The Sirens’ Song
Andrew J Keir
Jan’s pale lips are drawn back and her teeth are gnashing. ‘Show some balls Kev! Deal with it -- get him to STOP!’
‘I have been dealing with it,’ I say, jabbing my finger at the ceiling. ‘You know I have.’ The drill screeches again; I lower my voice. ‘But he won’t stop -- no matter what I say.’
‘WAAAHHHHHH …’ A fresh wail explodes from George’s tiny lungs; Jan glares at me, before drawing her eyes like a petulant teenager. She picks George up and makes a show of comforting her baby.
George pauses: he is in one of these mid-wail, eye-of-the-hurricane moments that infants specialise in: sucking up air, ready for an improved burst of anguished noise. And because I know that the momentary silence will be smashed by George’s terrible cry, it makes the tense quiet worse than the actual screams.
Sure enough, a second later, the baby banshee releases his tormented howl. At the same moment the hammer drill upstairs lets go of a fresh barrage of bangs and screeches. The result is a terrible cause-and-effect duet. My headache moves to a new level.
Jan eyeballs the ceiling. ‘SHUT UP!’ she screams. ‘FOR CHRIST’S SAKE…SHUT UP!’
Striding down the hall to the lift, my ears are attacked from all directions by the shriek and buzz of the power tool. I am engulfed. Glaring at my enemy through ceiling panels and vibrating concrete, I imagine him gripping a heavy duty Black and Decker in his fat hairy hands; a demonic grin spread across his face.
Adrenalin pumps into my veins: that arsehole is going to stop, even if I have to make him. ‘WANKER!’ I rap the elevator call button with the back of my knuckles; the sharp clang of the shuddering aluminium surround surprises me.
The lift arrives, and as I step inside the metal box I’m consumed by a reverberating caterwaul. It is unbelievable but the ungodly howling is even worse inside this claustrophobic cell.
Seeing my reflection in the mirrored back wall, I square my shoulders, lift my chin and ball my hands into fists. What did Jan say? “Show some balls!” I’ll show her balls. The door opens and I stalk down the corridor. ‘I’m not taking any more shit!’
For the third time this evening I stand outside apartment 101. This time however I alternate between banging on the door with my fist and rattling the bell with my finger. The monster inside, assaulting the walls and my brain, doesn’t care. I know this because he told me so, forty five minutes ago: the last time I was on his doorstep.
‘For me, this job is all that matters,’ he had said.
‘What about my son?’ I pleaded. ‘He’s three months old.’
‘I know nothing of your son. I know about my boss only, and he pays me.’ The workman’s mouth turned downwards at the edges and his dispassionate blue eyes bored through me.
‘Will you finish soon?’ I asked with a resigned sigh.
‘Inshallah,’ he said, before slamming the door.
Back then, forty five minutes or a lifetime ago, I had stood in the doorway defeated: head bowed; my right hand steadying myself against the upright.
But now my head is up. I know that I must resolve the situation. My wife, son and manhood demand it. I stare through the panels of the closed door in front of me, imagining my adversary making his way along the hall, little realising that the wimp from downstairs has transformed himself into a man.
The demeaning and dementing noise continues: Grumphh … Grumphh … Zzzzing … Wheeee … Grumphh … I abandon the fist and finger approach and start kicking the door. Not tapping with my toe or bumping with my knee: nothing that civilized: I’m lifting my leg up and clobbering the door repeatedly with the heel of my black oxford brogue. The door and frame are vibrating and scuff marks are appearing on the varnished woodwork.
All of this is in contrast to the first time I presented myself here. At half past seven the builder had answered promptly, having not yet created a mental barricade against the protests of irate tenants.
I had politely pointed out that there were babies and young children in the building and that his drilling was disturbing them.
‘Can you stop please?’ I had asked. ‘And maybe start again tomorrow morning?’
‘Sorry sir, I must finish the job before boss comes tomorrow morning.’ The reply had come with a fixed smile, framed in his stubble covered jaw, and a slight bowing nod. ‘But – inshallah -- the work will finish soon.’
I’m still kicking; my pulse pounding: the cherry wood veneer is beginning to splinter.
The door to a flat along the corridor creaks open. I look round, just in time to see an East Asian man with a grey bouffant snap his head back into his apartment and thud the door firmly shut.
