"The first words were necessarily magic. Odin was lashed to the World Tree, a
spear piercing his side, for nine days and nights before the runes came to him
in a cataclysmic flash of inspiration. Just to speak was an act of magic, and
each sentence was a spell. But words have been used too long for mundane, practical
purposes, and we have forgotten their true potency. What are they, these ex
nihilo expressions of thought and will, these intangible, self-contained units
"Sometimes writing seems like a chore that I must force myself into like a
sullen schoolboy. But recently - recently, if I am away from my desk and my writing
pad, I only have to think of the unmatched whiteness of a blank page and letters
curling from the nib of a pen at the top corner, and I cannot wait to get back
and take the pen in my hand again. What can be more inspiring than the waiting
page? My pen sails on its white billows as on a sea of infinite possibility. The
words it traces bring into existence things that were not there before. I cannot
believe the extent of the power at my disposal."
He dashed down his pen as if out of breath and sat back to admire his handiwork.
He did not know what it was he was writing. He just felt that he was onto something.
Anyway, that was enough grafting for the moment. Now he could afford to reward
himself with a little treat. It was time to skin up again. He fished in the desk
drawer for the little plastic bank bag. He pulled it out and held it up to find
only a tiny blim of resin left. Enough for one spliff, anyway, but he'd have to
make another visit to Cody soon. Shrugging he riffled three rizlas from their
packet like a card sharp and, licking the gummed lip of thin paper, set about
assembling the spliff.
"Ah, come in!"
The door opened on the vista of the double room that Cody shared with another
complicitous first year. Nate's eyes roved about the wall and floor, drawn towards
the shameless poster of Alicia Silverstone. His gaze returned to Cody, sitting
at his desk, leaning back in his chair in an attitude of casual welcome.
"What'll it be?"
"A Henry, I suppose."
"Tell you what, mate, I've got some wicked skunk in, if you're up for it."
"Can I pay you five quid later?"
"Yeah, yeah, no trouble."
Nate fumbled in his pocket, producing a tenner and a fiver so dog-eared it was
remarkable it was still in circulation, this latter more crumpled than folded.
Cody pulled out his top drawer and secreted the lucre in a tobacco tin. Then he
took out a large polythene bag of pungent green buds and a set of scales. Moments
later Nate had in his hands a clove of marijuana, wrapped up in cling film.
In deference to toker's etiquette, Nate suggested they sample the goods there
and then, to which suggestion Cody was by no means averse. Taking advantage of
his prerogative, Nate sparked the spliff. Cody turned up the sound of the TV that
had been flickering in the corner and soon both of them were watching with glazed
eyes, as if sitting around a campfire.
"Hey, I think it's time for The South Bank Show soon," said Cody, after the
joint had gone back and forth a couple of times, "Do you mind if I turn over?"
Nate had no objections. This week the arts magazine featured a successful
writer of horror and fantasy, who had recently also made the leap to film director.
"Wicked," said Cody as the camera panned across a black museum of the horrific
models that had been made for the auteur's films.
"Your work is full of mutation and metamorphosis, usually manifest in very
startling, physical eruptions of energy," came the interviewer's preamble. Two
or three minutes into the programme and already Nate was having trouble following
it. Sometimes he wondered why he did this to his brain.
"Do you ever get inspiration from drugs?"
The question caught Nate's attention again.
"No, no, I don't. I don't find drugs really helpful to the creative process
and I am very suspicious of the kind of people who claim they need drugs for inspiration."
"Well, that's rubbish for a start," put
"How can he say that? Just look at his films
and his paintings. Drugs and art, man, they go together. They're the same thing.
Think about it. Man has always used drugs to attain a higher level of consciousness.
The few tribes left who still exist in any sort of unspoilt state use drugs in
their rites of passage. It's natural, man, that's why these plants were put here
"I don't know."
"What don't you know?"
