A Tragic History

3-lago-dorta-isola-di-san-giulio-1842-edward-lear[1]
Edward Lear 1842
Although ostensibly a children’s nonsense tale, Edward Lear’s The History of the Seven Families of Lake Pipple-popple manages to convey in its fourteen very brief chapters humour, bathos, absurdity, pathos and ultimately the dizzying pull of destiny and the tragic inevitability of fate, all with extravagant wordplay and dazzling inventiveness.

 

The History of the
Seven Families of the
Lake Pipple-popple

CHAPTER I
INTRODUCTORY

In former days — that is to say, once upon a time, there lived in the Land of Gramblamble, Seven Families. They lived by the side of the great Lake Pipple-popple (one of the Seven Families, indeed, lived in the Lake), and on the outskirts of the City of Tosh, which, excepting when it was quite dark, they could see plainly. The names of all these places you have probably heard of, and you have only not to look in your Geography books to find out all about them.

Now the Seven Families who lived on the borders of the great Lake Pipple-popple, were as follows in the next Chapter.

CHAPTER II
THE SEVEN FAMILIES

There was a Family of Two old Parrots and Seven young Parrots.

Picture 1There was a Family of Two old Storks and Seven young Storks.

Picture 2There was a Family of Two old Geese, and Seven young Geese.

Picture 3There was a Family of Two old Owls, and Seven young Owls.

Picture 4There was a Family of Two Old Guinea Pigs and Seven young Guinea Pigs.

Picture 5There was a Family of Two old Cats and Seven young Cats,

Picture 6And there was a Family of Two old Fishes and Seven young Fishes.

Picture 7

CHAPTER III
THE HABITS OF THE SEVEN FAMILIES

The Parrots lived upon the Soffsky-Poffsky trees, — which were beautiful to behold, and covered with blue leaves, — and they fed uponfruit, artichokes, and striped beetles.

The Storks walked in and out of the Lake Pipple-popple, and ate frogs for breakfast and buttered toast for tea, but on account of the extreme length of their legs, they could not sit down, and so they walked about continually.

The Geese, having webs to their feet, caught quantities of flies, which they ate for dinner.

The Owls anxiously looked after mice, which they caught and made into sago puddings.

The Guinea Pigs toddled about the gardens, and ate lettuces and Cheshire cheese.

The Cats sate still in the sunshine, and fed upon sponge biscuits.

The Fishes lived in the Lake, and fed chiefly on boiled periwinkles.

And all these Seven Families lived together in the utmost fun and felicity.

CHAPTER IV
THE CHILDREN OF THE SEVEN FAMILIES ARE SENT AWAY

One day all the Seven Fathers and the Seven Mothers of the Seven Families agreed that they would send their children out to see the world.

So they called them all together, and gave them each eight shillings and some good advice, some chocolate drops, and a small green morocco pocket-book to set down their expenses in.

They then particularly entreated them not to quarrel, and all the parents sent off their children with a parting injunction.

‘If,’ said the old Parrots, ‘you find a Cherry, do not fight about who should have it.’

‘And,’ said the old Storks, ‘if you find a Frog, divide it carefully into seven bits, but on no account quarrel about it.’

And the old Geese said to the Seven young Geese, ‘Whatever you do, be sure you do not touch a Plum-pudding Flea.’

And the old Owls said, ‘If you find a Mouse, tear him up into seven slices, and eat him cheerfully, but without quarrelling.’

And the old Guinea Pigs said, ‘Have a care that you eat your Lettuces, should you find any, not greedily but calmly.’

And the old Cats said, ‘Be particularly careful not to meddle with a Clangle-Wangle, if you should see one.’

And the old Fishes said, ‘Above all things avoid eating a blue Boss-woss, for they do not agree with Fishes, and give them pain in their toes.’

So all the Children of each Family thanked their parents, and making in all forty-nine polite bows, they went into the wide world.

CHAPTER V
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG PARROTS

The Seven young Parrots had not gone far, when they saw a tree with a single Cherry on it, which the oldest Parrot picked instantly, but the other six, being extremely hungry, tried to get it also. On which all the Seven began to fight, and they scuffled,

and huffled,
and ruffled
and shuffled,
and puffled,
and muffled
and buffled,
and duffled,
and fluffled,
and guffled,                                                                                                                                                   and bruffled,

and screamed, and shrieked, and squealed, and squeaked, and clawed, and snapped, and bit, and bumped, and thumped, and dumped, and flumped each other, till they were all torn into little bits, and at last there was nothing left to record this painful incident, except the Cherry and seven small green feathers.

And that was the vicious and voluble end of the Seven young Parrots.

CHAPTER VI
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG STORKS

When the Seven young Storks set out, they walked or flew fo fourteen weeks in a straight line, and for six weeks more in a crooked one; and after that they ran as hard as they could for one hundred and eight miles: and after that they stood still and made a himmeltanious chatter-clatter-blattery noise with their bills.

About the same time they perceived a large Frog, spotted with green, and with a sky-blue stripe under each ear.

So being hungry, they immediately flew at him, and were going to divide him into seven pieces, when they began to quarrel as to which of his legs should be taken off first. one said this, and another said that, and while they were all quarrelling the Frog hopped away. And when they saw that he was gone, they began to chatter-clatter:

and huffled,
blatter-platter,
patter-blatter,
matter-clatter,
flatter-quatter,

more violently than ever. And after they had fought for a week they pecked each each other all to little pieces, so that at last nothing was left of any of them except their bills,

And that was the end of the Seven young Storks.

CHAPTER VII
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG GEESE

When the Seven young Geese began to travel, they went over a large plain, on which there was but one tree, and that was a very bad one.

So four of them went up to the top of it, and looked about them, while the other three waddled up and down, and repeated poetry, and their last six lessons in Arithmetic, Geography, and Cookery.

Presently they perceived, a long way off, an object of the most interesting and obese appearance, having a perfectly round body, exactly resembling a boiled plum-pudding, with two little wings, and a beak, and three feathers growing out of his head, and only one leg.

So after a time all the Seven young Geese said to each other, ‘Beyond all doubt this beast must be a Plum-pudding Flea!’

On which they uncautiously began to sing aloud,

‘Plum-pudding Flea,
‘Plum-pudding Flea,
‘Wherever you be,
‘O come to our tree,
‘And listen, O listen, O listen to me!’

And no sooner had they sung this verse then the Plum-pudding Flea began to hop and skip on his one leg with the most dreadful velocity, and came straight to the tree, where he stopped and looked about him in a vacant and voluminous manner.

On which the Seven young Geese were greatly alrmed, and all of a tremble-bemble: so one of them put out his great neck, and just touched him with the tip of his bill, — but no sooner had he done this than the Plum-pudding Flea skipped and hopped about more and more and higher and higher, after which he opened his mouth, and, to the great surprise and indignation of the Seven Geese, began to bark so loudly and furiously and terribly that they were totally unable to bear the noise, and by degrees every one of them suddenly tumbled down quite dead.

