Monday, 15 February 2016
The house on the corner of Milton Street was a disturbing cacophony of Victorian folly and Gothic horror, its turrets and spires and towers and gargoyles sprawled indecently over a neglected garden of two acres, choking on weeds, bordered by looming tangles of thorn bush and nettles, horsetail and foxglove, deadly nightshade and old man's beard. The house had been deserted for years, and the occasional smashed window was testament to the daring of the kids off the Stanmore estate, for like all ancient and derelict houses in small market towns the world over, it was believed to be haunted by the kids and ne'er-do-wells thereabouts.
It stood alone, at the top of the hill, diabolical and dominating, and was known throughout the district as "Dwarf House", having been built by the most notorious occultist and homosexual of the early nineteenth century, Lord Lucien Lovelock, with an army of midgets that he had brought back from the tropics. It was reputed to be built upon the bones of dead homunculi, and to be sure, in a certain shadowy corner of the garden, hidden from general view by an uncommonly ornamental outdoor privy, was a dwarfling graveyard. In 1843 Lord Lucien died without issue, and the house passed to his sister Mariah, a black hearted hag as cold and awful as the grave, who was infamous throughout the kingdom for her ghoulish devotion to the dark arts.
Mariah lived in the house for fifty years, during which time pets and farmyard animals from nearbyneighbourhoods would often be reported missing, only to turn up later, without explanation,mutilated beyond all description, and there was an unprecedented number of child abductions. Although it was never proven, and nobody would have dared to say so, anybody who had ever walked past the house, and through the rank miasma of malignancy and perversion in which it seemed to exist, who had caught the briefest glimpse of the loathsome death mask that was Mariah's face from some grimy upstairs window, or who had witnessed the fugitive comings and goings of semi-naked swarthy looking pygmies to and from the house in the darkest hours of the night, could possibly doubt that it was in the unspeakable bowels of Dwarf House that those hundreds of missing children might be found, or at the very least, their savagely desecrated little corpses.
One of the last children to go missing was a little girl by the name of Erma Pugh, whose father was the landlord of the Dwarf's Head public house, on the next corner but one. He had been half blinded by a musket ball in the Crimean war, and was affectionately known to the locals as One-Eyed Pete. His common-law wife, Emily, was ripe of breast but weak of mind, and when little Erma wentmissing, she became catatonic and had to be taken to Moonstruck Mansions, a rambling lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Basingstoke, where she was to spend the rest of her days.
With his beloved daughter missing, and his buxom wife in the booby hatch, One-Eyed Pete was consumed with rage and righteous anger, so, taking a pair of duelling pistols that he had won in a card game from beneath the bar, he stormed up to Dwarf House with the intention of killing the witch once and for all. There were no witnesses that night, and exactly what took place amidst the boundless shadows of Dwarf House that fateful evening is destined to be forever shrouded in mystery. Two facts, however, are well documented, and they are these: that One-Eyed Pete gained entry to the house and shot black Mariah at close range through the heart, which killed her, and was later found hanged by his own suspenders from the banisters of the second floor landing.
When the police arrived some two hours later, they found a number of alarmed looking midgets cowering in one of the fireplaces. The midgets were photographed and fingerprinted and then sent by rail to a workhouse for impoverished circus performers in Plaistow, where they spent their days inhaling toxic fumes and oiling the fast moving parts of dangerous machinery.
As befits a witch, Mariah's head was cleaved from her body, which in turn was hacked into small pieces and buried in an unmarked grave in the dark of night.
The house then fell into the possession of the Lovelocks' last remaining blood relative, a distant cousin from Plymouth. His name was Sir Neville Nightingale-Lovelock, and he was a keen explorer and amateur geologist who had made a substantial fortune in the Ivory trade. Now in his fifties, and with a dicky heart, he moved into the house in Milton Street in the winter of 1893 with his mistress, a beguiling and voluptuous twenty-two year old Jewess named Salome.
Sir Neville was something of a dandy; he was also a fool. With the absurd high regard that he held for himself, he imagined that Salome was as smitten with him as he was with her, but he couldn't have been further from the truth. Salome found him to be effeminate, ridiculous and tedious, as he pranced around the drawing rooms of fashionable society like some limp-wristed cock-jockey, boring anyone who came within a hundred yards near to death with self-aggrandizing fabrications regarding his various exploits in Africa and the Indian sub-continent, or with presumptuous public readings of his latest geological monographs. Salome was in it for the money, pure and simple. She had already put a lot of serious thought into the best way of finishing him off; in the mean time she had introduced him to opium, laudanum and strangulation, in the hope that nature would somehow take the decent course.
With olive skin and hair that ran in raven ringlets down her back, with black eyes and pneumatic breasts and the thighs of a chorus girl, Salome was a woman that men would kill or die for. To be in the same room as Salome was to be driven into a state of near psychotic sexual frenzy. To feel the touch of her hand or the whisper of her breath was to experience an erection so immediate, so ferocious, so savage and unyielding, that many men simply set fire to their testicles and leapt to their deaths from the nearest bridge or high building, or were found completely out of their minds in some backwater miles from anywhere, nuts deep in a farmyard animal or idiot peasant girl, with absolutely no recollection of how they came to be there.
As the months passed, Sir Neville slipped ever deeper into opium and laudanum addiction, spending days, and often weeks at a time in corpse-like states of narcosis. On such occasions Salome would throw on her most outrageous lace corsets and panties, her seamed silk stockings and fur cape, and slip out into the night to hail a hansom cab that would deliver her to St. John’s barracks, four miles outside the town. While her days, so like a prison sentence, dragged heavily on in a fetid smog of drug abuse and sado-masochism, her nights flew by in a cocaine fuelled orgy of secret encounters, illicit affairs and indiscriminate anal sex.
