Read The Tenement Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

The Tenement

THE TENEMENT

A NOVEL

by

IAIN CRICHTON SMITH

This eBook edition published in 2015 by
Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd
West Newington House
10 Newington Road
Edinburgh
EH9 1QS

www.polygonbooks.co.uk

Copyright © Iain Crichton Smith, 1987

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

eBook ISBN: 9780857907295

Version 1.0

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

 

 

T
HE TENEMENT WAS
over a hundred years old. It faced the street with its grey granite stone, and its old windows which in order to be cleaned had to be manoeuvred on ropes like glassy sails, and its greenish door on which passing boys and men had scrawled graffiti. There were six flats in the tenement, some in good condition, some in bad: stone stairs led from floor to floor. Outside at the back was a maze of old pipes winding like rusty snakes: these usually suffered from bursts in the winter time, and there were arguments among the tenants about payment to the plumber.

The roof often needed repair, as water would come in on the tenants in the top flats. Four of the flats had been bought outright, two were rented. It was by no means the worst tenement in the street, for opposite it were worse ones, composed of cheap brick. In the latter, parties went on at weekends—there were rumours of prostitution—and on summer nights boys would sit on balconies shouting insults at the tourists or playing radios very loudly. Or they would emerge from the close on large black foreign bikes.

At night the tenants of the tenement would hear the shouts and songs of passing drunks, floating up from the street, as if magnified by the stone of the pavements or the walls. “I'll cut you up, you bastard,” one voice would say, and another one, “Pass the f…ing bottle!” Quarrels would break out suddenly between those who had minutes before been friends. Girls and women would scream as if they had been knifed and there would be the drumming of running feet. The women's language was as bad as that of the men and they would be heard encouraging two fighters. “Put the f…ing boot in!” one would hear a girl scream in ecstasy. And the night was a time of preying, of quarrelling, of demented cries, as of shrill birds with bitter beaks.

The weather around the tenement changed. On spring days it was dry and clear, on summer days it was steamy and hot, on autumn days it was regretful and nostalgic, on winter days it was slushy and wet. And many different families over the years had seen that change in the weather, in the atmosphere, for there was considerable movement to and from the tenement. Wardrobes, sideboards with mirrors reflecting scarred whitewashed walls, were carried upstairs and downstairs. Chairs and sofas were abandoned momentarily on a landing. Wallpaper was stripped and pasted on, ceilings were painted, there was a flowering of hope and a fading of it. Old ranges were removed, new fireplaces installed. Ancient bells that had wires, and tinkled in the kitchen, were replaced by push-button ones. A whole world was born, a whole world ceased. In one flat there might be a din of modern music, in another the sentimental tones of John MacCormack, in yet another no music at all.

And everywhere there was a sense of the past as if while one was sitting in the living room the door might open and a woman or man dressed in Edwardian clothes might enter. When one was, for instance, stripping wallpaper one might find a message written by newly weds eighty years before—
JOHN AND AGNES SIGNED THIS
. Or it might say,
WILLIAM STEEL
,
CARPENTER
. What days, what nights, what suns, what moons, had circled that tenement: what beds had produced what children, who had perhaps played on the stairs, on the diminutive green at the back of the tenement where the washing was hung out on windy days, a gallery of mended shirts and vests and blouses.

Some tenants had kept cats against the law, some had not. Some had been working men, some had been professional men just starting, for in later, more successful years they would move from the tenement. And yet, perhaps it left its mark on all of them, so that, in their later private houses or in the windy council schemes, they would always remember the period, long or short, that they had spent there.

One could not say that the coming together into that tenement was anything other than a random action. The flats were like nests which happened to be beside each other, to which different birds came. It happened that two name-plates shone beside each other: there was nothing predestined about it. The inhabitants landed and left, and once they had left they might never see each other again. No roots were set down here as in villages, no stones echoed with remembered events, and the moon above it was not a local one. The curtains on the windows were of different colours, there were different coloured carpets on the floors, different ambitions inside the rooms. The flats existed differently in the minds of those who had left them and those who occupied them. Some remembered them with affection and some with loathing. Some could hardly believe that they had once lived there and, passing the building years later, in a car perhaps, would look up at the window of a room they had once occupied and feel an intense absence. Could they really have lived there? Surely not. Maybe they had inhabited different bodies then. They might even have an impulse to visit the flat again: where there had once been yellow armchairs there were now red ones, where once there had been an ancient bath as big as a stone grave, there was now a bathroom suite in warm colours.

