Confessions from the Stranger at the End of the Bar

An excerpt from "What Happens at Night" by Peter Cameron, recommended by Margot Livesey

INTRODUCTION BY MARGOT LIVESEY

There is a very specific, and very delicious, disorientation that occurs while reading a Peter Cameron novel. In the opening pages of his latest book What Happens at Night, an unnamed husband and wife are riding an old-fashioned train to a town, also unnamed. We recognize the wood-paneled compartment, the dark forest pressing against the windows, the snow, but there is something different, something slightly—but not entirely—menacing. Are wolves going to come out of the forest? No, the wolves are already present in the shape of the woman’s cancer, the man’s health, their desire, not equally shared, for adoption, which is what has brought them from New York to this vaguely Scandinavian country.

The train stops, but it’s not clear if it’s their station, or even a station at all. There are no signs, no people. The man steps down to investigate, onto the snowy platform. Once he has violated the pristine snow—“He felt like a barbarian”—he cannot resist running in ever widening circles; a few moments of pleasure in the midst of much uncertainty. And then, he sees a sign. Yes! it is their town. In a perfectly choreographed moment, just as the train begins to move—the reader has been worrying about this all along—the woman hurls their bags out and jumps down.  

What I’m trying to convey is how Cameron captures so many different emotions—not the commonly cited roller-coaster but rather all these different states—coexisting in the character’s consciousness. When the husband suggests he find a taxi to take them to their hotel, the wife laughs bitterly: “he realized that she had finally turned against him, forsaken him as he had watched her forsake everyone else she had once loved, slowly but surely drifting toward a place where anger and impatience and scorn usurped love.” How can they get past this devastating moment? But when he returns a few minutes later—he has indeed found a taxi—she has fallen asleep in the snow.

The extract that follows takes place in the surprisingly cozy hotel bar where the man discovers the delicious schnapps, which will help to sustain him through the many travails that follow. The scene is filled, as is the novel, with the best kinds of surprises, moment after moment, that make us stop and reconsider the possibilities of the everyday, and of the dark forest where we all live.              

– Margot Livesey
Author of The Boy in the Field 

Confessions from the Stranger at the End of the Bar

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An Excerpt from What Happens At Night
by Peter Cameron

The lobby was deserted; the woman behind the reception desk was gone and the lanterns the gryphons held no longer glowed.

Because it was now darker in the lobby, the light in the bar that lit up the red glass beads of the curtain seemed brighter than before. The man crossed the lobby and paused for a moment just outside the entrance to the bar, and then pushed his hands through the hanging beads and lifted away a space through which he entered.

The bar was as small and intimate as the lobby was cavernous and grand. It was a long, low-ceilinged wood-paneled room, and for a moment the man felt himself back on the train, for in shape it was exactly proportional to the carriage. The bar itself, which stretched across the length of the room, was inhabited by two people, one at each end, as if carefully placed there to maintain balance. At the end of the bar nearest the door the bartender stood, leaning back against the dimly illuminated shelves of liquor, staring far ahead of himself, although the room was very shallow and there was no distance to regard unless it was inside himself. At the far end of the bar, at the point where it curved to meet the wall, at that last and final seat, a woman sat gazing down into her drink in the same rapt way the bartender looked ahead.

The placement of these two people at either end of the bar made clear the position the man should take, and so he sat on a stool midway between them. For a moment neither of them moved, or responded in any way to his presence, and he felt that by positioning himself so correctly he had not upset the equilibrium of the room, and they would all three continue to maintain the quiet stasis he had feared to interrupt, as if he had assumed his given place in a painting, or a diorama. This notion affected him with a debilitating stillness, as if one’s goal in life was simply to find and occupy a particular ordinate in space, as if the whole world were an image in the process of being perfectly arranged, and those who had found their places must not move until the picture was complete.

He gazed through the regiments of bottles that lined the mirrored shelves behind the bar at his reflection, which peered back at him with an intentness that seemed greater than his own, and for a second he lost the corporeal sense of himself, and wondered on which side of the mirror he really sat. In an effort to reinhabit himself he reached out his hand and patted the copper-topped bar, and the touch of the cool metal against his fingertips flipped the world back around the right way, but the bartender interpreted this gesture as a summons and unfurled his leaning body away from the wall, walked over, and placed a napkin on the bar in front of the man, in the exact spot he had patted, as if he were applying a bandage to a wound.

The bartender was a young man, tall and dark, vaguely Asiatic and remarkably stiff, as if he had been born with fewer joints than normal; he seemed unable, or unwilling, to bend his neck, so he gazed out over the man’s head and spoke to the alabaster sconce on the wall just behind them. The foreign words he uttered meant nothing to the man; in fact they did not even seem like words. He remembered how for a long time as a child he had thought there was a letter in the alphabet called ellemeno, a result of the alphabet song slurring L M N O together (at least in his mother’s drunken rendition).

