The Man With No Castle
by Malachy Orozco
I live on the streets. The hardest thing isn’t maintaining my personal hygiene, or being social. It isn’t money, because I still maintain an executive position at a high profile company. Between large breakfast spreads at the office in the morning, lunches with international clients, and dinner parties thrown in my honour, I am well fed, and my skin, hair, and nails maintain the rosy glow of blossoming inner health. What is difficult is attending private viewings at art galleries, press nights at nationally funded theatres, book signings, christenings, and funerals. At these events, I meet colleagues, old friends, and total strangers who feel the need to tell me about their living situations. “It’s a one bedroom flat in the middle of the city, says a thin young man with a goatee and unkempt hair. It’s a reasonable distance from public transportation, and there is an acceptably chic place to buy my coffee in the morning. I live in a converted library, says a doctor. There are four floors, a separate maisonette for my tenant, an Albanian Jew who studies rococo tapestry. At night, when I lie awake on my Louis the Fifteenth king-sized bed, staring at the constellations through my skylight, I can barely hear his sewing machine white noise generator. I live in a castle, says the waiter. It has forty five rooms, a guard house, a moat, an on-call farrier and mason. There is an intact torture chamber in the vaulted basement beneath the main hall. My partner and I use the rack as an alternative to yoga, and we’ve converted the iron maiden into our dining room table. The bloodstains of the people who were held within it until they died from blood loss give a character and patina to the wood that we find appealing. It seats twelve, and is perfect for formal occasions.
These opening statements imply a conversation, a conversation that I desperately wish to avoid. After years of living a nomadic existence, I strain to remember what living in a home is like. In order to throw my interlocutors off of the scent, I instead change the subject to common difficulties of being a resident. “Don’t you hate it, I say, when you get to your door, and you put the key in the door, only to realise that you’ve brought the keys to the wrong house?” “Isn’t it irritating, I say, when your bedroom’s en suite bathroom is less comfortable than the bathroom in the opposite wing of the house?” “Aren’t helipads hard to maintain?” “What is the best way to go about finding a decent yacht captain, who not only has an impeccable manner and skill at the wheel, but also has connections to the international arms and narcotics trade?”
When the gallery is clear, when the museum is silent, when the theatre is vacated, and the office lights are turned off, I begin my nightly journey to find a place to sleep. Main roads on weekend and holiday nights provide the greatest gamble. The high amount of foot traffic can bring with it both the security of being observed by many passers by, and the danger of roving bands of drunks who may wish to fight me, piss on me, attempt to take me to their homes to wash my feet, give me money, or tell me why Dave left her tonight, but it’s really Ellie’s fault because she thought Brian was trying to turn Dave against her, but he definitely wasn’t and really, Ellie’s heart is in the right place, but it’s just so hard to know who your friends are, and you seem so free, and would you like a hug and a falafel? No, thank you, I say. I just want to sleep. I have to work tomorrow.
The gym affords the best opportunity to shower before work. It opens early in the mornings, has posted business hours, reliable utilities, and lockers for storage of my belongings. “I moved into a farmhouse that has twelve subterranean levels, says a fifty year old fat man, with bright pink rosacea, thickly piled grey back hair, and a penis that is implied, yet is mercifully invisible. It’s a former cold war missile silo. Chemicals have been leaching out, through the concrete, for decades, but this has actually improved the soil. We grow tomatoes and coffee in our greenhouse, year-round. We’ve had the tannins tested in our vineyard, and this year’s wine promises to be truly spectacular.” Finally, alone in the shower stall, I wash myself with luxury shampoo and conditioner I keep stored from extended hotel visits, and I watch as the soapy water spirals down the drain. The motion sensor, which triggers the shower head, requires me to wave my hand in front of it, every thirty seconds.
I think about the past.
In the 1940s, a young boy and his aunt wander through the streets of the capital city of a Central American country. They root through trash, beg food from sailors in ports. Sometimes, the boy’s auntie boards the ships. The boy sits silently, and stares at the black leather shoes of the sailors, while his auntie goes off with the captain. The next day, they have enough money to eat in a cafe in the morning, and to sleep in a hostel at night.
In the early 1940s, in a major American city, a young girl wakes up to find her mother gone from home. She does not return the next day. Or the day after. For a year, she takes care of her brothers and sisters, washing clothes, cleaning the house, and taking care of them when they hurt themselves. She teaches herself to cook. She is very good. She and her father play poker in the mornings before she leaves for school. She is not allowed to leave until her father wins a hand. Most days, she is late.
