Excerpt from the recently published book by Louis Armand, Breakfast at Midnight. Chapter IV. Kafkaville. Blake is a pornographer who photographs corpses. Ten years ago, a young man becomes a fugitive when a redhead disappears on a bridge in the rain. Now, at the turn of the millennium, another redhead has turned up in the morgue, and the fugitive can’t get the dead girl’s image out of his head. For Blake, it’s all a game — a funhouse where denial is the currency, deceit is the grand prize, and all doors lead to one destination: murder. In the psychological noir-scape of Kafkaville, the rain never stops, and redemption is just another betrayal away… “Armand has written a perfect modern noir, presenting Kafka’s Prague as a bleak, monochrome singularity of darkness, despair and edgy, dry existentialist hardboil.” (Richard Marshall, 3:AM) “Armand has done to Prague what Genet achieves in Our Lady of the Flowers. Breakfast at Midnight is the most savage book I’ve read in years.” (Jim Ruland, San Diego City Beat)
Kafkaville. Blake is a pornographer who photographs corpses. Ten years ago, a young man becomes a fugitive when a redhead disappears on a bridge in the rain. Now, at the turn of the millennium, another redhead has turned up in the morgue, and the fugitive can’t get the dead girl’s image out of his head. For Blake, it’s all a game — a funhouse where denial is the currency, deceit is the grand prize, and all doors lead to one destination: murder. In the psychological noir-scape of Kafkaville, the rain never stops, and redemption is just another betrayal away…
“Armand has written a perfect modern noir, presenting Kafka’s Prague as a bleak, monochrome singularity of darkness, despair and edgy, dry existentialist hardboil.” (Richard Marshall, 3:AM)
“Armand has done to Prague what Genet achieves in Our Lady of the Flowers. Breakfast at Midnight is the most savage book I’ve read in years.” (Jim Ruland, San Diego City Beat)
Breakfast at Midnight has been published by Equus Press.
Once upon a time, my mother would begin, and then tell us the story of Hänsel and Gretel. Each time the story would be different, only the ending was the same. Like some complicated form of revenge being patiently worked out. All possible scenarios, all avenues of escape. I was little Hans, Regen was Greta. That was when we were children. We used to play together. Regen’s family owned the vineyard behind our farm. In Autumn the grapes were harvested and made into wine. Burgundy, Saint Lawrence, Cabernet Franc. They used the old Sudeten word, herbsten. To harvest – to autumn. The dark grapes in the wine press. Yeast on the lees.
We’d always known each other, from before I can remember. Twins in a former life. Our families amazed us. Like characters in a story, they didn’t seem real. We watched them act out their pantomimes of self-accusation, disappointed that the evil witch was never pushed into the oven, the wicked stepmother hacked to pieces, the impotent father given his comeuppance. Seasons dragged on. In summer we swam in the river and ate blueberries. There was an old bathtub set out among the vines, we never knew why. We’d lie in it at night and hunt constellations. I smoked my first cigarette there, got drunk on young wine. It was a lifeboat on a deadened sea, a womb or the bottom of a grave. It was easy to dream there.
Then everything changed. It happened on the eve of my eleventh birthday. On a Sunday morning, waiting for my mother to drive us to church. As usual I was dawdling behind the house, lobbing plum stones at the trees in the orchard. There was something white hanging in one of the trees. It looked strange there. I went over to see what it was. Rotten plums burst underfoot. The ground was covered with them. Normally they’d have been collected in buckets, to make pudding, sauce, plum brandy. But normalcy went out the window that summer.
I remember the air around the trees thick with fruit fly. Bees swarmed from the hives at the foot of the orchard, a loud buzzing that came louder and louder the further I waded in. In the tree there was a bed sheet wound like a thick rope. A ladder rested against the trunk. On the ground beneath it was a pair of my mother’s shoes, covered in ants. I stared at them for a long time, trying to connect them to the stockinged feet that hung down between the branches.