"Well, obviously I'm not against the use
of drugs, but I think he has a point. I mean, it's like all these people who listen
to a song with slightly impressionistic lyrics and say, ' They must have been
on drugs when they made this', as if that explains everything and there's nothing
more to be said. It's totally inane."
"All the best artists took drugs, man, I'm
telling you. "
"You would say that. You've got something
"Nah. I'm not a dealer, man. This is just
temporary, to help me pay my fees. I get fuck all help from the state. I'm practically
forced to do it. I'm just one more member of the great disenfranchised underclass
known as students."
At that juncture Nate took a deep lungful
of smoke and passed the joint to Cody. Cody sat back and smiled, looking for an
instant like Groucho Marx with a fat cigar. The discussion ended there. However,
Nate continued to ponder their conversation. He could not help thinking that Cody
was getting things the wrong way round. It was a case of mistaking the symbol
for the Thing Itself. If drugs truly were a means of attaining higher consciousness
then surely it was best to place the emphasis on the consciousness and not the
means by which it was attained. As long as art contained insights who cared whether
they were drug-induced or not?
They sat in monged silence for some time
watching the TV until Nate noticed the time and decided to excuse himself. Just
as he was about to leave, Cody seemed to recall something.
"Yeah, mate, you're always on the lookout
for weird shit, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I suppose so. "
"I met this guy recently, he says he can
supply me with very rare herbs, you know, real trippy stuff. I'll introduce you
if you like. He'll be round some time, and it might be easier if you talk to him
directly. I'm not into that stuff at the moment. Anyway, I'll tell him you're
sound. I'm sure he'll be happy to supply your needs."
Nate had been writing again and was making headway.
The piece he was working on seemed to be a cross between a discursive alchemical
theory and what Poe might have called an arabesque work of fiction. It was something
else, too, something transcending both of these things. He looked back over his
"Apropos the relation between art and drugs:
whenever I take an hallucinogen and read a book, it ceases to become reading.
It becomes viewing or experiencing. Not just the book, but the words themselves,
are revealed in all their physicality. The text pulsates with criss-crossed veins.
There is an energy on the page, like lightning.
"All one has to do is put the right words
together in the right order. Then the words themselves become invisible. They
become a portal through which something else may be viewed. More than that, they
become the thing itself. What that thing is depends on the writer, of course.
But just as that thing may seem to be trapped, like a genie, on the page, so it
may equally rise from the page like smoke.
"Now that I have taken up my pen and a written
such things I feel compelled, driven. I must open The Gateway. I must
invoke The Genie. I must create The Thing Itself. I must attain
But however many times he scrawled imperatives
to himself it would make no difference. Time for another break. Nate recalled
vaguely a lesson of long ago in which the basic needs fulfilled by religion were
enumerated succinctly. One of them was ritual. Man needs ritual.
"Yes, yes, I need a bit of ritual," he said
to himself and glanced about for his stash. It lay nestled between the open leaves
of his Japanese-English dictionary on the floor. He had left it there because
its presence was comforting. But now there was fascination too. He picked up the
dictionary as if it was the most exquisite thing he had ever seen. There was something
about the way the creamy leaves of paper, made orderly with the rank and file
of print, cradled the little cling film pouch of hashish. It seemed a shame to
smoke the weed. Yet it was obvious that part of the beauty of the hash came from
the fact it was a supply that must be diminished by use. Speaking of which dot
dot dot. Nate thoughtfully rolled a joint. During its construction and its consumption
his attention was still held by the weed and the dictionary. What was it that
absorbed him so? He felt that he was beginning to understand the two-dimensional
sensuality of the printed word. Just because it was two-dimensional it didn't
mean it wasn't physical. Just look at the shapes of those letters, their curves
and lines, all indelibly identified with their own particular sounds! And that
was just the English! The Japanese was something else again! Nate caressed the
paper and breathed in the subtle scent of the pages.
