Exit through the giftshop
sometimes, moments are so potent that the stench of them gets caught in the fabrics of time and seeps permanently into whatever surrounds them
If walls could talk we would have an awful lot to say, particularly walls that have stood firm as long as I have. As it is, we cannot, and thus we remain silent witnesses to the endless occurrences that take place within our bounds.
But sometimes, moments are so potent that the stench of them gets caught in the fabrics of time and seeps permanently into whatever surrounds them and so, I hold within me secrets and energies that remain indefinitely and imprint themselves on multitudinous presents.
Time is an illusion and people often get tangled in the vast and plentiful webs of the past without realising it – sometimes even impressing themselves onto the troubled mysteries that surround them until in some places the air buzzes and swells with prickles of lifestuff and so it goes on, and on.
In 1678 my backbone was fused to the ground here; large and grand for the time. Over the subsequent 200 years tweaks and embellishments would render me a symbol of seething opulence until I had become an enduring figure, both of divine craftsmanship and reckless vanity.
But oh! did I see the plights of these men who built up and purchased and exchanged and embroidered my corners crack and crumble within me time after time after time? Did I see the end of slavery bankrupt a trader; did I see the second Countess de Burgh willfully defy her power-mad husband with a male acquaintance, and watch the servants’ stares as she was cast out into the night? I watched patiently as mines closed and industries dwindled and the corners of my paintwork began to flake and the corners of my masonry began to crumble and no-one had the will or means to restore me. If only some of these men had had more of a sense of humour.
Oh, did I witness the universe seal my fate with a wink of dark humour ninety years ago when, within the servants’ quarters, embers from a fading fire flickered and grew and consumed me until I was half-bare, smoking and melancholy; a new kind of symbol – or perhaps just an old thing - interesting to look at on a leisurely Sunday afternoon?
That Sunday, 2011 now, I saw a girl approach. An anomaly, glittering with life under her mackintosh and boots and unwieldy fringe, picking up signals like an antenna, feeding off them like a current. It was obvious that the whole world coursed through her veins like wildfire and believe me when I say, I know the taste of those flames. Energy prickled off her skin like static.
Time does not retain the mundane. For better or for worse, fraught, biting moments are the ones that cling to the mortar and soil and dust of the earth, through potency, and this girl was fraught herself, sizzling with a kind of mania so hot that it could bubble over any second, though I got the impression it never quite did, that it just simmered, and simmered beneath the surface.
An amiable anorak-adorned man approached her as she passed through the gate leading to the steps of my North entry.
“Would you like to buy a guidebook for five pounds?” He smiled, full of sincerity. “This place is full of history.”
“I know,” she replied, not rudely, but distractedly; staring in my direction.
“Oh, you are familiar with the property?”
She turned her eyes briefly back from my columns and toward the man again.
“No,” she replied, matter-of-factly. I can just feel it. Life, histories – they linger.”
She had already stepped away and towards me when he tucked the small pile of books perplexedly back under his arm then he shouted after her that he hoped she would enjoy her visit.
She did seem to enjoy her visit. She meandered leisurely through the corners of my shell; as though in a dream, speculating what could have happened here, or there, as the sun shone down on her, through the gap where my roof should have been and cast monsterous shadows across the crooked angles of my walls. Unlike many of the others, she did not take pictures. Rather, she absorbed the afternoon by osmosis, occasionally smiling to herself, eyes kind of glazed.
The only way back to the carpark was through the gift shop. So when she had had enough, or realised the time, or become suddenly tired, she passed through and noticed that the man she had seen earlier, now sans anorak was sitting behind the counter. He watched her with curiosity as she weaved her way through tables on top of which were lines of fridge magnets and boxes of clotted-cream fudge and little plastic toys molded to a likeness of my ruins.
She paused when she reached the counter, glancing down momentarily at the pile of guidebooks stacked up next to the till. She leant in towards the man across the counter.
“You know,” she said intently, without the smallest flicker of a smile on her face, “she wished she had never come to this place. She says it was the worst decision of her life and she will regret it for eternity.”
“Who?” he replied, bemused, wondering if he would have to deal with some bizarre complaint.
“The second Countess de Burgh, of course.” she replied, straight-faced, in a whisper, “it was her biggest regret. It’s why she’s still here.”
The man’s eyes widened. As he stared at her for a moment in total bemusement, he could have sworn that her own contained a small – almost, almost imperceptible glint of mischief. And was that the most miniscule flicker of a wink? He could not know for sure.
He watched, open-mouthed as she exited through the other door, not looking once behind her.
It would take him a full forty minutes after she had walked back to her car and driven away to consider the numerous plaques dotted around my site containing various morsels of historical information, one of which undoubtedly outlined many of the specifics surrounding the Countess’s scandal. Once he had, he chuckled to himself intermittently, turning the audacity of the joke over and over in his mind like a puzzle he could never solve but was endlessly entertained by.
After that small, playful shimmer of life he saw in the girl’s eyes, she herself seemed to linger there. From then on for many months, every time he heard the little bell above the door to that giftshop ring out he hoped - for just a second - to see her strange, mischievous face appear once more. Like a ghost though, her presence was elusive and intangible and it never did. But her spirit simmered.
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