Sunday, 28 March 2010

Alchemy or Letters to my sister Gwyneth

4th March 1272
My dear sister Gwyneth,
I have now started my indentures with Master Roger Bacon. I will be forever grateful to father for arranging my place with him. We are so lucky that they knew each other knew each other in Somerset so many years ago. Already I have been set tasks to gather herbs, grind them up and make wondrous cures for many ailments. It is amazing to learn of his friendship with his holiness Pope Clement the IV. I still cannot believe how fortunate I am.
Your loving brother Robert.

17th June 1273
Sister of mine Gwyneth,
Every day is a wonder for me as I witness the genius of my master Roger Bacon. He has shown me such marvellous and mysterious secrets that you would never believe. Just last week he showed me some clear glass smaller than the smallest panes in our church window that being somewhat deformed has the property to enlarge objects when the glass is placed in front of them. As we are now abroad I am having to change the way I speak French as his eminent friends laugh at the way I pronounce words. This I shall do gladly if I can obtain betterment in life.
Your brother in France, Robert

4th May 1274
Gwyneth my loving sister,
It was only yesterday that I was frightened full out of my wits. My Master Roger Bacon has been experimenting with a substance believed to come from Cathay. This powder has a frightening effect when lighted and explodes with such force that surely would frighten all the devils in the world plus many of us believers as well. It is a secret that may be used by the forces of the king against his enemies.
Pray for me my dearest sister, your loving brother Robert

30 November 1274
My precious sister Gwyneth,
I am frightened. My master is experimenting in a little cell to which I do not have access. I am concerned for his safety and of mine. He tells me he is trying to change one substance to another and it would be better if only one of us observed the experiment. Having had my hair and skin singed with his gunpowder a few weeks ago I can but agree with him yet I am not allowed to look at his notes any more. He is becoming very secretive. I am also becoming worried with the amount of clerical visitors we have been having. They clearly are curious about the work he is undertaking.
Give my respects to our father and place a flower on the grave of our mother.
Your ever loving brother Robert

11 August 1275
Dearest Gwyneth,
Today I feel much happier in myself for I have finally discovered the reason for my master's work in his private cell. He is trying to change lead to gold! What a fanciful idea! If only that could be so. I could almost understand him in his failed attempt to change mercury to silver as they both have that lustrous shine. But lead to gold? He is convinced that there is a philosophers stone that will somehow unlock the secret.
You will not recognise me sister for I have finally grown a beard after much jesting from the serving girls who have laughed at my downy face these months past.
A brotherly kiss on your forehead my sister.
Your loving brother Robert

3rd February 1277
Dearest sister,
I am in deep trouble and am writing this in haste. They have arrested my master Roger Bacon. He is accused of heresy against the Church. Apparently the experimentation in Alchemy he has been performing is regarded as indulging in the novelties, meaning the Devil's work. I have fled from this place and told no one of my plans. I will attempt to return home to you but it will be an arduous and dangerous journey. Tell not a soul I beg you.
Please pray that God has mercy on my soul.
A last kiss from your loving brother Robert.

Nothing more is known of Robert de Kemberly. His master Roger Bacon however was released from imprisonment in 1292 and died a few short months later.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Demand

Last week Ben discovered more of Venice than he anticipated, this week we discover more of his wife Rosie that we anticipated.

As soon as Ben closed the door, Rosie opened her eyes. She waited a full three minutes listening, just to see if he might come back. Perhaps he had forgotten something. But no, not this time.
She swung her legs around and sat on the side of the bed. Again she waited a few seconds, then picked up the phone.
"Signor Guidi's room, per favore."
Her mixture of English and Italian was apparently understood, and almost immediately she heard, "Pronto?"
"It's Rosalie. "I demand that..." there was a pause, " that you inspect our room."
Rose's breathing betrayed her, as she struggled to say what they had agreed she should say.
Antonio the coach captain, murmured his assent and hung up. Rosie gently put her phone back on its cradle. She went to the dressing table and tidied her face and hair. As she looked into the mirror and saw her own eyes, she chided herself.
"Don't look at me like that. You persuaded me last time. Now you have to go long with me this time."

