*

AFTER YOU

Gentleman George reviewed his life. But from which direction of time does memory really work, he wondered?

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“After you,” he said. Yet Kate scoffed, claiming she was able to go through doors without having the likes of gentlemen opening them first. No skin off his nose, he thought, but when she showed him her vintage jalopy, he realised that last Sunday’s London-to-Brighton car rally hadn’t quite prepared him for such an unexpected revival of romance.

The drivers last Sunday were in goggles and high-collared coats upon open-top bone-shakers trundling through Croydon – not even with steering-wheels, but silvery levers that made George think of boyhood trips on double-deckers when he pretended to be the driver, pushing and pulling at the safety-bar at the top front window.

But Kate’s jalopy turned out to be so utterly basic, there was nothing to it. Literally. Every flipping gadget eschewed. He couldn’t have believed his own eyes – eyes which boggled wider than those of a barn owl with double vision – when he spotted Kate floating in mid-air, like a primadonna on a zoo ride, grating her throat, rumbling her chest and (fresh breath preserve us!) breaking wind like a ruptured exhaust.

“Climb up,” Kate called with a smile, and she supposedly opened one of the invisible passenger doors and mockingly motioned him upon her new-fangled Beast of the Sleek Age. With headlamps like empty eye sockets.

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As ever, floating in his eyes were thousands of little particles that most people were never able to see. That he had the knack of pin-pointing them was once discovered almost by accident when his eyelids were closed in a room darkened except for a TV screen on strobe mode. And, then, he could see the floaters, wobbling up and down like a cross between ballroom dancers and cells under a microscope.

Most normal people, when they shut their eyes tight, either in direct sunlight or in complete darkness, they can conjure forth variations on psychedelia: kaleidoscopic patterns and darting pointilliste dream-paintings. And all manner of self-imaginings. Like tiny faces never seen before: the faces of utter strangers that sometimes smiled, sometimes cried and, even, sometimes, grew plug ugly, thin-lipped and squeeze-eyed. Yet, all in the mind. All in an era which was too new to count.

George’s strobe-induced floaters were a different kettle of fish, however. They were not in the mind nor in some unreachable epoch. They really did live in his eyes. Feeding off the optic juices, no doubt. Playing Tag with the odd corrosions that come off the retina. A game of Hide-and-Seek amid the rods and cones. Pinning-a-tail-on-the-donkey’s-beady-eye. A Scaletrix of squint-eyed toboggans. And he could watch them. Watch the floaters play all sorts of games. Until he stopped.

As the strobes set in, one floater bore an actual human face. A speck wading through the glaucomal ooze came into full view, sporting a moustache, a full head of hair and a double-chin that concealed where the neck ended. George could not believe his eyes. Felt like having an Internet’s dream of itself. The face was microscopic, but the curve of George’s eyeball seemed to magnify it sufficiently to discern features.

It spoke. Or appeared to do so. George’s ears were, of course, not acute enough to catch what was going on in the eye-sockets. But he tried to lip-read the mouth, with his own mouth beating time with it. The face seemed to be asking for help – or was it offering help?

George did not recognise the face. Probably an anthropomorphisation of the European single currency. The moustache caused him to assume the male gender. It was definitely nobody he knew. Perhaps not a moustache at all, but a blindfold that had slipped down leaving its eyes about to sag out like breasts.

But now the face had gone. And, having gone, George could no longer refer to it, since he did not want to give credence to an interstellar reality that he was convinced could never exist.

He shut his eyes tightly, as he switched off the screen strobe. He very rarely had the sound on. He was much happier now, since he could play mental Tag with his own specks of inner imaginings, rather than with real specks in the eyesight.

Better to visualise horror, than actually to see it. He strained his ears to catch any sound from the corner of his eye. But there was only the dropping of a pin … or a pricking out of an enlightenment, one that came from the direction of the optic fuse itself, rather than from any external source. He was a Brainwright, you see. Not a gentleman at all.

He works as a replacement “brain” for those who are not old enough or too old for the New Millennium.

As a guide-dog is to a blind person, a Brainwright is, these days, to the mentally deficient or to the prematurely senile. Cheap at half the price, too, if you asked George. Indeed, Brainwrights can be asked to make every decision, if need be, for the client. So, it is important that it is a good Brainwright and only real money can buy the best. And, if George said so himself, he was the best going.

He had been Brainwright to all sorts of people. You name them, he’d done them – from the housewife (whose long years of drudgery and quiet tippling had dulled her faculties beyond repair), through the businessman (whose attempt at screening out executive stress had left him tantamount to a crawling wreck beneath the hi-tech boardroom table), to, even, the politicians of this our land – and let me whisper it to the golden silence, George had been, for ages, Brainwright to a pretty senior moustachioed Cabinet Minister and he reckoned he was next in line for the number one job.

