Alexis Thompson – Parlour Dictionnaire


The man of letters: chronicler of the English Language.

Wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.

On the first floor, the one-eyed myopic watches from the portraits with knotted expressiveness. The blind man, a magician, taps the ground with his rainbow seeing-stick, rattling it across the floorboards. Below the guests are welcomed and beckoned in from the rain. The light of an early spring evening rests clean against the white walls.  The magician moves from one side to the other – one blind black fireplace to the other. The door to the stairs: a bridge closed, or open: a cavity at the centre of a skull. He has a skin of ash across his face. He sits squatting beneath the mantlepiece. Black lenses reflect. Illusions for the blind.

The guests ascend through the doorway. The Cyclops is absent, but named on the bill. On the far side of the room a mourner sits at the window; silent beneath her veil. Unsettled and fortuitous. There’s something she’s not telling us, staring out on a low building block; a squat monolith, brick-shaped and covered in greenery. Unnatural tone – that green flowering moss against industrial cloud. You want to peel it back and see the insects on the scalp. On closer inspection, she wears anatomical glasses. She observes in detail the stitching of grief and it’s caught her living tongue. 
  They talk around her, their backs to hers. They are guests at a wake and they’re here for the wine. The blind man keeps moving – he’s the life and soul of this party. He holds up a clean scrap of paper for the fire and places it down. It sits like a glint in a dark pupil. He has a glass, a many faceted handle. The colours bleed from the spectrum. Light spills an impermanent stain.

I wish that the instrument might be less apt to decay.

A shoe, suspended by one long shoestring, climbs up through the bannisters. Laces undone, its fabricated, lolling tongue and mouth agape. A man in a cheap wig leads a party of curious faces to the first floor. He demonstrates, shoe suspended above him, that his arms fit all around the door which, open, separates the two stairwells. The faces gasp and mutter softly to each other.

A man enters with a deaf mask, muted by papier-mache handle, gripping a bite of solid pulp. Noticeboard or clipboard – cheap wood regardless – is the centre of his aspect and our attention. Clipping to the edges sensational headlines. Crumpled, hacked apart and flaring; faded-grey assembled mass. He grunts illegible sounds. Some primordial garbled noise, from his belly and lungs; his lips and tongue bound by the grip of his teeth. Suffered to pass for empty sounds.

Following the shoestring to the next floor up, the boards creak as they did when he carried his great weight up these narrow stairways. A central room appears, holding coats and a table with the glasses set. A bow-tied man reminds us of the limit. In a glass case is a brick from the Great Wall of China, brittle and unremarkable as a single letter. They’d worked it out long before, simply to keep stock.

The rooms on either side play faint recordings of a voice, and two sets of half-hidden feet stick out from under the curtains. Boswell sits, his bare and bloodied feet loyal beneath the table. He chews over a fresh sheet and leaves the wine and fruit bowl undisturbed. He chews with focus, carefully reading the space between his bite-marks. He slowly makes his way back to the other room and stands before Johnson, patient. The doctor’s quill and wig, curled and sharp-cut paper, rustle in the fervent movement of his head and hand. He passes Boswell another sheet to ingest, who retreats once more into the other room. They keep this up with the steady pace of pages being turned. Their soundless conversation continues across space.

Who could let your queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even the pretence of justice, without your ever attempting to rescue her. And such a Queen, too! As every man of gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed their life for.

In the corner of the top floor, the walls are whiter. A shadow rests over the mother of pearl by her severed head. Her hair is wet, and positioned close to the ground. Her head is served up on a platter for the onlookers. A semi-circle forms. Some stand while others sit. I see a fence of arms at an angle, holding wine glasses or their own jawbones, and swaying their weight on a single leg. Her mouth begins to move, then the muscles around her nose twitch like a hare, her face is red and the platter is clean. The blood has not left her, there’s life in there yet. Her muscular spasms oscillate in intensity; her rolling eyes glistening above a silvery pool of saliva. One expects a sudden scream or a death rattle, but nothing, only a stagnant gurgling in the throat. A few short steps lead up to an open window and her mouth is pointed toward the gap. The air is cool with the sound of rain crackling in the background and the welcome last moments of light, dimming the perennial skyline.

