There was once a girl (a woman) who lived downstairs. Above her lived a king and queen – but she lived under the foundations – inside the catacombs – on the ancient site where the estate had been founded, many years ago. She liked living in her strange junkyard of forgotten religious relics, sacrificial knick-knacks, and old bones.
For her it was like being connected to the past and connected to deeper truths. Sometimes she would run up and down the corridors making loud noises and listening to the echoes. When she was angry she would beat her fists into the mud and stamp her feet. Other times she would sit quietly and pick out slow melodies on the instruments she had fashioned from bones.
She often thought about the king and queen upstairs, taking tea in the breakfast room, discussing the morning papers and eating croissants aux amandes.
She supposed there must have been a time when she had not lived in the basement, but this was so long ago as to be entirely murky and formless in her memory.
Sometimes, the girl/woman was invited upstairs. She would wash her hair especially – though there was rarely running water so this had to be done with spit or in a dank pool at one end of the catacombs. Then she would put on upstairs clothes that were kept folded underneath a pile of black stones.
* * *
One day, the girlwoman was crouching on a gravestone studying the dirt under her nails, like any other day, when quite suddenly allatonce there appeared a dazzling white light in her peripheral vision. She shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, muttering affirmations under her breath.
There had been ghosts before but they always responded
meekly to a stern glare or a firm policy of avoidance.
This one seemed to grow alarmingly more solid the
longer she determined to ignore it.
She tried looking upwards instead and saw that
the dazzling white light came from a new hole in
This disturbed her.
Whipping around to deliver her most withering stare, the woman
a damp, human-type creature (male?),
clad in sequins,
who had obviously recently emerged from the dank pool behind him.
His paillettes glinted in the offending sunbeam.
Their first attempts at communication were stilted and formal but the woman and the damp sequin man soon established a kind of friendship, since there was no-one else to talk to. Every morning, with the first light from the new hole in the ceiling, he would appear dripping from the same pool. Every evening at sundown he would plop back in. It was a rhythmic dance, observed with silently-agreed formality.
He was calm, slippery, thoughtful, and good at games and inventing things. She saw that he had his own ways of being and going through the day, as she had hers. Polishing his sequins, licking them with a long pink tongue. Collecting spiders and putting them in a glass jar. Stretching or lying on the rock under the hole in the ceiling. She watched him sideways, playing her songs, making patterns on the chalky floor. After the midday meal they would sit opposite each other and play snap with a damp pack of cards. Then she said her prayers to the people inside the tombs, while he methodically examined the stacks of dusty books in the central vault.
He never slept there. A guest, not a fixture. It was surely much better that way, she would mutter firmly to herself, getting ready for bed on the flat, black stones. Much better.
One morning the sequined man emerged from the pool with a queer and determined cast to his eyes.
‘I know you’re dealing with a lot of your own stuff right now…
…but I really need your help with something.
‘I have a problem and I know you can be the person to fix it.’
‘These sequins are not my real skin. My real skin is upstairs in the palace in your mother’s wardrobe. If I get it back I shall no longer be forced to be amphibious and live in two worlds. I shall regain my true form.’
The woman was eager to help, though unsettled at the thought of the man changing his appearance so drastically. She had never taken anything from upstairs, or even entered the queen’s private quarters before. It was strange that something of his should have found its way in there. But she knew it was better to act quickly and not delve too deeply into hows and wherefores. Now they were part of something bigger. And so she promised she would do her very best, honoured that she had such an important role to play in his destiny.
She slept that night with smooth stones in her pockets, and dreamt of a cocktail party on a ship. Throughout the party the sea was coming in through a hole in the ship’s hull, and a small man with horns smirked at her from the corner.
* * *
The next day found her scrambling out of a fireplace in the third upstairs drawing room. The dust had got inside her nostrils and her ears and caked her eyelashes. She was covered head to toe in muck but she hoped this would make her less recognisable should she come across the king or queen or any of the servants who might realise who she was, and take her to stables. The floor was smooth and cold on her knees.
She rose to her feet and saw that the room was full of grey horses. They had a warm, sweet, pungent smell and were jostling each other and snorting.
‘I’m looking for the skin of the sequin man!’ she called to the equine congress.
