Peter van Straten Art by Peter van Straten


Rain falls on the moonlit city, but the buildings don’t move. They just take it – dripping from their roofs, their windowsills, their fire-escapes and t.v. antennae. In dark corners they hide dustbins, cold to the touch and pinging loudly below leaking gutters.

But inside the buildings – like warm organs – certain rooms are inhabited and so the buildings survive the deluge, sustained by the heart beats of their inhabitants…

Now see the young man, Moth, as he walks the wet pavements, drawn irresistibly towards one such room, hands thrust deep into his jeans pockets, head bowed inside a thin grey Adidas hood. The hood warmed his shaven head but also made him feel self-conscious, suspicious. He imagined the suspicions of those in the cars that passed – their tyres on the wet tar sounding to him like paper being torn. Every time he passed under a street light he watched his wet shadow retreat then leap out before him, like some manic weirdo trying to sell him something.

He thought about the buildings, about the cars and about his shadow. He had to keep thinking about these things because if he thought about where he was going he’d probably turn and walk home. More than anything he was walking away the sex. Sex which filled his mind with its restless, slippery imaginings and bothered his teen body like a sickness. And yet he felt so alive in his sickness, so at one with this dark, wet night – capable of anything. Without warning he turned abruptly into the narrow passage between two rows of double storey Victorians. The 80 year old buildings, half a street block in length, stood back to back, as if offering each other protection from the ugly new blocks all around. Moth looked up at the glistening walls of the narrow brick canyon and the pipes, thin and thick, rusted or painted, horizontal and vertical, dripping slippery pathways to the night sky.

SHE lived somewhere near the middle, he knew that much. Grateful for the sounds of water all around he moved cautiously forward, cautiously forward, expecting at any moment to bash his shins on the darkness. When he reached the middle his heart had slowed, but looking up it was set racing again by the sight of a lit window. Two meters to its right, its counterpart was unlit, and he knew then that he had a fifty percent chance of success. He looked at the dreadful wet pipes he had to climb, and felt frightened for the first time. Objects became portals, he knew this, as a musician knows it; as a child with a soccer ball knows it; as a drunk knows it when he stares into the reflections on the side of his beer glass. The sight of this glistening pathway of pipes, suddenly so frighteningly real, made him wonder what the hell he was doing. He glanced back the way he had come but saw nothing but rain on darkness. He also knew that every second of motionless fear was like a lead sinker attached to his skin, so he threw back his hood and while the sky cried on his face he began to climb.

As his fingers fumbled the old plumbing and crumbly brick he felt on his back the myopic stare of the lit windows on the other side of the ally. It was only the rain, he realised, that was keeping the windows closed, his madness unseen. Using the rings that anchored the pipes to the wall he continued up the rusted downpipe, rising as quickly as possible above the first floor windows.

At irregular intervals his climb was irritated by mysterious bundles of razor wire wound around the pipe. His first thought was that they had been put up to dissuade birds from nesting. But the higher he climbed the more he started to wonder whether they hadn’t been put up to dissuade people from climbing up the pipes to get into the windows. People, therefore, like him. This notion, that his climb had occurred to someone already, that he was already part of someone’s risk analysis frightened him more than anything, and made him feel doubly exposed as he approached the second storey windows, expecting at any moment to see an elderly woman pull a curtain aside, see him, and scream.

Next he was struck by the idea that he was probably climbing up the very pipe that HER shit went down every day. The thought struck him as impossibly intimate somehow, and inexplicably gross, further evidence that, like a mountaineer approaching a summit too high, he was climbing into a realm of madness.

For a moment, as his blunt, numb fingers scrabbled for grip, he saw himself at home in bed with tea and a book, cosy in a goldfish bowl of light, and the pathetic horror of his situation fell on him like a fresh slap of rain. As if the universe saw it too a bolt of lightening from over the suburbs briefly illuminated him where he clung pathetic to the side of the dark and dripping building.

Above the second storey windows he caught his jeans on the razor wire, and in an effort to free his pants he cut his fingers, feeling as he did so a tell tale tightening of his chest. When his leg was free he tried to go on more quickly, feeling the pressure against his arse of the asthma pump in his back pocket, and now his fear was replaced by real anger at himself. But then, as if by grace, he was there. The pipe finally split to right and left becoming almost horizontal and he shuffled onto the left arm, trembling with adrenaline, his bleeding fingers gripping the wet red bricks of HER windowsill.

