No 166 - 2001
Although not yet old, I bear the characteristics of an invalid. Both my routine and dress are governed by my need to stay in bed. Hugo has led me on another wild goose-chase. I tap his bald marble head with my walking stick. ‘What we going to do with ourselves, Hugo? Worse than useless.’ Without getting up, I struggle into my smoking jacket, plunge cold hands deep into pockets to trap the warmth. Chinese peasants drift across loose silk sleeves of plum blossom. On my head is an Austrian cap of black boiled wool.
My window looks out onto a wintry street. Pollarded trees stripped of leaves waggle their stumps at the soft grey sky which muffles the world like an anaesthetic. I hope it’ll wear off. If I turn left, I see directly into another first floor bedroom. There’s a bald man sitting on his bed, watching me. Being bed-bound (I suffer from lazy knee), I’m vulnerable. Perhaps he’s an invalid too?
My body’s undergoing profound changes, it makes immobility a must. I’ve tried to call it a day but Tabitha, with her big teeth and hippy chic, is having none of it. ‘The only thing you need are anti-prevaricants, so you can finish your blasted book.’ She’s downstairs alphabeticising my albums, sorting out the mail order end of Cherished Teddies, a company specializing in pewter miniatures of famous historical bears. The language of love has developed into a facile shorthand. First it was Rabbit, then Bunny and, finally, Bunner. ‘Bunner, come to Tabby.’ For the last two years, I’ve fetched her slippers, watched her study herself in the bathroom mirror. Her legacy, the marble bust of Hugo Althrup, is anything but supportive. She’s having a pop at my inability to finish anything. When she’s not persecuting me, the bust does the job for her.
My book, The Appetitive Urge, on 18th Century collectors, has become an unwriteable edifice. I’m lost in a garden uncircumscribed by any ha-ha. It was initially erected to keep Tabitha away, give me space to dream in the long afternoons while she bubble-wrapped her bears. Now the joke’s on me.
I plunge my arm into a box on my bed, pull out a sheet of paper. I begin another of my abortive introductions:
Towards the end of 1992 (after my skin complaint went into remission) I began researching the disappearance of Hugo Althrup for Radio 4’s 18thCentury Week. ‘The Appetitive Urge’ began the quest which took me from London to Ludlow in pursuit of the real Hugo. Described by his contemporaries as ‘a maverick, dilettante and dabbler in the Black Arts’, I realized how precious little about this enigmatic man we know. The myth has eclipsed what few traces he left behind.
Today Hedgecombe Hall, Althrup’s family seat, is an unprepossessing pile. It is open to guided tours on the third Sunday of each month. The park is overgrown with bracken. Waist-high in ferns, I thrashed about, with my Instamatic, in search of Althrup’s erotic statues which purportedly hold the key to immortality. A gruff warden with a revolver warned me to stick to the path.
The winding drive slips between mature trees, forming a mosaic of a vile serpent’s head beneath the portico of the hall. A restored Berlin, lacquered in black varnish, supposedly a replica of the one in which Althrup toured the continent, rests between the huge twin pillars. Peering inside, I had a curious sensation of déjà-vu. I pressed my palm against the scalloped red upholstery. It was warm.
Wandering through the long wooden gallery, you notice cobwebs caught between deers’ teeth, a moth-eaten mannequin in the vast fire-grate. As I drifted from room to room, I had the peculiar sensation of walking through my own body. Every room was a facet of me, in serious disrepair.
A sketch, on the wall of Hugo’s sculpture sanctuary, is nearly all that remains of his life-time’s obsession. I strive to unravel the secrets of this charismatic man. Why did a rational being renounce logic to study alchemy and become a student of the deceased Apennine conjurer, Cosimo Fontana? On the walls are sketches of the notorious Lobster Cracker, an infernal machine (copied from a Fontana etching).
Fontana believes we’re all cracked lobsters dumped into a pressure cooker at birth. Celestial maggots writhe luxuriously in the pre-personality stage of development, secreting glue which hardens into body armour. Soft flesh is highly addictive. Tabs wheedles me out of my carapace. She pokes at white meat with red fingernails. I convulse with tiny repressed tremors. She eats me bit by bit: with mayonnaise, thermidor, Chinese style with lumps of ginger. Althrup wanted to protect this immortal essence. Eternal life is no longer a guarantee. You must learn the incantations, otherwise soul-death or enslavement follows.
