I write some strange things. Here are a few short stories; the first adapted from the draft of my second book, The Life of Almost.
Note to text: the poems at beginning and end are original and by this author; other texts quoted are not copyright restricted. There are layout anomalies throughout where I have cut and pasted from file; go gentle on me as I couldn’t manage to correct them on wordpress!
DRESSING THE DEAD DEARS
‘Girl, get the grave bag from by the back door!’
‘I’m doing it now, in a minute!’
‘But have you got there the water in the milk bottle,
the scrubber and the cloth and the scissors,
they’re rusty but will do to trim?’
‘Yes, yes, I see them now.’
‘But have you got them, have you? We mustn’t forget
and mustn’t leave the bag at home and mustn’t take it
to the graves half-full: is it done now, is it all and are you sure?
The westerlies and the tongues of salt are cruel to our dead and all their stones.’
‘Yes, I am sure.’
The bag was bundled and the car was roared and the dead were glad
of a well-kept stone and the brambles trimmed and no-one cursed,
like they did, all did, in life, and the door was keyed and the grave bag full
and sat just as it should, and the life was endless not altered,
even in this loud new world.
Evans the Bodies loved his Dead Dears. He had established a thriving business in the low white farm buildings out the back of a farm on the coast road. In the past, this had been owned by a rather careless and drunken farmer with an insecure barn so that, from time, those who arrived for Evans’s attention—silently, so silently—might have met with a stray heifer crossing the yard or traversed cow pats, so hardly the most respectful of endings, or beginnings, as Evans saw it, since he was fonder of the dead than the living and saw things backwards through his better eye. Nowadays, though, the yard was gravelled, the whitewash immaculate, the cows tidily restrained and a new farmer in residence. This man was laughed at by the locals as a hobby farmer. A man with an antique shop in Tenby who got people in to do the hard work and exhibited his cheese to great applause, although he had not really made it himself and even his dairy herd looked askance, it was said on the coast road, because your dairy cow knew an amateur when it saw one and mocked in its cow-grunt while you flaunted your wares in front of the Aga.
So there, in his low white buildings, worked Evans. And I went to work with him when I was almost grown; I was a poor schoolboy, or I suppose that was what I inhabited in that time, so they jostled me out on an apprenticeship as soon as they could. Technically, I should have been eighteen to be allowed to handle the dead, but we hid from the rules, I looked big and talked confidently (of course!) and bluffed expertly and then Evans—at least to begin with—kept me away from the worst, most gruesome cases. He needn’t have done, for I saw no fear in temporal things and the sad features of a face rearranged; I saw them as the anagram of thereafter and the very interest of now. But as I was saying, I worked with him, learned from the master and saw how he attended carefully to his craft. He had it all planned meticulously and liked to recite the rules of his job to himself and declaim thus to the world, should it be listening. Now, I tell you, the best of the words were not really for me, but for the woman he had loved his whole life and whose own life and voice had been taken by the abruptly dead of her own.
Thus with him worked Muffled Mfanwy.
She went muffled after Philip Llewhellin, her husband, hanged himself in the shed and then her son, Lewis the Younger, remember? With gun over shuffle-board, not tidy-like. You must have heard! Always, Evans was in love with this soundless sad lady and together they worked with the corpses, a delicate ballet, with tubes and brushes and buckets and pipes and the love of the dead that is known best to those sad with the living, or those born, or otherwise, with their feet half in the next world. He had dressed and buried her husband and son and allowed himself only to breathe, ‘You should not have’. And he had placed, under the hands of her brother in law, the schoolmaster, found in a mound of violets though not dead of his own hand, a tiny bunch of the blooms with a sprig of rosemary: love, faithfulness and remembrance. And I watched, apprentice, Evans and Mfanwy in the twilight shadows. Always I was there.
Learning, ah learning. And seeing. And I felt, I think, new things and they had poetry.
Because he was a lonely dragon, he, even with his Dead Dears and she was sad and her voice was stilled and I wanted to give her flight and for her to sing and cast off her own dead. And then there was the very intimacy of it: he had washed and nursed her lost son and sent him lovingly to his resting place; he had done the same for her lost husband and even though the woman he loved was married to that man and that man had made her suffer and his son had made her suffer, he nursed them and prepared them in death and felt their deep sadness, though he did allow himself to whisper, ‘You should not have’ again to both men. And when Llewhellin the schoolmaster was found in his mound of violets, he took care to place his poetry book under the hands and, within it, though no-one knew, yes he had also pressed some violets from the mound because of how much their musky sweetness had been adored. Evans was a man who noticed such things.
Now, because Evans the Bodies so loved his muffled company, he would narrate what he was doing, like, perhaps, a child before it learns that it does not have to describe itself in the third or fourth person. Thus,
‘Now Mfanwy, as you know the first step in the embalming process of our Dead Dears is a surgical one, in which bodily fluids are removed with our special pipes and tubes and are then replaced with formaldehyde-based chemical solutions. The second step, mind Mfanwy and as you know, Mfanwy, is cosmetic, in which the body is prepared for viewing by styling the Dead Dears’ hair, applying some make-up, and setting the facial features so they don’t frighten their loved ones, all ghastly like. Whatever end they had, Mfanwy, we must make them look well and tidy. Mrs Morgan of the tractor accident will take a bit of work, mind, so you’ll have to be cunning with the make up and the brush, a bit of padding and a dress that they bought in the posh shop in Newcastle Emlyn.’
Between them, Evans and Mfanwy, they lifted the dead man onto the table and Evans began gently sloshing from his vat of disinfectant and washed the body of Jones from Begelly. Such hadn’t been a good man; he was a mean old man, but he was unwanted solitary and hurt by the world and Evans knew this and when he washed it was like a baptism. As he went, he signed the cross when he remembered and felt he should, but sometimes he went round and round like doodling spirals—or sometimes shooting stars; sometimes a maze.
