Thursday, September 30, 2004

No Circumstances

Feeling well-born, yet fallen from grace, the Duke needed to pretend he was someone other than the Duke, rather than face the shame. Someone ordinary. However, he drove a long black car, which, tangentially, was a more dangerous activity during daylight hours than at night, for the not so obvious reason that people’s first reactions were geared in inverse ratio to their pupil size. Also, he passed himself off under the name Ralph, for no other purpose than to further his non-descriptness. David and Charles and Peter were such commonplace names that well-grounded suspicions would have been engendered in others from their misguided suspicions as to his pecking-orders of bluff.

His Royal pedigree was so deep-seated, Ralph had given up doubting it. Yet the very act of non-doubt could often lead to smug acceptance which was in turn a precursor to plain forgetting. He did not even bother to rubber-stamp his identity with the requisite self-recognition when he eventually woke every morning after the seemingly interminable night. Certainty, as ever, was tantamount to ignorance.

And such ignorance forced him out some nights, instinctively fearful as he was of waking up as someone completely different. Yet, it was an instinct common to all werewolves, particularly those with noble blood in their veins, incubated somehow within the dark side of their natures: and, like all instincts worth their salt, it failed to touch the actual consciousness of the beast.

Ralph’s forays were, of course, upon fullbright nights, when the less catalytic white moonrib, that betokened birth and beginnings, was merely a memory that had slipped through the mental grasp like a bloody stake through an amateur vampire-hunter’s hands. No, it was the yellow-engorged ripeness of a mother-fucked moon that drew such creatures as Ralph from his bed. His skin became a pelt of costly ermine or mink that had escaped the fur-haters’ hate; eyes like crown-jewels; cloak a murky mane of miscegenate majesty. His courtiers, the suburban fox and other critters that townsfolk inferred from upturned dustbins, followed in his wake. Cats with pinprick eyes of druggy green - tired of pretending to squeal in long drawn-out pain after sparring and spitting with each othe - did open deep the pink of their throats to return colour’s favour that day had granted them. All had their place and duty. Nature meant giving as well as taking. As a man with his body.

Yes, today of all daybright days, Ralph feels fur unfurling, tip-toeing from the deepest pockets of ancient puberty. This is the first time the transfiguration has occurred outside of night’s jurisdiction. He staggers garageward to find his car still black as the rods and cones in his sleepy eyes. He needs to drive and drive - until it is night. The courtiers of his dark dukedom are curled in a sleep as unstirred as death within dens that day-timers can never suspect, let alone discover. So, with no followers, the Duke is his own rebuke.

He cannot believe his dreams are day-dreams nor the nightmare true. He is a werewolf of the old school. Not the next best thing to a King. The steering-wheel shudders in his hand, even before the engine has choked into life, as if man-made beasts have souls to speak of.

He twists his head with an instinct born from dullness. There is a passenger of sorts laid out in the back like a casket - handles and epaulettes of gold, silver cross, carved vine-leaves, heavy nailed lid. The casket’s woodwork is so close to its dark Spring, there sprouts, not foliage, but rich fur itemised like human hair. A coiffured coffin.

He fears that his duty has always been to drive the town’s only premature burial hearse - and, today of all daybright days, he is to be both undertaker and corpse. A sad outcome for a Duke, since, only at night, could there have been the full regalia of a Royal funeral, him being, at the beginning of the day, nothing but a pauper, a down-and-out, a cloudy-eyed dosser. Poor in spirit and - (he feels his head) - yes, completely bald. Like most of us, he has died too late, with no pomp and certainly no circumstances. But, happily, nightmare is king.

(Published ‘The Darklands Project’ 1997)

Sunday, September 26, 2004


When Flit Heardol saw brown paper parcels in various shapes and sizes being smuggled every night into the pub by the customers who then shared them out between them, he wondered if this could be anything to do with the Government’s recent measures against the buying and selling of human organs for transplant operations. He surmised that there would now be a black market in them and he expected at any moment to see blood dripping from the ill-fastened wrappings. There’s no smoke without fire. No image without object.

