The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.3 (Summer 2015)
fiction and humor
David Z. Crookes
Episode 1: Under the earth
At the moment Delia is exercising outside in the dark with a hula hoop of stainless steel.
You may dislike mad stories that start in the middle, so let me explain. Delia Benn is a well-known actress and dancer who lives with her parents in the house next door to mine. (On Saturday night Miss Benn will be dancing the rôle of Principal Persian Slave in Musorgski’s Khovanshchina.) After graduating in classics, Delia took a two-year course in creative writing. I was her main tutor for that course. Once she gained her MLitt, she became my friend and model. Over the last six years I have painted her several hundred times. Nearly every night, between ten and eleven, all year round, if she isn’t working, Miss Benn exercises either in my back garden or in her own. Her decorous gymnastic uniform is a two-piece swimsuit of thick green canvas. I never watch her. Our neighbours are unable to see her, with the exception of a man whom you will meet soon. On the stroke of eleven Delia comes to take me for a hour-long walk. At that time of night I am always at work in the painting shed which fills a corner of my front garden. (To call it a ‘studio’ would be absurdly pretentious.) Before we go for our walk, Miss Benn puts on a light cotton raincoat that she keeps in the shed. When we get back she makes a modest supper for both of us, either in her own kitchen or in mine. The moment at which a flushed euphoric Delia walks from one of our back gardens round to my painting shed is the moment at which she is seen by a particular neighbour, whose sinister character may no longer be concealed.
Merlin Rhodes Byatt lives across the street from us. He is the stern dictator of a grim evangelical church. He is also a seller of women’s clothing, a diligent adulterer, and an exponent of fortuitous art. (Merlin’s masterly applications of graining paint have converted the plywood panels of his pulpit into a series of ghoulish Tartarean fantasies.) Mr Byatt employs a number of confidential concubines, as half the country knows. At the same time, he obsessively denounces the ‘unchaste garments’ of lady swimmers and tennis-players. (Delia has a tennis-court at the bottom of her back garden.) Every Sunday Merlin warns his congregation to beware of ‘a certain lascivious actress’. Every night, between ten fifty-five and eleven o’clock, he stands at an upstair window, surveying his chosen field through a heavy telescope.
It’s five past ten! For the last seven hours I’ve been in my workshop, making a harp from ancient three-inch-thick stems of ivy. Now I need to go and look out a Swiss-made grafting-knife for a friend called Pete Stodie. I should be finishing a picture of Delia, but I’ve eaten nothing since three o’clock, so I’m thinking about Amir’s Chip Shop, and not about my painting shed.
Let me tell you a bit more while I search for the knife.
Pete Stodie is fifty-four years old, and seventy-six inches tall. He lectures in the Latin department of a respected university. He also chairs the local gardening club.
His wife Gera is forty-two years old, and seventy-three inches tall. Ten years ago she gave up modelling, studied for an MA, and began to illustrate children’s books.
Pete and Gera have twenty-year-old twin daughters called Caroline and Cornelia. Each of these ladies is seventy-five inches tall, or four inches taller than Delia Benn.
I’m quite old, and six feet tall, but the Stodies make me feel like a teenage Zacchaeus.
Although I have known the twins well for three years, the idea of painting them has never occurred to me. Caroline and Cornelia are both students of mechanical engineering. They are better known as fanatical builders of boats and huts. When they don’t have to be somewhere else, the twins are nearly always in cold water. From January to December you will find them together in ponds, lakes, rivers, and the sea – either swimming, or sailing some bizarre craft of their own creation. ‘I cannot fathom Caroline and Cornelia,’ their aunt once told me. ‘I think they must have swallowed tapeworm-eggs. They eat like horses, and yet they look like bean-poles. They could be famous models like their mother if they didn’t refuse to wear clothes. I wonder what will become of them. They have no interest in normal things like television, make-up, fashion shows, parties, restaurants, candlelit dinners, or boyfriends.’
But the twins excel in useful areas of life. One of their professors told me last month that Caroline and Cornelia are both heading for first-class degrees. In addition, the twins have become load-bearing girders of their own church. Two years ago an inspired vestry put them in charge of the Sunday school which a pair of weak-minded tittering Sixties Babes had pretty well ruined. (The abominable Babes had really only two passions in life: their own squalid ‘worship band’, and Mother Teresa.) Today the reborn Sunday school is characterized by disciplined study of the Bible, by the singing of proper hymns, and by healthy honest laughter. It may interest you to learn that when the twins attend church, or university, they wear severely cut costumes of washable black cloth, made by themselves.