‘There we are now, Myfanwy. Rub Mr Jones’s feet. Ah now, look at the skill you do that with. I will massage and manipulate—he’s a stiff one, this Dead Dear and his muscles are hard with the rigor, so we’ll have to loosen him or he’ll look like a board and won’t be well for the funeral and he’ll startle the congregation. I had one once that sat up and there was a time, man! Now, the neighbours say we should shave him but I think he suits a bit of beard, don’t you think, Myfanwy? A new look for the old boy. There we are, isn’t it? He’s more relaxed already. I do think it’s the way you do their feet, Myfanwy. It is your rare gift, Myfanwy.’
It was a strange courtship. Over the corpses and the bottles of formaldehyde and the tubes and pipes and the no-smell and the lowing of the dairy herd somewhere not so far away. And Evans loved the dead and he loved poor sad Muffled Myfanwy and he thought she might feel the same way, but it had not been so long since the hanging in the shed and the shuffle-board shooting in the back of the pub.
‘And next we set the facial features. He does look like a grumpy bastard Myfanwy but we must think well of the Dead Dears. Now, we have closed the eyes; what a marvel that skin glue is and he was a stubborn one, Jones of Begelly, so we used the flesh-coloured eye caps, all oval, see? They sit on the eye and secure the eyelid in place and then a body can’t argue with us. See how tidy that is? I closed his mouth and now you begin sewing his jaw shut. He’ll be quieter, then. That’s it. Come closer. Be firm with Jones. Take the suture string through the lower jaw below the gums, don’t be timid as you go up and through the gums of the top front teeth. There you are Myfanwy, press hard with the needle; you can’t hurt Jones now, although maybe some would say he deserved it, so poke it in hard and keep going. That’s it. Lovely work. You learn so well, Myfanwy. A model student. Now there you are see, up into the right or left nostril and….no not down—across, like this.’
As Evans the Bodies took the needle to show her, they brushed arms and both felt a shiver and the warm smell of hope and happiness beyond the disinfectant, and then it was gone. Myfanwy looked away. He passed the needle into her hand.
Rapture. Oh, I saw it.
‘That’s it, across through the septum and into the other nostril and then back down into the mouth. Don’t by shy. Push the needle like you mean it Myfanwy. There is such strength in your hands.’
Had he gone too far? He thought (I saw his heart) that perhaps the compliment was too heavy for circumstance. Did the dead man mind? It was at this point that Evans the Bodies realised that he had, on this instance, failed to perform the death-checks. Jones seemed to have been stiff and then to have loosened up nicely at Myfanwy’s loving touch, but maybe that was because he was stiff with hatred in life and was never touched so gently. No, he must be good. He’d submitted to the needle, so no need to palpate in the carotid artery. Evans knew that, in these modern times, people awakening on the preparation table was thought to be the province of the horror film, but he also knew that once Grim Peter from the old lighthouse had sat up to prevent his relieved relatives from celebrating that he was dead, how strong was his desire to catch them at it, hurl curses and deprive them of the fortune they knew he kept under the gargantuan pots of whitewash. There had barely been time for them to take the bunting down at the wake. But no, it was well. He didn’t need to palpate or double check for cloudy corneas. And besides, Jones was always cloudy, always livid, barely alive in some ways. Thus calmed, Evans looked at Myfanwy and considered her unspeaking beauty:
‘Then the two ends of suture string must be tied together. Do you have them there, girl? Tie it neatly now and once you are sure you are secure with the jaw and he won’t be dribbling, mould the mouth as you want it, now.’
Myfanwy nodded and tried to squeeze Jones’s mouth into an enigmatic smile and Evans the Bodies shifted the giant silver tank for the embalming and began, visualising the draining arteries as he went, sliucing blood from the body through the veins and replacing it with his embalming solution via the arteries.
‘That is a thing of strange beauty. Formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, and water, and I like it to contain a few dyes because we don’t want our Dead Dears looking like alabaster. We want them to look like they’ve been on holiday, Myfanwy, even if I do sometimes have to pad them out a bit, like Dewi after he was hit with the spade that time or I’ll later be showing you how to do with Mrs Morgan of the tractor accident.’
Myfanwy nodded. Drip, drip, drip, gurgle. Magenta, to clear and clean.
‘Now begin your magic, Myfanwy.’
Myfanwy was now holding a bag in front of her. Very now, she applied moisturising lotion to the face, lips, and hands, then powdered Jones on his face, neck, and hands in order to make him look less dead than dead and cover up his scorn-blown blemishes, discolourations and the seer marks of illness that he had hidden, even from himself. She gently applied powder to his body: ‘For secreted oils, Myfanwy, but we won’t go so far as to polish up his nails like we did for the Widow Williams, what with her liking the glitz and the men. And just brush his hair. Oh look Myfanwy. He makes a much better dead man that a live.’
Myfanwy gesticulated. What did she mean. Ah—he saw. Jones was wearing a toupée.
‘Just stick it back on, my apprentice. I have some blu-tack for such events. There we are. Press it down on his head. And now, Myfanwy, is there is anything else of which we should take note, is it? Sometimes I don’t know who is the student here and who is the apprentice. I mean to say’—again, had he gone too far?—’that you have a gift for the Dead Dears; it is lovely to see. But, as I was saying, has he come with a list? Does he want a cross or a special book? Is there any jewellery for the deceased?’
