The Poem of the Physicist
As I stood upon the land
So the sea destroyed the shore
And a heart of stone was damned
To be sand forever more
My galleon world had long since lost its sail of leaves and birds,
Tempestuously shred upon the storm I hoped would bring us home.
I was tired now; so tired. “I didn’t mean to kill her.”
“You’re the psychiatrist – you explain.”
“I meant what did you mean to do?”
“Well,” I shrugged, “obviously I must have meant to kill her.” Whose nightmarish words were these; surely not mine? “It was strangulation. There’s still time during the struggle to…” I faltered, “…contemplate…reconsider what you’re doing.”
“So why didn’t you ‘reconsider’?” He enunciated very deliberately, trying not to antagonise me, but it emphasised the cold, inappropriate verb. “You’ve no history of violence; according to your associates not one of those guys who might have the cork in too tight; likely to explode. So I want to understand. This is no request from a lawyer to find a legal loophole for some psychopath. Indeed you haven’t even requested representation. You puzzle all of us, John.”
I stared through the window. Snow. I’d no recollection of the passing seasons.
“Was it jealousy?” he asked.
“I’d just met her.”
“What are you not telling me, John?”
“You’re someone with no history of erratic behaviour. He looked down through bifocals at a folder and quoted. “‘Just geekish idiosyncrasies’, which one might expect from a gifted, absorbed scientist. As they say, how does a cliché become a cliché? Yet you called in sick – unheard-of apparently – joined a drama school and,” the psychiatrist paused, “took the life of a young actress. Here, you’ve drunk nothing but coffee, though that, I think, I can understand. ‘Macbeth hath murdered sleep’. But the strangest part is the radio in your room, switched to long wave and on which you seem obsessed with finding some signal that defeats us all.” As he spoke. I became aware that I’d wedged my hands between my knees and seemed intent on pushing my elbows as close together as possible. “What might it be?”
“It was…it was her face, you see. When I said my line.” The psychiatrist said nothing, but his practised hand slid below the desk to press a button; a recorder of some sort? Were my recollections entering uncharted territory? How long had I been here? “She was supposed to…”
Something started trickling down my cheek.
The glittering huntsman shone from far beneath a sea of clouds,
Which broke in grey and white upon the city roofs.
I watched this grand autumnal display from my empty bed. Clouds hurled themselves before the unforgiving vanguard of a storm, billowing like dust from the feet of Orion, There was a charge in the air, the kind that makes gazelles skittish on the darkening plains of the Serengeti before the rains.
My empty bed – those suffering a fullness of heart, but having never known love, will understand me. I sighed, my head turning on the pillow. What lies behind that theatrical gesture? Are we hoping the dark might split open and hurl the face of love onto the pillow beside us?
I’d almost waxed poetical, but Newton prevailed and the curse of the particle physicist struck me. Instead, I analysed the spectacle unfolding beyond my window – beyond my transient powers of imagination too, it seemed. My huntsman had transmogrified from a mythological giant into a group of stars anthropomorphised by primitive minds; burning gases beyond which lay an infinity of, well, infinity.
How I bored myself sometimes.
I thought sleep, like imagination, would remain beyond me while elsewhere hot lovers pressed their lustful claims; I would lie there feeling my body move to the rhythm that drives our blood and the sea, part of the tide of humankind being swept backwards and forwards, like turtles climbing a beach and returning to the ocean.
Instead there were just waves of drowsiness, and I nodded off.
I’m sitting on the floor of an empty hall, in what sounds like a community centre, my back against a wall. At the far end there’s a door beyond which people are milling about. On my lap is a folder, to my left a spiralling black iron staircase; a fire-escape perhaps. I have the folder open. It’s a script, but I can’t focus on it.
The hubbub continues offstage; excited conversation, occasional peals of laughter, the clink of crockery. We’re on a coffee break, whoever we are. A shape enters through that far door. I’m not looking directly, but see the form move gracefully across the floor; sense, rather than hear the swishing skirt, as she makes her way…towards me! – unless she’s heading for the fire escape.
She’s come to sit on the iron steps! Feigning insouciance, my usual defence mechanism against heartache, I look up, intending to give my best enigmatic smile. Profound silence replaces the thundering in my ears, underlined by the wind that whistles somewhere through old window-frames.
Somehow I know immediately that her face will never change another life like it has just changed mine.
It’s not just the startling features; green, strangely iridescent eyes, strong nose, quirky smile, framed by shoulder length blonde hair. That description does no justice; as always with love at first sight, it’s the indefinable; molecules and chemical emissions; knowing the valency is right. I’m sorry, sometimes you can’t escape the science, even when you push it to one side and forget to breathe.
