Being an account of the Drowning of Percy Shelley
July 8th, 1822
The sticky noontime heat of the month of June moves,
Trails rainbow shimmers glimmering in sommer’s honey’d air,
Baking the clay-caked walls & the rouge-blush’d rooves
Of Leghorn’s sleeping house-huddle, nestle’d seaside fair,
The simple clip-clack of the cart-horses’ hooves
& the fruitsellers fly-whip disturb the dusty square –
Yet see amidst the hazy mist of lazy lethargy,
Down by the docks, a busy lot, lock’d in activity.
Each is a stranger to these sultry lands,
Drawn by th’eternal sommershine gold,
Hunt unravels the main sail, wipes his hands,
Williams disappears into the hold,
& by two local Polizie nobly stands
Trelawney, like some arab hero of old,
“We’re ready to sail!” Shelley shrills in delight –
Above hover seagulls in vulture-like flight.
Trelawney & Hunt are refused this tide
A local lad swells the crew to three,
From steely moorings the ropes are untied,
The boat slips sheepishly into the sea,
Tween th’oak beam’d berth & the stout ship side
Friendly farewells part this good company –
Thus as they go gliding oer wide, rolling realm
Sheely strides proudly to master the helm.
The mainsail puff’d proud, a mountain goat’s chest,
Thro the tall, wall’d docks that serpent-lock the sea,
Past the citadel that rests, maternal lioness,
& the snail-paced, sail-graced fuggazi
They cruise, til alone, two views to digest,
Serene on the green twinkling tranquillity;
The empty nothingness of the nautical line
& the ever dwindling narrowness of Leghorn behind.
The sun blasts vermeil rays as Viareggio passes by,
Beyond stand an ancyent row of volcanic antiques,
A brotherhood of mountain kings to touch the Tuscan sky
Clothed in piny forest robes & crown’d with cloudy peaks
Silent as the nymphean sea where Naiads go to die
Thro the vivid, velvet blue the sailboat ploughs & creaks
Now Shelley’s eyes rest on the wide horizon’s ochre shine,
Where looming black, doom-laden clouds have grimly fill’d the line.
With the might of many armies the storm-swept seas came,
Trumpeted in thunder by Zion’s cymbal crash,
The Ariel pierc’d by slashing arrowheads of rain
As fierce, charging cavalryman’s flashing lances slash,
The crew engaged in battle tho they battle now in vain,
For thro the splint’ring ranks of planks pours the deadly wash –
Cries Williams, “Dear Percy, for sure we all must drown!”
Now words heard in reply, just a curt & curious frown.
A spiral whirlpool flows at he center of the tempest,
What swirling wall of water – into a hand it grows,
Crushes the poor Ariel within its liquid fist,
Each smash’d-up piece of broken boat flies thro the sky like crows,
Into the air, with streaming hair, Shelley spins with a twist,
& leaves behind two helpless cries as the wild wave throws
Him hard into the churning foam of violent, ridg’d expanses
Now Shelley shall find Heaven in just seven lonely stanzas
Lone, all alone with the sublime cold
& the storm-adorn’d view of the jaded lime
The thirsty sea takes its icy hold
So close to the end of a young man’s time
Whose last living moments shall slowly unfold
Forever engraved on a true poet’s mind;
Above the emerald empire, where with a ducking motion
& the expectancy of death he is suck’d into the ocean.
There dwells a special peace ‘neath the underswell skies
No more by the storm-blast batter’d & bruis’d
A whispy green mist overfloweth the eyes,
He swears he sees the shape of his dear, departing muse
So his heart, for the last time, sings to seize a prize
With effervescent energy his essence is enthused
For from this faerie offering the fires of poesy’s blissdom
Fuel the thoughts that crown his short life’s search for truth & wisdom
On the strength of a swan’s dying song he shall draw
Bends his long legs like the strings of a bow
Extends their full length with a kingly roar
Thrusts through the scene as a singing arrow,
Like a champion of war, blood-soak’d & drench’d in gore
He bursts fits first through the Earth;s drifting flow
Thumps’ through the air in triumphant defiance
His lungs drawing deep in an age-old alliance!
In solitude, alive, upon the wave highest,
Viewing a crack in the black, cloudy dome,
Towards him a bright shaft of gold gently flyest,
Starbright sign of the flight of the storm,
As he sinks, inch-by-inch, the sweet heaven sighests,
His curls flow unfurl’d on the crest of the foam,
As into the deep sea, quite calmy, he slips
Dissapearing… arms… wrists… palms… fingertips…
“What is death, but the final gate
That bars the fair path to Paradise,
Unless a life was consumed by hate,
Eternity, then, is not so nice
Still, we all walk to the whims of fate
& time is measured on chessboards of rice!”
Thinks Shelley, now ready for the fond farewell
To life’s precious breath – death, Heaven or Hell!
He drifts forlornly to the deep
Slowly onflowing the serene
Land of slumbers, as asleep,
His spirit shifts into a dream
Death’s pale shadow’s ghastly creep
Man’s soul’s aura’s ghostly sheen
Bright luster fading from the eyes
Then gone, as the one we call Shelley dies.
Upon the twilit, silent surface ropes & timber glide
Flotsam & Jetsam, whose presence bears the proof
Of three romantic sailors taken by the Tuscan side
This day has lost a poet to the dangers of his youth,
Through the dusk descending walks the Dark Knight’s bride
Lady moon enflows her starry dress across the roof
Night draws the seven hues from the air, the land, the sea
Then paints the wider world with such a wonderous ebony!
The River Arno is a gentle thing
As it makes his way from the Florentine
Hills, & is clean & as fresh as Spring,
Being bless’d with a music soft, serene,
Like the chorus of church bells that ring
Out over an evening Pisan scene,
Where sits Lord Byron, sketching the sunset,
In thoughts for a friendship he’d never forget.
As the stars rose above his verandah
He solemnly look’d on the sullen moon,
Allow’d his clouded mind to meander
Upon a poet’s death, all too soon,
Beneath lay the makings of a great stanza,
But quickly he lost this Aeshylean boon,
For dowsed was the muses’ mysterious flame
By a man down the street, running, calling his name.
Twas Leigh Hunt who came on O so fast,
Bringing bad news to below Byron’s window,
“By George, George, we have found him at last,
Wash’d up on the sands of Viareggio,
The anxious waitings of these ten days pass’d,
Bears sad fruit as his fate we now now!”
“Very well,” said his lordship, “We sleep here tonight,
Then tomorrow we rise & ride with first light.”
Onwards, onwards, onwards rides the plot,
Soon all of the players shall be in their place;
Past the hovels of Viareggio two horses trot
As tho’ drawing a hearse at a funeral pace,
They reach the long beach, ever humid & hot,
Today the sands lie like a dead, desert waste,
Then stride to the side of the shimmering sea –
Awaiting with handshakes is grim-faced Trelawney!
In the minute of which a lonely lifetime lasts
The swollen sands are stack’d into a heap,
Hunt stands agape, Byron stands aghast
As Shelley is unslumber’d from his sunken sleep
In horrid exhumation! his life’s light has pass’d,
Leaves a crack’d & blacken’d corpse where rotting flesh-things creep,
“Is – is – that a body?“Byron whispers, bleeding white,
“Aye!” sighs Trelawney, “Tis not a pretty sight!”
With quickening quiet comes the onrushing roar
Of the hush’d seawashes in violences,
Shelley’s featherlite frame two young brutes bore,
Carried to the pyre amidst silences,
& crown’d! Hunt begins to over him pour
Frankincense & other oily essences –
A poet soon burning upon the gutted gyre,
His soul to the stars, his body to the fire.
& so, a poet’s death, a deepfelt, tragic thing,
Enough to rouse Apollo from his dusty throne,
With waking, honour’d horror I am shaking as I sing,
For one dark day this grim event shall be my very own –
& wonder whether my demise inspires a flowering,
Or be a fading epitaph upon a jaded stone?
& what did I learn of my musing on death –
This life is too special to waste precious breath.
