The Glassborough Chronicle, part 3 of 3

Read part 1 here; read part 2 here.

or,
The Time-Fliers

“As the spring crept into summer my days seemed imbued with an uncanny quality from which, despite my best efforts, I could not struggle free. I had all my life believed that the moral arc of the world bent towards justice, but in recent months I had begun to fear that his faith in science had doomed Edward to an existence which he scarcely deserved. To me and to his family (though for far different reasons) he had become something of an artefact, lost somewhere outside of our control.

“Towards the beginning of June, dear readers, I felt the final touch of Edward’s hand and read the last words that he would write with me as his intended audience. I was returning from a proceeding during which I had been compelled to defend the inheritance of a bachelor whom in normal circumstances I would treat with the disdain his personal character merited. After a significant tug at my laudanum flask I exited the hansom cab and proceeded to walk the last stretch home along Storey’s Gate, the tall red townhouses fusing above me into a single monolithic structure overhanging the pavement.

“At the corner of Old Queen’s Road I stepped, as I customarily did, across the square-shaped patch of grass which separated the servants’ entrance to our modest house from the flue and the pavement of Storey’s Gate. I sensed as I reached the door a fluttering—little more than a movement accompanied by a bat’s wing mutter—emanating from the kitchen chimneystack. In a crevice between two red bricks there was, I saw, a note.

“I was gripped by the same sense of disinclination that had come over me after I had so casually taken the journals from Edward’s laboratory. Was this some form of rapprochement for the misuse of my dear friend’s messages? The note was packed tightly into the wedge between some dried mortar and the keystone above the arch of the flue. I removed it and read, in Edward’s hand:

‘“This city, beautiful though empty. She was lost, jumping ahead. Perhaps I will see you again, in the present-time.

E.

“Written indistinctly below the message was what could only be a date—the numbers 14/8/35. If Edward were indeed trapped, if Fitzpatrick’s potion had by virtue of its quantity been wrenching him from one point in his history to another, then he was now cast fifty years into our past.

“I turned the note in my hands over and, simple solicitor or not, it was immediately clear that my dear friend was not being cast further backwards but was in fact somewhere outside even my comprehension. The reverse of this small, papery artefact—glossy as though finished with some kind of protective veneer—was a daguerreotype of a kind I had never before seen. Vivid beyond the capacity of science, it was unlike even the most lucid portraits I had seen of the American President Lincoln or the Houses of Parliament by the Thames.

“The image was fully coloured and glowed—glistened—more than the place in the portrait should have done were I there myself. In the foreground the image was all water, a deep blue growing to black just below some sort of iron railing. But further into the background—miles further but as clear as they would have seemed to my own eyes—there soared buildings taller than any cathedral spire or monument I had encountered. Between them rushed carriages, grey and black and other colours, drawn much like Edward had described under their own steam, free (or so I imagined) from the necessity of horses and their attendant stench.

“Above even the tallest tower the sky was coated in cumulonimbus clouds, layered between the gridded structures and a cerulean-blue sky. Even fifty years from now, some things remained the same, I told myself. I crushed the portrait into my overcoat, touching as I did so the familiar shape of the key in my outer pocket, and imagined dear Edward doused in the mechanisms, the magic, of things to come but regretting always the things he had lost along the way.

❡      ❡      ❡

“The peak of summer came and I was incapacitated with the tremendous heat. As we often did, Mildred and I took several weeks to recuperate and to remain out of the clinging foetid air that inhabited the parks and brougham carriages of London. Though I thought daily of Edward and of the incomprehensible date of his last missive, I felt powerless to help him. Where once a glass of Glendronach and a sympathetic ear could assuage his worries, I had no doubt that he was now beyond such ministrations.

“In the obscurest corner of my study I settled into the rocking-chair below my portrait; a painting of myself looking rather regal at the now unimaginable age of twenty-three. On a table to the left of the chair was a translucent decanter full of tincture and a glass half-filled. I rested my hand on the table and pulled from the shelf behind me a leather-bound volume fastened shut with twine. With a brittle sound I untied and opened the book to the last page so that I might examine once more the portrait of this urban, foreign, future landscape.

“My skin rustled on the vellum of Fitzpatrick’s papers and I thought of Edward’s specimens—dead and dusty—in his basement study. Fifty years hence I too would be gathering dust somewhere beneath the soil of this city. Perhaps I will see you again, Edward’s note had said. This struck me as more than wishful thinking—even at his most fanciful my dear friend was not a nostalgic—and the words elicited in me the same urge which had drawn me to the mahogany cabinet that past spring.

Perhaps I will see you again, in the present-time. I finished the glass beside me and waited for the rheumatical pains in my foot to subside (aggravated as they were by the heat). I wanted to sleep, to dream the peaceful dreams that only the opium would provide. I could slip at this very moment like a raindrop, slip into the past or the future.

“—What, though, are you going to do, Henry? I suppressed a giggle at this hysterical state of affairs and a hiccough of my chest brought me close to spilling the book of notes onto the floor. Today is the first oft August, I told myself. I replaced the daguerreotype and closed the book on the uncannily-dated image. 14/8/35. I have a fortnight.

❡      ❡      ❡

“The humidity hung about me and commingled with the summer smoke as I arrived at 17 Salisbury Road on August 14th. The heat brought always a heavy atmosphere to the city, though in the decades I had lived there London had thankfully lost some of the organic stench that characterised its summer months.

“Using the key I had obtained against my better judgement, I unlocked the house door and an attempted to remain inconspicuous by stepping through a two feet-wide gap between the limn and the lock. Sunlight was being filtered through the drawing room and hallway drapes and its angle—I am sure Edward had remarked on this at one time or another—created a red hue throughout the ground floor of the house. Its warmth, I thought, was deceptive.

“Directly in front of me was the stairway leading to the private chambers on the first floor above. To my right were windows overlooking the alley and the entrance to Edward’s subterranean study, to my left the drawing room where Henrietta’s pendant had so mysteriously reappeared. Stepping into the drawing room I felt as though I were re-entering the scene of some crime; in the creak-creak-click of my feet followed by my cane I sensed an old house that was less than desirous of my presence.

“The intrusion, I decided, was warranted. In point of fact this decision had been reached long before I found myself in Salisbury Road that evening. On the furthest interior wall of the drawing room— running parallel to the front edifice of the house—was a door, concealed in part by the black finish of the piano standing in front of it. This entrance had in the past led to the stony room below. The narrowest of edges protruded from the wall and, fitting my fingers carefully around this lip, I pulled until the hinges just behind the imported Steinway tore at the wood and the door popped open to a strangling, reverberative chorus.

“Even with the absence of light the brief set of steep spiral stairs wound their way just as I remembered into the basement. I set about my descent with some trepidation and with a crescendoing fear less exacerbated than borne aloft by the opiates in my blood. Exerting pressure on the bare brick walls around the staircase and leaning my walking stick as near to the edge of each step as I dare, I spun my way down and into the gaslit study.

“I paused at the last step. Why were the gas lanterns running? In the low light cast around the stone walls were shadows and crooks which I could not recall having seen during my most recent visit to Edward’s study. The cabinets of medical paraphernalia situated to the left of the spiral steps were as dust-covered as ever and beyond stood the mirror in which I had seen that grotesque portrait of my friend just before his disappearance. In the centre of the room hung the solitary light source, directly above the central table and illuminating in a coppery glow the heavy bottle that had been filled neatly, filled to the brim with that damned stuff. The Phillips beaker remained empty beside its larger sibling and I felt a shudder at my having ingested any of this diabolical potion.

“Reaching out not without some apprehension I clasped a hand around the narrow neck of the bottle. Lifting it I held it carefully between my eyes and the gaslight and gazed through the autumnal viscous liquid in hopes of some trace of an explanation; some hope, or so I thought, of salvation for my friend. Enclosed between the cold stones that night I could not comprehend that I, as much as my dear Edward, was in need of salvation.

