What Syd Barrett would do

Greetings Connoisseurs of Chaos,

As promised, I’ve written a story based on one of the starting paragraphs from last week’s post. At least – I’ve written half the story. The popular vote went with the first offering. So, here it is. Part 2 follows next week.

I stare at the skin on the back of my hand. When I make it into a fist, the pressed layers of dermis and epidermis stretch tight and smooth. Venules, branching like a roadmap lie just beneath. I know that, at the size of a dust mite, the slick, pink oily surface will appear as valleys and peaks in some prehistoric landscape. Dermal flora lie in those depressions, performing their routine biochemical functions, obliviously outcompeting an invading Mycoplasma or Legionella bug.

This self-examination is important to me, if only to provide an imaginary veil of distraction to take my mind off the beast. It lurks between the news bulletins delivered through the wall-mounted TV, beneath my temporary constructs and behind the waiting room small-talk. It is patient, biding its time until the small hours of the morning, when I’ll awake; the only sounds in the room—the ticking of a clock, and the slow, bovine murmurings of the beast sitting next to me, spilling the contents of its sick mind into my own.

I received the news over half an hour ago. The diagnosis, of course, was delivered by a doctor. My doctor. Doctor Chan. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that she told me, or that I was spaced out on iloperidone, but the impact of finally knowing was not as traumatic as I thought it would be. Only, it wasn’t exactly a revelation. In my lucid moments I knew who it was if not what  it was.

I know that the medical profession don’t like to label – at least, not too early. But when she said schizophrenia, it was like she’d named the demon – outed it, so to speak. It helped, because up to now it was a shadow with a beast’s silhouette; stalking me in my peripheral vision, looking over the top of a newspaper from a table in the corner of Starbucks, sitting several seats back on the bus – its eyes boring into the back of my head like coal-fire. I had my safety behaviours to try and keep it at bay, but they often seemed like glass shields put up to resist the thrust of its horns. It had given me a real ass-whipping a month ago (or is that six weeks? I lose track of time.) Since then, it’s retreated, not out of fear—I’m sure; simply a tactical move in its diabolical strategy.

The Doc, I kinda like her. A bit patronising, sometimes too detached, but at least she knows how to smile. I’m beginning to think she’s maybe telling the truth when she talks about patient confidentiality, when she assures me she doesn’t go blabbing about that kooky guy with the old Ess-Zee she sees once a week. But I’m not ready to give her everything, not yet.

I’m only seven sessions into my treatment. Seven – the number of spiritual perfection. It’s apt that a break-through of sorts was achieved today. But there’s plenty of other dark secrets in me that aren’t ready to say their name. They lie buried under metres of sludge at the bottom of a Stygian well, and the Lounge is sunk the deepest.

There’s no way I’m going to tell the Doc about the Lounge; it’s equally too atrocious and too precious. Besides, Syd would never forgive me.

 

A bulletin cuts through my consciousness from the TV. Something about another mass-shooting in a Scandinavian country. I zone out from it after a minute, the imagined horror pushed under a bath full of numbness. After all, it’s in a different country, where the people aren’t really the same people as me. Where victims earn their tragedy through poor life-choices or just living in the wrong culture. I’ve got my own demon to deal with. My mind doesn’t have room for vicarious grief.

I look at the back of my hand again and massage my knuckles. Somewhere down there, another pathogenic culture expires as its basic resources are denied by my superior micro-flora. I can even see the individual cells disassemble in the valley of a cutaneous fold. Chalk up another little victory for the good guys.

Why are they taking so long with my prescription? I look up and, with a cannonball of dread burying itself in my stomach, catch a glimpse of my beast at the window. It ducks out of sight, thinking I haven’t seen it; or maybe it’s an act. Maybe it does want to be seen—just not full on. Simply long enough to mess with my mind.

I need to go the Lounge, it’s the only place my beast dares not follow. But I also need my prescription. Damn the pharmacist’s sluggish pace.

My mind drifts back to the time when I first discovered that shadowed, smoky basement. Maybe its memory will be enough to piss the beast off— at least for a while.

 

I can’t remember the date, but I know it was a Wednesday – Woden’s day if you follow Norse mythology. Nothing good happens on this day, I told myself. Thor’s father decreed it thus. Anyway, the way things transpired, that superstition was pretty much kicked into touch. Chalk up another one for the good guys.

