Friday, September 28, 2007

The War Wake

Published 'Cthulhu Cultus' 1997

Upon evacuation from London to Wales, Beatie Bilborough expected everything to be wine and roses - with songs in the mountains, country cottages and a strange lilting language which she had only heard in childhood dreams.

The war had pounded long and hard upon the city, hitting nearly everything and only missing St Paul's Cathedral by the skin of its teeth. She had lain awake at night listening to the bombs coming nearer. Despite having to bid farewell to her best chum Alice Dennis, Beatie was delighted when she was bustled off on a steam train to far Wales.

She eventually arrived at a Boarding House which she had been told in London was run by a family called Ribber. It stood tall and gloomy, like a sore thumb sticking up from the never-ending terraced houses. It faced the railings of a factory that was evidently concerned with some undercover war work involving smoke belching day and night from its tall chimneys.

Surprisingly, Beatie had to sign the guest book, which was an enormous ledger on the receptionist's counter and, as the man Jack, who drove the taxi, wished her good luck on swinging out through the revolving doors, she absent-mindedly browsed through the names of the other guests. This seemed a stake-out for single gentlemen - or so their outlandish signatures indicated.

One or two of those names gave her spine a running shiver, most of them, although mere names on the face of it, conveying a gamut of insidious fears. Being the only female guest, that would no doubt bring problems in itself. To cap it all, she heard an air raid siren suddenly hiccupping into life which, unless it was a false alarm, made a mockery of the whole journey to this godforsaken place.

It was indeed a false alarm. The morning, after a thankfully dreamless sleep, brought an entirely new aspect. The railings opposite were sparkling. The tall chimneys only puffed desultorily. And workers with red spotted kerchiefs and bright blue dungarees trooped from the factory gates, with an odd wolf whistle and guffaw breaking their otherwise silent departure.

Until then, Beatie had seen nobody except the bell-boy of the Boarding House. He was indeed an overgrown boy, with just the beginnings of a bum-fluff beard and a voice croaking on stiffening vocal cords. Quite abruptly, her attention was drawn to a gaggle of guests leaving through the swing-doors below her. She could just see the revolving wings flicking in and out of the entrance, since her bedroom bay window protruded over the pavement. Their voices were in undertones. They all wore flat caps and she was quite sure one of them muttered "Jack's in the salt-cellar, Gammy ga ga." A more outlandish statement it would be hard to invent, but it struck an uncanny chord.

If she had followed them, she would have discovered that they were heading towards the pub down the road, which opened early, in view of it being war time. She looked across to the factory and was startled to see a huge bird-like creature settling on its tall chimney ... a monstrous vision with flowing dewlaps and wattles of wrinkled skin. Upon its bony, knobby legs, it poked its saw-like beak into the top end of the chimney, evidently inhaling the now more fulsome fumes blasting from the furnaces below. The sun glinted off the creature's carapace and ... yes, off the metal wings of Spitfire planes that were now heading towards it, having emerged from the clear sky without warning. One crashed into the creature's under-hide, another skimmed through its blood-red coxcomb and careered off only to explode in a thousand bright splinters of fire somewhere amid the factory complex. Yet another dived suicidally between the yawning beak-halves and was snapped into two like toffee crunch ... just like that. Beatie looked away in horror ... and when she eventually returned her tentative pricking gaze there was nothing extraordinary to see, just the factory chimney releasing little pathetic puffs like messages from a bemused Red Indian.

Beatie put the vision down to a migraine. Her only option, however, was believe her gut-feeling that she had been truly evacuated mind and body ... so that she could carry out some far more dangerous (and infinitely more important) war work than being a land-girl or having flirting campaigns with boys in the company of Alice Dennis or simply sitting it all out in the shadow of St Paul's which was now at least another world away.

The Whateley Arms was full even at eight o'clock in the morning, for this was the time when shifts changed. Fred Tyrell had not bothered to look in this morning, as he had been tipped the wink that the incubators in the processing-plant were on the turn and, being nightwatchman on the day shift, they needed his immediate attention. But all the others whom Beatie had seen recorded by signature in the ledger were there boozing away and smoking fit to outdo the chimneys. One sat in his favourite position by the piano, dreaming of the days he once fell in love with the tub-thumper who used to play medleys on that very joanna. The others chatted incessantly about the new girl evacuee at the Dagonwy Boarding House. They sniggered as they grew drunker and the pub talk took a ludicrous turn; and, finally, they stumbled off to work at the factory.