“At this stage, my friends, I must pause to tell you that my nerves were rather wracked and certainly in need of a supplemental drop or two of laudanum. The tales of Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick as told in his extensive, mesmeric journals had somehow crept from my dreams onto the edges of my waking mind and were no longer, as far as I was concerned, fictitious. These stories flew through my head daily and had fused into some ghastly amalgam with Edward’s fate. If only, I thought, I could find Mr Thomson or Fitzpatrick, they could…

“—Henry. I stopped to check my senses at the sound of my name, a spoken hiss in the dark. I knew for a fact that Henrietta had returned home to Hertfordshire and I was sure I had laid the deadbolt across the front door.

“I replaced the bottle on the table and turned slowly in a clockwise motion: before me the bottle, under gaslight and against a backdrop of specimen cases; more cabinets of dusty medical journals and the neighbouring alleyway entrance to the basement room; the spiral staircase and the glass in the corner followed by more specimens on the oblong table where Edward had hidden the viscous potion. I leaned an arm against the chair back.

“—Henrrry, I… came failing through the air like the sound of an expiring creature. A subhuman hum shook the table and the miasma of fluid at the lip of the bottle made its miniature wave. A tremor ran across my chest as though my heart were beating to escape the confines of my diaphragm. I raised my left hand to my temple, a misplaced gesture of self-comfort, before catching in the strips of light between my fingers and somewhere in the corner between the mirror and the side-table a streak of movement.

“I turned and walked to the echo of feet and cane thud-thud-clinking towards the glass. Reflected in the top half of the surface I could make out my own figure, haloed as it was in a failing green light and slowly advancing. I was less than a foot from the glass when a whisper more tangible than audible dashed around me, a sibilant rush coming from my left which briefly forked to surround me before knocking with a force greater than seemed possible into the mirror.

“My reflection flexed and warped in the gaslight for several seconds and…

“—Henrrry, I am… The noise sounded again, this time with more force. At the far right edge of the mirror where previously there had been only a smudge of darkness and the barely visible brim of my hat was now a swirl of colour like an unfolding sheet, creases and furls which, though bathed in the green-black glow of the room, gave off an unnatural light of their own.

“—Unst…Henry… the voice faded as the lines coalesced into a picture—more alive still than the daguerreotype crushed between the brickwork of the flue—until of their own accord they drew beneath the glass an outline, in profile, of a cadaverous, almost monochrome face. Initially there emerged a jaw line, followed by the protuberance of an aquiline nose flared at the nostrils, a mouth thin and straight and—finally—the sunken, ghastly eyes of Edward Willis.

“—Am unstuck… Henr… The face contorted with each word as though a portrait come to hideous life. I gazed open-mouthed at the visage of my friend trapped in some unphysical aether which I could not penetrate, from which he could not be freed. The gaslit reflection now occupied the full length of the mirror—by now, friends, I was powerless to move—and fingertips pressed to the point of whiteness against the other side of the glass. An appalling inverse of my dear Edward.

I am unstuck… I stepped one thud closer to the apparition and its grey irises followed the movement.

“—Edward? I said. It seemed to comprehend speech even from its netherworld. I babbled: —The picture and the key… your letter, did you…?

“—Cannot go back, Henry. It seemed to approach the other side of the glass. Only advance. I raised my hand but hesitated before laying my clammy palm against the mirror.

“—Then the daguerreotype originates—will originate—in some city, some future that you inhabit? I said. A grisly nod revealed the white underbelly of Edward’s eyes. The reflection began to flicker and then seemed to laugh. For the first and only time that night I considered that perhaps I was experiencing some form of hysterical fit brought on by the tremors in my chest.

“—Alone…Up to you… He clung to the edges of the living portrait and I realised that he had not been laughing. His eyes glistened with a tiny wave of tears.

“The closer Edward pressed to the glass the less distinct he became. The whisper of those three words ringing in my ears seemed also to fade and a draught drew its way—growing in intensity—somewhere in the void between me and the mirror. Fearing that he would vanish once again and believing that I more than anyone owed Edward a chance of liberation from these temporal constraints, I felt the movement behind my eyes which had throughout my life signalled that it was time to act.

“In a moment of warped logic I have never come to understand, I pirouetted back towards the table and took three brisk steps up to the glass bottle and the conical beaker which lay beside it. In doing so my cane fell and clattered across the floor, the sound of wood on stone rattling across the confines of the basement. I clasped in my right hand the neck of the bottle and in my left supported its base, then—watching the while as the gelatinous fluid swelled and spilled from the open mouth—I turned and heaved with a strength I thought long past and let go the bottle.

“It flew from my hands twirling a coppery stream behind it and skewered into and then through the mirror, shards of glass spilling now from the frame, now from the shattered container. The ghastly mask in the mirror ruptured under the impact and split into tiny fragments. Amongst the noise resonating against the walls of specimens and journals I thought I could hear—or feel—the sound of a voice fading into the harsh, destructive background noise. As the reverberations decayed I leaned back on the table and felt a horribly oppressive stillness.

“At my feet and covering the cold floor were shards of glass drowned in the potion. The damned stuff flowed almost opaquely now between the stones in small, silent rivers. I stepped back to avoid its approach and walked with some difficulty over to my cane. Bending down I recalled the stack of tumbled journals which had been scattered across the larger table and the ground like flakes of dead skin. I wondered what might have been the fate of Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick.

“I creaked upward and tugged free the deadbolt on the cellar door. As I pushed out into the doorwell to Edward’s study, the August evening heat descended and brought with it the odour of horse manure and sewer water. I wandered for close to an hour before a solitary Hackney carriage on the corner of Lissom Grove decided my shambolic figure was worth the fare. Climbing in I rapped on the roof with my cane and nothing—not the braying of horses nor the calls of women in the sultry summer streets—could shatter the half-dead trance glowering over the corner of that cab.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Dear friends—you who have so patiently listened to and so meticulously documented this tale—you may be searching for some grand meaning or significance in the fate of Edward M. Willis. I fear that I can provide neither. As I recollect this story it is July in the year of 1886. It is another airless, malodorous summer in the city of London and I am reminded constantly of that evening in Salisbury Road when the glass was shattered, the story was ended and my dear friend Edward finally—as my mother used to say—passed through the veil.

“I hope, as you listen and transcribe, that my words might someday find an outlet amongst your other, more noteworthy, publications, and that my brief account of the last days of my friend, the writer and naturalist, might sit alongside The Time-Fliers, or A Story of the Present-Time on Heddy’s bookshelves in the red-hued warmth of the drawing room in the Salisbury Road.”

❡      The End      ❡

Cross-posted from [untitled]

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The Glassborough Chronicle, part 2 of 3

dlrhurleyRead part 1 here

or,
The Time-Fliers

letteri woke some hours later. My pallor was such that I would have frightened not only Scrooge but Mr Dickens himself a little nearer to the grave. I stood and—for the first time in a number of months—felt not a flicker of pain in my right leg. No doubt the opiates in the strange suspension were still at work somewhere in my blood.

“Walking unaided I circled the central table, the gaslight now burning too low to follow anything further afield than my own hands. Edward was gone; not a single trace of his person or movements was visible in the darkness and at the very bottom of my stomach I felt a churning more (so I thought) due to my friend’s absence than to the presence of his potion attacking my constitution.

“The Philips beaker lay on its side on the larger table, the bottle—its contents unnaturally still—sat to one side and Fitzpatrick’s papers were spread across the surface like a reptile’s scales. What I assumed were the journals Edward had mentioned were stacked half on the table top and half strewn across the cold floor where Edward had been moments (or what I experienced as moments) earlier.