Again, Myfanwy gesticulated. A bag in the corner of the room, by the silver vats of blood and lymph and life force and the plastic containers of phenol and formaldehyde. ‘Ah you thought of that, too. His belt with a tarnished silver buckle and the legend of his grandfather, Timothy the Nasty of Little Haven—oh the stories there are to tell—and photos of his cattle and his bird—she went to all the shows—and a picture of his chainsaws and a book. The Bible, of course? People like their Dead Dears to have The Bible even if they’ve been whores or accountants, Myfanwy.’ Evans the Bodies looked again. ‘That I wasn’t expecting: The Compleat Angler by Izaac Walton. It says “1653”. How little we know. Did he want to be a gentleman fisherman? I didn’t even know if he could read. Look you. “THE COMPLETE ANGLER OR, THE CONTEMPLATIVE MAN’S RECREATION.” ‘
Now, Evans the Bodies knew that the Dead Dears released surprises. In life, we could not always tell if a man read; if he recited poetry every night or chapters from The Mabinogion to his nasty cat. An examined, deep and cultured life was not always revealed to the outside world, perhaps if the owner of those things felt they were more brilliant kept separate and apart; or he was ashamed because his family laughed at literature and effete, delicate things—thought them unmanly or unworthy; something for a stumbling, decadent Englishman, when here, now, should only be the simple words of command and desire; of shopping and betting: of curse and television. But Evans had seen more: old texts about the Dead Dears’ hobbies: once, from a budgie fancier and potboy, Jim the Fish, he found a burgundy leather copy of The Natural History of Cage Birds. THEIR MANAGEMENT, HABITS, FOODS, DISEASES, TREATMENT, BREEDING, AND
THE METHODS OF CATCHING THEM by J.M. Bechstein, M.D. Of Walterhausen in Saxony. 1812 was given as the first printing and, below an exquisite plate of a golden oriole, he was lost in time as he learned about ornamental cages and diseases called The Pip, The Rheum, costiveness and The Bloody Flux; for the consumptive cage bird, the suggested remedy was the juice of a turnip. Evans had wanted to read to the end of the book and understand its beauty and barbarism, but the Dead Dears should not wait and no-one wanted to see Jim the Fish, because he had been bought from and dealt with—had the best crabs this side of the Neyland Bridge—but he had been unloved, so burial would not be halted and he would be laid to rest, this secret bird scholar, the intimacy of which was only known to Evans. And to me, apprentice, of course, who saw everything and thought I might visit the man who wrote the book to see how he cradled the oriole before he wrest it from his world. I said I was an apprentice, but this is not my first apprenticeship, time or place. Why, no. Do you guess?
Now, Evans the Bodies flicked gently through the new old book and stopped, arrested at a single page containing a poem; he thought it must be a poem because it was smaller and narrower than the continuous writing. Things that were truncated were not description or stories, were they? He read it aloud, stumbling, to Myfanwy, all the while held in time, like Jones on the slab under the turning pages, for reasons he did not yet comprehend:
‘But I will lay aside my discourse of rivers, and tell you some things of the monsters, or fish, call them what you will, that they breed and feed in them. Pliny the philosopher says, in the third chapter of his ninth book, that in the Indian Sea, the fish called Balaena or Whirlpool, is so long and broad, as to take up more in length and breadth than two acres of ground; and, of other fish, of two hundred cubits long; and that in the river Ganges, there be Eels of thirty feet long. He says there, that these monsters appear in that sea, only when the tempestuous winds oppose the torrents of water falling from the rocks into it, and so turning what lay at the bottom to be seen on the water’s top. And he says, that the people of Cadara, an island near this place, make the timber for their houses of those fish bones. He there tells us, that there are sometimes a thousand of these great Eels found wrapt or interwoven together He tells us there, that it appears that dolphins love musick, and will come when called for, by some men or boys that know, and use to feed them; and that they can swim as swift as an arrow can be shot out of a bow; and much of this is spoken concerning the dolphin, and other fish, as may be found also in the learned Dr. Casaubon’s Discourse of Credulity and Incredulity, printed by him about the year 1670.
I know, we Islanders are averse to the belief of these wonders; but there be so many strange creatures to be now seen, many collected by John Tradescant, and others added by my friend Elias Ashmole, Esq., who now keeps them carefully and methodically at his house near to Lambeth, near London, as may get some belief of some of the other wonders I mentioned. I will tell you some of the wonders that you may now see, and not till then believe, unless you think fit.
You may there see the Hog-fish, the Dog-fish, the Dolphin, the Cony-fish, the Parrot-fish, the Shark, the Poison-fish, Sword-fish, and not only other incredible fish, but you may there see the Salamander, several sorts of Barnacles, of Solan-Geese, the Bird of Paradise, such sorts of Snakes, and such Birds’-nests, and of so various forms, and so wonderfully made, as may beget wonder and amusement in any beholder; and so many hundred of other rarities in that collection, as will make the other wonders I spake of, the less incredible; for, you may note, that the waters are Nature’s store-house, in which she locks up her wonders.
But, Sir, lest this discourse may seem tedious, I shall give it a sweet conclusion out of that holy poet, Mr. George Herbert his divine “Contemplation on God’s Providence”.
‘Lord! who hath praise enough, nay, who hath any?
None can express thy works, but he that knows them;
And none can know thy works, they are so many,
And so complete, but only he that owes them.
We all acknowledge both thy power and love
To be exact, transcendant, and divine;
Who cost so strangely and so sweetly move,
Whilst all things have their end, yet none but thine.
Wherefore, most sacred Spirit! I here present,
For me, and all my fellows, praise to thee;
And just it is, that I should pay the rent,
Because the benefit accrues to me.”’
