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Underground fugue, p.24

Underground Fugue, page 24


Underground Fugue

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  His father shakes out The Guardian and folds it back. “Bloody hell!” he says. “He speaks!”

  Amir opens the refrigerator and squints into the cold, bright light. “Who speaks?”

  “The Piano Man. Looks like all has been revealed! Amir, don’t let all the cold air out of the fridge.”

  What is he looking for? Orange juice, right. He takes out the carton and drinks from it, then extends it to Miranda, who shakes her head. “You’re disgusting,” she says.

  He shakes the carton to demonstrate. “It’s nearly empty.”

  “You finish it, then.”

  His father is still looking at the paper, shaking his head. “Apparently, a nurse went into the fellow’s room yesterday morning and said, ‘So are you going to speak to us today?’ And he simply replied ‘Yes!’ ”

  “That’s a bit embarrassing, isn’t it,” Miranda says. “After all that fuss.”

  “He’s from Germany, it seems,” his father continues. “Grew up in the Bavarian countryside, near the Czech border. His father owns a dairy farm. He came over to England on the Eurostar from France. He says that he is gay, that he was trying to commit suicide the night they picked him up. Claims he remembers little of what happened after that.”

  Miranda twists her lips. “Is he a hoaxer, then?”

  His father shrugs. “Not necessarily. It’s more complicated than one might think.” He pushes up his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. “The brain sometimes shuts down and erases things, rather like a computer hard drive crash. Abnormal memory functioning can result from psychological trauma or severe stress.”

  “I feel sorry for him,” Miranda says. “You have to be quite desperate to pull a stunt like that.”

  “Hoaxer or not, he’s a nutter either way,” says Amir. But he can understand it. He can understand the desire to flee, to start afresh, to be washed clean.


  They take their coffee and head out back into the garden. The earth is cool beneath his bare feet. Miranda follows, the cat rubbing against her heels. It’s the end of August. The sky is full of low-slung clouds with dark gray underbellies. The air is cool and smells of rain. He sits down on the ground and plucks at the weeds.

  Miranda pulls the cat onto her lap and nuzzles it between the ears. “So all that buildup, and it turns out he’s just an ordinary bloke.”

  Everybody wants a story with a happy ending, Amir thinks. Man lost, man found. Mystery solved.

  “I’m not too surprised, really,” he says. “The whole prodigy thing always seemed pretty farfetched.”

  “I should think his parents are chuffed to have him back, in any case.”

  “Yeah. He’s probably back home already, milking the cows.”

  “Poor sod!”

  His parents are glad to have him back, that much is sure. After the July bombings and the police murder of Jean Charles de Menezes down in the Tube, his father had actually looked scared. Watching the news on TV, it hardly seemed as if it could be real: the man’s dark jacket, his brown Brazilian skin, the seven police bullets fired at close range, the photograph of Menezes’s ordinary legs, in cheap blue jeans and white socks and trainers, sprawled dead across the aisle of the train. “That could have been you,” his father said.

  But it wasn’t Amir. He was right here, safe.

  Miranda lies back on the grass, her knees bent, arms stretched out, looking up at the sky. She looks like a child in his too-big T-shirt, her hair fanned out on the grass around her head. The shirt says UK Decay—a relic from his post-punk/goth phase at school. He doesn’t much care for their music anymore, but he still likes the name.

  “Have a look at the sky,” Miranda says. “Look how fast the earth is spinning!”

  “It’s just the wind.”

  “I know. But we are spinning. And at a rate of a thousand miles per hour, they say.”

  He reaches out and takes her hand. For days after his release, he had faint brown marks along his wrists where the handcuffs had chafed. The ground beneath him is damp. It smells of mud and earthworms, decaying plants and weeds. Her body is close beside him, expanding and contracting with her breath. Its warmth radiates toward him. He can feel her blood faintly pulsing beneath the fine bones of her wrist. Her beating heart, alive beneath her skin.


  They are high above the city, surrounded by points of light. The lights stretch out in all directions, yellow and white and here and there a dot of red, glimmering like stars. Iconic London. St. Paul’s, the Gherkin, Big Ben, the London Eye. The river is a blue-black ribbon, laced with silver and gold. Above them, the four great smokestacks rise. The ziggurat of the power station laid out underneath. Battersea, at last.

  It’s their coming-out party. The curfew has been lifted, the fines paid, the charges cleared. “Time to get back on the fucking horse,” Mole said.

  Bigsby is unfurling rope, singing Pink Floyd under his breath.

  Ha ha, charade you are.

  Since the arrest, since the horrible days in the holding cell, since the questioning and the release, he feels as if he has returned from a long and arduous journey. Now it’s all a blur. Time has bent. Where has he been?

