ART DECO IS FOR THE BIRDS
I know all about cupboards.
I was well educated, and I had had “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” read to me when I was young. I should have been more suspicious. Trouble is, it was so cheap – just $10 – and it appealed to me. It was lovely, an Art Deco masterpiece. I should have guessed that there was a very good reason why it was so inexpensive.
I had no money and I needed to furnish my place quickly. Jane had thrown me out, and I couldn’t blame her. I’d been a pig – slovenly, ill tempered, and unfaithful. I never did the washing up, or the washing. I used to get drunk and then spew all over the carpet. Anyway, after she chucked me out, I’d found a room in a shared house, cheap because it was a converted attic, just under the poorly insulated roof of an old Victorian mansion. The house was only a block from the Lygon Street tramline, and within walking distance of all sorts of amenities, including several pubs. That meant I could stagger home instead of forking out the cost of a taxi. Jane had taken the car, too (it was hers), though I still had my motorbike, and anyway, I didn’t want to risk being caught for drink driving. I had enough problems already.
The room ran the length of the house underneath the main roof, so it was big, and quite empty. I had to buy a bed, or at least a mattress, and somewhere to put my clothes. I went to the obvious place, the op-shop. I bought a double mattress and two ratty blankets, an uninteresting dresser, worn and scratched, a small and unfashionable, but perfectly serviceable sofa, and the exquisite cupboard, for a grand total of $60. I borrowed my best friend Damian’s ute, and brought the stuff from the op-shop to the flat.
When I told Damo why I needed his ute, he’d sighed, and I could tell he was about to say something judgmental about my ability to sustain relationships, but then he shut up. He knew that I knew what he wanted to say. Instead, he offered to help me move in. We humped the furniture up three flights of narrow stairs to the attic, and arranged the pieces across my room. It hardly filled the space. In fact, it looked absurd and very depressing. I tried to cheer myself up by telling myself that the room would look better when I’d fetched my CDs and the rest of my books from Jane’s flat. I could get some posters too, and with the next paycheque, a nice thick doona (essential even in autumn under an uninsulated roof) and some sheets. Damo could see that I was depressed, and he went down to the ute and brought up two cans of lukewarm beer from the glove compartment, the last of a six-pack, which we shared. Then he had to go – he had a date with his girlfriend Sonya. She used to have a bulgy if he was late, and would be even angrier if she knew he was with me. I was a bad influence.
I had a suitcase and backpack with my clothes. After he’d gone, I unzipped the case, and took out my jeans and jackets and my motorbike leathers and opened the cupboard door.
There was a room leading off the back of the cupboard. The floor of the room was beaten mud, and the walls roughly-dressed timber. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, so I looked again, just to be sure. It was still there. It didn’t go away. I took in more details. At the far end of the room, there was an open door, and through it, there was a view over rolling green countryside to a far-away town, smoky and grey in the distance. At the horizon, purple mountains marched endlessly in either direction. There was no window, and nothing else in the room except the door.
I closed the door of the cupboard, counted to twenty, and opened it. The room with a view was still there. I drew a deep breath, closed the door again, and went and sat on the mattress. I noticed some unpleasant stains on it. I so did not want to know what they were from. Put a better mattress on the list for next month’s paycheque, in addition to all the other things.
I really needed a drink. Several drinks. Much more than a can of lukewarm VB, that was for sure. But I hadn’t anything, and even I couldn’t go to a pub at this time of the day. Could I? I debated it for a few minutes. OK. Let’s start afresh. I went over to the cupboard and looked behind it, like a dog or cat when it first encounters a mirror. Of course, I knew there would be nothing there. And there wasn’t. Just a sloping ceiling with a vertical wall for the bottom two or three feet. Plasterboard, not rough timber or clay. No view, but I knew that there was an alleyway outside, with wheely-bins and dog crap and scented creepers hanging over garden walls and fences.
Very gingerly, I opened the door of the cupboard again. For a long time I looked at the view. It was most definitely not a painting or photograph. Things were changing in the picture as I watched. Fluffy clouds drifted across the sky. Plumes of smoke rose raggedly from the town, and from a couple of cottages closer by. The grass just outside the cabin door rippled in the breeze. Unidentifiable birds flew across the scene. One landed in the grass and began to search for food. It could have been another part of Earth, yet I knew, without being told, that it wasn’t. Don’t ask me how – I just did. Strangely enough, there was virtually no sound. It was as if I was watching a film – an incredibly realistic film – through a glass window, or like when you watch those crappy films they show on international flights, with the headphones off, because it’s more fun to supply your own dialogue. There was a world there, where things happened, life went on, yet I could hear only the hum of the traffic in the street outside, the occasional rumbling clack of the trams, a voice from the pavement below, magpies squabbling in temple-bell voices on the roof.
