They emerged into a long, dim and musty hotel corridor. The look of relief on Freddie's face reassured Mark that they were still in the Overnight, and had not been transported to its adjoining hostelry in some unfathomable elsewhere. The corridor was instantly familiar to Mark, but he was uncertain whether to account this as tentative recollection of a previous stay, or the stirring of some primordial collective memory. It felt like the maddening, purgatorial corridor that everyone had wandered hopelessly though at some point, lost in the eternities of a bad dream brought about by winter fever or some catastrophic sleeping posture. The wallpaper was an undeviating pattern of horizontal bars, blue and gold, with a slender white line traversing the centre of each. The numbered doors were plain dark timber with handles that resembled pouting, puzzled faces, and the lights that receded into the distance encased everything in a brownish half-light, which might have served to fossilze insects for long aeons beyond the extinction of their kind. The drabness and age of the furnishings embodied the precise meaning of the term seedy, their bare funtionality and aparent disdain for aesthetic comfort suggesting a place to whom its occupants were an objectified and anonymous afterthought.
After every five rooms, the corridor terminated and branched out at either side into identical iterations of itself. A song was playing in the dimness, seemingly piped into the corridors from the ceiling. The volume of the music wafted in and out with such subtle insinuation that Mark found it impossible to catch the precise instants where it faded out and back again. Rather, there was a haunted air of music moth-eaten with silence, and silence pregnant with the ghost of subliminal melodies. The song was a quaint romantic ballad, a synonym, it seemed to Mark, for memory and the past:
We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll met again
Some sunny day
Perhaps it was merely the discussion he had just had with Freddie in the elevator, but the song made Mark think about the War – or, not the War itself precisely, but a great war as subsequent generations might have experienced it, as something almost cheap or kitsch in comparison to the actual experience. It occurred to him that this was the nature of all his memories – not of things themselves, with all their immediacy and intensity, but rather in their lingering after-effects, wherein they had been reduced to cliché and comedy, to the distant lightness and mustiness of old sitcoms endlessly replayed on television. In contrast, a borrowed memory, Freddie's recollection of the idylic hayday of Sheldrake's Summer Camp, rose unbidden and lucid in his mind as though it were his own. His thoughts drifted back to the woman in the photograph, her hair unkempt in the sea breeze. He pictured himself following her through the endless corridors of the Overnight, inacting the unrequited desire which is the undoing of every idyll.
Keep smiling through
just like you always do
Til the blue skies drive the dark clouds
Freddie took a left turn, and they started down a fresh corridor. 'Freddie', Mark asked, 'have I ever stayed here before? Do you remember me?' Freddie was looking with harried concentration at the door numbers as they passed. 'Well, sir, all due respect, that would be for you to know and me to ponder. There's so many what passes through 'ere, day in day out, that you could 'ave been 'ere only yesterday, and I wouldn't know you from Adam's sleeve.' They paused at an alcove in the corriodor, marked at either side by tall plants whose sharp, brittle leaves gleamed like leather lapels in the brown light. The alcove had a low table with a couple of chairs, and in the small, curving space between the table and jutting leaves, an elderly couple danced slowly to the alterations of music and silence that ebbed through the corridors.
So will you please say hello
To the folks that I know
Tell them I won't be long
They were both, Mark guessed, in their mid-70s or older, if age had any meaning in Intermundia. The man was slender and tall, the woman small and stout. Their eyes were shut tightly and their expressions serene, as though each clung to a soft dream that would remain secure so long as their arms were entwined, and their mutual mood in total surrender to the slow sway of the song. The scene affected Mark in a peculiar way which he could not initially pin down. Then it struck him: the couple must have been flying out in the morning. As such, they were not old, but young, immeasurably young. They would soon cast off their bodies of reified memory, and with their bodies all the dense and delicate threads of memory from which their identities were woven, and somehow, those threads would then rejoin the vast network of their prior incarnations, and the slumbering and infinitesimal conglomerate would return to the world of matter and life, summoned by human passions and blind molecular necessities to form a zygote and then an embryo, travelling from the dance of their frail and spent bodies in the corridor of the Overnight back once again into the maelstrom of pure being and beginning. In precisely the same way that the familiar world was haunted by the proximity of death, Intermudia was haunted by birth. The airplanes would soon begin their ascents, their gleaming flight paths related in some obscure fashion to encounters between living people, to innumerable moments of frenzy and boredom and love and violence, the points of intersection between the world of living finitude and the etiolated eternity of Intermundia's runways and terminals.
