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from White Ivory, chapters 1 & 2

chapters 3 & 4 >
A Fortnightly Serial.

Illustration by Rachel Lapp Whitt.


Chapter One.

TWO CARS ARE moving towards each other on a winter night. It is a country road and there is no roadside illumination. Only the carlights. These beams swerve and shudder and prod the tarmac, the grass, the trees. Occasionally they lift off towards the heavens, but they don’t get far in that direction before they beam back down. The cars are pulled towards one another as though an invisible thread connects them. Each stab of acceleration from either side brings them closer. At a certain blind corner they meet. There is a loud harsh bang as the cars collide, the sound of metal screaming into concertina wreckage; the fountaining of shattered glass.

One man, the philosopher, is strapped in his seat and stays there. The other is not. He flies. Through the windscreen and out into the night air. Now he defies gravity. Not for long though.

The flowers altered with the seasons. Roses, daffodils, carnations.

The philosopher sits in his car and stares at the small bunch of flowers wrapped in cellophane, tied with blue ribbons to the pole. That was where the flight had ended that night. There is always a little bundle all year round. The ribbons are always blue, Malcolm Filey’s favourite colour. His Ford XR3i convertible had been blue too, the car that had met the philosopher’s old Renault with such collateral force. The flowers altered with the seasons. Roses, daffodils, carnations. Orchids were too expensive, except on his birthday. He’d have been thirty this year. His little boy was eight already. Every week the philosopher saw these cellophane packages attached with such love to the telegraph pole. He always stopped the car and kept the engine running. He sometimes wondered if a full philosophical understanding of the law of the conservation of energy might have comforted Malcolm’s mother in some way. In his occasional hypermanic states he had even considered seeking her out to impart the good news. For nothing of her son was lost, really. Only that momentary meeting of matter and spirit which went by his name. Only the historical trace, the voice, the continuing chronicle. Only the wave, not the particles that made it up, since they had all gone on to recombine with other molecules in other compounds. In his philosophy it was the data of science that spoke of redemption, not the notions of theology. For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead, sunk though he be beneath the watery floor. Malc, Thinking of you always. Mum. We’ll meet again, my darling.

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?



Chapter Two.
The Process of Naming

GENERICALLY HE WAS a philosopher, specifically he was Will Fenshawe and he taught philosophy at Mercia College.

The accident had stayed in Will’s mind, a glimmering constellation on the border between life and death.

Right now he was a driver, accelerating up and down those same roads and lanes where Malcolm Filey had exited this world only four years before. He had now made his weekly visit, observed his only constant liturgy. This was his sabbath attendance; his pilgrimage to the wooden shrine of his all-too-local Calvary. The accident had stayed in Will’s mind, a glimmering constellation on the border between life and death. A shoal of shining stars made out of colliding headlights and surrounded by waves of darkness. Hardly a day went by when he didn’t think about it. Malcolm’s skull had not been a pretty sight down there on the tarmac; its contents had by then ceased to be a purely internal matter. The car Will had driven had been a write-off; only his car though, not his body. Though he did sometimes wonder if a part of his mind might have left the world that day. So where was it then? The car he drove now was another Renault, bought with the insurance money. This he manoeuvred with some skill and even more panache through the winding roads around the little North Shropshire town of Oswestry. But the philosopher and the driver between them had now seen enough. Time to get back home. Will had a lecture to prepare for the following day. And there was some meeting, wasn’t there? How anybody ever got any serious thinking done these days with so many meetings to attend baffled him.

Another mystery offered by the world to the world.