It was at the barracks that she met and fell in love with a young prostitute by the name of Morganna, who was, as she proudly informed anyone who would listen to her, the youngest daughter of the Archbishop of Winchester, and as thoroughly depraved and promiscuous as Salome herself. It wasn't long before the pair of them decided that now was the time to put an end to Salome's mincing and flaccid live-in lover. The following Saturday night, Salome returned by cab to Dwarf House, with Morganna in tow. Sir Neville was just beginning to surface from a week long laudanum nightmare, and became positively chipper when he perceived that they had a guest. With soft whispers and sweet seductions they lulled him into a state of unguarded sensual abandon, before tying him hand and foot to the post of the bed, where they injected him with a near lethal dose of cocaine and put a bag over his head, before violently and mercilessly fucking him and his dicky heart to death.
The demise of Sir Neville signalled the end of the Lovelock bloodline, and Salome assumed ownership of Dwarf House, and dived passionately into her love affair with Morganna. With an enthusiasm only the very young and the very high on drugs can muster, Salome set about transforming Dwarf House completely; she intended to recreate it in her own image. She got rid of the morbid old masters that Nightingale had insisted on hanging all over the place, replacing them with lush and exotic wall hangings, drapes, and richly dyed Persian carpets. She collected up all of Neville's books on geology, along with his monographs, diaries and letters, and burnt them in thegarden, before refilling the shelves in the house with erotic literature, poetry and philosophy, and adorning the walls with suggestive paintings and lithographs, depicting every kind of deviant sexual perversion. In the ballroom, which both Sir Neville and the harridan Mariah before him had kept disused and empty, she put a harpsichord, and installed a wet bar that ran down the entire length of one wall, filling the remaining space with expensive and luxurious furniture; chaise lounges and settees upholstered in fur, velvet and satin. She polished the suits of armour that stood silently in crannies and alcoves all over the house until they gleamed and shone like tin gods, and then equipped each one with a monstrous rubber penis, for the edification of visitors.
She redesigned a dozen of the boudoirs on the first and second floors, each one a riot of decadent opulence, with mirrors from floor to ceiling, and bed sheets of silk, cobwebs and rubber. Finally she turned her attention to the cellar, the unholy site of Black Mariah's most atrocious excesses of evil; it was odious and repugnant; it was like stepping into a nightmare. Covering a large part of the floor and daubed on every wall were colossal inverted pentagrams; there were altars to the Dark One covered in magickal symbols that had been drawn with a profane mixture of blood and faeces; there were inverted crucifixes and books bound in human skin. There was the decaying evidence of human and animal sacrifice, and manacles, handcuffs, slave collars and chains hung from heavy iron rings in the stone walls. There was a rack, there was an iron maiden, and above the main altar the Lord's Prayer had been written backwards, daubed in blood and spunk. There was a large round hole in the middle of the floor, so deep and unfathomable that Salome couldn't see the bottom. It threw up a stream of air, ice cold and pestilent, and she imagined she could hear within it the desolate wailing of souls in purgatory, or lost in the eternal twilight between life and death. But the pièce de résistance, the master stroke - and a stroke of diabolical genius it truly was - was the disembodied head of a goat, infested with maggots and in a state of putrid liquefaction, impaled upon a thick wooden stake dead in the centre of the room. Eventually she decided that she'd just air the place a bit to get rid of the worst of the smells, and call it the dungeons.
So decided, she took hold of the horns of the dead goat's head, and with a shudder of revulsion cast the blasphemous monstrosity down into the hole. She waited for the sound of it hitting the bottom, but no sound returned to her. She surmised that the hole was far deeper than she had hitherto imagined; she wondered if it might go down forever.
But a practical girl was Salome, and not given to gratuitous bouts of navel gazing morbidity, so after throwing a couple of planks and a rug over the hole so that no-one would fall down it, she collected Morganna, and they set off for the local orphanage at St. Cross, to recruit a handful of young andmorally bankrupt hostesses for the City of Winchester's newest - and most depraved - den of iniquity and vice; Salome and Morganna's Palace of Pain and Pleasure.
In 1896 Salome died of consumption, leaving Morganna despairing, bewildered and alone, with no idea about what to do next. It seemed to her like her very reason for living had been stolen away, and she drifted through life like a shade.
She continued to preside over Salome and Morganna’s Palace of Pain and Pleasure, but her heart wasn’t in it. She stopped going out of the house, and wandered from room to room like a wraith, oblivious to the girls and their patrons and their variousstatesof undress and impropriety. Finally, in 1897, she closed the brothel for good, and after covering the furniture in bed sheets and boarding up the doors and windows, she packed a single cardboard suitcase, and took passage on a Cunard liner bound for New York.
The Anglican Church and the local Tory press triumphantly reported a revival of moral rectitude, and a victory for Victorian prudishness, to the chagrin of the general public. It was the end of an era, it seemed, an exciting era of daring sexual and pharmaceutical liberty, over before it had even really begun. But Salome and Morganna would remain cherished in the hearts of the people, fondly remembered as the most notorious harlots of the Victorian age.
Dwarf House stood empty until Morganna turned up again three years later, in the autumn months of the year 1900, with a handsome and charming young man on her arm. He was an Irish American by the name of Artemis Simpson, and they had met in Greenwich Village, where Morganna rented a loft apartment, and Art was a bookseller and dealer in curiosities. For Morganna, whose experience with the opposite sex had been hitherto limited to sordid transactions with squaddies, dockers, cross-dressers and a few sexually corrupt politicians and men of the cloth, Art was a revelation. He was intelligent, amusing and cultured, and the only man she had ever met, with the exception of her father, who treated her as anything more than a hole to shove his cock in. He showed her the museums and art galleries, they went to the theatre and took in shows on Broadway; they blew bundles of cash in Bloomingdale’s and drank coffee in the sleepy evening sunshine of the Soho sidewalks.
