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 8 (Chapters 35-44)
Tony Whitehead & Phil Smith
April and Mandi set off from the doors of the Museum as the snow that had begun to pile up around the chapel in the trees also began to fall in the Bay. Two weeks before they had made the arrangement to walk together after their first meeting. Then, after meeting the officers of the Hexamerons, April had taken Mandi to see the boxes of finds turned up by the hobgoblin-pestered draper’s assistant.
It had turned out that there was no “down” to go to. The stores were on the ground floor, behind a large yellow door that anyone might have pushed their way through. The collection of small bones, bear’s claws and teeth of hyena, of lion and of deer were stored in small tray-like boxes made of thick cardboard and stacked in piles on high density mobile storage shelves. While it felt privileged to be in there, handling the teeth and claws, the Hexamerons were right. The parts told no whole; until April pulled out a larger box, just as flat, but much wider and longer. Peeling back the lid and peering in, Mandi had that same feeling she had felt in the Museum lobby, catching sight of the small tray of the draper’s assistant’s finds.
Mandi had imagined that the uneven base on which the pieces of ivory lay was velvet; but now she could look more closely she saw that it was actually paper, the thin kind of paper that some designer clothes still came in.
“Is this paper something that the draper’s assistant would have put in?”
“I don’t think we know. Do we?” She turned to look for the Engagement Officer...
Mandi tried to take one of the claws from the display, but the fragile paper began to come away with it and she it laid it back down.
“Do you think he might have been attempting to record something by this arrangement?”
“Without some information about where the pieces were found inside the cave, it’s hard to see how it would help very much.”
“Was this what you wanted to show me?”
“No, no! Something far more exciting! I just saw that you were interested in the Widger finds... Come here!”
And April began to wind violently on the crank of the folding shelves. Mandi jumped back as sections clanged and closed and others opened until a new metal ravine was revealed.
April took down one of the uniform flat khaki boxes and handed it to Mandi.
“Read that and see what you make of it. Wait a moment.”
She dug into a drawer and took out a pair of white gloves.
“Just to be...”
And she handed them to Mandi, who, warily, drew them over her fingers. April held the box to her chest, opening the lid slowly, tilting it up like in a heist movie when the characters gather round to finally get to see the bank notes. There was a large brown envelope inside. Mandi took it out, pulled back the flap and from it slid, neatly into the palm of a white glove, a number of foolscap pages, paper yellowing to a light brown. On them was a text written in ink in a scratchy hand. The ink had probably looked black once, but it was now a brownish purple, a darker version of the colour of the pages. One day the two might become indistinguishable from each other.
‘That traces of an antediluvian civilisation with its attendant flora and fauna can be so readily found in the obscure lanes, fields and woodlands of this part of Devonshire has long been known to the coarse laborers that dwell in this lugubrious place. That this foetid and extinct civilization should, through blasphemous dreams...’
“Christ, is that my Lovecraft thing?”
“So it seems. It’s word for word the same. Not, unfortunately, a story by the world famous writer H. P. Lovecraft, but some kind of testament of Joseph Lovecraft, H.P.’s great grandfather. At least that is what it says on our manuscript; the paper itself appears to be early 1800s, first half of. It may not be a new horror story, but bringing our attention to the existence of the document may contribute to a new understanding of why HPL wrote the kinds of stories he did.”
“But my copy isn’t worth anything – you already had the original.”
“That’s right, but why would your parents have a copy? They weren’t collectors were they? Or Lovecraft fans?”
“To be really honest with you, April, I’m not sure I know who the hell they were. They were always talking about these little expeditions they would go on. To stone circles, prehistoric tombs, that sort of thing; they looked after a community of New Age types. Which is now my responsibility, can you believe? But everyone there has a different opinion of what my parents believed in. So, for all I know this may have been something that was very important to them, but I don’t know.”
Now, a fortnight later, Mandi and April were setting out to look for the places in the manuscript. It didn’t seem likely that there was any money in it, but maybe Bryan and Anne had discovered something in those sites that was of more importance; maybe some real connection to the writer? In the meantime, she had been reading his stories, and at night she had had the same dream. But it was not of Shoggoths or of Deep Ones or of the Elder Things of his weird and obfuscated tales. Instead it was always about the tray of finds of the draper’s assistant. Each time the dream was like a shot, maybe the opening shot, from a movie. The camera moved over the lip of the cardboard tray and then slowly, very low to it, snaked its way around the crumpled purply-brown paper, like a drone filming between rough hills; the rucks and bunching in the packing paper appeared like the 3D map of the hilly terrain, while the teeth and claws seemed to point the camera to destinations on the tray, first to one tear in the paper, then another and another, until... she would awake. The dream was the same each time, the details differed slightly, the routes taken might occur in different orders, but the routes themselves and their destinations were always the same, the dream never varied from the parts of its overall structure, and she would always awake while the camera was still looking out for the final location.
As they left the museum, with the intention of walking out of the Bay and into the Lovecraft villages, the snow had begun to fall. At first a few grains, but within minutes large coagulated flakes began to chunter down, settling everywhere. Immediately the whiteness opened up emptinesses behind the once bright facades of the town. April and Mandi peeped around hoardings and through the gaps left for chaining large wooden gates, to see great voids of the town’s foundations held up by expanses of concrete wall. They followed an alley that climbed behind the rears of the buildings. Already, they felt like explorers, stepping carefully on the rising layer of snow.
The alley took them to a spiral set of concrete stairs. Mandi had always been aware of the faded glory of this town, but now the cold seemed to expose its bones. On one side they could see into one of the white voids, in the centre of it a curve of upholstered seating filling up with snowflakes. Hanging from a buddleia growing from out the concrete was a tree of clothes; unwanted garments hurled over a wall. Under part of the concrete stairs was a small recess. Someone had written with a sharpie on its cream pages: RABBIT PORN, SEX IS LIFE. Then drawn a face made up of genitals, a floating eye, a crude pair of breasts (one of them veined like the eye), a stoned alien and a dragon with a hard-on; all this, among the more usual claims about so and so’s mum, suggested a richer life of obscenity for the town than Mandi had imagined. At the top of the stairs April and Mandi were tempted by the entrance to a lift, its shaft stood like a small temple building above the valley, in front of which an abandoned leather sofa was already thick in snow. As well as the usual up and down buttons on the lift, the arrow on one pointed sideways. The walk to the villages was a long one. They decided against pushing the sideways button.
A moped driver was slithering in shrinking figures of eight; eventually, he parted company with his vehicle and left it, disgusted, at the kerb. April pointed out the yellow house, now converted to flats, of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, nineteenth century author of ‘The Coming Race’, a fantasy novel about a race of super beings living in tunnels beneath the surface of the planet, waiting to take over. She was explaining to Mandi that after their climb they were now on top of the Sticklepath Fault, a flaw that ran North dividing the county, when they came to another writer’s house. Though still alive somewhere, his house – a hotel he ran – was boarded up and beginning to crumble. From the centre of one of the woodchip boards, covering what had presumably been a large lobby window at the hotel entrance, a large chunk of the composite wood had burst and fallen in a torn wound onto the pavement; given how efficiently sealed the whole place was, it was odd that the fragment seemed to have been knocked out from within. Someone had drawn, in chalk, first a symbol of a fish and then a crucifix-shaped cross, above the tear; had they imagined they were warding off from the town something that hid inside?
As they walked beyond the nineteenth century heart of the Bay, April explained that she had wanted Mandi to see the derelict hotel because the writer who had lived there, whose followers would gather there every year to celebrate him and his works, had made his name writing stories in the style of, and often with the same characters as, H. P. Lovecraft.
“The family may have left, but there is still a connection...”
“How do you know all this stuff?”
Mandi did not go in for competition with other female professionals. Not for the sake of it. She wanted to beat everyone, certainly; she was an equal opportunities vanquisher. The gender made no difference. It neither increased nor decreased the pleasure of prevailing over another. Only repetition would do that; had done, she feared. Now, she was quite happy for the archivist to set the pace, choose the route, and make most of the interpretations. April’s idea was to explore what she called ‘The Lovecraft Triangle’; a few square miles of countryside and tiny villages – most of them, she said, no more than a few cottages – which would have been the full extent of the known territory for most of H. P. Lovecraft’s eighteenth and nineteenth ancestors, before they upped and disappeared into a gargantuan continent. What would get into a family to do that?
April said that there was more chance of spotting things on foot. This was a new concept for Mandi; she had never really thought about doing much of anything on foot. It took too long. Taxis or tube if you wanted to keep up in London. And “things”? They were not for “spotting”; they were for paying admission to see, or accepting gracefully even when you knew they came with a price of their own, for buying and selling, for avoiding and lusting after. But not “spotting”. There had always been someone else to do that; a travel writer, a tour guide, an app. What would there be to spot? Surely, any old things not already in a museum or a private collection were either worthless or too ruined to be unrecognisable?
April suggested that they start in graveyards.
“I have given my life to learning about this little area of the county.”
Mandi laughed at April. Her thoughts had been ticking round in her head; now she looked up, April was a statue almost, a moving marble thing. She was covered in a layer of snow.
“You look just the same!”
Mandi used her phone – it had come back to life – and she was an ice maiden too.
“Come on, we’re walking stereotypes, let’s behave like them!”
And she took a selfie with her arm around April and posted it across her platforms. In the image, beaming, April looks as young as Mandi. But when she looked at April now, dappled by flakes of white, cringing in a sudden gust of Siberian wind, Mandi saw an older woman; the years kept from her by a lifetime in archives, shuffling cardboard boxes and wearing white gloves to handle claws.
Long past the fringes of suburbia, Mandi had barely noticed the large farm buildings they had passed and then their submerging into the tiny lanes. Nor the gentle transition from the smaller fields and the busier landscape, to something less definable. A kind of easing out, a couple of villages that April dismissed as “Saxon” and then a lonelier and yet more present kind of space, of folded hills and quiet curvy lanes. Here the fields were not so smooth, but punctuated with patches of gorses, jumbles of stones and wet dips that the farmers neglected to plough. Not a wilderness, this was managed land, but the human hand was looser here.
An old man with a green beard and white eyebrows was hanging through the hedge.
As they drew close, the angle to the old rotted stump changed and the eyes and mouth disappeared into the blackened wood.
“You’re in good company if you can see those. The draper’s assistant who found all the bones and teeth, he was so prone to spotting those things – hobgoblins, he would have called them – that he took to.... o, but you know that story. You’re becoming an expert...”
As they walked in silence for a mile of so, Mandi looked out for further figures and faces, stretching arms and drooping tongues, and, surely enough, the more she looked the more she saw that they were there, everywhere.
April turned off the metalled lane, just after passing a kennels in the middle of nowhere; the hounds came running up to the fence, only to turn and ignore April and Mandi, who stood for a while watching the dogs hoovering around the grounds.
They walked on down a farm track between two tall blade-battered hedges. Such was the sharpness of the incline that Mandi could see over the tops, to smooth whitened hilly fields, over which the sun now fell, the clouds parting, and already the melt began to drip from the ends of the broken hedge twigs. The fields were topped with huge trees, their last few leaves loathe to let another year pass. The further down the lane they walked, the greener grew the fields and the wetter the path. At the bottom they crossed a stone bridge over a stream that was beginning to flood, water turning an earthy red; a dead and dried crow sat on guard against the gate, and beyond that April and Mandi crunched their way up the last of the snow towards what seemed like a lone thin tower emerging from the tops of trees at the summit of the hill. It reminded Mandi of the freestanding lift shaft that had loomed over the Bay. Large red cows ignored them as they laboured up the slope.
As Mandi huffed and puffed, wondering if sex was really the only exercise necessary to keep fit, she asked April if she thought that there was anything odd about The Sett.
“How do you mean “odd”?”
And Mandi told her about finding the body of the suicide.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories like that, more bodies than they say... that’s the general consensus, that there are a lot more unhappy people here, people with serious problems, behind the smiley facades of holiday places there is a lot of exploitation, low wages, seasonal work, people on benefits who think a seaside place would be easier but find it even more lonely, a lot of voids, cold and empty spaces behind the facade that the tourists don’t stay around long enough to see, the false smiles and the dying inside. They’re up on the cliffs pumped full of sleeping pills or walking out to sea with their pockets full of pebbles. That’s what everyone says; I even heard a whisper that some of them have bullets in them... did yours?
“It was in a hell of a state... must have been in the water a while...”
“There’s a pattern, the locals seem to accept it as a series of one offs, not really connected... by the way, this church...”
As they climbed they were passed by a self-absorbed figure; a young man in a hoodie, his haunted eyes fixed to the trace of footpath in the chewed grass.
“Probably one of the meditators from the West Ogwell Retreat House; they’re told not to acknowledge passersby.”
They reached the top of the hill and under the trees was a nave that fitted to the tower. Halfway across the field the meditator turned and lifted his head, watching April and Mandi disappear around the side of the church; then with a nervous glance to the blue sky he hurried down the hill. In the tree tops rooks were calling and fussing.
“...it’s deconsecrated, but we can go in...”
Inside the rather anonymous skin of the building, the void was simple and neat. Old fashioned high-walled pews under a sharply curved roof, and at the end a simple altar with a low wooden rail. On the altar in the centre of a white cloth stood a brassy metal cross.
“I thought you said it was deconsecrated?”
“I suppose they like to keep up appearances... there was a horror movie shot here recently. Quite Lovecraftian... a giant serpent lurking in the earth beneath the altar... o!”