So that was the end of the Seven young Geese.

CHAPTER VIII
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG OWLS

When the Seven young Owls set out, they sate every now and then on the branches of old trees, and never went far at one time.

And one night when it was quite dark, they thought they heard a Mouse, but as the gas lights were not lighted, they could not see him.

So they called out, ‘Is that a Mouse?’

On which a Mouse answered, ‘Squeaky-peeky-weeky, yes it is.’

And immediately all the young Owls threw themselves off the tree, meaning to alight on the ground; but they did not perceive that there was a large well below them, into which they all fell superficially, and were every one of them drowned in less than half a minute.

So that was the end of the Seven young Owls.

CHAPTER IX
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG GUINEA PIGS

The Seven young Guinea Pigs went into a garden full of Gooseberry-bushes and Tiggory-trees, under one of which they fell asleep. When they awoke, they saw a large Lettuce which had grown out of the ground while they had been sleeping, and which had an immense number of green leaves. At which they all exclaimed:

‘Lettuce! O Lettuce!
‘Let us, O let us,
‘O Lettuce leaves,
‘O let us leave this tree and eat
‘Lettuce, O let us, Lettuce leaves!’

And instantly the Seven young Guinea Pigs rushed with such extreme force against the Lettuce-plant, and hit their heads so vividly against its stalk, that the concussion brought on directly an incipient transitional inflammation of their noses, which grew worse and worse and worse and worse till it incidentally killed them all Seven.

And that was the end of the Seven young Guinea Pigs.

CHAPTER X
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG CATS

The Seven young Cats set off on their travels with great delight and rapacity. But, on coming to the top of a high hill, they perceived at a long distance off a Clangle-Wangle (or, as it is more properly written, Clangel-Wangel), and in spite of the warning they had had, they ran straight up to it.

(Now the Clangle-Wangle is a most dangerous and delusive beast, and by no means commonly to be met with. They live in the water as well as on land, using their long tail as a sail when in the former element. Their speed is extreme, but their habits of life are domestic and superfluous, and their general demeanour pensive and pellucid. On summer evenings they may sometimes be observed near the Lake Pipple-popple, standing on their heads and humming their national melodies: they subsist entirely on vegetables, excepting when they eat veal, or mutton, or pork, or beef, or fish, or saltpetre.)

The moment the Clangle-Wangle saw the Seven young Cats approach, he ran away; and as he ran straight on for four months, and the Cats, though they continued to run, could never overtake him, — they all gradually died of fatigue and of exhaustion, and never afterwards recovered.

And this was the end of the Seven young Cats.

CHAPTER XI
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG FISHES

The Seven young Fishes swam across the Lake Pipple-popple, and into the river, and into the Ocean, where most unhappily for them, they saw on the 15th day of their travels, a bright blue Boss-Woss, and instantly swam after him. But the Blue Boss-Woss plunged into a perpendicular,

spicular,
orbicular,
quadrangular,
circular depth of soft mud,

where in fact his house was.

And the Seven young Fishes, swimming with great uncomfortable velocity, plunged also into the mud quite against their will, and not being accustomed to it, were all suffocated in a very short period.

And that was the end of the Seven young Fishes.

CHAPTER XII
OF WHAT OCCURRED SUBSEQUENTLY

After it was known that the

Seven young Parrots,
and the Seven young Storks,
and the Seven young Geese,
and the Seven young Owls,
and the Seven young Guinea Pigs,
and the Seven young Cats,
and the Seven young Fishes,

were all dead, then the Frog, and the Plum-pudding Flea, and the Mouse, and the Clangel Wangel, and the Blue Boss Woss, all met together to rejoice over their good fortune.

And they collected the Seven Feathers of the Seven young Parrots, and the Seven Bills of the Seven young Storks, and the Lettuce, and the other objects in a circular arrangement at their base, they danced a hornpipe round all these memorials until they were quite tired: after which they gave a tea-party, and a garden-party, and a ball, and a concert, and then returned to their respective homes full of joy and respect, sympathy, satisfaction, and disgust.

CHAPTER XIII
OF WHAT BECAME OF THE PARENTS OF THE FORTY-NINE CHILDREN

But when the two old Parrots,
and the two old Storks,
and the two old Geese,
and the two old Owls,
and the two old Guinea Pigs,
and the two old Cats,
and the two old Fishes,
became aware by reading in the newspapers, of the calamitous extinction of the whole of their families, they refused all further sustenance; and sending out to various shops, they purchased great quantities of Cayenne Pepper, and Brandy, and Vinegar, and blue Sealing-wax, besides Seven immense glass Bottles with air-tight stoppers. And having dome this, they ate a light supper of brown bread and Jerusalem Artichokes, and took an affecting and formal leave of the whole of their acquaintance, which was very numerous and distinguished, and select, and responsible, and ridiculous.

CHAPTER XIV
CONCLUSION

And after this, they filled the bottles with the ingredients for pickling, and each couple jumped into a separate bottle, by which effort of course they all died immediately, and become thoroughly pickled in a feew minutes; having previously made their wills (by the assistance of the most eminent Lawyers of the District), in which they left strict orders that the Stoppers of the Seven Bottles should be carefully sealed up with the blue Sealing-wax they had purchased; and that they themselves in the Bottles should be presented to the principal museum of the city of Tosh, to be labelled with Parchment or any other anticongenial succedaneum, and to be placed on a marble table with silver-gilt legs, for the daily inspection and contemplation, and for the perpetual benefit of the pusillanimous public.

And if ever you happen to go to Gramble-Blamble, and visit that museum in the city of Tosh, look for them on the Ninety-eighth table in the Four handred and twenty-seventh room of the right-hand corridor of the left wing of the Central Quadrangle of that magnificent building; for if you do not, you certainly will not see them.

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Unmade Again

arnimhugoill21Murky, very, very murky, definitely, decidedly 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 though the agency of the other, the rapture of bodies mingling and dissolving in unison until the mutual, desired annihilation of orgasm. Continue reading

The Garden of Time

last-year-at-marienbad-2[1]
Last Year in Marienbad-1961
Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, considered J.G Ballard’s early short story The Garden of Time one of the most beautiful stories in the world canon of fiction.

An evocative, elegiac fantasy of two aristocrats in a remote castle with the barbarians looming menacingly on the horizon, The Garden of Time knowingly references the classic of Symbolist literature, Axel by the incomparable Villers de L’Isle-Adam (see my post To the Dreamers, To the Deriders for further information on a tragic life that was truly stranger than fiction).

The header image is from the original art-house head-scratcher Last Year inMarienbad, directed by Alain Resnais with a screenplay by the creator of the nouvelle roman Alain Robbe-Grillet. Ballard frequently cited Last Year in Marienbad as one of his favourite films. With his usual insolence he suggests that it is a science fiction movie, dealing as it does with time, space and identity.

