…one who does, who talks about, who lauds, who represents, who stands for, who…
Walking along his street after a hard day’s work, or a day of doing nothing, or a big day, or a hard day, or a long day, or just another day, or the same day as yesterday, Oscar noticed something different about the street, his street. There’s something different, Oscar thought, or Oscar hoped, or he smiled, or prayed… and indeed there was. Sitting on the street, there in front of him, not five feet away from him, was the rusty yellow bulk of a rubbish skip.
One of his neighbours had hired a skip, one of his distant neighbours (three houses away is distance enough to qualify as distant, Oscar assured himself) had hired a skip and left it sitting empty on the street.
Of course, there’s nothing else for it, Oscar commented to himself, but to fill it to the brim with anything he might or could possibly do without in his house. His mattress would certainly have to go in, as would anything else large, awkward, voluminous and vaguely useless. Wasn’t it an awful shame, Oscar briefly thought, that he didn’t have a series of mattresses stacked up in his house ready for dragging out into the street as soon as darkness fell to pile up in this skip which has been left open to the world, like a… like a gaping mouth screaming to be filled. (Oscar reminded himself to write that simile down, having changed his mind on the use of similes in writing, or even in general conversation, thinking this particular simile worthy of incorporation into one or other of the sixteen or so novels, short stories and articles that he had under development in his collection of scrappy notebooks, or into one or other of the conversations he was likely to be involved in the coming hours, days or weeks.)
Standing in the half-light of his bedroom, Oscar had second thoughts. His mattress was still firm in places and he could quite easily sleep on several of its extremities for quite a few more years; the centre of the mattress had long since been rendered uninhabitable, featuring a series of sprung springs and irregular depressions. But an empty skip is, Oscar reminded himself, like a gaping mouth screaming to be filled, so he really had little choice but to tear off the bed sheet and drag his mattress downstairs.
Oscar leant the mattress against the wall in the hallway and, sitting at his front window, sitting in the dark, before a gap in the curtains, watched the street, watched the skip, watched the approach and passing of each person, noted how most people slowed down on passing the skip, and a few, after they passed it, stopped and turned around, and wondered, they wondered, these distant neighbours, and Oscar wondered, himself a distant neighbour, how long they might have, how big might the window be, between the arrival of every other distant neighbour home from work, and so the quietening of the street, and the point when the last distant neighbour could hoist in their sagging mattress or other bulky item and walk away with a smile on their face, a peculiar smile borne of taking advantage of another distant neighbour’s stupidity.
Helen arrived home soon after the point when the dusk had become sufficiently impenetrable.
“Don’t turn on the light!” Oscar warned.
Helen switched on the lights in the hallway and the living room.
“Writing in the dark now?” Helen had adopted, perhaps she’d worn it all day, the bemused face of the world-weary… it wasn’t an expression which suited her, but she didn’t have ready access to a mirror, so she was unlikely to consider adopting another.
“Did you not see it?”
“See it?” Helen raised both eyebrows and cocked her head and spoke slowly as one would to someone who is drunk. “Did I see it?”
Oscar shrugged his shoulders, turned his palms upwards as though petitioning the gods and raised both eyes dramatically to heaven, all the time scanning his brain for a witty comment… but nothing was available other than that simile about a gaping mouth screaming to be filled.
“See it?” Helen was now impatient with this drunk.
Oscar shook his head. What’s the point? his face asked.
“See what?” Helen must have felt for a moment that she had missed something, something fundamental, something that she really should be already aware of… but the moment passed.
“It’s an empty skip!”
“And your going to drag that mattress you have out in the hallway down the street and dump it into someone else’s skip?”
“Yes. Finally. You’ve got it.”
Helen shook her head at what was yet another offering from a world which would weary anybody of Helen’s higher mental abilities and at which she could only shake her head.
“Don’t shake your head at me – this is it. This is it. It’s a law of nature. Law of the jungle… if we were in the jungle. This is it – this is what we’re here on earth for, to hunt, to forage, to scavenge, and to…”
“To fill a neighbour’s skip.”
Oscar turned off the lights and walked Helen over to the gap in the curtains in which the street lights could now be seen to be warming up.
“Look out there. What do you see?”
Helen didn’t see anything; at least, she didn’t say anything.
“That’s the world we live in. That’s it. And that yellow bulk fading into the darkness – that’s the object, the focus of attention, of every gap in the curtains from number fifty-three to number one; that, Helen, is what we are here to do, the meaning of our lives, the centre of our universe, our culture – what it means to be human. This is what it means.”
Helen’s world-weary gestures were now hidden in the darkness, only an occasional sigh could be heard in the room.
“No don’t get up, don’t go – you’ve got to watch this.”
“It’s an empty street.”
“Never have you been so wrong,” Oscar assured her. “Just wait. You will see before you the very stuff of life.”
And with those words Oscar had gone, he had disappeared into the darkness, though his disappearing took some time and effort: having to hoist the mattress onto his back, then falling down when it snagged on the door (as it must have done, being five feet too wide to go through the door), and then having to manoeuvre its bulk through the door frame, and then hoisting the mattresses up onto his back and shoulders, bent over so that his back was now parallel with the ground – and so he had disappeared. Oscar sprinted in this twisted shape beneath that cumbersome weight into the darkness, and then the half illumination of a yellow street light, and then darkness again, until Helen could see him, lit up bright and almost shining, luminescent, one especially bright yellow street light catching the expression of effort and joy on his face as the mattress’s shadow leapt from him and followed it, the shadow followed it into the skip.
Oscar had done it.