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from White Ivory, chapters 15 & 16

< chapters 13 & 14      chapters 17 & 18 >

A Fortnightly Serial.


Chapter Fifteen.
Absent Voices, Absent Faces

WILL GOT BACK to his flat in Oswestry that Friday to find the light on his answering machine flashing.

‘It’s Paul.’ He dialled 1471 and for the first time was given a number. He pressed 3 and engaged a tone.

‘Paul Quinto.’

‘This is Will here. Will Fenshawe. You’ve been calling me.’ There was a pause before Paul spoke again. The voice seemed closer to Will than it had any right to be.

‘I think you know we need to talk, Will. Seriously talk. Some things in life are too important to walk away from.’ Will didn’t need telling that: he knew. Knew only too well.

‘I’m coming up this weekend; I have your address. I’m sure you can find somewhere to put me up. I know the flat isn’t big, but even so. I should get into Gobowen about midday. I’ll phone you from there and you can collect me. I think we need to talk about you and…Rachel. And me, of course. See you then.’

The line went dead and Will sat holding the telephone in his hand for over half an hour before he tried to call Sian again. No reply. He hadn’t seen her for a week. He would have very much liked to have been with her now, in bed or out of it.

Meanwhile his son Charlie found himself staring into a camera lens as he walked through the door of Stephanie Sheehan’s hotel room.

‘OK. Cut.’

Charlie stood still and stared at the lights, the tripods, the five people in the room as well as Stephanie.

The film crew turned and talked to one another. Charlie stood still and stared at the lights, the tripods, the five people in the room as well as Stephanie. She was sitting on the bed and smiling.

‘Sorry Charlie, I really should have warned you.’ Charlie put his guitar case down on the floor and stared about him.

‘Always knew I’d be famous one day,’ he said.

‘Francis Traile,’ said a scruffy little man in a kaftan, with a stubble of grey beard beneath a stubble of grey hair. Charlie examined him with wonder; he looked like something the social services needed to pay attention to; looked like one of those sad characters outside King’s Cross station asking for the price of a cup of tea. And yet he was smiling. He seemed pleased enough with himself and with life.

‘Francis is making a film about my tour, Charlie, and we thought your arrival here might be a nice touch. Later on I thought we might play together, and Francis is going to film that too, aren’t you Francis?’

Francis said nothing. He simply smiled. They were coiling wires and dismantling lights and a few minutes later the crew left Charlie and Stephanie alone in the room together. She was still sitting on the bed but she had picked up her guitar from where it stood against the wall. Playing some old chords from the Delta. Charlie took his guitar out of its case, sat down on the windowsill and started picking out a few riffs as accompaniment. Then she started singing and he was astounded at the power and beauty of her voice.

That big dark ditch from which there’s no returning
That cold bitch Death who has me in her sights

When she finished her eyes were closed. Now you sing me one, Charlie.

If I had wings of Noah’s Dove
Fly up the river to the one I love
It’s fair thee well, pretty darling, fare thee well

Her eyes were still closed when he finished singing. She said nothing, simply sat on the bed rocking back and forth.

‘Sing me that song about the river, the one you wrote. The one I don’t understand. But I mentioned it in my thesis.’

‘Your thesis, Charlie?’

‘I’m writing a thesis on the blues.’

‘What a clever boy. Pretty boy and clever too.’ She picked up her guitar again.

Daddy’s driving and Molly’s crying
And we’re all flying
Down into the river
The river that’s the end of life

‘I don’t understand it,’ he said when she’d finished. Don’t understand how you can be both driving and flying and going into a river at the same time. And I thought the river was usually the beginning of life, the source of things.’

‘One day, Charlie, if you really get to know me well, I might explain. But not now.’ She climbed off the bed, came over and sat down cross-legged on the carpet in front of him. ‘What’s your other name, Charlie? And don’t say Shade.’

She threw a long swathe of her brown hair back over her shoulder. She closed her eyes again. It struck him that he had no idea how old she was.

