(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four illustrations by Susanne Rempt).
All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realised that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence. It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All that was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.
Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples)
are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’
In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) byVivant Denonthe artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.
One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’
However, for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.
My good friend and talented artist S.R has illustrated my erotic short story Unmade Again. Her distinctive drawings have previously graced several of my stories and essays.
Murky, very very murky, decidedly, definitely so –how else could I describe my motives for not fucking Margot. Before getting in the car I stared up at the window where I had just left Margot lying unclothed and spread-eagled on the mussed-up bed. That thought made me hesitate for a moment, but I got in the car anyway and started the ignition.
As I drove at speed through the somnolent streets of her neighbourhood I was in considerable physical discomfort. Pressing my crotch against the steering wheel afforded some relief but what I really needed was the release that can only be obtained through the agency of the other, the rapture of bodies mingling and dissolving in unison until the mutual, desired annihilation of orgasm.
So why the fuck hadn’t I? I thought to myself bitterly as the car jolted over a series of speed bumps. Of course, I could try to convince myself that I was being virtuous by remaining faithful to my wife, but it was going to be a hard sell as the taste of her salty, yet curiously perfumed secretions were on my tongue and coated the inside of my mouth.
Besides, there had been that episode with the plump girl at the chemists even though that had been something of a disappointment to all concerned.
I couldn’t return to work in this state and going home was out of the question, so I merged onto the freeway and headed north towards the suburbs.
Really the whole situation was ridiculous. Here I was driving pointlessly past the strips malls and industrial parks with the semen slowly seeping out of my penis and staining my boxers when I could be enjoying a post coital nap in the arms of a pretty girl.
However, it was absurd that I had somehow become entangled with a girl almost half my age in the first place. That’s not to say that Margot wasn’t smart and precocious for her age but at the end of the day she had just turned eighteen. I pretty much guessed from the start that she was looking for someone to have her first time with before leaving for college. First time with a man that is. From the texture of her kisses and the evasive answers she gave to my leading questions I knew she wasn’t as innocence as she made out, however I figured her experience didn’t extend beyond dormitory romances in that fancy all girls boarding school of hers. Which only increased my attraction to Margot, I’m sorry to say.
Mind you I liked her looks from the moment I saw her. For a split second I almost mistook her for a boy although this was partly due to her been kitted out in the runner’s uniform of black shirt and trousers. She looked so young and frail that her presence amidst the heat and noise of the kitchen of the Mahogany Rooms seemed completely incongruous. What was she doing there? Obviously working but a more unlikely candidate for the position of runner could not be imagined.
Intrigued I sauntered slowly up to the table where she was methodically cutting up a loaf of crusty bread and arranging the slices in metal baskets. Composing my features to look enigmatic I breathed a deep hello. She looked up briefly and gave me a hard stare before returning to her task without saying a word. So much for elective affinities I thought and carried on home.
After a couple of rather more circumspect approaches that yielded the exact same results I gave up trying to engage her. Yet on several occasions I caught her intently staring. She would immediately lower her eyes and would pretend to be absorbed in whatever mundane task she had in hand. What was her problem with me?
I tried not to think about her, but her image always appeared while I made love to Sarah. Brief fantasies of her slender body, her long fingers clumsily grasping my penis, those staring eyes boring into my soul and reading there my polluted desires immediately culminated in a climax of hitherto unknown intensity. Afterwards as Sarah sought the perfect position in her sleep and she tossed and turned I would lie unmoving, staring into the darkness, completely devastated by an aching sense of utter dissolution.
This wasn’t the first time I’d had an unreciprocated crush of course, but never before had I been so possessed with want.
I had hoped that as this lustful itch was just another diseased product of my overactive imagination which I would tire off when nothing happened. I knew that given time this too would pass before fading away even from memory.
She had other plans however. She’d been waiting all along.
Is there anything more exhausting than driving without a set destination? I had no place to go but home, yet I had to do something that would delay my arrival for as long as possible without being too late or in too much of a state as to arouse suspicions. I stopped at a strip mall coffee shop. Maybe caffeine would straighten out my endlessly circling thoughts.
Yes, Margot had plans. At some point she had decided to include me in these plans of hers. Of course, I was totally oblivious of all this when I came across her struggling to fill the ice bin while I was completing my stock take. Being at heart an old-fashioned gentleman I offered and proceeded to shovel the ice for her. Margot (though at that point I was still unaware of her name) came out with something from 1984 and so, me being the argumentative person that I am, countered that I always preferred Brave New World. She asked me why as she hadn’t read that particular book, but would make a point of keeping a look out. Eager, so very eager and so easily impressed. I made a quick mental note to tread carefully, yes sir, very carefully indeed.
But of course, I didn’t. I rushed in like I always do and without hesitation agreed to see her outside of work and after that I suppose you could say that one thing led to another but that’s not how it seemed during the moments we shared. It felt more like I had found a fellow traveller; an accomplice to guilty pleasure, a partner in grubby crime. Which made ours a gloomy affair, intensely focused on the inevitability of its dissolution and the rapidly diminishing amount of time left available to us. Even on those languid afternoons when I would kiss and caress her neck, breasts, navel, cunt and the minutes would stretch and expand into a preview of eternity I was still oppressed by the knowledge that this was going to end sooner rather than later.
I couldn’t postpone my homecoming any longer. Hopefully the coffee and the constant cigarettes would mask the taste of Margot on my breath but to be doubly careful I brought a pack of mints which I rolled around my mouth while I was caught up in the constant snarl ups.
Sarah was busy preparing dinner when I arrived home, enabling me to go upstairs and brush my teeth and change. When I came down she launched into a long-detailed account of her day. At the appropriate moments I would insert what I guessed where the correct comments but all the while I was re-staging my latest encounter with Margot, the sensation of satiny smoothness as my fingertips tracing intricate patterns on her inner thigh, the willowy wands of her arms outstretched over her head, the miracle of firm youthful flesh yielding against the weight of my own body, skin on skin, world without end, amen.
