After thirty years of home tutoring, Alice Marks still amused herself by thinking that if anyone followed her during her evening working hours, they would see her as some kind of wobbly secret agent in an old Ealing film. Trotting along city streets holding her A-Z before her like a protective talisman, she could be seen squinting at broken numbers on entrance gates, peering up at tower-blocks, shining her torch beam along leafy pathways, or else carefully adjusting her clothes and appearance before entering the mansions of the super-rich. For three decades of a changing Britain, she had worked her way around inner London, teaching English Literature and Mathematics. In between urgent (and sometimes despairing) discussions of Hardy, Milton and the Calculus, she had become a creature of bus-stops, cheap cafes, and a connoisseur of the very best garage-refrigerators in town. She had seen the last milk-machines, the last cigarette machines, and the last riot before the young had left the streets and changed their gunny-bags for bags of heroin. In that time the Left had disappeared, the difficulties of school examinations reduced by at least forty per cent, and the various screens of the world (victors no one had forecast) had come to control anything and everything.
Alice still lived as she had lived for over thirty years. She stayed in bed all day either reading or sleeping with the blinds half-down. Daylight had always stunned her, kept both her brain and body lethargic as a basking turtle. Long ago even her worried parents had said that Alice would never work, would never have a proper career. Although they were pleased when their daughter did extremely well at university, many who knew Alice doubted she would ever have a regular job. Although everyone said she was brilliantly clever, all knew that she was not consistent, could never work with authority, was grossly overweight, and had a face the subject of not a few cruel jokes in the local Notting Hill pubs she frequented, some said all too often.
But the way Alice saw it, she had bought a kind of freedom. She was independent of the nine-to-five railway of death, in the charitable words used by Alice’s friend George, long-time anti-hero of the public bar of the Rat and Parrot, and another night-stalker of the same ilk as Alice. Even if it meant living off corn-flakes occasionally and running the risks of lying to Social Security in the summer, she was her own boss. She had been pleased also that she had evaded prime-time. When time came for the evening siren (as George put it), and the nation lined to take their image-tranquillisers (as Cyril, George’s friend, put it), Alice was always out working, returning home just in time for a night-cap in the lounge bar of Rat and Parrot, where the television could not be seen or heard. For freedom to mean anything, prime time has to be always under strict control, said George, wandering though from the Public with its giant screen. Thus the Catastrophe (as George’s friend Cyril called it) came to Alice filtered through winter walls, from summer windows, or shouted from the doorways of dealer’s shops. Television only really caught Alice when she was ill, which was rare since, as she said to all her friends, since she didn’t consume images, she was hardly ever ill. George got that point, if very few others did; television suited illness, said George. It made it so bad that a blank screen was the only alternative to death by a billion images, said Cyril, always out to top George, who topped that saying that modern therapy began with the OFF switch.
Alice, draining her last pint of the evening, said that if they ever found the OFF switch they must inform her immediately.
Night removed a great weight from her mind and body. Quite transformed, she moved lightly through the darkening evening, whose fading light always brought her brain alive as if she were some intellectual vampire risen from her books under the moon. In rain and heat, through storms and traffic-jams, she would check her mobile, read her map and carefully note addresses – as if for all the world she were a foraging animal hungry for a very special kind of prey. On her GCSE and A-Level rounds she often remembered with amusement the words of Dr Pearson, of Tring Tutorial Agency, who thirty years ago had appointed himself her moral tutor: this old phrase she recalled from her boarding-school days, a phrase gone long since into oblivion, and she recalled Dr Pearson still retained the staccato delivery of the age of the last sergeant-major. Though in matter, he taught as if he were initiating a squad of National Servicemen into the mysteries of tank gear boxes, in manner, his eyelids fluttered constantly as he spoke the beautifully-modulated British-mandarin of the upper-class of the Empire years. She recalled his hands folded almost in prayer as he spoke; they were the hands of an age of priests and Latin quotations, long before Empire even, before Luther, before the first Norman arches – hands which reached back to daub and wattle. His constant sighs were of a man burdened by monastery accounts and the threatening policies of bankrupt kings and queens.
This long-retained image was still as perfectly realised within her as if it were one of the streets she walked down about her business of teaching mainly young adults in their homes after school. Although she had long forgotten what happened the day before yesterday, she could still recall Dr Pearson speaking that fateful morning long ago when she decided to teach free-lance rather than be encumbered with school hours.
“Inform, do not attempt to inspire. The parent, in all probability, totally preoccupied with paying their first mortgage, will not appreciate it. They will identify such with eccentricity, which the lower middle class in particular do not appreciate, still less understand. Remember to instruct. Do not attempt to educate. The latter will embarrass and confuse most parents of all social levels. They will identify change of vocabulary (even more so change of concept) with a different social image they do not necessarily identify with.”
His voice coming to her mind, she remembered the polished brass electrical switches shaped like small puddings, the mechanical typewriter, cigarettes in every mouth, and the scuffed, dusty card-index systems which contained her name and address, but not her telephone number, because then, in an age long gone as Byzantium, not all people had such instruments. She remembered struggling to reach the one lavatory for the entire building by means of a rickety stairway such as would, thirty years later, have condemned the entire place as unsafe within twenty-four hours. The Tring Tutorial Agency was full of the drill-holes, amateur plumbing and woodwork of at least seven decades. But time was swift and the Agency, as she passed it recently, was become a nest of spun-aluminium boutiques. Instead of flower-sellers and the last chimney sweeps, there were now just knots of shivering, cast-out smokers. If Dr Pearson had appeared he would have looked and sounded like something out of Dickens.
“And of course, all higher abstractions are to be avoided. Inevitably, parents will regard all such as a mental perversion. Attempting to prove otherwise is not a good thing to do in a bus-driver’s front room on a wet night in Holloway. All subjects not linked strictly to the school curriculum must be avoided. Stick to things that all social classes can recognise as useful, practical and worthy. Remember humour is to be avoided. Most parents associate this with a complete waste of time, which is not what they are paying for. Remember in this country, humour is not associated with brains or education. A tutor who laughs (or even smiles, or is too friendly), is usually doomed from the outset. Never introduce peculiarities, bizarre connections or avant-garde ideas. These will be associated inevitably with swarthy intellectuals well south of Calais. Remember almost all parents inevitably will be deeply disturbed, not impressed, by intellectual matters, and even visiting foreigners (who should know better) will think you are in league with the Devil.”
Sometimes she thought she was in league with the Devil, as in the midst of boiling and frying, and cutting and slicing on Formica tops, she analysed Lear or tried to convey the quality of Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci to a baffled youngster. Patterns emerged over the years: the working class never understood the need for silence, a lamp and a table devoid of cooking-grease or the spittle of infants, and the general impedimenta of the poor. The table might be cleared and cleaned after a battle, but the need for silence was never grasped. The lower the social scale, the more the noise. She had analysed Lyrical Ballads to the chaotic roar of hi-fi, infant screams whilst on the pot, and meaningless garbage of television, all accompanied by the banging of doors, tables, irons. She had read out aloud The Canterbury Tales whilst family rows blazed, dish-aerials were installed, and numberless telephone calls were made and taken, and simmering friends and relatives arrived, aloud with endless complaints against the living and the dead. This screaming world would ring out from five blasted rooms simultaneously, and the young would be left to fight two, or possibly three, fifty-channel televisions with seemingly half-crazy disconnected bits of Milton and Shakespeare: as far from their noisy world as Ninevah and Tyre.
