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 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.

Blind Date

Dorothea Tanning-Children's Games 1942
Dorothea Tanning-Children’s Games 1942

The multi-talented Dorothea Tanning is primarily known for her paintings and sculpture, however she was also an excellent poet and writer. Below is a piece first published in 1943 in the American Surrealist magazine VVV.

Blind Date

It must have been a very bleak winter that year.  I have no recollection of the weather, only the marvellous and relentless order in which everything occurred.  It was the time that the sewing machine broke loose; nothing could have been more inopportune or diabolically calculated-the leaves had been carefully gathered and stored and now they were to be sewn together. They were particularly good leaves, I remember, sere and thin, each with the track of the snail on its under side, exactly the kind of leaf for a birthday. And now the sewing machine had gone, fled without a word of warning. Chagrined, unnerved, and with an inexplicable feeling of portent, it was I who set out in hopeless search. The month was November but the day had no date.

You, casket of the terrible jewel, cove of the silent finless fish, empty socket of the absent eye, today you shall encounter your mirrored image unaware. But you must know that at the moment of occurrence you shall be absorbed utterly, utterly and finally. Speak not of will. Your will is a frail delusion. Once confronted by the image you are like a beam which is projected and withdrawn by the flame. If it is the true, the inconceivable image, then the veil is irreparably rent, and you have achieved the incomparable.

Rain, a gray steady soaking rain. And this demoniacal wind! It heaves and subsides, raves, moans and vomits and then, remembering something, screams. We meet in the street, in a block of elegantly respectable residences, houses inspired by Beckford and those inconsequential romantics who built “ruins” of brownstone and golden oak. And in this flange of dreary facades is one drearier than the rest, because it is the most idiotic in design and because it is abandoned. The rain beats at our raincoats, trickles down between our breasts and up between our toes, and we run up the curving flight of abandoned steps. Here is not simply a momentary shelter, for the door swings open and we are upon the threshold.

Approach, my child, my diabolical daughter of the veiled eye. Reach into that cunning reticule of yours, give me the onerous instrument. You open your eyes so wide, your eyes with the veil lying on them? Do you pretend you have not disposed of the beautiful beloved, the beautiful ones and the dull? Draw nearer, my child of the fateful mouth . . . .

We push our way through a tangled paludine growth which is rooted in the sweating ceiling of the foyer. The rooms are bare, the doors ajar. The silence breathes on our faces, draws blood from our ears and I am aware of a numbing melancholy, that wide featureless melancholy that includes everything and explains nothing. Hand in hand, then, (because that is how such things are done) we traverse the silent empty rooms and, nearing the end, we encounter a sleeping gray-faced man in a panama hat. He is a little like Sasha Guitry, the same bloated look, the same gash for a mouth, the same watch-chain, only instead of the soft belly he has embedded just under his diaphragm, an aquarium.   It is filled with a thick slime, pale yellow, in which writhes our runaway sewing machine. Quickly, I thrust my hand into the warm ooze and withdraw the gasping object.

“Listen to me; have I not already told you what to do here?” says the gray-faced man, waking up “How extraordinary!”

Without further hesitance I reach into my robe for the beautiful shining implement and, with one hand, perform my inevitable task. A final glance at the tangled heap of vine-twisted human wreckage and I perceive that I am now completely and finally alone. That is as it should be. Too late now for the leaves; they have shrivelled and ignited. There will be no sewing now, for the landscape is laid waste, burnt to a cinder, cratered and truncated as far as they eye can see.

Woman, when you lie with the cat who grins obscenely, the red-eyed dog with the hairless human arms, when you gaze with your veiled eyes at the many-armed calamary and helplessly desire him, when you swoon at the thought of the exquisite wound carved in the light of a phosphorous moon, do you then imagine you are sleeping? Is it possible each night to embark on that motionless viscious lake, to roam the interstices of that melancholy, monster-ridden park and still refuse to accept the name that guides your steps? Beware the sickly nobility of conscious will! Beware, my hard-eyed hard-eyed daughter, of the definitive hypodermic!

Arriving at the last room, I feel no pain.  The white tossing foam of my sensations covers and intoxicates me like some inexhaustible nepenthe. (How innocent is black as compared to that arch-color, white!) I see, calmly now, that the trap is set. The paralytic moment has come and I am to lose my castle or my king. But, as always in this precious instance, there is no choice. I am one vast fiery wound, closed and healed with a hardness impossible to the untouched. There is only a marvellous kind of synaesthesic awareness that the wallpaper is singing to me. And this is the song of the wallpaper.

