They crawl over the outside of buildings more than they walk in the streets between.
Elizabethans had a fixation with death.
The worrying thing about the area to which Barry had travelled was that, despite being positioned in the same hemisphere as his homeland, each night seemed to blend into the next one, with only a fleeting hint of a lit dawn-dusk round about the time that his luminous watch indicated it to be midnight.
In contrast, his homeland was roughly in line with the more normal day-night shift, where seasons only created a small adjustment in the ratio between light and dark. Such concerns should not have affected Barry – but, as events still unfolded around him, he could not guarantee that irrelevancies would not become relevant and vice versa.
He was currently on a job for the Suspended Belief Conglomerate. Its head office was in the outskirts of his homeland, so that, when a child, he could see the pillars of its construction striating the horizon like the teeth on his comb. His parents said it was their ambition that he should become an employee of the Conglomerate, as soon as he was able to leave the house on his own two legs. Very good fluctuating emoluments and perks could be taken for granted. So, his young awe, and even consternation, was overwhelming as he knelt by the bed and gazed at the distant comb-teeth of his destiny gradually becoming snagged with the strands of night.
Later, of course, Barry was far more confident of his own identity. He had been with the Conglomerate for some years, and he was entrusted with their most important missions. His parents were still alive; but the outbuildings of the Conglomerate’s original head office had encroached nearer to their house, threatening compulsory purchase in the near future. There was no stopping progress.
He was now located outside his homeland, surveying the lie of the land for a proposed site of another head office, with the eventual aim of moving all the staff from one to the other. Cheaper than renovation of the original head office, the architect had advised. He had already called back on the walkie talkie that the only drawback he could establish was the constant darkness: but, since the air conditioning of the new head office would control light/dark as well as heat/cold, he could see no problem: as long as the staff had all facilities under one roof and the relocation expenses were sufficient.
Despite having been steeped in the Conglomerate’s self-effacement programme for three decades of his existence, he still had a soft spot for his parents. He believed the more he held back on criticism of this worrying area, the more it was likely that his parents would be left in peace. However, he could hardly recall what they looked like or what they may have turned into, and one of the vital ingredients of love, they told him, was visual communication between the parties. But that took no account of blind people – or, for that matter, people living, for lengths of time on end, in constant darkness: only at the flash of midnight, perhaps, could love flourish.
He had conducted himself always in accordance with the Conglomerate’s motto: “Suspended Belief is your one great virtue / For Dreams will never even start to hurt you.”
As he sat shivering between the dark masses of land and sky, he could not guess if his watch told the right time. Then, with the suddenness of a single brushstroke of luminous paint across the sky, he saw the first distant skeleton of an office tower in the process of construction – and disciplined Indian Files of hooded figures trudging towards it. Obviously, the Conglomerate had taken his walkie talkie messages more seriously than he intended. And even more abruptly, it was night shift again, for the short storm of dusk-dawn passed on around the world. He fell asleep like a child at the interface of two nowheres. He called out: his parents did not come. They never had a walkie talkie (except Barry as a chatty toddler, of course!). There was no stopping regress. He fell fitfully for sleep’s enticing dreams…
The night so far had been quiet, far too quiet. Barry cursed, for whatever happened, he wouldn’t be able to sleep. If the baby started whining, then there was no hope even for a fitful doze. But the utter silence was worse. He sat up in the bed, brow glistening, ears pricking, worried that the baby would rediscover the squalls in its lungs at the slightest suspicion of its father sleeping. His wife snored beside him.
Soon, despite his posture, he did drift off into some dream interruptions – about a cathedral with a dome and someone or something he loved more than his wife. He then paced what he could only describe as an alien landscape. The sun, if it ever had a sun, was not yet up, but a strange living fluid filled the air with an inhalable light. Hd noted that he breathed through gills in the sides of his neck and that he possessed a tail which dragged a trough behind his legs in the loamy grey sand.