After dinner when we were comfortably entwined on the sofa watching TV Sarah remarked that I seemed rather distant tonight and asked me what was troubling me. I made a feeble excuse about a hard day at work which, thankfully, she didn’t ask me to elaborate on. I made sure to pay attention after that, even though I was developing a dread of the moment when we finally turned in for the night and went to bed.
I knew that Sarah was definitively in the mood by the way she took me by the hand and led me upstairs. I, however, was torn. On one hand my balls had been aching all day long after the frustrations of the afternoon and there was nothing more I longed for than to bury my prick deep inside Sarah and yet on the other I felt that such an act would be a betrayal. A double betrayal in fact. I would be betraying Margot by jumping into bed with my wife and by doing so, as a means to assuage to my lust for Margot I would be betraying Sarah.
Before, admittingly, I had derived a dubious delight in whispering in Margot’s ear full details of my latest couplings with Sarah while I stroked Margot’s slick clitoris and then to gain further devious pleasure later on when I would re-imagine the whole scene as Sarah straddled my hips with her eyes averted as I talked non-stop of touching, kissing, licking, fucking another girl while she watched until she came with a heart-rending sigh and I would shudder at her unwitting complicity. However now that Margot was leaving and there was no knowing when we would next see each other again, if ever, I felt a bizarre sense of loyalty for the girl as well as the stirrings of a probably long overdue guilt towards Sarah.
In bed Sarah made her intentions clear by sweeping her hair back and exposing her slim neck. Having her neck kissed was always the prelude to sex. As my tongue and lips travelled downwards towards her shoulders I knew I could put an end to her amorousness by simply sinking my teeth into the delicate skin and bite down hard. Sarah didn’t like me to play too rough except on specially designated occasions. I couldn’t bring myself to do it however, some rogue scruple had taken hold of me and instead I suggested that we try something different.
Sarah was initially coy but soon relented when I said that it would be like the old days again when the first flush of love had led us to try everything every which way.
Propping herself up with right arm Sarah raised her body over mine, her knees either side of my closed legs, her cunt just centimetres above my erect penis. At my urging she wetted her middle finger of her left hand and placed it inside herself. Studying her closely I put my right hand on my cock and gently pulled my foreskin down and then up. Soon we were in a rhythm set by my words. When I could see that Sarah was approaching orgasm I would slow the tempo down, dragging out the climax until the tension became unbearable. Towards the end I broke my own rule and raised my left hand to her mouth. She grabbed my wrist and brought my fingers into her mouth which she proceeded to suck and nibble. I remembered from somewhere that this was a sign of orgiastic tendencies.
Afterwards as I drifted to asleep with Sarah in my arms I wondered who hadn’t heard the call of the orgy at some point or another in their lives. Liberation from the self-amidst the writhing bodies. Endless replication in a succession of mirrors. Tender, trembling virgins laid out star-wise within sacrificial circles. An abstracted conceptualization of the act in of itself, divorced from any affect. Recently I had become obsessed by the idea that I would never be really be satisfied until every conceivable act of sexual intercourse in the world had occurred; until the very idea of sex itself was spent. When that day did dawn, though, surely it would herald the apocalypse?
Lovesick and haunted by all the disappointments that attend a failed betrayal I pretend to be sick so that I could stay at home for the rest of the week.
Lying in bed desperately seeking the oblivion of sleep that managed to elude me I realized that Margot wasn’t the first girl I had treated in this fashion. In fact, it was a trait of mine not to sleep with women that I truly craved.
I had tried to forget about them but now the memories returned to taunt me, all my lost loves, those unfulfilled romances, the unmade girls.
Susannah with her depthless blue eyes, delicate ankles, translucent Nordic skin that bruised so easily and so beautifully. Nadine whispering in the taxi as I fumbled with her bra-strap that her fantasy was to be raped. Sharon and her heavy breasts, blood coloured knickers and neurotic hesitation. Rebecca who I shared a flat with for a time and always held my eye as she was being fucked by her Australian boyfriends. Elizabeth and the swish of the riding crop. Georgina, poor little rich girl Georgina at 5:15 am in her massive, empty apartment in Cromwell Gardens after a coke and vodka fuelled night, asking me to stroke her hair, but even this contact was almost too much for us in our brittle state. Brooke, but I try not to remember Brooke in case my heart breaks all over again, even after all this time. However, I cannot escape the knowledge that I have tried to suppress for a while now, that in many ways Margot bears an uncanny resemblance to Brooke; and not just in looks either.
All those girls, where have they gone, and do they think of me like I think of them? What we could have been and what have we become? So how I come I still remember them when I forgotten the girls I did sleep with? Is my nature that perverse?
Yes, it is. Deep down I always knew it, but it took Margot to bring it to the surface. She has unwittingly led me to a place within that I had no desire to explore, into a dark alley where hell is always around the corner.
No doubt her leaving has left me feeling aggrieved and bruised. Like a fluffer after she has finished getting the cast ready for the action that is commencing elsewhere, or like a pimp that has studiously groomed his girl in preparation for turning her out only to find that some bolder, badder pimp had stolen her and beaten him to the punch.
Undoubtedly, I had done my damnest to subtly corrupt her. Otherwise what was the point of all the dirty talk, libertine novels and artful erotica if not to seduce her? But what exactly had I achieved? Was her body to be a banquet and I alone denied a taste of her succulent sweetmeats?
Visions of her kept me up at night. Looking in the mirror after going to the toilet I saw that my brown eyes had gone grey in hue.
In the small hours I really started to lose it. I pictured Margot as some divine slut, the beloved whore of my heart. I could imagine her eyes closing as her mouth closed around the flaccid member of some aging professor… been spied on in the changing rooms of an upscale department store by a handsome middle aged lady store clerk…in the showers after a morning swim been soaped between the legs by a pretty baby dyke with blank doll like features…taking home smooth faced incipient queers from the student bar…on her hands and knees being ridden from behind…her fist inside the womb of a sad-eyed woman with large breasts…and most compellingly of all Margot, just Margot legs wide open with her fingers moving across the inverted triangle of hair searching for the hollow opening…the mark of rapture on her features…
After a few days I returned to work to avoid a trip to the doctor. For a while I thought about visiting Margot but decided it was a little early at my age to have a full-blown mid-life crisis. I promised to Sarah that I would help more around the house. Soon, perhaps I will re-read Crebillion fils Les Égarements du coeur Et de l’esprit.
