A SHIVER pricks his spine. It is a soft tingle, just enough to rouse him from the depths. Face down in a pool of drivel, the young lothario is unsure of his place in the world. This reluctance is palpable as he drinks in the blackness like a homemade amer, slowly swishing the gloom this way and that across his tongue to best capture its flavor. The acrid tone confirms his suspicions — here is a realm detached from the sovereignty of his dreams. Not Eden, but Gethsemane, where dangers are many and miracles few. He attempts to roll over. Once, twice, thrice proves the charm. A tepid dampness covers the sheets beneath him, chilling his back and stirring up a rage in the pit of his stomach — Piss, dammit! He runs four fingers through his hair and to his surprise returns a sweaty hand. Relief meets him in the form of an audible sigh, but focus proves an impasse in the ebb and flow of obscurity. Tears of fatigue gently trace the curves of his face before slipping headlong into oblivion.
The silence is unnerving.
‘For worms,’ he says aloud, an eloquent nod to defeat.
But life is poetic, and God himself a wag. For in this moment of surrender comes a revelation — questions calling out from the shadows. What happened? How long have I been asleep? He stumbles to the window, his outstretched hands grasping for the unseen sill. His legs shake beneath the weight of his upright body; his temples pulsate — buddum, buddum — as oxygen shocks his brain. He tries to remember but can gain no ground.
‘It’s Balaclava all over again,’ he declares in a hush.
The curtains are before him now. Peeling them back, he is floored to find the wild night sky. A vision, this abyss of black and blue is alive in the shimmering light of the stars. Yes, miracles are rare in Gethsemane, but staring into the boundless void proves a sobering grace. He imagines, perhaps naively, that the constellations return his gaze. They say the sun is ninety-three million miles away. I wonder then … how far away are these little specks? A cackle escapes him at the thought, an augury of innocence to betray the moment’s authenticity. The words of Blake trickle like water through his ears:
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour …’
He lingers at the window, a fatalist living for the flaws. The seconds turn to minutes and though his sense of self has resurfaced, his memory remains awash somewhere in the cosmos. In the far-flung reaches of his mind he likens himself to one of Coleridge’s blue-jackets. ‘Water, water, everywhere,’ the mariner had said. Lost in the drink, damned to the ice drifts until the albatross appeared. But I haven’t an albatross to guide me. He moves towards the bed when a gleam draws his attention to the landing. A band, white gold and luminous in the moonlight, lay wedged between the floorboards beside the door. It belonged to his mother once, and to his father’s mother before that. He takes hold of the heirloom as one takes a child’s hand and places it among his books, remembering then how he broke it off over chalky tea.
The café was at capacity and a piano twinkled above the chatter. Earl Grey it was; oh how the smell of bergamot had soothed him! He let the pot steep too long and then ruined his cup with too much milk. His father, a purist, would have asked through a frown, ‘Son, how could you bastardise your tea like that?’
He delayed the moment as long as he could and when it was finished she followed him back to the flat. She pled at first, then cursed his name through snot and tears. It was something somber like a funeral and though she mourned accordingly, he suspected she wept not for him but for a dream in her head and for a humiliation that could not be overcome. She left him at the door, her pride in tatters and his mother’s ring rolling about the deck. He found comfort in the bottle — whisky — drinking himself to stupor while the ruby hues of dusk sank steadily in the Western sky.
The realization makes him sick. Vomit rushes his throat as he throws open the window with a lurch. In twisted awe he watches as the contents of his stomach spiral to the ground and crash-land with a splatter. A gas lamp flickers on a distant street corner; the silhouette of a seabird is just visible atop the device’s iridescent beam. He smiles at the sight, scraping his mouth with the back of his hand as he abandons the view for a second time.
He ignites a kerosene lamp, a stony look of determination cut across his face, and starts to gather his belongings strewn like rubbish about the place — ruptured ballpoints and faded photos of his adolescence, a ragged pocketbook overflowing with unfinished literary endeavours. He resets the hands of his watch and for the first time hears the mechanisms of the lock at work as the door swings open to reveal the waiting corridor. He steps forward but hesitates at the threshold. He has forgotten, neither cash nor clothes but the smallest and most important object of all.
A reading table lies dormant in the corner. This desk of polished birch is his hermitage and his workplace. Stacks of books both new and old span its surface in organized disarray and the ring, resembling something of Tolkien’s relic in waiting, sits atop the utmost of these pillars. He slips as he nears the table, helpless to stop his flailing limbs from toppling each of these towers. Saint-Ex. Remarque. Innes. Tolstoy. Ajar — these names gloss the tangled masses of covers and spines. Soldiers and writers. The very best. He plunges a hand into the ruins and retrieves a sack of cloth. The ring is nowhere to be found.
