The scent of incense. This place needs a ghost. But wait... I think I can see one. A dark shadow, a simple human shape. She steps silently over the flagstones. Brushing past the visitors, the stall owners, the tourists. Although part of me wants to wipe the slate clean of modern influences, to wash the canvas clean of this century's clothing, to rub away the imprints of our culture's footprints, another part realizes that the mix of now and then, the collision of the periods, and the compilation of evidence of the ages, is what makes this tapestry so bright, so attractive. And this ghost of a figure beckoning me through them seems to fit in with both.
But does the camera move towards the modern? Nope, it is the antiques that catch my attention. I gasp as I turn from one corner to the next, my delight making my heart beat fast and my cheeks flush. The shape I am following clasps metal bars between her two hands and stares through them at the collection of the past. She trails her hands along the keys of a piano covered in music sheets. She stops to study a wall of old suitcases. She spins in the shattered light reflected off the mirrors stacked in a locked room. I follow her in a daze. It is only when I pause to look at the photos I have collected that I lose her.
But by then I am in a different realm. The taste of piracy is in the air. Silver fob watches spin on thick chains. Flattened bottles laze on a black table, cupping glass beads. Oh, do we covet. But within all these treasures we find... perfection. One each. We hold them in our hands as if they are made of fairy dust, and clutch them to our bodies as though they are living and breathing: A chance corner leads us to colour. Thick, smooth, durable leather, bound around notebooks and decorated with tarnished metal. KeyChild finds her dream, in the shape of a purple leather notebook with a brass coloured key and heavy cream pages. She holds it as though she'll never let it go. A few meters later and, still clutching her prize, she points out a white-lit stall. Lined with heavy vases, it glitters in the light. From its ceiling are hung dozens of sparkling glass creations. Birds, magpies, flying horses, fish, faires; all spinning and glinting. I am filled with awe. And BlueBird finds her beauty, in the form of an aqua glass bird, with a dark head and wings uplifted in flight. I cup it in my palms as though a breath of air would wake it, and lift it, fluttering, from my fingers. Before the day had even properly begun, we had found our inspirations.
Sunday, 22 August 2010
Saturday, 21 August 2010
Sometimes when they came to me, to tell me their troubles next to my small fire, the ones who had already been would tell me a little of what had happened. Hands clasped over their faces to hide their shame, they would speak. Not full accounts, just broken snippets. Always, when they had gone, I would leave myself and make my way to the safety and freedom of my Emme’s beautiful house.
She took her time to sort out their practise. She moved back and forth, right and left, her body between me and the counter. I closed my eyes and listened to the clink of the objects she was handling. When I opened them again, he was standing there also. He was wearing a mask over his mouth and nose. A shadow made it impossible to see his eyes. She put a mask on herself, and then he nodded towards me, indicating he was ready. She picked up a silver object and stood beside me. He tapped his gloved finger against the counter top. Then turned towards me.
I was very careful as I folded the picture up, out of the way. The space underneath was smooth and clean. I took the pen Emme was holding out for me. Bekka and she moved around me: They unfolded pieces of paper that were lying on the floor; they opened some of the tins and drew out more pictures, more drawings; they rifled through the pages of books and picked up photos and poems and paintings. I uncapped the pen, pressed it against the wood, and began to write.
Even when the people have gone, their confessions still talk to me. They repeat what they’ve seen. “He just reached out-” “no preparation…” “It glinted in the light...” “So sharp you won’t feel a thing.” “I sold it. Ah, it’s gone, it’s gone!” “…like quicksilver.” “No feeling. You’re left with no feeling.” “…an empty space…” “…as if your soul..” “…cut in half…” “It was so dark…” “Oh, oh, oh! No! What have I done?” “He was so quick…” “No eyes! Oh, no eyes!” “…so dark…” “…and then she said-”
“A lick and a promise.” She took my hand and held it up to her mouth, drew her tongue over the veins. Then she spat onto her fingers. The moisture gathered in a droplet on her index fingertip. She stroked the wet fingers around the edge of the hole. Her fingers pressed against the sides of my empty socket, round in a circle. Then she placed her hand flat over it.
I wrote our names. Emme. My name. Then Bekka. Then I drew a line and started on the other names. Hana. Juliette. Guinnie. All the girls, all the ladies, all the women. The memories of the house in one list of names. As I did this, Emme and Bekka pinned up the papers on the back wall all around it, covering the old wood. The new owner’s loud voice was a soundtrack to our work.