The tenement survived all individuals who had inhabited it, the particulars which had been and gone. It survived the relentless blizzard of names, the ambitions, the despairs, the joys, the weddings, the funerals. It was like a soul which animates the body. Something of itself passed into the people who lived in it. Sweat leaked from the walls as if the tenement itself were perspiring. It sailed into the night and sailed back in the morning. With its eight windows facing the street it brooded over cars, pedestrians, the church opposite where the photographer knelt on a windy spring day as the bride's gown billowed outwards like a wave, as the shining black hearse moved slowly away with its crowns of flowers, as the minister stood meditatively near the gravestones in his black robe.

Beside it was a cafe that was open till eleven o'clock at night, in front of it was the church. Not far from it was the school, also built in grey granite. Its close was a mouth that swallowed, spat out. Its walls had graffiti on it almost as mysterious as Egyptian writing. Its bulging scarred green door had been painted years before. There was a window on the first landing which had white lacy curtains across it. The window on the second landing was uncurtained. The stairs were washed once a week. The landing lights were put on on alternate weeks by neighbouring tenants. For some trivial reason one tenant might not talk to another one, for weeks, for months, for years: every one of us has his own dignity, his own honour. It might be that one had used the other's bin without permission, or had forgotten his week for the light, or had heard the other talking behind his back. And these slights were burrs sticking in the heart, throbbing, feverish. For each one cries out, I am, I am, even in a tenement, perhaps especially in a tenement.

The building occupied space, occupied time. Around it other buildings had crumbled, risen, changed ownership. Its stone had been taken from a quarry that no longer existed. Its original masons, joiners, painters, were all dead. As Keats says that individual nightingales die though the generic nightingale doesn't, so each tenant would die but the tenement would seem to live for ever.

Sometimes the tenement could be imagined as a tree with transient nests in it, sometimes as composed of boxes that in turn held coffins, cradles, sometimes as a theatre where casts (actors and actresses) changed as they moved on to other plays. It might even be that the young ones were the old come back again in a different disguise or mask. The tenement in its transient solidity encouraged such speculations and baffled them by its enigmatic front. Windows too could be seen as eyes, fading, brightening. The door—what was it but the entrance to a fertile womb that bred incessantly? It was a prison door, it was a door for escaping through. It was a door which hid secrets, which released them to the world.

On spring days curtains, often white, fluttered at windows like ghosts trying to get in or trying to get out, with frantic motions, with fragile winds.

Any story that can be told about one tenant has at best only a frail relationship to the story of another tenant but there will be some connection, however passing, however faint. And sometimes the tenants can act together, each having his own idea of what is happening, each taking a colour from the others, each merging briefly with the others like a cloud fading into a second one. So that the tenement itself can be seen not as made of stone but like a cloud that changes shape, merciful, cruel, wandering.

At the time of which we are speaking, there were no children in the tenement, maybe because most of the flats weren't large. Old people, mostly widowed, stayed in them, or young couples as yet without children. Perhaps the tenement was too old to put up with children, perhaps it didn't like them. Perhaps the tenement itself was drawing to its end, and had had in its day its complement of children which had left and never returned. Perhaps it hated ingratitude, random brilliance, wanted to settle down in its old age. Who can tell about a tenement? Maybe it said to couples with children, This is not the place for you; Go somewhere else. I have had enough of young ones, I have grown philosophical, children have no history, I can't learn from them. I only want those who have lived, not those who are about to live. I am a listener to stories that have happened, not stories that might happen years from now. And in any case I know that the children will live their lives out elsewhere, far from here, even if they stay for a brief time. My face is a Greek one, flat and incurious, like one of these blind stone faces that one sees in a garden wall in Greece. I have neither love nor hate, I am simply the stage on which things happen. And nothing of importance happens to children. And in any case that is all that life is, a passing show. I am not so stupid or so proud as to think that I am anything other than a habitation: I do not confer a meaning. Perhaps there is no meaning. Perhaps I am the only meaning there is. Perhaps I am a hundred meanings, a thousand. Perhaps I am a dementia of my tenants, a chimera. I am changed, plastered anew, and to all that I submit. Yet there is in me something that is always recognizable, that exists through all alterations, all neglect. And perhaps that memory will persist somewhere even when my stone has crumbled to dust, and perhaps passing on a certain day in summer or autumn someone will be struck by a thought that is not his own but is wafted from me. Is there anyone who knows? Or is all, mystery?

