The Russian, recently bare, but now clad only in tiny vinyl shorts and flip-flops, was telling me all about how the dog days came to be called the dog days. Apparently it had to do with the stars, or the trade winds, or something. I tried to concentrate on the words, but he tended to bend all the vowels out of shape. He had a head of iceberg lettuce pinned to the formica with one bony hand and with the other he sawed away at the vegetable with a breadknife. He was on shore leave from the submarine that was laid up in the harbour like some grey and somnolent hippopotamus. He turned the lettuce round and round with little twists of wrist and hacked away. Every time that he bruised the English language his fine mouth revealed many white teeth. They were just like daisy petals.
I was sprawled on the bean bag, jazzing the last cubes round a faded juice and gin. I was peeling those petals off one by one as he went on and on in his broken English. I was just wondering when he would shut up and fix me another drink when there was banging on the stairwell outside the flat. It was accompanied by the uncouth voice of some miserable crow.
A heatwave – that’s all you heard everyone saying. Reggae on the radio. I’d bought a cheap electric fan from the Rainbow Stores downstairs, but it was also as good as useless. The last few nights it’d been turning nothing but hot air around the room with an irritating wheeze when all I needed was cool sea breeze. To be honest, the Russian’s voice had started to do the same and all this crap about the weather or dogs or whatever was beginning to blend with the stink coming off the nets drying on the quayside. Every little thing’s gonna be all right. He was making such a big deal of preparing the salad while he tried to explain this thing about dog days. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but the evening sunlight buttered his torso as he stood framed in the blue window and yeah his teeth were like daisy petals, but he was waving a breadknife around to illustrate whatever his point was. Meanwhile, lettuce was limping on the chopping board.
I had been dreading this day all summer. The downstairs flat had been vacant since I moved into number 3 late last year. It had been bliss: Iced peace in the wintered windows. But nothing lasts forever and sailors come and go, as will the kiss of early summer. I tied a brief knot at my waist, climbed out of the bean bag and went down to say hi, hello, to my new neighbours.
On the landing below, a crow, with his back to me, was wrestling a corduroy sofa. He had it upended roughly against the wall and appeared to be making some kind of crude love to it. I watched him for awhile, studying the sweat pluming beneath his shirt. The sole of one of his trainers was behind him, jammed up hard against the banister to ensure that the cumbersome two-seater didn’t escape his sweaty clasp.
He was advising someone – someone unseen on the floor below – in that carrion voice (that I recognised now as belonging to someone born and bred of Bristol) that they should get the fuck up here, now.
I disliked him immediately and would have backed up the stairs unnoticed, leaving him to the sofa, had a young blonde not appeared from around the corner below the both of us and spotted me. She was carrying a small, second-hand vacuum cleaner, an upright, one hand cupped beneath it as if it were nearly newborn, the other around the dusty bag.
Hello, said the blonde.
They’re awkward, I say, meaning the stairs. The five of us – me, the blonde, the crow and the sofa, and the baby vacuum cleaner, crowded the landing. The crow put the sofa down, turned around and leaned back against it.
The blonde put the vacuum cleaner down and the crow drew her in close to him, the protection of a damp armpit. His shrunken coals held yellow ghosts. Sometimes, personality, whole history, sometimes futures, will shine right out of eyes. An instant connection, an understanding, unspoken. Everything cut and dry. Much is recognized in a moment. We would fall out before the leaves littered the streets.
Bristol, I say. The crow leans back further into the sprung corduroy underbelly, crosses his arms, an uncomfortable rustle.
What d’you know about it?
Your accent. Bristol. I lived there. Near there. Long time ago. It’s a distinctive accent.
We stood and pretty soon the words evaporated into transparencies, so I went back up the stairs, fixed a gin and fell into the bean bag. The Russian had reduced the lettuce further. He was still speaking, but the sound of the crow and the blonde dragging furniture angrily around the rooms below, smothered the words, emphasised the petals.
Knuckles tumbled at the door. The crow had changed his shirt and was asking where he could get something to smoke in this town.
Oh, I don’t know anything about that.
He peered beyond the threshold. The Russian was sat in the window leafing through a magazine. He looked up at the crow and said slowly in his strange English, speak with the sailors. Good smoke. The crow frowned, assembled the words and headed off back downstairs, saying that when he got some weed, he’d come back. Only part of this came true. By evening they were arguing downstairs.
I couldn’t make many words and by the time I had finished pushing lettuce around the crockery and picking a particularly tricky mackerel dagger from my teeth, all I could find to say was phew. The Russian agreed. Yes. Heatwave. The cheap fan wheezed dead fish net stink in from the quayside and the new strong weed and foul and thoughtless Bristol crow words rose up through the boards. There was an inch of warm water in my glass and through it the daisy petals appeared wilted. He reverted to his mother tongue and the strange language he spoke now sounded ludicrous, ugly, brutal and stupid. He was framed in the dark window space and fading into margarine tones. Who the hell takes a breadknife to an iceberg?