The following is an extract from the opening chapters of the third book in the MOUSTACHIO series. They deal with issues of cognition and are an exploration of consciousness and reality:
* * * *
The lights of Warcapest, when viewed at night from above, shimmer and glow~ like candles on a festive tree celebrating an event, or are they signposts along a journey, or windows leading to other places or…
There are patterns that might penetrate the very fibre of the universe, appearing at irregular intervals as harbingers/augers/pointers~ signs leading towards an understanding of the thing to which everything is a part. Seeing them becomes the quest, the endeavour, in order to become sensitized to a bigger all-encompassing meaning. This is both easy and hard, since the best questions have no answer. The days of so many lives~ each one so long, become confused and infested with diversions until the overarching goal is lost. Each person will need at least one sign in order to stay nourished and alive to the penetrating moment~ to continue proceeding onward in the right direction. Choosing a sign is of paramount importance. Finding even a little sign to follow is imperative. This is the continuing story of one perceived sign… all recognise its presence and will call it by a name… should they ever find one that fits. Is it a symbol, is it a phenomenon or is it a person? Can it be any or all of these?
Sound is carried, as on a wind, into the sleeping heart of which everything is part, punctuating the moment and calling the/this world into further and continuing action. A bell sounds; it resonates in the empty air, a siren in a far off street at some distance whines and echoes. All lifts into consciousness, becomes alive for us. An instinctive awareness demands a response. A rhythmic pulsation is felt. Something from within moves to meet it. The night sky slowly sweeps backwards; the distant daylight is preparing to return. The text on an advert, engraved on glass, reads in reverse in the streetlight. A kind of tide somewhere is turning, moving in the opposite direction to its purpose. Soon, the light from starry constellations will be lost to the reflections of all the windows in buildings across the distant city. It will become impossible to observe the illusion of seeing the stars from both sides once more.
The new day, still barely visible, not delivered, hardly born, is ready to emerge, but slowly. It is carefully metering out its time.
‘Not yet,’ it whispers, ‘it is too soon.’ There is time enough to lie in wait, to luxuriate in the remote observation of a new world hatching~ like an invisible, mighty phoenix rising from the embers of its own history. As yet, the deep, heavy slumbers of night persist, undisturbed, blithely unaware of intrusion/of the new birth. Darkness remains glued and is sticking to every part of everything. Time has become suspended, is interrupted temporarily, paused or slowed, just long enough for all to be seen within a differing perspective. A petrified stillness fills the space, existing in the lap of a nothing, a space in the centre of a naught; a no place for the soulless. Such gorgeous stillness allows the briefly remembered past to creep in, distantly recalling itself, half remembered at best. Simultaneously, ‘almost’ futures begin to build themselves. They infiltrate, from out of corners that exist nowhere. They materialise like impossibly weightless, golden feathers, each desperately hoping to be pressed and moulded into dull, grey, thinking clay, the matter out of which ‘thinks’ are made real~ all this within a fog in time. This benign, low-lying cloud of beautiful, myth-making imagination pushes hard to overwhelm. It offers unfulfillable promises of where it will take everything and everyone within its inescapable grasp.
‘But not yet!’
Such intense quietude makes a stone of every building. The silence makes a dead beast of every sleeping machine. The empty city and its suburbs appear briefly abandoned, derelict and forgotten. The creatures here are away dreaming of those imaginary places, marginally less real than their understanding of the worlds they inhabit. Memory is more disparate amongst them than they care to acknowledge, their awareness of reality, fickle and misplaced.
Everything is turned off, waiting to be turned on, waiting to return. Were we real at all, we could imagine ourselves drifting towards all this effortlessly, as if with some intent, as if a thing was about to begin, about to be enacted~ a curious story might be about to embark.
We navigate by, past, through, as if ‘everywhere’, amidst what appears to be a vast ocean of huge but gently flowing waves, viewing everything within this moment, this inexplicable present. Humanity is the boat that appears on this brief page~ its sail filled by one of the passing zephyrs within time. The direction of the little prow may be informative. The gathering storm and tide around the little boat is already determining the key elements for an irrepressible and turbulent future. Night watchmen, sleepy lookouts all, scour the horizon for events~ might they first glimpse the gargantuan entropy that is to subsequently overflow and swamp the interstices of all matter.
The shadows are beckoning, making an eye to see, with intensity, to view what is within, concealed. There are invisible breezes and winds everywhere. They cannot be heard whistling remotely on the wires, nor can they be seen to pulse within them~ although they do. Neither can one be seen by the other, nor are they easily understood, as if two worlds were forever able to avoid collision, the one oblivious of its counterpart. However, both, in this moment, lay remotely within our grasp.
* * * *
The city and all within it unknowingly await the mourning.
Empty spaces begin to grieve for the lost aspirations & past lives of absent others, as if the secret eyes of sympathetic travellers were here observing & imagining.
* * * *
Within the nocturnal and sleeping city of Warcapest, everything is a monument to the resolve of ingenious human endeavour; the spirit and activity that made everything in these parts is intrinsic within every one of its possible and conceivable artefacts. Everything records itself within the fabric of time. No conscious patterns seem to be missing; every unconscious pattern is here too, but invisibly so, yet awaiting discovery. Nothing can be lost if time is seen and understood. Everything is a commentary on what has happened and what will happen~ and can insinuate further what is yet to happen within this entire realm of things. It is not necessarily so elsewhere or everywhere. Here, in Warcapest, ancient activities continue until such times as new ones supplant those that came before. Everything is built on the developing wishes and needs of a complex and aspiring species, which remain fundamentally unchanged over millennia.
