Wednesday, 5 November 2008

She Is Growing Up, Slowly and In The Dark

She has a thing for molten candle wax. She likes how it comes away from things and leaves them smooth. She likes the feel of it against her skin: it makes her bubble up inside. She particularly likes it when he puts his index finger into the still pool of a burning candle and unexpectedly presses the hot wax onto the soft skin on the inside of her wrist. It makes her catch her breath audibly like she has jumped into the cold, cold sea, even when he does it in public. Especially when he does it in public.

She had found out about it by accident: they had been at a friend's barbecue. There were outdoor candles - the ones with citronella in to keep the insects off - and she had nearly wet herself with the unexpected pleasure.

Fortunately he likes it too, she is sure.

She is thinking about candle wax as she walks up the hill into work. The morning is sallow and undecided - the sky furrowing its brow as if trying to decide what to do with the rest of the day.

She is thinking about candle wax because she has just had a cold shower - one which was not supposed to be cold - and is wondering why the feeling of ice cold water on her back should feel so similar to hot wax on the soft skin on the inside of her wrist. She bites her bottom lip. It is a day like any other, so why should she be biting her bottom lip? She feels like a terror suspect, like she has got a secret something strapped to her chest, something that could explode in a red rain of liquid wax and bring down a happy death upon all the clever and stupid people of the Borough of Swindon. She fights it; sees herself in a shop window and things she looks ugly in her work suit.

The last time she saw him he had been drunk, singing a song from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. She can't remember which song.

She can bear to be away from him for about seventeen hours, plus however long she can sleep for. Not more than a day in total. After that, she can't handle it. It's not that she misses his company; she just gets bored with herself. But thankfully her work has become more enjoyable of late. It's quiet and she gets to email all of her old friends, trying not to mention him once, like she is testing herself, her mental strength. Opposite her window is a doctor's surgery. She sees the girls go in, have tests, come out. She used to attempt to work out what tests they had had, what the results were, by the looks on their faces. Now she looks at their cars - the ones who have cars - and tries to guess their jobs. Everyone has grown up in this town.

What is so special about today that she has to bite her bottom lip? She can't put her finger on it. There is an old brown dog tied to the bicycle rack outside the doctor's, next to the bike that has been there for as long as she has worked here. Probably much longer. She can't remember seeing anyone tie the dog up.

She works as a secretary for a chartered accountant. The office is on the ground floor of a handsome terraced property in the old part of town. In the front bay window is a sticker:

Her boss laughed for a week after he first put it up. She hasn't the heart to tell him that it is the probable cause of his recent downturn in business. The man is clearly lonely. He has a collection of cacti, for fuck's sake. He looks like a cross between Heinrich Himmler and Nicholas Cage; describes himself as a bachelor. Which means he was already an old man at heart when he started college. Now in his forties, she can imagine him retired, alone, in sheltered accommodation, unembarrassed about having to ask the nurses to clean up his faeces.
But he always lets her go early on quiet days, and today is a quiet day, so by four o'clock she is walking home between the rows of town houses. A band of rain creeps up behind her, falling diagonally between the terraces, not heavy but nonetheless soaking, the kind of rain that within minutes becomes offensive to every part of the body. With the onset of night quickened by the rain clouds, she notices the first flash of light and as she reacts by looking to the sky she hears a crippling boom, a sound that seems to be sucked along the maze of avenues, echoing at every corner. It takes her a few seconds to remember that it is the fifth of November. As her heart rate regains normality she stops to watch the fireworks that are now appearing with fierce regularity above the shining roofs. The rain comes down and the fireworks fizz up. Then they too come down, deflated, spraying their guts in a warm rain of light. She sees them as tears, and begins to cry with them. She sees this as the zenith of her life. For the first time since this morning she thinks about him, and why he hasn't called in two days.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The First Step

It was the twenty-first century. Matthew walked on Bold Street, a busy half-pedestrianised street running through the centre of Liverpool from the derelict church of Saint Luke to the modern chapel of Burgerking. Matthew was going in the other direction, looking for a bin in which to deposit the greased wrappers of two double cheeseburgers before he went into the book shop. In the eleven years he had been on this planet Matthew had never before set foot inside a book shop. He was an adequate reader; but he didn't enjoy it very much. He preferred to collect football stickers: his gods were Arteta, Cahil, Osman. But his sister's birthday was coming up and he knew she wanted to study history at university so he thought he might buy her a book on the Romans.

