A Tragic History

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

 

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

CHAPTER I
INTRODUCTORY

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

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

CHAPTER II
THE SEVEN FAMILIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture 7

CHAPTER III
THE HABITS OF THE SEVEN FAMILIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER IV
THE CHILDREN OF THE SEVEN FAMILIES ARE SENT AWAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER V
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG PARROTS

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER VI
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG STORKS

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

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

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

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

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

And that was the end of the Seven young Storks.

CHAPTER VII
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG GEESE

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

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

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

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

On which they uncautiously began to sing aloud,

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

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

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

So that was the end of the Seven young Geese.

CHAPTER VIII
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG OWLS

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

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

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

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

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

So that was the end of the Seven young Owls.

CHAPTER IX
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG GUINEA PIGS

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER X
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG CATS

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

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

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

And this was the end of the Seven young Cats.

CHAPTER XI
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG FISHES

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

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

where in fact his house was.

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

And that was the end of the Seven young Fishes.

CHAPTER XII
OF WHAT OCCURRED SUBSEQUENTLY

After it was known that the

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER XIV
CONCLUSION

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

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

Tempting Fate: Part Six

30cce3c87b45be601ee15707c8cdc0221
Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

VII.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Really this is too much,’ he protested.

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

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

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

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

He trusted her totally.

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

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

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

‘Peachy fucking creamy indeed.’

Tempting Fate: Part Four

30cce3c87b45be601ee15707c8cdc0221
Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

‘What exactly have you given me Margot?’

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

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

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

‘Yeah, but only by nine months.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh, I didn’t know that. Is he O.K?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fuck it, let’s go this very second.’

Tempting Fate: Part Two

30cce3c87b45be601ee15707c8cdc0221
Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

The first part of the story can be found at Tempting Fate: Part One. Thanks again to Dr. Meg Sorick  for editorial support and advice. Please visit her at drmegsorick.com. Part Three will be available next Saturday May the 27th.

 III.

After a particularly busy lunch, and the Saturday evening rush ahead, Max decided to clear his head with a walk around the neighborhood. Throwing on his new grey jacket, he set out with no particular destination in mind. He strode purposefully through the crowds aimlessly gathered in small clusters around the shops and boutiques along the way. The contrast he presented relative to the people around him was exceedingly apparent. Clearly, he was a man on a mission, on a journey towards bluer skies and wider horizons. Unlike the semi-hypnotised masses around him, who were perpetually rushing toward destinations unknown with ever narrower boundaries.

Things were definitely looking up for Max. Tonight, the cash tills would brim as the increasingly in-demand tables turned over and over in the hot, new restaurant. The word, first spread by local newspapers, had been taken up by the national trade publications after several glowing reviews. If the restaurant continued on its current trajectory, they would have to start thinking seriously about expansion or perhaps even a second location.

Dreaming of the potential future that lay before him, Max failed to notice the ominous clouds gathering overhead until the skies opened and the rain poured down. Yet, the deluge only served to increase his euphoria. Smiling, Max turned up his collar and ran through the quickly emptying streets.

He was drenched by the time he arrived back at the Cafe. As he opened the door, his phone rang. By the time he had fished his mobile from his coat pocket, the caller had hung up.

‘That was me Max,’ Nina said, approaching him. ‘Catherine wanted to know how far away you were. They are waiting for you in the nook upstairs.’ Then, helping him out of his jacket she added, ‘My God, Max. You’re soaked through.’

‘I know. The storm came out of nowhere,’ he said. ‘Nina, who exactly, is waiting for me upstairs? I wasn’t aware of any appointments today. Why didn’t you warn me earlier?’

‘Sorry Max, Catherine said she reminded you earlier in the week. It’s some writer from Food and Drink magazine.’ She winced. ‘Oh god, I’ve already forgotten her first name. It’s something Blanca. She’s going to do a piece on the restaurant. Catherine is with her at the moment. You better hurry.’ Then changing her mind, she put a hand on his arm. ‘Wait! You can’t go up there like that, better if you dry out a bit. Your shoelace is undone as well.’

‘Don’t panic, Nina. It will be fine. I’ll freshen up in the bathroom,’ Max replied as he bent to fix his shoelace. As he pulled, the lace broke off in his left hand.

‘Damn,’ he cursed.

‘What’s wrong?’ Nina asked anxiously.

