Migrations to elsewhere

...and other aches and pains.

Image: Catherine Servel/Trunk Archive

Down in the tunnels of Woolwich, Alice did not know how to speak to the white rabbit. She tried a few phrases from her European Dictionary. “Onde e o estaco de camionetas?”

The white rabbit looked confused. He started not so much to lick his paws, as eat them. This was all the more alarming because he had gloves on. The rabbit had stuck his left paw into his mouth and was making strange sounds in his throat. Alice had asked him to show her the way to the nearest bus station. She tried something else. “Wo finde ich ein taxi?”

The rabbit spat out his paw, gathered his little Chinese silk fan to his chest and began to run. Alice ran after him as fast as she could in her shiny black shoes, kicking up a haze of Woolwich dust behind her. When the rabbit ran in zigzags, she ran in zigzags. When he ran in circles, she ran in circles. The white rabbit seemed to know that this was a useless chase. He suddenly stopped and started to search for something in his waistcoat pocket.

“Where are you going?” Alice was a girl who wanted to know things. “I’m off to my other life,” the rabbit finally stuttered in an irritated voice, all the while patting the pockets of his waistcoat. “Really?” She watched curiously as he took out a cigarette from a pack called “Extra” and lit up with his gloved paw.

For a while Woolwich disappeared under the strange milky-blue smoke of the rabbit’s Extra. She could just see the tips of his ears poking through. “Where is your other life?”

“Elsewhere.”

Alice tossed back her long hair. “What does Elsewhere look like?” “I don’t know too much about the landscape,” the rabbit waved his paw in a nonchalant manner. “Oh. So you haven’t been there yet?”

Alice was learning all about stamina in Woolwich. When the rabbit took off again, this time with an Extra dangling from his lips, she had taught herself how to jog by his side. She watched the breathless bobtail check his stopwatch and mutter, “Always remember to pull time backwards or forwards as appropriate to the place of destination.” “What is the time in Elsewhere?”

The rabbit ignored her, inhaling hard on his Extra, eyes firmly fixed on the ground. Alice wondered if he had been used in a science experiment and become addicted to cigarettes as a result. She noticed that his whiskers were trembling.

“Well I can give you some phrases,” offered Alice. And then she remembered. “Except I don’t know what language they speak in Elsewhere.” “They speak the language of Elsewhere,” replied the lachrymose, red-eyed one.

As they promenaded through Woolwich, a can of lager on a table caught Alice’s green eye. She passed it to the silent, brooding rabbit. “Perhaps you should have some of this? It might loosen your tongue and you can tell me more about Elsewhere.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said the rabbit. Alice opened the can and passed it to Herr Lapin. He grasped the can with his gloved paws (during the walk he had squeezed one of his gloves off and then very slowly put it on again) and raised it to his thin little lips.

“My mind is growing bigger,” he whispered. “I can feel it growing right now.” “So talk,” Alice demanded, and just so she could keep up, took the tiniest swig too. “No!” The rabbit became more assertive. “I will not say another word until you tell me who you are.” “Well, I’ll have a go!” Alice put her hands on her hips so she would not be tempted to bite her nails while she spoke. “I live in London which is in south-east England but I was born in Africa. I am a girl. I live with my mother who is divorced from my father. My father is Jewish so I am half. I do have a sister. She’s saving my Friday Mars bar for me and I’m going to eat it when I get home. And I have two brothers. One lives in Mexico, the other in High Barnet, which is on the Northern line. Actually, I don’t really know very much about myself. I don’t know what it is I want to know and whether what I do know is worth knowing.”

The white rabbit thought about this for a while. “Are you African, English, European or Jewish?” he enquired.

To his surprise, the horrible girl started to cry. There seemed to be no end to the tears inside her. They fell down her cheeks and wet her black, shiny shoes. “May I kiss you?” The rabbit made the request in a matter of fact manner.

