The brown dress was hanging like a white curtain. Diana wondered if she could ever face wearing it again. Not that she often wore curtains – except, perhaps on ‘silly’ days, fanciful days, dressing-up days.
The last time a large expanse of white material – such as this curtain – had been required was when Abel Martin had put in a special request for a bridal tableau for some artistic ‘happening’ in which he was then involved along with an actual famous artist called Calli – as opposed to Abel himself who was merely a would-be artist. For ‘artist’, please read ‘twat’, thought Diana, as she transferred her attention to the mirror.
As she looked into her own eyes, she sniggered. For ‘happening’, please read ‘space mission to meet the Martians or any extraterrestrial life forms recognisable as Martians’. The white curtain had served as a very useful disguise for the shimmery insides of machines that Abel and Calli had ‘discovered’ in the most outlandish places around the city.
Diana now customarily hung her next-day’s dress on this white curtain as a makeshift hanger, following its return from upon her body during a rather lukewarm reaction to it from the ‘artistic’ folk that Calli had dragged to view her in it. She turned away from the mirror’s gaze, which had caught her in a pose which made her think that the nightie she had worn all night was becoming rather threadbare and needy of replacement. The brown dress, too, had seen better days. The rather large similarly brown urn – squatting upon a similarly white table cloth that was draped over a small trestle-table close by the white curtain and brown dress – was something which, only the night before, she had planted with long dry grasses, sprayed out like water in a fountain. It was wonderful what one could do with very little money.
Abel Martin was naturally poverty-stricken, bearing in mind his quite all-consuming and impractical ideals regarding ‘Art’ and what he saw as the purpose of it.
Diana (state benefits reliant) was equally broke, she knew, but she was clever. She would often find a charity shop newly stocked with cheap frocks. Or with ornaments that merely took a few pennies – like the brown urn in question, where she did, indeed, deposit her tiny 5p pieces: now, no doubt, piled at the foot of the grasses like sleeping silver mites.
Diana was quite a hefty girl, well past her mid twenties, and she often thought she would be left on the shelf, like objects that never escaped some of those less favourite charity shops she hardly now visited. She pitied the charities which these shops served. One in particular had a few scrawny books, smelly shoes, wickerwork contraptions which were made specially for the shop by the charity’s prospective beneficiaries and, worst of all, a shopkeeper who had a sharp word or two to say when you proffered a big note which required lots and lots of clinking change. Diana’s friend Lucy had worked in there during one of her more altruistic periods of getting buzzes from helping people other than herself. Lucy bedsitted upstairs, in fact, but hadn’t been down to visit Diana for some time, as a result of a petty row with Abel (and, thus, with Diana) when Abel was, one day, ensconced on Diana’s bed, hatching ‘happenings’.
Lucy was younger and with more modern attractiveness than Diana. This morning, apparently, was an occasion of renewing friendships. Lucy, forgetting the curt exchanges on the stairs that had characterised the two girls’ relationship for the last few weeks, rapped on Diana’s door. The walls and floors in the block were so thin, she knew Diana was up and about, even though the latter’s activity had so far been dedicated merely to staring at herself in the mirror.
“Hello, I was not going to trouble you, Diana, but…”
Diana had opened the door to her, merely by reaching her toe out to push the wonky handle. She must get Abel to mend it or perhaps he knew a less ‘artistic’ man who would.
“Not seen you for ages,” interrupted Diana meaninglessly. Heard her, yes, but not seen her. When girls fell out, they customarily fell out either for a few minutes or merely forever. Here, they’d, strangely, fallen out for a few weeks. A sort of no man’s land of falling out.
“Well, yes, I know. Not seen Abel around for a bit.”
“He’s with Calli, somewhere abroad. A convention of happeneers, I believe.” Diana laughed at the turn of phrase which she herself had just invented. Lucy joined in rather desultorily before embarking upon an explanation for her visit from the outer reaches of upstairs: “My father’s coming for the weekend. He wants to stay, he says, and you know I have no room upstairs.”
Diana had a flat, Lucy a bedsit.