Outside, they glanced back and saw her face still at the bow window of her bedroom, now smiling beneath her tears. There were deeper myths hanging over South Wales in those days than was ever contemplated by the history books - of Great Old Ones in Llanelly who shuttled between the stars and of their roof roosts here and there, on worlds old and new. The pub-type talk continued as they slaved at stoking up the incubators.

And as they slaved, they chanted "Jack's in the salt-cellar, Gammy ga ga." Soon, they would open up the hatches at the front of the autoclaves. Fred Tyrell had hinted that their contents would soon be ready for the big fling and, thus, the decoy and subterfuge of the other World War could be abandoned.

Beatie Bilborough was still at the window like a poster stuck to the glass. Her face smiled broadly, for the big bird had evidently escaped to the inside of her head, where it was growing more complex, even more unbelieveable - and, as her face smiled, it was clear that she, more than anybody, knew exactly what was going on.

At dusk, she left the window and joined her fellow guests in the dining-room for a stew of lights, grits and melts, everybody no doubt stirred into attendance by the bell-boy's vigorous thumping of the dinner gong. She told the others with a straight face that she had been sent from London, a spy ... but for which War? She explained that War fought War in the battle for the right to exist in history, but the one where a man called Hitler cooked his least favourite races in pressure incubators and fought on all fronts at once for the right to do so had no chance at all - too far fetched by half. But the battle of battles had only just been joined and Beatie herself only knew half of it.

The air raid sirens stuttered again that night. And as Beatie lay awake listening to them, she began to recall her playchild friend Alice Dennis - but then accidentally lost her way in a fitful sleep full of dreams and songs in the mountain, country cottages, bardic rounds ... and the misshapen six million people pulp that pulsed and palpitated in the factory stews, across the road from the Dagonwy Boarding House.

The Fair was in full swing, as the Easter evening drew in. At some central control console, an unknown hand tilted a rocker-switch and all the twirling coloured lights were tripped from one end of the site to the other. Beatie stood back in awe and then began to wander between the side-shows. One stall-holder was particularly vociferous in attracting custom. Dressed like a playing-card Jack, he yelled:

"Roll Up, Roll Up, throw rings

Over invisible things -

The art is to guess where,

The prize is to dress fair."

Beatie knew that whatever crazy game she chose, her money would be ripped off and the Evacuation Authorities had not given her much in the first place. But, still, what was life if one could not enjoy it in one's own silly way? As well as the pretty dolls' clothes spreadeagled like anorexic angels across the tent-frame of the stall, she rather fancied as a prize the tall silver salt-cellar she could take back to the Dagonwy Boarding-House. She could just see the other guests's faces.

In many ways, it would be perfect if Alice Dennis were here to see Beatie have a go, rather than still holed up in London Docklands. She glanced over her shoulder and looked at the fair's Big Wheel, revolving slowly, like a vertical version of the Dagonwy swing-doors, lit up like a flying saucer. Incredibly, it seemed to roll across the site as if it were really a wheel. Best pay no attention to her faculties: common sense is much more reliable, if a rare commodity. She approached the Jack of Diamonds and proffered her tanner coin for a go.

"How many go's will that give me?"

"There's no set number, Miss, but you'll know when the go is ended."

"Will I indeed?"

She took the wooden rings - and stared into the darkness beyond the back of the stall. She remembered the Jack's sales pitch. How could she throw rings at invisible things? This was more than just an ordinary fraud. Who was to verify? It did not even have pretensions to fairness - like most wars. Ah well, in for a tanner, in for a ten bob note. She floated the rings upon glide-paths that seemed likely to pay dividends, assuming there were indeed tall, tapering, translucent cut-glass vases standing behind the shadows as targets. With her tongue lolling out in concentration, Beatie continued to launch ring after ring and, as she did so, she listened to the distant hair-brain screams from the dodgems and the ghost-house and the rollercoaster and the Big Wheel and the thudding of Heavy Metal.

When the rings eventually ran out, Beatie found herself automatically bowling invisible discs into the air. She convinced herself she could actually feel them. Her mind was so entranced, she could hardly hear the Jack egging her on. But she had felt depressed when first coming on to the site. The bell-boy had scolded her only that morning for not leaving her bed unmade for him to make it. Then there was that silly argument about the cockerel in the back garden runs. Still, relationships were started and maintained on the thinnest of grounds. Bodies, though, had started to have a personality which could get in the way.

