The Lethal Chamber
posted Sunday, 8 May 2005
There were a couple of feet that needed shoe-horning. But those involved knew it was merely one foot and two shoes to share it between. Meanwhile, moored boats gulped soporifically upon the belly-wall of the Lake Carcosa. Not many visitors today, despite the friendly heat of the sun and it being the season's height. No much custom for the Lethal Chamber, today. Too much happiness about, for voluntary suicides. Only a short queue of miserabilist writers, looking glum as ever.
Alec speculated on the law of averages. What made places the favourite venue for a day? Everybody could decide to go to the seaside on Monday, whilst nobody went to Lake Carcosa. On Tuesday, vice versa. But, no, it couldn't happen. There was, after all, the supply and demand of Fate.
His children had already embarked on the lake, growing smaller and smaller as they rowed like slowly spinnning turtles beyond the islands. A few stragglers creaked in unison with clumsy oars. A number of geese slid far more easily through ripples of sparkling gold, as gulls dived to divert attention from the reflected food that both breeds confusedly envied. All seemed like recent-dipped sculpture returned to life.
A fleet of anceinet jets had just idled over the lake from the nearby reconstruct of an air base ... following each other like the bobbing geese, now truly frozen in time, bar flight. Alec had forgotten the proper name for these aircraft. Tank-busters, perhaps, from the Mother of all Battles. One of his children (Genevieve probably!) would be certain to remind him of the name, when they returned from the boat trip.
To the tune of the relentless gulping, he closed his eyes in the warm afternoon sunshine and floated off into pleasure dreams. But, in actual fact, was burnt to death by friendly fire. No need of the Lethal Chamber for him
"I'll help you unravel them, Nanny."
“You’re very naughty, messing about with my sewing basket," said Nanny to little Genevieve, whose universal sense of loss included the death of her father. But, after that fateful trip to Lake Carcosa, she never remembered her brothers and sisters, those fading faces who must have been fostered elsewhere before Genevieve’s less instinctive memory was born.
With the evenings now drawing in, the roaring coal fire stood out in the penny-pinching gloom as if Hell were homely.
"Sorry, Nanny, I didn't mean to get it all mixed up."
Genevieve was too old to simper, but simper she did, nervously threading her ringlets with fingers. She knew about fairies as well as ancient commandos.
"It will be the devil's own job to disentangle the silk cottons, specially yellow from yellow, with knots seeming to evolve merely by the act of looking for them," thought Nanny as she tugged impatiently at the misshapen inspirals, all a noodly black that the coloured yellow strands had seemed to become. From the tangle came a clatter of trawled thimbles, needles and tiny scissors.
"I'll help you unravel, Nanny."
"No point, Genevieve ... I'm leaving here tomorrow ... there'll be a newer nicer Nanny this time tomorrow evening."
Dark tealeaf tears gathered at the silver strainers of Nanny's eyes—whilst Genevieve smirked behind her hand, as she whispered: "I'll help you pack your luggage, then, instead, Nanny."
The fitful wind gulped in the chimney. Nanny had long since retired for her last night in the large rambling house. Genevieve felt she had also died ... died, out on Lake Carcosa all those years ago ... but, today, she was so hungry she needed to eat her own body, which had become easily digestible through the process of decomposition. She hadn't died, of course. She wasn't even dreaming. She merely enjoyed exercising her vivid imagination which a lack of peers and playfellows had engendered. She opened pop-up version of THE KING IN YELLOW and allowed her eyes to surf the pages without daring to intake meaning.
Unlike Genevieve, Nanny was scared of the dark and she sat bolt upright in the truckle bed looking back and forth from the faintly glowing curtains of her top storey room to the dark mouth of the empty fireplace. Only one more night to endure, then she'd be free of this insidious unnatural love, a love which she couldn't live without. Nanny thought that being besotted in both body and mind with Genevieve was not very dignified ... and she watched skeins of yellow tubing erupt from the chimney into the grate, as if the corpse of a yellow-clad Santa Claus had blurted out spools of its innards in one last foul spasm of many such spasms since Christmas, attempting to unbudge himself from the tight flue.
