The Smell of Telescopes

BOOK: The Smell of Telescopes
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THE SMELL OF TELESCOPES

by

Rhys Hughes

Tartarus Press

Copyright Information

The Smell of Telescopes by Rhys Hughes

First published by Tartarus Press 2000

This edition is published by Tartarus Press, 2013 at

Coverley House, Carlton-in-Coverdale, Leyburn,

North Yorkshire, DL8 4AY

Dedication

To Charlotte:

yo quiero que tu me quieras

y eres tan cruel que me desprecias

si supieras tu lo mucho que he llorado

desde aquella tarde en que te vi

 

dime: por qué no me quieres?

dime: por qué me abandonas?

si tu eres mi vida y mi único anhelo

y a ti solo quiero con todo el alma

oye, en noches pasadas

soñé que tu eras mi amor

y al despertar me encontré con la realidad

que jamás me querrás

 

ERNESTO LECUONA

The Banker Of Ingolstadt

“I wish to open a student account.”

The clerk removed his tinted spectacles and wiped them with a dirty cloth. The figure seated across the desk had the hungry appearance of the usual undergraduate, the pale skin and sunken eyes, but was plainly a lunatic. He considered ringing the bell for assistance, but a quick glance around the chamber confirmed that most of the staff had finished work early. So he cleared his throat and muttered:

“You are registered at the University?”

“That’s correct. I’m studying
Sociology and Reanimation
with Doctor Waldman. Is there a problem? I was told that your bank offers discounts on carriage travel and tickets for the multistage opera, not to mention a 200 florin bonus for freshers, and a 1000 shilling overdraft facility subject to prior arrangement. Have I made an embarrassing error? Shall I deposit my grant cheque elsewhere?”

“Let us not be hasty. The Bank of Bavaria is indeed rather generous with its terms for customers entering Higher Education. But I’m afraid we have to be completely open with each other and you have already tried to deceive me. Perhaps you would consider a Golden Oven account instead? To put a crust on your funds! How about a Double Mangle? That one limits withdrawals to 10 doubloons a week, but is index linked to the number of fatalities in Prussian or French Wars. Every type of account is open to you—except the one tailored for students. You can’t possibly have enrolled at Ingolstadt University.”

“Why not? I judge that a gross insult!”

The clerk toyed with a quill resting on a vast ledger. “Because, Fräulein Radcliffe, you are a woman!”

“Absolutely! The first female to register with Doctor Waldman on the
Sociology and Reanimation
modules.”

She added darkly: “It’s a Rancid Sandwich Course!”

Curling his lower lip around a clubbed finger, the clerk moistened the tip with inky spittle, opened the ledger and proceeded to flick through the sheets. His prints crowded each other out on every page, as if he derived pleasure from smudging the names scratched in neat rows, in lieu of blotting the identities of the owners. Finally, he reached the last page and slammed the book shut.

“These are the financial records of every student who has opened an account here since the founding of the college in 1250. Not a single one has ever been a woman. Indeed, there’s not enough space in the margins to write ‘Fräulein’. And suppose you did deposit your grant cheque with us? We could hardly mix your funds with the male money in the student vault—that would be unseemly. A new vault would have to be constructed just for you, and painted pink, with lace hanging from the combination dial on the lock. Do you truly want to put us to so much bother? I’m sorry, Fräulein Radcliffe.”

“Call me Mina.” She brushed back her auburn hair and undid the top button of her bodice. “If I open a Double Mangle account, my money will also have to be stored with that of men.”

The clerk clucked his tongue disapprovingly. “You sound excited by the concept. No, that’s an account for feeble pensioners, which is why I’m amenable to extending its terms to you. There will be a surcharge, of course, to pay for a chaperone. Now then, do you have any proof of identity?”

Mina placed her handbag on the desk. The clerk frowned. It appeared to be sewn from many different types of leather, but the skins had been badly cured, and had not originated on any domestic animal. Parts of the bag sprouted hairs, dark and fair, while other patches were studded with nipples or navels—cameo and intaglio designs which suggested motherhood rather than a fashion accessory, something embryonic in its womb, a sextet of mysteries, if one might pardon the expression. Then she pulled apart the enamel clasp—a tooth in a gum—and rummaged around for a minute, finally producing a square card which held a miniature portrait in oils of her likeness, and an official stamp.

“Oh dear, Fräulein!” muttered the clerk. “That is a Students’ Union Card, and as we have already established, there is no such thing as a female undergraduate. I don’t know how you came by it, though I suspect theft or forgery, but I am not willing to be duped by such tricks.” He indicated the ledger. “As I said, there has never been a woman with a student account in our business history.”