The day hadn’t started with such a jaunty assessment, though. I’d found myself wandering about a small, abandoned industrial estate in Wapping. My peregrination had an air of transgression as the area was sealed off with chain link fencing, and boardings stating the buildings’ off-limits nature; as if they were terminally ill or had something to hide. I imagined it wouldn’t be long before it was marked for urban renewal by some construction company, just waiting for n upturn in the economy.

I traced round the perimeter at first, gazing through the mesh at the hollowed-out shells. Metallic-grey light filtered through first floor windows. I knew I was looking at inner skylights through the glass-less portals, but to me they looked like eyes, observing me suspiciously; in silence, asking me how I dared to observe them. This served only to intrigue me more, so when I found a breach in the fence, I climbed through. A jutting snag scored my calf as I carelessly stumbled over the rusty, folded wire-work. It ripped a diagonal tear in my jeans and my flesh— a sacrificial offering to the phantoms of this place that humankind had forsaken. I ignored the stinging in my leg, although the damage to the Levis was more painful to bear.

I stepped through tussocks of grass and dense mats of stinging nettles, trying my best to avoid their acidic spines. An aroma, released from the trampled nettles, insinuated itself in my sinuses. It evoked a sense of the weed’s conquest over man’s decaying effigies to the gods of industry.

They weren’t the only victors in these desolate spoil heaps. Algae, moss and rust formed coatings on stone and metal. Man had receded, leaving primitive kingdoms to resume their relentless crawl over the urban landscape. One infestation replacing another.

I wasn’t deterred. It was as if these once noble buildings were playing hard to get. Offering me painful rebuffs, while hinting at the hidden mysteries within. I felt invigorated from the realization that less determined inquisitors had probably fallen at the first discouragement.

I pressed on.

The double door I came to had long since lost its garnish of paint, just the faint fleck of purple remained. The cheap plywood had split, curling up in black-smutted resignation.

When I ran my finger over its surface, it became covered in the black powder. I brushed it off with a shudder, knowing that fungal spores might set off an asthma attack. In my jacket pocket, I felt the reassuring hardness of my inhaler as my hand closed over it. All was still well with the world.

I stepped back and took a closer look at the frontage. Old neon fittings hung askew from corroded brackets above the doorway, wires hanging like entrails spilling from their innards. One fitting had clearly been a sign, the letters having long since said farewell to their mounting. I squinted at the weathered, pale, ghost images of words. After applying a bit of diphthong association I solved the puzzle.

“The Crimson Lounge,” I said out loud. As I did so, a muffled stanza of music drifted to me from beyond the door. It was repeated; a psychedelic organ weaved with reverb-laden guitar. From the dim recesses of my mind, I recalled the psychedelic melody and hummed it.

I turned the Bakelite handle of the right-hand door and pushed. It stuck fast initially— no doubt the composite wood had expanded with repeated downpours over the years, wedging it in its frame. But with a determined shove it gave up its resistance.

Most of the ceiling had caved in, letting in a fuzzy light from the overcast sky—enough to see the derelict interior. Heaps of brick and plasterboard littered the floor, that was still covered in places with a sludge-green, disintegrated carpet. It squelched as I trod on it.

What was I doing here? I’d already hurt myself gaining access to the place, it would be typical if I was to fall through a treacherous hole and break my bones on the hard floor down below.

The music came to me again, this time louder.

see ee ee ee Emily play ….

            It was rising up from a staircase leading to the basement— I could just make it out from the gloom on the far side. It was crummy stoved-in speaker quality, but nonetheless had a quaint charm. Who would be listening to music in such a place?

Intense curiosity supplanted fear of life and limb. I scrambled over a collapsed wall, ducked under a twisted, iron railing and stepped carefully towards the stairwell. I expected to be withdrawing my smartphone for a light, but once at the top of the stairs, I could see a ruby-red glow filtering up from a downstairs corridor.

I tested the top step. It held my weight, but creaked in protest. Without warning, the bannister gave way when I leaned on it—almost tipping me headlong into the gloom. With a grunt, I managed to arrest my descent by pressing back into the crumbling wall.

I righted myself and took a few deep breaths, inhaling the heady aroma of Joss sticks mixed with high quality weed. The scent instantly reminded me of my student digs way over in Camden. That and the insistent beat of what I now recognised as Pink Floyd’s tune, immersed me in a pleasant nostalgia. I paused there on the stairs, savouring the memories. Memories of careless afternoons in the sixties, spent smoking pot on the common, hair lank on bare shoulders, daisy chains in the hair. A bohemian delight.

