Phil Smith & Tony Whitehead
In Guidebook for an Armchair Pilgrimage, authors Phil Smith, Tony Whitehead and photographer John Schott lead us on a ‘virtual’ journey to explore difference and change on their way to an unknown destination. They create a pilgrimage we can all follow, even if confined to our homes.
In researching the Guidebook the authors went on an actual journey. Bonelines is the secret story of that journey. Given the present circumstances it now appears prophetic, prescient and helpful, so we have decided to bring it into the light. It is written in novel form and will be published online in weekly instalments. Here is the first instalment.
(You can find details - and order a copy of - Guidebook for an Armchair Pilgrimage here.)
Instalment 6 (Chapters 20-29)
Tony Whitehead & Phil Smith
For the rest of the day, Mandi completed the arrangements for Anne and Bryan’s funeral; getting everything ready before a much-needed return to London. What she had wanted to do was walk on the dunes and talk with the caretaker, but each time she thought she had everything in place, another subtlety would strike her, another detail would step out of true. She was learning about the inexact complexities of her ‘pagan’ tenants; the interwoven genealogies, the histories they had all somehow remembered for themselves, the distinctions that proved to be equivalencies and the equivalencies that proved to be distractions. At different times during the day Mandi had decided that they were all rare sorts striving in good faith for something remarkable, ordinary types trying to exceed their own expectations of themselves, and that they were a motley bunch of conniving and conspiratorial opportunists. What she had not expected was the importance of respectability and acceptance for so many of them; no sooner had they settled on some aspect of the service than both its critics and its proponents were looking for how to massage it into something recognisable in other spiritual discourses. Mandi wondered if, outside of church circles – she had no real idea – anyone in modern British society worried about this stuff. It was only as the prospect of missing the last connection to a London train began to loom that Mandi surrendered her hope for a walk on the sands and an exegetical gossip with the caretaker. That would have to wait. With minutes left, she rapidly packed a bag with essentials and ran to the station, past the charred shell of the slot machine parlour, and up the hill past a neat holiday home whimsically named Bedlam Towers. Sprinting up the incline she dashed through the platform entrance beside the railway house, but she need not have rushed quite so manically. The electronic display indicated that her train was delayed, due in 3 minutes.
Mandi did not want to wait, to think, to look, to feel; just to be on a train, getting away, losing herself in another kind of world. Everything around was bright, sensually enhanced, high definition. She looked at the platform and at the rift between the pinkish tarmac and the concrete labs that formed the edge, its Hawkbit and Bristly Oxtongue rooted in the grime like miniature versions of jungle trees shading Cyclopean stop-motion throwbacks; the idea irritated her. She turned to look at a train already parked alongside the other platform in the hope of something banal; but the train was unusual. In mustard yellow livery, inside dull lights were on in the carriages, no one aboard as far as Mandi could see. The interiors were like old-fashioned offices; seats arranged in fours around tables on which sat IT towers. Mandi tried to make out the images on the screens; maps of the railway system or a blueprint of circuitry, possibly. She was too far away, and, anyway, her train was approaching; the wait had passed, she had distracted herself. The one carriage stopper – she would change at Exeter for London – sounded its horn as it passed the bend with its pedestrian crossing; where, for some reason, she knew that the original station had been sited, and something about why they moved it, something her adoptive parents had told her in a rare moment of...
“Amanda! Amanda Lyon!”
Up the steep incline, a rolling gait as if she had run some distance, laboured the archivist from the Museum. It was a strange place for her to catch the train, why not use the station in her own town? The stopper pulled to a jerky halt and the doors opened. No one got out; Mandi put a foot on the step to the carriage.
“I’ve found something important, can you wait, catch the next one...”
Mandi did not want to wait; there was no next one till morning, the important thing was to be away.
“You’re too late, sorry... I have to get back to...”
She moved to climb into the carriage and the historian tried to restrain her, placing a firm hand on her lower arm. The guard yelled angrily from the end of the train: “Step back, that lady! Step back right now!”
The archivist leapt back in surprise. Mandi moved back inside the train, taken aback by the firmness of the archivist’s grip; the guard rang the buzzer, the doors closed, and the train moved away. Mandi took her seat quickly; she expected the archivist to be left gesticulating on the platform, but she had already turned away and was walking quickly back along the platform, where a broken arcade machine, a mechanical fortune teller, a travesty of the Bocca della Verità mask in the Santa Maria church in Rome, leant open-mouthed and stupefied against the wall of the railway house.
Mandi closed her eyes, but the scary angels persisted inside her head until Exeter, where she finally managed to distract herself with the lights of a small factory and incinerator yards beside the canal. In a boatyard ropes and chains were holding a pristine hull as it was lowered onto the bed of a lorry; ‘The Loch Ness Cruiser’. Once aboard the London train, Mandi found the trolley service between carriages and drank herself to fitful sleep for a couple of hours. In her dreams the angels swirled about in coordinated displays with a plesiosaur, creating a vast space of darkness in the gaps in their aerobatic routines. Lowering herself into that void, descending into the darkness and forgetfulness, Dream-Mandi lost any sense of herself in a rich zone of pure feeling. Pulling into Paddington, the guard’s announcement jerked her away from sleep; it was something about “Mandi in First Class coach A, you have left your destiny on the refreshments trolley, how will you find the chapel, the well and the cave now?” Awake-Mandi grabbed her bag and pushed her way past sleepy passengers desperate to get to the solid ground of the platform.
JW3 is a Hampstead right rectangular prism and Mandi was happy to find a place in its symmetry. She brushed aside the idea that she had found herself in an aquarium. The giant plates of thick glass did not detain water, but drew in buckets of light, splashing them about everywhere; across shiny tables and over huge planes of wall. She eyed the self-service brunch and waited for her date.
The train journey had been uneventful. In the moments when she could escape her dreams, she had stared out across gloomy counties, into their brown-lit bedrooms and dark lych-gates, their sparsely occupied pub car parks and muddy canal towpaths; all quickly passing without any manifestation of the broken-toothed angel that had been plaguing her since she had been told to get home. The RTN ticket had exorcised the hallucinating power of the OUT one.
Back in her Belsize Park flat – a postage stamp she had blagged for a pittance from a billionaire – it was hard to believe that she had been away. Everything was neatly tucked in its place, folded and sited; prepared, anxious to be working again. Mandi had no memory of tidying the flat before she left.
She was in a kind of daze, a sharp daze, a daze filled with bitterness. “I’ll come back for the funeral; let them fight it out”: was how she had levered herself away. Crabbe the caretaker had looked forlorn; as if he had failed in some way, or missed an opportunity. Or that maybe she had. Well, those were her issues, not his. She was beyond caring for a while.
Technically, Tyrone was one of her trustees, but he had become a trusted friend; a Palladium treasure. He pulled up a chair and tossed the tiny single sheet menu to Mandi. She had never stopped being surprised by just how lonely everyone in London was. Sure, there were the handful of younger execs who had already built their nest, who plugged into their chicks for a recharge either side of the paid childcare, and then there were the older men who had long ago made their own arrangements for brightening the hinterlands of tired marriages; but mostly there was a desperate reaching out through the flood of pixels for some kind of fleshy response. In that market, friendship was a rare metal. Even so, she was surprised on her return to find an envelope slipped under the door of her flat; only the other residents and the landlord had access and this was not their kind of envelope. Tyrone’s invitation was simple; he knew what would get to her. A hint of sympathy and she would have screwed him up and tossed him in the bin.
The restaurant was a kind of canteen; the menu a set of rules. If you left anything on your plate you paid extra; and you could eat and drink yourself stupid for the same flat fee. At a glance she could tell that no one there would. The counter of food reminded Mandi of some of the artists’ studios she had hung out in; the ones where the artists were going back to painting. Ones you could sit for, strip for. There was something very 1920s about them – as if they had emerged from the trenches of conceptualism and one-trick ponyism, unembarrassable and familiar with corpses, rediscovering the representation of fleshy surfaces in claggy colours. It was fun to watch them fail, caught in the flytraps of hardening oil. The tastes, however, were fantastic. The first bite into the soft carrot and she was reminded of the existence of happiness.
Tyrone was still in breakfast mode; piling his plate with layers of eggs and pancakes and folded parcels of smoked salmon. He took some of the cold fish in his long brown fingers and dropped it whole into his mouth. He ate to let her talk.
She complained. That morning she had tried to make herself a latte; the milk had formed a skin across the top of the cup and she had been too... something... to peel it away.
“Something my ... something Anne would say: ‘couldn’t kick a skin off a rice pudding’. What am I turning into? A libertarian who’s managing a commune?”
“It’s a commune?”
He bit into soft pancake; but his eyes scorched hers.
“Not really. They wear the clothes. I think they would probably like it to be, but Anne and Bryan ran a tight ship, I can already tell that. Maybe it was just good business sense, I don’t know, but I can sense something else there that they might have wanted to manage, or contain.”
“They’re lightweights. Lifestyle pagans, with a little small press publishing on the side. I think Anne and Bryan were different. When they could get away from the camp...”
“Stop it. It’s where I grew up. In its own way, it’s sweet. Yet... weird... it’s horribly unfamiliar. I remember our house, but...”
She shook her head and sipped her skinny latte; but the thought of the skin on the milk in her flat made her gag slightly. She was making a fool of herself in front of one of her trustees; her response was visceral, as if the parts of her body literally pulled themselves together. She tightened.
“...they’re all strangers to me. Ten years is a long time, but surely people don’t change that much?”
“O, they do. People are jellies. Turncoats, chameleons... change is what people do. I wouldn’t put money on anyone sticking by what they stand for.”
“Not even me?”
“Especially not you.”
Tyrone meant it; though he smiled and pulled another pancake from the tower. On the next table a frizzy haired young woman performed an effortless pixieness; her eyes blazed with attention to her friends. Her frequent smile was a gorgeous half-moon. There was surely art in all this, but Mandi was tantalised. It was not like her to fall for someone at first sight, but since the accident she felt as if she was inventing what she was like each day differently.
“Let me see what spring is like, on er... Jupiter and Mars...’ The scat singer heading up the jazzy three piece at the end of the room lapsed briefly into words.
