A Dickensian curmudgeon is standing high up in the stacks of bookstore on stairs that wind around all its walls—up, down and across. The Dickensian curmudgeon talks to the three of us in increasingly haughty and threatening tones, but about what, exactly, it is difficult to say. The subject of his talk appears to be very specific and very useful, like the books in his bookshop, which are on subjects like ‘Production in 1878’ or ‘Conditions report—March to April’. We listen to him speak but don’t really know what he is talking about. We can hear a tapping sound in the background, though, that is getting louder and louder. At first, I believe he is making this noise with his hand on the railings of the stairs that wind around the book stacks. However, the sound has become unbearably loud. The sound is actually coming from somewhere else and the Dickensian curmudgeon is only keeping time with it. There’s no discussion and before I know what has happened the curmudgeon is dead. When the body is hidden and the laneway entrance to the bookshop bricked up so that there does not appear to be any shop there at all, we remember there was another way in. A new bookshop can be opened from the old one’s rear entrance. The others weakly attempt a celebration, dress up and sing verses of a comic opera—something where the rhymes are new but the music always sounds the same. It’s a total failure and not very comic. One of the others, far off, sings “We’re off to sleep now the old man’s dead.” I interrupt the black recital: “Oh, no, we’re not going off to bed… And that’s vaginal!”
I am in a Malaysian prison that has an enormous interior courtyard. It is just like a real Malaysian prison, except mine has a beautiful marble colonnade, with very attractive marble columns and a beautiful white marble floor (very slippery and a lot of fun), surrounding the courtyard. Well, the digs are fine but, nevertheless, a fight ensues … between the inmates and the guards. And, at first, the inmates appear to be winning. Then it gets serious and, in a far off corner, I see that some men in white uniform are entering the fray. It takes a short while to figure out what they have in their hands. Then, I see they are carrying crossbows and have already begun shooting people. Of course, it is time to retreat. After a short run to push off I slide on my belly the whole length of one side of the marble colonnade and even make it around the corner. Somehow I manage to avoid detection and survive the murderous mayhem that is cutting everyone else down.
Everyone gets off. I head for the stairs and arriving at them remember how long, how impossible they are. There, you can see them climbing along the wall, traversing the wall between floor and the ceiling that is probably hundreds of feet high. I head back to take the more conventional route, which involves negotiating a series of moving footpaths that have been installed for the public’s convenience. The system is simple. You get on a footpath that takes the name of your destination; get off wherever it ends, and continue to look for the footpath that names your destination. If you persist you arrive, eventually. I get on the path for Paris, and it escorts me to the other side of the hallway, where it proves impossible to find another path to Paris. Not very helpful. A bit like de Gaulle airport. I struggle on for a while and come to an empty cul de sac… an open reception area where no one bothers to stay, though the view out onto the sidewalk is quite promising, and makes me wonder how I have managed to become so ‘elevated’. However, I notice that the stairway leading down from this reception area to the station entrance is made of stairs each of which must be fifteen or twenty feet high. The precipice is impossible to negotiate. The architects have omitted to provide a way out. It’s, really, very frustrating. People appear to have found their way out, though. Or have they? The moving footpaths are empty, the novelty of it all having worn off. It looks as though the only thing to do is to get back on a train.
I am taking tae kwon do lessons. There is only one other person in the class, a woman. The instructor is a little old Korean or Chinese lady. We are in an L-shaped room. When the lesson starts the woman and the little old lady appear to be slapping each other around and practising their ‘kicks’. The woman has not had a lesson before, just like me. When she goes to kick the instructor the little old lady says, “No—not like that. We don’t kick like that here—you must kick to the side and outside the legs.” The woman and I think this is ridiculous. If we wanted to protect ourselves we’d kick the person who was attacking us in the balls. “No, no—you must do it like this. It’s safer.” The instructor gives us thin blue sticks about six feet long with which to practice hitting her, and each other. The sticks are very flexible, as though made of plastic, and hollow, and no one could hurt a fly with them. We whip the old lady with these flexible, blue sticks—and she whips us. It’s ridiculous. Someone has just made up the rules of this stupid system and there is no art or reality to it at all. The little old lady brings in another instructor—a big, old lady that looks as though she’s been in charge of the tuck shop for thirty years, and keeping the ‘tuck’ for herself. Her dirty, worn dress has little printed flowers on it. When she approaches me I give her a push and she falls back onto some sofas that line the walls of the L-shaped room. The other student and I whip the tuck-shop lady with our flexible blue sticks. The tuck shop lady is laughing, but pretends to be outraged by our impudence. Both the instructors have had enough of us—their new students—and they decide to call in the ‘big guns’ to bring us into line. The third instructor, a tall and thickset old man in a tired-looking, light brown suit, has masses of wavy, yellowing, ash-blonde hair, and cigarette-stained hands with fingers thick as English sausages. He enters the room with a third and new student trailing behind him. This old man looks like one of the actors in an early episode of ‘Homicide’—an ageing cop who is supposed to be crusty and benign. But he has forgotten the benign bit… He holds out his hands in front of him like pincers—thumbs hovering over finger tips—and walks towards me menacingly. It is hard not to laugh. When his pincers catch me, though, it is no laughing matter: they cause a sharp pain. I return the compliment, but I don’t believe my fingers are strong enough to produce the required effect. The first lesson is over, in any case, and when we return for the second, the venue has changed. It is now a much larger room with floors that appear to be spring-loaded. We spend a lot of time jumping on the spot, higher and higher, until we can touch the ceilings. This doesn’t seem to be a preparation for anything, and I’m not sure we are really supposed to be doing it, but it’s fun and we don’t stop. There are now dozens of students, and the hall in which we have gathered is quite large and seems to have been outfitted professionally. The bouncing students are going up and down in neat rows. The ‘Homicide’ guy has turned up again, and while sitting on a low chair at the front of the room, he looks up at me and says, “I’m gonna strip you and make you wear this sock.” Yeah, sure, I think. The guy’s crazy. “No, you’re not.” He gets up and starts coming at me with those pincers, and pushing me around. When I put out my hand to push him away I notice he is wearing a nipple-ring underneath his shirt! I grab it… and pull it off, and the whole, old nipple with it. The attack on me is over when the white shirt begins to fill with blood, a dark red stain growing quickly underneath the ‘Homicide’ guy’s jacket.