A cigarette smouldered in an ashtray on the table, and its curling plumes gathered thickly in the light of the alcove. Freddie shrugged. 'More bleedin' action that I'll see tonight.' They contined down the corridor.
They'll be happy to know
That as you saw me go
I was singing this song
Freddie paused in the middle of the corridor, at the door of room 36. Mark thought at first that it must be his room, but Freddie had a peculiar expression on his face, like a startled animal listening for predators. He motioned Mark to be quiet by touching his lip, and then leaned close to the door, pressing his ear to listen. Mark followed suit, and the two men faced one-another, Mark's eyes widening in puzzlement and Freddie's narrowing in concentration. They maintained this absurd posture for some time, and Mark perceived a scratching sound behind the door. Freddie looked through the keyhole, and then cocked his head to indicate that they should continue on.
'What was that about?' Mark whispered. Freddie flashed him a cagey, sombre look. 'There's somefing not quite right about that room. Unoccupied, sir, or so they say. Never been a sinner in it as long as I've been here. So I asked Digsby how come we never let Room 36, and 'e looked right peculiar and put out to be discussing it. He told me a fishy yarn, sir, to the effect that guests were never 'appy in Room 36 – that there was somefing about that particular room that lead them to 'ave what you might call troubles in the mental faculty. And this one visitor, 'e said, was so perturbed by Room 36 that he set himself on fire, if you can credit it. Well, enough is enough, Digsby said, and shut up the room for good, or so 'e says. But Teddy Bilk 'as been in the Overnight from day one, and 'e reckons that Room 36 'as always been empty, and that old Digsby spins a different gruesome yarn every time anybody asks about it. If you were to ask me, I'd say that Room 36 is most definitely occupied, by somebody who prefers to remain cogito ergo sum, as the French say.'
We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll meet again
Some sunny day
They had been walking for some time, and Mark was becoming increasingly disorientated by the sprawling scope of the corridors. 'Do you know where we're going?' he asked. 'I do indeed sir. We are heading for the front of the house.' He held up the key and shook it. 'Which means that you have snagged for yourself one of the most desirable rooms in our modest little hotel. You will have, sir, adjacent to your bedroom, a coveted balcony with stunning views of the terminal and runways. Well, perhaps not the most breath-taking vista admittedly' – his voice lowered – 'but the other rooms are all so pokey I wouldn't put a knacker's sick nag in them, being honest with you, sir.' They turned a corner, and arrived in an atrium which faced a single wall of rooms. 'Here we are,' Freddie said, gesturing to room 17. He unlocked the door and they went inside.
Freddie turned on the light, and Mark took stock of the room. It resembled an indigents bed-sit more than a hotel room. On the wall to the right, a single bed and a locker had been wedged into an alcove. On the left, immediately inside the door there was a bathroom and a small cooking area which consisted of a microwave oven and a box-shaped electical grill, both filmed with grease. Mark sat on the bed. The sheets looked filthy, and carried the smell of old flesh and disinfectant characteristic of hospitals and rest homes. 'Have these been cleaned?' he asked. Freddie looked sheepish. 'Yes, sir, cleaned every day. But they're so bleedin' old, it doesn't make much odds, know what I mean?'
'Well, what about replacing them? Getting some fresh ones?'
'I recommend you take that up with old Digsby, sir. I just run around and get shouted at, begging your pardon.'
