Contrary to popular belief Patrick Coyle was often sober though unquestionably happier when not. It is likely that his emotional development was slowed or arrested or even nudged into regression by the daily dosing, but his intellect seems not to have suffered too much, at least in the earlier years. While alcohol did not stop him from loving literature and conveying the reasons for that love to his students, he almost never showed up to teach when drunk, though he was frequently hung over. Sober review of work done while 'medicated' had dismayed him too many times and he regretfully reserved several hours of each day with a one-glass limit so that he might mark papers or write without ensuing embarrassment. And his product was sound, actually better in many respects than that of his seniors and superiors who after all had mostly earned their posts by political manoeuvring and clever plagiarisms rather than by hard quality work. Palachat himself had once growled, 'If they awarded professorships on merit that Irish kid would be Chairman of the Department.'
Coyle distrusted any hint of prancing coquettishness and could comfortably live through a whole day without once looking into a mirror. In all fairness it must be said that he did manage to wash when sober, but he had an unfortunate aversion to combs and razors when hung-over. On certain days he might arrive for a class or a faculty meeting in an unironed shirt, unshaven, his hair distractingly matted, his tie a paradigm of passive-aggressive negligence. He hadn't yet appreciated that Americans have never really appreciated the very British, and Irish, attitude that you can look like a derelict but if you've got a tie on, you're all right. Beards and moustaches were as common as long hair in liberal academe but the stubbly look that would later come into vogue was at that time felt to betoken alcoholism or poverty or sociopathy or all three.
Before taking his degree and crossing the ocean, Coyle had earned, along with high marks and some token grumbling over his affinity for drink, a reputation for provocation coupled oddly with a certain variable social naïveté. His early investigations had led him through some twists of modern history and into a minor academic quarrel that would develop into a bizarre attempt to reconstruct the possibly bouleversants writings of a francophone Algerian Jew of some literary talent who, under the lasting influence of his wonderfully loving and beloved tri-cultural uncle from Istanbul, had made common cause with the war-beleaguered Greeks and, under the nom de guerre Petros, had been harassing the occupying Germans by blowing up their supply convoys and ammunition stores with irritating success until he was betrayed, tortured, and executed on the day of the failed conquerors' withdrawal.
Throughout his two years in Greece 'Petros' had written poems and letters, destroyed when he was captured, but preserved in spirit by his lover, an Alexandrian Greek woman of French education who begged him daily to stop the demolitions and escape with her to safer ground and daily wept when he would refuse and plead with her to go alone. In the long intervals between pleadings and weepings, and particularly when he was away with the local andartes to reconnoitre potential targets, she lovingly translated his writings into rather good Greek katharevousa, teasing from that usually dry, ironic idiom a lively warmth and immediacy, written out in handsome neobyzantine letters with excellent waterproof ink stolen from an Italian colonel who, having been shot by Petros, had no further use for it. This learned woman, reputedly beautiful, whose name might have been Evangeline, wrapped the pages in cotton cloth and stuffed them into a sturdy woollen shepherd's bag that was presumed captured and destroyed along with Petros's French originals but was actually saved by accident when a hungry young Austrian deserter sneaked into the little village house hoping to hide himself and, unaware that others were already making use of the place, was overjoyed to find some food and a pair of stockings which he stole and then took the woollen bag as an afterthought because it seemed to smell of cheese and he hadn't time to look inside because Petros and Evangeline, if that was indeed her name, arrived so suddenly and quietly that all the miserable Kraut could manage was to roll out a back window and shuffle off over the muddy ground trembling and clutching his loot until he discovered that the bag contained no cheese but pages inked in a language he couldn't read so he left it in an olive grove where it was found by a school teacher who had been hiding nearby from the same four soldiers who had come for Petros and who actually surmised its origin but it was too late because the departing Germans had already dispatched Petros and his papers and no one ever learned what became of his Alexandrian mistress and translator though everyone acknowledged the valour, erudition, poetic talent, and unusual beauty of both in circumstances where there had been neither cosmetics nor soap for many months and only the truly beautiful might be seen as such.
Then the gods of strife, not content to have inflicted the Nazis on the Greeks, proceeded to inflict the Greeks on themselves and for a while everybody forgot everything till the Anglo tanks rolled in to crush the guerrillas and restore bitter oppressive order. In the stifling, recriminatory days that followed, the school teacher lied to the authorities so that he might be allowed to work and in the autumn of 1948 ate the best and most satisfying meals he'd had in seven years. It was then that his mind returned to the shepherd's bag and its literary contents.
The poems were imperfect, as all translated poetry is but a poor reflection of the original, but as all good translations, they echoed the best qualities of the originals, in Petros's case: wonderful understated sensuality, expansive abiding love, celebrations of freedom even by those enslaved, and potential flashes of lyrical brilliance. Some of the verses probed emotional wounds sustained by children caught in war, or merely trapped in webs of indifferent adult perfidy. Certain lines had a power to shock and awaken awareness that was not diminished by repeated readings but remained automatically in memory.