Alice was curious. She had never been kissed by a rabbit, but she was in Woolwich and there were no brochures to tell her what to expect. “OK.” The rabbit stubbed out his Extra and bared his teeth. “I tried ringing the stop smoking programme,” he murmured in Alice’s ear. “But I kept getting the wrong quit line. Italian on Monday, Gujarati Tuesday, German Weds, Polish Thurs, Swahili Sunday. And I sleep on Saturdays.”

As he pressed his moist, round nose against her long, dry nose, Alice knew she was in for a big surprise. Even though new technologies predicted the end of biology, or something like that, she suddenly felt the difference between her heartbeat and that of the little beast attempting to kiss her.

For a start his lips were very thin and narrow and her lips were thick and wide. It was OK if she shut her eyes but when she peeped them open she stared straight into his small pink eyes with their bone-white lashes. He was staring hard at her. Straight into her halfshut green eyes. As much as she tried to think otherwise, it was clear to her that they were very, very different.

And then there were his whiskers to contend with. They kept tickling her jaw and some of them actually got into her mouth and pierced her gums. The other strange sensation was his ears. They were pointing upwards, very alert, like someone who is shocked. “That’s enough kissing for the moment,” she said sternly.

White rabbit thought so too. He found Alice bald, covered as he was with fur. Another thing. Her ears were strangely spaced at the side of her head and were not very expressive. These were difficult things to talk about so instead he took a swig from the can of lager, took out his fan and waved it snappily across his face. “My mind is very big now,” he yelped. “I have inner immensity.” Alice wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “The world inside me is bigger than the world outside me,” the rabbit continued.

“Is that where Elsewhere is?” Alice thought she was on to something. “Is Elsewhere between your ears?”

“Perhaps,” the White Rabbit conceded. “That’s no good. How can you bring me back a souvenir then?”

The rabbit fanned his face in gloomy silence. “I want a stick of rock with Elsewhere printed all the way through it,” Alice heard herself sound like someone who wasn’t her, but as she didn’t know who she was anyway, she thought she’d just have to go with the flow of her new Knowing Tone –which was a useful disguise for not knowing anything at all. The rabbit stroked the lining of his waistcoat and hummed as she developed her tone.

“Is Elsewhere better than Woolwich then, rabbit?”

“Oh yes.”

“Why is it better?”

“Elsewhere is the life I have never lived. The life I most want.”

“You might as well eat your head.” Alice Laughed

The rabbit gathered himself up. He looked taller and whiter than he appeared to Alice when she first glimpsed him running through Woolwich. He pointed at her challenging, staring eyes with his fan and found her quite hideous. There was something about the certainty with which she expressed her opinions that made him want to crack her neck tendons with his upper incisors. As it was the stranger Alice who had kindly introduced him to these unfamiliar feelings, he felt obliged to introduce her to his rapidly expanding mind.

“You should know that I have inner immensity because I have gathered all my passions and longings into myself and with them I have built Elsewhere.”

White rabbit seemed to expect a standing ovation because he put his gloved paws to his lips and blew kisses to an imaginary crowd. “Well,” declared Alice. “Hmm. Do you think I could try one of your Extras?”

The rabbit took out his pack and counted the cigarettes. “Yes Madam,” he replied flamboyantly, and then to Alice’s astonishment tried to sell her five disposable cigarette lighters for the price of one. Taking a puff of the Extra, Alice found herself filled with strange sensations and thoughts she could not chase fast enough.

“The fact is, when you arrive in Elsewhere you will be a stranger. You will be ‘the rabbit from elsewhere.’”

“I can see you are a very tense sort of girl,” the rabbit muttered while inhaling another Extra. “As I have told you at some length – but not as long as my Extra, which offers a little bit more, that is the whole point of extra, Elsewhere is my way of experiencing life itself!”

Alice pointed at the rabbit’s little paws. “You should take off your gloves and get real.” The Rabbit blinked. “Yes. That is the name of my house in Elsewhere. ‘Villa Real.’”

