Orpheus and Narcissus Go on a Trip to the Seaside
Orpheus positioned the heavy hardback book several inches above his broken toe and gritted his teeth. He had no idea whether he was brave enough to go through with it. To buy himself time, he scanned the book’s title, embossed in gold on the red cloth cover. Once Upon a Time was all he could make out. The rest had been eroded by years and copious handling. In fact, this thing looked ancient…
“Oy, you nitwit. Get your filthy consumptive hands off my book!” rang out a strident voice from the doorway behind him.
The poet leaped halfway out of his skin, flung the book into the air and nearly achieved the feat he’d been steeling himself for for the past hour. Narcissus strode into the room and gathered up the splayed volume, nursing its pages back into alignment.
“What are you even doing with it, you silly old thing?” he drawled. “This is a family heirloom of incredible sentimental value. It’d have to be, after what I paid for it.” He raised a single, perfectly manicured eyebrow. “Seriously, old thing. You’ve been shut away in this dingy old library all night. The party finished ages ago. I’ve just managed to prise off the final insufferable human limpets. You’ve spoken to practically no-one all evening and quite frankly I’m beginning to wonder why I keep you around at all.”
“To make you look even more sickeningly handsome by comparison?” sighed the haggard Orpheus. He stared down despondently at the maroon luxury-pile carpet. “It’s not like anybody wanted to talk to me anyhow. In fact, they seemed to be avoiding me. I don’t think they knew what to say.”
“Aha, you’ve committed a fatal social error, my friend.” said Narcissus with a wry smile. “You’ve let them see you being sad. A terrible faux pas. The moment they witness your misery you’re instantly written off as the most dreary company. It’s a good job you’ve got me to look after you. To teach you the art of wearing a façade.”
If it was a façade, it was an impressive one. Little could shake his steely poise and cool, offhand cynicism. And he had the looks to match: implausibly glossy yellow hair and the kind of infuriatingly straight nose most people consider to be the only criterion for attractiveness. Annoyingly, though, all his other features were also perfectly arranged. It was just gratuitous. Silhouetted against the doorway in his artful subversion of a tuxedo, Narcissus looked just as fresh and angelic after a night of debauched revelry as he had at the start of the evening. He lit a thin black cigarillo and placed it between his insolently curved lips: breakfast, apparently.
Orpheus had his suspicions it wasn’t just good luck and genetics that kept such a visage so perfectly preserved, but he knew better than to mention such thoughts to Narcissus. He didn’t want his friend to become a murderer.
“You weren’t trying to do yourself in again, were you, you loony old thing?” his host enquired matter-of-factly. “It was so silly of you, flinging yourself into the water channel like that. All you achieved was a buggered up foot and some hideously unflattering coverage in the Herald. Such and awful bore for all involved.”
“No, I’d never do anything that ill-planned again,” sighed Orpheus ruefully. “But maybe you could help me with this. I need you to drop that book of yours onto my toe.”
“Which one do you think?”
“How would I know? I don’t have an insight into the nature of your debauched enjoyment.”
“What?! No, I need you to re-break my broken toe, you blithering ninny.”
“Oh, well that’s fine, then. Stay still.” Narcissus raised the heavy tome with worrying enthusiasm.
“Wait, you’re actually going to do it?” cried Orpheus in consternation.
“Always ready to do a friend a favour. Although, am I allowed to ask what all this is in aid of?”
Orpheus sighed, then decided to come clean. “Well… you know the Maenad sisters?”
“In the biblical sense, yes. Why, what have your oh-so-wealthy patrons demanded of you now?”
“Nothing outlandish. But there’s a certain… favour one of them requested. Obviously I couldn’t do anything while my foot was broken, and she understood that, but now it’s nearly healed…”
“You don’t want to go back to work?”
“Yes, I suppose that’s the long and short of it.”
“So why can’t you just pretend your foot’s still broken?”
