Sunday, 22 January 2017
A Work of Fire
September 16th 2016
It felt like a chasm had opened up beneath Paul Kistori, an abyss, and now some part of his psyche was in a tumbling freefall. It felt dangerous, unnerving and occasionally thrilling. He wasn’t quite sure how to move forward now, after this recent experience. Part of him knew he needed to contact Jonathan, but he hadn’t seen or spoken to the guy in almost six months. They had connected so intensely that he feared John would see his subsequent absence as some kind of personal rejection. Paul glanced down at the ice cubes in his glass as he took another sip of whiskey. He had a final pull of the cigarette before stubbing it out and tossing it through the open bedroom window into the wind. He peered out at the night, at the silhouetted tower of Immanuel Church at the end of the road. Beyond it lay the darkened expanse of Streatham Common.
It was raining again, but gently this time. Not as heavily as last night’s storm.
Paul realised with some trepidation that he absolutely needed to share some of what was happening with John. He wanted to avoid a faceless back-and-forth so he wouldn’t bother calling or texting first, he’d just show up on John’s doorstep and see if he was home. Paul marched into the hallway as he downed the last of the whiskey, pulled on his hoodie and jacket and left the attic flat.
It was only a fifteen minute walk at most. He moved briskly with his hood pulled up and his fists in his pockets. The rain and bitter cold was refreshing after the cocooning warmth of the flat. He missed the night-walking. It had once been a regular feature of his life. But after the breakup with Jessica a lot of those things had fallen away. Life was darker now.
Jonathan Ellis lived near the railway arches on Eardley Road, where the timber and aggregate merchants Hitchcock & King were located. Paul was always amused by the allusive quality of the company’s name, but their bright yellow signage was at odds with the grim, run-down atmosphere of the railway arches.
Paul found the house, took a long breath and knocked dutifully on the front door. At first he thought nobody was home but then heard movement inside and saw the hallway lights come on.
The door opened and John was standing there; slightly bloodshot eyes, blonde dreadlocks tied back in a utilitarian pony-tail. Paul could have sworn John was wearing the same Levi’s and frayed Sex Pistols t-shirt from the last time they’d seen each other. It raised a smile. John smiled too, but with more caution. “Paul, dude…”
Paul could already smell the scent of weed drifting from the flat. “Hey, man. Surprised to see me?”
John raised his eyebrows and glanced away. “Well, yeah. It’s been almost six months. You said you’d keep in touch, but you stopped texting.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
John merely smiled half-heartedly like he didn’t quite believe it and ushered Paul into the smoky ground-floor flat. Paul followed him into the lounge and said, “So what’s a nice middle-class white boy like you doing in a place like this?”
John chuckled. “Fuck you, man.”
Paul sat down on the ugly floral-patterned sofa that John had found second-hand like most of the furniture in the flat. John flopped back into his tattered armchair and Paul noticed a copy of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden perched open on the armrest. An ashtray with a ridiculous heap of spliff-ends and cigarette butts sat on the coffee-table between them. John hunched forward and immediately began skinning up. “You want some? It’s Thai. No more skunk for me.”
“No, I’m good.”
John glanced up at him, a smile on his lips. “You quit smoking?”
“Not exactly, but I’m good for now.”
John shrugged as he rolled the spliff. “Suit yourself. So what’s been going on with you? Still crying like a little bitch about Jessica?”
“But the ladies love you, man…”
“What the hell does that have to do with me and Jessi?”
“Nothing, I guess. What the hell do I know, anyway? My longest relationship with a guy lasted six months. Pretty fucking pathetic for someone in his mid-thirties, right?”
John was a lot of things – a massive stoner and a very gifted psychic chief among them – but he wasn’t unattractive by any measure. A handsome man, slender but strong, with a warm smile and perceptive pale blue eyes. Mostly he avoided long-term commitments so he could continue living this kind of solitary lifestyle, but Paul could see he was fishing for some comfort right now.
“I missed you, Jonathan.” It wasn’t a lie.
“Missed you too.” But John didn’t raise his eyes to meet Paul’s gaze.
“You keeping ok, mate?”
John frowned. “So so…”
“You still driving for that company?”
“Yeah. You still working at the bookstore with your sister?”
John looked up at him, a vague disappointment in his expression. “So why’re you really here?” Paul frowned but didn’t say anything. “You want to get together another hunting-party, right?”
“Yeah, basically. Just me and you this time.”
John sighed and shook his head. “I’m done with all that Ripper shit, Paul. Human trafficking and ritual-murder. It was way too dark for me. I don’t want to be in those energies again.”
Paul held his gaze. “Not the Ripper. Crowley, right here. In our territory.”
John looked genuinely surprised. “Aleister Crowley? Seriously? Mythical serial killers aren’t enough for you? You want to go synch-tracing the most notorious occultist of the twentieth century? Sounds pretty dark to me.”
Paul could feel John’s hesitancy, but also his growing desire to reconnect. “It won’t be dark. He was just a boy. He was only sixteen at the time, I think.”
John finally lit the newly-rolled spliff and toked deeply on it. “Aleister Crowley, here in Streatham? Jesus, I didn’t know that.” He fixed Paul with a stare now that he was smoking and in his element again. “So you’ve felt him? You have his ambient, his trace?”
“Yeah, for a while now, but most strongly last night.”
John smiled. “Let me guess. The storm?”
Paul grimaced and leaned back into the sofa. “Yeah, the storm. Biggest one we’ve had in a while. I can see the tower of Immanuel from my bedroom window, right at the end of my road, overlooking the Common. I know he studied the church, even sketched it sometimes. I can feel how important it was to him. But last night I went out into the storm to really feel it, and to buy a pack of cigarettes from the petrol station. I touched the stones of the church as I passed by – and I felt him, stronger than ever before. I even felt his hand against the stone, like it was my hand. And then boom, the biggest fork of lightning I’ve ever seen splits the sky right above the Common. The thunder was instantaneous too. No delay. Gave me fucking chills, John.”
John was peering intently. “Did you get the year?”
“1891, I think. It felt like late October, early November.”
“Are we talking an aperture or an alignment here?”
“I’m not sure, but he was afraid of something. Like, truly afraid. But excited too. Such a powerful feeling.”
John frowned as he smoked. “Was it one-way though? Or do you think he sensed you?”
“I said I don’t know, man. The lightning flash felt like a synapse firing. Snapping through the mists between me and him. I don’t think he felt me, to be honest. Just some kind of psychological shock or revelation when he touched the stone. Something in his mind’s eye about a little girl covered in blood from head to toe. I guess my end was just an alignment with that shock. I must’ve touched the exact same spot.”
John chuckled nervously and shifted in the armchair. “A little girl covered in blood? Fucking hell, dude. You’re really not inspiring me to do this. It sounds creepy as shit.”
“It wasn’t literal, John. The bloodied girl was some kind of metaphor. It’s symbolic, some kind of dream-image in his psyche. But it obviously means something to him. Something profound, as he sees it.”
John laughed. “As he sees it? Present-tense? You’re already hunting.”
“But I can’t do it without you,” Paul told him.
“Yes, you can, you fucking liar.” The smile was affectionate but the frisson of anger behind it was real.
Paul took a long breath, clenched his left fist and glanced down at the tiny infinity symbol tattooed on his wrist. “Yeah, maybe I can, but I want another pair of eyes. You know how this goes, John. I don’t want to get lost in my own fantasies. I need you for corroboration.”
John narrowed his gaze. “You don’t need me for anything. I think we’ve established that. Wasn’t this guy supposed to be a fucking Satanist, Paul? Wickedest Man in the World and whatnot? The Great Beast? I don’t want to hunt that, to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see you, but you can’t come here and dangle a carrot like this just because I missed you. It’s kind of a dick move.”
Paul felt scolded. “John, mate…you know full well it’s more complicated than that. I missed you too. But staying away for a while just seemed like the least complicated option.”
John continued peering at him, but his expression softened.
“And you know full well that I wouldn’t have made things complicated or awkward. I get it. You were experimenting, crossing boundaries, trying to enhance your abilities or whatever. It was dumb and irresponsible on my part to indulge you, but yeah, I think you’re very cute, and I was drunk. So I went along with it. But I never actually wanted you as a lover, Paul. You kept saying you wanted to fuck, so we did. I just wanted us to remain actual friends afterwards. I told you that. But the truth is you freaked out a little at how bold you were with me that night. You wanted to cross that boundary, but it unnerved you in ways you didn’t fully expect. And you couldn’t be bothered with the psychological intensity of that, so you just shut me out. You stopped texting, stopped calling. That’s bad form. It was about your insecurities, your laziness, not mine.”
Paul winced at the acuity in his words. But John didn’t really seem all that offended now, as if simply saying it out loud was enough to settle him.
“I’m sorry, mate. You’re absolutely right, every word. I thought about calling you, texting you. So many times, but I took the easy way out like usual. I work and I read and I sleep around. That’s about it. I’ve cut myself off from most of my friends really, since Jessi. I’m still in love with her, still grieving. I ignore most normal people. I feel like kind of a bastard for doing the same thing to you.”
