Occasional Pieces

 

From time to time short stories seem to happen to me - it's the best way to describe it. Usually when I'm supposed to be working on something else, often with a deadline attached. So then the Art History lecture or chapter of novel in question has to wait its turn until the story is sorted and it and I are satisfied with each other. Some of the results are here; I hope you enjoy them.

THE MEPHISTOPHELES CHRONICLES I: Whatever became of Kit Marlowe?

 

        Right then, what is it this time? Yes, you would be, of course. I can always tell. Famous for it. “Mephistopheles”, they say. “Spot a scholar a millennium off – how does he do it?” No, I don’t want your soul, thank you very much.  Too good? Don’t flatter yourself – it’s just not worth the bother stretching out my hand.  Not so much virtue as mediocrity – at current levels, I’ll tell you, you hardly rate a zero compared with the stuff we’re getting through now.  We’re talking quality evil here, not your small-time, suck-it-and-see Satanists. But I’m feeling mellow today, so how about you ask anyway and I’ll answer if I feel like it?  Which I probably won’t, but have a go.

        Oh, that one. Christopher Marlowe. Handsome Kit Marlowe with his tobacco and his boys and his mighty line. Vaunting Christopher, dicing with devils. Well, as a matter of fact, yes. I had a special interest, you might say, what with being the hero of that play of his, so I kept an eye, sort of thing.  By way of being pretty much of an expert, I suppose you could say; what do you want to know?  

        Did he die?  Well you all do that, don’t you? Stands to reason, or where would we be? Ah, then. Did he die then? Nah. Well, I ask you, is it likely? Cheap knife – not very sharp – both of them three parts drunk, and I mean, an eye?  Not exactly the easiest target, is it? Lot of bone round the eye – hit that, you get plenty of blood, but not much serious death, if you get my meaning.  No fool, either, our Christopher, played dead like a natural, but die? Not him.  Just lay there, waiting for the drunken fools to bugger off out of there and his friends to come in and get him clear.

        No, of course he didn’t write Shakespeare, what a ridiculous idea. Surely everybody’s worked that one out by now? Honestly, call yourself a scholar and not know it was all Gloriana’s little spare-time hobby – where have you been?  No, well obviously not there, but even so.  What?  No, he didn’t get to Italy, either – in his dreams! Spying for the Privy Council?  Ah, now that’s a really good one. Quite reminds me of home that one does.  Pardon me while I split my sides. Look, tell you what: you stop making asinine suggestions, and I’ll tell you what really happened.  

        Right, so there’s Marlowe, lying there with blood all over the show, pretty woozy what with one thing and another, but hanging on to the thought of Walsingham’s crew pounding in for an eleventh hour rescue.  Just one thing he’d forgotten – a little matter of an appointment with the Privy Council.  And that was where it all went horribly wrong. You don’t miss one of those just by dying. Especially, of course, if you don’t. Oh, someone came and picked him up all right – got him treatment – fixed him up real nice. Nothing but the best for the Court of the Star Chamber. And the word went round. Promising Playwright Slain in Tavern Brawl. No need for details, rumour did the rest nicely, there were six different versions on the street by morning. Walsingham? Very sensible man, Walsingham. Knew exactly how far he couldn’t go. Comparative worth of game and candle? Walsingham’s your man. No rubbish about loyalty there. Walsingham washed his hands, and unlike that silly bleater Pontius, he didn’t even waste good recruiting time regretting it. And meanwhile – the Privy Council took some seriously good care of Marlowe.

        You’d see him about a bit, afterwards, if you knew where to go. The old haunts – The Mermaid, it was usually – he didn’t wander far. Well, I say “didn’t”, couldn’t, I suppose you’d really have to say. Drinking and muttering – how he’d been the best – none of them could match him – set the stage on fire – brave new worlds... you know the sort of thing. Talk?  He’d keep you talking all night with his ideas,just for the price of his liquor. What? No, he didn’t write them down.  Why?  How would I know?  Maybe because it’s quite hard to write when your eyes, well and your hands come to that, maybe especially the hands ... but it’s a squeamish age we’ve got to now, so let’s just say he wasn’t exactly adapted for the playmaker’s life by then.

