Dan Dare at the Cosmos Ballroom

John Hartley Williams

amor vincit omnia

Venus lies ahead –
ball of mists and disenchanted fruitfulness,
too hot for charity, too steamy for reproach,
my mission crystalline as snow:
to conquer what has always conquered us.
Airlock doors slide open. They reveal
the Mekon, president of Love Unexpurgated,
a peagreen Humpty Dumpty on a flying plate,
vestigial legs suggesting
toxic misadventures at the antenatal stage,
the sonic scalpel of his voice
sharp inside my brain: Welcome to the planet
humans dream of on their cold blue ball.
Welcome to the temperature of pleasant being.
Dispel colonial ideas.
We’ve been watching humans from afar.
How could anyone invent a game like cricket?

An egg-sliced-open sort of smile.
I descend the ladder of the Peril Two,
alight upon the sighing ground
and contemplate across the rocket park
The Cosmos Ballroom, with its astral sign:
Pleasure Tourist Amorous Infinity is Yours
Without Regard to Species, Origin, or Sex!
‘Unappeasable amour?’ I ask. ‘Is that your creed?’
No, no, the Mekon says. Creed is what Venusians
have never suffered from. We give no credence anywhere
.
He loops a solipsistic loop. Even upside
down his saucer holds him firmly glued:
Venusians adhere – I use the word advisedly –
to two adjacent modes of love,
PARADISE –
he points to entrance Number One -
or its counterpart: DISASTER.

‘No human,’ I remark, ‘would go through that door.’
Ah, the blindness of the Earthling, the Mekon says,
disaster if experienced aright
can be as pleasurable, indeed it may be more so,
than any mere paradise, whose quality . . .

and here the Mekon banks away, then comes zipping back,
. . . contains a level of inherent boredom
most Venusians, at least, deplore.

I jut my famous chin. Perhaps a man
of my renown should take disaster’s door
to prove I’m up to it. This is Venus, after all.
My orders are to let the worst befall.
The Mekon has decided for me.
He nudges me with little bumps toward
a beckoning entrance, finger-fronded.
Through music that has fingers too,
notes that tweak my nose, and fidget
at the spaceworld issue of my pants,
tickled by the shadow of desire, or
disastrous with imperative, I go:
Now put on rollerblades,
slot them in this rail that weaves
a rollercoaster tangle
over Consummation Chasm.
Keep your wits and balance, Dan Dare!
Lose your equilibrium, you’ll fall,
and falling here on Venus is an endless process
that never stops . . .
Suddenly,
I’m launched upon a steepening helter-skelter
in knee-alarming corkscrews.
Massed choirs keen from nowhere:
JOIN US! JOIN US NOW DAN DARE!
The tracks I’m on keep branching. I derail.
A thousand million voices rise in song
to greet the imminence of my demise.
I lose my spaceworld cap.
My hair’s a streak of flying sweat.
Wafting from the nether world
the limpid ditty fans me with its coo.
Skates jammed firmly back on track,
high above the lullabying tomb,
I bend my knees to take another curve.
A fiery Catherine-wheel displays:
ENTER THE ARCADIAN MAZE.
Here each decision, counting down, leaves more.
I swerve. The signs read
NO WAY OUT, NONE LEFT, NONE LEFT.
More decisions, all of them superfluous.
The false deliverance of an EXIT looms.
Go right? Go left?
I exit into more decisions.
Can this one be the FINAL EXIT?
And then another one. And billions more.
Switch. Turn. Twist. Dodge.
I’m going right. Then left. Then right again.
From vertigo, the chorussing abyss
reiterates its roundelay of little death:
La-la again. La-la again. La-la again.
Then I’m gliding to the station where the Mekon waits:
I thought the famished roar went up
that would have signified
your transmutation to a morsel of amor.
Well, well. They’ll get their chance.
Nothing here, Dan Dare, that’s not discoverable
from one fissiparating body to the next . . .
Let’s say this was
a little fitness test to get you in the mood for proper love . . . ?
May I suggest a cup of sweet green tea?

