Secrets And Truths: ‘The Wallscrawler and Other Stories’ reviewed

❉ ‘Wyatt tells the Truth about the Wallscrawler. About Pex, Kangs, Rezzies, Caretakers. So many others. So many lives. So many secrets.’

Paradise Towers has many secrets. I’m one of them.

They call me Turnstile. Not my real name, but the one that the Red Kangs gave me. That still makes me smile.

When the Great War came, all able-bodied young men, except for the cowardly cutlets, were sent off to fight. But were we cowardly? No one seemed to know what the War was about. A few of us decided that we’d rather stay here and help our families, our friends. Pex – blessed be the name of the Unalive – went on the run like some kind of guerrilla.

I couldn’t do that. Too young. Too vulnerable. But I had to hide.

So, I shave three times a day away from prying eye-sees. Grow my hair long. Dye it. Spike it. Wear high collars to disguise my Madman’s apple. Make breast forms. Remember to raise the pitch of my voice, although some of the Kangs have deeper voices than I do. I think of my Mum’s frequent fond exclamation of me as a child: ‘Isn’t he such a pretty boy!’

Plucked my eyebrows on the way, shaved my legs and then He was a She.

I’m young enough, and still pretty enough, to look, sound, and fight like a girl if I put the effort in, brave and bold as a Kang should be. And Red Kangs are as good a family as the one that I’ve lost. But still… what if they knew I was a boy? No boy Kangs seems to be the unspoken rule. Girls Only Club. To reduce suspicion, I spend a lot of time on my own. I always volunteer to scout the carrydoors alone.

Which is how I found the book, just lying on the floor of an underlit carrydoor to the north of Potassium Street. No one else seemed to be looking for it, so I picked it up and took it with me. After all, anything that falls on the floor is legally the Kang’s. It helps that I can read. Not every one of us can, but my Mum taught me how, years ago when I was just a sprog.

And somehow, it feels special to me. Secret. So, when I scurry back to the Brainquarters (it’s odd: the hostilities between us are over since we fought together against the Great Architect, but we all still have our own territories), I’ve already decided to keep the book to myself. To read it by myself, protected from prying eye-sees by the cloth covering the entrance to my den.

Of course, what really made me take the book was the title. The Wallscrawler And Other Stories, by Stephen Wyatt. I don’t know who Stephen Wyatt is, but everyone knows about the Wallscrawler. She’s one of the bravest and boldest, the one who let us all know what the Cleaners and the Great Architect were really doing. Like Pex the Unalive, she’s a hero.

And, like me, she had her secrets.

I scan the contents, and it turns out the book’s divided into three parts. The first one deals with Paradise Towers (apart from a couple of tales about something called a Psychic Circus), so as a treat I leave that till last. I read the others on the simple decision that the stories in one are set thousands of years ago, during the time of the Bible (one of the books on our family shelves, although I never read it properly), and the stories in the other seem to be more recent and were apparently read aloud on the radio by people with names like Sian Phillips, Dora Bryan, and Bernard Cribbins. Odd names. And all we heard on the radio back then was gloppy muzak and occasional news about how well the War was supposedly going. It’s changing now, but slowly still.

I read the book mainly at night, after we return to our Brainquarters. I snap and shake glowsticks and turn the pages in their green light. As I read, I realise something: Stephen Wyatt has a strange name, but he understands people very well.

Prophets Of Doom is what he calls the stories about various figures from the Old Testament of the Bible. He speaks for Elisha, cursing cheeky children in the name of the Lord only to see them torn apart by bears.

‘Sometimes in my head I try to reconstruct this story so it’s not quite so terrible. Maybe I’d remembered what had happened wrongly, because I always tend to see myself in the worst light. Maybe they weren’t young children but a bunch of young louts, the tearaway dregs of the village, and they weren’t just mocking me, they were unbelievers mocking the Lord’s holy calling as embodied in me. Blasphemers and idolaters in other words. I’ve never told anybody about this incident but if I did, that would be the explanation that I would offer. But in my heart of hearts I know they were still children, and I had cursed them.’

