100 years of vicissitude, p.1
100 Years of Vicissitude, p.1Andrez Bergen
First published by Perfect Edge Books, 2012
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Text copyright: Andrez Bergen 2012
ISBN: 978 1 78099 597 7
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For la familia
what is the use of
Prologue | 序幕
It’s swing time, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers must be cooling their heels elsewhere.
In all honesty, I can’t distinguish swing from boogie-woogie—styles my grandparents would be better equipped to judge. Though not wearing a tuxedo to match the music, I am blessed with a suave smoking jacket.
Anyhow, this jazz-inflected number continues to blare, doing seventy-eight rpm on brittle shellac, something warbled in Japanese about people having fun just by singing the zany song.
The whole package is strung together in a crackly, mono din that originates from a gramophone, housed in a lacquered wooden casket on the other side of the room.
Splayed on the floor before the music box lies a half-naked man, inert.
You’ll find me propped up on the bed. It boasts a hard, uncomfortable mattress and the quilts are awry, but who would fret, seated next to a young, exquisite geisha?
Not that she doesn’t have flaws.
This girl bears smudged makeup, a vivid red streak (blood) on one white cheek, and she’s wrapped in a twisted, half-open kimono that’s fallen off her shoulder.
I glimpse an ample amount of small, pale breast, as I reach over to light the cigarette she has pinioned between her teeth. Eyes off, you ancient rotter.
It’s damnably humid in this small, spartan closet, and both of us are sweating. The temperature is something I doubt the fellow on the floor needs to concern himself with.
‘He’s dead?’ I pipe up, in a blustering voice that startles me.
‘As a doornail,’ the woman says, unruffled, and then she exhales a plume of smoke toward the ceiling.
‘So. What shall we do now?’
‘I have no idea about you, but I’m enjoying the song and this cigarette.’
‘You don’t mind sharing them with a man you just murdered?’
‘Well, I’d say he’s far more functional in this state.’
She places her bare feet on the corpse’s back, wriggles her toes, and then leans back to relax. There’s a smirk on her cherubic mouth.
‘That’s better. Who needs a footstool?’
1 | 一
First up, a disclaimer. I suspect I am a dead man.
I have meagre proof, no framed-up certification, nothing to toss in a court of law as evidence of a rapid departure from the mortal coil. I recall a gun was involved, pressed up against my skull, and a loud explosion followed.
An ancient Chinese philosopher, whose bloody name escapes me, reckoned that ‘A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.’ This was prior to the advent of gunpowder, so I’m wondering what fluff the fellow would have churned out concerning a single bullet.
Having proved my credentials—citing the crackpot savant while slinging in a footnote—allows me to get straight to the point.
There is no neat beginning with which to start things. And while debarkation here might be meaningful to the hoi polloi, so far as I was concerned?
My grand entrance in these parts elicited no dull, heavy, monotonous clang of a divine bell, let alone a jaunty toot-tooting of car horns. Festivities, it seemed, were off the agenda.
The climate? Well, this wasn’t balmy enough to postulate the outer suburbs of Hell, but Paradise remained well and truly lost, and one saw nary a pitchfork nor harp. I suppose a better address would be the place to find the Pearly Gates, while Saint Peter must have been gallivanting on French leave. A blessing, since I’m not one for preachy types.
Lacking, to my mind, was a suitable background score banged together by Chopin—though with Frédéric François out of the picture, it was the opportune setting for Victor Laszlo to shepherd a rousing rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’.
You might recall the suavely scarred, excessively honourable Resistance leader, from the film Casablanca?
Sadly, the man was nowhere. At times I found myself humming the melody, deprived of Laszlo’s guidance, but to be honest test pattern music would have sufficed. Alas, I was indulged with silence.
Not for my ears the faintest chorus of cicadas, wild squawk of ravens, or a reassuring rumble of distant traffic. Tiresome Christian Vespers and their Muslim stand-in, adhān, remained mute, and there appeared to be too few little darlings to belt out for me ‘Oranges and Lemons’.
In the moments that I stopped humming as I hoofed it along, I heard scarcely a sound—a reminder of the hush that prevails with snow.
Hereabouts, we’re fleeced of the sight of pirouetting flakes, so I initially considered hearing loss was a by-product of the hop, skip and lunge, from life to a possible demise. A rival thought that I’d alternatively gone insane later crossed my mind, but let’s not go there now.
Although it was plain to see this domain went through the clockwork motions of day and night, and while the feel was more terra firma than Elysian Shangri-la, some aspects were awry. For one thing, the damned weather never committed.
Occasionally, the wind picked up or a light mist draped the horizon, but there was nought I could point to and declare, ‘I say, there’s the sun.’ I marked an absence of rainfall, thunder, or hail. I missed the rain. Where I came from, it used to pour down by the bucketload.
