Garn Press Chapters: You’re Not Dead: The Midnight Books Volume One by Geoff Ward
Geoff Ward’s glitteringly dark fantasy, You’re Not Dead, is a black comedy about an ancient book, time travel, and magical powers. It is also a brilliant detective story and a romance novel.
In a dystopian moment in human history, when there is increasing recognition that neither politicians nor the media are addressing the most pressing issues of this time, Your Not Dead challenges us to ask:
- Can a mixture of horror and comedy help to prepare us psychologically for death or catastrophe by playing them out in safe, literary scenarios?
- Can we change the course of events or the nature of reality by reading a book?
- Can we use photographs, books, and recordings to travel to the past to “magically” open up serious questions about memory, time, and history?
- Can a balance be reached between safety, adventure, and risk in casual and long-term romantic attachments?
And finally, can a hero actually be an anti-hero?
Stay tuned for details of his trip and meetings with readers. In the meantime the ebook version of You’re Not Dead will be on sale next week April 7, 2016.
The College Librarian was sitting well back in his swivel chair, reflecting and tapping his teeth at intervals with the eraser-tipped end of a college-badged pencil. Sighing, he leaned forwards, and let the latter day stylus drop graphite first into a huge and ornate teacup. This strange receptacle servedz him not only as a pencil, but as pen, rubber band, small change and just about everything else bowl, after he had brought it back in triumph from a trip to Luxor, only to discover that boiled water made even the handle of the cup too hot to hold.
Around the lip ran a frieze, depicting many colourful and appropriate hieroglyphs, including an image of the Egyptian jackal-god of the dead, Anubis, who, in this instance at least, wore a cheerful expression suggestive of a can-do attitude. The Librarian searched in his breast pocket for a little red cloth which, having breathed on and steamed up the lenses, he applied to his glasses. He then got up and walked towards the whiteness of the faux-Japanese faux-window. This he did silently, a lifelong trait. Spendrift had at one time been viewed as a serious cricketing prospect, not that he himself took sport, at least team sports, all that seriously. The thickly Brylcreemed hair, unfashionable currently, perhaps always, bestowed on his head an ottery sleekness remarked on sometimes by others when not in his hearing. His office suits, tweed in winter and, as now, linen for summer, gave nothing away. The heavy black frames of the glasses allowed him to see out, none to see in.
Silently weighing alternatives, the Librarian stared for a while into the blankness of the blind. Moving more purposefully back to the desktop computer, he drummed his fingers in a brisk tattoo, and reached a decision regarding the email that lay open on his screen. The contents of this email concerned another email, which in turn concerned a book.
The book had a bit of a history. Published in 1895, anonymously, it was said to bring together a cornucopia of legends, spells and arcane lore originating in several European countries across a period spanning three centuries, newly translated into English for the cognoscenti. More than just a history of the occult, this was a book which, it was claimed, could literally teach its reader how to perform acts of serious Magic. To the Librarian, the several European countries-and-centuries stuff smacked of a rhetorical flourish. No: this exotic was the hothouse growth of a distinct time and a particular place. One where magicians, warlocks, hierophants of the Tarot and other self-proclaimed experts in the dark arts were springing up like toadstools. London. The London of the gas-lit and opiated 1890s, the decadent fin-de-siècle.
The book belonged, as fugitive sparkles of water belong to a wave, to the vogue for Oscar Wilde, whose career collapsed in scandal; to the circles that included his friend, Ernest Dowson, writer of verses as immaculate as his penchant for pubescent girls was not, so much a creature of the Nineties that he died on cue in 1900 at the age of thirty, as if unable to bear the bursting of his magical, tainted bubble; and to the time of Aubrey Beardsley’s voluptuous satires in black ink, his Pans and fauns, impossibly curvaceous nymphs, and massively-endowed grotesques. Time of the danse macabre of masks and mimicry, transgression and theatricality; above all, the time of Magic. Two hundred copies of this resplendent, peacock volume had been printed – on vellum, with a Japanese rice-paper cover, virtually transparent, yet fashioned so as to contain incredibly intricate coloured threads, pulsing veins stitched in by hand.