I don’t remember consciously making a decision to proceed, but all at once I was in the downstairs corridor. The floor here was dry and free from dust and grime. A tungsten bulb shed light on spray-painted wall art on either side. As I traipsed along I saw swirling spirals of blue and green, flower-queens and faeries sat on top of bright red, spotted toadstools. My eyes passed from one scene to the next; Here, the Grateful Dead played at an open air festival to thousands of seated beatniks, over there a multi-coloured Chinese dragon corkscrewed out of a yellow and orange volcano.

The music got louder. As did the sound of a cheering crowd. A different tune this time, discordant and bleak, accompanied by the wail of controlled feedback. Again, it was familiar. Whoever was covering Jimi’s classic Voodoo Chile, surely knew their chops. I pushed against a green door at the end of the passage and entered a world of yesteryear.

A bank of four filter-lights spread their glow on the three-piece crammed on to the stage. Over the heads of what must have been approaching one hundred punters, I saw the perfect Hendrix lookalike. He even had the stage moves and facial distortions down to perfection.

There was a doorman, tall and built like a rhino on steroids. I froze, expecting demands for a ticket or a sharp dismissal, but he just nodded as if he knew me. I’ve always avoided horses, gifted or otherwise, and I certainly wasn’t going to gape in this one’s mouth. I elbowed into the throng.

I thought to myself that this had to be a secret gig, probably illegal judging by the size of the room and the number of people squashed into the confined space. As I looked at the rapt faces of the cavorting audience I saw abandonment and euphoria painted over them. Hallucinating? It was a possibility, but I could feel their jostling forms against me, some even standing on my toes.

It had been a November chill outside, but here the temperature was soaring. I tried to remove my leather jacket but the crowd pressed in on me, making the act impossible. Repeatedly, I had the sense of time constricting. A brief blink saw me standing at the foot of the stage. Jimi’s lookalike was dripping with sweat as he scraped his Stratocaster along the Marshall cabs, face mimicking ecstasy as he made love with his guitar.

I was as caught up in the moment as an acolyte approaching the altar of his God when, abruptly, it was finished. Jimi retired from the stage, leaving his squealing guitar on the boards. The crowd dispersed, some leaving the room, others congregating at the bar.

I looked around, bewildered. On the stage, a Mitch Mitchelson doppelganger laid down his sticks and jumped off onto the floor. He passed me by, giving me a ‘howdy’ and I watched as the frizzy silhouette  of his mullet made its way to the bar.

What are the odds? I said to myself.

I tapped the shoulder of a bearded hippy. “Hey, dude, who’re the band? They’re awesome.”

“The guy’s just come over from the States. Goes by the name of Jimi something … Hey Bryan, what’s that guitarist’s name again?”

Another beardy wiped beer from his mouth and sidled over. “The Jimi Hendrix Experience is what they call themselves. Shit, they’re something else.”

My mind tried to shake off the dislocation, I even slapped myself on the side of  the head, Laurel and Hardy style. The two hippies were still there.

“Dude, are you OK? Maybe you ought to find a seat.

“Yeah, maybe I should.” I swayed drunkenly over to a table in the corner. There was one seat free, the others taken by a mixed group dressed in flowery shirts, velvet jackets and cowboy boots. I asked the nearest body if the seat was taken. He extended his hand with a flourish to indicate I could sit down. The gesture was made all the more flamboyant as the man’s shirt sleeves ended in frills, Cavalier-like. A shoulder-length shock of black hair only added to this impression.

The room was was spinning. Probably dehydrated, I thought.

I shrugged off my jacket and leaned over with my head between my knees. After a while, the guy in the frilled shirt put his hand on my back.

“Looks like you could do with a drink, mate.” He had an  almost upper class accent, not plummy, but well spoken. He passed me a beer from a communal cluster at the centre of the table. I looked at the label. The name Double Diamond was printed in bold red letters.

“Blimey, I haven’t seen this brew since—”

“What did you think of Jimi?” His interruption was sharp but inoffensive.

“I wouldn’t have been able to tell him from the real thing. He’s got all the right moves and everything.”

He smiled, while his eyes looked into me.

“You’re from the outside, aren’t you?”

“Outside? I don’t know what you … “ Now that he was facing me, and the light from the bar caught him in its glow, I recognised who it was. “Wait a minute, you’re … you’re …”

He extended his hand. “Syd Barrett. Pleased to meet you.”

 

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