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Mouth

This, titled ‘Mouth’ in my father’s fading hand, found by my sister on a half-concealed shelf in his house after he had died…:

 

The last time I posted a letter I came home unable to speak.

 

The postbox looked as it had looked for the last decade, red, solid and satisfyingly leaden, as if indeed it were made of lead, like one of the soldiers in bright regimental uniform I inherited from my father, and liked secretly to lick, and used to dispose in elaborate battalions on the linoleum floor of my mother’s kitchen, a floor that, when I stretched myself out on my stomach in order to imagine the armies I’d arranged around me, resembled a desert battlefield, especially when I half closed my eyes and mimicked the sound of bombs falling, making soft crepitations with my lips, a battlefield even though the kitchen floor was flat and smelled of the dust ingrained in its surface, a surface that, up close, appeared to be slightly porous, faintly cratered, like the scars on my father’s cheeks, which I associated with his habit of smoking for some reason, a dust so embedded in its surface that it emitted an almost imperceptible atmosphere, distinct from the carpeted or upholstered parts of the house, which were also landscapes to me, an atmosphere more like that of the moon, which has a mist, I’d assumed, that tastes of fine grit, from the fragments of rock that lie scattered on it like bones and teeth, boulders like the round ends of ball-and-socket joints.

 

The red postbox looked as it had done then ever since I’d first encountered it, solid and dependable and smiling, an old friend, a Chelsea pensioner marooned on the side of the road on a tentative trip to the shops, or so I thought when I shuffled round it from the side, momentarily catching my left slipper, I was wearing battered felt slippers, and scraping it with a soft, rasping sound I liked on a piece of paving that protruded slightly, as if a creature I didn’t know existed had cautiously lifted it, like a lid, in order to peer out onto the world with periscopic eyes, then forgotten to replace it, but as soon as I faced it squarely, the postbox, preparing as a robot might to insert my letter into it with mechanical precision, simply for the sake of performing a satisfying act, I felt a shock.

 

I could hear a child on an adjacent street calling repeatedly to its mother in a note of rising panic and clacking a plastic cup or piece of empty tupperware repeatedly on the pavement.

 

The mouth of the postbox was sealed, not as it sometimes is by a solid rectangle of wood painted red, or it might be metal, painted red, that has been bolted there because the postmen are on strike, like a rectangular block that has been jammed by a frustrated child against the empty, oddly mysterious geometric space into which, in a game of different three-dimensional shapes, it is neatly supposed to fit, but as if the postbox had never had a mouth and, from the time it was built, or when it was first positioned there as a sentry on the side of the road, had instead stood like a mute, either patiently observant as the indifferent traffic passed and re-passed or screaming in silent pain, I couldn’t in that instant decide.

 

It was more like a genetic disease, and recalled a photograph I had once seen, or perhaps I’d dreamed about it, since its sepia stain seemed too perfectly redolent of the past to be real, a nineteenth-century photograph, divided into eight sections, no doubt in order to instruct medical students, of seven men and women and one child, he had a dark fringe and his collarless shirt, too large, was pinned tight at his throat with a button, people whose mouths were concealed by a thick membrane of skin, no lips, no teeth, no tongue perceptible behind it, as if a careful plasterer had scraped cement across their faces with his float, I could picture its handle in his hand, I could even feel its barrel curled in my warm palm, and I liked the arc I could trace with the tool as I smoothed it across their faces, lightly smothering them, one skilful movement for each man or woman, and one for the child, whose eyes had an especially trusting, helpless look, and weren’t like the suspicious eyes of the adults with whom he was trapped in this photograph, his family or not his family, it was difficult to tell precisely, the mouth of the postbox had this same shocking blank sameness smeared across it.

 

I stood in front of it feeling the letter that I loosely held between the index finger and thumb of my right hand go limp as if along with the entire object world to which it belonged it was slowly escaping my capacity to grasp it.

 

A plane scraped itself across the sky above my head, its engines so ugly and noisy, like a blunt, serrated blade dragged across the rough surface of a slab of concrete, that it sounded as if, unnoticed, it had slipped into some terminal descent, and ten minutes later, or ten seconds, or one, as the air around me, thousands of feet beneath it, still echoed faintly in the exhaust-filled afternoon, I transferred the letter from my right hand to my left hand, pleased for my hands that I hadn’t had to lower my head and look down at them but sorry for my head that I hadn’t, because it felt so tired and leaden from decades of balancing on my neck, a ceaseless act of will, an endless demonstration of acrobatic skill, and me so clumsy, ever since I was a child, accident-prone my mother called me, called me every time I reappeared on the front door step, my knees so scuffed, if they weren’t bleeding, that I could paint salty moist faces on them with saliva or even better tears

