an extract from City of Desolation : Chapter 19 – Virgil

(for an audio version of this piece, click here)
There was sand in his mouth and someone was pulling his arm. He tried to open his eyes, but they seemed to be stuck together. Then whoever was pulling his arm turned him on his back and water that had been in his mouth ran down his throat and made him choke. He put up a hand to wipe his eyes and encountered something scaly and slippery which made him recoil in horror. A voice above him made concerned, soothing noises and when at last he forced his eyes open, Jake saw an old man standing over him holding a long streamer of brown seaweed in one hand.

He struggled to sit up and the man stooped to help him, supporting his shoulders. He looked around: he was on a beach that stretched out of sight in both directions; the sea in front of him showed an oily, sinister calm. The beach was deserted. The high-tide mark was strewn with sea weed, driftwood and flotsam. It was a melancholy place. He looked up at the man, and found him melancholy too. He was old and defeated-looking: his face had once been handsome and still kept traces of nobility and dignity that made his present hopelessness all the more poignant. Seeing Jake sitting up and apparently uninjured, he seemed to decide that his role was ended, and he turned and began to shuffle away.

– Wait! called Jake, spitting out a quantity of sand.

The old man stopped without turning round. Jake struggled to his feet.

– Wait! What is your name? Where is this place?

The old man turned now, and Jake could almost see his brain working: he pictured ancient rusty cogs engaging, grating harshly, long disused.

– My …name? I have one, I’m sure…it will come to me presently. And this place? It is…the place where we find ourselves.

Highly informative, thought Jake. He began to think the old man was a bit wandered in his wits. How did I get here? he thought. For a moment his mind was entirely blank, and then it came back to him: he had been in a boat that had capsized in a storm; he had been sure that was the end of him, yet here he was. But where was here? And why had he come? The thought sent his hand to his pocket, and he was immediately reassured to find the package still there: he drew it out and examined it: the wrappings were intact, and it had suffered remarkably little from immersion in the sea.

He became aware of the old man’s gaze on him and looked up sharply, suddenly suspicious. The old man continued to gaze at the package and at Jake with candid interest, his whole look subtly transformed – as if a spark had kindled in the ashes of a cold hearth.

– You have…a mission? asked the man.
– Yes. I have to give this to someone.

The old man’s face took on an inward look, as if he was striving to retrieve something from far, far back in his memory.

– If you have a mission, then I must help you, he said at last.

Jake looked at him in surprise.

– I have done it before, he said. It was long ago.

He stared out to sea, remembering.

– Maro, he said at length.

– Pardon?
– I was of Maro: Virgil was my name. I was a poet.

They trudged up the beach in the direction of the dunes.

– There was another – with a mission, I mean. He was a poet too.

He sat on the slope of a dune, shaking his head. Jake imagined flakes of rust falling from the machinery of his memory.

– All this was long ago. Much has changed since then.

The old man looked into Jake’s face, as if he might find the answer he was seeking written there. Then he smiled – a slow, uncertain smile, as if he had forgotten how.

– Dante, that was his name. Dante Alighieri. I was his guide.

Jake smiled back at him.

– Would you guide me, too?

The old man shook his head, sighing.

– Alas, I cannot. So much has changed now – it is all different. I would not know the way.

He stood up, and moved to the top of the dune, beckoning Jake to follow.

Jake had not known what to expect, but it wasn’t this. Beyond the dune, a dreary prospect of grey, uniform houses stretched in every direction under a brooding sky, filling a broad plain that rose to higher ground in the remote distance, where Jake thought he could make out the walls of what seemed like a fortress or citadel; there was a suggestion of a taller tower in the middle of it, with a red light at the top which flashed intermittently, as if signalling.

– All this used to be fields, said Virgil. The fields of Elysium. We were happy here, in our quiet way. He shook his head dolefully. But that was long ago.

Jake saw that off to the right – the opposite side from the distant fortress – there was a low hill, where among ancient ruins a sort of squalid shanty town had sprung up, composed of makeshift buildings haphazardly assembled from all sorts of materials. The smoke of many fires went up from it, obscuring the land behind, which rose in steep high cliffs. Virgil followed the line of his gaze.

– That’s where most of the ancients are now, he said. Still beyond the pale, of course.

He nodded towards the base of the dune, and Jake saw that there was a high wall topped with a coil of barbed wire between them and the grey houses. Virgil had begun to walk along the top of the dune in the direction of the shanty town. Jake followed.

– I stay mostly on the beach, myself. There’s a rougher crowd have moved in there. (he indicated the shanty dwellings) It used to be all philosophers and poets, but now there’s a lot that used to be further in – in the Old City, I mean – but they seem to have got out, somehow. Order is breaking down everywhere. The authorities don’t seem to bother with the older population now. I’m not sure just how much of that is still inhabited.

