Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Intermundia Airport (Chapter 7).

The foyer of the Overnight, a long, broad corridor that terminated in a pair of elevators and stairwells, was a medley of faded and mismatched patterns. The wallpaper featured a hexagonal motif in pale yellow, white and green; the patterns of the carpet, tan brown and beige, had been rendered indistinct over time. It conveyed an atmosphere which was becoming familiar to Mark in Intermundia: a sense of a past never quite lived in but only dimly and ruefully recalled; a past that lived in the periphery of childhood memory, and was glimpsed occasionally in old magazines and paperback books; the sadness of an impoverished, unsophisticated era whose diminished horizons were embodied in its dreams of leisure and escape.

The reception, located in the centre of the foyer, was studded with brown vinyl. To either side of the counter there was postcard rack, and in the centre a visitor's book and rounded silver service bell. Behind the counter, a tall middle-aged man stood stock still and a woman was seated, smoking a cigarette and reading a paperback novel. Neither showed the slightest awareness of his arrival. Standing at the far side of the counter, a small, broadly built waiter in a red blazer grinned at Mark. The couple behind the counter conveyed a subtle atmosphere of discontent and simmering violence which Mark found difficult to rationalize, but which was palpable enough to make him reluctant to approach them. The waiter's body language suggested a worker standing at a safe distance from a piece of machinery which experience had taught him to regard as capricious and combustable.

To postpone checking in, Mark examined a display panel on the wall inside the door. A banner at the top of the panel read HAPPY DAY, FELLOW FROLICKER! REMEMBERING SHELDRAKE'S SUMMER CAMPS. Sheldrake's, he gathered, was a chain of seaside holiday resorts which specialized in cheerful family entertainment on a modest budget, and its ambience was conveyed in a series of black and white photographs, fliers and assorted paraphanalia. One large photograph depicted a phalanx of Sheldrake's staff advancing towards the camera on a beach. Arms interlinked, they grinned broadly and indulged in such gambolling and capers as the tight formation allowed. With the exception of a couple at the centre, each wore the same red blazer as the waiter, which Mark now noted was emblazed with a heraldic S on the breast pocket. Looking closely at the image, he noted with a start the three figures at the counter among the frolickers, to the left of the central couple. They looked so unabashedly happy – the man and woman gazing at one another like a newly married couple, the young waiter participating unselfishly in their joy - that the image formed a stark contrast to their present incarnation, with its pall of unspoken resentment and dark, seething energy. 

The couple in the centre of the group was an elderly business man in a top hat and suit – Mark took this to be Sheldrake himself – and a beautiful, statuesque blonde. Sheldrake was in his sixties, and everything about him was round and squat. His plump, small face was tanned and pock-mocked, and beneath a thin grey moustache his teeth flashed in a rodent-like smirk. The blonde woman wore a sparkling sequinned jacket, tuxedo top and black tights which amply demonstrated the smooth, supple grace of her legs. Small and indistinct as it was, Mark became mesmerised by the image of the woman, by the overweening perfection of her figure, the gleam of her lipstick and the cold, insuperable distance of her smile. It stirred his first full recollection of lust in Intermundia, perhaps because the image appeared irretrievable in time. Another thought occurred as he stared at the photograph: was there an ocean in Intermundia? With that thought, he heard the swell and ebb of the sea, the timeless respiration of the earth, the call of gulls across the sibilance of wind and water, and the image of the woman became larger in his mind, frozen still but always on the verge of motion and renewed vitality, hair poised to dance in the breeze. 

