It was a memory that was like a dream, or a dream that I had taken as a memory and which was either way positioned so far back in the past that neither existed without the thought of the other to constitute it.
It was as if the dream and memory had collided and one had torn through the other creating a strange cross section of reality in which I saw the wounded confusion of my youth. Or it was as if they— the memory and the dream— were two immiscible liquids that nevertheless had been given no time to settle so that despite their resistance to one another they were forced to co-exist and operate in the same space, grouping in little suspended pockets and continually displacing one another.
The memory or dream, or memory of a dream, involved my mother and the sewing machine factory where she worked. I knew that as a small child I would accompany my mother to work on the days when my grandmother, for whatever reason she may have held, was unable to care for us. I believe that this must have been a fairly frequent occurrence though I can only really recall this one incident, this memory or dream, which had so abruptly and inopportunely possessed me that night. For it was not just the content of the dream but its appearance that was troubling and which jeopardised the delicate work I was engaged in.
The memory or whatever it was, you see, had come tumbling out of my mind seemingly apropos of nothing, distracting me from my job at hand— waiting— and it was only the sudden loosening of my grip on the pistol— a nose-diving shift in the distribution of its weight—that gave way to an awareness of my hand gesturing or wavering in front of me in the dark.
I steadied my hand and reminded myself that I had been coming and going in and around this house undetected for the past three days— hiding under beds, sidling round door frames, contorting myself into cupboards and wardrobes— and so was fully aware of my assignment’s tendencies and predilections and what’s more knew that his dinner engagement would last until ten thirty at the earliest. I had arrived at 3pm to set the scene and if my preparations were flawed in any way then it was due to a meticulousness that bordered on inflexibility.
I checked the clock and relieved by the hour began to think‑—quite inadvertently— how much I must have enjoyed accompanying my mother to work as a child. My grandmother’s house would perhaps have been considered perfect for a child my age though there were no toys, or rather the toys that had been kept were old and fetid, invariably made of soft rubber and over handled. Of these toys one I particularly remembered was a small, impossibly dark green, crocodile with its jaws agape. If you put your little finger into its mouth and down into its hollow body your finger, on extraction, would come out covered in some brown and foul smelling substance.
What’s more this substance seemed inexhaustible. No matter how many times you dipped your finger into this crocodile (which was no longer than three inches from snout end to tail-tip) there was always this substance and accompanying smell on extraction. What’s more is that the temptation to dip your finger into the invariably gross bowels of the crocodile was ever present and impossible to resist. It was automatic! You saw the little gross crocodile and you plunged your hands into what you’d always thought of as its shit. The crocodile though wasn’t always present in the box of toys my grandmother kept under the stairs, which is where everything that was infrequently used in my grandmother’s house was kept. In the adjoining time between its appearances I would wonder where it was, who had moved it, and if its ‘shit’ proved something about its existence. Where there’s shit there’s life, as my uncle would have said.
All of this I was thinking then in the dark, my chest sweating beneath Kevlar, utterly bewildered by what I can only describe as the surface tension of this recollection. A tension that meant I could not enter the real content of the thought, memory, dream, without destroying something integral to it, which I evidently did not want to do despite believing that I did. The desire to ‘skip to the end’ and ‘get it over with’ was continually frustrated as I had to think around the memory, occasionally doubling back on a previous recollection for some clue or illustrative insight though these digressions felt obtuse and besides the point. It began to seem to me back there in the room and also now— wherever I find myself— that everything I pursued that night in my mind diffused into a limitless black ocean before reassembling again at some countering point in its development.
For instance, I had implied earlier that my grandmother’s house might be considered ideal and certainly in my recollection, or my feelings around that recollection, if not the experience depicted in it, I had deemed my grandmother’s house ‘ideal for children’. How then could it have been considered ideal, I thought, given that the toys were— as I had previously recalled— unsuitable for play?
My grandmother’s house did after all possess a garden but I had never cared for gardens as a child. I did not like the outside world and deeply resented being forced out into the cold whenever my grandmother wanted to clean whatever room I happened to be idling in. Besides, the garden was only a corridor of green with a rotten tree and abandoned rabbit hutch at its end as a prize.
My grandmother did though, I remembered; possess an enormous collection of marbles. Each of these marbles displayed some bright petroleum twist in their centre that I liked to imagine were the eyes of an extinct race savagely extracted and mockingly preserved. I played for the eyes of kings, queens and defeated heroes. The actual game of marbles— its structurating rules and action— meant very little in itself, I thought, and was designed merely as a historical exercise in humiliation, one in which I as a child unwittingly took part. When I thought about this act of desecration my feelings went several ways towards excitement. There was within me a set of transfixed explosions. A collection of marbles and the questions they raised though does not childhood’s palace construct. After all marbles is not a game for one player and I was certainly often alone at my grandmother’s house. Quite alone.
There were books there too that someone or other had taught me to call tomes.
Often I would sit and read tomes for hours at my grandmother’s house. If you are a child that reads tomes then the places you can go unsupervised, without any adult questioning your movement, are manifold. What’s more is that the morality of these tomes, without the censorious hand of a teacher to conduct their meaning, was wild and full of passionate, illogical violence. My cheeks flushed across the years at the thought of them.