‘Oh nothing; just broke my lace. Not to worry,’ he said, reassuringly. Tucking the dangling lace inside the tongue of the shoe, he added, ‘There. Easily fixed. Now, go and tell Catherine that I’m here and that I will be up in five minutes. Ok? Oh and Nina….?’

‘Yes Max?’

‘Try and find out this writer’s name, will you? I don’t want to look like a complete idiot. Discretely, though.’

‘No problem, Max,’ she said, heading for the stairs.

In the bathroom, Max ran his fingers through his damp hair and adjusted his belt. On the way to the door, he gave himself a last glance and decided that he would pass.

Nina waited anxiously at the bottom of the stairs. ‘You took your time. Her name is Catarina. Catarina Blanca. You got that?’

‘Yes, yes, I’ve got it. Catarina Blanca. Unusual name. Is she Spanish or something?’

‘I don’t know. She definitely looks exotic but her English is impeccable –not even a hint of an accent.’

‘Alright,’ he sighed. ‘I better get up there, otherwise I’ll be hearing it from Catherine later. Thanks, Nina. Can I leave you in charge of tonight’s set up?’

‘Sure, no problem Max, I’ll take care of everything on the floor for now. You get upstairs and start charming this Blanca woman. And don’t worry, I’m sure the restaurant will get a fabulous review.’

‘Hopefully. No reason not to be confident, but you never know with critics. They’re a moody bunch, in my experience. She must be staying to eat. Do you mind taking her table yourself, tonight?’ Max asked, on his way upstairs.

‘Not at all. I’m all over it,’ Nina said.

Catherine was talking animatedly to the writer as Max approached the nook. Max waved and Catherine stood. ‘Max you’ve made it at last,’ she said, relieved. ‘I would like to introduce you to Catarina Blanca. She’s going to do a piece on the restaurant for the September edition of Food and Drink magazine. Isn’t that wonderful?’

As Catarina rose and faced Max, his words died on his lips. It was her —his Lady Luck from the casino in Vegas. She was dressed in black again, although instead of a cocktail dress, she wore an expertly tailored suit with a black blouse, the top two buttons open to reveal that familiar necklace —the one that so complimented her striking emerald eyes. She probably never left home without it. Yes, it had to be her. There couldn’t be another. One was more than enough. But what were the chances they’d cross paths for a second time?

‘Pleased to meet you, Catarina,’ Max said, pulling himself together and shaking her hand. ‘Hopefully, you will be suitably impressed with what we’re trying to do here and you can share that with your readers.’

‘Oh, I’m sure that I will, Max. I have friends who’ve eaten here, and they’ve done nothing but sing your praises. And after talking to Catherine, I’m just dying to sample the menu. Such innovative use of such humble ingredients.’

Max studied her face for any sign of recognition, but there was none. Granted, it had been over a year ago and they hadn’t actually met. Yet surely some memory of that evening’s excitement must have made at least a passing impression on her mind. However, apparently it had not.

Max struggled to concentrate on the shop talk between Catherine and Ms Blanca. How was it possible that this woman discussing their restaurant was the same woman largely responsible for its existence? What odds would a bookmaker give? He’d wager that it would be an astronomical computation, running in the millions. Yet here she was, talking with his wife about the sourcing of high-end product. When Nina came in he ordered an espresso, hoping to focus his attention on the task at hand. He’d just have to chalk it up to being one of those random anomalies that occur from time to time. It is a small world, after all.

‘If you’ll excuse me, Catarina, I have to get back to the kitchen, but I’m leaving you in my husband’s capable hands. He’ll answer any more questions you may have,’ Catherine said rising. Turning to Max, she added,  ‘Just make sure, darling, that you don’t go showing Ms. Blanca the skeletons in all the closets.’

‘I’ll try not to, even though there are so many of them lying around,’ he replied, raising an eyebrow. ‘You see how she has no faith in me?’ he chuckled to Catarina. ‘Anyway, you better hurry into that kitchen and start cracking the whip, otherwise we’ll never be ready for the evening service.’

‘You’ll be staying for dinner, I trust?’ Catherine asked.

‘Of course. I’m looking forward to trying the John Dory. It sounds delicious,’ Catarina answered.

‘Well, I’ll see you later then. We can enjoy a nice bottle of wine together.’

‘We will indeed.’

After Catherine left, Max drained his espresso and looked over at Catarina. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t help but be attracted to her. Her beauty was unearthly. She, in turn, was looking back at him. Max waited for her to begin the interview, but she seemed in no hurry to start and just continued to stare at him. Finally, in an effort to break the increasingly unnerving silence, he asked her about her name.