Started from this brief reverie, Mark scanned some of the other images on the display. In a poster, a disgruntled child sits weeping on his hunches, head in hand. The unhappy boy is accosted by a group of merry children and a large anthropomorphic white rabbit. CHEER UP OR CLEAR OUT! the poster says. A photograph depicts a comedian on stage, a rotund man in a chequered blazer and bow-tie, curly brylcreemed hair and moustache, an expression both jolly and set-upon. Teddy Bilk, the photo reads, Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed and Something BLUE! Another photo shows a figure suited up as the Sheldrake Bunny ambling down a deserted lane between rows of chalets. Behind him, an indistinct figure peers around the corner of one of the chalets. Alarmingly, it appears to be a second Sheldrake Bunny, this one pitch black in colour. 
The longer he gazed at the display, Mark found that it produced unnerving auditory effects which he could only account for as a freak of his own imaginative suggestibility. Looking at the beach photo, he heard the ocean. At Teddy Bilk, he heard laughter, clanking of glasses, a ghostly intimation of Teddy's own voice, almost smelt perspiration and perfume, sawdust and seaweed, the dulled charge of a drunken tryst. At the picture of the Sheldrake Bunny, he heard a terrifying sound like a machine that bore into the synapses and caused perception to brake into waves of static. It seemed that he, who could remember nothing of his own life, had a peculiar susceptibility to fugitive memories that belonged only to objects and images. He wandered away in the direction of the reception desk. 

The scene there had scarcely changed since he entered the Overnight. The woman had long fair hair, parted in the middle and flecked here and there with grey strands. She had large blue eyes that seemed turned inward and focused on her own thoughts, in way that made the novel almost a prop. Her expression was patient if a little condescending. Her skin was deeply tanned, and she wore her make-up in the excessive fashion of an attractive woman over-compensating the loss of her prime. She wore a light, figure-hugging summer dress that depicted a peacock fanning its plumage against a dark blue backdrop. She smoked her cigarette through an opera length holder. The novel she read was called PHYSICIAN, a purportedly frank exploration of the life-style of a cynical, ambitious and sexually voracious young doctor. 

The man, whom Mark assumed to be the manager Digsby, maintained his peculiar pose of nervous immobility. He had wispy, thinning brown hair combed to the side, tiny brown eyes under a pinched brow, clean-shaven pale skin and a crookedness about the mouth that suggested the cumulative effects of depression and cynicism. Overall, his features evoked a foraging creature peering reluctantly out of its den in the daylight, starving but fearful of enemies. He wore a cream white shirt rolled up at the sleeves and a green paisley cravat. His trousers, a peculiarly dispiriting shade of brown, were at least a size to large for him at the waist, an exigency he had countered by crudely extending the perforations on his belt with a knife.

Digsby's eyes were fixed blankly on Mark, and his mouth frozen in a toothy and joyless smile. The woman regarded Mark with a warm expression before returning her attention to PHYSICIAN. The waiter tilted his head towards the desk, nudging Mark to initiate the exchange.
'Excuse me,' he said finally.
'Yes?' Digsby barked.
'My name is Mark Smith.'
Digsby looked at him quizzically: 'Is it?'
'I – I have a reservation, I believe.'
'Really? Where?'
The woman glared at Digsby: 'Alan!'
'Well, here of course.'
Digsby leaned forward, sniffing the air around Mark and glancing suspiciously in the direction of the revolving door.
'Do you have a tart waiting out there for the all-clear? Some little check-out girl who couldn't keep her knickers up in a home for the geriatrics?'
Mark gaped at the peculiarly belligerent hotelier. The woman attempted to placate him:
'You're very welcome to the Intermundia Overnight. My name is Janice. Don't mind my husband Alan – he eat something that didn't agree with him when he was a toddler and hasn't really been himself since. Probably his mother's milk. Did you just arrive today? You must be very tired. Would you like us to do you up a nice ploughman's or a corned beef?'
'We're not doing anybody a nice ploughman's – he's not some kind of labourer, fresh from the fields and God's honest toil! He's coming in at all hours, stinking of a brewery! He probably has a tart out there, waiting for the all-clear.' Janice scowled. 'Alan, for God's sake, he's a visitor, they never have tarts. They might as well be monks, for all the interest they have.' She turned to Mark. 'I'll get you your key, love, what was the name again?'
'Mark Smith.'
Janice turned to reach for the key but Didsby barred her, and faced Mark with an expression of unpersuasive regret.
'No checking in after midnight, I'm afraid.'
Janice cast her eyes to heaven. 'Not this again.'
'Where am I supposed to go?'
'Well, it's unfortunate, but didn't you see the sign?' He pointed upward to a sign over the counter that read: STRICTLY NO check-ins after midnight by ORDER OF MANAGEMENT.
Janice addressed the waiter, who had shrugged and smirked at Mark throughout the exchange.
'Freddie, didn't I tell you to take down that stupid sign?'
'I did take it down, love, then 'e told me to put it back up. Then you told me to take it down, then 'e told me to put it back up again. I'm not gonna be up and down like a bleedin jack in the box because the left 'and don't know what the right is doing round 'ere. I don't even like 'eights at the best of times.'
'Alan, just give him his key. How could he have seen the bloody sign until he'd already walked in the door? No point showing him the sign now, he's already here.'
'I know he's here! Where else would he be? But we need rules!'

