This year we have another post from regular guest blogger Marianne Collins, Head of Investigations at the European Institute of Archives. This piece was forwarded to us by her deputy Ms B. Azdajic
Date: 31 Oct 15
It was a cold Monday morning in February.
The dead girl wore black clothes – a big padded black parka, shiny in the winter light. She had black jeans, fur lined boots laced up the front and a wool hat with an incongruously large pom-pom. Being dead she didn’t need the warmth, but she said she admired our dedication to keeping warm and comfortable. She wished she’d had that parka when she was alive.
But she’d been dead a long time, and would never tell me when she last walked around as a living person. Her first sponsor, my ex, told me that the longer the dead survive in their new bodies the less human they are. They stop thinking like us from the moment of their death and every dead day that passes the more alien they become.
So Blanka, the dead girl, who last walked around London alive sometime in the 19th century, must have been making a considerable effort to pass for human since she returned from wherever it is they return from. Don’t worry, Daniel said, they’re not dangerous. They don’t eat brains and blood. They don’t need to eat at all, although some do. They watch and listen, sometimes they lie dormant, and some of them speak. Blanka had even taught herself to breathe, or imitate breathing. So she came across as a slightly weird Goth. With her pale skin and calm manner she was attractive to a certain kind of man, or woman. I had no worries about taking her to the building site where yet another subterranean development had unearthed a basement room no one had known was there. I had a feeling she might be able to help me with the contents.
The site manager spoke to me to tell me about how his men had found the basement room when they were digging out the roots of a tree. He kept glancing at Blanka. I wanted to shout at him: hey, I’m wearing a parka and a wool hat and I’m also interestingly pale. I’m also blonde, which should count for something. So why are you staring at the dead girl? I refrained from saying anything of the kind and listened as he explained that there were ladders which we could get down through the hole they had enlarged but nobody else wanted to go down with us. His men were afraid of the room he said, and he had a meeting at another site. I would have exchanged a knowing glance with Blanka but as I’ve said they don’t think like us so I just said we would go down.
The Institute is on a retainer paid by a professional organisation the big building firms use so we get the occasional call to have a look when something unexpected connected with books and records turns up.
At the bottom of the ladder there was a room with bookshelves covering two walls. There was a big table against one of the other walls, neat and clear of mess. The other wall had a door. The site manager hadn’t said anything about that.
The books on the shelves were interesting, no doubt about that, and I would have them packed up and shipped back to the Institute. Some of them were familiar, some not. There were a large number of guide books, none later than 1900 I thought, some for cities I couldn’t quite place.
There were a number of interesting items. Vincent’s New Map of Faery (1924), Dr Zachary Smith’s Experiments with Spiritism (1913), the 1903 illustrated version of Ariel Fletcher’s picaresque 18th century novel Miranda. Collected editions of de Sade and de Selby.
There was also a quarto volume – a copy of Hiram Endicott’s Skeleton Etchings, of 1910.
I looked at the cover with its complex gold embossed pattern of shapes which looked abstract but at the same time gave the impression of surgical instruments. That alone made it worth coming. I had to look at it with Blanka leaning over my shoulder, her head against mine, her whole body pressed against me in the impersonal way of a marine iguana basking on a rock.
The Asylum Edition, she said in a flat voice, her accent barely discernible.
Yes. There are people who would pay the price of whatever building they’re making here to get it. We’ll take it back ourselves.
I held the book closed. It’s very unpleasant I hear.
She gave me a look I knew which said something like: such dark sights I have seen, mortal woman, which you could not imagine. I gave her a look back which said: stop pissing about, dead woman.
There are some images which are literally unforgettable I’ve been told which neither time nor death can erase. So let’s leave this one to the end user.
She shrugged. Another of her “living” gestures. I got on the phone to the office and arranged for a van to come straight away.
I was about to say let’s go back up when Blanka detached herself from me and went to the door. I was going to say there wouldn’t be anything behind it when she opened it, and afternoon sunlight fell into the room.
Through the doorway I could see a ruined building like a temple surrounded by undergrowth.
Blanka had a distinct expression on her face somewhere between surprise and resentment. She stayed to one side of the door with air of not wanting to step through accidentally. I moved closer but I also had no intention of passing that threshold.
Blanka closed the door and spoke.
The Choronzon Sanctuary. It used to be in my country.
What happened to it?
The communists destroyed it I heard.
This time the door opened on a quite different view, a noisy room full of women working in cubicles. A telephone exchange I thought. Nothing sinister there, although it was odd to be staring at the living past, if that’s what it was. One of the standing women glanced at me.
The third time there was a gloomy room with stone walls and and a window. As the interior door swung open you could see something like a wooden operating table in the foreground. There were heavy steps coming closer. Katya didn’t need telling to shut the door quickly.
Leng, Blanka said.
Once she’d shut the door Blanka said this: The fifth time opens a gate to the Third City.
The van won’t be long. Let’s go up. I wasn’t at all sure about the Third City.
The site was now deserted, with no hint of any building work. Perhaps they all had meetings. It was quiet behind the wooden fencing. There were still some patches of muddy grass and irregular depressions in the ground. Blanka spoke again. Pretty garrulous for her.
There are any number of entrances to the Third City but for each person only a limited number of exits.
