The Poem of the Physicist
As I stood upon the land
So the sea destroyed the shore
The glittering huntsman’s armour sank beneath a sea of clouds, which broke in grey and white upon the city roofs.
Perhaps starting that poem was my response to the charge in the air – my equivalent of a gazelle becoming skittish on the darkening Serengeti before the rains come – but Newton and the curse of the particle physicist prevailed. Analysing the spectacle unfolding beyond my window – beyond my transient powers of imagination, it seemed – rather than surrendering to it, I saw Orion morph from a constellation to a misaligned pattern of burning gases beyond which lay an infinity of, well, infinity.
How I bored myself sometimes. Small wonder my empty bed was a void as vast and cold as space. I sighed, turning in my discontented loneliness.
I believed sleep, like imagination, would be beyond me on that night. While hot lovers doubtless pressed their lustful claims, I lay there, slave to the rhythm of the sea, yet not part of the tide of humankind.
Instead, waves of drowsiness came, and I nodded off.
I’m sitting on the floor of an empty hall, my back against a wall. At the far end, a door opens onto another room, full of people chattering; to my left spirals a black iron staircase; a fire-escape. I’m holding a manila folder, bent open. It’s a script, but I’m struggling to absorb the words.
The murmur of excited conversation reaches me, occasional peals of girlish laughter, the clink of cup on saucer. We’re taking a tea break – whoever we are. Now I sense, rather than hear, the swish of a skirt, as a pair of slim legs makes its way gracefully…towards me! – unless she’s heading for the fire escape.
She sits on the iron steps. I feign insouciance, my usual defence mechanism, and glance up, intending to give an enigmatic smile. Suddenly, there’s silence, underlined by the wind that, somewhere in the building, whistles through creaking timbers.
Inexplicably, I know that her face will never again change a life like it has just changed mine.
It’s not her features, startling though they are; green, iridescent eyes, strong nose, quirky smile, framed by shoulder length blonde hair. There’s simply no justice in that description because, as always with love at first sight, it’s the indefinable; the molecules and chemical emissions; the valency. Sometimes there’s no escaping the science, even when you push it to one side and forget to breathe; no avoiding the two choices; either we will be together forever, or death will part us – I guess that’s three choices, if you allow each of us a death, rather than some bizarre suicide pact, which is another option I suppose, so technically that’s four choices…
Am I babbling this nonsense out loud? It would be proof, if needed, of why my bed remains empty, but such is the impact she’s made on me, anything’s possible. My jaw drops open and refuses to close. Has rigor mortis already set in? I try to focus.
She’s speaking: “You seem hard at work, sitting back here on your own. Struggling with your lines?”
And then I have it, for the first time ever; the killer line. Absolutely the thing I want to say and the right circumstances. Which is precisely when her face starts to lose definition. I panic, trying to tune her in again. I’m losing her. The signal’s going haywire. Traitorous REM sleep ruins everything. My eyes open and I close them again, diving back towards sleep to try to save her as she slips overboard and sinks, sinks. I know I’ve lost her already, but I bury my face under the blanket in the desperate hope that oblivion will come.
But she’s gone.
And in the wind an autumn slipped forever from my grasp, elusive as a leaf I may not catch except to crush.
I’d never known such desolation and wanted to stay buried beneath those blankets. Bereft, bereaved, this emptiness surpassed any torture my lonely bed or a stormy night had conjured before. Would I ever sleep again, knowing Fate could even rob me of my dreams?
That leaf has fallen, gone to feed the soil of yet another spring, while flowers on my hearth grow white with time.
That shocking image – of beauty too faded to die – helped me focus.
The brain processes just the tiniest part of the data it absorbs. Someone once said: the only reason we don’t have beautiful dreams is because no-one has ever taught us how. I ached for her. Was she still in my head? The chance she might be gave me strength through the daylight hours. The day itself? – I can’t remember. It was wasted on me and I regret that, somewhere in the world, someone will have died, who could have used it better.
The setting sun had burned the western world and left the charring embers of a night. But were the clouds, which rolled in black above, a hint of midnight rain, or smoke from wars of worlds awakening beneath my feet?
I had failed to share the paradox that was my life; the most precious thing I had to give, which I loved and loathed in equal measures. For forty years I had struggled with my lines, perhaps because I hadn’t written them myself. For too long, years and spiders had spun their nightly gauze upon the final pattern of my room. It had to change. I would conjure her again.
I sat on my lamp-lit bed, fixating on the faded memory of her face, somehow finding most of the pieces; the puzzle, at last, incomplete, but recognisable.
Minutes later, I nodded awake. Was this calm night the wrong setting? Maybe the static of a storm was an essential ingredient for this act of creation. Rather than this placid candle-flame, perhaps I needed a fire-moon dancing beyond billowing curtains of wind-whipped clouds and bending trees. Was that the suppressed desire of every mad scientist since Dr Frankenstein?