As dawn spread itself behind the house like a backdrop in a pantomime (or a war), shades of yellow began to curl from the many chimney-stacks—thus a sign that at least someone was up and about. A face had already been staring wistfully from the nursery window above the orchard garden for the first hour of the sun's shredded gold. Genevieve was praying that next Christmas she'd get the best present of all—a playmate of her own age ... or, at least, a real Nanny to taunt at bathtime, instead of the imaginary one.
Meanwhile, Santa Claus halted stitching together his disjointed noodles ... having failed to imagine a real girl like Genevieve to whom he could take presents next Christmas, like a real father would. And he imagined a city instead, one which was a picture of yellow roofs and chimneys rearing magnificently through the dawn mists. Alec had not died on the boating-lake but merely vanished into another world where he had been ejected from his mistress's flat at the first mere hint of daylight. Her flatmate, you see, was rather averse to having strangers in the place. But was he really the single stranger that all women feared? Surely, there must be at least one person who saw Alec as the familiar figure that everybody trusted. He laughed. Well, his mistress had indeed shared her bed with him. But trust could only thrive on a series of interactions, not on a single encounter, however intimate.
Most of the bodily dealings last night had been conducted under cover of darkness and they had met only briefly in the cocktail bar in advance of sacrificing the safety of life and limb to each other in this way. To call her a mistress was a trifle heavy-handed. Mistresses were merely fancy women of long standing or, at least, an intermittent acquaintance with whom a convenient mutual scratching of itches was the sole criteria for dating. Life's events for him were like promenading around an art gallery, praising or excoriating or, simply, remaining indifferent to each yellow-tinged pictures of ancient twentieth-century knights and kings, then passing on to the next. Memories were merely recognitions, when or if such pictures, by design or fortune, passed again in front of his indiscriminating viewfinder of a mind. He never expected to revisit a one-night stand or even a canvas on an easel entitled 'fancy woman'. Yet there was something a little out of the ordinary about this city and this world, an existence which had provided his latest partner of the dark. He shrugged, as was his wont when he consigned any particular memory to his sump of lost worlds and missing mistresses. He even smiled, a rarer occurrence, because, while he was searching such wastes of expended passion, trying to find a space for his newest forgettable femme, he suddenly came across a token of love—not the love he had for mere mistresses, but a real love, one that he had felt for someone about whom he must have completely forgotten. Yet this had been his one true love. His memories were surprisingly independent creatures, scurrying off to their earths at the first sign of hope or hunter.
A grown-up Genevieve, had, last night, been one mere veneer away from her father Alec: she being, coincidentally, the next door neighbour of Alec's latest mistress: this the Genevieve who feared strangers as much as thin partitions. But, now, she'd been left behind yet again with her dreaded books, as Alec traced a rite of passage which unfolded randomly within fate's strict parameters. Yet another world's city streets were never-ending, as if a puzzlehead cartographer once had a fidgetty day with the marking-pen, not taking it off the cartridge paper as a sort of Dare. Alec should have known it would not be easy to lose himself, when there were no corners to negotiate. Every building seemed to be a thriving Lethal Chamber.
Old Scratch was on his tail and Alec found it the devil's own job to shake him off. And, you see, Old Scratch had been queening it a bit in the D'Ys (as this part of the city was inexplicably called)—until Alec came along in an attempt to expose Old Scratch as a pretty low and common denominator. Alec did not know Old Scratch's face but, from the yellowing police records which he remembered somehow studying, he was sure he would recognise the rhythmic pace of the following footsteps and the ill-disguised snort of lungs. Alec guessed Old Scratch would be uglier than an eviscerated corpse half-floating in the whipping-crust outside the Bertambers Arms gentlemen's excuse-me.
As Alec escaped down the street, hoping to find at least one side-alley forgotten by the cartographer and thus dodge the searing limelight of Old Scratch's bulging, flameshot eyes, Alec spotted an urchin running towards him from the opposite direction of the limitless distance where the mapmaker had evidently confused perspective with phantasy. They both squatted on the pavement, regaining their breath in snorts.
"What's your name, ragamuffin?" Alec asked, trying to conceal the gabnash of his own teeth and gums.
"Robert." The girl lied, being Genevieve again, strutting upon a different stage of timeless fate. She was no older than Alec had been at her age, though she acted as if she had the knowledge of the whole cosmos upon her narrow shoulders.
