Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Notes on Chengdu 1992.


          Raining! 
          An unrelenting sheet of leaden grey unburdens itself upon the insomnious city. Streets shimmer and spit. Pools of dimpled rainwater invert buildings, enhance their vertical aspirations, thrusting deeply into the cloud. Decay leaks from the city's pores. The diminishing purr of a sleepy engine dissolves inside the murk. 
          At 18:00 the daylight is fast contracting, draining into a bleeding sky. Shop windows of garish hue burn into the gloom. Sandalled feet slip slop past, shattering the subterranean world. Colours vie for attention, screaming credentials to the scuttling few.
         Hidden from view, in the deeper recesses of an empty restaurant, raised voices spar for ascendancy. Stark strip-lighting bleaches the timeworn stains from Formica tables and attentive chairs. A crumpled brown paper bag lies empty upon the floor, the footsteps of patrons-past captured in the meandering street-dirt patterns at the threshold. In a corner a skeletal kitten skulks at an unseen titbit. 
          A solitary craning lamp cracks reluctantly to life, throwing the far end of the street into stark relief. Another fizzing vigil begins. 
          Rain beaded cables sway above the street, clicking and clacking in the restless breeze, sparking an unscheduled light-show. Rain darkened awnings accumulate watery fringes. 
          A labyrinth of metallic geometry lurks in the shadows, an army of bikes chained into submission for the night, greasy rain coating the cold framework. 
          The hissing progress of a lonely trishaw traces three lines upon a quicksilver road. Sinewy legs resolutely pump at creaking pedals, threading a secret pathway deep into the back streets of Chengdu, forced suddenly into the riverine gutter, as the immaculate form of a midnight blue and white Sunbeam Rapier asserts its presence. 
          A face fleetingly illuminated in the glowing halo of a cigarette. The incongruous vehicle accelerates past, bloody taillights glowing defiantly, leaving the trishaw to continue upon its solitary journey.   


River Li
          The blackened wood has been pitted and scarred through the trials of domesticity. A threshold flickers with the warmth of an imagined open fire, cadmium patterns lick and caress the dark interior. Towering shadows tug weakly at earthly tetherings. A rusted wire mesh covers a single, diminutive, rectangular opening that may once have served as a window to another place. Beyond is pitch darkness.
          Towering ivory candles stand sentinel. Flaming sheets lazily flap and caress the perfumed air. Unfamiliar odours infuse the subdued space, saturated to a point of flavour, bitter, spiced, sweet, enveloping, intoxicating... ethereal. The air is heavy with the past. 
          Stepping inside is akin to stepping into another age, another world. This is a timeless place of cluttered alcoves and shadow-cloaked irregular roof voids, criss-crossed with intricately interwoven beams.
          At the room's centre sits a compact and blackened pot-bellied stove. On top of which lies a broken clay pipe, yet it is elegantly arranged upon a blue paper napkin. The stove is not alight. Its three dragon-clawed feet rest within a rounded, time-worn depression. A rickety chimney snakes from the stove's rear, to disappear amongst the cavernous spaces, somewhere behind the highest of the shadows.
          The floor, hard and baked dry, curiously still smells powerfully earthy. A plethora of greyed cushions, punctuated by three low stalls, appears to have been hastily arranged before the stove. There is a small split-bamboo mat tight in front of the oven, incongruous in the setting, too new and fresh for these surroundings, loud and discordant colours. Animal hides have been strewn randomly, perhaps to soften the naked earth. It is  impossible to concentrate upon any one aspect of this space for fear of overlooking something more wondrous. 