Instead of answering straight away, she reached over the table and placed her left hand over his right hand and smiled sweetly. Bewildered by her gesture, Max made no efforts to disengage from her touch.

‘Well, Max, here we are at last,’ she said, still smiling. ‘You have to tell me something. How does a man like you manage to snare a lovely creature like Catherine? I just can’t make sense of it. How does something like that happen?’

‘Pardon?’ he replied, wondering if he had heard correctly. Surely not. Her fingers were tracing intricate geometric patterns on his palm. Under normal circumstances, receiving such attention from such a splendid specimen would have been one for the ego, but these were not normal circumstances. The whole situation was out of kilter.

‘Hmmm,’ she purred. ‘You heard correctly, Max. So tell me, I’m very curious. She loves you and yet here you sit, thinking of nothing else but how to get me into bed. Isn’t that true, Max? Wouldn’t be the first time though, would it Max? You spent hours in that casino back in Vegas thinking exactly the same thing, didn’t you Max?’

That confirms it, Max thought numbly. She was the woman from Vegas. But what was this? What the hell was going on? He tried to extricate his hand from hers but she grabbed his wrist and held on tightly.

‘You’re keeping quiet there, Max. What’s wrong? Has the cat got your tongue? Rather unusual for you isn’t? You’re not one to be at a loss for words, are you Max? But then again, you can’t downright deny what is obviously true. Not to me, anyway. And I wouldn’t try if I were you, Max. You see, I know what goes on inside that head of yours. I know you. Unlike poor Catherine. She sees only the handsome exterior, the charming façade. She doesn’t know what makes you tick, has no idea of what you’re willing to do if push comes to shove. But I do, Max; I know exactly how low you’re prepared to stoop. Tell me, how do you think Catherine would feel? I know what you’re thinking; this isn’t going at all liked you’d hoped and you’re dying to tell me to get the hell out of here. However, if you do that, I might decide to speak to Catherine and tell her all about that night in the Heaven Hotel and what you considered doing. Now, she would undoubtedly tell me to go away and disappear, but I would have planted a seed of doubt in her mind and she’d begin watching you closely, so much more closely than before —a little too close for your comfort, in fact— for confirmation that you are not the man you have always appeared to be but the man she secretly feared you were, all along. I really don’t think you want that, do you now, Max?’

She relaxed her grip a little and Max managed to free his hand. He glared hard at her, trying to reconcile the contrast between her angelic features and her vicious words. What the hell had just happened? How dare she brazenly insinuate, insult and threaten him to his face in his very own restaurant? Obviously, all this was a prelude to some sort of sordid shake-down attempt; but she had a strange manner of going about it. What exactly was she driving at? It was apparent that she’d done some research and that she believed that she’d dug up some dirt. She evidently knew things about him. That alone was reason enough for treading very carefully, but when he factored in the guilt he felt over his initial attraction to Catarina —or whatever her real name was— Max concluded it would be best to avoid any kind of scene.

‘Excuse me, Ms. Blanca, but I’m not quite sure I’m following you. I was under the impression that you were a restaurant reviewer with Food and Drink magazine and that you were here to do a piece on the Noir Et Rouge. Yet, it appears from your conversation, that you have no such intention and therefore, you are here under false pretenses. So then, I’m at a loss as to what you are really after.’

He shrugged. ‘So you happened to see me win at roulette one night in Vegas, over a year ago. What of it? It isn’t any kind of secret. Catherine knows about it. She was with me in Vegas at the time. Just because you were sitting across the table from me, doesn’t mean that you can presume to know me. You know nothing at all about me.’

‘Oh, Max.’ Catarina leaned back into the banquette and let a long weary sigh before continuing. ‘If you think I don’t know you, you’re wrong. Very, very wrong. First of all, I know your type. And let’s be honest, you are a rather stereotypical representative. But secondly, and more specifically, I know you, Max Edward Chasm. Everything about you. From the major facts, down to the dirtiest little details, as well.’ She paused, studying his face. ‘I can see you need some convincing. Where would you like me to start? From the beginning? That would be best, don’t you think?’ She fingered the necklace while she waited for an answer.

‘Sure why not? Though I doubt you’re going to tell me anything I don’t already know,’ Max replied, trying to inject a note of nonchalance into his wavering voice. Obviously, she had gone to great efforts, but for what purpose? The situation seemed to be spiralling out of control.

‘Ok, Max the beginning it shall be… though it can’t be said that you had a particularly auspicious start in the world.’  She sat forward again and began.