Then there’s the story of Jael, smitten by the woman prophet Deborah and finding herself the unwitting host of the captain of an enemy army. At first she offers him kindness, but then feels compelled to kill him, driving a tent peg through his head as he sleeps.

‘They acclaim me now as a great heroine for what I have done. Deborah has embraced me and thanked me. Apparently, she has prophesied that Sisera would be slain by a woman. And now my name is linked with hers in the hymn of rejoicing they are singing. I should be proud. I have helped to liberate the nation of Israel and this great woman has acclaimed my deed. Should I not feel more content than I do?’

Or the unnamed Moabite who bears witness to Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

‘It’s always the way, isn’t it? If something goes badly wrong, then there’s always somebody who’s going to say it’s a punishment for the sins they’ve committed. It’s human nature, after all, to be smug about the misfortunes of others and say it’s all their own fault.’

Other tales of other prophets. It seems that prophets are either unhappy with the results of their actions, or else holding desperate, sometimes guilty, secrets. If they’re truly unfortunate, even at the same time. I can’t exactly say how, but that speaks to me. Maybe, what with my own subterfuge, because I feel a little like them. Am I a prophet? On the evidence here, I really hope not.

Heard Not Seen brings us stories of other people, not from the Bible, but before Paradise Towers. I’m puzzled. Was Bernard Cribbins – whoever he was – both a five-thousand-year-old man encased in ice, and an ordinary man pretending to be Father Christmas? Who was Father Christmas? I think that one person can tell many stories. Maybe Bernard Cribbins was simply pretending to be these two very different men. Just as Stephen Wyatt is telling the tales of so many very different men and women.

The Iceman Returneth, the story of the five-thousand-year-old man, concludes on a note that I find moving. It speaks of Time passing, of the value of Truth, and the wish to know more.

‘And I thought of the man who had screamed at me and realised – they think they love me, but they hate me. They know they will never find the truth. They know that their version of the truth will last the blinking of an eyelid. And yet they cannot walk away and leave me to others – or to myself. But the only one I pitied was the Man Who Found Me. He loved me. I gave his life meaning. And now he wished he’d never found me. He talked about hiking once more on the mountains where he’d found me. And I thought – they’ll find him dead and frozen like me. Except that he won’t get one thousandth of the attention.’

HO! HO! HO!, the other story that Bernard Cribbins told, is about an ordinary man who plays Father Christmas. A man who has to be nice, to be kind, to everyone all of the time. And of how it all, at some point, becomes too much for him to bear.

‘Apparently, there’d been a complaint. Some mother had said I’d been rude to her child. Well, I wasn’t going to deny what happened. There was this child, only six but with the build of a Sumo wrestler. And I’d done my usual, “And what do you want for Christmas, son?” and he’d launched into the usual list of super mark 15 this and Dr Who sonic that and somehow, I’d had enough of it all. I cut right across his shopping list and said, “Listen, sonny, we don’t get everything we want in this life.”’

I remember the Doctor who came here with his friend Mel and helped us in our struggle. Was he the same person as this Dr Who? I find myself wondering if the Great Architect was like that man playing Father Christmas. If, maybe, he’d begun with nothing but the best of intentions, but became tired, resentful of so many demands from so many people? But, where this man seems to be a man that I’d like, perhaps because he at least seems to be genuinely kind and friendly under his weariness, the Great Architect was all too awake, all too strong. Maybe that’s the difference. The Great Architect had no excuse for what he did. The glowstick is dimming, and I can hear my fellow Kangs moving and talking outside, smell the baking rat pies and the sharp tang of cracked-open cans of Fizzade, see their shadows as they fall across the hanging cloth at my door. Right now, they all seem less important: I snap, shake another glowstick and continue reading.

Tinkling The Ivories was told by a woman called Dora Bryan. The story is all about this woman who has a natural gift for music, her life, and the role that music plays in it. Close to the end, she has this to say.

