Friday, September 16, 2005

An Ounce of Three Castles and a Packet of Blue Rizla

He was called Nagl. I originally came across him in a dream.

A concert pianist, of the first water - I can remember his fingers curved upon the keys, their nails long uncut to give the notes extra bite: every line and facet etched with the prehensility of dark genius. God, by comparison, would be a huge white sagging barrage balloon floating tetherless across endless turgid oceans.

I woke with the dream still plastered to the back of my skull, where my brain had sprayed it with all the force of cinemascope. The wordy pretentiousness stuck, too. At least for the duration of the Sixties.

I then met Nagl in real life. I was introduced to him at a party: evidently not as old as I had thought in my dream.

. "How are you?" he asked, as if we'd met before.

"Very well, thank you... Excuse me for being rude, but are you a pianist?"

He glanced down at his own fingers and I noted in the darkly fizzing lights that the nails were long and yellowy white.

"I play the piano, yes, but only for my own amusement. But how do you know?"

I shrugged and asked him to dance. Our small talk had been close to either grinding to an embarrassing halt or entering dangerous realms.

As we jabbed our hind legs sporadically to Mr Kite, I heard him, during breathless interludes, mention a few composers he liked playing, especially Scriabin. I nodded although, of course, I had never heard of the composer.

We parted on good terms, both of us promising to keep a weather eye for each other at future parties.

The following night, I dreamed of him for the second time. On this occasion, I was nearer to the front of the auditorium, standing amongst several others as we jostled to obtain the best position nearest to the pianist. The orchestra's tuning up was particularly frightening, but I put this down to the dream. The audience suddenly broke into cheering uproar, as Nagl (for it was indeed him) had marched to the podium with the conductor.

As the noise subsided, he squared himself on the adjustable stool, after having flapped out his tails from beneath. He made a few running chords along the slipstream of the keys...

He turned towards us. I was captivated, convinced that he was staring straight at me with piercing white eyes. He began speaking about the music which he was about to perform. Some of the audience asked him questions on style and interpretation. Most unusual. Pre-performance talks were quite common, but separate from the musical event itself, customarily held in a different venue an hour or two before the doors opened on the concert proper.

Eventually, I found myself asking a question, much against my better nature, even though I was conscious of the impatience of the orchestra members and their conductor (the latter being a maestro in his own right).

"Would you like me to buy you dinner after the concert?" I asked, my voice croaking with nervousness.

Nagl smiled and nodded. With some relief, I noticed the conductor raising his baton...

I awoke, bitterly disappointed that, after all the preamble, it would never be possible to hear the music. Nagl's description of it was more than just a little tantalising.

My disappointment continued at the next party. Nothing to be seen of him anywhere, unless he was one of those neckers in the dark corner. But if he were hiding, it could only be because he wanted to avoid me. I recalled the dream ... and the wicked smile.

The next time I slept, I merely collapsed into darkness, with the sense of fingers touching me all over. Yet, it was too blurred and forgetful to warrant the name dream. I was still obsessed with Nagl's inscrutability. Nagl this, Nagl that. I was bemused, in love and, peculiarly, wistful.

The next day, I tried to contact some of my friends (fellow guests at this season's parties) but none of them could recall him. But, I said, he had been the soul of the party. Surely nobody could have failed to note his striking pose, the glistening dusky face. How could I be so mistaken? Even now, I recalled the feel of his hand like claws as I twirled him round in an old-fashioned jive. The famous composer's name which he had mentioned as enjoying, however, had gone completely from my head. I wished I had written it down. But it was too late.

Nevertheless, I did dream of him again. This time, sleep was conducive to dreaming, I knew that straightaway. As soon as I planted my head on the pillow and closed my eyes, I felt him creeping up from the background. On all fours, I imagined. Or on his belly.

The first scene was a restaurant. We only had eyes for each other, so the waiters had to make do with cursory signals as to our wants. The menu lay between us on the table like an unread score. The candlelight brought out the matt swarthiness of his skin. His eyes were gentler than I ever remembered.

His fingers were hamfisted away from his piano, more pedestrian. He dropped his cutlery with unsightly clatters. Dreams only speak of visions, not sounds, I realised, thus easing my earlier disappointment at not catching the music before waking.

Whatever its ingredients, the meal was strangely unsatisfying. Afterwards, we left to go to his home. As he paid the bill, I promised to meet any further expenses of the evening. Eventually, after much toing and froing, we arrived at a large rambling house on the edge of the city ... with several staircase chimneystacks silhouetted against the moon-stained sky, like suprlus lumber that couldn't fit into the house's countless attics. The spiralling iron fire-escapes strangled the two end towers with the Devil's own jewellery. Dream talk, again. I shrugged in my sleep.

