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EXCERPTS | PAUL HORSFALL

Faint in Soft Fire

(The opening chapters of a novel-in-progress.
Whose protagonist, too, is busy forging something . . . )


PROLEGOMENON

There is a moment, just before striking the match, when it seems to me my touchpaper is the most beautiful blue in all the world, more beautiful than a summer sky, the secret of a bruise, or the eyes of a newborn babe; and in the surging emotion of that moment I am carried away, far from friends and home, like a character in an old mythology.

I know what my friend Archie would say.

“Blimey, Charlie! What sort of a beginning is that? Too much of a mouthful, if you ask me. Stop your moaning and whingeing. This is no time for stagefright. There is only one thing a master of fireworks needs to know before a performance: Start with a bang and end with a bigger bang.”

Good advice from my round-eyed friend Archie, connoisseur of stories and pyrotechnical displays alike. Archie is Greek and his real name is unpronounceable. Like all the Greeks I have met he is both practical and philosophical at the same time. What is good for a fireworks show, he always says, is good for a story, too. If he were here he would wink at his two brothers, whom I can easily imagine have likewise left their tools behind and drawn up close to watch and listen. Across the field from where I have set up the fireworks, back inside the workshop, the forge is quiet; I do not want any accidents now. There will be others here too. I can bring them all together, if I like. It is better if I have an audience, after all.

“You must remember that you are a showman,” I can hear Archie saying, warming to his subject, “an inflamer of passions. You are the keeper of the flame.” And even as he is saying it he will point to the box of matches sitting like an anachronism among the many switches on the electronic panel that will actually ignite and coordinate the display. He will scoop up the box and toss it to me. “The instrument of creation is in your hands. Now, begin your story and build for us a landscape shaped by human fire and manmade thunder.”

Then he will smile at me, as though he does not realise he has just told me to suck the philosopher’s egg.

My spectral Archie is right, of course. But I wanted to start this way, before the show begins and there is no going back, so that it would help you form your opinion about me. I wanted you to know that things are not always as they seem and that often inside the rough body of a tradesman cowers the soul of a poet. In particular I wanted you to know that I am not a violent man even though I feel things very deeply. And something else, I didn’t want you to think that all the fireworks in my life were the result of blows to the head dealt to me by the creature who was or was not my father. And if I occasionally see stars where there are none to be seen, or start at explosions that no-one else can hear, well, I ask you to accept that a creative imagination can be forged just as easily in the workshop as in the university coffee-shop.

So be it. Start with a bang and end with a bigger bang. I have no doubt Archie would want me to fill the space in between, as well, with colour and spectacle. My Greek friend likes his entertainment to be of the dazzling variety. He does not care if the story fizzes about like a whizz gig so long as it also deafens him, blinds him, frightens him and makes him cry out with surprise. For my benefit he has become a child once more. And for his benefit, I will do the same.

It is almost fully dark now and my audience awaits. There is no moon tonight, which is important for another reason, since it is unlucky to point at the moon and I do not want to court ill fortune by aiming my firework fingers at the wrong culprit. Saint Augustine might not approve of our pagan celebration but with or without his blessing the show must go on. The signs are otherwise propitious, the machines and temples are in place and all is in readiness. I cannot put it off any longer.

So gather round. The festivities are about to begin. The fireworks will light up the sky and it will be like a tale told among friends, the story of a life. I will gather them about, all the men and women of my days, the old and the young, so that they can play their parts, they will be my audience and more. Do not be distracted by the tears in my eyes. My touchpaper is always blue but I am a Green Man: I know a thing or two about putting on a good show.


A FALL FROM GRACE

Not long after I was born, so my aunt Hester delighted in telling me, the maternity nurse who brought me to my mother’s room for my first feed took one look at me and muttered something as she bent to pass me to my mother.

“He’s no oil painting, that’s for sure.”

No doubt she meant it as a joke, or as her way of breaking the tension of the long time my mother had spent in the hospital labour ward. Or perhaps the sight of my bruised and puffy face glaring at her from between the folds of the towel unnerved her. She was young and still new to her profession. She smiled as she leant over June Eisenhuth and made to hand the baby to her.

Something in my mother’s expression made the nurse hesitate. June Eisenhuth snatched the baby from her, all the same. Then, I am told, she got up from her bed and carried me across the room to the balcony. Without pausing, she threw me over the railing into the open air.

I have been falling ever since.

This is where my tale begins. Not with the striking of a match, nor with the promise of pyrotechnics. The real fireworks will come later, when there will be time between explosions to speak of thefts and infidelities and mechanical toys and things of beauty made from powder and metal. But for now I am tripped up in my story. As usual I am headed on a downward path. Once I begin to fall I am caught in a nostalgia so powerful there is nothing I can do but wait until the earth looms to bring it to a halt. I may land on my feet or upon my face—it wouldn’t be the first time. And there is no way of telling how long my digression will last. I have been known to fall for days at a time. I have spent a lot of time falling. It is another thing I know a little bit about.

That first airborne journey. There isn’t a firework in the world that can do justice to it. And because I am still far too young to face my mother with my demand for an explanation I am forced to turn to another witness to these events, one of the four other women in the hospital ward at the time. I am speaking, of course, of my indefatigable aunt Hester, protector of the family, guardian of the settled home, lover of all things warm. My aunt had been at the hospital all through the birth, although like the nurse she had only just entered the ward a moment before. She had spent the previous twenty hours in a waiting room together with a string of anxious fathers-to-be and two shifts of nurses while she waited for her sister to bear her first child.

“I’ve never seen the like of it, before or since,” she recalled over a pot of tea, many years later. As usual, her chair was pushed up close to the fireplace, so close that the fabric on one side of the armchair was brown and singed from the flames. “I would never have believed your mother could do something like that. She plucked you out of the nurse’s arms and strode out onto the third-floor balcony. She didn’t say a word. She just walked straight to the verandah and tossed you over the railing. Every woman in that ward gasped at the same moment. I felt the pain of it in my own womb, a sudden pang as if I was the one who had just had a baby.

COOLTURE | When Actors Go Mental

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