*

OMINOUS CLOUDS

Namesake. That’s me. Someone else. The else. An Else, with a capital E. A person other. I have a life, but where have I left this life? I have a head, a skull that shapes the head, a brain that contains it. I also have or, rather, had people. Belonging is subjective. I don’t know even if I belong to myself. An Else is always someone else’s. Or am I drifting off into melted mutter?

I have a house. Simply that. A house where those people I don’t own no longer live. They no longer live full stop. Their lives no longer belong to them. Lives left behind, like me. Except I still have my faculties. Unlike them.

Now, let’s relive their lives. Grant them a few seconds or minutes or hours or, even, days extra. Their names were important as definers. Edward. Jack. Tom. Tina. Matilda. Not forgetting Ben.

The house is probably the best starting-point – which may mean scrapping much of what I’ve already said to make this a starting-point proper. The house stood on an island off Somewhere Else and always seemed to be covered in ominous clouds; well, certainly nearer Somewhere than Else. An island circumscribed by seas as grey as the clouds – which I suppose goes without saying, except a lot can be gleaned from the manner some things are said, as opposed to the things themselves thus said. There were no cars allowed on the island for fear of the pollution adding to the clouds – which does not go without saying.

Dusty lanes map-worked the island where two-wheeled people biked. They never reached as far as our house (our house?), because our house, yes, our house, was hidden even beyond those unbeaten tracks. Not at the centre of the island, but, to my mind, at its centre of gravity, albeit towards one end and not the other. Our house (and I must become accustomed to that expression when thinking of the people who once owned it) was called GULLSCREECH or was it GULLSREACH or SKULLSREACH? Give or take an odd apostrophe. Memory for an Else often feels as if it does not belong to the same Else – a bit like thinking with ominous clouds of thought instead of with a proper brain.

And so, in the beginning, there was Edward. Yes, Edward. The house then was newer and smaller than it is now, but so was the island and, by extrapolation, the world and its seas. It is said it was sunny most of the time in those days. The bikers, at that stage, were tourists but tourists who were nothing like the loud-mouthed ones nowadays: dressed top to bottom in their pink-to-brown skins. Bikes were more woodeny, too, clacking over the stone-sown crust of baked-in dust. Words were less woodeny, if wordier. Edward and his family were tantamount to hermits, as far as it was possible for any family to remain hermits, given its need to further itself.

But the house had ghosts that, I wouldn’t be surprised, later spread out and became the ominous clouds themselves. Which didn’t explain why that fact was either relevant or a non-sequitur – nor anything else, for that matter. Or was it more melted mutter? Merely let Edward conduct us round with his voice…

“As you approach the house, there are plenty of trees and a choice of two crazy-paved routes to the front door, and the sky seems to grow even cloudier if not darker the nearer the house comes. The sun-flowers are spiky full-moons in mourning. Once inside, the winding staircase takes you up to the various family bedrooms. I shall leave the downstairs as a place of the past. The bedrooms give more away about the inhabitants. The first one you come to is mine (and Aggie’s, I suppose): the master suite with a bed that I sometimes think could easily fit three. But that’s enough about that. Aggie’s in the past, too. Our children’s rooms each have a habit, an obsession, an aura which can’t be shaken off. One, for example, is entirely shapeless but, not only that, positively disfigured – leaning walls with lumpen excrescences, ceiling sagging with misshapen breasts, mirrored wardrobe doors hanging from their hinges like dead angel-wings – similar, in fact, to its occupier: Matilda. They do say a room adopts the stance easiest for it to adopt…”

And Edward drifted on, plucking descriptions from the air as if the air were imagination. I’ve only allowed his ramblings to ramble thus far because I knew he’d soon start rambling about Matilda (after rambling about himself, that is) and it was Matilda I loved. Still do. Who else can an Else love other than another Else?

“There was another room where Jack slept. Not in a bedroom, more in-a-box.”

Everybody tried to laugh at Edward’s jokes. Another one of his jokes was about the Doll’s House: tiny Tina’s suitable bedroom because she stayed as tiny as she was when she was a toddler. And the Rocking-Horse Room: where Tom still slept in his cradle, to-and-fro, to-and-fro, till self and sleep became indistinguishable from the clouds in his head.

Then Edward described my bedroom. Not a joke, I assure you. Nor a game. Nor a toy. In those days, my name was Ben.