But he had unaccountable thoughts all the time, so he shrugged it off and continued sipping at his beer - until a parcel was dropped in his lap by a large figure of a man who just passed in the crowd without a word.

He merely sat and stared at it, not even daring to feel it. He left it on the seat where no doubt a bomb warning would result.

Back in the flat, he stewed over the incident. It may have been valuable, something that could have gainsaid the erstwhile meaning of his life. The crazy idea about human organs did not hold water. It had been the drink thinking.

The next evening, he returned to the pub, heart in his mouth (as they say), wondering whether there would be any repercussions.

“Oi! Oi! You with the tall hat! You left your specimen ‘ere last night.” It was the short-arse landlord shouting, handing over the package from under the bar, miming its stench. However, Flit was not the sort of regular whom anybody recognised or welcomed with a friendly “Hiya, Arsehole, how yer jiggerin’?” He was a non-entity. A solitary drinker. One who could never summon the wherewithal to strike up an exchange of sayings with complete strangers.

When was a stranger not a stranger? He’d seen many of the faces in that pub for years now. He’d overheard the tribulations of their life histories, the ins and outs of their business or marriage, the vicarious football expertise, the ludicrous sayings that emanate from typical pub-talk, even the political and religious debates, foundered on shifting sands of misaligned prejudices, which often ensued in public bars. He felt he knew them better than himself. But none of them knew him at all. He expected they wondered what such a lacklustre individual did with his life when beyond their limelight. None of them broke the dry ice. He may as well have been dead (or never born) as far as they were concerned.

Except there was sometimes a lady who also seemed to be a solitary drinker. There were not many of her breed. A matinée idol's wench from a wet afternoon's cinema-going. She would quite often look up from the surface of her drink and, Flit suspected, half-smile at him. But he never smiled back, in case it was not intended for him. He couldn’t smile, in fact. His mouth was set in a thin line which he could not bring himself to change. It would have been tantamount to admitting that he was kith and kin to the smuggling customers and wanted their company. Strange, he never questioned why he went to the Rocking Horse pub in the first place.

On the evening after the parcel incident, he returned.

She was in the corner. This time she was exchanging sayings with a gentleman. They both seemed deep in set routines of talk that excluded all else. Suddenly, she seemed to point at Flit, and the gentleman looked up to follow the direction of her viewfinder.

Flit supposed he must have been seen blushing. He got up to leave, his beer only half-finished. But there was an ugly incident at the door.

He must have looked silly, bobbing up and down in his seat, as if he were a lout on a Works outing.

The parcels were still being passed around - more than he could ever recall on previous occasions. Even the titchy landlord was a recipient of one.

When people look back on life’s matters, they usually have a good grasp of their own personalities and motives. But, here Flit was quite mysterious even to his own thoughts. He knew more about the pub regulars than he did about himself (he may even have known more about those others than they did about themselves, which is another mystery altogether, quite irrelevant to current concerns). So, yes, he could describe every one in detail, down to their last dream. He was the inscrutable one, the intangible element in an otherwise quite understandable scene. If he could just get to the bottom of himself or, at least, round to the back...

He shook himself vigorously and, braving the off-stage fracas at the door, he left for the loneliness of his flat. Not that he was less lonely in the pub.

One evening, months later, he stirred and decided gratuitously to go to a pub other than the Rocking Horse. He wrapped up the animal part he was planning to have grilled rare for supper and took it with him. He hoped, for the first time in his life, that an action he was about to take would break the ice and create sayings of his own which others could share. But he kept the parcel in his carrier bag, never daring to take it out for, of all the evenings he could have chosen at random, he recognised several of the Rocking Horse regulars who were here in the Garden Swing Inn, apparently, to witness a needle match between the two pubs in a quiz league competition. Each had brought a parcel which they proceeded to pass round.

