The Rings Of Saturn – Chapter 6

Last week Em began work as the amanuensis of Edourado del Bosques, and meditated upon the horrors of growing old, and how the old view the young. Would even the great ones be resentful to those in the flushes of youth? This week, Emmanuel joins his mentor at a dinner in Madrid, where he sees strange things he cannot account for, and meets other associates of the old artist.

~

Em,

Shocked myself this morning when I looked in the mirror. My hair needs a cut. Nails too. I’m keeping odd hours. Eyes look a bit bloodshot.

Bosques has interesting painting techniques. Revisited some of his older works and collections this morning. There’s a kind of harmony in the palette. Listened to Beethoven’s Große Fugue today on the old fart’s recommendation. There are parts where the stringed chromatics clash like two men fighting with clubs. Remember Bosques’s Modern Fresco Of A Fjord? There’s a bit on the painting where the water meets the land, and they viciously blur, as though blue and green are fighting for space and the two worlds of water and earth can’t abide the company of one another. Reminds me of the viola and violin in the Fugue, spiking like the sinus of a dying man, fighting to live. Dying angrily must be the most bathetic act. Could there be a more miserable, futile thing?

Am cautiously eager to attend this dinner he’s arranged. Will write later properly. Putting this missive on hold for now.

~

Some evening! 

I met Bosques at Sol and went to an old restaurant a few dozen yards from the train station. He wore a loose, thin scarf the colour of dusky pink roses, and greeted me with a grunt. 

“I hope you’re hungry,” he muttered with a half smile.

The front of the restaurant masquerades as a kind of bric-a-brac shop, featuring the most vulgar tat: tarnished silver candlesticks featuring lascivious women, ashtrays that look like animals, but thankfully don’t seem to be made from bits of them (do you remember Great Aunty Baby’s gorilla hand ashtray? That thing gave me the willies and no mistake); bad paintings, mugs, glass figurines, all sorts of other worthless rubbish. A mutter of “restaurant” to the serving rake in the apron soon reveals the true extent of the place, though. We were ushered through a door at the back, by a kitchen filled with steam and clanking utensils and the slam of sharp knives hitting wooden blocks and the cry of chefs bantering with one another. Gamey smells greeted us. Past the kitchen door was a winding, creaking staircase flanked by a golden bannister and lined with a vivid, red carpet runner, looking for all the world as though a streak of blood was trickling down the stairs from whatever gruesome atrocity had been committed on the first floor. Little tables held ancient art deco silver ornaments that had been buffed up well to maintain their lustre. I smiled as fat, well-to-do middle aged couples and groups passed us and acknowledged us with a nod of the head, or better yet, a grim shake of it.

The dining room was a whale’s belly of oak and silver and lost finery, as if the restaurant had been preserved in ink for two hundred years. No artifice of modernity seemed to have graduated from the restaurant’s odious little bajado tat shop, which seemed more and more to me as a type of filter, forbidding entry to anything that might have been manufactured after 1928. At the other tables wealthy, obese businessmen dined with their nieces, and sun-crinkled women d’un certaine âge dined with each other and gossiped in splendidly aloof tones about nothing at all.

Bosques had reserved a table by the window, beneath dark, sloping mahogany beams that eavesdropped unashamedly, almost catching me on the head more than once during the evening. Through wispy nets the Madrid thoroughfares buzzed and chattered beneath us. Bosques’s friends are a rum bunch. Three of them were young, about our age, Em. Martin, a wiry local with a lazy eye; Agnes, a splendid, statuesque sort of girl with a slavic accent and an overly keen stare; and Ned, a blond Dutchman who wore a moronic sash of royal blue across his shoulder, as though he were a Suffragette. A graceful, middle-aged Spanish woman named Katarina who smoked a cigarillo (through a biro, of all things!) and hid dark eyes behind the resultant smoke sat across from me, and purred over Bosques when he arrived. Lastly, another old man sat at the corner of the table. I don’t remember his name, but he leant a walking stick by his legs, wore a sort of peasant’s cap which he pulled over his eyes, and an ungroomed moustache. He looked for all the world as though he’d arrived at the wrong century.

“This is Emmanuel,” said Bosques, proudly presenting me. My three peers chattered inanely, while Katarina looked unimpressed through blue smoke, and the old man in the cap seemed more interested in the contents of his pockets.

“The amanuensis,” said the Dutchman Ned, extending a limp hand. “Welcome.”

“You must be something,” said Martin. “Edouardo has talked for some time about resurrecting his career. We owe you a debt of gratitude, Emmanuel.”

