[A sample chapter from my book “Reluctant Angels”]
Homesick snores and the scent of starched, overclean sheets invaded Nathan’s senses every night. It was like a cacophony of lost little piglets restlessly seeking their mummies across the dark, so they could suckle and receive comfort in the wilderness. The dormitory was entirely dark except for a dully lit sign over a door in one corner saying “FIRE EXIT” (though the door was always locked). The bulb behind the “F” had never worked for as long as Nathan could remember; so, in fact, it said “IRE EXIT”, which he found most amusing, in view of all the combative and often bullying behaviour he witnessed every day throughout the establishment, whether from teachers, pupils or other staff — but not from the gardener, Mister Jasper, as he was called (for all non-teaching staff, like servants in colonial times, were known only by their first names, preceded by “Mister” or “Miss”. His full name, in fact, was Jasper Burrows). Nathan had a special and formative relationship with Mister Jasper [as will be revealed in greater detail in a later chapter], whom everyone thought to be “simple” but who Nathan recognised as a fountain of quiet genius. On one occasion, as his father was driving him back to the school after a weekend away, Nathan had pointed out to him Mister Jasper, who was working among the rhododendron bushes at one side of the entry drive.
“Look! There he is! That’s Mister Jasper!” said the boy excitedly.
His father glanced briefly at the man and remarked: “He looks a bit of a clump” (which was his father’s word for a simpleton or mentally retarded human). Nathan flashed a look of anger at him but said nothing. When the car stopped, he grabbed his bag, dashed out of the door and disappeared into the school without a glance or a goodbye. Ignorance needs no confirmation or acknowledgement.
Returning to the saga of the “FIRE EXIT” with the non-existent “F”, Nathan had once remarked to the housemaster — who waddled like an outsize duck due to the size of his posterior from being too sedentary, yet also had the face of a horse (he even seemed to neigh before he spoke, as a kind of speech impediment) — that if only everyone in the school would pass through that door marked “IRE EXIT” then peace would prevail throughout the institution. At which he looked at Nathan quizzically over his pince-nez spectacles, as though he thought the boy was mad.
At this point — before we scale the heights of The Gazebo — it would be fruitful to delve a little into this notion of Nathan’s “madness”. He would be the first to admit that he was mad (even at that time), though not in the way in which the housemaster thought of it. Nathan knew he was mad and had known it from as early as he was able to assemble concrete thoughts in his brain — even before he knew the word itself. Eventually, he had come to terms with his “madness” and was happy with it. But it hadn’t always been like that. For many years, he wrestled with the thought that sanity was not and never would be his. Later he came to be relieved that it wasn’t.
When lying on his back as an infant while scrutinizing the parents faces, he would wonder who on earth they were and why he was continually being messed around with by them. The presence of their incongruous faces in front of him kindled sensations which, in hindsight, he interpreted as “madness”. The father wore thick glasses which exaggerated the size of his eyes, giving him a fishlike appearance. The whites of his eyes were always bloodshot (due to a permanent over-intake of alcohol), which magnified the effect, as if some monstrous visage was gawping down at him. The mother had an overslung jaw and eyes which seemed, to Nathan, to be empty; so that on the rare occasion when she smiled she had the look of a hollowed-out Halloween pumpkin — not a pretty sight for an infant to behold. The boy just wanted to be left alone and despised his dependence on them. It led to a repeated urge for flight which had first established itself during the rocky journey through his stressed-out real mother’s birth-canal. Resentful to be pregnant and then giving birth, she had resisted nature and Nathan was trapped in the middle. He imagined that his adoptive mother wouldn’t even have a birth canal; and, if she did, it would be even more hazardous than the one through which he had initially travelled.
Later in his infancy, he would survey the throng in the posh nursery he attended and marvel at the behaviour of so many — always fighting, snatching, sulking, wrestling over a toy, wailing, dribbling, pissing, shitting and vomiting everywhere, refusing to share, becoming purple-faced and abusive if they didn’t get their own way. Such comportment puzzled Nathan. The word he used to describe it was “grinksum”.
