Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Bird Out of Space and Time. (Part 1).

1. The Bird Out of Space and Time.

             It was boredom pure and simple that drew Malcolm Jeffrey into the fortune teller’s booth in the narrow, copper-coloured arcade in the centre of that unfamiliar city.  Boredom, and a vague boyhood memory which the booth stirred in his mind, like fragments of light reflected on the uneasy surface of a dark pool – a memory of a book of strange heraldic symbols he’d looked at when he was a child.  He’d retrieved the book from a cabinet in what he recognised to be a grand old town house in some leafy estate near a canal.  However, he had no recollection of ever visiting the house or surrounding estate in his childhood, and this, combined with an overall ambience of unfamiliarity suffusing the whole memory, lead him to suspect that it was only a fragment of some dream.  Everybody, Malcolm suspected, had vague, partial memories of places which they had never been, little fragments stirred in their minds like light reflected on the uneasy surface of a dark pool.

                Malcolm was visiting the unfamiliar city in order to meet with a certain Mr. Sheldrake, a property speculator and antique dealer with whom he had done business for several years, without ever having met or even spoken to prior to this engagement.  The whole business troubled him.  Sheldrake troubled him, to begin with, because of his elusiveness.  In the past, he had always spoken to intermediaries – men who carried themselves with a peculiar air of enjoying a private joke at his expense.  Everything they said had the faint, barely perceptible irony of a double entendre, of something whose full significance would only become apparent in due course.  This sometimes led Malcolm to suspect that Sheldrake might have had dubious business interests – massage parlours, or amusement arcades, or something like that.
Everybody, however, insisted that they knew Sheldrake, and that he was above board – only it always transpired that, when pressed, they actually only knew somebody who knew Sheldrake, and that person, when pressed, only knew somebody else who knew Sheldrake, and so on.  Malcolm wondered if anybody really knew him.  The business with Sheldrake that Malcolm was currently engaged with – involving the former’s imminent acquisition of a derelict dockside property which had languished for some twelve years on Malcolm’s portfolio – was a matter of considerable import.  Malcolm’s firm was barely threading water, and finally off-loading the dockside property – which he had purchased in expectation of an illusionary regeneration project – would give him considerable breathing space.   More than that, it would finally free him from something which had always made him feel uneasy – ever since he'd first purchased the dockside property, he had suspected that it was, in some secular sense, cursed ground.  A history of bad, underhand deals could infect a property with a contagion of poor luck which persisted for some reason which Malcolm didn’t quite understand, and didn’t care to speculate on. 

When Mr. Sheldrake expressed an interest in acquiring the property, Malcolm saw an opportunity to finally have done with the both of them; to divest himself of two bad pennies at one stroke.  Naturally, the whole thing had been going a little too well.  At the eleventh hour, with the deal all but finalized, Mr. Sheldrake contracted him through one of his intermediaries, and arranged the anomalous face to face meeting in the city.  

                His flight brought him to the city far too early.  Having checked into his hotel, lunched, and sat at a terrace for as long as he could bear that, he still had four hours to kill until the meeting with Sheldrake.  The city itself he found infuriatingly boring.  Malcolm enjoyed cities which possessed either the romance of antiquity, or the bright, sharp sheen of high modernity.  The worst kind of city, in his opinion, was that which possessed neither: those greyish, subdued cities that seemed perpetually mired in the recent past.  This was Malcolm’s impression of the unfamiliar city.  It had an ambience which might have been a decade ago, or it might have been no specific time at all.  He recalled with a peculiar emotional unease certain small airports he had passed through which possessed the same quality: ghostly places stuck in the tawdry aesthetic of an uneventful decade which nobody else seemed to remember, or ever care to revisit.  Lacking both the present’s modicum of vitality and significance, and the true past’s magic of irretrievability, the indeterminate recent past is the least alluring temporal byway.
And yet, in the course of that sluggish afternoon, in the midst of that grey, subdued city, Malcolm was immediately struck by the appearance of the arcade.   Though not tall, the building itself was imposing, covering a whole block of the street.  It was redbrick, but a brownish red which made Malcolm think of the colour of shiny new copper coins.  The arcade itself was located in the main, central section, whose lancet windows and slender, decorative turrets suggested a modest, austere cathedral.   Around this main structure, the ground floor buildings were anonymous modern shop facades, but the higher storeys maintained the redbrick, Victorian gothic style of the original building.  A sequence of turret windows, decorated with cross-like finials, extended out from the building’s grey slate roof.  Those windows, each like a tiny world unto itself, captured Malcolm’s imagination in some peculiar way, and the building as a whole reminded him of those books he must have read in childhood, which concerned themselves with strange, secluded and labyrinthine old houses, wherein children discovered hidden passage ways, lost heirlooms, and magical playmates.  Malcolm went instantly within, already drifting into an odd nostalgia for events and places which were so hazy they did not feel as though they belonged with his own memories.

