Monthly Archives: March 2014

On the Logical Sexual Conclusion of Anorexia

Enamelled bone had bit the staff, it bucked.

That broken basin rimmed with air, where skin

And flesh and blood before were richly rucked,

For beauty dark was drawn to one so thin.

 

His blade turned candle, cloched and domed and rode

And bluntly bumped a damped, flat pitch opaque

Against the holed-out bowl. The flab had flaked;

Skeleton skinless screws, as furrow’s hoed,

 

A handsome stranger strong and dark. Lies flat,

Oiled thighs, oiled calves, without the rattling pat

Of pills in pale palms shrivelled shedding spare;

 

Bones honed and round astride this strong-bred sat,

Or spindle thin as spider had begat,

Traced the waistline sticks as rickets rare.

On the Failure of Florentine and Venetian Humanism

The city, where the poor will live beside the rich,

The filth beside the scum. The poor prostrate themselves

Before the rich, as though five hundred years or more

Of human pride and courage went to waste, as though

Those universal men threw off the chains of God

And rubbed their wrists, and rubbed their thumbs and fingertips

As quickly, throwing off the chains of hands, the hands

Of feebly communistic poor, of wasted men.

The waste, as though the mighty marble David’s member

Was just a bit too small.

On the Cry of the Virgin Fox

Like child being raped the fox it shrieked

As though its pelt were pelted through the dark.

And fur on fir where spine contorted peaked

The fragrant fibres bristled ‘gainst the bark.

 

The shriek repeats, resounds, surrounds this freak

Of nature, brittle flesh this hooked staff breaks

And rips retracting raw and flapping weak

Torn canvas shreds of pleasure God forsakes

 

A stone through paper wet whose fellows, flint

That, wrapped round sticks and shafts with flimsy bind

A gleam in gloom, begat of earthy mint

The finest forge-work born of whimsy mind

 

Angelic rapeling in the dark I thought

But merely fox in grandeur right distraught.

The Personal Tragedy Of The Third

As the Holy Ghost desperately twisted and turned, wrestling with the puppeteer’s batons, his aura slipped off his left shoulder. As it pulled against him, he continued wrestling, unwilling to pause and hitch it up. Far, far below, a handsome youth with carelessly tousled hair was slowly and confidently covering the distance between the Tesco aisle he had been browsing and the till at the other end of the supermarket, where a young woman in a flamboyantly pink jacket and skirt was brushing a stray strand of long blond-brown hair behind her ear as she paid for the last of her items.

The Holy Ghost twitched one of the batons, and the youth increased his pace; another few twitches, and people’s paths made slight adjustments, shifting them into the way so as to divert the youth, herding him towards the young woman’s till. His tongue between his teeth (the boundaries between them becoming airbrushed from the contact), the Holy Ghost twitched the youth forward again, and raised the other rod, ready to flick. He concentrated hard.

He flicked the rod. The young woman’s purse slipped from her fingers just as the youth passed her. But the sudden movement caused the Holy Ghost’s aura to slip further down, and he became entangled in it. The rods flailed out of control, and the youth, instead of catching the wallet in the style of a postmodern romantic hero, sped faster out of the shop without so much as looking at the young woman. She was left to pick up the wallet herself.

The Holy Ghost sighed and put down the rods: another failure. He drifted vaguely in the direction of his private cloud-chamber. He floated inside and the clouds folded themselves behind him, giving him some privacy. Inside the chamber, transparent shelves hovered in front of each of the cloudbanks that formed the walls. They were full of books, predominantly well-thumbed romance novels with tear-splashed pages. Against one cloudbank was an elegant, geometric, clear wardrobe that God and Leonardo Da Vinci had designed for him. A shaft of light pierced the cloudbank behind it, and was refracted by the wardrobe, forming spare auras for the Holy Ghost to wear. It was to this wardrobe that he now glided dejectedly – he had got so close this time – and changed his aura, shivering as he did so. When Satan had fallen out with God over artistic differences, they had gone their separate ways; God had muttered about him in a booming undertone for a few years afterwards – a very short time for an immortal being – and jealously resolved to be as unlike Satan as possible. When the Angel Gabriel reported that Satan was having a ball in his new realm, enjoying the continuously tropical heat, God in response reduced the temperature in heaven by a considerable degree.