It wasn’t going to happen then; which makes my dream stranger still.
The torrent swirls around me in thick, silt-laden ropes. I’m alone, in a kayak or canoe. Since I cannot swim, it’s strange I’m not afraid – seems I can always swim in dreams. Somehow I’m moving against the current with a God-given dexterity from another life; not paddling, but guiding the boat, at one with the flood, reading it, using the paddle as a rudder and yet moving upstream. I pass through a sandstone canyon. Back in the world beyond dreams I would be terrified; a fatuous reflection, but empowering nonetheless. Here the pattern of my life is more than the black veins of shadow on the lawn that signal another moon; another dying day.
High above me is a distinctive, abstract rock formation. Suddenly I’m no longer in the boat, but climbing, bounding over rocks, defying vertigo and gravity, leaping from boulder to boulder, crag to crag, till I stop, unable to go further because I’m standing on top of one of the pillars of rock. The enormity of the canyon spreads out before me. Even in my dream, I laugh at the crude, almost clumsy symbolism of it all.
I woke, exhilarated for brief moments before I noticed the night was just five minutes older, while I lay curled on top of the bed, cold. Curled and cold.
Beyond the window, the world was silhouetted against a still-darkening sky.
An old tree watched the passing of the day; it’s limbs as barren as a battlefield. That silent guardian shadow spoke to me of Armageddon and antiquity.
And so I slept.
The next day I couldn’t shake loose the image of that tree. A blaring horn warned me that my distracted driving had wandered over the white lines and I swerved, fighting for control of the car.
Like a lost and treasured possession, which had once disappeared, out of sight and mind, in that unreachable space beneath a car seat, an idea shot forward as I braked.
And I had seen that tree upon the seas; a ship’s mast hurled from wave to furious wave.
I slapped my head in frustration, harder than intended, but not with the same impact as I might have seconds before on the windscreen. I pulled over to gather my thoughts.
I’d been a fool. Dreams were simply signals from another world, not doorways into it. The alternative realities existed here and now, surrounding us always, but mostly we turned our backs to them, conditioned to respond a certain way. Hearing a dog barking, I turn to find a single dog. Perhaps it could be two dogs barking in unison, if I allowed it to be. The familiar objects in our lives were made from a whole lot of nothing, when you considered the empty space in an atom. Dreams were images captured unwittingly in the background of a photograph as we focussed on what we were led to believe was important and substantive. My alternative reality, the one my dream girl inhabited, was here for me. I just needed to make it happen.
I remembered something, turned the car and sped home.
Having alerted the university to my influenza and cancelled my lectures, I grabbed the basket containing post I intended to re-read, or recycle. Animal charities, children’s charities, third world charities, loans – I would need the latter just to cope with the charities – impatiently I pushed leaflets and envelopes to one side as if macheteing my way through the jungle from which all that paper came. I was almost sure, but perhaps I’d been imagining it…no, ‘imagining’ was a banned word from now on, to be put out for collection with the next recycling bag.
‘Stage Right’. A flyer from a local drama school inviting the reader to attend a six-week ‘Introduction to Acting’ course. My eyes scrabbled down the slope for the date: starting September 15th; tomorrow. I’d been considering it, so was this another background image developing in the dark room? I looked at the details; Grove Hall, Henley. I’d attended a symposium there on Quantum Biomechanics years before. It was typical of many properties owned by local gentry who’d fallen on hard times and sold out to the country club or management training conglomerates; magnificent parlours and ballrooms divided into utilitarian cubicles, where would-be power executives brainstormed and role-played their way to marketing nirvana in overheated, theme-named seminar rooms.
I picked up the phone.
As I walked through the grounds of Grove Hall that defining September evening, the air smelt damp. The recent storms had fallen on arid, dying vegetation from an unusually dry spell. I didn’t find it unpleasant, as I had never been one for summer’s heat, finding the pregnant mutability of spring and heavy melancholy autumns more to my liking. This smell was redolent of the garden of my youth. Sometimes I wished my life could always be September, when the embers of a dying season wisp and glow.
What I’d overlooked, until I froze in the main entrance – something quite inexplicably driven from my mind by desperation – was my aversion to rooms full of well-heeled, particularly high-heeled, strangers; gatherings that might have a propensity towards the coterie. “So, great idea to join a drama group in Henley, that epitome of chic and clique,” I said out loud.
I closed my eyes. Her image had already faded; just a ghost now; a wisp of steam escaping through the cracks in ancient window-frames on a bitter, frosty night.
I swallowed hard and entered.