She might have been quoting from something, or it could just have been one of her enigmatic comments.
After the excitement of the find I had to work hard in the office listing the books. In the evenings we did normal stuff. We watched DVDs. I tried to explain to Katya why I thought Nicky and Bourne had been lovers. When I couldn’t convince her I put an episode of Hannibal on to illustrate my point that there are plenty of images you wish you hadn’t seen.
That night I dreamed about two women in hooded costumes walking through an empty film studio. Although I was watching in the dream I knew the two women were Blanka and I.
Something had been going on in my subconscious which burst out late one night.
I want to go back and go through the door.
I couldn’t say why I’d changed my mind but somehow the idea had taken hold of me. Blanka pointed out that everyone goes there eventually but that didn’t deter me.
We returned to the site the next day. It had been cleared to a depth of thirty feet or more, and flattened out. They were spreading concrete at the bottom. The old site manager had moved on but the foreman told me the site would be a car park, notwithstanding the loss the developers would incur. The building that had been demolished was a three-storey block of flats slotted into the site in the sixties. Its predecessor, we had discovered in the local achive, presumably the home of the basement room, had been an odd building with a normal sort of Victorian town house exterior surrounding a mock Tudor courtyard. The house was left empty after the war following the death of the owner, a book dealer named Trankler who was murdered in his shop in the City in 1944 in the course of a burglary. I’d found a reference to an incident at the house in the war diaries of Jane Fletcher, a local ARP warden: “Called to _____ Street. Incendiaries in some of the gardens. We entered one house where a ceiling had collapsed inside. I saw part of a body, the foot, sticking out of the rubble. A woman’s leg. I turned away to call Mr Carter and when I looked back the leg was gone, as if the woman had slithered away under the wreckage. I was in a funk. Mr Carter told me not to be a b____y fool and we left the house.”
The foreman also told me there had been plans to construct an extensive new basement utilising the footprint of the building and the garden, but the developers had changed their minds for some vague reason to do with the Fletcher Estate who owned property nearby. That was all very interesting but I had one question.
I asked Blanka: What about the door?
Gone. Moved probably. That can happen.They open for people like me. Her calm was irritating.
I can look for another, if that’s what you want.
We didn’t discuss it again. I prepared a go-bag with a camera,binoculars, a tablet, a solar battery provided by the buyer of the Endicott book and a few other necessities. I kept it in the car. Some months later I was called to a building awaiting demolition after a partial collapse. The damage had uncovered a hidden room on the top floor.
Although it was a warm day I carried my black parka in with me. I made sure I was the first person inside the newly revealed room and looked carefully around. The door between the bookshelves wasn’t apparent until Blanka came up behind me. We stood there in our hard hats looking faintly comic.
The first scene was a river in summer, a house visible on the other side. The water was disturbed as if someone had just vanished beneath the surface.
The second showed an eccentric house with a tower. American I thought. There were figures in the porch.
Without leaning through the door I looked closer through the binoculars.
The third time we saw an empty gallery, picture frames laid out on the floor. Either they were moving out, or some pretty throrough thieves had paid them a visit.
A door opened in the distance and a small group of people started coming towards us. We held our nerve for a good thirty seconds before closing the door.
The fourth was an old fashioned photographer’s studio. I didn’t care for the woman having her portrait done.
The fifth was close to a decayed classical structure. High above it there was a vertiginous stone staircase. I could see the spindly towers of an enormous impossibly ornate Gothic railway station.
Blanka spoke into my ear in a low voice. She had never said so much at one time.
Go up the stairs. Don’t talk to the caryatids. There’s a plaza in front of the Grand Terminus. Look for a nun. Ask her to show you the way to the Doll Makers’ Cafe. Amelia is one of the waitresses. She can get you work at Lord Gregory’s house – it’s got a library. You may need to stay for a while.
She had given up pretending to breathe in my presence. All I felt was a slight impression of cold at my back as if I was standing next to an open fridge.
I’m standing here keying in a few more words on my phone. Blanka has her hand on my shoulder as if about to propel me through the door into an autumn afternoon in the Third City.
[Message sent 21/06/15]
BA- Marianne Collins is on sabbatical leave from her post for an indefinite period. I told her she would have to learn the Trick before she could come back. I found a print inside that copy of the Endicott book.
There was also a note written by Bernard Trankler:
“Copy of the Skeleton Etchings by Hiram Endicott. A set of etchings he did in the 1880s, images of inmates at the notorious Crypt Penitentiary in New York State. The Crypt was a vicious place. Doctors, guards and some of the inmates got up to all sorts of mischief there and committed many atrocities. No one there got out alive, it was said. How Endicott got access is a mystery. How he got the book published is another. But he did, in a limited edition of twenty-five nearly all of which are in the hands of private collectors. Five of the twenty five were bound with a supplement of a further dozen plates. Those were called the asylum edition. This copy is one of them. Formerly the property of the library at the Society of Holy Angels in Brooklyn. We know this is their copy because of the extensive handwritten annotations assumed to be by Endicott himself. One note refers to the peculiar nature of some copies which have the capacity to open doors. The book is of considerable value to some collectors although I must assume this copy was stolen”
As I always say, normal service will be resumed next week. DW