Privacy Is When You Can Shut The Door

Dan wrote novels. At least that’s what he told himself, and told himself quite frequently: “You are a novelist,” he would say as he confronted himself in the bathroom mirror for his morning shave. Scullery maids on the landing would whisper to each other: “He’s at it again, talking to himself” … “Goes a bit funny when he’s shaving” … “Oh dear”. Or they would have whispered if he had had scullery maids, or a scullery. Or a landing. His one storey house had a bedroom and a dining room, a bathroom and a kitchen and a laundry and a toilet, a lounge room and the room where Dan wrote, which was a kind of dressing room.

There were no servants, of course, but Dan shared his home with Annie, his sweetheart, and she would often be forced to wait outside the bathroom door while an especially fertile shaving session was going on. This few minutes each morning was an opportunity to think, to come up with story ideas and test them for future usefulness, to ask the logical questions like: “But what is this character’s motivation?” and “Whose fault was that?” and “What’s he hiding?” and “What then?” and the big one: “Why?”

Dan would look at himself in the mirror and strike the kind of arty poses you see when an author has written an article in the newspaper and a small portrait appears next to their byline. He would rest his chin on one fist and try to look thoughtful, or he would lean forward aggressively, or attempt to appear creative but impractical, with messier hair, or do a bit of a pout to convey being fed up with the stupidity the other humans, often with neater hair. Those little portraits are often deliberately off-centre and so Dan would stand to the side so that some of his face did not appear in the mirror, or he would stand on tiptoes to crop out the top of his head from his reflection. Dan quite enjoyed the possibilities of a shot which depicted the back of his head, but that was difficult to perfect in the bathroom when you couldn’t see what the photo wold look like, so he was forced to gaze out the window and slyly glance over his shoulder and see what he could see in the mirror. This was never very successful, though, and Dan would soon return to his expressions. He practiced looking distracted, and frowny, and intense, and forgetful. These seemed to him to be the range of looks authors projected and it was one of his tasks to try the full range and work out which suited him best.

When he practised his expressions he thought of his signature and when he practised his signature Dan thought about expressions which would at once convey that he was an artist and an individual. Signature practice was important, in case he ever became truly famous and needed to sign things for fans a lot. It would be important to be able to sign quickly and sign in such a way that conveyed his genius. A good looking signature was important. And Dan was never happy with his.

Novelists write novels, don’t they? In a limited sense Dan was correct when he called himself a novelist. He wrote, and he hoped to complete a novel one day. In fact, he hoped to start a novel one day. The combination of “wrote” and “novels” could suggest that a production process existed, but nothing like did, or not yet, and nothing like a novel had actually been achieved. Dan wrote fragments. He liked that word. It suggested unpublished bits of things a writer was working on or perhaps had discarded for some reason. Fragments suggest there is a body of work somewhere. Real work. Finished literary efforts. What Dan had done, by way of contrast, was to bypass the literary output, to dispense with the career, and instead devote his time to short, unconnected, pieces which neither went anywhere nor were supposed to. It was as though he was preparing for a writer’s old age.

The problem was environment, Dan told himself. His surroundings were not conducive to composing a sustained narrative. If he could change his environment that would unlock creativity, his creativity, and it would flow out into such works of fictional variety as would surprise even him. He hadn’t properly written anything yet, after all.

Annie trained parrots while Dan sat in the writing room with the door closed. When Annie and Dan had dressed for the day the dressing room stopped being a dressing room and became Dan’s writing room. Dan would make himself a cup of herbal tea and go into his writing room and close the door, and sometimes he wouldn’t come out for hours. But he usually wasn’t in there that long before he had to come out – herbal tea activated his delicate bladder – and he would hum to himself and try not to make eye contact when he did, as he thought himself in some kind of writer’s zone, under a self-induced creative spell he was endeavouring not to break, and so he would brew another cup of peppermint or fennel tea and retreat into his magical writing cave. Until he had to come out again.

