The Door with no Key
A Tale of Eastern Promise.
Jez couldn't get his head around it. We were lingering over a couple of pints of some yuppy ale or other in The Peasant's Revolt (apostrophe in the wrong place on the new inn sign), a pub in a warren of London streets, and he said to me: "Can't get me 'ead around it, mate."
"Around what, Jeremy?"
"All that stuff wot's 'appening these days. Them djinns, like. An' them magicians and that flyin' carpet caper. Why don' they use a 'elicopter like anyone else, eh?"
"You yourself don't use a helicopter a great deal, though, Jez, do you?"
There was the Door to which I found no Key;"Not as such, mate. Not as such. Point taken. But I ain't flittin' about over folks' 'eads on a ruddy doormat, either. It's takin' the bread out of the mouths of taxi drivers, innit? Not that I 'ave a lotta time for them robbin' bastids, either. Can't get in an' out of a cab these days for less'n a tenner, even if it don't move more'n a 'undred yards. Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind one of them flyin' rugs, matter of fact. Not that you could get more'n one passenger on most of 'em, an' they're 'opeless for any sorta luggage, really, ain't they?. They're not really load-bearin', kind of thing. You wouldn't want to try shiftin', like, a washin' machine on one, would ya? But I'd think they'd be attractive to wimmin, though, eh? Comfy, too."
There was the Veil through which I might not see:
Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee
There was--and then no more of Thee and Me.
Jez could go in this fashion for hours, so I said: "What's your point, Jeremy?"
"My point is, ya see, my point is.... I dunno whether t'ask for one."
"The genie, o'course, mate. If I should 'appen to do, like, a favour to one a them genies or djinns or wottever they're called, an' 'e should give me, you know, three wishes, as they do..."
"As they allegedly do, yes..."
"Whether, in that case, I oughta ask for one o' them magic carpets as well as, o'course, fantastic riches an' eternal life, an' that. It's like winnin' the lottery wivout 'avin' to go down Tesco's and buy a ruddy ticket."
"It's not at all like winning the lottery, Jez. These genies are tricky, you know. You could find yourself spending your eternal life inside a huge gold ingot like that poor bugger in Eastbourne."
"Ah, well, ya see. That's where I got ya, like. See the old Shoreditch telephone exchange, right?"
"Big ruddy building up Shoreditch?"
"Doesn' matter, mate. 'Uge massive ruddy buildin' they closed down when they found out the place was totally empty. Arfur says..."
"Yeah, Arfur, the wife's bruvver-in-lawr, right? Well, 'e says British Telecom moved the 'ole phone exchange into a computer the size of a biscuit box down Leaden'all in 1981. Arfur lost 'is night watchman job when they shut the doors last Easter. Only they've broke it up into like offices now an' 'e's got 'is job back."
"Where is this going, Jeremy?"
"I'm tellin' ya, ain't I? There's this Ay-rab lawyer got a office in there now what'll write you up a forum of words..."
"Form of words?"
"That's wot I said, innit? A forum of words wiv all the right stuff in it, namin' Allah an' the prophets an' powers that be an' everyfink. Completely bullet-proof, mate, only it's, like, customized to wottever ya want, so the djinns can't take you for a ride."
"And this 'Ay-rab lawyer' charges how much?"
"'Undred quid. Flat rate for three wishes."
"So he takes you for a ride, instead of the djinn. Why don't you offer this lawyer a cut of the enormous riches when you get them, instead of paying the flat rate now?"
"Are you nuts? That could get seriously expensive, mate. No, I'll take the flat rate now. But I gotta decide wot I want, see."
"Hmm... How about the eternally balanced bank account?"
"Well, you ask for a Swiss bank account that stays balanced at, say, a million pounds, no matter how much you spend. It works well for tax, too. It's not as noticeable as all that gold and jewels and stuff that these djinns usually hand out, and you don't have to worry about burglars like you would with a cellar full of bling."
"And then you've got to be clear that your eternal life takes place in good health, you don't age too much, and there's a termination clause in case, after a few hundred years, you get tired of life."
"Never thoughta that. Cool, yeah."
I drained my pint and stood up. "Anyway, Jez, I've got to get back to work. Let me know how you make out, and remember me when you're stinking rich."
"Yeah, sure, mate. Course I will."
I knew Jeremy was seriously deluded in hoping to find a supernatural benefactor, but he was right that it was difficult to keep track of all the new developments, as the world of the Arabian Nights began to invade normal life. London appeared to be the epicentre of the most vigorous activity. The flying carpets problem was the very least of it, with the government trying to levy a tax on them, and the Civil Aviation Authority and Air Traffic Control trying to make sure they didn't pose a hazard to aircraft.