He assumed the bartender had asked him for his order, but what if he had not? Perhaps he had told him the bar was closed, or insulted him, or was merely inquiring as to his well-being. The idea that language worked at all, even when two people spoke the same one, seemed suddenly miraculous; it seemed like an impossible amount for two people to agree upon, to have in common.

The idea that language worked at all, even when two people spoke the same one, seemed suddenly miraculous; it seemed like an impossible amount for two people to agree upon, to have in common.

It was the woman who saved them. She abruptly looked up from the depths of her drink and said, quite loudly: English, English! No one speaks your bloody language, you fool.

The bartender flinched, and waited a moment before speaking, as if he wanted to put a distance between the woman’s admonition and his words, and then said, in perfect English: Good evening. What could I get you?

The man was unsure of what to order. The constellation of bottles was arranged on the glass shelves of the bar in a pattern that seemed to him as intricately undecipherable as the periodic table, and to choose a liquor seemed as daunting as picking one element out of the many that comprised the world. The man shifted his head a bit so he could look around the bartender at the bottles behind him, hoping one bottle would call out to him—he wanted scotch, a large glass of scotch, neat, that he could warm between his palms and sip, he wanted the liquid gold of scotch, the warmth of it, but he had lost some fundamental confidence in himself over the course of the journey that made it impossible for him to ask for what he wanted—but once again, the woman at the end of the bar, apparently displeased with his indecision and the bartender’s inertia, apparently wanting to make something, anything, happen, said, Have you tried the local schnapps? It’s made from lichen, which sounds horrible I know, but it’s not, I promise you, it’s one of the loveliest schnapps I know. Lárus, give him some schnapps, let him see if he likes it. I think he will like it.

The bartender turned around and selected a large, squared, unlabeled bottle half full of clear liquid. He pulled the silver stopper, which resembled a stag’s antlered head, from its mouth and poured a dram into a large snifter, which he set before the man, who realized the liquid was not clear, but tinged with the silvery blue glow that snow reflects at twilight. He picked up the snifter and swirled the liquid up and around its glass walls, aware of both the bartender and the woman watching him, waiting, and then lifted it to his mouth and smelled the clean bracing smell of institutionally laundered linen and poured a little into his mouth, and let it pool there for a moment, cool and aromatic, tasting faintly of bleach and watercress and spearmint and rice.

He slowly lowered the glass to the bar and said, It’s lovely.

I knew you’d like it, said the woman. Lárus, pour him more.

The bartender once again removed the stopper from the bottle’s throat and held its open mouth above the man’s glass and, when the man nodded, he poured another dram of schnapps into the snifter. He then walked to the far end of the bar and poured more into the woman’s glass. She raised her glass to the man and looked into his eyes. She was old, the man realized, probably in her seventies, but there was something overtly and disconcertingly sexual about her. She wore a tight-fitting black gown adorned with iridescent sequins that reminded the man somewhat of fish scales—he thought of the prismatic bellies of fish lifted out of the water, how their flexing struggle made them gleam—and her long silvery-gray hair was swept back from her face and coiled atop her head in an intricate, antique sort of way. Her face was lean and strong, her eyes dark, her nose sleekly formidable, and her lips polished a deep wine red that separated them irrevocably from her pale skin. Her eyes were large and seemed to be set a fraction too far apart, as if some constant eagerness to see both what was in front of her but also beside her had caused them to become unfixed and migrate to either side of her face.

One shouldn’t shout in bars, she said, especially this late at night. I’m an actress, my voice is trained to project, but allow me to come sit next you, for I know you won’t come sit next to me, and it’s really too ridiculous to have this distance between us.

Without waiting for his reply, she stepped down off her barstool and picked up her drink and walked around the corner of the bar and reseated herself on the stool next to the man. She carefully placed her glass on the bar at the same latitude as his and then looked not at him but at their reflection in the mirror, through the interruption of bottles. Their eyes met and held there in the mirror, and the man felt the strength of the schnapps like electricity coursing through his body.

Are you here for the healer? the woman asked him. Or the orphanage?

The orphanage, said the man. There’s a healer?

Yes. Brother Emmanuel. Surely you’ve heard of him.

I haven’t, said the man. A healer? How do you mean? 

How do I mean? What do you mean? He’s a healer. He heals people. 

For real?

They say he does. I, myself, have not been healed by him—at least not yet—so I can give you no definitive answer. But why do you ask? Are you looking to be healed?

