Road sign by Jem Freiesleben
Money need not have bothered Vron Decledra – a man with an inheritance as well as an invented name. His family motto was: Hic enim labor lapsus. He had an elaborate coat of arms to prove it.
“Approximately,” he drawled languidly, “that translates as ‘We slid here’.”
“Somebody in your family must have bashed somebody else over the head at some point in history?” Medlock objected.
“Natürlich, dear soul. Goes without saying.” Decledra looked askance, unaware presumably, that the roots of his ‘Aryan-blonde’ dye-job were disturbing in the artificial light. “Don’t badger me with class-war! All material riches issue from crime, luck or exploitation. Hard work is just a blind. Pity instead the poor middle-classes. They don’t trust in luck. The crimes they follow are all legalised.”
Sick to his stomach in the extensive, dining saloon baroque of the Hyperion Club, momentarily Medlock tried to flow inside his head towards the dark disembodiment of his night before. Its background essence. As if he’d comfortably slept in a ruined abbey or moonlit bomb-crater, rather than high above the city in a luxury cell, all paid for, plus travel expenses.
Black negatives had choked his night’s dream surfaces . . . but eliding language or literal meanings, eclipsing every facet of mud or crystal, finally the effect had somehow been expansive – to give a wayward blossom of hope: A lotus rising from the dark drain of meaninglessness.
I must build my own hope, there is no other.
Determinedly pursuing the obvious, Medlock persisted – “Where did you personally, slide from?” – convinced against instinct that he could make his brief, unexpected stint as (minor) questing journalist pay. Grab it by the throat. Choke the observational balance out of it.
That every person who is old was once young remains an individual tragedy: its universality does not dilute it.
“Oh, quite definitely down.” Decledra crowed then purred with satisfaction. Like most famous people encountered in ‘real’ life, he was much smaller than Medlock had expected. “The violent bit – climbing ladders – that’s all lost in the mists of history. Pre-Norman.”
“And the money . . .”
“What interest to me is money? I only hope to die before I run out of it. Even if all that junk I cranked out didn’t sell, I’d be in clover. As someone with a chip on your shoulder, you must know that the more money you have – or people believe you have – the easier it is to multiply it. Emptiness breeds emptiness.”
Though at any glimmer or shard of a visionary prospect, all other considerations flew from the window, even Calder Medlock knew the necessity of a little cash for human morale. This bastard had never had to earn or claim for it, despair or pray for it. He just had it. Snatched centuries ago, it had mouldered its way into his virtual coffers – guided and no doubt skimmed by other blander parasites of administration and bureaucracy, lawyers and such like. That also was obvious. Medlock had no envy or desire for himself, only occasionally, a burning sense of injustice – vengeful bunting to glorify a mean street.
In the night my mind blossoms a version of you that still loves me.
“Why The Corncrake? How did that unusual stage name come about?”
“An influential pundit claimed my songs and manner were harsh and repetitive . . . and that I scuttled about the stage. Unfortunately for her, her insult helped create a brand.”
“I had to look up Corncrake. A secretive bird – said the book – ‘that only betrays its presence in concealing vegetation by its monotonous rasping call.’”
“That’s journalism for you.” Decledra opined, “Though a persona can be as concealing as any tropical savannah.”
Signalling for a waiter, Decledra got a waitress instead – a woman who had subliminally charmed Medlock earlier with her air of behind-the-scenes insolence, her joy over monotony. When nobody else was looking, he’d noticed her motioning to bowl her empty tray along a dining-room aisle, as if the job meant nothing to her. Mediterranean in looks, pretty and compact, her dark wavy hair was tied tight in a bunch.
Decledra ordered something obscure with a fancy name and eyed her as she walked away.
“Do you think transparent white shirts with clearly visible underpinning are a compulsory part of the uniform?” He asked none too quietly across the table. Involuntarily, turning his head, Medlock only noted the woman’s smile – which he thought he could detect through the back of her head, before realising that the distant bar mirror offered more than supplemental help.
At last, in the night, my throttling panic . . . only after much cold air, resolved itself into a metaphysical desire, a wish, a demand, not to exist in this paltry wavering form – a form and setting not worthy of our attachment.
To go back to a time when the world had a chance. Surely enough of us were listening then?
“It’s always been the sort of oppression applied in schools, shops and offices.” Medlock supposed, tempering his wrath, trying to balance disillusion and desire: the private night gone with the societal evening now. The purity of white versus its transparency or clinical control. The use but loathsomeness of all uniforms.
