An Illustrated Promise of Paradise

As I have been writing about birds in art, film and literature this week I am rather cheekily including my own short story A Promise of Paradise, which has been published on here before, however now including brand spanking new and rather wonderful illustrations by sueblackpenart.

If you enjoy the story, my collection Motion No. 69 will be available for sale November 30th 2017 (3:23PM GMT to be precise), fully and marvellously illustrated by T.Kiros.

A Promise of Paradise

promise of paradise header

1.

Sara was sickening for something. Every day Alex had noticed that she was a little more drawn, a little more drained. Upon awakening he saw that her pale skin was flushed with fever. He felt her forehead and nudged Sara awake.

“You’re burning up, baby,” he whispered.

“I know, I don’t feel so good,” she replied drowsily. Her breathing was a ragged gasp, sweet with distemper.

“I should really get you to a doctor,” Alex suggested.

“I don’t have a doctor down here. The only doctor I know is the family doctor back home. I have never really needed one, apart from my bout of anaemia.”

“Well I think you need one now Sara, I’m worried about you. Don’t they have to take you on as a patient if you turn up at the practice?”

“Not sure about that really. Look it isn’t that serious, just a touch of the flu. A couple of days in bed will see me right. Besides, I hate doctors, they give me the creeps. The only person I want examining me is you, Alex.”

Alex felt that Sara was deluding herself as to the extent of her illness but was relieved at the same time that she didn’t want to see a doctor. He shared her aversion to the medical profession; found their probing of orifices and suggestive personal questioning highly intrusive. He doubted if there was a career more suited to people who held a deep-seated grudge against the human race. “Well if you say so. But if it gets any worse you will have to go. And while I’m at work you need to look after yourself. Fags and fever don’t mix so now would be a good time to give up. Plus, only one drink a day, a hot whiskey before you go to bed. And certainly nothing else. Do you understand me, Miss Essein? Now don’t go making that face at me Sara.”

Sara’s grey eyes had clouded over further while she put an elegant hand over her mouth to cover a large yawn.

“Aye aye Captain,” she saluted Alex, as he rose from the bed.

“I’m serious Sara. Do you want me to be worried sick about you all day, so worried that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate?”

“Do you have to go to work today? Can’t you pull a sickie and stay home to look after me? Please, Alex, you know that we would have such fun.”

He found the cigarette pack and took two cigarettes out. He lit the first with a yellow disposal lighter and lit Sara’s from his own. He passed the cigarette over to her.

“Thanks, well, I thought I wasn’t supposed to smoke.” Sara said as she drew on the cigarette, her eyes half closing.

“Sorry, well one wouldn’t kill you I suppose. You know I can’t take off; things are dicey enough at the moment without going AWOL. I promise I will call as soon as I get a chance. Please don’t pout baby. How about I make you a nice cup of tea and a bit of toast before I leave?”

“Honestly Alex I don’t know why you bother. You’re far too intelligent to be doing that job and be taking orders from that pig Wilkinson. It’s not like they pay you that well either.”

“You know I can’t stand it Sara but it’s only for the time being. As soon as something better comes along I’m on it. In the meantime, we have to have money coming in, don’t we?”

“You worry too much about money. You know my father would be more than happy to contribute to his little girl’s well-being.”

“I don’t want to go down that route Sara. I know I that I have never had any money, but I also have my pride to think of. I look after my own.”

“Does your precious pride mean that you have to neglect me, when I’m so sick? Fine, just go on to your job then,” with those words Sarah buried her face into the pillow.

“Do you want that tea and toast before I go?”

Sara lifted her face up for the pillow. “If it will ease your conscience, certainly.”

*

Out on street, though, Alex started to fret. Already he was missing her. He hated not having Sara in his sights. He felt at a loss and incomplete.

Although he had left only five minutes ago he felt a sickening nostalgia for the airless atmosphere of their bedroom.

I really must concentrate, he thought. You can’t live on love alone; you have to earn your crust, contribute to society, so they’ll leave you in relative peace; be a worker bee, a drone.

The train was overflowing as usual and Alex found himself squashed between an old African lady and an attractive pony tailed blonde who bore a passing resemblance to Sara. The old anxiety descended upon Alex, his mind overwhelmed by the undisclosed contents of all these other personalities with no relationship to himself. What, exactly, was the Sara clone thinking right now? Did she feel that her undoubted looks set her on a level above the nobodies surrounding her, who could only gawp and gape? Or maybe she was just thinking about her lunch hour. And the old biddy who was disintegrating as she rocked back and forth in her much-prized seat; was she remembering the time when she was young and pretty and had no knowledge of the inevitable decay and dissolution that faced her?

These projected imaginings of other people’s thoughts temporarily coloured the terrifying blankness of Alex’s mind but quickly became draining. What would they say if they saw into his own internal landscape? Would they see only an empty world with a cloudless blue sky; a place as vacuous as an award-winning ultra-modernistic glass office block? Or are other people simply too self-absorbed to concern themselves with the unanswerable enigma of other people?

His thoughts quickly returned to Sara; these days they never strayed far for long. A vague premonition (aren’t they always vague, but no less disturbing for that?) that her illness was far more serious than either of them suspected haunted his mind. It wasn’t just a cold or flu or some other common or garden ailment. It was something else, some other illness. Exactly what, he had no idea, however he knew, just knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had to return home straight away. The hotel would just have to carry on without him today. Wilkinson wouldn’t be happy, but he felt sure that he could talk him around in time.

