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The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle
J. D. Dixon
Part I: Willem
The wishing well
Edinburgh has descended into the mist today. The lines are blurred, the faces are blurred. But it is all the same to him.
He has never seen anything accurately. He has never been able to. He has never felt the need. One of his mama's fancy men once told him that the inaccurate tells a far better story. 'Fiction is truer than any news story you'll ever read, lad,' he said. 'And half the news is made up anyway.'
All he can see now is the ground at his feet and the white mist. It is a shroud, a wall surer than any brickwork.
He can't see the mountain. He doesn't mind. It is a blank slate. It is inaccurate. His memory holds its curves, it holds its peaks. He can arrange them and rearrange them as he wills. Its flanks sweep into the ground, invisible for the moment. They carve a deep ravine before thrusting up once more. This last thrust is sheer and craggy, it is covered with briars. The briars count the mountain's age, they hold it close.
The last thrust shrugs off the howling coastal winds. The winds flow in from the Leith docks, they ruffle hair and feathers and make patterns of the mist. They groan as they run through the mountain's fissures, they herald the wake of a giant as old as the bones of the earth. He stares, always. He listens, he sighs and he smiles. At the mountain's bottom his feet take him past a castle. The castle is newly built by the world's clock, it is obscured by the same mist.
The mountain is not a real mountain. Charlie told him that it is an extinct volcano. It is one of many who breathed their last long before a city was built in their craters.
The mountain has a name. It is a name given by man and he never uses it. How do you name something so ancient, he wants to know?
He doesn't know how to frame the question, but he knows it hangs there. It hangs there like the mist. It obscures and it separates. Without form it is an obstacle and he cannot get around it.
The wishing well looms out of the fog. It is a cave set into the mountain's flank and around its front a low wall and an iron grate keep people from falling in. A plaque with writing carved into it tells tourists that it is dedicated to Saint Margaret. Its walls form a crown, it is shaped like a tiara with iron railings around its top and holly and ivy creeping all over. People throw their money in, their coppers and their silver. They close their eyes and their lips move, mumbling. Some are holy men, throwing entreaties up to god and his saint. Some are foreigners who can't read the plaque. They mime along with the natives, they throw their coins and laugh at the fun of it all.
The wishing well is alone today. No foreigners will brave the mist and the cold. The only holy men left in this world are old and tired. They will not come at this early hour.
A couple of rabbits disturb the mist's peace. They flee, they chase. They are white against white. Everything is white by the moonlight and the half risen sun. They are made distinct only by their motion. By their fast movements, so alien to the mountain's serene face.
The dancer and the ox
He was laid off yesterday and last night he broke a man's arm. The little Pole started it, he wanted a show. He wanted to star in a show and Willem had had enough.
'Come on, such big man, is that all you got?' The little man spat on the floor. The spit landed in front of Willem's feet, it lay in the darkness of his shadow. It quivered on the pavement. 'Big man, show me what Great British can do.' The little man's breath was onions and meat and lager, it frothed on his lips.
He circled to the left, he danced into the glare of a street light. His arms hovered forwards while Willem stood still, his shoulders bunched. The spit on the ground quivered, his breath quivered in his lungs and he squinted through the light. He didn't like to hurt people, his hands knew too well what they could do.
'Ha,' the little man laughed. 'Coward pussy. Son of bitch, your mum must have fucked a mouse before she had you. Bastard cunt, son of whore.' His left arm was a snake, lashing, pouncing. Both of his arms tensed and he lunged, dancing as he swung wide. One fist landed, it stung as Willem turned into it. Willem put his shoulder to the blow. He moved forwards and the little man bounced. He giggled, his voice was shrill and he began to dance once more. Another blow came and Willem put his hands up, he caught it. He twisted his wrists, he moved his hands and took a half step forwards. As he moved a loud crack rang through the street. It echoed and the little man squealed.
'Bastard, bastard,' he shrieked as he fell. Onto his knees, onto his back, squirming. 'Bastard, bastard,' he whimpered as he grasped at his left shoulder, rolling on the floor. 'You break, my shoulder, you break.' He was white, there was no blood in his lips. His eyes bulged. The spit was gone, he had landed in it. He rubbed it away, smearing it into the concrete as he twisted back and forth.
'Mam ain't no whore,' Willem mumbled. He turned his back, a light rain began to fall. It brushed his shoulders, unbunched now. It brushed his face and his cheeks. It made the pavement slick and it pattered through the lamp light.
