The Illustrated Unmade Again

My good friend and talented artist S.R has illustrated my erotic short story Unmade Again. Her distinctive drawings have previously graced several of my stories and essays.

unmade-car

Murky, very very murky, decidedly, definitely so –how else could I describe my motives for not fucking Margot. Before getting in the car I stared up at the window where I had just left Margot lying unclothed and spread-eagled on the mussed-up bed. That thought made me hesitate for a moment, but I got in the car anyway and started the ignition.

As I drove at speed through the somnolent streets of her neighbourhood I was in considerable physical discomfort. Pressing my crotch against the steering wheel afforded some relief but what I really needed was the release that can only be obtained through the agency of the other, the rapture of bodies mingling and dissolving in unison until the mutual, desired annihilation of orgasm.

So why the fuck hadn’t I? I thought to myself bitterly as the car jolted over a series of speed bumps. Of course, I could try to convince myself that I was being virtuous by remaining faithful to my wife, but it was going to be a hard sell as the taste of her salty, yet curiously perfumed secretions were on my tongue and coated the inside of my mouth.

Besides, there had been that episode with the plump girl at the chemists even though that had been something of a disappointment to all concerned.

I couldn’t return to work in this state and going home was out of the question, so I merged onto the freeway and headed north towards the suburbs.

Really the whole situation was ridiculous. Here I was driving pointlessly past the strips malls and industrial parks with the semen slowly seeping out of my penis and staining my boxers when I could be enjoying a post coital nap in the arms of a pretty girl.

However, it was absurd that I had somehow become entangled with a girl almost half my age in the first place. That’s not to say that Margot wasn’t smart and precocious for her age but at the end of the day she had just turned eighteen. I pretty much guessed from the start that she was looking for someone to have her first time with before leaving for college. First time with a man that is. From the texture of her kisses and the evasive answers she gave to my leading questions I knew she wasn’t as innocence as she made out, however I figured her experience didn’t extend beyond dormitory romances in that fancy all girls boarding school of hers. Which only increased my attraction to Margot, I’m sorry to say.

Mind you I liked her looks from the moment I saw her. For a split second I almost mistook her for a boy although this was partly due to her been kitted out in the runner’s uniform of black shirt and trousers. She looked so young and frail that her presence amidst the heat and noise of the kitchen of the Mahogany Rooms seemed completely incongruous. What was she doing there? Obviously working but a more unlikely candidate for the position of runner could not be imagined.

Intrigued I sauntered slowly up to the table where she was methodically cutting up a loaf of crusty bread and arranging the slices in metal baskets. Composing my features to look enigmatic I breathed a deep hello. She looked up briefly and gave me a hard stare before returning to her task without saying a word. So much for elective affinities I thought and carried on home.

After a couple of rather more circumspect approaches that yielded the exact same results I gave up trying to engage her. Yet on several occasions I caught her intently staring. She would immediately lower her eyes and would pretend to be absorbed in whatever mundane task she had in hand. What was her problem with me?

I tried not to think about her, but her image always appeared while I made love to Sarah. Brief fantasies of her slender body, her long fingers clumsily grasping my penis, those staring eyes boring into my soul and reading there my polluted desires immediately culminated in a climax of hitherto unknown intensity. Afterwards as Sarah sought the perfect position in her sleep and she tossed and turned I would lie unmoving, staring into the darkness, completely devastated by an aching sense of utter dissolution.

unmade-girlThis wasn’t the first time I’d had an unreciprocated crush of course, but never before had I been so possessed with want.

I had hoped that as this lustful itch was just another diseased product of my overactive imagination which I would tire off when nothing happened. I knew that given time this too would pass before fading away even from memory.

She had other plans however. She’d been waiting all along.

Is there anything more exhausting than driving without a set destination? I had no place to go but home, yet I had to do something that would delay my arrival for as long as possible without being too late or in too much of a state as to arouse suspicions. I stopped at a strip mall coffee shop. Maybe caffeine would straighten out my endlessly circling thoughts.

*

Yes, Margot had plans. At some point she had decided to include me in these plans of hers. Of course, I was totally oblivious of all this when I came across her struggling to fill the ice bin while I was completing my stock take. Being at heart an old-fashioned gentleman I offered and proceeded to shovel the ice for her. Margot (though at that point I was still unaware of her name) came out with something from 1984 and so, me being the argumentative person that I am, countered that I always preferred Brave New World. She asked me why as she hadn’t read that particular book, but would make a point of keeping a look out. Eager, so very eager and so easily impressed. I made a quick mental note to tread carefully, yes sir, very carefully indeed.

But of course, I didn’t. I rushed in like I always do and without hesitation agreed to see her outside of work and after that I suppose you could say that one thing led to another but that’s not how it seemed during the moments we shared. It felt more like I had found a fellow traveller; an accomplice to guilty pleasure, a partner in grubby crime. Which made ours a gloomy affair, intensely focused on the inevitability of its dissolution and the rapidly diminishing amount of time left available to us. Even on those languid afternoons when I would kiss and caress her neck, breasts, navel, cunt and the minutes would stretch and expand into a preview of eternity I was still oppressed by the knowledge that this was going to end sooner rather than later.

I couldn’t postpone my homecoming any longer. Hopefully the coffee and the constant cigarettes would mask the taste of Margot on my breath but to be doubly careful I brought a pack of mints which I rolled around my mouth while I was caught up in the constant snarl ups.

unmade-mirror (1)Sarah was busy preparing dinner when I arrived home, enabling me to go upstairs and brush my teeth and change. When I came down she launched into a long-detailed account of her day. At the appropriate moments I would insert what I guessed where the correct comments but all the while I was re-staging my latest encounter with Margot, the sensation of satiny smoothness as my fingertips tracing intricate patterns on her inner thigh, the willowy wands of her arms outstretched over her head, the miracle of firm youthful flesh yielding against the weight of my own body, skin on skin, world without end, amen.

After dinner when we were comfortably entwined on the sofa watching TV Sarah remarked that I seemed rather distant tonight and asked me what was troubling me. I made a feeble excuse about a hard day at work which, thankfully, she didn’t ask me to elaborate on. I made sure to pay attention after that, even though I was developing a dread of the moment when we finally turned in for the night and went to bed.

I knew that Sarah was definitively in the mood by the way she took me by the hand and led me upstairs. I, however, was torn. On one hand my balls had been aching all day long after the frustrations of the afternoon and there was nothing more I longed for than to bury my prick deep inside Sarah and yet on the other I felt that such an act would be a betrayal. A double betrayal in fact. I would be betraying Margot by jumping into bed with my wife and by doing so, as a means to assuage to my lust for Margot I would be betraying Sarah.

Before, admittingly, I had derived a dubious delight in whispering in Margot’s ear full details of my latest couplings with Sarah while I stroked Margot’s slick clitoris and then to gain further devious pleasure later on when I would re-imagine the whole scene as Sarah straddled my hips with her eyes averted as I talked non-stop of touching, kissing, licking, fucking another girl while she watched until she came with a heart-rending sigh and I would shudder at her unwitting complicity. However now that Margot was leaving and there was no knowing when we would next see each other again, if ever, I felt a bizarre sense of loyalty for the girl as well as the stirrings of a probably long overdue guilt towards Sarah.

In bed Sarah made her intentions clear by sweeping her hair back and exposing her slim neck. unmade-womanHaving her neck kissed was always the prelude to sex. As my tongue and lips travelled downwards towards her shoulders I knew I could put an end to her amorousness by simply sinking my teeth into the delicate skin and bite down hard. Sarah didn’t like me to play too rough except on specially designated occasions. I couldn’t bring myself to do it however, some rogue scruple had taken hold of me and instead I suggested that we try something different.

Sarah was initially coy but soon relented when I said that it would be like the old days again when the first flush of love had led us to try everything every which way.

Propping herself up with right arm Sarah raised her body over mine, her knees either side of my closed legs, her cunt just centimetres above my erect penis. At my urging she wetted her middle finger of her left hand and placed it inside herself. Studying her closely I put my right hand on my cock and gently pulled my foreskin down and then up. Soon we were in a rhythm set by my words. When I could see that Sarah was approaching orgasm I would slow the tempo down, dragging out the climax until the tension became unbearable. Towards the end I broke my own rule and raised my left hand to her mouth. She grabbed my wrist and brought my fingers into her mouth which she proceeded to suck and nibble. I remembered from somewhere that this was a sign of orgiastic tendencies.

Afterwards as I drifted to asleep with Sarah in my arms I wondered who hadn’t heard the call of the orgy at some point or another in their lives. Liberation from the self-amidst the writhing bodies. Endless replication in a succession of mirrors. Tender, trembling virgins laid out star-wise within sacrificial circles. An abstracted conceptualization of the act in of itself, divorced from any affect. Recently I had become obsessed by the idea that I would never be really be satisfied until every conceivable act of sexual intercourse in the world had occurred; until the very idea of sex itself was spent. When that day did dawn, though, surely it would herald the apocalypse?

