One from the Vaults: With both hands
Fiction isn’t really my forte, but I’m rather fond of this one. With both hands was written between 1989-1990, and published in Both the Ones – a magazine produced by Mal from TOPY Shefffield. Of the few attempts at magical fiction I’ve made, I consider this one to be the best. Set in Headingley (Leeds 6) it’s also the most directly autobiographical.
JEFF was an ex-scientologist, an unlikely shaman, but so it often goes. The face he turned to the world was that of a drifter; buoyed up by a peculiar brand of techno-terms and salad of mixed metaphors. Jeff would have the world think him a man of knowledge; forever hinting at secrets, conspiratorial asides and sidelong glances at his collection of occult books. He gathered secrets about him like a cloak, weaving them into the fabric of his clothes. It seemed at times, though, that the cloak weighed him down, dogging him with spectres of a dim and distant horror. In the first flush of the Age of Aquarius Jeff had sought out the masters, both living and dead. Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, Alice Bailey. He’d done the lot, from meeting Aleister Crowley on the astral plane to sitting next to Kenneth Grant on the tube. Eventually, world-weary with accumulated wisdoms, he’d washed up on the shores of scientology, cooling his heels at East Grinstead Manor. And from there, through a trail of years, gravitated to Leeds Six. A basement case; a mute testament to the broken dreams of the Sixties.
I first encountered Jeff at a party, having slunk in on the standard friend of a friend story. There wasn’t much action and, not feeling up to worming my way into any of the tightly-knotted conversations, headed for the kitchen. Someone (it was Jeff) followed, the pentagram around my neck drawing him like a magnet. I watched him unfolding an introductory smile, and ran through the probable opening lines, marshalling my standby reactions. Was it to be drugs? Worth the words if there’s a score in the offing. Religion? Well my carefully-cultivated cynicism hadn’t been fed for a while. A lot would depend on whether he was a Christian or a sociology student. Sex? I doubted it. But by that time, blurred by alchohol and spurred by nagging loneliness, well, you know how it is.
As it happened, it was none of these.
“Are you into magick then ?”
I graciously assented.
“Are you any good?”
I shrugged, conveying at once that I was non-committal about such matters, unconcerned maybe …but yes, I thought I was good.
Jeff studied me for a while, then reached for his address book. Ripping off a page, he stuffed it into my jacket pocket. “You’d better be, ‘cos I’m going to kill you.”
And with that, he spun on his heel and stalked out of the room.
I was surprised by the speed of the exchange, and not a little bemused. I shook my head and resumed my trip to the kitchen. Finding an almost-virgin can of lager, I drank the encounter away, washing away the brief flutters of fear.
“Just another acid-head” I thought, at that moment feeling eyes running down my back. Deliberately, in my head a sinister puppet, I turned around, expecting to find the “Acid-head”. Instead, there was the flash of domino eyeliner, spiky black mop and a pink tongue, caught in the act of moistening purple lips. A surge of confidence swept through me, and eyes widening to maximum zoom, I stepped forwards and closed in.
I’m lost. Confused, no longer sure what’s happening. There’s an invisible barrier in front of me. I’m …trapped. The air is stuffy and heavy. It’s no good, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get out. I’m trapped. I can see light ahead, but it’s too bright. Vast shapes loom menacingly in the distance. It’s like being on the other side of a wall, but it’s so smooth. I can’t grasp a purchase no matter how hard I try. I just end up slithering down the sides. My teeth feel awful. My throat’s so dry it and there’s a lingering taste like chewed wood. My head’s buzzing so loud I can hear it rising and falling, like a thousand angry chainsaws. Across the barrier, a gigantic shape bends closer. A god, perhaps come to pull my wings off? There’s a muffled booming from the other side of the barrier. Is that how gods laugh? I can’t get out, I can’t get away. Caught like a wasp in a jar. When I was eight, I caught a wasp in a jar. It got out and stung me and since then I can’t stand to be in the same room as them. I’m trying to dig through the barrier, but my claws slide hopelessly across the glass. Catching a flicker of movement, I peer close to glimpse my own reflection. Understanding hits me like a kick in the crotch. I’m a wasp. I’M A WASP I’MAWASP I’MAWASPINAJAR OH GOD I HATE WASPS I’M A WASP I HATE THEM I HATE THEM I WANT TO GET OUT I’M A WASPWASPWASPWAZPWAZBWZBZBZBZZBZZBZZBzzzz……
And jerk awake, sweating, shivering, gibbering with fear. Oh god I’m so relieved. It’s so good to be awake. And then the fear comes again. I strain my ears, waiting for the tell-tale buzz that will announce the presence of my nightmare’s demon. Perhaps it was crawling into my ear as I slept – no, push that thought away. Waiting, but no buzzing comes, no rustlings against the curtain, no silhouttes inside the lampshade. Nothing.