The Garden of Time

 

Towards evening, when the great shadow of the Palladian villa filled the terrace, Count Axel left his library and walked down the wide rococo steps among the time flowers. A tall, imperious figure in a black velvet jacket, a gold tie-pin glinting below his George V beard, cane held stiffly in a white-gloved hand, he surveyed the exquisite crystal flowers without emotion, listening to the sounds of his wife‟s harpsichord, as she played a Mozart rondo in the music room,echo and vibrate through the translucent petals. The garden of the villa extended for some two hundred metres below the terrace, sloping down to a miniature lake spanned by a white bridge, a slender pavilion on the opposite bank. Axel rarely ventured as far as the lake, most of the time flowers grew in a small grove just below the terrace, sheltered by the high wall which encircled the estate. From
the terrace he could see over the wall to the plain beyond, a continuous expanse of open ground that rolled in great swells to the horizon, where it rose slightly before finally dipping from sight. The plain surrounded the house on all sides, its drab emptiness emphasising the seclusion and mellowed magnificence of the villa. Here, in the garden, the air seemed brighter, the sun warmer, while the plain was always dull and remote.
As was his custom before beginning his regular evening stroll, Count Axel looked out across the plain to the final rise, where the horizon was illuminated like a distant stage by the fading sun. As the Mozart chimed delicately around him, flowing from his wife‟s graceful hands, he saw that the advance columns of an enormous army were moving
slowly over the horizon. At first glance, the long ranks seemed to be progressing in orderly lines, but on closer inspection, it was apparent that, like the obscured detail of a Goya landscape, the army was composed of a vast confused throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganised tide. Some laboured under heavy loads suspended from crude yokes around their necks; others struggled with cumbersome wooden carts, their hands wrenching at the wheel spokes; a few trudged on alone; but all moved on at the same pace, bowed backs illuminated in the fleeting sun.
The advancing throng was almost too far away to be visible, but even as Axel watched, his expression aloof yet observant, it came perceptibly nearer, the vanguard of an immense rabble appearing from below the horizon. At last, as the daylight began to fade, the front edge of the throng reached the crest of the first swell below the horizon, and Axel turned from the terrace and walked down among the time flowers.
The flowers grew to a height of about two metres, their slender stems, like rods of glass, bearing a dozen leaves, the once transparent fronds frosted by the fossilised veins. At the peak of each stem was the time flower, the size of a goblet, the opaque outer petals enclosing the crystal heart. Their diamond brilliance contained a thousand facets, the crystal seeming to the drain the air of its light and motion. As the flowers swayed slightly in the evening air, they glowed like flame-tipped spears.
Many of the stems no longer bore flowers, and Axel examined them all carefully, a note of hope now and then crossing his eyes as he searched for any further buds. Finally he selected a large flower on the stem nearest the wall, removed his gloves and with his strong fingers snapped it off.
As he carried the flower back on to the terrace, it began to sparkle and deliquesce, the light trapped within the core at last released. Gradually the crystal dissolved, only the outer petals remaining intact, and the air around Axel became bright and vivid, charged with slanting rays that flared away into the waning sunlight. Strange shifts momentarily transformed the evening, subtly altering its dimensions of time and space. The darkened portico of the house, its patina of age stripped away, loomed with a curious spectral whiteness as if suddenly remembered in a dream.
Raising his head, Axel peered over the wall again. Only the furthest rim of the horizon was lit by the sun, and the great throng, which before had stretched almost a quarter of the way across the plain, had now receded to the horizon, the entire concourse abruptly flung back in a reversal of time, and now appearing to be stationary.
The flower in Axel‟s hand had shrunk to the size of a glass thimble, the petals contracting around the vanishing core. A faint sparkle flickered from the centre and extinguished itself, and Axel felt the flower melt like an ice-cold bead of dew in his hand.
Dusk closed across the house, sweeping its long shadows over the plain, the horizon merging into the sky. The harpsichord was silent, and the time flowers, no longer reflecting its music, stood motionlessly, like an embalmed forest.
For a few minutes Axel looked down at them, counting the flowers which remained, then greeted his wife as she crossed the terrace, her brocade evening dress rustling over the ornamental tiles.
“What a beautiful evening, Axel.” She spoke feelingly, as if she were thanking her husband personally for the great ornate shadow across the lawn and the dark brilliant air. Her face was serene and intelligent, her hair, swept back behind her head into a jewelled clasp, touched with silver. She wore her dress low across her breasts, revealing a long slender neck and high chin. Axel surveyed her with fond pride. He gave her his arm and together they walked down the steps into the garden.
“One of the longest evenings this summer,” Axel confirmed, adding: “I picked the perfect flower, my dear, a jewel. With luck it should last us for several days.” A frown touched his brow, and he glanced involuntarily at the wall.
“Each time now they seem to come nearer.”
His wife smiled at him encouragingly and held his arm more tightly.
Both of them knew that the garden was dying.
Three evenings later, as he had estimated (though sooner than he secretly hoped), Count Axel plucked another flower from the time garden.
When he first looked over the wall the approaching rabble filled the distant half of the plain, stretching across the horizon in an unbroken mass. He thought he could hear the low, fragmentary sounds of voices carried across the empty air, a sullen murmur punctuated by cries and shouts, but quickly told himself that he had imagined them.
Luckily, his wife was at her harpsichord, and the rich contrapuntal patterns of a Bach fugue cascaded lightly across the terrace, masking other noises.
Between the house and the horizon the plain was divided into four huge swells, the crest of each one clearly visible in the slanting light. Axel had promised himself that he would never count them, but the number was too small to remain unobserved, particularly when it so obviously marked the progress of the advancing army. By now the forward line had passed the first crest and was well on its way to the second; the main bulk of the throng pressed behind it, hiding the crest and the even vaster concourse spreading from the horizon. Looking to left and right of the central body, Axel could see the apparently limitless extent of the army. What had seemed at first to be the central mass was no more than a minor advance guard, one of many similar arms reaching across the plain. The true centre had not yet emerged but, from the rate of extension, Axel estimated that when it finally reached the plain it would completely cover
every metre of ground.
Axel searched for any large vehicles or machines, but all was amorphous and uncoordinated as ever. There were no banners or flags, no mascots or pike bearers. Heads bowed, the multitude pressed on, unaware of the sky.
Suddenly, just before Axel turned away, the forward edge of the throng appeared on top of the second crest, and swarmed down across the plain. What astounded Axel was the incredible distance it had covered while out of sight.
The figures were now twice the size, each one clearly within sight.
Quickly, Axel stepped from the terrace, selected a time flower from the garden and tore it from the stem. As it released its compacted light, he returned to the terrace. When the flower had shrunk to a frozen pearl in his palm he looked out at the plain; with relief saw that the army had retreated to the horizon again.
Then he realised that the horizon was much nearer than previously, and that what he assumed to be the horizon was the first crest.
When he joined the Countess on their evening walk he told her nothing of this, but she could see behind his casual unconcern and did what she could to dispel his worry.
Walking down the steps, she pointed to the time garden. “What a wonderful display, Axel. There are so many flowers still.”
