David lived someone else's life. Not that he made a drama out of an identity crisis. Or so he thought. Or was it that someone else thought it? In any event, David convinced himself that he could not really be the individual who, on the face of it, he seemed to have become—working in an office factory in London from 9ish to 5ish: surely it was not possible for him to be a run-of-the-mill routine-toady, especially with a name like David, a name which incidentally had to be real since it could never have been invented.
He religiously followed the channels of destiny which were laid out before him, with glances to neither side. Blinkered by bathos. Dulled by a dire dearth of flair. Cramped by a strait-jacket of uncharisma. His wife, Freda, told him that she loved him—yet how could anyone love a souped-down zombie in the midst of living out a black situation comedy? It wouldn't have stood up to reason, if reason he had managed to apply to it.
Then a dose of doubt dawned on David—causing him to sense within himself the proper person he instinctively realised he truly was. David lived someone else’s wife. So, one night he fell asleep, after having bashed his head seven times on the pillow—a trick that worked better than an alarm clock set for seven next morning. However, that was the very last routine David carried out as the erstwhile self. Indeed, waking up had always been a struggle into renewed existence at the best of times—via the bleary regions of brainache, the blinking yellowmanker custard in his eyes and generous yawnfuls of sour spittle. But this particular morning, it was somewhat different. Everything seemed fresh, effervescent, renascent...
He failed to recognise Freda, since she now lived as someone else's wife. Mind you, she did not recognise him either and, what was more, overnight, her name had changed to Isabel. After the initial shock, they made love, as if it were the start of an illicit affair. Their kisses were searching, their foreplay an extended version of teenage exploration (with the backwash of sweet prurient froth upon the roof of the mouth), ending not in premature ejaculation but in a mutually stunning slowmo orgasm that lasted even beyond the fuel that fed it. The breakfast she then cooked was a feast fit for a banquet: jacket potatoes that had been gently simmering in the oven from the previous evening, providing melt-in-the-mouth flakiness and knobbed off with a generous dollop of fresh-churn butter; rare gammon steaks upon a bed of artfully under-coddled free-range eggs; toasted doorstops of granary bread smarmed with a marmalade so thick with peel it was tantamount to a whole-orange bob game at the fair; and, finally, a breakfast birthday cake where the candles seemed to burn upon the seeping fuel of the rich cake mixture itself—a mixture which was constituted of jumbo currants, molasses, long- and shortbread, oodles of rum &c.).
David did not understand why there were so many candles on the cake. Surely this was the first day of his life. A ready-born ... not tarnished from having emerged via the channels of a woman's body. But there was something very diminishing about not being able to blow out one's own birthday candles. So, he went to work ... but found his desk occupied by someone not called David, but Inigo, plugging away at routine tasks, the simplest of which would in any event be beyond him. He then lost himself in the city, where he would never find himself again. Freda-or-Isabel did not even bother to look for him, in any event, because she did not know he was lost. And never again did she rustle up bumper reward breakfasts for David.
Westerners, westerners, David hated those damnable westerners. The way they inveigled themselves into his little group, selling bottles of what they called "Titanic" water, it made his blood really boil. One in particular was a nasty piece of work: a westerner who came from a township that was further west than anyone could possibly go. The accent was so broad, it sounded as if the westerner had a wagon wheel wedged in his mouth. He picked David from the crowd, knowing simply from the cut of his face that David was not a pure westerner but from where west and east meet and thus an all-round character actor. But it was drawn stares at high noon.
The crowd faded into the background—and they became, for both David and the westerner, the Undergrunts who claimed that the sun always rose and set in exactly the same place upon the squeezed orange horizon. David, since his days with Freda, had become a professional character, open for offers to appear in plays, novels, poems, operas, bar mitzvahs—even avant garde prose. But his big ambition was to go into the army, since that was the life for a real man...
David, older and, hopefully, realler, had left the army with stars and sunrise in his eyes, to appear in stories, but really his heart was not in them, as he wanted to kill someone for some cause or other. He was not a greenhorn private, being a Captain who had pensioned himself out—well respected, too—they were sorry to see him ride off into the horizon. The only regret was that there were no proper wars about when he was in service. His regiment was also the most respected of them: the Third Royal Mercenary Hussar Reserves. Surprising that they sent them so far west.