‘Oh Myfanwy, who would have thought it? Oh Myfanwy, what else is there to learn? Jones. Nasty, cruel-tempered Jones as an artful angler with his old book, a secret gentleman and this poet. And did he know the Lord—exact, transcendent and divine? The discourse of rivers! How beautiful that is! The dolphins so loving musick and swimming fast as an arrow! Tempests, islands and wonders! And what is there to teach you? What book should I or could I write for you, Myfanwy. What of Jones’s life-end, now in the coffin, the casket as some call it, which contains the body if it’s going to be buried or entombed or as a means of burying cremated bits and it’s a respectful and attractive way to transport the body before the burial or cremation but don’t you know that, my beautiful silent woman, because you know everything? Do I tell you now that we learn how coffin materials are a matter of style for how can there be a material that can preserve a body forever and no material that will give you a better journey to the life hereafter? Oh Myfanwy, my love, coffins are also available in alternative materials, such as bamboo, willow, woven banana leaf, and pressed cardboard, among other materials and things they call alternative materials and green things. Green, my love, my only! But there is not much call for them in these parts. Oh but we can provide a half or full, which refers to whether the lid comes in two pieces or one piece and that in the case of a viewing, like with Jones, because his family want to know he’s truly gone. So that they can drink and celebrate and go out on the boats and cheer, there will be a visitation and there must be full because all of him will be on display for his beloveds to gloat on the Dead Dear.’
Evans the Bodies and Muffled Myfanwy hefted Jones from the embalming table to the coffin, now waiting on the trolley next to it.
‘Shift him with me, Myfanwy. I know you are strong. Do not be shy that you have the strength of ten men and ten of your husband and son who left you so alone! And him in his shed like that, above all those fine garden tools. And him in the back room of the pub on the shuffle-board like this and being found by Llinois as he was and she only just a woman and what did she know of heartbreak or gunshot? I’m sorry Myfanwy’—she was crying now—‘but I can keep it in no longer. I want to sing of what I feel and the Dead Dears I know. And I will teach you, like the only poem I know, about the pretty liners Myfanwy, the fabric lining the inside of the coffin which is all in my catalogue—look see; I have it here—which is sold to us puncture-resistant and leak-proof, and is made from satin, or velvet and oh—how I favour the natural materials and start from the prick and static of the polyester and the electricity, Myfanwy, oh—electricity indeed.’
Evans the Bodies moved a step closer to Myfanwy.
‘And there are commemorative panels, which are embroidered on the interiors of the coffin lid because some like it, and a special thing called internal lift hardware, which tilts the inside of the coffin up so that in a full or open, the body may be viewed at an angle. I am the only man in this part of Pembrokeshire to have such a thing. Myfanwy, oh Myfanwy, there is a thing in my catalogue called a memory tube, not because the dead remember, and not as if the atoms of the dirt and clay need to remember, but if we, silly living world, forget and if something should happen to the Dead Dears—should the coffin be dislodged from its space in a mausoleum or crypt, or unearthed from the ground, in apocalypse or great strife or a new housing development for people from away like that one on the Milford Road, then the identity of the Dead Dears can be easily known and we do not have to exhume them. Exhume. Ex-hume. Ex-hale…Exquisite—oh you smell of the sweetest summer meadow my beautiful Myfanwy!’
And Evans the bodies fell at her feet and worshipped at her knees and Jones lay silent and sewn up in his best suit. And then I, apprentice and yet not so came forward from the twilight shadows at the edge of the room and I said,
‘Speak again, Myfanwy. Philip and Lewis the Younger Llewhellin want you to be free now. Speak Myfanwy! Cry and let go, for here is love in this strange death-barren place.’
And the stop was loosed from Myfanwy’s throat and she said, “Yes, Evans the Bodies and thank you and can you take me to chapel afterwards?’ And she kissed him and was altered.
‘Ynghanol ein bywyd, yr ydym yn angau,’ she said, as she wept.
‘Yes, Myfanwy: in the midst of life we are in death and here with the Dead Dears it is fair to say that we are in love.’
And there was another book that had only been seen by its owner, or nearly so. Because I saw all. In this place; in this time. But oh, for all time and you and I will meet again, but I can make you no promises it will be a sweet meeting. I was saying: Evans the Bodies wrote poems in this book. Often for the Dead Dears who had no-one and whose lives must, he thought, be recorded for posterity. So the timid lady from the post office, who had customers and bread but no friends and a mother who would have tossed her out with the peelings for the pigs, became a cowslip in a warm meadow and drank deep of the sun and was happy; so a coarse and crooked man, who lived in the last house before St Brides Bay and whose children hated him but sang like larks for his money, was limned as a quiet man, skimming stones on the beach and smiling into the auroras of a coastal morning when no-one knew. But Evans the Bodies was a watcher for the sad and lonely. He was a dresser of bodies, to be sure, but he also had a talent for the sad soul and the lonely.
And he had always loved Myfanwy; when she was someone else’s, as she laboured for and lost her child, when both times he bought her milk-white lilies and she said, ‘Evans, there’s a soft man you are’ and he cried with his back to her, as he did when she lost her husband. He put poems in the book for her. Imagined he was taking eternal pictures of her, watching her written into the world all around and, as he watched the frosty lines on the windows in his cold parlour and saw the feathers and curlicues of winter, he scratched her monogram and, again, he cried, and imagined himself at a window as the beautiful ship Myfanwy his Love sailed away and thus he wrote what I have below. I had seen it of course, but he did not know. I had learned it by heart and whispered it into the Pembrokeshire night, whose kind tendrils carried it to her and caressed her, then softly laid waste to her sadness and silence and made her think clearly about Evans the Bodies, who loved her and always had, just so. And he would not ever leave her, for when their very mass of atoms dissembled and went off to abide in rock pools and grains of sand, he was sure that theirs would still mingle, up there in the headland graves.
