It is 4:30 A.M. and Magda would like us, her neighbors, to know that she is a very talented woman, a woman of accomplishments. Magda is a nurse, a qualified pilot, a businesswoman and a philanthropist, a gifted and sensitive lover, the holder of certificates in computing and English grammar, a semi-professional country singer, and a mother. Yes, a mother! Magda has a daughter. Who came out of this pussy right here.
Right here, she says. Out of this pussy. RIGHT HERE. And all along the street we come to our windows to twitch the net curtains and face the awe-inspiring truth that is Magda in her lime-green thong. She’s standing on the top step, the lights of the house blazing behind her, a terrifying mash-up of the Venus of Willendorf and a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, making gestures with a beer can at the little knot of emergency-service personnel gathered on the pavement below.
One of the younger and less experienced constables has obviously asked her to accompany him to a place where, as an agent of the state, he will feel less exposed. A police station, perhaps. Or a hospital. Anywhere that will tip the odds a little in his favor. Magda has met this suggestion with the scorn it deserves. She knows that she outnumbers these fools. YOU KNOW ME, she says. Then, with a sinister leer, AND I KNOW YOU.
Being known by Magda is a messy and unavoidably carnal experience. All of us neighbors have been known by Magda. Last time she knew me, she pushed me up against the side of my car. I know you, she breathed huskily. And I knew I’d been known.
In their big reflective jackets, the policemen appear crumpled and insubstantial. They are visibly trying to block out the knowledge of her knowledge, no doubt using the mental techniques they were taught at the training school: I am a powerful person. I control my own destiny. Behind the ambulance, one of the paramedics is taking a quick nip of oxygen.
They clearly don’t realize what they’re up against. Magda is the daughter of Nelson Mandela, major world leader and savior of his country. Don’t these Day-Glo fools see the resemblance? If they have any doubts, ANY DOUBTS AT ALL, she tells them, they have only to consult the autobiography “Long Road to Freedom.” Read the autobiography! Read page 37 and page 475! They will see. THEN THEY WILL KNOW.
Magda is coated in something that I suspect is coconut oil. She has the air of a woman who has roused herself from titanic erotic exertions to be here with us on Westerbury Road tonight. She has been INTERRUPTED. She has THINGS TO DO. There is no sign of Errol. I hope he’s all right. Errol is quite fragile.
Magda lives in Errol’s house. This is a scandal on Westerbury Road, because Errol is a widower in his seventies, who brought up a family and was expected to eke away his twilight years on D.I.Y., Sunday church, and the occasional tot of Wray & Nephew rum. However, Errol likes Wray & Nephew more than he likes church, and last year (according to Lauren, at No. 20) he met Magda at a lock-in at the Victoria Arms, one of the least salubrious pubs in our little corner of East London. I’ve been to one of those lock-ins. They do get frisky. Magda is at least thirty, possibly forty years younger than Errol. For a while after she moved in, he pottered around with a smile on his grizzled face, raffishly touching the brim of his baseball cap to us neighbors and whistling as he swept the leaves off his front steps. These days, he wears the sour expression of a man who’s been cheated at cards.
What Errol signed up for was a bit of bounce and warmth and comfort on cold nights. Instead, he’s been swept into a world of grand operatic passion. Between Magda and Errol there is a love that can spill out in many directions. It has left Magda sleeping in a rolled-up carpet on the pavement and Errol hobbling across the street to take refuge in my kitchen; during Old Testament times, Errol prefers to keep a door between the two of them—and who can blame him for that? Magda’s wrath is sharp and terrible. It involves a lot of casting out and smiting. The recently smitten include: Errol (obviously), Lauren at No. 20, the Meals on Wheels lady, and several council workmen whom Magda battered with one of the stock of road cones she keeps in the front yard. Magda leaves Errol at least once a month. Sometimes Errol throws her out. Frequently, instead of leaving him, she punishes him by going to the Victoria Arms and finding a young man to bring home and sit with on the steps. For a day or two, Errol will look grim and spend a lot of time in the betting shop. Then things will go back to normal.