          Tumbling hanks of shimmering silk droop from the rafters. A rambling, open-weave fishing net loops, serpent-like, across several fiercely unforgiving meat hooks. Pockmarked corks dangle at head height. In one corner of the room a full-length mirror rests awkwardly and at an impossible angle, black-pitted spots have besieged the edges. Despite the mirror's doubtless age the reflected world within appears somehow brighter, cosier, more intimate. On either side of the mirror two elaborately carved lanterns radiate a warmth, the source concealed behind a fine mesh of deepest scarlet. Stacked organically, upon outrageously bowing shelves, a veritable crystal maze of glass vessels has accumulated not a spec of dust, contrary to such an inaccessible location. Rippled in a manner suggestive of age, slightly turquoised at edges and bases, the transparent surfaces glimmer and sparkle with an otherworldly presence. 
          The pitiful face of an Asian Black Bear, inexpertly contorted into an excuse for a snarl, looms, long-since-abandoned, above a dust-infused body. Cradled between its static paws rests the rusted jaws of a crippling leg-hold trap that may once have unforgivingly gnawed at the unfortunate victim's femur during its final few hours of life. And, as eyes adjust to the darkness, so further victims of the taxidermist reveal themselves. A ghostly Great White Egret stands, majestically and statuesque, as in life, patiently awaiting a never to be tasted next meal, a Beech Marten glassily eyes a distracted Red-bellied Tree Squirrel, the head of a small tusked deer peers from behind an embroidered screen that depicts the ponderous path of China's Great Wall.
          A chest of drawers, darkly suggestive of rosewood, patently far too large to have entered the space intact, stands tall as any wardrobe, a single open drawer home to a case of violated butterflies, colours now tired and faded. Still recognisable, are the splayed wings of Paris Peacocks, Five-bar Swordtails, and a solitary Blue Jay, one of whose wings lies shattered and quite devoid of detail. 
          The ponderous escapement of a large brass timepiece serves to remind any occupant that the space is not, as it first appears, frozen in the moment. Its ragged mechanism creaks a beat like the heart of the room, a room that in all other respects remains virtually silent. The single black hand, set upon an elaborately decorated wooden disc, communicates as if in some long-since-forgotten currency. From the machine's weighty iron frame hang the twisted husks of several bunches of mummified flowers, petals and leaves shrivelled into scorched invertebrate shapes. 
          Subjugated through the piled-on odours of memory, there is just the merest imagining of freshly cut wood, sharp and raw with sap, the most likely source being three exquisitely turned cylindrical teak cages, tiered Russian dolls, dangling from a lower beam. The doors to the smaller cages yawn with a delectable emptiness. Cramped within the largest rests another of the taxidermist's corpses, this the ashy cask of an Oriental Scops Owl. A single glass eye peers longingly towards the doorway and a chance of freedom that has long since expired.
          Three figures linger at the threshold. The two Westerners are in awe of this magical place, so their Chinese companion respectfully awaits their acclimatisation. When he senses that they are ready the host welcomes them with a whispered word, "Please," before politely ushering them inside. The glass eye of the owl stares fixedly towards the visitors. 
          The air shimmers with silver, as if the group may have disturbed a finely woven veil. A nictitating membrane subliminally slides across an olive iris, before a lid is softly lowered. The space crackles with electricity. 


*   *   *    

          Within this place there is no way of knowing whether the tempest has yet subsided. A heavy curtain has been drawn across the threshold, as if in statement. The stove is now gently shimmering, a brace of logs pulsing with the orangey glow of a fire in slow decline. Cushions have migrated closer to the focal point, the atmosphere more intimate. Shadows have deepened and warmed, causing much of the room's contents to have retreated into a miasmic darkness, pursuing yet never quite achieving the absoluteness of black. All bar the two weightiest candles have been snuffed.
          Three companions sit cross-legged, facing one another. At the centre lies a soft leather pouch. It has been carefully unrolled onto a greying and threadbare towel, to ensure that none of the contents is to be wasted- dried flakes of crispy plant matter, but mostly buds, that are identical in texture and spiced aroma to the brittle flowers that droop lifelessly from the timepiece.
          Practised hands that are entirely the hue of ancient stained parchment pluck a few of the larger buds from the mass, to crumble and to sprinkle along a length of pre-prepared tobacco. Brownish pearls, not unlike caramelised sugar, nestle amongst the vegetation. Several of these are meticulously added to the recipe, before the mixture is lovingly rolled into a substantial joint.
          Wrinkled lips part, barely enough to permit a pink tongue to moisten and to seal the item. An end is then twisted closed, prior to a pre-torn section of greenish card being rolled to a fine straw-like cylinder, no more than two centimetres in length. This is delicately, almost surgically, inserted into the open end of the creation, which is then lowered reverentially onto the edge of the pouch. 
          Lips part again, smiling thinly to reveal a cluster of yellowed teeth. A dying log sinks into a bed of its own ashes. Bursts of glittering orange stars escape, to be swiftly vacuumed away into darkness.
          "Now... " Softly spoken, so comforting as to be almost disconcerting. So quiet as to be virtually silent.

The Great Wall.