If you have enjoyed this story then make sure to take a look at my new collection of 69 inter-related poems and short fictions, Motion No.69, by Alex Severs and fulsomely illustrated by Thea Kiros.
All weekend long I had failed to act upon the ultimatum handed down by Sarah on the Friday night I left her to return home to my wife. Breakfast on Monday morning was my last opportunity. But I realized —as I sat down to cereals, toast and tea— that putting an end to a twenty-three-year marriage at 7:50 am on the drabbest of all days, seemed wildly inappropriate. I couldn’t cope with the inevitable ugly scene of harsh words, bitter tears, righteous indignation and promises of reprisals before leaving for the city and work. The trouble was I could now expect a row with Sarah. Hopefully, she would have the discretion to wait until after office hours, though I wasn’t optimistic. Her tact had been embarrassingly absent lately.
I kissed Catherine goodbye as I had everyday throughout the many years of our marriage, wished her a good day at work, for which she would soon be leaving, and drove away without a backward glance at her figure retreating into our house. Soon, the traffic slowed to its customary crawl, then to an absolute standstill. For once, I was relieved by the delay. Perhaps I could ponder a way out of my present predicament. Nevertheless, I needed more time than a temporary traffic jam afforded to come up with a solution; eternal gridlock might be required. The real problem was that I had no clue as to what I really wanted.
On one hand, I couldn’t quite shake the conviction that Sarah was just a means of establishing that I existed independently of Catherine; that I, in fact, actually existed at all. And yet, sometimes I felt that Catherine was the mistress of my destiny, controlling even the minutest of details, down to my last breath. My own thoughts and actions seemed so nugatory that I sometimes I wondered whether I was just a figment of her imagination. I can barely remember my life before Catherine. I don’t think I had a childhood, so dim is my recollection of that period. I must have, but it had to have been free of both trauma and definition.
My first memory dates from age thirteen and a moment of existential realization. I had been dozing in the bath, when I came out of my semi-slumber with a start and caught my reflection in the mirror that bordered the tub. I didn’t recognize myself. A series of questions raced through my mind in rapid succession. Who is that in the mirror staring back at me? Is it me? If it is, who am I and what am I doing here? These remained unanswered and left me wondering whether I possessed any claims to objective reality whatsoever.
At first, it was only my existence that I doubted. But in time, it seemed to me that the world’s claim to authenticity was increasingly based on dubious suppositions.
My early adulthood consisted of a series of restless moves from city to city —a vain attempt at finding a place where I belonged. Of course, the difficulty did not lie with the locales; it lay within me because no matter where I was, I never wanted to be there. There was always a hell of a place next door, so I’d go there instead. I expected cities to possess a massive actuality —all that tangible brick and steel, glass and concrete— but they were only hastily-constructed, poorly-planned stage sets. And on these stages, I became the tenacious, wavering, insubstantial consort of wan, wannabe chorus girls,
anemic corps dancers, and anorexic bit actresses. I required something or somebody to lend me a presence, to give me density, to solidify my essence, to provide an anchor to stop me from floating away into the stratosphere and dissipating altogether. That’s when I met and married Catherine.
Lost in memories, I didn’t notice that the traffic had moved forward a full three feet until the angry blare of car-horns shook me from my reverie. I inched forward before coming to a complete stop again.
Catherine was unlike all the girls I had dated previously, fleshly and fulsome, where the others had been stick-thin androgynies. Her blonde hair, blue eyes and heavyset bone structure more than hinted that her remote ancestors had originated in the frozen North. I had found her, and still find her madly irresistible. Catherine will always be the perfect woman for me; she is as attractive in her forties as many girls in their twenties, including Sarah. As soon as we had set up home together she set about taking me in hand.
Naturally self-assured, she had confidence to spare and by proxy, I became a man of the world. Not that I didn’t have setbacks and mood swings, but whenever I was paralyzed by a sense of unreality, Catherine would provide rock steady support and nurse me back to life. Not to mention that there was always comforting to be found between her heavy bosoms.
Catherine has a telepathic awareness of everything I experience. She knows when the pressures at the office are becoming too much for me to bear and she gently chides me whenever I develop a minor crush on one of the office girls. At least she did until recently.
Above and beyond all that, however, she was the mother of my twin daughters, who provided at last some sense of purpose to my existence. I was a husband and a father to two lovely girls. I had responsibilities and duties. To my credit, I have discharged my duties admirably with care, attention, due diligence and most importantly, a genuine love. But there comes a time when, although your children are always your children in your heart, that they must grow up and enter the world and become their own people.
The knot of traffic had unravelled itself and soon after, I entered the company’s car park. I was looking forward to this Monday even less than usual.
Late as I was, Sarah’s office was empty when I passed it on the way to my own. It was unlike her to be late. I was in equal measures relieved and disappointed. On one hand, I had temporarily avoided the inevitable questions concerning the current state of my marriage and the repercussions that held to my relationship with Sarah. But on the other, I almost anticipated her reproach for my inaction. All weekend, I had imagined Sarah anxiously counting down the hours until Monday morning, when her loneliness and grief would be assuaged at the sight of me.
Last year, her affectionate but wayward father died —her sole remaining relative since her mother had committed suicide when she was five. Her childhood had been singularly unsettled. By the age of fifteen, she had extended stays in every major Anglophone country on four continents. She and her father had doted on one other and his death had left a void in Sarah’s life which I was particularly suited to fill. Her father was my contemporary and judging from the photo she kept on her bedside table, I noted a vague resemblance —we both had the dark hair, pale skin and green-grey eyes of the Celts. Moreover, I felt an affinity to the person Sarah described endlessly after our lovemaking; a potent combination of wanderlust, melancholy, wasted intelligence, unworldly innocence and a knowing complicity in his own failure.
