Thursday, 3 September 2015

On the Battlefield

Professor Maxwell was convinced he was on to something - there must be a secret to developing a thick skin. A scientific theory he had been for some time developing and hoped to expand on through the study of genetics, the behaviour of hormones, and the influence of environment and diet. From this lengthy process he would then be able to assert the single or multiple cause providing an insulating effect and why it was that some coped with life's knocks and setbacks whilst others faltered.
In his head, his hypothesis reduced humans to that of squash balls or soft drink cans; one bounces off walls and obstacles, whilst the other is repeatedly crushed underfoot, hurled in a waste bin or kicked along the pavement. The circumstances that gave rise to whichever reaction didn't seem to matter as Professor Maxwell surmised it was a conditioned response. And perception, it appeared, only cemented an individual's position further.
It was curious, he mused, how people perceived situations differently, even down to a person's mannerisms or mode of speech, or how some felt vulnerable and others challenged by the exact same threat. But what chiefly interested him were the two groups at either end of the scale, those who experienced only one of the extremes, and not the common middle ground. The layperson who managed to govern their emotions and veered somewhere between fight or flight aroused him very little. No, he was after those who were either rabbit-soft or as durable as tanned leather, and more especially those that had a thick skin like a rhinoceros' hide.
In his preliminary studies which he'd had to conduct in order to secure further funding he'd found some volunteers so sensitive they cried over every little thing regardless of whether it affected them directly or not, and others who donned permanent armour every day as if they were perpetually engaged in an ongoing battle. The results of this small study had been quite remarkable and surpassed his own meagre expectations, for he tried never to put his ideas or desirable outcomes above his station knowing full well that he was the maverick within the university. A non-entity in the scientific world; someone who in terms of his success rate didn't figure on any measurable scale, not even Richter's, having had no papers published, and at best was humoured by his more serious colleagues who largely considered his various theories unscientific and therefore unsupportable. They believed, that despite being in his mid-fifties, he had schoolboy whims which the Head of Department and Principal allowed him to indulge in at a cost to the university's academic reputation, and to be more precise felt his merged field of epidemiology and epistemology (medicine and philosophy to the layperson) was all front and no substance.
The subject, they felt, was everything that science purported not to be: a new form with a basis in psychology governed by illogical musings and psyche babble with a smattering of biology, which offered no firm evidence or reliable conclusions. And they despaired of Maxwell, omitting the 'Professor' when referring to him in conversation amongst themselves, feeling strongly that he did their profession a huge disservice. His scatter-gun approach much frowned upon for everyone knew he followed his impulsive train of thought, frequently turning his attention from one study to focus on another. Research, they felt, should be orderly and his inconstancy set a poor example.
Professor Maxwell however was never one to listen to reason; in short he was what his colleagues called dense, only concerned with his own findings and his maze-like process to them, which was what made his latest and greatest research by quite some margin so irrational for the man couldn't see that he was one of the armoured lot he hoped to discover how to emulate, and had in fact answered as well as contradicted his own thesis: A thick skin could not be acquired, it was a gift from the cradle and thus concealed from the receiver's eyes; inwardly such people failed to see the shield they carry without.

Picture Credit: Rhinoceros by Albrecht Durer, 1515

Thursday, 27 August 2015


A black man appeared beside me, took my right hand and linked his fingers with mine, and it was a wonderful feeling. His head and torso neatly filled the same next door space so that we were eye level and our heights matched. Bizarrely, I felt comforted rather than unsettled by his unexpected presence and hand-holding gesture, and the fact that this came from a perfect stranger didn't perturb me. We glanced openly at one another and smiled. He had a wide grim with very straight white teeth whereas I believe mine was closed-mouthed and more timid.
But if you think this is the beginning of an unusual love story you'd be wrong. You might then hazard a guess that it's a tale of a chance encounter that turns sour as one wants more than the other, but then you'd still be wrong.
This opening snippet was but a dream, an unreal, but memorable dream, which I think might bear some connection to watching a broadcast with the TV chef Ainsley Harriott earlier that evening, although you'd think I'd recognise his ethereal likeness. I can't say that this man's facial features immediately made me attribute them to Ainsley, but then I was enjoying the unreal qualities of the situation, for what I'm neglecting (and slightly embarrassed) to mention is that the circumstances I found myself in were strange indeed.
Ainsley, (as I shall call him from now on), did not as I alluded to sit down next to me. He kind of hovered alongside in the same position as I, which was in a seated pose, but I was held by a bar in a single seat roller-coaster car and he was copying my posture, elevating a few inches off the ground as if he too were seated, but yet he still managed to effortlessly follow the movements of the car on its single track.
The ride was disappointingly slow like a train that has a mechanical fault; stopping and starting every few metres, until we came to a semi-permanent halt by a set of signal lights not long after we'd entered a womb-like tunnel. And beside the red light was a series of touch screens displaying different scenes and faces, and which I knew were options from which I had to select. Ainsley, it seemed, was there to be a reassuring presence; a helper in completing this bewildering deed.
Unfortunately, apart from gently finger-tapping a few screens, I don't remember the exact choices I made except that they felt right. The light changed to green and the car recommenced its trundling, gradually picking up speed, but of course I awoke just as it finished rounding a bend and before it suddenly hurtled, belly-somersaulting, downwards.
So what does it mean? At the time of writing and with reference to myself, I couldn't possibly say because in all honestly I'm still taking stock. I feel caught between what was just a dream – remnants from the day or days before – and what, if there was one, might be the overriding message.
Isn't it just my subconscious mind putting out the daily trash? Yes, and think no more about it is the easy answer, but me, I like to delve deeper, consider all angles to the problem as I see it. It's just a shame that dreams if you're lucky to remember them become vague so quickly; a liquid soap bubble contently floating along, drifting farther away until it pops. Little things you remember, the things that really matter, you forget. And probing your mind like a surgeon with a tiny scalpel doesn't make you recall them faster, if at all. It's infuriating like trying to solve a crossword puzzle, digging around for the answer to the clue that you know is stored in there somewhere, like desperately rifling through an under stairs closet or a growing pile of junk in the back bedroom.
These days, I mostly give up, think 'Oh, that was interesting' because during the night any stubborn traces will swiftly be removed. Scrubbed out. But sometimes one comes along that's intriguing; one that when you grudgingly wake wish to dream over and over.