When You and I behind the Veil are past,Then there was the Magnetic Mountain that had appeared in the Thames Estuary. Anything iron that went closer than half a mile to the huge black rock was drawn in and stuck to it. No amount of tugging would pull a stricken ship away. Even wooden boats tend to have metal nails holding them together, and most boats of any kind have an engine. A few adventurers succeeded in rowing ashore in rubber dinghies, but one man was fastened to a rock by his wrist watch until his companions managed to extract him. And another, who had a cardiac pacemaker, died in a distressingly gory fashion reminiscent of the movie Alien when his pacemaker decided to attach itself to the rock. Ensuring that every vessel gave the Magnetic Mountain a good mile of clearance had become a difficult task for Trinity House, especially since it had proved impractical to mount a lighthouse on the rock.
Oh, but the long, long while the World shall last,
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As the Sea's self should heed a pebble-cast.
But there were novelties to enjoy. In my work at the British Museum, we had already had the opportunity to analyse a number of simple but interesting "Arabian Nights" artifacts, including a jewelled dagger so apparently old that carbon dating of its wooden haft estimated its age at eight thousand years, and what at first had appeared to be a doll of solid gold, but was now suspected, due to the discovery of a structure of fossilised bones and organs below the metal skin, to be a miniaturised gold-plated person.
As I returned from my rather extended lunch hour with Jez, Dr Halifax was waiting for me with another treasure for our collection. Halifax was temporarily in charge of the Middle Eastern section of the museum ever since Professor Barnsley had recklessly fallen out with a magic carpet salesman and been turned into an ape for one lunar month. Flying carpets were expensive. The professor had wanted one for the museum's collection, and he had attempted to get one on the cheap by theatening the vendor with a Trading Standards investigation. He could still communicate with his staff in writing - he had an elegant hand with a fountain pen, even as a simian - but it was felt that his current image lacked gravitas.
Halifax was good on his subject, but fussy and bossy in manner. However, he had no direct authority over me. I was in Technical section, he was in a sub-section of Exhibits, but he was plainly impatient for me to look at this new trinket. It was a jewelled egg, apparently in ivory, precious metals and gems, and rather reminiscent of the famous Fabergé eggs. It was large - about the size of a rugby ball or American football, but clearly egg-shaped, one end bulging more than the other.
"Hmm... Where did this come from?"
"The RSPCA brought it in."
"Where did they get it?"
"Well, that was interesting." Halifax warmed to the subject. He plainly had a tale to tell. "You remember that Googletube video everyone was watching last week."
"Uuuh..." I hesitated. I hardly wanted to reveal that I'd been as amused as everyone else at the disgraceful behaviour of the Chancellor of the Exchequer with the thirteen houris, the swan and the donkey.
"You know... the roc!"
"Oh, yes. That video." A roc had taken up residence on the roof of a block of council flats in Clapham. It more closely resembled a pterodactyl than the huge eagle of legend. Its cries were like a foghorn. In flight, it had about the same wingspan as a single-engined Cessna aircraft, and it was wonderful to see. It seemed wary of humans, but had no hesitation in preying on smaller animals and birds. No-one walked their dog on Clapham Common any more, cats crept around, but only after nightfall, and pigeons were a rare sight in the vicinity.
Two local youths had hatched a plan to become famous on Googletube. One wrapped himself in his granny's fake fur coat and capered about on all fours in view of the roc, while the other videoed the scene on his cell phone.
The roc had, predictably, swooped on the dog impersonator, but, finding him too heavy to lift, had gripped the screaming boy with its talons and torn off the kid's left arm with its toothed "beak". The victim's colleague had, in the tradition of wild life movie makers, continued to film until the roc returned to its nest. The resulting shock video had been a nine-day wonder. The injured boy's life was saved by paramedics, but he was still in intensive care.
"Ah, yes. The roc. How did the RSPCA get hold of this?" I enquired.
"They were persuaded to try and capture the creature as if it was a stray cat. They sent up a team, but the roc flew off, leaving this behind in the nest."
"It can't be a roc's egg, surely. It's clearly manufactured."
"True," agreed Halifax, "But there's something inside, and we don't want to break the egg to find out what."
"OK. Let's go." I unlocked the lab and cleared some small articles from the X-ray table.