“Without the aid of my cane I could not ordinarily have reached the floor of the study. Once the dampened journals were in hand I felt an unease about opening them to the most vital pages, the pages Edward had very likely memorised. Idly flipping through vellum pages in the empty darkness, I came inevitably to the diagrams and lists associated with the potion; though I recognised little of the medicinal nature of the substance I read below and on the following pages Fitzpatrick’s descriptions—vivid beyond even the most eidetic of memories—of distant imaginings both past and future. Not a single sheet contained corrections, as though the writings had been the product of some kind of mesmeric trance.

“After some moments I had retrieved my cane, scanned by the first glimmers of daylight my pneumonic surroundings and gathered Fitzpatrick’s and my dear Edward’s papers to my chest. I struggled to carry these out of the cellar and around to the house’s entrance, where I was greeted (friends, imagine my indecorous appearance!) by the sight of Mary’s sister Henrietta who, after a politic knocking, produced her own set of keys and unlocked the door to 17 Salisbury Road. She was entering as I reached the concave doorstep.

“—Miss Riordan, I said whilst attempting a bow.

“—Mr Glassborough, sir. She was a little less than frantic but clearly too anxious to question my sudden appearance at Edward’s home or the sheaves of paper in my hands. —Have you been visiting with my brother? she asked.

“—No, madam. Or rather, not any longer. Yesterday afternoon he and I had a rather impromptu meeting, but he seems to have… slipped away overnight. I added: —You have not seen him?

“She shook her head and explained that she had taken an overnight cab from her residence somewhere in Hertfordshire —I forget the location exactly—to London, at Edward’s request and expense.

“—His note was…. she paused. I were not going to come only that he worded it so strangely.

“She handed me a folded piece of paper and somewhat truculently I opened it and read:

“‘Dearest Heddy,—

Please forgive my recent impropriety in sending you away without explanation. Know only that my grief will soon find its own grave and I will be freed of my present troubles. I ask of you one final favour. Come to London as soon as you can; I have provided for your—and perhaps for my own—future.

Yours, etc,

Edward.’

“Written hastily in what was unmistakeably Edward’s hand, I realised that his plan had been decisive though impulsive. Sending Henrietta away only to recall her several days later was not in my friend’s character—not unless something grave were about to happen. I shuddered more at the content of the note than at the February chill. Miss Riordan asked whether I should help her search the Salisbury Road residence for trace of Edward’s presence and we thereafter spent close to an hour opening doors and creaking wooden stairways for any sense, however imperceptible, of our friend.

“Though we found some manner of sympathy in our concern for Edward, not a single footprint or any further explanation for his disappearance was unearthed. As I bade Henrietta farewell I collected my documents—papers, diagrams and formulae that might shed some light on the darkened basement of E.M. Willis—and stepped into the mid-morning light in search of a Hackney carriage. What remained of Edward’s family, sadly smiling at the doorway, would surely inherit this little house on the Salisbury Road, I thought.

❡      ❡      ❡

“As spring melted the white blanket in which the city had been swaddled, I returned to work and felt—not without the pangs of a Christian guilt that Edward would surely have mocked—that I had abandoned my lost friend. I had studied the journals left to him by Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick but in them found nothing more than whimsy, fantasy told as though it were science and spread with the thinnest veneer of credibility.

“The narrative describing his experience with this potion was clearly the base stuff for Edward’s novella and, in turn, for the viscous opiate liquid sitting so unnaturally still below the drawing room of Salisbury Road. I could not, however, vouch for the accuracy of Fitzpatrick’s notes given that they were written under the influence of this drug; nor could I quash my suspicions that Edward’s potion was far from identical to Fitzpatrick’s. These thoughts commixed in my mind with my second reading of The Time Fliers; I felt almost as lost as poor Edward, his fiction and his reality hanging in solution with my own.

“As refuge I turned to my work and to my family. Monthly I visited Henrietta and was content for this to be my only contact with the winter past. In tending to petty disputes and attending court proceedings I found a pretence of normalcy, but my mind was constantly preoccupied with the specifics of this mystery—a preoccupation as much with the mechanics of my friend’s disappearance as with the physical absence which I should be mourning. I nonetheless locked Fitzpatrick’s and Edward’s journals inside a cabinet in the corner of my office, in hopes that my ageing senses would soon banish the thought of them from my mind.

“But on May 17th 1885, months after the snowy day of Edward’s disappearance and in the weeks between my social calls on Henrietta Riordan, I was compelled once more to this mahogany cabinet and to the bundle of documents sealed within it. The dark wood—though lit by spring light from my office windows—had assumed an ominous tone, as though in the swirls of the wood grain there were some pattern attempting to formulate a message.

“I unlocked the drawer simply with the intention of examining the contents. The papers remained bound vertically and horizontally with a length of twine, but beneath the cross at the centre of the stack was a rectangular shape I did not recognise. I placed the pile of notes on my desk and, with care, pulled an unaddressed envelope out from under the knot of string. Its appearance was somewhat of a mystery, and I thought I did not know it yet, any incident related even tangentially to Edward was destined only for mystery. The envelope was of a thick paper—almost paperboard—and inside was a sheet folded twice so that it concertinaed to a third of its full size. I unfolded the note and read:

“‘With M., all the time in the world once again. You are missing from our little reunion, but thank you, my own dear Thomson!

Yours, E.’

“—My God, I murmured. Curving its upper case to the right and with a distinguishing flourish on the final letter, I could all but picture Edward’s left hand moving across the sheet as he wrote the words. In the top right hand corner was printed a date, Monday February 2nd, 1875. I need not remind you, friends, conversant as you all are with the chronology of time, that this date preceded the current one by more than a decade. I might also stress that the remnants of Fitzpatrick’s and Edward’s documents were contained inside a locked drawer of a cabinet within my locked office for the three months previous.

“Was Edward alive, physically occupying the same space he had only months ago and yet temporally (I have only since learned the application of this term, strange as this might seem) his presence had been cast backward by ten years? This lunatic explanation seemed no less credible than the notion that he had remained hidden from me and from Heddy for months only to steal a note into a sealed cabinet in a sealed room of my office.

“I replaced the note and the envelope and went to a small table occupying the corner opposite the dark wooden cabinet. The glass vial of opium lay next to a bottle of spirit and with a hand aching from the spread of rheumatism I carried out the familiar motions of mixing my tincture, combining bottle and vial in temperate measures. In this simple act of medicinal creation I steadied both my hand and my nerves. I sipped the mixture, muttering:

“—With M. Wherever you might be, Edward, I hope you are indeed reunited.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Another week was spent in pursuit of very little at all. I completed what work I could whilst glancing with the chime of each half hour at the pile of notes—medicinal scrawl, incomprehensible diagrams, personal correspondence and much more—hoping that another envelope might appear beneath the frayed string. Nothing, of course, did.

“At the end of the week I attended to my monthly social call on Edward’s sister-in-law Henrietta. Despite our meetings feeding a somewhat sympathetic (though certainly not intimate) relationship, my appearance that afternoon in Salisbury Road was greeted only with a remote and anxious glance. In the drawing room the mousy girl—woman seemed still an overstatement—requested that I sit whilst she worriedly rummaged across the top of a tall bureau standing on little more than the points of her toes.

“She drew down an object with a tug—suggesting that it might have snagged somewhere out of sight—and proffered it me in her outstretched palm. Strung on silver-coloured thread was a pendant oval in shape and carved from some form of light but stoutly packed wood. Examining it keenly, I asked Heddy what I was supposed to be looking for. Perhaps another message engrained in tiny swirls, I thought.

“—This was given me by Edward, she said. It was a birthday gift some five or six years ago.

“I tilted my head and displayed what I hoped was an inquisitive expression. –But I haven’t seen the thing (it has been missing, you see) since nearly two years ago. I believed I lost it on our last trip to Dublin.