"Robert? That be a 'trestin' name for a girl. Are yer runnin' up the street for any good reason?" Alec’s voice cracked. He could well believe he had not used it for centuries. Or he had gone back into the past where the future had not even cast its backward echo.
He was astonished, too, at his own crude dialect. He was in fact only to recall one reincarnation in which he had seen fit to talk. He kept looking over his shoulder to see if Old Scratch was lurking behind the back of his mind. And there was a corner shop just extending its awning like a tongue, opening for the afternoon session. Funny—he'd thought it was early closing day in this neck of the woods. The shop sold gobsuckers, the window being dressed with aniseed balls, penny chews, blackjacks, pear & acid drops, pineapple chunks, bullseyes, throat-stoppers &c. &c. He was convinced the shopkeeper would be finger-grating at his large bald pate to fill the lemon sherbets. The shopkeeper may have been Old Scratch himself in sudden disguise. Alec turned back to the urchin who now held out her begging-hand, with an expression on her grubby face indicating that she thought him a clinch-fist.
"I'm not goin' ter give yer any-fing, Robert, 'cause I can't even buy meself a clump-sole." He showed her the undersides of his shoes, next to useless without the hardened leather-flesh of feet to supplement them.
"You be pie-powdered," the girl enunciated painstakingly.
"I be not so dirty as I look, young 'un," Alec claimed, rising from the swill-gutter and tapping the precocious witmonger on the shoulder. It was meant to be a friendly gesture, but she flinched, her whole existence seeming to bodyjack before his very eyes. Good heavens, Genevieve might have been Old Scratch in disguise, for Alec saw the underfurrows of age unshrining, as if she had a different flavour inside. Her soul was wither-wrung, and Alec read words in her sticky mouth like sweets dissolving on the blotchy haft of a misshapen tongue and slicking a putrid throat which Alec could peer down if he stayed long enough to do so.
Seeing that the wacky cartographer had the space with which to work, he hived off some backstreet areas just to give them map room. Good job, too, seeing Alec was now in the relatively disease-free uncharted yard complexes of the city where the pubs were open all day. He ambled into the Bertambers Arms, as jolly and carefree as he could pretend, ready to order a tumbler of fizz for his narrow-billed lips and the sucking-sides of his throat. The landlord held out a webbed hand for payment of tuppence-ha'penny in exchange. Reddening to the bottom, Alec fumbled in his britches since his purse had been confounded with the umbilica of his intestines. Robert must have been a nifty pycke-purse. He could only find his Share Certificates in the Carcosa Cargo Company that had gone out of business when they first invented firearms. Smuggling, in any event, was hard on inland lakes.
He scrammed as quickly as he dared, with the first mouthful of fizz still bubbling against the shaft of his gristly clapper which waggled from the depth of his gullet. He hadn't savoured the look of the likes of the landlord, anyway, nor the foul-slanted cut of his jib, what with his humbug eyes and a speckled spray of spittle with every word from his lop-sided mouthful of lips. The landlord looked a trifle too much like Old Scratch—and, now, knowing the city streets better, the wanderer in Alec, somehow, tried to get lost, on a quest not unconnected with acting out dreams.
In a peculiar way, he knew that Old Scratch and the King in Yellow were one and the same. It sent a shiver down his spine. He would travel on the underground railway and alight at any random station with an unlikely name. Not a believer in aids such as the city map, he intended to wend the endless terraces and semi-avenues, loop closes, test cul-de-sacs—try, against all the odds, to abandon himself to the city's mystery. Come dusk, which was usually earlier and yellower than he ever expected, he would succeed in finding, in the nick of time, another underground station by which means, because of the over-simplified out-of-scale poster map therein, he could lead himself back to Square One—emerging into the darkness of the streets he had grown to know since the accident at Carcosa Lake.
