By SIMON COLLINGS.
with collages by John Goodby.
Now how about a night-cap before turning in Mr Greb, it is Greb isn’t it, or perhaps you fancy something stronger?
—Ann Quin, Berg
So, for example, if I should say, in a letter to a friend, ‘Our brother Tom has just got the piles,’ a skilful decipherer would discover, that the same letters which compose that sentence, may be analysed into the following words, ‘Resist — a plot is brought home — The tour.’ And this is the anagrammatic method.
—Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
At every turn, we are menaced by mediocrity, the common place.
—Francis Ponge, ‘Still life and Chardin’ (trans. Serge Gavronsky)
1. From which there appears to be no escape
The stairs seemed to multiply as Podgörski descended, though when he paused and looked back it was as if he had come no distance at all. Eventually, after much effort, he reached the bottom where a bright-pink door confronted him, the sign above reading ENTER.
The tangy odour given off by the hulking form he’d seen disappear into the shadows was unmistakeable, almost cloying. He leaned on the crash bar securing the door and found himself in a windowless room, lit by a single central bulb, Against the back wall was a king-size bed on which sat the immense, citrus-like form, gently vibrating.
The creature eased itself onto the floor and began to wobble towards him, groaning and sighing. He tried to side-step it, but the thing moved with surprising agility, and soon had him pinned against the wall, rubbing itself against him and moaning. Nothing in his training had prepared Podgörski for an encounter with a hyper-active, over-sized grapefruit. Its mute exterior gave no clue as to whether it was angry or begging. He wasn’t even sure what sex it was, or if it had a sex. As the creature pressed ever more forcefully against him, he struggled desperate for air.
2. Where we become acquainted with a severed leg
A length of human intestine about two metres long lay on the road. No one knew how it had got there. The two detectives called to the scene questioned it for an hour but the gut would divulge nothing concerning its origins. They hung it in the cold store of a local butcher’s shop and went to get breakfast.
While the detectives were comparing notes over vegan sausage baps, a severed leg hopped into the café and ordered a latte. ‘Take a seat,’ the waitress said. ‘I’ll bring it over.’ The leg began chatting to the waitress. ‘The river was as THICK and BROWN as molasses,’ it said. ‘Flowing, but only just.’ ‘That slow, huh?’ said the waitress. ‘Upstream of the footbridge someone had thrown in a small STICK,’ the leg continued, ‘and fifteen minutes later it was only just starting to EMERGE on the other side.’
‘Could be another part of the body we’re looking for,’ one of the detectives remarked to his companion. ‘And this one talks.’ ‘A MOUTH came floating downstream,’ the leg continued. ‘Buoyed by the VISCOSITY of the flow. It opened its lips and began to SING, “Heartaches by the Number”, a song my mother used to love.’
3. Grapefruit for breakfast
When Podgörski came to, sunlight was streaming into the room where he lay on a reclining chair. His ribs felt sore when he tried to move. ‘You’ll no doubt want some breakfast,’ said a voice behind him. Podgörski swung his legs round and sat up. The elderly blind woman he’d met the day before at the headquarters of The Mediocrity was sitting in an armchair a few feet away. It was outside her office that he’d first seen the yellow, spherical monstrosity.
A young woman, boyish-looking with short hair, entered the room carrying a tray which she placed on a low table next to Podgörski. It contained a bowl of fruit salad, a stack of waffles with maple syrup, and a plate of grilled bacon. The fruit salad, he noticed, included segments of grapefruit. ‘This is Selexia,’ said the old woman. ‘But don’t get any ideas, she’s an android.’ Podgörski picked up the fruit salad and began to eat. ‘Thanks for the warning,’ he said. Selexia brought in a jug of coffee while he was demolishing the waffles and bacon. ‘She’s a great cook.’ ‘She is,’ said the blind woman, ‘There’s no one like her.’