Believing he could actually feel the warmth of her light on his tight-white knuckles, he slowly lifted his head above the windowsill and immediately his face was warmed by steam. Whoever was in there (and he begged with all the strength of his clenched jaws that it was her) had left the sash window open just a crack at the bottom, and the sheer scale of his dumb luck hit him – window panes got so steamed up from inside that if the window wasn’t open a crack he never would have seen anything anyway. But the crack was too small to allow him a proper view of the misty interior. He slid his fingers into the crack then turned his hands palms upwards. He pushed softly at first, to avoid making a noise but the window wouldn’t budge. Resting his wrists on the wooden frame he pushed upwards against the stubborn window with his fingertips,but still it wouldn’t budge. It was jammed. It was old, but after all he’d been through he couldn’t let it go without a proper try. He decided he couldn’t risk pushing it too hard since the window might shoot wildly upward when it came unstuck, so he decided the safest thing to do would be to try to force his hands into fists between the window and the window sill. He only needed that one crucial, undetectable inch. Slowly he pushed his hands further into the crack, and then, as he started to pull them into fists the pipe on which he was standing fell away. His face went cold with fear and with hands still awkwardly facing upward he grabbed onto the inside edge of the sash window. He heard a splash and a yell from inside, and then the heavy pipe connected in a sick explosion of sound with concrete far below.

Panicking with the pain in his wrists Moth let the window go with his left hand and lunged into the room to grip the edge of the windowsill, then followed with his right hand. Suddenly the window shot up.

As if in a dream, there SHE stood in the warm mist, all soft blurry edges in a blue towel.

She brought the window down as hard as she could on his fingers.

He screamed, but controlled by his body’s will to survive his squashed and bloody fingers held tight to the warmth of the windowsill. The window shot up again.

“I’m going to call the police,” she said. Her cheeks were flushed with fright and anger and the warmth of the bathroom. She looked set to smash his fingers again.

He had one second. Only time for one single word.

“Emma!” he sobbed, looking up at her as rain and tears tore the outlines of her shape apart.

She paused.

“The pipe is gone,” whispered Moth. His chest was closing. “I’m going to fall. I can’t-.”

“How do you know me?” she asked, her hands still on the window.

“The deli,” he whispered, his strength pulsing on and off in waves.

He knew he had to say it now, no matter how stupid it would sound to both of them, because it was the only thing that could save him: “I love you,” he gasped, and then added, because he didn’t want to die like this: “asthma.”

She hesitated one more time, but he had won.

“I don’t believe this,” she hissed, taking him by his wrists and leaning back as hard as she could. It did no good though, his body was becoming slack. Grabbing the back of his shirt with one hand she lunged forward, grabbed the belt of his pants with the other hand and then pulled with all she had. He landed like a corpse on the bathroom floor. Watching him arch his back and claw a hand in the direction of his back Emma saw the pump in his pocket, and took it out for him, disgusted by the intimacy of reaching into his pants, but enthralled by how close he looked to passing out. She had never seen someone have an asthma attack before. She fumbled the pump into his frozen fingers, not knowing what else to do, then pushed his hand towards his mouth. Curled up on the floor, almost entirely removed from the present, he managed with a last pathetic surge of energy to push down the nozzle, and inhale…

Moth flew above the city. He was a warm little bird, and his feathers, soft and yellow like a chick’s, were made of the snuggest towelling. He flew and he flew until, floating towards him in the sky came the giant Mommy Bird with big towel wings to wrap him up. She took him to her big soft nest and laid him gently down on the floor… Looking up at her from the nest he watched her begin to get focus, taking on the shape of a woman in a white dressing gown with a blue towel wrapped round her head, and she looked down at him from so high above in the mist.

“I’ve phoned my neighbour,” said the Mommy Bird, “so she knows you’re here and who you are. You need to go now.” The Mommy Bird was cross, and Moth couldn’t understand it.

“I’m so sorry,” said Moth, pulling warm bathroom air into his lungs, his voice cracking open as if it was the first time he had ever spoken. Suddenly he remembered that the Mommy Bird was called Emma, and then he remembered everything else. He lay there looking at the pump in his clenched fist.

“I’m so sorry,” he repeated, totally overwhelmed.

Emma stepped back towards the bathroom door.

“Please go now,” she asked, sounding gentler.

Like a puppet abandoned by strings he dragged himself up, and as Emma retreated into the passage he stepped out of the bathroom. Standing with her arms across her chest she nodded her head towards the other end of the passage, where the front door was, waiting for him to walk, which he did. She watched his receding back. When he was halfway down the passage she called after him: “How can you say you love me when we’ve never even spoken?” and he stopped.

