David Butler

David Butler’s most recent novel, City of Dis (New Island), was shortlisted for the Irish Novel of the Year (Listowel 2015). Awards for the short story include the Maria Edgeworth (twice), the Fish International and ITT / Red Line prizes. His poetry and plays have also won a number of awards.

 

Looking-Glass

Eye
fixed securely as a rivet upon his eye
so that his locus pivots about its fixity.

Outside the shamelessness strikes him again a shudder.
On each new occasion the contempt more brazen.

He tries to put the eye out
out of his mind as he steps never on the cracks of the pavement to the sound of his footfall echoing back. He tries to put the eye out
out of his mind again as he steps black white back over the crossing to the farther pavement. Above all he tries to shut the eye out of his thoughts when he is on the point of stepping up into the office ten minutes late again Mr. Timson
then
outside the evening dank that closes in earlier every day
but he will haunt the streets for hours rather than return directly.
His footsteps lead him down the labyrinth of streets and at last out on to the lower quay. He has not been so far down river this several years. Ringed lights lined between rows of adolescent trees. Across the river a replica long-ship, tethered to a new wharf. Only the oversize gulls, stiff as kites, never change.

He stares vacantly across the fading air and fails to register any of this.

When he does return it is dark. But still he leaves the bedroom unlit and undresses hurriedly by an orange flickering splintering through the net curtain from the street. He keeps his face in profile turned towards the fickle streetlight, turned away from the dresser. Stolid dresser with looking-glass.
Next morning he slips out without having encountered

Mr. Timson this letter will need to be redone Mr. Timson the man from Watters & Sons was on again after you left Mr. Timson Mr. Swaine wants a word with you. Presently, Mr. Timson.
He hides in the men’s room. His head is down and water gushing into and around the porcelain sink. Clockwise. Counter-clockwise.
Head is angled down partly so he can splash warm water to it. He watches a thread dangling from the cuff. Then he stretches, cradles the face its tired skin and then quite deliberately, quite deliberately, he looks up. Up into the silvered space
his face is there nailing sight to its two black pupils

I’m not a man to beat about the bush Mr. Timson. You’ll appreciate that in our line of business. Confidence, as we both know. You will tell me that on the phone your appearance is a matter of small importance. But it carries into the voice, you see. The voice, Mr. Timson. How long have you been with us eleven years I think
Eleven years
eleven years. Do you know how long I have been here Mr. Timson.? Will I tell you? All my life. Ha ha!
All my life.

Eye fixed surely as a rivet upon his eye so that his locus as he traverses the room must pivot in turn about the eye’s fixity
impossible
outside now in the morning cold the shamelessness strikes him again a shudder. On each occasion its contempt yet more
He tries to put the eye out of his mind as he steps never once on the cracks to the sound of his footfall echoing streetwise. He tries to put the eye out again as he steps black white back over the crossing to the farther pavement
most of all he tries to shut the eye out of his thoughts when he steps up steps into the office fifteen minutes late, really Mr. Timson

Then at eleven fifteen the shock of encounter unprepared
at the centre of
stepping into the men’s room after the third phone-call and not thinking, glancing this time unguardedly to the left, not more than a glance, his face leers leaps out of the silvered space more real than this his own face must be

Another evening falling into nightfall and the dark gathering or light failing
streets open before him, streets he has not passed along since he was young. A young man. Haunting the streets he used to wander. But he has no mind now to see this maze of. The one awareness is of that turbulence impelling him to walk on walk the dim succession of footpaths to avoid the confrontation.
This, in the place which at one time he thought of as the centre of his world. Not without pride, at one time

Tttrrrrrrrr … Mr. Timson? Mr. Timson Mr. Swaine…what? Yes, I think you could say that. He is indeed. Is that so? Really. Then I suggest Mr. Timson
He trips horribly about his room. He has not slept in, not once, not in eleven years he has been working for Brinsley Swaine. Not taken so much as a sick-day
but there are no shirts ironed and all socks to hand are unmatched, or wet. He dare not show up in rumpled clothes. Not this day
then as he glances towards the open drawer the face leers out at him. Two black pupils, merciless iron rivets. He pivots his forehead but the pupils remain fixed as though his head is tethered to their stare
a most blatant mockery. He is transfixed by it, immobilised. A limp stocking is hanging from the toe of his foot
he knows he is not smiling but the looking-glass is smiling out at him. A shudder, colder than glacial ice. He feels on his face a grimace yet from the glass a grin of ice is facing him down.

Two minutes later he rushes from the room. Out into the labyrinth of streets
a man scarcely dressed, how comical, the shirt buttoned the wrong way so that the sides don’t match up.

He loses several hours before he has steeled himself sufficiently to step up into the lighted office. Jittery coffees, far too strong, the heart skipping inside his ribs like a startled bird
on this day, ominously, there are no words of rebuke to announce his entry
silence of clacking keyboards. Not one deigns to notice the loping deference, the watered smile
there is a letter on his desk. Of course there is
Ha! Ha!

He is hiding in the washroom. Several loose threads hang from his cuff, crisscross the wrist. He cannot bring himself to meet the face before him. Or it is rare defiance that holds him from looking
his eyes fix upon the map of veins crossed by the untwining threads. he watches himself rub hands beneath a tap and then with eyes shut like clams he blind-fingers his jowl. Roughness of unshaven skin
I will go home he thinks.

He cannot remember a single occasion Swaine’s secretary has been pleasant to him, not in the obvious way she banters with McAleese or Downey, or laughs on the phone whenever the young man from accounts is in the vicinity. She is middle-aged, fleshy, a disappointed abruptness in her manner.
His eyes remain fixed upon the map of veins that line his hands. He cannot frame the words that will allow him to escape her ill-concealed displeasure
did you want to say something?
But the phone shrill-trills before he has the chance to justify his presence. Couching the receiver and turning her chair from him the furrows at once flatten out, the tone thaws. It is a snub, or so he interprets it
now he glances at the door to the head-office, feeling with every minute she chit-chats on the telephone a welling certainty it will open.
He is unshaven. Dishevelled. If Brinsley Swaine were to
he senses the wall of pressure build gradually behind the door until the moment when he can take it no longer and he stumbles from the desk and out of the ante-room. The secretary doesn’t so much as pause, turns more securely away, gasps aloud at what is confided through the tympanum of the phone.
He is cascading down the stairs.
He is outside, running.
His tie trails behind him like the tail of a kite that a child might have drawn.

Once
he has shut the door securely behind him in his relief he forgets to avert his eyes and is instantly, violently halted
scream of panic fails to vocalise
Christ he cries voicelessly Christ Jesus, shrinking from the looking-glass
he recoils before this newest, vilest apparition
the reflection has such open disdain that it has refused to move even as he moved into the room. It is as still as mockery. It is as menacing as a thief

How does the story end?
Already he knows.
Already he sees the day when, with curled lip and vicious grasp, the reflection will seize his listless corpse. It will drag him behind into the entrapment of glass, shedding him as a snake sloughs off its tired shell of skin

then his reflection will take its place, remorselessly, in the world of men.

© 2018 David Butler