordinate increase. His wife had always been keen on sales and collecting endless bits and pieces. The mountain of stuff - furniture, kitchen equipment, or just souvenirs grew by the day. Moreover, because of the extra discount, she would always buy in bulk: two televisions, three food processors, four wash-buckets. Everything doubled and tripled before his eyes. Once he woke up to discover a tin of baked beans instead of his wife‘s shoulder beside him. He simply couldn’t comprehend how they had got into the bed. The tin had very possibly been an optical illusion. After sitting at a computer-screen all day, you’re liable to see anything. Evidently, it had been a virtual tin of beans.
Quite recently he had walked into the house and found the rubbish bin next to his writing desk. Usually the bin stood by the fence in front of the house. The machinations of ecological terrorists? Or a hint that an ordinary wastebasket was insufficient for his scientific reports? The next morning he caught the milkman coming out of the bathroom. He said he’d got the doors mixed up. Actually it turned out that the house did have another front door, opening directly into the bedroom. When he got back to the bedroom he found one of his colleagues from work in bed with his wife. In fact it was difficult to establish whether it was the dustman, the milkman or a colleague: the fellow didn’t have any features, just ears. So, a slap across the face was out of the question and he couldn’t nerve himself to tweak his ears, that would have been impolite.
Perhaps the intruder was the postman? Or was it he himself who had got the room, the street, the town, the century mixed up? Once at the office, for example, he had been astonished to come across some of his neighbours - the butcher from the corner, and on the following day, the old drunk from the local pub. These individuals were absolutely unqualified people who knew nothing of his professional field, and so it was totally incomprehensible why the management had invited them onto the premises. He once thought he had glimpsed his wife’s legs under the manager’s desk. The upper half - above the desk - was the body of the manager, but down below the shoes of his spouse were peeping out. It was perfectly possible that he had simply imagined this.
One morning he saw his own bed with the metal-studded headrest, standing out on the pavement. Perhaps a neighbour had thrown out some old furniture, a bed like his, the twin of his marital couch? A chap was lying on it, as if he’d dropped off in front of the television close by. Very possibly a tramp, an alcoholic. Possibly. And yet possibly the walls of his room had vanished and the man with his bed in front of the television, had woken up next to the bus stop. Litter was flying everywhere. Once he imagined that five fingers had blown past. Other body-parts took to the air as well. People in Arab dress were pacing about the streets. A man in tweeds suddenly started singing in a female voice. A Hassidic Jew in a fur-trimmed hat turned out to be a black man. On one occasion, when he saw a Territorial Army lieutenant in the kitchen, he resolved to have a serious word with his spouse. She calmly replied that the lieutenant was riding a horse and that’s why he could be seen from the first floor. But communicating with his wife was getting more and more difficult: she’d begun vanishing from his field of vision, only to appear later somewhere totally unexpected. There was no telling where she had been. Besides which, he had ceased to recognise her. The familiar features began to disappear. Bit by bit.
Where had her magnificent bust gone to? The left breast was still there, where he remembered it - left hand side. But the taut nipple had vanished. Waking up in the night, he reached out for her breast but his hand seemed to fall into emptiness and landed up in a crease of the pillow. Or take her ear. He used to love caressing it with his lips, sometimes blowing playfully into its tiny shell. Now the ear had gone as well; he thought at first that he was simply too sleepy to make it out, but it dawned on him later that the outer contour was all that was left. It was as if all the rest had been erased with a rubber. There was nothing there. The dimple of her neck, with its lock of hair curling towards the nape had gone for example. It was a similar story with the hot and moist body parts too. To begin with, the pubic hair had gone, as if she’d shaved it off. Then other interesting details followed suit. They had changed address, moved house and gone elsewhere, nearer the television where a fire extinguisher had replaced the cocktail table. Seated on the sofa, he definitely felt her moist vagina under his hand. Then it turned out to be the remains of an omelette. The frying pan was somewhere else altogether. He attempted to draw his wife’s attention to this glaring fact. But she obviously existed on another plane by now: when he spoke to her she didn’t hear him. In the end, she vanished altogether. With the postman, possibly. Because he stopped getting letters. To begin with, he started receiving other people’s mail, addressed to somewhere at the other end of town. Later on, postal deliveries ceased altogether.
