Down Until Further Notice

Down Until Further Notice


Not so much a novella as a maintenance manual. Once the greatest of wizards, Merlin fell for one of his own tricks and is now trapped inside the complex, a boundless expanse of interiors. All of which need sweeping on a regular basis.

some form of machine

My dear, you will have three children, I say. You will sleep in ten different rooms, in ten different houses. In ten different districts of ten different towns. You want me to tell your future? Your children will live on three continents. The youngest will make her fortune on cheap wine, and throw a silver pocket watch from a high cliff into the sea. You will sleep in a white room with white furnishings. You will cross twelve realms and dine with kings and devils. Half your bargains will outlast you, the others will die by your side. Your name will be spoken for a thousand years, in a hundred kingdoms, on a hundred thousand tongues.

In the laundry rooms, piles of thick fabrics stacked on tables. The sense of abandonment.

Attacks inflicted by Saxon raiding parties have intensified tonight, their ranks swollen with short, violent men, their bodies and faces painted with strange markings. In dwindling light, they set fire to cars and caused damage to shopping precincts, expected to run into thousands of crowns. Forces of law and conservatism have struggled to retain control. The balance has ebbed and flowed.

The game was enacted on a regulated field, the exiled queen opening with an unexpected Gambit. Glyndwr, initially hesitant, responded with the French defence. Momentum shifted uneasily for several moves. The queen’s knights advanced across the board, her panthers were poised for attack. The inattention to security in the early stages left the invaders exposed on diagonals. As the conflict approached the endgame, the troops embarked on a series of daring sacrifices to cut a line into the welshman’s frail defences. The bishops looked on impassively.

She held her nerve. Pawn to e6. He watched her lips move in the glass windows of the auditorium. Bishop takes pawn. Check. She asked him to confirm the extent of his kingdom. Bishop to b4. She smiled. Check. He wondered if there would still be time. Knight takes bishop. He asked her to give him time. Pawn to e2. Check. Mating was assured within three moves.

The years of comets and other signs falling across the skies, and fortunes flowing like stars. Late into the night, lamps burn at the windows. Music from a hundred radios forms a blanket of sound, woven from threads of news and latest scores.

Capulet and Montague achieved a decisive victory in the mixed doubles, dominating with passing shots, diverting with volleys. The Agnus Dei was first into Cowes at the end of the lengthy voyage, her pennants streaming in the wind, her closest rival only an hour behind, after a thousand miles, arriving on the same tide.

All day long, there were reports of mechanicals assembled on the edge of the forest, engaged in pitched battles.

The Knights Templar were deployed as special forces during the battle of Tewkesbury. Sir Gawain took part in the first segment of the battle but was injured by light arms fire. Air strikes organised by the Arthurian forces were decisive later. During Mordred’s readeption, the political context prevented either side from taking a controlling interest. Events on the field were ignored easily by parliamentarians who were able to secure the ongoing debate and control the main supply routes.

Eventually, after much squabbling, king Arthur crossed the river, wading through it in his armour, and planting his standard on the far shore. One nil.

Early in the second half, Warwick led an unexpected attack down the left-hand side of the terrain. Working his way through the defences, with a great bit of skill, he chopped off the right arm of a rival commander. The limb was wrapped in one half of a woollen blanket and taken to Pontefract for safe keeping.

In a controversial decision at the end of the ninety minutes, referees ruled that sanctuary in the abbey had been applied and therefore the Henrician commanders could not be finished off. Amid appeals from the Edwardians, a breakaway group entered the building and evacuated all remaining Lancastrians into the adjacent fields before executing them. It was considered unorthodox.

At the end of extra time, the third duke of Somerset was beheaded by a Welsh infantry captain. Using the Winchester method and a relatively light hand axe, he required only three attempts to sever the neck. Several other, more experienced executioners remained on the bench.

The armies were initially planning a clash at the valley but the fixture was moved due to roadworks on the A38 and the first battle of the afternoon came to a head in the corner of a supermarket car park, between beds of shrubs and silver birches, armoured feet crossing the tarmac between discarded glaives and bill hooks. The thunder of culverins filled the breaks between sharper sounds of handguns and semi-automatics. The Lancastrians were heavily armed with grenade launchers and ground-to-air rockets.

The strategy was to maintain high ground near to the wind turbines, where the contrails of aircraft scorched the skies until, finally, the wounded were carried on biers down into the underground station on the District Line to return to Westminster for the coronation.

Gloucester kept his team tightly marshalled throughout, but not without a little of his renowned wit, showing his time in the marches was well spent. His banners moved forward across the field with ribbons streaming. He was always quick to occupy the nexus of the field, dominating there with a combination of skill and bravado. It was something of a confidence trick in the end but Somerset weakened, leaving the way clear for bold attacking runs into the heart of the Lancastrian defence.

Several ancient scores were reignited after half time, the armies of the north remaining defiant, their visors down.