Dexter was Annie’s most talented parrot. He had worked on TV and even been in a couple of films. He could do tricks no-one had ever seen a parrot do, and it was all Annie’s teaching. She spent the entire day working with Dexter, and his mates Dennis, Domingo, and Deidre, and they would squawk when they got excited, they got excited a lot when Annie was with them, and they ate and pooed all day, and even when they were asleep they were smelly. Oh, they were very smelly indeed. They stank. Noisy, stinky, feathery, filthy creatures they were. Even if they were rather lovely. Dan admired their colourings from afar, sometimes, and wondered why they couldn’t behave more like birds in books compiled by natural history illustrators. Those birds didn’t shit everywhere. They stayed where they were put, in the pages of a book, and looked pretty. And they didn’t squawk at all. They were quiet and beautiful and lovely. And they were dead. Dan thought about that, and he realised that he was thinking something silly again, and he made a cup of herbal tea.

Noise was Dan’s main problem. It caused a disruption in the flow of his creative juices. When Dexter and the others were making their especially raucous racket Dan felt he couldn’t hear anything else. He felt like he could hardly think at all. He played music louder and louder as a way of matching the volume of the birds, but this caused its own problems. For next door was the office of an undertaker, and a very good, neighbourly, citizen in the community of Puddingburn he was too. But the undertaker, Mr. Pinch, objected to the overall noise level. The birds were one thing, he said, but there birds and Dan’s Wall of Sound, at the same time, was off-putting to his clients, and he believed some of the local bereaved had already taken their business elsewhere. And this would be no very good thing for the community of Puddingburn, Mr. Pinch said one day on Dan and Annie’s front doorstep, looking down his long thin nose at them. “Good day,” he concluded curtly, before unfurling his umbrella with a flourish and walking the handful of metres back to his own doorstep. A light misty drizzle had begun while he was talking, and Mr. Pinch always carried an umbrella for just such an eventuality. He wore a morning coat and a top hat and he was quite scary. Well, Dan was scared. Annie told Dan not to be scared, that being scared was silly, but she was more than a little bit scared of Mr. Pinch too.

All this got Dan thinking about the offer his uncle Septimus had recently made. An offer of employment. A job – something Dan had never had, nor had had to do. It was exciting to contemplate a position with the Metropolitan Mail Service, and to be considered for a position by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Mail Service himself was something else again. But then the commissioner was uncle Septimus, and the job was a newly created role, supervising mail distribution and despatch, and it was described as the most junior position in the whole Service which still had an office. At first Dan had said a polite thank you and dismissed the idea. He needed time for his writing and he wouldn’t have that time if he was going to work. But when he considered the prospect of Mr. Pinch’s elongated proboscis making a return to the front door, and yet another polite, reasonable, complaint, Dan started thinking differently. It was an office. An office had definitely been mentioned. A real office. Somewhere to close the door, and lock it, possibly, and get some quiet, and not have noise and smell and other distractions, and it sounded good the more he thought about it. He was definitely interested.

And so, a fortnight later, Dan left the house in his newly acquired work clothes. He wore a tweed suit with a tweed waistcoat, and a crisp white shirt, and burgundy tie with a pocket handkerchief of the same colour. The bag he held was also new. A hand-made calfskin briefcase designed to hold up to six quite thick novels in a stack. In his other hand was an umbrella, and as Dan walked he tapped the ground with its tip. He had practised unclipping the clasp and opening the device, he practised doing it slowly and quickly and with grace, but he needed a lot more work before he could do it like Mr. Pinch. As he opened his new umbrella it looked like a number of bat wings sewn together, and these bat wings kept the persistent rain off Dan’s head. He looked up at the spokes of the thing and wondered if bat wings was a good analogy. It was a strange thing to say, and Dan hoped he wasn’t being silly again, but it did look like a bat’s wings. He decided that he was reasonably happy with this description. He was writing as he walked, and he would write while he worked. In his office.

The office was everything he could have wished for. It was at the top of the Superior Post Office Building, several floors above street level, and to reach it you needed to walk up a flight of iron steps, or in Dan’s case, run up them. The lift didn’t go all the way to the top, which explained the iron steps, but this only meant that Dan would have his privacy. Or he hoped he would.

