It’s a shopping precinct … arcade… or whatever they call them. Like I care. Corridors, two levels, a few not too comfortable benches around a raised grit-covered area with a sculpture strong enough to withstand vandalism.
Staircases, lifts and numerous recycle bins – into which anything is dumped until overflowing. Maybe it’s the orbiting and diving wasps that recycle stuff.
Glass fronted shops either side, so much glass, all of a thickness to meet insurance requirements. This complex is not totally desolate though; some stores are still open and glare subtly brazen lights within. Other shop fronts, dusty and abandoned, lurk behind the shadows of the closing down sale posters that hang, peeling, and fail to obscure the empty gloom behind.
Why am I here? I don’t want to buy anything. I have no money anyway. My surroundings are my reality – and reality is what you make it?
I did not make this world, it shaped me. I can’t escape it … or myself.
I’d leave if I could find a way out of this dump. But what’s the point? Would I find myself in a better place? I gave up that hope long ago.
Sitting on the fake marble floor, legs outstretched, is a homeless person, given up: could be me. A crushed can of Coke lies nearby. Flies buzz over the sticky mess; some struggle: trapped and dying. The person watches. Television for the destitute.
I’m walking. I don’t know why. I see a booth with a pointed roof, a narrow tent of purple and black fake velvet. There’s no sign, banner, advertisement, nothing near it except a swingboard from which an oversized Tarot card hangs. Silent, motionless. Emphatic.
Oh right, so that’s why I’m here. Didn’t expect this.
That card …
It’s an insult intended just for me. I think I know who … what … is in the tent. Pushing the curtains aside, I scan the cramped interior. No material hangs at the back; you can see the naked disassembled bodies of forgotten shop dummies through the glass behind. There are two flimsy picnic chairs in the tent, and a table with a purple sheet over it. I let the drapes fall behind me, the back of a chair touching my thighs. The supporting frame of this structure is a mess of aluminium tubes, garden cane and duct tape – to add to the cleverly contrived atmosphere of cheap and shoddy.
Resting on the table is not even a crystal ball, just a large glass marble worth nothing. It’s made cheaply resplendent, if that is the phrase, by sitting not quite in the centre of a frayed lace handkerchief. Beside it lies a pack of Tarot cards. They look brand new. The transparent cellophane on the ground, vying for attention against a patina of ancient chewing gum smears, may have been the wrapping.
The only perfect … near perfect … thing is the woman sitting on the other side of the table. Slightly oriental, slightly princess, utterly inhuman. She stares through me, straight ahead, a finger curled across her mouth and ending in a ridiculously long, perfect, fingernail that’s stroking her bottom lip. Odd, but not a totally unwelcome novelty: I expected horns and hooves.
No welcome from her, no words or gestures, not even a hint of recognition that a person has entered.
The chair scrapes as I pull it, squeeze around and sit. It rocks; only three legs touch the ground at any time. I expected no more. The tent smells of sour musty fabric that’s been stored somewhere damp.
More silence. She’s made expressionless eye-contact with me but it’s obvious I have to speak first. “Interesting to see you appear as a young woman.” I’m not good at opening conversations with monsters.
All I get in response is the faintest sigh, rolling of eyes and hiss of boredom.
She sits forward, elbows on the table, making little creases like bow waves in the cloth. Her chin rests on the back of a hand. She says, “I like how I look. I make an impressive woman. Except…” she stares into my eyes, “…not to you. Too perfect, everything about me smooth, unblemished, cultivated, spoiled, pampered, programmed.”
Even her elocution… Yes, she’s beginning to piss me off but that’s probably what she wants so I ditch my reactions as rubbish she’s throwing at me. She radiates power, ugly, poisonous. She’s too real, our surroundings seem insubstantial in comparison. So do I.
She smirks but only with the tiniest twitch of one side of her mouth. “Elevated, socially superior, never having to worry about money or anything more than screwing 24 hours a day of blood and sweat from my inferiors.” She closes and opens her eyes slowly like a cat.
I say, “Sorry, that’s not ever going to happen in the real world. Suffering is universal.”
“The real world…” She drawls. Eyes narrowing slightly, she asks, “Why did you think you could play with the gods?”
“Not gods: reality. Not playing: learning.”
“And what did you get in return?”
“And that leads to?” The cruellest question, like vivisection: cutting. She pauses, waiting for a response. She’s getting it but only in the body language of someone who doesn’t trust his mouth and is desperately trying to look unflustered. She goes on, “Remember that idea of yours about the piece of metal in a forge? How did you come up with that and yet remain so blind? You likened, correct me if I’m wrong, people as being metal, cold and dead at one end, brightening up, coming alive and glowing as they grew warmer – and burning so bright at the other end…” she slams a palm on the table, “…that they burn out!” Unheeded by her the marble falls to the floor where it signals its fate in diminishing clicks. Her eyebrows rise. “Burn out … into death or oblivion.”
She tilts her head to one side. “Oh really? And what is it you crave most right now … something other than oblivion?”
“That’s only me. A stronger, wiser person could cope.”
“Rubbish and you know it. Don’t even try to deny that. It’s not you who is talking to a fool.”
She sits back. Her chair doesn’t seem to rock, creak or grate against the floor. Lifting the pack of cards and running a nail along the side, she says, “You went into the fire because you thought you were some great adventurer that could help people learn more about reality: be more.” She takes a hissing breath through perfect white teeth. “Your great exploration…” Her sarcasm, like projectile vomit, hits me full on. “Your courageous work … oh so enlightening … was all just you sneezing out gobs of pus from an insignificant putrefied brain. You were merely trying to impress people with nonsense they couldn’t understand because they weren’t stupid enough!” She pauses, her eyes glazed with freezing mirth. “Humans have limits. What do you think the limits are for? To protect the truth from humans? You got it completely the wrong way round.”
