THE MISERY.

He was sick of sleeping on piss-stained mattresses, three to a bed, someone’s shit-stinky socks up in your face all night. He was sick of lining for hours for a bowl of shit-stinky soup which more often than otherwise was a piece of brown carrot floating in some muck that had been thickened with oatmeal so you couldn’t tell if you were eating breakfast or dinner or some other meal altogether. He was sick of looking for new cardboard every morning to poke inside his shit-stinky, leaking boots, and he was sick of washing without soap so the grease never came off but just smeared itself further around. He was sick of arguing with Lipsky about religion and Lipsky claiming each argument won, purely by a quote from the bible he carried in his trouser back-pocket. He was sick of Avril Landers the masochist who, in an act of masochistic self-loathing had embraced Judaism and all the suspicions and hatreds and persecutions, and the occasional Jew-bashings that went with it.

He was sick of the shit-stinky heat of the summer and the bone-icy cold of the winter and the always never-quite-niceness of the other two seasons, and his one suit of clothing that was never the once right for any of it. He was sick of not being drunk-arsed around the place any more. Sick of the out-of-reach drunk-arsed possibilities of the bottles of whisky and gin and brandy and schnapps and bourbon and white Jamaican rum in the liquor shop windows, all shiny with the gleamy promise of a good solid drunk-up but him never having the where-with-all to even walk through the damn door, let alone purchase a pint. He was sick of responding to the, ‘How’s it going, Grigor?’ of Carlson, the balding barber, leaning against the jamb of his barber shop door, waiting for the odd one or two with a bill-clip fulsome enough to cover some other human being getting up to tend their hair, and he was sick of his own constant reply of, ‘Not too bad, Carls, not too bad,’ when it was clear to all and sundry around that that was not so much the case at all, and it was bad, certainly for him, in any which-way you wanted to look at it. He even thought, when he looked clear through into the depth of the thing, he might be sick of the breathing that was keeping him up and alive, and at the same time he was sick to the heart of the knowing that he couldn’t do anything about it because his dang God had applied him with the God-stinky, overriding sense of the devil-you-know, and a fear of the possible horrors of any after-death, if one did indeed exist. He was sick of not having a raincoat, or cigarettes, or an emollient for his piles, or the feeling of hope that any day would be any different from any other you could choose from a calendar of the past ten years, or indeed the next ten. Or twenty.

Anyway, that was his feeling on it. He was turning his mind to the idea of getting a paper and pencil stub and jot down a list of the things he wasn’t sick of, but there was no paper and no pencil stub, and very little-to-no chance of getting either and he started feeling sick of that, the not having and there being no chance of having those things, and he consoled himself with the thought that there would be precious little to put in any kind of a list like that anyway, if in fact there was anything at all.

Full of the sickness of things, he took two pages from what was left of his two-month-old copy of ‘Der Stern,’ and he stuffed one into each boot and got up to find Lipsky to discuss the soundness of God’s judgment to give all and sundry the free will to do whatever they like, and then punish them for using it.

Lipsy was in the shared toilet at the end of the bare-boarded corridor on the third floor of their long-abandoned apartment building, clearing his lungs of the night’s accumulation of mucus, which was coming now with the bright red speckling of blood, both the result of smoking the contents of collected cigarette-end throw-aways, rolled in pieces torn from the two-month-old ‘Der Stern,’ shared with Grigor. It was the only functioning toilet over the entire six floors and as such was seen as a holy place by everyone, right down to the rock-bottom atheists.

Avril Landers was there already, beside the door, waiting in his own-formed one-man queue, his bowed head topped by skullcap which was actually a stained table doily with a large cigarette burn leading to the centre like a geometric radius. It was held to his head by a stationery clip with fold-down handles, as bobby pins, the natural choice for the purpose, were a rare commodity in his world. As Grigor approached, Avril said, ‘Shalom,’ and Grigor replied, ‘Shalom, rabbi. Good morning,’ and Avril Landers nodded his head, without once taking his eyes from the floor, and said, ‘Perhaps.’

Grigor stood behind him, which had the effect of lessening Avril Landers’ anxiety, as he worried at the possibility a man forming a queue of which he was the only participant, being misinterpreted as lurking, and not queuing, as he himself was. The lessening freed him to more fully concentrate on the other anxieties he carried with him, anxieties traded daily with Grigor in a kind of card game of concept-snap, where Grigor would play, ‘I’m sick of something-or-other, and Avril would play, ‘I worry about such-and-such,’ until their sicknesses and anxieties would match in a ‘snap,’ and they’d pause the game to more fully and formally discuss the item at length.

On the street outside, a khaki army truck passed, its high, tarpaulined tray piled up with wooden crates heavily stencilled in bold red letters, indicating the contents could kill in the unprejudiced blink of an eye if not handled with the required common caution and respect. The engine backfired loudly, causing Avril to jump and Lipsy to swallow a clot of his own red flecked phlegm. Perhaps because he was sick of being startled by life’s suddennesses, Grigor didn’t react except to say, ‘It was a motor backfiring.’ Avril looked at him and he added, ‘If it were a gun, and something around here would have smashed. A bomb, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation, such that it is, Avril Landers.’