“Why don’t you play with the nice children?” an assistant would ask.
“They’re grinksum”, he replied, with a look of extreme distaste.
“Now what does that mean”, said the assistant, tapping Nathan on the nose to emphasise each syllable, with the accent on “mean”.
“Why do you always have to be different?” She went on, with a scrunched-up face that was supposed to speak down to his childhood but only increased her ugliness. Those words had ricocheted around his head ever since. Why was it such an affront to be “different”? Why should everyone be the same? Some thought him to be “mad”; but for him to be different was the equivalent of sanity. It seemed as if people were unable to detect the small phonetic difference between the words “same” and “sane”.
The appearance of the nursery assistant intimidated Nathan. Not only was she an intrinsically unsympathetic soul but her face had a continual look of unexpressed anger — as if she was painfully holding on to an epic fart. What disturbed him the most was the oozing spots on her face and neck, which meant that yellow pus would regularly be smeared across her white shirt collar like mustard on a serviette. There was one day on which he found himself feeling sorry for her. She looked weak and vulnerable and the repressed anger had turned into a quiet sense of gloom and wretchedness. That continued for several days following, after which she was replaced by another assistant.
Nathan observed her demeanour — as he did everyone’s. On one of those several days when she had appeared downcast, Nathan edged his way alongside her and held her hand. She looked down at this little scrap of a boy and tears came in her eyes. He smiled at her and, on seeing the purity of his smile, one of her tears rolled down onto his cheek, at which she burst wholly into tears and ran out of the room with her hand over her mouth. He looked at the other assistant to see her reaction. But all she did was shake her head, roll her eyes upwards and turn up the corner of her mouth disdainfully, while tapping her head with the index finger of her right hand. Nathan later discovered that the assistant had been taken into a hospital to mend her mind after breaking down — as he thought, like a car — due to the fact that she had been bullied by other staff and even strangers because of her acne and general frumply unattractiveness. He felt guilty that he had harboured bad thoughts about her and wondered if he had in some way contributed to her breakdown. When he was alone, he fell to his knees and prayed aloud for forgiveness.
On only two other occasions in his childhood had Nathan fallen to his knees and prayed. One was when he had shot a Starling with a .22 air rifle at twelve years old and watched its limp body fall from the chimney stack to the ground next to him. He was so mortified — and had even felt the deadly horror of complete alienation from nature — that he immediately went into the woods and not only buried the body with ceremony but he also buried the gun deeply, next to it, in a place where it would never be found nor would it be used again. It must be lying there in all its rotten rusty glory, alongside the bird skeleton, to this day. Even now, Nathan alone in this world knows where that gun is buried; though he has never returned there. At the time, he told a lie to his parents when they asked him where the gun was (as they had bought it for him on his twelfth birthday). He said it had been stolen. In a sense, this wasn’t a total lie as, in his heart, he believed that the gun had thankfully been stolen by the earth from his bloody hands to absolve his guilt. ‘If there is a hell, I will go there for this act alone,’ he thought. He continued to believe that throughout his life.
The other occasion when he had fallen to his knees and prayed was in the middle of a night when he was running down the street near his home in his pyjamas at around ten years old, seized with fear, convinced he was about to die, short of breath and his head in the grip of a dizziness which made it spin. He staggered to the nearby park, climbed over the gate and, having fallen to his knees, he threw his arms in the air and wailed these words towards the sky:
“I don’t mind if you want me back. You can have me back whenever you want. But I’ve got a football game on Saturday. Please can you wait till after that?”
No answer came in words. But he didn’t die before the game. Neither did he die immediately after it — though that entire experience left him with a deeply-rooted scar.
