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a short story
by Nick Jackson

Visits to the Flea Circus by Nick JacksonMr Paetrus opened his eyes. It was a few moments before he realised that he was hungry. His stomach was balled up tight like a fist. As he moved, he felt the muscles pulling in protest. Acids swirled within, washing the cavity under his ribs. His mouth was as dry as the dust that festooned the corners of the room, for Mr Paetrus was not one for household chores.

He looked at the clock, a squat digital affair sheathed in black which butted up against a gilded ormolu creation that had long ceased to work. These modern things had no sense of workmanship, no beauty, but they were so convenient. They could go for years without any attention. You just plugged them in and forgot about them.

It was nine thirty--time to get up, time to eat. The night time awakened him. As others are drawn to consciousness by rays of sunlight, Mr Paetrus was roused by the glistening blackness.

He opened the larder door and peered inside. There was blackness and a hollow, cave-like silence. It had been too long, and all that remained were fragments of something too old to gnaw on.

"I'll have to go out," he murmured slipping on a coat, mottled with mould, and picking his way through the clutter: books with heavy leather covers and gold-blocked spines, modern brittle paperbacks piled one upon another and open at the place where he had put them down, small lacquered tables and scattered papers. Dim memories came back to him as he shuffled through the flotsam and jetsam. How long it had been, he thought, since he had entertained. There were the two crystal goblets and the decanter, crusted with a remnant of burgundy.

The late Mrs Paetrus looked down from her frame above the mantelpiece. She would not have approved of the state of the room. But there, she was powerless to do anything about it.

The portrait showed her eyes, dark and moist like freshly cut ginger cake; the high, chiselled cheek bones and the rivers of shining hair coiling about her long, white neck. The curious eyebrows that met in the middle and sprang out over her eyes were painted with a calligrapher's flourish. The hands were depicted with such a disregard for proportion: the fingers stretched out like the pale rhizomes of a creeping plant.

It was her very last self-portrait. The features were solemn and the background showed billowing clouds over a sea of charcoal on which sinister waves coiled. Her expression on her death-bed had been composed, just as she had painted it here.

Mr Paetrus let himself out of the front door. Cars flashed past under the paranoid glare of the street lighting, a dangerous blur of glass and steel propelled through the dying landscape. He found the modern world shocking and wondered what new horrors to expect. A group of young men rushed past with the force of a small storm, knocking Mr Paetrus into a wall.

"Watch out grandpa!" one of them shouted and there was a burst of laughter.

Everything went so fast these days. There was no time for quiet reflection. No time for loitering on street corners. You had to be bowling along on your way somewhere--entertained or occupied, busy at something.

There were compensations of course: people were less inquisitive, no-one knew who you were, no one cared. It suited his way of coming and going. He could slip into a public house and sit, silent and ignored, at a corner table absorbing the spirit of the times and feeling the heady throb of youth all around him.

He went first to the Turkish restaurant on the corner, ordered a dish of figs and sipped bitter coffee. Blinking like a night bird and cringing occasionally at the syrupy music flooding the room.

He entered the Golden Fleece at eleven, in time to see a dark shaven-headed youth dancing on a table with a girl in a brick red dress. The landlord was hammering on the top of the bar with white knuckles whilst howls of amusement and shouts of encouragement came from the crowd.

"No morals. They deserve everything that's coming to them." thought Mr Paetrus.

He got himself a double whisky and headed for the corner by the back exit. He preferred not to talk to anyone, in this place it was better to remain shadowy and anonymous. Taking small sips of his drink he began the process of composing, in his head, the piece that had been germinating for weeks now.

He watched the girl's movements. The slow, thrusting motion of the hips was a mockery of intercourse. She looked around the room with eyes that were at once stupid and omniscient.

It begins with a slow measured beat, andante sostenuto. The knock at the door, ominous, threatening, a childhood memory of punishment, of a dark, silent room and the tapping of hand on door. Woken from a feverish dream of crocodiles and faceless men, into a sightless night where shadows whisper and transmute. A slow percussive heartbeat. The soft throb of blood in veins, an arterial sucking and clotting.

