CABINET OF CHANGES
I'm an enormous fan of the work of Paul Magrs. Paul is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of East Anglia who's been the author of half a dozen mainstream magic-realist novels (one of which, Modern Love, apparently made it to the pre-shortlist list for the Booker Prize one year) – and also of four Doctor Who novels which are among the best the BBC has produced.
‘Cabinet of Changes’ is a sequel of sorts to The Blue Angel, which Paul co-authored with his partner Jeremy Hoad, and which must surely qualify as the single most literary Doctor Who novel. Interspersed with this novel's classic Doctor Who narrative is a second story, which sets the characters down in the North of England and grounds them firmly in reality (or at least, a Magrsian magic-realist version of reality).
In this strand, the Doctor (the Paul McGann incarnation) is a suburban landlord and his companions, Fitz and Compassion, are his lodgers. He is subject to strange hallucinatory fits (which he refers to as his ‘episodes’), in which he becomes convinced that he is a traveller in time and space. Other Doctor Who characters – or earthbound versions of them – wander in and out of the story. Although nothing is certain, there is a strong suggestion that the famliar universe of Doctor Who is nothing but the fantasy world created by this rather lonely middle-aged eccentric.
Oh, yes – and his mother is a mermaid, for some reason.
‘Cabinet of Changes’ takes these ideas and runs with them. It was first published in the charity anthology Walking in Eternity, edited by Julian Eales and published in 2001 in aid of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death. Paul Magrs himself wrote for this collection, incidentally – a lovely piece called‘In the Sixties’ about Peter Cushing's ‘Dr Who’ from the Dalek movies. For more information or to order a copy (some of which were still available at time of going to press), please visit the publishers' website.
CABINET OF CHANGES
by Philip Purser-Hallard
(with thanks to Paul Magrs & Jeremy Hoad)
That old television set's a nuisance. It seems to only pick up children's programmes from the sixties. Andy Pandy, Muffin the Mule, Bill and Ben. All classics, of course. But last night Fitz wanted to watch NYPD Blue, and the nearest I could get for him was Dixon of Dock Green.
I think he misses Compassion more than he lets on.
‘It's therapy for him, I reckon,’ Fitz confided to Sally as he took her coat. ‘He's getting better all the time.’
Sally was non-committal. ‘He seems a bit more cheerful since his leg cleared up.’ She opened up her dog-basket, trying to calm Canine's excited yaps. Fitz regarded the dog narrowly. He hadn't trusted it an inch since the time he'd got plastered and it talked to him. He still wasn't sure which one of them was to blame for that.
‘Well, I think it's a waste of time,’ Compassion declared loudly. ‘A magic show, indeed. He'll be going on Stars in their Eyes next.’ She was leaning at a sarcastic angle against the door to the living room. Probably resented the Doctor monopolising the room with the TV in, Fitz thought.
‘I wouldn't put it past him,’ Sally smirked. ‘Canine seems a bit excited, don't you pet? I think he smells something.’
‘Ah, that'll be Wesley,’ Fitz told her. ‘The Doctor's cat. It's OK, she's shut away. He kind of took pity on her and now she lives here.’
‘She took advantage of him, if you ask me,’ Compassion said tartly. She'd not seen the attraction, even though the poor thing had turned up in the garden clearly starving, little more than a kitten. The Doctor had taken the sodden creature in, dried her with a hairdryer and called her Wesley, for reasons which remained obscure to Fitz. Compassion had been as irritated by the name as by the act of altruism. Why Wesley?, she'd demanded to know as the little animal lapped hungrily at her bowl of bread and milk. Why not Tasha or Deanna, if the Doctor insisted on a Star Trek name? Or did he mean Wesley from Buffy? They were both as wet as each other, if you asked her. The Doctor had muttered something about great ecclesiastical reformers, and Compassion had rolled her eyes predictably.
Fitz led Sally past Compassion into the darkened living room. The dining chairs were laid out in a neat row, the big bay window curtained off as a makeshift stage. Tall candlesticks gave out minimal light, and also provided some heat against the chilly spring evening. Sally sat down, setting Canine comfortably on her lap. The dog yawned mightily. Fitz gave it a suspicious look.
‘In this light he'll be able to get away with anything,’ declared Compassion from behind them. Fitz thought for a moment she meant the terrier. ‘The less the audience can see, the more the conjuror can do without them noticing.’
‘Well, that's all part of the show, I'm sure,’ said Sally, realising from Fitz's manic gestures that the Doctor was already onstage, and listening behind the curtain. ‘I'm looking forward to it.’ The doorbell rang, and Fitz scampered off into the hall.
He knew Compassion and their other guest did not get on. She'd probably send her away, given half the chance.
Iris was standing outside the door, wrapped up in her usual multiple cardigans and brandishing a half-full bottle of Gordon's. ‘Fitz, darling!’ she cried out enthusiastically. ‘Come and help Auntie Iris up the steps, there's a good lad.’ She was distinctly wobbly on her pins, Fitz realised. He could see her bus parked right outside, and tried hard not to think of what she'd be like driving. Compassion gave a tiny sniff as Fitz hurried down the steps.
‘What's he called us here for this time then?’ Iris wondered, leaning heavily on Fitz, and incidentally breathing gin into his face. ‘Another dinner party for his friends?’
‘He's giving us a magic show,’ Fitz told her as they negotiated the hall. ‘It seems to be his latest craze.’
‘I spent a while as a magician's assistant when I was a gal,’ said Iris, much interested. ‘The saucy sod kept pulling rabbits out of my cleavage.’
‘Did he saw you in half?’ wondered Compassion.
