The Lion and The Turtle
Humour and Abstract
10am: still under the covers. If I turn over again I’m trapped for the day. The sun’s starting to fry my face through the window; if I’d known I’d still be laying here for this long I would have remembered to pull the blind down last night. I get up, regrettably. I take a swig from an old bottle of water that’s been kicked around the room for weeks – it’s hot and tastes like plastic. Fuck: fresh water runs from a tap five metres away. I shower for too long with just the hot tap running - I can hardly breath. To clear the mirror I decide to blow away the steam with the hairdryer, it works but increases the temperature two-fold; I almost pass out. I brush my teeth rapidly, causing them to bleed. Flossing sometimes prevents this but the procedure bores me, so from time to time I put up with the bloody mess. I run my thumb across the crack in the mirror attached to the cabinet, unsure whether the glass will sever it. I cracked the mirror last week attempting to take the cabinet down with the intention of painting the wall behind it. It was always a job that required two people – one to hold whilst the other unscrewed – but on that particular day I felt like proving to someone I could manage on my own. Of course as I unscrewed the weight got too much, the cabinet slipped and the mirrored door swung open and hit the wall: I’m still considered a person who can’t manage on his own. I remove a dirty cup and breakfast bowl from the dishwasher and wash them in the sink. We have a ‘give and take’ relationship with the machine. Just when it feels the imminent twist of the start dial, we dip back into it and swipe away whatever we need. I’m sure it feels rather inadequate at times, much like a postman who fails to post a letter one morning because he ‘s bumped into the owner seconds before he’s reached their home. I venture down the five flights of stairs customarily swinging on the bottom banister knob before I reach the ground floor - edging it further out of its socket. It’s quite possible that this fragile wooden object will one day play a part in my demise. Outside it’s started to rain lightly, it’s of minor importance now but by the time I reach downtown I’ll be soaked. I unchain my bike and wheel it out of the courtyard, it squeaks loudly as I push it along - the back wheel struggling to turn. ‘Fucking rain!’ I say under my breath, knowing that actually the problem was the way I incorrectly re-assembled the bike several weeks ago. I consider passing the bike shop on my way downtown, where they could quickly fix the problem, but instead I decide to leave it for several more weeks. Today is Saturday by the way, and on Saturday’s there’s a market under the railway bridge. That’s where I’m heading on my squeaky bike at a hundred miles an hour - I can’t help but feel untouchable whizzing by in the bike lane. To liven things up I hop onto the curb and tear through the crowd on a busy pedestrian street. I scare the life out of someone dressed as a post box about to submerge into a trance for two hours. I drift into the car park next to the market. It’s swamped. Cars are parked behind cars, which are parked behind more cars. I feed the chain through the back wheel of my bike and secure it around a lamppost. When I walk away it crosses my mind that the seat and the front wheel operate on a quick release mechanism. Market day attracts a vast array of people you never thought existed in this city, there are probably a dozen languages being spoken - all trying to cut you the best deal. I’m here for my weekly fruit and veg. but on this occasion I decide to take a look around at the various stalls littered with junk. I’m sent into a coma for the first ten minutes due to the sheer scale of crap that stretches in front of me – useless things dug out from basements and attics spread out like archaeological finds from an ancient world. I get mildly amused at an alarm-clock-kettle: an ingenious contraption that wakes you up with a ready-made cup of tea. I consider buying it for a moment until I realise the action of boiling water in the morning is an impetus for me to out of bed. I suddenly saw myself surrounded by strange machines that catered to my every beck and call – I could operate my entire life from the comfort of my bedroom. I strolled around for a while picking up various items from time to time, inspecting them carefully then placing them back into boxes, baskets, bags. I was impressed at myself when I asked whether a small porcelain dish was a Japanese Satsuma from the 19th Century. The old lady running the stall looked at me inquisitively, and for a moment I felt like I belonged on the Antiques Road Show. She