The Life of Henry Fuckit
39 Henry meets Harry and is told about the existence of Oxyaston
"Hello Henry. Nice to meet you at last. Come in, take a seat. Hope I haven't dragged you away from something important."
So this was the man himself. Of average height he appeared fit and wiry, must be all that swimming. His dark brown hair was thick and wavy and had no trace of grey in it. A well-tended French moustache made him look slightly foreign and Henry judged him to be in his mid forties. He had an easy, even familiar manner and his humorous brown eyes looked with a disconcerting directness, as if they already knew the sight of Henry well.
Glancing about the office he realised it was directly above that of his and Whitehead's. The wall facing the window was almost entirely covered by an enormous world map dotted with coloured pins and criss-crossed with interconnecting lines drawn in fluorescent pink. He was pleased to note the absence of that old arsehole the State President. The wall behind the Director's desk was blank except for a framed reproduction that Henry recognised in a flash. An enthusiastic admirer of Paul Klee's work he knew it well - the Mystical City Scene, from around 1920. On the opposite wall to the right of the door stood a large bookcase loaded with interesting looking reading matter - they certainly didn't look like volumes on Stores Control.
"I thought we'd have a little chat and begin to get to know each other. Jack Ponchielli told me about you some time back, said you might want to join us. He told me quite a bit about you and you sounded ideal material. Jack's a good sort. A fine musician, too."
Henry liked the look of this man but knew how unreliable first impressions could be. And there were many questions that needed to be answered. A fog of mystery was preventing his uncompromisingly sceptical mind from finding the logic behind what was happening to him. Bergson detected caution in his reticence and continued.
"By way of an explanation, a kind of introductory prologue, I thought I'd give you some background information about myself. Then I'll tell you about some of the things we get up to in this dockyard. I understand you once worked for an insurance company?"
The sudden unexpected mention of the two words elicited an involuntary response in Henry. His body jerked as if it had been subjected to a high voltage jolt, his face contorted in anguish, his pupils dilated and his pulse raced.
"Yes. It was the briefest of careers but it has affected me for life. You could say it was a formative experience that told me, quite unequivocally that Henry Fuckit and gainful employment are as incompatible as fire and water. But why do you mention this unpleasant topic?"
Bergson sat slightly askance to his desk, tipping comfortably in his chair and rocking almost imperceptibly. "Well, I mention it because I share this in common with you: I too used to be in the insurance world." Henry was mildly surprised. This man didn't look as if he had ever suffered brain damage. "Unlike yours, my career spanned several years. Sixteen years, in fact."
"Holy shit!" Henry was horrified.
"Quite so. It was a terrible episode in my life. More than an episode. Sixteen years! I can give long and painful testimony to the degrading depths to which I sank before I was saved nine years ago."
"Oh no!" The disappointment in Henry's voice was obvious.
"What's the matter? Oh! Ha, ha, ha." He laughed fruitily and then cut his mirth short. "You think I might be a born-again Christian, do you? Bloody insulting! Don't you look at people's eyes? When you gaze into a born-again Christian's eyes you encounter two layers: first the superficial sincerity and sweetness, then the intolerance and suspicion of a bigot. And behind that, nothing - a terrifying vacuum."
"Well, actually… er, um." Henry was embarrassed but relieved.
"Alright, forget it. I was telling you about my insurance career. The Old Mutual, the biggest life assurance and pension company in South Africa. I was at Head Office at Mutual Park in Pinelands. A vast double-storey box of a building set in extensive grounds with its own swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, rugby and hockey fields, athletics track, clubhouse. It had two restaurants and a recreation hall for dances and functions. Even its own railway station on the commuter line."
"Sounds intimidatingly impersonal. There must have been hundreds of people working there." Henry didn't like the sound of this place.
"Thousands. But it wasn't intended to be impersonal and dehumanising. If you became a Mutual Man it was supposed to be for life. You joined the family and every aspect of your life was catered for. I joined The Mutual when I came out of the army at twenty, and I was there for sixteen years. I was ambitious, I did well, and everybody thought I was top management material. But from the very outset there was a small voice in my head asking subversive questions."