From this eternal furnace of the poor, in which depth and silence had almost no meaning, Alice would be as haughtily dismissed as by any ancient duchess. Clanking down seeping stairs crazy with graffiti, Alice avoided bloodstained and piss-sodden lifts, and recites some verse of Shelley’s as prophylactic balm. Later on buses, she would laugh out aloud, recalling baffled family faces as Dylan Thomas came from her tiny cassette player placed between the corn flakes and the blackened toaster, smashing the eternal TV quite to pieces:
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter
Secret by the unmourning water of the riding Thames..
Leaving such shards as this to infect, evoke and act out a deep and powerful ritual, was a great satisfaction to her. It was just like radiation: quantity was unimportant.
The one thing both rich and poor knew was that somehow they needed what Alice had to give, although she was sure that neither quite knew why. To try and somehow secure for their children even the smallest piece of this mental play-acting was a reaction from long ago, an eternal theatre superior to even that struggle for survival which was supposed to be superior to every other consideration.
Dr Pearson’s words came time and time again from the deep past as Alice avoided skinheads, most black youths under twenty-five (after that age, all appeared to be well for some reason), and risked the vagaries of London Transport.
“Never be too enthusiastic about a pupil’s progress. Never ever be snared into family affairs of any kind. There is a tendency in quite a few cases to see a strange Tutor coming out of the night as some kind of visiting priest, or doctor. Long, detailed conversations with parents are to be avoided. A Tutor will become hopelessly snared. If the student continues to fail at school, all this will descend on a Tutor as if the heavens had opened, every sentence beginning with ‘You said…’”
Not eight feet away from her two old drunks fought savagely in the bus-shelter in Shepherd’s Bush but Dr Pearson continued in her head.
“Never stay on in a job where either parent or student exhibits any kind of distinctly odd behaviour. Inevitably, this means trouble. In bad cases, disengage, and prepare a report for Tring Tutors, signed, dated and witnessed just in case. Remember, the dole queue is infinitely preferable to false accusations of paedophilia. Never reveal genius, if it is ever found, this is the most disturbing thing of all. Genius in Britain is still regarded as an illness and your student will certainly be put away like a dwarf in a cupboard. Worse, the child could be given up to psychiatrists, and reduced to dust or never be seen again. In Britain, one of the last countries in the world without a Revolutionary Constitution, high human intelligence is always looked upon as a high level of threat.”
Getting off the No 7 at the bottom of Queensway, these words in her head were interrupted by a drunken woman with the visage of a stewed crab-apple, who smashed a bottle against a blaze of screens in a TV shop. Alice stopped in idle curiosity to see if the woman, aiming further bottles (to the astonishment of passing Arab families), would actually get to the well-protected images. Bounce, crack, but no penetration.
A screen amongst the other screens recorded the entire event from a surveillance camera. Alice watched her own self amidst those little childish flickers that held most of mankind in awe, now obscured by a flaring spider-web of common assault. She felt almost sorry for the little chipmunk faces as the crackling web spread like a contagion across them. Crack, smash, splinter. A half-full jeroboam of cider finally greyed-out the impostures of News at Ten, and a couple of far less diverting packs of lies only a tiny bandwidth either side of it.
Sirens, and the woman, becoming suddenly young and now not nearly so crab-faced, ran fleet as a greyhound into the shadowed obscurities of Moscow Road. Alice stood planted in shock. The entire event had been rehearsed to a second. As the woman fled, her eyes met Alice’s gaze for brief second: they were the eyes of a young girl. The vile-faced woman was a complete impostor. Alice now had a most peculiar feeling. It was a painful, sexual thrill at realising there was still organised resistance in the ruins.
Policeman seeking shadows, screens, faces became as one with actions mimicked and real. Alice was now part of both the physical and the reflected electronic event, and she doubted if the two could ever be divorced again. Buying a tin of soup for her supper from a Tesco’s opposite, she began to wonder whether the structure of the world was nothing but a series of warring stories, tales old and new, images that fought for life, pictures that demanded space and time or love and compassion … daubs which would fight anything to get on stage.
She also began to wonder whether somehow, she was part of the same shadows that had vanished the girl. All her life she had looked for her community. Now perhaps she had found it, almost invisible as it was. That she now knew there were others out there in the dark, gave a spring to her heel as she foresaw her lonely, frugal supper. So surprised that not all the young had left the streets forever, castrated by pop and media, gagged by style, and lost in image-webs; the toothache of old student nostalgia struck deep within her. But now she was too fat, too scared, and too old for combat. When young at university, she had thrown a bottle or two at the usual over-fed faces of the beloved Leaders, the faces of modern decay, oozing self-satisfaction.
But now she had to be satisfied with a much classier conspiracy against the world. She would continue to insert image time-bombs, whose ticking mechanisms would never stop breeding thoughts that would cause continuous and massive internal disruptions, while leaving every hair on the head quite untouched. Now, there was a conspiracy worth the name, she thought as the toothache struck again, her shed-like room closed in, and she cursed her poverty and her impotence, weeping with rage until the soup burned the bottom of the pan, and old Mr Renfrew downstairs banged on the ceiling with his walking stick.
If this wasn’t war, it certainly felt like it as she switched out the light and hugged her teddy-bear hot-water bottle.
In dreams she was the world’s first fallen thinker, a squatting garbage-bird perched on the first rubbish-tips of the first dawn of the world. This wretch, her true ancestor, was the first to tell the first lies one day, to skive off chopping wood or digging a staked pit for a sabre-toothed tiger. This fragment of ancient self gazed deeply into the air, carefully tending and preserving whatever inner shapes chose to wage war against an increasingly powerful and all-convincing externality. She would wake and know that this harassed, ragged figure, with its regular appearance in her dreams, was the very first bozo to stay in bed in the morning, first to deliberately fuck-up an important task. She would stagger out of bed, pour hot water over two used bags of coffee and still feel the kicks. Still hear the screaming at her previous self as the first piece of disgusting crap who not only rolled out late, but who also refused to do the allotted bit of graft on skinning, and beating the first meagre crop-ears painfully harvested from parched stony scrub.
Then, the substance of time was little more than a mass of live suggestions, whose nature knew very little difference between the abstract and the concrete, if it saw any difference at all. The idea of the concrete, that was to destroy her first primal community, had only just been born. In this mass of time, she remembered scanning for faces like a lost child in a great fleeing crowd, running from fact and calculation, whose objectivities and experimentations cut down her images and buried them alive. She remembered this time as a dimension where once she could move, as light as one of those daydreams of which she was so fond. Reason, like the daylight, trapped her, became a weight in her mind like the heaviness of her frame.
