However close to someone, you are never more than two entities separated by head-bone.
“This is not really a sea story nor is it about the land. It may not even about real people.”
“God, Wally, you do talk pretentious crap sometimes,” announced Sid.
I turned round and saw that he had arrived, unannounced. I was sipping at a bowl of chicken noodle soup in a cafe back of Acrimony Avenue. It was really my breakfast – at noon – the only civilised time to have it, you will agree.
“OK, Sid, OK, give me a break, I don’t need your comments at this time of day – it’s just a joke I’ve woken up at all.”
“You promised me a hand this morning, you know, stowing away the provisions – do you remember, I bought you a pint on the strength of it.”
“Did I? Did you? Well, Sid, it only goes to show you can’t trust your best friend. That’s a new proverb for you…”
“You’re damn well right there, Wally.”
“Want a spoonful?” I nodded towards the now depleted soup, which had tiny noodles wriggling around like maggots amid the chicken grit at the bowl’s bottom.
I suddenly burst into tears. I felt unutterably sad, as if I had just taken a sneak look at the end of a tragedy – one that had begun like a comedy. He smiled. I cried. Like masks above a proscenium arch.
I watched the harbour slipping behind us in the dusk, with hundreds of folk waving handkerchiefs and some dabbing their eyes with them. We were taking a river trip into unknown dangers, sliding into the mist from the seaside resort that sits in the estuary of the Mercy River. Misanthropy-on-the-Naze had been my whole world since becoming a baby, and I knew every nook and nookie it contained. Canny, they called me, canny Wally without being a real wally!
My friend Sid was standing beside me on the deck, peering over my shoulder at those we loved and those we hated, milling about on the darkening wharf, bidding us farewell.
“To the inner zones, then, old Wally mate,” Sid said, back-slapping me.
“Yep, but there’s a rare mix of feelings floating about in my noddle – I’d rather be sitting over a frothy mug of bittersweet at the Toby – or walking the pier out to the Variety…”
“Wally, Wally, we’ve been through all this. There’s nothing left for us here, our route lies down the river to Parsimony and Misericordia – where they say they’ve got more jobs for people to do than there are people to do them.”
Sid at least sounded wise, sometimes.
“You’re right, of course,” was my only possible reply, but I doubted whether I myself was right in saying it.
The lights of the resort – where I had taken my first breath: quickening in my lungs like a blast from heaven – gradually became one pulsing horizon star, making me think of my fast receding home as an idea, a symbol rather than a mass of memories constituted of seemingly real people and tangible buildings. If it were not for Sid, beside me on the gently sloping deck, I would have felt even lonelier and like a twinkle in an empty universe.
The crew of the paddle steamer were not to be seen – no doubt in the engine room, feeding great vats of black sludge into the moving parts, or standing tall but vague behind the smoked glass of the bridge, their gloved hands passing smoothly over the control wheelies.
Sid stood tall, too, at the prow of the steamer, like a figurehead, as the hull’s foreblade carved a path from past into present, into the darker inland reaches of the Mercy River, just as dawn broke.
Sid and I treated talking as the be all, end all, even if what we talked about wasn’t so terribly important. Several days into the journey, we were thus chatting away on the deck, while the steamer free-wheeled. Not even one head of steam approached engagement, a fact that was evidently in recognition of the sleeping hours of the skipper and his crew. The vessel glided across the oily reflections of the night sky, like one of those hunched monsters on a creepie through the Death Lands.
“Death, it comes to us all, sooner or later,” whispered Sid.
I couldn’t see his face as he uttered this cliché, but I knew that his features must be down-turned and pensive. Having known him for ages, he appeared as good as a photograph of a dream.
“Everybody steers clear of thoughts about death,” I offered as a response, “but, deep down, however successful you are, whatever you may be in the public eye, however much dripping in diamonds and fame, yes, deep down, right down there where the feelings hurt most, there’s a black gemstone, perfect in every way, sparkling inside of itself but with not one gleam coming off its devil-honed facets…”
“That gemstone is death, Wally, you’ve hit the nail’s head. And when others hear about this historic voyage we’ve undertaken, we’ll be dead, too.”
