This story is at least partly inspired by two paintings which you can see in the Tate Britain in London. One is called “The Ghost of a Flea” by William Blake (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-the-ghost-of-a-flea-n05889); the other is “St.Francis and the Birds” by Sir Stanley Spencer (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/spencer-st-francis-and-the-birds-t00961).
Both of these paintings have fascinated me for a long time and were bond to work their way into fiction at some point.
Fairy tales of the non-human
“What will remain after the fifty-foot man?
After he expands into a painting of a saint
Into a saint surrounded by beasts;
Into a beast”- Trouble and Changes by Terry Tenebricosa (Translated from the German)
“There is not enough love and goodness in the world to permit giving any of it away to imaginary beings.” – Nietzsche (also translated from the German)
When the monster was a child he went to a gallery and saw a picture of himself painted long before he was born. The picture was much uglier than he but it was definitely him. He understood that much as he studied the portrait, strange though it was. An armour-skinned alien creature, muscular and gold like a saint from a religion as yet not fully emerged from the subconscious, the arc angel Gabriel in the process of transforming into an animal.
After a long time he went to another room, a red and brown room, and sat there until his parents found him.
As he grew older he went back to the gallery many times. He always visited both rooms and never understood himself any better.
Walter Igo (pronounced “ego”); was entering the BBC studios at Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London. He walked slowly with good posture through the concourse outside the building. Lately he was taking good care of his posture.
He had realised that when his posture was better, he felt better and when he felt his posture was getting worse he simply had to slow down in order to straighten up again. “The slower I walk; the better my posture is,” he thought, somewhat wryly. Lifting his spine; gathering his thoughts; gathering himself; massaging his central nervous system.
He was in his mid-fifties and had ridden his body hard in his younger days but was still an impressive figure physically, well over six feet tall, broad across the shoulders with plenty of vigour, especially for walking, a fully functioning homo sapiens, a hunter gatherer in the city, a psycho-geographer of urban spaces.
Walter Igo was brilliant, genuinely brilliant. More brilliant than even his public image suggested; more brilliant than even his fans thought he was.
He was born into an intellectual family and for all his later social rebellion he was always most at home in thoughts and in books. He had a rigour that he had not questioned until he was in his twenties. When he did notice and question it he realised it was his greatest strength. It was never difficult for him to work hard at ideas, for him that simply meant spending time with them. It was natural to him to follow an idea as far and as long as was possible.
He did not care for opinion; he was never quite sure about facts, but he was a friend to rigour and research and ideas.
He had committed himself to academics and writing at the age of twelve after he found a copy of Walter Benjamin’s collected works in his mother’s library. He was young enough to be attracted by the coincidence of their forenames.
Benjamin’s work set a standard for him as he began writing critically himself. He was already developing a love for German New Wave Cinema at that time and his first writing dealt with such figures as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Reading a biography of Fassbinder disturbed his sleep for months but he persevered with the films, with the German language, with the geography of Germany and with the ideas.
Benjamin’s influence carried over into Kafka and when he started writing short stories of his own most of them were variations of “A Crossbreed (A Sport)” with it’s simple, startling imagery and its gentle, but near total, darkness of tone. Its central figure an unfortunate hybrid of lamb and cat whose very existence seems to insist on its own extinction, an image powerful enough to freeze the early adolescent mind for weeks at a time.
That image had haunted him through his teenage years though he seldom specifically recalled it now. It would have taken him some time to put his hands on his old Penguin Classics copy of the Collected Short Stories of Kafka in his by now vast library but the book was there right at its heart and had lead the younger Igo to J G Ballard and William Burroughs.
Igo had never doubted that he was destined for a career as a writer. He had never really given it much thought. He had always been a writer and at about the time he needed to make an independent living people had started paying him for it. He had simply continued as normal. Magazines published his stories, publishing houses published his books and newspapers published his reviews and articles.
He went from enfant terrible with stories ironically very dependent on the influence of Ballard, Kafka and Burroughs to established talent and social observer with a more developed individual style and view, to grand old man of letters winning prizes and providing introductions for collections of other writers’ work.
Today he was about to record an episode, of “A Point of View” which would be broadcast early on a Sunday morning though presently it was six o’clock on a pleasant Tuesday evening in late October. He would have preferred in a way to record his talk at the same time as it would be listened to, in a method acting sort of way; but on the other hand, there are always pros and cons, he was looking forward to a long evening walk back home to Wandsworth after this was done.
He was becoming very fond of his long evening walks. Some might say addicted, he would not as he knew something about addiction, and that was all that would be said about that.
