This is a belated & combined birthday present for ariastar and nextian -- I apologise for the oddness of this one, my dears, but I think you'll enjoy it despite its flaws.
(NB - a director's commentary now exists, but it tramples all over the continuity and contains bucketloads of spoilers, so read the story first!)
for Emma & Aria with great affection from Fahye
Tracing geometric designs with the tip of one glove in the dust that frosts Anna's workbench -- new dust, busy glittering dust, nothing denoting age or stagnance in any sense at all -- you wish that she would eat something, if only to make you feel less awkward when you put food into your own mouth.
"We are fighting entropy," she says as she hooks a metal ring into place and then bites down on it, forcing its edges into rigid contact. Her teeth are small and neat, her incisors rotated so that when she smiles widely enough she is transiently vampiric. "The world dissolves, nothing in it can help but become more disordered; there is little more illustrative of this essential truth than a junk shop."
You will not argue that point; in all your life you have never set food inside a place so closely approaching the Platonic ideal of chaos theory as Anna's shop and workroom. Two feet inside the door it is impossible not to bang one's elbow on the pieces of candelabra stashed all askew upon a shelf that also holds mirrors, teacups, ancient cushions studded with needles, and hollow leather sheaths for blades that could very well hang upon the opposite wall. Separation and disorder. The floor is scattered with antiques that are neither functional nor aesthetic, just old, technology crammed together with art and anachronism, and beneath it all is laid a thick collage of rugs.
"Things end up here as fragments of many once-harmonious wholes," Anna continues. "Grains of chaos, but we are creating order from this chaos. Not reversal but renewal."
She bites down on another link and you stare out of the shopfront window at the livery of police horses and the endless crowd that melts to and fro beneath the arch of the stairs to the Tube station. You're hungry but unwilling to broach the subject; it's probably impolite; you lose track of the etiquette sometimes.
Anna laughs. Anna knows you so well, and Anna wears lace-edged dresses that cover her ankles and the skin of her perfectly white shoulders, but she cares even less for conversational etiquette than you do. "Eat if you want to, Will. I would not have you fade away under my eyes due to your own sensibilities."
Certainly Anna herself is in no danger of fading away. Her hands are gloved with that same dust, catching the light of the candles and the lamps, and there are golden patches on her face where she has traced the curve of her smile and pushed her hair from her eyes; for months now you have been accustomed to taking off your clothes and releasing small clouds of this dust into the air. Anna's fingers move quickly, adeptly, reaching into saucers and jars without any semblance of forethought and hooking out the next fragment of chaos to be included in her project, creating the universe one glass button at a time. Hidden under her muslin skirts and her petticoat is a gun with someone else's initials engraved into the barrel, and her brown boots with their fashionable heels and their lethal steel toes.
You cross to the cupboard and take out some bread for sandwiches, and behind you Anna lets out a satisfied sigh. "Is it done?" you enquire.
"Yes, I believe so." There's a brief clatter as she pushes her chair backwards and goes to put it in the shop's single good display case. "I'll get a decent price for this one."
You sit down again to construct your sandwich: bread and cheese and raisins, you've had far worse meals. Anna is singing to herself as she walks back into the workroom, but she stops mid-note to ask, "What time do you start work tonight?"
"Seven. Enough time for the clientele to avoid the after-work crowds full of inconvenient eyes."
"Long live London," Anna says, the alliteration curling around her tongue like apple peel under a knife. "Long live the pipe and the tube and the eyai. May their paths never cross unless it be for the one to take advantage of the other."
"Are we being ironic now?" You laugh and pull a corner off the sandwich. "It's difficult to tell."
"We would not be British, my dear William, if we did not gripe at the impossibility of social mobility whilst also embracing it as the status quo." Anna shakes her finger at you, creating a tiny fountain of golden dust motes, and then leans down to kiss you on the cheek.
It strikes you that there is no easy way to say, I love you and it feels like I imagine a finger swirled through caramel might feel. Anna's fondness for whimsical speeches is, sadly, often far greater than your own ability to suppress self-consciousness for long enough to voice them, and so you do nothing more than turn your face to catch her lips, silent and smiling.
