After much deliberation we chose to publish yet another short story as part of our competition. Our next one was written by Windsor’s local author David Palin who writes poetic, haunting, dark and disturbing psychological novels and from what we hear, his work is widely read by women. Definitely something completely different to what we normally publish. As one off, here it is.
My galleon world had long since lost its sail of leaves and birds,
Tempestuously shred upon the storm I hoped would bring us home.
I was tired now; so tired. “I didn’t mean to kill her.”
“You’re the psychiatrist – you explain.”
He raised a hand. “I meant what did you mean to do?”
“Well,…obviously I must have meant to kill her.” Whose nightmarish words were
these; surely not mine? “It was strangulation. There’s time during the…struggle to…” I faltered, “…contemplate…reconsider what you’re doing.”
“So why do you think you didn’t ‘reconsider’?” It was enunciated without emotion,
without antagonism, but merely emphasised the inappropriate verb. “You’ve no history of violence; a gentle soul according to your work associates, not even someone they suspect has the cork in too tight, likely to explode. That’s why you’re sitting here – I want to understand. I’m not seeking legal loophole at the request of a sharp lawyer. Indeed you haven’t even requested representation. You puzzle all of us, John.”
I stared out at the snow, with no recollection of the passing seasons. Had I been
catatonic ever since?
“Was it jealousy?” he asked.
“I’d just met her.”
His gaze was steady. “What are you not telling me, John?”
“There’s no history of erratic behaviour. Just a few…” here he looked down at the
folder and quoted, “‘…geekish idiosyncrasies’, which one expects from a gifted,
absorbed scientist if one chooses to believe the stereotypes – and as the saying goes, how does a cliché become a cliché? Yet in the space of two days you called in sick – an unheard-of event apparently – joined a drama course,” he cleared his throat, “and took the life of a young actress. While here, you’ve drunk only coffee, though that I think I can understand. ‘Macbeth hath murdered sleep’. But the strangest part is the radio in your room, switched to longwave. From what we’ve observed, you seem obsessed with finding some signal that defeats the rest of us. What are you trying to tune into?”
“It was…it was her face, you see. When I said my line.” He said nothing, but his
practised hand slid below the desk to press a button, presumably a recorder of some sort.
Were my recollections entering uncharted territory? How long had I been here? “She was supposed to…”
Something started to trickle down my cheek.
The glittering huntsman shone from far beneath a sea of clouds,
Which broke in grey and white upon the city roofs.
I watched this grand autumnal display from my empty bed. Clouds hurled themselves
before the unforgiving vanguard of a storm, billowing like dust from the feet of Orion.
The air was charged in a way that makes gazelles skittish on the darkening plains of the Serengeti before the rains.
My empty bed. Those who, like me, suffer from a fullness of heart, but have never
known love, will understand. I sighed and turned my head away. What lies behind that theatrical gesture? Are we seeking something, hoping time might fracture and hurl the face of love onto the pillow beside us?
For a moment I’d almost waxed poetical, but Newton prevailed and the curse of the
particle physicist struck me. Instead, I analysed the spectacle unfolding beyond my
window – beyond my transient powers of imagination too, it seemed – rather than
absorbing its majesty. My huntsman had transmogrified from a Greek mythological
hunter into a group of stars anthropomorphised by primitive minds; burning gases beyond which lay an infinity of, well, infinity.
How I bored myself sometimes. I believed that sleep, like imagination, would remain beyond me on that night made for lovers pressing lustful claims, while my body moved to the rhythm of the sea, part of the tide of humankind, swept backwards and forwards, drawn like turtles onto a beach and back to the ocean by the interaction between our blood and the sea. Instead there were just waves of drowsiness and I nodded off.
I’m sitting on the floor of some empty hall, my back against a wall. At the far end
there’s a door with another room beyond it, in which people are milling about. On my lap is a manila folder, to the left of me a black iron staircase spiralling upwards; a fire-escape perhaps. The folder is open and bent back. It’s a script, but I can’t focus on the words.
