The hallowed bells of Amherst Square rang out in sudden bends of grace and scorn. Benjamin left his designated place at the corner booth of The Three Gyres, where the sun enters in patient slits at quarter to eight, before Ben decided in ’87 to make a habit out of swinging by the deli before work every morning. He wiped the edges of marmalade from his fingers on The Daily Tribunal lying apologetically beside a snuff box. Today, the headlines affronted him with an unsettling unfamiliarity like a visit from the tooth fairy. Perhaps, the absence of sunlight in his morning ritual pronounced the feeling but he couldn’t shake it off, not without stepping out onto the sunless boardwalk where the bells followed him across the street. Benjamin wondered if he shouldn’t have laughed at the weather forecast the night before, drowning the Pentecostal station out with cognac. But as he turned the collars of his coat up and felt the jam on his thumb stick to the tweed, he found himself traipsing around the elevator, feeling the stickiness inside his pockets while sixteen floors passed him by and he was safely nestled behind the files on his desk. The sky had started to look like it was brewing a winter storm somewhere in hell. He turned the lamps on, and turning his back to the window, Ben faced his typewriter and the empty chair beside him. Surely McGann can’t make it out of his bog today, he piped into his cup of coffee, spread himself out the way you can only when nobody’s around, and tried hard not to look at the streets below. Amherst Square was suddenly alive with the ghosts of those who would most likely be strolling the flea markets, the stairwells, the tenement halls and soup kitchens this time today, had they, like Benjamin, turned a blind eye to invisible forces.
The gambol of ticking hands is inexorable when you are stuck where you don’t belong, or as in Ben’s case, when you have somewhere better to be. Right after he turned the volume down on the forecast last night, Ben had walked into a lonesome broom closet to retrieve a slinky that Harold once believed was a rainbow. But like most hunting expeditions, Benjamin was soon distracted by other memories his imagination could prey upon. He found baby hair wrapped in blue cloth, a piece of ornament from a birthday cake, reams of undeveloped film and encased snowflakes from all over the world. He edged further into the closet and found his foot stuck in something that was too viscous to be water. Benjamin began to feel dark and beautiful all over. He waited for the dust on the ground to rise up and meet him, and for his head to crack open on the cool pinewood. The Pentecostal lady had shut up.
The lights on Ben’s porch died with an odd flourish and flicker. The spies came in like clockwork through the back door. He lay still, their footsteps lapping about his ears, as he felt around for a sticky pool of blood beneath him or a wound to daub at. The spies worked wordlessly; one of them tugged his boots out of a paint can, dragged him across the floor, some covered him with a moth-eaten blanket. They debated over the language of the static, talked of the sun that is and the rain that is to come, then they lay in wait near Ben’s outstretched arms—a vigil for the gibbous moon.
The bells atop Amherst Church were caked in adamant sleet, refusing to toll. Benjamin saw a brown habit billowing on a distant peg. He didn’t notice he had risen from his desk, presumably to light a cigarette or get some snuff from his coat’s pocket. As he rummaged through them, he could swear that it was Thelma sweeping up unread newspapers from her kiosk downstairs, before all that remained was pulp and some cold rain. Like a runny nose, rain gathered on Ben’s viewfinder, and it became increasingly difficult to discern ghosts from regulars like Thelma. The square was dotted with a handful of people, rushing to take shelter inside Macy’s, Parker’s studio or under the shaded promenade towards Corpus Christi School. The lowlife chose The Three G’s scummy lair of course, where my snuff box lies half forgotten, realised Ben, as he cast a quick disapproving look on the world outside, turning slowly to slush.
He made his way through revolving doors, stopped short of trampling on a dog and waited for the light to turn red before crossing over to the solitary bar light looming on the other side. A car skid past, with a crack on its tail light, the shape of Harold’s cursive letters. A tramp was gathering polythene headscarves and tin cans that gleamed like an assortment of Harold’s enamel. Gyres had its CLOSED sign turned towards outsiders already, but Ben walked right past the inverted chairs in groups of four, and slid into his booth. He had no reason to be anxious, the big man at office must have taken off on account of the storm already and McGann was already snug—well, as snug as one can be in a bog. He lifted the morning paper and traced the outline of an ivory flower engraved on the otherwise nondescript snuff box. Like a fortune cookie, he opened it; swarms of spies were lurking behind the glassy eyes staring out of the front page, behind the coloured paper blowing over cooling vents, from the jukebox which was now on shuffle, behind his own stormy eyes—reporting back to wherever Harold was.
Amherst Street was plunged into a vat of snow in no time; the bells had turned white, and could neither be seen nor heard. The spies talked of the rain that is, and the sun that is to come. A snowflake lay limp inside the snuff box, but it turned to rain before his eyes. Ben’s fingers were sticky again.
Written by Prarthana Mitra