Once the narrow pass had cut its way through the last of the snow-capped peaks and began to wind down the steep rocky slopes towards a grassy plain, our reward for three days of mountainous slog was a truly spectacular view of our destination, the imperial capital of Khotya. The city sat on a bend in the river, nestled securely within imposing stone walls that were liberally sprinkled with forbidding watchtowers. Down by the river wharves the buildings jostled for space but the streets seemed to breathe out as they moved away from the water, allowing the houses and gardens further up to sprawl elegantly. In the west the ground rose sharply towards the citadel of the Emperor himself, a walled palace complex that appeared to form pretty much a city within a city.
Looked upon as the spiritual and commercial centre of a vast and powerful empire, the city of Khotya was undoubtedly an impressive sight. Viewed, on the other hand, as the location of our latest hunt for the scattered rooms of Sturridge’s prison, it inspired rather less awe and more apprehension.
The first problem we ran up against was that access to the city was tightly restricted. Sentries guarded all the main gates and constantly patrolled the city walls and under the normal run of things permission for outsiders to enter was seldom granted. We had however, entirely fortuitously I should confess, timed our arrival to coincide with the Festival of the Golden Moon, an annual shindig that once a year saw the gates of the city thrown open for a traditional mix of religious observation and riotous hedonism. By assimilating ourselves among the flood of pilgrims we would earn ourselves precisely three days in which to find and destroy the hidden door before the festival ended and the city closed itself off for another year.
It was early morning when we came down off the mountain pass and the gates weren’t officially due to open until noon so Michael and I settled ourselves down on the hillside over-looking the city to wait. Whilst we enjoyed a breakfast cobbled together from the very last of our mountain provisions we watched the steady stream of festival-goers flocking towards Khotya from every direction. Once the food supplies were exhausted Michael sat back and lit his pipe and I got up to stretch my legs. It wasn’t my intention to go far but I must have been so engrossed in watching the travellers swarming below that I wandered farther than I planned. At least somehow or other I found myself standing on an isolated headland, gazing thoughtfully down upon the city beneath, when I became aware of a strange babble of voices behind me.
I turned to find that two men were approaching in a rather roundabout manner, sweeping across the ground in wide, wobbly arcs. The first seemed quite young, in his early twenties perhaps, although it was hard to be quite sure as most of his face was obscured by a Super-8 style movie camera clamped to one eye with which he appeared to be filming the approach. The extravagant motions of his camera seemed to be directed by the second, rather older man, a guy in his mid-fifties with a lavish mane of grey hair and a neat beard. This second man kept up a continual stream of chatter in a language which I thought perhaps might be Spanish although I wasn’t entirely sure.
As the pair continued to loop erratically forwards the younger man, noting my puzzled gaze, began to call out in English. “Please, don’t be alarmed… Just continue as you were… No, don’t frown like that…”
“What?” I said, only frowning all the harder.
“Take no notice of the camera… Just act natural…”
Of course, by this point I found no action to be more natural than to glare suspiciously at this strange pair and so this I continued to do. Finally the older man threw up his hands with an exasperated babble of unintelligible speech and the younger man regretfully lowered his camera. “No, never mind,” he said sadly. “The moment’s gone.”
“What moment?” I retorted. “What are you doing?”
The older man spoke again in his own language, rounding off his short speech with a graceful bow.
“Allow me to introduce Senor Hector Gustavo Ramirez, also known as El Maestro,” offered the younger man, indicating his companion. “I am his assistant, Jules. El Maestro wishes me to explain to you that he is an artist and film-maker who has travelled all the way from the real world beyond the imagination. As we came across the hill El Maestro recognised this (here Jules indicated with a sweep of his arm a vague portion of the landscape in which I was currently standing) as the opening scene from his aborted 1957 epic Ciudad de Desperados. I was endeavouring to record the moment with this machine.” He now held up his movie camera, apparently in the belief that I might be unfamiliar with such technology.
Now there were several things that puzzled me about these words which Jules translated for his boss. The first and most obvious thing to strike me was the fact that Senor Ramirez should need his words translating in the first place. This being the imaginary landscape, a landscape created from the entire length and breadth of the human imagination, you might find it entirely unsurprising that now and again I should stumble upon a language I cannot easily comprehend. After all, back in the real world my linguistic abilities stretch only as far as English (specifically North Yorkshire with a hint of Bristolian), GCSE French and a smattering of holiday Italian.