The waiter stood awkwardly for a moment, and then looked around the room with a mournful and sympathetic expression. “I wouldn't fancy it myself, sir, but it's only a temporary situation. In no time whatsoever, you will be leaving this madhouse, sir. Going up there.” He raised his arm and pointed skywards. Then he nodded, and darted out of the room, leaving Mark suddenly and poignantly alone, as he had felt previously when Eddie and Giacomo left him to his meeting with Renton. His mind quite lucid and wakeful, he decided to take a careful itinerary of the room and its contents.
Positioned on the counter, there was a cookery book called THE NEW MAGIC OF MICROWAVE by Cyril Smythe. The book's subhead read: “Television's Famed “Confirmed Bachelor” Cyril Smythe Demystifies the Microwave Miracle!” Smythe is pictured standing by a microwave oven and small selection of unappealing dishes. He is a tall, portly man in middle-age, well dressed in a grey suit, with thick, carefully combed locks, sad, frightened green eyes and an expression of catatonic depression. Incongruously, he wears a Mexican sombrero. He is also pictured on the back cover, now seated at the dinner table. He has lost the sombrero, but a multi-coloured party horn hangs limply from the side of his mouth, as though positioned there without his cognisance. His dinning companion is an unconvincing inflatable similacra of a young woman. The text, bearing an only incidental relation to the subject of microwave cooking, reads: “The ultimate nature of life is the anguish of a goal which can neither be attained nor repudiated. The mythiopoetic iconography of hell as eternally frustrated satiation is merely this essential realization abstracted to a notional after-life. Includes Pictures, Party-Icebreakers, and Cyril's Patented Dry Anecdotes and Howlers Overhead on Public Transport.” Despite it's obvious utility, Mark found the book rather dispiriting overall.
There was a bulky tube television in the right hand corner of the room, and in a tray beneath it a selection of television listing magazines, puzzle digests and tattered war comics. For each day of his stay, the contents of the tray would morph into a new selection of periodicals, responding to the shifting demographics and memory complexes of each round of new arrivals: pamphlets advocating the extension of equal rights to inanimate objects, or sinisterly avowing the innate superiority of one or other of the root vegetables; almanacs haunted by sullen and inscrutable vegetation deities and zodiacal processions of gibbering monstrosities; pornographic dioramas that depicted anatomically impossible conjoinings and the worship of abstract and elusive fetish objects; lifestyle magazines show-casing an aspirational leisure society in which suburban residents were transformed into coolly distant potted plants, watered by automatons, and lulled into quiescence by a daily television broadcast in which guided meditations are whispered over atomic weapons testing footage; in time he grew bored with the fecund imagination of Intermundia's garbled memory circuits, as he did with the daily alterations in the patterns of his bed-sheets and curtains.
The balcony, as Freddie had promised, was at least more agreeable than the squalid bedroom. He stumbled about in the darkness at first, until he found a lamp. The little conservatory was sparsely but pleasantly furnished, with a table and two wicker chairs in the centre, and a writing desk to the right. The desk had a typewriter and some fresh sheets of paper, and in the drawers beneath the folding board, he found pages which he took to be the discarded memories of previous occupations. One of them begins -
- I hide under the table in my grandmothers house, watching the legs of my grandmother, my uncle and my father moving about on the dark, muddy stone of the kitchen floor – I can smell the earth from the floor – a neighbours dog comes into the kitchen and approaches me cautiously under the table, the sad, imploring saintly eyes of dogs – at night the three of us sleep by an open fire, and the shadows of the ornaments dance against the wall in the fire light – a porcelain dog, a Russian doll, a smooth glass paper weight – dancing in the fire light while we talk ourselves along the dimming path to our dreams -
Above the desk, he regarded the painting which he first noticed hours earlier from the terminal below. From a distance, it resembled an abstract geometrical mosaic, but closer inspection reveals that it depicts a block of elegant red-brick terraced apartments. The apartments are lit by a kind of magical blue evening twilight, suggesting an antique, sun-baked Eastern city of the painter's imagination. A winding stairwell runs between the terraces, and the apartments are small and cosy, with balconies decorated by tall, slender and carefully trimmed plants. On one of the balconies, a young woman stands between the plants, apparently waiting for something. There is an expression of ecstatic expectation in her searching eyes and parted lips. Three terraces below, we see a young man ascending the stairwell, his gait suggesting keen and fleet determination. It is for this questing youth, we imagine, that the maiden on the balcony waits, and to her he goes with such ardour. However, the painting tells us that he will never reach her, for two terraces above the balcony where the maiden waits, the youth begins his ascent again, and three terraces above that, waits the maiden once more, a reoccurring pattern which we must assume persists beyond the margin and the frame of the painting. In the stairwell along the border of the painting, it is the maiden who ascends, and we must assume that, were the image to continue beyong the border, it would be the youth who waited on the balcony, with searching eyes and parted lips, in eternally frustrated expectation of the maiden's arrival.
