The Gentle Decay of the Past
by Simon Williams
At the back of the house, in a ramshackle glass conservatory packed with deformed, mouldering wooden chests and misshapen cupboards, I discovered something that I probably should never have found. But that’s a very long time ago now.
At the very least I ought to have cast the book aside or wrapped it gently back in the darkness after a cursory examination, but instead I took more care than I should have taken and wiped down the cover. Then, enslaved for a moment by my curiosity, I opened the book.
The title — not shown anywhere on the cover but printed on the first page — had an oddly comforting feeling about it at the time. The Gentle Decay of the Past. But six pages later, with the odorous volume close to my eyes in the half-light of the four o’clock fog, I was no closer to knowing what I had read.
The book was not a guide to anything I recognised, nor did it tell any sort of story I could comprehend. The text consisted of small paragraphs that bore no relation to one another as far as I could tell. It appeared to be a series of random observations and instructions listed one after another, adhering neither to order nor reason.
By the time I had reached that sixth page, my head started to hurt. I returned to the first page and began once again an attempt to extract some meaning from the book.
Through the passage of time comes the sound of the machine. With the swirling of autumn in anger, the holes in the ground you walk on are covered. And still you fall.
Every road bites its own tail. The only way through is not a route at all. The journey is a creature, alive with loathing.
I put the book to one side, overwhelmed by sudden nausea for a moment, although I had no idea why. But somehow The Gentle Decay of the Past found its way into my dressing gown pocket. and I returned to the room I should have been in all along.
I don’t recall anything much from the time before I came to Arnold House, yet I felt certain that I could not have felt lower than I did at this point.
Without a doubt, I felt miserable in a deep and hopeless sense, immersed in the yellow-walled, grimy warmth of breakfast at eight and dinner at five, of pointless routine and the discomforting feeling of restless unease that grew each day, and yet it never grew sufficiently for me to leave these confines and seek purpose or answers, or whatever it is that people seek. There are no answers without questions, and even questions were a little beyond me.
Arnold House was a curious place. It appeared to be for people who had either given up or forgotten how to continue, and whom the authorities thought should therefore be shackled in a routine of some sort, no matter how useless it might be. Some of the people here had been in prison or communal labour camps for many years. Others, like me, had spent a long time in hospital for one reason or another.
I don’t recall much at all about the hospital, and no one ever told me what happened there. I only remember glistening white walls, faces that loomed out of the dark, searing, searching lamps and occasional, terrifying pain, so I had always been reluctant to find out more.
I had no wish to recall anything more than these frightening but ultimately meaningless fragments. Although it was hardly logical, I tried to convince myself that I had always been a grown man, a confused man, living helplessly in the brutally clean and efficient world of light and chemicals.
Occasionally I would imagine that the light itself, or some substance or clinical procedure had brought me into existence. I was the product of a reaction. Certainly I found it easier to believe that than anything else I could dream up, although I didn’t fully believe any of my own theories.
The occupants of Arnold House would shuffle apologetically past each other and rarely spoke except to apologise if they happened to get in each other’s way. The rituals of breakfast, lunch and dinner were all marked by a procession of the broken. An eerie politeness and courtesy would be observed at almost all times, because that was preferable to interacting on a higher level. We behaved and complied.
The landlady, Miss Vayne, was a shapeless creature stranded somewhere in middle age. Arnold House was made to run like a giant clock. I had often imagined the place fashioned from cogs and pulleys, which you could only see if you ripped through the mouldy wallpaper and chipboard partitions. The day was divided neatly into sections and sub-sections. The regime was clear and strict but, in reality, there was no need for it to be. Perhaps there was no need for it to exist at all.
I had once watched, faintly aware of a need to feel more revulsion than I actually felt, as Miss Vayne straddled a sleeping resident, and rubbed herself against his thigh as he slumbered on, miraculously failing to wake. With each grave tock of the morning-room grandfather clock, she moved back and forth like a human pendulum, mesmerised by the changes in her own chemistry. Afterwards, the air remained thick with the meaty, dense odour of her pleasure.