During the rebuilding of the abbey of St Albans, church architects found a series of underground chambers linked by passageways. The doorways of the caverns were between ten and twelve feet in height. The interior surfaces grooved and patterned with spiral motifs. In one section, a passageway descended in a shallow ramp. When initial surveys failed to reveal the full extent of the tunnel, the abbot ordered an expeditionary team to be led by the Dominican order. The hand-picked group descended with three days’ supplies to map the full extent of the underground site. When they failed to return, a rescue mission was dispatched.

A second team was equipped with radio transmitters, sonic probes and infrared cameras and included some of the most experienced cave warfare crew in the special forces. After two hours, they relayed a signal to the effect that they were all well and that the ramp had levelled off into a large chamber. Another message about an hour later was scrambled and incoherent. There were no further contacts from the group. Additional rescue efforts were considered but never launched and the chapter eventually voted to seal up the caverns in 1345.

King Lot. What a clot. (According to his descriptions in the Gloucester lays.)

Sir Balin died young, as all the most honest and courageous knights do. You have to be a dirty fighter to survive. Lancelot got all the plaudits but he was a cheating bastard. Balin, a different kettle of blackbirds. He was brave, yes. What else? Well. Uncomplicated, you might say.

He lopped the head off a maiden, yes, but then she had killed his father on account of the adultery with the wife of a marcher lord, her father. Who was, incidentally, a cruel and tyrannical leader, who burned people for little or no reason, who died at the hands of his own retinue, who plotted and schemed among themselves to produce an heir. But who were in their turn enchanted by Long Leg Meg herself. Who turned one into a pig and the rest to frogs.

The pig swallowed the frogs, but the last stuck in his throat, he was roasted on a spit in the castle and there was a great feast, after which, swine fever spread through the streets and plains and the shopping centres were deserted except for socialists and pound shops and tailors specialising in funeral wear and black hats and special kinds of custard tarts for which the region became famous and, in time, became a prized and special asset of the European Union.

What about the pilots of ocean craft? They have the sight. I earned my living in that way at one time. Steering my employers to every quarter of the globe. First enter the trance. Ungather your selves. Let them fall into the water and break apart. Wait. Wait. Then reach out and press the something which materialises in the void. Encounter the dimensions and attributes. Draw forth soundings. Take bearings and parameters. Allow lodes to accumulate. All the waters of the world are present in every pool. A puddle. A swimming pool. A water tank. A reservoir. All bear the currents and imprints of the length and breadth of the atmosphere and the ocean. In pubs and coffee houses and taverns and tea bars, people talk about the seven seas. But there is only one.

some sort of machine

The lodestone must be dismantled before cleansing. We haven’t really spoken of the lodestone, or of Wayland smith and the seven swords of Wayland. The seven of swords. Or Agravain, as he was known to us at the time.

The Henfield serpent was another entry in the census of English dragons, first attributed before 1340 by Gilbert of Lymington. The animal was estimated to be nine feet in length with the girth of a twenty-year birch. It had long, ragged wings and was dark in colour with aluminium eyes. Observed on a grassy hillside, in the general vicinity of sheep at pasture, a group of villagers cornered the beast in a narrow ravine and beat it to death with farm implements.

The Kenilworth wyvern, on the other hand, was defeated near the intersection of the A46 and the river. Its names were Morningdust and Winglight. It was mistakenly referred to as a dragon in the Annals of Chichester but Gavin of Whitchurch corrected its description in later editions. Its breeding pattern is unknown. Its population was unknown. Its dimensions were not recorded. Gradually, these beings are chased into extinction.

Gawain was the most successful dragonhunter of all the knights. He evolved an elaborate system of baits and traps and had a keen sense of anticipation. He typically relied on a powerful sedative for the decisive stroke, a mixture of hemlock and belladonna, sufficient to kill fifty horses, reduced to a paste, lacing the jaws of iron bear traps. A series of decoy traps was invariably required. Gawain himself would retire some distance, leaving his ground crew to prepare and trigger the devices. Even they didn’t know the full extent of the scheme. Dragons are far more intelligent than humans but lack humility. They are incapable of considering their own limitations and that is their weakness.

How to kill a cockatrice. The notion this creature can be killed by its own reflection is false. Generally, poison gas is effective. Incendiaries may also be considered, though we have yet to find a living example on which to test the theory. The last recorded sighting of a cockatrice in England was in Wherwell, Hampshire, in 1682. Any subsequent reports are unreliable.

When did you first meet the lady of the lake? It must have been in Newport-on-Usk, in one of the rooms overlooking the boulevard. One of those summer evenings when the trees are filled with starlings and the taverns are open to the street. It must have been an alchemical conference of some sort. We were both acquaintances of someone whose name is now long forgotten. There was a place where the Usk wound silvery and quick. There were lanterns in the streets. She looked frail. Her hands were the first thing I noticed. She was delivering a paper on the singular properties of bezoar formations and we discussed the subject at length over blackberry wine and honey cake.