The wizened old man—whom David found himself to have become—finally ceased his incessant chatter and looked the westerner straight in the eyes from below his drooping eyelids—one of which twitched uncontrollably like a wounded moth. He told the westerner that his name was David Ogden, a character out for what work he could get. But his continued whining to the westerner was almost imperceptible—a war-monger obviously off his rocker ... and he soon fell asleep like a wrinkled babe in dream's arms, only to be followed by a sleep slower than death. His heart was not in the story, but in the battles upon distant sun-streaked islands which continued within the dreams, until the last glimmer.
Any developments that occur—please tell David straightaway. He is fed up with making idle threats, so the next one will not be idle, he can promise you. By the way, do you like his new wild honeyed look? He has done his hair specially to entice you, but if you snub him again, by God, he'll make it very very painful for you. Hey! Are you listening? David's losing his patience. OK, OK, he has got you to look as if you're listening. That's half the battle. What do you think? Is he pretty? The way he has just raised his voice accentuates the blusher, don't you think? They do say that a woman is far more eye-opening when dressed, complete with suspender-belts and artfully positioned garters and frills, than a bare one. These things turn you on, I know they do. You can't fool David. Like you, David is nothing without his wardrobe. Nor without a westerner like you to hear his caterwauling. But your attention is drifting again—is David that boring? What's going on in your little head? He made you promise to keep him abreast of all developments. What! What! You're leaving him—to disappear into the sunset! You're fed up with him! Good God, David owns your brain, dear wrinkled rinkled westerner, and you'll never get away! You've simply have to keep him fully sweet and fully informed of developments or how else do you think an old man like David can function?
David could tell you thousands of jobs he has had as a character, but he has chosen this one because it happens to be true. Once upon a time, David was a child and, having been a child, one can more readily appreciate his predicament. He knew he was to become an adult and there was very little he could do about it. The necessity of quitting humanity and entering such a state of grown-up disgrace was a nightmare that dogged the heels of puberty. Not that there was a sharp dividing-line. But he does recall waking up one morning a slightly different person to what he then thought he was. Over a few months he became the westerner he is today, a pretty soulless, unimaginative, money-grabbing, moralistic individual with nothing to recommend him except the traces of nostalgia for his earlier state. But can one actually be "nostalgic" for something never experienced? For, then, David was another person. It eased the killing, if nothing else. It all has a happy ending in a way, because he is now in those very early days as a child setting up means to remind a later self of whom he may once have been. Can you credit the joy that gives him? Forever and ever, horizons apart. Yet, dreams come in two forms. Ones you know are dreams when you're dreaming them and the others that seem so real only waking can turn them back into dreams. Most of David's dreams used to fall into the former category but, more and more frequently these days, he experiences large doses of the latter—so much so, he is not at all sure whether he is dreaming now or not. He is pretty sure he is not. But equally he is pretty sure he is mistaken in being so confident about the existence of the current reality around him. And the "you" he addresses is out there somewhere, so simply make yourself known to him: it may help you both.
One day—David witnessed a soldier being gutted by another soldier, and they were both in the same uniform—and in broad daylight in a suburban street. And nobody seemed to bother, nobody went to intervene but merely passed by as if nothing were happening. He couldn't believe his eyes. It made him sick to the pit of his stomach watching a man's intestines being harvested from his innards like a weird bouquet of sexual organs. To think the world had come to this. Nothing but Undergrunts. He put it all down to dreaming—and when he wakes up eventually, he will try to find that dead soldier, to explain why he ignored his plight. But, on second thoughts, if he does wake up, where will that leave you? As the famous quotation goes: "Further west than you can possibly imagine, there's a bed-roll and a pan of piping hot beans—and tomorrow at sunbreak you'll be able to cross that last horizon to the last pattern of islands."
"I've never heard that said before. Anyway, want your usual?"
"No, make it a large one."
David thought he had just suffered a shock. Not that there could be much doubt about having a shock, except he felt as if this shock was self-inflicted, rather than deriving from an external force which could be assumed as the proximate cause. What was more, shocks in general rarely allowed their victims thus dispassionately to speculate about their nature.
"You do look a bit pale."
The westerner, who was not typical of that breed, bore a broad smile across his chops, as if he could not believe his own words. Indeed, after decades of seeking every pub for the innermost pub, he had learned that there was very little said in pubs that could be believed—if any of it.
"I've just had a bit of a fright—that's all."