The nightmare ruined my day, so I didn’t go out. There wasn’t much point. No letters, not my signing-on day, no pressing visits to make. So I stayed in bed reading and daydreaming. No one came to call. I was in a basement room so I didn’t feel intruded upon by the world. Briefly, I thought of going down the pub, but that took energy, and frankly, I didn’t have any.
That night, I was almost afraid of going to sleep. I was sure I would wake to find some yellow and black-banded horror perched on my pillow. The next day brought sunshine to Headingley, and the rays streaming into my room seemed to evaporate the nagging fear that hung in the air. It receded to the back of my mind and jostled for position with neglected bills and bank statements. Out of sight, out of mind. Or at least, conveniently forgotten.
Spring gave way to summer in fits and starts. For the most part, I was largely indifferent. I’d occasionally walk through the parks and common ground, but never felt bound to flee the city for nearby moors or rivers. Invitations to a Beltain Bop passed unheeded. Instead, I sauntered down to The Royal Park; sank a few pints and passed the time sitting with friends. But I couldn’t join in the table-talk. I felt so distant. Part of me was still trapped in a jar. Or perhaps I wanted to be like that.
I sat indoors reading a book. The same book. Over and over. Occasionally, the doorbell rang and I froze, heart pounding, till the caller went away. Once a fortnight I would put on my overcoat and make the trip into town to sign on, nodding hallo to people. Faces I vaguely knew but whose names had long eroded from my memory. Leeds town centre loomed oppressively around me, and it was always a relief to get back to my room. Fortunately the local shops provided all my needs, so I hardly had to leave Headingley at all. My room became the centre of my universe. My hub on the wheel of life. I was becoming invisible, or perhaps fading would be a better word. The worlds of magick held no mystery and my occult books gathered dust on the shelf. Scrupulously avoiding people, I felt no longer taxed by the neccesity to maintain a social front. Washing went out the window, likewise dental care, hairbrushing and eating properly. Yet I knew the merits of every asian-made samosa in the district. Custard and crisps took the place of cooked meals. And I fucked everyone I’d ever wanted to; alone each night in my bed.
The change came without warning. Three or four times a week, I had taken to walking down to the all-night garage for a three a.m. snack of sandwiches, chocolate, and juice. I enjoyed these night walks as there were fewer people around, and I could feel a faint nostalgia for the company of others. I slunk through the streets evading any imminent presences, yet drawn by the lights and closed curtains. In truth, I was beginning to savour being an outsider. Or a ghost.
On this particular night, waiting for my order to be filled, I felt a presence behind me. Someone else queuing, probably. Eyes on my back – perhaps some former friend, but of course I wasn’t going to make the first move. Picking up the plastic bag of junk food I turned to leave. A hand clutched my arm.
“I thought you said you were good.”
I turned to stare at the owner of the voice. A typical Headingley hippie – he didn’t look at all familiar.
“I’m killing you, you know. You’re trapped in my web.”
“What are you…I don’t understand…”
And then of course, I did.
“My name’s Jeff” said the hippie, “We met at Ruffle’s party. Don’t you remember?”
“Y-yes. I think so. I was rather drunk that night. Why have you … how have you done this to me?”
“Don’t you know? I thought you were the mighty magician?”
“You’ve put me in a pen – is that it? No wonder I don’t like
leaving this area. Everything …my thoughts … they’re clouding over. What time is it?”
He laughed. “You’re lucky you know what day it is.”
“Are you going to stop now?”
“Why should I? Look, it’s simple mister so-called magician. Either you die, or you fight to stay alive. Your choice. I’ll be waiting.”
I was rooted to the spot. Unable to move as he sauntered off into the night. And then my feet came free and I sprinted home as all the devils in hell were after me. In the opposite direction to Jeff.
Back home, I looked, really looked at the tip I’d been living in. Saw the dust, heaps of magazines, overflowing binliner and stale-smelling dishes in the sink. And the grey duvet cover … hadn’t it started off as white? I searched along the shelves and found some essential oil jars. The labels were faded but the oil went into a bath of hot water regardless. As did I. After a long soak (I had begun to avoid water), I returned, found the last of my clean clothes, and started a long-overdue spring-clean. Restoring order to the heaps of comics that had accumulated on the floor. Amongst them I found a couple of skin-mags and guiltily sneaked them into another tenant’s dustbin. Then to work. Rooting through boxes I assembled candles, incense, altar-cloth and other magical bric-a-brac. The charcoal discs were damp, so I gave my fragrancer a quick wipe and blasted the room with Rosemary Oil – ‘it banishes the parts other incenses don’t reach’. A feeble sally I know, but I needed to laugh my way back to some semblance of normality. I banished so hard my whole body tensed up as I viciously slashed the pentagrams into the air, hissing the words through clenched teeth, flooding the ether with the dazzling whiteness of Kether. This was better. I was alive again, and I was going to do my damnedness to make sure it stayed that way.