Now, before we proceed any further, I should explain that there is a difference between Reincarnation (which the Easterns believe in) and the realms of Elsedom. Straightforward folk (if Reincarnation has any basis in fact, which I doubt) plummet from one ham-fisted existence to another, pell-mell, without thought for fear or favour. In contradistinction, we Elses are obliquities who choose berths with care so that our hosts have no inkling of our co-habitation. I hasten to add that Elses are not parasites. We don’t live off physical energy. We’re simply lazy cloud ghosts who need a body to rest within for a while, before launching out again upon the ether. A tiring business is bodilessness at the best of times.

So, although I was Ben in Edward’s time, Ben was not necessarily me. So when I speak of Ben as me I mean someone else other than Ben as him. It all sounds a trifle complicated, but I assure you that my task here is to clear up confusions, not to create them. I want to give you some inkling of the forces working behind your big days, your small days, your off days, your on days and why you sometimes don’t feel quite yourself. And, also, the story I have to tell (am alreading telling) – no, what we have to tell (are already telling) – would not otherwise be able to be told. So when I say I, you know it’s me. When I say Ben you know it’s him. When I say we, even you need to stand by your beds, as the old army saying goes.

Back to Edward. He was about to describe my bedroom in that island house called (what was it?) GULLSCRY. GULL’S CRY. GULL SCRY. SKULLSKY. A fact of which even an omniscient such as I is unsure.

“Ben’s room. Yes, let me see. This didn’t have a nickname. Ben had one, though. Numbskull. Thick as piled water from piss poor clouds, I’d say. His room was plastered with pirate flags. The island was a hotbed of smugglers – and I think Ben wanted to be one. Skull & Crossbones. He even had a gull skull as an ornament on his tallboy, along with lots of other knick-knacks. A ship-in-a-bottle with painted clouds in the sky. A pirate one, of course. He could only grunt, so we never found out whether he really wanted to be a pirate. God has enough blessings for all of us. Yet He did go sparing on poor old Ben.”

And I often went spare, too, when I heard Edward talking about God the Creator. God, in truth, was the ultimate Else, giving Him His due with a capital H. Melted mutter. Prayer. Crossed finger-bones.

“Ben was the only one who wasn’t a blood relation. We took him in when he was abandoned by one of the bikers. A foundling whose nest was a black saddle-bag at the foot of the sun-flower stems one particularly cloudy night. Only a human by virtue of his looks. A foundling who was originally a changeling, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. However hard we tried we couldn’t make his grunts into words. Even Matilda, with her lopped tongue, could say certain things. And, yes, she took a shine to Ben and became like a mother hen to him, despite being much younger.”

I nodded. I had allowed Edward to spin out his tired old tale of past times, because his very act of telling his story is part of our story – whilst the actual contents of his story are not. Edward is a protagonist, albeit an undependable one. And so is Matilda. And so are tiny Tina, Jack and Tom. And so, perhaps, is Edward’s wife Aggie who stayed in one of the attics – because she was afraid of the island’s tightening circle of seas and ever lowering clouds. Which brings us to the journey, one in which Matilda took Ben on a trip to the topmost attic of the house, via the lower, more accessible attics. Nobody Else had been that far before. Or not since the loft luggage was stowed there by one of Edward’s ancient ancestors. In actual fact, Ben took Matilda, not the other way round. Whatever the case, Aggie’s attic was tantamount to being a cellar when compared to the topmost attic to which Ben and Matilda aspired – an attic so topmost it reached beyond the roof itself.

The story of their journey is less important than the fact they wanted to make it at all. Its outcome can safely be told, however. A kiss where Ben touched the tip of his tongue upon Matilda’s own gristly stub; feeling it slightly wag from the root.

Her body felt like a kite, one which Tina and herself had regularly flown from the island’s nearest clifftop. God’s kite, this time. Pity about the clouds, though. Each cloud carrying its own personal omen.

The attics had become darker the higher they had painstakingly plumbed the narrow upward hatches from raftered space to space. This phenomenon could not be explained other than by the upper walls possessing more chinks than the roof proper. Then, once beyond the roof itself, whatever the nature of the topmost attic’s outer casing, it was certainly impermeable, belying the fact that its interior atmosphere had grown smoky from, no doubt, being above the house’s chimneys. Smoke that fraternised with clouds.

Ben thought he saw a rat scurrying in one of the lower-down attics, but then guessed it might be midget Tina following them: dodging behind each leaning black timber when they looked in her (or its) direction.