                The arcade was located in a narrow, high-ceilinged open space which formed a passage between two streets.  The walls at either side of the passage housed various premises, with the centre occupied by an unruly sequence of booths and stalls.  The wares offered in the booths and stalls were all castaways: old hardback books, vintage coins, a gaggle of dolls squeezed into a pram, a rocking horse, a wigless mannequin whose glazed expression somehow expressed a sense of dislocation, everything contributing to the feeling of walking through a vast communal attic of forgotten things.   Malcolm had almost tired of the arcade when he came upon the fortune-teller’s booth, tucked against the wall to the left of the opposite exit.  It was a small, fragile-looking structure, draped in red velvet curtains, and enveloped with an air both of tawdry seaside carnival and hushed confessional. 

Malcolm admired the copy for its lack of subtlety.  You could promise them marriage, and riches, and all manner of unexpected baubles, but fear of the unknown was always the winning pitch in the end.  Throughout his adult life, Malcolm regarded anything with the faintest redolence of sorcery or superstition with a most withering personal contempt.  People would believe anything, literally anything at all, but that their lives were brief events without rhyme or reason, and with no ancillary meaning, excepting what pleasures they might acquire, and pains avoid.  It was an inability to accept that simple truth which drove the majority into the embrace of illusions and fantasies, and quietly transplanted their earnings into the coffers of mealy-mouthed prelates and uneducated, half-crazed gypsies, while they prayed, read horoscopes, and watched the empty heavens for signs that some higher-up took even a modicum of interest in their fortunes.  Superstitious people, as far as Malcolm could see, lived under the perpetual illusion that the world was always nudging them, winking slyly, or passing them little notes.  That was the genius of the fortune teller’s copy: a rational person would instantly perceive the sales gimmick, but three, maybe four, people out of every ten would get a jolt.  They would read the copy as speaking directly to themHere’s another note from the universe, they would say to themselves in so many words.

Yet, for all that, Malcolm found himself lingering at the threshold of the booth’s entrance.  Was this not after all precisely what he was looking for?  The hours were dragging by so slowly, and here was an amusing and relatively inexpensive distraction.  Well, with any luck it might be amusing; at the very least it would be time-consuming.  Malcom drew aside the curtains, and stumbled into the dimly lit booth. 

It was peculiarly quiet inside for such a threadbare structure; it felt as though the muffled buzz of the street had instantly subsided, like a wave levelled and carried back in the tide.  Now all he could hear was a clock ticking, and another sound which came at intervals, and reminded him of an awning rippled by a shrill wind.   The space he entered was a kind of tiny waiting room with a shuttered counter facing two chairs and a coffee table.  The coffee table was festooned with cheaply produced brochures that advertised mediation classes and metaphysical seminars which Malcolm imagined convening in drab semi-detached houses.  He rapped on the counter.  After an interval sufficiently ponderous that he had all but abandoned the whole foolish business, the shutter was raised, and Malcolm found himself regarded by a harried-looking woman with raven-black hair and wrinkled olive skin.  It was difficult to determine whether her appearance was one of youthful old age, or that of a younger woman prematurely marked by harsh and unforgiving experience.  Malcolm was enjoying the theatricality of the experience before a word was spoken.  She, this fortune teller, looked as though his knock had roused her from a cacophony of voices in the head, and a visionary delirium of rats and imps and tiny devils sporting themselves on rocking horses and carousels of diseased imagination.  She looked thoroughly and reassuringly mad, Malcolm thought, and even feigned a look of shocked recognition when their eyes first met.  A natural performer.
“Yes?” she finally enquired, in a hushed and tired voice that sounded like that faint scraping sound people sometimes hear coming from their bedroom walls at night. 
“How much for the cards?”, Malcolm enquired.  
She motioned to a list of prices on the wall, and Malcolm nodded.  The shutter closed again, and there followed another long interval, after which the door adjacent to the counter was finally unlocked.  Inside the cramped main partition of the booth, the fortune teller was edging her way around the table in a breathless, crablike motion.  The table dominated the cramped space.  Behind it, the woman had two articles of furniture: a bureau with a kerosene lamp to her right, and to her left an antique arcade fortune machine.  The rounded base of the kerosene lamp was decorated with art deco flowers which Malcolm guessed to be irises.  In a different mood he would have tried to buy it.  The arcade machine was called the Madame Mysterioso.  One side of it read the customer’s palm, and the other provided a barometer to test the intensity of their love of some person or object unspecified.  Malcolm was seated, and the woman depositing his money in one of the bureau drawers. 
“What’s your name?” he asked.  
Charani.  I have seen you before.”
Malcolm wasn’t sure if this were meant as a statement or a question.  “I don’t think so.  I’m just visiting today.” 
Charani was more emphatic: “No, I have seen you before....not here, a long time ago.” 
She took the cards out of their silk purse.  “Everything has already happened many times before.  The cards do not show the future….they simply remember what has already been, over and over again.  Everybody knows the images of the tarot, but nobody remembers when they first saw them.  They are always familiar.  They are trying to tell us something.  A long time ago, when peasants got lost in the countryside at night, they tied a ribbon around the thumb of their right hand.  This was so that if they wandered into the Otherworld, whenever they looked at their hands, they would remember who they were, and where they had come from.  This was useful because sometimes in the Otherworld they were given food to eat which would make it impossible for them to leave.  The ribbon reminded them not to eat of that food.  What people call fate or fortune is only forgetfulness.” 