John nodded, a thoughtful look in his eyes. “Listen, man, I’m not even that pissed off really. I get it, I do. You’re not my first bi-curious straight guy. We haven’t known each other that long, but we connected, and I saw how badly you took the breakup with Jessi. I just thought you were genuinely cool, a true fellow traveller, and I wanted us to stay friends for obvious reasons. I don’t often meet many people like us, Paul. So don’t feel so sorry for yourself, ok? You’re a good guy. You have a code of honour, mostly. I can see that. You’ve got fire in your veins, is what I’m saying.”
Paul chuckled, warmed by John’s kindness. “Cheers, man. I appreciate that. I really did miss you, you know. Just being able to talk openly with someone. You’re incredibly gifted, John.”
John returned the smile. “Yeah, so are you. But fat lot of good it’s done me, frankly. This isn’t exactly the Ritz Carlton, is it?”
Paul laughed. “But this is how you like to roll, right?”
“I guess. Why do you even care about this Crowley trace? Is it because of the bi-curious thing? Crowley was bisexual, right?”
“Yeah, he was. I don’t see myself as bi-curious. But fair enough, I suppose. I’m sure it’s all connected somehow, but it’s not about that. The veil is lifting, John. I can sense more thin places, more window areas. And I think the storm has done something to me. I feel like I’m falling or something. Everything’s blurring, shifting, intermingling. But not just in my head.”
John glanced out of the window, at the darkness beyond it, and nodded. “Well, you’re right about the veil lifting. I feel it too.”
Paul inhaled deeply and glanced again at the infinity symbol on his wrist. “I guess I’m not sure how to move forward with my life now, and I think Crowley was asking himself similar questions. It all feels connected. John, this kid is fucking intense, kind of a genius. Full of strange energies. He was only sixteen but whatever he was going through was very spiritually powerful. It’s one thing to read about him, it’s another to actually feel some of that.”
John chuckled. “Oh, I believe you. I don’t know much about Crowley, but I believe you.”
“If you can find his ambient and lock into his trace you’ll feel it too.”
“Paul, I don’t really know if I want to do that. I’m not you. I find it all quite frightening, to be honest.”
“But you have a gift.”
“Yeah, well, I’m also the wayward gay son of Catholic parents. I think religion is monstrous, but I still have all that bullshit rattling around in my head, gifted or not. This whole witchcraft thing makes me kind of nervous. I don’t enjoy it the way you do.”
Paul frowned. “I don’t always enjoy it, mate. I just accept it, and try to work with it.”
“Good for you, man. But I just want drugs and books and the quiet life.”
“That’s not entirely true. I know there’s some part of you that’s very intrigued right now. A part of you that doesn’t like denying who you truly are.”
John stared him in the eye, a half-smile on his lips. “You’re quite the charming asshole, Paul.”
“But I have a point, don’t I?”
“So meet me tomorrow, on the Common, and we’ll see what we can find. If it gets too intense then you can just go home, right? I won’t try to stop you. I know my ignoring you was fucking lame, John. But me and you, we’re not exactly like other people, are we? And I could really use your help.”
John laughed, shaking his head with grudging amusement, and Paul knew he was willing now. “You’re something else, Mr Kistori, you know that? Fine, dude. I’ll help you. I’ve been stuck in the house for too long now anyway. So fuck it, some fresh air might do me good.”
Paul grinned. “That’s the spirit.”
October 31st 1891
The grey sky was almost numinous. Clouds gathered in the west. He was sitting beneath his favourite tree on the commons, his back against its broad trunk, his shoes, satchel and cap placed neatly beside him. He enjoyed the sensation of his bare feet against the grass. He smiled and peered at the shape and features of Immanuel off in the distance. The church was located next to his current day-school and the whirring cacophony of the old silk mill. He watched the carriages and horses trudging their way along the road. He glanced about at the few others on the grass, those brave enough to enjoy the chill pleasures of the commons even this late into the year.
Alick closed his eyes and tried to listen to the wind. He listened also to the distant sounds of the silk mill, the sounds of carriage wheels and horse hooves. He didn’t wish to return home yet. Uncle Tom had been staying with them recently and Alick wanted to avoid him if possible. He couldn’t bear to endure his uncle and his mother both sapping his energies during what felt like such a significant juncture in his young life. It had been an unsettling few days indeed and he wanted to devote his focus to comprehension of deeper meanings, if such meanings did exist. Familial discord would be a distraction, a banality, and there was plenty of that to go around.
Something new was happening to him, something strange. Alick didn’t yet understand it, but he could feel it so powerfully now. It troubled and thrilled him. Last night that strangeness had culminated in a dream as vivid and sensate as waking life. The dream perturbed him greatly.
He dreamt the windows of his bedroom had burst inwards as sand began to pour into the room like a swollen river. The sand carried with it a particular scent. What he imagined must be the hot scent of desert winds. Egyptian sand, yet Alick was unsure how he knew this. The room rapidly began to fill with this sand, spilling across the floor and the bed, rising at an alarming rate. Alick recalled his heart thudding with terror at the sight. And then Mother was in the room with him, and she was screaming. But her screams were cut short as the sand filled her mouth and buried her within moments, her outstretched hand clutching desperately like a revenant. But somehow he wasn’t drowned by it. Instead he was cocooned.
Alick took a long, slow breath and opened his eyes again, glancing once more at Immanuel at the bottom of the commons.
It felt a little like madness, he supposed, though he knew it was no such thing. It was no mere dream either. What it was, he couldn’t yet say. But it had gripped him like some illicit malady.
Home was now a handsome if rather small old house near Coventry Hall on the edge of the commons, not far from the railway station. For Alick it still didn’t feel like home, but he had grown accustomed at least. He paused in the hallway, listening for his uncle’s voice, but only the clinking sounds of a teacup greeted him. Mother was alone in the parlour. Alick entered, muttering, “I’m back, Mother...”
She was sitting at the table with a pot of tea brewed and her Bible open, as was her habit. She looked particularly tired today, but her eyes were full of the requisite scorn and judgement. He observed the sneer that had become an almost permanent fixture of her mouth whenever she addressed him now. “Did you attend your Saturday classes at Immanuel today, Alick?”
“I did. A wonderfully careless beginning to my weekend, filled with intellectual frolicking.”
Mother gazed at him with unbidden detest. It came so effortlessly to her now. “Rather, you spent all day on the commons again, yes? Or went to the Greyhound Inn? That awful den of drinking and impiety on the corner, for reasons I still can’t fathom?”
“No, Mother. Though I did just come from the commons. I spent a few calming hours there, taking exercise as the doctors advised me, but I assure you I attended school today.”
She smiled icily, the distrust plain in her manner. “You are an impetuous little vanity spinning thoughtlessly into darkness, Alick. You cannot blame your aberrant behaviour, your flagrant immodesty, on your illness or your father’s passing any longer. More than four years he’s been dead.”
Alick clenched his teeth at Father’s mention. Eventually he said quietly, “Mother, as ever, I understand very little of what you speak. I’m tired. Let me rest. Please.”
But she was undeterred. “The Lord our God is only beneficent to the righteous, and the solvent. To all others, Alick, he is Wrath, and devastation. If you cannot see what is wheat and what are tares then what good are you, to anyone? He will despoil all that you are if you keep turning away from the Brethren. And when the reapers come the tares will be gathered and burned. You think me cold, but I say this with Love, and for your soul.”
He sighed and nodded. “And yet, curiously, I see no love in your eyes. Only a desire to be proved accurate.”
That sneer again, gaze narrowed. Alick tried to imagine Father kissing that mouth, fucking this woman-shaped bitterness. What a trifle, he thought, and almost giggled at the image.
“Your insolence is staggering, Alick.”
“My insolence is as reasonable as your piety is unbecoming, Mother. Bloodless, hollow piety. I didn’t wish to fight with you again, but I’m not a boy any longer, and I know fool’s gold when I see it.”
Mother rose from her chair at the table, fixing him with a hate-filled stare to cover the sting of the barb he had slung.
“You infernal, hideous child. Wretched little sprite…”
With a certain melancholy amusement Alick clapped his hands together. “Well, Mother, this has been utterly charming, as always, but your son is rather tired and needs his rest.”
Mother’s gaze was piercing now. “Tell me the truth at last, child. Did you lay down with her?”
“With who, dearest one?”
“With our former parlour-maid.”
Alick gave his mother a smile intended to lacerate. “This again? Ask her yourself, if you can find her.”
“I’m asking you.”
“No, Mother. I did no such thing. Passion and vitality? Perish the thought.”
She laughed, glancing away. “You are a bestial little boy, Alick.”
“Then I suppose you are the Mother of Beasts, Emily.”