The hubbub continues; excited conversation, occasional peals of girlish laughter, the
clink of cup on saucer. We’re taking a coffee break, whoever we are. I’m aware of a
shape entering through that far door. I’m not looking directly, but see the form moving
gracefully across the floor; almost sense, rather than hear, the swish of a skirt, as a pair high-heels makes its way…towards me! – unless she’s heading for the fire escape.
Unbelievable! She’s sitting on the steps. I feign insouciance, my usual defence against heartache; I look up, intending to give my best enigmatic smile. The thundering in my ears stops, replaced by silence, underlined by the wind that, somewhere in the building, whistles through old fault-lines.
For untold reasons, I know immediately that her face will never again change a life like it has just changed mine.
It’s not just the startling features – green, iridescent eyes, strong nose, quirky smile,
framed by shoulder length blonde hair. There’s no justice in that description because, as always with love at first sight, it’s the indefinable; the molecules and chemical emissions; knowing the valency is right. I’m sorry, but sometimes you can’t escape the science, even when you push it to one side and forget to breathe.
Somehow I know there are only two choices; we will be together forever, or death will
part us – I guess that’s three choices, if you allow each of us a death, rather than some bizarre suicide pact, which is another option I suppose, so technically that’s four choices. I hope I’m not babbling this nonsense, which would be both sad and indicative of why my bed is empty, but such is her effect, anything’s possible, especially as my mouth has opened and refuses to close. Has rigor mortis already set in?
She’s speaking. “You seem hard at work, sitting back here on your own. Are you
struggling with your lines?”
And then I have it, for the first time in my life; the killer line. Absolutely the thing I
want to say and the right circumstances – which is exactly when she starts to lose
definition. I’m powerless, trying to tune her in again. I’m losing her. The signal’s fading.
The disaster that is REM sleep ruins everything. My eyes open; I close them again,
diving back towards sleep, trying to save her as she slips overboard and sinks, sinks. I’ve lost her already, but bury my face under the blanket in desperate hope.
But she’s gone.
And in the wind an autumn slipped forever from my grasp,
elusive as a leaf I may not catch except to crush.
Never had I felt more cheated. I wanted to stay beneath those blankets. Fate was adding new dimensions to my tortures, robbing me as I slept, leaving me bereft; bereaved even.
That emptiness surpassed anything my lonely bed and a stormy night could have
That leaf has fallen,
Gone to feed the soil of yet another spring,
While flowers on my hearth grow white with time.
The psychiatrist tapped the piece of paper; gave an approving nod. They said they’d
found the poem my room, though I don’t remember writing it.
“That’s a startling image – beauty that’s too old even to fade. Is that what you were
trying; to stop her from growing old?”
That shocked me, but I couldn’t protest.So I ignored him. “Someone once said the
reason we don’t have beautiful dreams is because no-one has ever taught us how. The brain processes a tiny part of all it absorbs; she was in there somewhere, woven into the background. My desire to find her was implacable.”
He frowned. “Find her?”
“I couldn’t wait for night to come.”
“How did you fill the hours?”
“I can’t remember. That day was wasted on me and I regret that somewhere in this
universe of ours someone will have died, who could have used it better.”
The setting sun had burned the western world
And left the charring embers of a night.
But were the clouds, which rolled in black above,
A hint of midnight rain, or smoke from wars
Of worlds awakening beneath my feet?
I would fight those forces which, for fifty years, had prevented me sharing the paradox that was my life; the most precious thing I had to give, which I loved and loathed in equal measures. It had been one long struggle with my lines, but only because I wasn’t writing them myself. For too long, years and spiders had spun their nightly gauze upon the final pattern of my room, as they would if I failed now.
I sat on my bed, seeking control by imagining her face; reconstructing it until, like a
puzzle with a missing piece, it was incomplete but recognisable.
Sleep took me, but I nodded myself awake. Was the night too calm? Was a storm’s
static charge a pre-requisite for recreating the right conditions? Rather than this placid
candle moon, did it need a flame fanned by billowing curtains of wind-whipped clouds
and bending trees; the suppressed desire of every scientist who’d read Frankenstein?