Lovesick and haunted by all the disappointments that attend a failed betrayal I pretend to be sick so that I could stay at home for the rest of the week.

Lying in bed desperately seeking the oblivion of sleep that managed to elude me I realized that Margot wasn’t the first girl I had treated in this fashion. In fact, it was a trait of mine not to sleep with women that I truly craved.

I had tried to forget about them but now the memories returned to taunt me, all my lost loves, those unfulfilled romances, the unmade girls.

Susannah with her depthless blue eyes, delicate ankles, translucent Nordic skin that bruised so easily and so beautifully. Nadine whispering in the taxi as I fumbled with her bra-strap that her fantasy was to be raped. Sharon and her heavy breasts, blood coloured knickers and neurotic hesitation. Rebecca who I shared a flat with for a time and always held my eye as she was being fucked by her Australian boyfriends. Elizabeth and the swish of the riding crop. Georgina, poor little rich girl Georgina at 5:15 am in her massive, empty apartment in Cromwell Gardens after a coke and vodka fuelled night, asking me to stroke her hair, but even this contact was almost too much for us in our brittle state. Brooke, but I try not to remember Brooke in case my heart breaks all over again, even after all this time. However, I cannot escape the knowledge that I have tried to suppress for a while now, that in many ways Margot bears an uncanny resemblance to Brooke; and not just in looks either.

All those girls, where have they gone, and do they think of me like I think of them? What we could have been and what have we become? So how I come I still remember them when I forgotten the girls I did sleep with? Is my nature that perverse?

Yes, it is. Deep down I always knew it, but it took Margot to bring it to the surface. She has unwittingly led me to a place within that I had no desire to explore, into a dark alley where hell is always around the corner.

No doubt her leaving has left me feeling aggrieved and bruised. Like a fluffer after she has finished getting the cast ready for the action that is commencing elsewhere, or like a pimp that has studiously groomed his girl in preparation for turning her out only to find that some bolder, badder pimp had stolen her and beaten him to the punch.

Undoubtedly, I had done my damnest to subtly corrupt her. Otherwise what was the point of all the dirty talk, libertine novels and artful erotica if not to seduce her? But what exactly had I achieved? Was her body to be a banquet and I alone denied a taste of her succulent sweetmeats?

Visions of her kept me up at night. Looking in the mirror after going to the toilet I saw that my brown eyes had gone grey in hue.

In the small hours I really started to lose it. I pictured Margot as some divine slut, the beloved whore of my heart. I could imagine her eyes closing as her mouth closed around the flaccid member of some aging professor… been spied on in the changing rooms of an upscale department store by a handsome middle aged lady store clerk…in the showers after a morning swim been soaped between the legs by a pretty baby dyke with blank doll like features…taking home smooth faced incipient queers from the student bar…on her hands and knees being ridden from behind…her fist inside the womb of a sad-eyed woman with large breasts…and most compellingly of all Margot, just Margot legs wide open with her fingers moving across the inverted triangle of hair searching for the hollow opening…the mark of rapture on her features…

After a few days I returned to work to avoid a trip to the doctor. For a while I thought about visiting Margot but decided it was a little early at my age to have a full-blown mid-life crisis. I promised to Sarah that I would help more around the house. Soon, perhaps I will re-read Crebillion fils Les Égarements du coeur Et de l’esprit.

Hi-Vis, Lo-Res Ragnarok

James Cauty-The Aftermath Dislocation Principle
James Cauty-The Aftermath Dislocation Principle

The idle rogue Al the Angle surveys the scene from the window of the 33rd floor apartment of a high-rise in the unfashionable north-eastern suburbs of Agartha where he’d holed up. He searches the horizons, the immediate, the distant, both the approaching and receding, for the event.
Lighting a cigarette he pauses before turning around dramatically to address his small audience.
“Well, fuck me sideways, backwards and every possible other angle, but blow me first, just after we have shared a glass of Kool-Aid Sangria. Though later my doves and darlings, my languid loves, for now I have to share my vision, the revelation at hand, and I need my cherished clan to bear witness because there are massed ranks of Powers, Principles and Intelligences seeking to crush and destroy the Great Work that we have just commenced, at every turn, every corner and from every angle. Of course every fibre of my being is flexing and straining to avoid this eventuality, but they are legion, their ways are not our ways, their procedures are obscure to the minds of man and I am, after it all, only human. So you are my heirs to whom I entrust everything, for the Process must be completed, we will prevail!
“Now hear this.
“Can you hear it?
“Here comes the drums, banging the tune to the end-times.
“It will be a hi-vis, lo-res Ragnarok.
“See the indeterminate warring factions ordering their indiscriminate followers around.
“Whose side are we on?
“Let’s not worry about sides; we have been spoiling for this for the longest time so that vengeance can finally be ours.
“They have taken us for fools for too long, first they say yes, then no, stop then go.
“To which I say enough already with your canting jargon, your cunning linguist stunts, your arrogant argot.
“The lion has awoken and that means war, trouble and more.
“The writing is on every wall for those who have eyes to see.
“For when they say peace and security then the world is lost.
“Can you see what I see?
“Apocalypse.
“Aftermath.
“A world no longer just numismatic or hypostatic or statistical.
“Time for a change
“Can somebody in the house say yeah?
“Fuck yes.
“But all this is the work of tomorrow, for now let the show start, the games begin. Let’s drink, ball and shout.
“Can I get an amen?”

(Another elliptical installment in the Showtime series. Random other parts can be found by following the links to Uneasy City, X Marks the Spot, and Rapturous Ascendancy).

The South

Borges-Performance 1970
Borges-Performance 1970

… while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men.” Jorge Luis Borges 

 

Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s 1970 film Performance is a goldmine of counter-culture and avant-garde influences. References to AngerArtaud, Bacon, Burroughs, Crowley and Genet abound, however the greatest acknowledged debt is undoubtedly to the Argentine fabulist and writer of philosophical fictions; Jorge Luis Borges.

Early on in the movie we glimpse one of the gangsters reading A Personal Anthology, while later on reclusive rock star Turner reads out aloud an excerpt from El Sur (The South) from the same volume. The second part of the movie set in Turner’s decaying Notting Hill mansion, (long before the gentrification of the area), is particularly redolent of Borges with its themes of identity, doubles, labyrinths and the constant, disorientating use of mirrors. One of the final scenes in the movie is of a bullet travelling through the brain that shatters an image of Borges. Legend has it that when the director Donald Cammell committed suicide, by a shot to the back of his head in 1996, that he didn’t die instantaneously and while he waited to die he requested his wife to fetch a mirror so he could study his reactions and repeatedly asked her if she could see the picture of Borges yet, a particular eerie and grim instance of life (or rather death) imitating art.

El Sur is a particularly appropriate choice as it foreshadows themes present during the movie and certain elements of the ending. Borges rated it as his best story and suggests that it could be read in an entirely different way, without clarifying of course which is the correct reading.

 

El Sur

The man who landed in Buenos Aires in 1871 bore the name of Johannes Dahlmann and he was a minister in the Evangelical Church. In 1939, one of his grandchildren, Juan Dahlmann, was secretary of a municipal library on Calle Cordoba, and he considered himself profoundly Argentinian. His maternal grandfather had been that Francisco Flores, of the Second Line-Infantry Division, who had died on the frontier of Buenos Aires, run through with a lance by Indians from Catriel; in the discord inherent between his two lines of descent, Juan Dahlmann (perhaps driven to it by his Germanic blood) chose the line represented by his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death. An old sword, a leather frame containing the daguerreotype of a blank-faced man with a beard, the dash and grace of certain music, the familiar strophes of Martin Fierro, the passing years, boredom and solitude, all went to foster this voluntary, but never ostentatioous nationalism. At the cost of numerous small privations, Dahlmann had managed to save the empty shell of a ranch in the South which had belonged to the Flores family; he continually recalled the image of the balsamic eucalyptus trees and the great rose-colored house which had once been crimson. His duties, perhaps even indolence, kept him in the city. Summer after summer he contented himself with the abstract idea of possession and with the certitude that his ranch was waiting for him on a precise site in the middle of the plain. Late in February, 1939, something happened to him.

