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THE AGE OF HALLUCINATIONS

Veselin Stoyanov

web

For Hristo Karastoyanov
forever a captain of iceberg

It was the last Sunday of this millennium and already past the rush hour at the dispatcher office of the New York port, when the old telegraph, displayed on a special stand in the main hall, suddenly sprang to life. The band rolls set into motion and the thin strip, dotted with the Morse code, started coming out in nervous jerks, while everybody fell silent and acquired the appearance of regular insurance payers. This apparatus had not been in use for decades and the last time that the staccato alphabet of the American artist and physicist Samuel Morse had tacked the air was in the autumn of 1998.

Exactly on this strained morning, there came, as if brought by the echo of an old ship bell, the demand of the Titanic trans-Atlantic liner, with 2,207 people on board, to be given a leadsman, permission to anchor at dock No 54, and to be connected with the immigration authorities. Everybody gave a bored smile at the stale joke and continued disentangling the infernal tow of ship courses entering and exiting the New York port, when, ten minutes later, the apparatus rattled again and the strip, of a length exactly like the previous one, transmitted the categorical demand of the Titanic ship, with 2,207 people on board, to be given a leadsman and permission to anchor at dock 54, as well as to be connected with the immigration authorities. This was already going beyond the limits... Then everybody had a better look at the radar and found out, that really, about several miles away from the port entrance, there was standing motionless a huge liner of unknown origin, whose three powerful chimneys, as later witnesses from passing yachts described the picture, were spewing out picturesque smoke under the dead sky of New York.

Ten minutes later the special agents of the former "Hoover Institution", which, among themselves they referred to as "The Office", busied themselves with the operation. The special helicopter was making astonished circles in the triumphant smoke of the three chimneys, while the agents inside watched silently the deck of the liner which had so unexpectedly emerged from the depths of time. Finally, special agent Wallace, who headed the campaign, gave a signal for landing and the machine despondently landed on the promenade deck, among the bouquets of applause of a large group of first and second class passengers, who mixed for the occasion, quite against the strict rules which preserved the comfort on the liner.

Captain Smith was standing on the forebridge surrounded by his first officers, brilliant as ever, in his uniform of sea captain of the White Star Line company. He had his reasons to be proud, as this was his last voyage before going into well-deserved retirement and devoting himself to his favourite cigars, which he liked smoking in his study not allowing the others to move around for fear that they would stir the marvellous blue layers of smoke which piled one upon the other like surrealistic dreams. Captain Smith bowed in the direction of his first assistant, captain William Murdoch, telling him with slight neglect that these new aeronautical machines are becoming increasingly unhinged in appearance and can hardly be expected to be in for a serious future. Murdoch nodded jerkily and continued watching with interest the strange men who were descending from the flying machine. They were dressed in furcoats, had small apparatuses over their ears, which gave them the appearance of clowns, and their eyes were hidden behind dark glasses. They were approaching slowly and uncertainly up the forebridge, concerned vapour coming out of their mouths, as if straight from their sweating and troubled souls.

Wallace wrote in his report later that he had the feeling of attending a musical comedy performance, however when captain Smith greeted him upon his coming on board the ship and started telling him about the "Blue strip" and the capacities of this amazing ship Titanic, he thought he had fallen among the company of lunatics, who, in some secret way, had built a copy of the ship and were now playing a joke on the whole world. In the following paragraph of that ill-fated report Wallace openly admits that after he was ushered in "the foyer of deck A, with the enormous overhead glass dome, the noble oak panelling, the majestic carved balustrades, under the look of the unusual wall clock decorated with two bronze nymphs, symbols of Honesty and Glory, that crown Time", he actually stopped thinking and the only thing he could do was bow foolishly like a Japanese at a tea ceremony at the enthusiastic reflections of captain Smith about the future of navigation in the following years of this 20th c. "You cannot even imagine," Wallace mumbled, absolutely sure that he no longer knew what to undertake.

When captain Smith considerately wanted to know why, for all that, the response from the shore authorities is slow to arrive, and why noone has been accepting the cables which the passengers were sending through the Philips telegraph, senior agent Wallace found it very difficult to respond, however at that moment the old ship doctor, Dr O'Loughlin, a man "adored by all stewardesses", came to his assistance, allowing himself to interrupt the captain and go on to suggest the talk to be continued at a table, personally laid by Monsieur Gatti, the maitre d’hotel of the "A la carte" - as it should have been expected, the first class French restaurant, if, naturally, the guest would not prefer to have a look around the ship first.