Art’s affection for the city and its inhabitants, his passion for art and culture, and his boundless enthusiasm for life and the experiences that arose within it infected Morganna with the breathless joy of an adolescent girl. Not only did he treat her as a person of value; he exhibited not a single sign of shock, embarrassment or disgust when she chose to reveal to him the facts of her former life; as a matter of fact his attitude towards people in general seemed to be a friendly tolerance; a warmacceptance; a generous compassion. When she asked him, one Sunday afternoon, as they wandered through Central Park with the warm spring sun lighting up their faces, how he could remain so unaffected, so non-judgemental, after learning of the things she had done in life that left her with such a deep and abiding shame, he smiled easily at her, his blue eyes twinkling, and said: “I don’t know a single person who is one hundred percent happy with the way they are. I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t change something about themselves if they could. I, for instance, have particularly hairy ears. If there’s one thing I would change about myself it is that. My hairy ears. Which leads me to conclude that nobody would be the way they are if they could possibly help it. When you think about it like that, making judgements about yourself, or anybody else, for that matter, seems an entirely pointless waste of time.”
From that day onward, slowly but surely, she began to reassemble the parts of herself that had always felt divided, and more and more she walked through life with an attitude of grateful acceptance, and the serenity that comes with knowing that you are at home in the world.
It was during a subsequent stroll through the park as spring turned into summer that Art asked Morganna to be his wife, and barely a month later they were married in a registry office in the Village, with Stumpy, the crippled ex-soldier who ran the news stand outside the bookstore acting as best man, and a couple of randomly collared passers-by bearing witness.
After a brief but torrid honeymoon they boarded a White Star liner bound for Portsmouth harbour. They were returning briefly to the Old Country, to put their affairs in order, to lay the past to rest, and to sell Dwarf House to the very first bidder.
Thursday, 27 November 2014
On a cold and dismal December morning in the year 1922, a week or so before Christmas, an obscure cloud of fog appeared over the Thames. Nobody noticed it though; it was hidden from sight by the rest of the fog; fog that often hangs over the Thames on an early winter’s morning.
But on this particular morning there was a fog within the fog. It seemed to know where it was going, gradually floating along the course of the river until it arrived in the region of Westminster, where it came to a halt, and just hung there in the air like, well, fog.
Eventually, from out of the mist emerged a pair of figures; a vaguely disreputable looking young man and an older gentleman of a seafaring ilk. They stood for a moment, looking back out over the river and exchanged a few words, before clapping each other on the back and walking off in opposite directions.
Abe took rooms at the Savoy, where Scott and Zelda were currently residing. After an afternoon’s sleep, a bath, shave, and change of clothes, he was ready to hit the town. They were off to the Bag of Nails, where Bonnie would be performing that night. Scotty was in the bar enjoying a cocktail or three while waiting for Zelda to complete her womanly ablutions, and he immediately tapped Abe for a loan.
“Shit, Scotty, how come you’ve never got any money?” Abe asked him. “I thought you’d just published another novel.”
“Zelda’s high maintenance, dude. And I haven’t made any real money from the books yet. And I’m an alcoholic. What more do you need?”
Zelda’s an unstable psychopath and a bastard, you mean, thought Abe. No wonder you drink so much. I’d drink too if I was married to her.
“How much do you need?”
“How much can you spare?”
“Got any marching powder?”
After a therapeutic visit to the gents, Abe gave Scott two hundred pounds and bought them a couple of highballs, which he laced liberally with fukkummuppa root. By the time Zelda elected to join them, they had rediscovered their identity as the source of all things, which made her that much easier to bear, and full of love and oneness they piled into a cab and headed for the West End.
Abe loved Bunny from the moment he saw her. From the moment that she stepped onto the stage and into the spotlight, he knew that he would never sleep with another woman as long as he lived. His lady-boning days were over and his life would never be the same. He had no doubt in his mind that God had brought them together, that their togetherness was inevitable, and he had no intention of leaving the club – or for that matter going anywhere ever again – without her.
As luck would have it, she felt the same.
A few days before Christmas, Abe and Bunny waved a fond farewell to the Fitzgeralds, who were returning to New York, and took the train to Winchester, to spend the festive season with Art and Morganna. It had been a year since Bunny had been back to Dwarf House.
“Art and Morganna will love you,” she told Abe. “They’re really cool.”
Abe sure as hell hoped so. He was experiencing nervousness and anxiety, feelings he’d never experienced before. He wanted very much to make a good impression on Bunny’s parents, and this surprised him; he’d never cared about that before, either. He wanted to do the honourable thing and ask Art for his daughter’s hand in marriage, but he was drowning in a flood of thoughts, ideas and emotions for which he was woefully unprepared. He didn’t know where they were coming from. It was freaking him out.
Unbeknownst to Bonnie, Art’s drinking over the last twelve months had got dangerously out of hand; he was knocking back three litres of spirits a day. He’d been getting into fights and falling over in the street, he’d been hospitalised twice and arrested three times. And he was no longer a happy drunk. He was depressed and lost. Morganna felt she should do something, but she had no idea what. Their doctor recommended a psychiatrist, and advised her that unless Art quit drinking once and for all, a future of rubber sheets and dribbling into his mashed up sausage was a certainty; commitment to the asylum and a hideous early death almost guaranteed.
The problem was that Art just couldn’t seem to stop, or even cut down. As the days went by he just drank more and more. He had tried quitting after each of his three arrests, and both trips to the hospital. Once or twice he’d managed to stay dry a day; usually he was drunk within hours. He’d have blackouts, and when he came out of them he often couldn’t even remember taking the first drink. He was rapidly earning a reputation as the town lush. Morganna knew – although she hadn’t mentioned it to Art – that amongst some sections of the community he was known as Art the Alkie. She was humiliated, not for herself, but for him. People were so judgemental, so self-righteous; and the prevailing opinion of the day seemed to be that alcoholism was a moral problem. She couldn’t accept that. She knew Art to be one of the most compassionate, morally upright men she’d ever met. Certainly when compared to the small minded rumourmongers who whispered behind their hands and crossed themselves when he passed by.
Morganna prayed they could get through Christmas without any tears. Art promised her that he’d see the psychiatrist in the New Year. They just needed to make it until then. But it wasn’t all dark skies. She was excited about seeing her beautiful baby girl, and meeting the new man in her life. Bunny hadn’t told her much; Morganna knew his name was Abraham Jones, that his father was something to do with the government in India, that he was rich, charming, and a close friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that was about it. Of the series of encyclopaedias known as “Kings of the World” she remained blissfully unaware. But she could tell that Bonnie was head-over-heels in love with this man, and that was enough for her.
