The northern arm of the city’s skyrail network emerges high above the city, sweeping pods full of people away from the metropolis. Thirteen miles later I am the only one left, flying solo over gallons of weeks-old snow that nobody saw coming and nobody ever heard falling. The street lamps that line the suburb streets grow orange forming streams like lava through icing sugar. I remain in my seat until we, the pod and I, reach the final stop.
Here there is only an icy ladder down into the snow. Once I reach the ground I take out my compass and torch and navigate my way through the dusky dead winter afternoon, snowbound and unforgiving. My footsteps are formed crunching and the skyrail stop looms behind me like a spectre.
By the time I reach the cottage the very last of the day’s light is disappearing. The old granite holds firm in the cold, the neighbouring forest stands silent and deceitful, and howls rise from the back yard. Her majesty is there to welcome me in from the cold.
“How do?” I ask. She nods. “Yes, and you?” I sniff – “Aye.”
The Queen is an impressive, bird-like creature of forgotten years of age, thin and woolly-wrapped in her domestic exile. “Will you have a drink before you see to the beasts?” she asks as I swing my rucksack from my back. It clatters as I place it on the welcome mat.
I shake my head. I can hear the bearded beasts in the back yard. Restless ghosts in fur and bone. “May as well get it over with.”
I remove my tools from my rucksack and trudge off around the cottage towards the back yard. Baying, their faces buried into the snow, the beasts do not notice as I walk through them. Their bumped backs and bony behinds, chains tying them to tree stumps. Each in their own private torment, oblivious to the fact that they are not alone. The Queen emerges from a back door and joins me, knitted up in thick hand-knit coat, stuffed with thermal underwear and newspaper against the cold. Above her bulked and padded coat her head looks tiny, like a body builder’s.
“Which one?” I ask. “Over here,” she sets off unsteadily and I take her majesty’s arm.
She indicates the troubled beast and I kneel down at his buried, baying head. The Queen holds my torch as I reach down and cup the beast’s face, gently pulling it up and out of the snow so that I can examine it. Its beard is long and bedraggled and its baying mouth is open wide and loud like an express tunnel of sound. Above his lips is the problem.
“He has two moustaches,” I tell the Queen. “Yes,” she says. I sigh. “I’ll have to remove one. It will be re-homed in the city.” Another sigh. “I’ll need some light.”
I make a fire by turning over an empty catering-sized tin of used-to-be mushroom soup, filling it with dry twigs and then setting them alight. The Queen stands behind the fire for warmth and I kneel down in front of the beast. Removing the moustache in one piece is a tricky operation and the beast bays only more as I complete the process. After ten minutes I have snipped, chiselled, picked and wrenched the moustache from the beast’s face and my collection of steel implements are coated in a fine dust of hair. The Queen has returned indoors.
I let the beast’s face go and it drops back into the snow and he continues his baleful baying into the gallon frozen white earth. The group’s song is hollered into the ground and emerges deeper and sadder into the winter night sky.
“Done,” I tell the Queen as I remove my boots at the door. “The beast is ok?” I nod. The beasts are, should be, would be important. The bearded beasts.
Inside the cottage I build a fire in the hearth and then set to making a meal. In the kitchen is a meagre collection of food – a few slowly rotting vegetables, not a lot in the dry stores. “The supplies are not getting through?” I ask. “They will come soon enough. We will be fine.” I rummage in my rucksack for emergency rations – two chicken breasts, some rashers of bacon. I duffel the chicken into the bacon and stew the meat in with some vegetables. “Will you eat the beasts?” I ask, “If supplies run low?” The Queen stares into the fire. “We will be fine.”
“Do you mind if I have a beer?” I ask the Queen as I delve into my rucksack again. “Be my guest.” “Would you like one?” I ask as I pop open a can. She thinks, or appears to. “I have not drunk a beer in many years.” She thinks some more. “I think that I would like one.”
The sight of the frail old majestic bird knocking back a can of beer is a strange sight. Her thin royal fingers, her ageing lips, her flamingo neck. It all looks wrong.
