The Land & the Sea

In the mornings the fishing boats collect. In the grey-blue mist of the nearly-light they arrive at the harbour mouth, their decks heaped (or not) with last night’s catch. Here the fishermen’s voices practice themselves again, calling out a ‘hey-ho’ or a ‘bring ‘er in’ in the dry-throated singsong of men who live and breathe with the sea.

As the mist disperses the boats become distinguishable from each other. New and old, poor and less so. There is the difference between a high-heaped good catch and a meagre one, and some of this is down to luck. There are the telltale marks written upon the boats by the fishermen: patches repainted, storms smoothed over, boards fixed. Inside the boats there are magazine pages and old photos taped to walls. There are tin plates, paintbrushes and woolen clothes stowed into cupboards where a storm won’t pull them away.

[private]And as the grey-blue light gathers a green to it, lets in a yellow just appearing over the flat-out waters, the men are throwing ropes to the shouts and jumps of harbour workers who are peeling from their houses, pulling on their overalls, swigging dregs of coffee and stamping down their boots. Gulls lift with a caw-caw, and smoke whispers up from the chimneys of houses as the hot smell of toast is forgotten with the incoming stench and promise of the sea.

And upon the heavy stones of the harbour wall the men of the sea exchange fish and a few words with the villagers. News is passed on, necessary repairs are made. And before long the fishermen’s eyes begin to wander. They will notice the hardness and stillness of the stone, and listen to the lapping and teasing of the water at the wall, and soon they will return to their boats, pausing again at the harbour mouth before dipping and nodding their way on.

This is how it is and how it has always been in places where landpeople live with the constant crash of wind and waves, the comings and goings of the seafolk and the rhythm of the tides. In these places the villagers look out not with longing but foreboding, and the tides (and so perhaps the fishermen) are a mystery few have the time or inclination to understand. Interested only in what the ocean brings and takes with it, they are dependent upon it, and fearful of how it shakes them. So there is always an air of restraint, a guardedness to the exchanges between the fishermen and the villagers along the hard stonewalls where land and sea collide.

But this was the morning that—among the ropes and the dry throats and the caw-caws—a fisherman stepped down from his boat, bow-legged, swaying still with the motion of the waves, and drifted past the harbourmen. Floated silently up the street where steam rose from cooking pots and down an alley where morning hadn’t woken yet. Finding his feet were carrying him he walked on, beyond the village. Moving no further inland and always keeping half an eye on the ocean, he began to trace a coastline.

Navigating not according to points in the sky but the winding of a well-trodden path, he walked high up and looked down at how waves gutted at cliffs below. And as the sun rose he came to an estuary where the sea slipped in among hills wide and quiet and free. Where wordless sounds carried out across empty sands pockmarked with the imprints of birds and regurgitated tracks of sandworms burying down. He stood there—a man cracked dry and salt-encrusted—and felt a change in him.

He sat down and looked out and might have stayed there, not noticing that he was leaning against a gate, and that the gate opened onto a path, were it not for a young woman—broad-shouldered and barefoot—walking along it and towards him.

She opened the gate with a jerk and he fell at her feet. She lifted a toe to give him a prod, and as his form rocked slightly under the pressure she was reminded of the waves. She looked down at his cracked face and felt a moisture rise up. He, a little dazed, lifted his head and smelt earth on her bare foot. They found each other’s eyes and felt the wind about them.

For seven days and nights he unsuspends himself from the sea. Under open skies they float over the sands of the inter-tidal zone. She feels the throwing and hauling-in of his nets. The tossing and pulling back, tossing and pulling back, and the looseness of the sea. In the shelter of sand dunes she pulls up grasses to show him their roots, and he peers at the white tendrils, finding them both peculiar and strange. When he speaks he tells her about the ocean, which is all he knows. About a life lived in silent conversation with the sea. How food is caught and not cultivated, how the changing seasons tell the movements and migrations of fish and the shifting moods of ocean currents. How a fisherman must tend to his net, which is also his lifeline. He touches her with his rope-worn, mollusced hands as she, reeling, smells how deeply the fish and salt have penetrated his skin and feels a little afraid. At night she wakes and looks up at the stars, which appear different now, and not so far away. She feels how he holds onto her feet in his sleep, lying curled up like a baby or the tail of a seahorse. They hold onto and swim around each other, and he who had never known a longing, who had lived life according to the only needs he knew—food. water. fish. paraffin,—is caught off-balance. They live like this for seven days.

And on the eighth day the moon pulls at the sea and a springtide rises over seaweed stretch-lines. Wader birds gather in anticipation as the water creeps up and laps at the toes of the couple lying in a small cleft or a hand-hold in the sand. The fisherman wakes up and looks down and sees the tide has come as far as it will go. And as the moon loosens her grip the sea draws back taking a fisherman with it, bow-legged and swaying slightly. He follows a line along the shore, ankle-deep in water until he comes to a harbour, where there are shouts and ‘hey-ho’s’ and boats tipping back out, and then on.

It is so rare for a fisherman to leave the wave-tossed life of the sea that when on occasion it happens it seems to draw stories to it, become wrapped up in folklore and pulled out from time to time in the corners of public houses where harbourmen sit and listen to the sounds of their own voices gather in. On cold winter’s nights, loosened and encouraged by warmth and drink, they tell uneasily of the land-woman who lost her heart to the ocean. No-one saw her where she woke in a hand-hold and found herself alone; no-one heard if she cried out. So no-one can be certain what happened as she stood up and watched wader birds pick at what the tide had tipped into rock pools and left strewn out along the beach. But now and then reports reach them of a small house perched upon a cliff not so far away, with a garden and a small gate to it. And so the harbourmen have composed a picture in their minds of what came next, and this picture alters sometimes according to their moods, since it is alarming to look at, and sometimes they can’t. A garden growing on a cliff-edge. Dried-up soils opening only to the harshest of plants thrown back, growing strangely up but away from the sea so that they appear half-fallen, covered in a fine salt like clinging dust, their roots forcing resolutely down. In the garden they see a woman with cheeks burnt red from the sting of ocean winds, a spade in one hand and a wildness about her. They watch as she digs with a restlessness, pulls at the earth with a longing it refuses to hold. They falter here, the harbourmen in the corner, and fall into a silence broken only as someone tells quietly of a fisherman with feet as dry as the sand, who can be seen each time the springtide lifts, wandering and adrift at the edge of the sea.

The men look down and see that their glasses have emptied and notice that the lights are low, the chairs upturned already on every table but their own. They look around, bewildered, and reach awkwardly for their coats. The woman at the bar calls over to hurry them on and they like children look gratefully up, reassured, feeling their singsong voices return to them as they sweet-talk and tease her across the room, knowing she’ll smile, seeing she does. They pull open the doors and a shock of cold air sweeps in. She turns and picks up a broom as outside they lean over each other down the cobbled-up street, swaying slightly, pushing along the sea wall and out into the night.[/private]




Somebody Else’s Second Chance

I died before I was born.

My slate wasn’t clean but marred with half-erased sentences and distorted images. I’ve tried to smooth the etchings, but it’s difficult to repair a damaged surface. All I know for certain is that my grandmother chose to date a serial killer who eventually murdered her. And that’s not the kind of event a family gets over.

It’s difficult being the only daughter of a man who lost his mother to poor choices he wishes he could’ve controlled. All I know is it’s difficult to be someone’s second chance—to feel like a symbol of all that ever went wrong.

As a child, I tried to imagine it all—the murder—in my mind. I still do.

[private]I look for any semblance of a resolution, so I can avoid a similar outcome.

I picture myself at the crime scene. I find her body in the midnight blue dress with the crimson piping that drips around the edges of her neck. That’s what she wears in the picture on my parents’ piano. A single bobby pin holds her dark brown hair back on one side of her skull like in the picture, but she doesn’t pose for pictures in my imagination. Instead, her body lies limply in the backseat of her vintage Volkswagen van. Sometimes, I see her in the van on the abandoned mountain road in the middle of the summer. I scuff my feet along the gravel, and the man with the horse waves at me to walk faster. He hops off his horse and looks through the window and yells, “Oh, no. Get over here.”

I pick up my pace, and as I start to get closer to the van, an odor

of baked fleshed overtakes me. The man looks at me. He wears a plaid button-up flannel like the one my father wore in the seventies. I saw the shirt in pictures, and my mind puts all the pieces together—tries to make a seamless narrative to explain this all away.

The horse swishes its tail from side-to-side, the way my real pony used to.

He says to me, “Look in here.” I lean closer into the backseat window with my hands around my eyes and jerk back when my bare skin barely touches the car. The summer heat is almost unbearable to me, so I look at the man. He says, “No, go ahead, look.”

I turn my head back to where I know she is. I’ve found her there before when I tried to imagine how her kidnapping ended.

Her arm dangles off the seat, and her hand grazes the hot plastic of the floor cover. But she keeps her hand there, because I’m the one who does the feeling now.