We viewed the egg from all sides under X-rays. Whatever was inside the egg was almost transparent to the beam. It was shapeless and hard to see. What did show up, however, was an intricate mechanism below the skin of the egg - interlocking cog wheels, screws, hinges, springs and levers connected to the jewel settings and metal decorations on the egg's surface.
"Yes," remarked Halifax, "We twiddled some of these jewels around, but it didn't seem to do anything."
"It looks to me like an intricate puzzle," I said. "Just up my street. Let me work on it for a while."
"Well..." Halifax was clearly reluctant to surrender his treasure.
"Come on. I'm your best hope. It won't leave the premises, I promise. I'll call you when and if I get it open."
"You've got twenty-four hours, and do not break it."
"Oh, give me a break. This isn't some detective movie. It's Thursday now. I'll get back to you by Monday. OK?"
"OK. But, after that, I'm taking it to St. Thomas's Hospital for an MRI scan."
I suppressed a grin. With all that metal in the mechanism, an MRI scan would be meaningless. But I'd tell him that on Monday.
As soon as Halifax had gone, I phoned Jeremy on his mobile. "Jeremy, mate, have you got a phone number for that Arab lawyer?"
Khalid Emir was not at all what I expected. No robed oriental, he. From his polished shoes to his polished hair, via his immaculate shiny suit and gleaming white shirt, he looked more like a fangless Dracula than the Sheikh of Araby.
He was exceptionally polite, meticulous in his questions, and produced my Form of Words on a desktop computer. Inexhaustible Swiss Bank Account, Eternal Youth With Termination Option, Enhanced Charisma. One hundred pounds including VAT. American Express, apparently, was his chosen payment method.
"Beware, sir," he added, "Not all demons are duly grateful for their freedom. Nevertheless, a djinn may not act against you if you give him no cause, so, above all, address him with courtesy and offer him no violence, whatever threats he may utter, and utter them he will."
I thanked him, and he reminded me that we are all subject to the will of Allah, and that our fates are written in advance.
I did not tell him about the egg.
The mighty Mahmud, Allah-breathing LordIt had been clear on the X-rays that the egg was a finely crafted box with a combination lock. Arabian Nights lore strongly hinted at its true purpose. I took precautions; I took more X-rays; I took my time. Twenty-eight of the jewel settings were free to turn. Each jewel could be turned to one of twenty-eight positions. To solve the combination by trial and error would take much longer than the age of the planet. To further complicate solution, part of the intricate mechanism was devoted to making misleading random clicks and movements of the metal decorations when the jewels were rotated. With the X-rays, however, I could see exactly where to turn each jewel to open the egg. So that is what I did. It was not particularly simple. Even with the X-ray images, the function of each tiny wheel and lever was often obscure.
That all the misbelieving and black Horde
Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul
Scatters before him with his whirlwind Sword.
After twenty-two hours, I turned the last jewel into position, holding my breath. The egg gave a satisfying clunk, and split along an irregular line around the circumference. I reached for Khalid's Form of Words. A wisp of dense pink smoke issued from the crack, and rotated gently into a column reaching to the ceiling. The column thickened and grew more substantial. I had expected the apparition to form almost intantaneously, but it took nearly five minutes for the smoke to coalesce into a humanoid figure some twelve feet in height. The djinn was in the form of a muscular, rugged man, in white robes and holding a scimitar, rather like a bearded Arnold Schwartzeneger dressed in a toga. Even with the museum's generous ceiling height, the djinn had to sit on the floor to avoid scraping his cranium on the decorative plaster mouldings.
I began to hear words in my mind; words which I hadn't heard in my ears. The genie was talking to me. The lip-sync was awful, like one of these dubbed martial arts movies, and, though the words were English words, they didn't make a lot of sense, and were reminiscent of a Babelfish translation. Gradually, the words became less random.
"FEAR NOT SENSE"
OK. 'feel no fear', I supposed. I started to read from Khalid's Form of Words: "In the name of..."
I continued to read out my modest requests.
"VOCALISATION CEASE!", a thunderous command. Taking the hint, I ceased vocalising.
Khalid had told me to expect some resistance or prevarication, in the event that I encountered a djinn and demanded favours. I suspected, though, that this was more of a language problem. I hadn't expected that.
The djinn glared at me for a long moment, then he spoke in my head: "OK. Now you understand. Yes?"
"I understand. What about my three wishes?"
"There are no wishes at this time."
"But I released you from that egg."
