Authors: Patrick McGrath
Tags: #Fiction.Horror, #Fiction.Literature.Modern, #Adapted into Film
For my parents, Helen and Pat
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
’ve always found it odd that I can recall incidents from my boyhood with clarity and precision, and yet events that happened yesterday are blurred, and I have no confidence in my ability to remember them accurately at all. Is there some process of fixing, I wonder, whereby time, rather than causing memories to decay (as you would expect) instead does the opposite—it sets them hard, like concrete, the very reverse of the sort of fluid mush I seem to get when I try to talk about yesterday? All I can tell you for certain—about yesterday, that is—is that there were people in the attic again, Mrs. Wilkinson’s people—and here
a curious thing, something that escaped me until this moment: the woman who runs the boarding house I’m living in (just temporarily) has the same last name as the woman responsible for the tragedy that befell my family twenty years ago. Beyond the name there is no resemblance. My Mrs. Wilkinson is an altogether different creature from Hilda Wilkinson, she’s a sour, vindictive woman, big, it’s true, as Hilda was big, but with none of Hilda’s sauce and vitality, far more interested in questions of control—which brings me back to the people in the attic last night; but of them, on reflection, I think I will speak at another time.
It takes me about ten minutes to walk from the canal back to Mrs. Wilkinson’s. I am not a fast walker; I shuffle, rather than walk, and often I am forced to stop dead in the middle of the pavement. I forget how to do it, you see, for nothing is automatic with me anymore, not since I came back from Canada. The simplest actions—eating, dressing, going to the lavatory—can sometimes pose near-insurmountable problems, not because I am physically handicapped in any way, but rather because I lose the easy, fluid sense of being-in-the-body that I once had; the linkage of brain and limb is a delicate mechanism, and often, now, for me, it becomes uncoupled. To the annoyance of those around me I must then stop and make decisions about what it is that I am attempting to do, and slowly the basic rhythms are reestablished. The more involved I am in memories of my father the more frequently it seems to happen, so I suppose I must look forward to a difficult few weeks. Mrs. Wilkinson gets impatient with me at such times, and this is one of the reasons why I intend to leave her house, probably at the beginning of next week.
There are five others living here, but I pay no attention to them. They never go out, they are passive, apathetic creatures, dead souls such as I encountered frequently overseas. No, I prefer the streets, for I grew up in this part of London, in the East End, and while in one sense the changes are total, and I am a stranger, in another sense nothing has changed: there are ghosts, and there are memories, and they rise in clusters as I catch a glimpse of the underside of a familiar railway bridge, a familiar view of the river at dusk, the gasworks—they haven’t changed at all—and my memories have a way of crowding in upon the scene and collapsing the block of time that separates then from now, producing a sort of identity, a sort of running together of past and present such that I am confused, and I forget, so rich and immediate are the memories, that I am what I am, a shuffling, spidery figure in a worn-out suit, and not a dreamy boy of twelve or so. It is for this reason that I have decided to keep a journal.
This is actually a most peculiar house. My room is at the very top, immediately beneath the attic. The trunks and suitcases of Mrs. Wilkinson’s tenants are all stored up there, so quite how they manage to make as much noise as they do I cannot imagine, unless they are very small. Before I leave I intend to go up and have it out with them, for I have not had a good night’s sleep since I got here—though of course there’s no point in telling Mrs. Wilkinson this, she doesn’t care, why else would she have put me up here? There’s a small, rather wobbly table under the window, which is where I sit when I write. I am sitting there now, in fact; in front of me lies my exercise book, all its pages neatly lined, and in my long slender fingers I hold a blunt pencil. I’m wondering where I should hide the book when I’m not using it, and I think for the time being I will simply slide it under the sheet of newspaper lining the bottom drawer of my chest of drawers; later I can find a more secure place.
