Fiction from the Vault: Josephine Rowe

1 September 2014 Josephine Rowe

Fiction from the Vault: Josephine Rowe

In the Mornings We Would 
Sometimes Hear Him Singing


In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing. His voice came strong across the greying, toothless fence, across the famous nine-foot tomato plants and the green outdoor table covered in empty bottles and cigarette ash. It got in through broken sash windows held up by encyclopaedias and cask wine boxes, and it found all of us there, sharing the one large roof but watching the paint flake from different ceilings.

Inside we were standing at our kitchen sinks and our bathroom sinks; we were reading at desks, and at the tables that functioned as desks; we were sitting on unmade beds coaxing music from battered instruments; we were yelling at the newspaper, our hands still sticky with wallpaper glue and our mouths still sticky with sleep; we were falling in love with Rothko, finding beautiful ways to talk about violence; we were ravenous and restless; we were so still we collected dust.

When we heard him singing we would pause with our toothbrushes in our mouths, our hands in the grey dishwater. We forgot our hunger, lifted our faces from the works of Cisneros and stein, let the instruments sleep in our arms. We would lower our fists, we would listen.

All of us were in between, rising or falling; we wouldn’t know which way till afterwards. There was so much to look forward to. There was so much to be sorry about. For that time we lived in the midst of each other’s static, the murmurings of radios and televisions that came through walls, muffled conversations that rose from the floor or floated down through the ceiling. There were no true secrets.

In place of secrets, we kept contraband animals, a menagerie of cats and small dogs. When one of them became sick and died we buried it at the back of the block, under the tree that sheltered the red leather lounge suite somebody had dragged out there two Januarys before. In the height of summer, we drank tequila and cycled to the beach to watch the waves toss jellyfish up onto the sand. We slept under wet towels, or we slathered our skins in Aeroguard and stretched out on old sheets in the Alister Clark memorial rose garden, listening to the arguments Blessington street staged with itself in the dead heat of the early hours.

In winter we watched our breath cloud the air above our beds. We bought firewood from the bent man near the railway bridge, his tattered woollen cardigan with splinters and sawdust caught in the weave. We lit fires under blocked chimneys and all our clothes smelled of smoke. Grown men fell asleep on our doorsteps, curled up like children, and we stepped around them to unlock our doors, saying just this once while riding high on the shoulders of our own benevolence. Working girls redid their make-up in the yellow light of our stairwells, in the brief interludes between blown or stolen bulbs. Our bicycles disappeared from the railing we chained them to, and an anonymous hand scrawled One day soon I will be waiting inside for you above the door of no. 8.

But in the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing, and his voice thrummed through all the busted hot water systems and dirty sheets and disconnection notices, through the discarded needles and the places where our bicycles used to be. His voice touched these things the way a small child touches the fur of an unfamiliar dog, not conceiving the possibility of being bitten. His voice made these things better than they were, lifting them above the seedy and the broken and the dangerous, so that they became something else; a bronze cast of something seedy and broken, a collodion photograph of something broken and dangerous. He did this without knowing it, and although we could not understand the language he sang in, we understood what it meant to keep your voice – if only your voice – and to use it whenever you could in an ugly apartment where you went for weeks without anyone saying your name. Where basil and coriander struggled from plastic pots along the kitchen windowsill, growing in the three-hour blade of sunlight that cut between the two buildings like they were two halves of a failed cake.

Some days we saw him in the fresh produce section of the supermarket, and did not understand how such a voice came from such a man. We would feign distraction, turning away from his rum-blossomed face in our sudden desperation for artichokes, for tamarillos. Or we would exchange awkward pleasantries, while he selected ripe apricots from the display and broke them open with his knotty hands. He would bite into one half of the fruit, then spit it right back out onto the green linoleum floor. Pah, he said. No good. Taste of nothing, you see. Then he would offer the other half to us for confirmation. Nothing at all, we would agree, awed by his disregard for supermarket conduct.

When the development notices arrived, addressed to the occupant instead of to our names, some of us had already cottoned on, spooked by men with retractable tapes measuring the low brick wall that housed our letterboxes, and on which the working girls would sit in a fleshy row, like birds or cats or cabs, when business was bad and their feet had started to ache. Some of us had already started packing. Some of us knew the signs.

We are gone now, all of us. And the corner stores are clothing stores, and the arts supply is closed. The pubs where we shot pool and slouch-danced to ‘red right hand’ on the jukebox, those pubs do not have pool tables or jukeboxes any more.

In the mornings I get up, I make coffee, the cat asks to be fed. I share no walls, no roof, no backyard. I can go naked into the backyard if I want to, and I do sometimes, to remind myself I can. The only radio I hear is my own, reiterating the small issues in the hope they will distract from the real issues. And yes, people still sing – there will always be singing – but never the kind that makes something better than it is.

My disconnection notices are just disconnection notices.

My dirty sheets, they’re just that.


Josephine Rowe is the author of the short story collections How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake. She is a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University, and currently lives in Oakland. This story first appeared in The Big Issue Fiction Edition #397, January 2012.