I now desperately wanted to change the subject: “I expect we’ll be berthing in Misericordia tomorrow, if the steam’s up to its usual billowage. I’ve heard that they even haven’t got electricity wired up.”
“We’ve got electric cables on board. Maybe the skipper’s intending to barter them for food.”
“They say that beyond Misericordia, there’s another township called Parsimony – they’ve never even heard of electricity there; it’s in none of their books.”
“And beyond Parsimony?”
“The Death Lands, they say, where boogie men are kept in apprentice-ship to the devil himself!”
“And we’re paddle-steaming there?”
“Yep, I believe so – after picking up a guide in Parsimony. The ship’s log, which I sneaked a preview the other night, says the guide’s nick-name is Uncle Hairlip. Yep, that’s him I reckon who’ll take us into the Death Lands.”
“Does this, what’s his name, Hairlip chappie, know we’re coming?”
“Yep, the log says the skipper wired him day before yesterday – a few tugs on the wire that runs along the towpath – you’ve seen it, haven’t you, like a washing-line stretching itself along on Y-sticks ever since Misanthropy.”
Of course, I’d seen it. We had both taken this wire for granted – until now. A wire stretching along the towpath on precarious Y-sticks like these words written about it: weaving their own uneven audit-trail from beginning to end. But the path from birth to death itself is rarely a straight one. Nobody said this out loud, of course. Well, certainly not me and Sid.
I shrugged and frowned, as I said: “I reckon the wire ends at Mount Catanak, just beyond Parsimony township. I expect the skipper’s dying to discover its source. It’s handy, though, isn’t it? Message yankings – I suppose that’s how we know that places like Misericordia and Parsimony actually exist.”
Such talking, if nothing else, kept the night at bay. Talking and Death don’t go together very well.
“Yep, I suppose you’re right.” But was he right in supposing it?
As dawn raised its hat politely to the sun, we were still to be found lying in our hammocks at the stern of the steamer – surprised because we could have sworn we had started the night lying in the prow, but stranger things were yet to surprise us, making this incident one we were not even to recall. That’s what the log says anyway.
Mountains reared now on either side, things we had never seen before, because Misanthropy-on-the-Naze was situated amid the flat creeks of the Mercy Estuary. These imposing giants were our first taste of the Earth’s cruelty to itself. With our minds outflanked, we scuttled to our respective cabins for a few quiet hours in front of the shaving-mirror – the only way Sid and I knew how to get ourselves to sleep, the staring out of life as it were.
When we emerged much later in the day, we were presented with another eye-catcher. Between the thighs of two mountain systems ranging from the river-bank towards the north, there nestled what we could only take to be Misericordia. The houses along the famous Hegemony Avenue had roofs looking too unwieldy for the walls to bear – with even bigger chimneys. The towpath “washing-line” on Y-sticks passed through the window of a red-brick hovel built up against the dock and out the other side – and onward…
I was the first to speak: “They call this the township of the lost tribes – don’t look like it to me.”
I bit my tongue for I was talking to myself about things I already knew.
“Nor does it to me,” said Sid, “and what are all those TV aerials, sticking up from those overgrown chimneys? They must run their TVs on hot air!”
“And those overhead cables across the streets – they must be for trolley-buses – I can even hear one rattling along. Yes, look!”
The thoughts were taken from my mouth. Trundling along a series of humps that constituted the street leading up to the dock came a steam tram, hissing violently and shaking from side to side, balanced by a gyroscope affair which was being threaded on the taut cable above it. Churning to a halt at the riverside, a number of savages alighted, waving umbrellas and what looked like makeshift tomahawks.
Our launch quickly paddle-steamed away from Misericordia to what was hoped to be a more reasonable welcome in Parsimony. Telpherage or no telpherage. Lamson or no Lamson. (Look it up.)