Jeff was trying to keep me in – keep me away from people; so it was to people I went. I crossed over into Woodhouse – only a few streets from the flat but I almost felt like an explorer braving the jungle for the first time. I plucked up my courage and dragged myself to a friendly-looking door. I was recieved graciously by people that I had neglected to visit for weeks; friends who I had pretended not to notice on the street; had played deaf when they rang the bell. They thought, so I learned, as apparently many other people did, that I had succumbed to a solitary street skag habit. They fed me. They fed me soup, bread and lentils; and better, they fed me with life. While my stomach was in shock from being crammed with food, I discovered what I had forgotten … what Jeff’s spell (if such it was) had caused me to forget; that I hungered too for attention, and affection. I talked for hours, amazed that I had let myself be turned away from the bright glow of company. So I stayed late, and, rather than go home, stayed the night. And in the night, I dreamed.
I dreamt of walking along a seashore; the crash of surf and hum of distant traffic mingling in my ears. There was a pier ahead of me, and as I drew closer to the barnacle-encrusted girders, a figure detached itself from the darkness.
“Well, at least you’re beginning to shape up.” It was Jeff. “But you can’t hide forever you know. If you want to play, you’ll have to play to win. Otherwise you’ll die.”
“Why are you doing…?” But he was gone.
Back home, I began to try and sort my head out. Apalled at the blank pages in my magickal diary, I set out a strict regimen of banishings, meditations, and yoga. But I still had no idea why this Jeff person was trying to kill me. Had I insulted him or rebuffed an advance? He claimed that we’d met at Ruffle’s birthday party, and my memory of that night was hazy, to say the least. All I could come up with were a few disconnected scenes, like a badly spliced home movie. Standing on the edges of conversations; drinking god-knows-what concoctions, and finally, under the kitchen table, necking with someone of indeterminate gender. I had no memory of Jeff at all. And then it occurred to me that he had given me a clue. Dreams. He’d made himself a key to the backdoor of my mind, and was sauntering in through my dreams. Whether I remembered them or not, he was in them, meddling and muddling my thoughts. That he could do this so apparently effortlessly, caused me to grudgingly respect him and, to loathe him. But he was not the only person who could juggle dreams.
Since I couldn’t consciously remember Jeff, I tried to recover the memory magickally. A sigil did the trick. After six nights of mumbling a meaningless phrase, I dreamt ‘true’ of that which I desired. I dreamt of Jeff. I returned, as an observer to Ruffle Bar’s birthday party. It was shot in slow-motion and sepia, with no sound. I saw me thread my way across the conversation-scarred living room, only to be accosted by a frayed-at-the-edges hippie; Jeff. Suddenly, I spotted the movement and mentally ‘paused’ my dream VCR. I ran it back again, and saw Jeff pushing a piece of crumpled paper into my pocket. Success!
So now I had another clue. Another search commenced; this time through my clothes. Finally I tracked down the garment in question – a black denim jacket, as yet unlaundered. Inside one of the top pockets, I found a crumpled, knot of paper. This turned out to be a page from an address book. A hastily-scribbled note read ‘Jeff Kirby, 221 Brudenell Terr, L6.’ Jeff’s address.
This gave me a few options. I could go and confront him directly; I could try and get some of the more menacing squatters that I knew to break his arms, or … I could try and counterattack. The only question was, how? I knew that people like Crowley had fought magickal battles with legions of demons, but I had no idea about how this could be done. If I tried anything simple, Jeff would probably wipe the floor with me. Yet I had to do something decisive before his spell gnawed away my resolve to resist. I had to do the unexpected. But first, I needed to distract him. This proved to be simple. I sought out someone who knew someone else who lived in the same flats as Jeff, and inquired of them if “that weird hippie” worked or not. It turned out that he didn’t. Presumably, I thought, he spends all his time doing weird things to people like me. Well, if he wants to mess with my head, I’ll mess with his.
In the next week, Jeff had visit from the fraudulent claims squad, Drugs squad, had his dole cut off, and a whole string of people ringing his doorbell in the small hours. Small victories, but they all add up. My piece de la resistance was talking a friend into sneaking into into the house where Jeff had a flat late one night, and tying a piece of rope between his door handle & the stairwell.
