The Song Inside
(c) by the author
Lan stood at the dark window and looked out over the parking area behind the building. Enough light came in from outside that he could see around the kitchen to fix the coffee and set out the box of cereal and the bowls for their breakfast. He would wait until Tooey got up before he put the milk and sugar on the table.
Their flat was high enough up that he see over the fences to the small back gardens of the row of houses that fronted on the next street over. Lan stretched his neck to the right and left, peering into the distance. He could not see anything moving. Was anyone awake and standing at one of the windows of the houses down there? Would that person lift his head and see the naked man looking out the window? Well, from that angle, all the person would see would be his chest. He wouldn’t know that Lan wasn’t wearing anything.
Lan liked getting up early. When everything was still. Before the noise and the rush covered everything over with sound and motion. When he could enjoy his contentment. Behind him the coffee maker began gurgling as the final drops of water bubbled up from the reservoir and drained into the carafe. It was otherwise so quiet that he heard the bed springs as Tooey rolled over. The smell of the morning coffee always penetrated Tooey’s consciousness. No matter how deeply he was asleep, he always began waking up when Lan put the coffee on.
Lan waited until the last of the water had drained into the pot before pouring the coffee into the thermos. Tooey wanted his coffee hot and ready when he got up. Five years, thought Lan, it’s been five years. Almost four years since they had found and bought the flat. It wasn’t big, but it was ‘big enough’, they had reassured each other. And it had been.
And it was theirs. Not Lan’s, not Tooey’s, not mine, not yours, but ‘ours’. ‘It’s all ours. Lan and I own it now. You have to come over and see it. Come over to our flat.’ Tooey had rung his mum as soon as they stepped outside the conveyancer’s office. Lan’s body had glowed when he heard Tooey say that. Lan could still call up the physical wave of pleasure that had flowed through him as they stood in the street after they had signed all the papers and paid over the money that made them the owners of the flat and he heard the happiness and excitement in Tooey’s voice. ‘Our flat.’
‘We could go on a vacation.’
‘Dunno. Isn’t there someplace you’ve always wanted to go?’
Tooey thought about it. A mental image of a golden beach with palm trees slanting over a deep blue sea rose before his eyes. A cruise ship, the railings of the upper decks jaunty scarlet stripes against the dazzling white of the hull, floated offshore awaiting the return of its passengers from paradise. The sky was undisturbed by clouds, the water barely ruffled by playful waves. Courtesy of his memories of a thousand glossy ads, the vision seemed quite real to Tooey. Then he saw himself and Lan burnt deep red, their noses slathered with that white paste his mum had always made him use, their ample chests and bellies swelling over roomy swimming trunks stretched tight across their wide arses and around their thick thighs. The skin on his shoulders was blistered and peeling. The two of them sat on deck chairs in the thick shade under the palm trees, their heads covered with wide-brimmed straw hats to shield them from the sun. Before them, the other men from the cruise ship, their deeply tanned, muscular bodies barely avoiding total nudity with swimming thongs, cavorted in the warm ocean. We wouldn’t quite fit in with that crowd, he decided. More at home at the buffet than at the beach. ‘Well, we couldn’t go where we might get a sunburn. Remember what that doctor told you about being out in the sun. What about buying a good car?’
Lan snuggled closer to Tooey. He reached across Tooey’s chest and pulled the blanket up over their shoulders. ‘We could buy a car. But where would we go? You want to spend any more of your time driving? Don’t we do enough of that at work?’
Tooey nodded yes. He sighed. ‘You think it would be easier to spend 562,000 pounds. I still can’t believe we won the pools.’
Both of them contemplated their windfall. ‘It were a bit of a shocker for that bank manager.’ Lan smiled with satisfaction as he remembered the scene as they had deposited their winnings.
Tooey snorted. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised that weren’t the largest check he’s ever seen. Oh, lord, here’s Denny come back. The pubs must be closed. Sounds like he’s got someone with him again.’
The two of them lowered their voices automatically as Tooey’s next-door neighbour tramped up the stairs. Two pairs of heavy feet trod the hallway outside Tooey’s flat. The old floors transmitted the vibrations, and the bed quivered with each step. ‘They’ll be shaking the walls soon,’ whispered Lan.
‘I don’t mind the shaking as much as all the groaning.’
‘The lad does like his sex.’
‘Like you don’t, Lan.’ Tooey tweaked Lan’s nose and then hugged him tightly. A rumble of pleasure came from his throat.
Lan sighed with contentment and kissed Tooey’s chest. ‘I like it with you fine enough. I just don’t want to share it with all the neighbours. It’s more ours if we keep it to ourselves.’
‘Oh, here we go. He didn’t waste any time tonight. Must not have taken their clothes off, they were in such a hurry.’