So the Holy Ghost shivered, and slipped on the aura, grateful for its warmth. Day by day, hour after hour, he had been practising at the puppet stand, gazing down at beautiful human beings made in God’s image, though lacking the immeasurable white beard, trying to instigate relationships between them through beautiful romantic episodes inspired by millennia of romance fiction, particularly the few centuries of romantic novels, of which the Holy Ghost was particularly fond. So far he had had no success, and it was getting him down immensely. Meanwhile up on the master cloud, God continued to row with Jesus. The Holy Ghost could sometimes hear them faintly across the white void. The row, which had lasted almost two millennia, was the same old one as it had been at the start. God had never quite forgiven Jesus for slipping away and spending a weekend in the desert with Satan, when God had expressly forbidden him from liaising with him. At the time, he had thought grounding Jesus for another thirty-eight days would teach him a lesson. But the age of thirty was something like the immortal equivalent of adolescence, and Jesus had angrily born the grudge throughout his punishment. The moment it ended, he had taken his revenge: gathering all the people he could on a vast mountainside, he had denounced every one of his father’s old teachings, and made his own alterations to them. Since God had found out, the two had been at loggerheads, often sulking when not openly rowing, oblivious to the world below, where great schisms occurred among their followers, and terrible monstrosities were committed in their names – all missed by the moody duo.

The Holy Ghost heaved a heavy sigh that made his form swell momentarily. He sat on and merged partially with the bank of thick cumulus cloud that he used for a bed, his back sinking into the cloud wall behind it, and picked up his copy of The Fault in Our Stars.

The cloud bank opposite parted towards the bottom, and George, the Holy Ghost’s albino python, slithered in, cloaked in the very long woollen sock the Holy Ghost had knitted for him when the temperature dropped. George’s two favourite pastimes were hiding in God’s infinitely long beard, where he was well camouflaged, and keeping the Holy Ghost company. He was a wonderful companion, and as he wrapped himself around the Holy Ghost’s shoulders, the Holy Ghost stroked his head, and the small portion of his leathery skin that was exposed above the end of the sock, and felt himself relaxing for the first time that day. Still stroking George’s head, he settled down to read.

Elizabeth I

That mottled hands had furrowed English plains

And brows of noble men, and turned their heads,

With marble pallor yet not pall. Now wanes

The ‘lure of lioness, her crown of red

‘Tis dark but hellburn rigid reigns, a torch

Set steady on black water, chaos burns

In corset plate on skirts yet not debauched

Her burnished breast to heart and stomach turns

The withered roots of England, gnarled and strong

Now gripped the handle, drawn from proffered scabbard

A sword of kings and raised it ‘fore her throng

Two-handed yea, and seaborn Spaniards staggered

A crescent queen in mottled hands did raise,

Unpractised, steady blade and part the waves.

Letters for Luther

Here the fruit tree flexes its brittle limbs

Poised in its ripeness for luscious works

Too long are regulations born of whims

Still magistracy has its quirks

 

Four walls closing in; this heat of hopelessness

Gruesome visions grind my gut

To stop; and heaven in its yolklessness

Lets not me in, the way is shut.

 

My anger hangs in hate, my cry of anguish

Unanswered, echoes ‘gainst the floor

And no confession flooding can extinguish

Taunting flames of evermore.

 

Pallid, stoppered, pawn of Father’s hate

The wretch is grieving in the grime

Pious, penitent, too late,

Consigned to suckle burning wine

 

Till through the cracked and flaking pages

The light of heaven shines at last

The foully spoiled words of ages

Amended, now the storm is past.

Early morning, and the rising sun threw auburn and long shadows across the dull grey tarmac, giving it an ironically romantic feel. The car park was almost empty, but a deep blue Saab with cracked paint had been sitting there since last night, and the sun glinted in the worn radiator grill just as it filled the tears of its former occupants with glistening sheen. They were inside the hospital, listening to the patronising monotone of a doctor with long braided hair and dry eyes that had seen tears many times before. She nodded her head gently in acknowledgement of each successive outburst of half-heartedly restrained pain.

Admittedly, this was an unusual diagnosis to have to deliver. The child had CIPA, or Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis, an enormously rare disease, that was to have many horrible consequences for him. They would have to be extremely careful to keep him alive through his infant years, and at any rate he was unlikely to live past twenty-five. It was a poor prospect, alright.

Mr and Mrs Fleet remained in that same room for much of the morning, with varying levels of tearfulness, from the general trickle of overflow to the sudden waves as the information hit them again and again. Of course, this changed nothing to how much they loved him. He was their son, nothing could change that. In fact, it seemed to Dr Weinberg almost as though it made parents love their children more. Terminal diseases inspired a vicious resolve in them like nothing else, as though they were determined to concentrate a lifetime of love into whatever time they had available. In a way, it was rather childish: a bright child will count the days left until the end of the holidays, and attempt to cram as much recreational activity as possible into them. A mature, intelligent child will realise that the point of holidays is not to have a plan, that things can be enjoyed far more if unspoilt by constant attempts to raise them to the optimum.