Will’s flat was above a shop that sold hats. Or advertised them anyway: he’d never in all the time he’d lived there seen anyone go in and actually buy one. Another mystery offered by the world to the world. He had bought the flat ten years before at the time of his divorce. The house in London had been sold; most of the proceeds had been handed to Marie, who had then bought a place for herself and their son Charlie to live in, a little further out of the capital in Richmond. And the remainder had gone to Will, who had relocated himself from King’s to Mercia College and from North Kensington to Oswestry. The flat which he had purchased for a minuscule amount was now apparently worth a fair bit. So he was told. Not that he cared. He was entirely a philosopher in one sense at least: he preferred reading Nietzsche to looking in estate agents’ windows. What on earth was that meeting he was meant to attend the next day? He had a nasty feeling he should have prepared something for it but he still couldn’t remember a thing.

The following morning he parked his car as usual at Gobowen and took the train to Birmingham. He always took the train. He regarded the number of people prepared to ensnare themselves voluntarily in the coils of the motorway system as a modern marvel, as curious surely from an anthropologist’s perspective as the enthusiasm of the Christian martyrs for premature and painful death. Anyway, he preferred his roads to be empty these days, for obvious reasons, the law of the conservation of energy notwithstanding. Will sat down opposite a woman and immediately extracted the book from his bag. Reading was amongst other things a prophylactic against unwanted communication. However much he stared at his book though, he could not avoid her crinkles. They began as soon as the train left the station.

She was lifting from its nest of silver foil a vast sandwich of brown bread and beef, spiced with pickles and gherkin. This she raised to her mouth with evident satisfaction. She did not however take the mighty bite out of it which Will anticipated and which its dimensions surely deserved; instead a small bite, mousy but noisy nibbles. Then down went the remains into the wrinkled silver basket, a Cellini container for the disposable age. She started to write in a lined spiral notebook, its blue cover twinkling with stardust. Small neat handwriting. He witnessed its methodical progression across the page from his own upside-down hemisphere, though without any notion of the script’s content or purpose. After five or six lines of dainty, ordered scrivening, the pen was berthed precisely on its sheet, the sandwich taken up again, another minuscule portion of it serrated gently. Nibble nibble. Then sandwich returned to silver sheath and pen to hand. He glanced up from time to time. A neat woman, hefty, her dark hair combed back severely and disciplined by a crimson ribbon. Her jacket had left no crease unpressed. By the time they had arrived in Wellington it began to dawn on Will that the stout and methodical woman before him was planning on pacing her meal so that this brobdingnagian snack of her hers would, by lilliputian means, last all the way into New Street.

Until a dead cow hung skewered above his page, looming over the ascetic formulations of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Tiny drips of blood drizzling all over his philosophy.

He would manage a few more lines of Wittgenstein, bending his mind into concentration, then the telltale crinkle announced another furtive chew. By now he could smell the meat, feintly but definitively, and the gherkin and the pickle. Could smell both meat in the sandwich and meat in the mouth, the feint sour breath of masticated carcass, and this smell wreathed and intertwined with the philosophical words and the sounds of silver crinkle and the murmurous chewing until he tasted words like wormwood on his tongue. Until a dead cow hung skewered above his page, looming over the ascetic formulations of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Tiny drips of blood drizzling all over his philosophy. When all else had been consumed, the woman ate the crumbs one by one, as though gleaning wisdom’s vestiges, as though gathering up the fragments of the host from the shattered shiny monstrance. Then ten minutes before the final stop, rattling along beside the canal that once carried metal goods back and forth through the Black Country and was now reduced to tootling sabbath journeys, vandalism and graffiti, she crushed the remains (how many crumbs might still be hidden there?) into a ragged globe, a white dwarf imploding with its gravity, a closing sphere of heart and mind. And out came the orange. Shreds and segments and arcs peeled from it, exemplification of the proliferation of the one into the many. The citrus tang of scepticism disinfected Will’s nostrils once more. He gazed at the fishermen immobile on the towpath, rods angled out like dying parabolas, failed lurches at the stars. By the time the train slowed into New Street, he was almost sane again. Ready for the concourse and beyond, the traffic’s molecular confusion. Appetite and entropy engaged in their daily waltzing dazzle. Then on to the Longbridge train and ten minutes later he was at the college. Ted was coming along the corridor.