Flit left, of course, toting his own parcel with him, desperately glad that it had not got mixed up with the others. He was unaccountably sad that the lady had not been there. But she may have been. He supposed she could have been in the parcels.

(Published ‘Auguries’ 1993)

Monday, September 20, 2004

Death Sweat

“Can I have a pot noodle, please,” asked the last customer of the day.

“Sorry, sir, I’m afraid we’re fresh out of Pot Noodles - only got prime Scotch Beef Rump Steak. I can let you have a goodly slab of it for the same price, ‘cos it’s on special offer, you see, sir,” answered the shopkeeper.

“I don’t know - I really fancied a Pot Noodle tonight.” And with that he left, evidently planning to forego his supper altogether.

* * *

The shopkeeper spent a disruptive night, tossing and turning in his bed, stewing in his own sweat, for he couldn’t help worrying over his customers. Did the poor lady who bought the tin of cat food end up actually imbibing it herself? In which case what happened to her cat? And why did all those kids from Meadvale Junior High want so much glue - surely not to repair the storm damage on the school roof, as they said? what about that elderly gent who bought three Tampax? And, above all, what had become of him who was hooked on Pot Noodles? Could that gent now be starving, because of his, the shopkeeper’s lack of foresight in ordering sooner? And, oh yes, all those to whom he sold cigs and booze -he was effectively killing them off gradually, just for the sake of their custom, encouraging incipient nodules to poke their flickering tongues of cancer into the spongey grooves of their innards.

He would at last drift off into fitful sleep…

That night, he saw an aged wizard, draped in a cloak of special offer coupons and sanitary towels, waving a string of pork sausages that had magically hardened into a wand and bearing an oversized Pot Noodle container on his head. In fact, the wizard looked a bit like him.

In front of him was the shop counter, not the usual sort with which the dreamer was accustomed, but a slab of marble with old-fashioned brass scales and assorted weights. On the wall behind was one of those wartime Bisto adverts, where two boys in large caps had speech bubbles coming out of their mouths that were full of seething brown sludge, making the words as they spoke them completely inaudible. A rotten rasher crawled across the parquet floor of its own violation, evidently fleeing the bacon slicer in the corner. Potential customers were peering in, wondering why the window display of the shop appeared to be a model of a cobbler with a shoe on a last and a hammer poised above it. Presumably, the window dresser, recently employed by the wizard, had not yet been told that this was a food shop. Taut wires stretched across the ceiling bearing canisters of loose change as they rattled along at great pace from corner to corner for no obvious reason. Perhaps, this corner shop had aspirations above its station.

The dreamer’s attention soon returned to the shopkeeper wizard who was passing his hand evocatively over what appeared to be.... yes, it was, a Pot Noodle, which seemed quite out of context. And the words he intoned:

“O, Pot Noodle, O wondrous Pot Noodle, full of scrumptious cup-o-soup granules and nodules, rubbing shoulders with dried-out diced vegetable ready for scalding into instant biteabilities…”

The wizard licked his lips, drawing in a fleck of wholegrain noodle that he had been trying to masticate into something he could actually swallow. His mouth was in fact chewing away busily at wadges of what looked like live ‘E’ numbers, that together had the consistency of squeaky chewing-gum.

In real life, the dreamer had never heard of the word ‘Alchemy’, let alone known its meaning. But, as soon as the wizard allowed this enticing word to escape from his mouth, floating in the air like a small triangular bag for boiled sweets, he raised his dream arm, plucked it from the wire it had caught upon and placed what looked like a pear-drop into his own dream mouth. And the meaning silted through his body like a flavour that caught the magic of childhood…

He knew, as if instinctively, that the wizard was attempting what had heretofore been impossible: i.e. to convert dehydrated dross into something approaching real food!