April pointed behind the altar. There was some kind of fetish there; a piece of twig around which were tied fragments of cloth and dried flower.
“The Christians are trying to keep the serpent in the hotel, and the pagans are trying to let it out of the deconsecrated church!”
“It was just a film, right?”
“Mandi, it is a mystery what people intend by their marks... those graffiti scribblings on the concrete steps, back in the Bay... is that just kids scribbling rude things?”
April, laughing, led them out of the church, not through the porch, but by a tiny door in the South wall of the chancel, explaining that in the movie this door had led the exorcists directly into the mouth of the monster.
“Attacks on foreigners, a couple of murders,” she continued as if there had been no interruption, “these bodies wash up on the beaches, someone sabotaged the cliff railway and it may not be ready for next season. There are attacks on tourists; they get reported as fights outside of clubs, vandalism in cafes, hotels, and so on, but there was a death, no one was arrested and the body was returned to... somewhere rural in one of the ... Kazakhstan, somewhere like that, maybe. There is never any information about the assailants... even when they take place in quite public places, and when tourist places get wrecked there are never any witnesses. They don’t even put out the usual calls for people to come forward. As if there’s an acceptance, that since, you know, Brexit and everything, that that’s how it goes now. I’d call it a general... I’d call it a silent war... against the weakest, not just foreigners, but against anyone not secure on their patch... weird thing is, a lot of these actions... have you ever heard of the Ferguson gang?”
“What? Like organised crime? Or...”
“No, no... they were... upper class, young... philanthropists, I suppose. Early conservationists. This was the 1930s, started late 20s, went on even through the war. They were a bit wild, in a respectable upper class way. They had a lot of money and when they heard about a medieval barn or an ancient monument, if it was going to be ploughed out or knocked down, they’d collect big money from their connections and they’d buy it and save it. Usually they got the National Trust to do the actual work, they collected the cash from their rich friends – and I mean cash, they delivered as cash, like a criminal gang. And no one knew who they were, mostly still don’t after almost a hundred years. They would always appear in masks, they used fake names like Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Red Biddy. Anyway, I think I’ve found evidence for a similar kind of gang, same kind of time, but not well off, comfortable I suppose, middle class, young, plenty of time on their hands, they were based out on the Sett, you were asking about anything odd out there. Well, back then, there’s no sign of it now, but there were houses that stood on those dunes...”
Dropping down from the church a long view opened up across the thawing fields, with only a farmhouse doted here and there, miles from one another, right up to the tors on the Moor still topped with thick snow. The wind, when it blew, stung their faces bright red.
“... yes, there were sixty or so houses, built by locals out of wood, no foundations, I’ve no idea what they did for plumbing and sewage, probably threw it in the sea; anyway by the mid-30s some of them were damaged in a little storm and many of the folks got scared and stayed away, so this gang moved in. I mean there were no property rights out there... it was just shifting sand, it didn’t exist legally...”
“What did they do?”
“Nothing very much, nothing constructive like the conservationists. They sailed around there, kayaking, braving storms, taking stupid risks, they were rather sexually progressive for the times, which might have been the influence of a couple of young German women who were part of the group, all very ‘Health and Efficiency’, ‘Kraft durch Freude’, wearing shorts and doing gymnastics on the sand...”
“Just sounds like everyday Hitler Youth having fun...”
“Yes, that’s what they were. Small scale, sweet and innocent, but they seem to have been preparing for something, which is where the secret gang thing comes in. I have no evidence they ever did any of this stuff, right, but they wrote about it, in their innocent little books about sailing off The Sett and pamphlets about fishing and swimming and wild flowers...”
“Wow, they were real subversives...”
“They keep dropping comments, promoting a sort of green fascism or green terror, they make jokes about blowing up the railway line along the front...”
They had crossed a wide field, the pockets of snow almost melted or blown into the hedgerows. Beyond the gate at a corner of the field was a large white rectangular sign: KEEP OUT. GOVERNMENT PROPERTY.
“...about keeping the tourists out of the area, about closing down all amusement arcades and modern entertainments, which they seemed to think was very un-English, though that doesn’t stop them being very keen on German town planning, they liked things to be hygienic, as they called it...”
They had taken a sharp left and very quickly a village was all around them, the stumpy tower of an old church up ahead and an odd arrangement in the middle of its central crossroads; a stone cube-shaped building with a pyramid roof and on top a large metal teardrop with a light bulb inside.
“...and it’s all done in fun, of course, and yet it’s not funny, in terms of what we know...”
“And what do we know?”
“The Holocaust and...”
“In the 1930s there were camp coaches in the sidings at The Sett; ordinary train carriages but converted into rooms where you could stay. There are still some there. The gang made jokes about trapping the holiday-makers in the coaches and then transporting them to prison camps...”
“Yes....let’s look in here.”
And April turned into the grounds of the church. It was old. Many of the stones were keeling, covered in mosses, the inscriptions obliterated with grime or smoothed away by rain and wind. As they walked April scanned the names.
“Apart from the German women, they were locals, sons and daughters of the doctors and vicars and small businessmen of the Bay. They considered the holidaymakers from the industrial Midlands an inferior race that had invaded. Invasion was their right and the Brummies had stolen it from them! I don’t know how seriously to take them or how seriously they took themselves...”
She paused, transparently. They had stopped before a grave that was unlike the others. Not an upright stone, but a construction of three layers of rectangles, largest at the base, smallest at the top. There was no visible ornament except the shining splurges of white and yellowy-green lichen that ran over every surface.
“Well, at least one of them – called Raymond Cattell – became a world authority on the human mind, a psychologist who was listed and quoted in more academic papers than Freud. Not a household name, but someone whose work has permeated advertising, education, prison design, social policy... terribly respectable, a hundred awards and honorary this and that... he moved to the States and that gave him a world stage... like this family... check the inscription.”
Mandi leaned over the austere symmetry.
IN MEMORY OF WILLIAM LOVECRAFT...
“How did you know?”
“Which other one would it be?”
April looked about the graveyard. Mandi followed her gaze. It was true, there was no other likely candidate among the regular monuments. But that was not what Mandi was feeling most; a sneaking disappointment that this might be the end of the journey. That she would not, tomorrow and the day after that, be walking down thawing lanes and across softening fields and adventuring with this vague and humdrum archivist. She could not place the feeling, but running through her was the desperate desire to be and stay in April’s company. As they had walked her voice had become more startling, her face sharper and more well-defined.
“Could this be the one who wrote my letter?”
It was hard to discern the exact date. The original leaden letters and numbers had mostly fallen or been prised away, but the holes for the pins that anchored them could still be read approximately.
“Died eighteen something five... sixty five? Or eighty something... Aged seventy nine, that bit’s clear... could that be him?”
“I think this is probably the great uncle of the writer; he could have written your letter, if he wrote it young enough, but the name on our manuscript says ‘James’, yours just says ‘Lovecraft’. That doesn’t necessarily mean James was the author, rather than, say, a witness. We can go and look for the cave if you like? I think it may be the same one as our draper’s assistant found all the teeth in...”
“You’re shitting me?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I know where it is...”
“Have you been there?”
“No, but it’s not a secret. It’s on maps. It’s on the edge of some farm land, but I don’t suppose they’ll mind. I can take you straight there, it not a long trek – and we can check out the look of the cave against what’s in your letter. Did you bring it?”
The analytical engineer was deeply uncertain about his supporters. They had responded generously when, after his wonderfully successful lecture at the Royal Institution, his responses to questions and his condemnation of government and scientific societies alike for the common weakness of their support for the invariant iron laws of the universe had turned general approbation to violent pockets of scorn. Goaded, he had denounced the entire absence of any real scientific culture and compared the parlous state of the national thinking with the solid materialism to be found elsewhere. By unseen agents he was denounced from the corners of the lecture room as lacking in patriotism, and the defence of his thesis in public disputation – which had led to accusations of blasphemy and his excusing from all examinations at Cambridge – was raised in some detail.
When the Hexamerons had rushed to his aid, just as violence had seemed inevitable, first forming into a thin line of protection across the centre of the room and then mounting an honour guard for his triumphant exit from the lecture theatre, Babbage had imagined that they must be some student offshoot of the Analytical Society. Certainly the invariant derivatives of differentiation – velocity, acceleration and reaction rate – were uppermost in his mind as they rushed him from the room to safety.
Now the same unflinching certainty informed the momentum of his colleagues as they marched him through the gates of Bedlam between Raving and Melancholy, the two Cibber sculptures in soapy stone, the image of stupefied joy even more awful than that of pained contortion. The Moorfields building was a parody of itself; buckling walls and uneven floors and streams of water gushing between the storeys from the roof. It giddied Babbage and his little band. His comrades seemed little different, in the mathematician’ mind, to the armed warders who patrolled everywhere; when he had refused to come they had threatened him with revelations concerning his secret membership of The Ghost Club.
God damn them! Who had blabbed?
The warder held out his hand and one of the Hexamerons slipped a folded note into his palm. A nod and the chains were unlocked from the door. On creaking hinges it was swung open and Babbage ushered in.
The cell was mostly bare. The walls cushioned almost to the ceiling. A single chair sat in the middle of the room and on the ground before it a large sheet of paper with a design of some kind inked in. Babbage was guided to the chair. He looked up at his companions.
“Tell us what you think? Will it work?”
He turned and bent over. The sheet measured something like five yards by three. In a spidery hand, someone had drawn upon it a series of connected shapes: boxes, tubes, pumps, gears, pistons, barrels, organ pipes, rotor blades, levers, drawers and giant eye-pieces.
“Where is the engine? What is supposed to drive this mess?”
A curtain that covered the entire far wall of the room trembled. Babbage saw it and looked up.
“Is there someone else here?”
He addressed his companions, but he was answered by a thin voice from behind the curtain.
“Pne...m... ic Ch...mi....y...”
“I beg your pardon?”
A figure slipped from behind the curtain and moved along the side wall, sliding the back of his coat down the padding as if he were trying to make himself invisible to those in the room. The knee length coat was filthy, but somehow he had managed to retain clean breeches and westcot. His feet were bare, his wig awry, but there was some species of frilled cloth pinned at his throat.
Pushing off from the wall, the patient performed a kind of dance; an illustration of the movement of fluids and gases that would eventually populate the machine he had imagined and saw before him and inside him and throughout the whole world. The machine that was running the Jacobin galaxies.
“There!” shouted the inmate, “you can do it! You’re a pneumatic chemist! At last, they have sent me the man I have been asking for!”
On bare feet, the patient approached the mathematician, his toes crackling the chart as he trod carefully from part to part, modelling the flow and velocities of the fluids, imitating the rate of the reactions. For what seemed to Babbage an eternity, the man gyrated, marched, pirouetted and gestured as he followed the design’s strict choreography. Nothing was improvised; he kept to the plan. His exposure of the grand plot was exact and conscientious.
Finished, he stood before the chair.
“They have lobster-cracked, they have lengthened my brain and worked me with the nutmeg grater, but I have scientifically memorised their treachery. These men” and he gestured along the row of Hexamerons “assure me that you are the inventor of an analytical machine, the antidote to this infernal influencing engine of the Jacobins... is that true or are you another impostor come to draw more wool over the eyes of society?”
Babbage paused, then drew in a deep breath.
“Careful, sir, the weave is in the air...”
“Something is in the air. To be sure. But there is nothing in your machine but air! Hot air! I am sure you are sincere in everything you say, and I am certain that there are particular men – as we all have these – who wish to organise the world in such a way as to bring us down in it. However, your map, your blueprint, is not how these things are done!”
“Are you sure?”
The patient looked, appealing, to the line of Society members. Finally, one took a tiny step towards the seated figure of the inventor.
“Sir, are you sure there is nothing in the plan? Look again; on your words hang our future.”
Babbage was uncertain whether he meant the future of his Society, of which Babbage was now a part, or whether he meant that “Society” of which all living persons were members, including the deluded and dream-haunted idiots in bare feet and frock coats.
Babbage looked again at the paper. He stood. Bent over, then skirted it, followed by the inmate, as though they had both seen something new, and were chasing it to a destination. Babbage performed a full lap of the blueprint, bended; then rose to his full height.
“Absolutely nothing in it. A mess of line and tubes and whatever. It may have the appearance of a machine, but if you were to build it, there would be no life in it, mechanical or spiritual. No more life than a coffin would.”
“Idiot!!! Idiot!!! Madman!!!” roared the inmate and tore a handful of cloth from his breeches. The Hexamerons instantly formed a ring around the mathematician and began to usher him solicitously to the door, screaming for the warders. As the door swung open, complaining rustily, Babbage had only a moment to look back before the door swung shut and the chains refastened. In that moment he saw through the frame the scampering inmate leap halfway up the curtain at the end of the room and grabbing handfuls hauled the whole thing down in a dusty confusion, cracking his skull, with a sound like a cracked bell, on the uneven wooden boards. Light streamed through the giant barred windows that were revealed and covered the entire far wall, and, though the dust was beginning to form into a miasma, what the inventor saw beyond was a panorama of the great metropolis and how it was made up of a series of connected shapes – houses and warehouses like boxes, chimneys likes tubes, factories full of pumps and gears and pistons, breweries shaped like barrels, cathedrals like organ pipes, pub signs swinging like windmills or rotor blades, one person pulling on another like crowds of levers, banks full of drawers and everywhere the constables lurking like blue uniformed eye-pieces. The whole capital no more and no less than a lunatic’s plan and just as lacking of an explicit engine. Yet it ran!