"I found something," she says then. She kisses you once more and pulls away. "I even kept it intact, to show you."
Anna finds; she does not steal or buy or scrounge, but she finds. She has learned to survive by building value out of the worthless, and she's never once been robbed, which is a near-miracle when one takes the neighbourhood into account.
"Does it make music?" you ask.
"One day you'll stop asking that question."
"One day I'll be right."
She laughs. "Look." She lifts her clenched fist and releases the fingers so that loops of beads dangle down between them. "St Martin's Cross." The slender pendant adorning the amber rosary is hardly a cross at all; in the language that Anna's workshop has taught you, you might haltingly call it Celtic, but more than anything else it reminds you of the Egyptian cartouche with its length and asymmetry. Containing the essence of a name and defining a coherent whole from the fragments of the glyphs. God arising from the symbols of another empire.
"The creation of life," you say, "would that fall under the definition of fighting entropy, or increasing it?"
"Well." Anna brushes back her hair for the hundredth time and there is a new brassy streak amongst her pale gold curls. "I daresay there are learned academics at Oxford and Cambridge who would disagree, but I am of the opinion that it rather depends on one's starting materials."
we hold the thread of time one at each end
and weave it through the tiny biting teeth,
hear ticks and tocks and do not think to mend
the tinny screams that echo dim beneath
It's dark and the air sticks to your skin as you emerge from underground, and the metal post of the Tube sign is clammy against your palm, but it's been a long time since you've been able to step up onto the street without using the post as a pivot; your hand flies out and the metal catches it and it's soothing, and when you let go you could be facing in any direction at all.
At night the slam and whistle of the Pipe is even more piercing in the damp stillness of the air, rattling past high overhead, carrying people you'll never meet to places you'll never go. Well -- that's not entirely true. Some of these men with their polished canes and their obsessive attention to the ebb and flow of fashion; some of them, and even some of the women, you have certainly met, if only in a professional capacity. Not that you could put a name to them or even recognise a face; they are all the same to you, and you have no doubt that you could stand square in front of them and they would trickle out their vowels in voices bred above the fog and say: you people are all the same to me. The back of your head they might recognise, if you lifted your hands just so. The tone of your singing; but even then it would be empty without the resonance of strings.
Clattering down another set of stairs to reach the back entrance, and one of Marie's heavymen lets you in without a word. Noise seeps out into the night through the half-open door before it closes and you're left in the storeroom. The benches lining the walls hold motionless rows of wound-down automata industria, their neatly coiffured heads bent forward as though in sleep. One of them has a little energy left; her fingertips jerk and she mumbles, "Anything you want -- let me -- anything you you you you…" with the familiar faint slur, but by the time you part the curtains at the other end of the room she has stopped moving entirely.
The Gallows is thick and warm with smoke and with the way the light seems to defy geometry, creating intimate dimensions of shadow for the jealous cradling of poker cards and satin-covered breasts.
"Will. No Mozart tonight, if you love me in any way at all."
"How are you, Louisa?"
"Same as ever." Louisa, smiling at you, beautiful in a blue lace skirt with a hemline that climbs and dips with the same aquatic extremity as the tide, and the sleeves of her bodice falling low over the shoulders to reveal the dark hole and minute numbering there. Some places like to cover the locks up, but the Gallows defies fashion in order to flaunt the evidence of master-artifice, the flaw that says: look what we can afford. Look what you can afford; oh, yes, the Gallows is a pipe establishment at heart, for all that it's only accessible by Tube.
"Mr Pennsworth, you know you're not supposed to distract the girls."
Louisa gives a roll of her green and languid eyes, followed by a nod that's more gratitude than anything else, before she passes you by on her way to the baccarat tables.
"My apologies, Marie."