We had passed, on our way, a huge liner in dry dock still being worked on by overtime repairers at the dead of night. Several derelicts were sleeping nearby in the heat of the spotlights. Having reached the house, Nagl took me by the hand through the vast front entrance into a gorgeously draped hallway, where a toady helped us off with our capes.

Now being indoors, I felt I should instruct the toady to take our capes to the derelicts who would need them more.

I was shivering. I awoke to discover the covers had slipped from my bed. The pillow was sodden with tears ... my tears. I could only hope against hope that the next night would see me dreaming again with a vengeance.

During the day, I purchased an ounce of Three Castles and a packet of Blue Rizla. I needed a good smoke.

Towards the middle of the afternoon, I wondered if there was in fact a building at the edge of the city similar to Nagl's house in my dream. I had never seen one with so many tall smokestacks, far too many in truth for the number of rooms they serviced. Mouth to mouth resuscitation, I mused. And the fire escapes so plentifully supplied, too. Surely it would not be too difficult to ascertain the whereabouts of such an edifice.

I was due to attend another party that evening and I determined to make enquiries with some of my more outlying bosom acquaintances. In the dream, which was now fast disappearing into a forgotten memory, Nagl and I had travelled to the house in a black taxi. There should be an underground entrance quite close, I assumed, the city being undermined with regiments of tube tunnels and Victorian sewer systems.

The party was a dead affair. People laid about half-drugged to the gills. One crazy individual, whom everybody called Rabbit, told me stories of his youth which he threatened would make my hairs curl. I looked for Nagl, not really expecting him to be present at such a lousy gig. Rabbit's ramblings were something I could have done without, but I humoured him with grunts and nods.

Then I saw Nagl. He was standing by the bar, in close conversation with a blonde. His shining skin sent pins and needles through my muscles. I could not get up from my squatting position near Rabbit, for my legs had gone dead. And even if I could, would he welcome my intervention?

There was a police raid. I even forgot Nagl in the havoc. Luckily, I was released with a caution, as I was, for once, clean as a whistle. They couldn't stand a charge up on Three Castles, could they?

Amid the milling turn-out on the pavements outside, I suddenly recalled Nagl ... and the blonde. Could that two-headed shape glimpsed disappearing around the next turning be them? I followed quickly, brushing aside Rabbit's invitation of a walk into the city centre in search of a late-night club. Instead, Rabbit tagged along with me, much to my annoyance. I did not have the heart to cut him dead.

Eventually, I collapsed into my own bed. Rabbit borrowed my bedroom floor, as he had done once before.

Dreams would be hard to come by that night, especially in my current frame of mind. However, gradually, I was back in Nagl's house. He sat poised before a Grand, smiling round at me. I think I must have been sitting in an armchair, artfully positioned so that I could benefit from both the best acoustics of the chamber and an unobstructed view of his arched hands upon the striped reptilian keyboard. The moment his tapering fingers touched, my hair stood on end. The music thrilled me beyond measure. I realised this must be his own composition, because it spoke Nagl in every semiquaver. I was privileged to be an audience of one as a song of pure genius was played for the first and last time. I was no longer the lonely lost soul who lived inside my head in real life.

The fingers, each one a bone in drag, moved across the pulsing keys. His face, even in the full light of the art deco lamp standard, was a shadow of itself. Each drop of sweat was as black as a spade on an ace.

The music's beauty was unbearable, its ugliness unimpeachable. I yearned for it to finish, so that I would be able to approach and tentatively fondle his body, he mine.

The keyboard became a sweat-slicked hide, swelling up so that his fingers actually moved inside it, as if he reached for the innards of some serpentine creature. Thus, the bizarre harmonies sounded from within our heads, not from out inward - as dreams dictated.

Piecemeal, the music tailed off, with an ending as unsatisfying as the restaurant's food we'd only just consumed. I vaguely recall leaving the music room and climbing the many flights of Nagl's stairs, his talons exquisitely embedded in my palm, as he led me ever upward.

I heard others making an unsightly clattering upon the fire escapes outside but could not tell whether they went up or down. They shouted something about a pirate uprising, but I couldn't be sure.

I fell into Nagl's arms as he dragged me into his vast four-poster, only to be swaddled by silk sheets. And I never saw the creature he must have become, only felt it like a child at a party guessing what the mystery object was in the otherwise shapless bag. The act of sexing insects wasn't a starter. Snakes on heat were two a penny. This dream cost a million souls to stage it...

I woke to find myself pinned to my own sodden mattress by Rabbit. I let him have his way, because love is stronger than hate, and less lasting.

Not long afterwards, the Sixties abruptly ended with a lurch towards blander decades. I assume Nagl still drifts from party to party, no doubt fibbing about being a concert pianist and owning a large house in Hampstead. I can no longer have dreams. Yet I hope Nagl can dream of me.

(published 'Peeping Tom' 1991)

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