Blind to all fault, destiny can be ruthless at one’s slightest distraction. Dahlmann had succeeded in acquiring, on that very afternoon, an imperfect copy of Weil’s edition of The Thousand and One Nights. Avid to examine this find, he did not wait for the elevator but hurried up the stairs. In the obscurity, something brushed by his forehead: a bat, a bird? On the face of the woman who opened the door to him he saw horror engraved, and the hand he wiped across his face came away red with blood. The edge of a recently painted door which someone had forgotten to close had caused this wound. Dahlmann was able to fall asleep, but from the moment he awoke at dawn the savor of all things was atrociously poignant. Fever wasted him and the pictures in The Thousand and One Nights served to illustrate nightmares. Friends and relatives paid him visits and, with exaggerated smiles, assured him that they thought he looked fine. Dahlmann listened to them with a kind of feeble stupor and he marveled at their not knowing that he was in hell. A week, eight days passed, and they were like eight centuries. One afternoon, the usual doctor appeared, accompanied by a new doctor, and they carried him off to a sanitarium on the Calle Ecuador, for it was necessary to X-ray him. Dahlmann, in the hackney coach which bore them away, thought that he would, at last, be able to sleep in a room different from his own. He felt happy and communicative. When he arrived at his destination, they undressed him, shaved his head, bound him with metal fastenings to a stretcher; they shone bright lights on him until he was blind and dizzy, auscultated him, and a masked man stuck a needle into his arm. He awoke with a feeling of nausea, covered with a bandage, in a cell with something of a well about it; in the days and nights which followed the operation he came to realize that he had merely been, up until then, in a suburb of hell. Ice in his mouth did not leave the least trace of freshness. During these days Dahlmann hated himself in minute detail: he hated his identity, his bodily necessities, his humiliation, the beard which bristled up on his face. He stoically endured the curative measures, which were painful, but when the surgeon told him he had been on the point of death from septicemia, Dahlmann dissolved in tears of self-pity for his fate. Physical wretchedness and the incessant anticipation of horrible nights had not allowed him time to think of anything so abstact as death. On another day, the surgeon told him he was healing and that, very soon, he would be able to go to his ranch for convalescence. Incredibly enough, the promised day arrived.

Reality favors symmetries and slight anachronisms: Dahlmann had arrived at the sanitarium in a hackney coach and now a hackney coach was to take him to the Constitucion station. The first fresh tang of autumn, after the summer’s oppressiveness, seemed like a symbol in nature of his rescue and release from fever and death. The city, at seven in the morning, had not lost that air of an old house lent it by the night; the streets seemed like long vestibules, the plazas were like patios. Dahlmann recognized the city with joy on the edge of vertigo: a second before his eyes registered the phenomena themselves, he recalled the corners, the billboards, the modest variety of Buenos Aires. In the yellow light of the new day, all things returned to him.

Every Argentine knows that the South begins at the other side of Rivadavia. Dahlmann was in the habit of saying that this was no mere convention, that whoever crosses this street enters a more ancient and sterner world. From inside the carriage he sought out, among the new buildings, the iron grill window, the brass knocker, the arched door, the entrance way, the intimate patio.

At the railroad station he noted that he still had thirty minutes. He quickly recalled that in a cafe on the Calle Brazil (a few dozen feet from Yrigoyen’s house) there was an enormous cat which allowed itself to be caressed as if it were a disdainful divinity. He entered the cafe. There was the cat, asleep. He ordered a cup of coffee, slowly stirred the sugar, sipped it (this pleasure had been denied him in the clinic), and thought, as he smoothed the cat’s black coat, that this contact was an illusion and that the two beings, man and cat, were as good as separated by a glass, for man lives in time, in succession, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.

Along the next to the last platform the train lay waiting. Dahlmann walked through the coaches until he found one almost empty. He arranged his baggage in the network rack. When the train started off, he took down his valise and extracted, after some hesitation, the first volume of The Thousand and One Nights. To travel with this book, which was so much a part of the history of his ill-fortune, was a kind of affirmation that his ill-fortune had been annulled; it was a joyous and secret defiance of the frustrated forces of evil.

Along both sides of the train the city dissipated into suburbs; this sight, and then a view of the gardens and villas, delayed the beginning of his reading. The truth was that Dahlmann read very little. The magnetized mountain and the genie who swore to kill his benefactor are – who would deny it? – marvelous, but not so much more than the morning itself and the mere fact of being. The joy of life distracted him from paying attention to Scheherezade and her superfluous miracles. Dahlmann closed his book and allowed himself to live.

Lunch – the bouillon served in shining metal bowls, as in the remote summers of childhood – was one more peaceful and rewarding delight.

Tomorrow I’ll wake up at the ranch, he thought, and it was as if he was two men at a time: the man who traveled through the autumn day and across the geography of the fatherland, and the other one, locked up in a sanitarium and subject to methodical servitude. He saw unplastered brick houses, long and angled, timelessly watching the trains go by; he saw horsemen along the dirt roads; he saw gullies and lagoons and ranches; he saw great luminous clouds that resembled marble; and all these things were accidental, casual, like dreams of the plain. He also thought he recognized trees and crop fields; but he would not have been able to name them, for his actual knowledge of the country side was quite inferior to his nostalgic and literary knowledge.

From time to time he slept, and his dreams were animated by the impetus of the train. The intolerable white sun of high noon had already become the yellow sun which precedes nightfall, and it would not be long before it would turn red. The railroad car was now also different; it was not the same as the one which had quit the station siding at Constitucion; the plain and the hours had transfigured it. Outside, the moving shadow of the railroad car stretched toward the horizon. The elemental earth was not perturbed either by settlements or other signs of humanity. The country was vast but at the same time intimate and, in some measure, secret. The limitless country sometimes contained only a solitary bull. The solitude was perfect, perhaps hostile, and it might have occurred to Dahlmann that he was travelling into the past and not merely south. He was distracted form these considerations by the railroad inspector who, on reading his ticket, advised him that the train would not let him off at the regular station but at another: an earlier stop, one scarcely known to Dahlmann. (The man added an explanation which Dahlmann did not attempt to understand, and which he hardly heard, for the mechanism of events did not concern him.)

The train laboriously ground to a halt, practically in the middle of the plain. The station lay on the other side of the tracks; it was not much more than a siding and a shed. There was no means of conveyance to be seen, but the station chief supposed that the traveler might secure a vehicle from a general store and inn to be found some ten or twelve blocks away.

Dahlmann accepted the walk as a small adventure. The sun had already disappeared from view, but a final splendor, exalted the vivid and silent plain, before the night erased its color. Less to avoid fatigue than to draw out his enjoyment of these sights, Dahmann walked slowly, breathing in the odor of clover with sumptuous joy.

The general store at one time had been painted a deep scarlet, but the years had tempered this violent color for its own good. Something in its poor architecture recalled a steel engraving, perhaps one from an old edition of Paul et Virginie. A number of horses were hitched up to the paling. Once inside, Dahlmann thought he recognized the shopkeeper. Then he realized that he had been deceived by the man’s resemblance to one of the male nurses in the sanitarium. When the shopkeeper heard Dahlmann’s request, he said he would have the shay made up. In order to add one more event to that day and to kill time, Dahlmann decided to eat at the general store.

Some country louts, to whom Dahlmann did not at first pay any attention, were eating and drinking at one of the tables. On the floor, and hanging on to the bar, squatted an old man, immobile as an object. His years had reduced and polished him as water does a stone or the generations of men do a sentence. He was dark, dried up , diminutive, and seemed outside time, situated in eternity. Dahlmann noted with satisfaction the kerchief, the thick poncho, the long chiripa, and the colt boots, and told himself, as he recalled futile discussions with people from the Northern counties or from the province of Entre Rios, that gauchos like this no longer existed outside the South.

Dahlmann sat down next to the window. The darkness began overcoming the plain, but the odor and sound of the earth penetrated the iron bars of the window. The shop owner brought him sardines, followed by some roast meat. Dahlmann washed the meal down with several glasses of red wine. Idling, he relished the tart savor of the wine, and let his gaze, now grown somewhat drowsy, wander over the shop. A kerosene lamp hung from a beam. There were three customers at the other table: two of them appeared to be farm workers; the third man, whose features hinted at Chinese blood, was drinking with his hat on. Of a sudden, Dahlmann felt something brush lightly against his face. Next to the heavy glass of turbid wine, upon one of the stripes in the table cloth, lay a spit ball of breadcrumb. That was all: but someone had thrown it there.

The men at the other table seemed totally cut off from him. Perplexed, Dahlmann decided that nothing had happened, and he opened the volume of The Thousand and One Nights, by way of suppressing reality. After a few moments another little ball landed on his table, and now the peons laughed outright. Dahlmann said to himself that he was not frightened, but he reasoned that it would be a major blunder if he, a convalescent, were to allow himself to be dragged by strangers into some chaotic quarrel. He determined to leave, and had already gotten to his feet when the owner came up and exhorted him in an alarmed voice:

“Senor Dahlmann, don’t pay any attention to those lads; they’re half high.”