“May I see?” Mina drew the ledger toward her with two delicate but strong hands. The clerk averted his eyes as her wrists slipped out from her sleeves. A dim urge vaulted the security barrier which separated his id from his ego, a desire to lean across the desk and touch her knee. He repressed it and gasped. Did he know how to touch a woman’s knee? The answer was negative, but a disturbing memory came loose from the spike where it had been impaled, ready for filing and obfuscation. It flapped around inside his cranium. The palm rests on the kneecap, the fingers close around it, the hand slides gradually up... No, it was a fraudster! An impostor memory!

He was rescued by a squeal of delight from Mina, who had found an entry which excited her. For a moment, he was worried, fearing she had discovered a name to challenge his assertion, but he knew the ledger like the back of his pituitary gland. What was she saying now? He rubbed his ears, feeling a little dizzy, twiddling the moles on his neck.

“Look, it’s his signature! I can’t believe he really sat here and signed this!” Mina pressed her lips to the name in faded ink. “Victor Frankenstein!”

“Who? Oh, that wastrel! Yes, I remember him well. He defaulted on a loan. Said he wanted funds to insulate the attic of his lodgings and then spent the money on electric eels! You’re not related to him, are you?”

“Heavens, no! Victor was by birth a Genevese, and his family was one of the most distinguished of that republic. I am from Montevideo, but my father was English. Have you really nothing better to say about this incredible genius? It was Victor who first succeeded in imparting life to the limbs and organs of corpses. Without his pioneering work, the university of Ingolstadt would not now be running its Reanimation courses. He was my hero when I was growing up on the outskirts of my home town. I remember attempting to galvanise a dead horse when all my friends wanted to do was arrange flowers or tie ribbons in their hair—at least I thought it was dead! And when my mother expired of cholera, I insisted on attaching two electrodes to her temples and flying a kite in a storm. It didn’t work, but I still recall the detonation inside her coffin. I keep the ashes in this locket. Would you care to see?”

“Those ashes are coloured, Fräulein!”

“Well, my mother was a mulatto. Originally from Senegal.”

The clerk flicked his dirty cloth over his perspiring face. He felt that his tongue had swollen at the back of his throat. “Then you are part black?”

“Indeed. Is there a difficulty with that?”

For a brief instant, he started to rise to his feet, but the cold air which rushed to ventilate his stale buttocks was so original and alarming a sensation that he reversed the direction of force and pushed himself down as firmly as possible. But his voice had the shriek of one who has stood to shake a finger.

“And you still insist you have enrolled at the University, here in Ingolstadt, with its white steeple and civilised cobbles? A Hottentot floosie!”

Mina narrowed her eyes and the icy beams which stabbed from their green depths chilled the marrow in six of the clerk’s ribs.

“It is a great privilege for me,” she said quietly, “to study with Doctor Waldman, the same scholar who taught chemistry to Victor Frankenstein. I will now trouble you no further, but take my money to an alternative bank.”

Quick as a pig’s tail in a mincer, the clerk shot out his arm and seized Mina’s elbow. He made a valiant attempt to smile. “I assure you, Fräulein Radcliffe, that no other bank will be interested in dealing with a tainted female. Not only that, but there are, in fact, no other banks in Ingolstadt. However, the Bank of Bavaria is more tolerant and generous than most. So let us consider our little problem. You wish to open a student account, but it is impossible for you to be a student. When I suggest a more suitable type of account, you grow surly. We are getting nowhere. Thus I suggest a private arrangement, just between you and me. I will hold the money for you, mingled with my own savings. If you wish to make a withdrawal, you may visit me after closing hours.”

“Mingle my money? Where is your prudishness now?”

He shuddered away her objections. “My savings have no interest in physical contact, I assure you. They prefer to reproduce through sheer fiscal discipline. Naturally, there will be a hefty charge for this favour—I will have to falsify documents.”

Mina’s voice quavered slightly. “How can I be sure you will not try to cheat me?” She watched for any betrayal of compassion in his answer, the merest flicker of humanity, but there was none.

“Ah, but I
will
cheat you, Fräulein! You shall have to come to my lodgings whenever you require a few coins. There will be a strict limit on how much you may withdraw at any one time. You will be compelled to visit me often. My rooms are very secluded. They have never known a female presence. Even the fleas are exclusively male. It is strange, but when I consider my history, I find a number of anomalies... Different memories, many of which do not belong to me. As if once I was married... Please excuse me, I am rambling. Your astonishing implication that women are somehow equal to men has quite disordered my senses.”