Only a handful of copies, perhaps as few as two or three, survived their birth. The rest were destroyed in a cellar flood at the printers in the terrible winter of 1895, before the book could be delivered to the publisher. One of the survivors sat in the British Library, in the Reserved Section. Or at least it was supposed to. On the first occasion that John Spendrift had asked to see it, he who was now Librarian of Beltane College London, but at that stage an untenured history scholar of the late Victorian period, flustered and apologetic staff had been temporarily unable to locate the desired item. Two subsequent attempts to peruse the book were thwarted, one by an uncharacteristic attack of dizziness in the Tea Rooms, one by a power cut. Almost inevitably, the Library declared their copy of Transmutations mislaid, consigning the title after a decent interval to their Missing Presumed Lost file.
Of the two remaining copies of the fugitive volume, one was thought to have made it into the twentieth century, only to vanish from view along with its collector-owner, a voyager aboard the Titanic. Spendrift had begun to think in an amused way that his attempts to land this particular volume were doomed, and so had abandoned the quest. And, it had to be admitted that, although in itself extremely rare, this was hardly the only title of its kind from that period. Magic, along with sexual experiment, drugs and the paranormal, was pretty much the Nineties’ norm.
Having duly succeeded in completing his PhD dissertation, John Spendrift had then duly failed to land a university lectureship. Sadly for him, these were the years of the freeze on university posts engineered by Mrs Thatcher, under whose spell Britain had fallen. Mrs Thatcher hated intellectuals. And coalminers. And, come to that, most other people, apart from Chilean dictators. Forlorn, Spendrift sank into the public sector, intent like many on keeping his head down. But once in that posture he became absorbed in what had, as it unfolded, become an unexpectedly rewarding career as a university librarian.
Nevertheless, the desire to one day get a sighting of the book still tugged at him, even after all these years. From time to time a new piece of the puzzle would float his way via a footnote, via some story in the press, or from the international hunter-gathering of librarians, a more intrepid tribe than Spendrift had assumed before winning admittance to their inner circle. The third copy was known to have passed through the hands of several notable owners. Moreover, it was said to be cursed.
The Earl of Montcalm, its first owner, lost his fortune, his wits and finally the will to live, after a fire destroyed the family seat, leaving him bereft of almost everything except the book, which he had locked in an octagonal tower in a secluded corner of the grounds. A grieving daughter kept this final memento of her father under glass.
Following her own swift demise it vanished, only to resurface in the hands of the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, called by the Daily Mail the wickedest man in the world, who, it was rumoured, had put the book to practical use during rituals of unparalleled debauchery at his temple on the island of Cephalu. According to the memoirs of a disenchanted acolyte, Crowley came eventually to believe that the book ‘went too far’, and wished he had never acquired it, blaming his subsequent decline into poverty on an unlucky misinterpretation of certain formulae he had plucked from it.
Singed, and, it has to be said, rather unpleasantly stained, this copy had eventually found its way into the possession of latter day rock god Felix Manto. The guitarist singer-songwriter had perished in the later 1990s, trembling like a would-be suicide on the ledge of a new century, like the poet Dowson unable to contemplate the fin of his own particular siècle. A famously loud musician – indeed, the founding father of Nouveau Thrash – Manto had reverted by this point to a more pensive and blues-inflected style, particularly on his final album, Trouble in Mind. The lyrics of the last track, Cry Like the Wind, encoded sternly growled warnings on the subject of whiskey-headed women, women in general, birth in the Delta, death at the crossroads, and a certain occult treatise published in London in 1895 in a very limited edition with a fragile but intricate rice-paper cover – all of which the singer deemed likely to bring nothing but bad luck and trouble. Reviewers carped about rocking chairs, bourbon, and panned it. Inevitably, Manto’s abrupt retirement following this final recording was blamed by his core admirers on the book, even more so his drowning in the icy waters of Loch Soutar, of whose surrounding estate he had only recently paid to become Laird, snared in his own lines while fishing for salmon by the fitful guidance of moonlight, high on crack.
