I’ve been reading a biography of Flannery O’Connor over the last few days. She’s a bit of a hero of mine; one of my all time favourite writers. However, I have noticed a worrying trend towards the dark side every time I read one of her collections. Sure enough, this afternoon, after 150 pages of young Flannery and her penchant for Catholic guilt and dressing her pet ducks and chickens in custom made outfits, the short story I’ve been working on all week took a turn for the macabre and I had to resist the urge to kill of all my characters. This made me recall, the afternoon, three years ago, when I accidentally fell asleep under a copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find and had the most horrendous, apocalyptic dream about the end of the world. Here it is, transcribed for all those thinking of taking a nap under some Southern Gothic.
The summer is keeping her own sweet time.
In-between homes and seasons, I cannot choose between an open window and closed. Equally afraid of drought and flood I keep one curtain open, the other closed; one window flung to the backyard fence, the second, tight-lipped in its plastic frame. I imagine this a fair compromise. The bedroom objects nightly, swinging like a schizophrenic. The evenings are socked and sleeved, the mornings drenched in a glasshouse sweat.
My teeth have taken on a strange, metallic taste. There are dangerous rooms in every door.
On the third night of the second week I fall asleep early with Flannery O’Connor, wide open, on my lap. It is a mistake, a sin perhaps, to fall asleep under Flannery O’Connor. Neither Southern nor Catholic, or even dead, my dreams are not quite old enough to keep pace.
Flannery O’Connor could not care less. She adjusts her reading glasses and bears down on me like a wall-mounted crucifix.
“How did you get in?” I ask.
“You left the window open,” she replies, “You want to be careful about leaving the window open. All sorts of folks could get in through an open window.”
I find myself admitting fault. In the future I will keep my windows tightly closed, guarding against all manner of unwanted writers: Joyce, Poe, Steinbeck and the impossible horror of Heaney, humping all those mucky, potato dreams.
“Might I just have one small corner of the bed,” Flannery O’Connor asks, meek as Mary, legs crossed at the ankle. “The smallest of corners, just a tiny place to rest?”
I do not trust her. I can tell she is sizing up the wallpaper, already critiquing the showy swirls and coronets. She is writing me plain, blunt-faced, over-nosed for a Northern woman. She is casually undermining my intentions, both best and worst. I do not trust her. I am, however, jealous for her gall.
“I don’t trust you,” I say. “You almost always see the worst in people.”
“That may be true,” Flannery O’Connor replies. “But doesn’t it make for a real, good read?”
And with that, Flannery O’Connor takes over the entire bed, occupant notwithstanding. Two miles shy of Dundonald, with a mobile telephone quietly keeping time on the dresser, I dream a dark, Southern dream; a guilty, Catholic, murmur of a thing, so well dreamt I doubt my own authorship.
The end of the world has fallen, not this time upon the Southern States, but rather upon a County Antrim cul-de-sac. The sun has quit her shining. The moon has ceased to be, and I, dressed for Sunday service, am waiting on a ride to some place else.
Though the end of the world has come and gone, I am righteously convinced there is a switch, an ordinary, electric switch, capable of turning the world back on. I stumble between bungalows, fingers fumbling for the on/off lever. As I walk, hesitantly at first, and then with the growing confidence of a full-time drunk, my bare knees make contact with bricks and shrubs, small garden ornaments, the head of a silent, lawn sprinkler. I graze easily. I have always grazed easily.
Having grown up grass-stained and sun burnt in provincial suburbs, I am well-accustomed to garden clutter and expect to encounter such obstacles, loitering in the pitch. I am not expecting the creatures.
Save for the short life of a green-gilled budgie, a solitary goldfish and a seething gaggle of schoolroom tadpoles, I am not accustomed to creatures. I am not a lover of creatures. I am not a dreamer of creatures.
I am not expecting the creatures; dozens and dozens of creatures, both homely and exotic, brushing fuzzily against my ankles, my shins, my elbows and, on one unsettling occasion, the outer rim of my left ear lobe. It is impossible to proceed through this sightless soup of fur and fang. I hunker down on the pavement and, too terrified to breath or refrain from breathing, await a slobbering end.
