Wednesday, 18 March 2015

333⅓ (2004)

This story was my 334th story. As I plan to write exactly 1000 stories that will form a gargantuan story cycle, this tale marks the stage where the project was one-third of the way towards completion, or rather one third of the way through the story is the precise point where this happens. Hence the title. The number 334 also suggested Thomas Disch's brilliant novel by that name, so the main character in this tale is called Boz, the name of one of Disch's characters. Numbers are inexplicably important to me. Incidentally, my story cycle is now more than three-quarters done.

“There are no spare rooms left.”
It was a familiar reply and Boz turned on his heels but the landlord reached out and clasped his shoulder with an enormous hand.
“You can have the cupboard under the stairs.”
Boz hesitated a moment and then followed the landlord over the threshold of the door into the lobby of the building. It was the best offer of the past month, a month of walking the streets and ringing doorbells. Space was at a premium in this city right now and available rooms were scarcer than unicorns. The landlord turned on the lights in the stairwell and pointed upwards.
“It’s near the top. I shouldn’t really rent it out, but I feel sorry for young men in your position. There are three hundred and thirty three apartments in this block, so I guess we can just call yours number 333.”
“I’m not expecting visitors or mail,” said Boz.
The landlord shrugged and they ascended the flights of steps together, puffing hard by the time they reached their destination. Boz peered at the door of the cupboard. It was low and small and he would be required to crouch to pass through it, but he was grateful for any form of accommodation, however cramped. Everything in his life had worked out fine apart from not having a home. He had money in his wallet and a full belly but no place to stay. This one problem soured all the good things.
“I’ll draw up a contract and you can sign it tomorrow. Here’s the key.”
Boz accepted the tiny metal object and inserted it into the lock. The landlord had already wheezed off down the stairs and was gone before he opened the door. The cupboard contained a few blankets and a pillow. At the rear were an old vacuum cleaner, a dozen plastic bags and two large cardboard boxes. With a heavy sigh he squeezed into this space and fell asleep. The deep exhaustion of more than four weeks living rough, cold and damp and an easy target for violent drunkards, had caught up with him.
He woke slowly. It was pitch dark and his muscles were aching. He thought about the city and the new building regulations which made it impossible to construct new housing. The authorities were determined to stop the metropolis sprawling outwards any further, nor did they want the skyline encroached upon more than it already was, so building higher was no solution. Boz understood this desire to preserve the city the way it was. It was a beautiful city, as cities go, with courtyards and patios and balconies and roof gardens.
Not having enough space in the cupboard to stretch out at full length, he had curled up in a foetal position, legs hugged to his chest. Now he had terrible cramps. He decided to move the vacuum cleaner, bags and boxes out into the corridor for the remainder of the night. He could always replace them in the morning before his landlord returned. As he moved these objects, he was astonished to discover that they concealed an opening to a tunnel. A faint glow came from its depths and he felt a light breeze on his face.
“How far back does it go?” he wondered.
There was only one way to find out. Crawling on his hands and knees he proceeded down the tunnel. The glow broke apart into a number of individual specks of light like stars and the tunnel itself grew wider and taller. Soon he was able to stand and walk. Wherever he was headed, it was not into the building. This was not a service duct that wove between clusters of water and gas pipes, bundles of insulating fibre and electrical fuse boxes. He savoured the distant scents of honeysuckle, cooking and wine.
The sides of the tunnel were no longer bricks but mossy stones and worn railings. The ceiling had vanished. Somehow he was in a street, the street of a city not his own, a city equally as beautiful, with a castle on a crag and tall houses clustered below it. The stars were lamps on poles. He passed under an archway and impulsively resolved to remain here, not to go back, not that he could ever retrace his steps because he had already forgotten the way he had come. This city was no worse than the one he had left and his wallet was bulging. First he would find a proper place to live.