‘After an unusually difficult and painful pregnancy, which she never really recovered from, your mother, Julie Chasm née Bateson, gave birth to you at 3:13 am, January 23rd, a Wednesday morning. You were born on a cold, rainy, winter’s night and it could be said, in a certain sense, that your mother was never to leave that place where it was always winter, always night and always raining. She was to keep on reliving the horror of that moment for the rest of her days.

Given such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that you remember little of your mother and what you do remember is so distressing, that you automatically repress it. After all, who would want to remember the visits to the clinic of the moment, the wordless Sunday afternoons spent fidgeting in a chair opposite the pale stranger who failed to acknowledge your existence? Nobody really…

At least your father was well disposed towards you, after a fashion. However, you had a great many rivals for his affection, didn’t you? Daddy’s many girlfriends made for more suitable companions, so you spent a good deal of your childhood at the home of your maternal grandmother, Edith Bateson. Now Grannie Edith, it must be said, admirably stepped up and assumed responsibility for your upbringing. Good job really, as nobody else was prepared to accept it.

A fine, upstanding woman —your grandmother. She does have one minor vice, though. Perhaps vice is too strong of a word, really more of a foible. It’s really a question of degree, don’t you think? One man’s casual time-killer is another man’s overriding obsession. Anyway, your grandmother liked to have a little flutter now and then on the gees-gees. Nothing much, a fiver here and a fiver there. No harm done, just enough to make things a little more interesting.

Nothing wrong in that, but it did mean that you spent a good many afternoons in front of the TV watching horses run in a circle around a track. Every race held you mesmerized. You readily picked up the rudiments of form and odds and you passed your intuitive understanding onto your grandmother who often followed your tips. Still, only a fiver though, for her gambling would never be more than an amusing diversion. If she won, you would get a little extra pocket-money or a special treat, like ice cream or a toy that you coveted. Every gift received served to focus your attention on studying the guides, discerning the tricks and playing the angles. Even in school —when you bothered to show up— your mind was never on the blackboard. Instead, you were thinking of combinations and permutations, calculating the possibilities of the big win.

She paused and sat back again. ’My, I must say, Max, you’ve gone rather pale. Look at yourself, you’re shaking. You obviously need a drink. So do I. All that talking is thirsty work. Where has that waitress gone? Nina, isn’t it?’  She stood. ‘Probably easier if I went downstairs and got it myself. A bottle of red would suit, don’t you think?’

“Red is fine,’ Max answered in a dull voice.

Catarina slipped from the room and went down the stairs.

Usually, he would have derived great pleasure watching the retreating backside of a woman as beautiful as Catarina, but instead, he carried on staring at the space she had vacated. He wished with every nerve in his body that she would pass the bar downstairs, continue though the door onto the street and carry on walking until she was far, far away.

Max knew, however, that was a vain, idle hope. Whoever this woman really was, she was here for a reason. She had a purpose in mind and that purpose involved him. As to why he should be targeted in such a manner, he couldn’t begin to fathom. But she was targeting him, no doubt about that. She knew all about him. She knew things about him that he’d never told to anyone else, not even Catherine. She knew every, last, dirty, little secret. All of them. How was that possible? How did she know about Gran, his father and, and… His stomach knotted. Oh god, no, not that…

She even knew about all the stuff he’d buried. All those memories that he’d chosen to forget, because they were just too painful to recollect, even in passing. Max, Max, poor little orphan boy, lost and alone in the cold, cruel world. No, he hadn’t been an orphan in any legal or technical sense, not until he was seventeen, anyway, after his father had gone and done what he did. Nevertheless, that cunning bitch had clearly been insinuating as much, and he might as well have been, with parents like his.

She had stirred up those long-suppressed memories from his childhood. Dredged from the depths of his mind, they floated to the surface like pond scum…

He’s on the long bus trip with Gran. She’s brought a paper packet filled to the brim with pick-and-mix sweets. There’s a dense fog. They’re going to visit mother in her new place. It’s way out in the sticks. He spends the trip silently sucking on boiled sweets. They get off the bus and stand on the empty village street for a long time. He’s cold. He complains about it. Gran tells him that they won’t have to wait much longer, mum will be here soon to take us into her nice, warm house and make us a lovely, hot cup of tea, or maybe hot chocolate, if you prefer and she’ll also have some bourbons, biscuits, or even a piece of cake. ‘Now isn’t that something to look forward to?’ she asks, ‘and besides, I’m sure you’re looking forward to seeing your mum again, aren’t you?’ Max nods his head in agreement and says, ‘Very much so.’  But he wishes she would hurry up and come, as it’s so cold out here. He feels guilty because he told a lie. He doesn’t really want to see his mother, although he knows that he should want to. She is his mother after all, but Max feels scared whenever he is with her. He wants to be back home with Gran, sitting next to the fire, drinking hot chocolate, eating biscuits and watching the horses like they usually did, instead of standing around on this eerie street in the middle of nowhere. Gran answers that she’s sure she’ll be here soon, something must be holding her up.