It wasn’t going to happen…
…which makes my recollections that much stranger.
Vague memories of violent water, thick, muddy ropes of turbulence. Somehow I’m
rowing a kayak against the stream, through a vast canyon. I cannot swim, so it’s strange I
feel no fear. It seems I can swim in dreams. I’m at one with the torrent. Here the pattern
of my life does not consist of the black veins of shadow on the lawn that signal another
moon, another dying day. If I weren’t asleep, I’d laugh at the crude, almost clumsy
symbolism of this dream.
I woke exhilarated, before registering that the day had advanced by only five minutes,while I lay curled on top of the bed, cold. Curled and cold.
Beyond the window, my world was silhouetted against a darkening sky.
An old tree watched the passing of the day;
Its limbs as barren as a battlefield.
That silent guardian shadow spoke to me
Of Armageddon and antiquity.
The next morning I couldn’t shake the image of that tree. When a horn blared, waking
me from my distractedness, I braked heavily – and like a lost, treasured possession which had disappeared from view and out of mind in that unreachable space beneath a car seat, a memory shot forward.
And I had seen that tree upon the seas;
A ship’s mast hurled from wave to furious wave.
I pulled over, gathering my thoughts. I’d been a fool. Dreams weren’t doorways into another world, just signals from one. Alternative realities surrounded us, but mostly we walked away from them, conditioned in our responses. Hear a dog barking and we turn to find a single dog, whereas it could be two dogs barking in unison, if we allowed the possibility. Familiar objects were made from lots of nothing, when you considered all the empty space in an atom. Dreams were images captured in the background of a photograph as we focussed on what we were led to believe was important and substantive. My alternative reality, inhabited by dream girl, was here for me. I just needed to make it happen.
As if on cue, the remembrance of something made me turn and head for home. Having alerted the university to my ‘influenza’, I rooted through the pile of post I
intended to re-read, or more likely recycle. Animal charities, children’s charities, third
world charities, loans – I’d need one just to cope with the charities! Impatient, I pushed everything aside, macheteing my way through the jungle from which all that paper had come.
Had I’d been imagining it…no, ‘imagining’ was a banned word now, to be put out for
collection with the rubbish.
Success! Stage Right – a flyer from a local drama group advertising an ‘Introduction to Acting’ course. This was it! My eyes scrabbled downwards – starting September 15th; tomorrow! My considering it had been another background image developing slowly in the dark room. Held at Grove Hall, Henley. I knew the venue, having attended a symposium there on Quantum Biomechanics. It was typical of many manor houses once owned by local gentry who’d fallen on hard times thanks to death duties and inheritance taxes, so had sold out to the country club or conference centre conglomerates.
Magnificent parlours and ballrooms were divided into utilitarian cubicles, where would
be power executives could brainstorm and role-play their way to marketing nirvana in
overheated, theme-named seminar rooms.
I would find out soon enough whether any were theatres of dreams with a spiralling
fire-escape. I picked up the phone.
Despite his even tone, he couldn’t disguise his professional excitement. “So, John, now that your memory seems to have returned, I understand the context, at least, of that September evening. Do you have any recollection of what happened next, because till now…”
“The grounds of Grove Hall smelled damp; recent storms had fallen on arid, dying
vegetation following an unusually dry spell. I didn’t find it unpleasant. I’ve never
enjoyed searing heat; the passing joy and heavy melancholy of spring and autumn
respectively are more to my liking. This smell was redolent of the garden of my youth.”
“The smell of decay?”
“Sometimes I wish my life could always be September, when the embers of a dying
season wisp and glow.
“What I’d overlooked, as I froze in the entrance to Grove Hall – quite inexplicably
forgotten in my desperation to find my lady – was that I hated entering rooms full of well heeled, particularly high-heeled, strangers, especially those leaning towards the coterie.”
“So, great idea to join a drama group in Henley”. The psychiatrist smiled. “That
epitome of chic and clique.”