It was good pitch, Malcolm thought.  Those seeking the more routine slop would probably be dismayed, but many would easily mistake it for profundity.  Charani passed him the cards to cut, and then proceeded to shuffle them.  The cards glided with machine-like precision from the raised cradle of her left hand down into the cradle of her right, making a soft, swift clacking sound while they cascaded into place.  Malcolm became transfixed by their motion.  Charani’s eyes acquired a blank, frozen quality, and she raised her left hand higher and higher, until the straight, precise trajectory of the cards appeared almost unnatural.  Malcolm began to feel distinctly uneasy.  At one point, he was certain that the cards were rising up from Charani’s right hand, rather than falling from her left, and this ambiguity made him nauseous.

When he was a child, Malcolm and his brother Simon often went to visit their uncle who lived on the periphery of a small town in the countryside.  The area was half in the countryside and half in the town in those days, and he and Simon loved exploring the meadows and small patches of wood on their uncle’s land.  They found some trees in the woods whose gnarled, intertwined branches formed an even canopy which they could sit on. 

Malcolm, Simon, and their cousins used to sneak out on bright, chilly mornings to this makeshift den.  They smoked cigarettes and their cousins scared them with stories about Mag Halligan, a fearsome, ancient widow who walked the fields in the morning with her cows, and regularly set her bull on children who wandered onto her land.  They also told them stories about a combine harvester which was sometimes heard in the fields in the morning, but never seen.  After that summer, the boys didn’t go back to their uncle’s house for a couple of years, until they were about eleven years old.  Their uncle told them that he had sold his fields, and a new housing estate had been built on them. 

The next morning, the boys crept out like they used to.  They clambered up the hillock at the back of the house, and could scarcely believe their eyes.  The meadows and woodland had been replaced by a grid of identical bungalows, all painted a lifeless beige yellow that reminded Malcolm of the colour of old telephones.  The project was just on the brink of completion, and cement mixers, wheelbarrows, bricks, and shovels were scattered about the new road that wound through it.  Malcolm thought the unoccupied estate was a peculiar sight, and he imagined that it would suddenly fill up one morning with people, strange, blank people who had been left by the night like a frost.  They went down to explore the estate, peering in the windows and checking all the doors.  At some point, Malcolm lost Simon, and for what seemed like an eternity he crept from house to house, calling his brother’s name in a low, fugitive hiss.  Finally, he found him in one of the back gardens, standing stock still and staring into a window.  As Malcolm got closer, he saw that Simon’s body was trembling slightly, and his mouth wide open.  He looked frightened.  Malcolm hissed his name, but he didn’t seem to hear.  Finally, his head swung around and he saw his brother, and then he took off at a bolt in Malcolm’s direction.  The two boys sprinted back over the hill to their uncle’s house, and when they had gotten safely back to their beds, they closed their eyes as though they were asleep, and Simon whispered to Malcolm what he had seen in the house.