        Dead?  I expect he would. But he was far too useful for that. The Star Chamber had heard of choice and free will, but that didn’t mean they approved of them. And Marlowe was their prime exhibit. Handsome Kit Marlowe – wild Kit Marlowe – brave, bragging, swaggering Kit Marlowe, terror of the Watch and darling of the theatres. “Roll up, roll up, lads. Come and see Kit Marlowe, my bully boys, my scoundrels, my secret agents-in-the-making. And dream on this: we can know more than you’d believe about things you wouldn’t want us even thinking about.  We can take you any time, just like we took him, and if we could take him, name, fame and all, what chance have you got?  And when we’ve had our little talk, tell you what, if you’re really lucky we might let you die. How lucky do you feel?” Oh, I missed a lot of chancy souls thanks to Kit, curse him. They’d drop into the Mermaid, on a word, a breath, a carefully planted rumour – and I’d see them watch him – spilling ale down his front and dribbling round the teeth he had left – just enough to eat with, wouldn’t want him to starve – oh, those Star Chamber lads were good.  The personal touch, you don’t get craftsmanship like that these days – too many gadgets, no attention to detail. I think we all learnt a thing or two when they arrived, I know I did.  I’ve heard they give seminars these days... all right, all right, I get the message, you’re not interested. No need to mess up the carpet. Idiots with weak stomachs shouldn’t ask questions – I never promised you’d like the answers. So, anyway, these buckos of the spy game would sit there, studying the scars and listening to old Kit raving on about singing cats and Tamburlaine 3: Return of the Shepherd, and they’d be getting quieter and quieter, and I could see their souls just whitening away, until up they’d get and very likely go off to be priests, or settle down with wifey and kiddies somewhere rural and dull, with never another treacherous political thought or rousing anarchic play out of ‘em.  Good lads, too – the very stuff of Empire-breaking.  No fuss, no effort, nothing needing tidying away – job’s a good’un.  Oh, yes indeed, the Privy Council took really good care of Marlowe, after the Chamber was done with him.

        How long?  Years, decades, whatever.  I lost interest in the end.  You know how it is – places to doom, people to damn. I think Pestilence said he got him in the end. Or was it Famine? All in due course of time, naturally – well, he wasn’t let near anything with an edge, and he was hardly going to be tying knots with those fingers. Poison costs money, or favours ... I’m sure you get my drift.

        Oh for Hell’s sake, must you be so maudlin?  You know what your trouble is – you mortals always assume more life has to be better.  And you’re always looking for the happy ending.  Well all right then, have it your way.  Maybe I’m lying.  It is an occupational hazard after all, comes with the territory so they say.  Maybe he did swan off to Italy, living it up with pretty boys to shag and shag tobacco to smoke, and writing Shakespeare, or Jonson, or Webster, or whoever you salvation well please. Milton, maybe.  And maybe you’ll soon find out for yourself. Because I think it’s time you and I settled up, don’t you?

        Said I didn’t want it?  Sorry, just my little joke. What do you mean, going to be married – do I look the caring sympathetic sort? Burn your books? Oh really, come on, you might at least try to be original about it. For all the good it won’t do you. Besides, remember the rest?  Cut is the branch and all that? Marlowe’s mighty line. He wished, poor sod. He wished.


 

 
 

BLOOD HEAT

        ​The house stood alone on top of the hill, above the valley where the village was.  The house was old, and the hill was older; both had seen strange things and the movements of the people who came and bred and lived and died in the shadow of the hill, and later under the eyes of the house.  The village was not so old, and no-one knew why it had been abandoned, but its streets were deserted and nothing moved between the walls of the houses, inside or out.  Under the moon it was very silent, and no birds sang when the sun shone. The village was cold.