David felt his cheeks, as if that would allow him to gauge their degree of purported paleness without an element of narrative collusion. As if, as if, as if, all was irritatingly as if. That's all. That's all. That's all. Frights were not exactly run-of-the-mill, were they? David sensed that he had belittled something that had been very big indeed. From now on in, he needed to overblow everything, to bring it all back into kilter. He took a second gulp at his neat rum and said:
"Yes, I was coming my usual way, you know, across Ashy Wood. Done it for donkey's years."
The rinkled westerner nodded, knowing full well that his head, given its head, would rather shake dissent, heads having more integrity than the people inside them.
"Well," David continued, "you know the bit between the field and the road-fence?"
"Yes, it's got barbed wire, hasn't it?"
The westerner had just proved he didn't know, despite David peppering his explanation with the odd "you know" or two. At the end of the day, the sad thing was simply nobody knew.
"Well, sort of," answered David. "Anyway, the sun being hot and real bright, I was surprised I couldn't see beyond the edge of trees—and there was a loud sneeze as if a full-blooded buffalo type of creature had a bad cold coming from it."
Coming from it? Coming from what? There was more meaning in the words than either could countenance or give credit for. Or equally no meaning at all. Nevertheless, David's tongue had escaped his teeth:
"There followed a snarl, or rather a roar, louder and snortier, even doggier, than anything heard from a bull-ring."
There was colour in David's words, like rum so red it was darker than any blackcurrant. Fruit-picking in Ashy Wood was an activity which older and older people pursued these days, he thought. Some of them, really old, with lungs that had become toughened leather as a result of careless burrow-smokes and even earlier youthful solvent abuse. Indeed, the act of scrumping engorged eye-bulbs from the scrawny head-rows was no longer simply the holiday past-time of schoolfolk. David shrugged as best he could without narrative force. There was now no need of such nonsensical words to further the fright or scare or shock or whatever he cared to call it. It just was.
He sucked the drink as if it were part and parcel of his breathing process and winked a loud "you know". But nobody received such collaboration of the cheek-muscles, since the westerner had been called across to a fresh bevy of snorting snifters, a clique of clients who, David inferred, had drained their ankle-socks, yonks ago. One of them looked like someone he once knew as Freda.
And there David's story would end, with emptiness gored upon the narrative vacuum of a story-tellers's ultimate shock in discovering that he was none other than its purely fictitious hero David. An implosion of meaning: an inverted snort: pub talk. Emptiness is tantamount to non-existence. But then Freda breezed back into David's life with very little warning. A confirmed bachelor, being accosted in a shop by a winsome, pointy-faced girl, he suddenly rediscovered a concupiscence he didn't know he had lost. And that was how they met again, even if neither could remember meeting before. She told him that she had become a confirmed spinster. He claimed it was more complicated than that—which was later borne out by the facts—but, at the time, complexity was the last thing on his mind. He was smitten, physically stirred, fighting back an unseemly lust and, quaintly, subsumed by a spiritual adoration, too. What more could a lad like David have wanted? In fact, the whole thing would have been better with less.
They had several dates, before she elaborated upon their encounter. She had been following him for days, she said, a behaviour which, even now, she could not reconcile with her more customary demureness: as if she had been possessed by a third party, one who wanted to follow David but had no body with which to accomplish this. He looked askance. Was Freda quite mad? Doubts bred new doubts, and then back to the initial doubts, in an increasingly vicious circle. She then gave him one of her sweetest kisses which calmed all such tail-chasing: a kiss with no tongue and, even, very little of the lips, but one that tasted of old-fashioned childhood confectionery.
Gradually, without David noticing, in fact, they became affianced: not officially, but as if that autonomous third party, in whom he now believed as much as her, had rubber-stamped their romance: with greater, more significant rites and dalliances waiting in the wings.
"You remember that shop where we met?"
How could I have forgotten? It was a mere month back. Her voice was mellifluous, with a barely perceptible underbuzz created by vocal valves foreign to the rest of us. Indeed, David had begun to see Freda as almost inhuman—not in the cruel sense of that word, but more in its other-worldliness. He believed it was his imagination. But simple imagination could not really account for a permeating feeling of otherness, an otherness truly bestowed by someone other, unseen, yet ever attentive. A westerner with eastern eyes.
"Yes, how could I forget?"
His voice, in turn, was nondescript, as far as he could tell, from within the body that owned it.
"Well, I was going to buy something—before I saw you."
"I thought you had been following me."
