Liam Kidd, his head reeling with tales of Nazis and magic swords, bravely tried to summate the old man’s quack story. “So if ahm fillin in the blanks right, Malcolm…you’re sayin these things are now in guitars or musical instruments in our time and the music influences people…even withoot them knowing it?”
Malcolm loosened his neck tie and undid his top shirt button. “That’s close to the truth, son but when you say our time they’ve been in musical instruments for centuries especially stringed instruments and they don’t just influence people. Beasts as well as man are bent to the will of the hosts. Do you know the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Liam?”
Liam smirked and blurted “Aye but am sure you’re gonnae tell me a don’t.”
Malcolm gave him a stern schoolmaster look. “It’s not really a funny story son, about as funny as a fire in an orphanage. In fact it’s probably the original horror story.”
Liam, feeling somewhat told off, strummed the Strat in his lap and listened on.
“It dates back to 1284 in the German town of Hamelin and the story is based on very real events, Liam, again feel free to check. The Brothers Grimm wrote a version on which Robert Browning later based his famous poem published in 1849 on. The tale went through several versions between the 14th to 17th centuries before Browning’s, but its earliest reference was in a glass window in the Hamelin town church dated 1300 depicting the story.”
Malcolm shuffled across the room, feeling Liam’s stare of unconcealed interest heavy on his back. He knew to this youth he must appear decrepit, probably expected him to die any minute now. His slow walking speed was governed by a cruel coalition between his Parkinson’s and arthritis and it frustrated his young spirit to be so caged. He took a large book from the dusty display cabinet behind him, but then paused; looking at the shelf from which Liam had rifled then replaced his diary. His eyes fell on the diary and the hint of a smile came and went from his lips, but he said nothing, just flicked to a page and handed the book to Liam. The picture showed the stained glass rendition. The boy looked from the page and handed the volume back to Malcolm.
“The details are sketchy and there are several theories but there is no doubt a tragic event befell the city which culminated in all but one of the town’s children either dying or disappearing and this is historical fact.”
Liam sat forward surprised, he had no idea this tale held even a shred of truth or any basis in fact. Don’t worry old man I will check this on the education motorway later cause I smell bullshit.
Malcolm was smiling at him, like he’d heard every word of his internal dialogue. He snapped the book closed, its slap giving the boy a start. “As you know, Liam, the legend tells of a man entering the town and being retained to rid the town of rats. To do this he used a magical pipe, the rats followed his music and drowned in the river Weser at his bidding. On completion of his task the town’s people welshed on their deal and refused to pay him. So he played a different tune and every child in the town except one who was lame, followed him to their fate.
The early tellings recount that the piper himself cut the toes off the lame child because he had shown him some small kindness and so saved him from the fate of the rest by not allowing him to follow. But they don’t tell that in the sugar coated nursery rhyme. Anyway…the children were never seen again and the phrase Better Pay the Piper was born. That was over seven-hundred years ago, Liam. Now maybe the piper leading them out of town was just a metaphor for his influence on them, leading them astray in some way. Off the path of righteousness, much like your rock stars are accused of daily nowadays,”
Malcolm paused and shook his head side to side. “But this story, Liam, like a few others I could tell you, I think it has a darker meaning. I believe those children literally followed him out of that town to whatever fate he led them to. I believe he had one of the most powerful marriages between host and icon ever recorded.”
Liam felt the gravitas Malcolm had injected into the words, but couldn’t help himself as through a nervous giggle he said. “Shit, Malcolm next ye’ll tell me Humpty Dumpty wuz the bogey man.”
The old man sighed a smile back in defeat. “I can see this isn’t working as I’d hoped, Liam.”
“Well whit did ye think, Malcolm I’d just swally this shit doon, gargle with it, then ask fur some more?”
“I never thought anything, Liam, truth is I’ve never had to school anyone in this way, I’ve just left them to their own devices and with a little time they see things clear. Trouble is son, we have no time, the dark is rising and my hand has been forced. I needed to recruit and fast.” The old man tugged the chain dangling from his waistcoat and retrieved his silver pocket watch -- as if motivated by the mention of time -- to check the hour.
Liam watched Malcolm fumbling with the timepiece and couldn’t miss his sense of urgency. He really believed they were on a deadline here. In hopes of grounding the old man back to the real world, Liam tried to glue some sort of tangible handle onto his nonsense claims. “If these things huv been aroon forever, Malcolm how come they’ve never been exposed…written aboot?”
“Why would those who know of them expose them, they wield their power, they’re the ones on the gravy train with biscuit wheels? And those who don’t know of them…well they don’t know of them.”