Damian Beeson Bullen
Composed 1998 whe he was just 21
From the Travel Epistles of Damian Beeson Bullen
Two weeks in Thiruvanamalai, Tamil Nadu
I’ve finally made it to Tamil Nadu. Seven years ago I picked up this book of sayings called THIRUKKURAL, written by the Tamil saint, Thirruvalavar. Since first flicking through the book in an opium induced haze in a dodgy Madurai hotel, I have always intended to to render a poetic English version. So, here I am, finally starting to do it all on a hotel balcony overlooking the main chaotic drag of Thiruvanamalai. Below me there are tarmac layers vying for road space with rickshaw on rickshaw as the gridlock inches closer & closer to wherever the fuck it’s going.
Yesterday morning I was still in Gokarna. I’d spent a whole week in ‘Paradise,’ but I reckon the brain begins to turn to jelly after too much bumming about on the beach. It was well wicked though, boating from beach to beach & eating some fine cuisine in the the wave-lapped restaurants. The forests above the coast were also lovely, & I saw my first ever Kokava’s… crazy white heron-type birds that follow their chosen cow/buffalo everywhere, nibbling on the insects that nibble on the cows. Here, both bird & beast come across as a perfectly happily married couple.
Leaving Gokarna involved catching a sleeper bus to Bangalore – an overnight journey of 12 hours that tossed me into the air every time we hit a bump – even the bottle of whiskey & two valiums couldn’t keep me asleep. This was cool, though, as it let me watch our entrance to Bangalore. Honestly, I’ve never seen so many trucks, lining the roads for about 3 miles on the western approaches to the city. I got dropped off into the heart of Bangalore at rush hour (about 8am), where many a western clad youth was hurrying off to their call centre work. Bangalore is the principle centre for telecommunications in India, nick-named the notorious ‘Silicon Valley’ – & odds on when you get an Indian callworker in Britain they’ll be based here.
I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I managed to find a bus out of there… there were several bus stations & about a million buses to choose from, with mine sweeping me over the state border & into Tamil Nadu. So far, TN seems to consist of a verdant flat plateau, interspersed with solitary bouldery peaks – remnants of ancyent volcanoes. One of these pointy rocks is the Annamalai hill, beneath which Thiruvannamalai nestles. It is a very holy place & its temple is huge. I’ve booked into a cool hotel (Hotel Ganesh) for a week or so – taking a single room for 125 rupees (1 pound fifty). Downstairs is a restaurant where I get my Thali (a mixture of dishes) served on a giant banana tree leaf. Makes sense really, perfectly bio-degradable. The hotel owner has also agreed to help me with my translations of Thirukural – it’s basically the Tamil Bible – & the reception on mi telly is wicked for the weekend’s footy. I think staying in a madcap town off the traveler’s trail is gonna be a nice way to get used to Tamil culture, seeing as I’m kinda stuck here now for the winter translating this obscure fuckin’ poem.
18 – 11 – 08
As Edinburgh is the Athens of the North, I would like to declare Thirruvannamalai the Edinburgh of the East. I swear down, Mount Arunachala is just like Arthur’s seat, with the town curled around its base – there’s probably a few other comparisons to be made, but to tell you the truth Scotland seems a long way away right now, bombarded as I am by all this bullshit. Did I say bullshit? I meant to say life-reaffirming, spiritually awakening, international cultural exchange.
My hotel is wicked – a quiet oasis among the electric buzz of the city. I’m paying 125 rupees (1.50) for a room with a toilet & tv. Alright, there’s a few ants crawling about at the front door – but I figure if I leave no food in my room then no ants will invade. The hotel also runs a catering & management college next door & gets the students to do work experience, which involves cleaning my room whenever I want, & bringing food to my room & other little errands – very Agatha Christie. I’m on the top floor of the place, which means I’m among the rooftops of the town, always a cool sight. It’s made a lot sweeter, however, by the great mountain that fills up the panorama less than half a mile away.
There’s a few mosquitoes about & their bites are itchy as fuck. After two days & nights of being bit, plus splattering them (& my blood inside them) all round my room’s walls, then thinking I’ve got the last one, settling down to sleep & hearing the hungry buzz of YET ANOTHER ONE hovering around my neck like a vampire, I bought myself a mosquito net. Funny thing is, their corpses have attracted the ants who have been streaming into the room like vultures & polishing them off one by one.
At the foot of the mountain is the Sri Ramana Ashram, full of brainwashed westerners who wouldn’t know a good time if it bit them on the ass, never mind a fuckin Jock Stock. I tried to blag some free food there the other day, but they saw through my attempts at self-realization – & I’d even paid ten rupees for a bindi painted between the eyes. However, I do get to use their library, & that’s a fuckin’ godsend. I’m currently spending my mornings & afternoons there at the moment, under a fan & transcreating the Thirukural. I don’t speak Tamil, but I’ve got several English translations spread in a semi-circle about me, plus a dictionary & thesaurus. Additional help comes from my personal librarian, who is assisting me with the thornier moments thrown up by classical Tamil. It’s actually a very cool experience – Indiana Jones meets Lord Byron – & the Tamils are quite taken aback by a Burnley Boy poeticizing what is to all extents & purposeless their Bible!
I’ve been walking to my studies every morning & afternoon without fail, passing herds of immaculately uniformed schoolkids & guys wobbling about on bikes laden with steaming chambers of chi. Next comes these massive decorated festival carts with wheels as big as two men; well what I really mean are two western men – apart from some geezers down the ashram I’m the tallest man in town, which is kinda weird.
I then pass the great temple, whose four god-carved gates tower over the town; then the busy markets, before walking down a poor village type road, full of rubbish, chickens & bricks – it’s got that industrial-age, Burnley feel where everyone kind of lived in the street. Then comes a glorious ghat (reservoir) whose green water is quite surprising on the eye. Beside this is a middle class suburb, lots of one floor villas with rooftop terraces overlooking the ghat. These have name boards hung proudly on the outside, for example one was a health educator & another was the sub-inspector for the local police force. After this comes the ashram area, where the westerners flock & chill out, spending a lot more money on their generally inferior food. I mean, I’ve been eating wickedly & struggling to spend more than three pounds a day on food.
There’s quite a few orange-clad babas hanging about the ashram – after some enquiry I have discovered none of whom support Holland in the world cup. I have also discovered, on one of my sidestreet walks, that they are unscrupulous rogues. I saw a couple of them eagerly emptying their metal carry-tins of cash – loads of it – with a lot more vigor than their semi-pathetic attempts to get some rupees out of you. They were huddled together far from the eyes of the more gullible westerner, like a couple of cockney gangsters, dishing out loads of rupees & swigging back a very large bottle of whiskey.
So what is life like in small town Tamil Nadu? It’s certainly not a redneck place, quite affluent really, I guess gaining an element of prosperity from the influx of pilgrims. The place is full of pedestrians & bikes – pedal & petrol – mingling with the Tamil animals; don’t-give-a-shit-Cows nuzzling through the roadside rubbish tips or planting themselves in the centre of the busiest roads; abandoned puppies & the same dog everywhere; grotesque rats & deformed ponies; giant horny oxen trotting through the streets hauling produce-laden carts; cats, bats & monkeys haunting the rooftops. I chucked a paul-daniels-faced monkey a banana the other day & chuckled to myself as his little hands unpeeled it – just like a human!
Eating out is a bit weird; you are attended on hand & foot, with refills for food & water arriving from a team of waiters. This state of affairs, coupled with my cleaner boys at the hotel, is perfectly satisfying my colonial pretensions – all I need now is a tiger hunting blunderbus & a bridge club. The maddest thing I’ve seen was a sleight of hand con guy, who had set up a little shrine & had two snakes & a rodent & just kept chatting non-stop & banging this little drum as he did his ‘magic’. Actually I was quite enthralled, as were the Indians, but the point to it all was beyond me.
