Autodidact: self-taught


Water Room

by V. L. Craven

The Water Room by Christopher Fowler
001. He had been described as ‘independent to the point of vexation and individual to the level of eccentricity’, which seemed accurate enough.
002. ‘He made me read a couple eye charts. I passed with flying colours.’
‘Really? You can’t usually see a hole in a ladder.’
003. ‘…I tried calling you…but your mobile wasn’t answering.’
‘No, it wouldn’t. It got wet, so I tried to dry it out in Janice’s sandwich toaster. The toaster and the phone sort of—melded–into a single appliance, scientifically interesting as a new mechanical lifeform but utterly useless for communication.’
004. Heather possessed the kind of nervous energy that made everyone else feel tired…She was competitive in a way that only women who were never taken seriously could be.
005. [The pathologist on the case:] ‘Do you know what the most popular murder weapon is in Britain? A screwdriver. Have you ever brought me a screwdriver victim? No, I get human sacrifices, torsos in bin-bags and curate poisonings. Just once you could bring me an open-and-shut job. A nice simple confession on the statement—He came toward me so I hit him. Common assault not good enough for you?’
006. …but it still looked like a place Death would choose to sit and read a paper.
007. She’s right, it is a very English habit, not going out much…
008. If it hadn’t been for the War, he’d never have net people from other countries, although, of course, he had to kill them. Before 1940, the average English family had travelled less than nine miles from their home. Many never got beyond the end of their street.
009. ‘Well, thanks for that warning from Doom Central. What’s prompted this ?’
‘I’m not sure. The weather forecast, perhaps. There are storms on the way. Traditionally, harmful events in London are associated with prolonged hours of low pressure and high moisture content in the air.’
010. He’s an archetypal academic, vague and rather remote—you could fire a gun while he’s reading and he wouldn’t notice.
011. Well-meaning academics have a history of unwitting involvement with fraud, blackmail and robbery.
012. ‘Academics are capable of bearing a grudge until the day they die. Obsessing is in their nature.’
013. [Description of a bracelet] ‘Look at the base. It’s a penis that’s not attached to a body. It’s got wings—you can just make out the traces. See there tall flowers in the background—the lotus leaves. And the other ones intertwined—that’s papyrus… The lotus flower and papyrus reed are the symbols of Lower and Upper Egypt. When they’re tied together like this a new meaning is created, an indication of unity and strength. These are very common symbols, especially when used in conjunction with river glyphs. Rivers feature strongly in Egyptian mythology because life springs from the waters of the Nile. But the penis…According to Plutarch, Osiris was killed by by his evil brother Seth, who tricked him into climbing inside a coffin when he then cast into the sea. He later ripped the corpse into fourteen pieces and threw them into the Nile. Isis and her sister, Nephthys found all the pieces except the phallus, which had been swallowed by a crocodile, and buried them. They gave new life to Osiris, who stayed in the underworld as its judge and ruler. The penis of Osiris is therefore a potent symbol of [???] and rebirth…It’s an Osiris bracelet representing death as a male and rebirth as a woman. It could simply mean the loss of the sun and the arrival of the moon or any other great change. The flight symbolism is interesting. A winged penis was a Tudor [???] used by the prostitutes of south London, specifically the ones working near the river between Blackfriars and Lambeth…
014. You have to maintain a sense of humorous resignation about the things you can’t change.
015. …he took down his copy of The Luddite’s Guide to the Internet and decided to [???] May’s new Macintosh laptop.
Half an hour later, May arrived…
[Bryant:] ‘Ah, there you are. What do you know about Hot Dutch Interspecies Love?’ Bryant looked up from the computer. ‘Specifically, how to get rid of it.’
‘What have you done?’ asked May… The last time Bryant has accessed police files via the Internet, he had somehow hacked into the Moscow State Weather Bureau and put it on red alert for an incoming high-pressure weather system. The Politburo had been mobilized and seven flights re-routed before the error was spotted and rectified.