And then we moved away, into town, where my grandfather owned a butcher’s. His father, too, had been a butcher. And his before him. Descended in a line unbroken from Cain.
After the move, I didn’t see Regen again for a long time. I tried not to think about my mother, her stories had all been lies. Sometimes, after school, I’d watch my granddad re-sharpen his knives after butchering a pig, blood dripping from the skirt of his apron. Or I’d hide out in the cool room and set the carcasses swinging in the dark, finding poetry in the jangling of meat hooks and the cadences of jostled meat.
On weekends, when the weather was fine, I’d ride my bike out past the shoe factory and the abattoir on the edge of town, testing the forbidden distance back. The rich tang of the cesspools behind the abattoir with mist rising off them in winter. A tang like rotting plums. In school, when we studied Newton’s law, it was the orchard I thought about. Things fall by force or gravity. The ripe plum-burst, the weight at the end of a damp bed sheet. Inertia. My mother had been a thin woman, dark-haired, constantly undergoing some form of malady. But she existed in the past like fiction.
Often I dreamt of my father, operating a machine with wheels and saw blades, and my mother like a pig’s carcass being fed to it on a conveyor belt. For years I had the same dream. It always ended when my mother woke up, just before the machine was supposed to cut her in half. She’d open her eyes and instead of my father, she’d see me. And instead of her, I’d see Regen.
But now when I recall my childhood, what I think about most is the blankness. I try to picture myself as one of those happy faces in photographs, but it doesn’t work. Happiness or pain, it’s the same thing, only the pain seems more real. Some people think paradise is not being able to feel anything at all. Anaesthesia. You die that way. An organism can’t exist without pain.
Cue four years later. Regen at a bus stop, tall, in a light blue dress. I almost didn’t recognise her. When she saw me, I don’t know why, but I half expected her to hit me. For never having come back. But she didn’t. We looked at each other without saying a word. There was something in her eyes time had intensified. Something fathomless and dark. I read the reflections there. Love and guilt. I was wrong. I didn’t know how wrong I was.
The bus left us out in the middle of the vineyards. Dusk reddened the hillsides, the air full of insects. We crossed the fields towards Regen’s house, down winding dirt paths, the trees along the river in silhouette. No-one was home. We took some wine and bread and lay out under the half-moon, in the old bathtub. We lay there naked. We whispered. We touched. The sky tilted on its axis.
I stared at my hands in the half-dark, combing the moonlight. Regen’s hair, her back to my chest. She was humming a tune, like a nursery rhyme, quiet and repetitious. Lips and mouth.
Something irrevocable had come undone. It just happened that way. Without awareness. Without premeditation. The years of silence. Regen’s pale body, her scent. The warm air.
“Once upon a time,” she said, “a very poor woodcutter lived in a tiny cottage in the forest with his two children, Hänsel and Gretel.”
Awkward laughter. Ghosts flitted between the vines.
“I’m sorry about your mother.”
“You don’t need to be.”
“Did you ever think how in the story it’s always the stepmother who’s evil? Or the witch. And not the woodcutter. After all, they’re his children. He tricks them into going into the woods. He knows what’s going to happen to them. He knows it. But he pretends he doesn’t. He pretends it isn’t him who’s killing them.”
I felt drunk then, the air had turned cold. My hands looked too big in the moonlight. A flapping of wings.
“It’s like they’re his dirty secret,” she said. “Little Greta and little Hans.”
She turned and looked hard into my eyes.
“Don’t what?” she said. And then her head jerked away. Like an animal, sensing intrusion. A shadow moved. Lights in the trees. Somewhere in the distance, approaching, washing over us. The crunch of tyres on gravel. A car door slammed. Footsteps. I sat up and followed Regen’s gaze. A man was standing at the house gate, headlights casting strange shapes across the low stone walls. He seemed to be searching, stalking back and forth. And then he turned and stopped. I froze. I felt his eyes burning holes in the dark. Neither of us breathed. He was looking straight at us.
