I was somewhere in a country whose scenery and climate resembled Italy. I found I stood by an old rotten window frame on the first floor of a dilapidated villa. I saw someone I vaguely felt I knew down on the patio. I decided to go to meet them by turning around, leaving the room and going down the staircase of the grand hallway, a cool space of faded plaster frescoes. Villa Olivia… the murals gave me to understand the house was called. When I got out onto the patio I found that my friend had disappeared. I called out her name, although I would be unable later to remember what that name might have been. I went down the broad marble steps from the terrace, flanked by cracked urns overflowing with ivy, towards what might once have been a manicured lawn. Now it was a deep tangle of bushes and trees that I ventured into to begin searching for my friend. It got denser and darker the further in I went until it became a jungle. I heard a crashing sound approaching and hid behind a tree. To my astonishment a large Komodo Dragon ran by, presumably stalking my friend, or indeed potentially myself it occurred to me. As I nervously followed in their trail, hoping to somehow save her from it, after some time the jungle scenery gradually peeled away and transitioned into a desert, across which I could see the footprints of the Komodo dragon, which I then continued to follow.
The desert was hot and empty and wide, and slow progress to walk across. Eventually I found a rowing boat lying in the sand, its wooden planks weathered and buckled. I had the irrational impression that my friend had been in this boat, or we both had, and that the dragon had attacked us in it, or alternatively my friend was about to use it to escape from the dragon now. But first there would have to be water. I looked around myself. Was all this somehow a vast beach, to which the ocean would soon, quickly, magically, return? I thought I saw something like water glistening on the horizon, then looking back at the trees of the jungle I saw that there was a ruin in their midst that I had somehow missed before. I ran towards it, drawn by insatiable curiosity, suddenly forgetting my friend and her potentially perilous fate.
When I reached the trees of the jungle they seemed to have changed again, become something less tropical, more like home-counties England. The ruin was the remnants of a large abbey, melancholic, overgrown with moss. I wandered through it, enchanted. Time seemed to be passing, the sun was soon lower than I expected in the sky, turning gold and orange. Emerging from the edge of the ruins I found myself on the edge of a rocky outcrop looking down towards a densely wooded plain below. In among the trees and evening mist I could see high-rise buildings like those of Manhattan, inhabited or ruins I was uncertain, stretching far into the distance. As I attempted to clamber down from the ridge I found that before I could reach the tower blocks there was a very large overgrown labyrinth in front of me, made of ancient stones as if of Greek or Roman origin.
The labyrinth made me feel uneasy, especially as darkness was coming on, so I turned around and returned to the villa. I would explore it some other day, preferably with a friend and a ball of string or two. But wait, what friend? Back at the villa, I found I arrived at the opposite elevation from the one I had exited through earlier, the front almost certainly, because I saw there was a car parked there, something black and shiny and rather nineteen-forties in appearance. Inside the house I called out in the cool darkness, and a figure came walking towards me down a long hallway from a space that looked like the kitchen or dining area. Earnest, she called me, at which point I instantly recalled that this woman's name was Beverley and that she meant something to me, although quite what or how much remained opaque. Where's Angela? -She asked me, which I decided to assume was the name of the girl on the patio who I had attempted to follow earlier. I lost her, I said. I think she went into the trees. Do you know, there is some kind of dinosaur out there? I mean a lizard, a big one, Komodo Dragon I'm sure they're called, although I didn't think they were supposed to live anywhere except darkest Borneo or something.
A kimono what? -she asked me, wide eyed, smiling, about to laugh. She was leaning in close towards me, raising her hand towards my shoulder, so I quickly judged that I was supposed to embrace her and kiss her. Beverley was cat-like in her movements and the way her clothes clung to her. She poured through spaces, like water, like light. Her laughter was like a crystal chandelier, tinkling fragments falling, rotating, reflecting. You could get lost in it, lose your bearings, and my bearings seemed only tentatively on loan.
She led me to what seemed like a library or drawing room, but showed me how to walk up the wall, at which point gravity seemed to rotate. I found a book on reptiles on the book shelves and tried to show it to her, to find a Komodo Dragon maybe. Then I saw another book, about ships and I remembered about the boat I'd found out in the desert. Did we come her by boat, Beverley? Angela and you and I?