Waking just before dawn, she would remember the same almost-light against very different landscapes. The places had been as derelict as now, the sipped liquids just as bitter. Always just before daylight she knew, not what she had been, so much as who she still was. Then (oh, how many thens there were!) she had been the first not to cooperate with the new world, shunning the careful marking on skin and bone of the movements of sky, stars, and seasons; ignoring the first scratched tables of variations of temperature, foliage, wind and water. She was the first who refused to put the first shoulder to the first wheel and disowned by her family, spat on by friends, poked with fire-sticks by the children, almost eaten alive by camp dogs, and beaten to a pulp each day by the returning hunters.
This old part of her, this first image-maker, must have been one of the last who dared want something for nothing. She supposed that this poor bloody mess limping to the outskirts of the first town with her wrecked body was the first hero, and that as scavenger of the first rubbish-dumps she was the first defier of the newly evolving advertisements of fact and objectivity, the first to be profoundly ungrateful before the gifts of the new gods. This first loser was the first defier, the first fallen actor, probably the first criminal, and certainly the first to go inwards on the outskirts of town.
Cold dregs would wake her further from these visions. She would open her French-windows (what scenes did they remember? Scurrying children of five or more generations, family pets as long buried as the laughter under the apple-tree, fish in the pond, tea on the lawn, mother calling them in to bed?). Crouching in the chill air before dawn in the wrecked garden, its broken statues become all history, and she drew mighty strength from this old warrior-nomad of her dreams. The figure, fading rapidly with dawn over the garden, was still there within her, wallowing without self-pity in her dirt and her howling, in her seeing and her rage and the only thing Alice knew, as full daylight hit, was that she was then, as now, serving some high tradition of arms beyond space and scale, angle and weight, pendulum and inclined plane.
Such experiences helped her divide life not into the real or the unreal, but into weak and strong fictions. Often she thought she could hear the traffic within these regions, signals largely lost to the twentieth century with its doomed facts and solidities. The signals were not ghosts, fairies, spirits, just the Telephone-Exchange chatter of information breeding information. Images she supposed were the very purest form of information: cross breeding, regenerating, experimenting; image wars and image peace, image hatred and image loves. Images passed on and on through the culture of mechanisms as wireless waves melt through a wall.
After the weak daylight sent her back under the covers, she would next emerge in late afternoon, yearning for the stronger fictions of The Rat and Parrot to replace the weak night-fictions now gone, leaving an overwhelming thirst for strong ale from the wood. She looked forward to the jokes about God, quotes from scuffed Martin Amis novels hauled out of raincoat pockets, and unprintable remarks about his spitting literary rivals. All this was an Englishness whose pleasant sanity prepared her for her inspirations of the coming night. Forty years previous, she imagined Cyril loaning precious quarter-inch tapes of Tony Hancock, and George making nasty jokes about the decline of Humphrey Littleton’s band with the introduction of a saxophone player.
Over by the picture of Princess Diana in her wedding dress (which no-one joked about any more), George was going full steam ahead.
“Why doesn’t God make me rich and famous? Think of the new jokes I could played! Think of the new kinds of fool I could make myself into, the fresh catastrophes, the possibilities of a completely original kind of fuck-up. What a nice change that would be. But what happens? Nothing. Steady-state, mediocre, that’s me. Pissed every night. What’s the good of that? Trouble with the mundane is you can’t deconstruct it, can you? I mean what can you do with nothing? I mean it’s not even God’s favourite – catastrophe! Fuck ups, at least they’re interesting. I hate this one-note universe. I think boredom should be a new moral consideration. I mean, what is the theological significance of the non-event?
The house collapsed when a strong Australian voice rang out
“You talking about yourself again, George?”
“No sir, I was talking about Australia! Alice, what are you having?”
Alice was about to reply when a row erupted by the stuffed pike (still resisting “trendyisation” as George put it). Cyril was screaming savagely at an American who apparently had suggested to him that well-adjusted people of extremely high intelligence with good sound liberal intentions were exactly what was needed in the Arts.
George put out the fire by getting back to God.
“Question: why is God a failure? Answer: because the hippo and the rhino are eventually suffocated by their blubber and their armour.”
Baffled unease. An atmosphere that almost groaned of its own accord. The brave George tried again.
“Question: why is God a failure?”
This time Cyril nipped in and brought the house down.
“Because he can’t make teeth as good as my dentist!”
Giggles as the peeved George tried again.
“What’s the definition of a vanity publisher?”
Another almost-silence. Then another Australian voice burped in the wilderness.
“One who doesn’t have a pornography list!”
No good again. Too English. Too Private Eye. George turned to Alice.
“Not my night, Alice.”
“It’s the way you tell them.”
“I need a quality crowd. What are you having?”
“I mean how can you have meaning in the bits where nothing’s happening? What d’you think, Alice?”
“I have yet to get to any boring bits.”
“You’re a very lucky person.”
“My wonder knows no bounds.”
“Don’t let the Inland Revenue know that, dear.”
Sometimes she thought George fancied her. But the trouble with George as she saw it was that he was that old-fashioned creature called a solutionist. He offered solutions to everything. Another problem was that most answers he gave seemed to involve getting rid of her, which made her doubt sometimes whether he really fancied her. He said she should go to America which was still innovative, or Germany or France, where, according to him, people still read books. That, or she should go to Israel, or Africa (or even Northern Ireland, said Cyril chiming in as usual), where struggle and conflict gave some point to life; indeed she should go to any place where life could be distinguished from a pair of Radio Four carpet slippers, chimed Cyril again. But such a distinction was no longer possible, said George, because Prime Time was everywhere. In the world as silver screen, said he, even nations and geographies had gone, vanished in turn with punks, yuppies, political parties, and campus protests. Now, said George, it was only the scientists who were left for amusement. Like the Soviet Commissars, and without a single one of them being brought to court, they had almost gleefully ruined agriculture, irradiated the seas, affected breast-milk, the sperm count, and were now about to produce a human being from a test-tube. All that without a single shilling in fines, gave the phrase “anti-social” a new meaning.
And nothing had been heard about it on Radio Fou,r chimed Cyril, to black looks from George.
Such sobering thoughts made up for a physical life that was as static as that of her nation. Most external events passed her as in a dream. Occasionally, a British tea-pot would boil over, and passing a newsagent, she would glimpse the face of some Notable denying events on Clapham Common, or a minister about to confess an unregistered loan. Going home, drunk more often than not, TV showrooms would loom out of the dark like sneering clowns, but she often fancied that her old enemy was dying. She would stand, swaying, joking with herself about being in the radiating grip of what George called the social-scientific metaphors: should she time her exposure? Two minutes for minor brain damage, five minutes for the cells to be microwaved beyond recall? Or was there only light damage on some two-mile radius within the mind? Or would her shadow be burned into bridge-stanchions if she was near Ground Zero, this being the prime time “serious” programme of the week? Timing herself, standing on the pavement, she would watch five screens at once, a human radiation meter as she told George.