Before morning I hitchhiked back to town. It was further than I’d thought and almost no cars at that time of night. I walked through the pre-dawn until a flatbed delivering hay gave me a ride.
When I got home, he was waiting for me. I knew what was coming. He didn’t even look up, just told me in a low calm voice to go to the laundry. It was cold in there. He took his time. I heard him come up behind me, unlooping his belt. He took me by the hair and pushed my head down into the sink we did the bleaching in. Fumes burned my nose and mouth. I screwed my eyes shut and prayed, a dumb inarticulate prayer full of fear, thinking how I should’ve run away, how I should’ve stayed with Regen. And then he whipped me like there was no tomorrow.
I lay on the laundry floor and shivered. It went on for hours. A crack of light under the stairway door told me my father was still awake upstairs. I imagined him up there, building and unbuilding some elaborate scheme of punishment in his mind. I began plotting my revenge, just as I always had, only now it almost seemed real. “Boy,” he’d said. And he’d known. He’d seen right into me.
Afterwards, it took time for me to realise I could be stronger than he was. In my mind, I was still just an overgrown kid. On weekdays, before school, I lugged carcasses and meat trays for my grandfather. I fought off boredom by drawing pictures in my head. Every night I dreamt of Regen. I called from payphones. I rode out to meet her at the bus stop near the shoe factory. We walked to the wreckers yard. We made love on old vinyl car seats, pungent with diesel and engine grease. I started mulling over that first night. About how she hadn’t been a virgin. About how I hadn’t expected her to be.
My father said I was queer. He’d get drunk at his workbench, assembling and disassembling his machines, like an angry Archimedes. Machines for cutting, grinding, pressing. Killing and packaging machines. Antique machines that did nothing at all. I told Regen. About the drinking. About the anger. I said I thought it was because of mum. She said I could hit back if I wanted to. I told her about the fear. “Every fear,” she said, “hides a wish.” I thought about that for a long time. Psychology, she called it. The obvious turned backwards.
Regen’s family were some weird religion that kept her out of school, but each Thursday she took the bus into town and borrowed books from the municipal library. Her parents didn’t care what she read. God spoke to them through their TV sets. She said apart from that they were open-minded. I asked what she meant, but she couldn’t say. They belonged to a wine grower’s cooperative. Every Autumn strangers came and harvested the grapes. My mother called them Ketzern, heretics. Said she pitied Regen. Her soul would burn, she said. Whenever Regen and I were together, she never took her eyes of us. Once she called Regen a little slut. It made me angry, though I wasn’t sure why.
After we started seeing each other again, everything was different. It was as though I’d been asleep all those years. Regen knew things I’d never even heard of. When she talked to me, I came away feeling smaller, like I’d never be enough, never know enough, but aroused too, hungry to share the secret. I went to the library and borrowed the books she told me to. My father found them and laid into me. Said I was a lazy good-for-nothing cunt. Because I was old enough, he took me out of school and sent me to work at the abattoirs, to earn my keep. Each day four a.m. at the meat works. Knee-deep in blood and crap.
It pissed my granddad off that I wasn’t around to do his donkey-work for him any more. They argued. My father said I should start earlier, work both ends. He knew I’d be too fagged-out to do anything about it. I got so tired I couldn’t even dream anymore. On Thursdays Regen still waited for me. I memorised every inch of her and went over and over it in my head just to stay awake while we hacked up carcasses on a backwards production-line. My hands stank of dead meat. I conjured up the scent of her. My face between her thighs. The sun baking the car wrecks. The tang of our sex. Afterwards she’d read to me. About dreams, Nietzsche, poetry. Father of jealousy, why dost thou hide thyself in clouds from every searching eye? Her words drifted over me like sleep. I felt more and more helpless. She asked me if I ever thought of killing anyone. I said the smell of dead things clings to me. She licked the blood from my fingers. She took me into her again and again. She made me forget these things.
published: 2. 12. 2012