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)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Dream or double-dream..." what an exquisite choice!