The conditions are middling to desperate.
A large depression is moving east from mid-Atlantic, joining another weather system which has, for some days now, obscured the land mass. The only parts currently visible to the camera are ill defined, illusory, for there is no coastline to assist the process of definition. Albion itself becomes an illusion, a piece of sustained guesswork, boldly indicated by the hand of the meteorologist, yet perfidious and elusive nonetheless, a contour, an outline, superimposed upon one vast cloud six thousand metres thick, stretching from Hastings to the Hebrides.
My own outline now appears upon the forecast, one arm stretching forwards to the Bar in an arc describing a broad swathe over the Peak District, another moving to a side pocket which is the Garden of England, bisecting the narrower, concentric lines of a cold front, yet another illusion, of course, for how can a line truly delineate anything at all, unless by default, a murdered profile on a sidewalk perhaps, yet hardly this, a man holding a glass the size of Ireland, or an entire kingdom, obscured by cloud? Extracting a Lucky Light and bringing it to tremulous lips, I watch in vain as the smoke rises so as to fill in the gaps, obliterating all and everything.
We, in this place, within the conditions laid out for us, move in time to the front, under the outline, under the cloud, under the weight of the Bar’s mouldings. We are, all of us, ghosts, for, just as Albion itself is an illusion, so too are its inhabitants, pushed here and there, bullied back and forth by the weather’s errant rain, the weatherman’s errant crayon, whose scratchings on our corporate destiny belittle us, making us wonder who might really be in charge, after all, if not God.
Down below, the city, a great dampen swirl in which figures, grotesque, contorted, appear within the rage of winter, fighting through the ink and cloud of a night first glimpsed from afar, in space, heads bent, eyes narrowed to the clock, awaiting first and last orders. The satellite turns in a slow spiral, relaying the conditions with impunity, performing its melancholy dance through the void. It cannot lie, it cannot tell us where we are truly headed. And its labour is a lament for all unsaid.
News just in! Ninety per cent chance of rain!
Naturally, we are not all of us ghosts. That would be to overstate the issue. Some of us rejoin the quick in order to make ourselves heard above the fearsome din of this place, barking an order to Frank or Mason through the smoke and cloud and chalk dust. Dead or alive, however, only those with an understanding of the conditions are served. And while there are often those present who are irrefutably dead and may well have been for some time, there is always a regular splattering of the forever- mortal, a young artist in flared trousers, perhaps, or an older one with no trousers at all.
“I am a…”
Perhaps ghosts is inappropriate, I am thinking more of spirits, ideas, projections, for everything and everyone is a projection of someone else, in accordance with the acknowledged egocentricity of the species and the spending power of the individual. As for the place, it too converts, inverts, perverts, those who move within it, engulfing them in the same pervasive cloud as it engineers the crimes for which it is celebrated. And, as death becomes cheapened, so life becomes affordable only to those with the means, however criminal. The rules are a paradox, involuntary parking and manslaughter being wholly interchangeable, and all sentences remain suspended as the great drunken mass sinks into the shelf of Atlanticus.
“I am a drinker…”
Aside from the means and the conditions are the references, myriad, confused. Of note, the trivial, the literary and the aesthetic, for we exist, after all, in a climate not only of damp but also of pastiche. This is not to say we ourselves are insipid, it simply reflects the way in which we are projected in order to satisfy the exigencies of fashion, a repetitive, eclectic cycle of ideas which serves to revive interest in the primary condition: existence. Being both backward- and forward-looking, we are able, under the cloud, to defy not only space, but also time, so that the present can be anything we wish it to be. Only a few of us are party to the fact that 2008 is actually 1908, artists mostly, recreating a modernism which has yet to exist. Splendid conceit, worthy of prizes, medals even!
A wholly democratic institution, the Bar welcomes all comers, despite the avowedly strict policy instituted by the forefathers, a round table of eccentrics and deviants whose cigar smoke still clings tenaciously to the ceiling. If these most senior of spirits were truly dead, of course, they would turn in their graves. As it is, their coarse laughter and thigh- slapping will forever echo within the precincts of this monstrous edifice, true microcosm of a true, if elusive, sphere: London! City of Crime!
Amongst us, at any given time, are the uprights, punctuating the crowd, odd parenthesis to the suspended sentence, neat counterpoint to the inevitable huddle of impostors. One is always careful to avoid the latter, yet this is sometimes rendered impossible by a glimpse of a pert breast or a wistful smile, misguided lust blurring any critical abilities still extant after sustained intoxication. Yes, the saturation of all senses is one of the principal conditions, without which all others become void.
Not even I, part participant, am exempt. Only recently I found myself drawn to a woman of torrential beauty. Was she a ghost? I could not say. That she was actually a man only came to light when Mason, crossing the bar in order to silence an impostor with a nifty thwack of his Colin Cowdrey Special, turned to me confidentially:
I advise against it, sir. Unless that is your particular fancy, said he, wiping the blood from the bat’s edge with a rag.
You know I am partial to the opposite sex, Mason.
Thank you, Mason. Have a drink.
Never during working hours, sir, said Mason, lurching towards the door that led behind the bar.
Along with cross-dressing, abuse, self-imposed or otherwise, is de rigueur in the Bar, and runs rife. Fingers Smith is known for his unique constitution, having survived years of chemical dependency, while Mad Mack, reincarnation of a namesake thought to have featured in at least two Hogarth etchings, tops the bill and is given latitude, not to say deference, his handshake a threat, his smile an ultimatum.