I know there are only two choices; we will be together forever, or death will part us – I guess that’s three choices, if you allow each of us a death, rather than some bizarre suicide pact, which is another option I suppose, so technically that’s four choices.
Am I babbling this nonsense out loud? That would be both sad and indicative of why my bed is empty, but such is her effect on me, anything’s possible, especially as my jaw has dropped open and refuses to close. Has rigor mortis already set in?
She’s saying something. “You seem hard at work, sitting back here on your own. Are you struggling with your lines?”
And then I have it, for the first time ever; the killer line. Absolutely the thing I want to say and the setting. Which is when her face starts to lose definition. I’m powerless, trying to tune her in again. I’m losing her. The signal’s going haywire. The disaster that is REM sleep ruins everything. My eyes open and I close them again, diving back towards sleep, trying 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 sleep will come again.
But she’s gone.
And in the wind an autumn slipped forever from my grasp,
Elusive as a leaf I may not catch except to crush.
Never had I felt more cheated. I wanted to stay buried beneath those blankets. Fate was adding new dimensions to my tortures now, robbing me as I slept, leaving me bereft; bereaved even. The emptiness surpassed anything my lonely bed and a stormy night had conjured before.
That leaf has fallen,
Gone to feed the soil of yet another spring,
While flowers on my hearth grow white with time.
The psychiatrist tapped the piece of paper, nodding approvingly. They’d found the poem in my room. I don’t remember writing it.
“That’s a startling image – beauty that’s become too old even to fade. Is that what you were trying; to stop her growing old?”
That shocked me. I wanted to protest, but how could I? So I ignored him. “Someone once said we don’t have beautiful dreams only because no-one ever taught us how. The brain processes only a tiny part of the data it absorbs; she was in there somewhere, woven in. My desire to find her was implacable.”
He frowned. “Find her?”
“I couldn’t wait for night to come.”
“How did you fill the hours?”
“I can’t remember. That day was wasted on me. I regret that somewhere in this universe someone 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 was battling the forces which had prevented me ever sharing the paradox that was my life; that precious thing, which I loved and loathed in equal measures. It had indeed been one long struggle with my lines, but only because I wasn’t writing them myself. For too long, years and spiders had spun their nightly gauze upon the final pattern of my room.
I sat on my bed, seeking to reconstruct her face. Soon, like a puzzle with a missing piece or two, it was incomplete but recognisable.
Sleep must have overtaken me; I nodded myself awake. Was the night too calm; the static charge of a storm a pre-requisite for recreating her? Rather than this placid candle-moon, perhaps I needed a guttering flame behind the billowing curtains of wind-whipped clouds and bending trees; the suppressed desire of every scientist who’d read Frankenstein?
It wasn’t happening – which makes my recollections that much stranger.
Water swirls violently around me, the muddy flood torrential and rope-like. I’m in a kayak or canoe. I cannot swim. Strange I’m not afraid. It seems I can always swim in dreams. I’m moving somehow against the current, at one with the torrent, using the paddle as a rudder and moving upstream. The terrifying canyon is the colour of sandstone. Here the pattern of my life doesn’t consist of black veins of shadow on the lawn signalling another moon, another dying day.
High above is a distinctive rock formation. Suddenly I’m climbing, bounding over rocks, defying vertigo and gravity and find myself on one of the abstract rock pillars. Gazing down, the enormity of the canyon spreads out before me. If I weren’t dreaming it, I’d laugh at the crude, almost clumsy symbolism of my dream’s end.
I woke exhilarated, before registering that the day had advanced by only five minutes, while I lay curled on top of the bed, cold. Curled and cold.
Beyond the window, my world was a silhouette against a still-darkening sky.
An old tree watched the passing of the day;
Its limbs as barren as a battlefield.
That silent guardian shadow spoke to me
Of Armageddon and antiquity.
And so I slept.
Driving to work next morning, that tree was on my mind. A horn blared; I had wandered over the white lines, swerving and fighting for control. Then, like a lost, treasured possession, gone from view and then mind in that unreachable space beneath a car seat, a memory shot forward as I braked.
And I had seen that tree upon the seas;
A ship’s mast hurled from wave to furious wave.
The recollection hit so hard, I slapped my head in frustration, harder than intended, but with less impact than the windscreen might have done. I pulled over to gather my thoughts.
I’d been a fool. Dreams weren’t doorways into another world, simply signals from one. The alternative realities were here, surrounding us always, but we had our backs turned to them, our responses conditioned. We hear a dog barking and turn to find a single dog, whereas it could be two dogs barking in unison, if I allowed that possibility. 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 believed substantive. My alternative reality, inhabited by my dream girl, was right here. I just needed to make it happen.
As if on cue, the remembrance of something made me turn the car and head for home.
