The Virtual Studio
Here are two small stories, both concerning brief encounters that, for reasons I don't completely understand, made me feel better during a miserable time.
I was smoking a cigarette on the stone steps of a block of flats in Bloomsbury when a young boy rode up to the bottom step, stopped, and stood over his bicycle.
I had been living in London for less than a month, and although I didn't miss Melbourne, my home of twenty-five years, I experienced in that first monthand for the first time in my lifea profound loneliness. Both encounters made me less dependent on friendship and the idea of friendship as a salve to loneliness, and both made me more pleased to be alive.
His legs straddled the frame, the toes of his shoes on the ground. He stayed like this for a few minutes, and when he got tired of standing he leant forward, one arm over the handlebar, one hand in the pocket of his tracksuit pants.
I thought he might ask for a cigarette, but he didn't. He looked at his watch.
"He's late," he said. "He's always late."
He got off the bike and dragged it roughly by the frame and threw it hard against the banister. "The match is today," he said as he ran up the steps. "He's always late."
I turned round to watch him. He buzzed number fourteen on the entry phone.
"Yeah?" said the voice in flat fourteen.
"It's me. Are you coming down or not? The match is today."
"Come on!" shouted the boy.
"All right," said the voice in flat fourteen.
"Hurry up then."
The boy came back down the steps and mounted his bike. He stood over it just the way he had before, but this time he looked nervous. He held the handlebars tight, rocking the bike side to side, so that the bar kept hitting his legs.
"Where are you going to play?" I asked.
"Coram's," he said.
Coram's Fields was once an orphanage, a home for illegitimate and foundling children. Today, there's a foundling museum and, on the original site, Coram's Fields, a park with animals, a city-farm for children. The park is surrounded by a tall wall and wire fences, and behind the fences there's a row of low, flat-roofed buildings that form an L-shape. I've looked at the sheep through the fence, and the sheep are very big. But I've never been inside: entry to Coram's Fields is not permitted unless you are a child or have a child with you.
"We're playing our big match over in Coram's," said the boy.
"Are you playing against the animals?"
He smiled. "No. Don't be stupid."
"Are the animals going to watch? Are they going to be spectators?" I asked.
"Don't be stupid."
"But I thought there were animals in there. Aren't there?"
He stopped rocking the bike, stopped hitting himself on the legs, and said, "But you already know there are animals there."
"But what kind?"
"You know that."
"The usual animals. You know that. Animals like birds and goats and sheep."
"But you're not playing against them."
He watched me light another cigarette but didn't ask for one. Plenty of ten-year-olds smoke; he wasn't one of them.
"You know we're not. We're playing the big match. It's gonna be a five-hour match. It's the FA Cup Final."
"Five hours is more than one match," I said.
"Not this one. This is the final-final. This one is five hours of final. It's the big match."
"Why is your friend always late?"
He looked up at the door to the flats. "Don't know. He's just always late."
"I hope you win," I said.
"We will. But he's probably not coming. We'll win, but maybe we won't. If he doesn't come."
"Ring the bell again."
He changed his mind and went back up the stairs and buzzed the entry phone.
"It's me. You better be coming. I'm going now."
He ran down the steps and got on his bike. "I'm going now," he said.
"Bye," I said. "Good luck. I really hope you win."
He got on his bike but got off again immediately and looked at me.
"Do you live here?" he asked.
"Then why are you sitting here?"
"To have a cigarette," I said. "I don't smoke indoors."
He didn't have any more to say, so he smiled at me and rode away.
A few days later, at 11:30 p.m., I was reading in bed. It was a warm, still night, and the window was wide open. We heard a dog barking. This dog barked for about twenty minutes, without stopping at all, and it was impossible to go on reading.
Dog nuisance signs on the streets of London say PLEASE DO NOT ALLOW YOUR DOG TO FOUL THE FOOTWAYS, and on sunny days there are plenty of dogs being walked in the public squares. But unlike in Australian cities, in central London it is not usual to hear dogs barking at night. And so this dog's barking made me put down my book and pay attention. Something was wrong with this dog.
Our third-floor bedroom window faced directly onto a concrete courtyard shared by three blocks of flats. From our bedroom and kitchen windows we could see the rear windows of the two other blocks.
Opening the window at night meant that the flats nearest on the right could see directly into our bedroom and that we could see directly into their kitchens.