Lobster Cracking, according to the diagram, enables transference of thought through Pneumaticians operating an air loom disguised as a grand piano. The victim is caught between the magnetic warp. A huge pair of nutcrackers crunch open his shell to expose his ethereal being. Waves of magnetic effluvia are depicted in detail, emanating from a black piano. Silvery strands connect to a sleeping man.
Our guide breaks in with his prepared spiel about heraldic chuffs and the portrait’s magnetic eyes. ‘Them eyes follow you about the room. Uncanny, isn’t it, Sir?’ I nod at the caretaker in his beige apron, dusting the mannequin. ‘And them rooms is full of history.’
The motto above the fire-place, in cryptic Gothic script, boasts the centuries’ old warning: I nourish and I extinguish. Sadly, only the latter seems applicable, as I stare at the cold empty grate, notebook in hand, and feel the chill north winds from the Malverns.
Luckily there is a readership for my over-ripe prose. I’ve been infected with the poison of Althrup’s correspondence. It’s come up purple again. Like nappy rash, it should be blotted with talc. I’m a perfectionist. Every syllable is weighed, spoken out loud, revised but, like me, it lacks life. You can’t go on faking the organism.
‘Bunner!’ Tabitha’s voice swells up the stairwell, ‘Panda’s on the ’phone (she’s her sexy girlfriend, Amanda). Wants to know if you fancy going to the Waikiki Lounge tonight? Hail Mary, those angry Irishmen, are playing a gig.’
‘You go along. Better plug away at the book. I’m combing the continent for clues to immortality. I’m in Althrup’s Berlin. Mustn’t lose momentum.’ I crouch down into the duvet, imagine her fingers twitching with irritation.
After loyally raising the dust in second-hand bookshops, and gamely suggesting day- trips to Bubb Doddington’s Mausoleum or Medmenham Abbey (now an executive squash club), she threw in the towel. She was lured away by biological imperatives, the dream of a great golden impregnation in the shape of a darkhaired IT manager, Josh. He bragged he could do it eight-times-a-night and, if this failed, he’d shove a steam engine up his arse to get him going. He turned out to be married. She was ejected from his bolt-hole in Wapping. Hugo was both her peace offering to me and a plea to move in, rent-free, for an unspecified period. Now he reproaches me with sightless eyes for my failure to engage with the animate. Lost in nose-picking, I ponder the heavy marble bust. Enough of his complacent smile! He’s off to the conservatory. I pick up the clipboard and big, indelible felt tip:
Hugo Althrup’s sculptures are one of the great undiscovered treasures of the 18th Century, hunted down by our antiquarians greedy for immortality. ‘A zealous votary to the Goddess of Pleasure’, Hugo amassed this eccentric and questionable collection of statuary in his Sacred Wood, in Shropshire. Laughed at by his peers for his idea of a ‘theme garden’, tracing the allegorical journey of the soul through the ether, he now strikes us as refreshingly modern. His garden was a goldmine of trick perspectives, lopsided houses and twisted figures, apostles engaged in indelicate acts. Not surprisingly, after his disappearance in 1763, the statues were dispersed. All that remains is a rather half-hearted hermaphrodite and an oriental globe, in which, spinning, Hugo surveyed the surrounding countryside.
Tabby’s heavy rhino tread on the stair distracts me. I doodle eggheads in the margin, assailed by electrical wires emanating from a gloomy, overgrown garden. Hairy centaurs with huge eyes cavort in pruned bushes. Can’t she walk softly? If I complain, she retorts she suffered from flat feet as a child.
‘Hi, Bunner,’ she pops her head around the door. Been snipping her fringe again. ‘You getting up today?’
‘My legs are terribly heavy.’ I extend one cautiously from under our duvet, dislodge buff boxes, sachets and a tub of unguentum mercatorum: a skin moisturizer which makes me susceptible to Althrup’s electrical bulletins. ‘I’m at a crucial point in my Intro.’
She slides into the room in her black, Muji polo-neck. Uniform of the shirking classes. Shakes her head. She cleans around the edge of my desk with a spotted rag, humming loudly.
I jam my felt-tip hard into my clipboard. ‘Come on, Tabs. Stop being such a time bandit. I’m feeling unwell.’
At the foot of my bed, she sweeps sachets of cold remedies into a pile. Looks up with a raised, pencilled eyebrow. ‘I read about your problem in today’s paper. Apparently, baboons in the Serengeti only work three hours a day to meet their calorific needs. This leaves them the rest of the day to invent psychological stress. They ulcerate due to social complexities.’