At the next stop Alex got off but instead of going over to the opposite station that would take him back towards home Alex heading towards the station exit. Maybe a spot of fresh air would do him good; make things appear in a clearer light. He went to a café and ordered a cup of coffee and sitting outside at a patio table smoked two cigarettes end to end. Perhaps he was exaggerating Sara’s condition. It wouldn’t be the first time that his imagination had run away with him. At school every teacher had seen fit to comment on his over active imagination. This time, though, he felt that his instincts were right. He stubbed out his third cigarette half way though and returned to the station and caught the train home. Before returning he stopped by the supermarket and stocked up on essentials, mainly drink as they had been going though their supplies rather rapidly lately.

As he opened his building’s door and walked through the lobby with its dulled chessboard marbling, he dimly realised that now that he was home again that there would be no going back from here on out.

*

Sara was dead to the world; the bedclothes had been kicked restlessly to the floor. Alex unpacked the groceries, poured himself a stiff drink as there was nowhere he now needed to be today and sat down in the decrepit bedroom chair. He always enjoyed watching Sara sleep. Her guard was down, and her vulnerability was on view. The childish habit of sucking her thumb explained her slight overbite which he found so endearing. Her shallow breathing highlighted her ribcage. Alex could count the ribs; usually he got to eight but lately with the illness the flesh had melted off her already slender frame so now ten ribs on either side were exposed.

The telephone started ringing from their small living room and Alex tensed.

He was certain that it was Wilkinson calling about his absence; however, he was in no mood to talk to Wilkinson, so he let the machine get it. He was more concerned that the ringing would wake up Sara who quite obviously needed her rest. After the third call he disconnected the cord from the wall.

He would plug it back in tomorrow.

With the silence in the flat Alex had been about to nod off in the chair when Sara cried out and sat bolt upright in bed. Alex noticed her confusion as she looked around the room and noticed that he was there.

“Alex, you’re here. What time is it?”

“I don’t know, about one I think.”

“How come you are back home Alex, what happened to work?”

“Didn’t go. You were right; they can do without me for a day or two. I couldn’t leave my darling all alone when she’s sick could I? Even though you don’t seem that happy to see me.”

“I’m so happy to see you Alex. I was so miserable when you left this morning. It’s just that I had the most horrible dream,” she shivered at the memory.

Alex went over to the bed and after gathering a sheet from the floor wrapped it around Sara’s naked shoulder and pressed her close.

“Look at you, you are shivering. It’s OK baby, I’m here, I’m here.”

“It was so awful Alex. I’m so glad that you came home. It’s terrible to have a nightmare in the middle of the day. I know other people’s dreams don’t make any sense but if I tell you it might make it go away.

“I was walking on a deserted platform of an underground station. I was wearing my grey winter coat; you know the one, the one with a patterned lining.”

Alex nodded.

“Well it was stiflingly hot down there, especially with my coat, so I sat down at one of the benches. The indicator was down as usual. The tunnels kept zooming in and out before shutting up like a telescope. The only other living thing on the platform was a beautiful white dove. Its whiteness was so pure compared to the dingy yellow of the walls and the impenetrable blackness of the tunnels. I felt that if I could follow the dove to where it had come from that I would find a wonderful place without pain or sickness or fear. That dove was like a promise of paradise.

“I waited for a long time and nothing happened. No other passengers, and no train came, and the dove remained perched on one of the other benches, motionless.

“Coming from nowhere Alice sat down next to me. She looked different, she had gone all gothicky. She was wearing all black, her hair was dyed black and she wore thigh highs. What with the bright red lipstick and nail polish and her pale skin the effect was rather striking. She looked like a vampire dominatrix. Well you know what Alice is like.”

Alex did indeed know Alice was like and hated her for it. It wounded him that Sara was dreaming of that bitch.

“Daaarling, my god it has been a long time no see. Have you been avoiding me,” Sara continued, mimicking perfectly Alice’s plum posh accent. “I didn’t know what to say; after all I have been avoiding her somewhat, so I said that of course I haven’t, just been busy with one thing and another.

“Alice forgives you, this time and this time only. You are lucky I’m so sweet-natured. It is fantastic to see you again, even if I had to go to such extraordinary lengths to get even just a peek at you again.”

“This seemed a strange thing to say but I put it out of my mind.

“Are you heading up West, Alice? When is the train coming? I feel like I have been waiting forever.”

“No Sara, I’m going nowhere but here. Don’t you know where we are?”

“At the train station,” I answered.

“Yes Sara, the station where the train never stops. Not ever, ever, ever…”

“As Alice was speaking I noticed red bumps appear above her right eyebrow. Soon they joined together and formed an ugly-looking blotch. Alice did not seem aware of anything, just went on talking but I wondered how she could be unaware of such painful seeming hives. She was gesticulating wildly, the heavy silver bracelets flailing. At this point the dove flew over and perched on Alice’s left shoulder. Alice paid the bird no notice even when it started pecking at her temple. Soon her forehead was nothing more than a bloody gash as the dove kept on pecking. With impeccable timing the dove’s beak pierced a twitching vein causing a shower of blood to drench my coat and face, I wanted to scream but couldn’t. How could Alice remain so composed, she hadn’t missed a beat, when all this was happening?

