Monday, December 09, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Sixty

Rex Under Glass, part 6

With his bare hands behind him bracing the cold rough stone, Rex Packard posed for the camera: young man facing the firing squad he thought. Harris held the smart phone in front of him like a rare shell found on a beach: young man with a tenuous hold on reality he thought.

In comparison to the remnants of the historic fortification wall, Harris thought Rex seemed newborn, innocent, unstudied, and yet the stones were young compared to Prague's long dismantled Romanesque fortifications, the Gothic Medieval battlements and the more recent Baroque period defences, all taken away beginning in the 1870s as the coup de grâce for what time with its endless cycles of rain, snow, ice and baking summer heat had begun, the inevitable degradation and crumbling of mortar and stone where countless men had pissed, spat, cursed, and scratched graffiti after the cannon balls had flown and the assaulting armies had passed. Prague, now conquered by Budweiser, Perrier, McDonald's, where huddled clutches of students and knots of wandering pilgrims roamed the fabled cobblestones in search of time itself. Harris had seen it all. Rebuilding his life as a tour guide for two years had been an education in humanity's unending hunger for the past—and cheap souvenirs.

He handed the phone back to Rex. “If you'd been reading a book and sitting on a bench, it might have added a certain . . vraisemblance, but as you wish, man against a wall.”

Rex wasn't listening, he was too busy sweeping, tapping and pinching the touch screen. “Hmm, this one looks pretty good . . . .”

“Perhaps our distortions in the fun house mirrors captured us better.” Once again, Harris failed to elicit a response. He turned away and withdrew his cigarette case with the image of Ireland on the cover, and as he performed his ritual, he remembered the fake ruin at Belvedere House, the Irish folly called the Jealous Wall. He'd been on a day trip with a friend from Dublin for a spot of fishing at Lough Ennell, and after their brief angling excursion—the lake's renowned pike having eluded their hooks—they had sought out the autumn vistas around the big house and its folly, and yes, he had had his picture taken against the cold stones, posing like an Edwardian poet, wool scarf thrown over the shoulder of his tweed sports jacket, his supple leather gloves held in one hand, a Sweet Afton cigarette in the other, and it was there he'd learnt the story of the jealous man behind the jealous wall. He looked at Rex wondering if he'd appreciate the tale, but he was manipulating his phone seeking out wifi as if he were the hologram Doctor from Star Trek scanning invisible life forms on a distant planet.


It was almost three hours later when he thought it apropos to tell the tale. He had led Rex down to the Malá Strana, over to the Nostitz Palace pointing out its rich facade with its array of statues along the cornice by Brokof the Younger—now replicas, alas—a building where scenes of Amadeus had been shot he had informed Rex—a full head nod in reaction—then up to the Maltese Square where a statue of John the Baptist watched over the approach to the Maltese Church of the Virgin Mary under the Chain—an inquisitive cocking of the head—then round past the John Lennon Wall—gaudy and psychedelic with nostalgia and idealism—over the Devil's Stream to Kampa Island and the stairs leading up to the Charles Bridge where he had duly reprieved his old monologue about the statues on display—once again, copies of the originals—stopping to discuss John of Nepomuk who had been thrown from the bridge for having denied King Wenceslas the secrets of his wife's confessions concerning a possible romantic affair—a possible segue for the Jealous Wall—and then continuing with his old tour guide spiel across the river, under the tower past the museum of torture—plus ça change—and to the Old Town Square with its Medieval astronomical clock and a few bon mots concerning the fugitive nature of time—thinking to himself that one of the clock's four statuettes, the Miser, Vanity, the skeleton death and the Turk with the stringed instrument could be replaced with a representation of a jealous husband—before finally crossing the square and walking up and around to the his favourite Japanese restaurant where Rex had aped his choice of grilled salmon with teriyaki sauce, rice, Miso soup and salad washed down with a couple of Sapporos, and imitated him as he sat there picking his teeth after the fine meal.

“When you stood against the wall up near Petrin Tower, it reminded me of a story set in Ireland,” Harris commenced slowly. “I think I remember most of the details."

"I'm all ears," Rex said as if surrendering to an adventurous challenge.

"There was a man, an aristocrat named Robert Rochfort who, at the age of twenty-six married the sixteen year old daughter of another aristocratic family, not uncommon in the eighteenth century. They lived in a fine home called Gaulstown House. He was away a good deal of the time on business affairs, Dublin, London, and as Robert's younger brother Arthur and his wife were neighbours, they offered her friendship. She raised her children and the families were close, but Robert was distant to his wife and was rarely at home and was easily influenced by another brother, George, who, for monetary reasons possibly, disliked the young wife. An accusation of infidelity with Arthur was brought against his wife. George apparently the witness. Love letters were supposedly involved.”

Rex finished the remnants of his beer. “A bit of a Casanova then, this Arthur.”

“Well, that's the thing, perhaps not. Arthur had been shocked at the accusations and left the country to save face no doubt, and Robert locked his wife away in Gaulstown House with instructions to the staff that no family or friends could visit her. He meanwhile, lived in the beautiful Georgian mansion built on Ennell Lough, called Belvedere House, near his brother George's stately home. So, while his wife quietly lost her mind and began talking to the portraits on the walls, he was living the glorious life, respected, admired, perhaps even offered sympathy for having had the misfortune of an adulterous wife. When his brother Arthur returned, Robert sued him for £20,000 damages, what would be over a million dollars today, and inevitably Arthur was arrested and spent the rest of his life in a debtor's prison.”

“His own brother?”

“It's quite likely they were innocent. Just sensitive people sharing thoughts and emotions and supporting each other. Normal well-adjusted people with normal sensibilities." Harris waited while the waitress cleared their plates. “Then of course Robert had a falling out with the manipulative George.”

