Viriconium, p.44

Viriconium, page 44



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  This psychological disorder of the city was reflected in a new disorder of its streets. It was a city I knew and yet I could not find my way about it. Avenue turned into endless avenue. Alleys turned back on themselves. The familiar roads repeated themselves infinitely in rows of dusty chestnut trees and iron railings. If I found my way in the gardens of the Haadenbosk, I lost it again on the Pont des Arts, and ended up looking at my own reflection dissolving in the oily water below. Though the events I had witnessed in the Grand Cairo’s tower had numbed it a little, the grief and shame I felt over my friend’s death was still strong. I struggled too with a rapidly growing fear for the safety of Audsley King. Everyone had deserted her but me. In this way I came eventually-by luck or destiny-to the top of the Gabelline Stairs.

  Here he encountered the Barley brothers, Gog and Matey, who came reeling up from the Low City towards him with their arms full of bottles. They had been spitting on the floor all night at Agden Fincher’s pie shop. As soon as they saw Ashlyme bearing down on them they gave him queasy grins and reeled off the way they had come, pushing and shoving one another guiltily and whispering, “Blimey, it’s the vicar!”

  But at the bottom of the stairs, near that small iron gate through which Ashlyme would have to pass if he wanted to enter the Low City, they seemed to falter suddenly. They stood in his way, sniffing and hawking and wiping their noses on the backs of their hands.

  “Let me through that gate!” panted Ashlyme. “Do you think I want to waste my time with you? Because of you one of my friends is already dead!”

  They stared, embarrassed, at the floor.

  “Look here, yer honour,” said Matey. “We didn’t know it was Sunday. Sorry.”

  As he spoke he furtively used the sole of one turned-down Wellington boot to scrape the foetid clay off the uppers of the other. His brother tried to tidy him up-tugging at his neckerchief, brushing vainly at the mud, fish slime, and rats’ blood congealing on his jacket. A horrible smell came up from him. He looked bashfully away and began to hum,

  “Ousted out of Butlins, Bilston, and Mexborough,

  Those bold Barley brothers,

  Lords of the Left Hand Thread.”

  “Are you mad?” demanded Ashlyme.

  “We’ve had no supper,” said Gog. He spat on his hand and plastered down his brother’s reeking hair.

  Ashlyme thought of Emmet Buffo, who all his life had achieved nothing but ridicule, and who now lay quiet and unshaven, surrounded by pale flames, in the iron bed up at Alves. He thought of Audsley King coughing up blood in the overcast light of the deserted studio above the Rue Serpolet. He thought of Paulinus Rack’s greed, the trivial lives of Livio Fognet and Angina Desformes, the frustrated intelligence of the Marchioness “L,” which had trickled away into scandal and “art.”

  “If you are indeed the gods of this place,” he said, “you have done it nothing but harm.” He made a gesture which encompassed the whole city. “Don’t you see?” he appealed. “When you came down from the sky you failed us all. I have lost count of the times when you have been dragged spewing and helpless from the Pleasure Canal! It is not the behaviour of gods or princes. And while you occupy yourselves thus, you condemn us all to waste and mediocrity, madness and disorder, misery and an early death!”

  He stared into their big sheepish blue eyes.

  “Is this what you want? If you do, you have become worthless, and we are better off without you!”

  To begin with the Barley brothers made a great show of paying attention to this speech. A nod was as good as a wink to them, implied the one; while by means of agitated grimaces, groans, and shrugs, the other tried to convey that he too knew when things had got out of hand. Easily bored, though, they were soon trying to put Ashlyme off-imitating his facial expressions, spluttering and sniggering at unfortunate turns of phrase, pushing one another furtively when they thought he wasn’t looking. In the end, even as he was urging them, “Go back to your proper place in the sky before it is too late!” they eyed each other slyly and let fall a resounding succession of belches and farts.

  “Gor!” cried Matey. “What a roaster!”

  “Hang on! Hang on!” warned his brother. “Here comes another one!”

  A foul smell drifted up the Gabelline Stairs.