Her other arm bends slightly and lies atop her stomach, and she lies there like Sleeping Beauty, her cheeks the color of Red Wood Sequoya, and the piece of her shot-off head, neatly placed next to her, hair sprouting from it like prongs on a crown.

“This must be that lady they were looking for,” the man says.

“Must be.” I know exactly who she is.

I exist in this way, caught up in my mind.

He rides off down the mountain for help, I suppose, because that’s what he’d always done before—just like in the stories my family told me about her disappearance. I put my hand inside the bottom of my yellow tank top—my favorite shirt in kindergarten—and try to open the car door to pick her hand off the matt, but the door is locked. I start to sweat. And she lies there with her arm still on the matt, but there’s nothing I can do to stop her flesh from scorching. I can’t resurrect someone from the dead.

So I stand there by her van in my yellow tank top and matching shorts and tennis shoes with little pink flowers all over them—my favorite outfit when I found out about her. The outfit I wore twenty years ago before I knew how one person’s murder devastates generations. Next to the van, I crack the spine of my John Steinbeck novel and begin from the first page, because Dad told me he’s her favorite. Grandma, and I need a distraction until the man gets back with the police.

That’s how I find her sometimes—me with the man on the horse, her head already shot off. But other times it’s me with the police at the top of the North Dakota mountain. There’s no van or bench seat, just a sleeping bag—one of those heavy green army ones that zips across the top. The police dogs sniff about the muddied ground and chunks of half-melted snow.

My mind concocts multiple versions because no one in my family can quite get their story right—no one’s details match up. So sometimes

I am with the man on the horse like my dad talks about and, other times, I am with the police and she’s in a sleeping bag like my aunt says.

The police say, “She’s around here somewhere boys.” I start to feel cold, and snow seeps into the tops of my shoes until my socks become wet, but I don’t own an extra coat in my mind, and there’s no way to warm up. I kick at the lumps of snow, but don’t want to move around too much, because I knew her body is up there just like the police think, and I don’t want to tamper with the evidence.

“No one goes missing for a year and makes it alive.” That’s why we bring the dogs.

I already know she doesn’t make it, but I don’t remember exactly where we find her in the sleeping bag. Soon a dog sniffs her out, and all the cops notice a glint of shimmer where the sun’s light bounces off the zipper flap. “Come over here,” they call to me.

I rush over now to an uncovered sleeping bag, shaped like a cocoon, and sopping wet from the melting snow. Instead of baked flesh, I smell a rotting moistness this time—a bloated scent of violence. I bend down on my knees, bare skin pressing into the mud, and I grab hold of the zipper flap and pull it down, half expecting monarch butterflies like the ones in the pictures on the wall in mom and dad’s room to flutter out of the bag. But, instead, I first see her forehead, then nose and eyes, her full lips shaped like mine, and finally again I see the navy dress, and the back of her skull. Human beings don’t become beautiful creatures after hiding away.

But these are just the ways I can imagine it. No one’s ever given me all the details. I am not sure if they even know. Maybe the man on the horse…maybe the police, but I don’t expect anyone in my family to know for sure.

They have the false memories. I have the fake ones.

***

Sometimes I try to find her before he kills her to understand what she saw in such a man. I go to the criminal hospital she worked in—that’s where she met Kevin, her murderer. She wears a white jacket with the flap on the front with side buttons. White nylons cover her legs from the knees down and disappear in the white nursing shoes.

I follow her down the hallway, and try to match my footsteps with hers.

Dark brown hair falls out from under her nursing cap as she turns from left to right, looking into each room—her head completely intact and perfectly round like mine. Our heads have so much in common I’ve often been told.

My father appears as a young man; he told me he was young when he visited her at work. I blend all the details I’ve been told into one fluent story—trying to make sense of it all.

My grandmother stands in front of a room, “She stabbed all of her victims to death.” The woman’s hair is red and sticks up in tufts. The side of her face touches the inside of the glass so that we only see her profile with the one eye the looks directly at my father but past him at the same time. Her hand is balled in a fist and she rapidly stabs an invisible knife—I presume—at the glass. “We’ve tried to sedate her with enough medicine to kill ten men, but she still stabs all day.”

My grandmother explains.

The fluorescent lights down the hall pulsate and bounce off the newly waxed floors. Before much time passes, we find Kevin’s room—“This is Kevin.”

“He in for murder, too?” My dad asks her.

Sometimes I hear her say, “He tried killing someone with a baseball bat when he was thirteen.”

Or sometimes she says, “He’s a pedophile.” No one can get the details right, and I own no documented records.

Less often she looks at my father and admits, “Yes, he’s killed four people already.” They look into his room just as they did the others. Kevin doesn’t come to the window, and his eyes did not have the same distance as the others. Instead, his face, angular, looks directly into my grandma’s for a moment.

“He’s innocent.” She announces confidently.

***

After the hospital, I arrive at my grandma’s small house. She’s living with him now, surrounded by an Arizona yard measured in square-feet. Their voices carry out of the windows, almost making each tiny blade of grass vibrate.

“What did you tell your children about me?” His voice sounds accusatory.

“I tell them you’re innocent.”

She’s pleading for something. Maybe she already knows. “Why would they tell you not to be with me then?

“They don’t believe me, because you were in the hospital.” A bold move. I move around the gray-sided corner of the house, following the sounds of their voices, until I stand at the sliding door outside of the dining room. I see him there, sitting at the table, while my grandmother moves about the kitchen, putting together enchiladas and chocolate cake—her family recipes I have eaten at birthdays and holiday meals.

“Tell your daughters that you’re with me now; they have no say.” His young face looks straight into the sliding door. He gets up from the chair and comes to the door. I step back. He never sees me, but I always hide my face.

Grandma comes to the door with him. She stands behind him and puts her chin on his shoulder and wraps her arms around him, “Baby, you know I believe you. I got you out, didn’t I?”

“I know. I just can’t stand people not believing me. Especially your kids. I love you, and I want a normal life with you.” He turns and hugs her, and her face still looks at mine, but then she closes her eyes and squints them, like she’s actually in love.

I try to grab her arm or yell to her to get away, but she never hears me. She hears no one, except him. Maybe she doesn’t actually hear what he says. Perhaps she only hears herself. I doubt she ever saw far enough ahead to realize what he might do to me and how I’d spend my life looking for them. She never knew I’d exist. And maybe I don’t exist really.

I stay there and try to find the signs. I try to memorize what I must never do. I try to memorize the kind of man I should never love.

***

It’s almost the end of all I know now. The ride up north to North Dakota is chilly, because they won’t roll the windows up, and thin yellow shorts and a tank top do little to cut the breeze. They sit in the front seat. He’s in the driver’s seat. She sits in the passenger seat, her hand on his leg. She wears cat-eye glasses with little diamonds on the corners and one of those sheer scarves wraps around her head. She doesn’t wear the blue dress, but a polyester skirt and matching blouse like the one she wears in a different photograph. I don’t know why my mind constructs the scenes this way.

Sometimes they get in an argument about where to stop for gas or what kinds of music to listen to, but I don’t care much about those times. I pay more attention to the reasons. I want to know why she’s with him. I listen when she tells him that his “eyes are so pretty” or his “hands are masculine,” although I am not sure if she likes those kinds of things, but I do.

I try to figure out why they’re heading up north, but they keep it a secret. At first, I imagine that they had hoped to move to North Dakota. “I can’t wait to get away from it all,” he says. “All I want is to be with you up in the mountains.” He looks at her and smiles.

“Me, too. I’ve never loved someone so much.” She replies. These are the times I like the most.

Usually, he scares me. I see the handle of the gun bulging out of his pocket and she sits tensely in the passenger seat, rarely looking at him. Instead she keeps her eyes straight on the road except for occasional, staccato glances to the rearview mirrors. Sometimes I think she sees me, but she’s always looking at herself. I can’t tell whose eyes are in the mirror, hers or mine. Even though I now I’m invisible, and this whole memory’s fake.

“Now when we get to North Dakota, you’re not telling anyone who I am, you hear?” Kevin says.

“Of course,” she says, keeping her eyes on the road.

“Don’t think I won’t take care of a problem if I don’t have to.”

She says nothing. The noises from the outside get louder, the air picks up.

It’s as though the volume everywhere turns up—almost a deafening level. Then I see his lips moving, but I do not here what he says. I yell at the top of my lungs, “Why did you do it? Why did you do it?” But he doesn’t say anything, and I am glad he can’t hear me.

I move behind grandma’s seat, and I put my arms around her neck and hug her. I lean forward and whisper in her hair, “Get out of the car” or “leave him at the next stop.

I know she won’t hear me, but I have to try. I desperately want to get out of the car, but can’t unless she does. I don’t know how to live a life separate from hers.

***

Sometimes I ride in the car with them all the way to North Dakota—I ride along with them all the way to the end of her and the beginning of me. “Baby, I can’t believe we’re finally to North Dakota,” they both agree.

They trade smiles. I can’t tell who is fake and who is genuine. He pulls over on the side of a barren road while she climbs over the seats until she finds herself in the back assembling sandwiches for them.