"How would it look for us if she were to wind down in the middle of the floor? In bed?" Marie sweeps you sideways to the bar and pushes you onto a stool. "If all of my eyai begin to waste precious energy exchanging pleasantries with musicians, I'll be out of pocket." Her thin finger tipped with polish the colour of charred silk, tilting your chin up with wiry pressure. "Don't think I won't dismiss you if I have to."
You smile at her, playing youth, playing talent; it's a dirty card but it's no dirtier than her mood, and you have little fancy for being caught up as scapegoat in whatever has spoiled her poise tonight. "You know that there are perhaps two other psallopianists in all of London who can match me, Marie, and they are both playing in the pipe bars."
"We don't need a psallopiano," is her parting shot, but it's an empty threat and you both know it, because she needs you exactly where you are now: climbing the narrow stairs and making yourself comfortable on the stool.
As ever you take two deep breaths and release your sense of identity, because there is no room for it within the music. Easier if your feet fall onto the pedals and your hands onto the keys without the sensation of a you behind them. The overture is always hands and feet, nothing more, introducing the theme, just like in every church in London every Sunday of every week. The overture is nothing special.
End of overture -- attaca -- inhale on the fading notes and push the song out as your hands dance the next set of chords. It takes a final, unique kind of self-dissolution to throw your voice upwards in full confidence that the strings above your head will catch the vibrations and harmonise. By the time the counterpoint descends and reaches your ears you have turned the page and changed the key. No time to listen. Five staves of five lines each is the skeleton, and all else depends on the random angles and tensions of the psallostrings, which is why the music pouring down to fill the Gallows could never be reproduced on another occasion or in another venue.
You will never hear this again. No one will ever hear this again. Look what you can afford.
Louisa said once: it is strange to think that one person could make a sound with so much in it.
This is living in a lighthouse: you reach out and save people, bring them comfort, guide them home, but it is the light which does the guiding and in the end you are nothing to them but the pedestal from which it is cast; in the end you are always alone. This isn't a hobby and it's barely a living; you are the highest paid employee of the Gallows and you can only just afford to avoid a second job, to sleep through the dawn and then while away the afternoons at Anna's shop. You've been told that only the mad and the desperate can become psallopianists. You've been told that only angels could produce the sounds that you do, and this by people who have money enough to turn their thoughts to God, in the confidence of no earthly authority higher than themselves. One landowner to another.
For yourself you can only liken it to lighthouse-keeping, to chess and to blood loss, and to the way butter seems to pass directly from the solid state to the vaporous when you drop it into a pan that has been heated too long. No time to listen. No time to think or to melt.
Lands you have never been to fall off your tongue and are snatched up by the strings.
time is a wave, you murmur in my ear,
upon the crest of which we soar; this sound
so soft and threatening, these drums we hear
are just the water's fingers on the ground
One year and a handful of dust ago: London, with drab familiar determination, is soaking its inhabitants with a rain that seems to fly in every possible direction, and you duck into a shop to escape it without so much as looking at the window display. Weapons or secondhand clothes, you're prepared to wager; there's precious little else in this corner of the city, at least when it comes to the legal forms of trade.
The mess is a shock, but a lesser shock than the sudden appearance of a tall blonde girl amidst it, wiping her hands on an apron.
"I'm not looking for anything in particular," you say before she can speak. "Just avoiding the rain, if that's all right."
"Do you imagine that many people enter this shop looking for anything in particular?" She smiles and it's decorous but edged with challenge. "Look around anyway, if you like."
It takes a while for you to make your way to the display case because you cannot stop picking things up and putting them down, strange pieces of nonsense in unfamiliar colours, notebooks with only a few sentences entered:
there seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences
with the turning clock
en sa beauté gît ma mort et ma vie
The display case is notable for the fact that its contents are more intact than anything else in the shop, and more bizarre.
"This one." You pick it up and turn it in your agile octave-spanning hands. "It's a barometer, isn't it?"
"Yes." Her smile is abrupt and admiring. "That's exactly what it is. Would you believe, I've had that on the shelf for almost six months now and not one other person has been able to work that out?"
"Where did you find it?"
