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Sheila Mannix in Southword

 

Sheila Mannix is from Youghal, Co. Cork. She won 3rd prize in the 2010 Francis MacManus short story competition and her story, 'Comfort', was recently broadcast on RTE Radio 1. She studied Russian at London’s City Lit and is currently working on a collection of short stories called The Russians in which she samples, cites, recycles and détournes Russian literature of the nineteenth century in order to create new narratives. 'Vronsky’s Teeth' is from that collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vronsky's Teeth

 

This story was part of the Prebooked series of readings at the 2010 Frank O'Connor international Short Story Festival. Prebooked featured authors who have had previous writing success but who have yet to publish a book.

 

 

 

  ‘I object to being called a lift-boy,’ said Soloman Madgg. ‘I am no longer a boy. I am now forty-two years of age.’

‘Look here,’ said his manager, ‘we appreciate your longstanding service, but it’s we who have reason to complain. You turn up late, if you deign to turn up at all, and then you spend your time delivering guests to the wrong floors. Your uniform is a disgrace; your hair is like a raven’s nest, and you’ve no teeth left from all the opium you smoke.’

Soloman was offended by this last remark. It was untrue to say he had no teeth left – he had one good tooth remaining at the front – and besides, it was the hotel’s fault.

‘If you paid me a better salary, I would have been able to afford dental treatment,’ he said.

 

Celebrations to mark the new year of 1888 had just ended, and the Grand Hotel Turin was abuzz with the arrival of Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky and his entourage.

Despite the onset of silver-grey hair, Count Vronsky still possessed the fine, regular white teeth for which he was famous in his youth. In the pallid afternoon light of the hotel lobby, his dazzling smile outshone the electric chandeliers. Soloman gazed at Vronsky’s teeth. He thought they were whiter than a blizzard. He thought Vronsky was like a silver fox on a diet of snow. In his mind he saw forests of birch, the words tundra, wasteland… and then all of a sudden he uncovered the motive for the insults heaped upon his own teeth.

‘I have it!’ he declared to himself. ‘Everyone here knows I am a poet. Unlike the manager, I am more than the mere slave of glorified innkeepers. My verses serve the eternal truth and rank me among the nobility of men of letters. The man is clearly jealous of me!’

Soloman was made further conscious of the envy he inspired in others when Count Vronsky chose his lift over that of his colleague, a German named Karl who had seen service in America. Such cultured and elegant people frequently singled him out; they sensed correctly that his lack of pampering and grooming and fashionable clothes was all that prevented him from being one of them.          

 

Count Vronsky was travelling with his daughter Ani, a dainty creature of sixteen who carried an equally dainty Chinese Imperial dog in her arms.

   Vronsky was fond of remarking that Ani’s lapdog resembled her with its sweet, wide-eyed and innocent facial expression and its reputation for being happy and playful. The Chinese Imperial was also reputed to be intelligent and vivacious, with a streak of independence, but as these were the qualities most closely associated with the count’s tragically deceased wife, he failed to acknowledge them in their daughter.

 

 

Soloman’s blood rushed to his head when he saw the rosy-faced girl with the black hair and eyebrows. Her colouring and cheekbones were quintessentially Russian, and a quote from his beloved Pushkin leapt to his mind:

‘The proud Princess, cold and serious,

The queen, aloof, remote, imperious.’

All the young fops on the hotel staff had rushed to carry their luggage. A bellboy named Giovanni winked at Soloman and indicated Ani with a nod of the head. Soloman knew Giovanni was a rogue who would pick up anything under a bonnet. He disapproved of his swagger and he felt affronted by the assumption that he would share the pipsqueak Casanova’s vulgar passion for conquest. But when Ani’s black eyes flashed past him, Soloman cast his own eyes down at once. His hands began to tremble and his heart pumped with such violence that the last brass button on his jacket fell to the floor.  