The painting struck an indelible cord with him. He know instantly that he had seen it many times before, with a far greater certainty than any of the other shadowy forms and dull chimings that resided in the fog of his memory. It was in fact, more than a memory. He felt that the painting was in some sense his personal possession or creation. Intermundia, Renton had told him, was constructed from the memories of the people that passed through it. He wondered if, in the midst of that communal composite, here and there, there might be objects that belonged to the memory of a single individual, like the face of a conqueror or a vanquished saint, carved into heedless mottled stone.
Mark took a seat at the low table, and looked out at the terminal below. It was still night, and Intermundia's moonless and starless sky shrouded everything in its undiluted void. The runways, however, were paths of gleaming light that drew to one-another until they met at the illuminated yet barely perceptible line of the horizon. Airplanes were being fuelled for the day's first flights, and tiny, skittish figures moved about them, while their engines, dimmed by distance, howled in the wide, frozen expanses below.
Beneath his resting palm on the table, there lay a book. Inspecting it, he found it to be a book for children, with beautiful illustrations and elaborate dioramas. It was called The Adventures of a Boy and a Girl, Along the Old Winding Road. Like the painting, it seemed to hold a vivid and poignant place in his otherwise dormant memory. He turned to the first page, and started to read. During the full course of his stay in Intermundia, he would read a few pages of the book every night before he went to sleep; but, because he was always drowsy when he started, he could never be certain how much of what he remembered the next day was actually contained in the book itself, and how much his waning attention and the stirring errancy of his imagination had interpolated into its contents. Everybody has two minds, that which is burdened by the chains of the day, and that adrift in the freedoms of the night. The book would become a palimpsest of his two contrary selves, with no clear borderline where the one left off, and the other began.
The Adventures of a Boy and Girl, Along the Old Winding Road.
This is a story of the very old times, when the land was different from how it is today. This is a story of when there were no cities, or even large towns. Much of the countryside was covered by deep woodland, and people lived in little cottages, keeping poultry and livestock, and gathering wood to heat their modest little homes. None of them, however, would venture far into those woods, for they were fearful places that had their own ancient orders, and their own powers and principalities. It was a simple, hard and satisfying life, in which one had simply to feed oneself, warm oneself, and then watch the twilight gather around the dense canopy of the woods, and dream a little of the mysteries that stirred each night to thread anew its primordial and untrodden paths.
Outside of the woodland in the centre of the country, there were great plains and valleys of verdant meadows and squat hills and tall mountains that loomed grey and brown in the sunlight. And the people who lived there were farmers and traders and tradespeople, and they lived in little villages and hamlets, and regarded the woodlanders as wild, unsophisticated and eerie creatures. Now those peoples were not the first who had ever lived in that land. Another tribe had lived there long, long ago, but nobody really knew a thing about them, because they had left no records or relics after them, but for one thing. That thing was a long, winding road, which the people, either for clarity of expression or lack of imagination, called the Old Winding Road.
Now that great stone-paved Road made its way through the whole of the land, and nobody knew where it began, or where it ended. One story says that the builders built their Road all the way to the ocean, and then continued building it, until such time as they were submerged beneath the water, whereupon they drowned with paving stones in hand, and that was why they were never seen in the land today. Such stories are amusing but cannot be credited.