I see him pull the gun.

Other times, he kills her before she makes lunch and then hauls her body to the mountain in the back of the van. Just before the murder, I find them at a vacant rest stop on the side of the road. Grandma and I hop out of the van to go into the bathroom. “You better hurry back, you hear?”

She doesn’t answer him.

“Woman, did you hear me?”

“I heard you just fine,” she yells now from the sidewalk near the entrance to the bricked bathroom building. “I heard you just fine,” she mutters again.

I follow her to the bathroom and stand in my yellow shorts at the entrance. I feel the concrete floor beneath my feet and hear the life of my grandmother echoing in the background. I watch him from the doorway, and the angles of his face become more acute from far away. He leans down between the seats. I see the glint of his gun through the windshield.

My heart quickens, and I run to my grandmother’s stall as she turns the knob to walk out; I stand in front of her body, trying to keep her from leaving the stall, but I do not deter her at all.

I watch her every move while she quietly observes herself in the mirror. She draws her face closer to it. The navy of the dress brings out her eyes and contrasts with her dark hair. She reaches into her handbag, pulling out a fresh tube of lipstick and applies a new layer. I marvel at her last moments, hoping she might say another word, explain something, tell me something about the reasons why.

The water from the faucet spurts and splatters tiny droplets around the edges of the sink when she washes her hands.

“Grandma, don’t go outside.” I yell this repeatedly, but she will not listen. She doesn’t even know I’m there. I grab her leg and struggle to keep her inside the bathroom, but she walks through my resistance.

The gunshot sounds.

The bullet darts through her brain and into mine—a wound that never heals.

She falls to the ground, and I’m alone with him.

I turn away and run—I run as far as I can from her until I start from the beginning again.

It’s as though I can’t run from her without running also to her, and

I wonder whose fault her death is: Kevin’s or hers or mine?

But mostly, I can’t tell who died: her or me?[/private]




Litro #123: Mystery

 

Cover art by René Daigle

March 2013

Letter from the Editor
By Andrew Lloyd-Jones

Short Fiction

Meaningless Number by Mazin Saleem

Working Techniques of the Amateur Detective by Thomas Binns

Across the Border by Anniken Blomberg

Somebody Else’s Second Chance by Elisha Heiden

The Land and the Sea by Helen Jukes

Nonfiction

The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story by Oli Belas

Listings
By Alex James

This is only a taster of our Mystery issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.



Listings: February – March 2013

BOOKS

Murder in the Library
British Library 96 Euston Rd, NW1 2DB
Sun Feb 24 – Sun May 12

A chance to immerse yourself in the history of the whodunnit as the British Library takes a quirky look at crime fiction. Featuring familiar and loved writers, such as Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, alongside the unknown and unexpected, this exhibition showcases manuscripts, books, rare audio recordings, artworks and intriguing artefacts from the library’s British and North American collections.

Alchemy
Science Museum Exhibition Rd, SW7 2DD
Mon Feb 25 – Tue Apr 30

A display of 20 rare books and two illustrated manuscripts relating to alchemy from the museum’s library and archives, on show alongside objects from the Wellcome and Chemistry collections including an alchemical scroll.

5×15
Bush Theatre Old Shepherd’s Bush Library, 7 Uxbridge Rd, W12 8LJ
Wed Mar 13

This month’s ever-enjoyable 5×15 event, in which five speakers each speak for 15 minutes on a chosen topics, is co-presented with Notting Hill Editions. The line-up features author Deborah Levy responding to George Orwell, and poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw.

How to Write Successfully for Children & Young Adults
Bloomsbury Publishing 50 Bedford Square, WC1B 3DP
Sat Mar 2

Authors Nick Lake, Nicholas Allan and Jon Mayhew take on this all-dayer to help workshop your writing, divided by the age groups you want to appeal to, from 0-7, 8-12 and 13+.

The Big Write Festival of Children’s Literature
Discover Children’s Story Centre 383-387 High St, E15 4QZ
Sat Mar 9 – Sun Mar 17, Day tickets £7, children £6.50, concs £6.

Children, Festivals, Things to do, Kids’ activities, Children’s books. Discover’s 5th annual festival of children’s literature has a packed programme of story sessions, workshops, book signings and other events. The closing weekend sees a range of events and activities with illustrators and authors such as Polly Dunbar.


THEATRE, FILM AND COMEDY

Playing Cards 1 – Spades
Roundhouse Chalk Farm Rd, NW1 8EH
Mon Feb 25 – Sat Mar 2, £15-£45

The great Canadian physical practitioner Robert Lepage returns to London with the first in a projected series of four plays based around the suits on a deck of cards.

The Double R Club
Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club 42-46 Pollard Row, E2 6NB
Thu Mar 21

This evening of mystery and nightmares inspired by the films of David Lynch is a dark and twisted treat, often groping into territory where other cabaret nights fear to tread. The reliably sinister Benjamin Louche presides over a mix of comedy and crooning.

War Child Comedy Night 2013
O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Shepherd’s Bush Green, W12 8TT
Fri Mar 8

The very first annual comedy benefit gig for War Child has a very impressive line-up. The bill includes comedy god Stewart Lee, crazed Canadian Tony Law, observationalist Seann Walsh, Aisling Bea, Alistair Barrie, and Hal Cruttenden.

Chris Addison – The Time Is Now, Again
Southbank Centre Belvedere Rd, SE1 8XX
Thu Mar 28

Chris Addison, star of ‘The Thick of It’, ‘In the Loop’ and ‘Lab Rats’ is a superb stand-up comedian with one of the sharpest comedy minds around. Addison is seen as the thinking man’s comic, with sharp observations and a scholarly approach to his varied subject matter. However, this erudition never halts the flow of laughter. He’s bringing his ‘The Time is Now, Again’ tour back to the capital for its final London date.

Hot Tub Cinema
Factory 7 7-11 Hearn St, off Curtain Rd, EC2A 3LS
Wed Feb 27 – Tue Mar 5, £220 per tub (up to eight people)

The latest outdoor cinema experience invites viewers to watch a film while sitting back in hot tubs, with waiter service, on the Netil House rooftop. Tubs, which hold up to eight people, must be booked in advance. like a sweet afternoon tea pick-me-up with a glass of champagne or a lavish pudding, the Winter Club Sandwich is a new alternative to traditional London afternoon teas.


 EXHIBITIONS

Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy
Science Museum Exhibition Rd, SW7 2DD
Mon Feb 25 – Sun Jun 2

An exhibition to mark the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing (1912-1954). The show looks at the achievements of the man whose wartime codebreaking helped to shorten WWII by years and whose influence on computer science is still felt today. On display are artefacts including machines devised by Turing, such as the Pilot ACE computer (the fastest computer of its time), along with the electromechanical ‘bombe’ machines which were used to crack codes during the war.

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men
Museum of London 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN
Sun Feb 24 – Sun Apr 14

‘I have only got a leg and thigh,’ wrote a disgruntled William
Hamilton in 1878, referring to his difficulty in finding enough material to complete his surgical training. Hamilton was relatively lucky.

Amongst Heroes: The Artist in Working Cornwall
2 Temple Place, London, WC2R 3BD
Until Sun Apr 14

Two Temple Place stages its second winter exhibition with a major survey of work by Cornish artists. Created in partnership with the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, the show continues Two Temple Place’s aim to showcase collections from outside central London while providing opportunities for emerging curatorial talent – this year’s show has been curated by Courtauld Institute student Roo Gunzi, who is completing a PHD on Newlyn painter Stanhope Forbes

A Room for London
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, SE1 8XX

Perched on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with a commanding view of the river, this wonderfully whimsical temporary hotel room was designed by David Kohn Architects in collaboration with artist Fiona Banner in response to a competition organised by Living Architecture.

The Huguenot Legacy
Bank of England Museum, Threadneedle St (entrance in Bartholomew Lane), London, EC2R 8AH, Until Fri May 10

The achievements and legacy of the Huguenots, the French protestant refugees who came to Britain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, are celebrated in this exhibition, which takes a look at Huguenot contributions to British culture –including banking. Figures explored include the first Governor of the Bank of England, Sir John Houblon, who was the grandson of the Huguenot refugee. Nearby Spitalfields is the ideal place to continue an exploration of Huguenot London.




The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story

Paget_Holmes_04The critic Tzvetan Todorov once suggested that the trick to writing a successful detective story was being sure not to innovate. The great genre work is that which best and most closely follows the “rules” of its genre; to refine the genre, he cautioned, would be “to write ‘literature’” rather than a mystery. But surely this is wrong-headed; a nonsense—logically, let alone critically—to separate Literature and detective fiction, as if they constitute mutually exclusive genres. For there is no “the” in “the mystery story.” Use of the definite article here is a cheap yet time-honoured trick: a red herring. “The” mystery story is as rich a tradition—or, rather, set of entwined traditions—as any other in the literary network. To paraphrase and doctor the Law, or Revelation, of the great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon: if much mystery and crime writing is “crud,” then this is only because ninety percent of everything is; what matters is mystery writing’s other ten percent, and its enduring appeal. It matters, amongst other reasons, because such consideration as we can afford this ten percent may help us to keep broad and alive our sense of what counts as “literature” and “the literary.” To do this at a time when the political model being handed down to educators offers an ever narrower conception of art and culture—well, perhaps it would be a modest achievement, but not an unimportant one.