The picture unquestionably hadn’t been there when I opened the cupboard in the op-shop to give it a quick squiz to see if it was OK. And it was equally positively there now, right at the end of the cupboard’s wooden base, but only if you looked at it from the inside. From the outside, it was just a cupboard. A beautiful cupboard, its nobility apparent through the scratches and nicks. No special runes, no sigils, no markings or writing of any kind. And no unusual smells, either – just old wood and varnish and dust.
I resolved to ignore it. I had been drinking a lot. And probably there’d been too much dope too. I decided to give up both drugs for a while. Hell’s teeth, while I was at it, I would give up coffee and meat as well. Jane might even take me back. Resolutely averting my eyes from the room at the end of the wardrobe, and the panorama beyond that, I hung up my shirts, jackets, bike leathers and jeans. I put my boxers and socks and tee-shirts in the chest of drawers, placed the empty suitcase and backpack in the cupboard, making sure they didn’t overlap the wooden base and protrude into the other world that I was taking no notice of. Whatever was out there (and it was just a figment of an overactive imagination) I did not want it contaminating my stuff. When I’d finished, I closed the door, made the bed (well, spread the rather disgusting blankets I’d bought over the bare mattress), and lay down on it to contemplate my worthless life.
I was going to miss Jane very much. Despite everything, I was fond of her (though I don’t think I was in love with her, which of course was most of the problem). I always felt incomplete without a woman in my life. I know – I was treating her more like a mother or a servant than a friend or even a lover. I know I was childish and selfish – but sometimes I just couldn’t help myself. Depressed, I wondered whether it was because I didn’t really care about other human beings, and briefly considered whether I was the sort of heartless individual I despised, thoughtless, careless, selfish, childish, lazy, and ultimately, alone and friendless. I neglected even my best and closest friend Damian. Feeling like a total shit, I eventually drifted into a doze, the beer and the afternoon warmth of the loft having made me drowsy and sleepy.
I was in the landscape beyond the door of the timber room. All round me there were rolling green hills, dotted with strange trees, sometimes solitary, sometimes in small copses. I was walking along a dirt road, wearing a sort of soft cotton kilt and a long-sleeved shirt with laces instead of buttons. On my feet were comfortable boots, made of soft grey leather. The clothing was the strangest thing of the whole dream. Then I heard a voice calling.
“Help! Please help me!” There came an unhappy groan. Then, almost in despair, “Goddess, I beg of you, please help me!” It was a man’s voice, and it sounded as if it was normally strong and self-assured, but injuries or illness had made it quavery and unsure. It was desperate and fearful and sad. I’d say I was a coward, but I didn’t hesitate for one instant – the need was too compelling. I turned off the road and headed towards the trees where the voice had come from. As I got closer, I could see a bundle lying in the shade of one of the trees – which looked a bit like an oak tree, though its leaves were reddish and more sharply indented – and it became more obvious that whoever was lying there was in considerable pain. When I reached the body, I knelt down and said, “What’s wrong? How can I help?”
And then I woke up. My head was pounding and my mouth was dry. It was a very familiar feeling. It seemed as if I had a hangover. I would have felt better if I’d had enough to drink to give me the hangover. But all I’d had was a can of cricket-piss VB, an afternoon kip and a very strange dream. That’s what I told myself. The only problem with that thesis was that I could still hear the calls for help – very faintly, as if from far away. But quite clear. And in Greek. Ancient Greek. Attic, to be precise, if I wasn’t very much mistaken. You know, the language of Plato and Demosthenes, Sophocles and Euripides. Unmistakable, though it was pronounced slightly differently to what I’d learnt, but not at all like Modern Greek, of which I knew a little.
I should explain, I suppose. I was brought up by my grandfather – my parents were killed in that most unglamorous and unusual of events, a plane crash. Grandpa trained as a minister in the Anglican Church reading an old-fashioned classics and divinity degree at Oxford in the fifties. Then he had a crise de conscience, but that’s another story, which I might get round to telling later on. Grandpa believed in the virtues of an old fashioned education for a gentleman. I was supposed to be the gentleman. If he could have seen me now – a doped up drunkard, sleeping around, living in squalor! Anyway, he’d taught me Greek – you couldn’t learn it at school – from when I was four years old. He’d made it fun. We’d spoken Greek together, and he’d told me cut down (and decently expurgated) versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, of Medea and The Birds, his eyes black with excitement, his passion making it exciting for me too. Later on, he’d taught me the details of the grammar, made me learn extracts, poems, speeches. I loved him, and I’d done as he asked.