Not that there are so many possibilities! I have a narrow bed with a cast-iron frame and a thin, tired mattress that lies as uncomfortably upon its few functional springs as I do upon it; this bed is too short for me by about six inches, so my feet stick out the end. There is a small threadbare rug on the cracked green linoleum, and a hook on the back of the door from which a pair of wire hangers dangle, jangling tinnily when I open the door. The window is dirty, and though I have a view of the small park across the road I can never be sure that I see what I think I see down there, so poor is the visibility. The wallpaper is a dingy yellowy-green color with a very faint floral pattern, worn away in places to reveal the older paper and plaster beneath, and from the ceiling hangs a bulb in a hat-shaped shade of some parchmentlike material, the switch being by the door so that I must cross the room in darkness after turning off the light, a thing I hate. And this, for now, is where I live.
But at least I’m not far from the canal. I’ve found a bench by the water, in a secluded spot that I can call my own, and there I like to while away an afternoon with no one disturbing me. From this bench I have a clear view of the gasworks, and the sight always reminds me of my father, I don’t know why, perhaps because he was a plumber, and a familiar figure in this neighborhood as he pedaled along on his bicycle with his canvas toolbag slung over his shoulder like a quiver of arrows. The streets were narrow in those days, dark poky little slum houses all crammed together with narrow yards behind—there was outside plumbing, and washing lines stretched from wall to wall, and the yards backed onto narrow alleys where thin stray cats scavenged among the dustbins. London seems so wide and empty now, and this is another thing I find odd: I would have expected it to work the other way round, for the scenes of one’s childhood tend to loom huge and vast in the memory, as they were experienced at the time. But for me it’s all backwards, I remember everything narrow: rooms, houses, yards, alleys, streets—narrow and dark and constricted, and all pushed together beneath an oppressive sky in which the smoke from the chimneypots trailed off in vague, stringy wisps and strands, a sky filled with rainclouds—it always seemed to be raining, and if it wasn’t raining it was always about to rain. There was blackened brickwork, and grimy walls, and against them gray figures in raincoats scurried home like phantoms through late winter afternoons before the lamps were lit.
This is how it works, you see. I sit on my bench with my back to the wall. The sky is gray and overcast; there is perhaps a spot or two of rain. An air of desolation pervades the scene; no one is about. Directly in front of me, a scrubby strip of weeds and grass. Then the canal, narrow and murky, green slime creeping up the stones. On the far side, another patch of weeds, another brick wall, beyond the wall the blotchy brickwork of an abandoned factory with shattered windows, and beyond that the great rust-red domes of the gasworks hulking against the gloomy sky, three of the things, each one a dozen towering uprights arranged in a circle and girdled at the top with a hoop of steel. Within those slender, circling masts of steel sit the wide-domed cylinders of gas, paintwork flaking off them, wheel attachments on their rims to run in the rails of the uprights and permit them to rise and fall with fluctuations in volume and demand. But I try not to look at them, for reasons I will explain later; I gaze south instead, toward a humpbacked bridge a hundred yards away crested with an iron railing and framed on this bank by a dead tree, and beyond it a perspective of gray slate roofs, with ranks of spindly red chimneys drifting smoke. I roll my cigarettes, and somehow time slips by me.
Yes, I roll my endless cigarettes, and as I do I watch my fingers, these long, spidery fingers that seem often not to belong to me at all; they are stained a dark yellow round the tips, and the nails are hard and yellowy and hornlike, and come curving over the ends like hooks, hooks that Mrs. Wilkinson seems now determined to snip off with her kitchen scissors. They are always slightly trembling, these days, these long, yellowing, hooknailed fingers of mine, I really don’t know why. But it was a dingy place, the London of my boyhood, a clotted web of dark compartments and narrow passageways, and sometimes when I recognize one of its features I return in my mind to those days without even realizing what I’m doing. This is why I intend to keep a journal, so as to create some order in the jumble of memories that the city constantly arouses in me. Today’s date: October 17th, 1957.
nother gray and cheerless morning. I was up early to write my journal (I’m not very easy in my mind about hiding it in the chest of drawers; later maybe I will try and get it under the linoleum) and whenever I glanced up at the grimy little window over the table I saw merely a thick blanket of grayness that grew slightly paler as somewhere behind it, somewhere out beyond the North Sea, the sun rose into a bleak wintry sky. This house often feels to me like a ship, did I mention this already? It points east, you see, toward the open sea, and here I am up at the top of the east end of it, like a sailor in the crow’s nest, as we slip downstream with our cargo of dead souls!