Charani had cut the cards again, and selected six cards from the deck which she had arranged face down in a cross formation.  She was turning the six cards up without comment.  Malcolm recognized two of the suited cards, the Moon and the Tower, but the others were unfamiliar to him.  “This is what crosses you,” Charani said, turning the last card.  Her reaction to the card was instant and visceral: she recoiled from the table, eyes darting back and forth between Malcolm and the spread of cards.  There was something unusual about this last card, Malcolm thought.  The image depicted was an Indian peacock whose body and neck were encased in an alchemist’s retort, and the card was labelled The Bird Out of Space and Time.  What was troubling about it, however, was the style of its draughtsmanship and colouring, which were utterly distinct in character from the other cards on the table.  The nearest analogue Malcolm could find was to the various decadent, symbolist, and aesthetic movements of the late 19th century, but this was only a crude approximation.  The card had the unnerving quality of embodying a style and sensibility which the history of this world had never produced; just as Malcolm’s memory of the town house and leafy estate by the canal belonged to some existence other than his own, so the card was an artefact of some phantasmal era which belonged in the past of a subtly different world.  The iridescent blues and greens of the peacock’s tail feathers had a texture which was brighter, more lustrous, vivid, and lifelike than everything else in the dimly lit booth.  The bird’s fan seemed to swell and sway, and Malcolm heard again the sound which was like an awning rippled in a shrill wind.

Then he found himself in a dimly-lit, luxuriously decorated apartment whose ambience was antique and Moorish.  He was facing a couch which sat an incongruous and unnerving pair: an elderly nude male and a macaque monkey.  The man was emaciated and bald, with steady, black, unfriendly eyes fixed on Malcolm.  The macaque’s head jerked fitfully about, as though in anticipation of a struggle or meal.  Its gaze returned again and again to a beautiful, ornate hourglass positioned on the floor between Malcolm and his strange interlopers.  The man nodded to Malcolm, and motioned to the macaque.  In an attitude of timid reverence, the monkey turned the hourglass and briskly resumed its seat.
Now Malcolm became hypnotized by the bright red sand falling slowly through its funnel.  In a sudden, vertiginous rush, he felt as though he were plunged at lightning speed into the hourglass, and then as though he were a single grain of sand falling slowly through the funnel.  As he fell, he was subject to visions within visions.  He travelled through various alternate worlds, all essentially similar to this one, and all subtly yet unmistakably alien to it.  To some of these worlds, he had been deliberately summoned by magicians, and those magicians regarded his eidolon in an attitude of awestruck curiosity and exultant pride in the efficacy of their rituals.  In most of his visions, however, he was a fleeting intruder, an unwelcome, alien presence, and the beings he saw regarded him with fear, suspicion, and contempt.  He seemed to pass through an endless sequence of worlds with eerily unfamiliar architectures and customs, and be scrutinized by an endless sequence of faces which were basically humanoid in appearance, but whose cold, inscrutable expressions suggested mentalities infinitely removed from human emotion and impulse.

Finally, this long kaleidoscope of whirling, wearying alienage subsided, and Malcolm’s eidolon came to rest in a landscape which resembled a portmanteau of all the world’s bustling way stations, all its airports, bus stops, train stations, and bureaucratic waiting rooms folded into one vast concourse.  And there was always a great multitude arriving in that place, and great multitude departing from it, and always as many people waiting there for the time of their departure.  And those had first arrived looked and shaken, confused, and afraid; and those who were departing adopted a quiet, sober demeanour; and those who waited were eager, gregarious and light-hearted, their conversations coalescing into a steady hum.  Malcolm saw a young man and woman meet by a fountain.  The man threw a shiny new copper coin into the fountain, and the couple vowed that they would met again on the next leg of their journey, and remember one another, and the things which were so crystal clear to them in this place.  The fountain, however, was full to its brim of coins which they had deposited, for they had made the same vow many times over, finding and losing one another again and again in the tide of the world, and remembering the things which were so crystal clear to them in that place only briefly, as kind of inarticulate, disconsolate longing, an intimation or mood suggested by certain places, or the sensation of possessing memories which belonged to strangers.

Charani was rooting furiously through the drawers of her bureau.  “What’s wrong?” Malcolm asked, suddenly possessed of an irrational conviction that he had somehow wronged the woman. 
“Get out,” she hissed back, her voice having resumed the quiet, tired timbre in which she had first addressed him. 
She finally produced a box of matches from the clutter of the drawers, and set about burning the anomalous card. 
“What are you doing?  What’s wrong?” 

She held the burning card until the flames licked her fingertips, and then attacked its charred remains on the ground with her boot heels.  Her expression was livid and spiteful.  “Don’t you understand?  I’ve never seen that card before.  That card was not in my deck until you walked into this booth.  Don’t you understand?”  She spat, and resumed her seat.  Seeing that she was beyond reasoning with, Malcolm retreated through the waiting room and out of the cramped little booth.  As he exited the arcade, it occurred to him out of nowhere that the person who had sold him the dockside property twelve years ago was in all probability Mr. Sheldrake himself.