“She placed the object in my hand. Turning it over and examining the necklace I was surprised to find that its weight was far greater than its outward appearance suggested. A thin line dissected the breadth of the oval. I placed thumb and forefinger around the top of the pendant and twisted until—despite Heddy’s objections that I would break the thing—the wood popped open and revealed a metal object embedded in the bottom half. I pulled it out of its cocoon.

“—It looks like Edward’s house key, I said. The greening rusted metal around the circular shaft I recognised at once, though I was reluctant to broach my rather fantastical opinions as to who might have returned it. It had appeared, so Heddy told me, two days earlier, snagged on the splintered edge of the dark bureau in Edward’s drawing room.

“—When I arrived on Thursday evening I came to pull the drapes closed and there it was, she said, hanging and glittering in the street light. As though it had simply materialised and was waiting for me.

“—And the key? I examined it more closely whilst my companion stared absently at the two parts of the halved locket.

“—In all honesty, Mr Glassborough, I have no idea…

“When Edward had presented the thing to his sister, the pendant had to her knowledge been whole. He had, in fact, consoled her the very day of its disappearance, she told me, recombining the two segments in her hands and rising to rehang it on the moulding of the bureau—thinking perhaps that it ought to remain in its rightful place. I too stood and strode towards the piano. Feigning to place the key on the top of the piano’s square frame I slipped it instead into a pocket of my overcoat, hoping that it might prove of some use.

“Though Edward’s note had suggested—at least to my simple solicitor’s mind—that he intended the key for Heddy, providing for her future by entrusting to her his home and his property, I felt justified in my holding very literally the means to unlocking Edward’s fate. I consoled myself with the thought that, no matter how strange his disappearance had been, I was still somehow in touch with my friend.”

Cross-posted from [untitled]
Part 3 to follow.

The Glassborough Chronicle, part 1 of 3

dlrhurleyor,
The Time-Fliers

letteri suppose the story begins, as so many stories of our time, with a tragedy; a death. Mary, the wife of my dear friend the writer and naturalist Edward Willis, passed through the veil—as my mother used to say—on November 2nd 1884. Edward was quite distraught, though the decorum which his professed faith and which society expected from him meant that his grief was allowed expression only in his innermost circle. And so I felt obliged to offer him what I could in terms of solace. Most often this took the form of a serving of Glendronach or an attentive ear during his recital of some new idea for a story.

“On December 22nd of that year Mary Willis would have turned 47 years old. In her finite wisdom Mrs Glassborough had sent a letter inviting Edward to join our meagre Christmas celebrations earlier that week, and though I welcomed my friend’s company I was worried for his health. A thin layer of powdery snow had blanketed a good proportion of London and made cab rides slow and cold. The cane-thin frame of Edward Willis was ill-prepared for this widower’s winter.

“Nevertheless he arrived intact; we dined and spoke, Edward held forth and seemed in better spirits than he had been since Mary’s death. This remarkable change of mien he attributed to his having resumed his writing.

“—My craft, Henry, may well prove to be my saviour, he said.

“—I would hesitate to put it that bluntly on today of all days, I replied. Edward went on to summarise what, at this stage, was hardly more than note-taking for a story wildly out of the ordinary and yet founded on the principles of science and natural history. As always he drew on his training as a physician and on what—to me—were obscure writings on natural history. As he rounded off his speech and, with a modest glance, placed his hands on the table top I said:

“—Martians, Edward?

“—As a neologism quite sound, wouldn’t you say? I acquiesced.

“—And the idea is that they share a heritage with man?

“—Yes, exactly. His Irish accent—his intonation did not merit the term ‘brogue’—made this seem all the more reasonable. If, he suggested, man had developed from lower mammals, surely there was also the possibility that creatures similar to or even vastly different than man might have grown out of their predecessors on other worlds.

“The death of his beloved wife made me reluctant to weigh down Edward’s buoyant mood with questions. The fantastical was his preferred domain and I could not blame him. If, he continued, life were possible on such distant rocks then was it not such an illogical leap backwards to claim that all life had sprung from the same place? Whether this was the hand of God or the head of Zeus he did not say.

“Mildred returned holding a tray with two glasses of deep-coloured brandy and placed it in front of us. She must have recognised in me what she always termed ‘your dangerous frown’ and, before taking a seat, feigned to recall an urgent task she was neglecting elsewhere in the house. As she exited the cast of her face made it clear that marital obedience was not driving this particular decision.

“I raised my glass, Edward following suit, and said: —To better spirits. We had toasted, now we drank. But my dear friend was clearly debating within, as was his wont, whether he ought to divulge some new tale or forgotten secret.

“—Henry, I have to tell you, he said. These past weeks I have spent not with Heddy, but rather with myself and my imaginings. Henrietta, or Heddy as he called her, was Edward’s sister-in-law and was at least nominally in charge of his and his household’s care now that Mary was no longer with us.

“—I sent her home. She was as grief-stricken as I, and I had my own work to keep my company. But I want you to come and see with your own eyes. Please, if you can bear the inconvenience… read this first.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Now the book he left for me you will, my friends, most probably have heard of. Unlike many of my countrymen I myself had read The Time Fliers upon its publication in 1878, out of both curiosity and loyalty to my acquaintance of the time, Dr. E.M. Willis. It would be the fictionalist’s vanity to say that Time Fliers proved the foundation for our friendship. But the negative reception that it received was laced in most quarters with a blithe disrespect for Edward and for his imagination when—to my mind—his imagination was what set him apart from his contemporaries, founded as it was on science and natural understanding.

“Though not for the London literary salons, Edward’s novel appealed to sufficient people to prove a minor success over the course of a year. The chronicle—for this is the most accurate word—tells of an unnamed inventor who stumbles upon a theorem, no more than an outline, left by his predecessor at a less-than-prestigious London university. This theorem proposes the manufacture of a substance liquid in nature that might allow its users to move back and forth not only in physical space but also in linear time.

“The inventor takes this theorem to his companion, and the tale’s narrator, one Mr Thomson. He and Thomson between themselves procure the elements required to produce this ‘potion’ (Edward’s term) in a quantity small enough to be ingested in the name of experimentation. Initially they experience only the vaguest sensations of déjà-vu, but during their carriage ride return to the inventor’s home their common visions step further and further away from the present until the pair is catapulted from past to future, unable to pull themselves back to the fulcrum of the cab ride through present-time London.

“As Edward put it, his protagonists ‘soon began to feel suffocated by the d—ed stuff.’ A moment in the childhood memory of Mr Thomson’s country home, filled with birds and turning leaves, gives way to a trek through the most primoriginal wastes of a past described with an almost gleeful lack of sanity or, indeed, sanitation. The inventor and Mr Thomson find themselves variously borne into the air by means of some automaton magic, soaring above a gridwork of charnel houses and industrial wastes, and trapped in the crush of a busy London street full of carriages drawn not by horses but by their own internal and, to our narrator, inexplicable mechanisms. These ‘motor-wagons’ (Edward’s neologisms were by definition a new, though not a recent, development) blare like a collective of animals and the two men tumble to relative safety only after hailing a nearby hackney carriage.

“In the briefest of epilogues our Time Fliers are separated, and whilst the narrator Mr Thomson comes unstuck and finds this future motor-carriage modify slowly around him, changing inch by inch into their present-day London cab ride through slanting spring rain, his companion is not so fortunate. In the years post-dating this trip Jeremiah Thomson finds echoes of his lost friend in the strangest places—letters left idly in church pews, scientific papers dropped into his lap during soporific fireside evenings—but it is their fate never to cross paths again.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Shortly after the New Year, when the snow blanketing the city had begun slowly to melt, I heard the clattering and braying of a brougham pulling up in the street below my office. Clad in a black cape more suited to the ballet than to an uninsulated carriage ride through Central London, Edward stepped down and climbed the few steps to the door directly beneath my window. I laid my papers in a desk drawer on the assumption (soon proven correct) that my friend’s impromptu visit was going to foreshorten my work for the day.