He needed another joint. He plucked out
three more rizlas and was about to stick them together when suddenly an idea occurred
to him. He began to stroke the pages of the dictionary again. He took one leaf
between his fingers and rubbed it. Something was coming back to him. He was not
sure whether it was a real memory or the product of a mind burnt-out by too many
drugs, but was there someone once, an uncle or a teacher or someone, who told
him a story about dictionaries? Some dictionaries, they had said with an air of
appreciation, had very fine leaves. It wasn't just the wonderful thinness of the
pages that made them such superior quality, it was the colour too, and the creamy
texture. The makers of cigarette papers were not so concerned with quality as
the makers of dictionaries, it seemed, and consequently, in his youth, during
the war, whenever it was, whoever it was, this obscure raconteur had smoked his
way through many a pocket dictionary, marvelling at the exquisite, almost velvety
smoothness of the paper. Who was it, now? Nate couldn't quite remember.
It wasn't important. He knew what he had
to do. This dictionary was one of his most prized possessions. What's more, it
was expensive and difficult to replace. But such was the lure of his new idea
that he did not hesitate to take up a ruler and rip out a sheet from the centre
of the dictionary. He scrutinised its contents, tucking the words, their definitions
and the example sentences away in his temperamental memory, and then he set to
work. First he had to tear the page into strips of the appropriate size. But once
this was accomplished he found the paper admirably suited to his needs. Now the
paper and the words wrapped up the buds of weed completely. It was a simple matter
to lick the gummed edges of a couple of rizlas and use these to stick down the
edges of this dictionary joint. Finally, Nate twisted the end into a papery fuse.
He was satisfied with the results. It was tight, yes, but not too tight. The buds
of grass bulged here and there creating a pleasing suggestion of crumpledness.
Nate had created such a sense of anticipation with his one-man ritual that he
hesitated to apply a spark to the fuse. Inevitably, however, his hesitation gave
As to what happened next, later he would
write it into his story and account it evidence that he had already half succeeded
in summoning a genie. He was hard pressed then for an explanation of this success;
was it a loosening up of reality into a form of free association? Was it a kind
of synchronicity? How could he know there was a first time for everything and
he had simply - inevitably - been chosen? All he could do was be incredulous when
he lit up the joint in a flourish of smoke and flame and drew deeply on it to
see sparks leap from the glowing tip as if released from the page as that page
was consumed by the cindery line of orange. The first sparks spelled out two glyphs
on the air: Hibana: It was the Japanese for spark. Nate drew on the spliff
again and there came a fresh shower of ideograms, so many that he was afraid he
would blim his shirt with falling Japanese characters. What's more, he noticed,
they were all in dictionary order.
With stoned logic Nate came up with a theory
as to what had happened. He noticed that none of the English words had turned
into sparks. This was partly, he decided, due to their curvilinear nature. The
Japanese characters were made up of lightning jagged strokes which made them easier
to translate into sparks. But more than this, the English or Roman alphabet is
a phonetic writing system. The letters on their own have no intrinsic meaning.
But the Japanese ideograms known as Kanji were imbued with meaning unrelated to
their phonetic readings. They each represented the essence of something.
Saturday. The previous evening Cody had met
him in the student bar and, taking him to one side, told him that he must come
round tomorrow afternoon. It was Thomas, his new acquaintance. He'd just come
back from Amsterdam. Nate was a little nervous about that afternoon's meeting
and was trying to work the feeling off by writing some more of his 'project',
as he had come to call it.
"What object is more inspiring than a dictionary?
When I look at the alphabetically ordered words in bold type and the serried lines
of their definitions, it is like looking at creation's outward form and inner
workings all at once. The invisible universe of thought is described here plainly
and concisely. Ideas are put away in thousands of drawers. Looking at the text
I am suddenly lifted by visions that have nothing to do with the words themselves,
and by feelings which are as yet formless, waiting to be expressed as word or
vision. I look about the room, and see the words everywhere, in the carpet and
furniture. I see the interconnectedness of all things, how the word 'nepotism',
for instance, may be associated with the leg of a chair. The only other thing
on this earth to have quite such an effect is a record. Watch the needle in a
shiny groove of black vinyl and a million pictures and feelings come to mind,
all charged with this soaring quality of inspiration and intellectual exhilaration."
