As the breeze quickened, he thought of Monday, the start of his new career, and he had the impression that he was walking into his own future, physical action edging towards metaphor. Then the world turned upside down and the ground was pulled from under his feet.
That’s the only way he could describe it. His feeling of fresh anticipation had suddenly been replaced by one of abject fear. The dull roar of the traffic took on an ominous note, the breeze died away and the heat seemed to rise up around him. The sky became a bronze dome which pressed down upon him.
Down, down, down.
An image of his head squashed open like a walnut, brain dribbling whitish grey onto the green of the grass struck him with all the force of prophecy.
He beat his fists against the cushion. No. No. No. No no no no no. The stifling monotony of a London afternoon crept up on him and the walls of the cramped flat ballooned inwards. His mind bolted like a horse startled by a viper and careered through strange pastures and along obscure paths.
It took a heroic effort to get it back under some semblance of control. It was only towards dusk that his heartbeat slowed, and the walls ceased to bulge quite so badly. He sat up and stared at the far wall until all evidence of its recent elasticity had completely disappeared.
At some point he must have dozed. He woke up and tried to bring the red glow of the alarm clock into focus. He remembered the arrangement he had made to go for drinks, decided to break it, but the thought of sitting alone in his room, wide awake as the red digits counted down to Monday scared him. Out of the corner of his eye the wall began to buckle inwards. He decided a night out would do him good.
He found them in the beer garden. The night was unseasonably warm, and the air seemed to crackle with static electricity. A feeling of suspense charged the atmosphere. He was reminded of the tension backstage in the hour before the curtain goes up. Spring was here, and summer would be coming. Winter was behind them. He looked around at the faces of his peers. They seemed different. But how? Then it struck him: they were in the process of change.
This short period between the end of University and the start of employment obviously corresponded to a brief pupal stage. He found himself speculating as to what things of wings and colours might emerge from those temporal chrysalises but managed to stop before he got too far in. A drink appeared in front of him and he gulped at it greedily. He made an effort to get involved in the conversation and felt the black mood slipping away.
By the second drink it had gone, and his normal self was back. The self that had, a mere matter of hours ago, cowered on a sofa bed in a rented studio flat as the afternoon faded into evening was scarcely recognisable.
Someone started talking about Art. It was a conceit of theirs to do so, all the more so since they were now almost all of them without exception bound for office life.
Amidst all the bantering talk of selling out and references to Faustian pacts, he found himself thinking that the truth for most of them was far more prosaic: they were running smoothly along the paths to which upbringing and environment had intended for them all along and, barring some unforeseen event or weird aberration, would undoubtedly go on to moderately thrive and breed offspring that would in their turn choose similar paths.
He felt the familiar feeling of pressure returning and he shook his head to clear it and made an effort to focus on the conversation.
The precocious pupil of Verrocchio was mentioned, which was a cue for shouts of derision; Da Vinci wasn’t deemed esoteric enough at this early stage of the evening.
But in a sudden up-rush of intellectual contrarianism, someone decided to run with it. In the confident tones of the expensively educated, this art historian-about-to-turn-banker postulated that the assured lines of the maestro’s famous beauties, his Madonna of the Rocks, the St Anne in the Louvre, had only been made possible by the fevered intricacies of the grotesques, a Dionysian counterpoint, as it were, to the Apollonian. Another, a classicist in the process of transforming into a lawyer, took the argument a step further, suggesting that the strangely distorted faces which the artist had rendered so vividly were a product of exactly the same technique of inspiration which had produced the things of harmony and beauty; that is to say, the way in which he would deliberately stare at a surface until the hairline cracks, fissures, mottlings and other natural blemishes in the stone, brick or marble resolved themselves into the image of a face, or a hand, some thing of beauty, or else of some fantastic hybrid otherwise only glimpsed in delirium.
He found his eyes drawn to the wall that ran along the length of the beer garden. Red brick, with splashes of whitewash here and there, it must have been standing for a century or more. Its surface, mottled, pitted, lined with cracks, spoke eloquently of years endured in this corner of the metropolis, of storms and snows, wars, busts, booms, high days and holy days, all the raucous pleasures taken at every possible opportunity by the city’s inhabitants.
And as he looked, the cracks, the spots, the blemishes began to coalesce, like blobs of quicksilver running together in the process of creating something monstrous and strange.
What had begun as a mere intimation now hovered on the borders of the definite. He knew it wanted but a moment more and the image would be fully formed. That image which, now he considered the matter more carefully, must have begun to take shape in the cracked mirror that morning and whose essence had borne down upon him like a bronze dome on the common.
He recalled the obscene bulging of the walls in the flat. The thing, whatever it was, had doubtless been patiently lurking all afternoon in anticipation of just such an opportunity.
There was not much time. It was almost through.
He stood up abruptly, muttered something about an early start the next day, raised a hand in farewell and left to general astonishment. Once outside on the street he walked quickly. He was careful to keep his gaze fixed dead ahead, so as to avoid looking at either the dark cracks that he felt multiplying between the concrete paving stones beneath his feet, or the hairline cracks that he suspected were surrounding him, creeping up the walls of the buildings to his right and left like thin black worms.
He knew that if he could just keep his mind occupied, then it would all be all right.
A hobby would be helpful. He felt a pang at his callow refusal to take golf lessons at university. No matter, that could be easily rectified. There was a club a mere five stops down the line. Yes, golf would be just the thing to keep his mind occupied
He thrust his head forward in a show of determination and strode homewards through the south London night, the lurid orange smudge of the streetlights forming an ironic aureole around his freshly-cut hair.
As he walked, the sky pressed down upon him and the inevitability of summer’s coming, bringing hot airlessness to the dusty streets, gave rise once more to feelings of terror. For he felt that, somehow, when the sun stood still in its declination and the dance of the noonday devil was at its most abandoned, it would be then that the cracks would really begin to show through.