They walked unhurried through the woods in silence, the nameless man at the centre and the quarrelsome security guards at either side. The faces of Eddie and Giacomo were fixed on the path ahead, while that of the nameless man swivelled this way and that, as though his eyes, like darting, skittish squirrels, were eager to consume every morsel of the woodland scene. The peculiarly archetypal quality of his memories reached a new pitch of intensity, and walking through the rooted, restive languor of the trees, it was though he remembered all silence, all peace, every sustained mystic caesura in the ordeal of life's intensity, every loll between every crashing tide, every moment where the child's apprehension of a bounteous, enchanted world returned unbidden and eerie, a flash of memory that stirs a thousand scintillations in a darkened pool.
There is an old book you saw when you were a child, he thought, that told the story of your life. The book is about two orphans, a boy and girl, who flee the witch's cave where they have been imprisoned, and embark on a journey on the Long and Winding Road. Along the Road, the boy and girl have many adventures, encountering strange characters like the Peacock of Plenty and the Sneaky Serpent. The Peacock tells them that if they follow the Road to it's termination, they will find a place called the Pasture of Plenty; there boys and girls lay down their heads in peace, and dream enchanted dreams. (The Serpent whispers sibilantly that the Pasture is nothing but a garden of stones.) Before they reach the Pasture, the witch catches up with the boy and girl, and puts them under an enchantment which separates them. The spell also causes them to forget forever their adventures on the Long and Winding Road, and their quest for the Pasture of Plenty. So when the boy and girl grow to adulthood, they meet by chance, and the girl remembers but the boy does not. And once more, now in old age, they meet again, and this time the boy remembers but the girl does not.....
As they drew nearer to Central Command, the great solitude of the wood slowly yielded its intimations of timeless quietude back to the frenetic activity of Intermundia Airport. Eddie nudged him, and pointed to their left: some distance away, another New Arrival was emerging out of a man-hole, accompanied by security guards. The further they went, the more this scene was repeated all around them. Once again, it was an exact facsimile of his own prior experience: the New Arrivals emerged from the darkness of the shaft and looked with awe at the scene around them, while the grinning security guards wiped their gleaming brows after the arduous climb. In Intermundia, it was as though a single sequence of events were infinitely repeated, and arranged spatially so that it kept encountering itself at different junctures of the sequence.
The sun had fallen now in the sky, giving the trees and the people emerging from the underground a luminescence and vividness of presence that made the whole scene feel realer than reality, like a super-imposition of dreaming and wakefulness that annulled and transcended both states, a perceptual clarity out of time and equidistant to life and death. New Arrivals and guards approached them, on route back from Central Command. The guards smiled and nodded casually to Eddie and Giacomo; the New Arrivals, haunted by whatever they had learned from their case officers, avoided eye contact.
The woodland began to thin out into clearings, and they entered the world of the technocrats. He noticed their houses first, built seamlessly into the rolling terrain of the wood. In this context, they were peculiarly spartan and geometrical. Square and rectangular walls of glass in shells of rough concrete, they revealed the whole of their multi-level domestic spaces to passers by, making them more like art installations than homes. The interior of the houses had refined the contrivances of living to an abstract functionality which nevertheless betrayed a kind of alien sensibility, as though the proportions and precise angles of their cold, grey furnishings were designed to appeal to a sensibility only tangentially related to that of the human. Their aesthetic adornments were peculiar and unsettling: the living room of one featured a large flat screen television, on which a fire blazed silently. Faces appeared intermittently in the fire, their expressions wide-eyed and apprehensive.
Most of the technocrats were at work, and in their absence maids and butlers were busy maintaining the homes in a kind of pristine order that gave them their air of idealized and abstracted sculpture. Here and there, however, he saw technocrats relaxing in their homes. Seated in white robes, their features as flawless and blank as the furnishings, they too seemed to have abstracted their existence into an idealized absence, so were they lost in a kind of mineral contemplation, like a species of middle-management mystic. In one house, however, a male technocrat was having intercourse with his maid. The maid, a pale, slender brunette, stood with her hands pinned against the glass while the technocrat thrust against her from behind in staccato bursts. The girl's eyes were wide and her cheeks ruddy and flushed, but the expression of the technocrat remained distant and disengaged, as though contemplating a mathematical problem. Regarding the scene as he passed, Eddie reddened and giggled like a school boy. Giacomo looked away with a sullen expression.