[private]Before we move any further, though, let me make it clear that I do not intend to use these opening comments as a way into defending “the” mystery story as Art. So tired is the question “but is it art?” that it barely seems worth the asking these days—though it would make a fine and willing corpse in a crime story. “But is it art?” is always dead on arrival, having been fully exsanguinated, and there is little hope of finding the truly guilty party, for so many have and so many others will continue to execute it: death by utterance.

***

Why do mystery stories and other branches of crime fiction continue to engage us? Were we to trace the roots of crime writing to the popular Newgate Calendar—from which we get the so-called “Newgate novel”—of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one might be tempted to suggest that crime writing’s success records nothing more nor less than our inveterate fascination with violence and antinomy. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once defended crime fiction for sharply presenting society’s endless cycles of violence, its self-perpetuating and—begetting networks of falsehoods. The repetitive logic of genre fiction, strewn with the blood and guts and flesh that make up the body, as it were, of crime fiction, seemed to lend themselves well to such a performance of modernity’s fundamental violence. Literary theorist Fredric Jameson, along not dissimilar lines, saw the very meaninglessness of murders in hard-boiled crime fiction as its basic constitutive truth: murder without meaning rang the note of social verity in these stories. By contrast, the artifice of the classical detective story lay in its mitigation of violence and crime, achieved by investing murder with purpose, with meaning.

For the likes of Jameson and Deleuze, then, the contribution of “good” mystery and crime fiction is the dramatization of the indigestible, gristly truths of modernity. At its best, framed by and as an urban pastoral of sorts, such writing offers us an ecorché reflection of ourselves, which meets our gaze from the pages of Chandler, Himes, Høeg, to name but three (markedly different) crime and mystery writers. (Indeed, such an understanding of crime writing’s social and metaphysical urgency stretches back to the Newgate years: Gay’s Beggar’s Opera is a “Newgate pastoral,” and Fielding, in the preface to Jonathan Wild, referred to Newgate as “human nature with its mask off.”) In literature generally—as the confrontation with the abysmal possibility of meaninglessness has become increasingly widespread and hard-boiled—shades of noir can be detected in writing that lies outside the genre proper: it’s there in Oedipa Maas’s spiral pursuit of the Trystero. It’s there in the poetry of Louis MacNeice’s—his “visitors in masks or in black glasses” who symbolize memory, the fragmented narratives and shady dramatis personae of which are figured as our unbiddable assailants in waiting. And it’s there, even, in science writer James Gleick’s Chaos, where such characters as scientist Mitchell Feigenbaum are drawn with a hard-boiled economy, and a theory of apparent meaninglessness—an explanation of the chaotic world—is the subject of an on-going investigation.

Jameson was by no means the only literary theorist who was dissatisfied with classical mystery stories—the adventures of Holmes and Watson, and, a little later, the various incarnations of the “Golden Age” sleuth. For many, most often Marxist, critics, the classical mystery story was a conservative genre, guilty, perhaps, of socio-political quietude, and resignation—if not active subscription—to the status quo. Such stories, the argument tended to go, turn murder into the symbol of societal threat, a challenge to order and harmony; but such threat is staged only for us to see it overcome, and to feel the relief of it being so. Here, the classical detective story is read as an apology for socio-political orthodoxy, and this is mirrored, argued theorist Franco Moretti, in its typical narrative structure: the detective’s big reveal, that marks the dénouement of most every story of this kind, is an imposition of neat, stifling, declarative linearity on narrative. To solve a murder in a classical mystery story, says Moretti, is to murder narrative.

But, needless to say, not all commentators identified such conservative violation of narrative as a basic component of the classical mystery. Ideed, there are those—such as Chesterton and, in celebration of him, Borges—who do not dispute that such stories have the restoration of social order as their subject. But they see such moments of respite as something to celebrate; they are so many brief flickerings of hope in a generally unstable, increasingly fragmented world.

Naturally enough, there are some critics for whom there is virtually no pleasing. And at least one deserves a mention. More than once, American man of letters Edmund Wilson went on record to excoriate mystery readers for their dull literary palates, and mystery stories for their substandard ingredients and overall insipidity. Sharp, eloquent, dismissive, Wilson has time for almost none of the supposedly “great” crime writers. Chandler is grudgingly acknowledged as an aberration—to the extent that he appears not to be terrible. So damning is Wilson’s overall evaluation, that such faint praise, to cast back to Sturgeon’s Revelation, is still enough to put Chandler in what one might estimate as the eighty-ninth, possibly the ninetieth, percentile of crime fiction crud. But Chandler still figures as little more than an epigone of Graham Greene, the only real writer, for Wilson, working in “the” tradition. (Reading Wilson, one gets the feeling that he intuitively worked from the model that Todorov would go on to theorize, and with which we began: is there a suggestion here that Greene, because he writes brilliantly, doesn’t really write crime fiction at all, but, rather, Literature?)

Why, though, despite critical interventions favourable or otherwise, the continued appeal of mystery stories?

I suspect that it has much to do with the figure of the detective, who seems to maintain certain basic qualities, despite having moved in the later-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries far beyond the cynical enervation and stolid machismo of Hammett’s archetype. In recent decades, the gilded sleuth and the harder boiled gumshoe have been broadened and made more nuanced, as authors have woven more intricate historical and political concerns into their plots, and identity issues into their characters. (The race, sex, religion, not to mention gender and sexuality of the private dick have all been up for grabs for some time now.) To see the detective and detective stories as, variously, ciphers of conservative and paternalistic, or liberal and progressive, world-views, is of course a function both of the critic’s tendencies and their readings of particular authors. But, to repeat an earlier point, it is also a sign of the extent to which crime and mystery fictions, at their best, have charted modernity’s developments in all their social, political, and ethical sinuousness, and are able to sustain contradictory readings.

Fans and critical readers are likely to see aspects of detectives and detective stories etched into and reflected by their surrounds, almost anywhere they care to look. Perhaps this is little more than a case of mistaking just so many signs of our critical attentions and inventions for cultural wonders. But if there has been and is any truth to the hollers of “crisis!,” echoed by the culture brokers of every epoch, then the best of our detectives’ casebooks have strong claims to being the ledgers of our on-going, self-made crises of modernity: for Dupin, Marple, Marlowe, and Rawlins do not articulate quite the same anxieties as one another, though neither are they entirely out of one another’s touch.

In one of the most memorable and enjoyable apologies for the hard-boiled mode of crime writing, Chandler says this:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The detective is no longer a man by definition; one hopes (perhaps quixotically) that it is no longer solely “The Man,” as he is more than likely imagined by Chandler, who is the rude and witty spokesperson of the age. “The Hero,” I think, is now not so tightly bound by the jerkins, breastplates, leotards, and capes of gender, race, class, and sexuality. Nevertheless—and accepting these identitarian expansions—I suspect that a widespread but often denied, almost clandestine desire for and attraction to a hero/-ine—a virago in the most positive yet also, in a sense, atavistic sense of the word—keeps the detective in whisky, but from drinking herself into oblivion. Just.

The mystery story, in all its permutations, is for all comers. But it is especially for those who have Batman comics and Kierkegaard on the nightstand. Not because such a combination is so very contrary, nor so very impressive; or mere affectation; or a poor expression of an ill-defined and flaccid postmodernist irony. But because the broadest strokes of Chandler’s definition limn an Everyperson who is by twists and turns admirable, disconcerting, comforting. The detective, I think, will be knocking around his or her mean streets for as long as we are drawn to characters whose capes, trilbies, and trenchcoats both admit and mask their—and therefore our—fears and tremblings.[/private]




Across the Border

1.

At dawn the light trickled between the trees, seeped into the dark like a milky liquid. The hues and shapes that appeared in its wake were always the same. Black-green branches, grey moss curled up like old women’s hair, blood-red lichen clinging to grey boulders.

The strangeness of the landscape comforted him. Every morning he felt relief to see it emerge into its separate components. At night it was as if it united with itself, contracted and expanded at the same time, became a thing; breathing and waiting for him outside the thin walls of the logger’s cabin.

[private]He was able to separate the unease from the man who prepared his supper from the contents of tins and bags of foil, smoked his cigarettes, slept for seven hours every night, put on his work clothes in the morning and walked along the path to the logging site. The man who operated with confidence and skill amongst whining, humming machinery and the hard-soft swoosh of falling trees.

The last bit of forest fringing the path to the logger’s cabin had been left to maintain itself. Young pale trees pushed up at random next to black tree stumps that looked as if they had blown over in some primeval storm.