The sky was a canvas of flinty grey looking like it was painted with a bold brush and careless abandon.
At one time, I spotted a sign writer at work up there in the heavens. If I expected ‘Surrender Dorothy’, I was thwarted—the baffling word ‘Jihi’ slowly dissipated and became nothing.
No matter how far I went, the venue otherwise refused to change.
Around me unravelled a vague, diminishing landscape with barren trees and otherwise no remarkable feature, no cities, no towns, no enticing attractions. Forget a parade or a semicircle of wagons overturned to dispel hostile assault by natives.
I was constantly struck by the dreariness of the place; as if a frumpy aunt’s discarded beige stocking filtered the view. There was the odd shack, gloomy house, a lean-to or tent—nothing registering significant—and nary a rolled-out red carpet. Some of these places had a crucifix carved on their exteriors, with the added scraping of a vertical divot o
The inhabitants, few and far between, hid behind rough-hewn curtains or skulked in darkened alcoves. Hence, their communication skills came across as altogether disengaged, and I thought, To Hell with them. Figuratively speaking.
So it was, amid these mundane individuals and across this scenery, dull as dishwater, that I first found myself trudging.
Which way I ought to have headed depended a good deal on where I wanted to get, and to be honest it didn’t appear to matter which way I went. Despite sage advice from Lewis Carroll that getting somewhere should be just a matter of walking, no matter how much I walked I reached nowhere.
This pointless labour I undertook on shoddy paths made of clay and marked with washed-out, saffron-stained bricks, slapped down willy-nilly between the odd sprouting of wild Indian tobacco, white chrysanthemums, or rue. The surface of the roads needed a hearty levelling by one of those giant rolling pins you see at cricket matches, yet my inappropriate footwear remained grateful.
It was something else that irked me. Earlier on, I referred to the lack of visible riffraff.
Even so, up ahead on the odd occasion was a diminutive character, half my height, flitting through the scrappy woodland these paths trod. The blighter was never less than fifty or sixty feet away, so it was impossible to distinguish details aside from a scarlet anorak.
I found myself entertaining the bothersome notion that Big Bad Wolf is the role I was earmarked to play, yapping about and snapping on the coat-tails of Red Riding Hood. Let’s cut to the chase here—while my age seriously hampered physical pursuit or a potential shining career in pantomime, the only achievable huffing and puffing would have been the rattle of frail lungs.
Oh, and there was another reason I let this individual be: I once saw a suspenseful Donald Sutherland film called Don’t Look Now.
In that story Sutherland gives chase to another child-sized fugitive in red. He presumes this is his recently deceased daughter, but it turns out to be a homicidal dwarf.
Nothing is what it seems. Better to bide my time, chase nobody, and ramble solo. In hindsight, I could have easily fit into a hazy pastoral painting by William Turner: ‘Man in Bedroom Attire Crossing a Bland Brook’ or some such kerfuffle. It could sell for a fortune and add nothing special to an assiduously lit museum wall.
Artistic overkill aside, I do believe I was going to tell you a tale—but on second thought, let’s chalk this implication up as bunk.
Rather than a depressingly singular account, it’s going to be a mishmash of anecdotes, for neither the sake of brevity nor the saving of a few desperate trees. I don’t aspire to be that kind of chap. I’d say, instead, my objective in doing a merge is plainly because these anecdotes happen to interlink.
Let’s press on, shall we?
The death of a broken-down old man is, unquestionably, the least poetical topic in the world.
What then occurred, however, seemed curious at the time. Following up on brief, if considerable pain, pitch-blackness ensued.
No, I wasn’t fortunate enough to see that old cliché, the beckoning white tunnel, offering rapturous fireworks aplenty. As I say, it was too dark to apprise myself of any such thing. Cursory entertainment like chess, a pack of playing cards, a neurotic white bunny with a fob watch—all of them failed to materialize. Even if they were there, I never would have spotted the things. As you may hazard a guess, said experience was unconscionably dull, yet worse was at hand.
I set up shop in these whereabouts.
For want of a novel tag, let us dub the place the ‘Hereafter’ since I’m here, after I allegedly carked it. Here/After. Yes, I agree, an infuriating moniker and miles away from quick-witted bon mot. You could always employ your imagination to dig us up a better one. In the meantime, we’re high and dry.
After being here a while, a form of psychosis set in—I put this down to lack of stimulating company and the vapid wretchedness all about. This mental imbalance showed up in the way I harangued myself with incoherent soliloquies, a shade like this one. There was no orderly pattern to command proceedings in the old grey matter upstairs, and on countless occasions, I ended up exasperating me personally with puerile wisecracks.
Possibly it was one way in which I fended off the truth. There was no epiphany. In this particular Hereafter, Revelation had cleaned up, decamped, and taken with him all notions of figuring out the meaning of life.