Sometimes I doubted that I could ever displace the memory of her father. I began to resent hearing every last detail of her childhood, in which her father —as a single parent— played a larger than usual role, during the hurriedly snatched hours we spent together. I eventually concluded that Sarah had accepted me not because I was similar to her father, but because I was his complete opposite; stable, staid and boringly predictable. Certainly, my mid-life crisis, and my attempts to inject some validity into my existence though the agency of a chit of a girl in need of a father figure were conventionally clichéd.
When Sarah still hadn’t shown up by 11:00, I finally cracked and phoned first her home and then her mobile. No answer and the calls didn’t go to voice mail either. Where was she?
As I sat pondering this question and what I would do if Sarah came marching up to my office now, demanding to know why I had not told Catherine about our affair, the telephone rang. Thinking it was Sarah, I answered. It was Catherine, calling me on her break, a working day ritual.
While we were talking, I was struck by the fact that Catherine, who usually possessed an uncanny ability to gauge my psychological depths, had noticed nothing unusual since I had first become involved with Sarah —my first real infidelity of our marriage. Or if she was aware, then she wasn’t letting on. In either case, it seemed out of character. I was an open book to Catherine and this wasn’t something to which she would turn a blind eye. Maybe she was unconsciously aware but was in deep denial, or maybe she thought it impossible that a twenty-two-year-old girl would fall for a middle-aged nobody like me. However, both scenarios seemed highly unlikely. Catherine was far too shrewd to overlook the evidence before her and she had always questioned the real motivation behind my constant self-deprecation.
The conversation proceeded as usual with the obligatory I-love-you’s signing off. Nothing was amiss in Catherine’s attitude and, yet I felt that something was being left unsaid on her side as well as mine. I knew that this creeping paranoia was a manifestation of my guilt, but knowing the cause doesn’t necessarily rid you of the effects.
The rest of the day was a limping agony, every moment dragging uselessly and painfully. My indecision was total. Whereas I had previously dreaded an encounter with Sarah, when it was deferred though her absence, I positively longed for her presence violently and absolutely. How would it be possible for me to live the remainder of my life without her? Could I deny my feelings concerning Sarah if questioned directly by Catherine? Could I carry on living the lie with Catherine, pretending that there hadn’t been some form of sea change in our marriage?
Yet how could I abandon my wife of twenty-three years, the only person whose company wasn’t occasioned by barely-suppressed feelings of loathing and nausea? Catherine was the only person who’d been able to fill in the blank spaces. So, what was I doing with Sarah when I had already been completed by another?
The telephone was glued to my ear as I repeatedly tried Sarah. Ringing out no answer. Ringing out no answer. Whenever someone passed the office I would mouth some form of inanity to pretend that I was busy bantering to a client and consequently raking in the cash for the firm. Where was she, why wasn’t she at work? It wasn’t like her to miss a day. In fact, Sarah never missed a day because I never missed a day. Sarah had nobody but me.
By three o’clock, the suspense was unbearable. I couldn’t wait any longer, I simply had to know where she was. Thinking perhaps her desk would yield a clue, I hurried to her still darkened office. I let myself in and closed the door behind me. Dread settled on me like a shroud. Not only was the office unoccupied, but it also appeared unused. Had Sarah left the company and not told me?
I had to leave the office. As I rushed back to my own desk, I passed one of my co-workers. “Have you seen Sarah?” I asked, trying not to sound panicked.
“Sarah? Sarah who?” he replied absently.
I didn’t answer. I returned to my desk to grab keys and coat and let my boss know that I was ill. As I sped towards Sarah’s flat on the other side of the river, I imagined the worst of the worst-case scenarios. I had visions of bathtubs filled with bloody water, clotted syringes, discharged guns, empty pill bottles, fishnet nooses… that body that I had touched and kissed, caressed and stroked, worshipped and revered mimicking a thousand different postures of death.
Parking was always a problem in Sarah’s neighbourhood, but I found a place with ease, probably because of the early hour. Sarah didn’t own a car —instead she relied on public transport and myself to get around— so I was still none the wiser to her whereabouts. I buzzed the front door several times but without result. Now, I was beginning to get really anxious. I had a spare set of keys, something Sarah had insisted upon about a month ago, even though up until now I had no occasion to use them as we had always gone back to her flat together. I opened the front door and ran up the seven flights of stairs to her flat on the third floor and entered without bothering to knock.
If I had found Sarah in bed with someone else, or I had discovered her dead body, I would have been less surprised than by what I beheld: nothing. The flat was empty, completely empty, save for the furniture doubtlessly belonging to the landlord. Nobody had left in a hurry either —the flat was clean except for an accumulation of dust. It was obvious that the place hadn’t been occupied for months and, yet I had been here just three days ago. It was devoid of any personal effects or stray items of clothing. Where was everything? Where were the clothes, shoes, lingerie, accessories, TV, computer, mobiles, books, pens, pencils, paper, ornaments, figurines, mirrors, pots, pans, plates, knives, forks, spoons, toothbrushes, combs, hairbrushes, toiletries, soaps, fragrances, kitchen towels, toilet paper, bed clothes, pillows, throws, coins, chequebooks, credit cards, purses, handbags, suitcases? Where had they gone? Where had she gone? And if she wasn’t here, and had never lived here, did Sarah actually exist? Had she ever?
If I searched around in the Human Resources department at work for the relevant and necessary documentation concerning Sarah Graves, would I find anything? If I contacted the various governmental agencies, would I be able to obtain a copy of a valid Birth Certificate or Driving License or National Insurance Card or Death Certificate to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Sarah had once resided in the unoccupied flat where I was vainly searching for clues? That she had been born twenty-two years ago? That she possessed a definite, legal, irrefutable claim to reality? Even if I did stumble upon such proof, would it be enough to make me disbelieve the evidence of my own eyes? And was the evidence of my eyes enough to discredit my vividly tangible memories of Sarah?