But now the book was back. The only copy left in the world – and, to the amazement of this jaded Librarian, for sale. Miles Proctor, a young lecturer in English Literature at Beltane and a budding expert on the 1890s, had been about to delete as spam an email from something calling itself Redidivus Books of Fiddlers Court, London, but on idly opening it had found a genuine bookseller’s catalogue of the older sort, listing soberly and for sale the contents of the late Mr Manto’s library of gymnastically impossible pornography, grimoires, Teutonic woodcuts depicting (somewhat repetitively) the tortures of the damned, Crowleyan and other antiquarian fungi. One item stood out, even in this lurid treasure-trove.
As the asking price stood at about the same level as the entire annual library grant allocated to the English Department at Beltane College, Miles Proctor was pleading for financial assistance. John Spendrift had now decided he should have it. For one thing, what were Beltane’s aspirations to be a leading research centre and not just a holding-tank for spotty undergraduates really worth, if, once in a while, the College couldn’t splash out on a real find? Perhaps more importantly, the scholar in Spendrift that Margaret Thatcher had never quite succeeded in strangling wanted to read this book. Hold it, simply, after all this time. Proctor would get his wish. And Beltane would get the book.
Making his way from the Charing Cross tube, Miles Proctor had paced the length of Fiddlers Court twice before managing to locate the narrow doorway and discoloured brass plate on which he could just pick out the legend, Redidivus Books. It seemed strange that a bookshop in the heart of London should open only in the evening. And who, for heaven’s sake, and in this day and age, in the heart of London, still had a bell-pull? Handling it gingerly, in expectation that the rope would either snap and fall around his shoulders like a dusty snake, or jerk him high into the air, the young man took a deep breath, and pulled.
Several minutes and a steep climb later, he was sitting opposite a balding and corpulent individual in late middle age, face the colour of putty, who, balancing his fingertips on pinstriped knees as if about to execute a virtuoso keyboard piece, leaned forward to impart unwelcome news.
The book, I am sorry to say, indeed I am ashamed to say, is sold, sir.
Sold? You said you would keep it for me. I’m buying on behalf of Beltane College.
I know, sir. I am aware of the order of events from which, unfortunately, we have on this occasion, this final occasion, had to depart. Mr Winthrope, the owner of the business… The fact is, the rents have shot up since the early Nineties and are frankly crippling us. Mr Winthrope was on the point of selling up and retiring when we published that last catalogue, where you came across the item that the College is keen to acquire. But then, out of the blue, after your approach, he was offered…a startling sum, it is fair to say, enough to buy a little time and settle certain… The upshot is that Mr Winthrope, against our customary practice sir, against the grain, to tell you the truth, sold it.
Can I ask who the new buyer is?
The bookseller hesitated, then rose and moved to the window, seeming to look for an answer in London’s maze of alleyways, tourist traps, rooftops and riverside rendezvous, that would never be beautiful but always be seductive, the finest old flame to those moth-minds drawn by mysteries.
I see no harm in your knowing. In any case, we have been overtaken by events. Mr Winthrope took a phone call from New York, from a bookseller called Mysteries of Gotham, on behalf of a private individual. You should know that Mr Winthrope is unwell. He has not been in the best of health for some years, but lately he has taken a turn for the worse, markedly for the worse, sir. We have this grace period to…tidy our affairs. But we are closing down. We are out of the game. And there will be an end to it.
The morose bookseller turned and looked Miles in the eye. Behind him the sallow light of early evening in the capital was beginning to fade into day’s end. One long lank strand of hair had strayed; this he carefully pulled back across his balding pate in a doomed attempt to suggest full tonsorial coverage. As the light faded further he became a silhouette. Behind him in the city beyond the window, doors that had stood open would soon close, become tombs for the night. Others, locked enigmas hating sunshine, would open their jaws once this yellow light had died.
We have not dealt with you fairly and squarely. So. It hardly matters now, to be frank, whether payment for the book comes in or not. If I were you, I might give Mysteries of Gotham a call. Flip, sir.
I beg your pardon?
Flip. Ask for Flip.
Impatient at the five-hour time lag, Miles telephoned from College the following afternoon. In the background he could distantly catch the classic New York dissonance of jostling yellow cabs and nasal East Coast accents, the sirens and sounds of a livelier life. He asked for Flip.
