SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIO
for Jacques Vallee.
My name is Jacob. I am a man on a park bench reading a book. As far as the great canvas of life is concerned, at fifty-five I am a smudge. A smudge is one of those patches on the edges of great paintings that on closer inspection perhaps generations later turn out to be someone pissing against a wall, or thumbing their nose at the great central scene. Even as I speak, perhaps someone in the great and expensive studios high above this central London Park is painting me to the life. Perhaps they see, badly focused, a nameless minor fragment of life’s pigmentation about to leave his bench and go home by the quieter roads, his shoulders hunched against the rain, whilst the winners of the world sing bathed in sunlight on the central canvas.
As one of life’s lesser smudges, my only claim to fame is that I am the world’s greatest hater of noise of any kind. I have worked as a chief accounts clerk all my working life in quiet London offices high above the traffic noise and sealed against weather. When I go home I make my way through an unnecessarily long route of the quieter streets, avoiding hooters, sirens, steamrollers and road drills, addicts and beggars as carefully as I try to avoid mistakes in computerized accounting.
People such as myself, however, who like reading books on park benches in their solitary lunchtimes, soon find out that noise is a live thing. It follows them around, and it sees readers and solitaries and thinkers as mortal enemies, to be filled up with all the scaffolding and hammers and saws of raw-boned plebian bits of common consciousness that scream like a torn animal and hit like a Siberian gale. Yes, somehow the noise always finds manic readers like me. I suppose such as myself are human vacuums, and our treasured silence has to be filled if only to demonstrate a very strange non-mechanical principle: do nothing, be nothing, and the world comes to you in all its stupidity and noise.
Sometimes I think that the world is one great conspiracy against concentration. Mighty universal forces head for it as if it were some kind of timeless mythological enemy. The head must, it seems, be kept pulped as if the slightest forming concentration destroys the manufacturing line of pulp consciousness. I suppose modern folk left alone for a minute without commercial breaks would start to scream very quickly. Concentrate, and the mind starts to leave that trash-factory called the world. After a very short time, of course, its absence is detected by a watching signal, and it is ordered into line to re-start that manufacturing of those endless streams of advertisements that greater fools than me call reasoning.
I come here at lunchtimes because the noise of the city is masked by a fair sized piece of woodland and a park through which peacocks strut. When the weather is bad, I go to the quiet teahouse, but this summer has been a good one, and most of the time I sit on a bench facing across the park towards the woodland and a few strutting peacocks on its fringes.
Of course the noise soon finds me here on this bench. Here I have been approached by suspicious police, and joined by anxious plebian mothers who give me their never-ending Prozac-talk about their countless God-forsaken TV programs, and I have been accosted by soft-spoken feminine youths that I booted away. Once I was stoned by a shaven man wearing a camouflage jacket who screamed about Jesus. I find that all such screams by all such men are about Jesus. Jesus is a received signal, just as the dogs who have tried to lift their legs against my lunch pack have received signals, and couples on the other end of the bench receive those signals that tell them to start unseemly embraces and switch on the usual loud daft music of the peasantry.
Surprisingly, I saw no headline muggings, drug dealing, or prostitution. Chronic obesity and the appalling condition of the young better-signified decay. One twenty-five-stone Muslim fainted of heat exhaustion. Since he was too heavy to move without injury, paramedics summoned up a special lifting chair that looked like a forklift truck.
The young, of course, I had lost a long time ago. Now they were nothing but actors imitating actors who imitated other actors; their souls were showbiz and media mirrors placed end to end. They had quite lost the analogue world. Whatever their age, they were born with rock n’ roll, and to their bang-and-clatter noise of a world, the events of 1914 and 1939, say, must have been distant irrelevant mysteries, mouldy things before jazz, sex, and junk-tarts in the microwave. Thin, staring, and with an indescribable diet—I imagined young being built of advertisements, shows, acts, performances, and mass suggestions rather than old-industrial flesh and blood. But I must admit that there was something about this that appealed to me. I imagined the doctors of the future taking patients to Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe clinics to have such images refreshed, extended and reinforced as a kind of medication. Instead of being injected full of tortured animal screams, they would be taken to what the ancient Greeks called dream theatres to communicate with the anthropomorphic gods, who were the essence of show business and the ultimate Stars. In the theatre they could write their own scripts and extensions of scripts, indeed become part of the extended being of the characters themselves. It would all be, I thought, (avoiding a young rough-sleeper) much better than Mechanism and Fact and Objectivity, the gods of the old engine-shed world.
But nobody was listening to my over-educated thoughts.
As for the young rough sleeper, he shambled off smelling as if he‘d gone through all his natural motions simultaneously.
Yeah, on the high seas there is perhaps less adventure on a summer afternoon than on my local park bench. A year ago, conditions were the same as now, pretty well. Perhaps the passage of time is only measured by a perceptible change in advertisements and their controlling signals. On this past afternoon, as usual, young girls giggled, sobbed, screamed, and blew red and pink gum. The only measure of time between then and now was a slight increase in the sexual suggestions of tee-shirt slogans and certain hormonal developments—probably, some said, due to aliens, the water-supply, or the CIA genetically manipulating the world’s corn-flakes. One lone ten-year-old girl with huge breasts sported the slogan Just One Gang Bang More Will Get You There Sister Cool.