This was, apparently, not an especially unusual act for her, but I saw it only once.
That evening, after five o’clock dinner, I opened the book again upstairs in my bedroom, and read from the top of the seventh page.
Around the corner, past the broken cliff, keep walking to the hidden town. Two suns, one diminished red, one furious white.
I closed the book abruptly, but it lay warm in my hand, strangely soft like a helpless creature. The last paragraph I had read lingered in my mind and darted around as if it searched for a meaning. I couldn’t give it one, but it nevertheless reminded me of something. A long-forgotten dream perhaps.
I wondered something to myself as I looked out of the window at the fog. Why would a book of rambling nonsense and half-finished sentences have ever been published?
One other resident — and one only — tolerated conversation, up to a point. His name was Harry. He sat miserably watching the radiator across the room later that evening as I sat across from him on the old brown sofa — not too close, of course — and handed him the book. “What do you think of this?” I asked him, not expecting him to think anything of it.
He opened the volume on a random page, read a little, then opened another page at random from a different part of the book, and read from that. At least, I can only assume he was reading. His rheumy old eyes moved and strained and his lips occasionally twitched as if he was silently mouthing some of the words.
“It’s gibberish,” he said finally, tossing the book onto the sofa so it landed by my side. “Who would even want to publish this crap?”
“Someone did,” I pointed out.
“Burn it,” he invited me.
“Why would I want to burn it?”
“Why not?” He looked at me for a moment. Remember, we almost never looked one another in the eyes here. I reckon I saw the faintest glimmer of excitement in his eyes. It died, of course. Excitement needs its own oxygen, and there was none of that in this place. But before the crushing of that curious light he said quietly, “Maybe something will happen if you burn it.”
Perhaps he meant that because this book had no meaning — not as far as we knew, anyway — and should never have been published, its real purpose lay elsewhere. On the face of it, The Gentle Decay of the Past was an exercise in pointless vanity. It was an odd vanity though, for the author had neglected to include his or her name with the title. But maybe it was meant to be burned. Harry had, perhaps, asserted that the book was a kind of special fuel.
“I think I’d like to understand it,” I said. Harry grunted and gave me the sallow-eyed look of a creature that hoped to be put down. Yes, I thought as he turned his gaze slowly away, the brief light has gone.
After breakfast the following morning, I showed the book to Miss Vayne. I figured that if anybody could tell me something about the book, it would be her. She could at least tell me where it had come from, and perhaps even name the elusive author.
But I was disappointed by her abrupt denial. “I’ve never seen it before,” she said dismissively. “Keep it if you want.”
Nonplussed, I was nevertheless about to thank her when she abruptly asked me, “Do you like women?”
I wasn’t sure what she meant. “I like them well enough,” I said eventually. “I suppose there must be good and bad.”
“Spoken like a child!” she laughed. “What about me? Do you like me?”
“I...” Not knowing what to say, I simply shrugged. For no apparent reason I hastily opened the book and studied the page I happened to have revealed.
“I thought as much,” she said quietly as she walked past, her breath hot and irritating in my ear. “It’d be easier to raise the dead than stir you or anyone else into action.”
I couldn’t work out what she was talking about at first. I have a number of mental blind spots, you might say. But eventually I realised. Nonetheless, I couldn’t understand why she had approached me. Maybe she had thought I’d want to do something with her. But I wasn’t like that.
Nobody here was like that.
I wondered why she chose to run this place, knowing that fact and given her acute bodily needs.
Had she been placed in a kind of private hell?
I spent a while looking out of my bedroom window later on. It was foggy outside, as usual. I could barely see the outlines of the two guards at the gates, guards who were there not only to stop anyone unwanted getting in but also to stop anyone getting out. None of us really wanted to leave, of course, but there was, I suppose, a chance that someone would at some point.
For me, nothing existed out there, at least, nothing I wanted to see. I was, after all, a man devoid of ambition and desire, a shell that counted out the days until eventually I ceased to exist.
Copyright © 2017 by Simon Williams