The cobbler in the window turned his head to the dreamer, smiled and brought the hammer down with a resounding thud…


The shopkeeper woke with a sudden ending. Dawn was already seeping through the bedroom curtains. Still being in a bit of a state, he went to the window and was shocked to see the last customer of the previous night staring up at him. His eyes were haunted; sweat poured off him like gravy thickening. He could even be dead, despite just standing there.

The shopkeeper looked up and realised that the whole sky was crisscrossed with the wires which were bearing aeroplanes on intercontinental travel. His next dream would be one where they didn’t need the wires!

(Published ‘Works’ 1991)

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Jean’s Soirée

"A thousand writers should be killed annually," said the man on the tube.

He looked up from the book to see to whom he had spoken.

I was not going to be the culprit so I pretended to turn back to my own laptop book.

But, too late, because, briefly, our eyes locked like oysterish antlers.

Strange words had captured us for their own. And, as if hypnotised, we left the carriage together at a stop neither of us had intended.

He told me he would like me to meet his girl friend Jean. I told him that perhaps I could make overtures in her flat.

Until then, I didn't know I was a composer.

"Composers, too," he said. "But they should be strangled every time one is born."

We both laughed upon reaching the rain-swept blackness that was recognisable - or, at least, conceivable - as the upside.

The escalator faded away as our memory of it was expunged by the encroachment of more important memories.

Jean, however, was to remind us of it.

We had, by now, arrived at her flat where I would learn, eventually, that the most important memory had always yet to be remembered.

"Have you wondered why there is frequently a strong wind down that escalator...?" she smilingly asked one of us, whilst knowing that her pouting features and pinprick dimples endeared her more to the other.

"A thousand painters should be hung, drawn and quartered every day," was the sudden non-sequitur of someone else - previously unnoticed as he sat near Jean's television set. "At least," he added with the utmost emphasis.

When the night lengthened (almost into itself as if daylight was growing more distant at both ends), the four of us got on famously. Not talking the night away, but more its opposite.

We covered the various art forms, stating why each of us loved music, painting, novels, poems, operas, plays, symphonies, sculptures ... but hated those who created them.

"You know," Jean said, "there'll come a point in the lifetime of the planet when there'll be more people that have died than there are yet to live."

Despite her clumsy use of words, the other three nodded in agreement, knowing she had made a point that actually justified the execution of artists or, indeed, of anybody else even with the pretence of artistry. It could also be seen - with a blinding flash of intuition - that the moving staircase image could be applied to concepts, such as existence, as well as to the tangible things that existed.

"Constructive illness is the opposite of euthanasia," I said, this being my contribution to the tail-end of the discussion.

"Suicide bombers are members of the deconstructionist school..." the man near the television set started to say.

"Only when an art gallery - let us say, for the sake of argument, the Tate Gallery - can actually itself become a work of art when it's devastated by a bomb," announced the man I had originally met on the tube. It turned out to be his parting shot, as, soon after, he departed Jean's flat along with the man previoulsy near the television set.

Jean and I kissed as I unbuttoned her blouse. The lacy bra was tantalisingly brief - as was the subsequent sex we both shared. I suppose, when and if I remember the occasion, I will decide that I was rather put off by Jean's tattooes ... and the way her spine moved up and down. Her eyes tasted like shellfish.

The rest of that night was spent watching the programme that the man previously near the television set had also been watching. It seemed to be on endless repeat.

The only way to know when morning had broken was upon hearing the first tube's sporadic passage under the block of flats, like the end of Sibelius' fifth symphony ... or the beginning of my first. Then, thankfully, the words let us go.

(Published ‘Orbis’ 1997)

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Next Files

"Life is in itself a form of apprenticeship," suggested tunicked Tom to this particular girl-in-every-port, as the tardy afternoon began to try on its evening wear. His words.