The bed Lan and Tooey were sharing began wobbling. Tooey rolled over on his side and wrapped his arms around Lan as the two men next door began crying out. Tooey spoke into the top of Lan’s head. ‘It’s a real earthquake, it is. We don’t have to visit California. We’ve got our own earthquakes right here.’
‘We should get our own place. Something better built. More private like. We could spend the winnings on that.’ Lan’s muffled voice came from somewhere beneath Tooey’s chin. Lan’s breath was hot and moist against his chest.
Tooey released Lan from his embrace and sat up on one elbow. He grinned at Lan and shouted, ‘Yes! You’re a genius.’ Next door the moaning and exertions stopped abruptly. Tooey laughed. ‘You’re a genius, Lan. No more listening to Denny’s three minutes of fun every Saturday night.’ He didn’t bother to lower his voice. Let Denny think that over.
‘Now just through here is the entertainment centre. As you can see, we have installed the latest in wireless remote connections for …’ Jason White continued on with his practised recital about the units. Tooey and Lan put their heads through the door that led into the small room that the estate agent had christened an entertainment centre. A lounging chair and a large television set occupied all but two or three square feet of the space in the room. A computer monitor stood on a small table against the remaining wall. They didn’t say anything, but they knew that the two of them wouldn’t fit into the room at the same time.
Jason White was nothing if not a professional salesman. The enthusiasm in his voice never faltered when confronted with an inconvenient reality. ‘Now in here is the kitchen.’ Lan and Tooey dutifully followed the agent’s suggestions and opened the cupboards. They looked into the refrigerator and nodded at the agent when he suggested that the ‘easy-to-care-for and efficient’ space was perfect for the preparation of ‘elegant meals’.
The agent sighed inwardly and regarded the two oversized men who stood in the small living room. They were gazing nervously around them at the sleek furniture that filled the rooms. Lan and Tooey had come directly from work and were still dressed in their coveralls. They stood there awkwardly, uncertain what to say. As the silence lengthened, Jason White struggled to think of something that would ease the men out of the apartment. The units in the building had been designed to meet the imagined needs of young, single, busy professionals, and the ‘dressers’ had filled the show units with expensive-looking furniture meant for display and not for use. Two husky, middle-aged men wearing the brown uniforms of the ubiquitous delivery service and contemplating life together in a one-bedroom flat were not the target audience envisioned by the company that had run the building up. Finally, the agent gave them his card and suggested that they call him if they wanted to have another look around.
That was the first of many tours of available flats for Lan and Tooey. They were never quite sure what was expected of them as the agents chattered on about the features of a place. They diligently peeked into closets and cupboards when they were invited to take a look. They examined the appliances in the kitchen and stuck their heads into shower stalls. They turned their faces upwards to look at ‘crown mouldings’. They marvelled at the ‘faux chamfered ceiling’ in one living room and murmured approval of the compartment beneath a kitchen sink in another unit and tried to imagine the things that could be stowed there as the agent painted word pictures of ample storage space. They ran their hands over smooth countertops. They open and shut the ‘solidly constructed’ doors. They stepped out on to balconies and tried to see the ‘view of the Channel’ the agents assured them was there.
When each agent had finished, the two of them stood there stolidly. For reasons they could not explain to themselves and never discussed, none of the places they had seen had felt to them like a place they could live in. In truth, they had no set ideas about the place they wanted to buy. They simply wanted a place of their own. Any place within their means would have done. If an agent had pushed them, they might have bought any of the flats they had been shown. But their lack of enthusiasm misled the agents, who quickly came to regret the few minutes they had allotted to Lan and Tooey. And so, each agent in turn had dismissed them with brief thanks and ushered them out.
‘What’s a “bijou estate” when it’s at home, then?’
Tooey shook his head. ‘Dunno.’
Lan and Tooey regarded the large sign outside the new block of flats on Salop Street as if it would reveal the secrets of the odd phrase. Bright lettering promised ‘Modern living with all the conveniences. One- and two-bedroom bijou estates still available’. Most of the sign was occupied by an artist’s rendition of a typical living room, a spacious vista of modernist furniture edged in chrome. Several magazines artfully fanned out on a glass-topped coffee table suggested readers with an eye for display. A large green, tree-like plant rose in one corner toward the distant ceiling. Gleaming appliances beckoned beyond the opening in one wall to the kitchen. Curtains stirred in a breeze coming through the doors to a balcony. Visible in the distance was the Aegean version of the Channel.
‘What do you think?’ Lan had seen the sign the day before when he had taken a shortcut down Salop Street in his van.
‘Wouldn’t hurt to have a look.’ Tooey tilted his chin toward the bottom of the sign. ‘We could ring him.’ And then he read out loud ‘Richard Davis, Authorised Sales Agent, Branett Properties. Shown by appointment only’. There were three phone numbers at the bottom.