They were waiting for me as I walked out, my shame tracking tears down my cheeks. I remember one woman in particular. The sister of Mr Farner. She was all in white; a dirty, faded white, her pale hair in a mussed up bun, the thick skirts and lace-edged bodice smudged with grey, the pink ribbon lining the lace like lines of faded blood stains. She was wearing one of the fashionable, new, mini top hats, in an off-white colour that was not unlike the colour of her dress. The small lace veil just skimmed the edge of the deep hole that lead a path into the depths of her desperate soul.
The promise was handed to me in a glass phial. Bright green-blue powder sprinkled into thick liquid, then shaken into a paste. The same bright, bright green-blue of my eye. She took my hand and pressed my fingertips into the colour, before she sealed it and put it into a paper bag. A lifetime of colour in one small glass phial. Just one lifetime. My promise.
We covered the back wall. When we had finished, the man’s shouting had been reduced to a suspicious, awe-filled silence. His daughter stood at his knee, hands grasping at the thick material of his trousers. I pulled the original child’s painting back over the names so that he wouldn’t see them. We stood back. His daughter had the biggest, biggest grey eyes. “For your daughter,” we said. Then we left them staring at the collage of colour.
They parted before me. There was a sense of relief, a sense of release. As if I had been the final clause, the sealing part of the promise. I stumbled as I walked through them. My towns people smiled at me, encouragingly, with sorrow written in their empty sockets and remaining eyes. As they drifted away it was with a growing sense of purpose. Emme caught me as I tripped. Her arm slid, strong and firm, around my waist. She turned her head to me, and with my half-a-gaze I caught sight of her two, beautiful, purple eyes. In this crowd of half-people, her completeness made my cry. “I’m so proud of you, Emme. So proud.”
They came out onto the steps to watch me go. Her white coat and his black shirt. Her peroxide hair and his dark curls. Her long, pale fingers and his heavy, olive hands. Her ice-blue eyes and his black-open sockets. Blind as the day she’d been born, empty as the day he’d succumbed. I never saw them again.
We walked down the worn steps of Emme’s beautiful house for the last time. The towns people were ranged at our feet. Their houses in the hands of others, their belongings in cracked leather cases at their feet. They stood in silence, watching as Emme helped Bekka and I down the steps and onto the mud road. Then, as one, they picked up their cases, and with one last look around the broken town, started to walk.
We became the people who had passed through our town for years and years before. With our lives in our suitcases, we walked from settlement to settlement. We became known as the Half-Town. A name as unimaginative as it was true. People shied away from us. They saw only our empty eyes and the shame that was carved into our faces. When we reached the city, however, everything changed. In that place of broken people and unfinished spirits and crippled souls, noone noticed yet another set of incomplete people. We could hide here.
The years have dragged on. Emme and I share a house. We sit in front of the fire in the evenings, in the dark, twisted rooms of our abode, and share our stories in the silence. Always, nowadays, I find myself holding my promise. I stare into the colour depths, press the colour onto my fingertips; that bright, bright green-blue. The colour that lasts a lifetime. Sometimes I think that it is fading, or that the paste is running low, and the certainty of my oncoming death grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me hard.
Sometimes I look at my promise, my special return, my empty guarantee, and sometimes I know what it is. Sometimes I know that it is the promise of long life. I have lived a long time. Sometimes, instead, I know that it is the promise of a single life. No returns. That the end will be the end. And a blessed darkness, in which I am already half immersed.
When I sink too deep into these thoughts, Emme comes over to me and takes the glass phial from my hands. She opens the lid and presses my fingertips into the colour. My beautiful, bright, green-blue. Then she puts my promise away. And then, sometimes, I realize I don’t know what it is. I only know that it must come soon. So I close my eyes. Hide from the half-darkness and the colour on my fingers. And I listen instead to her stories; her voice winging its way out of the shadows cast by our small fire, painting images on the walls of our twisted room. And I know, then, that in the end, it will not be so dark, after all.
Friday, 20 August 2010
Monday, 16 August 2010
As time went on, the town sunk into depression. From my house on the hill, I watched it happen. The misfortune spread along the houses like a brown fog. As the misfortune grew, so did the number of appointments made, so did the misfortune… and the circle continued.
