Happy Hour in
A novel in pieces
In another time, in another place (Paris, to be exact, fin de siecle), a middle-aged man sat in a small, bare upstairs room in a tenement among the dingy back streets of the Quartier Latin.
It was the middle of the night. A profound and inky blackness prevailed in the room, pierced only by the glow of a blowlamp flame. The man was bent over the flame, his face bathed in blue light. He held a large, round vial inches above the heat, and watched intently as a substance within it bubbled and evanesced.
Soon approaching was the moment August Strindberg, noted playwright, is said to have lost his mind.
He was already a good way along on that journey. Just that morning he’d farewelled his wife at the Gare de l’Est, abandoning her and the comforts of domestic life for a hungered — and ultimately futile — existence as an Alchemist. Alchemy was in vogue among the creative set of Europe. It was definitely not in vogue among chemists, physicists and geologists — in short, among any of the professions in which one could secure a regular pay cheque.
But there sat Strindberg, alone in his darkened garrett, hunched over a blue flame trying to prove that sulphur was a compound substance when it was, and still is, most decidedly not.
At least not in this particular reality.
Burnt skin was quietly peeling from the hand in which Strindberg held his flask. He chose to ignore it. He gritted his teeth and watched as the sulphur continued to do nothing at all in particular.
Then a miracle happened. A cold and spectral wind brushed Strindberg’s cheek, and the room filled with the sound of dead leaves clattering along cobbled streets. He looked up to examine the darkness beyond his flame, and at that moment the flame went out.
Strindberg cursed. The curse was echoed by another voice somewhere in the room.
‘Allo?,’ the Alchemist said.
‘Hello?,’ a voice replied, in English.
Thrilled with fear, his heart racing, Strindberg fumbled in the dark to relight his flame. On the third attempt he succeeded: he held the flickering light up before him.
The blue glow illuminated a bare corner of the room, in which a somewhat dishevelled ghost in strange clothing sat rubbing its temples.
‘Who,’ Strindberg gasped, using the broken English he’d learned on a trip to London many years ago, ‘are you?’
‘My name’s Augie,’ the spectre said. ‘and that really hurt.’
Back in the 21st century, two humans on a blind date were being chaperoned by a ghost through an outer-suburban shopping centre.
‘But why,’ Augie was saying to Virgil. He looked through him, trying to make it appear as though he were speaking to Jane; ‘Why must we go to the cinema?’
‘I can’t tell you. It would spoil the fun.’
‘I’m not having fun, ‘ Jane said. She was flustered and out of sorts. She’d only recently regained the power of speech. Unfortunately this was after she’d acquiesced to Virgil’s demands that the trio take in a film together.
They got to the cinema and queued for tickets. Augie squinted to see what was available.
‘I think there’s only one movie showing at the moment,’ Jane said as they advanced. She adjusted her glasses and scanned the list of films a final time. ‘It’s called “Encounters at the End of the World.” ‘
‘Great,’ Augie exhaled. He sidled up to the ticket window. ‘Two tickets to the End of the World please, unless we feel we are morally obliged to buy Virgil a ticket, as well?’
‘I’ve already seen it, ‘said Virgil.
‘Just the two,’ Jane said.
They sat in the cinema waiting for the film to start.
‘Listen,’ Augie whispered, leaning over to Jane, ’I can’t apologise enough for this. You may not believe it but my life was once as normal as anyone else’s. It’s just that everything has sort of — spiralled out of control.’
‘If I thought for a second that you were in control of anything right now,’ she replied, refusing to look at him; ‘I would have strangled you half an hour ago.’
The lights dimmed.
‘When all this is over I’ll make it up to you,’ Augie whispered. ‘I promise.’
The film began. Underwater pictures of vast, cold and empty oceans; of lonely ice-bound deserts swept clean by powerful unending winds.
A voice-over — deep, resonant, all too serious — punctuated the silence.
“We flew into the unknown, a seemingly endless void,” it said.
‘Not really a date flick,’ Augie observed. Jane remained silent, lips pursed.
“Everything in this expedition was doomed”, the voice-over seemingly replied.
As the film continued its strange journey, Jane leaned over and whispered pointedly, ‘Are we supposed to just sit here and watch the thing?’
‘I don’t know,’ Augie whispered back, ‘I’ll ask –‘ He looked around. Virgil was no longer with them. In fact, the cinema was empty. They were the only two people watching the film.
Before he could call out Virgil’s name, Augie became aware of a low rumbling at his feet. At first he thought it was coming from the movie, but none of the images on screen seemed to correlate to the sound. He looked nervously at Jane. The rumble grew louder until the floor began to shake. It dawned on the couple that this must be an earthquake.
“And how does it happen that we are encountering each other here, at the end of the world?”, the voice-over offered.
The shaking was so strong that it was impossible to stand. The images on the screen flickered; the voice-over skipped and ran backwards. Jane screamed as a chunk of roof crumbled and fell into the empty seats in front of them. Augie reached out and took Jane’s hand: he ducked as bits of plaster cascaded onto his back. He tried to pull Jane along with him toward the exits.
Then a terrible, ear-splitting noise sucked the air out of the cinema. Something hot and heavy was coming down upon them, and there was nowhere to run, no means of escape.
A nanosecond before he died, Augie caught sight of Virgil glooming high above the wreckage of the cinema, smiling sullenly at the pair of them.
Just wanted to say thanks for all of the recommendations, feedback and notes of encouragement you’ve posted on Happy Hour in Purgatory so far.
Inboxes are such drab things, filled as they are with the detritus of one’s digital life. It’s been nice, over the past couple of weeks, to open my Inbox to find messages to the effect that you’ve not only been reading this stuff, but that you’ve actually enjoyed reading it. It has, in fact, been like waking up to find that the Tooth Fairy has left you a fiver (and that she didn’t even take the tooth — I was always a bit sad about parting with the tooth).
To be honest, I’d all but given up on Augie and Jane. The novel had been in its own kind of purgatory, and I decided to post up a few chapters on Medium to see whether the thing was worth pursuing. You’ve more than convinced me. I promise you here and now that I will Finish the Damn Thing.
While the lion’s share of Happy Hour in Purgatory is written, I will need a few months to tie it up properly and filter out the imperfections. So this is the last chapter I’ll be putting up on Medium for a while until I get under the hood and tinker with the engine.
The novel is in need of a reputable publisher (and I, alas, am currently agent-less), so if you know a guy who knows a guy — I’d very much be interested in knowing them, too. Drop me a line here or DM me on Twitter @milesmenegon