lovelife, sleep, words

His Umbrella

hangover, party, hangover… umbrella

‘The daily newspapers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing.’ Georges Perec*

    The day started painfully and early – at 3.45am – when the subject sleepwalked into the hard-brick bedroom wall opposite the bottom of the bed.

He woke trying to climb through the hard-brick wall – aiming for the bathroom two rooms down. He led with his forehead and fingers. The misguided manoeuvre hurt, but not terribly.

Experts in the field of child development report that by eight months most mini humans understand ‘the cot mobile won’t fall on them… That if I drop this plate on the table, the plate won’t go through the table.’ By eight months, infants have also figured out walls. 

But sleep is a different realm, bound by its own logic and laws. With full consciousness established, it took moments for the subject to acknowledge that climbing through the wall wouldn’t work. He switched to using the door.

On returning from the bathroom, the subject got back into bed, rolled up in a ball, and locked his eyes shut tightly. And he stayed so. Quiet and still. Curled up for several minutes, trying to keep his brain quiet. But plainly he was not getting back to sleep. He remembered reading about Vladimir Nabokov’s tormented nights with insomnia and piss calls. On the night of August 21,1975, the author of Lolita visited the bathroom in his Swiss hotel suite at 10.05 pm, 11.05, 12.35, 1.40 am, 2.20, 3.45, 5.35, 6.20, and finally 8.45.

The subject climbed out of bed and started wrapping presents – he was going to a birthday party later that afternoon. Wrapping so early in the day, wrapping with a mild hangover, did nothing at all for the quality of his folds, twists, Sellotape work, or general presentation. Even by the subject’s normal low standards the finished effort was laughable. A crumpled mess. He felt ashamed but quickly shrugged it off. Too late into life by now to be suddenly getting good with gift wrap. No matter the strategy – the wrapping taken slowly, attacked with gusto, done with attention and application, or approached with his mind free to wander wherever – the outcome was always the same fiasco. 

He stowed the gifts in a paper carrier bag and put his umbrella inside at the top. It was already raining as he went to make coffee and was forecast to continue this way long into the evening. The umbrella’s quite shit – with tin limbs bent out of the shape and its black canvas panes flappy and discoloured through age. But it’s his only one. On a recent shared walk through a west London park in the freezing rain, the subject was mocked for the state of his umbrella. She said laughing, why are you so tall and yet your umbrella’s tiny? The subject didn’t have an answer. Until then, he hadn’t thought of it as small.

I could buy a new one, he supposed, as he sipped his coffee, something more proportionate. But would a larger one fit inside the subject’s backpack like the shitty one fits? And anyway, spending money on an umbrella is boring; and there isn’t any time for shopping today. The shitty one is fine. 

What he couldn’t have known at this point was the lead role the shitty umbrella would play during the long day to come. 

He left for their pre-party get together mid afternoon. Before going out the front door he checked twice that the oven was off and the umbrella was in the paper carrier bag with the gifts.

Walking to the station across the park, which was still struggling at this time to get into gear for spring, the rain was light and he hardly needed the umbrella, but stuck with it anyway. At the train station, on the cold, exposed platform with elevated views of hulks of grey cloud tracking across the sky, he remembered that apparently 1% of America’s adult population said grey was their favourite color, as he vigorously shook the umbrella free of loose raindrops – like a shaggy dog shakes itself down after a bath – before mindfully rolling the umbrella and returning it to the gift bag. He hoped it didn’t make the gifts damp.

Hitchcock's Umbrellas from Foreign Correspondent
umbrellas by Hitchcock

After his journey, four stations later, he went shopping for flowers, and the cash to pay for them, in a light drizzle requiring the shitty umbrella to get wet again. Then to the house – which he remembered came after the dark scary church on the left – where he knocked on the door, forgetting there was a doorbell. He was now entering the high risk zone whereby the company of others, for the remainder of the afternoon, all evening, the rest of the night, and into the early hours, carried with it the potential many times over for him to lose contact with the umbrella.

They sat opposite and she drank water and he had a cup of tea he’d made for himself while she put the flowers in small milk bottles – which she told him she originally bought from Ikea for a funeral party. Then the gifts were opened and the subject was pleased to notice the poor quality wrapping was not commented upon. He was also gratified that his considerable effort to write legibly for the card meant that he didn’t have to go over and stand over her and read out his stupid jokes. None of which raised a smile anyway.

After a couple of hours, two female guests arrived; and in a while all four of them relocated to the bedroom – where party clothes were considered, and discarded, then finally selected, with make-up applied, while the subject asked the woman sitting next to him on the bed, who worked in the music industry, to explain how being a DJ was so exhausting, something she’d stated earlier in the conversation. He was truly curious to know more about the DJ’s  fear of burn-out, but also kept posing follow-up questions to gloss the fact that sitting in the bedroom like this, with cosmetics and clothes, plus an ironing board, felt odd – a bit teenager, too millennial.