Darling, have you forgotten everything again? -she sighed. I've just come from the city and pieces of it were missing. I mean significant pieces, or what used to be significant, like faces and certain restaurants, and the names of things. A whole island off Africa and a nineteenth century art movement. I used to think your memory holes were a private peccadillo but now I wonder if they were an armadillo that got loose… caught a bus into town and messed up everything.
Or a Komodo Dragon..? I added hopefully.
What is it with you and armour-plated megafauna tonight, sweetheart?
It was you who mentioned the…
But we were interrupted by a noise that once we'd climbed down off the study walls we found was the arrival of Angela, who was climbing back in through a window in the downstairs bathroom. Why didn't you walk in the door? -I asked, none of them are locked. Where were you?
Angela explained that she'd lost part of her left leg. Not torn off or anything, just passed into possibly temporary invisibility, a bit like the missing names and words Beverley reported having been occurring in the city recently. It was around then that we started calling Angela Pauline instead, which seemed a natural part of the same phenomenon. The three of us went upstairs into what seemed like a main living room and played a game of cards I'd never seen before, almost like Cluedo, because many cards had the faces of colour-coded characters on them. Pauline somehow changed into a light blue flowing dress on the way up the stairs, and the part of her leg that had been invisible started to become a small white dog who was somehow Poland. Not just called Poland, but was Poland, the whole country and everyone in it. When Poland barked, part of the wall would open up as if caught in a gale and we'd get a glimpse of an incongruous snowy landscape for a moment, which couldn't possibly be there. Poland seemed connected with a particular shade of dark green that was on the run from the authorities and could be found on the back of board games. We therefore conducted a search of the cupboard for board games, but somehow Beverley fell asleep and was dragged gently off along the floor by her long hair to her bedroom by Poland, leaving Pauline and I momentarily trapped in the cupboard together. She took my hand and kissed me and we both became excited, but neither of us could remember what the nefarious and wondrous thing was that was supposed to happen between a man and woman at such moments.
Puzzled, we lit some lanterns and decided to set out into the woods in search of the ruined abbey so we could sit there and dream by moonlight. Along the way, Pauline would frequently start to lift off the ground like a hot air balloon, her head surrounded by a swirl of ash-grey parakeets that she claimed to have hand-painted earlier with a mixture of glue and ash from one of the villa's fireplaces. In the abbey ruins we talked for hours as the full moon rose above the black silhouettes of broken fragments of flying buttresses. Wait! I said, I think I almost remember. Didn't people put a finger in the other person's ear? Or dig a hole in the ground and urinate in it together?
No… I don't think so… Pauline mused, clutching my arm affectionately. I think maybe people used to choose books and cut circular holes through them then put their arms through them. Or cut each other, and bleed into each other's veins, wasn't that it?
Oh close, so close! That felt close, you're right, but wrong, still wrong. At this point the Komodo Dragon gently crawled out of the dense undergrowth and curled up at our feet while Pauline began to stroke its head, while we sat at a ruined gothic window. Ah, it's your pet then, that explains it. I laughed. How's your left leg doing?
Rubbing, that was it! -she exclaimed and started vigorously rubbing her arm against mine. It was all about rubbing some part of the body over and over and people getting out of breath. But I can't remember anymore. It all made sense back in the dream, but now it would just seem ludicrous even if I could remember it and describe it, because it was. Around now the parakeets began diving down and flying right through a circular hole that had opened up just between Pauline's neck and chest. It was crimson red around the internal edge like one of those inexplicable sinkholes that open up in Siberia. I felt strangely embarrassed about this, but suddenly became concerned instead by the thought that a middle European classical composer had just gone missing and the word for a far-eastern musical instrument had turned into a North American mountain range due to the ongoing definition-amnesia virus. I felt an unexpected need to phone my grandfather who was dead, in case he could confirm some of this.
Pauline covered up her neck as the warm evening became a little chillier. We wandered back to the villa and sat on the steps for a bit before retiring to our separate rooms, although I was uncertain where mine might be and whether that part of the house would even remain stable. Who were we? Pauline mused, Do you ever wonder that? I mean before we woke up, before we were born? Have you noticed that we never seem to be hungry anymore, and that Portugal has become a shade of yellow lately, synonymous with antique teapots?