Tina was as near to being an Else as a Someone could be without becoming either. Bigger than a Borrower, true, yet coming to below the level of my knee. The only way to bring her into focus is to permit her the use of speech-marks, borrowed from Edward and employed with eloquence:

“I hate Ben with all my heart,” she sang with a pucker. “He teases me as King Henry the 8th used to tease his wives, pretending they weren’t there. He imagined strange things did that King. One of his handkerchiefs could have made me a frock. Well, Ben’s worse than Henry, 8 times worse, judging by the hurts he does me.”

Give Tina an inch of cotton, she’ll take half a mile of spider’s web. Her bedroom is smaller than the others and it’s not surprising that Edward compared it to a Doll’s House, albeit a rather trite comparison. She looks up as I come in and continues her monologue straight at me:

“Yes, he calls this bedroom a Doll’s House, although I’m sure I’m noisier than most dolls, & cry more & laugh more. I’m older than a doll, too – even older than dolls who’ve had several girls to play with. He’ll only admit that there are certain people living in GULL’S CREECH – Jack, Matilda, Ben, Tom and, at a push, little old me in a spotted pocket frock and nothing small enough for knickers except things cut in half or in a quarter or even less. Of course, I’m my own centre of attention, but what about the old wrinkled lady who lives upstairs? Nobody’s bothered to give her a name. And Edward’s ancient manservant, too long in the tooth for anything bar compiling lists, and what’s he doing in the wine cellar? His name? Your guess is as good as mine, or better. Names are merely words by another name. Edward has a way with words, but he uses them too meanly. I don’t resort to implication nor can I readily apply inference to other people’s implications. Yet, having said that, one can’t be too obvious. The old house would fall down like playing-cards tilted against each other soon as look at it too closely. Ben’s taken a fancy to Matilda. Ben, Ben, Ben, I wish I knew who Ben was. Matilda’s my sister, her tongue docked at birth for want of a proper brain – even so, she can say a few things now. Whilst Ben, Numbskull Ben, he grunts and each grunt is random. No thought behind them. A bit like Edward when he gets going – because Edward’s words may as well be grunts for all what they may mean. Yes, Ben. He is a son to someone here, but who? Certainly not me. I’m smaller than my own baby would be. But who Else is there? Who Else is still fruited down below?”

The same old questions, then same old answers (unrecorded here), a ritualistic conversation sown with lies and disbeliefs, cancelling each other out. If the truth were known, Ben only existed in my own head – or me in his. Clouds drifting across an already cloudy sky, but low enough to touch without flying.

One day, tiny Tina woke up and knew that Ben and Matilda were already too far gone from her dreams to be recaptured. She’d need to track them down to their earths in the roof and fetch them back to the lower floors where, perhaps – hopefully – she’d see them for what they were. Elses. And then she’d have them trapped within her mind’s eye – and then within her sleep in the hope of casting out a butterfly-net of a dream. Edward, at least, would be thankful to rid the house of such worrisome creatures. Ben and Matilda – Lenders, if not Borrowers, to whom Tina duly wanted to return a dream; her dream but their rightful abode.

So, yes, Tina was up and about early that day, waiting for Ben and Matilda to emerge from their respective bedrooms, where Edward had billeted them. Jack and Tom were real slug-a-beds, so she wasn’t concerned about any interference from the likes of those ne’er-do-nothings. She’d be free to follow Ben and Matilda to the ends of the Earth. Even to the top of the house.

Jack and Tom were equally unconcerned. Edward’s two sons were completely unaware of the shenanigans of the other occupiers, if other occupiers existed at all. Tom’s cradle had long since outgrown him, unlike a snail’s shell that would have gradually grown with its slug-a-bed – or so the legend went in that island. One could often see Tom struggling under his humpback along the island’s coffin-paths – the latter being rights-of-way by the simple virtue of having had a full coffin, once upon a time, travel above it on four separate shoulders. Or merely travel.

Jack was a bouncy sort of fellow. His bedroom was a veritable gymnasium, hung with trapezes, black beams and a washing-line in the guise of a tight rope. His best exercise equipment, however, was a spring of spirals more powerful than his legs. Even at Jack’s advanced age, there was a summer in his walk.