didn’t know where the hell it came from, but when it suddenly looked like I might buy it, she remembered she was saving it for a mysterious woman she’d met earlier. It wasn’t until I almost left the market that I came across it - the chest, that is. I say ‘I came across it’ but it was actually a freckly woman in her 30’s with long red hair who first laid eyes on it. She had spotted it beneath a large piece of embroidered lace. She was searching for vintage clothing for a shop she ran on the West side and the prospect of finding a treasure chest of rare clothes was obviously too much. She hastily went about looking for the stall owner and after a few nodding heads and pointing fingers it was deduced that the man in question had disappeared. The woman had little intention of waiting around and began taking off the lace. The chest was stunning; it resembled something that may have stood in a stately home 200 years ago. Ornately carved from the finest mahogany and adorned with an unusual crest - a lion and a turtle’s head facing in opposite directions. The red headed woman stepped back and admired its beauty. There were no handles or visible joints, nothing that indicated it even opened apart from a small keyhole several inches from the top. The woman tried to wrench open the lid as best she could but it was locked. I stepped closer to get a better look. Suddenly a voice from behind me started shouting: ‘get away from that! Young lady, please leave that alone’. An old Asian man appeared through the crowd waving at the woman. He wore chinos with a Hawaiian shirt; his head was shaved at the sides and on top he had a 50’s jet-black quiff. The woman backed away nervously. ‘Are you the owner?’ She said cautiously. The Asian man began to re-cover the chest frantically with the lace. ‘The chest has no owner madam, the chest just …belongs’ he barked. The red headed woman was startled but was not about to give up - ‘I’m looking for clothes for my shop and was wondering if there were any in the chest’, she said bravely. ’The chest is not for sale! – There’s nothing in there, now please leave it alone. I have many clothes over here. Please, follow me.’ The Asian man heaped a pile of old fabrics over the chest making it unrecognisable and led the confused woman away. I wasn’t so easily distracted and I continued to stare at the chest for quite some time. I kept asking myself: what was in that chest that was so special? It didn’t make any sense; suddenly I was determined to find out what was inside. It was quite clear from the Asian mans performance that I wasn’t going to get anywhere near the chest at that moment in time. However, I convinced myself that if I were to stay until the end of the market and approach him, when everyone was packing down and the place was calmer, it would be a more appropriate time to ask questions. So I waited. I bought an old raincoat from a one-eyed Spanish man for the predicted wet journey home, and some cashew nuts to warn away hunger. I stayed close to the stall making sure the chest wasn’t moved. I sat down against a small brick wall and fed on the nuts whilst keeping an eye on it at all times. Time went by slowly, but I couldn’t take my mind off of what was inside. It was dark now and most of the market stalls had been packed away. Under the railway bridge the lively atmosphere of earlier had transformed back into its daily purpose: a home for the junkies. I noticed two bony creatures huddled in the corner, mumbling to each other and drinking from a bottle with yellow liquid in. It suddenly dawned on me –what was I doing here? I’d spent the whole day waiting to see what was inside a chest! I would have left there and then, if it weren’t for the Asian man removing the various things that covered the chest and suddenly being exposed again to its marvellous construction; I had to stay and see this out to the end. The old Asian man was loading his 1960’s Citroën van when I approached. I tried to look as if I’d just stumbled upon the chest by chance – I wanted it to look like I’d been on my way home, passing under the railway bridge to duck out of the rain. I’d formulated that story earlier in the day whilst chewing on the nuts - just in case I was questioned. I tapped the Asian man on the shoulder. ‘Excuse me’, I said softly. He spun around defensively and screamed at me: ‘what? What do you want?’ I took a step back. He was an edgy little man and close up his eyes where wide and manic: I thought at any moment he would lash out. ‘Sorry’, I said rather pathetically. ‘I was just…’ ‘You were snooping around all day waiting for me, that’s what you were doing!’ he replied aggressively. This wasn’t a good start. I backtracked: ‘no…I…err…’ ‘You want to see the contents of the chest, do you?’ The Asian man suddenly blurted out. ‘You think you have the right?’ I tried to answer but he pushed his face into mine. ‘You people will never learn!’ He locked me into an uncomfortable stare and for a moment I thought I saw the lion and the turtle crest appear in the blacks of his eyes. ‘Look, I’m sorry alright - I’ll go’, I said firmly. The Asian man backed off, cleared his throat, and spat on the ground between us. He pulled a pack of French cigarettes out of his top pocket and lit one up. The blue potent smoke drifted into my face. ‘Do you really want to look inside the chest?’ He said in a surprisingly calm voice. I wasn’t quite sure what to say - the confrontation then the strange submissive attitude was confusing me: I shrugged. He cocked his head to one side and half smiled. ‘Have you always wanted to look in the chest?’ It’s only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I realise this was a ridiculously suggestive question at the time. However, in the heat of the moment I found myself nodding in agreement. He reached into his trouser pocket and produced a key. He tossed it towards me and as it passed through the air it sparkled like a jewel. I caught it; it was heavy for such a tiny thing. ‘Look. If you must’ he said. I glanced at him and then down at the key. I felt dizzy for a moment and shuffled uneasily on my feet. I tried to speak but I couldn’t find the right words and instead I mumbled something about having to leave. The Asian man nodded and exhaled a thin stream of smoke from his nose. ‘You have my permission’ he said. I didn’t know whether he meant to leave or to open the chest. I turned around and walked up to the chest, each step feeling incredibly heavy. We weren’t alone now; a small group of junkies had formed a semi-circle around us and were watching quietly in their own lost worlds. I doubted that any of them had the energy to cause any trouble, but all the same I spotted a quick escape route in case things got nasty. I looked around at the Asian man again checking for his final approval, he gestured to me to open the chest. I inserted the key into the lock and turned; the mechanism was stiff but after applying a little more force the lock opened. I lifted the lid slowly, freeing a stale odour from inside. As the lid came back I noticed something moving in the darkness, then I felt a sharp pain at the back of my head and everything went black. I awoke to find myself in the most uncomfortable position, contorted into a tiny dark space, realising quite quickly that I must be inside the chest. My head hurt and I could feel congealed lumps of blood matted into my hair. I felt the sensation of movement and envisaged being released in some kind of torture chamber where I would be raped and held captive for the rest of my life. Suddenly something shuffled underneath me; I let out an almighty scream. The chest stopped moving. In a flash the lid was opened, something was thrown in, and then the lid was slammed shut again and we were on the move once more. I frantically swept the base of the chest petrified of what I might find. Then I felt it – a cold stone-like object with a slimy underbelly that moved when I ran my finger across it. It took me as second to work out what it was: a turtle. I was squashed up inside a chest with a selection of amphibians, surely this day couldn’t get any worse! The realisation that I was sharing a confined space with a group of wet turtles wasn’t exactly comforting, but I must admit the fear factor that I had experienced at the beginning of this ordeal was diminishing somewhat. We continued to bump along for a while, the turtles and I, until we stopped suddenly and the lid was opened. The Asian man stood peering down at me; he had a small rounder’s bat in his right hand, which I presumed he must have used to knock me out earlier. ‘Get up, and watch out for my turtles!’ he said aggressively. I unravelled myself like and tried to reason with him: ‘this is ridiculous, please I…’ He slammed the bat against the side of the chest, I slumped back down in a quivering mess and the turtles went into a momentary spasm. ‘No! It is ridiculous that you should even think you could get away with such audacity!’ he screamed. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me out of the chest, the bat poised by his side in case I got smart. ‘Alright listen, look I’m sorry if I offended you in anyway’ I said pleadingly. ‘You have caused me great offence! And now you will suffer the consequences’, he replied. He struck me with the bat and I was out cold again. I awoke chained to a tree, dawn was approaching and my surroundings were now becoming visible. I was by a disused railway line in the countryside, where two rusty train carriages had been converted into a makeshift home. A small fire burned inside one of the carriages where the Asian man was muttering to someone. The chain that ran around my leg had some considerable length to it and I decided to get as close as I could to the carriages to find out who the Asian man was conversing with. I shuffled along the damp undergrowth and managed to ply myself up to the nearest window before the slack of the chain tightened. I cautiously peered over the ledge and into the carriage. Inside, amongst heaps of junk, the Asian man sat warming himself against the fire. At first I couldn’t make out whom he was talking to until I noticed in the far corner of the carriage a large cage, occupied by a ferocious looking lion. The Asian man was talking to the lion as if the beast was an old acquaintance. I had to constrain myself from letting out a wail of terror; I knelt down and firmly placed my hand over my mouth and whimpered. The sun was rising quickly now, hunger had set itself firmly in place and I was sure the lion’s feeding time was nearly here. I had curled myself up against the base of the tree and was keeping myself warm under a heap of brittle autumn leaves. The Asian man had been sleeping soundly for at least three hours and during that time I had heard the roar of the lion seven times, each roar reminding me of my imminent doom. During these predicted last hours of mine many strange and fantastical flashed before me. I dreamt up imaginative ways of escaping like gnawing away at my leg or devising booby-traps with the slack of the chain that would entrap the Asian man and initiate my escape. But every new hope of escape was equalled with a fresh rationale of how my plan would fail. I decided to resign to the inevitable; dying was the only way out. The Asian man appeared at the carriage doorway, half asleep and brandishing the rounder’s bat. He stretched and yawned expressively then scratched his balls and spat on the ground. ‘ Dinner time my inquisitive friend’, dinner time.’ He said pleasingly. I started to squirm around, pulling at the chain on my leg and sweating profusely. The Asian man went back into the carriage grinning; I closed my eyes and put my hands over my ears - trying to shut out the sounds that followed. The Asian man reappeared with the lion on a short leash; he was succeeding to tame it with a number of strange commands and several cracks from a whip that he had kept concealed down one trouser leg. I considered this to be the final curtain, the end result of a very strange day indeed. I couldn’t help but think if I’d stopped by the bike shop and shaved off thirty minutes of the day, my interest in looking around the market may been diminished, and this chain of hellish events may never have occurred. The menacing duo edged closer, the lion drooling at the prospect of a rather tasty snack, ‘somebody help me, please’, I screamed. Suddenly a voice bellowed from behind the train carriage: ‘stop where you are!’ My god I was saved. Springing out from various dark crevices around the enclosure came a number of uniformed police officers. The Asian man froze and a look of terror flashed across his face. He stopped chanting the commands to the lion and suddenly the beast awoke from its trance. It stopped in its tracks forcing the Asian man back onto his heels, he turned to face the lion and they stood there for a second in a strange Mexican standoff. ‘What are you doing you fool, move it’ the Asian man blurted out. The lion looked at him sympathetically, yawned, and then pounced. I awoke half an hour later in an ambulance, having passed out after the lion devoured the Asian man. I was shocked to find peering down at me the red headed woman from the market. She beamed at me looking rather pleased with herself. ‘ I wondered when you’d wake up’, she said softly. I gave her a blank look; I couldn’t find the energy to speak. ‘You didn’t expect to see me did you’? I shook my head. ‘Well I couldn’t let that chest go either; I was sure he was hiding some clothes in there so I followed you. I must admit I almost turned back at one point, but something kept me going. Lucky for you I suppose. Anyway, once I saw the way he treated you with that frightful rounder’s bat I called the police immediately. What a horrid time you must have had?’ I nodded. ‘Well, you’re safe now’, she said proudly. ‘Oh, I almost forgot’, and she rummaged in her bag. ‘You were clinging onto this when we found you’. She opened her hand and there it was – the wet slimy turtle. It extended its small wrinkled head, and to this day I’m sure it winked at me.