Axel nodded, smiling to himself at his wife‟s attempt to reassure him. Her use of still had revealed her own unconscious anticipation of the end. In fact, a mere dozen flowers remained of the many hundreds that had grown in the garden, and several of these were little more than buds – only three or four were fully grown. As they walked down to the lake, the Countess‟s dress rustling across the cool turf, he tried to decide whether to pick the larger flowers first or leave them to the end. Strictly, it would be better to give the smaller flowers additional time to grow and mature, and this advantage would be lost if he retained the larger flowers to the end, as he wished to do, for the final repulse. However, he realised that it mattered little either way; the garden would soon die and the smaller flowers required far longer than he could give them to accumulate their compressed cores of time. During his entire lifetime he had failed to notice a single evidence of growth among the flowers. The larger blooms had always been mature, and none of the buds had shown the slightest development.
Crossing the lake, he and his wife looked down at their reflections in the still, black water. Shielded by the pavilion on one side and the high garden wall on the other, the villa in the distance, Axel felt composed and secure, the plain with its encroaching multitude a nightmare from which he had safely awakened. He put one arm around his wife‟s smooth waist and pressed her affectionately to his shoulder, realising that he had not embraced her for several years, though their lives together had been timeless and he could remember as if yesterday when he first brought her to livein the villa.
“Axel,” his wife asked with sudden seriousness. “Before the garden dies … may I pick the last flower?”
Understanding her request, he nodded slowly.
One by one the succeeding evenings, he picked the remaining flowers, leaving a single small bud which grew just below the terrace for his wife. He took the flowers at random, refusing to count or ration them, plucking two or three of the smaller buds at the same time when necessary. The approaching horde had now reached the second and third
crests, a vast concourse of labouring humanity that blotted out the horizon. From the terrace Axel could see clearly the shuffling, straining ranks moving down into the hollow towards the final crests, and occasionally the sounds of their voices carried across to him, interspersed with cries of anger and the cracking of whips. The wooden carts lurched from side to side on tilting wheels, their drivers struggling to control them. As far as Axel could tell, not a single member of the throng was aware of its overall direction. Rather, each one blindly moved forward across the ground directly below the heels of the person in front of him, and the only unity was that of the cumulative compass. Pointlessly, Axel hoped that the true centre, far below the horizon, might be moving in a different direction, and that gradually the multitude would alter course, swing away from the villa and recede from the plain like a turning tide.
On the last evening but one, as he plucked the time flower, the forward edge of the rabble had reached the third crest, and was swarming past it. While he waited for the Countess, Axel looked down at the two flowers left, both small buds which would carry them back through only a few minutes of the next evening. The glass stems of the dead flowers reared up stiffly into the air, but the whole garden had lost its bloom.
Axel passed the next morning quietly in his library, sealing the rarer of his manuscripts into the glass-topped cases between the galleries. He walked slowly down the portrait corridor, polishing each of the pictures carefully, then tidied his desk and locked the door behind him. During the afternoon he busied himself in the drawing rooms,unobtrusively assisting his wife as she cleaned their ornaments and straightened the vases and busts.
By evening, as the sun fell behind the house, they were both tired and dusty, and neither had spoken to the otherall day. When his wife moved towards the music room, Axel called her back.
“Tonight we‟ll pick the flowers together, my dear,” he said to her evenly. “One for each of us.”
He peered only briefly over the wall. They could hear, less than a kilometre away, the great dull roar of the ragged army, the ring of iron and lash, pressing on towards the house.
Quickly, Axel plucked his flower, a bud no bigger than a sapphire. As it flickered softly, the tumult outside momentarily receded, then began to gather again.
Shutting his ears to the clamour, Axel looked around at the villa, counting the six columns in the portico, then gazed out across the lawn at the silver disc of the lake, its bowl reflecting the last evening light, and at the shadows moving between the tall trees, lengthening across the crisp turf. He lingered over the bridge where he and his wife had stood arm in arm for so many summers –
“Axel!”
The tumult outside roared into the air; a thousand voices bellowed only twenty or thirty metres away. A stone flew over the wall and landed among the time flowers, snapping several of the brittle stems. The Countess ran towards him as a further barrage rattled along the wall. Then a heavy tile whirled through the air over their heads and crashed into one of the conservatory windows.
“Axel!” He put his arms around her, straightening his silk cravat when her shoulder brushed it between his lapels.
“Quickly, my dear, the last flower!” He led her down the steps and through the garden. Taking the stem between her jewelled fingers, she snapped it cleanly, then cradled it within her palms.
For a moment the tumult lessened slightly and Axel collected himself. In the vivid light sparkling from the flower he saw his wife‟s white, frightened eyes. “Hold it as long as you can, my dear, until the last grain dies.”
Together they stood on the terrace, the Countess clasping the brilliant dying jewel, the air closing in upon them as the voices outside mounted again. The mob was battering at the heavy iron gates, and the whole villa shook with the massive impact.
While the final glimmer of light sped away, the Countess raised her palms to the air, as if releasing an invisible bird, then in a final access of courage put her hands in her husband‟s, her smile as radiant as the vanished flower.
“Oh, Axel!” she cried.
Like a sword, the darkness swooped down across them.
Heaving and swearing, the outer edge of the mob reached the knee-high remains of the wall enclosing the ruined estate, hauled their carts over it and along the dry ruts of what had once been an ornate drive. The ruin, formerly a spacious villa, barely interrupted the ceaseless tide of humanity. The lake was empty, fallen trees rotting at its bottom, an old bridge rusting into it. Weeds flourished among the long grass in the lawn, over-running the ornamental pathways and carved stone screens.
Much of the terrace had crumbled, and the main section of the mob cut straight across the lawn, by-passing the gutted villa, but one or two of the more curious climbed up and searched among the shell. The doors had rotted from their hinges and the floors had fallen through. In the music room an ancient harpsichord had been chopped into firewood, but a few keys still lay among the dust. All the books had been toppled from the shelves in the library, the canvases had been slashed, and gilt frames littered the floor.
As the main body of the mob reached the house, it began to cross the wall at all points along its length. Jostled together, the people stumbled into the dry lake, swarmed over the terrace and pressed through the house towards theopen doors on the north side.
One area alone withstood the endless wave. Just below the terrace, between the wrecked balcony and the wall was a dense, six foot high growth of heavy thorn bushes. The barbed foliage formed an impenetrable mass, and the people passing stepped around it carefully, noticing the belladonna entwined among the branches. Most of them were too busy finding their footing among the upturned flagstones to look up into the centre of the thorn-bushes, where two stone statues stood side by side, gazing out over the grounds from their protected vantage point. The larger of the figures was the effigy of a bearded man in a high-collared jacket, a cane under one arm. Beside him was a woman in an elaborate full-skirted dress, her slim serene face unmarked by the wind and rain. In her left hand she lightly clasped a single rose, the delicately formed petals so thin as to be almost transparent.
As the sun died away behind the house a single ray of light glanced through a shattered cornice and struck the rose, reflected off the whorl of petals on to the statues, lighting up the grey stone so that for a fleeting moment it was indistinguishable from the long-vanished flesh of the statues originals.

