THE DOORBELL PRINCE
‘Once a dream, always a dream’. These were the words etched above the outside of the door, words at which King Ullie – who was staying as a guest of another King – half-glanced. He was being shown into his salubrious sleeping-quarters by a servile Palace porter, someone who looked too much of a weakling to carry luggage at the best of times.
“If you need anything in the night, your Majesty,” piped the porter, “I shall be no further than where your voice will reach, be it whisper or be it shout.”
Or be it scream, thought King Ullie vaguely misremembering the exact words above the door as he waved the porter back out through that very door of words.
Primary sources reveal that King Ullie was due to meet his host, King Alez, on the morrow. He had arrived late – so very late, the porter whose name was Lurkenwell (or some such name that recordings of the day made sound like Lurkenwell) had been dragged from his truckle to tend to King Ullie’s supper – a duty which entailed Lurkenwell dragging the cook from his truckle who then toddled along to serve the various convenience foodstuffs to King Ullie in the huge refectory; then for Lurkenwell to chase the chambermaid back to her truckle, she having originally dragged Lurkenwell from his truckle when King Ullie first grated the door-pull. Indeed, the chambermaid had also dragged the gateman from his truckle – simply the first repercussion of her earlier spotting the distant horsebacked King Ullie’s potential arrival at the Palace. Nobody could have expected King Ullie to have known that the gateman slept so deeply child-like.
The chambermaid’s name – according to ancient doormats – was Tilda, the gateman’s Slump and the cook’s Coker. These three were duty monitors who were rarely seen – given prompt arrivals by guests – and the likes of them should never have been seen by guests, let alone had their names known.
Lurkenwell was usually sufficient sight for any Palace guest, although rarely seen himself.
Despite his role, Slump always wore a low profile when visitors arrived at his gate. He was merely mistaken for Lurkenwell’s shadow or, later, the visitor’s shadow.
As to Coker, well, the sole evidence of his existence was usually by the smelly wafts that permeated the Palace corridors. The prepared food itself was brought in by outside caterers … except, of course, upon the occasion of there being a late arrival; then there being no option but to wake Coker and plant a ladle in his feverish hand.
Tilda’s mind was often elsewhere, concocting a romance she had once enacted with a Prince. Indeed, her presence was like an echo, one that she left behind in the bedrooms after making the truckles. In any event, it was more of an echo than a shadow but, equally, hardly an echo. King Ullie inadvertently took one of Tilda’s echoes under the covers with him – after first grappling with his dental hygiene, an important task following one of Coker’s fast food feasts. And, later, Tilda’s echo became a sexy silvery ghost that vanished without a tinkle from under King Ullie’s body.
In the morning, as was the rumoured custom those days, business was to be conducted at a tape-recorded breakfast meeting, in the misguided belief that days, without making their breakfast times thus grindingly boring, were not otherwise long enough.
King Ullie’s host, King Alez, was due to appear at exactly that no man’s land of time which is called neither a lay-in nor a getting-up-bright-and-twirly.
King Ullie already sat at the trestle, faced by a panoply of hot-plates crammed with items such as kidneys stuffed with aniseed, pancakes soaked in molasses, crimped kippers, golden-eyed eggs, rissoles weltering in wild honey, steaming rashers of back bacon, and black pudding
His survey of this menu in real-time was interrupted by the door filling with a shape, a shape cut out of the morning light by polkadotted darkness: it was King Alez in his pardish dressing-gown, feet padding in owl-slippers. His neck, beneath his unshaven pudding-chops, guttered with yellow sleep. He was wielding a giant tambourine wrapped in panther-skin.
On the other hand, contemporary documents indicate that King Alez was merely well-built, someone who dressed like a dandyish slim-minded harlequin despite being a lover of fried breakfasts and a belly like a drum.
The two embraced.
Who spoke the most only history, as opposed to anything else, can tell. In any event – having agreed a new dynasty combining the best of both kingdoms and having arranged various marriages among their Royal children accordingly – one of the two Kings entered into a diatribe of an hour’s length, a diatribe which ended thus: “Children – who’d have them! They come out evil from the very womb. The worst child abuse is that of a child against another child. Even Royal children – or especially Royal children – need spanking so that they do not end up making our Monarchies a laughing-stock. For example, my son Selik is nothing but a dreamer…”
At that point, legend tells of outside caterers coming into the refectory to clear the trestles of their now cold hot-plates. And the tapes were switched off and rewound, as the official part of the meeting they decided was finished.