Dahlmann was not surprised to learn that the other man, now, knew his name. But he felt that these conciliatory words served only to aggravate the situation. Previous to the moment, the peons provocation was directed against an unknown face, against no one in particular, almost against no one at all. Now it was an attack against him, against his name, and his neighbors knew it. Dahlmann pushed the owner aside, confronted the peons, and demanded to know what they wanted of him.

The tough with a Chinese look staggered heavily to his feet. Almost in Juan Dahlmann’s face he shouted insults, as if he had been a long way off. He game was to exaggerate constituted ferocious mockery. Between curses and obscenities, he threw a long knife into the air, followed it with his eyes, caught and juggled it, and challenged Dahlmann to a knife fight. The owner objected in a tremulous voice, pointing out that Dahlmann was unarmed. At this point, something unforeseeable occurred.

From a corner of the room, the old ecstatic gaucho – in whom Dahlmann saw a summary and cipher of the South (his South) – threw him a naked dagger, which landed at his feet. It was as if the South had resolved that Dahlmann should accept the duel. Dahlmann bent over to pick up the dagger, and felt two things. The first, that this almost instinctive act bound him to fight. The second, that the weapon, in his torpid hand, was no defense at all, but would merely serve to justify his murder. He had once played with a poniard, like all men, but his idea of fencing and knife-play did not go further than the notion that all strokes should be directed upwards, with the cutting edge held inwards. They would not have allowed such things ot happen to me in the sanitarium, he thought.

“Let’s get on our way,” said that other man.

They went out and if Dahlmann was without hope, he was also without fear. As he crossed the threshold, he felt that to die in a knife fight, under the open sky, and going forward to the attack, would have been a liberation, a joy, and a festive occasion, on the first night in the sanitarium, when they stuck him with the needle. He felt that if he had been able to choose, then, or to dream his death, this would have been the death he would have chosen or dreamt.

Firmly clutching his knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain.

Jorge Luis Borges 1944

 

Who’s The Boss?

Jarmila Maranove-the Trial 1983
Jarmila Maranove-the Trial 1983

The Melancholy Lieutenant woke up immediately when he registered the sound of a key being fitted into the lock and the scrape of the door as it grated against the cement floor. If they thought that the delay was going to make him sweat they were mistaken. He felt refreshed after his sleep and prepared for whatever fate they deigned to grant him.
Two men entered, both in plain clothes. Their superiors had probably decided to pair them up as a study in archetypal contrasts, which they had then made into their schtick, their routine. Naturally there was a squat, older harassed tough guy with the obligatory rumpled brown suit that he wore like a baggy second skin. The Melancholy Lieutenant felt he had read the script that this bad cop with the good heart beneath the gruff exterior was going to act out many times before. Of course the sleek, soft spoken and ambitious young detective, impeccably turned out in bold blue stripes would be all concern until he had found an angle into which best to turn the knife. Well let them play their little games, he thought, they will get nothing out of me because I’m keeping schtum, silent as the grave, his accent alone would give him away as a foreigner. Besides even to himself his story of parallel dimensions and vast inter-stellar conspiracies sounded like the incoherent ramblings of a deranged mind. But here he was, in this room where he shouldn’t be. But he doubted he could convince a pair of over-worked and cynical policemen the truth of the matter.
Seating himself in the chair the tough cop addressed the sleek guy who had decided to perch on the wooden table, all the better to lean over and presumably intimidate the Melancholy Lieutenant.
‘So who and what did we have here Boss?’
‘Dunno Boss, no papers, no ID card, no number, nada nowt and he’d decided to clam up whats more. We know nothing about nothing about him. Which is a little perturbing, both of us…and for himself there. I mean without any solid information we have to naturally assume the worse, don’t we Boss?’
‘Another fucking ghost then.’
‘Looks like it.’
‘Got a cigarette Boss?’
‘Sure Boss,’ said the good cop. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled a gold case which he presented to the older cop all in one smooth fluid motion. He took two cigarettes out, handed one over, and then rifled through his trouser and jacket pockets before finally finding a lighter. He lit his colleague’s cigarette first before lighting his own. Both of the policemen took deep drags before directing heavy clouds of smoke into his face. The Melancholy Lieutenant remained impassive.
‘So what are we gonna do with this guy? Obviously we need to process the fucker, but as what? As an agitator, subversive or just some poor bastard down on his luck? Or did he just lose his mind out west.’
‘Well he looks and holds himself like a soldier, and an officer at that. Maybe he was exposed to the Black Acid at the front. Maybe, maybe. I wouldn’t peg him as one of Red’s, and definitely not as a Wrather, but unless we find out more we can’t ever really be sure, can we Boss? What is your famous gut telling you?’
The bad cop studied the cigarette for a while before answering. ‘My gut is telling me that it’s hungry while my brain is telling me that I am tired. Are you not going to say anything there Sonny Jim? Huuh? What you say and do in this room could decide your entire future. So what’s it going to be, boy?’
The Melancholy Lieutenant didn’t move a muscle and kept staring into the middle distance, though he was worried that the gathering heavy silence would galvanise them into action. Although he was trained and held the necessary detachment to resist speaking out under torture, it was something he obviously wanted to avoid if at all possible.
‘So be it then, ‘the smooth operator said and stood up from the table, squaring himself up. ‘I think we need to show him who’s the boss, don’t we Boss?’
‘Ah hold on there Boss. Let’s not be too hasty. I got a feeling inside that we have to be careful, a wrong decision may come back to haunt us; bite us in the ass big time. We still have hundreds to process yet and of all the people we have seen so far this bastard looks most likely to have connections. He isn’t your run of the mill agitator anyway. Besides I think he realises who’s the boss.’
‘O.K Boss,’ he said relaxing and standing down.
‘So where are we going to process him then Boss?’
‘Chosher Fastness I suppose, the catatonic ward seems about right for this bleeding phantom.’
‘Yeah, a better class of loony up there.’
‘Officer class mental cases.’
‘Good monitoring as well.’
‘We can see how he responses to the presence of certain problematic inmates.’
‘Decided then boss.’
‘Yes no doubt. Call up the McNally boyos and get him loaded up into the van.’
‘Can’t wait to be shot of this one, let him become somebody else’s problem instead of ours.’
‘I’m with you on that Boss.’
‘Ah well, on to the next one.’
‘Never fucking stops does it?’
‘No and it never will either Boss.’

 

 

After the Falls

Grosz-Ecce-Homo
Grosz-Ecce-Homo

After, (for there is always an after, the story goes on, there is neither resolution or finality, even death is only a pause, a quick breather in-between, a brief respite, a stage), the unstable reality of Eden Falls had been snuffed out like a candle-flame, the Melancholy Lieutenant had found himself, in a certain sense only because he knew that he was well and truly lost, on the streets of some Northern city in winter. He didn’t look at all out of place though, the avenues and boulevards were crowded with shell-shocked and war-wounded soldiers just returned from some calamitous battle; hungry, cold and bitter their talk was all of sedition, revolution, uprisings and coup d’états.
After the third night of rioting the authorities had cracked down and began to round up suspected trouble-makers and imposed a curfew at nightfall. The Melancholy Lieutenant was caught up in the dragnet and taken to a grim faux Gothic government building that had been converted into a temporary prison to deal with the influx of detainees. He was put inside a small room along with four other morose veterans.
Time passed by slowly, nobody spoke or moved, apart for the times somebody had to relieve themselves in the bucket wedged into the corner. Occasionally a guard would open the door, point toward someone and signal for them to follow. The person never returned to the room, instead a new inmate would take their place.
After three others had left the room with the guard it was his turn. He walked a short distance behind the guard, up narrow stairs and through dusty corridors that contained numerous offices. The guard stopped before a wooden door that had been painted a dim shade of burgundy sometime in the last century and searched through the numerous keys on the ring attached to his belt. He opened the door for the Melancholy Lieutenant and closed it immediately behind him.
He was alone, though he guessed this is where he would be questioned, perhaps interrogated. There were no windows, naturally, and the bare room was devoid of furniture apart from a flimsy trestle table and three rickety looking wooden chairs. The only light source was an old fashioned lamp, without a shade, that rested on the floor. Somehow the dull light emitted seemed to intensify the sombre gloom rather than dispelling it, which was obviously the intention of the police or the secret services or whoever was running the show here.
Though he doubted that a cat could find comfort in this derelict hole he was truly exhausted so he sat himself down in one of the two chairs facing the door. Obviously the single chair facing the wall was where he was meant to sit, but the hell with that. Sleeping with his eyes wide open he waited for his accusers to make their grand entry.

(This is the further adventures of The Melancholy Lieutenant, a recurring figure in my fiction. The previous installments are Eden Falls and X Marks the Spot. To make matters even more confusing these are just part of a larger series of loosely linked experimental surrealistic science fiction noirs starting with Showtime, though there can be read in any order.)