J. G Ballard-1962

 

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 (the others in the series can be found here and here) 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

Kafka, Or “The Secret Society”

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Gerhard Richter-48 Portraits-Franz Kafka 1972
The French writer Jean Levy, who wrote under his wife’s surname as Jean Ferry worked mainly as a screen-writer for various French directors, including Henri-George Clouzot, the French Hitchcock, and was a pre-eminent expert on the work of that notable Surrealist precursor Raymond Roussel. Ferry only  book of fiction, the short story collection The Conductor and Other Tales, was initially published in a limited edition of 100 copies in 1950, then again in 1953 with a very laudatory introduction by The Pope of Surrealism himself, Andre Breton.

The Conductor and Other Tales is an absolute gem of a volume. Every tiny story perfectly conveys Ferry’s unique style that is comprised of equal parts charm, weariness and a subtle terror. As Michael Richardson writes, Ferry never appeared to have convinced himself that the world actually exists.

Andre Breton called Kafka, Or “The Secret Society” a masterpiece. Ferry certainly manages to expand Kafka’s paranoia (an achievement in itself) to dizzying, vertiginous heights with it suggestion of wheels within wheels within wheels… … …

Kafka, Or “The Secret Society”

Joseph K—, around his twentieth year, learned of the existence of a secret, very secret society. Truth be told, it is unlike any association of its kind. some have a very hard time gaining admission. Many who wish ardently to do so will never succeed. Others, however, are members without even knowing it. One is, by the way, never entirely sure whether he is a member, many people believe themselves a part of this secret society when they aren’t at all. Although they have been initiated, they are even less a part of it than many men unaware of its existence. In fact, they were subjected to the trials of a fake initiation, meant to distract those unworthy of actually being initiated. But it is never revealed – not to the most genuine members, not even to those who have reached the highest ranks in this society’s hierarchy – whether their successive initiations are valid or not. It may even happen that a member who has attained, through a series of genuine initiations, an actual rank in the normal fashion, is then subjected without warning only to fake initiations. Whether it is better to be admitted to a low but authentic rank, or to hold an exalted but illusory position, is a subject of endless debate among members. At any rate, none can be sure of the stability of his rank.

In fact, the situation is even more complicated, for certain applicants are admitted to the highest ranks without undergoing any trials, and others without ever being so much as notified. Actually, it is not even necessary to apply: some have received very advanced initiations without even knowing the secret society exists.

The powers of its highest members is limitless; they carry within themselves a powerful emanation of the secret society. For instance, even should they not show themselves, their mere presence suffices to turn an innocent gathering like a concert or a birthday dinner into a meeting of the secret society. It is their duty to draw up secret reports on all the meetings they attend, reports pored over by other members of the same rank; thus there is a perpetual exchange of reports among members, which allows the secret society’s highest authorities to keep the situation well in hand.

However high or far an initiation goes, it never goes so far as to reveal the purpose of the secret society to the initiate. Still, there are always traitors, and for some time now it has been no mystery to anyone that this purpose is maintaining secrecy.

Jospeh K— was quite terrified to learn this secret society was so powerful, so many-limbed, that he might easily shake hands with its most powerful member without knowing it. But as bad luck would have it, he lost his first-class metro ticket one morning after a troubled night’s sleep. this misfortune was the first link in a chain of muddled, contradictory circumstances that put him in contact with the secret society. Later, in order to protect himself, he was forced to take the necessary steps towards being admitted to this formidable organisation. All this happened quite some time ago, and how far he has gotten in these attempts remains unknown.

Jean Ferry 1950

Translation Edward Gauvin

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, the first in a projected series of Surrealist stories. 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

 

Distant Light

6367380_tuomas-markunpoikas-distant-lights-cast_t5e0d63ea[1]‘Which way now?’ Christopher asked at the T-junction.

‘How should I know,’ Angela snapped back.

‘Why are they never any signposts out in the country?’

‘Because people usually have a good idea of where they are going.’

He ignored the insult. He glanced at his watch, the second-hand on fourteen, fifteen, he turned right.

‘I hope this is the right way,’ Angela said.

Christopher remained silent and drove on.

What should have been a relaxing winter weekend getaway from the demands of their respective professions and their two young children, a time to rediscover each other, had gone wrong from the very start. The temperature had taken a sudden unexpected dip and they had argued as to whether to return home to collect heavier coats. Christopher had remained adamant that they press on while at the same time blaming Angela, who had been in charge of packing, for her lack of foresight. When Angela countered that the weather forecast had called for it to remain mild, Christopher, in that tone of voice that always made Angela see red, suggested that instead of always believing absolutely everything that was on TV that perhaps she should have looked outside the window.

The icy conditions and sleet showers made leaving the city even more difficult than usual and it was 7:30 before they reached the open countryside. Stopping to fill up at the petrol station Angela bought chocolate and coffee. It would be very late by the time they reached the hotel. Continue reading

Tempting Fate: Part Six

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Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

VII.

The interplay of light was different, even the very air seemed different to Max. As they walked along the avenue, the horizon stretched out before them indefinitely. He could detect the curvature of the earth —meaning that if they carried on walking as did, in a perfectly straight line, they would eventually reach this point again. There was no end. They were two tiny specks scurrying across the crust of a tiny ball spinning in space. For the first time, Max understood, really comprehended, that the world was round.

A heat haze shrouded the street, as the sun slowly but perceptibly leeched away all colour from their surroundings. Margot had dug out a pair of sunglasses from her small black handbag. As Max raised his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun glinting off the windscreens of the speeding cars, he cursed himself for not showing the same foresight. Each flash of light was like a blade slicing into his pupils. Max felt as exposed as a shucked oyster beneath a half lemon, poised to be squeezed. Glancing at Margot, he noted that she was as composed as ever. Nevertheless, she must have realised —either by intuition or telepathy, perhaps— his distress, because she paused and raised an arm.

Almost immediately, a black cab pulled over and they climbed in.

‘Euston Station, please.’ Margot said to the driver.

The driver started the meter and turned around to face them.

‘Are you young folks catching the train to anywhere nice?’ he asked.

Max looked at him in bewilderment. He was young for a taxi-driver and although his English was good, he spoke with an accent, perhaps German? That wasn’t the strange thing, though. His features were sharp and angular, yet the planes of his face failed to intersect. It was quite unsettling.

‘Oh, not really, just off to Birmingham to visit some friends,’ Max answered, bemused that he had lied for no reason whatsoever.

‘OK then, what time is your train?’ the driver asked, as he started up the engine. ‘Traffic is quite heavy and it is cross-town.’

Max turned to Margot but she was nestled in the corner, staring out of the window at the passing pedestrians. Obviously, it was up to him to make conversation with the driver, who, with his accent and heavy dark jacket (in this weather!) looked like a member of the Gestapo or the Stasi.