  “Do you remember—?”

  Mole and Bigsby laugh. Bloody wanker.

  At the base of the nearest smokestack, Mole is double-checking the buckles on his harness. Mole’s the third to climb; Bigsby’s on belay. Iron bolts stretch like eyelets up the chimney, the static line that Bigsby set earlier that night threaded through them to the top.

  Mole clips in. He breathes out once, hard. He’s not too fond of heights.

  “Climbing,” he says.

  Bigsby says, “Climb on.”

  Amir is sitting on the flat roof, Miranda beside him, leaning against him. His limbs are slack with fatigue and relief. He wraps his arm around her and pulls her close. It’s her first time on an expedition. He is glad she’s here.

  It is the end of summer. Already the wind smells different. Already it is edged with the chill of autumn, that undertone of regret. He’ll be glad to put this summer far behind him. Up here, though, for the moment, he is free.

  Ha ha, charade you are.

  At the base of the chimney, Mole leans back into the harness and places his boots against the side of the smokestack. He steps up, shifts the ascender, steps and shifts, working his way like a giant inchworm up the stack. He moves tentatively at first, then starts to find a rhythm. Bigsby leans back against the rope, craning his neck, watching. He shifts his hands along the rope as Mole moves up and pulls it tight.

  Even here, below the four great smokestacks, on this vast, flat slate playing field of roof, they’re at least a hundred meters up. Getting this far up was easy. Over the wall they went and up the scaffolding that conveniently stretched like a climbing frame all the way up the A-side building’s flank. Mole and Bigsby led. Miranda clambered after them. Amir took up the rear.

  Halfway up she turned and looked at him, her black cap pulled low over her eyebrows, like a spy’s. “It feels like flying!” she said, making a sweeping motion with her arm. “I can’t believe we’re doing this!”

  “Yeah. Be careful. Hang on tight.”

  The sky seemed to grow larger as they climbed, expanding like a dome. The ground was a winking circuit board of lights. The scaffolding’s steel bars were cold beneath his hands. His heart raced. Gear clipped to his harness clanked around his thighs. As they rose, pigeons roused and flapped into the night.

  Bigsby slides his hands along the rope, still humming.

  Ha ha, charade you are.

  The hulk of the power plant lies beneath them like a sleeping beast, a great stilled wreck. Here, there are no illusions, no pretense. This is as close as you could get to reality, hard and clear as ice. Here time caught fast and stopped. You came and witnessed. You touched but left no trace.

  There is a faint drumbeat, growing louder. The thrum of rotors. Amir squints. It’s a helicopter, flying low along the Thames
at Chelsea Reach. He says, “shit.”

  Miranda stiffens. “Do you think they’ve spotted us?”

  “Better not have done.”

  Amir looks up. Mole is just a small black speck against the smokestack. Could he be seen? The helicopter blinks slowly across the skyline. Then it veers north and turns away. Amir lets out his breath.

  “I get it now,” Miranda says.

  “Get what?”

  “Why you lot do this.”


  “I couldn’t work it out, before. I thought it was just another thrill-seeker’s sport. The sort of thing adrenaline junkies get off on. When you showed me the photos of those grotty tunnels, those disgusting sewer pipes, I thought you were cracked. But this,” she says, gesturing. “It’s so beautiful. Like, spiritual. No cathedral even comes close. Know what I mean?”


  “I want to go everywhere now.”

  He draws his legs up and wraps his arms around his knees. The sky is slowly deepening to violet. The earth is turning. In an hour, it will be dawn. Mole has nearly reached the top rim of the smokestack, tiny as an ant. An hour ago, he had been that ant.

  “This might be it for me,” he says. He hasn’t meant to say this, but as he speaks the words aloud, they sound sure and true. “I think I’m done. Hanging up my hat, so to speak, now that I’ve been here.”

  “What? Really? Why?”

  “I’ve done what I needed to do, I guess.” He shrugs. “Time to quit.”

  “That’s not fair!” For once, she isn’t smiling. He understands her disappointment. He has let her in on this great secret, hidden world, and just like that, he’s slammed the door. But it’s not about her, or them.

  His father was waiting for him when he came out of the police station after his release. It felt strange to be outdoors, to have shoes back on his feet. His father stood beside the idling taxi. The skin on his face was gray and slack, his shoulders bent. He looked diminished, as if it had been years, not just a fortnight, since he’d seen him last. He ran to him and they embraced. His father grasped him tight. He thought he felt him shake. His father was the one in need of consolation, he understood then.

  He could no longer remember why they’d fought, why he’d been so angry, why he’d run away. He’d always taken his parents’ love for granted, chafed against it, pushed against its bounds. But it was fragile, he saw in that moment—an egg in the palm of his hand. His father had pulled back, pushed up his glasses, and swiped his fingers across his eyes. Nothing needed to be said. But that love, he understood now, would keep him tethered to the ground.