Mandi was thinking about the weather on other planets. Tyrone was not.
“I don’t want to be a container. I don’t want to be a manager,” she eventually offered.
“You are a manager, Mandi, that’s what you do.”
“But of a holiday camp? I don’t want to screw up everything here...”
“We won’t let you. We’ll do everything to stop that. You’re not seriously thinking of giving it all up to go back to Devon, are you?”
“Your concern is very sweet. I think?”
“You’ve just lost you mum and dad...”
“Not really. I don’t make a big fuss about it, Tyrone, but actually I’m adopted.”
“O. I’m sorry. So who did you grow up with?”
“O, with them.”
“Then they were as good as parents. They were your parents.”
“I’m just saying, it’s a big shock, don’t make any hasty decisions, we need you. You don’t need to do anything now; no one was expecting you back for a couple of weeks.”
“How did you know I’d come back?”
“A little bird told me.”
And he laughed, spread his fingers like crabs on the table top, and leaned over to Mandi to whisper in her ear. She was not sure how seriously to take Tyrone; he was well known in the charity sector as an operator who read the ground intuitively. There had been one or two minor scandals at organisations where he had worked and yet when they broke – nothing massive, minor confusions of interest – by then, he had already moved on; no blame was attached, but he had seen what was coming and made his excuses. He was a good person to have on your side in a shitstorm.
After the meal Tyrone suggested a walk on Hampstead Heath.
“Are you Jewish?”
“No”, he laughed, “a friend brought me here. Now I can’t stay away. I like it, I feel comfortable here.”
“Behind massive sheets of blast proof glass?”
“Mandi, you know the sector. That’s what it takes.”
Climbing Arkwright Road, Tyrone invited her to spill her feelings. He had worked hard, it was the least she could do for him. As she opened up, she had meant to share her thoughts about Anne and Bryan, her regrets around not knowing them better, at her having to rely mostly on suspicions rather than memories. How weird and freakish she felt at not having a childhood to look back to, to feel that her legacy was a kind of blank from which she, Anne and Bryan were all missing. But what came out was a splurge about reviewing her position in the world, getting old (30), wondering aloud what kind of a person she was, what stuff she really believed in and what were just sticky ideas she had picked up on her shoes passing through. The last tenuous link to a family was gone and she would have to stand up on her own.
“Isn’t that what you’ve always done?”
“That’s what I thought, but I’m not so sure now. Maybe that was smoke and mirrors. There was always something in my background shoring me up. I’ve been trying to reach back and identify it. Maybe some really very early memory of my real parents? I don’t think it’s that though. It was something to do with Anne and Bryan, possibly, some link through them to a strength I have always had. Is there such a thing as a weak strength? Something that gives you power, but makes you weak?”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that. God, is that what I am? A bully?”
“I didn’t mean...”
“I didn’t either. But for once I’m not going forward. I was always going forward. Not just cos’ I was pushing myself, I was good. I was changing organisations, I was making space for weak people to become strong people, for clones to become individuals, for dependents to become independents, and now I’m asking myself whether I have always depended on someone else or something else in order to have that. Have I always been standing on other shoulders?”
“You really believe that? Whose shoulders did you get to stand on? Toes, maybe. No, not shoulders. No one should. So am I going to waste the next part of my life facilitating a camp full of benefit-scrounging hippies and Satanists? At Childquake I’m managing for people who have no rights at all. Children. They’re worth it, right? I feel differently about compromising my principles for a bunch of ageing hippies. They already did all the things my kids can’t do.”
“No! Of course not! There’s no such thing! It was all invented by Denis Wheatley...”
“Not important. The important thing is that for the first time I can remember, I have an obligation that I didn’t choose to have, and I object to that on principle. I am the unwilling owner of a seaside holiday camp full of hippies. Jesus!”
“Can you sell it?”
“Sure, but I don’t want to. And I don’t understand why. I thought if I told you it would help, but it isn’t...”
“It’s not your fault. This isn’t about you, Tyrone...”
“I am one of your trustees. I am not going to lose you. For a maverick libertarian you’re a brilliant organiser. Surely, you can bring in someone to help run this camp? Delegate – with your contacts! Keep the camp, pocket the profits – you don’t have to be there.”
“No. I do. I have to be there. I don’t know why, but I do.”
“So why did you come back to London?”
He knew. She had not meant to speak about this; the conversation would not have come around to this unless he wanted it. They had left behind the giant somehow anonymous mansions on Arkwright Road and were blundering around in the expenses of Belsize Park.
“Do you know where you are going?”
“Vaguely. Why did you come back?”
“Because being there was driving me mad. Literally.”
“And now that you’re back? How’s that?”
“I feel fine.”
“I rest my case.”
They had come to a junction with a main road. On the opposite side of the traffic artery was a medium-sized building, standing out from the houses, with the same kind of self-conscious symmetrical massing as JW3; except that in place of glass there were planes of brick, painted a peeling white, and in the centre a half-dome tipped on its side, its curved edges entering the brick walls as if they might continue where they were concealed. There was no sign, no number, no door that Mandi could see; it was like a giant version of a tatty children’s play-garage blanched by time.
“Really want to know?”
Mandi puffed her cheeks and blew a non-committal sigh.
“No worries, then.”
“No, what is it?”
The bastard. He had hooked her.
“Come up here.”
And he led her across the road, turning away from the odd white superstructure, striding ahead and beckoning to Mandi to follow him up the main road and away from the modernist mystery. At a line of shops he turned sharply into a wide alley and Mandi broke into a jog to keep up. At the side of the short concrete drive was a great flat slab of concrete, like a redundant altar, and at the end was another odd white building, virtually identical to the one on the main road, but more like the prow of an ark. This one had a door; a dirty grey featureless plate of metal.
“You wanna see?”
Tyrone rifled his jacket pockets and produced a key; four sides of teeth from shoulder to tip. The dull metal door opened surprisingly smoothly; Tyrone flicked a switch and dispelled the darkness. They had fallen back through time. It was something about the way that Tyrone’s classic Hackett colours suddenly made no sense against the institutional paint of the strange building; Tyrone shone like a surreal slushy against the dried blood colour scheme of the antique lift contraption, sealed inside a pillar-shaped cage. A crude sign pointed to a spiral staircase: UPPER LEVEL STAIRWAY.
“What’s down there?”
Tyrone threw back the sliding metal gate of the lift.
“I’m not getting in that. Is this your idea of Elevatorgate?”
Tyrone didn’t miss a beat.
“You won’t find any coffee down there.”
“How old is that thing?”
“It’s better maintained than any lift at your office. The maintenance crew are ... put it like this... they’re the people who don’t make mistakes.”
Against her better judgement, Mandi stepped into the lift, and Tyrone slammed shut the gate and pressed the button for the bottom; once again, the font of the numbers on the control panel made her feel like they were in a time slip. Yet, there was no jerky drop into the past, but a smooth, purring descent. Mandi was flattered that Tyrone was trying so hard to impress her; their wandering route must have been part of his ploy, but she remembered taking most of the decisions. That took talent.
If Mandi was impressed by the lift, it was nothing to the sights that greeted her at the bottom of their descent. Tyrone powered up a lighting unit and overhead fluorescent tubes stuttered successively into life, illuminating a short passageway crowded by a ventilation unit with a fan the size of a propeller on a Second World War bomber, which led to a gigantic tunnel that stretched and stretched far away; so distantly that Mandi could not make out any far wall. It just seemed to end at a point. All down one side was a thick weave metal cage, while down the other was the curved metal skin of whatever massive tube it was they were inside.
“OK. First: wow. I think you deserve that. Maybe a ‘sick’. But I don’t think that’s why I’m here. Explain yourself, young sir.”
“The answer is in here.”
He tapped a code into an anachronistic hi-tech keypad strapped onto the metal caging and a section shifted to allow them in.
“If would be nice if the trustees of worthwhile charities were in their positions simply because of the generosity of their feelings, but, as you well know, a generous direct debit is also required if sentiment is to be complemented by effective outcomes. Crudely, Mandi, this is where I make my money. Hard to believe, yet this is unstable stuff. Volatile; like bricks and mortar its value rises without anyone having to do a damn thing other than make sure it continues to exist.”
He gestured to acres of shelving.
“What is it?”
“Information. In its crude form. The government pays my company to look after it; the people at the top ran out of trust in bureaucracies thanks to their believing people like you and your scare stories about serfdom under the tyranny of clerks. Instead, we chose to be under the lash of accountants, but hey ho...”
And he fluttered his long brown fingers as if they might turn into the fantail of a bird.
“...these are medical records, not the routine GP and NHS stuff. These are records from a humungous... by the way, we have to have our own private Official Secrets Act agreement here...”
“If you tell me you have to kill me...”
“Something like that. Though, I’m the likely victim. There’s nothing security sensitive here. Nothing Joe Ordinary couldn’t ask to see, if he knew it was here and how to ask for it. It’s what’s left of a giant HM Gov scheme from the mid 50s to the 80s which was when our state lost faith in its own benevolence. Nothing was done with any of this. But here are the records of a whole generation and a half – not everybody, but a controlled sample and massive compared to anything ever done by commercial polling pre-digital. This...”
And he threw his aquamarine sleeved arm wide.
“...is where the health of a nation unfolds, where it confesses its eating habits, sleeping habits, exercise routines, stress levels, cultural activities, units of alcohol, calories, fats, relationships, std’s, regularity of conjugal relations, drugs, hobbies, hours of screen use, access to silence, air quality.... membership of sex clubs, masons, political parties... there’s a portrait, an anatomy of the generation of people who either rule us or have sucked us dry, right there, in printed, analog form.”
“OK. Wow. I give it another wow. But that can’t be it? Isn’t there something – other than my general revulsion that any state would do such a thing to its citizens – you want from me? In relation to all this?”
“Well, I was rather hoping you’d be so impressed by my access to the secrets under London streets that you’d come back to my flat and allow me access to some of your secrets...”
“Jesus Christ, Tyrone, is that the best you can do? You said we could walk on Hampstead Heath?”
“We can do that too.”
“What are we waiting for, then? Let’s get out of here.”