There is a paradox that ought to be alarming. Might the progress of these people develop beyond their capacity and ability to embrace the very changes they invoke and manufacture? As the rate at which they organise and develop themselves increases, so does the opportunity for mayhem and conflict. It has become a dangerous and frequent occurrence within their continuing existence and consciousness. A state of affairs and ongoing reality not known to those ancient Venetians who once lived undisturbed by change for a period of 300 years during their fortunate history. Innovation and change however is the stuff out of which many of Warcapest’s most beautiful contradictions are made. Notwithstanding, the passing of time fortunately remains a very stately affair here. The old world and its traditions are often revitalised, sometimes in bizarre ways, as time moves forward, embracing as it does, new thinking and technologies, allowing the world to capture the imaginations of those who are still newly young, who are ambitious and progressive. Such continuity, allied to change, is inspiration, a driving force for the ensuing modern age. In Warcapest, the past is only ever, by degrees, allowed to glide away from the present. It slips away virtually undetected. It becomes imperceptibly left behind to die in isolation~ outdated and anachronistic through neglect, the glorious and half-remembered ghost to earlier times.
However, there are surprisingly peculiar and immovable ancient ways that are belligerent and insistent. They thrive and persist alongside innovation in all times; such is the incongruity of existence here. These primordial anomalies remain into the present age and are set to survive in future ones, lovingly serviced by those yet living, for longer than one might expect, by virtue of blind observance and faith in long forgotten allegiances. In memoriam, such traditions can be adored for their historical significance, for what they continue to say. Such phenomena are believed to be timeless. They speak of who this people think they are, describing their ancient ways and unspeakable truths; traits, that it has been subconsciously agreed, will never be lost~ despite no one living having a vocabulary to describe what they are anymore~ nor have they the ability to understand these things, as once they did. There are unmentionable and indescribable customs, details and ways of doing things that are of indisputable importance to the reality of these temporal, but spiritual beings. Such things, in the modern age, are becoming translated and redirected to take the now vacant places of once imagined gods. To the chagrin of this people, there is still no proof of their importance or place in the indecipherable universe. Where and when will that verification come? There is, without doubt, a colossal need in them. Without a tangible validation, they have acquired a desperation and imagination enough to need to invent one at last. In consequence, there is a newly popular mammon daring to replace blind faith. They have instead, assumed a self-interest and belief in the things over which they have a perception of control. They newly pride themselves on the exercise of political and bureaucratic power and recent innovations in science, engineering and industry. There is a quest for progress, aligned to an irrational belief in the supremacy of that ‘self-imposed self’ that can gain sway and govern, enslave and shackle those weaker ‘others’ in their own midst and amongst their number. This is further supported by a misguided and mistaken belief in their potential to harness that same Nature that has dared to ignore them for so long. The city has become proof to some, that they have become god-like in their century of industrial and technological revolution, although, rather than embrace anything of Nature at all, let alone understand it, they have fooled themselves instead~ by shutting doors and by building walls against the very thing that they are.
There is an interesting exploration, a journey even, which might be undertaken here. Are there any heroes amongst this mayhem? Can we find one as we search?
* * * *
See, as we see, spirit-like~ moving towards the heart of Warcapest, floating, like some kind of majesty, into the view of and over the top of, an industrial, tall, shot tower. The furnace below is beginning to be brought up to temperature in anticipation of the new day’s toil. The night shift workers prepare, whilst simultaneously cleaning the large, copper sieve. They appear like little moving markers of organised activity in the orange glow. The lofty edifice resembles an enormous clock tower, constructed from brick with flattened pilasters, mapping the many landing stages of its external metal stairway. The roof crane is already lifting lead to the uppermost point, from where, in molten state, it will be released. Each solidifying mass of liquid metal, bead-like, will trace its own line as it is dropped, as alike a world in miniature as one might care to imagine, every little individual point briefly tracing its own indivisible, invisible line as it falls. The buildings throughout the site are blackened and soiled with the residues of oxidized lead from past decades.
This industrial edge, just outside of Warcapest, lies next to the swifter of the two rivers that flow through the heart of the city. The area is populated with a multitude of heavy, concrete buildings, like bunkers, built in a time when it was thought they should be made to last forever, in the belief that the utility of ‘once new’ industrial complexes and the mechanisms they house should be perpetual and inexhaustible. Each colossus of technology and engineering, each process by which energy is harnessed, stands proud, defiant, indomitable, dwarfed under a vast impassive sky that glides disinterestedly, nonchalantly above. Monstrous constructions sprawl across the landscape, each isolated within a wilderness, surrounded by unkempt, opportunistic foliage and expedient, mongrel growth.
The metal-framed building immediately below, with a myriad of filthy glass panes clad across its surfaces, is the coal breakers’ yard. Each building on this site is dirty, black, dust-ridden and smeared with anthracite particles, denying the interior light it was once intended to see. Only where the glass is broken or fallen out, can shafts of dynamic daylight invade the dark interior of a heartless building, during the waking hours. Throughout the site, conveyor belts enter and exit buildings at will, at varying heights and angles, intent on delivering coal to the next crushing house. Young trees; thin, green, rampant rogues, break the monotony of a colourless site right up to the buildings themselves and across the high roofs, their once fresh leaves prematurely darkened and crisp in the dusty air that stunts their natural growth and splendour. Even in daylight, light is restricted to their leaves.
