with Chris Pelletiere
Having failed to make contact with the co-author, Weirdmonger has also failed to gain formal permission from him to re-publish this story. However, he feels happy that the co-author would approve - but if he should object at some stage in the future, it will immediately be removed from this website.
First published 'Freudian Variant' 1998
When Alan arrived at the big house he was welcomed by a mat.
A doormat. One with stiff scrubbing-brush bristles for the feet to scrape themselves off on. However, it had patchy sprigs, too - what, on closer scrutiny, looked like synthetic hair amid the bristles (or he certainly hoped they were synthetic), sprigs that spelt out a word that was not even remotely welcome. In fact he had to will his wobbly legs to hold himself up. He looked down at the doormat again. The few beers he’d had before coming hadn’t helped. His mouth had gone dry. A memory was coming up at him as if from the mat. The mouth?...
When he was a baby, his Mother had washed him in his Grandmother’s sink. Two witches washing. Something about his feet coming into contact with the hole in the sink, of his bare toes going into the drain itself made him sick.
Surely they must have washed up the dishes first. They wouldn’t have sat him down near the dirty sink-hole, would they? That’s what these synthetic strands in the otherwise bristly mat strangely became to resemble ... bamboo-shoots, roughage and spaghetti spoiled and leftover in a sewer-mouth.
The old memory (perhaps the oldest) ended and, today, his toes curled and clawed within the airless shoe-leather. Cringing was not even a starter. Squirming came in last place. There was no possible word to describe his growing disgust at the “welcome” mat. Except perhaps the word itself that the sprigs spelt out, a word that was a potential toe-nail sketch of the emotion the word’s actual medium of communication induced.
Alan shook his head. He wasn’t mad enough to dwell on such madness for long. The door that gave the doormat part of its name had by now opened in response to the banging which he had forgotten - in his momentary disgust at the hairy word - ever having made by swinging the knocker.
There stood a woman on the doorstep, noticeably beautiful despite the half-undone curlers in her auburn hair. She was untidily made up. And she had a voice like the one Alan thought her Pekinese dog would make if it could speak. The latter had indeed crawled between the woman’s legs and stared blankly at the visitor.
“I’m a purveyor of tantalising brushes and mops, dear lady,” Alan answered.
His mother (many years before she died from food poisoning) had given him his original supply of such goods from her own under-stairs broom-cupboard. His door-to-door business had progressed from that small beginning.
NOMICON BRIGHT-EASIES was the sign on his suit-case, a suit-case which he had by now positioned on the mat to hide the sight as well as the meaning of the word ill-planted amid the healthier bristles. Words, after all, had shape as well as innuendo.
The woman seemed to swing inside the house with one smooth motion, the little dog still between her legs, as if they both were attached to the door. He was reminded of a little wooden German house that hung on the wall in his Grandmother’s ancient abode, one that forecast the weather. The children would swing out through one door with the sun or the witch through the door alongside with the rain.
Well, the woman had entered and so must he. And, taking a step inside, he felt as if his feet were pushing through jungle growth, so thick was the doormat. As his eyes became adjusted to the darkness, he actually believed that the jungle existed around him. The hallway was humid. The carpet seemed an extension of the mat outside and, upon gazing down upon it, the pattern seemed to twine in tangled vines. He felt that, with simply one more step, he would drop into it and need to cut swathes through new-grown straw with a machete.
His eyes quickly plucked themselves from the carpet as a bird’s cry sounded somewhere in the hallway accompanied by smell of spicy fruit gums. Indeed, there was a bowl of such gums - which he firstly took to be tropical fish - on a circular table in the centre of a living-space, the latter being a room which he was gradually discerning around himself.
At least he’d managed to inveigle entry into this house but, as normal, it was always hard at first for him to pitch his product - and he sought reassurance in his case of bright-easies at his feet ... but the woman (and her yappy dog) had vanished.
He surveyed the room and decided to station himself on the long sofa. But where was the prospect? He was beginning to feel himself to be a stick of furniture, the longer he waited. Or a piece in some strange game that had just kicked in - and, whatever the next move, he felt he was in place for it.
What he assumed was the sound of tinkling wind chimes in air began to settle like the rattle of chains or ring of keys upon the sofa’s territorial share of carpet. His clammy hand in his lap reminded him that he was fighting down panic. The crackling noise of dried-out vines betokened the prospect’s re-approach, clutching, as she did, a cup of tea and a plate of one biscuit, items which she fetched as a reminder that the mat outside was not the only welcomer hereabouts. The slit-eyed pup was nowhere to be seen.