But, like the underground map, nothing was ever what it seemed. Robert Alley quickly became Genevieve Avenue without even turning a corner. Lethal Chambers, here, were back-to-back, two-up-two-down, as well as side by side in dark terraces. He had been lost for unconscionable hours, yet through the sapping drizzle, he saw with some relief, the blurred sign for Friendly Fire Crescent, sending up dawnish yellow like ghostlight. Shaking from his exertions, he allowed himself to wander in his thoughts. If Santa Claus existed, it was probably true to say Old Scratch existed, too. Alec also allowed himself to be trundled down the empty half-lit wooden escalator, knowing that the untended lifts were simply asking for trouble and that the gaping hole of the spiral steps was trouble asking for him.
Later, as he clattered along upon the deserted train, he wondered why such a small station had possessed a triple choice of descent. Eventually, reaching a familiar station, the silver escalator was far longer than he recalled it, stretching, it seemed, limitlessly above, with a strong wind funnelling down upon him. He gathered a yellow overcoat about himself. Other people, people like doctors after patients, nannies after children, people after souls, descending in the parallel trough, watched him quizzically as Alec passed them upwards. They evidently found the slow speed sufficient and his demeanour more interesting than the tiered advert posters. Even the photos of people in piss-coloured underwear did not distract them from looking at Alec. He felt his face blush, dreading that the icy looks he suffered would guess what he wore under the overcoat. It was as if they picked his pockets with their eyes, snipping the purse-strings to his heart. Each coin was a silver bullet.
He suspected that the creature (call it the Mistress of all Changes or, rather, the Mother of all Fancies) who followed him through the various worlds had no respect for the law of any land they traversed, whilst scratching a living simply from breathing. But, at long last, the escalator delivered Alec, via the barrier, into some semblance of open air. Nobody collected tickets, only a slowly swivelling chair. The cold sponge of darkness was a shock to his system, especially as the streetwise set-up of back-doubles which he faced was confusing. He yearned for a friendly fire.
He always considered déjà-vu to be a fiction, which would make more sense without the use of the word 'always'. But he now depended on déjà-vu to find his way. Only the night before, he had dreamed of these surrounding. Each turning and line of houses were gentle reminders. He thanked God for small mercies, because it would have been far worse in a completely out-of-the-way area. He was at least on someone's common ground. The windows were mostly dark. Some, dully lit. As he rounded each corner, shadowy figures slammed doors, as if they had been lying in wait for him, only to make this obvious point of unwelcome. Curtains fluttered as did his own sodden eyelids. Silence was just the swishing of rubber blades on a windscreen. His engine gunned—and died.
He had drawn to a halt halfway down a road of high-rises. He had never owned a vehicle other than himself—yet, uncannily, the treads of his clump-soles squealed as he applied the wet weather brakes of his yellow taxi. Braces tightened against his upper frame, pulling the belt to which the braces' crocodile-clips were affixed like a band of hot iron. His sock-suspenders cramped his calves, turning them rock hard by guying the pinions of his searing sinews. His briefs cut into the groin, lifting and separating. The holster seared a diagonal line between the shoulder-blades and breast. The implement he toted within the holster had a hair-trigger too delicate for unwieldy fingers: a lady's jewel-studded automatic: ready-cocked, feather-alert, for beggars, muggers or other ne'erdowells.
The house, outside of which he had broken down, was between two high-rises, a Victorian Detached with twin attic towers and steeply stacked chimneys. The floral curtains in one bedroom were ostentatiously tweaked by Genevieve’s poster-white face. He tried desperately to recall the cutpurse incident from the night before, which was fast becoming a key to this night's reality. But having reached such a point, he had established a new spirit-of-place, irretrievably ... thus to set off again, mapless, upon the low-lying tracks towards station names, some not even appearing on the official simplified grid of coloured lines—which lines were not only out-of-scale but also inconsistently out-of-scale. The yellow one was called Circle. Many of the direction angles were misleading, too. But, tonight, the new world could not be shaken off, determined as it was to become real. The drizzle became sleet, as the door of the house opened and a couple of hooray-henries and their skittish molls galumphed down the steep porch-steps, pranging sticks against the metal banisters as if they were once tearaways now made good, clumsy muggers made citybright, urchin beggars made legal, ne'erdowells turned into prancing do-gooders.
