During the summer, I entered a writing competition run by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. The objective was to write a piece of prose, poetry or a hybrid piece on an object from their medical collection.
I was initially attracted to a pair in pince-nez and thought I might write about them but I decided on a bottle of laudanum. Why laudanum? Well, I was aware it had been a ‘tool’ used by certain writers, particularly during the late Georgian Era of the 19th Century. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was said to have written Kubla Khan while under a laudanum haze. As far as he was concerned the poem was incomplete as he had been disturbed by a “person from Porlock”. It was this anecdote about the disruption of the writing of Kubla Khan that inspired my piece.
The RCPSG have announced their shortlist of stories and suffice it to say my story didn’t make the shortlist. That now leaves me free to share it here. I do hope you will enjoy it.
So, I present to you: A Haze and the Stone. Let me know what you think!
A Haze and the Stone
The building is small and rustic. The central fireplace keeps the space warm. Outside, the air is already bitterly cold. It feels like winter has arrived early. Ah, for the days of the summer that has just been.
It is quiet here. I have time to think, to dream, to be. I can take in deep breaths and … oh, what is that smell?! Urgh! That cow dung gets to one at times. Disgusting stuff it is, but it keeps the land fertile. It also invades one’s olfactory senses abhorrently.
Where was I? Oh, yes! As you may detect, not only do I have time to think and dream but I also have time to ponder many things. As of now, I need the remoteness of this location. I cannot work whilst at home with Sara. She robs me of all inspiration, and I cannot tolerate it. I require the solitude offered here to purge my mind. To extricate all that churns within it. Allowing for freedom of thought is vital. So, this little Lynton farmhouse is my haven at present.
Whilst my mind is now unhindered to expel its deepest thoughts, the ability to capture what is to be expunged eludes me. My mind is constricted, and this pains me. My friend, my glorious friend, awaits upon the mantle. He gleams in the low, fragile morning sunlight. ‘I am here, Sam,’ he says to me. ‘Here to give you solace, to unlock your mind and free you of your turmoil. Take comfort in me. Allow me to assist you in escaping all your ills. At least for a time.’
He is ever so enticing a friend. I admit to having a strong dependence upon him. He has the look of a setting sun on a late June day. A warm glow that is irresistible in contrast to the increasingly glooming October sky. Shall I avail myself of his salve now? Freeing the bottle stopper, I take a generous sup, then quickly another. As pungent as the waft of manure that permeates the air around me is, it is nothing compared to the horrific taste of this liquid. A moment later, its vileness is forgotten and all that remains is pure delight.
Before my legs buckle from under me, I seat myself at the dining table in the centre of the room. My friend washes over me from the top of my head down to the soles of my feet. A luminous joy slides through my body and into every nerve. It then rises back up again to envelop me whole in a blanket of bliss. I am both calm and euphoric in equal measure.
Such visions I see before me! My wish for a sunnier time and the heating of my skin is made manifest within my illusions, welcoming me in. So bright and so vivid. Can it really be but a dream? And she, with her voice and strings. Yes, this elixir. This ‘milk of paradise’ I speak of is he. My sweet inspiration, my nectar. Acrid upon my tongue but mellifluous in my mind.
Tap, tap. What is that? Tap, tap. Stop. Go away. Tap, tap. I must not be distracted. Tap, tap, tap. Please, I implore you. Be gone! Tap, tap, tap. Damn you! What is this intolerable racket! Leave me in peace at once!
How I am to accurately locate Mr Coleridge’s whereabouts is anybody’s guess. I have been made aware that he is making his way back to Porlock imminently, but the urgency of the matter requires me to find him and inform him of the circumstances surrounding his finances forthwith. Consequently, I am setting off east towards Lynton, hoping it proves to be Mr Coleridge’s locale before I stray too far off course in my search. Word has reached me that he is convalescing in a farmhouse on the coastal path. First, I will need to head north to the coast, then continue east.
Perhaps I may introduce myself? My name is Arthur Stone, and I am a senior accountant for the firm Rogers and Morton based in Porlock. I have been in their employ for fifteen years. The firm has been responsible for balancing Mr Coleridge’s accounts for two years. Of course, the exact reason for my need to speak with him is something I cannot divulge to you at this point in time. Suffice it to say that the need for Mr Coleridge’s awareness of certain aspects of his financial affairs are required in haste.
