Here is the next chapter in the pending Phil/Jeannie thread. You’ll see the odd reference to some things you haven’t yet read about in the main story, the first being the ending to Gregory and Justine’s relationship and the second being a fire in Gallows in which Justine and Lady see the book ‘Torrid’ being burned (this will be changing so I’m not giving too much away). While it looks like the Phil/Jeannie affair will be axed, there are some extremely important things in this chapter with regards to Phil, Richie and art.
Phil sat there stunned.
Christ. How could he have not known?
There’d been no mention of Sidney’s family, no specifics on his parents. He’d seemingly come out of nowhere into George’s arms. But now Phil knew. Unbeknownst to anyone save Gregory and Justine, Sidney Winterbourne had been Sir Gregory’s child and, therefore, George’s own brother. The weight of that incestuous horror devoured Phil from the inside out. He suddenly felt dizzy and gripped the desk to steady himself for fear he might pass out.
It wasn’t just the harrowing discovery itself though. Believing he’d been Sidney in a former life, Phil took the whole thing personally. Once upon a time – yes – he’d been entwined with his own brother. Not only that. With Sidney in his veins, as present-day Phil, he’d been aroused by the relationship between his own father and mother, in his mother’s own words nonetheless – as told by Aubrey of course, a fact he kept forgetting now the narrator had changed.
The thought was vile – viler than vile.
It was unbearable.
And to think the past four chapters had pawed his mind and body to the point he’d needed some release – with Jeannie Robbins of all people. But ah, that’s where the nauseous feeling ended for as soon as Phil thought of Jeannie, he felt as right as rain. And what a mad expression was that: as right as rain. Rain wasn’t right exactly, was it? But perhaps it was because rain couldn’t stay all pent up in the storm clouds, could it? Sort of like his passion for Jeannie. In the very act of raining, rain was executing its own instinct and therefore being totally correct by beautiful osmosis.
As Phil looked up at Jeannie on the other side of the glass, he thought of what they’d done, not just on the floor behind him, but also in stall #3. Christ, how wicked and amazing – to think they’d left their DNA all over one another in such delicious ways. If someone were to swab their bodies in this very instant and send the samples to the lab, for overwhelm of DNA, the lab tech might confuse them for each other. Phil could feel one of his tangents coming on. I mean, technically, if his DNA was all over Jeannie’s body, part of him was still all over her – Christ – he’d never thought of that. He was here at Redmond’s desk. But he was also inside Jeannie’s uniform, between her legs and on her breasts. And she? Well she was still all over him, under his shirt and inside his trousers.
“We’re everywhere,” Phil muttered. “Walking evidence.”
And just like that, he was back to thinking about Justine and Gregory – his former parents – and how their love had ended. Not their love per say, but rather their relationship. And what an ending it had been.
And speaking of all the dreadful things they’d said –
I mean, Phil wasn’t an idiot; he got it.
It was like those scenes he’d seen on television where lovers coldly said, “I’ve never loved you” when, quite obviously they were beside themselves besotted with the person they were turning away. Like George had been with Sidney on their last night in the study. That was the classic example where the god-almighty “I DON’T LOVE YOU” means “I love you so much I can’t live without you but for reason (a), (b), (c) or (d) all of the above, I’m going to have to deny myself the indulgence and actually live without you – well, physically at least because, I’ll love you in my dreams.”
No sooner had ‘I’ll love you in my dreams’ crossed Phil’s mind when, Christ – not again – a popstar geezer twirled into his brain. Closing his eyes – standing with his legs wide apart – strangling the neck of the mic – the geriatric comeback crooned his cliché lyric “I’ll love you in my dreams” to the unrequited muses in his head, but also to the menopausal groupies going berserk in the crowd, Claire, the mother of his man-children, unfortunately included, quite possibly sans the overpriced panties he’d bought for her the 02/14 before last.
And then Phil thought of Claire.
Did he feel guilty yet?
He drew a breath.
No, not yet.
Because, on looking back, she’d treated him appallingly, dismissing him at every turn. For now, he’d go with satisfaction over guilt. For as he looked at Jeannie shining in the lamplight on the other side of the wall, he felt all warm and fuzzy, sort of like a Womble – Orinoco perhaps – no, Wellington, was better because of his glasses. And one thought leading to another, Phil began to hear The Wombles’ theme song in his head which hurt because it came with memories of himself at four sitting on the red settee with Richie. She was sitting with her knees up, her sketchbook on an angle as she drew a funny half-man, half-beast creature with her coloured pencils. And then, for the first time since she’d died, Phil heard her speak.