Abe and Bunny were full of festive cheer when they disembarked at Winchester. The warm glow of young love, complimented by several highballs, a couple of lines of Peruvian flake, a dash of fukkummuppa root and lustfulness of Biblical proportions had them lit up like the Christmas decorations which festooned the High Street. After stopping at the Royal Oak for refreshments, Bunny took Abe on a tour of the cathedral, pointing out the stained glass window that had been destroyed by Oliver Cromwell, and regaling him with tales of St. Swithun, the cathedral’s patron saint, who threw banquets to which he invited the poor but never the rich; and of William Walker, the diver who single-handedly prevented the building’s total collapse just a decade beforehand, when the foundations had been waterlogged and the cathedral had started to sink into the swampy mess beneath it. Between 1906 and 1912 Walker worked every day, at depths of six meters, in total darkness, and reinforced the foundations with 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks.
But it was outside in the grounds that Abe’s interest was truly aroused, when they came across the grave of one Thomas Thetcher, a soldier who had drunk himself to death in 1764. The inscription on the headstone read:
In Memory of
A Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia, who died of a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12 May 1764. Aged 26 Years.
Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,
Who caught his death by drinking cold small beer,
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all.
An Honest Soldier never is forgot
Whether he die by Musket or by Pot.
“Poor bastard,” said Abe.
“He sounds like my dad,” said Bunny.
Art greeted them with well-oiled enthusiasm when they arrived at the house; he’d just returned from the Dwarf’s Head and was three sheets to the wind.
“Bunny, daahling!” he cooed, smothering her in a bear hug, before turning his attention to Abe. “And you must be the fine and upstanding Mr Jones, the object of my daughter’s affections. Well,” he belched, “you’re very welcome. Come on inside and get in the warm, and we’ll break out the egg-nog or whatever the fuck you call it.”
Bunny was thankful that her father was coherent when they arrived, but he didn’t stay that way for long. After toasting the happy couple with a couple of large whiskies, he staggered off up the stairs, and passed out on the first floor landing.
“What are we going to do about Dad?” Bunny asked her mother.
“I just don’t know, darling,” Morganna replied. “I’m at my wits end.”
“I have an idea,” said Abe.
Abe’s idea was simplicity itself. He proposed to spike Art with fukkummuppa root. The power of the root was such that it would a) sober Art up immediately, and b) take his mind off that very fact. He suggested that the following morning, he should accompany Art to the Dwarf’s Head, do the deed and take him out for the day, while Bunny and Morganna did whatever women did when he wasn’t around.
Because they had no better idea, the women agreed.
Art was over the moon that Abe had decided to join him for his morning constitutional in the Dwarf. He’d spent far too much time drinking alone recently, in the shadowy corners of empty bars, between the gravestones and mausoleums of the churchyard at St. Cross and on the weathered benches of Three Maids Hill, morbidly gazing into the dark bottom of glass after glass after glass after glass and wondering where it had all gone wrong. In spite of the fact that he’d had a tumbler full of whisky before they left the house, Abe noticed that his companion’s hands were trembling violently; so violently, in fact, that he was having problems picking up his glass. After struggling for a while, Art took a tie out of his jacket pocket, and, tying one end around his right wrist and taking the other in his left hand, he slung it across the back of his neck, creating a kind of sling. Slowly, he was able to raise his glass to his mouth without spilling it over himself.
“You’re in a bad way, my friend,” declared Abe. Art took a long slow drink from his glass, and sat gazing dumbly through him for several moments before responding.
“Don’t I know it,” he said. “Honestly Abe, I don’t know how I ended up like this. I’m not a bad man. I own a bookshop you know, in New York, in the Village, although I haven’t been back since before Bunny was born. I’m not a tramp or a layabout; I’m not immoral. But I can’t go from one moment to the next without a drink. If I don’t have a drink I start having fits and thinking I’m going to die. It’s pathetic. I feel so weak and spineless. Like such a failure. My friends are full of what they think is good advice. They tell me I should drink beer only; they tell me I should cut down. Beer doesn’t even touch the sides, for the love of God. The three litres of goddamned whisky that I pour into myself every day barely touches the sides, for fuck’s sake. They think that it’s only a matter of willpower. But they’re wrong. They must be, because no matter how determined I am to stay sober, no matter how many promises I make to myself, sooner or later I always end up pissed. When I start drinking I can’t stop, and when I’m sober I can’t stop myself from starting. I’m trapped, and I can’t see any way out. What the hell’s wrong with me, Abe?”
Pulling a packet of Luckies from his pocket, Abe lit a cigarette, and said: “You’re an alcoholic Art. That’s all. Beginning and end of story.”
“But just what the hell does that mean?” Art beseeched him. “What am I meant to do with that knowledge? Just keep drinking until I’ve got a wet brain and I’m shitting my pants every ten minutes? Till I’m locked up in Moonstruck Mansions? Till I’m dead? What?”
“Hey, take it easy man,” said Abe, gently, “don’t get yourself all worked up. As far as I understand it, alcoholism is defined as acute alcohol poisoning. That fits. It’s poisoning you, for sure, which means that alcohol is poisonous, to you, to Art Simpson. Which means that you need to stay the hell away from it. You can’t drink anymore Art. Never again. It’s over.”
“It can’t be poisonous to me,” Art cried in disbelief. “I drink shit loads of the stuff!”
Abe laughed. “Art, you’re a genius!” he said. “Anyway, don’t worry, I’m going to help you. Well, I’m going to help you sober up, at least. I can’t stop you from picking up the next time, but I can certainly get you sober now. And quickly.”
The faint light of hope dawned in Art Simpson’s eyes; the faint light of fragile, barely-daring-to-believe hope.
“Really?” his voice was little more than a whisper. “You can help me?”
Abe grinned at him. It was a mad grin. It was the kind of grin you imagine Rasputin must have had. Or Jack the Ripper. Art didn’t notice; he was too pissed.