It was a big room with a big door, and there was a key for the door, and the first thing Dan did was lock it. And then he sat down at the big desk. His big desk in his new office. His big desk had hundreds of drawers and enough space to unroll a large map on its baize surface. It was perfect. It was just what he had always wanted. The desk faced the door, so Dan turned it around to face the other way. This took a lot of huffing and breathing hard, as it was a very heavy desk, and his heart was beating noisily when he was finished. He pushed the desk up against the wall. Set into the wall was a window of such wondrous dimensions that it seemed like it just couldn’t be real. It was in the shape of an arch and it showed a panorama of city life in the square below. Workers hurrying and dawdling and doing everything in between. Chatting and smoking and leaning on a column or sitting on a step not doing very much at all. The drama of so many little nothings. The window seemed to be made for him, and Dan couldn’t believe his luck.

Dan’s work day consisted of reading over forms and orders as they were passed through a mail hatch in his door, stamping them to indicate his oversight, and then poking them back through the mail hatch to the other side. Dan didn’t have to speak to anyone and he didn’t have to see anyone else all day. In no time he wasn’t even reading the pieces of paper as they came through the hatch. Someone else would be checking on his work. There was oversight of his oversight. Dan spent his first morning plunged into the depths of his sumptuous red leather chair. It was so wide and deep and he felt so happy. He took out his notebooks and put them on the desk with his pens and pencils. He placed his new calfskin briefcase under the coat rack and he hung up his jacket on a coat hook and he returned to the desk and sunk once again into the red loveliness. His main notebook, the one with ‘Ideas’ written on the cover, was open, and his pencil was sharp, but still Dan looked out the window. He looked down below at the human world, and he looked straight out at the skyline.

A bird joined him, on the other side of the window. It was a pigeon and it strutted and pecked and looked at what he was doing, while Dan looked back at the dirty grey spotted creature. More pigeon friends arrived. Harmless was Dan’s verdict. They were out there and he was in here and he could not hear their cooing through the window. They must have been gathering to launch their lunchtime onslaught on the food scraps left by workers in the square below. This seemed a good explanation to Dan and he was satisfied. He turned a couple of pages in his notebook and thoughtfully wrote: ‘birds’. Then he wrote some more: ‘giant birds’, ‘attack by giant birds’, ‘raised by birds’ ‘man turns into a giant bird’. And then a planet fell out of the sky and collided with the wall of his office. The dozen or so birds on the windowsill flapped and their feathers flew and they made shrill, panicky noises as they seemed to lose all sense of direction. Dan’s floor shook and he realised he had been thrown from his chair and was now sprawling, arms and legs flailing as he tried to get up or to block his ears from the waves of sound which kept coming and reverberating in the room. The echo was hurting his brain and his ears went beyond pain into something else, something deeper and more alarming. He couldn’t feel his ears at all now as he struggled to his feet and saw hundreds of pigeons scattering into the void above the square below. Down there all was calm and order. People went about their lives without a sense than any of the organs in their heads were about to explode. Up where Dan stood, swaying, the sight of order confused him.

Thunderous bangs began to crash with reduced violence as Dan pulled himself together. He could feel his ears again.

A note slipped through his mail hatch and settled on the carpet behind the door. Dan read it. ‘That was the Midday bells from the post office clock tower. It’s next door, you know. Don’t worry: it only does that once a day.’ Dan carried the note over to his desk. He turned it over and wrote a brief message on the back of it. ‘Once is enough for me. Tell my uncle Septimus I’m out. D’. He walked back to the door and pushed the note through the mail hatch.

Dan packed up his notebooks and his pens and pencils and he put them in his calfskin briefcase; he put on his tweed jacket, and taking up his new umbrella and his bag he turned the key in the big door and opened it, and he descended the iron stairs one at a time.

Published in: on May 24, 2012 at 5:51 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I feel like I just stumbled upon gold.

    Thank you.

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