CONJUNCTIONS:39, Fall 2002
Entertaining Angels Unawares
M. John Harrison
I GOT TWO OR THREE WEEKS' WORK with a firm that specialized in high and difficult access jobs in and around Halifax. They needed a laborer, someone to fetch and carry, clean the site up behind them. The job was on the tower of a church about thirty miles northeast of the town. I wasn't sure what I thought about that. I wondered what I'd say to the vicar if he ever appeared, but he never did.
Generally it was a quiet job. I was there on my own with the supervisor, a man called Sal Meredith.
Meredith picked me up every morning in the firm's van. He drove the van as if he expected it to be a motorcycle, changing lanes at high speed among slow traffic, overtaking on the inside. He made the engine rev and snap so that other motorists stared suddenly over their shoulders. Until I was used to this I didn't have much to say, but we got on well enough, and after a day or two he began to tell me about a recurring dream he had. In it he found himself chasing people through a city.
I asked him what sorty of city. Larger than Sheffield, he said, but not as large as London. It was old. "Not right old--not ages and ages ago--but not right modern, either." It was a Victorian city, blackened with soft coal smoke, rotten with industry. In the dream Meredith went up and down the stairwells of factories and tenements, sometimes at a run, sometimes a floaty dreamlike walk, broken glass and iron pipework all around him. "It were the usual thing wi' dreams--corners turn into dead ends just as you get there, even though you've seen people go round them. Anyway, there I were, going along, and I had this absolutely mega sword."
I stared at him. "A sword," I said.
"Biggest fucker you've seen," he said. "Biggest fucker you've ever seen."
His memories of this sword were vivid and exact. It wasn't new. It had been resharpened many times. He could tell from irregularities in the chamfer of the blade. Its hilt--which he called "the handle"--was built up out of gold rings; and it came in its own long leather scabbard-which he called "the holster"-fastened with a press stud for quick access. "I can just imagine it now in front of me. I feel as I've got one of these somewhere. Anyway, this dream basically consisted of walking around, then going on to tube trains and stuff, and--"
He stared at me, unsure how to proceed.
"--and, well, just basically hacking people's heads off."
"Fucking hell," I said. "Steady away."
"Weird, eh? Isn't that fucking weird?"
I had to say it was. "Do you get it a lot," I said, "this dream?" He thought.
"Often enough," he admitted.
To get to the job you had to drive through wooded hills on steep, narrow roads. It was beautiful country, even the way Meredith drove. What the fuck, I thought, I might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. The trees were green and lush, oaks and birches. It was rainforest Britain in the first year of Century 21. Then you turned a corner suddenly and the church was in front of you, a blackened square edifice flanked on one side by a farmyard full of wrecked machinery, and on the other by a neat garden in which tame rabbits lolloped stupidly around all morning. Its blue-and-gold clock had stopped at half past five. They had strung the site sign across the towner near the top:
The church was called for some reason St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness. The story on it was this, Meredith said: when it was built in 1830, the buttresses were an afterthought. They had no real engineering function. Instead of supporting the building they were just leaning against it. By 1900 they were beginning to sag and banana away. A hundred years later, eight-inch gaps had opened up, and the church had been condemned unless it could be fixed. That job was finished now. Meredith's team had gone in and driven thirtysix ten-foot, twelve tpi, stainless-steel bolts through the buttresses into the fabric of the tower itself, cementing them in with aerospace resins. You had to hide that, of course, so afterward the restorers came along with something called "gobbo," a kind of grout made from mud and goat hair, and sealed it all up. There were a lot of jokes about gobbo. Not counting assessment and planning it had taken less than a fortnight. All that remained was a bit of repointing. Meredith had also promised he would take the rotten stone louvers out of the bell tower.
"They're all laminated," he told me.
"You mean they're fucked," I said.