Perhaps to Decledra, expecting a filter of journalistic ‘objectivity’, Medlock’s subterranean anger came across as mere puritan disdain. Either that or he was only listening to himself. For his eyes remained glued on the woman. “Nice walk,” he added, gleeful to skate across the passing moment. “I think she chose the tempting combination herself . . . and – shame on us – we’re the ones oppressed by animal lust.”
Speak for yourself Medlock thought, not wanting to see white lace panels or straps over the warm flesh underneath.
A tale of restlessness and disaffection, prefiguring an abstract ambition . . . Music had once been Decledra’s aim, but age (if newspapers, media and other gossip-based junk could be believed) had made him reactionary – if not in any clear way, fascist.
The idea of searching for Truth nowadays might seem absurd. Yet in the past, Decledra (according to the oldest and most hagiographic sources), had persuaded himself that music, natural and sociable, was the most honest path to it.
“Words; lyrics.” Medlock began. “Even if no-one can really hear them when you sing . . .”
“Rasp.” Decledra corrected archly.
“And you never print them . . . Without words would you have been satisfied, Vincent?” Medlock threw in, still unable to warm to his companion, despite the man’s apparent self-deprecation; despite the drink and his own regressive admiration for bloody-mindedness. Was he hoping to irritate or confuse his antagonist?
“Would you?” Decledra deflected and the effect was disrupting. For a not-brief-enough moment, riffed maybe from Decledra’s quizzical glance, Medlock envisioned himself as a singer-songwriter: to do which, he would have to have sung! With or without any kind of voice, most solo singers either loved or hated themselves. Occasionally he’d managed the latter, but he’d always been too self-aware, too sceptical, too distrusting that he was really here, on earth, in this form, to aspire to the other. To write and sing his own words to an audience; to demand attention; to be so visibly needy; to declaim! It was a horrifying thought. To project his words. To project any words.
“They were never much needed in the bedrooms of teenage girls – or boys – I used to know,” Decledra smirked, extending the upper hand, but descending abruptly into melancholy – as if he’d read Medlock’s thoughts and truly wanted a friend, or had some ulterior motive: “Youth that I never really knew . . . and now never will.”
Jewels in the moving of wishes. The dark lanes and driveways so far from housing estates.
“Haven’t you ever been in love?” Decledra spurred and tacked, but with some underlying sympathy, as if he’d begun to close off the roundabouts and shallow hubbub of the Hyperion Club, all those spoilt celebrity diners and rich hangers-on.
Clearing for a while again the blurred tears on the windscreen, the wiper made the old factory building outside look new. It’s old clock, its air of preservation, made him desolate. Away, behind, close under the wooded hill, it was the modern bit that made the money.
How many families had this place supported since it was built 160 years ago. Its external beauty paid for by the poverty of its workers? Though there was a village school and pleasant groups of Victorian model houses. It must’ve been fairer than some, its owners philanthropic – or concerned by family guilt.
“Turn it off,” she had requested as the wiper wiped itself dry. She spoke with placid irritation, hiding a coldness, hiding despair. Twenty-nine years had come to this.
“Of course,” Medlock answered.
Forgetting all his masks, Decledra turned serious. “What’s your first name?” he asked.
Medlock was suspicious. “Surely you know that from information provided?”
“Didn’t read it properly. Or if I did, I’ve forgotten.”
“As in the sculptor whose work was reduced to miniature mobiles for babies?”
“Perhaps. Though I don’t suppose my parents would have heard of him and my grandfather originated from Calderdale. Actually, I made it up myself.”
“Oh really. Why?”
“Probably to encourage myself. Why did you invent yours?”
“I always felt like I was outside, alone in the dark, and Vincent just didn’t do it for me. The name was no ambulance.”
“You couldn’t identify with holding your hand over a flame, excessive passion, sunflowers or intensified blossom?”
“No. Though I’m not sure you can intensify blossom. The real thing is always more intense and more beautiful.”
“Yes.” Medlock agreed.
Not able to share his belief in Romantic intensity, his wife had wanted good things to grow from the sphere of ordinary life, naturally, as if this was something relatively common and easy. Yet in this hope, she’d always be disappointed, at war with herself. If you have sublime expectations – such as they’d both been born with . . . unrealistic, over-reaching . . .
Ultimately, freedom and escape can only come from inside. They must be self-generated.
Perhaps she really believed she could downgrade her inner self, become ‘normal’ – if such a thing exists – be content with what it appears the majority likes or suffers or becomes resigned to?
