Till the End of Time
Reproduced from, London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2014, 117-123.
Pat Cormon used to sell all kinds of cold things in his shop that was itself rather like a fridge. The day after VJ Day, when that rain began that would not stop before the following day, he went to stand in his doorway to watch the show.
People were starting to run or ducking into houses. The sky had emptied all at once, like a playing field. Somewhere above Pat’s head, an illuminated advert was spinning and bathing the façades with great lickings of blue, endlessly sweeping round, making him feel seasick. At pavement level, a burst water pipe was sculpting ferocious plumes of water. Little by little, the ghost of an upside-down town appeared beneath the street, and little doubled men, like paper cut-outs folded in two, fluttered along in mid-air.
Jerry appeared in the shop like the world created out of chaos. The seven days of Creation all bundled up in his sheepskin jacket darted across the chaos-room, through the chaos-light stippled with chaos-rain, leaving Jerry-as-Adam in Marines uniform, the colour of Heaven on Earth. The Lord Himself — by which I mean Pat — greeted him rather begrudgingly, but Jerry did not seem in the least bit concerned.
‘After all, we have put an end to it, this good old war’, he announced, with satisfaction.
‘We had Right on our side’, Pat said, gravely.
‘Certainly’, said Jerry. ‘It’s a good thing; Right. And the Bomb is another good thing. Two good things going for us, eh, Pat? We’re a great country.’
‘A soldier shouldn’t joke about these things’, said Pat.
‘Sorry’, said Jerry. ‘I haven’t had time to learn how a soldier should behave around civvies. Living in so many foxholes, one becomes quite the fox oneself. I shall have to learn the hens’ lingo. Then I’ll be able to make conversation without scandalising you.’
‘Hey, you sonofa…’
‘Don’t be crude, Pat. If the angels hear you, they’ll go parroting it to all the right-thinking people in this town, and they’ll take their business elsewhere.’
‘I’m sorry you’re a lunatic’, said Pat.
‘I’m delighted’, Jerry retorted.
Night was falling. The neon washing machine churned on, choppy and ever more nauseating.
‘Lousy weather’, said Jerry. ‘I had a date at the Park but it’s flooded. Think I’ll go to the Flit Flat instead. Won’t you come?’
‘Certainly’, said Pat. ‘Certainly I’ll come running about in this weather to hear a cursed dirty nigger slobbering into his trumpet.’
‘I see’, said Jerry. ‘You still have ideas about negroes. It’s a prejudice, if you know what that means. I met some on the other side of the ocean that knew how to drink for all the world like regular men.’
‘If you want to know what I think, you’ve had it, Jerry my boy’, Pat said. ‘You’re starting to crack jokes and ramble on about things. You’re not good for much any more, if you want my opinion.’
‘You’re awfully fine like that, Pat’, said Jerry. ‘You gesticulating there in the window and the rain lighting you up on all sides, just like the monkey in that good old rhyme by Carl Sandburg. You know…’
Jerry went and stood by the door, in the midst of the revolving wash of light, and gaily declaimed:
There was a tree of stars sprang up on a vertical panel of the south
And a monkey of stars climbed up and down in this tree of stars…1
‘There you go now with your damned poetry’, grumbled Pat, and turned his back to Jerry.
Night had now fallen altogether. A bunch of paper streamers thrown from a window the day before had got tangled up around the arm of a streetlamp above the shop, and this luminous arm, scribbled through by the rain, looked somehow powdered like the phosphorescent snow that people put on the trees over Christmas.
‘It was only a dream, o-ho, ya-ya, loo-loo, only a dream, five, six, seven, five, six seven’, Jerry concluded with an energetic flourish.
‘There’s not a drop of sense in anything you say’, commented Pat, amiably.
‘You’ll never understand that some words out there can unscrew the world’, said Jerry, very excited. ‘Nothing holds still any more, just as if this dump we’re in were all of a sudden to get on the road — yes! — and go for a wander across the whole town.’
‘I’ve got my feet on the ground’, said Pat, irascibly. ‘And you can talk like that for weeks without either me or you stopping having our feet on the ground, and the same street in the same place, and this old shack around us, till the end of time.’
‘Till the end of time’, said Jerry. ‘But as you say, it’ll have to end one day, huh? And if the old shack gave up the ghost, huh, Pat?’
