This is an old and rather minor piece, which I wrote in 2007. Comments will be very welcome, of course.
In The City
She stands just inside the barrier, hearing trains and voices echo-rumble round her. Although it is late, the station is very busy. A horde of stone-faced people interweave, forming hurried crossing patterns across the concourse. Others loiter at lighted kiosks with red, fat-dripping sausages clutched in their eager hands.
Electric light carves faces into gargoyles. She knows she looks frail in her cheap blue gingham dress, with the cheap grey raincoat open over it. Her suitcase is at her side. She feels like a lost lamb bleating in a field, while all around the dark wolves circle. But she is silent, waiting for something: watching.
A man swims up with a wrinkled tortoise face. He is dressed in the worst of taste: a brownish pinstripe jacket with wide lapels and a garish, pink-striped tie. There is a flower in his buttonhole - a white chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemum for truth, she thinks. He smiles at her.
‘Are you waiting for somebody, dear lady?’
She shakes her head.
‘Not Auntie Lottie, perhaps, or Uncle Horst? You don’t expect your mother, flushed and panting, to come sailing up to you, full of apologies for being late?’
She shakes her head again and waits for what comes next.
‘Then I think you need a friend.’
He nods his head in a mock gesture for a bow, and seems to click his heels, though the heels don’t click.
‘May I present myself? I am Mr. Grosz.’
He looks at her enquiringly, head tilted to one side. He’s like a bird, expecting treats. His tortoise face is blunt and crazed with lines.
‘It’s not a pretty name, I know. And I myself – I am no longer pretty. But warmth lies in the heart, not in the face. Is that not true?’
He speaks so quickly she can hardly catch the words. She has to strain to understand him. But he rattles on.
‘The first thing is a room. You need a room. And I, the famous Mr. Grosz, I will provide one.’
He bows again, more flamboyantly this time, sweeping his outstretched arm across his chest and looking up with a merry, roguish smile.
She smiles back, cautiously. He reaches down beside her and takes the suitcase. Flustered, she protests, but he brushes her words aside.
‘It is not heavy, Princess. You are travelling light. This will not trouble me, and we don’t have far to go.’
He beckons her to follow and sets off across the concourse. She looks quickly left and right then follows him, feet pattering in his wake.
When they reach the huge glass doors that mark the station’s entrance, he pauses and throws a hand out dramatically.
‘Here is the city,’ he says.
And it is true: the city is below them. It stretches away beyond the station steps: black, vast and blank, studded with yellow and red.
It has stopped raining but the streets are wet and gleaming. Sodium street lights flare and spilt petrol rainbows puddles. Street cars clank and spark as they trundle past. There are people everywhere.
‘This is the city,’ he repeats and throws out his arm again. He encompasses it all in a single sweep. It is his city, she is led to understand. He is the proprietor of the entire metropolis.
‘Come with me,’ he commands her. ‘I will show you everything.’
They hurry down the steps side by side and he shepherds her across the black asphalt road. A tram looms up with a clanging bell but he ignores it. He strides confident and regal across its path. They reach the opposite side unscathed and he steers her to the left, into what looks like the main thoroughfare. Blue and red neon bathe the pavement and oncoming faces are ghastly-ghostly in the glare.
Mr. Grosz is speaking. It is as if he will never stop.
‘This city, lady, has a million souls. It has been the hub of empire, a conqueror’s dream. Its arches command silence; its spires require respect. There are over three hundred churches – almost one for each day of the year. On the great ring round the centre, huge statues pose like the figures of ancient Rome. And the poor and the troubled all come here. They fall like meteors into the sun. Some burn up, others thrive. And that is what you must do, because survival is all in the city.’
He hurries her along, past lighted shops and squalid stalls, each with its crowd of window-shopping lurkers. Dark shadows swallow them but different faces swim up in their place. Sheer contrast mazes her eyes. Everything is black and gilded. And a river of traffic passes through it, along the petrol-reeking road.
And noise assails her: the abrupt, crass sound of car horns and the streetcars’ unmusical ringing. And there are voices under it all – a hum so low, she doesn’t notice it at first, then realises that it fills her ears.
It’s as if the city’s voice is one great block that rears up like a fortress into the sky.
Mr. Grosz is speaking. ‘Look there,’ he says. ‘The Church of the Sepulchre, and beyond it is the Dom. Both are wonders of the world and you may visit them daily if you wish. And there is the National Museum. In its thousand rooms there are treasures beyond price – all yours to command. And look at the cafes, with their gleaming lights and waiters, and the waltzes playing as you sip your mocha.
‘And there are theatres too, and cabarets. And a funfair in the park for joy and laughter.
‘But you must have the money to pay for it all,’ he adds. ‘This city does not forgive the indigent.’
They cross a side road and pass a woman on the corner. She leans on a furled umbrella, languidly. She wears a wide, white-feathered hat and shining boots with laces. There is fur about her neck. Her gaze is very direct as they pass her by.
‘Ah, yes,’ Mr. Grosz titters lightly. ‘We also have our denizens of the dark. Those who loiter in shadows, to tempt the unwary. Did she shock you, my dear, that lady with the bold and, if I may say so, calculating stare?’
She shakes her head but it isn’t necessary. Her companion doesn’t wait for answers. He is too full with his bursting talk.
‘Now,’ he says, ‘we are in the heart of the city. This is where the pulse throbs. You will like it here, I know. Your future is before you.’
