Viriconium, p.56

Viriconium, page 56

 

Viriconium
 



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  Egon Rhys came in with Vera, who was saying:

  “-was sure he could be here.”

  She pulled her coat anxiously about her. Rhys made her sit where it was warm. “I’m tired tonight,” she said. “Aren’t you?” As she crossed the threshold she had looked up and seen a child’s face smile obliquely out at her from a grimy patch in the frescoes. “I’m tired.” All day long, she complained, it had been the port de bras: Lympany wanted something different-something that had never been done before. “ ‘A new kind of port de bras’!” she mimicked, “ ‘A whole new way of dancing’! But I have to be so careful in the cold. You can hurt yourself if you work too hard in weather like this.”

  She would drink only tea, which at the Californium is always served in wide china cups as thin and transparent as a baby’s ear. When she had had some, she sat back with a laugh. “I feel better now!”

  “He’s late,” said Rhys.

  Vera took his arm and pressed her cheek briefly against his shoulder.

  “You’re so warm! When you were young did you ever touch a cat or a dog just to feel how warm it was? I did. I used to think: It’s alive! It’s alive!”

  When he didn’t respond she added, “In two or three days’ time you could have exactly what you want. Don’t be impatient.”

  “It’s already midnight.”

  She let his arm go.

  “He was so sure he would be here. We lose nothing if we wait.”

  There things rested. Fifteen minutes passed, perhaps half an hour; de M-, certain now that Verdigris was only pretending to be asleep to taunt him, crumpled a sheet of paper suddenly and dropped it on the floor. At this Rhys, whose affairs had made him nervous, jumped to his feet. The Marquis’s mouth dropped open weakly. When nothing else happened Rhys sat down again. He thought, After all, I’m as safe here as anyone else in the city. He was still wary, though, of the poet, whom he thought he recognised. Vera glanced once or twice at the frescoes (they were old; no one could agree on what was represented), then quickly down at her cup. All this time Kiss-O-Suck the dwarf had been sitting slumped on a corner of the mantelpiece behind them like a great doll someone had put there for effect years before.

  His legs dangled. He wore red tights, and yellow shoes with a bell on each toe; his doublet was made of some thick black stuff quilted like a leather shin guard and sewn all over with tiny glass mirrors. Immobility was as acceptable to him as motion: in repose his body would remember the gloottokoma and the hours he had spent there, while his face took on the look of varnished papier-mache, shiny but as if dust had settled in the lines down the side of his hooked nose down to his mouth, which was set in a strange but extraordinarily sweet smile.

  He had been watching Vera since she came in. When she repeated eventually, “He was so sure he could be here,” he whispered to himself: “I was! Oh, I was!” A moment later he jumped down off the mantelpiece and blew lightly in Egon Rhys’s ear.

  Rhys threw himself across the room, smashing into the tables as he tried to get at his razor which he kept tucked up the sleeve of his coat. He fetched up against the Marquis de M- and screamed, “Get out of the fucking way!” But the Marquis could only stare and tremble, so they rocked together for a moment, breathing into one another’s faces, until another table went over. Rhys, who was beginning to have no idea where he was, knocked de M- down and stood over him. “Don’t kill me,” said de M-. The razor, Rhys found, was tangled up with the silk lining of his sleeve: in the end he got two fingers into the seam and ripped the whole lot down from the elbow so that the weapon tumbled out already open, flickering in the light. Up went Rhys’s arm, with the razor swinging at the end of it, high in the air.

  “Stop!” shouted Vera. “Stop that!”

  Rhys stared about him in confusion; blinked. By now he was trembling, too. When he saw the dwarf laughing at him he realised what had happened. He let the Marquis go. “I’m sorry,” he said absentmindedly. He went over to where Kiss-O-Suck had planted himself rock steady on his bent legs in the middle of the floor, and caught hold of his wrist.

  “What if I cut your face for that?” he asked, stroking the dwarf’s cheek as if to calm him down. “Here. Or say here. What if I did that?”

  The dwarf seemed to consider it. Suddenly his little wrist slipped and wriggled in Rhys’s grip like a fish; however hard Rhys held on, it only twisted and wriggled harder, until he had let go of it almost without knowing. (All night after that his fingers tingled as if they had been rubbed with sand.)