Before sleep, as vulture-images gathered at the fading rim of day, she would mentally scrub herself down as if contaminated, as if trying to de-propagandise what Cyril called the doll’s house of the waking day. It took hardly any effort at all to change the advertisements: in her counter-medium, before she entered her night journeys, she de-deconstructed the dreadful women presenters as air-hostesses of a past age, and the men, clerks in some Mecca Dancing lost property office. It worked, this deprogramming, and her descriptions of it gave much amusement in the Rat and Parrot. The witching web of the sexual power of the media dolls was gone in an act of counter-magic as old as the pyramids. As for the Message, since it hardly existed in the first place, changing the received information before sleep was even less of a problem. It could be vanished as of old: cursed away as prowling shapes trying to get into the main frame of the cave-mouth fire.
Entering sleep, she was with Coleridge and Mary Shelley, Shakespeare, George Eliot, and Virginia Wolf. Boswell’s first meeting with Johnson was more real to her than the white- noise of accountants and solicitors who made up official British life. For what felt like the first time in the history of England, she had no-one to admire, even less to respect. The relationship was mutual in its affections. She knew that the outside world saw her as it saw the images she raised: broken, irrelevant, ageing fast, an odd, archaic remnant of little use in the electronic village, whose emotional and intellectual bandwidth was kept precisely tuned by some two or three soaps. But little did the outside world know (she would whisper to herself) that she, Alice Marks, with her gas-ring by her bed, her ancient macintosh (worn summer and winter), her face which made scaffolders fart loudly as she passed, and her lies to the Housing Benefit Office, little did they know that she was a keeper of their secret banished lives, lost long since under the last English apple tree.
Waking in the night, these intense subjectivities would mount, until staring at the door frame, it would twist with time, and 18th century England would be seconds away. She knew that she did indeed look like the Alonzo Chappel portrait of Dr Johnson, and could have been mistaken for all the world as that great man of English Literature as she travelled with her books under her arm, her pince-nez, and hair which always shaped itself into an 18th-century wig, despite the best efforts of hairdressers. Certainly, an element of the spirit of the same hovered over her, said some. A few of that diminishing number who knew what Samuel Johnson looked like, would stop and stare. Alice knew the reaction well. She imagined the recognisers as she called them, as having sleepless nights, shaking as if drained of spirit: reminded of what they had lost, what they had not done, responsibilities shirked, moral directions lost. Her great round face in the mirror often reminded her that sometimes she thought as Johnson thought, and she wondered if by some alchemy of time, an image passed through Johnson’s mind of a fat woman in her fifties, with strange instrumentation and sounds around her, reading his favourite passages from Irene.
In the Rat and Parrot, after a hard working week, the main complaint made by other tutors was almost always the same. Nouveau-riche parents were the worst. They usually had great difficulty relating to tutors who were far more clever than they, but who had no money, obviously. As remedy, the wag George said that he simply asked if he could work in the library. That usually did the trick, said he. After an inevitable blushing admission that there was no library, George would say that he would settle for the study or the drawing room. When told there was neither, he would give an almost imperceptible snort, and say he would settle for the dining-room table. Kensington High Street was the worst area for this kind of thing, added Cyril, knocking his pipe against the bar, much to the landlord’s annoyance. But by the time the family had struggled to move up the road to Knightsbridge, said he, they were more relaxed, often as nice as pie. Alice said that in her experience, by that stage, a few had even acquired a library along the way, though it was usually full of bound copies of Reader’s Digest.
Alice had another problem with George. Like Dr. Pearson of long ago, George lectured her. After getting the sack because her ideas disturbed a young Catholic boy, George lectured her about introducing ideas of Tragedy in a deeply religious family of any kind. Their universe was already mapped out, said George, after Alice was reduced to borrowing a fiver from him. Such people do not appreciate paying for the reintroduction of chaos, said George. In tricky situations, he told her that she must be careful at first to deal with authors in terms of characters and relationships rather than themes. In a consumer society, chimed in the laconic Cyril, complex literary themes were little understood, and discussion of them was often looked upon as some kind of threat. For food, added George, Alice must be prepared occasionally to deliver a package that was easily understandable. George was right, said Cyril; the young he said, were so sand-blasted by media noise that their minds were like an M&S prawn sandwich after a power cut.
Cyril (a science man) agreed with George, for once. He said he avoided all talk about devastating philosophical inconsistencies in Science or Mathematics, even as momentary comments. He presented both as forward moving, sunny, positive, objective, and truth-giving, rather like the picture on a cereal packet. Parents pay for a finite product, said Cyril. Opening up chaotic depths in Willesden on a rainy night in December would result in Alice losing good summer or Christmas work. Yes, said he, don’t speculate about the roots of algebra to the working-class. Keep on merely repeating that when x is taken from one side to the other, its sign must be changed, continued Cyril, and that King Lear is merely thrown out by two of his daughters, full stop, said George.
With all these warnings of past and present still ringing in her head, after six pints, Alice would tell them all to fuck off, and struggle back to her bedsit. She would fall asleep fully clothed, but before oblivion, she was as determined as ever that in the week to come, and in the weeks after that, to quite reverse everything that Cyril and George had said. After that, she didn’t care. She would continue until some cheap component in her gut triggered some circuitry which hadn’t heard of Shakespeare, and she would fall, the baton would pass on to some inconceivable robotic link which would automatically mount the madness of Ophelia or the love of Troilus for Cressida.
Night, the first of a new week in the last month of the year grown old. Heavy December rain in St John’s Wood. Set text: Heart of Darkness. A Mrs Mason greeted her with the claustrophobic solidity of the lower professional class. Solicitor hubby who has made a bob or two, Alice guessed. That usually meant appalling pictures, mirrors, and furniture, and burglar proof double-glazing before which broken-hearted cats twitched and died. Her beautiful mother’s voice ringing in her ears amidst the discarded homework of elder brothers and sisters littering the table, from endless family rows of long ago: You could have done great things…you have wasted your life.. Now here was another well-coifed mother posing before vile curtains with her Pekinese in her arms, and gazing in genuine alarm at Alice’s scuffed shoes, sandwich-box, and a rusty macintosh worthy of Colombo.
But none of these antagonisms, past or present, affected her. She was more worried that none knew what a story teller was any more. It had become a lost trade, like a Pardoner or Reeve. She supposed her almost vanished occupation had been buried by the fragments of discarded homework that littered the table: chemistry, physics, all the pathetic little human attempts at systemisation that Nature laughed at. She had an idea that sometimes the world would perhaps produce a possible pseudo-system or two as jokes, to see how human beings would let a temporary game take them over. Something would watch as humans, their appetite whetted by a strand that worked, joined two more shorter strands that only half-worked. Then something would laugh and watch again as further strands of different lengths again were found which didn’t work at all. And then a tantalising run of successes, but then the advertising grew old, and somebody had invented the steam engine, and the previous game wasn’t worth a toss anymore, whether it worked, or whether it did not work.
As systems, she preferred her stories. As soon as human beings departed from these, forgetting or despising them, ignoring or neglecting them, they ran into trouble with defining weights and measures, angles and times, constants and facts, all the systems-paraphernalia of death-in-life which made up Mrs and Mr Mason.