‘I was trying to find the address of the Amsterdam Spiritualist Society and I had to give these people my credit details for some reason and then the screen filled up with the most disgusting pictures of ladies in barnyards. When I tried to cancel my American Express card, I somehow went through to the Parker Meridian Hotel in New York, specifically their internal telephone system. I followed the recorded instructions about entering a code, then everything went dead and a man started threatening me with a lawsuit. He says I’ve crashed their switchboard and now all these horrible animal pictures are popping up again. I hope I haven’t broken the Internet.
016. ‘That’s Anubis…Ancient Egyptian god of the underworld, protector of the dead and the embalmers, guardian of the necropolis.’ … ‘They gave their god the head of a jackal because so many of the animals wandered about their graveyards. Priests would wear jackal masks during the mummification process.’
017. ‘I wanted to get the back of his head open before you arrived,’ Finch complained, ‘but the caterers upstairs keep borrowing my tools. They used my cranium chisel to take the top off a jar of piccalilli yesterday. I’m not meant to be alone in here. I’ve got a part-time technician and [???] officer. No notes, no video, nothing. I’m having to share the photographer and police witness with the Met and all this after promises of increased personnel.’ He gave the corpse a desultory flick with his forefinger. ‘Jack the Ripper’s pathologist had more technical expertise at his disposal. I have to tell you, Arthur, I’ve lost a lot of faith in the system in the past few years. We define a few addled souls as being worthy of removal from society, and everyone’s under such pressure that we consider the job done when we’re lucky enough to find a court that will shut them away. You know, doctors look for five main signs of mental disturbance in prisoners: personality disorder, psychosis, neurosis, drug dependence and alcohol misuse and less than one in ten inmates is clean of all five. The prison population stands somewhere above 70,000, which means that over 5,000 of them are functionally psychotic…’
018. ‘I don’t know why you had to get rid of your old Rover.’
‘It was starting to steer itself,’ said Bryant mysteriously. ‘The man in the garage said he’d never had a car fail every single item on its MOT before. He was quite excited…’ ‘Come on, it’s quite safe.’
‘No thanks. You nearly killed us the other day, going around Vauxhall roundabout.’
‘They’d changed the one-way system without tell anyone.’
‘I seem to recall that you were on the pavement.’
‘Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the pavement begins these days.’
‘It’s usually the bit with the stoppers on…’
019. Curtains, doors and thick brick walls, blinds and shutters to exclude light and rain and other people, to keep out warmth and kindness and cold hard truth. Anything to keep lives hidden from view. Was there anything more subtly malicious than the lowland mentality of people in cool climates? England in the rain, wet gardens, chilly rooms, London dinner conversations over pudding served in xanthous light, hushed arguments behind amber supper candles, quietly spreading the poison of rationality.
020. ‘Why are the urban English so vocal nowadays?’ ‘Go to Paris, Madrid, Berlin, even Rome, you don’t get this kind of behaviour. It’s Hogarth’s picture of Gin Lane all over again.’
‘Arthur, you used to sound your age. Now you’re sounding several centuries old.’
‘What’s wrong with that? One of the great pleasures that used to come with senior citizenship was the right to be perfectly vile to everyone. You could say whatever you liked and people excused you out of respect for your advanced years. But now that everyone is in touch with their emotions and says exactly what they feel, even that pleasure has been taken away. Is there nothing the young haven’t usurped?’
021. ‘Is that the business I heard him mentioning to Janice? Some fellow the new Dutch consul was seen chasing across Russell Square at two in the morning? It should be fairly obvious what that was about, even to the Home Office. Says he was a thief. I suppose that a tad more believable than the Welsh secretary reckoning Jamaican boys on Clapham Common were asking him out to dinner at midnight…’
022. Even murderers smile when they know they’re having their picture taken.
023. [Land’s] got the charm of a rectal probe…
024. ‘The five rivers of the Underworld,’ Bryant read aloud, ‘separated the land of the undead from the realm of the mortals. Their presence made sure no one could enter or leave unharmed…’
[Conversation about how the rivers are Roman mythology while all other gods so far in the case have been Egyptian.]