We eat the stew in front of the fire.
“The removal was easy?” she asks. I nod. “And the rest of the beasts?” I nod. “The snow…”
“The snow makes them sad,” I tell the Queen. “They are not built for the snow. They are not built for here and now. They should not really be here, they do not belong in this place.” I sigh. “I do not know where they came from.”
“In the city. Have they forgotten the beasts?”
I do not know how to answer this question. In the city they have very much forgotten the beasts. Do they remember the Queen? No, they have very much forgotten the Queen as well. This is a convenient wilderness for beasts and birds. There are not many of us who do remember, those of us whose skills are also forgotten, those few of us reliant on this place.
“And the Prince? He is running the city well?” I nod.
“Tomorrow the curator is coming to see to the statues. I would be grateful if you would remain here until he arrives.” I stop eating and set my stew down on my lap. The curator? That is someone else. I do not know about the curator, all I know is an uneasy feeling in my stomach. “Will you stay until he comes?”
The Queen may be forgotten but I am still her servant. At night I lie in front of the fire, like a dog, and sleep does not come. Eventually I sit up and sip another beer slowly as I wait for the day to arrive through the snow and the wilderness. Out here it seems like there is no guarantee that the morning will come.
When it does come I set on my boots and make my way back out into the snow. The skies are empty for now though there has been fresh fall in the night. My footsteps disappear deep into the white earth.
Moments after I reach the final skyrail stop a pod arrives and I hear the curator making his way down the ladder. “Beastman!” he cries when he spots me. “What makes less noise than a statue?” He reaches the bottom of the ladder. He is a strange, small man, little over five feet tall, liable to be swallowed by the snow. He has tiny eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses and a too-big forehead. “What makes less noise than a statue?”
“I don’t know. Follow me.”
It is a shame that the snow cannot mute everything. “The sculptures need maintaining the same way the beasts do, we are much the same.” I concentrate on navigating us back to the Queen. “They are very much alive, they are pictures of our souls, they… they are solid gestures of our place in the world.” He spends too much of his breath on talking, he is falling behind. “They are too much truth for people to accept, they are cast out like the beasts, we are much the same, you and I. We both tie up loose ends, make the world an easier place.” I try to ignore him but his restless chatter is difficult. We are similar. The statues really should not be here.
The beasts have woken and are hollering. The forest remains silent as ever.
The Queen meets us at the door, already in her coat full of newspaper. “Your majesty!” exclaims the curator, hugging her on the doorstep. She does not reply.
The three of us – the Queen, the curator and I, the beastman for want of a better name – the three of us leave for the forest immediately. There is no change in the beasts as we pass. Their lonesome noise fades into the distance as we reach the forest, entering over a stile in the fence. The curator and I take a Queen’s hand each and help her over.
And then we are in the forest.
We follow a path which snakes through the trees, the snow thinner on the ground than it is out in the open. The air is still, no snow falls from the tree tops. The curator leads, his cassette recorder in his hand. The Queen follows stiffly, hindered by the newspaper. Then I.
I had forgotten about the curator’s cassettes. The recorder is little bigger than a shoe and he runs a tape through it at all times. In the past he has played me several recordings of statues. To me the only sound is silence. He says that the recordings are very important. “You should record the beasts,” he has said. “One day it may be very important.” I have no interest in recording the sound of the beasts. I have no way of escaping the sound of them anyway, even when I sleep.
“In the city,” begins the Queen, “have they forgotten the sculptures?” Her words go out into the air, into the trees, into the forever of the tape recorder.
The curator stops our tracks but his tape keeps running. “I am afraid not your majesty. There are still sculptors in and around the city, still compulsive artists who feel the need to complete their work. They work in secret, in dark, hidden corners. They turn their souls inside out and preserve the shape of them in rock and wood and metal and plastic.”
“And what becomes of them then?”
“They are wrecks. There is nothing for them in the city then. It is an efficient machine and they are empty shells.” The curator begins to walk again, one foot in front of the other, quietly through the watching forest.