Yes, and wasn't there a future once and a past? -whereas now there's only a continually crumbling present like a string of spelling errors so dense that you begin to lose all sense of a sentence or paragraph. It's like a simulacrum. A part of the scenery falls away in your hand and you know that it's supposed to be replaced, that it used to be, instantly, but these days it isn't anymore, so there's just these black irregular shaped holes that you can gaze into, but don't want to because you'd rather look away.
At this point, the timber boat we'd seen in the desert earlier began to reassemble itself plank by plank, hovering in the middle of the grand hallway in the moonlight, and gradually Pauline whose name was slowly becoming Mary now began to shift upwards, her dress billowing at its lower edges as she floated up to take her place in the boat and let it take her to her sleeping accommodation. And the Vulpine Regulators will be coming back soon, I'm sure of it! -she hissed in a loud whisper, her eyes wide with fright. Have you ever seen them? They lurk at the edge of sunset and take the red top off the sky so they can adjust our levers and review our arithmetic lessons. I hate them.
Somehow I found my way to Beverley's bedroom and understood that I was supposed to share it with her. Maybe she would remember the thing that intimate people did with each other, but somehow I doubted it. She was lying on the bed reading a book upside-down. I saw that Poland had now become a flat white stuffed animal spread-eagled under glass in a picture frame hanging over the fireplace. Somehow I knew he wasn't dead, but could easily be revived in future by the judicious use of a few words of his own language. On the other wall I saw that she had an old painting of the labyrinth I'd seen earlier as I'd stood on the rock outcrop alone at sunset. Can we go there tomorrow and explore it together? I asked her.
I was always told it was dangerous… she sighed dreamily. But who knows, maybe it's what we need now, a route, a ritual, to help restore some order to our lives. There are tigers in it though you know, and talking vultures who can sell you rare mosses and pencil sharpeners. Shall we sleep now? -she smiled sweetly. Things make so much more sense asleep, I find. I'm increasingly sorry to wake up these days. As I climbed in to bed, she suddenly grabbed my face and gazed into my eyes and asked me in mock seriousness: Tell me though, you didn't deep fry Pauline's budgerigar did you? Or exchange coloured crayons with her at a bus stop?
No. I answered honestly. Do those things mean something? Were they metaphors once?
I don't know… she whispered, as she put the bedside light out. Nobody remembers anymore but everyone's quietly wondering about it. What we were and what the pieces of us became. We're a puzzle in a puzzle house, all of us, and Doctor Rubrik's been eaten by an alligator.
I had a very strange dream that night, almost like one of those recurring dreams, or dreams that want to fool you into thinking that they're recurring and that you've been in them many times before. I was living in a suburban house on the edge of a city and I would get up at the same time every morning and put on the same clothes and catch a train into the city centre to work at a job that involved me sitting in front of a computer. I drew pictures of imaginary new buildings I knew nothing about and was obliged to attempt to financially ruin everyone who tried to build them. Outside in the streets there were homeless beggars everywhere who were secretly university professors with degrees in astrophysics, while mentally sub-normal morons drove by in sports cars.
It was almost a relief after that to wake up and find that the ceiling had turned into a chessboard, with a small child that Pauline had given birth to during the night running across it upside-down in an orange clown outfit. Beverley got up and pulled up the sash windows and began feeding bananas to a herd of elephants who had arrived on the terrace below. Their grey trunks entered the room and explored the timber shutters and wainscoting with endearing curiosity. When we went to Pauline's room we lifted the cover off her bed and found that everything beneath her neck had been eaten away during the night by termites, leaving only white bleached bones like a sardine dinner. We lit a candle and sang a little mass for her, then gathered up all the bones to make them into a harpsichord and flute with which to perform a serenade in her honour later. Her head rolled its own way out onto the sunlit terrace where the ash parakeets fought over it like a football until I saw it transmute into a white dove that rose from their midst in a cloud of dust and flew upwards towards the sun with a green sprig of mistletoe in its beak.
Do you think she will come back? I asked Beverley who was now holding Pauline's daughter on her knee and feeding her Sugar Mice gagged and tied up with cold spaghetti like rope bindings.
Fool! -She snorted. Nothing can escape, only be broken and rearranged now.