‘Fenshawe. I’m Charlie Fenshawe.’ She threw a long swathe of her brown hair back over her shoulder. She closed her eyes again. It struck him that he had no idea how old she was. He didn’t care.

‘Well, Charlie Fenshawe I’m on tour round England and Wales, and I’m having a film made about me for the BBC by Francis Traile. And I was thinking it might get kind of lonely out there. And I’d say you’re pretty good. Playing and singing, I’d say you’re pretty good. I’ve played with a few in my time and you’ve got something there. The thought of dining out with Francis Traile and his crew every night could make me even bluer than I tend to get already. So, how’d you like to join me? And then you can be in the film too.’

‘How long does it go on?’

‘Six weeks.’

‘When does it start?’

‘Next week.’

‘Not much time to prepare then.’

‘You’ve already got enough of a repertoire. I’ll try to get them to put you on some of the publicity stuff that hasn’t been already printed. They can put you on the website anyway.’ She opened her eyes again and stared at him. He was trying to concentrate on her face only, and not to look at her body. ‘Do you really mention me in your thesis, Charlie?’


‘Bring it on tour with you then. I want to have a look. There is a downside to all this, so I’d better warn you now.’


‘You’re going to have to come to the Trailer’s lecture with me at the ICA tonight. Otherwise you might just find you’re always off-camera when he’s filming.’

She was already in the foyer when he arrived. He had googled Francis Traile that afternoon. Northern working-class and very proud of it indeed. So proud that, as far as Charlie could see, he’d never stopped talking about his genealogy for the whole of his life. It hadn’t done him any harm though, that was for sure. A scholarship to Cambridge had been followed by posts all over the world. His early association with a particular phase of radical chic had resulted in the publication of a book, Theory of Film, which had turned into one of those surprise successes which soon have lots of other publishers trying to mimic the original formula. He had then gone on to direct films himself, about the working class of Manchester, the Brontës, the Tolpuddle Martyrs. He had picked up one professorship after another. He seemed to move around with considerable frequency.

(to the left a bird's eye view of Copenhagen Fields, where the trade unionists gathered to protest against the deportation of the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' to Australia in 1834; a father and son in discussion below; in centre of view men carry the huge petition in protest of the sentence to the Home Secretary in Whitehall, two men in discussion with man in doorway, who declares that the Home Secretary will not receive the petition; to the right John Bull shown under the heavy burden of the estates, taxes, and the crown, while surrounding figures in elegant dress do a jig)‘Shall we get a drink first, Charlie. You might need it.’ She took him by the hand. Charlie was only too happy to be taken. He had played her CD that afternoon. He would be touring with someone serious, he had no doubt about that. He had a beer, she had whisky. There were songs about whisky on the album. He reckoned Stephanie Sheehan knew a thing or two about drinking whisky. Then they went through to the auditorium. As Francis mounted the podium, beneath the applause, Stephanie asked him, ‘What do you think of little Frankie’s dress-sense?’

‘Is he short of money?’

Finally he spoke about how the most available thing culturally to hand had been film, not books, not music, but film.

‘No, no…’ She was laughing, but by then the applause was dying down and Francis began his speech. He spoke about his working-class childhood, the cultural impoverishment he endured. Finally he spoke about how the most available thing culturally to hand had been film, not books, not music, but film. And how film had offered him his lifeline into the imagination. How only much later did he come to realise that it also had a political function, in the detection of structures of power and systems of concealment. He spoke of semiotics. He spoke of psychoanalysis. And he spoke over and over again of feminism. ‘Feminism I think is the morality of our times.’ He described himself five times by Charlie’s count as a male feminist. Charlie kept staring at his kaftan, which he suspected Francis wore to disguise his swelling girth, primarily from himself.

Afterwards back in the bar, Stephanie looked Charlie in the eye and said, ‘Well?’

‘Why does he keep calling himself a male feminist?’