After waiting for what seems to be an eternity, Gran silently takes his hand and walks down the road until she sees a red, public phone box. She tells him to wait outside, but not to go anywhere, just stand right there where she can see him, and enters. He watches Gran fumbling in her purse. He knows, from the way her lips are drawn together in a thin line, that she is angry. He hopes that she is not angry with him. She picks up the receiver and puts some coins in the slot. Max stands stock still so that Gran can see where he is. After a long while, during which Max can see her talking and again, fumbling around, Gran pulls out a pencil and paper. After writing on the scrap of paper, she slams the phone down. She grabs his hand again and pulls him along, as she marches through the town into the open countryside. He doesn’t say anything. He knew all along that mum was going to let them down. She always had done, why should today be any different?

He is tired and frozen to the bone by the time they reach the small one story cottage where his mother has just moved to. Gran has to use the lion’s head knocker several times before the door finally opens. His mother, still in a dressing gown, lets them in. In the hallway, she grabs hold of Max and hugs him too tightly for too long. The house is chilly and damp. There is no hot chocolate or even tea. He sits in front of the television and drinks weak cordial that barely disguises the taste of rusty tap water. He turns up the volume on the racing to drown out the sound of arguing. Later on, he knows Gran will let him stay up late as a special treat, to make up for having to visit his mother…

Catarina returned with an uncorked bottle of Malbec and two red glasses. She had been right; he really did need a drink.

‘That waitress of yours loves to chat, doesn’t she?’ she said, as she poured two glasses and returned to the seat opposite him.

‘Yes, Nina is very vivacious. Guests love that though,’ Max answered guardedly.

‘Of course,’ she agreed. ‘And she is such a pretty little thing, you can’t help but love her.’

Max sipped the wine. He had to restrain himself from draining the glass. What game was she playing?

‘Who are you?’ he demanded, draining his glass and pouring himself another.

‘Have you already forgotten Max? Thought I made more of an impression than that,’ she said, feigning hurt. ‘I’m Catarina Blanca, restaurant critic with Food & Drink magazine. But you can call me Cat if you like.’

She was the picture of innocence. A guileless expression played upon her flawless features. Max knew he’d been had. Enough already, it was time to get to the bottom of all this.

‘Don’t give me that. I’m not stupid, you know,’ he snapped. ‘I don’t want to hear anymore of that shite about a review. We’re way past that point, don’t you think? No, what I want to know is: who the fuck are you, really, and what do you want from me? Why the hell are you here in my restaurant and how come you know so much about my past, Cat? I can see you’ve done your homework on me. You’ve snooped around and you think you’ve got something on me. So do me a favour, please, and come straight out with it, this time. Ok, Cat?’ He spat her name out like a curse.

She didn’t respond, she merely smiled. Normally, Max would have interpreted such a warm, friendly smile as expressing a degree of empathy. But under the circumstances, he wasn’t buying it for a heartbeat.

‘You know what you need right now, don’t you Max? A cigarette. I know I’m dying for one. Let me get mine,’ she said, searching in her black handbag. ‘Ah, here we are,’ she exclaimed triumphantly as she produced the pack with a flourish. She took off the clear wrapper, edged out two cigarettes and leaning her elbows against the table offered one to Max.

‘Thanks, but I’ve given up. Besides, you know you can’t smoke in a restaurant these days. It’s against the law.’

‘Are you sure you don’t want one?’ she repeated, shaking the pack slightly. ‘No? Suit yourself, I suppose, but you really look like you need one, to take the edge off. I don’t know about you, but I can never understand why people worry so much about their long-term health prospects, when they have no idea what’s coming around the very next corner. Mind you, maybe that’s just me.’

Now what was that supposed to mean? Surely there was no other way of interpreting a statement like that other than as a thinly veiled threat. ‘Thanks again, but no thanks. And if you insist on smoking, then you’ll have to go outside.’