‘No particular time. I mean, we haven’t booked it or anything. I believe they run quite frequently, though. Maybe every hour on the half-hour… or is it every half-hour on the hour and at half past? Something like that, anyway… I think. Besides, I am sure we will get to Birmingham before night-time.’

The driver nodded without turning his head. Max hoped this was a sign that he could now stop babbling nonsensically, as it was a real effort not to give himself away. Surely, the driver could tell that he was out of it. Max imagined that the driver wasn’t a taxi-driver at all. He certainly didn’t look like your archetypal, loud-mouthed, pink-shirted, London cabbie. Maybe he was a former Stasi agent freelancing. Max looked again to Margot who, this time, returned his stare after pushing her sunglasses to the top of her head.

She didn’t speak, but in his head he could hear her saying not to panic. ‘That’s the cardinal rule, never ever panic.’

Was it a memory? Telepathy again? Whatever the case, Max felt calmer. His hand sought Margot’s hand lying limply on the seat between them, and when they touched, she interlaced their fingers and gave his hand a good squeeze. There, there now, that was much better. Much, much better. He could relax a little, despite the taxi driver watching them intently in the rear view mirror. Max was tempted to tell him to concentrate on the road ahead instead of spying on them, but thought better of it. It probably wouldn’t help matters, might even further arouse his suspicions.

The driver started rooting around in the glove compartment when the taxi stopped at a blocked intersection. After muttering what Max assumed were a string of German swear-words, he exclaimed with evident joy upon finding whatever he was searching for.

The traffic still hadn’t moved when the driver lit up what Max now realised was a joint. He opened the sliding glass panel and offered the joint to Margot, who accepted with a ‘why ever not?’ and an innocently winsome smile. Her left hand remained nestled in Max’s right hand, thankfully. He desperately needed that contact. The puzzle of the driver’s face was still terribly unnerving. Perhaps in some other dimension, those angles would form a pleasing symmetry.

After a couple of drags, Margot asked the driver if she could offer the joint to Max. The traffic had managed to unsnarl itself and they were at last, moving again through streets Max didn’t recognise. The driver nonchalantly waved his hand and said, ‘of course, plenty more where that came from.’

Max took the joint in his free left hand and inhaled deeply. It was strong stuff and it immediately reinforced the effects of whatever hallucinogen Margot had slipped him earlier. After a couple more heavy drags, he passed it back to the driver.

‘Thanks, its good is it not?’ the driver asked, then added, ‘What are all these people doing here?’

‘Yeah, it was excellent, thank you,’ Max answered. He had presumed the remarks about the people were a rhetorical question until he noticed the dubious-looking mob gathering outside as they passed. What indeed, were they doing on such an unprepossessing street corner in this rather unfashionable and frankly, quite desolate part of London? After what seemed a day and age, the taxi pulled up into the rank at Euston Station.

‘Here we are now. It’s eighteen pounds ninety, but we can call it fifteen pounds flat because of that hold-up.’

‘Oh, that’s very generous of you, but really not necessary. After all, you did help the time pass smoothly,’ Margot answered as she disengaged her hand from Max’s and pulled out three ten pound notes from her purse. She handed them over through the panel.

‘Really this is too much,’ he protested.

‘Not at all, your customer service skills are second to none. I can honestly say that this was the best taxi journey of my life.’

‘Thank you very much. I knew you were nice people as soon as I saw you on the street. Enjoy your trip to Birmingham,’ he said, as they tumbled out of the taxi in rather a heap.

Max felt quite dizzy. Margot took his hand and guided him through the entrance to the station.

‘Just concentrate on me, Max. Pay no attention to anyone but me, otherwise you’ll be getting the fear. God knows anyone could get the fear in this hideous hole at the best of times, but I have you covered. Do you trust me, Max?’ she asked him, her voice gentle, her mouth sweetly smiling. Her face, he suddenly realised, was simply angelic. It was like he was seeing her for the first time over again. No. Not true. He had never really seen her before this moment. All the other times were fleeting glimpses from a distance.

He trusted her totally.

But why? Was this trust misplaced? Did he actually know her any better now than he did this morning? This feeling of complete identification and of an absolute, telepathic communication —wasn’t it just an effect of the drugs? But even if it was, as he looked around at the surging crowds with their briefcases and handbags, these forever unreadable and unknowable strangers, he realised that this tenuous connection was all he had. He didn’t hesitate for a second longer.

‘Absolutely, I trust you, Margot. You’re still a complete mystery, of course, but I…feel like this is destined to be.’

‘That’s the spirit; you are your father’s son, after all. Come let’s get something to drink. After that we can sort out tickets and the such-like.. Everything is going to be peachy creamy, isn’t it Max? My brave little soldier.’

‘Peachy fucking creamy indeed.’

Tempting Fate: Part Five

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Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923
Previous parts can be found at Tempting Fate: Part OneTempting Fate: Part TwoTempting Fate: Part Three and Tempting Fate: Part Four. Thanks again to the doctor for her editorial support and advise.

 

VI.

Margot insisted that Max needed to change first, as the doorkeepers at Xanadu could refuse admission for any reason they saw fit. ‘And you do look a rather young eighteen,’ she said teasingly. ‘Don’t you think Max?’

‘Not really… Well, OK maybe a little. But I still look older than you, Margot. Come on, you can’t deny it.’

‘I don’t deny it even a little,’ she said. ‘But Max, no door is ever closed to me. Nobody would dare to turn me away.’

What a puzzling thing to say, Max thought. How could she be so sure? Was Margot that well connected? Whatever the case, Margot wore such an expression of serene self-confidence that his doubts quickly evaporated.

With each passing moment, Max was learning ever more about her personality. Yet this knowledge only reinforced how much of a mystery Margot was. Who was this gamine, rather gauche, well-read and upper-class rebel, who —without ever stating the fact— just seemed to know things that others could only guess at?

From what Max had gathered from her off-hand remarks, Margot had been expelled from several exclusive boarding schools, much to the disgust of her wealthy, French father, who had subsequently disowned his incorrigible, troublesome daughter.

Margot, in return, had no time for him either. She explained that she had overheard her father justify his daily visits to prostitutes by saying that he preferred people to have expertise in their respective fields. ‘And well, they are professionals, after all…’

Her hatred of her father was only matched by her contempt for her mother, a terminal depressive who wandered vaguely around their Knightsbridge townhouse arranging and then re-arranging ornaments before absentmindedly breaking them…

And the question remained —how did Margot know Alex and how had she ended up living with him here at Elysium Crescent? Was she being coy earlier, when she had laughed off the suggestion that they were indeed lovers? Alex himself had been close-lipped on the subject. Max was half-tempted to go upstairs right away and ask him what the story was, but then he realized that Alex would, at this present moment, be zoned out on the shot that Margot had earlier administered.

Margot’s voice broke his reverie. ‘Well just don’t stand there, Max. Get a move on, will you? We have a long, long way to go, you know.’

‘OK, sorry. I was just following a train of thought.’
‘Well step off that train and concentrate on getting ready. And Max? Look smart, but try not to look like a boy trying to look smart.’