There was great delight shown in the wreaking of the two Kings’ appetites … and they embraced again, having each pocketed one of the two tapes on which their conversation had been simultaneously recorded, so that each identical tape could now be separately transcribed by the two King’s Solicitors (King Ullie’s Solicitor having already arrived secretly). The transcriptions were then to be amalgamated into two contracts for signing and exchanging during the coming night’s banquet.
Unknown to both kings, one of Tilda’s silvery echoes had been in the refectory’s laundry-basket, with half-a-ghostly-ear-cocked to the kingly conversation and, then, later, to the distant reverberations of the heavy-duty ablutions that the two kings underwent following the Royal breakfast. Slump, Coker and Lurkenwell were in the empty kitchen, occupied in an absent-minded mutual salaciousness, even while their three ears were pressed against the wall to ease the creeping passage back and forth of communicative insects between craniums and plaster-hives.
That night, the banquet was surely a quiet, business-like affair. It was behind closed doors and only guesswork, as opposed to the slightly more dependable extrapolation of history, remains. Suffice to say, primary sources showed that the end-game was sadly a no man’s land of not waking, not sleeping, not dreaming and not dying … becoming, eventually, a nightmare combining ingredients of all four.
Thankfully, sanity prevailed in that the two tapes were identical. How else could they be otherwise when they were recorded simultaneously of the same conversation.
Meanwhile, I, being alive before the birth of cities and of urban mankind, was simply accustomed to solitary tent-palaces dotted across the oasis lands. My world supplied ample resources to support Royalty (if not commoners), a world where strange bug-ridden entities loped and wondrous conjurations were exercised at every sleight of the hand. Sweet romances lasted nearly forever, where Royal bodies were perfumed and spiced not only to deter bugs but also for aphrodisiac purposes … and, last and least, there were, of course, such humdrum duties as eating, sleeping, pest-controlling, not to speak of the drawings that I made on my own sinewy willowy billowy bivouac wall.
I often dreamed of things quite beyond my comprehension. I found myself wandering a place which modern people called a City where faces were ugly, moods even uglier and bitter rivalries were conducted among streetfuls of frowning windows and grey-painted doors. But, thankfully, too cold for pests and bugs to populate the hollow walls.
In this dream, I was cast as a creature without a conscience yet, equally, my greatest sin seemed to involve pressing doorbells then scurrying away towards the gasworks before I was caught.
The fact that I ran away on all fours (having reared up on my hind-legs to reach the doorbell) remained unquestioned.
Upon waking back in my ancient Palace bedroom, I found that the sun had already risen – and I wandered out into the baking, bug-ridden air.
“Selik!” shouted a voice. And then immediately again.
I spun on his toes to see Tilda squatting beside the courtyard fountain, preening herself in the heat like a snowcat.
I yawned and stretched as if to reach the sun. I flicked the pests from my face before aknowledging her presence.
My terse reply – without the fleabite pleasantries of small-talk – was left coldly hanging in the unechoing dryness of the day.
Despite everything, I sensed an aroma of love and a tang of lust in Tilda’s aura. I explored her dew-beaded body with my white-hot eyes, having watched her curves evolve over the previous few months…
Meanwhile, simultaneously, like the Kings’ two tapes, the City in my dream was slanting in the sleet or, rather, in the rain-soon-to-turn-to-snow. At least the cold killed bugs.
I padded silently through the slush, silent except for the squishy sounds merely the dream made me seem to make.
There was one particular doorbell I had not yet dared depress. The names on the plate were Lurkenwell, Coker & Slump. Sounded like a firm of Solicitors. The door, too, was greyer than most, taller, more lugubrious, more something-to-do-with-waking-up-from-a-different-dream, heavier than oak whose roots reached Hell. Today, however, I struggled into a standing position – using the door as a frame – and pushed my nose against the cold metal button.
But metal, I thought, was impossible even as a future invention of mankind. I was back in the waking heat, where metal did not exist.
“You’re late, Selik!” said Tilda, holding out a book towards him as she dabbled her toes in the warm oasis fountain. But then she said it again, making me even later, if only by a few seconds.
“But I couldn’t wake up,” I said.
“You promised to read the next bit to me. You promised to read the next bit to me.”