White Rabbit lay down and rested his head that contained his inner immensity against his folded gloved paws. He meant to explain to Alice that he carried his homeland with him at all times. Consequently, his head was very heavy, and he fell asleep before he could even his floss his teeth.

When white rabbit awoke from what turned out to be a dreamless sleep, he was surprised to find himself feeling desolate. Even more surprising were the tears that hurried down his cheeks and wet his fur. The rabbit cried and cried. He gulped for air and licked his smarting gums, which really did feel as if they were not going to hold his teeth for much longer. There was no doubt about it. He was going to have to change the lifestyle of his inner immensity.

He was also extremely nervous about his gums extraditing his teeth. Apart from needing his teeth, he felt their right and proper place was in his mouth. He did not want to carry his molars in his waistcoat pocket, because that is not where teeth should be. He parted his lips and lifted his little paw to prod his tender gums. The pain made him wince. There was no doubt that his back teeth were mobile. He could wiggle them quite easily. They were loose. They were going to roam. This fact appalled him. After ten minutes had passed, he decided that the next ten minutes were not going to get any better so he might as well have an Extra.

He shuffled about patting the earth of Woolwich with his gloved paw, looking for his box of cigarettes. The first three puffs put him right. His tears dried up. His breathing settled down. His spirits lifted. But when he got to the fourth puff, he began to realise that the misery that had visited him in his sleep had not departed. Every next puff on his Extra just put off the misery that lurked between puffs. His Extras were not enough. But how could he get hold of extra Extras? It was as if his trustworthy brand had shrunk to Xtra rather than Extra.

Another thing. The rabbit sat down and tried to build a little bit more of Elsewhere. This is what he usually did when he was feeling glum. In this way, a substantial proportion of Elsewhere had been built and what’s more, Elsewhere had been constructed with the help of Extras. Now that the Extras tasted like Xtras, Elsewhere suddenly became much harder to build. The new wing he was adding to Villa Real felt flimsy, not as solid as it should be. If he were to push the walls of the new extension with his paw, it would fall over, and worst of all, fall over noiselessly.

Rabbit found himself moping now and the tears were returning, this time very potent tears. It was as if the fluid oozing from his tear ducts was concentrated with some kind of despair, and this despair was like a homoeopathic remedy. Lick a little teardrop and he would consume a small, controlled portion of his own misery to combat the larger misery spreading through his whole being. He looked round for a container into which he could splash some of these unwelcome tears.

His pink right eye saw a little bottle on the table with a label called “Cry into me”. As he did this absurd action, placed his eye over the top of the bottle and then wept so the tears dripped through, rabbit wondered what life would be like without Extra.

He would have pangs for Extra, that’s for sure. Rabbit knew his tears were a message. A message in a bottle. He had to give up his Extras because they had become Xtras. The bottle called “cry into me” was now almost half full. He was going to have to find another dream. Another homeland and another homecoming. He was going to have to accept that he lived and breathed in Woolwich and make himself a permanent resident there. The plaque that infected his gums, eroding them slowly day by day, had spread to his mind. The white rabbit, for the first time in his life, took off his white gloves. He rolled them into a ball and tucked them into each other.

He was going to have to walk into the centre of Woolwich and attempt to make conversation with someone other than himself. True, he appeared to be flamboyant in the garments he chose to wear – his kid gloves, his fan, his silk-lined waistcoat – but what if someone asked him for directions to the nearest branch of a discount supermarket? He had heard rumours there was one in North Tipperary in Ireland, also Lomma in Sweden and a place called Police in Poland, but he had spent so much of his life in Elsewhere, he did not know if there was one in Woolwich. It was time to go out and socialise, to make some introductions in a polite and charming manner. But what about Elsewhere, the place he most yearned to be? It was gone and he had no map to find it again. To think that Elsewhere had been destroyed, not by the Elsewhere Liberation Army but by his own psychic uprising. If Elsewhere had been dismantled in his own mind, what was he going to reassemble in its place?