Vortigern’s tower, seen through the binoculars, is pantone red, bathed in morning sun, surfaced in a million square metres of glass and ironwork. Rising two hundred and fifty feet to the radio beacon at its apex, the bolts to hold it together themselves weigh a hundred tons. Each day, a river of fluid is pumped from base to vertex, supplying its taps and services.

At its foot, beneath the subterranean shopping malls, service ducts and parking bays, deep in its underground levels, the dragons slumber, restless, uneasy, their limbs wrapped around one another, around the foundations of the structure. Well, I did tell them not to build it there.

more machinery

The fuses have blown. Candles, sputtering, guide me down through the levels, through cobwebs, graffiti, debris on the floor. I’ve been here before. I must have been. It’s all so familiar, echoes of memory about it all.

Down. Routine coaxes me back to the lower levels. Basements and sub-basements, wine cellars and storage depots. I take the electric buggy through the tunnels and archways, down the ramp and into the darkness.

By torchlight, I piece them back together until halogen lamps snap back into brilliance.

The murals. I had forgotten the murals. The expanse of them. Also, the piles of pewter dishes, goblets, wooden trays carved from yew, larch, bird cages, and witch bottles.

Wanderer. I hid in the forest. Its trunks were the pillars of my house, its canopies a roof, its floor bisected with running water, its halls filled with the songs of birds.

This is where I learned the craft. Little by little. My feet joined the earth and mingled with tree roots, my hair knotted and tangled and a home for sparrows. My eyes and ears filled with light and sound. A mass blocked my stomach and throat. I held on to the bodies of young oaks to steady myself. The old ones surrounded me. Their spirits whispered with hot breath on my face.

On my knees in the stream, the flux running around me, through me, all the way from the beginning of time to the end of the world. The weight of it was in my throat. Choking, retching, a thick, dark bolus surged from my mouth and into the water, and everything became clear.

Sir Gawain left Telford. For the best part of a year he searched for the green knight’s castle. His quest took him across the kingdom. From Hereford market to Exeter fair. He passed through Street and Frome and a landscape of budget hotels, car parks, roadside eateries. He skirted the conurbations of Bristol and in Portishead, watching container ships arrive with the morning tide.

It took me many years to find the boundaries of the complex. Even me, with my knowledge of borderlands, of interior and exterior. I mixed compounds and distilled elixirs, wove spells. In the end it was much more straightforward than I thought. Finding the true perimeter was not so difficult. Leaving, now that’s another matter, what with the casks of sherry, crates of coffee beans and unused laboratory equipment.

The oubliettes, their trapdoors invisible under layers of dust. Accretions. Strata. I know where they all are. Buried deep. I just can’t remember what’s down there.

At one time, kings and their ministers sought me out and begged for my assistance in their politics. Before I became entrapped in this routine, cleaning latrines and hanging doors. Painting sentry boxes and window frames. Hanging tapestries. Fixing coffee machines. Patrolling porticoes and battlements and batteries.

The labyrinth is something I cooked up myself. So there’s no one else to blame. The lady persuaded me, then learned its secrets. The knowledge passed from me as if it could have only one owner, then she withdrew and left me to wander alone.

What does it matter? For countless spans of time, I was afraid to think I might never get out of this place. Now the thought of leaving fills me with terror.

exploded diagram of unknown machine

The manager watches my every step over closed circuits. She knows those areas yet to be polished, the zones abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair.

New interior divisions have appeared. There are fresh demarcations between compounds. The air flow is considerably improved. New flooring is being installed between partitions.

The view from the windows is better. The trees are higher and more luminant. Wavering leaves. In the background, full-bodied clouds slide over the land and sea.

Someone’s been inside, adjusting parameters, changing variables. There has been a shift in momentum and balance.

No longer encumbered by the narrative force of the objects, the secret is to let your eyes relax. Shapes appear out of the dusk. Swifts, visitors, acrobats, divided into five mansions. Heaven, hell, faerie, dream and annwn.

Maintenance work on the facade. Crumbling mosaic panels held in place with iron bolts, in places nailed in. How was this ever okay? Even in years gone by, forgotten years, this must have been an obscene shortcut. These are external structures. Retaining structures.

Steel doors. Steel and glass. The modernised entrance hall has been remade. Wooden panelling has been displaced by these sleek new surfaces. The complex and its state of flux. Moulded concrete. Aggregate-rich. Square rib construction.

And beyond the entry gates, a mezzanine. And on the mezzanine, an expanse of terrazzo flooring. And in the centre of the expanse, a tree. A hawthorn of course, thick with blossom.

A section of hedging runs alongside the extended reception desk, constructed from laminated oak panels, pressure-folded into an arrangement like a stylised moebius band.

Sweeping the corners of the barbican, on all the levels. Clear up the leaves collecting in the postern gate. Dessicated blossom gums up the workings of the drawbridge. Clean it out by brush first, then grease with linseed or caraway. Make good any defects in the mortar. Check the condition of hinges and downspouts. Touch up the paintwork. See to the general condition of the reception halls.