Grandpa had thrilled me with Thucydides and Herodotus and the history of Greece. “History moves in cycles,” he’d say. “Everything they did or tried, we’ve done or will do. Every political system they tried, we’ve tried.” Then we’d talk of the Dorians or the Scythians or the moon-goddess worshippers or the people of the steppes living in their yurts, moving in great sweeps of population across their endless grasslands, or the barbaric (but not barbarous) Celts. It seemed to neither of us that this was an odd education, in a world that prized utility much above beauty, on a continent where the only Greeks had been the great wave of immigrants after the Second World War.
At any rate, what this all meant was that I was fluent in Attic, with a good understanding of all the dialects of ancient Greek and knew precisely the difference between first and second aorist, and the optative and subjunctive and the middle and passive voice. I’d gained a high distinction in Greek at uni, and I remember still the joy and pride when I told him. Of course, none of this got me a decent job. I didn’t mind that, because I got so much pleasure from Greek. But it had actually become useful – who would’ve thought? The call for help was definitely, unmistakably without question in Greek, and not Modern Greek.
Thank you, grandpa.
I got up, clutching my aching head, and went to the cupboard. In the morning, the bloody thing, beautiful or not, was going straight back to the op-shop. And that was that. In the meantime, it wouldn’t do any harm for me to just have a quick look and see who was calling.
The scene at the back of the cupboard was unchanged – a primitive room, and beyond it, blue sky, green hills, clouds, the distant town. Except, that is, for a flash of colour underneath one of the trees in the middle distance, about a kilometre away, and downhill, a bright white and a brilliant cobalt blue. Exactly the colours that the injured man in my dream had been wearing. I stepped into the opening at the back of the cupboard. I felt a moment of resistance, as if I was stepping through a membrane, or as if I was pressing against strong, unsticky cobwebs. Then I was walking across the rock-hard clay floor towards the door, and in a moment I stood on rough stone steps before striding downhill towards the blue-clad body.
The air smelled different, and it was colder than it had been in Melbourne. It looked like spring, with tiny green leaves dusting the branches of the trees. It had been autumn back home, the streets full of the papery whispers of browning plane-tree leaves. I stopped and looked back the way I’d come from. It was the doorway of a ramshackle log cabin. Through the door I could see the inside of the wardrobe, with one door open, and behind it, my rooms. I didn’t bother thinking how weird this all was. I turned and loped towards the cries for help. As I ran, I cursed my own stupidity. Why had I entered this imaginary – magical? – fake? – world, to rescue someone I didn’t know, always assuming I could do anything useful? History is full of examples of strange diseases brought from somewhere else, which decimated whole populations. Well, we would all just have to take our chances. A cry for help was a cry for help. Somehow, I hoped that an op-shop cupboard wouldn’t bring any evil into my world or the other one on through the gateway – but who knew for sure?
My thoughts had distracted me and I found I was close to the body. In another few seconds, I was kneeling next to him. I was becoming inured to the surprises. The “man” was an elf – if all the stories I’d read had been anywhere near right. His ears were pointed, but not like a dog’s, or a fox’s, more like a cross between a human’s and a cat’s. Small and delicate and rather pleasing, and covered with a soft down. They were adorned with one or two rings going up the side of each ear in the part that curls over, all different, some simple gold, others set with tiny sparkling crystals, perhaps precious stones. His bones and frame were more delicate than a human’s. His hair was chestnut, curly and shoulder length. On earth, he would have probably have made it into an afro. Here, it was neatly tied back into a tail with a jewelled clip. His eyes were open, staring at me. They were the colours of a storm, and they seemed to change tint from blue to indigo to dark-grey, as if they were windows looking onto a turbulent sky. He was wearing brilliantly white leather trousers, and what looked like a silk shirt, in a greyish-blue. Although it ought to have been impossible, I got the distinct impression that the shirt was subtly shifting colour to match his eyes. He was wearing boots the twins of those I’d been wearing in my dream.
“Tis ei?” he asked. Who art thou? Grandpa would have been pleased to know that he pronounced ei exactly as grandpa believed the Greeks had done, contrary to Professor W. Sidney Allen’s views. The slight singsong tonality of his accent was very much as I expected, but it was fascinating to hear it used by a native speaker.