Liam threw up his hands in exasperation. “Aye but there must be thousands in between over the years…who’ve learned aboot them but don’t actually huv wan sittin in their fucking garage, Malcolm...people who’ve been burned by these things.”
Malcolm nodded an acknowledgement. “That’s true, Liam; a few have made claims and even got some small publicity; quickly labeled crackpots, every one of them -- just as you’ve already labeled me Liam.”
With his mother’s voice in his ear reminding him -- always show respect to your elders --Liam took some sting out of his tone and met the old man halfway. “A don’t think your pot’s cracked, Malcolm but it’s definitely chipped aroon the edges.”
“Well you won’t find much out there about these icon crackpots, Liam, they never write a regular slot in Paranoia Conspiracy Monthly. Truth is they’ve a nasty habit of disappearing and they’re never missed. But it’s naïve to think these things have never been written about. They’ve left their footprints in the sands of time alright and every now and then…someone writes about them before the next wave washes away their trace. They’re out there in too many books to mention even in some that you have heard of, Liam. It’s not just students of history who know about these things either. Do you know what J.R.R. Tolkien did for a living, Liam?”
Liam frowned his response. “Naw an don’t even start wi that shit…yer pot is developin a gaping crevice as we speak, Malcolm.”
Un-phased he continued. “He was a language professor. He studied the history of languages and the common themes and stories that underpinned them. Do you think he came up with nine rings of power at random, Liam? Nine objects which influence the host, the race of man and bend those around him to his will. Why not eight or three . . . nine is such a strange choice don’t you think?”
“Am gettin tired o telling you to fuck off, Malcolm but a think a’ve goat energy fur wan mare…fuck off!” As he said it, the guitar in his lap tingled and he started to strum, as if answering its call or, was it more like a command?
Watching him finger the strings, Malcolm said. “You know you curse a lot for such a young man, Liam…it’s not a nice quality.”
In truth Liam Kidd was quite shy and under normal circumstances would only ever swear when he was nervous. Sitting in a geriatric mentaloid’s house, listening to him decoct world history, was not what he considered…normal circumstances. Right now…Liam Kidd was nervous.
“Fuck off, Malcolm, let’s look at this rationally. Things that are aroon any length o time are inevitably lost or destroyed or jist rot away wi time…how come these icons are still aroon?”
“Some of them have been lost, Liam, but in some cases technology has caught up to allow some to be reclaimed by those who know where to look.”
Raking his fingers through his hair in frustration Liam asked “Whit does that mean?”
Resigned to trying one last time to sell this to the boy, Malcolm continued. “Now just sit back…strum your Strat and listen son. You ask about books and about these things being written about. Let’s leave the Bible for now, it’s too obvious. Let’s go back to the twelfth century. Have you ever heard of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam?”
“Naw but I’ve eaten a Tikka Masala in the Rubaiyat Indian.”
“Well it’s not a curry house son…it’s a book of poetry written in the twelfth century. It was laid down by Omar, who was a philosopher and astronomer of sorts in Persia. Anyway there are various references to the icons concealed in its text, it was a subtler time. People never came right out and said things as they do now, especially if these things could be considered supernatural. This book…could be considered an early documentation of the existence of the icons.”
Liam, with more than the edge of impatience creeping into his voice, butted in. “But whit did ye mean some o them huv been lost?”
“I chose to kill two birds with one stone, Liam. This is an early reference to the icons but it is also related to the loss of an icon. In 1911, some 700-odd years after it was first published, a small company in London called Sangorski & Sutcliffe crafted an exquisite one off copy of the Rubaiyat and called it The Great Omar. It was said by experts of the day to be the finest ever commissioned and took two years to make. The book had 1,051 semi-precious stones described as rubies, topaz, garnets, and other relatively cheap stones set in 18-carat gold. It had 5,000 separate pieces of coloured leathers and a hundred square-feet of 22-carat gold leaf in the tooling. Now it was certainly the most extravagant made at that time, but the binding could not accurately be described as “priceless.” This was the label that Walter Lord unfortunately thrust upon it and provided it thereafter with the aura of a fabulous treasure. This was nonsense as it in fact it had no status as an antique being as it was brand new. It was worth about £400, Liam…the cost of a decent family car at that time. It was purchased at Sotheby’s auction house by a Jewish investor…one Gabriel Weis.
It’s interesting to note, Liam that its cover differed from the traditional one for this book at the time. They usually had a golden peacock design. This however had three peacocks…but the lower part of the cover displayed a Persian oud…do you know what that is, Liam?”
“Am no even gonnae guess.”
