The Sequin Underworld – By Guy Mankowski
I wish she would pull David out of her ears. Bowie’s ‘Velvet Goldmine’ is filtering incessantly from her earphones, and I wonder if anyone will ever hang onto my words as desperately as she does to his. That’s the first thought I remember having this evening; and I must recount them precisely if they are to be of any use. I remember first seeing her leant against a pillar in this greater London train station, her dove-white skin a violent contrast to her blood-red lips. She was a beguiling blur of sequin, lipstick and perfume, and as her face moved into the light I saw that her tiny shoulders were dusted with some gold glitter. She’s still there now, wearing a red sequin dress, wrapped in a trench coat of indiscriminate dark colour. Her uneasiness suggests that her mind is consumed with something of pressing importance. She’s central to the meaning of this place, but if I am to recount the dialogue between me and her I must be careful. I don’t know how long I have left.
I felt slight and insignificant when I first saw her, a feeling that has only grown more pervasive in the hour or so since. She seemed vague, perhaps even pathetic; I felt sure that soon I would pity her. But then I realised that something about her intrigued me, that I needed to find a subtle way to learn enough about her to feel satisfied. It’s only later that I learn that will never happen. That perhaps that is even the point of being here.
She looks at me from the corner of her eyes as a vast, grime-streaked train streaks by, thundering in my ears. She shudders as it passes us. There are other people in this station too, but she is the only one who seems relevant to me. As I look at her, as subtly as I can, I realise that she is not pathetic but in fact quite beautiful. There is something ephemeral about her and this station – I’m in a state of exhilarated unease here. I’m sure that only she can tell me how I got here, or which train we’re getting. Because somehow I know that when I do leave, it will be with her.
As I approach her I feel sluggish, but reaching her seems essential. I’m sure I need her advice if I am to gain answers. It seems an eternity before I am finally at her side. By the time I am close enough to smell her bewitching perfume, nothing seems more important than us conversing meaningfully. Up close she seems deathly pale, almost like a 1930’s starlet, with a seductive sneer forever playing on her lips.
‘Were we on the same train?’ I ask, and she looks at me from the side of her darkly painted eyes. Her mouth twists into a faintly bemused smile, and she doesn’t turn her face to meet me. I’m ready to plead with her when slowly she begins to speak.
‘We may have been’ she says. ‘But I don’t remember that’.
‘Perhaps we weren’t’ I respond. ‘But I somehow recognise you, which makes me wonder if we’ve met before. And if so, then perhaps we’re headed to the same place now?’ She looks down on me through her long, painted lashes with a scorn that only makes me desire her more. Slowly she replies ‘That might be true, I suppose’. Her eyes fix upon mine, and I get the sense I have tried to speak to her before, that she has already seen through me once. A cold wind blasts around us and I see that my only protection against this night is a thin velvet coat clinging to my torso, and a pair of tattered jeans.
There is something faintly glamorous about the scene. I’m charmed by the romance of the smoke; it’s enthralling to be somewhere no one remains for long. I’m sure I’ve not been here for more than an hour – if you are to understand my plight it is essential you understand that, for this is a message to you above all others.
‘Do you know when the next train is arriving?’ I ask, and as she opens her coat I see a flash of goose pimpled flesh and bright, broken sequins lining her body. She looks up, and smoke drifts through her peroxide hair. Her grey eyes fix upon a train conductor nearby, a portly man with a comically determined face. He begins to walk in our direction along the platform.
‘Perhaps you should ask him?’ she murmurs, before looking away. As her tone is only faintly sarcastic, I feel encouraged. The need to speak to him, to find out how I leave here, perhaps even how I got here, becomes imperative. I hope that he’ll inform me that I’m lost on my way home from a late-night party, or that I’m simply too drunk to remember anything. But I’m reluctant to leave this woman’s side, and I move from her over to him slowly.
The conductor makes me wait for a good minute before acknowledging me, alternating between looking at his watch and the empty tracks beneath us. ‘Yes son’ he eventually says, not meeting my eye.
‘Do you know when my train is coming?’ I ask, only realising once I’ve spoken how nonsensical my question is.
He laughs, and looks back at the tracks. ‘You’ll not be riding any of these, son’ he says. ‘This is your purgatory’.
‘What do you mean?’ I say.
‘Everyone has their own purgatory when they die, if the life they led decrees it’ he says, looking up. ‘You created your purgatory yourself, just as everyone does; it’s how the universe balances. And this is where your mind felt you should remain. Though why on earth you decided to wear that ridiculous woman’s petticoat for eternity is beyond me. I’d have probably chosen a parka personally, but each to their own’. He declares the last sentence with a broad Yorkshire accent I’m sure he didn’t previously possess.
It’s only after a few moments of wrapping my ‘petticoat’ around my limbs that I reply.