The rest of their walk was oddly romantic. After passing Triffid Alley, they walked around the plum tree under which Keats had written ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, turned down Downshire Hill where there was a blue plaque to two surrealists and then, after a house where a sinewy ornamental tree had almost grown across the door, the Freemasons Arms, where the pub sign triggered something in Mandi. By now she and Tyrone were walking with fingers brushing. And although there was a prospect of something else, she did feel that here was the alien brother she had always wanted.
“You wanted me to talk about my mum and dad... Anne and Bryan?”
“Only if you want to. Only if it helps...”
“Of course it doesn’t help. They’re dead! Nothing helps when someone’s dead. I just remembered something. Up this hill. On the Heath. Something they told me. Something they thought was terribly important, or importantly terrible. Maybe that was it.”
“What was it?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I want to indulge you.”
“You... well, for that, you get to hear about it, whether you want to or... I want you to.”
She leaned over a low front wall and picked a few pebbles from a desultory floral border. Wiped then against her trouser leg. Tyrone mock gasped.
“Back in the .... woo... late eighteenth century, seventeen hundreds... a story older than it feels, kind of thing you imagine Victorians doing, anyway... there was this Welsh individual, no special education, but smart, way outside the dominant groups, but he has a head for power, so he invents a whole new magic story-space where he’s the teller, he dictates the story. And to make his storyland he calls together a handful of other enthusiasts... Welsh nationalists in exile, o, and his name is something like Jones or Jenkins, for real, but he calls himself ‘Iolo Morganwyg’... approximately... and they gather on the hill just up there, on the Heath. Parliament Hill, isn’t it?”
“O, there’s an and. So, he calls these people up to the top of the hill and from his pocket he produces a few poor stones, like these...”
And Mandi laid the stones in a rough circle on the nearest slab of pavement.
“And they conducted some bogus ceremony – from ancient texts that Iolo just happened to have found... or wrote... know what that becomes? The National Eisteddfod; the Queen is a bard of it! I’m not interested in this stuff, but I remember Mum and Dad talking about it... they would get very animated... everybody goes ooo Stonehenge, but my Dad called it paganism’s Nuremberg Rally... Mum and Dad thought it was a wrong turn that those beliefs took, way back then – hierarchy, priests, rituals – I’m not talking about what they do there now, that’s all pretty harmless, all very open and meek and mild, but Dad didn’t reckon the historical practices were benevolent at all, he thought it all fell apart because it was so reactionary, which, ironically, is why the memory of it survives because it was so reactionary and put up giant temples of giant stones that never quite disappeared. But, hey, quite inspiring... Iolo not Stonehenge, a few people on a hill making things up, with stones in their pockets, eventually they get HMQ for patron...”
“I thought that was Primrose Hill.”
“O yeh. You’re right.”
How the fuck did he know that? Mandi glanced at Tyrone; a cool black British entrepreneur in a blue Hackett suit; maybe things were a lot better than... yeh, or maybe a lot, lot worse.
Passing the bathing pools, as a screeching squad of ring-necked parakeets hurtled overhead, they followed the paths up to the summit of Parliament Hill. The smooth upturned bowl of the hill gradually replaced by its unfolding vista of central London. In Mandi the warm erotic wave that was coursing through her turned chilly. There were the familiar shapes against the grey distance: Shard, Gherkin, Walkie Talkie, Cheesegrater; and off to the East was a middle-aged Canary Wharf hung out like a metropolitan Heel Stone. But it was not the triumph of the bad old ways that struck Mandi hardest – though there was a part of her that was nauseated by the thought that after all that deregulation, all that floating free of signifiers and currencies, it had come to this, and that the centre of her adopted city looked like nothing more than a mouthful of broken teeth – but that she could identify the tiny rectangle of the North-facing window of her office at Childquake, an office to which only she had access, and where very distinctly she remembered tidying things and turning off her pc and all the lights before returning to her flat to pack a case. That rectangle now shone brightly and shadows flitted indistinctly across it.
The squadron of ring-necked parakeets that had overflown Tyrone and Mandi were exhausted now, settled into the honour guard of lime trees that flanked a curving lane up to the front of a manor house. It was their first resting place since setting off from London; a flight of around one hundred and fifty miles. The old house here was once the home of one of the powerful families of the locality; it, like most of the families, had seen better days; after a time as an ice cream factory it was now an unimpressive, publicly administrated, tourism attraction. An empty jewel box in sumptuous grounds. The parakeets were uncharacteristically quiet; an occasional screech ran along the lines of green birds in the limes, planted half a century or so ago, each of the forty-two trees symbolic of a government’s participation in the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs conference in the Bay, setting the course for neo-liberal globalisation. There was no sign, no plaques; that bright dawn of free trade had come and thrown too harsh a ray on the old powers and, now, they were coming back. Holding their own conferences, unannounced, planting no trees.
High above the parakeets a grid of black-headed gulls had stretched across their airy parish; riding the thermals to hold their positions, buffeted like a vestry full of surplices escaped towards a pantheistic heaven. If these were the avian sentries, then the parakeets were the snatch squad; girding themselves for a colourful information dump.
Two days previously a small coaster had docked discreetly at Teignmouth’s Old Quay; as night fell the wagon of the Bovey undertakers had clattered to a halt outside the dark warehouse there. Three solid figures emerged from the shadows, in rapid succession depositing three large oblong boxes into the vehicle, which left as quickly as it had arrived. The transfer had taken less than a minute on the timepiece and if anyone had seen it, they would have assumed, by the spills of ice from each of the boxes, that it was nothing fishier than a transaction of herring.
Now the same wagon struggled across the sands of the Sett and down to the beach. The Reverend Gurney in full regalia sat beside his younger brother Edmund, his surplice at times whipped up into his face by the rising gale; before them the Bovey undertaker and his assistant were decked wholly in black, holding be-ribboned top hats to their silvery pates. A small rowing boat was waiting on the strandline, oars tucked inside its gunwales.
Once halted, the four men helped themselves down to the sand and began to unload their cargo. Taking a rusty crow, the undertaker set down his hat upon the sand and began to raise the lids from the three large boxes. The assistant removed his hat and held it across his crotch in respect; then abandoned it to the sand and began, with the undertaker, to remove handfuls of ice and deposit them onto the strandline. Their hands grew red and then orange, until they looked like lobsters struggling on a fishmongers’ tray. Edmund’s face lost all colour and he began to fall. He was caught by his brother who spoke sharply in words lost to the savage wind.
Once sufficient ice had been removed, undertaker and assistant reached into each of the boxes in turn and recovered three shrouds, the contents of which, preserved by the cold, were stiff and light enough to handle without mishap and yet, to the numbed touch of the two men in black, seemed unnatural; smooth where they should be broken and broken where they should be smooth. Though they were careful not to say anything upon the beach, later over porter, warmed with a poker from the fire, they admitted to each other that they feared something had disturbed the bodies in Egypt or in the transit from Cairo to the Old Quay. Both professional men, they kept their imaginations to themselves, where they stewed and fermented and bubbled to the surface at inopportune moments for the rest of their sorry careers.
“Should we not check the bodies?”
“I ‘udn’t advise it, sir...”
“Perhaps undo the ends, in case... by some miracle...”
“Sir, them shrouds is naval. Pardon me frankness, sirs, but ‘e, the bo’sun, ‘e puts the last stitch straight through the big toe, there ain’t nuthin’ living in there. Pardon me frankness.”
Without further discussion the three shrouds were loaded, looking not unlike salted fish in their frozen state, into the rowing boat. The assistant was left upon the shore to guard the wagon, holding both top hats, while the undertaker rowed the small boat into the gathering waves, Edmund side by side with his brother in the stern, the Vicar of Bovey clutching his Canterbury cap to his head while the twin strips of his stole curled around him as if he were an Anglican snake charmer.
The undertaker demonstrated considerable skill in piloting the small boat between the hillocky waves. All the time he had half an eye to the shore; steering by the obelisk on top of Mamhead Rise, the hedge on Adam’s Garden and gradually aligning the two with the soft mound he imagined breast-like at the foot of the hills. Once the three had fallen into place, the giant Cheeke Stone came into view, perhaps a hundred yards from the boat, an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence of dunes. The undertaker raised the oars.
“Sirs, this be the spot.”
The Vicar and Edmund rose from their seat, but the former had got no further than ‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live...’ before the two men were thrown forward by a prematurely breaking roller, pitching them onto the white frozen shapes. Struggling to his knees, the Vicar caught the wide-eyed disdain of the undertaker, and hurried to complete the liturgy from that position, while his brother Edmund had assumed a rictus, as stiff as the corpses, lying incapable in the bilge waters to which were now added melting ice and frothy spray; Edmund’s uncontainable spittle contributing to the soup.
“Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death...”
A white seething wheel of spray soaked the boat. The Cheeke Stone was beginning to recede into a rising mist.
“Hurry, reverend sir... if ye can... otherwards them words will ‘ave to do for us all...”
“For as much as it has pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the souls of our three sisters...”
Roughly lifting Edmund aside by his frock coat, the undertaker hauled the first of the three bulging shrouds from the planks of the hull and levered it over the side. The others were swiftly and similarly despatched.
“They are delivered from the burden of flesh...”
The Vicar suddenly rose from his knees, as if inspired and roared out at the miasma of sea and sky: “...come ye blessed children of my Father...”
And here, in the mind of the Vicar rose a confusion that he would never untangle, for within that jumble the face of Almighty God had become entangled with the face of his own father, their own father, the Reverend John Hampstead Gurney, Prebendary of St Paul’s.
“...receive the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world...”
Barely had the final “evermore, Amen” left his lips than the undertaker was digging the oars into the furrows of angry water and the Vicar of Bovey was pitched once more into the company of his brother in the bottom of the boat. Swinging the vessel around to avoid the broadside of the waves, the undertaker promised himself not to look where the shrouds had been dropped. He could not help himself, however; and what he saw just beneath the water would trouble him in dreams and in moments of waking leisure, when he would ask himself how it was possible, how could he trust himself, and who would verify what he had imagined he saw: those three creamy sinking shapes that seemed to undo and gesture obscenely, direct to him.
