Peter Cowlam‘s last novel, New King Palmers, is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new data hierarchies. His sequence of poems, Laurel, was out last November. His last novel, Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?, won the 2015 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction. His latest novel, Across the Rebel Network, was longlisted for the Guardian 2015 Not the Booker Prize. His poems published or forthcoming in Battersea Review, Fulcrum, Literary Matters, The Brown Boat, The Criterion, Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Liberal, Horizon Review and Epicentre Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Valparaiso Fiction Review and The Four Quarters Magazine.

Escape From My Nemesis

By Peter Cowlam

1 Dirty Old Town

He pursued but lost me, somewhere in a backroom full of cobwebs, here in my dream of his hometown. My train had stopped between stations, and I dozed. The embroidered chairs were under wraps. The light, which was off, was an unshaded bulb. My footsteps clattered on the naked floorboards. I cast round hopelessly for a plan of the house (I don’t know, Doctor Wide-Awake, why I’d expected to find such a thing). A distant light, or the orange glow of a city, attracted me to a window, where I stood for a moment before turning back.

A shelf sagged, but not with the weight of books. Rudge as a boy had tinkered with electronics, and as testament to that here were the remains of a television set, the chassis of a valve radio, wire (festoons of), circuit boards, and a ham’s headphones. There was a writing desk, whose drawers were unlocked, and these I emptied into the cold shadow of the chimneybreast. Articles were: a child’s comics, with picaresque infants; a truncheon (Uncle Eddie’s, home after his travels); a toy soldier, a long-limbed boy in combat dress. A photograph torn from the pages of a tabloid newspaper showed a one-time Defence Secretary with wild blond hair, wearing a flak jacket, and ensconced in a tank, in a prowl territorially on an English hillside. There were two family snaps, chewed at the corners and badly faded. One was of Rudge’s kid brother, attempting flight with an off-road bike. The other caught the same boy dressed as a boy scout, sitting on a tree stump, sharpening a stick with a Swiss army knife (Uncle E’s again, I assumed).

I made a grab for the light switch, which was loose, and connected to nothing – all it was was an old brass fitting. It rattled, hollow, as I flicked it up and down. I came to the window for air, and saw two points of silver, two stars in a stormy cosmos, sliding over the wet roofs of Rudge’s grey city. A sunset, a dull ember, instantly flared up in a burst of cinnabar. In its explosive dusk a huge, ungainly bird, whose wings were a steel mesh and an imbrication of leather, wheeled heavily in the purple base of a cloud (this a private sundown.)

I took off and searched his empty streets for cars, pedestrians, a stray cat even, and saw only the taillights of a van, parked and unattended in an alley of walls and back doors. Its engine throbbed, disturbing no one. I shambled down and caught the night smell of frying cod, but where were the seaside restaurants? Not, it seemed, among the overhanging façades of the constable’s winding back ways, where the quaint cobbles, mewses and mechanics’ yards peppered his northern hill town. I tried, shook the door of a jeweller’s, but it was locked, and here, if I looked closely, was a broken star of David, faintly embossed in a cross panel, and painted over in treacle. Away through a round arch I pushed my face to the square sable breadth of a windowpane. A man whose shop name was Mehmet traded in fine silks and damask. Then I heard a drone, a fishmonger’s Morris straining up and around the bends. When I stood back, its two dancing beams came together slowly, a blurred disc of white reflected light. Ghoulishly it swelled up, and the van, hard at work, swept through the arch. I ran into the street, shouting. The van swerved, dodged, then ducked into a steep by-road, and leaning to its offside halted in a ditch. In a blush, the driver stepped out smartly and smoothed down a wisp of blond hair. I called out, but he wiped his hands on his apron. I called again, but he scurried away.