He was on shore leave: the Captain's favourite crew-member, simply for his more than just a spark of intelligence compared to the rest of the sailors. He had often been invited to the Officers' table, to spin a yarn or two, to plait a tale, to hold forth on all matters philosophical, spiritual and mundane. The port which the ship was visiting on this occasion was an occidental one, well beyond its beaten track in search of new clients. The arrayed cranes, lifting in angles from the dockside, were huge stick insects: totems to some higher industry quite beyond the comprehension even of someone with an uncommon nous like Tom.

His birth-place was tucked away cosily in the gleaming gulf of the Home Territories - a harder trip east than the ship's occidental clients could ever imagine. Thus, it was not surprising that these new recipients of the ocean spice-trail trade here in the waters of western Europe and the providers of such wares from the eastern Home Territories could never allow their cultures to meet eye to eye.

Tom had discovered the western girl lolling against a large bollard, mooning the time away till she could ply her own trade more properly in the darker suited hours. Not his words.

He was immediately attracted to the uncanny planes of her face, in contrast to his own race's high cheekbones and sunken narrow eyes. Her eyes were wide and innocent-seeming: he read the lines of her features as he would a mandala or natal-chart at home. This dreamboat's voice, too, was deep for one so fair, with a lilt and dialect fit for a fairy-tale princess. He found it difficult to follow her drift, because of the quaintness of the speech rhythms; but he took it with a pinch of salt, as he tracked a deeper index within her. He was confident that her mental tackle would be able to trawl anything with which he chose to sow her feminine tides.

His lobster-pot of a head beamed beardly, as he continued: "And life being an apprenticeship, one should endeavour to learn everything one can before embarking on the voyage of death."

"Eh, wot yer say, guv?" Her words.

Tom winced. This was the first time he had encountered one who answered so readily. It was off-putting to talk along the knife-edge of such a sensitive audience. Her responses were so very much to the point.

Yet he resumed his diatribe: "By logic, there can only be one religious faith, that which represents the belief in the positive aspect of death. A faith without this as its paramount tenet would not be worth the parchment it's written on. Accept that as an incontravertible prerequisite, then all religions become a single faith. God is that faith. Faith is that God. Yet God is not an entity with omnipowers, not an anthropomorphic puppet-master..."

"Gor blimey, mate, has your brain swallowed your tongue?"

By now, the sun had risen elsewhere in the world, probably in the Home Territories, he surmised; the mist gathered apace, linking sea and land with translucent mountains of dream, the coloured decklights of Tom's ship bobbing spasmodically in the uncertain tide. A chill clung to his bones. He decided it was now high time to offer spice as a reward for her kind attention. After all, as well as the provocative esoterica of philosophy, it was also in the nature of tunicked Tom's breed to issue flirtatious cockadilloes to the local totties in new client lands. The spice would no doubt hotten her bland stews. He passed her a free sample packet, with a smile.

"I hope this complimentary gift supplements thy already warm heart..."

"Ey up, guv, is't bleeding hard stuff?"

She snatched the packet and darted off into the skid-marked underclothes of the night. No-one's words.

Another day, another universe, she’d’ve refused the gift and probably stayed to make a match.

But as this particular moonstruck Tom rowed himself back to the ship, the gentle rippling of the oily sea as music to his ears, he determined to retain at least some of the girl's wisdom for the benefit of the Officers' table ... and for later life, when, by then, Old Tom's house in the Home Territories would be crumbling around him...


Old Tom nipped each problem in the bud, either by hiring a handyman or, at the last resort, actually getting his own hands dirty. Yet today, he felt like a little boy with a digit in a dam, as he stood in the garden probing the pointing of some external bricks with a chiselly fingernail. The whole place teetered on the brink of something far worse than collapse. Its wooden stilts were becoming as good as one with the morass whence they grew. And, with unaccountable abruptness, he remembered that European ex-girlfriend from the ancient days of his youth when at sea with the spice trade.