 

I transferred the letter from my right hand to my left hand, then thought of transferring the letter back again, and again, head either raised or inclined, suddenly it didn’t matter, until someone gently stayed my hand with their fingertips and I could stop, but I didn’t, and instead I raised my right hand to the mouth of the postbox, or what had been its mouth once, as if it took courage to do so, and it did, and touched its seamless surface, perfectly laminated, or so it seemed, with a metallic paint that did not blister or crack, leaving the two fingers next to my thumb imprinted gently on it, as in a benediction, when the priest makes a cross on the child’s forehead, a gesture all the more tender because it is automatic, I had always envied that gesture, it made me ache for some reason obscure to me, in a secret recess that can only be reached through my carcass of a rib cage, I don’t mean my heart or any part of me that is made of fat and gristle and muscle, I mean an undiscovered cavity, no deeper than a tiny crescent-shaped cut caused by pressing one’s nail into one’s palm, though whether I envied that gesture because I wanted to be the child and feel an adult’s cool fingertips printed for a moment on my forehead, or the priest, lightly tracing his fingertips across a surface as perfect as an egg in a painted still life, I couldn’t tell, so I left my fingers lingering on the postbox for as long as I could, distantly trying to decide whether its blank mouth, filled in and lipless, as if there had never been a mouth there, frightened me or not.

 

It frightened me, because a car drifted past and it was as if from the front passenger seat I could see an old man standing with one arm raised before a postbox looking so sad and abandoned that I wanted to stop and climb out onto the kerb and hold him like a child.

 

Step by step, I edged around the postbox in my ill-fitting slippers, this morning I thought them loose-fitting, sitting on the unmade bed, speaking out loud simply for the satisfaction of it, and put one felt foot in front of the other, step by step, not looking behind me at the closed mouth that didn’t smile at me, at the heaped back of my once-black anorak, too big to belong to me from the beginning, I should never have let my stupid sister shop for me, step by step, steadily interposing more distance between me and the not-mouth of the postbox, I proceeded down the street, not looking up if a car passed, not listening if I heard voices on the other side of the road, old people I hated with nicotine stains at the corners of their mouths, sans teeth, sans taste, sans eyes, sans everything except their elongated ears like monkeys’ ears, hoping the afternoon might drop through their palsied monkey’s fingers without them noticing, contracture I think the doctors call it, the afternoon disappearing if only they passed little pleasantries amongst themselves, like the cigarette cards they probably thumbed when they were kids, nasty little pleasantries, like the cigarettes they thumbed when they were teenagers, step by step, one foot in front of the other, don’t tread on the cracks, you’ll break your mother’s back.

 

She did once break her leg, my mother, and I remember the look almost of pride when I shyly approached her hospital bed and stood beside my father and sister, as if the cast was something she had made for me, from papier maché and cream, but it must have been because she knew my sister and I had never before seen her lie in bed, she was always up early and late to sleep, perhaps my father hadn’t either, I liked the smell of her sweat when I reached over the cardboard crust of her thigh with my stomach and pressed the side of my head against the static of her hospital gown, gazing past it at the plastic jug of water, with its corrugated sides and white lid, oddly light, like at school, beside a magazine on her bedside table, at least I’d forgotten the postbox for a few paving stones and had almost reached my front door.

 

On the front door step I shuffled round on the flat of my feet, tempted to go on spinning like this, faster and faster, until I felt so faint I’d have to collapse, a nice feeling of helplessness I suspected, but I stopped, standing on tiptoe, when I could see the circular back of the postbox and the crown on top, like a chess piece painted red, without having to strain my neck, which I needed to be a column as rigid and cold as a soldier’s, because my head rests on it like a ball made of stone, and I might be standing there a long time looking at the postbox.

 

But in the end I wasn’t, and I dropped from the tips of my toes to the flat of my feet, for a mother and child abruptly turned the corner beside the postbox, hand in hand, a child of four or five, and slowly approached it, step by step by step, until they stood in front of it, the mother’s head visible above the circular crest of the postbox, tilted to look at her son, the child’s entire body visible beside it, the sleeves of his coat too long, his hands invisible inside them, a white envelope attached to one sleeve like a mitten, a letter he lifted with effort, as if it was made of lead, I glanced at the letter in my hand then up at the mother and child again, he couldn’t reach high enough, to drop it deep into the black belly of the postbox, down its dark throat, his arms were too short, and the mother bent down, speaking to her son, pointing up at the postbox, then she stood up again and looked straight at its mouth, one, two, three seconds, and the child started to cry and I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t speak.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

teaches in the English Department at UCL

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