Two days later and the undertaker’s wagon was once again in service. Summoned rudely to the vicarage, the undertaker and his assistant sat up front. Where before there had been an insouciant professionalism in their demeanour, now they were cowed and afraid. Edmund, parcelled up in a heavy overcoat, a scarf wrapped around his face and wearing galoshes, was helped up onto the wagon by his brother and their housekeeper. If anything, the weather had worsened incrementally since the burial of the sisters; repeated squalls had bathed the hills, rivers swelled, bridges threatened to collapse, cows stood up to their shins in dank red water. The Vicar was no longer dressed in liturgical vestments, but over his cassock he had drawn a huge dark brown cape; the Canterbury cap had gone and in its place a top hat. Those that did not know better might have imagined that he was attempting to pass himself of as a member of the undertaker’s staff. Accompanying them, crouched in the otherwise empty wagon, was a gamekeeper from the Castle whose horse was presently recovering in the yard of the pub.
No one owned the Sett; though it seemed always to be present in some form, its shifting shape, blown and driven and swamped by storms had made it elusive to property claims and legal descriptions; without any limits or boundaries, no judge would grant ownership. So it was that the Earl in the Castle, bearing the county’s name in his title, stood in for authority as far as anything in the way of disputes, commerce or crimes on the Sett was concerned. Invoking that authority, he had summoned the Vicar of Bovey there, the standing of his caste relieving him of the need for an explanation. On receiving the Earl’s perspiring gamekeeper, the undertaker was sent for and the Vicar and his brother were on their way within the hour. The wagon bobbled along the lanes under dull skies; Devon Reds bellowed, wisps of ghostly smoke were the only signs of life among the scattered homesteads; the Lovecraft villages gave way to the Vale Without Depths and the metamorphic sands of the Sett grew closer.
The Earl had summoned them to the Cheeke Stone; but before they could reach the end of the dunes, the wheels of the wagon already struggling for a grip upon the marram grasses, a gang of the Earl’s men blocked their path.
“Where is His Grace?”
“‘Is... Lordship ain’t yer, e’s gone back castlewards, we be commanded to take you to the... problem. Sirs, pardon me...”
He waved away the rest of the gang.
“It’s the young Earl, see, sirs. The Countess is desp’rate poorly wi’ the worry of it. It’s us as found ‘im. The boy.”
“We don’t need a great story. What class of problem has brought us all here?”
“‘Fraid a story it is, sir. T’ain’t no other way t’tell it; for us, my men and I, we’ve seen things you can’t class. Bit ‘o a mess, sir – what would you call it, sir? Nature decomposed? It is! ‘n then disarranged ag’in by devils, I’d say. The boy saw ‘um and now he’s unnaturally... curious. ‘Scuse me, sir, but I bin in service with his Lordship full thirty year and my father...”
“Yes, yes, and? ‘Devils’!”
“There’s allus bin a strain in the blood yer at the Castle, sir, for years it’s bin a troublin’ thing to the old family. Right since the business with the young Earl and that writer...”
“O, for... that was seventy years ago, man! What possible bearing can that have on a young boy now?”
“‘Tis the same blood, sir. Same... fascinations, if you know what I mean...”
“No I don’t know you mean. Now, let myself and my brother through and let us attend to... whatever it is!”
“Yes, sir, I just thought you oughtta know that, cos it made the Earl sick just now, ‘e’s in his bed, ‘e’s the opposite of i’self, sir, and the boy’s... wherever the hell ‘e is, well, it’s unnatural to be like that, that’s all I’m sayin... Could it be the Devil, sir? Some say they saw ‘is footprints in the snow this winter... say he ran off to Totnes...”
“Totnes! What would the Devil want in Totnes? You’re talking rubbish, man!”
Suddenly the gang of estate workers stirred in confusion.
“‘E’s a comin’ back ag’in!”
Between the dunes a slight figure in green velvet breeches and jacket was scampering erratically towards the sea, a white ruff raised like the threatening display of an angelic lizard. The gang of men gave chase; their heavy boots sinking deep into the soft sands.
“Follow me,” said the ganger to Edmund and the Vicar. “Leave the wagon yer. And prepare yourselves. Pray for thy sanity!”
With that he marched off after the chase. The skittery boy in his velvet suit feinting and dodging the lunges of the clumsy adults. The Vicar led Edmund by the hand; a glance revealed his brother reanimated, something in the sight of the racing boy had excited life into eyes that had been glazed for these past two days. The undertaker followed behind, reluctantly, dragging his feet. As the tip of the Cheeke Stone came into view, peeping over a perpendicular wall of sand, the massing gang of estate workers finally laid hands upon the boy and hauled him back from the brow of the dune. They led him back inland.
“‘E was lookin’ agi’n, couldn’t help ‘isself!”
Edmund seemed transfixed by the fluttering cuffs of the boy’s sleeves, as they moved in abstract and meaningless gestures, as if the child were swimming in a pond. The boy’s eyes blazed with outlandish desire, his mouth shaped in a cruel adult grin, a tiny self-inflicted cut upon his lip oozing a cherry of blood. Edmund swooned at the sight and the Vicar held him tighter.
“‘E can’t help ‘isself, Ted! Tell us wot t’do!”
“Get him to the Castle.” Then, to Edmund and his brother: “Keep close!” And the ganger began to climb up the wall of sand, followed by vicar, Edmund and undertaker. Avalanches of soft sand glittered and tumbled beneath their feet. At the top the four men gathered themselves, straightening their clothes as if they were about to meet their betters. Then, like sleepers waking from a dream, they saw what it was that lay before them.
The waters of the high tide, raised by the storm and the moon’s new strength, were lapping about the foot of the Cheeke Stone. Around its thick red shaft and bulbous head were draped some soft ornaments. The first impression was of a window tableau carefully arranged by a sensitive retailing hand. But as the dislocated parts of the display slowly made themselves known in their impenetrable totality, it was certain that nothing so virtuous as art was involved here. Instead, across the red stone were the remnants of the three sisters, arranged in the appearance of one ghastly jumble. Their young limbs were spread like the tubers of a rough plant, around which boiled rioting eels competing for sweetmeats. The jaws hung down like broken curtains, gaping smirks uncovering ranks of broken teeth, inverted yellowish triangles fringed with the something blood-like that was oozing from their shrivelled gums. Around the shoulders fluttered a godless halo of seabirds’ feathers, while the remnants of the shrouds flapped back and forth above their fused heads. The whole contrary thing, woven together by a meeting of estuary tides and storm swell, was a fabricated and preposterous triptych heresy, a demon’s rood screen over the altar of the Cheeke Stone, a coverlet made from ruined girls, with a chorus of sandhoppers, conducted by homuncular imps, dancing a slow ballet around a hem made of the sisters’ shredded toes.
His skin was like Palladium, there was a lustrous softness to it, a fatal distraction to something greater, a calling down of the unintended, and she was drawn to its darkening and then its lightening and then its darkening again, amused by how amused she was by this uncharacteristic stupidity in the face of flesh, and the thought that in the most shadowy pigments she might find a darkness to curl herself up in, a cell to perambulate, ready to burst out and escape.
Mandi was surprised at herself. Sex was usually so self-contained. It welled up from deep within her, maybe even from some way below her, and then it spread to the edges of her. She flowered in sex. Yet, it never had much to do with the boys. It was not that she demeaned or disregarded them; she knew what she needed to do to make them feel included, but in the end, and it was in the end, on ‘the plane’, that was most important, it was never about them. It was not even much about her; it was about the numinous frizzling tentacles that erupted and then hung there trembling; it was about the sheets of feeling that unzipped her skin and spread her like a fidgeting counterpane. There was not much space for individuals in that place; it was all light and fields.
In the morning there was nothing special left. Tyrone was lovely, but not even more than loveliness could connect. There was some amputated limb inside Mandi that would never be satisfied by mere saintly masculinity. This, despite his fussiness, and some sort of egg with herbs on toast served in bed. She did not mean that they might not meet again, but, hell, he was one of her trustees; how many indiscretions was a good man worth? And she knew where her priorities lay.
As the lift doors eased open, Mandi knew that she was in trouble. Anxious faces at reception. She was prepared. The lights in the office over the weekend had signalled all kinds of mischief; they would only multiply if she let on that she had prepared a response. Sometimes spontaneity was all you could plan for. She checked the few tiny objects – a pin, a scrap of paper torn from the corner of a paperback, a button battery – she always placed on things that might be moved; they had all been meticulously returned exactly to their positions. Things were worse than she had imagined. No real spooks would have had the slightest bit of interest in her; which meant that some delusional soul, perhaps someone she knew, was dragging her into their messy fantasy.
Mandi swept her little tells into the palm of her hand and tossed the crumbs, pins and lithium buttons into the small metal bin she had brought from her first office, a wildflife charity. She had hated everything there except the little metal office bin, so she had stolen it. The pieces made a barely perceptible tinkle against the sides of the bin. Mandi looked around the room; it all seemed too neat, too exactly fitting; she had become a round peg in order to fit into a round hole. She was too snug these days.
She read her emails. One from the Queen Bee, red flagged. Shit. O, really shit. It was Tyrone, after all. He was the honey trap, the unknowing (she was sure) stinger for the Queen. Drone, drone. Her asset was wholly compromised; Tyrone had been part of the golden project and now they were dropping him. They had cut him some slack, once before, but not this time. He had failed to move quickly enough and this time the shit was sticking to him. They would cut their losses and let a promising man go. Before then, they were going to cash in the last shred of his value, in order to undermine her. She could expect a visit.
So, Mandi took her time. Accompanying her intern to the coffee machine and making them both thick espressos. Sipping the darkness together; power and nothingness complementing the sourness to come. She had, of course, understood instantly; there was to be a sifting of the chess pieces. She had always known the kind of chequerboard she was playing on; that there was no nuance, you were either on a good square or a bad one, and there was nothing to say which was which. She favoured the darkness, but she was only guessing.
Enter Queen Bee.