Myfanwy, as you were: bay window, a side light and a black background.
Then as you were again: middle room—direct front light. I was specific.
Myfanwy—I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.
Myfanwy, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and sailed away, sassy girl.
I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.
I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as
the evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost
for you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence
spoke truth to us—that you could stay. The frost had crept along the span
to show you how this foolish clot had mouthed the most that could be said.
And then I spoke—and ruined all. A foolish joke: my love; my word—
Myfanwy, stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.
I tried to draw another length to keep you here: pellucid worlds for us to share,
yet how I knew what I had done. You did not care for crystal casts,
the shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan
was lost for you in my chapped hands—and so I scratched and tried to show
some better words to keep you here—to stall you with this simple moss-grown fool,
Why, no. Don’t go, Myfanwy—stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.
Myfanwy, yours, Evans, who loved you so since I first clapped eyes on you, girl, that cold night when they set off the fireworks from the castle for the Christmas lights. But I will wait a lifetime and set out fireworks when you are mine and then only.’
And thus, my work, apprentice and quiet master, was done and the Dead Dears were at rest and all was well. For death is not always cruel, don’t you see?
THE FAMISHED HOUSES
(Few layout problems when shifting from Word here; apologies.)
The old house, in the sleepy French village, is tall and dusty looking. Once, it must have been vibrant, but now, bindweed curls around it and ivy reclaims the windows and the stone of the house. It must be hard for the quiet inhabitants to see out. Sometimes, there is post for the house and the post boy makes a swift passage towards the door because the house alarms him. There is a housekeeper, an old crone who will not give you the time of day and, curiously, a gardener—though he never tends to the front gardens, so fallen into disrepair they must be. The villagers wonder whether there are beautiful and well tended gardens to the rear of the house. For what else could lie there?
It is said that a lady lives at the house, some say two sisters, and that they never need company. But that this is a house of shadowy presences; a place where melancholy hangs thick in the air. And at night, sometimes, in summer when the top windows of the house are opened,one hears music, from a curious assortment of instruments: flute, cello, but also mandolin and dulcimer. And an inhabitant of the village making his way home could be stopped in his tracks because the music is so extraordinarily beautiful. But even so it sends a shiver up the spine which is not so pleasant.
But today is different. People do not come and go readily in this village, but a new person has come, from the city, and he wants to enquire about the tall, great house. He knows the finest, oh the very best architects and decorators in Paris and see this is a house to benefit from his good taste and gilded fingers. He raps confidently at the door and it is answered. The rumour held true. Two women come to the door, so similar facially it is immediately clear that they are sisters. They are not beautiful, but they are arresting: striking and sensual women, with poise and grace and exquisite manners. They seem pleased to see him and he is surprised to entertain this peculiar thought for a moment: it is as if they knew he were coming.
Over tea and dainty little cakes, he explains to them what it is he is looking for. They are clearly amused by something but do not elaborate. And to his delight, they indicate quite clearly that, indeed, they were thinking of it, of perhaps finding somewhere smaller because the great house is too much to manage and they realise parts of it are in a poor state of repair. They tell him that they will be in touch, that they have a solicitor in Paris who attends to matters of estate and finance for them—and so the visitor takes his leave.
So he waits and, sure enough, within weeks he hears from them again. A sum is agreed and the solicitors are instructed. Within two months, he is in the house, removing dust and grime and revealing the lovely house under the crumbling plaster and neglect. He has a lady in Paris and she becomes his wife. So taken with the house is he that he decides to move from Paris; it is a fair trip but he thinks he can make the journey once or twice a week to conduct his business. And during these times, his new wife is left lonely at home. The dream becomes more to his liking than to hers and, eventually, resentment begins to settle in the house.
And so they come to her. The two sisters who are still there for, of course, they did not move out—just retreated into the deeper recesses of darkness until they saw a purpose. The housekeeper and gardener are there, too. They will never leave because the house is alive: it is a living breathing organism and they, hungry for blood and for dim, mysterious life, are part of its darkness. The house may be trimmed and tidied and made pretty but, underneath, it will not change. And so the young wife is taken to be with them. And when her husband, upstart from Paris, comes back, he will not find her. Eventually the house and its inhabitants will claim him too. Except that his will not be a quiet taking— or the sin of presuming to buy what forever belonged for ever to somebody else. Something that was never for sale. And all those who live in the wings of the house and in the fine rear garden will play their music, jangle the gold of our upstart, do what cruel things they must to survive and laugh. You could hear them if you went to this village on a summer night when the music is played. But keep your pride in check.
It is a strange place; a cold street, in which the temperature seems to drop as you round the corner. You feel the breeze cut into you; sometimes you think you must have imagined it, but no: there it is again. A street that looks the same as the last but inescapably, dangerously and, unfortunately, irresistibly different.
The young man, lean and callow, has been called upon to work for the shadowy residents of this street. There, every day, post is delivered, collected from doormats, papers from drives and houses and gardens maintained in apparently pristine condition. And yet, we see no-one, telling ourselves only that the street’s inhabitants must keep shifts or, more exotically, rather bohemian hours.
So, the young man is called to the fifth house on the street, a tall house, as all the others, with imposing gables and a tall, tall chimney stack. He rings the bell and a lady answers, ivory and willowy, with intense blue eyes. She sees him start just a little, as one does when confronted by such intense beauty. ‘Won’t you come in? So much to do.’
Inside, it is a world away from the modern suburban street, all billowing drapes, vast cabinets of dainty phials and bottles, Venetian mirrors and candelabra. And little cups; so many little cups on narrow shelves. With fluted saucers, Japanese and Chinese designs, lacquer-work. His eye is drawn everywhere all at once and she senses this. ‘Yes: I am quite a collector, as you see.’