“I believe in what I did: I found truth…” My voice falters, a whine heading towards pathetic.
She ignores that. “Would you like your Tarot reading?”
I don’t bother to answer.
With the cards she makes a three-dimensional twisting spiral in mid air until they settle in her left palm. Eyes on me, unblinking, she says, “I could give you anything you wanted.”
“Your price is too high.”
“But you’d stop suffering.”
“I’d suffer in a different way. That’s all.”
“It’s not a terrible price. You’d be content. You’d believe what people told you. You’d be dutiful. You would be normal again. You would even believe in this reality – and fit into it like a good little human. You’d look at art and see what you were told to see.”
“I would stop being me … and why attempt to diminish humans? Good try but I’m not that stupid.”
“How arrogant, how deluded, how infantile. It is you that diminished other humans by assuming you could go further than them. Did you think you were better … greater … some sort of hero? You’re a failure in so many, many ways. You’ve spent your whole life destroying yourself: congratulations. I’m so glad you never attempted writing philosophy. You’ve seen so little – much too little for it to be of any value. Truth? You’ve seen a tiny fragment of it through a microscopic keyhole and think you’ve seen so much more – that fits with your great explorer ego kick.” Her voice drops to a whisper, “You’re not that stupid? We’ll see…”
She’s lost me. That lot sounded like more rubbish. Some of it stung; it must be hitting something. Maybe she’s partly right … completely?
She leans forward again, the same elbows on the table pose, but clicks the sides of two nails together. Through a frozen smile, no movement from her lips or tongue, she says, “You used all your strength to get as far as you got. Now the pain in the burning tip of metal is more than you can bear and you cry out for oblivion, but you’ve learned mere death will never grant something so complete, so beautiful, so perfect. You have too little strength to go that far and none at all to withdraw from where you are. Oblivion is for the divine. Death is the best a dismal failure can hope for.” The smile disappears. Her voice seems to come from a place midway between us. “I can take that pain away.”
“No you can’t. You give out pain.”
“Yes, oh dear me, yes. Eternal pain, but we both know I’m unable to torture you anything like as hard as you have learned to torture yourself. Your problem is that you cannot stop it without help. I may be sweet enough to be your salvation. Take my offer of normality: or leave it and suffer the consequences. You’re running out of time and I am not patient.” She slams a hand down on the table again. The cards disappear … apart from one which flies up and faces me, suspended in mid air. The Fool.
“So you went running to doctors and they got as far as depression and suicide risk, and put you on tablets that can’t possibly help. You knew that all along. Why did you go to them? What was the point? To waste their time? They have never been so stupid to go as far as you, oh great adventurer that’s falling off a fucking cliff!” She pauses for another long breath. “It’s a bit like asking someone to sew up a wound when you are so far over the horizon they can’t even see you.” She sneers. “Moron. Your arrogance and naivety beggar belief. You went too far from reality and can’t quite … ever … fit back in. So now you are dependent on the charity of people who see you as a failure. Weak. Mentally ill. Cripple.”
She clicks her nails again, studying them. “You’re alone.”
Surely some of what she’s saying must be crap … but there’s a force behind it … an authority and I can’t work out what. I can’t process all that she’s saying fast enough. It’s a bombardment throwing me around, each concussion a new humiliating and confusing insult laced with vicious agony.
Alone … bitch! She knows.
She also knows I’m hurt, but continues, like I knew she would. Kick me while I can’t fight back: kick and stamp and kick again. “You see, little ignoramus of inflated aspirations, it doesn’t matter why someone would step off the cliff, does it? It could be arrogance, faith, adventure, stupidity, naivety, anything. So you destroy yourself, who cares? You don’t! But do you care about the puppy who follows you in good faith? Follows you off the cliff… That’s why the puppy is on the card, you utter imbecile! The puppy … a symbol … all the people you’ve dragged down with your pain, who you will keep dragging down for ever because you were too selfish to stop going too far and now you’re incapable of saving them from the heaps of suffering – and the torture of trying to reconstruct the wreckage you’ve made of yourself until failure numbs them into aching resignation. All your own making.”
She settles herself deeper into the chair. Smug. “Not to mention the people you hoped to lead into the fire with you. What would have happened to them? Did you care? Do you care even now?”
Her voice seems to be coming from somewhere in front of my face: moving closer. The card drops on the table, browns and crinkles: the puppy blisters. “You hurt people and continue to cruelly use them. Their pain – you make. For ever and ever…”
Why can’t I stand up – get away? I have no power over my limbs. I sigh, try to look cool, in control, and stare at the bits of soulless plastic bodies behind her in the shop front. I ask, “How long is this pointless conversation going to go on for?”
She laughs: the table and tent shake with the force of it. Her voice continues – but from inside me. “There will be no end. You played with fire, and guess what – you’re burning! Yes … feel me. I’m in you for ever more. You have nothing left to resist me with. Prepare yourself for an eternity of agonised torment right down to the very depths of your soul and the desperate yearning for your final release – which will never come. Hope can be so … so merciless.”
She smiles again. “You know I cannot damn a single soul, so it’s always my pleasure to enjoy one that has damned itself.”
©Gary Bonn, image 1999: Text, 2017