No, it was not an unusual afternoon. Elderly old-fashioned tramps straight out from the pages of Orwell and Davis waved cans of beer and sang ancient and infinitely depressing Methodist hymns by my side. Often, strangely rustling bushes diverted my attention. The usual well-dressed old men with expensive binoculars sat by me and eyed the windows of flats and estates opposite. Again, of course, the last thing I have left in this world—my renowned concentration—was utterly destroyed by the Mary Poppins chimes of ice-cream vans and even portable (God help us all!) versions of the wretched television. The younger working-class oafs scowled at my books, and passers-by of even lower social status relieved themselves almost by my shoes. The nouveau serfs threw nappies and empty beer cans into wastebaskets by my elbow and other drunken proles by the score spewed, spat, pissed, and farted on queue as they passed by my pile of summer books and my sheaf of notes. A slightly better class of serfs asked me for the football scores, the transmission time of soap operas, what had happened in something called Big Brother, or something called The News. All of which answers were quite beyond my knowledge and understanding.
You see about five years ago, after my wife Brenda died, the world lacking all interest, I decided to read through the great novels of the world in their chronological order. But here the noise found me and defeated me yet again. A concrete mixer drove me from Anna Karenina, drunken football fans interrupted Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdue; scaffolders with vowels and consonants that would rival a sand-strewn gearbox have taken me from Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and a twelve-year old pale-faced junior miss with a portable IQ of sixty once offered to cut off my balls in the middle of Crime and Punishment because I told her to turn down her Blaster. Similarly endowed mutants from high-rise hell houses and complete hollow-eyed zombies from burnt-out comprehensive schools have threatened to cut and kick, stone and knife me whilst I attempted to read a wide variety of other great works whilst sitting on this very same bench and asking them to turn down their sound. One dozy 12-year-old plebian boy full of cannabis and obligatory brain-fix of hyped-up commercial suggestions once knocked Women in Love out of my hand, on principle alone I suppose. My clout around his left ear actually surprised him. He looked at me with genuine innocent resentment, as if books were things to be knocked out of people’s hands immediately and without question.
Dame Nature, of course, lent me a helping hand: I was almost killed by a lightning strike whilst in the middle of War and Peace and a downpour in the middle of the last chapter of Tom Jones saw me confined to bed for a week.
And yet I remained a rational and calm man. Advertisements shouted and TV baby talk screamed, thundered, and mumbled from open windows. The low-foreheads and low IQs rocketed out their tongues at my pile of books; they whistled, made oink-noises and bottom-wiping motions as they went on the perpetual sugar and crap hunts of the daft and trip-inspired young.
I am indeed a marked man for noise.
Yet one day I myself did receive a signal.
It happened one summer afternoon almost exactly a year ago.
On this said day just after the turn of the century I had just become absorbed in The Magic Mountain when a quite original disturbance approached me, as if alerted by some quite definite signal.
I had never had a disturbance like this before.
Things were getting serious.
Like the advertisements in the young heads around me, the noise was mutating.
But let me explain, as the wretched scientists say. For our communal sins, a new Social Security “top-security unit” for the chronically mentally ill (commingled with the biggest group of perfectly sane free-loaders in the area) had been built just beyond the wood I faced across the park. Everyone knew it was a “top security unit” designed by the “community” because the mad and the free wandered through homes, kitchens, and bedrooms of citizens at will, scaring the relatively sane out of their wits at all hours of the night and day. This was due to the stated policy of the Home, which was one of “personal familiarization and social adjustment.” Since the set of various concepts of the dread word “social” (both national and international) was responsible for most of the evils of the 20th century, the only adjustments that were made were made by the populace and not the inmates. The populace had to purchase locks, bolts and high fencing for their own “high security” protection against those inmates who sought familiarization and adjustment in most unusual ways, such as heading for the homes of the sane just as chimps on the loose headed for fridges, squirrels made for handbags, and bees made for toffee-apple stalls.
Anyway, this was how it happened on this day.
A veritable glee-party from the aforesaid DSS “top security” unit emerged from the wood as I sat on my usual bench reading Ulysses. Coming out from the path hand in hand (those fortunate enough to have hands) in a procession, they did not appear to have any supervisors. But knowing the DSS that would not have been unusual. On rare occasions these poor wretches were exercised rather like dogs in the Park. Supervised by the more capable of their company, while most people turned heads away politely at the sight of them.
Emerging into the open space of the Park they squealed and squeaked, they chimp-chattered and wailed. To this day I am not quite sure whether they were real. Often I’ve thought of going to the Home to try and find out but that is not a pleasant prospect and I didn’t think I would. If they couldn’t be found then that would make the events of this early afternoon more perplexing than it became, and that was perplexing enough. They were as real as anything is real, I suppose. They left both footprints in the grass and footprints in my mind.
A word about this path, if I may.
Born beside this Park, I had looked at that walkway through the woods for over thirty years and I had never trusted it. Apparently the oaks had been there since men wore steel breastplates to go a-warring. Beyond the oaks the thickets were quite dense and dark, reminding me of all the tragic-comic betrayals of naïve childhood expectancies: fairies, UFOs, aliens, all the ridiculous pantomimes peddled down all the ages, all the great let-downs of the spiritual and the chronic disappointments of magic. Yes, all the chronic catastrophes of the imagination were there in the purple and yellow mysteries of its shaded interior. Living nearby as a child, into that womb of delight I had projected space ships, aliens, and demon women with long legs and big tits with whom I had many mini-muscular super-adventures beyond the sun and moon. None of these fantasies had come to anything. I was an accounts clerk and my nerve had failed early. None of these heroic ego-projections, as they call them, had given me so much as a glance. Several times I thought I had glimpsed infinity, but infinity, too, let me down and I grated my teeth on mazes of accounts in my prison cell on top of the city tower where I had slaved for twenty five years. And my beloved wife Brenda had died like many human beings die: howling like a torture victim on a stained mattress as some nameless, invisible thing ate her breasts piece by piece.