Having alerted the university to my influenza and cancelled my lectures, I searched the basket containing the post I intended to re-read, or more likely recycle. Animal charities, children’s charities, third world charities, loans – I was going to need one of them to cope with the charities – impatiently I pushed each leaflet and envelope aside as if macheteing through the jungle from which all that paper had come. I was almost sure, but perhaps I’d been imagining it…no, ‘imagining’ was a word I would banish henceforth, to be put out for collection with the next recycling bag.
Success! ‘Stage Right’. A flyer from a local drama school inviting me to attend a six-week ‘Introduction to Acting’ course. That had to be it. The date ? – starting September 15th ; tomorrow! I’d considered it, so was this another background image developing slowly in the dark room? Grove Hall, Henley – I knew it, having attended a symposium there on Quantum Biomechanics a year before. It was typical of many manor houses owned by once-wealthy gentry who’d fallen on hard times thanks to death duties and inheritance taxes, and had sold out to the country club or conference centre conglomerates. Magnificent parlours and ballrooms divided into utilitarian cubicles, where would-be power executives could brainstorm and role-play their way to marketing nirvana in overheated, theme-named seminar rooms.
I’d find out soon enough whether any of those theatres of dreams had a spiralling iron fire-escape.
I picked up the phone.
He looked at me, unable, despite every effort, to disguise his professional excitement. “So, John, now that your memory seems to have returned I’m understanding the context of that defining September evening. Do you remember what happened next, because till now…”
“It smelt damp as I walked through the grounds of Grove Hall. The storm two nights before had fallen on arid, dying vegetation after an unusually dry spell. It wasn’t unpleasant. I’ve never liked searing heat; Spring’s pregnant mutability and Autumn’s heavy melancholy are much more to my liking. That smell was redolent of the garden of my youth.”
“The smell of decay?”
“Sometimes I wish my life could always be September, when the embers of a dying season wisp and glow.
“What I’d overlooked, until I froze in the entrance to Grove Hall – something seemingly driven from my mind by my desperation to find my lady – was that I hated entering rooms full of well-heeled, particularly high-heeled, strangers, particularly those leaning towards the coterie.”
“So, great idea to join a drama group in Henley”. The psychiatrist smiled. “That epitome of chic and clique.”
“What love drives us to. I was desperate. Forty-eight hours had passed since the mystery woman had stepped through the fissure into my world. Despite everything, her image was fading. It was now just a ghost; a wisp of steam escaping through cracks in ancient window-frames on a bitter, frosty night. So I swallowed hard and entered.”
Perhaps fifty budding thespians had turned out. As we sat in a large circle, while the Goodwives of Henley who ran the group addressed us in the atonal clipped vowels peculiar to parts of the Thames Valley, I noticed, with a combustible, contradictory mixture of relief and dismay that ‘she’ wasn’t there. The only things preventing me from leaving immediately were the unexpected friendliness of my immediate neighbours and the discovery, upon glancing to my left, of a mystic portal, or ‘door standing slightly ajar at the other end of the room’, to give its proper name. If nothing else I had to check that out.
Our initial exercise was designed to help us hide in plain sight – we were the Chorus in TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’. I tried keeping my voice low and resonant in an appropriate dramatic manner – I had ladies to impress, even if she wasn’t one of them – but sounded bronchial. The subject matter did little to lighten my spirits, but rather fed my unease. Like the Chorus, I still feared ‘disturbance of the quiet seasons’ and struggled with the line telling me ‘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’
At last, a break. While others headed for coffee, I grabbed a bottle of water and made my way to the mysterious door. No enchantress’s cave could have woven such a potent spell.
There was another large room, with wooden floors and a stucco ceiling, but for me its most compelling feature was Jacob’s Ladder, the stairway to heaven, in the prosaic disguise of a cast-iron fire escape. My heart pounded as if I had already climbed all the way to the clouds.
Entering the room, as I stood by the steps looking upwards it might have been 1911 and I Hiram Bingham, standing before Machu Picchu, not some sad, middle-aged particle physicist at a local am-dram meeting. If one of the Goodwives had asked me at that moment to emote – “John darling, give me fear and wonderment” – I would have nailed it. When such a stage and circumstance can elicit that response, isn’t that the very definition of magic? When we enter a cathedral, what overwhelms us? Not the gold or stone, but the grandeur of the vision; the humble carved mark of the mason whose rough hands built it; the sawn off piece of original wooden scaffolding up in the tower, telling us that this divine piece was once a secular work-in-progress in which everyone believed; the vaulted roof draws us to heaven even as it mires us in our insignificance.
I sat down with a thud against the wall, a light sweat on my forehead and a rushing in my ears. It wouldn’t stop, which was probably why I perceived, rather than heard the feet entering from the main hall, walking towards me. I absorbed 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. Are you struggling with your lines?”
