I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
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* One exception: short stories.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Birthday story

Twin Olive Groves
Short story 996 words
Rewritten: July 6, 2015

 (Several years ago. South-east London. Party to celebrate long-standing journalist friend's sixtieth.
RR: I cannot get my mind round the Christian concept of heaven.
Devout RC friend, father of five (six?) children: We cannot know the mind of God.)

A SWANSDOWN pillow now supported his head just as his mother’s blue-veined breast had once cushioned his baby mouth. Two known sensations; he could switch from one to the other and back again, rearranging time and space to suit his moods and needs. Once it had seemed remarkable, now merely useful.

Through the window, clouds, roof tiles, pathways and olive branches combined as an orchestra to bring forth the rolling allegro of an unknown Bruckner symphony. Music of infinite length, rich in texture, clotted with intellect, slowly fervent - bidding him now to pray.

“My grateful thanks, Oh Lord”

Rising, showering, he put on his worn dressing gown and stepped out into the light. A raised patio, with marble table, overlooked an olive grove stretching down to the sea with scents live in the air: coffee from Yucatan, sharp yet earthy toast. Leaning over the carved wall he glimpsed Suky’s auburn head, in and out of the olive leaves, her camera catching the light as it moved in for close-ups.

Olive groves behind her, Suky stood at the shore, her bare feet flickering among the wavelets, looking out to sea, the sun catching the back of her auburn head, her thoughts absorbed with his thoughts as his were with hers. A universe of two, the prayer issuing forth unbidden:

“All praise to beauty taking flight as intelligence.”

SUKY sat across the table, eyes huge yet fond. “The movie was sensualist, about earthly pleasure. Also a hymn of gratitude for the physical qualities we’d both been given. He moving gracefully, running, catching and striking the ball – innocent dynamic delights; I his womanly counterpart without whom he was incomplete.” She smiled. “Sheesh I looked good. Forget feminism. Imagine us as figures on a Greek vase.”

“And in your most famous movie. Affection turned into something else, perhaps forbidden.”

Suky laughed aloud. “Everyone admitted G was beautiful. Hopeless sinners the pair of us. Yes, I felt for G but we remained cinematically chaste.  Besides which I had my own views.”

 He raised an eyebrow and she said quietly, “My thoughts were elsewhere.”

When her finger touched his lips the prayer had no words, only an unshaped grace.

The warmth from what she’d said was tangible and he revelled in it. Did this for a full hour, compressed into ten seconds for her sake. To retain her company.

“Today I’ve decided; I will do the journey,” he said. “But for the right reasons.”

Her smile faded. “You know I can’t help. Can’t even comment. I’m here because you want me here. Not as I am in reality but in this compatible form. Stripped of all the things that would clash with what you want.”

“Does that horrify you?”

“Never in this world. The price I pay for your impartial and distant affection. A very fair price.”

AT THE end of the journey the room was a replica of his own but repellent. A bare lamp-bulb, a full pot-de-chambre beneath the bed. The swansdown pillow sodden with sweat from a tortured night. A mother, their mother, having promised one or the other a good-night kiss had never appeared. The child, now adult, sat on the edge of the bed guessing at what the pot-de-chambre could still take.

The adult, now older, moved like a threat: swaying belly, bald head, varicose calves and a yellow-headed boil above the collar. Tormented by orchestral Bruckner and yearning for Motorcycle Emptiness, sung – the curse of knowing everything – by Manic Street Preachers.

Older still, victim of a raging thirst and a stomach aching with artificial hunger from drinking hard liquor too far into the night.

For here was the problem. One made the journey – a hard journey – out of duty and obligation. Perhaps out of guilt. In order to understand oneself and to lay down sympathy. But suppose neither understanding nor sympathy occurred. Suppose the object of the journey was simply too wretched, too sickening. A failed journey? With no visible solution?

Save prayer. Slogging, repetitive, humdrum devotions with not a shred of poetry. Starting with. “Lord help me…”

AN AUBURN-headed woman resembling Suky walked impatiently up through the grove towards the patio.  Nearer and her face shrank into bitterness. “The camera no longer works.” His head drooped, then rested on the marble table.

“Lord!” he cried. “Lord!”

When he looked up the suffering self - belly, calves and boil - lay across the table, asleep.

“Thank you, Lord.” He had never felt more grateful.

In the aisle of trees that led to the shore Suky – his Suky – waited.

He said, “There was a later movie, not very good. Someone helps you die. A plastic bag… Watching earlier, when I’d made the journey, I felt that same desolation. Yet I’m beyond desolation. Am I not?”

Her wonderful intelligent face sorrowed. “I’m not allowed even to guess.”

He looked back. At this distance the racked body, supported by the table, looked almost tranquil. Even though he knew this to be a meaningless pause, engineered for temporary comfort.

“I could pray for you,” he said.

Suky smiled wanly. “You could.”

“Could I pray for the impossible?”

“It’s not against the rules.”

“Don’t die.”