Of course she didn’t tell her own stories. But that didn’t matter. Like Homer, she related and interpreted the stories of others. But the famous Conrad novel was the one book of his she did not like. Its massive influence had banished horror to the backwoods. Why was the horror always far away? It was never ever in Shepherd’s Bush on a Saturday night, or that there was going to be no British investigation into the recent death of a rather prominent British Princess. She looked at Mrs Mason’s sneering son aghast, and decided that the horror was nothing to do with the tropics, or the depths of space, where the rationalists loved to hide their inaccessible mysteries. The horror was in Mrs Mason’s curtains, and Michael Barrymore, trickling in from the adjoining room. But she supposed distancing was the way of all psychological management. Keep the horror with the fuzzy-wuzzies, a thing marked on the soul of a distant black man.
That way the horror could managed.
She gave such places as Mrs Mason’s a mid-way mark on her personal noise-level chart. Asking that the TV be turned down, didn’t produce the immediate withdrawal symptoms of the working-class, just a bang or two of a well-carpentered door to conceal a momentary moral panic. But there were horrors beyond this. No-one could say they really lived in the twentieth century if they had not experienced the Eurovision Song Contest, or “Blind Date” booming out around the Littlewood’s Catalogue, the ducks flying across the wall, the calendar marked with Benefit and Signing days, in the kitchen of a tenth-floor council-flat, whilst a son or daughter struggled with Shelley’s Adonis.
Night the second. After carefully concealing the taped scalpel tucked into her blouse (there to discourage any street-wise casualties of freedom and affluence who might just see her as a piece of silver-screen whimsy to be plucked at will, tasted, and spat out again like a crushed and broken pip), she entered one of the great houses of Regent’s Park, with her book of spells. In such places as these, as distinct from the dwellings of the poor, learning was at least given a bit of a nod and a wink, but it was recognised that it could easily become an embarrassment if it were not kept in its place, and efficiently managed as a kind of minor and rather curious ornamentation. In the quiet, sterile air of the embassy-sized suites of multi-millionaires, Alice would take out Tennyson and Browning, Donne and Dryden from her renowned bag of faded red-leather, parents and staff alike quickly glancing at her if she were taking out medical instruments. Frequently the non-English-speaking servants (who, thought Alice, being from a very different, older, in many ways a more sophisticated culture, understood what was going to happen far better than their employers), would stare at the books as if they were hissing snakes from the basket of an old native charmer. Though far less consciously afraid of images which were about to be raised from the books, parents would disappear quickly nevertheless, leaving the room as if Alice were a bare-foot doctor about to perform on a terrified son or daughter some stomach churning table top operation without anaesthetic.
If poor fathers could be seen washing the pots, sleeves rolled up, most rich fathers made the briefest of appearances just to check (Alice thought) that she didn’t have horns sprouting from her head. These were chance encounters in the empty spaces of Knightsbridge and Mayfair drawing-rooms or the glittering palaces of Grosvenor Square as Etonian sons down for the holidays struggled through 1984, The Magus, or Lord of the Flies. These men and women of the old families she liked and got on with. Like Alice herself, they were at the end of a long historical journey, and had a similar Zen-like make-up. They were frequently untidy, eccentric, and Alice remembered these faces from castles and courts nearly as old as the stones of Henge, as they joked with a son or daughter struggling with a passage from Lear, or Comus. She liked the old money because they were quite beyond brain. The conflicts and the perils brains brought with them, such as trade and risk, adventure and conflict, experiment and mental excitation, were all for far less pleasant persons than they. Other things pleased her: she would never find a foil-back novel in such places as these, a copy of the TV times within a red-plastic morocco binder, and they never talked about how much things cost, which was the greatest human relief of all.
Sometimes, travelling about the great city, she had to pause for breath. That afternoon, between the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and Paradise Lost she had seen a man dressed as a cowboy (complete with holstered six-shooters), piss on the rail live-line and electrocute himself; the fantastic figure was lifted some six feet into the air, a blue-crackling Roman-candle of a death, his ten-gallon Stetson hat aflame as if in some circus finale. Stinking like an accident on a summer barbecue, his smoking form rolled towards screaming passengers, who said afterwards that they thought at first it was a scene from a Judge Dread movie.
Leaving a session on The Magus, and heading towards an analysis of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, with the man’s death still in her nostrils, Alice decided she needed a breather not from facts, but between shows of strong and weak fictions.
The late November evening in Shepherd’s Bush was unusually warm, and cafe tables were still on the pavements after a mild autumn. Alice ordered a strong coffee, and thought that the whole incident was not a good preparation exactly for King Lear and Daniel Deronda with Suki, an 18-year-old Indian girl in Hammersmith, who often got the First World War confused with the Second, and who had not heard of the Industrial Revolution. Like this recently arrived Hindu girl, and like the dead cowboy, Deronda himself did not quite know which myth he was in: the myth of Englishness or the myth of Judaism.
If it took the British a thousand years to put cafe tables on the pavement, Alice reckoned it was going to take another thousand years for any English person to get used to them being the focus for prowlers of all kinds. Here a diner could be joined, heckled with, harassed, familiarised, without so much as the price of a cup of tea. A psycho hammer-head, stinking of drink, fresh from the local DSS flop-house, and with Radio Rentals lapel-badges stuck all over him, approached her, and asked her to perform a sexual act. After revealing her scalpel, he fled into traffic and Alice decided it was time to go to her next job as quickly as possible.
On arrival, Suki told her a strange story.
“There was a fire. Right outside here. I was watching “East Enders” at the time. But I managed to get the video switched on before I went out to have a look, so I lost some of the plot. But there was a repeat, so I was going to be OK. The trouble is that this repeat’s bound to have different commercial breaks (I like the little red man with the doll, and then the old women with the talking cat – have you seen those?), and there may be some I do not like. That makes a difference. The thing is not the same. You see I collect those things. I have a video.”
“What about the fire?”
Suki looked blank, almost astonished that such a question should be asked.
“The fire? They put it out. I saw it on the news. Don’t you think they ought to tell you which commercials are coming?”
As Alice imagined this question being asked and seriously considered at some low point on a media studies course, a number 94 bus came to a stop not far from her, with a pair of human legs protruding from its shattered roof. The bus was soon surrounded by a horror-struck crowd, one of whom told Alice that apparently, an eighteen-year-old girl had cast herself from fifteen floors, quite penetrating the roof of the number 94, and knocking out the conductor. The driver had continued oblivious, for a quarter of a mile before stopping in front of Alice, unaware of scores of folk risking their lives by jumping off his speeding bus.
Amidst faces aghast at seeing the dead girl’s bloodied legs protruding from the roof of the bus, Alice could hardly believe her ears as knots in the crowd said that it was all amazingly like a scene in a television play the previous night. Actors were the gods of the techno-industrial world, she supposed, as she watched, almost ashamed at her own voyeurism as police and fire-brigade arrived amidst a blaze of tourist flashbulbs. Fictional characters in soaps had long replaced Milton’s angels and cast-out devils, Shakespeare’s courtiers, and Johnson’s classical heroes, all the figures she offered for that subtle thing called education, a process which soap characters could somehow never enter, although many liberal-minded folk now struggled in vain to make them do so.