"I can well imagine. You know, I've thought about this on many occasions and come to the conclusion that most people never hear that voice, or if they do it's in a foreign tongue and they're unable to translate the questions." Henry was beginning to relax, and when he was relaxed he became generous with his own perceptions and insights. "But of those who do understand what's being said the majority are driven to throttle the voice immediately, silencing it forever. Only…"
"Yes, I see you know what I'm talking about." Bergson also saw the danger of letting Henry get carried away with a subject that was dear to his heart. "The small voice asked me whether I really wanted to devote my life to The Old Mutual. I began to engage in a dialogue. What else? What was wrong with becoming an efficient cog in a big machine? What was wrong with earning a good salary and becoming a respected member of the family? What was wrong with securing a good pension and safeguarding my old age? The voice would sneer at me, chastising me for not having the courage to get out and experience life more fully whilst I was still young. I had some friends in those days, good friends, maybe the best friends I've ever had, who were heeding their voices and urging me to do the same. But did I follow their advice? No. Not then." It was clear from his expression that these recollections were strongly coloured with regret. "I heard that voice every day of my life for sixteen years. I explained, I argued, I prevaricated. Whilst I still had them, I promised my friends I was biding my time before breaking loose. I pretended I was one of them, a free agent with an independent mind and a happy-go-lucky spirit. But it was a sham. My whole life became a sham. After a few years I had become a compulsive liar, a pathological confabulator. At first it started as humorous exaggeration, light-hearted tall stories told for the sake of entertainment. Then I began to see these creations in my mind as a way of impressing and manipulating. I began to lose track of what I had said to whom. I even began to believe some of my own embellishments and fabrications."
"What kind of things did you lie about?" As an inveterate manipulator of reality himself Henry was curious to hear more about someone else's ability to invent.
"Oh, at first, it was pretty harmless stuff. It was more like boastfulness than downright mendacity. My sporting and academic achievements, progress at work, sexual prowess - that sort of thing."
Henry was not impressed. "Sounds as if you were a bullshitter. Plenty of those around. On a far more creative level is the teller of tall stories. You tell a story that is fantastic or exaggerated but almost plausible. The skill is in placing it just beyond the bounds of logic, so that an intelligent listener is able to pick up the clue that makes the story nonsense or an impossibility. The drawback comes when you have an audience too stupid to get it. You find yourself faced with an irritating dilemma - do you allow them to swallow the crap you've been dishing up, and thereby turn yourself into a cheap liar, or do you labour on, heaping one absurdity upon another until they finally see what you're up to, and in the process turn subtlety and wit into coarse buffoonery?"
"Mmm. No choice, really." To his surprise Bergson felt slightly piqued at having been described as an ex-bullshitter. Then he smiled ruefully. "Yes, I became a habitual bullshitter." He laughed at the turn of phrase. "I was a Mutual Man trying to preserve a part of me which was supposed to be Bohemian - and true to my nature. It was a disastrous process. My friends became impatient, exasperated and disappointed. One by one they drifted away, avoiding me when they could, confining themselves to platitudes and frivolous banter when unable to elude me. And I went through two wives."
"Wow! So you've been married three times, have you? That sounds a real mess. I've never even been married once and I reckon life's complicated enough. Three times? Jesus! Any children?"
"Yes, two from the second marriage." His voice had gone a bit flat and he spoke quickly, as if to hurry on, away from these painful memories. "My first wife never recovered and even now is in and out of Valkenberg. My second wife, despite being an intelligent woman, took refuge and comfort in a sect where they sing, clap, shout in tongues and then fall down laughing."
"Shite man, that's bad. And yet you seem to have been able to shrug off the burden of guilt. I mean, at least on the surface, you don't appear to be eating your heart out with remorse."
Bergson wasn't happy with the way this part of the conversation was going and he was determined to move on to firmer ground. "You know, all those years I remained faithful to The Old Mutual I was systematically abusing my friends and loved ones. And of course I was destroying myself. I gradually lost the ability to discern the difference between reality and delusion, truth and falsehood, honesty and deceit, duty and self-interest. Because of this blurring of moral outlines, I was able to justify any action, no matter how base. But all the time the dialogue was continuing, and when my second wife finally walked out, and I was left isolated and estranged, the voice took on an identity separate to my own."
"How were you coping at work?" Henry found this emerging picture of a man descending into psychological chaos particularly interesting, having had his own small share of the same experience. "Had the insidious and gradual reduction in your ability to engage in meaningful social relations followed a parallel course in the workplace? Surely your ability to call on inner resources had been progressively lessening. Your shallow and inappropriate emotional responses towards family and friends must have manifested themselves in some way towards your colleagues as well. Did you ever act in a hebephrenic fashion? Was your behaviour considered foolish or bizarre? Were you beginning to entertain false beliefs and false perceptions? Or, on the contrary, had you become catatonic, often assuming a statuesque position and remaining in a state of almost complete immobility for long periods. Mutism? Did you go for days without opening your mouth, not even saying good morning to your seniors? And possibly there were unpredictable episodes when you impulsively burst into excessive motor activity and excitement. Did you ever physically attack items of office furniture? Did you express yourself scatologically? I can well imagine your frightful condition, unable to engage in rational thought and swinging wildly from delusions of persecution one day, to delusions of grandeur the next. And all the time hallucinating like an acid freak on the third day of a pop festival. Was it like that?"