When did I last see another face in these halls? Almost a pity. Cobwebs drape the chairs in the ballroom, thick as flags. Come here, my little cobweb.

A suite of control rooms I haven’t seen before. At least I don’t think I have. Full of instrumentation and monitoring equipment. Angle-poise lamps. Good, solid construction. Wheeled chairs with walnut surfaces and low-friction gearing. Close carpeting and sprung floors. Heaven as a roof, the earth as floor. Hedgerows for walls in this part of the castle. One extreme to the other. Somewhere nearby are the keys to the kingdom, and blank pales of mist behind the hedges. The ceiling prickles with stars and then a blue-cornered hillside, a frothing sea beneath, and the rattle of a diesel generator behind it all. The sky is made of crate paper. The bright suns are stage lighting. There are strips of flypaper still, an old dartboard. A secret vestibule, filled with someone’s belongings. A pocket knife like I used to have. A brush that feels familiar to the touch. Someone’s stolen my things and hidden them here.

Then I remember. It was me. Maybe a hundred years ago. A staff. A cloak. A tinderbox. A bag of spells. Vials of herbs. All dried to dust. Nameless plants that no longer grow.

Down here in the maintenance levels, there are endless storage spaces. Barrels of unidentified liquids. A loading bay with cages full of electrical equipment. Black. Grey. Some of it still sealed. Rows of indicators blinking on the system panel. Fire alarm. Intruder alarm. Some sort of alarm.

Ships file into the docks. Tall ships. Longships. Sloops. Schooners, low under loading. Cod, tobacco, slaves. Stone, timber, coal. Tea clippers at the end of a hundred-day voyage, pulling in on the same tides. The first dry land since Cathay. Spool in the moonrakers and topsails. Bring in the tugs.

She carried boxes of tea. She carried bales of wool, sheared on sun-soaked slopes, pressed in Victoria and ready for transport, and all without crossing running water. Along the ship canal, between hedgerows and pivot bridges.

Nannie Dee. Ninian. Ninnie. Are you listening?

Meeting the goddess. Past the plant room, down spiral stairways. There, in an alcove, the dining table laid. Cutlery carved from thorns. Dinner plates made out of acorn shells. Piled up with hawthorn berries. What else do forest spirits have for their dinner parties? Hunting horns in the distance. Electric lamps on the bypass.

Migratory patterns. V2 rockets climb to lands on the far side of hell while restless, I walk the labyrinths late at night. Antechambers, waiting rooms, corridors and entrance halls. A rising tide is restrained within these stones, in lead pipes and steel conduits.

Inside the refectory, rain is falling. A thin drizzle glazing the tables and floor tiles. I follow the sound of her laughter, climb a galleried staircase. I’m still finding new rooms after all this time, and all in need of a good clean. The complex is reorganising itself, as places do over time.

Once I was stronger. Once I was younger. Once I was wiser. They called me wizard. Magus. Wanderer. Striking bargains with gods and guiding kings, abroad in the night and full of directions and shadows.

I see the destruction of the complex, its future in ruins, the war nearing its end. Even the sith people have disappeared, their lands compressed into nothingness. The last footholds are gone.

Face the truth. I’m a prisoner of the complex and its many levels. The temple enclosure occupies countless square metres, though its pylons are crumbling with the passage of time. Orchards overgrown, trees choked with loosestrife and bindweed, briars encircling the tallest tower. Where her viciousness sleeps for a hundred years and a day. Shrines lie untended. Clean the goddess, brush down her head and body. Clean out the offerings.

Portals, kiosks, vending machines, inscribed obelisks, statuary, the sacred baths where priests would cleanse themselves before beginning their devotions and protocols, processions and intercessions.

The lady and her liturgies. And the sky blackened with insectoids. And the ground swollen with worms. And the waters thick with iron ships. And the HMS Caliburn setting sail from the quayside, slipping down the ship canal, passing through the harbour neck and out into the channel.

Groundwater penetration. The damage to the zodiac relief needs looking at again. At the entrance to the necropolis, there are fissures in parts of the architrave. Damp soffits, and water always finds a way. Hydrostatic pressure has aggregated behind the structures, the mortar degraded. Material from the backfill behind the retaining wall has gradually replaced it, leading to a reduction in the tensile strength of the structure.

Pumping can be effective in these situations. Perhaps a proposal to the management, or the introduction of an impermeable layer, or mastic spells to seal the barriers. The spandrel wall may be damaged beyond all possibility of repair. Once again, it is necessary to reiterate the importance of effective drainage.

Fareham pots are visible on the skyline. Terns patrol the canals for sticklebacks. Swallows circle the spire. Me, enclosed in the studio, between paint-spattered walls, working late again, a new piece taking shape.

Verges overflow with elder, wild parsnip, loosestrife. Legionaries once marched along these roads, with brass eagles, standards and spears, moving miles, leagues, to orders dispatched on tablina from distant lands. Gravel underfoot. Thin-soled footwear. Marching. Don’t make me laugh.

