Thursday, May 5, 2011
Playing off Gavin’s essentially decent nature and sense of fair sportmashipism, I was given one more chance to redeem myself in my moist work hole, from the bottom of my fetid puddle. I was installed without a shred of ceremony back in the lair.
But I knew that in crucial ways that this was now the abode of the shadow, my arch nemesis, who would, through infernal designs and black machinations, destroy my life house and to otherwise with a swipe of his hairy paw knock down the edifice of cards I had carefully constructed through years of subterfuge and misdirected rage turned inward.
“Now make sure, old chum, that you take it easy,” Gavin stressed and elongated the ‘e’ in easy, “anytime you need to take a break, by all means do so. Don’t feel like you have to burn the midnight oil like you have been. Moderation should rule the day at this juncture, old boy. Well, cheerio, I’m off to the millstone. Pop up for tea, do.” He sauntered jauntily off, his hand dug roguishly into his trouser pockets, flaring his tight tunic coat like the wings of Mercury somehow worn roguishly about the waist.
Everything was still. The office, eerily untouched. No signs of a scuffle or foul play no tell take markers of tampering with the furnishings, the lamps; no blood splatter, no indications of a hastily conducted clean-up.
The black phone, a miniature infant coffin decked out in mourning noir, was rooted like a black eye, square in the center of the desk top, adjacent to the olive green blotter. Someone had come in and removed my work from the inbox and outbox, both dully stenciled IN and OUT, and facing the open hall door. The only sound, the distant hollow ring of a phone, echoing in the outside chamber as if submerged in tank of water. That quickly stopped, however, and was replaced by a drip, drip, drip of water, falling a great distance and landing with a splatter on an already moist stone.
I rang the buzzer for Alfred before I realized, to my chagrin, that in my absence he had been transferred out of my jurisdiction. I rang again out of a vague sense of irritation, and the nagging idea that some task was being left undone by idleness, that my lack of proprietorship of some stack of paper, somewhere, was killing some fresh faced lad needlessly in the confusing advance on a map of Europe that resembled a bulge bursting through the Allied lines on the Franco-German border, or that somewhere on a Pacific atoll a freckled faced boy was reaching for a mortar from a box of shells and peering through the wooden struts in the interior, finding nothing.
Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Nothing. Only the infernal drip somewhere down the hall, and then, as if in a call and response patter designed exclusively to scuttle my sanity, the sub-aquatic phone began again. Ring. Ring. Ring. I stood up and strolled down the hall to my nearest neighbor, a Lt. Manchester, one level up. He was lucky enough to have a half window that looked onto the street. Occasionally, while sitting in his guest chair, I would see shadow feet scuffling about on the pavement above. I rushed into Manchester’s office, breathless and perturbed. He was talking on the telephone. He looked up momentarily, and said “I’ll call you right back,” and placed the phone in the receiver.
“Vandemark, so good to see you again!”
“Yes,” I blurted, wanting to continue, but he interrupted me.
“I hope you had a pleasant rest. We’ve all been pulling for you, you know. Dreadful thing, exhaustion, under the circumstances, understandable.”
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
“What? Hear what?” he answered, cocking his head to the side. He twitched his upper lip with what appeared to be a nervous twitch, his busy mustache was moving in mock sympathy beneath his nose.
“That incessant sound of dripping water,” as I said this, the quality of the sound changed from a metronomic pace to an irregular trickle. And as Manchester and I continued to look at one another in mutual incomprehensible astonishment, that trickle transformed to the regular murmur of a cascade. Manchester, puffing his red cheeks, exhaled deeply, and the puff of his moustaches momentarily expanded, before settling down again, like a caterpillar slinking from one perch to another.
“Who is your aid-de-camp now, Manchester?” I asked in a huff.
“Oh, I lost mine,” he said dejectedly, “we had another wave of transfers in your absence. Everything’s topsy-turvy around here. Its odd, you know when the war was going poorly, this was such a tight ship. But now, with all the smashing successes that have been going round, all that tiddle-tattle infighting has begun that happens in all military outfits.”
Outside the half window a woman’s stockinged legs had come to a halt; the half-moon of a child’s perambulator, its muddied wheel concealed by the end of the window casing, rested on an uneven paving stone. The roar of water down the hall was deafening. I raised my voice to compete with the background rush.
“Who do I call about getting some work?” Manchester’s eyes opened with surprise. His battleship gray irises twinkled with fear as I leaned forward in the chair, its springs groaning under the weight shift.
“Clare Mumpy’s been bringing mine,” he said without a trace of caution, a leer creeping across his face, revealing his wide, ivory piano key sized teeth, set far in from his deep set jaw. “Are you acquainted with her? I’m sure you are, since you are chums with Budge. She’s quite a piece. I think I may get in there, just the other day she came round…”
I rose up to leave and entered the hall. Through a trick of the light Clare, who was approaching from the landing, was in the bright light of the overheads, and after about a half pace, later completely concealed in an inky shadow.
I was momentarily distracted by the sensation of a chill at my feet, and gazing down at my shoes, noticed that water, a brown soupy concoction that looked like the Thames mixed with motor oil or petrol, was rising at a rapid rate.
I leaned forward to grasp where I thought Clare should be and instead grappled with a darkened figure. It disintegrated under the strain, or more appropriately, I should say that its contours congealed, spreading around me, dimming my vision. We both struggled in this fashion for several minutes, in a static form of a Greco-Roman wrestle, neither side making substantial gains, but merely rocking back and forth in a variation of the box step taught in dancing schools the world over.
But like a weaker arm wrestler struggling with a stronger adversary, I knew that for every moment I held the poise I grew weaker, while my opponent grew stronger.
But the greasy water was up to my armpits. I was buoyant now, and suddenly my shadow self knew that the gig was up, for it loosened its grasp and we both floated down the hall (for the water was sluicing us toward some unknown destination) we helped one another try and stay afloat in the slimy chop, swimming in unison. The swell brought us out into one of the storage rooms, one of the immense chambers holding Great War surplus from floor to ceiling.
Once we were in this chamber, the tidal swell lessened appreciably and we parted, this time for good. I drifted around a floating atoll of packing crates stenciled, in dim print: British Expeditionary Force. Some of them merely had BEF emblazoned on their sides. I was treading water for a while, and noticed that the water was rising.
We were approaching the sooty ceiling; the water then began to pour into the room at a violent rate, as if it were held, momentarily, by a barrier that had suddenly disintegrated: crates swirling around in sloppy tidal circles, combining in loose confederations before breaking away. I caught a glimpse of my nemesis: he was having a rough time staying afloat. She tried to stay on top of a crate which had burst open, creating a small raft. But the effort to get atop of the ungainly apparatus had weakened her considerably, and the bare knock down fight for survival had begun in earnest. Every shadow for itself!
I was at the roof line. I held my head out of the water as long as I could. The last thing I saw was a rusty bolt embedded in a steel beam, dry, then wet, then the brown water, cluttered with vintage Great War paraphernalia and a sudden tug downward: a draining feeling, as if a plug had been removed from the bottom of a bathtub.
Someone was leaning over me. I opened my eyes and saw a gray faced old man with a brown cap perched high on his bald head, a dozen wrinkles, like cracks in a parched bit of dirt in a Savannah dry lake bed, winding at the corners of his eyes and lips and broad, parchment brown forehead. He was a bargeman, and he had hauled me out of the river. I still have the scar where he gaffed me, hooking my clothes and a good swatch of skin under my armpit, thinking I was yet another floating, bloated, Thames corpse. But no, that was my true size.