They had offered him the logger’s cabin when it emerged that he slept in his car the nights he didn’t sleep with Bodil, which was more than half the nights of the week. Since he moved in, he’d confined his stays in her house to the weekends.

He carried with him a not-quite-acknowledged feeling that something or someone was lurking at the edge of his shadow. Something that would keep still as long as he was in motion, but start moving in once he settled for too long.

But after the Change and the Ravage there was less space in the world to move around in. This new world didn’t really suit people like him. One day he would find himself held in a pocket of activity he couldn’t leave so quickly.

And here he was. Caught, held. Filling the hole after another’s absence.

He had just completed a short contract in another logging area nearby when the request came. Someone had disappeared and they were under pressure to clear that particular area of forest within two months. Would he be willing to step in and help?

He’d accepted. He needed the money…

He read between the lines of her letters that his mother was finding it hard to get by. She was a proud and fierce woman who never asked him for assistance. But times were hard. Where she lived, as everywhere else, they first chipped away at the resources of the ones without the power, the time or the energy to fight back, or, they hoped, the intelligence to notice.

Tell me what you see…

They used to play that game, his mother and him. She had been a science teacher for over fifteen years by the time she had him, and clung to her faith in observation and reasoning as a way of finding one’s way in life with grim determination. During their frequent walks she would ask him to describe a landscape or a scene back to her. It excited him, the request made him feel important. But as he got older he learned that the more he looked, the more he saw. What he saw was not necessary what she wanted him to see. One day he described a procession of people in the far distance which his mother denied was there. He didn’t argue with her, but never doubted that he had seen what he had seen.

He had a memory of looking his mother in the eye from the arm of another. The only memory he has of being held by someone else as a child. He knew the man holding him was his father, and he felt anger that the only thing he was able to recall about him was the pressure of an arm against the back of his thighs.

“Your father came across the border together with all the other survivors. We all had to give up any spare rooms we had to accommodate the refugees. I had one room available. He came one night with the rain and left another rainy night two years later. In the meantime he had moved into my room and you had been born.

He was lonely, I was lonely and that’s all you need to know. The problem was that he had crossed the border, but left most of himself behind on the other side. The last thing he said to me was that he needed to go back to find out what had happened to “the others”. As if he didn’t know. He left to join the dead, that’s what he did, even if he wouldn’t admit it, even to himself. “

His mother’s voice hoarse with hurt and old fury. He didn’t press her for information, but saw her in a different light afterwards. As both more human and more of a stranger. A woman who was perfectly able to see a procession of people in the far distance.

They turned off the machines at six. He looked around at the area they had recently cleared with the now familiar sense of discomfort. It hovered at the corner of his eye, breathed into his neck as if it had a will of its own. To free himself from its grip he raised his eyes and looked at the line of trees in the distance, further away now than it had been this morning. The trees merged and billowed against the horizon like a veil. He was unable to rationalize the impression by telling himself that behind the seemingly thin, wafting tree-line there were still kilometres and kilometres of forest. He turned his back to the apparent chaos around him. Logging was an orderly, meticulous business, starkly at odds with the detritus left in its wake.

When he reached the cabin and fiddled with the keys he felt the landscape behind watching him, felt its evening-breath against his back. It made him feel porous—someone open to be infused, invaded and rearranged.

He opened the door and went in. The cabin was simply furnished with one table, two chairs and hard, narrow bunks. The fourth wall contained the only window, overlooking the moss-field. As he prepared his food he sometimes turned towards it and watched the slow ebb of light away from the window-pane.

As he was eating he found himself looking at his work clothes. Clothes that once belonged to the man whose job he had inherited. When he first put them on he felt—an absence. An echo of another’s smell and skin. The sensation wore off after he had used the clothes for a while, but returned the next time he put them on.

He put his plate away, lit a cigarette and looked at the clothes again. In the half-light they acquired a strange tactility, an almost- fleshiness he felt he should find repulsive, but didn’t.

He leant over, picked up the carving on the windowsill and turned it between his fingers, as he had done every night since the first night he slept here. The carving was bulbous, irregular and very smooth. It looked as if it had been made with great skill, but it was hard to make out what it was meant to represent. He saw different things each time he looked at it. Two bodies entwined, a grimacing face, a mountain range, a three-dimensional map of an unknown landscape…

Despite the uncomfortable chair he drifted into sleep, still gripping the carving. On the edge of sleeping and waking it felt as if it curled up and settled into his palm, like a living thing.

Two hours later he woke up with a stiff neck. He got to his feet; put the carving carefully back on the window sill and walked over to the hard, narrow bunk at the corner of the room.

Outside the night was still breathing long, slow breaths. He’d learned to tell the time of night by the cadence of that breathing. It turned shallower and more rapid towards dawn.

Tomorrow was Saturday. He would go and see Bodil.

When he put on his work clothes he now tried to ignore the sensation of stepping into someone’s absent skin. He let the feeling trickle down the protrusions of his spine and away.

He opened the door and walked out into the pale sunlight. As always he stood still for a while before he walked on. Pushed the steel toe caps of his work-boots gently into the tightly curled moss, still moist with residue of early dawn. Residue that made the red lichen quiver at the edges in the light.

He felt the same wistfulness every time he had to turn his back and walk towards the logging site. The man whose clothes he wore must have seen the same things and walked along the same path.

The day he started work he’d simply been told that the other man had “buggered off”. Or that was all they could assume. One day he just failed to turn up. When he still hadn’t appeared after several hours, someone went to the cabin to look for him. They found it empty, but tidy. Some clothes and a pair of shoes seemed to be missing, but that was all. The police were called in, a search party combed the surrounding area, but no trace was found. Everyone knew though, that these forests still allowed you to disappear in them quite easily, despite the nibbling at edges being pushed steadily backwards. Especially if you had a wish to.

“He didn’t seem to want to top himself,” one of the men said, eyes fixed at a point between the machines and the trees. “But you can’t always tell, can you?”

2.

Bodil drank a glass of milk by the kitchen table. She was just back from her night-shift in the nursing-home when he arrived. She greeted his arrival with her usual air of calm acceptance. Bodil possessed kindness of a sort he’d never encountered. An unreflecting kindness, freely given but grounded in self-containment and not open to abuse. She accepted him as the one he was, even if she probably didn’t think of it that way. A drifter. Kind, gentle—as long as he stayed around. And maybe she, in her animal way, also sensed the precarious equilibrium in him. Maintained by moving away, moving on.

He’d never met anyone that rested so effortlessly in the centre of things. In her own skin, in the clothes she wore and the rooms she entered, whether in activity or rest. Even in bed she always found the right place to rest near him. Neither too close nor too far away. He didn’t think of her as pretty or ugly, fat or thin, as she was none of these things.

He often spent his Saturdays like this, dozing beside her, sometimes watching her sleep. This time an exhaustion he hadn’t been aware of knocked him into a heavy slumber as soon as he was in bed with her. He had a dream where the walls of Bodil’s house became dark and vaporous, as if made from shadows and rain. From somewhere far away, he felt Bodil putting her forehead against his shoulder. Her hair smelt of wet moss and the skin of her arm and hip felt soft and sleek like animal fur.

3.

During one of his first days he’d found a set of wood carving tools and dry wood in the cabin’s only cupboard. The tools were old and well used, but the wood looked relatively new.

One night he put the other man’s wood carving back on the window sill and took out the tool- set and a piece of wood. He felt a tingle in his fingertips, as if they were inhabited by tiny creatures.

His first idea was to carve a woman’s face, Bodil’s perhaps, but he found that he was unable to get a clear picture of her in his mind. She was just a blurred outline, as if he was looking at her through rain-covered glass. He pushed the tools away, looked the window in the eye and picked them up again.

He worked on the carving every night, not forcing the process, tried to ease out the form he sensed was inside. He still tried to carve a face of a sort, but sometimes it hid from view. The mouth became a bend in a river, the hair a wind-battered meadow. The eyebrows pushed up to become low hills against a flat horizon. Late at night, just before he was about to put the carving away, it sometimes felt softer and more malleable, as if he was handling clay, not wood.

He knew when it was finished, or rather, when it was time to stop carving. He made it as smooth as he could, put in on the window-sill beside the other one and looked carefully at them. They were very different, but at the same curiously alike, as if they had been made by the same hand.

The outside gazed in at him, probingly. He felt invaded him by a different sense of time. Old, slow, pooling into the hollows of the present. It was the middle of the third week when he first saw lights at the forest’s edge. They didn’t reflect off the surrounding darkness, but hung globular and still, like luminous holes in the fabric of the night. He splayed his hand on the glass, looked at them between his fingers. He put his forehead against the window. Watched the lights go blurry behind the expanding mist-sheet from his breath before they went out. He listened for a while, but heard nothing.

He walked over to the bunk and started undressing. Let his clothes fall to the floor as he removed them. He felt as if he had been abandoned by something he hadn’t known was there.

When he returned from work the following day and had reached the end of his usual routine of food and cigarettes, he’d made a decision. As it got dark and the lights again appeared, he opened the door and went out.