I half-smiled in response. “Don’t thank me yet.” Bosques gave a funny look, like I’d said the wrong thing. Out of habit and nervousness I grabbed the stem of the wine glass at my place, and almost instantaneously the waiter, a stiff, leathery type who looked like he’d been serving there for over a hundred years, poured a slosh of a very dark, and tannic red wine. I hadn’t intended on drinking there, but you know what it’s like. Nervous, all these new weird types, probably scoping me out, gawping at me like I’m a new toy. I chucked the alcohol down my gullet – it was good! – and smiled at the gaggle. 

So it went on.

When the soup course was brought out, the elderly man in the corner said, “Sopa! Sopa!” Then he stood up, hobbled around the table to stand behind Edouardo and smell the old artist’s bowl of soup. As he sniffed deeply, leaning on Edouardo’s shoulder for support, he stared at me with hollow, dead eyes. His face, ruined by age and poverty, and his smell – ye Gods, the smell! How he could have been admitted to such a fine establishment staggers me – made me more than a tad queasy. He peered at me with eyes so foggy it was like they were no more than splashes of paint, and once more said, “Sopa.”

Fucking weirdos, artists.

Halfway through the night I needed a piss. To be honest I was grateful to get away and get a few moments’ respite. As I was leaving the gents I started when I saw the slavic girl Agnes standing in the doorway. She squinted at me as if I’d somehow offended her, tapping a finger against the cold porcelain of the sink.

“This is the gents’ toilets,” I muttered, ducking my head and trying to swivel by her. “Ladies’ is over there.”

“Why you?” she asked.

I blinked the question away. “Why me what?”

“Why did he pick you?”

I shrugged, and filched her a contemptuous smile of my own. “If you can’t see it…” 

A raised eyebrow. “What? If I can’t see it then perhaps I don’t have it?”

“You said that, not me.”

She stepped up to me so I could smell her cherry blossom perfume and the rotten metal tang of alcohol on her breath. “It’s you who doesn’t see.” She drew her finger to my neck in a flash, making me flinch and my jugular pulse with danger. “You have the face of an animal. A strange, used face. A murderer’s face. And everything below here…” she slowly and softly drew her fingernail across my neck. When I swallowed, my Adam’s apple bobbed beneath it like a worm burrowing under sand. “…is shadow. Lost in the darkness. If I were Edouardo,” she said. “You would not be the holder of the brush. You would be the subject.”

I grunted and pushed past the strange girl, but my heart rate was up and my head was light. As I did push past, she stuck out a hand and brushed my own with it, the lightest touch of her fingers caressing the back of my hand, making the tiny downy hairs prickle. I pulled my hand away, and looked back at her. Maybe it was the wine, or her aggressive forwardness, but she looked beautiful, in a trashy, spoiled kind of way. And for a moment I saw you, and myself, in her eyes. Something spoiled, something failed.

“What’s with the old guy with the stick?” I said, changing the subject.

Agnes made a face. “Bosques doesn’t have a stick.”

I rolled my eyes. Idiot. “No, I mean, the other guy. The old man in the cap and walking stick. The one who keeps going on about his soup.”

Agnes looked incredulously at me. “Oh my God, you really are a fucking weirdo. And you’re English. Now I get it. Now I get it!”

“Hey–” I started, but she’d already gone. Daft bint. Blew out a rancid old breath, went back to the table.

“Manu, I have a vision in my head,” said Bosques when I returned to my chair. “A new period, even.”

I blinked. The old man who’d ordered soup had gone. I wondered if he’d said any goodbyes, or if anybody had even noticed that he’d gone. Tried to regain my composure when Agnes sat down moments later, not giving me a second glance. “What do you mean?” I said. “A vision of the city? Madrid?”

“More than that. What you see of Madrid is just a…” he searched for the word as he clumsily forked a piece of fish into his mouth. Terrible thing, watching a man with dilapidated hands trying to use cutlery. “A shell, a mask…”

“A carapace,” said Katarina.

Bosques gestured in the affirmative. “Carapace. What you see protects what this place is truly about. The skeletons of horror, of fascism, of death.”

The Dutchman, Ned, piped up. “All cities are collections of monuments. And monuments are an attempt to create an importance to death. Something to leave behind.” Despite his slightly sticky English, he looked very pleased with himself at this trite observation. Unfortunately for him, everything he said was simply undermined by that ridiculous blue sash. Whatever facile sentiment he was trying to convey with it was crushed beneath the sense that he was an utter berk. Posers, Em!

“Pish,” said Katarina. “All cities create illusory history through their erections. But it’s through flesh and blood that history is stored, contained and preserved. Only a charlatan thinks that architecture is art.”

