Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Below the Carnival (1997)

This was an attempt at writing a tribute story to D.F. Lewis, the creator of incredibly dense little texts that make no sense in terms of plot but are driven inexorably by their unique atmosphere. I photocopied a selection of Lewis' pieces, cut them up and re-arranged them at random: the result was general nonsense with a few startling phrases of bizarre coherence that I took as my inspiration for what follows. 'Below the Carnival' first appeared in Psychotrope #6 in 1998 and was reprinted in my collection, THE LESS LONELY PLANET, ten years later.

Sam picked empty pockets.
         The people in the square had adopted him as a mascot, smiling indulgently when he dipped his hand into the cul-de-sacs sewn onto their coats. They thought him harmless and closed their eyes so he might enjoy an unobserved rummage through nothingness. But Sam was sly: he collected absences.
         He was so far beyond childhood his maturity smelled like a kennel. He lived in a doll's house thick with cobwebs, which he treated like hammocks. Once a month a lady came up from the underground, connected to his lounge by a series of diminutive ladders, to brush away his resting apparatus.
         His abode was full of folded maps and the more absences he collected the more space there was for his charts and atlases. His ambition was the size of a small broom cupboard. He wanted to overlay a paper reconstruction of the world on his domesticity. At night he dreamed of rustling continents.
         There were no doll figures inside the house; they had long since crumbled to dust like soft-coloured cakes. Their remnants swirled at his feet, pouring down the stairs from the landing, puffing into his nostrils whenever a gust of wind burst open a window. An itch gurgled on his neck, an enormous boil leaking fetid vapours. His diseases were normal sized and they covered his entire body, with plenty to spare at the margins, like a hand over a spider.
         One evening, the woman from the underground left her newspaper behind. He picked it up and scanned the headlines. He saw that the carnival was in town. He hastened into the pre-dawn dark, tiny feet clattering on the pavement, a bag clutched to his chest. Sodium lamps blazed, promoting his shadow to giant .

"I've come about a job."
         His tongue flopped thickly in his wooden hoop of a mouth, like an ugly girl stuck in a manhole.
         The booth-keeper batted an eyelash. He was a yellow man, with the spectrum of deceit flickering over his face. Turning his head sideways he regarded Sam with avuncular malice.
         "Ain't much call for midgets these days."
         "You don't understand. I can turn myself invisible. Fired from a cannon, I can vanish without trace."
         The boothkeeper scratched a nose bristling with hairs. "Show me how it works." Beneath his stale breath he added: "Crazy cack-handed mother you must have had, hair like pink fevered scribblings. Go on, you fork prong! Disappear right now!"
         "But I can only do it once."
         "Am I still standing here talking to you? I despair, I really do. What's the use of an invisible midget anyhow? You're halfway there already, don't need much trickery to finish you off..."
         "Please, I need employment. I can no longer afford to pay the woman who comes up from the underground." Sam jumped and gripped the fellow's shirt by its buttons, like a lecher undressing a tea urn. Marked cards fell from the boothkeeper's sleeves as he flailed at his assailant. Blood crusted like marmite .
         "Okay, let me go, I'll give you a chance!"
         He straightened his collar and emerged from the rear of his booth to usher Sam inside a marquee smothered on all sides by other tents. It was dark: all the light fittings (except for a hole to let in the Pole Star) were grimy with thumbprints. Crates and boxes were stacked to form the walls of a maze, dividing the interior into a gross of trapeziums. The edges of Sam's lungs were stubbed with scents — fruit jams, bug poison, elephant dung.
         "Here's an empty space and a loaded cannon. I'll arrange chairs in a crescent and paint a sign. When you attract enough suckers, you can do your thing. You pipe leak!"
         "Suckers?" Sam frowned. The booth-keeper sighed, peeled off his false sideburns and mopped his nostalgia .

The first customers wore flared slacks. They seemed to have an active interest in the past. A few men had brought their wives, but there was only one child: huge and sullen, with nineteen chins. The sign above them, hanging from the rafters by chains, announced shrilly: The Non-Existent Midget! (Roll up and not see!)
         Sam thought that was a funny expression, a humorous idea, like a giant tablecloth full of second-hand bookshops, antique with High Tea, or like a sunny day moving about in a cellar.
         When his audience was settled, he paced his makeshift stage and tried to speak. The infection on his neck had spread to his throat, silencing him with chiding tingles. His customers grew impatient and cracked knuckles. A wife coughed. Her pretty new moon fingers squatted in the plangent nostrils of a man not her husband. In desperation, Sam decided to make use of gestures.
         He lifted his bag and pulled it open with the drawstring, pouring its contents down the mouth of the cannon. Then he lit the fuse with a borrowed match and hunkered down to indicate he was going to vanish. Leaning forward to peer more closely at his trick, the motley audience received the blast in their faces.
         The absences, collected over many years, stolen from businessmen, tourists and students, tramps and local politicians, riddled them like sharpened playing cards. Their astonished expressions were gouged out of existence. Now they were invisible and therefore blind, as photons passed through their eyes instead of reflecting onto the optic nerve. The remaining absences punched a hole in the fabric roof, bursting and settling on the exterior crowds.
         Small as Sam was, and lovely as a casserole , he was able to dodge the shrapnel and preserve his opacity. He flitted between tents, happy as a bayonet , delving into desks and cupboards. Finally, in a portable basement below the booth-keeper, he found his desire — a sheet of paper more creased than the Holy Ghost.
         His gratitude, manicured like his anxiety , broke his illness and released his voice. This was the only map in the entire world he did not own; a schematic of the carnival's route across the land. Wrapping the diagram around his shoulders (a cape of bad hope?) he departed the unfair fair. His steps were precisely cut. All through the city, the houses were winking out.

The woman from the underground was burning her mops. The hearth was full of crackling handles and brass nails. The smoke sucked up the powder of the decayed doll figures, hurling them out of the chimney. Without a smile, she returned to her subterranean domain, to ride the escalators and mind the gap. As she went, she tugged the diminutive ladders down after her and they fell apart, so that the raining rungs knocked off her horns and tail.
         Sam regarded the new world, the crisp tectonic plates fixed to his walls with string. Reality always adopted the easiest position. He had reproduced the planet in his house, the smallest detail lovingly marked, so there was no need for it to continue existing out there. It had come inside, revolving around him.
         More importantly, now she had to clean the whole world instead of just a doll's house, the woman from the underground had gone away. Sam filled his pipe with the remaining dust.
         Later, he would stick pins in the people in the square. Settling onto his favourite cobweb, he puffed.