"I entered the egg willingly, and could have opened it from within by myself. Indeed, I have often spent time outside the egg. A hundred years is a long time to spend compressed into such a small container." It was strange to sense these words so clearly from the genie's unsynchronised lips, but I was getting used to it.
"Why, then, were you inside the egg?"
"I was waiting for you."
"Not for you in person, but I was seeking someone capable of solving the problem of the egg. Which you have done."
Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!It was a long and rambling tale of journeys, jealousy, anger, revenge, magic, punishment, ambition, sorrow and so on. Allah, apparently, had ordained that no mercy be given or received. Some of it sounded quite familiar to any scholar of The Arabian Nights. What it amounted to was that our djinn here - let's call him Grafmeer, his true name is a secret, apparently - had a long-standing feud with a fellow djinn - Halimoss, another alias - in which Halimoss imprisoned Grafmeer's child in an obsidian block. However, in his haste, Halimoss had failed to remember the mechanism for the release of Grafmeer's son. So, though Grafmeer eventually prevailed over Halimoss and enslaved him, neither Halimoss, nor Grafmeer, nor anyone else, had yet mastered the trick of opening the block. For hundreds of years, Grafmeer had been searching for a sage who could solve the problem of the obsidian prison, without success. The whole Arabian Nights' invasion of London, culminating in the puzzle egg, was Grafmeer's desperate quest for a problem-solver. And I was elected.
One thing at least is certain--This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
Grafmeer did not seem the type of entity who would take "No" for an answer.
"OK, Grafmeer. Bring it on."
"That is not possible. You must come with me." So saying, he scooped me up in one muscular arm, and we ascended - the only possible word, "ascended" - through the fabric of the museum as if the entire edifice were made of mist. The journey to Mesopotamia took only a few minutes. Despite the speed, there was no sensation of rushing air. I think I occupied the entire time with one continuous scream of terror.
Imagine a bowl of blue sky, out of which an impossibly brilliant sun beat down on an infinite plain of grey dust sprinkled with pale stones. I staggered under the impact of all those merciless photons as though struck with a blunt instrument. I was persiring audibly within seconds.
"Behind you." said Grafmeer.
I turned to see a black, shiny box, like an enormous dice (Yes, I know the singular of dice is 'die', but I can never use the word in earnest) with faces about ten feet square, floating serenely some four feet from the rocky ground. I quickly moved into its shade. Grafmeer, an even taller presence now that there was room to stand up, was touching the black cube in various places. Each time he pressed it, a pattern of white squiggles temporarily appeared on the surface of the whole face, and one section of the pattern would slide along, to be replaced by a new pattern. I quickly realised that the squiggles were Arabic text, broken up and turned sideways or upside down.
"It's writing!" I said.
"It amused Halimoss, may his spirit be reborn in a pig, to inscribe a poem on each face of the cube so that, when all the poems were correctly arranged, the cube would open. Then he scrambled the pattern beyond repair, with my son inside."
I touched one face of the cube, and the writing flared up for a few seconds as a section slid away and was replaced before fading again.
Grafmeer started in alarm: "Don't confuse it further! I shall make the moves when you solve the problem. All the parts of all the poems are always present on the surface of the object, but, unless each face of the block contains a complete poem, it will not release my son."
I do not read Arabic, but I can tell when it is written upside down, or sideways, or, as was most frequently found, truncated by one of the invisible seams along which the pattern slid. It was just a symbol jumble.
At first sight, it appeared hopeless, but it was worth a try, especially if rewards were forthcoming.
I said: "I need to go back."
"Why? The box is here."
"I need my camera from the office."
"Camera? Is this the plural of 'camel' in your language?" asked Grafmeer.
I explained what the camera looked like and where it was.
"I will collect it. To carry you back and forth is most exhausting. Wait here."
While I was saying: "Where would I go?", Grafmeer disappeared with a whoosh of displaced air, leaving me sweating for England.
I realised this problem he wanted me to solve was likely to be insoluble, but even if I couldn't do it, I thought I'd be all right if I just played along with him. Right now, he needed me, or he thought he did, and I ought to keep it that way. If I admitted defeat immediately, he might just leave me here in this arid wilderness in which I'd be lucky to survive a day.
A solitary bird circled, black against the dome of the sky. For a moment, I imagined it was a vulture, anticipating my imminent demise. Then I realised that, in this fairytale dimension, it was more likely to be a roc, which wouldn't bother to wait for its prey to expire before dining.