On the other side of the moss-field the night had condensed into a different shade of darkness that hovered like a wall. The lights hung in what appeared to be slits in the wall. When he looked up at them he saw a hazy outline of the jagged tree line on the other side.

He walked closer, half expecting the wall to retreat as he advanced, but it didn’t. As it loomed in front of him, it changed its appearance, became firmer, less vaporous, more tactile…Behind the lights he saw a reflection of movement, and thought he heard music—soft sounds that trickled out through holes in the silence.

He was never sure when he’d crossed the threshold, when he’d crossed the border. He just knew that he found himself between walls and was unable to guess the distance from one to another. The ground he walked on was still springy and moss-soft, but there his sense of the familiar ended. It was as if he walked inside an edifice superimposed upon the world he knew. He started walking. Rooms emerged as he moved and folded themselves out to spaces around him. He had a feeling he was being played with, in some curious detached, almost non-intentional way.

After a while he stopped, exhausted and sat down. He stared at the semi-transparent, blue-black wall in front of him and held himself still. He saw thin eddies inside it, tracery that flowed in and out of images of things he recognised. Faces he’d known formed, widened and became landscapes he must have visited once. Bodies emerged from these landscapes; rivers and fields became trellises of arms and legs. After a while he turned around to get away from the maelstrom and found the opposite wall gone. Instead he looked out on to an empty beach facing an empty ocean. Where the beach met the sea was a band of spume that stretched into the distance like a long strip of torn lace.

He tried to form words, project his voice into the room, but it fell heavy and echoless to the ground. He closed his eyes, clutched the moss with shaking hands, dived into the ebb and flow of his breath. He sat like that until the morning came, until milky light touched his eyes and he knew he was back across the border

4.

Who had come back? What had he left behind, to be sensed by whomever wore his particular work clothes next? To animate the carvings he’d left on the window sill beside the others. And what had he taken back with him?

At night, beside Bodil, inside Bodil, he fused, came together. At dawn he emerged like the separate parts of a landscape he didn’t recognise.

If he stayed she would love him and care for him with her here-and-now kindness. If he left she wouldn’t waste that kindness by pouring it into a void, waiting for his uncertain return. But now he could no longer bear the thought of waking up beside her; disjointed, dispersing inside his skin in the light.[/private]




Litro #123: Mystery – Letter from the Editor

I have a friend who loves mystery movies. For her, and I suspect many other fans of the genre, the appeal lies in the challenge – working out whodunit, whytheydunnit, and sometimes even whattheydun in the first place – as quickly as they can. And, evidently, letting me know at the first possible opportunity.

Personally, I’ve never really been a subscriber to this strategy. I’m fairly content to let my sleuths grind through the motives and the alibis and come to an eventual, inevitable conclusion on my behalf. I respect the process. ((Columbo would be a notable exception to this rule, since he always seems to know right from the start who’s responsible. It’s like he’s passively lording his superiority over us for the best part of each episode. I’m not a fan.))

Of course, it might be that I’m just lazy, but I think what appeals to me about mysteries is not so much the solutions as the questions, the gaps in our knowledge, the state of uncertainty. Mysteries are quantum events, occurring but only existing for a time, until they are resolved and disappear. Those gaps appear literally, too, as dark spaces – shadowy alleyways between buildings, secret gardens, misfiring amygdalae in amnesia victims. They are where mystery thrives – in novels, films, plays, and online, too, in mystery’s paranoid, internet-friendly offspring, conspiracy.

It’s these gaps that we celebrate in this month’s Mystery-themed issue of Litro. There’s the fantastically sinister tooth that appears in Mazin Saleem’s Meaningless Number, “tilted as though it belonged in the mouth of someone yawning or screaming”, just an ordinary tooth, but missing the mouth, head and body that we would otherwise expect to exist around it; there are a series of mundanely out of place objects in Working Techniques of the Amateur Detective by Thomas Binns, though the narrator is preoccupied throughout by a much more significant absence in his life; Across the Border by Anniken Blomberg contemplates not just a journey into one of those gaps, but the things you return with; Somebody Else’s Second Chance by Elishia Heiden deals with a frustrating gap of memory, and the stories that others are compelled to fill it with; and The Land & The Sea by Helen Jukes, which features a man caught not on one nor in the other, but somewhere between the two. Finally, Oli Belas, in his essay The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story, focuses on the figure of the detective – the character who steps into the shadowy spaces of the narrative, the character we willingly follow, some of us alongside, some of us behind.

Either way, we’re on the case. Care to join us?

Andrew Lloyd-Jones
Editor

March 2013




Working Techniques of the Amateur Detective

30th November 2001

Back of a mobile phone found in the gutter on Crossleigh Street. Mugging gone wrong? Half mile radius searched for any further items, handbag, purse, searched bushes in Crompton park, nothing found. Serious damage identified to some of the lower branches in brambles, vandals no doubt. Will be making regular trips to hedges to monitor situation.

3rd December 2001

Spoke to Lizzy Cooper. Reports of a single foot print in the snow in the middle of her lawn. Lizzy is confused and frankly, so am I. Had lengthy discussion about possible solutions, Lizzy suggested a one legged Tigger type of garden hopper, conversation lasted three cups of tea, became fatigued, went home, tried to explain to Mother, she was busy pulling hairs from the bath, not much time for me.

NB—One large ginger hair found in Bath. No ginger haired people known to use that Bath. Investigation to follow.

4th December 2001

Busy day today. A new Missing Dog poster in 34 locations. Dog is a Mastiff, much loved family pet. Spent the first five hours door knocking asking to check garages and Sheds, was chased by Neil Grampton’s son, fell on a Rabbit Hutch in the Garden of 32 Trinade Street, Rabbit escaped, lost two hours chasing it. Rabbit found. Day light Lost.

5th December 2001

Auntie May called me to look at a single black glove she found underneath her living room window, she’s quite shaken. The glove appears to belong to a male, medium size hand, palm worn out. I went to Tesco to pick her up some Calms. Removed the glove, placed it in a sandwich bag and stored it in my filing cabinet underneath ‘Single Black Glove Found Underneath Aunty May’s Window’.[private]

6th December 2001

Received reply from Met Police, my recent records of local incidents accepted and acknowledged but with a letter suggesting I consider leaving the police work to the police. Its certainly not for the gratitude that I do what I do.

7th December 2001

Continued my search for missing Mastiff. Decided to look in the Park. I insisted on checking the collars of all dogs in there causing tension between me and the dog walkers, one pointed out that if I am looking for a Mastiff then I had no business checking the collar of a Poodle. The simple mind of the public never ceases to amuse me, she completely failed to recognise that the culprit could have stole the dog, and swapped collars with another dog to avoid capture. She called me a wanker and told me to get a job. I explained that my job is investigating the crimes that the police won’t touch, I told her I earn my Job Seekers Allowance serving the public. She told me that the police don’t touch them for a reason. It got quite heated.

8th December 2001

Aunty May called, told me to get round to hers at once and hung up the phone. It’s a rare thing for me to use my bike, I don’t feel the roads are safe and whenever I cycle on the pavement people shout at me, but, she seemed startled. I got there and she showed me a cubic space where her wheelie bin should have been, it would appear someone stole it. I don’t jump to conclusions but the glove and the bin could be connected. I took some measurements of the space where the bin was, I am not sure why, it just seemed like the thing to do. Went to Tesco to get another bottle of Calms. I do worry about her, 40 tablets in two days.

10th December 2001

Got home today and found a ginger hair in the Utterly Butterly. Showed Utterly Butterly to Mother. She was busy with rollers in hair but did tell me that perhaps someone in the Utterly Butterly factory had ginger hair. A reasonable explanation. Case closed.

11th December 2001

On the Northern Line going to sign on or ‘pick up my wage’ as I call it. Saw an abandoned Greg’s bag. Noticed there was empty bottle of Oasis inside that seemed off colour. I didn’t like the way there was a dusting of pastry on the upholstery, it all seemed a little staged to me. The announcement always says—if you see something suspicious report it—but when you’re 100 feet underground without signal on the phone who do you report it to? Plus, I was in the carriage on my own, I couldn’t even ask for a second opinion. I moved to the exit and pulled the red lever, the train ground to a halt and then the driver spoke through a little speaker—Can the person who pulled the handle please speak?—I told him we have an unattended package that is probably a bomb. He told me to stand by. Within seconds the doors popped open and an announcement to evacuate and head south, everyone was panicking a bit. On the way down we met what looked like a bomb squad, I told them it was in the third carriage from the end, a man with a plastic face guard on told me to speak

to the station supervisor on the platform. It was carnage in Old Street. Thousands of people piling up the escalator, bomb people jumping onto the tracks, someone had a panic attack which nearly set me off and it’s been 18 days since I’ve had one of those. A TFL worker took me to a safe spot down City Road and fifteen minutes later we got the all clear. They then took me to an office and asked me if this whole thing had been a joke, I couldn’t believe it, no I said. They dropped a half eaten Greg’s Sausage roll on the desk in front of me and said how could I possibly think that a bomb? I said I don’t know. They told me that half the London Transport network has been disrupted, that about one million people will be running late for work, that all trains will be running late all day meaning that potentially millions and millions of people will be late and my little stunt had likely cost the economy tens of thousands of pounds. I went dizzy. They rang my mum and my key Worker turned up. Anyway, better to be safe than sorry. Fools.