“Can’t architecture be artistic?” asked Martin, his lazy eye wobbling between diners. Do you remember what Great Aunty Baby said about Uncle David? He had a lazy eye. Once I angered him by flicking my gaze between his good eye and his bad one. When I asked Baby why Uncle David never got angry with her, she said, ‘when talking to somebody with a lazy eye, you pick an eye, and stick with it.’ Good advice. So sad about Great Aunty Baby. She was a great lady.

“Architecture can be meaningful, and decorative, and filled with symbolism,” said Katarina. “Scholasticism infused the Gothic with the magnificence to literally reach upwards and touch God, and to inspire Man. But is it art? Art is the human eye, looking at the human breast.”

Bosques interjected, waggling a crippled finger at Martin, but looking in fact at me. “You cannot capture a punctum in a building. A building does not scream back.”

“I’ve never screamed at a building,” said Martin, smiling affably.

“You’re not doing it right, then,” said Katarina.

“I screamed at the Presidential Palace in Bucharest,” said Agnes. “I stood on the Bulevardul Libertǎţii and I just screamed at it until I thought my lungs would fill with blood.” She laughed. She laughed, Em! That was unexpected. Artists rarely laugh. I wonder if she’s an artist at all? “The people around me probably thought it was some sort of protest against the current incumbents. They don’t stop to think about the human blood in the mortar of such places.”

As the night progressed I confess I submitted to the demon drink, and it seems as though the others rounded on Dutch Ned for some reason. It seems as though the ringleader was not so much Bosques as Katarina, who steered much of the conversation, and enjoyed teasing the dim Ned when he failed to understand the full profundity of one her own sculptures she was describing while showing off from photos on her phone.

“Tell us what you think of Edouardo’s new work, Emmanuel,” said Katarina, changing the subject.

I pushed some food around my plate and drank some more wine. I hoped that it either impressed or disgusted them that I was quaffing such expensive wine so quickly. “There’s a darkness in him,” I said, and when the ensuing silence became overly pregnant, I lanced it by adding, “I mean, his work.”

Bosques charitably cleared his throat to fill the next pause, and awkwardly rose from the table, declaring he needed to piss.

“Darkness?” asked Martin. I’d picked the left eye. Problem is, once you’ve picked an eye and don’t deviate, you start to wonder whether you’ve picked the good eye or the bad one.

“Do you not understand it?” muttered Ned. “What he is trying to do?”

That bit me a little. The wine was making me prickly. Problem is, I quite like being prickly. I can kill the guilt with more wine. “Do you understand it, old man?”

“I’ve a PhD in classical Iberian art history. I know the long line of work which Edouardo is trying to perpetuate. Do you?”

I let out a little half-laugh, finished my wine, and looked round with what felt like a stupid, embarrassed smile on my face at these vulgar know-nothings. I fished my wallet out of my inside pocket, took out a few hundred Euros, stood up and threw them in Ned’s face like confetti, saying, “If you’re a Doctor, then remove the stone from my head!”

At that Katarina laughed hysterically and clapped her hands in glee as Ned looked on in bemusement. I continued to smile at Ned. I couldn’t look at Agnes, for I could feel her cold eyes burning into me from across the table, and I knew if I looked at her my smile would be wiped away.

Outside, after the others had left, Bosques said he felt like a walk through the city, alone.

“Tomorrow I want to think upon my ideas, alone. Agnes says she wants to see you tomorrow. Perhaps you should go and see her.”

I frowned. “You’re sure? I don’t think she likes me.”

“So? She likes the work. She can help you.”

“How?”

“Mould you into these.” He held up his claws.

If I were a pair of claws, I’d scratch the faces off everyone. Faces give the illusion of individualism. If the mask of genetics were removed, and all that we displayed was our soft tissue, we would see each other for what we truly are. I saw beneath your pretty face, didn’t I Em? I saw the disgusting nest of worms and insects that lurked beneath. And I know that, wherever you crawled to, you could always see beneath mine. We’re not so different, you and I, but once I believed it. When I think of us I recall Goya’s Saturn: naked, cowering, savage, insane with terrified envy, dripping with the gore of bloody murder. 

But you know me, Em. Not one to prattle on. I kept my mouth shut. Soon after that we parted, and I returned to my apartment.

I dreamed I was in a room made of ebony. It was filling with sand, which poured like golden sunlight through an aperture somewhere around the top of the room. I tried to climb out of the sand, but it was already up to my chest, my shoulders, my neck. I craned upwards to try and feel the Sun on my face, but the sand kept sucking me down. I tried to call out for help, but when I opened my mouth, all that escaped was the bark of a dog.

Then I woke, and wrote this letter.

What is happening to me, old girl?

Ever yours,

Manu (Bosques has taken to calling me this, and I confess I rather like it) x

~

Chapter 7 next week!

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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