Having passed through the residential section of the wood, they now entered a commercial district where the technocrats gathered in groups and took their lunches. The walls of the luncheon booths were cunningly embroidered with moss and hanging verdure, giving them the appearance of sylvan bowers from some quaint woodland romance. The waiters belonged to the same plebeian class as the security guards and servants. They served coffees whose rich aromas were infused with subtle, unaccountable spices, and mouth-watering, glazed savouries in vivid, variegated hues that ranged from fleshy, strawberry reds to cerulean and ultramarine blues. Seating had been arranged for the technocrats on the branches of nearby trees. With leaden trays balanced adroitly in their free hands, the waiters climbed up thick ropes which had been woven into the trunk of the trees, passing the beverages and delicacies across to the technocrats seated placidly on the boughs.
Removed from their homes, where they had exhibited a peculiar, almost comatose languor, the technocrats were now more animated in the company of their colleagues. They spoke contently to one another, and the mingling of their sonorous, melodic voices was like a chorus of birds heralding the dawn in a bureaucratic effusion of measured joy. Despite their greater ease, all the technocrats wore that distant, inscrutable smile which he had noted on their colleagues back on the train. They instilled in him an intense mixture of emotions: an attraction towards their flawless and unattainable beauty, and a visceral resentment of their innate, impervious sense of superiority. The beauty and physical grace of each technocrat seemed more luminous and ravishing to the eye than the last, and yet there was something galling and even repulsive about the way in which they barely seemed to register the steady traffic of waiters, guards and New Arrivals that moved about them in a steady stream. It was as though every other class of human were like a species of semi-domesticated wild-life, which familiarity and a lack of perceived threat had long inured them to.
When they had finished their lunches, some of the technocrats wandered over to a nearby newsagent to acquaint themselves with the latest stories. This, however, was a most unusual purveyor of current events. It appeared that the technocrats were too important a class to lower themselves to peruse mere ink and paper documents, and thus a group of about thirty journalists were dispatched to perform the “news” live. Hammocks had been hoisted between bushes and trees, and the recumbent, semi-conscious journalists whispered the contents of their errant, ranging imaginations, while a species of stenographer, patient and resilient of limb, held microphones to their mouths so that the technocrats didn't have to crane their necks to hear the latest events. It was a strange thing to witness as they passed: the deep, low voices of the journalists, collating in a random yet seemingly significant manner the ineffable images and inchoate or untranslatable yearnings of their chasm-separated dream-worlds, while the technocrats, for once divested of their sly grins, exchanged grave, meaningful looks, as though the hushed mental somnambulisms issuing through the microphones did indeed portend to public events that would soon subsume the world.
After this disquieting scene, they entered a more densely wooded area, and began to climb a steepening slope. Almost imperceptibly, they had become a huge, silent throng, he and the other New Arrivals, with their accompanying security guards. He had a presentiment, almost like a specific memory for the first time, that they had reached the last leg of their journey. The sun had fallen behind them now, and the darkening woodland slope was divested of all its crisp, spring enchantment. In its insinuating shadow and abrupt chill, it had become wintry, poised and watchful, a nature not of sporting young, but of looming, predatory threat. The New Arrivals exchanged brief, intense glances to one another, expressions of composed kinship in an agony of uncertainty. He felt as though there was a sound, a low guttural chanting, that rose steadily as they neared Central Command. Then they reached the summit of the cliff, and its immense, sombre structure lay before them.
Central Command was composed of a dizzying array of concrete blocks, slate grey in colour but mottled here and there with sickly blotches of black and rusty copper brown. Cyclopean in scale, the blocks all took rigidly geometric forms, but were arranged in such a dizzyingly asymmetrical jumble as to give the whole structure the appearance of a constantly morphing, improvisatory puzzle, whose every new permutation only made its ultimate solution ever more intractable. A paradoxical kind of stability was attained only by falling water that came down in streams from various points at the apex of the building, mingling together in a concrete moat that surrounded the base. Central Command instilled a feeling of awe and almost cosmic disquiet in the nameless man for two reasons. The first lay in its immemorial air. Though clearly a product of abstract mathematical reasoning, it felt in some irrational but undeniable sense to predate all the surrounding landscape. It was older than the trees, older than the soil and the grass. It was as though the woodland had been fashioned upon its stark primordial base, a riotous plunge into the freedom or decadence of the organic and sentient. It was a uniquely frightening presentiment, he thought, to discover the hidden seat of an antediluvian bureaucracy.