When Nathan reached his teenage years, he had a much more clearly defined idea of his madness, which by then he realised was, in fact, sanity. He came to that conclusion one day while lying on his back at the top of one of the school’s stranger buildings, known as The Gazebo, looking at the stars. He thought if the stars that he was seeing could no longer be there anymore because of the huge amount of time needed for the light to travel to his eyes right there and then, the same could also be true in terms of his own hologrammic existence. If his body was just a mass of vibrating energy rather than the illusory solid matter with which it disguised itself on an everyday basis, he realised that he no longer existed for anyone else very shortly in the future. He was a fleeting aberration on the spiky continuum of time. ‘I’m already as good as dead’ was the thought in his head. In the instant that he felt the triumphant frisson of his own non-existence, a feeling washed over him which he thought could have been either sanity or insanity, or both. Whichever one it was, it made him chortle with glee at the audacity of it all. From then on, he knew that insanity is clinging on to what is not; and that sanity is letting go of it.
For him, madness was not fitting in anywhere, feeling like a hexagonal peg in a dark-matter hole — believing oneself to be either an alien being from another world or, as he had often surmised, somehow not fully incarnated; as if stuck in the limbo of some infernal cosmic birth canal with his feet breech-birthedly poking out of a love-juiced vagina into the earthen air of a parallel world. For Nathan, even at his tender age, believed that if one wasn’t mad then one wasn’t alive. Sanity was deadness. He knew this with all his heart. Madness, like the moon and its pale aghastly face, reflects the sadness of the sun at being unable to prevent death. That same face he had seen on a bridge in a picture called “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. Insanity. The moon’s face on a bridge to nothingness. The craziness of clinging on to what cannot be — even clinging on to life, as if that could be possible! All genuine insanity is rooted in the fear of death (the corollary of clinging onto life); but we live as though this is not true — clutching onto an imaginary life dreamed down a funnel called Time, as if it all was so. The futility of grasping onto ectoplasmic matter. Therein lies the madness of the world.
Every night, at some unearthly hour, Nathan would arise from his bed, put on his dressing-gown and slippers, leave the dormitory, tiptoe down the corridor, go downstairs and let himself out through a window which was never locked. The window-sill was about eight feet from the ground, so he had to dangle from the sill with his fingertips and jump to the soft earth beneath. He had done this, whatever the weather, almost every night for two and a half years. Some nights, when the Moon was new, he had to edge his way through the pitch-blackness. There were nights in Winter when his destination had been covered in ice. There were Springs when Robins had nested there. There were Summers when bats had roosted there.
The place to which he would go was The Gazebo. This was a small cubic castle-like edifice — which some called a “folly” — on some raised ground about a hundred yards from the main building of the school, by the beach, with the vastness of the sea stretched out in front of it. Some nights, the sea was as quiet as a millpond. Other nights, it was magnificently turbulent with waves crashing to within a short distance of The Gazebo. Those were the nights which Nathan loved the best.
He had tried to discover the etymology of the word “gazebo” but that proved inconclusive. He couldn’t decide which was the more credible: A Latin future tense rendering of the word “gaze”, so that it becomes “I will gaze”, or the derivative of an unknown oriental word. Its lack of a definitive genealogy reminded him of his own unknown origins. That was another reason why he felt at home there. The two of them as disjointed misfits — both were follies of the highest order.
The Gazebo was locked. This was school folklore. No point in trying the door. It was locked. Everybody knew this, so nobody went there. “It’s a folly and a pretty useless one at that”, a boy had said to him once. However, as Nathan had discovered two and a half years earlier, the Gazebo door was not locked at all. When he had first tried to open it, the door would not give. Then, when he pushed on it with all his might, it had edged itself open bit by bit. On leaving, he always closed it tight shut so that no one would notice there had been a visitor and it would therefore be assumed that the Gazebo door was locked. Indeed, it was known to be so!