Nate felt himself peaking on the word 'exhilaration',
and with nowhere to go from there he was suddenly frustrated, suspended inarticulate
in mid-air. Seized by a strange, sudden instinct, he knew what he must do to burst
this bubble of frustration and breathe again. It wasn't enough to write on the
paper. It was too separate. He had to write on his own flash. Jabbing at the back
of his left hand with the nib of his pen, at last he punctured his suffocating
suspense. He didn't even have to think about the words.
"Art made flesh," he scrawled.
Yes, how satisfying! He had opened up a
little ventilation in himself to let in the air of the world. He felt his outline
begin to lose its strict, confining definition. Still, it was a little unbalanced.
He really needed something on the other hand too. He thought, in a single flash,
of the sensuality of words which he had recently started to explore, of the feeling
of opening himself to the world he had just experienced, and putting the two together
came up with a single word worthy of a true graffiti:
It struck him at once how exquisitely pretentious
he was being, but that only made him feel more vulnerable and 'open'. Surely this
was art, and anyone who saw it must understand that. The thought quite excited
Well, it was time to be off and meet this
Thomas bloke, and expose his art to more air along the way.
This time they weren't meeting in Cody's
room, but at Razza's flat, which meant walking all the way into town. He slid
down the dank little alley which housed the flat entrance and rang the doorbell.
In a moment Razza's flat mate, Badger, so called because he looked like a badger,
opened the window and threw down a bunch of keys. Nate caught them squarely, shook
his stinging fingers, and entered the flat. The smell of grass hit him as he walked
up the stairs. When he walked into the sitting room, Cody, Razza and Badger were
all present, plus a large and somewhat surreal figure on the armchair in front
of the window. The head of this latter was completely bald, no doubt shaved, and
a bright feathery earring dangled from his ear. He was wearing a tight white T-shirt
which revealed a muscular abdomen.
"Thomas this is Nate. Nate, Thomas."
Razza introduced them, then slumped down
on the sofa and took a fag from a box on the arm. He looked across at Nate, then,
extending one of the tabs like an aerial, pointed it in Nate's direction.
"Ta. Nice T-shirt!"
Razza was wearing a T-shirt bearing the
legend,' Watch more porn'. The letters were made up of a grainy collage of pornographic
Nate could not help noticing a large selection
of paper bags and re-sealable plastic bags arranged on the low coffee table around
which they were gathered. He eyed them as he lit the tab and the conversation
he had presumably interrupted was resumed. Thomas and his wares were the undoubted
focus of that conversation.
"So what was that one again?" asked Razza.
Thomas picked up a crumpled paper bag.
"This is a newly discovered herb which is
yet to be legislated against in any country. The effects are very interesting.
The best way to take it is to boil it up in milk. You'll probably vomit, anyway.
The effects last for 15 to 20 minutes in real time, but that doesn't matter. It
allows the experience of time paradoxes. Real-time stops. The user often sees
himself from outside his body and is able to visit past experiences as an outside
observer. There are other similar effects. Not to be taken lightly. Also, there
are certain things you mustn't eat for a few days afterwards."
"What happens if you do?"
"Yeah, yeah. Seriously. I've got a whole
list in the bag of what you mustn't eat."
"Like I said, not to be taken lightly. I
don't recommend it if you're just after a thrill."
"I'd actually be quite interested in doing
that with you some time."
Razza continued to question Thomas on the
contents of the various bags. Thomas reeled off Latin names of fungi and herbs,
which Nate knew he could not hope to remember, and enumerated their respective
attributes, desirable and undesirable.
"Thomas," Badger put in suddenly, "didn't
you feel nervous bringing all this stuff back?"
"No. It's easy. You just have to follow
a few simple rules."
"How did you get it all through customs
"In my girlfriend."