None of his intimates were left now. He began dropping into pubs and bars with increasing frequency because there was no need to hurry home. A swig of whisky was enough to restore the missing equilibrium between the emptiness within and the emptiness without: the way water unites two shores. It was as if he was turning into a transparent partition, through which both the inner and outer worlds could shine, with glinting reflections on the surface. Besides which, alcohol helped to stem for a while the tumult of recurring ideas, familiar faces, memories of places he had once been. It was more difficult to bring to mind where he was now. Everything, it seemed, was as it had been, but there were slight dislocations. The man next to him at the table was eating fish and chips from a copy of The Guardian, but instead of chips he had slices of kiwi fruit with his fish. Somebody was talking by his ear about either yoga or yoghurt, and he couldn’t decide by the taste what he was drinking. When he got home, he poured himself a whisky and then decided to mix it with a still water; after draining the result, he realised that it hadn’t been mineral water at all, it was vodka. He felt a pulsing in his temples and everything began to flicker by much faster than before.
He took a glance outside. Paradoxically, with the disappearance of friends, houses, trees, domestic items, words and ideas, the crush in the street grew greater. The number of unfamiliar people, houses, trees and domestic utensils kept on increasing. He observed that every morning he had to bow right and left, say ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ a hundred times a day to the same people. Nobody remembered that they had greeted each other once already. They had nothing more to say to one another. If they vanished in one place, they seemed to materialise again from goodness knows where. Their words were repeated ever louder, ever nearer. An echo is an echo is an echo. And he could barely understand by now whether he was hearing something when he had been drunk in the past, or recalling what was already bound to happen in the future.
This onward rush of time made him breathless. He began to get short of breath literally, as his asthmatic mother had done all her life. In a fit of despair, aware of the senselessness of this bustle and crush, he resolved ostentatiously to abstain from apparent rationality, the utilitarian nature of his own progression in life. He therefore had to concentrate on perpetrating, unhurriedly and systematically, a range of absolutely pointless and absurd actions. On occasion, for example, he would stop in the middle of the street, and deliberately start walking backwards. After several paces, he would, without any logic, resume his forward motion. This was solely to demonstrate the pointlessness of the common directional flow. There were other time-stopping measures. If we get on a bus we want it to go faster. This desire has to be combated. Buy a ticket and then get off at the next stop. Or send a letter to yourself as a reminder of your geographical location. Or slice off a bit of steak and raise a wineglass to your lips, then put the fork and glass back on the table. Or kiss your own hand, or slap your own face.
‘Stay moment, thou art beautiful’ he would repeat to himself after Faust, because there was nobody left to share this profound thought, or the other ideas he had once heard on the radio.
In the meantime, the whole world was going by at breakneck speed as he awaited some sort of important encounter, a crucial moment in his fate. The faster a man moves, the less he lives. Scientists had calculated (he heard about this on the radio until it was interrupted by a Viagra advertisement) that a mouse’s heart beat as many times as an elephant’s over the course of its life cycle. The mouse’s heart beat faster than the elephant’s, but the elephant lived longer. In times gone by, people slept less, but life was shorter. They went through the same genetic ageing process, but much faster. If the rate at which cells wore out could be slowed down, one could live forever, in a kind of coma, unconsciousness, clinical death, like the Greek Endymion. Waiting for the radiant future. Someone who hopes for the future should sleep longer. Latch onto something concrete and wait it out. His state was that of anticipating a radiant and important future encounter. He lived as if in a dream.
More and more often he glanced at the sky. Especially that bit of sky that was changing before his eyes over the ruins of the building opposite. He stopped going in to work. He didn’t have the time. He had to keep an eye on what was taking shape in the sky so reminiscent of a crucifix. Occasionally he would go out to the pub to fortify himself with a whisky and water. The sky above the scaffolding opposite was almost convex: as if a coat of oil paint applied to a badly primed damp wall had started gradually coming away. Clouds swelled up and dispersed, unravelling to expose the bare patches beneath, like a second sky. The intense blue shone through brighter with each passing day, even at night, freeing itself from the upper layer, as if from a transparent envelope; it grew ever larger, and, it seemed, closer.
