Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Unstable Equilibrium

Unstable Equilibrium

Nexis Pas

© 2008 by the author

Nexis Pas asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

‘It’s a wonder it stood all these years.’ Dahl nudged Cab with his elbow. They both tilted back on their heels and peered up through the hollow shell of the old house.

Cab nodded his head. Dahl was right, he thought, it was a wonder. Over the past few weeks, the builders had gradually gutted the inside of the building and then began removing the exterior, starting with the slates that covered the roof. The eaves troughs and the windows had been taken away next. The past week they had removed the long boards that had covered the outside of the house. Each piece had been carefully numbered and inventoried. Only the timbers that formed the frame of the house remained, set on a stone foundation. They were blackened with age and eaten away at the edges. It looked as they had been through a fire. The wood was so decayed that Cab felt he could tear a piece away with his hands and crumble it into dust and ashes in his fists. Then the slightest push would cause the structure to tilt and then slowly collapse to the ground, leaving only a momentary cloud of dust to record its existence.

‘Habit. That’s what it was. It was habit that held it together all these years. It just got used to standing there, and it never thought about doing anything else.’

Cab smiled at his friend and repeated the word ‘habit’. He laughed and said the word again. Dahl had good notions sometimes. ‘That’s good.’

Scaffolding rose both inside and outside what remained of the old house. A large sign hung halfway up the front proclaimed ‘Winters Property Services. Specialising in Restorations and Renovations’ with the address and a phone number below. The lettering was in an antique style, and Cab had had to ask Dahl to read the sign to him. The two of them had run across the site in one of their long rambles about the city a few weeks before.

Cab liked to rummage through the discards left on the pavement to find things to add to his collection. He especially liked searching through the rubbish at demolition and renovation sites. A lot of the stuff there was really old, and he had found some of his favourite treasures that way. Dahl had once asked him how he chose stuff for his collection. He had tried to explain. Most of the objects were dead. He wasn’t interested in the dead things. But other things spoke to him and told him their story. A lot of the stories were happy ones and those he put at the front of the collection, so that he could listen to them often. Some of them were sad, and he didn’t listen to those much. Sometimes he was in the mood for a sad story, though. He might cry a bit when he heard it, but he felt better after. There were other things, horrible things, with awful stories. At first when he had run across one of those, he always broke it. Usually that was enough to silence it, but from time to time he ended up making two things with bad stories where there had been only one. Now whenever he found one of the bad things, he covered his ears and hurried away. Dahl had to run to keep up with him.

He had tried to explain this to Dahl, but Dahl just got that confused look on his face that he got sometimes when Cab tried to talk to him. Cab knew he wasn’t making any sense. The words were clear in his mind, but he could never get them to come out together in the proper way, not like Dahl and other people. And then he got frustrated and angry and stopped trying to speak. Dahl told him it was all right. He put his arm across Cab’s shoulders and hugged him and told Cab that he understood. But Cab knew he didn’t. Dahl didn’t hear the stories. No one heard the stories. That’s what made him different, Cab knew that. Things spoke to him. But Dahl was being nice to him. He was trying to help Cab. And so Cab put his arms around Dahl and did the things that Dahl liked, the things that left Dahl speechless and groaning.

Cab hadn’t been able to add anything to his collection from this site, however. Since the day he and Dahl had first spotted the builders at work, he had made sure that he led Dahl down this street every day so that he could check. These builders weren’t discarding anything, though. Everything that was removed from the house was tagged. The man who was in charge stuck a label on every item and then recorded it in a computer before the workmen removed it. Cab and Dahl had watched him long enough that they knew the routine now. Each item was plotted on drawings of the house and given a code and then stowed on a truck to be hauled away to a warehouse.

They hadn’t known what the man was on about until one day some other man who stood there with them watching had asked him what he was doing. Kurt—that was his name, they found out later—motioned the other man forward to show him what was on the computer screen. Dahl and Cal had taken that as permission for them to have a look, too. Kurt spread out the house plans. ‘We given each room a number. The walls are labelled N, E, S, W, for north, east, etc. The ceiling is C, and the floor is F. Each item gets a code that shows what room it came from, and where in that room it was. After we replaced the studs and joists, we’ll rebuild the place. We’ll put everything back where it came from. We reuse as much of the original as possible. If a piece is too damaged, then we use it as a model and make a new one to match. That way, when we finished, the building will look the same as it did before, but it will be reinforced, and it will have new wiring and modern plumbing and heating. But all that will be hidden. It will look just like a house built in the nineteenth century.