But an astonishing sight took me from these depressing thoughts. Four of the stouter members of the remarkable party in front of me carried a most extraordinary edifice strung on poles. This was rather like a cylindrical washing machine and had “Barnes Improved Chemical Toilet” stenciled on its side. The four stout parties, obviously the organizing group, now carefully erected a canvas screen around the toilet and secured it firmly in the ground. I understood this action: since the last time the inmates had used public toilets, the result had reached several national newspapers and a Question was asked in the House.
This facility set in place, the four stout parties vanished in the direction of a distant ice-cream stall. The forty or so hard cases that remained now opened packs of food and drink and the contents of these soon became a blizzard of missiles. Most of the group promptly fell to the ground when they were out of ammunition and licked and picked broken jam tarts, crushed cream buns, and shattered ham sandwiches from off the grass and gravel whilst emptying the multi-coloured contents of bottles over the heads of both themselves and others. A few more steady ones tried to eat properly but their lack of all bodily control strewed food and spittle across their clothing. Some moaned, others rolled over the ground and others sang quietly. Heads shook, unfocused eyes gazed blank and unknowing. Eyes, sometimes in independent motion, were wobbling jellies; fingers remained stuck in noses while other fingers scratched and tore at trousers, foreheads, armpits, and crotches in meaningless patterns of irritation. This was universal noise: bits of them such as their ears might be alright yet the signal had not held firm in other bits, such as noses or feet.
It is disturbing to see people with adult bodies skip and dance awkwardly, their muscles not capable of controlled motion. What I saw was a dance hot from hell with a consumer update. Bodies lacking all symmetry were stained with ketchup, brown sauce; chocolate ice cream decorated misshapen abdomens and sunken chests. Cavernous mouths full of jam and cakes gasped like landed fish. Pink, red and yellow faces were bloated, some mouths wore a permanent leer; monstrous noses snorted, mouths brayed, and oversized heads shook like those of zoo animals confined in a narrow space for too long. Stained tee shirts boasted of TV and sports heroes and some produced masks of famous film stars, putting them on to tumultuous applause. Mirrors (I suppose made of plastic, but with the DSS you never knew) were produced, and endless screams of maniacal delight erupted when the masked faces were seen by their owners. Perhaps some even thought that this was how they looked. But one very young girl collapsed screaming when the elastic of her Madonna mask broke, the mask fell, and she saw her own face which was like that of an aged fairy-tale witch.
I praised the God of Noise. This was a work of art. No drunken louts or drugged prats from a concert or junkies from discos could compete with this gathering for an almighty shattering of concentration.
Here was a gibbering primordial mess whose pain was beyond all conception. The sight of it convinced me that the idea of a harmonious universe full of profound rules and principles and laws was a definitive bourgeois conceit. I had no religious belief, I intended to get through life causing the least inconvenience to others and myself. I could see no meaning in a universe in which illness and death were certainties. The hopping, hollering mental-physical catastrophes that were now trying to climb trees and stand on their flat heads in front of me appeared to be a universal constant like white noise and the hydrogen line. I knew that the same faces as I saw here appeared in Tibet and Peru, Siberia and Australia. Perhaps they had appeared in the breeding stock for hundreds of thousands of years. A carefully managed and controlled and defined level of catastrophic mentality was as determined a controlling signal as the certain boiling of water when subject to certain levels of heat. The cretin or congenital idiot (as the text books called it, him, her) was a kind of timeless reference signal—the statistics of its occurrence did not vary much outside of a line. The same numbers appeared in Britain and Canada, Australia and Finland, and in every race and colour on earth in the same measured quantity. The condition was not related to any kind of environmental factor. Neither the very best nor very worst of circumstances made any difference to the level and frequency of occurrence. Only the notion of cure—yet another definitive bourgeois conceit—was more absurd than their existence. I didn’t know whether the same level of malformation occurred in dinosaurs and early apes, rabbits, or insects. I had an idea that the level of chronic malfunction now trying to skip, eat, and jump in front of me occurred only in human beings. Mad animals could not hunt, and they would not be fed or protected. They would therefore either be cannibalized or be carrion within a very short time. Mad animals were, then, largely invisible. Only human beings cared for such; long ago we’d decided that the man who destroyed the mentally ill of his nation was the most evil ever born.
If I was disturbed by what I saw, I was disturbed in a far deeper way by my own responses. I tried to find love for the catastrophes in front of me, but the love I found was as phony as a news headline or a Minister’s policy statement: I couldn’t even raise sympathy. The way I that managed this horror was by saying to myself (and I heard myself saying it) that as far as I was concerned the world’s non-cerebrals could bathe them, spoon-feed their blubbering lips, wash them and put them to bed, try to subdue their incomprehensible curses, and calm their bottomless pit of agonies. Perhaps folk infinitely more morally developed than myself would love them with an impossible love, quite beyond my own much narrower concept of impossibilities.
They began to dance.
On the rim of the dance others sat and held one another in shivering embrace like children waiting for a firing squad. Many older types had faces like babies; some young had the faces of the very old. Others were more like animals than human beings.
They began to act.
One young woman who had what looked like the beginning of a small rhino horn starting out from her forehead played a bull and others were toreadors. Some became cats and beavers, rats and cows. Others were dogs and mice, snakes and lizards, rabbits and birds. Many roared and screamed like all these things put together as groups of astonished watchers formed on the gravel path by my seat. I don’t know what they thought but to me it was some monstrous failed experiment. A tiny mote of wayward dust in the genetic system had brought about a bloated head, turned brains to custard, imbalanced the bodies, internal organs, and snouts.