And perhaps once he wasn’t around – always relentless; always goading them towards some imaginary, idealistic high pass which lack of fortune, blind will or unceasing faith made it impossible to reach – she could make this adjustment?
Or perhaps, despite her continuing love, she was just worn out by him?
“Renoir said that all great art is abstract.”
“Renoir the painter?” Decledra asked, angling his neck back, so that the white-blonde raffia on his head splayed and his one visible eye became lizard-like as he lazed his stare upon the seventh chandelier of glass or plastic.
“His son. Film director.”
“I’ll have to think about that. Art has taken so many wrong turnings. Presumably he means “not realistic”? I wonder how he’d define ‘great’? So many works of ‘art’ are no more than fashion. So many artists just taking the piss. Who wouldn’t if they could make money doing it? And what about craft? Skilled and honest, decorative, pleasing . . . Comfortable as an armchair, if I may quote?”
I had need of him, both more and less than need; and he of me.
Medlock rewound: “Let’s get back to your abiding ambition. Your music.”
“Not interesting. I never believed in it. Nor anything else. It was merely a coat. Easy and fun. Many of us drift just to see where the currents take us.”
“D’you think that’s true for those without money?” Medlock asked, sensibly.
“Why not? They’ve even less to lose. I mean, what choice do we really have? Whether people realise it or not, the accelerated modern world is something nobody really wants. Some sell-out their soul to feel in touch, even to be with it. To ride with the Devil. I had no soul to sell and only pretended to be with it. You can’t be with it. There’s nothing to be with! And we . . . we all end up too far from the world we perceived as children and might have grown to love had it remained stable. Too far from the idealised, hazy hopes of youth. The world as it should have been for us, is now a museum. It changes too fast. What’s the point of so much change? There is none. Nothing much improves and more of it gets worse. It’s a huge heavy train, out of control. The acceleration crushes our body and soul. No wonder those that can keep some degree of mental stability, retreat into art or nostalgia, Nationalism; hunting; the countryside . . . Or try to suck the spume from the coat-tails of ‘progress’. . .” Decledra paused to hold his sneer.
Disregarding Nationalism and hunting (those blinder thoughtless things chucked in) some of what Decledra implied, Medlock might have approved of. But rather than adjust or interject hope, he just waited, drifting downstream to see where Decledra’s current flowed next.
“It’s not better, only more convenient, more immediate,” Decledra continued, giving up on the ceiling and dropping his gaze to the aisle, distracted by the curving walk of the waitress as she passed again, the defiant sparkle illuminating her eyes.
Medlock considered the transmutable nature of extreme viewpoints. “It’s rarely better,” he agreed with reluctance. “Not even for the lucky ones. Though it’s astonishing how slow they are to realise it, adrift in their bleached-out universe! We should have slowed it all down – or switched it off – years ago.
“Not possible. Never possible. We are lemmings pouring towards the drop, so obsessed with seizing the moment that we’re stuck in it, careless of past or future.”
“Unless we can suddenly grow up.” Medlock hoped against hope.
“You think the human race has stalled at the rash, impressionable teenager phase?” Decledra queried, as if genuinely interested.
“Could be – and it’s unlikely to get a chance to age, to lose the reckless excitement but retain the ideals. To realise it doesn’t have to destroy everything in sight; that it can tread more lightly. That it doesn’t have to embody the technology; that it can use tools without being ruled by them.”
Medlock had the horrible feeling that he and Decledra were beginning to merge – a sensation he did not like. As if he were imprisoned in a nightmare: the so-called Hyperion Club, an elaborate torment inside his head. As if the waitress would soon be naked and Decledra a laughing skull. Sex and death.
“But if one region or country managed this saintly withdrawal towards balance,” drawled Decledra, refusing to grin, flesh still covering his skeleton, “it would always be looking over its shoulder. Slow down or pause to look around and immediately another idiotic mob will be taking over. Acceleration has become a fixed mentality, a mass conformity. There’s nothing left now. It’s too late.”
“Yet in interviews you’ve never voiced such things. You’ve only appeared to support the nihilistic hedonism of your fans.”
“Once or twice. It’s a game. Anyone with a brain can sense the encroaching tide. I can’t be earnest wholesale. I don’t know how to say the truth. I’m no wigged-out professor or bleating scaremonger. But using past geological time scales to plot the severity of climate change, I don’t think helps. It only encourages complacency. Que será, será. It gets humanity off the hook.”