  A whoop erupts. Mole’s down. He’s high-fiving Bigsby, giddy with relief.

  “A good night’s work,” Mole says.

  “Aye,” Bigsby says.

  “Good thing we got to do it before it’s gone.”


  It is strange, the way you always remember the outset of a journey, but never the trip back. The anticipation is what remains—the anxiety of preparation, the serrated edge of fear, the gut-dropping liftoff. The return is just a blur.

  Soon they’d be climbing down the scaffolding. Soon the world would shrink back into scale. Soon they’d be home, easing open the front door, sneaking in. The street would be dark and quiet. The house next door had been put up for sale. The old woman who lived there had passed away, and the American had gone back to the States.

  It is the end of summer, the end of his exploring, but it doesn’t feel like the end. Maybe there is no such thing as resolution. Maybe time is just a series of endless variations, spiraling outward, expanding into space. He was home again and yet it wouldn’t ever be the same. His sleep remained uneasy, turbulent with dreams. Water dripped inside the walls. A ghostly hand disturbed the curtains. Lying in bed in the dark, awake, he looked over at his mum’s collage, at the scratched picture of himself when he was little, chasing birds along the beach. “You were a wild one at that age,” his father said. His mother said, “Rubbish, you were just a normal kid.” He remembered the picture, not the actual moment, but to him they felt the same, the emotion and the image, the feeling of running, free as music, down the wave-smoothed sand.

  Now, at the top of Battersea, Miranda rests her head against his shoulder. Mole and Bigsby stand to either side. They stand like ancient conquerors on a hilltop surveying captured ground. Far below and all around them, London glitters like a geode in the gray light of dawn. Even the wind smells prehistoric, of stone and dust and ice.

  They coil their ropes and hoist their packs and drop over the side of the roof and onto the scaffolding. The rusty rungs are cold. Below, the dogs awaken and begin to bark. They are on their way.


  This book began with an NPR piece on the “Piano Man” that I found myself listening to, sitting in my parked car in my driveway, one afternoon in May 2005. It has taken me many drafts and many years to find the story sparked by the image of that lost, mute man, and to all those who have helped me along the way, I am more grateful than I can say.

  Thanks first of all to the James Jones First Novel Fellowship—and to Kaylie Jones, Bonnie Culver, Laurie Loewenstein, Taylor Polites, and the members of the James Jones Literary Society—for giving me the boost I needed at a crucial time. I am also thankful to the Ucross Foundation for granting me a two-week residency in the fall of 2011; I wrote the first thirty pages looking out onto the Bighorn Mountains from my lovely studio on the Ucross ranch. I am also indebted to the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, which gave me a semester off, during which I wrote (and discarded) this project’s earliest draft. I am most grateful for the generous flexibility I have found at Denison University over the past twelve years, and for the R. C. Good fellowship, which gave me much-needed time to write.

  I would not have completed this project without the encouragement and support of my wonderful friends and colleagues, especially Peter Grandbois, whose smart, generous feedback and friendship helped me more than I can say. I am indebted to Nicole Walker, Holly Goddard Jones, and Rae Meadows for their helpful readings of early drafts, and to Susan Kanter for meeting me at the coffee shop and encouraging me to write when I was at my lowest point. Heartfelt thanks go out as well to Mike Croley and David Baker for taking the time to read and talk and offer sage advice. Much gratitude is also due to Ann Townsend, Linda Krumholz, Jack Shuler, Joan Krone, Cookie Sunkle, Peter Slevin, David McGlynn, Sue Davis, Jessica Rettig, Andrea Ziegert and to all my wonderful running friends for their conversation, encouragement, and moral support. Maxine Hong Kingston led a one-week workshop at Denison in 2007, in which I created a collage that has guided me in this project for many years. Finally, a very special thank-you to Rosamund Bartlett, who invited me into her lovely Oxford home for a desperately needed two-week writing “retreat.”

  I am deeply grateful to Irene Skolnick (I owe you lunch!) for believing in this book. And to Dennis Johnson, Taylor Sperry, Kait Howard, Nikki Griffiths, and all the rest of the talented team at Melville House, thank you for all the amazing work you do.

  And finally, to my family—my parents, Dan and Barbara Singer; my children, Micaela and Rafi DeGenero; and above all to my husband, Tim—my love goes beyond words.


  MARGOT SINGER won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award for her story collection, The Pale of Settlement. Her work has been featured on NPR and in The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, Agni, and Conjunctions, among other publications. She teaches English at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Underground Fugue is her first novel.



  Margot Singer, Underground Fugue



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