A rear light was out. A door flapped on its hinges. The van’s cargo littered the street: pressed lamb, pistachios, carob ice cream, jars of hot mango chutney, boursin, plantains, yams – a bird’s nest. I walked, much farther, more steeply down, and meandered across the shingle. The evening was penumbral – starless. The dark waves and the receding tide had left their dissolving spume in small, desolate pools. I tickled a crab with a stick, I hurled a flat pebble. I thought I’d found a hint of what the cosmos was when I found, but couldn’t decipher, a bottled message. It said, ‘Ecce homo. As ever the times are petty, and good advice never changes much. Go. Throw this away. Cast it to the winds, to the outer darkness. Nothing matters. The universe is closed, opaque, elastic.’ I placed this down with a ribbon of seaweed. I tried to invent a morning sun, diffuse in a coastal mist, its first cold radiance albata bright in the band of wet silicon, that sandy outer edge of the bay. It wasn’t possible, now. The mounds, the waves of rounded pebbles, crunched and shifted under the fall of my boots. I slid on my heels. Then when I stopped I saw, looking out to sea, a point of white light. I could conceive nothing, no chance vessel risking a dangerous shore, and knew, in the crisscross of timber, the posts and lintels, gradually the rows, the columns, the bolts, the tourist’s long pier, and at its far end a solitary lantern only.

2 Seaside Entertainments

I climbed up. A man named Butler, a cheerful hair stylist, had opened holiday premises, and under the candy stripe of his pole had positioned, in shiny cut-out, a smiling Sweeney Todd, who stroked his razor on a leather strop. I checked the knot of my tie and stumbled, trying to guess to which yuletide it belonged. A trinket came into my hands, a silly necklace, a chain and pendant. I found it snaking over a gap in the floorboards, and picked it up. It was meant for PC Rudge, whose admirer couldn’t have found it easy declaring her affection. You imagined her giggles, and such cute dimples. The pendant formed a disc, which Rudge had to blow to get it spinning. Its inscription, partial on either side, thereby resolved itself from the enigmatic I _C /L to I LOVE, etc. Don’t destroy the evidence.

I had a few coins. One of these I dropped in a slot, and turned the handle for the peep show. A dark-eyed nymph with a tropical tan unfastened a rear clasp and tossed her head, now an unfocused blur in my viewfinder. Boredom, or indignity, had hardened her mouth. A rehearsed wave, an approximate sweep of her hands and arms, freed then exposed the two palpated nipples, pink and erect. She slipped off one other garment, a token isosceles, its loops and frills of lace dissolving over her thighs, knees, ankles. The light flickered (a hand enveloped a pubis). I thought I saw the gleam of a blade, a Swiss army knife held up high in a half-lit casement behind her – then a blue flash, then a white brightness, then – as the twilight out on the pier ended the show – a blank.

Some dream.

3 Walpurgis Night

A door – the wrong one for me – had a wild pink rose in its fingerplate, and a hand, gigantic and pointing. The mat said wipe feet please. I stepped inside. I unclipped my pen. To the north was a long low window squared to the night’s transparency, as it hung on the pier, abutting the bay. I pulled up a gauze. I tried, but couldn’t make out – for what was it, high on those sandstone cliffs – a dome, a telescope? An old man, perhaps full of youthful dreams, searched for signs in an untranslatable sky. Below, a wave with a crest of grey foam slopped against a post. (I believed my train to have stopped in a tunnel.)

A ball bounced in behind me through the door (that’s to say a rugby ball, for Rudge was a man among men). It flopped down, thrashing for continued life. I watched it coil up on a point of its oval, then slew in a pirouette. It turned round finally, falling on the solid claw of a table leg. I sniffed the air (a mingle of cigar smoke and furniture wax). I found the last green ember of a Havana, a butt only, smouldering. I picked it out from its charred niche in the rail of a snooker table, which I like to think prevented a conflagration. One other sign of the absentee was a bottle of beer – a stout – as it warmed itself to room temperature.