Something like a cross between a laugh,
a hiccup and a swear word passed Razza's lips, almost dislodging his cigarette.
"I'll just borrow your toilet, if that's
all right, boys."
"Yeah, go for it!" said Razza.
When Thomas left the room Razza looked around,
his eyes meeting those of the assembled. Another casual obscenity hiccuped past
"Fuck! If I suggested anything like that
to my girlfriend I'd get a slap round the face. ''ere you are darlin', get these
"How did it all fit? And what about the
paper bags?" Nate wondered aloud, but no one took up this line of inquiry, and
he felt vaguely that he was taking the question too far.
When Thomas returned Cody caught his attention.
"Thomas, man, Nate here might be interested
in buying something off you."
Thomas turned his gaze on Nate, who felt
he had suddenly come into existence for Thomas at that moment.
"What are you looking for?"
"I don't know, really. Some sort of hallucinogen."
Thomas sat back down in his chair.
"To tell the truth, I don't sell just anything
to anyone. I have to know the person a bit before I know what they can take and
what will suit them. I'm a specialist, see."
"Okay. Well, it doesn't matter, really."
Thomas's eyes fell on something near Nate's
knees. Nate was a little disconcerted, wondering what could have caught his attention.
"On your hands."
Nate had forgotten about the writing on
"Let me see."
Thomas took Nate's hands in his. Thomas
had large, strong hands. Nate felt for a moment what he supposed a girl might
feel touched by those hands. They were the hands of a stranger, obviously quite
capable of crushing his own, but gentle, and controlled by some inscrutable intelligence.
"What does this mean?" asked Thomas, now
holding Nate's hands palm downward in his own palms like some sort of quizzical
fortune teller. Even though he had written his slogans brazenly for anyone to
see, now that someone had actually noticed them and questioned him Nate was embarrassed.
"I don't know."
"Interesting." said Thomas, releasing Nate
and nodding his head as he sank back into his chair again.
"I'll tell you what, I'll come round to
visit you and we can work out exactly what kind of merchandise will suit you."
Thomas stepped through the door.
"Make yourself at home." Nate gestured towards
the bed, seating himself in the chair by his desk. Thomas, however, did not sit
down, but continued to look about the room curiously. Thomas was undoubtedly the
strangest guest ever to step over the threshold of this room. Nate couldn't quite
put his finger on what it was. Was it just because he was the first guest who
was neither affiliated to the university nor any sort of relation? He just did
not seem to belong here. There was something else, as well. Although Thomas had
hardly seemed to notice Nate at Razza's until Cody had mentioned the purchase
of drugs, now Thomas looked at him almost as if their acquaintance was of longer
standing than that with any of the gang who had introduced them.
"What you're like says a lot about the kind
of person you are. " said Nate, all of the sudden.
"No. I'm just quoting Viz comic. I just
wondered what you can tell by looking at my room."
"Sorry, I don't mean to be rude."
"That's OK. I mean, that's why you came
here, isn't it?"
"Well, you're a language student, anyway."
"Yeah." Nate felt defeated by the whole
redundancy of the conversation. He could think of nothing either witty or pertinent.
Suddenly, he had an idea.
"Shall I skin up?"
"Go ahead. Don't let me stop you."
Without thinking Nate hefted the Japanese-English
dictionary in his hand and set about cannibalising another half-page for the joint.
It was as if he had forgotten that rizlas alone might suffice. He put the dictionary
down again just as Thomas finished his inspection of the room and sat himself
on the bed. His eye falling squarely on the dictionary just as Nate plonked it
on the table, Thomas seemed suddenly to be deeply intrigued and reached out for
the tome. For some reason Nate was unduly alarmed when he began to leaf through
it. Thomas stopped at the missing pages and looked up at Nate significantly.
"Words." he said, "Of course, it's all becoming
clear to me. ' In the beginning was the Word,' and all that."
"Do you write, by any chance?"
"Well, I scribble down nonsense, you know."