Awe-struck cries rang out as a dead and shattered figure was passed slowly down the stair-well of the bus by paramedics. But these wails were more of surprise than grief; many around Alice said again that this stair-scene was like the TV scene the previous night, or was it the night before that?
Alice looked again at the shattered face as the body was placed on the stretcher, and drew back in horror.
It was her student, Suki.
There were arguments as the bus was jacked up and slowly towed away, and there were again cries of disbelief when told by a police Inspector that what they had seen was not part of a film. There was immediate suspicion that the world-weary Inspector (who had seen two not dissimilar seen deaths that week), was part of some plot. Some claimed the right to congratulate the actress concerned. Others complained that they were being lied to, and that the driver was obviously a well-known actor, and that film companies should not do this sort of thing at the inconvenience of the public.
Hardly convinced, the crowd soon homed to their screens like racing pigeons. On the six o’clock news, they could see the whole dread thing in a manageable perspective. The outer world had become an awkward thing: dangerous as ever, essentially problematic, Alice thought, quite unable to drink her coffee, now tainted by two deaths within two hours. The outer world was at all times downright antagonistic, chaotic, and difficult to take in with the ground-based eyes. It was almost impossible to edit; it could not managed, controlled, and produced according to convenient perspectives; its mysteries baffled the greatest minds.
Here was a new theory of causation other than mechanical. Suki’s fire outside had been “vanished” as effectively as if it had never been in that when Suki briefly eventually referred to it again, she compared it to various simulated explosions seen in television plays, when certain fictitious characters (like the one she said she looked like) had been killed, or injured. The “facts” of any situation had become mere arbitrary things controlling levels of experience.
Alice imagined that Suki’s brain had been replaced by some cellular structure of mimicking, an affliction like pond-algae, infinite in its cartoon-extent. This was some horrible media mutation, producing the mental equivalent to an eye in the middle of the chest, three hands, or the head where the bottom should be. In her final mental state, Suki had locked herself up, like the man on the train in an emergency, who was asked to use his impressive-looking mobile phone, only to reveal under duress that he had carefully made it of wood.
What had been in the moment before the decision? Perhaps someone had forced rationalisations into her like the hot pokers of the Inquisition. Perhaps Suki had seen a face on a screen and had seen that same face walk past her. There would be a modern shock: a realisation that the map one had been using for years was rendered mediaeval at a stroke, and the rivers didn’t go up in the air any more, that every single wall was not at a different angle, and that time as distance divided by velocity was not different in every case. Things would be bumped into that were not bumped into previously, arrivals would be early or late; there would be depressions where there had been elations; there would be despairs where there had been joy. Poor Suki. She had died, not crushed between conflicts, but between weak and strong fictions. Television had destroyed her, wasted the delicate pond-life ecology of the spirit.
Alice decided that faces were unique; they belong to cultures. She had categories. Some fathers she met had faces that varied from old steel to media-floppy through paranoid-professional. Another category included tired industrial and commercial faces of wasted men, men whose inspirations had been drastically compromised, and their humour crushed; they were men condemned, men worked to death doing what they didn’t really want to do. They were faces that could with ease spend weeks discussing whether to put the morning nine o’clock news before the Greenwich pips or immediately after.
But there was one face that tested even Alice’s toughness. After seeing this face, she would finally beach herself in the lounge of the Rat and Parrot for all the world like a lost and exhausted whale. She had not traveled far in terms of miles, but her exhaustion she traced not to weather, or cruel temperatures, but contact with the tomb-smell of the long dead. If the twentieth-century had a face it was a blank high-executive Albert Speer face, which suggested mechanical ability without depth, scruple, purpose, or meaning. These faces were on a level where the gangsters and the psychopaths dropped out. The slightest shimmer of genetic sand, and this Albert Speer face could run IBM without changing even his after-shave. If the Holocaust was the great mystery of the century, she thought, as a birthday-party in the Rat and Parrot burst into life, its metaphors could be followed through the catalyst of German psychopathology to this techno-industrial face, which only saw trains and routes, signals and wagons, shapes of biscuit-tins become programme schedules in a rubber-morphing of simulacra. Top professionals, were these big-bodied, superbly-suited males, obviously she guessed, out there in the world on some suicidal-grafting, paying not only to keep the wolf from the door, but for the more savage demands of the gods of space and decoration, image and status, profit and power. A few of these red-faced rock-jawed men would greet her occasionally. They left invariably a cheque, as if to deny all memory of their sublimated dirty-cash origins.
Within a very short time, Alice imagined, such big daddies could change from moving boxes of figs to managing soap-operas. Content of programmes, and tins, biscuits and wagons, Jews or Gipsies, was irrelevant. What mattered was that the machine did not stop. Alice had an idea therefore that these splendid-looking creatures had absolutely no opinion. Their handsome but inanimate features were obviously unaccustomed to quick changes of emotion, rapid talk, the quicksilver pace of jokes, sudden bursts of inner light, and there was absence of those lines whose bittersweet pathos show knowledge of failure as well as success. If the machine changed instantaneously and qualitatively, and brought people to life and love instead of death and hate, despair, or blankness of mind, these faces would not care, notice, still less recognise that anything had happened at all as they continued to press their buttons.
From steel men to floppy media animals, they were the faces coming out of Stalingrad. Faces of men and women who had been frightened to death. At times, faced with the boredom of buses and tubes, of faceless avenues, little brains, and baffled students, she would play a game comparing these faces of the world’s winners with the faces of the all-time losers in the Rat and Parrot. It wasn’t winning that had taken the souls of these tragic husbands (despite her own failure, she had no objection to winning), it was industrialisation. They had been systematised, dehydrated, sucked dry in the service of complex abstractions which had quite wrecked them as human beings. She was grateful to return to the laughter of the mad and the broken, the mobile faces and grins of those fools and heroes in the Rat and Parrot (and one or two other places she frequented), who were more than willing to prepare for their next bad beating, if only to show God, or any other universal interrogator that turned up, that so far, they were anything but impressed. These fractured hordes were closer to her stories. They didn’t fight them, rather rode their crests through re-incarnations.