"I made it." Her hands have clenched around the fabric of the apron; she releases it slowly. "I make things; it's what I do. My name is Anna Marsh," tacked onto the end with an air that could be awkward on many girls, but merely comes across as absent-minded.
"William Pennsworth." You bow and replace the barometer on the shelf.
"And what is your occupation, Mr Pennsworth? Or is it too rude of me to ask?"
"Not at all. I play the psallopiano."
"And what's that like?"
You focus your gaze on the challenge lingering at the corner of her mouth and you tell her what you've never told anyone before, which is that playing the psallopiano is like losing blood slowly. To play with the skill that the instrument deserves you must throw yourself against the sharpness of the notes and let them pull the life from you, bleach and warp the fabric of your limbs, but like a strange elastic your body remembers its own shape and returns to it at the end.
Anna does not laugh at this, nor does she look as though she is pretending to understand; she simply nods and offers to make you a cup of tea, and you step into the workroom for the first time. You discover that Anna never knows what her creations do, what purpose they serve; she only knows when they are complete, and she leaves the recognition to the people who buy them. You discover that she cannot paint and cannot dance and that she has no personal philosophy beyond the reversal of entropy, because she considers that to be enough for anyone to be getting on with in the space of their lifespan.
At length: "The rain has stopped, Mr Pennsworth" she says.
"You've been in here for quite some time."
Like ink blushing through paper the challenge takes over her whole mouth, then her cheekbones, then the arch of her eyebrows. "Have you taken a liking to anything in particular?"
"I'll return tomorrow," you say, "and let you know then."
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
The barometer hangs upon the wall of your tiny boarder's room. You dust down the brass instruments and the broken mirrors in the shop, and sell handfuls of faded ribbons to bored giggling girls. Anna winds her arms around your neck and tells you that every girl holds a secret as vast as anything a man can imagine, as wide as the sea, and then she tells you hers. Anna works and you read aloud to her from half-books, quarter-books, books missing their covers and most of their pages. Small scraps of narrative that are all the more compelling for the fact that they exist in isolation. Anna melts wax into the cracks of glass and flicks glances at you, drawing you into discussion of a character's failings and admirable qualities.
"I am not certain that any real person could be so noble in the face of ruination," you say between paragraphs.
Anna says, "What is a real person?"
She says, "Plausibility is only required in romances by those who have never been in love themselves, because they want to be convinced of love's existence. And for that to occur they must first be convinced that every other aspect of the story could exist; they make the mistake of assuming that no such essential truth can be proven without the system from which the hypothesis arises being proven first."
"And those that have been in love?"
"We are convinced already," and she smiles, and this is how you learn that she loves you. That you are surprised by the fact is, in itself, a surprise. But you make a living divorcing the actions of your left hand from the actions of the right, from your feet, from your voice, and perhaps it was inevitable that your mind should have clung to the status quo while your heart fell deeper and deeper and deeper in love.
You give her a set of tiny jeweller's saws; she gives you a golden key and a chain.
"And where did you find this one, Anna?" You catch her forearms as she pulls back from hanging the chain around your neck, tug very gently and she steps forward into your embrace with a teasing smile.
"You must allow me some new secrets, surely, now that you know all of my previous ones."
"Is it the key to your heart?" you tease her in return.
"Surely, William, you are above such cheap sentimentality." Her eyes are wide, but then she relents. "You may think of it that way if you wish."
"Does it mean a promise?" Promises are the fashion. Though to what extent Anna will adhere to fashion has never been easy to predict.
"I could not bind you to anything," she says, and now her eyes are in shadow. "It means I trust you."
Love: the involuntary suspension of disbelief. The essential truth.
and yet the sound is painful, I believe,
and in my dreams, all clicking ticker-tocks
it says: but drop your guard and I will leave
this finite dance in cogs and wheels and clocks
From the discarded symbols of centuries and societies, Anna plays God and creates the universe anew every morning in the palm of her hand. Sometimes she sings to herself, and one day you join in.
"Shouldn't you save your voice?"
"I'm only playing half the usual time tonight. Marie has engaged a stage magician of some kind."