‘What do you mean by that? Exactly what should I wear then, Margot? Do tell, as you seem to be the dress-code expert for wherever the hell we are going.’

‘I may not be the expert, but I’m certainly older and wiser than you. So leave your smart remarks at the door and just do as I say, OK?’ she teased. ‘Just remember, you’re not going for a job interview, but you’re not going for a swift one at the pub, either.’ She waved him away. ‘Come on, move it. Go put something on and let me be the judge, but make it quick, otherwise we will never get out of here and we’ll end up spending the time just staring into each other’s eyes.’

Max thought it sounded like a heavenly way to spend the afternoon, but Margot’s restlessness was infectious. Besides, he wanted to see what effect the drug had on the senses beyond the four walls of the flat. It might all be too much to bear, but then again, it might just open his eyes. Perhaps he would see things as they really are. But then again… perhaps he would see things as they really are?

Max went into his bedroom and after a quick glance in his wardrobe, decided to freshen up first in the en suite bathroom. A whore’s bath would be just the ticket. Oh, and a brush of the teeth.

He had heard from someone (who) from somewhere (when) that you should never look into a mirror while tripping (if that’s what this was). Yet, the mirror was right there in front of him, staring him in the face. He could hardly not look now, could he? Besides, how am I going to get ready without checking myself out in the mirror, he thought. ‘It’s impossible, simply impossible,’ he laughed. How stupid to think that he could do all that without the aid of his reflection.

Tentatively and with a degree of trepidation, Max looked into the mirror. He smiled. Nothing to fear here. True, his eyes did seem to be constantly changing colour, from their usual copper hue, to grey, to blue and then black, before changing back to brown, but he could handle that. And yet, and yet…the longer he looked, the more he became aware of a vague double-image coalescing in the top, right-hand corner of the mirror. It was himself, but older. The eyes were slightly bloodshot and worry lines were etched into the forehead. In fact, the whole face was marked with the inedible stamp of years of strain and hard living.

Enough of this phantom from the future, Max thought and he slid the mirror over several times. After doing this for several minutes, the image finally disappeared. Focus, Max, he thought. Stop following chimeras; fight your way out of your own head for once. Right outside the door, there is a smart, pretty woman waiting to take you out and show you the world. It’s time to stop thinking and live a little.

Eventually, after much hesitation, he pulled it together and washed, brushed his teeth and changed. He hazarded another look in the mirror. Yeah, he thought, you’ll do. He just hoped that Margot would think so, too.

He returned to the living room and found it empty. No Margot. He considered calling out for her to hurry up, as he was anxious to get to wherever they were going, but decided that it would be better if he played it cool.

He sat, immediately stood up again, paced the room, spied the cigarette box on the coffee table and decided he needed one. They were Margot’s brand —Gitanes—smoked as an ironic homage to her loathed father. They were a little too rough for Max’s taste, but they were on hand and since he didn’t have a clue where he had left his own, he lit one up.

Mmmm, now that tasted good, he thought as he inhaled deeply. When did he last have a cigarette? Surely it couldn’t have been that long ago, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember. Time. Time —where did it go and what was the time now? And what time is love? Now? In some ill-defined future? Perhaps never? If only he could pin down the details, then everything would become clear. All the elements would fall into place and the seeming chaos would resolve itself into a logical order.

Max was staring at the rainbow-coloured ash, shifting like tiny crystals in a kaleidoscope, when Margot entered. She was so completely transformed, that at first, he wondered if the drug was playing tricks on his senses again. But no, this was simply what women were capable of —metamorphosis. A man, on the other hand, was compelled to stay true to the persona the world had selected for him.

Max stared at her. He had rarely seen Margot in anything but jeans and a t-shirt. She generally disdained make-up and hardly ever bothered to brush her hair. Now however, she had dressed in a simple, but stunning, black satin dress, complemented with an emerald necklace which perfectly matched her green eyes. She had wound her hair up in an elegant twist and applied subtle make-up that accentuated her high cheekbones and painted her bow lips with an exact shade of labial red.

Could this be love?

What time is love?

Can that instant last forever?

Even when time moves on and we age and fade and eventually turn to dust?

All these thoughts —along with other less pure images— were whirring through Max’s mind. However, with all sorts of marvelous words on the tip of his tongue, all he could manage to croak out in an awkward rasp was: ‘You look nice Margot.’

‘Gee, thanks Max,’ she said frowning. ‘After all that effort I went to, I’m glad I look nice.’ She gave him a once over. ‘You look nice yourself, Max. You did well with the brief. So, are you just going to sit there staring, or are we ever going to actually leave?’

‘Righty-o boss. Let’s get out of here.’ Max stood, then hesitated. ‘What about my Dad? Shouldn’t we tell him that we will be gone for a while?’

‘Don’t worry about that, Max. I checked up on him when I took a little bit of money to tide us over —you know, for taxis and train fares and general going around expenses. Oh, and I have his credit card, too. You have to pay to play in Xanadu, but don’t worry, I have the ways and means and I never lose. Well, hardly ever, anyway, and I will repay it all with interest. So relax, your Dad is fast in the Land of Nod, dreaming of distant lights or maybe of catching birds and mice —who knows with Alex, he’s a deep one.’ She winked.‘Perhaps he even dreamt us up.’

She sighed at the dubious look on Max’s face. ‘I didn’t want to disturb him so I left a note saying we will be back soon and not to concern himself about you. That you’re under my wing for the present and I wouldn’t let anything untoward happen. I’m sure he’ll find some way to entertain himself. He does so like the night.’

‘Are you quite sure about this, Margot?’

‘Positive Max. We are going to have a time. Believe you me. You haven’t really lived until you have been to Kubla Khan’s.’

‘Kubla Khan’s? I thought we were going to Xanadu?’

Margot regarded him with a look of amused pity. ‘I suppose you couldn’t know… how could you possibly? You’re still wet behind the ears aren’t you, my dear? Max, to get to Xanadu, you first have to enter the Pleasuredome, and you can only get to the Pleasuredome by visiting Kubla Khan’s. Don’t worry, it will all become crystal clear when we get there. That is, if we ever do, at the rate we are going. Enough chit-chat. We can talk on the way if you insist, but let’s just go.’

‘All right, but after you Margot. Ladies first.’

‘So Alex taught you something after all. I’m glad of that.’

Max followed Margot to the door, which he opened for her. Then they stepped out onto the street, Elysium Crescent, and into a brand new world.

 

Tempting Fate: Part Four

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Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

The previous parts can be found at Tempting Fate: Part One, Tempting Fate: Part TwoTempting Fate: Part Three,and Tempting Fate: Part Three. Thanks as always to drmegsorick for her editorial advice and support. Part Five will be available on Saturday 10th June.

V.

‘Close your eyes, Max, and open wide,’ said Margot. ‘There’s a good boy now.’

Max did as he was told and waited for an indeterminate period before he felt something against his tongue. It was a sugar cube.

