Once there was a girl who asked of her reflection, ‘If all I have is fragments of memories and none of them fit together, tell me then, do I exist?’ There was no answer, only the silence of the room and the hum of the green light that oozed from the television in the corner. She had no idea how long she had been standing there, maybe an eternity. Her name, her age, beyond recall. All she knew was there would be no tomorrow if she couldn’t work out the riddle of yesterday. She wondered often if she was going crazy, but it was hard to remember what crazy looked like. In the apartment, on the windowsill before her, lay a dead butterfly. Its wings and its beauty disturbed her. It was familiar, it had an echo of another time.
Softly, she sang a few words, her breath misty on the cold night - time glass, her reflection the only silent proof of her existence.
If you go down in the woods today
You’re sure of a big surprise.
If you go down in the woods today
You’d better go in disguise.
She was certain there were more verses but, like so much, they twinkled on the brink of things lost. High up in a dark tenement block, the girl looked out of the window to a wasteland. In the middle stood one building. A picture palace. She imagined that once it must have been fabulous, with its mirrored facade built of thousands of reflective squares. How it came to fall into such decay was a mystery. As so much here was. The girl could see that the movie house had three grand silvered steps leading up to diamond-paned glass doors. Now all smeared with the grime of neglect. The place looked haunted, having scared away every other building that might have kept it company, leaving it isolated. There, at the very edge of the world, the other buildings formed a protective circle, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, joining with rows of tall houses and one black tower to make an impenetrable wall, a mix of apartment buildings and tenement blocks whose fronts were laced with a spider’s web of fire escapes, water tanks and balconies. Behind this barricade she could see skyscrapers turning their Venetian blinded eyes away. There was no way out. This was landscape with no colour, no trees to break the endless monotony of grainy black and white, just the ever-present eerie hum of the green light. It was this light that, in the darkness, filled her nightmares. Perhaps it was the sound of crazy, perhaps it was the end. How was she to know?
The wasteland was a rippling sea, its tides rushing in on waves of things remembered, sucked out by waves of things forgotten. Here, once, a city stood. All that was left was rubble. Here, once, a burning airship fell from the sky. Then the tide changed again and the wasteland was awash with mud and barbed wire, an empty pram that no one would ever collect. The flotsam and jetsam of memories.
It was now night in this eternal day, but there was no time here, no clocks to mark the passing hours. The dark a false promise of a future that would never come.
Snow started to fall, thick, fluqy, playful flakes. The girl watched a magic of sorts unfolding as the wasteland began to turn white.
From an adjoining room, a man said, ‘Do you want tea?’ She didn’t answer.
‘I always like my tea strong, builder’s tea, proper tea,’ he said. ‘I know it’s sweet enough when the teaspoon stands upright in the mug. Made two cups. I always make two cups. Made one for Bernie after they blew his arm off.’
The girl heard him come shuring into the room. He was wearing a dressing-gown over a soldier’s shirt and trousers of the Great War, his calves still wrapped in putties, his boots muddy. Carrying his tea to the armchair he sat down, quietened by the green flickering light from the television.
If he talked at all, he talked only of tea, toast and the trenches. He said he’d seen ghosts on the wasteland, seen the dead of Passchendaele rise, young men again.
The girl, too, had seen things on the wasteland, been tempted to go out there and investigate. But she was afraid the boy might not find her. She had searched one apartment, one tenement block after another. Now and again it struck her like a body blow that perhaps the boy wasn’t there. Only the child, and she would be happy never, ever to see her again.
Then something strange happened. The sign over the front of the picture palace lit up. It read:
Vervaine Fox starring in The Night of the Tiger
She turned to the man in the armchair.
‘Look, look,’ she said. ‘The picture palace is coming to life.’ The soldier said nothing, his tea untouched, the spoon still standing upright.
Now the girl stood in front of him, trying to get his attention. ‘Come and see, just once, look out.’ Still the soldier sat, hypnotised by the light from the television. She went back to the window. The picture palace had undergone another transformation. No longer derelict, its mirrored face reflected the snow, shimmering with a glamour that made her long to be a part of it.
She saw a man throw open the double doors. The foyer glowed, honeypot golden, the light spilling on to the carpet of virgin snow, all crisp, all even.
The girl’s heart beat faster.
A white tiger walked through the foyer, out of the picture palace, and moved languidly towards the apartment block.The closer the mighty animal came the more the girl felt alive,the more she was aware of a sensation beyond herself, within herself, a stirring, a clue of what yesterday might have been.
This majestic creature, conjured from an alchemist’s book of spells, walked with measured steps, its paws leaving a map of prints in the snow. The girl felt certain that if she were with the tiger she would be safe. Safe was not anything she remembered, safe was nothing she knew, except for a snapshot of brown stripes against white fur.
She left the apartment, closing the door carefully behind her so as not to disturb the soldier in his slumbers. The corridor was deserted, green light seeped from under each of the many front doors. She looked down the thirteen storeys of the stone stairwell and started walking. On the ground floor, by the entrance, she stood gazing at the white tiger, fascinated by its beauty. It prowled back and forth, weaving between long-deserted swings and roundabouts, stopping every now and again, its blue eyes seeing right into her.
She will never find the boy, it’s been too long, she’s sure it’s been too long. Only the child is waiting for her and she wishes she would leave her alone.
She pushes open the door. Snow flurries into the passageway and turns to water on the concrete.
She will follow the tiger, come what may. His tracks make stepping stones across the wasteland to the picture palace.
The man is waiting, watching.
He bows to Amaryllis. ‘I’m Silas. It’s good to see you again.’
At the top of the grand staircase stands an apparition dressed in a satin evening gown, a rippling waterfall of fabric.
The girl has seen her before. She has a name.
The white tiger prowls around this goddess of the silver screen.
Suddenly there is a noise, a sharp shaking of a door, a clattering of brooms and brushes, and from a small panel in the mirrored foyer a young man tumbles backwards into the light.
‘I’m Ezra Pascoe,’ he says, scrambling to his feet. ‘Do you remember me?’
‘You’re the cake boy,’ the girl says.
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