Caroline and Cornelia refuse to wear blue denim trousers, describing them as ‘the Maoist fatigues of the witless West’. They also refuse to wear clothes that can’t be washed. ‘Suppose you spend £120 on a go-to-work-in suit that needs to be dry-cleaned six times a year at £12 per time,’ Cornelia said to me once. ‘Then suppose the suit lasts you for ten years. You will spend a total of £720 on getting your suit cleaned, so it’s really costing you £840. That is ludicrous. It’s like paying a high rent for a house that you’re supposed to have purchased. All clothes should be washable. Most people are unbelievably stupid.’
Every couple of months the four Stodies and I play as guests on the mixed football team of a rural church. No harm in telling you. The so-called ‘Psycho Twins’, aside from being hideously fit, are feared by all. I mean to say, you have a fair chance of getting injured even if you play on their team. The bellicose doctrine which they expound on the field of battle would have sent Erich Ludendorff lurching over to the schnapps trolley. Last year Cornelia favoured our elderly referee with a smashing accidental knee-kick, and knocked him out cold. That gentleman (a retired teacher of art, and Glebe Warden of the rural church) now avenges himself once every month by contributing a two-page strip-cartoon called The Warrior Queens to his parish magazine. (Gera Stodie, who wrote her MA thesis on the graphic novel, was very impressed with the pilot episode. ‘Not at all like Ronald Searle,’ she reckoned. ‘More like a mixture of Jean-Claude Forest and Chick Publications.’)
Back to the present! I have located a beloved old grafting-knife. Very good. One moment later, beholding the state of my larder, I find myself sympathizing with a remote lady ancestor of L Ron Hubbard, so I walk over to a local convenience store. The cool salubrious night air makes me feel like an adolescent. When I get back, I set out twelve items on the kitchen table: two turkey-and-ham dinners, two chicken tikka masalas, four portions of Russian salad, and four sticky toffee puddings. Before I can put these items in the fridge, my phone rings.
‘Hello, dear.’ It is Cornelia Stodie. ‘Are you in bed?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Excellent. Caroline is here as well. Listen very carefully. A storm-drain runs past your house. Did you know that? Good. Well, the manhole-cover in the street right in front of your house sits over an access shaft, which has its own steel ladder. Caroline and I have lifted the cover from an altogether similar manhole about a quarter of a mile away.’ (Cornelia tells me exactly where.) ‘I’ve sprayed that cover with red aerosol paint in case you need to find it, and you know our blue car, which is parked about ten feet away. Caroline has already gone down the ladder, and I’m standing on the fourth rung, ready to let the cover drop down over us. We’ve attached torches to our swimming-caps, and we’re going to crawl along the drain as far as your house. What? Do you need to ask? You gave us the idea, dear! Yes, you did! Last Sunday, when you preached in our church! You talked about II Samuel 5. 8! And no, we didn’t think of telling you! Be serious. If we had told you about our Little Plan, you might have tried to stop us.’ Cornelia pauses. ‘I must let this cover drop. Please go out to your front garden, dear. You’ll find a car-wash hose-attachment thing lying on the lawn. We threw it there ten minutes ago. It’s full of little soap-tablets. Attach it to your own garden hose at once. Then lift your manhole-cover, and wait for us to appear. If anything goes wrong, you know where we are. By the way, we’re both starving. We’ve eaten almost nothing since dinner-time. One last thing. Under your car you’ll see a weighted white bag containing two large towels. That bag is safe enough where it is. We’ll be with you soon, dear!’
After obeying Cornelia’s two commands, I change into an old football kit, and put on a pair of green wellingtons. Like a robot I turn on the oven. Then, standing by the open shaft, and praying earnestly, I begin to calculate. A quarter of a mile is thirteen hundred and twenty feet. If the twins are able to crawl at a speed of one foot per second, they will arrive in twenty-two minutes. What time is it? Ten thirty-five. Right. If they haven’t arrived by eleven, I shall go down and investigate.
[On the other side of the street, eighty-year-old Jolene Herring is being taken for a walk by Prince, her dignified dog. A well-polished brass plate on Mrs Herring’s gate proclaims her to be a Teacher of Pianoforte. That brass plate always takes me back to the nineteen-fifties.]
At ten to eleven, being unable to wait any longer, I climb down the shaft-ladder, and plant my booted feet in a four-inch-deep stream of cold water whose music is audible only at close quarters. Not a hint of human speech comes to reassure me. What’s wrong? Why are the twins keeping quiet? After standing and praying until my feet are well chilled, I suddenly realize that the open manhole represents a serious danger to noctivagant beings, so I climb up again in order to keep vigil on the surface. Orange light from a street-lamp reveals the close proximity of Merlin Rhodes Byatt, my saintly neighbour.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ he asks rudely.