He had sketched it out in his mind: a swift conclusion to the andante. The andante with its pedantic, insistent percussion would give way to an adagio in which the melody was to be developed into a complex texture of light and shade: the threads of music weaving tendril-like. The melody was exquisite and the possibilities for elaboration, for improvisation, were endless. He heard a series of arpeggios rising to a climax of sweetness. To conclude the piece, there was to be a brilliant allegro movement which would reinstate the original melody but in a lighter vein. The nightmare discordances of the andante would be replaced by a series of harmonious instrumental voices which would transport the listener to a level of ecstasy--a pure cerebral ecstasy beyond the reach of the cloying sensual rhythms of the first movement.

Ah the whirling crocodiles! The whirling woman, slim as a viper in that red dress.

The landlord, his face gleaming with a patina of outraged officious sweat was remonstrating with the girl and her accomplice.

"I'll thank you to kindly leave these premises young lady."

"You'll what?" She stared him out. Then, her face relaxing into a smile of contrition, she almost pursed her lips as if she were going to kiss him: "Oh fuck off you old fart!"

The landlord blushed beetroot and the crowd at the bar guffawed.

"Let's find somewhere else, I'm sick of this shit-hole," she said and began to drag the almost comatose lad out of the pub.

A single flute supported by a distant drum beat. A shivering string harmony. Hesitant, a slow-stepping rhythm, then a seductive oboe, the canker in the bloom. The flute, suddenly almost a shriek. Then that snake-like oboe, quivering, a cobra hood spread in the sunlight weaving backwards and forwards.

Yet still the march proceeded, sedate as a funeral cortege drawn by two stallions of polished jet.

"Where are you leading me to?" He said it quietly to no-one.

Then the lunatic shriek of a French horn, a banshee wail of pain and emptiness. And the stately march, the, almost too gentle, stroke of wind instruments that play a subtle yet coherent melody resting on the subversive throb of the percussion. The flute is the only voice of reason, taking the melody initiated by the strings and developing it. Taking on a fresh theme, a fresh instrument in an inexorable march towards the brink and beyond.

The gawky, monstrous head of the beast was raised above all. Monstrously beautiful and monstrously ugly.

After the drink he followed the sound of a distant dance band. He crossed the broad boulevard and entered a dance hall called 'The Inferno'. The walls outside were painted in orange and scarlet to resemble flames. He stood for a while and watched the dancers.

She was leaning against a pillar, carved to simulate a naked torso, in an attitude of lascivious repose. The band was playing a tarantella. The long coiling hair was cut short but it was unmistakably her. She gave a tight-lipped smile which both attracted and repelled. Suddenly he was tired of the game, the circling, the exchange of smiles and slow-motion glances. Beyond her, in the semi-gloom of the dance floor, the limb-locked dancers distorted their bodies. The dance gave them the appearance of gigantic insects, coupling and uncoupling.

Taking her hand he led her onto the floor and they began to move in rhythm with the music. They turned in synchronised steps that separated them then brought them together again. She looked at him with a look of theatrical hatred. He wanted to laugh, to roar and rock with laughter but the music claimed him and the steps he knew so well demanded all his attention. Shivers of sensuality ran down his spine. Her long white neck was smooth and fragrant as moulded marzipan, which he should like to nuzzle, to nibble at.

It was the small, pathetic scream that woke him from his ecstasy. She twisted her body away from him and fell to the floor as the dance reached a crescendo. The other couples merely moved back and continued with their gyrations, thinking this couple a trifle melodramatic.

He left the dance hall, not forgetting to check out his coat and hat. It was raining-- a heavy rain that glistened amber in the glow of the street lamp.

He stepped off the pavement and turned to face the lamps of the approaching car. it seemed to pass over him without the slightest sense of impact. The only sensation was of dullness: a fuzzy detachment which was like being enveloped by a grey mist that sapped the very core of his strength. He felt weak, a faded fragment of flesh and bone. Voices approached. He sensed the proximity of people, waited for the touch of their arms about him. Waited, it seemed for a long time, but the grey fuzzy stuff of the mist grew still thicker, more viscous. He felt himself to be a part of that greyness and beyond the touch of human arms and voices, for the voices now came to him as a distant, soporific whisper.

