The office space is itching my skin, conditioned air slowly poisons my lungs, and I’m beginning to sweat. The flute I brought to work today keeps rolling off the desk and onto my lap, again and again I have to pick it up and place it on the mess of paper in front of me; and over and over I watch it tumble over charts and scripts, unable to intervene before it drops onto my knee, letting out a single, sad, involuntary note. I can barely see my computer screen (part of me knows that I am asleep, and my eyes are struggling to focus), and names flash up next to numbers I cannot read. My colleagues are all speaking too fast, reeling off immense lists of knowledge I never cared to learn, all grinning inanely into their plastic cups and gesticulating at me, eager for me to catch up, to help reach an impossible target of sorts. I stand up, and I leave the room.
The walk down the stairs and out of the building I live in for eight hours each day does not actually happen. Nonetheless, I find myself outside on Stoke’s Croft, stepping heavily behind the nightclubs, weaving between wheelie bins and the vivid orange paint and purple arabesques that adorn the walls. I cannot detect scents in my dreams, but I can remember them, copying and pasting perception into my subconscious. I remember the acrid, hanging fragrance of orange peels, of fermenting litter and dead leaves. Of old sex, of new birth, and of that which comes before birth. There is a man on top of a pole who burns an angry red, standing upright, to attention. A couple of seconds later, he has gone, and a new man appears, one who has relaxed his pose and exudes a bright green colour, flashing once, twice, three times. I walk across the road.
There is something glinting on the pavement a hundred yards ahead of me, attracting my attention with short, sharp bursts of reflected sunlight. I am immediately slightly suspicious – I don’t think I’ve ever even played ‘Tomb Raider’ but some part of my sleeping id has thrown up this recognisable little piece of iconography, this obvious plot device. I cannot help but investigate further. A few minutes of listening to my heavy footsteps on the paving slabs pulls me up the street, and I stop, swaying slightly on the spot, looking intently to my left. There is a shop, a ragged hut that I have not seen before. As I step inside, I realise that I have seen this shop before, many, many times. It used to sit outside the petrol forecourt outside Sainsbury’s in New Cross, just down the road from the orange striped train station I used to use several times a week to get to The Bridge, The Market, The Goodbye Place. Quite who had left it here in Bristol, nearly one hundred and thirty miles west of where it belongs is anybody’s guess.
I step over the pile of rusty books, and look at the large, impressively adorned lectern that lies on its side, blocking my path. The teak eagle spreads its wings, ready to take the weight of the word on its shoulders. I start sifting through the dusty world-residue, picking up the map that hung on my housemate’s wall, the key to a pair of handcuffs long since lost, a tube of sweet-smelling slippery cream I bought in Germany. I lift a series of canvasses out of a box, and one of the paintings falls into my hand with familiarity. I look closely at it. A woman and a child sit hunched at the front of the painting, skin marked by pox and filth and sadness, the heavy, blanketing blackness of the backdrop creeping in around their emaciated limbs. Their knuckles are a vivid red, and you can see traces of bone beneath the skin, beneath the shawls and tattered laces of their Viennese forms. A man stands behind them, at the centre of the painting; his long, naked, simian arms wrapped around their bodies, like the spirit of emaciation, a personification of the bony awkwardness of this mise-en-scene. It is when I look closely at the face, the shock of brown hair and assured, arrogant and slightly mad eyes, the prominent clavicle and jutting collarbone, I recognise him. Excitedly, my eyes dart to the dusty corner of the frame to see the iconic signature of E. Schiele, and wonder why I didn’t recognise this painting before, the knuckles, the hanging atmosphere of incest and syphilitic madness, that face; it is the famed ‘family portrait’ of Egon, Judith and their child, a work of art prized in its native Austria, one of the last truly great and haunting works by this sad master, this prodigy of Klimt, this supposed noble pornographer, this self-posed St. Sebastian, riddled with the arrows of scorn, adoration and Spanish Influenza. It has a price tag of twenty-five pounds, and with my heart pounding in my own jutting ribcage, I leave the money in a jar on the table next to me.
I step through the shop, now somewhat ignorant of the clutter and curios that sweep around my heavy feet. A door emerges from behind swathes of chiffon, and I reach out to open it, to see what is behind.
I step out into a space that I recognise, though from where I cannot tell. A steep, steep grassy slope drops down from the door. I have a strange feeling as I turn over in my bed that I have dreamt of this place many times before, that I may have ran up and down this incline as a child, that it was not as huge and steep as it appears. That I cannot help but see this particular patch of damp, angled grass through the eyes of the child I once was. Canvas held tightly under my arm, I begin to negotiate this mini, suburban mountain, still surprised by the fact I had no idea any of this was here, just to the west side of the Gloucester Road. I sit down to look again at my painting, to try and meditate on the sarcasm of the piece, the parody of conjugal bliss forced backwards in time to a more primitive, rueful, muddily narcissistic space.
I can hear a peacock. It is an unmistakable sound, like a child screaming into a tin bucket half a mile away. I turn around to try and locate it, and am astonished to see a vast, magnificent structure by my side. The temple is huge, gargantuan. Its two turreted domes pierce upwards into the low cloud, with saffron dyed flags ripping in the strong winds above me. The stone that the building is constructed from is that heavy, dark grey North Indian rock, elephantine and ominous, muddled with thick, green ivy and tangled, dry, dead roots that erupt in tangled messes from the walls, their tendrils hanging sadly over the doors. The temple is magnificent, dreamlike. The wind changes direction, and I can hear the mrdangam drums, the kirtal cymbals, the fluting harmonium and the drones, the chants, the mantras. My senses are flooded by the fragrance of frankincense and Tulasi leaves, and I walk towards the marbled steps leading to the entrance of this monumental wonder. As I walk through the wooden doors, having left my shoes and the Schiele painting with a blue-throated child playing with a fork at the base of the steps, I notice that my feet are wet, that the temple is flooded. About half a metre of water covers the entirety of the floor inside this central chamber, running down steps in elegant waterfalls, filling fonts and chalices and carrying the floral offerings, the waxy green leaves and spent joss sticks float around in a constant circular perambulation, through cloisters and beneath alters and between engraved arches. The deities are waist deep in the cool, running water, along with the other people, devotees, musicians, wanderers. We are all wet, all refreshed inside this beautiful space. A girl I half-recognise laughs as a large, old fish swims by her side, and I suddenly notice that the liquid is teeming with life, from fast moving shoals of tiny fish to heavy, slow koi carp, surveying the forest of legs and robes around them. The music has dimmed, a harp is playing somewhere, long glissandos of soma-sweet notes run over scalp like nectars, and a voice booms out over the congregation. A poem is spoken, a poem that I know. “If I were called in to construct a religion, I should make use of water. Going to church would entail a fording to dry, different clothes; My liturgy would employ images of sousing, a furious devout drench, and I should raise in the east a glass of water, where any angled light would congregate endlessly”.
The final word, ‘endlessly’ inspires a cheer from the crowd, who chant it joyfully, over and over again, splashing each other with that which surrounds and supports them, and dancing, and drums, and singing erupt from the smiling mouths of those who had found this place. I leap to my feet, and watch my precious painting float past, face up, before being fallen upon by an speckled fish, orange and white scales luminescent in the candle glow, pulling it down.