Her smile had a touch of the mischief that was her acting trade-mark. The single most identifiable detail of her face. “I’ll try not to,” she said with all the sympathy he had earlier failed to generate. “But elsewhere I’m older than what you see here. Closer to death.”

“I had a friend who said all this - ” He gestured at the olive grove and the distant sea. “ – would turn into oblivion.”

She nodded. “That’s been my expectation.”

“It should be your hope. Our hope.”

“An end to suffering. A beneficial void.”

The Bruckner embarked on a slow infinite diminuendo.


  1. Dissonant, beautiful and sad. Has the feel of a great jazz horn passage. Inside out. Bravo!

  2. Subtle, cimematic and intriguing. I can imagine it as a short film.
    Not sure about the last line though: does it seems a trifle preachy?

  3. MikeM: Thanks for that. I tried hard. Also stepped out of myself to do it.

    Ellena: I'm assuming you didn't like it but couldn't bring yourself to be cruel. Am I right?

    Natalie: I appreciate what you say but for me at least the short film idea cannot work. The three movies referred to and the physical basis of J's Suky (with a different name) all exist in reality; they are very clear in my mind and the conflict with anyone else's interpretation might well cause me to spontaneously combust.

    Preachy. The whole thing could be considered preachy since the story is based on my personal view of an aspect of humankind, even if I didn't set out to convert anyone, only to entertain. If preachiness only emerges in the last line I think I can live with that.

  4. I do recall having a little spasm when I first read "one-hundredth-and-fourth", but quickly fell captive again. Just had it again on the second read. "one hundred and fourth" sounds right to me. More adjectives? Dazzling. Hallucinatory.

  5. MikeM: I very much appreciate the fact that you've bothered to re-read this story.

    I too have re-read it several times and find myself in a quandary. Whereas I'm satisfied with the way I've told the story, I'm dismayed that its thrust remains obscure. I didn't want to be obscure at all; wanted to be clear, very clear - as some of the descriptive passages may suggest. The obvious answer would be to re-write it but - just for once - the prospect scares me. I doubt that the best bits (the hallucinatory bits?) would survive.

    Hence the newly augmented title - outlining the moment of the story's genesis.

    Given that modification, let me add another. My views on revealed religions are fairly well known to those who've read TD over the years. Nevertheless, this story was never intended to be irreligious or to support any form of atheism. Only to underline the difficulties of maintaining all hard-won forms of belief (in anything). Christianity simply provided a framework, it was never set up as a target.

    Does any of this sound credible? However unlikely it is the truth - undermined, alas, by my imperfect abilities as a short-story writer, something I only took up a few years ago.

  6. Well, you could copy what you have (I'm going to) and try rewriting it. I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one interested in the result. I have to admit I did a little googling after the first read, before I just abandoned myself to the general (obvious)thrust of the piece. I did run across Odysseus hiding under two olive shoots that emanated from the same root. Intriguing. I'll also admit I was rattled by the conclusion...the advice to hope for oblivion. "The visit" is presented as an optional foray into the past, the future, or some dark place. Presented as a requirement, it might make oblivion seem more appetizing. But you've assumed something about the unknowable. As believers always tell me, it's "a leap of faith". My interpretation of the story as it stands is that "G" is God, the "most famous movie" is earthly life. I'd love to see what you would change, but as stated, I'm clinging to a copy of this in case I need to compare.

  7. Writing you about this via email...have read it three times now. I really enjoy reading your exchanges with Mike!

  8. Late to the birthday party, kept passing the door but then getting distracted by something on the other side of the street. Perhaps I could help with the clearing up? Hope you had a good day.

    I read it twice too. Whatever it is or isn't, it will stay with me.

  9. I'm back as baffled as I was much earlier.
    No RR, not liking it would not justify not understanding it.
    Re-read again and again but am no

  10. Ellena: I am sorry you are baffled by this story. And that being baffled appears to disturb you. You are not exactly alone. No one who has read it, and who has commented, appears to have found it entirely straightforward. It wasn't my intention to write an obscure tale but that's how it seems to have turned out. I take comfort from the fact no one has condemned the story as worthless.

    I wonder if I might elaborate on your problem. Are you baffled because you can't bring all the parts together and make sense out of the whole? Or is everything baffling? Are you unable to make sense of, say, individual paragraphs?

    I ask this because I am baffled by many parts of my favourite novel, Ulysses. Not that I'm comparing myself with James Joyce; only to say that I continue to re-read Ulysses and revel in the bits I can understand. Do you find it possible to enjoy (or at least approve of) certain parts of my story? Or do the confusing bits get in the way of this?.

    Does it help if I say that J lives in Heaven and J2 in Hell?

  11. "The true end of art is not to initiate a fixed material condition, but to represent a living emotion" -George Inness

  12. M: I appreciate - and agree with - the sentiment but my goodness, George Inness (whoever he is or was), could have used an editor. His style of writing is more suited to tying off a legal document. Why not: Art doesn't end with a last full stop (or bush stroke) but with the emotion it generates. And that's after only ninety seconds contemplation. In fact I'm tempted to add a coda: Abstractions are not art's best servants.