Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Dark Chintz

Gutger Kyle was to be our spokesman.

"Why him?" I asked, pointing towards the framed yellowy photograph on the wall of our bedsit.

"Why not him?" asked Lucy.

"That doesn't seem to be a good reason."

Lucy and I were ensconced in our love-pad, one where we'd not yet made love but one where we would make love one of these days, given the correct ceremony of foreplay or negotiation by a third party. We'd rented the place to live together in. An unspoken purpose, till there was someone purposeful enough to speak it. But what would a single man and woman rent a place for, other than to live together in? And being sound of limb and mind, what else could living-together mean if it were not loving-together? To live is to love had long been a maxim of mine. But to live together was doubly so. Yet, then, neither of us had accounted for Gutger Kyle.

When we first moved in on that dark, rainy, soggy-leaved Wednesday afternoon, the name Gutger Kyle was unknown to both Lucy and myself. Only gradually did the person behind the name impinge upon our consciousness. But everybody's name, at the end of the day, is a pseudonym for the body. So we should have not been surprised at the outcome, should we?

Lucy had certainly never heard of him before nor, obviously, met him in any shape or form. Me likewise. I suppose it being a furnished bedsit would help us both disown ownership of the photo. But why was this particular photo hiding its own shape of size on the chintzy wallpaper? - wallpaper pasted up on the plaster, no doubt, at the behest of the even chintzier landlady - who recommended the bedsit to us by its view of suburban roofscapes. But London was full of such scenes, I'd thought. Wet shades of grey, as the evenings drew in.

Several weeks passed before we put two and two together, which was never easy when there was only two of you to start off with. The photo was the same as that on a hardback's dust-wrapper - one of several motheaten books the landlady had left leaning against each other - presumably for show, since nobody, surely, read proper books in this neck of the London woods. Except, perhaps, Lucy and I. They seemed to be cast-offs from the time when Boots the Chemist issued you with library tickets as well as phials of cure-all medicine. Foxed and thumbrinted, with a strange label that centuries couldn't unstick. A squashed insect halfway down page 57. Something worse squashed on page 102. The tome in question with the photo was, of course, by Gutger Kyle, or how else would Lucy and I have known his name? Called GHOSTS A MILLION it was. Another by the same author was THE BLACK SPOOK. Another one - what was it called? - WILD HONEY. In fact, as I began to cast my eyes through them, I felt I knew the style of the prose already. Or was that the benefit of hindsight? Whatever the case, I, too, can write just like Kyle. Rubbed off on me. Got my word-wings caught in that damn honey!

In any event, judging by the bibliographical details inside the title pages, Gutger Kyle was more prolific than his lack of fame could explain. However, the most astonishing matter, to Lucy, as well as me, was the smell of the Kyle books. Many book-lovers and word-worms maintain that an intrinsic feature of a book's aesthetic value is the manner its 'nose' can remind one of better days, endless summer holidays, the wonder of childhood, bee-buzzing meadows, the nuances of nostalgia or the cloying of chintz. A cross between mustiness and turmeric. Cough linctus. Newness and oldness combined. And permutations of redolence. Speech-marks and spokesmoke. And whatever. There are no right words. Or all words are right. But redolence is the best. It springs to mind. The only way to convey the colour red in smell? Maybe. Or yellow. Or thick thick dandelion wine. Or liquid bees. Or, even, earwax.

The book which smelt, according to Stanley, strangely - so strong, so strange, it brought back memories you'd never had. The book was by Gutger Kyle, yes. Entitled. YELLOW TEARS.

Incidentally, Stanley was the landlady's - he told us Kyle rented our room in the thirties - hence his photo on the wall - but did that follow? - would Lucy's and my photo be put up, when we left? - yet I never asked the question - I needed someone else to ask. Stanley was a spiv. He sold things on - how shall we say? - like photos, I suppose, to people who didn't want to be taken. He set children on stuffed donkeys. Gave adults the organ-grinder's monkey to hold. Then snapped them. Clicked his fingers and waited for the money to turn itself into foodstuff for him and Mrs Ladle (the landlady). He said he had known Gutger Kyle. Took the very photo on the book jacket. And on the wall. All those years ago, when Stanley first started out as portrait painter of the single brushstroke. And Kyle was a young writer, without a publication to his name.

The time came, however, when Lucy and I started to smell the books purely in the hope of osmosis regarding the plots. But eventually we stopped not reading them: the only way I can describe our negative approach to fathoming their content. In fact, I tried to read them aloud to Lucy,in moments of desperate foreplay. At the same time, I was intent on not looking at the pages, in case I was infected by something in the shadows of the words and in their appearance on the yellow-mapped pages. We spent many a night making the small hours smaller, whiling them, not away, but back, as if summoning up a past that would not have existed if it weren't for us in that past's future: a future created by our very perusal of the pearls of wisdom which a certain Gutger Kyle had once decided to disseminate in the guise of novel ghosts. In short, we laid ourselves open to the serendipities of life and, hopefully, love.