The face consuming splotch had reached her cheeks. Hesitantly, almost tenderly the dove drove its beak into Alice’s left eye. It plucked out the eyeball and swallowed before proceeding to do the same to the right eye. Its purpose served the dove flew away lazily, its blood-stained plumage shimmering exotically. I wanted to escape but the sight of Alice’s face, which was now completely red, competing rash and blood stains with accents of smeared lipstick, not to mention the horror of absent eyes paralyzed me.

promise of paradise sarah

“But this was too much.” She had grabbed hold of my wrists and she leans towards me with her tongue, which resembled a piece of under cooked veal, protruding obscenely from hemorrhaging lips.

“We were rocketing above the city now, thousands of streets and millions of people streaming beneath our feet. I just wanted my feet back down on the ground but Alice’s grip on my wrists was so tight that little crescents of blood had formed beneath her fingernails and there was no avoiding that devouring mouth no matter how I twisted and turned, except to fall…

“At that I woke up, Thank God, and found you here.”

After Sara had finished Alex was silent. She obviously needed to be comforted after such a nightmare, but he couldn’t think of anything to say that would assuage her terror. He kissed her softly on the forehead.

“What do you think it means?” she asked hopefully.

“Nothing Sara, it’s just a dream. You’re ill and you have a fever. Fever dreams are often particular vivid. It’s only a dream and nothing more. Anyway, you have nothing to worry about now. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”

II.

A Promise of Paradise Salon

After a sleepless night Alex stirred from bed to call Wilkinson to tell him that he wouldn’t be back at work for a couple of days. He remembered pulling the cord out from the wall but couldn’t recall cutting it. It had been completely severed. Obviously calling was out of the question, he would have to walk three blocks to the nearest phone box and it would probably be vandalised anyway. He could ask the neighbours, but he had never met them, so he presumed his request would be met only with blank stares. Oh well he thought that’s that job gone then. They would be OK for money for a little while, they probably had enough in the bank to cover the rent and bills for two maybe three months. As for being without a phone, Alex was actually quite relieved. Who did they need to speak to apart from themselves? Not Alice or Wilkinson or her father or his mother certainly. Sara must feel the same otherwise she would not have cut the cord. At last they would be alone together without any outside distractions.

Although Sara’s worsening condition was a cause of considerable concern for Alex in the following days he secretly welcomed it for several reasons, though not without guilt. For now, Sara had real need of him in her weakened state and relied upon him for everything. He cooked all her meals and administrated her medicine. He dressed and bathed her. This coolly perfect woman was totally dependent upon him and he in turn was her willing servant, slavishly satisfying even her most bizarre whims. The second reason was the sex. The fever had unlocked something inside Sara and now she made love vociferously, urgently. Their previous kisses and embraces seemed polite, formal; almost abstract in contrast to the intensely wanton caresses Sara now lavished on Alex. Never had Alex known such rapture. Every passing day and night confirmed Alex’s initial revelation upon first seeing Sara; that he had to possess her totally, whatever the cost. As she gazed down upon him, smiling her slightly asymmetrical smile, the one flaw that in the manner of a baroque painting made her perfection unique he knew that there was nothing he wouldn’t do to keep hold of her. Alex wanted Sara to stay down here with him forever.

It was inevitable really that Alex would succumb to the sickness in time, given that she never left his side or that his body had absorbed all her secretions. Every salty drop of her blood, sweat and tears.

A Promise of Paradise Illness

The sickness started with the world dividing itself into a complicated grid except for the centre which was a black and white tunnel. The peripheral pattern consisted of various nauseating clashes of neon primary colours. To escape the electric disturbances of the periphery he descended down the tunnel. Alex’s head exploded with the pain. Every sense impression was an infernal torture. He didn’t move for two days. Then the fever began. Alternating periods of equatorial heat and arctic chill. Nightmare ridden delirium or a disturbing lucidity. Pre-occupied as Alex was with his own condition, he could hardly fail to notice that Sara was rapidly deteriorating. She would spend hours in the bathroom eking out the last strand of bile from her shrinking stomach. An angry rash had appeared on her left arm constantly screaming to be scratched. Laying his head on her breast and listening to Sara’s heartbeat he had detected a definite arrhythmia. With these proliferating symptoms and his own sickness Alex knew that they had to see a doctor but the thought of venturing outside the flat brought on severe panic attacks that resulted in spells of hysterical blindness. In his mind their mutual illness was forging a bond that could never be broken. Soon he wouldn’t be able to tell where he began and Sara ended.

Diurnal time had ceased. The heavy blackout curtains cut out all light, so it was neither night nor day just an unceasing now. Time without season, without reason or rhythm, in retreat they made their own weather. Their disintegration was reflected in their surroundings. The kitchen roof sagged with the rain. Sections of the support beams in the bedroom ceiling were exposed as parts of the panelling fell. The sinks drained on some glacial time scale; a millimetre every millennium. The toilet had to be constantly plunged. Bags of rubbish were strewn around the kitchen floor. Every inch of counter space was covered with haphazardly stacked dirty dishes and glasses in constant danger of toppling. Even the television had turned a strange shade of blue, a cause of paranoid consternation. Alex became convinced that it was leaking radiation, which resulted in mutations to their basic genetic structure which was the cause for their various afflictions. However, no improvement was apparent after Alex had kicked the screen in. Most seriously of all they were almost out of food; even taking into account their decreased appetites Alex knew their supply could not hold out for much longer. Sooner rather than later something would have to give, one way or another.

III.

“Can’t you sleep either?” Sara asked.

“No, yet I am so tired. I haven’t slept for ages,” Alex replied.

“It’s this itchiness with me, God I just wish I could scratch this arm.”