The second reason for his unease was the conviction that he had been here, and felt all these precise intimations, before. Having finally grown accustomed to his amnesiac condition, to the distant and impersonal nature of his memories, to suddenly encounter a recollection of something specific to his own prior experience was as uncanny and disorientating as the most profound déjà vu met by a normal constitution. As they drew down the hill, into the looming shadow of Central Command, he felt like a twig swept along in a stream, like a hapless dreamer unable to stir his distant, rigid body to motion. The vast, ageless building worked itself with renewed violence on his mental state. The inhuman chanting increased in its volume and duration; he felt as though it were a vibration emitted by the particular structure of the building, to which his nervous system operated as a tuning fork. He became nauseous and feint as they drew nearer, the sound conjuring to his imagination a vast being, ponderous, inimical and unmoored from all the frailties and compassion of time and space. Finally, they reached the moat's narrow bridge, and he found the clamour and sickness instantly annulled by contemplating the steady serenity of the stream. He leaned over the edge of the bridge, allowing his fraught nerves to merge with the unhurried whisper of the water.
After he had been thus collecting himself for some time, Eddie nudged him gently, and they continued across the bridge. The central facade of Command was a large rectangular pane of tinted glass, through which the hillside and surrounding woodland were reflected. At the base of the pane there were four evenly spaced revolving doors. People streamed into the building through the two doors to the left, and back out through those at the right. As they neared their point of entry, he noted the expressions of the New Arrivals as they exited Central Command. Most were befuddled, nonplussed, haunted; some exhibited a kind of mordant fatalism, as though they had just been initiated into the punchline of an infinite cosmic farce. One chubby, sunburnt Caucasian, bearing all the appearances of an intoxicated tourist, emerged from the revolving door swivel-headed and goggle-eyed, laughing hysterically. Eddie and Giacomo then ushered the nameless man into the turning wing of the door, and they went within.
In a sharp contrast to its austere and bureaucratic exterior, he found himself in a vast, high-ceilinged vestibule which was far more redolent of an antique mosque or temple. The walls were divided along their full length by horseshoe arches, the floors and walls decorated with a series of intricately beautiful mosaics. These mosaic patterns, like the equations of some ecstatic physicist, felt as though they embodied the ultimate abstract simplicity underlying all the world's variegated appearances. The colours of the lower sections were airy blues and yellows, gradually deepening to otherworldly twilight hues as the structure ascended to a domed ceiling, whose prismatic, honeycombed pattern resembled the visionary transports of the opium or hashish eater at the apex of his debauch.
Though the vestibule itself embodied an atmosphere of pious tranquillity, the scene within was an unstinting babble and bustle of bodies going this direction and that. Those who had presently arrived formed queues at a series of arched alcoves on the wall adjacent to the entrance. The security guards were then greeted by technocratic secretaries seated at their desks in the alcoves. The secretaries administered tickets to them, and the guards escorted their Arrivals to specific alcoves along the left wall, wherein they disappeared through little doors and stairwells. This continuous traffic of people going into the alcoves progressed on the left side of the vestibule, whilst on the right the same volume were emerging from beneath the arches and making their way towards the exit doors. Betwixt all this ceaseless motion, a large pool of water lay serene and motionless, reflecting the prismatic honeycomb of the ceiling.
When they arrived at the desk, Eddie rooted around in his pockets, finally producing, after much scowling from Giacomo, a perfect golden orb which was about the size of a marble. The sight of the golden ball produced in the nameless man a sharp start, like an electrical shock. Eddie passed the golden orb to a secretary who promptly deposited it on a small weighing scale which stood atop a narrow, green-tinted ticket machine. The orb made a delicate chiming sound as it struck the pan, and the scale tilted very slightly. A ticket issued instantly from the machine, which the secretary passed to Eddie. An attendant took the orb from the pan and disappeared down a stairwell to the rear of the alcove. Eddie looked at the ticket and grinned.
'You've got Renton', he said, 'he's a wonderful case officer, a very conscientious man.'
They made their way to the left wall, and crouched into a tiny alcove. Within the alcove, there was a smaller arch, obscured by a curtain. To the right of the curtain, a slender, feeble-looking old man with taut, dessicated brown skin sat in attendance. The old man smoked a cigarette and gazed listlessly at a cruciform board game arranged on a mat at his feet. Eddie handed him the ticket, and the old man placed it in his mouth, swirling it around his toothless jaws as though apprehensive of swallowing. Finally, the ticket passed down his gullet with a clicking sound, and he stood up and lifted the curtain for them, revealing the entrance to a spiral staircase. 'Show us your tongue, Jobim,' Giacomo said with a cruel grin as they passed through. The old man opened his mouth, and a pitch black tongue protruded from it. He leered at the nameless man with the callow spitefulness of a school girl. His face then re-composed itself, and he resumed his seat, cigarette and board game with a kind of mournful dignity. 'Jobim's diet is just the ticket!' Eddie said, causing the two guards to explode with laughter as the curtain fell back behind them.