“An oud was like a lute.”
Liam’s blank expression forced the old man to spell it out for him. “Jesus, son…a stringed instrument. It was the guitar of the twelfth century.”
Liam strummed a C-chord on his modern oud.
“The oud on the cover was made with thin inlaid wood and ivory and unless information I paid a lot of money for is incorrect, it was mounted right on top of an icon.”
Liam muted his strings and sat forward. “So someone put wan o these things in a book, big wow! I thought you were telling me aboot lost icons, did they return it tae the wrong shelf in the library?”
With Liam’s sarcasm burning his ears Malcolm answered. “No, Liam, this book never saw the inside of a library. It was on its way from London to New York in 1912 when the ship that was carrying it hit an iceberg in the calmest of seas and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic.”
Liam raised his arms like a conductor. “All together now, Malcolm…fuck off.”
“It is fact and history will bear me out that The Great Omar was aboard the Titanic when she sunk. Now what history never makes reference to is that there were seventy-nine passengers on the Titanic whose surnames are of obvious Arab heritage; many from Persia…our own Omar’s homeland. She carried these poor emigrants from the middle-east who were seeking economic and social freedom in the New World. Now you won’t see them mentioned in the countless books filled with conspiracy theories about the sinking of an unsinkable ship, nor given any screen time in any movies of the so called accident. But they were there none the less, amongst the 2223 names on the passenger list.”
Sensing dark insinuation in Malcolm’s tone, Liam ventured. “Are you actually implying…that an Arab sunk the Titanic tae drown a book?” The boy was laughing full on now. “…a mean why no jist toss the thing overboard and then huv a cup o tea?”
“I don’t have all the answers, Liam. I do know there was a break-in to the purser’s office and maybe that was an attempt to do just that. The fact is the exact location of the book on the ship has never been clear. It didn’t specifically appear on the cargo manifest but was speculated to be in one of a few crates carrying books. The cargo hold was filled with crates and cases carrying everything from China plates to a shiny new car. Not to mention the amount of letters they were carrying, it was after all the RMS, that’s Royal Mail Steamer…Titanic. Ever tried to find a needle in a stack of needles? If you can’t find it or get to it, ask yourself what’s the only way of being sure you’ve taken care of it?”
Liam shook his head in disbelief at what he was hearing. “So whit did they dae…arrange fur an iceberg tae attack the ship…come oan, Malcolm?”
“You know…it’s not the iceberg, Liam, It never has been. It’s how they managed to hit it on such a night. There was no squall or storm, the sea was said to be like a mill pond, flat and calm. Do you know the odds of a ship going down to an iceberg son? The question that no one has really managed to answer over the last ninety-odd years is….what sequence of events led to that eventuality if…like me…you don’t believe in happenstance?”
The boy put his hands to his head as if unable to believe his ears. “Oh…fuck…you’re fuckin gien me the brain pain.” His brow wrinkled in vexation. “Tell me, Malcolm…are you familiar wi the phrase Shit Happens?”
Malcolm smiled. “I’ve heard it said from time to time but I don’t know if it’s true. What I do know and is as true today as back then is that people of certain doctrines will gladly sacrifice their own and anyone else’s lives if they believe they are serving the right end. It is the highest honour they can attain to die in such a…well let’s give it a name…a crusade.”
“Jist cause people are of a certain belief system, Malcolm…a certain faith…disnae automatically make them mad-mullah terrorists cruisin for a fuckin crusade.”
“I said doctrine son, not faith.”
“Like there’s a difference, Malcolm.”
Malcolm cast a disparaging eye over the boy. “A faith is something you die for, Liam; a doctrine is something you kill for. There’s all the difference in the world.”
Liam slumped back on the couch frustrated he could not refute Malcolm’s rantings. The old man, he knew, was like every professor he’d had in his solitary year at university. He only projected an air of intelligence because he was controlling the subject matter and was therefore, always one step ahead. But he could not deny he was being drawn in and part of him wanted to believe this crazy old man.
His left hand shaped a D-chord and he could’ve sworn it rang out even before his right hand caressed the plectrum across the strings. This thing is tuned to perfection he thought, as the warm glow in his chest signalled wellness in every ounce of his being. He looked up and Malcolm was smiling knowingly at him.