The Fleets hobbled to the door, and when the time came for them to leave, Mrs Fleet held her baby like an ancient Alexandrian glass ornament. The Saab creaked its way out of the car park at funeral pace, and found its way back, trance-style, to its waiting garage.

One mellow afternoon, the thoroughly unsuitable indoor sole of Leonard Brown’s immaculate brogue found its footing on the lush green lawn of Amity College, Oxford. A former student himself, Leonard was as much in love with this lawn as he was with anything. Abandoning the shade of the stone cloisters in a leisurely fashion, he began to walk, with all the self-contentedness and slowness of a stroll, and all the confidence of a stride, across the lawn, relishing each step, breathing in the cool air, adoring it to his heart’s content. It was as inspiring as any symphony, refreshing as any drink, and it was at the climax of this satisfaction that Leonard collided suddenly with a thin and frail mass in the casual clothes of a student, though with a little more elegance to them, Leonard had to note.

The youth made embarrassed apologies in a slightly mousey tenor with a noticeable lisp. Leonard replied amicably with his own, and the youth finally looked up into his eyes. Leonard observed the youth’s face with a mixture of satisfaction and puzzlement, running his eyes over the skin that showed small but multiple scars and a slightly weather-beaten look, the eyes that blinked intelligently, and the close-cropped brown hair. Leonard held out a hand.

‘Leonard Brown.’

‘Samuel Fleet,’ the youth replied through his lisp, sounding slightly surprised, and adding hurriedly, ‘or Sam if you prefer.’ He instantly seemed to regret this decision, but Leonard laughed away his awkwardness. He bent to help Sam pick up the books he had dropped, and sent the youth on his hurried way.

Leonard sat himself on a wooden bench, twitched the lapels of his buttoned grey suit, and looked thoughtfully around. He was largely unchanged from this state when Sam, still looking awkward and slightly frightened, but with an air of determination, found him again. With genuine pleasure, Leonard invited him to sit beside him. Over the course of the next few hours, with exponentially decreasing awkwardness, the two talked. It transpired that they were naturally similarly inclined. Sam, they established, was an organ scholar from Eton, from which Leonard had also emerged a former pupil. He was reading music with distinctive results. Leonard was a matching-tie-and-handkerchief equity investor, but had inherited so much money from the early death of his father that he would be able to retire fairly soon, despite not even having reached his fortieth birthday. Since Leonard’s every pleasure in life came from classical music, it was on Sam that they focussed, quickly discovering that their ideas on what Leonard called “the real composers”, and the general mediocrity of modern music, were practically indistinguishable.

Each found something intriguing in the other. Despite his obvious superiority of musical skill, Sam felt that he could learn something about life from the older man. Leonard’s head was filled with ideas of hearing the youth perform, running his keen eyes again and again over the long, pale fingers that lay rigidly on the youth’s thighs, palms down, throughout the discussion. A small skill at the piano was sufficient for Leonard Brown, and the magnificent Steinweg Grand, again inherited from his father, that stood in pride of place in his living room was there for the use of others. Leonard felt no greater delight than that he derived from listening to others use it. Though Leonard had not yet heard the youth play, he was sure he would be the most fantastic new prodigy he had yet come across.

Like all others, that day of course wore out, metamorphosing first into a bright and burning selenehelion that had the physics students dashing about like particles of Bose-Einstein condensate, then into moonlight darkness. By this time the two men had parted, but they met again, and indeed again.

It was on one of the earlier of these occasions that Sam disclosed to Leonard the nature of his predicament. Like everyone Sam had told, Leonard was shocked, but he did not express the same unadulterated horror as most. He seemed touchingly troubled by the idea that their acquaintance would be short, especially for someone he had only just met. At the end of their meeting, following a long pause, Leonard gave his address and suggested Sam visit, to which the latter enthusiastically agreed.

