[This is a chapter from an extended work. However it was written so that each chapter is a stand-alone story, so is self-contained and is readable on its own without any context. It is about 7,500 words long so you may want to keep that in mind if all you have is a couple of minutes to read it. But I hope you do read it, and I equally value feedback and comments.]
7 June 1944
Eric Blackmore’s breakfast had consisted of fried bread, an egg and a mug of tea.
“Bleachy, you don’t look anything like your photograph.”
Eric laughed and took back the tatty snap and put it in his wallet. He took out two more pictures and showed them to his co-driver.
“Gawd knows why I carry these,” he said.
“Your mother and old man?”
The two of them sat on the wheel arch of their armoured car. Eric Blackmore had been taken off the beaches of Dunkirk four years ago and put back on Juno beach yesterday. The lads called him Bleachy because the hair above his ears had turned white. Some had called him Chipmunk but Bleachy was the one that stuck because it rhymed with Blackmore. It was his twenty-fourth birthday in six days. He had an ironic smile and was trying to grow a moustache that came out looking precocious. He was in the Devil’s Own and drove reconnaissance with Iain McCashin, known predictably enough as ‘Mac’. They were all thoroughly settled on nicknames. Mac had red hair and freckles all over his body and had no connection with Ireland that he was aware of. They’d both been brought up in Deptford and now served together. They both had one arse cheek hooked on the front wheel arch and drank their tea and passed photographs between them as battle tanks slewed through the mud inches away heading inland to France and the 21st Panzer Division.
Diesel fumes mixed with the stench of urine and faeces that was being burned off in twenty gallon drums. Motors and gears whined and strained as four wheel drive vehicles sluiced up sand beaches, the riders rocking side to side, their eyes staring impassively ahead. Across, in a field, thirty or so German prisoners sat with their hands on their heads with three guards keeping watch, one of whom chatted to one of the prisoners in a friendly way. Behind Eric and Iain, where the road dropped away, eight dead British soldiers were lain out with tarpaulin covering most and field jackets covering the rest.
Iain poured out the dregs of his tea and tapped the tin mug to empty out any leaves. Eric gulped down the last of his and then drew in a deep sniff of the morning air.
“Another glorious day in the regiment!” said Eric. “I’m already old.”
Iain took the driver’s seat and started the engine. Eric stood next to him, proud of the cockpit, and leant on the Bren gun. The car lurched forward, ricking Eric back, and set off down the road.
Take a picture, a wide panoramic shot. The fields are green and open. The vegetables are cabbages or potatoes, low and leafy. The fields stretch off into the far distance where a thin strip of the sea merges with the sky. A breeze hustles through the few trees creating the only lazy sound. There is also an old barn missing most of its slate roof. And then there is a sound. An engine throttles down the road that sits above the fields. Our shot follows it for a bit before cutting to the interior.
“What I want to know is, why?” asked Iain.
“What?” shouted Eric as he moved his head left and right trying to find a position where the wind didn’t buffet his ears so much.
“Why?” called Iain. “Why do you carry a broken violin?”
“It was my father’s. He was a violin maker. He couldn’t play a note.”
“Why do you have it?”
“It was the first one he made. It was bought by the local pub landlord who played it every Christmas and St David’s day. His son was killed in 1916 and he broke the neck off saying he never wanted to hear a happy tune again. My father took it and waited for the day the landlord wanted to play his fiddle again when he would fix it for the man so he could play it at Christmas. The landlord died before he had the chance to hear his violin played again. My father refused to either throw it away or fix it until the time was right. He died of a heart attack before that time came. It was given to me to look after and fix when it was needed.”
“When are you going to fix it?”
“I can’t. I’m not a violin maker.”
“So why do you take it with you?”
“I’m hoping to find one.”
Their car came to a stop by a cross roads that showed Reviers to the east and Tierceville to the west. Two old men stood by the post giving it a coat of paint and they stopped when Iain and Eric’s car approached and stared at the two young British soldiers.
“Where are the Germans?” asked Eric. The men said nothing and continued to stare at the two, so Eric said again, “which way are the Germans?”
They said nothing but one of them started to pick his nose.
“Allemande?” asked Eric.
The nose-picker pointed east so Iain put the vehicle in gear and they went toward the town of Reviers.
Reviers had a market square with a market cross. The Germans had left only that morning and the fields and outskirts of town still played host to many soldiers not sure whether to advance or retreat. The road leading in had several burned out vehicles that had been strafed by allied aircraft and many buildings blown out by allied bombs. The people who lived there had learned to keep quiet and off the streets, especially in the last few days as the British, American, Canadian and French armies had tried to regain a place on mainland Europe. The retreating Germans had looted and raped during their evacuation. The buildings huddled quietly around the streets like Shakespearean conspirators, the awnings downcast like shamed eyelids. Eric and Iain’s car turned into the square and drove around the market cross. Eric crouched down low behind the machine gun, the barrel poking around, rooting out any signs of enemy soldiers, sniffing out danger like a dog before the car turned off down a road that led out of town and out into the countryside.
They drove down toward a farmhouse with a field of dead cows and dark trees lining the hedgeways. Rattling through the courtyard they came under fire from an unseen vantage point. The shot missed their car and ripped the corner off a barn with brick fragments dashing into the steel sides of the vehicle. Eric got his head down. Iain yanked the car into reverse and peered through the tiny driver’s port and put his foot down.
The tank fired again.
The round drove into the ground just ahead of Eric and Iain and exploded. The concussion sent their light vehicle skidding at full speed into the last of the farm’s outbuildings, where it nailed into the wall bringing bricks, mortar and slate down. The two of them passed out. Presumed dead.
They regained consciousness in one of the houses of Reviers. They could look through a window and see they were in a downstairs room that looked onto a brick walled yard where washing hung on a line. Eric felt the right side of his face was tender and swollen and his hair matted together from dried blood. He had trouble opening his right eye and he felt nauseous. He couldn’t see Iain, who lay with his right arm and both legs broken. The room was dark, shielded from light by the wall and washing, just two bars of light coming through reflecting off tiny particles of dust. The room was otherwise anonymous – no smell, sights or sounds. The two of them lay on pallets and had been covered with blankets.
Eric tried to sit up straight, was overcome with dizziness and started vomiting. Iain turned on his side to watch that his friend was alright but pain bit him and he had to roll onto his back.
The door to the room opened and more light came in. A woman stood there who was of Eric’s age. She wore laddered tights and scuffed red shoes, a brown checked skirt and a pale pink cardigan. Her hair was unwashed and uncombed and came just past her shoulders. She’d tried to put some make-up on her face but her own flushed complexion brought more colour.
Eric stopped vomiting and looked up to her, shaking and distraught. The woman stepped over to him and spoke in French, soft words, and touched him softly and he lay down and passed out once more.
He came around and this time the room was lighter and the washing was no longer there. A bowl of water had been put beside him and he could just make out the edges of some furniture on the far side of the room.
“Iain? Iain, are you there, mate?” he pleaded.
“I’m here. I’m all broken up.”
“What’s going on?”
“They found us in the wreck. There’s loads of Germans all around and they’re going to try to get us back tonight. How do you feel?”
“Like shit. What time is it?”
“I don’t know.”
The woman came back into the room and smiled at them.
“Could you open the window, please? I need some fresh air,” said Eric.
“Pardon?” asked the woman.
“The window,” he said. “Open the window.”
The woman shrugged.
“Fenetre,” he said pointing.
The woman smiled and nodded and went to the window and opened the curtains wider.
“No,” said Eric, “please open the window.”
The woman looked at him, not understanding, so he did his best to mime the actions as she watched. She eventually caught on to the idea and opened the window. Eric smiled, said ‘merci’ and laid down on his pallet. She then came beside him and knelt down dipping a cloth into the bowl of water and started to wipe the blood away from his face, all the time saying gentle words in French that sounded as smooth as the cloth that brushed his face. Her hand crowned his head and her voice bathed his mind and he lay there looking into the room at the far wall as she held him. Looking into the sepia room.
“On your wall is a picture,” he said.
She carried on wiping and talking. Eric tried to lift but she would not let him. He raised his arm and pointed at the wall.
“The picture,” he said.
She looked where he pointed, spoke to him, asked him things he did not understand and he continued to point at the wall and ask about the picture that hung there.
“Le picture,” he said, “what is the picture?”
“Est-ce que vous poulez du tableau?”
Eric did not understand but he nodded, ‘oui, oui,’ and asked to look at the picture.
The woman got up and walked to the wall and took down the painting for Eric to look at. She brought it over to him and knelt down and turned the canvas around for him to have a look at. He stared at it a few seconds and then smiled at her.
“It’s you,” he said as he pointed at the picture and the woman. She nodded and laughed and started explaining about the portrait as he ran his fingers across its surface and the strange, yet familiar face. In her portrait she wore a wide brimmed white sun hat and her shoulders were bare. Her hands had been brought up to hold a white rose and her red lips were the only colour that erred its way from the canvas.
Eric lifted up his arms to take the painting and held it at arm’s length to look at.
“Can I keep it?” he asked and folded his arms around it.
“Si vous le voulez. Il vaut presque rien.”
Eric kept his arms around it and fell asleep.
Both he and Iain awoke in the middle of the night. Now they were outside, bouncing in the back of a cart. Eric still held the painting in his arms and he could hear voices talking in French, one the familiar lilt of the woman and the other a man’s. Latches were heard being unlocked and the back of the cart swung down. Eric turned his head to see who was there but the pain and pressure stopped him. Someone climbed onto the cart and Eric saw a pair of Size 10 hob-nails and spats. Their Sergeant looked down at them, hands on hips and handlebar moustache greased and said to them,
“If you ladies are finished lying on your arses we’ll have you back in the field in no time.”
The woman’s face peered over and she kissed both Eric and Iain on the forehead and said, ‘au revoir’. She then lifted their bags up and into the trailer and Eric stretched out with one hand to feel the broken violin in his rucksack and held onto the painting with the other.
“Au revoir,” he said.
29 January 1986
“Dad, you are more than welcome to stay for as long as you want – so long as you and mum are talking,” said Lorna.
“You know your mum, luv – it’s best if I give her a couple of days to calm down first. I’ll give her a call on Monday,” said Eric.
“No, I’ll call her later. I would’ve thought the two of you were too old to argue.”
Lorna took her father’s bags from him and led him upstairs to the spare room.