He passed someone coming towards him across the concourse, blinkered in his own thoughts, falling forwards towards whatever shining future he was envisioning before him. Who was he then? Oh yes, Whitelouse, Jack Whitelouse- the comedian. A fellow on the up; full of energy and ambition.
“Headed for a fall,” Igo thought, without malice. He had no energy for personally directed malice these days. He didn’t feel competitive with other artists and found it easy and natural to wish almost everyone well.
That said Walter was very much aware that the short talk he was about to deliver was at least in part motivated by a spirit of “grow up and face reality” which he had been understandably possessed by since his wife’s recent diagnosis with glaucoma. It had taken some time to get the final diagnosis and now that it was here, echoing non-stop like the thud of a hammer on concrete in his head, he had discovered that, unlike some had suggested might happen, it had provided no relief, the horror had simply been deepened.
When he had been asked, not for the first time, to deliver a series of five short talks for broadcast on Sunday mornings on the BBC as a sort of secular sermon, he had found as he began the first of them, his writing and his thoughts turning to the various ways in which adults who should know better were resisting growing up by retreating to Hollywood vampire and werewolf franchise books and films, “Fairy tales of the non-human” as he dubbed them, to avoid the harsh realities of life. His wife’s illness was perhaps making him jealous of the ability others had of losing themselves in teenage fantasy. Still he could allow himself a little venom and didn’t venom often add real flavour to words. It was just important to “ration it out like snake bite serum” as William Burroughs might have said. If there was any attack being made it was not on any individual but on a tendency.
In the recording booth his voice sounded like a dirty river pushing its way past large rocks. He didn’t enjoy hearing it on recording any more than most people enjoy hearing the sound of their own voice but it appeared that the public found it to be a more than acceptable tool and he was actually quite well known; and in some quarters even liked, for his particular intonation.
In a way he sounded like an animated animal from a children’s movie. For a moment, as he delivered his talk into the microphone he could feel himself transforming into a mutant, bipedal wart hog; that seemed to be the sort of beast that might produce his voice, but thankfully the image passed before his Disneifed avatar could burst into something from the Elton John songbook and he got through to the end of his piece to the satisfaction of the technicians and much to his own satisfaction, without transforming into some new and grotesque species.
The light was disappearing as he existed the BBC passing as he did a burly security guard who appeared to be reading a Harry Potter book and started for home.
It was a perfect evening for a walk. He would pass down through Soho, on past Tate Britain to the Thames. From there he would follow the river until he was in Chelsea where he would cross towards Battersea, a little through the park and from there via York Road to Wandsworth and home. The journey should take about two hours at a gentle pace. At home he would enjoy a cigar before bed.
Walter was London born and bred and he loved the city; felt deeply at home there and he was happiest down by the river.
Rivers, of course, are the reasons cities get started and you find the life and the history of the place down there laid down with the sediment of the banks. At the river’s bank the horizon is narrow as it should be in a city. Big skies in an urban environment should make you very uncomfortable. They are generally a sign that you have wandered into the bad part of town- by which I mean the banking district.
European cities in particular need to be seen from the river. An American film can introduce a city like New York with a shot that sweeps down from the sky in a helicopter but cities in Europe need to be seen from the docks and the quays up as Walter had learned to see them in his beloved German movies from the 1970s. No city has ever looked better, or been seen better, than Hamburg in “Der Amerikanische Freund.” Walter himself had written that in his introduction to the catalogue for a Wenders’ festival at the BFI only a little over a year ago.
As he walked by the river he relaxed and thoughts percolated up from below without effort. Often this was the time and the place where his fictions got worked on but tonight his thoughts were of his wife Carol. Somewhere in the deep background he sensed the chorus of a U2 song he had not ever deliberately listened to but which was being heavily advertised and was difficult not to encounter.
Yes, the decision to engage with music was an act of love between consumer and artist particularly in an age when the internet meant it was easier to steal music than to buy it and the ubiquity of this U2 advertising felt like it was attempting to force that intimacy but Walter knew why the single refrain “Everything I ever lost now has been returned” had burrowed in as an earworm in the depths of his mind. He was simply at an age when too much was being taken away from him and this thing with Carol’s eyesight was beyond what he could accept.
Carol and Walter had been together for more than twenty years. Their meeting was nothing special and they were nothing special and he could not imagine himself without her.