Someone had hung decorations from the sky and he heard the distant thuds of an impending storm. Before much longer, he came in sight of an estate house, like those often found when hiking in parts of Great Britain. Its windows were lit brighter than the pervasive glow, so he walked smartly to a lower bay window. Groups of people stood about in a large drawing-room, barely moving and talking no more than in desultory mumbles. He somehow knew they were mumbles, rather than words, despite the intervening window-pane. One woman had a bundle in her arms at which, from time to time, she cooed and purred. Whatever constituted the bundle, it was alive, moving of its own volition.
Barry was abruptly awoken by a squawking. It was his turn to see to it. Considering that his wife was still snorting like a beached whale, he withdrew his body from the bed, pulled on his stringy dressing-gown and approached the nursery along the dark corridor. Sometimes, he wished its mother had taken up breast-feeding. That would have enabled him to stay in bed whilst she went off to feed herself to the brat. But then, on second thoughts, he cringed at the thought of the milk mountains.
The night-light was still flickering in its jamjar; the curtains seeming to move, as a result. The cot cover budged up and down, as he went over to the tallboy, upon which had been left the creature’s comforts. Eventually, when he lowered the teat, he found the opening straightaway and listened to the suck-suck while the clear liquid filtered down. Gradually, its short sharp breaths lengthened, and the guzzling became more of a ritual than a struggle for life and death. He knew the next thing would be the shit, but he could live better with stench than screech.
He replaced the still unwieldy udder on the tallboy, blew on the night-light to tease out its life for the rest of the dark hours, tucked in the cot covers around the gentle rise and fall of the mound – and, unaccountably, tested the strength of the side-bars, knowing babies couldn’t fly. He laughed at his own dozy thoughts.
Then it spoke.
Not with a babyish gurgle, but a shrill voice. It actually negotiated its tiny tongue around real words. Words that Barry understood. Could find in the dictionary, if need be. Write down. He listened unintently, since surely this must also be dream – surely he had drowsed off (more than once and overlapping) while giving it a nibble of his engorged masculine breast.
“Can you hear me?” it whined, amid a streamer of black phlegm.
“Yes,” he found himself answering.
“Dreams,” it continued, “within the mother’s womb are commonplace, many experts say.”
“Within the watery world of tubes and black hanging things, listening to the mountainous thunderflesh, a dream can form like weather.”
There was no chance to note Barry’s dream’s undreamlike quality, since a storm abruptly struck with the breaking of red-flecked waters and an irresistible thrust upon a tiny body. The G forces were so powerful, the body turned wrinkly and unsightly, its mind fogged with fear, beshitted with memories gone bad…
Yes, the Elizabethans had a fixation about Death. And that’s how most of them ended up.
Barry travelled ways so straitened, so full of blind alleys, that he ended up in corners of a London where time did not seem to matter, let alone pass. He roamed City churches, like a noon-time shadow, a black aura huddled up to the church wall as if tapping its spiritual power for a further go on the dodgem of life.
He often sat in the grounds of City churches, fresh from business lunches with the Exchange Brokers. His favourite was St Paul’s Cathedral, not least because its dome looked like a woman’s breast. He was full of ideas about his future career (as long as he could obtain the right contacts). Often, he expounded to others about the making of money and what he described as filling the space that someone inhabits with the irregular shape of a dreamer.
Only Sensitives, he believed, could become the fleeting uncombed hair-pieces which often darted up and down church walls like apprentice angels’ dusters. People steeped in Stocks and Shares need not apply. Don’t call us…
“If we could demolish St Paul’s,” Barry said to others in the City coffee house, “that would leave room for a few more Futures Exchanges or Eurobond Dealing Houses – it’s about time this City shrugged off the loose appendages of the past. There are not enough Computer Mainframes for the Unit Trust or Put Option mega-yields to be accommodated – it’s a scandal – nobody will miss St Paul’s…”
He rambled on in his ironic or satirical fashion, and the others laughed in spirit with his words. It all sounded too much like a speech to be true.