"No." Harry Bergson sighed indulgently. He was a wise man, and with wisdom comes patience. "No Henry, not quite like that. It was only at work that I seemed able to function normally. I realised later that this was because there was a tacit understanding in place. No one ever spoke about it but it was acceptable, even expected of one, to be a bombastic fraud. I was alright at work. It was when I left work that the nightmare recommenced. I won't trouble you with the painful details any more. You now have an idea of where I was at, after sixteen years working for The Old Mutual. And then one day my life changed."
He got up and went to the window and looked out to sea. "Looks like the weather's changing, too," he said. Henry got to his feet to look.
"Looks alright to me. How can you tell?"
"You see that high cirrus? The long thin streaks and swirls? There's a cold front on the way; and look, the wind's changed."
Henry sat down. It was past eleven and his thoughts began to occupy themselves with the lighting up of his pipe and the opening of his bottom drawer. Bergson turned away from the window and resumed his seat.
"What was it that caused you to see the light, Mr Bergson?" Henry asked politely. "What prompted the Copernican Revolution? What transported you from the chill periphery to the radiant core? Your conversion, Sir. As a student of the varieties of metaphysical transformation I earnestly await the particulars of your metamorphosis. And I'm specifically interested in the catalyst that brought about transmutation from one state to the other. Proceed, if you will."
"Thank you. If you'll allow me, I'll do just that. It happened in a very low-key, mundane sort of way. You'll be disappointed if you're hoping for something dramatic. It was a Saturday afternoon, about a year after my wife had left with the children and I was cleaning out drawers and cupboards. The house was sold and I was in the process of moving to a flat. I came across a pile of old birthday cards and Christmas cards and added them to the pile of useless junk that had been hoarded over the years. A card fell to the floor and when I stooped to pick it up I noticed there was a religious or sentimental verse printed inside. You know the type?"
"I do. Something on the lines of a nice little aphorism like, 'A true gift comes from the heart and not the purse.' Or a lovely heartfelt verse like,
And there's endless Roman good sense: 'If you are wise you will mingle one thing with the other: not hoping without doubt, not doubting without hope.' Of course, the Bible is an inexhaustible source for this kind of thing. Yes, I know the type of thing. What did your one say?"
Bergson paused awhile to allow Henry's piffle to die away, dissipate, drift out of the window. "I picked it up and read the words. 'Raise the stone and there thou shalt find me; cleave the wood and there I am. Let not him who seeks cease until he finds, and when he finds he shall be astonished. Astonished he shall reach the Kingdom, and having reached the Kingdom, he shall rest.'"
"Aha!" Henry cried, snapping his fingers in the air. "I'd put my cock and both balls on a block that that's one of the Oxyrhynchus sayings of Jesus! I know it well. My uncle Aubrey Witherspoon was very fond of it."
Surprise had proliferated all over Bergson's face. "Well, I'm glad such a cultivated person as your uncle shares my appreciation. The moment I read these words I knew my life was changed. You know the expression, "The scales fell from my eyes"? That was how I suddenly saw the world that Saturday afternoon. I was astonished. Everything was so much simpler. It was all there, all I needed to do was use my eyes, my senses. Do I sound like a maniac?"
"No, no, no! Rest assured, you're in good company. I myself have had several mystical experiences, usually whilst in a state of mild drunkenness. I take it you hadn't been drinking? In concrete terms how did this altered state of consciousness affect your life? Did you immediately say 'Fuck The Mutual' and resign?"
"Yes. On the Monday I handed in my resignation and a huge weight fell from me." He smiled, almost proudly, at the recollection of his bold and momentous step. "It was all so very strange and inexplicable. 'Turn the stone, cleave the wood, and I am there.' Just how those simple words could have triggered such a profound change remains a mystery to me. And since that time the voice has fallen silent, permanently, I hope."
"Most interesting, I must say. But how did you make the transition from life insurance and pensions to naval dockyards? More inspiration?"
"In a way. After I resigned I didn't know what I was going to do but I was largely unconcerned about the future. I was so happy to be free, you understand. Then one day in the week, the weather was perfect, I took a drive to Boulders - you know where that is? A mile or two beyond the Dockyard, just before Seaforth. I was pretty well oblivious of the Dockyard at that stage. I went for a swim, I've always been a keen swimmer, and then lay back in the hot sun on one of the huge brown boulders that slope into the water. It was around midday. An old Morris Minor pulled up in the little gravel car park above me and I saw two men jump out and come hurrying towards me. In their fifties, they were fit-looking and businesslike, wearing nothing but swimming briefs and with their diving goggles already strapped to their heads, ready to be pulled down over their eyes. Snorkels dangled from their head-straps. One man humped an inflated inner tube with a net, and of course they both carried flippers and screwdrivers. They greeted me cheerily and then, within two minutes of having arrived, they were kicking their way out into deeper water where the thick kelp lay. For ten minutes their flippers waved in the air and disappeared, time and again as they dived, and when they surfaced the perlemoen would splash into the net. I helped them carry the net to the car and as they stood at the boot drying themselves we chatted for five minutes, no more. Then they were off."