All the shops are the same size, & everyone is a specialist (Tesco’s would have a fit). There’s shops which contain only penny sweet jars, coconut warehouses, spice merchants with multicoloured sacks, pharmacists, clinics, speaker shops, bookshops, 20 rupee an hour internet places, garland makers with bright fluffy flowers, tailors sat sewing to the world, the most delicious looking cakes you’ve ever seen (with complementary chewy fly), busy barbers, banks, mobile phone shops, modern looking shoe shops & guys sat in the street surrounded by old flip-flops cleaning & repairing peoples footwear (one of these guys fixed my hat)… & even an interior decorators. There’s also the chicken marts, which are a real sad thing to see. Proud cocks & white hens stuck together in cramped cages, watching agitatedly as one-by-one they get the chop right in front of their sad little eyes – I tell ya, my chucks back at Heather Lodge don’t know how lucky they are!
At one point I sampled the wears of a fried fish stall – very delicious but too many bones. More palatable have been the samosas; other fried street foods (3p) & the bananas (2p) which you buy in bunches of ten from gypsy-type women in the street. These in turn come from the banana wholesalers, where bunches of up to a hundred green bananas cling to a bamboo style stalk. The leaves have been stripped off by now & even these are sold off in the street to guys from the restaurants – that’s in the street remember, & I’ve gotta eat off em. Other food you can buy on the street-carts include apples, oranges, grapes, banana fritters, peanuts, ready-to-eat corn-on-the-cobs & fresh coconuts, which they crack the top off for you so you can drink the milk with a straw, then crack in half so you can eat the creamy flesh inside.
Fashion sense is not that varied. All the women wear saris & the men have only four possible combinations of outfits – either a pair of trousers or this kilt thing to cover the legs, with either a short sleeved or long sleeved cotton shirt (in stripes or checks, so I guess that six combos). The flip-flop is the footwear of choice, though about a third of the folk go about barefoot. They hardly ever use the paths & invariably compete with road space with everything else… mainly because the paths run over stinking sewers & are full of holes. Most of the roads themselves have strange delusions of concrete, but these are basically under a pile of crud, which during the recent rains has turned to ghostbuster goo.
For me, the weather’s been great, actually, quite cloudy & rainy – the top of the mountain is often obscure by mist – tho’ warm enough to sleep naked. I’m not a big sunlover, so a bit of respite from the heat is wicked. In a few days, once the novelty of disciplined writing wears off, I’m gonna get green scooter-bike for 75 rupees (1 pound) to explore the countryside. I’m a bit nervous, actually, as the roads are certifiably insane, & all those raring buses blaring in my ear is making me, actually, fuckin deaf!
Tonight’s been a bit crazy in town – the leader of Tamil Nadu – Karunanidni of the DMK party – has just turned up & the centre has been bedecked with banana trees, light statues & a hell of a load of Belgium flags. Apparently it’s the flag of the DMK, but just like Belgium, the rally was pretty boring so I didn’t stay for long. The guy sounded just like the one at Wigton Cattle auction, but a bit slower.
So to conclude, I have been in India almost 3 weeks now – only 3 months to go – the poems going well & my poo has finally hardened, though is still maintaining its curious yellow colour. India at present is a pretty funky place to be. I mean, it’s come along way even in the few years I’ve been visiting, slowly turning into the global superpower that a democracy of a billion people must support. At the moment they have the smartest guy on the planet – Vishy Anand has just become world chess champion – the best cricket team – they’ve just walloped the Aussies – & they’re the only ones who’ve been willing to do anything about the Somalian pirates, sinking one of their mother ships only recently. What, with Usain Bolt & Lewis Hamilton being the fastest men on the planet, Barrack Obama being the hardest (thanks to several trillion pounds to spend & quiet a lot of nukes), & the Chinese being the best Olympic nation on the planet, it looks like the world is tilting on a 21st century axis & the darkies are taking over.
22 – 11 – 08
That spot of rain I was talking about last time turned out to be the annual monsoon – apparently they get it later in the years this far south – it’s been proper pelting it down! This rain then apparently drives all the snakes indoors – including cobras. Luckily I’m on the top floor.
The other day I decided to climb Arunchala, the extremely sacred mountain which overlooks Thiruvanamalai. Waking at six, I caught Glenda with a quick STD (they are the international phones), her slightly slurred voice telling me she was still up & drinking (surprise) at one in the morning Scots time. My ascent then began in light drizzle, which follow’d a series of arrows & religious graffiti painted on the scattered boulders, all pointing upwards. As I climbed, the view of the town & surrounding area began to increase. Thiruvannamalai is not as big as I thought, & shaped like a dolphin’s fin protruding from the southern flank of the sacred peak. Beyond it lies a flat, nameless plain – very green – with a range of hills about 10 miles away or so. Their proximity, & the fact that the crazy town streets quickly fade into verdant champaign re-inspired me to get a bike & go cruising.
After about an hour I reached the summit – a pleasant sensation made even more so by an encounter with the local guru. He is 30 – an orphan – & has been living in a shack just off the summit for ten years – 10 fuckin years meditating & shit. He’s the guy who’s painted all the graffiti – including one funny one indeed… his own fuckin’ website. Talk about 21st century asceticism. He even has a mobile phone – no reception on the top of the mountain however – but I’ve got his number if I ever need to meditate with him. He was a nice guy & gave me a glass of chi & taught me a little Tamil. If I make it back up I’ve promised to bring him some tea & brown sugar.
The descent was delightful, passing through a little corner of the world that the gods promised the Dragonflies. After musing on the possibility of anyone being eaten alive by dragonflies, & coming to the conclusion that they properly hadn’t, I paused for a while. About a hundred of them were buzzing around me, with some of the braver ones coming almost to my nose & hovering with their four delicate wings for a few moments, before darting off awhile. Further down the flanks of Arunachala I came across the two caves that Sri Ramana had lived in at the turn of the century. He’d been doing a similar thing to the guy at the top of the mountain, basically meditating for years. I guess that after a while enough people turned up & gave him 50 rupees (like me) for him to steadily improve his living quarters. First he built a house around his original cave – where devotees still sit in silent candlelight to this day – then he moved to another cave higher up the slopes & built a villa around it. His final port of call – for 27 years – was the ashram at the bottom of the hill.
The Sri Ramana Ashram is quite a funny place – full of meditating souls, Asian & Western, with everyone leaving shoes at the door of what is quite a large temple complex. I witnessed quite a spectacle while I was there, sat cross-legged on a marble floor before the shrine where Ramana’s body is buried. A few brahmin – men & boys – were sat down singing with deep intonation some Vedic hymn like the drone of a Miltonic canto. It took the form of a question & answer thing, the acoustics of the room echoing their voices even further, & while they sang a few devotees wailed ceremoniously round the shrine. To me it was rather like a Lenard Cohen single played at 33 rrp. I even joined in for a couple of circuits, the music sending vibrations through my chest – but just before the Stepford Wives & their spiritual tupperware party had persuaded to give my brand new sandals away & move into a cave, I quickly reclaimed my shoes & fled to the safety of the library across the road.
All this brought up the question of religion for me. The closest I’ve ever been to god was down the ‘Dads & Lads’ night on Fridays down Woodtop Church in Burnley, where after singing a few hymns we were given tea, biscuits & got to play pool. But to the Indian faith & devotion is totally ingrained into the psyche. It was the same for the English not two centuries ago, but modernistic materialism is the new religion now – coinciding with the end of the age of Pisces… Jesus was a fisherman, remember, & the age of Pisces began when he was born. Will India be affected by atheistic modernism. I believe ultimately it will, but the change will take centuries, not the mere decades it took the West to wake up & smell the bullshit. Besides, Christianity was based on fear of the afterlife – Heaven & Hell – while most eastern religions believe in some form of Moshka – the release from the never ending cycle of birth & death. By this reasoning, eventually there will be no one left in the east to believe, because they will all be in Moksha
The few westerners who come to India seeking ‘salvation’ are a funny bunch – but looking at the predominance of middle-aged ex-hippies wandering about the ashram it is my conclusion that most of them took too much acid in their youths. I mean, so did I like, but there’s no need to turn into a thrill-less mind-junkie, lost in your own thoughts & only ever getting laid when its tantric (ie no quickies).
