At night I would go out onto the narrow balcony of our tiny flat and look down into the neon-lit street, and try to make out his distinctive appearance as he came home from the rehearsal room. The neon in the street – (which was more of an alleyway) – would rise up and bathe the ugly buildings of our neighbourhood with an ethereal glow, some unsolicited magic a by-product of the food stalls whose meaningless bustle mixed with the smell of frying foods, spices, exhaust. There was something going on all the time. A small van, perhaps, would struggle through the evening throng, the sounds of its engine funnelled upwards and bouncing from the concrete walls straining, impatient. I’d see him around eleven ‘o’ clock, taller than everyone else and walking with that familiar loping, shoulder-hunched gait, tired from the metro and whatever his director had put him through that night. And I would smile, and feel that same old excitement, as if this were the very first time I’d seen him.
Our apartment was the width of a corridor.
‘How did it go?’
For an actor, he was a man of few words.
‘Would you like me to cook you something?’
‘I’m not that hungry’.
Motorbikes. Sometimes, all you could hear was motorbikes, whining, straining, racing as they passed along the flyovers and roadways, angry bees with symphonic aspirations, discordant experimental music in the dead of the night. And even though our apartment was the width of a corridor, it still had an upstairs. We’d lie, crammed side by side unable to sleep, listening to the rumble and buzz of all of those motorbikes.
‘How’s the play going?’
‘He’s just so passive aggressive’.
Which wasn’t what I had asked.
My right arm was pressed right up against the wall. His left arm was pressed right up against the other wall.
The neon lit our ceiling blue, red, orange. The orange kept disappearing and then it would come back again, every three seconds. There was a noodle bar across the street which opened at nine every evening and whose neon sign flashed on and off. Noodles . . . Noodles . . Noodles . . . Long and thin noodles . . Long and thin noodles . . On, off. On, off. You could time so much by it : music, insomnia, lovemaking, heartbeats. I’d scrape my elbow on the wall and the pain would last for two flashes. Six seconds of pain. The bed was narrow, the apartment was narrow, the street, the district, the motorbikes, and he, him, they were all narrow. And narrow-minded, too. Some might say ‘focussed’. Like the neon, he hovered above every seduction.
‘Well that was alright’, he’d say, after we’d finished making love. And then he would fall asleep, and I’d lie there, concentrating on his narrow body, until I’d kind of drift off into that narrow zone between awake and dream where I imagined our apartment was a narrow boat on an English canal drifting through a beautiful green countryside where, for some reason, the rhythmic flashing lights off an adjacent council bin lorry pervaded everything, every three seconds.
The next morning he narrowly avoided being hit by a cyclist as he left our apartment building. I watched him leave, and then I went out into the lanes and alleyways of our neighbourhood, whose towering blocks prevented the sun from penetrating as far as the pristine streets. Air conditioning units clung on to the sides of the ugly blocks, lit like metal barnacles as they caught the first rays of the morning light. At the corner of the street was a narrow coffee shop whose long counter stretched away into the steaming interior. I perched on my usual stool halfway down and ordered a black coffee. My arm was still aching from the night before.
Some of the other customers were talking.
‘They’re thinking of widening the motorway’.
‘It will never be allowed’.
‘They’ve applied for permission’.
‘But there’s only a very narrow window when this can be done’.
The same customers were always there at this time. Two men, two women. One of the women always sat with her hands in her lap, her shoulders kind of curled inwards as if she were trying to make herself as narrow as possible.
‘What will it mean for our neighbourhood?’
‘It will mean, goodbye neighbourhood’’.
‘The flyover will be raised on narrow legs, they will only have to knock down a few of the buildings’.
‘People flash by in their cars or on their motorbikes. They have no idea of the residents who live below them. Everything just narrows down to that split second’.
‘That’s life, though, isn’t it? Passing from one place to the next. Nothing ever stands still’.
‘The way I see it’, one of the women said, ‘you have to squeeze the most out of every situation. Our time on this planet is brief and means nothing in astronomical terms. A blip, less than a blip. Nothing we do will ever have any consequence. Existence is vast, our conception of it is very narrow’.
I drained the last of my coffee. I wanted to join in with their discussion, but I had been going to the same coffee shop for so long that to suddenly chime in now would be contrary to the character that I had invented for myself. I got up, and left them at it, and stepped out into the busy lane. It seemed smaller than before. I looked up at the legs of the flyover. Indeed, they looked precarious, as if the motorway were a giant creature that was wading through the neighbourhood, treading carefully, swaying its hips.