“Two more pints of Old Thumper, please Nancy,” Abe said to the pneumatically bosomed bar wench, “and whatever you’d like for yourself.”
“Why, thankyou Mr Jones, you’re a gentleman.”
“Call me Abe.”
“Ok then,” she smiled at him. “Abe.” Giggling coquettishly she went off to pull the pints.
“Now then Art,” said Abe, “when our drinks arrive I’m going to put some special medicine in them.”
“Special medicine, yes. From Africa. It will sober you up instantly, and you will go on a journey. You will experience the world that has been forever beyond your grasp; the world unlimited by the confines of the egoic mind. You will realise who you really are. You will understand everything. You will know yourself, and you will know God. And by the time your journey is over, your body will be free of alcohol. Can you say Amen?”
“Amen!” yelled Art, before slumping over with his head in the ashtray. Enjoy your sleep while you can, thought Abe. In a few minutes you’re going to wake up for good.
Art was hollow, and felt the universe blowing through him. It rushed, like the wind, like water, like an ice-cold holy fire, cleansing and purifying him. He remembered who he was; who he had always been. He saw his essence, the essence of the all, ever flowing like the limitless ocean, the changing names and forms around him like waves that swelled up out of the ocean and subsided back into the ocean, never having been anything other than the ocean.
He was limitless and free; to believe otherwise was delusion. Now he understood. The world was an appearance, a manifestation, a projection, occurring spontaneously again and again and again, so fast that it tricked the mind into believing it was solid and real; that it had its own inherent existence; that it existed in and of itself, independently. But it didn’t. Because it was consciousness and nothing else, seeming to be the world without undergoing any change whatsoever, just like the reflection in a mirror has no existence of its own, because it is always only ever the mirror.
“It’s wonderful!” he exclaimed. “It’s shiny and sparkly and beautiful!”
“Yeah, man,” said Abe, who was lurking over by the bushes trying to light a cigarette, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” A look of befuddlement passed over his features, then he added: “Except for Bonnie.”
“That’s nice,” replied Art, in the manner of one who wasn’t listening.
“How do you feel?” asked Abe.
“Like king of the world,” said Art.
When, some two days later, Messrs Jones and Simpson made a return to Dwarf House, they were half naked and covered in filth, blood and bruises. The pair of them gave the convincing impression of having been dragged through a hedge backwards; they had leaves in their hair and small rodents in their beards. Their eyes were sunken and looked like black holes. But amazingly, Art was sober, and had been that way for 48 hours. Morganna was overjoyed.
“Darling!” she ran to meet her husband. “Get in the house quickly; you’ll freeze to death otherwise.”
“There is no death, honey,” Art replied. “Death is an illusion.” But he smiled lovingly, gave her a kiss, and went inside anyway.
To the relief of everyone, Abe’s plan had worked, and for the first time in two decades, Art was off the sauce. Now they just had to ensure he stayed that way. Abe decided to administer a very weak pot of fukkummuppa root tea to him in the mornings; not enough to have him tripping out of his gourd, but enough to give his life a bit of a twinkle. Over the next few days Art began to resemble something of his old self, and seemed quite content without a drink. He was thoughtful, calm and peaceful. Morganna could barely believe it.
Replacing his morning visits to the pub with rambling daily walks around the town and its environs, sometimes inviting Abe or one of the women to join him, he regularly came home beaming happily, and seemed enthusiastic about his chances of staying sober. In the few days that had passed since his last drink he had even began to make plans for the future, and on Christmas Eve he returned home and announced that he was going to open a another shop, selling books and phonograph records. He’d already spoken to the bank manager, and secured premises in Cathedral Square. He just needed to refurbish the place and source the stock. All being well he aimed to open for business in the spring.
“I’m so proud of you Dad,” Bunny sniffed as she ran to hug him, trying to hold back the tears.
“We all are,” said Morganna, as she put her arms around them both. “I’m so grateful to have my husband back.”
“I’m glad to be back,” he said. “And I promise, I’m back to stay.”
It was all getting a bit emotional for Abe; he knew the tears were about to start rolling, along with the wailing and the sobbing and the hugging and the gnashing of teeth and what have you, and he really didn’t think he could deal with that. So he quietly left the room, donned his overcoat, and went into town, hoping to spot a dwarf or two.
Thursday, 20 November 2014
“Don’t you think it’s strange?” said Captain Bill Trout, as he closed the hatch behind them.
“Don’t I think what’s strange?” said Abe.
Abe considered this for a moment.
“I do now,” he said.
The bridge of the Psychonautilus wasn’t what he expected, not that he knew what he expected. Something a little more maritime, perhaps. A ship’s wheel, maybe. An engine room. Levers. Crewmen. Some rope. But it was as if he’d walked into a traditional English pub; dark brocade wallpaper of maroon and gold covered the walls, and there was a fully functional oak bar running down one side. Comfortably worn seating arrayed the other; and a long table, with an old Johanna in the corner. A leather-topped Edwardian pedestal desk, seaman’s chest and pair of heavy walnut bookshelves equipped the near end. Abe spotted copies of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Origin of the Species, the Communist Manifesto, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads, as well as volumes by William Blake, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Meister Eckhart, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. There were others that he didn’t recognise at all, by people he’d never heard of. The Doors of Perception, the Way of Zen, the Psychedelic Experience, the Lord of the Rings, Slaughterhouse Five, the Gospel of Thomas, Alcoholics Anonymous. There was more to Bill Trout than met the eye.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” said Abe.
“I haven’t done anything with it,” replied Trout, “it’s constantly changing. When I went ashore this morning it resembled a French patisserie. Probably because I was thinking about breakfast. It reflects whatever is going on in the mind. I wonder where the cat’s got to.”
“A ship’s got to have a ships cat. It’s traditional.” He pulled half a roast chicken from under his reefer jacket. “Shakespeare!” he bellowed, “Where the hell are ya? I‘ve got breakfast.”
