The world awaited the tick of the geologist’s hammer. All the days and years it had kept wombed inside it, like an agate’s milky lines orbiting its crooked shiny brilliant heart, could at last come to term. The fossils started gently yawning. Meteoric stones fled back towards the stars. Riddled limestone caves were healed of vacancy. The cliffs, wrapped in a tall white blindfold, strode into the waves. And the flints at last forgave their ancient quarry. It was my father — not my true father, but the earthly impostor — who came with the hammer to rouse the mineral world to its millennium: Robert Dadd, apothecary, first curator of the Chatham and Rochester Literary and Philosophical Institution. Proprietor of the Commercial and Mathematical School. Lecturer in chemistry and geology. Preacher of the age of science and enlightenment.
I am calm today, seated silently in my grey dittoes, gazing on my vivid companions, here in the male criminal wing of the Royal Bethlehem Hospital in St George’s Fields. They’ll let you call it Bethlehem or Bethlem, but not (unless you’d be restrained again) Bedlam. Still that’s what we call it in our hearts, and how the voices in the street endlessly baptise this screaming issue. Now the chains are gone which they fastened once around our arms and legs and necks; no longer are we displayed to the eyes of the town for their edification. But this is Bedlam still, though its masters and its warders have been kind to me, I who have often been so savagely unkind to others.
Bethlehem: a place I’d visited already and even made a picture of, a watercolour, near the Greek Convent of the Nativity of Christ. It was inside these walls that I finally perfected it. Bethlehem was finished inside Bedlam. That was the trip they say cost me my sanity. Those are the words of their language. I speak a different one: it was on that journey I was swallowed by the sun, when he had removed the veils of the sky from his nakedness and glory, and claimed me as his own. My brain has scorched with his light ever since. In the desert heat inside my skull, the scorpions mate. I record the fragile lines of music that their hairy legs make as they rub together.
Italy, Greece, Turkey. In Bodrum we visited the castle of St Peter and there sketched marble fragments from the tomb of Mausolus. See how antiquity can survive through the motions of one hand and eye. By now the sun would fall out of the sky in the evening, and was buried in the sea in minutes. Thence to Lycia, Cyprus, Beirut, Syria, Palestine. In Safed an old Jew was bent almost double in the synagogue, pondering the Kabbalistic mysteries and mumbling his litanies as though the years meant nothing, as though the years were no more than grains of dust gathering on his sandals. Tribesmen surrounded us in Jericho, one with a beard so infernally black, it would have made a hundred fine stiff brushes. Our dragoman dispelled their heat with a cascade of words. From Jaffa to Alexandria we were given passage on a ship named Hecate.
Then we travelled along the Nile, as though we were the limbs of Osiris once more, waiting to be gathered up. I drew each day as Thebes grew closer, and Sir Thomas fired away at crocodiles with his long gun. Later, as we moored near the temples of Luxor, we went up on deck one night to find the crew — Egyptian and Nubian — circling the desert sand, chorusing themselves into a frenzy, while one chanted passages from the Koran. They would collapse finally under the brilliant moon, some of them foaming. The very next day the sun started to claim me for his own. Osiris. Old god, father of all newer ones. And that’s when the spirits were released to torment me.
Osiris held me in his own arms and burnt himself into my mind and body like a living brand. Sunstroke, they said. Those are the words of their language: I speak a different one. Once he had burnt away the dross that preceded him, and I had the mark of the god upon me, then the demons came to pleasure themselves, for they always follow the god about. I saw my own past, my counterfeit parentage, the years of lies, and I cut the mark from my forehead with a knife — the blotch they called a birthmark and I knew now was the devil’s footprint as he had walked over me in my cradle. Blood rose up like molten lava.
In Rome I saw at last the Pope’s true nature, and while he walked about before the abomination of St Peter’s, I fingered the knife under my cloak. God knows it was sharp enough, but there were too many guards for my mission to be accomplished. Sir Thomas came to fear me, sensing the power that is at the centre of our heavens as it shone inside me. Once I caught him out on deck, dicing with Death for my soul. Death the cold, the calculating, was showing him her white and drooping breast, and her garter glittered with the stillborn milk of pearls. I could easily have killed him then, but the time had not yet come.
How fearsome can the rage of the atoms be? My father taught chemistry like one who has unlocked the secret room, like the high priest entering the Holy of Holies. (Moses owed everything to the Egyptians. Before Yahweh ever was, Osiris is). I travelled alone back to London.
As the god commanded I lived on nothing but ale and eggs, scattering the shells about me on the floor as harbingers of life, the frail calcium walls that curve about the living genius. When they came for me, they found three hundred eggs, though this, like everything of true significance, was lost on them. Trinitarians! They wanted to lock me away but my father would not hear of it, so he took me into his own care, my father who understood above all things that understanding was forgiveness. His omnicompetent smile. I entreated him to travel with me back to Cobham, where I had first set eyes on Titian and Tintoretto, where I had seen for the first time how much paint can love flesh. And as we travelled, I beseeched him to tell me what the world was made of, and how it was constructed. He smiled the true and liberal smile of one who knows what is to be known, and started to explain things to me again, as though I might unaccountably have forgotten them — I who have never forgotten anything except the sound the tide makes when it laps the shore.