Lan nodded and pulled out his phone and dialled the first number on the sign. The person who answered was surprised to learn that they were standing outside the building and ready to look at the flats. Lan could hear her talking with someone in the office. She shortly came back on the line and promised to send ‘our Ms Reynolds’ over to show them around immediately.
If Allison Reynolds was astonished to be find two large men waiting for her in front of the building, she hid her surprise well. Both of them were much taller than she was and occupied most of the short entrance walkway. The sales manager who had trained Allison Reynolds had taught her to shake hands with every potential buyer as she spoke her name clearly and forcefully. It showed that one was business-like and sincere. She held out her hand to Lan first, and he had looked at it as if he weren’t sure what he was supposed to do with it. Eventually he had taken it briefly, pumped it once, and then released it. Tooey took his hat off before shaking it. Both of them offered her shy smiles and then their own names, their formal names. Lawrence Fisher and Thomas Tovey.
Allison Reynolds happened to secure the sale because of a fluke. She handed Tooey a price list for the unsold units in the building as they stepped into the elevator. Tooey run a finger down the list and stopped halfway down. He showed the list to Lan, who smiled and shook his head yes. The elevator was so small that she could see the number of the flat that Tooey had indicated. It was one of the cheaper ones overlooking the car park behind the building, the ones without a ‘Channel view’.
Allison Reynolds quickly abandoned her plan to show them the display unit and suggested that they ride up to the sixth floor to look at ‘an empty flat’. It was the one that Tooey had singled out on the list. It was a commonplace among estate agents that furnished places sold better than empty ones. The proper way to ‘dress’ a place to make it sell was a constant theme of articles in the trade magazines. But somehow, she felt, these two men were so large that an empty flat would look bigger and more inviting to them. They would barely have room to move in the dressed flat. And she doubted that the vase of colourful flowers and the bowl of wax fruit on the table would mean much to them.
After Allison unlocked the door to the sixth-floor unit, she let Lan and Tooey wander about on their own. She leaned against the jamb of the open doorway into the corridor and watched them. That was the right tactic. As the previous agents had trained them, they opened the doors and looked everywhere, but this time they explored the place on their own. Lan and Tooey had much more imagination that outsiders credited, but they had been taught since childhood to listen to others and respect others’ visions more than their own. When an agent had shown them a place and given them an extravagant description of the life to be led in it, they had listened politely and accepted it as a truthful account of how people lived in such spaces. But it wasn’t their life, and the description never touched them. The furnishings in the display units had struck them as hard and uninviting–the types of chairs and sofas one put in the ‘good’ sitting room, if one had one. The sort of chairs only guests ever set on, a chair where one had to worry about sitting up straight and being careful not to spill or get crumbs on the upholstery. Not a comfy chair for putting your feet up after a long day and watching the telly, maybe drifting off to sleep during the dull bits. By being quiet, Allison let them tell themselves their own story of the life to be lived in that flat.
‘We could put the bed there.’ Tooey swung his head around briefly to glance back toward the hall door to make sure the agent couldn’t see them.
‘If we left the curtains open, we could watch the stars. That window faces west. We could see the moon some nights.’ Lan pointed through the double doors to the small balcony outside the bedroom. ‘We could even sit outside in the summer.’
‘That’d be nice. Nobody could see us, we’d be high enough up.’
‘And there’s nobody upstairs and the hallway runs outside that wall. So there would be no one to hear.’
‘The shower is big enough for the two of us at the same time.’
‘Tooey, what are you on about?’
‘Nothing, just talking.’ Tooey shrugged, and the two of them smiled at each other. They looked into the small bathroom again and measured the size of the shower stall against their own bodies. ‘We’d fit. We could do it, Lan.’
Lan touched Tooey on the arm. ‘We’d better keep looking or that woman will start wondering what we’re getting up to.’
‘I’ve already got some ideas what we could get up to.’
‘Tooey, behave.’ Lan tried to frown ferociously but he was grinning. ‘At least until later.’
Eventually Lan came to rest before the window in the kitchen looking out over the view behind the building. Within a minute or so, Tooey ambled in and stood behind him. Both of them stared out the window. Allison Reynolds couldn’t have known it, but Lan and Tooey had seen the Channel their entire lives and saw it every day as they drove their delivery vans around the city. It was so much a part of their lives that they never thought about it most of the time. It was just something that was there, nothing special. A Channel view held no allure for them.
From the back window, they could see the neighbourhoods in which they had grown up and the neighbourhood in which each now separately rented a studio flat. Their history was there, right before them, and they were seeing their future. From the doorway, Allison Reynolds watched the two men standing there. They weren’t actually touching each other, but somehow they were. Lan had disappeared behind Tooey’s broad shoulders and thick torso. Only his head was visible off to one side. Against the bright light coming through the window, it looked as if the two were sharing one body.
‘What do you think?’ one of them whispered.