“Moments later Edward had stepped into the room and drawn the ghastly black cape from his shoulders to reveal nothing but an undershirt, halfway unbuttoned and hardly concealing the protrusions of his ribs beneath his mottled marble skin.

“—Henry, my dear friend, he said, placing a hand just above each corresponding crook in my arms. His eyes bright, a return to his former self perhaps at hand, he continued: —Did you read it? Did you take it all in?

“—Yes, of course. Though I’m not sure I understand, Edward. My second reading, I must say, was just as enthralling, but wh…

“—Good, good, he said. In that case you must join me for a drink. With an emaciated drama he swung his own person around and nudged mine by the elbow—a reticent animal, I—towards the door. In the hallway he replaced the cowl and balanced his top hat, old but functional, on his mop of greying curls. We reached the brougham, stepped in and headed for Edward’s residence in Salisbury Road.

❡      ❡      ❡

“At the cellar door of the Willis residence, situated in an alley to one side of the brick building that Mary and her husband had shared, I was greeted by the incongruous smells of ammonium and unlaundered clothing. I steadied myself with the aid of my cane (I suffer a form of metabolic arthritis in my right foot) and took three steps down to the door. Edward was already inside and had removed his hat and cape by the time I had fully taken in my remarkable surroundings.

“In the years before and for several after our initial acquaintance, my friend was a much sought-after London physician. He tended not only to my needs but to those of a large number of wealthy Londoners whilst working by night (‘nocturnally’; his word) on his writing, studies of creatures and behaviours that did not fall within the category of standard medical practice. In those years Edward’s study—both a laboratory of sorts and a refuge from the house proper—was an enclave of cabinets filled with books and journals, tables covered in medical instruments and sample tubes, etchings of tree roots and wasps bisected in black ink.

“But in the darkest month of the New Year and under the gaslight hanging from the centre of the stone ceiling the cellar was much changed. A glass stood in one corner of the room, in which I could see my grey self and the miasmas of snow on the door over my shoulder. The cabinets of curiosities—culled so Edward told me from museums forced into closure—were obscured now by a fine film of dust and on the square desk directly below the light, where once there was a host of indefinite medical instruments, stood only a single row of sample tubes and a sheaf of papers. Edward motioned for me to take the only seat in the room as he drew from over a long wooden table against the furthest wall a tarpaulin covering. Edward’s body, though narrow, disguised the items in the dimly-lit corner. He said:

“—I forced my little story on you not out of vanity, Henry. The origins of my novella, rather like the origins of all things, came not solely from my wild imaginings but from a certain number of historical facts. A constellation of such facts designed, it seems, to create Mr Thomson and his time-flying friend.

“—I… don’t follow you, I replied. I tapped my cane on the stone floor.

“Edward turned now from the shadowed corner holding in one hand a large bottle with a narrow opening, filled nearly to the brim with a copper-coloured liquid, and in the other a conical beaker with a glass stirrer tinkling delicately against its lip. He placed them upon the large table in the centre of the room alongside his papers and the sample tubes, lifting his head and pinning me with an excited gaze to my seat.

“—Henry. He smiled and nodded, expecting (so it seemed) that I might string together the pearls in front of me into a coherent narrative. He glowered in the gaslight and told me:

“—Some months after I moved with Mary to this corner of the city, and some years (might I add) before I embarked on such studies as you were accustomed to observing in this room, my good friend Jonathan Fitzpatrick passed away. Jonathan left to me a minor sum to aid me in my profession (the figure was insignificant by comparison to the wealth and knowledge he had acquired in the medical world) but more importantly he bequeathed to me his papers, gathered over a number of years spent in both Dublin and London as a student and then as a young physician.

“—Amongst the trappings and personalia were several sheets containing what I took to be a list of constituent parts for some medicine, perhaps an invention of Fitzpatrick’s. Opiates and ammonium I could make out by their chemical formulae but the other elements were a mystery, and one that worried me; the majority of my more learned friends were as baffled as I by Jonathan’s notes. I had begun after several days’ investigation to feel as though I were trapped in a poorly executed story, a Penny Dreadful with the bare bones of a plot and little more.

“—Nonetheless I persevered and—through less-than-reputable channels—procured the means to manufacture those chemicals which I could not legitimately obtain. Despite the crown’s legal interventions, there were then still many roads clear enough and land unchristian enough to provide for the darker aspects of our profession. I don’t regret it, Henry. Not if the promise in Jonathan’s notes holds true.

“—After I had returned with the final ingredient for this strange brew I sorted again through the papers in search of some instruction and, in doing so, came across Jonathan’s journals, printed in a neat handwriting and spanning several volumes and a number of years. I had, out of respect for my colleague and friend, left these untouched and unopened but my curiosity bore the better half of me to my study, papers in hand.

“—He professed in these journals to have produced a viable batch of this stuff—science forgive him—and to have tasted but a whisper of it one morning before being carried, alone as always, to his Harley Street office. So his journal tells, not ten minutes after his…experiment, he was pulled into a trance, a deep sleep that took him into the past and left the doors of perception open, left time flowing like a liquid into and out of his mind, swimming through his vision. I was, Henry, quite frightened and yet peculiarly exhilarated by my friend’s words.

“—But as my writing grew in importance and Mary’s health declined I lay aside my studies in this place. The stone underfoot grew colder and the specimens grew further layers of dead skin over their own. My natural histories found an outlet in several science journals and eventually The Time Fliers was finished and published. In my mind’s eye—and now you must see it, too—Thomson and I were one and the same, and Jonathan Fitzpatrick became my unfortunate inventor. My ‘potion’, so I thought, was just a fantasy, but coming back down here, back to these papers. This damned stuff…

“—This damned stuff, Henry.

“Edward paused and lifted the bottle from the table.

“—If he was right, this damned stuff might take me back, and in doing so…bring her back.

“The liquid made a miniature wave at the roof of the bottle as Edward held it in his hand. He produced—from where, I confess, I did not see—a tiny funnel such as he had used years ago when mixing laudanum for my ailments, and placed it in the mouth of the smaller container. As I watched the viscous substance pour in a perfect arc into the conical beaker I glimpsed in the glass across the room a gas-lit reflection of the profile of Edward Willis, which to this day I wish I had not seen but cannot erase from my memory.

“He proffered me the half-filled vessel whilst he withdrew from his belt a flask which, it seemed, already contained the stuff. He said:

“—Henry, my friend. Nothing remains for me here, now. There are no words that need to be said, no things that need to be known; explanations only weigh us down. I ask only that I might request your companionship this one last time.

“He drew from the flask and leaned his frail upper body on the table behind him. Dear friends, as you might have guessed, I could not abandon my friend; I followed him into the mouth of this strange tale. First tentatively I put my lips to those of the glass in my hand and then with abandon I tasted the last sensation of that afternoon, the viscous liquid lining my insides, and burnt into my mind the image of the gaunt figure in the glass, the last time I would see Edward M. Willis.”

Cross-posted from [untitled]
Parts 2 and 3 to follow.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. III, Issue 5

This week, some poetry and fiction graced our shores. Check out what you missed below, and stay tuned for more next week!

 

Wednesday – Poetry

Friday – Fiction

 

More to come next week from favourite Brenda Mann Hammack!

Always Crashing in the Same Car

August 27th, 10.03am

Tires were screeching around the coastal roads of Sarnia, roads that from above formed a right-angled triangle floating in the deep azure of the English Channel. Several passengers peered from the windows of an airplane descending into the island’s tiny airport and saw the husk of a car, its exhaust puffing like an aged smoker, make a sharp right turn below them before disappearing behind a swathe of trees. The old Volkswagen now heading along the longest straight on the island – the hypotenuse of the triangle – was slowly gathering speed.