The Debutante

Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938
Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938

I have chosen for the third in the series of Surrealist short stories a deliciously macabre tale by the wonderful English artist, writer and eccentric Leonora Carrington, who was also the subject of Max Ernst’s masterpiece, The Robing of the Bride.

In a reversal of a classic fairy tale theme, The Debutante tells of the lengths our heroine is prepared to go to in order to not attend a ball.

The Debutante

WHEN I was a debutante I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed, it was in order to get away from people that I found myself each day at the zoo. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent, I taught her French and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.

My mother was arranging a ball in my honour on the first of May. During this time I was in great distress for whole nights. I’ve always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honour.

On the morning of the first of May, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena.

“What a bloody nuisance,” I told her. “I’ve got to go to my ball tonight.”

“You’re very lucky,” she said. “I would love to go. I do not know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.”

“There’ll be a great many different things to eat,” I told her. “I’ve seen truckloads of food delivered to our house.”

“And you complain!” replied the hyena, disgusted. “Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can’t imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I’m given!”

I had a audacious idea, and I almost laughed. “All you have to do is to go instead of me!”

“We do not resemble each other enough, otherwise I’d gladly go,” said the hyena, rather sadly.

“Listen,” I said. “No one sees too well in the evening light. If you disguise yourself, no one will notice you in the crowd. Besides, we are practically  the same size. You are my only friend, I beg you to do this for me.”

She thought this over, and I knew that she really wanted to accept.

“Done,” she said all of a sudden.

There weren’t many keepers about, it was so early in the morning. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I hailed a taxi; at home, everyone was still in bed. In my room, I brought out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena found it difficult to walk in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to hide her hands which were too hairy to look like mine. By the time the sun was shining into my room, she was able to make her way around the room several times—walking more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother almost opened the door to say good morning before the hyena had hidden under my bed.

“There’s a bad smell in your room,” said my mother, opening the window. “You must have a scented bath before tonight, with my new bath salts.”

“Certainly,” I said.

She did not stay long. I believe the smell was too strong for her.

“Don’t be late for breakfast,” she said and left the room.

The greatest difficulty was to find a way of disguising the hyena’s face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way, but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, “I think I’ve found a solution. Have you got a maid?”

“Yes,” I said, puzzled.

“There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we’ll pounce upon her  and tear off her face. I’ll wear her face this evening instead of mine.”

“That’s not practical,” I said to her. “She will probably die if she hasn’t got a face. Someone will surely find the corpse and we’ll go to prison.”

“I am hungry enough to eat her,” the hyena replied.

“And the bones?”

“As well,” she said. “So, its on?”

“Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off  her face. It’ll  hurt her too much otherwise.”

“All right.  It’s all the same to me.”

Not without a certain amount of nervousness I rang for Mary, my maid. I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit that it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said, “I can’t eat anymore. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”

“You’ll find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take it.” She did as I suggested. Then she said: “Turn around now and look how beautiful I am.”

In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary’s face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.

“You’ve certainly done that very well,”  I said.

Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed up, she declared: “I really feel in tip-top form. I have the feeling that I shall be a great success this evening.”

When we had heard the music from downstairs for quite some time, I said to her,  “Go on down now, and remember, don’t stand next to my mother. She’s bound to realise that it isn’t me. Apart from her I don’t know anybody. Best of luck.” I kissed her as I left her, but she did smell very strong.

Night fell. Tired by the day’s emotions, I took a book and sat down by the open window, giving myself up to peace and quiet. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. About an hour later,  I  noticed the first signs of trouble. A bat flew in at the window, uttering little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I had hardly gone down on my knees when the sound of beating wings was overcome by a great noise at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage.

“We’d just sat down at table,” she said, “when that  thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes.’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.”

Leonora Carrington-1939

Translation: Marina Warner & Katherine Talbot

The Captives of Longjumeau

Félicien_Rops_-_Les_Sataniques._Satan_semant_l'ivraie[1]Introduction

One of the most glaring omissions from Breton’s Anthologie de l’ humour noir is of  the symbolist writer Leon Bloy. Bloy’s scathing, vitriolic assaults on the bourgeoisie are certainly fine examples of black humour. His highly idiosyncratic, reactionary Catholicism is diametrically opposed to the Surrealist militant left-wing atheism, however the similarly politically inclined decadent writers J.K Huysmans and Villers de L’isle-Adam are both included. Maybe the absence of Bloy has more to do with his personality, he had an enormous talent  for making enemies. By the end of his impoverished life he had managed to fall out with everyone in the Parisian literary world, former friends especially, and had earned the nickname The Ungrateful Beggar for his constant written requests for money.

The following story by Leon Bloy was much admired by Borges who positions it as one of the few precedents of Kafka. Translation is my own.

Continue reading

The Surreal World: Rapa Nui

Moai-Susanne Rempt 2017
Moai-Susanne Rempt 2017

As I noted in a previous post, Redraw the Map, Re-Write History and Re-Invent Reality concerning the Surrealist Map of the World, Easter Island and its mysterious, magnificent moai held a special place in the Surrealist imagination. The Pope of Surrealism, Andre Breton began collecting Easter Island moai kavakava (small wooden statuettes) and masks from the age of 15 and had amassed a major collection by the time of his death. The heads of the moai featured in the Thursday section of Max Ernst’s collage novel Une Semaine de Bonte, which also feature prominently bird-headed humans. Given Ernst’s marked obsession with birds and hybrid birds figures, (Loplop, Superior of Birds) it is tempting to think that he was familiar with the Rapa Nui’s Birdman cult and its representations found in petroglyphs across the island.

Easter Island also featured in Surrealist literature, not least this deceptive tale of longing and imagination by Jean Ferry (see Kafka, Or “The Secret Society”) that is included below, as well as examples of Rapa Nui art and selections from Une Semaine de Bonte. The header image is by S.R of Blackpenart, of a moai that has seemingly lost its way and ended up in a tree-lined city park in Germany.

Rapa Nui

I reached Easter Island on February 13th 1937. For thirty years, I have been waiting for this moment; for thirty years of my life and times I have been thinking of my immense desire to see Easter Island, I thought I’d never get to go, that it was too difficult, that it was a wild dream. And since things must be desired so stubbornly that they come true, on that day- February 13th 1937 – I set foot on the soil of Easter Island.

Since I had been thinking about it for thirty years, you would think I’d worked out my schedule in advance. Besides, I had no time to lose, as the Chilean training ship that had brought me was only putting in at port for two days. I am not lying when I say I was trembling with emotion under a strange, pale sun; I had a very hard time convincing myself this wasn’t the same old dream again, the dream where I dream I’ve reached Easter Island, trembling with emotion under a strange, pale sun. But no, it was all real; the wind, the black cliff, the three rippling volcanoes. There really were no trees, no springs. And, faithful to a date set at the dawn of time, the great statues awaited me on the slopes of Rano Raraku.

I know that at this point, to avoid disappointing anyone, I should describe the dreadful bitterness of dead desire, desire fulfilled. I should say that, face to face with the sisters of Hoa Hakananai’s, I realised that it wasn’t worth waiting so long, coming so far for something so simple, so real. I should complain about the insects, the Rapa Nui who kept pushing on me hollow-bellied statuettes clearly made the night before. Too bad for those born to despair. Who I was in the depth of the crater is nobody’s business but my own. Quite simply, I knew why I was there, why for thirty years I’d so stubbornly wanted to be here someday. And I was. At last…

Not a line of the above is true, except that for thirty years, I’ve wanted to go to Easter Island, where something awaits me. But I’ve never yet been, and I probably never will.

Jean Ferry-1950

Sur_Map[1]
An over-sized Easter Island (Ile de Paques) on the Surrealist Map of the World-1929
Moai_Rano_raraku[1]
Moai-Rano Raraku

Moai at Ahu Tongariki
Moai at Ahu Tongariki

ma-32922-WEB[1]
Moai kavakava
AN00667097_001_l[1]
Moai Kavakava
petroglifos-de-rapa-nui-moai-birdman-de-la-isla-de-pascua-18061544[1]
Moai with Birdman petroglyphs
rongorongo[1]
Rapa Nui-Rongorongo script

68.692.1-5
Max Ernst-Une Semaine du Bonte
Max Ernst-Une Semaine du Bonte
Max Ernst-Une Semaine du Bonte

Art, Pleasure and Gardening

Max Ernst Convolvulus 1941
Max Ernst Convolvulus! Convolvulus! 1941

While Surrealism is usually associated with the visual arts, in particular painting, photography, collage and films, the initial impetus was literary. As well as the many manifestos and polemics, Surrealists also produced poetry (translations of which can be found on this site, see Free UnionThe Spectral AttitudesSleep Spaces, Serpent Sun and I Have So Often Dreamed Of You), and fiction. There are Surrealist novels, but as Andre Breton disapproved of the form as the medium of literary careerists the majority of Surrealist fiction tend to be in the short story format.