The letters were more accessible, as translated prose is generally. Glowing gems of untrammelled passion for life and love and liberty, they formed the sincere portrait of an uprooted man who delighted in the roots he found everywhere and looked as much outward to the joys of nature as inward to the bittersweet nexuses of his own nature. They spoke also of the writer's beloved maternal French language learned in a foreign place, and of his enthusiasm for the Greek he heard and wished to learn. The teacher, however, decided against evidence and reason that their source could not after all have been the gallant Algerian Israelite with the beautiful Greek girlfriend, speaking broken Greek and engaging in such dire efforts so far from home, whatever that was for him. No, the man had been too much of a warrior to be capable of such writing, or too much of a writer to be capable of such cold violence. Unless the woman, for surely it must have been she if anyone, had in translating twisted the words into the brilliant prose nodules that seemed to marry the romantic and the classic so neatly, that so enticingly revealed and told and exposed so much honest self. How could the author of these letters have been a murderer and a saboteur? A few were addressed to named persons but most bore only an initial. Some evoked an unstinting erotic devotion. Each one was a little journey either metaphysical or ironic or both, or neither but only tender and unselfish confession. Others might have been intended for anyone, even for the enemy. He reread them many times, and many times when he was not reading them would think of them waiting like hard glowing jewels in the same coarse faded red shepherd's bag where he had first found them and ritually replaced them.
It is uncertain who had possession of the papers during four years in the late 50s before they surfaced in Belgium, but whoever it was kept some marginal notes in English including a passing reference to Eisenhower. Two things became clear about these glosses: they were made by an educated person with good knowledge of languages and they made several references to a secret project of the Allies strongly suggesting that Petros's operation hadn't been entirely independent but that he had been getting money and information and perhaps explosive matériel from a certain cell and that he may have been suspected of being a double agent and that his own colleagues may have betrayed him to the Germans.
Coyle first heard of the letters from a fellow graduate student doing a dissertation on some earlier work, possibly by the same man who called himself Petros. He had found a paper by a Belgian academic purporting to prove that the letters were either forgeries or that they couldn't have been written by 'Petros', following much the same erroneous logic as the Greek school teacher: this couldn't possibly be the work of such a cold-blooded killer, a calculating saboteur. Though only five of the letters had then been published, in what his friend said were mediocre translations, Coyle, just twenty-three at the time, wrote a daring and well-reasoned attack on the Belgian that evoked a number of warrior-poets including the emperor Hadrian and carried as much weight with his degree committee as had his dissertation. In the kerfuffle that followed he found himself denounced, praised, challenged, and published in some of the more esoteric lit crit, historical, and linguistics journals, as well as one of the posher war buff mags, which had forty times the circulation of all the others combined, and was the only one that paid him anything. The poor old professor from Liège was so rattled that he posted the entire bundle, in its original now threadbare Greek shepherd's bag, to Coyle's address in Ireland without notification, certification or insurance, but he did include a nasty note to the effect of 'Very well, you offensive upstart, if you think you can do better, have at it. But when you have failed, as fail you must, honour obliges you to publish a retraction of your evil attack on me.'
Coming thus after twenty years' perilous peregrination into Coyle's hands on the eve of his departure for America, they remained for some weeks unread until the wild Irishman, now in the New World to take up his post as a Teaching Assistant, in a fit of sobriety finally opened the bundle in earnest to find some eighty distressed sheets in a fine, careful neobyzantine hand with glosses, notes, and scraps of commentary in three languages crowding the margins.
And now, like a classical philologue wishing to reconstruct fragments of lost ancient originals from surviving Arabic versions, Coyle needed help. Though not a professional classicist he had little trouble reading Plato and even Pindar, but he quickly found that the modern language was tantalizingly beyond him. Especially the spoken forms, and the manuscripts contained much dialogue rendered in demotic, presented too many changed meanings over the centuries, too many Turkish words, too many pesky diminutives, too much cute medieval syntactic gravy gumming up the sleek old gazelle of unrivalled expression. A knowledge of Cavafy might help one to understand Sophocles' language, but not vice versa it seemed. He tried to reckon the many months before he might learn it well enough to attempt a translation alone.