It was one of those days where the sky kept changing. Mostly it was sunny and blue, but big clouds like the ones primary school children paint would put everything in the shade when they flew across the sky. The spare room was pastel shades and Habitat decorated, with art prints for character. Only it wasn’t. They’d gone for a neutral blue that made the room look cold and the rarely used bed still looked as if it needed to be broken in since the mattress was level flat on top and the linen hung down sharply. The room had also given way to some storage with a box of Lorna’s shoes and several rolls of wallpaper against one of the walls with a pink wig and a painting of red trees next to them. Lorna put her father’s bags on the bed and left him to get on with himself.
Eric Blackmore took out some clothes from one of the bags and put them in the bottom of a wardrobe that had been made out of a flat-pack. He took out a spare pair of shoes and put them under a desk that looked over the back garden and a willow tree just outside the window that shook and swelled in the fast breeze. In his other bag he had a Graham Greene novel and the painting that had been given to him by the French girl forty years previously, and the broken violin. The painting had long since been removed from its frame and was kept rolled up. Eric unrolled the picture and laid it on his bed. It had lost a lot around the edges and the heavy paper it had been painted on had yellowed and thinned, but the colours were essentially true since it had been protected from sunlight, even if its integrity had perished slightly.
He stood by the window, opened it and filled his pipe before taking one, two, three heavy drags and the tobacco started to burn and a plume of silver-grey smoke disappeared into the sky.
The garden he looked down on shimmered and rolled in the draught, swapped from lime to olive as the clouds passed over and stayed silent but for the leaves rasping against each other. Eric stood there, leaning against the desk and puffed on his pipe wondering whether he should call his wife sooner than later.
Lorna turned off the television and dialled her parent’s number. It rang five times before her mother picked it up with a, ‘hello?’
“Hello mum, it’s me, Lorna. How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m bloody annoyed with your father. Is he there?”
“Yes, he’s here. What’s happened? He told me it’s all to do with a painting.”
“He’s a silly old fool who thinks I’m an even bigger idiot. He cleaned out the garage and found an old painting of one of his ex-girlfriends. He wanted to put the picture in our dining room and I wouldn’t let him. We argued about it and I threw him out and told him to get rid of the picture and not bring it back into the house.”
“Oh, mum, is it really worth so much arguing about? It’s only a painting.”
“I don’t want her looking down on me. Why does he need the picture?”
And on they went talking about Eric and his painting while he stayed upstairs by the window looking over the garden and further out to the trees and farms, down the row of detached homes, in private gardens and people leading private lives, and he thought about his painting as he smoked his pipe. Quite simply, he was not too bothered about being thrown out of his home for the while, but he knew that it would become an issue sooner or later. For the while, though, he was content to stay in the room alone and talk about things later when his son-in-law came home so that he did not have to repeat the same story twice – once to his daughter and then to her husband. Eric stood there watching, thinking and smoking when Lorna knocked at the door and came in.
“Can you not smoke in the room – the smell stays in the curtains.”
“Just having a little puff.”
“I just spoke to mum and she told me about the painting and everything. Is that it there?”
Eric nodded and continued to smoke his pipe, taking extra care to blow the smoke straight out the open window. Lorna looked at the old painting of the French girl and wondered if she could have been her mother if circumstances were different, if she would have taken the same thin lips, erotically shaped neck and crescent chin. She thought how the girl looked pale and spiteful with the vivid lipstick. She let herself get absorbed in the picture with its anonymity. The identity of the subject was unknown and would probably stay that way and still Lorna felt an affinity with the girl for her part in her family’s history. This had been a paragraph previously unsuspected and Lorna could make no sense of it because she did not know whether it was the beginning, middle or end of a tale.
“What was her name?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I never knew.”
“You mean you loved her and left her?”
“No, not at all. I think she saved my life. I loved her for that. We were hit by a German shell and our armoured car crashed. We were rescued by French villagers who looked after us and got us back to the British lines. The girl in the picture cared for us and spoke to us the most beautiful and touching words I’ve ever heard. At that moment me and my mate, Mac, were very far from home, badly injured and in desperate need of a bit of sympathy. She gave it so effortlessly and genuinely. That portrait hung on the wall of the room where we stayed and I asked her if I could keep it and I think she let me. That’s who she was. She had the most gentle voice and her words disappeared gracefully into the air as she spoke.”
“Mum thinks she was an ex-girlfriend.”
“I know, I tried to tell her otherwise but she wouldn’t listen. I’ll give her time to calm down. Do you have tools in that shed?”
“I think so. Bill often plays in there.”
“I need to get my picture framed properly…”
“You need to get rid of the picture and talk to mum because she’s very angry and refuses to let the picture back into the house.”
“Your mother’s wrong so I won’t get rid of my painting. If she was right then she’d have a point.”
“You need to decide which is more important: the past or the present.”
Lorna left her father who finished smoking his pipe, taking his time, and then put on his spare pair of shoes, rolled up the painting and took it with him for a walk about town.
He found a picture framer whose shop was decorated with soft-focus shots of women with big back-combed hair in glamorous poses. The artistic ones were done in black ‘n’ white and the family portraits in colour.
“Dee yee like Boy George?” asked the assistant, an insipid looking girl in her late teens who wore a loose belt resting on her hips and a wide brimmed hat on the back of her head.
“I only want a frame for my painting,” said Eric.
“Yee see, by the way yee looked when yee came in, I fought yee liked Boy George. It’s ‘im we’re playing on the sound system. It’s a Blaupunkt, yee know…”
She looked him over critically, eyed him like she might a turd in the bath.
“Can I have a look at yee picture?”
Eric put the rolled portrait on the glass topped counter and undid it for the girl to look, taking care that it remained on his side of the table-top and that his were the only hands to touch it.
“Is it a Franz Von Stuck?” she asked.
“A Von Stuck. ‘E’s an artist who did pictures like this. I studied ‘im last term – I’m at art school, yee see.”
“I don’t know, I’ve never heard of Von Stuck.”
“Well, if yee were familiar with Von stuck – and I can see I’m on safe ground ‘ere – you’d know ‘is stuff looks good in a plain frame. We got plain frames.”
“I’ll look at some plain frames, then.”
There were some plastic ones in primary colours, fluffy ones in fake animal fur – the leopard skin looking a bit saucy, wooden ones – some varnished, some stained and gold and silver ones with an anti-tarnish lacquer.
“The gold ones and silver ones aren’t real gold and silver, they’re plated. That’s why they look a bit nuclear. The wooden ones are home made, but a bit pricey. Those ones there aren’t real wood, they’re plastic with the wood grain moulded in. They’re cheaper.”
“I’m glad you pointed that out – I was wondering what tree grew shocking pink wood.”
“That’s all reet, fanks.”
So Eric left without his frame, only his painting and off he went back to his daughter’s house holding the picture of the girl who spoke to him, washed him and said ‘goodbye’ to him. Which, at this moment, was enough. He only stopped to pick up a newspaper. He didn’t stop to look in windows that sold man-made fabrics or an optician offering to laser cataracts or a travel agent offering return flights to New York for under £100. £99.99, to be precise.
The two things he did see were:
1/ A man crying by the roadside. There was this fellow who must have been about thirty, give or take a year. He stood outside the local cinema, leant against the railings by the roadside and wore a beige jacket that had corduroy sleeves. He wept, obviously sad about something and drew heavy sniffs every now and then. Eric went up to him and asked if he was alright. The man was coming to the end of his tears and shrugged his shoulders at the question before wiping his eyes and looking at Eric.
“I’ve had a terrible day of self-realisation,” said the man.
“How terrible is terrible?” asked Eric. “What happened?”
“This morning I thought, to hell with it. I’ll just walk and see how far I can go without stopping for traffic – I’ll just cross the road and see which has the most power.”
“How far did you get?”
“I had to stop at the first road I came to. Here. Either that or get knocked down and killed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Eric backing off to leave the man alone.
2/ His 17 year old grandson smoking. You see, Eric decided to take a walk by the river, along a footpath that creased its way below the old theological college, but was now a musical school. He was feeling a bit reflective and meditative and the willows and reeds and the ducks drifting on the current helped him have a Jane Asher moment, even if it was a bit chilly. And just down the way he saw his grandson, Robert, taking a puff on a cigarette. Robert sat on his own, on a bench dedicated to someone dead, his college bag next to him.
Eric stopped at first, not sure whether to let Robert know he’d been spotted or whether he should walk back up through the music school. In the few seconds he paused to think, Robert finished his cigarette and flicked it into the river so Eric carried on and called out to Robert and pretended he hadn’t seen his grandson smoking.
“What are you doing, grandad, where are you going?”
Eric sat down next to Robert and started to fill his pipe. “Me and your gran are arguing, so I’m staying with you for a couple of days. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, I don’t mind. What are you arguing about? Do mum and dad know?”
“It’s silly – nothing really. Your gran’s all in a fuss over a painting. It’ll pass over. I think your mum’s on gran’s side. Your dad doesn’t know yet. Is he at work?”
“He gets home later. What is it with the painting? What’s so bad about it? She can’t have got annoyed over nothing.”
“Here, let me show you.” Eric handed Robert the painting and Robert unrolled it and held it at arm’s length while his grandad lit his pipe. Robert looked at it a good while saying little, just looking and he smiled at the painting while Eric smoked.
“Was she an ex-girlfriend? She’s very pretty.”
“That’s just what your gran thinks. She’s wrong. I don’t know who the girl is, but she saved my life during the war. If it wasn’t for her, you might not be here now.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“You gran doesn’t believe me. I wanted to get the picture framed and put it on the living room wall. We argued about it and she told me to throw it away. I said no, so she threw me out. It’s nothing serious and it’ll soon blow over. Your nan’s a bit spirited. You know what she’s like. How are you, are you courting?”
Robert still looked at the painting, rubbing at the paper with his thumb before looking at his thumb to see if any of the paint had come off. Which it hadn’t. Then he turned the painting around and looked at its back surface and held it up to the light and then to the shade.
“You know, grandad, whenever I get a book, the first thing I do is read the last sentence. Some would think that it spoils the end because you know what happens. That’s never happened to me. The ending always sounds enigmatic because it assumes the reader knows the history, which, at that point, I don’t. Instead, the enjoyment comes from seeing how the story arrives at that point. To see how things resolve. That’s how I feel when I look at a painting – I’m reading the last sentence, the last syllable of time.”