Adjacent is a power station built in 1902, virtually obsolete and ready to be taken out of commission, noble~ but in its dotage, loyal to its cause~ but worn out and superseded by improved technologies recently built next to it on neighbouring land. The familiar signature of its wild, gliding, electric hum and intermittent thunder-cracks continue to fill the distant air all around, sounding out like sparks on an enormous flywheel. At the far end of the site, power lines escape and move ‘en masse’ in the direction of central Warcapest; they hum and resonate in high voltage and full-blown electrical thrall. The building has cement facings of splendid columns and mouldings. They once added a universal and worldly grandeur; they were gratuitously and anachronistically modelled on the architecture of the Greeks. In places, parts of these glorious details have fallen off over subsequent decades. The dense volumes of concrete, out of which the building and turbine halls are constructed, are at last decomposing and disintegrating. Coarse concrete has broken through and begins to assert itself as the ruinous look of the once magnificent building. Here too, the rude surface is flaked, is broken, visibly bows, burgeoning out of line, where the unremitting action of torrential storm rain over decades has breached and rusted internal caged metal that was once intended to strengthen the form. Subsequently, heavy blocks of concrete hang from ceilings inside, suspended on the bent, rusting, wire cages that once lay deep within its construction. That ‘deposition’, intrinsic within the fabric of time, exerts itself. Walls and roofs sporadically seep water and create lime deposits. Water and weathering have penetrated outer skins right through to inner surfaces, where stalactites, no less substantial than any imagined elsewhere, have formed as they would in any subterranean cave.
Robust structures within the building’s interior, made of iron girders, support the vast platforms onto which are secured enormous castings. These are the powerful turbines~ mechanical life on an epic scale. These are engines that dwarf the men who service their needs and utilities. In the main shed, the turbine is massive, its moving parts a prescription for precision engineering, although external casings have become woefully blistered due to indiscriminate and repeated overheating. Painted surfaces have been persistently scorched and lay peeling, as though infected with some inglorious, indescribable pox. Such superficial damage has been made good, or ignominiously retrieved, through alternative paint layers of not quite the right hue, or partial undercoats that have failed to cover efficiently. The body of this languishing beast has been overly greased where it can be maintained and allowed to rust, where it cannot. The noise is unremitting and overwhelming~ a persistent never-ending scream of determined intensity.
A soundproofed control room overlooks this area; serviced in a half-light, a subdued and dismal artificial light, by two flat-footed, balding, fat operatives, discernable only as shadows on the night shift. The outside noise invades only as a distant dream. Multiple internal connecting doors, in series, are tightly closed to restrict the pollution of sound. It is a wide room with brown, tinted windows. The semi-circular interior is dust free~ containing a complex control panel featuring an immense diversity of crazed Bakelite levers and polished brass fittings. There are profuse buttons and dials, a multitude of illuminated pressure gauges, meters, measuring instruments and displays. The walking and pacing undertaken by a succession of controllers, over decades, to service these devices, is apparent in the linoleum tiles across the front of the panel; a path worn down to the concrete substructure has become unmistakable. There are other signs of dilapidation perceptible. All that is missing is the final neglect that is soon to become manifest, when the facility finally closes, namely, the rich patina of abandon, furnished by human disinterest and entropy, by dirt and dust~ to be followed thereafter by the concluding anarchy afforded by rapacious asset stripping and vandalism. At this point, the remaining contents of cupboards and storage spaces will be strewn over floors and surfaces. Features will then have been stripped of their integrity and cannibalised for the meagre pickings obtained by recycling their parts as scrap.
Upstream, next to this, are coal silos and huge water tanks to store water that services the generators of the new gas power station lying further inland. There are cooling towers being built here too, intent on recycling water onsite. The new power station has a larger turbine hall than its predecessor. The generators are the most advanced in the world; their hum is streamlined and harmonious. These objects are redolent of the sculpture of twentieth century abstract artists. Obtuse forms and cylindrical pipework confuse and beautifully confound the sensibilities of the uninitiated. The gigantic hall is reminiscent of a city railway terminus, incorporating an economical cross-barrel vault~ designed with a mathematician’s skill to determine complex tolerances, facilitating the impressive use of thin, reinforced metal with the greatest of structural sophistication.
A heavy steelworks behind, on the far horizon, marks its geographical position by sending excess and raw, spent energy into the atmosphere. Billowing steam and smoke is exiting the electric furnaces and the tall chimneys of sinter plants. Chemical emissions rise into the air from venting devices and exhaust systems. Waste discharges variously from diverse complexes and disparate buildings and can be seen passing through the roofs of the rolling mills and soaking pits and from the moving steam locomotives that cross the site. There are tall structures intermittently scattered. Metal chimneys burn off raw gases, sending large plumes of yellow and blue fire and bright flame into the sky. These things glow, like enormous candles, illuminating the underside of clouds in the firmament above. The din of blast furnaces, rolling mills, huge compressor rooms and gas pumping stations fills the air. The complex sound and acrid smell of infernal industry is carried away in an opposite direction, on the wind and out across the vast vista, until such effect becomes dampened and is lost across these large distances.
From the centre of Warcapest, none of this can be heard or seen at all. It might as well be a lost world or a distant reality~ the work of an imperceptible magician behind his screen, or gods lost in a heavenly cloud, or the secret power of a non-apparent hero hidden within their cloak of invisibility.
* * * *
In Warcapest now, the streets are empty. The quiet is intense and tangible. Everything seems static and immovable. However, look closely~ steely reality has imperceptibly become twisted and ever so slightly undone. It unwittingly shimmers, secretly desirous to bend, willing to become changed or be usurped.
The parks are closed. Buildings shut. Industry is at rest. The offices and factories are empty. There are few night shifts here to deny workers repose and slumber. Light machinery will stand idle until such time as the light arrives and the day officially begins. The metro and transport systems have closed down in response to these hours of darkness. Even municipal fountains are turned off during this time. Throughout the city, switches, levers, plugs, ignition keys will only be once again ‘on’ when the waking hour arrives.