          Nausea has subsided. Time has slipped anchor. Smokey ribbons of softest cobalt blue weave wondrous patterns into the grainy air, spiralling eternally into the void, or else warping and wefting inside the mind an alternate consciousness, usurping lesser cousins. Eyes of tenuous focus struggle to settle upon proffered physical presence. Smoky fingers curl and contract, entirely like a gathering hand. 
          Copious quantities of a sweet tea-like liquid have helped to quell a rising panic, fighting back a heady rush that will still surely accompany the most fleeting thought of closing the eyes.
          As the suffocating vertigo relinquishes its grip so a calmer, more welcoming sensation, presses home. Warmth rises through the legs, spreading into the groin. Hands, which still function perfectly, perhaps overly precise, are watched with fascination; despite an assumed attachment they seem small and confusingly distant. Every tiny movement resonates with a life of its own, is viewed from a great height. Every minute detail is crisp, dazzlingly sharp and over-real. 
          There is gentle undulation. Through a curtain of crystal perfection the walls are moving, as if separated via a layer of surely purest water. The viewer puffs his cheeks and blows at the substance and so the scene dances its response, ballooning benignly forwards, elastically retracting, distorting everything accordingly. Maybe it is water, the likelihood seems entirely plausible- except that the barrier stands vertically. It matters not. 
          A smile ruptures the spongy air, assuming independent form, a deep rose red with pulsing petals that curl back upon themselves to reveal fresher and fleshier growths. Red bleeds into the air, it rolls like a tide. It sounds wet, then alive, then tender, finally subsiding into discordant laughter. 
          The visitor recognises the sound of his own mirth; it focuses him. He watches on as it explores the towering emptiness of the roof void. Cocooned within the resonance he feels safe and weightless. Sound may now be observed and imagery now tasted. He listens. He can hear dust motes dancing upon the air.
          From far below, as if peering from the bottom of a deep well, two diminutive figures gaze up in narcotised enthralment. One of them raises an arm, extends an index finger. A point of aquamarine light spreads like a ripple upon a pond, is usurped by a fresher, brighter, ripple, and then another. Each circle of illumination presses through the air towards the observer, enfolding him within a tunnel of breathing colour. Recognising that one of his colleagues is talking to him he leans towards the source, and so loses his balance and tumbles- gossamer upon the breeze- to the ground far below. Like a plume of candy floss, virtually weightless, he is gathered in and returned to the bed of cushions. 
          His companions have nurtured some sort of sapling from the ground between them. One is freely conversing with the form. The tree responds in a sensuous manner, writhing and attempting to encircle the speaker. At its base a glossy black gem of a beetle slowly rotates its body through a complete spectrum.
          Silver bells silently erupt in the darkness, each tiny fragment becoming a thousand more, which in turn become a thousand more, until the room is filled to capacity and beyond with diamond made yet more radiant. The light is so bright that it is almost painful, causes eyes to water. Or maybe he is crying. Every shadow, every object, every minuscule detail of every object, is reflected an infinite number of times. Wherever the visitor rests his eyes he can see every tiny feature, replicated countless times. He smiles at the unrealised prospects therein.
          The tree has mutated into the form of a candlestick phone, now softly ringing. It is handed towards him, and as it is so a million, million silver stars are slowly drawn inwards- those to alight upon the watery barrier float and bob, are rolled towards the darker spaces that wait above, obsidian, almost- as if ripples upon an ocean, until the changing object, so recently a phone, radiates a living light that is both disdainful whilst at the same time eminently pleasing to behold. He can taste a tide of resonance surging through everything, buzzing with familiar life, replicated beyond comprehension. It is curiously comforting. As he reaches for the offering so the visitor recognises a charge that sensitises the tips of his fingers. He places the receiver at his ear, pulls the transmitter towards his lips and watches, and listens, and smells something metallic, or is it perhaps a taste? 
          He is vaguely aware that another smoke is being prepared for. He can hear fine fragments of leaf nestling into the paper. He is aware also of a persistent tapping, neither close nor discernibly distant, he is unsure whether it is a colour or perhaps it is an odour? Perhaps it is an emotion?
          No longer recognising his own name, he turns towards his companions for clarification, and gazes in wonder as a familiar face recedes ever further within the mirrored image of the room, backing purposefully from sight and from this world. 
          An eruption of feathers shatters the moment. Wings clap, shedding dusty down to float before his face, heart thumping, breath racing away from him. There is a single dazzling flash of golden light, a contraction, a swallowing. 
          A scrawled note offers scant consolation for a misplaced companion. It is ragged and inert, lying quietly beside a dog-eared copy of Bruce Chatwin's 'Songlines.' The smile is intoxicating! He needs to sleep. 
           
        

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