Readers may wonder, at this point, if Nathan had ever been caught at The Gazebo or found to be missing from the dormitory. The answer to both of those queries is “No”. Firstly, he had perfected the art of making his bed appear to be occupied. Secondly, he always returned to the dormitory at around 3am, having usually arrived there after awaking around midnight, as he did almost every night, if the coast was clear. However, there was an occasion when he was caught in a corridor in his pyjamas and dressing gown by a teacher who was returning from a late-night party. Fortunately for Nathan, the teacher was drunk and the boy pretended he had been startled while sleepwalking and the incident was soon forgotten. Unsurprisingly, sleepwalking was extremely prevalent in the school. So many children were disturbed at being abandoned in a cold, combative and competitive institution, with none of the featherbed softness of a female presence to make up for the maternal deprivation and hormonal surge of boys passing from childhood to adolescence.
Every night that Nathan ascended the nineteen steps on the stone staircase up to the entrance of The Gazebo, he felt as if he was some ancient high-priest mounting the stairway to a temple. The edifice had come to have strongly spiritual connotations for him and a staircase seemed fitting to that impression. Inside The Gazebo itself was an open space with a parapet, to which there ascended another stone staircase. On countless nights Nathan had lain on that parapet staring at the night sky, identifying the stars and planets by name, singing quietly to himself, writing letters and poems in his head and sometimes laughingly wishing he was dead. This evoked a giddiness in him which was akin to madness. It was for this reason that he had to come to this hallowed space every night. For it compensated for the grey, ‘sane’ claustrophobia of being stuck in an iron-fisted institution, the chief virtues of which were slavery, snobbery, sadism, autocracy, lovelessness, famine and paedophilia — all masquerading as educational bonhomie in “an excitingly formative community”, as it said in the school’s brochure which was given to all prospective pupil’s parents.
The sound of the sea — the ebbing and flowing of the tide — was like a rolling, folding glue holding everything together, in Nathan’s concept of the universe. Even when it was glasslike and calm, it still had a sound: Lapping instead of roaring. How he loved the sea! If all there was that existed was himself and the sea, that would be enough for him for a lifetime. It was like a healing balm sent from heaven to lap at the edge of a decaying institution based on false privilege, the crass notion that “Cash is King” and where “les nouveaux riches” could buy what they believed to be class for their dysfunctional children. Nathan would lie, immersed in that seasound, imagining endlessly. He imagined that he was an experiment designed by the universe to test the effects of hydrosonics on insomniac fourteen year olds. He imagined he was preparing The Gazebo — like Dr Who’s Tardis — for an imminent alien encounter. From the earliest time he became aware of extra-terrestrial beings, he had wanted to be abducted by them. Even if they were evil, he was convinced he would feel more at home with them than with his parents and relatives, the teachers and pupils at the school (but not including Mister Jasper, about which more later). He imagined he was marooned on the lifeboat of a pirate vessel, on which he had been a stowaway, which had capsized at sea after taking on too heavy a load of contraband cargo and then facing a storm. He imagined he was a Knight who had been captured by renegades and turncoats and imprisoned in a castle where he would slowly die from starvation but would not care because he had the sea and anytime he wanted he could hurl himself into its welcome undulating waterbed where he would be taken in by Sirens and Mermaids and taught the arts of underwater breathing. These, and so much more were his imaginings as he lay in The Gazebo night after night. This space was where who he was to become was made.