She bristled at the sound of her Christian name on his tongue, but said nothing. She had already dismissed him in her manner, sipping her tea and peering at the pages of her Bible with feigned interest. Alick left the parlour, oddly saddened by the exchange, surprised to find tears in his eyes as he slipped into his room and gently closed the door behind him.
September 17th 2016
Paul sat beneath one of oldest trees on Streatham Common, smoking a cigarette and waiting for Jonathan who had just texted to say he was nearly there. Paul had slept a lot better after talking with John last night, but he still felt untethered and strange. He knew the dreadlocked blonde had been angry about his absence, the way he’d handled their situation, but John was also full of kindness and did seem to genuinely understand his reaction. It had been cowardly though, to ignore John the way he had. Paul was under no illusions about that.
He peered at the old tower of Immanuel Church sitting like a beacon of stone at the bottom of the Common. He studied the playground on the Common’s edge near the road, recalling the many times his father had taken him there. Just after his death a few years ago Paul was shocked to discover that Dad had left him the attic flat of the converted Victorian in his will. The flat was really the only thing of any value that Paul owned, especially now Jessica was no longer part of his life. He had let her keep or sell most of their stuff. He recalled Jessi’s beautiful brown eyes, her smile, her consistent thoughtfulness. He remembered how she would press her face into the curve of his neck as they lay together, her hand gently caressing his bare chest. But her long illness and his fear and immaturity had eventually forced them apart.
He and his sister were the only ones left now. Dad was dead, Mum was dead. Jessi was alive, thank God, but largely gone from his life.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you needed, baby,” Paul murmured. “But you’re happier now with Mark. I can take comfort in that.”
Knowing that the leukaemia hadn’t bested her, that she was in remission and had found a new love – it was an oddly joyful feeling, despite how much he missed her. Paul smiled sadly and noticed John in the distance, trudging across the Common to meet him, wearing an oversized hooded Parka, hands in his pockets. He clearly wasn’t looking forward to this in the slightest. Paul climbed to his feet and stood beneath the tree as he finished the cigarette. He tossed it away as John reached him, who smiled half-heartedly in acknowledgement.
Paul tried to inject some optimism and lightness into his tone. “Mr Ellis, so you’re ready to get this show on the road?”
John chuckled. “Sure. We just need to wait for Ringo and George to get here and we’ll be good to go. Bigger than Jesus.” Paul laughed out loud at that. “Look,” John added, raising his left hand, “I even went full bat-shit for you…”
John had drawn the symbol of Thelema onto his palm, with obvious care and precision. Paul stared at the unicursal hexagram for a moment and smiled. “You didn’t have to go that far. Crowley was sixteen. Thelemic magick wasn’t even a thing yet.”
John lowered his hand and shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. It’s a point of contact. I can use it to back-trace, to find his ambient. I went online last night for a bit, did some reading. I even printed out a photo of Crowley as a kid. Got it in my pocket. Did some mediations and energy-work with it earlier.”
Paul was impressed. “Wow, you went all out.”
John smiled a little, but Paul could sense his anxiety. “Well, I might be a dope fiend, but I don’t like half measures. Mate, the bits and pieces I read about him last night – there’s so many conflicting stories about him. Some writers paint him as this messianic figure, ushering in a new Aeon. Others swear he was some kind of child-murdering psychopath. You need to calm my nerves a bit because I’m not sure what to believe…”
Paul was silent for a few moments before responding. “John, listen to me. A lot that stuff was conjecture from very conservative Christian writers. Aleister Crowley was a provocative guy, even for an occultist. I think he told a number of carefully-crafted lies, to turn himself into an enigma. He courted infamy. I only have little pieces of his actual psyche, not a full picture. I really don’t know how many lines he crossed, but I don’t think he was a murderer. I do think he was a highly intelligent, intense and dangerous guy though. But whatever secrets he kept, he was just a boy in 1891, ok?”
John sighed and nodded, seeming only slightly comforted. “Let’s just get this started.”
With Paul at the lead they walked down to the War Memorial across the road from the northwest edge of the Common, and into Albert Carr Estate; a network of pathways and rectangular four-story blocks of flats.
“So,” said Paul when they arrived at the heart of the estate, “It’s all yours.”
John frowned, glancing about at their surroundings. “Ok, give me a minute.”
Paul studied his expressions as John attempted to focus and guide his energies. After a while he frowned again. “This feels a lot easier than it should be, Paul. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but maybe the veil really is thinning.” He gestured in the direction of Polworth Road. “That way.”
Paul said nothing. They kept walking, out into where the road began to curve. Eventually John came to a stop, glancing around again. “Most of these houses are too new. They tore it down. But it was here.”
“Go on,” Paul prompted gently.
“Yeah, I can feel his ambient. Christ, Paul…you weren’t kidding about this kid being intense. You said he was only sixteen? His energies feel older. Lots of moving pieces, lots of very poignant observations. Keenly perceptive, but a ton of anger.” John gestured at his stomach area. “Something’s wrong here. Kidneys?”
Paul nodded. “An infection.”
“Well, it nearly killed him. He was lucky….or fated.”
John glanced sideways at him, annoyed. “I’m not a machine, Paul. Let me feel it for a minute…”
“Ok, ok, I’m sorry.”
John closed his eyes for a few moments, inhaling and exhaling in a measured way to regulate his process.
“There was a lot of anger and sadness in this house. He was changing. Questioning his faith in some way, I guess. I’m getting fragments of the area. Carriages, horses, the playground of his school. I can feel the Rookery on the other side of the Common. It wasn’t a public garden back then, it was a large house at the site of some kind of mineral well. Local legends about the well’s properties. He’s fascinated. He breaks into the site a few times after dark, I think, just to wander around. I can see him tossing silver coins into the old well. It’s night-time. He’s picturing the soul of his dead father, I think. The coins are stuck to his spiritual form, all over him like little gleaming silver suns…he’s toying with the notion that the coins will afford Father safe passage into Heaven. It’s a bizarre image. There’s not really any sadness in him as he imagines this, just a kind of blank intensity. This kid is fucking strange, Paul. He can feel things so deeply, but at other times he can almost disconnect at will. It’s unsettling, frankly…”
“Go on,” Paul urged.
John sighed, glancing around again. “It’s weird. I think…I think his bedroom was flooded. His mother drowns. I can’t see it properly, but it feels potent…”
“Maybe a dream?” Paul asked. “Or some kind of teenage fantasy?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. Doesn’t feel like a dream. Feels fucking real. And I can usually tell the difference. I can feel his heart pounding. He’s genuinely terrified. He watches her die.”
Paul frowned. “Well, she didn’t die until 1917.”
“I’m just telling you what I’m getting. Maybe I’m bleeding into the trace somehow, but it doesn’t feel like that.”
John took another deep and measured breath. “I think there was some kind of explosion…”
“Not here, but some kind of explosion…like he died. Like he was killed.”
Paul frowned again. “I don’t understand. Crowley died in 1947, dude.”
“All I know is there was some kind of explosion, and then nothing. His trace is completely severed. The only time that happens is if someone dies.” John stared at him, a little confrontationally. “You’re the Crowley scholar. You tell me.”
Paul tried to hide his annoyance. “My sister’s the Crowley scholar. But something has linked us. I’m just trying to figure out what the hell is happening to me.”
“Well, I’ve got nothing else. I’m sorry. It just stops. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think so.”
“You got a lot deeper than I did, but how can it just stop?”
John smiled. “I don’t know, dude. That’s your problem now. You asked me to help you, and I did. Now I’m going back home to get high as fuck. I don’t like this kid’s vibe. He’s powerful in some ancient, frightening way. He’s incredibly perceptive, but he’s also an arrogant little prick.” He chuckled cynically as he gazed at Paul. “Thelemites built a whole legend around this individual? I guess I can see why.”
“But would you call him psychic at that age?”
“Oh, definitely. More than that. A medium of some kind. Way, way more powerful than you or me, but mostly latent. He doesn’t really understand all the chaotic shit swirling around inside him. But teenagers never do, right?”
Paul muttered, “I fucking didn’t.”
John closed the gap between them and patted Paul on the shoulder. “I’m going home now. Good luck with whatever’s going on with you. I hope you’re not a stranger anymore. I’m still your friend, and I’m kinda worried about you. Don’t burn yourself out with all this stuff.”
Paul looked him in the eye, seeing genuine concern, and suddenly he felt rather inferior and broken in Jonathan’s presence. He had to glance away. “Thank you, John. I guess I don’t deserve your help after the way I behaved. But I really do appreciate it, seriously.”
John just smiled sadly. “I know that. I know how big your heart is really. See you around, I hope.”
And then John walked away, back towards Albert Carr Estate, and Paul was left standing alone in Polworth Road peering up at a grey sky.