As a bonus bit of chaos the universe, as we call it, was laughing at them. Overhead a light aeroplane trailed a double banner: Dickson’s Pork & Pickle Sausages, and Ben’s Second Hand Cars are the Best. Below the banner a less than Best dog tipped over a rubbish bin and, surrounded by angry flies, gorged himself on a sticky mound of god-only-knows what, a something bright green with mould and yellow with crawling maggots as a bonus. The dog didn’t care and neither did the sky. Above this the tops of the oaks, their foliage burnt by an atomized sheen of plastic, rubber, and synthesized hydrocarbons from the motorway; I looked up and saw a blue whose impossibility of reproduction had driven painters crazy. God had done a good job on the sky and on Sharon Stone but He’d definitely not been paying attention when He created the half-bodies and half-brains that were here dancing and acting under His inconceivable blue.
As a diversion a black couple launched into a screaming row involving betrayals, repairs to the bathroom, broken boiler, various relatives, and which soap-opera they were give up for the football, all such issues coupled with bills, booze, and bad debts. I looked back from the Titian blue and saw lying by the rubbish bin a turd with a toffee on top. Probably the rummaging dog with an unconscious talent had built this amusing construction. A passing boy with some wit knew how to deal with this piece of found art. He parked his scooter, and showing off his golfing talents, he took a stick and golfed both turd and sweet into the Titian blue. Seeing this, I had the distinct impression that the next great Copernican change would come when it was realized that the universe was a complete disaster: harmony, purpose, the profound, and all the last grand illusions, all blown the way of the summer wind.
And the mad danced on before me. Chased one another, fell over and rolled, and made me hate God more than I had ever hated Him. Here were his concentration camp prisoners, his illimitable Nazi experiments, damned for at least this life if not the Beyond. For it was no Nazi, psychopath, or pervert that had sentenced human beings to this hell beyond imagining. The very worst of humanity had neither the imagination nor the resources for Roman Games on this impressive level. These disasters under sun and moon were the work of Dame Nature in all her pantomime glory. Dame Nature who, according to the bullshit of the priests and scientists, had structure and coherence and purpose and harmony. The mad were pure metaphor. It was all they ever had. They were mad because the triangulated world as made them so. They were anomalistic distortion to be filtered out, rejected forms, ridiculous fairies of the old time, now the elves and goblins of old fallen to the gipsy doodles of our own time. Fallen approximations to what Larry my son used to call the approximate Real. Destroyed by ordnance surveys and triangulations of the mind, the mad are what is left.
In life I had formulated few unbreakable rules for myself. The first was, “As soon as I heard the word harmony I knew I’d get ripped off big time,” words Larry used to say before he drove at high speed over the White Cliffs of Dover, of all things. His girlfriend Thelma had been crushed under the Number Twenty-three out on Ladbroke Grove whilst crossing the road trying to read a book on the history of mathematics. Even my putative extended families were fallen cerebrals. Larry, he left me a note that he had decided to “switch off the screen” and see which new “theatre” had claimed Thelma. Needless to say, he studied postmodernism at London University.
As Larry used to say, life was not a struggle between the Good and Evil of the old theologians. Life was a production.
Thinking about Larry somehow reminded me of a news item I saw some time ago about a fire in a French mental home. Many dead, I recall. I wonder what it must be like to be first of all to be born so completely crackers that only slobbering in a corner is possible, then to be tranquillised, then gradually burnt to a cinder, strapped to a bed, the only things resisting the flames being the piss and shit you have wallowed in for the previous few hours. What a deal. And others got Julia Roberts, although I apologise to her for using the plural. I wonder what some of their last thoughts of the poor creatures were, in that fiery madhouse? Pinocchio? A lorry-cum-ship with a factory chimney in the middle pouring bright silver smoke against a dark-blue sky? A tree built of coloured paper stars, a one-eyed white cat swimming a narrow stream towing a miniature submarine?
I suppose the cartoons would be still evolving in the head even though the left foot roasts and the right eye melts. Then, alongside the screams, perhaps half a candyfloss rabbit, a blue kangaroo’s neck on top of a hippo-body? Presumably the cartoons still needed an audience, though at some point with the breath mercifully gone, and the body cindered, the screen would go mercifully blank. Another redundant cinema gone off the circuit. No matter. Because, as Larry said, the drama goes on in others. The whole animal kingdom dreams. God is never short of silver screens, said Larry.
Pictures mean active brain. The slope of a paw, the curl of a tail, any cartoon-face or photographic scene means style, a point-of-view, character and situation, all such complex colour and craft being rich in pure organisation. Therefore as fire eats legs, arms, and soiled shifts, eyes weep and chins dribble with the saliva of mental-physical hell and, as ceilings and walls collapse in sparks, the restraining straps no doubt still hold. They still hold as the brain is still yet brimful with a superfluity of rich and beautifully exotic structures: a kind of ectoplasm of odd bits of the odd bits, peeps from angles which could never have been, sketches and elongations: a sick dog, a mother’s apron, or a smashed tea-cup twenty years previous. As the straps hold, each element of the screaming chaos is still integrated, fully organised, yet it has no consciousness of the macrocosmic agony.
As a fallen person, I have a fallen thought. That mad François (shall we call him) is mad enough to order the countless mental megabytes supporting his inner nonsense to cease their lotus-eating decadence. His final disorder rallies and mad Francois tells the megabytes to pay attention to the material of the nylon restraining straps. What material is that? The bequeathed mental sinew, no less, of Wallace H. Carothers of Dupont, 1932, creator of nylon, one of the gods of artificial fibres. Find him, find him, François. Carothers is in there somewhere, holding it all together. Find. Find the telemetry of his depression and his genius; find the covalent bonds between the artificial fibres and his suicide. Get into the mixed metaphors and turn as many off as you can.