. . . so he employed Theo, the beautiful, heavy-thighed Hellene with her sweet, sometimes oracular alto voice, dark, moist, mischievous eyes, and almost faultless command of Greek and English. Having at the age of twelve cajoled her doubtful, second-generation father into buying not only a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but the unabridged Liddell-Scott Lexicon, and all twelve dear volumes plus supplement of the OED as well, and having flown through school on wings of precocious erudition, including winning a prestigious prize for an essay on Milton that she had had to defend against an unjust charge of plagiarism ('How could a teen-age girl possibly write with such sophistication about the 17th century?'), she was now expected to graduate magna cum and destined for law or the diplomatic corps, and was learning French with characteristic determination and élan. Coyle found satisfaction in helping her find her way into that brutal and rewarding tongue. She made such rapid progress that she could neglect her regular French classes and came to rely exclusively on him and on another TA (a bearded Parisian who was helping smooth the rough edges of her pronunciation while also meeting some of her physical needs), showing up only for her exams, which she would later pass with near-perfect scores. In exchange for Coyle's tutelage she agreed to join him in tackling the Petros papers. She was brilliant at explaining the nuances of the Greek and together they experienced the bitter-sweet joys and frustrations of those who struggle to reconstruct lost texts. 'It's like trying to put together an extinct animal.' 'Perhaps only dormant,' he said.
Identifying the author would be a modest coup in the temples of self-important academic literati. But the heart of the matter was the texts themselves: obviously composed by a singular and singularly-inspired mind, they were starkly beautiful and sincere, though of course, with two slim exceptions, the originals were surely lost. Why the Belgian professor had neglected to mention the two pages of original French remained a mystery since the venerable old man had since suffered a terminally debilitating stroke. But there they were, key, incontrovertible evidence that could be compared side by side with the Greek. The script was small and efficient, packed tightly onto the sheet. Had he been pressed for space, short of paper? But its bright, masculine character was evident, as though he had tried but failed to hide his exuberance. Coyle read and reread the lovely pages to the sound of his own involuntary sighs and oaths. For weeks he woke, sometimes in the dark hours before dawn, with phrases of Petros's two remarkable letters hanging suspended, insistent in his brain like petals of an exotic hanging vine, like coruscations of fireworks hanging in a night sky just exploded.
One of Coyle's least endearing and more unpredictable habits was an occasional dive into shallow dogmatic truculent ratiocination, animated beyond all reason by distilled spirits. One morning he met Theo at his little book-crammed apartment just off of Melrose in the days before that unhappy Avenue would become trendy, phoney, and obscenely overpriced. She knew immediately that he'd been out bending all night and that he would immediately open a beer against the attendant fatigue. He quickly drew her into a quarrel over the filioque, of all things, and she was revolted by the vain pettiness.
'Okay, fine. Και εκ του Υιού!'
'And fuck you too!'
'Are you happy?'
He thought for a moment that she might break something. Hot Mediterranean blood and all that. But she had moved to the door, where she turned on him, mafic Mediterranean overmastering felsic Hibernian eyes.
'You want to talk with me? Next time leave Savonarola and the boys outside.' And as she stepped purposefully toward the street, provocative back and buttocks balanced on those lavish thighs, and heavy tresses whipping olive shoulders, receding from him she shouted into the turbid morning air, 'Look it up, Paddy,' and was gone. The vision had engendered somewhere behind Coyle's lightly-freckled navel an unaccustomed stirring, a rising frisson, brief, briefly unnerving, and quickly dispelled with an unaccustomed Gallic shrug.
Initially she thought nothing of his sporadic homophile liaisons, dismissing them as vestiges of a puritanical boyhood involving the attentions of certain priests, and assuming without reason that he might eventually outgrow them, but his drinking disturbed her and if it had been anyone else she would have given up on him early in their association. It would be impossible to say with certainty whether it was his long, freckled fingers with their fine nails, or his arresting vocal modulations with their Kerry lilt, or the dismaying look that once or twice commandeered his eyes and caused her to think of Courbet's désespéré, but the normally practical Theo lost a measure of control by falling unrequitedly in love with the flame-haired Irishman, who after all was so little interested sexually or romantically in women that he barely noted the quality of her attention and failed to appreciate her evolving emotion, putting it down to his general irresistible appeal, to which he had grown accustomed but about which he betrayed so little concern that the very attractiveness itself was thereby piqued and magnified for men and women alike. Theo had noticed that she wasn't the only female attracted to Coyle and was mortified by the thought that she might be bested by some cute little waspy blonde with a turned up nose, pert titties, and a plastic Pepsodent smile. It might not have mattered if she hadn't entertained and then embraced the dubious notion that she was the one person best suited to lead him away from childish games and onto the high road of fulfilling adult heterosexual eros. It didn't help that he was developing a sincere collegial respect and deference that flattered and encouraged her. He found nothing repellent or personally unpleasant about her, though had he known her true feelings he would have recoiled from the idea if not the fact, while she by instinct held her natural demonstrativeness in check as her unexpressed fantasies ran rampant. She was waiting, vigilant, moist, and attentive, for the right moment, perhaps unconsciously afraid that it might not come.