The continued to bicker, their faces edging closer together, Digsby's eyes becoming pinpricks of febrile hatred. Freddie winked at Mark. In a sudden motion, dazzlingly brisk and graceful, he leapt in behind Digbsy and Janice, snatched the key and resumed his position at Mark's side. 'Let's go', he said, smiling like a clever cocker spaniel. They walked in the direction of the stairwell. Looking back, Mark noted that the hotelier and his wife had already resumed their original stances, she reading her novel and he gazing into the far distance with his rigid and unhappy grin.
'Would you prefer to take the elevator or the stairs, sir?' Freddie asked.
'Well, which would you recommend?'
'Normally, sir, I'd recommend the stairs, because the elevator 'as certain moods and quirks that are best avoided. Only, I've been up and down the stairs so many times today, I'm afraid I'm likely to get the bellicose veins, like me old dad. Me old dad used to say “Don't send me up dem stairs again, love – you won't like me when I'm bellicose - ”'
'Well, how about the elevator then?'
'An excellent choice, me old mucker! I can see that we will be quite simpatico, as the French say.'
As soon as they entered the elevator, and the door shut behind them, Freddie leaned in close and began to speak to Mark in a low, conspiratorial tone.
'Old Digsby and Janice don't mean badly, sir, but there are a lot of problems there, if you catch my meaning.'
'Yes sir. I don't think I would be speaking out of turn if I were to say that their problems, the problems of Old Digsby and Janice, are of a conjugal, or, how should I put it, a sexual nature...'
Mark, unsure how to respond at this point, simply nodded.
'You see, the problem is that whenever Janice reaches out to Old Digsby in the bedroom for 'em to to do his duty, to tune up the old piano, so to speak, he gets his war anxiety. Poor Digsby gets his war anxiety, and he leaps up and jumps in under the bed, cowering, sir, as though the bleedin 'un were about to burst in with their jerry guns blazing! 'E couldn't satisfy a query in that frame of mind, I can assure you. I feel sorry for Janice. She's still an attractive women, only just a tip-toe this side of her prime. And Old Didsby can't get it up without 'earin his drill sargent blow his whistle!'
The surface facing them was a large, grimy mirror, and those at the sides were papered with a puzzling heraldic pattern of scowling lions and griffins. The air was close, and with the exception of a low humming noise, there was little indication that the elevator was moving at all. Mark studied Freddie in the mirror. His thick black hair covered his ears and much of his brow like a helmet. He had small, well-made features, large brown eyes and brows so perfectly rounded that they looked like horizontal parentheses. It was difficult to determine his age as his features were boyish but his expression appeared perennially divested of all of life's illusions and vanities. He was the type of person who might either startle you with a display of sentimental loyalty, or casually lift the wallet from your mortal remains. A thought occurred to Mark as he studied him. 