‘Nice of you to inquire,’ I reply. ‘Our storm-drain is being checked. Two of my friends are inspecting a quarter-mile stretch that ends here.’ As I speak, wonderful to relate, merry voices sound from below. When Caroline calls a gentle Yoo-hoo!, and begins to climb the ladder, I whisper a joyful Alleluia, and talk into the shaft. ‘Ladies, I must thank you for doing that job. My neighbour Mr Byatt is standing beside me. He wants to express his own gratitude. Your unpaid work has made it possible for both of us to sleep easily tonight.’
But I wonder how easily Merlin Rhodes Byatt will sleep tonight. One amazingly tall and exquisitely beautiful beach girl appears on the street, followed eight seconds later by an exact replica of herself. Breathing audibly, the two living pillars of militant innocence greet my neighbour. I replace the manhole-cover. The twins remove their luminiferous headgear. Mr Byatt puts his hands over his eyes, and murmurs something about flagrant immorality. Well, he would know.
‘Ignore that unholy man,’ I tell the twins. ‘While you two are getting washed, I’ll make the supper.’
After handing me her car-keys, Cornelia warbles into a tiny phone. ‘Oh, are you both home, Dad? That’s good. David has been helping us with a job. We’re at his house now, and we haven’t eaten yet, so we’ll be late.’
Velcro! Mr Byatt winces eight times, like an electrified blancmange, as the twins remove their thick knee-pads and oversized gardening gloves. (It’s funny. Mrs Herring wears identical pieces of armour whenever she weeds her front rose-bed.) At length, growling something about the naked daughters of Belial, Merlin staggers away.
His watch bleeps once.
Bearing a silver circle, effulgent Aphrodite makes her entrance. (Delia is a close friend of the Stodies, partly because Pete was her Latin tutor for three years.)
In the same moment Mrs Herring appears on the pavement, and behaves like a herald. ‘The Judgment of Paris!’ she cries. Her corgi stands panting on the kerbstone, with his tongue floating in air. Cornelia pats the dog. Miss Benn asks what has been going on. Caroline tells her.
‘Well, I am jealous,’ says Mrs Herring one minute later. Her eyes of emerald green flash in the lamplight. ‘I wish you had invited me to participate in your mischief. Good night, dears.’
Delia puts her right arm around old Mrs Herring, and leads her across the street. The two women commune earnestly for about forty seconds. I can’t hear what they’re saying, because noisy acts of ablution are being performed behind me.
What now? Miss Benn is approaching the manhole! She raises its cover intrepidly, and disappears into the shaft.
Feeling like the merest puppet of history, I microwave one of the turkey-and-ham dinners. Four minutes later I place it in the ordinary oven. Once the microwave is addressing dinner number two, I exchange boots for running shoes, and canter off to collect the Twinmobile from Redpaint Street. On my return I find a still uncoated Delia sprinkling brown sugar over a plate of sliced nectarines. As the microwave squeaks to announce that a second dinner is ready, two glowing exultant nymphs enter the kitchen. Refusing chairs because they want to straighten themselves, Caroline and Cornelia stand and destroy first the steaming dinners, and then the Russian salads. When I point to the tikka masalas, Cornelia says Yes, dear, and the four little puddings as well. Miss Benn is content to make pot after pot of tea.
At one point I notice the three girls conversing discreetly. Are they talking about Women’s Business? Like washable black costumes? No. Aphrodite is commanding the twins to leave their gloves and knee-pads in the back yard, so that she may disinfect them. Selfless creature!
At length Miss Benn and I find ourselves alone.
‘The food-bill for tonight’s little tale is nearly twenty pounds,’ I observe sadly.
‘Don’t complain, dear,’ says Delia. ‘You’ve got a tale that you can publish, word for word.’ She pauses. ‘Once the tale is over.’
‘What do you mean? The tale is over.’
‘Wrong.’ Miss Benn strikes a Junonian attitude. ‘It’s about time that I appeared in a literary journal, and I don’t want to make a cameo appearance, so deeds must yet be done.’ The goddess inhales with eloquent dignity. ‘Listen. I can lift our manhole-cover with two fingers. You’ll be able to lift its twin with two fingers.’ Juno regards me thoughtfully. ‘Furthermore, when I stand on the fifth rung of our shaft-ladder, I can raise the manhole-cover, not without difficulty, from inside. You’ll be able to raise it quite easily.’
