Shaped Like A Snake

I needed Time to be a moveable feast, so that I could mould it to my purpose, bend it to each and every whim. Time endured more than its intrinsic length but, otherwise, was shorter than mere moments laid end to end in widdershins motion. What is the present moment other than a series of timeless moments? The past, contrariwise, was replete with nothing but alternating longueurs. The future – what of that? It would replicate the past, no doubt, but with newer and, hence, tawdrier, more uncharacterful pauses between its own present moments. For me, the flexibility of Time was all important. Still is. I live at the corner of sight or am the very mote in the eye as it stares beyond the edge of a sunlit land-locked meadow during an endless childhood summer holiday that has yet to begin. I was, am, will be one of Pan’s creatures who outlives Pan, outlives even the memory of Pan having ever existed in or out of make-believe…

Dr. Tom Magri folded up the piece of paper with a sigh of frustration, having read it several times, without grasping any degree of sense from its oblique paradoxes. He could only work properly at night. Peering from his hotel bedroom window, he tried to imagine the endless sunlit meadow, knowing full well that what was presented to him in the guise of impenetrable darkness was really the bunkers, hump-backs and dune-shaped greens of the golf course sweeping down to the fenced-off clifftop (over which balls were often wildly pitched by guests, much to the detriment of their scorecards). He could hear the swish of the sea, even ensconced here behind the window at the desk. He must appear a strange sight, he thought, to anybody wandering the links – seeing Dr. Magri bent under the anglepoise, spectacles at the end of his nose – but why so strange? The onlooker must be an even stranger creature of the night – to be thus out of doors peeping in.

The hotel was not at all what he had expected, after having travelled a great distance here from his home in Oxford for a holiday – but, as he knew full well, the trip was more than for simple capricious pleasure. Several independent sources had apprised him of items of historical and antiquarian interest in the area: particularly St. Lukes Church which sat back from the village houses, of which the hotel was the largest, previously the manor lord’s abode. All the other guests seemed related to each other, so much so he felt himself to be an intruder at a family gathering. The heavy breakfasts were also a sight to behold. Never was there such a mound of bacon, kidneys, mushrooms, tomatoes and fried egg on someone’s plate, he thought, the first morning, after a long night with his paperwork.

He was irritated by guests continuously approaching him with long-winded accounts of their ills, believing him to be a medical doctor. However many times he informed them that he was a Doctor of Philosophy, they maintained their onslaught of aches and pains – to such an extent that his own body began to feel phantom versions of the very symptoms they described. But even Doctor of Philosophy was a misnomer, his area of discipline being closer to history than the meaning of the Universe or the Existence of God. One elderly gentleman exposed a bee in his bonnet – that the past, unlike the present, possessed magical qualities, all ignored by historians and even primary sources.

Still, such irritations were thankfully missing after the others had retired for the night. Yet, there was one person with whom Dr. Magri found himself conversing. Her name was Myrtle, the woman who looked after many of the domestic chores. She had lived in the village for the whole of her life. Albeit with a tongue that ran away with itself, she possessed an inherent wisdom which her manner of speech belied – and a wide, if simple-minded, knowledge of many of the area’s facets in which Dr. Magri was interested. She it was who had given him the piece of paper which he had just perused in such a non- plussing manner. He tried to go over in his mind the dialogue with Myrtle…

Yet, he was tired. He had managed very little sleep, if any, since arriving two days before. At home, he was able catch up on his sleep during the day – his housekeeper being fully aware of his habits. At the hotel, however, guests were expected to vacate their rooms – so that hoover hoses could be wielded and bedding changed. Even if he had made special arrangements, the daily bustle of the place would no doubt have kept him awake. Time enough for sleep later. Life was too short for long-cuts, he thought, as his mind temporarily muddled his normal equilibrium.

What had Myrtle said?