November 1st 1891
Alick had endured another dream last night, even more vivid and unsettling than the one of Egyptian sand filling his bedroom and burying Mother alive. He awoke this time with his body slicked with sweat, his hands trembling uncontrollably. It must have been a dream, but it felt more like a visitation. A blood-painted little girl, naked, no older than ten or eleven, perched impossibly on his bedpost like some awful bird of prey. It watched him, the scarlet girl-thing, and muttered, Little Edward, little Alick…
Her voice was like a thousand voices in unison, her eyes as black as the abyss. It felt like he was awake, horrifyingly so. Alick trembled even now at the recall of it. He knew what Mother would say if he told her. She would claim he was a wretched little sprite indeed, and had been visited by a demon. She would claim the visitation was proof of his moral corruption. But Alick felt in his bones that the girl was not a demon. She was terrifying to be sure, full of what Alick imagined were archaic forces, but she didn’t come from the Christian imagining of Hell. She was something else entirely. Something older.
He wondered. Had the kidney infection affected his brain somehow? Was he, in fact, losing his senses after all? Alick didn’t wish to entertain such notions, but to ignore them seemed foolish and ill-advised. He was afraid, terribly so, in ways he couldn’t quite articulate to himself or another. He was desirous of comfort and companionship today and so he walked up the hill towards the library in the hope that Dr Lowell would be there.
The high road resounded with the clamour of construction. Since he and Mother had moved to Streatham the area had been one vast building site. New homes and shops and storefronts were rising everywhere. Mother told him that people were still arriving into London by the thousands, many of them immigrants or destitute but also good upstanding citizens too, and the need for new dwellings was utmost. It was an industrious empire indeed, but Alick missed the quiet of Warwickshire and the uncomplicated childhood pleasures forever connected to it in his memory.
Streatham Library was a grand new building designed by Henry Tate and completed only the year before. Alick had made sure to make use of the library’s excellent collection of texts. Indeed, he had been forced since Mother would not allow certain reading materials into the house. Alick entered the building and was immediately soothed by the quiet within. He could still hear the faint sounds of construction beyond its walls but the building felt like a virtual sanctuary. With cautious hope he entered one of the two reading rooms and saw with delight that Dr Lowell was sitting alone at his favourite desk, a collection of texts open on its surface as he transcribed certain passages into his notebook.
Alick approached, unable to hide the smile on his face. Dr Lowell glanced up and saw him. “Ah, Edward Alexander,” he said quietly but jovially. “The young king returns…”
“Good afternoon, sir. I was hoping you were here. May I sit with you?”
“Of course, young man. We are friends now, are we not?” Alick nodded, still smiling, and silently took a seat on the opposite side of the desk. “Alexander, I apologize for my absence these last two Sundays. The adult world is such a trifle. So what have you been up to, my boy?”
“Just school and church, and reading here.”
Elliot Lowell was a rather handsome elderly gentleman, with a trim silver beard and a full head of hair. He was a widower, with a keen mind and a sense of playful vitality even in his seventies. Alick imagined he must have cut a rather dashing figure in his youth. Since Uncle Tom had inspired Mother to put an end to Alick’s beloved tutorship with Archie Douglas, Dr Lowell was now his only interesting point of real contact with the adult world. Alick was honoured, as he had been with Archie, to call this man an actual friend.
The elderly widower peered at him over his reading spectacles, a teasing smile. “Just school and reading, eh? Are you sure, Alexander? No drinking? No girls? I shan’t tell a soul…”
Alick chuckled. “No drinking, no girls. Not in the two weeks since we last spoke, alas. I’m growing rather weary of girls, it must be said.”
Dr Lowell smiled a little. “How so, lad?”
“The girls my age are children; docile, imbecilic. And women are like children themselves.”
The elderly widower laughed, raising his eyebrows. “Well, I agree with you on occasion. But there are others in this city who do not. Those who believe women are deserving of legal rights closer to those of men.”
Alick shrugged, pushing thoughts of Mother from his mind. “Let them have those rights. I care little about it, to be honest. And you, sir, do think women are so deserving?”
Dr Lowell sighed. “I’m an old man now. I’m perhaps not as harsh or even as certain in my views anymore. I don’t think women possess the constancy and reason of men, but they are wondrous, fascinating creatures in their own regard.”
Alick nodded, a sudden sadness gripping him. “They are fascinating creatures indeed. And monstrous. I find myself attracted and repelled in equal measure. But I’m a fool, I suppose, and a child, and I see my mother in all of them.”
Dr Lowell frowned, reached across the desk and patted his hand. “All men see their mother in the women around them, Alex. You’re not really a child anymore. I was married at your age. The world is changing, my boy. We must change with it, or perish.”
The sadness that had gripped Alick was mixing now with anger. “This glorious, industrious Empire? Victoria Regina Imperatrix? But is this truly a glorious Empire, Dr Lowell?”
The retired widower narrowed his eyes behind the spectacles. “I believe it is, very much so. Why these sombre thoughts all of a sudden?”
“It’s an Empire built on blood and slavery, is it not?”
Elliot Lowell glanced away, silent for a few moments. “I suppose in many ways it is, yes.”
“And you love it still?”
“I do, at its best.”
Alick nodded and laughed. “As do I. But I haven’t the faintest as to why exactly. I imagine sometimes what it must be like to be a slave. To be torn from your homeland and dumped like chattel into an alien world. I imagine it is rather horrifying, not the civilising of primitives that we tell ourselves.”
Dr Lowell stared with a half-smile, curious but bewildered by the topic of conversation. “Young man, slavery has been abolished for a while now. But do you honestly see such violent primitives as equal to an Englishman? An African savage is not a London gentleman, intellectually or spiritually. It seems like strange notions have gripped you.”
“I have never met an African, or even an Indian for that matter. I know only what I’m told. I find most men lacking, to be frank. Regardless of their origin.”
The widower chuckled. “What a wonderfully bizarre young thing you are, Edward Alexander. A great destiny awaits you, I fear.”
It was Alick’s gaze that narrowed now. “Why do you fear it, sir?”
“Because great destinies tend to eventually ruin those who are possessed by them.”
Alick shrugged. “I’m only sixteen, sir, but I’ve already faced the Reaper. And I’m still here. The infection should have killed me, or so the doctors claimed. I’m unafraid of destiny, if such a thing exists. I fear more the depths of my own mind and soul.”
Dr Lowell nodded, his eyes full of thoughtful curiosity. “The wisest of men always do.”
Alick glanced about at the few others reading quietly in the room. “I haven’t had experience enough yet to be wise, Dr Lowell, but I thank you for the kindness. Your friendship here has meant a great deal to me these last few months. Talking, playing chess, sharing ideas.”
“Happy to help, my boy. I gather from our conversation that things at home with your mother are, shall we say, fragile?”
Alick could feel the tears in his eyes. Suddenly he felt delicate, young and lonely. He tried to cover it with a darkened smile. “I suppose. She thinks me wicked. Perhaps I am.”
Dr Lowell could plainly see the tears and reached across the desk again, this time gripping his hand. “No, lad. You’re not wicked. You have something of the iconoclast in you, I suspect. But that is something altogether different.”
Alick’s chest trembled a little. “Iconoclast? I’m unfamiliar with that word.”
“It means a tireless questioner. A brave destroyer of graven images and obsolete traditions.” Alick sniffed and smiled, well aware that the elderly widower was trying to be kind and fatherly towards him. “Alexander, have you read or heard of Kant?”
“No, sir. I’m sorry. He’s a philosopher? I haven’t read any philosophy. I prefer literature when I can, and myths. I quite enjoyed the tale of Prometheus from the Theogony; stealing fire from strange gods. I only get to read such tales here, not at home usually. My family is rather particular.”
Dr Lowell nodded sagely. “Well, Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who died over ninety years ago. He’s considered central to the discipline. I have an intimation that you might appreciate his writings.”
Alick immediately thought of Immanuel Church at the bottom of the commons, sharing its name with his day-school next door, and was intrigued.
“Immanuel Can’t,” he murmured to himself with a smile, realizing that Dr Lowell had no way of knowing how central to his thoughts Immanuel had been recently. “Sir, the name Immanuel means God is with us, doesn’t it?”
“It does. Kant isn’t for everyone, but I think you should read him one day.”
“I shall, sir,” he muttered. “Thank you.” Alick could sense some strange network of meaning here, something larger than himself; an organisational principle that he couldn’t quite see but was enmeshed with nonetheless. “Dr Lowell,” Alick said quickly, “I’m afraid I need to leave now. It completely slipped my mind but there are things at home I need to attend. I apologize for having to leave so soon…”
Alick could see that the retired doctor knew he was lying, the concern plain in his expression. “Not a problem, my boy. Do as you must. I hope to see you again soon?”
It was now Alick who leaned across the desk and patted Lowell’s hand. “We shall speak soon, certainly. Thank you again, Elliot.”
The widower was a little taken aback at the use of his Christian name, but smiled affectionately and nodded. Alick returned the smile and left the reading room at a brisk pace.
Upon arriving home his head was full of new thoughts and strange notions. Mother was out to tea with Aunt Ada and he had the house to himself. He took a drink of water, pondered whether to fix himself something to eat, but realized he was far too quickened right now for that. He was still afraid, though now an excitement seemed to be mingling with the numinous terror. He felt disquieted, inebriated in some dangerously thrilling way that he was struggling to comprehend.