When the day in question arrived, Sam was shown into a handsome living room with sober red carpets and large windows up above. He took the offered wingback chair, and after Leonard had lit a fire in the grate, they talked long about music. Leonard gave anecdotes about the concerts he had been to over his time, recalling with fondness in particular the recitals of the London Symphony Orchestra, and a cellist by the name of Steven Isserlis. Sam responded, at Leonard’s request, with details of his musical career, descriptions of his progress in learning, and his favourite composers and pieces. Leonard sat watching Sam’s uncharacteristically aged face, breathing heavily through his bushy discoloured-brown moustache. The youthful excitement of the scholar was still there, but the raw youthfulness was gone. Leonard therefore appreciated his maturity and regretted his premature feeling of age and wisdom in equal measure. It was with a heavy heart that Leonard finally stood, and gestured with a proud but not arrogant arm towards the far end of the room. There, a raised platform of beech stood out against the red carpets. On the platform stood the magnificent Steinweg Leonard had inherited.

With a gracious nod, as though he did not deserve the honour of playing the instrument, Sam crossed the room silently and mounted the platform. At Leonard’s request, he delicately opened the great wooden lid, and set it in place. He sat, lifted the key cover, and placed his fingers gently on the keys.

As Leonard sat, and watched the youth from beneath his thick eyebrows, Sam began to play the first movement of Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata, watching his own fingers with an almost painful-looking level of concentration. Leonard could not help but think this odd, having seen as many pianists as he had hardly looking at the keyboard at all, but he did not interrupt, and leaned back in his chair, as the youth worked through the three movements, his furious upright concentration not in the least impairing the beauty of his playing. From the slow, ever-present cycle of smooth triplets and simple overlaid melody of the first movement, lightly dancing through the second, and finally invoking from the deep bowels of the instrument a thunderstorm of pummelling and pounding in the third, Sam’s fingers coaxed, plucked, teased and tempted the music from wood and string, wrenching the powerful chords and arpeggios out from some dark recess in the final movement.

With the last chord, the youth did not rise, but began to examine his hands slowly and diligently, as though himself fascinated by his own skill. It only occurred to Leonard, with a thrill of pity that he quickly stifled, when he was halfway towards the piano. Sam had mentioned it to him in one of their discussions. Everything he did, anywhere he went, he had to check himself. He couldn’t feel pain or sweat. He wouldn’t notice if he sprained a wrist or sliced his leg open. In his childhood he had chewed his own mouth in the night without waking, resulting in his lisp. It was all he could do to keep track of things that went on during the day. Indeed, his chances were not good. Most CIPA patients died before reaching twenty-five of hyperthermia caused by the inability to sweat.

Leonard dragged himself out of this train of thought and joined Sam on the platform. Sam finally looked up. Despite the check he had just had to perform, his face still retained something of the modest self-satisfaction that must have flitted across his face as he finished.

‘Exquisite,’ Leonard told him. Sam smiled and thanked him quietly. Leonard determined his desire to play longer from his expression, clapped the youth gently on the back, and retreated to his chair. Sam followed with Bach’s Italian Concerto, and as the quavers climbed tauntingly, mischievously in groups of four, Leonard closed his eyes and felt the music consume his mind.

Over the years that passed, Leonard and Sam remained close friends. Leonard became something of a mentor to Sam, taking a great personal interest in Sam’s affliction. Though he could not claim to have any experience in dealing with the disease, Leonard’s instincts born of his other life experiences taught him to stress the importance of morale. He threw himself into positivity in their relationship, and maintained a constant awareness of the mood of the other.

Sam continued to visit Leonard at home to play, and it was not long before Leonard decided he had never heard his piano so well-played. Nevertheless he could not help but feel that something was held back. Something was missing from the recitals that Sam was completely capable of delivering.

Early on a Saturday morning, Samuel Fleet rang the bell of Leonard Brown’s house, and was not kept waiting in the cold long. He shrugged of his coat as he followed Leonard inside, and hung it up.

A fire was already crackling away in the grate, and as they sat, Leonard looked into the face that was illuminated opposite him. He had pondered the question long and hard, and wondered whether today he might broach the subject to him. However, Sam struck up a conversation on his studies, and Leonard was obliged to follow his lead.

The day passed on, and their constantly moving conversations carried them from the wingback chairs to a handsome antique table, pre-laid with what Leonard had identified on some other visit as his family silver. Leonard brought in a casserole he had been cooking and they sat in tall straight-back chairs to eat. Sam carefully poured water into glasses from a tall glass jug, and picked up his knife by the yellowed bone handle.

After lunch, Leonard turned to his usual chair, and Sam to the piano. He sat, and began to play. Leonard allowed his eyes to close as Rachmaninov’s genius began to rise in his ears, a cascade, tumbling down again and again. If he had not done so, he might have seen Sam make his mistake, as he reached a great crescendo, and his eyes screwed up, overpowered with emotion. He plunged deeper into the music, and his eyes flew open again as he executed a perfect trill up to the top registers of the piano.