Later, it was time to leave for the bar. Despite his hangover, or because of his hangover, the subject was pleased at the thought that soon he would be having a drink.

A Big Balloon Saying Happy Birthday

But first, the party balloon. He had offered to take charge of the giant inflatable – to be responsible for getting the squeaky airhead in and out of the car and safely to the bar. The balloon was as big as a small adult, very flighty and had a will of its own – the helium, obviously, he muttered to himself. 

The subject sat on the back seat, his arms wrapped around the balloon like it was under arrest, listening to a Polish woman explain how she loved the smell of fresh books. As he listened as he continued to wrestle with the outsized inflatable, the subject observed inwardly that he couldn’t say for certain where the umbrella was at this moment. 

When they arrived at the pub, getting out of the backseat of the car without losing control of the balloon proved a demanding procedure, requiring three attempts. He finally made it onto the pavement, while also remembering to retrieve the umbrella which had been resting at his feet.

The reserved room in the bar was long and thin, like the subject, and featured a large dark table for gifts to be deposited. He placed his shitty umbrella on the table and decided not to worry that it was a bit of an eyesore beside all the bright giftwrap. He got a pint of something light brown and directly found himself plunged into an intense conversation about Catalan independence with a man who was quite certain of all the answers. The man was not Catalan, but tersely requested that the subject stop speaking of exceptionalism, or nationalism, but to use the secessionist movement’s true characterisation – freedom. The subject was dubious.

After one drink, the subject was informed that it was time to leave the bar and go to the restaurant across the road for dinner. This was another clear risk point. The subject was alert to the danger. He didn’t mindlessly walk off. He grabbed the umbrella off the gift table and was sure to place it under his chair at the restaurant. Where the umbrella stayed for the next several hours. Except, that is, for the one time when he moved the umbrella to inside a bag of gifts, also sat at the foot of his table, and then thought better of it and took the shitty umbrella back out again. ‘The anxiety of abandonment,’ wrote Barthes – referring to an absent lover, to be fair, not an umbrella.

The restaurant was large like a barn with pale walls and pale wood furniture. There was a problem with the food. The restaurant didn’t have any. The birthday party was a big group, bigger than anticipated, and the kitchen had run out. The manager had to call up its sister outlet in Clapham to send over more meals.

The birthday party therefore ate very late and was therefore very, very late in settling up and leaving. There’d been a lot of wine by now and the subject recognised in the confusing mist of so much booze that the next few minutes, while clearing out from the restaurant, represented another danger point for the umbrella. He jammed the item in his pocket. He patted the pocket while he scanned his phone for routes home, but it was too late for a train. Crash at mine, she said. But first, Come, we’re going to another bar! He checked his pocket again as he followed her out the door. By now, getting the umbrella home safely had become an obsession. He wondered how much more of this existential pressure the umbrella could bear as he arrived at the hip bar and presented the item to the security guards on the way in. But the security guards were indifferent to his small umbrella.

One Rolled Up Umbrella

The subject lived on this street with the hip bar thirty years ago. The bar was large with an unusual lay-out and a glass wall at the rear. He uselessly told the Polish woman how much the area had changed. 

All the people that evening, except for one, were complete strangers to the subject and this though challenging was also quite liberating. A woman from their party queued up with the subject to buy drinks. She said his specs were cool and asked how tall are you actually. The subject said not that tall. He said he used to be really quite tall, but the next generation coming up behind him, and the one behind that, were taller. So, if you think about it, he said, compared to all of the population, he was actually getting smaller. She said that’s a bit weird. Just science and diet, replied the subject. 


The rest of the night is a tossed, blurry ocean dotted with three or four islands of near clarity. The subject didn’t crash back at her house, but shared an Uber back home to his own bed. First though, he had to leave the bar intact. He went to the toilet on the first floor and on the way up the stairs he realised he couldn’t account for the umbrella. At the urinal he thought hard about the umbrella, trying to track back to when he’d last seen it. On the way down the stairs from the toilet, he focussed on not falling over and forgot about the umbrella. 

There were lots of things to consider, to make sure he said goodbye to the people who’d been friendly, but also to remember and to  locate the missing umbrella. He kept saying goodbye and forgetting the lost umbrella and then remembering it again. Forgetting the umbrella, then remembering all over. He then went tearing through the same heap of coats he already checked three minutes ago and then two minutes ago. 

