Singing in the Dark

It was two o’clock in the afternoon in a rooming house on Hutchinson Street, but it could have been anytime. David put his suitcase down on the threadbare carpet next to the large bag from the charity shop and flicked on the light. A single bulb cast a watery yellowish glow from behind a screw-on glass shade, and he heard the almost imperceptible scratching of escaping cockroaches.

The window was covered with a thick grey blanket that had been nailed into place. The empty silence was broken by a hacking cough from a smoker upstairs and the noise of cars passing in the street outside, constant as a river. The air was cloying with the sweet smell of roaches. It was only one step up from the street but it was a big step. David lifted the edge of the blanket and moved behind it. Before the house had been abandoned to its present fate, the bay window would have been the focal point of the living room, looking onto a graceful neighbourhood. Now the street was a pipeline for downtown traffic; the window grimy and ignored behind the blanket.

There was a single bed in one corner, a table and chair against the wall opposite the door, and a dresser against the other wall. It reminded him of a monk’s cell, and he knew that it would take time to get used to the place. But he could get used to anything; he didn’t need much. He felt monastic.

Looking at the bed, he imagined the dozens of people who had already slept there; some on the way down and others struggling back up. By the look of the thin, stained mattress, the wretched had bled their way through nights of despair, sweating through dreams and nightmares.

He sat on the chair, pulled the suitcase towards him and opened it, taking out a small, transistor radio. He liked to listen to talk radio in the dark, as though he were taking a back seat in a conversation between friends. He knew Ted Tevan and the regular callers and felt part of a community of voice, even if he never called anyone. Placing the radio on the table, he reached down to plug it in and the table moved. A large cockroach ran for cover but he squashed it quickly and wiped the pus off the sole of his shoe with a paper napkin. He rubbed the carpet stain, balled the napkin, and threw it into the plastic garbage can under the table.

You had to be fast, almost instinctive, to kill roaches. You had to stomp where they were going to be in two seconds, not where they were now. If you aimed in front, they ran under your foot as it came down and crushed them. David hated cockroaches. He hated their dirt and filth and midnight crawling over food and pillows or deep into the pockets of trousers lying on a chair. He hated their sweet smell that filled any closed space. He even hated killing them because of the stinking white pus that exploded from their hard-shell bodies staining the floor and your sole and spreading wherever you walked. Roach killing seasons are short, measured in seconds as they run from the light. But they always come back in the dark. You can wake up in the middle of the night and create another season by flicking the light switch.

Removing his clothes from the suitcase, he hung four shirts, a pair of pants, and a winter coat on wire hangers in the closet. Socks and underwear went in the dresser drawer and a folded towel on the table. Next, he removed two sheets and a pillow from the charity shop bag and made the bed.

He emptied his pockets onto the table, making piles: three five dollar bills, four one dollar bills, three piles of four quarters each, and a dollar sixty-five in pennies, nickels, and dimes. He would start work tomorrow and wasn’t sure how long the money would have to last. Eventually there would be a pay check and food wasn’t a problem; as breakfast cook he’d be able to eat all he needed, but he needed a quart of beer every night to sleep: a dollar forty-five. After counting the money, he folded the bills and put them in his pocket, pouring the coins in after them.

He pulled the room door closed behind him. The hallway already smelled different than his room; it was still offensive, but he would soon get used to all the smells in the house.

He’d lost track of time in the gloom and was surprised at the sunlight as he left the house to walk slowly in the direction of Dépanneur Milton. The street was busy with people, students walking with purpose and old people shuffling with the unhappy stride of those with nowhere to go. For the first time in months, David’s steps were light. As he passed The Word, he stopped to look at the piles of 25-cent paperbacks on an outside table. He’d sold all his books eighteen months ago to a bulk buyer and imagined finding one of them on the table. But there was no Vonnegut, Hesse, or Celine. Brian Moore and Robertson Davies were missing in action, as were Heller, Salinger, Castaneda, and Hemmingway. They were probably relaxing on the cool shelves inside, not forced to prostitute themselves on the 25 cent table. But he could start again. He picked up a tattered copy of St. Urbain’s Horseman and went inside, fishing out two dimes and five pennies. The owner sat behind the counter writing prices on inside front covers and didn’t acknowledge the clink of small coins that David dropped in front of him. He put the Horseman in his pocket and left the gloom of the bookstore. At the dépanneur, he bought a quart of Export and a large can of Raid.

He strolled back to his room enjoying the feeling of having a destination and stood outside the house looking at his window. It was set in dark brown stone and framed in motley wood with faded paint peeling in large curls. No light escaped from the black window. His cave was secure.

There was already a sense of familiarity as he opened the front door and walked towards his room. Entering it, he heard the cockroaches scratch away to cover leaving only their sickly sweet smell.

He pulled the door to make sure it was locked and took the can of Raid out of the bag. It had been expensive, more than three quarts of beer. He was counting on the room being a closed box. Because there was no sink or plumbing, the only escape was the one-inch gap under the door. Starting in a corner away from the door, he shook the can and began spraying low, covering every inch of the floor except for an unsprayed path on the dirty carpet leading to the door. He waited on the bed, imagining hoards of roaches scrambling under the door to safety.