He went and sat down on the floor of his room with his back pressed to the edge of the bed, and peered through the windows. He willed himself to focus upon his breath. It often helped him during unnerving moments such as these. But still Alick wondered what on earth was happening to him. He felt almost feverish now, though not in body. It was some exquisite malady of the soul that was upon him.
Alick recalled the night he had broken into the grounds of the rookery house on the southeast edge of the commons. The night he had taken a few silver coins with him and had tossed them into the old well. Some of the locals claimed the well possessed mystic properties, the site of an ancient spring. Alick was unsure what such mystic properties might imply, yet he was compelled.
“Are you with the Redeemer now, Father?” he asked aloud. “Are you truly with him? Do you live now in the story you loved most? Are you among the dead brothers of the Brethren? Do we live unwittingly among myths and stories? Immanuel. God is with us.”
He thought again of the tale of Prometheus from the Theogony, as he had mentioned to Dr Lowell. So much more evocative than the Bible tales, except for his beloved Revelation. Mother would weep if she knew. Stealing fire from wild gods, thefts from heaven, by something neither angel nor demon. A titan. It felt as though he had been swept up in the wake of some hidden current, vivified and strange. Such notions felt like the devil worship of primitive races, and yet something altogether more profound. Alick couldn’t grasp it, but he could feel its power writhing and coursing through his imagination now. The blood-painted girl from last night’s dream, perched on his bedpost. He could almost feel her in the room with him again.
He murmured in fear, or ecstasy, “Dear God, am I mad? Am I a mad child, afflicted with hellish energies? Lord, speak. Fucking speak to me…”
September 18th 2016
Paul had felt unsettled since Jonathan’s tracing attempt yesterday. He couldn’t deny the guy was gifted, far more so than himself. John had clearly tapped into something potent trying to find Crowley’s ambient, but Paul was unsure what hybrid of history, dream and legend it contained. If Paul had learned anything in his thirty-three years it was that fiction, dreams and reality were constantly intermingling within the ambient of human beings. A human mind could only observe or discern the edges of such a multidimensional ecology. Drownings and explosions that might never have occurred? Paul didn’t know what to make of it. Last night he had gone online and typed the words Aleister Crowley explosion into Google, but all that came up were links to Jack Parsons, JPL and Scientology. He’d combed through a few pages of search results, finding nothing, before slamming shut his laptop and smoking two cigarettes in a row at his bedroom window, peering with strange anger at the tower of Immanuel.
Now Paul sat on the sofa, alone in the flat like usual, watching as day’s end bathed the lounge in a twilit glow. He knew his sister would be angry at him for not coming into work today, but he also knew she was probably the best person to talk to about John’s tracing attempt. He bit the bullet and dialled Rachel’s number as he peered at the dusk beyond his windows.
His sister didn’t even bother with a greeting. “I’m pretty pissed at you, bro. You could’ve texted me. I left you three voicemails. It was busy today and I needed you here…”
“I know, Rach. I’m sorry. I’ve just been having a really hard time lately. To be honest I don’t know if I’m coming or going these days. I can’t stop thinking about Jessica, about Mum and Dad. My head’s all over the place.”
Paul heard Rachel sigh with grudging empathy. “I hope you’re ok, bro…”
“No, Rach, I’m not ok.” Paul’s voice almost cracked. “I feel like I’m losing my fucking mind…”
There was silence on the line, then Rachel sighed again. “I really worry about you, Paul, in that flat all by yourself. I know you. Sex and books doesn’t solve anything. You can’t keep running away.”
Paul muttered, “From what exactly?”
“From life, I guess. From real connections with women, with people, with the world.”
“I have plenty of real connections with people, Rach. I have friends. Real friends.”
Rachel chuckled. “Yeah, but how often do you see them? You told me you basically cut everyone off after the breakup. Even my girlfriends still ask about you. You’re really fun and charming when you’re at your best, Paul, but you haven’t been at your best for a while now. I know how much you loved Jessi. But you don’t have to close yourself off to honour that love. She’s alive and she’s happy, bro. Just fucking let go now.”
Paul knew that his sister meant well but her weary tone still made him feel annoyed, vulnerable. “That’s easy for you to say, Rach. You’re happily married. Cancer didn’t rip your relationship apart.”
“Paul, listen to me. The leukaemia didn’t rip you and Jessi apart. You did that. You were there, but you were never really there. She told me many times. And I saw it for myself. I know this is a hard thing to hear. You were off in the underworld, chasing ghosts, but she had to deal with reality.”
Paul could feel the tears in his eyes. “Well, we’ve lived with ghosts our whole fucking lives, haven’t we? They don’t always leave you alone just because you ask them.”
“I know,” Rachel said quietly. “I remember.”
“Rach, I know what you’re saying is true. I’m not an idiot. But it doesn’t make it any easier, or less painful. I’m not as tough as you are.”
His sister sighed on the line again. “Bro, we’re not so different. You’re not alone. You know that. I’ve just learned to compartmentalise all that psychic stuff. I want a real life and I’ve worked very hard to create one. If you want to spend your life in the underworld I wouldn’t even mind, if you seemed genuinely happy or at peace with it. But you’re clearly not happy, or at peace, are you?”
“I guess not,” Paul muttered. “But I need to ask you about Crowley again.”
“Is all this really healthy, Paul?”
He smiled cynically. “You find the guy fascinating, Rach. You’ve read tons more about him than me. Obviously I’m gonna ask you.”
“Yeah, but I’m not running around London trying to trace his ambient or whatever, am I? We work in a bookstore, Paul. We’re not properly-trained mediums or psychics.”
“But we’re particularly gifted, Rachel. You can’t deny that.”
“Put down some roots for fuck sake, that’s all I’m saying. Let a woman actually get close to you again. Reconnect with your friends. That’s my honest advice.”
“Are you gonna help me or not, little sister?”
“Screw you, Paul. Of course I’m gonna help you. When have I ever not had your back?”
“And when have I ever truly let you down, Rach?”
“Apart from today? Kidding. Never, I suppose. Never. You’re always there when I really need you.”
“Ok then. Do you know if Crowley’s mother almost drowned at some point when he was a boy?”
“What? Not as far as I’m aware. She died years later. You can find all this shit online, Paul. You don’t need me for this.”
“I think I do. Do you know if Crowley was ever caught in an explosion? Because I think his trace was severed, right here in Streatham.”
Rachel chuckled. “That’s impossible though, right? You always make it sound like a trace is the continuity of a person’s ambient from birth till death.”
“Normally it is. That’s why I’m at a loss.”
“Then either you fucked up and got it wrong, or he came back from the dead somehow. Which sounds like total bullshit to me. Crowley had no interest whatsoever in ritual-magic or witchcraft until after his time at Cambridge, from what I’ve read. Mathers and Bennett brought him into the Golden Dawn in 1898, I think. So, he would’ve been in his early twenties at the time. Not some kid wandering around in Streatham. I mean…” Rachel’s words trailed off and for a few moments Paul was listening to the faint hiss of the open line.
“Rach? You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m still here. Holy shit.”
From the tone of Rachel’s voice it was clear something meaningful was here after all. “Talk to me, sis.”
“I just remembered something from Crowley’s autobiography, where he mentions building a huge firework as a kid. More of a bomb, really. He claimed it went off too soon, right next to him. Shattered all the windows of his school. Said he was unconscious for nearly four days or something. Doctors had to pick dirt and gunpowder out of his face. Had to wear bandages until Christmas. I guess that would’ve been in Streatham. To be honest I just assumed it was another tall tale, just some more bullshit he’d cooked up to paint himself as this wild, ingenious teenager…”
Paul felt a tingling all across his shoulders now. “Do you remember the exact year this was, Rach?”
“I can’t recall, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find references online now.”
Paul took a long, deep breath. “Well, I’m guessing this bullshit tale has some kind of basis in reality. I’m not entirely sure what the hell is happening to me, Rachel, but I feel like me and Crowley’s energies have become linked somehow.”
“That worries me,” Rachel said quietly on the line.
“What do you mean exactly?”
“It sounds like you’re literally playing with fire, Paul. If Crowley really did almost blow himself up as a kid, you shouldn’t try to get too close to that, psychically. You’re always talking about how these things bleed and blur, how they can distort space and time, how they can echo backwards and forwards. I really hope you know what the fuck you’re doing, bro…”
Paul laughed humourlessly. “You sound like Jessi.”
“Maybe with good reason then, eh?”
“I know I can’t talk you, of all people, out of anything. You’re like a force of nature, Paul. And that’s not always a good thing.”
“Still sounding like Jessi,” Paul muttered.
“Are you even listening to me, bro?”
“I’m always listening, Rachel.”
The anger in his sister’s voice was plain. “Ok, fine. Lovely. I’m done here for now. Are you coming in tomorrow? Or do I have to manage the store on my own again?”