First thing's first. His wife had left him, but on second thoughts that was probably the best of it. Or, on first thoughts, was his wife yet to meet him? No, what really bugged Tom was the speed with which he seemed to be heading towards that selfsame death about which a younger Tom had been so coolly detached and philosophical. The house was simply symbolic of such personal ruin. The house was also instrumental. Entropy had a lot to answer for. Not that Tom understood such strange English words.

He removed his finger from the bare brickwork and sighed. The roof lifted up slightly where the gutter divided pantiles from stucco, revealing the grabbing paws of an oriental teddy-bear: a giant version of the friendly old creature that had once shared Tom's playpen. It beckoned some Pandora to put her fingers in the toybox that Tom's house had suddenly become. Not that Tom was Pandora, nor tall enough to reach that far up. He realised that the loft was full of his old playthings. The rocking-horse. The easel and paintbox. Whip and multicoloured top. Wooden hoop. Meccano set. Pick-a-stix. Jack-in-the-box. Spice-rack.

He took one last look at the stilts, literally daring them to topple and ran towards the French windows. But he was refused entry by a large tin soldier who creaked rustily as it aimed its bayonet at Tom, saying:

"This is private property."

The soldier's grimace was painted on and his voice was more a thought process than that audible irritation of the air which speech tended to be.

"Yes, you are quite right," announced Tom, "it's mine!"

"This house belongs to the gods of dilapidation and decay. You no longer have any jurisdiction over it."

This last statement was not the soldier's but a more bouncy voice emanating from a closed box behind him. The soldier was equally startled by the intervention from such an apparently unviable source. How could boxes talk? Unless ... unless ... it was a Jack-in-one. And, no sooner contemplated, the lid flicked up and a rubicund clown-on-a-spring laughed up and down like a boomerang yoyo.

Tom was at least certain about one thing. He was not dreaming. He did not need to draw blood from a pinched arm to prove that point. The whole episode was, in truth, nothing more than symbolic. And symbols were dreams made flesh. Metaphors had real meat. Similes actually were what they were like. Nothing could be simpler - nor more complex. Even entropy took a back seat. Words taken as read.

Tom smiled as he proceeded with what he felt to be stilts down the garden path. Indeed, his face was on a swing-leg easel: a walking portrait that lived forever, since the acid in the air was merely for things that breathed and for people who believed only in paintings that wore and tore. And as he reached crazy-paving's end, where fence divided real fairy-tales from false accounting, he turned round to admire his house. The girl on the roof was playing cat's cradle with the television aerial: a girl he would recognise, if his old age was not now even older than the person it aged. His smile became the sob it was. He failed to realise that Pandora was the girl he'd once loved before he was her husband and she his wife, neither becoming the person they were meant to be - because metaphors kicked the bucket when they no longer meant anything whilst similes simply compared truth and non-truth, without coming off the fence. But the sentence was too long. A life sentence.

The teddy-bear tried to regain the slit-eyed rag-doll that he had once loved. Tom screamed from the island of his playpen for yet more toys. Playpens were worlds unto themselves. Doll's houses, too. And the properties of life and death were private properties - both in law and physical insularity. Occident met orient, in the same way as death met life, cancelling each other out. Not that Tom could now understand anything, let alone such symbols. He put anything complicated, and hence meaningful, as far from his mind as possible. He forgot, too, that, when he had looked again, he had witnessed the girl thrashing about as she was skewered on the TV aerial, her melted blood trickling into the gutters and down the soggy stilts. Her space was spice.

A voice pitifully gurgled: "Blimey, mate, help me down!"

Tom shrugged. The girl was evidently in renewed birth throes. Left on the roof by a giant stork.

In his universe, opposites, once met, were male-merged and filed - and an Ex-Lover was always the Next-Lover...

“Pretty good, at his age, eh, sweetie?”

Jackinthebox words, not Pandora’s.

(first published The Ex Files Quartet Books 1998)

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Old Scratch

The 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.