Fluff, Holmes, on the baize, indicated amateurs, and this I wrote down. Three reds remained. The board showed two low scores. Was this time to go? A TV, somehow suspended in the cigar fumes, clicked on and roared with laughter. (I’ll watch. Only for a moment.) An unctuous compère with a solarium tan and a bootlace moustache, and loud checks, and a line in humiliating asides, beamed at a gangling clerk. He had a stiff new shirt and a company tie, and couldn’t keep to the right spot, and had to be constantly tugged at the elbow (this was uproarious). ‘Here – it’s a red cross – it’s painted on the studio floor!’ Life for the tall was cool, dizzy. Perhaps, that compère said, the cross was too far down. The clerk, vacant and open-mouthed, tried – it just wouldn’t come – tried to name – oh these questions were a tease – the last Prime Minister but one. Dong! I’m afraid that’s out of time….

A crowd of bobbing shadows, long to the door, scrimmaged for the open air, but I managed to shake them off. I struck out. There was a clangour of bells, alarms. I left my trail as a waste of white powder, when from above I was showered in theatrical snow. The black pointing hand was at odds over destinations, as now it inclined its index down to a watery grave. Light, in a fire of celestial orange, seeped in at last through a rent in Rudge’s cosmos. A moon, a drunken sickle low over the flimsy streaks of silver, brought life, then death, to Rudge’s mermaids, bobbing on his sea. I sniffed the air again, in blank recognition of the piquant smell of vinegar. Ignore the alarms, I had thought, that muted rattle of electric bells. There was a silhouette, and guffaws from behind a tobacconist’s booth. A forearm swiped the air, and a heel clipped the timber. Then briefly, the swish of a quilted coat. Then – a thin blue flame arched and looped into the night ether. For a moment the footfalls ceased. Rudge had a companion, a man who messed with gunpowder. I watched for his firecracker scudding down onto the cold planks. Its fizz of maroon sparks squirmed between my feet. I dodged to the balustrade and called out non-specifically – ‘That’s cheap, Rudge, that’s really cheap!’ A swash, a murmur, then a moan came up from the grey tide below. A flame, blood-red, then an aluminium white, then the two in combination, fountained up, then an explosive purple, finally a floral dance. In its kaleidoscope another sign was lit – it said below.

I tumbled in below, missing the bottom step. An obscene shape, an expletive, touched but didn’t leave my lips. I pawed at a cobweb in my face. I stamped on a spider and sneezed. That shook the dust from an arras. A coin dropped and whirred gyroscopically, somewhere above me in the coal dust, in the stairwell. The door creaked high over my head. I looked out through its chasm, seeing only that lunar arc, a pale cheese, a slim crescent in the inky oblong of the doorframe. ‘Really cheap,’ I repeated. The coin with its whirling glissando flattened down into an uneasy quiet. I expected bats, squeaks and sonic chatter, a chained spook from a closet, recorded bassos in diabolic laughter. Somehow that brought down a second arras, a fairground mantle that I could, then couldn’t get off, then shrugged to the floor. That in some way left me at a hall of mirrors, about to learn a first decree: these phalanxes, these ever more diminutive reflections of me, these were the distances of being, and the perfection of being was less than a tiny dot. I understood his observations. I stepped away from the wheel of my replication. I managed a comment. Told him I wouldn’t recoil from his gestures. That I’d plod on through their venue. That I understood their desperation – not to say the wet streets, the shingle, the dark bow of the shoreline, the un-sailed-on sea, the starless night. Even the televised babble and vacant personalities, for that’s to be put up with. Yet I did take exception to two things: that ghoul, with his hand, his foot, his coattail skimming round a corner; and the trick silvers in PC Rudge’s playpen, where I now stood in his seaside hall of mirrors.

A wave, ripple or convexity in the looking glass, if I raised a magnified hand or counted tombstones in an obliging grin, allotted the same emphasis in Rudge’s caricature of me as I foresaw in mine of him. Then again in the sidereal pallor of another, and taller glass, the flabby city-dweller, trimmed to a thinness at the waist, parted, returned to, parted company at last with his pantaloons. That garment boasted an unbelievable range – windy, capacious one moment, the next a pool of linen on the reflected floor. The floating torso took on a cartoonish flexibility. Huge lungs inflated an unreal machismo after a thousand press-ups, and from the seams, the nervous strain in the shoulders of my jacket, I could infer solidity in my newly toned-up deltoids. The head, alas, too heavy with brains, shrank under a carrot tuft of hair.