“I’m not the only one who does this, Phil,” she said, showing him her drawing of an animal man. “I mean look at the Wombles. They’re fuzzy little animals but they walk and talk like humans. They wear hats and scarves and spectacles like people do. They move around like us. Artists love to animalise people. I know I love to. Do you like the Wombles, Phil?”
“I love the Wombles.”
“Yeah, me too.” And then her voice was gone, leaving Phil to wonder if he’d truly heard it.
But there was something else.
In the stream-of-consciousness, Phil acknowledged how he animalised humans continually. Serge was a Tibetan yak. Norm was an exotic bird. Vic was a praying mantis. Animalising people was a habit which had clearly went all the way back his red settee sessions with Richie and The Wombles.
Stream-of-consciousness? Where had that term come from?
From tonight, that’s where. Because, for the life of him, Phil couldn’t remember ever having acknowledged the journey his erratic thoughts made in the matter of a minute. Not pre-Aubrey at least.
Pulling his notepad in front of him and picking up his pencil, he began to scribble out the progression of his recent musings.
Gregory and Justine → saying ‘I don’t love you’ when you’re really thinking ‘I’ll love you in my dreams → cliché lyrics → popstar geezer → Claire salivating over popstar geezer → feeling guilty, Phil? → no, not yet → Jeannie → warm and fuzzy feelings → warm and fuzzy Wombles → watching the Wombles with Richie → Richie drawing on the red settee → Richie animalising people in her artwork → artwork → creativity –
And suddenly, as Phil wrote ‘artwork’ and ‘creativity’, his stream of consciousness did a U-turn back to Torrid, Gregory and Justine’s sexual masterpiece which was currently going up in alphabet flames in the paper town before him, but not before a good many copies had been secreted out to goodness-knows-where, generating a killing for the thug who’d sold them.
“And once again, we segue into stolen art,” Phil muttered, emphasising the word ‘again’ because of his earlier hallucination of the Kaleidoscope People shooting off into the night, probably headed for a mobster’s private art collection. And most unfortunately for everyone involved (which was only Phil), he pictured the glassy figures circling the mobster’s king-sized bed, reflecting fragments of the mobster and his love of the month performing God-knows-what with each other. The imaginary pair were literally and sexually beside themselves, flailing about in bits and pieces in the kidnapped mannequins. The whole thing was surrealer than surreal.
Surrealer than surreal? Aliver than alive?
And then, Phil thought of Fen, the man who’d loved his sister way back when. And, thinking of him, he remembered he had a phone call coming sometime soon with further information.
Phil looked down at his stream-of-consciousness diagram and saw he’d written ‘stolen art’ after ‘artwork → creativity’ on his notepad without realising he’d written it.
Stolen art, he thought, drawing over the star at least three times, turning his mind back to Torrid going up in flames in Gallows Yard, not far from where he was sitting now.
Had Sir Gregory been the one to sell it?
Had he taken it to Cyril Greaves on Paternoster Row to have it sold on the black market?
Phil set his notepad aside and flipped back through the manuscript to the very first chapter Aubrey had written, trying to find the passage on Cyril Greaves.
Ah, yes – there it was.
“I asked your father the same thing years ago,” Phil quoted Cyril aloud. “Are you going to be faithful to mortals you love or faithful to the immortality of your book? Because, in my experience, if you truly want to succeed at this racket, ink must come before everything. Ta-da-ta-da-ta-da,” Phil added, skipping to the part he was looking for. “You know, George,” Phil picked up when he got to the part he was looking for, “When your father was alive, he had me read some stories of his. Your father was a very articulate man, George. And perhaps it’s not my place to say, but he knew exactly what it was to put ink before blood, to go with the story over everything else. You could do with taking a leaf from his book.”
Phil’s heart sank.
He’d liked Sir Gregory and had come to believe he’d truly loved Justine. So, to think he’d double-crossed her and prostituted their writing – well – that was beyond unsettling. Come to think of it, it was downright tragic. Even more tragic considering that they’d been his former parents.