‘Come on now, Max,’ she said, pursing her lips in a pout. ‘Are you really going to make me go outside? I do believe it’s still raining. Besides, I don’t see anyone around to complain, do you? Really, I’m surprised, but then they always say that the ones who give up are the worst. Why do you think that is, Max? Is it because they can’t stand to see other people enjoy what they can no longer enjoy themselves? Rather petty, don’t you think? Are you like that about certain other vices in which you no longer indulge? What do you feel in your heart when you pass a bookie’s or a casino? Is it rage? Or maybe envy? Disgust? Desire? Maybe a mixture of all those conflicting emotions that you’ve had to fight long and hard to overcome and master? But tell me this Max, is denying yourself like that really worth it? Deep down, I know you doubt the wisdom of such virtue. Because at the end of the day, it really isn’t you, is it? Go on now, Max, take the cigarette, you know you want to. The shame that you will force yourself to feel is nothing compared to the pleasure that you will experience. Go on and take one,’ she said, waving the pack in front of him.

She was right. There hadn’t been a day yet that hadn’t involved desperate cravings at some juncture. Since returning from Vegas, he had been determined to resist all temptations on the logic that if you surrender to one, then you’re more likely to succumb to others. But he badly needed a cigarette right now. He needed to think. And despite all the bad things you could say about tobacco, it certainly helped him concentrate.

‘Thanks, have you got a lighter then?’ he said, pulling a cigarette out of the pack and raising it to his lips.

‘Sure,’ she said, passing Max the elegant gold lighter after lighting her own cigarette.

He lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. God, that was good, even better than he remembered. He’d almost forgotten that delicious, light-headed sensation. A dizzying bliss. He offered Catarina her lighter back, but she told him to keep it, just in case he needed it in the future.

They smoked in silence for a couple of minutes, using the saucer as an ashtray, as there were none in the restaurant. Max looked warily through the drifting smoke clouds at Catarina. She hadn’t answered any of his questions —she had deflected them with this whole cigarette charade. Yet with each drag, the possibility of posing questions to this creature sitting opposite him, seemed evermore unlikely. In fact, with every sharp intake of nicotine, Max felt increasingly detached from this whole unreal situation. And tired as well. Very, very, tired all of a sudden. Even stubbing out the cigarette in the saucer required an effort that took an inordinate amount of time. She had started talking again, but he paid no attention. His arm had fallen off the table and lay like a leaden weight in his lap. His whole body had become heavy and dense; the slightest movement was suddenly out of the question. All Max could do was swallow the iron-tasting saliva that flooded his mouth and close his sand-filled eyes.

The world could just go and fuck off, as far as Max was concerned. Obviously, I’m exhausted, he thought, as the sound of Catarina’s voice and the distant hum of the restaurant equipment receded into an echo-y reverb. A power nap would be just the ticket. He would awake refreshed and re-invigorated, ready for anything. Max was drifting further off when an unpleasant thought struck him. Something was wrong, everything was wrong. It wasn’t his way to nod off in the middle of the afternoon like this. He hadn’t been exhausted before this sinister little tête-à-tête. Even during the interview. The two glasses of wine that he’d drunk might have made Max a little sleepy-eyed, but certainly not this overwhelming stupor and general paralysis, this near catatonic state.

Of course… the wine…She’d slipped him a Mickey Finn or maybe spiked that cigarette she’d been so insistent he smoke. She’d given him something —some poison to contaminate his body and fuck with his head.

Max knew he had to fight against whatever substance was coursing though his blood stream. He tried opening his eyes but they were glued shut like the time he’d come down with conjunctivitis. He tried clasping his hands into fists but they remained inert. He couldn’t even move them a fraction of a millimetre.

After an indefinite period of time, Max become aware of the quiet. Even the echoes of Catarina’s voice had faded. There wasn’t a hint of sound. Instead, there was an absolute silence, the likes of which is not found anywhere in this world, in this life.

Was this what death was like? The brain continuing to function, yet in a void, divorced from the body and deprived of all necessary sensations? An after-life of absolute negation? And if so, did that mean he was already dead? Had the poison she’d given him killed him? Was this it…?

But then, sounds, distant at first, but gradually becoming louder, began to filter through to Max. Not the sounds of the Noir Et Rouge, yet sounds that were still distinctly and instantly recognizable to Max. Before he’d managed to get his eyes unstuck and opened, he knew by the incessant chiming of hungry slot machines, demanding to be fed, and the hubbub of the multitude of excited voices punctuated by the louder, dispassionate tones of number callers and croupiers, that he was in a casino.