At first when I walked into their clinic, they ignored me. She continued to measure out those liquids, green liquid sparkling in the polished glasses as she held them up to the light. He just sat in his corner, his back to me, bent over the counter, the muted light from the candle next to him sliding off his hair and falling onto the floor in broken fragments.
Her house was coated in memories. As I walked up the steps, they would slip up from between the slats and from under the floors and from deep in the walls and pull a smile from the corners of my mouth. Emme would always be waiting in the doorway, behind the screen door, laughter hidden in her eyes. She had the most beautiful, deep purple eyes.
I was held in high regard by the towns people. I never quite understood why, but often they would come to me for assistance or a kind word. I often didn’t even have to say anything. My listening to their troubles would be enough. But what they didn’t know is when they came to me and released their troubles, they left them sitting in crumpled piles in my rooms, and crawling with chipped claws across my floors. They came more and more often as the time went by and my house got more and more full.
When she dipped the syringe into the green liquid and pulled the stopper to suck it in, I saw the swirl of turbulence made by the suction in sea-blue tension lines. She lifted the syringe to the light and pushed the stopper gently, letting a single drop of liquid slip down the metal tip.
As I walked up the steps of her house for the last time, I held tight to the hand of my half-sister, and her thin fingers in mine comforted me. My Bekka; she strengthened me. I think even though it was Emme’s house, our weakness meant that we suffered more than she did. Emme’s ability to hold onto what was hers meant that what was no longer hers did not cause her as much pain.
People began to talk of moving. What else was there to keep them here, they asked each other. They had no lives left, only the promises they had bought, tied in their hearts and hopes with broken pieces of lace and ribbon and string. They rustled by each other in their long skirts and nodded to each other, heads low in their humiliation, and their shame gave birth to a restlessness and fed the hope in their centres until it raged with unfulfilling anger.
Finally she turned towards me. Her white shirt was fastened up over her neck, the brass buttons glinting as she moved. Her peroxide hair was rolled back to the nape of her neck. Her lips still as red as blood. Her eyes were as pale blue as ice. And behind their cold mask, I could almost see the triumph.
The man who now owned the house stood with his small daughter on the steps and talked loudly of his plans for it. Emme met us at the door as she usually did. She smiled as she saw us coming, held out her hands towards us. Behind her calm posture was an urgency we both understood.
They came so often to my house on the hill. They came because of the depression, because of the misfortune, because of the growing trouble. They came because of their uncertainty, because of their fear, because of their own lack of confidence. And afterwards they came because of their shame, because of their guilt, because of their humiliation.
She wrote my name down in black ink; spidery letters scratched across the dull page. The nib of the pen spurted splats of ink if she pressed too hard. My name looked so insignificant. Just another name on another page of the book.
We went straight to the cupboard in the hall. I pushed the door open; it slid sideways on its runners with a rusty screech. The cracked, pale paint flaked off and flittered to the floor with my touch. We shoved aside the dusty tin boxes and old, half-forgotten things that sat under a layer of dirt and grit on the floor of the cupboard. We flung them with reckless abandon on to the floor; they rolled and jumped and shuddered across the uneven tiles, trailing clouds of dust and cobwebs.
Their troubles piled up around me. They sat chattering quietly in the corners of my rooms and lay crumpled in piles around my furniture. They lined the edges of the walls and the door and window frames, blocking out the light and making it hard to move. They lay discarded, and all of them reeked of the depression and let off the fumes of fear, so that they choked the air. They made it hard, so hard, to breathe.
I had to wash my hands and my face. The water was an odd, light blue colour. She gestured to an old, leather patients chair and I sat, obediently, my hands folded in my lap. I remember I was shaking slightly.
We flicked away the dirt and strands of spiders web and I wiped a hand across the back slats of the cupboard. My hand came away grey with dust. There it was: the child’s drawing was still hanging on the rough wood. The edges of it caught at my fingers as I swept them over it. Emme leaned over my shoulder and blew at the dirt; it cleared as if it had never existed, leaving clean, dry wood and a clearly visible picture.
Wednesday, 11 August 2010
Other people will tell me I’m wrong, but I think it all started when the first eye was sold. Our town had never been well-off. A couple of streets of shops and houses, surrounded by fields and the outback. We’d got by, just about. There was always enough for at least one new dress every three months.