‘You’re interested in old things, Dr. Magri? My brother has this old book which goes into many old things. Older than I think it’s in anyone’s right to go. But, there you are. My back’s been giving me gyp. I know you’re not a proper doctor. So I won’t bother you with that. Lugging all those hoovers about don’t do it any good. And all that bedding stuff that looks as if it’s wings off things God threw out of Heaven as my brother says. If you don’t mind my silly ways. Yes, I know, I was telling you about his book. It has all sorts of peculiar pictures – drawings, more like, about old wives tales in these parts. But why they had to be wives to tell them, I’m sure I don’t know. Parts of St Lukes that’ve fallen down and used for stones somewhere else. For things to live under. What’s that, Dr. Magri? With pleasure, I’m sure. I’ll bring it tomorrow. If I remember. My memory’s not so good as it was, but how should I know, when I can’t remember! I sometimes have to laugh as what goes on in my mind. If you were one of those other doctors – a psycho-ologist is it? – well, I’d tell you a few things that would make me a proper case. My brother says I have a nose short of a head. Still, that’s his way of talk. You wouldn’t believe it. But whilst I think of it. There’s a piece of paper kept in the reception desk. Been there ages. Certainly looks old. With brown stains. Full of fine words that are too much for the likes of me. Part of a longer thing, I think. Might be interesting to someone of your leaning. Makes me feel queer to read it. About Pan. Have you heard of Pan? Yes? I know about Pan because my old granddad had a notion about something he called Pan. A pagan God, he said, that was taller than real God. If you ask me, a pan’s what you cook breakfast in.’

At that point, she had left to fetch the piece of paper in question. It turned out to be precisely as she had described it. While he scanned its printed out handwriting, Myrtle resumed her ramblings.

‘Found it easy as pie. Don’t know why it’s kept there. I somehow remember there being two pieces of paper like that. The other one did a disappearing trick about two year since, when we had a gent staying here who hadn’t booked. He only stayed three nights. Yes, it’s all coming back to me now. He wandered the golf course without playing golf. Didn’t seem right, him getting in the way of the proper players. Someone told me he wandered there at night, too, and when warned about the dangers of the cliff in the dark, shrugged it off. Whether he left that piece of paper you’re now holding and pinched the other two from the drawer, I don’t know. But I have a vague idea that what the paper once said was that one of Pan’s servants or whatever lived outside before it was a golf course and now they’re its eighteen breathe holes – like drains, as well. Comes out on special nights, squeezing up shaped like a snake.’

Dr. Magri had made little sense of her speech, if speech it were, bearing in mind its air of not having been rehearsed. Nor the words on the paper. But she had continued after only a short break to deal with the egg delivery man.

‘So, he must’ve left that piece of paper in place of the other two. Some hereabouts reckoned he was related to the owner of this hotel (who we never see, I have to say) – and didn’t want anything to rub off on the place. People are so easy to believe things. Didn’t want any talk of ghosts or whatever. Wouldn’t have done. Left that piece of paper so people wouldn’t notice anything was missing. But he didn’t bank on me noticing that there were two before and then only one.’

It was strange how her words held more meaning now that he was remembering them in his room at the dead of night. The topsy-turvy atmosphere that night bears, in contradistinction to day, adds a telling perspective. Tomorrow would be his third day at the hotel – a most peculiar fact to dawn on him. He could have sworn this was his third night. He was urged to wander outside even before he realised that he felt the urge. There was something he must do to circle the square. A deed undone. An explanation yet unexplained. Something that he had noticed but not noticed during the two breakfast sittings he had witnessed, if not fully shared: the thin slivers of shaped meat, with mauve filaments, that supplemented the rashers of bacon and which he wished he had the good sense to have eschewed.

On his way out, Dr. Magri slipped the paper into the reception desk drawer, without pausing to see if another similar sheet was already there. He hoped the fresh night air would ease the aches and pains in his limbs.

First published GHOSTS AND SCHOLARS 1994

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