Coyle now faced an exhilarating two-horned problem: he had to establish if possible the identity and history of Petros and demonstrate that the author of the texts and the saboteur were the same person. Then, most importantly, he would attempt to build a respectable version of the originals, a resurrection. A simple translation of Evangeline's Greek into French wouldn't do; such efforts had proven time and again to obscure rather than illuminate and the results could be comical. Except as a student's exercise, the notion of translating any text 'back' into the original language was faulty, even dangerous. No, working now like an archaeologist of the spirit or a pathologist obliged to dissect living tissue he would attempt a revelation. He marshalled his apparatus criticus and applied himself to the task, relying rather more than he cared to admit on Theo's brilliant collaboration. She was repeatedly able to pronounce instantly the essence of a gloss or etymon that he might or might not be able to find after an hour of thumbing through old dictionaries and supplements under a cloud of doubt. She offered other insights as well: topographic, hydrographic, historical, horticultural, culinary, sartorial, and anatomic, including, in at least one instance, recipes for improvised bombs.
'How do you know all this?'
'I'm kinda surprised you don't know. Don't you guys get this stuff with mother's milk?'
'We're not all IRA, you know.' Then he saw her smiling, teasing.
Success and publication would give Coyle academic stature and pave the way to an assistant professorship. There would be no need to publish in English, at least not at first. His status would be enhanced if his work were first mentioned in English by others, giving him a reason to self-translate. He was cautious lest some member of the dead writer's family come forward to claim possession of the manuscripts; for that matter, a member of Evangeline's family might have similar interest, though her own identity was even less certain and verifiable than Petros's. Of course, he told himself, it doesn't really matter; he had true copies to work from. But he loved the actual manuscript pages, which were worn and rubbed but on good paper that hadn't yet begun to yellow. The noble forms of the indelible ink script seemed at times to float just above the plane of the paper and hover there as though to tease the eye and by extension the mind. The two original pages in Petros's own confidently measured hand were, besides being the key to reconstructing the rest of the original texts, a perfect complement to Evangeline's elegant Greek script. How lucky to have them since they also revealed some of the translator's linguistic quirks and suggested the precise intimacy of her relation to the two languages, and thus to him and to herself. And there was that odour, so faint as to be doubtful and immediately dispersed whenever he unwrapped the packet, of stale goat cheese. He acquired the furtive habit of burying his finely-freckled face in the sheets and their worn cotton wrapper and inhaling deeply on opening them. It was unscientific and unprofessional to allow the emotional undercurrent of particular handwriting to colour the researcher's assessment of a text, but he couldn't help following his own thoughts as his mind invoked on its own accord the taste and feel of the lives attached to the hands that had formed the words on these pages.
The Belgian had missed the import of a single couplet, much retouched and emended, that could only have been a reference to the translator herself, which then illuminated three of the poems, hitherto obscure but now shown to be addressed to the beloved Alexandrian herself. Theo, who was responsible for the discovery, felt no professional constraint. 'If he cared for her as deeply as that, why wouldn't he just escape with her? They might still be alive, maybe still in love. He might've written even better stuff.' Confidence in her argument made her voice even richer. There was something appealing in her parallel impression of the very personal nature of their subjects' intimacy, and though Coyle couldn't fully share her enthusiasm for the erotic side of the relationship, he was equally fascinated by the relationship per se. When does sacrifice to a higher purpose become a betrayal, or merely a foolish act of self-delusion?
Publication of the Greek texts posed a different knot of problems and opportunities. Helped by the rising anti-war spirit, there was strong feeling against the new Greek dictatorship; if any professors in western institutions actually supported the junta, they were lying low. Financing the publication of texts related to the resistance would be no problem. But as is so often the case, a potential difficulty was in the language itself. The katharevousa, quaint, dry, and formalistic, pretending to be ancient Greek in modern dress, was long associated with the right, the church, the crown, and the army, and had been fully adopted by the new tyrants, though with few exceptions and bitter irony it was the educated leftists who best knew and could handle that cumbersome idiom. Whatever else they may have been, Petros and Evangeline were evidently neither militarist nor royalist. There was not a single direct reference to politics in any of the papers. Proposals were made, rejected, and resurrected for translation of the texts into the friendlier, more naturally eloquent and sensual everyday vernacular.
'Translation of a translation?'
'No,' said Theo, who had eschewed her baptismal 'Theodora' and its equally unsuitable cognate 'Dorothy' for the unisex disyllable thus enhancing her attractiveness and intellectual charm. 'Besides, the Greek as it is is rather good. I say leave it alone.' Intellectual intimacy, not to mention a weakness for nineteenth-century authors, had caused her to adopt certain British locutions, which irritated Coyle who wanted to adopt American speech. He was persuaded, but still exposed to inestimable risk. He might be accused of attempting retranslation 'back into the original (ha-ha!)'. Though his French was nearly flawless he might be ridiculed as a non-native speaker, or at some moment when his panoply of reference books was out of reach, any one of the many Greeks in exile might suddenly unleash on him a mortifying shower of words he as yet understood only imperfectly, or not at all. In a dream he saw the shade of the old Belgian and his still-coherent minions cackling and howling, dipping their pens into strychnine ink. He devoted many hours to composing an introduction in the form of an explanatory apology. He agonized over commas, stops, adverbs.