  “I don’t think she would like that,” said Kiss-O-Suck. “She wouldn’t like you to cut someone as small as me.”

  He shrieked; slapped Rhys’s face; jumped backwards from where he stood, without so much as a twitch of intent, right over the table and into the hearth. Out of his doublet he brought a small jam jar which he put down in the centre of the table. It contained half a dozen grasshoppers, a grey colour, with yellowish legs. At first they were immobile, but the firelight dancing on the glass around them seemed to invigorate them, and after a moment or two they started to hop about in the jar at random.

  “Look!” said the dwarf.

  “Aren’t they lively?” cried Vera.

  She smiled with delight. The dwarf chuckled. They were so pleased with themselves that eventually Egon Rhys was forced to laugh too. He tucked his razor back up his sleeve and stuffed the lining in after it as best he could. Thereafter strips of red silk hung down round his wrist, and he sometimes held the seam together with his fingers. “You must be careful with that,” said Vera. When she tapped the side of their jar, one or two of the grasshoppers seemed to stare at her seriously for a moment, their enigmatic, horsey little heads quite still, before they renewed their efforts to get out, popping and ticking against the lid.

  “I love them!” she said, which made Egon Rhys look sidelong at the dwarf and laugh even louder. “I love them! Don’t you?”

  The Marquis watched incredulously. He got himself to his feet and with a look at Ansel Verdigris as if to say “This is all your fault” ran out onto the Unter-Main-Kai. A little later Rhys, Vera, and the dwarf followed. They were still laughing; Vera and Rhys were arm in arm. As they went out into the night, Verdigris, who really had been asleep, woke up.

  “Fuck off, then,” he sneered. His dreams had been confused.

  The day they crossed the canal they were followed all the way up to Allman’s Reach from the Plain Moon Cafe. The mutual associations were out: it was another truce. Rhys could distinguish the whistles of the Fish-Head Men, January the Twelfth, the Yellow Paper College (now openly calling itself a “schism” of the Anemone and publishing its own broad-sheet from the back room of a pie shop behind Red Hart Lane). This time, he was afraid, the Anemone was out too. He had no credit anywhere. At Orves he made the dwarf watch one side of the road while he watched the other. “Pay most attention to doorways.” Faces appeared briefly in the cobbled mouths of alleys. Vera Ghillera shivered and pulled the hood of her cloak round her face.

  “Don’t speak,” warned Egon Rhys.

  He had a second razor with him, one which he no longer used much. That morning he had thought, It’s old but it will do, and taken it down off the dusty windowsill where it lay-its handle as yellow as bone-between a ring of his mother’s and a glass of cloudy water through which the light seemed to come suddenly when he picked it up.

  Though he was careful to walk with his hands turned in to the sides of his body in such a way as to provoke no one, he had all the way up the hill a curious repeating image of himself as somebody who had already run mad with the two razors-hurtling after his enemies across the icy treacherous setts while they stumbled into dark corners or flung themselves over rotting fences, sprinting from one feeble refuge to another. “I’ll pen them up,” he planned, “in the observatory. They won’t stop me now. Those bastards from Austonley.. .” It was almost as if he had done it. He seemed to be watching himself from somewhere behind his own back; he could hear himself yelling a
s he went for them, a winter gleam at the end of each wildly swinging arm.

  “We’ll see what happens then,” he said aloud, and the dwarf glanced up at him in surprise. “We’ll see what happens then.” But the observatory came and went and nothing happened at all.

  By then some of the Austonley men were no longer bothering to hide, swaggering along instead with broad grins. Other factions soon fell in with them, until they formed a loose, companionable half circle ten or fifteen yards back along the steep street. Their breath mingled in the cold air, and after a few minutes there was even some laughter and conversation between the different parties. As soon as they saw he was listening to them they came right up to Rhys’s heels, watching his hands warily and nudging each other. The Yellow Paper kept itself apart from this: there was no sign of the Anemone at all. Otherwise it was like a holiday.