“Ah. I never thought of that.”
Narcissus stretched and started undoing his shirt with absolutely no regard for his friend’s awkward presence.
“Come on, old thing. You can’t go moping around like this indefinitely. Let’s take you out for a little jaunt. We should be celebrating the fact that you’ve regained full pedal mobility. In fact, tell you what-” a brief flash of excitement animated his face, which was about as enthusiastic as he was ever going to get, “tell you what, old thing – as soon as I’ve got changed, we’re going to the seaside.”
“What the bloody hell is a seaside?”
It had been three hours since Narcissus had gone to get changed, and Orpheus hadn’t seen him since. Surely he wasn’t spending that long deciding on an outfit – that would be a bit much, even for him. Was he dead? Had he finally fallen asleep? It seemed unlikely, the amount of Hydra’s Teeth he’d inhaled that night.
After a while he began to feel shivery and light headed and decided he needed to go in search of food, or Lotus, or possibly both. As he emerged from the library, he couldn’t help being overwhelmed by the opulent grandeur of Narcissus’ home. Everything about it was perfect. It tiptoed gracefully along the line between good taste and glamour, combining organic antique pieces with more angular, avant-garde décor. Orpheus knew that Narcissus had no savings, no life insurance or death insurance, not even a pair of pennies to pay the ferryman. Everything he earned went straight towards his tremendous domicile and the extravagantly fashionable soirées he held there. And as the most high class Nymph in Dionysus’ employ, the elite of the elite, this was a not inconsiderable amount.
The wreckage of such excess was only too evident to Orpheus as he entered the main salon. Shards of broken glass sparkled like crystal on the black and white tiles, mirroring the twinkling chandeliers. A pool of red wine seeped ominously across the floor. Velvet wall hangings were torn down, the back of the chaise longue was stuffed with grape stems, and empty receptacles and silver platters were strewn everywhere. He made for the kitchen before remembering his host favoured weird, Demeter-branded food like “olives” and “guacamole”. Silly nonsense. Orpheus would much rather breakfast on…
His mind went completely blank and he realised with mild dismay that he couldn’t actually remember what food he liked. He’d rather gotten out of the habit, really. He couldn’t remember yesterday at all, come to think of it, let alone the past week. To be honest, the days had blended into a sort of numb haze ever since he’d got back from identifying Eurydice’s body. Five years, a lifetime’s worth of love, and now this. He hadn’t even asked if they’d identified any suspects – he didn’t want to become a murderer. His little aqueous detour had put him out of action for a while and trapped him in some sort of limbo, not knowing how he’d react when faced with the prospect of returning to work, and all that that entailed.
Orpheus had found that trying to suppress such melancholic musings was the best short-term strategy. He cast his mind out in search of anything… anything other than the sharp, dreadful anxieties rending his soul. Suddenly, the image of a narrow, jutting Sky Train rail swam across his mind’s eye. Then the majestic, crumbling arches of an ancient aqueduct, towering over the squalid blackened tenements of the City. But then he stopped. This was ridiculous. Faced with the insurmountable tragedy of Eurydice’s death, all he could think of to distract himself were different kinds of bridge…? He must truly be losing the plot. But Lotus would help, surely.
Under a wreckage of tasselled satin throw pillows and cigarette ends, Orpheus found a half-smoked Lotus pipe, evidently discarded by some poor soul who’d discovered its potency. That sort of strength was nothing to Orpheus, though. He pilfered a book of matches from a velvet smoking jacket slung over the back of the divan and, after several attempts, managed to re-light its contents. He spluttered and coughed as the first draught of smoke singed his throat and lungs, but soon relaxation spread across his body and silenced the baying harpies at the corners of his mind. Usually, the songsmith tried never to imbibe Lotus through smoking if he could help it: one of the few things more important to him than his addiction was the preservation of his seraphic vocal chords. Besides, he favoured the ceremony and delectable anticipation of watching the amber resin melt through a slotted spoon into a glass of absinthe or Nectar. But by now he was past caring. He hadn’t felt like singing in a long time.