He turned round very slowly, not quite facing her, and tried to dry his wet face with his sleeve, but it turned out to be wet too. He couldn’t speak. Looking at her he opened his mouth, then just shut it again.

He turned towards the front door again, and had managed one step when the front door burst open. In walked an older man in jeans and a black biker’s jacket, holding a helmet in his right hand.

They all stood still. Then the biker smiled.

“Who’s this fuck?” he demanded, for a moment Dennis Hopper.

Moth knew that Emma should say: “He’s from the neighbourhood,” but neither she nor he said anything.

In the sucking vacuum of their silence the biker, raising his eyebrows like question marks, looked past Moth to where Emma stood at the other end of the passage – her arms still folded over her chest.
“He climbed up the wall to spy on me bathing,” she said. And then, frightened by the potential consequences of her words, added: “then he had an asthma attack.” And then she remembered the pipe. “And,” she hesitated, “I think he’s broken a pipe, outside.”

For many seconds there was absolute silence in the passage, and then Bread – biker and boyfriend – started whistling a tune, as if he had just arrived home and nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Whistling he shoved the door shut with the back of one boot then hung his helmet on a coat hook. Next he took off his jacket and hung that too. Then abruptly he stopped whistling and approached the slender, wet, dirty young man. Moth winced when he reached out a hand, and cringed as the hand landed with hard reassurance on his shoulder.

“But Fraulein!” roared Bread, suddenly with a German accent and warm bonhomie “if ze great Reinhold Messner, King of ze Alps, climbs in for a veezit vizout oxygen do you not sink zat a beer is in order?” Looking intently at the terrified Moth, and leading him to the sitting room by the shoulder, he continued without the accent: “Come my dear Reinhold, let us retire to the drawing room, you must be exhausted after your climb.”

He lead the young man to the sofa and indicated for him to sit. Bread sat down beside him, very close, their legs pressed together. Moth watched his own knees. He was very cold. He was trying not to shake. Bread was smiling at him.

“Is it true Reinhold?’ whispered Bread, softly, genially.

Moth didn’t feel he could trust his voice, and without looking up, gave the slightest nod.

Bread kept watching him, waiting, until it got too much, and Moth recklessly continued: “except for the part about the oxygen.” He had no plan. He wasn’t trying to be funny. He was nowhere near the present, and he heard their voices as if from afar.

Holding out his fist, he slowly opened his trembling fingers to reveal the pump in his palm.

“No!” yelled Bread, leaping up.

Grabbing the pump he looked down at Moth with horror and contempt, then he moved to open the sitting room window, and threw the pump out.

“You of all people! Climbing with oxygen, like a little baby.”

Returning to the sofa he stooped over Moth and held the young man’s wet head between his two hands.

“Oh Reinhold,” moaned Bread, apparently on the verge of tears.

Moth wet his pants, and then started to cry. For the very first time in his life he experienced real, proper fear. All previous fears had been hors de ouvres.

Emma entered with two beers and Bread stood erect to receive them.

“Oh God,” she said, addressing Bread, when she saw the tears running down the young man’s face, “you men are so disgusting.”

“Man,” corrected Bread, straightening his back “there’s no plural here. Now please sit Fraulein so zat vee can discuss ze rahzer delicate issue of punishments.”

Emma rolled her eyes and left.

Bread immediately reverted to a genial fatherly role. He winked at Moth, handed him a beer, then began to pace.

“You’ll agree Reinhold,” he continued after a sip, “that some sort of punishment is inevitable. I don’t know how you Austrians feel about peeping toms, but we South Africans have rather old fashioned views on the subject. Of course wanting to see a lady wash herself, this is normal – we must check that the fairer sex,” he indicated with his bottle towards the door through which Emma had just left, “holds up their side and cleanliness is an inescapable facet of beauty. But it’s the cowardice Reinhold, the cowardice… Like climbing with oxy-.” He was interrupted by the doorbell.

“Please get it,” shouted Emma from another room, “I’m not dressed yet.”

Bread paused to give Moth a dramatically solemn, penetrating look, then went to the door.

“Mrs Tiggywinkle!” Moth heard Bread shout, sounding genuinely pleased.

Into the sitting room he led a tiny old lady, quite stooped over and leaning heavily on a cane. On her head was a baby-blue hat, about fifty years out of fashion, and nestled between it’s floral folds, noticed Moth, was his asthma pump – strange egg in an even stranger nest.