As he lay staring at the ceiling he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye; roaches were crawling up the wall. The more he focused, the more he saw. A few leaders were followed by dozens more, all using corner crevices and the contours of painted-over wallpaper to escape upwards. When they reached the top of the walls, with nowhere else to go, they set out, upside down, to walk across the ceiling. The first two fell on the bed, narrowly missing him and disappeared with cockroach speed. He leapt to his feet and began crushing the falling roaches, feeling pus collecting on his soles. His stomach heaved with the smell of the pus and poison as cockroaches fell around him in a brown shower.

He pulled the sheets off the bed and shook them frantically. Roaches tumbled out onto the floor and he squashed some with a crunch. He stuffed the sheets back into the charity bag and put the bag outside the door.

This time he started high; he covered the top of the nailed blanket with Raid and then sprayed down its length before attacking the ceiling and the walls. In the airless box, a cloud of Raid was settling on him and roaches were dropping through the cloud, falling on his head and shoulders before tumbling to the floor. With one hand over his nose and mouth, he tried to resist the overpowering chemical smell, all the time weighing the can, estimating how much was left. Roach bodies crunched under his feet until the can was empty. A pea-soup chemical fog filled the small room.

David left quickly, grabbing the charity-store bag and was outside, breathing deeply like a person who stayed underwater too long. He knew it would be five or six hours before he could go back and started walking. Walking was easy. People ignore you as long as you keep moving; it’s when you sit down to rest that you get noticed by the armies of security staff whose job it is to notice the loiterers.

So he kept moving. First to St. Lawrence Street, through the cultural clash of Jewish stores and restaurants fighting the encroachment of avant-garde designers attracted by low rents. Then south to Chinatown and aimless wandering up and down the side streets, slowing now and then to look into shop windows full of hanging chickens or a thousand herbal remedies, all of it wrapped in the aroma of roasting pork. No eye contact, no conversation, just look like you know where you’re going and keep walking. Leaving Chinatown, he kept walking south through a maze of detours along the cobbled streets of Old Montreal before reaching the river. He stopped to look and dream with the group of people, watching as the play-yachts of the rich beyond his imagination explored a watery playground: Three hours.

He started west along the Lachine canal to the Atwater Market, a favourite spot, even when all you could afford to do was look. The market welcomed anyone capable of marveling at what can be created from the land in a country where summer always seems the shortest of seasons and spring doesn’t exist. In the heat of summer, Quebec produce reigned over the market and he bought a cup of juicy, overripe strawberries from the Île d’Orléans. The butchers still had lamb from Rigaud and young bison from Sainte-Émélie. There were meat pies made with potatoes and carrots and fat sausages filled with the scraps left over from better cuts. Vegetable farmers in obscure corners of the province had sent their own cheeses to the big city, hoping to find some way to make their land yield more. David took it all in and made the most of the tasting samples of sausages until the lady with the toothpicks raised an eyebrow. He took one last sample and smiled at her. She smiled back.

He left the market and started climbing the gentle hill back to Downtown, turning east on Sainte-Catherine and stopping to rip two pieces of stiff cardboard from a box on the sidewalk outside a clothing store. A woman looked at him from inside a store, unsure if she should stop him from stealing from their garbage. She settled for giving him a dirty look as he pulled the two flaps from the box. He returned her glance with a shrug and a faint smile and continued walking. At McGill, he turned north to Sherbrooke and the Roddick Gates of McGill University: Five hours.

Twenty minutes later he was back in the cave. It still stank of Raid.

He used the pieces of cardboard to gently push the roach bodies into piles and scooped them into a bucket he found in the communal bathroom. He remade the bed, wiped the film of Raid off the beer bottle, opened it, and drank. The radio played softly, so softly that he couldn’t make out what people were saying; the murmur of conversation was enough.

When he had finished the beer, he switched off the radio, stretched out on the bed and listened in the dark to the coughing, the shuffling footsteps, the creaking bed of a restless sleeper, and other night noises of a house filled with people. He began to sing quietly to himself:

Men of Harlech stop your dreaming Can’t you see their spear points gleaming See their warrior’s pennants streaming To this battle field

Halfway through the song, his whispered tenor was joined by a bass, entering quietly but confidently, supporting the tenor and letting it float, putting meat on the lone voice.

Men of Harlech onto glory This shall ever be your story Keep these fighting words before ye Cambria will not yield

David finished the song and listened in silence. He started again, almost imperceptibly, the first verse of the first hymn he ever learned:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Again, he was joined by a quiet but solid bass that added timber to his faint tenor; the two voices floating through the house.

His eyes teared up as they always did when he sang the old songs. He was transported back to the furniture polish smell of the choir benches as sunlight filtered in through stained glass pictures of the saints, spreading red, yellow, and blue light into the sacred place while communal voices were raised in song.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

The voice stayed with him and then he slept in silence. He slept fitfully, a holdover from the street. When he thought the night was over, he turned on the radio to check the time. He rose long before he needed to. The house sounded different, people were stirring and he could hear footsteps.

Originally from Ireland, Peter Kirby now lives in Montreal where he practices international trade law and arbitration. His first novel, Putting Them Down, is shortlisted for the 2010 Unhanged Arthur Award.