The four o'clock dusk came with sudden curtain of brisk, chilling rain. Matthew coudn't find a bin, so he stood in the doorway of Waterstones while he screwed up the wrappers into two tight little globes like golf balls and put one in each pocket. He looked at the street for a minute, the people cramming into bright shops to avoid the rain. There was a pile of fresh horse manure on the slick cobble stones, probably left by one of the huge, shuddering police horses that patrolled outside the bars and clubs on Concert Square. The street smelled old, and looked old. For a moment Matthew had the feeling that he was observing a scene from a hundred years ago, and, godlike, he could move back and forward in time as he wished. He looked up at the street light: it was an old-fashioned one, shaped like a Victorian oil lamp, and it glowed a warm orange. But Matthew shivered and went into Waterstones quickly.

Inside the shop, standing each side of the door as if on guard, were two gigantic stuffed polar bears, up on their hind legs. Their heads were thrown back and their open mouths were an eternal blood-red gape. The forepaws of each bear were positioned so as to display large and ancient-looking books. Matthew approached the bear on the left and touched the fur on its exposed belly. He had to stand on tiptoe to reach the book in its right hand and he nearly fell under its weight as he hauled it down. The book had no title on the brown cover, but on its first page were the words The First Step. Matthew tried to read the text at the start of the book, but the font was small and delicate, and the language archaic. He flicked through until he found a page of illustrations. The drawings looked like something out of a geometry textbook, but not one of this world. The shapes were strange and incomprehensible. Figure 1 was labelled The Four-Dimensional Cube. All Matthew could say afterwards when asked to describe this shape was that it looked like a cube inside a cube, but the cube that was on the inside was also on the outside. Figure 2 was entitled The Mirror Image of the Inside of a Spherical Object. Matthew looked at it for too long and felt like he was going to go blind. There were other, more complex shapes in the book, each more difficult to describe than the last.

'Shit, this is weird,' Matthew said to himself.

Immediately someone answered him, 'I will have no profanities uttered in this shop. I beg you be a little more polite or leave, young man.'

The voice came from a corner, though Matthew was not sure which corner. The shop had many, and they were all dark.

He offered a meek apology to a row of shelves, and another row of shelves replied, 'Alright, just don't do it again.'

He couldn't make out whether the voice was male or female, child or adult, and he strained his eyes looking into the shop's recesses. A figure no taller than himself came out from behind the nearest shelf, pushing a small retractable wooden step-ladder on wheels. Eventually Matthew discerned that the person was a small old man with no hair on his head. He wore what looked like the plain brown dress of a monk. This on closer inspection was flecked with silver-white strands. The man noticed Matthew looking at his clothing and self-consciously brushed some of the white strands off with his hand. They glittered like snow as they fell.

'Excuse me,' he said. 'The bears are moulting. They always do at this time of year. Can't be helped. Last year I saved it all up and sold it to a wig-maker. Polar bear hair is the finest, warmest hair you could hope to have on your head.'

'How do stuffed bears moult?' asked Matthew.

The man answered him with a look that said 'What kind of a question is that?'

The two looked at each other for a few moments. The man was close enough now for Matthew to read his carved hardwood badge. It said John and, in smaller letters underneath, Department of Steps & Stairs, and in even smaller letters, Keeper of the Bears.

'So, how can I help you?' said John. 'I expect you want some help with your maths homework? I see you've been looking at that elementary mathematics book. Still learning about the calculus, eh? Leibnitz and Newton? Well, I can show you much more interesting books than that.'

'Actually I'm looking for a book about the Roman empire,' Matthew said, trying to sound clever.

'Ah, history, my very favourite subject. Follow me!'

John pranced off at speed, dragging his little ladder between rows of books to a dark desk at the far end of the shop, followed with some difficulty by Matthew. John jumped onto the top rung of his ladder, and from there to the surface of the large desk, upsetting a sheaf of handwritten maunscripts. He reached up to a shelf above the desk and extracted a book that looked externally identical to the one Matthew had been reading earlier.