He wasn’t sure, however, that this was the actual sky. It was hard to say what it was because the ruined building across the street was entirely shrouded in scaffolding these days. But the geometrical figure in the sky was becoming ever more distinct. His doubts were receding: through the bare heavenly patches in the clouds, a cross was gradually taking shape. A genuine church crucifix. At first a fairly substantial feature appeared, like a beam going vertically upwards, then, a few weeks later, he could distinctly make out a crosspiece. The clouds meanwhile had gradually coalesced into something resembling a head and shoulders. It was very possibly a natural phenomenon, the reflection of distant summer lightning, or like an unusual rainbow or even the northern lights. He tried to draw attention to this strange apocalyptic picture of a gigantic cross bearing a man in the heat-haze of the sky, but his neighbours, scarcely bothering to hear him out, just glanced briefly at the scaffolded ruins before rushing off about their own business. The street was getting emptier by the day.
He was not at all prepared to insist on the matter because he wasn’t sure himself whether it wasn’t an illusion, an optical aberration. He used to see such things on misty days in Suffolk, on the rocky outcrops of England’s eastern coast, where he and his wife had loved to go, in those far-off happy days when he could reach out and be certain that his hand would touch her shoulder, breast, hip, and not end up in the crumpled emptiness of the sheet. On days when the sun barely penetrated the dense fog, objects would disappear and reappear before his very eyes. Especially when walking along a breakwater separating the sea from the moored boats and yachts. The gunwale of a masted barge in dry dock rose up next to a warehouse roof and it was hard to distinguish where the shore began and the sea ended. Wild-rose bushes, and thickets of gorse and heather concealed the line of rocky spurs above the bay.
There it was perilous to take a step off the straight and narrow. As recently as a decade before a church tower had stood above the cliff-edge. But the previous year this too had gone, collapsed into the sea, perhaps because he had stepped too heavily on the sandy soil while out walking. His tread had upset the imperceptible balance of geological strata, and the entire ecclesiastical edifice had tumbled down to join the ruins of the town at the bottom of the bay - the square, the town hall, the butcher’s and the baker’s, the police station and the funeral parlour beneath the water. He pictured himself on those undersea streets. He saw the water swaying above his head, and the shadow of seaweed mingling with that of the trees on the shore, and the sky and clouds shining down through the water. And he remembered that he had seen those very tree shadows and shards of sky-blue, agitated and blurred on the surface of the water, when his father was teaching him how to swim. His father used to make him take a deep breath, filling his lungs, and then plunge him headfirst under the water, still keeping hold of him. His father’s face glimmered down through the water in an endless dance of shadows and light, distorted by the ripples and magnified to an incredible size. He reached out for this face, because it promised release, an end to the agonising straining in his chest, when he wanted to breathe in but couldn’t, wanted to breathe out, but couldn’t, because he had to guard against the hostile element all around him. The water and the churned-up sea-sand got into his eyes, his nostrils, his mouth, his very lungs, so that it seemed his ear-drums would burst at any minute from the beating of his heart, and his heart would burst at any minute from its frantic racing. And finally, the feeling of happiness, bliss and freedom, when his father’s arms at last took hold of him and lifted him up to the surface, his features now clear and sharply defined.
These childhood images, which had seemingly vanished forever, now loomed ever larger, surfacing as it were like his father’s face through the tremulous water. How delicious it had been to rub yourself down with a shaggy towel and get warm lying on the grass in his father’s arms, near the rocky outcrop above the bay. Once, when the sun had finally burned off the cloud from the vault of the heavens, he had seen a skylark in flight for the first time in his life. The bird hovered between heaven and earth. It spiralled higher and higher, until it hung motionless in the heavens like an airman at the top of a loop. As if everything was supported by and depended on that tiny body. That skylark was the fulcrum of the whole of creation. Nothing more was needful: the earth below, the sky above, and that bird preserving the equilibrium of the world. And now he could see just such a skylark over the buildings across the street. That point was also the centre of the vast cross growing clearer and clearer over the rooftops. Until it dawned on him that it was not a skylark motionless in the heavens at all.