I remember the arches at the navy college, where warfare was taught, and all the arts of enforcement. I work in a room designated 144 but sometimes you will find me in the recording room. The replacement room. The tensing room. The infraction room. The room of volition, painted a numbing shade of cement white, yet full of night.

Mosaic and movement is all connected. My life was always full of mosaic but most people walk past it all. A second-century masterpiece, broad and priceless beyond measure.

The nightsoil men march down the streets, pipes balanced on their lips. We hear them. We hear nothing. We don’t hear the sound of their spades on concrete slabs. The cadence of their voices. They don’t make no peep. I’m not even moving, barely able to move my limbs, thinking about the houses since vacated by childhood friends, now filled with other voices and different lives, and me married to the king of Elfland’s daughter.

William Pitt the Younger translated many great works into the vernacular. I think he used to burn cakes on a griddle in Pudding Lane, while waiting for the invasion of European hordes. If I remember rightly, he did a deal with a foreign king. In exchange for power beyond his dreams, he abolished all the banks and turned money into gunpowder. All that couldn’t save him from penury and disgrace, living out his days in a caravan in Weston-super-mare, surviving on moonshine and chip papers.

more mysterious machinery

Lost in translation, I awoke unhappy. The worry you feel before the dawn. Lying awake all night. Uhtceare. The agony of sleeplessness. Insomnia fell upon me. Words and pictures circled in my head.

Lost property. Stainless steel screws, forty-nine. Posidrive screwdriver, one. Allen keys, one set. Wing nuts, half a dozen. Copper clamps, one pair. Reduction flask, one. Philosopher’s stone, one. May the goddess exact her revenge on the thieving bastard. Consume his intestines with fire. Chew up his eyes and spit them in the sewer.

These cities built by giants have fallen into disrepair. I walked the streets on the day after the bombs rained down. Everywhere buildings were broken in half. Masonry lay on the pavement. People threw punches on corners. I watched a man deliberately upend the water bowl of a tramp’s dog. Arguments spilled over and out, the congregations of bars and alehouses pressed into streets and alleyways.

From the back to the front, the library shelves caked in dust. Books of spells and enchantments in the special loans. Faerie histories and hermetic texts are available in the short loan collection, all numbered with the Exeter system.

Displaying your collection. Lay out the office workers on absorbent paper to dry. Remove excess condensation carefully with cotton wool. Position on the pinning block. Pin legs and appendages close to the body. Use a spreading mat for larger specimens. Prepare labels with the date and place of capture and transfer to the mounting board. Allow generous spacing between individuals. Divide the computerists into sub-species: pearl, peachypea, jarver. One day, come and see my collection of bezoar stones.

Our old ninny nan is sitting in state. Don’t they know she has dominion here? The trade union leaders didn’t know it until it was too late, and the poll axe riots came to pass, and fourteen intelligence stalking in the shadows. Princess Morgana dined on the bones of trade unionists and socialist workers. Fee fi fo fum. Queen Mab and the miners’ strike came next. The faerie queene drove her chariot across the coalfields and expelled them from the shores. She tickled their noses as they slumbered and listened to the rehearsed arguments fall out of their lips, then put them to sleep. It was the kindest thing.

The privatisation of public services is invariably enacted through warfare. The pivotal battle played out along the line of a hill with the government forces taking up positions on the highest ridges. Service employees, disorganised on the plains, were no match for the heavy artillery. (Paid for with public money of course).

They soon dispersed and were chased down by heavily-armed, well-paid consultants who left their dismembered bodies in the ditches. Following the standard model of corporate activity at the time, the privateers cut off the middle fingers of the archers and kept them as reserved protein.

The visitor centre may no longer exist. A visitor centre without any visitors. The main library complex. Or is it an aquatics centre? That would only be right and fitting for our Niniane. So I sit here while she roams the verges of the island, searching for her next victim. She has her retinues with her, all her peaseblossoms and mustardseeds. The west wind is raising her banners. Salt in her hair.

She’s looking for fashion models, ideally. Bonnier the better. Soap stars will do. Talent show contestants. And when she finds them, she’ll cut their throats or slice open their bellies and reach inside and take out the pebbles their hearts have become. Then back to the bailey where she’ll climb the tower and fashion them into amulets to sell at local art fairs the length and breadth. Fairy goods for fairy fairs.

Sometimes you see a fairy trapped in amber. Like the one which fascinated the local history community of St Leonards on Sea. A retired landscape architect lectured on the possibilities. It was a fraud, a curio. The medical photographer thought it was impossible to fake something like that, then the newspaper magnate decided to buy the object for a million and a half and it passed beyond these shores.

She won’t stand for this. Rust in the steel frame already. Barely a year old. Or a thousand years old. Split the difference. The enclosure is breached. The joints in the coping failed and after that, it’s a matter of time. Now the rust will spread, and the building’s days are numbered. They always were, right from day one. I shall apply the low modulus construction gel in any case and see what happens. It’s all we can do.