“I thought about getting in touch with her after the war, but I didn’t in the end. There was the problem of not knowing who she was or where she lived. But I also didn’t want to know that she might be dead. Even more than that, I didn’t want to get to know her in case it might spoil my memories. It’s like a good pipe: the first bowl is so enjoyable you have a second, which can never be as satisfying as the first. Have you ever smoked?”
“Do you want to try?”
“Go on, feel the bones beneath your skin.”
“No, mum and dad wouldn’t like it.”
“You’re what? Seventeen, eighteen? I would hope that by now you had done things your parents wouldn’t like.”
Eric held the pipe for Robert to take. Robert still had the painting on his lap and he passed it back to his grandfather, who took it. The pipe still stood there in Eric’s hand and Robert’s palm lifted slowly to take it.
“That’s right,” said Eric, “take it and take a good deep smoke. Get your lips firmly around it to seal off any air and suck in really hard. Really hard. I like the idea of enjoying a conversation and a smoke with my grandson. You’re a man now, and you are allowed to smoke.”
Robert held the pipe uncomfortably and put it in his mouth. Eric smiled.
“You’ve got it,” he said, “now don’t forget, take a deep, full puff.”
Robert sucked heavy on the pipe and the tobacco flamed up. Barely half way through and Robert pulled back from it and started coughing. He held his throat and began spitting to get the embedded taste of ash from the back of his mouth. He doubled up, still hacking his throat, stood up coughing and spitting and Eric laughed and picked up his pipe from the bench. Robert went over to the river’s edge, one hand on a tree and spat into the river to clear his mouth, the other hand still clamped around his throat. The coughing subsided slowly and he came back up drained of colour like the girl in the painting, his face distraught and surprised at what his grandfather had made him do. He looked at Eric who sat on the bench with the pipe in his mouth and a smile on his face.
“That was disgusting,” said Robert.
“I know – so don’t start the habit.”
“So why is there a packet of Marlborough in your bag?”
Robert said nothing, knowing he’d been caught, and just spat out the last of the ash. He picked up his bag and the two of them walked home.
Lorna Miller opened the door to her husband and they kissed, exchanged details of what their days had involved and Lorna told Bill that her father was now staying and why. Eric had also told Lorna about Robert’s smoking on the sly, but she kept that from Bill until the evening. Bill gave her a bunch of flowers he picked up from a market stall – yellow lilies with large leaves and wisteria twined through. He fell into the sofa, still not ready to think about the new guest, more interested in relaxing and scanning the TV page and thinking about things a bit later. Lorna came in with a vase and started to arrange her flowers.
“I saw a famous person today, coming out of Sloane Square,” said Bill.
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t recognise him. I was told he was a racing commentator on Channel Four. You know Rod Hussey? It was him who pointed him out.”
Lorna finished with her flowers and swung sideways on the couch, resting her feet on her husband who started to massage her soles while she twisted her hair around her index finger.
“I spoke to mum about dad,” she said.
Bill said nothing, he took each of her toes individually and gave them a rub, a squeeze, a knead – anything to please.
“Should we intervene or leave them to it, what do you think?” she asked.
“How serious is it?”
“Well, she’s thrown him out. I think he’s being stubborn.”
“All over this painting?”
“All over this painting.”
Bill thought for a while.
“Is it a good painting?” he asked.
“It’s alright. It’s not about the quality, it’s about the girl in the picture. Mum thinks she’s an ex, dad denies it, and so they argue. The quality of the painting is irrelevant.”
“Is the girl good looking?”
“She’s nothing special – neither ugly or attractive.”
“So if the picture is not particularly well done, and the subject unremarkable, why does he want it, and why doesn’t your mum let him keep it?”
“Because he’s being an idiot.”
Bill thought again.
“Will they resolve this?”
“If common sense prevails, if he can let go of the painting.”
Eric was going to read his book. He was going to sit in the garden, watching the woman next door water the pansies with an ornamental copper watering can. He would read a little, every now and then raising to make polite conversation from beneath the shade of a tree, with a Panama on his head, listening to birds chirrup, the removed sound of children playing, shed doors creaking open and the sound of a car pacing by. He was going to. But he didn’t.
Instead, he stayed in his room. He sat on his bed and opened the book, but closed it unread. He then got up and opened his painting, again. He looked at it with a sad eye. He felt sad because he had never got to know the girl, and it was because he never knew her that he had the picture. The picture had to be his memories and the catalyst. He decided that the only way he could do without the portrait was to speak to the girl again. This, however, he knew would be impossible. With no name, address and over forty years separating, the contact could not be made. The girl’s lips and neck, eyes and rose, her picture on the paper would have to remain enough.
He took from his pocket his wallet. From his wallet he took two photographs; one of his wife, and the other of the two of them with a picture of Lorna in her early twenties, about the same age as the French girl. The two photographs he placed on the painting, laid them over the rose. He looked at the painting and touched the shiny surface of his wife’s picture, a shot taken only a few years ago, in colour, of his wife in horn-rimmed spectacles. He then picked up the photograph and looked at his wife who he married in 1944 – just before he left for France. He held the picture, thinking, and took a short glance at his painting, then put the photograph in his trouser pocket and went downstairs to call his wife on the telephone.
Bill and Lorna still sat on the couch, with the television going. They watched the adverts during the commercial break for ways of improving their lives. Toothpaste in pumps, mash from a packet, Shake’n’Vac, Supermops .
“The Edney’s bought a new microwave the other day,” said Lorna.
“Can do jacket spuds in ten minutes.”
“They can make a cup of coffee in it.”
“A cup of coffee?”
“Yeah. It takes less than a minute to heat the water up – they don’t have to wait for a boiling kettle.”
“Three minutes is a long time, after all.”
Eric came in and interrupted their viewing, asking if he could use the telephone to call his wife, in private. They left him alone, turning off the TV as they went and Eric called his wife.
“Hello,” he said, “it’s me.”
His wife, Lorna’s mum, gave him a bit of trouble over the phone but she mellowed slightly when she caught the tone of conciliation in his voice. He talked to her about his day in town, not going as far as to tell of his purpose, said he met Robert (omitted the smoking episode) and the man who had tried to cross the road. She said nothing about her day, she listened to him ramble on and then he asked if he could talk to her. She told him that he was, and he said that, ‘no, that’s not what I mean,’ and she knew, really, and asked him what he’d done with the picture, he said he still had it, and she went quiet and he asked if she’d come round to speak to him and she said she didn’t know, and he said he wouldn’t keep her long and she said she may come round, if she gets time. Which he knew to mean ‘yes’.
Then he took himself away, went up to get the broken violin and took it into the shed and waited to see if Kath would come round to see him and see if he could make amends, help her understand the picture, see what he could say, see if he could have his own bed back. See what he could do for the violin.
Robert sat in the garden, headphones over his ears, fast-forwarding and rewinding through a cassette in his walkman. Not doing much. Not doing anything. Just killing time, trying to find a way of stringing the daytime and the evening together, caught in that age group hinterland: too old to be a child, too young to be an adult. He saw his grandad go into the shed, an old canvas bag in his hand, and Robert pushed himself further under the tree, deeper into the shade to watch his grandad safely hidden from view. He sat with his back against a tree, the leaves hanging down like the teeth of a shark, looking out from the darkness into the light.
He watched his grandad through the open shed door and he saw him hold the pieces of the broken violin. The neck had been snapped off by the body of the instrument and the strings held the two pieces together. He watched Eric cut the strings and inspect the two separate pieces, checking to see that they went together. Eric took out of his bag the bow and laid that on the workbench and a small plastic bag that contained new strings for the instrument. Robert sat still, his walkman turned off, and quietly watched as his grandad held the violin, running his hand the length of the neck, holding it up to check it ran true, constantly rubbing it to feel the smooth wood that had been polished through use. Robert watched and never said a thing. Eric stayed in the shed and took tools down and did the best he could to mend the violin as he waited for his wife to come to him.
Catherine Blackmore got to her daughter’s house just before 8 ‘o’ clock that evening. For the past three hours Eric had stayed in the shed working on the violin and Robert had watched him for most of this, leaving about an hour before his gran got there, so he could shower and change before meeting his friends for a Friday Night Out.
Lorna was surprised to see her mother because Eric had not told her she was coming and Kath complained about him for this. Bill was sent to collect Eric and the two men came in to see mother and daughter in the lounge with a cup of tea.
Bill stayed standing and Eric went around to kiss his wife on the cheek but she refused him telling him he was dressed like a tramp.
“Do you want us to leave you alone?” asked Bill.
“No, you can stay,” said Kath, “he can speak just as well with others here. I’ve got nothing to hide unless he has.”
Kath still had her horn-rimmed spectacles on and her sagging jowls wobbled when she talked obstinately. She never looked her husband in the eye and it was clear he had to do all the work.
“I don’t mind if you stay,” said Eric and he sat down near his wife. “I just want to say I’m sorry about the picture, that’s all.”
“Is that all?” she asked.
“I want you to know that if the picture upsets you, then we won’t hang it up…”
“Will you get rid of it?”
“I won’t get rid of it, no. I told you the honest truth about that picture.”
“Have I not looked after you just as much? Have I not fed you? Have I not looked after you when you were ill? Have I not taken care of you all these years?”
Eric thought about her answer, careful to compose the correct reply and said,
“You have, you have done all these things, and that’s why I’m the luckiest man ever – to have a wife I love and respect in every sense. The picture, though, is not about the girl – that’s just a coincidence. It’s what it reminds me of.”
He knew at that point that his argument was lost, not so much that he felt unable to convince his wife, more that he no longer cared to. Now he wanted to go back to the violin and see if it would play. Kath decided that she would make him work harder.
“You have never once mentioned the girl or the painting in all these years. Why are you so obsessed with it now?” she asked.
“Because it was seeing her face that reminded me of what life missed – an essence. A Richness.”
Kath got up at that point and left the house. Eric apologised to Bill and Lorna and said he was going to see if he could finally fix the violin.
Robert came down the stairs, said he was going out and that he would be home very late.
You now what, that doesn’t seem quite right. That doesn’t seem satisfactory. I’m not sure I want the story to end like that. For those who prefer, I offer an alternative ending and you can take your pick over which you prefer…
Catherine Blackmore arrived at her daughter’s house about 8 ‘o’ clock. She held a soft expression on her face and none of the choler that she had given Eric on the phone, though she sat defensively in an armchair and waited to hear what her husband had to say. Lorna was surprised to see her mother, and glad she had come to talk things over with her father. Bill decided to keep his distance and not interfere, but wisely stay on hand if he was needed. He went to fetch his father-in-law and then hid in the kitchen to make drinks for everyone. Eric sat down near his wife and told her how glad he was that she had come. She said nothing in return, maintained an image of her scorn for him and took off her horn-rimmed spectacles and put them in her handbag.