While Orpheus liked to dream his life away on good old-fashioned, government-sponsored Lotus, Narcissus stayed awake for days inhaling chalky lines of Hydra’s Teeth, as if he couldn’t let his guard down even for one minute. This wasn’t entirely irrational in the light of the ordeal he’d survived.
Two years ago he’d been snatched off the street by a gang of masked heavies and bundled into a black van. His dread grew tenfold when he noticed how careful they were not to damage his face or body. His apprehensions were confirmed when they marched him into a filthy operating theatre, the table strewn with saws, scalpels and what appeared to be a serrated pizza cutter. He’d heard what happened in these places. They were going to remove his cerebral cortex, and they weren’t going to be too careful about it either. After dumping it for the ferrymen to sniff out, they’d wire up his brain stem to docile, tractable circuit boards and rent his body out as a Somnambulist to the highest bidder.
As soon as Narcissus realised the body he’d spent so much time and money perfecting was going to be put to work for free, he did all in his power to prevent it. He actually put up a pretty good fight, and had taken down three of them by the time help arrived, his slender limbs seemingly powered by pure indignation alone. When Dionysus and his security arrived, the butchers had managed to restrain Narcissus and were just about to make the primary incision into the back of his skull. He still had the scar, and had taken to wearing his hair straight and slicked back ever since. Dionysus’ unnervingly prompt rescue was quite understandable faced with the loss if his company’s prize asset – Orpheus wondered whether his boss would go to the same effort for him, the state he was in now.
Understandably, Narcisus now refused to have a Somnambulist in the house, and shuddered every time his eyes met the vacant gaze of one outside in the street. He was even deeply suspicious of the Toy Soldier at Dionysus’ speakeasy, despite its unconventional yet obvious sentience. Even now, surrounded by the extensive wreckage of last night’s debauchery, Orpheus knew his friend would tidy it all up himself, without the help of any cleaner or Somnambulist, despite his inability to step on any tiles other than the black ones.
Orpheus drifted out into the hallway and suddenly found himself face to face with his host, immortalised within the gilt confines of a picture frame. It was one of many portraits of Narcissus that hung about the maisonette, wrought in various styles by the most fashionable artists of the time, and cataloguing the startlingly numerous looks their subject had toyed with over the years. Ostensibly to allow unacquainted guests or friends of friends to recognise their host, it was plain that Narcissus simply enjoyed observing the manner in which his own face, over the years, had retained the exact same youth and radiance as the day it was first painted. Not to mention the undivided scrutiny afforded to him during portrait sittings. Narcissus’ favourite image, however, hung in his own bedroom, and was nothing more than a beautifully and elaborately framed mirror. Through the haze of Lotus Orpheus finally located this room and pushed the door open softly.
Narcissus was sitting at his bureau with his face very close to the mirror, his lips almost touching the glass. As soon as he noticed his friend he sprang back in his chair and for a split second, an expression of utter, incandescent rage darkened his face. But when Orpheus looked again the cool, haughty veneer was back in place as if he’d only imagined it. Narcissus eyed Orpheus’ pipe and spaced-out demeanour with wry indulgence.
“Well, aren’t you the cat who’s got the cream?”
“What, you mean lactose intolerant?”
Narcissus blinked as if surfacing from a deep trance. “What are you drivelling about, you incurable Lotus fiend?”
“Cats. All cats were lactose intolerant, didn’t you know?”
“Well, fancy that. Perhaps that’s why they went extinct.”
“Perhaps. Anyway, weren’t you supposed to be taking me to this B-side or whatever it was?”
“The seaside, you silly old thing. You didn’t mind awfully, waiting, did you? You see I must have got sidetracked. Now, I was just about to get changed, wasn’t I? Or was I?”
“If you must.”