‘I wouldn't let him,’ Iris snapped at her. ‘There are limits.’ She shouldered her way past her into the dark room, eager to tap on the fishtank and annoy the Doctor's angel fish.
It turned out that the Doctor had rigged up a big arc lamp, to spotlight him on stage. He wore his usual old-fashioned clothes, which looked magicianly enough to Fitz now he could see them in the appropriate context. The shiny top hat was a new addition, though. Fitz was sure he could hear it rustling.
The Doctor stood between a little baize card table and his magic cabinet, his pride and joy these last few weeks. Big gold letters proclaimed it the CABINET OF CHANGES. Just large enough to hold a full-sized person, its dark surface spangled with glittering stars, it was tall and strangely solid, as if it wasn't made of plywood but of some altogether heavier, more definite material. Fitz hadn't a clue where he'd got it. He'd just found it standing in the living room one day, opposite the fishtank and vivarium, with the Doctor touching up the paintwork as if he'd owned it all his life.
‘Ah, we're all here then,’ the Doctor said, beaming. ‘Then we'll begin.’
I never have found out what's inside. Not really inside.
I mean, it has a false back. It surely must do. How else could it conjure up such promiscuous miscellanies? I close the doors with my magician's flourish on the empty interior, bright black beetle-shell paint covering shabby woodwork, and a moment later it opens on all manner of shiny things. Brass candlesticks and carriage-clocks and mittens. Old opera-glasses, crystal decanters and dusty gramophone records. Great piles of seashells, glistening pink and white. The little pump engine from a Hornby train set. Huge vases of orchids and lilies.
Who puts them there? I can't imagine. I know the cabinet's false back must lead to a monstrous treasure-cave; a trove Aladdin or Batman would find scandalous.
Maybe it gives onto the old magician's shop itself, where I found it that April day, that first long walk after the pain in my leg cleared up.
It smelled of incense, that shop. Patchouli, I think – I prefer sandalwood myself. Not that I often burn the stuff these days. Bit of an antisocial habit, but as a friend once told me, I'm just an old hippie at heart. And in the shop it offset the smell of dust and cobwebs, which seemed entirely reasonable.
The place was full of treasures, a secret hoard of delight and discovery, a relentless cornucopia of finds. Ye Magick Shoppe it said above the window, in big mock-Gothic letters, and the inside lived up to the promise. Inside were shelves and shelves of coins and balls and cards and caskets and cups and mirrors, Tarot decks and crystal balls, candles and swords and huge silk handkerchiefs, all colours. Cages full of doves and rabbits and mice, all white as driven snow. Phrenology heads rubbed cheeks with musty skulls. A wardrobe rail of magician's costumes through the ages – dark blue robes adorned with silver sigils, silk pyjamas, pointy slippers, tuxedoes with white bow ties and ruffled shirts. Fezzes, berettas, top hats, even tall steepled things with starry sequins. Wands and staffs and rods in all sizes, with inscriptions in alphabets I'd never seen. I was in heaven.
The owner was a slim, tall man, a redhead – like Compassion but more fiery. His face was scholarly and lined – but strangely young, as if a weight of future ages still hung upon him. His rolled-up shirtsleeves revealed bracelets jangling all down one arm, some kind of dragon tattoo writhing up the other. A smart brocade waistcoat looked odd with his crumpled tweed trousers and rumpled socks. A moth-eaten coat hung on the chair behind him.
Good afternoon, my friend, he was saying affably, startling green eyes looking up from the red leather book he was perusing. That incense smell got stronger as I approached him. And it is, indeed, a good afternoon. Might I ask if you're just here to browse, or is there something particular with which I can help you?
Just then I saw. Behind him was the cabinet.
It stood a tallish person's height, dark blue and silver, an obstinately rectangular night sky of bright gold stars. I could have climbed inside immediately, so strong was its fascination for me. The doors were closed, the words CABINET OF CHANGES blazoned across them in golden letters.
Could I have a look at that? I asked him.
Ah, yes, the owner said calmly behind me. It's a fine piece, the transmutation cabinet. Very versatile.
Moving closer, I saw the huge iron key in one door, the tiny face-high hatch in the other through which someone could look out, the narrow slits for pushing swords into a volunteer victim. The cabinet called to something old in me – childhood memories of the Narnia books, perhaps, a secret wardrobe full of fur and mothballs, leading to an enchanted frosty wood. Or the wooden chests in Mother's sinister nursery stories, where mermaids' husbands keep their seal-skins to stop them fleeing back into the ocean.
I'll take it, I told him. I knew I couldn't really afford it. I can be pretty impulsive when something takes my fancy that way.
His tone was doubtful.
The cabinet can be a little... risky, or perhaps I should say unpredictable, in the hands of a dabbler. He gave me a long, appraising look. But I apologise. I can see you are a professional, my friend. He took a deep breath. Twenty pounds.
It was worth far more than that, I could tell, but he would take no argument. Twenty pounds was all he'd take, or there would be no sale. I knew it was already mine – the paying for it was just a little ritual we had to go through before we could be together, my bold blue cabinet and I.
I had to use his phone to call a taxi. It came to collect me and my splendid new acquisition, and bring us home.
Before we could get it into the car, I had to take out two cigar-store Indians, a half-length wooden mirror and a bookcase full of shoes.
The Doctor spent a moment gazing in admiration at his magic cabinet, then turned to his audience. Clearing his throat with a magician's hauteur, he began. ‘Allow me to introduce myself –’
‘We all know you, Doctor,’ put in Iris.
‘I,’ the Doctor proclaimed, determinedly, ‘am that mysterious practitioner of the esoteric arts known only as the Doctor. And this –’ he gestured expansively, in case they had trouble distinguishing which item of furniture he might be referring to – ‘is my magic cabinet.’