“Do you remember this photograph?” he asked her as he produced the picture from his pocket.
Kath took the picture and held it near and far as she tried to focus in on it.
“You know I’ve put my glasses away…”
“You don’t need them,” he said, stopping her from getting them out. “It was taken on our fortieth wedding anniversary when we went to Normandy, do you remember?” She nodded. “I was looking at it earlier and I thought, how foolish I’d been. I never lied to you about that painting. Thing is, I never realised what a true picture was until I looked at you smiling at me, and then it all suddenly occurred to me. She may have helped me in 1944, but you’ve been helping me every year since. The painting won’t be coming home with us, but I have something else that will…”
He left the room to come back with the repaired violin, tucked it under his chin and scrawled the bow across the untuned strings.
“Stop that bloody racket. You can’t play that thing for the life of you,” said Kath. “I’m surprised you managed to fix it though. I thought it was buggered for good.”
“I decided not to worry about how a professional would do it, but go about it the way I wanted it to feel.”
It’s got the lot. Double tasteful. Well choice.
It’s on top of the North Downs, overlooking the Weald to the South.
It started life as an upturned skip but now it’s a house to its only resident: Geoff.
It has all the mod cons – even running water: it drips down the walls.
“I doubt it has much commercial value, though,” says Geoff to you. “It’s nice here during Summer but come Winter, and it’s colder than a witch’s tit.”
Every morning he likes to say a prayer and sing an aria or two. Then he likes to walk the mile or so into town because that walk makes him feel as though an adventure is about to begin.
His skip is in the centre of a small patch of privately owned woodland. It’s no more than half an acre, if that, and Geoff refuses to sell it to the Borough Council who, in turn, refuse to accept his home and its address: Skip Manor, Geoff’s Woods, Overlooking the M2.
He’s grown a vegetable plot and a flower border from wild plants. At the bottom of his garden path he’s erected a mail box and he checks it regularly to see if he’s had any post. Which, of course, you know too full well he hasn’t. Inside his skip he has partitioned the space into a living room at the front and his bedroom at the back. There’s an old armchair for comfort and a dairy crate for a table, a pile of blankets for warmth and rust holes in the roof and walls for light.
Down the bottom of the hill a nature trail starts winding its way through the woods and up toward Geoff’s land where it has to circuit around because he won’t sell. The council have thoughtfully put a chicken wire fence around Geoff’s property to keep people away from trespassing. A path has been trodden around the fence so that walkers can watch the exhibit check his mail, tend his garden and hang out the washing. Children have built a rope swing nearby and they often exchange verbals with Geoff.
Some people will stop and talk to him and if they’re polite or if he’s not too busy, he’ll engage in pleasant chat. Some of them congratulate him on not selling to the council, others try to stay upwind from his smell and others keep their distance. Geoff tries to keep the garden in order.
Then each morning he comes out and checks to see if there is any post and each morning there isn’t.
It changes when a lady friend moves in. She’s older than Geoff and no one knows how they met or where she comes from.
“She’s the best thing that’s happened to me. She’s tamed me,” he tells you.
Five weeks later the skip is gone and the wire fence comes down and the nature trail dribbles across what used to be the garden with its optimistic mail box.
Geoff and his lady friend move into an old council house he manages to buy from the money he gets from selling the land.
“We’re planning a family, you see. I didn’t think that was anywhere to bring up a kiddy,” he tells you over the garden fence. In his hand he holds the bills, junk and flyers posted by Royal Mail.
Mike Reynolds loved sausages. He didn’t like all sausages, but he did like the Irish recipe ones from his local supermarket.
At 5.04pm he finished work and turned off the fan on his desk he’d been using to keep himself cool in the August heat. It had been a hot day. What hadn’t really helped matters was his upset stomach. He’d undone the nickel buckle on his belt to relieve the discomfort but it hadn’t helped none. He’d been rushing to the toilet all day and all because the previous night he hadn’t cooked his favourite sausages enough.
His work colleagues had laughed at his mad dashes for the loo and jokily offered to put the toilet paper in the refrigerator for him. He’d laughed it off, but he felt slightly embarrassed at his situation. They hadn’t made it any easier for him.
“Phew – my bloody misses!” he’d say.
And they’d laugh.
But what he’d been thinking is that he wished he’d taken the day off.
It seemed like every half-hour the cramps in his gut would grab him and he knew he only had a short time to dash through the open-plan, into the coffee room and to the back corridor where the Gents were.
Thank God the day had finally come to an end.
At 5.19pm he was in the train station. He called his wife on his mobile and told her about his rotten day.
“Have a glass of Andrews when you get home,” she laughed.
He laughed too and looked at his watch.
His stomach turned. He felt the cramps. He paused for a moment, hoping it would subside, hoping it would hold off until he got home. Then his belly gripped again. Damn, he thought to himself. Damn, he thought, damn, damn, damn.
The train came in to the station at 5.21pm. It was meant to be a 35-minute ride home. Departure time was 5.39pm. With a tense stomach, he urged the train to a stop so he could relieve himself. His stomach gave another spasm and he knew he needed the toilet desperately.
The train inched slowly into the station, barely moving, just creeping to the buffer. Mike panicked. Impatiently, he walked up to the train, ready to open the door and make for the rancid toilet as quick as he could. When the train finally stopped he hastily opened the door but as he did so he felt his stomach wince and his bowel empty itself, soiling his underwear. This was exactly what he did not want to happen.
He’d not fouled himself since he was a little child. He could feel the warm excrement spread around his buttocks and he felt truly miserable and truly humiliated at what had happened.
But it was still only 5.23pm. He had a quarter hour until the train left. He carefully put his hand to his backside and he could feel the excrement had spread onto his trousers. He could hardly sit in the train in his condition, he realised.
However, he also realised there was a Baldocks store just outside the station. So, what he decided to do was this: go into the store, buy a pair of jeans, get back to the train, change and make the rest of the journey in comfort. That was what he decided upon.
“A pair of size 36 denims, please,” he asked the shop assistant.
The girl put the jeans in a carrier bag and he gave her the £19.99.
As he got back into the station he heard the announcer call out the departure for his train. Despite his predicament, he ran for the train and got to the carriage just as it began to pull out.
He’d made it.
He slammed the heavy door shut, clunk! and then went to find the toilet.
It was as filthy as could be expected. There was pale, yellowish shit all around the bowl and the toilet paper was that rough, spiteful stuff. What little of it there was. Mike tried to flush the loo but the flush had long since broken. He opened the toilet window and watched as the train pulled put of the station and started to pick up speed. It wasn’t an ideal situation to be in, but he was thankful he’d made it onto the train and could now change.
He took off his trousers and saw the large stain on the seat of them. Then he carefully took off his underpants and gagged a bit on the stench. He took out his jeans and put the ruined trousers and pants into the carrier bag and threw them out of the window, glad he wouldn’t have to see them again. And then, after cleaning himself, he went to pull on his new jeans. Only as he did so he found he’d been given a denim jacket by mistake.
He stood there, bottom-naked, looking at the window he’d thrown he’d trousers out of, looking at the denim jacket.
It’s coming up to Christmas and it’s snowing quite hard. When a gust takes hold, the flakes stream into your face. Drifts and lakes have collected in crevices on buildings and capped trees and cars. You are on your way for a drink with friends – a Christmas celebration to wish each other all the best for the festive season and that luck may come your way in the New Year.
Your friends are there, riddled along the bar and you order your favourite drink and join them to talk about your day, your week, your year, your home. The four of you sit near the window where the cars drive by, ploughing through the slush. The sun is going down and the yellow street lights have coloured the snow to make the view look warm – this being helped by the heat in your cheeks from the cosy pub interior. As you drink together and talk and laugh the pub starts to fill up with the evening crowd and one or two of your friends make comments along the lines of having only one more, and then I really must be going. It’s been great seeing you guys, I hope you have a great holiday and your family don’t get you down.
You all talk about the news, as well as your lives and you talk about the footage that’s been on the ITN news of a group of immigrants who suffocate in the back of a lorry.
“It’s a real shame,” says friend A.
“It must have been terrible,” says friend B.
“I don’t know who to blame, the driver or the government,” you add.
“Serves them right, hope it happens to the next lot,” says a stranger.
He stands with a partner, the two of them leaning against a pillar. He has on a quilted jacket but you can see he has on a uniform beneath, a chocolate brown and beige one of either a security guard or a delivery driver.
“My taxes go on keeping them,” he says.
“Surely,” you say, “you don’t really mean that?”
“Yes, I do. They get everything they ask for and we get nothing. They should go home to their own country.”
“But their own country puts them in jail, executes them, persecutes them. Surely we have a human responsibility. It’s got nothing to do with whose country it is.”
“That’s tough. We should look after our own first.”
“Isn’t that selfish? Shouldn’t we look after the most needy first?”
“I’m needy. My family’s needy. I have to work all hours – I have to work Christmas because I need the money.”
“That’s not what I meant…”
“Your kind make me angry.”
“Well, you go back to your drink, and I’ll go back to mine. We were having a private conversation, anyway.”
The man isn’t so keen and he’s turned to face you and you do your best to ignore him and finish your drink.
“I’ll do what I want, mate,” he says.
You ignore him and ask if anyone wants another drink and one or two say ‘yes’, so you go up to the bar to get them.
“Are you a poof?” asks the man.
“Go away,” you say.
“Are you going to make me, poofter?”
“I can’t be bothered.”
He nudges you, pushes your shoulder as you pick up the drinks, trying to make you spill them and provoke you.
“Excuse me,” you say with the drinks in your hand.
He blocks your way and then throws his drink in your face, the gas stings your eyes and you take a breath. You put the drinks down and wipe your face with the bar towel and open your eyes to see the stern face of the man. Then you hit him hard in the face with your iron-tight fist. The man stumbles back and you walk into him hitting twice more until he falls. Your friends then stand and start clapping you, excited at the display, saying how impressed they were, how you laid into him. You pick up your drinks and put them on the table and then excuse yourself saying you have to go home.
You step out the door, where it’s finally stopped snowing. Everything is still and frozen and the sky is a sheet of lilac clouds. The snow has coated everything and muffled the earth so that it remains mute. You want to tell someone about this, point out how beautiful it is, but you dare not in case it makes you cry.