Evidently the changing screen was just for show, but it did give Orpheus something to cower behind, blushing, until the coast was clear.
There was no denying it – everyone was a tiny bit in love with Narcissus. But this flicker of love was such a futile and unrealistic thing that it was quite easy, in the end, to let it die out.
As Orpheus took another anaesthetic drag on his Lotus pipe, his memory swept him back nine years, to the night he’d first met Narcissus. It was one of his first shifts as a nymph, and he was still rather reticent, sticking to waiting tables until he got into the swing of it. By about one o’clock he was perched awkwardly at the bar across from two businesswomen who appeared to be eyeing him favourably. Within seconds, however, he realised their gaze was actually directed at the dapper figure who’d just sat down next to him.
“I say, old thing. Are you the sort of chap who’s keen on other chaps?”
“Er… yes, occasionally, I suppose.”
Orpheus looked up at his new companion and was assailed by a vision of privilege and coltish good looks. The dashing fellow was clad in black drainpipes and a velvet smoking jacket, with his hair worn in a singular style, the back and sides very short, leaving a cascade of ash blonde curls tumbling forward over his face: the inexplicable fashion at the time. Orpheus’ palms began to sweat. Was this his first client? Was he one of the investors?
“Splendid. Care for a little light petting? Clients appreciate it when the nymphs are affectionate to one another.”
A kiss on the lips is an odd way to seal a friendship, but from then on they were the best of pals. Under Dionysus’ employ, they worked well together as a pair, Orpheus’ angular, brooding artfulness acting as a perfect complement to Narcissus’ more superficial charm. Even when Narcissus’ modelling and Orpheus’ music drew them apart, they’d still waste long evenings drinking Nectar and indulging in circular, facetious arguments that lasted until dawn. And even now, despite the obvious detrimental effect of a depressed poet on one’s image, Narcissus made an effort to make his friend feel as welcome as ever. Although a look of sympathy was a little too much to ask of a face like that.
“Come on then, old thing.” Rang out the cold voice, cutting through his reverie. “Why must I always sit around waiting for you?”
Realising the coast was clear, Orpheus crept out from behind the dressing screen and surveyed the room. In all this time, he’d never actually entered Narcissus’ sleeping quarters before. They were, predictably, quite nice. Narcissus was seated at his bureau, combing pomade into his hair. He noticed for the first time that his host’s famous mirror was surprisingly worse for wear – tarnished and fly spotted, with a large, jagged crack running down the centre. It may have been the light, or the effects of the Lotus, but for a split second the fissure in the mirror distorted Narcissus’ reflection, making it appear indescribably old, haggard and drawn by the ravages of decades of debauchery. But the face that turned to talk to him could have been used to advertise washing powder.
“Come on, look lively, you silly psychedelic ninny. I only need to find my velvet jacket and we’ll be ready. And my velvet scarf, of course.”
Narcissus had always had a predilection for velvet. Orpheus recalled with fondness an occasion when the two young nymphs had held a wager to see who could turn up to work in the most hideous outfit. Narcissus had managed to don seven separate items of velvet clothing without spontaneously combusting from the friction, but had been unable to bring himself to wear clashing colours. In the end, Orpheus had won with an odious ensemble involving black suede shoes and a singularly repellent bottle green bowler hat.
They walked out into the ransacked salon, Narcissus taking great care to look natural while stepping from black tile to black tile, and stopped to collect provisions.
“This’ll do for lunch.” Proclaimed Narcissus, collecting a couple or unopened bottles of champagne from the side table.
