Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Fall From Grace

First published 'Song of Cthulhu' (Chaosium Books) 2001
Written in Sark 1992



There can only be more fear coming with the words. But I simply write them to keep more worrying ones at bay.

"This is where the hinge would have gone," announced the well-endowed woman as she passed her arm up through the hole. A tongue of stone, near the top of the Cyclopean boulder, was a protrusion which her demonstration proved was not entirely solid. Judging by the difficulty she had withdrawing her arm, the dimensions of the aperture were evidently not great. I could imagine the wooden pole that was inserted there years ago and the huge gate hung from it across the lane. But why a gate here?

"Why was a gate needed here?"

Somebody else in the group had beaten me to the same question. In any event, 'hinge' didn't strike me as the best word, the one the buxom woman had decided to use, but I could not think of a better one. Whilst I was thus day-dreaming, my mind slipped a gear upon this and other preoccupations - and I had missed the answer to the question. So I provided my own answer: the road once needed to be blocked to prevent the easy transit of things that should not have walked the Earth.

I sucked my Polo mint from the middle outwards and trudged after the tassel of tourists as it coiled in the woman's wake. The day was hot, a fact which, based on the summer so far, was quite extraordinary - but ever since I'd arrived for a holiday, the sun had not failed to disperse the desultory clouds. The island was 3½ miles by 1 mile, irregularly ringed with back-breaking climbs down to craggy bays. And the lack of cars was a heaven, despite the few tractors to which it would have been uncharitable not to permit the five hundred inhabitants to have access. The tourists pedalled along the island's dusty lanes on hired push-bikes or clip-clopped around in horse-drawn buggies. The names of the bays rang alien to my English ears, with words I had seen written on the island map, like Leng, Rl'yeh and Tekeli-li!

In any event, the islander woman who chatted to us batches of holiday-makers on foot, as we accompanied her in constituent groups of twos and threes, was an expert on the gossipy sights of the island, including tales of an Occupation, which I took to be the German one during the Second World War. It was strange to believe that some of the old inhabitants had actually been subject to the Iron Heel of the Nazis ... but even stranger to hear said that the oldest ones had submitted themselves to other invading forces which were somehow softer, looser and, paradoxically, crueller.

One sight to which the large woman trooped us along was the very hotel in which I happened to be staying, a hotel that boasted a room where Victor Hugo had once slept. Yet some of the poems she read aloud to us spoke of things like Yuggothian Fungi and were, to my mind, as far from Hugo as it was possible to get.

In any event, the group tagging behind the woman guide was treated to coffee at this my hotel and I was delighted to see that some of the waitresses (who attended my table during dinner in the evenings) were milling about amid the clinking cups and saucers. The waitresses were indeed attractive: one in particular with boyish looks and confident mien, some others in the early blossom of womanhood, a few younger than I would have thought possible in such an occupation, all dressed smartly, if sombrely, from silky shirt to short skirt to black stockings - most with bashful looks on their faces, some more than others. In the evening, one or two of these waitresses seemed to sink back into the shadows of the dining-room wall to keep careful watch over us eaters, so that, presumably, they could the sooner clear up used crockery, whilst the other waitresses were in the kitchen making girlish noises to whomsoever prepared the excellent French-style cuisine. The diners themselves were predominantly French and it was a delight to hear the waitresses stutter in neither English nor French but some hybrid of both. Shyness incarnate, those waitresses. Prettiness personified. But I often felt a fear that they were not quite what they seemed: a feeling with no evidence to support it. Even the boyish waitress could not have looked sinister if she tried.

As I finished my Polo mint earlier in the day, I realised indeed that word association had caused me to think of 'pole'. 'Post' was better. Gate-post. I determined to repeat the question regarding the mysterious need for such gates on the island, since I had indeed spotted a few of those stone tongues elsewhere. I hastened after the female guide - but that was when we had, surprisingly, via paths I had not previously traversed, reached my hotel for coffee and for a Victor Hugo so foreign he ceased to be simply foreign.