But it didn't matter. There are much worse things than being watched while you read in bed at night. And there are much worse things than staring into strangers' kitchens while they do the washing up.
It was midnight, and the dog was still barking. It had been barking for half an hour, which is a long time for a dog to bark. Soon after midnight, the dog's barking turned into crying, a terrible howling and whimpering.
I jumped out of bed. Cries in the nighttime, human or animal, are always distressing. They feel personal somehow, as though the howling is coming from you.
I went to the window, and within seconds five lights went on in the surrounding flats. On the balcony across the way, a woman stood in her dressing gown; she held her dressing gown firmly around her chest and leant over the balcony. She looked down, then up. She looked all around. I did the same.
The dog was howling, and its sadness or desperation or whatever a dog is saying when it howls was awful. A man stood at his open kitchen window, two floors up from the woman on the balcony, and he stuck his head out. He looked around in the same way: down and up, then all around.
More lights came on. Then, in two separate blocks, lone men began to walk down the fire-escape stairwells. Two men, after midnight, in their pajamas, two strangers who couldn't even see one another, only a few steps from being in unisona few steps from being at exactly the same height, a hundred feet apart. Both men walking down to the ground to see where a dog might be.
My partner was out of bed now, too. We stood together by the window in our underpants. When the first man reached the ground, he shouted up, "I can't see him!" A woman's voice shouted down, "Are you looking for that dog?"
"I can't see him!" the man shouted up again. He hadn't heard the woman's question. The second man, in the second block, reached the ground. He searched behind bins and looked under some bags of rubbish.
"Wait here!" he shouted. "I'm going to look over there."
"I'm going to call the police," said the first man.
The dog's whimpering was getting louder, more insistent and somehow seemed closer. The second man walked in the direction of the construction site, which was to our immediate right. There were now four men downstairs, wandering around amongst the bins in the concrete courtyards.
"I can't see him!" the second man shouted.
"I'm calling the cops," shouted the first man, on his way back up the stairs.
He was reporting to all of us. He was telling us that he was the one to help, the one who would save the dog.
I expected applause, but all was quiet. The dog had stopped crying. It was as though the dog had heard the man and was happy for a momentthere'd soon be men with wire cutters, perhaps a piece of meat, a pat on the head.
The howling started again. A dozen or more lights were on, and we were all waiting for news. I wondered if there was something sane and practical I might do. Should I call the RSPCA? The police? Should I go downstairs? I felt that I should act because I think I'm the kind of person who acts in these situations, but I couldn't think of a single thing to do.
"Do you think somebody went out and left the dog locked up and now they've decided not to come home and the dog's panicking?" I asked my partner.
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe."
"Do you think the dog got lost and wandered over the fence into the construction site and now can't get back out?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Yeah. Poor thing."
"I hope somebody isn't torturing it."
The whimpering and howling were more frantic. The dog was barking and crying at the same time so that it sounded like more than one dog. By half-one there were twenty-some lights on in the flats and a dozen people standing in lighted windows, on balconies, and in stairwells.
"Who's bloody dog is this?" shouted a woman who sounded so close she might as well have been in our toilet. "It's two o'clock in the morning!"
"Could somebody just shut that dog up," shouted another woman. I couldn't see her, but her voice seemed to come from overhead.
These were the first angry voices. It was late and a weeknight. Most people would get as little as six hours sleep now, some less.
I left the bedroom and went to the kitchen, where I thought I might get a better view of the ground. I stood for a minute looking down and watched three men pacing, then I looked across at the flats directly opposite.
I saw the woman in her dressing gown, still standing on her balcony. She saw me, and we looked at each other. We didn't bother with gesturing or shrugging or waving or pretending we had an urgent need to move or look away. We looked across at each other, a long look, across the dark, backlit by the lights in our flats, as though we were saying something to each other, without knowing what it was we were saying.
I don't know what time it was when we eventually slept, but I woke twice during the night and the dog was still howling, although less often, not as loud, less frantic. I went to the window the second time I woke, and there were only three lights on across the way. I wondered whether they had been woken by the dog or whether these were lights that were usually on at 3:00 a.m. When I woke again at eight, the howling had stopped.
It was a bank holiday, and there would be no builders on the construction site. If the dog were still down there, he could be there for another three days, including the weekend. Maybe he stopped crying because he died of exhaustion. Maybe he just got tired. Maybe he was killed, or maybe he was sleeping.
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