There was one particular night when his meanderings became more than mere imaginings. Or so it seemed to him. After allowing his mind to wander even further than it normally would, he became aware of falling away from himself — of being unable to cling onto his identity. There was the sound or feel of a wind which blew into his soul, at first like a gentle breeze, gradually morphing into a hurricane. He then had no idea who he was, as if everything had been forgotten which could be identified as him. He clung tightly to the stone parapet and felt his me-ness slipping away into a cosmic sunset dissolving into somewhere beyond the place where the sea meets the sky. A light which came from no external source then lasered its intensity into his chaotically disembodied thoughts. And from that light there came some words which would alter everything. The light was the words and the words were the light. It dazzled him and was almost too much to bear. It felt as if he was a hair’s breadth away from total annihilation; though he did not mind because (as readers will know) this was not the first time that he’d stood on the edge of a beautiful nothingness. The little piece of somethingness that was left of him had a strong urge to sing a hymn, which was not one he had sung each day in the school chapel but one which formed spontaneously on his own tongue, from his own mind. ‘O, blessed light, what is your name. You touch my soul and now I feel deliciously insane?’ At the same time, mundanely, he was wondering what would be found of him in years to come in that Gazebo if any other soul had the temerity to lean on the door as he did. It felt as if he had to bid some words to come from the light before they would. So something inside him said “Go on. Speak. Please. Tell me”. Then it came. Like a wind made out of light, a million times more noisy than a stormy sea. A weight fell on his chest. It pinned him to the ground. His breathing stopped. A multitude of images passed before him, most of which he could not identify. There were life-forms that he had never seen in any biology lesson. Then he himself was rushing like a liquid energy being squeezed through womb after womb telescopically, as if he was entering one universe after another. Everything around him was changing dramatically, though he felt somehow removed from it all, like an observer. Next he was an amoeba. Then a spermatozoon. Then an oocyte. Then a wildebeest on the Serengeti. Then a lunatic in an eighteenth century asylum near Paris. He lingered there awhile, sometimes floating about his ravaged body as it raved and wailed. Then he was child looking into a rough wooden coffin at a gaunt and pock-marked corpse. He had the feeling of having lost something so precious that it tore out his heart, as a voice behind him echoed the words “Poor little orphaned mite”. Then everything changed into a scene like Dante’s inferno. Screams from all around him pierced his soul and he felt a shriek come from his own mouth that was akin to being turned inside-out as his skin melted off his white and shiny bones which then crumbled to dust till there was nothing left of him but a shimmering idea. Faint and jaded images wafted through him like the pages of a book being turned or a vintage slide show being played on a screen. Faces, insects, objets d’art, barren planetary landscapes, a Meccano set made of an unrecognisable substance, a snowman in a liquid bubble which waved. An orphaned baby elephant. A naked burlesque dancer. Then something so immense and indescribable that it could have been the outburst which started the Universe but in reverse. Then there was nothing. Just nothing. Nothing but a flicker of self-awareness. He assumed he’d died. Then there was the voice, with the intonation of a female but in some kind of chorus with others. These were the words he heard from somewhere deep inside (or was it outside?):
“Nathan, your name was not by chance. For it is the name we gave you. For we are your mother of all mothers. Take these words into your soul. Wear them like a golden robe to shield you from all harm. For there are things that you must do; we’ll give you strength to see them through. Just be a knight and be a faithful musketeer. That is your command. We know it hurts to be alive and there’ll be times you’ll wonder how you will survive. But here’s the secret you must learn: Your strength will only ever come from weakness. The weaker you are, the stronger you will be. And only in that strength born out of weakness will you then be free to channel what we’ll give to you to do and see. We know that’s hard to understand but there will come the time when you will know this to be true. Don’t ever walk but run; that too must be your way. There will be those who will try to stop you or make you walk slowly or slower than them. But ignore them for there is no point in wasting precious time. Don’t go too fast to miss the view but enough to remain true and be faithful to your heart on this long climb. We’ve gifted you and others to see right through the cloudy layer of homemade glue which humans use to badly mend their broken dreams, their undone hearts, their worthless schemes, the fate they bring upon themselves, their crushed etheric body-parts and everything which seems to them to be of value. That gift will seem to you to be both blessing and a curse. For you will find yourself in situations which, to you, could not seem worse. But such is this descent into mere flesh. The lower the dimension, the greater is the pain. There’ll be times you’ll feel you’re out on a limb — relentlessly insane. But you will have another gift: for you will never walk alone in this. There will be more who’ll cross your path (we’ll bring to you) and you with them will work relentlessly until the time of wrath has come and hell breaks loose on earth, to cleanse the world as all things new gives birth. Lastly, we say: never be afraid. You must in no way ever be dismayed. For darkness must come wholly to the fore and show its dirty face in order to collapse in on itself and be undone. You and very many others are the light by which this battle of the aeons will be won. Be strong. Be valiant. Be as free as you can be. Persevere to the end and let your light shine through for all to see”.