“I’ll be there. I promise.”
“Good. I love you, Brother Bear.”
Paul smiled a little at the pet-name. She hadn’t used it in a while. “Love you too, Rach.” She ended the call and he sighed, gently tossing his phone onto the coffee-table.
He hadn’t even mentioned the storm or the blood-stained girl, the fact that he was now convinced that Crowley had seen her too as a child. The girl had connected them somehow. He closed his eyes, running his hands through his hair, wondering why the fuck he was still so abrasive and distant with the people who loved him the most.
November 4th 1891
Alick had set himself a great task these last few days, a task that felt burdened with strange meaning; simultaneously solemn and joyous. Tomorrow was Guy Fawkes Day, and the night would be filled with coloured fire. He knew what he wanted to do now. He had already secured all the materials to fashion his device, most of them from the grocer’s on the railway bridge. He fancied himself a rather competent chemist.
Archie Douglas had secretly gifted Alick with a small sum of money before Uncle Tom ended their tutoring together, but Alick had only spent mere pennies of it to gather what he needed. Play well, but play wisely, Archie told him with a wink and a saddened smile the last time they had spoken, and had slipped the envelope into Alick’s coat pocket. Alick had spent some of that gift on drink, or on buying favours from teenaged girls, as Archie knew he might. Alick knew about women now, even the poorest young women who could be made so pliable with the promise of coin. But then, Alick supposed, hunger and destitution were powerful motivators. He imagined that if he were born a girl instead of a boy, but with similar character, he might already be dead or destitute himself. The last year had been a whole new world for Alick, seeing what girls his own age were actually willing to do with strange boys who were kind to them, or who possessed charm or money or both. He couldn’t imagine himself stopping anytime soon. Mother had no idea. She would be horrified beyond all measure. The notion brought a smile to his lips.
He had been walking alone after dark. It was something Mother was still uncomfortable with, but he had travelled alone beyond London in recent years, and she had given up trying to forbid him from doing anything. Instead she continued to offer her own relentless commentary on his evolving perdition. It had rained a little earlier and now the streets were reflective and unreal, as though the world had become a mirror. Alick had been hoping in vain for a storm this night. He enjoyed thunder and lightning ever since he was young; the sense of ancient, dangerous power it conjured in his imagination. Sometimes he felt far older than his sixteen years, and storms often reminded him of this feeling.
Alick peered at the tower of Immanuel as he approached it. It felt like the church was waiting for him. He recalled what Dr Lowell had told him a few days ago about the German philosopher who happened to share his name with this odd church. He peered up at the tower against the night, imagining forks of lightning cleaving the sky and thunder like the growling of some feral god. He imagined scaling the tower with his bare hands as though it were a cliff-face, perching at its summit just like the blood-painted girl from his dream had perched on his bedpost. He imagined screaming and laughing at the sky as he perched there, daring the unseen feral god to strike him through with a lightning bolt. Grinning at the mental image, Alick murmured, “Immanuel. God is with us.” He reached out and pressed his hand flat against the stone of the church.
A surge of some unknown power seemed to pulse from the stone and through his palm.
Alick snatched his hand away and staggered backwards a few steps in utter disbelief, eyes flitting between his palm and the place he had touched. Finally he grinned again, knowing full well he hadn’t imagined it. The stones themselves had seemed vivified. Alick realised he wasn’t losing his mind after all. Instead he was gripped with the palpable sense that he had come among unseen and incomprehensible intelligences, as living and as real as he was.
Upon finally returning home Alick found Mother in the parlour, but there was nothing usual about it. She was standing in her nightdress at the windows, her back to him, a rather generous glass of wine in her hand. Alick’s gaze flitted to the table. An open bottle, almost empty. Something was wrong. In all his sixteen years he had seen her drinking only twice before. Once as a child after his baby sister had died, and then again after Father’s passing. Alick felt a tightening in his stomach.
“Mother? Is…is everything all right?”
Without turning to him she laughed darkly. “Of course, my love. Why wouldn’t it be?”
Alick frowned in the archway. The atmosphere in the parlour was heavy, unnerving. “Mother, I do apologise for my lateness. I was walking, taking some exercise.”
“It’s fine, Alick. You hate it when I call you that, don’t you?”
“Please turn around, Mother. Talking to your back is unsettling. Are you all right?”
“I’ve been talking to your back since Edward died, Alick. I miss your father in ways you cannot comprehend. You think me a foolish woman, and without passion. But I am neither of those things, boy.”
“Mother, please, turn around…”
Finally she did as he asked and Alick saw the wildness in her eyes, a savagery in her expression he had never witnessed before. He noticed the kitchen knife held casually in her other hand.
Alick was uncertain, genuinely afraid. He didn’t even speak. Noticing his expression, Mother glanced down at the large blade in her hand. Quietly she said, “I was preparing to chop some onions and begin dinner, but the evening seems to have gotten away from me…” She tossed the knife onto the counter so suddenly that Alick flinched at the clatter. “Besides, I seem to have lost my appetite…”
Alick swallowed, standing there in the parlour’s archway. Part of him wanted to run to Mother and embrace her, to whisper in her ear that everything would be all right. He wanted to tell her that he was well aware of all the ways she missed her late husband. But instead Alick just stood there, frowning, worried.
“You’re drinking,” he said. “You never drink. You and Uncle Tom keep telling me how drink is one of the wicked kings…”
She sneered and chuckled, still nursing the glass of wine. “I’m a real person, Alick. I know that surprises you, but I’m a real person.”
Alick frowned again. “I know that, Mother.”
“No, I don’t think you do…”
“Don’t call me that, boy. Have some fucking respect…”
Alick froze at her use of the word. Never before had he heard Emily Crowley using such profanity. He inhaled deeply, marched across the room and took the wineglass from her hand, thinking at first she would try to stop him. But she didn’t. She only peered curiously into his eyes.
“This isn’t you, Mother,” he said quietly, placing the wineglass beside the discarded knife on the counter.
She gazed at him with the glassy look of utter inebriation, but with a thoughtful intensity behind it. “Why do you hate me so much, Alick? Because I’m trying to save your soul? Isn’t that…isn’t that what a mother should do for her children? You hate me for that instinct?”
“I don’t hate you, Mother. Far from it. I just no longer believe the things you believe…about God, piety, the Brethren. None of it. I still believe in God, and Christ. I certainly do. Just not in your God, or the Christ of your Brethren. But you cannot accept that.”
“No, I can’t. Let me help you, dearest one. Please let me help you…” She reached out to touch his cheek, her expression full of anguish, but Alick pulled away from the touch.
“Then let me go,” he murmured. “At least a little…”
That sneer again. She laughed. “So rather you would spend company with garrulous thieves and unclean whores, is that right? Like the little whore who cleaned this parlour? Or the others this last year?”
Alick sighed and took a few steps back. “She wasn’t a whore, Mother. She was just a perfectly normal girl who craved acknowledgement, intimacy, and found herself beguiled. She mustn’t be castigated for that, in my opinion.”
“Do you know what that evil little sow tried to do to our family, Alick?”
“I have some idea, yes.”
“Whore,” she spat, peering at Alick as though challenging him. “Corrupting my innocent, beautiful boy like that. Trying to shame this family…”
“She didn’t corrupt me, Mother. Her family was very poor. She cleaned after us. How would that make you feel, if you were a young woman scrubbing after a wealthy family who pay you a pittance for your labour? It’s no wonder…”
Mother frowned with a kind of dark incredulity. “You would make excuses for the unclean? Excuses for the damned? These women…these women with their harlotry?”
Alick couldn’t suppress his anger at hearing the venom in her words. He laughed, shaking his head. “All women are harlots to you, Mother. All of them unclean. And why is that? Because they bleed? You bled once, I’m certain. At least they aren’t cleftless.”
The slap hit him across the face with such suddenness and ferocity that Alick’s vision momentarily dimmed as he staggered backwards. His cheek throbbed and stung. He grit his teeth and gently pressed a palm to where he had been struck, peering sideways at Mother in utter shock. Tears were already spilling traitorously from his eyes.
With a look full of icy agony Mother said quietly, “You are dead, Alick. Do you understand, wretched little sprite? You are dead to me.”
September 19th 2016
He and Rachel had tried to make small talk at work today, pretending that everything was fine. Paul could see that his sister didn’t want to rehash last night’s phone conversation, so he played along. She talked about her husband, how he was unsure if now was the right time to try for a baby. Paul knew Rachel was desperate to begin raising a family with James. Paul would never be a father, but he had to admit he quite liked the idea of being an uncle. He could still be a part of all that affection and playfulness, but without any of the responsibility of actual parenthood. But in truth his sister’s concerns were far from Paul’s mind. Instead he kept thinking about how she’d told him last night that he needed to stop running away from people. It really didn’t feel like he was running away, but he supposed he understood the sentiment. If anything, he was running towards something now. Towards the thing that took the form of the blood-stained girl. But he had only shared those private visions with Jessica, and it had frightened her.