The factories, department stores and offices in the centre, sleep. In these places, night watchmen are the lone/lonely secret individuals who can see and explore this uncommon and generally unknown reality, amidst the heart of things that constitute what human beings have become. In these quiet moments, lurking secrets have space in which to be exposed. They can breath easily here and therefore can be glimpsed amongst the monumentality of machines, the acres of office spaces, amongst the workshops, in the garages, on the shop floors, amongst the factory assembly lines. Within all this, there is a hidden symbology, a latent energy that describes humanity and a dark universe. It lies, hardly concealed at all, within the trappings of the commonplace.
Like a pendulum, reality oscillates between one point and another. Cups may be half full or half empty. One may be in front of, or behind a line. Patterns so often reverse themselves and imperceptibly move backwards or in reverse of the directions they appear to be going in, enacting an illusion, like the mime artist who only appears to be walking in the wrong direction. The head may have two faces, one on each side, the second mysterious, hidden in the dark hood of night that covers the place where a back to the head should be, like some secret horror. So shadows shift and slide, glide over and past one another. In the nightmare half-light of night, the alternatives are so much nearer. There, imaginings are so much more possible. The absurdity of fantastical imaginings may suggest ideas beyond themselves that resonate in secret parts, seldom yet visited or seen, where light is yet to reach~ or alternatively will never reach. Might blood move around a body in reverse? The pencil grows longer as it writes, its lead renewing itself with inspiration~ an inkbottle likewise might overflow with the enormity of ideas its contents are about to express. A wine glass might miraculously begin to fill. Might there be a being whose great age is contradicted by the youthfulness of their inner self? The cornucopia may have a source or purpose other than to create abundance. Can an eye see the invisible or experience the thing only felt remotely? Is there an impossibility that can be harnessed or utilised? Is there a usefulness we might affect, greater than the sum total of our small, insignificant parts? Can a brain deconstruct/reconstruct, at will, all that it becomes aware of?
So, dawn is on the horizon and just beginning to unfold. Soon~ maybe within the hour, light will begin to invade the world again. Where is the vantage point from which we might see all this? Is there a sign yet that we might be looking for?
* * * *
A siren is heard to ring out~ the sound is nearer this time, piercing the night with its vibration. A deadened crash from the direction of the slower of Warcapest’s two rivers sends out a valedictory reverberation and recoil. One might imagine a muffled canon was being fired. A traffic light nearby ends its cycle of mechanical clicks and proceeds to alter priorities at the junction, accompanied by the familiar ringing tone that informs the pedestrian of their right to pass. There are no people visible who can take advantage of all the opportunities in this captured moment.
A slight breeze is felt as it proceeds along and through the street, moving all that lays suspended in the air before it, travelling with relaxed intent, forward, towards the far side of the wide plaza, over the black, white, black, white, black, white, black, white zebra stripes of the crossing, and onward in the direction of a magnificent four-storey building that lies further ahead. The building is architecturally impressive from the front, in the Viennese Secession style and interestingly utilitarian. The moving zephyr, like a breath, begins to blow harder, picking up speed and intention~ its thrust is now rapid, it slams itself into the front of the building, intent on breaching the external walls. An alarming and curious entry is afforded into the building, as the presence within this unseen cloak passes silently through the large, ornate, double-fronted door at the top of steps. Within its fabric, every detail of the door is experienced as a reality, as it passes. Beneath the painted, white surface and the gold, embossed leaves around the striated central panels, lies a grey oak, part of a once magnificent tree, which now rests, fulfilling its most recent function.
We too are become part of all of this, moving effortlessly within these folds, passing through and over the threshold. In so doing, our position is changed to immediately see the door from behind, as the view and vantage point turns about face, as though having moved over a line, it cannot be let go of. Having crossed a portal/gateway, it then usurps attention and gaze; there is surprise in the absolute belief at what has just occurred. The main doorway is seen to diminish in size behind us. A corridor is stretching out in a line behind it. Openings into official reception spaces come into view, appearing on both sides. A lift and then winding stairways leading to other floors are passed and then they too recede. There are numerous, evenly spaced, tall, white doorways leading into anonymous rooms along the route. The gloss finish on the parquet floor is bleached brighter, illuminated with street lamplight that pours in through the latticed, glass window above the main doorway. The scale and brightness of things changes as the overall perspective lowers. The floor finally turns white, as it fills to saturation point with the reflected light~ and then suddenly turns, without warning, back to black. The view has been unexpectedly impeded by a night watchman’s bulk as he ambles down the corridor. The man has been passed through without knowing. He stops in his stride to question the strangeness of the moment that just occurred outside of his knowledge or supervision.
He stands, momentarily scratching his head beneath his flat cap. His boiler suit, although dark blue appears darker in the gloom. There are assorted, cheap, chromed monkey-metal pens catching the light in his top pocket. He has keys and a flashlight attached to the heavy, crude, leather belt around his waist. The light is a ‘back up’ to the torch he carries. He has a bucket placed over his arm. The man is unaware that he is now accompanied. He turns to the left to continue his chores. Turning a handle, opening a door, he enters a darkened office space. The room’s clock, high on a wall, seems strangely illuminated in the gloom. The night watchman moves forward, invading the space more deeply and intent on placing the pail carefully to catch dripping water next to a window, under a rain-sodden lintel. The accumulated wetness has begun to drench a mahogany surface during the night, despite it being some days since the recent deluge that fell over the city. The night watchman rearranges papers and documentation that have been laid out and are in danger of becoming spoilt by the moisture. The clock seems to begin to tick more loudly as he works, parodying the sound of dripping.