I dug the nails of my right hand into the palm of my left to convince myself that I could at least feel pain. I could, but that did nothing to set realities aright. It merely demonstrated that this hallucination, dream, vision, delusion or whatever it was, possessed an internal, logical consistency. Yet surely that was quite consistent with the nature of delusions, visions, dreams and hallucinations. Certainly, if you are in the grip of madness, then by definition the hold of that madness upon you is gripping.
All this circular thinking didn’t change the central fact, however. Sarah had disappeared so totally that it appeared that there was no such person. Had I imagined her? Was she merely a figment of my overwrought imagination? Was she just a dream dreamt by someone in turn dreamt by another?
I retreated from the empty space, having found no answers, only enigmas.
I expected the streets to have subtly changed, to be transfigured and transformed, as if at last they could reveal their true natures to me. They were just the same old, same old streets however. There had been no rupture or rapture and the oh-so familiar scene contained no revelation for me. The only truth held by the streets with its buildings and in the incurious gazes of its passers-by, was a truth I had known all along —that I would always feel like a stranger here regardless of how closely I mimicked the mannerisms of its inhabitants.
Catherine was already home when I pulled up into our drive. I had decided to fake a migraine to deflect suspicion from my early homecoming and the haunted expression I’d be unable to mask. Catherine was very solicitous and mothered me accordingly, taking me to bed and tucking me in. She kissed me on the forehead and regarded me knowingly before drawing the curtains and turning out the lights. Did she know that I knew that she knew? “Sweet dreams,” she said, closing the door behind her, leaving me alone in the dark.
I am delighted to present once again one of my stories illustrated by my good friend Susanne Rempt. With her noirish, expressionistic illustrations that, for this story, border on the hallucinatory, Ms. Rempt contributes to the blackly comic atmosphere I was seeking to convey in this horror phantasmagoria.
Anna felt nervous about today. She was determined to make a good impression. O.K it was only a P.A’s position, but the pay was excellent, and it would take away some of the pressure. Without the constant worry about money she could concentrate on her real calling. True to recent form however, things had gone wrong from the moment she woke late after being up most of night rehearsing the upcoming interview. Filled with heavy dread she rushed around cramped studio trying to make up for time lost, but of course wasted hours could never be got back and her frantic efforts threw her into more of a panic. Indeed, things went from bad to worse as she bolted towards the front door, taking final swig of coffee to keep her focused and it spilt over best suit she’d picked up from dry cleaners only yesterday, at considerable expense given finances at present time. She had nothing else suitable to wear, the only thing remotely business-like was a white cotton suit set, jacket and blouse, but it was the nearly the end of November. There was nothing for it now apart from making do. She searched around for an umbrella before remembering that she’d left it in a taxi a couple of nights ago, but at least she had a raincoat, Thank God for small blessings.
Outside it wasn’t just raining, no this was different, a new angle on the ever-present rain, every drop left a yellow smear on her white clothes. This must have been the dirty rain she’d vaguely heard them forecasting on the news. Something about sand from the Sahara being absorbed by storm clouds, pushed across the Atlantic by an ominous low front before letting loose over London. Or something like that she wasn’t entirely sure because she hadn’t really listened but whatever else it was, it was nasty. There were no taxis anywhere to be had, she waited and waited, soon saturated to the skin. Being an attractive girl, she usually had no problem flagging down a cab but today every taxi was filled with their shadows and ghosts being carried forward to their nebulous destinations, so when a bus came she hopped on even though she never caught buses
As the bus slithered slowly though the sparsely haunted streets she remembered why she never caught buses. They were always so slow, taking too long. And how would she get from the bus stop to where her appointment was? She knew that the bus stopped at High Street Kensington and that the address for Reynolds Corporation was in W8, but where exactly? The 86 Fascination Street couldn’t be that hard to find however. Maybe she would have better luck getting a taxi in Kensington, if worst came to worst she could always go into a shop and buy a street atlas, another unwanted expense to be sure, but she had saved on taxi fare. One good thing you can say about the buses, at least they’re cheap.
Finally, the bus stopped at a sodden High Street Kensington. She got off and looked around for a taxi, but it was a total no go. Unfortunately, she would have to walk, her clothes were half way ruined by now, but surely they would understand about the rain. Why hadn’t she got better directions? Why did she expect everything to fall in her lap? She knew that she mustn’t think about her run of misfortune right this minute, must concentrate on what had to be done. Namely getting to the interview so that she could get work so that she might be finally able to get some organisation in her life. Then she would not have to think of all the things that set her apart.
She wandered around for a little while but very quickly she realised it was of no use, there was no way she would ever find Reynolds Corporation in this manner, so she went into Waterstones to buy a street atlas. First sensible idea I’ve had for a long time she thought. Inside the bookstore it was quite crowded with people sheltering from the rain, all standing hunched up over their paperbacks, little pools of heavy rain congealing around their ankles. Soon they would be immobilized, set fast.
She knew that she had to act quickly, time was running out, somewhere along the way she had lost her watch (where, when?) but she knew that the interview was due soon if she wasn’t actually already late, and who knew what other obstacles she would met today? After all it was a Wednesday. Street maps and atlases were supposed to be on the second floor according to the flashing neon finder board but the icy assistant, offended that she was being asked about atlases and not Kafka told her that they were on the third floor. This was odd as the building seemed to be only two storeys’ high but in unspoken answer to her unstated question the frigid intellectual pointed to the far-left corner where there was a rickety, unbanistered staircase. She nodded her head and climbed the wooden steps, counting as she went up as she always did for superstitions sake, one hundred, one hundred and one, one hundred and two and would it ever end and where was this decrepit staircase leading her? One hundred and seven, one hundred and eight, nearly there now surely. Are we yer vet, are we yer vet, she whispered to herself like a child been ferried to god knows where by sullen, silently seething parents, their holiday so carefully planned and longed for already turned into a domestic Stalingrad. No, not yet, but we‟re nearly there now. One hundred and ten, one hundred and eleven, as last, and the third floor lay before her, vast vistas of aisles and shelving stretching onwards towards a terrible infinity of nothing but books, books, books as far as the eye could see. A labyrinth of books where you would forget everything about yourself and your existence, a maze of books where you would lose yourself in other peoples lives and other people’s words, a prison of books from whence you could never escape from the dream of others and from the tyranny of your own consciousness. She turned and fled down the one hundred and eleven steps.