There was a sudden explosion, obscuring the bridge beneath an acrid scud of smoke. Through it, faintly at first, but rapidly increasing in volume and proximity, came the unmistakable sound of the William Tell Overture, and the hooves of a thousand thundering warhorses. Abe congratulated himself on his earlier decision to take some fukkummuppa root. If he hadn’t been tripping he might’ve gone quite mad.
“Well hello,” a voice both haughty and sardonic greeted him from the vicinity of his ankles, “you must be the addlepate we’re taking to London. You have the honour of greeting Shakespeare, first officer and ships cat. Chicken is it, Bill? Spot on. You can have enough of fish, you know.” He hefted his fat ginger and white body up onto the bar and began to pulverise the chicken. “Fish, fish, bloody fish.” Pausing for a moment, meat remnants hanging depravedly from the corners of his mouth to address Abe once more, he said: “I hope you don’t mind my eating while you lollygag around the place. I’m quite famished.”
“Not at all,” replied Abe, “all those parlour tricks must build up a hunger.”
“Parlour tricks?” snorted the cat, with as much pique as he could muster; “how dare you, sir. I’ll have you know that I am a warlock of great power, a master arcanist, and a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Aleister Crowley is a close personal friend of mine. But not that detestable poet fellow, whatshisname. Yeats. I can’t bear the man.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Abe.
“Granted,” replied Shakespeare. “Bill, darling, could you pop a drop of scotch in my saucer of milk, please. Hobnobbing with the common folk rather brings on a thirst.”
“You mustn’t mind Shakespeare,” Trout came from behind the bar with jugs of ale for Abe and himself, “he’s not normally so unctuous. It’s only when we have guests. He likes the attention.”
“Oh, please!” Shakespeare spat out a mouthful of chewed up fowl; “I couldn’t care less about guests. I’m a cat, in case it’s escaped your notice. I’d come over and stick my rear end in your face, except I don’t want your beard all over it.”
“Eat your chicken, you awkward animal.”
Abe and Trout took their beers and repaired to the long table.
“As I was saying,” Bill continued, “the deck of the Psychonautilus changes with the thoughts and ideas that are prevalent in the mind. We’ve both been thinking about England, hence the décor.”
“Right,” acknowledged Abe, although he suspected the old fellow was as boiled as an owl.
“Well then,” said Trout, wiping the foam from his beard and thumping his jug down on the table, “time to raise the anchor and hoist the mainsails.” He went off to rummage through his chest, adding over his shoulder: “A figure of speech. We have no anchor or mainsails. We don’t even have an engine.”
“No engine?” said Abe, “What powers the ship then?”
“Consciousness,” declared Trout.
“Excuse me?” Abe ejaculated in amazement, spraying beer and sputum everywhere. It was clearly about time for some more fukkummuppa root.
“Consciousness. The Psychonautilus is powered by consciousness, which is why it reflects the ideas in the mind. The mind is nothing but consciousness, taking on shapes, appearing as thoughts and emotions. The same with the Psychonautilus. It is consciousness taking a shape. At this particular moment, the shape of a rather well appointed public house.”
“Then how can you touch it and taste it and smell it? You’re pulling me by the gonads, old man, I wasn’t born yesterday.” Stamping his foot on the floor and rapping upon the table in the manner of Dr Johnson, Abe refuted it thus: “The floor and table are solid.”
“Yes,” agreed Bill, “it’s a very convincing illusion. As is the world. As is the universe. And yet the fact remains; they are nothing but consciousness appearing as something else.”
He came back to the table clutching an illusory cigar box, and it started to drizzle.
“My God!” exclaimed Abe, “what’s going on now? It’s raining!”
“Yeah, sorry, my bad,” said Trout. “I’d got to thinking about the Welsh hillsides. But never mind that. We have a long journey ahead of us, and for that we need fuel.” He handed Abe a handful of shifty looking dried mushrooms. “Eat these, and we’ll be on our way.”
“What are they?”
“They’re mushrooms. Magic mushrooms. From the Welsh hillsides. We can’t go anywhere without weighing anchor. Think about it like this; your mind is the sail, the mushrooms are the wind.”
“Hey, you don’t need to convince me,” said Abe, eyeing the grass that was growing under his feet and the bewildered herd of sheep milling about the poop deck, “I’m a big fan of stuff like this.” He swallowed his mushrooms, which were repulsive, washing them down with the dregs of his beer. “Are you familiar with the fukkummuppa root?” he asked Bill.
“Can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure,” said Trout. “It’s very hard to come by, so they say.”
“Yes, it is,” said Abe, and then, turning to look pointedly at the cat; “but Mr Midnight, the witchdoctor, is a close personal friend of mine.” So saying, he put the bag of powdered root on the table. “If we’re going to go travelling, we might as well travel in style.”
“You wouldn’t know style if it bit you on the arse,” said Shakespeare.
Captain Bill Trout came from the future. He was born on Mars, one of three off-planet colonies, in the year 2055. Exploration was in his blood. His parents had both been officers in the United Navy, and were amongst the first to move out to the colonies. The Earth hadn’t been in a particularly good way in the twenty years or so prior to that, which was why the decision to build colonies had been made. After years of being polluted with carbon emissions and atomic waste, gluttony and avarice, it was barely habitable. The animals were dying out, and the humans were being born deformed or retarded.
Scientists had been warning everyone for years, since the late 20th century. They’d warned about pollution as the number of gas-guzzling vehicles doubled, tripled, quadrupled. So the Earthlings bought more SUVs. They’d warned about global warming, the damage to the ozone layer and the melting polar icecaps. So the Earthlings became three car families and took more jet flights. The blame for this could be laid squarely at the feet of successive right-wing neoliberal governments. By the beginning of the 21st century, governments – for the most part – were little more than money making entities. Capitalism had been an unmitigated disaster; all that had happened was that one percent of the population controlled all the wealth. The reason Capitalism had been such a failed ideology was because it was based on greed. Unless something had a monetary value, it had no value. Consequently citizens of low earning capacity were demonised as “scroungers” and feckless layabouts, and with every year that passed there were more of them.