Stitch the leaves then, stitch them carefully and with regard for the isolated time-beat.  Tremble a little upon the threshold. One feigned tremor flung magnanimously to that enormous sloth which is legion.  Today you have been born, out of abysmal sorrow and knowledge, out of warnings, wounds, pestilence, obscene, spasms, defilements; out of hates, and holocausts, guts and gothic grandeurs, frenzy, crimes, visions, scorpions, secretions, love and the devil.  Today you shall be married to your future.

Dorothea Tanning 1943

Illustrated Proof

This is the third short story of mine that my good friend Susanne from Blackpenart has illustrated in her expressionistic Noir Gothic style and the result is, I think you have to agree, simply excellent. You can view the previous two stories The Illustrated Unmade Again & An Illustrated Promise of Paradise by clicking on the links.

If you have enjoyed this story then make sure to take a look at my new collection of 69 inter-related poems and short fictions, Motion No.69, by Alex Severs and fulsomely illustrated by Thea Kiros.

Proof

Proof-bridge

All weekend long I had failed to act upon the ultimatum handed down by Sarah on the Friday night I left her to return home to my wife. Breakfast on Monday morning was my last opportunity. But I realized —as I sat down to cereals, toast and tea— that putting an end to a twenty-three-year marriage at 7:50 am on the drabbest of all days, seemed wildly inappropriate. I couldn’t cope with the inevitable ugly scene of harsh words, bitter tears, righteous indignation and promises of reprisals before leaving for the city and work. The trouble was I could now expect a row with Sarah. Hopefully, she would have the discretion to wait until after office hours, though I wasn’t optimistic. Her tact had been embarrassingly absent lately.

I kissed Catherine goodbye as I had everyday throughout the many years of our marriage, wished her a good day at work, for which she would soon be leaving, and drove away without a backward glance at her figure retreating into our house. Soon, the traffic slowed to its customary crawl, then to an absolute standstill. For once, I was relieved by the delay. Perhaps I could ponder a way out of my present predicament. Nevertheless, I needed more time than a temporary traffic jam afforded to come up with a solution; eternal gridlock might be required. The real problem was that I had no clue as to what I really wanted.

On one hand, I couldn’t quite shake the conviction that Sarah was just a means of establishing that I existed independently of Catherine; that I, in fact, actually existed at all. And yet, sometimes I felt that Catherine was the mistress of my destiny, controlling even the minutest of details, down to my last breath. My own thoughts and actions seemed so nugatory that I sometimes I wondered whether I was just a figment of her imagination. I can barely remember my life before Catherine. I don’t think I had a childhood, so dim is my recollection of that period. I must have, but it had to have been free of both trauma and definition.

My first memory dates from age thirteen and a moment of existential realization. I had been dozing in the bath, when I came out of my semi-slumber with a start and caught my reflection in the mirror that bordered the tub. I didn’t recognize myself. A series of questions raced through my mind in rapid succession. Who is that in the mirror staring back at me? Is it me? If it is, who am I and what am I doing here? These remained unanswered and left me wondering whether I possessed any claims to objective reality whatsoever.

Proof-Mirror

At first, it was only my existence that I doubted. But in time, it seemed to me that the world’s claim to authenticity was increasingly based on dubious suppositions.

My early adulthood consisted of a series of restless moves from city to city —a vain attempt at finding a place where I belonged. Of course, the difficulty did not lie with the locales; it lay within me because no matter where I was, I never wanted to be there. There was always a hell of a place next door, so I’d go there instead. I expected cities to possess a massive actuality —all that tangible brick and steel, glass and concrete— but they were only hastily-constructed, poorly-planned stage sets. And on these stages, I became the tenacious, wavering, insubstantial consort of wan, wannabe chorus girls,

anemic corps dancers, and anorexic bit actresses. I required something or somebody to lend me a presence, to give me density, to solidify my essence, to provide an anchor to stop me from floating away into the stratosphere and dissipating altogether. That’s when I met and married Catherine.

Lost in memories, I didn’t notice that the traffic had moved forward a full three feet until the angry blare of car-horns shook me from my reverie. I inched forward before coming to a complete stop again.

Catherine was unlike all the girls I had dated previously, fleshly and fulsome, where the others had been stick-thin androgynies. Her blonde hair, blue eyes and heavyset bone structure more than hinted that her remote ancestors had originated in the frozen North. I had found her, and still find her madly irresistible. Catherine will always be the perfect woman for me; she is as attractive in her forties as many girls in their twenties, including Sarah. As soon as we had set up home together she set about taking me in hand.

Naturally self-assured, she had confidence to spare and by proxy, I became a man of the world. Not that I didn’t have setbacks and mood swings, but whenever I was paralyzed by a sense of unreality, Catherine would provide rock steady support and nurse me back to life. Not to mention that there was always comforting to be found between her heavy bosoms.