So, an édition bilingue was planned of the unaltered Greek texts with the proposed restitutions on facing pages, and copious annotations in French and Demotic Greek, a choice with clear political implications that would ensure controversy and thereby attract readers. The question of copyright was uncomfortably skirted. Theo was to be credited as a consultant, to which she might well have objected but now no longer cared.
Rummaging one afternoon in the musty, stingily-lit gorges of the Humanities stacks, Coyle had been horrified to discover an odd little book with uncut pages, miscatalogued among marginal works on the French resistance, entitled Un maquisard grec that appeared to tell Petros's story. Someone had beaten him to it! Ever the brave alarmist, he suppressed a stereotypical whimper by stereotypically biting his fist. But when he put the knife to it and actually read the thing he was heartened, then relieved. It was a maudlin tract in stilted, cliché-ridden French containing only one or two marginal facts of any accuracy or interest. Petros was identified as a Greek poet from Constantinople and 'Evangelia' was named as an old woman who smuggled ammunition and food to him in the folds of her shawl. The poems were described as artful paeans to the church and the motherland and their heroes. Evidently it had been contrived from patchy hearsay accounts of the local Greeks and a single page from a Wehrmacht intelligence dossier bearing more question marks than full stops. The author was given, bizarrely, as 'Alexandre Colettis, capitaine de l' EAM' and Coyle could find no other trace of him. In the end he referenced it in a deprecating footnote, but it did indicate that there must have been lively local awareness and admiration, enough to fuel action on that pliable line between gossip and legend. 'Hard to keep a secret if you are Greek.'
* 'Και εκ του Υιού!' (kai ek tou Yiou) : Greek for the Latin filioque 'and from the Son', a quibble of self-important medieval clerics that occasioned the Great Schism of 1054. Now sometimes called the μέγας παππαδοκαβγάς (the 'great priest-squabble').
Arising now and again in his thoughts was the haunting presence of dark, big-boned, coarse-haired Mary Ramirez, though the recollection was never initiated by an evocation of her bodily form. It was the rich polychrome image of one or another of her works that first leapt into his mind, often of one in particular. Talking and smoking and talking non-stop, though she would sometimes drop into focused silence when working on a piece; only then would there be balanced concentration, absorption, progress, creation. Ironically it was at such moments, when she was 'normal', that one wanted most to talk with her, to make contact, to help her, and yet to do so would interrupt her process and might send her into a spiral of uncontrolled and uncontrollable rambling word-diarrhoea, driven on by the same energy but suddenly without form or direction.
She had been a teacher of art. During her pervious stay two former students had showed up asking to see her. They were politely refused, told she was 'making progress'. None of her former colleagues appeared. Her sister, who had brought her in, would come twice a month, obviously burdened, obviously finding Mary nothing more than an additional burden in what was already an onerously burdened life. Certainly she had heard for many years that her sister was a 'gifted' artist and certainly this meant for her next to nothing. Born into an old Costa Rican-Jewish family, the artist had studied and practised in South America and taught for many years in California. Though her mother tongue was presumably Spanish she was heard to speak only English, either far too much of it or none at all.
The staff had said that a particularly interesting patient would be coming back to the hospital, and now as he crossed the gravelled walkway and entered the 'OT' or 'art handicrafts' room with its tall, venetian blinded windows, central cluster of worktables and row of locked cupboards along the back wall, G didn't know what to expect. A tall, solidly-built, brown-skinned woman was moving about impatiently, smoking continuously, and talking full-bore to other patients, to everyone, to no one in particular, in a husky but melodious voice, while intermittently but energetically stepping to an easel that held a large panel of hardboard. Bright eyes darted and danced wildly under bushy brows and short unruly salt-and-pepper mop. Modelling for her was one of the OT technicians, a pretty girl, but ineffectual despite her rather striking nut-brown eyes, whom G might later find in need of consolation after the departure of her boyfriend, an egotistic middling quasi-rock musician. The girl, not really a woman despite her twenty-six years, sat on a high stool in the faux regalia of several strings of polychrome beads that Mary had wound round her brow and hung at her temples, and a swath of brilliant red and ochre cloth draped low from shoulder to shoulder. From time to time Mary shifted her fingers to select one or another of the coloured crayons she griped like fasces in one fist. Attentive but not yet fully concentrated, she glanced from time to time at the other patients seated at the large tables, some of whom were at work on 'projects', some playing with paint or clay like young children, some just sitting. A rumpled middle-aged woman sat on the floor and hummed quietly as she arranged a little family of lumpy clay figures on the seat of a chair, which was not actually permitted but G saw no need to intervene immediately. In the room only he and Mary were on their feet. She moved easily to one and then another of the patients to make a comment, give a word of encouragement, suggest a colour, the accustomed movements of an art teacher. But she was impatient and did not linger. As her own work progressed, and it progressed rapidly, she spent more time at her easel. The onrush of barely connected words steadily abated and the hyperactive personality seemed to submerge while in its place there arose a quieter more connected self whose energy was actually more intense because now focused. Dramatic as it was this was not like a change of clothes or chamaeleon colours; it was much more eerily metamorphic. As though driven by vague fears, the eyes that had flashed with a confused flight of failed attempts to focus her thoughts, to somehow actually identify her self, now showed only purposeful, balanced effort and a confident sense of the here and now. Calm prevailed in the midst of intensity.