Bizarrely, he never seemed to worry about the impact such excesses might have on his appearance. Narcissus had other ways of keeping the ravages of time at bay, at least in his own head. Within the walls of his home, with the natural confidence of someone being paid to do a job he’d always excelled at anyway, it was hard to spot. But as soon as they emerged onto the anonymous street they became nothing but two half-starved dilettantes with weak ankles and foppish haircuts. No longer in his element, Narcissus’ numerous idiosyncrasies were laid bare. With a reflection like his, he was a martyr to every shop window. He was also a martyr to every superstition in the book, hopping over the cracks in the pavement in his Cuban heeled Chelsea boots, and dodging every ladder. He seemed deeply uncomfortable to be out in the open, jumping at every loud noise and hiding his face from every passing vehicle with shaded windows. It was a good job cats were extinct – if he’d come across a black one, he’d probably have had a heart attack.
Soon they reached his host’s garage, and emerged some minutes later at the helm of a large yellow machine which careered through the lower levels like and enraged wasp. Orpheus wound his scarf high around his neck to protect his voice, more out of habit than anything else. They seemed to be driving for a long time, winding through the warren-like streets and tunnels and gradually getting higher, almost to ground level. Orpheus’ knuckles went white as the vehicle swerved and screeching round corner after corner, dodging the scores of monologuing private detectives that littered the City in the place of a reliable police force. Orpheus tried not to think about how much his friend had drunk, of snorted, or how many days he’d been awake. Last time Narcissus been like this, he’d become convinced that the car behind was following them – with hair raising results. But this time Narcissus seemed to read the nervous poet’s mind.
“Don’t worry, old thing. I’m not going to get you killed. If nothing else, I need you to keep playing my piano at parties. You always tinkle the ivories so delightfully.”
“Thank you. How touching.”
Narcissus only knew how to play one tune on his piano, and it was an infuriating one. Orpheus remembered being there when his friend composed it, high on an arcane cocktail of substances and surrounded by braying society beauties. He’d gone over the repetitive, tinkling arpeggios again and again, shouting: “I’m a genius! I’m a musical genius!” and laughing wildly.
Finally, the car arrived intact in a quarter of the City Orpheus had never seen before. The houses on ground level were built in the old style, out of red bricks, but blackened by the ubiquitous smog. They meandered down a narrow side alley, Narcissus glancing over his shoulder as if he was being pursued. Orpheus hated it when his friend got like this – he never quite knew what to do.
At the end of the passage the alley opened out into a curious array of brightly coloured shop fronts and stands with striped canopies. Their feet creaked upon a pavement of rotting wooden boards. No longer able to avoid stepping on the gaps between the slats in the boardwalk, Narcissus now seemed quite at ease.
“It’s extraordinarily queer, isn’t it, old thing?”
Orpheus surveyed the narrow causeway, hemmed in on one side by the curious shops and cafés, and on the other side by looming, blackened factory walls, but somehow separate from the rest of the City. He felt charmed by the shop’s peeling paint and faded posters depicting the street as it once was, with sunlit old-timers throwing brightly coloured balls to one another and wading through waist-deep water in what appeared to be their underwear.
“So there used to be water here? What was this place, some sort of flooded sector?”
“Oh, far older than that, old thing. Just look at those postcards – not a single sky train or elevator depicted anywhere. Just acre upon acre of blue.”
Orpheus gazed at the vast, blackened factory walls that had since engulfed the other side of the ancient wooden street. The elevated roads of the upper levels criss-crossed above their heads, blocking out all sunlight – but if he squinted and looked straight down the narrow boardwalk, replacing with boundless water the blank blackened wall to his left, he could almost envisage what it might have once looked like.
“It’s like some sort of time capsule. How come it was never redeveloped?”
Narcissus fiddled absently with a large coin-operated telescope that pointed futilely into the brick wall opposite.
“Subsidence, I’d have thought. All this yellow dust everywhere – it can’t have been very stable. Or perhaps everyone simply forgot about it. I’m sure someone here might know.”
