Wednesday, March 2, 2011
My heavy boots clomped over rickety duckboards that had been constructed hastily along the Thames. The tubes were so clogged with people escaping death from the sky that the trains were no longer running regularly. I followed Clare, squinting behind her in the flat winter light. She looked indistinct in the gray light of the river, which reflected the water not in normal ripples that composed and decomposed with the movement of the water, but a bland steady stream of drab olive gray green, creating a queasy paisley pattern along the uneven strand. Every now and again Clare turned to make sure I was still following.
QMS was housed in an ugly, squat building of discolored yellowing granite. One hundred and fifty years of Thames-side abutment gave it the appearance of a dock standing on end. It had hideous brown discolorations and black scouring running down its sides like a mottled, partially shed skin.
When we entered the sallow green halls there was the mild stench of sewage and an ubiquitous hissing like a kettle on a hob. Clare led me down the hall. It was lined with offices, each office honeycombed with cubbies and the cubbies were further sub-divided by small desks. There was the metallic click and clank of office machines and a spatter of telephone bells ringing. I could see the odd assortment of English faces behind desks and standing with cups and saucers, of aquiline noses on uncommonly broad faces, flaxen hair pasted down over thinning pates, complexions mottled with sunspots, liver spots, uneven tans, blemishes and sundry discolorations; women with bulging bosoms the shapes of conical torpedoes, quite attractive to look at, but thrown out of proportion by wide hips and stout legs, or rendered unappealing by missing teeth or shoddy dental work in highly visible areas of the mouth.
Clare brought me to the end of the hall to a door stenciled “MAJ. GAVIN BUDGE,” opened the door, introduced us perfunctorily, and before I could even focus on the pale figure behind the desk she had disappeared from the blind slice along the edge of my peripheral vision. Major Budge stood up to take my hand. I had saluted, but he did not return it, so I slipped my ebony paw into his moony hand.
“Ahh… Vandemark, Langley Vandemark.” He seemed dreadfully relieved that it was me. “Please call me Gavin. Gavin Budge. We don’t rest on formality here, you know. Not really the Regular Army, rest assured. Ah, no, just do your work, I say, and leave the military manners to those who have a career to foster.”
Gazing at him, I realized we were an odd juxtaposition of opposite types. Budge was wispy, thin, and young, perhaps twenty-five. He seemed incapable of growing real hair, but instead had a curious soft blond down on his head, neck and forearms. His moustache, slightly darker than his body down, covered a thin upper lip at an irregular, slightly off center angle, a sort of downward slope on the left side, and an upper slope at the right, giving him an amused, ironic expression without a trace of malice.
He extended a soft hand and gestured for me to sit. Now that I was on his level I could see that his extraordinary thinness bordered on emaciation. I thought I saw, in the pale dull glimmer of his eyes, a reflection of my state-side brother.
“The way I see it Vandemark,” he continued, “is that you’re being stationed here is a real god-send, so to speak. Even if precious little is accomplished, its just good for morale to see the US uniform milling about in the halls. We must try and get you out and about as well. Clare, she’s a darling plum, isn’t she, will bring you about, meet the right people, and all that.”
I must have frowned.
“Oh, don’t worry Vandemark, you’re not here as a token just to gussy up the place. No, we have real goals for you to accomplish. Well then, unless you have any questions Clare will show you to your office. I’ll apologize in advance for your accommodations, we are a little short on space. Actually, not a little. Space is somewhat of a crisis around here.”
Clare escorted me down the hallway. The same heads peered from behind cubicles, the same legs jutted out beneath desks, the rattle of a typewriter, the buzz of a bell.
People huddled around a radio listening to news about some disastrous campaign in the Pacific. We turned and headed down steps to a vaulted hallway lined with transverse hallways; this hall branched off at a fork; we took the left fork. Signs showed one’s supposed position: a confusing array of initials and arrows pointing to various destinations ISU , AWL , IFG-20. I asked Clare what each department was and she answered in vague terms. One department ordered a certain type of tropical uniform, pith helmets, canteens, mosquito netting, another kept His Majesty’s Navy supplied with gray paint, another binoculars. Soon we were in a darker corridor lit by dim yellow bulbs suspended by twisted and fraying wires.
“We’re technically underground now”, Clare informed me, “Some of these warrens even go under the river.”
Moisture seeped through the concrete ceiling. A mold haze hung suspended over the hall in a thin vaporous wisps. Fewer people moved about down here. There seemed to be only me, Clare, and an ever narrowing corridor.
Finally she opened a door with my name crookedly stenciled on the front. It was a small room with a squat desk in its center. A tall green chair stood behind it, and on the desk was a matching green blotter. A small black phone sat left of center. When we entered I realized that the room was not small, just cluttered with stacked boxes and crates. They were piled higher than me, butting against the dripping ceiling, cascading down behind the door, blocking a mysterious iron door on the other side of the room opposite the desk. A few were open. I saw military style boots, socks, gloves, hats. They looked like Great War vintage gear.
“You think its bad in here, take a look in there.” Clare ineffectually pushed away some boxes in front of the iron door. She was a wisp of a girl, so I helped her budge the door open with my foot.
She reached around with her long arm and felt for the light switch. The vast room was brimming with crates. Another room and one behind it held an equal number of crates and boxes. I could not see an end.
“What the hell is this stuff?” I asked incredulously.
“Most of it is overflow from the Great War, the last war. Stuff never used, thank God. But there’s some strange things in here as well. This building once housed a telephone and telegraph company, a cotton importer, an indigo importer, some kind of government bureau in the ‘20’s. They were trying to recycle and reuse this stuff, I think, but it never panned out.”
She turned and looked at me like a weary bored little girl. Her blue uniform was a pasty gray in the underground light. But her elfin skin and gray eyes glistened with moisture, as if all her life force was housed in her irisis’.
I wondered, in one of those fantastic moments of erotic illumination, when you suddenly realize that another is a desirable object, when a shift in cognition renders a woman a beloved, what this gray green creature would look like curled up next to my tremendous bulk. Would she lay beneath me, outstretched and yielding to my greater weight, or be slung on top of me, poised above a buffer of moist air cushioning us, her pointed ears and glistening eyes turned outward to the dark, toward the endless configurations of murky shapes and outlines that were my meticulous creations?
I thought I saw, in here childlike irritated glare, a hint of the same nastily arranged conspiracy that haunted me to my bones ---- the ability, without a trace of contrition or denial --- to hide one’s moribund impulses from the world; to take the duplicitous face that we (I) created in our (my) breasts and unapologetic, thrust it outward.
When Clare left me alone in my new office I stood silently for a moment, arms akimbo, breathing irregularly and shallowly, a great weight, irregular and queer in its distribution, was sitting atop my head, pressing down. I held my massive head aslant and saw, through my dimming field of vision, the bug eyed dull gaze of a black rubber gas mask.
I thought it was an elf.