We take our meals in the kitchen here. Mrs. Wilkinson has a small bell; she stands at the foot of the stairs and shakes it, and slowly the dead souls emerge from their rooms and come drifting down with blank faces and rigid limbs, and when I appear—I’m always the last, living as I do on the top floor— they will all be seated around the table in the kitchen, silently eating porridge. The cook is a squat little foreign woman with a wispy black mustache; she stands at the stove with her back to the room, peering into her steaming pots of giblets and offal, smoking cigarettes and wiping her nose with the back of the same hand that stirs the stew.
I take my place at the end of the table. There is a stiff plastic cover spread over the table (like a tarpaulin), already spotted with gobs of porridge and smears of milk—we don’t get real milk here, the woman mixes up a powder, so it’s a watery sort of a fluid with lumps floating in it. Cups and plates are of thick off-white porcelain, and we’re permitted to use real knives and folks. Mrs. Wilkinson is never present unless she has something to say, she is in her office off the hallway by the front door. I attempt a spoonful of porridge; it is poisonously bad. The dead souls pay me no attention. In stupefied, wordless abstraction they hungrily devour the porridge and slurp their tea, various small body sounds escaping from them as they do so, little farts and burps and so on. One by one they finish and drift off to the dayroom. The foreign woman gathers the plates and scrapes off the porridge into a dustbin by the stove. Already her pots of weeds and innards are bubbling energetically; without removing the cigarette from her mouth she leans over, sniffing, to give them a stir; ash falls into the stew.
After breakfast I try to get out as fast as I can. This is not easy, for Mrs. Wilkinson sits in her office by the front door like the three-headed dog of hell.
Cleg!” she barks, looking up from her paperwork. I freeze; the woman terrifies me. I stand there shuffling guiltily as she gets to her feet and takes off her spectacles and eases her great frame sideways round the desk.
Cleg!” she cries. She is such a loud woman! I cannot look her in the eye. She leans against the frame of the office door. Seconds tick by with excruciating slowness. She holds a pencil in her plump, strong fingers; she toys with it, and I imagine she will snap it in two—as a warning! “We won’t be late for lunch again, will we, Mr. Cleg?”
I mumble something, my eyes on the floor, on the wall— anywhere but her stern face! At last she releases me. “Enjoy your walk, Mr. Cleg,” she says, and off I scuttle. It’s not surprising, is it, then, that I spill my tobacco on the ground when I’ve reached the haven of my bench once more, my hands are trembling so? It’s not surprising that I should relish my solitude here, my solitude and my memories—she is a tartar, that woman, a harpy, and thank God I shall soon be seeing the last of her.
When I was growing up we lived on Kitchener Street, which is on the other side of the canal, east of here. Our house was number twenty-seven, and like the rest of the houses on the street it had two rooms upstairs, two rooms downstairs, and a walled-in back yard with a door into the alley and an outhouse containing a toilet. The front door had a grimy fanlight over it in the form of a setting sun and there was also a coal cellar that you reached through a door that gave off the downstairs passage and down a steep flight of stairs. All the rooms in the house were small and cramped, with low ceilings; the bedrooms had been wallpapered so many years before that the paper was moist and peeling, and badly discolored in patches; the large spreading stains, with their smell of mildewed plaster (I can smell it now!) formed weird figures on the fading floral pattern and stimulated in my childish imagination many fantastic terrors. The downstairs passage ran past the front parlor (which was rarely used), past the cellar door, and into the kitchen, where above the sink and beside the back door there was a window that looked out onto the yard. My bedroom was directly above the kitchen, so my window had a view of the yard, and also of the alley beyond and the backs of the houses on the next street over. Perhaps the only way in which our house differed from the other houses on Kitchener Street was that we owned it: my mother’s people were in trade, and they’d bought the house for my parents when they were married. I remember hearing this brought up when my mother and father argued in the kitchen at night, for my father believed that my mother’s family looked down on him, and I think they did. Nonetheless it was a rare family that owned its house in those days, and it must have been a source of envy for the neighbors; perhaps this helps account for my parents’ curious isolation within those teeming streets and alleyways.