Surprisingly, some of the shops were still manned, although none of them could explain the singular appeal of this insulated street within a street, or why they sold the eccentric foods they did. In a bout of uncharacteristic voraciousness, Narcissus purchased two toffee apples, a stick of candy floss, a comedically large ice cream and a Chelsea bun. He devoured everything with great relish, then was promptly violently sick in a nearby bin. After this surprising occurrence, he settled himself upon a deck chair on top of one of the mounds of yellow dust that lay between the boardwalk and the wall. For someone who was double jointed, Narcissus’ posture was always very stiff and formal, even as he sank into a doze. Orpheus, as a poet, had the ability to drape himself languidly over even the most uncomfortable of surfaces. And so he lounged in the deckchair beside him, nibbling the single Eccles cake that he had more judiciously accepted. After a while he, too, felt his eyelids grow heavy. Maybe it was the effect of the Lotus, or the much-needed nourishment, or the curious still silence that encapsulated that spot – either way, he soon sank into a deeper sleep than any he’d had lately.
He knew this dream was going to be important before it had even started. It had that same lysergic, colour-saturated quality as all the other ones that had mattered, although he hoped with all his heart that this one would not come true.
He was walking down a grey concrete corridor that echoed with ringing footsteps and keening cries. Two nurses in white coats were wrestling a struggling woman to the floor. Her teeth were bared in a ferocious snarl and her dark eyes stared from a gaunt and haunted face. A doctor strode round the corner, speaking in soothing tones and brandishing a gleaming syringe. Dream- Orpheus drifted past, unseen by anyone except the struggling woman. Orpheus knew exactly where he was now. Medea Asylum, an institution full of troubled minds kept perpetually alive lest they should unbalance the Acheron: the intricate computer network that ran the City, powered by the minds of the dead, and to which all human brains were ultimately destined. The topic had been an insurmountable legal minefield ever since the formation of the Acheron. Any exceptions from the blanket rule that all dead brains must enter and toil within the vast supercomputer would be a sign of weakness, and open to exploitation by fakers wishing for a true death. But any intact brains that did not work as the government dictated they should would create innumerable bugs in a network that was buggy enough already. And so their deaths were simply delayed forever, like a letter one dreads having to write. Some incurable cases had been there for hundreds of years now, trapped in aged bodies maintained in a constant living state until some unknown future date, when the government would finally decide what to do with them. And it didn’t look like they’d be deciding any time soon.
Orpheus knew it wasn’t the kind of exalted immortality the Olympians could afford, wrought by the most expensive Eternity medication and the careful work of delicate surgeons. No, this was life only in its most technical definition.
Orpheus also knew exactly who he would see around the next corner, and, although he prayed against it with every atom of his body, what he saw in the next cell confirmed his fears for his friend.
Some time later he awoke with a start and gazed with great sorrow at Narcissus’ sleeping form. Free of its usual insolent scorn, his face at rest looked calm and innocent, oblivious of the fate that awaited him. Orpheus wished that they could stay frozen in time like this forever.
After a few minutes, Narcissus stirred and languidly extracted a bottle of champagne from the hamper beside him. He shook it until the cork ricocheted off the wall beside them and swigged it indecorously straight from the bottle. Orpheus suspected this was the only way his friend knew how to open and drink champagne.
“That’s strange.” Said Narcissus, glancing incredulously at the bottle in his hands. “I was just about to ask you whether you’d like some. But now I feel compelled to inform you that I’d like to keep the whole thing to myself.”
Orpheus sighed, irritated. His friend may be decadent but he was never usually this rude. He responded by grabbing the bottle anyway and taking a swig.
“It tastes a bit funny, doesn’t it?” He said.
“Actually, I’ve never liked champagne. I only drink it to appear sophisticated.” Narcissus covered his mouth in shock. “I don’t know why I just said that, old thing.”
“Yes, you’re never usually this truthful. Are you sure you’re quite all right?”
“Oh, I sincerely doubt I shall ever be truly happy again.” Proclaimed Narcissus breezily.