“But I was desperate. Forty-eight long hours had passed since she’d stepped through
the fissure into my world and despite everything, her image was fading. It was now a
ghost; wisps of steam escaping through cracks in ancient window-frames on a bitter,
“So I swallowed hard and entered.”
We fifty budding thespians sat in a large circle, while the Goodwives of Henley who
ran the group outlined the course in the clipped vowels peculiar to parts of the Thames Valley. Forty-nine listened, while I noticed, with a combustible, contradictory mixture of relief and dismay that ‘she’ wasn’t there. The only things stopping me leaving immediately were the unexpected, vulnerable friendliness of my neighbours and the discovery, upon glancing left, of a mystic portal, or ‘door standing slightly ajar at the other end of the room’, as it might have been described by my more objective fellow students. I had to check that out before I left.
Our initial exercise was designed to help us hide in plain sight – we were the Chorus in TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’. I kept my voice low in what I believed would be an appropriate dramatic, resonant manner – there were plenty of females present after all, even if she wasn’t one of them – but succeeded only in sounding bronchial. The subject matter didn’t lighten my spirits, feeding instead my unease. Like the Chorus, I feared ‘disturbance of the quiet seasons’ and choked slightly on the line telling me ‘destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen’. I recognised my own life in: ‘We have gone on living, Living and partly living’
At last we took a break. Most headed for the coffee. I grabbed a bottle of water and
approached the mystic portal. It was no enchantress’s cave, but the potent spell drawing me in couldn’t be denied. Beyond lay another room like the main hall, with wooden floors and a stucco ceiling.
Then I saw it – Jacob’s Ladder! The stairway to heaven, in the prosaic disguise of a
cast-iron fire escape. My heart pounded as if I’d already climbed to the clouds. I took a swig of water to slake the sudden dryness in my mouth.
Crossing the room, standing at the base of the steps and looking upwards, it might have been 1911 and I Hiram Bingham, standing before Machu Picchu, not some middle-aged particle physicist at a local am-dram meeting. Had one of the Goodwives asked me right then to emote – “John darling, give me fear and wonderment” – I’d have nailed it. If such a mundane stage and circumstance can elicit that response, is that not magic? When we enter a cathedral, what overwhelms us? Not the gold, but the grandeur of the vision; the humble carved mark of the mason whose rough hands built it; the sawn-off piece of original scaffolding in the tower, telling us this divine piece was once a secular work-in progress in which everyone believed; the vaulted roof, drawing us upwards even as it mires us in our insignificance.
Suddenly my legs went. I grasped the steps for support, sitting down with a thud. There was a light sweat on my forehead. The rushing in my ears was probably why I perceived rather than heard the high-heels entering and walking towards me. I became aware of the melange of sounds that is the lot of the outsider; cutlery ringing on crockery, a tinkling laugh, the ebb and flow from a sea of conversation, which the lonely traveller hears emanating from behind lit windows and longs, but fears, to join.
Still she advanced, before stopping and taking a seat on the steps. She was saying
something: “You seem hard at work, sitting back here on your own. Are you struggling with your lines?” At least I think that was it, so thunderous had the sound in my ears become. Now I remembered I was holding my script and, bent over it as I was, I must have seemed intent.
When I looked up at her I was caught not only in the eye of the storm, but also in the storm of her eyes. Yes, love makes a reality of the most excruciating wordplay.
Now those eyes were questioning; expectant. A reply, you idiot, I chastised myself.
Your line; say your line.
And it came to me – unfortunately, because this wasn’t a dream.
“Yes, I’m looking for the part where we kiss.”
With that her face changed.
Again that peculiar trickling down my cheek. “We were supposed to…” I bowed my
head, “…live happily ever after perhaps? But she started to sneer. I got up; left before the full contempt of it could stain her beauty. She was the one. There would be no other.
And…I couldn’t let her go.
“She had ripped out my heart, but I didn’t want it back. Nor was it within her power to
return it. It was beyond either of us.” I stopped; looked up again. “So I did the only thing that was in my power to stop her simply walking out of my life, leaving me with less purpose – less future – than a broken glass.” I blinked; great gouts of tears coursed forth.