'Was there a war in Intermundia?'
'Was there a war? Only the bleedin Great One.'
'Was it long ago? Did you serve in it?'
'Nah, not me, sir, it was before my time. When I was a kid, I used to listen to the War every Sunday on the radio. It was exciting for a child, know what I mean? The 'un advancing this way, our boys advancing that, airplane skirmishes, bombs, secret codes...it all seems like an adventure when you're a nipper. But one day, I'm glued to the War on the radio as usual, and me old grandad is sitting at the table 'aving his bovril and reading the paper, when they start listing out all the places where last night's bombs fell. All of a sudden my ears prick up 'cause they say the name of our street, and the very number of our bleedin building! I gets such a shock I leap up, put me arms around the old geezer, and say: “Grandad, grandad we're as dead as bleedin kippers!” And 'e gets a fit of laughing and coughing as nearly does 'im in, and then he sits me down and says: “The War ended years ago, you pillock! They just keep playing it on the radio because it's cheaper than a variety show or a disc jockey. Keeps people 'appy, too, son, cause people was 'appier in the War. Gave em something to fink about and do with their time!” So I didn't see none of the War, only what I heard on the radio. After the Great War, sir, they 'ad what was called a Cold War, but that wasn't really a War at all, more like two groups of lads in a pub, looking across at each other aggro like and whispering amongst themelves, but never actually striking a single blow. Everybody was in a tizzy back then about Comrade infiltration. They way they 'ad it in the news-reels, any bleedin person you meet could be a Comrade in disguise. So I ordered a COMRADE DETECTOR KIT from the back page of one of me comics, all excited about 'ow I was gonna smoke out every single Comi rat on the street. But all it was was this picture, sir, that showed some irate chap with a beard shaking his fists, and a magnifying glass and some invisible ink. So that was as close as I ever came to active duty. And the Cold War ended, sir, and there ain't been nothing much as 'appened since. The planes come and go, you people come and go, same thing every bleedin' day. I sometimes think about what me grandad said that day, about people being 'appier during the War cause they 'ad something to do with their time. We was happier, sir, all of us 'ere, back when we was at Sheldrake's. They were better times.' 