When the piece finally finished with a roll of the bass notes, Sam stood, and without a word made for the kitchen. Leonard heard the tap running as he stood, and made to follow his friend. As he crossed the room, his eye caught a glimpse of something red. He started, and strode towards the piano.

A line of blood, clean and smooth as red glass, had been left along the edge of the wood just in front of the keys, and was already trickling down and dripping onto the floor.

‘SAM!’ Fleet bellowed as he turned quickly towards the kitchen.

Sam was silent as he allowed Leonard to bandage his hand where the palm had sliced open against the edge of the wood. He gave off an air of cold disappointment in himself. Leonard finished the bandage, and Sam slowly retrieved his hand.

‘I would like to pose a thought to you,’ Leonard began at last.

Sam made no sign that he had heard, but he could not have failed to.

‘I suggest that you regard this as a success.’

Sam looked sharply up at Leonard.

‘You are an extraordinary musician, Sam, and it pains me to see you holding yourself back. You played today as you should play.’

‘How can you say that?’ Sam demanded. ‘When you have just glued the pieces that I broke back together!’

‘Who is to say that will happen every time?’ Leonard replied. ‘Forgive me, but the time is now to decide. You will be lucky to live much longer, you must not treasure your time, you must use it. What sense is there in constant caution, if it forbids your deepest passions, your greatest desires, your greatest skills?’

Sam was silent.

George Dolby was a life-long friend of Leonard Brown. They had been at Oxford together, where they had shared many things, including a love of classical music, though it took all of Leonard’s self-restraint to stop him from arguing with George about his mutually exclusive, yet simultaneously held, love of modern music.

George came round often, though his wife was usually absent, away doing work of some kind or another. On this particular occasion he had mercifully neglected to bring the sunglasses that were usually perched on the top of his head. He stepped up to the door in a blue pullover and jeans, and rang the bell.

Leonard let him in, and the two of them went straight into the sitting room. Leonard made an offer of drinks, which George accepted gratefully, and when Leonard had returned with two gin and tonics, he asked to hear Leonard’s news.

‘Well, George,’ Leonard replied, ‘one thing’s been on my mind predominantly. It’s this young chap, Samuel Fleet.’

‘You’ve mentioned him a few times,’ George replied thoughtfully. ‘He’s the music scholar, isn’t he?’

‘That’s the one,’ Leonard answered. ‘But I told you about his disease, didn’t I?’

‘Only briefly,’ George said, scratching his head, straining to remember.

Leonard gave George a fuller description, involving much wincing from George, particularly when Leonard recounted the recent episode at the piano.

‘I have a theory about this, you see,’ Leonard said. ‘I think there’s something to be said for easing up on the over-carefulness. He’s got to make the most of his time. He may well be on his last few years.’

George pondered this in silence for a moment, his brow furrowed in what Leonard interpreted as a mixture of deep thought and deep, deep pity for the young prodigy.

‘How long can he be expected to live if he carries on as he is?’

The debate continued over lunch and into the afternoon. In general, George agreed with Leonard, and this only strengthened his resolve to talk to Sam about it again. When George finally shook hands and turned to step through the doorway out of the house, Leonard made his goodbyes, shut the door, and made straight for the phone.

‘I’m sorry, Leonard, but this time I’m afraid I can’t agree with you.’

Sam put the phone down. He checked his hands as usual, and then made for his living room.

Over the course of the next few weeks the thought of what Leonard had said kept coming to his mind. But each time he pushed it away. Leonard did not understand his position. He kept his head down and went on with life. In fact, he might never have taken Leonard’s advice had it not been for an incident several weeks after the phone call.

Sam had been walking down the street that led to the entrance of the faculty where he attended lectures. As usual he trod carefully, but paced fairly quickly. Ten yards in front of him, a brunette student was coming the other way. She had almost reached him when, with a cry, she tripped, and fell face down on the concrete. She scrabbled around to push her self into a sitting position. Sam covered the six steps to her quickly and held out a hand.

His eyes fell upon her face. With her well-kept flowing hair, full lips and pale complexion, she was undeniably very pretty, and her blue eyes seemed to sparkle slightly as she looked up at him. Without taking her eyes from his, she reached up, and took his hand.

With a slight ‘ah!’ of surprise, she let go instantly. Suddenly looking horrified, either at herself or at the expression on Sam’s face, she hurriedly pushed herself up, and scurried away, mumbling apologies in a scared voice.