You are sitting outside a coffee shop with your left elbow leaning on a whitewashed parapet overlooking the Mediterranean. What isn’t blue is white. You are wearing a pair of white cotton flannels and a diaphanous white shirt and watching a man, his skin flaccid with age, leading a donkey in the street below. The man wears no shirt and the braces of his black trousers hang down by his thighs. Occasionally the animal halts and the man tugs on the rein to get him moving. When that fails he goes behind the beast to push its rump. That works.
Fortunately, you are shaded from the sun’s full heat by a striped awning. Up here, in the shop, the people are beautiful. You are aware of the purple hills drifting away to the north, the torpid, whitewashed homes below, the same cloud that has hung immobile for the last two hours. Taking a pen from your pocket you write on a napkin the words, ‘We are all victims of the world’s apparent simplicity.’
The town you are in is called Misonena. The country is not important – any will do, but it’s in Southern Europe, over looking the Mediterranean. This town has only been a tourist resort for the last few years, and already it is starting to degrade. Except for the Old Town – there one can still find the lugubrious beauty travellers desire.
So, there you are. When a waiter approaches.
“Excuse me,” he says, “there’s a telephone call for you.”
He hands you a salver with a mobile phone.
“Me?” you ask.
He nods, ‘Yes’.
“Hello, is that You?” asks a voice on the other end.
“Yes, can I help?” you ask.
“I’m afraid I have some terrible news. The world is going to end in twenty-four hours.”
“Twenty-four hours, that is all. Do try to make the most of it.” Then he hangs up.
The waiter smiles at you and you look at him.
“Twenty-four hours,” you say.
But you don’t reply and he leaves you, alone. It really is most curious how these terribly odd things can happen. Example: At the precise moment you receive this news a team of monkeys locked away in an American laboratory randomly type out the word ‘CUMULONIMBUS’ as that cloud you’re watching begins turning grey. Across the parched hills the cloud’s shadow swims over the surface and you begin to feel an emptiness come over you like fires across a dry field.
Then something catches your eye.
Now, this is an odd looking fellow. He looks like a young man, but has an old man’s face with a large talon of a nose. Huge eyebrows crest his eyes and he wears a white shirt and black trousers. He looks like a character from a Venetian drama. As he steps from the telephone booth he looks at you, smiles and tips his hat.
“Excuse, me,” you call.
The man ignores you and starts walking off down the cobbled street, up which comes the man with the donkey.
“Hey!” you call louder. “Excuse me!”
Then he stops, turns and looks at you. He taps his nose with his finger and points to the call box. Leaving some money by your empty coffee-cup, you get up and go to the booth. It’s one of those modern ones – the area surrounding the machine is glazed and the local phone book hangs from a chain. The smell is pungent and musty, and the plastic furniture holding the machine has cigarette burn marks. Sticking out from the receiver is a folded piece of paper, which you take and read:
Watch the road and memorise,
the path that lies before your eyes.
You look up, thinking about the words, and see the man watching you, some way off. He lights a cigarette, flicks the match into the gutter, smiles, tips his hat and turns down another street.
There’s no point in getting carried away about this, so you don’t. It is still, after all, an immaculate day, even if it is beginning to cloud over. This part of the Old Town is typically Mediterranean: narrow streets, white-washed buildings with terracotta tiles, sun-bleached grass, the natives in black and tourists in white. The man in the call box clearly has something to do with this, and it seems quite natural that you should follow him to find out. So down the street you go.
The old man with the donkey is now sitting on the kerb, watching cars go by. The donkey stands by him and sniffs some grass that grows beneath a tree. As you walk by, the man looks up to you and points to a small red car.
“There’s one,” he says.
He lifts his hand to stop you a moment while he lights his pipe. One, two, three hefty drags and the tobacco starts to burn and a plume of silver-grey smoke drifts into the sky.
“I.D.,” he says.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I like to sit here sometimes,” he says between puffs, “and see what words are spelt out in a car’s registration plate. That one said ‘ID’.”
“Oh, I see. Yes,” you say. “But surely, there can’t be many with more than two or three letter words?”
“No,” he says ruefully. “Best I’ve ever had is ‘EGO’.”
An uncomfortable pause.
“Well, enjoy yourself, but I must go. Take care,” you say.
You stand there, unsure whether now is the time to leave. After hovering a few seconds you decide it is, turn and walk straight into the donkey.
“You, too, huh?” asks the donkey. “I didn’t put my glasses on this morning because I thought it might rain. Now I can’t see anything.”
“NOW!” shouts the man, pointing with glee at a passing car.
“Your donkey just spoke to me!” you say incredulously.
The man puffs on his pipe, looks at the donkey and then looks at you.
“Don’t mind him, he thinks he’s clever.”
The donkey shrugs his shoulders.
The old man is puffing once again, looking down the road, waiting for cars, and the donkey is munching the grass. The man from the telephone kiosk is making his escape. Backing away from the old man and donkey, careful not to bump into the beast this time, you go down the road, across the asphalt and along the cobbles.
I suppose all that threw you. And well it might, because how many talking donkeys have you met? Not many, I should imagine. No, instead you’ve spent your life in coffee shops. How very Seattle.
There’s a woman singing an aria from an upstairs window. Her words sift through the air like the smoke from the man’s pipe. You hear the pop and rattle of a motorised scooter on the main road as it trolleys over the cobbles. There is a sweet smell, as well. Mmm…coriander? Yes, coriander. Coriander and tomato coming from one of the homes. The smell is like salt, shaken all over the street.
Down the end of the road is a young man in sandals, dark shorts, bare chest and sunglasses. He’s well built, muscular and has a ‘six-pack’ abdomen that puts your ‘bargain bucket’ to shame. On each arm is one of those attractive, well-formed girls you’ve seen on the beach with the other 18-30ers. Judging by the way they willingly swathe him in their flesh you would guess they’re happy to please, and he’s happy to be pleased. One of them lets her hair wash over his shoulder – his chest heaves with pride. Every few seconds they find it necessary to burst out in a peel of laughter. You have no choice but to walk down the street, after the telephone man, and try to avoid them, but just a few feet away the young man stretches his arm out to you.
“Here you go, mate,” he says, looking at the girls for approval. You notice the slip of paper in his hand. “A bloke down there with a hat on asked me to give it to you.”
You mumble ‘thanks’ as the three continue up the road.
Sometimes you have to see how the glass is glazed.
It’s the same handwriting as the first one.
The sky is now getting darker. It’s an odd colour – not exactly grey, more of a reluctant blue. Rain is fairly inevitable. There is still little wind though, the breeze that there is, is hazy and indistinct like trying to remember a dream. You head down the street in search of the man who keeps leaving you messages, across the cobbles that massage your feet.
Here is a square with a fountain in the centre. The spout has been carved into an image of Poseidon commanding dolphins at his feet, out of whose mouths the water charges.
“Is fascinating, no?” says a woman’s voice behind you.
You turn to see a shock of gingham. Pink and white gingham. The woman is dressed as a dairymaid from Devon, but dark hair, olive skin, painted Maybelline eyes and her snowdrift accent mark her as local. She’s not much older than yourself. She wipes her hair from her left eye.
“It was built to commemorate a war,” she says.
“Really,” you say, searching the virtually empty plaza for the man.
“Many people died in this war.”
“What war was that?” you ask.
She nods toward the fountain. “I don’t know how you say,” she points to a plaque at the base of the fountain. “Read,” she says. You bend down to read the brass panel:
The Fountain of Misoeneanea
In honour of the glorious many who gave their
lives in the Dipthong Revolt of 1647
You stand and think on it for a while.
“Is this another message?” you ask the maid.
“Message? What sort of a message are you looking for?”
“Eh? Does that mean it is, or isn’t? And which way did he go?”
“He? I am showing you my town’s history!” She sounds indignant. “I thought you were interested the way you looked at our fountain. I thought you wanted to know, to be part of it! Pah!”
And then she shoves you. You go through the air, twisting, caught by surprise. Poseidon’s dolphins loom and you cover your face and hit hard into the water – a cold slap across your cheek before you submerge at the god’s feet. She did it, she actually did it, you think as you sit up. And there, tucked under Poseidon’s trident, is a scrap of paper:
To do is to be – Rousseau
To be is to do – Sartre
Do be do be do – Sinatre
Then the wind picks up and it starts to rain.
Fizz, plop! A match falls from above and extinguishes in the fountain. You look up to see on a balcony directly above a familiar nose, hat brim and smoking cigarette: your man.
You are soaking wet. With each step you take, water pulses out from your shoes, breathing through any gaps in the fabric. You wallow across the plaza, in the rain that speckles the pavement like small flowers on a summer’s lawn. This is not an enviable situation to be in, but it’s a darn sight more exciting than drinking coffee.
So, you puddle over, across the blossom, to the building you saw the man in, legs slightly apart to stop the wet material rubbing you raw. The fascia is of wood panelling, stained black and smelling of creosote. Large ferns sit along the front and obscure a sign stencilled on the windows. Automatic doors. A large reception. A young man in baggy vest and tan. Back-to-front baseball cap.
“Is it raining hard?” he asks.
You ignore him – there’s nothing worse than a dry wit in a situation like this. Brushing aside his comment you ask, “Can I go up?”
“If you want to. Sure.”
Up you go. Still hidden behind more ferns you see the sign again – ADRENALINE SPORTS CLUB. This is not the sort of clubhouse you are used to back home. However, that man is upstairs, and you feel confident that you are near the end. Up the stairs and down a corridor with doors either side. From a door down the far end can be heard music. It’s loud and it’s fast with guitars and drums exploding. You open the door. Hold your breath.
Inside, it is ten times as loud. What is actually in the room will always remain a mystery, because you are actually in there for precisely 3.4 seconds. A lariat tightens around your ankles, clasping them together, and two pairs of hands grab you and throw you out of the open louvre doors.
You glide the way a swallow doesn’t. With the aerodynamic capabilities of a brick you plummet. A feeling comes over you like you’ve been chosen as a contestant for Blind Date. The ground gets nearer. Nearer. Then further. Further. Elation. You’ve been bungeed. Ooo…
There’s something. Hanging upside down gives you a chance to look around. You can see the cobbles and the concrete coffee shop – your feet no longer touch them. You think. You touch nothing, suspended in the air; dripping down to the sand below like butter. The part of the building you swing from overhangs a cliff, which looks over the beach. The only people on the rain-soaked sand now are the oblivious 18-30ers and the two men who wait for you as you’re lowered. Just beyond them, however, is a pile of surfboards, wetsuits and other paraphernalia arranged to spell out:
To want to live, first you must nearly die
“Which way did he go?” you ask one of the men as he unties your feet.