There’s no point in denying I’m not a baboon, or claiming Serengeti habits do not apply in Shepherd’s Bush, because they do. Best to be direct. ‘Tabby, you always have to romanticize. You’re not a social complexity, you’re a fucking parasite. If I ulcerate, I’ll hold you personally responsible.’
She sniffs and smooths her lambswool jumper. ‘Poor Tabber. Tabber’s only trying to help.’
I scratch my head, tense myself for the giraffe kick to follow.
‘Why can’t you get a little job? Just a teeny part-time one. Alex has got one. It’s helped his song-writing. Like you, he’s ecologically privileged, but he doesn’t spend his day in bed pondering the imponderables.’
‘When I had a fucking job, you complained you never saw me. Now I’m here, in my own home, you’re sick of the sight of me. You go to work, stop hounding me.’ The clarity of mind I need to tackle Althrup evaporates. ‘Go and pack fucking bears!’
The slamming of the front door makes my bedroom windows shake in their sashes. Tabby’s a tragic figure, Oxbridge-educated. Always one to tell you, after a glass of Merlot. Yet that great critical mind of hers is engaged in the production of miniature, pewter gift-ware. Hates me to be occupied with my research. She’d prefer to see me demeaned in the work- place. On some hideous placement, familiarising myself with the Tesco’s herbal tea range: would Your Highness prefer Orange Zinger or Fruits of the Forest? Strange thing is, moronic to admit it, I can’t work when she leaves the house. When she’s here, she acts as a spur to my writing. I’ll do anything to avoid her mindless chit-chat but, when she’s gone, the dynamic’s no longer there.
Last time we went on holiday I bought up a batch of priceless Althrup letters in an 18th Century job lot at a sale in Ludlow. Ostensibly, it was a baby-making weekend for Tabby and me but I had ulterior motives. On a lumpy mattress at the Green Dragon, overlooking the castle, she climbed on top of me as I searched for my vitamins. I moved her up and down, distracted by a distant car alarm.‘Say something sweet, Bunner. Even if you don’t mean it.’ ‘I want to come all over you.’ ‘That’s nice.’ Wasps chewed through the oak beams above the bed. Their nest building kept me awake at night.
Somewhere there’s an index card, stapled to his letter. I rummage in my boxes next to my curly Turkish slippers and panic. Most of my time is spent making sure my index cards are in the right slot. What I’ll do with them is anyone’s guess. Eventually, I retrieve the truant letter Althrup addressed to himself from the continent.
‘I blindly adopted what my Peers were pleased to call Pleasure: and a man of Pleasure, in the vulgar understanding of the Word, means no more than a riotous Drunkard, an abandoned Whoremaster, a profligate Swearer and Blasphemer. My Fortune impaired, my Constitution shattered Dr Fitz advised another Italian tour.’
There are certain parallels. My own struggle with gin (half bottles secreted in cracks in sofa) and my search for healing ultra-violet light. Althrup, too, suffered from a ‘scorbutic skin disorder’ and sought relief in cool marble statuary. Lying naked on a plinth in his moonlit garden, he worshipped Fontana’s marble Titan. He dreamt of an existence in stone, where the body would be preserved, the mind set free. Tabitha reckons my skin condition is yet another one of my ‘strategies to disengage from living’.
The letter is dated 1763. Is this where the correspondence stops? Yet, more degenerate statuary acquired on his last Italian tour, continues to arrive in his Sacred Wood, in Shropshire, with precise instructions, as late as 1782. These instructions are written in an unfamiliar hand in a sort of cipher. What is certain is that Althrup never returned. There is a receipt from Dr Fitz, who treated Althrup’s fits of melancholy with purges and hydrotherapy. He warns Hugo of bringing on another attack through his passion for collecting. I quote from Hugo’s final letter, addressed to his twin brother:
‘Fitz tells me to regulate my Expenditure and, by that Economy, restore my Constitution, which rather hinders Concoction but, to this day, I cannot resist the charms of a Trollop or a Toy Shop. In the midst of all my Snuff Boxes and Statuary, I find myself in Want of the Real Necessaries of Life. And what are these? My Health and my Collection. I am convinced both are inextricably linked to Fontana’s Apennine garden.’
This book deals with the fate of Althrup, the sinister artefacts he came by in the Apennines and the startling conclusion he became part of his own collection.