The policeman, who was very young with fluffy, almost white, blonde hair, stood at the side of the dock. Mr Paetrus gave a feeble cough. In his soft cracked voice he said:

"I was hungry."

"You were hungry? Is that all you can say in your defence? Do you normally bite people on the neck when you're hungry?"

The policeman gave a suppressed snort like an impatient horse. Mr Paetrus realised he was trying to stifle a giggle. He was vaguely aware of the crowded courtroom. He had never felt so exposed, so vulnerable. The stenographer, who had been rhythmically tapping for several minutes, sat waiting in expectant silence.

"My client required fourteen stitches."

"I was famished. I didn't know what I was doing. I thought I recognised ... "

His voice faded away and the stenographer sat poised. He could feel her willing him to finish his sentence but the cold white light that flooded the courtroom from the tall gothic windows was too much. In his head he heard the blaring of the horn section. They were baying for blood, for his blood. The last thing he remembered was staring up at the face of the policeman who was bending over him with a puzzled expression on his face.

There was a comforting repose, a feeling of a dam having burst, of all the water having unleashed its fury and spent itself in one fabulous inundation, sweeping all before it. Mr Paetrus lay in a room filled with whites and greys-- the white light was filtered through a gauze blind covering the sky-light. Soft grey shadows gathered in the corners of the room like drifts of pigeon's down. He nestled in the caressing shadow, nuzzling a forearm.

The violent wheeling sensation had ceased and there was the feeling of being washed up on a white island. Forgetfulness stretched to an infinite horizon, only the scarce spark of a memory flashed, a fleeting bird-like iridescence, across the bland landscape of torpor. He had no awareness of how long he had been in the room. Seasons--spring, summer and autumn, a tempestuous gamut of heat and cold glided past like a painted Japanese screen.

When the nurses began to hint that soon he might be well enough to leave, he looked at them in disbelief. It seemed to him that he had ceased to exist in the outside world. But like a child he no longer had any control over his future, everything was arranged for him with institutional efficiency.

On the day of his return home, when his outside clothes were returned to him, he suddenly began to recall long-forgotten details of his home. He imagined everything just as he had left it: the manuscripts and piles of musical sketches; the dust laden piano and the heavy velvet curtains; the faint odour of naphthalene and boiled cabbage; the digital clock winking, squat and sinister.

But when the landlady, with her wincing smile, opened the door he found that the room had been rearranged. The books were now neatly ranged on the shelves, the tables cleared of clutter, the crystal was tidied away. Even the oriental carpet had been freshly hoovered. He sensed something missing, and soon perceived that the portrait was not in its place. The landlady explained that the painting had been sold to provide security on the rent.

When Mr Paetrus closed his eyes that night the portrait was there, etched on his retina--a pale palimpsest against the inky blackness. He heard the melody and the corrosive percussion that precluded sleep.

Now at last he could write it out, all three movements. It would be his masterpiece.

He followed the sly commencement, followed the thread of the melody. The notes came faster and faster, a torrent of sound images.

When the body, twisted and made hard by rigor mortis, was finally discovered, the manuscript appeared complete. The crabbed writing spread across fifteen pages of tight close-written staves. The same musical phrase was repeated eighteen times.

The music coils, travelling in a circular way, consuming its commencement and its conclusion. Twining like mating snakes the rhythm is unashamedly sensuous. Envisage a woman's face: feline repose to the features. The smile is the faintest glimmer of light introduced by a flute. She sits back on her haunches, the long white haunches of a lioness in a landscape of frozen waves. Monstrously beautiful, the music builds to a shatteringly discordant crescendo and splinters into chaos.

© Nick Jackson 2005.
This story was first published in Visits to the Flea Circus.

Visits to the Flea Circus by Nick Jackson
Visits to the Flea Circus is published by the Elastic Press (1 February 2005; ISBN 0954881206).

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