“Now something about icons that you need to know, Liam is that they are pretty much indestructible. Whatever they are made of…it can’t be found on any corner of the periodic table. That is why they have endured over the centuries. They are not subject to decay and they cannot be unmade by any craft that man may conjure. Many have been buried deep in the earth, but inevitably…with time, find their way back to the surface; drawn from the dark by the magnet of the hosts and the promise of purpose. It’s like they have no way of staying lost. Now, Liam…the sea is the deepest locker there is and it holds its secrets well. In 1912 anything at the bottom of the Atlantic was never seeing the light of day or feeling the touch of man again. But as I said, Liam, technology has caught up to allow some icons that have been lost to be recovered by those who know where to look. My sources tell me there is a salvage operation going on as we speak…with the sole aim of recovering The Great Omar from the darkness of Titanic.”
Ah I’ve got you now professor. “How can that be, Malcolm…there’s nae way anyone could get near the wreck? I mean it’s protected fae treasure hunters…I read aboot it being considered a grave and no one being granted permission to scuba-dive it or whatever.”
“Again you’re naivety is lovely, Liam. You don’t scuba-dive to that depth, it’s over two miles down, you need a deep sea submersible and they don’t come cheap and neither does dive time. But do you really think that Bob Ballard and James Cameron are the only people poking around down there? That ship has had so many ROV’s in and out of it there’s probably more film of that wreck than most tourist attractions. Hell son there’s even tourist firms who’ll take you down, legally for about thirty-grand.”
“Whit’s an ROV?”
“A Remote Operated Vehicle son, the little cameras mounted on a tiny sub to snoop around in nooks and crannies while the crew sit in safety outside a wreck.”
Liam internally deferred to Malcolm’s obviously superior knowledge on this subject and conceded to himself maybe he was being naïve. He resented Malcolm all the more…Fucking Professor!
“Now as I said, Liam, the book itself had no inherent value as an antique and the stones were only semi-precious. Its value lay in the level of workmanship that went into the binding. I’ll grant you that its antique status has changed dramatically and the stones have greatly increased in value given their age. But its greatest value to any innocent finder would lie in its association with the Titanic. That alone would greatly increase what it would fetch at auction if recovered. And let’s not forget it would be -- leather leaf or not -- in no great shape, the word mush comes to mind. But even if recovered intact its value would be nowhere near the costs incurred in seeking out and recovering it from the bowels of that wreck. The salvage operation would make a dent in any rich man’s wallet. They don’t say that salvage is a great way to change a large fortune into a small one for nothing, Liam. So you have to ask yourself, why would anyone mount such an effort...if not for the promise of an icon?”
Liam -- tired of the barrage of one sided story peddling -- sat forward and went on the offensive. “A don’t know, Malcolm…I mean I know a might be crazy but isn’t there a chance you could be makin all of this up. I huv nae way of checking any o this shit and I don’t even know you…why should a believe you?”
Malcolm had always appreciated a straight-talker and raised his hands in defeat. “You’re right son, but knowing someone doesn’t make them lie to you less, most times it’s the other way about. There’s less motive in lying to strangers. You have to ask yourself, why would I bother? I don’t know you either but I know people and I can see that despite all your protests, on some level you already believe me, you’re just too scared to admit it, even to yourself.
What you need to realise, Liam is truth is just something that someone believes. A lie is central to believe son. How do you know who your dad is…cause your mum told you so. But, Liam…honesty is not synonymous with truth. Truth is prismatic; whatever light you bring to it…determines how it refracts and bends. Hell you’ve taken things on faith your whole life, now finally someone wants to tell you the truth and you ask for proof.”
Malcolm felt the irony was so thick he had to brush it away from his face. “Belief makes things true, and never forget son, life is more or less a lie anyway.”
Liam was right, it sounded like a made-up thing. But his life was at a standstill and he had just that very night lost the one thing that lent him hope, his band. Yet here was a man who it seemed had means and was offering something…although what he was unsure. But he had picked Liam. No one had ever picked Liam and why would they? He was as Average Joe as they came, not even rock-n-roll. Medium height, clumpy black hair, anonymous in a crowd and looked like he’d never been stoned a day in his life.
His father worked in a whiskey bond and in the inevitable convenience of its shadow he stank of it and comfortable in all his human frailties he succumbed to its call. His mother was what you would call a housewife, which in Glasgow meant taking the kids to school and going to bingo in the afternoon; hoping for that big win whilst exchanging tales of housing scheme scandal, fixed-eyed on the numbered cards. He’d lost count of the times she’d fed him about how she just missed the national by one number.
He’d got his own place at eighteen, a council flat in a high rise in Townhead or Toonheed as it was to the indigenous population. Dropped out of university after year one and his wheels had been spinning in mid-air since…standstill about covered it.