She didn’t slow down until the first floor, hadn’t wanted to see the icy assistant who had misdirected her so cruelly again, or the petrified browsers, but she still needed a street map, searched on the first floor but there was none, descended to the ground floor and there, right by the cash till saw a fold-out map entitled, “The Impractical Girl’s Guide to Kensington’s Streets and Byways” surely the very thing for her. She took a copy and gave it to the old crone at the counter and handed over the money. Then she left right quick.
The vile rain had intensified, drowning the streets in filth and stalling the traffic in its tracks. She stood under the doorway of an electrical goods shop and unfolded the map, which proved tricky as it was much bigger than was practical, obviously trying to live up to its title.
Before her eyes, on the map at least, was presented a Kensington transfigured, no longer Church Street and Abingdon Road, instead there was Desolation Row and Dreamside, Paradise Heights and Easy Street, Nightmare Alley and Morningstar Crescent. Fascination Street she found easily enough, on the corner of Glimmer Road, which ran adjacent to the High Street, which thankfully was still represented otherwise it would have been completely hopeless.
She ran from shop awning to shop awning the length of High Street Kensington trying not to get any wetter, but it was coming down in torrents and as there were few shops on Glimmer Road she gave over and started walking an even pace.
She found Fascination Street and was looking out for a stainless-steel tower or the suchlike but was surprised to see that it was a quiet residential street of rather grand late Victorian mansions. Nothing looked remotely like the European headquarters of a large multi-national publishing company. Just the secluded homes of London’s more moneyed inhabitants. Be that as it may be, 86 must be here somewhere, there can’t be another Fascination Street in Kensington can there? Out of the question and Reynolds was definitely on Fascination Street. It was difficult to see what the house numbers of the houses were as they were each well set off the pavement, so she opened the gate of one and went to the colonnaded entrance. She was in luck, for the first time she thought, about time too, it was no. 86, but the brass nameplate said “Dr. Dee’s Institute for the Perpetually Perplexed and Terminally Twitchy” she knew it must be some mistake, so she pressed down the buzzer. Reynolds Corporation must be a very secretive organisation to hide its presence so rigorously, really I mean, she almost laughed to herself.
She heard heels clicking on the presumably marble floor, they were that loud, and the door was opened by a nurse in stiff starched uniform. The nurse’s depth-less agate eyes gave her a searching once over and a knowing smile hovered on her red tainted lips.
“Hello I’m…” she began.
“Miss Anna Ferguson, I know. You’re late; Doctor Dee has been waiting for you. We couldn’t begin until you arrived.” the nurse interrupted.
“I’m awfully sorry, what with the rain and everything there were no taxis to be had.” she replied.
“No need to apologise Miss Ferguson, please do not concern yourself with such trivialities, the doctor certainly doesn’t. If you would kindly follow me.”
The nurse spoke perfect English but the phrasing of her sentences and her oddly precise pronunciation, vaguely American like she’d learnt English from the telly and movies, suggested that she was of Scandinavian or maybe Germanic origin, a suggestion borne out by her glacial blondness and her full, fleshy, heavy boned figure. She certainly had a strong grip, and long sharp nails. As she had stepped over the threshold of Dr Dee’s establishment the nurse had encircled her left wrist with her right hand, she had no choice but to follow. Not that she had any inclination not to. Everything was so off kilter that she had decided to adopt a policy of complete passivity in the face of whatever occurred from here on out. Certainly, questions kept plying her mind, as she didn’t have answers she tried to dismiss them, but she couldn’t but help thinking. Was this the right place? The address was right, but it certainly wasn’t like what she was expecting. Maybe she had mixed up the details and she was interviewing for the position of medical secretary. And who was this Dr. Dee? Maybe this was some new bizarre interview process, she had heard of the bigger companies using unconventional techniques to screen out applicants, but this seemed too idiosyncratic even by today’s corporate standards.
Where was the nurse leading her? Across hallways with intricate Italian marbling, past many mirrors, down stairwells and though empty offices.
The nurse finally let go of her wrists to open large double doors.
“Here we are Miss Ferguson,” the nurse said at the entrance at what appeared to be an auditorium from the tiered stage, podium, and seating, “I hope you will enjoy the lecture. Dr. Dee is such a wonderful speaker. Unfortunately, I have some work to do now, however I will join you later. Dr. Dee and I are so much looking forward to talking to you. That is, of course, if you will join us afterwards.”
“Lecture? I’m here for the position, Nurse…?”
“Nurse Woods. I do realise that Miss Ferguson. Do not concern yourself with details, the merest formalities. The process will commence in its own time. In the meanwhile,” she gestured towards the seats with a vague wave, “I suggest you find a place for yourself.”
What did this have to do with the position she was applying for? Nurse Woods was staring at her, no not at all kindly either but rather with a detached anticipation. A subdued but distinct murmur of expectancy rose from the unseen audience. She was decidedly uneasy but the feeling of passivity that had taken hold upon entering the building was even stronger now, overwhelming her into a resigned acceptance of whatever fate may have in store.
She entered the auditorium, after she had advanced in the dim ambient lighting sufficiently she heard the stab of Nurse Woods’s stilettos receding down the hallway from where they had entered.
Only two seats were empty out of about fifty, next to each other at the end of the third row, all others taken by an audience comprised entirely of women and girls, not a man to be seen. She felt wildly inconspicuous in her white clothes, as all the others were wearing impeachable black. Obviously, the new black was black for the fashionably insane and the insanely fashionable.