Pat shrugged, exasperated. He hated Jerry, who always came and told him stories that were half dreamt-up; you never knew if he was being serious or if he was teasing. I wonder if he gets all this out of books; and now the worst of it is you can’t tell a soldier who’s been decorated, wounded and everything to go and get lost. And that feeling of uneasiness that followed Jerry’s visits, as if somewhere in his ravings he had touched on some old wound of Pat’s, something hidden, shameful, a dormant pain, the source of which had been lost, yet it endured, kept enduring like remorse. Then merely through being thought of, the pain would waken again, a kind of oppression, disgust, as if the world had suddenly lost all meaning, as if without warning a woman at your side were to dissolve right away. Just then, Pat saw a woman coming out of the rain, and her deathly face in the blue and violet whirl of the light. Now at the door, now inside the shop, and asking permission to take shelter from the downpour. Pat grumbled a vague assent, caught up in the queasy lurch of the violet light and the world’s end. The water gargoyles in a fit of hiccoughs. The Christmas tree branch bedecked with moving light, vibrating beneath that dead, undulating glow, that obscene caress, spiritless, persistent.
‘You know what I thought’, Jerry went on, in a lower tone. ‘It’s something you shouldn’t put about too much, but you, it doesn’t matter, you won’t believe it. You know what so many of us have come to thinking, in our foxholes and other spots? The only thing we’ve taken with us?’
‘I’m not listening to you’, said Pat. He was focusing all his willpower on not putting his hands up to his mouth, on keeping them clenched in his pockets.
‘That’s just it, Pat. Exactly. The end of the old shack. Don’t take me for one of those nutcases yelling that the world will blow up because we have offended our Lord. It’s nothing like an explosion or a celestial fury. Something like, if you will… going rotten. The town’s fallen to ashes, your legs and your hands and the table and the stones all mixing together, joining up, like the chains and the prisoners’ feet. And a shop like yours, Pat, which comes apart and goes off along the streets, all the way to the sea.’
The woman looked at him in surprise. She had a beautiful face like a Northern warrior, and a violent, swollen mouth, shining in the rain. The top half of her face was hidden in the door’s shadow. The mouth remained fully lit, strangely yielding and exposed. Since seeing her, Pat felt his breath coming more quickly.
Jerry appeared completely to have forgotten about the end of the world and his prophesies. Perched on a corner of the counter, he was doing an impression of ‘Frankie Boy’ Sinatra. Outside, the lights’ spinning seemed faster, more pitiless, dragging the façades into its merry-go-round, drawing tight around the town as if to make it burst. Pat watched the woman’s mouth, gleaming like a beacon. ‘My Nancy’, sang Jerry, hands outstretched in a gesture of adoration. The gargoyles spewing in stained-glass colours. The light poured its unclean, purple embrace over the woman’s lips. Pat was trembling. Jerry jumped to his feet, put on his fur-trim jacket, still singing.
‘…You can’t resist her, sorry for you, she has no sister! No angel…2 I’m heading off to the Flit Flat, it’s too gloomy at your place, Pat. Bye now, try to be good with the girl. So long, little sister. I’ll be seeing you, Pat.’
He dived away into the rain, the dead light, the dancing façades. Pat and the woman stood still by the window for a long while, in the silence. And the shadows brushing over the woman’s mouth, in the light of sin.
Now a strange thing happened. Pat Cormon thought he knew his street and his daily surroundings like the back of his hand. In this grid-planned town everything joined up, everything fit together. If you stood in the middle of his doorway, the door opposite would slot perfectly into the smallest of his glass panes. Pat had tested this more than once in his idle hours, closing one eye then the other so as to see it jump to one side. Had he always been mistaken, or was this yet another effect of these cursed lights? He could have sworn that the door across the road now distinctly overlapped the window’s edge. Pat began to look with one eye then the other, then realised he must be making quite an idiot of himself and stopped. Cursed lights.
‘Your friend looked a bit worked up’, the woman said. Pat watched her mouth in a daze, as if only now discovering that it could also talk. She had a lovely smooth voice, dark and alive, like her lips.
‘I think he was drunk’, said Pat. ‘He was talking about the end of the world.’
‘It’s interesting’, said the woman, with a little laugh. ‘And it particularly interests me.’ She pressed her forehead against the glass. The light rose up
her face. The flesh around her eyes was slightly paler. When she lowered her eyelids, it was like two tombs freshly buried. ‘I had a friend who arranged to meet me at the end of the world. I’ve been waiting ever since.’
‘Here we go’, thought Pat venomously. ‘Here come the confessions.’ At the same time he looked over to the other side of the street. He squinted. Cursed lights. The other door still looked as though it had moved.
‘You have a lovely voice’, said Pat. And was shocked that he had said so.
‘Yes… He also used to talk about my voice. He said… that it existed beyond words, like music. And also that the Angel of Death would call him with my voice.’
‘Is he dead?’ asked Pat, for something to say.
‘Not even’, replied the woman. She looked up again. The shadow dropped back to her mouth, encroaching a little on the upper lip. Pat looked sideways at her, his breath rapid, and realised at the same time, in fright, that he no longer dared look at the other door.