Where? Where? Where?

White rabbit ponders this question. He starts to think about his life as a young bunny and wonders if he will ever grow up into rabbithood. He thinks about his relations in other countries. His cousin Bugs Bunny, the American, was born in a pothole in the Bronx where the flea-bitten neighbourhood dogs tried to gobble him up. But Bugs always got away. The dogs chased him up skyscrapers. Bugs held on but the dogs tumbled down through the American sky, colliding into helicopters and washing lines. Bugs is indestructible. He is a proud citizen of America and rabbit admires his cousin for this very defined sense of location, identity, attitude. He has said so in countless Christmas cards to his cousin but Bugs doesn’t really know what the Woolwich strand of his family is talking about. Bugs’s Christmas cards all have a publicity photograph of Bugs on them. White rabbit’s cards do not have stamps on the envelopes and he keeps them in the inside pocket of his waistcoat.

Alice found herself struggling with every muscle of her girl body to get out of Woolwich. There were no doors with “exit” written on them to guide her. Nor were there windows or stairs or escalators or lifts or adults in uniform to give her directions. She intuited that she was going to have to dirty her hands with the soil of Woolwich and start digging. Once she had made this decision, she felt calmer. She knelt on the earth and started to dig with her hands. The tunnels of Woolwich were not as solid as they looked. To her surprise the soil came away easily and she dug faster and faster until she had created a large hole, her long hair trailing in the earth. While she dug she thought about white rabbit and how he had actually run away from her. Pitter-patter on his little feet. She should have grabbed him by his ears and searched his waistcoat for the packets of Extras and five disposable cigarette lighters. Alice resolved there and then, that when she got home she would throw away her hairband. And because she was thinking about her head, it occurred to her the only thing to do now, was to plunge it right into the hole she had created and push and push until the she saw a crack of blue sky which would be a sure sign she had heaved herself home.

This was how white rabbit found her. All he could see were Alice’s shins stuck upright like a strange shrub growing in the tunnels of Woolwich. He knew at once that she was stuck. What he had to do was give the girl a push. After all he didn’t want her to hang around wanting conversations with him. Oh no, not at all. The rabbit stuck a paw on the back of each of Alice’s knees, and bending his own knees to help his little body take the strain, gave her a good push. The buttons sprang off his waistcoat but he didn’t care. He was going to have to twist her to the right and left, like a corkscrew. In fact he pushed and twisted the small girl’s shins with such force he broke a blood vessel in his eye. Blood spurted out and sprayed the tunnels of Woolwich. Down she went. There she goes. All of Alice slipping through, her white socks flecked in rabbit blood. Except for her patent, shiny shoes. They had somehow come undone in her struggle to exit, the buckles loosening, the shiny shoes slipping off her heels and then her toes and tumbling to the ground.

Oh what lovely silver buckles! Panting slightly from his recent physical exertion, white rabbit slipped his little feet into Alice’s shoes and found they fitted perfectly. A little puff of vanity made the bobtail lick his whiskers as he took a few jaunty steps in his new footwear. He mopped his bleeding eye on his kid gloves and resolved to take himself off to Casualty. Or was it Accidents and Emergencies? He didn’t know if he was a casualty or an accident or an emergency but he loved his new shoes. The little black straps looked smart fastened against his white fur ankles. He experimented with a few shuffling dance steps, fanning his naked paws in front of his chest as he swayed from left to right. He even felt better about his wobbly teeth. If the worst happened and they expatriated themselves from his gums, at least his feet would distract attention from his slack rabbit lips falling down to his chin through lack of incisors. He stroked his dishevelled fur with a dampened paw and holding his little bottle of tears against his chest, strode bravely into the centre of Woolwich.

Deborah Levy is the author of “Swimming Home” (£7.99), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and “Black Vodka” (£12)