26 – 11 – 08
Well it’s no use pretending anymore, you’ll all find out my real name soon enough. I am Yawansum Avadabadis, a senior member of the Deccan Mujahadeen who are now gloriously attacking the heart of Tony Blair-loving India. I am currently positioned on the 19th floor of the Trident hotel, Mumbai, writing this on some dead American’s laptop, his Yankee blood curling crimson pools around my feet. For many years now I have lived in the west, sleeping with your women, drinking your terrible-tasting Tennent’s lager & studying your infidel ways – preparing for the day when we at the Deccan Mujahadeen can strike like a cobra at your dollar-loving, Anglo-Saxon imperialism…
Well, not really, but it’s been pretty cool watching they blanket coverage of the still ongoing terrorist strike against Mumbai. I presume you guys know about it in the UK – mainly for the fact that the English cricket team has cancelled its tour of India – a convenient excuse really as they were 5-0 down in the series. The action started a couple of nights ago, with mentions of a gun battle on the streets of Bombay – the very same ones I was walking three weeks ago. Hour-by-hour the flashpoints escalated over a number of locations, with hotels being taken over, police cars being used by the terrorists to shoot up civilians, petrol stations being blown up, top cops being killed, footage of blood in the streets, all followed by the slow, methodical counter operations of the Indian government. The NSG (National Security Guards) had to make its way thro’ traffic in clapped-out trucks for god’s sake – a far cry from the SAS in 1980. As I left my hotel for a walk, the commandoes had just commenced their final mopping-up operations, searching for the last couple of young Kalashnikov-toting, grenade-tossing Fedayeen that still stalk the Taj hotel, Mumbai’s greatest landmark.
It is all very 9-11, marking the Obama age with a sanguinary relish, & I wonder if it’s going to affect my stay in India. No-one seems to give a shit about it down here in Tamil Nadu. The papers are more interested in the 50 people that have died from the week-long cyclone that’s been hanging over the state. “Call that rain,” I said to a series of astonished Indians, swaggering through a downpour the other day listening to a bit of disco on my mp3 player, with the arrogance of a Burnley boy who, like Eskimos & snow, knows 500 different names for rain.
Four days on & I wish it would bloody stop. The sight of Indians in umbrellas & dodgy macs, coupled with river-like, sewage-bearing streets doesn’t fit into my sun-kissed winter soiree with the Tamils. They seem happy, though, the ghats are overflowing & the state’s water supply should have enough now to see them through until next summer’s rains. The weather is also keeping me in Thiruvanamalai – the hotel is very dry & the storm-ravaged coast of my next destination doesn’t seem so appealing right now. Unfortunately Aranachala is perpetually swept in cloud, spoiling my view of the sacred mountai. This led to a brief conversation with my Landlord as to getting my money back – or at least get a reduction for the rain. I think he told me to fuck off in Tamil. Talking of which, I’ve learnt about 15 expressions so far – it’s a lovely language & quite accessible.
To finish, here’s a flurry of numbers
Days without smoking – 9
Days without alcohol – 11
Today’s sit ups – 42
Today’s press ups – 21
Kural completed – 410
Kural to do – 920
Days down in India – 23
Days to go – 83
I have finally left Thiruvanamalai. For a week I was caught between two cyclones – The Operation Cyclone that the NSG called their anti-terrorist actions in Mumbai, & Cyclone Nisha that has been ravaging Tamil Nadu. In the last couple of days the rains finally ceased & now I am in Mamallapuram, next to the choppy waters of Bay of Bengal. It was definitely time to leave the old temple town, especially as my room was progressively turning black with damp. One morning I woke up to find fungus everywhere – my hat, my bag, some clothes & even my chess pieces all had a furry look & feel.
Perhaps it wasn’t the best room in the world after all. On one occasion I was in my mosquito net chilling out, when I felt a wee tickle. It turned out to be an ant, which I casually flicked away. Then putting my feet under the covers I touched something weird, turning out to be a few hundred ants chomping on a bit of banana which had previously stuck to my foot & came off in the bed. I found this quite a disturbing experience, which resulted in me flailing around like a madman & vigorously shaking sheets & mattress onto the street below.
One of the most interesting sights in my last few days at Thiruvanamali was a circus-like spectacle of an eight-year-old girl balancing on a rope about my head high. While her dad sold popcorn; her mum knocked out some funky rhythms on a metal pan; & her older brother did the bass on a djembe, her legs wiggled wiggled left & right like a supersonic pendulum. Then, she did all that again, but this time balancing a pot on her head!
I have also been to the movies – situated in a fine building – to watch Death Race dubbed in Tamil. It was quite cool actually, for dialogue wasn’t really an essential pillar of the movie. There was also an old-fashioned interval, when the audience of 100 percent males dived for the samosas being sold by a couple of cheeky kids.
I have finally visited the famous temple that I’ve been walking past several times a day for two weeks. It begins with leaving one’s shoes at a little shack just outside for two rupees, then wading through several decrepit beggars & a police electronic bomb detector unit just to get inside. On the way in, a very cheeky monkey came & stole some food from a toddler’s hand, whose pathetic cries accompanied me inside the sacred space. Aranachaleswaram temple is a fine affair, consisting of 3 concentric rectangles leading to the inner temple at the heart of the complex. The inner courtyards are entered through similar gates to the main ones – n, s, e, w – gleaming white majestic edifices with the entire Hindu pantheon poised in many poses.
Deeper into the temple I saw my first elephant of the tour, which turned out to be the ultimate penny arcade machine. After being hypnotised by the gentle pacing, left & right, of his two massive front legs… I placed a rupee in his trunk. The elephant than patted me on the head with said trunk & gave the now mucus-dripping rupee to his trainer. Better still was watching him, ever so politely, use the loo. He took a few steps to one side, separated his back legs & pooed & peed AT THE SAME TIME – a feat we humans can only dream about. This got me looking at his penis – not in a gay way – the outer skin looked just like a big black brain & the ‘nob’ was as polished as an ebony jewel. It was the elephant’s eye which I found the most remarkable; possessing an otherworldly, almost alien aura, & with the loveliest eyelashes in the whole of nature.
On my last day in Thiruvanamali I saw both a lovely sunrise & a soul-searing sunset. In the morning the clouds had finally dispersed, revealing the landscape which I hadn’t seen for a week… all round me mountains peeked out of the milky distance like nervous children. The sunset was amazing. I had just settled down on the rooftop, listening to my MP3 player & reading a spot of Shakespeare, when just as ‘patience’ by Take That came on, I looked at Arunachala. There is a legend that it was here that the dreadlock’d god Siva produced a lingam of fire – a measureless column – & won the submission of Vishmu & Brahma. Perhaps it was some mythological memory of an ancyent eruption, but I swear down, as the sun was setting the clouds were in just the right place to produce the same effect – a mighty golden column coming out of the mountain. At the very same time there was a wee cloud just big enough to cover the very peak of the mountain, in the same spot where I was blessed in Siva’s name by that Guru. I really did feel it – the mind monkeys had cleared from my mind on that occasion & this time I felt that Siva was saying ‘nice one son’ & wishing me well on my way
The next day, just as I was about to leave, I woke up to the sound of the rain. ‘Not again’ I cursed, wanting to hit the road, but then the rains cleared & Aranachala was revealed in all her glory, a scintillating rainbow arched perfectly from flank to flank. Remarkably, the same wee cloud as yesterday was again at the summit. ‘That Siva’s at it again’ I thought & finally left town. Three buses later, beyond those scattered heaps of boulders that form the regions hills, I was heading towards the coast, passing several large lakes where paddy fields once were – the devastating consequences of the recent rains. Apparently in the state these past couple of weeks there have been landslides, 700 bridges have collapsed, over a hundred dead
Mamallapuram is a bit of a tourist hotspot, with a fine beach & some amazing temples carved out of the rock. It got wiped out by the Tsunami in 2004, but is well back on its feet again. I’m staying in a far-too wicked room for 300 rupees. I’m basically paying 2 pounds fifty more than last time – which was only 1.50 itself – but now I get a massive marble-floored room, this huge oak table (perfect for writing), a clean double bed, a wicked fan, a big TV with all the channels & a cool balcony overlooking the street – with not a hint of damp or mosquitos anywhere! Suffice it to say I blagg’d the price down off a naive young guy, who got a proper rollicking off the boss when he found out. (I should be paying at least 500). Negotiating the cheaper price meant buying in bulk, so I’ve been forced to hole up for a week. By the way, I haven’t seen one advent calendar as of yet – the chocolate would probably melt – but I still miss them. I reckon there is a market for traveler-friendly portable advent calendars, with wee little fans to keep the chocolate cool (Dragons Den here I come).