So, the question of the hinge, ineluctably, faded from the forefront of my mind. I vaguely recall that I dreamed that night of a long pork snake that threaded the stone hole with the consequent squeezing of a moveable thinner section along its malleable extent. And its snorting noises seemed like a mixture of Welsh, French and German, with backsliding gutturals that belonged to none of these languages.

It was peculiarly difficult to sleep on the island, with its background of silence. This was in contrast to the quietest spots on England's mainland that were endemically infected with an insidious hum of traffic, the most distant of which seemed to be borne in on you by all means of mental and physical channels. But, here on the island, with the sea's insulation, paradoxically accentuated by cry of gull and wave's watery whispers, there was silence in its true sense - except for the occasional light footsteps of waitresses heading to their beds in their hotel annexe. Yet sleep, once established, was all the more powerful in its grip, resulting from its own satiation on such silence. Sleep was blacker than I ever remembered it on the mainland, but not without vague hints of impending curses and of echoes that leapfrogged words whilst retaining some nagging meaning which only a pukka language could convey.

The pre- and post-prandial drinks in the bar, with which I often tended to indulge myself when on my holidays, added to the initial restlessness as I tossed and turned upon the squeaky wooden bed-frame - but, then, with a single click of night's fingertips, I would drift into seamless slumber. The day's energetic clambering of crags and sunlit rock-pools also enabled the body thus to slip the mind's sticky spider-web more easily. All of which could not account for the incursion of that particular dream I later tried to recall but which, now, I've completely forgotten without rereading the worrying words I have written above.

When I woke in the morning, peculiarly unrefreshed, I found it troublesome, for the first time during my stay, to meet even the tolerant requirements of the hotel's availability of a cooked breakfast in the dining-room. The waitresses were not so pretty in the mornings, I had already noticed - and their attentiveness was imperfectly maintained. Still, young girls are infamously inconsistent. The boyish one had had her hair cropped even closer upon her day's leave yesterday across in a larger island nearby called Guernsey. However, I eschewed mentioning her change of hairstyle - not that I had ever held any meaningful conversations with her (or with any of the other waitresses) before this morning, so she probably didn't notice I was off colour and untalkative. I normally requested more toast after consuming the full English breakfast, but not this morning. I overheard the French conversations mumbling around my central table and, uncharacteristically, I did not bother to stumble through a clumsy translation. The difference between hearing and listening, I suppose.

Today, I determined to visit Derrible Bay (thus pronounced in the French way), one of the very few locations (named on my map) that I had not yet explored during my stay. I suspected it would be as similar to the other bays as they were to each other, such as Dixcart Bay (again thus pronounced in the French manner) and, yes, the ones whose strange names I had forgotten.

One such newly nameless bay had a particularly steep (even for this island) climb to its sandy cove: close to the causeway that led to a nearly separate peninsular of the coast, one which reminded me of an annexe or, in a more physiological likening, an appendix. It was almost as if it had been left unsqueezed at the bottom of a shapeless toothpaste tube.

In any event, Derrible Bay was to be my venture today. I would save my visit to the peninsular until my last full day on the island (tomorrow). Even so, I was sure there were other parts of the coastline I hadn't visited even once. But, for the first time, I noticed that the whole island was becoming slightly claustrophobic, yearning, as my subconscious probably was, for a good stretch in a train journey and a refresher course in resorts. A number of bikers nearly knocked me off my feet and I mentally shook a fist at their receding backs, as they pedalled off, no doubt, to the gardens and maze at La Seigneurie. It was then I noticed another of those stone tongues poking from the side of an islander's house. I decided, for no obvious reason, to put my own arm through it, as if, in hindsight, that would complete a circuit between me and the island's heart: an attempt at reconciliation.

The place had seemed so idyllic when I first arrived on the small ferry from St Peter Port, I had imagined I could stay forever in such a Shangri-La as this island. Now, I wasn't so sure. My arm just fitted the hole in the stone tongue but I could wobble it about, my hand emerging from the top like a five-feathered head-dress on a totem. As previously with the woman guide, it was more difficult to remove the arm than insert it. However, once accomplishing the withdrawal, I touched the outside of the stone that encompassed the hole. It vibrated, I'm sure, echoing my own metabolism. With some reluctance, I continued towards Derrible Bay and my assignation with yet one more alcove of contemplation. I couldn't get certain words out of my head, although, as I write, they have entirely vanished.

