The Curmudgeon


Monday, September 26, 2011

Imago Dei

An extract

Outside, the city was suffering one of its neglected days. Such days were far more frequent now. There had always been periods of decay, but they had been brief and transient, the rotted buildings and polluted air yielding to blue skies and new constructions after a night or two at most. Indeed, Paterson was sure he could remember a time when the depressions had lasted no more than a few hours; though that must have been many years ago, long before he had set out to search.

The air was damp and chilly; he paused to shrug on his coat, glancing across the street at the dead houses. Yesterday a few people had still been living in the terrace, scattered through the leaky rooms; this morning the last of them had obviously fled. Without any overt sign, without a broken window or a missing roof-tile, the houses had become the corpses of houses; by tomorrow, perhaps by this evening, the terrace would be deep in decay, the haunt of ants and white rats.

Fastening his coat, and sighing at the loose threads protruding from the cuffs, Paterson turned in the direction of the river, where it had become his habit to walk in the mornings. A movement of some sort, pale and vague, caught at the corner of his eye; he looked back at the dead houses but saw nothing further. He could not even be certain that the movement had originated there.

He turned again and walked towards the river. He kept a slow pace, inhaling the damp air and enjoying the early-morning lack of other melancholy human presences. The remains of the night’s rain lay in large tentacled patches around the cracks and depressions in the paving. The road, still empty of traffic, was in slightly better condition, but covered in long scars where pipes had been dug up. Weeds were sprouting in the gutter, and there was a miniature lake where a drain had overflowed. Paterson stood at the kerb for a moment, staring down at the water and trying to determine whether the blockage could be reached; but all he could see was his own black shape against the reflected sky.

As he approached the river a vague mutter of traffic became audible and the general aura of dereliction took on a more forbidding shade. The buildings were larger, with less glass and more rust. Large scorbutic notices denied access to warehouses, docks and boats.

Paterson changed direction, taking a path which ran parallel to the still invisible river. Some distance away, it seemed, something dodged behind one of the buildings he had recently passed. He could not be sure which building, any more than he could have described the source of the movement; but he thought whatever it was had gone between two dark, hulking piles which might once have been shops or large houses. On the front of the nearer one, just under the roof, a relief inscription was visible in the brickwork; Paterson squinted, trying to decipher it. Given the constant changes in the city’s features, any historical information was necessarily suspect; but it was also too rare to waste. The inscription blurred and flowed; he could not even be sure whether it consisted of letters or numbers. After a few qualms, which he dismissed - surely any danger from a human pursuer would have manifested itself by now - Paterson retraced his steps down the street and surveyed the building from directly opposite. The inscription had suffered extensive but uneven damage, with letters that were nearly intact followed by others nearly effaced; he could not begin to make sense of them, even to determine what language they were in.

There was no sign of his pursuer. On impulse Paterson crossed the road and looked down the narrow opening where he thought someone had dodged. It was a paved alley, clotted with chunks of wet paper and ending in a snaggle-toothed fence of upright planks which Paterson supposed could have been scrambled over in an emergency. But what sort of stalker would flee behind a barricade at the first possibility of being seen? It seemed more likely that the movement he saw had been that of the papers littering the ground. They were mostly sheets of newsprint; perhaps they were all pages from a single dismembered issue. VIGILANCE, a blurred headline enjoined. Paterson decided he would resist the temptation to try looking over the fence, particularly as the traffic was now beginning to stir. It was conceivable that he was trespassing.

He made his way back to the Café Saturn, slowing his leisurely pace yet further by pausing to gaze into the few shop windows whose metal portcullises had been raised. He came to a window full of ornaments, which he could not remember passing on previous excursions. Ownership changed quickly these days, except apparently for people like Mrs Carlos, who since Paterson’s arrival had outlasted perhaps half a dozen neighbours.

A menagerie in brass and porcelain stared stolidly back at him. Among the dogs and elephants were occasional human figures: shepherds, milkmaids, horsemen, a gun crew with a cannon. In the centre of the display was a metallic cylindrical object like a squat tower, around which all the rest had been placed at a respectful distance. Unlike the shop’s other metal wares, which were polished to a gold or silver sheen, the tower was almost dirty-looking. Paterson could not imagine what sort of decoration it was meant to provide; it seemed not to belong in the display at all. He peered at it for a while, trying to see whether the other side held any features that would make sense of its presence; but he only came face to face with his reflection in the window.

Moving on, he did his best to avoid his reflection’s eyes, both while staring at a newsagent’s headlines - HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?, payment required to see whose face was below the fold - and further along the street, while inspecting a sad display of electrical goods, where half a dozen rival channels competed silently for his attention.

By the time he got back to Mrs Carlos’ café, the usual notices had gone up on the dead houses: entry forbidden at the gate, warnings of danger at the front door, threats of prosecution at the windows. Two of the windows were broken, but it was impossible to tell whether this had happened before or after the notices had appeared.

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