Magda must be excused her foibles, because she is wrestling with the great question of her life: old man or young man? Both have their pluses. Young men have more energy and are less scandalous, unless they smoke crack on the steps or go telling lies to Errol. Old men are more dignified and have houses. Old men are Magda’s weakness: I LIKE A OLD MAN. She mentioned her inclinations to my father (seventy this year) when he came to visit the other week. There was a commotion outside, and I found Magda knowing him against a lamppost. You are a old man, she purred appreciatively, rubbing up and down against his leg. I like a old man.
Old man, young man. Which will it be? For all her turbulence, Magda is concerned about the proprieties. She values the good opinion of us neighbors. The other night, she came out onto the steps to explain her relationship with Errol. My neighbors, she said, I must tell you why I am here. We rose from our beds and came to our windows. I AM HIS NURSE. He is a old man. He can’t satisfy a woman like me. He is limp and goes to sleep. I need more of a man than such a one. I am a qualified nurse, a gifted woman. He is like a father to me. The problem with you people is this. I will tell you now: You all have dirty minds. Filthy dirty. I think I have said enough. Now fuck off.
As neighbors, we often fail Magda in this way—with our prurience, our tendency to jump to conclusions. She frequently has to chastise us. Occasionally, she does a round of the street and casts us out one by one, which is effortful and very time-consuming. Tonight, before the arrival of emergency services, she was berating us for our pride and our materialism. I KNOW YOU, she told us. You think you have HOUSES. In Notting Hill they have HOUSES. I have seen them with my own eyes. In such a house is my friend. A young man, not old and worn out at all. Ten, twelve bathrooms at a time in such houses. Enough bathrooms.
On nights such as tonight, Magda likes to sing. She particularly likes an audience in uniform. You’re my best friend, she sings. I love you, but you don’t love me. This song is freely adapted from her CD of country-music hymns, the one she plays to get into a churchgoing mood on Sunday mornings. Magda has built her own semi-professional singing career around such material. She has appeared in Cape Town and Tottenham and Dalston, she says. Musically speaking, Magda’s congregation must be more avant-garde than most: although her voice is an extraordinary phenomenon, it’s not tonal, at least not as we usually understand tonality.
Sometimes when Magda comes out onto the steps and speaks, I sit bolt upright in bed. Sometimes it’s as if she were in the room with me. My girlfriend has the same experience. Magda’s voice is not simply loud. Loud, yes, but not just loud. It has the penetrative force of a piece of heavy industrial equipment, something with a diamond bit or tempered-steel blades. Often it seems disconnected from her body, as if it were emerging from the bathroom or from under the floorboards or the far end of Westerbury Road. When you look at Magda, who is quite short and (when dressed) usually looks neat and more or less conventionally contained inside herself, you’d never guess that she possessed such a voice. And, in a way, she doesn’t, or at least that’s what I believe. I think she’s merely the voice’s host, its point of entry into the continuum of Westerbury Road.
Magda’s Voice Theory No. 1: Dimensionality. She is the portal through which the voice emerges. There must be some other world, unimaginably fraught and violent, contiguous to ours but not normally permeable.
Magda’s Voice Theory No. 2: Concerning the Nature of Higher-Order Spaces. Its eerie ability to project into my thickly curtained bedroom is evidence of some force as yet unknown to science. Corollary: perhaps higher-order spaces are denser, more difficult as a medium for conversation.
Magda is racked by tremendous passions. Wake up, my neighbors, she will often command. Wake up and listen. Tonight I love you. I love you, my neighbors. I am filled with love. But you do not love me, so I say to you this: I DON’T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT YOU. That is the truth. Fuck off now. Go. Magda loves us, but she spurns us just as we spurn her. She spurns us out of the vastness of her love. Sometimes she is unhappy, and then she will tell us, I am dying. Yes, I have a pain and I am dying, my neighbors. You don’t love me. I am dying, and you don’t even know. I love you, but I don’t give a fuck about you. Go now. Go away. Fuck off. Go. I love you. Go. Once she has delivered her tragic message, she will disappear inside to call an ambulance. When it comes, she will be ready on the steps with an overnight case. Having told the paramedics briefly about her pain, she will push past them and sit in the back, waiting to go, fuck off, go.