"Well, I had for days and days, but it was quite accidental in the shop—I had in fact given up following you—I had lost the compulsion—then I saw you amongst the cosmetic counters—and I knew it had all been leading up to that optimum moment."
David frowned, or at least he thought he did, without a mirror being close at hand. She had earlier given him quite a different impression with regard to the circumstances surrounding their encounter. He was still in the metaphorical boat, but he had lost one oar. His greatest fear was now of sinking.
"What was the something you intended to buy?" he asked.
Without changing the subject completely, he was steering the conversation away from the white water, even if that meant drifting into a dark island-lagoon of misunderstanding and increasing recrimination.
"A present for... SSSSSsorry."
She was interrupted by the stage-swags opening upon the drama which they had come to see. The audience shushed. The lights dimmed. David's and Freda's heads turned front. His mind was fevered. Her mind was—well, how could he tell? He wasn't omniscient. He was merely a spear-carrier: an oar-packer: a cipher. The play was passable: a typical three-acter, with fewer parts: so Pinteresque David knew he and Freda would leave the theatre repeating inconsequences to each other, carefully preserving the printed programme for what he called posterity's nostalgia.
"A present for who—who was the present for?"
"Yes, that present you mentioned—who were you going to buy it for?
"Someone you don't know."
"Well, it was someone I once knew—before you."
"But you once said..."
"Yes, I know, but once saying something is not everything."
The two voices, one under-laid, the other over-, disappeared into the glistening darkness, leaving a dosser called Padgett Weggs with his empty hand outstretched. David would never see Freda again, unless he forgot the earlier meetings.
"When you fall asleep and whilst your mind's far away in dark desert and dream, your real thoughts are dead still, thus allowing the Dream Tracer to renew the templates of your soul."
David said this without thinking, seemingly as pretentious as ever.
"There is only one real way to prove whether you're alive or not: take a deep breath, as deep as you can go, and don't release it till you're dead sure," said the westerner, laughing at his own attempts to beat David at his own game.
"But deep dreaming, as well as death,
Can slow the lungs and blunt the breath."
David's reply in rhyme marked the end of their game of outwitting each other—except the following night ... he dreams he is Scimitar. He slices through the earth as if it were merely scum. He meets the whetstone mornings with a hearty heave-o to the female who has this night been his sheath. There is one, though, by the name of Enigma who thinks he cuts a finer figure than David. Thus, David pledges his future to teaching Enigma lessons of which the past has been sadly lacking. Enigma's latest female is a living animal and, so as to punish him, David decides to steal her from under Enigma's chopper. David crawls beneath the bottom edge of Enigma's wigwam, the sharp side of David's underblade slipping through the surface of the hard desert like a shark's fin. His oaken haft follows behind like the guiding-handle of a plough. There they are, Enigma and Isabel (the latter being the name Enigma calls the female animal). David recognises her ... and a teardrop slowly wells at the tip of his silver curved tongue. Lining up for their turn are several young blades sharpening edge against edge, sparking off. David cringes at the sheer crudity. Enigma does not need David's help to catch a dose of rust. David will leave him to his own devices, to a cruel fate David cannot encourage more than by merely letting it take its course. David will simply forge his own lonely furrow, slide away, unnoticed. He does not fancy blunt marital aids nor animal hide upon his brightness. The only regret is that Isabel once was his sweetheart.
The second dream that night was not unrelated to the first, but only with the benefit of the foresight that hindsight granted. The fire in his throat had raged for a good few hours. But he plugged on westward, regardless, knowing that waiting at the end of the desert was one whom he would love with a love that could not be topped, nor even equalled. Beneath the bloodshot sun, he prayed for the mercy of night. He yearned, too, for slaking of his torrid tongue. He begged that at least a vision of the woman he was to love would be granted him ... in case he should die before reaching the real thing. Then, Eternity's eye would be assured of focusing on beauty. He stumbled, just as the sun lurched from its height. How was he to know, with his eyes riveted upon the curved silver mirage of the horizon, that there was a corpse waylaid to trip him. Least of all did he recognise the corpse as his own remains which twitched as he parcelled himself within that dried-out husk, like a snail to its shell.
She sat at the very edge of the desert, where sand became grass. She was grinding a blade against a whetstone. The relentless noise hypnotised her, as she dreamed of the one who had promised to arrive today for her love. She ground on forever beneath the eye of Eternity.