‘He used to write to me: “Your voice stays in me like an open wound. Like a wound that would call me with living lips, from your lips.” Do you write things like that, yourself?’
Hearing her talk about her lips, Pat began to shiver like an animal in pain.
‘No, I don’t write things like that. I don’t think — I don’t say things like that. It’s just more nonsense’, he burst out, ‘like him with his end of the world.’
‘Yes’, she said, ‘and you don’t believe in it. And yet…’ Her voice was still very calm. ‘And yet the other side of the road is no longer quite where it should be. And you know it.’
Pat spun round in horror.
‘What did you say?’
‘And you don’t dare look at it any more.’
She looked down. And once again the lights rise up to her pale hair, again her closed eyes, fresh tombs, again mauve and blue bites like shadows of fatigue on her mouth.
Pat sensed that something in his mind was hardening and huddling away, while everything else was moving horribly. He dared to look outside. The door opposite was now level with his right-hand window. It was still distinctly drifting. The two sides of the road were slowly sliding out, like ships passing sidelong to each other. Pat was choking with fear. He vaguely heard the woman pronounce a name, the name of a cinema, a cinema that was a little further along her face. The flesh around her eyes was slightly paler. When she lowered her eyelids, it was like two tombs freshly buried. ‘I had a friend who arranged to meet me at the end of the world. I’ve been waiting ever since.’
‘Are you afraid?’ asked the woman.
Now Pat begins to tremble properly. From the depths of the night, the houses line up and loom like panels of a film set. They have the stiffness and menace of great winged Assyrian lions. Something moves within the town. Demons load the façades on to their backs in order to prepare the spectacle. The sickening merry-go-round of lights, violet, mauve, blue, draws everything in and leads the parade. Like a heavy turntable set in motion, the road turns faster and faster. The mad windows halloo after foxes around the bright beacon of the woman’s mouth. The fascination of that mouth grips Pat. The gargoyle spouts hiccough towards her, warriors dying at the feet of a desired woman. The lights draw in the houses, mislay and abandon the houses like lost children, and escape from the houses to blot out that mouth with a great lick of its raging, unclean tongue, before disappearing altogether. The Angel of Death calls with Her voice. And from the depths of the foxholes, Jerry and all the dead signal to the towns passing by. Thumbing lifts from houses, but no one stops. Pat guesses at everything that will happen, the shop reaching the end of the town and then the sea. And in the windows, as steady, as inert as ever, like pedestrians or cars, the lighthouses straining into the night, the blurred images of radio broadcasts seeking help from the stars, and the ships gliding on in silence beneath the windows, in the spray, branded by their headlights. And that mouth. The cruise ships calling SOS.
‘The cruise ships are calling SOS…’, says the woman.
‘Listen…’, says Pat. ‘I don’t know what you’ve come here for…’
He was shivering. The woman stood near him, her mouth hot and defenceless like a dead bird. He realised that he hadn’t even been able to make out her body, lost in the shadows and obscured by the muddled lights, yet from it rose something that was both a promise and a threat. He dared not look her in the eyes, but on the breath approaching closer and closer he smelled the scents of a body wet with rain, of bitten fruit, and of something like the taste of annihilation.
All at once, he leapt backwards.
‘Get out of here’, he said furiously. ‘I don’t know what you came here for but get out, before… before…’
She stood there quite still for a moment, facing him, not even attempting to look surprised. His hands flapped at the counter, unable to settle on it. Outside, only the streetlamp’s arm remained visible, like the branch of a Christmas tree, sparkling in the night beneath the scrawl of the rain. Somewhere above their heads, a neon advert spun and spun, bathing the world in great licks of its blue tongue, a slow, obstinate, defiling sweep. And the unmoving mouth, now in shadow, like an animal readying to pounce.
‘Get out’, Pat repeated.
She turned, pulled up her hood, laid one hand on the door. Pat closed his eyes, heard the door click. Then he stepped outside in his turn, watched her move away. The street was in its rightful place, the doors all aligned. He watched her for a long while. Little by little she advanced in the rain with a regular step, clearly distinguishable, her head a little bent inside the hood. A passer-by like the others.
Pat went back inside, wet through. The rain was falling more calmly, straight to the ground. The ghost of an upside-down town lived in the street. The light revolved. At pavement level, a burst water pipe sculpted gargoyle spouts of water. Pat shook his head, as if to chase away, along with the rainwater, the dead ghosts and the residue of those strange, strange times.
1. Carl Sandburg, Monkey of Stars in The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, NY, 1969, p.401 (editor’s note).
2. From the lyrics to ‘Nancy’ by Harrington, Leo Arthur / Minehan, David James Jr. (editor’s note).