‘Because he’s hoping to get laid, Charlie, and Francis Traile worked out some time back that the best way to get laid is to make out that his sole interest in women is helping them towards their own liberation. You’d be amazed how often this rigmarole pays off, and old Frankie can be very plausible too. With his softly voiced entreaties and that ever-ready smile of his. Particularly with female undergraduates. Francis smiles a lot at them, though I’ve heard he seems to like them better in school uniform these days. The post-menopausal woman has nothing to fear from our Francis, believe me. As he gets older, the girls get younger.’

‘Well, it certainly can’t be his body they’re going for.’

‘No, I think we can safely assume it has a little more to do with his cultural status than anything he keeps inside that grubby kaftan these days. That golden tongue of his keeps filling the little darlings in on Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard.’ Suddenly she turned away from him and stared across the faces at the bar.

‘It’s amazing how long a young woman sometimes needs before she wakes up one day and notices that the man sharing her bed, the man between her knees, the colossus bestriding the world of culture, is in fact, spiritually speaking, a malignant dwarf. But once that moment of recognition comes, Charlie, it never entirely goes away again.’

He looked at the side of her face and realised that she had once been one of Francis Traile’s young women. It had been a long time ago though, if everything she said about him was true. A long time ago.

‘But he’s not short of a bob or two?’

‘It’s kind of ironic. Every time he gives capitalism another poke in the eye, it responds by giving him another bag of gold’.

‘It’s kind of ironic. Every time he gives capitalism another poke in the eye, it responds by giving him another bag of gold. The last I heard our fearless dissident was building a library, film archive and projection room as an annexe to his already pretty sizeable property. The rewards of sedition, eh Charlie? Che Guevara gets pickled in formaldehyde before they cut his hands off. Francis just waits for the next fat cheque in the post. It never seems to occur to him, as he prattles on about capitalism in the Guardian, that he’s one of its major beneficiaries. I don’t think much occurs to him unless it suits him, either sexually or financially.’

‘So why are you letting him make a film about you?’

‘It’s for the BBC, Charlie. A girl’s got to live.’


Chapter Sixteen.
Making Shapes on the Silence

IN THE CAVES of the Dordogne, they found fragments of luminous beauty. Carved upon the palm of a reindeer’s antler, the head of an ibex. So exquisite was the representation that naturalists could immediately determine it was an Alpine, not a Pyrenean ibex. The earth kept yielding these objects up. Incised on a mammoth’s ivory, the mammoth itself, its lumbering power intact somehow, through all those thousands of years that finally brought it to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Nine inches long. The size of the mammoth telescoped backwards through the imagination.

This need to make shapes, to make connections, created the blues song too. Instead of making shapes on ivory, the songs were making shapes on the silence.

Charlie was well-acquainted with such ivory objects, either through actually seeing them, or even holding them, or through the rich library on the subject up at the Mount. And he had one day made the connection while trying to dream up a chapter for his thesis. This need to make shapes, to make connections, created the blues song too. Instead of making shapes on ivory, the songs were making shapes on the silence.

He gathered up all the sheets of his thesis and put them in his bag. He was uneasily aware that he had some explaining to do to Jennifer Halley.

When he arrived she immediately suggested they go out of the building so that she wouldn’t be distracted while she looked over his work. He reckoned she really needed a smoke. Given the speed with which she lit up the minute they were outside, his suspicion was confirmed.

They sat together at a corner table in the café. Jennifer smoked and read, read and smoked. She was scribbling things in the margin. He hadn’t told her yet that he was going on tour for six weeks. This wasn’t going to be a popular move. She kept scratching her head and sighing, then she pulled on her cigarette as though it might contain the answer to something important. He could see the passage she was looking at.

The point was that Charlie had come to feel he knew what he wanted in art, and thought he might as well try to express it in his thesis.