“Don’t Sara. You don’t want scars all over your arm, do you? And it will cause it to spread.”

“I know. It’s just really hard not to. Why can’t you sleep?”

“Well, apart from feeling absolutely awful, I’m afraid to go to sleep. I keep having this nightmare about my father.”

“But you never knew your father Alex. Didn’t he die when you were a baby?”

“Yes, when I was nine months old. I often wondered about that coincidence. Officially the verdict was misadventure, but my mother told me that it was definitely a suicide.

“In the dream I am at my old house, my mother and step father have since moved. For some reason, although I am my current age I am wearing my school uniform, short trousers and a blue blazer with a stag’s head crest.

“On the dining room table is laid an open coffin. Inside is my father, although I have no recollection of his appearance I recognize the body from the one photo my mother kept. Though it is his funereal my father is not dead. However, I seem to be the only one to notice the fact. Nobody else is paying attention to the wide-open eyes roving back and forth. All my relatives and the other guests are too busy enjoying the champagne and the food served on trays by the exotic waiting staff.

A Promise of Paradise Dream 1

“Somebody passed by and told me a joke. I was already quite drunk and found the joke so funny that soon I was coughing. I coughed so hard that I coughed up some phlegm that landed on my father’s face. He glared at me through narrow eye slits. At first there was silence but then somebody started clapping and soon there were raucous cheers. My grandfather summoned a waiter to bring me a bottle of whiskey.

“In great spirits I went outside to the back garden with grandfather. From somewhere my grandfather had got hold of a double-barrelled shotgun and proceeded, with unerring accuracy, to despatch every bird in sight. He collared his son Chris to act as retriever, who on all fours would go lolloping across the suburban gardens and over fences to pick up the carcasses in his mouth and bring them back to deposit them at his father’s feet. Soon there was a hastily constructed pyramid of slaughtered pigeons, starlings, swallows, tits, orioles, pheasants, thrushes, grouse, peacocks, eagles, guinea fowl, sparrows, ravens, albatrosses, a dove, vultures and birds of paradise. When Chris placed a dodo on top of the heap it collapsed and entombed my grandfather.

“Back inside all decorum had been lost. Guilty as I felt about unleashing such fury against the defenceless remains of my father I could understand how the sheer helplessness of the corpse provoked everyone to commit further outrages. My mother tried to pull off their wedding ring, but it was struck fast. Next, she tried to lubricate the ring by sucking on her dead husband’s finger, but it still wouldn’t budge. I suggested cutting the finger off, after all what use did my dead dad have for it? Somebody went into the kitchen to get the knife.

“Even my stepfather, usually so gentle and placid, was affected by the atmosphere, stubbing out his cigarette in a pool of spit on my father’s cheek. The cigarette sizzled as it slowly extinguished, filling the air with an acrid smell of burnt, embalmed flesh.

“The revellers, for that is what they were really, were now engaging in the kind of senseless atrocities that marked the latter days of the Borgias. I would have been loath to witness such acts if I hadn’t somehow instigated them.

“This question haunts me though. I keep on thinking throughout that my father would have been better off dead. All the time, better off dead.”

*

When Alex saw Sara leaving he was afraid that their protective magic circle had been broken and that all the denizens of the lower depths would be let loose.

He had been too exhausted to stop her. As she packed her backpack and told him that there was a world outside these four walls, that she missed her family and friends, that she was better now, he had done nothing but lick his dry lips. He wasn’t sure if she was really preparing to depart or if it was just another hallucination. He was becoming increasingly prone to visions whose vividness made him question what was really happening anymore.

It was only after the front door had closed that he realised that she had really gone. Sara would return he reassured himself. She was far too ill not too. She had convinced herself that the illness was abating and that she was on the mend, but Alex knew that it was all wishful thinking, merely a brief respite.

Sara would return, but in the meantime Alex was tormented with jealously. He imagined her in increasingly perverse situations with a wide selection of men and women stroking and fondling her yielding flesh. Try as he might he couldn’t stop thinking of Sara in a variety of obscene postures. Her body was a banquet which the whole world feasting on; he alone was denied a taste of her succulent sweetmeats.

Most of all the image of Alice plagued Alex. Sara greeting Alice with arms wide open, their lips meeting and merging, fluttering tongues probing. He’d always known what Alice was after. He pictured her whispering in Sara’s ear; stroking her long blonde hair to reveal the exquisite swan neck before kissing and then sinking her teeth into the snow-white skin, drawing blood.

Alex realised this was the quickest route to insanity. Sara had only been gone an hour, what if she never came back? Then he would have to find her. Of course, it would be better if she returned of her own volition but if not then he would have to bring her back. How long could he wait before he ventured out onto the streets? Not long but he decided to give her a while yet. In the meantime, he had to do something. What exactly? He paced around the flat going from room to room. In the bathroom he searched the medicine cabinet which was still well stocked considering the number of pills they had been taking. He found a bottle of sleepers but rejected them as he wanted to be wide awake when Sara returned so chose instead some uppers. Closing the cabinet door, he caught his reflection. Alex had to admit that he looked dreadful. Unshaven with sunken eyes entrenched beneath the violet and purple circles. Before the sickness Sara had always shaved him with his old-fashioned cutthroat razor, the only possession that had been passed down to him from his father. He enjoyed the feeling of powerlessness that being shaved by Sara with a wickedly sharp razor blade brought. A moment’s distraction, a slip of the wrist and he could end up with a nasty cut at the very least.