A fractured parapet cap or an unsealed screwhead, standing proud of the surface and rusting in the elements. The rain always finds a way in the end and no amount of sealing wax can stop it. It’s a constant battle against moisture. The waters of the lake, contained temporarily in the miles of copper ducting, are straining to damage the structure and destroy everything.

In the quiet of midnight, in the silence of the study room, the books of spells lying open on the dark oak tabletop, the candles burn down until, sputtering and shifting, the shadows return.

The bib cock is hard to find here. Insert your arm up to the shoulder, reaching right round at an almost impossible angle.

I must go down to Nineveh again, to Nineveh and the plains. And all I ask is a fair chance and a throne on which to rain. Ninian, Ninny, Nan, Old Nan, Notre Dame, Our Lady, the Virgin Queen, Evian. I always was a maintenance man, a menial at the beck and call of kings.

There was never simply one lady of the lake. There were many hands and many blades. In one passage or another, she was a famous newsreader, a television presenter, a scholar and a privateer. There were pickpockets and steeplejacks and garden designers. At one time, she wore her hair long, at others, curled or bobbed. Caliburn was bronze and steel and iron and carbon fibre and tin. I can still detect something of her.

I realise, Miss Vivian, I am trapped inside a fortress of my own making, of my blood and bones, my own sense of destiny. The doors are open. They have always been open, and therefore I have never been able to leave.

If in doubt it’s best to return to the simple things. Clean out the sections of the coffee dispenser. Remove the filter housing and submerge it in a gentle mixture of warm water and mild disinfectant. Rinse well and leave to dry. Replace the filter seals and lubricate the clamps, all the cotter pins lined out neatly on the countertop, degreased, shining, polished. Replace the rubber plugs and rinse out the resins. Reattach the outlet pipe. Plumb in the water supply. Connect the electricity. Wait for the temperature gauge to register fifteen degrees. Add coffee beans and grind. Add to the filter holder, apply the steam, and pour.

At some point we must OPEN all the doors. IF you feel you are living with too much angst, you should cultivate in YOURself a gentle passion, console yourself in the SMALL hours of the NIGHT. Only then can you see what IS necessary for escape. HERE is the truth.

If you like stories with nuts and bolts, heating arrays and ventilation ducts, drainage shafts, combination locks, service elevators and key safes, this is the story for you.

I’m no longer a plaything, which is why she watches me with those cool eyes and a cool expression and a cool froideur. My armour is pressing on my limbs, from sallet to solleret, but it feels good. Godly, as we used to say. A hundred thousand million voices in my ears. Things are coming to a head. Caliburn is bared and rising again, held between gauntlets all this time, and yet to ring its final note. Nimue, are you listening?

The more I think about Arthur, the more I see him as a reactionary force. Snatched from his birth mother, placed in appraised surroundings, monitored throughout, cleverly fed small but fascinating snippets of information, pledging to uphold justice and order, never the room to pursue his own destiny. Where was the opportunity for creativity, disorder, disobedience, originality? He was always beholden to others, unable to question their knowledge. It made the restraint in him, all the more amazing, and the kindness in those eyen of grene.

Viking raiding parties lie off the coast again, with energy lamps on their boats, thinly glimpsed through the fog.

They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into over here, just in search of easy pickings. Times must be hard. Their natural habitats have declined or become less attractive to them. They’ve always known these waters but something must have changed to upset the natural balance.

The currents in this part of the world are powerful and sure. They pass under Brunel’s great iron bridge and on down the gorge. But even the Danes don’t set foot this far up. They’re not fools. The markings on their boats are fascinating to me. They are charts to a different universe.

My office on the sixth floor contains the keys to the kingdom. My office in the annexe contains the keys to maps. My office in the basement contains unknown keys. The key cutting room is located in the south transept of the sub-basement. You operate the machinery by placing your left hand on the fluctuator and your right on the guidance mechanism.

disassembled components

This is how you remove the tyres from the hand truck. This is how you lubricate the gearing mechanism. This is how you fill in the maintenance ledgers. This is where the books of magic are kept.

This is where kittiwakes nest in the spring. Their streams of guano give the brickwork a blue-grey colour. At least I think they’re kittiwakes, the ones nesting there. They’ve been here in previous years too. Their natural habitats have declined or become less attractive to them. Now they drift inland to nest in the drawbridges and other parts of the structure. They like to congregate together in kittiwake townships. I watch them wheeling above the complex, skating on mist. They might be the black-legged type, but it’s hard to tell. They lay one clutch per season. Each clutch contains two or three eggs. In a clutch of three, one is always different in shape and size. They are a small and graceful bird, but noisy and full of shit.

Like the bird who stole Oliver Cromwell’s handkerchief on the day before an important summit at Northampton. And when I say summit, I mean execution.