After the breakfast was cleared away the old lady filled him in. ‘Pamela was one of The Mediocrity’s best agents,’ she said, ‘a talented and ambitious young woman and much feared by our enemies. Two months ago she was transformed into the creature you encountered, by a method we have not yet been able to unravel. She was last seen at a nightspot called The Upside Down Club.’
4. A short sightseeing tour without sites
Podgörski’s briefing notes described the city of Dorteheim as ‘one of the dullest places ever imagined by an author’. Lacking buildings of any architectural distinction, boasting no famous sons or daughters, and with a dire reputation for its ‘cuisine’, the place attracted few visitors. Recently, though the established order had been shaken by a number of inexplicable events. A fountain in the main square had started to spray confetti, local officials became lost on their way to meetings, and a pyramid of sheep’s eyeballs had been found in the window display of a fashion boutique by staff coming in to work.
Podgörski read the account of these happenings with close attention. Another item in the dossier which had caught his eye was an inscription on a gravestone in one of the city’s cemeteries.
5. Where a mathematical formula is introduced
The two detectives investigating the gut incident went by the names X and Y. Colleagues described them as unknown variables. The value of one determined the value of the other, and vice-versa. As a consequence they usually worked together, a ‘seamless mismatch’ as the chief inspector put it. They’d asked the leg to accompany them to the station and had been interviewing it for several hours, though they had learned very little.
‘The woman lies motionless on the bed, her POSITION unchanged,’ the leg said. ‘Her HAIR falls across her face. Moonlight FLOODS the room.’ ‘Yeah you told us that several times already,’ said X, the younger of the two cops. ‘The door opens,’ the leg continued, ‘and a young man in a WETSUIT, wearing flippers and carrying a mask and snorkel, enters.’
A moth had flown into the interrogation room through an open window and had begun circling the bulb hanging in the middle of the room. It crashed several times into the light, then fell onto the table in front of the detectives, singed but still twitching. ‘The young MAN lies down on his stomach,’ said the leg, ‘and KICKS with his feet while dragging himself TOWARDS the bed.’ ‘Either it’s playing a very clever game or this leg is raving,’ said Y.
6. Following in Pamela’s footsteps
Podgörski handed his overcoat to the cloakroom assistant at The Upside Down Club. On the way here he’d spotted a couple of police officers on a traffic island trying to stand on their heads. More of the strange goings on in the city, he assumed. ‘‘I’m looking for information about a woman name of Pamela Lepsumos,’ he said, showing the girl a photograph. ‘Know anything about her?’ ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘But I wouldn’t go asking questions about her here. Unless you’re looking for trouble.’ ‘Maybe we could discuss this some other place,’ Podgörski suggested. He handed her a card with his number on it. ‘I’d make it worth your while.’ ‘I’ll think about it,’ the girl said, turning to hang his coat on the rack behind her.
Podgörski pushed through the curtained entrance to the club proper. A bar lined one wall, and across the room there was a small stage where a young man in drag was singing in a high falsetto, ‘Heartaches by the Number’. An all-female, nine-piece band, dressed in tuxedos, accompanied him.
It was the kind of place he might have expected to find in New York, Paris or Berlin, but which seemed out of place in Dorteheim, its presence somehow unsettling. A well-heeled crowd occupied the tables, suggestive of an underground cultural scene he hadn’t suspected.
7. An ear turns up talking in riddles
The ear arrived in a cardboard box with air holes punched in the sides. It was lying on a piece of paper towel, still bloody. The ear too was talking, but no one could make any sense of what it was saying. ‘Could you repeat that?’ the older detective asked. ‘A lifeline thrown to us with a change of consonant,’ the ear said. It sounded different from the leg, slightly androgynous in tone. ‘Running serves for the wait,’ it went on. ‘This lesson deserves another. No hurry to hasten. So step on it.’
‘This doesn’t look much like the leg,’ X said. ‘But the DNA tests show all of the parts are from the same body.’ His partner suggested they put the ear, guts and leg in a cell together, to see if that produced anything: ‘Maybe they’ll recognise each other.’ With the body parts safely locked up for the night X put his feet on his desk and opened a copy of Shelley’s A Vindication of Natural Diet. Y amused himself watching a movie on his phone in which a down and out, called Reb Turllier, a drug addict living rough on the streets of Minneapolis, was turned into a bull terrier by dog-loving aliens.