Once things are neatly re-positioned, rearranged, the man falteringly walks backwards a step or two into a shadow, curiously facing the opposite direction to the one he is going in, intent on assessing the effect of his work whilst simultaneously hoping to leave. At the door, where he meets the threshold, the line between two places, he turns through 180˚ and at a stroke, banishes the bucket from his sight. He proceeds to move outwards and back into the path of the corridor, returning in the direction of the front door.
He walks as far as the reception area and there consults a paper, which he takes from his hip pocket. The man stops ‘stock still’, frozen for a beat or two, to read from the itinerary of tasks he is required to perform; he stands in the meagre, but available light. A clock chimes out the half hour. He then turns to traverse the open space, walking past impressive display cabinets in the foyer and further onward through the building, into a new corridor running laterally to the main corridor he followed formerly.
He pads down the centre of the corridor. Half way along, he begins to veer towards the right side in order to arrive at the next tall, double door. The cold, brass handle is turned, thus facilitating his entry into a room used for the cataloguing of orders and other administrative duties necessary to the running of the enterprise, to which this building is dedicated. It is convenient to use this room, with access doors at each end, as a thoroughfare to another main corridor. During the day, this would not be allowed. Once he arrives at the next corridor, he immediately crosses it and moves into an open area set aside for the temporary rest and occasional recreation of a large body of employees. Here, there are further doors leading to cloak rooms, powder rooms, medical aid and toilets, as well as a small café area. Within this open space, at the further end, is a prominent decorative wall of glass panelling, signaling the importance of the space beyond, which itself is an especially large hall, to be approached through the tall, glass partitioned doors running from floor to ceiling, in the Secession style.
This is a significant area in the building, used to house the typing pool, and beyond this, in the next room, are extensive filing systems storing acres of correspondence for the firm, whose premises on this night have become haunted. The night watchman walks into and through the space, passing along the centre of the room, past isles of desks, row upon row of them. Each wooden desktop conceals, under its lid, the Super Sterling typewriter, made by Smith Corona. Using a mechanism in the desk, the heavy machine can be easily delivered back to the desktop, for use during the working day. The watchman’s torch illuminates the sidewall as he walks, revealing, in the light, a series of large painted frescoes, each situated between decorative, wall-mounted lamps. The frescoes would best be seen in daylight. In the current half-light, large angular shadows from the dark, wood-varnished, office furniture flash across their surfaces. The night watchman changes direction and walks down an aisle amongst this sea of desks, towards the frescoed wall, from where he collects a ladder that leans against it. A light bulb had recently been changed in a lamp half way up the wall. He begins the task of returning the ladder to its storage area.
He exits the typing hall and proceeds down the long corridor in the opposite direction to the main entrance, moving towards a service area. Here, the building’s maintenance equipment is housed. Such scenes might seem dull and uninteresting, for time is passing as it does in real time. There is no hook to hold attention or interest to carry a narrative forward. There is no delight to be had in the glory of a light bulb being changed. But there it is, this is how time passes. This is the real manner in which time passes.
But next, there is an intrusion. Imagine, or rather picture, and hear, a phone ringing out, from within this void, bringing the world to life.
Ring-ring–ring! The sound resounds throughout the length of the corridor. Ring-ring-ring!
The night telephones have all sprung into life across the building, two on each floor and each of these at opposite ends of the long corridors; they are calling for and demanding attention. The ringing seems amplified to the point where it deafens in the quietude of the building, as each phone ring is endorsed by its brothers and sisters throughout the premises~ the sound of each more distant phone sounding like an echo behind the ringing of the one in front of it. The man emits a deep grumble, followed by inarticulate shuffling, as he begins to comply with the intruding need to move away from his current preoccupation and find the nearest ringing phone. He deposits the ladder length-wise against the corridor wall and begrudgingly begins a flat-footed, slow, hangdog, demoralised walk back along the corridor he had just come down.
He turns off his torch and places it into his pocket.
His footfall passing over wooden flooring that has worn smooth over many years.
The intrusion into his solitude has spoilt the harmony of his shift.
Change in his pocket jingles quietly and remotely against the metal of the torch. His loose internal organs gloop; little electrical impulses pass through his brain. A slight sweat breaks out over his brow. He can remotely smell an odour from his armpits. His brilliantine hair remains smoothed flat to his head, but he is aware of how stiff it feels. He walks back into the typing pool, once again moving through the hall, past the sea of desks, this time travelling to the far end of the room. Here, there is a narrow staircase leading up to a platformed glass-fronted office overlooking the typist’s area. He steps up to the doorway, opens the door to be greeted by the full roar of the phone within BRING! -BRING! -BRING! He enters the extensively shelved office of the typing pool manageress, containing many rows of box files, manila folders and a complete overview of the entire sea of desks below. Turning a switch to light the room as he enters causes the window view to vanish from the front glass. It is replaced by a reflected view of the interior of the office. He stands in front of his mirrored image to answer the call, pleased at last to bring the ringing to a stop. With a breathless wheeze in his voice he says.
‘Ya who is dis pleeze?’
The night watchman makes a note of the time on the reverse image of the clock on the wall behind him. Life and action begins.
How often the ringing of bells punctuates existence and in so doing, partitions time.
A brief conversation ensues. Someone wants to gain entry to the building at this unearthly hour and were it not for their prominence and position, they would not be allowed in at all, without prior consultation with the appropriate personnel and departments during the day. However, the night watchman is all civility, politeness and compliance. He recognises the cadence and is bending over backwards to accommodate the request and ensure the ‘voice’s’ needs are met~ in every regard. The night watchman is asked if he can be at the front door in half an hour, to unlock it and let the gentleman in, as soon as he rings the doorbell.