'This is one of the best. Really takes you back to the old times. Gladiators and grapes and goddesses and whatnot.' Still standing on the table he presented the book to Matthew with a dignified little bow, then handed him a lit candle.

Matthew opened the book about half-way through and began to read:

Messalina became the third wife of the emperor Claudius. Her life was one of unsurpassed vice, and her fittingly violent death was brought about by her perfidious sluttishness. It is said that as a child of nine she was visited by the god Mercury, whom she seduced. Mercury told her that on her death she would become the goddess of prostitution and whore-houses. It seems she devoted the rest of her life to preparation for this divine vocation.

'My sister'll love this. How much do you want for it?'

The little man looked shifty and, still on the desk, shrugged his shoulders and twitched his boots together.

'Well,' he said. 'I'm afraid it's a little expensive. You see, it's the only copy we have, and we couldn't part with it cheaply. We'll take a guinea, nothing less.'

'I've only got this.' Matthew pulled out the twenty-pound note his mother had lent him that morning. He wondered what a guinea looked like, and where he could get one.

'What's that?' said John. 'I'm afraid we don't take foreign moneys in here, my boy!'

'It's twenty quid.'

'Twenty pounds? Here, let's see that.'

He held the note up against the light of the candle and said, 'Hmm. It's certainly no forgery. I can tell the work of the Royal Mint anywhere. But I've never seen anything quite like this. A most extraordinary shade of purple. How delightful!'

John examined the note from various angles, sighing occasionally. Matthew, growing bored, let slip a low cough.

'Oh, I'm sorry, young man. I expect you want some change.'

From a drawer in the desk he pulled out a cloth bag and counted out a handful of big and golden-looking coins, which Matthew took in silent surprise.

'Now, before you go,' said John, 'I would like your opinion on something. I have been writing a history book of my own, something a little bit different. The subject is close to my heart. It is about how bears have influenced the leadership of the mighty Russian nation. I'll read a bit to you.'

He picked up a manuscript at random and began to orate. His eyes gave the impression of being firmly closed.

'The prince Rasputin came out of the north from the wastes of cold Siberia. He was seven feet tall and his carriage was made of ice. Beside it ran twelve giant silver-haired borzoi hounds. The carriage was pulled not by horses but by a team of four tame polar bears. Beside Rasputin sat his oldest friend Mark Markovich, the first Keeper of the Bears of the Russian Imperial Court. He had stolen the polar bears as cubs and been both mother and father to them. It was he who taught the language of the bears to Rasputin, a skill that would later save the great man's life, when a family of bears heard him calling from underneath a frozen river, bleeding, poisoned and tied in a sack.'

At this point John paused, shook himself like a waking animal and said, 'Well, what do you think so far? Not too colloquial, is it? I'm always afraid that my writing is not formal enough.'

'Yeah, it's great.' Matthew didn't really know what to say, so he changed the subject. 'I should be going now. Which way do I go to get out?'

'Out?' John was preoccupied with his manuscripts. 'Just go up those steps behind you. Oh, and thank you. I have greatly enjoyed talking to you. Come back whenever you please and listen to the rest of my book. We don't get much custom these days, you know.'

Matthew was at the top of the stairs before he realised that he couldn't actually remember going down any stairs since he had been in the shop. He was not worried though. In front of him he could now see the door and the orange glow of the street beyond. The two bears at the door appeared to have been moved. They now faced inwards. Probably some unseen shop assistant, he thought. John had said 'We,' not 'I,' when he had been talking about the shop.

As he passed the bears he instinctively reached for the book he had read when he first entered the shop. It seemed to be lower than before, and he took it out of the bear's cupped forepaw with ease, replacing it with a fist of gold coins. He slipped through the door silently, a heavy book in each hand. Outside, the rain had changed to icy sleet. Across the road in Starbucks businesswomen caressed mugs to ward off the numbing cold that bit at their hands. Matthew brushed a few stray white hairs from the front of his Everton replica shirt. He shivered, put the books under his coat, and zipped it up against the night.