I’d spent the day writing. I’d set up a small card table underneath the stairs of our apartment, on which I placed my laptop leaving just enough room for a cup of tea. In this gloomy corner, for months I’d let my imagination spread out into the world, writing short stories and poems set in much more exotic locations than this drab suburban sprawl. My only view from the desk was through the open stairs to the window, the balcony, the buildings opposite. I’d hear the motorway whining away, the sigh of lorry tyres on the tarmac surface, the roar of motorbikes, the endless thrum as people moved, because people were always moving and everything about this place was transitory. It got dark very quickly. The alleyways held the darkness within them, it seeped ever upwards towards the sparse glimpse of sky criss-crossed with television antennas silhouetted, satellite dishes, telephone wires, jutting balconies. And then the neon switched on again. As soon as it was dark I snapped my laptop shut, folded up the card table, and waited for him to come home.
He was earlier than normal.
‘How was it?’
‘I need a drink’.
‘The director’, he said, ‘Thinks I’m approaching this character all wrong.’
He went to the cupboard and found a glass, then a bottle of wine. It was weird seeing him navigate the apartment and its amenities after having spent all day there alone. The cupboard was very narrow and the bottle of wine had been right at the very back, he had to remove tins of food to get to it.
‘How do you mean?’
‘He says he wants me to act wide’.
‘Act wide? What does that mean?’
He poured a glass of wine. I fetched myself a glass too and did the same. We sat facing each other on the tiny balcony. The balcony was so small that we couldn’t face the street, our legs would be crushed against the railings. It felt good to be outdoors.
‘How are you going to act wide?’
‘He says my character has a rural background. He comes from a settlement surrounded by mountains, fields, river valleys. And that this should be reflected in the play even though the play is set in the city. He says that the way I relate to the set and the other actors is too . . .’.
I thought about this for a couple of seconds and then the phrase came to me that the lady in the coffee shop had said.
‘Existence is vast, our conception of it is very narrow’.
‘What’s that meant to mean?’
‘I just thought it would help . . ‘.
‘What should I do? Start flinging my arms around and jumping up and down?’
‘It wouldn’t hurt’.
‘My character is a funeral director’.
‘Ah . .’.
The flashing yellow neon from the sign below us threw his shadow on to the wall of our apartment.
‘And what happens if you don’t . .’. I swallowed. ‘Act wide?’
‘I’m out of the play. And we wouldn’t be able to afford the rent on this place’.
Neither of us said anything for a while. I could hear the motorbikes again. Their howling engines seemed a constant drone, a hundred private emergencies, the scream of urban daredevils. How fearless they must be surrounded by concrete and city infrastructure. I was glad that they would never find our little neighbourhood.
‘What am I going to do?’, he asked. ‘He’s given me the day off tomorrow to solve this problem. And then . . If I don’t . . ‘.
Noodles . . . Noodles . . . Noodles.
The apartment seemed even smaller with two of us there. I set up my makeshift desk underneath the stairs but every time he walked past he would kick it or nudge it, or open the bathroom door and bang it, or back into it when busying himself with the kitchen cupboards. He didn’t do it on purpose, of course. It was impossible for two people to function in a place so small. But it gave the impression that we were on a boat being flung from one wave to the next, an unnecessary impediment, a barrier between myself and the words though the boat itself must have been a very slim affair that it should cut through the water so swiftly.
He had spent the morning researching methods of acting wide and could find nothing useful in any of his books. The fact that our flat did not have any distinctive space that might be used for performance or rehearsal was a cruel twist. He watched a couple of videos of sparse performances where the actors stood on stage apart from each other, but even so, their motions seemed stilted, confined, and nothing in their demeanour or the manner in which they reacted to their situation offered any solace or inspiration.
And he kept banging into my desk.
It was like a battle of the arts. My words were prevented from manifesting themselves because he was having difficulty defining his role.
‘Watch it . . ‘.
‘I’m sorry, I was deep in character . .’.
‘I’ve lost my train of thought, now . .’.
‘You know, you’re not taking this seriously enough’.
‘Believe me, I am. But I’ve got a deadline. And anyway, how much of the world do you wish to inhabit?’
‘That’s the key question, isn’t it?’
‘There’s a man on the fifth floor who used to be a sumo wrestler. Perhaps you should go and see him?’
‘Hasn’t he been on a diet, though?’
‘True . . .’.
The motorbikes were screaming. Thin rockets, rubber tyres gripping the asphalt, powerful engines packed into a compact compartment. I looked at him as he leant against the kitchen cupboards, his legs stretched out into the living room area. He looked thinner than I ever remember him being and I wondered if the stress of the play and the passive aggressive director were getting to him. I also realised that I didn’t recognise him any more. This play was changing him, altering his mannerisms and the way that he approached the world. I had no idea what he was going to do or say any more. The spontaneity which had at first attracted me to him had become his most worrying characteristic. I was becoming so narrow in my tastes, too content with a very certain slim definition of what he meant to me. I watched as he stretched out his arms, stood in the middle of the apartment. His palm was flat against one wall, his other palm was flat against the kitchen cupboard. His legs were also spread apart so that he formed a letter X silhouetted against the window.