‘Ya, young master. Dis is what I will do. Thank you sir,’ he says.
* * * *
Xavier Mannikin is walking through the centre of Warcapest. It is so late at night as to be early morning and he knows that soon the night will be all but exhausted. He checks his watch~ it is 3.40am. Such nocturnal escapades are his forte. He is aware that he does this sort of thing too often, denying himself a night’s rest in order to be moving and awake whilst the world around sleeps; it had become something of a rite of passage; it resonated deep in his psyche. There was an inexplicable enchantment enacted by remaining awake whilst the world was dreaming~ he recognised this. The end game however, which he liked least about such escapades, was dawning; the return of daylight was beginning to loom. It dampened the mystique and would soon cause the spell to become broken. Only at that point would he give in to feeling tired and fatigued, having significantly overstretched his natural sensibilities. At that point, his body will slump and finally crave sleep. As he walks, he randomly picks up a stone; it attracts his attention. Against his better judgment, he throws it into the air, high into the pitch-black canopy above him, with force. He listens for it; in that moment he hears and quantifies the quietude of the night all around. He imagines the emptiness of existence, the miles of untrammeled universe. He attempts to feel the experiences everywhere that he has never had~ the things that might be important to his consciousness about which he knows nothing~ they are all out there, somewhere beyond his grasp. There are a couple of beats of anticipation before a dull thud in the road ahead of him is heard, as something lands on the tarmac, bringing him back to the present. His eyes glint in the dark. It was a crazy thing to do. Even at this late hour, someone may have been hurt or he might have damaged a car or broken a window. It had worked out though and he is glad he took the risk and pleased it came down. He wasn’t always sure that things did what he most expected of them.
To his right, as he walks, he sees the city opera. He notes this most resplendent of buildings from afar and decides to make a detour to walk through the main portico. It was used in a former epoch as the horse carriage entrance; it remains cobbled in hardwood blocks used to deaden the once sound of horses hooves. Sepia images stored in his mind’s-eye flash up before him, pictures he imagines he sees on a screen, remembered details of a world he knows and shares remotely.
Xavier does not look out of place next to the building. He might indeed have come from the opera that very evening, dressed as he is in formal evening attire~ white tie and tails. However, he had not been here at all; he had been walking for the last hour, since emerging from the metro, having spent his time, since midnight, at an outdoor milonga on the banks of the main river. There was always tango there each week when the weather was good and if it was summer. Tonight there had been some tension. His sartorial raiment and the inappropriateness of his penguin suit had annoyed other tangueros.
He had started out his night’s odyssey, it seemed such a long time ago now, at the Hotel de Empereur~ the venue had hosted the annual dinner of the Mannikin Playing Card Co. this being the company where, without any sense of pride, or particular enthusiasm, he was the Marketing Manager. His role in the business, the duties, labels, accolades or whatever they might be held little interest for Xavier. Only in the last couple of years had he succumbed to pressure to join the firm because he had exhausted attempts to do other things. Nothing he tried seemed to ever suit him. His father owned the company and was keen that the concern should be passed on to his son.
At that dull dinner, the main attraction, the thing that remained in his memory, was the performance of inexplicable and baffling conjuring effects by Count Zapik, the magician. It had been fascinating. Mannikin, naturally skeptic, had been enthralled and drawn into the charade. The confusion created by the illusions paralleled his questioning of everyday reality. All he saw, undertaken in the name of art, had hurt or confused him at some deep, subliminal level. He knew Count Zapik a little and was strangely drawn to the man for reasons he could not explain. Then, at the after show party, the Count had specifically asked that Mannikin escort his assistant, the beautiful Nadja, back to her room before he left. She was beguilingly enchanting, so attractive and graceful. She had asked to take his arm, for support, as they walked. She was so electric to the touch~ like Sara Phielnx. They had talked and discussed things at some length on the way back to the hotel room, but try as he might, he could not remember what had been said.
He had done his duty during the evening, had let the dull formality of the event take its pound of flesh, enjoyed it where possible and then, when he could, he escaped. He had launched himself, before midnight, into the darkened city, to follow his idiosyncratic and nocturnal inclinations, to take note of the world that he found himself in and to wonder. In the gloom, he had followed the lines of the streets with his thoughts and had eventually found himself at the tango by the river. The dancing was glorious and he had lost himself to moments that opened up for him~ the release, as ever, had been joyous; he felt he was outside of time. The spirit of the experience flashes before him; he observes it, remotely quantifying the sensations, checking and wondering if his observations still matched his earlier recollection. Even in this short time, he recognised that his sense of recall, his remembrance and his emotional responses had altered in some way, beyond his control. What had he missed or forgotten? What had altered?
He freezes all his bodily actions, intent on remembering, trying to piece things together, no longer part of his surroundings~ a cut out from the page that he had been printed on, like a deer caught in the headlights of its own experiences~ detached, like a perforated stamp finding itself removed from the book of stamps to which it once belonged~ in a state of thrall, hardly contained in the environment around him, held in place by the thinnest of invisible threads. The recent events play yet again. He searches them some more to see what had happened, unsure that he had seen enough, looking and investigating to see what might have been missed, to find an explanation for what had occurred, or what it now might mean, anxious that something relevant is hiding from him.
