Duncan Harman





In the Hall of Mirrors we stare at our reflections as they're pushed and pulled, stretched then shrunken, and these contorted facsimiles neither laugh nor smile but simply glower back in a pique of non-recognition.


On the carousel we sit astride our painted horses and watch impassively as strands of context rotate around us.


There comes a point in any narrative where you have to stop whatever it is that you’re doing and say to yourself: this much I know. Our planet orbits its sun a kilometre per second faster in January than it does in July. Rock and roll is the work of Beelzebub. England are 355 for 6 approaching the tea interval; when Compton secures his century they’ll surely declare.


It’s this degree of internal calibration that keeps us grounded, I suppose. Corralled within narrow bandwidths of cognition, our allegiance hangs from the reference points in which, at any one moment, we implicitly see ourselves reflected.


My name is Lazar (true). I was born in the old Winter Palace on the final day of the Great War, arrival signalled not by the traditional newborn's wail, but instead with an unimpressed harrumph that echoed dully from the close, damp walls of the ballroom, and left the physician who delivered me muttering about omens and portents as he swiftly exited the building (all lies). My parents are both dead (true), long-claimed by the stony earth of the village cemetery (also true). It's a peaceful place, with a modest, domed chapel standing sentry over the resting souls, the distance decorated with the fluted curves of the Vistula (true again, except for the Vistula part).


For the era my mother cut an alluring, if somewhat unorthodox figure. English (yes), independent in both in means and spirit (yes, yes) and enthused by the inquiring mindset of youth (yes again), her passion was for travel, the various cities and nation states of Europe a checkerboard across which she was determined to traverse. Thus it was, Dover to Calais one late-April afternoon, and with the locomotive engine and the genteel hotel at her disposal (a chaperone considered, then disregarded – this was, after all, the modern age), her summer began. A combination of wealth, foresight and sheer good luck kept her beyond the inconvenience a foreign tour invariably throws up – wars and brigands and tuberculosis and such-like – and with the sun’s warmth scouting her easterly persuasion (Liège to Saarbrücken to Linz to Bratislava), my mother’s eyes were opened to the beauty strafed across the continent’s gnarled heart. Basilica, barbican, carillion, conservatoire...


It was during a piano recital that the progress of this Grand Tour came to an abrupt halt, the playful allegro of the Chopin sonata complimented by eye contact of an unsolicited, yet immediate depth. He spoke a little English, she not a word of his intricate, knotty tongue, but with German as some middle ground, they circled each other amidst a mutual attraction; the courtship was swift, and the marriage vows exchanged before the Yuletide bells had begun to peel – she never did make it back to England.


It was from my mother that I inherited both a dexterity of language (true) and my noble, engaging features (hardly). As a young child we would sit around the parlour of our fine apartment on the Meierhofstrasse, conjugating verbs in French or Latin or in my mother's native tongue; it would be an exaggeration to suggest that I was in any way prodigious (correct – it would be an exaggeration), but a scholarship was soon thrust upon me, the padded insularity of a private lycée education acting as a redoubt as, first mother then father succumbed to the latest vogue for virulent, fatal influenza. Looking back,their deaths hardly registered.


It's this degree of deep context that hums around the periphery of what we're all about; fragmentary glimpses of long-ago, perhaps a little too obtuse to explain away whatever counts as immediate, yet all the same – an integral component of that very same present tense. There's a direct correlation between the abrupt termination of my studies at the Institut Neuphilologische (an indiscretion that neither myself nor institution have ever deemed necessary to reveal), and the you and I of right now, walking arm-in-arm beneath the coloured lights strung limply between the fairground booths. There's a underlying relationship between the specifics – the 'how I came to be in London' aspect – and our mutual complicity in this sad, sallow story; all lust and pain and ghosts of lost husbands.


“I think that you're wrong,” you tell me. “Wrong about context. Or if not wrong, then certainly not correct”.


I think about this as the big wheel describes its revolution, the sound of grinding gears drifting intermittently from the wheel’s innards. Beneath our feet the landscape lies anaesthetised by the night, midnight colours that reflect the cadences of your voice, and as I listen to what you have to say our gondola swings leisurely, forward then back.


Duncan Harman is a regular contributor to Turntable & Blue Light. You can see more of his writing at http://lazerguidedmelody.wordpress.com/.