“And the sculptures?” I ask. “What about them?”
He stops and turns. “I find out about them and, if I like them, I bring them to live here.”
From this point on the curator leads our party and the Queen clutches hold of my arm as we walk behind. Both of her bird-like hands grip my arm. We walk slowly. In the snow all is silent. Everything here is either dead or asleep.
The statues begin to appear at the sides of the path, all shapes and sizes, depictions of men, myths, beasts, some of them just shapes. All of them. Somehow staring. Down at us. As we walk. All silent. All dead, all solid dead matter. As though. As if they belong. Here. They punctuate the forest. Like this is their place. They are. Things that should not. Be.
The curator’s tape continues to whir, recording our morning. And I am glad that we are here in the morning and in the light.
He stops when he spots the statue he is interested in. It is a marble expression of sadness which has been turned into this world with sharp, skilled, precise hands and a heavy soul. I wonder if it was made by a wonderful person in the city. I wonder if that wonderful person feels like baying like the beasts. I cannot look at the sculpture with any kind of happiness.
The statue’s naked curves are perfect. The curator is running the fingers of one hand across it, holding his tape recorder with the other, holding it close to the surface, the skin of the statue. He touches its eyelids. “Silence,” he whispers.
There is no other word for it. The idle thoughts of the dead.
“There is a sculptor in the city,” says the curator eventually. “I think that her piece will sit very nicely next to this. It is a thing of similar beauty.” He takes off his glasses and wipes them with the end of his scarf. “Your majesty, if we could return to the house…”
We follow the path back through the forest, the sound of six feet in snow and one cassette tape whirring in a machine no bigger than a shoe. No bigger than a shoe, but deeper and more eternal than a galaxy.
“How many of those do you have?” I ask. “How many cassettes?” The curator looks down at his recorder and then back up at me. “Everything around me.”
“Everything around me for as long as I can remember.”
When we reach the cottage I boil some water and pour it into three mugs. We sit by the fire without our coats. “Your majesty, I will return with the new sculpture in a couple of weeks, with your permission,” says the curator. “Of course,” replies the Queen. “I will enquire about the supplies from the city,” I promise, “some food will be on its way.” She nods in thanks.
“And if needs be, you must eat the beasts. They will not live forever.”
The curator and I set out in boots and coats for the skyrail. I would rather travel alone but. He continues to record as we walk. “The sound of the skyrail rushing overhead is one of my favourite recordings,” he tells me. I concentrate on where we are going.
The tape clicks to an end and we have to stop whilst the curator finds a fresh cassette in his pack. I stand still, patient, endless. “You know, you remind me of a sculpture sometimes.” I set off again for the skyrail stop, leaving him to follow me. “Hey, come on beastman…”
We are heading back to the city, where there is no silence, where there is neither the company of beasts or the beauty of statues, where there is plenty of food and a constantly changing world, ticking like a clock, never stopping for one moment’s rest.
The curator has pulled a second recorder from his bag and is playing me some of his favourite cassettes documenting his life in the city. A garbled conversation with the dentist, eating breakfast and listening to the radio, the self-service machine at the supermarket. He continues to record whilst replaying these sounds to me, creating a recording of recordings.
Drawing his history around him like a cloak, sculpting the movement of sound in the air into the shape of his life, all preserved on magnetic tape in plastic casing, hundreds upon hundreds of times, always getting closer to encapsulating his time here on this planet, accumulating to perfection.
The skyrail pod reaches the suburbs and the curator gets up from his seat to leave. “This is my stop then,” he says. “I’ll see you again sometime.” He shakes my hand.
The pod slows down as it reaches the stop and the doors spring open onto the same morning, just miles away. “Hey beastman. What makes less noise than a statue?”
“The idle thoughts of the dead.”
The curator chuckles and puts one foot out of the pod and onto the platform. “Nothing makes less noise than a statue.” He puts a second foot onto the platform, meaning that he is now out of the pod and on the platform. The door closes.
The pod lurches away from the stop and then runs smooth into a cool and efficient journey into the beating heart of the city.