‘Hello, Doctor,’ Iris parroted. ‘Cooee, cabinet.’
‘Shut up,’ Compassion urged her fiercely. ‘Doctor, get on with it.’ Now it actually came down to it, she seemed strangely eager to be entertained. The Doctor pouted for a moment, then began the show.
It wasn't exactly world class, but Fitz found himself impressed by the Doctor's patter. Say what you liked about him, he certainly had the gift of the gab. The gift of skill at conjuring tricks was another matter, though. The card tricks went reasonably well, although it was difficult to overlook the fact that the ‘pack’ of cards he was using was so old, battered and heterogeneous (some of them even had naked women on the back, Fitz noted with interest) that they could be told apart at a distance of twenty paces. The disappearing tricks were less successful, unless you looked on them as things-vanishing-up-sleeves tricks, in which case they just about worked. The cup-and-ball trick performed with clear plastic beakers was, Fitz thought, almost definitely best forgotten.
Still, the audience were moderately enthusiastic – even the giant lizard in the vivarium seemed interested. Sally was watching with determined appreciation, and Iris was clearly enjoying the show as comedy, laughing uproariously when things went wrong, despite some filthy looks from the Doctor. Compassion was scowling with a fierce concentration which Fitz found mildly unsettling. Only Canine had decided to go to sleep.
When the Doctor called for a volunteer, Fitz realised he ought to show a bit of support, although if he was honest what he wanted to be expressing was embarrassment and dread. He was surprised when Compassion immediately stood up.
‘The lady in the camouflage trousers, yes you madam, come on down!’ the Doctor called from around five feet in front of her. She complied.
‘You sure you want to do this?’ Fitz hissed at her as she stood up, but she ignored him.
‘Now, Comp- now, madam. Would you care to examine this television set?’ the Doctor suggested, indicating it with a melodramatic finger.
Compassion glanced at it. It was of battered black plastic, with a metal stand. ‘I've seen it before. It's a perfectly ordinary TV. Except the teletext is broken.’
‘A perfectly ordinary TV, exactly,' cried the Doctor triumphantly. ‘And would you care to examine this perfectly extraordinary magical cabinet of metamorphosis and transmutation?' Compassion did so. She walked all the way around, staring sceptically at its every inch of paintwork. The Doctor hrr'mphed impatiently a couple of times, but she obstinately refused to be hurried.
‘The outside seems normal enough,’ she finally acknowledged suspiciously. ‘What about the inside?’
‘Ah ah, patience, Compassion, I mean madam,’ declared the Doctor. ‘We'll come to that.
‘Observe carefully, madam, as I place this perfectly ordinary television set (Goodness, that's heavy, do you think you could give me a hand? Thanks) – Observe carefully as you help me place this perfectly ordinary television set inside the cabinet of transformation. Thank you – ah, Fitz, could you come and open the doors, do you think? That's it, just turn the key and clear away anything you find in there. No, I've no idea what it is – some kind of stuffed fish? Never mind. Now, Compassion, if we could put it down just here – thank you so very much.’
They both stood back and regarded the TV for a few seconds, defying it to move from its place inside the cabinet. Fitz rather awkwardly returned to his seat, leaving what appeared to be a stuffed and mounted mer-parrot on the Doctor's card table.
‘Now, madam,’ said the Doctor once again. ‘Observe as I lock the doors to the cabinet, like this –’ he did so, with a further flourish – ‘Then let's retire to a safe distance while I say the magic words.’
Compassion seemed entirely caught up in the act by now, obeying without a moment's hesitation. The Doctor pointed his fingers at the cabinet with an arcane gesture and let out in one long breath a string of occult syllables. Fitz thought they included a couple of makes of car.
The cabinet sat unchanged in front of them, entirely failing to emit dramatic flashes or puffs of smoke.
The Doctor held up his hand for silence. His hat rustled loudly, and shifted slightly on his head. Iris giggled. ‘Perhaps you'd care to open up the doors, madam?’ he suggested to Compassion with great dignity, handing her the key. ‘Careful now.’
As the doors opened, it took the five of them a moment to register that the TV set had, in fact, vanished, to be replaced by a chamber pot full of dried pampas grass. There was a numb silence for a moment, then Fitz joined in a resounding round of applause.
‘Thank you, thank you,’ beamed the Doctor modestly, looking quite relieved. He bowed and doffed his hat in acknowledgement, sending two angry doves speeding in a wide arc across the room. Recovering, one settled on the fishtank, while the other circled the light fitting. Iris cackled like a mad thing as it crapped on Fitz's shoulder. The Doctor stared defiantly at the ceiling until the disturbance had died down.
‘Now, madam, if you'd care to examine the inside of the cabinet, as we agreed?’ Compassion gave him a look. ‘You'll see that there are no false bottoms, no trapdoors, no mirrors, indeed no trickery of any kind.’
Kicking the commode out of the way, Compassion stepped inside, and stared intently around her. ‘There must be something.’
‘Why must there?’ the Doctor bridled. ‘Are you questioning the alchemical skill of the legendary Doctor? The walls and ceiling are a bit too thin to fit a whole TV, I think you'll find.’
Compassion was adamant. ‘Television sets don't just vanish.’ She got down on her hands and knees, and started tapping the floor suspiciously.
‘Oh, come on, Compassion, there's no trapdoor in the living room floor!’ the Doctor exploded, dropping out of character. ‘Face it, it's magic!’
Compassion looked him in the eye. ‘There's no such thing.’
The Doctor glared back. ‘Then perhaps you'd care to stay inside the cabinet while I bring the television back?’
‘I wouldn't see anything. It's dark in there,’ Compassion pointed out sensibly.