When those tocsin words had stopped and the light had dimmed, the sound ceased too and Nathan gasped explosively, as if he had just been born and taken his first breath of air. He had no idea how long he had been breathless, though he suspected that it was mere seconds for what he had experienced was outside any concept of time. He lay there for a while in wonder and then began to feel his body with his hands. ‘Am I still here?’ he thought. ‘Was that my death? Is this another world I’m in?’ Above all, he asked the question ‘What was that voice which called itself “We”? Who was behind those words?’ For the first time in his life he knew that he was not alone — really knew. He felt as if every cell of his was now aflame. He knew that nothing ever now would be the same. There was a ringing in his ears like pealing bells of joy (mixed with a renegade touch of doom). On looking at the stars above he wept with love and felt his blood run amniotically through his veins and saw his heart as if it was a moist placenta in a juicy womb. The words popped into his head: ‘I’m giving birth. That’s why I’m here’, and in that instant he knew that there was nothing he should fear. As he raised himself up on his elbows he sensed a wetness under him and realised he’d urinated through his pyjamas and dressing gown onto the ground. “I’ve pissed my pants!” he laughed out loud. He wanted to laugh forever. Standing up unsteadily, he shivered in the cold dawn air. “Dawn!” he roared, then clamped his hand on his mouth. There was light on the horizon like a smile rising over the earth. He, too, now, became that smile.
Nathan retraced his steps to the main building and rushed back to his dormitory. As he shuffled down a corridor he saw a day-calendar on the wall in the half-light. He was astonished to see it set to January 1st. How could this be? For it was the middle of December. Had he undergone a timeslip in The Gazebo? In which case, this would be the middle of the holidays. He continued to the dormitory, ready to discover all the empty beds. His legs were shaking all the way like jelly, partly through the cold and wetness of his clothes and partly because of his experience. But all the beds except his were full of breathing or snoring bodies. The thought flooded through his mind that the calendar had been arranged by whatever was behind the voice to signify to him that this was a new beginning. His New Year’s Day. His birthday too. For he had been born anew.
He realised as he ran across the square why he had been drawn to that Gazebo every night. It was for such a night as this. He had no need to scarper there again. It was as if he had been in a kind of limbo until now — like he had been waiting to receive some commission from a High Command and now he knew just what he had to do. Already, the plans were hatching in his head and, before he was in his bed, he knew just what he had to do to furnish his escape from his temporary prison, the school (as we will see in the following chapter). He quietly slipped into those starched and sterile sheets, still in his urine-soaked pyjamas and dressing gown, hoping they would dry by the warmth of his body before he had to rise.
Later that afternoon in a classroom, as Nathan basked in the glow of that mysterious night, having spent the day walking on a cushion of air, he marvelled that such a drab disused little folly — a ruin among ruins (for that is how he viewed the school) — could have been the harbinger of all that lay ahead. That road still baffled him; but now there was some hope rather than the pregnant question-mark he’d previously known. He was now on a trail which could not be blocked — a mission which could never be stopped.
As he sat in the wasteland of that economics class, he gazed out of the window at the perfect sky and watched as a dark cloud grew in the distance, turning into the shape of a fist. He reassured himself that it was merely vapour and, like all dark things, would always dissolve in the presence of a far greater force — the one with which he was now indelibly connected.
© Alan Morrison, 2017