They turn abruptly and enter a warren of little streets. There is less light here and less noise, but people still crowd the pavements and open doors display the interiors of restaurants and bars. Warm food smells beckon and the heavy scent of beer wafts out from sawdust-floored establishments.
‘I expect you are hungry and tired,’ says Mr Grosz. ‘It is not far now. And there will be food and a bed. And laughter.’
They thread through several streets. There are so many turnings that she loses her memory of the way. The city has swallowed her already.
He stops abruptly in front of a closed door. There is a grill at eye level, but the shutter is closed. He reaches to the left and pulls a bell. Then there is silence for a moment while they wait. He looks at her and smiles.
‘You will like it here.’
The shutter shifts momentarily – opens and shuts. Then the door swings open and gay music bursts out. A large woman in red satin smiles at them. Her face and naked arms are pink and her bust juts out. Her lips are painted in a Cupid’s bow.
She holds the door wide open without speaking and stands aside to let them enter. Then she closes the door and nods solemnly to Mr Grosz. Her courtesy seems somehow exaggerated.
‘This, Princess, is Matilda,’ he says to her. ‘You may call her Madame, if you wish.’
Madame Matilda smiles and extends her hand, as if she is royalty receiving a favoured subject. He bends to take it, kisses, then steps aside.
‘This is a little lost girl,’ he tells her, smiling. ‘She needs warmth and sustenance, so I have brought her here.’
He hands the suitcase to her and she calls a maid. The girl comes instantly, bobbing her head.
‘Take it to the Violet Room,’ Matilda tells her, giving her the suitcase. Then she leads then through a curtain into a darkened space.
She is almost blinded at first. Smoke assails her nostrils - the smoke of fat cigars - and raucous laughter and the clink of glasses make explosions in her ears. As her eyes adjust, a vista of small tables meets them. Thick figures hunch in circles over tiny lamps, their heads together, almost touching, or suddenly thrown back as black mirth bubbles up and finds an exit.
There are men and women here, in evening dress. The men are mostly corpulent and bald and the women’s silks are overflowed by flesh.
‘A table,’ Matilda murmurs. ‘Over here.’
And she leads them to a corner and sits them down.
‘Now soup,’ Matilda smiles. ‘A fine goulash. And bread as white as snow. That’s what you need.’
She floats away and Mr Grosz smiles at her.
‘She will be your mother, sister, aunt all rolled in one. She will be your friend and your companion, your teacher and your guide. She will nurture and enfold you. You will never want again.’
She smiles back absently, still taking in the scene. Across in the opposite corner there is a stage. A woman stands there, wearing nothing between her stockings and her hat. She rocks gently to the music that comes from the polished golden horn of the gramophone beside her. Despite her nakedness, nobody looks. It’s as if she is a statue on a plinth.
Mr Grosz takes her hand in his and pats it gently.
‘Don’t be disturbed,’ he says. ‘This is quite normal here. The city has sophisticated tastes. You will adapt quite quickly.’
A girl comes to them with a silver tray. There is a silver bucket on it and two glasses. There is a bottle in the bucket. She puts it all on the table in front of them.
‘With Madame’s compliments,’ she says and bobs a curtsy.
Mr Grosz smiles and waves a regal hand.
‘Please convey our appreciation,’ he tells her and she bobs again and goes. Then he extracts the bottle from the bucket and fills both glasses.
He hands her one and touches it lightly with his own. The glasses make a tiny clink. He raises an eyebrow.
‘To your health, my dear. And your success. You will take the town by storm.’
He raises the glass to his lips and drinks. She hesitates, then does the same. The liquid is cool and golden on her tongue. There is warmth at the heart of it. She feels it trickle down.
He leans across the table and looks into her eyes. She sees tears of sincerity there.
‘There is no reason to be afraid. You are safe. We are all friends here.’
She nods and smiles and nods again. Then she leans back in her chair with the glass in her hand and relaxes into the music. She eyes the room: the golden lights are muted. The tables glow. She feels contended now. She is at home.
A short man has come to their table. He is leaning down to Mr Grosz’s ear. His lank dark hair - is it dyed? - flops forward onto his forehead. A bright red cummerbund stretches across his belly.
Mr Grosz seems annoyed with the stranger. He doesn’t want to hear. But the man is insistent. He goes on muttering - trying to persuade. He glances across the table at her sometimes.
But Mr Grosz has lost all patience. He snaps his head back angrily.
‘Too cheap,’ he tells him. ‘You’d never reach the price.’ Then he mouths a single word. The word is: virgin.
The other man straightens, shrugs and goes away. There is resentment in his back. His ears are red.
Mr Grosz has red about him too. His face is red. The tortoise cheeks have swelled. There is blood in them.
She decides that it is time.
Mr Grosz looks at her once, then slumps forward across the table. His head knocks into the bucket as it falls. The bucket and one glass crash to the floor. The glass explodes into a hundred pieces.
People gather round. They inspect him cautiously, giving each other advice.
‘Loosen his clothes. Call a doctor. Lie him down.’
But nobody touches him and he stays there, slumped, his head on one side on the table, the cheek flesh flattened.
She sees his eyes open and he raises his head. But the eyes are only for her. For the others the head stays down.
‘Who are you?’ he asks, but the words are silent.
‘I am Astarte,’ she tells him. ‘I am Ashtoreth. I have come to take you to hell. It is time to go.’
And she picks him up and carries him off in her arms, while the crowd stand gawping round the empty body.