Monday, 20 April 2009

Three Men

Something - a motor vehicle or it could be a pony and trap - stops outside the wooden building, the large shack with bad drainage (a shack with drainage, however bad, is a good shack in this city. Or does the very fact that this shanty (which happens to be an obsolete word for showy or flashy) has the ability to dispose of or at least pass on its own liquid and semi-liquid waste preclude it from that genus of building that includes amongst others shacks, huts, shanties and bothies? There are other factors which may prove to be obstaculous to this particular building's induction into that group, as we shall see later.) The nose of the motor car or pony is impolitely close to the slanting layers of pine that overlay each other to form the front wall of the building (wooden or metal construction is a prerequisite for a building that has designs, so to speak, on being known as a shack.) It appears to be constructed in such a way that it could contract back in on itself concertina-wise, perhaps at the press of a stainless steel button somewhere in its nonexistent garden. Release of the same button, lever or knob would cause the shack to re-erect like one of the wobbly-kneed toy donkeys sold in Mediterrainean resorts, rewinding with slapstick alacrity into its former glory (if either a pine shack with bad drainage or an inebriated donkey can be described with or without irony as glorious.)

A man jumps from the vehicle. Partly as a result of his diminutive stature it appears that he is leaping bravely from a considerable height. He wears a long coat, or a cape, which follows him from the vehicle at its own, much slower pace. It is longer than he is but has a stiff, aloof awareness of its own existence which keeps it from dragging in the grey sewage of the hut, like a pheasant's tail feathers. He opens the door to the hut just enough to fit his fat usurer's gut through but does not close it after him. From the sunlight he has let in we can see that the shack has a partition with a low closed entrance, creating a front room and a back room (this is the second serious blow to the building's aspirations. We hear about one-roomed shacks in folk songs and read about them in books by certain authors keen to impart realism into their work. However, we seldom hear of a two-roomed shack. The fact that we call a one-roomed shack a one-roomed shack presupposes the existence of a shack of two or more rooms. At least they must exist as ideas. But it would seem that they are, in actuality, a rare and possibly moribund phenomenon.) The front room contains a plant pot brimming with moist earth but devoid of any plant life, a low wide seat and an ancient velocipede of the dandy-horse type. These objects have no importance. The man only notices them because their positions have changed since his last visit. The plant pot is on the seat. The pedalless bicycle is up against the wall and no longer lying on its side like the victim of a stabbing.

The man shouts, Velasquez! You here?

Billy-boy, come through and shut the fucking door, Velasquez replies jovially. This part of the conversation bears all the hallmarks of a personal ritual. In fact it may not even happened on this occasion, or only happened within the minds of the two men. Hence the lack of speech marks.

The short man enters the second room. It is lit by an oil lamp. On the walls are carved - or rather scratched certain zoomorphic designs vaguely resembling cave paintings or hieroglyphs. One clearly depicts a donkey rendered in eight straight lines. There is a newt with a zigzag pattern on its back, fornicating pigs, scarabs and swans engaged in battle. Over all this, encased in glass and mahogany, is a lovingly stuffed mistle thrush, holding in its beak the rotten twig of some unidentifiable tree. A mediaeval mappa mundi is spread on a hexagonal table. Velasquez looms over it with a stubby builders' pencil. He appears to be making corrections.

'How is he?' asks the short man in the long coat.

'He's keeping quiet,' says Velasquez. 'You know as well as I do that he won't say anything.'

'That's because he doesn't know anything.'

'Who does?'

Both men laugh. Velasquez, suddenly attentive, almost desperate, looks up. 'What was the score, Billy-boy? Who won the game?'

'No need to worry. The Mets won, nine to two.'

'Ha. That's nice. The Mets always win. Predictability is good. One of the few good things about foreign countries.'

'They call it the land of the free.'

'Freedom is the mother of predictability. Give these people their individuality and they run away from it or keep in itn their homes, locked away with their drawerfuls of dirty postcards. They turn their homes into museums, places of death, full of the vestiges of their freedom, pinned up in the dark, fading like a collection of moths. But, damn them, they have their baseball, and I envy them that. I suppose we really should celebrate.'

He pours twoglasses of rough bourbon from a crystal wine carafe, spilling a drop on his map, and hands one to his colleaugue. He then takes two items from a hook on the wall. They look like short dog leads, one made of leather, the other of cold, oviform links of silver chain. He also picks up a hornbeam mallet of the type used to hammer tent pegs into the ground.

'Animal, vegetable or mineral?'

'I'll take the metal one today, I think.'

'You Jews can't get enough of your silver,' says Velasquez. 'That means I get to go first.'

He proceeds to the back of the room where a young man or boy sits sweating in a long-backed wooden chair. His hands are clasped behind him. We cannot make out in this dim light whether or not they are tied, but it is reasonably safe to assume that this is the case, particularly if we consider the fact that his ankles are visibly bound to the beautifully turned oak of the chair legs. Of course, it is possible that the young man has found a way to file the rope around his wrists to a snappable thinness without his captors having notced and is only waiting, full of the instinctively opportunistic fervour of the young and - in both senses of the word - disabused, to rise and seethe into the light, making his his escape whilst simultaneously planning his revenge. Let me tell you now that this wholly plausible scenario has not taken place, nor will it, at least within the structure and timeframe of this narrative (which in any case does not exist outside of itself, a fact that condemns our unnamed hero not only to an existence (if existence is the correct word) of infinite toil and pain within the cheap gilt edges of this roughly sketched prisonscape, but also to a rasping, gut-cleaving pointlessness) and that Velasquez and his buddy have no truck with plausible scenarios, preferring instead to deal in certainties.

Velasquez makes the ghost of a genuflectory gesture, adjusts his tricorne so the one apex is pointing directly in front of him, and says, 'The holy spirit,' then beats the young man repeatedly across the thorax with the piece of leather, keeping time impressively and moving like a lumberjack felling a tree. The young man's shirt hangs on to him like a desperate woman and is caked with the hard brown blood of previous beatings.

Velasquez's next sentence is pleasant and bored: 'I invite you now to speak.'

We can see the man's whole body convulse in peristaltic movement, the epicentre of which is his enlarged Adam's apple as he attempts to swallow something: blood or a lack of saliva or unwanted words. He remains silent.

The small man in the cape, called Billy-boy by his accomplice but not by himself or anybody else, takes over. At every blow Billy-boy's face grows more contorted. He reminds the onlooker of a stunted tree clashing with the pinioning arms of the prevailing wind. He speaks as he works: 'Look at this, what a position to get oneself into,' and, 'For the love of a being far greater than I, all we need is a word.' His eyes fill with water. Every stroke he makes is harder than the last, more painful to him. After the last he collapses to his knees and whispers, 'I wish I could be free of this place.'

Velasquez rests a hand on his shoulder. 'Don't we all, Billy-boy. Don't we all.' Then to the captive: 'I suppose it's too much to ask...'

The man, who is barely conscious, replies with what appears to be a shudder, but could just as easily be a shrug. From the other side of the billiard ball that is lodged in his bloody gape - a rudimentary gag but an effective one - comes a gurgling, laughing noise.