The coast and its cresting waves blurred into a wash of blue as John’s foot pressed down on the accelerator. Finally, at sixty miles per hour – far too fast for the narrow street ahead of him – his hand twitched and the car squealed left across the pavement and through a wooden barrier that separated him from the water and the rocks below.

In John’s mind, he flew gloriously off the edge of the cliff, plastic, metal and flesh caught in the air simultaneously, sailing away from the ground. In reality, the VW thumped with a scrap-metal crash into a ditch, and his head thudded with a dull snap against the driver-side window.

August 10th, 12.21pm

The geometry of shadows gathered around Gillian’s feet was on the move. High above her, the noon sun cast a strange kaleidoscope of lines on the sand, and John watched as she reached the water and stepped, tentatively at first, into the English Channel. Even during the summers, the salty, thick waves were cold to the touch, and he imagined the goose bumps now peppering her arms.

She hopped forward, her body tensing into right angles. The bathing suit still fitted snugly, the same one she’d taken on their honeymoon. John smiled and leaned back onto the sand as she disappeared into the water.

Gillian waded in and, in a moment of quotidian bravura, finally dipped her shoulders under the water’s surface. The salty sting of the sea slipped past her skin as she swam further out, and eventually her body temperature equalized and she was comfortable. The goose bumps had disappeared.

She stopped and turned over onto her back, her hair, tied in a loose bun, weighing her down like an anchor. The sky wasn’t cloudless – Sarnian skies rarely were – but it was bright, with sheer spots of sunlight pounding at the sand. Leaning her head forward, she could still see John’s feet, his white chest, and his eyes, closed to the sky above them.

“Why don’t you fuck off back to England?” The voice woke John, clear above the sound of the sea brushing the sand. He propped himself up on his elbows and watched a teenage girl in ankle-high Converse shoes and a miniskirt trying her hardest to stomp across the sand and away from a boy wearing nothing but swimming trunks and a dumbfounded expression.

“What was that all about?” he asked. Gillian had returned and the goose bumps on her legs had mutated into tiny grains of sand.

“Dunno.” She lay on the towel next to him. “Not much to do on a Sunday if you’re a teenager.”

August 21st, 5.34pm

John left Town and drove toward home. The movements were familiar, the turns of the road second nature. The rocks, grass, sand, and glass houses moved past him barely noticed. It never took more than fifteen minutes to drive anywhere on the island.

Along the coastal road, he sped up and passed Fort Grey, a coastline fortification that, like all the others, stood defunct at the water’s edge. Concrete and cylindrical, atop it a flagpole flapped a Sarnian flag wildly in the breeze. Retrieving his phone from the passenger seat, he dialed home. No answer. He tried Gillan’s mobile, leaving it to ring several times before hanging up at the sound of her voicemail message.

Gillian had settled into the back of the Duke of Normandy pub. She let her phone buzz futilely against the table. A glass of beer stood waiting for her just beyond it, and she took a hearty swig. Before they were married, she only ordered wine or, in an emergency, gin and tonic. But now, beer had become a staple – cheaper and longer-lasting – and the low wooden beams and dark corners of the Duke of Normandy had become welcoming in a way that their home was not. The cold glass sides and summer skylights that John had installed two years ago were impersonal and cold to the touch.

Her phone chirped and she picked it up. A text message read: Where are you? See you at home!          John parked and went in through the conservatory door. The sun was low enough to cut diagonally across the room, leaving a slice of orange light leading from the floor up to the interior door that led to the kitchen.

Gillian arrived half an hour later, the sun setting through the trees, and the sound of waves bristling against the distant coast. Her old Volkswagen fit neatly between the garage and John’s slovenly parked Audi. John was asleep on the couch, today’s copy of the Sarnia Herald folded open and balanced on his chest.

August 27th, 7.17am

The sun climbed higher that morning as Gillian rose. John lay still, asleep between the waves of their bedsheets.

She left the note in the kitchen beneath a stone figurine that they had received as a wedding gift. The note was short, could be read as brusque, but she didn’t want to run to more than half a page.

Snores percolated like coffee as she slipped her maroon travel bag out of its usual place in their walk-in closet and grabbed handfuls of clothes from the dresser drawer. Stuffing socks, underwear, then t-shirts and pants into the bag, she paused for a moment. If she had been expecting one last roll, a twist of limbs that signaled a disturbance in John’s sleep, she would have been disappointed.

August 27th, 10.12am

Tires were screeching around the coastal roads of Sarnia, roads that were just the ragged edge to the Sarnian soil. Gillian was high above. From this distance, the island always seemed so idyllic, a misty antique, something to be preserved for the future. She lay her head against the airplane window and she sensed a gust of air colliding in a spiral with the plane’s propellers. The island shrank away from her, a patchwork of fields interrupted by the reflections of greenhouse roofs.

The airplane tilted left and into the clouds. Gillian stared out, glimpsing between the white wisps a congregation of cars and people on a coastal road, blue lights and more piercing red ones flashing at the scene of some accident or crime. Who said nothing ever happened in Sarnia? she said to herself.

Her stomach lurched, the clouds enveloped the airplane, and suddenly the island disappeared.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. II, Issue 46

This past week featured fiction from editor DLR, plus great new poetry and photography from an old time Snake-Oiler.

 

Monday – Fiction

Wednesday – Poetry

Friday – Photography

 

Check out more goodies this coming week.

Molecule Men

“Molecule Men” is an excerpt from a novel in progress. Faber, a British graduate student, is investigating the life and death of expat detective author Charles Thornton in Berlin, Germany.

The canal was directionless, its still waters reflecting the arcing sun. Faber suspected that this route would bring him back to Reichenberger Strasse and to Marius’ apartment, and at that moment he preferred not to retrace his steps along Degarmo Strasse. Thornton’s apartment, a large, grey concrete cipher, was something that he would have to return to after he had learned more about the writer and his life in Berlin.

In the back of his mind, tape reels turned relentlessly clockwise, and he thought of the contraband recordings stowed in the pocket of his suitcase. He really ought to have thanked Stephen, should at least have sent him an e-mail. Pulling out his phone, his mind flashed forward and he saw himself scrolling through the contacts to Stephen L, but he soon recalled that his mobile had become nothing more than a hi-tech timepiece since leaving Gatwick yesterday morning.

After ten minutes, he saw Marius’ balcony above him, casting a shadow on the pavement below. Just past the balcony was the turning onto Reichenberger Strasse. The bare floorboards and light, wooden furniture of his friend’s apartment seemed a little cold as Faber made his way through the living room and back to the office. There was a note stuck to the outside of the door that he hadn’t noticed earlier. Scrawled quickly and almost illegibly in Marius’ hand were the words: Back by 9! M.

What he needed now was direction, purpose. Slumping onto the futon, he picked up the cheap Berlin travel guide that he had bought yesterday at the airport. The front cover was divided into two strips: on the left a vertical stripe of red with the word Berlin printed along it: to the left was a photograph of a tall, silvered steel or aluminium sculpture that formed the two-dimensional outline of a man. The figure, one arm and one leg extended in profile, was punctuated with holes of different sizes from its watery feet to the sunspot at the top of its head.

He jumped to the contents page and then on to directions to the sculpture, which appeared to be called the Molecule Man, a 100 foot high piece of modern art in a borough named Friedrichshain. The back cover told him that he could take the U1 there if he travelled several stops further away from Marius’s apartment and on past Thornton’s. Faber scooped a handful of the tapes into his satchel, letting them fall between the books that were already stowed inside it.

He then went back to the suitcase where, nestled between the neatly folded clothes, there was a pea-green Sony Walkman. A remnant of his childhood, it had been stashed in the back of a closet at his parents’ home with a pair of 1980s headphones tangled around it. He could never have suspected that it would come in this useful nearly twenty years later. Though he had substituted the worn-down headphones for a spare pair of iPod ear buds, it still reminded him of the small, warm home in Kent where he had grown up, and of evenings spent listening to 1960s rock n’ roll on hand-me-down cassette tapes.

