*

The Faintest Breath

The magic of a moment is never sensed at the time.

The fleeting kiss on the cheek was indeed no more than a moment, and moments have no beginning, no end and, if the truth were known, no duration. She shivered as she recalled it, as if someone had walked over her grave. Memories of things that did not exist are dreams of dreams and shadows of shadows.

But in that golden moment, she had fallen in love with a ghost. And ghosts are easier to conjure in and out of existence. Magicians keep the wolf from the door with such slight sleights of the hand. Their audiences are ghosts and their tricks sweet nothings.

That brings the moment full circle to the kiss and the mere wordless breath upon her ear. But she becomes a dream of Sleeping Beauty…

(published ‘Whispers From The Dark’ 1995)

——————————-

The London Fairground

A collaboration with Allen Ashley

Everywhere round here was steeped in evil-smelling history. That was the outside world. Jack Barker’s less than pristine epidermis also harboured more than a few metaphorical skeletons, with no sign of an impending population DECREASE.

The best part of this ride was the steep gradient up from Poplar station and the sudden lurch leftwards into Heron Quays. It was like a slow-motion roller-coaster. It was a shame that all London’s public transport couldn’t offer as much fun but, hey, the guys were working on it.

Something gripped the inner wall of his stomach. Maybe it was a pang of conscience over poor dear Deborah; maybe it was simply gnawing hunger primed by the burger banners strewn semi-magnificently across blinking Canary Wharf. Since The Change, Wednesdays had become Home Cuisine Day at the sprawling platform market. Jack was looking forward to a plate of jellied eels and custard. The dish was a reputed favourite of Good Queen Bess, long may she reign. It was unfortunate that she wasn’t so partial to baths and showers, he thought seditiously.

Beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep.

It was time to alight. There was, as always, business to attend to.

The station was called Island Gardens or something like that, because a wag had half-rubbed out the letters. Furthermore, Jack wasn’t a Barker. This was all too clear as he glanced at the bundle of his own recently delivered letters (all still unopened) bearing an addressee who had, by all accounts, half-rubbed out his own name by adding and subtracting strokes in the same hand and in the same rare ink until ‘Jack Arkenshaw’ had been left. Deborah was not a problem, after all. Jack Arkenshaw had never met anyone with a such a pretty name, whilst, no doubt, Jack Barker had.

His face was tightening, too. Bugs and lice left like rats leaving a sinking skin. Several bones prodded his trousers like rebel knees. Deborah’s friend Gas Street Basin (a creep with crawlies) suddenly appeared at the end of the platform. He held out another letter towards Jack. This had the Royal insignia embossed upon it and a sealing-wax seal that was so over-the-top Jack wondered why it didn’t bark or have flippers.

“Oi, Gas, that’s not for me…” Jack pointed at the addressee.

“It’s says Jack, don’t it, it says Barker, don’t it and, by the way. I’m Mister Basin to the likes of you.”

“I’ve changed my name by inferred Deed Poll to Arkenshaw.”

At this moment, more rail-rollers coasted both sides of the narrow platform, letting loose from the beeping doors almost thousands (or so the milling-about made their number seem to Jack) of city changelings, all (or, at least, most) of whom turned their smart faces from the sight of these two patchy pest-loaders idling the time of day in pidgin Shakespearean.

Jack wondered if any of these slickers believed that he and Basin could be exchanging important Royal passwords in the guise of chitchat. There was so much suspicion and double-agentry since the latest RRR outrages. Everyone you spoke to was only half listening so as to partially eaves-drop on innocent but soon-to-be guilty bystanders. The Virgin Queen, God bless her cotton socks, was not averse to shelling a few shillings for subversive overheards.

“Prithee, sire, you pay me scant attention,” accused Basin.

“Sorry, pal, things on my mind,” Jack replied, scratching last week’s lice Out of his hair. “Is that it with the missives?”

