I had left the party in my living room right in the thick of a jolly round of charades and entered the kitchen to replenish some refreshments, and the woman in question followed me in, unsteady on her feet and missing the door handle the first time she reached for it to close the door behind her.
“James,” she slurred placing her hand on my shoulder from behind. I turned around and her brow was furrowed. “What… What I want to ask is… You know, you can always talk to me.” At this point I braced and ceased to breathe, the muscles in my back tensing of their own accord. I backed away toward the sink. “Jim,” she pleaded. “Are you ready to talk? You know, about what happened to you?”
She was pouting somewhat, striving to convey utmost sympathy and compassion. She extended her arm to touch my shoulder, but I fell onto the tiles, curled in the foetal position, and I pushed my palms over my ears. All I could do was to block any path that could possibly lead retrospectively. The avenues to the past were all of them occluded. There was a thick iron shutter and no uninhibited tenderness was going to penetrate it.
I could not scream for the exacerbating effect it was bound to cause. I simply repeated over and over in a harsh whisper with my eyes shut, “No”.
Finally, I rasped metallically, “Never mention anything of this again and forget about it. This did not happen.”
My breathing calmed and I removed my hands from their position, beginning to stand up. When I did, I turned around and saw my friend remaining where she had been, wide-eyed and frightened.
I took a bottle of Bordeaux (Italian wine was out of the question) from the rack and picked up my waiter’s corkscrew to begin the uncorking.
“Do you want to return to the others and I’ll bring this bottle in?”
“Yes,” she stammered, nodding her head with excessive speed.
“Marvellous, see you in a moment.”
She scuttled out of the kitchen, somewhat sobered. I breathed a great sigh and swigged a mouthful of the deep red straight from the bottle, a most uncouth gesture reserved only for crises. A few drops dribbled onto my white shirt and I looked down, staring at the blemish for a few moments, inhaling its banality, its normality. I smiled and returned to my guests.
“Is it time to try the Bordeaux? Pass the saucisson, George, old boy!” I exclaimed, grinning in the direction of my kitchen companion.
“Why Jim, I do believe it is!”
This was all before the exhuming, of course.
It was a Sunday afternoon a few months later in early August and I had just finished a late lunch alone at home – since the very notion of intimacy with a fellow human being was beyond the bounds of possibility – and was reading the newspaper, when I received a telephone call.
I picked up the receiver and was greeted by the chipper voice of my good friend of many years, Cyril Addington.
“Afternoon, Jim! Susan’s gone out with some friends and I’m left all alone on this, shall we say, meteorologically pleasing day!”
I chuckled and said, “Mr Addington, are you suggesting a trip to the pub?”
“I think that’s the undertone. Which watering-hole?”
I coped best with familiarity and so suggested our usual spot. “The Golden Ram?”
“I’ll see you there.”
At the pub, we sat in the beer garden drinking local ale and laughing at trivialities. I dare say I even began to relax, the warm sun lulling me into an orb of safety and contentment. Cyril returned from the bar with a fresh round of drinks and sat on the bench.
“Ah, this is the life. No obligations, just a few pints.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“I haven’t felt relaxed like this since watching the Porcelain Terrapin Project at the open-air festival.”
“Oh, I bet they were great!”
“They absolutely were. Cigar?”
“No, I’m all right, thanks.” He lit his cigar and slouched down a little on the wooden beams. He exhaled vanilla-tinged smoke and tapped some ash onto the floor absentmindedly, while I looked over the emerald dales.
After a couple of minutes and sips of his golden pint, Cyril began to laugh sentimentally.
“D’you know what else this is reminding me of?” he asked.
“What’s that then, old chap?”
“Remember when we were – oh, I don’t know – twenty… I want to say twenty-five, six? In any case, it’s immaterial. You were living in Italy and I came out to visit you that fine summer. You remember, yes? We sat around in that brilliant sunshine drinking various Campari-based things.”
“I remember,” I replied, picking up my pint and primed to change the subject away from that era. “It was splendid. Now, this ale really hits the spot, wouldn’t you say? A good English ale can’t be beaten in its right time and place.”
“That may be true, but we had good times that summer, my friend. I remember it all fondly. Except,” he began, taking a liberal gulp of his pint, “for that one occasion.” He was wafting his index finger around, presumably to indicate his authoritative memory.
I kept silent, ready again to move the conversation away from anything that related to my mid-twenties. “Remember? It was a God-awful blur.”
“What are you talking about?” I snapped, more irritably than I had intended. Cyril laughed in a manner conveying some disbelief and difficulty in recollecting.
“We’d had a few snifters and we ended up meeting all those people, a diverse bunch and prone to a good party! We went back to their villa, if you recall, and… indulged in various unknown substances.”
The memory was returning to me, imbued with unease. My eyes darted from side to side as I grasped at the memory, hitherto entirely suppressed.
“It was quite something, all that revelry! The continentals, eh? But there was some very weird hippie stuff going on there. I suppose things like that were going on over here too, but I never saw anything quite like that! Do you remember? They were doing quite bizarre things with cards.”
I could envisage them, in the crepuscular magenta tones of nautical dusk, laying out cards, lighting fires, dancing, and I was in the midst of it all, my mind altered and my body elated. I too danced and laughed, spotting the young Cyril by the swimming pool, engaged in conversation with a young woman, clinking glasses with her and trying to woo her.
I was giddy and curious as to what I considered such exoticism occurring in one group and I bent down to examine the peculiar cards in the arrangement over which a woman conducting an alien chanting. I took a card and ran away with it in glee, to the dismay of the group who played with them.
“You really ticked them off running away with the ace of spades or whatever it was!” laughed the Cyril beside me in the pub. “Crikey, that was a wild night… Ah well, when in Rome…! Though, of course it wasn’t Rome…” Cyril’s voice became white noise as the memory, previously non-existent, returned to me.
I am approached by one of the group as I sit catching my breath. I am still laughing and holding the card. He speaks to me. He has a foreign accent of sorts and tells me gravely: it is not a joke. The card has to be returned to the set immediately. I am so changed by the substances we have all been smoking. I am so enlivened by the hallucinatory effects. I take the card to its original situ.
I look at it illuminated by the fire and, still cackling maniacally, I drop it into the flames.
“Hold on, didn’t you even burn their deck or something of the sort? That’s right, they asked us to leave after that! You were a naughty boy, Jim…”
The image on the card was regurgitated upon my mind: the hideous goat-beast within an infinitely intricate geometric pattern of curves. It was as close a visual configuration of the event in the cathedral as could ever exist.
“Crikey, Jim, what’s wrong? …Jim?”
“…is that man … a seizure?”
“Jim… hear me?! …the eyes, Jim …speak!”
“Mummy …man shaking? …scary!”
And thus ended the period of societal functioning. I do not blame Cyril. It was all an inevitability; I know that.
Part of me desires to drag out this account, since it is my only means of effective communication. The capacity for speech has abandoned me, substituted with deafening squawks. I also wish to postpone the white straitjacket over my body and hooves that prevents my flight.
Now that I have given you the document you asked for, will you set me free?
I feel my power growing and I know that you will not be able to hold me here much longer.