  Ashlyme bit his lip. Suddenly there welled up in him all the misery he had felt since his failure to rescue Audsley King. With an incoherent shout he flung himself at his tormentors, clutching at their coats and punching out blindly. Overcome with farts and helpless laughter they staggered back away from him. He heard himself sobbing with frustration. “You filthy stupid boys!” he wept. He plucked at their arms and tried to twist his fingers in their stubbly hair; he kicked their shins, which only made them laugh more loudly. He didn’t know how to hurt them. Then he remembered the little knife the dwarf had given him. Panting and shaking, he tugged it from his pocket and held it out in front of him.

  At this a curious change came over the Barley brothers. Their cruel laughter died. They regarded Ashlyme in horror and amazement. Then, blubbering with a fear quite out of proportion to their plight, they began to run aimlessly this way and that, waving their arms in a placatory and disorganised fashion. Penned into that cramped space which is neither High City nor Low, they made no attempt to escape up the staircase but only jostled one another desperately as Ashlyme chased them round and round, the flawed blade of the Grand Cairo’s mysterious knife glinting in the light from above.

  “Come on, vicar!” they urged him. “Play the white man!”

  They blundered into the walls; they crashed into the gate and shook it wildly, but it wouldn’t budge. Round and round they went. Their great red faces were dripping with sweat, their eyes were wide, and small, panicky sounds came out of their sagging, open mouths: and for some reason he was never able to explain, this display of weakness only offended Ashlyme further, so that he pursued them with a renewed vigour, a kind of disgusted excitement, round in circles until he was as confused and dizzy as they were.

  Matey Barley, tottering about in the gloom, bumped into his brother, jumped away with a yelp of surprise, and ran straight onto the little knife.

  “Ooh,” he said. “That hurt.”

  He looked down at himself. A quick, artless smile of disbelief crossed his great big fat face, which then collapsed like an empty bag, and he started to sob gently, as if he had glimpsed in that instant the implications of his condition. He sank to his knees, his eyes fixed on Ashlyme in perplexity and awe; he took Ashlyme’s bloody hand and cradled it tenderly between his own; a shiver passed through him, and he farted suddenly into the total apprehensive silence of the Gabelline Stairs. “Make us a pie, Fincher!” he whispered. Then he fell on his face and was still.

  Fixed in an instant of violent expectancy, Ashlyme had no clear idea of what he had done. He would force things to a conclusion. “Quick!” he demanded of the remaining brother. “You must now accept the responsibilities of your state!” His grip on the knife became so urgent that cramps and spasms shook his upper body. “Tell me why you brought us all to this! Or shall I kill you, too?”

  Gog Barley drew himself up with sudden dignity.

  “The citizens are responsible for the state of the city,” he said. “If you had only asked yourselves what was the matter with the city, all would have been well. Audsley King would have been healed. Art would have been made whole. The energy of the Low City would have been released and the High City freed from the thrall of its mediocrity.”

  He hiccuped mournfully. “Now my brother lies dead upon this stair, and you must heal yourselves.” He bent down and began raking through the bottles he had dropped earlier.

  Ashlyme was disgusted, but could find nothing adequate to say. “Will she die, then, despite everything?” he whispered to himself. And then, in a feeble attempt to rekindle his authority, “You have not said enough!” Gog Barley received this remark with a look of contempt. “Besides,” said Ashlyme, cowed, “I did not mean
to kill him. I’ve been with that damned dwarf too long.”

  “Matey was me brother!” cried Gog. He had not been able to find a full bottle. “He was me only brother!”

  All intelligence deserted him. He tore his hair. He stamped his feet. He let his huge mouth gape open. He raged about in front of the iron gate, picking up bottles and smashing them against the walls where in happier times he and his brother had scratched their initials. Grinding his clumsy fists into his eyes, he roared and wept and howled his grief. And as his tears rolled down they seemed to dissolve the flesh of his cheeks, so that his tormented face shifted and changed before Ashlyme’s astonished eyes.