After taking a relatively long break since my last completed Conchord – the Siege of Gozo, composed in Malta in November-December 2020 – the composition of the Folio has resumed. I have just begun the first scenes of the Madchester trilogy, which will be the 14th, 15th & 16th conchords of the 39. It seem’d an apt place to rest after the Gozo concord, the 13th, reaching the natural third-way point in the attempt to emulate Shakespeare’s canonical 39 plays.
So what happens when you give yourself to the muses & ask their help in such a grand project as the Conchordia Folio. In my case, after completing the aforemention’d first third, it was time to leave my Edinburgh base & see where the wings of my pegasus shall fly. This was in early March of 2021, & exactly four months later I found myself living in a lovely property own’d by a lover of poetry, sited on a lovelier Scottish island, & opening a wee bookshop to fill with, well, books. The latter would then be opening many a fresh vista for the lore-learning & allusion-making that shall enrich my procession through the next third of the Folio.
It has taken seven months to settle into a psyche fit for the demanding intellective rigors of Conchordia composition, during which period I completed an epic ballad cycle, so the poetry kept flowing, & to a fairly high standard I feel.
By February 2021 – now – I intend to compose scene of the Folio most mornings, finishing by ten at the latest, & spending the rest of the day being a poet at semi-leisure, but spending some time on research for my composition notes, aware that in just a few hours after a decent sleep I shall be composing a new scene. There is an element of combining two poetical periods here. One is the Byronic Don Juan period, where he just set off composing stanza after stanza & canto after canto – he got to 16 or 17 before going off to fund an army in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks, before dying of malaria & leech-bleeding at Missolonghi. The other is the Miltonic composition of Paradise Lost, where the blind poet’s daughter would act as his amanuensis every morning after Milton composed his poetry in his head in bed.
I was recently reading Matthew Arnold’s essay on Worsdworth, & found a couple of morsels which reflect the spirit of what I am trying to achieve in match Shakespeare’s folio with one of my own;
A nation, again, is furthered by recognition of its real gifts & successes; it is encouraged to develop them further
But let me have the pleasure of quoting a sentence about Shakespeare, which I met with by accident not so long ago in the Correspondant, a French review… “Shakespeare is the king of poetic rhythm & style, as well as the king of the realm of thought.”
Thus, in essence, I wish to develop & extend the Shakespearean style for the benefit of the nation, & thus the English-speaking world. Picking up the histories from his Henry VIII, in a way.
My 13 Conchords thus far have ranged in length between 14 & 35 scenes, so let’s say an average of about 20. Theoretically, then, I could finish a conchord every three weeks, while adding ten days of rest & normal life days means I could compose one conchord per month. Add a couple of months for vacation, a couple of months just purely researching, & a major edit month, then we’re looking at about 18 months to complete the next third of the Folio – if I remain focus’d of course. It took about the same amount of time to complete the first third, actually, tho a good half of it was already written.
These are the next seven conchords which I shall be composing throughout 2022.
THE MADCHESTER TRILOGY: A three parter telling the story of the rise & fall of the Madchester movement, 1979-1991. You can follow it here
THE KING & THE SPIDER: The story of Robert The Bruce in exile. I will be using Scottish folk songs as the music.
THE RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE: The third conchord in the Gods of the Ring trilogy telling the story of the Muhammad Ali – George Foreman fight in Zaire, 1974
THE LION & THE EAGLE: This might also be call’d ‘The Day of the Griffin.’ It tells the story of a meeting between Churchill & Von Ribbentrop in the lead up to the Second World War.
That will take the total to 20, which is no mean feat in itself, & also beyond the half-way mark in the quest for 39.
Damian Beeson Bullen
It is said on Arran the wind has a soul, & that this soul has a voice, & that sometimes it sings. A seasonal soul, that is, for thro’ the darker months of the year the wind certainly found something to sing about. Wagnerian, some Arranites would fondly recall when visiting some sultrier clime.
The empty spaces of an Arran winter are a complete antithesis to its tourist-teeming summer acres, for during the shorter days only 5000 happy residents compete for over two hundred square miles. The island of Malta, by contrast, despite being the same physical size as Arran, is home to half a million. Lots of fun to be had at the ‘navel of the world,’ whatever time of year. “But one must keep oneself occupied,” mused Beatrice, or Betty MacKinley, to herself, at the other European extreme, one January evening which offer’d nothing but extreme boredom. Exactly one week later she had formally enroll’d in the Arran Bridge Club.
By the following winter she was playing vint three times a week – on Tuesdays, Thursdays, & Saturdays. Sunday was of course the most suitable day for cardplay, but had to be set aside for island duties, such as family visits, church services & other religious misdemeanours. They were playing vint, a kind of auction bridge, because the Arran Bridge Club had voted against allowing such an exotic variant into their dusty old cloisters, & thus a schisming splinter-group had form’d in the Shiskine valley.
They play’d as follows; the corpulent & hot-temper’d Robert, or Bobby Mentieth play’d with Archibald, or Archie Alexander; while Betty partner’d her brother, the morose John, or Jock, as this forename rolls throughout the Scots. The reason Betty gave was that, to play against her brother gave her no sort of interest, for if one lost, the other won, & although the stakes were insignificant, the money would still be going to the family. She never could understand the use of playing a game for playing’s sake.
The players always assembl’d in Jock’s house – he had a lovely conservatory overlooking Machrie Moor, the sea & the ever-changing Atlantic weather systems. He lived alone, so there was perfect silence for the games, except for an occasional piece of classical music on Saturdays, which sometimes revolv’d under the soft spike of a gramophone needle. Jock was a widower; he lost his wife in the second year of their marriage, & for almost six months lay sick in an Edinburgh hospital for mental afflictions. His sister was five years younger, & the veritable baby of the party, at a not so tender forty-three years of age. She was also unmarried, but like her brother she had been wedded once, with the divorce being catalyzed like so. ‘Tata,’ a Russian prima donna who was living & working in Glasgow at the same time as Betty & her husband, had call’d upon the marital home quite spontaneously. Her husband was a painter of scenery at the city opera house, while Tata was supposed to be a soprano, but whose pitch wilted into mezzo from time to time. Nobody ever dared mention it, however, else incur the wrath of a corner’d, glorious Muscovite.
Betty had been washing vegetables in anticipation of a fine broth, when there had been a knocking on the door.
“Announce me,” said Tata, spreading out her train, & Betty, who never gave herself airs, announc’d her. Betty’s husband soon arrived, enslav’d in an aura of awe as Tata put forth all her arts to dazzle the poor man into a certain sensual servility. It was at the very moment she was flicking a long rivulet of flowing auburn hair from one of her large & partially exposed breasts that a powerful groan of thunder, like Poseidon waking from slumber, erupted in the sky-chambers over Glasgow. With almost immediate effect there began to hurtle down one of those showers which had been recently spoiling so many hats, & bringing so many roses into bloom.
“Good gracious! How it’s coming down,” said Tata. “May I trouble you to let your maid fetch a taxi?”
This was the perfect moment for Betty’s husband to prove himself worthy of her adulation, for an honest man would have here said, “I haven’t a maid, this lovely vision is my wife.” Alas, the man, or half a man, was a coward, & replied, “certainly.” Twirling his thumbs, he went into the kitchen where Betty was now slicing her vegetables, with a rather sharp looking knife which her husband clearly couldn’t see, so blinded by the attractions of Tata had he become.
“Madame Tata,” he utter’d, “is wearing a satin gown & satin shoes. It is raining cats & dogs & it would be wonderful if you could…”
“Fetch her a cab,” ask’d Betty, giving her husband a flaming glance that ought to have made him sink directly into the earth. “Fetch a cab! Well I never ! Hold on a minute.”