Another day, he spotted a creature, creeping like his earlier image of an Elizabethan. The only one left. He was at first unaware of its presence, with his back resting against the gravestone. The open mouth of its shock-haired head seemed full of black ice-cream which it sicked up all over Barry. It acted like an evil kid. A non-Sensitive would have said it was simply the night coming in sooner than the dusk. He could not admit it, of course – he pretended nothing at all had happened. And, even when he challenged it, it merely shrugged and said it was only to be expected. Things crawl over the outside of buildings these days more than they walk in the streets between.
Barry encountered the Elizabethan on several other occasions. It dug at the graves, black elastic hose stretching back to the church wall like thick kite strings. It followed him along Bishopsgate and Fen Church Street, loping between the shuttered foreign banks in the guise of an urban scarecrow. It swung from lamp standards in the vein of monkey-spiders, its eyes floating in the dark sorbets of Winter. Yet Barry was, soon after these encounters with it, quickly promoted, not staying in any one job long enough to be discovered as a true Sensitive, as he now knew was his own real condition. He became Stockbroker General and instigated a whole chain reaction of fiscal meltdowns – but, as during an earlier war, St Paul’s managed to withstand the decimation around it.
Barry has now begun to live with the Elizabethan but it does not have much time for him any more. It’s like losing a mother, rather than a sweetheart. Barry still wanders the wedges between leaning computer complexes, where churches used to squat. He feels that the Elizabethan would have been good for him, because it once lived in the Alchemical Age of Queen Elizabeth the Second where fifties met the noughties. The true Elizabethan. One who followed Dickens. And even Churchill. A contemporary of Thatcher. The real McCoy of an Elizabethan. That era of history has much to teach us, since women were in control and there’s still nothing like their soft touch.
One of the later times Barry saw the Elizabethan, he asked it if it remained his girl, since he still had a crush on it. Its mouth yawned wide to answer and black treacle stretched like split innards from tooth to tooth. Something moved inside its new blouse. Evidently, they are more than simply good friends. But it’s no good crying over spilt milk. Barry merely hopes that they will find time, amid all their other civic duties, to visit St Paul’s to disentangle it from the barbed wire with which the City Guild has seen fit to surround it. On the other hand, perhaps such fencing is to keep the Sensitives inside the Cathedral, safe from the outside world. And, albeit a man, Barry seems to be the only one left outside with the soft touch.
Meantime, either side of the dream, the baby blows kisses of black spittle, for Barry to suck…
Barry remembered he had a new occupation back in the old days before real life itself became so dream-like – which was buffing up the drearinesses when nice bright mornings drifted into the degeneration of late afternoons. He was on guard duty from 3.0 p.m., at which time darkness began to have the potential to wheedle its way into the daylight. So he grabbed his mop and bucket of sunlight liquid from the cupboard under the stairs and, by lunchtime, he had hung his uniform by the front door, with battery-lit buttons and a luminous carnation in the button-hole. He placed his false ding-dong of a nose, bright red and bulbous, on the door-knob, to remind him to take it with him. But his mind wasn’t in the right gear, somehow. He felt a trifle under the weather, despite the morning’s sunniness. He looked from the window and saw a rocketship crossing the blue sky. It didn’t look at all convincing. He looked down at himself and, come to think of it, and not to put too fine a point on it, he was not the fine figure of the man he thought he was. Who ever heard of putting the brightness back into twilight, anyway? He might as well go back to bed, he thought, because no doubt it’s all part of a bad dream. But, too late, the rocketship suddenly slipped a gear, spluttered and finally stalled, crashing towards the house in which Barry stood and stared, now believing how convincing it was. Luckily it was indeed a dream (or else he did die and was subsequently dreaming whilst dead).