Calli was a frogmarch sort of bloke in a goatee who nobody could quite pin down. Abel was the opposite. So gullible, so see-through, but femininely attractive to both men and women, dependent on their ‘persuasion’. Diana was a big-busted woman for her age. Lucy was guileless – pretty with it, owning, as she did, a sensitive face (along with slim legs and pert breasts) – but her sensitivity did not extend to understanding other people’s feelings. Hence her forthright attempt at extracting a favour from Diana – with regard to her father’s impending visit – immediately following a weeks-old row which the two girls had not yet even made up. Lucy’s father had just split up with her step-mother, Lucy explained, as if straightforwardly understandable reasons for asking the favour exonerated her bad behaviour regarding her friendship with Diana.
Dealing with men, for Lucy, was, of course, a different kettle of flirting.
“Abel’s flat is empty,” smartly put in Diana. “He and Calli will be away days and days. Something about a big push. So very very strange and paranormal, it’ll hit even the nationals. Bigger than Roswell or a brand new Picasso nobody knew about…”
Lucy was used to Diana’s half-humourous, half-serious attempts to describe Abel’s activities – the most famous being when he and Calli (and someone called Arthur Clun) had travelled to the furthest star systems and back again. Pity they hadn’t brought back any evidence of their journey, though, as Lucy had said at the time. The story had died a death, like most stories, anyway. So, since having taken all such Abellian Calliana with a pinch of salt, Lucy proceeded with her own comparatively petty concerns, by saying:
“Abel’s flat is too far. Dad wants to be here in the centre, in case he gets a job here.”
Lucy was thick-skinned, disingenuous, tactless and so forth – but, despite this, she tended to get her way. Diana, in view of the heavy hint that Lucy’s father would be staying for more than just a brief weekend, scooted into the kitchen, saying: “I can’t have anybody long term.”
“He’ll go as soon as you want,” assured Lucy.
“OK, Lucy, as long as you hold to that promise.”
And Lucy zipped off to phone her Dad.
Diana was struggling into her brown dress, cursing the fresh ounce of weight which seemed to have fastened itself like a slug of flesh to her frame overnight. But that was better, no doubt, than spreading itself uniformly across her already sizeable buttocks. In any event, an ounce was better than a pound. She already had a barely perceptible gold coin threaded under the skin of her left cheek to match the nose-ring and navel-ankh. The white curtain she kept drawn, as she could not bear daylight most of the day. Not that the weave was thick enough for her taste in complete darkness. White was better as a blackout than some of the examples of even thinner black she had seen in other flats and bedsits scattered about the block. Lucy’s drapes were little better than nets. But Diana hadn’t been invited to Lucy’s little bedsit for meaningless ages. Anything might have been changed there since then, such as new pelmets.
The University Town in central Europe where Abel and Calli were attending a Convention of Theosophical Art was quite close to the Danube. Indeed, Calli – who was quite flush from having recently sold an illuminated script to a Hollywood Film Director who wanted to do a remake of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF A THIRD KIND (but this time with real aliens!) – spent several fortunes on cruises from Linz to Vienna and back again. This was quite useful, as he wanted to incorporate genuine classical music into his ‘happenings’. The local classical connections were manifold. Anton Bruckner, the great Austrian composer, had even played the organ once in Linz.
Archibald Terence Calli was a force to be reckoned with and his ‘artistic’ peers (many of whom were attending the convention) wondered why he suffered a hanger-on such as Abel Martin. A number suspected that Abel was Calli’s Tadzio. (Just as many failed to draw the connection, having not seen Death In Venice – not surprising when even Thomas Mann had not seen it.) But those who thus suspected shrugged their shoulders and wondered why they had bothered to succumb to a homophobic mindset which most enlightened people had eschewed.
Sexual innocence was a new fashion, the heady days of permissiveness and promiscuity having, by now, dwindled to a rather more passive, less energetic era of monolithism or, at most, casual couplings between various permutations of gender mix. Yet, none of this conflicted with the new-born innocence. Sex had ceased to be important and was in no way attached to human feelings of guilt. Thankfully, it had even ceased to be enjoyable.