Mandi supposed that the Queen had come to play on Mandi’s emotions (there were none, not in any sense the Queen understood), maybe on her loyalty (that was a shell), or on her sexual dependency (which was only upon herself). There was none of the weakness here that the Queen relied upon in others. The only really weak card in her hand was Tyrone; and Mandi had stopped the Bee dead on that account. Tyrone was gone; removed from his position on the Board of Trustees. Mandi had sacked him between two sips of espresso, and tweeted her announcement, with appropriate regrets, before the third. So, now she and the Queen could stop playing silly games about people and get to down to the real stuff about projects.
It was all about medical records.
“I believe that Tyrone...”
“You don’t ‘believe’, you know.”
“... he showed you, didn’t he?”
“He was trying to impress me... No doubt some confidentiality or privacy laws were broken, but I was an innocent party.”
“O, this is so much more important than you, Mandi. We don’t intend to allow you to get into any kind of trouble...”
That was a threat.
“Don’t ‘so’ me, Mandi, don’t ‘so’ me...”
“O, get on. We have a children’s charity to run.”
And there was the whole terrible sticky messiness of it. Mandi probably even believed that, thought the Queen Bee. So she moved carefully, hovering over Mandi, she danced a little. Shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Mandi was always a little surprised when she saw the Queen Bee’s legs; so accustomed was she to seeing the Bee seated at a conference table, or chairing a board meeting or speaking at a lectern, that she often wondered if the bottom half of her body would eventually wither and drop out of public sight. Now, however, Mandi was unable to deny the little black Nakamura trousers that gently rose and fell beneath a long flowing Ono cardigan. The Queen was often draped in some kind of scarf or wrap that cascaded around her like the vestments of a female vicar. Today however, the Bee was stripped for more savage business; a tight black Fey top was dragged across her front, showing a surprisingly tense skinniness. Mandi always thought of the Queen as a slightly homely figure, but now she was all black sharpness and angles.
“Part of the challenge of leadership”, offered the Queen, “is knowing how to give the same intensity to multiple situations. Specialisation is not a virtue right now. We expect you to act...”
“I don’t think you heard me. I removed Tyrone from his post on the trustees...”
“You don’t have that power...”
“Really, then what is this?”
She brandished her phone at the Queen Bee. Tyrone’s short but obedient email made its point. The sacrifice was done. There was no real need for it, of course, they could easily have weathered the storm, a teacup would have stayed afloat, but the point of sacrifices was pour encourager les autres not natural justice. Executioner, victim, onlooker; all were weakened, except for the wizard twitching the curtain.
“That wasn’t the plan...”
“Which is partly why it was so easy to do. I am not going to sell Childquake short to grease the wheels of your plan.”
“There is no plan.”
“There is always a plan.”
“Just think this through, would you? I didn’t ask Tyrone to show you the records. I had no idea he would be such a fool. I wanted him to let you know, in broad terms, what they’d got hold of there. In broad terms! Not compromise security protocols! I assume you’ve worked out what our intentions are?”
Mandi had worked out many things, and she was not about to let on to the Queen Bee what any of those conclusions might be. She sat motionless, and let the Bee dance a little more, swinging her expensive grey cardigan. Mandi glanced across her; through the giant glass screens she could see her staff, heads down at their monitors. She knew that her PA would be attentively watching Mandi’s reflection in a polished brass screen positioned for that purpose. The Queen opened her mouth and Mandi jerked forwards. The Queen paused; Mandi shifted a tiny snowglobe a few inches to her left, then sat back into her wheeled chair. The PA stood abruptly and the other staff began to rise, spilling out from their stations and massing at the coffee machine next to Mandi’s office. For a moment the Queen Bee was mesmerised by the tiny white flakes fluttering around the Riesenrad under its plastic dome.
“Maybe we should find somewhere a little more anonymous?”
The reverberations, like a gate slammed again and again in a subterranean city, were barely dying away, before the darkness crept in across the sky. From the West it came; a bloated cloud of metallic greys, glinting in the sunlight before shutting it from the seas entirely. Precipitously, the waters cooled and the animals began to die. Great animals that had swum oceans, shallow and deep, grey and blue and pink, cool and warm, now slowed, stopped and sank. The massive shapes of plesiosaurs fell backwards into the gloom, sharks froze mid-predation and left the halves of fish to hover and fall apart. The surface of the ocean smacked with the fall of pterosaurs, their leathery wings spread in belly-flops, cracking the last whiteness before all turned to black.
In the shallows small fish, crustaceans and molluscs felt about them as the sudden night ticked on and on. Every now and then a mighty body, smooth and filled with limbs would slip onto the sea floor and the first shift in the waters would be followed by an advance of billowing silt. At times the predation of the skies was such that the waters churned and the ocean floor knew no rest. Any beam of light that might have trespassed through clouds of soil dust and iridium was lost in the murkiness rising from the bottom. Caught between the two the soft and hard things of the ocean began to die. Fish stiffened and fell. Circular shells rotated and sank, in their billions. The ocean floor looked like the breakers’ yards of the future, filled with tyres. Piles of corpses were rooted through by something crocodilian and uncomplicated.
Hovering, abstracted from this horror, there was something changing. An armoured cephalopod was picking its way through the writhing mass of its struggling families, some of them wildly rolling in deranged faithfulness to chance, others shrivelling and retiring from the harvesting jaws that grasped and swung, reaching blindly for survival. Nothing was satisfied. Nothing could see, and a vicious egalitarianism settled over the seething ocean floor for a while, as animals chose rather than reacted. Some dug down, below the rising monuments of lizard bones, a ruined city of plesiosaur rib cage cathedrals and rivers of mush, to their own graves. Through all this anarchic change, the armoured cephalopod extended its softest parts. It risked the sudden sinking in of crocodilian teeth, in exchange for greater sensitivity to the vibrations in the water. It followed the quiet lines of melody through the symphony of predation; a mollusc connoisseur, pushing out its pendulous globules of membranous skin, forcing its floppy organs closer to its surfaces, straining against the glue that held it to its shell.
A large shifting in the water and something armed and giant washed by, stirring up the swill of planktons. The brief bio-luminescence triggered among the fading organisms illuminated the waste land on the sea floor, the grim wreckage of monsters, the spiralling decline of the soft things, the ecstatic thrashing of crocodilian emperors drowning in food. The armoured cephalopod pulled harder against the restraints of its carbonate casing; pain was turning, in desperation, into idea. The thingness of the thing pulled harder again on the thin illumination of its senses, a lushy love for a dark thing within, an intuition of a depth, a spark so hidden in the blackness it was starkly separate, like an eye floating on a tentacle, an impossible organ; yet the thing knew that there existed a thing within and went searching, diving for it, turning itself inside out. The soft arms and flanks overwhelmed its egg-like casing, the exo-skeleton drowned in gloopy membrane and the thing exposed its innards, anus and valves to the jiving chaos of the fallen dinosaur world. A plesiosaur corpse, trailing scum, plunged through the black, prefiguring a bomber shot down from the matrix of a night raid, spearing into the bed of life and death curling and folding on the ocean floor, sending up a mushroom cloud of filth, the newly naked thing a few metres away, startled into squidgy alertness, fled.
The shock turned it inwards, even as it was pushed along the pinnacles of the chaos by the shock waves from the plesiosaur’s fall. It reached down inside itself and the darkness went to work on its shell; as much a metaphysical transformation as a mutation of cells, the animal liberated itself in its own prison, tearing down the walls of its carbonate gaol, ripping the last of the glue, for the first time it feels a pain from inside, not from without.
Its fear of fullness drops acids into itself, fizzing at the white shell, thinning its borders, all of itself collapsing together, narrow chapels turn giant cathedral, inside and outside lose their meaning; meaning is pain and pain is meaning and through it comes change, welling up from the hidden and invisible nothingness that reaches beyond the ocean to the emptiness of the universe, shaping its flesh, stripping its armour, swelling and bloating its nervous tissue, rippling anxiety along sinewy paths, puckering its arms in curling motions and rushing to a central system quivering with novel distress and transcendence. Feelings flashed across the waste land; then the animal saw, in the dull glow of crashing beasts, that it was alien to all this filth of what had been and it would be the soft motor of all that could be better.
Turning from the extinction, the transcendent squid propelled its anxious limbs and wobbling head through the murk, towards the abyssal drop, the only equivalence to its hidden self in the ocean. It navigated by distress, its pain a kind of light that bathed the ruined empires of bones, broken leathery wings and fractured fins. The squid ‘saw’ the different darknesses, it ‘saw’ the shadows of danger in the darkness and the shallow hungers in the depths and as it swam it avoided its enemies, turning deeper and deeper within so that those depths rose up and along the very edges of its being and the edges ran down to the very depths of its nothingness and it was a world in its own world, a goddess of its own creation, a mother of its own future, a child of the cosmic dust, lonely traveller from the dead and distant stars. It did not know what it had become; a progeny of what had been forgotten on the traveller’s journey. As it went, the goddess-squid dragged wriggling morsels to its beak, unsheathed the curled talons at the extremes of its arms, toxic juices working on the remnants of its armour just the same as on its food, swelling and collecting and melting as it went, the progress of an absurd and stellar saint, giant and soft, rolling above the devastation towards the depths of the future.
Hunched over a flat white, perched on the edge of her padded chair, the Queen Bee cut a far less imposing figure than the one that had padded around Mandi’s office a few minutes before. Mandi had seen this kind of performance once before, however; something would seem to break inside the Queen Bee, and anyone foolish enough to read it as a weakness would move in to take advantage, then the Queen Bee would look up like a lion breaking off from sipping at a lake or tearing bits from a wildebeest. Mandi gazed across the cafe to avoid any temptation to interrupt.
She had never taken much notice of the store logo before; it did not make much sense, and begged a lot of questions. For example, why would a mermaid wear a crown? And how many mermaids have two tails rather than one? And if you took away the band of graphics that circled the image, would the mermaid not be displaying her genitals just where it said COFFEE?
“What is the one thing that everyone knows about you, Mandi Lyon? What is... her defining feature, the single thing you could not take away from her without destroying the woman inside?”
And why was there a star in her crown? From what constellation did that come?
“Do you want me to answer that?”
“You don’t need to, babe. We both know. Integrity, consistency, empiricism.”
“Don’t nitpick with me, girl!”