He sees himself removing his tie at the bank of the river~ watching, as an out of body experience. The tie has now found its way back round his neck and hangs there nonchalantly, although he cannot remember putting it on again. He had looked far too auspicious for the bohemian tango set tonight. He normally wore an old, loose suit, one that was seated and comfortable. He could tell that some felt him to be inappropriate. He looked too well off, like some upper-class usurper of the pleasures of the working masses. He wasn’t sending out the right signals to say he lived their life or experience, or that he really understood their deprivations and realities, or the joy of the struggling proletariat~ and they were probably right. However, he had been graciously accepted because the regulars knew and liked him, had taken him under their wing, were prepared to make allowance for his apparent eccentricity on this occasion. Fortunately, his humanity was known and he could dance the tango well enough. Tonight he had been needed to ensure equal numbers of leaders and followers. He was pleased that he had been allowed to infiltrate and belong to the tango tribe~ but tonight, only by the ‘skin of his teeth.’ They were rarified cognoscenti in their own right. They, like him, were in search of more, something else; they often seemed to sense that which was missing. This particular point was a crucial part of all their assumed identities and the bond that made the group vibrant. Their edginess made him feel alive.
These dilettante musings and inner thoughts are moving ‘panther like’ through his mind, spreading, defining themselves, looking to trigger a response, or simply a place to rest~ whilst around him, in real time, Mannikin is passing the grand entrance to the opera house. He casually glances sideways, catching the reflection in the glass doors and windows as he moves. He stops and sees himself looking at the image appearing back at him; it too has stopped, strangely muted, as if seen through a dark, obsidian glass. He observes, by necessity, moving his consciousness from memory, into the present. His breast pocket is bulging slightly, spoiling the line of the tailcoat with the small camera that he carries within it. He checks it, with a simple tap of his pocket, using the tips of his fingers. Furthermore, the black material is creased. He sees and remembers that he had rapidly removed the coat at the river, making light of the garment, for effect, to telegraph the impression he held it in low esteem. He had unceremoniously hidden it, out of embarrassment, out of sight, amongst the other coats and bags that were haphazardly placed in the centre of the dance floor. The compromised garment reflects back in the opera house window. He is surprised at the ignominious and undignified creases that have remained in the cloth and how dusty the left shoulder had become. He had not been aware of the changes he was inflicting on the jacket at the time, or the history he was inadvertently building into its current appearance; he had been too busy dealing with other issues that obstructed his full awareness of what was happening. He felt the difficulty of seeing ‘everything’ most acutely, and in this moment he winces.
He dusts his shoulder as he watches his reflection closely and wonders. Which one is the real him, the one he feels himself to be within his core, or the one that can be seen from the outside in the glass, providing proof of his presence and identity? For Mannikin, this is a particularly interesting question. The ‘I’ he feels himself to ‘be’ is in this moment the real ‘he’; the one in the mirror might not be him, it could even be a usurper of his position in the universe. He is unsure, but rather than blame, or be offended by the beautiful reflection, he has a strange sympathy for it and is prepared to tolerate its existence. He doesn’t know who it is. Was it the person at the formal dinner early the previous evening, or the man later, that he remembers walking the streets? Surely it is the weightless man who had such fun dancing tango after that, or perhaps, he is only the person he sees in this moment of self-reflection? He tries to anticipate what he will think next. Where is he going with all this? As he looks, he is confused, hardly realising the extent to which he is staring with an intense penetrating scrutiny. The time passing is an eternity, for all he knows. The intoxicating concentration fractures and begins to splinter as he becomes distractedly aware of other figures. Two strangers come into his newly refocusing and expanding consciousness, appearing at the edges of his deteriorating fixed gaze. They are the reflection of a couple passing on the far side of the street behind him. They are wearing light coloured outfits that show noticeably in the mirrored glass. The two young men are wearing pointed hats. They walk arm in arm, leaning in towards each other. They appear to be moving anonymously along the street; maybe they are tired, sluggish and like him, intent on returning home after their night’s revelry.
‘This world has me in it, with these people also and the reflection has this other me in it~ with these people reflected too, or are they different? My reflection is easy to imagine as another me, one I don’t fully recognise and whose presence I keep questioning, yet the reflection of the couple behind me, I imagine being the same people, but merely repeated in the window. How can my observation of self more easily confuse me than my observation of other persons?’ he thinks. ‘It is as if my life exists on a stage, like the one in this opera house perhaps; as if my life can be viewed from a seat in the splendid auditorium, simultaneously.’
The Warcapest night is humid and unusually hot~ it is summer. There are little beads of moisture on Mannikin’s forehead. The temperature in this late part of the night is oppressive, despite the daylight hours being long gone. Recent weather had been bizarre and mystifying. Hot days had given rise to electric storms during the night. Impressive lightning had zigzagged across the blackened, weather-filled sky like a dramatic orchestral overture and rain had penetrated and drenched the city deeply, with its warm tears.
Xavier’s increasing tiredness and exhaustion is causing his mind to begin to free flow in an abstracted, obtuse, bemused, befuddled manner. Thoughts are inclined to degenerate into a mindless rant, an internal dialogue of endless, seemingly inane notes or conversations to self; exploring patterns, half ideas, hoped for routes to alternative ways of thinking and new potential directions; attempting to break out of closed loops that run repetitively, incestuously, restrictively through the circuitry within his poor brain. There is an underlying hope of a longed-for escape, a breakthrough~ the discovery of a previously undetected pattern that might become available, one that could form the route to a desperately needed new place in his psyche. His mind has become too bright, hyperactive; it is burning, convulsing, hyperventilating, despite its tiredness. It flits too rapidly, fluttering like an epileptic eyelid, rushing through half opened notions, dwelling on nothings in particular, moving, passing through, passing into, passing the same words and thoughts more than once, passing without recognising the repetition, discovering half remembered visions and spaces wherein once an idea or thought may have been previously caught and may be opportunistically captured again. He meets them all, or lets them meet him, within the plethora of escaping imaginings that freefall and scatter aimlessly …
A part of him that deals with self-preservation recognises, with increasing ferocity, that he needs to find a bed soon. His feet are sore; he has become exhausted. His indomitable self overrules and disallows such good sense with the suggestion of another option~ that yet more life be lived before the night is over.