As most Surrealist short stories tend to be hidden away in hard to find collections and obscure periodicals, this facet of the Surrealist imagination has been unjustly ignored. 

In an effort to remedy this situation, I am pleased to post Alain Joubert’s delightful fable Art, Pleasure and Gardening, one of several Surrealist short stories to be found here (see The Debutante, AxolotlThe Garden of Time, Kafka, Or “The Secret Society” and Rapa Nui. In Art, Pleasure and Gardening, Joubert shows how desire, passion and pleasure can transform the world.

Art, Pleasure and Gardening

He was sick of living within four walls grey with dust in the tiny two-roomed flat with kitchen washbasin and toilet on the landing in the tenth district which a lucky (?) chance (and a little help from his sister) had provided him with the opportunity to invest in a couple of years earlier. While lying in a more or less collapsed spring mattress which was set out on a level with the floor, he let his gaze linger on those miserable grey walls with torn wallpaper on which it was still possible to discern, here and there, a few bunch of grapes trying vainly to serve as decoration, but which had been definitively devoured. In this way the minutes were drawn out and by degrees were turned into hours without the slightest desire having passed through his mind. But suddenly , when twilight had ceased eating away what little light appeared to him through the dirty windows that opened onto another wall without windows (it was six in the evening and February had never been the most cheerful month) he decided that what he would do would be to buy a plant. That was the first day.

*

On the second day, he went to the flower market on the Ile de la Cite. After some dreadful hesitations and a titanic internal struggle, he finally chose a Monstera deliciosa of the Araceae family, whose leaves, twelve inches long and ten inches across, stretched out in the form of a heart and deeply cut between the secondary veins, threw many strange shadows on his walls when he installed lateral lighting.

Passion then overcame him. an Aechmea fascianta, some Bromeliaceae, a Cissus antartica, some Vitaceae, Diffenbachia,Fatshedera, a Peperomia together made their appearance in the flat and something tropical began to rise up from between their foliage. That was the the third day.

*

On the fourth day, as he scrutinised the hothouse at the Botanical Gardens seeking new species, he had an encounter. In front of a Sciandapus Aursus, which originally came from the Solomon Islands and whose heart-shaped leaves very much intrigued him, his gaze met that of a charming young woman, whose long hair lightly flowed and who appeared to be – like him- fascinated by the plant world. Later, as they lay on the spring mattress, which as discreetly as possible had accompanied their amorous journey, they decided to turn the two-roomed apartment into an enchanted place in which the plants would occupy pride of place in the room as they already did in their lives.

*

No sooner said than done. They bought a quantity of peat and wood hummus and spread it far and wide over the floor and took the plants they had already brought out of their pots and, after unpotting them, planted them in open ground, together with a good dozen newcomers they had spent the day collecting in more or less the usual way. in the evening, exhausted but happy, they slept together, naked, on a bed of palm leaves after having refreshed themselves with fruits. That was the fifth day.

*

On the sixth day, they were surprised to see that the plants had sprung up in a way that had nothing natural about it. From morning, a tangle of branches, leaves and liana prevented them from moving about the flat easily and by noon they had to become resigned to tracing out a route with a machete if they wanted to get from one room to the other. They found this extremely poetic and were pleased with the astonishing humid heat which reigned in the rooms, something which encouraged them to dispense with the slightest clothing on their radiant bodies. Water streamed down the walls, serving to complete the illusion but completely ruining the wallpaper! Dozens of birds came in through the window and mingled their songs with the sighs of our two young savages, who were more in love than ever!

*

The next day passed as if in a dream. Strange and succulent fruits had appeared on some of the plants – which soon turned into trees – and they even saw an iguana, which sprang up from who knows where and took a trip around the room before vanishing into the undergrowth. They spent their time savouring its flow, caressing one another and re-discovering the pleasures of forgotten senses – or the meaning of forgotten pleasures. In short, they weren’t bored! That was the seventh day.

*

At dawn on the eighth day, there was a knock on the door. an old man with a long white beard, flanked by a tipstaff and a policeman, read out a declaration printed on official paper that announced that they were being evicted forthwith, failing which they would suffer a severe penalty. And this is how they were ignominiously thrown out of Paradise Road for having tried to create it there again! Since then he has worked for the Social Security, while she became a teacher. As for the flat, they say no one has ever been able to get inside, so intensely has the vegetation grown. But then they say so many things.

Alain Joubert 1984

Translation: Michael Richardson

 

The Interview~~~Illustrated

The Interview_Auditorium-Susanne Rempt 2018
The Interview_Auditorium-Susanne Rempt 2018

 

I am delighted to present once again one of my stories illustrated by my good friend Susanne Rempt. With her noirish, expressionistic illustrations that, for this story, border on the hallucinatory, Ms. Rempt contributes to the blackly comic atmosphere I was seeking to convey in this horror phantasmagoria.

For further artwork by Ms. Rempt visit her pages at Saatchi Art and Instagram. For other stories illustrated by Ms. Rempt they can be viewed at An Illustrated Promise of ParadiseIllustrated Proof and The Illustrated Unmade Again.

 

The Interview

Anna felt nervous about today. She was determined to make a good impression. O.K it was only a P.A’s position, but the pay was excellent, and it would take away some of the pressure. Without the constant worry about money she could concentrate on her real calling. True to recent form however, things had gone wrong from the moment she woke late after being up most of night rehearsing the upcoming interview. The Interview_StreetFilled with heavy dread she rushed around cramped studio trying to make up for time lost, but of course wasted hours could never be got back and her frantic efforts threw her into more of a panic. Indeed, things went from bad to worse as she bolted towards the front door, taking final swig of coffee to keep her focused and it spilt over best suit she’d picked up from dry cleaners only yesterday, at considerable expense given finances at present time. She had nothing else suitable to wear, the only thing remotely business-like was a white cotton suit set, jacket and blouse, but it was the nearly the end of November. There was nothing for it now apart from making do. She searched around for an umbrella before remembering that she’d left it in a taxi a couple of nights ago, but at least she had a raincoat, Thank God for small blessings.

Outside it wasn’t just raining, no this was different, a new angle on the ever-present rain, every drop left a yellow smear on her white clothes. This must have been the dirty rain she’d vaguely heard them forecasting on the news. Something about sand from the Sahara being absorbed by storm clouds, pushed across the Atlantic by an ominous low front before letting loose over London. Or something like that she wasn’t entirely sure because she hadn’t really listened but whatever else it was, it was nasty. There were no taxis anywhere to be had, she waited and waited, soon saturated to the skin. Being an attractive girl, she usually had no problem flagging down a cab but today every taxi was filled with their shadows and ghosts being carried forward to their nebulous destinations, so when a bus came she hopped on even though she never caught buses

As the bus slithered slowly though the sparsely haunted streets she remembered why she never caught buses. They were always so slow, taking too long. And how would she get from the bus stop to where her appointment was? She knew that the bus stopped at High Street Kensington and that the address for Reynolds Corporation was in W8, but where exactly? The 86 Fascination Street couldn’t be that hard to find however. Maybe she would have better luck getting a taxi in Kensington, if worst came to worst she could always go into a shop and buy a street atlas, another unwanted expense to be sure, but she had saved on taxi fare. One good thing you can say about the buses, The Interview_Busat least they’re cheap.

Finally, the bus stopped at a sodden High Street Kensington. She got off and looked around for a taxi, but it was a total no go. Unfortunately, she would have to walk, her clothes were half way ruined by now, but surely they would understand about the rain. Why hadn’t she got better directions? Why did she expect everything to fall in her lap? She knew that she mustn’t think about her run of misfortune right this minute, must concentrate on what had to be done. Namely getting to the interview so that she could get work so that she might be finally able to get some organisation in her life. Then she would not have to think of all the things that set her apart.

She wandered around for a little while but very quickly she realised it was of no use, there was no way she would ever find Reynolds Corporation in this manner, so she went into Waterstones to buy a street atlas. First sensible idea I’ve had for a long time she thought. Inside the bookstore it was quite crowded with people sheltering from the rain, all standing hunched up over their paperbacks, little pools of heavy rain congealing around their ankles. Soon they would be immobilized, set fast.

