Saturday
Jul262014

The Maggot People

By Henning Koch


Dzanc Books
November 2014
978-1936873540


 

At the age of twenty-three, Michael had the bad fortune to inherit his grandmother's house in the south of France. For two long years, he spent his time dutifully going to the bar, buying drinks for strangers and talking about topics such as partridge shooting and viticulture, neither of which interested him very much. There was something fundamentally hopeless about his attempt to cultivate a local outlook in Provence. A typical local man in Michael's village home was a cardigan-wearing inhabitant in his sixties, passionate about using his body as a sort of temporary wine barrel. Michael struggled for human companionship and felt like the oddest man in the world.

Back in Finsbury Park, London, where he used to live in a rented room, Michael had never done much more than play back-gammon and drink Red Stripe with his neighbor, an unemployed drummer. Occasionally, when his anxious mother had called to tell Michael that he had to find himself a job, he almost gloatingly told her his favorite words of wisdom: "Consider the lilies of the field, mum. They don't work, do they?"

Since coming to France, Michael no longer had the benefits of Social Security or a like-minded unemployed neighbour. He tried all sorts of activities to brighten up his existence and earn him a living of some kind. At first he thought he'd have a go at carpentry. After spending weeks laying a new floor upstairs (to stop himself crashing through the rotten floorboards), he found to his amazement that the cheap pine boards warped in the humidity and creaked underfoot like dissatisfied old men. Later he got hold of a decrepit car which he thought he might use to familiarize himself with mechanics. He spent days scrutinizing a manual before deciding that his hands were not made to mess about with screwdrivers and socket sets. It led only to temper fits, oily lacerations, and a mad desire to commit arson.

Clearly, if he was to have a job of some kind, it would have to be rooted in the creative industries, as they were known.

Among the jumble of the attic he'd found a large easel and a box of spattered tubes of oil paints. It seemed an invitation, but as he was coming very late to the art of painting, his technical abilities were limited.

His first attempt was a family portrait based on a memory of himself and his father on a beach in Normandy while his mother sat under a bright parasol waving at them. In the end the technical problems of this emotive subject proved too much for him. Instead he went back to his usual motif, which he'd been scribbling in the margins of his school notebooks since he was eleven or twelve. Michael could not quite explain his liking for the walled city he always depicted clinging to the sides of a rocky pinnacle, more or less like Tolkien's Minas Tirith or Mann's monastery in The Magic Mountain. He assumed it was something obsessive that always brought him back to the same rocks and crags—the air filled with philosophical eagles spreading their wings and casting noble glances at the human fortifications below.

He began to worry that his mind was dissolving. At night he'd wake and lie hyperventilating. A few times he went jogging through the dark village, pursued by outraged hounds. He sat by the mountain painting, which seemed to settle his nerves. He napped in his chair, a blanket round his shoulders, or just listened to the dormant house and the night passing.

His churning question was always the same: What am I doing here? What am I trying to achieve?

And so, almost twenty-six months into his French sojourn, Michael still had not found out what he was supposed to be doing with his life.

Back in England, his parents had recently passed away when a derailed train came hurtling through their house just as they were settling in with their tea tray—the bulbous China pot under its custom-made chicken cozy, two chocolate digestives each, and oranges—to watch the six o'clock news. Before they knew it, they had fused with the country's news offering, which would particularly have pleased Michael's father, who was interested in domestic politics, although of course they never had the pleasure of seeing themselves on television.

Michael took a ferry back to England from Le Havre. It was a misty morning. The oily waters of the Channel lapped against the stinking hull of the giant ship. The fabled white cliffs of Do-ver materialized like large stage backdrops to an operetta. He felt obliged to cry, but a terrible sense of unreality made him doubt the impulse. Standing there on deck, he brooded as he watched his native country coming into view through the haze.

Michael now had two houses, or rather, he had one house in Provence and another in Borehamwood with a large train on top of it. Luckily the emergency services took the view that it was their responsibility to remove it, which was a good thing. Michael spent a day sifting through the rubble, but it's amazing how efficiently a burning train pulverizes a human dwelling. The solidity of buildings is really a bit of a sham. Solidity is illusory. The universe is constructed from tiny fragments that have a tendency to pulverize when struck by a great force, he mockingly told him-self as he wandered about at the bottom of the garden, where a few daffodils were doing their best to maintain a semblance of normality. Wedged into a rhododendron bush, Michael found a smashed chest, from which blackened cutlery had spilled. Inside were some neatly pressed tablecloths and a couple of oven gloves, which he later brought back to France but could not quite bring himself to use. Should they be framed, perhaps, as a sort of keepsake?