If the chronicler of these events was a cartoon-star from The Warrior Queens, I know what he’d be saying now.
‘Do try to speak, dear,’ says Juno, who has gone back to being Aphrodite.
‘Very well.’ The subterranean world is taking over my life. ‘Tell me something at once. What are we going to do?’
‘We’re going to make our way round to the manhole which the twins used as their starting-point. You can drive, dear.’ Delia looks over with awful yearning at the plate of nectarines. ‘Have you had dinner yet?’
‘Neither have I.’ Miss Benn groans. ‘Never mind! We’ll climb down the shaft, replace the manhole-cover, and make our way along the storm-drain until we come to our own shaft. I’ve hung my walking-coat from the last-but-one rung of our ladder, so whichever of us goes first will brush into it in the dark.’
‘In the dark.’
‘Oh, yes. Then tomorrow you and I will be able to say, Caroline and Cornelia, we have surpassed you!.’ Delia flexes her long entrancing arms. ‘Come on, dear. The gloves and knee-pads are outside. Let’s not utter a word until we’re safely back. By the way, there’ll be three of us.’
Miss Benn and I leave the house.
Some Fiendish Female Golem from Sinister Tales is dancing a mazurka on the pavement. She wears hockey shoes, gardening gloves, knee-pads, a balaclava helmet, and a navy-blue boiler-suit.
It is Mrs Herring.
All three of us get into my car. I drive. We get out of the car. I lift the red-painted manhole-cover. Delia and I put on our gloves and knee-pads. Mrs Herring enters the shaft, followed by Delia. After twelve seconds I enter the shaft, and lower the manhole-cover.
We climb down the ladder in complete darkness.
We crawl along the storm-drain in complete darkness.
Mrs Herring goes first.
Delia goes second. The aura of clove-carnation perfume that enfolds her, even after an hour’s hard exercise, persuades me that I’m not dreaming.
For some reason the wordless rhythm of our journey helps the time to pass rapidly. After what feels more like ten than twenty minutes, Mrs Herring’s head meets the hanging coat.
We climb up our own shaft-ladder. I go first, Delia goes second, and Mrs Herring, who has forbidden us to help her in any way, brings up the rear.
When I raise the manhole-cover, orange light floods the shaft. I emerge to find Merlyn Rhodes Byatt standing on the pavement.
‘Hello again,’ I mutter awkwardly. ‘Thought we needed a second look at the drain.’ I remove my gloves.
‘Double-checking,’ Miss Benn explains brightly, taking her stand beside me. ‘Had to be done.’ She removes her gloves, drops them on the ground, and puts on her coat. ‘You can’t inspect a storm-drain too often.’
‘Black vice!’ wails Mr Byatt. ‘Black vice!’
‘You want to see what David has got in his workshop,’ says Delia, widening her eyes prodigiously, and speaking in the voice of a brainless bimbo. ‘David has got a big BLUE vice.’ She bends down quickly, and tears off her knee-pads with theatrical violence. ‘David has also got a small RED vice.’
‘Aaaagggghhhh!’ shrieks Merlin. Mighty dread has seized his troubled mind, for a Thrice-Dead Thrall of Darkness is rising inexorably from the manhole.
‘Oh, stop getting on like a demented old maid,’ says Mrs Herring, as she comes to the ladder’s third rung. ‘You should have played rough games in your youth, Mr Byatt, but I suppose it’s too late now.’ She sits on the street, and swiftly withdraws her legs from the shaft. ‘All religion and no honest exercise makes Jack an unwholesome boy.’ Mrs Herring rolls gracefully on to one padded knee, and stands up. ‘I had to have this talk with you.’
Not far away, with incredible viciousness, someone turns a key three times in the old-fashioned rim-sash lock of a back door.
As a dog’s medallion tinkles like a tiny cymbal, the octogenarian Teacher of Pianoforte embraces first Delia, and then me. ‘That was tremendous fun,’ she says. ‘I thank Almighty God for his constant protection, and I thank you both for your tolerant kindness. Let me detain you young people no longer. I am going to do what I used to do in the days when I was a ballerina, and lie in a hot bath for an hour.’ Mrs Herring pauses. ‘Tomorrow I shall write letters to all my silly depressed friends. Good night, dears.’
I replace the manhole-cover.
Wagging his tail ecstatically, Prince comes over to lead his mistress home.
With rapture I rip off my knee-pads. Mrs Herring was right. I am a Young Person, but Merlin Rhodes Byatt is an Old Maid!