Basin’s smile was as broad as the newly habitable span of Waterloo Bridge, belying his Whitechapel Murders mystique. “You leave my missives out of this,” he spluttered, handing Jack a kid-skin pouch suitably swollen with double-sided sovereigns.

A sudden whiff of kipper reminded Jack that he had yet to breakfast this brightening morning and that if he could juggle the complex connections of DLR, tube and trolley bus he could meet Deborah for lunch at Fish Street Primary. In her white-ribbed polo neck, black skirt, tights and sensible shoes she presented as a prim little school miss; alone with her Bethnal Green beau and a tin or two of Thames oysters, could be as demanding as a tax inspector. Or should that be inspectrix? No matter. Jack simply hoped that he had not overplayed his role as her bit of rough last Tuesday.

His stomach rumbled as the carriage doors closed. Kippers and tongue, now there was an interesting dish –

“Oi! Barker, Arkenshaw, whatever you name is – I want a word with you!”

He didn’t have to turn around to recognise that gruff Southerly voice but he felt he ought to turn round anyway. Just for self-preservation’s sake.

You can call me what you like, but what, this sunny morn, can the devil I call you?”

This question was Jack’s only way to negotiate the tendrils of terror that coiled plainly, if not plantily, from the other’s gruff voice. Jack had begun to see, you see, words as real matter.

Things on my mind.

Jack recalled his own earlier statement of fact when speaking with Gas Street Basin.

Basin himself had, by now, made a slouching bee-line for the station exit, dragging half-said reluctancies in his kippery wake like the shrunken leprosies of erstwhile life. Gas Street Basin could not brook competition and Padgett Weggs’ arrival on the narrow platform was bigger than the newly revamped Bow Lottery or, even, the League of Cock-fights as far as competitions were concerned.

Meanwhile, Jack’s previously insidious semi-revival of Barkerishness in his soul had diminished to merely another obstreperous kneebone, and the seemingly incorruptible return of his Arkenshaw persona again made him forget cute Deborah and the problems he had with her monthly irregularities. Only Jack as Arkenshaw would be match for Weggs.

Weggs was such a smelly individual, not only did his breath smell but also the words borne upon it. Jack knew that Weggs’ mother (the Virgin Queen’s old Nanny) was in touch with Great Old Ones, creatures from the stars that the Elizabethan cabals had done much to stifle rumour of. Nevertheless, many of the Court in-crowd had let slip implications that needed very little inferral. They said – in so many words – that the Ripper murders in Whitechapel were simply tokens of something far more nasty. And here was Weggs, no doubt, with the latest instalment.

“My mother says tonight’s the night, Jack. And none of those…” Weggs head-pointed at the bundle of missives in Jack’s hand “…will be any good when spoken words are as dependable as written ones.”

Padgett Weggs was dressed in a brown-stained cape that had seen better, if blacker, days. His business was in septic tanks so this was obviously his work clothes. Having rushed straight from work to this centre of all known meeting-points on a DLR station platform, Padgett Weggs caused Jack to realise that all bluffs were over and cliffs did not exactly hang but hover … and, giving Jack a Wensleydale grin, the malodorous Weggs offered, “I used to be a water colorist until I found my true calling. Rather like dear old Adolf, don’t you think?”

Something gripped the inner wall of Jack’s stomach.

***

John Dee, re-instated black magician to the court of Queen Elizabeth (“I’m not black and I don’t do conjuring tricks! How cheap do yoy think I am?”) picked up his crystal ball and gave it a thorough shaking.

“A rosebud by any other name,” he muttered.

He scratched absently beneath his black skull cap. There were things on his mind.

“A plague on all plagiarisms!” he cursed before continuing his ruminations.

Life was more complicated than ever. Seven years on from The Change, the world – or London, at any rate – ought to have settled under the New Royal Order. Perhaps it would have, were it not for the duplicitous mercenaries like Dee himself. Last night he had received a missive from The RRR – republicanism, revivalism, reductionalism – promising that they now had the technology to guarantee his safe passage through a Reality Shift back to London Before, even if he had been dead there for the span of three tortoise lives. Maybe he wanted it, maybe he didn’t.