He was given time to suppress his agitation when a lady with a lapdog appeared and begged to be allowed into the cage. She was fair, not very tall, and wore a hat trimmed with dead spiders and caterpillars. Behind her trotted a white Pomeranian. Her appearance and manner told the lift’s occupants that she was of good social standing, if a little eccentric. Soloman noted the lady’s slender neck and beautiful grey eyes with approval, but he thought her fluffy Pomeranian looked more like a bedroom slipper than a dog.

As the lift ascended the two dogs introduced each other.

‘Madgie, just arrived from Petersburg,’ said the Chinese Imperial.

‘Fidele,’ said the white Pomeranian, ‘just in from Yalta.’

Soloman couldn’t believe his ears. It was true that recently he had been seeing and hearing things that no-one else saw or heard, but he had always suspected dogs could talk and simply chose not to in order to appear more intelligent than humans.

‘Another fool for my mistress,’ said the Chinese Imperial. ‘Look at him. He’s like a mongrel pup faced with the river and cloth sack.’

Soloman felt the heat rise on his face. What a bitch!

         

Next morning the lift was called to the Vronskys’ floor. Alarmed to see Ani from behind the crisscross of bars, Soloman was stricken with terror. She was alone, and as he closed the gate he suddenly felt a weakness in the arms and legs.

‘Try to keep the cage from shaking,’ she said. ‘I’m ill. I had too much champagne and cocaine last night.’

Soloman was stupified. It was true she appeared ill; her face had been plucked of its rosy-apple cheeks and she had two total eclipses of the sun for eyes.

He was further shocked when she produced a copy of The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater from her sable muff.

‘Have you read it?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘when I was about your age.’

He instantly regretted this reference to their ages. He didn’t want her to think he was being condescending; or worse, too old for her.

‘It was a bestseller in the twenties, you know.’

 ‘I know,’ she replied. ‘I’d like to try opium. Could you possibly get some for me?’

 

Soloman worked that day with an uncommon zeal. The monotony of the lift’s ascent and descent passed by unperceived. The rude manners of the hotel’s patrons affected him not one jot. He felt in his whole soul, his whole being, to be one of the Chosen. Finally! Here was proof that the higher a man was in his intellectual and moral development, the greater were the pleasures life offered him.

 

With the discreet assistance of his colleague Karl, Soloman presented himself at Count Vronsky’s suite. Hidden under his jacket was a bamboo and tortoiseshell opium pipe.

‘Shush,’ said Ani, as she opened the door. ‘Papa came back early. He’s retired to his room.’

 Ani led him to her bedroom and invited him to sit on a lap-rug made of bearskin. Surrounded by candles, the rug lay on the floor by French doors that opened onto a balcony. The moon was on the wane, but in the sky over Turin it still shone clear and silver. Soloman was speechless. If life was a mountain that had to be scaled, he had arrived at the pinnacle.

Filled with the sense of an exalted destiny, not even Ani’s eyes upon him could cause him to tremble. He knew that in the preparation of his opium pipe he displayed an unerring expertise and dexterity.

‘You have the hands of a concert pianist,’ she said.

Soloman was overjoyed. He had always secretly admired his own delicate, long-fingered hands; he knew they were the sign of a natural aristocrat - an artist.

They lay on the bearskin while the stars filled their eyes. On the floor below, just under the window, an evening party was in progress. They could distinctly hear women’s voices and laughter. There was the sound of a piano and a woman’s voice began to sing. She sang of a girl who heard mysterious sounds in her garden at night that she took to be sacred harmonies incomprehensible to mere mortals. Soloman felt like the girl in the song.

‘What a sick imagination,’ said Ani.

A profound sense of bliss descended upon Soloman. It seemed to him that in the whole of the hotel with the exception of Ani there was not a single living soul. She was wonderfully sweet, with the voice of a canary. Her black eyes glistened. It was a delight to look at the candle-flames flicker on her bright, pure face. Under the influence of opium he regularly found himself pining for fame. He now regarded it with indifference, like a plaything no longer of interest to him. He had discovered something better than fame, he had discovered the secret to happiness; the woman by his side was beautiful and he, Soloman Madgg, was sublime.

          Later in the night, Ani allowed him to watch her pull an incredibly fine silk stocking up her leg.