        Not so long ago it had been warm, full of life and moving colour.  Not so long, as the house smiled down on it from the old hill, with light behind the panes of its own windows, that were now dusty and cracked.  The family who lived in the house then were loud and many, lovers of comfort and with the carelessness of good cheer.  They had brought the comforts of civilisation to its ancient austerity; the privy behind the walled garden tumbled into squalid decay when the gracious, spacious second bedroom was stripped and sealed, plastered and painted, to house a long, deep bath with fitted shower, a flushing toilet with bright pine seat and the warmth of a heated towel rail and storage radiator. Throughout the house the old timbers groaned gently with the desiccation of constant heating through the winter, the fluctuating temperatures of draughts and breezes in summer when the radiators were turned off and the windows flung wide to whatever might come in.  The painted roses that had remembered and paid tribute to a visiting queen for more than four hundred years peeled away unnoticed; the wooden floors, unwaxed, cracked and warped under the thudding feet of children through the long corridors; cats sharpened their claws without rebuke on the dusty pile of once-glossy carpets from lands beyond the sunrise.  The slates, which had been bright and tight-woven into the patterns that kept the elements at bay, twisted and cracked with the contrast of the heated air currents within and the chilled wind-storms without; unremarked and unreplaced. 

        The house died a little with each turn of the seasons, each cycle of the moon, each circuit of the sun, and there was no-one to hear or heed its dying.  Inside it was warm and noisy, but deeper inside, in the heart of its foundations which plunged into the older heart of the hill, it was cold and very silent.

 

        It began in the kitchen, and quite quietly, so that it passed unnoticed among the hum and bustle of constant cooking and confusion.  A cloth, rich with the stains and odours of long and varied use, dropped from a distracted hand to fall behind a radiator.  If its loss was noticed it certainly occurred to no-one to retrieve it.  Over the weeks of the cold winter other things joined it: the crumbs and fragments of a cuisine where quantities were generous and preparation haphazard.  It became they, and they became the rag-things.  Out of the spirit of the hill and the slow, deep resentment of the house they grew a certain sentience, and stirred.  The dog knew them, and greedy as he was began to shun the kitchen, whimpering, to the puzzlement of his owners.  The cats ignored the miasma of their developing consciousness with typical feline insouciance.  No-one else had a second thought or sixth sense to spare them.  Yet in some dim recess of their not-quite being they were grateful to the people, who kept them warm.  For the rag-things, less cold-blooded than unblooded, harboured within their fibrous substance a great need to be warm.

        Christmas came, and the long holiday of festivities and rejoicing.  Down in the village the shops were shut, and no business was transacted.  Out in the shed the levels in the rusting oil tanks fell with the snow, unobserved, and at last, on Christmas Eve, as the storms of December swept and whined around the walls, they were empty and the chill of cooling metal seeped through the house as the radiators went out.  The family shivered and wrapped themselves in thick and thicker garments, piled wood on the fires until the old chimneys threatened to burn, and ate and drank the more copiously "to keep out the cold".  Only for a few days, they assured each other; a pity, just over Christmas, but bearable, even something to look back on with amusement in later years.  But Boxing Day brought snowdrifts, and there was no way to bring oil up the hill.  The house accepted a cold it had endured through the winters of centuries; settled its timbers to absorb the damp and chill, and waited.  The hill remained.  But behind the useless radiator the rag-things were cold.  And they didn't like it.  The people, by contrast, though they thought themselves cold, were warm.  The snow blew and piled, as the winds of arctic weather systems spiralled across the country, and the drifts lasted two weeks.  The rag-things were cold.  They didn't like it.  The people were warm.  The house was angry.

  

        When the snow was gone the family were not so many, and they were quieter.  They did not understand what they had found in the rooms which had become cold and silent.  The house watched as the long, narrow boxes were carried out and taken to be buried in the earth below the hill.  The people who were left wore black clothes; then they went away.  The hill, and the cats, remained.  

 

        The weather eased, and the Estate Agents replenished the oil and kept the house at a reasonable temperature, explaining to the family when they protested at paying the bill that "such a draughty old barn of a place" would never sell entirely unheated.  But as the vicious winter reluctantly broke towards a cold, wet spring even a moderate warmth did not encourage buyers, and the family, wanting a smaller place in which to conceal and forget the emptiness of certain rooms, refused to pay for a second supply.  Spring, they argued, would soon warm the place up anyway, and bridging loans came before oil bills.  But the spring was slow and bitter, and in the house the temperature fell fast.  The rag-things were cold.  They didn't like it.  They had memories now, coagulating shreds of experience drifting slowly from matter towards mind; dim as yet, but increasingly suggestive.