‘Can I open my eyes now, Margot? That was quite a production for a lump of sugar.’

She laughed that deep, throaty laugh that drove him to distraction during the day and echoed loudly throughout his nocturnal fantasies.

‘Silly Max. Yes, you can open your eyes now. That was more than just an ordinary sugar cube, you know. Let the medicine dissolve slowly and be patient. That sugar cube will take us to the land of milk and honey, to the other side of the mirror, or at least to that oasis of horror in this desert of boredom. Wherever it takes us, it will be something… other.’

‘What exactly have you given me Margot?’

‘Don’t you trust me, Max? I thought we were over the awkwardness by now. Don’t worry about the details, just follow my lead and everything will be fine.’

‘I am more worried about Alex. What if he comes downstairs and sees us off our faces, his girlfriend and his son, you know, like, ummm, all loved up?’

Margot laughed. ‘You think that’s why I’m doing this? My, my, listen to you! You do think highly of yourself, don’t you? Well, my darlingest Max, you can rest assured that this isn’t some convoluted plot to seduce you. I have a feeling I wouldn’t need to resort to drugs if that was my intention. After all, you are younger than me.’

‘Yeah, but only by nine months.’

‘Yes, but still…. And for your information Max, I am not your father’s girlfriend. Whatever gave you that idea? You know I have my own room, right?’

‘Ummm, I don’t know. I thought that was just to avoid difficult questions. You do live here with us, after all. And, don’t take this the wrong way, you wouldn’t be the first younger girlfriend my Dad has taken up with. Though, to be honest, you’re not his usual type.’

‘Oh really? And what would be his type be? I mean, usually?’

Max could hear the amusement that Margot had tried, but failed to conceal in her tone. He said, ‘Ummm, well, you know, blonde, leggy, polished, posh. Not that you aren’t very posh yourself, Margot, but, you know… You’re just a little different, unusual, but in a good way. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like you, Margot. I mean…’ Max trailed off. Quit while you’re ahead. You’ve dug a big enough hole already, he thought rather morosely.

‘So, I’m unusual, but in a good way. Hmm. Well, you certainly know how to flatter a girl, Max. Me and your father… how can I explain it? It’s rather complicated. Let’s just say that we are very good friends. So you don’t need to concern yourself on that score.’ She laughed again. ‘You needn’t start calling me Mummy. Besides, Alex is having one of his bad days today, so I doubt he’ll be making an appearance anytime soon, not with the shot I gave him.’

‘Oh, I didn’t know that. Is he O.K?’

‘Yes he’s fine, I am glad to say. Well, as fine as he can be. Some days he just needs a little something-something to take the edge off, to stop the memories flooding his brain and overwhelming him. Yes, my bet is that right now he is completely grand and faraway from here and faraway from all this shit down here. Up there,’ she gestured vaguely. ‘Where the sky is bluer and the horizons wider. That’s where I hope Alex is. And that’s where I want to go with you, Max. And unless I’m very much mistaken, it shouldn’t be long now. No, not long at all. I can already feel it, can you Max?’

Max was aware that Margot had asked him a question, but the exact nature of the question eluded him. The big bay window behind Margot was letting in a burning golden light that suffused everything in this flat on Elysium Crescent with a subtle halo, transforming all the everyday objects that he had seen a thousand times without even noticing or paying the slightest bit of attention —unless he needed them for something (to sit on, to drink out of, to drop his ash into)— to deeply mysterious items from another realm of being, whose purpose he believed, with enough concentration and the laser-like penetration of this illuminating insight that he felt he was on the cusp of gaining and possessing forever, he was about to divine.

But all that was nothing compared to the change that had taken place around Margot. Surrounded by an intense blue aura, Margot radiated emanations that caressed Max’s skin like electricity. The waves of her love, mercy, and wisdom enveloped him in a protective cocoon. He felt overwhelmed by a tenderness that was dissolving his soul.

Yet at the same time, Max became strangely disassociated from the scene. He was now an observer as well as a participant. From somewhere in the middle distance, Max looked down on Max leadenly lifting his arm from the chair’s arm, while Margot in her T-shirt and jeans, slinked towards the door to the kitchen. Max looked up to where Max was looking down and Margot stopped in her tracks and turned around to follow Max’s gaze, and their eyes met the eyes of the disembodied spirit of Max, which held them fast, fixing them immobile to the spot.

Max knew —after all this wasn’t the first time that he’d gotten wasted (though never like this before; this, as Margot had promised, was something other)— that certain drugs have a tendency to fuck with your sense of time, either slowing shit down… to… a…….crawl….. or speedingeverythingupbloodpumpingheartracing ohmygod sweetlordabove I, I know that I never really bothered with you and all that, but please, Lord, can’t we just overlook the fact that I overlooked you, let me just survive this night, this never-ending infernal night and I promise, I swear, please believe me, to be good, to do better, to try to anyway, fight the good fight and all that… Yeah, Max knew that under the influence, time was subjective. A week could disappear in the space between two heartbeats and a moment could elastically stretch to a reasonable imitation of an aeon. But nothing before compared to this.

Or did it? Hadn’t Max been in this exact same situation before? At this exact same point in time? Sitting in his father’s flat in Elysium Crescent, hallucinating with Margot, the girl who lived with them and who may or may not be Alex’s girlfriend? Max realised that the other Max wasn’t his dissociated personality or an astral projection. No. That Max was his future self.

This flat, Margot, his father, this trip had already happened a long time ago in the past. Time had moved on, events had moved forward. And now —when was now? In the immediate future that was actually past, he was unsure what was to happen next, The details were all blurry. Yet, he remembered the long-term consequences, though try as he might to repress them. After all of this —the scene he was observing— had happened, he became the man he was now —a successful restaurateur with a beautiful wife. No, that wasn’t quite right. That was just a dream, a dream about a woman. Catherine? Catarina? And he was actually at this moment half asleep in a fancy hotel bath remembering a girl he once knew, a girl called Margot.

So was this just a memory? Was he lost in a past reverie while half asleep? Then again, could all five senses be engaged by a mere memory? It didn’t seem possible…

Margot came over and placed her hand on his head and stroked his hair gently, soothingly. It lulled him, nearly hypnotized him. He could hear a tap dripping from five blocks away, he could smell the honey and vanilla odour emanating from between her legs and he could feel the heat of her blood as it coursed through her vessels.

‘Baby, we need to get out of this place before the walls start closing in,’ she said softly. ‘Don’t you agree?’

Her words made Max forget. Forget that he’d heard those words before. The second Max had vanished. He was here, now, in Elysium Crescent. There was no fancy bath in a hotel out in the desert, there was no restaurant called Noir Et Rouge, nor any woman called either Catherine or Catarina.

‘Absolutely, Margot. Yes, let’s get out of here, the sooner the better. Got any suggestions?’

‘I know just the place. It’s in Birmingham though. Xanadu. Believe you me, Max, there is nowhere like it. It’s quite a trip.’

‘Fuck it, let’s go this very second.’