“I wouldn’t insult you by coming to your office and presenting an idea that hadn’t been fully thought through. And not wholly consistent with the principles of Childquake. One of it which is its survival. But that will not stop me threatening you with the blighting of an entire generation of children unless you agree to my suggestions. Ha ha.”
The Queen Bee placed her palms flat on the table, leaned over her coffee, in which one of the baristas had shaped a small crop circle, and smiled into Mandi’s face.
Some of the sub-Oxbridge folk in her sector seemed to regard Mandi’s mild Westcountry lilt as a form of intimidation. The Queen Bee was not one of them. She was a hardened survivor with every intention of taking advantage of her reputation. The daughter of Grenadian communists, she had lost all three of her elder brothers by the time she left home for university. Of the two eldest, child-soldiers on the Railton Road frontline, one had gone to sickle cell anaemia, taken by a stroke; the other got out of his depth in a row with an imaginary don of imaginary Yardies that escalated to machetes. The youngest of the three “who we never speak about” had gone into banking. The Queen Bee liked to speak of this ‘loss’ of her younger brother as if it were a third death, but Mandi had never bought that. Though she was careful never to share her suspicions, this third ‘lost’ brother might explain the Queen Bee’s unfailing access to funding. Sure, she was expert at playing the system, because she had an analysis of it, but the flow of funds went beyond the rational.
At university, the Queen Bee had abruptly changed course, from chemistry to philosophy, specialising in animal rights. For a while it seemed that she worshipped at the feet of Peter Singer, and unsuccessfully applied for a PhD under his supervision in Australia. Instead, she immersed herself in sabotage of labs and farms. Allegedly. But there was little chance of operational anonymity; who else was black in the animal rights movement? Instead, she found her place in its leadership; taking over and fronting a tight little unit of activists and re-organising it into an arcane structure borrowed from the ill-fated Grenadian New Jewel Movement: a radical popular organisation, but with an elite party-within-the-party quite separate from its parent body. While unpopular with many other activists, the Queen Bee’s little group was remarkably successful at using the national AR networks to propagate their structure as a model; they were adept at using pragmatic arguments to promote their particular ideological ends. But at a cost: they became the activists that all the other activists loved to hate, known for their ‘superior’ attitude to all other shades.
“Nor will I insult you by pretending to your face that you won’t have to sacrifice some of those principles here. In order to save... maybe, hundreds... maybe hundreds of thousands of children’s lives. Not necessarily while they are children; but it’s your clients now who will be the ones to be sacrificed eventually.”
As the first long prison sentences were being handed out to ‘AR terrorists’, something mysterious happened to the Queen Bee’s group. Overnight, it began to organise ticket-only public debates with furriers, then with GM scientists, even badger-gassers and dogfight enthusiasts were featured and baited. Once the extremes had been pegged out, the middle ground began to wash in; no one wanted to get left out of the angry noise. After all, it sounded like democracy. Her brief history of sabotage was forgotten as the Queen Bee’s group rolled out their formula to other fields. Under the name of ‘The Other Channel’ (all their AR-based structures vanished from public view), they became the media’s go-to source for mediated but extreme controversy. They were political box office and in the age of the reality-spectacle there was no more investible a cultural currency. Not even escapism could compete with what sounded like the banging voice of authenticity. A rhetoric of “rights for the marginalised” – from reptiles to Nazis, gun owners to ritual-slaughterers – put a roof over their big tent.
The word on the street was that just after the first wave of AR arrests, the Queen Bee had received an interesting visit. No deal was done, but the division of territories was explained in the tones of civilised threat. Animals and terrorism were the business of the state, nosiness and ideas were thrown as scraps to Bee and her drones: Big Boys’ Rules. Mandi had no patience with such conspiracy theories; the Queen Bee was quite capable of performing moral somersaults without being threatened. Whatever bitterness was driving it, it was her own. But something was ‘going on’; Mandi had never been convinced of the sincerity of a grand project to petrol bomb the liberal consensus under the banner of libertarianism. It was serving somebody’s interests, and part of the deal was that no one should ever say who. The margins of the tent were under the control of the Queen Bee; inside this big, if strangely shaped marquee, there was an inner tent-within-the-tent. Many of those who passed in and out of it were the same faces who years before had donned balaclavas, but the framing had all changed; they were PhDs, the chairs of trusts and charities, professors and journalists and lobbyists, if they bothered how they looked they dressed in MM.LaFleur and The Idle Man. If not, they looked nerdy and unthreatening. But they had not lost the lights behind their eyes. Early on, Mandi had received a rare invitation to enter the inner tent; ever since she had been finding increasingly creative reasons to refuse.
“We want to harvest the data in the stories that Tyrone took you to see.”
“I don’t want Tyrone to get into any more...”
“Tyrone has gone. You’re the player here. No one will argue against us mining that data if Childquake supports it?”
In 1983 the US marines’ rapid deployment force had invaded the island of Grenada and replaced its government. Everyone on the anti-imperialist Left, or with access to the History Channel, knew this. The excuse for invasion was a coup mounted by the leaders of the New Jewel Movement’s inner party, unseating and executing its wider movement’s popular leader, Maurice Bishop, and his close associates. Mandi wondered if the Queen Bee’s parents, or maybe members of the wider family, had been at least supportive of the coup, if not directly associated with it. What else would explain the Queen Bee’s enthusiasm for giving the whole ghastly business model a second run? Family was always a powerful thing. Bee was re-making hers in the belly of the beast? Whose interests was it serving to be reeling in Alt-Righters, Brexiteers, Bannonites, Petersonites, radfems, trans-activists, posthumanists, sex work advocates and primetime liberals who were too cool to swot up on small group politics? And the whole thing floating on trust, charity, and government money?
“Think. What could be so important that you – you! – would be willing to relax your principles? The impact of that. Massive. No one speaks about children’s lobbyists like they speak about you. You make up for what your organisation lacks in size by your intensity. And your integrity. That’s the only reason I can come to you, and ask you to throw it all away. And for it to mean something. Huh?”
Mandi always suspected that woven into the Bee’s whole schtick was a massive resentment machine; and yet she never showed it. Even when she was bullying she was relentlessly charming. She had found a way to make stridency a gentle art. It did not make much sense, the stuff she said, but it had an effect. Mandi felt flattered, of course she did, and she knew she was being flattered; yet, somehow the fabrication of the Queen Bee’s manoeuvring was all part of the seduction.
This was not at all how Mandi supposed that she should feel. Her tiny claim to fame was her – trust-funded – walk-on part as the libertarian’s libertarian, the maverick within the rebellion. She called out the spotty boys who just wanted to be offensive, who thought the world owed them a hearing, who thought they had been outraged by the disrespect of women; she called out the shock-capitalist, economic neo-liberals before they transed their principles and glided over to the Alt-Right. “I’m just asking you to be consistent” was her refrain, “if you can’t apply the rights you want for yourself and your pals to everyone else then you are not a libertarian, my friend!”
She had the rare distinction of being one of a handful of people to be ejected from a ‘Free Speech Seminar’...
The Queen Bee and her drones did not always like what Mandi said, but they liked her capacity to draw lots of spotty young men to come and see her say it. Her only weakness – in Mandi’s own opinion – was Childquake. Her love and loyalty were unconditional. Lowering the voting age, lowering the age of consent for partners of the same age, lowering the age where a minor could be tried as an adult, lowering the age for jury service, for owning a company, for owning a gun. Childquake was the instrument for achieving the greatest empowerment of young people since the child labour laws and the Education Act; so she told everyone. Relentlessly. Hers had not been an unhappy childhood, but she wanted others to have amazing ones. Mandi’s advocacy for a children’s police force, for under-12 Members of Parliament chosen by an electorate of 11 years olds and younger, and for girls’ courts to hold preliminary hearings for paedophiles, genital mutilators and other abusive adults, with ratification by a higher adult court; she got repeated national media coverage. Of course, the religious conservatives and open chauvinists of all shades were not impressed, the establishment was nervous, liberals torn, but, whatever you thought of their policies, it was always educational to observe who was willing to line up with and who against Childquake. And who dare not decide.
Mandi supposed that the curvy lines falling from beneath the mermaid’s crown were intended to represent her locks of tumbling hair; but they could as easily be read as two streams from the spring of her mind.
“Think of this as a lever. Not just statistically, but in each case specifically. Our data company...”
That was new...
“...will be able to identify each individual whose life you save. Add to them, their families and close friends...”
Who was she kidding? Broadcasters loved the triggers, but all of Childquake’s policies were likely to end up on the same scrapheap as proportional representation, recallable Parliaments, an elected Head of State, land reform, the abolition of the House of Lords and the privatisation of the Church of England.
She had stopped listening to the Queen Bee’s wheedling persuasion and was muttering under her breath some lines she had learned as a child from Bryan:
“And it’s through that there Magna Carta,
As were signed by the barons of old,
That in England today we can do as we like,
As long as we do what we’re told.”
Terminating the conversation, Mandi promised to consider the suggestion, snatching up her laptop; after the funeral she would give her answer. In her head, while her lips had been forming the silly musical hall song, a completely other voice was singing, and it sounded horrifically like hers:
“Muddy Mary, mother of God,
Killed the Old Boy in his bath,
God went to Hell
And started to smell,
And now all the bad things are back!”
The Queen Bee was on her feet, unwilling to be cut dead, apologising brusquely for her thoughtlessness, she swished out into the London streets. The crop circle on her untouched coffee had turned saucer-shaped.
Mandi laughed as the Great Western service careened through Taunton and Tiverton Parkway and on towards Exeter. All the expected hobgoblins, skrikers and opened-mawed horrors had hidden away for the day; and Mandi’s path home to her pseudo-parents’ joint-funeral was unnaturally uneventful. Just beyond Exeter she thought unexpectedly of the archivist woman who had tried to meet her at the station as she was getting away; Mandi rang the number the woman had tapped into her phone. No signal.
Back at Lost Horizon the lights blazed in the permanent zone of the camp. In London, Mandi had returned none of those calls she thought might be concerned with the details of the funeral; she would not be dragged into the hippies’ fighting over the bodies of her Mum and Dad.
