Sport 22: Autumn 1999
Claire Baylis — Time Lapse
Anthony was about to pull on the grey gold-top socks of slightly different shades, when he noticed his toenails. They'd grown long again. Ellen had told him she hated long toenails. Hated the look of them, the risk of being scratched in bed at night. He'd cut them several days after this conversation, when he considered that there'd been enough of a gap.
It seemed only a week or two since that last cutting and he felt almost betrayed by their length now. They were ridged, slightly yellowed, with a white patch on the outside edge of his left big toe. He pushed this patch with the pad of his index finger but it didn't hurt. He'd never noticed it before. He couldn't remember stubbing his toe, and he'd bought no new shoes that might have squeezed this opaque smudge into the nail.
He lost interest in the patch and went back to considering the length. They were not yet offensive, he thought, but it would be as well to cut them so the situation didn't arise again.
Of course, if he cut them now they would grow long again sooner. Then he would have to cut them again. Perhaps cutting them made them grow even faster. The scene in his head was like one of those films from a camera set on a time lapse, recording the opening of a bud through to a stretched mature flower and then on until the petals curled and wilted and fell to the ground. He could see his freshly cut toenails sprouting again, lengthening so that the white curve became thicker, discoloured. He imagined himself on this film cutting and them sprouting again, and him cutting and cutting and the film going faster and faster so that he could never keep up with the speed of his own toenails.
It was already twenty past seven. He must find the nail scissors before he put the socks on. A diagonal cut over one corner and then page 123 straight across. Or he could dig the blade of the scissors down the pink edge and go along in a line of small nipping cuts. He could whittle the nails down, slicing off thinner and thinner splinters.
Anthony jerked his head up, ready to move, but then he knew with overwhelming certainty that the scissors would not be in the bathroom cabinet. He tried to picture the three shelves behind the mirror. He had been in there this morning, less than an hour ago, when he needed a new razor blade.
They would not be on the top shelf. There was nothing on the top shelf but the several grimy tubes of cream which had not been used for months. At least one had no cap. The only other thing on that top shelf was the brown plastic pill bottle, tucked away in the corner. Ellen knew he'd been prescribed the sleeping tablets but he'd still put them up there, out of the way. They were not something which should be obtrusive, not to her nor to himself. He didn't want to be reminded that he needed them, of the nights when his head buzzed with all the things he had not done, the words he should have spoken. On those nights his body no longer seemed to be the same shape; it did not fit neatly into the bed any more. He would get a cramp in his calf or there would be nowhere to put his arm. The bottom of his back would hurt or he'd feel a crick in his neck.
He'd had to explain this to the doctor, an inconspicuous man of his own age, who, he realised as he talked, he'd met before, at the Ministry.
‘It's always better not to use the medication of course. You should try walking, Anthony. In the early evening, not too late or that in itself might keep you awake.’
The doctor had laughed then and Anthony had joined in although at the same time he'd clenched his fist and pushed it down against his knee.
‘Or sex,’ the doctor had said, ‘sex can be good.’
The nail scissors would not be on the top shelf; nor the next. The middle shelf Ellen had commandeered.page 124
‘I was standing there in the chemist, and I thought there's no point bringing everything over each time. So look.’
She lifted each item out of the paper bag as she named it, and taking the price off she set them on the coffee table in front of him.
‘Cleanser, toner, moisturiser.’
Anthony started to worry that the bottles would leave stains on the surface of the table. He imagined three identically sized pale circles. A reminder even when she was not here. A signature of sorts.
She shifted his things to the other shelves, except for those she threw in the bin.
‘There's so much rubbish in this house, one day you should sort it all out. I'll throw this—yes?’
She held up a blue-and-white tube of cream that had no cap. He knew it was Savlon from the colours, even though the paint was chipped and the letters had been rolled in on themselves. There was a brown gelatinous matter etched into the curved ridges of the neck of the tube. Dust moistened with Savlon. The tube lay on Ellen's open palm, above the bin. (Palm up and he could still see the even bone-coloured curves of her nails, but fingernails, he supposed, must be different.) A tilt of her hand and the tube would fall. But Savlon was a disinfectant cream. Disinfectant. He imagined when dust touched the exposed crust, the germs within it would be zapped, would disintegrate. Would be disinfected.
‘I think that'll still be fine.’
Her fingers started to dip until she realised his meaning.
‘You're ridiculous,’ she said, but she had put the cream back on the shelf; immediately holding up a shaving brush with a wooden handle and loose bristles.
‘Now you don't use this, do you? I've never seen you use it.’
He left her in the bathroom and went to inspect the coffee table, on which there were no marks.
The bottom shelf of the cabinet was for things he used regularly. Razor blades, a comb, shaving foam and the cream he used between his toes whenever he developed another bout of athlete's foot. That was where page 125 the nail scissors should be, but he couldn't remember them being there this morning.
They might be on the bedside table, or even in the drawer in the kitchen. Nail scissors often got lost, they were that sort of item. His mother always put hers away in the top drawer in her dressing table as soon as she'd used them. He wasn't like that; he left things where they were until it was time for a clear up, until Ellen was coming over. He should tidy today.
He surveyed the living room. The laundry basket full of the weekend's washing, with the socks resting on top. He still hadn't put the socks on. Newspapers, a cup, yesterday's cereal bowl. Two pairs of shoes, a Time magazine he'd bought for the flight home from Auckland on Tuesday. Some draft pages of the report and at least a week's worth of mail, opened envelopes and all.
He looked at the clock on the video machine; he'd missed the seven forty express bus, but that was a relief. That was the bus the ‘disturbed’ man caught. Not every day; sometimes the bus passed him as he ran along the waterfront. Running, head tilted forwards and fully clothed in a grey shiny suit with a blue shirt—always the same clothes in fact.