The point was that Charlie had come to feel he knew what he wanted in art, and thought he might as well try to express it in his thesis. What else was it for after all? And what he wanted was acceleration of the spirit combined with technical resource. He was all too aware that without the technical resource what you get is emotion minus any formal means to shape it. Like the sound of a woman crying and a man laughing. It is momentarily potent but it has no form. It comes and it goes. But without acceleration of the spirit, all the technical resource in the world amounts to no more than the pedantry of machine wizards. He knew this in music; he knew it in the blues. But he was in no doubt that it applied equally to all the other forms.

With acceleration of the spirit and technical resource, you had Dylan speeding through the kingdom of desire, hunting down images and hardly ever missing, in his days as a great hunter anyway. You had Macbeth discovering damnation, while his wife explored the infinite regions of darkness and night, realising that even sleep couldn’t cover over the abyss at the heart of us. You had Sitting on Top of the World or Wings of Noah’s Dove.

His father had taught him once about the Lorentz contraction; how as we approach the speed of light an object actually changes its shape. In other words speed alters reality. What we perceive as reality alters as it speeds up. This, his father had said, was another way of saying that though the speed of light remains constant, the other dimensions do not. So the question that intrigued him was this: was all our history, all our technology, an attempt to approach the speed of light, in a world that never stops speeding up? Then our striving must be for annihilation. Because if we could reach the speed of light then we would cease to exist in this dimension at all.

But such acceleration in the spiritual and artistic realms seeks to annihilate mundanity, to absolve all the debts that sluggish humanity has accrued and that hold it by its ankles, hence the cumbersome flight of those ragtime melodies.

So what, he asked on the page Jennifer was now reading with growing discomfort, happens to a song, as it gets passed from guitar to guitar, mouth to mouth, heart to heart? Does its accrual of heartache from every fresh person who sings it magnify if only fractionally its dimensions? Or does every unworthy chanteuse, every trite artiste, every self-important thunderer in pentatonic melody, rub off the hard edges of misery so finely chiselled by the progenitors?

At that moment he was all prayer — no disguises between him and his own breath, the breath that is the spirit of life.

When the blues got too urbanised, when it turned into a conurbation with all the bright lights flashing and all the instruments plugged in, it started aiming to please. Such an aim when it becomes the only aim is incompatible with true acceleration of the spirit. Our distant object ceases to be an ultimate speed, and becomes instead an available comfort. Suddenly Jennifer started reading a passage out loud.

Solomon became a dancer before God and he danced naked. At that moment he was all prayer — no disguises between him and his own breath, the breath that is the spirit of life. If there is a God, it is the ceaseless breathing of that spirit. But how the words of limitation can squat upon your soul. Words like lien, debt, prison, goodbye. But when you hear the song, you dance with the dancer, you soar with the gull. To hear a song you must in some sense become it.

She put down the typescript on the table and blew the cigarette smoke from her mouth. ‘Charlie, you can’t write this stuff in a thesis, love, you must know that.’

‘I’m going away for a bit.’

‘To work it all through?’

‘No, I’ll be singing the blues. With Stephanie Sheehan.’ Jennifer looked startled.

‘How long for?’

‘Six weeks.’

‘But your submission date is coming up. You’re nowhere near. You promised me you wouldn’t apply for an extension. You know how much this particular thesis means to me. I mean, I’ve gone out of my way for you, Charlie, I really have…’

She started crying very softly. Charlie put his hand on the back of her neck and massaged it gently.

‘It’ll be all right, Jennifer,’ he said softly. ‘Don’t cry. Have another cigarette. I’ll be back soon enough, and I’ll get it done.’ He wasn’t sure what was really making her cry but he doubted it was his thesis.

Jimmy was the most sexually obsessed young man Charlie had ever known, but the obsession never seemed to result in anything much in the way of satisfaction.