I could have gone by carriage or set out on horseback but decided that by the time I had my carriage or ride prepared, I would make it a third of the way there on foot. Although it is a rather dull October afternoon I am looking forward to the long walk, if not what awaits me once I find Mr Coleridge and inform him of the reason for my intrusion.
Most are aware that, for Mr Coleridge, ‘convalescing’ does not solely imply rest and recuperation but of writing and – as with all creative types, one should be cautious when it comes to the point of requiring to disturb an artist at his work. For me this is the most delicate issue of the errand. Knowing that I will undoubtedly disturb or otherwise disrupt Mr Coleridge from some masterpiece of writing or some such induces my apprehension. In the meantime, I will try to set my mind at ease and admire the splendour of the countryside that stretches out before me and accompanies me on my walk to Mr Coleridge’s current retreat.
The colour of the afternoon is a varying blend of greys, blues, and rustic hues. No hint of summer remains. Where I tread the path before reaching the coast, the trees have shed their leaves of pale yellow, burnt orange and vermilion. When I reach the coast and observe the view before me, the aqua sea fills my right-side vision as I continue my journey east. I understand the need for Mr Coleridge to relocate to areas such as these. They do inspire the mind and the senses, do they not?
An hour passes and I see a farmhouse ahead of me. The chances of it being the one in which Mr Coleridge is currently situated would be wonderfully fortuitous and I confess to making a small spritely prayer for such fortune to fall upon me as I make my approach. I knock on the door several times to no avail. As I step back and turn to walk away to continue my search, the door flies open. “For God’s sake, what is it?!”
“Mr Coleridge, sir. I do apologise for disturbing you. My name is Arthur Stone. I am a senior at Rogers and Morton accountancy. I have come to alert you, sir, of a very delicate matter concerning you, your finances, and your current whereabouts. Sir, there is a gentleman by the name of Trevor Fowler that has visited our office, claiming you owe his client a vast sum of money for… certain goods, shall we say. His claims appear to be validated by papers he has in his possession with your signature showing that you have signed for prescriptions from an apothecary in Nether Stowey. The money owed, sir, tallies no meagre sum.”
“Is it not what I pay you for, man? Why are you here? You have disturbed me from work for this?! Can’t you sort it?”
“Sir, I believe that Mr Fowler is on his way to you. Rogers and Morton have informed him that he cannot be paid until you have given your consent to do so. I hastily left the office and made my way to you to inform you of his possible arrival. Mr Coleridge, do you confirm these debts are yours? Did you sign papers to the apothecary, Mr Drummond, at Nether Stowey for a sum amounting to one hundred pounds?
“Of course, yes. If I cannot pay the whole sum, then pay what I can, what you must to allay the man’s concerns and get this… what is his name? This…”
“Trevor Fowler, sir.”
“Yes, this Fowler man off my back. I cannot work without my tools.” Mr Coleridge pauses. He takes a moment before he continues.
“I need it, Stone. I need my elixir. Of course, I can go to another apothecary. I could go to several other apothecaries, but Drummond understands my needs and knows my requirements. Please, pay him what you can to settle my debt. Reassure him the rest will come to him. Can you do that for me please, Mr Stone, my dear fellow? I thank you for coming to me with your warning and your concern.” He closes the door.
I slump on a chair. Why? Why now? Why here? This most precious time!? I try to clear my mind of what just happened. Try to banish Stone and his words from my thoughts, but this Fowler, he could arrive at any point. What can I do about that now but run?
And now … She has left me! My exquisite beauty. She has now forsaken me. My mind is devoid of it all. Where has my beautiful Xanadu gone? I cannot retrieve her. Lost in my mind forever. If I cannot recapture the vision of her, I cannot complete my recording of it all. Perhaps if I try the aid of my friend once more? There is no other way. I cannot find her without him. I cannot return. I can read what I captured so far. It is there on the page writ before me, but my mind is at an impasse. Blocked from what lays ahead. Fugacious vision turned to verses now incomplete.
I move toward the mantle, take hold of the laudanum bottle, remove the stopper once more and sup again. New joys, new ruptures flood my mind. Swirling, circling, tangling, and mangling my thoughts. No ice, no dome, no caves, no river flows. All gone. Another sup. Why won’t you help me now, rancid syrup? Why won’t you help me return to her?!
My body is heavy. Every fibre leaden. I slump forward upon the table. Perhaps if I let my mind wander to its new visions, I will return to the most glorious of dreams? A new euphoria gallops forward and I am conscious of yet more knocking until, slowly, it fades away.