“Stephanos eimi.” I replied. I am Steven. I gave my name the Greek pronunciation.
“I am Tiltheus, son of Kodaios,” he said in Greek, inclining his head. Interesting – neither was a Greek name, though they declined just like Greek nouns did.
“I am honoured to meet you,” I replied, my Greek stretching that far.
“You are interestingly dressed,” he said, looking me up and down appraisingly. I ignored that. Look who’s talking, I thought to myself. Haven’t you ignoramuses heard of jeans and tee-shirts and trainers? Anyway, who ever heard of an ancient Greek wearing trousers? Only barbarians wore any kind of leggings. Real Greeks let it all hang loose and swing free. And come to think of it, wasn’t he being a tad uppity for someone who needed my help?
“Are you wounded?” I asked. Talk about a stupid question.
“Yes, by the Gods. The **** attacked me, and they’ve killed my horse.” He pointed to the large corpse lying some distance away. I didn’t catch the word he’d used to describe his attackers. I assumed that if it wasn’t their name, it was some insulting epithet. For all I knew, it might be a kind of wild animal, not people at all.
“I will help you to my house,” I said. To my chagrin, I was having to keep my Greek simple – not because he didn’t understand, but because I’d forgotten so much of it, and was struggling for words.
“My ankle is twisted and,” he pulled aside the silk shirt, “I’m cut here.” There were several very nasty deep slits running across his chest and side, still bleeding. At least, I assumed it was blood. It was thick and gold like honey, though it had a reddish tinge, and I noticed that the wound was more orange than red. The shirt was sticky and wet down the side next to the wound. He’d lost a lot of “honey”. I went to the other side of his body and put my arm round his shoulders underneath his armpit. I lifted him up, grunting as I bore his weight, which was much more than I thought it would be, judging from the fineness of his bones and the leanness of his body.
We stumbled back up the hill to the log cabin. It took ages, partly because it was strangely much steeper going up than it had been going down, partly because he was obviously in a lot of pain. He was noticeably afraid that whoever had attacked him would be back to finish the job, staring frequently up into the sky, as if his attackers might come from there. He didn’t complain or cry out, but at every second step, he winced or ground his teeth and I was certain that if I’d been clenching my jaw like that, I’d have a headache by now. But then, perhaps he did.
At last we reached the log cabin. He could barely make it up the stones into the cabin. As I pushed him inside, I heard a terrible whistling sound from high in the air above us. Without knowing what it was, but responding instinctively, thanks to seeing lots of Stuka dive-bombers in the WWII films and documentaries that Grandpa and I would watch on the video on wet evenings, I leapt in after him and slammed the cabin door closed behind me. There was a thump and a shriek of rage from the other side of the cabin door, and then I felt a force pushing against it. It was all I could do to hold the door, until the elf moved the large timber beam hanging on one side of the door into the hook on the other side. We were barricaded in.
“What was that?” I asked, my Greek almost lost in the terror.
“It was a ****.” He used the word he’d used before.
“A kribothneion.” Yeah, right. That explains everything. I feel much better now.
“Can it get through the door?” I was afraid – whatever had made those cuts on the elf’s torso was not something I wanted to let into my world, never mind my bedroom.
“No. And it will soon get tired of trying and go away. They’re not very clever.”
With him leaning on me, we hobbled through into my bedroom, and I put him onto my bed. He looked very unwell, if one could tell with aliens. Elves. Whatever. I had to get him to some sort of medical attention. The only doctor I knew well lived in Sydney, so that wasn’t much use. Anyway, we’d sort of lost touch over the last few years. OK. The telephone directory.
“Stay here,” I said. “I’ll be back.” Arnie Schwarzenegger, that’s me. I went downstairs to the communal phone muttering ‘I’ll be beck’ under my breath, and opened the white pages on “medical”. And there it was, just crowning a perfect day: “Dr Ken Wang. Elves, Werewolves and Aliens a specialty.” The bit that really defied belief was this: “House Visits”. A doctor actually coming to see a sick person in his or her own home! Then I knew that I’d really lost it. After Dr Ken Wang came, if in fact there was any answer to my phone call, I was going to get thoroughly pissed. By myself if need be. Or with Tiltheus. Then the alarming thought struck me – maybe alcohol killed alien elves. I’d ask good Dr Wang when he came. I took out my mobile and dialled the number as I climbed back up the stairs.