The afternoon had dragged, sitting alone with the fag-end of a love affair that had never been lit. She had unpacked her T-chest full of squashed tracing-paper, which always gave her a good feeling: the clean curves of the bone china her mother had entrusted to her safeguarding, almost translucent in their fineness: the flower patternings picked out in pastel shades, almost abstract, intangible: memories flooding back, memories of endless summers and infinite futures that were the past.

Now, back on a high, with the roar of the fair in her ears, she felt her own body launched like a wooden ring upon the laminae of the air towards the emptiness. Abruptly, without any noticeable shift, she felt herself completely enveloped in blackness; not a real surprise, however, more as if she had been blind since birth and would remain blind after death. As time faltered, she gradually discerned spinning saucers, at first hazy white, slowly gaining definition as they neared her. But before she could reconcile the phenomena with any rationalisation, she began to realise that her skull itself was the fraillest, finest porcelain target. And the first silver halo to arrive would have more substance than sense.

The fairground lights were immediately doused by the man on the rocker-switch at the first suspicion of an air raid siren.

Weeks later, the war almost forgotten, Beatie vaguely wanted to live in the countryside beyond the Welsh town, far from the Dagonwy and the tall factory chimney. Her mother - and Alice Dennis, too - had long since been swallowed up by the Hunnish occupation of London Town, so now the only option was for Beatie to find her own life, even if that entailed risking it. The day was sticky - brown clouds hanging like sweaty duffles - as she walked the long drive to the front entrance. The windows winked in turn as each took shine from the hidebound sun, bringing her to believe that the place had a being all of its own. The "Room to Let" sign was askew. She fondled the money she had lately earned from working as a bar maid in the Whateley Arms. The gutters hung from below the roofs like spectacle frames crippled by recent air raids, even here deep in the country. The porch came out to meet her even before she had time to realise that she had reached the front door, her fist raised to crash down upon its split paint boards and set the fan-lights revolving in their sockets, like miniature swing-doors.

Her eyes were swollen above the cheek-bones, perhaps in readiness, because, she felt, whoever came to answer the door would be determined to outstare her like the blind security-officer at the factory opposite the Dagonwy. The door opened even before she had a chance to adjust her blouse. She had assumed that the owner lived there merely to protect his property, rather than to use it as quarters in which to pursue existence. When she first caught sight of the upper floors, from a distance, rearing above the surrounding woodland environs, she was amazed, because the roofs leaned against each other, as if generations of childhood tree dens had been built on top of one another, growing from the slab walls like inflammable chimney stacks, each with wire sculpture jewellery that (she presumed) would bring in the programmes as soon as television was invented.

"Yes?" The man who had swung the door wide, stood with legs apart, his face naggingly familiar, but his nose out of joint to any accommodation with the rest of his face. His spectacles were crooked, one ear being higher than the other.

"Good afternoon, I gather there is a room to let and I bring a letter of introduction from the Evacuation Authorities..." She held out the sealed envelope. She felt as if she had another migraine coming on, and she could hardly see since the sweat had dripped into her bulging eyes.

"Why are you crying, Miss?"

"I am not crying, Sir, merely hot." She pointed to the sky where the sun was on yet another sprint towards a new hidey-hole. She could hear the underchatter from within the house which she took to be the Home Service on the wireless.

"Call me Jack, if you like." The man took the envelope and tore it open with his red teeth, shredding parts of the actual letter in the process. "Tell me, before I read this letter, why are you interested in this room?" Beatie stopped short. She was about to say that she needed a refuge from a refuge. "I know, I know, you want to live here - for the character of the walls, the depth of the rooms, the ghosts in the attics, the landscape of roofs..."

She shook her head as if to free it from some encumbrance and politely returned down the long winding drive. She had indeed spotted a wheel of flashing coloured lights in the dusk slowly revolving nearer from above the distant Welsh town - and she heard the vague screams of joy and terror.

The one who asked others to call him Jack followed her for several miles even to the ragged coast, wagging his tongue and jabbing it at various distances to snag her clothes. But like the big chimney bird, he was thankfully an intangible chunk of dot-matrix pre-echoed from the televisions that had not yet been invented. Beatie Bilborough was somewhat relieved, as he had scared her out of her wits.

Nevertheless, she still felt the tweak of a beak inside her head tentatively poking the back of her eyeballs. She hiked deeper into the less well-known parts of Wales - but now it did not seem to matter since she found herself hand in hand with the bell-boy. He was still panting from catching her up, his voice strangely lilting and quaintly regressed to a more youthful or effeminate tone ... and, what was more, Alice Dennis, in a frock of polkadots, skipped happily across the green hills in their wake. Fred Tyrell in Alice's wake. Gammy ga ga.

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