Inside the arid shell of the sentinel home, more like a husk every time she returned, Mandi lay down on a thin mat in her old room, pulled the stale duvet over her head and fell into a deep and instant sleep. Somewhere in the mush was the dream she always had; she was organising something, but the chairs had not arrived and there were metal structures that had become inextricably entangled; in search of a hex key she found her way to an inner room, hung with dark burgundy curtains and in the centre a table cluttered with possessions, maybe those of her parents, which she attempted to rationalise. All the time she was aware that she had lost the ring they had given her. On the table she rearranged grails and flutes and they clinked and wobbled, threatening to fall and smash; fabrics snagged, the whole collection began to slide to the floor. In the dream, she backed away, uncertain and conditionally relieved that there was no cataclysm yet, but could not escape the curtained room. Through a shrinking window, its lead mullions closing around her arms, she looked up into a red-tinged sky and there was a temperature reading there of 40 or so, though no indication of which scale; someone had exploded a nuclear device in a cathedral city but she was unsure whether it was the Russians or the local authorities cleansing the area of the remnants of a biological strike.
She awoke refreshed and feeling guilty; but about what she had no idea. When she remembered the ring the guilt melted away; her parents had never given her a ring. She had lost nothing. That morning Mandi had an appointment to visit the undertaker, maybe with a view to seeing the bodies of her adoptive parents and a chance to say goodbye, and maybe that was what the dream had been about. The arrangement of limbs, the fear of shattering and loss. The unrecoverable nature of what would now always be unarrangeable, unorganisable. Other forces were in charge at a funeral, like Decay and the State.
Zak was a ‘green’ funeral organiser; yet there were certain protocols that even he was unwilling to transgress. They met, not at his premises in a nearby town, but in the vegan cafe next door, where everyone seemed to know him. Over lattes made from nut milk, Zak had explained that the bodies were too damaged for a viewing to make much sense to Mandi. He pulled on his neatly trimmed moon of grey beard and strongly recommended that Mandi not visit the bodies.
“It’s not them anymore. Anne and Bryan have gone, you would learn very little from what is in those coffins.... your parents are what they did, not that... that is left over. But they have another legacy. Please don’t judge them by their residue, but by the lives they lived.”
It was odd, thought Mandi, it is as if the undertaker knew her parents and yet their daughter did not. It was an oddness that rang true.
“There’s nothing for you there... your parents are what they achieved, the heights they reached! Not that... void...”
Nevertheless, reluctantly, he led Mandi to the mortuary area where the bodies lay, sealed in willow coffins. For a moment she thought that they were in wicker baskets, but a chart of options on the wall relieved her concern; she was glad that whoever had chosen – was it her? – had avoided the steam train journey, the piano keyboard that looked like a sinister grin or the daisies.
Mandi walked twice around the coffins, once anti-clockwise and then clockwise. She had never felt so self-conscious, so theatrical. She was desperately feeling for authenticity, but the room was distracting her. Unlike the curtained-room of her dream the night before, there was an airiness, a naturalness, a cooled ease of the processing of things; it came on like an animal trap. An impression exacerbated by the thick cords, tied in Gordian knots, that now sealed the coffins shut. Even if Zak had not persuaded her otherwise, they would have struggled to get into the coffins anyway.
“So, your kind of ... pagan undertaking ... sorry, I have no idea how to correctly... will it involve anything unconventional with the bodies? Do you do anything unusual?”
Zak invited Mandi to take a seat in a large lawn-green armchair, seating himself opposite her on a red sofa. He leaned in towards her in a posture of intimacy; but what he said, sincere or not, felt oddly obfuscated. As if God were listening and Zak were fearful of cracking out of turn and spoiling the whole operation. He spoke of the integrity of bodies, of beliefs about the body’s survival in the spirit world, of the body as symbol of a greater system, and he spoke passionately of murmurations of starlings and Platonic ideals and the illusory nature of belief that is belief in itself. Mandi half-followed his argument, but could not grasp its relevance to her, Anne or Bryan.
“Too often” Zak bemoaned, “when you question folk, good pagan folk, sincere Wiccans, the magickians, even some of the very holiest ones, you begin to hear something else inside their words, which is simply the words talking to each other. The ideas have created a feedback and become a thing separate from the speaker, generating a whole additional bunch of thoughts in the person’s mind, an inner empire if you like, and this then creates new desires, new idols , if you will; so, crudely: "wow, the solution to my problem is serving the goddess, but to do that I really need a statue" or more subtly "wow, the solution to my problem is greater devotion to god, but I really need to be more pious" or most subtly yet "wow, the solution to all my problems is enlightenment", which traps the meditator in a dark cave of materialism because enlightenment has become a thing for them. The new desires, new idols, feed the machine, so more surplus is created to meet and make new desires, and the vicious circle of big ideas loops round and round. Your parents were not like that. They saw through the curtain of words to what was behind it... they believed in what was real.”
“The more I talk with people about them, the less I think I know them.”
Zak seemed thrown.
Mandi helped: “My step-parents, Anne and Bryan...”
“Yes, yes, of course... good people. But I’ve burbled on, I’m sorry, I have a tendency. Would you like a moment alone?”
“No thanks. I’ve no idea what you meant, but I found it strangely comforting. It’s weird isn’t it, how in these moments, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but kind of banal things, things you would never even dream at any other time of taking any notice of, that they are exactly what you need to hear?”
At the door of the wood-built office, Mandi offered her hand and Zak shook it. He was trembling. Taking a step outside the front door, he glanced quickly up and down the street and then up to the skies.
“Don’t ignore the lumps and bumps and contingencies in everyday life, Amanda. The certainties that we serve...”
He broke off. A herring gull clattered down onto the pavement opposite and began to pick at a discarded plastic wrapper.
“If you truly want to have a moment in touch with... both parents, then trust your feelings, not any big ideas that anyone else has about them or anything else. Trust your feelings and trust what you can touch, find yourself in the right place and what has happened will make itself plain and the angels will come.”
Mandi felt that she ought to burst out laughing. Instead, she kissed Zak on his pale and bristly cheek and ran towards the waiting taxi. As it pulled away, she looked back to give the thoughtful undertaker a thankful wave, but he was already in earnest conversation with his young assistant, who wore an apron around his waist and a tense look across his face, and who Mandi had heard from time to time pottering in a distant room.
They were never friends. Maybe back in the old days, as kids, holidaying together. Since the one thing that brought them together, was the one thing none of them would talk about, none of them seemed able to remember in any detail; they had no idea why they kept in touch in spite of their indifference to each other. Perhaps it was their shared failures. Despite avoiding all the major addictions – drinking, skag, the slots, illegal sex and porn – they had each of them somehow found ingenious ways to royally screw up their own lives and the lives of everyone around them.
Teresa slept with a loan shark and he had dragged her down into spiralling debts, she had lost her council house after falling out with her neighbours and spent her daylight hours travelling between one sofa and another.
Eddie had been misdiagnosed early, doped to the eyeballs, and had learned to keep his head down so low that he barely registered on anyone’s radar until he left school without sitting, let alone passing, a single exam. He signed himself up to an agency and for fifteen years had stacked shelves, dug graves, collected dirty linen in hospitals, stacked more shelves and swept pavements until repeated managements and colleagues would eventually lose patience with his invincible self-absorption. He had long ago passed requiring meds, but still took them out of habit.
Kayla did puzzles, compulsively. Where most puzzle-solvers and crossword-addicts were either in it for the escape, the pleasure or the intellectual challenge, Kayla had become caught up in a global conspiracy in which her efforts were required to keep the world turning. No sooner had she completed one book of challenges than she set off to buy the next. These were not the cryptic crosswords, not the real brain-friers, but fairly simple posers. She never asked herself why she never tried anything more challenging. After a while she started using pencil, writing very lightly; with a rubber she would erase the answers and place the used magazine at the bottom of her pile. By the time she had worked her way down to it, and as it in turn had risen to the top, she had forgotten the answers, or always known them, and she could begin again without any extra cost. She had never worked. She had had two episodes of psychosis and been sectioned three times; the latter occasion was an undiagnosed visions of angels.
Ethan was strangely empowered. He generated energy like a power station. His hair stood up on end, he crackled across synthetic carpets and made metal handles and rails in shops spark. At times he glowed like a superhero, but the problem was that it all hurt. It had really kicked in as his hormones began to bubble, around about twelve, and at first he had imagined that it would all gradually dampen down. Instead the pain got worse and he barely left home now, slept on a woollen mat under cotton sheets that he neglected to wash regularly. He had ripped up the floor coverings and walked on wood and tiles. After his parents died in quick succession, Ethan had turned off all the power to the house. His only ventures outside were to fast food outlets; the ones that wrapped things up in paper or Styrofoam. The staff knew him well and bought the food out to him on the pavement so he would not need to brave the metal counters before dodging lampposts all the way home. He ate for England, sugary fatty food, yet he looked little more substantial than a dried cadaver.
Every few months – the longest gap had been two years when they were all in their early twenties and embarked on various failed romances – the four would meet up; partly now to talk about Jade. During one of her episodes she had wandered off, triggering a massive search of snowy wasteland on the edge of Birmingham. Old industrial buildings had been opened up and searched, tunnels and sewers examined, junkyard owners and car dealers had wasted their Sundays opening their yards to inspection. In the end she had been found, frozen as stiff as a board, prostrate in a ditch in a tiny strip of wooded land between two industrial estates. There were no signs of foul play. The coroner had delivered an open verdict. Now, when they met, the four survivors would give over the first hour or so to wondering aloud, between long pauses, about what they might have done to save Jade. They always came to the same empty conclusion.
This time, the conversation felt even more redundant than usual.
“Why are we even doing this?”
“Fuck off then!”
“What the fuck else have I got to do? Got a big fucking meeting ‘ave you?”
“Fuckin’ charming. This ain’t your place. Eth’, mate?”
But Ethan had not been listening. He was arranging crisps from a non-metallic packet into a shape on the floorboards.
Shocked, he gobbled up the crisps like a dealer hiding his stash at the wrong knock on the door.
“Kin aida! Eth’, we know what you’re up to down there. Don’t need t’ide it from us, tittybaby!”