‘He has a good body, nice hands, strong hands, thick arms,’ Dahl said later. He and Cab were sitting in their pub having the pint they allowed themselves each day.

Cab nodded. He knew who Dahl was talking about. ‘Nice voice. Polite.’ Now it was Dahl’s turn to nod. They had similar tastes in men. Neither of them said anything more about Kurt, but both knew that they had reached a decision about him.

Thereafter they visited the site each day unless the weather was very bad and watched for an hour or so. Kurt and the other workmen got used to the two of them standing there, Cab with his stolid, expressionless face and the talkative Dahl commenting on everything they did. Cab and Dahl wore the same heavy black wool jackets each day and had stocking caps pulled low on their heads. Their hands were thrust into their pockets. They would take up a position out of the way and stand there, hardly moving from the spot. Their eyes never missed anything.

Kurt became so accustomed to them that he waved when he saw them. Dahl would wave back. Cab just nodded, trying to be friendly like--he wasn’t one for grand gestures like Dahl.

‘Ask Kurt about habit.’

‘You want to hear him talk again?’

Cab nodded.

‘Come on then.’ Dahl led the way across the street, and they waited politely until Kurt had finished speaking with one of the workers. ‘We was wondering. What was holding the building together. Me mate here says it was habit.’

‘Your mate’s not far off the mark.’ Cab blushed. He knew it hadn’t been his idea, but he liked that Kurt gave him the credit for it. In a way, now it was his idea. Dahl had just made him a present of it. Dahl was nice to him. He wished he could touch Dahl to thank him, but Dahl had said that he mustn’t touch him that way in public. That other people wouldn’t understand. But then Kurt started speaking again, and Cab had to pay attention to him.

‘It’s called “unstable equilibrium”. Any one part wouldn’t hold up, but all the parts together balance each other out. The strength of one part makes up for the weakness of another. It is kind of like the house had gotten into the “habit”, as you said, of being a house, and it just remained that way. But if you take any part away, the rest would becomes unstable and the house might collapse if it weren’t propped up. But even if you replace the missing part, you can’t get the structure back to the way it was before. Same if you add anything new. That’s what makes it “unstable”. Some systems return to the same equilibrium each time, and that’s a stable equilibrium. Other systems have to find a new equilibrium each time something is changed, and that’s an unstable equilibrium. And if you’re not careful with a house this old, the new equilibrium might be as a pile of boards lying on the ground.’

Cab and Dahl smiled at Kurt. Dahl thanked Kurt, and the two of them walked back across the street and watched for a bit longer. Cab didn’t really understand the explanation, but he would puzzle over it. Eventually he would process it, and it would become part of the way he looked at things. Dahl had already forgotten it. He hadn’t cared what the explanation was. He had just asked because Cab wanted to know.

‘Gay,’ said Cab.

‘You’re sure?’


‘Wonder where Kurt lives?’ Dahl spoke with more interest now that he knew that Kurt was gay. Cab was never wrong. He always knew. Somehow the way that men reacted to his looks and his manner told Cab if they were gay or straight.

‘Sign.’ Cab suggested.

Dahl looked at the sign on the scaffolding. ‘Kurt Winters, do you think?’

Cab shrugged.

‘Upper Bingham Circle, no. 23,’ Dahl read the address on the sign aloud. “That’s all houses up there. Maybe he runs the business out of his house.’

‘Not far.’

‘No, it’s an easy walk. We could go tonight. If we see his van, we know it’s him.’

‘Talks nice.’

‘You want to talk like that?’


‘He can teach you.’

‘Nah. Couldn’t learn. Besides.’

‘Yeah, he’ll be like the rest of us. Won’t talk much after a while.’ Cab and Dahl smiled.

‘No talk. That’s nice, Dahl.’

They waited until eight that night before they ventured out. Cab put on his coat and waited on a chair in the front hall while Dahl did the washing up. Dahl looked down the hallway as he dried his hands on the towel looped through the handle of the refrigerator. ‘All ready then? Let me just have a piss, and I’ll be right with you.’

Cab nodded and smiled.

When Dahl came back, he bent over and kissed Cab on the ear and whispered, ‘Who’s me horny lad then?’ He blew a puff of air into Cab’s ear and then licked it with the tip of his tongue. Cab giggled.