One day, Tom and Jack followed tiny Tina, someone they had summoned up as children do (even ancient children) when they summon up secret imagined friends and summon up summers that know no spring or autumn. Tina was the sole small creature with whom Jack and Tom peopled their friendless world – a world so friendless, even two such close friends found it friendless. Tina was their own special imagined friend whom they kept secret from each other. Tom, when he struggled along the dusty island tracks dragging behind him his own coffin-shell, saw Tina’s twinkling leg-calves ahead and her polkadotted pocket frock. Jack followed Tom, only because he was following Tina, too. A coincidence, perhaps, yet no coincidence at all, depending on the point of view. Yet, when Tina followed her special imaginative friends Ben and Matilda inside the house, she knew by the creaking floorboards that she was herself followed by ghosts pretending to be people. Or clouds that live inside the house just below the ceiling.

Ghosts are indeed housebound. Everyone Else knew that except, of course, writers of ghost stories. Good job there’s no writer of this. Ben’s the nearest we’ll get to someone writing us up. In the open air, any following sounds Tina put down to the rumblestrips of the bikers or clumps of horses or the odd choking tractor that threaded the various island by-ways. She sometimes tried to avoid her special imagined friends, little knowing that they simultaneously tried to avoid her, which they needn’t have bothered doing, in any event, her being so tiny – a double bluff of a paradox, seeing that they didn’t really believe they could see her nor know she was there to be seen. Ben and Matilda were often spotted by snoopy bikers whose heads were then shaken in disbelief as if any such visions could only be imported from dreams. They hid their surprise when Ben and Matilda shook their own heads back at them. Or was it Jack and Tom?

But the tourists eventually vanished along with the sun. And their sunhats.

Tina only followed Ben and Matilda in the hope of discovering their earths somewhere in the upper reaches of the house. Jack and Tom, in turn, followed Tina, wondering why she seemed to be following someone Else. Or were they each the Else in question? Endless spirals of Elses following the same Elses? Being imagined playmates, they were amazed how each of them explored unpredictable places into which they would never have imagined themselves in a million years: such as the uninhabited parts of the house’s east wing (which Edward had made out-of-bounds) or the dark secret passages that smugglers or pirates had once used (priest-holes and burrows from which Edward didn’t ban them because such holes and burrows shouldn’t have existed) or, as we have seen already, the attic areas (none of them realising that each attic could have its own attic, even to the extent of the loft luggage being left in increasing hierarchies of uselessness – the topmost attic being so useless, its contents regained an antique value that Edward would have reaped if such contents hadn’t already reached beyond not only the roof but also the buffer zone of useless memories and other clouds).

I am Edward. There, it’s out. I’ve peopled my house with everybody but Edward, since he does not need to be ‘peopled’, as it were, because he is, in truth, the only person in the house: someone to whom I find it easier to assign the third person singular. One day, he negotiated the gull-screeching periphery of the island, as far as this was possible given the natural fortress of rocks and cliffs making the clamber to and from bays a strenuous activity: too strenuous for someone like Edward who eschewed exercise and who was accustomed to having his being sucked from him by generations of folk he’d conjured up from the cloud-peopled sky. Some such had not arrived fully formed from his mind and only full exposure to their own motive force gave them their minds and bodies. Others were already too formed for his mind to alter in any way. An odd few arrived from Elsewhere, only to enter his mind and subsequently become ghosts, still autonomous, if unreal.

Omen or Amen. Edward’s own existence did not derive from such misplaced hopes for Men like Ben. Or for other clowns or clouds like children. Their coming, their going, their pure dew-laden existences were mysteries to Edward. He dreamed (or he blamed dreaming) that he performed surgical operations on them – a fact that might have gone a long way to explaining, for one thing, Matilda’s parlous physical state. Unlike her disfigured bedroom, some parts of her body were not open to view: so to that extent Edward’s butchering remained a dark secret: only later to be discovered should there still remain an element of tenability as a human body following Matilda’s death when, no doubt, a crafty coroner would begin to smell a rat. A tiny rat.

The House seemed even taller than its own height, because all the rooms were so very small. Edward had built it for someone Else. For Numbskull. Or Tom Thumbskull. And Edward melted into mutter. Prayer. Crossed doll-bones. He tilted back and forth on the ratcheting roof, a horsewhip in his hand, watching hooded shapes tug silent gulls instead of kites from the sky; then he conjured up striations of smog upon the imagined horizon while seeking the empty promise of a single land-locked omen. A dream archipelago with only one island: himself, what else?

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