‘Isn’t there some sort of meeting today?’

‘You bet your life there is. With Beth.’


Always well-prepared himself, he found Will’s perennial unpreparedness a source of ceaseless amusement.

‘And it starts in half an hour, Will.’ Ted was laughing. Always well-prepared himself, he found Will’s perennial unpreparedness a source of ceaseless amusement.

The conference suite had apparently been designed to maximise everyone’s inconvenience. One long oblong black table fitted snugly into the dimensions of the room; so snugly in fact that once everyone was packed in, a major evacuation was required for an incommoded soul wedged in the corner to get back out on to the corridor. Those with dicky prostates or quirky bladders always hovered until the party was in, so as to position themselves near the one door that provided all exits and entrances. Once everyone was safely entrapped behind the table, awkwardly reaching down to their bags to extract notes and paper, Beth announced, ‘I’m going to get the sandwiches. I thought we’d bring them in now so we don’t have to interrupt the meeting later.’ As she left, people looked at their watches. It was 11.30. Will didn’t mind: he was hungry. His morning, in any case, had evidently been themed with sandwiches.

Beth returned with a great silver platter of her speciality: the doorstep made with vast offcuts from a Bloomer loaf. The thinnest person in the room had a voracious appetite for the largest sandwiches anyone had ever seen. Various fillings appeared to be on offer. Will spotted one containing cheese and tomato. No meat today, thank you very much. When the time came he would seize it. Beth began her exposition as sparkling water and orange-juice were poured into plastic cups.

Dr Beth Hayling: alder-sapling thin, brown hair flecked with provocative strands of grey, half-moon glasses fixed on her delicate nose, while her mouth extended to full moons, ellipses, balloons.

Dr Beth Hayling: alder-sapling thin, brown hair flecked with provocative strands of grey, half-moon glasses fixed on her delicate nose, while her mouth extended to full moons, ellipses, balloons. Her hair a Roman crop, that of an emperor dispensing death and salvation in the Colosseum. Striped pants of her trouser suit. Thin hips so sudden and angular inside them. Such long hands, gothic fingers bony with articulation. She would claw a hard cheek with one of those hands and emit a squawk of laughter. In the middle of a thought her forehead would wrinkle and unwrinkle with wave-like fluency. But the blue-veining of her hands had always intrigued him. She was a network of inflows. For a while after her divorce he had wanted to be one of them. Thought often of how she must feel beneath those clothes. The angularity, the stridency, the yield. He was only dreaming. Now they said she preferred her own kind. Enough of men. And now in any case he had Sian, even if ‘had’ struck him as an odd way of putting it.

‘We’re here to talk about the Outreach Programme.’ A memory stirred in the murky waters of Will’s mind, like a dead fish rising. One of Beth’s hands was tripping out over the air. As she spoke again, her slender fingers dipped like a swan’s beak low over the water, considering. ‘I’ve tried to simplify the problem. We can look at the areas in terms of size. Going from the smallest to the largest we have clusters, sectors and zones. At the micro-level the points of entry can be called clustering. Middle area, sectoring. At the macro level we’re zoning. The definitions aren’t hard and fast. Zones have corridors between them which could be either sectors or clusters. But we must have a regional taxonomy and a terminology. Is that clear?’

No one spoke. Will was always impressed by the briskness with which she did this stuff. He made a note to himself once more to read her on the Victorian woman’s novel.

‘Our initiatives will be called the Cluster Opportunities Group; the Sector Opportunities Group; and the Zone Opportunities Group.’

‘Have we agreed acronyms for those?’ asked the ever-dutiful Martin, chief administrator-in-attendance and a furious taker of minutes.

‘COG, SOG and ZOG.’

‘That’s logical,’ Martin said evenly, ‘but might there be a possibility of confusion between SOG and ZOG? I’m thinking of verbal or telephone communication, rather than hard copy or email.’

‘Can we discuss this afterwards, Martin?’