As the Hexamerons raced him out between Raving and Melancholy, despite their blackmailing ways, he had committed themselves to their crusade; he, with them, would harness chaos in his machine.
“For my sins, I downloaded a couple of Raymond Cattell’s papers.”
April paused at the wooden gate. Beyond it, stood a large house, and then a field of sheep grazing, indifferent to the seriousness of the two women.
“Sophisticated stuff, all the findings apparently based on experiments and observations, charts and graphs, peer-reviewed... some very attractive ideas around risk-taking but behind it all, like a ticking metronome, is the same basic idea that they were laughing about on The Sett in the 1930s...”
“Survival as the final test of ethics.... natural selection among groups, and the acceptance of direction by qualified elites. The drive to create a better humanity in conformity to evolutionary ideals...”
“Is this OK, coming down here? Isn’t this someone’s lawn...”
“It’s a public right of way. The sign’s fallen down.”
“If you say so. ‘Survival...’?”
“Of the fittest to... culturally develop.”
They had cut away from the winding lane, and along a driveway, approaching and then skirting a large house called ‘The Old Rectory’. Or something like that; Mandi had forgotten it no sooner than looked at it. At times the terrain seemed very real to Mandi, brighter and sharper than she had seen fields before; then a moment later she was in a fuzzy infatuated space hanging on April’s words. It was like being a character in a film, it was like being a child again, like being a soldier without enemies, or an artist without reviews.
“Of course, Cattell didn’t say ‘race’ in the academic papers. Not very often. I think he did on The Sett, I’m sure he did; later these people were waiting for a time when they could again. The papers sometimes say ‘class’, mostly ‘groups’; that’s all they need to say for those who think that race and class is everything. He’d use ‘intelligence’ a lot; when he was being provocative ‘evolutionary development’. The declared intentions of the work were seemingly idealist and humanitarian, Cattell even calls it a ‘religion’, it has a name – ‘Beyondism – improving humanity in preparation for the end of chaos, the abolition of progressive taxation, and the epiphany of the free individual, but you can hear the ticking like a bomb under a pier or behind a slot machine, or in a crushing comment from a teacher to some working class kid in Birmingham, or savage punishment in the kind of correctional facility where incarceration is designed to deter breeding. Worst perhaps, in the offers of genetically engineered intelligence to poor working class families as treatment for their foetuses... all of that happened because of his ideas... thing is, Mandi, all these suicides and attacks on tourists and the fire in the arcade down on The Sett the other week and the attack on the funicular railway last year... it’s like they might have all been carried out by the eugenics-mad Ferguson’s Gang that the gang on the Sett aspired to become...”
“O, you! O, you! You had me there right up to the punch line!”
“I was taking you seriously! Before you got to the ghosts bit! O, come on! There’ve always been bastards, April, they didn’t go away because of a few documentaries about the Holocaust; they adjust, they re-present their state control mind-fuck steel fist in the kid glove nanny state as scientistic business-as-usual... that’s what you’re saying, right? I see these people every day! Fake libertarians – one minute they’re rolling away ‘unbounded social welfare’ and the next they want.... what was it? ‘Acceptance of qualified...’?”
“Exactly. The fascists faded back into the system, some of them looped themselves into libertarianism, to share their hierarchy-crazed mumbo jumbo by other means; and I can just about buy that.... but a gang of ghosts? Conspiracy theory is a conspiracy against thinking. I was enjoying our talks...”
Mandi laughed at April.
“Yours isn’t even a conspiracy by living people! Most people do me the decency when pitching a conspiracy to at least have it run by living people...”
April shrugged, almost coquettishly.
“It’s a story by Lovecraft; about a big nasty thing that doesn’t die, but sleeps and calls from underneath...”
Up ahead, trip-trotting down the path, a woman on a tall white horse. Her hi-viz top decked in blue and white chequers, and the word POLICE...
Mandi and April looked twice. No, POLITE.
That was a weird thing to have on a jacket.
A pair of rooks clattered across the path of the horse and swung into the tops of the trees that stood far up on a rise. The gentle folding of the green fields had been broken now, the land was flattening out with sharper rises and hints of limestone faces and snatches of small cliffs to either side.
“Going for a walk?”
“Looking for anything in particular?”
April jumped in.
“We’re following public footpaths, visiting churches, looking for some of the old names, tracing the history, getting a sense of the past... we were thinking of some lunch?”
“The pub in the next village does a decent ploughman’s. So I’ve heard.”
“That’s good enough for us! Just out for a ride, are you?”
“Nice day for it... so it’s turned out, anyway!”
The woman swung the horse around and rode off in the direction from which she had come.
“That’s the Hunt,” explained April. “They didn’t take kindly to our stopping and looking through their fence at their hounds; thought they’d check us out for sabs.”
“Did you notice the ‘POLITE’ on her thing? Thinking we’d be lazy enough to read it as POLICE? Cheeky, eh?”
They pressed on. Mandi, a little wearily now. April, unfaltering.
The horse rider, once out of sight, turned into the first field. Tethering her horse to a gate, she stripped off her riding gear and dressed from a saddle bag in the kit of the white snipers, slipping an anonymous hi-viz top over that, slinging a rifle and case over that. Then faded into the trees.
The steam engine, a devil billowing red and black within its vented cylinder exhaust, raced along the line set down by Brunel’s navvies. A coast defiled; a shoreline made where none had been, and tunnels cut in desert dunes that had stood solidly for three hundred million years. In places, the seas had been driven back. For this evening’s passenger alone in the first class carriage, the splash of spray against the window was unnecessary; his thoughts were already boiling around the vehicle, the highest development of human genius against which nature threw its basest power.
The man felt a shiver, not his own, as the train passed the Sett and then the Red Rock. Even in the bright sun of the late afternoon, he caught the shades of primitive beings in conference with unsophisticated monsters on the beach. Yet, these thoughts came as a relief to him; the letter in his pocket burned like a white hot coal against his heart. Inflammation spread like an unholy frost around his fragile frame; barely middle-aged, the trauma of his losses had eaten into and disturbed his cells. His complexion was grey and getting greyer. Sadness and suffering had never damaged his generosity; now, however, he was dragged by the flaring engine towards a scandal made by the meanness of others, threatening to drag down all the chapels of hope, and he was obliged to do his best to save them from the scoundrels.
At the tiny station at the top of the Bay, the fireman had over-stoked. The passenger stepped out into the chocking cloud, escaping the platform and coughing his way down towards the coast. Without looking up, he passed familiar modern villas and respectable guesthouses where he knew there were friends dressing for dinner; and parlours where preparations might be in hand for a séance or two. Though he was confident that his unexpected arrival would be greeted as a boon at all these doors, he marched solemnly on in the knowledge that all of that, every strand of the web of friendships and spiritual adventures reaching across the best of all societies, from the threatened capitals of glittering and tumultuous Europe to experimental societies formed around the kitchens of humble cottages, was now fallen and under threat.
As a gentleman of a certain delicacy of sentiment, grateful to the services of young men (and a few young women) barely out of childhood, bound to their openness of spirit – if that is what it was – he knew how he and others were always vulnerable to gossip. He feared – indeed, if he were honest with himself and less ready than usual to forgive, he knew – that others had been quicker than him to exploit the intimacy necessary to their joint endeavours. Now there might come a fatal exposure and the re-telling of their entire adventure in the sordid terms of a brothel.
Eschewing the porters, the man marched his small suitcase to a line of villas perched above the stilled waters of the Bay. Sat on a stable fault, it was a home for solid industrialists and even more solid novelists. Dropping just below this rank of small palaces, among them the yellowing mass of Argyll Hall, the man presented himself at the reception desk of the Shedden Hall Hotel. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the place, or the proximity to so many living rooms that would usually have been so welcoming, that alerted him to the spiritual dowdiness of the place. Even in the hotel’s new wash of paint he felt its future desecration by addled folk, desperate spirits struggling to escape, in its rich brocades he felt the uncomfortable nervousness of the worship of mediocrity and the heat of the arson that would threaten the hotel’s timbers. An officious manager checked him in. For a moment he considered leaving a false name, but only unpleasant absurdisms – “Ambrosia Homunculi”, “The Dishonourable Peter Rast” – came to him; in their place, he wrote “Edmund Gurney”.
Once in his room, Gurney sat upon the bed and waited. His suitcase was unopened. After a while, he thought to check his timepiece, but it mattered little how quickly or how slowly disgrace came. Accustomed to the grip of emotional suffering, these minutes were of little account to Gurney in the greater book of his life. What did weigh on his heart, though, was the prospect of the sinking of the entire ship. The bringing low of so many fine souls. The losses of his childhood had driven from him the duplicities and simple crudeness that he observed in both the upper and lower orders; and he knew that he was a thin-skinned and thin-souled man who felt too much to act with the ruthlessness of the middling sort. The world was going to hell and he was restraining the handcart.
Eventually there was a knock upon the door.
“Come! Please come!”
The maid – somewhat filled out in figure from the mere slip of a girl he remembered – gingerly opened the bedroom door and then closed it, silently, behind her. She spoke quietly.
“Sorry, sir! I weren’t allowed to get away. Keepin’ you waiting!”
“Think nothing of it, dear child. Here, sit down, and tell me what is troubling you. Take your time.”
He cleared the suitcase from the chair and beckoned the maid; who seemed to shrink in height as she approached him. Seeing that she was nervous to sit while he stood, Gurney resumed his perch on the edge of the bed, unconscious of his shifting very slightly from buttock to buttock. Their slight vibration, an uncontrollable shaking of the bones, quietly squeaked the hinges; Gurney contrived an appearance of superficial calm.
“Very sorry, sir, to bring you here, but I could bear it no longer, a ruined conscience is a terrible thing to live with, and what with leaving my post in Brighton, the upset...”
“Yes, yes. I have no ruined conscience, but go on...”
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to imply...”
“How could you? Now, proceed quickly to your complaint. There is a late train, I might just catch.... Is it about Smith and the boys? Is it Podmore?”
“No, sir! Everyone knows about that!!”
“Oh... do they?”
He had come on a fool’s errand. The sudden lifting of the cloud dazzled Gurney. He felt a dizzying exhilaration, as if he were floating from the bed, his head among stars.
“It’s about what... what I was persuaded to do.”
Gurney’s soul came plummeting back onto the bed. The room darkened. The heavy wallpaper moved in on him. The furniture leaned over.
“I should never have agreed, but ‘e were such a lovely man; ‘e dazzled yuh! I wanted to help, be part o’ it all. It were like being actually in the magic, sir, like being in a pantomime! Or Arabian Nights!”
“Good Lor’! Is that what he told you it was!”
“No, sir! That were just my feelin’s! I were a foolish young thing. What did I know of the ways of the world, back then? Let alone of the next world...”
“Of course not, of course not, how could you? We were all innocent then. You acted as best you could, I’m sure. Gentlemen must take responsibility for the young.... but why do you wish to raise these matters now? To call me here? So many years after?”
“I have recently attended the Roman church here, sir. I’ve bin prepared for my first communion, and as I’m sure you is aware, what that requires?
“Ah! I see. But surely... you need not confess the sins of others, whether you were a victim of them or no...”
“I weren’t no victim! I knew exactly what I was a-doin’. I knew my right from wrong, even then. I ain’t never been anything special, but I ‘ave a conscience.”
“Of course you do.”
“Every day it ‘as preyed upon me, comin’ like a creepin’ thing in the night, in the day waiting for me in cupboards, spoilin’ all my dreams. I’m so sorry, sir, I ‘ad to tell you. I should never ‘a fooled you all...”
“Fooled? What do you mean?”
“Smith, sir... I were in on his schemes. Part of his ‘set up’. None of it were real...”
She stopped and looked hard at Gurney, intent on reading his face.
“I knew! You never guessed! Smith said you was just playin’ along, but I said ‘no, you was a proper gentleman’! That you ‘udn’t never make such a fraud. Never a one t’ cheat at cards.”
“I don’t play cards. If you are alluding to Smith’s dishonesty at Brighton, Annie, I knew all about that at the time. I saw the mechanism. I challenged Mister Smith and he confessed everything – the rehearsal of the boys, your own manipulation of the strings, the use of fabric and chemicals, everything. Mister Smith was as appalled at his behaviour as I was; he wept! Poor man! He explained that in his belief in his own inadequacy faced with such grave affairs, and import of the dead being heard, he was afraid of letting us all down and so had given nature, and supernature, a helping hand. To emphasise the truth, rather than... well, you know... invent it. As his tears fell, he made a solemn promise to me, sworn on the memories of my three dear sisters, that – whatever the goodness of his intentions – he should never do such a thing again. We are all frail, Annie; the chaos is always nibbling at our heels, along the way we sometimes stumble, but...”
“It were all of it play-acting.”
“From the start to the end on it! After Brighton the same as before Brighton. The boys always rehearsed. Like it was for a play. Trick properties and effects. Smith taught us words; nought was writ down. There was strings the first sitting and the last and Smith were always behind the screens poking at things to make ‘em move. I’m so sorry, sir. ‘E taught us ‘ow to conceal things after the witnesses ‘ad checked the rooms...”
“All of it? Every single...”
The maid nodded. A tear dropped from her cheek and burst on the blackness of her uniform.
“Nothing was real?”