"There is as much to be done as has already been done, the one difference being the timescale. The past is always finite, if you consider the present as a permanent way station."
The speaker was a wizened old man with a terribly long beard. As David pondered his words deeply, he half believed the old man was God. In the meantime, he seemed surprised or, rather, perturbed at David's lack of response. An interim smile would have at least eased his concerns ... and David's also, perhaps. A smile can often help the smiler even more than the smiled at. But, from either point of view, a smile is worth its weight in gold. So, somewhat belatedly, David made a scimitar smile. But the old man, David’s future self, was already a corpse, breathless as the day before he was born. His voice undergrunted on within his chest, despite the lack of breath to sound it: "When the Dream Tracer delivers the templates of your soul to God, He proceeds to hone His teeth on them." Dead, but pretentious as ever.
And when Freda told David she was going to a place called Moat City, he believed her. Now as old as the oldest dream, David imagined a place with such a name being beyond even the back of beyond. Except for Freda, he had nobody. To be abandoned as an old man was tantamount to suicide by another's hand. Yet he held his peace. Stayed silent. His eyes speaking volumes.
"Aren't you going to wish me luck?" she asked, reading David's eyes better than he could see with them.
"Yes, of course, dear. But where is Moat City? And am I going with you?"
He tried to level out his expression into one of neutrality. But he had forgotten—was he her dog or her husband or her uncle or her father or, even, her son or nephew? He lived someone else’s wife. David was so senile now, he could not even remember whether Freda was married, divorced or a life-time spinster. Or even what his own name was (or had become).
"Moat City? Yes, it's abroad. Too far for you to go, I'm afraid."
She gave a look which was a cross between embarrassment and bereavement.
"Oh, I see. Where abroad exactly?"
His mind combined feebleness and astuteness—a wonderful way to hide shrewdness with silliness. The voice revealed neither.
"It's hard to say. I've got a job there. All I know is an address."
"An address? So you know where it is, then. Way out west?"
"Sort of. No, not west, really. Further than west. It's hard to explain. It's sort of ... in the past.”
East, west, past—north, south, death.
"Time travel, eh?" He had evidently hit the nail on the head, since she reddened in silence. "I did not know," he resumed, "that time travel had been invented yet." He added the word 'yet' against his better judgement, but he decided that he would humour her. "I suppose this Moat City has a drawbridge."
She perked up. "No, it hasn't got a drawbridge. I've seen a photo of the place and its name doesn't derive from there being a moat actually surrounding the place but because the city itself straggles round a huge lake of sea, like an enormous complete circle of buildings, and 'moat' is a sort of metaphor for the actual shape of the city itself."
Her description was painstaking. David did not have the same educational background as Freda, since, like all people generations apart, you try to better yourselves in the shape of your posterity, don't you? And it is true to say that he hadn't stinted at all in giving to Freda all that he could. He even gave up having cooked breakfasts to pay for her pet dog to have obedience classes. A Dad’s duty after all. One that he doesn't regret nor resent. So, some of Freda's words went straight over his head. Hence his question:
"What's a metaphor?"
"It's a sort of shorthand for things."
"Oh, I see."
But he didn't. His question had reminded him of that old joke: what's the difference between a daggafor and a pub? What's a daggafor? What's a dagger for, you ask, well, it's for cutting your tail off! Yet, looking back on it all, after his lobotomy, Moat City did become a metaphor of sorts. A metaphor for life. Body and soul. Mind and matter. Blood and flesh. Moat and meat. Just the right philosophical jump start he needed. Spirit-diluted or flesh-corrupted reality—it depended on how you looked at it.
Freda didn't emigrate after all. And following her accident with a knife, it was discovered that she was a registered brain donor. Very useful to David, as it turned out, and there's nothing like your own blood and flesh coming back to you, is there?. He is glad he got her such a good education, even though originally it was self-evidently not for selfish reasons. Whatever the brain, however, there's, no high-faluting globetrotting for the likes of David. Too long in the tooth for that sort of malarkey. The further west you go, the further east you are. Meantime, his dear old mongrel Enigma keeps him company: the wag he takes walkies to the pub for talk and more talk. A retired office worker like David has got to make up for lost time somehow, hasn't he? Got to cut right through the matter to what it's really for. In the war against time and madness. He lived someone’s else knife.
Sometimes David thinks it is him who is taken out walkies to Ashy Wood. Barks like knife-twists in the trunk. As if. Sort of. You know.