In the mid 1950s, the Central American boy arrives in a major American city to live with his birth mother. He is beaten regularly by his step father, but keeps quiet for fear of being turned out on to the streets again. An ethnic rarity, the boy is befriended by the children at school. He learns to box, to play American football, and in his teens, he and his friends are recruited by local union representatives as muscle. They intimidate local business people, break picket lines, and are protected by the police. The boy, now a young man, is given a car by the union, and goes for drives by himself at night.
In the late 1950s, the girl, now a young woman, her mother returned home with no explanation, attends a live-in nursing school which is run by the Franciscan arm of the Catholic Church. Her room mate breaks the rules, and disappears through their shared bedroom window at night to party in the city, and to indulge in a new drug called LSD. When questioned about her room mate’s absence, the young woman gives up no information. One day, the room mate never comes back. Weeks later, it is revealed that she was murdered, stabbed to death, by her boyfriend, who was under the influence of LSD. State senator Kennedy is touring the nation, and he promotes philanthropic notions among the youth. She joins a volunteer effort to be a nurse in Viet Nam.
In the late 1950s, the young man is asked to do a special job for the union reps who have taken him in. He is to use the car he has been given to pick up people on certain days of the month, and deliver them to specific addresses. He is given a tailored suit, his very first, and new black leather shoes. The people he picks up live in other towns, other cities, and sometimes, other states. He drives them to the addresses listed. They are rotary club buildings in the city in which he lives, schools, community centres, and houses of worship, all located in the city within which he lives. These buildings are always decorated in the same way, with signs that always say the same things: Polling Location. Vote Here Today.
In the 1960s, the young woman is in a hot country, living with young doctors and nurses, in a house in a quiet neighbourhood, walking distance from the hospital at which they treat the casualties on all sides of the conflict. There has been a cease fire, and there is time now to relax. They play poker at their dining room table. The young woman is winning. A gun shot is heard in the distance. Then another. Then an explosion. The young medical staff pile into the bathroom of the small house, as the sounds of a fire fight grow closer, and closer. They hear their living room window pierced by something, and a crack somewhere in the bathroom. Behind the young woman’s head, a single green tile has cracked. A shard falls to the floor, and the now-impotent bullet topples after. It has taken on the forest green hue of the tile which saved her. She keeps it as a souvenir.
It is a week before Christmas in the 1960s. Having joined the military, the young man sits in his bunk, reading the local newspapers his friends post him from his home town. The men favoured by the union reps have been elected to positions of power. The young man and his bunkmate talk about their plans for the holiday. The young man thinks of his mother, and his step father. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing. I would rather stay here, at the base, if I could.” “Well, you can come to my house. Says his bunkmate. My sister will be cooking. She taught herself. She’s very good.”
My mother and father meet over a Christmas meal. They fall in love, marry in a brief justice of the peace ceremony, and honeymoon in a roadside motel. They move to my father’s city, where he maintains his lifestyle as an associate of the criminal element. My mother works in the emergency room of a nearby major hospital during the waning years of the post-war heroin crisis. She treats policemen gunned down by addicts, and addicts torn apart by addiction. She counsels mothers who have lost children, and children who have lost mothers. My father helps ferry the drugs in. The unions take a cut. He keeps this a secret. When property taxes are raised, and the allegedly corrupt union-backed political party plans for rail lines, new development, and other projects to be built by strong arm tactics, my mother assembles the nurses and community to protest. In the mornings, my mother stands in her uniform, listening to the local leader give speeches in front of rotary club buildings, schools, community centres, and houses of worship. In the evenings, my father puts on a suit, and goes for long drives, chauffeuring around the margin by which the old guard always wins.
In the mornings before high school, I learn to box. After school, I learn CPR, and volunteer with the ambulance corps. I wear a suit on election days, and drive a car around the state. On Sundays, I attend church in the morning, and grassroots political rallies with my mother in the afternoons. One night, in the run up to the mayoral election of my city, I ride the ambulance to a 911 call at the busiest intersection in town. As we arrive at the scene, I recognise the campaign car of the leader of the grassroots political movement. The man my mother admires has been stabbed at a traffic light in his car, his tongue removed. He has fallen onto the switch that turns on the microphone, which is connected to the public address system lashed to the roof of the car. All of the passersby can hear him moaning and choking. I hold his chest, telling him not to speak, while his blood leaks out, and we rush to the hospital. My mother is on call to take care of him. He dies while she watches.
