U L T R A M E T A : chapter 13
(from Chapman Issue 108)
...When I walk out into this city, the sky swallows me. Always at dusk and in autumn, somehow, when I wake up when everyone else has finished their day’s tribulations. I begin again, like the butterfly from its cocoon, reborn briefly, to choose another name, another death. And the sky is blue turning black, as if bruised, and the clouds tinged with colour seem to rush towards me, or to wherever I fix my eyes on the hemisphere above me, as if to mop my brow. Each day destroys me in the end, uses me up, because I open myself to it so utterly.
The clothes don’t matter. They don’t even smell of me, in so far as I even remember that much about who I am supposed to be. Ideally, they are somebody else’s, borrowed or stolen, and they just hang there on me, maybe not even entirely well-fitting, so much the better. And I walk in them, let’s say it’s a suit, which I don’t even recognise. I walk in it and it feels strange and loose against my skin and that’s comforting because it means that I don’t know them and they don’t know me and that’s fresh because then anything can happen. And this is what I want to try and say about this: that I am wiped clean every time, my memory and identity gone and I am a mystery and a stranger to myself and to all the other strangers that I pass, and this is freedom.
I choose any direction. And then I walk under the darkening sky with my collar turned up, in this city that I call Ultrameta, because nothing stands still here. And I begin to look for clues. Like the grain of sand in the oyster’s shell, the smallest fragment can start me off in this evening’s journey to invent an identity. A traffic light changes to green, or a falling leaf in a park seems to turn in mid-flight and point to a street where a light suddenly goes on, or off, in some intriguing way that makes me want to make my life go there. And then I just go. Having no baggage, or none that I remember, I can take these choices lightly. Without a job, wife, children, parents, passport, driving licence, bankcard, without these I have no anchor, so I drift forever.
Tonight I walk into a coffee bar, of the suitably anonymous variety. Where selections of the evening’s flotsam like me can sit perched at the counter on stools, like crows resting on telephone wires. And the electric light is slightly too harsh, and there are mirrors in unexpected places, giving me glimpses of myself and who I might be and who might be watching me. Because these are my real clues of course: until somebody speaks to me I am nobody, I have no personality. But a few words are all I need, and a look in the eyes and pretty soon I can tell them what they want to hear and construct myself to suit them.
And right now, a girl with brown eyes has come in and started talking to me; her hair is long and straight. I can see her back reflected in that mirror there. And she is suddenly talking urgently into my face, telling me that she thinks she knows me, that I look so much like the husband of a friend she was talking to last week, and she can’t understand why I don’t recognise her. She is talking, and I can see her mouth, but the sound somehow doesn’t reach me. And my eyes roll until I am watching closely the surface of my coffee sitting on the glass counter top, from the corner of my eye. And I’m seeing it closer and larger, until it fills my whole field of vision, and there are waves crashing across it with crests of foam, and a vortex is turning there like a typhoon. And suddenly I grab her mouth, with my hand and I lean closer and I look into her eyes and then I see everything that’s there, all in an instant. Her entire life from start to finish and what will happen next and how it will end in the future.
And it’s all so quiet again: because she’s stopped talking. And I move my head to one side to see past hers, to get a glimpse of myself in the mirror, but as I do so, as my head slides over, I see that there are ears, and my hair and my chin, but in the centre there is only a hole with cogs turning inside it: ancient, blackened cogs, some fast, some slow, but all of them unstoppable. And I grab her shoulders and I spin her around on her seat to see this reflection, and as she turns my face appears over the cogs, sliding from left to right just as her eyes pass over it. And I’m complete again for now, I have an identity.
I lean down and kiss her left cheek, then look at our reflection again. I pay for us, and we leave and walk out into the labyrinth again. And the city is white in the moonlight now, like bones. We walk, and the jagged shards jut up against the sky, and I know that the whole city is a skeleton and we’re walking through its rib cage. My companion is taking my hand and she leads me now to the top of a hill and we wait for the traffic lights to change, as a flow of ghostly white cars whistle through, shimmering with speed. The lights change, and there is a noise of tarmac and stone cracking. Several buildings start sliding past in front of us, dust and debris billowing out from under their ragged bases like torn skirts. In front: an entire city block, like stage scenery on the move, is now changing location to seven blocks downhill, a more desirable area. The group seem to huddle together like a little herd of elephants: all their disparate roofs and towers and steeples and flags sticking up like the heraldry of a bold nocturnal crusade. In some of the passing windows I can see perfectly normal domestic scenes; some clothing being ironed, dinner served for a family of four. The dust settles and the traffic lights change again. We cross the road, before some buses advance upon us.