Calli stalked around the campus, Abel in tow. He was in a temper. The coach which he had arranged to take them (and a select few of the other delegates) to Vienna for the day had not turned up – and it was beginning to rain. A phone call on CaIli’s mobile had informed them that it had broken down. A haphazard ‘happening’ which even Calli could not countenance. Perhaps if he prayed hard enough, a replacement would be quickly found. Prayer, after all, was the New Art – and this time round it did tend to work. He and Abel, joined by a few others who were not self-conscious enough to worry about how they looked, fell to their knees outside the University library and droned on one long monotonous note, whilst, allegedly, listening to Mozart’s Requiem on their headpieces.
But many stories were apocryphal. They were part of the New Art Movement: an attempt to summon real ghosts and monsters.
[Calli had also invented that new era of Sexual Innocence to match the fictional themes in his multi-cultural, multi-media, multi-discipline extravaganzas. The broken-down coach was, of course, spurious.]
In London, folk were faced with the more common attitudes of greed, lust and death, attitudes that had prevailed since year dot. Lucy’s Dad had by now arrived and ensconced himself in Diana’s spare room. To say he was not an easy person was a bit of an exaggeration in understatement, but he was a relatively ordinary, even passingly handsome, a man of indeterminate years (although he surely must have been significantly middle-aged to be Lucy’s Dad), looking quite as much as if a famous hearthrob Hollywood actor had been hired to play him, slightly uglified, dumbed down and aged up.
It wasn’t his appearance that perturbed Diana, but something else that seemed to happen when he was in the vicinity. Not exactly his overt behaviour (entailing though it did, coming in at all hours, emitting rude noises both voluntary and involuntary, monopolising the TV, making large eyes when Diana passed through the room in her absent-minded fashion of dressing-down &c.), but more the implications of insanity that underlaid his small talk. She could otherwise have lived with the chauvinism.
“I hope you don’t mind, Miss,” he said, “but at night I sometimes have particularly nasty dreams … some of which come out in real life, if you see what I mean. Nothing to worry about. They soon pass and I hope they won’t wake you up.”
He looked quite serious, staring at Diana from the wash-basin (a strange installation in a living-room), his brows creased, eyes wrinkle-fanned in manly concern – but he was mindlessly kicking the skirting-board, she noticed.
“What do you mean, they come out in real life?” she asked, belatedly dreading it might be a faux pas thus to ask.
Realising his own respective faux pas, he quickly added: “It’s only me shouting out in my sleep.” He laughed, at the back of his throat. “That’s how dreams make themselves known. People screaming in their sleep.”
Diana shrugged. He’ll be talking about somnambulism, next. Then, God knows what. Bad enough with Abel and his artsy-fartsy paranormal ‘happenings’. Now she’d been landed with Lucy’s damned father. And Lucy wasn’t even a proper friend. Humour him. Best idea (for now). And the silence was indeed screamingly funny.
The next incident that persuaded Diana that she had taken on more than she anticipated in offering her spare room to Lucy’s Dad (despite his informal injections of cash that were decidedly more than peanuts – thanks to Lucy’s influence) was when she inadvertently spotted him out and about in a suburb of the city she did not usually frequent. Why she was out in that neck of the woods was nobody’s business. Abel had phoned her from Vienna wanting her to go on an errand – and ley-lines, fruitful bisections of serendipity and geomantic forces having loosely been mentioned (by Calli, via Abel, to herself, none of which she really understood) did not prevent her, in her typical unquestioning Diana dogsbody fashion, from travelling right across the city to check out a carved spider’s web in the architectural intricacies of some ancient underground station’s exterior facade.
She was somewhat confounded when she spotted Lucy’s Dad holding forth – on the opposite pavement from the station – to quite a crowd of passers-by (now become onlookers). The voice was so loud, he actually gave the impression of being a religious fanatic or, simply, a typical lunatic (released into the community’s care), one who couldn’t keep his gob shut, albeit quite articulately. She kept a low profile whilst she ear-wigged, remembering, as it happened, quite exactly what he said without the aid of her notebook (this being one of her natural skills).