Outside there is a bench and a breeze. The breeze descends upon him a midnight intercession, simultaneously putting the wisteria vines of the garden to sway. A touch of honeysuckle graces the sharp evening air. Sidestepping a puddle, he settles down in the middle of the bench and opens the sack. Inside are the ingredients for mindfulness, and he occupies himself with them and the rolling of a fag. An artist at work, he delicately folds the paper with one hand while doling out cuts of Turkey’s finest with the other. A final touch sees him add the filter and lick shut the cylindrical apparatus. With a match and a flick of the wrist he lights up his masterpiece.
The tobacco provides warmth and familiarity, whereas the stone beneath him is cold and obtuse. His blood congeals in the briskness of the night and his post-mortem begins as all dissections do: unceremoniously atop a pewter slab. As the first incision is made he knows not what to feel nor how to feel it. There is melancholia, despair, a great longing for something he cannot recall. But concealed within the pain is something more — for the first time in his life he realises he is the protagonist of his own story. And now, suddenly gifted with the ability to write the future, he is uncertain how to proceed. Lost in the fumes and faraway in his thoughts, he is unaware of the heavy footfalls upon the gravel.
‘Got a light, have you?’ queries the stranger in the slightest of accents. He cuts an impressive figure in the twilight. Not waiting for an answer, this interloper sits down beside him, cross-legged, on the bench.
‘Of course,’ replies the young lothario in startled tone. ‘Forgive me, I didn’t see you coming.’ He strikes another match and reaches over to set the newcomer’s clope alight, catching a glimpse of his countenance in the dying brilliance of the flame. A bit older, there is something familiar, almost fatherly, about the man. He is handsome, with slick hair pushed to one side and the bristly moustache of an officer covering his upper lip. His dark eyes reflect like pools against the paleness of his complexion.
‘I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Dimitrios Olenin, but everyone here calls me Ollie.’
‘I know who you are.’ The man extends a hand through the smog. ‘Name’s Leo. I come here for a smoke now and again and have seen you and your girlfriend around.’ He points to an open window several stories up the adjacent brownstone. A soft glow radiates from within.
‘Oh, my apologies.’
‘That’s alright. It’s over now, anyway.’ Ollie pulls long and hard on his cigarette, realizing he has said too much.
An awkward silence permeates the air and Leo tiptoes the fine-line demarking intimate and unknown. He takes a drag and asks confidently on the exhale, ‘Want to talk about it?’
‘Thanks,’ says Ollie, shaking his head in dissent, ‘but it’s fine. I’m fine. It’s what I wanted.’ The young man is reticent, not wishing to talk. But now that he has begun he cannot stop. ‘I didn’t love her. Not truly, at least. I didn’t want to drag her …’ He pauses, searching for the right words and for a justification within them. ‘I didn’t want to drag it out any longer. It wouldn’t have been fair.’
Another unnatural pause, this one twice as long as the last, and the smoke climbs and falls in an endless loop, momentarily settling in the valleys between them before restarting for the heights.
‘Hmm,’ Leo goads him. ‘You speak like a man looking for an exit.’ Only his eyes are visible through the wall of rising vapours. ‘Are you going somewhere?’ There is a truth to his stare.
‘I’ve been thinking about leaving for a while now. I had a friend near the Front, Pau …’ His voice trails off and he scratches his chin in contemplation before pulling on his cigarette once more, but it has gone out from a lack of attention. ‘The Front should provide that spark of inspiration. You see, I’ve had this feeling lately.’
‘Yes? What kind of feeling?’
‘A feeling of dread, I suppose. It’s difficult to explain, but I look at this fag, or whatever’s left of it, and see myself in its burn.’ He flicks the butt softly into the night, a jettison into outer space. ‘From something to nothing, decadence wrought with decay. And I don’t know. An idea has come over me, an obsession really, that I must leave here by my own accord or …’
‘Or be snuffed out by someone else’s,’ Leo completes the sentence for him.
‘Precisely. I feel like a kite caught out in the tempest, a sojourner meant for another world.’ He shakes his head. ‘I just don’t belong.’
Leo shifts his weight from one leg to the other on the bench. His eyes seem to sparkle in the darkness, a slight smirk forming on the corners of his mouth. ‘I understand the sentiment. Quite well, actually.’ His voice is measured and matter of fact. His casual acceptance of these statements spurs Ollie’s intrigue.
