Thursday, January 14, 2010

Vapour


Having spent the last few days walking around in circles, in a sort of imaginative cul-de-sac, I have found my way again in my story, Lord Miniver's Machine.

I wish I could say that something tremendous has happened in the story to occassion this blogpost, but it has not. We only meet two new characters today. One of which may familiar to the reader, in a slightly different context.


Lord Miniver's Machine


Lord Miniver tapped an inch of ash into an urn which had once contained the cinders of a hero. Or so this toothless Turk insisted, through his guide—a quick-witted urchin whose eyes and ears and boisterous burlesque of English allowed him to eke out an existence translating for tourists in the bazaar.

When questioned about its origins, the old man raised his hands in theatrical protest. The relic, which unfortunate circumstances had forced him now to sell, had been preserved in his family for one, two, three generations, centuries, or millennia. Although the precise frame of time was left vague, Miniver felt sure he meant the last. The fellow had counted out a trio of stiff logarithmic fingers. The boy nodded in solemn agreement. Father and son, in business together, no doubt.

The urn itself was a crude replica of a more famous original which Miniver had first perceived, as a child, though his own pale reflection, behind a thin pane of glass. The neat ivory note-card in the oak case said it was a gift of the Sultan to the Queen upon the occasion of her marriage. It had been donated by Her Majesty to The British Museum, as a widowed afterthought, four years after the Prince Consort’s untimely death.

The exact source of the Sultan’s gift could not be established—with definite authority—beyond the mythic soil of Anatolia. That it was immensely old, scholars agreed. It was regarded as the Rosetta of ancient ceramics, as it detailed a famous scene attributed to Homer before the bard himself (according to classical tradition) had even been born. It is justifiably celebrated—not for its beauty per se—its craftsmanship poor, its figures almost cartoonish—but for the truth it represents, what it silently suggests: that the Trojan War was true, that Helen herself had once walked the earth. The late Herr Schliemann’s discoveries at Hisarlik appear to confirm this hypothesis.

Thanks to a popular engraving in the Illustrated London News, travelers in the Mediterranean may now find copies of this vessel, in various sizes, offered for sale in a thousand stalls across the Levant, from Alexandria to Asia Minor. The best of these are hand-painted. These are manufactured for export by an ex-patriot Greek, a Mr. Kratides, formerly of Hampstead, presently and comfortably living in Rome. Collectors may identify his creations by his trademark, a tiny cuneiform K, incised as three wedges in the semi-cured clay before firing.

The specimen Miniver inspected in the market bore no such distinguishing feature. It had evidently been abused to make it look more ancient and more actual than it really was. Here and there a flake of glaze was missing; the lip was neatly cracked; much of the meander necklace that formed the lower border of the scene ingeniously sanded away by Time.

A smudge of maroon martial dust remained on Miniver’s black calfskin gloves as he revolved the artifact in his hands. The essential elements of the story depicted on the surface remained intact: here we see Patroclous about to be gored by Hector, his spear perpetually frozen on the point of entry into his opponent’s liver; there, Achilles, eaten by offended Pride, broods over a brazier in his tent, forever opposite but powerless to prevent the sorry fate his beloved friend is about to meet.

Miniver admired the outlandish inventiveness of these two Turks. The improbable tale the collaborators told of the vessel’s provenance made it irresistible to him: it gave the purchase a kind of poetry the object lacked—like the Iliad itself. This was life: the perfect souvenir. He paid the dealer a pound and tipped his tot a shilling and considered it a steal.


He placed the urn on his marble mantle and tossed the end of his Havana into the fire. It was his last. The smoke from these cigars had circled the world. He had smoked one on every continent, save the southernmost. The final one he reserved for Europe. The first he lit in Constantinople. He imagined that last languid tendril of Christian smoke curling around a minaret, embracing it, a new religion, before dissolving into the evening mist.

For Miniver Europe meant England and England meant London. He detested them both: the withered lilies of a race doomed to rot in the rain. Was this the best that Humanity could do? Cabs, clubs, Parliament, square little shops with set prices? Even the desultory dickering his uncle (Miniver an orphan and his ward) did in the exchanges, he felt, was grounded more in ritual than reality: a gentleman knew the price of everything. The question of value did not enter into the transaction. In the less respectable stews and iniquitous alleys where his countrymen trafficked more directly in flesh, life was more negotiable, perhaps, but not by much. You paid what was demanded. Or someone else did.

Dealings in the East were different. Mustapha was different—like all the others. Mustapha’s face was the only one he remembered well enough to assign its features a particular identity. Perhaps because his name began with an M. Miniver couldn’t say certain. All he knew was that that boy had been his first and best bargain. Mustapha stood for the world—all nations, all races, all men—all that is individual—all that lives and breathes and longs to touch—touch something. Not love, necessarily. Love was too limiting a word, he felt.

Lifting the stopper from the decanter, he heard again the tinkling bottles of scented oil Mustapha unwrapped. Then followed the soft sucking vacuum, the tiny cork’s pop, the swift equalization of pressure, the array of scents he might choose: almond, orange peel, saffron, cinnamon, attar of roses, the distant tang of other men in other rooms. He wanted them all.

He started carefully—with a tincture of cloves and cinnamon. The scent overwhelmed his senses. Experienced hands attacked his muscles. By small degrees, his shoulders relaxed. His spirit relaxed. He ceased to be a Miniver. He ceased to be a man. He had become a vessel himself—the genuine article. He groaned. He had enjoyed the transformation.

He swirled his brandy, sniffed and swallowed. How inhospitable his home seemed tonight. Even this Napoleon generated no heat. Through the liquor, in the library, he watched a heavy cylinder of cherry crinkling to extinction in his hearth. His heart. One letter separated these two words, like the waters of the Dardanelles, into two worlds: life and art.

A discrete knock at the door, followed by momentary flare in the fireplace, announced a visitor had arrived. Cartwright coughed softly into his curled glove, “Mr. Keats.”

The vapourous being clutching the battered Gladstone bag could not have provided a more etherial contrast to the voluptuous presence of Lord Miniver. Even Cartwright—whose own particular blend of poise and tact redendered him rather less substantial than a blur of fine gray but infinitely attentive mist—stood like a gravestone next to the impalpable Mr. Keats, a man who did not so much as remove an ulster as transcend it, as a shaft of electric light passes through a globe of frosted glass. Cartwright, hat and coat retired.

“Keats, my dear fellow, how kind of you to come. Please, draw a chair up to the—the remains of my fire. Would you care for a brandy? You look like a ghost.”

“Your Grace is too kind,” the young inventor smiled uncertainly, “Thank you, I would.” He knelt before he sat. From the Stygian depths of his Gladstone, he withrew a rectangle of chamois cloth and a flicker of brass. He quickly dried a pair of raw hands chafed by the rain. The cloth he quietly folded and placed in the lower left pocket of his tattered tweed, next to Miniver’s telegram, with a pat...

2 comments:

::: TN ::: said...

There's a butler in this story. And a gloved one at that!

Shropshirelad said...

All of the best butlers wear gloves.

I just wish I had time to add some more to the story today...