She knew that she had to act quickly, time was running out, somewhere along the way she had lost her watch (where, when?) but she knew that the interview was due soon if she wasn’t actually already late, and who knew what other obstacles she would met today? After all it was a Wednesday. Street maps and atlases were supposed to be on the second floor according to the flashing neon finder board but the icy assistant, offended that she was being asked about atlases and not Kafka told her that they were on the third floor. This was odd as the building seemed to be only two storeys’ high but in unspoken answer to her unstated question the frigid intellectual pointed to the far-left corner where there was a rickety, unbanistered staircase. She nodded her head and climbed the wooden steps, counting as she went up as she always did for superstitions sake, one hundred, one hundred and one, one hundred and two and would it ever end and where was this decrepit staircase leading her? One hundred and seven, one hundred and eight, nearly there now surely. Are we yer vet, are we yer vet, she whispered to herself like a child been ferried to god knows where by sullen, silently seething parents, their holiday so carefully planned and longed for already turned into a domestic Stalingrad. No, not The Interview_Stairsyet, but we‟re nearly there now. One hundred and ten, one hundred and eleven, as last, and the third floor lay before her, vast vistas of aisles and shelving stretching onwards towards a terrible infinity of nothing but books, books, books as far as the eye could see. A labyrinth of books where you would forget everything about yourself and your existence, a maze of books where you would lose yourself in other peoples lives and other people’s words, a prison of books from whence you could never escape from the dream of others and from the tyranny of your own consciousness. She turned and fled down the one hundred and eleven steps.

She didn’t slow down until the first floor, hadn’t wanted to see the icy assistant who had misdirected her so cruelly again, or the petrified browsers, but she still needed a street map, searched on the first floor but there was none, descended to the ground floor and there, right by the cash till saw a fold-out map entitled, “The Impractical Girl’s Guide to Kensington’s Streets and Byways” surely the very thing for her. She took a copy and gave it to the old crone at the counter and handed over the money. Then she left right quick.

The vile rain had intensified, drowning the streets in filth and stalling the traffic in its tracks. She stood under the doorway of an electrical goods shop and unfolded the map, which proved tricky as it was much bigger than was practical, obviously trying to live up to its title.

Before her eyes, on the map at least, was presented a Kensington transfigured, no longer Church Street and Abingdon Road, instead there was Desolation Row and Dreamside, Paradise Heights and Easy Street, Nightmare Alley and Morningstar Crescent. Fascination Street she found easily enough, on the corner of Glimmer Road, which ran adjacent to the High Street, which thankfully was still represented otherwise it would have been completely hopeless.

She ran from shop awning to shop awning the length of High Street Kensington trying not to get any wetter, but it was coming down in torrents and as there were few shops on Glimmer Road she gave over and started walking an even pace.

She found Fascination Street and was looking out for a stainless-steel tower or the suchlike but was surprised to see that it was a quiet residential street of rather grand late Victorian mansions. Nothing looked remotely like the European headquarters of a large multi-national publishing company. Just the secluded homes of London’s more moneyed inhabitants. Be that as it may be, 86 must be here somewhere, there can’t be another Fascination Street in Kensington can there? Out of the question and Reynolds was definitely on Fascination Street. It was difficult to see what the house numbers of the houses were as they were each well set off the pavement, so she opened the gate of one and went to the colonnaded entrance. She was in luck, for the first time she thought, about time too, it was no. 86, but the brass nameplate said “Dr. Dee’s Institute for the Perpetually Perplexed and Terminally Twitchy” she knew it must be some mistake, so she pressed down the buzzer. Reynolds Corporation must be a very secretive organisation to hide its presence so rigorously, really I mean, she almost laughed to herself.

She heard heels clicking on the presumably marble floor, they were that loud, and the door was opened by a nurse in stiff starched uniform. The nurse’s depth-less agate eyes gave her a searching once over and a knowing smile hovered on her red tainted lips.

“Hello I’m…” she began.

“Miss Anna Ferguson, I know. You’re late; Doctor Dee has been waiting for you. We couldn’t begin until you arrived.” the nurse interrupted.

“I’m awfully sorry, what with the rain and everything there were no taxis to be had.” she replied.

“No need to apologise Miss Ferguson, please do not concern yourself with such trivialities, the doctor certainly doesn’t. If you would kindly follow me.”The Interview_Nurse
The nurse spoke perfect English but the phrasing of her sentences and her oddly precise pronunciation, vaguely American like she’d learnt English from the telly and movies, suggested that she was of Scandinavian or maybe Germanic origin, a suggestion borne out by her glacial blondness and her full, fleshy, heavy boned figure. She certainly had a strong grip, and long sharp nails. As she had stepped over the threshold of Dr Dee’s establishment the nurse had encircled her left wrist with her right hand, she had no choice but to follow. Not that she had any inclination not to. Everything was so off kilter that she had decided to adopt a policy of complete passivity in the face of whatever occurred from here on out. Certainly, questions kept plying her mind, as she didn’t have answers she tried to dismiss them, but she couldn’t but help thinking. Was this the right place? The address was right, but it certainly wasn’t like what she was expecting. Maybe she had mixed up the details and she was interviewing for the position of medical secretary. And who was this Dr. Dee? Maybe this was some new bizarre interview process, she had heard of the bigger companies using unconventional techniques to screen out applicants, but this seemed too idiosyncratic even by today’s corporate standards.

Where was the nurse leading her? Across hallways with intricate Italian marbling, past many mirrors, down stairwells and though empty offices.

The nurse finally let go of her wrists to open large double doors.

“Here we are Miss Ferguson,” the nurse said at the entrance at what appeared to be an auditorium from the tiered stage, podium, and seating, “I hope you will enjoy the lecture. Dr. Dee is such a wonderful speaker. Unfortunately, I have some work to do now, however I will join you later. Dr. Dee and I are so much looking forward to talking to you. That is, of course, if you will join us afterwards.”

“Lecture? I’m here for the position, Nurse…?”

“Nurse Woods. I do realise that Miss Ferguson. Do not concern yourself with details, the merest formalities. The process will commence in its own time. In the meanwhile,” she gestured towards the seats with a vague wave, “I suggest you find a place for yourself.”

What did this have to do with the position she was applying for? Nurse Woods was staring at her, no not at all kindly either but rather with a detached anticipation. A subdued but distinct murmur of expectancy rose from the unseen audience. She was decidedly uneasy but the feeling of passivity that had taken hold upon entering the building was even stronger now, overwhelming her into a resigned acceptance of whatever fate may have in store.

She entered the auditorium, after she had advanced in the dim ambient lighting sufficiently she heard the stab of Nurse Woods’s stilettos receding down the hallway from where they had entered.

Only two seats were empty out of about fifty, next to each other at the end of the third row, all others taken by an audience comprised entirely of women and girls, not a man to be seen. She felt wildly inconspicuous in her white clothes, as all the others were wearing impeachable black. Obviously, the new black was black for the fashionably insane and the insanely fashionable.

She hesitated for what seemed an inordinately long time before sitting down on the second to last seat. She was obviously an object of considerable attention. The middle-aged lady seated next to her turned and smiled, if a permanent rictus can be called a smile. Indeed, her face, sculpted away by excessive dieting, botox injections and the surgeons knife was no longer a face, it was a skull precariously perched on top of an elongated skeletal structure fashioned by Giacometti in his later anorexic period. She was a triumph of a morbidly decadent science over a barely breathing nature. She didn’t smile back, hugged her damp coat tight over her chest and watched the stage for any signs of the lecturer.

She didn’t have to wait long; soon the hubbub of sophisticated chitter-chatter gave way to a low, admiring “ohhhh’s and ahhhh’s” as the Doctor made his grand entrance. She knew now why the audience was made up entirely of neurotic ladies and hysterical girls, the good Doctor was obviously a bit of a lady-killer, a suave silver fox.

“Welcome ladies, I see many familiar faces today and a newcomer.” he was obviously referring to herself because he stared right through her, his cruel, sensual, thick lips curving into an asymmetrical, she could only call it wicked, smile. She shivered; this was a man who could make her come just by looking at her. “For the benefit of all those who do not know me and are unacquainted with my work here, I am Dr John Dee resident psychologist at the Home. My methods and theories are in their early stages and, I will be the first to admit, shall we say of a somewhat experimental nature but not without their successes.” He paused to let the fact of his modesty sink in. The ladies obviously found it charming. “Today I’m going to discuss, not about the why, but the how. The methodology, if you like, the methodology of suicide. As an act, suicide is redolent with symbolism, obviously as it is the grand, ultimate gesture of narcissism. Consider, for instance a particularly masculine form of self-dispatch, shooting oneself. Brutal, but instantaneous. Quite unladylike. This form of deliverance is much favoured by military and civilian police personnel, who eat their service issue revolvers; those who live by the gun must die by the gun, one way or another. Hanging is a different matter altogether, the favoured form of execution of criminals for centuries it clearly reveals a strong strain of self-loathing, the only thing to be said in it’s defence is that it is quick and apparently painless, but who would want to be found dead like that, with your tongue lolling out idiotically. A blatant and very unsubtle approach may be found in the people who choose to kill themselves by jumping in front of tube trains on the Circle and District line, a gesture that screams the fact that London kills.