Later he went to the Union where he had arranged to meet Jimmy, who shared the flat with him. He needed to give him all the details about the tour; how long he would be away. He thought his flat-sharer would be pretty pleased, having the place to himself for six weeks while Charlie carried on paying his half of the rent. It might provide him with opportunities for courtship. Jimmy was the most sexually obsessed young man Charlie had ever known, but the obsession never seemed to result in anything much in the way of satisfaction. Charlie found small amounts of pornography about the place, heard the occasional moan from the neighbouring bedroom, the squeak of tortured springs, a stifled cry, but no one ever came out of that room except for Jimmy himself. Charlie’s own effortless good fortune with the other sex found its mirror image in his flatmate, who had once revealed to him that for a period of six months during his adolescence he could not even encounter the word ‘cleft’ without needing to go back home to his room for twenty minutes. He often spoke of his relationship with a girl called Karin with whom he had liaised prior to coming to university.

‘Physically, it was a very satisfactory relationship but in other respects it left something to be desired, Charlie.’

‘Intellectually, you mean?’

‘Well, intellectually Karin was…’ He petered out. He couldn’t go on.

‘Negligible?’ Charlie offered.

‘Negligible isn’t really terminal enough to cover it.’ He sniffed. ‘She was a complete cretin.’

‘Ah, I can see how that might represent something of a problem.’

‘Seemed more of a problem then than it does now, to be honest.’

‘That’s the hard lesson your years at university have taught you, is it Jimmy? That being a complete cretin is not a categorically disabling factor in a young woman?’

‘Other factors being equal, no.’

‘The sack-artist side of things, you mean? The pneumatic bliss stuff. Breasts. Thighs. The tiny moist estuary of the vulva…’

Vehemently (at least as vehemently as Jimmy ever got): ‘Stop it. Now stop it.’ His face had whitened; a sepulchral apparition. ‘For a young man with no sexual companion between the sheets every night except his own right hand, the nights are long, Charlie. It’s all right for you.’ He took breath, then spoke in a hoarse whisper. ‘She always wore black leather gloves. She had these tiny hands and minute black leather gloves. And when she took the gloves off, after we’d been out in the cold I mean, after one of our winter walks together, the flesh of her little fingers…’

‘Enough Jimmy, for pity’s sake, man. The madhouse doors are creaking open even as we speak. Can’t you place an ad in the Evening Standard? Lobotimised but otherwise fully equipped young woman needed for emergency work on undergraduate body. The lowest forms of intelligent life considered. Might even be preferred. All other things being equal.’

But Jimmy, humourless with lust and desperation, with nothing but the prospect of another night of onanism stretching before him, had remained unsmiling as he stared into the murk of his pint, as though scanning it for abandoned spermatozoa.

Inevitably she was soon known to all as CP, which she liked better still, eschewing as it did all frivolities of intimacy.

Charlie walked into the Union Bar, and saw Jimmy sitting opposite an  unmistakeable figure. She had been christened Christabel Page, but had found her first name entirely unacceptable, with its connotations either of gothic feints or female competence at female things, linen blouses properly laundered, home-filled jars on trestle tables at charity functions. So on arrival at university she had announced herself merely as Chris, liking the name for its sexual ambiguity and its brisk, no-nonsense single syllable. Inevitably she was soon known to all as CP, which she liked better still, eschewing as it did all frivolities of intimacy. Charlie found it hard to imagine anyone, even in a dark chaos of bedsheets, calling her Christabel.

She was a foot shorter than Charlie or as she would probably have put it, he had exceeded her by a third of a yard. CP’s language was resolutely fixated in the preterite. She spoke with an absurd and antiquated precision — no contractions, no abbreviations — and with the rapidity of a machine gun, occasionally hammering at a single consonant several times, not so much stuttering as insisting with apodictic vehemence on her point. She was at it again now.

‘D…d…d…dissipativity is inherent in all forms of intellectual life; energy always tends to disperse. Poetry is a protest against this condition and lyric poetry is the greatest protest of all.’

