You ask about the keys?
You haven’t posed the question directly. That I grant. But why else would you be here, with me, at this hour? Besides, I see their shapes – like ghostly ships – in the pupils of your eyes.
What… exactly… do you want to know? And don’t say everything. Answer with that and we shall be here all night, and beyond. (It is night… out there, I take it?) But, since you have come, since you are here, I will share the salient points. What harm can it do me now?
These are the important facts:
The keys came into my possession in a provincial town whose name need not detain us: a sale at what might grandly be titled an auction room (though in reality it was hardly that). My compulsion for searching out curios had taken me there. Photographs of defunct sporting teams, vellum deeds with splintering seals, the blown eggs of birds, old posters for forgotten seaside resorts once reachable by rail, fishing reels (without rods) that I have bought solely for the pleasure of their mellifluous tock, cameras for which there has long ceased to be film… Such are the things for which I scour and scavenge.
This habit of mine must stop, I know. The situation is absurd. My rooms have become a labyrinth of trenches… a kind of maze, if you will. At the centre, here, is my small space for living: my couch, desk, the chair on which you sit. At times, mad as it sounds, I have become lost for hours and, on occasion, days. One night, I don’t doubt, I shall be crushed by the collapse of some cobwebbed escarpment: boxed soldiers, tinplate toys, clockwork frogs and robots with club feet, crawling and stomping over me in the dark… an avalanche of brittle seashells, chalk fossils, jars heavy with glass marbles that shall surge from them and scatter, and the heaped, mildewed limbs of grotesquely tangled marionettes.
And yet… you found your way here, didn’t you? You picked my locks.
But the keys. Yes. Forgive my digression.
The saleroom was a fag-end of a place. A fleapit. Furniture disgorging its stuffing, cracked chamber pots (occupied by dead ferns and flies) cheap, late edition books, ghastly paintings of rocky shores, fish knives whose dusty cases indicated their retrieval from mouse-infested attics, crockery of no value or interest, dented bowler hats, moth-eaten furs and, finally… the keys.
They were housed in a rectangular panel of grimed canvas and leather that lay unfurled on a table, each key in its own sheath, the tops – the bows – revealing themselves in a way that made me think of tools that some surgeon or vet or travelling tooth-puller might in years past have taken on a campaign.
They were – are – old. Here… come closer… see for yourself. Hold them. That’s it. Feel their weight. Proper keys. Keys with meaning, history, ritual. That’s what we’re talking about. Think about it. Imagine the hands that have turned these.
And something else. As I looked down on them in that seedy saleroom I pressed the tips of my fingers to their stems secreted as they were in their fabric shrouds. And one word occurred to me. Skeleton. Not for its common usage in the matter of keys: a key that has been specially filed to permit passage through several locks. But instead for how, in those pouches, they made me think of the human anatomy: skulls, clavicles, the humerus, radius, femurs, shins. (Later, freakishly, a volume on the subject of keys, one book among the thousands I possess, caught my eye on a shelf. Its references to shanks, throats, collars made sense of what I had thought and felt.)
When it came to the bidding, the auctioneer (a florid, red-haired man) brought down his hammer and announced their sale to me, though I was far from certain that I had signalled a bid.
That evening, after my rail journey home, I considered them here, one by one, under my desk light: holding them in my palms, running my forefinger along their shafts, staring at and through the curlicues and filigreed flourishes of the finer examples, feeling the weight of their more utilitarian companions, sating myself with their smoothness, studying their scars. This I did till the dawn infiltrated its light through my curtainless windows in a way that took from the keys all solidity and definition. Finally, I laid my head on the desk, and slept.
When I came-to, roused by the traffic in the street and an aching in my neck, the keys were all back in their sheaths, which surprised me because I felt sure that I had left half, if not more, scattered about the desk. I stared at them as they reposed – all twelve – neatly in their pouches. It was then that I noticed something which – peculiarly – had escaped my attention both in the saleroom and during the night that had passed: the presence at the end of the row of an empty pouch (and, therefore, the absence from this collection of a key).
There is nothing to be gained from evasion. I shall admit it directly. The keys quickly established a hold over me in a way that had anyone described such a condition to my face I would have scorned it as an absurdity.
My curiosity began innocently enough. I wondered where they were from, the purposes to which they had been put, the things, places, they might have secured: cells, tea caddies, attic rooms, drawers, cabinets, armouries, larders, wine cellars, Bibles… chastity belts.
Next, perhaps influenced by the way in which I have surrounded myself with the accumulations of my life – train sets, jigsaw puzzles, comics from my childhood that with hot-teared fury I refused to let my mother throw out, my scout uniform and school cricket whites, my father’s dry-nibbed fountain pen that appears and disappears like the proverbial needle, wristwatches that I wind and lose which so torment me with their ticking – I began to conceive myself detained in those places that the keys had locked and unlocked. So much so that I felt myself physically present in their interiors. I brushed against the dark, mahogany walls inside those tea caddies, inhaling their rich aromas. I eased my being between the chill glassware of laudanum bottles in ‘medicine’ cabinets, I secreted myself in reliquaries amid the bones of saints and splinters of the True Cross, packed myself away in the satin-lined portmanteaux of spies, gamblers and executioners. I even sensed myself (not, I hope, too perversely) within the warm skirts of women insanely trussed and locked by jealous fathers and husbands.
Soon my thoughts were of the keys and nothing else. I barely strayed from my desk – holding them, caressing them, immersing myself in imaginings about their metal. Meanwhile my telephone, which had been silent for years, rang at all hours. It was as if callers in other time zones, remote from this, had messages they needed to pass. I wondered about the entreaties of Eskimos that might crack and echo in my ear, the soothsaying words of Zulu women (Qaphela… Qaphela), the advice that might quietly be urged by Aboriginal elders (with faces of great seriousness and profundity). I let each shrill summons ring until the callers gave up. I could not have answered even if I had wanted to, having lost sight of my telephone months, if not years, previously.
In the days and nights that followed – mad as this may sound – the keys acquired entirely different pathologies. By this I mean they came alive before my eyes in living, moving forms. One elegant key – its heart-shaped handle an oasis of rococo curls (I think its antecedents Venetian or French) – spun and danced… here, on this desk… not as a key, but as a ballerina… her shoes, frills and flesh the colour of pale pewter.
At other times, when perhaps the light or my mood was darker, the same key would reveal itself in another womanly guise: those ornamentations transformed into the laced corsetry and flowing black chiffons of a courtesan. They glanced my face and cast over me a thick, seductive scent, beckoning me – fool that I am – to enter her boudoir beyond an elaborately gilded escutcheon.
One hollow-shanked key ceased all connection with earthly mechanisms, instead becoming a conduit to the increasingly strange depths of my mind, a phial from which it would have me sniff or swallow exotica of its choosing. Often it would present itself in the hand of that painted lady: warm, perfumed, plucked from her bosom.
One ugly creation, its end like some primitive claw – whose original home could only have been the dungeons of some tyrant – transformed itself to a scuttling scorpion that pursued me with its venom at this very desk.
Worse, though, for the cruelty of its deception, was the pretty, little key whose innocent appearance suggested its likely match with a jewellery (or some similar) box, possibly of the musical kind. Its practice, between my finger and thumb, was to make its way up the side of my head to my temple… as a pistol of the snub, concealable variety. Only when I came perilously close to pulling the trigger in one of my wild nights of intoxication, my lady smiling on my knee, did I decide that the madness had to stop.