The oil ran out in 2020.That pissed everyone off. Within a few years the planet was littered with the rusting carcasses of automobiles, and humanity had come to rely solely upon nuclear power, throwing up monstrous and menacing power stations that poisoned the countryside for miles around. Years earlier, some of the more environmentally conscious Earthlings had championed the idea of wind and solar power, but the rich and their puppet governments didn’t like the idea of that. Sunshine and air were free, after all. And you couldn’t make bombs with it either. No, nuclear power; that was the ticket.
As a result of this, and the ensuing atomic catastrophes that would eventually leave the Earth a dead and barren wasteland, by the year 2030 the population of the Earth had shrunk to less than half; only three billion souls were left. Apart from a privileged few - the very ones who had orchestrated this disaster – the inhabitants of Earth lived in varying degrees of poverty and disease. Great swathes of the population had been dispossessed; they lived amongst the filth. Finally, and inevitably, the day came when the people rose up against their oppressors. They armed themselves however they could, and stormed the government buildings; the bastions of the wealthy. In England, the houses of parliament were besieged and those inside were finished off with blunt instruments and automatic weapons. Buckingham Palace was ransacked and put to the torch, and the royal family were rounded up and unceremoniously shot. After that the citizens of the world shared what was left, with each other. There was only one purpose for humanity now, and that was to prevent its own extinction. For this they looked to the stars. The projects for the colonisation of Mars and the Moon were already well underway, and now, miles out in space, work began on “Earthstation”; a space station capable of accommodating twenty thousand people.
The environmental conditions on Terra Firma were deteriorating, rapidly. The land was corrupt, the atmosphere was toxic, and the heat was blistering. It was obvious to everyone that there wasn’t much time left. It was also acknowledged that only a handful of the Earths inhabitants would make it off the planet. Even with the population of the planet shrinking drastically every year, there would still be a couple of billion left. There wasn’t enough time to find a way to move them all, and there was nowhere to move them to. All in all, 144,000 would go out to the space station and the colonies. The others were as good as dead.
Earthstation was completed in 2050. The twenty thousand future occupants were chosen by means of a lottery, and the next few months were spent shuttling them all out there. Finally, the remaining 124,000 left the Earth, escorted by the United Navy’s entire fleet; 44,000 heading to the Moon, and 80,000 going on to Mars.
Bill Trout’s father, Steve, was Captain of the New Morning, one of the transportation ships. His mother, Barbara, was the ships chaplain. She was a minister in the Church of the Words of the Living Jesus, a humanist sect that took the Gospel of Thomas for its text, and believed that the message of the gospels in the New Testament had been perverted by St Paul the Bastard, and the teachings of Christ twisted out of all recognition by the church ever since. Religion had undergone a huge revival in the twilight days of the Earth. Now that the human race had been so thoroughly disabused of the notion that life was all about material gain, they were at a loss. What, if anything, was its purpose? Numerous apocalyptic cults sprang into existence, and the churches, mosques and temples of traditional religion saw attendance sky rocket, as did the psychiatric and mental health professions. Twelve-step recovery groups sprang up on every corner.
The Admiralty was in the Borealis basin, the flattest part of the colony, and it was here that the young Captain and his wife lived, under a self-renewing environmental dome. With the evacuation of Earth complete, the Navy concerned itself with further exploration of the galactic quadrants, with a view to building further colonies. They’d be needed sooner rather than later, because in the first five years on Mars the population doubled in size. Escaping extinction seemed to have given the colonists a new lust for life, and they were reproducing feverishly. Steve and Babs were not immune to the pervading air of randiness, and they had three tiny Trouts, one after the other.
Little Bill was the last to be born, in the summer of 2055, perfectly bald, but with a magnificent beard. There were a lot of hairy kids that year; the public put it down to high levels of potassium in the soil. That autumn the People’s Council announced that any more children right now wouldn’t be in the public interest, and requested the citizens to stop it, please. Prohibited from making any more babies, the populace turned their attention to other pursuits, such as starting schools and crèches for the ones they did have. They were determined to make a better job of education than they had on Earth, and because their dearly held beliefs about life and the universe had been destroyed by its extinction, as completely as light destroys darkness, the whole colony had the beginner’s mind of an infant. For the first time in mankind’s illustrious history, the entire human race knew that they knew nothing. It marked the beginning of a huge evolutionary leap for the species, as they came to find that they were one with the cosmos, and a golden age that would forever after be known as the Revelation.
It was an idyllic Martian childhood for Bill and his sisters, Teri and Tara. The demise of man’s empire-obsessed, greed-fuelled orgy of materialism, and the rabid individualism that was its cause and effect, saw the end of industrial scale agriculture, mass manufacture and the stockpiling of food and resources; the people returned to a more pastoral way of life. Under the life preserving sky-dome, they cultivated the red dusty land as well as they could, wove cloth, and contributed to the communal treasury. The colony was a colourful, exciting place. The pavements were a hive of activity; a confusion of sculptors, blacksmiths, and glassblowers’ stalls, of apothecaries, tailors and potters; musicians, magicians and street performers could be seen on every corner. The children attended school and stayed within the environs of the colony until the age of ten, when they became Navy cadets for a period of five years.
Young Bill was overjoyed at the prospect of joining his father on the New Morning when he was on a mission, rather than being left behind with the littl’uns. He had an enquiring mind, and there was nothing he wanted more than to be in the Navy and explore what was “out there”. His sisters happily returned to planet life after their cadetships, to teach at the school, but Bill was a born spaceman. He was a bright boy, so after his cadetship came to an end he was enlisted as a Warrant Officer, the highest non-commissioned rank in the Navy, on the auxiliary ship Exodus, where he excelled. By the time of his sixteenth birthday, he was a Lieutenant, and a year later he had achieved the rank of Lieutenant-Commander. At the age of eighteen he was made Commander on one of the new Explorer class vessels, the Warrior of Light, on its maiden voyage; a voyage that was to last three Mars years, and take the crew 2.5 million light years across intergalactic space, from the Milky Way to the edge of the Andromeda Galaxy.