'What happened? Why did you leave?'
Freddie's face clouded over, as though trying to retrieve an indistinct memory.
'Well, I don't know, sir, fings change, I suppose. Sheldrake's wasn't quite the draw it used to be. I remember we used to have bus loads of families, but towards the end it was only dribs and drabs. We was trippin' over ourselves with nuffing to do. Then the sightings started, sir.'
'Sightings of the Black Bunny, sir. The thing was, we 'ad a mascot, which was a great big jolly white rabbit, what was called, for lack of imagination more than anything else, the Sheldrake Bunny. It was old Digsby, if you can believe it, in a bunny suit, which Danny Crenshaw 'ad made em do out of spite. The look on his face when that mask came off was priceless – all sweaty, comb-over 'alf way across the channel, blind, murderous rage in his eyes – and Crenshaw and Teddy Bilk rolling around laughing! Anyway, people started to see a kind of sinister twin to the jolly white rabbit lurking around the chalets and in back of the pavilions. Identical, sir, except pure pitch black from 'ead to foot, and also jolly, albeit in a weird and frightening manner. All nonsense, sir, if you ask me, like moving statues and flying spanners. Power of suggestion – mind playing tricks on itself.'
'Anyway, then Sheldrake 'imself disappeared off the face of the mundia. You see, to be a successful man in this world, you 'ave to crack a few eggs, know what I mean? And old Sheldrake had cracked more than his fair share to get where 'e was, and somebody, sir, didn't like the flavour of the omelette. So Sheldrake was 'oled up in his bunghole, some right dodgy sorts was sniffing round the campsite for his blood, half the bleedin' chalets was empty, and there was more and more sightings of the Black Bunny. And that was the last summer we 'ad at Sheldrake's. Now, Teddy always says that Sheldrake will come back one of these fine days, and re-open the camp, and everything will be just like it was. But I dunno, sir, I think that's just wishful thinking, if you was to ask me. Just wishful thinking is all.'
A lull fell over the conversation, and Freddie's expression became quiescent. His eyelids flickered and his head began to droop downward. Mark became aware again of the low hum of the elevator, and the feeling of being completely stationary. Struggling with a peculiar apprehension of being rude or impolitic, he decided to broach the subject with the dozing waiter.
'Freddie, doesn't it seem to you as though we've been in this elevator for rather a long time?'
'Well, yes, sir, but I did warn you that the elevator has certain peculiar quirks, didn't I? It works like normal most of the time, but every so often....well, nobody really understands these elevator shafts, being entirely honest with you sir. There are certain things about this entire building, the truth be told, which are very perplexing. A feeling one gets, from time to time, like a lot of things went on in this hotel before we all arrived, and left, how shall I say it, a kind of residue in the place, like the remnants of an old cup of tea, sir, that won't be scrubbed from the bottom of the cup.'
Freddie's eyes assumed a sober look, and his voice lowered:
'Teddy Bilk told me that one morning 'e was getting the elevator from the top floor. And when the door opened, a figure burst out in great haste. 'E was all dishevelled and dirty and looked like he'd been sleeping in a gutter somewhere. Well, Teddy was a little taken aback, and he makes a beeline into the elevator instead of confronting 'em. Only, when the door is closing, the dishevelled chap looks back, and Teddy nearly 'as a bleeding heart attack, because it's himself that's looking back at him! His identical twin, if you can believe it. Like looking at myself in a filthy mirror, Teddy says. Anyway, the door closes, and poor Teddy is in a right panic – he feels like he's lost every single one of his marbles. A minute later, the door opens and Teddy steps out into the foyer – except it ain't the bleeding foyer of the Overnight. It was a hotel, Teddy says, but not one he'd ever clapped eyes on before in his life. And there was something different about the whole scene which Teddy couldn't quite put his finger on. Just a certain something that was off about everything – the clothes people was wearing, the décor of the foyer, the way people was acting.'
'So Teddy is in a right panic at this point, and 'e just bolts right out the door of this hotel. And fings only get worse from there, sir. Outside, 'e finds himself in this most peculiar place where there ain't a single terminal as far as the eye can see. And stranger still, not a single airplane to be seen in the sky – not one! Only a handful of those critters, what do you call them, what have evolved to imitate the airplanes - '
'That's right, sir, birds. Anyway, it was a really peculiar place, which 'ad everything you'd find in an airport – shops, restaurants, bars – only not a single runway or airplane in sight. Like somebody had put everything in, only forgetting the bleedin maison d'être, as the French say. Teddy was in a right pickle, cause 'e couldn't speak the lingo either. Then it occurred to him that maybe if he went back and used the same elevator in the hotel, it might just bring him back to the Intermundia Overnight. But by that time, sir, he'd rambled quite a distance from the hotel, and couldn't for the life of him find it again.'