Orpheus raised a bemused eyebrow. It was unlike his friend to admit to any emotion at all, let alone this. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I never told you about this, did I? A very sad thing happened to me a while ago, old thing. Nearly seven years ago, in fact – so a change should be coming soon.”
“What do you mean?” Had Narcissus seen what Orpheus had seen? He didn’t know what had got into his friend, but he wasn’t going to let an opportunity like this get away very easily.
“Why, Echo, of course. It’s been nearly seven years since she left me. You do remember her, don’t you, old thing?”
“I think so. Just another one of your society beauties, as far as I can remember. I didn’t think you were that keen on her, to be quite honest.”
“Well, I didn’t think I was at first. She was most terribly keen on me, of course – that is, until she started accusing me of loving my own reflection more that I loved her. That’s when she broke my mirror, you know. Never thought to get it repaired. I’s been the same ever since.
Well, she stormed out and that was that. I never saw her again. It wasn’t until she was long gone that it even crossed my mind that she different from all the others. After a while, I found that the thought of her was lingering in my mind. So I started asking around, following every lead I had, but nobody knew where she’d gone. I even went and asked the Acheron, in case she’d died – but she wasn’t there. She’s alive, all right, but as for where she is, I really can’t say. Probably moved to Lydia or Phrygia or one of those other districts right on the other side of the City. It’s nigh on impossible I’ll ever find her unless she makes herself known.
Well, I simply couldn’t let her go like that. I kept remembering wonderful little things about her; things I knew I’d never be able to see again as long as I lived. She was special, all right – she had something more than all the others.”
Orpheus sighed impatiently. “You do realise you only became obsessed with her the moment she became unattainable, right?”
Narcissus shot him an icy look, so he tried to make amends. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this at the time?” He enquired. “I could have helped you. I don’t even remember when this was – surely I would have noticed you looking for someone.”
“Oh, I only did it on the days I was fired.”
(As part of a bizarre tax dodge, Dionysus dismissed and re-hired his employees every week in order to give them a day off. The speakeasy boss would go to frankly absurd lengths to foil his politician cousin Pentheus’ plan to tax his liquor empire into oblivion. This was no inconvenience whatsoever to the nymphs, apart from one occasion at the end of Orpheus’ first week, when Dionysus had proclaimed: “That was a great week’s work, darling. You’ve got real potential. Well done. Oh, and by the way, you’re fired.” Orpheus had punched his employer in the face and burst into tears before Narcissus could intervene.)
“And anyway. It’s something far more than some silly infatuation, old thing. You see, I know she’s coming back.”
“I’ve felt it ever since she broke that mirror. Staring into it, I’ve seen my reflection, and it’s like I’m mesmerised. I’ve realised that if I could only stay the same – the same as the very moment she left me – if I can keep myself as youthful, and fresh, and vibrant as I was the day she smashed that mirror, then when she comes back it’ll be as if none of these beastly years of separation had ever happened. And if I can show her how successful and prosperous I’ve been…”
“And what about that very expensive operation you had to make yourself double jointed? Where does that fit into staying the same?”
“Oh, allow me some pleasures in the meantime. Seven years is an awfully long while to wait.”
“Why seven years?”
“Haven’t you been listening, old thing? It’s been nearly seven years since she cracked that mirror. Things are due to change any minute now. I just have the feeling that something good will happen soon.”
Orpheus regretted the comment almost immediately as he recalled with a sinking heart his recent dream. He wasn’t sure the coming change in Narcissus’ life would be the one his friend had been hoping for. In fact, it occurred to him now that seven years ago was about the time all this superstition nonsense had started. Before then, Narcissus’ life had been simple, free and easy. And the most painful thing about all this was that Orpheus knew it could become so again. If he really put his mind to it, he knew he could divert the course of that terrible premonition. With his support, he could help Narcissus overcome the trauma of his kidnapping and tackle headlong the anxieties and delusions that plagued him. He could even help his friend to get clean – provided he cleaned himself up first. But that was never going to happen. In another world, perhaps – in a life where he was healthier, happier, and free of the caustic pangs of bereavement. But as it was, it was enough effort keeping himself from falling apart. No, Narcissus could be cured, all right, but this lachrymose musician was not the one to do it.