Betty went outside, getting her only pair of boots soak’d right through to her stockings. Her eyes, once bright as the stars, were now dark as doom itself. Her husband had never even waited at the door with a towel or anything, the wake of which was a month-long pantomime of cold soups & warm beer. No more rosy slices of smok’d salmon, sausages, bacon, roast potatoes, pies & butter’d sprouts, all wash’d down with a fine whiskey & a bottle of Irish stout. Just cold soup & warm beer. Betty, who used to rise with the lark to attend the marital home, could now only be awoken with difficulty after eleven o’clock, murmuring, “surely its not daylight, yet.” The house, formerly so spotless that you could have sought a grain of dust in vain, resembl’d the aftermath of an errant tsunami as it pull’d back from some unsuspecting coastal village.
“Betty, its such a mess,” tutted her husband one day. “But I fetch’d the cab,” she replied, which pretty much form’d the refrain of all their future verbal engagements.
“You don’t love me anymore; you never kiss me.” “No, my dear, but I fetch’d the cab.”
Betty left her husband after a month, spent a year at her brothers at Shiskine, then got her own place not far away. Two decades of life later they were still in each other’s orbit & had evolv’d into fine bridge partners. Of this particular arrangement of players at the AVC – the Arran Vint Club as they quite proudly call’d themselves – Bobby Mentieth was, at first, especially displeas’d. He was annoy’d at always having to play with Archie Alexander, that is, in other words, to lose all hope of ever making a gand slam no trumps. In every way he & his partner were entirely unsuited. Archie was a weary, dried-up fellow, dress’d summer & winter in dark coat & trousers, & was always silent & severe. Without fail he would appear punctually at eight o clock, not a moment before or after, & straightwise take a pack of cards up in his fingers, one of which appendages was crown’d by an over-large diamond, set in a circlet of pure gold. What annoy’d Bobby the most in his partner, however, was that he refused to make a higher contract than four tricks, even if his hand was certainly worth more.
Polar oppositely Bobby always took risks, was a bad card holder & consequently a serial loser, but never losing heart, invariably hoping to win the very next time. Eventually, & relievingly for the siblings, the two mens’ styles soon melded efficiently enough, & they began to play rather well together, a reconciliation all who have felt the spirit of the tao could have easily predicted.
The seasons pass’d on Arran as they always do – pleasurably. Meanwhile, in that ornate conservatory at Shiskine, the games of vint continued with the same enthusiasm as the very first hands they’d play’d. Outside, the doddering old world pursued its varied career; now red with blood, now drench’d with tears, now wrestling with worry; leaving in its track the groans of the sick, the naked & the wrong’d. Fascism was rising in Europe, while over in Manchuria the Japanese were running a deadly riot. Some faint suggestion of all this was sometimes brought in by Bobby Mentieth, but only as a distraction when he was late & came in to see the others already seated at table, fifty-two pink cards laid fanwise on the green cloth, & the tick-tock of the old clocks the loudest they’d ever tell the time.
Bobby, red-cheek’d & carrying the fresh air with him, hurriedly occupied his place across from Archie & said;
“It seems Hitler is about to enter the Rhineland.”
Betty consider’d it her duty as a co-hostess of sorts to notice the idiosyncrasies of her guests. Thus, while Archie gather’d in & shuffl’d the pack in grim silence, she alone answer’d.
“I’m sure the League of Nations will sort it out, but hadn’t we better start?” & so they began, slowly stepping into the silence of an undiscover’d Sumerian tomb, their conjoin’d breathing becoming the monetary equivalent of a fraction of a fraction of a farthing.
On & on they play’d. Twice a week in the spring, summer, autumn; thrice a week in winter. There were incidents, but chiefly of an amusing character. Sometimes Jock would forget altogether what his sister had said, & once, having contracted for five tricks, fail’d to make one. Bobby laugh’d loudly & magnified his loss, while Archie remark’d drily: “If you’d only gone four you’d have been nearer getting it.” Betty laugh’d, for it seem’d just for a moment Jock’s everfriendly grin, aflash with white even teeth, had spontaneously transmorph’d into a set of crooked ladders lying awkwardly against a wall.
Betty conceal’d her feelings best, but always display’d intense excitement when she contracted for slam. She grew a trembling red, not knowing which card to play, looking piteously at her taciturn brother, while her two opponents, with knightly courtesy for her womanhood & helplessness, encouraged her with condescending smiles, then waited patiently.
Generally speaking, however, they took the game very seriously. To this renegade, musketeering quartet the cards had long ceas’d to be mere inanimate objects. Each hand, & every card in that hand, had its own particular individuality, & lived its own life full of wishes, tastes, sympathies, & caprice. The cards always combined differently, & when commingling with each player’s personality added even more mind-boggling combinations to the possible procession of play. Forget Go, forget Chess, it was thro’ vint bridge at Shiskine that the mathematical universe could really unfurl its infinite tapestry.
Hearts usually went to Archie – Archie’s hearts they call’d them – while Betty’s hand was usually full of spades, tho’ she never lik’d them at all. Bobby always held bad hands. At times, for several evenings in succession, he could hold nothing but twos & threes, for which reason he was firmly convinced he would never make a grand slam, as the cards knew of his great aim & thwarted him on purpose. In the night-times following such desperately unlucky evenings, Bobby would fall asleep dreaming of winning a grand slam no trumps. So many times did this dream-desire manifest itself that it became the strongest wish of his life.
Other incidents happen’d, not immediately connected with cards. Archie crash’d his car into a deer on one occasion, leaving the bonnet thoroughly damaged, forcing his son to drive him to Shiskine. Then, Bobby disappear’d for two whole weeks, & the AVC didn’t know what to do at all; three-handed vint was contrary to their habit & turn’d out to be rather boring indeed. When Bobby return’d safely, his red face, which had shown up so vividly against his scanty white locks, had grown pale, & he seem’d to have shrunk. He inform’d them that his son had been arrested for some offence & was currently in prison in Fife. All were astonish’d, for they never even knew he had a son: perhaps he had mention’d it some time or other, but they had forgotten all about it. Soon afterwards he again fail’d to appear, & upon the Saturday when they were accustom’d to play for longer. They were also astonish’d to discover that Bobby had suffer’d from angina thro’ all these seasons of serious cardplay, & that he had suffer’d a severe attack that Saturday morning. But afterwards all went on as before, & the game became even more serious & interesting as Bobby regal’d them less & less with topics of the outside world.
Last Thursday, however, there was a startling change!
As soon as the game began last Thursday, Bobby Mentieth made a contract of five, & won not only his contract but a small slam, as Archie had an ace & kept quiet about it. For some time after Bobby held his usual cards, but then started a series of good cards in suits, as if the cards themselves wish’d to see how pleas’d he would be. Then he bid to play for the game, & all were astonish’d, even the phlegmatic Archibald Alexander. The excitement of seeing the furious tremblings of his partner’s chubby fingers infected him & all the other players.
“What’s up with you today?” huff’d the gloomy Jock MacKinley, who fear’d somebody else’s good luck was the precursor of the next level of his own life’s misfortunes. On the other hand his sister was delighted to think that Bobby was doing rather well for once, & curtly responded, “the cards must give everyone a turn!”
After Jock dealt the next hand, Bobby pick’d up his thirteen cards. Fanning them out slowly, his heart almost stopp’d beating & a sylvan mist rose before his eyes – he held twelve certain tricks in his hand: the clubs & hearts from ace to ten, the ace & king of diamonds. If only he could pick up the ace of spades in the exchange he had the grand slam no trumps.
“Two no trumps,” he began, controlling his voice with difficulty.
“Three spades,” said Betty, who was almost as excited, having nearly all the spades from the king downwards.
“Four hearts,” retorted Archie with a queer curl of an upper right lip never seen before at that most traditionally sedate of tables. He could sense something was brewing. Bobby promptly declar’d small slam, but Betty, carried away on a lavaburst of Vesuvian enthusiasm, bid grand slam in spades, despite seeing she could not make it. Bobby reflected for a moment, & affecting an air of triumph to conceal his agitation, declar’d, “Grand slam no trumps.”
