the m john harrison blog

Month: December, 2012

interior with pvc bucket

We are so quick to look for closure, for the clear termination of sections of our life, that we often invent it. After the debacle at 17 Hill Park I had assumed I would never be caught up with Yaxley again. Indeed, obsessed with the Pleroma, he did leave me alone for two or three years. But after his failure with the ritual he called the Infolding, everything failed. The fear that he would be absorbed by the Pleroma grew daily, until his whole position was undercut by it. Associated phobias developed to include a horror of dirt. That, and the residue of one too many magical operations, drove him out of his rooms above the Atlantis bookshop & I lost sight of him. Then I received a telephone call, I don’t believe from Yaxley himself. After I picked up the receiver there was a prolonged silence, into which I prompted–

“Hello? Hello?”

Nothing. Then someone said softly:

“Go to this address–”

Other instructions followed, some infantile, some meaningless. I did not recognise the magical operation to which they referred. The voice was hard to hear, let alone to identify. It paused, failed, picked up again. Once or twice it laughed. “Two fucks and a pig,” it said. It seemed to come from a long way away, and there were other voices behind it. “Two fine fucks and a pig.”

I walked past the building twice. It was a spacious modern block on the north side of Upper Richmond Road, close to East Putney station. It reminded me less of Yaxley than Lawson, and perhaps it was in fact some fossil of their brief partnership. The people who lived there worked in property or investment banking. Traffic laboured under their windows all day, but double glazing muted the noise to a comfortable hum. By night their black European executive saloons lined up at the kerb in rows. I went through a cold well-kept entrance hall, unrelieved by two shallow brick structures like small municipal flowerbeds filled with decorative gravel, and took the stairs to the top floor. Between landings I wavered; touched for reassurance the white painted metal handrail. Had I heard someone coming up behind me?

“Yaxley?”

Modern flats have a precision, a bleak openness to their angles, which encourages hygiene. Yaxley’s was painted off-white throughout, with white woodwork. Every wall, every wainscot, was spotless. There were some rather nice carpets in a kind of flushed pink. Furnished properly, it might have been comfortable if rather affectless. But all I could find was a telephone on a table and, in the middle of the lounge floor a state-of-the-art television. (When I switched it on, an unlabelled DVD began to play. I switched it off again immediately.) The kitchen was fitted expensively enough, with oak units, Creda Solarspeed hob, butcher-striped roller blinds. Under the immaculate stainless-steel double sink I found Flash, Jif, sponge floor mops, plastic buckets and Marigold rubber gloves–several of everything, all brand new, as if he had cached them against a seige; or agoraphobia.

Yaxley was in the bedroom.

He lay naked on his side in the middle of the uncarpeted floor, knees drawn up slightly. One hand was curled gently under the side of his head to support it. The other cupped his genitals. Death had aged him. With his long deceitful face, grey stubbled jaw, and lips drawn back over blackened or yellowish teeth, he might have been seventy or eighty. He looked like an old untrustworthy dog, shrunk, famished, reduced. Before he died, he had been trying to make something with two sticks. Above him on the wall was pinned a postcard reproduction of the steps of the British Museum. Under this he had scrawled in soft pencil the words ‘The Place of the Cure of the Soul’, a description reputed to have been carved over the doors of the Library at Alexandria. Otherwise the room was empty. There was no furniture, not even a bed. It stank. Yaxley hadn’t washed since I last saw him. The dirt was glazed on, as if he had spent the intervening years living in a doorway off the Charing Cross Road. In addition some sort of fat was smeared all over his emaciated upper body, perhaps as lubrication. He had been frightened the Pleroma would invaginate him. In the event though he seemed to have been not so much sucked in as sucked.

Behind him on the floor I found an envelope; inside that the key to a safety deposit box in the City. In the box, I knew, there would be two thick black notebooks. I had seen them before. I collected them that afternoon, and over the next two days, coming and going under Yaxley’s dead ironic eye, fetched his papers, his pictures and other magical paraphernalia from locations to which the notebooks gave access. Some of the larger items–an old fashioned Dansette record player, a wooden chair with awkwardly curved arms, two crates of books–I was forced to move by taxi. Decaying ring-binders burst and gave forth yellow papers, upon which I read in a scrawled hand:

    “The door! The rosy door!”

Or:

    “…two distinct and irreconcilable worlds, pleroma or fullness–which has come down to us as the muddled Christian promise of “Heaven”; and hysterema or kenoma, pain, illusion, emptiness–the life we must actually live. Between them, it used to be said, lies the paradox or boundary-state horos. But the great discovery of this century has been to knock at the door of horos and find no one at home. Horos is the wish-fulfilment dream, the treachery of the mirror…”

Eventually I had assembled it all in the stinking bedroom. The rest of the instructions proved harder to follow. I was required to set certain small objects–including a stoppered bottle half full of rose water and a Polaroid photograph of someone’s left hand–in precise relationships to one another on a small wooden table, about five feet in front of the corpse. The table itself must stand at the apex of a precise triangle, the other two points of which were represented by a burned-out electric kettle from some Tufnell Park bedsitter; and a split PVC bucket. I was to turn on the old Dansette in its peeled grey leatherette case, play a certain record, then undress, fold my clothes in a particular way, and masturbate. I knelt down before the table, with its burden of futile or malign objects. I pulled bleakly and unhappily at myself for perhaps ten minutes, but every time I felt the drowsy approach of orgasm, I seemed to snap back into self awareness, and feel upon me the dead magician’s amused, dispassionate gaze.