I heard a voice crying for help from an island in the middle of a waterfall, so thunderous was the sound in my ears. Was it me crying for help. Now I remembered I was holding my script; bent over it, I must have seemed intent. When I looked up at her I was caught not only in the eye of the storm, but also in the storm of her eyes. Yes, love makes a reality of even the most excruciating wordplay.
She was waiting for a reply. A reply, you idiot, I chastised myself. Your line; say your line. And 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.
Peculiar, the sensation of something starting to trickle down my cheek, “…we were supposed to…” I shrugged uncomfortably in that position. “…live happily ever after perhaps? But she started to sneer. I just got up and left before the full contempt of it could stain her beauty. She was the one. There would be no other. And…I couldn’t let her go.
“No, it was more than jealousy. She put in her hand and ripped out my heart. But I didn’t want it back. Nor was it within her power to return it. It was beyond either of us.” I stopped and looked up at the psychiatrist. “So I did the only thing that was in my power, to stop her simply walking out of my life, leaving me with less purpose – less future – than a broken glass.” I blinked; great gouts of tears coursed down my cheeks. “But now, her signal’s fading.”
The psychiatrist gave a nod of comprehension. “But isn’t it better that it fades; that you move the dial on? Surely you don’t want to hold onto your last memory of her.”
He may have meant well, but he didn’t understand and as my knees squeezed together I saw her again, peace and calm coming to her features at last between my tightening hands, sharing with me, in the dark grounds of Grove Hall where I had waited for her, the most intimate and lasting moment two humans can share, something no predator could ever take from us. Not for no reason is the orgasm known in some parts of Europe as the little death.
I was returned to my room. Passing along the interconnecting corridor of toughened glass, I could see that darkness had come. The night was unforgiving, it was cold. It fell with a malevolence of old like dusk-sheets on a widow’s dusty world. As the door to my secured room slammed behind me I started to shiver, not knowing what would become of me now – consigned either to hell on earth without her, or simply hell? It had been better not caring. A curse on all your nuthouses. As I stood looking through the barred window I gave the radio switch an absent-minded flick. The shapelessness of the static was almost anodyne; a vast, featureless and snowy landscape stretching out forever. And I wondered; was that immense frozen wilderness the true alternative reality? A blank canvas against which we sketch our dreams, which I knew now were not signals from a parallel universe, but merely our way of dealing with the emptiness.
Yet even as I considered this and my mind wandered across the snow, a shape started to form on the blurred horizon. Nothing distinct; it had no recognisable form; didn’t start to distil like a tree emerging as you take your footsteps in the fog. And I realised that it would never have a shape, because I wasn’t seeing it after all, but rather hearing it. It was my name emerging from the static, spoken by a woman; repeated urgently. I was cold again now, shaking, but knowing that if this was a siren luring me towards the rocks, then this ship was meant to run aground.
But still, this night, and bobbing fitfully,
A mast sways in the safety of a cove,
And dances on the surge of sensual tides,
While flotsam lies with shells upon the strand.
Beyond the windows leaves swish and branches rattle in the autumn winds again. There’s a gentle, but insistent pressure on my shoulder. I force my eyes open and she emerges from the sea of fatigue, my very own Bond girl, her face more beautiful than ever in its urgent sleepiness. I recall how it changed when I uttered my line in the drama class, the lips drawing back, not in a sneer, but in a self-conscious smile. And she must have seen something in my eyes, because then I saw something in hers. I stare at her now, incredulous, and she drops her gaze before looking up at me again, perhaps slightly embarrassed, 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. But maybe in my workshop now.”
She extends her hand. “Adele Greening. I’m here to take part two of the class.” The face is familiar and growing more startling by the second; a centuries-lost alabaster bust emerging brush stroke by brush stroke from the sand.
“Aren’t you…I’ve seen you on the television, haven’t I?”
She looks pleased but embarrassed. “Possibly, in some bit parts. I’m more of a stage actress. I prefer the closeness and immediate interaction…the intimacy…” I realise that I’m still holding her hand, and she realises that I’ve realised, but doesn’t retreat. “…with the audience.” She pauses. “Anyway, we’re due to start. I just wanted to know whether you’re coming in. Or perhaps you’ve decided this isn’t for you after all.”
“Not for me?” I raise one eyebrow. “Let me tell you something about particle physicists.” I don’t know 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; I still have the taint of her death on my hands; a bloodstain on a snowy landscape, but the falling snow will cover it soon.
She places a cool hand on my sweating face. “You’ve been dreaming.”
As I stood upon the land
So the sea destroyed the shore
And a heart of stone was damned
To be sand forever more