The Lurk Descending
posted Tuesday, 12 October 2004
I was sure my teacher’s name was Miss Crossbrow but I could have been wrong. Memories are slippery creatures, and they sometimes escape into realms beyond the mental trawling-arc of the people who originally owned them. Once, I followed a squirrel of a memory into a region where, if I was still not mistaken, I always wandered. It concerned the nature of that very schoolmistress, who was the first one. Most people, if they failed to remember other teachers too clearly, often retain a strong impression of the original one who loomed up amid the smells and colours of the first day at school: plasticene, accidents of the bodily process, chalk-dust, stale ink-wells, over-ripening school-dinners, premature confusions and automatic tears. Her face was pointed and, if she had borne whiskers, I would not have blinked an eyelid. And in an interconnected wordless fashion, I thought the school blinds were tiered eyelids. Her plain pleated skirt stretched several feet to the rear. I imagined this was to encompass the extended parts of her body.
“Welcome,” she said to me, “just tear yourself away from your mother now and sit at this desk.”
I gazed up at my mother and saw her head nodding, making attempts at smiling. I cast a wary glance at the desk, scored over with grooves in the wood which previous children had spent lifetimes filling with crayon colours. The contents of the ink-well were topped with a substance that looked like the skin of an old rice pudding. And I thought of something coiled up inside it. I was big for my age and I found it difficult to squeeze into the tiny desk-frame. Once seated, however, I felt it growing even tinier. I did not notice my mother leaving. Nothing in the desk but the crumbled remains of a blue rubber and a smell, a bit like disinfectant or Germolene, tinged with an aura which I was to associate in later life with Indian restaurants.
There were several other children, all glassily staring towards the chalkboard. Miss Crossbrow stood at the front with folded arms upon the bed of her chest which, if she was bare, I was sure would be covered in a vixen pelt. “Children, we do not play with toys any more, now we are at Big School - we shall learn how to add one word to another, and perhaps even another, and perhaps yet one other and what do we end up with?” She abruptly turned, as if on a weathervane, towards me.
And that was when I entered the black realm for the first time. I met people who said they were my friends, only to double-cross me for just one cracker trinket. I ate unfit food, full of fat and blood-clots, steeped in spice. My mother became somebody who had no sympathy for me as a human being and disguised herself as a man to avoid trouble with what she called “the authorities.” The school cupboards in the classroom were full of half-dissected rats, in the cause of science, they said. Some I recognized much later in life disguised as dark-red insect-bled tandoori chicken. The canteen trestles were layered an inch thick with a hardened, half-digested substance, a cross between custard and brown sauce. And Miss Crossbrow often sat in a cupboard with half-alive rats, especially during Morning Prayers.
The blackest moments were freighted with frights that were easier to bear than the reality. I quickly toppled into sleep at the slightest opportunity, to view Things descending from the impenetrable night-sky of that very sleep. The biggest I called a LURK, for that name was given it by the sleep-master, he who controlled the content of my dreams. The LURK’s head was modelled upon the shape of Miss Crossbrow’s skull, with a clayey appearance, perpetrated by a blind sculptor god. It had no mouth to open, so its eyes spoke, with hair-lashes on their thin lips. It complained of having only a head and no body and would I help create one for it? All I needed was straight graphics, it somehow said.
“Perhaps your body’s in the nature-study cupboard,” I suggested.
The LURK had floated downwards before it heard me and, upon returning to the classroom from a dream within a dream, I woke up with my head inside the desk. Everybody had decamped to the canteen and I was afraid of all the turning faces if I should go in there late. There would only be stale vindaloo stuck to an impossible plate. So I spent dinner-time seeing what I could prise out of the ink-well.
“What are you doing here?” A voice came from the back of the classroom. A LURK-ON-LEGS stood there, having just clambered from the cupboard. It came tripping over and whispered in my ear: “I’m you when you’re not you.” It clambered through the lidded blinds into the noisy hellish playground. And then time passed in year amounts, until my next mind-stopping memory, which was meeting a certain man, just one of those ordinary workers who plugged on through life, doing an honest day’s work for a dishonest day’s pay and generally minding his own business. That was before I really got to know him. Always to be found in the dark chimney-corner of the public house, he was a regular institution, one upon whom you could depend for a chat, if there was no one else in the bar. A good listener, there was no doubt, but he only implied feedback by a subtle nod of the head or a knowing rattle of his tiny demon-wing eyelids or a combing through of his grey tussocky beard with a hand of fingers. Then, one day, I think it was late last Fall, he suddenly started answering back.
“When I was younger, I had dreams you wouldn’t credit.”
I couldn’t credit that he had spoken at all. Some members of the professional class frequented that bar just to show off their fat wads in front of others whom they considered to be on a lower rung of life’s descending ladder. They turned on their bar-stools and stared at us. My companion had said something! But now he was slowly sipping his beer, as if nothing had happened. I was in the midst of one of my interminable diatribes on the poverty of latter day morals. I had always been a stickler for standards, ever since Miss Crossbrow had instilled them in me. I did not only want hooligans hung. I wanted them slowly hung.
“Did you say something?” I asked at a point halfway through my next sentence. He looked up from the bubbling world of his drink, stared at me oddly and then visibly relaxed when he saw that I meant no offence.
“Yes, I did say something. But now I wish I had never said it.”
So be it, I thought, and went on with my own weighty preoccupations. I could see, however, that his eyes had mirrored over. He was not listening to a blind bit of what I was saying about morals - perhaps he had never listened. He was obviously retracking his youthful dreams, perhaps reliving or even redying. I suddenly realized that there was a gentle hiss of whisper at his lips, more visible than audible, as if he were speaking with his spittle rather than the vocal cords. I put my ear closer and caught the drift.