“My dear Reinhold,” said Bread, “permit me to introduce Mrs Tiggywinkle. She lives on the first floor.”

Moth didn’t want to stand because of the wet patch on the sofa, but he had no choice. He didn’t stand quite upright and kept the backs of his legs pressed against the sofa as he reached far forward to clasp the cold little hand.

“Es gibt scheiss!” shouted the old lady suddenly, turning to Bread, “it’s running down my vindows.”

“It’s the pollution Mrs Tiggywinkle,” shouted Bread. “Remember they said it would rain shit and now it is. It’s the end of days!

“Oh nonsense,” she glared at him, “it’s the pipe. I’m not deaf.”

Moth couldn’t stop looking at his asthma pump.

“You must fix it,” she continued, nodding sagely.

“But we can’t fix it tonight!” protested Bread, barely able to contain his laughter. “But,” he continued “we’ll stop making scheiss tonight, and then in the morning the landlord can see to it.”

“Oh I know your tricks-” she started. She was interrupted by Emma entering the room, dressed in a skirt over jeans and an Indian top. Bread beamed at her. Moth didn’t know what to do with his eyes.

“Hello Mrs Tielewinkler,” said Emma, stooping to kiss the old woman on the cheek.

“There is scheissen my dear,” said the old woman, “it is running down my window.

Emma looked at Bread, then at Moth, then back at her geriatric neighbour.

“Would you like a cup of tea Mrs Tielewinkler?,” shouted Emma.

“Oh no, not before bed.”

“A sherry?” offered Bread, showing the smallest little quantity with his finger and thumb.

“Oh well,” she said, looking pleased, “just a little one.”

Emma led her to an easy chair, and helped lower her into it while Bread got the sherry and two glasses from a cupboard next to the television.

“The last time we had this on the windows,” shouted Mrs Tielewinkler as soon as she was comfortable, “was when the English bombed the sewerage works at Helmansplatz. We lived so close, it was ’44, and for three street blocks all the houses were covered in, uh-“

“Shit,” said Bread, handing her a glass of sherry.

“Bread!” said Emma, accepting the other glass, but Mrs Tielewinkler laughed.

“Yes, scheiz,” she said with emphasis, taking her first sip. “Covered in our own shits.” She winked at Bread, who raised his beer bottle.

“To being covered in one’s own shit and not anyone else’s,” he said and everyone toasted, Moth rather half-heartedly. He was not feeling well at all. He was still completely wet, and he was starting to feel sick.

“Was it him?” asked Mrs Tielewinkler, indicating Moth with her sherry glass.

“No, no, no,” said Bread, stepping up and patting Moth loudly on top of his head. “This is Reinhold, my cousin… from the farm.”

The old lady didn’t seem convinced, and eyed him suspiciously.

“He has problems,” continued Bread, “it’s true. But he is going to clean your windows Mrs Tiggywinkle, this very night. And tomorrow he is going to help the landlord put up a new pipe.” He looked down at Moth. “Isn’t this right Reinhold?” The young man nodded, not looking at anyone.

“Drugs?” asked Mrs Tielewinkler, turning to Emma.

“No, no, no,” Bread interjected speedily, raising his eyebrows. “Problems of the heart,” he continued, nodding his head slowly and winking at the old woman.

Mrs Tielewinkler’s eyebrows shot up too. “Ach so!” With sudden endearment she looked at the forlorn young man, then drained her sherry and indicated for Emma and Bread to help her up.

“Come with me,” she told Moth, “and I will tell you a long story while you wash my windows.”

Bread and Emma helped the odd couple to the door, and it was only when she bent down to kiss her old neighbour good night that Emma noticed the asthma pump in her hat. After that she was barely able to watch the start of their slow descent down the stairs (Mrs Tielewinkler leaning on Reinhold’s arm) barely able to close the door before the shaking overwhelmed her. Leaning her back against the godsend solidity of her front door she allowed the laughter release, welling up from deep inside her and conquering her entirely. She bent over double, her bum against the door, her arms wrapped tight around her stomach, laughing so intensely she was barely able to stand. Then she felt herself lifted up off the floor by her love, who like a father carried her off to bed, reciting the end of a favourite poem as he went:

“What strange and crucial candle flames

are we the middle aged

Around us flutter fragile moths:

the young and jumpy restless,

the elderly and frail.”

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