‘Yes, but no one would blur together two entirely separate mythologies, surely.’
‘Certainly, no one from either of those civilizations ever did, but then, of course, you had the Victorians… Having plundered, [???] and stolen whatever pleased them, they drew on the parts of ancient mythologies that found most correspondence to their own beliefs. They rewrote entire histories, bowdlerizing, adapting, censoring. They weren’t the first, but they were the most confident. It wasn’t unusual to find statues of Ra and Thoth beside Diana and Venus in the well-to-do Victorian household. You were less likely to find Christian figurines, for that was the presiding active religion. All other beliefs and creation myths were treated largely as fairy tales and their icons had use as decoration. Collectors weren’t averse to pairing up different creation gods.’
Bryant came to the page he was seeking. ‘So we have five nether-rivers: Cocytus, the river of lamentation; Acheron, the river of woe; Phlegethon, the river of conflagration; Lethe, the river of forgetfulness; Styx, the river of hatred and fatality and unbreakable oaths.’
‘That’s right. The Styx was an offshoot of Tethys and Oceanus and flowed nine times around Hades. Like the Lethe, its water could not be stored in any flask or jar that tried to contain it. The Styx corroded all materials, even flesh. Only horses’ hooves could survive its waters.’
‘Didn’t Thetis dip her son Achilles into the Styx to make him invulnerable? Obviously didn’t burn his flesh, then.’
‘Mythology is filled with paradox.’ …
‘…I suppose the Styx is the most important one.’
‘It’s certainly the most written about. But the Lethe is essential because of the belief in reincarnation and the transformation of souls. Those passing across had to drink from the Lethe to forget their former lives.’
‘Cocytus and Acheron sound one and the same.’
‘Actually they’re not, although both are associated with wailing and misery. Acheron is the river over which Charon ferried the dead to Hades not the Styx. Corpses not properly buried were doomed to walk the banks of the Cocytus for eternity.’
025. ‘…What will it take to make you act in a reasonable manner?’
026. ‘–spent most of his childhood in a reformatory and emerged with that strange emptiness of soul one still sees in disappointed youths.’
027. ‘Did you know that Peter Pan threw himself under a train at Sloane Square? Peter Llewelyn-Davies had been adopted by J.M. Barrie and was the model for Barrie’s fairy-tale hero, but he got sick of fans asking him where Neverland was and chucked himself on the live rail.’
028. ‘…Vessel of All Corrupted Sorrows… It was an Egyptian vessel supposedly constructed to contain all the woes, pain and miseries of the human race. The idea exists in virtually every religion and pagan creed, but takes on particular relevance in Roman mythology because most rivers of the Underworld burned through anything that was placed in them and this vessel was therefore the only object that could survive such lethal waters. A sort of Pandora’s box that protected London as long as it remained underneath the city.’
029. ‘You’re in luck,’ she declared, in a booming, institutional timbre that probably proved useful when dealing with the inebriated, but was guaranteed to annoy everyone else.
030. ‘…The roads were laid over the Cloaca Maxima, the Fleet sewer, a highway of corpses, Plague and pestilence.’
031. ‘…Make someone jump and they’ll gasp, drawing in air, so he would have found himself without a breath to take. Then quickly lift the head, wrap [with cling film] once, twice, again and again, he’s fighting for oxygen and finding none at all, all his concentration’s taken up with the need to breathe, his reactions are slow, he doesn’t put up much of a battle. He’s been drinking, his pulse is up, bing go the strings of his heart, a coronary thrombosis ten years too early, all over in seconds.’
031. ‘I didn’t do it, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’ll take a lie-detector test.’
‘That’s old technology. Subjects can defeat it by simply biting their tongues…’
032. Bryant had decided a long time ago that he was far too strange to find anyone who would love him. He had, of course, underestimated the bravery and ferocity of the British female…
033. ‘Burning is a common form of accidental death, rare as a method of suicide because it’s far too slow and painful, virtually unheard of as a means of homicide, despite what you see on the telly…’
‘What about those?’ Bryant pointed to what appeared to be knife wounds on the corpse’s upper arms.