With disgust, Sam examined the palm of his hand. The doctors called it lichenification. The skin of his palms was abnormally thick and calloused. With a snort, Sam carried on his way.

He didn’t know why it had been such a shock. The same reaction had taken place before. Nevertheless, the moment he got home, Sam made for the phone, and called Leonard.

‘You can do this, Sam,’ Leonard said encouragingly. He gripped the youth’s shoulders reassuringly, then retreated to his chair. Sam applied his fingers to the keys, and began. He concentrated every pore of his body on the music, every note, every harmony, he focussed on as fully as he could. And slowly, gradually, he felt something in his mind release, and his eyes snapped shut. His fingers flowed across the keyboard, stroking, lovingly caressing the keys of the great instrument.

The music began to climb in pitch, slowly making its way up the keyboard, and then Sam’s eyes opened wide and he let a cascade of notes all the way back down to the middle registers overflow from his fingers.

Leonard watched with a mixture of pain and joy, wondering whether the youth could really pull this off. With a final, powerful chord, Sam released the sustain pedal, and stood up. He checked himself. He was fine.

Leonard put his hands together, and began to clap.

Over the next few weeks, under the supervision of his mentor in Leonard, Sam began to relax, and release his energies. There was one further incident of Sam cutting himself as his hand descended the bass registers, his palm pushing all the time into the edge of the wood, but otherwise he was fine. Gradually it became his mindset to think of his old carefulness while playing as foolish. With this new philosophy constructed, he began to look with a new and unknown excitement towards an upcoming organ recital, in Windsor, a favourite location of his. Quickly it became in his mind a milestone, a test and demonstration of his new, unrestrained skill, and he practised with renewed vigour.

St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, was a fantastically beautiful building. On the outside it was a towering structure of brown stone and dark glass, looming over one of the castle’s entrance courtyards. On the inside, it was cavernous, designed to resemble and upturned boat hull, with a vast curved roof, the majestic, sweeping curves of the columns rising up to join the intricate pattern of carved stone that covered the ceiling, to which hundreds of painted wooden shields were bolted.

Leonard Brown had once noted that almost no one ever smiled in the chapel, an ironic mood for religion, he had always thought. Many times he had been there, for concerts of many kinds. The choristers from the St George’s School were always fantastic, but Brown’s preference was for the organ recitals, and none less than when Samuel Fleet was in the loft.

As he looked around, Leonard watched the stream of people filing into the chapel, canons from the church, people from the school, and outsiders, men, women and almost invariably bored-looking children, all shuffling their feet and keeping their voices low in the cavernous chapel. They were greeted by members of the clergy, draped in red and white, handing out programmes and pointing the way to seats magnificently, with their white cloaks draping down to the floor as they raised their arms.

Brown took his usual seat in the front row and looked at his programme. By the looks of things, all his favourite organ pieces were to be played, perhaps the best recital he would ever go to. He sighed contentedly and settled back in his chair, tapping his foot on the stone floor, causing echo after echo to reverberate around the great stone “hull”.

Finally, with the last arrivals scurrying to their seats, silence spread through the hall as a member of the clergy entered the chapel and made his way to the front pews. His aged lips parted in a smile and he began his monologue, asking the audience to turn of their phones and reminding them that applause was to be heard only once the whole recital had finished. Finally, he left his position, slowly, but with a stride.

The silence was now almost absolute. There was a single cough. Then the organ started. It was a beautiful, fantastic sound, loud as anything and sweeping, rolling and swirling, dancing and leaping. Leonard’s eyelids closed and the music penetrated him through every pore of his body. It was getting more and more powerful, the texture more and more complicated as ever more complex arrangements of notes came. The music grew and grew until it seemed the eardrums of any man would split, if not with sheer volume then with the wonder of the music. The melody was coursing over and through everything, unstoppable.

And then, all of a sudden, the sound completely ceased. But only for a moment. A fraction of a second later there was an ear-splitting, horrible chord, not only dissonant, but a wretched, shrieking cacophony. And it simply went on. It did not stop.

Leonard leapt to his feet and trotted towards the way out of the hall as fast as his legs would carry him. He knew where the loft was, he’d been up there before on a tour of the chapel. He burst through the door and heaved himself up the stairs two at a time, hardly noticing as he crashed into the organ assistant, who was tearing down in the other direction, knocking him backwards onto the steps. Ignoring him, Leonard covered the last few steps and charged into the organ loft.

Samuel Fleet was slumped over, still seated on the organ bench, his upper body having collapsed forward onto the manuals, his head on the topmost row of keys, the weight of his frail body pressing them down.