I do concede a little grief that there was no Virgil, or any other Roman poet resurrected by Dante, waiting with a street directory. Neither was there a cowled footman out to menace tourists with a garden hoe—and manna was struck from the carte du jour. Perhaps Cerberus, the triple-headed guard dog of the Underworld, had fled his post to go chasing three sticks, while Charon, with his dinghy to Hades, was amiss.
This was actually a windfall, since I’d been marooned without coinage in my mouth or anyplace else, so it would have been difficult to bribe the man or invest in steaks for the hound.
By the by, don’t go fooling yourself about a handy hardcover ledger atop a podium made of gold, one in which we could tally up a person’s lifetime pros and cons in separate columns—brandishing a baptismal balance and a funereal one, written with some celestial feathered quill. Such a tome was also amiss, and the only pedestals I came across were one or two decidedly out-of-place plastic milk crates, along with the random stumps of cadaverous cypress trees.
Talking of decrepitude, I felt I could pip Methuselah in the age stakes. Far older than the twilight years I’d lapped up in the land of the living, because at least in that place I had purpose. Here I meandered through the choice off-cuts of oblivion, and the ragged grey beard I had sprouted was a sign.
While I’ll admit to having vaguely doubted the continuing growth of hair and nails after death, I was never inclined to think I would become proof of the pudding.
Well, disclaimers pushed to one side, a personal introduction is in order to avail you of the ledgerless bugger steering this monologue—since tawdry is how it may appear to others.
My name is Wolram E. Deaps.
The ‘E.’ stands for Evelyn, an appellation that can be applied to both men and women, dismally more often the latter. In the past I tended to share this middle name with few people, though reticence appears to have been scrubbed away after my bow-out from the mortal plain, last hurrah and all that. I’m quite unfussed handing it over to you now.
When I presumably kicked the bucket I was seventy-one years old, just a month and three days shy of seventy-two.
Even at my over-ripe age I kept track of the date—I was fond of celebrating my birthday and liked to mark the big occasion with panache. I’m not sure a single other soul shared the joy, but that’s beside the point, is it not?
I’m trying to remember a conversation from before I expired, one that I had with my secretary, since she was in charge of organizing the all-important annual event. How did the chat go again…?
‘Judy, cancel my reservation at Holberg’s, will you? The place has been shut down since that nasty DLU business. Not the best atmosphere, should it ever reopen.’
I’m convinced I masked my inner-Wolram—the smug one that tends to behave poorly on the back-end of profitable mischief. Rarely clever to display that face to others.
‘Let’s shift the party to The Knave of Hearts,’ I then suggested. ‘Their service is more bohemian, it’s spacious, and they do fine tarts. Get Tenniel on the line. He’ll make it happen at this late notice.’
Now, what was her reply?
The words weasel in and out of my antediluvian memory. Their very triviality makes them harder to grasp—it was something she said repeatedly over thirty years of service. Was it ‘Yes, sir’? ‘Right away, Mr Deaps’? Perhaps ‘Three bags full, Your Worship’. She was an excellent woman, very good at her job, never argued. Made a sterling cup of tea.
You know, I often n
Here was a woman in her late fifties, unmarried I think, who had spent half her lifetime in my employ. What were her aspirations? Who was the real Judy behind the hard-working veneer? Why can’t I dredge up her family name? When was her birthday?—I never thought to ask. Did she like working for me? Or did she spit in my teacup during the steeping, and then smile when I took a sip, smug on the rear-end of her mischief?
Anyhow, aside from the pricey restaurant soirée, a surreptitious birthday present to myself was the brave new world I had mapped out over the course of several years—a prize since rendered a vagrant pipe dream.
More irritating, and to exacerbate matters somewhat, I’d been knocked off in a wardrobe that consisted of a smoking jacket, a cravat, slacks, a pair of Jolly Roger boxer shorts, and lounge slippers. This apparel remained my only possession, along with an antique pistol brandishing the name Webley-Fosbery. I didn’t know what I was doing with the silly thing, and had it shoved in my right pocket.
This does grant me an opportune moment to insert footnote number two, since possession of a firearm does wonders for a person’s confidence.
I’ll own up to being a pompous windbag, embarrassing underwear be damned—but let me tell you that having a cadaver perform the Greek Chorus on the side is a fairly good thing.
I need not lecture you that the moment we’re torn out of our mother’s womb, screeching and punting, we’re held hostage by inherited behavioural kinks. Or that these are thereafter twisted by the irascible conduct of one’s parents and the second-rate habits of everyone else—in collusion with the straitjackets of common culture, society, health, wealth, the goddarned weather.
Riding roughshod over these quirks are hidden agendas.
While I remained an aged bag of breathing flesh, I had these latter jewels to spare, with several sparkling ones proudly sewn onto the sleeve of my Harris Tweed, like military epaulettes, keeping fine company with the suede elbow patches.
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