  His shapeless nose was washed away, his cheekbones melted and flowed away, as did his raw red ears and the pimples on his stubbly chin-his chin itself melted away like a piece of waterlogged soap. Faster and faster the tears welled up over his chapped knuckles, until they were a rivulet-a torrent-a waterfall which splashed down his barrel chest, cascaded over his feet, and rushed off into an unimaginable outer darkness, cleansing the god in him of the reek of dead fish and stale wine, of all the filth he had accumulated during his long sojourn in the city. So much water was needed to achieve this that it rose round Ashlyme’s ankles in a black stream, full of dangerous eddies and bearing a burden of small objects washed from the god’s pockets. Ashlyme bent down and dropped his knife into the stream. It was swallowed up, and he never saw it again. He dabbled his bloody hand until it was clean. At last everything earthly was washed away or else irretrievably changed. Gog Barley’s filthy coat and boots were washed away on the flood: and when all was done, it could be seen that he had renewed himself completely.

  He was taller. His limbs, as pliable as wax under the force of his own tears, had lengthened and taken on more-noble proportions. His hair had grown until it fell about his shoulders like a true god’s, framing a face which had become slender, hawk-nosed, and finely wrought, a face full of power and humility, blessed with remote, compassionate, and faintly amused eyes.

  But long before this transfiguration had completed itself, Ashlyme had shrugged and turned his back on it. What had the suffering of a god to do with him? He waded the little stream, which was gurgling into the Low City, and went out through the iron gate into the Artists’ Quarter.

  When he looked back he could see nothing but darkness on the Gabelline Stairs, and above that only cold flickering blue flames, as if the whole of Mynned had now been set on fire by the plague police in some grand final act of despair.

  A little later he saw that his boots were quite dry. With a groan he remembered Audsley King.

  He began to run.

  The hour before dawn found him in the studio above the Rue Serpolet.

  A cold air spilled into it as he pushed aside the curtain at the end of the little passage. He saw straight away that it had not changed. There was the fauteuil, with its disordered green chenille cover and piles of brocade cushions. There were the windowsill pots, full of geraniums in hard brown earth, or small bunches of cut anemones and sol d’or. There were the silent easels, some draped, the used and unused canvases stacked against the walls, the bare grey floorboards which gave off into the still, enervated air a faint odour of dust, turpentine, geraniums, old flower water.

  Paulinus Rack sat there on the floor in his overcoat. How he had found his way there Ashlyme didn’t know. His face was slack and haggard, his hands were dirty; his eyes had a bruised look. Spread out in front of him tentatively, as if he hoped to read something from them, he had two or three unfinished charcoal sketches. Ashlyme could make nothing of them: they were all lines, lines going this way and that. Cradled between Rack’s thighs like a sick child, and also facing the sketches, sat Audsley King. Rack’s arms were wrapped round her hollow chest to comfort her; his head rested on her shoulder as though he had just that moment stopped whispering to her.

  Audsley King, bundled up in her old fur coat in a last attempt to stop her substance evaporating off into the void which had always surrounded her, was staring at the sketches with a wry, amused expression, and there was blood caked in the corner of her smile.

  “I was free!” Ashlyme recalled her saying once, of her arrival in the Artists’ Quarter from the provinces. “I was free at last, to paint, paint, paint!”

  Now painting had finally exhausted her.

  She had worked desperately in those last few days, filling canvas after canvas. Most of them were simple, almost sentimental, remembered views: golden dreamy colour put down thickly with a palette knife, as-in a kind of fervid tranquillity, an astonishing balancing act of desperation and calm-she sought to recapture a level of her personality she had lost or abandoned long ago. Or had she only wanted refuge from the empty, stretched-out nights of the plague zone? The fortune-teller’s cards had failed her: in opening this other door, onto the idealised landscapes of her youth, had she committed after all that act of escapism she had always so despised? Ashlyme could not be sure. He supposed that now it did not matter.