The satchel was bulging, but he needed one more thing. In the living room, Marius’ laptop was open on the coffee table. Faber swiped the mouse pad and typed “the second murderer thornton” into the search bar. He pulled up a copy of the short story and hit Print.

Stories, he knew, had a tendency to begin. And Thornton’s was no exception. Published in 19__, “The Second Murderer” had been the author’s debut, and as lost as Faber felt, he knew that this was somewhere to begin.

He picked up his bag and promised himself, for the thousandth time, that he would switch to an altogether less heavy career.

₰   ₰   ₰

As he stepped into the U-Bahn for the second time that morning, a trio of middle-aged Germans entered at the other end of the carriage. Two were wearing dark sunglasses, one carrying a guitar and the other a clarinet; the third had a saxophone slung across his chest and a trilby jauntily balanced on his head. Faber sat down and pulled out the Thornton story, but as the train rolled away from the platform, they began to perform.

A syncopated beat on the guitar underscored a familiar melody. It took a few bars for their soft-jazz “When the Saints Go Marching In” to worm its way into Faber’s brain. The melody moved from sax to clarinet, and the saxophonist stepped forward, negotiating with expert balance the aisle of the moving train car, and holding out his hat in search of spare change.

Most eyes remained fixed on the floor as he passed, but by the time his pepper-grey stubble reached Faber, tourist’s guilt had set in and the Englishman was digging in his jeans pocket for some coins. His hand came out with a five Euro note as the sax player reached his end of the train.

“Sorry,” Faber said, directing a wan smile at the old man and so sealing the fate of the five Euros in his hand. “I don’t have anything smaller.”

A gleam in the busker’s eye turned into a grin, and he bowed deeply, trilby extended carefully under Faber’s chin. The note fell into the hat, the saxophonist straightened, and he said: “Thank you. We collect for the Imaginary Manufacture.”

Faber wondered if he’d misheard the old man, suspected that he had heard English words where there had been only German.

“The Imaginary Manufacture?” he repeated.

“Yes. For the blind.”

He turned and gestured back to his accompanists, who, Faber realised, were sightless behind their dark glasses. This seemed to be all the explanation the saxophonist would offer, so he bowed, turned and muttered: “Again, thank you.”

The train was slowing as the man ambled back to join his companions, and when the doors shunted open at Görlitzer Bahnhof, they exited. Faber watched them disappear behind accelerating train windows, then pulled out a ballpoint pen and scribbled at the top of the Thornton story the words “Imaginary Manufacture” and an oversized question mark.

Finally, he let his eyes wander to the first paragraphs of the story, let them skim forward as the U-Bahn did the same.

“The Second Murderer”
by Charles Thornton

Most cases begin with a bang. This one was no exception.

It had been the usual damp and lonely Wednesday afternoon before the dame in the red dress drifted into his office. She was tall and slender, the curves of a bowling pin and then some. Drawing on a cigarette, rich smoke rose like a curlicue into the room, and Delaney tried to infer the brand from the small twists that she was puffing toward his face. Gauloises, maybe?

She was wealthy, or at least prided herself on appearing so. The shiny silk hugged her figure and then disappeared under a powder-blue bolero jacket that clashed with the scarlet dress. Don’t mention the jacket, Delaney said to himself.

“Nice jacket,” Delaney said. “You’re late.”

But he was interrupted by a THUD. From out of her clutch a package wrapped in parcel paper and twine dropped onto the rosewood table top. Delaney almost spilled his coffee. Then he pulled himself together and tugged the cuffs of his white shirt another half-inch towards his fingertips, tilted his head approximately 45 degrees to the left, and asked—

 

A voice sounded over the train car’s PA system. Looking up, Faber saw the movement of people and realised that they had reached the last stop. Crumpling “The Second Murderer” into his bag, he stepped onto the platform and followed the stream of people moving towards exit onto Warschauer Strasse.

Moving into the sunlight, he turned right and headed for the canal waters that were glistening below. Berlin’s veins, he thought.

Though his reading had been cut short, he didn’t much care. Like many writerly debuts, Thornton’s first piece of fiction was formulaic, although it showed more of a literary bent than some of his contemporaries’ stories. Faber didn’t need to read it again. In the end, the dame wasn’t the killer. Her boyfriend, a gangster named Lyons who was the eponymous Second Murderer, had roped her into something, and in the end he made her choose between shooting the victim or being killed herself.

Compared to The Girl Who Lost Her Smile, it was a plot piece with little characterisation—Faber had admitted as much in the opening chapters of his dissertation—but it had been the first case solved by P.I Ray Delaney, and for that reason if no other, it was always noted in detective fiction and often reproduced in anthologies on Thornton and the pulp magazines of his time. The year it was published, 19__, Thornton had just returned from his army service, and more likely than not, he was trying only to earn some money by selling knock-off detectives to eager magazines.

Its literary merit aside, the story had served Faber well. Whenever he felt as though his dissertation was nothing more than a feeble attempt at building castles on cobwebs, he had turned back to “The Second Murderer” for its ludicrous similes and cardboard cut-out characters.

He made a left onto a street running parallel with the water, and there it was. A mile or so away, the Molecule Man towered out of the water and reflected sunlight back into the canal below. But he wasn’t alone. The photograph used on the guidebook’s cover showed only one figure, his hands extended outward as though in defence, and one leg pushed forward to form a giant step. Now Faber saw, as he moved closer, that there were three such figures, identically posed, and joined together at the hands and feet. They were surreally still in the summer afternoon.

They must have come after Thornton’s time, Faber thought. Shapes cut out of aluminium and then punctured with holes from head to toe. He wasn’t sure whether that said something about Berlin, or about Thornton, or if it said anything to anyone about anything.

He told himself to stop analysing, and as the Molecule Men grew closer, he placed his palms on the wall to his right and vaulted on to it, then sat, dangling his legs over the edge and above the sodden grass and sand that led to the canal.

Around half of the tapes were in his bag. Some were labelled with years, some with years and months, and others not at all, but he picked them out and lay them in what he could make of chronological order. He needed a timeline, needed to use the tapes to fill in the gaps that existed in Thornton’s biography, from his childhood in England to his move to Boston, from his war service to his move to Berlin. Most importantly, Faber had to discover why he chosen Berlin.

The first cassette buzzed in his ears as he pressed Play on the side of the Walkman. Charles Thornton’s voice was prefaced by a throat clearance and the squeak of new cotton on old leather. Faber glanced at the cassette sleeve again, printed on it the date “19__”. And then Thornton began to speak, and suddenly Faber saw the creases and folds of his skin move in tandem with the words, and the apartment block on Degarmo Strasse didn’t feel so empty any longer.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. II, Issue 36

The good Doctor started a new series of posts this week. If you’re familiar with our Smithsonian series, this may be up your alley. Read more here, and check out the first post in our National Trust Archive series below.

 

Monday – Art

Wednesday – National Trust

In our new series, we take photos from the British National Trust Archive and create short fiction around them. Read more in our first piece:

Friday – Fiction

 

To submit to the National Trust series, email us at snakeoilcure[at]gmail[dot]com, and include a link to the photo that inspired your piece!

Rook’s Flight

This is the first in a new series of posts inspired by the National Trust Collections in the U.K.  To take part in the series, select an image from the National Trust Collections site by searching on their site, and send us a submission – fiction, poetry, music, or whatever you like – inspired by the image you select. Submissions can be sent to snakeoilcure[at]gmail[dot]com.

This post is based on this image from the National Trust Collections.

*

Strangeweather cocked his head to the left then to the right. In his eyes there was an odd shade of unfocused that appeared only during times of the deepest concentration. He was not examining the object; he was bathing in it.