13th December 2001

Spent the day looking into the missing wheelie bin and drinking Tea with Aunty May. There’s a man that lives round the corner that lost his arm in an incident with a cement mixer. He’s been having loads of Kids lately. The council charge £35 an extra wheelie bin which is exactly what he’s going to need for all them nappies. His wife goes to pick up her kids from the school at 3 PM. I placed myself in the bushes in a garden of an empty house opposite the school, glove in hand. She turned up and I sprang out, ran over to her and said, scuse me, scuse me, I found your husband’s glove. Oh, she said, Oh, thanks for that. I dashed back to Aunty Mays, case solved and handed over the police.

14th December 2001

Jane Morgan told me that her Shed had been broken into. Early investigations show that a Lawn Mower, tool box (empty) Screw Driver Set and Step Ladder have been taken. I went home to pick up my dusting set to take finger prints. Details recorded and posted in Note Book ‘Garden Shed Break-ins May to December 2001’.

16th December 2001

Heavy knit sock found in washing machine. Wet Canvas/Hemp trousers drying over banister. Smell of Peculiar Oil heavy in the air. Initially suspected that someone was using our house whilst we were out like in Goldie locks. Mother settled the matter, she’d been doing some washing for a friend. Note to self, Mother has been exceptionally chirpy lately, singing that blasted song Stars over and over and over. Sock incident closed, a watchful eye to be kept on Mother.

17th December 2001

Saw the one armed man, he said—Oi, lad, the glove, was that some kind of sick joke was it?—I told him—Oi, thief, don’t play that card with me, I know what you did, there’s bags of rubbish piling up in my Aunties stairwell while your living the life of Riley with all the refuse space a man could dream of. He stared at me and slowly shook his head, told me I needed help, I said, I don’t need help, you do. That silenced him a bit and I went on my way, safe in the knowledge that

I had served not only my community but Aunty May too.

19th December 2001

I miss dad a bit.

20th December 2001

A day in the office (bedroom) decided to send the police my book of finger prints with details of all missing items from sheds.

24th December 2001

Didn’t leave the house during the day. Not feeling too good. Missing Dad still. In the evening Mother came and asked me what crimes I’m busy working on. It was very unusual of her and instantly my detective instincts were on hyper alert. I told her about the Mastiff. She said that when she was younger she lost a dog and found it in the Park. She said that missing dogs go to the park at night because all dogs like parks but are scared to go during the day because of all the other dogs. She said I should get up and go and look. I told her the park isn’t safe at night. She asked me what kind of detective is scared of the night time? I told her no detective is scared of the night. She passed me my scarf.

I got to the park and found Samuel Webster, the park keeper, by the gates cleaning up vomit. He started shouting at me, calling me a bloody pervert and I’ve got to stay out of the hedges, apparently its me breaking the branches. I told him it wasn’t me, he told me it bloody was me, he’s seen me, going in the bushes three, four times a week, I said—me? I said that the bushes in a park are a crime hot spot and need to be checked regularly and if he did his bloody job properly I wouldn’t have to do it for him. He asked me what am I doing in the park at night, he called me a pervert again and told me to get out, go home. He seemed really angry but I tried to walk past him anyway. He hit me in the shin with his broom. I turned around to go home to write a report. When I got home I dashed into the living room where I left my note book only to find my mum in there with Mick Hucknall on top of her! I was nearly sick. I have never seen anything like it. I went to bed.

25th December 2001

I left the house before mum and Mick woke up. I saw a woman walking a Mastiff like the one on the poster, I ran to her and told her I needed to check the collar. Anyway, it turns out she was the one that put the posters up and she found the dog the next day. I told her she should have took the posters down and I tried to explain that her actions had resulted in me getting hit in the shin and discovering my Mother and Mick Hucknall in the act. She didn’t understand, she just said thank you for my efforts and offered me a cigarette. I told her I didn’t smoke. She was pretty. If I wasn’t married to my work I might have asked her on a date. She asked me if I would be a ‘love’ and take the posters down. I said yes, took me three hours to locate all 36, it was raining.

26th December 2001

Turns out it wasn’t Mick Hucknell. It was Gary Michaels. The man that owns the hippy shop of Normington High Street. Mum says we’ll be seeing more of him. There’s heavy knit socks dripping wet and all over the banister.

30th December 2001

The police got in touch.

“Dear Lucas,

Thank you for your book of prints and detailed list of items stolen. We always recommend that the public ring the non emergency number for shed and garage break-ins and in all but one of the cases that you sent us the individuals had rang the police and we already had the prints and lists of stolen items on our database. However one person did not and the prints from that break in were of particular interest and, although we can’t give too many details due to Data Protection Laws, I can inform you that your work has lead to a very satisfactory conclusion and there is now one less Shed and Garage burglar on the streets. Keep up the good work.

P.C Whitaker.”

1st January 2002

I felt good today.[/private]




Meaningless Number

The second to notice were the paramedics because the cyclist’s blood stood out on the enamel; at her speed, she must have felt like she’d ridden face-first into a nail. Others stopping to help or watch also noticed and entered history. It was a cold, wet morning on a quieter side of Victoria Park.

Even so there was soon a crowd too large to be explained by just that ambulance. Black cabs started pulling over en masse. Dog-walkers were ignoring their dogs. Above the unconscious woman, in mid-air, was what looked like a tooth—an upper incisor, tilted as though it belonged in the mouth of someone yawning or screaming.

Most people’s reaction was to squint then laugh, rubbing their jaws. But against expectations, no TV pranksters or illusionists came out of their hiding places. Ignoring the gasps, a paramedic moved closer to it with an eyebrow raised. When he chopped his hand above and below, the second eyebrow joined the first, and he squirmed a little where he stood. Flicking it produced a familiar tap. He next tried wobbling it, and when he finally removed his aching and briefly warped fingers everybody could see that it hadn’t moved an inch.

Within minutes, photos and videos had spread around the country and—thanks to a couple of tourists—around the world. The media assumed that all the emails and phone calls were part of some ad campaign. It was only towards late afternoon that the first news vans arrived, playing chicken with one another at the gates. By then, several of the original crowd were staring into the distance or had left, heads shaking, as if someone had told a joke in bad taste.

The police arrived next, though not as some excitedly thought because of a cover-up—they were there to disperse the crowd (it heaved back and forth but always with a held-back clearing in the middle; now and then a child would break free, jump up to try get a touch, then run back giggling, as if having narrowly avoided being bitten). In fact, the police were just as confused as everyone else. A drunk was swearing and making threats, pushing others down to get closer. People started shouting that they couldn’t move or breathe.

The police had to call for help to pacify the situation. The military arrived, imposing a no-fly zone to ground the news helicopters and putting up tents that could be seen from all the nearby tower blocks. This did not help dispel people’s suspicions.

All they were left with were photos and videos, most too shaky or taken from too far away—but everyone’s reactions looked real enough; and even more compelling were the testimonies of those who’d been close enough to see it: the original crowd, the paramedics and the cyclist.

Most assumed that they were collaborators in a hoax. But journalists and detectives didn’t turn up anything other than everyday links. Some argued that there’d been a group hallucination caused by a common trigger, or even a freak coincidence of hallucinations. A breakfast show psychologist conceded that yes something strange had occurred but argued that it was of such strangeness that the witnesses had translated the event into an ordinary concept—a tooth was just how people saw whatever had actually appeared. And anyone who dismissed the whole thing out of hand would still have to explain why Victoria Park remained closed and the East End had disappeared off satellite maps.

The government was unprepared like never before and so kept changing its official line with farcical frequency. Each new explanation—a criminal release of aerosol LSD, a powerful new species of hummingbird—topped the previous for its implausibility and the outrage it drew from the nation; though as one flustered minister pointed out, any explanation they gave was still more plausible than what people imagined hung there in a tent under 24-hour surveillance.

The culture was familiar with instant spectacle and bizarre news. But this was different to an accident caught on a mobile phone or a mutant baby born in a remote village. This was something public, permanent and apparent. Stand-ups tried to tell jokes about it, mainly revolving around the idea of the English and their bad teeth. Talkshow hosts referenced it in their intro patters. Conmen pretended to raise funds to combat the ‘unnatural disaster’. There was merchandise. There was porn. This was all comforting for a time. But whenever anyone smirked, you could see the strain.

People coped better the further away they were. Even now, many had heard less than a rumour, in slums, rainforests, comas, prisons, torture camps in secret valleys. Most countries viewed it as a foreign problem, and in this way they could sceptically observe the situation from afar and mock the English for their credulity. Then one day a government professor leaked the surveillance footage: ten hours of it at six different angles.