The days stretched one behind each other, like a bus queue with no hope nor expectation that the service was ever running.
The mountainous banks of the Mercy River assumed a more tropical apparel, with squawks and guffaws often emanating from unknown sources behind the lush foliage and sky-climbing tendrils.
Sid and I now spent most of the time in our cabins staring into the shaving-mirrors: evacuating our bowels in strict cross rhythms: a time and motion routine which seemed to go on intermittently day and night.
We did not talk to each other any more, for we had said everything we needed to say. Our previous conversations – struck up more for the sake of just talking than imparting any new information – had always turned more and more to the subject of Death and that which awaited us beyond the barbed margins of Death’s lands that we foresaw being even more foreign than those into which the steamer was currently cutting its wake.
But Parsimony was arguably more ordinary than Misericordia. The twouptwodown houses huddled together with natural roofs and squat smokestacks, and aerials more like satellite dishes. Even the “washing-line” on Y-sticks bore recognisable clothes on them as if hung out to dry.
I snatched Sid from in front of his mirror and, as he hurriedly fumbled with his flies, I dragged him to the deck and pointed out the sights of Parsimony.
The township school had a number of kids milling about in the playground, in all shapes and sizes, waving at us vigorously with what looked like huge gold-clasped black-skinned Bibles.
“Religious maniacs, but who can blame them, being so close to the Death Lands?”
I then indicated the giantesque volcano, extinct and, according to my memory of geography lessons at Misanthropy Primary, called Mount Catanak. It towered in the mist just beyond the outskirts of Parsimony, leaning sideways a little towards the plateau lands. Series of forests, a bit like horses’ manes, led up to Catanak; I breathed deeply, taken aback by its ugly magnificence. But beyond Catanak, who knew?
“The towpath cable does go beyond Parsimony, by the look of it,” Sid observed, leaning over the deck-rail at a dangerous angle.
I, too, saw the everpresent “washing-line” stringing along upon more precarious-looking Y-sticks, winding and bending with the river, as far as the eye could see beyond Mount Catanak.
Would the skipper dock at Parsimony, to pick up “Uncle Hairlip”? I could well ask. Neither of us had seen anything of the skipper since dockout, and I was beginning to wonder whether we had been slipping across the black bubbles of a dream in a ghostship manned by some Denizens of Death.
I looked up at the bridge of smoked glass, imagining the form of those who had commandeered the craft from the Naze to the Mount. I motioned to Sid, but all he could do was shrug, as if he had been reading my thoughts.
It was then I noticed that the “washing-line” had begun to thread through our steamlaunch itself – winding between our portholes, like some crazy knitting!
We were not stopping at Parsimony? All we could do, was wave back at the kids in the playground, who had now been joined by their schoolmaster with what looked like a large rat, called to the outside by the strange sight of our passage through.
Perhaps it was a good idea not to have stopped – it was probably not as ordinary as it looked and, maybe, contained worse depths than can be imagined. So, ineluctably, we were threading a path towards Death, and there was nothing Sid and I could do about it.
Missiles were chucked at us – looking like lumps of ill-butchered meat – from youths in shorts who had climbed trees along the banks out of the township. Great nest-like clumps embedded in the branches betokened their dens. Obscenities rang out, but mixed between them was the insidious chant of “Uncle Hairlip”.
Soon, however, these teenage outposts grew rarer as we neared Mount Catanak. And darker it became, the quieter also. The squawks of whatever exotic birdlife populated those regions just turned into a memory.
And then we wondered whether Catanak was extinct after all, for the encroaching gloom, at this mid-point of the day, showed up idle sparks at the lip of its cone-top zero.
“Sid, if that isn’t about to erupt, I’m a lump of chicken grit,” I said in as worried a tone as I could muster.
“Yes, and, eh, more than that, Wally, the ‘washing-line’ cables are tangling us up!”