“It’s got its own saucer,” the woman said (with an inaudible slimy aside to the floating fruit gums). She evidently had read Alan’s mind.
He heard a squeaky slurping from the nearby kitchenette.
“As I said, before, Madam,” he said, as he simultaneously thumbed open the suitcase’s catch and balanced the provender she had offered him on his knee, “I am the proud purveyor of these Nomicons of Newness. Just with one touch of this feather-duster the whatever-it-is becomes not only clean but as good as new...”
He brandished a stick that he had extracted with some care from an elastic holder within the lid of the suitcase. There were at least two stiff quills as one end.
“That’ll scratch more than it’ll burnish,” she complained, taking the implement from Alan’s outstretched arm-signal of welcome-and-try.
Ignoring her comment, he tugged from his item of soft luggage a steel rod which had what looked like a jaw of teeth at one end.
“This plunger’ll eat germs as good as any sink can incubate...”
The woman pointed at the ceiling to where the darkness had settled and asked: “Have you got anything that can hoover that away?”
Alan smiled. At last! A bite of his best available cherry. Surely, if nothing else, Nomicon Bright-Easies were suckers for God’s darknesses and for gloomy corners that any amount of unnatural light couldn’t budge.
Squinting up at the dark ceiling, he tried to judge which attachment to use and how long an extension needed to suck down whatever was up there. To impress the woman he decided to deploy the Nomicon Bright-Easy Power Head. Meanwhile, all the plastic attachments were now out of his case and spread all over the carpet.
He felt like an artist choosing the right brush. Now that he was in the pitch, actually demonstratinf what he’d come to do, he was no longer anxious. He was in control. Should he part her window drapes himself or ask her to do it? It certainly would be easier to see where to aim that way. She seemed to guess what he was thinking because she crossed the room, took hold of the drapes and pulled them aside. There was a brittle breaking sound as she did this. There would be something to clean up now, by God he thought, a little uneasily but, instead of thinking too long what this might be, he thought instead of what attachment would do the trick.
“What?” Alan said to the woman who was trying to tell him something over the noise the vacuum was making. “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never harm me,” he thought, turning off the machine and facing towards the woman. Why did he think that? She wasn’t calling him names... She was telling him that it was dark outside now and, even with the drapes pulled aside, the one lamp in the room couldn’t illuminate the ceiling.
It was true. There was no use squinting up into the darkening ceiling which seemed to mirror the shadowy current in the carpet below. The pattern in the carpet appeared to move as if in a stream. Whether Alan looked up at the ceiling or down at the carpet, the whole room began to flow together. He felt he were standing on a horizon line of sea and sky and that line had suddenly vanished leaving him merged and teetering in between.
He felt dizzy and backed up for the safety of the sofa. The carpet was on the move again and out to trip him up. It wasn’t the vines this time but the wires of the Nomicon Bright-Easy machine that made him stumble.
The woman’s arm shot out in one quick darting movement like the tongue of a lizard to catch a lazy fly, drunk in the hot sun. The hand that held him from falling was hard, like bound sticks and missing, it seemed, some of its fingers. Was this the hand that drew the drapes aside with a snapping sound? He felt her other hand grip him and heard the dry rustling sound of Easter palms as she lowered him to the sofa. She smiled down at him and said “Welcome” with the voice of a mother soothing a son. Then she smoothed his brow and stroked his hands leaving behind a stigmata of tiny splinters.
“What is your name, Madam?” Words he managed to slide out through his chapped lips. Names will never hurt me.
“My name is Mrs Poppy. Zena Poppy.” Except these words did.
The one embedded in the doormat came flooding back to him. But he did not remember the word itself, not its shape, not its form, not its sculptural phonemes, but merely its essential meaning, a sense and tone that hung about like druggy, vine-like fish-creatures. Indeed, the flooding back was constituted of dry waves, like upon the surface of a sea on the moon. And this creature was an inhabitant of such a sea, scraping its parchment scales along a scabrous bed.
All mixed in with other names. His mother’s, his grandmother’s, and the German heritage in his family: the paintings of murderers that lined the walls of his childhood home. The tiny weather house. Mingling in with the doormat word that could not be shaken off...
But he did shake it off.
“You must have fainted,” said the woman.
Alan sat with his head in his head.
“It’s Ok, Mrs Poppy. I don’t know what came over me.”
“It’s the weather, I’d say. So unseasonable.”
Unreasonable, too, thought Alan. Would the drought never end? It was as if global warming had taken the earth in a grip so tight, all the water was being squeezed down some cosmic sinkhole, never to be seen again.
Wormholes, black holes, wormcasts...