She hesitated for what seemed an inordinately long time before sitting down on the second to last seat. She was obviously an object of considerable attention. The middle-aged lady seated next to her turned and smiled, if a permanent rictus can be called a smile. Indeed, her face, sculpted away by excessive dieting, botox injections and the surgeons knife was no longer a face, it was a skull precariously perched on top of an elongated skeletal structure fashioned by Giacometti in his later anorexic period. She was a triumph of a morbidly decadent science over a barely breathing nature. She didn’t smile back, hugged her damp coat tight over her chest and watched the stage for any signs of the lecturer.
She didn’t have to wait long; soon the hubbub of sophisticated chitter-chatter gave way to a low, admiring “ohhhh’s and ahhhh’s” as the Doctor made his grand entrance. She knew now why the audience was made up entirely of neurotic ladies and hysterical girls, the good Doctor was obviously a bit of a lady-killer, a suave silver fox.
“Welcome ladies, I see many familiar faces today and a newcomer.” he was obviously referring to herself because he stared right through her, his cruel, sensual, thick lips curving into an asymmetrical, she could only call it wicked, smile. She shivered; this was a man who could make her come just by looking at her. “For the benefit of all those who do not know me and are unacquainted with my work here, I am Dr John Dee resident psychologist at the Home. My methods and theories are in their early stages and, I will be the first to admit, shall we say of a somewhat experimental nature but not without their successes.” He paused to let the fact of his modesty sink in. The ladies obviously found it charming. “Today I’m going to discuss, not about the why, but the how. The methodology, if you like, the methodology of suicide. As an act, suicide is redolent with symbolism, obviously as it is the grand, ultimate gesture of narcissism. Consider, for instance a particularly masculine form of self-dispatch, shooting oneself. Brutal, but instantaneous. Quite unladylike. This form of deliverance is much favoured by military and civilian police personnel, who eat their service issue revolvers; those who live by the gun must die by the gun, one way or another. Hanging is a different matter altogether, the favoured form of execution of criminals for centuries it clearly reveals a strong strain of self-loathing, the only thing to be said in it’s defence is that it is quick and apparently painless, but who would want to be found dead like that, with your tongue lolling out idiotically. A blatant and very unsubtle approach may be found in the people who choose to kill themselves by jumping in front of tube trains on the Circle and District line, a gesture that screams the fact that London kills.
“Suicides of artists and writers are of particular interest in this matter, as artists are egotistical in an extreme degree and are also highly aware of the symbolic importance of all thoughts and actions, and suicide is a rare instance of the unity of decision and deed. By definition not one suicide is an accident, but neither are there spontaneous or surprising suicides, all are pre-meditated and signified.
“My first example would be Sylvia Plath. Imagine the scene, unwashed dishes in the sink, the unattended children crawling around in soiled nappies, her head in the oven. Of course, her husband is out seducing any lady willing. Given this, the content of her death is glaringly manifest. Her appalling husband, a representative of the patriarchal society that reduces women to little more than indentured servants, subjected her to the indignities of childrearing and keeping house, killing her with neglect and his desire to impose his overwhelmingly masculine personality upon her. Let us not forget her dear Nazi Daddy either, with his jackboots and concentration camps and gas ovens… If I may inject a word of warnings here ladies, it would be this; try not to marry your fathers. The oven is hugely significant, just as a soldier in dishonor turns his own gun on himself; it was only fitting, no, more than fitting…it was the only possible means for her end, the symbolic importance of which could escape no interested party, ensuring in the elimination of her own life that a legend would be born.
“For my next example the symbolism is rather more convoluted, indeed torturous, rather like his writings. I’m referring to the highly public death of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. His death by ritual seppuku, physically appalling as it involves self-disembowelment and then de-capitation was supposedly motivated as a protest at the westernisation of Japan, but you cannot seriously buy that for a moment. His suicide has an intentional iconographic quality, not surprising as he was much given to Saint Sebastian. In this final scripted and staged moment of his life, a death that he had foretold and rehearsed many times beforehand, Mishima managed to satisfy his many contrary impulses and desires. His love of death, his aesthetic masochism, his mania for self-promotion and his militaristic fantasies were fused together and gratified in the act of seppuku, where he also hoped to gain a kind of immortality by notoriety, as he was probably cognisant of the fact that then current source of his fame, his novels and plays, would not stand the test of time.
“However, one must be on one’s guard against over-generalisation. Every suicide is a uniquely personal drama; no amount of statistics or analysis could reach the root cause. Why exactly did Van Gogh choose to blow his brains out? Weapons had played no part in his life thus far, apart from the ear-slicing knife. I like to think that he was releasing the demons that had tormented him for so long from within the confines of his skull. Or perhaps…”
So engrossed was she with the bizarre lecture and by the low, sonorous voice of the macabre doctor she failed to notice that Nurse Woods was sitting next to her until her knee touched her leg. She turned around, considerably startled.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you; I can see that you find the lecture fascinating.” Nurse Woods voiced buzzed in her ear.
“No need to apologise, I just didn’t hear you join me is all.” Anna answered nervously.
“You are quite jumpy, do not worry, the Doctor is nearing the climax of his lesson. Listen,” she nodded towards the stage and her fleshy hand gripped Anna’s arm lying on the armrest.
“Well, my words are all very fine and good, but as they always say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, let me give you illustrated examples.”
The pressure of the nurse’s hand against her hand was opening up new areas of anxiety and unease. The audience of the sophisticated ladies and what she had earlier taken to be their daughter‟s but now she wasn‟t sure seemed to be alternatively concentrating on the stage where a slide projector had been brought out and herself.
The doctor stepped aside near to the wings.
Images were projected on the screen. At first, she couldn’t make them out; they seemed to be highly conceptualised pictures of imaginary events. Only after the third still did she recognise herself.
Her mutilated body the star of an atrocity exhibition to sate the jaded tastes of these sinister strangers who clapped appreciatively after every new still of her death at her own hand.