*

He heard the key turn in the door and Alex forced himself to remain calm. She had come back of her own accord. But what if she was just returning to collect the rest of her belongings?

One look at her face as she entered the bedroom and Alex knew that he didn’t have to worry. Her shattered expression and the wan little smile that played upon her lips told Alex that Sara would never leave again.

He went over and gently embraced her. She rested her shoulder in the bony hollow of his shoulder. He stroked her hair while she cried.

“There there my love, don’t worry, you’re home now. No need to cry, you’re with daddy now.”

“Do you forgive me Alex?”

“Nothing to forgive my darling. You are back now, that’s all that matters. I wouldn’t let anything, or anybody ever hurt you again. I promise. You believe me, don’t you?”

“Of course, Alex. I will never leave you again. It was so strange out there, all the people rushing around and the noise and all the traffic. What’s it all for? I don’t think I could ever begin to understand. There must be something wrong with me; other people seem to get on just fine. What’s wrong with me Alex?” Sara had composed herself somewhat and looked into Alex’s eyes beseechingly.

“There is nothing wrong with you Sara. If there was something wrong with you then that would mean that I am messed up as well, because I feel the same. It’s just that we are not of this world, we feel things differently. There is nothing for it, Sara, we are what we are, and the world just is, and nothing will ever change.”

“I feel so sick. I thought I was getting better, but I feel worse than ever. Are we ever going to feel well again?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we left it too late. Perhaps it will pass in time. I doubt it though.”

“So, what do we do now, Alex? I want to be with you forever but where do we go from here?”

Alex looked at Sara. Soon she would realise the inevitable.

“We could go travelling. I have always wanted to see Rio and we could go gambling in Vegas. I hear Hong Kong is wonderful. Wouldn’t that be lovely Alex? A change of scenery might make us feel better” Sara said hopefully.

“Of course we could Sara, but in the end it would only disappoint. We have already been there many times in our dreams and the reality will pale in comparison. At first it would be exciting and new but after a while every place becomes the same, just another hostile environment full of strangers. No amount of sunshine is going to cure us. The sickness is inside us. Besides wherever we are in the world we would still be ourselves. I suppose we could always get married.”

“Oh Alex, I want to be with you but not like that. Could you bear to see me aging: losing my looks, so that you have to take to drink, both of us numb and insensible to the point of stupidity. Our eyes dimming and the fire inside us quenched. No thank you. You have to come up with a better solution than that.”

“We could go our separate ways after all, but would it really be the same with someone else Sara?”

“No, I could never pretend that it would be Alex.”

“There is nothing else for it then, is there?”

“Just like we discussed that one time”

“Exactly like.”

“When?” Sara asked.

“Soon. Tonight,” Alex replied.

“Let’s push out the boat first, O.K., I am so exhausted, I don’t think I have the energy without something to keep me going.”

“Of course, a little artificial stimulus never hurts.” Alex went to the bathroom and ransacked the medicine cabinet. He selected a handful of violet pills which he hoped would be conducive to the mood and returned to the bedroom where Sara ate the pills from his hand. He swallowed the rest and they settled down to wait.

“How long now do you think?”

“Not long now. Don’t worry; just enjoy.”

passion

The hours rushed by. The moment came, and they knew. They rose at the same time and kissed before walking hand in hand to the bathroom.

Sara ran the water for a bath while Alex got out from the cabinet his shaving kit. Then he positioned the rickety chair so that he could see his face in the mirror. When the bath was full Sara took off her clothes. She mixed up the shaving soap and with the horsehair brush applied the lather to Alex’s face and neck.

“You remember what I told you don’t you Sara”

“Yes, always downwards never crossways.”

“That’s right. Don’t be scared, everything’s going to be alright” Sara hesitated. “Why do I have to wait? Couldn’t I go first?”

“Believe me it has to be this way. I couldn’t bear to be alone without you ever again. Before I met you, I was alone for my entire life. You already tortured me with your absence once today. I can’t be alone. Besides I don’t have your courage. Trust me, it won’t take long, and we will be together again soon.”

Sara nodded. She started shaving Alex’s cheeks. He watched her beautiful face in the mirror studying his face. Soon he was clean-shaven. Sara paused. He took her hand which held the razor and pressed it against the skin of his throat. This was the moment of truth. He was surprised to see himself sweating. He nodded upwards towards Sara and held her hand as she moved the blade. The razor blade broke the skin and the blood started flowing as Sara cut across his throat, going deeper. Alex willed himself to not utter a sound as the pain became unbearable. He saw that Sara’s face was tear-stained as she continued to slice with the blade. Before long she succeeded in severing an artery. He heard her cry out. Before losing consciousness, he saw Sara step into the steaming bath, the razorblade encrusted with blood poised ready in her left hand.

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The Flight of the Cranes

Bernard Buffet-Les Chants de Maldoror
Bernard Buffet-Les Chants de Maldoror 1952

Although the nightmarish Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont (pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse) was first published in 1868/69, more than fifty years before Paris Dada began to re-form as Surrealism, it was such a major precursor and influence upon a number of Surrealist artists that it can be considered as the movement’s black Bible. Indeed the work’s most famous line, the bizarre and striking simile, ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’, is about as neat a summation of the Surrealists stated aim of juxtaposition and dislocation as you could possibly wish for.