Wallace wanted to have a look around the ship, suppressed by the feeling that he has found his conscience in a chocolate egg.

He did not know how to explain to these people that they have been dead since the morning of April 15, 1912, when their ship, rushing among a fleet of ferocious icebergs, had encountered the ice mountain, darker than hell (at 23:20 hrs; 41 degrees 46 minutes northern latitude and 50 degrees, 14 minutes western longitude) and had sunk within 2 h 40 min, carrying away with itself the 1,503 souls of living people.

But he failed in particular to explain to himself his own presence on this liner, surrounded by its prominent passengers: company President Bruce Ismay, architect Thomas Andrews, banker Benjamin Guggenheim, millionaire John Jacob Astor, Mr Archie Butt, aide to US President Barth, artist and translator of Tolstoy's "Sevastopol Stories" Frank Millet and, naturally, captain Edward J. Smith, "a bearded patriarch, adored by the crew and the passengers, mostly because his personality wonderfully combined firmness and noble kindness," as senior agent Wallace wrote later in his report. They all smiled kindly and reservedly through the cigarette smoke and watched Wallace with cool curiosity, while he himself had the feeling that he was standing in front of the glass window of a vivarium, behind which exotic birds were indifferently fluttering with their eyelashes.

Wallace nonetheless took a deep breath and told the motley company before him that, according to Lloyd's registers, this ship had sunk already in 1912. While the others raised their brows, Captain Smith smiled and in a kind protest said that, "he cannot think of a reason that would bring about the sinking of the ship. He said he did not presume that there would be a terrible consequence of vital importance for him, because modern ship building had outgrown these things. "I said these things already six years ago," said the captain, with an even broader smile, "in 1906, exactly at the time when I was taking over the command of the brand new at the time "Adriatic", also of the White Star Line company". Mr Bruce Ismay was nodding silently next to him, as it was clear that it all went without saying.

Wallace, who was trained in the best traditions of the school of The Office, shuddered before the obvious inviolability of these arguments, and, as he later wrote in his report, his only purpose was to find out what, the hell, did these people want, these people who were desperately playing ghosts, less than ten hours before the beginning of the third millennium. He started telling them the story of the sinking of this ship, but they did not even let him finish. They interrupted him, protesting that he was retelling the cheap novel of some Morgan Robertson, which had come out 14 years earlier, i.e. in 1898.

The brilliant idea came across his mind while they were crossing the Writing Hall, which, according to the managing director of the Harland and Wolf shipyard, was too large. "I do not know how you have found yourselves here," Wallace started in a whispering voice, slightly bent towards captain Smith, "but it seems to me possible that this be part of some military experiment, in which someone has confused something, otherwise, goodness!, I have no other explanation." "But I have to tell you," the special agent went on, "that you are right at the end of a century, what am I saying, of a millennium. Today, dear Captain and sirs, is the 31st of December, 2000, that is you are returning 88 years after your time and... wow, is that the squash court?"

This was really the squash court, coach Fred Wright nodded in confirmation, respectfully took his hat off before the personal visit of the captain and Wallace noticed that the men were listening to him with much greater attention, so he continued, without stopping, in compliance with the rules of the best books on bringing a critical situation under control, while he was still holding their attention. He told them about the 10 million victims in the Great European War. He thought of Sarajevo and told them how Gavrilo Princip had jumped on the step of the Graph und Schtift model, Wallace laughed, a model exactly from 1912, and put two bullets in each, the crown prince Franz Ferdinand and that Polish countess, his wife, what was her name, Wallace fretted. To come out of this situation he started talking about World War Two, in which over 55 million died, while leaders like Mussolini, who 22 years earlier, in 1922, had personally headed the "March to Rome", the first Fascist march in Europe, were executed, while Hitler, who in 1923 organised the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, had committed suicide. Then Wallace reverted to World War One, because it occurred to him to tell them how there were no more empires, like for example the Austro-Hungary, Russia, which also was no longer an empire because Lenin took power after a terrible salvo from the cannons of the Aurora, a shell of a boat on the Neva river, however a salvo of particular importance, given by Aleksander Belishev, because in less than a year the Bolsheviks executed their tsar Nikolai and his whole family, although they say that some of them survived the bloodshed. Still, this put an end to the Romanoff dynasty. Kaiser Wilhelm had abdicated, Turkey became a republic and for some time there even existed two Germanys, Wallace pointed out. He said also that in both wars the US played an exceptional role in the positive outcome.