I stand, shivering, in the grey rectangle of light by our bedroom window. I apply moisturizer to my thighs: waxy, hairless and as disembodied as the rest of me. I’m walking backwards through snow, disappearing into my own footprints. As I finish greasing myself, I peer through the striped blinds of the house opposite. The bare-chested, balding man sits on the edge of his bed, rocking back and forth. He bangs his head against his palm. I clutch my head. I’m wearing an electrical corset. The Lobster Cracking makes my eyes water. Althrup remains impassive, his wrinkled grin floats in front of my eyes. I remember the diagram from Hedgecombe Hall. Three murderers creep up to a sleeping man, creating a force field: Tabby, killer across the way and Hugo’s ghost. The victim sits still, smooths his brow. I draw my curtains.
It’s going well. My headache’s gone. I’m propped up in bed with plumped up pillows. A gin and tonic fizzes away on the bedside table. I’ve fallen into the biographer’s trap of needless embroidery. Althrup’s dead wife, Elizabeth Goyt, is always referred to as his ‘beloved consort’, likewise his mastiff has become his ‘precious hound’. My head droops onto my chin.
I’m nodding along in a black Berlin with Althrup and his Italian valet-de-chambre, Tonino. We rattle through a landscape of black volcanic rock and sticky grey mud, laying wagers on the prospect of seeing a black horse before a white one. I’ve wagered my home and lost the lot. Unguarded frankness makes me a prey to the artful, experienced Althrup. ‘You, Sir, are a pigeon waiting to be plucked.’ He coughs heavily, sputum dribbles from his chin. Tonino wipes his master’s face, offers him mercury. Althrup irritably pushes him away:‘I look to magic now, rather than physic to heal my ulcerated lungs.’
We pass a signpost riddled with worm holes, Scarpaccia. In grey fields, fossilized bodies clutch hoes. Tonino unfolds a parchment with spiralling red swirls, wavy green crests. He points from the Berlin’s window, jabbering excitedly: ‘Si, Signore!’ A stone city clings to the grey rocks above us in the shape of a straggling, dorsal fin. Althrup leans forward. ‘Do you see, Sir? The countryside is scorched, as if by the dragon’s breath.’ He slaps the parchment with hands of black volcanic glass. ‘The hidden gardens of Cosimo Fontana.’ Smiling, he sinks back into the red upholstered recess.
I work best through auto-suggestion and intuition. I dream myself into situations when evidence is lacking. At the risk of sounding cranky, I believe I’m attached to Althrup through fine astral spaghetti. He tipped me off about Fontana, shifted the whole focus of my book. I’ve rewritten the first chapter. It’s Cosimo Fontana who really interests me:
When ploughing through other sources, I had assumed Fontana’s garden wasn’t a literal garden but a metaphor for the irrational and diabolic. Fontana certainly existed as ‘a vicious and immoral sprig’. He was a distant relation of a fat 15th Century Pope. To their mutual embarrassment, he dabbled in alchemy. He created a scandal in the Papal States by ‘galvanizing dead men with the toxins of weever fish’ or sea wasp (raganella). These unfortunates never died but remained in a state of semi-paralysis. Draped in grey linen tunics, deprived of will, they worked his marble quarries, fashioning evil statues for his black, allegorical garden. Althrup was in pursuit of Fontana’s magic sculptures for his Sacred Wood. He believed they held the key to immortality. The search for these fetish objects clearly disturbed the balance of his mind.
Tabby’s back. Judging by her whistling and the cistern’s gurgle, she’s enjoyed a longish, liquid lunch. She creeps into my Aladdin’s Cave of spotted mirrors and mystical blue curtains. Head cocked to one side. Her black page-boy cut has been redefined. She looks more like bald Hugo. Silk Cut smokes between fingers stacked with chunky, silver Navaho Indian rings. She perches on the edge of my desk. Now we’re just the three of us: Tabby, Bunner and Hugo.
‘Hiya, Bunner, well done for getting up.’ She puffs furiously. Doesn’t realize I’ve only got up to impress her. Tugs at my curls: ‘You absolutely sure you don’t feel like coming out tonight with me and Panda? Alex’ll be there. You know how much you like him?’ I scratch out furiously in my notebook: Immortality in unexpected form, willing apprentice becomes Fontana’s puppet. Is Tabby working for Hugo’s ghost?
‘I’m worried about you. Panda’s told me about a new skin cream, invented by Norfolk farmers from chicken hormones. I’ve got the details.’ She ferrets in her tasselled, suede bag. Every pocket pundit has the latest remedy for my condition. Most are sadistic: electric acupuncture, horse leeches, zinc injections, foulsmelling teas.