But things in the imaginary landscape are a bit different. Here, a will to understand and be understood are all that are necessary for communication to flow. I can’t tell you by precisely what mechanism it works. All I know is that during my travels I have met people from all backgrounds and nationalities; they have spoken their language and I have spoken mine and yet somehow we have been entirely comprehensible to one another. Which meant that if this ‘El Maestro’ required someone to translate his words for him then it could only mean that on some level, conscious or unconscious, he preferred things that way.
As for the rest of the stuff about recognising the scene from Ciudad de Wotsits, I could only respond with another confused, “What?”
There were more words from El Maestro.
“El Maestro says that as soon as he saw you gazing down over the city he spotted that this was the beginning of his film,” explained Jules. “The opening consists of a spectacular tracking shot depicting the heroine, a simple peasant girl, gazing with apprehension, yet also determination, over the city in which she plans to make her fortune. It encapsulates within one breath-taking shot all the hopes and dreams of our central character.”
An alarming thought suddenly occurred. “Wait a minute. You’re not saying that he thinks I am his peasant girl heroine?”
Jules smiled reassuringly. “I realise that it is unusual for imaginary characters to come face to face with their creators but there is no need to be alarmed. Just be yourself. El Maestro will make no special demands of you.”
“Now look, I’m afraid there’s been some kind of…” I began.
But El Maestro interrupted with another string of words, nudging his assistant as he did so.
“Oh yes, of course,” said Jules and, setting down his camera, he immediately began digging around in the various bags and pockets which beset his person. Finally he came up with a large printed card which he handed over to me. “Here, this should help make things clear.”
I peered uncertainly down at the card. It read:
Congratulations! You have been recognised as a figment of the imagination of renowned real world artist and film-maker Hector Gustavo Ramirez, aka El Maestro. El Maestro is currently conducting an extended tour of the landscape of the imagination, visiting the many locations which spring from his long and illustrious career. Any questions you have may be put to El Maestro via his assistant, Jules Mignon. El Maestro will endeavour to be fair and open in all his dealings with his characters but he reserves the right to withhold information where he feels it may impede character development or narrative progression.
N.B. El Maestro hereby maintains his proprietary rights to any incomes or acclaim due to him in the real world as a result of his characters’ actions within the landscape.
I looked up. “I’m sorry but there does seem to have been some sort of mistake. I’m not the person that you think I am.”
“Please, there’s no need to feel awkward,” insisted Jules with another of his reassuring smiles. “It might feel like a lot to live up to – to suddenly find you are the lead in a Hector Ramirez film – but I promise that you just need to be yourself and everything will be fine.”
“No, I mean there’s no way I can be your character,” I explained. “You see, I’m not from the landscape of the imagination. I came here from the real world, just like you.”
A rather awkward pause followed.
“Are you absolutely certain about that?” Jules asked.
“Oh, I see,” said Jules. “That’s unexpected.”
I shrugged apologetically. There was another long pause and then El Maestro, who, notwithstanding his own linguistic limitations, clearly understood every word I said, suddenly burst forth into a torrent of syllables.
“El Maestro says it is an entirely understandable mistake,” translated Jules. “The light put him off a bit. It is a little stronger than he expected – it gives a misleading shape to the face.” There were more words from El Maestro, accompanied by some defensive gestures. “El Maestro says that, besides, character was always rather a fluid concept in his art. The landscape is really the true star of his films.”
“I see,” I said.
Nobody seemed to have anything further to say on the subject and so we stood there in rather uncomfortable silence for a moment or two, El Maestro glowering out at the view and Jules fiddling sheepishly with the straps on his camera. Fortunately, the tension was eventually broken by the arrival of Michael, who, having finished his pipe, had strolled over to see what had become of me.
“Hello,” he called out, approaching us with cheerful curiosity. “What’s going on here?”
“This is El Maestro, a famous film-maker from the real world,” I told him. “And this is his assistant Jules.”
Jules reached out eagerly to shake hands. El Maestro confined himself to a lofty nod in Michael’s direction.
“This is my friend, Michael.” I explained. “He’s from the real world too. Actually he’s in your line of work, kind of. He’s an actor.”
“How interesting,” said Jules with a polite smile. El Maestro, on the other hand, offered only a disdainful glare that seemed highly expressive of the opinion he held of actors in general.
“El Maestro mistook me for a character from one of his films,” I remarked to Michael in an effort to smooth over the momentary awkwardness.
“Really?” said Michael with a glint of amusement in his eye.