It was a chicken, dead and frozen. It was hanging from the catch outside the open casement in a net bag. Perishables used to be hung like that outside the window in winter when he was a boy: nobody dreamed of having a refrigerator in those days, and food would keep for weeks out in the frost. He took his binoculars and peered out, then recoiled: the bird’s plucked legs looked human. Spread and stretched out by the mesh, the chicken’s carcass resembled the figure of a crucified man. But the real point was that he no longer understood whether he was seeing this crucified winged corpse on the cross in the distance, or in front of his nose just beyond his own window-pane: sometimes a fly close to can seem like a distant aeroplane, and a fly outside the window, a speck in the eye. Displacement of planes, perspectives and distances.
The very parameters of his vision were altering. Whenever he peered at the ruins opposite it was as if his eyes had inbuilt binoculars. These binoculars were increasing in power, since objects were getting bigger the more he looked. At the same time, bits of the sky were falling off like old bathroom tiles revealing a pitted wall. Slowly he began to notice that out of the cloud-figure rising through the ruins, broad shoulders were forming and the hat of a bulky middle-aged man seen from behind. He even hazarded that the hat was made of straw. He was bending over a kitchen stove and his every movement was extremely familiar. The way he turned the tap to fill a pan. Every gesture was unhurried, well calculated. That was just the way his father had moved about the kitchen: perhaps because he had lost a leg in the war and went about on crutches or an artificial limb.
His father had never hurried anywhere. But at the same time he was always at hand in the strenuous life of his son. Now it was clear that he had never abandoned his son, the son simply hadn’t noticed his father’s presence. This also created a sense of security, that is, the constant, imperceptible presence of someone who would respond at once to your call, wordlessly come to your assistance, protect and shelter. Only one thing was asked in return: just a word now and then as to where and how you were. And that was important not to him but to yourself, to make you realise where in fact you were. He hadn’t spoken to his father for ages. How did his voice sound on the phone? How did he tip his straw hat onto the back of his head? How did the corners of his mouth lift when he smiled? How did his eyebrows rise in astonishment?
As if by way of reply, his father’s face eclipsed everything before his eyes. In this perspective, distorted by memory, the ruins opposite vanished. It was clear that there were no buildings and no street. His father’s features blotted out everything like a huge holographic advertisement in the sky. He realised that he had been looking at this image for several days now; it had materialised gradually, like that face through the rippling surface when he was under water. He would have liked to draw the attention of others to this strange human image rocking above him in the sky, but there was nobody about to confirm the existence of the mirage.
He was alone, heaven knew where. Absolutely everything had disappeared. There was nothing: no people, animals, houses, trees, no sky, no earth. There was no point of reference to show where he was, no up or down. And since any kind of perspective had gone, he was insensible of how far he had fallen. Good and evil did not exist. He seemed to be flattened, existing in a flattened world. He glanced at his flat hand and realised that he had indeed become flat and merged with a flat world. He was hovering above a flat and transparent surface. At any moment he might slide into a mysterious black hole down below. They say you see a tunnel like that at the moment of clinical death. Words died away. He was completely alone and could speak only about and for himself, but since he did not know himself at all, he had absolutely nothing to say. No words remained. Once he had belonged to the great world, but now that world was merging into a single black stain: just as he had once seen island England through an aircraft window, when he was coming back from America - from the height a bird flies, as the skylark sees it. England was now growing smaller and smaller, but the English soul of the trees and grass was expanding before his eyes, and found no outlet, as if all the nature in the world, embodying all the ideas of former empire, had been driven into one single inch on the map of the world - into a point aimlessly floating in a transparent watery void.