We decided to do the louvers first. We spent three or four mornings dropping them eighty feet to the floor, where they went off like bombs. It was tiring work getting them out of their slots. We would chuck a few of them down then go up to the top of the tower and have a drink of tea. From up there you could see that St. John's stood at a confluence of valleys, streams, and lanes. You would never have understood that from the ground, Meredith said, because of all the hills and ridges. It would have been impossible to unravel by eye. I drank my tea and said: "That dream of yours. The one with the sword. I mean, what's the point? What's the story on that?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. There's no story. It's more like a video game. Hacking people's heads off, that's the point. And it's not just the odd person. It's doing a lot. That's the tick: getting loads of people all at once. Five or six people are stood round you, and you just sort of start spinning round with this thing--footoof--and getting all their heads off." While he was talking two houseflies landed on the parapet and began to copulate on the warm stone. The sun glittered off them blue and green, and off the mica crystals in the stone around them.
"Hey, look at these fuckers," I said. "They're at it."
"Leave them alone," Meredith said. "You wouldn't want people watching you."
I watched the flies a minute more. I could see they were unaware of me, unaware of anything. Every so often they buzzed groggily and lurched into a new position. "I hate flies," I said. "I hate the dirt of them." I crushed them with my thumb, then I wiped my thumb along the parapet to clean it.
"Jesus," Meredith said. "They were only fucking."
"Are you yourself?" I said.
"In this dream, are you yourself?"
"I suppose I am," he said. "I never thought about it." Then he said: "I'm taller."
We never ate lunch at the top of the tower. It was too hot by then. We could have. gone to the Robin Hood in Hebden Bridge, but Meredith wasn't much of a drinker. Anyway, as he said, at lunchtime it was always full of locals playing Fistful of Money. If they weren't doing that they were selling one another shotgun cartridges. So most of the time we took sandwiches down into the back of the church, whatever that's called, which had been converted into a miniature parish hall. It stayed cool there all day. They had a kitchen where we could make tea, chairs and tables, and a piano. It was all separated from the rest of the church by a long glass screen. Pictures and bits of writing by Sunday school kids were displayed on red felt pin boards. Every morning we found a fresh display of leaflets on one of the tables. Someone had arranged them carefully in a fan.
"'Keep Yourself Pure'!" Meredith quoted. He laughed. "What's the difference between perverse and perverted?"
"I don't know."
"You're perverse if you tickle your arse with a feather. If you're perverted you use the whole chicken."
"How do you feel," I said, "in this dream you're having?"
"Weird," he said. "I feel weird." He drank some of his tea. "I'm myself, but I don't feel as if I'm inside myself."
"You're watching yourself," I suggested. "I suppose I am."
"That's what you're doing."
He was watching himself stalk this gloomy industrial city, getting their heads off. One night adults, the next night children. One moment he was in a huge park with silent blackened monuments, the next following a woman and child along a disused gantry. Suddenly he found himself, hours later, in a tube tunnel. "All these kids came on to the tube-station platform-" Or was it a platform? At its shadowy edges it seemed to him to blend into a kind of courtyard, with a ramp for wheelchairs. "It felt like you were on a platform. But at the same time you could feel you were somewhere else." Anyway, he was with two lads off the hi-tech team, Steve and Paul. He told them to he down quietly on the ramp out of harm's way. "Then all these kids came running round the corner-you know, eight-, nine-year-old kids, and suddenly it went really dark, and I just remember squatting down to get the right height and--"
"Footoof!" I said.
"--all their heads off, five or six heads at one go."
I went and looked at the notice boards where the Sunday school kids had pinned their work up. A recent drawing exercise for the boys had been "My route to church." They had made light work of it, drawing themselves in red Ferraris and adding commentary: "My house." "Whooosh!" "Hinchcliffe Arms." "Screeech!" "Church Bank Lane." "Bang!" The energy of these journeys undercut the cheap parsonical metaphor they were based on. The girls had done paper samplers that read JESUS IS LORD OF LIFE.
Meredith came and looked over my shoulder. "See that?" he said. "One of them's written BORD OF LIFE. Little tinker." He studied his watch. "Hey, time to drop a few more bombs," he said.
"I'm having a piss first."
"You can do that if you want," Sal Meredith said. I went into the lavatory. "Remember, though," he called after me: "More than two shakes is a wank."
The complete text of "Entertaining Angels Unawares" can be found in the print issue of Conjunctions:39, The New Wave Fabulists.