‘Well, I’m wondering, Miss; is it Miss? (it is)—which jobs you need doing.’
‘Ah, yes, But first, won’t you have some tea? Come through.’
The kitchen is through the long narrow hallway with its unusual intricate pattern of hexagonal tiles. The room has a surprisingly vast azure ceiling, upon which are painted many tiny gold stars. He would have thought it exquisite, had it not already begun to make him dizzy just looking at it for a short while.
She boils water in an old fashioned urn (strange, he thought: why no kettle?); rather too much for tea for two. She makes tea in a lovely, highly polished silver tea pot -again it seems disproportionately large of scale.
‘I need more shelves, Long thin shelves for my display. I am such a magpie, as you saw. And shallow cabinets for the walls. Like you could see in an old fashioned apothecary. But not so deep and, you know, with drawers. Can you picture what I mean?’
Yes, for the first. That shouldn’t be hard but her second request would be more difficult. But, as he drinks his tea, he feels he wants to please her, so he agrees to start the job the next day. Although really, his other commitments tell him he should wait. It is something about this lady—and she amuses him too, he thinks as he drinks the tea from more of her little cups.
Next day, he begins and, in a day, the narrow shelves are cut and fitted for the rather bare little ante room off the kitchen. ‘This will be my dining room,’ she says, “You are decorating it for me.’
He drinks more of her tea, even eats some dainty little sandwiches she makes him, and begins work on the cabinets. The work seems to flow from him; oddly, some of his best work to date. Invisible joints and beautifully conceived design. He has surprised himself. But then, standing back from the room, as it begins to come to life with its first fittings, he feels suddenly tired and this she sees.
‘Come and sit down. In the kitchen.’
‘She looks more beautiful than ever today,’ he thinks.’Yes, I had better.’
He sits, closes his eyes for a moment to rest. He feels worse. Looking up at the ceiling — at the fine golden stars — he becomes dizzier and dizzier. And then he sees and remembers no more.
The shadowy inhabitants of the rest of the houses in the street come through interconnecting doors—they are corporeal, after all—and they feast and they drink him dry from the little fluted cups as they sit under the stars. And what they cannot digest, they grind for their medicines and make up and potions and this they place in the shallow apothecaries’ drawers. And thus they retreat to their own homes and the lady with the lovely blue eyes is alone. Until, that is, she crosses her hall to the next visitor, floating across the fine encaustic tiles, which show not hexagons, but pentagons—no pentangles-—and say, in the Latin inscription which our carpenter did not know how to read, ‘Caveat venus et stella.’ And if you, too, cannot read this, then you must find out. Just in case.
This last one is about losing a parent as a kid. I don’t think you ever get over it. I had no relationship as an adult, then, with either of my parents. In a way, I have invented who they were. I’m kind of…Asa in this story. It is ragged and in draft form; the beginning is particularly trite, but see what you think. This is not a piece I will revisit, but it has meaning for me. The text is shot through with lines from Keats, from The Tempest and from Andrew Marvells’s ‘Bermudas’ and ‘The Garden’.
Asa and the Margins of the Known World
Asa: an earnest child, worried about many things; he adored and was ever watchful of his mother; in later and calmer times, he would recall feeling paralysed by anxiety about her during the day. But he never told of this, dissipating it instead by gathering small gifts for her when others were not looking: a fir cone or a curious small piece of ribbon which someone had dropped. It is amazing what a child can find amongst the roots of a holly bush or a monkey puzzle tree: what treasure. The gleam in his eye when he found something for her was his and his alone. The gleam was there, too as he dreamed his special dreams – of chasing tigers through the Sundarbans; of a lady with green almond eyes who cast spells as she rubbed your feet with mustard oil. Closer to home, he knew of the magic song called by a farmer to his cows so that, at night, they could fly. Of the school lollipop lady whose lollipop, when turned this way, showed you the parallel world to yours – the one you see out of the corner of your eye. Don’t you know it is there, even as the tired, myopic adult that you are?
Just on a short walk home from school, Asa could feel the shifting sand and mud as he tracked the dense, halophytic coast: he loved the name – Sundarbans – with its satisfying polysyllabic heft – and he felt all at once the mysterious substance, mutability and danger of its landscape; its tidal swell and tangle of mangrove. But then, the boy could hear the whispers of the giant banyan in the botanical gardens in Calcutta or reflect that Fern Hill lived both in an imagined seam of Wales and in our real world as a halt on a narrow and lazily meandering railway line in Southern India: it was a train stop in Pondicherry. You can look it up, of course. Neither is more true than the other. The boy found fantasy no less satisfying or believable than our tidy quotidian life. For him, fact and fiction merged with a satisfying gorgeousness that, to the unobservant adult, was perplexing indeed.
Asa was handsome and athletic, but appeared otherwise disengaged from school; the sort of boy who appears tired, with glazed eyes. Sometimes his mother wept for him because in her heart she heard and felt his difference. His eye did not gleam like a cat in class. His teachers, in striving to mould him this way and that, expressed much concern about the boy. To one he was “worryingly tired”: to another “A strange boy; a quirky boy.” Did he rest well? Did he test for anaemia? Wasn’t she worried? And why didn’t he read what they gave him to read? She was an intelligent parent; she must understand how a child cannot thrive without his varied diet of books.