In a moment he would be sure to wake up, and the whole thing – the letter, the journey, the meeting – would all sink back into the dream.
From the pocket of her apron, Annie produced a handful of ectoplasm, a scribbled prompt card, a linen mask that Gurney recognised, shockingly, as the likeness of the face of his youngest sister, and a retractable tin claw. Annie laid these out on her lap; as if they were the sacraments of an obscene ritual.
Gurney shook for a moment and then fell back onto the bed. The maid leapt up from the chair, scattering the sacraments of hoaxing.
“She leaned over, fearing that the visionary had suffered a seizure. His face was fixed in a rictus, his eyes glazed. His lips began to move. Annie bent, putting her ear close to Gurney’s mouth.
“Go to confession. Confess all. Leave now.”
The maid straightened, gathering up the bits and pieces of her past, and fled the room. As the door clicked in the frame, Gurney sat up straight like a vampire ghoul in its freshly-opened coffin. Then, as if in a trance, he fetched paper, pen and ink from his suitcase, sat at the dressing table and began to write.
It was almost a day later when the manager gained entry to the room, concerned that their recent guest had failed to appear for either breakfast, lunch or dinner. Gurney lay, dressed, upon the bed, just as Annie had left him, expect for a cloth upon his lower face, the last vapours of chloroform still hanging lightly around it. His eyes were glazed, his lips did not move.
When, two days later, a detective called at the hotel, he was surprised to hear from the manager that he had already handed over the two letters, found upon the deceased gentleman, to “the first ‘tec, a right proper gentleman copper he was, dead posh, from London”. The manager felt that it was impolitic to communicate to this ordinary detective that the letter summonsing the deceased had come from a member of his own staff. The authorities had both letters and if trouble came it would come soon enough without his encouragement. Of the second letter, Gurney’s, all he would say of it was that it was “mumbo-jumbo”.
The detective excused himself, in order to pursue his enquiries, furiously, at the local police station, where his investigation quickly ground to a halt. The manager, however, had not been wholly frank with him. In fact, the manager had carefully read the letter that Gurney had written. While he did not understand it all, he had caught the gist of it, was glad to be rid of it to the first person who asked for it, and would not be mentioning its contents to anyone in the near future. This is as he remembered it:
“My dear good friends, distinguished colleagues and fellow seekers, our Olympus is wholly destroyed, and all of our endeavours, so it appears, are at an end. I have received this day testimony – and examined incontrovertible evidence – from an impeccable source who stands to gain nothing by the revelation, that all of our experimental works have been tainted by pantomime. Not a one of them was true. Smith, in whom I invested so much faith and forgiveness, has cheated us entirely. All his hypnoses were thespian, his boys mere scenery. We have played fool to his knave. I take full responsibility for exposing the Society to his charlatanism. Our work is dead. We are back at the beginning, with our suspicions. One small hope, only, remains: such has been the nature of my losses and the depth of my suffering and grief, that only the prospect of a reunion, in flesh, with those who went on in haste, has kept me from the logical course of self-extermination. Now, it is with the same hope and prospect that I destroy the bodily part of me in a last throw of the dice; a gamble on a desperate solution to our Great Problem.
Friends, in the years of our labours the physical world has come to chaos. Even in our Society there have been those who strove to turn our chapels into bordellos. Those of our friends in power avert their eyes from the cesspit in their charge. My simple exit will be an unimportant and a trivial one if I cannot aid those of good to bring the beast to heel; so it is that I propose a final experiment. If I find myself upon the ‘other side’ and in good company, I will organise in that blessed place a Story to be communicated in many spirit voices, transmitted by mediums, and assembled upon earth. In that blessed place, I will also arrange for a Plan; I will do what I failed to do on earth and father a child, a mystic child, a leader-prophet engineered by the finest biologist-minds in the hereafter. My soul will father it upon a medium; I leave the exact details to you. This child will rein in the bestial Chaos and restore Man to the road of progressive evolution that He has departed from in order to court decadence, and thus raising Man to perfection by selection.
If, however, you hear nothing.... then, my friends, Darwin – though even he refuses to accept his own ‘findings’ – is right, and there is no Purpose; mutation and meaninglessness rule and only Nothingness in the blasphemous majesty of darkness awaits the dying. In such an event, individual existence having ceased with the death of my body, I ask this: that our Society adopt a new objective, in lieu of salvation, and that is the quickest possible extermination of the entire race itself.
Your friend in hope of a progressive result,
Edmund Gurney (deceased).”
“You won’t find any lunch there!”
Left alone by the Hunt’s outrider, April and Mandi had followed the drive and then its becoming a muddy path until that in turn met a winding lane bending across the flat valley floor; under the shadow of the Great Hill. At a sharp corner of the lane was a gate and April indicated that they should enter, shutting the rickety structure behind them. They passed the low remains of small stone buildings and jumbles of roughly stacked rocks, leftovers from quarrying.
“What’s that? That weird sound?”
To their left, beyond a barbed wire fence and the valley bottom, a wide green field was grazed by Devon Reds, the lane edging its far side before the land began to rise to the dominant hill.
“The Great Hill, that is,” said April.
“Ow!” shouted Mandi, sweeping a wasp from her arm. April rummaged in her pockets and produced a small tube of ancient-looking cream, squirted a whirl onto her fingertip and began to rub it into Mandi’s arm, until Mandi began to feel inexplicably discomforted. They set off again. Mandi stumbled on the loose rocks, steering close to the low cliff and away from the field and any possessive eyes.
“Should we have asked?”
“I already did. I rang the farmhouse. They claim the cave’s now inaccessible, overgrown with brambles, and dangerous. None of which is true. They’re just trying to keep people off; probably anxious the Old Grotto will attract cat stranglers and Satanists...”
“I thought you said it was a cave?”
“It is. A natural cave; but there was a dig in the 1960s and they found medieval artefacts – possibly earlier – and remnants of a chapel that had been destroyed and the entrance blocked. Similar to one up in the north of the county dedicated to “wicked Eve and naughty Diana...”
“Don’t mess with me...”
“I’m not. That’s true.”
“I thought you said the shop assistant was a fundamentalist Christian?”
“It’s all mixed up, isn’t it?”
“What’s that, now?”
Mandi had frozen mid-stride. April turned back.
“That was definitely a hobgoblin. I saw it move and hide. That was no tree stump!”
April joined Mandi and they scanned the line of trees and scrub above them, along the rising diagonal line of the low cliff.
“See anything now?”
“Five, six, seven goblins, at least.”
They laughed it off and carried on. Yet there remained an uneasiness. Above them, the scrub faces and tree trunk legs shifted back into the bright camouflage of green and yellow shadows. They scaled the piles of quarry cast-offs and scrambled through a gap in the cliff face, inadequately obstructed by a large wooden plank, a recent half-hearted attempt to keep intruders out. This tiny opening brought the two out a little further along the stretching cliff face, above ruined sections of wall and the entrance to the cave they sought.
“Is this it?”
“I think it must be.”
“And these walls were a chapel?”
“The walls were the nave, the cave the chancel...”
“If it was Christian.”
“Maybe at that time everything was ‘Christian’?”
April did that stupid thing with the rabbit ears fingers. Mandi ducked into the cave, though the mouth was tall enough to take her on tip toes. Inside it was quickly dark, but dry, with light enough for Mandi to make out some long tentacular accretions of solidified lime that had formed as ribbed limbs on the walls. It was like standing under a rock octopus raised up on the points of its eight legs. Mandi quickly scrambled out again under the pretext of telling April, who was scrutinising the remains of the low wall.
“This is the cave the shop assistant dug out, right? Didn’t keep any useful records of his finds? You don’t reckon this is the same one as the Lovecraft thing is about, do you?”
April glowed, and opened her mouth, but the shout was someone else’s.
“You won’t find any lunch there!”
It came from one of a group of hobgoblins in hi-viz jackets that had begun to move in from three sides. Burly men in jeans down one side of the cave mouth, men in suits and hard hats down the other side, while across the field, scattering the herd of Reds, a howling farmer.
April recognised the men in suits as denizens of the Hexameron Essay Society. A different section from those who organised the talks at the museum. But she explained them that way to Mandi.
“It’s the club from the museum, is all.”
“What right have you to be here?”
Mandi bluffed, cracking in ahead of April.
“What right have you?”
“We’re here at the pleasure of the landowner.”
“Get off my land, you two! You’re the woman that rang’d!”
“There is a public interest in this site,” explained April, coldly. “I am researching the historic Widger finds from this cave...”
“Who are these two?” shouted the farmer.
“I have no idea, sir. I am a trustee of the museum and I can tell you that neither one of these women is a member of our staff.”
“I am a volunteer,” stated April. Mandi turned coldly to her. “And I have dedicated my life...”
“Well you can go an’ dedicate it to somewhere else!”
Mandi looked at the red-faced farmer stood in his field, legs wide apart, battered trilby askew, and then at April who had become oddly middle-aged and frumpy. The vivacious virago was gone. Mandi went instinctively to April’s side, unnerved by the theatricality.
“Whatever your association with the museum, you have no right to use its authority to make trespass on private land. Before I call the police on behalf of the landowner here...”
And he gestured to the farmer as if he were a visual aid.
“... I suggest that you allow our security officers to escort you to the public highway and then be on your way?”
The Hexameron suit, a neatly trimmed beard that seemed to sit dead on his face like Astroturf in a stadium, pointed a manicured finger back the way that April and Mandi had come. The farmer in the field echoed the gesture with the similarly unblemished digit of a similarly smooth hand. A cowed April turned to Mandi as if looking for permission to persist, or an excuse to surrender. Mandi was a blank; in full lockdown. April looked beyond the fingers; a pack of younger Hexamerons, galoshes over their Ted Baker trousers, stumbled in a line, then the jumbled squad of security guards shuffled themselves into a random order, while, last line of defence, a step back within the treeline, were the four white snipers, yellow hi-viz tabards for disguise; their rifles, in their cases, hung over their shoulders.
At the broken gate, held open by one of the overweaning security staff, the Hexameron elder held up his palm in salute.
“You are welcome to our lectures and any other public events we choose to hold, but the private projects of the Society are strictly members-only affairs. Any future actions on your part that threaten the confidentiality of our business operations will invite a legal action. If, however, you choose to do anything that effectively prejudices or inhibits the actual aims and objectives of the Society, then you stand to invite a less... formal and more expeditious response. I hope I make myself clear?”
“And don’t come back!” yelled the farmer. “Loony bitches!!”
April and Mandi walked off, down the lane, without looking back. Almost a mile on and they had walked through a small gathering of houses, a smooth-skinned church and a beer house with a sign that both April and Mandi noted – a romantic pseudo-medieval lady mounted on a horse carrying an upturned sword by the blade to form a Christian cross and riding across water – then out the other side, towards a sun low in the sky. Mandi had photographed the sign and later, online, an image-search identified it as a copy of cover art for a 1980s Arthurian romance, written by a paedophile authoress, about the overwhelming of paganism by an invading Christianity, turning its goddesses into Christian virgins and martyrs.
It was another mile before either spoke.
And another mile before Mandi replied.
“Anything I can do to get back at those bastards, just let me know. I... loathe being told off!”
When April turned to look at her companion, Mandi saw that she was abruptly young again. She laughed.
“That wasn’t a real farmer. That wasn’t who I talked to. A while off, I met the couple who farm that land and they’re not like that. Security guards? Out here? I’ve never seen that before. To protect a cave? I didn’t recognise any of the Hexamerons from the other day...”
“The whole thing had the feel of a... charade. Like they were all played by actors, and they almost fluffed their lines! We’re just so used to shit drama that we take that kind of incompetent crap for reality...”
“I really don’t like being told off. I don’t like it, April, and I don’t accept it. But if you’re telling me that we were just reprimanded by a team of extras, then I... whuh?”
She had tried to ask ‘what’s that noise?’ There was a loud gulping and wheezing sound running up and down the hedgerows. Mandi looked around and then above, before she realised that the sound was coming from her. That the tears running down her North Face and spilling onto the lane were her own.
“Are you sure you’re OK?”
“That was the.... woman from the Hunt, yeh? Up in the trees?”
“I don’t think they know who they are...”
“Ditto. I swear I remember something about being told off by someone really important to me and I was really tiny and who was that? Who was that?”
It was an hour or more before Mandi felt able to explain. Her cold fury at being told off had triggered a memory of a time before Bryan and Anne; a reverie of being chastised by someone or something else, something more real than false, but she had forgotten what her disobedience had been and who she had disobeyed, but both things felt important and wholly obliterated by ‘stuff’. The more she tried to remember and recover the faint trace of the something, the more the intimation retreated back into the cave.
“What did you say the name of the shop assistant, the digger in the cave, was? Wager?”
“Widger. James Lyon Widger.”
Mandi Lyon had stopped dead in her tracks. She stared ahead and then swivelled to search the dark eyes of her companion. Mandi felt a rushing impulse to take a hold of April and seize her, squeeze the truth from her, dissolve into her.
“You better not be fucking with me...”
“You are telling us... what? That the texts experimented on each other!”
“They talk to each other. Yes! Whether that is because their original sources were communicating in the otherworld, or whether it is in the nature of messages in this arrangement to do so...”
“Whatever the reasons, sirs, the result is... enigmatic.”
“We have only their shared references – Tennyson, Blake... as clues for a meaning.”
“Perhaps,” facilitated the least furious of the Hexameron elders, “that is the message?”