And do it fast, François, because your very nuts are beginning to roast.
I looked at my watch. I was an hour late for work.
And decided not to go to back to the office.
I was burning myself as Larry continued his story in my head.
A madman like Francois might be so insane as to think that he might just make it. He might just know that he has nothing to lose even before he begins to die. In a final act of defiance he might just manage to wake old Carothers from eternal sleep and ask him to inject a counter-intention into the chain of ideas behind the molecular synthesis of the harness nylon. Only Carothers, like a fast-thinking virus, could order the assumption-chains to panic and collapse. All intentions have families. Meet Charlie and George and the Ciris lab team, 1920, see a faded A2 blue copy of the plans the Nazis pinched in ‘35. Appeal and scream. Would they hear, these ideo-guardians? Are matter and time, event and experience built of phone directories? For God’s sake, dial a number and try it. A face might appear: the gate-guardian. Announce your name and mission at the entrance to the domain. Hear old Carothers’ voice command:
And Francois might stagger out, blind and burnt. He is still mad and alive. And a real cure has just begun.
Now they sat in groups.
Rhyme and doggerel, playground chants erupted. Some awareness was there. A few laughed at their own inability to organize ring-a-roses, momentarily turning their shattered minds and bodies into grim comedy. They could not even form a circle. Others laughed. They emptied large black plastic bags that they had brought with them. Out poured the history of the world: costumes, hats, and masks, cloaks and robes of Napoleon and Caesar, paper crowns and cardboard swords of Royalty and soldiers. They knighted one another, they marched and made mock-war; in the midst of cavalry charges and bugles they became fighter pilots and soldiers.
There was no violence or threatening behaviour. Perhaps they had already suffered the greatest violence conceivable against their body and mind. They had already gone through that barrier and there was no point in further injury. Some had plainly been injured quite recently. But their plaster and bandages looked as if they had been applied because of falls, forgetfulness, or plain ignorance of simple domestic dangers rather than ill treatment. Though a good number were fairly obviously tranquillised by heavy meds there was visible in some cases a great and genuine tenderness between some couples. But I saw no sexual movements. They didn’t want to reproduce and who would blame them? Perhaps they knew they were a closed loop. Perhaps their tribe wanted to die, sterilize the madness, wash all their circuit mistakes down the plughole and give them a new genetic chance in time.
A few had been given a bonus package by God. These were the blind and crippled. The blind had acquired human Tic-birds, as specialized as bees, I suppose. Their sole purpose was to guide them and describe (in gibberish) things that were happening. These Tic-birds never left the side of the blind and were one of the few specializations that I saw. More such Tic-birds helped the cripples, who were very odd. Crippled already through their strangely twisted joints, yet another quite different processing signal had attempted to impose a conventional crippling, as it were—as if the time had come for such proper, conventional arthritic crippling, say, notwithstanding the crippling that was there in the first place. Or perhaps it was the other way round and as always the proper or conventional malfunction did not talk or interface with the weird. In any case these few poor devils had got the worst of a terrible double-whammy of a confused system whose signals did not necessarily talk to one another or else were incompatible—or dare I say, did not like one another?
A pair now detached themselves from the main group and moved in my direction. Since this pair at mid distance looked positively dangerous I comforted myself that I had on my person that equipment needed by every middle-class littérateur on a park bench at the turn of the century. A young prostitute friend of mine whom I used to drink with at The Old Bear and Flagon gave me a scent-spray filled with neat bleach. In case things got really serious, tucked into my mobile phone case was a vintage teddy-boy flick-knife given to me by an elderly Methodist scoutmaster…as he said when he handed it over, he’d lost all illusions about the world in an age of rubber sex-dolls supplied on the National Health.
I rationalized all this aggression by convincing myself that such knives were for the use of people such as me: under-exercised men gone just slightly breathless, men whose middle-aged muscles were no longer suited to strength and skill trials.
This well-honed 1960s relic now nestled in my right jacket pocket as the two young genetic casualties closed with me.
Which one was it going to be first, I said to myself? Is it the one on the left, aged about 18 with drug-seared eyes and a lop-sided grin, or the older man slightly in front, with the old lag’s stare?
As if sensing danger, they both stopped short about fifteen feet away and lay on the ground, the older man (I shall call him Albert) slightly in front. Albert’s body was quite normal but he was of indeterminate age. Anywhere between thirty and fifty I guessed. One of those faces that are several faces. None of these masks were rough, plebian, or coarse; one overlay was of handsome, distinguished features; the other of changing impressions flitting across the features. They were of someone meditative, thoughtful, and indicative of some degree of concentration and discernment. In all Albert looked like a scholar fallen to drink. At first I thought that some of the wags from the Bear and Flagon had set upon my natural social reticence as a kind of joke, had hired some out of work actor to jolt me into amusing astonishments.
But all such thoughts went from me as Albert got up, took a few steps towards me, and spoke.
Is it you I know yes I don’t cause of. Blade. Am is now.
His stream of consciousness when it came was like a broken list of crossword clues. His accent was good, though full of loss and gloom like some long-term prisoner.
His partner (whom I shall call Jim) nodded approvingly as Albert continued.
FFF canal steal I big Cr ffffffffffffffff hold!
Digit? Fox yes?
