Sunday, December 26, 2004

Hotel de Filles

The young ladies tripped a dark fantastic, their parasols out in hope of sun, Easter bonnets tilted vampishly. Giggling laughter speaking volumes for subconscious sadness.

Their robes were pulled in at the waist by mock-virginal belts, long plaited tongues hanging from the strap's V-shape, each girl secretly yearning to be the Madonna whom the only truly handsome man in the city would pick from the crowd and take off somewhere in gondola or carriage ... towards a new life, a rear-of-park view from hidden manse or terraced palace. The pair of them would need merely one servant.

Mary's robe was long and hugging, the simple revelation of flickering ankles tantalising those turks who bobbed up and down in the water of the trellissed canal, their steely eyes just level with the paved promenade.

Most of the girls in the group pointedly ignored their half-concealed leers, but Mary allowed a flirting smile to fleet across her impassive face, more in the cheek muscles than the lips ... enough to reproduce those dimples her mother had once nurtured with her knitting-needle as soon as the nursery games had worn far too thin for the late afternoon.

"Oi! Oi! There's love afloat tonight..." came one voice.

"Beauty is never so bright ... than in my eyes' starlight," came another.

"Mary, that willow-clinging dress ... echoes the undules of thy flesh," came yet a third.

The girls, embarrassed by the turks' catcalls, placed hands upon their rose-button lips to staunch the flow of otherwise unbridled laughter from its unbearded den.

Mary loitered at the rear of the group, her tall neck coiling lissomly with the coy back glances of her swivelling eyes. She wished she owned a separate pair of hands which could fondle her body independently ... particularly when nights seemed longer than day. Her stiffened underbodice hid the knuckling of the nipples.

One turk had swung himself to the quay from his punt, sprung strength of limb compensating for the inefficiency of water as a lever.

He followed on in the wake of the girls, head bowed. He wanted so much to take that one who was the slowest walker, keep her as his own forever. He would teach her to laugh shamelessly, thus to pump out the liquid of death and prevent its grand tour of her heart's canals. The lavishly tooled bowl under his bed would be fitting for such emissions; then carelessly discarded at daybreak upon the unsuspecting head of a grizzled river pilot as he steered his craft between the shafting walls of dawn: each stave of yellow light broken and ever rejoined by the passage of him and others like him as they glided homeward upon the silky sheen for a day's sleep...

The turk's dream was abruptly snapped into a thousand scattering fireflies. He just saw the tail of the group disappearing into the Hotel de Filles, evidently, he surmised, eager to see whether their ugly chaperones were still fast asleep.

He stood, vowing to wait forever, if need be.

The sun was missing most of that day. It did however put in a late appearance just at the moment it was dipping in red splendour behind the baroque palisades, beyond the stone sculptures of the classic male, where the fountainous water churned and creamed amid chiselled loins. Mary, at her high hotel window, mindlessly released her ribbons, sashes, girdles and hooks. The body was thus unhugged, convoluted lacy materials shedding gossamer tinsel for the stars to wear.

She peered at one statue in particular, relieving itself by spouting blood upon the canal's dying sun from the stone carving of its manhood.

She heard a girl keening elsewhere in the hotel. Another comforted her, told her, with the acoustic clarity of twilight in the labyrinth of the building, that nipples could never ever turn into stone. Only the heart could do that, was Mary's annunciation to the silence of her room.

"Oi! Oi!" came the ghostly call of the gondoleers in the night.

(published 'Red Stains' Creation Press 1992)

Saturday, December 11, 2004

A Sack of Santa

The house was huger than when I was small and gullible. Perhaps, it had grown extensions with each planning permission that erstwhile owners had instigated. But no record of such paperwork nor invoices for building works, nothing except the sheer bodily evidence of alcoves, vestigial hallways, annexes, attic-complexes, loft conversions of previously non-existent lofts, granny flats, tree-houses, gate-lodges etc. - all of which must have appeared overnight, as it were, without the interference of outside forces.