‘We can continue this later, if you like.’

‘Like.’ Cab rubbed the back of one of Dahl’s thighs as Dahl pulled his coat from the peg and put it on. Dahl hummed to let Cab know that Cab was making him feel good.

‘You should put your gloves on. It’s colder tonight. You got your keys?’

Cab nodded. ‘New trainers.’

Dahl looked down at their shoes. ‘Yeah, it’s about time. We’ve been walking a lot lately. Time to replace these pairs.’

Dahl turned off all the lights but the small one in the front hall and locked the door behind them. The two of them walked off, Dahl chattering away and Cab dipping his chin from time to time to show that he was listening. Occasionally he said ‘right’ or ‘left’ to indicate where they should turn. Cab’s internal map of the city was never wrong, and Dahl never questioned his directions.

Upper Bingham Circle wasn’t well lit. The streetlights were far apart and weren’t very strong. The pulses of light coming through the curtains of most of the houses revealed that people were watching the telly. Number 23 was dark. No one appeared to be at home. Dahl and Cab stopped and looked down the driveway that led to a garage behind the house. A white van like the one Kurt owned was parked outside.

‘Same license.’

‘So it’s his house then. But doesn’t look as if he’s home.’


‘Maybe. What’s the nearest one?’

‘Mansard. Kenner Road.’

‘He might have another car, though. Could be anywhere. Should we have a look in at the Mansard? Just to see if he’s there. Then we can go home.’

‘Not go in.’

‘I’ll just pop my head in as if I’m looking for a friend, like. You can wait outside. I won’t be but a minute. You’ll be fine. I’ll just look in and then come right back.’


Dahl kept his word. He knew that Cab would get upset if he didn’t and might start fussing. It wasn’t always easy to get him calmed down in public. In private, there were ways to distract him and make him happy, but in public Dahl had to be more discreet. So he opened the door to the Mansard, looked around briefly, and then came back. ‘He’s there. By himself and watching the telly.’


‘Yeah, I’ll go back on Saturday. But there’s no way to be sure he’ll be there. We were just lucky tonight.’

Cab smiled. ‘Saturday. Kurt at Mansard.’

‘You’re not always going to be right, mate. One of these days you’ll be wrong.’

‘No. Always right. Know.’

‘Yeah, somehow you do, Cab.’

‘Helping. Thanks.’

‘My pleasure, luv.’


‘Yeah. Just what I was thinking.’


On Saturday night, Dahl arrived at the Mansard at 7:30. He got a pint and then found a seat along the bench against the back wall. He wanted to be there when Kurt came in and looked around. Just be part of the scene. The pub wasn’t busy yet. It was raining again, and that may have kept people away. That was better for what he had to discuss with Kurt. Some things were easier to say when you didn’t have to worry about others listening in.

Anyone who didn’t know Cab would have thought it a daft errand. To sit there and expect someone you didn’t know to talk with you. But Cab was always right. When he wanted to know things, somehow he always did. So Dahl was patient. Kurt would show up, and he would see Dahl sitting there and recognise him and come over to say hello. Which is precisely what happened.

Kurt walked in just after 8:00, went to the bar and got a drink. He stood there joking with the barman for a minute. When the barman left to attend to another customer, Kurt turned around and slowly surveyed the other customers. His eyes drifted from person to person, some he passed by quickly, on others his gaze lingered. He lifted his glass to greet a couple of people he knew. And then he looked at Dahl.

Dahl sat there, staring at Kurt, refusing to shift his eyes away. He could see that Kurt was trying to place him and remember how he recognised Dahl. Eventually he did. He turned to the barman, pointed at Dahl, and then ordered a second pint for Dahl. He walked over, carrying a pint glass in each hand. He sat one down in front of Dahl, next to the first glass.

‘Where’s your brother, then?’

‘He’s not my brother. Lots of people make that mistake.’

‘Sorry. You look so much alike, I thought you must be brothers. Didn’t think the two of you were ever separated.’

‘Saturday he spends with his family. It’s my day off until they bring him back about 10:30.’

‘Day off? You make it sound like a job. The two of you never seem to do anything but watch other people work. Lots of people would like a job like that.’

‘Taking care of Cab is my job. His family hired me to do it. And he likes to wander around and watch people and collect things. That’s what he does. He collects things. I just make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.’