She divided the panel into carefully-shaped areas of different sizes bounded by black lines and placed a splotch of colour in each, stopping here and there to change a colour or to reshape one or another of the bounded areas, some of which she filled in completely with colour. The image that materialised was not after all an ordinary drawing or painting but a design for something heavier, more substantial, built up of these defined areas, dozens upon dozens of them each with its splotch of colour, filling the panel and seeming almost to extend invisibly beyond its edges. Now and again she pulled herself one giant step back from the easel and paused in motionless appraisal for a brief instant before resuming. The figure appearing under the artist's hand had little to do with the model, who was obviously being used as a prop for the jewellery, itself a prop for the artist's vision. Larger than life-size, the picture that developed was already intriguing, though this was only the first stage, only the plan. Mary, deft and light in her movements despite her heavy bones, seemed herself to grow larger as she laboured like a surgeon on a difficult case, like a pilot obliged to land in a gale. Then, pausing and lowering those dark brows, she exhaled decisively, wiped her fingers and looked around as though suddenly finding herself in unfamiliar surroundings, which caused her no apparent anxiety or distraction. She lit the latest in the day's long chain of cigarettes. The panel stood on its easel like a fantastical map of unexplored territory, like an enigmatic threat or promise.
Handfuls of coloured tiles were first dumped from their plastic bins onto the table to be selected and arranged in a kind of ragged order, little mounds of violet, brick red, black, bright vermillion, deeper and lighter yellows and oranges, brittle chrysoprase, dusky ruddle, warm honey, and ochre. The artist turned repeatedly to her panel to compare, verify or modify colours. As the quick brown fingers moved across the table top their sorting grew more specific; smaller, sparser groups formed closer at hand: scarlet, very dark grey, emerald, gleaming lemon, argent, cumquat and persimmon, ebony brown, sard, cerise, ivory, obsidian, gold.
Placement of the little tesserae was accomplished with the same smooth celerity. After trying one or two pieces up on the panel she placed the tip of an index finger at a chosen locus and holding it there, like a squadron commander fixing a target on a map of enemy territory, turned to the table to pluck a black tile from its pile. Carefully positioning the little square of black glass she replaced the finger to hold it where she wanted it and, evidently satisfied, lifted it to apply a tiny dot of cement before replacing it precisely with a final tap and pressing it for a moment with the nail of the same finger. This was her beginning, the root stone to which all the rest would be anchored. Mary worked briskly, chose each piece, tried it, applied cement, set it in place, adjusted the placement with a fingernail and a little pointed bamboo skewer, assessed, refined, tapped it home, and wiped away stray cement whilst maintaining pressure with a fingernail just long enough to ensure there would be no slipping, before turning to select the next tessera all in swift motions interrupted only by a brief pause now and again to step back and appraise. Each placement was final and irrevocable; all of her revisions had already been made and now there was no going back.
'Why doesn't she just lie it flat? It'd be much...' G silenced the now-ignored woman-girl model with an abrupt finger raised to his lips.
Crumbling worms of grey ash collected in the ashtray as each freshly-lit cigarette was forgotten, the smoker's fingers too busy to smoke. Now and again she would reach for a tool to break one of the little pieces in half or into a pointed wedge or precise little trapezoid. She did this without breaking her rhythm and without evident extra effort, squeezing with one strong hand while the other was cupped round the tile to prevent the piece she wanted from flying away as the little steel jaws snapped. Done so quickly that it seemed almost to appear of its own accord, the work was finished the following afternoon, and left intentionally ungrouted so that the more translucent tiles received light from the side and seemed thereby to glow and float just above their more opaque neighbours. What emerged was an image of such power and fascination that it would eventually cause G to revise his notion not merely of psychosis but of art. The mosaic stood on its easel in one corner of the room for many days, its hypnotic beauty drawing all but the most heavily sedated to approach and wonder, but at the same time to refrain from touching it. Doctors were rarely seen in the art room but one of them, looking in briefly from the doorway asked, 'Where did that come from?'
