AFTERWORDS

 

 

I suppose it was inevitable I would suffer a visitation, disguised as a dream. Abruptly wakened by it, (or her), I wrote it down immediately into my notebook, giving it a daring title: 'Before Completion.'

 

Trekking through a dense sunless forest, I had been cutting my way with a curved samurai sword, hacking through the tangled skein of bushes filling the space between a motley mix of deciduous and coniferous trees, the latter towering to a brightly lit canopy above the lower treetops visible through a dismembered web of torn traceries, a black silhouette grille overlaid across a screen of turquoise and manganese blue light, splintered shards of pungent colour reminding me of the radiance spreading through the stained glass windows in the roof of a dimly lit cathedral. Norwich probably, always my favourite, or Kings College chapel in Cambridge. Everywhere amongst the branches, birds flying, calling, singing.

     I had reached a small fern-covered and moss-covered clearing, where I stopped, weak with hunger, acutely aware of a threatening sky  falling fast towards me, the thermals created by the dank humid forest scarcely able to hold up the storm-laden clouds, the strength of their uplift rapidly failing and the whole sky about to plunge on the lurching canopy and crush out the light. (Doth the fish soar to find the ocean, the eagle plunge to find the air?)

     Hoping to escape the sky's collapse I nestled against the wide bole of a colossal tree, a cedar, branches like huge limbs with multi-fingered hands, sheafs of foliage emerging in all directions from the trunk but each on a single flat plane ... suggesting to me an ancient mosaic, or Medieval etching of a tree rather than a real one, each spread of greenwood a terrace, a plateau of branches closely knit by the  needles that were its leaves, where if one was climbing the tree it would be possible to rest and lie on them, even walk, the tiered shape of an Egyptian mastaba or a Buddhist temple. I was lost. On each branch, a hieroglyphic text emerging from the overlapping webbing of the thinner branches. A Mosaic text, maybe about a burning bush ... If the monsoon rains fell now, and I could sense their quickening desire to fall, I would never find my way out. But something inexplicable was happening, the perimeter of the small glade was receding from me like an image in a film dissolving into the next one, the new image emerging through the previous one a magnificent garden as painted on ivory or silk by Persian court painters, miniatures for a Moghul prince, rose gardens and lawns and gatherings of ornamental trees laid out in circles within circles around me. But as I was trying to unravel meaning in the imagery the rains broke, and after a syncopated chorus of thunder and flashes of sheet lightning the torrent lashed my wracked body. I watched as the rain washed my feet, the rivulets of blood draining from my body, staining the soil. And burnt leaves from the trees around falling onto me ... curling like pages or paper thrown into a fire.

     I was anxious because I had arranged a meeting in the garden  with a girl who had called me about a story I might like to investigate about Sellafield. But she hadn't turned up. It was dusk, again. Again. I'd been sitting against the tree for many days and gangrene had taken its toll of my legs, blackening my toes, my endless stalking the forest had already torn them to shreds. Why had I not seen one single person since arriving in the park? Where had all the lonely people gone? Was there no-one other than myself in this beautiful garden? By my side, a book that had fallen from my hands, stained with my blood. I looked at my hands. They too were gashed vermillion by my flight though the forest.

     Suddenly I heard a weird shuffling sound like that of an animal's gait, heavy and menacing, emerging from the path a few yards in front of my tree from where the path curved out of sight to my left behind flowering rhododendron bushes. Suddenly I heard what must have been thousands of birds crying and calling as if it was dawn, the last dawn of time, screeching an incoherent, inharmonious chorale, more a symphony of alarm calls expressing their fear of the beast I could hear just out of sight, slouching towards me, still hidden by the bushes ... the communion of noises the sound of a war in heaven ... clashing flocks of birds flying chaotically above me as if they had lost all sense of orientation, sensing the imminent storm was about to strike them all a fatal blow.