“Very well. You leave me no choice. My grant cheque is worthless unless it is cashed. I have rent to pay, books and equipment to buy. I have a glittering career ahead, and I do not wish to spoil it by dying in the gutter.”

“Your mind almost has a grasp of algorithmic reasoning, Fräulein. I applaud you. Every phenomenon is prone to the occasional incongruity. Supernovae in distant galaxies, irregularities in chasing up debtors, and now a girl who thinks like a man!” He lowered his tone to a clipped snarl. “Sign the back of the cheque and write a short contractual statement declaring that you hereby entrust the entire amount to my keeping.”

Mina took the quill, dipped it in a pot of ink near her elbow and scratched the required marks on the cheque. She dried her signature by flapping the piece of paper before passing it to the clerk, who folded it and slipped it into his top pocket. Then she asked: “May I have my first instalment now? Just a shilling or two.”

With a nonchalance which had something of the madhouse about it, in the same way that even a kind smile can suggest the final closing of a dungeon door, the clerk replaced his tinted spectacles. Now he was isolated from her, filtered out from his own humanity, which still seemed to consist of many parts. He rested his elbows on the desk, cradled his chin in his hands and sniffed. “Do I know you, Fräulein?”

“I demand the return of my money!”

“What is all this fuss? I have no idea what you are talking about. Do you suppose you can just burst in here and threaten a member of staff? The Bank of Bavaria always takes very good care of its employees. A single shake of this silver bell will summon guards who will hurl you into the street! And why have you unbuttoned your bodice? This is most unwelcome. Remove yourself from my restricted sight!”

A thousand expressions crossed Mina’s face. At last her visage settled on a single aspect, a clench of jaw and smouldering of eyes which was poised midway between impotent fury and—here the clerk felt a vague discomfort—languid amusement. His throat uttered an injunction of its own, tinged with too much panic, a croak scarred and notched with a rasp.

“Begone! Take your provocative bosom and radical egalitarianism away!”

Mina’s tears were perhaps just a little strained. She clutched at the lapels of his coat, sending clouds of dust toward the panelled ceiling.

“I have a family to support! My fiancé is a poor tailor!”

His lips trembled, at different velocities, as if they attended rival funerals. He struggled to maintain his heartlessness, but now there were two organs pumping congealed blood inside his chest—hers as well as his own, or so it felt. He ached, and his fingers probed for the button of a secret compartment in the desk. The hidden drawer slid open and he plucked a coin from a mound, pushed it across to her and hissed: “Here, Fräulein. I can hardly keep up this charade. I want to be callous, I really do, but somehow you have touched me in places I had no idea I possessed. My sympathy—ah, how I shiver to use such a word!—has been roused. Please take this guinea.”

She almost seemed disappointed. “Are you sure?”

He nodded and sat back, awaiting her gratitude, but she sighed and lifted her peculiar handbag onto the desk, obscuring the golden coin. Then she dipped inside and produced a selection of blades, scissors and little picks, tiny saws and screwdrivers.

“A sewing-kit, Fraulein? Really, this is hardly the time to start mending socks!”

The last item to emerge was a hammer. Mina weighed it carefully in one hand for a moment, nodded to herself and arched over the desk to deliver a single blow to the forehead of the clerk. He felt the shape of the wound, a hexagonal dent with impact lines radiating across his skull, like a multifaceted third eye or mystic sunburst in the centre of his brow. He was much too astonished to collapse or emit a scream. But the assault had also dislodged his sense of time. He realised that Mina was now standing next to him, a screwdriver inserted into one of the moles on his neck, twisting the tool furiously.

“What is this? Are you murdering me?”

“You have failed the test. You must be dismantled.”

And then he did shriek, but it was a short-lived example of the form, for when he opened his mouth, Mina used the opportunity to insert her scissors and snip off his tongue.

Mumbling thickly as the oedematous blood filled his throat, he remembered the bell and reached out to ring it, but again she anticipated his intention and lopped off his fingers and thumb with a miniature cleaver, so that they tumbled over the edge of the desk and bounced on the mosaic floor. Her hands and implements seemed to be all over him, prodding, jabbing, cutting, wrenching. Now she was on her knees beneath him, slicing between his thighs. He bent forward and vomited blood, which spattered onto the upper curve of her partly exposed breasts and gushed in torrents down her cleavage. Constricted at the waist by a belt, the bodice positively bulged with his gore until it frothed back out of her bosom, and, as her breasts wobbled with the work, the red juice spurted in thin jets.

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