‘This’, he said, ‘Is as wide as I can possibly get’.
And I thought, ‘His director is correct. He is too narrow. He is far, far too narrow’.
The usual customers were in the coffee shop. I sat in my usual chair on the high stool, the legs scraping against the tiled floor as I sat down. I ordered the same coffee as ever, bitter black, a kick for the soul. I watched the barista as she worked. The counter wrapped around her work space and everything within it was located for convenience. The coffee machine, the cups, the sink, the till. The customers faced her all day as they sat around the counter and I realised how she was on show all day, in a play of her own, a repeated performance in which she had to inhabit that space with maximum efficiency. He should come and see this, I thought.
‘I don’t see this neighbourhood surviving’, one of the women customers said. ‘But if you look around, everything here is ten, twenty years old at the most. It’s constantly reinventing itself.’
‘It will be a shame to lose what we have built’.
‘Nobody will care. And neither will we, after a while’.
‘It seems like the world. Yet if you look on a map, this whole area is a very thin strip between the two motorways, before they converge. It looks like a ship.’
‘Why do they need more motorway?’
‘My parents would never recognise this place. Everything is different. Where are the old houses? Where are the old businesses?’
‘Everything is dominated by transport infrastructure’.
‘We build networks and frames and on these we hang our lives and then we use these to map out what only becomes obvious once we are truly comfortable’, one of the women said.
‘How do we know when we are comfortable?’
‘When we no longer need to refer to these networks’, she replied.
‘So what you’re saying is . . .’.
‘We need to look beyond’.
I looked up and I smiled. The other customers were so used to me being there that they didn’t even look at me.
‘Thank you’, I said.
‘You have provided me with the answer to a problem that has been worrying me for quite a few days. In fact, you wouldn’t believe how useful your words have been’.
‘And what is the problem?’
‘How to act wide in a narrow world’.
‘A world is only narrow if it’s inhibited by the imagination’, the woman said.
And I thought, I’ll remember that next time I buy a washing machine and it doesn’t fit in the gap.
‘Why do you need to act wide?’
‘I don’t. But my friend . . . He is an actor, and . . ‘.
‘An actor exists only in relationship to their stage. Are we not all actors? Even if we don’t have an audience. You can be as narrow as you like, just don’t let the stage consume you’.
‘Thank you’, I said, getting up. ‘Thank you so much. You don’t realise how helpful you’ve been’.
I pushed my stool back and left the coffee shop to cheerful waves. I knew that I would never be going back there again.
‘You need to broaden your horizons’, I said.
I’d spent the afternoon packing my bags. I didn’t have much. I’d never seen much point in accumulating items, things, not here. Not in this neighbourhood. Not in this city.
He kind of hung there, arms limp at his side, shoulders hunched. Perhaps it was the widest he’d ever been, though I wasn’t sure. Comfort funnels us down into a very precise way of living, everything else, everything superfluous, is ejected. He knew how right this was.
‘As the letter explains, we only had two weeks . . The new motorway is coming. They’re widening the flyover, adding two extra lanes so that more people can pass through. It was, I’m sure you’ll agree, the perfect moment . .’.
‘Even so . . .’.
‘I just didn’t want to get stuck here’.
‘I thought we’d go to the mountains’, he said. ‘Hire a cabin somewhere. The wide open landscape, the weather, the sky, imagine how beautiful it might have been’.
‘Some of those mountain valleys can be pretty narrow’.
‘But we’d have been moving’.
‘And what about the play? And what about my writing?’
‘Where will you go?’
‘Another neighbourhood. . .’.
One with a subway station and easy access to the train lines. A coffee shop, perhaps. And one of those apartments, only a really small one. Smaller than this. Where I could stretch out. The bulldozers would be coming soon and they would be opening up vast swathes, avenues through the densely packed buildings, letting sunlight into spaces where it hadn’t been for several generations, and the cars and the motorbikes would be able to zoom through, all day long, whizzing past in a blur of colour and noise and movement.
Robert Garnham has been performing LGBT comedy poetry around the UK for over ten years at various fringes and festivals, and has had three poetry collections published by Burning Eye. He has made a few short TV adverts for a certain bank, and a joke from one of his shows was listed as one of the funniest of the Edinburgh Fringe. He was recently an answer on the TV show Pointless and, very briefly, on Britain’s Got Talent. His short stories have been published widely.