Pretending to be a bug-eyed monster from one of the books Tilda loved so much, I shuffled near her on my bottom, taking the book in my hand, admiring the craftmanship, the stitching, the parchment pages, the bone cover that had the title etched into its spine…
Back in the City, immediately upon pushing the button with my cold nose, something happened that had never happened before in the City. The door swung wide with no chance for me to escape towards my home near the gasworks.
“You’re late, Selik!” announced an old woman with ice for eyes and wrinkles that would gutter with fluid if such eyes should melt – and she grabbed my collar to pull me inside. Eventually, after much toing and froing of targetted small-talk, I discovered that the old woman was housekeeper to the Solicitors and that she knew the Doorbell Selik far better than I knew myself…
I skimmed through the bone book, trying to find my place. Tilda looked eagerly at me as she adjusted her bug-stained parasol of ribbed skin, skin that had been browned in the oasis sun. I though she was a Princess and I a Prince; our respective parents presumably hoping we would fall in love and marry and merge Palaces.
“Once upon a time…”
“You’ve read that bit already.”
“No I haven’t.”
“And that bit, too.”
“No, I haven’t.”
I hated her frown but lust, unlike love, could ignore anything untoward.
“It’s a story,” I continued, “within a story – remember? I left the hero about to tell his sweetheart a story – and it began the same way as the story as the story’s within.”
“Oh, I see. Go on, then.”
She smiled puckishly as if she knew she was about to repeat what she’d just said – but she didn’t.
She adjusted the folds of her smock so that her young breasts would sit more pertly. And I read aloud: “Once upon a time there was a land where, instead of tent-palaces, lots of smaller brick buildings joined each to each in rows with routes called streets between. And the sun was often grey and the nights sleepless and increasingly dreamless.”
“Ugh! Glad we don’t live there. Did they have bugs in that place?”
I frowned my own frown, hoping that it would put a stop to her gullible interruptions. And, flicking a grounded clutch of wing-tangled bugs from my bottom’s path, I shuffled even closer, as if my voice was abruptly coming from further away…
The old woman told the Doorbell Prince that he was an entity.
“What’s an entity?”
“Something that lives but doesn’t know what it is. You don’t know what you are, do you? So, you’re an entity.”
They were sitting on a bench in a City square surrounded by tall office buildings. Both wore heavy fur coats, but despite such muffling they received strange looks from the passers-by, passers-by who wondered why an old woman was pretending to hold a conversation with an animal in a snowstorm.
I looked into the eyes of the old woman and thought I recognised a younger person gazing out of them. Being an entity did not – evidently – blunt my instinctive perspicacity.
I felt tears spiking in my own eyes as I spoke her name.
She he now knew as the old woman put a finger to her prune-pursed lips. Her eyes were encircled by fans of ancient flesh in tiered layers.
“What you doing here?” he whispered.
“We all end up here, sooner or later,” she said.
There were non-sequiturs in the air like black seagulls.
Seeing that her lips were already puckered, he tilted towards her, his own whiskers bunching for a kiss. He felt like sinking into her skin.
The Palaces in the oasis lands billowed in the warm wind. Their canvas rooms shape-shifted with each gust. Prince Selik tossed and turned in his hammock. He had not reached as far with the reading aloud to young Tilda today as he would have wished. The main story rested on a knife-edge, the story-within-a-story on a cliff-top … before the change in the weather had hastened them home to their respective Palaces several oases apart – to strengthen the guy-ropes and batten down into the earth-dug oubliettes till the storm had passed. The sand had stung their faces.
He recalled a dream where something called snow reminded him of an image from a book he had once read, an image relating to the flakes being the tiny white ghosts of swarming bugs – whilst an old woman explained that she made him converse with her when out in the open City square because what they needed to impart to each other was secret and she was afraid of a different variety of listening bugs in the City’s buildings. In short, the Authorities of Reality and History taped conversations from such bugs, so that if proof were needed….
After merely touching wet noses together with the old woman and exchanging fleas with her in a moment of supreme affection, the tearful entity loped up the street. With the top of the gasworks in sight, he knew in which direction was home. The sinewy billowy willowy wall of one huge gas canister still bore his graffiti, messages he had etched during the long city nights, ever yearning for a dark oasis called dreamlessness.
Eventually there was no route between dreams. Or no dreams for which a route would be needed. She waved goodbye. Then waved goodbye again. Once a chambermaid, always a chambermaid, she thought. With tears in both eyes.
The two Kings’ tapes were naturally found to be identical. Blank.