The path spiralled down towards the rocks where I could see somebody sun-bathing, draped across a rock in what I considered to be a most uncomfortable position. I soon gathered it was one of the waitresses from my hotel, respectably, if scantily, clad. This was the first time I had see a waitress out of uniform and I was surprised how surprised I actually was at such a sight. So surprised I almost slipped.

Her vulnerability as a human being was particularly striking. I decided to return towards the gull-screeching cliff and leave the poor girl in solitude. Yet, before I could accomplish my escape, she raised her head - and smiled. Simply that. All the waitresses in the hotel had often smiled in my direction, but this smile, in comparison, was more focussed - human, yet with an indefinable animal's instinct, if not with a bird's or, even, fish's. Her rearing stance from the rock allowed me to glimpse the tops of her small breasts. I waved, as if to say: "I do recognise you, but it's not fitting for a guest to acknowledge a waitress outside the hotel, especially here, when nobody else is about, not safe, not anything." And I ran all the way back, despite my normal inability even to walk such island paths without stopping to catch my breath.

The boyish waitress - who I later believed to have been that very "creature from the deeps" (as I tend to think of her now) whom I had encountered in Derrible Bay - served me my meal that evening. As I munched through the Duck a l'Orange, washed down with a half litre of dry white house wine, as was my habit, I wondered for the first time why there was no Gideon's Bible in my room (as was the wont in most hotels I had previously visited) but only a strange black-skinned book with Arabic-looking words. I also mused that there had been no yachts moored in Derrible Bay that day - which was strange because I'd never visited an empty bay before on this holiday: being August, there were many such white triangles around the whole island, peppered along its coastal outskirts like mosquitoes kissing the waves. Before the duck, I had struggled with a starter of a lobsterish fish, described in the menu by a French word I hadn't dared ask to be translated, but it was almost alive, I thought, as I held down its unwieldy tail with my fork whilst forcing off, with my knife, segments of pink meat from the central fan-nerved bone. I cannot recall its taste, but it does somehow dredge up another dream that disrupted the deep parts of my sleep that night....

Instead of silence outside the hotel, I heard the trundle of horse-traps and the gentle rumblestrips of bikers. But, surely, that could not be right, it being the dead of night. I dared not move but, in spite of such immobility, the bed squeaked - of its own volition. I dared not move because I simply knew I could not move even if I tried. The boyish waitress walked towards me and I could see as if I saw through her luminous eyes - but then I knew she did not walk at all, for she dragged part of herself behind her, across the carpet, and she held out her arms, with each five-pointed hand like a sculptor's about to mould clay into new shapes.



The next day I could not stir myself to do anything, except for a spot of packing and sitting in the hotel garden reading a Henry James novel. Towards evening the weather finally broke down with doses of drizzly wind. Yet, on the day after that, my spirits returned, as my body returned, as it were, to Guernsey, on the small ferry. I was childishly eager for the bigger ferry that would take me on to England. I now sat inside the ferry, in contrast to my excited sentry-like stance at the bows on the outward journey, waiting for what was then to have been the first glimpse of my holiday island. I tentatively felt all round my neck. Felt the collar bones. And deliciously scratched my back on the deck-rail. The break had been of at least some benefit. I was decidedly more in tune with my own body, with all that climbing in and out of the craggy bays.

I looked down at the tops of my own small breasts. Yes, no doubt about it, the break had done me a whole world of good. Leaner and fitter, indeed, for the encroaching chills of Autumn. And I relaxed my mind, listening to the other passengers drawl and prattle in words I wouldn't care to translate even if I could.

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1 comment:

Calenture said...

Your story reminded me of a pre-Raphaelite painting, The Sirens by Arnold Böcklin. The painting is curiously grotesque and tasteless, showing the Sirens hiding their inhuman lower regions behind a rock, surrounded by human skulls and bones.

I'll attempt to put a link to the page where I uploaded the picture, though I don't think Blogger will allow me to actually insert the picture here:

DF Lewis at VOE