Tempting Fate: Part Nine

30cce3c87b45be601ee15707c8cdc0221
Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

Previous instalments can be found at Tempting Fate: Part OneTempting Fate: Part TwoTempting Fate: Part ThreeTempting Fate: Part FourTempting Fate: Part FiveTempting Fate: Part SixTempting Fate: Part Seven and Tempting Fate: Part Eight. thanks as always to drmegsorick.com for advice and support.

Max returned with the drinks and slid in beside Margot. ‘Cheers,’ he said, as they touched glasses and then promptly drained them. He was back at the bar within minutes, not even having time to finish smoking one cigarette. Boy, he was in the mood, now. The second dose was unfurling within his cells like a flower opening up to receive the first rays of the morning sun. This promised to be a hell of a night, indeed. Never before had he felt so clear-headed, so sharp and so aware. Preternaturally aware, in fact, of everything that was going to happen before it actually happened. He was a god surveying the world from the majestic heights of Mount Olympus.

After the fourth (or maybe fifth) drink, Margot decided that, even though still early —night had just fallen— it was time they made their way to Kubla Khan’s. Another drink at the bar would while away the time.

‘Great, I just need to head to the jacks before we go,’ Max said, standing.

‘Work away. I’ll meet you in the lobby.’

Everything in the toilet —the urinals, the cubicles, the porcelain sink— was a vivid, startling shade of ultramarine. Was it the lighting? Or maybe the drugs?

After pissing in the bright blue urinal and washing his hands at the equally dazzling sink, Max thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to splash a little water on his face and freshen up his appearance, though he already felt better than fine. As he reached for the paper towels to dry his face, he checked himself in the mirror. He studied his reflection in the mirror and found everything to be just right until, as he was about to walk away, he noticed a splash of red appear on the left hand side. ‘God, what was this now?’ Max thought. Hadn’t he learnt his lesson? You should never look in the mirror when you are completely fucking out of it.

The red splash on the facing cubicle door gradually coalesced into a blob which then separated into letters that read out ᗡAƎᗡ ᖷᖷO ЯƎTTƎᙠ TИUƆ What? Of course it was reversed in the mirror and after a moment’s thought Max realised it read CUNT BETTER OFF DEAD.

He spun on his heels to look at the defaced cubicle, but found it pristine and glowing banally blue. Yet, when he returned his gaze to the mirror, the obscene message was still there. It didn’t even make any sense. Was it in some way directed at him? Did someone feel that he would be better off dead? Or was it meant to be a vicious insult, an expression of violent, misogynistic rage aimed randomly or directed at women in general?

While Max pivoted back and forth to stare at the blank cubicle and the mirror with its message, someone emerged from the corner of the toilet. Where the fuck did this joker come from? Had he been there the whole time? Had he silently witnessed the strange behaviour which could only be construed as the actions of a madman? Time to get out of this cursed bathroom and get some clean, fresh air.
The man stood next to him, sighed and turned on the tap. He washed his hands and as he was drying them said, ‘Howrye? You seem slightly distracted my friend, however not to worry, it’s nothing a little bump wouldn’t sort out in a hurry. I trust you partake?’

Max gaped at him, perplexed. He seemed to be in his late forties or thereabouts. What was this? A mad, fucking, Irish queen?

‘?’ Max silently queried.

‘Ahhh, I think you have misconstrued me my friend. No, I mean a little something something, you know?’ he said, pulling out a small clear plastic bag containing a pure white powder. He then proceeded to carefully pour it out onto the space between the index finger and thumb of his clenched left fist. Holding it toward Max’s face, he went on, ‘Trust me. I mean you and your lovely lady friend —my, isn’t she just peachy creamy— no harm whatsoever. Go on, what currently offends your eyes will disappear without a trace after you have tried a taste.’

This was getting stranger by the second. He knew about Margot? How? He knew Max was seeing things? Was his state of mind that obvious? And why the hell did everyone Max met today want to give him drugs?

‘Thanks,’ Max said, bending down to inhale the substance. In for a penny, in for a pound after all.

‘My pleasure. See, isn’t that better?’

Max dusted his nose and hardly daring to look, glanced at the left-hand corner of the mirror. The red lettering was gone. Thank God.

‘It most certainly is. Thanks. Ummm, do I owe you anything for that?’ Max asked, starting to grin. He just couldn’t help himself.