“Here,” says the other, handing you a piece of paper:
Scientists claim there will be scorching temperatures,
culture and learning will be wiped out and gangs of
thugs will roam over the debris.
You look up and see the 18-30ers enjoying themselves. The first man points to them, and you start walking. The sun’s coming out now and it’s stopped raining.
A phone box starts ringing, so you pick up the receiver.
“Hello, is that You?” asks a voice.
“Yes. What’s this all about? What do you mean, only twenty-four hours?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t think of anything else.”
“So it won’t end in twenty-four hours?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so.”
“So what was all this in aid of?”
The caller hangs up. You put the phone down and as you do so, you look up to the cafeteria in the hills above and the short road, more ephemeral than navigable, but a road just the same, that takes you there. You start digging your hands into the sand, ploughing through it with your toes. It feels warm and grilled, like coffee beans; so you sigh and think of the very bitterest taste you could possibly swallow.
7th May 1885
I have been looking forward to this. It was a relief to leave Southampton and I anticipate a rewarding journey. I initially had misgivings about the thought of a solo crossing to the Americas, but I must say that I have now steeled my mind and soul to the endeavour and, with God’s blessing, shall be the first to achieve this aim. My sponsors, William Gray’s Insurance, have warned me to keep my mind on the voyage, not to have either morbid or grandiose thoughts whilst I travel alone. And yet, as I now move out into the Channel with the sound of the water slapping the hull of my vessel all I am aware of is the lofty walls of the tide that echo my expectations.
Into this short, constricting, boat I have bought along a pet for company. My cousin, Edward, has given me a small canary to help distract any wanton thoughts I may have. I have decided to hang the cage from the yardarm during the day, so that it may enjoy the air. However, I have also thought that the gulls may make it aware of its imprisonment since it constantly flutters about the cage in an agitated state. At night, or during storms, I shall take the cage below decks. Have named the canary Poseidon.
I opened a packet of biscuits for dinner to eat with some cold soup I could not be bothered to warm. Must discipline myself more.
9th May 1885
A difficult night’s sleep. I rose from my slumber as if pulling myself from a muddy pool. The sound of Poseidon’s fluttering and scratching and the constant resonance of the water kept me awake most of the night. I sleep in a compartment a little shorter than I. My head rests on a jerry can and I have the bird’s cage beside me. My knee sat in a pool of water all night and it sent a chill through my entire body. I have no blankets or pillows, just layers of clothing to insulate me.
I have just had a peculiar thought: this is the first time I have ever been alone. Truly alone. My loneliness echoes off this hull almost like a song. I hope I do not suffer from morbid thoughts.
I have lost sight of land, but gulls still hang in the air around me. At night my lantern illuminates their underbellies and they seem like phantoms as they shift across its beam.
I wonder how often we look at the world around us. I now see Turner’s fixation for ships and water. The light is dazzling – the blue of the sea merges with the sky and the waves are little more than clouds on the surface. And equally soft to the touch. I’ve been looking around me and the clouds in the sky lay immobile with tracks across them like furrowed fields. The blue is dark.
Shortly after dawn the wind had subsided. By mid-day it was quite calm. I peered through my telescope but nothing was to be seen.
10th May 1885
I dreamt last night. I was on a beach that curved away to an infinite horizon. The tide was out. The sky was clear blue. I was a young child, but I do not know exactly how old. All eyes looked at me, laughed at me. I sat on the beach, trying to tie the sand into knots.
I have decided to audit my vessel. The width of the ship can be no more than ten feet, whilst from stern to prow I calculate to be a fraction over thirty. On deck and below, any available space is taken with supplies. I have decided to rearrange them so that I have aisles to help me get around. I have decided to store the oil above decks, along with the water; whilst food, clothing and perishables I shall keep below with me. I have also decided to remove the rowlocks because I keep snagging my clothes on them. The boat sits quite low in the water with most of the hull below sea level. At first, this did cause me much consternation that I would sleep with my head below the waves. It seems a dangerous proposition and I would have thought a taller hull with a deeper keel would have been safer. I trust the designers. They tell me my boat uses the same principle as a Viking longship: a flatter, wider hull provides more space and stability.
When the days are clear and the wind brisk, I can make good time with little to do but sit by the tiller, singing an aria and suddenly realise this glorious realm is my home, and castle, from prow to the horizon. My worldly delight is to govern as I see fit with Poseidon my sole subject. The waves may groan assiduously at the beam of my palace and yet…and yet, I know that I am the master of all I survey – as the first star shifts into the evening sky or the sun spreads out at dawn; I command it all. Even the steel-hard waves that butt against this vessel must part for my journey.
13th May 1885
I’m in the middle of the ocean with the past behind me and the future open.
17th May 1885
I saw dolphins! They came within 20 feet of the boat. Instead of a blue colour they were a dingy brown – even duller than the reluctant blue of the sea we call grey.
It is several days now since I last wrote in my diary, and it seems difficult to fathom that I am the same person who set out ten days ago. I find it odd that it was indeed me who has set down these words.
It causes me concern to be alone. Indistinguishably alone. I have only Poseidon for a companion; and in so being, the means to instil in my soul the feeling I am not the last creature alive in the cosmos.
I cut my hand on Poseidon’s cage as I tried to fix the oil pump. Got the pump working again. The red blood was a curious sight. My eyes have been blind to everything except the blue and white. The blood was not only a cut on my hand, but a cut through the monotony.
Wind came up today and with it the waves that sung a syllabic song. Poseidon, caught outside in the storm (I forgot to bring him in as I was below decks manically pumping the bilges) has been constantly agitated since. He flaps futilely around his cage and gnaws at the bars. I have put him below decks. The water that came in once more destabilises my faith in the boat’s integrity. It was an odd feeling trawling through the waves. It was both exciting and terrifying. It must be an anomaly of life that those things that cause us most danger are the most exhilarating.
25th May 1885
When considering this endeavour I had taken myself to be a man who was capable in mind and body. A man who was not given to the arbitrary needs of a self-absorbed and hamstrung society – a society whose aspirations I thought disgusted me and whose rituals I thought of as sham and needless. Now I find myself desiring the company of another person; to see the crinoline and commerce that is so many miles behind me. The pleasure of seeing the painted faces of the ladies of a Sunday afternoon as they walk down the high street and a lighted breeze blowing through their hair. Or, indeed, the rough curses of the gin-drinkers. I find myself longing for this company – anything, anything. Whether it be foul or fair – something to remind me that I live and that I am not truly alone in this world.
Though I am. I know I am. And I shall continue to be so for as long as it takes me to reach my destination. I will admit to a secret thought: sometimes, sometimes (in moments of clarity and desperation) I dread that I cannot get to where I am going from where I am. The world is so far away.
30th May 1885
Missed opportunities. I hope the dolphins come back – I want to talk to them. Anything has to be better than Poseidon who has still not recovered from his malady. I have put him deep down in the boat because his agitation annoys me.
Who am I? I feel no identity. I don’t exist if no one can talk to me. Language is the source of our being. I only am when I can use the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ – without them I have no being. Our souls rest not with God but with language. It is through language that I exist. My only comfort is the sea’s song.
4th June 1885
Five centuries have passed. Nothing.
The wind came up again. As it rose I sang the Carmina Burana. Somehow it seemed so apt. I’ve felt the wind on my face, the rain and the sea’s shadow. I can hear the scream and the sigh, everyday. The sea sings with such relentless rhythm – a baritone! Hear it! Hear it!
All around me is alive. I hear the ocean. Its song is a bitter one, but I know its tune and I believe I can sing its refrain.
The mast stretches away from me, into the midnight sky. The blue is black. The world is a wonderful place and we are all victims of its apparent simplicity.
Can it be twenty-eight days since I was cast into this prison? The sea has changed; the bleak winds have bedevilled the ocean so that they promise a tempest to replace the calm. There is a chill in the air that our heater cannot dissipate, even though I am sure it is not the drop in temperature that upsets me so…
I find myself compelled to confess to a dark truth. I feel I must submit this to my journal if only to prove that I am, once again, in full reasoned control of my wits. As the water toiled about the boat I found myself possessed of a dreadful urge to commit myself to the waves. The waters were a tumult of wild excess and there, as I stood, I wished myself to be one with it. I feel shame in admitting this, but why should I? I will set out my thoughts now: I was aware of a sudden urge to throw myself into the waves.
7th June 1885
Some days past now I have tackled with a violent storm that raped the sea and threw about this shallow vessel a terrible cloud of ebony water and withering squall.
During my battle I knew no notion of time; I knew only the unforgiving roaring of the storm and the fear that I would be ripped from my vessel, dragged out to sea by the very powers I sought to control. As I fought, as I contested the small berth of the ocean I rested upon, I heard the force of the cyclone sing a powerful song that at once both out-roared the clamour and sung in perfect harmony with its vigour. How shall I express this? What can I say? I felt at times as though I was riding the most fiery black stallion, that charged with sharpened hooves, that spoilt the ground it trampled upon, that ripped and lashed its teeth upon whatever stood in its way. Yet, at other times, I was aware of the black sky, aware of the rain against my face and the bones beneath my skin.
The storm has now abated. The ocean is calm once more. The sky’s colour is a passing mauve and there, low on the horizon, rises the sun. It is a steady fire that lifts, drowning the sea and sky – the air about me – with its colour. As I watch, the firmament turns to blood.
15th June 1885
I have constructed an experiment. It is said that we use only a small share of the mind’s potential. I intend to tap the reservoir. As a child I had an imaginary friend. For me, he was very real – I gave him identity and existence. In this respect he was real. Since he could be interacted with he had to exist. Now, what I propose is that using my mind I will bring something into existence (say, a simple trinket to begin with). Diligent concentration and eyes to believe will be my resolve.
The mind is the key. I have been concentrating and Poseidon remains silent, although he shrinks away when I approach, and he has taken to scratching himself, rending his body with weeping scabs.
What trace of my past can I conjure? I need a whisper of companionship – what is it I solicit from the world? What is it that betokens the missing grades of life and light?
A book. The last refuge of the lonely. Seated here before the tiller I have dreamt, I have mused, I have then concentrated with every fibre of my being upon a book.