A sunbeam struck his eye. Not just one. Two sunbeams. He could see two suns at once. It was an apocalyptic spectacle. Two luminaries in the heavens. Or were they? By now it was impossible to say where the window was in front of his eyes, and where the wall began and where the sky. Until it became clear that a mirror was hanging in the sky. Then a child’s bicycle appeared in the sky. No, not in the sky. It was floating along the wall. No, not floating. It was hanging on the wall. On the wall of a kitchen, painted sky-blue. Nothing out of the ordinary. It was hanging on a hook: just the way the bicycles were kept at home when he was young, hoisting them up on a hook on the wall for the winter. Next to it hung a small, somewhat dented mirror in a shabby frame. And the sun was reflecting in it. At length, every object, one by one, took up its place before his eyes: the mirror on the wall, hanging obliquely by the huge kitchen window of his father’s flat. It was the kitchen familiar from his childhood. The water heater. The shelves of crockery. And the window bars - an enormous cross. A casement, with an open upper pane. And on the outside, in the snowy winter refrigerator, hung the frozen chicken carcass in the net bag, its legs splayed out as if crucified on the cross of the window-bars.
His father’s face was turned towards him, while the mirror reflected his back and perching hat. To make sense of his actions and decode the purpose of the objects he was manipulating was an extremely complex business. A scale-distortion made his son feel the size of an ant and everything in the kitchen the size of a house - and of indeterminate purpose. His father was bent over some mystical apparatus. The mirror reflected a gigantic jet, from whose aperture flared bluish tongues of flame. The flames beat against a shining metal surface, a strange sort of vessel with rivets and a long handle. Gurgling of water could be heard but not from a tap, somewhere near at hand, accompanied by the humming of the flame. The mirror reflected one more puzzling glass object resembling a space station. And there beyond the glass, he finally caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
‘I’ll do you a medium-boiled egg. And a nice strong cup of tea with toast and marmalade,’ mumbled his father’s vast lips. His hand was holding another sun, huge and white like an eyeball. Then came a gurgling sound and the sun sank in the pan on the burner. It was an egg. His father had always boiled him an egg when he was getting ready to go to school. ‘Three minutes precisely - not a second more’, and his father would then turn over the most reliable chronometer in the world, as he called it, the egg timer. While the egg was boiling, it was frightfully fascinating to watch the sand-grains toppling in lumps down the inclined plane, forming whirlpools and the sand dunes of the Arabian Desert, imitating, or so it seemed, all the mountains and cliffs in the world. The less sand there was left in the upper chamber, the faster ran the trickle of sand flowing down through the narrow aperture into the lower. The entire process always lasted exactly three minutes. But who could say for sure that it was exactly three minutes? Three minutes of what? Whose life? In what dimension? After all, a touch more sand or a tiny alteration of glass-curvature - and time changes. Time was a quantity of sand, multiplied by the coefficient of the curvature of space, according to his engineer father.
His father’s hand stretched out to the right, without looking, an automatic gesture. His son saw through the glass a familiar hangnail on his thumb and the tiny hairs on the index finger. Lifted in the glass cage of his father’s hand, he dangled in air directly in front of the mirror on the wall. He could see himself stuck to the glass, in the absolutely empty upper chamber of the egg timer. This long life of ours lasts three minutes in another dimension. Three minutes is like thirty-three years, and everything depends on whether you want your life’s egg to be soft, medium, or hard-boiled for somebody else’s breakfast. When he was a child, his father had taught him to chew eggshells: lime is good for bone-development. The duration of our life is the curvature of our fate. In one chamber of our life there is the soul, while in the other - our ashes? He began drumming on the glass, striving to break out, as in a nightmare, beyond the limits of the glass cage of existence, a state like that of the frozen chicken outside the window, there where the gigantic cross of the window-bars blocked off the dazzling blue of the sky.
In that second, his father’s fingers made an imperceptibly sudden movement, fateful for his son. Everything turned upside down, and he began slipping down, down and down, to hang in a sudden total silence, where even the beating of his heart was inaudible. And then, from above, out of the black hole, filling all his thoughts and emotions and everything around him, there descended a collapsing avalanche of objects, faces, ideas and words, women, children, moral obligations and sacred duty. Everything was coming back to him, even his wife...