At length the Unwholesome Boy goes to his own place, looking like a love-child of King Agag and Lady Gaga.
Delia and I make our way on foot round to Redpaint Street. I bring a can of black aerosol paint with me, and spray the manhole-cover. We drive home.
Miss Benn fills a bucket with water from my outside tap. She adds a tot of amber antiseptic, creating a white liquor in which she immerses our shoes, gloves, and knee-pads. (Later she will commit a cotton coat and a football kit to the mercy of her own washing-machine.)
Once we have disinfected ourselves and showered in cold water, Delia and I come out of our respective houses, arrayed in clean tracksuits. Both of us have been strengthened by an underground adventure that involved a lot of silent prayer. Both of us are glad to walk upright in the open air.
For more than a mile two small bats, discerning our gladness, provide us with a flying escort. There is jocund fellowship even in a fallen universe.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ says Delia. ‘We haven’t surpassed Caroline and Cornelia.’ She pauses. ‘The twins may have had torches, but they did act as pioneers.’
‘So they did.’ One squeaking pipistrelle nearly brushes my brow. ‘Thanks to the twins, we three were guaranteed a safe passage in the darkness.’
‘Correct. There might have been anything down there.’
‘Yes. Like a grid blocking the drain at one point.’
‘Or a dead animal.’
‘Or a tangle of barbed wire.’
‘Or a great rat colony.’ Miss Benn seizes my right forearm in mock terror.
Whatever is happening? For the first time in a fortnight, Aphrodite and I are being drawn toward the brash imperious fragrance of a bright emporium.
And a celebrated line of Christina Rossetti is singing in my head.
‘Fish and chips will furnish our close-companioned inarticulate hour with a worthy sequel,’ I remark. (Some bits of that were me.) ‘Agreed?’
‘Agreed.’ Delia stretches herself luxuriantly. ‘I love you when you go into Pre-Raphaelite mode, dear.’ She touches her toes for a second, and stands up again. ‘We’ll eat the nectarines when we get back to your house. Afterward we’ll go out to the shed. You need to paint, and I need to practise my chain-clad-Persian-slave dance for Khovanshchina.’
‘Right-ho. When I stop pretending to be Prince Khovanski, I’ll finish my bird-picture.’
‘Are you painting a bird?’
‘I am indeed.’
‘What sort of bird? A merlin?’
‘No, no! A hoopoe.’
‘A hoopoe.’ (We have come to the open door of Amir’s Chip Shop, where the girlie word salad is unknown.) ‘Do you mean me?’
Dolly Parton is singing ‘Jolene’!
Delia whispers her own Alleluia as we approach the stainless steel counter. Each of us is a Stammgast here.
We order two fish suppers from Amir.
Then, turning our backs on the warm high counter, we look around happily, contemplating a piece of real knowledge, and wondering where to sit.
Ten feet away, like fearless yachtsmen, two gold-and-silver gyroscopes are hiking on the edge of a table.
At the same table two immaculate ladies, garbed in austere black costumes, are preparing to eat a bisected pizza.
‘We are bad,’ says Cornelia. ‘I feel embarrassed.’
‘We are evil,’ says Caroline. ‘I feel ashamed.’
‘We need to be punished,’ says Cornelia.
‘So we do,’ says Caroline, looking at me directly. ‘In a truly unforgettable manner. Let us tell you how, dear.’ She glances at her sister.
The twins create a kind of stage-oracle effect by speaking in unison. ‘You can paint us,’ they say.
‘As often as you like,’ says Cornelia.
‘If you order a large ice-cream dessert for each of us,’ says Caroline. ‘Now.’
Bargain deal! I take a five-pound note out of my pocket.
Miss Benn orders the two desserts.
Then, as the twins fall to their victuals, Amir replaces ‘Jolene’ with the scherzo of Bruckner Eight, and for the first time tonight I think I’ve got some power.
(The two untarnished gyroscopes are spinning away in a Dirac Sea of Tranquillity.)
Radiant Aphrodite speaks in my right ear. ‘Remember thou art mortal, dear.’ She pauses. ‘That applies to me as well. No boasting! We shall allow Caroline and Cornelia to believe that their marvellous exploit is unique.’
For a while.
‘Yes.’ Delia smiles coldly. ‘Until the next issue of Praesidium comes out.’
David Z. Crookes is an extraordinary polymath (though perhaps not quite as eccentric as represented in the story above) who is dedicated to the life of the spirit, especially as preserved in Western culture. He resides in Belfast, Northern Ireland.