What he really required was decent cuisine of the hog’s head and devilled turnips variety and then another date with that prim little schoolma’am Deborah. Talk about a mistress of disguises! She’d even done a turn with the Victorian Cat’s Meat Man, Blasphemy Fitzworth, during the pantomine season. Of course, Dee could whip up potions to seduce any woman in the land, living or dead, but it was much more fun to do it in the old-fashioned way, like a mere mortal. Not that he’d revealed his true nature to the maiden just yet.

A headless chicken crowed thrice. Time for a break.

Something gripped the inner wall of his stomach.

***

Gas Street Basin had by now returned to Brum City in the Mudlands. He had only managed this in a hot air balloon called Titanic. Coach and hard-shouldered horses were subject to piracy and other delays. His delivery done, he set about writing missives to himself as to how he’d missed his chance to continue as a protagonist. After all, Padgett Weggs was not a place like Basin was. And places often found it hard to move.

Meanwhile, Deborah was holding fort at Fish Street Primary (erstwhile Temperance Halls). Her audience sat hamfisted, oyster-bottomed and turtle-necked. They were there to hear how the Governors of the School were dealing with the threat of Great Old Ones: a threat to age all the youngest infants before they’d even appreciated the lump of coal and tangerine in a Christmas Stocking…

In her Head Girl role, Deborah was allotted the job of placating the parents’ concerns with the sheer innocent, almost unpubescent beauty of her manners. Imagine, the furore that erupted when the unsightly sight of Jack Barker and Padgett Weggs farted through the skin of air at the back of the Assembly. Deborah tried her damnedest not to recognise them – nor, for that matter, be recognised back.

“Deliveries under hand and seal are due,” she trilled. “I think these unlikely gents, despite their demeanour, are the best the Royal Mail can do, bearing in mind that messengers are often simply murdered for the message they bear. Expendables, they merely must be.”

Weggs reddened with rage. To him RRR was reading, riting and rithmetick.

“We are the barers of the over-tunicked,” he shouted over the turned heads of the audience. “Dee has said that Reality by Regal Appointment has shifted far too far. It is time for reprieve. The creatures that hide, wing within wing, above the smoggy clouds are merely here to oversee a reductio ad absurdum of all our ways and wayfares. Even as I talk, the overblown Titanic tilts towards Brum, with Blasphemy Fitzworth aboard, disguised as a mislocated place. He knits innards, as his vehicle floats towards the Spaghetti Canal Basin.”

Jack did not know where to put his face, his stomach turning over to make whatever was inside think twice. Jack assumed, indeed, that Weggs was obviously on a reality shift quite beyond the snatching.

Deborah gave a headmistressly cough and called the meeting back to order. To Jack’s nose schools smelled the same in every reality: stale farts, cheap floor polish and slightly mildewed sugar paper. Cat’s meat dinners often wafted through the windows…

There were two spaces on the starboard bench. He dragged the dewy-eyed Weggs across with him and was seated amidst the cod philosphers of Fish Street Primary.

“Now, where were we, or are we, or whatever?” Deborah enquired.

A raised hand: “I was asking whether the school agreed with a return to traditional values.”

The speaker was Sean Scalp, a sales rep for the publishing chain PUNS R US, but that’s not vital information for Primary Source purists.

“Yes, well,” Deborah mused, “these things are always in something of a state of flux. Which reminds me: the school outhouse/games shed has become another weak spot. Do you think you boys could do something about it? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“I think she means us,” Jack muttered, nudging his companion in the ribs.

“I’m not really a handyman, Miss,” Weggs offered, “more a painter and decorator, if you catch my drift.”

A glacial stare and an Antarctic voice: “Just get on with it sonny, or there’ll be no tuck shop for you for the rest of term – and very little on the corporal side, either.”