When asked later why he had breached the Official Secrets Act, the professor would not look the journalist in the eye. During that famous interview, in which he kept making long pauses between sentences, pauses lasting nearly ten seconds, he confirmed to the world that it was a Tooth.

Nothing could be detected around It and nothing could move It. Air moved casually past It as though It were any other solid object.

“Like many of my colleagues,” he explained, “I arrived in the park with the thrill you get before the supposedly inexplicable that in fact is just the yet-to-be-explained. This was the most reasonable attitude to take, at the time anyway, when I’d only seen the various confused or angry reports. Then I saw It with my own eyes…Do you realise how difficult It is to look at for any long period of time? Soon enough your head jerks down, as though something’s been thrown at you. Understand that reality is otherwise behaving normally: there is nothing interesting on any register, up until Its surface. And then?… There’s just something so bad about It. We talk sometimes about the beauty of a theory, the elegance of an explanation. What we have under that tent in Tower Hamlets is the ugliest thing in the universe.”

***

By now, no one was taking the official stories seriously; instead they were debating the implications of the three things that they’d learnt or heard rumoured. Firstly, the Tooth was immovable or at least couldn’t be moved by the forces that they were comfortable applying to It in such a crowded city. Secondly, the Tooth was geosynchronous: in other words, It was not part of the substrate of reality, if such a thing existed. Had It been, they consoled one another, then the Earth might have gouged a furrow out of itself as it moved from the Tooth on its axis, around the Sun, and with the Milky Way at 300 kilometres per second. Lastly, and most disturbingly: though the Tooth was immovable and seemingly indestructible in terms of large forces, It could still, on occasion, be altered on the small scale. Molecules were taken with lasers: ordinary dental enamel. This impossible contradiction, the claim that you could file off a corner of the Tooth while at the same time It might have bitten into the core of the planet set off something of a metaphysical panic, during which various ambassadors broke protocol by openly accusing the Prime Minister of having gone mad.

So she invited experts from around the world to see for themselves. They came and stared and went, leaving behind them stranger, vaster theories. But the maddening scene-shifting each entailed, the remodelling, the dismantling of paradigms: everything they moved just pushed a thousand other things out of place. It was like they’d been slowly completing a jigsaw puzzle but now were being asked to fit on to another piece a dead spider, or the concept of baldness, or the Code of Hammurabi, or a tooth.

Meanwhile, the press, academics, members of the public had their own theories:

‘The Tooth is simply a tooth—one that belongs to an ordinary person. The rest of this person is in another world. Somehow that world and our own have overlapped, but only at a very specific and tiny juncture. This person with their Tooth moves and eats and lies down like we do, and yet the reason the Tooth doesn’t appear to move is because our entire universe is moving relative to Its movement. And why can’t we move the Tooth? Because it’s like trying to move another universe. (A further question: how many of our own teeth have appeared like this in other worlds?)’

‘Until now, we’d barely explored even the shallows of Ideaspace (or ‘the totality of all possible thoughts’). But the hyperactive hive-mind that’s the online billions of modern humanity, it has crossed an epistemic threshold. We can map so much more of consciousness than ever before. And we’re finding things on our voyage that were already there, waiting to be found. There’s always been a Tooth. We can see it now. We will see more.’

‘The Tooth is a language problem. If we accept that “language” is approximate, ideological, unable to refer, then may we not risk the hypothesis that a general (mis)use of “language”, over thousands of years, has led to a calcification of meaning? This build-up of missed nuances and semantic remainders has ramified / appears—i.e. intersubjectively—as a tooth.’

‘The world’s this projection of deeper reality. Take an image on a computer: every pixel’s down to input from somewhere else, telling it what to do and how to be. All we’ve got in Vicky Park is a malfunctioning pixel.’

‘The Tooth is not meant to be comprehended; rather its incomprehensibility is to be meditated on; like the lotus shown in silent answer to the disciple’s question—like death.’

‘God is the immovable object. The Tooth is an immovable object. Ergo, the Tooth is God.’

‘There is no Tooth.’

Religious leaders responded like their followers: with a mixture of denial, reaching, apathy and terror. Philosophers called for calm by arguing that things could have been much worse: if, for example, daughters had birthed their mothers or numbers had refused to add up. People took this badly, arguing that such talk might bring these abominations into being. Who’s to say the Tooth Itself hadn’t been brought about by disgusting minds such as theirs?

Such paranoia wasn’t the only psychopathology on the increase. Solipsists multiplied. Each believed that they alone had gone mad and that this madness not only manifested in the Tooth, but also in the hallucination that everybody else could see It, proving that everybody else was imaginary and perhaps had been all along. Despite how lonely this idea made them feel, how weak and lonely, it was still more comforting to believe in subjective madness than an objective glitch.

Others though revelled in their madness; for the world’s cultists the Tooth was an affirmation. If It existed then no one could tell them that they hadn’t been abducted by lizards or that Earth wasn’t going to be rammed by an alien planet. That none of them had actually predicted a tooth per se did not diminish their cries of ‘I told you so’. Many of these cults even remodelled themselves around the Tooth, while at the same time new ones appeared that were devoted to It. Some even started worshipping the Tooth, attributing to It various commands and doctrines. The initiation rite for one such cult involved the hammering out of a tooth matching the one that hung in the park. They had their converse (and in time their enemy) in a group whose members had already lost an upper left incisor. This group eventually splintered into various messiahs who marched on Victoria Park to reclaim ‘their’ Tooth and were shot.

Martial law had been declared, albeit mainly in the East End. Outside the park, crime rates were breaking records: thousands believed if the Tooth exists, everything is permitted. The government abandoned efforts at an explanation and reached for emergency measures.

They planned to build a permanent laboratory around the Tooth but inside an innocent and likable structure; maybe a cenotaph for all wars ever, or a giant statue of a bulldog. That way they could continue studying It, while otherwise denying Its existence. Such a plan would require an intense disinformation campaign, where the original eyewitnesses (those that hadn’t been hounded to suicide or gone into hiding or, like the cyclist, been blamed for everything and murdered) would be accused of being deviants, even a ‘Dadaist terror-cell’. Meanwhile other nations could be bribed off with limited access to the Tooth.

Besides, there were encouraging reports that some people had begun to forget or even get used to It. Remember that Tooth? Oh yeah—strange, huh? I suppose the universe is a crazy place. Hasn’t it always contained things that’d make you lose sleep if you thought about them for too long? The Tooth was like that. There could be an accommodation with the Tooth. Yes, there could be a peaceful future with the Tooth.

One night, the tent city was stormed by a crowd of hundreds of thousands, made up of ordinary citizens who had quit their jobs, had stopped going to school, had refused to continue educating their children, had taken to booze or drugs, had found God and been helping the sick and needy, had raped their friends, had begun eating cats and dogs, had given away all their money, had put their money in gold, had burnt all their money in a big fire and danced around it, had refused to believe until now, had come hoping to be proved wrong, looters, militias, perverts, cultists, dentists, the media, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tourists who’d been grounded since the travel ban, and two angry sacked park-wardens.

Fences sizzled and door locks thunked. This saved soldiers from the bricks and petrol bombs; it also trapped a technician inside a certain laboratory.

He hid in a corner, flinching at the alarms and screams. Someone somewhere was singing the national anthem until silenced by gunfire. The technician buzzed for help every few minutes, then every few seconds. Finally, he turned to face It.

He tried taking It all in, from thin crown to horned root, tried taking in all It entailed. And he began trembling as he saw the future history of the world.

How would anyone ever be content again when there’d always be that Toothache? What would it mean for the weak force to be stronger than the gravitational force if in Tower Hamlets an upper incisor floated inexplicably and perhaps eternally? No one would be persuaded of anything anymore. All new breakthroughs and discoveries, all good news, would be met with the same demurral: but what about the Tooth?

Faced with such madness, he snatched up a metal file. His colleagues banging on the other side of the observation bay saw the whole thing, saw him yelling and sobbing as he sawed away at It, and the mystery snowing down to the laboratory floor.

The news spread through the park and turned the rioters. They ran with it back through the city zones like giddy, scandalized children. There was smoke and noise everywhere. It was like London was burning down again.

In those stunned days to follow when it felt like the whole planet had turned into a grey Morning After, the enamel was studied; it revealed nothing more fascinating than calcium salt normally does. The space in which the Tooth had hung was also studied: as open and well-behaved a part of reality as any other. The tents left Victoria Park, apart from the central one, though it was briefly opened to the public in response to those who didn’t believe what surveillance footage had shown. Fanatics nonetheless cried cover-up while commemorative edition newspapers asked in page-filling font, ‘What happened?’ but few actually wanted to know anymore. Civilians began moving through the city again. They reopened their shops and went back to school, and there were the usual wars and taxes and harvests and cup finals and political scandals and journeys to work.

So everyone continued to live their lives, like they always had done, like the cringe before a blow. And on clear nights they’d look up, in their shame and agony, and see the teeth of the universe smiling down on them again.

A meaningless number of days passed.