An exquisitely fiery portrait of what might have been a Byzantine Empress or a Late Roman whore, or both, with wide dark Fayoum eyes and unselfconscious aristocratic bearing, it was like a thing produced at some fortuitous meeting of Rouault and Van Gogh with an unnamed Greek muralist of Pompeii, and presided over by Klimt, all four of them insanely in love with the same dark, timeless Egyptian woman. The thing somehow refused to be limited or contained within the edges of its panel but suggested that its sublime subject had been isolated from brilliant surroundings, paradoxically compelling more acute attention, bringing both artist and viewer still closer to their shared eidolon. The pendant earrings alone, shimmering crimson and gold with fine undulating emerald outlines, were masterpieces surpassed only by the eyes themselves: simultaneously elusive and uncompromising, vatic and yet warmly present with striking sexual self-awareness. To look on it was to feel an eerie telescoping of time and a superseding human wisdom. If the personage pictured belonged to a time and place far removed from the here and now in which she was created and seen, the personality behind the relentless gaze of those stone eyes understood immediate predicament and desire better than the viewer did. It was at once the mad woman's moment of sanity and the sane artist's return from a blind leap into madness.
Day after day, G spent long moments gazing at it and marvelled how bits of cold coloured glass and stone could be marshalled to effect such sensual heat. The piece impressed him indelibly so that he carried it with him in detail, involuntarily evoked at any moment of the day or night, and, oddly, identified it with a vision of Gabrielle seen one day trying different Gypsy mantles before her appraising eyes in the mirror. The elaborate ear-rings, twin cascades of colour charged with female force, could not be seen or brought to mind without immediately calling up soft, bright notes struck on bells. The burning stone eyes and undulating lips preoccupied him and promised rare magic, like the mounting strains of Berlioz's L'Île inconnue, or the grin of the Cheshire Cat.
Some weeks later G removed this mosaic to take it home and place it opposite the front window where the bright light brought it to dazzling life, referring silently as he did so to the artist's exasperating habit of destroying her best pieces. It became a household goddess, a familiar whose mantic presence informed all who passed G's threshold. One needed no drug.
The medical staff room was wedged, low-ceilinged, like a poor foreign relation in among what must once have been a harmonious family of rooms now awkwardly partitioned, between a small examining room sometimes used to prep patients for ECT, and an odd-shaped little space now used as storeroom which was usually locked to the main corridor but open by its small second door to the medical staff room itself. This was normally just a lounge where the doctors spent more time smoking and drinking coffee than they did with patients, but it sometimes doubled for conferences and the monthly consults that took the place of actual rounds. Except on the day of this regular ritual convocation there might be only one doctor present at the hospital, or two or none. Either of the doors might be left ajar to allow the perpetual cloud of tobacco smoke to flow, depending on the wind direction, either out through the single small window or in through one of the adjacent rooms to the long main corridor where it mingled sociably with smoke from other prolific sources.
Given the key and sent to fetch some forgettable and probably unnecessary paper item from the storeroom, G had discovered a worn copy of The Little Prince and loitered to peruse it in the single thin slab of dim light admitted from the door to the staff room which had been left ajar, forgetting as he reread the dedication the item he'd been sent to fetch. He knew the nurses wouldn't complain; he belonged to the OT department and they weren't supposed to ask him to perform what was essentially a routine custodial task. The little room was clean and cool and smelt of industrial cardboard and stale tobacco smoke. In one corner of the floor he spied the little square discarded foil envelope of a recently extracted prophylactic, which mildly disgusted him since such items were in those days associated with returning GIs or dirty alleyways or cheap barroom toilets. Neither he nor anyone of his milieu used rubbers.
From the adjacent room he heard the doctors arriving, greeting, coughing, pouring coffee, lighting up, getting settled. All rather quickly; doctors don't waste any time. He knew the little window had been opened because smoke began to collect in the storeroom. He ought to have left, but he lingered. Though often bewildered by it, he'd always been perversely or just routinely interested in the talk of doctors and particularly of psychiatrists. The meeting was called informally to order by Dr Ellis and after cursorily mentioning several of the patients they came to Mary Ramirez:
'It's clearly a case of schizophrenia. Hallucinations, voices, dissociation. It's all there.'
'What about the mood swings? I think she's really manic-depressive. Much more on the manic side. But not hebephrenic.'
'What evidence do we have for hallucinations? Has anyone ever seen her hallucinating?'
'Evidence? Just look at her paintings!'
'The paintings are actually strong evidence for the opposite. If they indicate hallucination, then every artist is schizophrenic.'
'Actually, Dr Klein thinks that all artists might well be psychotic.'
'Do you really, Bill?'
'Well, it's only fair. Lots of artists think all psychiatrists are crazy.'
'I'm worried about her. I think we should give her a round of ECT,' Ellis's typical panacea. In the semi-darkness behind the door G involuntarily, invisibly, inaudibly nodded and snorted.