Even if one were stone dead in the imagination stakes, one could easily visualise the shock on my face as I stooped below one of the new gate arches: part of a castellated surround which made normal battlements look like somebody else's garden fence. Yet, I've forgotten to draw attention to the fact that this house was once a normal two-up-two-down terraced back-to-back so rife in the thirties in this part of Great Britian. So where were the neighbours' houses? Had they been coerced into forming part of the agglomerated mansion that my family home had now become? Not just one straight-up-and-down stairs of bone-aching steepness, but now several spiralling grand strutways which took one all over the rambling edifice. And once upon the topmost landing (which was now as airy and light as it was once so dark and dowdy), one could survey the whole of the factory town, where gridlocked geometries of true two-up-two-downs radiated outwards in terraced interminability.

It took my breath away.

I hadn't been 'home' for decades and I was now older than I was. So, not only had the mind-boggling vastness of the empalaced tunnel-back sucked my lungs clean but also had its countless Gothic floors that one needed to climb to reach the vantage point of which I speak. Yet, I proceeded on upwards until I reached, via a skylight, the massive expanses of roof, rising and falling like mathematical mountains, interpersed with forests of huge smoking chimneys.

I retained a smidgin of puff, as I scrambled over the rattly slate-racks, toting my heavy body with me. I felt as if I was lugging it from under the shoulders, ignoring the grunts of complaint which I recognised to be my own voice. And, at last, just as my breath was taken by the sky like an ocean would a drop of water, I realised what I needed to do. You see, and one as imaginative as you will see, death was much larger than life.

And Santa Claus had a present for someone not unlike the tiny tot I once was who now lay breathless in one of the many chimney-fed nurseries that were ensconced behind every gleaming corridor wall. And that present was Santa's own corpse which would prove that he had existed once, and the child who had believed in him would thus be vindicated. Yet the huge cross he'd also lugged up here pinned to the ends of his limbs had a wing-width too great even for the huge chimneys he'd overblown beyond anybody's imagination.

(Published 'Roisin Dubh' 1993)

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

At The House Hotel

I was spending a week's holiday on the Cornish coast during a period when heavy rains had decided to set in. Despite many false turnings and my trusted jalopy's windscreen wipers faltering against the weather, I had eventually reached the strangely named House Hotel.

What I intended to remember about that isolated place were the famous sunsets across the Cape of Long Chimney, which could be witnessed from the hotel's highest bedroom - oranges and reds spreading and silting their oils above those froth-spumed rocky misshapes which the Atlantic had carelessly left uncovered. Even on days when the shipping forecasts on the Long Wave announced tail to tail storms around the coasts, I hoped that the scuttering clouds would split asunder, at the very last moment, to allow the sun free rein for the few painful moments of day's latest death - thus to build bloodstacks sky high from sea to Heaven's base.

I loitered by the window, yearning for a glimpse of such a sunset. Then, I felt a light touch on my shoulder, just as a rim of fire exploded gloriously and unexpectedly into sight. I turned with a shiver and saw, in the wardrobe mirror, the reflection of the framed picture from the opposite wall. It was a black and white painting - almost blue and white, with dashes of imaginary pink - depicting a busy Regency family: prim and proper children and maidenly ladies, one of the latter preening a little girl's hair and adjusting the ribbon to its optimum setting. I felt that a pussy-cat, curled up like a black rose, needed to be snoozing on the floor to make the whole picture sufficiently cosy.

I returned to the window, shiver now shudder, only to find the sky ink-stained, the chimney on the Cape appearing to be a dead lighthouse or a giant hat-pin in an undertaker's storm-tossed titfer. The mood made me forget the touch on my shoulder. Or was it the tugging at the back of my legs that made me less observant of such trivialities? Strangely as if a loyal dog were pulling its master back into an open grave.