At the end of that heavy day in Borehamwood, he decided to knock back a couple of shots of whiskey before going back to London. As soon as he stepped into the pub, he was able to con-firm to himself that Borehamwood was quite likely even duller than Provence, although there were more similarities than one might have thought. In Borehamwood, men in beige or brown corduroy trousers drank flat, hop-stinking beer. Women opted for shapeless skirts slung around their hips like loincloths. Vaguely menacing younger women wore sharp heels strapped to their feet. They drank a kind of white wine that the French might have described as a soda pop.

Also, the English diet had an element of the humdrum about it: baked beans, fried eggs and bacon were interspersed with fish fingers, liver and onions, or pork sausages spattered with punishingly strong mustard. On Sundays, English people had a custom of consulting glossy cookery books, then resignedly putting large cuts of meat in the oven and watching cricket matches while the house filled with carbonized smog. Instead of viticulture they liked to talk about how many pheasants or rabbits they'd shot. In England there was more interest in the actual shooting part, whereas Frenchmen hunted for the pot.

If he ever did go back to England, the government would very likely enroll him on some plebeian course in Modern Morality and Citizenship Standards for the 21st Century. English politicians were brilliant at coming up with these types of schemes. When they first applied to enter Parliament, they had to be able to show gnomish or dwarven ancestry. This was a requirement of public service—it was believed, quite correctly, that only gnomes had the necessary oddness and fondness for gold to be able to represent their sceptred isle.

At least in France no one bothered with you. Especially if you were foreign they considered you an irrelevance and this was much better.

In any case the possibilities of going back to England were scuppered by a long, flowery letter from an insurance company, explaining that because of his parents' invalid insurance policy, there would be no payout on their house. Soon after, a carefully worded letter from the train company expressed sincere regret about flattening his family, then offered a very small amount of statutory compensation.

"Engineering, that's a good subject," his father had once ad-vised Michael when the question of his education came up. "An engineer is never out of work." How uncanny that, in the end, a group of plotting engineers got together, built a train, laid some tracks by his house and maliciously finished him off one evening just as the poor man was looking forward to his cup of tea.

 

After Michael had gone back to Provence, the electrics in the house started playing up and he worried he'd have to find the money to rewire the place. His bedroom became a particular problem. In its earlier days, the house had been used as a residence for seminarians—young virginal men preparing for ordination, narrowly preferred in those times to a life of digging the sod. He often saw a ghostly figure at night, floating across the room to fiddle with his bedroom ceiling light. As a result, Michael had to change the lightbulb every few days. It annoyed him. Was he not entitled to live in a house that had been the legal property of his grandmother, a respectable French woman who had bought the house fair and square at a church auction? Nowadays it was little more than an emanation of humidity and mold. Surely the spirits should be happy that someone was willing to live there at all?

The ghost problem got pervasive enough for Michael to seek advice about it. He went to Alain, the retired village priest, a tiny stooped man with poetical eyes and silvered temples. His grandmother had once been very fond of him; she used to sweep his church for him and polish the candlesticks.

Alain nodded knowingly and tapped the side of his nostril, then whipped out a bunch of dried herbs, set fire to them, and spent the morning walking round Michael's house, waving the smoke about whilst intoning prayers.

"That should do it," he said, reposing in one of grandmother's toxic armchairs. "It's nothing to worry about."

"Well, I am worried about it. I seem to be having terrible luck."

"It's not about luck," said Alain. "This spirit is angry with you for not being a Catholic and for soiling the house with your disrespect. I take it you're abusing yourself?"

"I don't really see what business of his it is," said Michael. "People don't choose their religion. Some are born in Salt Lake City and they can't do anything about it."

Alain did not understand Michael's comment and put it down to the young man's confusion. Gently he put his knobbly hand on Michael's sleeve and said, with a sage nod, as if what he was about to suggest was in some way revolutionary:

"You're an orphan now, my boy. What you need is to get married…to a nice girl…who does not have the Devil in her eyes."

After Alain had gone, Michael went to the kitchen, a sort of studio and storage area for junk. He sat there sipping his morning coffee, whilst staring at the big canvas of the mountain, trying to assess how he could improve it. Seized by a notion, he painted a small figure in one of the windows: a woman leaning out, hanging up a garment on a clothesline. As soon as she was there—a tiny black smudge in a corner—he felt she had acquired a life of her own. But who was she? What was she doing in that city among the tiered rooftops? And did she have the Devil in her eyes?

Somehow he felt he might prefer her if she did.