The books I read at my grandmother’s house were far too advanced for me at that tender age and I barely understood what was happening in them though I know that they must have shifted something essential within me.
My uncle who lived with my grandmother before he ´pulled of his disappearance´, which I later discovered had been an act of government insisted suicide, had left behind in his bedroom— that was off limits but which I nonetheless frequently snuck into— a set of dumbbells and a Charles Atlas body building manual containing exercise programmes that I would follow till exhaustion.
If I didn’t want to read or lift the puny set of weights, or imagine the eyes of a noble race unjustly wiped out and used for sport, then I would do nothing at my grandmother’s house. I would just tolerate my boredom. I would let it crush me. Was this tolerance of boredom the hidden depth that constructed the surface of my ideal?
I pinched the bridge of my nose with my left hand. My left arm, which should have been resting on the bed as a stabilising bridge for the pistol, formed a tick against my chest.
I wanted to believe that the memory or dream that I have yet to reach now or back in that room— for as I have said there was an instability and tension to the thing I had not been able to grasp and which persisted in its attempt to emerge into a reality too insubstantial to sustain it so that the object of my thought resisted being thought despite its only existence being in thought which was at least also within time— was an island. I say ‘I’ but perhaps it was the dream or memory (how could I differentiate, for differentiation was the very source of the problem) that wanted to believe in it’s isolation but all around there were other forces acting upon it, informing all the unreal and real parts of it. There was nothing left untouched by its existence and whatever existed beneath the thing itself was sealed up and sickening like oil.
I tried to recap, to get to the point. I checked the clock but failed to comprehend how much time had passed. I could not read it. I was six or perhaps seven years old. It must have been the school holidays. I accompanied my mother to work. My grandmother’s house was not ideal. On our arrival at my mother’s work I was introduced to the boss and his son— the dream re-entered— and it was at this moment that I touched upon the hem of a revelation that my mind frantically gathered in creating these undulating wrinkles, fresh dunes and new pits so that whatever passed through me obscured some other part of itself in the haste.
The Boss’ son, who was perhaps twelve or thirteen, was responsible for us and though I suspected him of having a cruel face— a cruel face that I had only seen in Televisual representations, collective dreams of cruelty, weightless things that your mind can copy— I instantly knew that I would follow him anywhere, do anything he asked and perhaps finally betray him. I cannot tell you how I knew all this only that the recollection, perhaps bestowing on what had been an innocent occurrence a kind of retrogressive knowledge, already contained this insight without giving anything else away for I sensed without knowledge that I was working towards some revelation in the memory/dream that was not at all pleasant and in which the figure of the Boss’ son, due to the luminous force of his recollected presence, would prove to be integral.
We were simultaneously placed under his supervision and given free licence to roam the factory as we pleased. I say’ we’ though I cannot recall any other children other than the Boss’ son, though I feel that at least three or four others, boys and girls, must have accompanied us.
We followed The Boss’ son through the workshop. There were glittering beads, fake pearls and sequins all bursting out of worn metal cabinets or spread across Victorian seeming benches. On the benches imposing sewing machines listened to their pedals.
These images were particularly clear and also unlikely. I am not exactly sure what my mother’s job at the sewing machine factory entailed, what role she filled there but I did not have the sense afterwards that she was a seamstress.
Why this particular aspect of the dream should suddenly have risen in me— to the extent that I was shaken by the power of it back into the dark room— as I waited for the assignment to return to his house, I cannot say. Perhaps it had something to do with the drawers I had pulled open, the intimate fabric I had pulled out and left in disarray, along with the petty and not so petty items I had pocketed so as to elaborately suggest a bungled robbery where one might otherwise see only a politically motivated assassination.
The Boss’ son led us up the stairs where he pulled on the ring of a chain that hung from a tile in the ceiling. I suspected him of sneering at us though he may just as well have been laughing. A small rope ladder unfurled and each of us climbed up while The Boss’ son waited at the bottom.
We entered an elaborate system of interconnected attics from which we could spy down on the working adults by removing a few set pieces of the floor. We watched them with a degree of attention and desire that we would never have mustered had they or we been more present. The Boss’ son informed us that we were part of an elite order whose job it was to observe the adult world, that we were guardians who lived two lives: those of children and those of ghosts.
Later on— though the memory, I believed I could call it that then, has no sequence only tessellations so if I say ‘Later on’ then that phrase has no purchase on any notion of progression and is purely structural, after all we don’t progress through time it instead works us, from every conceivable angle, into shapes that are out of shape and into nothing— Later on, the boss’ son led us through the attics and down into another room that was irregularly shaped and satanically covered in red fabric. In this room there were entries into the wall that we could crawl around like geckos. The voices of our parents and the machines coalesced into an informative buzz. We crawled through walls and floors, climbing over one another like unconscious ants, absorbed into a reality that cast doubt upon our ability to perceive its borders.