Strange, is it not? that of the myriads whoJust when I feared Grafmeer was never coming back - after thirty seconds or so - I heard the rush of his arrival, and he reappeared, holding the camera between massive finger and gargantuan thumb. I took multiple photographs of the faces and of the vertices of the block showing the relationship of the faces to each other. The job was difficult, because the inscriptions on a given face only remained visible for a short time, and, on one occasion, Grafmeer changed the configuration by mistake, and we had to start again. I had to lie on my back to photograph the lower parts, and Grafmeer hoisted me like a cherry picker for the aerial views. Eventually, I was satisfied that I had enough data to describe the puzzle, even if I didn't have the solution yet.
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.
"Take me back now, please." I asked.
"No!" he thundered, "You must open it now!"
I was scorched, soaked with perspiration, aching from the effort of getting every image I needed, and mentally at the end of whatever tether I had started the day with. "Listen! You've been working on this for centuries, you tell me. Give me a break! It may take me weeks to figure out. And one thing's for sure, I won't manage it out here. I will need my computer. Take me back!"
"I will bring your computer!"
"Oh, yes, and there's a thirteen amp socket and a broadband connection out here, is there?"
Grafmeer knitted his substantial brow and rumbled: "Beware, mortal. Do not attempt to trick me. I may turn you into a marble statue of yourself."
"If I'm out here much longer, I shall turn into a strip of dried meat without your assistance."
Grafmeer was obviously accustomed to getting his way with people, but he seemed to accept that he was not getting his son back here and now. Another nightmarish flight brought us back to the museum.
"You have one day to find the solution," rumbled Grafmeer.
"Not enough. This is complicated. I need at least two weeks." At the time, I feared there might be no solution at all, but a fortnight would give me the chance to escape somewhere. On reflection, I later realised that there was no escape from such as Grafmeer, so it was either solve the problem, or perish in some fiendish Eastern fashion.
"I will wait!" pronounced Grafmeer.
"Not in here, please. There isn't room."
"It is a little uncomfortable," he conceded. "I shall disembody for a while." So saying, he gradually sublimated into a pale pink smoke, and directed himself into the empty milk bottle most commonly used to contain water for use in soldering and to irrigate the weary plants on the window sill when someone remembered to do so. The bottle glowed dimly.
But helpless Pieces of the Game He playsI set about the tedious task of sorting out which bits of poem belonged on which face of the obsidian block. I was lucky. In order not to give the game away, I posted a few fragments of my photographs on a university Arabic forum, and was quickly rewarded with the information that they were from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I was given a pointer to a website that had many stanzas in Arabic and in Fitzgerald's English translation, which I must say is a rather flowery rendering of the original. With a bit of effort, I was able to identify among the hundred and one verses the six stanzas represented on the six faces of the cube. After that, it was dead easy.
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
"Yeah, right," said Jez. "It's all a bit obvious ter you, innit? But I can't get me 'ead around 'ow ya solved it so quick when he'd been workin' on it for years."
I sipped my vodka martini, paid for with a credit card whose balance was perpetually paid off from my seemingly inexhaustible Swiss bank account.
"Well," I replied, "when I'd colour-coded all the bits of the poems, it was obvious it was just a four by four Rubik's cube."
"Rubik's cube. A sort of puzzle I was given when I was a kid. Normally they were three by three, but you can get more complicated ones, like four by four. I could never solve mine."
"So if you couldn't solve a smaller one, 'ow did ya solve this one?"
"The internet, of course. I ordered a four by four cube from an online toy shop, got it next day, re-labelled the individual faces in the same way as the photos of the real cube, then used a solution off the web to solve it, and delivered the moves to Grafmeer. "
Jez had glazed over by the time I'd finished. "Wottever," he remarked, and sniffed. The enhanced charisma that Grafmeer had conferred upon me didn't seem to work with Jez.
He drained his pint, shouted "Gotta go!" to the few of us littered in the bar like flotsam left by a high tide, and rode his flying carpet towards the double doors in a surfer's crouch. The carpet was a small gift from me for pointing me at Khalid's Form of Words, which worked a treat, by the way.
"Oi!" shouted the barman, "No bloody magic carpets in 'ere! You carry it outside on the street and use it there!"
"Piss off, Terry," replied Jez, bumping open the doors with his shoulder, and leaving.
"Where was that bugger educated?" grumbled Terry, "London College of Lightning Repartee?"
I discovered that, despite being rich, effectively immortal and oozing charisma, I could still grin at Terry's tired joke.
Copyright © Gil Williamson 2010 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 19:03 Sat 18 Sep 2010
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