Count it down,
Let it begin,
So that we be finished,
Better sooner than later.
We never start something
Without wanting it over,
Done with all that,
To start on something else,
Something brand spanking
So in descending order
Because to go down
Is really an ascension
On the numbers chosen
Whether it be
696, 695, 694
93, 92, 91
Or perhaps just
(But everything has significance)
So let the countdown …
She turns over the card and pauses,
Lost in contemplation and glances
Over at the abstracted young man
Looking downwards at the table,
There cannot be any doubt, no,
Not this time for once she is sure:
She waits until his coppered stare
Intermingles with her agate rays
Before speaking, carefully considers
The weight and import of each word
“Do you see this card, Le Bateleur,
Numero uno in the pack, but neither
Aleph or alpha, although he juggles
Worlds and words, a natural Magician
With fast hands and silvered tongue,
A grifter and a shyster, but make
No mistake his quick change routine
Is as magic as magick is, all is illusion
After all and he just sells us dreams
Make believe meanings, confidences,
The glittering allure of glamour;
But through such deceptive practises
He rends and tears the veil
To reveal ultimate reality, maybe;
The workings of chance and destiny
The latent manifestation of will.
Well…can you see now?
Do you understand?”
Lowering his eyes he shakes his head
“No? Maybe you will one day,
When you look in some form
Of mirror that will reveal more
Than just the surface of things:
The entire history from the whimper
Back to the lightening strike of the start.”
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.’
The train left at 4:13, which meant they had exactly 37 minutes to kill. Margot bought two packets of Silk Cut and handed one to Max.
‘Now you can at least smoke your own instead of taking all of mine,’ she said drily.
‘I thought sharing was caring.’
‘Yeah, but it’s meant to be a two way street, darling, not completely all one way traffic.’
They went over to the dirty, beige-coloured cafe and ordered two dirty, beige-coloured coffees. The place was full of tramps in the process of disintegrating before Max’s very eyes and sharp-faced young men, completely immobile and watching all the entrances and exits patiently. They were undoubtedly pimps just waiting to offer sinister charity to the inevitable waif having strayed too far from home.
‘Shall we head towards the platform now, Margot?’ Max asked her. ‘This place gives me the creeps.’
‘We still have…let’s see,’ Margot said as she checked her watch. ‘Another 23 minutes yet. Besides, you haven’t finished your coffee.’
‘Nah, it’s OK. I think it’s re-heated washing up water anyway. I need to get a coke on the way out to get rid of the taste.’
‘I suppose we can wait on the platform. I hope you will be able to sit still on the train. It’s over two hours, you know,’ she teased.
‘Of course. Sitting still is not really a problem for me. I can do anything if I put my mind to it.’
‘Really? Is that so?’ Margot seemed amused at Max’s boasting. ‘Maybe you should put your mind to it more often, then.’
‘Just because you’re my father’s guest doesn’t mean that you can be cheeky to his son. You’re not that much older than me you know. I mean, the way you go on, anyone would think you’re my big sister,’ Max grumbled.
‘Ahh poor baby, did I hurt your feelings? Come on,’ she said, standing. ‘Let’s get to platform 5, then.’
They left the dismal cafe and walked against the tide of disembarked passengers to platform 5. When they had found a place to wait, Margot opened her packet of cigarettes and offered one to Max. They smoked in silence until the train pulled up to the platform.
All the other passengers seemed to be Midlands businessmen ready to read every line of print in their rolled newspapers, either that or sleep. Even the ones traveling with friends or colleagues sat in stony-faced silence.
Max gauged that Margot wasn’t in the mood to talk either, so he contented himself with watching the scenery unroll outside the window as they passed through the North London suburbs. Of course, property close to train-lines always tends to be less than truly desirable, so for a good while all he saw were unkempt back gardens, strewn with broken prams, discarded children toys and rusted kitchen appliances.
As the train left the city behind and entered the countryside, it began to pick up speed. There was something about traveling that always made Max feel sleepy which in turn, made him very aroused. The desire for sleep had been somewhat counteracted by the drug —his blood cells jittered and raced through his ever expanding capillaries. However, the motion, the proximity of Margot (that scent -her scent), the living, shimmering fabric of her skin— all of it combined to make Max uncomfortably aware of his erection.
He didn’t suppose it would do any harm to close his eyes for just a few minutes and let delicious visions of unbridled bliss wash over his tired senses. It wouldn’t hurt at all. In fact, it would be a good thing, a very good thing indeed…
He could picture it all so clearly, the sun unmoving at its zenith above the tranquil, blue water reflecting the cloudless sky. The beach deserted as it would never be in this day and age, on such a perfect afternoon. He has it all to himself. Over to his right, where the cliffs meet the sand, a woman is swimming to shore. Once out of the water, she spots him and hesitates, but then waves at him rather hurriedly and shyly. Despite the tentative nature of the gesture, it seems like she is beckoning to him, the motion was meant to entice, is in fact, an invitation. But before he can get up and follow her, she has already disappeared into one of the many high-rise apartment blocks that nestle in the hills overlooking the sea.
The train came to an abrupt halt, jolting Max back to consciousness.
‘Ahhh, I see you have decided to re-join the land of the living. About time too, we are almost there now, Max. I would say about another fifteen to twenty minutes. That is, if the train ever leaves this benighted shit-hole,’ Margot remarked with a gesture towards the bleak landscape on display.
Max peered through the dirt-smeared windows. She hadn’t exaggerated. Massive chimneys belched out bilious smoke that only partially obscured the derelict Victorian factories and abandoned rusting warehouses. Heavy industry had long since poisoned the earth so that now only the rankest of weeds were surviving and thriving in the brown fields. All manner of refuse had been thrown from the banks of the disused canals into the silted beds below. A few occasional figures, undoubtedly drunks or junkies, all dressed in drab, earth tones or dingy, rainy-day hues, stumbled forlornly across this hopeless environment.
‘Do you know where we are now?’ Max asked.
‘Darling, what gives you the notion that I would have the faintest idea what that place is called? Does anyone know? And even if anyone did, would they care to remember? It just one of those places that the trains always stop at for some bizarre reason, even though there is no station.’
Just then, the train lurched into motion. ‘Finally,’ sighed Margot.
As the train approached Birmingham, slowly, with frequent stops —presumably because of interchanges and increased commuter and freight traffic— it became apparent that it was a city of competing brutalities. A place designed for man’s absence; all distressed concrete and smashed glass. Some joker had thought that Birmingham should emulate L.A’s autopia (under these northern skies!), while another genius had tried to recreate Le Corbusier’s Radiant City on the cheap.
Well, guess what, Max thought, that shit hadn’t worked. It had failed miserably, actually producing the opposite of what was intended, a place that neither shone nor sparkled, in fact cast no light at all. Birmingham The Unradiant City.
‘We are here,’ Margot said, standing up as the train came to a stop at New Street Station.