Bobby Montieth declaring grand slam no trumps ! All were astonish’d, with Jock MacKinley exclaiming a loud & almost caterwauling:
Bobby stretch’d out his hand to draw the clinching, cosmic card, but sway’d at the final fingerstretch, paus’d a moment, lay his cards on the table, fell slowly to the left & sprawl’d in a heap across an oriental rug.
When the doctor arriv’d he found that Bobby had died from heart failure, &, by way of comforting the living, added a few words on the painlessness of his death. They placed the cold, dead, dumb man on a sofa in the conservatory, the one Jock would sit on with a book & the wireless, watching black stormclouds burst over Kintyre. Bobby was cover’d by a sheet & look’d large, fearful & unlov’d. Close by, the card table had not been yet clear’d, & Bobby’s cards lay face down in the same neat pile that he had assembl’d during the last ever act of his energized being.
Archie walk’d round the room with small uncertain steps, trying not to look at the corpse, or go off the rug onto the polish’d floorboards, where his heels made a nerve-racking noise. After passing the card table several times he at last gave in to the gods of curiosity & studied his partner’s final hand. Then, placing them down in almost the exact neat pile as he had found them, he overturn’d the card Bobby would have drawn. It was the ace of spades, which would have made the grand slam. Archie sped off, heavy heels now clattering over hardwood, & in the next room sat down & wept, because this dead man’s fate appear’d to him the most pitiable of kinds.
Just as in many of those similar moments of extreme pathos experienc’d throughout Humanity’s tragic existence, Archie remember’d a classical quote to somehow make sense of things. A leaf from the Odyssey issued forth from his mind’s internal library, exclaiming, ‘all deaths are hateful to miserable mortals, but the most pitiable death of all is to starve.’ But Homer had existed long before Bridge had been invented, & shutting his eyes Archie began to picture the sheer delight glowing & growing over Bobby’s face as he saw that ace of spades. That he never did so far outwoes a starving being, who would have at least at some point in their lives gorged with all their mortal senses upon the colours, aromas & flavours of multiple different foods.
On a seat by the window, the events of the evening pass’d in review before Betty, beginning with the five diamonds which the deceas’d had won & ending with a series of good cards so exceptional as to be ominous. Now here, just a few feet away, lay Bobby Mentieth, dead on the very verge of an incredible grand slam. ‘How irrational, how terrible, & ultimately how unavoidable, is deathk,’ she thought. ‘Just one more moment of life & he would have seen the ace of spades, but he was dead without ever knowing.’
“Ne-ver,” she whisper’d out loud, pronouncing each syllable slowly, which allow’d the word to to be laced with a taste of bitter regret.
Archie shuffl’d back into the conservatory, aware once more of his clattering heels, & had decided to play his partner’s final hand, picking up the tricks one by one until he reach’d thirteen. It was the first & last time that he ever went more than his contract of four, & won the grand slam in the name of friendship.
Memories swarmed into Mrs Robertson’s mind like prowling wildcats; days of youth & drain’d promise, nights of wonder & haranguing melancholy. Life’s toleraby engaging carousel.
‘What have I achiev’d?’ she ask’d herself. ‘Indeed, what was there to achieve?’
She remember’d her village under the mountain; the sad, sad parting from her parents those two summers since; & the hard days of service that follow’d. Memories drew talons, clawing her young psyche with jagged slashes, which she shrugg’d off, somehow, one-by-one, despite the wincing pain.
Yet, here she was, a young English bride, sunny-haired & hopeful-eyed, with lips that slowly parted before she smiled, making strangers want to kiss them. One of these, of course, had been Mr Robertson, her recently acquired brand-new husband, & the only one of the random admirers who – following the aforementioned smile & its glorious aftermath, when the softest regions of her face broke out into attendant dimples – had dared to ask her name. Ever since, in similar circumstances, lest anybody should think that this smile which fluttered like a handkerchief dropped into a Roman fountain was meant for them, she would quickly look up for her dear Charles – who was a foot taller or so – to find him tenderly reciprocating her glance of love with a gaze of golden adoration.
“I wish I could meet your parents,” he had said on of these occasions, completely out of the blue. “I’m sorry darling if that sounds selfish, but they must be very special people to have created such a treasure trove as you.”
“One day you will,” she replied, not knowing then that she would refuse to even invite them to her wedding. “Auld grievances,” she had cited, without giving a single iota of detail. The only thing she ever really told Charles about them was that, despite all the young men in her mountain village vieing for her mother’s hand, her mother had only ever wanted her father. “Such loyalty, such monamour,” she assured Charles, “was the definitive streak running thro’ the females of my family.”
Many people thought Charles was her brother, so similar were their thick flossy hair & rabbit bimbling eyes. They had little money between them, but the highest of hopes that one day they would be well-off enough to never have to worry about money & its rat race acquisition. A couple of well-paying pension plans & lots of scuttling grandchildren to spend them on were hardly Olympian ambitions; but to a young couple deeply entrenched in each other & in love, there flew dozens of golden eagles soaring through the misty gullies of their living dreams.
Charles had recently got an agricultural job among the epic & fertile plains of Aberdeenshire – auld farmtoun country – where he had obtain’d a friendly impression of everybody & much public trust in his own abilities. His boss had given him a couple of weeks leave to celebrate both his coming of age at one & twenty & his marriage to his younger wife.
“It must be Arran,” he had said while discussing potential honeymoons, “I went as a student & simply had the best of times! Akuta same…”
“What!” demanded Abigail.
“O sorry, akuta same, it means ‘deadly shark’ in Japanese. My classmate at the time had taught me the phrase on the ferry as we cross’d once to Arran. I will remember it always.”
Mrs Abigail Robertson found herself on that very same ferry, perched on a Calmac deck one gusty but sunny day, swiftly steaming west, with the boat being chas’d by three playful gulls. As the seabreeze made a rustle like rich raiment, or the whispering gossip of inquisitive neighbours, Charles stepp’d back from the rail & took a seat in those identical wooden chairs so beloved by the Calmac ferry company.
“I’ll be with you in a minute darling,” smiled Abigail who, heady as a hedonist in heaven, peer’d forwards towards the haunch’d Isle of Arran, widening steadily towards the west.
Altho’ Charles was only one & twenty, & she barely eighteen, to her he appeared almost godlike in his age, a piramid of maturity built up in some wise, old epoch of time. Her own life seem’d as simple as it had been short. She only could remember being a little girl, & then the next thing that occur’d was Charles Robertson, & positively the next thing she remembered of importance was being Mrs Charles Robertson. Her later adolescence & those two years in service were nothing now but grassy dewdrops dissipating in the morning sun. The one thing that never left her mind, however, was the mountain which towered above her village in the Lake District of England. Its beauty had been preserved by those who care the most about preserving beauty. Wordsworth had prevented rail companies sending steaming chains of dragon carriages down the unpolluted valleys. Her grandfather had also beat back the sniffing scouts of coal, mineral & timber companies, all wishing to skin & gut their forested mountain like a skillfully hunted piece of game. He had also said that her love for Charles was her love of a baby, & then but a baby in love. He had opined as much on a visit Scotland to ostensibly meet his potential grandson-in-law, but really because he loved to fish, & to his own mind the rivers which flow’d from the Cairngorms were the richest of all.
All this, of course, was five & forty years ago, for you know how old Abigail was when she returned to Arran last summer? Three & sixty!
Five & forty years ago, as I was saying, Abigail Robertson was exacting, with some excitement, her first visual memories of the mountains of north Arran, where Goat Fell points at the adventurous spirit with a rocky & beckoning finger, saying, ‘climb me.’ After landing at the port of Brodick, Mr & Mrs Robertson of Rhynie Farm Cottages, Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, were seated in the back of a primitive, yet efficient taxi. They travelled at a gentle speed for six miles, following the coastal road as far as the sprawling ribbon-village of Corrie, decamping for a week up front in its bustling hotel. Their room overlooked the sea, & they made love the very moment the maid had closed the door behind her. The five shilling tip thrust into her hand by an excitable Mr Robertson had ensured her rapid exit.