(ii)

Tea’s a trial too.
It happens in the blue
Venusian afternoon.
Fumes of tea-room dissonance.
Disharmonies of steam.
In slanting mirrors on the walls,
converging to the roof,
misty nymphs demist and mist again.
The Mekon’s eyes
reflect an alleyway of smiles.
Everything that’s female in the universe
dawdles languidly before my gaze.
Accosted, I am twisted
on every eyebeam’s fork.
Nothing for it but to play the hero,
sunset-jawed against the Cosmos Teabar’scockpit lights,
my hand on quivering controls
(the Mekon is enjoying this),
steering wide of a universal mouth
that does not mean to kiss –
beautifully petalled rose,
beautifully petalled rose.
The tea’s infused.
Everything is silent in the silence,
except the glug and trickle
of a samovar – Venusian green and gold.
Grey, metallic eyes
prise the Daniel from the Dare.
What weakness is, the Mekon knows.
Knows that he can make it crawl
beneath the sheets of anything,
with anyone, make it roll
into the warmth of any arms,
intemperately, anyhow,
melt its blood
with the icicle of love.
Tea?
The stuff I’m drinking
is inimical to sanity.
A barefoot vision walks into my arms
across a lawn of stars
and then again into my arms.
The Mekon clouds me with his breath.
My cap and jacket,
my air of resolution, smart appearance
struggle in a frame, like someone
trying to get out.
I crouch on luscious flanks –
the Cosmos Teabar seats.
Someone’s standing in a mirror,
gradually unclouding,
our botanist, of course,
aboard the Peril Two!
– her forage cap unpinned,
loosened hair a waterfall,
arms flung wide to clasp . . . well, who?
Peabody! Miss Peabody!
Resist, desist.
My breath is thick as tea
and I can hardly drink it.

‘This tea is stewed!’ I shout.
‘You slipped me Venus weed, admit it!’
Enough’s enough! Get me the bill!’
The Mekon’s countenance
knobbles briefly – bestial kohlrabi –
then smoothes out irritation:
Enough is never quite enough.
I do applaud your mental effort, though.
How hard you Earthlings struggle to avoid
the inevitable! How little do
the outcomes match the effort!
But a simple bill is much too easy.
On our planet, we insist:
resolution of a debt is carnal.

His twig-like fingers crack.
A beauty, glowing green,
bald and sumptuously skinny,
comes gliding to his summons.
‘The Queen of Waitresses?’
O no, the Mekon says.
This is Venus. She’s the bill.

(iii)

Venus takes my hand.
A herb-smell drifts through stars.
Love is anti-gravity, the Mekon says. Ascend.
A single room, above us, raised on stilts,
is entered through a heart-shaped door.
We climb the ladder to it, close
the door against his presence.
Undress she thinks inside my head.
My uniform’s a pile at my feet.
Her body’s ocean in the dark.
I’m stretched upon a bed that whimpers;
she prowls across me on all fours,
her breasts crush soft against my ribs;
mournful thunder on the roof
prefigures thoughts of earthly rain.
I’m the single crewman of a craft
already lost. It tips
and I’m decanted overboard,
a downward-drifting pleasure-lode
through layered shafts of darkness.
She peels my lightness
from the stone it’s wrapped around.
The part of me that’s covered
by the part of me that cannot move aside,
released, begins to climb out free.
My blind hands read her every dip and swell.
And then,
a glow of phosphorescence stains the room:
The Mekon, cruising back, derisively
directs a torchbeam
at the knot we make, his mockery
a knife of virid glee. We hurl
a gale at him, in telepathic unison,
impart ferocious spin to his abominable frisbee
and with a shriek, he flies off through the roof;
his dwindling shout of Having fun, Dan Dare?
drifts starward
in a detumescent vapour trail
of ice-cold jism.
Her answer to him, confidential in my ear,
makes me burn to hear it.
Her arms lock tight,
in olivaceous hoops around me,
the muscles of her belly
strain with inconsumable receptiveness.
She puts out tentacles. They slide between my ribs,
dote upon the organs they encounter.
My pump begins its agonising pump.
She slips a duct into my sac of seed
and instantly replenishes my emptying.
Once the circuit’s made, she whispers,
it’s unbreakable
until perpetual depletion’s satisfied.

I’m a rifle jammed on auto-fire,
in love-mode, stuck upon repeat,
struggling to recall my training’s first command:
alien sex translates to harm;
if encountered, personnel fall back . . .
I pluck her loving piercings out, like burrs;
she gives off weakening cries.
Love’s machine runs down.
Something seems to leave me I reach out for,
hardly knowing what it is. It’s gone.
The whole connection stands undone.
Dare and Venus –
soldiers that a war’s rolled over –
lie quietly in lover’s ditch, exhausted.

The Mekon, father of the storm,
rowing slowly from the epicentre
of the cyclone we dispatched him with,
examines me with saturnine reproach.
What might have been the sound of rain
is just an ambient hiss. Only swathes
and slashes of an inhuman hurricane are left.
Of Venus, there is nothing
but the ghost of an aroma.
The Mekon gives what might be called a chuckle.
Or something else?
I simply lie there: think of Earth.

(iv)

Behold, the Earth, the Mekon says.
Our reality machines run hard
to reproduce that scuffed-white sea,
the cut-out mountain tops,
all that lush geography.