  Someone touched his shoulder and, stepping deftly away in the same movement, asked him in a soft voice hardly older than a boy’s, “Still got that old ivory bugger of Osgerby’s up your sleeve, Egon? That old slasher of Osgerby Practal’s?”

  “Still got her there, have you?” repeated someone else.

  “Let’s have a look at her, Egon.”

  Rhys shrugged with fear and contempt.

  It was bitterly cold on the canal bank. Vera stood listening to the rush of the broken weir a hundred yards up the reach. Sprays of scarlet rose hips hung over the water like necklaces tossed into the frozen air; a wren was bobbing and dipping among the dry reeds and withered dock plants beneath them.

  “I can’t see what such a little thing would find to eat,” she said. “Can you?” No one answered.

  The sound of the weir echoed off the boarded-up housefronts. Men from a dozen splinter groups and minor factions now filled the end of the lane to Orves, sealing it off. More were arriving all the time. They scraped heavily to and fro on the cinder path, avoiding the icy puddles, blowing into their cupped hands for warmth, giving Rhys quick shy looks as if to say, “We’re going to have you this time.” Some were sent to block the towpath. Presently the representatives of the Blue Anemone Ontological Association came out of one of the houses, where they had spent the morning playing black-and-red in a single flat ray of light which slanted between the boards and fell on a wooden chair. They had some trouble with the door.

  Rhys brandished his razors at them.

  “Where’s the sense in this? Orcer Pust’s a month dead; I put Ingarden down there with him not four nights ago-where was the sense in that?”

  Sense was not at issue, they said.

  “How many of you will I get before you get me?”

  The representatives of the Anemone shrugged. It was all one to them.

  “Come on, then! Come on!” Rhys shouted to the bravos in the lane. “I can see some bastards I know over there. How would they like it? In the eyes? In the neck? Facedown in the bathhouse tank with Orcer Pust?”

  Kiss-O-Suck the dwarf sat down suddenly and unlaced his boots. When he had rolled his voluminous black trousers up as far as they would go he made a comical face and stepped into the canal, which submerged him to the thighs. He then waded out a few yards, turned round, and said quietly to Rhys, “As far as they’re concerned you’re as good as dead already.” Further out, where it was deeper, probing gingerly in the mud with his toes, he added, “You’re as good as dead on Allman’s Heath.” He slipped: swayed for a moment: waved his arms. “Oops.” Shivering and blowing he climbed out onto the other side and began to rub his legs vigorously. “Foo. That’s cold. Foo. Tah.” He called, “Why should they fight when they’ve only to make sure you go across?”

  Rhys stared at him, then at the men from the Anemone. “You were none of you anything until I pulled you out of the gutter,” he told them. He ran his hands through his hair.

  When it was Vera’s turn, the water was so cold she thought it would stop her heart.

  Elder grew in thickets on the edge of the heath as if some attempt at habitation had been made a long time ago. Immediately you got in among it, Vriko began to seem quiet and distant; the rush of the weir died away. There were low mounds overgrown with nettle and matted couch grass; great brittle white-brown stems of cow parsley followed the line of a foundation or a wall; here and there a hole had been scraped by the dogs that swam over in the night from the city-bits of broken porcelain lay revealed in the soft black soil. Where brambles had colonised the open ground, water could be heard beneath them, trickling away from the canal down narrow aimless runnels and trenches.

  It was hard for the dwarf to force his way through this stuff, and after about half an hour he fell on his back in a short rectangular pit like an empty cistern, from which he stared up sightlessly for a moment with arms and legs rigid in some sort of paralytic fit. “Get me out,” he said in a low, urgent voice. “Pull me out.”

  Later he admitted to Vera:

  “When I was a boy in the gloottokoma I would sometimes wake in the dark not knowing if it was night or day, or where I was, or what period of my life I was in. I could have been a baby in an unlit caravan. Or had I already become Kiss-O-Suck, Morgante, ‘the Grand Little Man with the crowd in the palm of his hand’? It was impossible to tell: my ambitions were so clear to me, my disorientation so complete.”

  “I could never get enough to eat,” said Vera. “Until I was ten years old I ate and ate.”

  The dwarf looked at her whitely for a moment.