It was true. The steamer was now sliding through a whole cat’s-cradle of them weaving around the funnel and between the spokes of the paddle-wheels!
It was as if steam was no longer required to take us to the end of our journey.
No time to prattle of Death now – too busy with the unravelling of the yarn that cannot remain untold. It’s extruding inexorably as Mount Catanak rumbles above us.
Give me your hand, as the last lap of time takes us into something we may never forget, assuming we all remain alive to remember it.
I couldn’t see Sid’s face – but a sudden flash from Catanak lit him up like a face on the wall of some ghost train tunnel. The explosion followed the flash a split second later. Then, a mass of glistening lava began to pop its snout over the nought’s rim of the cone-top.
The lava-creature had begun its slow headlong search for gravity down the slopes of the Mount, towards the river on which we floated among the renewed pulsations of spectral light. The glowing slick folded further down in darker cooler lips of itself, curling, snarling as it bubbled and spat across the rocks. Within such tumour-riddled muscles of burping spumatum, wriggling threadworm hairs of intenser brightness coiled in cilia-like formations. Amid burgeoning seas of seething self, the creature came, and actually seemed to be tussling through its own blubbery veins and membranes.
But what’s happened? Sid’s jumped overboard on to the towpath! Something more astonishing it would have been hard to create: as if a whole section of supporting Y-sticks had collapsed without warning.
Sid manages to cross a breach of land before the searing-eyed lava creature reaches out in further self-replication. It still gropes uncannily through its own body…
But what’s that Sid is shoutimg? He shouts that he’s going to open a lock!
I shout back for him to explain himself, but he cannot hear me.
He dashes on without a glance into the multitudinous darknesses that I now notice are cross-breeding beyond Mount Catanak.
I lean precariously over the deckrail, as I once saw Sid doing, and held the macrami of “washing-lines”. I can feel tugs and yanks as if Sid’s telling me something, warning me perhaps about Death and its Kin.
The tugs themselves gradually peter out.
But by putting my ear to the miraculously still taut “washing-line” cable, I could sense what I can only describe as an electric current buzzing along it, in the shape of Sid’s voice:
“There’s another world back here, far different from the real one. People go about mumbling of churnobill, heerosheemah, tytanick, beth-le-hem, mekka, nagasacky, owswitch, dakcow, hungerfood, doneblaming, sayntpoolskatheedrall, princess-die, jeesuss it’s strange! And everywhere that’s somewhere has got electricity. And nobody who’s anybody talks about Death. This must be Heaven. Come quick! Just follow the line. You’ll know you’re here when you come to the point of no return. Someone important just come on TV saying he’s horrified about something or other, but thankfully he’s not really. Nobody’s horrified here…”
I tried to tug a few pitiful messages back to him and I even put my mouth up against the springing wire and shouted warnings about taking things at face value.
You can never trust your best friend. But I could not really fathom which one of us had failed the other. One thing I did know. Death is far more than just the thickness of your skull.
But the question remained hanging in the air, like the now frozen Catanak lava-creature around me. Who was it who was dead? I chipped off a bit of the lava block as a keepsake and whispered as if to myself:- “Try to feel your way back along the wire, Sid.”
He never returned. The tale’s audit trail was tangled beyond even the wildest nonsequiturs.
My shaving-mirror eyes full of bitter tears, I returned attention to the steamer, the paddle-wheels of which were spinning uselessly in the slipstream, and I skippered it back all the way to Misanthropy-on-the-Naze, without any crew to speak of. Too busy even for death.
The recent storm flattened most of the remaining Y-sticks and it would be the devil’s own job to put them all back. Yet, nothing’s more filling than a breakfast of chicken and noodles to put some grit back.
Whatever the case, I have been commissioned to skipper the steamer ship back to Misericordia and Parsimony – to restore communications. I stand behind the smoked glass of the ship’s bridge, proud of this new job, with jobs so scarce otherwise.