No one has ever understood a word of what he says, apart from this simple, rhetorical greeting, his mood and intentions usually conveyed through rumbling of the stomach. Elephants are known to communicate in this way for courting purposes and it is said that Mad Mack once conversed at some length with an African cow in Regent’s Park Zoo who had come into heat. For all his powers, his prowess, he is unable to order a drink. No matter. Uprights and phoneys alike cater for his every need. If they do not, they may be silenced with a withering look or an obscene, onanistic gesture.
Fingers and Mad Mack are but two elements in that impossibly one- sided equation, through which only a tentative understanding of the conditions is reached. Just how many uprights and impostors, freaks and phoneys, I have remarked, dead or alive, I cannot claim to guess, during my brief, eternal visitation upon these shores, and within the sulphurous ambience of the Bar, yet each, in his own way, either adds to, or subtracts from, the impression I have gleaned of the place, of its character and eccentricity, the whole constituting a dazzling kaleidoscope of the Anglo-Saxon genus. What I can say with certainty is that this gallery of faces and gestures is one which may appear at times to be constant (thus offering a solution of some sort to the algebra of human interaction) but it nevertheless changes, however imperceptibly.
Yesterday (if it was yesterday, for who can tell?), for example, a stranger came into our midst and took to observing my every gesture. How easy it would have been for me to claim that he was dead too! Dark-skinned, with eyes set deeply in mournful sockets, he remained impassive as I stood beside him.
I had entered into conversation with a girl who boasted tortoise-shell eyes and skin of alabaster.
Where do you come from? I hazarded.
A can of Red Stripe, she replied.
Lager. Everyone comes from a drink of one sort or another.
They do? And me?
Red or white?
Red, of course. No, not Burgundy. Claret. A full-bloodied one. Château Biston.
Too early to say. But a decent vintage, judging by the way you hold yourself.
Funny how the weather shapes everything.
There’s more to it than that. A good vintage is a state of mind. Stars have got a lot to do with it. And the moon. Hold out your hand. Yes. Château Biston. No doubt about it.
The stranger remained perfectly still, fixed within his own orbit, singularly unaffected by the girl’s infectious laugh. Now, at last, time faltered, the satellite closing its eye for a moment, tired of its thankless, wholly predictable task, and I turned to face the man, struck by the thought that he had slipped from the pages of a story only half-complete through interruption (I see the author, I see his lover attempting to leave him, I see a typewriter hurled through the window and sent into an orbit all its own). He had begun to talk and I took in what he had to say, still dumbfounded by the girl’s honest beauty and poetic nature.
“Old Delhi Railway Station” were the words which first registered in my mind. “Yes, a sight for sore eyes. Gold as a commodity was always prized, as it is now in Albion. But where here it is considered a trivial obsession, along with expensive cars, mobile telephones and real estate, in India it was taken far more seriously, for what it was truly worth. Indeed, to be seen trading in it was a capital offence at one time. I recall with the clarity of the dispossessed the sight of young women, their stomachs ballooning under their saris, phantom pregnancies which had resulted from them having secreted the precious metal in their midriffs, yes, incising it beneath their skin so that their bodies became poisoned. Pregnant with gold!”
Such tales are a commonplace in the Bar and one takes them with a pinch of salt, even if one admits that salt is a good deal easier to apply than remove. Judging the amount, therefore, becomes one of the principal conditions laid down for our mutual benefit by the forefathers.
I looked into the eyes of the stranger, who had now resumed his former expression of aloofness. It was as if he had uttered not a syllable and nothing in his stare gave evidence of his having disclosed the slightest trace of character or personality. Could I have imagined it all? Possibly. I looked again at the stranger as he stayed his ground. Behind him, I could see Mason rapping the hands of an impostor with his cricket bat and, to his right, Frank serving White Eye with a half-pint mug of brandy. Beyond them stood the Poet, proud, upright, adjusting his Indian headdress and raising a small aluminium bucket of port to his lips:
“I am a drinker with a writing problem!”
I turned to stub out my cigarette. When I looked up, the stranger had disappeared. In his place stood the Poet, our ghost celebrity, who occasionally surfaces for light refreshment and vanishes, just as quickly, whenever it suits him. This would be hard to corroborate, of course, as no one else has ever confirmed his presence. Yes, it is because of this simple fact that I remain sceptical, at least as far as ghosts are concerned.
I stepped out of the Bar shortly afterwards. It was raining, even then. I had the distinct impression, as I do now, that the satellite’s dance might have taken it into another orbit, abandoning us all forever, and I can time such an occurrence to that moment at which the stranger remained unmoved by the girl’s laughter as he stood there beside me, prior to embarking upon his story. And, now that the satellite has gone, I am convinced Albion will remain forever clouded, forever damp, its terrifying capital justly hidden from view, an alibi for all the crimes ever committed and ever to be committed, long after we are all dead and gone forever. One shouldn’t be too pessimistic however. I took the Red Stripe Girl home with me and she has lain in bed with me all day watching me write this, when not staring out through the windows and up to the china- white sky. She has now decided that I come not from a bottle of claret but from something far stronger (grappa has been mooted), which, all in all, I consider something of a compliment, for a man of middling age and desperate imagination.
Note: The author acknowledges the declaration “I am a drinker with a writing problem” to the late Brendan Behan.
The Real Illusion: Twenty One Stories by Simon Lane, illustrated by Tunga is out now from Abingdon Square Publishing.