"Perfect! Can I see?"
"Erm. Would you like to share this with
me first? It might make more sense if you read it after a little puff."
"Not at the moment, thank you. Can I read
some of your writing?"
"Er. Okay. Just a moment."
Nate took his writing pad from the desk
and handed it to Thomas.
"Like I say, it's just scribbling really."
said Nate diffidently.
Thomas clutched the handwritten text in
both hands and, hunched over in concentration, seemed to devour it with his eyes.
"Uncanny!" he said, laying it down on the
bed without reading it all. "It almost restores your faith in destiny!"
Nate applied a Promethean spark to his spliff
with a jittery hand. He drew on it, and with the rush of devouring orange there
came a shower of sparks, all in the shape of Kanji. Nate's eyes opened wide.
"I didn't think that would happen with someone
"If something happens in the presence of
one person it can happen in the presence of two."
"You don't seem surprised."
"Seeing is believing, as they say. Nothing
"You don't find it at all odd?"
"Look, it's the ink, isn't it? The rest
of the page is just eaten away, and the parts impregnated with ink flare up."
"I don't think so."
"Anyway, that's nothing. I have far more
unusual things to tell you. Listen, I know exactly what you want, exactly what
you've always wanted, the drug to fulfil your every desire."
"Yes. It's a nifty little medicine I call
"'Literal Thinking'? That's the name of
"Yes. It's to do with the turning of figures
of speech and metaphor into literal reality. It is the very ingredient that's
missing from this formula you're writing."
Nate had already gulped a few lungfuls of
the joint between sentences. The paper gave the smoke the rich, silky feeling
of real potency, and he was sure that the sparks of Kanji were multiplying in
his brain. Perhaps it wasn't the best time to be smoking such a weird spliff.
The conversation was done-in enough as it was and he was having difficulty getting
his head around it
"Er. Great! What do I do with it?"
"You roll it up in a spliff very much like
the one you're toking on now. You want to get published, right?"
"I don't know..."
"Of course you do! And that's just the start.
Literal Thinking! It's the way forward!"
"So I smoke this shit... And I get published?"
"Yeah! Well, you won't understand till you
try it. Mind you, take note - I am by no means recommending this drug to you.
I'm merely informing you of its existence. 0h - and the fact it's what you've
always been looking for. The actual decision is yours alone. I'll leave a little
sample behind for you to ponder over, if you like."
Nate did not have to ponder for long. Before
the effects of the last joint had worn off he was feeling restless and itching
for some fresh tonic to combat his eternal ennui. It was there, on his
desk. He had it in his possession. He had not even had to part with any money.
A new drug was waiting to be experimented with and he was on his own in his own
room, the door was fitted with a lock, he had nothing important planned for the
rest of his life and no regard for his own mental health. Literal Thinking. It
was just there, like an unignorable hard-on. Fuck it! Nate set about assembling
another joint. This one was going to be a monster.
And indeed it was. A couple of puffs and
Nate was feeling very strange indeed, almost insubstantial. Then came the revelations.
He could see the words everywhere, part of the very fabric of existence. He had
thought he was toying with some metaphor about the power of words. Not a bit of
it! He trod on them, breathed them in, wore them. They were literally - and words,
of course are always literal - the stuff of which the universe was woven.
Now, just as the urge to smoke had seized
him, so he realised he had to write, to finish what he had started. What better
way was there to spend the moment than to tune into creation? Only when he was
writing was he truly being, like a bird in flight rather than earthbound, wings
Joint in one hand, pen in the other, he
hunched over his pad. His nib raced towards its inevitable conclusion.
"And so I finally understand that I have
been searching for the meaning of my own words in the wrong place. I thought they
were a means of capturing some separate, objective reality, or evoking some separate
entity. These things, too, may be possible. But the real formula being written
is that which shall serve as a blueprint for my own soul. Now I know where The
Gateway leads. It is The Gateway to Immortality. I intend to step through it."