Miss Morrigan, Morgana, Morrigan, Morgan, Modron, Morgaine, Morfudd like the sun. I name her, the one who imprisoned me here.

At dusk, it feels like she’s watching you from the top of the stairs with those yellow eyes shining in the dusk like satsuma skins.

Trade ships arrive in the docks. You can see them from the roof, sliding down from the horizon, into the calm waters at the quayside. The statuettes, immobile on the perimeters of the entrance halls, watch as you go past. Sensing your presence, like girls always know when you’re gazing on them. Meanwhile, the barges are slipping away downriver. Steamers rode these waterways once. Think of the carbon emissions, the way they belch out all that smoke. Airfill. Free radicals and complex molecules. Quinqueremes of Nineveh and salt-caked smoke stacks.

Morgan the sea-born, sea-borne siren. Le Fay, the fair, the fairy. Except they don’t say that late at night when it’s just me and her. It’s just the sounds of her footsteps, usually, winding their way around me, around all the floors, above and below.

Vandals break into these rooms sometimes and daub paint on the walls. They might break windows or furniture, like that time I had to clear up all the broken glass from the internal windows. The sheer volume of glass, not to mention the weight of it, hauled in buckets down fifteen flights of concrete stairs and into the refuse hoppers. Such a waste.

The entire adventures of Merlin Little have not been revised since Geoffrey of Monmouth. I propose to do something about that. One day. The intention is to clear some time in the diary. Perhaps when the new parts arrive for the generators. I completed the requisition forms with the utmost care. I sent them in, when was it? Days ago. All my days.

As soon as things are going along nicely, I’ll find some time to sit at a desk. Maybe that desk in the oak-floored office near the top of the tower. It’s cold up there but the views of the city on a summer morning. The clouds in fragments above the estuary.

I know a bit of Merlin and his methods. He taught me a thing or two in my early youth.

The painting, I recognise. She holds a shaft of corn to her lips. She watches you from that one, two. What crossed their minds? The people who made this place. The offices with their long wooden tables and machinery wrapped in polymers.

What do you think, Ms Morgan, with your heavy, curling hair and your eyes glowing in the first light of dawn, bringing me tales of the coffee machine again and its inadequacies?

Somewhere out there is an island where I truly belong. An orchard, I imagine, and a specific array of herbs.

Soon the manager will be on at me again to fix the water courses. The moisture is rising. An entire lake inside this building, enough to fill a void the size of, the size of, and if it all comes crashing down, what then? How many cubic tons? The measurement of water and volumes.

The main pipes have diameters of twelve inches or more. And there are how many miles of ducting and piping? Bearing the gravity of the situation. Of course, none of it works if the pumps break down. Little do they realise, working studiously and pointlessly in their office environments.

But who am I to say? The offices are filled with mice these days. I haven’t seen any inspectors since I don’t know when. The events offices, the marketing suites all abandoned. Computers, brand new, stowed away in plastic shrouds.

Watching from the battlements, the fairy people buried in hills. There’s all human life down there, between streets and spires, the offices of Mordant and company. Lights burning at all hours and clerks hard at work, drafting, calculating, predicting. You can almost hear the algorithms.

Mordant’s lawyers say they can’t release me from the bond. There must be some loophole, I insist. I write down the details carefully. Consider the words. Subtract certainty and concrete statements. They think in abstract terms. Speak their language, I say. Talk in their tongues.

The letter went into the post tray with the others, slipped in at the bottom of the pile, then out in mail sacks, down chutes into the postal vans and onto the streets. You can chart the progress from up here. Like blood clots they are, slooping through intersections.

The answers never come so easy. There are conditions, they say. Terms and conditions. The terms and conditions of your arrangements. Arrangements can always be made. All those letters and none of them any good.

Seating arrangements. I unfold the chairs, I set them out, I fold them up again. I stack them in boiler rooms and alcoves. I lubricate their hinges. I polish their frames and load them onto trolleys and push them down service corridors, then into the elevator.

components of an unknown object

Here I am, climbing the spine of the main auditorium, rising first to the pit, the main stage, the lighting gantries and higher, where technicians have left cables dangling into the void.

I’ll ask her for a meeting. We can talk things over. That would be best for everyone. See if we can’t work out some compromise. At the very least, I could get some idea of future prospects. So I don’t know this is all for nothing. It’s so long since I started here. I first came here when there were only trees. As far as the ear can hear. Branches rubbing, leaves shifting.

Now the trees are telegraph poles and the branches are communications lines. Optical fibre connections contain all the light.

Now sometimes it seems like I’m the only one. Just me and the low hum of fluorescent tubes and blue painted walls.

There’s a photograph of Miss Morrigan in a frame on every floor. I keep taking them down but someone keeps putting them up again. Graffiti, disfigurement, defacement. I don’t like to see it. Disrespectful. She represents the family firm, after all. At least, I assume she does.

The coffee machine dispenses a cup, followed by a thin, disappointing rivulet. I remember there being amulets here at some point, and charms. Now it’s just the noticeboard with its assorted admonishments.