Maybe one of his friends could help. He had friends apart from Orpheus, surely? He must do. He had hundreds of acquaintances.
“I have absolutely no idea why I told you any of that, old thing. I didn’t want to. I’ve never told it to anyone before in my life.” Narcissus was gazing in consternation at the bottle in his hand. “It DID taste a bit funny, didn’t it, that champagne?”
Slowly, a dreadful expression darkened the perfect contours of Narcissus’ face. “That absolute cad.” He said with a grimace.
“Mister Chatterbox. The dastardly fiend has only gone and spiked our champagne with his beastly truth serum.”
“I thought that was only a myth.” If it wasn’t, that meant everything Narcisus had just confided in him was true. It was a worrying thought.
“Apparently not. If only I knew who the bounder really was, I’d give him a proper bunch of fives and no mistake. I’d pulverise him to within an inch of his life. And ram his bally society article down his throat to boot.”
“Well, it’s a good job it’s just me here. Imagine if you’d drunk it at the party. Or with anyone else for that matter. Our deepest secrets would be splashed across the front of the crudest broadsheets in no time. But how can you be sure you’re not just garrulous from all that champagne? You know how you get.”
“Fine, you’ve had some too. Let’s test it on you. How are you feeling?”
“I’m probably going to try to kill myself again soon.” Orpheus gasped and bit his own tongue.
Narcissus clapped his hands together in triumphant glee. “I knew it! It IS real – that awful hack! He must have stuck a syringe straight through the cork.”
Orpheus stood up and started packing away their things. “Come on, we’d better get back. The sun’s going down… probably.”
Orpheus seethed. Narcissus had bared the lugubrious songsmith’s innermost secret with only four words. He might as well get something back. He turned towards his friend.“Oh, but one more thing, before this truth stuff wears off… I’ve always wondered…”
Panic crept into Narcissus’ eyes. “Always wondered what?”
“Well, why do you always call everyone “old thing?” It’s a bit unusual, that’s all.”
His friend’s relief was palpable. “Well, it’s quite clever, really. It creates an atmosphere of familiarity and affection without having to learn anybody’s actual name. Apart from you, of course. I always remember your name, my dear Orestes.”
“I hope that was a joke.”
Narcissus waggled his eyebrows ambiguously in reply. The stuff must be wearing off. But as they were walking down the pier, his friend surprised him again by practically reading his mind.
“Before this bally stuff fully wears off, I just want to say… please don’t do yourself in, old thing. I really am frightfully fond of you. And it would be a truly awful waste of talent. If you must do something monumentally stupid, why not try to get your darling Eurydice back? At least you know where she is. You can do something about it – it’s more of a chance than I ever got. Here: I’ll strike a deal with you. If you succeed, you have to stop moping around and being such a dreadful bore all the time. And if you don’t, you’re welcome to do yourself in, with my blessing. But at least try to do something about it first.”
With his last ounce of sincerity, Narcissus linked arms with Orpheus, rested his head on the dolorous poet’s shoulder, and steered them slowly back towards real life.
As he strolled along the boardwalk, his mind alive with new possibilities, it dawned on Orpheus that he hadn’t even thought to ask Narcissus how old he really was, and whether his uncanny youthfulness was maintained through surgery or even more arcane means. He supposed he’d never know now. He’d missed his chance, and besides, that was the exact sort of sensational claptrap Mister Chatterbox would want to know, not him. He’d managed to gain a much more interesting insight than that.
Emerging from the long alleyway and into the real world, the two nymphs were instantly swallowed up by The City and became, once again, nothing more than a pair of half-starved dilettantes with weak ankles and foppish haircuts.