The crew of the Warrior of Light were two years into the mission when they started to pick up signals of some sort from one of the star systems on the Andromeda Galaxy’s outer edge. They pinpointed the source to a terrestrial planet with three moons, and commenced to broadcast a return signal, which, as it happens, was Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sent in a wave of subatomic particles.
The planet with which they had made contact was called Mithya by its inhabitants, who were as alien to the crew of the Warrior of Light as the Mars scientists could have hoped for. They were hermaphrodites and telepaths who shared a collective mind; their skin was a luminescent pearly white. They didn’t give birth, in fact they weren’t born at all, in the sense that the humans understood it. They came forth from giant white lotus flowers, like pearls out of oysters. And when their lives were spent, there they returned; to the white womb of the lotus flower. As different from one another as the two races surely were, the Mithyans made their visitors welcome, and the Martians stayed with them for several weeks.
The Mithyans were explorers, but of a wildly different kind. Their interest lay in the intimate knowledge of awareness. It was they who discovered how to traverse the ocean of existence in a ship made out of thoughts and powered by consciousness. When Commander Trout learned of the existence of such ships he made it his business to learn everything about them. He spoke to the Mithyans at length, and recorded it all in a book. In order to empty their minds prior to existential exploration, the Mithyans chewed a fungus-like shrub that they called Soma.
“Chew some Soma and you’ll be flying,” they told him.
The crew returned to Mars as conquering heroes two years later, and a national holiday was declared, which would continue to be observed in the years to come, as “Explorers’ Day”. At the tender age of 22 years old, Bill Trout was given his own command, another Explorer class ship, the Atom Heart Mother, making him the youngest Captain in recent naval history. He took it in his stride. To be the Captain of his own spaceship was what he’d always wanted, to be sure, but now he had a far loftier goal. He intended to create his own thought ship, and fly it right into the heart of consciousness.
Bill had six months shore leave, and he meant to make the most of it. He had brought back a chest full of Soma, a parting gift from his friends on Mithya, and requested one of the Navy’s top biochemists to find a quick and efficient way of either growing or reproducing it. He searched the libraries for books on the nature of existence, and started to rise an hour before sunrise every morning so he could meditate, and focus his attention on purifying his mind. He looked into the spiritual traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christian Mysticism, Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism, before becoming convinced that they all spoke of knowledge of the same truth, albeit with different words and varying methods. The emptiness of the Buddhists was the consciousness, or “Brahman” of the Vedantins and Shaivists, and the nondual God of the Christian Mystics. He also read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, which further convinced him that when a person underwent a genuine mystical or “enlightenment” experience – no matter what their cultural or spiritual background - they experienced the same thing that everyone else experienced, and the truth that was revealed to them was the same truth that was always revealed.
When his tour of duty rolled around, and he took the Atom Heart Mother into deep space on its maiden voyage - another three year trip – every moment away from the bridge was spent in his cabin, where he studied the teachings of Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharishi, the Doctrines of Meister Eckhart, and the Tao Te Ching, as well as reading comparable works from more recent western philosophers such as Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts and Douglas Harding. He also ate a lot of Soma.
By the time the Mother returned to Mars, he was 25 years old, and ready to build his ship.
The Mithyans couldn’t have been more explicit in their instructions for building a thought ship, as Bill had recorded in his book:
Assuming that the would-be ship-builder has attained a pure and disciplined mind, the following method is apropos:
1. Eat lots of Soma.
2. Go to the highest point you can find; a cliff or the top of a tall building will do nicely.
3. Eat more Soma.
4. Picture the time and place you intend to visit. Hold that picture firmly and unwaveringly in the mind.
5. Jump, and the ship will appear.
Note: If the ship should fail to appear, the would-have-been ship-builder should understand that it was due to his own lack of preparation; that he has not gained complete ascendancy of mind, as he plummets to his death.
Bill practically lived on Soma these days, and as a result he was veritably itching to throw himself off a cliff. He packed everything he thought he’d need (a chestful of Soma) into a landhopper, and flew out to Valles Marineris, the largest canyon on the planet. At 2,500 miles long, 120 miles wide and nearly five miles deep, he thought it would suit his purpose admirably.
Standing on the edge of the canyon, looking out at the wide arc of space that surrounded him, at the red rock a hundred miles distant which was the other side of the canyon, and at the seemingly bottomless depths of the yawning crevice at his feet, he said a prayer; a prayer his mother had taught him, which she in turn had heard from the alcoholics who occasionally wandered into her chapel. It went like this:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
And then, recalling Siddhartha, he pictured Varanasi, India, 600bc. He imagined the sights and smells and sounds. The crowds, the colours; the Brahmins, the ascetics, the penitents; the sadhus and other itinerant holy men. He concentrated, focussing his attention on the vision until it was more real to him than the landscape in which he stood. He could feel the sunshine, the heat on his arms. It was his intention to go back in time and, like Siddhartha, to sit at the feet of the Buddha.
He stepped off the edge.
Bill was explaining all this to Abe, or at least trying to. It was hard to talk, admittedly. The problem wasn’t so much the forming of words as it was remembering what you were saying. Bill would start saying something, and before he’d said three words he would have forgotten what he was talking about. Abe himself, had he been asked, would have said that he couldn’t find his arse with both hands. He was in the eye of a storm; a hurricane of psychedelic phenomena which flashed through him and round him and past him. He saw the past and future; he saw his birth and death. He saw the one appearing as many, the universe as a city in the mirror of consciousness. He saw the face of God and it was his own. He saw everything. He was without beginning or end. He was the limitless reality.
Some hours later, as the effect of the mushrooms and fukkummuppa root began to wear off, Abe and the Captain slouched in varying states of battered decomposition at the table, limbs jerking, eyes bulging, tongues flopping; dribbling and foaming from their mouths. Shakespeare, first officer and ships cat, warlock of great power, master arcanist and close personal friend of Aleister Crowley, member of the Order of the Golden Dawn and a cat who knew how to handle his Soma, caused the table between them to explode, bringing them violently into the present moment.
“I’m sorry to break up your party gents,” he announced imperiously, “but land ahoy. We are approaching the White Cliffs of Dover.”