     The ominous shuffling sound was getting louder ... ... until, from around the bushes, an old old man appeared wearing gnarled tattered work boots with metal tips peeping through the torn leather scraping on the gravel. Limping, one foot dragging sideways like a clubbed foot on the rough ground; I felt he had been wounded in the war by a mine. He walked only a yard or so before stopping and bending over his stick. He was old, very old. I wasn't sur if he had died many years before. All around him, some of them swerving inches from his face, were the birds, now swarming like bees, as if all the birds of the garden had come to greet him; or were preparing to attack him. It is the moment of their revenge, I told myself, and I am going to witness it! What had he done this old man? What was his crime? Why had they not seen me, seemed so unconcerned with me, as if I was invisible?

     Taking something from his pocket the old man put out his arm, straight, his hand flat, only slightly cupped, as if he was an Egyptian priest making an offering to the gods, before he called out with a frail gravelly cry: 'Charlie!' I was sure the sounds of the frantic twittering and calling of the birds momentarily subsided. With his other hand the old man now beckoned towards a solitary branch close above my head. Suddenly a small bird took off from it, hovered above the old man for a few seconds before alighting on his hand, pecking three times. Why had I counted the movements of its head? Would I have noticed how many had it been four times? 'That's enough now Charlie! Off you go!' He called to another bird by name and it swooped down towards him, but he moved his arm away and sang out, half laughing I thought, 'No wait! Not your turn!' And I watched him for as long as it took. More than an hour, maybe three, but I felt profoundly peaceful as he called down his extended family of birds, all the birds of the huge garden it seemed, and the park of which it was part, one by one by name, giving each their due titbits of food. Charlie was obviously his favourite, a humble working-class house sparrow, he came back for more many times; Billie was a Bullfinch, Finchie a chaffinch, Whitey a blackbird ... to name a few.

     I tried to stand up, thinking I could now walk, but my legs were numb. I closed my eyes, reconciled to my fate. Wherever it was, this garden, it was nowhere, and I had been going nowhere all along and now I had arrived there, and there was no more going anywhere. But in this place there was hope ... someone was still here, able to express and embody a profound selfless love ...

     But, (cut), I was suddenly knocking on a rather fine Georgian door. Three times. Webster opened it. 'Good! There you are at last, I was worried about you. I just got back! Schlieman is definitely dead, we got confirmation, at least Sister T did. MI5 are trying to erase his Memoirs, I knew they would. Bastards! So what did you find? I told you your work would be very very important!'

     I looked up at the wall in his surgery, as I had done a couple of weeks before, spying again the image of the dissected head, the bones cut open to reveal the brain ... the arteries rising up through the spine and the throat ... the arcane grey matter traversed by thousands of inter-weaving braided lines demarcating zones, tiny meridians, tropics, domains, words and names superimposed over each zone ... but the font was too small so I couldn't read the words, but presumed they referred, as on the white porcelain heads the Victorians liked so much, to the areas of the brain assumed to connect to and control the limbs and organs of the body ... but as I was looking at it I saw all the birds emerging from the vermillion gash down its centre, slicing though the corpus callosum as if from a cocoon or a cave or a tunnel where they had been wintering, now flying into and around the room, more and more flooding in, such a huge flock the light was almost extinguished. Webster didn't seem to notice them. 'Swallows!' I said. He looked up. 'Oh yes, there they are again, the birds, but I think they're swifts, they come back every year. Or at least, they once did!' There were now so many birds and their cries so loud I couldn't see or speak or think ... my own head as full of them as the room. And I remembered that quip in the letter from Anna to Michael Schlieman mocking him for suggesting he was seeing himself as the Mariner's victim, the solitary albatross ... and I wondered if he had fulfilled his dream of becoming a graceful white bird floating on the thermals above a vast ocean, bereft of wind, instinctively following the hidden circles etched on the sea-bed and rocks by the attrition of time. 

     And at last, I woke up. Sensing a widening void of fear opening up inside me I quickly brewed up a cup of hot chocolate and wrote down the dream. Enough was enough! C'est fini! I blitzed into packing my bags and slung them into my van, locked up the cottage and drove impetuously to Coniston to deliver the keys to the agents. A notice on the door. "Will be Late due to Floods. Expect me Mid-day!"

     In the café overlooking Ruskin avenue, drinking Earl Grey tea (they seemed reluctant to serve any other) I noticed a newspaper on the next table, front cover mostly news-talk of the Great Flood and the Second Coming. Of all things ... 

     Inside I found another story ... of all things.  