But at home, Asa did not merely read, he fed on books and followed lines on maps to places whose names sated his tongue. Descriptions of trees, extraordinary things, feasts, islands, magicians, love at first sight, noble savages, cloven pines, the censer old, a beaded rosary, frosted breath and lustrous salvers. Of course, Asa did not always fully understand what he read, but sensed its importance and atmosphere inchoately, if not completely. And afterwards, he held the words in his hands and in his pockets – sometimes with the treasures of which I spoke at the beginning of this story. And he also kept a small notebook in which he would write down lines he had found particularly transporting; the notebook had wide margins which he peopled with faces and musical notes and trees with swaying arms. The book was often accompanied by a miniature book or two: tiny leafed texts he made which were filled with ideas, rules and structures for his real and imaginary worlds. He found that time and time again he returned to two elderly texts which sat side by side on his parents’ bookshelves: one was a copy of ‘The Tempest’ and the other ‘The Poetical Works of John Keats’.
In the wood near his garden, he would go to his wishing tree. A beech tree with a trunk that felt kind. “I wish” he would say “that I could fly. That people did not argue. That my mother never got tired.” And his mother thought she would like a tree too – so she could shout to it “The boy does read – but he does not read your books. He is, sweetly, stubbornly, an extraordinary child. He is a storyteller and weaver of dreams. May I say you could stuff that in your pipe and smoke it? Ha!”
Asa’s grandfather silently understood him. On Sundays afternoons, they would tend the walled garden by his house, look after the chickens and sometimes, when they made a bonfire, grandfather would make fire toast on the flames. It was, the boy thought, the most delicious thing ever – all blackened at the edges and disapproved of by his grandmother. And he knew that, later, when his grandparents dozed, he could take his notebook and write in it, inscribing little worlds in the margins around a poem or a short story. One of his own or something copied from his grandparents’ fusty old books. At home, too, he would lose himself in the endless afternoons, letting the jellies and fruits on the table laden by Porphyro arrest his senses and come dripping from his tongue; feeling, with Caliban, that he cried to dream again as he etched the dimensions of his fine island in the margins of his book. Marvellous sweet music. I have it. Check. Noises. Check. And then, as he read of Antonio’s wonderment at the isle, the boy added the mythical one tree of Arabia, where was set the throne of the phoenix. He had read somewhere that its nest was redolent of spices and made of burnished wood. There, now, came the strange shapes bringing in a banquet. And a unicorn: all check. And while he was not so good at drawing a unicorn, and was unsure what the one tree which held the phoenix throne might look like, yet when he had finished, he fancied the former had a glint in his eye and the latter a supine trunk, bedecked with a velvet bark. And that the phoenix smiled, if a phoenix could.
At home, Asa went on with creating his world. In hidden corners of his room,
were the miniature books. One was of rules for the room – “No smoking; no stealing: you have to share your sweets in this room” – and another, more complex, of the myriad rules for an imaginary world. Or maybe for two or three worlds. “In this world, there are kind unicorns and lots of bright colours everywhere. There are soft things to sit on and, if you know the words to write and read, everything is edible and delicious. Mothers are not tired and everyone is pleased and happy. There are always music, soft lights and a way through the maze. There are angels who are very kind. And also there are feasts of “syrups tinct with cinnamon” and “jellies soother than the creamy curd.” Asa imagined that a feast which glowed like that must be magnificent to eat indeed. And you ate it as the amethyst and rose bloom fell, by what must be the grace of moonshine through the casement, upon your hand and arm. The room behind you was dark, treacherously so. But for the feast, the darkness would be kind.
No-one but Asa saw the rules; he suspected the other boys would not understand. Nine year old boys do not, after all, generally climb a tree, raise a bonfire and then sit down to an afternoon reading Keats’s ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ or listen hungrily to Caliban’s “riches ready to drop upon me.” At night, sometimes, the boy dug his nails into his hands with the thought of his difference and of the way in which his strange little books, the busy margins and the fusty volumes were his best friends. But he did not cry out or even think he should ask why this made him feel so sad. Instead, he tried to think of the unicorn or his grandfather’s hens, lines of vegetables, the old warm red brick of the walled garden, the lilting voice of the farmer down the lane calling to his cows (did that call hide magic?) or maybe the taste of fire toast and the prayer which pierces so. And the possibility of hope and friendship in a book or the curious and deeply furrowed face of an ancient man. A face which you had drawn, within a fine bower of leaves, in the margin of your notebook. Then, you felt comforted and less alone. The old face lived alongside the vertical line around which you had drawn ivy – and it smiled up at you. Or so you thought as you suddenly came across it.
Mum was tired. Asa thought she was beautiful but he could also see the purpling under her eyes. It was Advent – to Asa the season of lights and candles and darkness flickering with small flames. He added to the rules of the imaginary world: “There, they will look after my mother” and the rules of the room “You cannot come in if you are happy because it will make you unhappy” and then, “Candles are banned in this room and near this room because candles make us think of God and God did not stop my mother being ill.” He hoped for charms like Prospero’s and wings like Ariel; for Caliban’s rebellion and sometimes, when angry, even to drown his book. For how did
it ever help? Surely it provided little solace now, however pretty its words or how pleasing the details of the faces in its margins? For knowledge of illness and of an ending coming – maybe coming; how could he know? – made the boy separate. His eyes had never been bluer. He was tall and fast and lithe. Still didn’t really care that much about what they taught him in school, so caught up was he in the things that interested him most, worried him most and terrified him most. And so, at the end of the day, he determined that he should apply his wits to the task. He must take to his room and his pen to keep building a world, with its rules and special constructs; he must keep company with a notebook in which the margins helped to give shape to such a world and transcribe what, without ink and graphite, could pass us by.