Teresa started to laugh hysterically. “Tittybaby! Tittybaby! I ain’t ‘eard that in...” And she leapt up on the coffee table, stained with countless spilled instant coffees, and began to bump and grind like a stripper.
“Squirty Mary up from the deep,
Rode the big squid in her bare feet,
When she dropped her guts
She gave birth to fag butts,
And her secret hid under her creep.”
“You remember what The Creep is, right? That road under the railways tracks where we’d go to get the buzz...
Teresa began to twerk in a series of ass claps.
“Work it, girl!”
But she stopped dead and spoke quietly.
“When the expresses went over.... the big roar was like a maniac was in yer ear, and the air sucked out of your tits in the dark...”
“Yer don’t breathe with yer tits!”
“It were like being deep down somewhere....”
“Shuddup, Tre, everyone’s ‘ad you! School bike!”
“Shuddup yerself, Kayla!
Ethen spoke, spitting crisp bits.
“Damp place, black mould, I remember it... before you get to the dodgems...”
Eddie, who had been silent suddenly piped up. “Those are gone now.”
“How do you know? Have you been down there again?”
“No. I just know I know.”
“He knows he knows; how’s he know he know he knows, eh? Ha!”
“I want to... go...”
It was the first time in years that any of them could remember him speaking three times in succession.
“We all want to, mate! Course we all want to! So how come none of us is ever going to fuckin’ go?”
“You really want to, K? I thought you hated those people?”
“O just do yer crisps!”
Two of the legs of the coffee table snapped with a crack like pistol shots. Ethan ducked, Eddie’s mouth dropped open, Kayla slightly pissed herself, and Teresa headbutted the wooden floor and bounced into the skirting board. Slowly raising herself, her mousy bob was embroidered with fragments of Cheese and Onion.
The funeral was a large, grand and well attended event. And an epic farce. The entire community of Lost Horizon was in attendance, along with a number of faces unfamiliar to Mandi, but who – by their dress and manner – she assumed to be members of the various strands of alternative pagan and ‘pre-Christian’ beliefs that were popular in the county. Cassandra had told her that although only a couple of thousand had claimed pagan faith in the most recent census, the local Confederation of Pagans reckoned that at least ten times that figure were practising pagans, many of whom kept silent, worried at the prospect of discrimination, making theirs the second most popular faith in the county. A position that Mimir insisted came with certain responsibilities. A need to keep up appearances in the sight of the non-pagan world.
This other world was well-represented at the funeral. There was a gaggle of middle-aged men and women who Mandi had down as holiday camp owners and managers from The Sett; careful to stick close together in a Roman tortoise. Less defensive, and more surprising to Mandi, were the Christian clergymen and women in dog collars, a few in cassocks, and for a moment she thought she caught the purple flash of a bishop’s clergy shirt. These mingled with white-robed witches and black-suited late-middle-aged Goths as if the occult battles of the past between Good and Evil were about as relevant as the Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard. Grant Kentish was splendid in a peacock green suit with what looked to be a black rose in his lapel. Mandi had no faith in any of the various nonsenses, but there was something about liberal relativism that got up her nose like nothing else. Is that how these pagans wanted to be regarded? Was that the standard by which they wanted to be judged?
The funeral was held in the distinctly unmagical setting of the canteen-ballroom of the Sunny Glades camp, just a five minute walk from Lost Horizon. The procession of pagans along the connecting road had raised a few eyebrows among passing motorists on their way out to the city for football or shopping. The ballroom had been dressed with forests of dried ferns and berry-laden branches, posters of various affiliations had been blu-tacked to walls; images of pentacles and crystals, stags’ heads and white doves glistened down on the congregation who sat on cushions and mats around the edges of the room. In the centre were the two willow coffins, no longer tightly bound. Mandi was concerned for a moment that there might be some opening of the lids as part of the ceremony; she was relieved to see that Zak the undertaker was among those who were directing events.
There were a few words of welcome to the congregation, which were shared between Cassandra and one of the female Anglicans. Then the coffins were blessed by representatives of different faiths, holy water mingling with sprinklings of oil, red ochre and wafts of incense; while an undertone of mumbling from different parts of the hall greeted the actions of the different representatives. Mandi was unsure whether sections of the congregation were joining in with their leaders or objecting to the presence of those of other orders. Finally – Mandi wondering if every aspect of the ceremony would be repeated so many times so as not to leave anyone out – these officiants withdrew and members of the Lost Horizon community, seemingly at random, stumbled up from their beanbags and retreated from the hall. Moments later they processed back in, each of them steering through the double doors a painted polystyrene megalithic stone. The sight was absurd and magical as these huge objects entered horizontally and then floated up vertically, almost brushing the roof of the ballroom and then one by one landed softly in a circle with the two coffins at the centre.
The community members retreated from the ‘stones’ and the ceremony proper began with a middle-aged woman who Mandi did not recognise stepping forward. Dressed in white robes and with long red hair, the woman seemed nervous, yet the moment she rose from her mat, an intense hush fell over the congregation. The woman carried a long stick, around which were curled and tied freshly cut spring flowers; each waft and poke of the stick was followed eagerly by the mourners. Mandi had no idea what the gestures signified, but so hypnotic was the woman’s tentative presence that she neglected to attend to the words she was speaking. It was a poem, Mandi thought. Unfortunately, this growing intensity was punctured from time to time by late arrivals. Each time the doors at the back of the hall were opened, the draught of air would unbalance one or more of the polystyrene standing stones and their guardians would rush forward from the outer circle and steady them. An unintended ritual dance resulted and Mandi found it affecting; eventually, rather than keep moving and distracting, all the guardians stood and moved to hold the ‘stones’ in place. Culminating this part of the ceremony, the woman in white held her stick above each of the coffins and invoked something – the name of which Mandi could not catch – to preserve and protect the bodies of Anne and Bryan “in the otherworld”. At the mention of “bodies” a small group of dissidents in torn jeans and black t shirts – “angry gnostics” was how Mimir had described them – heckled limply. Mandi had seen them around the camp; they lived in two caravans at the very edge of the camp and kept themselves to themselves; Mandi had checked the books and they paid their rent regularly. They were not wholly inattentive to the material world.
A casting of petals over the coffins was the signal for the synthetic stones to rise up and float horizontally across the hall and out the double doors. Once the traffic jam in the corridor outside had cleared, the community members returned to their mats and were followed into the hall by a long procession of gothy folk, some dressed in character; a bagpipe player with an aqualung mask, a drummer whose face was entirely hidden by coloured ribbons that fell down to the back of his knees, two children in imp masks, and a red haired middle-aged woman, the complement to the first priestess, dressed in purple robes and carrying not a stick, but an apple in one hand and a transparent flask of water in the other. Bringing up the rear was a tall man in a goat mask, carrying a flaming bowl of accelerant which he struggled to control, presumably as the heat suffused the material of the bowl and his unprotected fingers. Finally, and gratefully, he laid the flame at the feet of the purple-robed priestess who stepped back abruptly to avoid becoming a human torch. No one in the congregation seemed to appreciate the danger; Mandi looked around and even Zak appeared distracted from the events.
There was something very appealing about the mixture of danger and clumsiness that made the whole event... ‘real’ was the only word that Mandi could think of. She remembered Zak’s advice to “trust your feelings and trust what you can touch, find yourself in the right place and what has happened will make itself plain and the angels will come”. That was what was happening. She had been to three funerals in her time in London, funerals of colleagues, some of who might even have called her a friend; cancer, suicide, car crash, and none of them had been ‘real’. Either badly-briefed Anglicans misrepresenting the dead into odd pre-cast shapes, or a sincere humanist resolutely warding off the mystery of the void. Somehow, even though she knew the words were mumbo-jumbo conceived in a 1950s suburban villa and the gestures and costumes were largely borrowed from movies and graphic novels, these pagan liturgies felt appropriately consistent with her weirdly intimate and remote relationship with the two people whose broken shells lay inside the willows, just a few feet away. The ceremony was making the distance, the absence, the loss and the hopelessness real, for the first time. Mandi was surprised by her tears.
Through her misted vision, the imps and goat and skrikers danced to the beat and the skirl until the sounds died away and the magic animals became once again children and adults in masks and took their places seated against the walls of the canteen; for a moment Mandi had a vivid memory of a childhood drawing she had made that Anne had spirited away from her while she was asleep and then denied knowing anything about. Until that very second she had probably thought of the drawing at most once or twice since she found it screwed up under a layer of carrot peelings in the recycling bucket. She had called the drawing “the everglades” and the name had made her mother scream.
The last arrivals were led by Cassandra and Mimir, two by two, white queens with green knights; the men carrying drooping poles and fallen branches with withered leaves. The women formed themselves into a single full-breasted white blob, while the men waved around their feet, until, presumably from under the dress of one of the queens, a huge stuffed but articulated black swan was produced, the women raising it over their heads and the wings spread in a huge fan, as if something black and coal-pure were escaping the coffins. There was a single angry shout of “truth!” drowned out by a huge collective beat as everyone in the hall but Mandi slapped or stamped three times on the polished floor and the pipes groaned and surged. The swan flew like a dark feathered halo above the women and out of the hall through the double doors, striking the edge of its wing on an exit sign and two black feathers, caught in the spring light from outside, fluttered slowly to the parquet.
The willow coffins were lifted by the remaining queens and processed – with Mandi directly behind, ushered forward by Zak – directly out of the ballroom and into the camp car park where, but for the intervention of the Sunny Glades staff, they would have been gently laid in the back of a white hearse. Instead, the men in their chocolate brown Sunny Glades uniforms were impelled to assist, so the loading of the coffins came somewhere between fist fight and assistance. Despite this hiccup, the hearse pulled away sedately and headed out of Sunny Glades, up past Bright Sands, Golden Haven and, finally, Lost Horizon, before turning along the coast and off towards the city. “Everglades, everglades, everglades...” muttered Mandi to herself as the white limousine disappeared into the trees at the edge of Lost Horizon. “Everglades, everglades...” but, other than Anne’s uncharacteristic behaviour, the words evoked nothing but a darkness where a memory might once have been.
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