‘Really?’ he replies. ‘How’s that?’
‘I was stationed at the Front once. Many years ago. In Sevastopol, there by my own accord. Like you I was trying to find myself.
‘You’re a soldier, then?
‘Was a soldier. Tell me, do you know the story of Cardigan’s six hundred?’
‘Hold on!’ Ollie implores. ‘Do you mean to say that you fought with the Light Brigade?’ A cocktail of excitement and ignorance has gotten the better of him.
‘Something like that,’ says Leo through shrug and pursed lips. He allows the smoke to filter from his mouth before taking it back in through his nose. ‘The siege changed my life. I’m not proud of what happened.’
‘But you were heroes!’ The young man’s voice trembles with patriotism.
‘I suppose it depends who you talk to … A lot of good men died. On both sides. And for what, Empire and a handful of guns?’
‘But Tennyson …’
Leo cuts him off, his intonation unchanged. ‘Tennyson is a poet. It’s his job to embellish the facts. Take it from me; there was no honour in it.’ He moves closer to the young man, turning to face him head on, the cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. His features are enhanced in the lustre of its blaze. ‘I’ll show you something. Call it a sketch from my time at the Front.’
Somehow Ollie had not seen it before, although it is there now, no longer hidden by the shade of night. Running from the man’s forehead to his neck and disappearing beneath his collar is a marathon of a scar. The left side of his face is but a fillet of dead skin and tissue. Fixing the clope between his fingers, Leo slowly traces the remnants of the wound while describing the injury in detail. ‘Here — the sabre nearly got my eye. And here — the blade missed my jugular by less than a centimetre. I lost consciousness on the field.’
Ollie gasps, his allure undone by the sheer brutality of the scene. His mouth hangs agape and remains so. This revulsion does not go unnoticed and Leo stands to leave, dropping his cigarette into a glass bottle on the uptake. Unfinished and fuming, it smoulders atop a mountain of burnt out filters.
‘Isn’t it funny,’ he proclaims, ‘how the world reveres a soldier until he isn’t one any more? If this scar has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t have to runaway to experience an odyssey. There are battles to be lost and won at home. You must make your own inspiration, Ollie, because it won’t come looking for you.’ He adjusts his sleeves before fastening the top button of his dinner jacket. ‘Ultimately, we’re all wretches in need of redemption; simple pilgrims on the road to a simple end, not long for this world. I imagine it’s something like Blake says.’
‘You know Blake?’ Ollie inquires weakly, his eyes transfixed on the bottle now.
‘Yes. William’s an old friend. His words have been with me for many years.’
‘And what does he say?’
‘That “God Appears & God is Light To those poor Souls who dwell in Night …”’
‘Wouldn’t that be something’, Ollie whispers to himself. And the same tune of silence settles in to greet the pair on their departure.
‘Well, I must be off,’ says Leo after a time. ‘Thanks for the light and a very pleasant chat. I hope we’ll cross paths again.’
‘I’d like that,’ Ollie lies.
Leo steps off, his feet crunching loudly upon the gravel. He is no more than an outline in the darkness when he turns to offer a final conseil. ‘Hey — watch out for that puddle. I think it’s vomit.’ He pauses momentarily, deep in thought, and when he speaks again his voice is no longer judiciary but eerily sincere. ‘You’re quite a character, aren’t you, Dimitrios? Perhaps you should take off your mask and see the world for what it is. There are wild flowers abound — all you have to do is look.’
Mesmerised by the withering fumes of the fag as they dance and sway and eventually die within the confines of the vessel, there one moment and gone the next, Ollie does not feign a reply.
A frigid wind blows and a shiver pricks his spine. The young lothario comes to alone in the haze, his post-mortem complete and the bench beside him empty. He takes in the sharp evening air, forcing it deep into his lungs until it burns, and exhales, watching as his breath transforms into a warm rivulet of steam before his eyes. Unsure of himself and his place in the world, he reaches for a nearby bottle listing on its side. ‘W-H-I-S-K-Y,’ reads its worn and translucent label. Full of ash the colour of snow, its glass is icy to the touch.
He starts up the path towards the brownstone, where the faintest of lights shines through an open window. The vines of the garden sway and an albatross soars overhead, its wail blanketing the Earth in a vesper. Unnerved by the sound, he loses his footing and tumbles headlong into a puddle of muck.
From the ground Dimitrios Olenin can see — yellow blooms line the plash’s shores, a host of golden daffodils.