She brandishes an orange post-it note. ‘I forgot to give you this. Listen. Exceed the need. Identify your favourite dessert.’ She hands me the card with a ’phone number. Wapping code. ‘Not that side, silly! That’s my empowerment list. The other.’ I turn it over, a cat testing the teeth of a vole: Dr Kester Dragon skin specialist, MD FRCP. ‘He works with Caribbean herbs in a special UV cabinet in Kilburn.’
‘You pulling my pisser?’
She grabs the note back, flinches as I push back the chair. This could be her form of revenge, these insidious daily wind-ups, which end with me in multiple blotches, her in tears.
‘I’ve told you, the only fucking thing I’m allergic to is you and your herbal remedies! Can’t you see your concern’s made my neck come up?’ My voice is peevish, hysterical.
She retreats in her black polo-neck, fingers twitch an imaginary keyboard. Sometimes I think she’s playing the black piano. She applies the Lobster Crackers in the afternoon. My head starts to throb.
‘Fuck you!’ she shouts. ‘I think all women should be allowed to carry guns to shoot men.’
‘Don’t fucking agree with me! I’ve got a First in English Literature from Oxford. I don’t need this. I’ve always tried to be a nice person.’
She rifles in her bag. We both stare into the crimson slit. A pistol? Engagement ring? She pulls out her door-keys. Unfortunately, they’re entangled in a mini pewter bear, dressed as Robin of Sherwood.
She flings them both at my chest. ‘Get on with it, Eeyore! Go and find a nice damp clump of nettles to sit in and moan on and on about your boring research and your spots. Git!’ She storms out. Cue more door-slamming and rhino-stomping. We’ve been here before. I pick up the trapped bear and keys and crawl under my duvet.
‘Don’t sit there like a buckram puppet!’ Althrup sits across from me in the Berlin. Blood speckles his white cuffs. Despite the rattling, Tonino assembles a cold collation. We cross a rickety bridge. I pull at the chicken drumstick, the whole carcass comes away. It’s made of clay. We roll over flagstones, in a huge underground hall. I glance out. The hall is bordered by statuary torch-bearers of grinning crocodilian men. Torches blaze with a sea-green phosphorescence. Through the open window, I smell spicy, aromatic oils.
‘At eighteen, I abducted a wealthy heiress, Elizabeth Goyt. She died sadly of a septic abscess. Such is the dismal state of modern medicine. Another barrow load of manure for the ancestral plot. One seeks supernatural remedies.’ The carriage is now climbing. The lack of noise troubles me. No hoof-beats on the flagstones. ‘Five years of happy marriage. I consecrated my Sacred Wood to her. We watched the moonlit river. Wandered among the statuary, planning further acquisitions.’ Tonino mumbles the names of lapsed Catholic saints, stroking his pendant. A hunchback whose lower body tapers into a red pepper. ‘Lizzie’s death unleashed me from the stultifying society of my in-laws. This final frenzy...’ Deep coughs wrench his frame. His wig slips sideways. We pass through two bronze doors, embossed with inverted torches. The air smells sweet. There are blood-red berries on the bushes, great clouds of hovering green-finches.
I turn over in the double bed, upsetting sachets of cough powder and tubes of hormonal cream. Silver moths whir in clouds of dust before settling on my eiderdown. One cheeky insect lands on the bridge of my nose. Huge medical dictionary cuts into my calf. Tonight I’ve variously diagnosed rectal cancer, brain tumours, now Lobster Cracking. Tabby’s right, we need to get away for a few days. Hope she’s enjoying Hail Mary. I blame Hugo. I limp across the floor. Grip him under his hairless chin, tilting his naked head back in the moonlight. He’s so damn heavy. Thick clusters of stone curls cling to his shoulders. ‘Listen Hugo, you’ve got to let go! It’s no good, all these late nights.’ I delve into the cupboard, grab a binliner. ‘I’m sorry old chap. You’ll probably make me pay for this.’ I slip the black bag over his head.
I drag Hugo along the landing by the shoulders. I’ll ring Mrs. Beaufort at The Green Dragon. Baby-making weekend number six? Surprise Tabs. Hugo bumps downstairs. I crouch in front of him, shuffling from step to step. I cough from exertion. My legs feel so heavy. We pass along the hall and turn into the kitchen. I hobble with Hugo towards the conservatory. Sweat irritates my skin. It erupts into excruciating itches. The conservatory’s flooded with moonlight. The solitary sculpture in the park of Hedgecombe Hall appears. A vertical marble man clinging to his plinth, splayed legs cycling in the air. A raindrop hangs from his nose, a bead of snot. I wait for him to drop to the ground.