Unlike the poor, the rich didn’t laugh. There was far too much at stake to risk angering the gods in such a fashion. Alice supposed that in their deepest dreams, the paranoid wives in particular, feared wreckage. As distinct from the men, a small number of these desperately frightened women brought tea for her, and chattered eagerly to her. Because of Alice’s haughty confidence, and her good accent and address, none dared suggest how they could possibly help improve her rather dilapidated condition. They absorbed what Alice said as if she were some kind of prison visitor from an outside world they could no longer reach. Alice responded very carefully, as if she were visiting the mentally ill, and imagined many of these women waking to fractured dreams of loss of face, suicide, mysterious deaths, disappearances, and corruption. Looking at a face she wished was hers, a dress which could have cost her several months of her earnings, and a waist she would have killed for, Alice detected a clutch of fear which was made of a dense structure of half-recollected stories. There were tales within these wives which half-suggested that sliver of digitised process which they took for a husband, that helix of dangerous rationalisations for which they once perhaps had a kind of perverse love, could still blow up yet like an old boiler engine, collapse like a steel bridge, a stock exchange, or even a major international bank. Alice wondered if any of these women on occasion detected alien-like whispers from their inner space. Whispers that the fragile software of monetary faith in which they hung suspended, the vaporous goodwill which produced and lit them, clothed, photographed and mythologised them, was a continuous process whose fluctuations could eject them within the short space between commercial breaks. She guessed that the fear was that their protection was as vulnerable as planks, girders, and concrete of a previous world, and that it was not those cherished monads of the middle-class called facts, but myths, which turned into a cancer, a suicide, a breakdown, a market crash, or even a victory.
As an old teller of tales, she brought into houses and lives shapes from the dawn of the structured world. This worried the rich in particular. Unlike the poor, the rich were convinced that they had won and conquered all terror. But Alice could read eyes which detected in her books disturbing rumours whispering of things whose existence did not depend on materiality. The texts she produced from her bag smacked to many of guerilla country, deep jungle which had never ever been brought to heel. Jokers in the rational pack were the old tales, but there were legal and social obligations that they be imparted to their young. Above all, Alice detected a fear of raising something which could penetrate easily all the fought-for and often hard-won protections the rich had built round themselves. What Alice taught came from a world in which a thought had a greater effect than a blow, an idea or a dream had greater power than the expensively-purchased facts with which the rich had secured a temporary protection order in evolutionary time. And the stories could not be purchased, bought off, bribed, or murdered. They were voices from beyond time, stories of vengeance and warning, stories which ripped off all masks, and left humans screaming naked in storm and darkness.
Taking a tip from George, Alice always gave the impression that she was imparting harmless bourgeois conceits: amusement and decoration, sources of delight and wonder, good “supplement” arts-stuff that could be purchased, managed, and hung in a convenient place on some media wall. That the texts had a deeper function, that they engineered a strange alchemy of change, that they were a kind of deadly radiation of imagery, was not recognised, even less believed. That they couldn’t be bought was as little understood as radiation itself was little understood. Radiation was not of the macrocosmic world, and neither were the stories. That both were secret dynamite defied all educational rationale, function, and purpose.
This timeless enactment of timeless shadows, by the side of either boiling potatoes or locked-away jewels, could hardly be used to secure a good position in life; still less could it be sold, used to make a profit, gain status, or enhance a reputation. It didn’t even have that thing beloved of rich and poor alike called ornamental value. Unlike religion, this raising of images didn’t pretend to save or forgive. It didn’t demand confession, encourage belief, still less did it recognise forgiveness. It avoided costs, estimations, predictions and rationalisations, all the nightmare mechanics of twentieth-century causation.
Arriving at her target, she helped enact a ceremony which quite defeated “EastEnders,” hi-fi, computer-games, even vanished Rolls Royces and Picasso originals. The power overwhelmed also even the excellent good intentions of those strung between these two worlds, those limed birds fluttering helplessly, caught by compromised good intentions. The ceremony was the raising of images, an invocation to bring forth something of those mental pantomimes built entirely from the inspirations of Jonson and Keats, Donne, and Milton. It was a quiet, slow, patient affair, but to the few initiates who entered this mysterium of this raising of the dead, the potency of this deadly weapon was astonishing. She carefully tended these cells, which contained the remains of her nation’s spirituality. In these exchanges, she saw the spirit of Albion cower, almost frozen to death, she saw the psychic body weak, chilled, with slow heart-beat, and almost-zero metabolism, yet one atom of it still had the power to make Media look like a Tranvestite pantomime in Hell. After nearly 400 years, a few minutes of Hamlet still abolished every single piece of liberal clap-trap that postured as art and meaning, every mile of supermarket shelves which aped sustenance, and every social, economic, and political policy which had the cheek to pose as reality.
Night the third. Holland Park. A line of Oscars on a shelf. She was pointedly confined to the kitchen of the magnificent house of a rich film producer who should have understood stories, but understood nothing at all. His 17 year-old son struggling with Hamlet as Alice pointedly requested that some God-forsaken American film, warbling from some mercifully distant interior, be turned down. A moment of intense personal dislike from the glittering vacancy of a mother who had never turned down anything in her life, least of all requests for intimate favours in exchange for stage and film parts. Then, as if to demolish all these monstrous structures of both art and life, came a moment of abstract formulation with young David which would defeat eventually the equally glittering vacancy of a father.
Fluttering blue eyes beneath a 17-year-old brow struggling with something he was going to remember for a lifetime, something which would be beyond all the disappointments, betrayals and suffering and despairs which would comprise his family heritage.
“Why is Hamlet so puzzled, David?
“I don’t know.”
She tried again. As she spoke, the hundreds of products in the tiny kitchen spun around her their myriad labels and slogans; everything from coco-pops to detergent was trying to out-advertise everything she said and smother, choke, and destroy a thin tuber of emerging life.
“When the Player weeps for Hecuba, Hamlet sees real emotion come from a fictional situation. A short while later, in cursing Claudius, he sees his own false emotion prompted by real circumstances. What are we to conclude from this juxtaposition of both the real and the fictional universe, David?”
History hangs on such moments. What happens in them decides whether love is born, or future cities razed to the ground. As gales blasted rain at the quadruple-glazed windows, and Alice did not look forward to her journey home, David raised his head and looked at her.
“That they are one.”
It was always worth it. After such moments, she could die like a creature whose life had been to pass something on. She got up and stood back from David as if he were a vision she had conjured up from a magic circle, and considered the phrase, that they are one. Before this fragment of slightly archaic grammar, which could have been straight from Shakespeare, the advertisements cowered back like cast-out demons before a cauterising flame.
David was now someone else.
As yet another everlasting American film crackled with sirens from lush depths without, planet earth was gone, replaced by eternal battles of ice and fire.
“But dad says that only a hammer on the head is real.”
“If he hit someone with a hammer, would he know what he was doing?”
She paused at the edge of a moment in which David was to decide whether he was going to have any worth-while moral life.
“I don’t suppose so.”
“Well it’s not real then, is it?”
Thoughts running through David’s head danced before her. Was he to betray his father? There intact, was all history: Would it be ritual murder to have the first suspicions that dad was not God, and that (far worse) his films were dreadful? The layers of modern perception were thin. A wind rose from Lear’s heath around the Aga and the portrait of the Pope, whose face seemed to disapprove of all Alice’s vampire-injections of pagan matter, disruptive philosophy, and suspicion of all theology and proper reason.
Alice was pleased. David had experienced his first notion that the world was not what it appeared to be, the world was not what it said it was, had been, or was going to be. She stopped. No more pressure now. It was all over. She wanted to scrub her hands like a surgeon, take off her mask and gown. David would never be the same again. As if she were lightly swabbing the pin-point of an injection, she smiled, as if to reassure a young mind which had perhaps far too soon glimpsed the world as a structure of lies and deception, and for once was grateful for some terrible hi-fi pop-clatter in the adjoining room as David rallied. Alice imagined the mother deliberately producing the noise to try and burn out all sight and sound of Alice and what she stood for.