As they began their descent of the staircase, the nameless man noted that the walls were decorated with posters. In contrast to the abstract and often inscrutable images and slogans that adorned the terminal, these posters were more straight-forward and consistent in their message. Each one showed New Arrivals consulting with their case officers. The officers were invariably depicted as kindly, capable figures, and the whole scene suggested a reassuring visit to the village GP. The Arrivals, he divined from the posters, were grappling with a personal state of affairs referred to as their “Interim.” YOUR CASE OFFICERS ARE HERE, announced one, TO HELP YOU MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR INTERIM!
YOUR INTERIM SHOULD BE A RELAXING TIME, said another, LET YOUR CASE OFFICER PUT YOUR MIND AT EASE!
Others had a slightly more insistent tone: CO-OPERATE WITH YOUR CASE OFFICER, AND YOU'LL BE ON YOUR WAY IN NO TIME!
THE INTERIM IS SHORT – DON'T WASTE YOUR CASE OFFICER'S TIME – OR YOUR OWN!
At every circuit of the staircase, they passed another curtained entrance where more guards were emerging with their charges. He paused, leaning over the bannister to look down. The staircase wound its way in layers down to a darkened central point, and evenly spaced groups moved down the spiral like the hands of a fractured clock.
'Do we have far to go to get to Renton?' he asked.
'It's a ways yet,' Eddie said with a kindly expression. They continued their descent.
At the bottom, they passed swifty through a circular chamber, and entered a vast cavern which they traversed along an elevated footbridge. The first thing that captured the nameless man's attention in the cavern was an eerie and ambient wash of sounds. The predominant texture was a thrilling, melodious rush of tones, a steady rise and fall of glissandos, as though from a great forest of chime trees, glockenspiel and timpani. He became lost in that sound for a time; it stirred in him a sequence of intense, contrary emotions which were so absorbing that he first forgot where he was, and after that each proceeding emotional totality which the sequence moved through. He felt, by turns, the deep placidity of a warm, drowsy infant, the ravenous, instinctive appetite of a beast, the intellectual transports of a scholar and the wordless ecstasies of a sage, the loneliness of old age and abandonment, the omniscience of a god and the blank, mindless patience of a spider, and on and on, until he came to again. Now he noted that the chiming sounds were underscored by hissing, crackling waves of electromagnetic static. This background white noise was punctuated by fragments of old big band music: ballads, waltzes and foxtrots that must once had accompanied great swellings of the heart and the loins, and great sinkings of the soul into jealous rancour and self-pity, and great forgettings of all things but single moments cleaved out of time's passage and life's care, moments in the bloom of youth that might be recalled later in the ineluctable return of time's passage and life's care, steady and stately itself as a dance; but now the music recalled only a general idea of memory and the past; like old skin, shed, anonymous and unwanted, it faded in and out, dust stirred and dispersed in the poised, unremembering air.
'Where are those sounds coming from?' he asked Eddie.
'This is where the traffic controllers work', Eddie replied giddily, 'have a look for yourself.' The nameless man leaned over the railings and looked down. It was a significant drop, and the lateral extent of the cavern was difficult to fathom. The scene below was the most staggering example he had yet encountered of Intermundia's perpetual industriousness. The offices of the traffic controllers formed a vast geometric maze, broken into cubes and traversed by pathways. There was about twenty four individual cubical desks in each cube. A plinth was raised at the four corners of every cube, and on each plinth stood a large weighting scale, decorated with heraldic symbols. Controllers worked at their desks and walked to and fro along the pathways with poised, stringent expressions and motions.
Every controller had at their desks an antiquated television and radio set. Each row of desks had a wax cylinder phonograph, and the mournful fragments of ballroom music issued periodically from those machines. The controllers monitored the flickering, jittery monochrome images on the television screens, occasionally adjusting the tuning and volume. At intervals, the images on the screens faded into static, then blackness, and finally a crystal clear image of a face, frozen and vulnerable, emerged. The controller regarded the solemn, anxious face on the screen for a moment, before switching off the set. Next, they reached over to a bureau drawer behind the set, and extracted a little golden orb, identical to the one Eddie had presented to the secretary. The controller rose and deposited the golden orb in the pan of one or other of the scales, before resuming their desk and commencing to study a fresh series of transmissions on the television.