He was stuck in a search loop, losing touch with coherence, the umbrella, and with hope itself. He told her, I’ve lost my sodding umbrella. I tried so hard! She said, that funny little thing. He looked under several chairs, saying goodbye again to the same people, while feeling extra pressure for knowing the man who was sharing the car was waiting by the door. He looked everywhere. He considered asking the four women at the next table, complete strangers, have you seen my umbrella? 

And then she pointed to his jacket, to the large pocket on the outside with the umbrella sticking out. There, she said.

On the drive back into town, the subject and his co-passenger took turns at leading the conversation. First, his co-passenger talked about deluxe cyclewear and not chaffing. And then the subject attempted to explain not only the appeal but also the story mechanics of Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume story cycle A Dance to the Music of Time. An ambitious chat line for this stage of the night. However, the subject was confident he could at least make a stab at it, despite all the drinking, as he was now in a position where he didn’t have to worry about the umbrella any longer – which was safely stashed away in his jacket pocket. He’d just checked, once again – safe.

Twelve novels, spanning fifty years, announced the subject. Two hundred characters. Over a million words. The great lost classic of British literature, he declared, using a peculiar uptick at the end of the sentence. The co-passenger exited the Uber. Try it! The co-passenger nodded, mentioning his Kindle as he shut the car door. The co-passenger’s home was close to the train station the subject had used earlier that day. Seemed such a long time ago now.

The subject continued along in the car. He checked his pocket and the umbrella was fine. They’d done it. Mission accomplished. 

The driver pulled up outside his building. The subject got out the car and climbed the stairs up to his place and decided not to sit in the dark with a final whisky. In other words, for once, he would not dwell on the night just passed. The subject instead went straight to bed and then to sleep. 

He woke in the night. This time, though, he didn’t try to climb through the hard-brick wall, he chose the conventional route to the bathroom.

In the morning, the subject got up late and instantly was plunged into a harebrained rush to be ready for a date at the Tate. A meet-up with an artist. From another country. He needed to be swift about picking what to wear. He looked out the window, to see that it was raining – again! Only then did he think of the umbrella. And only then did he realise that he couldn’t find the dumb, stupid thing. 

He’d lost the shitty umbrella. He knew straight away. Gone. After all that. The subject couldn’t quite believe it. He froze wide eyed in his front room. The one thing he could’ve got right and didn’t, the stupid fuck. The subject wanted to howl, but it was too early. He wanted a post mortem, but there was no time. The train! 

The subject rushed down the stairs. Now he knows how the Annoying Son feels – he who always leaves it till the last minute after the very last minute to set off for the station. 

As the subject came out the building, the rain pissed down directly onto his head. God, he hated being rained on. How could he lose the umbrella? How could he find himself without cover just when he needed it most? The subject swore as self loathing engulfed him momentarily. The lost object seemed to encapsulate everything that was wrong lately. The subject actually wanted to hit himself on the head but it was too public for that level of drama. Hangovers. 

At which point he arrived to the edge of the grounds – the perimeter boundary where the drive meets the public pavement. The subject saw something out the corner of his eye that didn’t feel right. Something anomalous and black and splayed and damp in the crater surrounding the gate post. A snagged black refuse bag, or possibly a dead pigeon – although he hoped not. But no, it was something else. Something vaguely familiar and then, on closer attention, actually an object miraculously relevant. An umbrella. Someone had lost their umbrella. It was a shitty looking umbrella; and from first view, a rather small one. 

The subject came up close and peered down at the heap of cheap  metal and black canvas, and as he did this, a dim fuzz memory from last night flickered before his eyes, of getting out the Uber round about here. 

He leaned down to pick up the lost umbrella. The bent arms, the shabby worn fabric, the hairy, scuffed Velcro pad. People walking past at that very second glanced his way and the subject realised his actions slightly disturbed the common norm – that taking a dead umbrella from the pavement was a bit like digging around in a rubbish bin. But this was his umbrella. 

Sigh. The lost item had come back to him. His very own shitty umbrella was returned. The subject smiled. Life is full of internal dramas, played to an audience of one. He grabbed the umbrella and bombed down the hill, chasing his train. He felt better now. It was cold and wet. But at least he had cover. You got to pin your hopes on something. 

An Open Umbrella
for this he stressed!

* Georges Perec continues in praise of the ordinary

‘What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? [Not in the newspapers.] How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

The habitual – we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither question nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information. This is not longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space?

How are we to speak of these ‘common things’, how to track them down rather, how to flush them out, wrest them from the dross in which they remain mired, how to give them a meaning, a tongue, to let them, finally, speak of what is, of what we are.

What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep. How? Why? Where? When? Why?

Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.

Question your tea spoons.

What is there under your wallpaper?

How many movements does it take to dial a phone number?

Georges Perec & Cat
Bluebells in a Kent Wood