“No! If we accept this argument, then the message is Tennyson’s ‘The Idylls of the King’! And I believe the world already has that!”
The wind howled through the many tiny apertures around the foundationless house. Sand kicked up in the lobby.
For an hour a small group of porters had lugged crates of manuscripts across the sands of The Sett. Even before the storm had got up, the wind was fierce and lashed the four men with stinging particles; like test subjects in a brutal experiment in natural philosophy. On arrival at the tentative wooden villa, sat on the very brow of the dunes, they had unloaded the thousands of pages, and the three women and one man, the Interpreters, had begun to arrange the manuscript around the house, using every room except the water closet (which stank); a snaking tail of papers that thickened here and there into bellies and thighs. Rather than for reading from left to right, the papers were often laid beside and over each other, as if the whole were some bestial child of palimpsest and crossword. The completion of the pattern conjured puzzlement; for its creators and its audience.
Matching the four porters and four Interpreters were four senior members of the Hexameron Society. A fifth member was waiting, in hiding far away, in case some mischief befell the four at the meeting. Together, these five were all that remained of what had been a remarkable regional force, a dynamo driven by industrial and agricultural forces, feeding back to them the most developed technological, mathematical and bio-engineering concepts; spreading their influence along the furthest tendrils of the British Empire. Yet, their entire enterprise had foundered on this one experiment, the results of which would be received now. A gamble on death as a mirror, as a scrying surface of knowledge beyond what is known, to bring an advanced technology garnered beyond plain death into the world of day; now ended in a cry of despair.
“There’s nothing there!”
In a neighbouring house the next generation waited; eager to replace the séances, automatic writing and experimental spiritualism with the psychological reprogramming of a scientific religion. The choice for the four Hexamerons was stark; to harvest the fruits of intuition, the merest echoes of distant ghosts, and find some formulae in their ambience, or take the metallic frame of a brutal and competitive psychology and strap every human to it, twist and bend them till they rose to a new stage of being.
Listening to the Interpreters, the four Hexamerons were sunk deep in their armchairs, held down by the weight of their responsibilities. After half a century of effeminate mediumship, during which they had shed almost their entire scientific membership, were they about to jump horses and embrace the terrible cotton gins and vicious spinning jennies of Social-Darwinism?
There was still a chance that the dead would come through, surely?
They could all hear the waves. The dusk had been ugly. The only lights on The Sett were in the two houses; one for the Interpretation of the papers, the other a waiting room for the Beyondist youths. The other fifty or so villas, many damaged beyond repair, were in darkness; no one holidayed in this cold. There was a greyness to their wooden walls; salt had made them all dull. The moments when the moon had broken through, earlier in the evening, had only made matters worse, smearing a milky gruel on everything. In the houses, some modelled on ships’ bridges and American ranches, there was only the failure of ghosts and missed opportunities, a whole village of things that never happened. Souls so lost they had not the energy to haunt. Instead, they existed beside the treacherous void they baited, its sudden sucking down ready to spoil a promising athleticism or a literary career in a single drag.
“‘...the kingdom has gone to the beasts...’”
“A beast, you say, has the whole kingdom?”
“That’s before Arthur comes, he solves that...”
“A child of obscure birth, son of an unidentified father...”
“And three mothers... queens in light...”
“What is this?”
“Brought by the waves... remember this is poetry...”
“We are no longer concerned with poetry. What is the interpretation? Hurry!”
The four Interpreters sat upright, like vampires, in spite of the soft upholstery of their chairs.
“This is the language of the dead! This is how they communicate, by quoting the poets...”
“We are in a lunatic asylum! Let’s retreat next door! To rationalism!”
“Wait! A babe was brought by the waves, according to the poet... does that ring any bells? A babe found on a beach? Recovered by a wise man, a magician, a seaside entertainer?”
“You think that these...”
To animate himself, the youngest Hexameron rose and removed his smoking jacket, casting it over the back of his armchair.
“...intimations, through mediums, might concern the young Balfour-Willett’s boy?”
“Young? He’s a grown man now! He’s a Trinity man for crying out loud!”
“If he is the messiah...”
“A typical boy of his social position, joined up with the Welsh Guards!”
“He won’t save the world with them! He should be in the wilderness!”
The four Hexamerons, all on their feet by now, were pacing around the script, making figures of eight to avoid disturbing the puzzle in which they were all steadily losing faith.
“Well some folk might say that joining the Welsh Guards is not unlike going into the w...”
“Shut up! Shut up!”
The Hexamerons coagulated in despair. They cast a collective gaze over the tables and floors of the Devonian dacha carpeted with the pages of automatic text; sometimes a single phrase on an otherwise blank sheet, other times finely scribbled text almost obliterating all gaps and with them any sense. Lines of narrative were suggested, dramaturgies of epic conflict were here and there prepared for, strands roused into choruses, conundrums pushed themselves forward. For a while each of the four Hexamerons pursued their own lines of intuition, peering intently where one paper had landed over another. As before, when the interpreters had led the Hexamerons from room to room pointing out the echoes, the allusions and shared references, so now the Hexamerons followed their own hunches, until these, in turn, led the four men back to face each other in the centre of the main room.
“They haven’t got it! The bastards!”
“We have spent twenty five years of the Society’s patience and hard cash, investing our faith in you... you curs!”
“Then you were mistaken. We are not saints, we are psychic literary scientists, and we have spent those twenty five years labouring honestly over these papers in the interests of peace and keeping the world from chaos...”
“And the result is?”
“The Gurney Plan failed.”
“I am not convinced, on the basis of this.... presentation... that any Plan ever existed!”
“Don’t try and deny it! Your Society had every faith in it!”
“Hah! A Plan formed in the spirit world...”
“How in the name of hell can that be a Plan?”
The youngest of the Hexamerons kicked a few of the papers into a dust devil.
“Please, please... This, this is precious...”
But the interpreters begged to no avail as their four employers began to set about the mystery with boots and fists. Pages were kicked up into the air, sheaves of writing hurled against the walls to shower down the lampshades, sending flocks of shadows across the wooden boards.
“Sirs, this mystery was our bulwark...”
“The black tide of materialism!”
“Against the goddam truth, you mean! I do not question the sincerity of our former directors, but I question yours! This paper chase was your bulwark, yes! Your funk hole and cash cow! What have you done to us! Bled us dry!”
Another of the Hexamerons sat with his head in his hands, muttering to himself: “O damn, our elders sold the Society for this?” A third collapsed in an armchair ranting about “Uranian affinities” and waving his arms like a demented windmill.
“But we have felt the spirits so close...”
“Whatever you felt it was not the spirit of truth! If you heard anything it was the voices of each other!”
“But we delivered Edmund Gurney’s child!”
“An incarnation of divine effulgence...”
“And no one felt minded to tell him! You left the messianic avatar in ignorance of his own destiny, so that the Secretary for Ireland could continue his affair with Mrs Willett!”
“Certain respectable discretions were necessary...”
“So while we fretted that our Interpreters were running their ghosts, it turns out the ghosts were running a brothel!”
A terrible silence filled the house; so deep it seemed to push away the crescendo of surf massing outside.
“At least”, began the folded man in the armchair, “this avatar is ignorant of Gurney’s Plan and unable to destroy us. We can deny it... let us destroy the papers, pay off these ponces!”
“Burn them! Whatever is in these papers is a form of Chaos. These idiots have conjured an Anti-Arthur! Used science against science and opened the door to a monstrous force of ignorance and lust! Burn it all!”
The Interpreters summoned their bearers; the men drew brass knuckle-dusters from their pockets and fixed them to their fists. Outside the wind roared among the shutters. Something thumped the front door. A thin sheet of water shot over the door mat and foamed across the polished boards in the hall, pushing at sheaves of automatic writing, and lapping against the jamb of the living room door. The gathered meeting were now all on their feet.
“Save the papers!”
Confused porters ran between the rooms gathering up the pages, hurling them into cases. A second thump on the front door was followed by a further burst of foam into the house. A porter ran to the back door, clutching a case of papers, holding the door back for the Interpreters who screamed at the porters in chorus – “Save the papers!” – just as a third thump threw in the frame of a front window and sent water cascading over the sill, spilling over carpets and rugs, knocking over lamp stands and occasional tables and sending candlesticks cartwheeling into boiling foam, extinguishing the wicks and plunging the rooms into deep gloom.
“The Beast is here! Run! Run! Alert the Beyondists!”
“Nature plays us like toys!”
“O what have we done!”
Pushing the Interpreters aside the Hexamerons plunged through the back door, down the porch and onto the sands. Up to their shins in froth they raced toward the second house as a third, a little lower down the dunes, crumpling with an oddly muted crunch and a brief shattering of glass, was swiftly buried by a breaker. Before the Hexamerons could reach the second house, the Beyondists appeared on the front porch and threw their kayaks into the rising masses of spume. The two men in one, the two German women in the other; they quickly paddled the few yards to safety, racing up the side of a dune that was already beginning to slide into the sea. Reaching the top of the dunes, secured more solidly underfoot by thick marram grass, the Beyondists stopped to help the four struggling Hexamerons to the brow.
Already the porters were well ahead of everyone else. They rushed their cases across the tops and towards the Creep. Beyond, at the railway station platform, a ‘special’ waited, already under steam. Beyondists and Hexamerons stood shoulder to shoulder as the sands began to shift beneath them, and the dark waters before them turned twenty wooden villas around and around like dull Catherine wheels. The Interpreters, their divine sparks extinguished, were taking their chances among the flotsam that was swirled about in the maelstrom of disorder; lampshades, model boats, family Bibles, paddles, flags, name-signs, tennis rackets, a stuffed dog, an aspidistra, a chess board and its pieces were turned about and then dragged out towards the deep dark sea.
Somehow the four Interpreters fought their own way through the waist-high waves, the women’s skirts lifted up to the surface, spread like open parasols, and then clambered up the surrendering sands, until they stood on the firmer ground beside the Hexamerons and their young allies. The three groups, awed in different ways and drawing different conclusions from the sight of the weekend palaces dragged one by one below the surface of the foaming water, began to tramp in the porters’ footprints; four broken, four isolated and preparing for a long retreat, four bright with hope in the rise of new regimes of hygiene and coercion. All twelve chastened to different degrees by the drowning of a false god, resentful that the job had not been left to them. The veil between this world and the next had been torn back and there was nothing to be seen but tattered veil.
Muffled snappings and splinterings were momentarily drowned out by the howl of the special’s whistle and the crunch of its pistons as it began to lurch forward onto the main line, throwing up pillars of smoke.
The possibility that Mandi might have some connection to the drapery assistant’s limestone cave – if her adoptive parents were Widgers, and Lyon her given surname – dominated hers and April’s conversation as they walked north, stopping for tea at Hill House nursery. Then out again into the lanes, which at times had seemed to fold around and then loop back inside themselves, past deep white clay wounds in the hills, blue pools still as ice, the metal footbridge over a major arterial road, the industrial pottery steaming and churning as streams of cars, vans and lorries roared beneath them, and then on towards a small town. On either side of the bridge were concrete podia to help riders dismount, lest their steeds leap the bridge and eviscerate horse and jockey in the traffic flow.
What if the narrative at the Museum was untrue and there was a meaning to all the teeth and bones and claws; that something had survived through the rituals and practices of the ‘Old Grotto’, through Diana and Eve, and passed along in the tales of the old Lovecrafts?
“You think perhaps there was some kind of ‘Blessed Darkness’ or ‘Great Dark One’ they worshipped in the cave? That naughty Diana seduced the Perfect God and exposed him as a bungling male Demiurge, seducing him into becoming flesh and giving birth to all the material unevenness and mutant chance of animals and plants? That’s what the medieval Gnostics believed; that God made a mess of things, botched the job... and now the only way back to the beginning is to end the flesh and transcend into pure knowledge...”
“What do I know about that stuff?”
“Your parents were... into that sort of thing, I thought?”
“Do you think they might have driven into the path of the oncoming car?”
“I didn’t know them...”
“No, nor me... not sure I know much about anything anymore...”
They had been following an overgrown canal. It came to an end at a silted up basin. By the side of the stone terminus was a set of railway sidings; rather than metal rails these were of the same granite that the trucks had carried down from the Moor. In the mud-filled basin, someone had left a carved clay object the size of a large dog in a milky puddle. It had a wide curved back and shoulders, a smooth domed head and a face in which the eyes and mouth had run into one another in a single broad sweep; its arms were stumps. Two rock chips had been placed in the mouth, broken molars. At intervals glass marbles were pressed into its body; alive with eyes. Shoved into crannies in the bank were clay models of a mouse (wrapped in spiders’ webs), a bird, a snaky thing with a giant eyeless open-mouthed head and a pair of balls.
“I hadn’t expected that their dying would pull the rug right from under my feet. I feel like I’m walking on air all the time. Not connected... maybe it’s Devon; I need to get back to London...”
“Is that any more real?”
“O yea, it’s real. Things have consequences there; people get stabbed, get poor, get rich real quick, get stoned, overdose, get clean, get to be boss, lose everything and make it all back; in Devon they just play at life.”
“So real for you is... consequences?”
“Not for me. Real was never for me, really.”
“O, so you don’t believe all that Vatican-inspired nonsense about the Big Bang? Of a convenient event horizon across which no useful information passes? There is no mystery for you...”