'Sure, go ahead. Bound to do her a world of good.'
'Your sarcasm is always so helpful, Jay.'
'One good turn, you know. Glad to oblige.'
'Well, we ought to do something for her.'
'Why? Is she a danger to herself or others?'
'No. But this bizarre behavior is upsetting people.'
'What's she on now?'
'Maybe consider adjusting the dose?'
'Could up her to twelve-fifty.'
'Might give her some relief from these episodes.'
'Give the staff some relief.'
Working a night shift as a nurse's aide for the extra money, G was called from the art room by the charge nurse. He had gone there ostensibly to tidy up but had stayed to read after losing himself in some brief but unmeasured moments before the transfixing mosaic, allowing its extreme beauty and foreignness to animate his thoughts. He liked the night shift and had some expectation of quiet, so the telephone bell startled him and he closed his book with a small shudder of irritation. In the receiver he could hear the notes of the piano behind the nurse's voice and now as he swiftly crossed the gravelled rain-damp way between the two buildings and approached the arched stone entry its sound became audible and grew pleasantly clearer. The nurse indicated the day-room, but it couldn't have been anywhere else. The largest room in the hospital, originally the mansion's salon with its art deco plaster details and suggestion of evenings where musicians in evening dress probably played in the soft light of candelabra, it now smelt of Windex and old carpeting. But at this moment the music filled it and somehow lifted it away from the jaws of time. It was a lovely mazurka, Chopin he thought, played with unusual sensitivity and gusto.
Some few patients were making their sleepy way down the corridor with the 2nd-floor nurse following to shoo them back upstairs to bed. G had stopped just inside the day-room archway. Mary Ramirez, in mauve floral flannel nightgown, was seated at the old upright piano, her back to the empty room, her brown bare feet on the pedals, and two cigarettes burning precariously in the ashtray atop the instrument. The mazurka rippled and pranced with delicious abandon. Now he remembered the piece: Chopin all right, and he'd never heard it played so finely except in recordings by Horowitz or Ashkenazy. Had he been anywhere else he might not have resisted an urge to step forward and dance to it. He was just conscious of Miss Leach the black night charge nurse at his elbow. She was used to being obeyed.
'C'mon. Help me get her back to bed.'
'Yes. Just let her finish.'
'Finish? She'll have the whole hospital down here in another minute.' She had spoken loudly and Mary's back stiffened but she did not turn round or miss a beat. 'She's gotta stop. Now.'
In a half-whisper G urged, 'Let's not interrupt her. It'll be easier if we let her finish.'
The nurse held up a thin syringe of pale fluid with its needle in place gleaming like a tiny bayonet. 'I'm not worried.'
'Just give her a minute. It's almost done.'
'How do you know?'
'Well, I know the piece. It's...'
'And how do you know she won't keep on playing? She could go on all night.' Miss Leach stepped up to lay an efficient hand on the piano's worn wooden keyboard cover. Her voice was parentally indulgent but unsmiling: 'Now Mary it's time to go to bed. You can play tomorrow.'
The pianist stiffened and her face hardened but she did not look up nor did she stop playing. Simultaneously G gestured toward the nurse, but his plea was to no avail and he was obliged to approach and pull the strong brown arms away from the keys, wincing as he did so in double pain. If it hurt him to force interruption of the beautiful piece before completing its beautiful course, how much more must it have hurt the artist, mad or not, to be violently broken off. As she struggled to continue she struck a final, untimely, dissonant, wrenching sforzato. Where the place had been overflowing with beauty and reckless delight, there was now in the empty hall only base grunting and puffing. He had to tussle with the woman, who was not frail or retiring when being man-handled, and to hold her while she was injected with the insidious sedative. It must have been a double dose because, as he later wrote in her chart: 'Pt. collapsed as she was being accompanied upstairs and had to be placed in a wheelchair'. He did not chart Miss Leach's muttered imprecation as she was obliged to fetch the key to the locked elevator and assist in wrestling the large limp body into the chair. Nor did he mention feeling like shit, nor his heartfelt hope that the incident wouldn't be remembered by Mary Ramirez, whose eyes the moment she was torn from the instrument had betrayed not only righteous anger but also the fierceness and confusion of her struggle with internal tumult and terror.
Tom Sears, natif du Nouveau-Mexique, a été danseur en Californie avant de s'installer en Grèce où il vit toujours. Il y a exercé plusieurs métiers, dans le domaine du théâtre surtout, a fait des mises en scène et joué dans des films, mais j'ignorais son activité d'écrivain. Il travaille depuis des années, je l'apprends aujourd'hui, à un grand ensemble romanesque, dont il a bien voulu nous confier deux extraits. Ils donnent envie de lire la suite.
It's in English, eh oui. Pour la première fois dans l'histoire de ce site !