         The cats prowled through the house, for the people had been too careless to round them up before they left, and consoled themselves afterwards with the reflection that cats preferred to stay in the places they knew.  A woman from the village came up to feed them each day.  One day she did not come home, but stayed in the house, warm at first, but colder as the days went on.  The people from the village came up the hill, and took away what they found there.  They did not understand, but they were not surprised, for the woman was old by their measures, although to the house, which had seen the childhood of her many-times great-grandmother she was young, and to the hill her life was a barely noticed flicker in the span of time.  

        The people who came looked for the cats, but did not find them, preferring not to search too carefully among the corridors and the many cold rooms of the house.  It did not matter, for the cats, too, had become cold.  The rag-things were alone.  But they had the house, and the hill remained.  Summer came, and the rag-things basked in the heat of glass-filtered sunshine.  The rag-things were warm.  And they liked it.

 

        In autumn the Estate Agents took the house off their books in despair.  By late November the nights were drawing in, and the winds were already knife-edged and loud with the promise of another fierce winter to come.  With frost hardening the tangled grass until midday, and spiking its fingered patterns across the window panes a man came to make a final survey.  The rag-things were cold and they didn't like it.  The warm man stayed, and grew cold, as the woman had done.  He had not entered the call in his book of appointments, and so no-one came to look for him, although in the far-off town his wife waited for him to come home.  Then his firm paid her money, and she learned not to wait any more.  The hill, and the house, and the cold man, and the rag-things did not know about this.  The village almost knew, but preferred to think that it did not.

        The house watched the antics of the rag-things benevolently, resigned to waiting out the natural fluctuations of heat and cold and emptiness until its time should come again.  Down in the village everybody waited for somebody else to climb the steep winding drive to make sure all was well behind its cracked and peeling door.  The door swung on its hinges when the wind blew, for the man had been careless in his warmth, leaving it open, and by the time he was cold it was too late.  It did not care.  It was older than the village, if not so old as the hill.  The village, which was less old than the house, but older than the things which moved through the house, seeking the warmth that it no longer harboured in any corner or recess, began to be vaguely anxious.

        The rag-things were cold, and they didn't like it.  They knew now how to be warm, but no warm people came to answer their need. The rag-things became angry.  In the valley, under the eyes of the house, in the shadow of the hill, the people were warm. The window-eyes of the house shone in the sunlight, and reflected back the silvered moonlight as if a thousand candles were lit behind the panes.  The door creaked and swung under the frosty starlight.  The eyes of the house watched the scurry and slither of movement on the hillside; the hill felt the parting and pressing of the grass that rooted deep in its ancient, cold soil.  The hill and the house waited, without patience or expectation.

 

        In the valley the lights shone against the darkness of the night.  For a little while the people were warm.  Slowly they cooled, wrapped in ragged shrouds that drew out the heat from the deepest parts of their bodies until the blood was solid in the tiny capillaries, in the great arteries and veins and around the vital organs.  The air in their lungs became liquid and froze; the water in the cells of their bodies froze and the cells burst.  The infinitesimal heat from the electrical impulses of their brains sparked and shimmered in the stained cloth that swaddled them. The rag-things were warm. Warm and greedy. They purred, cat-like, luxuriating in the warmth; followed the call of it from house to house, insatiable.  In the valley the lights went out, one by one.  The hill and the empty house watched the dying of the lights.

 

        No lights now and all the people were cold. Warmth ebbed, slow at first then faster. In its place cold came, exultant and masterful: into the houses, into the people - into the rag-things, still hungry in the hungry shadows. The rag-things raged, but the cold didn't care; oozed into the fabric of their being and they grew slow, unable to move along the cold streets or through the silent houses. Then they were too cold to be angry and still the cold triumphed and there was no warmth. At last they could no longer move at all, sinking back almost to their ragged beginnings in powerless, mindless hunger. Almost. But the hill and the house had taught the rag-things that even cold was not the final master; that time was power, bringing all things round and round again, and waiting would always have an end. Behind the cupboards, under the floors, anywhere where a glimmer of warmth remained the rag-things rested, lingering along the edges of awareness, alert to catch the first stirrings of living warmth returned. They had time, and in time people would come, carrying in their beating bodies the heat they craved. Blood heat. The rag-things waited; slept and their dreams were warm and bloody. The hill and the empty house looked down on the cold village, which was not empty.  And waited.