He had two pairs of jeans and though only one pair was ripped, the pockets of both were empty. Poll Tax overdue, bullshitting the council about rent rebates, stocking shelves in Asda never would cover it. He knew -- diet of beans on toast or no -- he was going nowhere…slowly. But at this moment with this guitar in his lap and this old man whispering syrup in his ear, none of it seemed important.
Liam was raised a Catholic but the only practising he’d done lately was with his now ex-band. Even though an altar boy in his youth, he’d worn the surplice without ever really being what you might call a Fire and Brimstone believer. No one had ever told him anything in his whole life that would change his view of the world. People with audacity like that were rare. Yet here was a little old man offering something else to believe. He was merely offering it, not like a wheeler dealer hawking a gimmick. It was more of a take it or leave it pitch and without even a hint of proselytization.
Liam thought of his pocket-sized life and thought of Chris, his band’s front man’s sniggers and then, fingering the strings of this weird guitar, thought of a million what ifs…what if?
“A’ll be honest wi you, Malcolm, a don’t know how honest I can be wi you. I mean half o me thinks you’re a fruitloop…but the other half is sure you’re a fruitloop.” He strummed his new baby and continued. “Part of me wants tae believe -- but the other part -- that isn’t mental…says…where’s the proof? Call me old fashioned but I like to see things with my own two eyes old man.”
“With that attitude, Liam, mankind wouldn’t have got off all-fours…where’s the proof? Have you ever been to China, Liam?”
He gave Malcolm a nonplussed stare. “No.”
“But you believe it exists don’t you…even though you’ve never seen it -- just like that air in your lungs that you’ve never seen either son. I’d bet you’d develop belief in that right quick -- if I held your head underwater. Or what about the radiation in Chernobyl… it had a fairly profound effect on folks in those parts, but no one ever seen it? Trust me boy -- eyes are overrated. It’s like Francis Bacon said, Liam: They are ill discoverers that think there is no land, when they can see nothing but sea.”
“Francis Bacon my arse, was he no the guy who discovered pigs taste good?” Liam joked, but the point wasn’t lost on him. It seemed the old boy had an answer for everything and crazy as it was, the longer he sat in his company, the saner he sounded. Besides where was the harm in playing along if he walked away with this guitar? This guitar that felt so good against him, like it was made for him and no one else. How could he give it back, how could he even put it down? “Ok let’s say am interested…why guitars, Malcolm, why no stick tae microphones like Hitler?” He said the words and although he recognised his own voice, couldn’t quite believe he’d uttered them. Either this old quack is a ventriloquist or I’m developing a sick sense of humour -- Hitler and microphones -- what the fuck am I talking about?
Malcolm shrugged. “It’s never been fully understood but it’s something to do with the harmonic signature of a stringed instrument. It seems to make it a more efficient transducer… to allow more of the energy of the icon and host to be harnessed. It’s all in the vibrations. Any stringed instrument will achieve something similar, and they’ve been around forever, Liam. Also it seems they’ve always had an air of rebellion about them. In 400-BC Aristotle proclaimed the Kithara an instrument “not suitable to the education of youth.”
“Was a kithara anything like a strat?”
Malcolm smiled, his eyes garlanded with crow’s-feet. “An early strat…like the lyre. The other thing to remember, Liam is that the guitar is both transportable and cheap and this makes it the instrument of the people. That gives it a bigger sphere of influence than say the stringed harp…you don’t see many of them on the main street busking. The guitar just has so many possibilities. It sounds like a cliché but it crosses boundaries cause it lends itself to self expression, without being caged by any particular style of music. Since there’s no formal rules about how it should be played, it allows people to put themselves into it and express such different emotions. It’s sort of like a sponge and folk let something of their soul soak into it, Liam. That’s what an icon feeds on, a host who is willing to let go, it’s an amplifier… and…a transmitter for raw emotions. Hell listen to me, I’m ranting.”
“Actually that’s the most sense you’ve made aw night, Malcolm.”
They both laughed and Liam sat forward on the couch. Awkward with the guitar in his lap, the headstock clipped his full mug of untouched, long cold, black tea off the coffee table to the floor. Malcolm’s brown carpet darkened a shade at the boy’s feet. “Shit…sorry Malcolm.”
Malcolm paid it no mind and merely reached down to the coffee table and retrieved his discarded bank book. “It’s alright son I can afford a new carpet and besides it’s time for a move. The only question is…are you coming with me?”
Nervous now it had come down to the crunch Liam asked. “Where are ye going, Malcolm?”
The old man placed a wrinkled hand on his shoulder. “If I’m going to show you the real world son we need to go somewhere that’s better lit.” He fixed Liam with his steel blue stare. “Do you have a passport?”