Picture Credit: Plate five c 1915, Edmund Dulac, from The Dreamer of Dreams by Queen of Roumania

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Everything About Her Was White

Everything about her was white...
Almost, not quite, for her eyes were dark limpid pools and her mouth was a neat bow of crimson. And her soul, which had been like a heaven-sent ray of light had dimmed. Its glow whilst still warm flickered like the flame of a candle as if a shadow had some point crept in and caused a draught. And there was a slight chill within that there hadn't been before which made her involuntarily shudder.
But against the black backdrop of permanent night, she was lily-white insomuch as the landmarks surrounding her were ice or crystal. She was a chess piece that been bought because in this world her whiteness was prized and because the buyer had been assured that despite her dark doe eyes and scarlet lips her duty was to God, which at that time to mankind meant she was subservient. This was not strictly true for in her childhood it was said she had been wilful, but when such a bargain is being made, details which appear small are often overlooked or even omitted. And so they were in this instance for the seller (her legal guardian) was intent on establishing royal links and the buyer (an illustrious prince) one way or another swore he would own this pale, interesting beauty.
After many months of haggling she was indeed his, sold for a very fine title, but Leda, for that was her name, didn't at once wed this man who was said to her prince. She was whisked away in a horse-drawn sleigh to the land of his birth, which was very Russian in style in a remote snow desert and on eternal Icelandic winter time, an everlasting December, where she was kept in a vast wing of a white marble palace with other maidens whom the prince also considered suitable and precious. Each had their own quarters which they were supposed to keep to and not come together unless summoned, and this rule they observed, although some did devise ways to disobey, and of course gossip was freely spread by the various maids and man-servants.
The servants reported to their mistresses and to the prince himself that the newly acquired Leda was the whitest of the white. None of the twelve could ever hope to match her milky skin or her peaceful, almost too accepting demeanour. But she was biddable in all but one ritual, that of worshipping the midnight sun. She stubbornly refused to do so, writing to the prince that she'd taken a solemn vow that if this was now to be her life she'd rather live in darkness and deny herself that right to witness that beautiful sight. And being granted this was the first stain on her pure soul.
When the reverent time approached, the midnight sun was blacked out from her quarters and in those hours she slept, but this did have a knock-on effect for Leda would then be wide-awake whilst everyone else was not. Yet it was those very hours she cherished, for since she arrived she found she enjoyed this blanket of dark stillness and had taken to sneaking out of the slumbering palace, down the cool, shallow marble steps that led to the sparkling lake where she would stand at the edge and gaze at the starry skies overhead. Yet whenever she crept out she purposely wore her silk betrothal gown with its lace veil that in places shimmered like dew on a spider web, although this was against all her principles and decidedly improper. And this along with being a white daughter of the night, and a conspicuous one at that, attracted shadows; shadows that had infiltrated the palace grounds who were drawn to unaccompanied maidens.
Little by little, Leda strayed ever further, compelled by shadowy presences to slip through the main gate and out into the frosty landscape, yet despite this daily escape she always returned. Her mood elevated from her dark wanderings, although there are no records of what good or evil she may have seen or heard. And the prince when he discovered her trespasses for somehow he did, instead of having misgivings he rewarded her with two giant protectors: Cloud and Moon, the mightiest of his polar bears.

Picture Credit: Plate, Everything about her was white by Edmund Dulac, from The Dreamer of Dreams by Marie, The Queen of Roumania