“But now, her signal’s fading.”
The psychiatrist nodded his understanding. “But isn’t it better that it fades; that you
move the dial on? Surely you don’t want to hold onto your last memory of her.”
He meant well, but didn’t understand. I saw her now, peace and calm coming to her
features at last between my tightening hands, in the dark grounds of Grove Hall where I had waited; the most intimate and lasting moment two humans could share, which predatory time could never steal. Not for no reason is the orgasm known in some parts of Europe as the little death.
I returned to my room. Through the corridor’s toughened glass, I saw that night had
come. Unforgiving and cold, it fell with a malevolence of old like dusk-sheets on a
widow’s dusty world. The door was bolted behind me. I shivered, not knowing what
would become of me – consigned either to hell on earth without her, or simply hell. Had lovelessness been better? A curse on all your nuthouses. Looking through the barred window I flicked the radio absent-mindedly. The shapeless static was almost anodyne; a vast, featureless, snowy landscape stretching out forever. I wondered – was that immense frozen wilderness the true alternative reality; a blank canvas on which to sketch our dreams, which I knew now were not signals from a parallel universe, but merely our way of dealing with emptiness?
Yet even as my mind wandered across the snow, something formed on the blurred
horizon. Indistinct, with no recognisable shape, the image didn’t sharpen like a tree
emerging as you take your footsteps in the fog. I realised it would remain shapeless,
because I wasn’t seeing it after all, but rather hearing it. It was my name emerging from the static, spoken by a woman; repeated urgently. I was cold again now, shaking, knowing if this siren was luring me towards rocks, then my boat was meant to run aground.
But still, this night, and bobbing fitfully,
A mast sways in the safety of a cove,
And dances on the surge of sensual tides,
While flotsam lies with shells upon the strand.
The windows have cataracts of snow. There’s a gentle, but insistent pressure on my
shoulder. I force my eyes open and she emerges from the sea of fatigue, my very own Bond girl, her face more beautiful than ever in its urgent sleepiness. I recall now how it changed when I uttered my line; the lips drawing back, not in a sneer, but in a self conscious smile – and she must have seen something in my eyes, because it reflected in hers. I stare at her now, incredulous. She drops her gaze before looking up at me again, perhaps slightly embarrassed, yet unrepentant, with just a hint of brazenness.
Our dialogue at the drama class comes back to me:
“The part where we kiss? Mmm.” She reflects. “I don’t think we’ll find that in TS
Eliot. But maybe in my workshop.”
She extends her hand. “Adele Greening. I’m taking part two of the class.” The face is
familiar and growing more startling; a centuries-lost alabaster bust emerging brush
stroke by brush-stroke from the sand.
“I’ve seen you on the television, haven’t I?”
She looks pleased, but embarrassed. “Possibly, in some bit parts. I’m more of a stage actress. I prefer the closeness and immediate interaction…the intimacy…” I realise that I’m still holding her hand, and she realises that I’ve realised, but doesn’t retreat.
“…with the audience.” She pauses. “Anyway, we’re starting now. I just wanted to
know whether you’re coming in. Or perhaps you’ve decided this isn’t for you after all.”
“Not for me?” I raise one eyebrow. “Let me tell you something about particle
physicists.” I don’t know the source of this sudden confidence, except she is the
catalyst – the Philosopher’s Stone.
“Maybe later.” She looks coy and I couldn’t care whether it’s a well-practised
expression, because it’s my own private show. “I’ll see you in there then.” She turns to go.
“Adele.” I’m emboldened now. She looks back. “What if I don’t find our moment in
part two either?”
And here we are; I still have the taint of her death on my hands; a bloodstain on a
frozen landscape, but the falling snow will cover it soon.
She places a cool hand on my sweating face. “You’ve been dreaming.”
As I stood upon the land,
So the sea destroyed the shore
And a heart of stone was damned
To be sand forever more.