“Pistols at dawn?”

Harris nodded. “If only. He had a fake ruin installed to block out the view of his brother's house. This three story grand folly was called the Jealous Wall. I had my picture taken against it many years ago. Ruins were very popular in the eighteenth century, aids to reflection on the nature of time and decay, the memento mori of the landscape, but this Jealous Wall was a double fake, in its very nature, and the motive behind it. A greater example of the abuse of the Picturesque is unlikely to be found.”

“So what's the fortification wall in Prague got to do with an Irish ruin?”

Harris looked past Rex with a controlled frustration. “Absolutely nothing. Merely a subjective reflection on human nature aroused by the physical manifestation of walls themselves. The abuse of power. Wenceslas, Rochfort, Vernon Smythe. The manipulation of truth and lies.”

The lines on Harris's forehead made Rex think of sagging volleyball nets. He didn't want to discuss Smythe and his commission. “Where did you learn to pick your teeth like that, one hand covering the other?”

Harris raised his eyebrows in reaction to the change in the conversation. “I was stationed in Hong Kong for two years. Common enough to see people sitting around tables in restaurants picking their teeth after a meal. It would be an embarrassment to smile and reveal a remnant morsel between the pearly whites.”

Rex smiled making Harris wonder if they were caps.

“When were you there?”

Harris half-heard the question. He was imagining himself back on that humid island with its twenty-four hour hustle, decked out in his dark brown supple leather jacket, fake Rolex, stylish ankle boots with a decorative buckle detail, the sound of his footsteps a projection of his self-conscious displacement. He inwardly sighed and thought he could smell the sharp tang of the harbour, but it was likely just a residuum of dinner. Rex asked the question again. Harris looked up at him and saw someone who would have lost those prominent eye teeth if he'd encountered a Triad member with a grudge. “The mid '80s. China had just signed the deal to take over Hong Kong. The clock was ticking. Families were doing their best to get immigration papers. The upwardly mobile had already been sending their children abroad for University degrees—computer science and engineering were the big ones back then. Yes, the shadow of the transfer of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997 loomed large. No one knew exactly what to expect. Few of us foresaw China's extraordinary economic development. Likewise with Dubai. If I'd been passing over that port city and someone had told me it would be the location for an astounding metropolis with the tallest building in the world, I would have thought them delusional. And what about Detroit.? Should have seen that coming.”

Rex nodded his head. “I was just there. It gave me the creeps. Made me think it could happen anywhere.”

Harris nodded his head knowing all about Rex's recent visit. “Corruption, mismanagement, global changes, luxury pulling the rug from under the feet of liberty. In two hundred years it might very well join the names of famous old ruins like Baalbec, Ephesus, Palmyra.” Harris smiled up at the waitress who brought him the bill. Rex motioned to grab it but Harris was too quick. “No, I insist, you're my guest. I'll take the hit this time,” he added with a wink and then busied himself with his wallet, counting the necessary Koruna. “Yes, my years in Hong Kong were enjoyable. Such a rich culture of food, luxury, gambling, horse racing, antiques. I began to collect when I was there. Small items, the paraphernalia of the opium den, emblems of oblivion and forgetfulness; exquisite Rosewood bowls, ivory handled opium knives, copper ashtrays and measuring cups, enamel opium boxes, glazed terracotta bowls, brass opium lamps, scales in brass with ivory beams and rosewood cases, lacquered leather travelling pillow chests, white porcelain head rests, lacquered bamboo pipes with terracotta bowls and ivory tips. Yes, and then I added anything to do with laudanum. Nineteenth century British medicinal bottles, pill cases and such. A decent collection. Got most of them at good prices. I kept a few items and sold the rest to help finance my shift here. Such is life.” He finished with the bill and looked across at Rex. “Are you someone who likes to remember or one who likes to forget?”

Rex stared at his spent tooth pick beside his empty glass. “I never thought about it before, but . . . I guess I'm more of a forgetter.”

Harris nodded as if he had already assumed this to be the case. He checked his watch. “We can swing by the Kavárna obecni dum for a coffee and dessert if you'd like, and we can discuss my ideas concerning our Mr. Smythe.”

“What about that absinthe you mentioned?”

“Ah yes, forgetfulness and oblivion. Just testing you for a reaction. I wouldn't touch the stuff. If you want something more authentic, try a Slivovitz, a rum brandy. Buy some and bring it home as a souvenir. Jelínek makes a nice looking bottle.”

As Rex put on his coat he said, “I feel you've led me on a wild goose chase today."

“Ah, well, it's beneficial sometimes to take the circuitous route, the diversionary path. To walk 'in rat's alley where the dead men lost their bones,' as Eliot put it." He smiled at Rex.  "It's easy to gaze at a landscape from the heights and believe what you want to, but it's much more important to feel the uneven cobblestones beneath your feet and read the writing on the wall.”

- - -

Pavor Loveridge reread the last line of his print-out and wondered if it was too pontifical. Maybe he should replace 'gaze' with a simple 'look.' He could already feel the shift in his sensibility, a turning away from his character Rex. Was he capable of killing him off? Moving on? He slipped the printed sheets of paper into a folder and put it in his desk drawer. Checking his watch he realised he'd better prepare for the unusual dinner invitation. Be observant and kind he told himself. Observant and kind. Try to bring some humour too. Light humour. Perhaps he'd come up with some ideas for his story when the night was through, lying awake, eyes closed, thinking of nothing and everything. Would he stay here or would he be with Melisande? He'd have to read the signs. Follow the path.

© ralph patrick mackay

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