We surely do. You can have it, Professor, for the amount you would have paid if the original deal had gone through. The collector who wanted the book has just gone and died. I wouldn’t want a rare item like that to get lost in the hands of lawyers and stuff to do with the estate. It might disappear, and never resurface. It needs a good home where it will be cherished by people who know what they’re doing, what they’ve laid their hands on. Only thing is… Peggy, I told you, not over there, over there…sorry Professor Proctor. I don’t want to mail it. I don’t know if it was damaged in transit, or if the catalogue description was what you might term optimistic, but this item has lived a little. The spine’s gotten kind of loose. I don’t wanna be the one to open it right now. It might make things worse. Very rare book, though. Of course you know the history. Do you want to come over and get it? Do you have any reason to come to New York?
Get the book, Miles. Do it, for the College. That was all Spendrift had said to him in response to the tale of woe from Fiddlers Court. And, Yes, thought Miles. Damn it. I have every reason to want to come to New York. The chief reason is that I am twenty nine years old, nearly thirty, and I have never visited the United States of America, let alone New York. His scholar’s conscience (which dozed amiably for the most part, but which could spring into hyper-alertness when summoned by its master’s self-interest) assured Miles that his annual research allowance remained largely unspent, and whispered to his inner ear reminders of items in the New York Public Library of huge interest to a scholar of the 1890s – not to mention the extensive holdings at Columbia and indeed New York University itself. Of course he would go. He must go. It would be wasteful not to.
On the way back to his flat, Miles dropped by a very different sort of bookshop, and purchased a Rough Guide to New York. Mysteries of Gotham, which he had pictured as some elegant brownstone gracing a tree-lined avenue on the Upper West Side, turned out to be located in the bohemian redoubt of Greenwich Village. And where was he going to bed down? The New York hotel tariffs made his eyes water. Riffling the deck of his Guide he found a reference to something called the Paramount, nearer Penn Station than the Village, but seemingly the only hostelry charging less than two hundred dollars a night. The name rang a bell. Miles had been regaled with anecdotes about this section of Midtown by his lugubrious Head of Department, Professor Transom, who, rolling his eyes, had intoned Lead us not into Penn Station but deliver us from evil, and announced, shaking his grey head in disbelief, that he had been forced to check out of the Paramount virtually on arrival some months earlier, on discovering that the place was full of, quote-unquote, pop musicians, creatures of the catwalk, and worse. Hoping for a glimpse or even a taste of worse, Miles dialled, purchased, packed, flew, and checked in.
The Paramount Hotel did not disappoint. It was the real thing – though quite what that thing really was, would be hard to say precisely. Once Miles’ credentials had been given the once over by one of the smiling musclemen in identikit Armani who ran the show – another stood studiously placing dozens of single roses into tiny silver holders secreted in the walls of the atrium – he was assailed by a blizzard of colours. Trying to the eyes of the weary but excited traveller, the lobby sofas gave off acid green or yellow luminosity, their huge cushions alternately swelling and drooping, priapically engorged, vaguely extraterrestrial. Meanwhile the main staircase lunged dizzyingly upwards at strange angles as if trying to shake off the rest of the building, something out of a funfair or early German cinema. Helpfully, the weather forecast for the day appeared as tiny lettering in the tall mirrors that adorned each floor, but less helpfully, disappeared at once.
On inspecting his room, Miles finally located the TV at the head end of a mock-Egyptian sarcophagus, while every item of bathroom furnishing was, courtesy of designer Philippe Starck, sculpted so as to resemble a bucket. On first making use of the facilities Miles had to think quite hard, as if bumped forward to senility or returned at cartoon speed to a version of early childhood, about which part of his anatomy to bring into the proximity of which bucket, and for what precise purpose. In the immortal words of Felix Manto, Didn’t know where I was, not for one minute./ But I knew I was there. The only disappointing thing was the view from the bedroom of a blank high wall inches from the glass, though even this fitted, on reflection. Because at the end of the day it was all a set, Miles thought to himself. A set with walk-in facsimiles, false fronts and cul-de-sacs. Smiling at the wall, he raised a brief toast in his mind. To me. To that suddenly friendly Librarian. To the Big Apple, not that any of the locals seem to use that phrase. Then he slept.