Paul knew that Jonathan was expecting to be ignored again, expecting that he would continue to use their night of transgression as an excuse to cut off all contact. Paul didn’t want to do that. He hadn’t seen most of his friends in a long time. John was a brave and gifted individual, and Paul wished he’d had the courage and the respect to treat him that way, as an ally.
As he approached the house on Eardly Road in the gathering dusk he glanced over at the railway arches. He wanted to thank John for the tracing attempt a few days ago. John would have been well within rights to tell him to go fuck himself. But instead John tried to help, displaying a maturity and kindness that didn’t go unnoticed, and Paul wanted to tell him that face to face, not over the phone.
He knocked on the front door, silently praying that John was home. Eventually he heard movement. When the door finally opened the dreadlocked blonde was peering at him intently, nothing but anger in his expression. Immediately Paul knew something was very wrong.
“You’ve been lying to me.”
Paul frowned, his stomach tightening a little. “Lying to you? About what?”
“The blood-soaked girl you said Crowley saw. I dreamt about her, Paul. Last night. I felt her.” John shook his head, gazing with disappointment and contempt. “She’s what you’ve been trying to reconnect with this whole time, isn’t she? This ancient, enraged, dangerous thing? Are you completely fucking mad? She came up out of a black ocean, Paul, like some kind of goddamned leviathan. She was wearing a crown of fire…hideous wailing and shrieking, like a storm…”
Suddenly Paul’s mouth was dry as he stood there on the doorstep, fixed by John’s relentless gaze.
“Mate, listen to me. You’re letting your imagination bleed into her energies. You don’t understand. There’s so much more to her than that…”
There was terror in John’s expression. “I don’t understand? I don’t understand that this spirit is some kind of fucking handmaiden to the Devil?”
Paul swallowed and reached out to touch John’s arm. He snatched it away. Of course he didn’t understand. How could he? Jessi hadn’t understood it either, not really.
“Listen to me, John, I beg you. I know it’s intense. But please don’t let some Catholic nonsense narrow your focus. You said yourself religion is monstrous. She came to me…a few months after Jessi was diagnosed. First as a child, then as a young woman. I thought she was something demonic too, at first. But she’s not. She told me things. Showed me things. There’s kindness in her, and light. Whatever the hell she is, John, she’s older than Ishtar, older than Inanna. This goes all the way back. This cuts to the heart of everything we are as a human race. Crowley knew that. He clearly had a sense of it even as a child, regardless of whatever he claimed later in life.”
But John just laughed, a laugh full of horror and incomprehension. “Catholic nonsense? You arrogant prick. Fuck you, Paul. I was raised a Catholic. I might not like it, but it’s a part of me. There was another John who saw shit like this, a long time ago. You’re fucking with extremely dangerous forces. Satanic forces. I’m done.”
Paul had to glance away from the look of betrayal in his friend’s eyes. “John…that blood-stained girl, I know she’s full of fury and fire, but beneath that she’s Love, not Hate. She’s some estranged aspect of the Infinite. But they turned her into an abomination. They raped her, endlessly, and tried to bury her alive…”
John pointed a finger at him, wild-eyed and fearful. “I don’t care, Paul. I don’t fucking care. I’m not gonna watch you get torn apart by thorns. This is dangerous apocalyptic shit, and I don’t want any part of it. Seriously, stay the fuck away from me. Don’t ever contact me again.”
John slammed the door in Paul’s face. Paul just stood bewildered and alone on the doorstep for a few moments, closing his eyes and trying to fight the sudden urge to cry.
November 5th 1891
Alick was thinking about fire stolen from the gods of the Greeks, and Mother’s disturbing behaviour last night. It felt as though the solemn joy of his task had acquired a darker hue now. Though he was loathe to admit it, even to himself, Mother’s behaviour last night had saddened him greatly. He could feel her pain, her genuine love, her desire to protect her son as best she understood. But Alick also recognised that he was as stubborn and pig-headed as she was. The difference being he was right as often as she was wrong.
At home he had tightly packed the ten-pound jar with gunpowder, with metallic salts to create colour, with sugar and chlorate. Now on his knees in the playground of Immanuel he dug a hole and buried the jar, packing the earth securely around it. He stabbed a rocket into the incendiary mixture. He gazed at his work, the box of matches in his hand. He glanced around at the children playing, their voices and cries and laughter. He felt so separate from all of it, and he had been for a while. He thought of his awful time at the Brethren school with Mr Champeny, the long and excruciating kidney infection. He thought of his uncles and aunts and the other exclusive Brethren families he’d met. Such hubris and hatefulness. For all of them fire couldn’t even be considered as a metaphor for knowledge. For them, fire was only evidence of Hell. He glanced up at the tower of the church rising above his school.
Alick gritted his teeth, struck a match and lit the rocket he had fixed in the buried jar. Before he could even climb to his feet again he realised he had thrust the rocket too deeply into the admixture. The protective wadding paper burnt through almost immediately. In a moment of horror he realized his mistake, but it was too late.
Alick neither sees nor hears the detonation. Blackness engulfs him. The black of night and shadows and ink. It feels like he is spinning and tumbling through a vast nothingness, plummeting through the pupil of an incomprehensible eye. Images come rushing towards him in the black. The world has become many worlds. In some of these worlds half his face is gone as he lies dead and unrecognisable in the playground, as other schoolchildren scream in horror around him. In others he is blinded and horribly burned, shaking and bleeding, or he is standing at the edge of a large hole, swaying and disoriented. Alick doesn’t understand. The images charge at him and then hurl themselves away before he has a chance to fix for more than a moment on any of them.
Then the images are gone. Only the spinning, tumbling darkness again. He glances down at his hands. They are not hands of flesh. They have the shape of hands but they are formed of smoke, grey and ethereal. Still, they move as he moves them. He has become ashes. He realises this with what strikes him as an inappropriate calm.
These are the hands of a wraith.
But the blackness is already coalescing into something, resolving itself into a dimly-lit chamber of some kind. He is standing in a room built of large blocks of ancient stone. Alick somehow recognises them as granite. There is energy shimmering through the stones themselves, an energy that seems aware of his presence. But there is something else in this chamber with him. Crouched in a corner, wreathed in shadow. The blood-painted girl from his dream. Alick cannot see her face, only her silhouette, but he recognises the feel of her. Something endless and inconceivable courses through her. The air between them hums at a pitch he can sense but not hear.
“Am…am I dead?” he murmurs, a little afraid now.
For a few moments the crouched silhouette says nothing, and then, “Death? Of a kind, Alick. There will be other deaths beyond this one. This is just the first.”
As in his dream her voice has the resonance of a thousand voices, though now with an added gentleness in her timbre. He glances down again at his smoky, wraithlike hands. “Am I dreaming then?”
“Dream, Death. They are intimate.”
He recalls his dream of Mother drowning in Egyptian sand that bursts through his windows and buries them both. He peers again at the silhouetted girl, who finally rises and begins approaching him. There is no gaslight in this imposing chamber and yet he can see her illuminated by some dim radiance that appears to have no source. Her eyes are as black as the darkness that had engulfed him only moments ago. She is naked, slicked with blood as though she had been submerged in it, a blood that would never dry upon her skin. Alick is afraid, but also quickened. He realises something, but is unsure how this knowledge comes to him. He is peering at an image of his dead sister, peering at the girl she would have become if death hadn’t claimed her so soon after her birth eleven years ago. She lived only for a few hours, but he had been too young to really understand.
“Grace?” he asks tremulously, “Is that you, Grace? My sister?”
“I take her form, a bridge between us.”
Alick frowns, still wondering if he has actually died and has plunged into some sinister hereafter. But he can feel a gentleness in her words, almost a sweetness in her manner as she regards him. Though she has taken Grace’s naked form somehow, stares with black eyes and is slicked with scarlet, he feels a comfort in her too. He cannot regard this thing as a monster, not entirely.
“Then who are you?” he asks, recalling pages from Revelation.
“I am the unbroken covenant. The fortified hidden. I am every single star.”
Alick takes a step back. “I don’t understand…”
“It is not intended that you should. Not yet.”
He glances about the chamber again. “I’m somewhere in between?”
“Of a kind.”
“But where exactly?”
She smiles at him, a frightening smile though edged with affection. “You are beyond the imagined light of Isra, beyond the tabernacle.”
Alick feels like he comprehends somewhat, but he is becoming afraid now. “I don’t want…to die. Please don’t let me be burned, or disfigured. I haven’t the strength…”
Still, she is smiling. “Beautiful, imperfect Alick.”
“Am I here because…because God thinks me wicked?”
The girl is at his side now. Alick flinches at the suddenness of it. She tilts her head a little as she regards him with those black eyes, frowning slightly. She caresses his cheek with a bloodied hand and Alick can feel the wet trace it leaves upon his skin, though his skin is smoke now. “No, my love, not wicked. The truly wicked know little of love, or its chalice. Creation is not only as you imagine.”