With this last point Medlock had to concur, “The idea of the sea drowning every major coastal city or of a world devoid of people, is ultimately a comfort to me!” he declared. “I feel a sense of relief – as if I were the Earth.”
“A la Gaia.” Decledra beamed. “The dwarves – or should I still say the vertically-challenged? – finally put down.”
“All those pointless trips to the moon – the idea of which was so exciting when I was a kid.”
“They’d carry on seeming exciting if you didn’t grow up and realise that S P A C E is just the abstraction of a void. Out there, is an illusion. Out there, is an empty escape.”
Determined not to wake his sleeping friend, my life’s partner, over the years he felt he would cease to exist – but for those moments when her limbs would shift, or body turn towards him. Then I would hope in her half-consciousness that she would be glad to feel my embrace. But he knew she was at the limit of earthly strain, her mind draining her body. The stress in her thoughts, a vicious circle, had inhabited her limbs, her nerves, her heart. Her body was being hollowed out and with it her strength of will. Without full morale, the human frame was not worthy of us. I must be content with the sweet, exhaling breaths which cooled my face, their spiritual caress . . .
“What a magnificent effort superior science fiction once made to lay its earnest or desperate hopes, its Gods or Star Makers, upon us – not seeming to realise, or pretending not to know, that everything interstellar is within and not outside us . . .” Though he believed what he said, Medlock, knew this speech sounded like a performance, the recital of a script, a motivation lecture.
“How about Brandy? Coffee? Death by infinite chocolate?” Decledra interrupted, bored or embarrassed by Medlock’s flushed declaration, its centripetal force? “Do you know what I’d like more than anything else?” he declared, raising his glass as the waitress passed him, smiling only to herself. She was not flirting. Despite the semi-transparent blouse, she remained superior, self-possessed.
“Is it something readers would like to hear?”
“Tell me then. You wouldn’t believe how this job makes me sick.”
“I’d just like to live long enough to be around when the nil-witted human race wipes itself out – one way or another.”
“I don’t think you’ve long to wait. A general dismay can’t be far off.”
“I’d just like to see the look on their stupid faces!”
“They might just all be dancing instead. Perhaps subconsciously we all know our own bad blood; our own self-destructive folly?”
“That’s a nice idea. You can forgive them then? You feel rich enough to give them absolution?”
“Not really. I’m nine-thousand per-cent frustrated. My head screams inside constantly. It fumes with needles.”
“That’s why I gave up on music. Its emotional override gives too easy a way out. It helps people be resigned to the accelerated lunacy we could once have done something about. There was a time when music encouraged anger and action . . .”
“Some still must?”
“Not that I can think of. Certainly nothing I ever did. Now, as you say with my adherents, it’s just protective resignation or hedonist ecstasy.”
Divided, we become victims of a society that needs people to be frightened. A tiny subdivision of the universe. Barely activated dust. Together, the hive mind can’t touch us – and realising that here was never anywhere but only a beginning, will be an uplifting thought . . .
“Not that words are any better.” Decledra went on, casting his eyes around seriously now for a waiter. “Too many writers can’t resist the cymbal clash of cleverness or flippancy. They only take risks with rhetoric. Positive or hopeful people have the idea that life is a dazzling carnival, when the only interesting way, is, as you say: inward.”
“But without the sensitivity advanced and encouraged by music, would we not all have died years ago – died inside?”
Rather than a lover, my inescapable anti-social slide forces you to see me from the outside too. And because of that, you believe that the you I love, does not and never existed. In truth, I see the real one buried inside, the one you can rarely get to.
In the night my mind blossoms our joint perfection.
“Perhaps.” Decledra conceded, giving up on the whim of brandy or coffee. Sliding down again. Contented for a moment it seemed – or vacant?
Hic enim labor lapsus.
Was the noise of the kitchen beyond the swing doors louder now than the gossip in the restaurant? Were the candelabras being dimmed? In the toilets briefly, Medlock had splashed some water on his face. One bead which must have been trapped in his hair, now trickled down the side of his forehead like an insect, almost stationary, and into its hideous tickle he concentrated all the force of his headache, everything that was negative. He wanted to be away.
Boldly the waitress came, deigning to care for Decledra’s autograph, as if she held him in contempt. But before the tarnished icon’s amused amatory stare, casually she dropped by his hand one of the Hyperion’s cards – a private number clearly scrawled along the top. Turning her back, with tray in hand, she strolled away.
Grinning towards his jaded assessor, Decledra replaced his mask.
Lawrence Freiesleben 2019 and earlier