Having justified herself, she turned away from the mirror and waited for the knock on the door. To Rosie it took a very long time in coming. Antonio, had in fact had been waiting. He was an old hand at this game. He boasted to his fellow guides that he could recognise the possible liaisons on the very first night when they briefed each new coach party on the tour. He walked casually from his room, down the passage to the foyer. He called the lift, entered it alone and without having to consult his little notebook, where Rosie's name and room number were written, pressed the correct floor. He examined himself again in the mirror of the lift. He dressed casually, light weight cotton trousers, a blue polo top and matching canvas shoes. He was not tall, but the way he walked on springing steps made up for that. His dark brown hair was soft and long. It rode over his collar and curled around his ears, and almost as if planned, he allowed a lock fall forward onto his brow. His face was animated and held a half a smile on his lips at all times. His eyes were deep and sensuous with feeling and moved quickly, picking up everything that was happening around him. He noted subtle movements, what people did with their hands, how they stood, what messages their eyes sent that their conversation did not. He took everything in and stored it away for future use. The messages he had received from Rosie said she wanted to be touched. Now he was going to touch her.

He knocked on her door. "Antonio." He called. She opened it straight away, not even a suggestion that she had to walk from the other side of the room to answer it. Antonio put that away too. She was a little too eager. He would have to slow her down a little, just a bit. He regarded her standing there. At first her eyes looked up at him, then she lowered them, as he said, "You wish to see me?"
She looked past him anxiously lest anyone else from the coach party should see him there. She pulled him into the room by the sleeve of his shirt. She closed the door and slid the little brass chain in its slot, hoping it would not seem obvious. Nothing escaped Antonio.
Rosie wore a light summer dress; it had a high rounded neck and a deep opening at its back. Its large pink and blue and white flowers made her look cool and serene, despite her anxiety. Her arms and legs were bare and their honey brown colour contrasted sharply with his fiercely dark skin. She had put Paris perfume on, but regretted it as it seemed too heavy now. He took her by both her hands, lightly. Then drawing her closer to him, bent down and kissed first one hand then the other. He kissed the back of her hand, then the fingers and then with a delicacy that surprised her, kissed her palms, her thumbs, then each finger until the little fingers were reached. She was already feeling a little faint and wanted to sit down. She moved slightly to her left and sat down on the bed. As she did so she kicked off the sandals she was wearing. He still had hold of her hands and she leaned forward and lay her cheek against his fingers, and heaved a big sigh. With incredible tenderness, he touched her hair, her ears and traced the soft roundness of her face. He lightly touched her nose, ran his fingertips over her now closed eyes and finished with one finger just touching her lips.

Rosie didn't mean to, but she let out another sigh. It was not a sigh of regret or anxiety. It was a sigh of exhilaration and satisfaction. But the sigh was short lived Antonio bent over and kissed her on the lips he had just touched. If Rosie had expected a violent passionate kiss with a searching tongue to explode her senses she was very much mistaken. He kissed her with just that same amount of tenderness that he had touched her face and now continued to touch the rest of her body. Rosie who was at anticipating to be borne away in a masterful Latin lover's fiery embrace now found herself melting into his arms, into this delicious slow seduction. It was, on reflection, what was precisely missing from her normal lovemaking with Ben. She expected to be ravished, but this was not happening; he was taking each and every part of her and quietly, gently, lovingly, praising it and making it his own. There was little conversation; he murmured a number of 'cara's' and 'bella's' and even a few 'bellissima'a' but he didn't speak directly to her or demand that she say anything in return.

With his practiced art, Antonio touched and unzipped, kissed and slipped off, held tight and set free until they were both without even one stitch of clothing on. Antonio now was very much a part of her. Somehow almost without her noticing the very moment that it had happened, he had found his way into her and she felt very good about it. There was no rush of love making; there was just this exquisite togetherness. And yet, as they touched and moved and fondled each other, she felt the wave of indescribable fulfilment envelop her. The inevitability of their lovemaking now burst in her and over her like a shower of stars. She clung on to him and felt his warm body against her. As she slowly recovered, she felt the tears of her passion run down her cheeks and smear against his chest. She knew too that her body was moist with perspiration. She felt spent and satisfied.

The feeling lasted only a very short time. The hairs from his chest tickled her face and she wanted to dry her eyes. She felt now that his body was a stranger's body, and wanted to draw away from it. She was anxious to wash the evidence of their lovemaking from her. She glanced up at his face and even that no longer held the attraction it had. Was he the same man that flirted with her on the tour, and held her possessively as she had almost slipped on the steps of the coach? She eased herself from under him, and almost as if he had read her mind, he rolled over too and sat on the side of the bed. He pulled his clothes back on and turned his back slightly to her so that she could rearrange herself.