‘You’ve seen him. What he looks like. Lots of people fancy him. If someone’s nice to him, then he goes with them. Before I started watching out for him, he would wander around and people would take advantage of him. Men mostly. Sometimes if they weren’t nice to him, well what he thinks of as nice, he’d get upset and there would be problems. So his family hired me. So now I go along with him and keep him out of trouble.’

‘He’s simple, then?’

‘No. Cab’s smart enough. There’s just something wrong with his brain. He can’t get sentences out. Just words. And when people want him to speak and he can’t, he gets upset and then angry. I know how to keep him calm.’

‘That’s why he never says much.’

‘He’s special like. He doesn’t see the world like the rest of us. Cab knows things.’

‘Got the second sight, has he?’ Kurt’s mouth curled into a sneer.

‘Yeah, he knew where I could find you tonight, and he sent me to get you.’

‘To get me? What’s he want me for?’

‘What do you think? He fancies you. He’s gay. You’re gay. Two men together in a bed. You figure it out.’

Kurt scowled at Dahl. He didn’t like the answer. ‘So you find him dates. Is that part of your job description? That must have given the people at the Jobcentre a laugh when they read that.’

‘He finds his own dates. He just saw you and heard you talking, and he decided that you’re “nice”. That’s his grandest praise. “Nice.” He decided you’re nice. My job is to talk to you, explain what’s what, and bring you back.’

‘This is weird.’

‘Some people might think it is. But once you know Cab, it won’t seem weird. Think about it. Why did you buy me a pint? How often do you do that for someone who’s been hanging around, watching you work? You don’t even know my name. You saw me and you thought about Cab, and you’re hoping if you chat me up, you’ll get to meet him.’

‘I just felt like doing it. Okay? No big deal. And what’s your name?’

‘Kevin, Kevin Dahl. But Cab always calls me Dahl. That’s another thing he doesn’t like. He wants everything to have its own name, separate like. He already knows someone called Kevin and so he calls me Dahl. You must be the only Kurt he knows because he calls you that.’

‘How’d you know my name?’

‘Your men call you that.’

‘Oh, yeah, right. And his name is Cab?’

‘That’s what he calls himself. He won’t tell anyone why.’

‘And what if I fancy you instead of this Cab?’

‘You never do. It’s him you want. He knows that, or he wouldn’t have sent me to get you. If he thought you wanted me, he would have told me.’

‘So you’re here to deliver the goods, me being the goods.’

‘Yeah, and to explain some things you should know.’

‘Like what?’

‘Just don’t expect him to talk. If you want talk, you do the talking. He’ll nod his head or maybe say a word here and there. But don’t ask him any questions. He can’t get an answer out. And be nice to him. That’s all you have to do—just be nice to him. He’ll do the rest. He always seems to know exactly what his men like. You’ll have fun. He’ll make sure you enjoy yourself. All his dates end up moaning their heads off. He’ll leave you speechless.’

Kurt smirked in disbelief. ‘And what about you? You stand around taping the action or something?’

‘I sit downstairs and watch the telly. After the guy leaves, I go upstairs and we go to bed. Sometimes he wants to tell me a story about the guy. Not a real story. Not what you or me would call a proper story. What he calls a story. It’s just stray words. He can’t put them together. But sometimes he knows something that happened to the guy in the past, and he wants to tell me about it. If he tells me a story, then I know he’ll want the guy to come back again. If Cab doesn’t have a story or he won’t say anything, then I know we’ll never see the guy again.’

‘Man, this is weird.’ Kurt shook his head.

Dahl pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. ‘Here’s the address, and my phone number. In case you get lost. There’s a place to park beside the house. Cab likes to walk, and we don’t have a car. So you can park there. Just be there about 11:00. Thanks for the drink. But I didn’t touch it. So you can have it if you like.’ Dahl stood up. He pulled his cap from a pocket and put it on.

‘You’re going then?’

‘Yeah, I’ve done what I was supposed to do. See you later.’

‘Don’t be so sure of that, mate.’

‘No, it’s Cab that’s sure. He’s never wrong about such things.’


‘Never. See you around 11:00.’

Later that night, after Dahl had joined Cab in bed, Cab put his head on Dahl’s shoulder and said, ‘Equilibrium. Nice.’

‘We’ll have him back then?’

‘No voice.’

‘Yeah, I could hear him moaning over the noise of the telly. You worked your usual magic, chum. He was a happy man when he left.’

‘Make no voice. Kurt no words too.’