In the toilet, Lipsky spat and wiped his mouth and moved the broken chunk of concrete that served to keep the door from swinging open, as the catch had been rendered unfunctional when, some months earlier, Victor Tessler had locked himself inside and selfishly died on the floor, of cause or causes unknown. It had been a delicate operation to smash their way in while retaining the integrity of the door’s frosted glass panel, particularly as Vlad Ripsky, the only one in the building with beef enough for the job, was being propelled by a bowel-induced desperation. He did it with a shoulder padded by a piece of ragged towel and Vic Grindenko, who had once been a meteorologist of some modest acclaim, held the door closed shut for him immediately after, as Ripsky could only raise an arm to the calls and clappings and sighs of relief of those looking on, as the need to vacuate his bowels was at that point more than greatly pressing. The operation was universally deemed a triumph.

As Lipsky emerged, Landers entered, and as they pressed past through the doorway Lipsky said, ‘Landers,’ and Landers responded, ‘Lipsky,’ then the door was pushed closed and Grigor and Lipsky heard the concrete chunk move across to its closed position, and, face to face now, Grigor said, ‘Lipsky,’ and Lipsky said, ‘Grigor.’

Their acknowledgments complete, Lipsky turned to leave, but Grigor stopped him, saying, ‘Do you see homosexuality as an abomination before God, or do you see it as merely a bit of mucking about, bearing in mind it was God himself who created it anyhow, which in a way puts God’s sexuality pretty much into the crosshairs of critical examination?’
Lipsky said, ‘Ask Avril Landers the Jew. He’s the expert. But for my money, a quick look around would show that God is fucking us all, Grigor, night and day, man and woman, so make of that what you will. He’s clearly a god who would fuck anything, and a god, by definition, would be an absolute master at it. There’d be no one to hold a candle to him in the area of indiscriminate fucking.’

Grigor said, ‘So, that would be a no to the abomination proposition then?’
Lipsky nodded. ‘Yes, put me down for a no on that one,’ and before Grigor could articulate the second half of his proposition, Lipsky was off, down the corridor. Pausing before taking the stairwell, leading down to the front doors and the street, Lipsky turned and called, ‘What’s the weather doing today? Will I need a coat, or what, do you know?’
Grigor replied, ‘Vic Grindenko has prophesised late thunderstorms.’
‘Late again,’ called Lipsky as he took the stairs. ‘Grindenko’s thunderstorms remain the tardiest in the business. It comes from his indomitable pessimism.’ And it was a true statement of fact, as Vic Grindenko, the ex-meteorologist, had been born without the power of optimism, making his choice of career either entirely appropriate, or entirely the opposite, depending on your stance with regard to weather prophesy.

After emerging from the toilet, Avril Landers waited for Grigor to finish his morning necessaries, then they took the stairs together, slapping down the three floors in silence. At the front door, Grigor said, ‘You might want to take off that doily there, Landers. It’s a dead give-away. It screams, “Beat me up for the Jew-bastard I am.”’
‘It screams no such thing,’ Landers replied. ‘If it screams, anything, it screams, “Yes, I’m a Jew, but I’m comfortable with that.”’
‘Just that clip you have holding it onto your head is enough to scream…’ but Grigor was finding it hard to come up with exactly what it was the stationery clip with fold-down handles was screaming, and he concluded with, ‘Just take it off, Avril, there’s a good man.’

Avril Landers, the masochist Jewish convert, left it where it was though, and as they stepped onto the street, Grigor hoped fate would watch for them, as he’d already experienced a night with his head next to Avril Landers’ shit-stinky socks,  listening to him moan and groan and sheesh and bloody the sheetless mattress with seepage from an earlier Jew bashing.

The street was deserted. Shopfronts on both sides were boarded up. Some, who’s premises had been vacated in hurry, with no time for a formal boarding, had their windows smashed. Some in that category had deposits of human excreta, long since hardened, amongst the shattered glass.

All this was a visual background hum to Grigor though. It provoked nothing in him now.
At the corner they turned right, heading for the bakery where Conrad Jergen, a baker and humanitarian in one single person, sometimes handed out portions of week-old loaf that had started to gather mould and was no longer saleable to those with the where-with-all to afford both bread and discretion.

As they rounded the corner, Grigor experienced a loosening feeling in his bowels and the tingling that comes with a sudden squirt of adrenalin form the adrenal glands, perched almost jauntily on top of each kidney. Approaching was a group of five young men with shaved heads, each wearing a black shirt, done up to the neck, and an armband displaying a symbol of ancient religious significance, resurrected now as an icon for political extremism, accompanied with a rich side-salad of racial and religious intolerance.

