3. Nancy the elephant. A mime artiste. The Wall.
The town of O____ lies on the East side of the fast flowing D____ river, famous only for the trip the Royal elephant, a present from some African king or another to the then young Queen, made on a barge in 1956. Nancy, the elephant, having long since passed into the land of her fathers, is now largely forgotten, commemorated only on a rusting plaque in the long abandoned rubber works down at the port, a place where she boarded, much to the wonder of the workers, for seven nights while repairs were done to the barge.
Heading in other apposite directions, to the North and South sides of O____ is marshland so inhospitable it is said that even migrating redwings give it a wide birth. Back in the day when more people commonly had donkeys these poor creatures, not as clever as pigs, were often getting lost in the bogs and then being sucked under, never to be seen again, by the viscous mud, but nowadays, when donkeys are scarce, it is only the heavier kind of dogs who suffer such a fate which is why, not through cruelty, that so many of the dogs of O____ are malnourished, their owners believing this light-footedness to be of their benefit and not as a form of penny-pinching in our highly straightened times.
If the town has a character, like large cities are said to have characters, Romantic say, or Cosmopolitan, then it is not something that those who live in O____ year in year out, migrants most of them, have hardly ever given thought to, their prime concern being, perhaps, that they make enough money in the Summer months, from the tourists who flock to Medieval World of Adventures, the associated pleasure pier and electric ballroom, where all your desires might be met, and those less salubrious districts off Gin Alley in the Boondocks, where all your other pleasures might be met, to last them through the long cold Winter.
Like many other such similar towns; those that have not had novels written about them, do not feature prominently in daily news bulletins, O____ is not the kind of place where anything, very much, happens.
That is, until tonight.
Tonight drumrolls and fireworks would not have done the event justice.
With the flat of his hand Antonio stays Kuper’s question.
“Come now. First let me organise myself. I’m as wet as a kipper in the sluice of Old Kapinski’s fishing trawler.”
As Antonio first dries his hair with the proffered towel and then shucks off his clothes to pull on the dry ones, feigning a lack of interest, Kuper wanders over to the window and pulls the sleeve of his shirt over the palm of his hand and rubs at a pane of glass until a sharp reflection appears. He watches the whole performance intently, saying nothing, barely even breathing, until Antonio finishes and then, turning around, he finally asks his question, Antonio’s hand gestures (a decent enough mime is Antonio, having studied under a direct descendant of Tony Montanaro during his fourteen and fifteenth years) from when he first arrived downstairs still fresh in his mind.
"So… they have made an enormous wall you say? A monstrosity that belies the imagination?”
Antonio sucks in his cheeks, lets out a long low whistle.
“Right across the blasted road. Here, have you got a pen and a piece of paper?"
Antonio sketches quickly. There is the jut of land upon which the town stands, there is Schattenländer, the former mental asylum and supposed home of the bum-entering worm, high on the wave of a hill, then there is a thick line dividing them both completely from the mainland.
"You see? It goes from here to here. It quite stops anyone leaving altogether. What the hell is going on?"
It is Kuper’s idea to check on the Internet, for isn’t everything supposed to be there, even the answers to questions that haven’t yet been thought or asked?
They head back down into the shop, Antonio’s massive figure almost filling the stairwell and just for a second Kuper imagines him stuck, like Pooh in Rabbit’s rabbit hole after eating too much honey.
Then he would be stuck twice, here on the stairs and here in the town.
It is a thought, and it comes to Kuper with the force of a blow, that does not give him displeasure.
As they sit side by side, chairs pulled together, both leaning forward, bathed in the glow of light from the computer monitor, the rain still pours down outside, throwing itself with Old Testament force against the windows.
After several minutes of punching at keys, scratching at his face, staring at the screen, Antonio picks up the keyboard and slams it back down on the desk causing Kuper to jump from his seat.
"The bastards. Stuck like donkeys in the O____ bog.”
The story of the wall, or The Wall as it is to appear in the next morning’s papers, has already been picked up by news agencies across the world, the articles peppered by fragments of the President’s speech given to a packed parliament just several hours before, ‘a decision not made easily’, ‘we are all in favour of unity, in theory’, ‘strong economic ties will remain, but in essence O____ will become a self sufficient protectorate’.
It is on the website of the Capital’s most popular red topped newspaper, The Daily Grind, however, that it is put most succinctly.
Goodbye To All That. O____ Cast Adrift.
Antonio stands and strides purposefully over to the door where he peers out through the glass.
"I’ve a good mind to go down to the seafront, build a fire and attract a passing ship.”
“You’ll be lucky to get a fire going in this rain.”
Kuper, who has joined his colleague at the door, mirrors the path of one of the rivulets of water with a finger.
“And no ship will come so close to shore. Not after the disaster of the Princess Emerald. One hundred and twenty drowned. Sixty half-drowned. That was quite a night too.”
In fact, Kuper had gone down to watch himself and the sight of the flailing arms of the swimmers was something he would never forget. Nor the following morning how the bodies had been lined up on the sand, clothes disheveled, faces already bloated, volunteers bravely waving sticks to ward off the swooping and diving seagulls.
Kuper takes a deep breath. He has an announcement to make.
Standing more close to Antonio than he would usually dare he can smell him, Gauloises cigarettes and the cinnamon buns he buys on his way to work each morning.
“I was thinking…”
Antonio, as far as Kuper can suppose, the fates having thus aligned themselves, has only two options.
Number One was that Antonio would walk down to the front, past O____ Municipal Botanical Gardens, usually frequented by desperate drug users at this time of night, the rumour being that a high could be gained by supping the sap of the exotic palms, and book a sea-view room in O____’s only hotel, The Majestic; a sea-view room because all the eighty-seven rooms boasted such a thing even if this vista was achieved by mirrors and a series of strings and pulleys. Number Two, and just thinking it made Kuper’s heart sing, was that he stay here at The Tube with him. And it stood to reason, Kuper supposed, that Antonio wouldn’t stay at The Majestic. It wasn’t only the cost. After last year’s outbreak of dysentery all the townsfolk avoided it like the plague. Photos that were passed from hand to hand showed shit up the walls, shit up the doors, and in one case, even, shit all over the ceiling.
One person, an extremely fat German, famous as a child for having played Augustus Gloop in a Berlin theatre production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a success he had never been able to replicate later in life, had even died.
The photos of that were grotesque and for a time formed a kind of black market, being traded for ever larger bags of potatoes.
“The flat is small, and I have only the couch to offer, and my cooking is at best basic, but it is…”
There is a tectonic boom as Antonio claps his panhandle hands together. He turns his mirrored eyes, for he is still wearing his much-adored aviator glasses, towards his diminutive companion.
“Of course I will stay here you fool! Why do you think I have trudged back all this way? Strange bedfellows we might make but bedfellows all the same. Although this night I don’t think I will sleep. Come, do you have anything to drink in this establishment of yours?”
Image from Pixabay.