‘Sweet foot,’ she purred,

‘Prophetic of a priceless pleasure,

A clue to joys beyond all measure,

Its classic grace draws in its wake

Desires that are too keen to slake.’

 

 

A crimson hue coloured her cheeks. Did her shyness cause her to blush? Soloman had only one certainty; the gods had sent her to him. Here was the ecstasy that distinguished the prophets, the poets, the martyrs for ideas, from ordinary people. It was possible Pushkin himself was responsible.

‘I wanted love that would conquer me entirely,’ he said. ‘And that love, Ani, you alone can give me. I am happy, happy!’

He grabbed her foot in both hands and kissed it passionately.

‘I have just passed through bright, beautiful, unearthly moments. Dear, charming Ani. I love you!’

Just then her lapdog appeared and growled at Soloman. Ani smiled, but so faintly that her divine lips hardly moved.

‘You’re on her territory,’ she said.

She removed her foot from Soloman’s grip and proffered it to the Chinese Imperial.    

‘Watch,’ she instructed.

The dog licked Ani’s toes and then fell on her side and lapped lasciviously at her own reddened nipples. Soloman wanted to strangle the nasty mutt.

Ani pouted her lips and, abbreviating her lapdog’s name, scolded her affectionately.

‘Madge,’ she tut-tutted. ‘You’re naughty, Madge.’

Hearing his surname uttered in this tone of voice, Soloman began to breathe fast. Red spots broke out on his face.

He jumped up and rushed to the bathroom; and there he saw Count Vronsky’s fine, regular white teeth.

A complete set of dentures sat exposed on the marble sink. Soloman looked at them in amazement. He inserted the lower set easily into his mouth. The fit was perfect. Smiling at his reflection in the glass, it occurred to him that with the full set of teeth he might be mistaken for handsome. He knew his front tooth was already loose as he was in the habit of clicking it with his tongue. He caught the tooth between his thumb and forefinger and yanked. Blood haemorrhaged from his mouth, ran down his chin and covered his uniform jacket. He ignored it and inserted the upper set of dentures. He was right; he not only looked handsome - he looked half his age.

His eyes brimmed over with tears.

As he gazed at his beaming, enraptured countenance, Soloman was struck with the impression that he had been in the bathroom for hours. He promptly had an attack of nerves, and the fear that accompanied this attack caused the dentures to clamp shut to his gums. He pulled at them with both hands, but despite all his best efforts, the dentures wouldn’t budge.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Ani, ‘I’ll think of something.’

She led Soloman gently to the door.

‘They’re most unusual dentures,’ she said. ‘They were fashioned from Hippopotamus ivory by Robert W. Woofendale in New York.’

Soloman was no longer thinking of the dentures. He was wondering how he could kiss her with a mouth full of blood.

‘They do wonders for you,’ she said, and closed the door behind him.

.

‘What’s with the pacing and the worried look?’ asked Giovanni. ‘From what I hear, you should be very pleased with yourself.’

Soloman glared at the lift-boy Karl. So it was true the Germans were not to be trusted.

‘Well?’ pestered the bellboy. ‘What happened?’

Unable to speak in case Giovanni saw his teeth, Soloman took out a pencil and scribbled in a notebook he had brought for the purpose: ‘I can’t tell you, because you’d call me mad or disbelieve me.’

            Giovanni chuckled. ‘I think you’re mad already, old manand I never believe a word that comes out of your mouth.’

He clapped Soloman on the back and gave him a crafty wink.

         ‘We’ll get it out of you yet,’ he said. ‘But take my advice and change that jacket before the manager sees it. Those splashes of red look like bloodstains.’ 

 

The lady with the white Pomeranian summoned the lift. She had a sparkle in her beautiful grey eyes and smelled of champagne and the musk of fresh roses. Soloman was about to close the gate when Count Vronsky entered the cage. The same aroma, Soloman noted, clung to the count. Despite being toothless, he seemed to have lost none of his composure and self-confidence. He had Ani’s lapdog Madgie in his arms.

‘Ha!’ snorted the lapdog as soon as she saw Soloman.