Magda’s Voice Theory No. 3: Metaphysical Origins. After a recent row with Errol, Magda brought home a young Muslim to sit on the steps. He wore a dishdash and a white skullcap. He had a wispy beard and a cardboard suitcase and a bemused expression. I think she’d found him at the station. He looked about twenty-one. Magda waved her rum bottle and told him about the thieves who sometimes steal her parking space. She demonstrated her concern for parking security on Westerbury Road by making a few minor alterations to the construction of wooden planks and road cones she uses to protect the space outside Errol’s house. I wasn’t sure the boy spoke English. From the suitcase, I’d say he had just arrived in London. Still, he listened intently, ignoring the bottle in her hand. Even if he didn’t understand the words, he seemed to recognize something, something worth listening to. Could he have heard divinity in Magda’s voice? At one point that afternoon, I passed the steps on my way to the shops. She called out to me, Don’t worry, he’s my brother. He has very dirty ears. I’m just checking his ears.
It’s gradually dawning on the policemen that they will have to effect an arrest. It will be a slippery business. I wonder if they train for this. Are there special holds? Written protocols? Magda can see the way their devious minds are working. She has the element of surprise. I KNOW YOU, she warns sportingly.
Andy the drummer chooses this moment to drive down the road and park outside his house. He has been out late, gigging somewhere. He once told me that he gets a lot of work in Leeds. Andy is a favorite of Magda’s. All right, boy, she says. You. Yes, you with the red car. I love you. I’ve seen this car many a time. I’ve seen this car a lot of times, I tell you. Go away now. I’ve done with you. Go, O.K.? Fuck you. You probably have a small cock. Go. Andy waves to her and starts unloading his drum kit. YOU ARE A YOUNG MAN, she calls out, blowing him a kiss.
Thinking she is distracted, the policemen advance up the steps. Magda emits a long high-pitched wail, which rattles the windows and pierces deep into the souls of us neighbors, watching from our upstairs windows.
M.V.T. No. 4: A survival from the ancient world? Primal, atavistic. Greek mourner. Mammoth feller. She slithers out of their grasp, waddling down the street in the direction of the main road. Though she’s slow, she has a chaotic, lumbering motion that makes her hard to catch. At last, two of the policemen grab hold of her, one gripping her arms, the other circling her waist in a sort of static rugby tackle, his head pressed into the flesh of her stomach, so that he’s eyeballing the triangle of acid-green nylon that is all that stands between his nose and her most intimate zones. Magda’s fierce resistance reminds me of the time when her need for a young man led her to climb into the basement of No. 18, where a crew of builders were fitting a kitchen. As they cowered behind the sink unit, she wedged herself halfway through the sash window. I LIVE WITH A OLD MAN, she growled, wiggling and straining. I have a condom. Line up. I am ready.
Walkie-talkies crackle. Doors slam. Magda is placed inside the police van, and I climb back into bed. For a few minutes, red and blue lights make flashing patterns on my ceiling, then all is quiet and dark on Westerbury Road. Magda will be back tomorrow. They never keep her for long. She’ll sulk for a day or two, listening to pirate radio in Errol’s back garden, then she’ll forgive us and return to her place on the front steps. What we her thieving-neighbors-so-smug-in-our-houses don’t know is the power of love. Love conquers all. One day we’ll discover that this is true, and then we’ll be sorry. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we returned Magda’s love. If we believed in her, she could do great things for us. But our problem is that we are faithless. Our problem is that we are stupid. Our problem is that we just don’t listen.
This story appeared in The New Yorker, August 13th 2007