Chapter Nine

Night-time within the embrace of the Exxon Valdez. The woman is sleeping with her head on my lap, the bustle of her dress a maroon waterfall. Her lace collar is undone, exposing her neck. Clear sign she is comfortable. No rings on fingers. Loose ringlets in hair. Slender neck. Old and young. Difficult to pinpoint age. Cannot even pinpoint how long she has been here in TheNeverRealm. Veins across hands like mountain range. Like Urals. Scarring on elbow. Most likely an absent-minded burn. Probably day-dreaming and put arm on iron. Permanent reminder to stay alert. Mind shouldn’t wander. Glad she is not bleeding out of ears or nose. 

Baby asleep on bench next to me. We are close to being a family with dog on floor. Dog. Baby. Sleeping woman. Me. First family I have had since being a child. I will indulge this moment for a while. I like feeling woman on lap. Though she is not to be trusted. Notes under doorways. Shifting cataracts. Excessive nail biting and teeth clenching all add up to her being treacherous. I let her sleep and recall the evening. 

I approached the door to dining car with apprehension, but I hid it well. Made each footstep assured. A good trick. Didn’t know if those on the other side of door could sense my assuredness or not. So I played it up. Got to door. Waited. Saw movement. Crouched down with back to panel. Looked up at lace blind, hanging over pane. People on other side moving. Needed better look, but didn’t want to move curtain. Got out my periscope. Peeked it under lace curtain and looked.

At least fifteen people inside going about business. Carriage cart looked plush. Waiters. Silver trays. Salmon. Caviar. Champagne. Rich clothes. Like carriage door in first carriage, there was no sound escaping under cracks. I looked harder through periscope. Saw Mr H_ gorging into an entire swan. Meat stuck to cheeks, glistening in candlelight. Grease everywhere. Saw Bleeding Woman sitting with baby, spoon-feeding him. Baby had back to door. Woman had netted hat, ruby lipstick. Net covered cataract. I felt a swathe of lust. As soon as I did, the baby spun round, its head rotating menacingly upon its spine. He pointed at door, hissed, baring sharp back teeth. Everyone in carriage stopped. Cutlery put down. Waiters slowly stood up in unison. Then they turned and looked at the door. Eyes blank. My heart froze, I cannot deny that. I knew then the following:

  1. I had been right to walk assuredly. They knew things. 
  2. That Tumour Baby sensed my lust. Sensed my desire.
  3. I had to swallow my dread and enter room. 
  4. Had to investigate. Come too far not to.

I stood up, packed the scope away, fixed tie and entered. As soon as I touched door handle, the shadows on other side of curtain went back to duties and sound emanated from under the frame. Typical sound of dining room. Door handle was some sort of lever to activate the lives of the souls within. I opened door and stepped inside.

Like the bench that contained my periscope, the dining carriage, from the inside was colossal. Benches, tables and trestles stretching on into the distance. Everything repeated. Everything. I felt as if I was looking into a hall of mirrors. On it went. Serving, eating, drinking, drinking, eating and serving. I was struck with a sense of weightlessness - a great vertigo at peering into this endless carriage. It was more to bear than the horizon-less wasteland outside. But I had figured out my location despite the void, and so forced myself to bear that vertigo. 

I stepped into the dining carriage. Bleeding Woman stood up instantly and hurried over. Tumour Baby didn’t react as before. He reacted like a babe, looking around the room, curious, free, unaware and investigating everything. Felt strange affinity towards it. Focused that feeling to see if baby would react. It did not. Felt as if, inside this carriage, I belonged. Sounds were rich and lush, odours were ripe and searing. I surfed the dunes of memory to try and locate a trinket, or a wind-song left behind to pin these new sensory revelations to. There was nothing to recall but sand so I knew that this glorious onslaught was fresh, new and altogether unreal. As Bleeding Woman swept towards me, bustle sashaying, I decided to dive into unreality with a great fervour and investigate from the inside, to do as the Romans do. I bowed, deep and long. She came up to me. My stomach turned at the sight of her evil cataract, but I did not let it rise any further. She held out a gloved arm and I kissed her hand. Her scent was lavender. A vision of the shrub by my mother’s pond went off like a flashbulb in my mind and then it exploded into sand. Yet, oddly now, with her on my lap, that memory is still there. I cannot recall anything around the shrub or the garden as it is in a cyclone, but the shrub, her glove and her scent are all somehow connected. I digress.

I kissed her hand and she led me to the table. The Tumour Baby didn’t regard me, even when she introduced me as Master G_. She could only have got that from her own investigation. I was on to her, but also keen to explore my new found dynamic of investigative acumen. The Tumour Baby just hit at the table with a two-pronged fork. His skin was horrid, almost translucent, his veins bright blue and his hair coarse and rank. When eventually he did regard me and offered me a hand to shake, I held my breath through repulsion and took it. Until the day I die again, I will never feel anything as cold as the touch of that baby’s hand. So cold, it was almost wet.

She introduced herself as Angeline of the Theresienwiese. A meadow girl. Not rich, nor poor. Before she went any further, I asked her to describe what she thought a meadow was (feigning curiosity in her history, rather than my true interest which was in her perception of history). She looked at me and her ‘good eye’ fogged over for a few seconds. She simply said, “Flat sand.”

Graham Thomas