No, said the man. But my wife is ill. Very ill. 

Incurably ill?

Well, said the man, I suppose it remains to be seen.

Of course, said the woman. Everything that’s coming remains to be seen.

Of course, said the woman. Everything that’s coming remains to be seen.

The man realized that the bartender had somehow floated back to his original position at the end of the bar and was pretending he could not hear them, or see them, was pretending that he was alone onstage in some different play, a one-man show. The woman sighed and touched her hair, first one side of her head and then on the other, and the man realized she wore it as intricately coiffed as she did so that it could occupy her at moments like these; it could always be attended to, adjusted, primped.

It can work, she said. I’ve seen people arrive here at death’s front door—in the vestibule, even—and a few days later skip merrily away.

The man did not reply.

But I think for it to work you have to believe. Do you believe in that kind of thing?

I don’t know, the man said.

Then you don’t, said the woman. If you did, you’d know. What about your wife? Does she believe in it?

I don’t know, said the man. I doubt it.

Well, I don’t suppose it can hurt her to see him, so you might give it a go, since you got yourselves here. People come from all over the world to see Brother Emmanuel. Fortunately, I’ve never been ill a day in my life. My eyes are fine, my teeth—everything works fine. Knock wood. She rapped the underside of the bar with her knuckles. I don’t know why. I drink. I smoke.

You’re very fortunate, said the man.

Yes, she said. About that. My body has never failed me. Everything else, yes—but my body, no. I wonder how I’ll die. I am Livia Pinheiro-Rima. Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette? It makes me nervous to talk and a cigarette calms me down.

The man shook his head, indicating that he had no objection to the woman smoking, and she fished a silver cigarette case out of her bag and sprung it open and slid a cigarette out from beneath the clasp. She held the cigarette between two of her fingers, and with her thumb she flicked it cartwheeling up into the air and caught it neatly by the filtered end in her mouth.

That’s a trick from my circus days, she said. She bent her face down and stuck the tip of her cigarette into a candle and sucked at the flame and then raised her head, exhaling smoke through her nostrils.

I really was in the circus, you know, she said.

What did you do? the man asked.

I swung from the trapeze and rode atop an elephant. This was centuries ago, of course. But some things last.

It’s a good trick, the man said.

I know, she said. That’s why I’ve kept it. There are certain things I do every day, and that’s one. If you do something every day, you’ll never not be able to do it. People give up too easily in this regard. You, for instance.

What? the man said.

I can tell. You’ve given up, let go of certain things. I’ve had this dress since I was twenty-seven. And do you know, I was one of the original Isadorables.

You mean the children who danced with Isadora Duncan?

Yes. Although she didn’t think we were children. She thought anyone over the age of three was autonomous.

I don’t see how that’s possible, said the man. You’d be one hundred years old.

Perhaps I am. But don’t you know it’s rude to talk about a woman’s age?

I’m sorry, said the man. You’re remarkable.

Yes, but a lot of good it does me. It’s like a tree in the forest falling: if there’s no one there, who cares if it’s remarkable or not? I used to spend a lot of time in forests, waiting for trees to fall. It happens, you know—they suddenly just let go and crash. It’s the most intimate thing I’ve ever witnessed. And I’ve witnessed an awful lot of intimacy, believe me. Oh dear God the intimacies I’ve witnessed! By rights I ought to be blind. Do you believe in that?

What?

Hysterical blindness. The optic nerve ceasing to function as a result of a shock to the psyche.

I don’t know, the man said. I suppose—

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, the woman hurriedly continued. I wasn’t in the circus for long. You see, I wanted to act, I wanted to be in the theater, and you’ve got to start out however you can. Wherever you can. So I started out dangling upside down from a rope and doing the splits atop an elephant. I don’t know if it still happens, but once upon a time there were people who were born to be on the stage. I was. They say I got down from my mother’s lap and crawled up the aisle towards the stage of the New Harmonium Theater when I was one year old. Who’d want to sit in the dark when they could be up there in that gorgeous light?

I would, said the man. Lots of people.

Yes, and God bless them! It’s the beauty of the world, isn’t it, that there are both kinds. The ones who will sit in the dark watching the ones on the stage. The ones who like to feel pain and the ones who like to give it. I’ve never believed in God because I think men’s and women’s anatomy is all wrong. The invariability of sexual intercourse, of men penetrating women, is amateurish; it wasn’t created by a God. I think homosexuality is proof of this. And my God, in the insect world, the horrible things that happen! Traumatic insemination! Postcoital chomping! I was once married to an entomologist.

It doesn’t sound very pleasant, said the man.

Being married to an entomologist?

No, said the man, the trauma and chomping.