I keep kicking with a loud slow rhythm: THUD … THUD … THUD … THUD … THUD … THUD …
Eventually I hear the whine of the power tool slow to a grumble; I stop my relentless beat. Quiet descends, broken only by the gentle murmurings of the central air conditioning system and the fluorescent lights that dimly illuminate the corridor. My heart is racing and the acrid stench of my own sweat is causing my eyes to water.
The door opens and the shaking head of my terroriser appears. ‘I told you already…’ He attempts to close the door, but this time my foot is in the way. The workman pushes hard, but in my rage it is relatively easy to force my way through.
He swings a punch at me, which I deflect with my left forearm. In the same instant my right hand flashes to his throat, grabbing his windpipe. He tries to kick my shins and push my hand away, but I keep hold, slowly tightening my grasp. I squeeze until I can’t squeeze any more.
Sitting on a step in front of my building, I look along Hamdan Street, which is illuminated by a vast array of artificial lights. At ground level, in both directions, a biomechanical throng of humanity and motor vehicles stretches out as far as I can see. Slowly moving my eyes upwards above the bustle, I note that the street becomes incrementally more peaceful the higher I set my gaze: a concrete canyon of twenty and thirty storey towers, reaching up to the quiet of the infinite black sky. Tonight there is no moon or stars. Pollution has erased them from existence.
Somewhere out in the metropolis I can hear the distant song of sirens. Though, in a busy city like Abu Dhabi it is a vanity to assume that they are coming for me … just yet. Now it’s all about waiting: waiting for the ambulance, waiting for the police, waiting for an eternity to see Jan and George again.
‘What have I done?’
Closing my eyes I try to recreate the pomelo scent of Jan’s favourite perfume, and picture her sitting, straight backed, at her computer: engrossed, typing out an article for The National. My clever wife: in control; happy.
In control, that is, until the baby blues changed things. After George was born small things had begun to set her off, things she would normally deal with as a matter of course: unreasonably high electricity bills, bitchy comments from colleagues at work, and, of course, noisy building works in the evening. She was gorgeous, happy and loving one minute, ugly, sad and angry the next.
‘Why wouldn’t she stop yelling?’
George will be sleeping now and Jan will be wondering where I am. The silent flat will become claustrophobic: the post-natal depression having a multiplier effect on her inadequate paranoia. Too soon she’ll discover her worst thoughts have happened…and more.
And George … my boy will grow up knowing that I’m a murderer. That I killed a man because, one night when he was three months old, he wouldn’t stop crying.
‘Why wouldn’t he stop crying?’
Tears roll down my cheeks: for George; for Jan; mostly for myself.
‘I’ve destroyed my family.’ I say, looking up at the black heavens. My heart turns to concrete as I realise I don’t and can’t understand a fraction of what the consequences of this evening will be. My actions will have repercussions far worse than any of the alternate paths I could have taken: I should have endured the ongoing argument with my wife and taken a pill for my screaming headache; I shouldn’t have lashed out. In my rage I understood nothing, except that the drilling had to stop; that that would make things better.
‘Why wouldn’t he stop drilling?’
Looking at the faces of the people in the crowd, I notice that the majority can’t even look at me. They avert their stares, looking off to the side or down at their sandaled feet. It is as though they are afraid that if they do make contact with my empty eyes, something of their soul will be sucked out by the vacuum that exists where mine should be.
Sensing someone, I turn to my left and see an unshaven Pakistani man standing beside me. The man regards me with familiar blue eyes and a fixed smile.
‘You have a nerve,’ I say. ‘After what you’ve done.’
The ghost sits down on the step. His face is only inches from mine. ‘Mister, you can blame me … or your wife … or your son … It is as you wish – but your heart knows that it was you who brought us here.’
The rhythmic calls of the emergency services again become apparent. Breaking my victim’s gaze, I look up at the open window on the tenth floor and then down at my own smashed body lying twisted on the pavement in front of me.
‘The sirens are coming for both of us,’ I tell him.
‘Inshallah,’ he murmurs. ‘But our destinations are different. You are going somewhere far worse than I.’
The Sirens' Song was short-listed for the 2009 Kitab/M Magazine prize and was originally published in The National Newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.
Copyright 2009 by Andrew J Keir