10. Buff Bulgar. Dewey Decimal. Balaena ex machina.
10. Buff Bulgar. Dewey Decimal. Balaena ex machina.
Summer has come suddenly to the town of O____ and, as if in disdain for the rancour and machinations of the human heart, it is a blazingly perfect one.
Once, such heat, would have had the buff Bulgar weatherman Bogdan Borisov beaming, glad, for once, not to have be the harbinger of gloomy news. The DJ host of the town’s lively breakfast show, Up and Atom! (his name, by deed poll, was Atom), would have yodelled out the high Fahrenheit figures with a it’s going to another hot one folks, don’t forget to apply your sunscreen. And whole warring families would have packed themselves up in overheated cars and headed down to the sweltering foreshore.
Those boiling Summer days, too, had always proved a bonanza for Kuper’s Tube, a steady stream of tourists following either word of a mouth recommendation, I did my video postcard knee-deep in green-screen pussy!, or the map on the back of one of the buckshee brochures, given out at various prime establishments throughout the town, on a rack in the foyer of The Majestic Hotel, next to all the other leaflets (Driving Licence Renewal, Duck Hunting Permit etc, etc) at the Ezz Post Office and General Stores.
But these are different times.
During the morning, the afternoons, and the evenings the door to the shop remains firmly closed.
With its black wooden frame, the somber edging to the leaded windows, someone passing might believe that possibly the building had once been an undertaker's, this lugubrious impression borne out by the fact that the curtains and shutters in the upstairs and downstairs windows remain resolutely closed.
It is, quite simply, a house in mourning.
The whale has been lost, descended to fathomless depths, and the captain has taken to his quarters, not even the memory of the cabin boy, dressed as a fairy, dancing, able to lift his spirits.
Thirty nights A.A. (After Antonio) Kuper is propelled out of bed by a thought.
He dresses quickly, head to toe in black, checks that the torch he keeps in a drawer in the kitchen is working, and goes outside and slinks through the dark streets, winding his way methodically towards his destination.
“Something must be done,” he mutters. “Like this, I cannot go on. I am a peach melba without its melba, a beurre noisette without its noisette.”
He is talking about the pain in his heart. It feels like it has been skewered by the horn of a narwhal, ripped out, and feasted on by Darwin’s precious Galapagoan giant tortoises.
The library boat, Skull and Crossbones fluttering ironically from its mast, stills stands in its regular spot adjacent to Medieval World of Adventures, giving the impression that, if only you were to wait until morning, the gangplank would be lowered and you could go aboard, just like on one of those normal days in its past, before it was shut up and closed down for good, when it was regarded by the local community as a repository of knowledge and information.
Having first found himself a large stone Kuper climbs carefully up one of the tall bollards and scrambles aboard.
Treading like a mouse around the narrow deck to the back of the ship he lifts the stone over his head and hefts it towards a large porthole window.
The crash in the quiet night is a loud and incongruous sound, like the whine of a dying dolphin in an otherwise silent pod but, after waiting a few moments to check no alarm has been set off and big angry men are to come running, but why would they?, Kuper knocks out the remaining shards of glass with the wrong end of his torch and slips inside.
In the gloom the shelves of books form a kind of spooky maze. It is easy to get lost, and several times he does, once coming face to face with row upon row of gaudy romance novels, a proper slap across the face, and another with a section, a particular specialty of this library, of books on exploration by boat, but finally he finds himself before the correct Dewey Decimal Classification.
Aware suddenly of the dimming of the torch, a sign that the batteries are about to give, and it wouldn’t do to be stuck here in the pitch black, he selects nine or ten books quickly, the ones with the most promising titles, and loads them into the bag he has brought with him for the purpose.
Back at home he clears a space on the table where he and Antonio used to eat their meals together, now when he eats, he does this alone, straight from the can or pan, usually sitting on the toilet, kill two birds with one stone!, the necessary acts of life of no importance to him, barely noticing the food he is ingesting, chewing moronically, or what comes out the other end.
But now he has a purpose.
Setting out the books side by side he makes a solemn declaration.
"My own little research library. These words are my last hope. If they don't work I'm going to do myself in. Tie my hands and feet and throw myself from the roof of the Electric Ballroom and into the sea. Be at one with the fishes, the octopi, the hard-shelled crabs. And why not? What do I have to live for in this dank prison, beset upon by the constant torture of my own thoughts?”