I do not apologise for giving the nonsensical bits here. Poor Albert offered them, I suppose, as a child offers a broken toy to an adult. I took his crazy verbal offering with a smile and all due reverence for such broken magical transferences. There was humility in him. I accepted this ludicrous and vaguely amusing gift as from a puzzled child. Of course I am imitating the sounds I heard. I can no more vouch for their accuracy which, like reality itself, is a tragicomic approximation.
Fox yes. Digit? If at all I can don’t know.
Jim smiled too and, with his head cocked to one side, looked as if he was expecting me to answer.
Cvagt. Jtitu. Figaro. Picter. Halowsw.
My father had been in the army at one time. He was a signaler. He taught me a bit about code cracking. As Albert rambled on, I became my father listening to Morse code under gunfire, trying to catch any short runs of meaning, a bit of what code-crackers called plain text coming through, a little fragment of almost-coherence.
Valid not john is brought cold his sm ye the fog
Folk passing by were hurrying from the Park now as if from a downpour. I supposed they were going back to their high rise caverns full of late Roman screens showing late Roman devastated gut, spirit, and intellect. But who was I to look down upon them, a man on a Park bench listening to a madman under clouds that now blackened the sun?
Twist said no but run sold break sea…
Heavy spots of rain announced a summer downpour. What was I doing here listening to such crazy nonsense? I got up to go. He spoke again. Josie.
I stopped. The rain stopped.
The universe stopped.
The sane and beautiful smile now on the face of Albert’s friend partner indicated that he approved of what was being said. Josie? June? Straight to the back of my head went the words. Albert, damn him, was running fast into the heart of me.
Impossible. Josie Axpey was my first embarrassing juvenile love.
Albert, as if inspired, spoke again.
Josie, June, Linda.
A run of three?
Marion. Brenda. Patricia.
Another run of three.
A run of my six loves? In sequence?
Equally impossible shafts of light from the impossible Titian blue now lit him like a stage spot. He wore a crooked Fool’s smile that Shakespeare would have loved.
I spoke. “Marion, Brenda, Patricia?”
Here direct from Albert’s mouth were no less than six of my juvenile heartburns from the old mid-century and he had pronounced them in sequence. So such things were still there, like a never-ending greeting? I was angry at the great Impossible. Who would ever want to be visited by such old banished pains again? What cruelty was this? Had not the poor broken stick of brain in front of me had enough suffering without my ancient sexual and emotional burnouts living in his head?
Josie. Thirty years ago. Hard raver as they used to say. Dyed hair at fifteen. Wore just stockings under a short black plastic Mac. Last saw her in what they used to call a Transport Café in the rain. Tea slops on the café table and unspeakable lavatories. We were both hitching, heading north. Lost her in the mysteries of pre-motorway Birmingham. No brains. Old-fashioned dance bands with saxophones still bring her back like an incantation. Got a Christmas card once. But probably dead, murdered by era forces alone. Hurt her bad. Chaucer, jewellery and night-trains bring her back.
June. Failed actress. Basement flat, Ladbroke Grove. Unbelievably beautiful. But treacherous as a green-eyed snake in the proverbial grass. Hated my brains. Hated my education even more. Married failed film director. Lost her in the mysteries of the Grove. She stood there in the snow in 1985, made up of old films more than flesh and blood. Last saw her by chance some weeks ago. Drink-ruined face seen at a McDonald’s table through rain-smeared window. Smoking heavily and staring down at the floor. Killed by the zeitgeist. Sunlight, ancient wooden ships, pyramids bring her back. Probably still as superficial in 3000 BC. Hurt me bad.
Patricia. Snobby. Plain. House in Windsor Great Park. Boring talk of horses and bridge. Couldn’t stand her. Couldn’t relate. Wealth, style, but no education. Said she’d kill herself if I left her. Parted on a hot stage-front of an afternoon in an expensive Kensington teahouse with the waitresses trying to avoid looking at her streaming tears. Called me a Jew, left me with the bill, and drove off in her mother’s Mercedes full of Harrods’ Christmas parcels, some of which had been destined for me. Both hurt. Deep-lost England. Leaf-green. Chaucer again. Letters arrived at a previous address. I let them stay there.
And so on. Other women sped to infinity in their own way: boats and trains and hours and thoughts and ships of being. I think these images are more important than my liver, kidneys, or heart. Blood and bones are lower-case things, bits off some inconceivable shelf. These telling pictures are the self. They are the bowels of the ship, the engine room, and aerials rotating on the bridge.
What else did this Albert know? What other miraculous charred bones of my past loves were in his mad brain? Did this poor thing have the future agonies and inspirations and lives of each girl and each woman within his lexicons of nonsensical noise? Was the entire history of each frock and skirt and comb, each smile and handbag in the furnace of his sulphurous mad agonies? Did he know of each and every time and place of love and lust? Was his knowledge limited or was he God himself, who had files on the lighting, the mood, the shots from every possible angle? Could he redesign each smell and each touch, produce and reproduce to infinity every moment of breath and touch and smile? Could he re-blend all the faces and the voices into other tastes and countries and landscapes, could he re-programme thighs and shoes and anger and opinions and travels and homes, could he even re-run age and status, income, education, and IQ? If there was all this order in this cracked vessel in front of me, why was he now slobbering spittle down his chin and looking as if he was hot from some torture chamber of Hell itself? How much signal was there in the piece of crap that was poor him? Bus conductors, moved on by policemen, would refuse the thing that was he, who contained an infinite music and would panic kids at school gates. Mothers would cross the road to avoid him, youths would kick at him, and the very dogs would cross the road and attack him.
Not even the birds would come near his crumbs.
And why me?
Were there other loves of other men inside him?