8. In which Podgörski descends into the underworld
Crossing to the bar Podgörski ordered a drink, and sat watching the performers while he considered his next move. The band seemed to be doing a whole series of Ray Price hits and were now playing ‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down’. Several times Podgörski thought he caught the singer looking pointedly in his direction.
He asked the bartender where he would find the washrooms. Half-way down the stairs Podgörski noticed a postcard lying on the ground and picked it up. The picture on the front showed the gravestone he’d read about in his briefing pack. On the back was printed:
He studied the card for a few moments, wondering what it could mean. The letters were crawling around like flies on a corpse, the words becoming disjointed, unrecognisable. His head started reeling.
9. A change of scene and a blind alley
When Podgörski came to he was lying in a dusty alleyway next to a collection of rubbish bins. It was night, and surprisingly warm. The architecture of the low-rise buildings looked North African, and he could hear what he recognised as Arabic music coming from an open doorway nearby. The back of his head felt sore and there was blood matted in his hair.
He got to his feet and dusted off his clothes. His wallet and phone were gone. By the bins he noticed what looked like a severed human hand. Flies were crawling over it, and he had the momentary impression they had formed themselves, like synchronised swimmers, into the shape of words, but had now broken up again and were about their normal business. The after image of the text lingered in his mind just beyond the reach of intelligibility.
10. In which a possible suspect is identified
In the cell the length of intestine and the ear lay at one end of the hard bench. The leg was at the other, still rambling: ‘The door opens and an elderly man ENTERS with a barrel organ. He is wearing a dark, SHABBY suit and a battered top hat. A woman in a PALE pink nightdress lies sprawled UNCONSCIOUS across the bed. It’s night, a single, naked bulb ILLUMINATES the room. A monkey sits on the old man’s SHOULDER. He wheels the barrel organ into the MIDDLE of the room, positions it under the light, and begins to CRANK the handle. The fairground TUNE “Tesoro mio” is heard.’
‘No stone on the level,’ the ear said. ‘Two burdens for the price of one.’
‘I think we should check up on this organ grinder,’ Y said. X agreed and immediately put out an alert.
‘Molasses is OOZING from the instrument and collecting in a PUDDLE on the carpet,’ the leg said. ‘When the music comes to an end the MONKEY takes the hat from the man’s head, LEAPS onto the bed, and holds it out to the woman who in all this TIME has not moved. She turns in her sleep. The ORGAN grinder picks up the monkey, RETRIEVES his hat, and places the animal BACK on his shoulder. He makes an elaborate BOW as though to an INVISIBLE audience, putting his hat on as he RIGHTS himself, turns the barrel organ round, and departs, leaving a trail of STICKY footprints behind him.’
11. During which further body parts are mentioned
The door the music was coming from proved to be at the back of a bakery where two men were working. They were talking about a recent murder and a dismembered corpse.
The conversation stopped as soon as Podgörski entered the room. ‘Salaam alaikum,’ he said. The two bakers looked warily at him. ‘You seem to have injured your head,’ one of them remarked. ‘I met with an accident,’ Podgörski replied. The man dipped a cloth into a bowl of water and handed it to him. ‘This may seem a strange question,’ Podgörski said, ‘but where am I?’ ‘You’re in the kitchen of Moustafa’s bakery,’ the man replied. ‘In Eid-Moreth,’ his co-worker added.
12. Involving an unfortunate interlude
An hour later the leg was still in full flow: ‘We hear the sound of a SHOTGUN being fired a couple of times, SOMEWHERE in the distance. The woman having breakfast in the KITCHENETTE doesn’t seem to notice. Through the window a CREEPER can be seen growing slowly UP the face of the building opposite.’