Nothing has been done about the mouse situation on the fourth floor. Nothing has been done about the water ingress on the flat roof of the annexe. Nothing has been done about the uncertain supply of electricity in the areas beyond my control. Nothing has been done about laying new flooring for the ballroom. Nothing has been done about the coffee supplies, despite my many and varied warnings and reproaches. Nothing has been done about the rats. Nothing has been done about the ragged flags. Nothing has been done about the coverings on the in-built seating. Nothing has been done about the conference centre roof. Nothing has been done about the flowerbeds in the courtyard. I am only one man. I can’t do everything. It’s raining again. Why does it always rain on Fridays?

Vortigern the king had three daughters, May, June and July. The first was married to the king of Norway and she became the queen of spring. The second went across the sea and she became the queen of summer. But the third was controlled by no man. She was put into a nunnery where she studied and schemed and mastered confidential arts. When I knew her, she held court in her fortress on an island of apple trees. She consulted unusual beings and entertained demons at her dinner table and monitored political developments from afar, patiently waiting for her plans unfold.

At management meetings, Miss Terry has all her hellish conspirators arranged around the table, watching and weighing their position on the scales of cant and influence.

When the directors assemble in the boardroom, they invariably arrive in full regal force. Their carriages are directed in to the helipads, usually at dusk or after midnight. You see the lamps burning as they approach from the east, sodium yellow in the night sky. The clouds are always wild.

One by one they come down the stairwells, in procession with attendants and minions and various personal assistants, to arrive on the sixth floor and take their designated positions. The dukes and princes of all the circles are there. The odours filling the air conditioning ducts are like old apple blossom masking something hotter and more deathly.

I’ve seen winged horses, black as night, arranged on the landing platforms, stamping the composite flooring with their hoofs, impatient to get back in the sky and into the heart of night before dawn arrives. There too, drivers stand by on marvellous insects, large as fighter planes, the creatures cleaning their antennae as they wait, glassy wings folded on their backs.

Not many people know John Milton lived in these parts. Or rather, he was detained against his will. As a young man he was supposed to be married to a wealthy blacksmith but on their wedding day he refused to speak. The wedding could not be properly brought into being until he said he did, but he did not. So instead, he was locked in a room, in a metal tower, until he agreed to the terms and conditions.

For three years he wasted away in the darkness. Without access to a typewriter, he had no choice but to compose pamphlets in his head on his unsuitability for bondage. When he had finished those, he embarked on a new project, a complete history of the kingdom of hell. Working tirelessly, he dictated every word through the door of his cell to a prison guard.

Finally, after a further six years, the prisoner’s work was almost finished when his kidneys collapsed and he slipped into delirium. Yet all was not lost. The ward supervisor stole the dead poet’s identity, married his childhood sweetheart, and published the work to rave reviews. The writer himself was buried beneath the correction centre, where his bones still lie to this day.

I’ve never read the book myself. But I once saw the film.

A fracture in the guttering on the steepled roof has caused this unsightly staining on the glass in the marketing breakout suite. God knows what they put in rainwater these days, or what residue lies between the tiles. I suppose it needs fixing, but I don’t know where to begin with it. Perhaps I could rig up a harness and lower myself down over the roof, or stand out on the ledge with a safety rope?

Really, it needs a specialist. Some jobs do. You wouldn’t try to make a nuclear bomb yourself, would you? Actually, some people do try, on kitchen tables in Birmingham, early on a Sunday morning, with the city sleeping around them.

I won’t be able to get that past her nastiness, though. What do we employ you for, Mrs Morgan will ask, if not for this sort of thing?

I thought perhaps if I was lucky, I could see the point where the tube alloys had failed. Slide back the window, lean out into the air, crane my head to see a missing clip or an obvious blockage. But there’s only dried residue on its underside and the thing itself too far to reach, even at full stretch, with the wind whipping the hair and rain stinging the eyes.

Before Isaac Newton invented compression valves, he came up with solder joints. Before that, other forms of closure, which were considerably less successful. At one point, he had fifteen servants standing in the grounds of his father’s villa, all raising the tubing above their heads while he pumped it full of fluid and examined it for leaks.

The excuses continue. If it must be done today, you first need to find the right tools. Tomorrow, you’re waiting for materials to arrive. After that, you might have higher priorities.

We apologise if you were offended by the earlier-than-scheduled execution of your cherished one/family member which took place before the appeal had been processed. Only human, learn from mistakes, continuous improvement, blah, blah. We apologise if you were offended by the revolution which took place last weekend. In particular, we should have given more warning before beheading the monarchist pig scum. All future revolutions will be carried out at a more suitable hour, later in the evening. Tonight’s scenes of dismemberment and infanticide may contain flashing images.

Down Until Further Notice
Published in England by the Mechanical Bird Press
First imprint in paperback and e-book 2019

Words and pictures by David Guest
Set in Libre Baskerville