Fifty budding thespians had gathered that evening. As we sat in a large circle, the Goodwives of Henley who ran the group addressed us, outlining the course in their peculiarly atonal Thames Valley voices. I noticed, with a combustible mixture of relief and dismay that ‘she’ wasn’t there. Only the unexpected sociability of my fellow hams stopped me from leaving immediately; that, and the sudden discovery of a mystic portal, or ‘door standing slightly ajar at the end of the room’, as others might have seen it. If nothing else, I had to check that out before I left.
Our first exercise was all about hiding on stage in plain sight – we were the Chorus in TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’. I tried my best to project a deep, resonant voice – there were mostly women present after all, even if she wasn’t one of them – but succeeded only in sounding bronchial. The subject-matter did little to lighten my spirits, feeding, rather, my unease. Like the Chorus, I still feared ‘disturbance of the quiet seasons’ and believed profoundly that ‘destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen’. I saw the pattern of my life when we declared that:
‘We have gone on living,
Living and partly living’
In the break, while others headed for the coffee machine, I grabbed a bottle of water and made my way to the door, which had intrigued me earlier. It was hardly the cave of an enchantress, but there was no denying the potent spell drawing me in.
Beyond lay another large room, much like the main hall, with wooden floors and a stucco ceiling. But at the far end – Jacob’s Ladder! The stairway to heaven, in the shape of a black, cast-iron fire escape. My heart pounded as if I had already climbed all the way to the clouds. I swigged some water to combat the sudden dryness in my mouth.
I seemed to walk through a tunnel till I stood at the base of the steps, looking upwards. I might have been Hiram Bingham, standing before Machu Picchu, not some sad, middle-aged particle physicist at a local am-dram meeting. If the Goodwives had asked me at that moment to emote – “John darling, give me fear and wonderment” – I’d have delivered.
Surely, whatever circumstances elicit such a response, isn’t that the very definition of magic? When we enter a cathedral, what overwhelms us? Not the gold, but the grandeur of the vision; the humble carved mark of the mason whose rough hands built it; the sawn-off piece of wooden scaffolding up in the tower, which tells us this divine place was once a secular work-in-progress in which everyone believed; the vaulted roof that draws us to heaven even as it mires us in our insignificance.
Gripping the rail of the steps for support, I sat with a thud against the wall, a light sweat on my forehead and rushing in my ears.
Which was probably why I perceived, rather than heard the footsteps that entered from the main hall, walking towards me through the melange of sounds that is the lot of the outsider – clinking cups on saucers, the tinkling of a woman’s laugh, the tidal ebb and flow from a sea of conversation, which the lone traveller hears emanating from behind lit windows and longs, but fears, to join. All the while she advanced, before stopping and taking a seat on the steps. She was saying something. “You seem hard at work, sitting back here on your own. Struggling with your lines?”
It was like a voice crying for help from an island in the middle of a waterfall, so thunderous was the rushing in my ears. Perhaps it was me screaming. I realised I was still holding my script and, bent over it as I was, I must have seemed intent. When I looked up at her, I was caught not only in the eye of the storm, so calm and inevitable did it all feel, but also in the storm of her eyes. Yes, love makes a reality of even the most excruciating wordplay.
But she was waiting for a reply. A reply, you idiot! Your line; say your line.
It came to me – unfortunately, because this was not a dream.
“Yes, I’m looking for the part where we kiss.”
With that her face changed.
My galleon world had long since lost its sail of leaves and birds, tempestuously shred upon the storm I hoped would bring us home.
“I didn’t mean to kill her.”
“You’re the psychiatrist – you explain.”
He raised a hand, palm outwards in a conciliatory gesture. “What did you mean to do?”
“Well,” I hesitated, shrugging my shoulders, “obviously I meant to…kill her.” I sounded so indifferent. “After all, it was strangulation. There’s still time during the struggle to…” – I faltered – “…contemplate…reconsider what you’re doing?”
I was tired now; so tired.
“So why do you think you didn’t ‘reconsider?’” He wasn’t trying to antagonise me, just emphasising my apparent remoteness. “You’re a man with no history of violence. A gentle soul in fact. According to your colleagues, not even someone they suspect has the cork in too tight; likely to explode. That’s why you’re sitting here with me. I want to understand. This isn’t an attempt to find a legal loophole for a psychopath at the request of some sharp lawyer. Indeed you haven’t even requested representation. You puzzle all of us, John.”
I stared out of the window. It was snowing. I had no recollection of the passing of the seasons. Perhaps I’d been catatonic since the…
“Was it jealousy?” asked the psychiatrist.
“I’d just met her.”
He looked at me. “What are you not telling me, John?”