Ted, avatar of affability for the whole School of Learning, beamed forward: ‘Don’t fancy being in charge of SOG,’ he said. ‘As acronym’s go, it has more than a hint of the drowned rat about it.’

‘Or the detumescent member,’ Benedict said quietly, in a characteristically exquisite whisper, hardly looking up from his notes.

‘Wouldn’t that be SAG?’

‘Or droop, I suppose.’

‘It’s COG, SOG and ZOG,’ Beth said, a little more fiercely than she might have intended. Ted, who was sitting to Will’s left, wrote in pencil on his pad: Toyboy?

‘I want to go straight on and talk about resources. Will, what have you come up with?’ Ted’s fat and cheerful hand landed on Will’s knee underneath the table and squeezed it with glee. Other dead things began to surface in Will’s mind. It wasn’t merely one dead fish now; the whole lake had been poisoned.

‘Were … we … talking … about …’ His hesitation was all too evident. Beth, impatient of his perennial unpreparedness, interrupted him.

Will picked up the piece of paper he had in front of him and scrutinized it carefully. There was nothing at all on it.

‘You had thought an educational CD-ROM, Will, remember. Its advantage being that it was transposable through all the sectors, and that the contents could perhaps be transferred straight to the Outreach Website. You said you had the technical resources to produce it. You were going to give us the subject, after careful consideration. So could you do that please.’ Will picked up the piece of paper he had in front of him and scrutinized it carefully. There was nothing at all on it. His preparation. The only thing in his mind was what he had been reading on the train to get ready for his lecture.

‘Wittgenstein and Names,’ he said, with a confidence that surprised him.

‘Wittgenstein and Names,’ Beth repeated with notable coolness. ‘An educational CD-ROM on Wittgenstein and Names.’

‘It’s an important question, Beth.’

‘I don’t doubt it, Will, but it does sound a trifle specialised for the West Midlands Outreach Programme.’

‘Will that be WMOP?’ Martin asked.

‘Yes, Martin. It’s all on the handout. Before we start eating could you ask the Print Room where those handouts are, by the way? They were promised for nine.’

‘Consider it done.’

‘How about Naming and Identity: A Philosophical Approach.’

‘Very good,’ Will said. ‘I’m happy with that.’

So relieved was he to be out of the dead lake that he reached forward and grabbed the mighty cheese and tomato sandwich he’d had his eye on.

So relieved was he to be out of the dead lake that he reached forward and grabbed the mighty cheese and tomato sandwich he’d had his eye on. He took a sizeable bite. Beth now stared at him with unrelieved displeasure. Her mouth when she spoke ballooned to planetary outlines. ‘I hadn’t planned on any of us starting eating till later, actually. But Will seems to have decided otherwise. So we might as well all have a sandwich now, I suppose. Martin, go check with Print about those handouts, will you.’

Finally, the long hours of the meeting passed. Will left committed to writing and producing a CD-ROM on Naming and Identity, with special reference to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Then he went to Hall Three and gave his lecture. How names are the elementary particles of the nominal world, the ultimate references in epistemology. Then he made his way to the house where Sian rented a room near the canal in Five Ways. She had been his student, his brightest student ever in these parts. He had had no sexual relations with her while teaching her as an undergraduate, since he held strong views about such matters, and for good reason. It must have been at least twenty-four hours after she finished her finals that they finally went to bed together. They’d been doing it ever since, on and off. He was twenty-five years her senior.

Sian opened the door. Even through the frosted glass door she could see him. Will Fenshawe was six feet two and his thick hair was strikingly white, prematurely and consistently white. Freakish eagle features: the delight she took in them hadn’t really altered or lessened since the first time she had been to one of his tutorials.

‘He looks like a very young man something awful has happened to.’