'So that was the beginning of a right 'ard time for old Teddy. 'E was there for weeks, living rough on the streets, sir. It was port city, he said, with lots of canals. The buildings was made of stone – tall, narrow buildings, lots of bright colours, looked like they been all squished together. And it seemed to be a place of pleasure, sir, if you catch my meaning. The people there was transients, only passing through to indulge themselves. A little bit like the Greenbelt, if you credit such tales. Teddy said there was streets where sumptuous tarts lounged in windows, waving and winking and showing their all their inducements to the passers by, as openly, sir, as though they was missionaries out to convert the heathen.'
'All poor Teddy could think about was his belly. 'E had to live by his wits – to beg, borrow and steal just to stay alive. And every day, he wandered the streets of that strange city, looking for the hotel, still clinging to the 'ope that the elevator might bring him back to Intermundia. Every so often, he'd hear a familiar sound, look up, and there it was – a single airplane, streaking across the sky – and that made him 'omesick. It made him think that maybe there was some connection between the two worlds – that there must be a way back.'
'In time, he encountered other castaways who'd washed up there just like himself. One gentleman 'ad stepped into a regular telephone box, and when he picked up the receiver, he 'eard a fearful cackle on the other end of the line. Soon as he stepped out again, 'e had been transported to the city of the gaily coloured stone buildings. One, sir, 'ad been on a pier in a disreputable seaside resort, and stepped into a booth which purported to exhibit a certain unnatural act, ingeniously imitated by automata. He stepped out again and – bang – 'e was far away from home. They'd all come via different routes – mysterious booths, elevators, stairwells, dumbwaiters, strange side-streets and alleyways what weren't normally there – and all of em was desperately trying to get back to the part of the city where they'd first arrived, just like Teddy. They drew maps and pictures, sir, what was like the obessesive scrawlings of madmen, to aid their memories, and show to passers-by in the 'ope that they might know the way.'
'Now this put great fear into poor Teddy's heart, 'cause of some of them castaways was old enough to 'ave one foot on the other side of death's door. And there they was everyday, still looking for the way home, still believing they might find deliverance from the squalid and dirty lives they lead, when they should long ago 'ave excepted that life had run its course for them, and they wasn't going anywhere except the wooden box. Teddy despaired. 'E started to doubt that Intermundia had ever existed in the first place. The whole idea – that 'e had a missus, a nice cosy 'ouse, a job serving bitters and tellin' a few yarns – maybe it was just a fantasy he'd made up to make life more bearable. Maybe everybody who'd gone the wrong direction in this life - every tramp lying in a gutter, every villain rotting in a prison cell, every drunk waking up to the horrors – maybe they all fashioned a story just like his, and maybe they all had maps and diagrams, little works of fiction what was designed to lead them to the point where they'd gone wrong, and through the magic portal back to the place where they was supposed to be all along.'
'Well, sir, strange as it is to tell, it was precisely at that point – when old Teddy had abandoned all hope of return, and was just on the verge of resolving to do himself an eradicable mischief – just at that very moment, 'e turns a corner, and lo and behold, a thrill of recognition, a presentiment of deja vu: he is in the vicinity of the hotel! Heart pounding til it feels like it's coming out his gob, he turns down a side street between a wine-bar and a florist, passes through a square where dead leaves and old newspapers gather at the foot of a dry fountain, and onward he goes, every sight chiming out like a deep, resonant bell through the dormant hall of his memory, like a man possessed, he finally finds the hotel in a narrow street where old people sit and watch from the windows of second story apartments, and small group of stooped children trace an image in chalk on the pavement. And 'e dashes into the hotel and makes a beeline for the elevator, with the manager and couple of burly waiters chasing on his heels. 'E presses the button, jumps inside, and the door closes just as the irate mob are about to close in on 'em. Then he presses the button for the top floor, and waits.'
'Finally, the doors open, and 'e lungs out, nearly colliding with somebody on the way in. 'E looks back just as the doors are closing, and realizes, sir, that it was himself he'd nearly banged into. He 'ad arrived back in the Intermundia Overnight, if you can fathom it, at precisely the same moment that he'd left it in the first place.'
After completing his narrative, Freddie fell silent. He glanced at Mark, and then at his own reflection in the mirrored door.
'Do you think it's true?' Mark asked him eventually.
'Well, I don't know, sir. 'E was awful sincere and serious when he told me, and that's not normally Teddy's way. Mind you, Teddy is the kind of fellow who can pull your leg and make you think 'e's fixing your tie. So who knows? But I will tell you one thing. He has never, under any circumstance, used the elevator since. And he told me, sir, on another occasion, that he'd brought something back from the city of the gaily coloured stone buildings. A little trinket which he had placed in his pocket to assure himself in the years to come that it 'ad been a real place. But he wouldn't tell me what it was.'
A sharp bell rang out, muffled female voices announced the second, third and top floors in a jumble, and the elevator gave a little lurch. Mark and Freddie eyed one-another nervously as the doors began to slide open. 

 Continued shortly.  Images from here, here, and here.

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