‘I've got a torch!’ exclaimed Sally suddenly. She ferreted around in her handbag. ‘In case of sudden blackouts or breakdowns in the middle of nowhere.’ She pulled out a pencil torch, which she flicked on immediately. A strong beam lanced out across the room, waking Canine who yelped in surprise.
‘If you could pass it over then, please, second madam? Many thanks. Now, Com- now, madam, take the torch, and remain in the cabinet, if you please.’ Compassion seemed all too keen, Fitz thought. He realised why she'd been so intent on the magic show – she'd been waiting for a trick to go right all this time, so she could then work out how it had been done. Not that she wanted to spoil it for the rest of them, she just had a yearning to reduce things to the explicable. She must have found the show so far a bit of a let-down.
He thought he'd also detected a selfish panic in her eyes at the disappearance of the TV.
The Doctor, impatient to prove his point, was already closing the doors on her. ‘With our sceptical young volunteer now in place,’ he was intoning, ‘we must reverse the words of magic which caused the vanishment to occur. If I can remember what they were, that is,’ he added, concern creasing his face for just a moment.
Iris leant over to hiss to Fitz. ‘That's a pretty good trick, you know. All done with a rotating floor thingamajig, I expect. It's daft to leave that girl in there with a torch, though. She'll soon spot what's going on.’
The Doctor let fly a second string of syllables, indistinguishable by Fitz from the first (although now he was listening more closely, he'd a feeling he heard a rude word in there somewhere). As before, the cabinet reacted with stolid indifference.
The Doctor tapped on the cabinet's doors. ‘Are you all right in there, Compassion?’ he called. There was silence. ‘She'll be dumbstruck by the inexplicability of the reappearance, I expect,’ he stated confidently. ‘Compassion? Are you all right?’ He turned back to the audience. ‘Ah, well, let's see, shall we?’
He slid open the viewing panel in the left hand door, and peered inside. His face registered mild panic.
Turning they key once more, he threw open the doors explosively, then turned towards the room for a triumphant bow. Then suddenly whirled back to face the cabinet.
Inside sat an ancient bakelite television set, far older than the one they'd put inside, with a knob for changing channels and a tiny mirrored screen. On top of it stood a three-foot plaster Virgin Mary.
Of Compassion there was absolutely no sign.
That old TV set's been a pain in the neck from day one. But of course it's the only one we've got now. Whoops.
I'm more concerned about poor Compassion, though. I suppose she must be still there in the cabinet – wherever all the things I find there come from. I can't imagine how they fit – the junk it's thrown at me has already overflowed the attic, and started filling up Compassion's floor as well. It's stacked up to the ceiling in huge toppling piles, great towers of lumber and mirror and brass. It's not safe to go in there any more.
I think the box did it deliberately. It saw me taking all the credit for the television's miraculous disappearance, and decided to teach me a lesson. Selfish thing.
At least Compassion's got our actual TV set in there with her. She won't want for entertainment.
When she vanished, we searched the living room thoroughly, and then the house. When we realised she was really gone – and I'd convinced the others I had no idea how to get her back – Iris took charge. She can be an annoying old fusspot, but she's handy in a crisis.
You stupid old fool, she said to me (and with fairly good reason, although I did resent her calling me old). What on earth did you think you were doing, putting someone into a working magic cabinet? Who knows what might have happened to her in there!
Oh, she was cross.
I'm sorry, I said, humbly. I was really quite shaken by the whole thing.
I should think so too! Now, what were the words you used?
But the words no longer worked. Which isn't surprising, since I now know it was the cabinet working the trick, not me. Closing and reopening the doors yielded up a collection of gaudy Russian dolls, a rubber swordfish and a great big gong, but that was about it. However many times we intoned the words, made the gestures or just shouted at the cabinet to bring her back, it obstinately churned out random junk instead.
Eventually we gave up and drifted off. Iris filched a bottle of vodka from the kitchen and stormed off in her bus, still ranting about irresponsible meddling and the consequences of your actions. Sally gave me a comforting peck on the cheek, packed her dog up in his basket and went home.
Fitz plugged in the old bakelite telly and started watching The Black and White Minstrel Show. I can't believe they're repeating this, he kept muttering to himself.
I took off my top hat and fed my fish, then tried to get my doves down from the furniture.
And all the time the cabinet was sitting there in the corner. I didn't feel it was watching me or anything silly like that. It didn't need to. It was just there, purposeful and patient, with an agenda I knew nothing about. Obstinate blue oblong that it was, full of stars like that sinister Monolith from 2001, it had transported Compassion to who knows where, and might be doing who knows what to her inside itself. I've known it was aware from our first meeting – when I first saw it, I'd say, if meeting wasn't exactly how it had felt. I'd been so eager to get it home and test its magic properties. Now I was afraid. It has a power nobody warned me about.
What if I open it one day, in mid-conjuration or to give it a bit of a dust inside, and instead of random furniture I find somebody standing there? Someone who once vanished inside? One of those so-called Glass Men of Valcea, or the other hideous creatures in my dreams? Or just someone who seems-human-but-who-knows? Perhaps even a person the cabinet has put together itself, to do its bidding?
Romy was a friend of the Doctor's Fitz hadn't met before. He'd heard the Doctor talk about her, of course – she was one of his oldest friends, and Fitz rather suspected they'd been a little more than that in their time – but it seemed they didn't see a lot of each other these days. She'd joined a church of some kind, with peculiar modern views Fitz gathered, and seemed to have become something rather high up in it, locally at least. She was very busy with the needs of her congregation, the Doctor said, and didn't have a lot of time for social visits.