“Suicides of artists and writers are of particular interest in this matter, as artists are egotistical in an extreme degree and are also highly aware of the symbolic importance of all thoughts and actions, and suicide is a rare instance of the unity of decision and deed. By definition not one suicide is an accident, but neither are there spontaneous or surprising suicides, all are pre-meditated and signified.

“My first example would be Sylvia Plath. Imagine the scene, unwashed dishes in the sink, the unattended children crawling around in soiled nappies, her head in the oven. Of course, her husband is out seducing any lady willing. Given this, the content of her death is glaringly manifest. Her appalling husband, a representative of the patriarchal society that reduces women to little more than indentured servants, subjected her to the indignities of childrearing and keeping house, killing her with neglect and his desire to impose his overwhelmingly masculine personality upon her. Let us not forget her dear Nazi Daddy either, with his jackboots and concentration camps and gas ovens… If I may inject a word of warnings here ladies, it would be this; try not to marry your fathers. The oven is hugely significant, just as a soldier in dishonor turns his own gun on himself; it was only fitting, no, more than fitting…it was the only possible means for her end, the symbolic importance of which could escape no interested party, ensuring in the elimination of her own life that a legend would be born.

“For my next example the symbolism is rather more convoluted, indeed torturous, rather like his writings. I’m referring to the highly public death of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. His death by ritual seppuku, physically appalling as it involves self-disembowelment and then de-capitation was supposedly motivated as a protest at the westernisation of Japan, but you cannot seriously buy that for a moment. His suicide has an intentional iconographic quality, not surprising as he was much given to Saint Sebastian. In this final scripted and staged moment of his life, a death that he had foretold and rehearsed many times beforehand, Mishima managed to satisfy his many contrary impulses and desires. His love of death, his aesthetic masochism, his mania for self-promotion and his militaristic fantasies were fused together and gratified in the act of seppuku, where he also hoped to gain a kind of immortality by notoriety, as he was probably cognisant of the fact that then current source of his fame, his novels and plays, would not stand the test of time.

“However, one must be on one’s guard against over-generalisation. Every suicide is a uniquely personal drama; no amount of statistics or analysis could reach the root cause. Why exactly did Van Gogh choose to blow his brains out? Weapons had played no part in his life thus far, apart from the ear-slicing knife. I like to think that he was releasing the demons that had tormented him for so long from within the confines of his skull. Or perhaps…”

The Interview_Auditorium

So engrossed was she with the bizarre lecture and by the low, sonorous voice of the macabre doctor she failed to notice that Nurse Woods was sitting next to her until her knee touched her leg. She turned around, considerably startled.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you; I can see that you find the lecture fascinating.” Nurse Woods voiced buzzed in her ear.

“No need to apologise, I just didn’t hear you join me is all.” Anna answered nervously.

“You are quite jumpy, do not worry, the Doctor is nearing the climax of his lesson. Listen,” she nodded towards the stage and her fleshy hand gripped Anna’s arm lying on the armrest.

“Well, my words are all very fine and good, but as they always say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, let me give you illustrated examples.”

The pressure of the nurse’s hand against her hand was opening up new areas of anxiety and unease. The audience of the sophisticated ladies and what she had earlier taken to be their daughter‟s but now she wasn‟t sure seemed to be alternatively concentrating on the stage where a slide projector had been brought out and herself.

The doctor stepped aside near to the wings.

Images were projected on the screen. At first, she couldn’t make them out; they seemed to be highly conceptualised pictures of imaginary events. Only after the third still did she recognise herself.

Herself.

Her mutilated body the star of an atrocity exhibition to sate the jaded tastes of these sinister strangers who clapped appreciatively after every new still of her death at her own hand.

How many times could one person die?

In a bathtub full of blood; hanging from a tree, black tongue between blue lips; face down on a table, gun in limp hand, her blood and brains a tachist explosion on the dulled yellowed walls; in a disturbed bed flecks of foam on her mouth; in the compacted driver’s seat of a car involved in a head-on collision; in a nightclub toilet empty syringe on the floor, an exclamation point to a life!

She couldn’t avert her eyes even though she felt sick to death. She moved to throw up, but she was restrained from all sides. Nurse Woods and the death’s head lady gripped her wrists tighter, hurting her. They didn’t say anything, not that they had to by this stage. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and hoped that they, her persecutors, would disappear.

But, of course they didn’t.

Instead Nurse Woods was tightening her grip. “The Doctor is coming to see you now, Miss Ferguson, it’s not the time to fall asleep. First impressions are very important, wouldn’t you say?”

“I wasn’t going to sleep. I would appreciate it if you let go of me, please.”

“I think we had better leave that decision to the Doctor, don’t you, Miss Ferguson?”

Doctor Dee approached, descending the steps of the stage, right towards her. He towered over her, his penetrating eyes restlessly looking her over. She would have liked to kick him or do something to break the awful spell, but felt completely powerless beneath his stare.

“Anna, it is a pleasure to meet you, though the circumstances are hardly conducive,” he sighed. “So, few things are as we wish them to be. One can only hope that the next world is an improvement on this one. Though I, for one, hold little hope of that. Oh well, we just have to make do, really, don’t you agree?” he paused for her agreement, but none was forthcoming. “You have been under a strain, lately, I know, I know. Life can be hard, unfortunately, most unfortunate really. You are not the only one. However, the thing is… well we had better discuss that later. At the moment you are tired and wet, and I don’t doubt, just a little confused. Now is not the time to formally start the interview process, I realise, though of course everything is being taken into consideration, maybe after you have changed and rested for a while we can begin, but for now I think you need a little something to make you relax.”

Out of his pocket he pulled out a hypodermic needle, he tossed the cap onto the floor and tapped the needle a few times. Her restrainers held her down as she began to struggle. She kicked and thrashed her body trying to escape or at least avoid the oncoming needle, but no use. The needle sank into her vein and she desisted as she lost control of her muscles.

“Now now Anna, what was the good of resisting, you are a clever girl you should have realised it would get you nowhere. And of course, the authorities will have to be informed. I will try to put in a good word, but still…” he trailed off.

She was trying not to think, to escape to a point outside the confines of her body, to a distance away from the imprisoning dimensions of space and time. Who knew what fresh horror lay in store next. What additional twists and turns could this nightmare take?

“Well it is obvious to me that you can’t prepare for the interview in the present surroundings. Nurse Woods, if you would kindly show Miss Ferguson to her quarters and arrange for her a change of clothes, as you’ll catch your death in those damp ones, and I will look in on you soon. Then we can initiate the procedure. I look forward to seeing you soon, Miss Ferguson.”

Nurse Woods dragged her out of her chair. Her legs were gone, she knew that they were there, but she couldn’t feel them, and they were of no use to her. Her eyelids kept on drooping closed and her head felt imponderably heavy on her neck, every time she nodded off into half-unconscious she roused herself with an effort, she knew that she mustn’t fall asleep, no no she mustn’t, not here, in this place with that doctor and his nurse and those women licking their lips in anticipation of…what, fresh meat? No, she mustn’t, but the law of gravity was proving to be almost irresistible.

She was taken to a room bereft of furniture apart from an old rusted folding chair, like one she used to sit in and look out of the window at school and a coarse fibred blanket. They were no windows and the walls were painted a dingy cream color. The sole source of light was an unshaded bare light bulb. Nurse Woods let her fall onto the chair, picked her up as she sprawled onto the floor and proceeded to undress her with a sadistic methodicalness, she dimly suspected in drugged state that here was a woman who enjoyed her work. Was it really necessary to remove her bra and underwear so that she was totally naked? She tried to voice her concerns but only a feeble croak escaped her lips.

“I will be back with some clothes. Miss Ferguson, I suggest that you proceed to make yourself comfortable. I will return shortly, however a good attitude is vital within the interview context. Good luck, Miss Ferguson.”

How long ago did the nurse leave? She had no way of knowing, no clocks were on the walls, no light penetrated the room. However, her lucidity had returned, and she was aware of that she was shivering, and naked. She was reluctant to cover herself with the blanket, who knew where it had been? The cold of the chair was uncomfortable against her bottom but the floor was hardly inviting. She knew that the door was a dead-end it would be locked, and it would go against her later, she tried not to look at it too much, because she knew that they were watching, somewhere they were watching her. She scanned the room for peepholes or camera lens, apertures or mirrors. She hadn’t managed to find any yet, but she knew that they were there.

She just wanted her clothes back, but who knew when the nurse would return? When she did she would ask to leave, as she felt that she was, given the circumstances, unsuitable for the position offered