When he turned back, she had covered herself with the sheet. He got up then and as he slipped his watch back on his wrist he glanced at it deliberately. She noticed this but did not look at him again. He bent down to slip his shoes on. When he had done this, he approached her again, took her left hand only this time and kissed it on the back. He smiled at her and went to the door, slipped the chain and left with, "Perhaps we will see each other at dinner?" Then he was gone.
She gave no reply.

Rosie got up, went to the door, fastened it again and headed straight to the bathroom. As the water tumbled all over her she reflected that she had not said one word to him. She nodded and smiled to herself; as though by that fact alone, it made what she had done quite innocent. Perhaps it had not happened at all. As she stepped from the shower she saw herself in the hazy mirror. "Well, I won't tell if you don't," she said.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Death in Venice (with apologies to Thomas Mann)

Rosie was tired. She couldn't walk another step. Ben escorted her back to the Hotel room and without more ado she put her feet up, lay back on the bed and closed her eyes. Speaking as if drugged she murmured to Ben.
"You go for another explore if you want to, but I really must rest before dinner."

Ben secretly was quite pleased, he could cover much more ground on his own and they wouldn't be waylaid by the host of souvenir and trinket shops that seemed to be placed there just for Rosie's enjoyment.

It was their second night in Venice and they had both fallen in love with the place for different reasons. Rosie for the charming atmosphere of colourful lanes, bobbing gondolas and the ubiquitous shops. Ben on the other hand was absorbed by the people and the textures of the city. He marvelled at the oily reflections in quiet back street canals, the ancient crumbling facades of villas now long past their prime, and at the Venetians themselves, almost hidden in the crowds of tourists, going about their daily business, artisans at work, stall holders in conversation, and porters and boatmen constantly on the move, shifting the goods, luggage, food, wine and garbage that either had to be borne into the canalled city or borne out again. It was a city where no vehicle could enter and where boats and hand carts carried all. Over the cobbles, over the bridges, over the steps, out the present and into the past.

Ben had already taken a hundred shots on the camera, and he had no intention of stopping now. He slipped out of the hotel again and with his Pentax at the ready, wandered off the main shopping lanes, into the quieter, darker, more mysterious side of Venice. He snapped at the angled alleyways, the street signs, the prowling cats, the iron screens and the anonymous windows. He took pictures of churches, bridges, canal steps, statuettes of saints in niches, pigeons on ledges, and vistas that spoke of the city, its past and its people.

Ben got hopelessly lost. But he reveled in the feeling. It was as though the city was taking him over. He was slowly being absorbed into the paving slabs, the worn masonry, the crumbling tiles. The pastel colours all about him were a reflection of this satisfied feeling. He was really part of Venice.

The evening was drawing in. The shadows cast by the buildings were proving too much for photography. Yet as he turned again in to a another alley he found at it's end an opening that led out onto the smallest of docks off the Grand Canal. The old narrow stone steps, worn by feet for hundreds of years were polished smooth into concave shapes. The water of the canal lapped at the bottom steps and the view of the medieval palaces, lit now by the last light of the setting sun were quickly captured by Ben and stored away. He sat for some minutes on the steps as the darkness enveloped the city on the sea. He breathed in the scent of ocean, the sweet smell of decay in the wet stones and the occasional whiff of diesel smoke from the motorised boats still plying Venice's main thoroughfare.

The sun had set. He got up and turned back to the narrow entrance of the alley. The small courtyard away from the main canal was frightening now. It was gloomy and unfriendly. The interesting shapes of doorways, windows and arches were lost and the colours that gave it a beauty only a short time before were transformed into hideous greys and blues and blacks.

Ben walked warily back to another connecting lane. No warm lights shone in windows, no friendly sounds could be heard. He felt very much alone. Again his path turned and took him to another courtyard, but before he reached it he could hear voices. But the voices were not friendly. There was an argument going on. Ben paused a few feet back from the little square. Two men were there. They shouted. They gesticulated. They pushed at each other. One, a small dark man no more than twenty, was very angry. Ben could just see his black curly hair and the shiny olive skin of his face. He was young and handsome and his dark eyes shone in the remaining light, like fire. The other was an older man. Bigger build and balding. He sneered at the younger one and seemed to taunt him. Ben kept quiet, hoping they would settle it soon, so he could get back to a main route with tourists and lights and shops.

