I took part in East London’s YARN festival this year. I was given Book Nine of the Odyssey to re-shape. Below I set out the result, which I read before a very friendly crowd on the evening of 23rd February. I had been nervous about performing my work in public, but there was something really wonderful about the group of people there, a real willingness to listen. The other acts were interesting and innovative and I left thinking that I should do more of this kind of thing.
The Odyssey – Book Nine
I sat in a hotel bar in Cleveland trying to make my beer last another hour. I watched from the long window as drunks pushed their shopping carts bundled with the festering tragedy of their lives up and down as they waited for death or a bed at the Y. Behind them rose the slag heaps that were the useless memory of a time when this city meant something. Across the lobby a tanned collection of tourists who’d been at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. They wore domed Beatles wigs and their jackets were studded with stickers but their eyes were haunted. They had heard that Cleveland was a dive, but not this. Cleveland changes you. I don’t think you can ever be really optimistic again once you have been to Cleveland.
There was a boat to Buffalo leaving at nine that evening. A drunk named Rocky on the Greyhound from Little Rock told me that you could jump aboard from the shore if you timed it right. That plenty of guys did it, and then it was six hours up the coast to the docks in West Seneca. From Buffalo I’d hitch the I90 to Seneca Falls and then down the Cayuga – which I’d walk if I had to – to Ithaca. Where Penelope was waiting. It wasn’t the triumphant return I had hoped for. But I had only lost half a semester. And the dean said I could make up the classes I had missed and Penelope would help me. She would sit with her long patient fingers turning over pages and talking me through the passages of Homer and Virgil, Pliny and Ovid.
Someone clapped a hand down on my shoulder and spun me around in my chair. Two large, smiling figures stood there. The taller of the two leant towards me and spoke in a voice deep and beery.
“Odysseus, I thought it was you, man. What the fuck are you doing here? Let me get you a beer. This is crazy.”
I sputtered laughter, threw my arms around his shoulders and then hugged the man next to him.
“Polites, Eurylochus, this is amazing. No I’ll get the beers. I’m almost down to my last dime but this requires celebration. Why are you here?”
We moved to sit at a table in the lobby under a many-lamped golden chandelier. Polites, who studied classics with me at Cornell, and was wide receiver for the football team, spoke again, tripping over himself in his haste to get his words out.
“Eurolychus and I were just bored yesterday morning. Saturday in Ithaca with nothing to do and we knew there was a Browns game on last night and we decided to head down here and catch it. We hooked up with some girls afterwards and went to the bars down by the waterfront. We haven’t been to bed yet.”
Eurolychus was smaller and wider than his friend. A dark brush of stubble covered his face and he laughed for no reason then looked down at the table, spinning his beer mat.
“We did some pretty crazy drugs. I think I’m still tripping. I’m not exactly sure, but I think I am.” His voice was slow and Southern. He seemed like an amiable, fucked Sothern bear.
We walked out into the dank late afternoon and I remembered the boat and my friends decided they’d come with me. We walked down to the docks with blue cigarette smoke streaming out behind us like scarves. The light faded around us as we made our way down the hill. Crows were circling the trees in Voinovich Park, black against the remnants of the day’s light.
The boat was smaller than I had expected, loaded high with crates of what looked like turnips or Swedes, some sort of root vegetable. There was a chain link barrier along the dockside and a snarling stevedore who paced up and down beside it. We stood further down the quayside smoking and clapping our shoulders against the cold. When the ship’s engine roared to life and its bell rang we had to sprint along the dock to catch it. The stevedore was gone and we threw ourselves over the chain fence and onto the crates of vegetables. We sat and talked as the boat chugged out into open water, past the slag heaps and piles of garbage that sloped down to the shore.
“Where have you been, Odysseus? We’ve missed you. I haven’t seen you all this term.” Polites passed me a cigarette and lit it, cupping the flame with his large hand.
“I tried to make it in Hollywood – I mean it was really stupid of me – but my brother got me a walk-on part in a film. A film with Brad Pitt. It was called Troy and I guess my brother thought I’d be good for it because of my studies. I’d bring some authenticity to the part or whatever. My brother’s a producer at Warners and he was trying to look out for me. But the second night I was there I got drunk and got into a fight with this prick English actor called Orlando Bloom. You know him? And so they packed me off with no money, my brother all ashamed of me and I got the greyhound as far as Cleveland, and then I met you guys.”
