Tag Archives: St. Whit Gammerbund’s Asylum

We call it research, Mr. Flyre

Here is what I wanted to do last week: I wanted to find out about Nagspeake’s train station. It’s this crazy Art Nouveau structure, all luster-finished glass and dark metal, old leather benches with brass nailheads, mosaic floors–and if you believe the most common story about it, it was ordered from the Deacon and Morvengarde catalogue by the city of Nagspeake sometime before 1900 and completed in 1903. There’s also the school of thought that says it was ordered out of the D&M catalogue sometime before 1900 by the city of Magothy Hill, thirty miles west of Nagspeake. How it got to its present location at the top of Whilforber Hill would make a great story for this column–or so I thought. I guess it depends who you talk to, and if you talk to Augustus Flyre, the guy in charge of the Terminus, it extra-super wouldn’t. It would just be me being nosy, and nobody has time for a nosy Parker, which marks officially the first time I have ever been called that.

In my defense, about twenty-two people have suggested I write about the Terminus since I moved here. It’s something of a favorite local story, one that both entertains and does civic duty these days, as it’s often trotted out by dissatisfied citizens to demonstrate the audacity of yesteryear, and how we’re just a bunch of whiny buggers nowadays. (Also in this category fall the Righteous Murder stories, but I’m still too new in town for the majority of Nagspeakers I meet to bring those up in polite conversation.) Figuring the Chief Conductor of the Magothy Terminus would be, if anything, even more excited at the prospect of talking about this favorite bit of Old Nagspeake history, I made my first order of business to seek out Augustus Flyre.

“I got nothing to say to you reporters.”  It was not the welcome I expected. My protestations of non-reporterhood fell on deaf ears (or rather one deaf ear and one that just wasn’t interested). “Don’t care, don’t know, don’t bother me. I got nothing to say. You reporters are trouble.” “Okay, Mr. Flyre, but I’m not a reporter. Wilmer Cobblebridge sent me from the NBTC. He said to ask you about the Magothy Hill story.”

It turns out Willie Cobblebridge and Augustus Flyre aren’t as close as Willie thinks–Willie thinks they’re bridge pals and Mr. Flyre thinks that’s less important than the fact that Willie took a girl to his senior prom that he had no business dating because she had broken Flyre’s heart in grammar school. Evidently he quietly, secretly hates Willie and only plays bridge with him because he loves bridge so much. So my introduction didn’t get me much in the way of points with him.

As Chief Conductor, Augustus Flyre (Willie calls him Augie but the second I laid eyes on him I knew this man would wish ill on me in every way he could think of if I presumed to call him Augie) has three basic responsibilities. 1) He runs the Magothy Terminus itself and acts as a liaison between the city of Nagspeake and the owners and operators of the Magothy and Whilforber rail line (which includes scheduling, ticketing, safety, and various other things that were fired off at me like verbal bullets too fast for human hands to record); 2) he runs the Iron Pony Museum, a railway history attraction on the Terminus grounds; and 3) he manages the local fulfillment of Deacon and Morvengarde catalogue orders because they all arrive by railway shipment. He has one full-time employee, a bicycle messenger named Linus Mirrock; for larger orders, of which there are many, he hires local freight agencies. Between the three jobs he is, as he explained to me, “too goddamned busy to waste time with goddamned reporters.”

I don’t know what finally made him agree to talk to me. It might just have been the fact that I kept showing up, but I suspect it was something else: the turning point came when I finally suggested maybe I’d just contact Deacon and Morvengarde directly ((by every account I’d heard, of course, the Terminus itself was ordered from D&M, who, not being located in Nagspeake, presumably keep actual permanent records without burning them every twenty-five years).  Mr. Flyre blanched. “Why would you do that?” The question sounded genuine, and tinged with a little bit of concern, if not actual fear. “Because I figure they keep actual permanent records without burning them every twenty-five years,” I said. “Come back tomorrow,” Flyre said after a long pause. “Lunchtime.” Then he disappeared without further specifics, so I showed up at 12 only to endure ten minutes of lecturing because Flyre actually takes his lunch at four p.m. on the cafe car of the Bayside Brougham, which has a one-hour layover at the Magothy Terminus every day between three-thirty and four-thirty. Evidently the cafe server on the Brougham makes (and here I quote Mr. Flyre) “the only perfect John Collins”. (I said, “You mean a Tom Collins?” and Flyre said, “I do not.”) So, with four hours to kill I walked the unpaved cowpath from the Terminus to St. Whit’s Asylum (which is another story) and back in time to present myself precisely at 4 p.m. only to find out the three-thirty train was running late. It actually wasn’t until five p.m. that we sat down on the old wooden stools at the tiled bar in the dining car of the Bayside Brougham so that Augustus Flyre could rip into me again.