‘You mean none of this is real?’
‘It’s real to all the other people here, but not to you son. I may seem real to them, but I’m not – I’m created by your subconscious. Not that that makes me your bitch or anything, you understand’. He laughs; a slightly hollow sound. For the first time he turns to face me.
‘I’ve been here before?’
‘You are always here’ he says. ‘The only reason you don’t know that is because your memory fades every few hours, and then you find yourself abandoned here again’. He sounds sympathetic, but cautious. I wonder if his empathy has been consumed by me asking him the same question many times, but then I remember that he’s unreal. He feels nothing – if what he is says is true.
I laugh out loud; a slightly hysterical and fearful sound. It rings around the station, before being smothered by the noise of the engines. ‘You see? My laughter rang around; it was definitely real. And how can I be fake? – I can smell the perfume of that girl- and my desire for her is certainly real!’ I say.
‘Your desire for her is real alright’ he answers. ‘But she is not – she’s a representation of something you’ve chased, something you’ll never be able to quite define. You want to spend time with her – fear not, you will. You’ll spend eternity with her. But she’ll remain just as elusive to you as she does now. Perhaps it has something to do with your choice of attire. You’re clearly not her type. She is bored to even see you look at her. You see that?’
He is quite right. For as he spoke to me I became momentarily distracted by her sequins, but when I looked over she snapped her gaze scornfully from me. ‘How can my eternity be someone who doesn’t even want me?’ I ask.
‘Can’t tell you that, son. Who do you mistake me for, Freud? Only your mind knows why it chose to create her for your eternity. And besides – you think you’ll find answers here? I told you son, this is purgatory, a purgatory of your making, even if you can’t change it. And in a way, you are happy here, and this is your home. Now step back for the twenty one fifteen please’.
I step back as an enormous metal juggernaut, communicating only in speed and violence, thunders past us.
‘So I can’t escape here?’ I ask. He shakes his head forlornly.
‘The others can’ he replies. ‘The other passengers. This is their real world, in each of the dimensions they exist in – infinitely intertwined from scene to scene for everyone except the dead. And those dimensions are infinite and well-defined. All of these people are going places, moving on to their next destination. But not you son, I’m afraid not. You’re stuck here’.
I must look melancholy, because soon he is clapping a warm hand on my ridiculously clad shoulder. ‘But don’t get down son’ he says. ‘The buffet cafe opens in fifteen minutes – you like that. You’ll have a warm sausage roll and a pint of weak hot chocolate, and you’ll convince yourself you enjoyed it. And then you’ll forget all of this. And you’ll also forget that you can never escape’.
‘Why are you telling me this?’ I ask him, suddenly frightened. ‘And how do you know this to be true?’
‘I’m telling you this, because however peculiar I find you, tonight I feel a bit sorry for you. And I’ve worked out your situation because despite being created by you to play this role, I’ve played it so many times that I’ve eventually worked out exactly what I’m doing here. I’ve also seen many things that have convinced me I must be right- but let’s not get into that’.
And that is why I am writing to you now, dear reader. This is my escape – and I will forget I have even made it, I have no doubt. What he said rang true to me, though I was desperate a few minutes ago not to believe him. Today, perhaps the one day in millions, I decide to write my story in the time I have left before my memory again fades. I see a discarded broadsheet newspaper lying on an empty bench. Leafing quickly through it I find a pale white advert taking up a whole page, giving me enough space on which to write this. I also find a discarded biro under a plastic seat, and use them to scrawl this in the hope of slipping it into the newspaper of one of the business men passing through here. I will even try to find one who looks as if he might have an interest in literary matters. God knows how many times I have tried to do this and failed, but there is no time for such thoughts. There is no time for me to even wonder how I died, or how many times in my life I saw I saw other similarly stranded souls, mistaking them for living people.
I figure, perhaps in my confused state, that if I cannot physically escape my purgatory, then at least I can mentally escape it if my story finds a way out of this station. The man who carries it will be by unwitting saviour, my unconscious guide to salvation, if even only on one plane. Sir, if I manage to find you and put this in your paper before you board the train, and if you read this, thank you. I beg you to find a way to put this out into the world, to have it published or to at the very least pin it to lampposts for strangers to read, so that they can learn how the world works. I desperately urge you to do this, to show people that not everything they see is relevant to them, and not every act can be attributed to the factors they evaluate. But more honestly, I beg you to do this so that I can be freed, if only in one sense and in a way I will not remember. If you do this for me, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, because you’ve made an imprisoned man free- if only in the most inconsequent sense of the word. Take these desperate and scribbled words out into the world, dear, suited man, and give me my liberty. Meanwhile, I will try to stay awake, to see if the physical boundaries of this place are as strong as deep down I know them to be.