From between the hooves appeared a dirty child wearing red dungarees.
‘Come with me.’
The child set off at a brisk pace and led her through an unfamiliar wing of the palace. They passed through many corridors of real doors and trompe l’oeil doors, rooms filled with live animals, others with shoe boxes piled to the ceiling, and a series of chambers hung with cuts of red meat. Was this a section of the queen’s wardrobe? Did it stretch over multiple wings of the palace and if so how would she find the skin before sundown? She was finding it hard to breathe in the heavily scented air, and to shake a sense that unseen forces, inconceivably greater than her, propelled this scheme.
The child rounded a sharp bend and they came upon an enormous mound of discarded ball gowns. There was an overpowering smell of dried sweat and candied melon, the queen’s favourite snack. A trail of dirty underwear led towards a steam-filled corridor. The queen must have begun her bath. Off to the side, lying on the floor separate from the rest, lay a pile of great black folds, like the cover of an old leather sofa. A hand-painted sign read
‘But this was so easy!’ The woman mouthed in disbelief.
The child sighed.
Relieved and nauseous, she realised she needed to be back downstairs. It was necessary to act quickly.
The skin smelt rank, and was surprisingly heavy and unwieldy. As she lifted it up, something moist and translucent spilled out. A greenish robe, with long draping sleeves. She slipped into it without thinking; the fabric smooth and damp on her arms, a low insistent thrum in her belly.
With the black folds slung around her body like a great sling, she sped back through the corridors to the fireplace in the third drawing room, the child trotting behind her. He gazed coolly at her as she clambered over the grate.
Back she ran down through the narrow earth passages and dropped onto the red dust floor from a gap in the low ceiling. She saw the sequin man already standing waiting for her. He stretched his hands out and she draped the leathery folds around his shoulders. She bared her teeth up at him encouragingly.
With a loud
the skin fastened itself onto him.
A sharp kick of sulphur in the air
a low moan
the edges of his body began to undulate
until he had grown into a vast black serpent.
He was quickly so big that he began to overwhelm the space. Cracks began to appear in the ceiling where his coils pressed up into it, and soon clumps of earth and then
furniture, tea sets,
tennis rackets, serving platters, grandfather clocks,
dressers full of lace handkerchiefs, smart phones in their boxes, record players, ceremonial gongs, houseplants, housecats, TVs, wicker chairs, porcelain shepherdesses, bags of rice, members of the household staff, the grey horses from the third drawing room, the horses of the royal stable, and finally the king and queen themselves partially dressed in towelling robes, tumbled through the widening gaps of earth and marble floor, tumbled down into the ancient catacombs of bones and red earth and stone and statues, now a great mass of destruction.
Under the neighs and screams the woman heard the distant rush of underground water. Before anyone had a chance to think about whether the sequinmanblackserpent might be about to clamp his damp shiny jaws over the entire assembly, a great black ridge rose up in the midst of them all. He arranged his coils to focus on his dank pool, now a great subterranean waterfall. His smooth tyre body plunged inside.
A great swell rose up
and they were all carried
out of the palace
out of the blocks of crumbling stone and mud on a tidal wave –
the woman the people of the palace the animals and the objects flowing fast into a damp dark night where you could just about make out the Milky Way.
The cold was alive and shocking, the air
a great purple resting beast
full of smells
a low insect hum.
She clung to the side of a floating trestle table and considered how she had lost all the things that had formerly been associated with her life. The tombs and the red earth floor. Her stones, her instruments, her pack of cards. The king and queen.
(They at least were not lost, but no longer relevant.)
The sequin man himself, who was not who she thought he was.
A curious sensation was moving itself around her body in the water. The green robe was clinging, sticky, and seemed to be spreading itself over her. Like a skin. Her breath low and slow in the current, the flotsam. Green nails started to grow from her fingertips. Voices stretched across the water in the dark.
They were moving towards a bend in the river. A path through cypress trees led from the riverbank up into some hills, with what looked like lights in the distance. Some kind of settlement. Food, shelter, people.
mary galloway is an actress and writer from London. Her work has been supported by the Battersea Arts Centre and her play MAGDALENE is on at the Arcola Theatre this September.