The man had picked on Anthony several times already. Anthony believed it was his glasses that made him vulnerable. An external manifestation of weakness. The first time, (which Anthony still viewed as the worst) he'd been reading the Dominion. Now he knew better.
The man, smelling strongly of perspiration, shifted closer to him on the seat. He looked into Anthony's face and then prodded his arm.
‘What's the news?’
‘What's the news?’
‘Oh,’ said Anthony, and then unsure how to reply he offered the man the business section of the paper.
‘No!’ said the man. ‘What's the news?’
His voice became louder. Louder than the voices people spoke in on buses. Too loud. Anthony smiled at the woman across the aisle who had turned surreptitiously to look. She didn't smile back.page 126
It suddenly occurred to him that the man could not read and he flushed thinking how he'd drawn attention to the man's difficulty.
‘Well,’ he said in a gentle voice, ‘the lead story's about Clinton.’
‘Clinton,’ repeated the man.
‘Yes, he's been accused of …’ Anthony paused. He'd been about to say sexual misconduct, but he was afraid now of where those words might lead. ‘Of telling someone to lie under oath.’
‘Under oath,’ shouted the man. ‘Lying under oath.’
His face was very close to Anthony's. He reached his hand up as if he were going to take off Anthony's glasses, but then he left it there hovering a few centimetres from his face.
Anthony laughed, briefly, until he realised it might be viewed as a provocation.
‘There's another story here about some baboons raiding a hospital in Kenya and stealing all the dextrose drips.’
‘I've been a patient,’ said the man.
‘Yes,’ said Anthony.
‘What do you mean?’ The man raised his voice again so Anthony quickly began to tell him a story he'd read in the ‘Odd Spot’ the night before, about a herd of goats disassembling and eating a mannequin.
‘Where? Where does it say that?’
The man snatched the paper from Anthony and started burrowing furiously through it. Anthony looked around, but nobody met his eyes.
‘Well actually it … ummn … here,’ he pointed to a paragraph about a bank robbery. ‘Here you see.’
‘That's not what it says,’ said the man, not looking at the paper.
‘No,’ said Anthony slowly. He could hear his heart beating. ‘No, it doesn't does it.’ He wondered what he should do now, what the man would do.
The man started to rock in the seat.
‘Goats under oath. Goats under oath.’ The seat squeaked rhythmically. ‘Goats under oath.’
People were watching. Everyone was watching.
‘Excuse me,’ said Anthony, standing up, even though it would take him twenty minutes to walk the rest of the way.page 127
‘Goats under oath,’ sang the man.
‘Let me out please.’ He pushed against the man's thigh. ‘Come on.’
The man got up, moved out of the seat and stood in the aisle rocking so that Anthony was forced to shove past him.
‘Who's Clinton?’ said the man lurching towards Anthony's face.
Anthony shuddered slightly as he remembered the incident. ‘Who's Clinton?’ ‘A lecherous old goat,’ that's what he should have said.
There was another bus at eight fifteen; he could cut his toenails, finish dressing, give the room a quick tidy, even if he made one big pile and put it down by the side of the couch. If he emptied the washing on to the bed, Ellen would think he was in the process of putting it away. She'd probably do it for him if he insisted on watching the ten o'clock news.
He looked down at his toenails again, wondering if they would last another week. The nail scissors were bound to turn up in that time and he could make sure he put them away then, in the cabinet, afterwards. It would be so much easier than trying to find them now, but he didn't want Ellen to say anything.
Perhaps he would start with the tidying. There were different piles of letters, depending on the day they had arrived. He must keep the return envelopes for the electricity and the telephone. There was a wedding invitation from his cousin which he would have to think up an excuse for. He should hide that or Ellen would want to go.
He must collect all the pages of the report. He couldn't bear to discuss it with Ellen, (or the Committee for that matter). The recommendations were in the bathroom, he remembered. His eyes flicked to the pages under the table, next to his work shoes. ‘Suggested Principles for the Prioritisation of Government Subsidisation.’ He wondered again if the Committee would accept the suggestions. If the suggestions were right. The general age factor he was happy with, a forty-year-old before an eighty-year-old. (He was glad his grandparents were dead, that his parents had medical insurance.) He was still hesitant about the recommendation that the government only subsidise one brand of certain drugs. What about the differing side- page 128 effects? And people who had used the same medication for years? He wouldn't want to be forced to change even his hayfever spray. The report was due to be sent to the Committee in less than a week.
It was nearly eight o'clock. He had to get moving. He stood up and brushed his hand down the leg of his beige trousers. Were they beige, he wondered, or tan? Was tan just an Americanism for beige? Ellen would know, although she would be irritated if he asked her. This seemed to him a contradiction considering her degree of pedantry, or, as he'd described it to his mother, her commitment to precision.
Anthony took the washing basket through into the bedroom, the socks still on top. He went into the bathroom and found that the nail scissors weren't in the cabinet. His eyes flicked up to the brown so he shut the door, avoiding looking in the mirror. He went back into the bedroom, picked up the socks and sat on the bed. The nail scissors didn't appear to be on the bedside table or the chest of drawers. He couldn't see them on the floor, but there were a lot of clothes and books on the floor, he should move those as well. He lifted his feet and rested them in the middle of his washing. His toenails were tough to cut. So very much stronger and yellower than his finger nails. He stared, thinking that it was incredible that they were growing even as he watched.
And then he placed the socks back on the top of the washing basket, moved the pillow and lay on the bed. He pulled the duvet right up under his chin and close in around him so that he could feel it against his body on all sides. He pushed his right big toenail, the one without the patch, into his left calf muscle. Felt its sharpness.