It was not often that he got a holiday. There’s no peace for the wicked and especially for a Brainwright Extraordinaire. God made sure even gods were eligible for regular days off and I’m told, on the best authority, even when God’s on duty, He has a dead Brainwright by His side.

Now, with this optic stress of the floaters, George was likely to be needing a Brainwright of his very own, if only for off days … and for vintage car trips to the seaside. His current client was indeed Kate, that lady with a penchant for cars so old, they hadn’t yet even been invented. No wonder she needed a Brainwright.

.
The next time George saw her after the incident with the non-existent car, she herself wasn’t there in person at all. Her voice was pretty guttural, though, as it emanated from neo-binary invisibility. He expected it to be angelic like audible heavenly light … like the voice he’d fallen in love with as a child, when an angel visited his bedroom at the dead of night: whispering liquid gold with the still susceptible sunset seeping through the harvest-flower curtains.

The angel breathed words that meant next to nothing. Real words. A child is not meant to fathom such meanings. It resembled pixels of music. Being more silent than silence, it could be vaguely sensed. The angel had told George that she was to be his wife – when he was old enough.

.
“I’m as old as I feel”.

“Yes, dear, so you always say.”

The ancient couple stared into the mirror and goggled out again at the images of each other. George with his second best pyjamas, Kate with the hat of fruit she had originally sported at vintage motor-car rallies. The wrinkles showed, but both blamed most of them on the hair-cracks in the surface of the antique mirror (circa 1960).

“Has the milkman been?” he asked, fingering his moustache. He chortled silently as he thought of a lavatorial meaning to his own question.

“Yes, I think so, but I’ve not taken them in.”

Every time Kate used his name, he knew that he was meant to do something. It only needed her light touch on the tiller of his duties.

“OK, I’ll fetch them,” he said with a whiskery sigh.

When he first asked the question about whether the milkman had been, George was aware of the inevitability of the resultant chore at the back of his mind. A bone snapped loudly as he got up from the bed. And dizzy specks still danced in front of his eyes.

She failed to keep track of his movements, the mirror having abandoned his reflection. She could now hear nothing of him at all, upon the tiptoes of carpet slippers. She was bereft of him. One day he might not even return. She recalled their happier days, when marriage was a natural affair of give and take, knowing exactly what the other required and how to fulfil such a requirement with the minimum of fuss. Youth had absconded with the memories of middle-age, leaving only the secrets of senility. Many a day saw them bickering over this and that. Only the unimportant things turned their bickering to full-blown rows: a ritual of turning blind eyes, whilst letting the mouths get on with it. Take the milk bottles, for example.

She shook her head, letting the hat fall off its hatpin. The tears came, as she recognised death’s clipart shape in the eight top-and-bottom corners of the room, seven of which shapes were impostors. False Brainwrights. But which the real one?

She couldn’t wait for dementia to take her mind off things. At the moment, she had the added curse of self-awareness. There were no grunts, no footsteps, no uneasy shambling, not even the coughs and splutters with which George endowed their nights together. Only the thud of the fridge door.

The bedroom fanned out inside the mirror, leaving the wide-screen extremes invisible. The window was choked with ruffles of net curtain, the winter light now seeping into the faded margins of drape. Kate dabbed at the dark underbellies of her eyes, stirring her own brand of optic cells. She felt her finger sink almost to the cheekbone. Turning her head from side to side, she followed its reflected contours, from the grey tussocky hair at the temple to the ski runs of the scrawny neck.

Abruptly, a shape appeared in the mirror and a weight sank into the mattress beside her. Without looking, she sidled her hand towards where she thought George’s own hand would be supporting the rest of his body. Instead she felt the cold touch of glass. Could the damn silly sod have brought one of the bottles with him to the bedroom?

But wonders never ceased. The frills of the nightdress just above her heavy bust were being slightly undone. Ever since her marriage with George had been first consummated, she knew she’d never be able to face such bodily manoeuvres again. The whole business had been so downright unbelievable. George’s manly part on that first occasion so many years ago had felt so terribly odd in the darkness. Like pork gristle. But now, today, she wondered what could have created the ridged wrinkles and the braille of inflamed pores, what had indeed caused the fleshy wattles to hang from the zoo-ride of his swollen stem.

Her self-awareness began to diminish to a small white dot on an old-fashioned television screen. Or a pupil in an ever-expanding vein-mapped egg-white eye. Whilst the owner of the swollen stem spluttered in her ear something about a kiss.