‘Striking,’ she had said to her friend as they walked down the corridor together. ‘He looks like a very young man something awful has happened to.’ He still looked like that, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. They kissed. He pushed his fingers through her dirty blonde hair. He found her utter disregard for appearances very endearing. Always had. He had spent many years with a woman who was the precise opposite. Marie would have elected three months in solitary confinement before going round looking as Sian did today. They went in and he sat at the table while she made coffee.

‘How was Beth?’

‘How did you know I was seeing Beth?’

‘You told me about the meeting last week.’

‘I’d forgotten.’

‘What did you come up with for the CD-ROM?’

‘Wittgenstein and Names.’ She started laughing.

‘You should have gone into public relations, Will. You have such a gift for the snappy title.’

‘Beth renamed it anyway. You wouldn’t happen to remember why I came up with the CD-ROM idea, would you?’

‘You said Charlie could make them.’

‘That’s right,’ he said with evident relief. ‘Charlie can make them, can’t he? Of course he can. It’s all coming back to me finally.’

Pasta and chianti and salad, she had thought. So what did he think? Could he brood on it for a minute? How had she got on since he had last seen her? She was a schoolteacher now. She told him about the latest antics of the one holy terror each classroom invariably contains. Shadows beneath her eyes. Her flesh so white the chiaruscuro was unavoidable. He finally asked if she would mind not putting any meat in the pasta that night. He could still see the woman from the train as if she were in front of him.

‘Sanguinary Wittgenstein. Never realised it before, but philosophy’s an abattoir …’

‘She made me think in blood and gristle,’ he said. ‘Sanguinary Wittgenstein. Never realised it before, but philosophy’s an abattoir. I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’

‘We could just get a vegetarian pizza from the takeaway.’

‘That would do me, I think.’

‘With or without the gherkins?’

‘Without. And I hope they’ve stopped wrapping them in silver paper as well.’

In bed later she lay on his shoulder, her hand across his chest. Her fingers were angular and bony too. Knuckling down to a purpose. Beth.

‘Got your lecture prepared for tomorrow?’

‘Almost. I’ll think a bit more on the train.’

‘Are you seeing Charlie?’

‘We’re meeting for lunch in some wine bar along the Strand.’

‘He’s not coming to the lecture then.’

‘He’s got a gig somewhere.’

Charlie was Will’s son. Presently writing a thesis. Charlie split his time between studying ethnomusicology and playing his guitar, at which he was remarkably adept. Will was intrigued by his son’s thesis; it seemed curiously philosophical. Or was that simply because everything struck Will as curiously philosophical?

‘You’ve been thinking about Malcolm Filey again, haven’t you?’

‘Mmm. I drove up there.’

‘You’ve even driven me up there. To gaze in silence at the cellophane package with the little bunch of flowers in it.’

‘You always drive up there, Will. Every week you drive up there. You’ve even driven me up there. To gaze in silence at the cellophane package with the little bunch of flowers in it. And then for the next two days your eyes are somewhere else.’ She ran her finger gently back and forth across his chest. The hairs there were white too. My hirsute albino lover. ‘You told me in my first year that Nietzsche said philosophy is the region of mountains and ice.’

‘He should have come to North Shropshire more often.’

‘Leave Malcom Filey to the philosopher then, why don’t you.’

‘I do.’

‘For tonight though. You said between the sheets you’d always quit philosophy. Play the lover instead. You promised that. Looks like you might have got me here on false pretences.’

Later as he slept she lay on one side and stared at him. Will. Her older lover. She looked at the white hairs on his chest. So many white hairs.

—This is the first installment of White Ivory.
see next
chapters 3 & 4
chapters 5 & 6
chapters 7 & 8
chapters 9 & 10
chapters 11 & 12
chapters 13 & 14
chapters 15 & 16
chapters 17 & 18
chapters 19 & 20
chapters 21 & 22
chapters 23 & 24
chapters 25 & 26
chapters 27 & 28
chapters 29 & 30

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.


Image credits: top image by Rachel Lapp Whitt; Renault car; salmon Pavel Muravev; Martin guitar.

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