Catherine has a telepathic awareness of everything I experience. She knows when the pressures at the office are becoming too much for me to bear and she gently chides me whenever I develop a minor crush on one of the office girls. At least she did until recently.

Above and beyond all that, however, she was the mother of my twin daughters, who provided at last some sense of purpose to my existence. I was a husband and a father to two lovely girls. I had responsibilities and duties. To my credit, I have discharged my duties admirably with care, attention, due diligence and most importantly, a genuine love. But there comes a time when, although your children are always your children in your heart, that they must grow up and enter the world and become their own people.

The knot of traffic had unravelled itself and soon after, I entered the company’s car park. I was looking forward to this Monday even less than usual.

Late as I was, Sarah’s office was empty when I passed it on the way to my own. It was unlike her to be late. I was in equal measures relieved and disappointed. On one hand, I had temporarily avoided the inevitable questions concerning the current state of my marriage and the repercussions that held to my relationship with Sarah. But on the other, I almost anticipated her reproach for my inaction. All weekend, I had imagined Sarah anxiously counting down the hours until Monday morning, when her loneliness and grief would be assuaged at the sight of me.

Proof-Lady

Last year, her affectionate but wayward father died —her sole remaining relative since her mother had committed suicide when she was five. Her childhood had been singularly unsettled. By the age of fifteen, she had extended stays in every major Anglophone country on four continents. She and her father had doted on one other and his death had left a void in Sarah’s life which I was particularly suited to fill. Her father was my contemporary and judging from the photo she kept on her bedside table, I noted a vague resemblance —we both had the dark hair, pale skin and green-grey eyes of the Celts. Moreover, I felt an affinity to the person Sarah described endlessly after our lovemaking; a potent combination of wanderlust, melancholy, wasted intelligence, unworldly innocence and a knowing complicity in his own failure.

Sometimes I doubted that I could ever displace the memory of her father. I began to resent hearing every last detail of her childhood, in which her father —as a single parent— played a larger than usual role, during the hurriedly snatched hours we spent together. I eventually concluded that Sarah had accepted me not because I was similar to her father, but because I was his complete opposite; stable, staid and boringly predictable. Certainly, my mid-life crisis, and my attempts to inject some validity into my existence though the agency of a chit of a girl in need of a father figure were conventionally clichéd.

When Sarah still hadn’t shown up by 11:00, I finally cracked and phoned first her home and then her mobile. No answer and the calls didn’t go to voice mail either. Where was she?

As I sat pondering this question and what I would do if Sarah came marching up to my office now, demanding to know why I had not told Catherine about our affair, the telephone rang. Thinking it was Sarah, I answered. It was Catherine, calling me on her break, a working day ritual.

While we were talking, I was struck by the fact that Catherine, who usually possessed an uncanny ability to gauge my psychological depths, had noticed nothing unusual since I had first become involved with Sarah —my first real infidelity of our marriage. Or if she was aware, then she wasn’t letting on. In either case, it seemed out of character. I was an open book to Catherine and this wasn’t something to which she would turn a blind eye. Maybe she was unconsciously aware but was in deep denial, or maybe she thought it impossible that a twenty-two-year-old girl would fall for a middle-aged nobody like me. However, both scenarios seemed highly unlikely. Catherine was far too shrewd to overlook the evidence before her and she had always questioned the real motivation behind my constant self-deprecation.

The conversation proceeded as usual with the obligatory I-love-you’s signing off. Nothing was amiss in Catherine’s attitude and, yet I felt that something was being left unsaid on her side as well as mine. I knew that this creeping paranoia was a manifestation of my guilt, but knowing the cause doesn’t necessarily rid you of the effects.

The rest of the day was a limping agony, every moment dragging uselessly and painfully. My indecision was total. Whereas I had previously dreaded an encounter with Sarah, when it was deferred though her absence, I positively longed for her presence violently and absolutely. How would it be possible for me to live the remainder of my life without her? Could I deny my feelings concerning Sarah if questioned directly by Catherine? Could I carry on living the lie with Catherine, pretending that there hadn’t been some form of sea change in our marriage?

Yet how could I abandon my wife of twenty-three years, the only person whose company wasn’t occasioned by barely-suppressed feelings of loathing and nausea? Catherine was the only person who’d been able to fill in the blank spaces. So, what was I doing with Sarah when I had already been completed by another?

The telephone was glued to my ear as I repeatedly tried Sarah. Ringing out no answer. Ringing out no answer. Whenever someone passed the office I would mouth some form of inanity to pretend that I was busy bantering to a client and consequently raking in the cash for the firm. Where was she, why wasn’t she at work? It wasn’t like her to miss a day. In fact, Sarah never missed a day because I never missed a day. Sarah had nobody but me.

