Halloween story – the Librarian

The following narrative was found in a manuscript box sent to the Library by an unknown donor.

1.

The closed garden at Thurston Square in South Kensington is gone now. The houses on one whole side collapsed during some rather unwise internal re-modelling in the 1980s. The garden was exposed and found to be an unkempt patch of scorched grass with some stubs of stone which might have been statues. Before the war according to a pamphlet I found in the J—— Street Library the garden was tightly wrapped in six storey housing blocks and tall gates. The few aerial views of the time showed thick vegetation which apparently filled the garden all year round.

The real oddity according to the pamphlet, a work on the garden squares of west London was that every property around the square was owned by a single body the Cyanography Institute. Cyanography (the name is quite meaningless) was a form of psychic research or occult philosophy dating back to the 1880s. The Institute had been endowed by a number of wealthy patrons and had been briefly fashionable but Cyanography itself had declined into obscurity after the war

In the 30s the Institute had a study hall and lecture room which took up the southern side of the square, some grand offices on the west side and although the other properties appeared to be separate households the pamphleteer, an unknown researcher named Keith Phelps had become convinced that the names in the electoral register were fictional. It was his belief based on a viewing of some 19th century photographs that all the houses were interconnected. All the properties were owned by the Institute and that no-one unconnected with it had ever lived on the Square. Furthermore, the Square which was laid out in the 1850s was built on the exact site formerly occupied by the house and gardens of Sir Richard Fletcher. Inevitably I thought Fletcher turned out to be a mysterious figure who had travelled extensively in the near east and north Africa. His son had been one of the founders of the Institute. Phelps believed both of them were buried in the closed garden.

The Cyanographers had left the Square in the 50s leaving their offices empty and derelict. The residential part of the Square remained lightly populated. People just didn’t want to live there so there was not much objection when a developer bought the whole thing. After the building collapse a series of owners failed to redevelop the site until it was finally cleared and boarded up.

I made a photocopy of the pamphlet. The largest part of it was taken up with the section on Thurston Square and its garden. It was partly rational local history, partly fevered ramblings. I got the impression that Phelps had included some dull stuff on a few other garden squares just for the sake of form. His researches about Thurston Gardens had taken him down a strange side road.

The librarian, a pale attractive woman about thirty had pulled out a hand written catalogue card which indicated that there was a photo of the garden in H C Elliott’s West London Walks (1895) but even better that a collection of interiors and garden images could be seen in the archives of the Institute of Cyanography. I pointed out that the Institute was closed but this didn’t faze her. She consulted a few heavy directories and checked some of the details online, before writing down an address on a post-it. She wrote down the address without looking at the screen or the book. The Cyanography Institute archives were now it seemed at Morechester House, the final resting place for the papers and archives of a number of defunct institutions.

We examined the Elliott book together. It seemed that Henrietta Elliott was an indefatigable walker, an early psycho-geographer who had talked her way into many of the private places of Victorian London. The closed garden was the subject of great interest at the time as it was unusual for a garden to be so completely isolated. The single photograph was taken through a tall gate. It showed a large number of thickly congregated trees with a building just visible at the centre. There was another photograph at the back of the book with no caption, a much bigger garden, or a park.

As we spoke I looked closer at the librarian. Although she was conventionally dressed in a calf length skirt, boots, and long-sleeved top, all black, there was an accumulation of details in her outfit – the four straps on the boots, the double layered skirt, the almost flamboyantly baggy sleeves of the top, added to the four piercings on each ear and purple nails which made me realise I was dealing with a goth in her work clothes.

I like Goths. I made a documentary about the last gig played by Misery Town at the Missile Factory, the Belgian industrial venue. I’m on screen sitting between Honey Kuzlik and Aiofe Campbell trying to conduct an interview as they finally realise how much they hate each other. A few people recognize me because of this moment in front of the camera. I thought my helpful new friend, Marianne according to her name badge, must be one of them. She told me there might be one problem – some of the collection could only be viewed by clergymen. I said that technically I was still an ordained minister in the Rebirth Temple.  If that doesn’t work she said I can get you in there.

This is going the extra mile for customer service I said. She smiled at me as if she’d heard somewhere that I might be a bit flippant and said that as it was near closing time she would close the department and we could go for a drink. She went into the room behind the enquiry desk to get her coat. As the heavy door swung slowly shut

I saw another woman standing pressed against the wall just inside the room. I only saw her for a few seconds. Marianne came back quite quickly wearing a dark green trench coat. I looked again but the woman had gone.

It was only as we walked downstairs that I fully processed what I thought I had seen. The woman was only wearing her underwear. Had she caught my eye with an expression that said she was terrified but that I should say nothing, or was I reading that in to a fleeting impression? Marianne was talking, telling me to put on a suit and look serious the next day.

2.

Morechester House was a grimy anonymous building somewhere near Marylebone Station. I had put on a black suit. Marianne had almost dressed for an Edwardian funeral, in a long black skirt and jacket. Her head was bare though and her hair down. There was some very subtle make up work which made her skin even paler than the evening before. The only colour on her was dark red lipstick. It’s a full time job being a goth, I thought without considering any other explanation.

It wasn’t necessary to prove my religious credentials. It seemed Marianne had called ahead. We just had to sign in and follow a receptionist to a search room where a man with a long grey beard greeted us effusively shaking my hand as if he had lived for this moment. He took us to a back room where a leather bound box sat on a table. A label said Thurston Square Celebrations 1875 He opened the ties to reveal the photographs all wrapped in tissue.

