People are afraid of ﬂying. I've never understood that. It's a most remarkable experience; yes, even in a cramped seat in a noisy compartment on a three-hour budget ﬂight with no food. You are still in the air. You are Above. It is extraordinary in the most direct and apt way; you are outside the ordinary. The ordinary is pushed down, rendered for a score of minutes into a mosaic of green and brown and mercury, and then you're with the clouds.
There has never been a better time to be alive, and that is not simply thanks to penicillin, ﬂush toilets and central heating, it's because now we can look down on the clouds. Clouds are utterly faithful to their promise of ethereal beauty. When I was very young, I imagined clouds to be warm and soft to the touch, because I knew they were water, and so therefore they must be steam because that's what they looked like, and steam was warm. Perfect logic. Of course, they are not warm, but in the air-conditioned cylinder of your midweek commercial ﬂight, they fulﬁll their old promise because they are awash with sunlight — no matter the daytime weather beneath, the cloud tops must be exposed to the sun, that is their guarantee, that is their tiny miracle.
Renaissance artists must have felt this love of clouds, and appreciation of their natural splendour, and having always felt separated from their true glory were moved to populate them with putti and seraphim; so perfect was their approximation of the wonderfulness of being above cloud level that to be there now is to expect these heavenly denizens to be there with you. But they are not. You are alone above a landscape that is forever changing, forever unique, forever special for you; rolling cirrus meadows and boiling mountaintops across unfathomed distance. You are an explorer and this is your new-found land.
But with all this beauty and isolation there is also an obligation — you must return, you must descend, back to the imperfect.
The landing, airport, passport control, baggage reclaim and taxi are all a compressed wedge of brown neon, sweat and stress in my mind. It was one of those dreadful moments when it occurs that the only things connecting you to who you are, what you are, where you come from, and where you are going, are a little purple-bound book ('Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires ... ') and an address scribbled on a scrap of paper torn from a spiral-bound notepad. The notepad itself is in a holdall that may at some stage, please God, appear on a conveyor belt still basically intact. It contains the remaining evidence of Who You Are. Who I am. The address, unless it has been incorrectly taken down — was it 70 or 17? — corresponds to an apartment building in a completely unfamiliar foreign city some thirty kilometres from this airport, and the taxi rank is the sinew that links me to it — shelter, a promise of food and comfort — unless I am cheated or robbed or murdered, or some baroque combination of those three. These things happen in foreign cities, I had been told, and over the warmth of dinner party conversation I had tried to smile the smile of the seasoned traveller as various lurid myths and truths were recounted. I was no seasoned traveller.
But there were no hitches, and none of the unlesses happened and the key ﬁt the lock and I found myself standing at the threshold of Oskar's ﬂat, getting a good look at it for the ﬁrst time.
Thanks so much for this; you're a real friend for helping out. I don't feel comfortable leaving the ﬂat for so long, not with the cats ... you'll like it, it's a nice ﬂat ...
The ﬂat, 17, was on the second ﬂoor of a six-storey, leaden, inter-war, vaguely Moderne block near the city centre, on a street stacked rigid with similarly bulky buildings that was prominent in the mental map of the taxi driver. And it was a nice ﬂ at.
At university, I remembered, Oskar had travelled under a thundercloud of good taste. Static permanently brewed around him, building readiness to send down a lightning bolt of scornful condemnation in the direction of anything cheap, or badly made, or, sin of sins, vulgar. As the bolt streaked towards its target, his upper lip would pitch into a perfect, practised sneer, a neat capital A for Appalling. The ﬂat indicated that he had transferred this ideology to his home life here.
A wide hallway stretched from Oskar's front door towards a south-facing living area. The hall was light and airy, with pale wooden ﬂoors and icy white walls. Two dark wooden doors were set into the wall to the right, like dominos on a bedspread, one halfway down, and the other near the far end. To the left was evidence of a refurbishment under Oskar's direction: a long glass partition screening a large kitchen and dining area from the hallway. At its end, the hall opened out into the living area, which was demarcated by a single step down. The pale wooden ﬂooring stretched to every corner of the ﬂ at, and the glass partition, which I assumed had replaced a non-supporting wall, evenly rinsed the space with the crystalline light entering through the generous south-facing picture windows that took up the far wall of the living space.
Taste and money had met in the crucible of this space and sublimed. The wood, steel and glass were the alchemical solids formed by the reaction.
Closing the front door behind me with a satisfying clunk of weight and security, I walked down the hall. The living room — Area? Space? — centred on a sofa and two armchairs, all boxy black leather and chrome, the design of a dead Swiss architect. The east wall was one large bookcase, mostly ﬁlled with books but also seasoned with some objets. The kitchen was all aluminium and steel. Everything must have been imported, I thought, considering the home-grown stuff I had seen at the airport. There was a table in the kitchen with three chairs. How often did Oskar entertain? At university, he had been a good but infrequent host. He preferred restaurants that we loan rangers were stretched to afford. The kitchen looked more like a showpiece from a designer's catalogue than a work area. Everything, everywhere, was impeccably tidy. There was a jar of carefully arranged twigs on the kitchen table and another on the glass coffee table, which also sported a hotel-style fan of magazines — New Yorker, Time, Economist (more than a month old), Gramophone. There were more twigs and a four-day-old International Herald Tribune on a small table under the middle of the three picture windows.
In a gesture that was, I suppose, proprietorial, I put my hands on my hips and exhaled, a sigh of relief at arrival and also admiration. It is intensely pleasing when a reality conforms so exactly to expectation, and when a man conforms so exactly to type. This was almost exactly how I had imagined Oskar's apartment to be — it was the obvious habitat for the mind I knew. Multilingual Oskar. Oskar, who appreciated design and modernity and expensive, extravagant simplicity. The apartment's spaces were measured in air miles. Its air had arrived in the bubbles in a thousand crates of San Pellegrino. The beautiful wooden ﬂoor didn't have nails, it had a manicure. The only thing missing was a piano.
Had I not already known that Oskar was a musician, it would have been easy to tell from the black-and-white photos tastefully mounted in plain glass frames around the walls: Oskar at the piano, Oskar with baton in hand, a younger Oskar shaking hands with an older man I didn't recognize, Oskar receiving an award, Oskar ... Oskar with me. Four of us, at university, not long before graduation. Thicker, darker hair, no bellies. Another me. I tried to remember the occasion where the photo had been taken. And ... no photos of Oskar's wife. And no piano. No awards. A mystery.
From Care Of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles. Copyright 2012 by Will Wiles. Excerpted by permission of New Harvest.