I went to switch on the light in my room. The House Hotel was coming alive below me, dinner gongs in counterpoint. How many dinners were they serving tonight, in any event?

"Harry, Harry..."

The whispering of my name came from under the bed. The fear was more physical than mental, wrigglings along the spine. Whoever had heard of pet animals talking? How had it strayed into my room, in the first place?

I recalled the day, a tiring day, trekking Cornish cliff-tops and watching the Atlantic rollers wasting their energies as they beached upon obdurate rocks. Like clockwork, they came churning in, one after another, eternity's repeating performance, holding inchoate power and dread in their toppling combs of bubbling surf. The awe in face of such clues to God made me feel unbalanced. I believed to have witnessed myself that day shattered upon Earth's jagged tooth decay.

Then, there had been the girl in the St Ives museum. She was gawky, full of her own sardonic intellectuality. Her companions were an elderly lady who kept plying the other two with lemon sherbets, much to the girl's supercilious annoyance ... and a sleek creature of a man who looked to be a city gigolo type. I knew, I just knew, all three would figure in my dreams come nightfall, unless I did something about it. I killed with my eyes, shot them through with the pain of non-existence. I saw their bodies literally fade as they passed out into the museum's Sculpture Garden. But what was that a lemon sherbet on the display counter, left carelessly by one of them? Surely, a sign that dreams are real. Yet tonight, in the distance, the sea's undersurge still powered on and my sleep was simply constituted of such background noise. The House Hotel had settled down for the night, me included. With neither care nor dream.

"Harry, Harry..."

"Go to sleep, I say, whoever you are."

And it did. So the ghost must have cared for me, even though its voice was what tree bark should be when turned into sound.

I wake with a start. The House Hotel breathes around me, less than snores but more than sighs. The painting glows in the wardrobe mirror facing the end of my bed. At the dead of night, a strange reversal of time has at last brought the sun up, bleeding into the curtains behind the bed-head ... or is it sparks from the disused tin mine on the Cape fireworking into the black sky from the Long Chimney?

The room's full of shunting red shadows ... and in the painting is no longer the Regency family but that sad trio of people glimpsed in the museum earlier in the day, as so many others are half-seen from the corners of eyes: living Undergrunts with squeezed-up eyes and thin lips, dark companions of shopping centres, seaside resorts, museums and, even, cliff-top hiking paths.

They must have such Undergrunts lurking behind the scenes even in Regency days. But surely not one like the city gigolo (with green eyes higher than any animal on hindlegs) who's now looming closer with each swaying stride. He wields his own long chimney of flesh which begins to return darkness to the room in spurts of black slime.

When I woke in the morning, the Regency family were back in the painting, but now they were looking straight out into the room with imploring eyes. And, now, incredible as it may seem in hindsight, the perspective of time leaves me with the memory that the little girl with the optimum ribbon was no longer in the painting.

As I quickly left the room, something quite low down, with slippery fur, brushed past my legs on to the landing. I feared whatever it was had abducted the girl before returning to taunt me with her cruel absence.

"Another rotten day," said the landlady pointing at the raindrops racing down the hall window. "I expect you'll never be able to see the glorious sunsets that the Cape is famous for..."

I nodded, believing the raindrops to be tears.

I departed House Hotel that day, hoping the weather wouldn't dog me further east. Nor any stray ghosts. Why I cried, too, it's hard to tell. Perhaps the little girl from the painting was intended to be my sweetheart in years gone by. As in dreams, you can never truly focus ... and emotions, like the Atlantic rollers, keep coming back to you, with a strange power which even God cannot end.

In the hotel car park, I discovered an unwrapped lemon sherbet on the driver's seat of my trusted jalopy - and, if I'm not too mistaken, all four doors were still well and truly locked. Not a neat ending, however. It was more of a continuation than a crystallisation. Just like life. An ever-fading memory that eventually peters out into our own eternity of self-ignited darkness. A little bit of Harry in the night.

(Published ‘Elegia’ 1993)