My bedroom’s an oriental globe spinning in the night sky, scattering sparks over rooftops. I’m exhausted but thank God I’m free of the monster. Whispered voices and erratic research have been my convalescence for too long. I glug gin in the dark until the spinning stops. Thrust the bottle back into my pillow slip. Lie back on the bed, a medieval saint minus his stone whippet. Am I having a breakdown? Tabby come back. Argue with me. Prove I exist.
They have likewise related, those other unfortunates who stumbled across Cosimo Fontana, that many other Gangs are stationed in different parts of the Italian Countryside. Lords, Viscounts, Scholars, Invalids all came to discover the secrets of immortal life. They submitted to the Lobster Crackers and were either forced into Slavery or turned into Statuary at the Conjurer’s Whim. Near every Village a Black Piano is concealed within a wine press. Persons previously saturated with Magnetic Fluid are soon to be Assailed. The Pneumatic Practitioner hovers above him, Establishing a link and sets at Liberty the Volatile Liquid in order to Effect a Transference.
I have no recollection writing fragments of text. Viz the Lobster Cracking. I grab a handful of pills from the fruit bowl by my bed, gulp them down. I’ve driven Tabby crazy. Where is she? I peep through the blue curtains. She should be hammering on the door by now, unless she’s got off with the lead singer. Across the way he hasn’t moved an inch. Cool as cucumber, this bloke. White arms cut off below the shoulder. The bust of Hugo Althrup poses in the window opposite. Blind eyes burn with a bluish light. I clutch my head. His wrinkled smile floats in the night air. I suffer from shortness of breath. Secret Assassins are Working the Pulleys and Constricting my Brain. I pull the curtains tight, curl myself into a tiny ball.
Doorbell! It’s Althrup. Bin-liner has slipped from his face. I check the street for his Berlin. Nothing doing. Bell again! Rattle of the letter flap. I quiver on all fours at the top of the stairs, legs aching. ‘Open up, it’s Tabby. Please, Bunner!’ I brace myself before thumping, barefoot downstairs.
‘You look terrible.’
I smile as I hand her a peppermint infusion. She fiddles with her hair and lights a cigarette. My dressing-gown creeps open. I yank the cord tight. Her words are slurred. I blurt out something about bad dreams and the voyeur across the street.
‘Listen, Bunner, you should look after yourself, clean up a bit. I’m not surprised you’re seeing monsters. You invite them in by the way you live.’ Then, sweetly, slurping tea, ‘Try and have a little more confidence in yourself.’
My head is bowed in abject despair. A flagellant before his confessor. Am I overdoing it? Her hand flutters across the kitchen table. She’s starting to annoy me. She looks up with a brave little smile. Snipped her curls again. Female egghead who operates the infernal apparatus.
‘Poor Tabber. You’re not the only one with problems. No-one to protect me at the club. The bass player was very insistent. If you came out with me more often, these things would never happen. Packing me off like a parcel!’
‘It’s okay, Tabs. I don’t blame you.’ I’m Father Confessor. She’s a problem chorister.
I adopt the conciliatory penguin position. Head hunched into shoulders. Hands poised in the air to signify calm. Althrup would be horrified. I fish in my dressing-gown pocket, pull out the spare keys, pass them across the table.
Lying back on the bed, she taps her chest. ‘Come to Tabby.’ I wince. Why can’t she pay for sex like everyone else? Nonetheless, I pad across the floor.
We make very slow love. Two snorting Galapagos tortoises. I feel I’m bundling a duvet into a duvet slip. Sometimes, I stop. She pumps my buttocks to crank up the mechanism. My mind focusses on Althrup ‘sotting away his evenings’, almost hanging himself from ‘weariness of buttoning and unbuttoning his breeches.’
Tabby’s sleeping. I’ve got my special clip-on book light. Enough power to illuminate a sheet of A4. Hunched over my desk, I rapidly fill out index cards:
Fontana’s black allegorical garden was rumoured to be located in the Apennines, near a marble quarry, entered by means of an underground hall. We can only conjecture what statues he had amassed. One witness remarks on a group of black marble gypsies who encircled an altar. Antonio Angelucci (or Tonino), the wellborn son of Giacomo Angelucci, was a neighbour of Fontana’s. They fell out in a boundary dispute. Fontana was expelled from his hometown of Amelia by angry residents who blamed crop failure and infant blight on his weird alchemical experiments. A letter of excommunication followed from the Pope. At the time of Fontana’s flight, Tonino, then 12-years old, disappeared. Nothing could be discovered as to his whereabouts.