Not long ago she had gone for a routine optician’s appointment to renew her prescription for contact lenses and they had told her that her corneas were slightly hard. Nothing to worry about, high normal, but best to make an appointment with an eye specialist at the hospital. From there it was only a few short steps to the diagnosis of glaucoma and the realisation that Carol’s sight was under threat.
He had stopped without realising and was looking down at the water. No not looking, it was just that his gaze was inclined downwards. Now he was seeing: Oil on the dark water of the Thames breaking up into distinct colours.
He was struck by how few colours there were- Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. The range was so small but not the range of colour, the range of emotion. The range of human emotions was so narrow.
Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. Even the small range of colour was weak and breaking up, bleeding into each other and becoming nothing or at least nothing distinct. There was seldom an emotion to match the brutal reality of life or the physical body’s equally brutal punctuations.
His vision was blurring and he realised with a mild sense of surprise that he was crying.
Philip Larkin wrote a characteristically great, short poem about it and that poem was waiting for him in Battersea Park; that block of burnt brown shrub and concrete with a whiff of rotting imperial dreams.
Walter stood looking at the rabbit with all the dreadful symptoms of Myxomatosis. It trembled but didn’t run and its eyes were two raw, blind wounds that would be forever only half healed.
Walter found a rock and brought it down as hard as he could on the rabbit. It didn’t need that much effort but it seemed wrong to allow any chance that the creature would not be killed instantly so Walter put all he had into it.
“Well done, you did the right thing.”
Walter looked for the source of the voice.
An older man watching him for a nearby bench. He stood, slightly hunched but he sprang to his feet with surprising explosion and strode to Walter’s side.
“Spring-loaded quadriceps,” said the old man, “bouncy thighs you see?”
He pumped his thighs a time or two smiling proudly.
Walter grunted that he understood.
“You don’t mind, do you?” The man with the bouncy thighs said as he lifted the dead rabbit and put it to his mouth.
Walter took a step back but remained silent.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Bit of a shock of course.”
“Best I can understand it is I’m a flea of some kind,” said the older man as he took a hearty bite out of the small dead creature.
With a free hand he handed Walter a postcard. On it was depicted an ugly, muscular figure. A sort of alien painted with gold on wood giving the impression of an occult alter piece.
As Walter began to turn the card over to look for information the other man pre-empted him.
“’The Ghost of a Flea’ by William Blake. You look like the sort of fellow who would be familiar with Mister Blake. That ugly picture is in the Tate just down the river as I’m sure you know. The idea is that all fleas are inhabited by the spirits of those who were particularly bloodthirsty in life. I found that picture years ago and it seems like a reasonable kind of explanation of what I am. A kind of were-flea. Not very nice I know but still, it’s great to be in the Tate, the Tate Britain. I don’t like the Tate Modern. I like being in with the Francis Bacons and the Lucien Freuds. I’m very much the modernist me; an incurable figurative type.”
Walter stood with his mouth comically open watching the man’s bloodstained lips moving.
“Oh look, I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense but really who can explain their own existence and Blake wasn’t God probably. Pardon me, I should introduce myself, I’m Monty, Monty Fauve.”
He wiped the fingers of his right hand on his trousers and extended the hand towards Walter. Walter hesitated, more from the general strangeness than any animosity.
“It’s a funny name I know, French parents and a father rather too fond of books on dessert warfare.”
Walter took his hand and shook.
They sat on the bench and talked for a while.
Apart from being perhaps partially a flea Monty Fauve was a very pleasant older man. He had played professional football in his youth for several seasons. As he explained his legs had always been unusually strong but there was very little money in the game back then and he had apprenticed to a Goldsmith as the better long-term option. He was a very good goldsmith and happy in his work.
He had been interested in feeding on blood for as long as he could remember and his adolescence; that getting to know yourself phrase of life, had probably been quite a bit harder than it is for most but as he put it “Living in London, I’m not the strangest thing around by far.”
“The problem is not the behaviour, it’s understanding what you are. Who you are you can make up for yourself but what you are, that’s not up to you at all. The thing that helped was realising that nobody understands the ‘what’ question.”
Walter sat in the Tate Britain surrounded by large Mark Rothko canvases.
The room was very close to the entrance; or the exist, depending on your state of mind. A large room with two long benches in the centre and huge abstract paintings on all the walls. The predominate feeling was deep red he thought, deep red thought- at risk of getting Joni Mitchell about it.
All the paintings were composed of large blocks of reds and browns, very few, basic colours. There was a feeling of peace. Deep peace. An instant and shocking understanding that you can’t put into words of the power of abstract art. A very seductive desire to stay there; to make a nest there.