At the other window, J. Catling sits with a looking glass flat on the table. He sits with a pregnant menace, and we all wait for him to move. He is utterly motionless for what seems will be the entire performance. A pair of gloves lies beside him. He puts them on, and with a screech of metal against wood board, he moves over with quick heavy steps to a member of the audience. He leans in aggressively, the muscles in his neck like a falling branch, and whispers into a man’s ear. The man laughs nervously. Catling returns in quiet earnest to his seat. He hovers his head above the table and through the gap in his clenched glove, breathes onto the glass. A thin layer of steam appears and disappears. A friend of mine turns to me and says: ‘It’s just air’. He begins walking away, then turns back to me. ‘That’s all conversation really is’.

The sound of hammering echoes up the stairs from the floor below, the first true rupture of the evening’s quiet. The man with the deaf mask has gone and the doors behind him are open to a small enclave within the wall. A woman sits with a large brick on her lap. She chisels down the stone. A dust-sheet catches the minute fragments and a rusty stain is printed. She seems un-phased by the task ahead, her expression is still as the hammer and stone take the brunt of her energy. Boswell follows Johnson down the stairs, the mourner and the blind man are still moving around the room. The performances seem to merge momentarily through the confines of the house, like pages turned over by a breeze. All this accompanied by the toiling clang of the hammer.

Earlier in the evening, while searching my pockets for a pen, I recovered a small note the size of a book mark. In pencil it read: ‘You have very sensitive hands’. On the back was printed the following:

“…And just as he would give all the silver in his pocket to the poor who watched him as he left the house, so, on returning late at night, he for years had been putting pennies into the hands of children lying asleep on thresholds so that they could buy breakfast in the morning…”

A man sitting by the window, looks through his camera and the memories of the evening so far. She steals up, hovering above the collar at the back of his neck. She holds the note delicately with the ends of her fingers, slowly lowering it to drop. He sits up, adjusting his posture, and she snaps back like a jaw, cradling her notebook furtively. She lingers a moment, pretending to look at a portrait. He arches forward once more and she drops the note lightly down his jacket, and walks away.

Back on the ground floor, a crowd gathers around a table, their backs pressed against the walls. A man and a woman sit, almost facing each other, not quite making eye contact. They hold spools of cotton string in their mouths. The murmurs of conversation can be heard from the hallway. Between them is a stone, stronger and less porous than those already seen; a smoother surface, like polished flint. The string is tied to the stone: they are connected to the stone and each other by the string. The woman stands and, through the space left by the audience, moves clockwise towards the man at her near opposite. He stays still in his seat. She reaches him and they meet for a short moment. Her string catches on his neck, pressing into the skin, before tightly springing off the contours of his face. It clears and she moves back to her previous position. There is an ornate grandfather clock beside me. I look at the face without noticing the time, distracted by the cherubic sun presiding over noon or midnight. To pursue perfection was, like the first inhabitants of arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance.

The string continues to coil around as the two circle the table in their improvised dialogue. The script forming itself as a pattern of soft strings, sharp angles and hidden shadows; gagged conversation, and sculpture in absence of a chisel.

Down beside the staircase, facing the door; the final performance. A writer, for the now surrogate voice of B. Catling (the cyclops in absentia). He reads firstly an extract from the British Medical Journal, describing Johnson’s symptoms. ”Involuntary vocalisation, and compulsive actions. These would later become known as Tourette syndrome.” A chronicler with a condition of language, verbal and nonverbal; of dead unmeditated expression and abortive articulation, long before it had a name. ”Noted by his friends to have almost constant tics and gesticulations.” The writer lifts and lowers his eyes to the page and his listeners. The front door opens interrupting the volume but not the fluency of the reading. Apologetic palms and fingers squeeze through into the room. He reads on. The words of B. Catling; un-silent on the page.