Many years later, an old man returned to Amelia claiming to be Tonino. He told stories of working in a quarry by night and, by day, sleeping in a coffin in a remote hillside. He was summoned every evening by a single conch blast and felt the coffin drifting towards the surface. He’d spent 45 years in this manner. He recalled nothing of his overseer or of Fontana, only the marble gypsies he had worked on and the other ragged artisans. ‘A more committed band of sleepwalkers I’d never seen’. Locals were suspicious and believed the old man to be an impostor, anxious to inherit Giacomo’s overgrown estates. He was committed to a pest house. Other rumours are even less substantial.
We share croissants and coffee in the kitchen. Tabby’s been very industrious. She looks fetching in her pale blue silk gown with embroidered butterflies crawling up the sides.
‘I thought we could go away to Ludlow for a couple of days. You like walking round ramparts and there’s the Saturday market.’
‘Bunner, that’s very sweet of you, you know how much Tabby likes sweet things.’ She wipes pastry flakes from her mouth. ‘But that’s not really possible. I’m pregnant.’ She looks boldly above my eyes, at the waxy patch of skin on my forehead.
‘Is it too late? I mean...’ Contact the assassin across the street? Bump her off.
‘Bunner! It’s not even yours. How could it be?’
The post-it note, the Wapping ’phone number! Surely not? A member of Hail Mary. Angry Irishmen? Buzzing starts in my ears.
‘ Josh, the IT manager...’
‘You mean Mr. Eight-Times-A-Night, Mr. Steam Engine?’
She waves it away with a plume of cigarette smoke. ‘He’s got a new job in California. Left his wife, bought me an air ticket. You know how Cherished Teddies was only ever a springboard for...’
‘Fertilization?’ I offer, innocently.
‘Bunner! We haven’t been getting on. You’ve got some wonderful research material. You and Hugo are made for each other.’ She smiles sweetly, with a hint of fang. ‘And, besides, Josh is on a good salary. He’s a self-made man. Started plucking poultry in a chicken factory. Now he’s Junior Manager at Beckdale Henderson. I’ve always kind-of resented the fact Daddy bought you this house.’
Didn’t mind living here rent-free. Well, that’s that. Make a stand, you fucking prawn. Execrate Josh. Vindicate your love. Win her over by good works. You need her to protect you from Hugo. Offer her as a sacrifice?
‘Tabby, there’s a funny man across the street. Do you think I should ’phone someone?’
‘If I were you, Bunner, I’d get dressed a bit more often. Instead of standing in the window in your underpants, smoothing your legs like an oversized fly.’
I bang my coffee mug down. ‘Doesn’t he bother you?’
Tabby gets up, pulls her robe tightly around her. ‘I don’t have time to daydream. I’ve been very busy with our Spring range. We’re launching a new line: Literary Bears. Anyway, what’s it to you? His mother probably dropped him on his head when he was a baby.’
I grip the table with both hands. ‘You really that fucking dim? He’s your classic tabloid accident. One day he forgets his potty pills. Next he goes on the rampage with a ceremonial sword.’
Tabby kisses me lightly on the forehead. ‘I thought that was more your line.’ Skips out into the hall. She can tread lightly, after all
The front door shuts softly. Promises to keep in touch and remove her makeup accessories, her army of pewter mini-bears. Check pulse. Slow, wavering, unremitting. Skin’s papery, transparent in patches. Weeping moisture from ragged cat-like cuts. Psychosomatic reaction to her departure? Glimpse something soft and white underneath: a larval underbelly. Fontana’s celestial maggot. I’ve struck a bargain with Althrup. Willing to change places with him if he protects me from Fontana and the assassin in the evenings. I’ve chewed up my index cards. Used paste to stop up holes in the skirting. Precautionary measures. Pneumatic fluid can effect a negative transference while I’m in this volatile state. Althrup has sworn me to secrecy.
Althrup’s baffling disappearance has deterred cynical historians. His sadistic habit of abducting marginals for‘dubious occult practices’ were clearly anti-social. In Shropshire, in 1756, he was accused of ‘certain improprieties’ with a crofter’s son. This was standard practice on his estate where Athrup extolled the virtues of classical love between bearded Greeks and sacrificial goats. In the Apennines, he recruited virile young men to help with his excavations of Fontana’s garden. In a Catholic country, he sorely misjudged popular feeling towards alchemy. His Berlin decked with cryptic signs, incensed local farmers and drew the opprobrium of the authorities.