Published as ‘Four events while sleeping’, incorporating ‘Poetry is a small house’, ‘Religion is the art of belief’, ‘Martial art, sans art’ and ‘The program’, FIVE:2:ONE print edition, August 2017.
I am in the foyer of a large block of apartments in China. There are no people to be seen anywhere. There are enormous elevators with heavy, steel doors on the ground floor. The buttons to call the elevators are inconveniently located about seven feet above ground level. I suppose it must be nearly impossible for most people here to reach the buttons and I imagine that one person might have to climb onto another’s shoulders in order to reach them. The elevators, in any case, do not take people to different floors, but instead to different levels of a puzzle the purpose of which is not clear. One floor is a hallway with open rooms, like large cubicles, coming off it. Chinese men in business suits are lounging around the cubicles, seated on banquettes along the walls. Another floor is a decrepit restaurant where everything, the walls, the floors the ceilings, the wooden fittings are all painted with the same dark, cream-colored enamel paint, much of which is either peeling or chipped. Another floor is a series of increasingly claustrophobic, crowded rooms. The last of these rooms is nothing more than a portal into which I must put my head in order to see the interior—so that I seem to be in the room without being in it at all. But from this last room, I find, there is no exit.
The man in the red dress must go. I am not sure why, exactly, but he must go. I am not even sure that it is a dress. It looks like a dress. He is a man. I am sure of that. This is not the proper place for a man in a red… And I don’t know what he does. He walks around the airport with a clipboard or a bag, especially in that area where there is a narrow lane way between two streets, approaching people in the street, performing his duties. It is not an airport, or not just an airport; not, in any case, if there are streets and narrow lane ways. I work here. I don’t know what he does. Come to think of it, I wonder if anyone knows what he does. He’s not important. He just dresses himself up, comes into work each day and performs his function—which can’t be a good thing. In any case, I don’t know and, perhaps, it is not my business. I am not his supervisor. It is not, strictly, my business, except that I am here, too, and I should know these things. I hate him. That’s it. I hate the red dress. I hate the way he dolls himself up. I hate the way he parades himself in the street pretending to be someone who has a function here, pretending to work. I could say, zeroing in on the very heart of the matter, that it is his redness that makes me red; but that isn’t it, really. It is really his hair. His hair that looks long, black, and like a woman’s, from a distance; but which I remember distinctly appears to be quite normal when viewed close-up. It is the effeminacy of the man that is so guiling. He is not what he seems. I hate it. I have not even met the man—I don’t know who he is—and yet I hate him. His red dress. His black hair. His thin, wily body. His indeterminate sexual presence. He is a man in a dress—a red dress—and I don’t know what he does. He works with me, and I don’t know what he does. I do not have a place to work—not a ‘place’ in the sense of an office, a definite place where I must go. This place, these streets, is where I work.
I get into the wrong elevator. The buttons are placed, inconveniently, on a panel about seven feet above the floor. It is one of those elevators with an entrance/exit on two, facing sides. I get off when it is called to a floor I would not usually visit. I expected the general layout of the floor to be the same as the floor on which I work, however, it is completely different and very disorienting. There’s nothing to do but try get out of the building altogether, which I manage to do, through the basement. I drive out. This is quite a surprise because I don’t have a car or a license to drive. Worse, though, I don’t recall any of the streets outside. They are all unfamiliar to me. Indeed, I begin to think I may even be in a city I do not know. That would be terrible. How could I have arrived here in the first place? It may be even more serious than that … Who am I? Apparently I am someone who, today, can drive a car … who has a car to drive. I must get myself to a hospital, I think, so I get out of the car and start looking for a place to present myself that looks safe. However, there are no signs to be seen anywhere. This city, wherever it is, looks like an advanced communist state: modern, but entirely without advertising. I head into a building that I think may be a hospital and take a seat next to the receptionist. I begin to explain my situation to her. “I’m sorry to interrupt you. Please don’t be alarmed. I need your help. I appear to have forgotten who I am and where I am. I appear to have forgotten everything. Almost everything. I can still drive, which is something I didn’t know I could do, but everything else is gone. I’m very concerned I might be ill.” The receptionist looks at me very calmly for a while without saying anything. I ask her again if she can help me. She thinks carefully. “Listen to me,” she says, in a low voice, almost whispering, though there is no one around us to hear. “You have a choice. You can either wait here for another minute and I will get the paperwork done for you. You will be asked to sign a consent form, and that is the last thing you will ever know about your participation in the program. Or, if you wish, you can walk back along the corridor behind us, turn left, and you will see a glass door leading to the street outside. If you leave, I cannot help you, but you will be free.” She looks into my eyes and can see that I am thinking about her words in my mind. The choice seems stark. Ignorance, or something worse than ignorance, or freedom, but only freedom. What does she mean by “the program”? I stand up and, without thanking her, follow her instructions to find the exit to the street.