‘Actually, they’re heat ruptures. Third-degree burns, partial destruction of the skin using the old Glaister six degrees methodology… hyperaemia, that’s the clustering of leukocytes—white blood cells send to heal damage—around the ruptures, which suggests to me that he…blistered while he was still breathing…’
‘Why are his arms up in a boxing pose?’
‘Heat stiffening…the muscles tend to coagulate on the flexor surface of the limbs.’
034. ‘I honestly believe that if women could learn to read the A-Z in a moving vehicle we’d have no need of men at all…’ [The a to zed is a book of all the streets in a given area–great fun to browse, really]
035. Me dulcis saturet quies, Obscuro [???] loco, Leniper [???] otio, Chyndonax Druida.
036. ‘You cannot act against the law, Arthur.’
‘You can when the law is an ass… [???] vena.’
037. ‘At the end of each [Agatha Christie] book someone would always stand up and announce, “It’s very simple, Major Carruthers rewound the vicar’s clock and replaced Lady Home-Counties’ mackintosh in the belfry before hiding the boat hook under a tin of caramelized peaches in the fete’s jam tent.”’
038. Heather sat in the bare white interview room with her bag open at her feet and her compact mirror in her hand, carefully repainting the edges of her lips. It was essential, in every circumstance, to maintain one’s poise and keep a smart appearance. There was no reason to stop looking one’s best, simply because one had been arrected for multiple murder. No blanket over the head upon emerging from the station, thank you, nothing less than grace under pressure and calm before the cameras.
…Institutional furniture and hard-faced officers talking to each other about last night’s television, as if she wasn’t even there. The entire experience was designed to alienate and [???] . But it didn’t, because she had never felt at home anywhere—not with her parents, not with her husband, certainly not at Balaklava St. A number void opened in her heart the moment her expectations were not met.
Boring, stupid police guards and doctors. They would only ever see a selfish, criminal, when they should have been looking for a disappointed child, promised so much and given so little—not that she expected or demanded sympathy. They would never understand how few options she had been given and she would never let them see inside, no matter what they did to her. The truth of the matter was that the taking of life had hardly disturbed her at all. It wasn’t as it she had attacked someone with a knife in a moment of passion; there had been no moments of passion at all, only the nagging ache of failure and blinding, debilitating panic.
She studied the bare white walls without emotion. From now on her life would consist of being in communal government rooms like this, but it didn’t matter. She had no care for where she lived, because now she lived inside her head.
039. ‘… Mr Bryant has never been very successful with the ladies. His idea of a chat up line used to be asking a girl if she’d like to see where he had his operation.’
‘What did he show them?’
‘The Royal Free Hospital.’
040. Bryant was no longer allowed to touch the computers owing to the odd demagnetizing effect he had on delicate technology. His application to attend an IT course had been turned down six times by those who feared he would cause a national meltdown is let loose near PITO, the Police Information Technology Organization. His facility for picking up old broadcasts of Sunday Night at the London Palladium on his Sky dish had been documented with fascination but no hope of explanation by the Fortean Times.
041. ‘…your sister’s house was built in the 1850s, then. The roads are all named after battles of the Crimean War. Victorian town councils were fond of such [???] .’ Bryant knew historical facts like that. It was a pity he couldn’t remember anything that had happened in the last twenty years.
042. Bryant could make a nun bristle.
043. Perversely, his morbidity always increased when he was removed from death. Proximity to a fresh tragedy concentrated his mind wonderfully. Truly ghastly events took years off him.
044. ‘At the base of the unit’s new structure I’ve appointed two detective constables, an enormous, accident-prone innocent with a positively Homeric attitude to groundwork and Colin [???] , and I’ve found him a partner, DC Meera Mangeshkar, whose experience in various south London hell-holes have apparently equipped her with the twin rapid-response mechanisms of cynicism and sarcasm.
045. ‘Why is it so cold in here? What happened to summer?’…
046. ‘…and until this year summer in London only existed as a tentative concept. You should know, you’ve lived here about a hundred years yourself.’

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