Soon we read more into those books and, if it were not for the blur of memory tinged by dream, I'd be convinced that Stanley and the Landlady were merely characters in the fiction rather than the real people who were our neighbours in the house. Skylady and fancy man.

A story - one in an anthology that included several famous writers such as Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Lawrence Durrell, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Charles Dickens, as well as unknown ones such as Gutger Kyle - was particularly disturbing. Kyle seemed to have condensed his usual free-fall style that often ranged wide in plot, place and people into a more hard-core vision, where word was plot, white spaces and wide margins place and monsters people. In any normal sense, one couldn't relate to it other than as a pure poem which happened to be prose. I often glanced up at the photo as I read the story aloud, wondering how anybody could write like that, particularly a human being, one, presumably, with frailties and a brittle bone covering the brain.

Lucy listened breathless. I needed to breathe, however, in view of imparting the words from the page via my voice-box into her eyes - which eyes, in turn, spoke volumes as to her frightened reaction.

Halfway through there was a sudden knock on our door.

"It's only me!"

Evidently Mrs Ladle.


Lucy broke her breath-fast with this single word.

"There's been a phone call. Didn't say who they were but it was a crossed-line, too, and one of those calling mentioned your names ... but then it went dead - and I wondered if you were expecting a call and would know who to call back..."

Mrs Ladle's voice was muffled by the closed door. I placed the anthology upon the bed-quilt and walked over to grab the handle, in the hope of instilling some sense into the end-game of her visit. Getting rid of the interruption was an art form in itself, even if a hard-nosed priority. I forget exactly the outcome but, apparently, Stanley was worried about anonymous callers. He called them undergrunts. He and the landlady were ex-directory while, by virtue of being tenants, Lucy and I were tantamount to nameless as far as most of the outside world was concerned. The Poll Tax authorities were sublimely ignorant of our existence, and aborted telephone calls seemed more sinister than the possible people making them.

Mrs Ladle had disappeared by the time I had opened the door to her, because she'd heard Stanley shouting - or, rather, banging the dinner gong in the downstairs hall.

"I wonder what all that was about," I said, returning to the anthology.

Lucy shrugged. I wanted her to kiss me.

I forget exactly the outcome, as I said, but, somehow, we had lost all enthusiasm for the Kyle story and its faltering synchronicities. In fact, the dream it described was interrupted by the relentless ringing of a phone which woke the story's protagonist - as I was to discover upon reading it to the end a few weeks later, when Lucy was out job-hunting. It transpired that the protagonist was a monster just like the monsters in the nightmares from which it had been woken up.

While failing to fathom my own motivation, I jumped up from the bed - where I usually sat for want of an easy chair - and peered under the photo on the wall. It took Lucy's absence to allow me to show off my bravado in such an act. Otherwise, I may have failed, with her watching, which would have been the worst of both worlds. Good job she was out job-hunting at the time, then. Well, beneath the framed image of Gutger Kyle (the image that had bedevilled our waking lives together, without us really realising it) was the oblong of wall it had covered for - how many years?. And there resided the faded imprint of the same image. Yet, instead of the sepia of the ancient photo, it was a sort of negative, not black and white, rather shades of grey. Shades of grey. That rang a bell. Ghost were shades of grey. But, no, it was more a mirror image where the mirror itself was as insubstantial as the reflection upon it. Nevertheless, it was proud from the wall - previously sunken, no doubt, into the inset frame's back, the one I'd just lifted up - as if the image was trying to escape the plaster. And, indeed, underneath, the wallpaper was neatly cut away, revealing this nether face, uncluttered by chintz. At the eyes, there welled waxen pearls of sorrow, gummy to my yellow touch.

My description fails because I am no mirror. I am more that type of insubstantial mirror I was actually trying to describe. Lucy would understand.

Of course, I questioned Mrs Ladle about it. She asked me to tell her Stanley. He was the one, she said, who saw to all the odd jobs. Not her.

Lucy never returned. Evidently got a job. Or so I was told by a mutual acquaintance who had a foot in both camps. As to Gutger Kyle, I never bothered to lift up his photo again, in case it had all been a dream. I needed to cherish madness while I could: to help me get over Lucy.

I conducted some research in the local library regarding Gutger Kyle. he did straddle, as I suspected, the turn of the century. He wrote many novels and was, at one time, as famous as those who remain famous now. He struck up a fleeting relationship with the authoress Ivy Compton-Burnett but as that is omitted from her biography, I wonder if it was true. In fact, that might be where I went wrong: believing what I read in books.

Lucy would understand. I can hear her breathing in the wall. Walls can collect sounds as well as memories. Places are people. Plots are pasts without a future. I'll have to get Mrs Ladle's Stanley up here to see to the pipes, I guess. He says he wants to take an old photo of me.

The job Lucy got, I hear, is one of being a real person. Or, at least, a spokesperson. Well, it's a promising start. Pity we never made it together, though.

(published "Dream From The Strangers' Cafe" 1994)

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