“I don’t understand what that means…”
“I know this.”
He peers at the stones, at the ground. He is unable to hold her black gaze. He feels ashamed now, idle and vain. He feels the urge to apologise, but for what he is uncertain. “I’m so very sorry…”
“I know this too. But you haven’t yet begun. Those choices are as yet unmade for you.”
“I’m…I’m still sorry. I should have done so much better. I should’ve been kinder…” Alick’s voice cracks and now he is sobbing before this blood-painted thing, weeping uncontrollably as he had done in private after Father died. He is no longer sure what part of himself is speaking, or thinking. “I was cruel too often. To my wife, my friends. Obstinate in my posturing. Tyrannical at times…and yet I despise tyrants. Oh God, what a hideous trifle…” The tears stream, or drift in the smoke.
“Then honour me. It is still unwritten for you.”
“I would stay my hand if I could, I swear. Use it only at your bidding, chalice enflamed. Not also for my own little vanities. I served but never truly saw, my love…”
“You see a part of me now, Alick. And you see me then, in glimpses, in better moments. Nothing shall be turned away, not even your failings.”
Alick trembles in her gaze. “My mother, Emily…can you help her? Protect her somehow? She suffers greatly, but she hates me…”
“No, Alick. She uses only what she can comprehend, as do you. But she has allied herself to us in ways as yet unknown to her. This blood upon my skin…” She presses a hand firmly to the cleft between her thighs. “This blood is the blood of all things, living and slain.”
“So I return?” Alick asks quietly.
“And I shall remember very little of this?”
“All this and more will be given to you again in other forms. When your blood and your passion is ready for me and me alone.”
The chamber and the blood-painted girl are hurled away into the blackness without warning, and Alick is spinning and tumbling again through the vast nothing. Many worlds become one world. In this world he is disoriented, being led carefully through the playground with his mother on one side and a tutor on the other. But then the world collapses once more and he is spinning through blackness again. He is being tended, nursed, sedated, though he can see none of this. He hears voices however, drifting in and out of the nothingness. Time is not moving ordinarily. And then a painfully bright sliver of waking consciousness cleaves the nothing apart, like a star bursting into life in front of him.
Alick awakes to the sensation of his face swathed in bandages, his body aching beyond all measure, and to the strange feeling of Mother holding his hand with unfamiliar tenderness.
September 19th 2016
Paul kept replaying the scene from a few hours ago, going over it in his mind. John’s fear, his sense of betrayal, his incomprehension at the idea that the blood-stained girl could be anything more than what he’d felt in his dream. Slamming the door in his face with utter dismissal. But Paul could understand his friend’s fear. He had felt a measure of it too in the beginning. He resolved to keep sending John sincere or amusing text-messages until he finally cracked and re-established contact in some way. Paul could only hope that John would eventually miss him enough to at least talk to him again, once the terror of his dream had faded. But for now Paul knew it would be wise to keep well away.
As he smoked a cigarette at his bedroom window he peered again at the old tower of Immanuel at the bottom of the road, silhouetted against the night. He could even see a few spectral figures in the darkness, people made ghostly and ambient by the light of the phones in their hands as they walked across Streatham Common.
He needed to be outside. Paul stubbed out the cigarette on the window ledge and tossed it into the wind.
Once he was out in the bitterness of the open air he pulled his hood up, shoved his fists into his jacket pockets and began walking briskly. He walked only to the end of the road, past the nursing home, and rounded the corner to face the tower of Immanuel rising above the street. He glanced across at the Common. The spectral figures he had seen from his window had gone now.
He approached the old tower and touched it in the same place he had done the night of the storm. There was no trace of Crowley this time, no frisson of alignment or aperture. Just the feel of the damp stone. He turned and sat down right there in the street with his back to the wall of the tower. He focused on his breath for a few minutes and then tried to attune himself to the memories and fancies of the stone. He could feel the church, still humming, still interacting with everything surrounding it, but Paul could garner none of its nuances. It felt like a mere pulsing, undifferentiated potential.
“Some fucking psychic you are,” he muttered to himself.
A woman with shopping bags in each hand gave him a look of distaste as she passed by. Paul ignored her, gazing out at the darkened expanse of the Common across the road. He watched the cars and buses as they passed. He smoked another cigarette, ignoring other passers-by who stared at him. He thought about what the blood-stained girl told him years ago upon sensing his initial terror at her presence. Don’t be afraid, acolyte. I come only among my witnesses.
She spoke of rebellions, rebirths. She showed him a divine fire at the heart of all things. Restoration, transformation, hidden affinities that left him reeling. It felt like he had bled.
Don’t be afraid.
Paul nodded and fished his phone from the inner pocket of his jacket. He wasn’t as resolute as he wanted to be. He still waited for a few good minutes before finally dialling Jessica’s number.
It rang for quite a while but didn’t go to voicemail, and then, “Paul…?”
“Hi, Jessi,” he said quietly.
“I haven’t heard from you in quite a while. How’s things?”
“Oh, you know me. Rolling with the punches…”
A smile in her voice. “Still chasing ghosts and trying to collapse empires?”
He couldn’t help but smile a little too. “Basically, yeah.”
“I guess the more things change the more they stay the same.” It was intended as playful tease but Paul didn’t respond. “Hard times?” she added. Her voice was a little gentler now.
“Only in my head, I guess.”
“Are you finally seeing anyone? I mean, beyond fuck buddies and whatnot.”
“No, not really. But that’s ok.”
“So, to what do I owe the pleasure, Mr Kistori? Mark and I are just heading out for dinner, but I have a few minutes to chat.”
“Mark is still cool with us talking like this?”
“He knows I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nobody dictates who I can or can’t talk to.”
The firmness in her tone was familiar, and made Paul smile again. “Well, he’s a wise man then.” He waited a beat and added, “I saw her again, Jessi.”
There was silence on the line for a moment. “The blood-stained girl?”
“Yeah. But really I’m calling to apologise. I’m sorry I brought all that shit into your life, Jessi. I’m truly sorry for that.”
She sighed. “Oh, Paul. You always imagine yourself as this dark, tortured thing. But we’ve all suffered. I suffered. And I needed you.”
“I know. I wish I could go back and do things differently.”
“You tried your best. It just wasn’t good enough, not for me. I’m not angry about it, sweetie. Not anymore. I’m happy and I’m healthy, so far. I don’t need you to feel guilty, Paul. It serves neither of us, especially if you want to maintain some kind of friendship with me.”
“Of course I do. But sometimes…sometimes I feel like I brought darkness into our home, Jessi. Like I brought poison.” His voice was shaking a little as he spoke.
More silence for a few moments. “Paul, listen to me very carefully. You didn’t somehow inadvertently cause my cancer because of your abilities, because of your connection to those realms. I’ve never believed that. The fact that you believe it is upsetting to me. But I suppose I can understand why. But it’s not true, none of it. The cancer is my story, not yours.”
Paul knew it was the truth. “I know that, Jessi. I do. I just wish I could have supported you better. You needed me. I tried, but I left you feeling alone in the end.”
“That’s because I don’t live where you live. I have to live here, in the world. Not between worlds. It’s who you are, but it’s not who I am. We would’ve had to face that eventually, cancer or not.”
“I’m still sorry. I never meant to make you feel unloved.”
“Paul, you never made me feel unloved. I know how much you loved me. But we were worlds apart. I think you’re worlds apart from most people in a lot of ways. And in other ways you’re just as vulnerable as the rest of us. It was incredibly thrilling at times, sweetie. It was. But you don’t have to hide yourself away.”
“I’m not hiding myself away,” he muttered.
“You are, Paul. We shared everything for six years. I know how you think. I’m not telling you how to live, ok? I’m just telling you to live.”
“You were always so generous with me, Jessica.”
“I loved you, stupid. I’m still pretty fond of you.”
She chuckled. “I’ve got to head out now, but listen. You don’t have to be afraid that you’re going to trail fire or chaos wherever you go, Paul. That’s just crazy. Who the fuck can live like that? I admit, I was really scared when you first told me about her, because I know this stuff is real. I saw too many things while we were together to ever doubt you. So yeah, I was afraid of her. But you’re not afraid of her, and you understand these things better than I ever could. It’s part of who you are. But none of that had anything to do with why we broke up. You had more growing up you needed to do. I honestly don’t mean that in a harsh or dismissive way. But it is what it is.”
Paul swallowed and nodded as he held the phone to his ear. “I understand what you’re saying, Jessi. And you’re right.”
“I’m glad that you called, Paulie.”
“Stay strong. Got to run.”
“Ok, have fun.”
She ended the call and Paul pressed the phone to his lips, oddly comforted by their conversation. As he sat there on the pavement he pressed the back of his head against the stone wall of the church behind him. For some reason he recalled the meaning of the name Immanuel. Paul closed his eyes, took a deep breath and murmured to himself, “God is with us.”