Jim smiled again and chewed a blade of grass as Albert spoke. He was the watcher and recorder, Albert was the prompter. They worked together like twin interrogators.
A couple more. In sequence again. But this time, by God, I had him: he’d missed one. In my monstrous stupidity I shouted at him, “I don’t believe you. It’s a trick, you’ve missed one.”
He turned and with as much of a smile as his poor broken leper-face could manage, he triumphed over everything and anything. Diana was the missing one. Still smiling his crooked smile, he spoke again.
My beloved wife, she of the eaten breasts.
I took out my knife.
“I will kill you.”
His partner jostled like a parrot on a pole. He spat out his grass and now looked worried.
Brenda on the sea tonight.
I wept. I put my knife away in case I plunged it into myself.
Jim laid his hand on Albert’s shoulder by way of censure and restraint as Albert spoke for the last time.
Jim shook his head at me and wagged his finger at Albert, who looked sad. Jim spoke with a rough but firm and kind voice, as if alerting of dangers:
No, no more.
The pair now rose to their feet and shook their jackets for all the world as if leaving an overnight camp early in the morning and preparing for a long journey. Albert gave me a rather condescending smile as if he knew I would have an inner struggle with explanations. He knew, I think, that I would battle with mixed metaphors of lines of force, energy across space and so on, using all the plague-ridden cosmos of my good education.
With a somewhat resigned look as if their job was over and their signals had now trickled to earth, the pair walked the three hundred yards to the still roistering main group as if they had just been three hundred miles away.
I tried a rationalization. Somehow, had I known Albert? Did he live round the corner in my youth and, through some inconceivable coincidence, know the names? That was hardly possible. The living passions he named were in different lovers’ towns and cities and two were from two different continents, and all were well spaced over ten to fifteen years. And there were gaps, many names he’d missed. But he had got the heavyweights. But could he have been behind me with a notebook in Africa, France, the Far East?
His madness was spreading to me.
In the fading light, the entrance to the path into the wood was the screen of a theatre. One of the tribe now spewed what I assumed to be his subsidized compulsory experimental medication on top of a pile of food scraps. Come night, he would have another injection crammed full of tortured animal screams and another cycle of creative medical science would begin.
Wishing the insects and birds well of this expectorated gut, I realized that I was now deeply angry. Impossibilities are ruinous. How dare the universe cheat and play with me in this way? Was I to be suddenly eaten by this pain just as another mysterious something ate my wife alive before me, her eyes asking me to kill her?
The names that Albert left me with became presences. I could hear the words, feel the unique warmth and sense the live being of all of these lost women. The infinity of their hours was mine to enter. Combs, shoelaces, opinions, seasons, and moods of them all flooded back. Once again I shared their meals and beds and nights, and all the nets and webs of what went wrong in each beloved case. In their presence the past, it appeared, had not gone away. The right lighting, the backspaced technologies, the correct fabrics and tastes of the deep past backed up all the sounds and touches, the meals and walks and talks and clothing and agonies and excitements and opinions.
Was poor Albert in his madness reading all this from a part of me and reflecting it back like an aerial, or was it in his head? Had his wild mind induced it all from me as an electric current moves a compass needle?
Of course, being a human being, I tried to work it all out. I asked the tragic-comic questions every human being asks about what the philosophers call reality, which as poor Larry said, was always an approximation. Was what I had experienced electro-mechanical, biological, magnetic? Electronic, atomic, genetic, gravitational? Finally, I settled for a mess of pottage consisting of half-baked images from Faraday and Marconi. Did Albert receive part of my head? Was I transmitting (very near the culturally forbidden word transmuting) the past within me? Could I in turn receive from him such broadcasts of his own life?
What a perverse symphony of near misses!
But he had struck fire. He had summoned all the failures and the compromises, all the loves and the great passions in the drifting desert of my endless mediocre days. Not God’s murderous statistics, but those vast all-consuming lusts that are eternal being. Albert had got straight into the engine room. I knew now that I was driven not by the needs of the gut, ambition, frustration, anger, bitterness; I was driven by this lexicon of loves that were still playing out a kind of destiny.
Albert had cracked a bit of the collective code, produced a scrap of plain text from infinite number-crunching combinations with the chaos that was himself. The rest of the impossible text was folded in his impossible heart.
I was ashamed to feel still the lump of the weapons in my pocket. I had, in my all my pompous folly, almost killed the messenger of all my dreams.
Experience of the impossible was a healing. It cured much of my bitterness, which was proliferating foliage in my mind like my wife’s cancer. I had witnessed a miracle. Like many miracles, it had apparently no beginning and end, no development, but its significance was that for a moment I was led into the richest depth of being I have ever experienced.
The impossible was a cure. I am now somewhat free of temper, viciousness of opinion, and depression. And it had nothing to do with witchcraft or that wretched thing called the paranormal. They say in the pub that my smile (which they had hardly seen previously) is wonderful. Half-jokes about my being in love circulate and I suppose I am in love in a certain way now. The impossible has the same effect as seeing a certain face when young, a face that shatters the days and months to pieces, a face that brings time itself to a stop.
A distant bell rang in the depths of the wood. Hearing it, the peacocks and rabbits went deep into the brush beyond the tree line. Crows flapped and fussed in the tops of the elms by the old industrial canal by the teahouse. Its barges once hauled a tangible and solid real from those straightforward Euclidean point-to-point ways of the old lost hard-wired empires. I was beginning to experience a mysterious nostalgia for its old certainties and realities. I longed to be once again hard-wired myself; I longed to have solidities and objective truths, and those beautiful solid facts that could be put into lexicons and dictionaries, encyclopedias, and scientific textbooks.