For the last hour I have read such a fantastic tale the likes of which only poets and dreamers may think possible. But as I finished the tale all I had in my hand was this journal. I have read another story in another’s words. A simple palimpsest. I am removed from this earth, no less than the seas around me. A token, I seek a token.
I ask a simple sign. An expression of the world I have left behind: a dew-covered flower, bright and vital. A rose.
I closed my eyes and pictured in my mind a field of scarlet. Not the scarlet of the light through my eyelids, of the blood in my capillaries, but the heavy and radiant scarlet of the rose. Steadily I trained my mind on this resonant image and found the noise of the seas around me dissolve away, the confines of my cabin vanish and I found myself absorbed with the smell, tint and texture of the flower – I fused with the substance of the rose.
But then its form died with the smell of its flower, and in my hand I held a piece of seaweed taken from the water.
18th June 1885
Poseidon has died. I saw him this morning in his cage. He has destroyed himself in a vile way. The creature’s body was bare almost, only the most tragic and forlorn feather stood on its body like a palm tree on a tropical island. Its corpse was pale, its pink skin showing the blue veins beneath. I threw the bird’s carcass into the water where it was clawed beneath the ocean.
22nd June 1885
I do not know how much longer I am going to be on my own. I am being carried away to God knows where. We are all transients in life. We can’t get to where we are going from where we are. I’ve had enough, so I’ve decided to proceed and summon something new. A woman, obviously. I’ve thought about this, and shall try.
I have been cursed.
After eating I tried to search my mind and bring her into being. A light! From beneath the waves I saw a light slip to the surface, and then a form.
What have I done? A thing I cannot, will not, recall. Her hair has the sight and stench of seaweed and her pallid skin has two sunken orbs where the eyes should be. I have dragged from the seabed a bloated corpse – a casualty of a sunken wreck.
I fought with her. The boat nearly fell beneath the waves that screamed and sang around me. The timbers of my craft cried under the stress of our battle as water seeped on board. I pulled the tiller from its place and used the wood as a weapon in our contest. Her eyes! Her eyes! Venomous teeth that chattered not with the cold, but with passion. And her clawed hands flailed over the beam of the boat as I struggled against her, and she tried to pull me under.
All around me was damnation; a purple sky shot with brilliant gold as a storm ransacked the sea.
We fought for over two hours, but eventually she submerged once more into the brackish waste.
26th June 1885
Each night since her first appearance, the lich that I have created has haunted me. Each time we fight a hurricane reigns, a chorus of destruction heralds our contest.
But last night something new happened. I had given up the fight, and when she came I decided not to fight but to let her take me as I once plotted to take her. But no. When she came she mounted the prow and stood there looking at me. She was a hideous apparition, haloed as she was by a violent sky with an electric nimbus surmounting her head. Then she jumped over board and I never saw her again, although I waited.
I understand now. I hear her call, the song. All day I’ve sung it. I rode the waves and brows, singing, singing, singing. I followed the chant over the sea – I laughed at the words, at what she sang to me. I cried at the utter truth and power of the melody. It is a chorus of all that I feel. However, one last verse evades me. I’ve strained my ears so that I can make sense of the words but from here they make no sense. I have tried. And so, because I need to know those final words, I have resolved myself to an ultimate plan as I sail upon this vast and lonely ocean.
When she comes tonight I shall join her. I will take myself unto the depths to escape this malady, cast myself into the granite waves to join this wild performance. Finally I will hear the whole song.
This story is taken from a fantasy role-playing game called Runequest that we used to play a lot. I played a character called Aransar who adventured with a group of freedom fighters trying to resist the Lunar Empire (an invading army from the north). Aransar was decidedly anti-Lunar, and this animosity had to come from somewhere. So I wrote this story to explain Aransar’s hate of the Lunars…
Aransar woke up feeling fresh after having had a good night’s sleep. He had fallen asleep at sunset and didn’t wake up again until sunrise. It was a sunny, fresh Spring day and he was keen to be up and out.
His mother sat by the hearth, breastfeeding his baby sister. On the fire was an earthernware skillet and Aransar broke an egg in the pan and fried it, then ate the egg and used a piece of bread to mop up the oil.
“Don’t come back ‘til you have a brace of good-sized eels or a couple of plump rabbits. Preferably both,” said his father.
“I will, father,” answered Aransar between gulps of goose egg and flat bread. “Aye, I will at that – the bunnies will be out, full of glee, on a day like this.”
His father said nothing but smiled at his young son and he went over to his wife and newborn babe. The man kissed his wife on the forehead then awkwardly stroked the head of his baby daughter. Aransar watched them, sitting aside, and poured some water into a large waterskin, wrapped up a block of cheese in a cloth and took what remained of the bread. This would be his meal for the day.
“I need you to be right canny, our Aransar,” said his father. “Your mam’s still weak after giving birth to your sister and needs all her strength for looking after the wee bairn.”
“I’m not so weak…” started his mother.
“I will father. And mother. And I’ll be back with a good haul for the pot and in time to help with chopping the wood. Our sis will be the best wee girl in the village and all the Uroxi and Vingans will shudder when they see her.”
Both parents laughed.
“I know you will, son. Aye, I know you will.”
Aransar met Rhys ap Cluddoc down by Slowduck creek where they set their eel traps and then made up for the heath land atop the Malani hills. The mid-morning sun warmed up the land, fat bees wobbled past them and waves of starlings took to wing. Whilst the rounded hills were glorious and green with fists of bright yellow daffodils and primroses among the bramble bushes and trees. The top of the hills were flat, with a cool summer breeze that kept the sweat off their brows and it was here they decided to hunt the many rabbits that lived on the downland. The two boys sat in the shrubs, looking for good stones for their sling shots, turning them over, checking they were smooth and rounded. The sun was high and warming and the distant Starfire Ridges were purple against the spring skyline.
“So how’s your new gal, then?” asked Rhys.
“Our sis is right strong and will be the talk of the village – the whole Greydog will be proud of her. Mam and dad are so chuffed and happy. They’ve called her Voriasa – after the Spring.”
“Aye. But in fifteen summers time she’ll be ripe for the plucking, and no spring virgin anymore.”
“Aw, give way speaking like that! Man, that’s wrong!”
Rhys laughed and Aransar took a small stone, wiping off the earth, shaking his head.
“Watch me get this,” said Aransar as he folded the stone into the pouch of his sling. “See that big bugger there,” he said, nodding out toward the field of rabbits in front of them.
“Aye, I see it – the big grey one with the brown rump.”
“That’s the one. Watch me get it between the eyes!”
Aransar kept behind the bushes and started swinging his sling. Slowly at first but then building up momentum, watching where the rabbits had their burrows for when they ran. Keeping low behind the shrubs, moving behind Rhys, then suddenly stepped out and let the stone fly!
The rabbits had been caught by surprise. The stone was halfway there before they saw Aransar and by the time they had started to move the slingshot had rattled across the heath and bounced in the grass. The shot had missed and the rabbits were gone.
“Aw, shit, man. Missed the sod!” cursed Aransar.
“I knew you would miss,” said Rhys, “you’re a right pansy with that there sling. You couldn’t hit Old Ma Thompson’s arse from five yards!”
Aransar shook his head. “Aye,” he said, “that’s a big arse.”
“Come now,” said Rhys, “let’s off to Farmer Wilko’s field – there’s rabbits-a-plenty there. Leave it to me, this time.”
With that the two of them took up their belongings and made off across the downland, heading to Big Elm Valley. But as they followed the trails eastwards they saw in the yellow valley below a line of soldiers, some two-score in number, making their way south toward Greydog village. With the soldiers were two covered wagons and instinctively Aransar and Rhys took cover among the trees and undergrowth to watch the line of bronze-clad hoplites march slowly south.
“Wretched bastards!” spat Aransar. “What are the Lunars doing here?”
“Shh!” said Rhys. “Keep yer head down.”
The two boys watched the soldiers. There had been talk of Lunar tax missions in the countryside – one had even been to the king at Swordvale – and the invaders had been raising revenues from the tribes throughout the land. Each of the soldiers wore a crested bronze helm and carried a spear and bronze-faced shield – some had been painted with demons or crimson-red. Others polished bright and left to shine sharply in the rising sun. When they’d passed, Aransar and Rhys came down off the hills and made their way across the road and into Big Elm Valley and the farmlands.
* * * * *
By late afternoon the sun was beginning to set. Aransar and Rhys had managed to kill three rabbits and snare half a dozen black birds. The eel traps had proven to be empty, and so the two boys bickered about who should take what home. As they came across the north common they saw two black columns of smoke coming from the village, and both knew these were too big to be simple hearth fires. They approached the village at a walk, but as they got nearer the pace speeded up until they were running full speed for their home village.
They ran into the village square amid snatched half-conversations – “there’ll be hell to pay for this one”, “the bastards!”, “there was no earthly reason to do this”, “get me my spear, woman!”…
Then Aransar saw that his family home was the source of one of the fires, and that the thatched roof had long since burnt away, and that the wattle and daub walls were fiercely ablaze.
He looked around for his family. “Where..?” he stammered. “Where..?” He threw down the rabbit and blackbirds he’d got off Rhys and tried to make his way to the burning roundhouse.
“Where are they?” he called. The panic in his voice was now obvious. “Where are they! Someone, where are my mother and father? Where is my little baby sister?”
Then a hand came down on his shoulder and a voice called to him, “Get away from the fire, you young devil; or else the flames will take another life!”
And then he was abruptly pulled away by his collar and he fell to the ground, scared and alone. Standing in front of him was his father.
“Calm down, laddy,” he said to Aransar. “Calm down. I’ve some terribly sore news for you.”
* * * * *
Harridan Banshee had been called from Swordvale and arrived in Greydog village just before midnight. She had with her a bag full of the tools she would need – a small trowel, some charcoal, a handful of spring blossoms, and a small stone-carved figure. And she also had with her a bottle of brandy to keep off the night-time chill.
When she arrived in Greydog village she made for the hall of chief Kornos. They all knew the Ty Kora Tek crone was in the village and they spoke about her in hushed, and fearful, tones – she only came to the village when there were dead to be buried.
The funeral cortege made for the top of Spiny Fell among the Starfire Ridges. The way was strewn with bracken and thorns and crossed with fox tracks. The stars above were bright and from atop the hill one could see below the glow from the hearth fires.