Flannery O’Connor drips across my lap, dragging downwards like a two ton rosary. “What did expect?” she asks. “Nothing ever turns out nice in my stories.”
I hold my tongue. It seems pointless to protest. I imagine Flannery O’Connor infinitely eloquent when it comes to the last word.
In the dark nothing I find myself acknowledging God’s unquestionable justice, for the light and the darkness- original players on the primordial stage- have vanished first. The creatures, coming later, are granted an extra day. People, I suspect, will be last to leave. I take dry comfort in this thought. What strange world, I wonder, will we occupy on this very last day; lightless, groundless, airless and empty, will there be being at all in such a vast vacuum? Will sin persist without a captive audience?
“Course it will,” mutters Flannery O’Connor, “there’s always sin, girl,” and without warning or sound of retreat, strikes the lights in every window, so the whole street is suddenly blushing, naked blond. There are entirely ordinary people standing in each window. These people are frozen, illuminated, and framed by their velveteen curtains, posing confidently with a paper back book in hand, with a pipe, a dry martini, a finally sleeping baby and a smooth jazz record rotating on the turntable.
“Look at them folks,” says Flannery O’Connor, resorting to Southern-ease, “them folks ain’t no nice folks.”
“They look pretty nice to me.” I say, “They’re just ordinary folk standing in their living rooms doing ordinary things.”
“It’s just cos you’re far away. Step on closer, girl,” she says.
I step closer. I venture into flowerbeds and picture book lawns. I stand ankle deep in shrubbery. I cannot believe my own gall. Flannery O’Connor is right. The ordinary people are not nice. The ordinary people are animals; wild creatures and prehistoric beasts hiding inside ordinary people skins. A long, jagged zip runs from chin to stern, suckering the outside in.
I am shocked. I had not expected wild creatures. I step back, tumbling butt first over children’s toys and ornamental flower pots.
“What is the meaning of this?” I ask but Flannery O’Connor isn’t greatly given to meaning, preferring as she does, dialogue and death and elaborate, acidic endings. She stands upon an upturned bucket and adjusts her reading glasses, making good with her extra foot of judgment.
“Don’t ask me,” she chides. “I just write them.”
“Why don’t you write something nice for a change?” I say. “A happy ending can’t hurt every so often.”
“Folk’s don’t buy happy endings. Folks likes a good tragedy. Tragedy reminds folks of home,” she quips, and turns me slowly by the earlobes, so I can take in the entire cul-de-sac.
With the lights up and the world no longer ending I can see there are wild creatures on every doorstep. Leopards fornicating on the front lawns. Lions pacing the gum-puckered pavements. Domesticated goats, Labrador dogs, sheep, cows, bandy deers and kangaroos congregating by the garage doors. One-armed sloths and prehistoric beasts are swinging from the telephone wires. A solitary crocodile winds its way towards the telephone box, green tail grooming the asphalt into loopy ribbons.
I am shocked. I step back and then, remembering the inside creatures, suddenly forwards and wobble there, hesitating in the flowerbed, caught between the lesser evils.
“Curious?” asks Flannery O’Connor, and despite the teeth I admit to a certain amount of morbid curiosity.
“Step on closer, girl,” she urges, placing a small, sweaty hand on the base of my spine, “take yourself a nosy look at them wild, wild creatures.”
I step forwards. I take a long, Northern look. The creatures are people, ordinary small and larger people, wearing contact lenses and false teeth and kindly smiles as they hide inside wild creature skins. A big, jagged zip runs from chin to stern, suckering the inside in.
I am shocked, I had not expected ordinary people.
I examine my neck, and sure enough I am also zippered. The metal teeth begin at my chin and disappear into my shirt collar some six inches below. I look at my feet and, encased in high top sneakers, they offer no further insight. I examine my hands curiously. The left is flesh, the right fur.
“Hey,” I whisper, addressing a small crowd of stationary creatures. “Am I one of you or one of them?”
None of the outside creatures answer though the crocodile looks capable of swallowing me whole.
“No point in talkin’, girl.” explains Flannery O’Connor. “Them folks can’t hear you. You’re just having yourself a bad, bad dream.”
Flannery O’Connor and I are finished. Tomorrow evening I will fall asleep under someone nicer, someone distinctly less Southern; Enid Blyton most likely.