With a bridal veil thrown over her neck & bosom, & her fine bright tresses carelessly yet gracefully arranged, she appeared to the eyes of her enchanted lover rather like a vision than a creature of mortal beauty; altho a countenance of nervousness would accompany her first kisses as a man & wife alone. The sweetness & the ecstasy of those moments would penetrate Abigail’s waking moments for an entire lifetime, & hearing the whispering breath of Charles’ vows once more in her ear, would echo just as long. Then came the puzzle-dance of passion, awaiting the moment when all the protuding pieces fitted together in the lock of love – limbs with limbs, eyes with eyes. It was a moment such as happens with only the truest of soul mates. All the different versions of themselves from across the aeons of human existence, reuniting in lovemaking for the first time as those particular avatars, were in that room, fractured facets of divinity form’d by their own recognizable shapes.
The newlyweds arose in the finest of spirits, as golden as the summer sun which had enticed a family of seals onto the rocks by Corrie harbour, to silently bathe in those sweet & splendid rays. Abigail had pointed them out to her husband as they walked the half mile south to the whitewashed cottages of High Corrie, perched sporadically above the sea like a Tuscan hilltown. Beyond High Corrie lay the mountains of Arran, where one hour later, Charles Robertson, veering from the paths with the elation of consummated love, had leapt onto a pile of brush which covered a long forgotten pothole, & vanished utterly from the earth.
It took everything for the good people of Corrie to contain Mrs Robertson in her grief. A couple had to stop her wading into the sea, her pockets full of heavy round stones. Another had to find her grandfather in England, for he was the only person Abigail wanted to see. The Hotel manager had encouraged the matter, for it seemed that after three weeks Mrs Robertson was rapidly running out of money, but was still obstinately refusing to leave. Each day she would retrace the steps she had made on that most magical of mornings, remembering the laughter, the chatter & those beauty spot embraces, strung like a pearl necklace over the mountainsides of Arran. Then, at the pothole’s mouth – fenced off now, for safety – she would sit, tearless, day after day, in whatever manifold variety of weather, simply staring into the profundity of the planet’s undercrust. Even by the onset of the Autumn storms, no power could win her from the place whence her Charles had gone.
Every effort was made to find him, but alas, in those days, pitcaving techniques were very much in their rudimentary infancy. Specialized equipment like nylon kernmantle rope, & specialist methods such as Single Rope Technique were decades away. The deepest they had got was 20 ft down, where a sharp-angl’d ledge would have bundl’d Charles into the black darkness of the mountain’s internal chambers. It was deem’d too dangerous to attempt any further probing, & the matter was deem’d closed. If there was a time worse for her than the moment her husband dissappeared, it was the one when they told her his body would never be found.
Mrs Robertson went back to her little cottage near Rhynie & lived there for the rest of her days. The rooms of the cottage that was to be their home remained bare & unadorned, as Charles had seen them last. She could not bring herself to alter them in any way, just in case he ever came back. She knew he would never, but unresolved grief is a far greater mind monkey than grief itself. If only he had been buried in a nice Scottish kirkyard, under the sweetest air of the northern climes, some green place lying open to the sun, where she could go & scatter flowers on his grave, where she could sit & look forward amid her tears to the time when she would lie side by side with him – they would be seperated only by short life, but united for eternity. Now, it seemed, that unless she returned to the island of all her woes – a thought which made her recoil as if seeing a scorpion primed at her feet – they would remain apart forever.
For Mrs Robertson, her life had become tainted with the taste of shame. Charles had been beloved in his community, his family adored him, & now he was gone. The young English siren had lured him to his doom on the jagged rocks of the Clyde. But Abigail was a stoic lass & did the best she could; working in service, then opening a little shop once she’d saved up enough money. Of course she never remarried, how could she? The ambrosial memories of her honeymoon night could never be desecrated by lieing with another man. There was much interest of course, a veritable Penelope surrounded by suitors, but no man could ever win so much as a courteous half-smile, let alone alone one resembling that which had won, for her, dear Charles.
It was early in the last spring that Mrs Robertson received a letter from Arran. It was penn’d by a young man who, with a quaint & polite formalism, had offer’d to find her Charles. The wind-blown hollow of her heart suddenly gush’d with roseate blood, straining to burst out of her chest. It took two cups of tea, a small glass of sweet sherry & a phone call to her best friend to finally finish off the letter. It went on to explain how the young man’s name was Connor Syme, he had been a student of Geology at St Andrews, that he was a passionate explorer of cave systems, & that he thought he had obtained the right & proper modern equipment to find her Charles.
After five & forty years Mrs Robertson suddenly found the will to live, & to live life for as long as possible. That her beloved Charles might be afforded a proper burial near their little cottage energized every effort of her being to beautify their little home. The trifling articles, curiosities & pictures she had bought with Charles on their honeymoon were finally brought out. She would ask how such & such a thing look’d, turning her pretty head to some kind visitor, as she ranged them on the walls. Now & then she would have to lay the picture down & cry a little, silently, as she remembered where Charles had told her it would look best. She felt him with her in each room as she furnish’d them to the plans they had made in their minds, hand-in-hand on the curved beach of Ardrossan, as they gazed across to Arran in love. One room she never went into; the one they had meant to have for the nursery. It is not that she never imagin’d children in there, however, for often times curly headed cherubs that look’d just like Charles did clutter her cottage’s hearth & hall.
Two weeks later Mrs Robertson was back on Arran for the first time in almost half a century. She had alter’d very much in that time, but was fill’d with a spirit quite unchang’d from that which energized her honeymoon.
“This is a good day to be alive,” she said to herself, “no, every day is a good day to be alive, this is a much better day to be alive.”
With difficulty temper’d by determination she climb’d the same steep paths she had once worn to the bedrock in those terrible weeks of limbo following her husband’s disappearance. The pothole was still safely secured; the sign was as bright as ever, but the fences had been worn to crumbling pastel cadavers in the wake of countless Atlantic storms.
She watch’d on in silence as Connor & his small team open’d up the pothole & scrambl’d into the claustraphobic core of the mountain. An hour or so later, Connor haul’d himself out of the inky blackness & with a beaming smile said, “we’ve found him.” It took several minutes for Mrs Robertson to finally stem the oceanic floods of tears which had well’d up from the wasted grieflands of her soul. But slow the flow certainly did, & in the silence between her subsequent & intermittent sobs, Connor spoke again.
“I think it best, Mrs Robertson, that you do not see the skeletal remains, unless of of course you really wanted to, but I do advise against it. However, by some miracle of dry air, your husband’s jacket has been completely preserv’d, if a little dusty. Would you like to see it?”
Thes were the happiest moments in the later life of Abigail Robertson of Rhynie Farm Cottages, Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, & within a week the jacket was hanging in the once unused nursery in their cottage, perfectly clean & pinn’d to the wall besides her own bridal gown, which she never once thought to throw away. She loved just sitting in the room with a small peat fire burning, & to simply remember.
Her husband’s funeral had been more of a celebration of life than a memorial to death. Relations of his she had never seen of every generation had attended, with a couple of his nephews coming from as far away as Canada. Once all the family fuss had died down, she would attend daily to his grave; fresh flowers once a week, a wee prune of the rose brush & a gaze at the turf beside him where one day they would be truly reunited.
This dream of hers was not even disturbed by that singular strange evening when, of a sudden, she felt a compulsary tugging at her psyche while sitting in the nursery turn’d bridal shrine. ‘What was in the jacket pocket,’ she began to enquire with some force. It turn’d out there had been something in his pocket – a letter, adressed to a certain Albert Alexander of Dippen Farm, Arran. Of course she open’d it, & was intrigued by the Japanese characters at the head of the page. It was clearly her husband’s handwriting, & she began to read;
I long to see you
I have married a young woman. She is good for me. But she is not you. We are staying in the Corrie Hotel for a week. Please come & take a room where we can meet &…
Mrs Robertson suddenly cut the reading short, & with the slow & deliberate motion of those dutiful wives who keep their husband’s secrets, as the letter was toss’d into the fire the fine wine memories of her darling Charles were tenderly, & forever, preserved.