Should he walk by them? Hardly. The little square was so small he would have to brush by one of them, at the very least. He squeezed his body back into a corner to avoid being seen. His anxious breath came out in stifled gasps.

The argument had extended beyond the shoving and pushing. The younger man screamed at the other. Again the older man laughed off the abuse. With that the younger one with a speed that chilled Ben to the bone, drew a knife and lunged at his adversary.

The argument ceased.

The utter quiet of death filled the courtyard stones.

As the older man slumped to the ground the young man held him tight. He eased him down and as the other's life expired he cradled the man's head in his arms. When he was sure that it was all over he laid the body gently onto the flagstones, made a sign of the cross and pocketed his knife. He got up, brushed himself down and looked around before he took his leave. His eyes caught sight of Ben hiding in the alley.

Ben froze. He thought that as a witness he would not be allowed to live. His only escape was to return to the canal and to jump in. The young man studied Ben for barely a second. Took in his camera, his clothes and his fear. Their eyes met. Then slowly he shook his head.

He started to walk briskly away. Just before he disappeared he turned and called out to Ben, "Una bella morte."

'A beautiful death'.

Then he vanished into the night.

(Photo of Venice by Author)

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Melanie and Me

I never had a way with words. I was a bumbling fool as soon as I opened my mouth. My childhood was a misery, as I couldn't even fight.
"Whatcha trying to say Harry?" I would be taunted as I stuttered my way through life. It wasn't much better at home as I would be warned not to talk to visitors lest they be embarrassed, when I was one that was suffering.
One thing I never dared do was to talk to girls. That was the pits. I looked at them and they looked at me, that was the total sum of our communication. They knew better than to try all normal interaction by voice. Luckily schoolwork was not a problem, I sat, I listened and I did. The teachers gave up getting me to stand up and orally describe my weekend, my favourite animal or a visit to Wet and Wild. Lessons just didn't last long enough for that! So little Harry quietly did his work, presented it up, and achieved pretty good grades.

So what did I do when I left school? Well, I graduated in English. No, no please don't laugh, this is a serious story. I must get on, let me finish because I have got a date. There you go you are laughing again. The truth is that my siblings and I came into some money from a "Rich" uncle. Anyhow when I was 22 I bought an old second hand book shop and whiled my days away reading and selling books. It paid my rent and fed me and I thought that life was OK. I didn't have to say much in the shop, the books were all priced and a really determined effort allowed me to say a few words before a foreign language emerged to baffle the customer. I am kidding of course, but you will appreciate I kept conversation to the minimum. When customers looking for something would ask me for an author, title or subject, I would leave my counter and show them the selection available. Barely a word spoken.

Then everything changed. Almost dozing at the counter one evening, I was awoken by a touch on the arm. What a cutie she was, as brown as a berry, a beautiful curvy body, a warm, shy smile and clearly in need of a book. She pulled at my sleeve and pointed down the shop. I was entranced and as we went down the aisle together she pointed to the fantasy novel section that teenagers go ape about. I thought she was a bit old for that but then it all became clear. She had just discovered literature because her development had been slowed by illness. She looked at me straight in the eyes always. She spoke barely a word and what came out made my speech sound like oratory by Martin Luther King. She was profoundly deaf. Clearly the dragon slayer book she wanted was not there so she grabbed an earlier book, went straight to the list of novels in the series and nodded encouragingly over the one she wanted. Our peculiar conversation if you could call it that was interspersed by her automatically "signing" in what I later found out was "Auslan" or Australian sign language. She was speaking loud and clear, only it was I who was the deaf one in the conversation! Luckily I had put by the book she wanted for another customer who had yet to be contacted. So I returned to the desk, produced the book and presented it to her. The look on her face was a joy, she came up and hugged me, and that was the start of our romance. I still have the shop, and Melanie, my beautiful, deaf girlfriend helps me there too. I'm learning her sign language, Auslan and she is improving with her essential words of speech. My speech defect is just about gone as it is important that she can read my lips and stuttering would not help. What an incentive she has been for me.

I have to shut the shop now as I am taking Melanie out. Yes, yes, I am going to propose. Not that it will surprise her as we both knew that very first time we met that it was all we ever wanted. Despite appearances our communication skills were always top rate; we were very fluent in our understanding of each other.