She needed the notebook for diagrammatizing the mission on which she had been sent by Abel. But that could wait.
The speaker was not interrupted by his makeshift audience. Indeed, the man whom Diana knew as Lucy’s Dad must have possessed a natural authority – stemming, no doubt, from his dubious good looks, nut-brown actorly voice and felicitous turn of phrase. His grey locks lent distinction, too. Lucy’s sexiness derived from him. That explained a lot, thought Diana, beginning to feel one of her more sexy moods, despite the quite unsalacious subject matter of the man’s diatribe:-
Have you ever wondered, dear people? I have. I’ve wondered good and long. About why reality is so goddam ordinary. Existence, the comings and gongs of your day to day life, those petty concerns that not only shorten your taking up the valuable time in such a short short life but also shorten it with the grinding down upon you of the stress which such concerns create. A double shortening. You know something? Life is full of undercurrents that most people ignore – assuming they’re aware of them in the first place, which they’re probably not. Undercurrents which are only the very beginning, the initial tiniest clue to far bigger things, that grow bigger the further you delve. Things that are so huge, so utterly utterly huge, the human mind can only conceive of a microscopic part of it. But not only huge. Frightening, too. Gorged on terror. Bone-deep. Soul-deep. So deep, it’s beyond even where your worst fears can reach. Not even the inhabitants of your various reincarnations, however evil, can possible reach the truth. The truth? That you’re living a lie. Always have been. Always will.
He continued for a while, as some onlookers dispersed, others, surprisingly, stayed perhaps because of some hypnotic quality in the voice or rugged attraction in the eyes. Diana decided that she was spying on something she was not intended to know about. It felt as if she were betraying Lucy. Despite, everything, she had a concealed softness for Lucy, ever since that night both had succumbed to events that both now wished to forget. That last argument – and consequent not-talking-to-each-other-for-weeks – had not really been centred upon Abel Martin. That indeed was a lie, some happening Diana now believed she had concocted, to absolve an undercurrent of guilt connected with pretty pretty Lucy. They say good looks run from Fathers to Daughters, Mothers to Sons. Diana’s own big-boned Dad was dead. He’d made a handsome corpse, when laid out by the undertaker. Pity about the rest of him.
She returned to her flat – relieved at least, that Lucy’s Dad would not be there (for how could he be?): she had, indeed, hopped straight on a tube while he was still letting off about ‘artistic undercurrents’, which he went on to call them before the evening’s inevitably dwindling onlookers turned back into passers-by.
Diana was quite perturbed to find Lucy there. She knew she had given her a key, should there be any emergencies, but surely that did not give her the right to come in willy nilly and to try on her clothes. She had done it before. Diana remembered at least one squabble centred around such thoughtlessness. But was the act of remembering the same as the act of predicting? Diana shook her head, its long brown hair wild. Another day, another silly, fanciful, dressing-up day, it seemed:
“What you doing?”
“I’m sorry – it’s as if I had to.”
Lucy stood, half-into the brown dress which she had removed from the white curtain, her face reddening as she tried to explain the inexplicable. If either girl could fathom the deja-vu elements present, it may have been easier for them to embark on actions without any element of guilt attaching. A crime once committed, if committed again in identical circumstances of time and place is somewhat exonerated, no?
Diana’s mind was racing, as she saw Lucy’s delicately lace-trimmed bra was so brief.