He had particularly asked her to be here tonight, though. Fitz wasn't sure why. The Doctor hadn't been keen on seeing Sally or Iris since the business with – well, since Compassion went missing. (They'd never talked about it, but they were keeping her part of the house free for her, or as free as the enormous piles of tacky ornaments would allow.) Which meant that for tonight it was just Fitz, the Doctor and Romy. Fitz wasn't certain how he felt about that, but he was careful to be cordial enough when Romy arrived.
She was a tremendously upright person, Fitz realised, not even a hint of bending in her carriage. As a general slouchabout himself, he found that a little intimidating. Her features were still beautiful, despite her middle age – when she was younger, she must have been an absolute stunner. Lucky old Doctor. She was wearing a plain black cassock and dog collar, although from what Fitz heard he was doubtful she was strictly entitled to them. Her shoulder-length greying-blond hair was in a sensible bob, and her manner was frighteningly, schoolmistressly sensible.
‘You must be Fitz,’ she noted. ‘The Doctor's told me about you.’ Her voice suggested that she was carefully reserving judgement. Fitz tried surreptitiously to hold himself up straighter.
‘Er, I think he's getting ready,’ he told her, trying not to sound defensive. ‘Do you want to come through to the living room? Can I get you a drink or anything?’
Romy gave him a cool, appraising look, then smiled. Fitz relaxed slightly, feeling as if someone had turned his body temperature up several degrees. ‘Perhaps, Fitz,’ Romy said conspiratorially, ‘you can tell me what all this is about? The Doctor phoned me this morning and told me it was terribly urgent I come over tonight. You know what he's like when he gets an idea into his head. I had to postpone an elders' meeting. I'd like to say I won't lose any sleep over it, but in the purely literal sense that's probably not true. I had no idea how dull they could be.’ She paused. She was trying to put him at his ease, Fitz could tell, but she still wanted answers.
‘Er,’ said Fitz. ‘I think, well, you know what he's like. The fact is,’ he said, ‘I think he wants to put on a magic show for us.’
The look she gave him made him hope earnestly she never came visiting when he was sick.
The cabinet gave me a gift this morning. That's how I know it's forgiven me at last.
I've got into the habit of opening it first thing when I get up. I've no real hope that Compassion will reappear overnight, but I'd never forgive myself if I didn't check. I've given up taking out the junk it produces, though – it's filled all the available rooms, and if I leave it in there, I find it's turned into something else next time I take a look.
This morning, though, it gave me something beautiful. I opened it up and there it was, the size of a person, filling the cabinet's interior with gorgeous prismatic colour. With Fitz's reluctant help I lifted it out, and we staggered with it up into the attic. There I cleared a space around the skylight, so the sun could shine right through it.
It's a stained-glass window, deepest blue like the cabinet itself. Etched in vibrant colours, crimson and flame-yellow and copper-green, it depicts a life-sized figure, with many faces like a Hindu god. This glass man wears an azure suit of armour, holds a sword and shield like some crusading knight, and in the centre of his chest are laid out two scarlet hearts, vital and glowing as if the artist has trapped their double rhythm inside the glass itself. His faces are all different – some I think I recognise, including my own, some are strangers to me. Instead of a cross, the shield bears a point d'interrogation gules upon a field argent. So my heraldic dictionary tells me.
As I look closer, though, I see that the figure is made up of smaller images, tiny pictures complete in themselves, all merging to form the figure of the great glass knight. Scrabbling around, my hand finds a magnifying glass in one of the tea-chests. Peering at these little pictures, I see that they, too, are made up from smaller scenes, intricately etched with detail vanishing into the infinitesimal. From a distance the colours merge to form the bold colours of the figure and his background, but up close there are deep oranges and browns, rich purples and greens, harmoniously blending into his armoured body like tattoos.
Staring enthralled at the tiny images, I see a
woman in white silk with a flower necklace and corn-gold hair
bone-brittle dinosaur glowering and snapping from a dark earth wall
mansion-house straddled by a jack-i'-th'-green plant-giant
buttery clock softening and melting dripping time down the wall
bright globe with verdant countries smiling against a landscaped sky
shiny fool's-gold handbag with an angry disney scowl
bloated sun raining fire on a new desert of burning metal
man of scraps and fragments his arm a crab's claw his head a fish-bowl
flaming tiger crouched to spring in snowy woodland
million tiny images made of sharp and glittering contours; shards and fragments and splinters of bright glass joining in magnificent sapphire splendour to create the virtuous, vitreous figure of the many-headed knight in his magnificent armour.
Fitz felt he'd probably reached his limit when the Doctor asked him to hand over his mobile phone.
‘You're going to smash it with a hammer, aren't you?’ he stated bluntly.
The Doctor grinned. ‘Come on, Fitz – that is, come on, member of the audience who I haven't previously met. Have a little faith.’
Fitz glanced in mute appeal at Romy, the other half of the Doctor's select audience, but she returned his gaze serenely. She'd shown surprising patience with the Doctor, presumably reasoning that if he'd lost his marbles it was best to go along with it until they could both wrestle him to the ground and tie him up.
He supposed she was right. Whatever had produced the Doctor's sudden defiant urge for a repeat performance, it wasn't amenable to argument, as he'd discovered at considerable length that lunchtime. Which meant the two of them had to go along with the magic show for the moment, unless it looked like anyone was actually going to get hurt. Meekly, he handed over the phone, trying to work out when he might afford another.
The Doctor wrapped the mobile in a purple silk cloth, and placed it with a flourish into a paper bag. He seemed serenely unaware that the bag had ‘Boots the Chemist plc’ printed on it in large letters.
‘A hammer would be a crude implement for such a skilled esoteric professional as I,’ the Doctor intoned. ‘I prefer to use – a walking boot!’
‘Oh, Christ,’ said Fitz.