After baptism by full immersion in the cheerfully garish Paramount, New York the morning after was, for all its carnival overload, pretty much as he had expected. Horns in cabs scolded, steam swore through grilles, while neon texted subliminal info-burns onto the retina. Beautiful young women in office attire bottomed off with sneakers hovered on the cusp of WALK/ DON’T WALK, tall coffees carried like hunting spears. Men wore funereal black, and smoked like it was still the 1950s. Chinese and Italian blurred into more recondite cuisines, failing to cut out something oddly chemical which, even above ground, Miles took to be essence of subway.
He felt a need to pull it all down into the lowest stratum of his lungs, as if what he was breathing and seeing was a perversely healthy way to zap any English, any residual timidities. He wanted to be cool, to be hip. His helicopter-view of his still young (just about young, anyway) self, was that he was, to cut his modestly short story shorter, not. Not cool. One of the Unhip. Already, on his first morning in New York, the ubiquitous mirrors of the Paramount had told him that his height, respectably over six feet, still located him in the gangling rather than the imposing category, and that dark glasses only made longer and straighter what was, though by no means an ugly nose, definitely a long, straight organ. Positively Pinocchioid. Salt and pepper hair he had in abundance, but silently hoped as he peered into each morning’s mirror that the pepper would continue to win out.
Miles prayed for Manhattan to spare a little of its style, for him; a dash of its stardust, to save him from the sin of excessive fastidiousness. Just as testing to the personality in its subtle way as alcohol or hard drugs was the addiction, endemic in university life, to ever finer distinctions. He knew this. But Miles also knew that there were things he didn’t know.
Big Apple. The golden apples of the sun. What was that other line. Yeats? The silver apples of the moon. The lunar apples flickered in Miles’ consciousness, but were shrivelled to dust by full-on Manhattan, blaring to its own satisfaction that all apples of knowledge, of good and of evil, had been fully digested a long time ago and the pips spat out in this burg. So what did that leave? Maybe, even in its breath-taking vitality, this spit of land, stolen with beads from the Indians, was now just the carnival of commerce. It hadn’t taken him long to realize just how effectively this slickest of cities slid those green slips of paper out of your wallet, their evergreen sameness of colour, be it a twenty, a ten, or one, somehow implying that a twenty pretty much was a one, right? Same dimensions. Back in Heathrow Airport, changing currency, Miles had paused, taking in the sheer whackiness of the One. Cornerstone of Western civilization, the dollar bill, featured a cyclopean eye floating and throwing out rays of light above a headless pyramid. What was all that about? George Washington shaking hands or tentacles with HP Lovecraft, somewhere down at the crossroads, in a Masonic lodge or on Mars.
But there remained, somewhere interior to this blizzard of noise, a concept of cool. It was there in the blank and hardened unreadability with which New Yorkers themselves seemed to stare it all down and stay unmoved, a kind of zombie chic. Using it to gain strength. Not to be confused with the musclemen. More like the Velvet Underground era Lou Reed, all shades and poetic pallor, before he started to resemble a bug-eyed karate teacher berating a rheumatic class of seniors. A wall-like passivity. That was it – if you are staying in a movie set, become part of the set. Be your own wall, show a false front.
The false front glided south, past the sex shops, the theatres, the Church of Scientology, and the real churches where you picked your way around the bodies still in their sidewalk sleeping bags, preludes to ziploc. Avoiding contact, now, focussed on the hunt. But in New York City even the best contact avoidance strategies come messily unstuck. So when he realized that he was about to be accosted by a panhandler with grating voice and hygiene issues, Miles decided he couldn’t be bothered to take evasive action, but accepted this as part of the price of admission, amiably letting himself be drawn into the harangue on which the curtain would come down only after hand had searched pocket to locate the dollar exit-fee. The man was weather-beaten. And beaten by really bad weather. African-American, sure, no surprises there. And some suggestion of, no Miles couldn’t place it. Odd clothes, not just thrift store cast-offs, but something reminiscent…but whoops here we are. On stage. For one minute only, bringing a spittle-drenched harangue to a street corner near you.