Grigor thought of retreating, but the malnourished make poor runners, and adrenalin can only take you so far before you collapse in a heap of exhaustion and render yourself fair game for any of life’s miserable participants who may come along. So they continued along, Grigor because he was aware that flight was not only impossible but in fact provocative as well, and Avril Landers because he was a counterfeit Jew and a masochistic goader.
As the group neared, the leader, the one marching slightly ahead of the other four called, ‘Ah, a kike Jew, as I live and breathe.’

Grigor put a hand on Avril Landers chest, causing him to stop, and he said, ‘He’s not a Jew. That’s a table doily on his head.’
The leader said, ‘Ah, a table doily Jew. I’ve heard of those.’
Grigor replied, ‘The doily is being held to his head with a stationary clip with fold down handles. What sort of a Jew would mock his religious tradition like that?’
‘That sort,’ the leader said, pointing at Avril, and the four behind him laughed. One of them said, ‘Good one, Gerhardt.’
‘He’s not a Jew,’ Grigor said. Then to Avril, ‘Show them your schlong, Landers. That’ll settle it once and for all.’
‘I’ve had my schlong done,’ Avril told him. ‘It’s a damning indictment of my Jewishness now.’

The leader called, ‘What’s your name, Jew boy?’
‘Gold Goldman,’ answered Avril. ‘You can’t get more Jewish than that.’
‘It’s Avril Landers,’ Grigor said. ‘He’s a Lutheran. Possibly a direct descendant of Luther himself. Look at that nose. That’s clearly a Lutheran nose.’
The group of five were on top of them at this point and the leader, reaching forward, slapped his hand across Avrils head, causing the doily skullcap to flip itself off, along with the stationary clip which, on hitting the pavement, saw it’s arms spring from flat down to the extended position.
Grigor said, ‘Come on, there’s no need for this.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Gerhardt, the leader.
Grigor waited for a second, then said, ‘Yes?’

‘Yes what?’ said the leader.
‘Yes, what to the contrary? You can’t say, on the contrary, without saying something to clarify the contrary position. It’s confusing. And quite frankly, even in a situation like this, not a little irritating.’

The black-shirt directly behind Gerhardt said, ‘He’s right, Gerhardt. He does have a point. But should I smack him in the mouth anyway?’
‘No,’ said Gerhardt. ‘Let’s get this cleared up first.’ Then to Grigor, ‘On the contrary, we have a duty of care.’
‘How on earth is bashing Jews a duty of care?’
‘To be frank, I don’t know. Look, we don’t claim to have all the answers by any means.’
Another of the group said, ‘Look, let’s just bash the Jew and get going.’
‘Less talk, more bashing,’ said another.

The one that had told Gerhardt, ‘Good one,’ said, ‘We live in enlightened times, Kurt. Equal parts talking and bashing is not unreasonable.’
‘I’ll equal-parts-talking-and-bashing you,’ a black-shirt named Volker said.
The one that had told Gerhardt, ‘Good one,’ said, ‘Good one, Volker. Excellent repost.’
The sarcasm was lost on Volker, and he said, ‘Oh yes?’

The smallest of the group raised his voice and said, ‘Can we just bash the Jew, Gerhardt? Why does there always have to be this preamble with you?’ He stepped forward and threw a punch that landed on the side of Avril’s face, causing blood to squirt from his nose, and his front teeth to break through his top lip, also causing an outpouring of blood.
Avril staggered back, then, as he regained his balance, slightly dazed, he staggered forward again to his original position, beside Grigor.

Gerhardt turned then and slapped the puncher across the face, once from left to right, then immediately in the reverse, right to left.
The puncher put a hand to his stinging face and said, ‘What was that for?’
‘For bashing out of turn,’ Gerhardt told him. ‘Now, hand me that piece of timber there,’ he said, pointing to a splintered piece of wood, lying beside the gutter.
Petulantly, the puncher picked it up and passed it to Gerhardt, who said to Avril the Jew, ‘Don’t take this personally. These are complex times and we are all bound by a multitude of interfolding, and often confusing imperatives.’

Still dazed form the punch, Avril said, ‘I know, I know.’
Gerhardt struck him on the head with the piece of timber, then, as he fell to the ground, on his back and neck and some more on the head. Volker, Kurt and the other two lent a hand, kicking mainly, sometimes punching, but as that required the effort of bending down, it was the boot that took the bulk of the work.

When they were all five confident Avril was unconscious and not faking it in the hope they’d lose interest and go away, they dusted themselves off, a gesture more ceremonial than anything as the procedure had been largely sterile, certainly with regard to the assailants, if not Avril Landers himself.

‘Till we meet again’ Gerhardt said to Grigor, and the five gathered themselves and moved on.
Grigor called after them, ‘He’s a masochist, you know. He probably enjoyed that.’
‘There are compromises in most things,’ Gerhardt called back. ‘It’s a fact of life that sometimes they are going to take us by surprise.’

‘Amen to that,’ Grigor said, more to himself, as he grasped Avril Landers under the armpits to drag him into the shelter of a rusting awning, away from the precipitation of Vic Grindenko’s late thunderstorm that had come earlier than prophesised, for once.