Speech, dear people, needs nothing but the words and nothing outside of what is actually said. The explanation of my theory, therefore, will, today, be uninterrupted by scene-setting or, even, questions. I shall simply launch into it, as I have already done with the words about speech above, and then launch out of it before you have the chance to know what has happened. Indeed, a being’s most significant sign of humanity is speech. Once upon a time, speech developed slowly but, at least, it did develop and, only in rare cases, did it remain in the realms of animal grunts. But, now, children are becoming less and less innocent with the onset of an increasingly modern civilisation. Their eyes become cowed with experience, as if they can foresee the sex in which they’ll be forced to partake, by gratuitous choice or by love or by lust or by rape or by a combination of any of these. Speech is part of this process, that and self-awareness, body-awareness, gender-awareness, genital awarenesse – even before puberty. No wonder a sparkling infant soon becomes dowdy and bleary-eyed – with sorrow and sadness underlying the veneer of its happy-go-lucky speech. Another factor, too, is madness. You may feel the impossibility of self-madness. You may look at drunks or lunatics or any of the fringe people in the street who mouth obscenities or simply shout nonsensical noises or grunt like animals. Indeed, as a side issue, have you noticed how even ordinary, clean-living folk are now more prone to mouthing uncouth words? Anyway, you may be confident in your own sanity but, then, completely unpremeditated you find yourself shouting out – angry, say, at how the waitress is late with your order or, simply, the stress of an increasingly modern world finally takes its toll with you – and that is merely the beginning of uncontrollable madness taking you over as the language of speech once slowly took you over when you were an infant…
Arthur Clun was among the delegates in the Middle European convention. Theosophical art was only one discipline covered (that and its concomitant areas of multi-religious prayer, exploitation of Dada, Jungian derivatives such as synchronicity &c. &c.) but Calli, with Abel still in tow, was keen on broadening its prospectus by hindsight. Deeply cerebral ‘happenings’ did not take place, as Calli would have wished. Even the well-advertised ‘hot’ air ballooning was cut short by untoward sagging of the mental heat. Arthur Clun, an entirely straight transvestite from somewhere on the London underground map (that was all he would allow people to know), was heavily into supernatural (as opposed to the more philosophically tenable ‘paranormal’) literature and things Gothic. He even went to the Benefits Agency to claim he’d lost his latest giro whilst dressed like a black-eyed punkess.
Horror stories, as Calli classed CIun’s interest in the macabre, did not seem to be appropriate (to Calli) as part of a movement about truths. Dracula, Frankenstein, Stephen King, HP Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood et al seemed to be a notch or two short of the intellectual mark, particularly in their own unashamed acceptance of being mere fictioneers. True, all ‘truths’ needed to have their own in-built ‘fictions’ to dilute them, set them off, give them a backdrop of surrealism and so forth in order that any resultant ‘happening’ would not be too rich in mind-blowing reality; yet, self-confessed fictions-for-fiction’s-sake were merely required by passive homebirds to eat up time with cheap thrills (as opposed to Clun’s even cheaper frills), instead of watching TV. To Calli, Vampires were only silly fancy-dress games with black cloaks and plastic fangs. And Arthur Clun was simply corrupting the ‘purity’ of the convention’s aims by lacing its frothy, heady cocktail with stage blood.
Clun was mooching round the campus, a large illustrated Poe under his arm. He unashamedly accosted other delegates with talk of ghosts and zombies, i.e. the latter’s quest for the former, or vice versa, as result of (to Clun) obvious reasons. Calli and Abel squatted on the wide Battleship Ptomekin steps of the campus quadrangle. The former was, of course, indulging in further arrangements via his over-used mobile. Something about ordering more balloon skins. Abel twiddled with tweezers, regarding a pretty elusive splinter. Clun (who had met the pair before in various conventions and probably knew them more than his tentative hovering had portended) finally made his approach and squatted himself beside Calli and Abel.
“How you lot?” he asked.
Calli scowled from behind his mobile. Abel merely adjusted his pose so that his trousers were not quite so tight as he spread-eagled further down the steps. Clun was not currently in female regalia and, in fact, presented quite a reasonable masculine archetype, though there was a token hair-ribbon in his ponytail. His skin, where visible, was patently shorn of any natural hairy rind.
“Anyway,” he continued more shrill-ly, “I believe my bedroom here’s got a ghost of some kind. I woke about Midnight by more than just silence. It was so very very silent, I nearly screamed out loud. Yet, I did see something, Calli. I did. I did. I saw a background, wide and white, with a brown figure upon it. Other way about, white on brown, I could have believed more easily as a real ghost of tradition. Yellow wall-paper, maybe. But white? You see, brown shape with white backdrop is quite a novelty in the annals of uncanniness. Do you want me to input all this into your next formal happenstance, dear Calli? I’ve got the details.”