‘I shocked them all once at the National Film Theatre. I was accompanying this film made in 1928 sixty years later and at the end I turned to the audience and said – “It’s just as good as when I saw it first.” Well, that made them think. So my real life ended where it began. Looking up at the screen and tinkling the ivories. There are worse ways to end up. It’s a tribute to that determined little girl who went up to Auntie Gertie’s upright and played ‘Tea for Two’.’

Whoever this old woman is, I like her too. She reminds me of some of the friendlier Rezzies. Some of them have their old records and their old songs as well. Maybe those are sort of secrets of their own? Perhaps. Secrets can be pleasures as well, after all.

All these voices of what could, perhaps, be called ordinary people. Or, maybe, forgotten people. All of them telling us that there’s so much more to them than the surface: that, in fact, all of them might be a lot more interesting – a lot more worth talking about – than we might at first think.

Pieces of Who is the first part of the book. Since most of it deals with Paradise Towers, like I say, I leave it till last. Who. Dr Who? Is this really the same man that Father Christmas mentioned, the same man who visited us and helped free us from the Great Architect? Secrets within secrets. The last two stories in this section are least relevant to me – they both deal with the travels of this mysterious Psychic Circus – and yet they both contain material that feels relevant to me.

The Captain’s Collection is told by an explorer named Captain Cook. I don’t like Captain Cook. He does terrible things to other living beings, imprisoning them, killing them and preserving them, all to make himself rich. And yet, Wyatt even makes me feel sorry for him.

‘Dear guests, this is getting beyond a joke. Please let me go. You’ve made your point. I can only apologise for past errors and beg to be forgiven. Surely you don’t want to destroy the one and only Captain Cook, the intergalactic explorer? I’m unique.’

The Crack In The Crystal Ball has Morgana, a woman who can genuinely see the Future but sometimes pretends not to, who finds herself – after many wanderings – faced with the opportunity to join Captain Cook and his Psychic Circus.

‘But now suddenly I’m having a very different vision. The travelling is over and we’re stuck in a dry desert land with the sun beating down. Everyone is tired and bad-tempered and something has gone very badly wrong. The good vibe’s no longer there. Everybody’s doing things as if they’re forced to, not because they want to. But the worst part of it is a clear picture of a future me giving a reading to some clients. I’m faking it. I’m using the sort of cheap guesswork I’d despised in the frauds before. And they’re believing me. But I can’t stop myself from faking it even though I hate myself.’

That last sentence. Am I faking it as well? I don’t hate myself. But I’m being a girl when I’m really a boy. Is that faking it? Or simply my Reality, my Truth – that I love the possibilities of being both? There’s a question to ponder as I finally move to the tales that deal with my life. With the people of Paradise Towers.

‘I very rarely give interviews. Partly because it’s often a waste of my extremely precious time.’

The Great Architect is all about that monster Kroagnon. Those opening lines tell us almost all that we need to know. His meanness. His callousness. His arrogance. The story that he tells is set in the time when he still had a body, presumably long before he came to Paradise Towers. He isn’t any more likeable a man then than he ended up. Even back then, he tells us, he was using his architectural gifts as a cover for greed and death. I can even feel sorrier for Captain Cook than I do for Stanislas Kroagnon. Some people are simply flawed. Some, though, are true monsters.

‘’Caretaker number 112 stroke 9 subsection 7 and Caretaker number 87 stroke 3 subsection eight, after due process, it has been established that while you have behaved in a manner unbecoming in a caretaker, there is no underlying contravention of the rule book involved. Just be careful in the future.’ We were both eager to let Dora know what had happened. In fact, we went along together. What happened then is another matter. But at least we knew there was no description of it in the rule book.’