And she’s leading me somewhere. Towards the moon, where it hovers low over the ocean. Walking downhill again, I notice all the tall buildings beginning to thin out, as we approach some more derelict area. Old buildings must have been demolished recently or collapsed: whole blocks have been cleared away and now only pavements are left, with solitary lampposts hanging over us, some of them flickering in a state of poor repair.
She seems to have calmed down now, as we walk, whoever she is. She punches my arm, playfully perhaps, and says: so do you remember me now? Or are you not who I say you are? And why have you changed your appearance?
I don’t know who I am, I answer her truthfully, nor you either. Does it matter? What or whom am I supposed to be? What kind of man is the one I look like? Should I apologise for him? I don’t mind apologising for him, since I have none of his pride, presuming he has any. Defending him… will be more difficult on the other hand, without some more knowledge.
Madman, she says, turning her eyes on me with a mock-deranged expression, I can’t figure you out. You’re either a madman or somebody somehow addicted to melodrama… to romance at any cost. Or then again… maybe you ARE somebody else?
I feel like I AM somebody else, this time I think… on balance.
Yes… I feel as if there have been many times, is that not the case?
I don’t know… she says, looking down at her feet, her voice dropping, …not this bad…
At last we come to a solitary house: surreal because everything around it has been removed. A grand little townhouse with an overgrown garden and rusting Victorian gates; very elaborate, I run my hands around its fantastical twists and volutes. A tram rattles by behind us and shakes the ground like an earthquake as we walk across the moonlit garden; and I notice the surface of a bright pond rippling: silver against the black hues of the ivy and groundcover that twists everywhere across the ground.
Inside she leads me up a broad staircase in semi-darkness into an upper room with a bare wooden floor; its planks creak under our feet. Its walls, and with it the ornate cornice and skirtings, appear to have all been painted black, but over this I can dimly make out various white lines; astronomical diagrams and geometry theorems, like some intellectual graffiti. I would have liked you to meet my father, she says shyly, her eyes on the floor, and gestures to where he stands alone at the window, looking out over the view: of the great bone-hard city on the hill, and this derelict plain here beneath it, and then the dark ocean off to the right. The window is large, full-height like patio doors, but very old and subdivided into many panes by peeling mullions and astragals. The curtains are fawn, rough sackcloth and laden with dust. As I step closer I see now that her father is actually a white plaster bust of some heroic Edwardian torso, with a chequered waistcoat buttoned around him, perched on the chipped plastic legs of a tailor’s dummy. But his head turns somehow, and his deathly white features flex a little and he speaks in a weary, hushed tone: Ahh you’ve come again I see, I expected as much, will she remember anything this time?
But father, I say, I’ve never seen her before in my life, although conceivably in my dreams, if I’m not dreaming now. And anyway, how do you know me?
Fool, he replies. Nobody knows you. Except maybe the inanimate like me and innocent children like her, before you close her eyes forever. Why must you torment us by coming here? Isn’t it enough that the city fathers see fit to demolish our district stone by stone year after year in preparation for the next stage of their great plan: constructing new glass palaces for the heartless ones, those faultless maestros of youth and savagery?
Then I feel a hand on my left arm, and I see that his daughter has come to rescue me. I look at her soft living face and smile, then return my eyes to her father who is now returned to being just a lifeless statue again, grey and inert, albeit with a single droplet of moisture on his cheek which I reach out and catch with my finger. I turn and hold it out to her, but just then a cloud of the turbulent night sky clears, and the beams of moonlight intensify and fall across the large empty floor of the living room behind us. As we both watch, the floor changes into a silvery ocean, criss-crossed by tiny waves. Enchanted, we link hands and walk slowly across it towards the black rectangle of the open door to the hall, the moonlit water lapping silently over our toes.
She takes me up a further staircase; more narrow this time, and made of creaking timber, into a large attic with several skylights propped open to the night air. This room has been a library it seems, and I see many shelves still around the room, but notice that most of the books are now heaped in a large pile in the middle of the floor. She grows very quiet and walks in front of me very reverently, then kneels at the base of the pile then begins picking up one book after the other to examine.
