TALES OF THE TRICORN
When viewed from above, the building was meant to look like a three-cornered hat, and that was why it was named the Tricorn. That was odd. Who, after all, would be able to view it from that height? It was very tall. And Tricorn hats were habitually worn in the eighteenth century, and signified power and elan, neither of which were appropriate for the denizens of Portsmouth from that part of town - either in the present or the past.
Well, there it was. The project was designed to fit into a triangular space, and it was intended to house a shopping centre, a car park and some night clubs. But it never succeeded, and the official explanations for its failure were predictable - the corrosive sea air which damaged the concrete, the entrepreneurs who were too timid to take risks, the intractable one-way traffic system. But the unofficial explanations were more convincing. The local myth was that the Tricorn was haunted, and in a very sinister way.
The original architects had called it “the Souk”, because they envisaged it functioning rather like an oriental market - lively, colourful, informal. But they had failed to take the location into account. It was built on top of a bomb site- a place where hundreds of civilians had died in raids in World War Two. In addition, it was hard by an ancient market called Charlotte Street, where the poor habitually shopped, and it was also close to Portsea, with its alleyways and morally dubious reputation. The Tricorn was thus the central hub of a whole set of histories: or, to put it another way, it was the icing on top of a very indigestible cake.
Soon after it was completed, people began reporting strange events there. Well, not officially “reported”, as they never reached the newspapers. But the culture of gossip in the town was powerful and, from the networks of family and social relationships, stories gradually emerged. Souk merchants were seen trying to set up street stalls: lentils, spices, perfumes. The merchants themselves were a little shadowy, in that you couldn’t see them properly in sunlight. They were unable to settle into their sales pitch, because another group kept attacking them. The second group wore cutlasses, eye-patches, striped pantaloons and Tricorn hats, and they uttered dreadful imprecations as they hacked the merchants to pieces. In other spaces in the complex, bomb victims seemed to emerge from the ground, some carrying a canary in a cage, some seeking a lost limb or relative, and all keening in a piteous way. One or two listeners thought that the cries were merely the wind whistling through the concrete alleyways (the prevailing wind was, after all, a south-westerly) but it was too piercing for that. And then the women! A gaggle of hungry, bedraggled females would often appear. Some were gaudily selling themselves at a cheap price, others were pallid mothers with motionless babies, sifting through the litter.
Pretty soon, people started to avoid the place. There had been several suicides from the top of the car park - it was, after all, the highest spot in the city - but some people said that these desperate creatures had been driven mad by the sights and sounds of the Tricorn. It evoked uncomfortable emotions - terror, nostalgia, pity, regret. You risked being buffeted by the people of the past, who had been unwillingly catapulted into rebirth by concrete and bulldozers. And these people would frighten you, because they had been frightened themselves.
In the end, after much wrangling, it was decided to demolish the Tricorn. A large crowd assembled to watch. Parts of the building had been taken down earlier, but a recognisable portion remained. It was dynamited, and there was a hollow boom and a huge cloud of dust. But that was not all. From the wreckage came screams, choking coughs and wailing, as well as utterances that few people could understand. A flurry of objects flew through the air: ragged pelisses, thigh-boots, empty feeding-bottles, full-bottomed wigs, A.R.P. booklets, bloody bandages. It was a snowstorm from the past.
The crowd panicked, of course, as the air became full of poor souls in flight. Where did they go to? To some new building site, perhaps, or to some forgotten cellar. It was not an exorcism, but a displacement. The crowd knew that: and for some time they were afraid to walk the streets or open their doors, for fear they should meet anyone transparent who was homeless or hungry. Or wearing a three-cornered hat.