Downstairs, at night, he could hear his mother’s breathing coming more heavily. And while his blue eyes shone at their best for her the next morning, he thought she had never looked prettier and wondered if other boys thought their mothers so lovely. As he straightened a pillow for her, she began to tell him a story: it came in breathless snatches sometimes, but it held him firm. It was a traveller’s tale – of her own invention, he thought. She began with the delivery from peril at sea of our hero and his friends, as they bested a watery maze and rounded the shore of a new world, where they saw azure on white and the rich, bountiful fruits hanging like golden lamps in a green night. For now, the story was left unfinished – but her son tasted the orient fruit all day and on that winter’s night, peripheral vision tempted him with fleeting glances of that most numinous citrus grove, glowing in his darkness.
It was a Wednesday when it happened. She’d been sleeping when he left for school, although maybe she had murmured to him in his sleep. Perhaps another shred of story? In later years he liked to think so. She didn’t wake. His teacher took him out to the Headmaster’s office and there was his grandfather to stand by his side. Asa couldn’t cry but just kept thinking of the rules of his room and whether, if you thought really hard, you could will things to happen or not to happen. If you thought magically, the magic could begin. If you could, through some enchantment, make events converge upon you and steer them somehow upon a different path. If you could call up golden lamps in a green night and steer your way through a maze.
So Asa steeled himself. How could it hurt? He felt entirely alone without the scratch of the pen and the sure, soft touch of the turning page. He began to write; to doodle, hatch and scrawl. On the silent walk home from school that day he planned it all. That really hard thought would bring a world he created to life. And from this world, a creation of his could extend a cordial hand to his mother (cordial was not his word of course; it is mine, as I favour its fine, old fashioned temper), wake her and bring her back safe and rested and with her breathing even and the dark circles gone from under her eyes. And the worlds in the margins: if he filled them with extraordinary words and lands and the finest lines a boy could muster; if he could write that “she is immortal, but by immortal providence she is mine” and somehow elicit a response to set his darkness echoing, over and over – how would that be?
The silence continued in the house. He felt her but knew she was not there; he could still smell the lily of the valley cologne with which she used to dab her pulse points when she was tired or distracted or wanted to feel (he thought) more beautiful. Yet there was, he felt, an unsettling but fascinating blending of his sleeping and his waking hours. Like subtleties of the isle, he told himself. In his room he found a notebook he had yet to write in and he began. First, the margin. He tried once more to draw a unicorn; a kindly looking sea monster; a tree with strong arms: he made Caliban with a happy face and saw the joy of the sprite released to the elements, all clad in silver filigree and with gossamer wings like a dragonfly. Today his fingers worked quickly; there was an ease he did not think he had felt before. Resting for a moment, Asa screwed up his eyes and imagined that the creatures swayed and smiled and leaned towards him. Did they? No: it could never be. So he began to write – thought of his rules again. And he wrote this:
“I have changed the rules of my room a bit because now they are the rules of the world outside my room too. If you are here (or there) and you are speaking to me, you need to be happy and to believe in magic. Or maybe you need to believe in God. I don’t believe in him yet, but I am trying to. You also have to draw things with content eyes and strong hands because then you can help me to lift up my mother and make her strong and well wherever she is. And I need to hear the end of the story she only began.”And his pen dropped from his hand and the boy slept. He slept until the next day, when his grandfather came to wake him. “Never seen a boy sleep so long, old son” said his grandfather, winking at him. Asa was still in a half sleep, feeling the warm sand of the isle between his toes and the thousand twangling sounds in his ears.
And so, by day, it went on; be as expected at school, cope with the gentle concern of a teacher, climb a tree and kick a ball. But tell no-one of the notebook just yet. Then home to scribble and draw and doodle in the book, less so the page than its now intricately filled margin. This time, wise old owls who knew the secrets of all men, a kindly old lady who knew the truth in your heart and would wrap it up and never tell but, knowing it, would help you on your way wherever or whatever that way might be. And an imposing face – something like the face of God as the boy imagined it, blowing the clouds here and there and casting shafts of sunlight on to the Earth. Again – was there a little movement in the margin? Again, the boy screwed up his eyes hard and unscrewed them; he looked out of the very corner of his eye to see if he could see that parallel world to our own of which I told you at the beginning of this story.
“Put down the book now, old son” said his grandfather on the day of the church service. So many little candles flickering and sometimes guttering: out of darkness and waiting we will come to the light. Outside, he screwed up his eyes again and thought hard. Hard enough to make things happen, if a person ever could. Thought through funeral tea and tears and a bedtime in which his grandfather choked back sobs as they went about their evening routine. And then later, when he was alone, Asa continued to draw. The ivory pages were empty apart from a neatly underlined date and his name on each page but the margins were a thing to celebrate: that were becoming ever more detailed; fluent; confident. Before he fell asleep that night, with the book across his chest, the boy had drawn another unicorn, whose expression was definitely quizzical; knowing and laughing. And there was a mountain whose sides and shades showed the measure of their memories and a stream whose clear voice rang out with no sound. And the softness and the kindness of these things held Asa through a night of dreams which might have haunted, but instead of which cared for him and carried him through to another day. One in which he would be stronger and ever finer at drawing and a little more aware of the magic that does, indeed, lie within. Within the scope of our ink as we write and draw and within our minds, as we read.
Thus it was that, a few days later, Asa looked through his old rules, housed in the miniature books. He banished those which spoke of sadness – and any tiny page which seemed hopeful he placed inside the notebook whose margins became fuller and finer with each day. The tree with long arms and a wise face; the lady, the ancient man in his fine bower of leaves, a wise owl or two, the unicorns, sea monsters, streams and mountains all woven into one never-ending story. It is a story which you only break for a taste of delicious fire toast or to read so that the words fill your mouth while they usher forth a sense of something extraordinary glimpsed, but not yet understood.
I know this curious tale to be true because Asa is an extraordinary child. And also because I am his mother. So I hold his hand while he writes and fills those beautiful margins and together, telling stories, we walk through the green night, lit safely by golden lamps.