“I mean, you’re a man with no history of erratic behaviour. Just a few…” Here he looked down his nose through his glasses at the folder in front of him. “ ‘…geekish idiosyncrasies’ , which one expects from a gifted and absorbed scientist if one chooses to believe the stereotypes – though as the saying goes, how does a cliché become a cliché? Yet in the space of two days you called in sick – an unheard-of event apparently – joined a drama group and…” the psychiatrist cleared his throat uncomfortably,” …took the life of an attractive young actress. Since you’ve been here, you’ve been drinking copious amounts of coffee; that I think I can understand. Maybe bad dreams are being kept at bay. The strangest part is the radio in your room. From what we’ve observed, you seem obsessed with finding some signal that defeats the rest of us.” I became aware I had my hands between my knees and seemed intent on pushing my elbows as close together as possible. “What are you trying to tune into?”
“It was…it was her face, you see…when I said my line.” The psychiatrist said nothing, but I saw his practised hand drop, pressing a button; a recorder of some sort? “She was supposed to…” there was the peculiar sensation of something trickling down my cheek, “…we were supposed to…” I shrugged uncomfortably in that position. “…live happily ever after? But she started to sneer. I just got up and left. But she was the one. There would be no other. I couldn’t let her go.
“It was more than jealousy. She put in her hand and ripped out my heart. I didn’t want it back, you understand. Nor was it within her power to give it. It was beyond either of us.” I stopped; looked up at him. “So I did the only thing that was in my power, to stop her walking out of my life, leaving me with less purpose, less future, than a broken glass. But her face is fading again. The signal’s going.” The psychiatrist nodded slowly.
As I blinked, great gouts of tears coursed down my face.
“But surely it’s better the signal fades. Your last image of her can’t be one to cherish.”
He may have meant well, but he didn’t understand. As my knees squeezed together I saw her again, peace coming to her features at last between my hands, sharing with me, in the dark grounds of Grove Hall where I had waited for her, the most intimate moment two humans can share, something no predator could take from us. Not for no reason is the orgasm known in some parts of Europe as the little death.
I returned to my room. Passing along a corridor of toughened glass, I saw that darkness had come, unforgiving, cold, falling with malevolence of old, like dusk-sheets on a widow’s dusty world.
The door to my secured room slammed behind me. I shivered. What would become of me now – consigned to hell on earth without her, or hell? It had been better not caring. I flicked the radio switch absent-mindedly and stared from my barred window. The shapelessness of the static was anodyne; a vast, featureless, snowy landscape stretching on forever. Was that immense frozen wilderness the true alternative reality? A blank canvas for sketching dreams, which I knew now were not signals from a parallel universe, but merely our way of dealing with the emptiness.
Even as I considered this, my mind wandering across the snow, a shape started to form on the blurred horizon. Nothing distinct; no recognisable form; it didn’t start to distil like a tree emerging through the fog. I realised it would never take shape, because I wasn’t seeing it after all, but hearing it; my name emerging from the static, spoken by a woman, repeatedly, urgently. I was cold again, shaking, but knowing that if this was a siren luring me towards the rocks, then this ship was meant to run aground. I had to…
But still, this night, and bobbing fitfully, a mast sways in the safety of a cove, and dances on the surge of sensual tides, while flotsam lies with shells upon the strand.
Beyond the windows, leaves swish and branches rattle in the autumn winds. There’s gentle, but insistent pressure on my shoulder. I open my eyes and she emerges from the sea of fatigue; my very own Bond girl, her face beautiful in its urgent sleepiness. I recall how it changed in response to my line that evening, the lips drawing back in a self-conscious smile.
I stare at her now, incredulous, and she drops her gaze before looking up at me again, shy, but unrepentant, with just a hint of brazenness. Our dialogue at the drama class comes back to me.
“The part where we kiss? Mmm.” She reflects.” I don’t think we’ll find that in TS Eliot. Maybe in my workshop…”
She extends her hand. “Adele Greening. I’m taking part two of the class.” The face is familiar and growing more startling by the second, like some centuries-lost alabaster bust emerging brush stroke by brush stroke from the sand.
“Aren’t you…I’ve seen you on TV, haven’t I?”
She looks pleased, but embarrassed. “Possibly, in some bit parts. I’m really a stage actress; prefer the closeness and immediate interaction…the intimacy…” I realise I’m still holding her hand, and she realises that I’ve realised, but doesn’t retreat. “…with the audience.” She pauses. “Anyway, we’re starting shortly. I just wanted to know whether you’re attending. Or perhaps you’ve decided this isn’t for you after all.”
“Not for me?” I raise one eyebrow. “Let me tell you something about particle physicists.” Lord knows where this sudden confidence has come from, except she is the catalyst – the Philosopher’s Stone.
“Maybe later.” She looks coy and I couldn’t care whether it’s a well-practised expression, because it’s my own private show. “I’ll see you in there then.” She turns to go.
“Adele?” I’m emboldened now. She looks back. “What if I don’t find our moment in part two either?”
And here we are; me with the taint of her death on my hands; a bloodstain on the snowy landscape. But the snow continues to fall and will cover it soon.
She places a cool hand on my sweating face. “You’ve been dreaming.”
And a heart of stone was damned
To be sand forever more.