While crossing the gym next to the lifeboat deck and watching with benevolent looks the passengers, roaring with laughter at the vaulting horses, or the others, taking pleasure in pedaling the stationary bikes, looking at the red and blue arrow indicators on a big white clock, Wallace briefly told them everything he knew about that terrorist Lenin and the Bolshevik uprising in Russia which retailored Europe and the world; about the somber Balkans, where even recently there was another war. Then he presented in brief the theories of Bolshevism and Fascism and started telling them the biography of Stalin, who was actually called Soso Djugashvilli, and as he finished telling them about Adolph Hitler, who was actually called Adolph Schicklegrouber, for some unknown reason, he told them, "Actually Hitler became chancellor of Germany one year after Mickey Mouse had already appeared in Walt Disney's comic strips. 1932, this makes a year before Hitler, can you imagine that? At that time Stalin had already cleared everybody around him."

Then in gory details he told them about the forced labour camps on the Solovetski islands near Archangelsk in Siberia in 1923 and about those long and terrible 30 years when with the labour of these slaves in the USSR, as Russia was already called, were built 9 towns, 12 railway lines, 6 industrial centres and 3 hydroelectric power stations. Then he passed on to the concentration camp in Dachau in Europe of 1933 and Buchenwald, near Weimar, the town of Goethe, where, I hope you can imagine, within 8 years 56,500 people were smoked off out of the chimneys. He noticed that the men turned pale and worriedly started looking around. He did the same thing, because they were already in one of the standard first class cabins. He was impressed by the bed of genuine bronze, and particularly by the little green net on the wall over the bed, which, as he was explained, was used to put the jewellery in during the night. At the same time he remembered about the night of November 2 to 10th, in that 1938 when thousands of Jewish shops were put to the torch in Germany and which was called Kristallnacht, "the crystal night", can you believe there can be such a poetic name, sirs?!, while the 30,000 Jews were sent straight to the concentration camps. And all that, because a Polish Jew, Herschen Gruenspan, aged 17, just imagine!, Wallace raised his voice, shot down Eduard von Ratt, a German officer at the German Embassy in Paris. He even recalled the theory of Heinrich Himmler about "the extermination of Jews". After that he cast an interested glance at the marble sink, the wicker armchair, the horse-hair sofa, the ceiling fan and the electric bells and all sorts of odd contrivances installed in the cabins of the first class on the Titanic transoceanic liner.

Then he patriotically described the treacherous warplane attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, led by their commander Mitsuo Fuchida, where they destroyed five peacefully anchored warships and killed 2,344 courageous American boys. He did not forget to tell about the retribution of the bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the striking military and psychological effect of the new weapon. Over 200,000 people were killed and that, Sirs, changed the scale of thinking about wars. He told them what he found a touching fact, that the American boy, who guided his aircraft on this act of retribution, had named his plane after his mother Enola Gay, unquestionably a good Protestant and a courageous American woman. He told them in brief the story of 36,000 American soldiers on Battaan peninsula, who surrendered to general Yamashita, who killed the majority of them on their way to the prisoners of war camp. The agent recalled that on July 30 the Japanese hit the US war ship Indianapolis, which sank within 12 minutes and as few as 316 out of the total of 1,996 people on board were rescued. Pay attention, said Wallace, casting a meaningful glance at them, to the fact that this famous warship had just supplied the components for the atomic bomb at the Marian Islands. Can you imagine what would have happened, if the torpedo had reached the ship a day earlier, Wallace asked. And, seeing their astonished looks, he added, "a catastrophe, an unprecedented catastrophe!". At this point they exchanged respectful bows passing by the family of the prominent publisher Henry Slipper Harper, who took pleasure in showing to everybody their medal-holder Pekinese Sun-Yat-Sen, together with the Egyptian dragoman Hamad Hassan, who they had taken from Cairo for fun. A little further one could see the everdale of the Astor family, with whom the young Mrs Astor was walking around on the deck. While Robert Daniel, the Philadelphia banker, simply left the leash of the recently bought from England bulldog-champion in the hands of a kind young steward and happily joined the group of respected gentlemen. Then Wallace remembered about his two pimpled daughters, who walked like Hansel and Gretal among the age-old woods of puberty and for some unknown reason directed the talk at Beatles, even hummed to them the beginning of "The Yellow Submarine" although he himself, as he admitted later, was a fan of Elvis.