He still felt faint. He’d forgotten, till now, how hot the day had been. No wonder he was getting hallucinations. Tramping around town with his case. Too dry even to sweat properly. He was stirred into permanent recovery from malaise by the yapping of the slit-eyed pug, who was snaffling around with the Power Head’s wires, as if it thought it were fighting a monster of some kind. Alan couldn’t help laughing.
“Wilbur! Wilbur! Leave the gentleman’s things alone!”
“Don’t worry, Mrs Poppy. There’s nothing he can really harm.”
The single lamp was now struggling with the full-bodied onset of night and Alan decided to switch on the full-beam of his Power Head vacuum, a facility he had actually forgotten, till now, it possessed. Taking an apologetic glance at Zena Poppy’s face - and she now looked decidedly attractive despite the dis-spiriting gloom (or perhaps because of it) - he threw the large trigger and a shaft of light, constituted of several intertwining beams, cannoned through the darkness towards the ceiling proper. He could now discern several cobwebs and thicker clusters of fibres amid the porphyry of the upper surface’s ornamentation, wherein, as the shaft cut deeper swathes into the various consistencies, were seen flickers and shadowy shifting things that actually must have lived and breathed up there. Darkness made dust. No other way to describe it.
“Oops!” said Mrs Poppy, with evident embarrassment at the hidden corners where her house-pride hadn’t reached.
“Don’t worry, Mrs Poppy. Some of the best housewives in the world have been shocked at what my Power Head can find!”
Things are looking up thought Alan as he swept the darkened room with the Power Head illuminating orange slices of it in strobes ... and things are looking down, too, he noted, watching slit-eyed Wilbur's frantic attempts to catch whatever was dropping from the ceiling. Indeed, the mutt's eyes were opened now to the size of saucers -flying ones, it would seem, judging from the way he was running around and barking berserkly. Alan, of course, could see nothing. Wasn't this always the way with animals?
The beam of light from the Power Head was like that from a movie projector and Alan imagined a World War Two documentary unreeling before his eyes. The powerful searchlight scanned the night sky as the Power Head gave the signal, with air raid sirens beginning to wail. Wilbur was beside himself on the floor, now scuttling in foaming circles. The fine line between land and sky was once again vanishing for Alan, as he saw, in his mind's eye, Luftwaffe Condor legions overhead.
His mission - to look up and Hoover down Hitler's huge Henkel bombers. His dilemma - that he himself (with his German blood, scars and decorations) was looking down from one of the cockpits.
He was abruptly brought down to earth by Wilbur who, having caught something from the ceiling, was busy worrying it to death in the carpet's tangled pile.
"Wilbur! Wilbur!" screeched Mrs Poppy, in wild remonstration.
The word in the Welcome Mat came back, with its full force of meaning, if not its actual configuration as a word, while Alan became faced with the goriest, yet most cosmically nirvanic, scene to which it had ever been mankind's misfortune to bear witness. Even the wisest writers of literature and philosophy would have been at a loss for words, real words, words that possessed textual substance as well as semantic evocation. The few beers Alan had supped before coming hadn't helped. Memories mixed with meanings, two witches at the sink, a suitcase that contained more than its size, a Pekinese mongrel with abject carpet-manners, fruit congealed like gum mastic, frog-throated alcoves masquerading as empty ceiling-corners, Nomicons of Nothingness where age was older even than the need to clean things (primeval sludge being a devil to budge from prehistoric drains), amphibious aircraft threading the cobweb-runners (how else could they fly when heavier than air?), murky monsters with extraneous tentacles, feeler-fairies in dark-skinned tights, opiate blooms enlacing the hardened tendrils extruded by spider-gaunts ...
Opiate brooms. Alan was confused slightly by the misspelling. He quickly fastened his suitcase, after re-stowing the Power Head therein. Took one last glimpse at the grue-strutter that called itself Zena Poppy. Gave an irritable kick towards the miniature manky man-chewer called Wilbur. And dashed from the house into the welcome freshness of a cloud-burst.
Either the cheeks were rain-strewn or they were real tears, as Alan dwelled upon the memories which he hoped were the only real memories: his Mother's hands as she bathed him and his Grandmother's affectionate liking for clean plumbing. But then he looked. This time, he looked not up nor down. He looked back. No, not back, but black. On the Welcome Mat stood a likeness of Alan himself, evidently stuck - through his own shoe-leather - to the bristly word he couldn't ever forget amongst even the stickiest sicknesses that could possibly be conveyed by mere meaning: the blade-straight lines, deadly slope and enticingly deceptive scimitar-curve which Wilbur's jaws had been tussling into shape.