CP translated Provençal poetry. Her translations were published in small books and pamphlets of an unimpeachable obscurity. Charlie stared at her as she jabbered articulately on. The blonde hair that fell to her shoulders had not been washed for some time. Small wiry fragments of hair and a few snowdrops of dandruff had settled on the shoulders of her ancient tweed jacket; bought, along with her grey trousers, from the Oxfam shop. Her face was bony, almost emaciated, the cheekbones parodic in their emphasis. The whites of her blue eyes were flecked with red. The pint glass in front of her on the table was empty. CP disproved the usual maxim about the relative size of the male and female bladder. Her capacity for shifting beer appeared to be as great as that of any man Charlie had ever come across. And she always insisted on drinking pints. She drank them but she never paid for them. Somehow she appeared to be an ornament of the bohemian edge of the university’s life, and consequently there was no resentment amongst the undergraduates and graduates who subsidised her, though most of them only stayed for the one drink.

Small wiry fragments of hair and a few snowdrops of dandruff had settled on the shoulders of her ancient tweed jacket; bought, along with her grey trousers, from the Oxfam shop.

‘Another pint, CP?’ Charlie asked.

‘If you wouldn’t mind, Charles.’ The only one who called him Charles. At the bar he could still hear her staccato voice intoning behind him: ‘Provençal poetry has in no way dated, because its energeia was attached only to the t…t…topicality of the soul.’ It was said that she was largely indifferent to the gender of her partners, and had once made it plain to Charlie, after several pints, that should he ever find himself taken short (her words…) At which point he had made his excuses and stayed. Her body, as much of it as he could make out beneath the battered male clothing in which it was swaddled, looked admirably shaped, figured indeed in the very dimensions he imagined Jimmy must so often brood about while lying alone on his bed, skin mags scattered about him like Onan’s seed. But surely the thought of that voice of hers continuing its locutions, minus apostrophe or contraction, and doubtless insisting on addressing him throughout as James, even as the act of coitus worked steadily towards its climax, would put even the genitally demented Jimmy off the whole idea. It would be like embracing a pneumatic drill, without ever locating the off-switch. He now carried the three pints over to the table and placed one in front of CP. He hadn’t even bothered asking Jimmy if he wanted one, because he already knew.

‘How very gracious of you, Charles.’

‘My pleasure, CP, as usual.’

‘I was discussing Provençal poetry with your friend James.’

‘Yes, I heard you from the bar.’

After she had finished her final pint and departed, promising to be back the following evening, Jimmy, who couldn’t hold his beer and had now drunk too much, gave Charlie a mildly leering smirk.

‘Does she…’

‘I believe so, Jimmy, yes. At the mildest provocation, so I’ve heard.’

Jimmy thought for a moment in silence, head lolling to the distant beat of an as yet unmarshalled desire.

‘My dad always said the key to a happy marriage was for the man to go slowly deaf.’ This last was said with an almost surreal precision of perception, ascribable in its entirety to the drink.

‘Well, I should get started now, if I were you, Jimmy, because you’re going to need to speed the process up a little, if you’re really planning on bedding CP back at the flat while I’m away, my friend. Better keep your dictionary on the bedside table, while you’re at it. And a home-brewing kit. You’re going to have to keep her well-lubricated while you’re at it together under the sheets.’

—This is the eighth installment of White Ivory.
See previously
chapters 1 & 2
chapters 3 & 4
chapters 5 & 6
chapters 7 & 8
chapters 9 & 10
chapters 11 & 12
chapters 13 & 14

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.
Hands holding clapper board making video cinema in studio (beast01); woman painting on canvas (Andesign101); satire on the Tolpuddle Martyrs lithograph, British Museum; the Brontë sisters (painting), by Patrick Branwell Brontë (via Picryl); Sergei Eisenstein (via Wikimedia Commons); Jean-Luc Goddard by James Stencilowsky ( via Wikimedia Commons); The grey ellipse is moving relativistic sphere, its oblate shape due to the Lorentz contraption (via Wikimedia); La Danse by Henri Matisse. The State Hermitage museum. Saint Petersburg, Russia (sforzza –; “Noues III,” poem in Franco-Provençal language by Jean Chapelon (via Wikimedia Commons); black gloves (Issaurinko); (vintage tweed (kobps2). 

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