A change was slowly coming to the land in the time this story was told, as always it must. Men were beginning to dream once again of progress and ease, and at night their sleep saw visions which they barely understood, of vast, bustling cities, and great storehouses of food that had not to be hunted, tended or slaughtered. The King was dreaming of roads that might link all of his kingdom, and taxes and tributes that could be collected thereupon. But Hush! we are still in the olden times yet.
Now in the woods in those times there lived a very fearsome old witch. She was in fact the last of the true witches, and thus she had great power, and thus she was as old as the oldest, most gnarled oak tree. And the people who lived in the forest feared her greatly, and with just cause, for people had been cursed by that witch for no greater injury than merely chancing upon her in the woods, and those people lost their hair, and the colour in their cheeks, and their appetites, and the power of speech, and eventually they would crawl off into a lake or an old tarn, and become a kind of muddy algae which was sometimes heard to cry at night. Such was the power of the witches curse, and such was the severity of her pique and caprice.
As the end of an age was coming upon the land, however, the witch had grown very old indeed, and her malefic powers were waning. All of the old powers of the land were waning, and all them knew dimly that soon they would be only tales such as this one, told when storms whistle in the hearth. Nothing, however, was so determined as that horrible old hag, and while the other creatures of the forest would wind their way mournfully yet ungrudgingly into the mist of tales and legends, she had a plan to prolong her existence and the vitality of her powers. She knew of a ritual – the most abominable of all forbidden spells – by which her powers might be renewed, and extend their reign into the coming age.
One night, the wife of a woodcutter sat by the fireside, cradling her newborn daughter in her arms, and cooing little lullabys while her lips brushed the infants forehead, and never in all the world was there such love, peace and felicity. The witch observed this scene from the window, and her face, like a leaden sky split asunder by lightning, was racked with bitter envy, for great power compels all things, except love. And the witch put a glamour on that young mother, such that she fell into a kind of trance, and when she emerged from that slumber, all she cradled in her arms was a bunch of old twigs and roots.
In another house not far from the woodcutters, a farmer and his wife lay upon a soft rug on the floor of their cottage, sporting and playing with their new-born son, and never in all the world was their such giddy and innocent joy. But the witch put a glamour on that young couple, and when they awoke from their trance, they played and sported with a little goat with a piebald coat.
And so the witch wound her way back into the deep woods, with the boy and the girl cradled in the folds of her immemorial rags, and as the sound of keening grief erupted through the clearing she had just departed, the witch threw back her head and cackled with joy, for there was none on earth that took measured pride in their goodness, as that witch reveled ecstatically in her undiluted evil. With great haste and fell purpose did she stride through those ancient groves, and the woods, which feared her waning powers still, drew themselves aside to make her path more easy: branches twisted away and wrapped about their trunks, like people hugging their shoulders; mosses rallied their strengh, and raised and rolled stones and boulders out of the way; clumps of nettles withdrew their sting, and proffered timid and soothing balsams instead; in such manner did all the varigated woodland show deference to that horrible creature, while inwardly mourning and weeping the fate of the poor babes she carried in her rags.
In no time at all, the witch arrives back to her cottage, whose aspect is just as fearful and disturbing as that of its occupant. Imagine a large two-storey cottage with a porch in a woodland scene, and no doubt you picture something quaint and homely. But now imagine that the structure is built upon a fairy mound, and that every plank of timber is painted pitch black; now, conjure turrets, the largest over the front door, which are as black, as sharply pointed and malefic in appearance as the hat which popular superstition falsely ascribes to the witch; picture further that the other turrets are adorned with evil-looking weather vanes, the right surmounted by the figurine of a grotesque and bilious fish, the left by that grim reaper whose harvest never falls fallow; now for your homely porch, envision that it is illuminated by tapers that burn in the concavity of two human skulls; and in those dancing flames, add the grim spectre of a forest of wind-chimes, the bones of various animals, that hang like stalactites, and whistle a mournful and foreboding tune in the night-time breeze. Now you have pictured the domicile of that hateful creature.