The yellow cab into which they disappeared with slamming doors snorted off. Alec heard them shout a destination (in the posh side of the city) to the shadowy driver propped up at the large wheel. He scratched his head. He thought the tail-lights vanished towards the rough end of town, where dark Limehouse hunched against the horizon, made even darker by the now cascading lamp-lit snow. Reality or unreality, he was past caring, yet something told him that someone else sat waiting, with back scratching against night's warehouse wall. Thick-as-thieves, the creature was. Alec lightly touched the hardware he wore, confident with its presence. As he fingered the tiny nipple within its iron aureole, fire thrilled along his arm. Shivering, he negotiated the guttering street, determined this time to reach the end of this reality—or remember whom he feared so that he could make avoidance plans—or, at least, find another underground sign that would allow him to regain his bearings. Eventually, he thought he made out 'Lakeside Mews' on the sign. He prayed it would have an escalator and lifts and stairs, to cover the strange odds that only Fate could offer, it seemed. He felt extremely cold without the overcoat that he suddenly recalled once had his own shadowy body inside it.
Now, as luminous and numinous as the snowlit moon, he reflected off the glass wall of an anonymous city office-block. He was indeed a trifle too much like the creature who followed him, but even more like the one who followed the creature. No tongue to speak with, Alec and Old Scratch drew their weapons on the moment's spur, and they waited to see who would touch the trigger first. The scribbling of crack-deep scratches over the face-plate was the first Alec knew he was no longer there or, even, anywhere. Only an explosion of yellow fire.
A voice only sounded when everybody within hearing distance was asleep or, better, dead. That night, an ancient Genevieve was neither. It was a hot night and she dozed fitfully under a single smooth sheet as if she were still young enough for a Nanny to come with a goodnight kiss. Then she snored for a while in a relentless rhythm and, with the state of self-hypnosis thus engendered, she ceased breathing entirely. It was indeed a most realistic death. She had ensured the house was empty, having packed off the rest of her servants and other hangers-on. She was determined to lay the ghost, come what may.
The ghost was evidenced by knitted spools of yellow ectoplasm, discovered all over the carpets on the mornings following its supposed visitations. Tape recorders left running overnight picked up its crazy half-hearted attempts to haunt the house. Almost like a little girl's, it hinted at a lisping voice in the corners of night's white noise. But every time a sleeper was heard to stir, the tape indicated the ghost keeping deadly quiet. A shy thoughtful ghost perhaps, but ghosts were ghosts whose games needed stopping, in case they frightened the children and servants. Moreover, old Genevieve wanted very much to prove her own disbelief in them. Ghosts were indeed known to become more dangerous, the older they grew. Their age-yellowed winding-sheets would eventually flap across the dark landings and stairways, uncaring of whom they stung during their approach to a mutant fleshy reincarnation. Or so Genevieve believed, if she believed in them at all.
So, on that night, she was to get to the bottom of the ghost. As she lay there in her self-imposed state of refined existence, she heard its unprotected voice seeping through her auto-hypnotic defences. Not a tape-recording: a voice indeed unprotected by nothing but the air itself. Her muscles rippled and shimmered, as she heard the fateful voice:- "You who hearest my words via no prophylactick are sure to wear my body, me yours, thus able to scratch mutual backs in our endless struggle against non-existence."
No lisping this time, clear as a ringing bell. The sleeper woke, only to find she did not believe in herself let alone in any sign of exploding yellow, and forthwith curled into a dark foetus beneath the piss-stained sheet.
"I'm not goin' ter give yer any-fing," Alec and Robert announced in rash unison, but later toasting each other in friendly fire to celebrate that both had reached the real world. They had fought hand over fist to give birth to each other, finally realising that such fierce body-to-body in-fighting was more like love than even love itself. A sad king, meanwhile, sang a plaintive "I'm dreaming of a yellow Christmas" beside a friendly hot-chestnutted fire, and, nearby, Robert's Lethal Chambers set up in business in every available building. But the war soon did away with their need. In any event they though the King in Yellow had already killed himself and that was the reason why such places had been invented in the first place, awaiting their most important customer to come.
Finally, the King's plaintive voice spoke these words: "I'll help you unravel."
1. Paul Dracon left...
Friday, 5 August 2005 5:00 pm
This kind of fiction helps me unravel, too. Outstanding piece.
This sort of story blurs the distinction between lost and found, in my mind...