Ah’m a preese! A very high preese! You sail in me you have a hope that you don’t have. You have no hope, do you, young gentleman? Gentlemen, my sister! All my sisters have come to me in the end, they do, they do come in the end, all my sisters get down to it, they get right down. But you, you are falling through a very blue sky if you think you can. I am a preese. Now fix it. Where you from?
No, I am not that kind of a priest, I mean where you from. Left side, or the right?
Miles thought he had now heard enough, but on reaching for some coins to drop into the crazily waving styrofoam cup, realized that the man had somehow already moved past him, almost it seemed, through him, and was hobbling jerkily away, peering awkwardly and wide-eyed over his shoulder at the younger man, clearly alarmed by something, seen or unseen. He also mouthed some final pieces of strangeness, but Miles, shaking his head, had turned off into a quieter side street before he felt he could piece together what it was the man had said. You read with your hands, boy. We all read with our hands. Be careful what you handle.
Well, that was weird. Mysteries of Gotham indeed, thought Miles, but put the encounter out of his mind in order to concentrate on negotiating the West Village and finding the bookshop. On the way he passed a hotel and, as its door was held open briefly by a laconic bellhop, glanced at the cracked black-and-white chessboard of the lobby floor, not knowing that shortly he would be perched unexpectedly at the late morning bar, downing bourbon, a drink he never drank, in a mixed state of mind. But first he had to locate Mysteries of Gotham, which he did without difficulty, and entered. No bell-pull this time, just the old-fashioned jingle of an independent bookstore, door comfortably loose in frame, glass a little loose in door.
Entering, he almost fell, missing the step down after his attention was drawn upwards by the giant latex spider, grinning and nodding in the currents of air he had briefly disturbed, the coffin beneath it on a gurney piled with books fictionalising, concerning, or in some cases written by, the living dead. In the surrounding shelves and alcoves there mingled promiscuously 1920s pulp horror magazines on the verge of disintegration, the indestructible, leather-bound ravings of Puritan witchfinders, seriously rare books alarmed in all senses, the most esoteric offended at finding themselves immobilised under glass and guarded by a poseable Edgar Allan Poe action figure. Crystal balls, skulls and the odd rubber hand served as bookends. Watched over by the smiling giant spider, Miles paused over an array of fortune-telling packs.
Here was the Thoth Tarot, designed by the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley. A lurid thing, but not without charm. Carefully, Miles plucked out cards at random – there was a beautiful but sickly Moon, decorated with a scarab beetle. Here the passionate Prince of Wands, atop his lion-drawn chariot, but there, demurely waiting, the Princess of Cups. Perhaps the Great Beast had an unexpectedly romantic streak. But then his attention was drawn by The Faery Tarot, on the backs of whose outsized cards winged maidens took off from the helipads of pond lilies, while gnarled elves delved in cryptic loam. As he dwelt on the charms of one intricately beautiful flying nymph, the eyes in her card seemed to widen and stare as if pricked out in emerald. How did they do that, he thought, head suddenly spinning as the eyes grew still wider, and he a little faint, but now the eyes were baleful meteors hovering over a tower struck by lightning where soldiers caught fire and then fell to stony death, as Miles himself started to capsize, and the wording on the box, as he saw in the instant before it clattered to the ground, was (what’s happening to me, what’s wrong with me?) The Wrathful Tarot. Miles, eyes and other parts of his sentient self swimming, fell heavily.
Every gleeful customer and staff member turned to look daggers at the new pariah, the klutz who’d dropped the fairies. As Miles crouched and pulled himself together, hunting for spilled cards to return to their tin box, an old lady smelling of cat pursed her lips, while hand-in-hand students glided, giggling, away. The Englishman in New York felt air conditioning chill the sweat on his brow, blamed tiredness and time-zones, and shuffled apologetically towards the towers of newly arrived books, and the flame-haired young vendor in the grey high priestess robe. Even to one peering in from the street and able to see only Miles’ back, it would still have been obvious that what the oracle in crushed velvet had to say did not go down well.
Pasadena? Isn’t that in California? It can’t be in Pasadena. I’ve come all the way from London to New York to collect this book personally. Let me speak to Flip.