As I walk slowly closer to her from behind, I observe her strange ritual developing, repeating, and accelerating all the time: she is picking up each ancient book, wiping its cover clear of dust, reading its title, opening the first few pages, skimming through the rest then sighing bitterly and discarding the book onto the pile, then picking up the next one, on and on, ad finitum. As the process is beginning to get frantic, her hands darting in agitation, I kneel down next to her and see that her eyes are filled with tears. I put both my hands over hers and close them over the book that she holds. Her body stills and calms at last; its unexplained disturbance fading away. I pick up a few of the books myself, then fill my arms with a bundle of them, stand up and take them over to one of the open skylights. She stands up and follows me. Our eyes meet, and without words we seem to agree some sort of plan. Standing either side of the open window, we take each book one by one, then whole piles at a time, and hurl them up into the starry night sky above us. Most of them just open up into the air, their white pages fluttering like feathers, then fall off to the left, caught by the wind and bouncing away, thumping off the roof slates as they fall to the ground below. But our eyes light up and we laugh together exultantly at this: that every tenth book or so hovers longer, flutters is white pages, then lifts off and flaps away into the night, flying towards the ocean and freedom. We laugh and shout as we continue thus: setting free and condemning books at random, for over an hour, until the entire attic is empty.
At last we are left without a single book, just staring at each other, the old sadness returning. The night wind blows across our faces in the silence. The same wind: with its smells of dust and ruination and of the city beyond, with its taste of stale waste and fuel. And then time breathes in.
With the same slow reverent, yet destructive gestures as those we applied to the books, we gradually remove each item of each other’s clothing until we both stand naked in the white moonlight either side of the skylight, our bare feet on the rough wood of the dusty attic floor. Then she closes her eyes and I place my right hand on her left breast. At this she becomes whiter and whiter as I press my hand harder and harder against her skin. Slowly, surprisingly, my hand actually moves through and into her chest, without any blood flowing. She is quite still, her eyes closed, as I find and then slowly withdraw: a living, sleeping bird from within her chest cavity. I hold the bird in both hands. It is a dove or a wood-pigeon, stained with a little blood. Her chest is open. The bird springs to life, and like the books before it, I set it free into the starlit sky over our heads, the wind gasping like a hungry giant.
I dress and carry her naked in my arms down the staircase to the garden, and she opens her eyes again a little, her face still very pale, saying won’t you stay tonight? Why are you going to leave?
Opening the front door with my back, I carry her out into the overgrown front garden, saying Because I have to die again, to choose a death, it doesn’t matter which, but chose it before it chooses me. Tomorrow nobody can recognise or remember me. There are always little changes, or I can take steps to make sure that there will be, put my face in the fire until I find a new face, and then everything will be different again…
As I bend down next to the pond, she sits up a little and glances at her chest … the wound… she says, … open again… will it ever heal? I run my fingertips over the tiny red edges of the slit between her breasts, sealing it like an envelope, then lean to kiss her. Then I lower her body down into the cold still water. She floats there just below the surface, and I finally place my hand over her eyelids and close them. I gather up autumn leaves that I see strewn around among the ivy, and wetting each of them in the pond; wrap them around her body until; lying perfectly still she is entirely encased in dead leaves, in varying shades of red, gold, brown, and green. I look around and see that a dusting of moonlit frost has now partially covered every frond and stem of ivy across the garden, making it into a kind of skin. Perhaps the pond will freeze before daybreak.
And now I leave her there, to catch a bus back into the heart of the city. I think I see a dim light emanating from the upper window where her father had spoken to me, but it might just be a trick of the moonlight.
The bus is late and empty: like a magical carriage for me, its only passenger. I don’t like the driver’s black moustache. He watches me, his only passenger on the back seat, incessantly; in his mirror. Without the usual ballast of humankind the vehicle lurches and bumps violently. The driver seems to check my image in his mirror after each jolt as if he is trying to impress or torment me. His moustache makes it difficult to say whether he is laughing or not. Tired, of this, I risk even more jolting by standing up and going upstairs. When we reach the terminus, I come back down, but somehow the driver has been replaced. What happened to the other driver? –I ask of the younger, clean-shaven man. Him ?, he grunts, and points to the back of a uniformed man walking away, but somehow he doesn’t look quite the same either. I turn to step out, but he grunts again and says: Hey, he left this for you…. He said you left it here last night. He hands me some folded papers. Confused, I accept them, and walk hesitantly, reading, as I come away:
These are the notebooks of Ultrameta: the city of the soul…
I turn a page over:-
Something happened about a year ago, which I never told you about. How could I tell you? It affects not just us, but the fabric of the entire universe. My wife and I were in a car crash, or rather we weren’t. I know what I saw. Suddenly we were going to die, but I was very calm. There were three cars, and the one that was overtaking us was going to hit the oncoming one; it could not be stopped, the trajectories were mathematical, all three cars and their occupants were marked for destruction. I watched it happening, time slowed down, just like it does on those occasions. And maybe that’s the first clue. Just why does it slow down? Well, let me tell you what it does next, most people don’t live to find out what it does next….