I’ll leave you to it, he said please take a seat. Marianne began unwrapping the pictures and laying them out on the table. At first I thought these couldn’t be what we had come to see. The exteriors looked more like a park than a garden square. No garden could contain the number of trees and statues depicted in these pictures.  I was about to say something when Marianne showed me a picture of a young woman running into some trees. Something in the picture captured a sense of panic. I picked it up and stared at it. While I stared Marianne went to the door of the room and chained it shut with a chain and padlock she produced from her bag.

I watched her remove an envelope from her bag and slip it into her pocket. She gently pulled the picture out of my hand and gave me another, of a small pond with an obelisk in the centre and a temple folly behind it.

Not much time here Daniel, so you’ll just have to believe me.

She was very firm like a manager setting a deadline for a target.

I’ve looked for someone like you, someone with the right talent. I know you have what I need. Just look into that picture for me and concentrate. Forget everything else.

I did as I was told, concentrating until the scene was all that mattered. I could hear rattling at the door and raised voices but I kept on looking. Marianne took my hand and the sounds outside faded as if the volume was being dialled down. We leaned forward together.

3.

We took a couple of involuntary steps and checked ourselves at the edge of the water. I took a deep breath and looked around. We were in a kind of park but at each distant edge was a tall terrace of houses. The garden was too big, far too big but it was in a square. I exhaled and my breath steamed in the freezing cold air. I looked at Marianne. She was very calm, smiling at me in a friendly way but there was no air steaming from her mouth. She wasn’t breathing at all. This was a detail I could easily have noticed at any point in the time we had spent together but hadn’t.

You have to be alive to have the right talent she said. Come on, I’m not expected here.

We walked around the pond and made our way through the trees. But we weren’t in the garden anymore. We were on the edge of a landscaped park. I could see a domed building.

Beyond the temple a bonfire was burning at the feet of a statue. It was a very tall statue. Two vast wings spread out horizontally from its back. I looked up through the smoke trying to make out the details of the figure but it was so tall the head was lost in the heat haze and the darkening sky. It was a woman wearing armour holding a sword. The point of the sword was touching the ground in front of the feet. If we had still been in Thurston Square it would have been visible above the houses for miles. The wings should have been wider than the square itself. About fifty people were gathered around the fire, all quite silent. Some of them were fully dressed in Victorian street clothes as if they were observing a firework display at a pleasure garden. Others wore robes, and a few figures taller and thinner than the others circulated through the group. There was music, just what you’d expect for dancing. Maybe there was a maypole, or something like one in the background. Marianne pulled me away from the well kept lawn towards another building.

It was a glasshouse, its windows opaque with grime. Inside a few lights were burning. The stone path was narrow. We had to brush past thick foliage to get to an area which had been cleared in front of another statue. Marianne retrieved a long sword and scabbard from behind it and slung it over her shoulder. I stayed close behind her and as she crouched I slipped the envelope out of her pocket.

I want to thank you she said. I really couldn’t have got here without your help. But you don’t need to be with me now.

Outside the glasshouse she pointed me back through the trees towards the nearest edge of the square.

Go quickly, get upstairs if you can. I’ll find you.

There didn’t seem any point in arguing and whatever she was about to do I didn’t think I wanted to be there to see it. There was an open door ahead of me when I came out of the trees, with a staircase visible. I paused at the door to look back for the giant statue. I could see the face clearly now. I climbed up the stairs.

At the final landing there was a window looking out on the garden. The flames were higher. Marianne’s giant face was looking down at the ground. The music was no longer audible. There was some agitation in the trees. I would have waited to see what would happen next except for a rustling sound below me.

Looking down I saw an indistinct person ascending, his or her hand on the banister. The fingers of the hand were very long. I tore open the envelope. It was a photograph, of a London street. J— Street in fact. The rustling grew louder accompanied by muttering. I concentrated on the picture, tried to be as calm as I was the first time. The rustling was louder still and there were footsteps. I fancied there was cold breath on my neck as the volume died away and I leaned forward.

4.

Morning light made me squint and flinch back from the kerb. I was in front of J— Street Library again but I didn’t go in then. I found a coffee shop a few streets away and sat there with a morning paper for an hour. If I was right, the picture had been taken the day I visited the library. Somewhere in another part of London another version of me was doing what I had been doing hours before. I wasn’t tempted to meet him. I whiled away the day till I was sure that he and Marianne had left the Library. I waited around outside until I saw a woman in a baggy coat probably not her own emerge and flag down a taxi.

I waited a couple of days before going back. The woman was at the enquiry desk, wearing the same kind of plainclothes goth outfit. The name on her badge was Marianne. I was a little ashamed when she recognized me, because I should have helped her. But as it turned out she was grateful that I had taken the other Marianne away.

When we got to know each other we started our own research into Thurston Square, and Sir Richard Fletcher. We found an account of the beginnings of Cyanography in a book about Crowley’s disciple Kenneth Grant which alluded to an occult working in Thurston Square.

We couldn’t convince the custodians at Morechester House to let us in to see those photographs again. But we continued our search. We found a number of photographs in a variety of sources which seemed to feature the other Marianne. She changed her look but I always knew her.

In the absence of someone with my talent, or the right picture she had been forced to come back the long way. But as the real Marianne observed given the amount of time she had to make the journey she was probably already here.

Editor’s note: you won’t find Thurston Square on any map of south Kensington. Morechester House exists but not of course under that name.

Photographs:

London Perceived – V S Pritchett and Evelyn Hofer 1962

Glasshouses and winter gardens of the 19th Century – Stefan Koppelkamm 1981

Other London – Paul Barkshire 1989

London after dark – Alan Delaney and Robert Cowan 1993

Two photographs from the Library’s collection.


3 responses to “Halloween story – the Librarian

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