Flip isn’t here today. He sends his apologies. Let me explain. When an old volume needs re-binding or needs some repair work on it, we always use the same firm. They used to work in a rented place two blocks away, but the rents shot up in the Nineties and they decided to move part of the business out to California. It’s a drag, but they are absolutely the best, so we still use them. The book, your book, because I’m thinking of it as very much your book, believe me, was in with a small group of items, all occult-related…. which a certain buyer in LA took, sight unseen. But she didn’t know about that one, it just got bundled in. It shouldn’t even go to the binders. It has a history and needs to be just the way it is. It was an accident.… Peggy, how many times do I have to tell you!… Sorry, where were we. We’ve had staffing issues. We’ll get it back for you. This is a one-off, we’re happy to compensate. We know that book has to find its rightful home.
So where is it now? On a plane, or in Pasadena?
Ah, neither one. Not exactly.
The guardian of the Mysteries shifted from foot to foot, blasé about bicoastal detours, but evidently embarrassed about something else. She pulled her velvet robe tightly around her.
We have an intern, an NYU intern, Becky Morrell. Just finished her PhD. She’s driving the books over. There’s some picking up and putting down of library acquisitions and other purchases, on the road. I believe she also has personal business to conduct. She said she’d fax but nothing’s come through yet, which is…a bit weird. She may not be back in Manhattan for a while. I’m so sorry. If you want to chase the book we could definitely do some kind of deal on reimbursement.
She paused, conducted a quick visual sweep of Miles from north to south, and asked sweetly:
Do you have any reason to go to the West Coast?
Miles’ scholarly conscience released itself from its hammock with one perfectly executed back-flip, nodding furiously. Yes, thought Miles, I am twenty nine years old, which is very nearly thirty, dangerously close to forty, and I have never been to the West Coast of America. If what my head of department, the eminent medievalist Professor Transom tells me is true, Pasadena would put me in walking distance of the enviable scholarly resources of the Huntington Library, the latter, as any schoolboy knows, only a short hop from the renowned Getty Collection. Thank you, Rapunzel, he thought secretly, suddenly relaxing and taking in the flame-coloured hair and other attributes. The name’s Sybil, she thought back, reading his mind, and inclined her head, smiling.
Pulling out a College diary to get down some details, Miles was now parting with the Mysteries of Gotham on amiable terms. Reaching the door, he was even the recipient, or so he thought, of an absent smile from the old woman whose sense of bookstore decorum he had offended by dropping the tin box of cards, though now he could see that she had cataracts, and the balance in her smile between Go West Young Man and the depthless lacunae of extreme old age was impossible to weigh. But Miles had never been troubled by ambiguities. He was always one to hope for further, deeper mysteries. For some or for no reason the velvet guardian’s phrase ‘sight unseen’ hung in a corner of his mind, spinning fast and casting dice or shadows.
To square things further with College as well as conscience, Miles retraced his steps and was soon standing in a hotel phone booth, fingering a pyramid of quarters while the barman poured him a coffee and a shot, and dialling half in celebration, half in apprehension, a Librarian who was five hours ahead of and some degrees Fahrenheit below his present location, but all he picked up was a pre-recorded message: You have reached the extension of the College Librarian, John Spendrift. I will be in Cairo, attending the Annual International Conference of University Librarians until July 15th. Please leave a message when you hear the tone. And Miles, if this is you, just get that book. Do whatever it takes.
About the Author: Geoff Ward
Geoff Ward has taught and published on English and American literature in Europe, the USA and Japan. He has written the first study of the New York School of Poets, Statutes of Liberty (1993/2001) among other books and essays.
A Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he has written and presented documentaries on American writers for BBC Radio, and has published several collections of poetry, including Worry Dream (2013). He is currently Principal of Homerton College, University of Cambridge.
You’re Not Dead is his first novel, and the first in a series. It builds on a lifetime’s enthusiasm for fantasy and other forms of genre fiction, explored with the aim to entertain, but also to raise serious questions about time, memory and whether what we see – in life, as well as in the mirror – is what is really there. Hardcover and paperback available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.