The Pole was a runt, everyone said it. He was a man of wire and bristling anger. Willem once asked him what he was so angry at. 'The world, whole stinking world is fucked,' the little man replied. 'In a world like this, why just be angry at one thing? So many to choose from.' Charlie called him out on it a few times, he used to scream himself hoarse over the Pole's attitude. Every week or so there would be an argument, a fight, and management would step in. 'But he's the best welder in Edinburgh,' Charlie would shrug afterwards. 'How can you stay angry at a guy like that?'
The Poles were tight knit. They always stuck up for their own. But even they tried to shake him lose. He got into fights with the Scots and the Slovaks and the Albanians and the Lithuanians and they left him to it. 'Like kettle boiled too hot,' they said to Willem. 'Got to let the steam out sometimes. Just stand back, mind you don't get burned.'
Willem turned his back on the little man and the other Poles turned with him. 'Man had it coming, so much drink, so much rage,' they muttered. They pulled some more cans from their plastic bags. The bags were blue, they were thin and stretched under their load. Raindrops beaded on their skin, they got inside and beaded on the cans. One of the men passed a can to Willem, its cold bit into his fingers. He cracked the ring pull and suds sputtered at its rim.
'Drink deep, brother. It's been too long. And tomorrow's a new day,' they said. And then, 'come back with us. Such nights as this it's best to be with friends.' They were all laid off at lunchtime. The Poles, the Lithuanians, the Scots. Everyone, immediately. And that made them brothers, at least for the moment. The little man's cries grew dim as their feet slapped the pavement.
A cloud shifted overhead as they crossed the street, the rain stopped for a minute and a crow cawed its melancholy heart as the moon shone through. Willem slugged his beer, he swilled it around his mouth and swallowed.
'Mam ain't no whore,' he mumbled.
When they arrived that morning Charlie had been acting funny. His eyes were too small, they were red around the edges. The site was nervous, the men and the machines were nervous and Charlie's breathing was too fast. He was in three places at once, running, always running.
'What does he run from?' the Lithuanians wanted to know.
'Every man runs from something,' the Poles said. 'His shadow chases him, and a man's shadow is his own business.'
But as the morning wore on the rattling grew worse. Their nine thirty tea break shook, it couldn't control itself. The tremors shook the earth, they got into the sandbags and the tool shed. Metal sang and people chattered with the sound. By mid morning the scaffolding was loose at the rivets, shaken by Charlie's panic, by the men's panic. And then he called them, one by one and in groups. They trudged into the foreman's cabin and the rumours let loose.
The rumours silenced the rattling and stole their jobs. They flattened everything on site as flocks of men downed tools and slumped.
'Mam, I've been laid off,' he told her. He phoned her straight away and she swore. 'I'm off for a couple of pints with the lads. Then I'll be home. I love you.' The gates were locked behind them and the Poles invited him to drink with them for the first time in over a year. And he fought the little man and broke his shoulder and went home with the rest of them.
The gods of man part I
'Is fine for British man laid off. No work, get benefits. Sixty pounds in a week, nice flat, all free. Sit down and get fat, no problems. Poland is no money for this. No easy free life for us.' The rambling went on, it clung to the walls in their house. Cigarette smoke rose in plumes, the smell of meat frying in the kitchen rose in plumes. It all mixed, it clung and the rambling went on.
'This is why god is dead in Great Britain,' he said. His name was Bratomil, he lived there and he dragged Willem and the others back with him. To ramble and moan and drink and smoke. He sat them down with cans of Tyskie and the words formed in his throat. They grew angry, they grew forlorn and everybody listened and formed their own words and it all got mixed together.
Six of them sat around Bratomil. They slumped on a dead sofa, bowed in the middle. They slumped on shanty stalls, leaning against walls. The walls peeled and the words pealed and everybody laughed together in their bitter thoughts. They had red eyes and their hands were calloused from years of long work. Arduous work which united them. The loss of which united them still.
Another Pole agreed with Bratomil, he nodded when he heard god's name spoken. He slurred and he squinted and he drank deep before talking. He said 'yes, yes, you are so weak for god here. All those empty churches. British churches being bought up by Polish church, by Nigerian church. Now niggers pray and British don't care. Some even bought up by Muslims, used as mosques for those bastards. God is dead here, this is dead country.' He lost focus, he rambled, he took another sip and his can shone dully through the smoke.
Another man took up the narrative. He said that 'here everything goes to shit, you say please government, please, no work and I'm hungry. I'm cold and I can't afford my flat, I can't keep boiler going. And government says yes, yes, of course, how sad, have money. Have all this money. At home there is nobody to ask, nobody to tell you yes, how sad. There is no money without work.