Aransar walked at the head of the procession with his father, who kept his son close and whose face showed the tears he had shed and whose eyes showed the defiance and rage. They walked ahead of the bodies of the young child and its mother, wrapped in linen shrouds, carried by the village thegns.
Behind them was Harridan Banshee, who wailed for the murdered woman and child. All else was silent. Filing behind them came the rest of the village, led by chief Kornos. The silent, solemn, procession gradually made its way to the top of Spiny Fell where a pyre was built.
“Aye, aye, this shan’t be left to lie,’ said Aransar’s father to his son. ‘There’ll be hell to pay for this,” he said.
Harridan Banshee kept up her wailing and lamentations, screeching to the very winds, appealing to the gods for mercy and damnation. She made a pledge for the souls of the fallen – through the songs and dirges she sang. Then at the appointed spot she unwrapped the bodies, still smeared with their own dried blood, and she began to draw symbols and runes on their faces with charcoal – blessings so their souls may pass peacefully to rest.
Aransar looked on the scene with a numb expression. The cool night time wind billowed about him and the crone’s songs left him with a sorry feeling.
‘You did the right thing, chief,’ Aransar’s father said to chief Kornos. ‘I bear you no ill-will and do not hold you responsible.’
‘You’re a kind and fair man,’ answered Kornos. ‘Though I still say that my household now owes yours a favour or grant. Name your boon, and it will be yours.’
Harridan Banshee finished her preparation of the bodies and it was to the thegns to lift them to the pyre. The old priestess resumed her death-songs and stood alone, fulfilling her vows to sing for the dead.
‘What did they want, father? How much?’ asked Aransar.
‘Never mind such questions.’
‘I want to know. I want to know how much me mam’s life and our sis’s life were worth.’
‘Don’t talk like that, son – you’ll regret speaking those words.’
‘I’ll regret nothing. I’ll regret that they’re now dead – killed by those bastards. I’ll regret that they’re dead because…because…’ he looked at chief Kornos, who had heard everything, unsure whether he should continue, ‘…because the chief refused to water and feed their horses!’
‘Stay your tongue, boy – you’re still young enough for a hiding!’ ordered his father.
Still Harridan Banshee wailed, and the bodies lay atop the pyre, the winds blew and the stars shone down on the hill top.
‘The lad can speak,’ said chief Kornos. ‘Let him speak. Let him have his say. No need to keep it in.’
‘I don’t have anything else to say,’ said Aransar sullenly. ‘I don’t…’
Harridan Banshee’s cries filled the air and she walked around the pyre offering blessings and curses and she placed a small statue of the Earth Crone among the logs and turned to Aransar and his father.
The father and son each took a flaming brand and one stood at the head of the pyre and the other at the foot. Aransar’s father said a small prayer to his wife and child but Aransar did not speak a word, he just stood there, shuddering in the wind, crying.
Then, as one, they cast the flaming torches onto the pyre, which caught and burnt bright against the night sky, atop the hills and ridges. The wind fed the flames which were soon burning hard and fast.
The fire was soon fierce. Harridan Banshee knelt some way from the villagers and she whined and keened at the burning of the corpses. As the flames took hold of the bodies Aransar could hear a high-pitched screeching and he bowed his head, sure that even the earth cried for his mother and sister. The villagers made their way back down the hill, leaving Aransar and his father to keep vigil around the burning pyre, and Harridan Banshee wailed for their souls, because that was her job.
All the movers were there: Rudolf Lloyd, Gertrude D’arcy, Maisy Williams and Carter Goodman . The Ball had been paid for and organised by Colonel Bo Pankiewicz – a big-time producer. Colonel Bo had written on the invitations that the Ball was to celebrate all that was AMERICAN.
Pankiewicz’s family had fled Poland in 1938, just for the young Bo (real name unknown) to join the Free Polish Army in ’39. Bo was not a colonel, but it was an affectation that he liked. After the war he’d come here, working on sets and stuff, you know? He’d got himself into a couple of pictures – westerns, after being spotted by one of the directors in these parts. But from acting, he went into cinematography, because he couldn’t act and his accent seemed out of place in the wild west.
Pankiewicz had an ‘eye’. He was soon directing his own pictures – and making a helluva lot of money. From this he financed his own production company – Prince Prospero Productions. PPP made that picture about a medieval prince who feasted while plague ravished the land outside his palace – a ‘sort of’ hit in ’49. He’d gotten invited to a load of parties and stuff in his early career and gained a name as a man who liked earthly pleasures, even if he hardly drank himself. I was told he developed his taste after the poverty of his origins, and that on the invites he instructed guests to be willing to indulge themselves. His attitude was as corpulent as his deviancy.
“Boys,” he told his followers, “we don’t want no comoonists here.”
“No, sir, ” they nodded harmoniously.
“For I tell you,” continued the Colonel, “they spread like a Red Death across the globe.”
The Ball’s doors had been locked to outsiders. Pankiewicz had gathered all around him – all those who he believed had not caught the disease. It was a protected world they lived in – sanitised and cleansed by their own fire.
The Ball room had been cleared in the centre, to make room for dancing. The highly polished floor had been constructed from a mosaic of different coloured marbles to form an image of a Portcullis on which the guests danced. To the north, east and west were large dining rooms where the guests ate and drank. The bars held wines and spirits from places not known to Pankiewicz or many of his guests and banks of tables held the food for the evening’s buffet. Each table had been covered with a black silk cloth so that the food underneath was not visible. Just the rhythm of its richness could be seen.
To the north the lights were a soft yellow. All ornaments and fittings were of gold and anyone who sat in this room found themselves vested with a brilliant nimbus that shone through their hair and the delicate fabrics they wore. To the west the lights were green and the tapestries on the walls showed scenes of trees and forests and animals running through them. Anyone sitting here was pleased to smell pine as they, doused in this light, moved as graceful as the animals depicted on the walls. To the east the light was red. The richness of this colour flushed the cheeks of anyone sitting here and gave this wing a passion and fidelity that attracted more of the guests than the other two wings combined. To the south was the doorway – a great, oak-panelled, double doorway that opened inwards to swallow anyone who entered in the suction of air. The whole layout was not unlike that of a cross.
Be sure the guests were grotesque. On Pankiewicz’s orders they had dressed to their fancy and once the masquerade had begun, the carnival took hold. Dames dressed as gentlemen and gentlemen dressed as shoe-shine boys with no heed given to who was whose superior in the office. In the carnival atmosphere each was disguised by a disfigured mask with horns and tusks sprouting from the mouth or pig’s ears standing erect at the sides. All this to create a feeling of anonymity to help encourage their passions. Only the richest materials were seen, stitched with other gaudy fabrics to create a devil’s motley. The spectacle was an arabesque of taste and body. Ladies caressed with each other as gentlemen watched in aroused fascination. A dwarf, attired as a bell-boy, carried a plate of creams and fancies which he left by the naked body of a woman as another guest (I know not which gender) arranged them over her body before lying atop her with the cream lubricating their bodies.
In the green room two men had taken the form of a centaur and both, with erect phalluses, harshly made intercourse to two others, whilst above them another dwarf broke open ripe tomatoes, melons and other fruits into the mouth of the human part of this chimera. In the northern room a woman in a golden, silk dress that shimmered like the lights of New York hoisted her hemline above the waist before urinating into the mouth of a man, on his knees, chained to an ebony pillar. In the red room the warm light had caused all occupants to undress, their bodies perspiring from the heat. So sultry was the temperature that, instead of rushing from one passion to another, those who entertained here made do with writhing slowly on the floor, and each other, like a nest of serpents. While at all times anonymous couples could be found in silent booths fumbling with each other’s bodies with neither name nor gender known until the last when all seemed not to matter and they continued unabated with their lusts.
Pankiewicz stood by the archway leading into the east wing. This man, not yet forty, leant against a large ebony Grandfather clock that struck dully on each hour. Dressed in his white military uniform, he was surrounded by his secretaries and aides and engulfed in the red light.
“I want to do a big picture,” he stated.
“Yes, sir. A BIG picture,” they chimed.
“A western. Yes, a western,” he said, remembering his earlier career.
“A western. Oh yes, sir. A western. Great idea. Buffaloes…”
“Nah, I don’t want buffalo. Buffalo are dead. I want cows. Cows are more…sympathetique.”
“Er…cows. Yes, sir.”
The clock struck 11.00.
“Dammit, that’s some chime,” said the Colonel.
“Some chime. Yes, sir.”
“Who’s that lady over there?”
“There,” said Pankiewicz, pointing. “The broad in orange taffeta.”
“Oh, that lady. Well, sir, that’s Margaret DuMuis. She’s French.”
“I want her in my next picture. Who’s that guy standing next to her?”
That guy was me. Only I was slightly younger then. I hadn’t been invited directly – I knew someone who was going to be there. For my costume I wore a bright red tuxedo with a scarlet shirt and bow. I never knew who Pankiewicz was and so paid him little notice when I walked by.
“Boy,” said Pankiewicz to me, “do you have an invite?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said.
“Then you don’t belong here.”
“And how does one go about not belonging?”
“What the…is that supposed to be clever? Is that socialism?”
The clock struck midnight.
“Are you dressed as a comoonist?” asked Pankiewicz.
“No,” I said, “I am Death.”
“Same meat, different gravy. Boy, how dare you come to my Ball as a goddam Red!” As he said this he clicked his fingers in the air and all the dwarves drew curved daggers from under their jackets.
When he stopped speaking they all moved forward and so I took another step nearer to Pankiewicz. Colonel Bo stepped back, away from me and into the red room. I followed, but the dwarves refused to follow me into the red room. They all seemed possessed of an unspoken awe or fear, even Pankiewicz’s minders parting way for me so that I came within a few inches of their grasp – they had all fallen to a single, collective impulse to not seize me, and to shrink away. Pankiewicz, now doused by the red light, grew enraged at his own cowardice and that of the revellers. So, half in an attempt to rally his followers, and half in an attempt to bolster his own fear, he stood his ground and raised his fists to exaggerate his anger like one of his cheap movie posters. Running at me, Pankiewicz fell, sobbing at my feet – his fear overcoming his bravado. Looking into my face, he drew one last gasp and died. At once the revellers and dwarves charged me and as they reached the threshold of the red room I took off my mask to reveal the face of Time.
It was then that they all knew that Death refuses those who seek him too early, because Death itself will claim them in his own time. Slowly, but inevitably, each room fell to darkness, and the hands on the clock stopped turning.