The bell brought about a distinct change in their movements. Slow, almost orchestrated miming patterns were discernible in their herd. Quite a few were still wearing masks; they were now an ancient chorus moving almost rhythmically before the darkening gap in the wood. The corner of my eye noted that the park was now almost deserted as evening came on.
I noted also with some trepidation that the chorus had noticed me. All of them were now masked in a semi-circle before the woodland path, fallen to a quiet chatter.
Sensing the dying evening like a herd of animals, even the noisier characters became silent and nervous, like cattle before nightfall. Then, to my utter astonishment, they formed a semi-circle at some distance before me and, almost in a state of collapse, I saw the semi-circle bow before me.
It was the amphitheatre at Epidaurus.
They were the chorus. I was the magic summoner. The highest rank in the Ancient World. And I had a small semi-detached in Bromley, a terrifying overdraft, and a clerk’s job that hardly paid for cat food and shaving cream.
Now equally mad, I knew what was expected of me. I got up and bowed towards the ancient half-circle.
They bowed back.
Then a second of an incomprehensible chant, broken by the arrival of Ron the Park Keeper, who broke the spell as inevitably, the spell had to be broken. Ron, a mundane player if ever there was one, had come to tell me that the gates were now being closed for the night.
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper…
The semicircle now dissolved. The Tic-birds grabbed hands with the blind, greatly agitated by the coming of night. As they comforted them by speaking gently into their ears, the sighted ones gazed anxiously in the direction of the teahouse and were in turn extraordinarily glad when the capable group emerged from that direction. Directed purely by gestures rather than sound, a few took off their masks and costumes and tidied the mess they had made, putting it into plastic bags that they slung over the shoulders. Others carefully folded the Privacy Tent, and slipped shoulder poles into the sedan carrying rings of the Barnes Improved Chemical Toilet. The four stout ones then gripped the poles and hoisted their private lavatory like a shot lion on a safari. The Tic-birds with the blind followed the toilet-bearers back into the woods, led by the capable group.
To any passer-by in the gloom it must have looked like a religious procession consisting of all the grotesques of all the old tales of mound and hill, tumulus, and charmed circle. With black bags slung over their shoulders, it was a hobbit march en route for Magonia, the land of elementals from which few mortals ever returned. Some still were miniature kings, queens, and soldiers. A few of the Tic-birds still wore their top hats and tiaras, twirling gold-topped canes as they led and calmed their staring, stumbling, blind charges.
Any observer on the proxima centauri, seeing this column through a good telescope, could possibly have drawn the most amazing conclusions about the human race. Some alien scholars on that nearest star to planet Earth would spend their lives no doubt trying to prove that the Barnes Improved Chemical Toilet borne with such care through the woods was The Ark of the Covenant, and the Privacy Tent the folded Veil of the Temple, and the black bags full of magical treasures stolen from great fairy castles by adventurers beyond the sun and moon. But when I smile at these thoughts, I am reminded that in my case this troupe did bring such magic to my head.
When the last of them disappeared I realized with a shock that I had been in the park all afternoon and I had seen a whole and entire universe begin and end. I walked over to see the crumbs and pressed grass with thoughts of stories I had heard of alien abductions and missing time. One small, crumpled, Napoleonic hat of thin black crepe paper, complete with the Marshall’s crest and Star (in surprising beautiful detail for a hat probably from an out-of-season Christmas cracker) rested again a squashed half-eaten sausage roll. These were the only remnants from another world which had come and gone like a dream before my eyes. I picked up both the hat and the shattered pastry as private souvenirs no else would ever see.
I never tried to find them. I never tried to verify, gather evidence, check the facts of the objective reality of what I had experienced. Such modern conditioning would have done what it was supposed to do: it would reduce me to ashes. It would tell me that I was mistaken, confused—that what I had experienced was a hallucination, that I was a small, mentally castrated creature that was a powerless piece of mechanistic nerve endings.
Later of course I tried to move back into the human hell of rationalizations, but soon gave up. I found conversation difficult over the succeeding days. I tried to convince myself that the whole affair was some monstrous set of coincidences. There are curtains we’re permitted to draw to keep us sane, to let us get some sleep at night. But I just could not get the furniture back into place. Certainly the elemental bit of Albert had genuinely wanted to give me something. It was a bit of a high ball for him but he had put it into the highest of nets. He had built a little strand of coherence and his wild talent had handed it to me because he knew that it belonged to me. It was a cure for my snobbery and burgeoning dislike of anything and everything. The mad had saved me. Only part of me could die now. The strands could go but the whole could not be destroyed.
It is late summer now, and I am still here on the same park bench. The woodland beckons as it did when I was young and running into it with a balloon, a dog, and expectations of infinity.
Perhaps the impossible will visit me again here next spring when a new cycle of games will begin.
I now know that I myself live in many other places than this Park, places where I am still young. And I know that I have friends (and perhaps enemies) that I did not know I had. Time as enemy and friend had come out of the dark and ravaged me. I gather these signals from my familiars, and they help me get through these late autumn days.
On those lost mid-afternoons known to every human being, mid-afternoons when memory becomes unbearable, I go to my secret drawer and I look at these two faintly ridiculous items which to me are Hosts. By the paper hat and the now decayed sausage roll I chant my chorus.
Josie, Brenda, June, Linda…
All my fairy girls, where are you?
Perhaps for a moment I did enter Magonia. Certainly I was not now the same man who entered the park. Contact with the elemental is healing. When the universe becomes fantastical it becomes merciful.
I am possessed by the thought that whole universe might begin and end with such absurdities, which now nestle in my mind and in the dark of my secret drawer