  “Anyway, that was how it felt,” he said, “to live in a box. What a blaze of light when you were able to open the lid!”

  Elder soon gave way to stands of emaciated birch in a region of shallow valleys and long spurs between which the streams ran in beds of honey-coloured stone as even as formal paving; a few oaks grew in sheltered positions among boulders the size of houses on an old alluvial bench. “It seems so empty!” said Vera. The dwarf laughed. “In the South they would call this the ‘plaza,’ ” he boasted.

  “If they knew about it they’d come here for their holidays.” But after a mile or so of rising ground they reached the edge of a plateau, heavily dissected into a fringe of peaty gullies each with steep black sides above a trickle of orange water. Stones like bits of tile littered the watershed, sorted into curious polygonal arrays by the frost. There was no respite from the wind that blew across it. And though when you looked back you could still see Vriko, it seemed to be fifteen or twenty miles away, a handful of spires tiny and indistinct under a setting sun.

  “This is more like it,” said Kiss-O-Suck.

  Egon Rhys blundered across the entangled grain of the watershed, one peat hag to the next, until it brought him to a standstill. The very inconclusiveness of his encounter with his rivals, perhaps, had exhausted him. He showed no interest in his surroundings, but whenever she would let him he leaned on Vera’s arm, describing to her as if she had never been there the Allotrope Cabaret-how pretty its little danseuse had been, how artistically she had danced, how well she had counterfeited an animal he had never imagined could exist. “I was amazed!” he kept saying. Every so often he stood still and looked down at his clothes as though he wondered how they had got dirty. “At least try and help yourself,” said Vera, who thought he was ill.

  The moment it got dark he was asleep; but he must have heard Kiss-O-SUCK talking in the night because he woke up and said,

  “In the market when my mother was alive it was always, ‘Run and fetch a box of sugared anemones. Run, Egon, and fetch it now.’ ” Just when he seemed to have gone back to sleep again, his mouth hanging open and his head on one side, he began repeating with a kind of infantile resentment and melancholy, “ ‘Run and fetch it now! Run and fetch it now! Run and fetch it now!’ ”

  He laughed.

  In the morning, when he opened his eyes and saw he was on Allman’s Heath, he remembered none of this. “Look!” he said, pulling Vera to her feet. “Just look at it!” He was already quivering with excitement.

  “Did you ever feel the wind so cold?”
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  A cindery plain stretched level and uninterrupted to the horizon, smelling faintly of the rubbish pit on a wet day. The light that came and went across it was like the light falling through rainwater in empty tins, and the city could no longer be seen, even in the distance. To start with it was loose uncompacted stuff, ploughed up at every step to reveal just beneath the surface millions of bits of small rusty machinery like the insides of clocks; but soon it became as hard and grey as the sky, so that Vera could hardly tell where cinders left off and air began.

  Rhys strode along energetically. He made the dwarf tell him about the other deserts he had visited. How big were they? What animals had he seen there? He would listen for a minute or two to the dwarf’s answers, then say with satisfaction, “None of those places were as cold as this, I expect,” or: “You get an albino sloth in the South, I’ve heard.” Then, stopping to pick up what looked like a very long thin spring, coiled on itself with such brittle delicacy it must have been the remains of some terrific but fragile dragonfly: “What do you think of this, as a sign? I mean, from your experience?” The dwarf, who had not slept well, was silent.

  “I could go on walking forever!” Rhys exclaimed, throwing the spring into the air. But later he seemed to tire again, and he complained that they had walked all day for nothing. He looked intently at the dwarf.

  “How do you explain that?”

  “What I care about,” the dwarf said, “is having a piss.” He walked off a little way and gasping with satisfaction sent a thick yellow stream into the ground. “Foo!” Afterwards he poked the cinders with his foot and said, “It takes it up, this stuff. Look at that. You could water it all day and never tell. Hallo, I think I can see something growing there already! Dwarfs are more fertile than ordinary people.” (That night he sat awake again, slumped sideways, his arms wrapped round his tucked-up knees, watching Vera Ghillera with an unidentifiable expression on his face. When he happened to look beyond her, or feel the wind on his back, he shuddered and closed his eyes.)

 

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