‘N’ by Arthur Machen

Arnold, Perrot and Harliss, three old men, gather one winter night in Arnold’s comfortable second floor rooms, to rehearse shared—and not so shared—memories of London streets. It all goes quite slowly. They make punch, they maunder on “about the old-fashioned rather than the old”, and suddenly they’re arguing about Stoke Newington, that “wild no man’s land of the north”, and N. What is N? Well, N is a park, a park which according to one testimony has long been built over, and is now just a lot of dull once-prosperous streets with names like “Park Crescent”; but according to another is like

finding yourself in another country. Such trees, that must have been brought from the end of the world: there were none like them in England, though one or two reminded him of trees in Kew Gardens; deep hollows with streams running from the rocks; lawns all purple and gold with flowers, and golden lilies too, towering up into the trees, and mixing with the crimson of the flowers that hung from the boughs. And here and there, there were little summer-houses and temples, shining white in the sun, like a view in China

Perhaps N as glimpsed is an earlier state of the world, visible from unlikely angles. Or perhaps N is Stoke Newington, full of the deep alchemical plasticity of the ordinary. Arnold, briefly obsessed, searches vainly through records written and oral: he even visits Stoke Newington. But the more he pursues it, the more N, so briefly held in superposition between the memories of Harliss and Perrot, slips out of view. There’s no one left to ask if it was ever there, not these days, now the three old men are gone. Machen was 75 when he wrote this.

First published in The Cosy Room, 1936. Widely collected, including in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2018, and available online, including here

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