“You reporters all think you have a right. You think you have some kind of…some kind of right,” Flyre muttered as he watched the gaunt bartender pouring his perfect Collins. Somewhere in here is when he flung the nosy Parker accusation, which I maintain was unnecessary under the circumstances. “Look,” I said, “there’s plenty of people who want to talk to me about the Terminus.” I’d pretty much given up insisting I wasn’t a reporter. “What’s the deal? Why are you the only person in Nagspeake who doesn’t?” Then I caught him scoffing at the gin gimlet the bartender set down in front of me (which turned out to be exceptional, matched only by the ones made with Annabelle Bechamel’s heirloom gin) and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being scoffed at for my drinking habits. “And why don’t you want me to call Deacon and Morvengarde?”

Blanch. Flyre retreated into his glass muttering something about his good ear and stop mumbling.

Here’s what I already knew. The big controversy about the Magothy Terminus is that supposedly it was ordered by the town of Magothy Hill, meant to be delivered and installed in Magothy Hill, and the night after it arrived in Magothy Hill, it disappeared. Poof. It turned up a week later (it, or a railway terminus exactly like it down to the cast-iron and carnival glass sign proclaiming it to be MAGOTHY STATION) thirty miles east of its intended destination, at the top of Whilforber Hill just outside of Nagspeake. What nobody seems to know is how it got there. In Magothy Hill, the story goes that it was simply delivered to the wrong location, an easy mistake to make in 1905 when Magothy Hill was a very small town and hardly on the map. Why didn’t they correct the situation? Because, said Ted Bilton, deputy mayor of Magothy Hill, it had already been built, and certainly I didn’t think you could just go and move a railway terminus, lock, stock, and barrel, after it had been built?…Well…did I?

Of course I did, because it was a more interesting idea, which is possibly the biggest indication that I have spent way too long in Nagspeake already. I certainly wasn’t going to tell Bilton that, though. Instead I got him to tell me how one went about ordering a railway station back in the day. It started out sounding a lot like ordering from Sears, Roebuck and Company: then, as now, Deacon and Morvengarde catalogue sells additional catalogues of plans for houses and other buildings. You could order the catalogues of plans for free, and for a small sum (back then it was fifty cents) you could then receive the plans for the structure of your choice. Your fifty cents were credited toward the purchase of building materials, which you also ordered from D&M. This is where it stopped sounding like Sears, Roebuck; the cost of your building materials included the services of a Certified Deacon and Morvengarde Architect and Builder Emeritus, who showed up along with the 20-40 thousand house pieces that needed to be put together. The A.B.E. handled all the subcontracting necessary to complete the house, and guaranteed the future homeowner the lowest possible prices on services–“by force, if necessary,” Mr. Bilton said. What did that mean? “It’s Deacon and Morvengarde, so I assume it means exactly what it sounds like,” Bilton said. “I’m quoting directly from the customer service promises in the catalogue.”

This is probably as good a place as any to remind readers who might’ve forgotten that Deacon and Morvengarde has always had a stellar customer service record but not always a sterling reputation among competitors or subcontractors…or basically anyone who isn’t a customer. Yet another good reason to turn to D&M, trusted since time immemorial, for all your needs. Every single one. Or else. Somewhere in here I started to formulate my new theory, and it was this theory that made me suggest to Augustus Flyre that I might call D&M. But back to the Bayside Brougham.

“It’s simple, of course. Whichever town got the rail terminus was going to survive. Whichever one didn’t was going to wind up like Magothy Hill,” Flyre said. (Magothy Hill is just fine, by the way; it’s hardly a dead town.) So why couldn’t Nagspeake just have ordered its own station? “Question of timing. Same time this was happening, railroads were popping up everywhere, and the stations that were built earlier had a better chance of being connection points in the grid that was developing, as opposed to stops along the way to those points.” So–not to beat around the bush–did Nagspeake steal the Magothy Hill station? Flyre gave me a withering look. “Of course it did. Why else is the station called ‘Magothy’ rather than ‘Nagspeake?’ I suppose you want to know how they did it,” he grumbled. I did. “Thing was built in five parts that came together clamshell-like. All of ’em were built on some kind of skids so you could position ’em right. So one night a group of fellows rode a couple dozen horses and mules down to Magothy Hill, cut all the power lines to the town so’s it all went dark, and just hitched the station up, in its pieces, to the pack animals and tugged it away over here to Whilforber Hill. Satisfied?” The last word was shot at me like a snarl. And of course, I wasn’t–this was the same story I’d heard from everybody and I’d been expecting some deeper look from Augustus Flyre.

“Mr. Flyre, I already knew all that,” I said. “Everybody knows all that. I was hoping you’d be able to tell me something new, something nobody else knows.” I took a stab in the dark. “Like how Deacon and Morvengarde was involved.”