We read of a sanatorium high in the hills, a converted Longobard Abbey, where ilexes grew on the terrace. An Englishman was forcibly detained in the turret. He was fed on a diet of nettle soup to combat his ‘Inflammatory Imagination’ and his ‘Relish for Dissipation’. Was this Althrup? The angular, bearded eccentric, who claimed he had been drunk for ten years continually and only ever opened his mouth to blaspheme? He was beset by demons and suffered many humiliations from wicked keepers. They shaved him with ditch water, beat him daily and prevented him from writing his memoirs. We only know of his existence from the sanatorium’s ledgers, which record the admittance of a ‘choleric Lord who believed he had swallowed whole a black piano’.
It’s night. Rain drips from black boughs. I peer through my blue curtains across the street into the murderer’s bedroom. His room is awash with smoky blue light rippling across wallpaper and ceiling. Giants in luminous green jackets grapple with his body. Flashbulbs pop. He’s borne backwards through the room, carried downstairs into the waiting ambulance. On the back seat, skinny legs covered in a green blanket. Bare chest motionless. Paramedic in white overall sits opposite, tapping biro against his knee.
Wisteria has forced its fibrous fingers through my bedroom window where I left circles of breath on the glass pane. I watch from beneath the blue pelmet. A crow cleans his bill sideways on the guttering of the roof opposite. Soon moss will crawl up the crack of my arse. New tenants lift a black rocking horse out of the black van. Veiled statuary, shrouded in bin-liners. A head and a hoof juts out. Conjured out of thin air. Hugh’s booming voice announces the birth of his twins to the whole street. Everyone will celebrate. Invalids not exempt. In his striped city shirt and monogrammed cufflinks he’s quite the little pigeon. Hugo’ll be here at nine. We have an understanding. Hugh shouts up at my window. ‘Hello! Anyone home? Drinks to celebrate Cosimo and Titan’s homecoming. Hello?’ He squints at a hunched silhouette. Nonplussed. Probably one of those burglar deterrents. A robed mannequin peers from behind drapes, frozen in the act of parting the curtains. ‘Hello?’ Curses under his breath. ‘What the fuck does he do in there all day?’
You’re the unwanted house guest at Hedgecombe Hall. Materializing on the landing by the gong, you mix potent cocktails. Who the hell invited you? Hugo. The butler limps across the hall. Leads you to the gardens where statues have been removed from their plinths. Other guests have assembled. He insists on you taking your place on a marble block. Headless torsos stand motionless against hills.
I’m having sex with Tabs. On our bedside table a proof copy of The Appetitive Urge is high-lighted in blue biro. It reveals Hugo’s fatal need to ‘over-reach himself both socially and sexually’:
‘Althrup’s ethereal being was betrayed by the Lobster Crackers. Masked men broke into his cellar at midnight. They crushed his brain to powder. Fontana used men for the basis of his writhing figures. Fontana tempted them with immortality but his real desire was to freeze them in their most agonizing attitudes, to provide a commentary on the soul’s descent to damnation through his demonic torture garden’.
A footnote warns of a girl suffering from an uncommon complaint, stagina. The vagina contracts, turns to stone. Tabby’s shorn head is the blind bust of Hugo. He cackles. Her vagina squeezes my fossilized penis. Althrup whispers in my ear. ‘Sir, I don’t believe you ever told me your name. Mr...?’ ‘Bunner.’ We’ve come to an abrupt halt. Althrup, bandy-legged, in his brocade waistcoat, hands me down from his Berlin. ‘Sir, I believe this is the best point for disembarkation?’ The carriage rests under waving cypresses in the midnight garden. I look along the black avenue with its clipped yew hedges. The grounds of an asylum. Psychotics stare into a dark pond, unmoved by the change of wind driving fountain spray into their chalk white faces. Puppets, in the grip of extreme crisis, tear gowns, grope wrought iron gates. They remain rooted. Tonino smirks. ‘It’s been a pleasure, Signor Bunner. I do hope you will find your new appointment satisfactory.’ In the distance, little fires flicker in the hillside. Hills ring out with the shrill sound of stone-cutting. I look down. My feet are rough-hewn chunks of marble, blue with cold.
D C Jeffreys (26) has had stories published in the London Magazine and is completing his first novel The Human Conditioner © DC Jeffreys 2001, pitched somewhere between Harry and Dennis Potter. Born in London, he is of mixed descent and currently tracing his Burundian roots. He can be contacted at GovindaBuchan@compuserve.com
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