Leonard threw himself forwards and pulled him off the keys. Sam rolled off the organ bench onto the floor and Leonard fell to his knees beside him.

No moisture beaded his forehead, no dark patches were seen on his clothes. He had no sweat to give. The waistcoat he wore was almost comically neat, though his white shirt was ruffled from the fall onto the floor.

Even as Brown put his fingers to his Fleet’s neck, he knew.

Samuel Fleet had, finally, lived. And it had, finally, killed him.

Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” – everything a modern play should be

I must confess, I may have a vested interest on this one: I saw this play in a production starring a friend as the lead. However, I think I can say fairly objectively that not only his performance but the play itself was staggering.

It’s a recipe for an unusual night out: 17-year-old Alan Strang has blinded six horses with a metal spike, and the audience must follow psychiatrist Martin Dysart’s attempts to understand and help him. What this premise does not prepare you for is the masterwork that is Shaffer’s psychological exploration of religion and sexuality. The journey of Alan’s life, recollected piece by piece as he slowly grows to trust Dysart, startlingly reveals the agony and passion of faith and sex in the modern, ‘enlightened’ and above all uncertain world of today; it is as accurate to now as it was to the 1970s.

Equus is a play that reminds us why some clichés became clichés. Philosophical ideas communicated through a story of the unravelling of a troubled mind and its troubled history is a format that has been overdone. Narrative examination of a character’s influences and personal history to explain their crime, framed within a psychiatric setting, has likewise been employed far too many times. But in Equus it all hangs together perfectly. It might be a frame narrative within a frame narrative, but only this structure enables Shaffer to fully explore the viewpoints of the various different characters. And fundamentally, the troubled history of the mind can indeed be moving, devastating and catastrophic, and in Equus Shaffer shows us this without being cheesy or over the top.

The strongest criticism I can make of this play is that it is somewhat inaccessible in parts, since all but one of the characters are difficult to like or understand. However, that is as it should be. Dysart’s pretentions, Jill’s quirks, Mr Strang’s hypocrisy and Mrs Strang’s selfishness are all crucial to the relationships they have with Alan, and in the end the audience need only understand him and his experiences, something Shaffer ensures we do.

A secularist society, politically, religiously and sexually open-minded to a degree unthinkable for most of history, while of course desirable, brings its own difficulties. The modern teenager, faced with wildly conflicting influences and censorships, but not unswervingly forced in one straight line, must rewrite the rulebook for him or herself. We are not only entitled to our views, we are socially required to have them, to select them, mould them or invent them entirely.

Alan Strang’s story is an extreme, but horribly plausible, example of a plight I fear many will find themselves in. Faced with a thousand different political debates and affiliations, a thousands religions and philosophies and a thousand possible sexualities, with everything from John Donne’s sadomasochistic addresses to God to vicious homophobia and political extremism readily available online, we find ourselves in turmoil perhaps even more than Alan. Alan’s passion, in every sense of the word, is a shockingly revealing portrayal of a torturous issue.

Blackbeard

The English pines, as blown by Russian winds,

It’s said, once swam th’Atlantic Sea to plunge

Into the Caribbean seas and plunder;

For Hornigold who captured Concord mighty

Turned over peaceful Concord to his mate,

And Edward took the ship and made it strong,

With forty mighty cannons cased beneath,

And lighted fuses always burning bright

About his face, with shaggy barb’rous beard,

They called him Blackbeard, ever feared by all,

And whom he knocked aside and left astray,

Some noble Stede would carry then ashore

His flotsam jetsam rag-tag fragment prey

Would cower ‘fore the great Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Yet ne’er he laid a hand upon them, any,

But trusting to his raging, fearsome face,

He ne’er began the fighting, went to Charleston:

He ransomed ev’ry rag-bone safe and sound.

He ran the pines aground in Carolina

On Beaufort sandbar, waves resounding ‘round.

He joined the seas again and broke the waters

Breaking the breakers, brushing off the rush

Of flowing sea, the salt encrusting ash

And pine and oak, and strength knew bindings none

Nor fetters: slaves within. And slave without

To only Blackbeard’s will. Then Maynard came

Out from the fog: far off, through flaxen strands

His keen eyes sought the pirate king, the fisher

King who had reapt the oceans. Fight ensued

In clatt’ring battle, grim and grisly, blood

And grime. And death dealt blows of might. And shorn,

Shorn from the roots, by cutlass sliced and sheared,

Blackbeard like wool dark fell, descended fast

And slammed his bulk down on the ashen deck.