“And we’re gonna take you back where you belong,” Eurolychus said, smiling. “Back to that damn fine woman and the leafy boulevards of Ithaca.”
The storm came upon us quickly, sending shaggy peaks of waves against the side of the little boat, soaking us and slapping down upon the crates. At first it was exhilarating. We were wrapped up in our winter clothes and to be there amongst the vast, chaotic howl of nature was thrilling. Then the waves built up, and the wind screeched more strongly and I began to feel scared. We fastened ourselves to the metal bar that ran along the side of the deck. I tied my belt loop around it and gripped on with my freezing fingers. Polites helped Eurolychus over to the edge and they clung to me. I saw the stevedore lashing boxes together. He caught sight of us, threw up his hands and disappeared. Each plunge downwards seemed like a descent into hell, every struggle up a wave’s steep incline merely foretold the plummet to come. Finally rocks reared up and there was a crash and a splintering and a roaring and I was sure that it was the sound of the end.
When the golden locks of dawn dropped down from the heavens the next morning I found myself lying with my head on a pile of turnips. Polites was shivering above a fire that sputtered and hissed further up the beach whilst Eurolychus collected driftwood along the shoreline to feed the black-smoking pyre. I found that Eurolychus’ sheepskin was laid over me like a rug and I stretched myself out under the damp, heavy mass. The dawn seemed ashamed of last night’s histrionics and broke with a reserved forlorn beauty, warming us with its timid forays before the lake’s sharp wind chilled us again. After a while it was clear that the fire wasn’t going to take, and we decided to head inland to find somewhere to get dry.
We made our way slowly over the dirty dunes with their shaggy grass tufts and looked down upon a small town. It was a grey town, even in the sunlight. Something dispiriting hung over the place, a thin veil of mist that crept up from the river, but also something tired and hopeless in the way the houses leant against each other, the uniformity of the driveways and broken picket fences and chained, silent dogs. There was one larger house directly in front of us whose high windows reflected the waters of the lake, the vast sky. A low wall encircled the place – it was almost a mansion – and willow and privet and thorny acacias spewed over this wall, as if they were trying to tug it down. We came down the slope of the dunes and pushed open rust-red gates.
Sand had blown along the pathway and lay in strata-lines against the front door. Vegetation was everywhere, swollen by the damp and the rain. I saw lianas twisting their way into broken windows, vines and ivy battling to pull out crumbling brickwork.
“Do you think there’s anyone here? Maybe we can go in and get warm.” Polites’ voice was very loud and quivered slightly. “There might even be some old dude inside with a phone we can use.”
I pushed against the door. With a low creak it opened. Darkness. Then as my eyes adjusted, and we made our way in, we saw that we were in a huge hallway. The ceiling went up to the beams of the roof, but very little light came in because of the plants blocking the windows. It was like a cave in there. But it was warm. And in the corner of the room we found wood for a fire, a box of matches, and a half-drunk bottle of whiskey. Exhausted, barely waiting for the fire to take, we choked down the warming liquid and fell into a deep sleep.
“What the fuck you doing here? Who the fuck are you?”
I woke to find some kind of monster standing over me. He must have been seven feet tall, his arms held above his head and a huge axe whirring round, cutting the air. He wore a tweed jacket and moleskin trousers, a white shirt and bow tie, but on his head, with one glowing yellow panel in the front, sat a brass diver’s helmet. His voice was high and plangent. He raised the axe up and brought it down on Eurolychus’ head. There was no shattering of bone, no gory explosion of blood. Just a wet sound, like someone dropping an ice-cream. Polites was cowering in the corner, whimpering, sniveling. The monster put a foot on Eurolychus’ shoulder and pulled the axe out. My friend slumped forward and I could see the stunned look on his face, as if in death he was thinking “But I’m at Cornell. This doesn’t happen to people from Cornell.”
I edged backwards towards the fire as the creature came towards me. My hands were scrabbling on the dusty floor, my fingernails clacking like rats claws. There was no way out. I turned to look into the roaring flames. The poker. In our tiredness we had left the poker in the fire. As the monster closed over me, a moan of pleasure coming from his throat, I took the poker in my right hand. The creature lifted the axe above his head and began to roar. I plunged the poker with its end wand-white hot, into the yellow glass of the diving helmet. The monster’s roar changed in timbre, elongated and intensified. Clasping his hands to his face he staggered backwards.