I should have known it would not be easy to lose myself, when there were no corners to negotiate. Old Scratch was on my tail and I found it the devil’s own job to shake him off. And, you see, Old Scratch had been queening it a bit in the Old Women’s Tree part of the city - until I came along in an attempt to expose him as a pretty low and common denominator. I did not know his face but, from the police records which I remembered somehow studying, I was sure I would recognize the rhythmic pace of his following footsteps and ill-disguised snort of his lungs. I guessed he would be uglier than an eviscerated corpse half-floating in the whipping-crust outside the Warwolf Arms gentlemen’s excuse-me.

As I 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, I spotted an urchin running towards me from the opposite direction of the limitless distance where the mapmaker had evidently confused perspective with phantasy. We squatted on the pavement, regaining our breath in snorts.

“What’s your name, ragamuffin?” I asked, trying to conceal the gabnash of my teeth and gums.

“Gunstock.” The boy was no older than I had been at his age, though he acted as if he had the knowledge of the whole cosmos upon his narrow shoulders.

“Gunstock? That be a ‘trestin’ name. Are yer runnin’ up the street for any good reason?” My voice cracked. I could well believe I had not used it for centuries. I was astonished, too, at my crude dialect. I was in fact only to recall one reincarnation in which I had seen fit to talk. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if Old Scratch was lurking behind the back of my mind. And there was a corner shop just extending its awning like a tongue, opening for the afternoon session. Funny - I’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, throatstoppers etc., I was convinced the shopkeeper would be finger-grating at his large bald pate to fill the lemon sherbets. He may have been Old Scratch himself in sudden disguise. I turned back to the urchin who now held out his begging-hand, with an expression on his grubby face indicating that he thought me a clench-fist.

“I’m not goin’ ter give yer any-fing, Gunstock, ‘cause I can’t even buy meself a clump-sole.” I showed him the undersides of my shoes, next to useless without the hardened leather-flesh of feet to supplement them.

‘You be pie-powdered,” the boy enunciated painstakingly.

“I be not so dirty as I look, young ‘un,” I claimed, rising from the swill-gutter and tapping the precocious witmonger on the shoulder. It was meant to be a friendly gesture, but he flinched, his whole existence seeming to bodyjack before my very eyes. Good heavens, it was Old Scratch himself I’d touched, for I saw the underfurrows of age unshrining, as if he had a different flavour inside. His soul was wither-wrung, and I read words in his sticky mouth like sweets dissolving on the blotchy haft of a misshapen tongue and slicking a putrid throat which I could peer down if I stayed long enough to do so.

As 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 I was now in the relatively disease-free uncharted yard complexes of the city where the pubs were open all day. I ambled into the Warwolf Arms, as jolly and carefree as I could pretend, ready to order a tumbler of fizz for my narrow-billed lips and the sucking-sides of my throat. The landlord held out a webbed hand for payment of tuppence-ha’penny in exchange. Reddening to the bottom, I fumbled in my britches for my purse had been confounded with the umbilica of my intestines or, even, it was not there at all. Gunstock must have been a nifty pycke-purse. I could only find my Share Certificates in the Pinny-Winkles Company that had gone out of business when they first invented firearms.

I scrammed as quickly as I dared, with the first mouthful of fizz still bubbling against the shaft of my grisly clanker-clapper which waggled from the depth of my gullet. I 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. He looked a trifle too much like Old Scratch - and now, knowing the city streets better, the wanderer in me somehow tried to get lost on a quest not unconnected with acting out dreams.

I 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, I intended to wend the endless terraces and semi-avenues, loop closes, test cul-de-sacs - try, against all the odds, to abandon myself to the city’s mystery. Come dusk, which was usually earlier than I expected, I would succeed in finding, in the old nick of time, another underground station by which means, because of the oversimplified out-of-scale poster map therein, I could lead myself back to Square One - emerging into the darkness of the streets I had grown to know.