“There are no spare rooms left.”
Although he expected this reply, Boz did not turn away immediately. He asked the same question he had asked all the other landlords.
“Don’t you have a cupboard under the stairs?”
The landlord licked his lips and hesitated before nodding and leading the way up the flights of steps to the designated space. Boz heaved a sigh of relief. He had found his escape route after another month of rough living. This city was as pleasurable as the one before it, but its charms and opportunities could not be fully appreciated by one who had no place to rest his head at night. Once again homelessness was the fly in the ointment, or something larger than a fly, a crow or vulture.
“I shouldn’t really rent this out, it’s against regulations, but I know how hard it is for young people these days. I sympathise, really I do.”
Boz accepted the key and opened the door. Now his search was over, he was able to relax and enjoy his memories of his brief stay in this unknown metropolis. The first thing to delight him was the discovery that the inhabitants spoke the same language as he did, though with an alluring accent. In return he appeared exotic to them. This city was identical in size to the one he had known but the layout was changed, as if the buildings and streets had been shuffled and replaced on the landscape in a different order.
Boz had a special fondness for the districts nearest the river, the stone bridges and restaurants festooned with coloured bulbs, the steep cobbled lanes and little squares full of musicians and dancers. And that girl on the scooter. But always the fact he lived nowhere spoiled everything. He had even tried to get a job where he might be allowed to sleep safely on the premises, in a kitchen or warehouse, but that was not acceptable behaviour here. Without a place to return to, he was nowhere. His life was on hold, romances had to be abandoned, all his future was suspended until he found a room.
No rooms were to be had. Now he had been given a cupboard instead, but he could hardly be expected to bring a girl back to a cupboard. It was not a home at all, but it represented another chance elsewhere. His wallet was still mostly full, he had spent only a fraction of his savings, and he still had hope. As soon as the landlord was out of sight, he moved the vacuum cleaner, bags and boxes into the corridor.
The opening was there, complete with the faint glow, the glow of the merged streetlights of a third city. He crawled into the tunnel, stood when the ceiling was high enough and began running. Soon he was running down a street, biting scented air. A song emerged from an open window above him, a girl brushing her hair in the moonlight. He slowed his pace, sauntering along with his hands in his pockets, whistling her melody.
A man clutching a newspaper came the other way. Boz stopped him and asked, “Where might I find a place to live in this city?”
“You’ll be lucky,” replied the man. “There’s nothing much here.”
To confirm this assertion he showed the newspaper to Boz, opening it to the section where landlords advertised properties. The page was blank. Boz sighed and the man tried to cheer him up by saying, “You have an interesting accent. The girls will love that.”
“Not if I have no place to go.”
The man shrugged and moved on and Boz went the other way, appreciating the sights and magic of the city, even while another part of him was downcast. Could he meet a girl and move in with her? That option seemed dishonourable and was probably impractical. Better for him simply to start searching now, ringing the doorbells of apartment blocks. If he did not find a room he might still find a cupboard under the stairs, an escape route to the next city. And this process could continue until he ran out of money and cast his empty wallet into the gutter.
The night passed uneasily. The days that followed it passed in the same manner. He grew to know and love this new city but he was never established here. There was wine and food, music also, and a girl. But nothing stable. During daylight hours he enjoyed living, being in the city, but in the evenings he searched for a room. He was always on the move, tense, without a base, aimless, unable to relax.
“No spare rooms? What about a cupboard under the stairs?”
At last he found one and he said goodbye to this city, another month of his life, as he tramped up the steps. The vacuum cleaner was there and the other items too and he moved them out of the way and plunged into the tunnel. The tunnel became a street, the street of a city with yet another reshuffling of buildings and squares. Already he knew it was as full as the previous two. He could hear the city breathe, a breathing composed of the flexing of the floorboards in every room, all occupied. He knew that another month of searching lay in wait, the growing of more stubble in shadows while he waited for morning and the warming rays of the rising sun.
He called to a girl on a street corner, “Excuse me, Miss, but do you know...”
Of course she did not. Suddenly he was overwhelmed by a vision of his destiny. He saw himself passing through city after city without settling in any of them, searching for and finding cupboard after cupboard under a sequence of nearly identical stairways. A future of crawling into tunnels, hurrying down them until they became streets, and then a snatched form of life, taking pleasure between slabs of anxiety, closed doors and rejection. He checked his wallet.
“I have enough money to last another forty or fifty cities. I won’t stop yet, I’ll keep going as long as I can. If I don’t find a place to live, I’ll just keep looking for the tunnel to the next city. When I have only enough money left to pay for my funeral, I’ll climb the highest tower of the city I’m in, wherever that tower might be located, and I’ll throw myself off. That way I’ll have rest and respectability in death if not in life!”

He struggled to open his eyes. Where was he? A gloomy chamber with a pungent odour, some sort of cleaning fluid. Had he found a room at last, a real room, a home? He was naked and stretched out on something hard, not a bed. As his eyes opened fully, the memories settled back slowly in his juddered brain. Many cities, many streets and restaurants and girls. He had been searching for somewhere to live for years. He had explored dozens of cities that were variations of just one city, so many that he had lost count.
There were other people in the chamber with him. An ache throbbed through his bones, fading and then suddenly flaring up, the pain concentrated at a point on his chest. He remembered what he had done, the final moment of despair, the sensation of falling. And yet clearly he had survived. Was he in a hospital? All those wonderful things, his experiences, degraded by the fact he had no roots, and now this? Was he going to be stuck in a hospital for weeks or months? He blinked and waited for his eyes to adjust properly.
The men standing over him did not look like doctors. They wore heavy cloaks and very tall black hats that almost scraped the ceiling. One held his wallet, another was clutching two electrodes in gloved hands, electrodes connected to a machine that hummed and spat in the corner. Boz felt there was an association between this machine and the burning sensation in his chest. The man holding the wallet nodded down at him and said:
“Pleased to meet you, we are your undertakers. You have just enough money to pay for a funeral, we’ve counted it, a single note and a few coins, it comes to 333 crowns altogether, which is exactly our fee. But there’s a slight problem, a minor hitch, and we couldn’t just get on with the burial. So we brought you back to life to discuss something with you, to make a proposal. We all think it’s a neat solution to our difficulty.”
“Tell me,” gasped Boz. His words emerged thin and dry and his efforts to sit up came to nothing. He knew he would never feel more alert than this ever again, but it did not seem to matter. The reply to his question was a murmur but he heard it and managed to roll his eyes in exasperation.
“There are no spare coffins left. But there’s an old tea chest in the attic...”