Clun pointedly ignored that Calli was pointedly ignoring him. Nevertheless, he tugged a notebook from the back-pocket of his slacks.
As Abel’s absence abroad extended beyond its expected extent, Diana felt more and more mentally lethargic. Disturbed. Drained. She felt too ill to leave the flat. Lucy’s Dad did help with the shopping, acting also as a go-between regarding Lucy’s renewed frostiness towards Diana (and vice versa). Nevertheless, typical women’s ailments seemed to hit Diana harder than most. She felt as if she were sleeping in a bed of slime, half-dream, half-waking. The only times she went out was to deal with any business related to her State benefit. There was a kindly looking gentleman behind the toughened screen, one with round face and grey beard and pensive glasses. He must have seen how drained and pointed she was becoming, transfiguring, almost supernaturally, as she fast diminished in both soul and body, becoming the typical pasty-faced dependant. Surely he must have realised she was lying when, time after time, she maintained she’d lost her giro or not received it, a ploy she used so that she could eventually cash both original and replacement. Didn’t seem like stealing, in the odd reality she inhabited.
It must be awful for that gentleman to deal with people like her.
Yet, to him, she was not typical at all. Most others insulted him in the foulest terms, one or two even becoming violent towards the toughened screen, if not him. One day, he saw Diana in real life, without the screen between, amid the natural setting of a supermarket. She made signs of ignoring him, but he found himself, against his better judgement, nodding, even smiling. She was with a man looking old enough to be her father. But she claimed benefit as a single person. Was this person she accompanied what the jargon called a ‘partner’? A ‘partner’ with an income? Somehow most words were fast becoming indefinable, like his own life. In any event, he tried to turn a blind eye to the possible contravention of the benefits system as represented by this possible ‘partner’ with whom he’d haphazardly seen her.
Diana didn’t even know the kind gentleman’s name. He never wore a name-badge in his booth at the Benefits Agency. He ambled off with his shopping trolley, determined to forget the whole incident. After all, he would not be allowed to smile next time she appeared behind his screen. As well as the inevitable latest in a series of giro losses, duty would make him check whether she was actually ‘living-together-as-husband-and-wife’, a technical term covering a multitude of sins. Then, dependent on her answer, official surveillance would begin to happen.
I find the River behind the tall residential towers. Happens to be a surprise as I walk upon the zigzag tiles of Deptford Wharf. I see the pyramid-topped tower, brown against white sky, across the water, with flashing light warning off stray aeroplanes from its outlandish height. I also see a cathedral dome as well as the ghost of some bulb-topped spire freshly transported here from the willowy banks of a sibling MittelEuropean river. I topple upon a bench of neatly gashed black iron, from where such ingredients of the Docklands complex opposite are not exactly eyesores. More like heartaches. Why? That’s the teaser. Having had a bitter row with my daughter yesterday evening, dear people, about her partner (one who, j’accuse, tends to depend on things happening rather than artfully making them happen) and having said a lot of cruel words that I didn’t mean (because I do love her), I forgive those responsible for the ugly eye-line of architecture upon the opposite bank. They probably didn’t mean it, either. And that’s that, I suppose.
He had been talking to himself this time, although a few sporadic passers-by stared at him but never really became genuine on-lookers or listeners, except for Diana, that is.
She watched, but she also felt herself watched. Tears webbed around the site of her eyes. The man who could easily have been her own Dad didn’t seem to know how physical passions could be creatively channelled these days. Walking away did not allow her to ignore her own ghostly on-lookers who had now become full-blooded stalkers in the guise of you readers as real participants within the story by the power of some paranormal ‘happening’ of words and suspended disbelief that you never noticed happening till NOW – nevermore to escape such close encounters with a true alien’s experiment in the human art of fiction.
Even the architecture failed to stay aloof.