But, like the underground map, nothing was ever what it seemed. I had been lost for unconscionable hours, yet through the sapping drizzle, I saw with some relief the blurred sign for Angel Crescent. Shaking from my exertions, I allowed myself 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 me.

Later, as I clattered along upon the deserted train, I 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 I recalled it, stretching, it seemed, limitlessly above, with a strong wind funnelling down upon me. I gathered the black overcoat about me without asking what black overcoat?

Others, descending in the parallel trough, watched me quizzically as I passed them upwards. They evidently found the slow speed sufficient and my demeanor more interesting than the tiered advert posters. Even the photos of people in underwear did not distract them from me. I felt my face blush, dreading that the icy looks I suffered would suss out what I wore under the black overcoat. It was as if they picked my pockets with their eyes, snipping the purse-strings to my heart. Each coin was a silver bullet.

I suspected that the oldster who followed me through the reincarnations had no respect for the law of any land we traversed, whilst scratching a living simply from breathing. But, at long last, the escalator delivered me, 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 my system, especially as the set-up of back-doubles which I faced was confusing. I always considered deja-vu to be a fiction, which would make more sense without the use of the word “always.” But now I depended on deja-vu to find my way. Only the night before, I had dreamed of these surroundings. Each turning and line of houses were gentle reminders. I thanked God for small mercies, because it would have been far worse in a completely out-of-the-way area. I was at least on someone’s common ground.

The windows were mostly dark. Some, dully lit. As I rounded each corner, shadowy figures slammed doors, as if they had been lying in wait for me, only to make this obvious point of unwelcome. Curtains fluttered as did my own sodden eyelids. Silence was just the swishing of rubber blades on a windscreen. My engine gunned - and died.

I had drawn to a halt halfway down a road of high-rises. I had never owned a vehicle other than myself yet, uncannily, the treads of my clump-soles squealed as I applied the wet weather brakes. Braces tightened against my upper frame, pulling the belt to which the braces’ crocodile clips were affixed like a band of hot iron. My sock-suspenders cramped my calves, turning them rock hard by guying the pinions of my searing sinews. My briefs cut into the groin, lifting and separating. The holster seared a diagonal line between the shoulder-blades and one burst breast. The implement I 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 I 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. I tried desperately to recall the cutpurse dream from the night before, which was fast becoming a key to this night’s reality. But having reached such a point, I had woken, 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. Many of the direction angles were misleading too. But, tonight, the dream 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 dogooders.

The black cab into which they disappeared with slamming doors snorted off. I heard them shout a destination (in the posh side of the city) to the shadowy driver propped up at the large wheel. I scratched my head. I 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 sherbety-white snow.

Dream or double-dream, I was past caring, yet something told me that he who had once been the hooray-henries’ chum sat waiting, with back leant against night’s warehouse wall. Thick as thieves, he was. I lightly touched the hardware I wore, confident with its presence. As I fingered the tiny nipple with its iron aureole, fire thrilled along my arm. Shivering, I negotiated the guttering street, determined this time to reach the end of the dream - or remember whom I feared so that I could now make avoidance plans - or, at least, find another underground sign that would allow me to regain my bearings. Eventually, I thought I made out ‘Gold Street’ on the sign. I prayed it would have an escalator and lifts and stairs, to cover the strange odds that only Fate could offer, it seemed, in dream. I felt extremely cold without the black overcoat that I suddenly recalled once had my shadow body inside it.

Now, as luminous as the snowlit moon, I reflected off the black glass wall of an anonynous city office-block. I was indeed a trifle too much like the one who followed me, but even more like the one who followed him.

No tongue to speak with, we drew our weapons on the moment’s spur, and I waited to see who would touch the trigger first. The scribblings of crack-deep scratches over the black face-plate was the first I knew I was no longer there or, even, anywhere. Not even in the Warwolf Arms.

(Published 'Shadowdance' 1994)