As well as the stylistic innovation and the macabre subject matter, a visionary and sensationalist take on the already sensational Gothic novel, the utter anonymity of Ducasse must have appealed to the Surrealists. Facts and details regarding his life are scarce to say the least. We know that he was born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846 and that he came to Paris at the age of twenty one to complete his education, though he soon dropped out to work on Chants de Maldoror. After its publication, under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont, chosen after a Satanic anti-hero in an Eugene Sue novel, Ducasse published under his own name a short volume entitled Poems in June 1870, though the material contained aren’t actually poems, rather re-worked maxims. In November of the same year, Ducasse was dead at the age of twenty-four, causes unknown. His passing went unnoticed, not surprising considering that Paris was under siege by the Prussians; food was very scarce and sickness and mortality was rampant.

He would be discovered by the modernists and Surrealists. Andre Gide said that reading  Lautréamont made him ashamed of his own work and Modigliani always carried a copy of Maldoror with him. Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte both illustrated the text, while Max Ernst, Man Ray, Victor Brauner, Roberto Matta,Oscar Dominguez and Joan Miro among others produced work inspired by Maldoror. 

The opening passages of the first canto addresses the reader a la Baudelaire before introducing a sustained simile involving the flight of cranes, remarkable for its ornithological accuracy and descriptive power.

Les Chants de Maldoror

First Canto

1,

May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened, and having for the time being become as  fierce as what he is reading, should, without being led astray,  find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-filled pages; for, unless he bring to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar. It is not right that everyone should read the pages which follow; only a few may savour this bitter fruit with impunity. Consequently, shrinking soul, turn on your heels and go back before penetrating further into such uncharted, perilous wastelands. Listen well to what I say: turn on your heels and go back, not forward, like the eyes of a son respectfully averted from the august contemplation of his mother’s face; or, rather, like a formation of very meditative cranes, stretching out of sight, whose sensitive bodies flee the chill of winter, when, their wings fully extended, they fly powerfully through silence to a precise point on the horizon, from which suddenly a strange strong wind blows, precursor to the storm. The oldest crane, flying on alone ahead of the others, shakes his head like a reasonable person on seeing this, making at the same time a clack with his beak, and he is troubled (as I, too, would be, if I were he); all the time his scrawny and featherless neck, which has seen three generations of cranes, is moving in irritated undulations which fore-token the quickly-gathering storm. Having calmly looked in all directions with his experienced eyes, the crane prudently (ahead of all the others, for he has the privilege of showing his tail-feathers to his less intelligent fellows) gyrates to change the direction of the geometric figure (perhaps it is a triangle, but one cannot see the third side which these curious birds of passage form in space) either to port or to starboard, like a skilled captain, uttering as he does so his vigilant cry, like that of a melancholy sentry, to repulse the common enemy. Then, manoeuvring with wings which seem no bigger than a startling’s, because he is no fool, he takes another philosophic and surer line of flight.

Loplop, Superior of Birds

Loplop
Loplop Introduces Loplop-Max Ernst 1930

The German Surrealist Max Ernst was one of the most outstanding artists and personalities of the Surrealist movement. Notable for the invention of a number of automatic artistic techniques, his body of work is also remarkable for its creation of a densely rich personal mythology.

Central to that mythology is Ernst’s alter ego, Loplop, Superior of Birds. As I noted in my previous post A Week of Max Ernst: Monday, Ernst wrote that he hatched from an egg which his mother had laid in an eagle’s nest. He traced the figure of Loplop to a traumatic childhood event: his beloved pet bird had died on the same day that his younger sister was born and he consequently conflated the two events to the point that he confused birds with humans.

As well as referencing Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Ernst, whose art is drenched in alchemy and esotericism, would surely have been familiar with the idea of the language of the birds; the perfect, divine language found in mythology and the occult sciences that can only be understood by the initiated.

Loplop first appeared  in his ground-breaking collage novels La Femme 100 Têtes  and Une semaine de bonté. Birds are a recurring feature in Ernst’s artwork in various media (see A Week of Max Ernst: TuesdayA Week of Max Ernst: Thursday & A Week of Max Ernst: Friday). I have also included a photo of Ernst’s striking, and it has to be admitted, birdlike visage.

Loplop and the Mouse's Horoscope
Loplop and the Mouse’s Horoscope-1929
Loplop et la Belle Jardinière-Max Ernst, 1929
Loplop et la Belle Jardinière= Max Ernst, 1929
Une Semaine de Bonté, Max Ernst, 1934
Une Semaine de Bonté, Max Ernst, 1934
Une semaine de bonté-Max Ernst 1934
Une semaine de bonté-Max Ernst 1934
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Birds also Birds, Fish Snake and Scarecrow-Max Ernst 1921
La colombe avait raison,-Max Ernst 1926
La colombe avait raison,-Max Ernst 1926
Max Ernst-Man Ray 1934
Max Ernst-Man Ray 1934

A Promise of Paradise

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A Promise of Paradise 2017

(This is an old story of mine so I was delighted when my good continental friend blackpenart, sent me the above illustration inspired by the story, the first of a series hopefully.)

I.

Sara was sickening for something. Every day Alex had noticed that she was a little more drawn, a little more drained. Upon awakening he saw that her pale skin was flushed with fever. He felt her forehead and nudged Sara awake.

“You‟re burning up baby,” he whispered.

“I know, I don’t feel so good,” she replied drowsily. Her breathing was a ragged gasp, sweet with distemper.

“I should really get you to a doctor,” Alex suggested.

“I don’t have a doctor down here. The only doctor I know is the family doctor back home. I have never really needed one, apart from my bout of anaemia.”

“Well I think you need one now Sara, I’m worried about you. Don’t they have to take you on as a patient if you turn up at the practice?”