By three o’clock, the suspense was unbearable. I couldn’t wait any longer, I simply had to know where she was. Thinking perhaps her desk would yield a clue, I hurried to her still darkened office. I let myself in and closed the door behind me. Dread settled on me like a shroud. Not only was the office unoccupied, but it also appeared unused. Had Sarah left the company and not told me?

I had to leave the office. As I rushed back to my own desk, I passed one of my co-workers. “Have you seen Sarah?” I asked, trying not to sound panicked.

“Sarah? Sarah who?” he replied absently.

I didn’t answer. I returned to my desk to grab keys and coat and let my boss know that I was ill. As I sped towards Sarah’s flat on the other side of the river, I imagined the worst of the worst-case scenarios. I had visions of bathtubs filled with bloody water, clotted syringes, discharged guns, empty pill bottles, fishnet nooses… that body that I had touched and kissed, caressed and stroked, worshipped and revered mimicking a thousand different postures of death.

Parking was always a problem in Sarah’s neighbourhood, but I found a place with ease, probably because of the early hour. Sarah didn’t own a car —instead she relied on public transport and myself to get around— so I was still none the wiser to her whereabouts. I buzzed the front door several times but without result. Now, I was beginning to get really anxious. I had a spare set of keys, something Sarah had insisted upon about a month ago, even though up until now I had no occasion to use them as we had always gone back to her flat together. I opened the front door and ran up the seven flights of stairs to her flat on the third floor and entered without bothering to knock.

Proof-Room

If I had found Sarah in bed with someone else, or I had discovered her dead body, I would have been less surprised than by what I beheld: nothing. The flat was empty, completely empty, save for the furniture doubtlessly belonging to the landlord. Nobody had left in a hurry either —the flat was clean except for an accumulation of dust. It was obvious that the place hadn’t been occupied for months and, yet I had been here just three days ago. It was devoid of any personal effects or stray items of clothing. Where was everything? Where were the clothes, shoes, lingerie, accessories, TV, computer, mobiles, books, pens, pencils, paper, ornaments, figurines, mirrors, pots, pans, plates, knives, forks, spoons, toothbrushes, combs, hairbrushes, toiletries, soaps, fragrances, kitchen towels, toilet paper, bed clothes, pillows, throws, coins, chequebooks, credit cards, purses, handbags, suitcases? Where had they gone? Where had she gone? And if she wasn’t here, and had never lived here, did Sarah actually exist? Had she ever?

If I searched around in the Human Resources department at work for the relevant and necessary documentation concerning Sarah Graves, would I find anything? If I contacted the various governmental agencies, would I be able to obtain a copy of a valid Birth Certificate or Driving License or National Insurance Card or Death Certificate to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Sarah had once resided in the unoccupied flat where I was vainly searching for clues? That she had been born twenty-two years ago? That she possessed a definite, legal, irrefutable claim to reality? Even if I did stumble upon such proof, would it be enough to make me disbelieve the evidence of my own eyes? And was the evidence of my eyes enough to discredit my vividly tangible memories of Sarah?

I dug the nails of my right hand into the palm of my left to convince myself that I could at least feel pain. I could, but that did nothing to set realities aright. It merely demonstrated that this hallucination, dream, vision, delusion or whatever it was, possessed an internal, logical consistency. Yet surely that was quite consistent with the nature of delusions, visions, dreams and hallucinations. Certainly, if you are in the grip of madness, then by definition the hold of that madness upon you is gripping.

All this circular thinking didn’t change the central fact, however. Sarah had disappeared so totally that it appeared that there was no such person. Had I imagined her? Was she merely a figment of my overwrought imagination? Was she just a dream dreamt by someone in turn dreamt by another?

I retreated from the empty space, having found no answers, only enigmas.

I expected the streets to have subtly changed, to be transfigured and transformed, as if at last they could reveal their true natures to me. They were just the same old, same old streets however. There had been no rupture or rapture and the oh-so familiar scene contained no revelation for me. The only truth held by the streets with its buildings and in the incurious gazes of its passers-by, was a truth I had known all along —that I would always feel like a stranger here regardless of how closely I mimicked the mannerisms of its inhabitants.

Catherine was already home when I pulled up into our drive. I had decided to fake a migraine to deflect suspicion from my early homecoming and the haunted expression I’d be unable to mask. Catherine was very solicitous and mothered me accordingly, taking me to bed and tucking me in. She kissed me on the forehead and regarded me knowingly before drawing the curtains and turning out the lights. Did she know that I knew that she knew? “Sweet dreams,” she said, closing the door behind her, leaving me alone in the dark.

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