"Dockyard mateys, I presume?" Henry liked the idea of going for a dive on a nice day and he resolved to apply his mind to finding a means to that end. "An efficient use of the lunch-break."
"I thought so too. When they had gone it suddenly struck me that I had just received my second vital impulse. Those two artisans, in the course of a few minutes' conversation, had created for me a picture of the Dockyard that appealed to my every fibre. I knew with unshakeable conviction that this was a place where I could never be bored and I would always feel free. I drove straight to East Gate and enquired of the guards where to apply for a job. Within two hours I had filled in forms, been interviewed, and was appointed to the position of Assistant Storeman. That was nine years ago."
"And obviously this 'impulse', as you call it, this flash of intuition, proved worthy of your confidence. You never regretted your decision to recklessly embark on an entirely new career at the age of thirty-six?"
"Never." Bergson was adamant. "I've never entertained a moment's doubt or regret. And I hope that doesn't make me an unimaginative bore." He chuckled at the notion of Harry Bergson being an unimaginative bore. "No, Henry, I must say I enjoy myself here. And I'm a better person in my private life, too. No more bullshitting, for one thing. And I married again."
"Mmm." Henry looked disapproving. "Become a bit of a habit, has it? But it's no concern of mine what another man chooses to do to keep his sexual apparatus in good working order. What interests me is the activity you engage in and orchestrate here in this Bosch-like landscape of bizarre fantasies."
"Yes, I was coming to that. But, as I said, this is only an introduction, so I shall give you no more than the sketchiest of pictures. Over time we shall be able to enter into as much detail as you wish. Suffice it to say that my actions and interests are driven and motivated by my vital impulses - and, let it be said, there are many of them. Over the past nine years I have sought out and nurtured many kindred spirits here, and some fascinating work is under way in this dockyard. Fascinating."
"I can well believe it." Henry had risen to his feet and, standing at the window, was looking down with cinematographic dispassion upon the unfolding of a minor dramatic scene. An experiment was taking place on the edge of the Dry Dock. Four large meteorological balloons had been filled with hydrogen and were tugging at the ropes attached to a gondola. Two Malay painters were kneeling in prayer as a small crowd looked on. They rose to their feet, put on their shoes and climbed into the gondola. Bergson joined Henry at the window.
"Ah yes. See that chap in the brown dust-coat? That's Eddie Robinson. He's the Paint shop storeman. Forever coming up with ingenious inventions. This time he's trying to perfect an APG. Could save a lot of time and money, making all that cumbersome scaffolding obsolete."
"Airborne Paint Gondola. There they go. Seems to be working better now. Last time he used helium and some bungling fool let go the wrong rope and it required a major air and sea operation to rescue the painters." They turned away and sat down again. "Robinson's also a renowned expert on heraldry. You saw all those coats of arms painted above the waterline? Every ship that's been into dry dock over the past forty years has its shield on the wall. There's a small team of painters who do nothing but heraldry. If you were interested you could spend years making a study of medieval history, armorial design, heraldic nomenclature, the rules, regulations and guidelines set down by the International Academy of Heraldry. The conventional use of colours and tinctures in the decorative display of armorial paraphernalia could occupy your attention day in and day out. Like Robinson, if you so desired, you could immerse yourself in signs and symbols, seals, shields, standards and stamps. Not to mention mosaics, motifs, mottoes and monograms. And what of badges and banners, blazons, bars and bezants? The field is vast, festooned with flags and fesses and fleurs-de-lis, emblems, ensigns, escutcheons and escarbuncles."
Bergson reined in his galloping lyricism and returned to the central theme of his introductory prologue. "Yes, fascinating. But there are any number of these diverse microcosms in the Dockyard. The Paint Shop is only one such engrossing world. What I have in mind for you is something quite different and far more important."
Henry's eyebrows shot up, his curiosity aroused. "Oh yes?"
covering the wall. "This is my main work. This is my vocation. I am in the process of charting a subterranean network of tunnels that are capable of carrying psychic energy worldwide. Please. I must ask you to keep an open mind." Henry's face had twisted into a sceptical sneer. "Once you understand what it is we are dealing with I know you cannot fail to…"
He did not finish the sentence, for The Sirens had begun too moan and scream. When the sound had died away they both got to their feet and moved towards the door. "Henry, I'm convinced you're the right material but it's going to take time to become attuned to the vital work we are doing. Just be patient and enjoy yourself."
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