 

Local Author Found Dead

 

The body of local author John Webster was found recently by his Japanese assistant returning to his cottage from a visit to her family in Japan. Webster made Cumbria his home two years ago.

A colourful character he created a pottery in the hills behind Lake Coniston selling his misshapen traditional Chinese-style pots in local car boot sales. After giving a lecture to a local film club soon after he arrived it emerged he wrote detective and spy novels under the pen name: Michael Cruikshank. His detective (of the same name) became celebrated in the world of such trash fiction for the wisecrack;

'My crooked friends call me Hank!' His young assistant, Yuki Marioko, a student researching John Ruskin and Thomas de Quincey for a PhD at Niigata University, met Webster at his lecture and they became artistic collaborators. 'Now, sadly, I have his unfinished project, a hugely important work of serious fiction to complete!'

she told our reporter, Norma Whiteley. His neighbours - 'we never got to know him well, he kept himself very much to himself' - insisted the Japanese girl must be his daughter, they were 'very close'. 

Webster was a doctor for all his working life, maintaining contact from time to time with his esteemed practice

still under his managerial control in London's Harley Street.

Much of his work was for the government.  

The cause of his sudden death has not been ascertained but is currently subject to an investigation by local police and MI5; 

'The question of foul play has definitely not been ruled out.

There are too many questions unanswered.' 

His assistant says he had been suffering from an incurable brain tumour for several years and was recently given

only three months to live.

 

 

     I rang the surgery. 'Is it true that ... ... '

     'Oh, yes, it's you, you heard? We meant to email you. Yes we're very sorry but it's true. The funeral is on Friday.'

     I decided to stay on.

     It was raining. Sister T was not there. I arrived late for the service, the mountain road had flooded again and I was turned back. I sat on the back row of the stalls. A bunch of MI5 agents were sitting together near the front, you could recognise them a mile away.

     Yuki was sitting alone on the left, I was on the right. No-one else was sitting in her row, nor in the row in front of her or behind her. All I could see from my narrowed point of view from behind a stone pillar was her long straight hair glistening from the rain, falling elegantly and provocatively over the back of her black trench coat, reaching to the level of her hidden waist, the tips falling on the seat of the empty pew behind her. She seemed even more aloof, stilled, poised, than the pitch-pine falcon-headed lectern from which a local farmer read verses of the bible. 'Let us now praise great and famous men and our fathers that begat us ... '

     After which Yuki stood up, went to the stand, gazed for a long time at the audience as if she was counting them, so few, so few, or trying to remember their names, not more than twenty: 'I will recite a haiku for my father'. And she did so. In Japanese.

     She was exquisite. A porcelain doll. There is something undefinable about the beauty of the half-caste.      

     After the service, from which I was the first to leave, I stood in the porch, half in it, half out, the rain dripping off the edge of my trilby. She was the last to leave. She walked past me as if I wasn't there. But a few yards beyond the porch she stopped ... looked back at the roof of the chapel. I looked too, puzzled to see what she was gazing at so intently. A flock of spiralling birds? The sky falling upon us? The smoke rising from the chimney of the cremation chamber! She stood considering it for as long as it might take, maybe, to recite twenty eight haiku, or waka. I wanted to say to her, 'There is no smoke without fire', but knew it was not the right moment, even if she was a Buddhist. Whether Webster was her father or her lover, it was his body now transforming fiercely into the dark smoke.

     She saw me looking at her. Her face was empty of evident emotion.

     I walked up to her: 'Yuki ... or should I say Yoko?' She didn't smile, a shadow crossed her face. I looked up, expecting to see a huge bird hovering over us. Her lips curled, not a smile, but from contempt.  'The third man, I thought it was you! I'm sorry as John was, that your parent's bookshop had to close.' She turned, slipped the satchel off her shoulder and opened it, looking at the ground before passing  me an A4 sized brown envelope. I noticed how long and elegant were her fingers, the allure of black nail-varnish, imagining them playing a hollow  bamboo instrument, the strings deliberately tuned to be dissonant, and imagining her dancing, swaying, eyes closed, savouring the discords and edgy syncopation, a chorus of alarm calls of lost whooping cranes on a misguided migration from Hokkaido no longer able to read the terrain, due to poisoning of their habitats and prey, flying haphazardly along the jagged coastline bordering a dying sea ...