At his funeral, in the Catholic church which my mother and I attend regularly, I sit in the front pews with my mother as honoured guests, among his stonefaced widow, his two weeping daughters, and his brother, who smells of tobacco and whiskey. The priest gives a sermon about civic duty, morality in the face of corruption, and the virtuous principles which the deceased represented. As I pay my respects, I look at his face, and can see where the knife had cut away part of his left cheek upon entry. When my mother and I leave the church, my father is standing outside in the afternoon sunlight, waiting for us, posed in front of his brand new car. The next day, my mother announces her intention to run for mayor.
On the ten year anniversary of the party leaders public murder, the city has completely changed. The union-backed party allies with stock market financiers. Soon, the map of the city is remade, and the only place I can afford to live is in a room in an illegal flat above an alleway bar in a prosperous part of the city. At first, the arrangement is simple. I am to pay the landlord’s head bartender, a red- headed New Zealand biker, every month in cash. No questions asked. At the end of the fourth year of my tenancy, my landlord wishes to set up a direct debit from checking account. To avoid him having my bank account number, I send him a text message on my mobile phone asking to confirm the bank account into which I am to pay, in order to trap him into admitting that I do live above the bar, and that he is my landlord. I am gathering evidence. He never responds.
After the first month of not paying my rent, I am worried. After the second, I am afraid. After the third, I am certain that the New Zealand biker will be brought in as muscle, to teach me a lesson. After the fourth month, every knock at the door startles me. After six months, I begin to doubt my own existence, and I search the walls of my room for the rift in the universe through which I must have fallen. After seven months, in order to balance out my wrong doing, I wander the streets at night, and take in total strangers. I offer them a place to sleep, fresh, clean Egyptian cotton bath towels, luxury shampoo and conditioner, body wash with organic tea tree oil, meals from intricate recipes that I have learned from my mother, career advice, music lessons, foot massages, falafel, and even my own shoes. Surely God is keeping score, weighing up these mindless acts of fraudulent altruism against my persistence as a rent-dodger.
In the eleventh month of my delinquency, I receive an invitation to serve as an international volunteer as part of a philanthropic project in the Palestine. I accept, and begin the slow transit of my personal archive into the homes of my friends, my passport I bury beneath a tree in a rarely visited part of a public park. I withdraw all of my cash from my bank account, and hide it in a ventilation duct behind the French experimental literature section of a nearby second-hand bookshop. One afternoon, returning from the laundrette, with all of my clothing in the bag upon my back, I put my key into the lock of the front door of my flat. The lock does not turn. My heart begins to pound. I try the lock from different angles, inserting the key upside down, even trying other keys. The key to my newly rented storage locker. To a safe deposite box that no longer exists. The key to the house that I grew up in. The key to my ex-girlfriend’s flat. The door to the bar opens, and the landlord steps out into the alleyway. It’s the end of year, he says, and I’ve just done the accounts. You haven’t been paying your rent. I tremble, adrenaline flooding through my veins. It must be a banking error, I say. The money has left my account. Can I double check the account numbers with you? I don’t believe you, he says. I want this month’s rent. Now. I consider running, abandoning all of my clothes here, and purchasing new ones abroad. I’ll never make it.
At the cash point, I have difficulty with my fine motor skills due to my intense trembling. Under my landlord’s watchful eye, I attempt to withdraw the full amount of my rent. The machine beeps, and rejects my card. The landlord sighs, and tells me to try again. Again, my card is rejected. Again, he says. I try to withdraw half of the amount of my rent. Again, my card is rejected. Again, he says. A quarter of the amount of rent. Rejected. Again. A fifth. Rejected. Again. A sixth. This continues, until finally, I hand him one small denomination bill. I head to the airport, and board the plane not knowing where I’ll land.
Sitting around a dining room table, with other international volunteers, in the middle of a cease fire, we are playing poker. We hear a gun shot. Then another. Then an explosion. We pile into the tiled bathroom, located in the centre of the building, placing the maximum number of walls between ourselves and the outside. How is it that, here, in the dark, with violence all around, I feel safer than I ever did back in the city.
This piece was presented as part of Whose London Is It Anyway? festival at Camden Peoples Theatre. A 23.01.16 live recording of the full performance can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/malachyorozco/the-man-with-no-castle
Image by Rob Heppell, taken from Vanessa White’s Nostalgia music video