‘Here’s the latest low-life,’ she said to the white Pomeranian. ‘My mistress has a thing for them. Picks them up everywhere she goes. Woos them with romantic nonsense they fall for every time. She has a hearty laugh at them afterwards.’

A tiny whimper issued from Soloman’s lips.

‘She puts on the whole show,’ continued the lapdog, ‘gives them a good look at the gates of paradise and then sends them away frothing at the mouth as though they have rabies. Here’s the latest fool. Not only that, but he’s got Vronsky’s teeth in his mouth right now. Bite him and see. He’ll yelp and give himself away.’

The white Pomeranian yapped excitedly and sank his fangs into Soloman’s bony ankle. Soloman yelped and whined in pain; and Count Vronsky beheld, in the mouth of the lift-boy, his missing set of fine, regular white teeth.

 

Soloman was relieved of his post at the Grand Hotel Turin, but he took this to be a sign that he should dedicate his entire life to poetry.

He never had enough time to develop his greatness. His nerves were unsuited to humans and other animals, and for decades he had used the few measly hours between work-shifts to ameliorate the suffering they caused him: he had smoked opium instead of working on his oeuvre.

He vowed to no longer concern himself with everyday affairs. He cut himself off from everyone he knew and withdrew into his room – more like a cupboard than a place to live in – tucked away under the roof of a five-storey building. Here, at last, was the test of the capabilities of his soul.

His new teeth made him bubble with good spirits; every second of every minute he felt them with his tongue and several times a day he let out a chuckle of inward pleasure.

 

The rapture of love lent an increased fervour to his work. When he thought of Ani he would feel exultant and happy, and he would pick up a manuscript or a book with the same passion with which he had kissed her foot and declared his love. Without Ani, he might never have known true affection. He refused to believe the terrible words spoken by the Chinese Imperial.

‘She’s nothing,’ he assured himself, ‘but a jealous toy dog.’

 

The heat of the June sun drove Soloman out of his room.

  He was heavily in debt to his landlady and his body was skin and bone. His outstanding qualities as a poet would bring him fame in the future, but to ward off eviction and regular fits of fainting, he needed money in the here-and-now.

  He paced the Po Bridge feeling dizzy and light as air. He knew he had to seek a new post, but he questioned why fate should have made him a lift-boy.

Why that precisely?

Soloman began to ask himself who he really was. Perhaps he was really a general or a prince and only appeared to be a lift-boy? There were plenty of instances in history when someone quite ordinary, not necessarily an aristocrat – a member of the bourgeoisie or even a peasant – suddenly turned out to be a public figure or the ruler of a country.

‘That moustachioed man I see on the bridge eating ice-cream under his umbrella could be an important personage,’ he said to himself, ‘and no-one would know to look at him.’

Then one day he stopped before the small, lighted window of a shop. His attention was caught by a picture of a woman kicking off her shoe and displaying her whole leg. In the background, a man with a handsome Spanish goatee was sticking his head through a door. The truth came to Soloman in a flash. He was a count! Why had he not realised it before now? He had the teeth of a count in his very own mouth!

 

His landlady was the first to whom he revealed his identity.

‘My house isn’t fit for a count,’ she said. ‘You should move at the soonest opportunity.’

   Soloman tried to calm her by speaking graciously.

‘Please be assured of my noble favour,’ he said. ‘I’m not going to hold against you all the occasions you failed to polish my boots.’

But the landlady insisted.

‘It’s time you toured your estates,’ she said, and placed his belongings on the street.

 

In Piazza Castello, Soloman Madgg put on his nightgown and prepared to sleep under the arches of the Royal Opera House. He was puzzled by the unaccountable delay in the arrival of his valet.

‘Where on earth can he be?’ he wondered. ‘I’ve had to undress myself.’

 

 

©2011 Sheila Mannix

 

 

 

 

Author Links

 

Mannix's prize announcement on the RTÉ website

Audioblog by Mannix about her Francis McManus competition experience

Article about Mannix's involvement in Youghal Culture Night 2010

 

 

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