David stood with the text in his hands, his eyes on stalks, turning page after page. He looked at Alice as if he wanted to leave the place with her, dance in the rain. Drained, almost sweating from the thing which had fled from her to David, Alice pocketed cash given almost reluctantly from a tin by a suspicious Philippina maid.
Leaving, Alice asked a last question.
“Why is Hamlet confused?
“I don’t know.”
“Well now you are Hamlet.”
He did not answer, but it did not really matter. The question was now deep-injected. It would never leave him when he would begin his future battle with all those wastes of time which prey on human beings. It would be an old battlement-ghost turning over his mind just like that sliver of automata which many times a night turned over his body in deep sleep.
Through wind, rain, and traffic, and munching a bag of chips, she headed towards a similar house a mile away, thinking that the sole function of time itself was to carry this process forward.
These discussions could not be used to make a profit, kill an enemy; they could not be used to confuse, lie, still less catch a fat rabbit for the pot. Yet these skills older than firelight, were either almost forgotten completely, or very reluctantly recognised by all conditions of mind and circumstance, status, and intelligence, as being of some kind of value, though most could not say why, to save their very life. Every single thing threaded through this almost-secret cinema of past dreams unlocked by Alice. Without this subterranean stream, life would still be rocks grinding against rocks.
Rather like some visiting gypsy, somehow she healed with these images, which were beyond all price and negotiation, above all perversion, taint, and decay of the world. In flock-lounge, damp basement, traffic-drenched sitting room, TV-sodden lounge, she raised pantomimes of Falstaff and Mr Pickwick, of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Hardy’s Eustacia Vye, and Shelley’s skylark. Down at heel, bottom-dwelling creature that she knew she was, nevertheless she knew that she had a power to raise energies which stopped both kitchen-time and screen-time, political message, and industrial tasking. Her fangs bit deep in moments in which brows furrowed as they reeled with her powerfully-injected antidote to all that was around them. Her stream of counter-information hit like a narcotic, and attacked all that which destroyed everything a human being stood for. She knew it was working when furrowed brows tried to come to grips with Hamlet’s indecision, Macbeth’s weakness, the despairs of Coleridge, Lamb, and De Quincey. The power of giving which came from her exhausted her as well as her student. For a magic time she reached inside a brain and she switched something off and she turned something on. In that moment between metaphor-switches, blank were all the world-screens that were confusing, corrupting, and destroying, all the advertisements leading to nuclear disaster, inside and out. In that moment, all the devastating noise of crying infants, howling neighbours, hooting traffic, prime-times, howling sirens, boiling pans, information slots, nappy-disposal bags, cheery presenters, sound bites, Woolworth’s arts-slots, and elemental anger at lost remote-controls, all became mental dust blown into the limitless television dark, and there was Wordsworth on the mountain, Aschenbach reeling through the streets of Venice, or Stephen Daedalus’ father, his head in hands, crying “Parnell…my dead king.”
Buried alive and shackled deep under the slag-heaps of the twentieth century, along avenue or mews, near-palace, or TV-blazing hovel, a few, chosen before they were born, sucked on these pictures she raised as if they were straws passing through to air, freedom, and for the first time, to life.
Night the fourth. Piccadilly. A foyer split by a three-inch-thick sheet of glass forty feet by forty feet, down which multi-coloured water sluiced into a narrow, shallow, concrete trench which called itself the olde monastery herb garden. Flanking this wonder were pink walls lined with scenes from famous Hollywood movies of the past. Beyond Ben Hur and Cleopatra, the super-rich cowered in designer-cubicles, the monthly charge for the address alone being beyond all mortal ken.
In this pantomime she raised yet another which quite defeated it: Macbeth strolled his midnight castle, and Coleridge rolled his mad eyes at heaven. Young Samuel’s eyes looked up as he read.
“I have lost my shaping spirit of imagination…He’s lost what?”
“His power to imagine.”
That the loss of the imagination was a more dreadful thing than the loss of his new roller blades was a new thought to Samuel. Alice was pleased. She had introduced him to paganism. The poor devil would never be the same again. Now cursed, branded, and outcast, he spoke for the first time as a person who just might, in some future time, tear down all the monstrous impostures of consciousness which surrounded him.
He looked at the Harrods Christmas tree and back at Alice, as if the tree were a challenge to her powers, as if the tree itself were trying to cast Alice back beyond the rim of some cave-mouth fire. Noticing that Samuel was unusually silent for the rest of the tutorial, she thought that perhaps Darwin was wrong in assuming Nature experimented socially. Perhaps, she thought as she headed now through driving snow towards an inferno of a tower-block, perhaps first change was waiting for a single individual to decide. Samuel was now almost a new species. His parents, like all the rest, would go on flapping and hooting, snorting and grunting to infinity.
Alice could tell that most thought of these conjurings of hers as stages in some monstrous transfer of bourgeois mechanical worth: the job, the qualification; little did they know that these strange fantasies were nothing to do with trades, or professions, still less with concrete improvement of the concrete world. She was proud of the camouflage she had grown over the years. Her cover-foliage ensured that few knew, cared, or understood that what she came for was not to help with a step on a ladder, improve a brain, or give practical advice, but to administer a deep-injected virus. To those few who were equipped to listen, the inner instructions bound in these alchemical strands of Literature whispered of escape, of rescue, of healing from the terrible wounds of infinite electronic noise, and rationalist oppression, those things which structured the world as silver-screen lie. Impossibly, something in these desperately-few cuckoos would hear the call; they would transfer part of themselves into these the images as escape-capsules as the blind main machines clashed into one another: great media dinosaurs of confusions, blindness, corruption, and decay.
What she helped create was a half-substance, the battle for which was savage, uncompromising, a fight to the death. It had little to do with liberal ideas of self-improvement, notions of sweetness and light. Like the God of her childhood, that thing called education proper was nothing such as liberal thought ever supposed it to be.
Here was her secret emotional life, indeed her sublimated sex life; she killed as she informed, she bit deep, and she fertilised in an invisible and silent ideological frenzy older than time and language, more distant than tools and fire. Deep within the ones she left enchanted, was the secret that in its own long voyage, its own fight for life, knowledge, in its will to live, destroyed to create.
They would pass on this talent of imagination as a suit of ancestral armour. In an occult drama of transfer of metaphor, voices would whisper to young, rich and poor alike that they were not yet dead of the world’s wounds; that there was something else other than drugs, annihilating back-bedroom loneliness, and ghastly media salesmen who were out to dine on their fresh gonads. The whispers from history told them that they must continue to hold their talisman of imaginatio to part a way through the savage, roaring hosts of the dead. In this moment, Alice became what she was, and always had been: her weight vanished, her face transformed, she became a thing of transcendental beauty, and in her hand she held forth a sacred flame against shadowed rocks.