“It’s all a mystery for me. But no one can live like this... I’ve been happy sorting out the camp. Checked all the leases; I can set up a management there, so I can oversee things at a distance. I thought that dealing with the pagans would be a nightmare, but it’s not. I don’t know if I said this, but they’re all pagans there – white witches and chaos magicians, Goths, crystal-huggers – but they’re decent enough people, reliable in their own way. That part’s been unexpectedly easy. It’s the other shit that’s difficult... the human shit...”
Without noticing, Mandi and April had reached the edge of the town and the wall of a rather grander graveyard than those in the villages. They entered, still imagining they were looking for H. P. Lovecraft’s relatives, though their walk’s purpose had moved on. Distracted for a moment by a monument to JAMES BOND, excessive lichens and a row of gravestones shaped like spearheads, they quickly fixated on a single monument: on a tall plinth three large white angels arranged in a triangle. No one had dared to strike their heads from their necks. Epic, huge, chiselled and detailed.
Mandi was first taken by their faces; moonish, responding to each slight alteration of the thickness of the clouds. The smooth yet sandy particularity of the stone got to her. The star above each forehead was buoyed on waves of sandstone hair, the haloes, the fulsome sleeves of the carved garments and, most of all, the way the tips of the feathers of one angel’s wing were woven into those of the others’. Together, two wings of separate angels made something that resembled a single cephalopodic head, their haloes become two plate-like eyes, and where the tresses of the sisters fell down by their sides these were like the diminutive feelers of the body of the marine thing.
The three young ghosts were conjuring a fabulous stone sea monster within the symmetry of their wings.
Mandi turned to point out the illusion to April, but she had gone. Mandi searched the churchyard, assuming that she had been drawn by one of the other monuments. She circumambulated the church, pushed at its locked door, zig-zagged across the graves, and then, in a less than rational desperation, explored around the three-angel monument – noticing now where the names of three sisters were engraved, faintly now, on stones sashes: Emily, Rosamund and Mary Gurney – checked the shrubs, and then peered over the low boundary wall, as if April might have fallen over it or was stooping to hide or examine something. Mandi checked her phone; realising that April had never given her a number. It was starting to get dark and the darker it got, the more the three angels’ wings merged into the single squiddish head, the more their curling hair crept and sucked and the more the haloes blinked and stared.
Mandi walked backwards out of the cemetery, then, running down the pavement, she made for the centre of the town, in search of a bus stop.
The birds relentlessly circled the shadows under the sea’s surface. The nagging suggestions in the tiny implants drove them; but they struggled to compute the meaning of the darkness beneath them. Hour after the hour the crazed aerial dance went on; occasionally a curious human walking the beach or far off on the other side of the estuary paused to take it in. Quickly bored by the repetitions of a black sky shuffling, they turned their attention to something else. So no one quite appreciated the significant duration of the wild circling. As the dusk murk rose, the puzzling distinctions of shades of darkness began to join more profoundly into a singular suggestion of surge and flex, without borders or gaps. The birds gave in. What autonomy remained, something in the profound freedom of their flocking, escaped their digital commands and the birds formed up in a clattering muster, cawing and gibing at each other. There was a kind of fury in the beating of their wings; as if they sought to shake something off. But the chains were tied too deep inside their chemistry; and when they tried to steer by their natural pigments, their digital masters re-coloured their vision and steered them back the way the masters wanted.
Dropping downwards, the birds left the sea and cruised low over the beach and dunes, crossed the lagoon and golf course, then the road where the headlight beams of a few early evening journeys were playing over mobile homes and holiday camp signs. Then they flew over a confusion of low scrub, a junkyard, and into the vale, where the fields grew lonelier, the lanes darker and narrower, and where the tiny lights – spread far, far apart – in cottages, farmhouses and the odd caravan parked in the corner of a hedge were incapable of burning out the dullness of the emptied evening. The muster’s progress shuddered for a moment as the birds reacted to a procession of shadowy giants; the blotting out of light by the unreflecting spiralling bodies of massive sweet chestnuts, mostly dead now. The crows swept by and the massive cadavers seem to stiffly bend toward them and then ease back as if they felt the magnetism of the birds, and drew away, repulsed.
Undisturbed by a perfect dome of green grass, the muster raced just above its blades, unnaturally low, and then bent to the incline as the hill rose towards a stately pile, an aristocratic hall, its wings thick and wide, its main part undistinguished except for a grand central entrance, its huge door wide open. The crows piled through the front door like blackened leaves blown in by a gale, then raced up the grand central staircase before veering unanimously to the right and settling on the carpet of a large, almost empty room on the first floor. Anxious Hexamerons came running down the corridors.
The machine at Mandun Hall, manufactured in the late 1970s, influenced by the fiction of a local anarchist, Hyams, who lived at Hill House among the Lovecraft villages, a place that had drawn down the wrath of the stormbringer in the 1890s, had always included living things. At first they had been ants. The cultural blueprint was Hyams’s scatological sci-fi novel ‘Morrow’s Ants’. Modelled on the most sophisticated development of an analytical machine, the Hexamerons’ latest recruits then – now the elders of the Society – had brought desiccated cybernetic skills to bear; trapping the ants in mechanical systems that turned their instincts into numbers, their organisational unity into computational power. In crude terms the individual ant was left to its own devices (if it had any) but the actions of the nest triggered the electrical levers that were instantly converted into information and fed back to the ants in an endless reshaping of its prison.
The results had been remarkable and before long the technology that would later allow speechless humans to transmit imagined words into artificial language was tested at Mandun in a series of unsupervised and often grisly experiments; electronic levers thrashing about in the brains of Labradors, foxes biting into sparking cables, octopi swarming across the landings in psychotic and self-destructive panic. These wild frontier days were quickly done with; the animal data, synaptic and chemical, secured in the mainframe. After that, the cages were removed and the servers were installed. Where stinking mammal dormitories had once run wild with tsunamis of acrid evacuations, now the immaculately restored Axminster carpets, designed by Whitty himself, were a wild savannah only for cooled thinking machines grinding binaries.
The exception to this was the Erithacus Portal; the great Cobra Mist adaptation that hung within the loft space of the old hall. In its fiendishly complex web, the quantum collapses and entanglements of various flocks, bevies, tremblings, wakes and scatterings were caught up and processed as psychic geography. Battlefields and embassies and secret bases were no longer surveilled, but thought. There would be no more secrets. The final web, to make the birds the Facebook of the skies, the avian-algorithm invasion, was almost in place; only the belligerence of the herring gulls, and one or two related species, had so far defied and delayed the mapping of humans’ innermost desires. But they would succumb, in one way or another; just as the Hexamerons had carefully primed the conspirasphere with whispers about a “Company” manipulating the birds, so they had ruined the reputation of the herring gull, preparatory to its decimation.
The crows marshalled on the carpet; the algorithms were reaching out to them. There was a dark sharpness about their manoeuvres on the blue luxuriance of the Axminster, traducing the designer’s symmetry of urns, viols and fronds. The roomful of ‘operators’ at their screens could make no sense from the chaos of data that flooded from the ‘reports’ of the bluey-black messengers. Screens began to flash, oscillating between a flood of positions and blue death, a new tsunami of positions, then blankness. Young white coated technologists raced along the cushioned corridors to find the elders; two uncomfortable-looking female technicians exited the control room and made themselves scarce.
A single crow escaped the first room and followed one of the white coats; one who knew his way to the outer layers of the Hexameron hierarchy. Though the young man had no mental picture of the layout of its six layers, he had seen enough to know how to access the lowest stratum. The ‘monks’, as the younger bloods called them in private, were seated in quiet thought; in recent years they had affected a hood and long flowing cape worn over their business suits. These costumes were not seen outside the grounds at Mandun, but they had become the distinguishing mark of the leaders of the higher caste. Useful signifiers in an organisation that recognised no status other than merit.
The crow barely registered as anything more than a flurry of shadow as the flustered technician alerted the elders to the collapse of their system. Rising from their seats they swept back along the corridor towards the control room, the crow running across the carpet in their tracks. Unlike the young Hexameron it did have a mental map of the hierarchy at Mandun Hall; the birds were beginning to learn how to manipulate, crudely, the algorithms to their own ends.
The control room was not an impressive affair. It might have been the office of an estate agent, were it not for the eclectic collection of eighteenth, twentieth and twenty first century landscapes by Michael Honnor, James Tatum, Francis Towne and Yves Tanguy that hung upon its six walls. The “machines”, as the Hexamerons persisted in calling their bio-electronic vehicles, dominated all the larger rooms and hall. Where society had once danced its cotillions, electrons now jived and jitterbugged, leaping between one and zero, spinning on the spot and jumping back to one. The young operators stood back from their desks to let the leaders see the chaos for themselves. The flashing of the screens ceased, replaced by streams of code.
“What does it mean?”
None of the boyish operators was willing to take a guess.
“Sirs, I think I may have an idea.”
The crusted faces of the elders, survivors of a generation of Hexamerons recruited from the early Cold War codebreakers, apprentices of Turing and his amateurs at Bletchley Park, turned to the door. The young woman, a stranger to them, was standing in the frame; she wore a white coat, like the young men, but there was a crow sitting on her shoulder.
“I think it has something to do with subjectivity...”
“Go on. Come in...”
The young woman moved into the centre of the room. The Hexameron elders gathered in a circle around her, as if in preparation for a Roman assassination. The crow flew from her shoulder and off down the corridor.
“I think it’s a mathematical problem around nothingness and binary codes. With any set consisting only of ones, a single zero will negate such a series. If we assume that this is a universal law, and that the only way anyone has found to contradict it is to exclude all empty sets entirely, then all sets are conditional on an energy – let’s call it a zero event – which has none of the properties that make any other thing discernible as a set. It has a meaning-negating force, so to speak; and without it there is no meaning. I suggest that what has happened is that...”
She looked over her shoulder at the gaggle of male programmers in the frame of the doorway, but her eye was caught by the Honnor seascape, the waves like cracks in a desert floor. She turned back to the elders, still and expressionless, like statues of justice, signifying much and exuding nothing.
“... in the attempt to programme a complete social-psychological system we have left out the destructive subject force that creates small pockets of emptiness for itself. In other words we have programmed nothingness out of the system, so when the birds encounter the zero event of this destruction, in the natural world, they faithfully reproduce its effects in systems that are incapable of recognising the event’s reality without denying their own. We have constructed an electronic model of the fabric of reality that cannot tear, so that when it does, out there in the natural world, rather than us being able to repair it, to close down its aperture, block up the sinkhole, our model dissolves into an infinite number of sinkholes. In trying to repel the beast, we may, unintentionally, have created portals for its materialisation everywhere...”
“Do you boys agree with her?”
“What’s she’s talking about, sir, are what we call ‘not-well-founded sets’...”
“So do we, my boy. What is your point?”
“That she’s talking nonsense, confusing binary codes with structuralist language signifiers; using metaphors to confuse the maths with ontological jargon and ending up in metaphysics...”
“Unless you hadn’t notice, Mister Wang, that is exactly what we do here.”
The programmers jumped back, the elders swivelled around. In the doorway stood a middle aged man, a dead crow in his left hand. It was the Chairman of the meeting at the museum. His dress was identical to then; nothing had been changed in his hairstyle or complexion. Yet, the uncomfortable modernity of his presence in town had disappeared; in its place he smiled the smile of a clever feudal thug, tossing the crow’s cadaver into the arms of one of the ‘boys’. The elders circled him, just as they had the white-coated young woman a moment before. Suddenly excluded from the magic circle, the woman began to edge towards the door.
“Where are you going?”
She froze. The Chairman moved towards her with such lupine alacrity that she tripped and fell back against the William Morris wallpaper, supporting herself with her palms against the thick green pattern.
“Make sure you wash your hands, my dear. That green was made with arsenic mined from the other side of the Tamar. Many workers died so that their socialist proprietor could make such wonderfully bright medieval patterns. Similarly, we too are reversing history here; perhaps it is not so surprising when the past tries to bite us back? My dear, I like your theory very much, but what if... forgive me, for stealing your thunder... what if the arrangement of data that you describe is opening a portal not to zeroes, not to nothings, but to... to coin a phrase from one of our earlier members... a coming race?”
A door slammed far off; then an echo as if an angry demon had stormed out on the caverns of hell. The cathedral-like ripple of sound halted the Chairman mid-speculation. Before he could complete the loop of his thoughts he was inhibited by a clatter of running feet, as if the coming race itself had escaped the tunnels and was running, en masse, to seize the Hall.
“Sir, sir! The Erithacus Portal’s down! Something’s coming through!! Quickly, you need to come and see this!”
The speaker was at the rear of a group of middle-aged men who had come to a stuttering halt outside the door of the ‘control room’. Pushing his way through his colleagues – all dressed in jeans and t shirts, none of the white coated mummery for these controllers – and beckoning to the Chairman as if to a recalcitrant poodle.
“I think we should all see this. Peter?”
One of the elders manipulated a hand held device and bleepers began to go off all around the many wings and sections of the Hall. Doors swung open along its corridors, which quickly filled with a stream of technologists and theoretical scientists, administrators and monk-like elders. Though its head hung limp from the hand of one of the programmers, something deep in the crow continued to pick up the traces of the hierarchy of souls in the Hall. Even in the surging of the staff it intuited the statelier progress of a spectral crew. The mob of Hexamerons had collected in a single rush, halting only for a moment, beside a closed door, from behind which came a thump of music, excited howls and another urgent rhythm.