'So who else to ask but god?'
They finished their cans and they finished their cigarettes and they wheezed heavily into the night. They stubbed their butts out into their empty cans, they flicked their ash into empty cans. The cans hissed, the warm froth grew around the ash. And soon every surface was an empty can, slowly drifting in the clinging smoke.
'And where does all this money go? British all so expensive people,' another continued. 'You!' he pointed at Willem. 'You British buy so much, you want so much. I tell you where money goes, these big sandwich places, these big coffee places, these expensive pubs with three pounds fifty beers.'
'British stupid with money,' Bratomil took the reins once more. His head nodded, his beer can dipped as his eyes grew wise. 'Polish buy cans from supermarket, six for four pounds. We make lunches at home, we buy cheapest ingredients and save our money. And now look! London spends all money, we don't know where, recession comes and no more jobs for us.' He swigged the last of his beer, he cursed in his native tongue. His curses stank, his breath was toxic. It wriggled around the floor, into the carpets. He spat into his can, savouring the noise of his puckered lips, of his harsh throat.
The serpent's dreams
The mist hangs heavy as he walks through his hangover. From the top of the mountain you can see for miles on a good day. The deep hills to the west, the deep sea to the east. All of them are old beyond measure by any man's reckoning. But today the mist is hungry, it eats everything up. From the highest point you can only see a few houses at the outskirts of the park. These fade all too soon. They are tattered, they are nothing.
At five o'clock in the morning Willem is at the lowest point, streaming through the cold on his way to the site. His boots are wet with dew, his bones are shaking with the cold. He marches at a furious pace to ward off the morning. Tramp's gloves keep his palms in a cold sweat. His mama calls them tramp's gloves because they have no fingers. He wears them so that he can feel his fingers to work.
He drags himself through this world with his shoulders bunched. He dragged himself into this world and his mama screamed in pain.
The first thing the nurses noticed about his mama when she presented herself at the door to their ward was how pale she was. Even for a ragged little weegie she was pale. They could see blue veins tracing pathways across her neck and her bare arms. The pathways are still there. In her twilight they have sunk a little but they are still there.
The second thing the nurses noticed about his mama was how young she was.
'The poor wee thing, she can't be more than fifteen,' the nurses said to one another afterwards. They sat over over cups of tea at their station, sharing the day's news. 'Come on love, let's get you seen to,' the midwife said when his mama staggered in. She put her arm around the swollen child and brought her onto the ward.
Ten minutes later the doctor announced that there was a complication. 'We'll have to operate, we can't wait,' he said. He phoned down to the theatre to tell them to prep for a caesarean. 'Like Macduff, it's a just sign,' they told her afterwards. 'Who the fuck-' she wanted to ask, but the anaesthetic was strong. She couldn't frame the question, it died on her lips.
From the outset his mama resented the scar on her belly. Like a long snake uncoiling, pink and raw, it crept upwards from her pubis, its mouth wide open and hungry. She would often dream that it was readying itself to strike. She would wake in a cold sweat, cry out to whichever of her blokes was sharing her bed that night and hope to find comfort in his arms.
The infant Willem would lie in his cot at the foot of the bed, awoken and scared by his mother's screaming. Her men would find it all too much. They would not return after such a night. She had to look time and again for a new pair of arms to comfort her through the small hours.
These are all just stories to Willem. They are make believe. But his mama's scar is real. He has seen it. It winks at him from her naval.
Of course it has faded with time. It has paled from red to pink to a shade almost as bright white as her natural colouring. It has also shrunk slightly as age has put a little flesh on her frame, as time has softened her hard skin to fit the weight of her years. And as the weight of her years has grown, little by little she has noticed that her nights have become easier.
Willem went to work with his mama from the first. The men who came late at night only cared for his mother's company, they didn't want to care for the bairn. She had no friends or family able to keep him and she needed every last penny to keep their room warm and their bellies full.
Early each morning she would carry him to one of the offices she cleaned. The men who worked there wore polished shoes that scuffed the carpet. They drank coffee whose cups left light rings on every surface. The rings were eyes, they stared all night long until she closed them. And she cleaned and she tidied, putting those watchful eyes out of sight for a short while.
She was invisible and the men in the offices were invisible. They would still be waiting for their morning alarms to ring when she was putting on her gloves. She would be done by the time they arrived. Afterwards she would lift Willem up again and carry him first to one tenement block and then to another to clean stairwells for the council. The graffiti shouted at them both. The dirt lay thick and Willem often cried. The graffiti was too loud, it hurt his ears. The dirt caught in his little lungs.