The Doctor produced a leather boot from under the table, and brought it crashing down onto the paper bag, grinning like a maniac all the time. The bag's contents gave a forlorn bleep, then fell silent as the Doctor pounded them to pieces.
‘Brilliant,’ Fitz told him. ‘What next, you magic the cost of a new one out of thin air?’
‘Watch,’ commanded the Doctor, ‘and learn.’ Crossing to the so-called magic cabinet, he threw open the double doors as if expecting a fanfare. Inside, lying on a raffia mat atop a folded deckchair, was a second Boots bag.
‘Behold!’ the Doctor cried.
‘What's that,’ Fitz asked in exasperation, ‘one you prepared earlier?’
‘Now,’ the Doctor said, excitement ringing through his voice. ‘Perhaps, sir, you'd care to look inside that bag?’
Fitz did so. It contained a second silk cloth of the same colour, inside which was a second mobile phone, also in tiny pieces.
‘Is that your portable telephone, sir?’ the Doctor asked.
‘No,’ Fitz said. ‘That's my portable bloody telephone,’ he pointed out, indicating the bag still lying on the card table. ‘This,’ he explained, ‘is some other poor bastard's which you've also smashed up.’
‘Oh, no!’ the Doctor was put out. ‘No no, ignore that first one.’ He threw the first bag into the cabinet, slamming the doors closed hurriedly. ‘Take my word for it, that is your mobile phone.’
‘No, Doctor, it isn't.’
‘Yes it is,’ the Doctor insisted. ‘Look, it's all in bits where I smashed it with the boot!’
‘Well, thank you so much.’
‘I should think so, too. Now, lady and gentleman – sit down, Fitz, that's your bit over with, thank you – now, lady and gentleman: behold this magic cabinet of transmogrification. Behold this television set.’
As he sat down Fitz gave a tiny groan of terror. He hadn't had time to tell Romy what had happened at the Doctor's last performance. He supposed, if the Doctor tried to make her get into the cabinet, he could shout a warning, bash the Doctor over the head, and then the two of them could make a run for it. She might even be grateful to him for saving her life. There was something to be said for an attractive maturer woman, after all, and she might well feel that a younger man –
Shit. You're losing it, Fitz. She's a vicar, for Christ's sake
.The Doctor had apparently decided not to request a helpless female volunteer on this occasion. Instead he was removing from the cabinet the deck chair, the raffia mat and, seemingly, a working model lighthouse made from shells. He produced a dusty porter's trolley from somewhere – it was probably one of the offerings the cabinet itself had left him over the last few weeks – and was using it to heft the ancient black and white television set inside.
Deciding that the trick was probably safe so long as no human beings were directly involved, Fitz subsided nervously.
‘Behold,’ the Doctor continued at length, slightly out of breath, ‘this perfectly ordinary, if rather archaic, television set inside the cabinet of transmutation. Now, the cabinet is an artefact of rare power and magickal energy, whereas I,’ he coughed nervously, ‘am merely a humble dabbler in the backwaters of the conjuror's art. For this reason, I offer up this anomalous antique television to the cabinet, in exchange for any favours it may deign to grant me.’
That was surely laying on the arcane patter a bit thick, thought Fitz. And besides, if he'd understood the Doctor's meaning correctly they might soon end up with no TV at all. He cleared his throat in protest, but the Doctor was in no mood to brook disagreement.
‘I close the doors of the cabinet like this, lock them securely with this iron key, then leave the cabinet to work its enchantments.’ The Doctor looked round nervously, as if for something to do, and then his gaze lighted on his audience. ‘Can I get you two a cup of tea while we wait?’ he suggested.
‘I'll do it,’ said Fitz quickly, and left the room. He couldn't stand the tension any more. Let Romy talk some sense into him, or let him bundle her off into the cabinet. He really didn't care any more.
It took him perhaps ten minutes to fill the kettle, greet Wesley the kitten, warm the pot, find the teabags, pour out some milk in the special jug the Doctor liked to use when there were guests, pour more milk into the special saucer Wesley liked to use when there was milk, and set out three matching mugs onto the silver tea-tray. By that time, he hoped, things might have calmed down a bit.
When he got back to the living room, he found Compassion chatting amiably to the Doctor and Romy.
That he'd been vaguely prepared for. It was the only thing that made sense of the Doctor's behaviour all day, after all. What he hadn't expected was for her to rush over and give him a huge hug.
Compassion still won't say what happened to her during her time inside the cabinet, and perhaps it's just as well. Either she either can't remember herself, or else she knows it's better for us – for Fitz and me – not to know.
She's a caring kid at heart, I've always said so. I must say that side of her's been to the fore since she came out of the cabinet. Being shut inside can do that sort of thing to you. Enforced isolation, perhaps (but maybe she met others in there?) Confined spaces (or are they?) Sensory deprivation, even (or is the interior of the cabinet every bit as marvellous and dazzling as the stained glass window it created for me?) Bound to have an effect.
I don't know if she's told any of this to Romy. Those two have been thick as thieves since it happened.
They'd never met before – Romy comes from a very long-ago time in my life, and unlike Sally these days I hardly see her from one year to the next. Compassion is a relatively new companion in the house. The first time they saw each other was when I unlocked the cabinet that evening and Compassion fell into my ready arms. I admit I wobbled a little bit – she's a big girl. She was surprisingly affectionate and clingy, like a haughty cat who's let out after shutting herself in a cupboard all day. It must have been traumatic for her, as I say, although I do wish I had more idea of how. When she hugged Fitz he dropped the tea things everywhere. He was so sorry and shocked, he forgave me for smashing his phone. Well, agreed to let me pay him back in instalments.