Re-reading the section again, Phil wondered if Paternoster Row was a real street and if it was, if it still existed. Curious to find out, he typed the name into his phone and, sure enough, the street came up. Once upon a time, it had been the publishing hub, not just of London, but of all of England, that was until the night of the twenty-ninth and thirtieth of December in 1940 when it had been bombed to a smithereens during the Blitz of World War II. That night, on that street, more than five million books went up in flames.
And then Phil thought of information.
All of it.
Novels. Short stories. Poetry. Biographies. Autobiographies. History books. Journals. Articles. Records. Archives. Files. Detail upon detail of the human condition encapsulated in its printed form. All that knowledge. All that emotion. Bursting into flames. Burning to the wailing of the sirens and the crashing of the bombs. And because he was a sound man, Phil put his headphones on and listened to recordings of the Blitz, his heartbeat going haywire as he listened to the whistling of the falling bombs and then the utter silence before they hit the ground.
One book burning in a bonfire. Millions of books burning in a war.
The rape of information.
The more Phil thought about it, the more he thought Sir Gregory had not been the person to illegally distribute Torrid any more than England would be guilty of incinerating its own literary treasures in a war. No. It had to have been someone else. But who? Lady Emeline? But if so, how, if she was blacked out every night on laudanum? It didn’t make any sense.
Turning back to the last page of FIRE IN GALLOWS, the chapter he’d been reading, Phil thought about his English class in secondary school. There’d been a term the teacher used to use to describe the instance when the reader or an audience member knew something the characters in the book or play didn’t, usually something important that was going to bring the characters down. What was that term? Christ – it was on the tip of his tongue, it was. Dramatic something-or-other. Think, Phil, think. And then, oh yes, dramatic irony. That was the expression. Dramatic irony. He’d thought it useless at the time, a silly piece of trivia that would have no bearing on his life.
That was exactly what was happening now.
He, Phil Owens, knew that Gregory and Justine were Sidney’s parents. He also knew that George had been intimate with Sidney – his own brother. But George didn’t know that Sidney was his brother. At the same time, Justine didn’t know that Sidney had been intimate with George, nor did she know that George’s rejection of her only son had sent him to his grave. In fact, because the chapter had ended with George standing on the Green with Ada in his arms, Justine still didn’t know her only son was dead.
In that moment, Phil wished he could jump into the manuscript and give everyone the heads up as to what was going on. He pictured himself in uniform wading through the sentences, waving his arms over his head and telling the characters to stop and listen to the news. But what a useless thought, because the damage had been done. George had slept with Sidney and Sidney had leapt to his death with Ada dying in between. The situation was horrendous.
One thought opened into another and, before he knew it, Phil was thinking that life was fraught with ironies; the damn things never ended. Take Cyril Greaves for instance. He’d been swaggering through his office complacently oblivious to the fact that less than a hundred years on, his pride and joy would be burning to the ground. And what about him, Phil Owens? There he’d been at four, leaving for school that fateful morning in December, not knowing that he’d never see Richie in the flesh again. And what about Claire? Clueless as to what he’d just done with Jeannie, she’d still be under the impression that she would be the one to up and leave. The thought was harrowing to say the least.
Phil looked at the time on his mobile.
It was time to get back to the manuscript.
“Looking back,” it read. “I still don’t know how I was able to keep standing there with Ada in my arms and Sidney lifeless on the cobblestones beneath that third-floor window. I felt my soul had left with theirs, abandoning my feeble bones to carry on empty.”
Just a tic, Phil thought.
That’s not Justine speaking. That’s George.
Quickly scanning through the next few pages, Phil saw that yet again the narration had changed, and George was replacing Justine as the first-person speaker. As he had with Justine seven chapters prior, Phil needed to recalibrate, this time picturing George in Justine’s place, hunched over the desk in Rosegate’s study, describing the events in his own words.
Imagining George taking up the pen, dipping it in the ink and tapping it on the blotting paper before he brought it to the page, Phil struggled to see Aubrey. It was as if she’d been possessed, first by Justine, now by George. The two ancestors were inside her; she was their conduit.
Closing his eyes, he could still see Aubrey’s body on the cold metal table in the mortuary. But he could no longer see her as she’d been – a modern young woman – glowing in the light from her laptop, typing the story in front of him now. Aubrey was fading.
But what did that mean when it came to her death?
With a sigh that went all the way back to his past life, Phil resumed reading.