I gaze toward the landscape
refracted through my fishbowl helmet.
So is it really Earth? And if it is,
is earth a bent invention of Venusians?
And if it’s really real
why am I encumbered in this awkward suit?
Where is Digby? Where the real Peabody?
Another test; another fraught descent.
I feel the throb of a lubricious dusk.
If this is their idea of us –
the only route is down.
I’m standing on a mountain peak.
And at the bottom: sea.
I watch its silver tracery
lining out in surf the anthracitic sand.
A few small buildings flutter flags.
Coastal dwellers move along a shore.
If anything below resembles
that cartoon you carry in your brain,
that longing of belonging you suffer from,
come back up and tell me that it doesn’t!

A vicious cackle, followed by a yawn.
. . . Excuse me for a while . . . a ten-year nap . . .
He fades. He’s doing it on purpose.
I train my glasses on the settlement
beside an ocean that seems real enough
and watch a carnival take shape: The Day of Love.
Before those stalls are taken down,
the floats dismantled,
Might I find what I am looking for
along the Avenue of Doves?
Or is the Queen of the Fiesta
a double agent of the Mekon?
The oldest tree in Christendom’s down there;
it hasn’t moved a leaf since breakfast.
Midget dinosaurs are sniffing at my boots.
Is this before humanity or afterwards
or just the moment of humanity itself,
despair and hope
cunningly imagined as a place?
Hard to say.
In the now I’m in, I have become a verb: to dare.
What’s more, I have become unconjugable,
a spaceman alpinist in monstrous moon-pyjamas,
climbing downward into sameness
from frame to frame.
There my boots are at the top left corner,
coming slowly into view;
the branches I’ve dislodged are female arms
flung straight above her head, enclosed by glossy foliage:
a goddess of the cliff, madonna, sacred prostitute of the ravine.
The Mekon blasts me from his dream:
Disaster isn’t vegetable, you fool!
I grip a ledge, securely lodge my boots.
My hesitation turns her back into a tree.
The noise of time is visible from here,
bouncing off the chasm walls –
an ear-confounding spectacle;
empty waves of previous millennia
crash on lizard-coloured rock . . . fall back . . .
above it all, another sign:
TIME’s NATIONAL PARK.
Human fate is stuck on an escarpment, is what I think.
The Mekon stirs and dips a straw
into the memory solution of my brain.
Intristing! he hisses.
Then he multiplies me, strands me numberlessly
in every episode of time, on every mountain top,
waving to my fellows on the next.
How will they interpret these unbalanced signals?
Someone happy to be toppling in?
Time to fall Dan Dare. I need to sleep . . .
Rising from that avid vertigo,
the song he orchestrates repeats
its shameless, sucking-sentimental lamentation.
I mentally invert its trash-seductive harm,
have it magnetise my boots
so I can get a grip again, continue down.
Do hours pass? Or days? Or years?
Fending off the Mekon’s wild, contrary brainwaves,
I reach the carnival
upon the Square of Memory
where dancers leap and twirl.
Will they know me for the Dare I am?
Will someone say:
Can that be you? Where have you been?
A slender wrist takes hold of me.
I’m pulled into the thickening throng, begin
the clumsy hop, a spaceman’s Morris dance
to music that is rhythmless and sweet,
and hear the Mekon raving from his dream of malice:
You’re wrong. So wrong! And wrong again!
How good the wrongness feels.
The one who holds my wrist stands next to me.
I take my helmet off, my suit, my boots.
I plant my ankles in the sea and breathe.
Where surf and swimmer join
beneath a grey, ferocious sun,
where paradise does not embrace disaster
but where their bodies move
improbably and equidistantly together –
divested of my mission and my clothes –
I feel the strict sensation of deliverance that comes
to any man, however lost,
who measures, paces out at last,
the lost co-ordinates of home.

Dan Dare was a spaceman comic hero of the 1950s, invented by the artist Frank Hampson, and first published in the Eagle. His faithful assistant was Digby. Peabody was the ship’s biologist. There was also a radio serial broadcast on Radio Luxembourg, but listening to 208 medium wave was very frustrating, reception was so bad.

The Mekon was leader of the Treens, the inhabitants of Venus. He was, as described in the poem, a large head and nothing else, all evil brain. The Treens otherwise looked lankily humanoid except for their green colour and ugly faces. The derivation of Treens, one imagines, is from the word latrines; a very Second World War sort of a word, somehow. The Treens used captured human beings as slaves – their appetite for nastiness modelled, no doubt, on Nazi, or Japanese, slave labour camps.

I have, of course, for satirical purposes, made Dan somewhat more reflective, and also given him a sexual being, none of which were part of the original. I hope that readers who cherish the memory of clean-cut boyhood heroes will not be offended by any of this.