When he was being shown the Turkish hamam - a number of boxes in a majestic range of colours, whose interior decoration was something like a transition between the Venetian age and the age of Rudolf Valentino and he was looking stunned at the mosaic floor, the walls covered with blue-green tiles, the golden rays upon the monochrome red ceiling, the columns covered with engraved teak - Wallace returned once more to the East and started talking about Mao and his "great leap forward" in 1957, when over 500 million villagers joined the "peoples communes" which meant that they were deprived of rights and private property, and, in general all this mess in the East. Here he angrily remembered about the morning of February 7, 1965, when the flocks of bombers were flying over targets in Northern Vietnam. There follow, he started bending the fingers on his left hand one after the other, March 8 - an amphibious landing at Da Nang and July 28, when already officially there were 125,000 Americans in Vietnam, and then the massacre at My Lai, sighed very heavily Wallace. In that same year the national liberation movements in Rhodesia claimed 400,000 black victims, and back in 1952 a leader of a tribe called "kikuyu", Ndjomo Keniata, had organised a "mau-mau", a gang of terrorists to fight with the white settlers in Kenya.

He told them about the disgraceful withdrawal from Vietnam, and then about the break-in at the Watergate hotel. His eyes twinkled when he started talking about the fall of the Wall, this construction which Khruschev erected between the two Germanys and which, in the end, justly tumbled after the disintegration of the ‘Evil Empire’, which crowned the end of this millennium, however his eyes filled with tears at the thought of the tragedy in Dallas, when the beautiful Jackie sprung forward and started gathering the pieces from the skull of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, shot dead a second earlier by Lee Oswald, from the window of a book warehouse, or at least they say so, and Lee Oswald, who in his turn closed his eyes to daylight two days later, shot down by Jack Ruby, a night club owner, what happened with that man noone remembers any longer...

While they were crossing the hall with exotic flowers, he started talking about the Japanese, about their economic miracle, the same Japanese who had devised the kamikaze, i.e. the fanatic suicide. In general, he said, amazing things have been happening around the world. People had already stepped on the Moon and there were Internet connections, which make you a happy member of the big family of mankind. In Europe they were already coining a common money, called the euro, even the Jews already had their own country, called Israel.

The group of gentlemen and the guest looked around the library of second class, when he all of a sudden started talking about the sexual revolution, about the liberation of morals and about the invention of the century, namely the one of Gregory Pinks, who in 1955 discovered the Pill, which continues to be at the base of the rows between the Vatican and the secular authorities. As soon the word "row" slipped out of his lips, it occurred to him to tell them about the Lewinsky affair, from which President Clinton narrowly escaped, but decided to keep silent. He talked, however, about the plague of the 20th c. - that illness, called AIDS, in comparison with which "the Spanish flu", a flu, which originated in China, the most terrible epidemic since 1918, after the plague which killed 21,640,000, or 1% of the population on Earth - well, in comparison with that new illness the Spanish flu looked like sore tonsils. Then, for some unknown reasons, he strayed to tell them about the triumph of homosexuality and particularly of the Lesbians, who turned out to be 30% of all women, can you imagine, even your wife may turn out to be Lesbian, agent Wallace said, nodding his head, mentioning something about Madonna, and then about the heavenly Greta Garbo, watching carefully the reactions of the men around him.

They watched him with contempt and with the boredom of people, accustomed to smoking in other halls and to changing their clothes for dinner and their suspicion to him was fostered by their unshakeable feeling about the dignity of the rich and famous men, who would never dare take their vest off in the presence of ladies. Even the chief steward puckered his nose in aversion.