"If you're certain," and she shrugs, so you indulge in the rare sensation of singing with words, of casting out your voice and allowing it to stand alone; no notes underneath and no strings above, only --
"Can you hear that?" Anna asks, just as you do begin to hear it. She sets down her tools and stands up, excited. "Keep singing."
You drop the words altogether and refine the note without thinking, questing, moving gently up and down a semitone at a time, until the hint of a noise from the shop becomes more than a hint.
"Psallostrings in my shop. Who would have thought it?" Anna laughs and spins around the room, her arms outstretched, listening. "Louder, Will."
As loud and as long as you dare, and people are beginning to halt in the street outside, because even a single set of psallostrings will carry your voice through glass as though there is nothing there at all. When you drop the note Anna lowers her arms with a long sigh.
"Time for you to leave?"
"Yes." Fetching your coat and gloves. "Aren't you going to try and find the strings?"
"No," she says. "It's more enjoyable this way. We'll save them for special occasions."
"You could create something else --" but she has stepped close and laid her fingers across your lips.
"Does it make music?" she asks mockingly, and leans in, close enough to kiss you. "It most certainly does."
You laugh. "You're in an odd mood this evening."
"Something's going to happen soon," Anna says. "Don't ask me how I know. I just know."
You kiss her; you don't ask her how she knows, or even what kind of something, you kiss her and she slides her cool fingers inside your gloves, the black pair that might have looked like velvet three winters ago but have long since been rubbed thin. Tomorrow you will be turning them inside out and shaking gold dust from the fingertips, but today you close your eyes and listen to Anna's wicked voice as she opens her mouth against your lips and recites the Braille of your palm.
"I'll be late," you tell her. "Anna."
"Keep your eyes open, Will," she says finally, releasing you.
Early shift tonight, so you are just in time to be sucked into the after-work crowds, and as you stand adjusting your pocketwatch the people of London part and reform around you like rain around cobbles, unflinching in their noisy human torrent. Your eyes are open but nothing seems out of the ordinary. Indeed, everything about the night is familiar until you leave your performer's stool early to find one at the bar from which you can watch the magic show. David slips you a glass of brandy and you can bathe in the lights, pretend you're just another pipe gentleman, begin to get casually intoxicated -- so much so that you do not notice when the lights are dimmed, do not notice anything until the cold sound of chimes lifts your head and directs your attention to the stage.
The magician's attire is affectedly Eastern, draped and rich like treacle poured from a spoon. His assistant could be eyai, could just be painted that way, but where his costume bespeaks dry sun, hers takes the same style and pulls it sharp and gasping from a near-frozen river. Silver dust that sends a familiar shiver through you; tented cradles of white fabric; her eyelashes frosted and lengthened. You should not have drunk so fast. Your gaze will not move as smoothly as you would like, but drags sluggish and unwillingly intimate from the long chain spanning her wrists to the first of the illusions, which is the way her dusted limbs seem to fade through each other. Freeze the desert and shatter it against its own rocks and from the pieces you could -- Anna could -- create this girl.
The act is mage and slave, built around the intricate hand motions that are someone's idea of Eastern magic, easy and beautiful misdirection leading into something that is more dance than true illusion. The eyai becomes a puppet, swaying about the stage under the magician's hands, his control growing tighter and tighter; you have to admit that it's well done, if a little too political for your tastes. You can appreciate the pacing, the ritardando, the eyai's hesitations and lethargy as she winds down under the audience's eyes and is finally a cold slumped figure on a chair.
Silence -- the mage makes a great show of holding her turnkey in the lock, considering whether to deadlock her for the night or to give an encore -- the audience calls for the latter but he shakes his head and begins to walk off the stage.
The eyai lifts her head. For a moment the room recedes leaving only the damp glass in your hand and her open reproachful eyes staring directly into yours, and the next gulp of brandy is less of a warm glow and more a trickle of melting ice down your throat. But the act continues -- the eyai was merely pretending to be wound-down, the eyai is fluttering her hands in mimicry, enchanting her chains so that they fall to the floor.