The overhead light bulb had failed again but there was a couple of torches just behind the wooden door. Jack moved his thumb forward an inch and illuminated a stomach turning scene of swirling spells and missives; in short, all the lost letters of the last literate generation.

“Got a plug or a plunger, Weggsy?”

“I dunno, I ‘aven’t looked in my trousers since Thursday.”

Jack cuffed him round the ear, something he should have done weeks ago. It was strange how being back inside a school building brought all that infantile behaviour back to the front brain.

The more reflective part of his mind, however, realized that his onions were in a pretty tight pickle. He owed sizeable debts to the mafia controlled lending firm Hall and sundry and here he was desperately fighting for the love of a good woman. Worse still, his main adversary was the evil mage, the secret power behind the throne…

“‘Ere, Barker-on-shore,” quoth Weggs, “whatever happened to my fried guppy on rye and a pina colada for the lady?”

***

The overheard light bulb had indeed failed bug-wise.

Dee was, with ears agog, sitting within the floating city as it skimmed in from the Mudlands. The hawky-talky was on the blink. His stomach plucked on next to nothing. Basin Fitzworth had only managed his John Dee persona at the last switch of the light fairground, forgetting to feed his stomach before the transmogrification gripped. Now, with hunger gnawing itself for the last prestidigitative pill, Dee, nee Basin, nay ne Basin, was homing in on that part of London where his Mistress the great Queen Bess flaunted herself as a precocious whelp-girl, head-girl, help-girl, monitor, nay monitrix.

Jack Are-You-Shaw-You’re-Barker saluted with the shadowy shave of his wave so that the low-slung sun wouldn’t scorch his optic fuses. The huge Mudland city would soon blot out not only the sun but the whole sky, turning it into a night with man-made stars. Like hair was fair, the ground was light.

This eclipse of all things God-given was doubtless the preamble to…

“Blimey, Jack O’Lantern, my dear geezer friend, that great shape in the sky is not a city let slip from its earthen shackles, but a Great Old One in disguise.”

Weggs was ever the one who extended his interjectons into long soliloquys. He teetered, indeed, on the brink of Heron Quays, as another light railway trundled past – this time without stopping. They weren’t light enough to float, thought Jack, who was now staring at the bounding figure of Deborah as she chased them from Fish Street, in the wake of the non-stop service. She used the narrow gauge as a groove for her own lightly narrower hips. In real life, she was wider than a barge. Queens were never narrow, at the best of times.

She wanted a painting done. So, with switch in hand, she pursued Weggs so that she could persuade him into depicting perfection. Only perfections were Platonic Forms and only such could float. Painting was the next heartstop. Or so she thought.

She had not yet noticed the darkening of the sky where her erstwhile toadee lurked.

***

Sean Scalp relaxed back into the desk. He was small enough to masquerade as a pupil, but his spigot stiffened as he dreamed of Deborah’s fresh forest glade which he had discovered behind the bikesheds. Inside his head, two pigeons, one called Shake, the other Spear, debated various dramatic lines; some quite beautiful but discarded by one or other of them, never to appear in the Canon; some clumsy and awkward and likewise discarded; others, nearly as good as the best, lasting towards a Globe’s posterity that perhaps never lived to read or see them acted. Scalp was Deb’s amuenensis as well as prickler, and that geezer, what-was-his-name, Simon Dee could go and feast himself on oodles of jellied eels and custard till Kingdom’s creamy come. A floating city was never going to land, because cities could never float in the first place.

Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep. Intruders, in the school. Probably corporeal pupils who’d been expelled come back to wreak their vengeance. Or bugs come to listen to their own extinction. Rats, Ruminants and Reptiles. The electric doors slid open….

***

The light show was about to begin. Every character was the same character. We are all Jungian archetypes, chips of the Great Old Block. Horror unleashed. Crippling knees in the stomach. Alternate Worlds spun like lateral thoughts gone wild. Smells and name-changes were all that we had to prove we had existed once upon a time.

Published ‘The Heliograph’ 1999

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