The witch laid her stolen babes upon the porch, and regarded their tearful and frightened little faces with indifference. “These two will be a handful,” she thought, “until they have come of age.” And she made a great cry which was neither human nor bestial, neither divine nor demonic, but an unhallowed mixture of all things which can make utterance; and to that cry came three creatures of the forest: the raven, the fox and the owl. The witch regarded the three animals, crestfallen to have come under her spell, and thus she spake: “These two brutes will make ample slaves when they have grown up out of imbecility, but I fear a long time will they remain thus incapacitated and cretinous, and needful of care and attention. Such care they will not receive from me, for I am no mother, but the very chill spite of barrenness itself! I charge you three to feed and nurture these whelps, until such time as they can make amends for themselves. Then, and only then, you will be free to go about your business, and pray you do not hear my summons again!”
Thus it was that the boy and the girl were nurtured in their infancy by the raven, the fox and the owl, and this is how it was done. The raven went about the woods gathering food, and perched on the shoulder of the infants, he would drop it into their mouths. Milk he stole from the goat, who was never clever enough to fathom his sleights and diversions, and the magpie watched the raven closely at this activity, and this is how the magpie became a thief. The fox played with the children, so that they learned the power of their limbs and the joy of the world, but the fox was a proud creature, and much was it to his chagrin to be a minder of human children, and this is why the fox is red. Nevertheless, the fox developed a great fondness for the boy and girl despite himself, and this is why the fox approaches the world of humans both with fear and a longing for kinship. Finally, the owl lulled the children to sleep with the sonorous echo of his strange twilight calls, and the hypnotic intensity of his ancient and wise gaze. This is why the eyes of babies today sometimes assume the wisdom and serenity of all the ages when they are nodding off, because the owl once sang them to sleep.
So in time the boy and girl grew to be robust little children, and the raven, the fox and the owl returned to the forest and their erstwhile ways. The witch took full possession of her stolen charges, and set them to work on all the menial tasks in the upkeep of the cottage: milking the goats, tending to the chickens, gathering firewood and various fauna for her spells, cooking, cleaning, and otherwise attending to her whims and the assaults of her evil temper. The witch was thus free to begin her preparations for the abominable ritual by which she hoped to renew her powers. And those poor children, from the instant that their minds had gained lucidity, knew of no other life but that of constant, grinding toil. Of love and kindness, they had no inkling, save for that which they showed each other; for long vanished into the mists of memory were their parents and the warm cottages from which they had been stolen, and gone too, into the inchoate realm of dreams and half-reflections, went those days when the raven had fed them, when they had sported with the giddy fox, and when they had drifted into sleep's warm embrace under the watchful gaze of the owl.
And so the boy and girl developed the closest bond betwixt one-another that ever was in all the world; and ever fearful of the witch's ungovernable temper, they developed a wordless way of speaking, a whole world of opposition to that world in which they found themselves, which they conveyed with their eyes and their expressions alone; and it chanced occasionally, that either the boy or the girl were about some chore outside the cottage, and they might see the raven alight upon the tallest branch, or catch for an instant the fleet and wily fox gambolling between the tree-trucks; or sometimes at night, when the cottage shook with the witch's baleful, wheezing snore, the two of them might hear the owl's call echo through the woods like the world's first riddle, and then their eyes would share the knowledge, certain though utterly inarticulate, of something truer and sweeter than that with which they had to contend.
Morning had come to Intermundia while Mark read. The first planes were beginning their ascents into a sky slowly shedding its twilight textures and assuming the petroleum haze and electric blue of busy day. The vast, endless dance of gleaming fuselages was renewing itself out into the limits of visibility. One again, the litany of birth and death was translated into this aspirational languge of speed and motion, this old dream of flight and freedom. New arrivals were emerging from the terminal with stricken faces, gazing across at the Intermundia Overnight, and into the impossible sky. Mark closed the book, and closed his eyes. His mind ranged for a time over the course of the day he had just experienced, which, in a sense, was the whole of his existence. Those thoughts were like the last fitful flickerings of a candle, and they went out in an instant, surrendering to a sudden exhalation of the air.
End of Book 1.