Do you* ever feel like you are living inside an old noir movie, where it is always night and always fucking raining? Are you haunted by false memories, existential nausea and an unbearable nostalgia for a home you have never visited?
If the above feelings sound familiar, the collection Motion No.69, to be released later this month if the auguries are correct and the stars above are aligned right, might be just the ticket**. After checking in to The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel and playing a quick game of Shangri-La, you could be one of the fortunate few to visit room 418 on the 4706th Floor, with its spectacular view of the Mariensbad (or is it the Carlsbad?) Palace. Over the immaculate formal gardens the sun never sets and barely ever casts a shadow. You feel like you have been here before, was it last year, yesterday or tomorrow, you can’t quite recollect, but no matter, every amnesiac moment has a vivid freshness.
*The designated You is merely a rhetorical flourish. Any resemblance to any person living or dead, or indeed fictional, imaginary, legendary or mythical, is purely coincidental.
**Purchase of Motion No.69 is not guaranteed to alleviate sadness, angst, despair, night terrors, suicidal ideation or melancholy.
There is a good chance that my collection Motion No. 69 will be published sometime in November, 2017. As well as providing certain recherche pleasures Motion No. 69 will disclose under a close and attentive reading the workings of Shangri-La, that game of total chance that is said to originated in Xanadu but was more probably created in the boardroom of Hilton-Tetragrammaton Pan-Dimensional Inc.
So buy the book* and then maybe you will be able to stake your claim and with the combination of a turn of a card, the spin of a wheel and the throw of the dice make your appointment with destiny. The possibilities are infinite: you could find yourself up above the clouds in the Imperial Suite at The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel with a bed the size of Hy-Brasil or Cockaigne, sipping from a Jeroboam of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay with your significant other, or if the fates are against you end up down there alone on street level with hell around every corner. Or maybe, even more bizarrely, nothing will change at all.
*Over 18’s only. Terms and Conditions Apply. Strictly pay to play. Please gamble responsibly. And remember, a throw of the dice doesn’t abolish chance.
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.’
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.
‘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.’