The crowd moved on, swarming down the grand staircase and assembling inside the old ballroom that stretched to the very rear of the Hall and then sank beneath a glass ceiling partly comprised of the glass floor of an outside ornamental pond. There they came to a halt, faced by the Hall’s security guards – the four White Snipers – guarding the partially curtained gold doors on one side. At the command of the Chairman, the Snipers stepped aside, pulling back the brocaded drapes, and drawing open the doors to let the crowd, led by the elders, into their Society’s ‘holy of holies’. Despite its modest proportions, most of the staff were able to cram around the edges of the space, a former private chapel stripped of all its symbols except for a Perspex cube, the side of a shoe box, in the middle of a round oak table at the centre of the space; the same shape and material as many of the elders wore for a lapel badge. The remainder of the Hexamerons hung on the door frame or stood on tip toes staring in. The White Snipers chased up a hidden staircase and appeared on a small balcony looking down on the room, training their rifles on the Hexamerons below.
For all except the elders, this was their first time inside the ‘holy of holies’. The crow cadaver felt the tightening of the fingers, the sweat breaking out of the palm, began to make pictures of expectations; of the giant airy and cool halls receding one after another into a sea of servers and big data, of electronic war rooms, of a factory floor of air looms, of a conceptual space without physical form. It had felt the disappointment as the bare stone chapel was uncovered, the simple and unvarnished circle of wood at the centre and the rush of cold discomfort at the figures seated around its altar as they were uncovered one by one by the hands of the elders, lifting thin white gauzes from the shoulders of the candlestick shapes.
Mummies; emptied, dried bodies, preserved and propped up around the table, dressed in faded period clothes: frock coats, blazers, cassock, overalls, tweedy tea-stained jacket, shirt and tie and academic gown. What had been the flesh of their faces now ranged from a uniform gray to a blotchy purple and red. Marbles for eyes. Beneath their seats, under domes of glass, were their scraped skulls.
Each one of the elders stood at the right hand of a mummified predecessor; as if they knew which place to take. The last brain activity of the dead crow sought out the names of the ancestors: Bulwer-Lytton, Babbage, Coombe-Tennant, Froude, Gurney, Cattell, Pengelly, Hyams... and felt a nervous guilt, as if not all had been recruited here by their free will. As if it felt a force of persuasion and a persuasion of force. A spirit of reluctance hung over the cube. Mummies, elders, young bloods, programmers, dead crow, and whatever was present, waited for something else to act. Slowly, something inside the cube began to move; very subtly, the elder’s badges began to cloud.
The bus dropped Mandi off outside the station at Newton Abbot. Her return ticket from the Bay was valid from there, where the two lines met. But before she could get to the barrier, a feverish Grant Kentish pulled her aside. His face was running with sweat. He panted like an old dog, his eyes were red and his hands shook violently. His grip on Mandi’s wrist crumbled and she shook it off.
“Thank Baphomet I caught you... don’t get on the train!”
“Get off me!”
She could see the railway woman at the gate becoming anxious for her, so calmed her with a raised palm, and turned back to Kentish.
“For god’s sake, calm down. You’ll get yourself arrested...”
“What difference does that make? I’m a dead man!”
“Calm down, what is the matter with you? If you don’t speak calmly I’m going to leave you here.”
“No, please, please... OK, OK, but the idiots! They think they’ve created something – they’ve invoked it!”
Kentish’s mouth fell open. He took a step back, looking Mandi up and down, in terror.
“I can’t say that here!”
“No, no... listen, Mandi, please, talk to them for me? Explain, you were at the house, there was no magic, you saw that, didn’t you? Just old friends, some new acquaintances, with common interests. Good old fashioned decadence!”
He tried to laugh, but the chuckles became caught in his gullet and he chirruped like a toad.
“You’ll tell them, won’t you? Promise me?”
For a moment it seemed as if he were about to get down on his knees. He began to bend, but it was only in a faint. Mandi caught him by the forearm and he recovered. As his look cleared and his stare grew sharp and penetrating, he pulled back.
“O no, no... you’ve joined them. I can see.”
He glanced down at her filthy trainers and trouser bottoms.
“You’re involved. I’ve said too much! Too much!”
He turned and sprinted away, his belly flapping under his cape as he shot through the car park, abruptly turning at the pavement as Mandi saw her train pulling in. She flashed her ticket to the barrier woman who tapped her card to let her through.
Kentish’s scream stopped all the passengers dead, but it was only her attention he wanted. As she turned he made a ritual gesture of distress. Mandi had had enough of all this bullshit. She turned and stepped onto the train and as the automatic doors were closing behind her she heard him scream again:
“Tell them, please! Please! It was only a sex club!!”
In her seat, against the glass, chosen so that she could see the water on her way home, Mandi smiled to herself at the sneaky glances she was drawing from the other passengers; basked a little in their jealous disdain. Humans were strange animals; disgusted by their own instincts; what other beast was like that? It was the burden of stinking culture.
At Teignmouth the entire carriage got off and a small group of men swiftly took their seats directly behind Mandi. She had the impression that they were obliquely interested in her; maybe a group of men out on a stag ‘do’ or a rugby club bender. She studiously ignored them and fixed her gaze to the sea as the railway line turned left along the coast towards The Sett.
She began to feel uneasy. She had laughed off the encounter with Grant Kentish. He was a drama queen. All the smoke and mirrors at the Italian Gardens, trying to get into her knickers. Like he said “it was only a sex club”, but why would he say that unless he was lying, unless he believed the opposite? Mandi realised that she had never really come to terms with what had happened in the room with Kentish, the effect that the reading of the manuscript had had upon her. She had carried on imagining it as a dusty historical artefact, like one of Widger’s hyena teeth. But then, maybe they were not so dusty either...
Mandi checked her phone, for once there was a signal. Emails from work, she ignored. Queen Bee she ignored. One from the Chairman of the Hexameron Essay Society; a picture of a black circle or disc. A black sun. No text, no explanation.
Mandi put her forehead to the windowpane, a hand up to shield her eyes. The moon was above the water; from under the waves came a scattered glint like that off hundreds of upturned eyes. At the final stop before The Sett the other carriage emptied. Mandi kept her focus on the long expanse of sea. It was only two minutes to The Sett from here. She would soon be home; she could shower, there was a bottle of dry white in the fridge, she would sit and drink and think what to do next. If there was a late train, part of her was tempted to get to London that night; another part wanted to sleep forever.
She could see through the windows of the front carriage the house that had been built on the platform at The Sett to replace the previous one destroyed by an arsonist; as the train grew closer she could just make out the edge of the old ‘Bocca della Verità’ fortune-telling machine that had been discarded there, leaned up against the back wall... then the picture swung violently, as if it had just been swiped across a handheld screen. Her carriage lurched sideways, the view to the sea had gone and the lights in the carriage failed as it came to a gentle halt. On both sides they were now surrounded by the old carriages; the ones converted into holiday homes by the railworkers’ association. Although it seemed a little early in the year to have opened them up, Easter a few weeks off, the lights in the carriages were blazing away, affording a view of several moving tableaux; youngsters crawling over bunk beds, mothers cooking tea, men reading sports papers and sipping cheap beer from cans. Everything was right, except for the period ambience; as if she was seeing into the past? Or were people still living there?
One of the men – she had forgotten about them – got to his feet and opened a switchbox by the automatic door. He turned a key and the lights flickered back on. Mandi blinked. The man looked directly at Mandi as if it were her turn to act.
“We’ve come to apologise. We had no idea who you were.”
The speaker was sitting behind Mandi, but now he got up and moved in front of her. Sat down at the table diagonally opposite to Mandi, another man slipped into the seat beside her, trapping her in. The man at the switchbox sidled over and a fourth man leaned over the head rest just behind her. The four men were dressed similarly, but not in uniform; their little cube badges and expensive suits gave them the look of upmarket Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Please tell me you’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
This made them laugh a lot.
“No, no, no... you know who we are, you met our people at the museum, and then at the cave; there was a misunderstanding and we have come to put that right. Our people were disrespectful. We had no idea who your parents were, otherwise there would have been no question about you visiting the site. You are welcome to any and all of our projects! You get wonderful references from London!”
“I haven’t applied for anything.”
“You can’t. Ours is a ‘by invitation only’ Society...”
“Which is why there are no women in it? Or black and ethnic minorities... I don’t see any need for you to respond to directives about diversity, but let’s say, you look a little... homogenous to me?”
“That’s partly what this... apology is about.”
He held out a ticket, the size of a thin paperback book: CELEBRATE THE 200 MOST INFLUENTIAL WOMEN IN THE COUNTY.
“Come late; the event is a scam put on by a free sheet; they name a lady from every company and charge them a fortune for tickets to hear themselves being congratulated by each other. We host an after-show party. We’d like you to come and meet the women with real influence in the county, none of whom you will find in any magazine, or receiving any award, but all of whom are members of the Hexameron Ladies’ Essay Society...”
“We believe in the right to autonomous organisation, Amanda...”
“Were the African-Americans ever stronger or more progressive than during the Black Panther period?”
“Not so good if the autonomy is compulsory, though...”
“No! Of course not! That would be apartheid! Autonomy of groups is a natural right, not a requirement. Take away state-sponsored feminism and multiculturalism and the natural tendencies of the group re-emerges; and before you think that our ladies’ section is a second class Society, come and meet them. You’ll see who really runs the Hexamerons!”
The other men laughed, then laughed again, this time ruefully.
Then one of them cracked: “Sometimes nature needs a little helping hand.”
“You don’t really think I’m going to turn up to that kind of bullshit, do you?”
The laughter stopped. The men relaxed; as if actors in a movie had heard “cut”. One of them loosened the knot of his tie. The man beside Mandi lifted the ticket from her fingers and tore it into four pieces.
“We were very much hoping not. But not everyone lives up to their references. How much do you know about the Hexamerons, Mandi?”
“Well we began as a campaign to champion rationality over decadence, our first members were eighteenth century experimental scientists and technologists, in their words ‘natural philosophers’; in the 1930s with psychology’s break from the hocus pocus of Freudian and gestalt guesswork the Society embraced experimental psychology, scientific behaviourism, and an approach called Beyondism; a blend of Darwinian laisser-faire and natural selection that operates among groups as much as individuals. We continue to promote those ideas – flat rate taxation, respect for the specialised abilities of private elites, risk taking, and so on – but now we apply them in the field of the information rather than the industrial economy...”
“Congratulations. What do you want? A Blue Peter badge?”
“We want... we need your help. Around the turn of the last century, the Society succumbed to what at the time seemed to be technologically acquired evidence of life after death. Photographs, sound recordings, automatic writing. It would be easy to be scornful; but many in the cultural elite were similarly duped. For generations the Society wasted its energies and shed its members, only to re-find its mission in the 1930s.”
“Gold Blue Peter badge?”
Mandi was losing patience. She gazed out of the window at the brightly illuminated families. Only too aware that she had no memory of a childhood as bright as these...
“What did you mean about my parents?”
“We understand that they may have passed on to you certain traits...”
“My biological parents?”
“I don’t know who my biological parents are. So how come you do?”
“O, then... perhaps there has been some mistake. Perhaps the traits are cultural?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Amanda, certain of our members, during the bad times, have left us with a... supernatural legacy. A combination of the weak and the conniving – our members Edmund Gurney, a desperately bereaved man, Frederic Myers, George Albert Smith – a theatrical fraudster – a medium named... let’s call her Willett... and others contrived a plan to create a World Saviour, with Willett operating as a sort of ersatz Virgin Mary...”
“Yeah, well I heard plenty of tales like that from my adoptive parents, there are more attempted World Saviours than you might think; now I haven’t been at my camp all day and I need to check that things are...”
The Hexameron sat directly opposite her placed his hand over hers and eased it back onto the table.
High stakes move.
“They created their messiah, their avatar, somehow they... combined esoteric information, god knows how, with magic lantern shows and biological engineering, of a crude and early kind, and... they made their superman...”
It was the detail about “magic lantern shows” that stopped her from pushing her way out of the carriage. It had the smack of the farcical nature of real life.
“...of course, flesh is weak, the mother forgot to tell the son about his mission, in order to pursue the affair that had fuelled the whole charade, and so... decadence continues, the world is not saved... and just now, just as our Society has acquired or... developed, rather, the technology that is required to realise our principles, this False Messiah, the fruit of the Society’s failings, has reappeared, posing as a mad monk, up in the old monastery on the hill just before Newton Abbot...”
“That old people’s home?”
“They’re retirement properties. He’s up there, one of the residents, threatening to work his magic on our headquarters and interfere with our servers. We want you to go up there and tell him to stop...”
O, not “terminate with extreme prejudice, Willard” then?”
“Because you think I can see through New Age bullshitters and Wiccan messiahs? Because of stuff I learned from my mum and dad, right?”
“How old is he?”
“A hundred and something.”
“I might kill him with a sarky comment!”
“He’s the messiah, he’s dangerous... he’s the most dangerous man you’re ever likely to meet, ex-special forces, Mandi, you are the only person we have identified who might have the occult pedigree to... understand where he’s coming from...”
“You are all stark staring fucking mad! That’s the fucking craziest thing I’ve ever heard! Anyway, I’m supposed to be going back to London tonight to sort out my charity... Hell, I was looking for an excuse not to... this is so fucking crazy it’s probably the only excuse the trustees will believe...”
The caretaker was waiting for Mandi, just as he had on her first night back.
“Where have you been?”