.
George had first met her in real life before youth had absconded. It was at the tail-end of college. Kate sat at the back of lecture halls, when George was at the front. She had slipped through the door before he had the chance to catch up. He was sure she had accomplices. Those who eased her passage hither and thither. Ghostly gentlemen of the old school. Laying illusory capes for the touch of her tender-toed tread above the shimmering sunlit pools that dappled the college quadrangle.

.
Well, Kate took George to Brighton in her so-called jalopy. They sang sing-songs to keep body and soul together. Both of them must have been a sight, hovering above the road like an art video without the margins of the letter-box screen.

He pretended to drive like he did the childhood buses — happily pawing the air. Punch drunk. That’s the way to do it. But she pretended better than him.

He rather looked forward to the screaming of the wheeling seagulls and the sea, when they reached the end of the road. Perhaps a stroll arm in arm down the pier. Good job he’d got his wrap-around cape and finger-twisted gloves – and the feather-lined owlglass in the goggles: a pair of mind-boggling spy-holes which George had bought in Mr Copperlashes’s curiosity shop…

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Mr Copperlashes told him that they had belonged to someone famous. And the blotting-paper, too. But whether to the same famous person, Mr Copperlashes did not clarify. In any event, because of the many blots and doodles and mutant pixels on the blotting-paper, George assumed Mr Copperlashes meant an author had owned it.

George saw with his mind’s eye – mind’s eye being an euphemism for the little moustachioed Brainwright who lived inside his eyes – that a gentleman, not unlike Dickens in his later years, scribbled away upon sheaves of paper, testing out ideas on the blotter as well as using it to soak up excesses and peering through the thick roundel windows of his speck-ridden eyes.

George, in turn, squinted at the various smuts and smudges on the blotting paper, some quite childish, others containing indecipherable words. He wasn’t going to fork out a fortune for this “antique” blotter without first ascertaining its validity.

Mr Copperlashes left George to his own devices. The art of selling had always been to say as little as possible, having merely ignited George’s fascinations with talk of a famous owner. That was all George needed to know. The Brainwright would do the rest. George ignored the oppressive dimness of the shop’s interior and its eerily clicking clocks. He even failed to notice Mr Copperlashes’s gleaming eye that must have cooled itself at a keyhole after he had supposedly left George alone.

Before fetching the blotter from the desk drawer, Mr Copperlashes had made a song and dance about a huge leathery contraption in his shop; it was decorated with oriental tassels and golden implements that looked like church censers. It was rather outlandish, as if the leather had been softened and hardened by turns in an entirely ungeometrical pattern, raising flaps with alternate convex and concave surfaces galore. It stood in the centre of the floor like a strange religious altar of some kind.

George laughed when Mr Copperlashes told him what it actually was: a camel saddle that could take up to six kids on a joy-ride at a zoo or to the seaside – in those days when kids enjoyed such treats, before the arrival of screen entertainments. The saddle was sadly beyond George’s price range. He trusted the blotter and goggles would be more reasonable – depending on how famous was famous. But at heart George wasn’t really fooled.

When Mr Copperlashes returned from the shop’s back room, George and the blotter had gone. With a cluck of his tongue, Mr Copperlashes brought out another folded parchment from his desk. It was completely black blotting-paper – or so badly stained with blots and doodles and holes, it seemed black.

“He who used this blotter was really famous.” Mr Copperlashes smiled as if he indeed realised he was talking to himself. He may have been a good salesman, but he was not a good judge of character or even of reality itself. George had in fact left the ludicrous confidence-trick of a blotter behind and had stolen the camel-ride instead.

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A goggled George — sitting astride the camel-ride while it roughly bobbed him up and down through the back alleys — finally plumped this contraption down upon the floor of his tiny bed-sit. He trusted it to bring the good luck which Mr Copperlashes said it would. Yet, later in the day, he could not help wonder how he was aware of events that had transpired in the curiosity shop after he had departed it. The only possible answer was the eye-keyhole in the camel ride he’d saddled himself with.

.
Today, knowing his luck, he and Kate will run out of petrol or, worse still, belief.

Good job he can trust her driving skills, since he’s nigh blotted out: harnessed, as he is, with his buxom blindfold. But he knows they still pursue their mind-boggling path together towards an ultimate curiosity called Death.

And, then, while again heading towards the outskirts of Brighton, George vanished.

In a puff of exhaust fumes.

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Bottled out of growing too old, she supposed. But, by dying first, Gentleman George did give her the retrospective chance of repaying him with the tearful “After you” that she spoke aloud into the silence.

Mutual Brainwrights.

Life’s sad floaters who, having once floated together, now floated apart.

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