Nate inhaled deeply one last time.
"Now." he wrote.
He exhaled, and it seemed that he was exhaling
himself, for he began to vanish from the feet upwards till there was only a pair
of blowing lips. Then there was only smoke hitting the page in rolling waves.
The half-smoked joint fell to the floor.
It was a unique story; unique because it merged
with reality. The mystery of Nate's disappearance was very much part of it, was
its final twist. Everyone who read it felt a strange tingling sensation they could
not account for. They did not realise the irony that this tingling hinted at.
Nate's family desperately tried to track down his whereabouts with this last testament
as a guide. Everyone who read it speculated on where Nate might have gone, not
able even to conceive that he was literally right under their noses, in the words
of the story. It was the perfect escape act.
Thinking the publicity might help them to
trace Nate, his family allowed the story to be printed in magazines and anthologised
in books. The story took on a life of its own.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the page,
Nate sprawled in the grandiose ease of curling letters. This was what it meant
to have made it. He was reclining on the literary couch of Eternity, saying no
more and no less than was necessary to express the enigma of his existence, explaining
nothing, being everything. From time to time that existence was illuminated by
the lightning flash of another's consciousness when the eye of a reader fell upon
the page. One flash was enough to secure Nate's Immortality, but he was blessed
with a superfluity of such flashes. The mind impregnated in the page mirrored
the mind of the reader, each reflecting and multiplying the other to create an
instantaneous and self-contained eternity. The readers, as if by some trick of
this sudden flash of cerebral light, would also seem to see things between the
lines of the story, things apparently without relation to the meanings of the
words themselves. There were great vistas of dream or reality imbued with a gasping
speechlessness. There were, as well, more specific landscapes, stretching vastly
before the mind's eye, or else tiny details of scenes which yet suggested an ungraspable
For, in affecting this eloquent metamorphosis,
Nate had not confined himself with the horizontal bars of sentences to this one
story. Rather, he threw out tentacles from this story to other words, gloriously
at random. At one instant he might be a Latin epigram, standing out boldly on
the open page of a book in a library, lofty as marble, astonishing some ephemeral
mind with the time-honoured and irreducible pithinesses of its expression. At
another moment he might be a few lines of graffiti scrawled in marker on the outside
of a public lavatory. (It is summer and fresh breezes sigh against the wall, mixing
with the smell of urine. In this dank corner of the gardens much time passes when
no eye meets the obscure, seedy, but ultimately exquisite nostalgia of these words.)
The epigram steeped in the pleasant austerities of learning, the graffiti speaking
the poetry of the rough and obscene, the names signed on a plaster cast, the looping
hand of a hand-written letter, all were alike in that they gave a breath of the
invisible vista of Forever.
Nate opened his eyes to utter confusion. It
was not the confusion of clutter or movement. In fact there was very little to
see. As if a chair had just been pulled away at the moment he was about to sit
on it, he was sprawled upon the floor, leaning on his palms. The room was box-like,
blue-grey and windowless. In front of him was an imposing desk, and behind it
sat a man wearing a suit jacket over a T-shirt. The man's head was shaved and
he wore a feathery earring. It was Thomas. Nate rifled desperately through his
memories, but though they seemed in themselves intact, there was no bridge between
them and this room.
"How did I get here? Where is this?"
"You have been lifted out of time. This
is zero time."
Nate looked around the room. There was a
door in the wall to the left and one in the wall to the right. For some reason
these two doors failed to dispel a terrible, claustrophobic conviction in Nate
that there was no outside, that this room simply existed without relation to anything
else, not in a void as such, because even a void was something and might have
boundaries, but in perfect isolation. Also, perhaps because of the lack of windows
and ventilation, it was insufferably hot and stuffy, and Nate was streaming with
"We both know what you have to ask next.
It is inevitable. So I shall save you the trouble and explain what has happened.
Immortality has a price. Did you consider that before you stepped over the threshold?