Anyway. It was after that, when we'd all sat down with a nice fresh pot and explained to Romy what was going on, that I realised how cagey Compassion was being. Every time I asked about the inside of the cabinet, she deflected it by asking how we'd been while she'd been away.
Time was she'd just have told me to mind my own business. But we were seeing a new side to her – sensitive, tactful even – and she was keen not to upset me. Maybe she realised how guilty I felt about sending her in there in the first place. Soon she and Romy were talking cheerfully to each other over their tea, sharing the odd joke. It takes a perceptive person to see through Romy's aloof demeanour, and although she'd hate me to say so she doesn't make friends easily. I was glad she and Compassion were hitting it off.
But then Compassion's been far more mellow since it all happened. I'm sure Fitz found her much easier to live with over those next few weeks. She washed up without being asked, did her share of the cleaning and shopping, even cooked us a couple of really remarkable meals. Even little Wesley became very fond of her. Once Fitz had stopped trying to keep the two of them apart, she often came to rub against her legs and have her chin scratched. The cat, that is.
Romy came to visit often during that time, more than she had for years – but it was Compassion, not me, who she came to see. I could have felt a little put out about that, but I thought perhaps Compassion had found she could confide in Romy. I've noticed her clerical manner will do that sometimes. They spent a lot of time together, out in the tiny garden, or up in Compassion's room. When we'd managed to get it cleared, that is, so she could live there properly again. I was glad Romy was taking Compassion out of herself a little. I'd hoped the original television might have come back with her, but obviously not, and she was at a bit of a loose end without it.
Then one day, out of the blue, she announced that she was moving out. Moving out of my house, and moving in with Romy.
It's difficult to know quite what to say to that. Of course I'm delighted for the pair of them, and said so. Fitz was more surprised than I was – he's very old-fashioned in some ways. He said something mind-bendingly inappropriate about ‘chick on chick action', then looked desperately embarrassed. Compassion scowled – she can still scowl like a champion when she wants to – and though I could tell Romy was trying not to giggle, I think Fitz thought she was about to call the police.
I'm enormously happy for them, I really am. They're lovely people and they've both had their share of tragedy. Compassion's an orphan – like Fitz, except she never even knew her parents – and Romy's been through some traumatic times since we went our separate ways. They both deserve a little happiness in life.
I just can't help wondering if it's all thanks to my magic cabinet. I'm sure they'd never have been each other's type before, you see. I'd die rather than say it to either of them, but they were too alike. Aloof, haughty, distant – each with hidden depths to be sure, but would they ever have discovered them if the cabinet hadn't turned Compassion inside out like that? The magic worlds the cabinet led her into were the unexpected vistas of her own heart – and now those depths are on the outside, what else might there be to discover inside her, I wonder?
What might Romy have seen in her, before? What does she find there now? Is the cabinet responsible for all this? Am I responsible?
I think it may be time to see my private doctor again. Instead, though, I went this morning to the old magic shop.
Ye Magick Shoppe was just as before. But this time I saw a painful visual jangle of richness and colour, the tawdry and the terrible mixed up and spat out into a riotous jumble of misplaced symbolism, pagan and appalling. That incense smell, the cobwebs on the ceiling, the costumes and the props were all the same – only the cabinet had gone. And he still sat there, in the same spot, a spider in an ancient web that caught and held passing ideas and made them real, signified becoming signifier before his bright green, young-old eyes.
Good day to you, sir, he told me. And a good day once again it is, I'm sure. Can I help you?
I had the strangest feeling that the things he said hid something else behind them, vitally important but entirely unsaid. But I was in no mood for riddles.
What's inside the cabinet? I demanded.
The transmutation cabinet? Ah, yes. A fine piece, that one. I've had her longer than I can remember.
His bright eyes took and held mine, and I realised where I recognised them from. His face was one of those belonging to my many-visaged knight of shining glass.
Have you ever been inside it? I repeated.
Once, he said. Have you?
A young friend of mine did. She was gone a month. We've no idea what happened to her in there.
I was infuriated by his evasiveness.
What is it? I fairly bellowed at him. Is it a miracle, or a curse? Is it alive? Where does the furniture come from? Where do the people go? Does it open on to Heaven, or Hell, or, or – or Faerieland? What did it do to my friend? What's it doing to me?
(As I said, it might be time to go and see my doctor.)
I've no idea, said the owner steadily.
We paused – him calm, me simply out of breath.
I stocked this shop from that cabinet, he told me ruminatively. It took me years, and I had to throw away an awful lot of rubbish, but the stock I've got will last me the rest of my life here.
And once... you went inside? I whispered.
I did, he said. I went in, and I stayed there seven days. Then I came out again. I've never been the same since, nor will your young friend ever be. Nor will you, if you will take what it offers you.
I remembered to breathe. There was a very long pause.
I wonder if you would please do something for me? I asked the magic shop owner humbly.
It was when he welcomed the fourteenth guest of the evening into the Doctor's hall that it suddenly occurred to Fitz to wonder how come he always got reception duty.
As it happened, the fourteenth guest was Sally, and she had a ready answer for him. ‘He hates hellos,’ she explained bizarrely. ‘They remind him of goodbyes. I think he likes to believe all his friends live with him in his giant house and he just runs into them occasionally.’ She started to help the fifteenth guest out of his dog-basket. Fitz looked at Canine narrowly, and hoped Wesley had had the sense to clear off for the evening. She was getting quite independent now, and the Doctor had joined forces with their new house-guest, Anji, to fit her a smart new catflap in the kitchen door.
Fitz showed Sally through. This looked like being the Doctor's grandest do yet. The curtains were already open, and the magical paraphernalia laid out. The cabinet and the card table had been surrounded by an extra ring of the tall candlesticks. The cabinet's doors were spread wide open, the box resplendently empty, freshly touched-up black paint glittering proudly as it faced the audience.