That did it. Only this time, Flyre didn’t blanch, didn’t retreat into his glass, didn’t say anything for a long moment. He turned to the bartender and asked him to leave. When we were more or less alone, Augustus Flyre leaned in close and spoke in the nastiest whisper I’ve ever heard. “Listen. I don’t know who you are, or who sent you, and I don’t care who that idiot Wilmer Cobblebridge thinks you are, either. I haven’t kept my mouth shut for my whole life just to start vomiting answers up for you, whoever you are. Call Deacon and Morvengarde. I don’t care. Get Marcus Aurelius Deacon himself on the phone, for all I care, and see what he says. But you better be ready to watch your back for the rest of your life. And you better tell him you got nothing from me but what you already knew, or I’ll be one of the ones coming after you.”

Whoa.

I don’t know what I started protesting first, but in the end it didn’t matter. Augustus Flyre was finished with me.

After a few minutes the gaunt bartender came back and made Flyre another Collins. He pointedly did not refresh my gimlet. I left shortly after that. During the entire walk back to the platform where the funicular railway takes you back down to the slope, I had the uncanny feeling if I looked over my shoulder, Augustus Flyre would be standing on the platform, staring daggers into my back.

To be continued.

(From 16 September, 2008)

What you didn’t know was weird about Old Iron

There’s a wrought iron balcony outside the apartment I rent in Shantytown. It took me two weeks to grasp the fact that the iron was moving. When I finally noticed it I thought I was drunk.

I assume Nagspeake is not the only place in the world where iron flows. I learned as a child about the liquid-like nature of glass and how really old panes of glass are thicker at the bottom because the glass is flowing, obeying gravity in its slow, viscid way. I thought that was mind-bendingly weird at the time, so I’m trying to keep an open mind about the unique properties of iron in Nagspeake.

It’s very difficult for me.

smaller-close-iron-for-web

Nagspeakers have grown up with their balletic, hive-brained iron “animalcules,” so I wonder if my readers can imagine what it’s like to be an out-of-towner discovering the motive capability of Nagspeake iron for the first time.  I know, I know, I’m not the first person to freak out and have to have things explained in a series of small, simple words delivered in a comforting tone accompanied by either a stiff drink or a cup of tea. However, I might be the only one with a website, so I’d like to take you through the series of encounters that have made up my tenuous understanding of what Nagspeakers call “Old Iron.”

Encounter #1:
My solicitous landlord warns me as he hands me the keys for the apartment I’ve just rented not to fall asleep on the balcony. I ask why (forgetting entirely for the moment that I don’t make it a habit to sleep on balconies) and he says, “Because it’s old iron, honey.” I assume he means it’s rusting and unstable or something. It doesn’t quite explain his precise exhortation per se, but I preferred it at the time to my first interpretation of his caveat, which was more along the lines of “There are bad people in the world, missy, and did you happen to notice you rented a flat in Shantytown, for Christ’s sake?”  Old iron I could handle.

Encounter #2:
Drunk on some kind of intoxicating tea ordered from one of the endless mail order catalogues that have begun showing up at my door, I stare for hours at a flourish at one corner of the balcony and watch it bloom, curlicues and whorls moving like fast-growing ivy as they take possession of a railing…then the phone rings.  I look at my watch, having expected a phone call from a particular friend what seems like hours ago, and discover only five minutes have elapsed since I drank the tea. Out on the balcony the flourish is still twisting slowly. I watch it, convinced the tea is behind this prank. The iron reconfigures itself, but it’s as if it’s obeying a fractal pattern or some kind of weird choreography. It never fully takes another shape; it stays confined to roughly the same 9″x12″ space and it moves only slightly faster than a plant does when its leaves turn on their stems to lean into the light. Fast enough to be seen, slowly enough to go unremarked just as easily.

I record observations throughout what I don’t yet know to call “the grey hours,” and yet the whole time I’m still convinced I’m drunk and hallucinating and recording the effects of the tea. In retrospect I could’ve saved myself the cost of the herbs and just watched the balcony in the first place.

Encounter #3:
I’m invited to a party in the Printer’s Quarter and sometime in the night overhear someone lamenting the total lack of effect she experienced from an herbal tea that was supposed to have intoxicating properties.  Recognizing this as my perfect entree to the conversation, I jump in and comment that she must’ve gotten the dosage wrong because I’d spent a good three hours watching iron move on my balcony after a cup of the same stuff. I assume the resultant laughter is because I’ve just admitted to being a total junkie and slink away to stuff my face with canape-size crab cakes.