He looked at the vase of flowers on the mantelpiece (which his parents had arranged that very morning before light) wondering whether anything of such relative insignificance could be persuaded to take on a character larger than life. Tomorrow, his parents had been told, was to be his very first interview with the Conglomerate. He kept looking up and looking down, and each time he looked up, he felt sick and sicker. As if the motion of his head up and down was a flight of nausea on a tilting sea of air. Finally, he decided, too late, that he was, literally, going to spew. No time to reach the fire-closet. So he used the vase of flowers. Later, he switched on the TV set, but could not focus its flickering. He was not used to reading between the lines and a sense of nausea revisited the alimentary canal around which he was built. He sometimes felt as if he had vomit running through his veins, instead of blood. He failed his first interview, but passed a second one much later in life because the original failure became a valuable qualification, there having been a change of management. His parents would have been proud of him.
Indeed, he must have been dead, because he dreamed he was not Barry. He was them. He was us. One thing was certain, he was older. But not wiser. The street was quiet except for the occasional tube train below. The lamps joined up worms of light in the darkness. Yes, the street was quiet, the distant drone of a rocketship several skies away. The lamps were finally doused in the early hours: all that could be seen was the sole glow of a first floor window in a ramshackle joint – and it was in that room where the Conglomerate’s business resided. The Barry that he had become climbed on to each other’s shoulders to view the Elizabethan at a word processor.
It was so intent on his task, that it did not hear the sash-window slip its lead, nor Barry’s ingress to the room. It was not surprising, for he was quieter than the spluttering of the veins. Outside, the street was quiet. Inside, the room held for a split second a shop-soiled tableau of various frozen dummy versions of Barry.
The Elizabethan must have been deafer than a china vase for it did not hear one of the Barries tripping over the lumps in the carpet. They would have to be more careful next time, for any slip like that could have caused a havoc and a half.
What an Elizabethan! It kept up the nimble fingerwork on the keys, oblivious of Barry who eventually looked over its shoulder and read what it was writing. It was in English, so Barry could not understand it.
Outside, the street was still there, but he had completely forgotten it. Inside, he ranged wide, rummaging beneath the bed for valuables amongst the night soil, rifling the cupboards for any noon meat that was still sufficiently undecayed to be handled, cleaning out any pockets for mind drugs amid the fluff. Not that he was a common or garden burglar.
The Elizabethan must have been dumb, as well as deaf for, on seeing Barry, all it could do was point at its own mouth. One of the Barries laughed at it and another laughed too. It was difficult to tell whether the Elizabethan’s tears indicated laughter or not. Funny that!
Outside, the street had imperceptibly broken its bounds into morning – a morning containing everything, except the daylight, which morning usually contained. Inside, Barry had killed the Elizabethan, for he could not bear its incessant silent laughter. It was so disconcerting. It must have been round the bend. Its eyes were luminous. One of the Barries did the job well, cut the Elizabethan’s throat with its own scissors, took the adam’s apple between the two blades and snipped. Its death sicked all over the red screen. Illegible in life, illegible in death. Like the noises from the street outside, all leading hard and fast towards noon; people, cars, trains, kids, sirens merging into an inchoate groan. The rocketships had been grounded, of course, till it was official night time again. Inside the room, Barry finished searching its bits and pieces. Now, what should he do? Listen, who did you think he was? He talked to himself, you know. Dispose of the body, before it’s an incrimination. Speak up, won’t you, I can’t hear, for the noise in the street outside, it’s so deafening: like the spluttering in the veins, the blood of his once proud parents.
The sash window slid back of its own accord, yet it was ignored. Thr finishing touches to the words were executed on the screen, English being a language with no hard and fast rules, merely taste and instinct and fear of the schoolmaster’s cane. Better than flower-arranging. Perhaps the only one awake in the whole silent Conglomerate of the worrying world; so busy, sure to miss the lightning flash that was both sunrise and sunset. A diptych of dawn and dusk.