What you have done is to clone your soul with your words, to photocopy it, if
you like, and the original, by force of displacement, has ended up here, where
I have been expecting you."
"Is this the afterlife?"
"More like the outside-life."
"And my photocopies - are they all conscious,
"Ah yes, very quick of you. Still very conscious,
very you, and totally independent. I expect you want to know what happens now?"
"Look. This is nothing personal. We start
out with vague ideals, but we come down to practicalities. It's like this: In
the midst of impermanence we must still have something permanent. We need a permanent
resident in Hell as a sort of cornerstone. You were a prime candidate. You see,
running the universe is a business like any other and we must make compromises."
"I'll be damned if I'm going to spend eternity
"Ah yes. Who are you anyway? I thought you
were just some dodgy dealer."
"Questions, questions! Studied Japanese,
didn't you? You must be interested in the Orient. See if you recognise this: ''He
who takes wine and gives it to another to drink is born for five hundred births
without hands', is the teaching of the Buddha.'"
"So Buddhism is correct?"
"Buddhism schmuddhism! It's just a load
of pious bollocks like everything else. I'm simply trying to explain in terms
you might understand. Listen, everything we do has consequences. Even the tiniest
mistake might mean Hell. If there's one thing that all religions teach it is that
you are nothing, zilch, a mere cypher. Either you're a miserable sinner or you're
just an illusion. Now, if you try to defy this dictum, you can incur terrible
penalties. You have committed the ultimate sin; you have tried to be 'something'
forever. Not only that, you have tried to seduce others into the same attachments
with your words. Words are like a drug. For as long as this attachment remains,
there must also be an equal and opposite punishment."
"You're the one who should be punished.
You tricked me. You tempted me into taking your drug."
"Now, now. If you remember, I didn't try
to persuade you, at all."
"You know, if you forget all the preachy
stuff, Buddhism is quite close to how things really are. Karma, cause and effect,
having to account for every action and reaction, the endless cycle, the endless
fucking paperwork! 'Our words must seem to be inevitable.' Who said that? Running
the universe is really a study of inevitability. I think I'm getting the hang
of it. It's all coming together. You say I've tricked you, but I'll wangle my
way out of it, just you see. This business is like constantly taking out one loan
to pay off another. But I think you'll cancel a few debts altogether. In fact,
I think I'll have your signature now."
Thomas took up a scroll and came out from
behind his desk.
"What is it?"
"It is a declaration that I in no way influenced
your decision to take the drug Literal Thinking."
"What if I don't sign it?"
"This is zero time, remember? From here
I can plonk you back down to before you ever attained immortality. But now you
know what else is waiting for you - at best, nothingness. It's your choice."
Nate considered a moment, but as with his
decision to take Literal Thinking in the first place, the outcome was already
"Okay! But listen to me! If I live for ever,
here in Hell and somewhere else in the words I have written, I will defy you in
spirit forever, and since perhaps you don't care about that, I will find some
way, some way to escape, and then you'd better fucking watch out."
"It's all been accounted for, my friend."
and with that Thomas handed Nate the scroll and a quill. "With blood, if you don't
mind. Sorry, but we must observe the formalities. Thank you!"
Thomas took the scroll and quill back and
bundled them into a drawer in the desk.
"I've got another scroll for you, here."
Thomas took a parchment from the same drawer
and let it unroll in a flourish. This one was much longer than the other. It rolled
all the way to the floor, something in the extravagance of the script and the
age and texture of the scroll itself suggesting a flayed human skin covered in
"The purpose of this one is two-fold. I'm
sure you'll appreciate the irony of this. Since you love words so much we'll have
you repeating them for eternity. This is a mantra. While you recite it, it will
give the universe the substance that we require. And as long as you recite it
and do not pause it will also keep you from feeling the worst of the flames. It's
fireproof, of course. Well, shall I show you your room?"
The door in the left wall swung open. The
heat in the room grew suddenly more intense.
© Quentin S. Crisp
Courtesy by Quentin S. Crisp