‘It’s nice, isn’t it?’
‘There isn’t enough room for all our furniture.’
‘Your nan needs a new sofa. She can have the one in my flat. We can sell the rest of what we don’t need.’
Both of them turned to Allison Reynolds and said, ‘We’ll take it.’
Lan stood at the same window, looking out at the same view. It was his habit. It was the way he started every day. ‘Five years,’ he thought. ‘It’s been five years.’ Five years since the first time. But they hadn’t really begun to live together until they had bought the flat. The places they had been renting had been so small, and the neighbours so close. Both of them had felt constrained, unwilling even to whisper about personal matters in the fictitious privacy of those small rooms with their thin walls, choking back the groans of the pleasure each found in the other, so that the only sound was a sharp gasp of the breath, quickly stifled. Both were only too aware of the times they had heard their neighbours going at it.
But their own place had been different. They lay in bed at night, cuddled up next to each other, with the curtains open, sharing the night. And they talked. With no one else to hear them, they spoke about things they usually kept to themselves. Things that were important to them, the small private joys and truths they had wrestled from life. Their flat had been the place where they had grown together and found the song within themselves.
That’s how Lan thought of it, the song within Tooey and himself. The music that only Tooey and Lan made, that only they could hear. Some mornings when he awoke with the side of his face pressed against Tooey’s chest, he could feel Tooey’s breath against his hair. Sometimes he could hear heart beats. He was never quite sure if he was hearing the sound of his own heart beating in his ears or the sound of Tooey’s heart beating in his chest. In the end, he decided it didn’t matter. As long as they were together.
Behind him, he heard Tooey’s loose slippers flapping against the floor in the living room and then across the tiles in the kitchen. Tooey wrapped his arms around Lan and hugged him close, his chin resting on Lan’s shoulder and his head pressing hard against Lan’s. Lan gave himself a moment to enjoy the feeling of Tooey’s hairy chest against his back, and then he turned his head, and the two of them kissed. They looked out the window. It was growing lighter outside. Below them someone had let the dog out into the back garden, and they watched as it raised it head and sniffed the air.
‘Morning, Tooey. Coffee’s ready.’
‘In a minute. Got something more important to do.’ Tooey kissed Lan’s neck again and hugged him tightly. He swung Lan around so that both of them were facing the kitchen counter. ‘The cake looks nice, don’t it?’ The two of them regarded the cake sitting on the plate beneath the clear plastic dome. Neither of them was domestic. Before moving into the flat, neither of them had had more than a small electric kettle to heat water. Confronted with a functioning kitchen, they had at first contented themselves with heating up take-away on the few evenings they ate in. Without ever discussing it, they had begun to eat more and more meals at the small table in their kitchen. It just felt better to them to stay in and not share their lives with other people.
Tooey had found the old cookbook in a box of books discarded on the pavement and brought it home. It had sat on top of the refrigerator for several weeks before Lan had opened it and paged through it. He found a recipe for a French beef stew. The ‘daube’ didn’t look hard, and on his next afternoon off, he had copied out the list of ingredients, found them in the store, and then made the dish. Tooey had raved about it and then boasted with pride of Lan’s accomplishment to anyone who would listen. The two of them had then begun trying out other recipes. They had even braved a few evenings watching Nigella on the telly before Tooey had remarked, ‘That woman’s getting far too personal with them chops. She should be arrested for doing that.’ They had returned to the cookbook, their kitchen bible. They followed the directions exactly, and the results satisfied both of them. It wasn’t so much that they liked cooking, but they liked doing things together and making things for each other.
The previous evening, they had carefully followed the instructions in the book and baked a two-layered ‘gateau’. Tooey spread a thick coating of raspberry jam over the bottom layer and then carefully positioned the top layer over it. As always when he was concentrating on a task, he stuck his tongue in one of his cheeks and scowled fiercely. The cake had been slightly lower on one side, but Tooey had spread more icing on that side to level the top off. Lan had then carefully placed walnut halves at regular intervals along the top edge. He had seen a cake decorated that way in the bakery section at a Sainsbury’s. Tooey’s ‘Now that looks nice’ and approving nod almost overwhelmed him with happiness.
‘Should we get some ice cream? Vanilla would taste good with the chocolate cake.’ Tooey spoke tentatively as if the idea had just occurred to him. He tried not to let his liking for ice cream show too openly.
Lan chuckled with affection and said, ‘We’ll stop on the way home from work and buy some.’ He reached up and pressed his hand against the side of Tooey’s head.
That evening after supper he and Tooey would place five candles on the cake. They would turn out all the lights in the flat and then light the candles. They would wait until the candles had burned down a bit, watching them flickering in each other’s eyes, before blowing them out together.
Tooey kissed Lan’s neck again. ‘Luv,’ he whispered, or maybe he said ‘love’.