It took some work, but I eventually figured things out and then went in search of a physicist willing to sit down over a string of beers and explain the dynamics of Old Iron and its constituent animalcules in terms I could understand. Sort of. To me, to someone for whom iron had always been inert, Nagspeake iron still seems something like a cross between a clockwork interpretation of a plant responding to light and a sentient, serpentine kind of hive. An elemental Borg.
Maybe he didn’t get it as clear in my head as I thought.
That was Encounter #4.

After that I went through several phases of realization and denial, most notably laboring for a while under the conviction that the entire city was having one over on me and then the conviction that I was mad, which precipitated a near-month of panicked fear; I knew I had gone off the deep end and that someone was eventually going to notice it and I had talked to way too many people about “the iron” already–I was seeing it move all the time now, forcing myself to stay awake through the grey hours every night (the time when the iron cools fastest, the animalcules, as I understand it, performing a quantum-level, half-organized sort of elemental yoga), lying on the balcony watching the belly-dancing flourishes, feeling the floor of the balcony itself move under my back…after a while the sensation is like floating on water in continuous but gentle motion. I wondered if I disobeyed my landlord’s injunction and fell asleep on this iron sea, would I wake up somewhere else? Would it bear me away to another place?

No, I never fell asleep out there. I did, however, stop leaving my apartment. I was so afraid someone, some well-meaning citizen, would find out about my madness and  have me committed to St. Whit’s, where I would grow old and die without ever coming out of my mania. Plus I couldn’t stand to stop watching my balcony. I went at least one two-day stretch without eating because of it, and let me tell you, I will never, never run out of Ramen noodles again. You can eat that stuff dry, straight out of the wrapper if you have to.

I got tired of being mad after a while and went back to work, but it was a distracted existence because although I had sort of decided I wasn’t crazy, I was still trying with pathological single-mindedness to figure out what was really going on. I had stumbled onto something for sure, the physicist had probably been speaking in code and now it was up to me to figure it all out.

What I learned:
I’m not crazy. The properties of Nagspeake iron have been documented by thousands of people over the years. The physics is still a little beyond my understanding, but what really interest me these days are the competing theories on the origins of the stuff: depending on which hypothesis you ascribe to, the “Old Iron” found all over the place was either brought to Nagspeake back in the days when the city sheltered pirates year-round, or pre-dates the city altogether.

Theory “A” adherents say there was a particularly devastating hurricane one year followed almost immediately by a citywide fire.  A fleet of pirate ships intent on doing a good deed for their adopted town went out and burned another city down the coast clear to the ground and salvaged the iron infrastructure, which they then brought into Nagspeake the way they always came to town: via the Quayside Harbors on the inlet side of the hill separating the Magothy frontage portion of the city from Shantytown. At the time, it took considerable work to move anything big overland from Shantytown to Nagspeake proper, so most of the iron stayed where it landed. This is why, despite the fact that most of Shantytown is the same ragtag collection of dives and flophouses and dubious warehouses that it was back in the golden age of Magothy piracy and smuggling, the largest transported structures and most beautiful ornamental iron is to be found there.  My apartment, for instance, has that balcony, which you really have to see to believe. There are doors, the great gates of the destroyed city’s cathedrals and churches, giant bells. New Orleans has NOTHING on Shantytown.

Theory “B” is weirder and cooler. It states that the iron underpinnings of the city, all the crazy structural stuff and the ornamental bits and the huge lanterns and grates and the wrought stairs and so on and so forth–all of it–was here first, a skeleton that the inhabitants of what would become Nagspeake used as a foundation. Some people have tried to link this theory with speculations about the Ferrous Sanctus Monastery on the western slopes of the hill, an institution of equally foggy origins–and why not; the monks don’t speak so its anybody’s guess. I think this theory has infinite niftiness over the other one–except in my paranoid moments when I think the iron is going to rise up and destroy the city the way it (possibly?) destroyed the last one, tearing it delicately and gracefully to pieces until only it remains, the gaunt blueprint of a city that once was, left for another people to build upon. If any remain. The monks of Ferrous Sanctus, protected by their devotions, will look down from the hill with bleak resignation, having, sadly, seen this kind of thing happen before.

I still sit up some nights, through the grey hours and into the dawn, watching the iron. More and more it symbolizes this little harbor city to me: rooted but mobile, it expands and contracts and spills over the bones of its basic shapes as it heats in the day and cools in the night.  Its inhabitants and its ships come and go, but the city remains, shifting and sighing, imitating the distortions of the shadows it casts on the ground, dancing in place. When all the people are dead and all the wood rotted away and plaster and brick eroded into the sands of another beachfront a thousand years from now, the iron will remain, older but unchanged, still waving at the sea from its place on the shore. Perhaps (I think sometimes) Nagspeake, the city, is alive in ways that other cities are not.

Or perhaps there’s a room in the asylum being made up for me this very minute.

(From 27 May, 2007)