“Yaxley never did anything to anybody,” I remembered Pam Stuyvesant advising me. “He encourages you to do it to yourself.”

From the cloth-covered speaker of the Dansette, to a background of crackles and distant music, some chirpy pre-War entertainer sang:

    Who’s been polishing the sun,
    Sprucing up the clouds so grey?
    Does she know that’s how I like it?
    I hope she’s going my way!

Suddenly I felt exhausted and ill. I gave up the attempt and instead was violently sick into the plastic bucket. Yaxley, I suppose, may have allowed for this. It was hard to see whether the act had been designed to free or redeem him; or as a last meaningless sneer. Anyway, nothing seemed to happen, so after a bit I left. I closed and locked the door behind me, and later threw the key and the notebooks off Putney Bridge and into the river.

As far as I know, Yaxley’s still there.

[From The Course of the Heart, 1992.]

unhomely charm

Paulie deRaad had boltholes all over Saudade. This one was a bleak single room off Voigt Street in the noncorprorate hinterland, no different from the rest except Paulie kept a military cot there, which he always made up himself; along with a few things he valued from his vacuum commando days. He also ran some of his communications through it, via the various FTL uplinkers and orbital routers which made him nationwide. As soon as he opened the door, a foul smell came out. It was like shit, urine and standing water.

“Jesus, Paulie,” Vic said.

Paulie told him he didn’t know anything yet. Along with the smell, there was a kind of bubbling sound. Lying on Paulie’s cot, partly out of its clothes, was the entity that called itself “the Weather”. Last time Vic saw it, they were at Suicide Point together. Somehow it had choked on Vic’s artefact, and the two of them were glued together at some level no one but another Shadow Boy could understand. A wedding had taken place. Whatever tied the knot had also wed them to the Point kid. They were all three stuck with one another–although, to judge by the Point kid’s unfortunate condition, not for long. He looked frightened and ill. He had tried to undress himself and get under the blanket, for comfort as much as warmth. His shorts were half down, his skin a fishy white under the low wattage illumination. Every so often he convulsed, his mouth gaped open and he threw up what looked like cold tapioca.

“So what’s this, Vic ?” Paulie DeRaad wanted to know.

The kid heard Paulie’s voice. It sat up trembling and looked from one to the other of them. It caught Vic’s eye. It recognised him. He could see the operator far down inside, and the Point kid, and in there with them both the artefact, still white and unknown, some animal-like thing running towards Vic across the event site. There was no way to avoid the directness of this: something wrong was happening. Wherever Vic and Paulie situated themselves in the room they couldn’t hide from it. They still caught flashes of the Shadow Boy’s unhomely charm. For a moment the foul air would be full of rain falling through sunlight, the smell of the sea. Between moans from the kid and bursts of code like music, they heard its voice.

“Am I here ?” it appealed to Paulie. “I can’t seem to see myself.”

“This happened two or three days afterwards,” Paulie said to Vic. “I can’t pass this off on my buyer. I can’t use it for myself, even if I knew what it was. This ain’t good business, Vic.”

“I see that,” Vic said. “Can we get out of here ?”

The Point kid laughed. “No one gets out of here,” it whispered, in three separate voices at once.

[From Nova Swing, 2006.]

old man & cat

After I’d been living in Stalybridge for a couple of months my cat became ill. It was eating as greedily as ever then vomiting the food up in fits which frightened and disgusted me. It crouched on the living room floor, coughing out fur balls and swallowing them again in great bronchitic heaves, staring warily at me in case I put it outside the door. During the close, thundery afternoons it sidled about under the furniture and was sick by the bookshelves. I was always too late: a rhythmic gulping sound, a croak, a grey puddle spreading on the carpet. Between these fits it purred and watched the flies, much as it had always done. I discovered that the old man who lived downstairs had begun to feed it fishbones from the side of his plate.

I cornered him on the landing outside his flat. It had been a long hot day and a foul smell hung in the air. Over his thin sloping shoulder I could see into his front room. Thick piles of hair-clippings lay on the pocked green lino. He cut his hair himself, and often left it there for days on end. Through his window was a view of the road, where a few children were playing desultorily on bicycles. On the wall opposite, one of them had chalked, “Whoever redes this is a cunt.”

“You must never give it fishbones,” I explained patiently. “It will choke on them.”

“I can’t stop it stealing, can I?” he complained. “Cats eat fish. The poor little thing.”

He licked his lips and watched me. He had on a cotton vest, wrinkled over a pot belly peculiarly swollen and hard. His arms were thin — though they had once been muscular — the skin loose and sore in the creases of his elbow. I noticed that his hands were trembling slightly. Suddenly I had had enough of him.

“You know bloody well it isn’t the cat that’s stealing!” I shouted in his face. I was trembling too. “It’s ill. It’s ill, you stupid old idiot!”

I stepped round him and went quickly through his door. I was practised at this. Every day I had to get my milk back, or look for my letters. I had caught him with my groceries. I had caught him with a dish of Kit-E-Kat Meat & Liver Dinner. “It’s filthy in here,” I said. “Can’t you clean it up a bit ? I can smell it from upstairs when you open the door.” He came in behind me and stood in the twilight biting his lips, his weak eyes sliding sideways to the television screen, which showed a factory, a mechanical process of one sort or another, and then a man driving down a road on a housing estate.

“And another thing,” I said. “You can keep that thing turned down.”

I prodded him in the stomach.

He looked at me and swallowed. “If you do that I’ll shit myself,” he said.

[From Climbers, 1989.]