The living room was already filled near bursting with the Doctor's audience. Compassion smiled at them from where she sat, while Romy favoured Fitz with a solemn wink. Anji was by the angel fish, pouring out wine for everybody; the Doctor's friend Benny, who worked at the Museum and whom Fitz had fancied the pants off for a couple of months, was helping eagerly. She set down an empty bottle on top of the vivarium, and the huge lizard snapped up at it in anger. Fitz recognised only a handful of the other guests, and before tonight had known none of them to speak to. A man the Doctor's age, moustached and dressed in a smart blazer; a young couple with a baby from Romy's church; the muscular young neighbourhood policeman, who was wearing an earring now he wasn't on duty. Fitz was amused to note that the rest were pretty women of various ages.
Fitz tried to settle Sally among the rest of them, but she was nervous. Understandable enough after the last time, though she was evidently relieved to see Compassion alive and well. At length, she asked him to mind Canine while she went to the loo. Fitz took the terrier back out into the hall, and watched through the front door as Iris' bus drew up across the street.
‘There are an awful lot of people here tonight, aren't there?’ observed the dog at his feet.
‘Bloody are as well,’ agreed Fitz absently.
Iris was carrying something out of her bus, an old-fashioned wheelchair by the looks of things. The old girl's stronger than she looks, Fitz realised, as she climbed back up the step. Was she the last of them, he wondered? He made that sixteen – that was everybody, surely? He couldn't remember who exactly the total included – not the Doctor, obviously, but him and Anji? Had the baby counted? And did Canine count as a person, or –
Fitz looked down at the terrier with a sudden jolt. ‘Christ, you're talking again!’ he hissed. ‘And this time I'm not even pissed!’
‘Language,’ said Canine primly.
A passer-by in a coat that looked like half a dead camel had stopped to help Iris. Fitz realised they were carrying a passenger out of the bus, an old woman whom they set down in the bath chair. There was something strangely sinuous about her legs. As Iris fussed about her, the newcomer looked over towards Fitz. Even in the sodium street light, the brightness of his fierce red hair was striking.
‘I've known the Doctor longer than you,’ said Canine. ‘I think he's planning something.’ He scratched an ear violently with one back paw. ‘Ooh, that's better. Hey, can I smell a cat round here somewhere?’
Suddenly, the Doctor was next to Fitz, far too excited to notice trivialities like a dog talking. ‘Come on, Fitz,’ he insisted, ‘come and help her in! These are the last three!’ He bounded down the steps and across the road. Fitz and Canine followed apathetically.
The Doctor was making a bee-line for the old woman in the wheelchair, whom the flame-haired stranger was pushing along as if he'd known her all his life. ‘Mother!’ the Doctor cried out. Fitz stopped dead.
‘Jonny!’ the old woman called back, legs twitching strangely underneath their blanket. Her vowels were distinctly continental.
‘His name is Jonny?’ Fitz whispered, aghast. Then, ‘He has a mother?’ He massaged his brow wearily. Then he peered down at the dog, who was regarding him with caution.
‘You say he's planning something?’ Fitz asked.
Ever since I found the cabinet I've had the strangest feeling it's trying to communicate with me somehow. Like kidnapping one of my friends was just a way of getting my attention. All the artefacts it spews out, till the place where I live resembles an abandoned junkyard – am I supposed to recognise them? Or does it just want to feel at home? The old black-and-white TV – was that a hint of some kind? And what about the stained-glass window, the hero with a thousand faces, one of them my own? Is it supposed to tell me something?
Compassion, changed by her experiences after the cabinet whisks her away from her home, so that the grumpy old Compassion become the new Compassion, full of love and wonder – is she a message, too? Are these things intended to remind me of some vital memory?
What the cabinet is, maybe?
Or who I am?
There's only one way I can possibly find out. I must enter the cabinet myself.
Then, with the old magician's help, I must pass deeper, through the false back, that treacherous fourth wall, and into whatever chasms lie beyond.
What will I find there? What will I be there? Because nobody who enters that cabinet can be the same when they emerge. Will I be king of the talking animals in some far land? A merman, my mother's family ascendant at last, in some dark fishy kingdom fathoms deep? A magician, advising a heroic king? Or an armoured knight in sapphire blue, my sword bright and strong and true, my questioning shield trusty and firm?
Whatever I become, I'm sure I'll be more myself than what I've been: an eccentric landlord, a neglectful son, an incompetent conjuror – and at my worst a ranting madman.
Oh, but am I up to playing such a part, whatever it might prove to be? And can I bear the changes the cabinet will bring? What's wrong, after all, with what I am? Except the mad part.
I have my friends. I have my house and my pets. I don't want to abandon them. I hate goodbyes.
I should burn the cabinet, ignite it on a pyre built from the wooden furniture it's so thoughtfully provided. Burn the stained-glass window too, watch those coloured splinters melt and run in bright chromatic rivulets. Watch the cabinet warp and twist, its midnight blue becoming black and charred, its stars consumed by a fire brighter than their own as orange flames rise high into the night sky. Burn all the possibilities, the destinations, the adventures. Turn back from change, burn away all possibility of being more or less than who I am, consume the cabinet in the fires of its own mutability. That would be a show to give my audience.
Is that then, finally, who I am? Who I will be?
Who am I?
© Philip Purser-Hallard 2001.
www.infinitarian.com created and maintained by Philip Purser-Hallard.
All material © Philip Purser-Hallard 2003 except where otherwise noted, and not to be used without permission.
Iris Wildthyme created by Paul Magrs. Sally and Canine created by Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad.
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