Silence – the ‘threes’ photo challenge

August Clementine “Clem” Masters brushed his floppy fringe from his eyes and stepped over a rusty girder, lying abandoned on the ground, the sole of his worn brown boot raised high, skimming the ends of the overgrown grass whiskers that sprouted from the ground all around him, the blades bearing that colourlessness that is all the English eye can see after days without sun. Clem adjusted his black coat and set off, the open sides of the coat flapping slightly at his thighs in a silent wind.

A short way ahead of him, the shape of a ferris wheel filled the scene, iron spokes and iron bucket bench seats, rusted to some exquisite shade of pure decay, neither chilli nor chocolate, a half-hearted shade or two redder than the earth bed below, from which the ashen grass grew. Bushes of the kind that are found innumerably in Britain, but are too common to be named, had spread, parasitic, up the ferris wheel, reaching, stretching up the spokes towards the rust seats, like some insatiable fungus that feeds only on decayed ferrous metal. The result was a many-limbed starfish of growth, bush arms petrified in a grotesque mutation of a child mid-starjump, some humourless parody of what the ferris wheel used to be. In a fit of poetic inspiration, new life had sprung from the wheel’s rigor mortis, encrusted with the hideousness that the desperation and stubbornness of organic life alone can supply.

The bushes rustled as the slender figure of Laura Wethers emerged from behind the ferris wheel like a time-lapse film of a bud unfolding itself from the lifeless community of plants around it. Her hair, a rich but glossless gold colour, like an aged wedding ring, was tied to expose her face, but the long, straight strands curved down past her shoulders. Her skin bore a weathered look that marked resilience without compromising its attractions. She had that simplicity of appearance labelled by eighteenth-century writers as handsomeness, to distinguish from beauty, and by artists as minimalism, a composure that lacks conventional aesthetic, the raw elegance of Japanese gravel gardens: her face presented such consistent reality and subtlety as to blend perfectly with the real world that now surrounded her. This trend followed to her plain clothes: the discoloured jeans, the grey woollen pullover, the black, sleeveless, collarless jacket, the sturdy brown boots, outlining her curved shape, while emanating a sense of confidence and strength. An idiosyncratic half-smile curved her lips.

Clem saw a challenge in her slightly widened eyes, and held her gaze, and little by little her half-smile grew as he refused to look away. Eventually she let out a laugh, revealing a glimpse of white teeth, and blinked her gaze to one side, before inclining her head to indicate that he should follow her lead. He fell into step beside her as she set off, leaving the ferris wheel behind and to their right, and it soon disappeared into the mist.

Other structures were now emerging around them, long-abandoned remnants of a once-busy amusement park, old steel frames and cracked plastic novelty figures, grim reapers and friendly dragons alike distorted into something twice as grotesque by neglect. Around them, the bushes gave way to sticks and the skeletons of the undergrowth, remnants of some fire or other. A giant yellow plastic caterpillar lay a few feet away, staring up through wide plastic eyes with a wide smiling mouth, eyes, nose, mouth and forehead caked with mud, like some war-torn soldier driven to insanity by battle, his mad smile still rigid as dried plaster on his face.

And then the brown, dead sticks gave way to brown, dead earth, and before them stood the entrance to lightless tunnel, made up as a tiger’s open mouth, jagged teeth reaching down from the top of the doorway, eyes wide and jaw dropped in a hideous Cheshire cat grin, plumes of fur or fire, it made no odds, spreading out either side of its head like a huge, orange, Elizabethan ruff. Once-lit neon letters arched over the cat’s head, the missing letters rendering the sign unintelligible, save the predictable word “scary”.

They bypassed this forgotten junk just as they had bypassed everything else. They were heading out into the most lifeless patch of the field, not only brown and dead, but composed almost entirely of soil so dry it could have been brown sand: it did not seem ever to have been alive. It was here that Laura turned, and held out a hand.

There was something incredibly elegant about her in that moment. Her entirely asymmetric stance, one leg extended further out than the other, one arm outstretched, the other passive by her side, her balance perfect but deviated from the centre. She was beautiful, and the hand as he touched it was neither soft nor coarse. Her grip was not slack or firm, and she smiled with white teeth. Then a pressure began to emanate from every pore of her body. It extended through her hold on him to spread through his own body, and pressure slight and irresistible, like drowning in bourbon whisky. But the pressure was the only fluid thing, all else was coarse and flaked and powdered, and dry. She was his only salvation as she brought him slowly sinking down into a suffocating, arid Hell.

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