‘The least suggestion goes a long way in a storm at sea,’ volunteered the ear. The length of gut twitched, a dark fluid draining from one end formed a puddle on the bench. ‘Is it putting this on?’ asked X. ‘Sure, another ruse,’ Y said. ‘No pun intended.’ The gut belched.
The leg continued as though oblivious. ‘After some time a young woman DRESSED as a chambermaid enters. She stops by the bed, KNEELS down, and after a few moments recovers a brace of PHEASANTS. She stands up HOLDING the birds, then hangs them on a HOOK on the back of the door.’
13. In which our hero glimpses the future
When Podgörski came to he found he was bound to a chair, in an empty room, wearing nothing but his underpants. From outside came the sound of the call to Friday prayers broadcast from the minaret of a mosque.
The room door opened and a young man came in. He bore a marked resemblance to Selexia. ‘I’m Axelise,’ he said placing a dish of stewed camel on the floor. ‘I’ve brought you some breakfast.’ Podgörski gazed at him for a moment and then at the greyish meat glazed with congealed sauce. ‘I’d give my right arm for a cold beer,’ he said. Axelise ignored him, scooping up a lump of meat onto a spoon and raising it to Podgörski’s lips.
‘Couldn’t you just untie me?’ Podgörski asked. ‘I’m afraid not,’ the android said, patiently holding out the spoon. ‘Is this a set up?’ asked Podgörski. Axelise put down the spoon and took out his phone. ‘Let me show you the van you’ll be driving,’ he said, flipping through a series of images until he found the one he wanted. Podgörski stared at the photograph. It showed a garishly painted vehicle parked on a city street somewhere he didn’t recognise. The lettering on the side of the van read: Spiro D. Gök – Gourmet Vegan Burgers.
14. Which serves more than one end
The report on the organ grinder had come back. It seemed he worked under various aliases, but his real name was Troy Medici. He was a familiar figure in the city centre though he hadn’t been seen for several days. Aliases included Stu Gomes and Tom Guess. He seemed to have no fixed abode. A missing-person alert had been circulated.
‘This isn’t making any sense,’ complained Y. X had just come back into the office with a couple of vegan brownies and a carton of carrot and grapefruit juice. ‘What if there’s no way out?’ said the ear. ‘If halving a problem multiplies. Two heads half in together, equals. Any shoulder to cry on?’
The leg continued with its narration: ‘All this time, the WOMAN in the kitchenette is eating her breakfast of LIGHTLY buttered crispbreads, as though UNAWARE of the maid’s presence. The radio is playing quietly. The CREEPER has completely covered the building across the road.’
Pamela Lepsumos / La Pamplemousse
Podgörski / Spiro D. Gök
Mediocrity / Troy Medici
Dortheim / Eid-Moreth
Some Guts / Stu Gomes / Tom Guess
Selexia / Axelise
Reb Turlier / Bull Terrier
SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including Stride, Fortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, International Times, Junction Box, The Long Poem Magazine, Ink Sweat & Tears, PN Review and Journal of Poetics Research. Why are you here?, a collection of his prose poems and short fiction, was published by Odd Volumes in November 2020. His third chapbook, Sanchez Ventura, was published by Leafe Press in spring 2021, and his new work Blue Eyes is forthcoming from Zimzalla in spring 2024. Collings is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For more information, visit his webpage.
JOHN GOODBY is Professor of Arts and Culture at Sheffield Hallam University, and is best known as the leading authority on the work of Dylan Thomas, and as a poet whose work, in different styles, has been published by Faber, Shearsman and Red Ceilings. His collages are a recent extension of his creative activity; to date they have been shown in the Perfectly Frank Opens the Door exhibition (Swansea, 2023), used by Contemporary Collage Magazine, featured in the 2023 ‘Peacefire’ issue of the US Dada journal Maintenant, and inspired ‘Icarus’, a poem by Carol Watts (Golden Handcuffs Review, forthcoming).
[This post was updated on January 19, 2024, with collage under number 13 —Eds.]