It really is a beautiful act. In this moment you have no honest idea in which direction the story will be taken. But the climax comes quickly: a thwarted escape, a brief sexualised struggle, and the mage closes his fingers around the turnkey.
There is a rhyme for children:
Life comes with the turning clock
Counter brings the dead and lock
And so the key turns counterclockwise -- the eyai falls to the floor in the sudden and complete submission of temporary death -- applause, and the act is finished. From where you sit you can see the restlessness of the room at large, the pairs and pairs of eyes following the Gallows' own eyai with redoubled intensity, the little redhaired one called Emily being pulled into one of the bedrooms by a client. These kinds of violent fictions always breed more arousal; Marie catches the magician's eye and inclines her head, well satisfied. Good for business.
"It's going to be a busy night." Louisa's voice echoes your thoughts; she is fetching drinks from the bar, and she lingers near your stool.
"What did you think of the show?"
"I didn't care for the ending." She stops and maybe there's guilt on her face and maybe it's the light, and maybe she's winding down. But it's too early in the night for that to be likely. "Will," she says then, and there's a new note in her voice. "You've always been very kind to me, you know. Much kinder than you have to be."
You feel pinned to the thick carpet, pinned by her green gaze and the way her fingertip disappears absently inside the lock on her shoulder, a gesture neither studied nor attractive. "I don't --"
"That's why," she starts, and then holds out a small piece of paper with her free hand. You take it and she turns back to the bar. "Don't waste time," she says as the tray slides into her waiting grasp. "It's not yours to waste."
It's such an odd thing to say that you watch her for almost a minute as she sets the drinks on a table and slides onto the lap of a man with wide pale hands, kisses his neck, blows on his dice. Finally you go to sit down upon the stairs leading up to the psallopiano and uncrumple the paper.
It reads, automata insurrecta, in a thin but certain script.
Every girl holds a secret as wide as the sea.
one whispered winter day the clock's hands will
be silent, cold, and absolutely still
One of your hands tight around Anna's and the other reaching out to catch the metal post; pivot and curve, Anna smiling as she traces out the extension of your arc like the pencil held in a compass. At the edge of London where the city bleeds into the not-city, the wind strokes you sober with its cold merciless hands and you are facing -- where?
"Where?" Anna asks.
"We could still remain here," you say, struggling with the words, "if you wished it. I expect Louisa is still at the Gallows. We could --"
She is shaking her head, her cheeks tinged a metallic pink by the night air and the streetlamps. "Too risky. We'll take our chances outside the city, at least until the first stages are over."
"Escaping the entropy?"
"Yes," she admits. "Our only hope for renewal is to return when something remains with which to build."
Fragments of chaos, no matter which turn the story takes. Trusting to the Tube for much longer: too risky, trying to bribe your way up into the Pipe: perhaps even riskier. So you walk.
"Perhaps we have been reading the wrong types of books," Anna says after some time. "I don't quite know what to expect from a revolution."
"Romance, perhaps. Eventually." You smile. "But not our kind."
"You don't know that. Maybe we would take very well to implausible situations." A sound like a hiccup when she stops speaking, and you notice that Anna's pace has slowed, that each step takes more effort than the one before.
"Are you going to be all right?"
"I've never had to be this energetic before." She lifts her skirts higher with her free hand. "But I'll manage; don't worry about me."
Onwards. Anna's hair spins out magic from the moonlight, her face is strained but set in determination, and you love her so much that it stops you in your tracks.
You say, "Rest a moment."
You say, "In her beauty resides my death and my life."
Anna's lips are trembling but she laughs. "What was that, Will?"
"Nothing. Listen." Somewhere not very far away, but far enough, the noise of human disaster and instinctive escape. The pipe and tube united towards a common goal for once, society shaking in the way that it always must when its lowest strata become unstable, having never learnt that the most essential truths can stand alone.
Anna keeps hold of your hand. "The world dissolves," she says, "the world…" and her voice is growing faint.
You reach for the key around your neck.