‘Remember when you were young and I told you how there was no life without fire, how Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods, how fire comes from the sun, so all life comes also from the sun? Men had sought the secret of fire through the centuries, and long long before they understood it, they knew how to make it. Men can usually do things before they understand what they are doing.
‘Air they thought an element, something indivisible into any smaller components than itself. It was the great Lavoisier who discovered it was a composite. He dispensed with the imaginary — he got rid of phlogiston. He realised that when phosphorus burned, it married the air. That was why the resulting acid was heavier than the original material before the fire. Up to that time, everyone had thought when something burned, it merely fell apart, disintegrated into bits of something simpler. Now they came to understand that when it burned, it became even more complex than before. Phosphoric acid is richer in complexity than phosphorus itself.
‘Now once we could understand oxygen, we could understand fire, for at last we were separating the world into its true colours, and we started to build up our table of the elements. Now we could read for the first time the world’s signature.’
His face had become bright by now, and I knew the source of that illumination. I know where the dead lights live. I watch them as they circle me each night. Osiris had taught me the secret of the hieroglyphs, and enough of his own tongue that I could understand him when he spoke. The demons wear masks of flesh and dress themselves in kindly laughter.
We ate at the Ship Inn that evening and I prevailed upon him to continue.
‘Imagine, Richard, the shock the world felt to learn that the four fundamental elements acknowledged since antiquity, earth, water, fire and air, were in truth all compounds. Even water, that homogeneous and transparent substance, turns out to be a compound, an invisible complexity. The scientists had to learn to separate and measure, to see water but to discover deep at the heart of it hydrogen and oxygen. And fire was a process, an intermarriage between things of a dissimilar nature, a miscegenation breeding hybrids.’
The god was angry that what he had put together in such flames of love and hatred should be divorced in this way by men with glass flasks and retorts, holding up their paltry scales to the one great eye of the sun. And the evening sun now started to settle its gold rays on my father’s affable features through the window, focussing at last. A walk outside, I suggested. Why not a gentle stroll amongst those signatures?
‘Geology is simply another way of reading the matter at hand,’ my father continued as we walked. ‘Many of the formations about here originate in the cretaceous period. The surfaces of earth are like ancient languages,’ — he actually said this, as though I still needed any further sign — ‘waiting for us to come and decode them. We are surrounded by the mute script of the inanimate world.’
Inanimate! Not a diplomatic word to use before a mighty god and his creation. I took the spring knife from my pocket and jumped upon my father. No Richard, no, he shouted, fear lighting his eyes finally with the one true flame. Their greatest disguise is kindness. The old man was stronger than I had expected, though, and protected his throat with some vigour. It was the throat I was directed to, for I had already made countless drawings of all my relatives with their throats cut, opened for the spirit to enter, but despite my clawing and my kicking and my slaps I could not release his grasp. And so, failing my instructions in this one respect, I merely stabbed and stabbed and stabbed again. Stomach, groin, breast, thigh. The blade plunged and the wounds spurted, then another patch of flesh appeared for severing, and all the time his whimpering entreaties. No, Richard, no. Arteries gushed like little crimson springs. I could smell the sweetness of his blood upon me. Then he who had tried to steal the name of father finally lay still, with no more words tripping from his tongue. The sun licked his new red trophies and fell silent too.
From thence to France, where my razor nearly did find a throat to enter. And then asylum years began. Which, they tell me, will not end, for it seems that I must leave here dressed in pinewood.
I try to explain to the doctor but he has an omnicompetent smile too, and cannot see them all around as I can. Sometimes tiny, sometimes huge. They can block out the whole sky at night or creep like bacteria with shrivelled wings into the orifices of your own body, waiting there, preparing the machines of torture. My visitations.
Intermittently the pharmacopia: they sink a rainbow in your blood and dry out for one afternoon the ceaseless grieving drizzle in your soul.
They are filing out now to the green yards but today I shall stay here. I lift this tiny brush and permit my hand to make the immense journey through the air towards the picture. Already that lady’s breasts are huge and pointing to a different purpose than the one she keeps her face for. There is a gigantic calcium deception trapped inside her bodice. Already the patriarch is half-blind with the shadows of his years. I painted so often the figures of that lost time of translation in the forest, with Oberon and Titania: so quick bright things come to confusion. They turn the witching night to tinsel for their window decorations.
The daisies’ brilliant faces are exploding into wisdom. Watch now as the fairy feller brings his axe down on the hazelnut. If he splits it the first time, how many new worlds do you think will fly out? And am I to be left here alone again to witness them?
Copyright © 2003 by Alan Wall.