At other times, responding to a particularly harsh burst of static from the radios, the controller went to the scales to retrieve an orb from the pan, which they then returned to its drawer in the bureau. This activity went on at such a dizzying pace that at all times, and at every individual balance, there was always one orb being deposited and another extracted, such that a kind of equilibrium was maintained in both the volume of orbs and the angle of the lever; and the nameless man noted with a deep start that the chiming, melodious sound which had so ravished and befuddled his senses derived solely from the constant activity and slight perturbation of the weighting scales, which most have been almost innumerable, and the meticulously choreographed motions of the controllers who maintained them. Just as the constant sound of the orbs striking the scales created a kind of music, so the movements of the controllers through the maze of their cubicles suggested the unconscious geometries of ant and honey bee colonies.
The nameless man turned to Eddie and Giacomo.
'What is this place?' he asked.
Eddie looked slightly abashed. 'Central Command is where they control all the traffic going in and out of Intermundia Airport. But I don't really know what it's about, or how it works. Wherever I get somebody to explain it, my brain goes soft, and start to remember old nursery rhymes my mother used to sing to me.' Having thus spoken, his eyes became vacant and dazed, and he turned away. 'They don't pay us enough to care,' Giacomo added, and they continued along the footbridge.
The rest of the journey to Renton's office was uneventful. After exiting the cavern, they climbed another stairwell, and emerged onto a large, open-air concourse which resembled a pedestrianized city street. The central walkway was lined by trees and broken up by a succession of fountains. At either side, the offices of the case officers were stacked one atop the other in imposing blocks of concrete, with stairwells positioned at the side of each block to provide access from the street. New Arrivals were ascending and descending the stairwells, but the windows of the offices were shuttered, with only vague silhouetted motions to suggest the activity within. Above the mottled concrete walls, airplanes swam in dizzying multitude across a narrow strip of darkening sky like drunken constellations.
Down below, the cool night air and soft, persistent rushing sound of the fountains engendered a peculiar air of languor and gaiety. Bistros and bars operated from the ground level of the office blocks, and the nameless man studied the patrons seated at their terraces as they passed. They were Arrivals, he thought, but certainly not new to Intermundia. All the characteristic terror and disorientation was absent from their bearing, and they appeared instead as creatures of an almost mystical sloth and detachment. A species of jaded flaneur to this strange, busy world, they sat like infants swaddled in the sleepy warmth of an unimaginable surfeit of time, unhurriedly raising soup spoons or cigarettes to carelessly open mouths as they watched the traffic of the street flow by. Groups of security guards, temporarily divested of their charges, gathered around the fountains to drink glasses of beer and engage in boisterous tomfoolery. The fountains themselves stirred in the nameless man another swoon of recollection, a sense not quite of memory but something that would be repeated endlessly: a vow, a loss, a forgetting, and a quest.
When he came to again, Eddie and Giacomo had stopped in their tracks, and both regarded him with an almost paternal expression of sorrow. 'Well, here we are,' Giacomo said softly, and he pointed to an office block. 'The fifth floor,' Eddie added, patting his shoulders, 'we'll be over there at the fountain when you get out.' The security guards gave him a final look of encouragement, and then they trotted off in the direction of a bar. He was alone for the first time since they had accosted him back in the terminal.
His was unable to move at first, so he closed his eyes and listened to the sounds: the waters gathering and swirling around their basins, the raucous laugher of the guards, footfalls going back and forth, the engines of the planes high above in the night sky. He tried to remember what his face looked like. When nothing came, he felt a surge of courage, detachment and pristine immediacy. He made his way to the stairwell, and climbed to the fifth floor. Nobody met him on the way down. Renton stood at his office door awaiting the nameless man. He was a tall, slender man in his middle years, with the appearance of an educated and humane British civil servant. He wore a dark navy two-piece suit and thick horn-rimmed reading glasses. His hair, receding slightly at the temples, was straight, longish, silver grey and combed back in an elegant manner. His features were handsome and tinged with an urbane, ironical humour. He took the nameless man's hand and shook it vigorously.
'It's very good to see you again,' he said.
'We've met before?'
The ironic mirth of Renton's smile deepened.
'Oh yes, many, many times.'
Continued shortly. (Artwork by George Tooker and Remedios Varo).