     'Don't open it now, it's not appropriate so soon after his murder. You are all the same. Beware of those for whom revenge is a way of life, you will be the next one to die in this contaminated conspiracy.'

     She turned her back on me again and tried to put the satchel back over her shoulders, but fumbled with it in vain. I lifted her hair and untwisted the straps caught under her hair and the satchel fell neatly into place. She turned on me, furious. 'Don't touch me!' If looks could kill! Pirouetting in rage she turned her back on me again before walking slowly slowly away along the cracked limestone path towards the rusty gate leading out of the cemetery. I knew she was walking as slowly as possible to express her contempt for me, knowing I was savouring the lilting swing of her lithe body, imaging her slim bottom covered with soap as she took a shower ... It took her three months to reach the gate ... something having crashed in the software directing my perception of time. I was listening for the music but it never came. No zither, no samisen. No Mozart Quartet. Only the sound of the autumn rain and the wind in the pines. 

     I couldn't help thinking the image was perfect for the ending of a film. The rain, the mist, the grainy black and white texture of the stone path, the calligraphy of the bent gravestones, a pellucid light in the distance glimmering between swaying un-trimmed branches of yew trees, the tantalising glow reflecting from the surface of the lake. The lake of death ... hadn't she called it?  

     I went for a coffee in 'The Green Man' (no such pub?) and opened the brown envelope. Printed from a computer in glossy colours was the full nohzone map, the lozenges filled now with names: some I recognised like 'edge of darkness' 'before completion'' Salome's Dance' 'Nora and ... ': others not. Below the image under a title 'And Death Shall Have No Domain Name' a list of a hundred or more (at first glance) 'satellite websites'. Beneath the list a further title: "The Nohzone Conspiracy': Fiction becomes Infinity." On a postcard, one of s eries entitled The English Likes, a view of the CastleRigg stone circle near Keswick, under snow: the sky the skin of dead carp. Webster's scrawled writing. "I discovered MS NEVER! went to Cumbria in his adult life! Whatever happened to him there, as a kid of twelve after his father died, became such a traumatic haunting image, he was never able to go there to exorcise the ghost. Maybe that was why he spent so much of his life obsessed with the Lake poets? They were so representative, so present there; and yet, dreamers to a T, not present at all. Like himself. There's a good story in there somewhere!"

     Back at the cottage, before leaving, I accessed one of the so-called satellite domain names that most intrigued me: sexualterrorism.net. And found the following:

 

     "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Terrorist" might be a better title?

     (Tessellate: Make into Mosaic form: Tessera - tes - seral ... parts of a mosaic ... also wood, ivory in Gk and Roman: token tally label.)

     'Thomas de Quincey: One need not be an opium addict to be obsessed with murders but De Quincey's interest, like that of other addicts, had a special tinge. It was murder as the Act of a Secret Society of Pariahs, outcast but elect, that intrigued and fascinated him. He was endlessly preoccupied in "the far-reaching" power of this mysterious brotherhood, the sureness and certainty of its operations ... Herod the Great, for his massacre of the innocents, he praised for his "artistic merit as a first-rate murderer ..." He was obsessed by authorized affiliations of murderers, such as the Assassins of the Old Man of the Mountains ... " I quote. But whom? I forget. Self-effacement? I quote therefore I am. I plagiarize therefore I am not!'

     And now? FOR US it is the State, protecting its machinery of repression, which is the true creator and perpetrator of its  institutionalised "legal" Terrorism.'

     When he was a kid he had no-one to tell him, like a father, who  knew the difference between good and bad, that there were no nightingales in Cumbria.

 

And much more of the same.  28 pages. I had the feeling I'd already read these first textual tesserae in a differently-named domain; I suppose it did no serious psychic damage to read something several times, each time hoping to detect the surface evidence of the quantum jumps, the subliminal mysteries that constitute the nodal points of the interlocking functioning fields that are the body and soul of nature, symbolic hieroglyphic signs of its intimate sacred alchemies, its evolving mutations of the spirit ... forever imagining ever more enticing and fascinating forms of the real.       

 

 

*****

 

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