How many times could one person die?
In a bathtub full of blood; hanging from a tree, black tongue between blue lips; face down on a table, gun in limp hand, her blood and brains a tachist explosion on the dulled yellowed walls; in a disturbed bed flecks of foam on her mouth; in the compacted driver’s seat of a car involved in a head-on collision; in a nightclub toilet empty syringe on the floor, an exclamation point to a life!
She couldn’t avert her eyes even though she felt sick to death. She moved to throw up, but she was restrained from all sides. Nurse Woods and the death’s head lady gripped her wrists tighter, hurting her. They didn’t say anything, not that they had to by this stage. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and hoped that they, her persecutors, would disappear.
But, of course they didn’t.
Instead Nurse Woods was tightening her grip. “The Doctor is coming to see you now, Miss Ferguson, it’s not the time to fall asleep. First impressions are very important, wouldn’t you say?”
“I wasn’t going to sleep. I would appreciate it if you let go of me, please.”
“I think we had better leave that decision to the Doctor, don’t you, Miss Ferguson?”
Doctor Dee approached, descending the steps of the stage, right towards her. He towered over her, his penetrating eyes restlessly looking her over. She would have liked to kick him or do something to break the awful spell, but felt completely powerless beneath his stare.
“Anna, it is a pleasure to meet you, though the circumstances are hardly conducive,” he sighed. “So, few things are as we wish them to be. One can only hope that the next world is an improvement on this one. Though I, for one, hold little hope of that. Oh well, we just have to make do, really, don’t you agree?” he paused for her agreement, but none was forthcoming. “You have been under a strain, lately, I know, I know. Life can be hard, unfortunately, most unfortunate really. You are not the only one. However, the thing is… well we had better discuss that later. At the moment you are tired and wet, and I don’t doubt, just a little confused. Now is not the time to formally start the interview process, I realise, though of course everything is being taken into consideration, maybe after you have changed and rested for a while we can begin, but for now I think you need a little something to make you relax.”
Out of his pocket he pulled out a hypodermic needle, he tossed the cap onto the floor and tapped the needle a few times. Her restrainers held her down as she began to struggle. She kicked and thrashed her body trying to escape or at least avoid the oncoming needle, but no use. The needle sank into her vein and she desisted as she lost control of her muscles.
“Now now Anna, what was the good of resisting, you are a clever girl you should have realised it would get you nowhere. And of course, the authorities will have to be informed. I will try to put in a good word, but still…” he trailed off.
She was trying not to think, to escape to a point outside the confines of her body, to a distance away from the imprisoning dimensions of space and time. Who knew what fresh horror lay in store next. What additional twists and turns could this nightmare take?
“Well it is obvious to me that you can’t prepare for the interview in the present surroundings. Nurse Woods, if you would kindly show Miss Ferguson to her quarters and arrange for her a change of clothes, as you’ll catch your death in those damp ones, and I will look in on you soon. Then we can initiate the procedure. I look forward to seeing you soon, Miss Ferguson.”
Nurse Woods dragged her out of her chair. Her legs were gone, she knew that they were there, but she couldn’t feel them, and they were of no use to her. Her eyelids kept on drooping closed and her head felt imponderably heavy on her neck, every time she nodded off into half-unconscious she roused herself with an effort, she knew that she mustn’t fall asleep, no no she mustn’t, not here, in this place with that doctor and his nurse and those women licking their lips in anticipation of…what, fresh meat? No, she mustn’t, but the law of gravity was proving to be almost irresistible.
She was taken to a room bereft of furniture apart from an old rusted folding chair, like one she used to sit in and look out of the window at school and a coarse fibred blanket. They were no windows and the walls were painted a dingy cream color. The sole source of light was an unshaded bare light bulb. Nurse Woods let her fall onto the chair, picked her up as she sprawled onto the floor and proceeded to undress her with a sadistic methodicalness, she dimly suspected in drugged state that here was a woman who enjoyed her work. Was it really necessary to remove her bra and underwear so that she was totally naked? She tried to voice her concerns but only a feeble croak escaped her lips.
“I will be back with some clothes. Miss Ferguson, I suggest that you proceed to make yourself comfortable. I will return shortly, however a good attitude is vital within the interview context. Good luck, Miss Ferguson.”
How long ago did the nurse leave? She had no way of knowing, no clocks were on the walls, no light penetrated the room. However, her lucidity had returned, and she was aware of that she was shivering, and naked. She was reluctant to cover herself with the blanket, who knew where it had been? The cold of the chair was uncomfortable against her bottom but the floor was hardly inviting. She knew that the door was a dead-end it would be locked, and it would go against her later, she tried not to look at it too much, because she knew that they were watching, somewhere they were watching her. She scanned the room for peepholes or camera lens, apertures or mirrors. She hadn’t managed to find any yet, but she knew that they were there.
She just wanted her clothes back, but who knew when the nurse would return? When she did she would ask to leave, as she felt that she was, given the circumstances, unsuitable for the position offered
I propose a motion:
To elucidate the principle
Of absolute pleasure;
You may demur and say,
Well, that it is incompatible
With the fundamental nature
Of ultimate reality,
Or at least suggest
Tabling an amendment.
But just give me a night,
To capture a moment
An imitation of eternity,
To turn you on—To turn you out:
Upside down, round and round,
Within 360 seconds
I would take you
Beyond the Seventh Heaven,
Transport you higher still
To the abyss of the Empyrean,
That realm of fire
That burns deep inside
Between your spreading thighs,
I will accept the invitation
Of your parted lips
And swollen nipples:
Then pause— —
— — just for a while,
Not longer than a series
Of hammering heartbeats,
Because I’m cruel like that
And I want to be sure,
That you want me
As much as I need you,
So that when we
Are finally indivisible,
And I have seeded you
With the light of supernovas
And the unbearable heat
Of a million blazing suns
You come —
— not with a scream
But with the softest
And most heartrending of sighs
For after such pleasures,
There will be no sequels
And no tomorrows
Of such agonising intensity.