Slowing down in mild fascination, I find I have just bumped into an old down-and-out, leaning against a wall of the bus station. I pull myself together, and walk more briskly towards a café. But stopping at a junction, I can’t help reading some more:-
Maybe we are never meant to know certain things, because if we ever came to understand their implications we would go instantly mad. In the normal system of the world, we appear to live and die to order like helpless little sheep, on the unknown whims of the unknown shepherd. But alone among all the things we observe in this world throughout our lives, there is only one thing that never actually makes any sense: death itself. It is counter-intuitive. We know deep down that consciousness is inextinguishable. This is not a wish, but an unshakeable intuition. What if death were, after all, whether we wanted it to be or not: just an optical illusion?
I find a suitable all-night café, push open the glass doors, enter and pull up a lonely perch. The barman pops up from below the counter with a dishcloth in his hand, a gap in his toothless smile. I order a coffee, and ask to borrow a pen. I test my handwriting on a napkin and compare it to the notes on these strange crumpled papers. They match up. I continue reading:-
At the point of death, or of supposed death, time actually slows down then changes course in order to alter events. Nobody can experience death, so death is avoided, an alternative history is pulled out of the ether and dropped onto our plates. An infinite number of realities can be generated in order to divert death. When the cars crashed, they didn’t crash: I saw them bend, I saw them pass through each other. I thought for a while that I might have imagined it, but days later, the universe began throwing me a few clues: a sunset sky looked obviously fake; every cloud identical, I would overhear total strangers saying my thoughts out loud on the train. Then I knew that I was dead, that we all are, and trapped in a game…
Leaning back in my seat, I can feel that I am running out of time again. It must be about four in the morning. I drink my coffee and smoke a cigarette, take a last look at this day’s face in some fragment of public mirror. I scarcely feel that I have got to know myself or the world, but maybe next time will be better. But I like what little I can see of the traces she has left on me, changes in my face. The eyes are tired as ever, the body ticking over, buoyed up by its little electric shocks of contact, its rejuvenating acts of congress. This time I am too tired for electrocution, and there are precious few cars around for me to contrive a collision with. I pay up, then catch a lift to the 14th floor of a towerblock, break the lock to the plant room, and stroll out onto the rooftop. I scarcely even pause to admire the view. Same old city, although the blur of the lights at speed makes for an interesting variation. Going down I remember looking up at all the old books with their fluttering pages, and wonder if one of these times I might fly.
When I swallow this city, the sky walks into me. Always in autumn at dusk, somehow, when the tribulating day has finished everyone else. Once more I begin, like a cocoon loosing its butterfly, dying briefly, another death calling out my name. And the sky is black turning blue, as if tainted, and the swishing cloth of coloured clouds seems to turn my brow to that hemisphere above, wiping my eyes. Each day uses its end to my destruction, because it opens me up so utterly…
Inescapable city: your streets run to meet me, envelop me like a mother I have lost, or persistently forgotten. Familiar, unfamiliar. Every time, the fresh crop of faces, poison flowers, turning to the sun, crowds of eyes welling with worries. They pass me by, known to nobody. Yet I am haunted by fragments, broken imprints of voices and features. I remember a girl, last night perhaps: was there a name? I was running my fingers along the smooth surface of her face, searching for clues, traces of my identity. Now, I think she may be dead.
Nothing. I remember only other, more distant fragments. Being a child once somewhere, sitting on a floor confronted by a mass of jigsaw pieces, and my heart sinking at the prospect of ever re-assembling them into a picture. Later, as an adult, I might have solved that puzzle in half a minute, laughing. But this is all that I feel now: that child’s bewilderment, a blank sheet drifting closer to the mysterious centre of life, vanishing into a snowstorm of atoms, seeking new form...
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