So should I see myself, according to Rudge. I aimed a heel at his crystal. A momentous blow, you’d think. Yet the shards of a man’s mind were holographic, and here in Rudge’s sideshow that travesty of fluctuating images was retained in each. ‘Ah,’ I said, and I picked up the arras, though had lost him. I shook out the dust. I invoked – heaven knows – a vengeful god, who in cloaking the heavens had snuffed all distant points of light. I extinguished or barred from my mind Rudge’s mosaic, and walked for an outer door. The first I rattled stayed closed, leaving its plastic knob in my hand. The second opened on the tide, whose grey waves roared round the struts of the pier. The third was a cupboard full of junk (a tenon saw, hammers, a mallet for my toes, one spokeshave, one bag of nails). The fourth promised new contact with life, for now my train had jolted to my stop. Here I stepped out onto the platform. I looked up at the screens, where London’s underground life had its likeness in lighted black and white. I glanced down at the swirl of litter. I turned my back to the gusts of wind. A long walk, I thought, but here luckily were the emergency stairs. A spurt of blue sparks, as the train lurched, recalled that floating firework, and I remembered my escape. There was a low beam through the keyhole of door number four. A band of golden dust crossed and re-crossed the knuckle of my hand. It pierced Rudge’s midnight: this was a trickle, then a flood of sunshine when I threw the door back. A crescendo, icy waves crumbling into foam through the crags and hollows of a cliff face, were now restated according to the rhythms of my London suburb. I brushed out the creases and stood there, blinking under the keystone of an arch, a door swinging behind me. Somewhere on a distant block a giant of a man from County Kilburn, bronzed and swarthy, pounded an oblong of tarmac with a pneumatic pummel, and wore mufflers. A cab, a blinding sheen in its windscreen, turned and bobbled up the kerb on a single tyre, and in its rear view caught a dispatch bike buzzing like a hornet. A lazy forearm unrolled itself from a wound-down window. The fist gathered itself for an uppercut, and at its zenith, as it punched the hot air, snapped out its chubby middle finger and poked it at the sky. A bus from Cricklewood clanked into gear and lumbered into the broken thread of traffic. In a lower window a man with wiry hair and a perpetual grin watched me stride from the closed door of the Underground, sole user of its emergency exit. Joey, my private barman, about now would be wiping cocktail tumblers. The last of his daughters was here, on the street, a lithe jet girl in a stained pearl dress, hobbling and clopping in her mother’s silky high heels.

I looked up at the clock tower and as usual it was stuck at a few minutes past eleven (time, ever static, recorded the vain cyclist (vane cyclist) no nearer his Baltic goal). Across the street, Rudge, beheaded in the shadow of an awning, marched into the heat and pointed out something high over the shop fronts. A young wife and mother, newly mauved in her ringlets of hair, put hands to hips and tried to fathom his meaning. She glanced up at the glitter of holiday jets. A boy tugged at her hem and scuffed at the pavement. A squared hanky dangled from his pocket. Rudge – a man new to his beat – wasn’t going to help, for she wanted to know the time. Perhaps she sought out the amused twinkle in the eyes of passers-by. I don’t know, I was too far away. A truck sneezed (of all things it wanted to turn, reverse, unload). I thought I might be seen, or might have to turn to the shop fronts, where I had planted myself in the glaze of a lighting emporium, and had at my back its shades and wall lamps. The boy ducked and dived, filling the vanes of his pinwheel with a makeshift breeze, which deflected the constable’s gaze. I wondered – which way would Rudge turn now? – and thought I saw what the Force had refused to, an athlete, blue and uniformed, a man programmed for one task only, a city crusade against evil, when evil was sought out everywhere, even among the innocent.

There was a hot mirage of wet macadam. In the liquefied bends, there was a logjam of traffic.