Two nights after this, Jeff slid sideways into my dreams again. I’d been practising, and was learning to guard my back, so to speak. As he appeared, I snapped out of being passive dreamer into being an active participant. Pointing a crystal-tipped wand at him, I tried to zap him with the destructive power of Khamael. It worked, but he didn’t have the decency to stay zapped.
“Not bad work at all. You’ve covered your back and you’re learning about weaponry. Also, if you want to survive, you’ll have to occasionally resort to dirty tricks. Such a pity that it’s all in vain.”
With that, the dream cracked, I jerked awake. The wand that I had so carefully sanded down, lettered, and consecrated, had split
down the middle. My first thought was to blame it on its proximity to the gas cooker, but the coincidence was too much to brush away. Things were getting serious.
I was fighting to live, knowing with a sick certainty that if I didn’t, then I would either die, or end up in some semblance of living which was possibly worse. Until now, I had approached magick as though it was a psychological head-game. I’d had some interesting buzzes from meditation, and enjoyed pathworkings & drumming sessions with some other people at the solstices, but never had someone managed to demonstrate to me, so effectively, that magick was real enough to threaten my continued existence. Nothing I’d read or heard had prepared me for this, and so I was running on ingenuity and intuition. Know what? At times, I was enjoying it.
‘Got you, you bastard!’ I thought, lowering a borrowed camera. A long-range shot of Jeff entering his front door. A photograph and a sample of his handwriting – not much to go on, but perhaps enough. I started to grasp the situation, and wonder how I could turn it to my advantage. Jeff had obviously established a magickal link with me – a corridor through which he could reach into my mind. Maybe, I wondered, I could use that corridor as well. Hunted becoming the hunter, ‘n’ all that. So I read Kipling’s The Jungle Book, watched a video of The Company of Wolves, and saw in my daydreams, the figure of Jeff running, running through the streets of Leeds, panic-stricken and pursued by wolves. At first this was perhaps nothing more than a moralebooster. It kept Jeff’s spell from slithering back inside my head. I played with more sigils, and then I dreamt of werewolf time. The dreams came through stronger, and during the day, dogs began to howl when I passed them. There was a sense of something coming closer. What it was, I didn’t know, but whatever lay in store, I was going to meet it face to face. On two legs or more.
Gradually, I grew stronger. I knew that Jeff had tried to box me into a limited space and erode my sense of selfhood. I knew what the boundaries were. I broke them, one by one. I spent more time in town and out of town. I visited friends and invited people to come round. I flirted outrageously with the most unlikely people, and generally acted the fool. My self-important arrogance dropped away. In short, I learnt humility, and eventually, humanity. I began to wonder how much of Jeff’s spell was already lodged inside my head, waiting for a chance to spring out. Had he bound me using a web of lies that I had, for the most part, woven about myself? I looked around the flat – it was untidy, but not irretrievably so. I hadn’t done my daily meditation yet, but there was still time to fit it in. In short, I wasn’t yet perfect, but at least I was making an effort, and knowing that I was going somewhere.
This reviere was interrupted by a banging on my window. I walked upstairs and opened the main door. And stood staring. It was Jeff. Thoughts flickered wildly for a moment – a curse, a sarcastic put-down, a blast of psychic energy. I could even hurl myself at him and he’d fall backwards down the steps….
“Fancy coming out for a drink, then?” He smiled and held out both hands in a gesture of peace.
I looked at him, with his long hair, straggly beard and faded flared jeans. Suddenly he didn’t look fearsome any more. ‘Christ’, I thought, ‘I’ve been afraid of someone who wears flares!’ Then:
“Okay, why not?”
And off we went. Over the second pint he said “Consider yourself initiated.”
“Into what?” I said, suddenly suspicious again.
“Into yourself” he replied. “You needed to be goaded towards death so that you would begin to pay attention to life. You played at magick and you played at life. I only took away that which you hadn’t learnt to appreciate and which you thought you could get by without. That’s all.”
“So what happens now?”
“That’s up to you really. We’ll talk. I can’t teach you, but we can learn from each other. Come around some time.”
I did. He could sit for hours spinning tales of dreams, dope and dakini dancers. He could tell you the quality of an acid tab just by placing it on his fingertip. Like I said at the beginning, he drew secrets about himself. He’d done the seeker-of-wisdom trip to death. It gave him a kind of power, and he fed it further with other people’s credulity. He knew how to make the right moves to the right person at the right time. Not quite knowing how things would come out, but knowing that it was neccesary. He showed me death with one hand and gave me life with the other. Through knowing Jeff I came to know a whole lot more people. But I’ll never forget the first person he introduced me to – myself.