Xavier stops for no reason that he is aware. A breaker in his circuitry has demanded that he slows down. His attention, in consequence, moves out of himself and is drawn to a large plinth supporting an edifice. His head falls to one side, seeking his shoulder as a pillow. He sleepily considers the large statue, conspicuous in its position, right next to the opera. An ancient man sits magnificently seated, noble in an immense chair, his comfort secured as he looks out from within the gloom of the secluded park area into the night. His gaze is in the direction of a standing sculpture of Schiller, atop its own plinth, across the street at some distance opposite. The bulk of the seated bronze body is in shadow and the head alone catches light enough for the line of the face and jaw to be seen; it is distinctive in its classic majesty. Mannikin peers into the work with intent and wonders where he will be when he looks as old. He reacquaints himself with the descriptive plate on the plinth and muses on the fact that he knows the name, has the briefest of knowledge, although he has no real idea who Goethe is at all.
Somewhere far off, across the city, the siren sounds again, a plaintive oboe piercing the night with its shrill cry. A crash from behind, from the direction of what must be the second of the city’s two rivers, sends out a reverberation and recoil reminiscent of canon fire. Coincidentally, a large bell tolls once~ one might imagine it acknowledges some epic mythic event happening in a far off place within the firmament. An alarm rings. Amidst this unexpected, nocturnal cacophony, Mannikin wonders if the statue might feel as misplaced, odd, as ill at ease in the world as he knows himself to be.
His lack of sleep is taking its toll. Mannikin recognises that he is agitated and elated at the same time, a curious state akin to ‘dissatisfied rapture’ or ‘ill-tempered euphoria’. He smiles at the ridiculous portmanteaux he has unwittingly unrolled. He inwardly pictures himself walking over them as if they were carpet.
Then at last, he manages to recall the illusive event that occurred at the milonga, one that his mind had seemed reticent to yield up to him. He attempts to relive it, hoping to get back to the source beyond the memory. There was something that had escaped his attention that needed further scrutiny. It wasn’t the fracas about his clothes at all, he realises~ it was this other thing. How could he have forgotten until now? He had used the ‘look’, the tango ‘cabaceo’, to invite a young woman to dance; she had come breathlessly, demurely, beautifully into his arms saying.
‘I am so sorry, I cannot dance very well.’
‘Pretend we are drowning,’ he had said. ‘Listen to the music as it breaks over us like a storm in an intoxicating deluge.’
It became the tanda of the evening, the most bewitching and electrifying dance possible, made tragic when they at last parted without words, knowing that they might never meet again.
He remembers this as he checks his watch again~ it is 3.38am.
He continues walking, passing a row of shops. Without warning, a mannequin shop dummy falls forward onto the glass window behind which it stands. The true strangeness is that he does not seem to be particularly surprised. It falls further, passing inexplicably through the shop pane and into the street. It falls completely, smashing head first onto the pavement, into pieces, each smashed fragment turning inexplicably into a little flash of golden light, flickering and filling the immediate area. As he walks into and amidst the splendour of this lost moment, the whole scene bewilderingly resets itself and everything returns to how it was formerly. The after glow, however, continues to fill and illuminate his eyes, making them even brighter than before.
The event occurs before it happened, disappearing so quickly as to be unobserved, or to have never existed. A momentary figment perhaps, a waking dream possibly, within his overly stretched and tired imagination~ a further indicator that his night’s excursion needs to come to an end.
He nevertheless proceeds onward, travelling through the cultural and administrative quarter, passing the finest buildings in the city, the National Galleries and Parliament and then further on, out towards the Ringstrasse and beyond, to acquire some destination. He is formulating his actions. He could allow himself to finish up in one of a number of places, since he is so centrally positioned; his father’s house, or his own apartment, either is within easy reach and both could provide sanctuary at the end of his nocturnal adventure. However, recognising there is still time to be had, he decides instead to gain entry to the Mannikin building, the administrative head office for the playing card company.
In the distance, against the glow of the street lights, the silhouette of a policeman is leaning over a car, which is itself seen in outline; a drunken motorist is being reprimanded for colliding with a bollard~ their remote and diminished voices echo along the street towards him. Mannikin observes with wistful disinterest before stopping opportunistically to enter a telephone kiosk. Lifting the receiver, he collects change from his pocket and hangs on the phone as he dials, determined to speak to the nightshift caretaker in the Mannikin building. Xavier Mannikin’s prominence in the company enables him to waive protocol and have access to the building whenever he wishes~ and right now he wants to use the photographic darkroom in the design department. Whilst talking, he rubs his fingers over his jacket breast pocket again, feeling the Paxette Range Finder that lays there loaded with exposed film. The camera contains images captured during the previous evening, some at the milonga and others taken furtively at the magic show. He intends to develop the film before morning.
At last, he is too tired to persevere with any more thinking and continues walking, mindlessly plodding the paving with heavy footfall. His ears are buzzing and ringing~ making a peculiar whoosh that he has heard before; he feels his heart pounding. A bell sounds, this time slowly and mournfully on the air at some great distance, heralding the fresh light that is now just beginning to pour into the new day. Outside of his knowledge, there is a man in a dark, full-length raincoat, following him.
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(Copyright © Clive WILKINS. 6th November 2012)