“Not sure about that really. Look it isn’t that serious, just a touch of the flu. A couple of days in bed will see me right. Besides, I hate doctors, they give me the creeps. The only person I want examining me is you, Alex.”

Alex felt that Sara was deluding herself as to the extent of her illness but was relieved at the same time that she didn’t want to see a doctor. He shared her aversion to the medical profession; found their probing of orifices and suggestive personal questioning highly intrusive. He doubted if there was a career more suited to people who held a deep-seated grudge against the human race. Continue reading

H.M The King of Cats

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Balthus-The King of Cats 1935
On a trip to Rome I  visited the Balthus retrospective at the Scuderie del Quirinale. Although frequently included in books on Surrealism, Balthus was never affiliated with the Surrealists. However as an art world insider he was friends with several prominent figures including the sculptor  Giacometti and the writers Artaud and Bataille. More importantly he shared with Surrealism a preoccupation with the oneiric state and the same literary influences,  particularly  Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

The exhibition includes the 14 remarkable ink illustrations for Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte’s classic  was much admired by Bataille and Bunuel, who filmed his own idiosyncratic version set in Colonial Mexico as well as quoting the novel at length in his excellent autobiography My Last Sigh. It is not hard to see why the novels would appeal to the Surrealists with its tempestuous romanticism and its insistence on the primacy of childhood and nature against civilisation and maturity. And, of course, it is the culmination and pinnacle of the Gothic novel which Breton placed above all other literature in the Manifestos. Balthus perfectly captures the intense and sombre atmosphere of the novel which he clearly identified closely with as his Heathcliff is also a self-portrait.

The influence of Alice is even more marked. The exhibition includes several witty anthropomorphic drawings and absurdist caricatures that show the influence of both Tenniel’s illustrations and the Alice books. However it is the unsettling, decidedly ambiguous paintings of young girls often sleeping and frequently observed by slyly inscrutable cats that spanned his career that show the depth of the fixation with Alice. In 1933 Balthus painted Alice Dans le miroir and a quarter of a century later he returned to Alice to paint Golden Afternoon.

Balthus paintings have aroused considerable controversy for their subject matter and its not hard to see why. A previous exhibition was titled Cats and Girls and that neatly sums up his twin obsessions. However saccharine sounding there is nothing cutesy about Balthus eerily frozen and silent domestic universe. The knowing cats, that together with the very young girls that populate his paintings  appear to be stand ins for the artist; after all he was the self proclaimed King of Cats, therefore placing himself squarely within the frame of his paintings, adding a further disturbing voyeuristic subtext.

Mitsou-Balthus
Balthus-Mitsou
Wuthering Heights-Balthus
Wuthering Heights
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Balthus-Girl Asleep
Therese Dreaming-Balthus
Balthus-Therese Dreaming
Balthus-The Cat in the Mirror
Balthus-The Cat in the Mirror

Tyger Tyger

The Tyger, written and illustrated by William Blake
The Tyger-Written and Illustrated by William Blake from Songs of Experience 1794

The Tyger which was first published in 1794 in  William Blake’s Songs of Experience  was later merged with Blake’s previous collection of 1789 Songs of Innocence as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. As with all of Blake’s work it was illuminated and printed by himself.

The Tyger is probably the most famous of Blake’s poems and justifiably so. It is a magical distillation of Blake’s major themes and metaphysics in a short poem of six, four line stanzas with a miraculous melding of form and content. It is in my opinion, the one poem in English literature that comes closest to achieving absolute perfection.

At the time of writing tigers would still have possessed a near mythical status. It is possible that Blake may have seen a tiger cub that was exhibited in a travelling rarity show, hence the childlike and rather cuddly tiger depicted in the plate. The poem is a different matter altogether though. The beauty and the ferocity of the Tyger prompt Blake to question the idea of a benevolent God and leads to a vision of the sublime.

Blake’s Tyger is a Platonic Ideal Form which explains the idiosyncratic spelling. The poem opens with a reiteration, pointing towards the symmetry which plays such an important part in the poem. The rest of the line and the next highlights the duality of the Tyger, who shines with the intensity of the sun (blazing bright) and its nocturnal nature (in the forest of the night). The following couplet that completes the stanza asks what kind of creator could fashion such a violently amoral animal, a question that is reiterated with greater force in the fifth stanza when Blake wonders, Did he who made the Lamb make thee? . The Tyger companion piece in Songs of Innocence  is The Lamb, an animal that has obvious connotations to Christ. The sixth and final stanza repeats the opening stanza with one important difference, dare replaces could in frame thy fearful symmetry.

Blake developed his own personal mythology and his view of God the Creator was idiosyncratic and complicated to say the least. He equated the Old Testament Jehovah with the Gnostic demiurge whom he called variously Urizen and Nobodaddy in his writing. The Ancients of Days is his most famous artistic representation of the Divine Architect of the material universe.

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William Blake-The Ancient of Days 1794

Soul on Fire

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Self-Portrait, Spanish Influenza-Edvard Munch 1919

At beginning of 1919, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (see Madonna) who painted one of the most famous paintings of all time, 1893’s The Scream, became seriously  ill with the Spanish Influenza that had already claimed the lives of millions across the world.

Munch painted hundreds of self-portraits throughout his career, most notable are Self-Portrait with Burning Cigarette from 1895 and 1903’s startling Self-Portrait in Hell (see below). Munch’s art which encompassed Symbolism and paved the way for Expressionism, brought a new and unprecedented focus on subjectivity and psychological states, naturally found raw material in the unflinching and  dramatic presentation of the diseased and tormented self.