“Peculiar,” he muttered, turning it over in his hands. His breath clouded the little corner of our Edinburgh public house. While I shivered in the December cold that was swimming in through the open doorway, Strangeweather seemed warmed by this newest of mysteries. “What do you make of it, my friend?”

“It’s a rook,” I said, for it was a rook.

“Mmm.” Strangeweather placed it on the table between our drinks. “Yes, indeed. But what does it mean?”

“I… don’t follow, Strangeweather.”

“A rook it is, and a rook it is not. Divorced from the rest of its platoon, removed from the drawing room battlefield that we call a chess board, it must be more than just a rook.”

“Must it?” I tried to contain my exasperation. “So are you going to tell me where it came from?”

Strangeweather paused. “Ebony. Oriental design—very carefully carved. This belongs to a unique set of chess pieces. A set of pieces that belonged to Arthur McTavish.”

I was startled. McTavish was an old university friend of Strangeweather’s. “Your doctor acquaintance? But I thought he died in the last Burmese conflict?”

Strangeweather lifted his cup to his mouth and drained it. His eyelids closed a little, narrowing his gaze, and the corners of his mouth turned upward into a devilish smirk. I disliked this expression intensely. “So did I, my friend.”

“To London?” I grimaced.

“Aye, Mr Butler. To London.”

*

The Caledonian carriage pulled mercifully into Victoria station. The tendons in my legs had been screaming in pain since we passed through Nottingham. While Strangeweather pulled his red slipcase from above our seats, I collected and dusted off my hat.

Mrs. McTavish resided not far from the station, in a relatively modest house situated above a small greengrocer’s. For a doctor’s wife, this seemed a little restrained.

The widow greeted us, ushered Strangeweather and me into a small dining room, and went to fetch some tea.

“How well do you know McTavish’s wife?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

“Oh, rather well,” Strangeweather replied. “She was a society girl during our university years. Arthur and Eloise married soon after he moved south and opened his London practice.”

The widow returned with a carefully balanced tray bearing fine, intricately patterned China. She poured and gestured to us to sit. Finally, she perched on the edge of a chaise and picked up her cup delicately.

“So I suppose you want to know about Arthur,” she said.

“That’s right.” If he was surprised, Strangeweather did not show it. He told Eloise about the chess piece. Several days prior to our ale house conversation, a parcel had arrived at his rooms on the Royal Mile addressed to ‘Edward Strangeweather’. This, he told us, was his first clue. “I do not favour the name ‘Edward’. Only a handful of close acquaintances know my Christian name at all.”

“And the parcel contained this rook?” Eloise McTavish asked.

“Yes. But it also contained this.” Strangeweather opened his slipcase and removed from it with some care a heavy, tarnished object. It was a pistol. He handed it to Mrs. McTavish, who turned it over several times before noticing the letters scratched into the wooden handle. They read: Your move.

Mrs. McTavish rose, handed the weapon back to Strangeweather, and left the room. In seconds, she returned and placed a carved figurine of a horse on the table in front of me. Its design perfectly matched that of the rook, with small, narrowly carved crenellations that extended from a crown on the knight’s head. “I received this in the post a week ago,” she said. “I have no idea where it came from.”

“Curious,” I said.

Strangeweather glanced at me. “Spirits up, Mr. Butler.”

*

Our boarding for the duration of our stay was an inn in the Edgware Road, sparse but functional. I knew that Strangweather had money at his disposal, but he seemed never to spend it on accommodations, and as such, we shared a room on the first floor.

As we reached the door, a quiet but audible breath escaped from Strangeweather’s mouth and his movements slowed. I knew these were signs that I should remain silent. He crept closer to the door, reached out, and with a tentative hand pushed it open.

A rush of air, and a wooden thunk. I sprung past Strangeweather to see the window slam shut. Beyond it, a figure scrambling to his feet and scurrying away from the inn. “Strangeweather, I…”

“Mr. Butler.”

Strangeweather had paused half way into the room and was crouched on the floor. In his hand he was turning around a tiny ebony figure of a pawn. “Our visitor was trying to leave us a message, I wager.”

“Aren’t you going to follow him?” I asked

Strangeweather shook his head. “I have all I need, my friend. Someone wants us to think McTavish is alive. And I believe I know who that person is.”

*

The mists that ran the length of the Mile hung for days. A week after our return to Edinburgh, Strangeweather summoned me to his rooms, which lay in their usual disarray.

“Come, come, dear Butler,” he mumbled, in a strangely affable manner. We wound our way upstairs. Eloise McTavish was seated in the one armchair that decorated Strangweather’s drawing room. She smiled thinly at me.

Strangeweather stood near the fireplace, unlit in spite of the cold. Mrs. McTavish looked up and asked: “Well, Edward?”

“Precisely,” Strangeweather replied. I looked at him quizzically. “As I mentioned upon our last meeting, only my oldest and closest friends know my Christian name. Arthur was one in this inner circle. I thought, perhaps, that his death may have been exaggerated, that he may have returned.”

“So you think…?” I had barely expressed my thought before I was interrupted by Strangeweather.

“But I was foolish. Along with the rook and the pistol, you received your knight, Eloise. And we were delivered this.” He pulled the wooden pawn from his pocket and held it up. Brown and black fought for dominance in the grain of its wood.

A pause hung in the air. “A pawn, and yet not a pawn. Let me elaborate. I noticed, Eloise, your beautiful oriental china and your tea. ‘Lahpet’, I believe?”

“Yes,” Mrs. McTavish responded.

“”Lahpet’ is a Burmese tea. A delicacy, yes?”

“I… don’t know. It was a gift.”

“You are also one of my oldest friends, Eloise.”

“Come, what do you mean, Edward?” I was beginning to get frustrated as Strangweather started pacing the floor.

“You recently returned from Burma, did you not? And on your return journey, you brought your lovely china, your ‘lahpet’, and Arthur’s chess set.”

Eloise McTavish’s frame crumpled a little in Strangeweather’s lone armchair. Her voice turned to a whisper. The fight in her had disappeared, replaced by sorrow. “I found him,” she said. “For once, Edward, you were wrong. Arthur is alive, but he has not returned. He is buried deep in the jungles of Burma. All I could salvage of his love were these trinkets. All I could bring back with me were pawns and fallen knights. He is lost to me.”

I was perturbed. “Then – he has not returned…?”

“He is still there. And he no longer wished to spend his life with you. It was you, was it not, my dear?” Strangweather asked.

Eloise nodded sadly.

“You sent me this package in the hopes that I would investigate, would delve into the mystery of Arthur McTavish. That perhaps I would discover that he was still alive, albeit ensconced in an oriental jungle, and that I would bring him back.” Strangeweather paused. “But man cannot shape man against his will.”

He took several steps towards Eloise McTavish and handed her the small pawn, before reaching into his pocket once more to produce the tiny crenelated rook that had begun our mysterious journey.

Strangweather smiled – a rare occurrence – then crouched in front of Eloise and murmured: “I’m sorry, Eloise. Your move.”

* * *

This is the first in a new series of posts inspired by the National Trust Collections in the U.K.  To take part in the series, select an image from the National Trust Collections site by searching on their site, and send us a submission – fiction, poetry, music, or whatever you like – inspired by the image you select. Submissions can be sent to snakeoilcure[at]gmail[dot]com.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. II, Issue 32

We had some great new contributors, as well as some fiction from editor DLR this week, which you can catch up on in today’s digest. What better way to spend a rainy Sunday? (Don’t answer that.)


Monday – Fiction

The Man in the Homburg Hat by Daniel F. Le Ray

Wednesday – Photography

Exposure № 097: Mary, Mother of Joseph by Nils Blondon

Friday – Poetry

Shelter by David Subacchi
We have some of our favourite Snake-Oilers back next week, including fiction from Jude Lovell and more photos from Naama Sarid-Maleta’. Keep coming back, friends!