Jake looked in the direction of his nod and saw that a change in the wind had blown the smoke away to reveal that what he had taken for a cliff rising behind the shanty town was actually an enormous rampart, the first of a series that mounted like giant steps up and up until they were lost in obscurity. Here and there the masonry was riven with great cracks, and the whole wore an air of ancient decay and neglect.

– If you come down this way, I can take you to the gate-house. That’s as much as I can manage, I’m afraid.

Jake followed him down a path that wound steeply down the grassy slope and presently joined a broader way that ran from the shanty town on the hill towards a large opening in the wall that surrounded the sprawl of houses. As they drew closer, Jake saw that the opening was guarded by a low blockhouse.

– I’ll speak to them first – they can be… awkward, sometimes.

The room they entered was notably bare: the walls were naked concrete blocks, not even whitewashed. A large counter ran the full width of the room: behind it stood two men in buff-coloured work-coats, one very large, the other small and wiry. Though evidently unoccupied, they paid no heed to Jake or Virgil when they entered, and when Virgil rapped on the counter to attract their attention, they went through an elaborate pantomime, looking first at each other, then at every other part of the room (including the high corners, as if someone might be perched up there) before finally deigning to notice the man who stood right in front of them.

– Yes? said the small wiry one.

The other began rooting under the counter, and produced in turn a huge leather-bound ledger, which he opened, an old fashioned inkstand, and a jar with a number of pens. A door behind him opened and a third man appeared, wearing a dark uniform with shiny buttons, like a policeman’s. This man paid no heed to anyone but went to the far end of the counter, where Jake saw there was a small washstand, with a mirror. The man took off his tunic and hung it on a peg, then bent low, making the motions that go with removing boots. All the while, he whistled tunelessly through his teeth.

– My young friend here wishes to go further in, said Virgil.
– Does he though? said the small man. What do you think of that?

The second question was addressed to his partner, who made no response, but continued to fiddle with the pens, as if looking for one that suited him. Jake saw that they were the old-fashioned sort, that needed to be dipped in ink.

– Well, if you can just let me have your details, said the wiry one to Virgil.

– But it is not I who wish to go, protested Virgil
– That’s as may be, said the other. I take it you are prepared to vouch for the boy?
– Er – certainly, said Virgil.
– Well, in that case, you’d best give me your details then, hadn’t you? said the other triumphantly, as if he had scored a point.
– Very well, said Virgil wearily. Virgil Maro, Poet.
– Marrow, eh? That’s a kind of vegetable, isn’t it?

Virgil sighed. The large man, having at last chosen a pen, wrote something in the register, very slowly, his tongue protruding from concentration.

– Have you got that, then?
The other pushed the register over to him. The wiry man read it, and shook his head.
– What did you say your name was?
– Virgil Maro.
– That’s not what it says here.

Virgil looked at him in exasperation. Jake saw to his surprise that the third man was now removing his trousers, which he folded neatly and hung beside his tunic.

– What it says here is “Vegetable Marrow”.

He turned the book for them to see: Jake saw that it did indeed say that, written in a large looping script, peppered with blots.

– Now if I was a suspicious man, I might incline to think that a pseudonym – or perhaps I should say a nom de plume, seeing as how you are a poet. You are a poet, I suppose?
– Yes, said Virgil tersely.
– Make a living at it?

Virgil sighed. The man at the washstand was now attiring himself in a brown civilian suit.

– I wouldn’t ask, normally, only my friend here does like to pen a bit of verse in quieter moments – you’d never think it to look at him, I know, said the wiry man with a smile, but some of it – in my humble opinion – is really quite good, and well worthy of a wider audience.

The big man examined his fingernails with a show of modesty. The brown suited man emerged from behind the counter, set a hat on his head, and said

– Well, that’s me off now, lads.

He went out, letting the door slam shut behind him. The wiry man put on a sudden air of briskness.

– But we can’t spend all day chatting about such things, I’m sure. He looked at Jake for the first time. Now then, young sir, what can I do for you?
– I’d like to go further in, said Jake.
– Would you now? Make a note of that, George.

The big man took the register again and wrote in it laboriously, at some length. While he did so, the other came round to their side of the counter, took a brush from a closet, and began to sweep the floor. When he reached Jake and Virgil, he looked at them as if surprised to find them still there.

– Well, if you come back tomorrow, I’m sure the sergeant will attend to you.
– The sergeant? said Jake with a sinking heart.

The wiry man swept round them.

– The gentleman who’s just gone out, he said over his shoulder. He’s the one you want to speak to. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re finished here for the day.

When they were outside, Virgil shook his head.

– I’m sorry. You see how it is. Perhaps they will be more amenable tomorrow.
– I doubt it, said Jake.

He watched as the wiry man, whistling cheerfully, closed the gate, securing it with a large padlock.

– Is there no other way in?

But Virgil was already some way down the road that led to the shanty town. Jake hesitated a moment, then went after him. It began to rain.

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