At this point the one who came to the rescue was again Dr O'Loughlin, the old ship doctor, a "man adored by all stewardesses", known for his sweet character and his subtlety, which the years could not dull. The doctor apologised kindly to agent Wallace, gathered the heads of the others in a circle around him and whispered to them quietly, but decisively: "This man is not a lunatic, Mr Captain, as I can see you think him to be. This man, dear sirs, sees us in his dream. We are a hallucination of his. Let us be careful and not deprive him of the ability to hear and see non-existing things while wide-awake. We may also learn more about him, I can assure you". And all of them forced embarrassed smiles to their faces, when captain Smith, with an icy look on his face, suggested that they all pass on to the deck, where the "A la carte" restaurant was situated, so that Mr Wallace could join the respected sirs for lunch.

Back on the deck, Wallace searched with his eyes the other agent, who had returned to the helicopter and together with the pilots stood quietly among the staring crowd of people, evidently without establishing contact, as Wallace later wrote in his report.

They did not start immediately the lunch, but went to a small hall, where the captain treated them to Benedictine, from his personal reserves. After he himself poured out the amber-coloured liquid in exquisite small crystal glasses, he gave a little cough and nodded towards Dr O'Loughlin, who adjusted his Harvard professor’s glasses and asked if they had got it right that the date was not April 16, 1912, the day when Titanic is to take its place at dock No 54 of the New York port. Wallace said that no, today it is not April 16, 1912, when Titanic was supposed to take its place at dock No 54 in the New York port, but December 31, 2000, when this damned century is drawing to its end, together with the damned millennium, at which the others frowned.

In response, the special agent of "The Office" let his breath noisily out and went silent, gaping at them with his bulging eyes, in which one could read astonishment, mixed with anger and fear.

"What have you done to humanity?", asked quietly banker John Jacob Astor.

"Very adequate question!" added Guggenheim. "What have you done to all those people? Why have you turned them to murderers," and he coughed, frowning - homosexuals?

"Why did you set your foot on the Moon when all of you are sunk in.. how did you put it? Excrement!? Excrement from a century of hallucinations!" - sighed heavily captain Smith, and then added, "I will have to ask you to immediately leave my ship, because your presence here is an insult to all my passengers. If you really come from the time about which you have just told us, we have no business in that world, where you take pride in the rags of unnecessary complacency. This was...

Dr O'Loughlin shook his biblical head and repeated, "Hmm, hallucinations... I am no longer sure who is the dream and who the dreamer..."

Everybody rose to their feet and had a hard look at Wallace, who kept silent in wild astonishment. He was wondering at the absurd behaviour of these ghosts, who had come from god knows where, without even understanding that at a single sign of his, everything around could blow up in the air, the way 88 years ago it had set off for the bottom of the Atlantic.

Then he rose and left the hall, guided by the haughty and cold-mannered chief steward in an endless climbing down and up stairs and ladders until he reached that damned deck, where the helicopter was waiting for him, shivering with sudden fear. Once on the helicopter he slammed the transparent door behind him and then had a long and empty look at the forebridge where captain Smith and the whole distinguished company of gentlemen stood, asking himself what actually had happened... Then he nodded to the pilot and the machine uncertainly took off the deck, hovered for a while in some kind of hesitation and then decisively lifted its tail and took a course towards the coast with the appearance of a man who has just shaken off bad nightmares.

Wallace looked for a long time out of his right shoulder, seeing the silhouette of the Titanic becoming smaller and although the chimneys continued throwing out picturesque clouds of black smoke, something sad was resounding in the pathetic dark puffs, which slowly covered the ship. The next time when he turned around, there was a dirty, desperate fog was spreading at the place where Titanic used to be.

Late in the evening, when he had already written that report of his, special agent Wallace relished the smoke of his brown cigarette in the charm of the solitude which always seized him before he went home, when all of a sudden he was stricken with cosmic sadness, because he realized that he had missed the opportunity to see the precious edition of Omar Khayam’s "Rubayaat" with a gold-and-enamel book-cover. Then he went totally blue and fell into tears about this child's dream of his to throw a small copper coin in the waters of the Atlantic and share with someone the secret that he had left a small treasure on the bottom of the world.

And then he realised that God has no sense of humour.

 

 

© Veselin Stoyanov
© Antonina Barret, translated
=============================
© E-publisher LiterNet, 25.08.2004, № 8 (57)