He reads first Sounding the Whale: Moby Dick as Epic Novel, then, Sea Brothers. The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present, then, A Man’s Soul and a Fish’s Scale: Sex, Size and Spirit in Moby Dick.
He works through them all one by one, with a despairing manic energy, not even stopping to eat or drink, or shit!, somewhere in here must be the answer, how to allay an obsession, snuff it out, for isn’t that the point of Ahab?, it is not merely an American enterprise, a fishy one, it is about what beats in all our hearts, even a monster’s.
Everything comes from desire.
It is the spark at the heart of it all.
The last of the books is Fifty Glimpses of The Whale: Moby Dick and our collective imagination. And despite its inauspicious cover, which displays not even the beast himself but a section cut of Melville’s brain, overlaid with a street map of Nantucket, is by far the most useful.
For in this tome the author has brought together disparate stories that orbit fitfully around the book, a day in Melville’s life as a custom’s agent, the story of a man, obsessed with Moby Dick as a child, who becomes a real life harpooner as an adult, the history of the first whale in captivity, on Coney Island, the crowds gathering in hoards to marvel.
We are such stuff as dreams are made of!
In these stories Kuper finds echoes of himself, for in their connection is his connection and in this connection there is a comfort.
Like in the constellations, a perceived pattern.
He, and therefore we, are not alone.
At last Kuper pours himself a glass of wine and, not even knowing if it is day or night, retreats to his bed, taking the book with him, falling asleep with its pages caressing his cheeks.
But as Kuper mourns, passing his days quite alone in his flat, so the town of O____ stirs.
Posters with a single word on them have begun to appear, stuck to lampposts, the doors of houses obviously abandoned, graffitied brick walls, ‘Resistance!’.
At night, for the first time, clumps of people are seen in the street, heads together, lips moving quickly.
The population is breathing, stretching its lungs, becoming brave.
In the bar of The Majestic Hotel, over cheap cognac, the landlady Sharón seeming to have an inexhaustible supply, tales are told.
Pass it on.
There was a man who escaped! Flew right over the wall he did. Like a bird!
I heard it from the horse’s mouth.
Old Nana Binlovska, out looking for her beloved lost cat Bertie, she had been looking for him these past six years another lost soul, saw a pair of altogether more extraordinary sights.
First a brace of lovers, both with pants down around their ankles, both in flagrante delicto, an insomniac and a letch, the very same Jokubas, in fact, who had groped Kuper in the darkness of Giotto’s Grotto all those moons before, having ensnared his next unsuspecting target, then a medieval siege engine go trundling past.
What is this?
Oh, oh, oh!
The flying man. He described an arc. Up and up and up. Over the other side.
And very soon those first posters are replaced by ones sporting an image.
The resemblance to Antonio isn’t exact, they don’t have his innate handsomeness or his gargantuan heft, but there is the tall forehead, the thick thighs and arms, and it is these arms that are the thing, spread wide like wings as he soars upwards, upwards, upwards.
Take a deep breath. Let your mind digest. Think about it.
It is a fact widely known by those in the know, statesmen, politicians, the so-called upper classes, but never taught on any school curriculum, in Civics say, or even in History, (nothing but a carefully stage-managed warhorse of the establishment), that any revolution can only happen when:
a) enough people have decided they have had enough.
b) a catalyst sparks this discontent into action.
And here in the town of O____, where the population is certainly oppressed enough, for food, despite the best efforts of market gardeners and pig farmers, is becoming scarce, basic services are failing, cars are lying abandoned, house windows that are broken cannot be repaired, even a leaking tap drips on and on for where should a washer be found?, we finally have that catalyst.
The flying man.
A beacon of hope.
Which is doubly ironic.
Firstly because Antonio, who is already far over the wall, apparently, and back in the life he was so hastily truncated from, namely the bosom of Claudette de la Rivière, so it is believed, quite probably does not give a rat’s ass what is happening back in O____, human beings being generally quite selfish and only concerned about their own lives.
And secondly because Kuper, our hero and the chief protagonist of this miserable little tale, and who happens to be the one who knows and loves Antonio best of all, only wants his friend back on the sofa in thispoky little flat, back in his seat in this shop, back farts and all, into this life.
On this side of the wall.
Just to see his face again would be a cure for the pain he is suffering on his long and lonely nights.
Something he has little hope for.
Balaena ex machina
Out on the horizon.
What is that?
A solid cloud breaking the crest of the waves, mouth open.
That beast from below.
And from the day it swallowed Geppoto, kept him there, gestating, able to birth, belch out, a story.
Image from Pixabay