It was only then that I noticed the girls. Near the door, hanging back, glowing even in the darkness, were perhaps twenty young girls. The monster fell amongst them and they looked into the blood-dimmed light of his helmet and made soft, soothing noises. One of the girls took up the hem of her long white dress and mopped at the blood. They were all in their teens, blonde, delicate in the dim light. I helped Polites to his feet and spoke.
“Let us out. You have killed my friend. I should kill you. But I won’t. Please, just let us past.”
I saw the creature swing round towards the direction of my voice. He pushed the girls away and, reaching into the pocket of his jacket, he pulled out a small lady’s pistol. Aiming it with unsteady hand, he fired, missing us by some way. Then he placed a chair in front of the door and sat down, resting his helmet-head against the frame behind him.
“You won’t leave here. You have blinded me, broken the glass that daddy made me to help me see. But you’ll die inside here. Or I’ll shoot you trying to escape. Nobody fucks with the son of Poseidon. Only my girls get out from here alive.” He reached over and stroked one of them. He tugged at her thick blonde hair, wound it in a coil around his fist and then let go. As the last frail tendrils of light disappeared from the room, the monster moved his chair forwards and let the girls out into the night.
“Go out and bring me money, my darlings. Make your Pretty Polly proud. You are so beautiful. Let me feel you.”
As each passed he ran his thick fingers through their hair, chuckling to himself.
“The intruders won’t escape. They don’t have your beautiful hair. They’ll never get out.”
The girls began to trickle back in after what must have been three or four hours. As each entered she dropped a pile of banknotes at his feet. He muttered to himself throughout. One of the girls brought him some more whiskey and he lolled back against the door. After a while I could hear him snoring. I crept over to the group of girls who were clustered in the corner, combing out their long hair, washing in turn at a small, battered sink.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
The nearest to me turned with angry eyes.
“Shhh… Don’t wake him. Please don’t wake him. This is the only time we have.”
“Why are you here? What is your name?”
“I am Lotis. These are my sisters. Our parents owed money to Poseidon. That’s Polyphemus’ father. He runs everything here. All along the shore from Cleveland to Buffalo people are terrified of him. The big boss. So instead of payment he took us, and he let his son take care of us. If we tried to escape he would kill our parents.” The girl began to sob. One of her sisters came and put her arm around her, the others gathered around and looked at me searchingly.
“I’m so sorry. I wish I could help you. But I do have a plan, though. A way you could help me. And then maybe I can come back and get you out of here.”
In the dim light we perched above the sink and cut the girls’ long hair. Some of them sobbed as we did it, some giggled at the tickle of the scissors. We only took a little from each one, and piled it on our own heads. Then we waited. Polyphemus prowled the hall the next day, sniffing the air within his brass hood, sometimes coming dangerously near to our hiding place on the still-warm embers of the dead fire. Then it was time for the girls to go out. Crouching down and pressing ourselves close against the girls either side of us, we shuffled towards the door. I could hear the monster wheezing as we approached, could smell the rancid breath that built up inside his mask. I had twined the girls’ hair as best I could into my own, but still some came loose when he ran his hand through my hair. Then we were out, and I breathed in the rich dark moistness of the air, saw the moon illuminating a still, clear night.
Polites tried to pull me away, tried to drag me after the girls who were scurrying like little white ghosts into the darkness, but I turned to face the house.
“Polyphemus. I’ll be back for you. My name is Odysseus. I’m going to come back here and finish what I started.”
The monster staggered out of the door, firing his little pistol haphazardly into the air. His voice, when it came, was soft, icy.
“My father said you would come. A man who would take my girls away. Come here. Let me shake the hand of the man who outwitted me. Come and have a drink with me.”
“Fuck you. You killed my friend and I don’t care who you father is. I just wish I could send the rest of you to hell to join your eyes.”
Polyphemus bellowed out to the sky.
“Daddy. Daddy come and help me. Daddy these men have hurt me. If you love me daddy, you’ll kill them for me.”
He sank to his knees. All was silent and then a powerful wind swept in from the lake, shaking the trees around us. Polites and I ran down to the beach and made our way along the shore until we found a fishing hut with a row boat moored beside it. Despite the white-tipped waves we pushed out into the lake. Polites rowed first and I stood to see the top of the house, outlined against the first fingers of rosy dawn, slowly fade from sight.