Well, well! The Secret Life Of Caretaker Number 112 Stroke 9 Subsection 7 is a real eye-opener. Every Kang knows that all of the Caretakers are silly, stupid fatsters who only want to stop our fun and games. What this story does is to show us that the simple Truth is that, just like us, they’re people. Each with their own wants, and their own needs. And how, with the help of a little subterfuge, a little secrecy, even they can find their own pleasures in Life. I feel a smile at the corners of my mouth. One thing that the fall of Kroagnon did was to bring us all closer together, even the Caretakers. A lot of Kangs still tease and taunt them, but I’m glad to think of at least some of them being happy.

‘All in all, these have been a very remarkable and eventful couple of days. The Chief Caretaker is also no longer with us. And that too has turned out to be a distinct improvement. So, yes, we’ve all pulled together to put things right and there’s no doubt there’s a better atmosphere now in Paradise Towers than there’s been since we first arrived.’

It seems almost providential. Maddy’s Diary claims to be just that – the diary of the Rezzie who was one of the bravest and boldest of us all when the Doctor and Mel helped us to overcome Kroagnon. Is this really her diary, or what Stephen Wyatt would imagine it to be? If it is the latter, then Stephen Wyatt clearly understands people like Maddy very well. Every word, every emotion, feels like hers.

I’m surprised by a rustle at my door cloth. Light Fitting, a short, lithe Kang, has pushed her way in. ‘Turnstile, you’re missing the food and the fun! Why don’t you…’ She tails off as she sees the book in my hands. ‘What are you reading?’ I explain and realise that I want to keep my secret. I tell her that she can sit with me, read with me, so long as she doesn’t tell anybody else. She looks a little uncertain, but she’s curious, like me, and in the end I convince her to solemn full heartswear. She settles herself beside me on the cushions and I can’t help but notice how beautiful her great blue eyes are. I make myself concentrate on the pages, and we both read the tale of Wallscrawler.

‘This last wallscrawl was done with full heart. It showed the weapon Pex had carried over a Red Kang sash and a Blue Kang sash interlinked. And underneath the two words: Pex Lives. Wallscrawl can do many things. But above all, make you remember.’

By the time that we finish reading, we’re both nearly making water drops fall from our eyes, and I can hear the thickness in my voice. ‘Wyatt tells the Truth about the Wallscrawler. About Pex, Kangs, Rezzies, Caretakers. So many others. So many lives. So many secrets.’

Light Fitting nods. ‘I want to read more of them, Turnstile, if you’ll let me.’

Should I? I make sure that the door cloth is now firmly secured. ‘I’ll let you, Light Fitting, but I want to tell you something else. You must solemn heartswear not to tell anyone else. Yet.’

She wants to know, so she does. And she is my friend, so I tell her.

‘Secrets can be good things. Sometimes, though, they can hurt. I want to show you something that you didn’t know.’

And I unbutton my high collar, revealing the bulge of my Madman’s apple. Unfasten my battle blouson further, and draw the tights filled with dry oatmeal from my bra, holding them out for her surprised scrutiny.

‘Turnstile is a Kang, Light Fitting, but he’s a boy.

I can feel my heart racing. Even now she’s solemn heartsworn, this could be too much of a secret to keep to herself. I keep my gaze fixed on hers. I hope that she’ll understand.

Long moments pass. Her face is pretty, but unreadable. She literally holds my Future in her hands.

Until a lovely, mischievous smile steals over her face. Her gaze is full of affection. She leans forward, putting the book carefully to one side, places one hand on each side of my face. Leaning forward further still, she kisses me very gently on the lips, then draws slowly back, still holding me, her beautiful eyes shining.

‘Turnstile, does it matter if you’re a boy or a girl? Whichever you want, why not? You’re as brave and bold as a Kang should be.’

And she embraces me more tightly. I return the embrace with interest and lean forward to kiss her in return.

In time, in all likelihood, we’ll let the other Kangs know as well. Because secrets are marvellous things.

But Truth is more marvellous still.

❉ ‘The Wallscrawler And Other Stories’ by Stephen Wyatt; published 8 August 2022 by Obverse Books, ISBN9781913456313. RRP £9.99 – £15.99. Click here to order from Obverse Books.

 Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 55 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.

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