Self-Portrait, Spanish Influenza,  though of a later period, is no exception in its neurotic intensity. The jarring colours are suggestive of sickness and trauma and Munch’s sallow mask-like face seems to be staring straight at death.

Munch would survive the Spanish Influenza, dying in 1944 at the age of 80. His paintings and prints retain an evocative urgency in their depiction of the universal states of anguish, illness, sexual anxiety and the dissolution of the body.

 

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Self Portrait with Burning Cigarette-1895
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Self Portrait in Hell 1903

The Pleasure Dome

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Patten Wilson 1898-Xanadu
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the leading figures of the first generation of English Romantics writers, along with Wordsworth and William Blake. An influential critic he was first to advance the idea of ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ as a necessary component for the aesthetic enjoyment of certain types of art and literature. He was also injected the heady idealism of German Romanticism to British literature. However his best remembered for two extraordinary poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the fragmentary Kubla Khan.

Subtitled A Vision in a DreamKubla Khan is perhaps as well known for the manner of its composition as the actual poem. Coleridge relates in the introductory preface that after falling into an opium induced sleep while reading a book about Kubla Khan he experienced a astonishingly vivid dream that formed into a entire poem of about two or three hundred lines. Upon awaking the poem he retained the lines and set about writing them down exactly as is. After he completed 54 lines he was interrupted ‘by a person from Porlock’ (a nearby village in Somerset) who wished to discuss some unspecified business. Upon his return to his desk Coleridge discovered that the vision and the poem had disappeared, never to be recaptured.

Given the manner of composition, it is  hard not to see Kubla Khan with its lushly sensual and opiated imagery  as a proto-surrealist work. It certainly seems to prestige the darker strains of romanticism that would dominate as the 19th Century progressed.

Kenneth Anger’s cult movie Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome(clip included in the link) is obviously inspired by Coleridge, and one version that was screened on German TV in fact included a recitation of the poem at the start of the movie. This baroque psychedelic (and very camp) movie is a re-creation of Crowleyite ceremony that involves Anger, The Scarlet Woman herself Marjorie Cameron, Curtis Harrington and other members of the LA occult scene getting off their tits whilst on acid. Oh and for some inexplicable reason Anais Nin sports a birdcage as headgear.

Kubla Khan

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

S.T Coleridge 1816

The Entry

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Christ Entry into Brussels in 1889-James Ensor 1888
The Belgian Symbolist James Ensor macabre vision of the Second Coming, 1888’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 is generally considered his masterpiece and with its densely crowded canvas, vivid use of colour and grotesque caricatures clearly pointed the way towards a new art: Expressionism.

With all the distorted clarity of a nightmare Ensor portrays a  heaving mob that includes skeletons, clowns and masked figures drunkenly await the entrance of the Messiah. Several banners line the processional route, however the leering faces in the foreground suggest that Christ’s entry will not be a triumphant one but will turn into a second Calvary.

To the Dreamers, To the Deriders

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Retrato de Roma-Oscar Dominguez
Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the writer of my favourite world-weary bon mot, ‘Living? Our servants will do that for us.’ was, as the name and quote suggests, of impeccable aristocratic lineage: the family name that Mathias (as he was known informally) so proudly bore had been ennobled for at least eight centuries and had included a Grand Marshall of France and the founder of the Order of the Knights of Malta. However the Revolution and his father’s madcap get rich quick schemes had emptied the families coffers. His relatives decided that Mathias was the one to restore the lustre and fortune to the line with his writings and by marrying a rich heiress.

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of his genius and his other-worldliness neither plan came to fruition. For his friend Stephen Mallarme, Villiers was, ‘The man who never was, save in his dreams’, and as Villiers himself comments in his mighty Symbolist drama Axel, that he existed merely ‘out of politeness’. His trip to London to woo a wealthy English lady was an unmitigated disaster; he borrowed heavily to pay for the boat over and a set of outlandish clothes only for her to quickly flee Covent Garden when faced with the over ardent declarations of eternal love from the strange foreign gentleman.

His writing showed a complete and utter disregard for the commercial market. He achieved some recognition with his collection Contes Cruel and he was certainly possessed some influential friends, as well as Mallarme, Villiers could count Baudelaire, Wagner, Leon Bloy and Huysmans as close personal acquaintances. It wasn’t enough however, even when he secured a commission his savage satirical edge meant that no further work was forthcoming for a long while. His astounding early science fiction novel L’eve future, was serialised and then dropped midway by two different newspapers. One wonders what the readers thought of its dizzying imaginative leaps, its jaw-dropping virulent misogyny that dissects the female form body part by body part to illustrate its inherent flaws and how man can improve on nature to create the perfect woman,and the dense imagery culled from many varied disciplines including but not limited to; the Bible, Hermeticism, Cabbala, medicine, anatomy, psychology and science.

After the death of his aunt who had kept him somewhat afloat Villiers found himself penniless, a state that was to continue without remittance until his death at 51. Frequently homeless and always hungry his fierce pride refused any offers of assistance. One winter he slept on a construction site only to find one early morning a watchman’s boot grounding down on his face. He worked for a time as a sparring partner at a boxing gymnasium, basically being a human punching bag for sixty francs a month. Four days before his death he married the mother of his only child, an illiterate charwoman. On his deathbed, Villiers, a devout though frequently heretical Catholic was busying preparing his lawsuit against God.