Oh. No. Well, neither was being married to an entomologist for that matter. Have you heard of Kristof Noomeul? 

No, said the man.

I was married to him too. He was a theater director. The last really great theater director. I’m talking about real theater, pure theater, of course. It’s how I ended up here, at the end of the world. Of course, it being round, it doesn’t really have an end, but you got yourself here, so you know what I mean.

The woman looked down into her drink.

The bartender once again lifted himself away from the wall. He selected the schnapps bottle, uncorked it, and stood before them. Another? he asked.

The woman looked up from her drink, turned, and looked at the man. She saw that he was crying, silently, the tears on his cheeks. She nodded at the bartender and he poured some schnapps into both their glasses. He corked the bottle and left it on the bar in front of them and resumed his post at the far end of the bar.

You’re thinking about your wife, aren’t you?

Yes, said the man.

That you may lose her.

Yes, said the man.

After a moment the woman said, It’s startling for me, to encounter such depth of feeling. Of love, I suppose. Perhaps it’s not love, but to be moved to tears . . . When one stops feeling, one forgets that feelings exist, that other people actually do feel them. Like love. Perhaps it’s simply a result of aging—perhaps feelings, like muscles, atrophy. I’m sure it’s so, at least for me—it’s why I keep performing, even though hardly anyone comes to hear me—I play the piano and sing for my supper in yonder lobby five nights a week and Sunday afternoons. I do it, you see, because it’s the only way I can feel anything these days, even if they’re not real feelings, only facsimiles of facsimiles of facsimiles. And here you are feeling something real, right beside me. I’m ashamed. And privileged.

And here you are feeling something real, right beside me. I’m ashamed. And privileged.

The man crossed his arms on the bar and then leaned forward, so his forehead rested on his arms. I’m so tired, he said. The schnapps has made me tired.

No, said the woman. It isn’t the schnapps. She placed her hand gently on the center of his back. The man felt the pressure and warmth of her large hand and was afraid she would take it away.

Your hand is so warm, he said.

It isn’t either, said the woman.

It feels warm, said the man.

That’s something else entirely, said the woman. 

No one comes? asked the man.

Occasionally there’s someone, said the woman. She carefully did not move her hand, carefully did not increase or decrease the pressure of it against the man’s back.

But most nights the lobby is empty, she continued. Or there’s a few businessmen chatting up whores. But I don’t let that deter me. Anyone can perform for an audience, can’t they, for that warm welcoming murmur out beyond the footlights that’s so often mistaken for love? Other people go on doing other things, so why shouldn’t I? It doesn’t hurt anyone, as my mother would say. Five nights a week, as I told you. Do you know, I’ve never understood why there are seven days in a week, it seems such an odd number, why not ten or five? It’s another reason to doubt the existence of God, for wouldn’t he have divided up time more neatly? It’s all rather a mess, it seems to me.

She gently removed her hand from the man’s back and said, Are you still weeping?

No, said the man. He sat up straight and wiped at his wet face with his hands. Then he lifted his glass of schnapps and drank it all down like a child swallowing nasty medicine as quickly and neatly as possible. He placed the glass back upon the copper surface of the bar and smiled wistfully at it. He reached out and touched its rim with his fingertip. I’d like you to come hear me sing, the woman said. I think it might do you good. It might take you out of yourself.

Can that be done? asked the man.

What?

I’d like to be taken out of myself. And put away in a drawer somewhere. A drawer you open in a dream when you’re packing in haste at the end of the world.

Oh, that dream! exclaimed the woman. That drawer! Well, I can only take you out of yourself. Where you go then is up to you.

Now I shall go to bed, said the man. He looked at the bartender. What do I owe you?

Don’t worry, said the woman. He’ll charge it to your room. It’s the beauty of hotel bars. It’s time I left, too, but I’ll let you go first. It would be unbearable to leave with you and say good night in the hallway.

Do you live in the hotel?

I do. I had a sweet little house but I didn’t take good care of it, in fact I didn’t take any care of it, and so it fell to pieces, it really did, you’d think houses would last, at least I did, but they don’t. Especially here, with all the cold and the snow. Things expand and contract, and then collapse. So now I live in the hotel. Go, just go! I’m going to return to my original place over yonder and finish my drink.

The man stood up. Good night, he said.

Oh, don’t say good night. Just go! I’m going back to my place. See.

Livia Pinheiro-Rima stood up and walked back to her seat at the end of the bar. She sat and placed her glass on the bar in front of her and gazed down into it. The bartender stood in his original place at the other end of the bar, gazing implacably in front of him.

The man dove back through the red beads, which trembled ecstatically behind him, but after a moment they hung straight and perfectly still. 

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