‘Not at all. I was just helping someone who was obviously in need. What terrible reprobate and general scoundrel wouldn’t do the same? Ask anyone in Carlingford in the Wee County what kind of man is Matthew Flynn Flaherty O’Neill and they will say without exception that he is a good man, a kind man.’

‘I am sure they would. So how did you end up here?’ Max asked as he buried his face under the running tap.

‘Ahhh well, you know, it’s a beautiful corner of God’s earth, but with The Troubles and it being not only in Ireland but in Ra-Ra-Land, a poor soul like me just cannot enjoy himself. So I came over here and now I am the Night-Watchman. Such is life,’ he said and sighed.

‘Well, thanks again. I am in your debt.’

‘Not at all. In fact, please give this to your delightful lady friend with my compliments,’ he said and handed over another small bag full to the brim with white powder.

‘Really?’

‘I insist.’

‘Cheers, mate,’ Max said, quickly walking out of the bathroom before the Irishman sprung the catch on him and headed towards the hotel lobby.

Margot was sitting on one of the lobby’s angular leather sofas. When Max reached her, she said, ‘Christ, you certainly took your time. My God, you are positively glowing! What on earth were you doing in there?’

‘It’s a long story. However, somebody give me a gift for you,’ Max said and passed over the packet.

Margot looked down briefly before closing her palm.

‘Who gave you this?’ she asked.

‘Some crazy Irishman, said he was the Night-Watchman. I dunno. But it’s good, I can testify to that.’

‘Well, I suppose I better go to the powder room then,’ Margot said, rising. ‘By the way, I booked us a room for the night, just in case we miss the last train.’

Max tried to prevent his already wide grin from growing wider but his attempt was doomed to fail. ‘Really? Good idea, Batman.’

‘You needn’t be getting any ideas, Max. Now, wipe that stupid grin off your face and all. It’s merely a precaution.’

‘Right. Sound.’

‘I won’t be long. Sit tight.’

‘I’m going nowhere. Hurry up, though.’

‘Will do,’ she said, sauntering off across the lobby. Max followed the switch of her hips for as long as she was within sight.

Happy, happy fucking, happy days.

Margot was as good as her word and soon came out. As they left the hotel, Max couldn’t suppress the anticipation he felt inside that soon enough —this very night— they would be back.

There were several taxis waiting. They got in the one at the top of the queue. Their driver was a heavy looking fellow with a bull’s neck wearing a fluorescent-pink polo shirt.

‘Where to?’ he asked in a thick Birmingham accent.

‘To Kubla Khan’s please,’ Margot replied.

He shook his head vigorously. ’Sorry about this, but you two lovebirds can hop right out again and get into the next taxi in the line, because there is no way I am going anywhere near that place. It’s in a fucking shit-hole of a neighbourhood and what with the canals and flyovers it will ruin my vehicle. Go on then, run along.’

Max was stunned. How could he refuse to take them? And more importantly, what kind of place was Margot taking him to?

Margot, however, didn’t skip a beat. Smiling sweetly, Margot merely leaned over and whispered into the taxi driver’s ear. Max couldn’t overhear a single word, but whatever she said did the trick. Looking visibly paler beneath his sun-bed tan, the driver turned the key in the ignition and pulled away from the curb.

Max marveled. What kind of power did Margot wield that she could, with a few words, coerce this taciturn bully of a man into taking them someplace he had moments earlier refused to go? His attitude had been so transformed that he even attempted to make conversation, albeit the usual taxi driver drivel about Birmingham having more canals than Venice and such-like. Did they know that? No, and neither did they care.

He was right about the location, as well. Beneath a gigantic flyover, they crossed a pot-holed bridge that was the only access to the disused warehouse that had been converted, complete with a fake pagoda facade, into Kubla Khan’s.

The driver stopped the taxi in front of the entrance to let them out, but drove off without asking for any money. Weird. Had he muttered something about some cunts being better off dead? Or was Max just being paranoid? Hearing things that were just an echo of his earlier hallucination? Whatever the case, Margot must have really done a number on the driver. He wanted to ask her what she had said to him, but in this instance maybe ignorance was bliss. Maybe. Probably. Almost definitely so.

Margot took his hand as they walked though the muddy wasteland, stepping over craters overflowing with rusty water and averting their eyes from the homeless people who huddled over garbage can fires and found shelter beneath the herculean legs of the flyover.

So finally, Max thought, we have reached our destination. Everybody who is anybody is in the place. Well, it seems as though the night is just starting but the games have already begun.