  Honey-coloured stone, oak and ivy, willows and streams. Her delight poured out of them, paling the yellow lamps, overpowering the first grey suggestions of the coming dawn! A narrow road wound nowhere, choked with last year’s leaves, banked with brambles and the overgrown boles of trees. Nostalgia burned out of the flat southern landscapes like a pain. And she had peopled them not with the tense, repressed, violently static figures of the self-portraits and “fantasies,” but with labourers and farm people, into whose classic postures she had injected a haunted repose.

  Everything is new to me, she had scrawled hastily with a piece of charcoal on the wall above them. New or unrecognisable. What a pity I should die now. And: To die is as if one’s eyes had been put out. One is abandoned by all. They have slammed the door and gone.

  Ashlyme read this message aloud to himself. He blinked. He passed in front of Paulinus Rack and looked down at the sketches on the floor.

  “What do you see there that’s so interesting?” he asked, for he could see nothing. Rack’s exhausted blue eyes followed him without recognition, like the eyes of a china figure in his slack face. Suddenly there issued from his mouth an appalling noise, a low wail in which Ashlyme could discern no words; and he began to rock Audsley King to and fro, to and fro, until for an instant she seemed to reawaken and nod in time to his harsh, rhythmic sobbing. A parody of her old energy filled the thin white face; made voracious again the lines round the mouth; and animated the long hands which had been so full of power.

  Ashlyme couldn’t bear Rack’s grief. He went to the window.

  “You came here too late,” he said distantly. “It’s no good making that noise.”

  It was almost dawn, and the sky had a queer, greyish-yellow caste.

  “What right have you to be here anyway?” He laughed bitterly. “Did you come to save your career with her new paintings? Or persuade her to turn The Dreaming Boys into something ‘a little more cheerful’ for the lazy old women of the High City?”

  “I don’t care if I never see those women again!” shouted Rack violently. He jumped up and grabbed Ashlyme by the shoulders. “I tried so many times to come here! I was afraid, but you wouldn’t help me. At least leave us alone together now!”

  Ashlyme sneered and pulled himself away.

  “Go to the Pleasure Canal and sniff aether until you fall in,” he said.

  “Won’t you help me?” Rack asked him in a softer voice. “I believe she’s still alive.”

  “You’re mad, Rack.”

  Together they carried her down into the Rue Serpolet. It was not the kind of work they were used to, so they went slowly and carefully. Outside on the pavement a crowd of people had gathered to stare into the sky. When Ashlyme looked up it was dawn and he could see the two huge princes of the city hanging in the air above the Artists’ Quarter, resplendent in their horned and lobed scarlet armour. Mounted on vast white horses, they moved through the morning sky like a new constellation. One of those princes has a woun
d which will never heal. His blood falls from it as a rain of white flowers onto the city beneath: which even now begins to waken from its long, grey, debilitating dream.


  One day a long time afterwards, when Ashlyme was looking through a drawer for some pencils he thought he’d put there, he came across the fish’s-head mask Emmet Buffo had made him wear during their doomed visit to the Rue Serpolet. He was no longer quite so afraid of it as he had been. “Absurd thing!” he thought, while for its part it eyed him lugubriously enough-fat-lipped, stupid, shedding scales. It filled him with a kind of ashamed affection for Buffo, and for himself as he had been then. It reminded him suddenly of cod and saffron, of a bright morning in the cisPontine Quarter, and the old man who lived behind “Our Lady of the Zincsmiths.” He decided he would take it back where it belonged.

  The old paved square was exactly as he remembered it. If it was not so warm, then it was just as sunny: the pale clear light of a late-December afternoon slanted across the cobbles and lapped the blackened hulk of the old church. The children, as before, were playing noisily at “blind Michael,” and Ashlyme could hear the women laughing and squabbling in the houses. He felt suddenly elated, though he couldn’t have explained why.

  SELLER, announced the partly obliterated sign above the old man’s shop. Ashlyme stood for a moment smiling into its small dusty window, where a ray of sun had warmed the fur of the stuffed animals until it was the colour of newly fallen oak leaves, then went inside.

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