A short story by John Hartley Williams
It was very dark in Gabriel’s pockets, where he kept his hands as he strode along. He was jostled and pushed as he met pavement on-comers. Termites! he said to himself. A nest of termites! His hands curled and uncurled like fronds in an aquarium.
He followed the gaudy, zebraic trousers without realising what he was doing. Their flashing modesty, their decorously flaring filigree, tugged him away from his plans. What hypnotic material were they made of? It was some kind of corduroy, patterned in vertical swathes of deep red, gubernatorial orange, foxy yellow. He turned left into Coptic Street when he should have gone straight ahead.
So often they enclose peg-legs, crutches, bony hobbledehoys, but not these trousers. The rounds of the seat fell, rose, balanced on sweet afflatuses and then slipped wobblingly down each side of a paradisal hill and came soaring up again to declare smoothness. They concealed a mystery in order to reveal it. Like any naturalist drawn to the commotion of a lake rippled by flight-aroused ducks, Gabriel felt himself magnetised by their wake. A destination for which he had no word was making its fierce attraction known.
His first (and only) magnetic idea had occurred to him at the age of six when he had secreted himself in his mother’s cupboard to watch her undress. He knew that from then on he would spend the rest of his life undoing chimerical hooks and eyes in the darkness of cupboards. Now, proceeding towards Endell Street, and reduced to that state which language naturally heightens, a word magnetised his brain: Trousers! Trousers! He leapt stag-like in pursuit, dodging pedestrians, as the rounds swayed on before him – master tightrope-walkers crossing an invisible abyss.
A giddiness overwhelmed him. The way these incomparable garments cupped the future with each tense swerve of reciprocity to the human material made him hunger with thirst. He needed a drink. It would be the moment to enter a shop with two descending steps, push open a door, and cause a bell to ring in some distant room. After a long while a gentleman in shirt-sleeves with his eye shade pushed up, having possibly quit a game of poker being played in the back, would enter to describe a year, the slopes of a vineyard, the proximity of the vine yard to the sea, the characteristic of a particular grape whose liquor bubbles scarlet from that fork in the world’s path which leads on the one hand to hilltops where silent children dance in a ring at midnight, and on the other to promontories overlooking the sea where poets gaze into crashing water. Gabriel would glimpse the leap of a salmon swallowing a ring to be found by a girl at the fish counter, a diamond ring she would later put on, transforming herself into a goddess of escape.
He would feel himself vielIi en fûts de chêne.
The wine offered by the man in shirt-sleeves would be an elixir of Dionysian ritual. Draining a glass of it himself, he would regard Gabriel, smile confidingly, then plunge a dagger into his own eye and with the hilt protruding continue to tell the wine’s story: how huge estates had been lost on the turn of a card in a poker game before the war; how tremendous vintages had been dispersed; how thunderstorms and disease had destroyed the harvests. Gabriel would nod slowly, staring at the streaming, bifurcated visage before him, grasp a cobwebbed bottle to signify his readiness to follow the path of ritual, leave the storyteller, and walk out from the shop onto barren slopes, furious rain, lightning and darkness. He would seek refuge in a shepherd’s hut to bide out the storm and find the wild weather in his mind abating. Why, in a world of misfortune, should the figure of his imagination not be waiting for him there, in eye-seductive trousers? With the teasing and eternal slowness of a supreme goddess, she would divest herself of them, and all else, and Gabriel would do likewise. A thunderclap above the roof would propel the cork from the bottle. Man and woman would kneel and face each other and pour its contents over themselves until they were drenched. Then Gabriel would escort her to the brass bed in a comer of the hut, lay her down, pull her legs over his shoulders, gaze down on wine-soaked nether lips, and bestow a long Bohemian kiss on the human ferment within. The wind battering the walls of the hut would be repulsed over and over again, regiments of suicidal rain would be thrown back. How could the bed not become agitated, releasing sparrows and finches from its mattress? How could there fail to be a deep-from-the-diaphragm voice ludicrously intoning: may the sheep watch over you? Finding a shepherd’s crook in his hand, Gabriel would lift it high so that woolly ghosts flocked from every comer of the hills, pouring hotly from runnels and tunnels, shoving and pushing each other and bleating loudly. The idiotic noise would disperse into the night sky- a constellation spelling out an aphorism for fools.
The trousers had come to a dead stop. Their owner was speaking into a mobile phone. Gabriel knew that language. A language that had walked in bed room slippers across a deep lake, left him a message in an old book, wondered in a courteous way exactly who he was, and then invited him to dine with its sister. It was the language he had been using for thirty years – a language that had begun in convenience and become overlaid with telephone boxes, assignations, whisperings, accusations, tribunals, declarations, and revolution. How had he, the selected one, contrived to follow precisely these trousers?
As he dodged expertly sideways to avoid a collision, he glimpsed a face: long asymmetries of crooked nose, neat teeth, untidy hair, anxious expression prepared for an encounter that would not, could not ever happen, slanted mouth pronouncing clear syllables:
Ja. Ich werde in fünf Minutem bei Marks and Spencers sein.
Gabriel held to his new course and proceeded along Monmouth Street for a considerable while before daring to look back. The trousers had vanished.