“I suppose I ought to be flattered really,” I observed. “After all, it’s not every day you get mistaken for a film star.”
El Maestro responded with a dignified speech.
“El Maestro says that you have just the kind of face he looks for in his heroines,” translated Jules.
I brushed away the compliment with a coy smile.
“El Maestro says that he has always eschewed glamour for realism,” Jules went on. “Indeed, he prefers not to hire outstandingly beautiful actresses as he finds that they rarely have the talent to match their looks.”
“Gee, thanks,” I muttered, suitably deflated.
Now it was Michael’s turn to try and smooth over the conversational bump. “So tell me about this film that Natasha might have been the star of,” he said. “What is it called?”
“The film is Ciudad de Desparados,” replied Jules. “It is a lyrical paean to the unspoilt honesty of simple peasant life and a coruscating indictment of the corrupting influence of so-called civilisation.”
“Do you suppose we might have seen it at all?” asked Michael thoughtfully. “I mean, when was it released? Was it shown in the UK?”
El Maestro swiftly launched into a lengthy, heavily gesticulated speech.
“El Maestro says that unfortunately his work has rarely received the international recognition it truly deserves,” Jules ruefully explained. “And in fact Ciudad de Desperados never reached any screen in a form that would do it justice. There was a hastily cut version that received a limited release in a few South American territories but this was little more than a faint echo of El Maestro’s original vision.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Michael.
There was more from El Maestro.
“El Maestro says that budgetary constraints and creative differences have sadly meant that his artistic vision has rarely been well served in the real world,” translated Jules. “In fact, that’s really the main reason for this tour of the landscape of the imagination. El Maestro feels it is time he looked to secure his artistic legacy once and for all.”
“Wouldn’t it have been simpler just to arrange a DVD reissue of the director’s cut?” I suggested. “Or maybe a retrospective at the National?”
Ignoring my comment, El Maestro made another impassioned speech.
“El Maestro says that it is only by venturing into the landscape that he can catch his own creative impulse in its purest form,” explained Jules. “Before it has been strangled by incompetent producers and shoddy actors. Here, he says, he can finally lay claim to the true might of his own imagination.”
“If you say so,” I replied. “But it seems to me that unpicking one man’s creations from this vast, evolving landscape is a pretty tall order. Especially if you’re liable to go around claiming any old girl on a hillside as your heroine…”
There was a sharp and rather huffy interjection from El Maestro.
“El Maestro says that he may have been mistaken about the character but the vista is undoubtedly his,” translated Jules. “He thinks that it is highly likely that we will find his heroine as soon as we enter the city itself.”
“I suppose he should know,” remarked Michael thoughtfully. “But I can’t help thinking Natasha has a point. In fact, when I was sitting over there, smoking my pipe, I remember feeling quite strongly that this view puts me in mind of some lines from a Rudyard Kipling story.”
“Well, I could have sworn that it looks just like a scene from a martial arts movie my housemate Ben is very fond of,” I threw in cheerfully. “I can’t remember what it’s called but there’s a great bit in it where a bloke gets decapitated by his own nunchucks.”
There was a short but rather expressive burst from El Maestro.
“El Maestro respectfully suggests that you are both, er, mistaken,” Jules diplomatically translated.
El Maestro followed this up with another vehement speech and then turned and stalked away across the grass.
Jules was left standing, looking sheepishly at us for a moment. “I’m sorry but it seems we really must be getting on,” he finally said, hurriedly gathering up his bags and camera. “It was very nice to meet you,” he added rather wistfully. Then, after just a moment’s hesitation, he scurried after his boss.
Michael and I stood and watched them disappear over the headland for a moment.
“Interesting fella, that El Maestro,” I noted archly when they had finally slipped out of view.
“Oh, I’ve met a few like him in my time,” remarked Michael with a wry grin.
“They’re a breed apart, I’ll say that.”
“Well, I wish him luck finding his peasant girl heroine down there among all that lot,” I said.
“He’ll certainly have plenty to choose from,” noted Michael.
There was a moment of silence while we both gazed down upon the crowds around the city gates which, already dense enough, seemed to be growing by the minute.
“Speaking of which, I guess we’d better get going ourselves,” I said.
“I suppose we should,” agreed Michael with a solemn nod.
So, with rather serious and determined faces, Michael and I set off down towards the gates of Khotya ourselves. After all, whoever it was that had dreamed up this particular landscape, I had an idea that hidden doors might prove just as elusive as peasant girls within those city walls.
To be continued…