We retreated then at some point to the central attic and formed a pagan circle around The Boss’ son. His face appeared lit from below the way I’d imagined heaven was lit by hell i.e tastefully but with a flickering showmanship. There was something he had yet to show us, he said, something on which each of us would have to swear an oath. From a separate floorboard he lifted out a large rectangular object swaddled in linen. In the ragged cloth was an annual of illustrated Tarzan stories. The Boss’ son proceeded to flip slowly through the pages as we gathered closer to him.
The images were far more violent than any I had associated with Tarzan before.
There was a purple panther streaked with dark blood and lurid yellow eyes that howled from the cheap paper. There was Tarzan and Jane each laden with muscles and entwined by a single anaconda pressing them together on the marriage bed of its flesh. There was an upper-class English gentleman whose eye a monkey had ripped out and which the monkey wore as a kind of monocle. In turns we stepped forward, pricked each of our fingers till they beaded with blood and put our hands on the book while swearing allegiance to the secrets of the factory.
In retrospect there was and is something vaguely anti-climactic about all this, especially the Tarzan element, but the excitement I felt at the time and also in that room— the twinge of a nascent erection communicating itself across decades— was palpable. This book, I reasoned, must have stood for the power of the dream for I desired it intensely at the time and this remembrance of desire bestowed upon the banal object an existing, radiative force that was, if not objectively measurable, then at least perceivable in the manner in which its age and the care taken upon it along with its cover, finger printed in mixed blood, shifted the significations of the other objects orbiting it.
I placed one hand on the bed to steady myself. I squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them again it took a long time for them to adjust to the dark.
This was stupid and risky, I knew and yet I was powerless to stop it. That the absurd capacity to think had suddenly risen up in me here, on the job, was maddening. I grew afraid and wondered if perhaps my orders might have subliminally triggered this recollection, that may well have been ‘false’ or implanted, in order to retire me and settle definitively all the things I did and did not know about the world.
In the freedom of that awful room under the duress of that possibility the dream refused to complete itself. I know that at some point I had returned and stolen the Tarzan annual, had gone to take it home and that there had been an infinitesimal moment where I had clearly made a decision that, once made, was impossible to renege upon to the extent that I believed for a long time that no decision had ever been made.
I had felt no shame until I arrived home where I promptly stuffed the book underneath my mattress while my mother was cooking. As soon as the book disappeared under the soft gum of the bed I was seized by an incredible remorse for what I had done. I pulled the book out of the bed and looked at it again. All of its power had drained away, there was nothing the slightest bit interesting about it and even the blood we had pressed into it had flaked away. I imagined the Boss’ Son discovering the book’s absence and aging into a skeleton at an accelerative rate.
That evening, or some other evening in close proximity to that one, I went downstairs and confessed to my mother that I was a thief. I told her I had taken something from the factory that did not belong to me.
For some reason, my mother did not believe me and asked to see the proof of this crime. I ran to my room to fetch the Tarzan annual. I lifted the bed up but it wasn’t where I had left it. I went through my room upturning everything much to my mother’s ire. It was nowhere to be found. My mother stood in the doorway and regarded me with a strange look of pity and apprehension. I began to cry because I did not know then and I do not know now what it is that I have done. Between the unreal and the unrealised a truth was left to eke out its lifespan within mine, parasitical and microscopic, embedded in the intestinal fabric of reality and only occasionally rearing some feeler— as it was doing that night, the night of my last assignment— into the more material world it resided in.
I shuddered in the dark as an arc of headlights passed over the curtains. The assignment had returned. The sound on the buckling stairs suggested the assignment had company. This made me sad for no other reason than it complicated matters further. The door handle turned. Light fed into the room. The assignment and his companion stumbled through the doorway in an embrace and fell onto the bed. The woman’s long hair fanned at speed past my face. The man was on top of her gazing into her face. A moment later I met his eyes and lifted the pistol. They were not looking for me and I had not found them. I had merely been waiting, an agent of a kind of retrogressive predetermination, one of the less welcome angels.
Afterwards, I left calmly through the front door, leaving it unlatched, partly ajar, encouraging detection. I removed and burnt the clothes I had been wearing and then walked to the nearest bar and ordered a drink. I frowned at the still surface of my whisky. A few hours later the news interrupted the local derby to announce an attempt on the life of a senior minister.
The news only said that, an attempt.
The people booed. They were poor and wanted their football. It was possible their government might have found a look-alike for the man and forgotten the woman. They did that sometimes. Sometimes people were just replaced. There was nothing to do but drink. I drank until I appeared in a hotel room. When I woke up there was a small rubber crocodile sat on the bedside table, its jaws gaping. I picked it up and dipped my little finger into its bowels. I took my finger out. The ribs suckled around the bone as if my finger was inhaling something. My finger was clean. I observed myself sniffing it. There was no shit.
I sat on the bed and waited to find out what was next.
Thomas Kendall is a British writer currently living in Lima, Peru. His work has previously appeared in the Dennis Cooper edited anthology Userlands – New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground, Lies/Isle and Some Ways to Disappear Volume 2. He is also the editor of Once Only, Only Once.