“All over, I’m totally shattered!”
Then she noticed the police car.
“What’s going on?”
The door of the car swung open and the officer who had come to collect the suicide climbed out.
“Is this the young lady, sir?”
“Yes, this is the one.”
“Everything alright, m... madam?”
“You’re feeling fine? Nothing untoward happened to you?”
Mandi suddenly felt scared; she didn’t know how much people knew about her anymore. It seemed like random information about her was being passed from stranger to stranger.
“I’m absolutely fine. Nothing has happened to me.”
She threw her arms wide as if to present her unwounded body.
“Then, I’ll be going. Good night, madam. Sir.”
And he climbed back into the car, gunned the engine and left the grounds of Lost Horizon with an angry swerve.
“What was that all about?”
“I was worried what had happened to you...”
“Jesus Christ! It’s about half past nine! Who are you? My father?”
She turned angrily, let herself into the house and slammed the front door. She stripped off her muddy jeans and trainers and threw them at the washing machine; cracked open the dry white, turned on Sky News 24 and threw herself on the bed. “They’ve fucked that up”, she thought to herself, they had the dates screwed up. She opened up her laptop and her inbox filled up with angry emails: where was she? Well, screw them! She might appreciate a little compassion on her compassionate leave! She thought to Google the names of the sisters on the monument, Emily, Rosamund and Mary, but before she got to their stories she noticed the location and went to “maps”; her impressions of the day were starting to run into each other, wet recollections beginning to drip over the lines, one colour mixing with another. They had walked a very long way in an afternoon; too far for even two days walking, maybe three... she tried to remember taking a bus... the last thing she was thinking about before she fell asleep, the announcer already in some nightmare about a chemical gas attack and something about children and the powerful, was that she must prepare herself in some way, wash herself, exercise, something, before she... she met the messiah... that couldn’t be right...
She had made it back to London. But it felt like ‘only just’.
In the morning she had taken a taxi up to the retirement home above Newton Abbot. It had been a troubled night. In her dream she had returned, alone, to the cave, following a map made with the bonelines from the Museum. She recognised some of the landmarks from her walk with April. All the time she was scared of dropping the bones in case the route was lost; but she was distracted by figures with machine guns dressed in white hiding in the trees above her. At the mouth of the cave she stood and listened hard and she could hear the sound of waves and beating wings and she understood from these sounds that time was passing very fast and that there was something she had to do that was urgent, that there was some link between the angels in the graveyard and old seas. This all came in words and ideas and it made the place around her very fluid, as if she were stepping through a portal into a new dimension of the adventure. Inside the cave it was warm and very smelly; she had looked down and she was surrounded by hyenas, swarming around her like waves breaking around a rock. April was standing at the back of the cave. Behind her, frozen into the wall, was a figure wearing goggles and a diving suit. April was holding a drowned bird, seawater dripping from its feathers. Water began to rush into the cave and Mandi felt herself being washed away and the hyenas swirling around her. She tried to save herself by hanging onto their coats, but she was being sucked towards a giant plughole at the back of the cave. Just before she fell in, Mandi caught sight of a rounded green hill through the cave’s opening, with black dogs and hobgoblins massing around its base, and a single tree on its summit, its branches full of white birds dripping with water. She heard April call out to her and she struggled to free herself from the hyenas, but they were pulling her down, she reached out for April’s hand, but could not quite reach her fingers and as she fell with the pack into the darkness she saw April turning into a green parrot-like bird with a broken beak... a door opened and she was in a wood-panelled room like a court room. The jury, dressed in wigs and eighteenth century frock coats, stood and like a choir recited warnings about a “dangerous place underground” which they associated with stories of another world and a superior race “that you shall not stand in the way of!” They began to accuse her: “we let you into our confidence and you have betrayed us!” Suddenly she was back in the cave, being swept along in the opposite direction, out of the cave and into the field, not by hyenas but by weird robot-like soldiers in black uniforms with red triangle badges who kept tripping over Mandi – “get out of our way!”, “she’s in the way again!”, “take her to the leader!” and they grabbed hold of her and began to march her up to the retirement home, while others began to strip a church of paintings and tear down statues of female saints and smash the lower parts of their faces with pliers, while all about them the mouths of tunnels were opening in hills and men in black uniforms were pouring out, these ones with giant heads and swollen skulls and long hair turning blonde, while the figure at the back of the cave began to weep huge tears through its goggles. The soldiers pulled Mandi away from the cave, telling her not to look, not to look, but she had to... and then awoke, howling, her face soaked with tears.
When she had come to climb out of bed to shower, Mandi found that she was still fully clothed. Her knees were stiff. Her trainers and trouser bottoms were caked with a red mud that had barely dried. She had thought that throwing her dirty clothes in the wash was the last thing she had done before falling asleep, but that was a dream as well, then. In the shower, she felt terrified that the cubicle would become a cave, the water would wash her down the plughole and the shouts of Lost Horizon children outside were the snickering of prehistoric hyenas. That dreams and everything else were the same.
Booking the taxi and packing her things straightened out her thinking. By the time the taxi pulled up outside the retirement properties, she was back to the Mandi who no one messed with, the London Mandi. She would complete the business and be on her way. Outside the old priory, she asked the driver to wait for her, offering to pay the fare so far; he waved it away, turned off his motor and pulled a paperback from the glove compartment.
Mandi found the manager at Reception, a helpful woman who – though she was just knocking off and on her way home – took time to explain where Mandi would find the former monk and accompanied her to the edge of the trees.
“He likes to be by the chapel. He’s impermeable to cold!”
Mandi was troubled all the way, following the helpful woman’s instructions, to the chapel. Had she really meant “impermeable”?
She had not seen the avatar, at first. The woman’s directions, unlike the Jaguar Man’s intuitions, had brought Mandi to the back of the corrugated iron chapel. In its shadow was what appeared to be the dried and shattered trunk of a lightly-coloured tree. As Mandi got a little closer she saw that it was growing from a square plinth; it was the bottom half of a statue. The imitation of the folds of a garment and the results of an assault some while ago had left its surface with the appearance of bark. Making her way around to the front of the statue she was confronted by the half-figure of a priest or monk dressed in a decorated robe, smashed away from around the top of its chest, the head wholly gone and part of only one shoulder, topped with the remnants of a clerical pellegrina, remaining. Mandi felt her foot brush up against something and bent down to pick the rusted head of a hammer from a scatter of statue fragments, the wooden shaft almost wholly rotted away.
“Have you come to visit the chapel, Deirdre?”
Mandi, with difficulty, climbed through the rhododendrons laced with brambles. On the edge of the tree line, below a path and above the bright green fields, was a hooded figure, turned to Mandi in his folding chair. The darkness of his face beneath the hood was accentuated by the line of his white moustache. At his side was a small easel on which sat an oil painting of what, at a distance, looked to Mandi like an aquatic centipede climbing onto a beach.
“I’m sorry to bother you, sir!”
“Sorry? You damn well intended to! Come in, Deirdre, come in, don’t be shy, let’s have a good look! Yes!!! Lost your way, have you?”
“No, sir, I came to see you.”
“Did you, dearie, did you really? What? Never mind. Go and look at the chapel then. You might as well now you’re here, get this over with! O, listen to me! Indiscreet again, Deirdre, what will you all do to me! Black-ball me? Excommunication, is it, this time? Think I’ve been playing fast and loose with my CX bulletins? I left the service. Once in the service, always in the service! Quickly, dear, have a look in the chapel while you still have the chance.”
Was that his trick? The best he could do? Distraction? Incoherence?
“You know they sent me to... shut you up. I wasn’t told in so many words, but... I thought I should come and warn you; that you are in danger.”
“Why, Deirdre, why on earth would you do that? You already know that I already know. So, why not be honest with yourself, and tell me why you really came here.”
Christ on a stick, how did he know that?
“Tell me who I am.”
“The same as us all, my dear. We are the children of our parents. But you already knew that.”
“Your father was a ghost...”
The old man was flustered; he flapped his papery hands and Mandi worried. He did not look like a man who had often been taken aback.
“You’re not my... Dad, are you?”
The avatar howled. He was bent over in the chair by his guffawing. Hilarity shook his ancient frame. Mandi thought she must have killed him this time; that unconsciously she was carrying out the bidding of the Hexamerons.
“O, that would have been far better! A dream come true! Hahaha! No, my only relation to you, dear girl, is that I was a great admirer of your mother. If you want to find out who you really are, Deirdre... why don’t you do as you’re told and look in the chapel?”
It was a strangely appealing building. A shed of corrugated iron, painted a shade of green that reminded Mandi of the prefabricated chalets at Lost Horizon. Why not? She turned back to the avatar, still with half a mind to demur and get back to the point, but the old man was already hard at work on his painting. She was relieved not to see him stricken by a coronary. Well, she could afford the extended taxi fare; expenses would cover that. She climbed the three wooden steps and let herself in through the gothic door.
She had second thoughts.
“Did you smash that statue?”
His brush was poised above the sea.
“A long time ago.”
“It is of Thomas More. The idiot! His hair shirt was here, you know, when it was...” He twisted in his chair and gasped slightly. “Despite all appearances, Deirdre, being is not suffering. O, bad things happen to people, I’ve made a few happen myself, but life, existence, being as only suffering? No! To the weak, maybe. And to fools who seek to increase their own. Go into your chapel, Deirdre. You will find everything you need in there. Then you won’t need to go running after Utopia like the rest of them...”
He was back at his painting, dabbing at the waves.
Mandi was struck by how narrow the chapel was; the two wings either side had created the illusion of breadth, but inside it was more like a short corridor than a hall. As she stepped across the threshold, it felt as though she had dropped into sea water; a huge shock of cold ran up and down her body, her nose was crammed with saltiness and the cork ribs on each of the walls stood out like precipitations on the walls of the Old Grotto. So taken by the strangeness was she, that she did not notice the slight darkening of the chapel as the grey wooden door closed gently behind her.
Mandi grabbed for the back of the small white chair to steady herself, tempted to sit down, but, conscious somehow of the consequences of passivity, she pushed herself up again, into the swirl above her and grabbed instead at a flash of blue stole. For a moment, Mandi thought that in her instinctive reaching out to the figure, she had brought the icon crashing over, smashing it in half like the statue behind the chapel, but instead what she felt in her hand was not plaster, but the softest, silkiest of things and when she looked down at the material it was hanging from her own shoulders not the statue’s. It fell below her waist; beyond its blueness was the whiteness of the chair. Confused, trying to get her bearings, she looked around her and was dazzled by multi-coloured daggers of light bursting from her own hair; trying to escape the brightness she caught sight of a rose beside her trainers, its trampled stem flattened yet snagging on her pants, and a chocolate-coloured rock below her feet from which the swirling tide of blue and white was relentlessly spilling. O Christ, she had smashed the statue, its pieces were at her feet, it was ruined! She was the assassin! In a hopeless gesture, she reached down to pick up the pieces, stepped forward into the striped toothpaste colours, and felt the thud as she head-butted the altar. Reeling backwards, she sent the white chair over on its side. Recovering by fierce mental effort, she reached down and, righting the chair, placed it back in front of the altar. Mandi looked up. Who was she? The statue looked away, untouched and unmoved. What had she not understood? Tears gushed from the wells of her eyes, and in the blur of vision she imagined the old man in the hood stood behind the chapel and striking the statue of the priest with a hammer, hacking off its head and chest.
The blurred vision was gone. The walls were cork. Mary was a plaster saint. Mandi felt for her tears, but her cheeks were dry. There was something wet on her legs; pulling up her trouser bottoms, there were long thin lines of blood on her shins where she had forced her way through the brambles. The old man had sent her into the chapel to learn something; but it was no clearer in there than in her dreams. Perhaps this was when he would explain.
She opened the grey door, half-expecting an unnatural resistance.
The first thing she noticed was the painting. While she had been in the chapel, the messiah had been hard at work, painting out the sea monster. What remained was an unremarkable landscape; a coastal scene painted with some technical skill, but no great spirit. It was the old man’s final act of disguise. Or maybe she had imagined the monster.
She knew he was dead. As she left him to go into the chapel, she had felt him pass something – the torch, a poisoned chalice, a mystery – on to her. He would not be there for her – in the nature of all fathers and messiahs – to provide the answers. She stood for a moment beside the stiffening figure, crumpled deeper now into the folding chair, and looked out over the fields he had not painted, to the coast that he had, hidden behind the rise of the last hills before the water.
“...great admirer of your mother...”
The truth was staring her in the face and she chose to look away. Retracing her steps to Reception, Mandi interrupted the taxi driver from some intricate terraforming on Mars and caught the London train from Newton Abbot. On the way to the station she had sent an email from her phone, thanking reception at the retirement complex for their assistance, remarking on the old man’s remarkable talent as a landscape artist and leaving her contact number at ‘Lost Horizon’ in case the old man “remembers anything further to my question”. In a few days’ time, she would be sad to hear of his death, but privileged “in a strange way”, as she put it, to have been the last person to talk with a man who had lived such a long and remarkable life.
The landscape to London was devoid of angels and monsters; things were settling down. By the time the train was pulling into Paddington, past the modernist landmarks with their Hong Kong feel, Mandi had an opinion piece ready for her editor, combining a swingeing assault on the curlicues of small town thinking with a more savage one upon the asses of white-flight metropolitans filling up the Exeter hinterland. There was something to infuriate everyone.
Continue to Instalment 9
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