T
HE LIGHTNING HAD
come out of the sky and had almost killed her but not quite. Jim, repairing the telephone wires, had been crucified on them in blue. When she was told about it she thought she would die, but she hadn't. They had three children, two girls and a boy, ranging from five years old to nine, the boy being the oldest. She used to be a waitress before her marriage, then she had the children, and now after Jim's crucifixion she went back to being a waitress again. When she returned to her old job she could hardly bear to think that there had been a time when she had stood carelessly at a table, notebook in hand, waiting to take down the order asked for, for example, soup, tomato, steaks, pudding. She couldn't believe that she had done that and now she could hardly do it without her heart breaking.

She had been very pretty and was now almost beautiful. The difference between being pretty and being beautiful is experience. It is perhaps a matter of suffering. One day she had rushed in to tell the chef that there was a smell of fire. “Where from?” he said, “I can't get it.” And indeed there was no smell of fire at all. yet she had smelt the smoky stench, the scorching. That had happened the day after she had started again in the restaurant. It was more like a singeing, not a clean burning.

The children had saved her, and yet they were as selfish as other children. She had thought, Perhaps they will recognize my great love for their father and won't bother me so much. But they hadn't of course made any such recognition. They fought a great deal of the time, they shouted at each other, they envied each other, they accused her of favouritism. She did perhaps favour the boy more, because of Jim. And yet the boy too was selfish, he would ask her for money when there wasn't much, he would do sly things that would incriminate the girls, and then she didn't think he was like Jim at all. But perhaps Jim had done selfish things too: it was just that she couldn't remember them. Or chose not to.

She was eighty years old. She wore a fur coat summer and winter. She put lipstick on her lips and powder on her face. She stayed by herself in the top flat of the tenement. Her flat was a mess, there were yellowing newspapers on the floor, empty whisky bottles in the corridor, white plaster dropped from the ceiling like seagull shit. She stank though she didn't know it: she never had a bath because she couldn't afford an immerser. She didn't light the flat at night but lay there in the dark like a mole. She never read a book or a newspaper. And of course she never went to church, since God was quite clearly a being who unjustly despatched the lightning that had killed her innocent husband and crucified him on the wire.

Because she had been a good waitress the proprietor of the restaurant where she had worked—and of course he changed, and bequeathed her to another owner—allowed her to sit in the restaurant every day drinking perhaps three cups of coffee in that time. That was all she did, drink cups of coffee. Sometimes, so as not to finish a coffee too quickly, she would let it grow cold till a scum formed on it. Sometimes she would stare out at the sea, at the wasp-striped yachts that were anchored in the water, doing in the winter a crazy dance as she herself had done when she was young.

There had been, after she went back, widowed, men who had wanted to take her out, even marry her. There was the gardener who spent his time making words out of flowers and who complained of a bad back. He had never married but stayed by himself in a flat where he watched TV late into the night: before the advent of TV he used to go to the cinema three times a week; thus he had seen every film that ever came to the town. She didn't marry him, partly because of his complaints, and partly because he had begun to drink heavily. And also his breath, for that of a gardener, stank. He was not the only one who had tried to make up to her. There had been a janitor as well: he told her that he more or less ran the school and that he phoned the Director of Education regularly to give him the benefit of his advice: the Director called him Bill.

Other books

Summer Sanctuary by Laurie Gray
The Forge in the Forest by Michael Scott Rohan
Fortnight of Fear by Graham Masterton
The Other Child by Lucy Atkins
Lessons Learned by Sydney Logan