When strangers came to town there was seldom any stir about it. People passed through all the time. Sometimes they stopped only for the night, in order to rest and restock before hurrying on their way. Sometimes they’d set up shop in one of the abandoned old buildings and camp there for a week or so, selling their crafts, until they’d earned enough to move on.
My friend had the most beautiful house. I remember none of us even ever remembered how it came to be there. It was big, made entirely of wood, with sanded oak limbs for beams, and slatted steps that were worn down and shiny from the amount of feet that tramped up and down them to take a closer look at the house.
When Mr Farner got back home from the first appointment, he pushed his hat back from his eyes and saw that his livelihood, his apple orchard, was being devoured by a plague of locusts. I remember we all pitched in to help. The orchard couldn’t be saved, but the locusts could be killed before they moved on. We doused the trees in paraffin, blanketed as they were with the bugs, and set them alight.
These two newcomers seemed no different. Just another couple carrying their life in a case. They set up in an empty house on the end row of houses. She said nothing to anyone unless it was necessary. Pale skin and long nails and red lips. Her dyed hair was always perfectly styled. She wore clinically white coats over dark blue dresses. She smelt of vanilla mixed with disinfectant.
The rumour was that my Emme had wrote the house. That it had started off as a normal, rundown settlement, until she moved in and, by the power of her writing, recreated her home. Admittedly I started the rumour. And I’m still not sure that I don’t believe it myself. We’re both storytellers, she and I. It’s just that I write my stories and she lives hers.
I remember that Mrs Crocus was the second one to go. She had always been greedy. Although now, when I look back on it, I’m not sure that greed was always the driving force behind the decision. Some would have called her brave to have given up so much for such a vague return. I called her brash. Within a few days all of her jams went bad. The mould that has been festering in a couple, and had driven her to the clinic, so it is said, spread to the rest of her hundreds of jars. Even the ones she’d already sold.
She bought soap and paraffin and candles. Her nails clicked at the counter as she waited. We hardly ever saw her partner; although sometimes on light evenings they’d walk arm in arm down the street. She with her white coats and pale skin, and him in a heavy black coat, collar upturned, and a hat pulled down over his eyes. We never, ever heard him speak.
The house was full of… everything. Wooden sculptures stood out the front; vague shapes of dragons and angels and strange creatures. Inside, the patterned carpets were layered on top of each other, creating a thick pile of comfort coating the floorboards. The tiles in her hallway and kitchen were dark, dulled by layers of age. Except for a select few, dotted amongst the rest, that were clean and polished and that sparkled and glittered in comparison.
Soon you could spot them amongst the others. The people who had already had the appointment walked as though they were being followed by a dark shadow. They moved slowly, their faces turned down and away from those who went past. They walked in shame, knowing that they were the weak ones, and regretting their decision as soon as they had made it.
It’s not that they weren’t civil. At first noone made the connection between them and the multiplying numbers of empty eyes and black glances. Then the word got round of the return being offered, and as the numbers of patients grew, so did the couple’s confidence. And silence. They no longer needed to say anything; clothes were handed to them without question, food was provided without hesitation, crowds parted for them like the Red Sea.
The house was littered with books. They lay scattered on the floor, brown pages waving like crippled moths, and stacked in waist-high piles by the doors. The walls were hung with detailed tapestries that confused your mind if you stared at them too long; drew you in until you were no longer on the worn floorboards, underneath the heavy beams, but standing in lush green forests, or on the edge of a distant sea, with the creatures of that world gathered at your feet.
Noone blamed them. As more and more people succumbed to the promises, so did more and more people accept it. It became almost as normal as seeing the leaves fall in winter. The hat shop began to add special details to the latest fashions: Miniature top hats and straw bowlers came with a sweep of dark material over one side of the face to hide the shame. But still as each person attended the clinic they recognised their weakness and it became carved into their faces in humiliation.
The couple soon moved. They vacated the run-down building in the end row of houses, and the relief of their neighbours was obvious in their faces. They moved instead to the now empty pharmacy. They suited the white walls and dark corners, the pristine counters and murky windows.
When you walked through the door, hundreds of pairs of eyes would follow you. Emme had company galore in her house. They lined the edges of the room and crouched in the corners; silent, watchful persons, their bodies exuding the tangled webs of their individual stories. A family of strangely wakeful owls nested in the living-room ceiling, their huge orbs of eyes reflecting the light. Cats prowled around the furniture. And star-patterned faces grimaced through the windows.