“I had waking dreams,” he said. “You know, when you lie awake as a child in the early summer evenings. Put too soon to bed. I had not been able to use up my energy because I was kept inside the house, dithering and moithering. I had no friends. I suspected often that I did not exist at all. My mother coddled me. The birds twittered long into my dozing, and guns pocked on the distant army range, like the Earth breaking open the buttons of its waistcoat...”
My neck ached from craning over to hear his mannered ramblings, so I pulled back, but missed a whole section. He did not seem to care whether I listened or not. In fact, I had probably ceased to exist for him at all. I came back in closer.
“A vast tower in the waste ground behind our terraced house,” he continued. “A mechanical wonder of the world, in my charge as caretaker. I wandered its labyrinth of horizontal and vertical corridors of pressed steel, inspecting the dials, throwing a switch here and there for good measure. I was viewing the world from the perspective of the watch-hatch at the top, announcing in to the global tannoy about the next disc on the turntable, for it was surely a radio station. Or was it a factory for children’s stick-together toy models where large angular machines fed each other with cardboard, papier mache and bone-glue, as I sat in one of the contraption’s pods mastering the crazy robotics? But the crucial weakness of the tower was a hub-point, like a car’s petrol tank, under the pavement outside our house in the Street. I simply knew it was there. The dial on its breeder-hatch was the dial which controlled the whole thing. One turn out of turn and the mighty tower would be driven into the ground. Thousands of mortals worked in the tower, under my jurisdiction, but none knew about the hub-point, that stop-cock in the street - with no hydrapoint marker. My mother did not know about the tower. She never looked out of the back window. She did not know how important her son was - thought he was playing with marbles or lying in his bed, waiting patiently for sleep.”
“Is the tower still there?” I bit my tongue nigh in half. I was playing into his hands.
“No - for, one night, I crept out into the street soon after the birds had gone, and I decided to push the plunger on the hub-point. But I couldn’t lift the pavement slab. It had taken on the weight of the world, it seemed. Then, out of the darkness at the end of the street where it dipped down to make room for a hill, I saw a nightmare which I was not due to suffer until I was much older. The shimmering presence of my Unguarded Angel, with black corrugated wings blacker than the sticky pitch of the night, flapping like vast paper kites which ripped piecemeal as it progressed towards me with the noises of a tree-stumper. Crudely emasculated, it wore a shorn stump of engorged blood-vessels, an inch long but a foot wide. Its one eye watch-hatch shrivelled everything in its path with beam of visible willpower - a headlight of the brain…and when it had gone so had the tower with it.”
As his sibilance continued, I found myself drawing nearer and nearer to his mouth, for the words added to each other with a drooling, a drawling, a sucking even more. I could smell his bad breath, like a drug. I thought him to be a dosser whose cardboard bedding formed wings instead of makeshift blankets. I laughed, but the professionals at the bar looked askance, for they must have thought we were becoming far too affectionate with each other. We were bearing out what they thought working people always did like animals. However, he seemed to have finished, at last. He gazed up again into my eyes at the most two inches from his. So, close, I could not see which of us was crying. He started whispering one sentence, again and again, like a deep inescapable record groove with an enormous crack, as if it were a continuous loop of existence, as word ate word: “I can never bear to hear - HIC! - paper blinds a-rattling in the wind.” Again and again, forever and ever. And I shuddered too, as I heard paper being endlessly unrolled in the nearby gents. The professionals had disappeared in there to unravel their innards, no doubt.
I laughed again. “Never mind, have another drink,” I said, disentangling myself from his desperate embrace. But life is full of false promises. Without even bothering to get him the drink, I left - into the night where the pub was hemmed in by those tower blocks which had been built with such hope and destiny by LURKs. And, as years turned shorter, one day I sat outside a newsagent shop on a pavement bench, idling the time by watching people going in and out - until I realized that the people going in were always different from those coming out. After quite a long while, I went in to investigate and discovered there was another entrance round the corner. On coming out, I wondered who that LURK was sitting on the bench, staring at me so strangely. I had probably met it once in a dream. I once dreamed of being a helper in a school canteen, watching all of the items on the trays passing before me. Yes, I had the shapeless overall and wicked gossiping tongue. The boobs felt funny hanging on my chest like polythene bags full of plum-pudding. But there were stranger things, for the food-bearing trays gradually turned nastier, piecemeal. At first, I thought the meat-loaves were getting rarer and rarer but they were, I guessed, thinly disguised bits of raw human bodies. The new child who came last had what looked like a grown-up penis coiled upon a bed of pilau rice, garnished such that it almost looked tasty. I woke with a start, sweating like a pig on heat. I fumbled for what I thought would be proof of my manhood and was devastated to find that the dream was too close to home for my liking. No wonder that LURK coming out of the newsagent ogled me as I sat cross-legged and crossbrowed upon the bench. He sat down next to me and whispered through a slime-ball of saliva that he would like it “off the bone.” Forgetting my concern, I smiled knowingly, as dinner-ladies sometimes did, without really appreciating that the LURK wanted off the bone. And as each year becomes a mere pinprick of existence, the window blind rattled into life. I gradually awoke as I was brought down gently into my own body by the sleep-master. I heard the LURKs outside, no doubt blackening the already meagre daylight with their descending canopy-wings. One of them managed to fumble at my high-rise window - romantically, if dolefully, believing me to be another of its kind. Thankfully, my real soul had already flown, tantamount to a Lark Ascending, leaving something behind still calling itself “me”, something that was crude enough for death.
(published 'Thin Ice' 1993)
1. Paul Dracon left...
Wednesday, 3 August 2005 3:35 pm
This guy's lucky. When I went to school the lunches weren't so ripe! Fine story. Reminds me of being a kid and having adults tell me all about 'the real world.'