The basement ceiling was covered in the shards of hundreds of smashed light bulbs. No doubt some kind of conceptual artwork installation. The emphasis being on the concept rather than the art. Mahvand hoisted up his stonewash jeans (that were forever slipping down), pulled his red hoodie over those dark, curly locks and pushed his way through the crowd towards the bar. At the far end by the stage, a lanky guy, with serious sideburns and a Victorian strongman moustache, was in animated conversation with a cat-eyed, bespectacled boho chick in Birkenstocks. Mahvand had seen her around: Bogdana Bogdonavich. Rumoured, according to scenesters and those with ivory tower aspirations, to be in the seventh year of a PhD entitled ‘Ecriture Feminine and Transgressive Representations of Womanhood in the Lyrics of Kate Bush.’ Things could be worse. A lot worse. I could have ended up in academia.
He was just about to order a pint of his usual – Coca Cola, which, according to fellow comics aficionado and master of ceremonies Octavi, was THE gateway drug on account of all that sugar – when he overheard an American accent. It isn’t, is it? At the spiral staircase end of the bar, a middle-aged man in a black polo neck and thick-framed, lensless specs was holding court. It has to be! It was no other than San-Franciscan queer comics artist turned graphic novelist Adam Hudson. Why didn’t Octavi let on that Adam was coming? Or did Adam intend to make a surprise guest appearance? Mahvand was desperate to tell him what an inspiration he’d been when he was a gay teen growing up in the eighties. How he’d gone into mourning after one of his superheroes had died of AIDS. He checked himself. Adam was surrounded by his entourage – a sycophantic motley crew of mostly middle-aged men who hung on his every word and quaffed Dom Pérignon from plastic flutes. Mahvand ordered his pint and ear-wigged in on the conversation.
‘Yah, Littlewood Studios have bought the film rights,’ said Adam.
‘What did I say?’ said an emaciated man with a paisley cravat bunched around the scrag of his neck. ‘The Castro Crusader is pure genius. Cutting edge. Yet, as we all know, destined for commercial success. Tick, tick, tick!’
‘If anyone deserves it, it’s you,’ cooed a Saudi shemagh-scarf-wearing, slim-young-thing, his arm interlocked through Adam’s.
‘Oh, it’s just a small independent film company based in LA,’ said Adam.
‘Laa!’ they cooed in unison. An eruption of laughter.
What, asked Mahvand to himself, circling the rim of his glass with his forefinger, would Octavi do? It was as if Octavi was right there by his side. If you’re not prepared to network like a Z-list celebrity and self-promote like Narcissus on crack, well, you may as well forget it. Carpe diem, cariño! Carpe diem! Mahvand took a huge gulp of Coca Cola for Dutch courage. He didn’t anticipate that the sugary elixir would bypass his epiglottis, deluge his windpipe, and leave him bent double and fighting for breath. Nor that he’d lose his grip on the Foyles carrier bag crammed full of copies of his self-published zine: Fallen Angels of Homo Heaven. They now lay scattered all over the beer-stained floor. Still coughing and teary-eyed, he got down on his hands and knees and stuffed them back in the bag. He then made the fateful mistake of looking up. Adam and his entourage were staring back, open-mouthed. The moment had chosen him. It was now or never. He grinned awkwardly, removed his red hoodie, and, clutching his wares, found himself walking in their direction.
The guy with the shemagh scarf flashed a perfect array of pearly whites. ‘Adam, honey, I think it’s one of your adoring fans.’
‘Hey kid, no autographs tonight,’ said Adam.
His companion emitted a high-pitched laugh.
Mahvand felt the familiar flush of shame. ‘I just wanted to ask you some stuff about comics, is all.’ He immediately chastised himself for not having congratulated Adam on his graphic novel being turned into a movie.
‘Sorry, kid. I’m off duty. Some other time, perhaps.’
There was an awkward silence. Mahvand felt the urgent need to fill it. ‘That would be great. Yeah. Thanks. Like, maybe after the show?’
Adam smiled. ‘Sure. Whatever.’
Mahvand felt Adam’s snub just as surely as if he’d been slapped across the face. Still desperate to please, he rooted around in his carrier bag and presented Adam with a copy of Fallen Angels of Homo Heaven.
‘What’s this?’ asked Adam.
‘Homo Heaven, eh?’ Adam said, laughing. ‘Hey. Thanks, kid’ Adam turned his back and the posse immediately closed ranks, excluding Mahvand from talk that soon turned to The Castro Crusader and the negotiation of authorial royalties.
Mahvand slunk off to sit by himself at an empty table in the corner, fighting off the tears. How dare they? I gave him a piece of myself. And what did I get? What do I ever get in return? On any other occasion, the running commentary would have developed into a full-blown character assassination. Amongst other things, he would have berated himself for not one of the in-crowd, an artistic failure, social inept. But, that evening, as he sat at that table picking at the label on an empty beer bottle in that overcrowded little venue in the East End, a long-forgotten feeling of intoxication began to take hold. Surrounded by nobodies, wannabes and somebodies, his anger gradually gave way to a dark determination. He watched the familiar game of one-upmanship, as if in a trance, and right then and there made a pact with himself. I’ll do whatever it takes to raise my game. Whatever. It. Takes. He repeated this to himself over and over, until he was eventually brought back to his senses by the vibration and rumbling of a tube train underneath. A rather panic-stricken Octavi pushed his way through the crowd to the stage. Mahvand stood and took his place towards the back of the venue.
This is the opening of my second novel, Pharmakeia.
Bright Fire of Morning is a short story I wrote for Mechanics Institute Review 8 in 2011. It’s a supernatural tale of temptation and salvation and served as the springboard for a longer piece of work – my novel, Pharmakeia, where I explore some of these themes in more detail. Below is the opening of the short story :
Bright Fire of Morning
by Timothy Graves
In those final moments of seedy profundity back at Christiano’s flat – our very own Walpurgisnacht – I’d caught a glimpse of something that shimmered in dark defiance beneath the veneer of this world. Like the flickering wing of a black butterfly, it whispered my name. Perhaps it responded, in part, to a summoning of spirits from my childhood, when in my self-appointed role as shaman, I’d sneak into my matchbox bedroom in deepest darkest suburbia and launch myself, Lady Macbeth style, from the top bunk in pitch black. The taste of that long-forgotten freedom as I uttered my incantation: Witches, Demons, come to me! Oh, the thrill of transgression mid-flight, the allure and taste of forbidden fruit and the re-enactment of The Fall, from grace and the heavenly hierarchy of angels! Was it that, that Chris had acknowledged when he held my head in the crook of his arm?
But I’d broken the spell or at least stemmed the tide against my seemingly inevitable demise. (Not bad for someone already on his ninth life.) For when the oh so solid flesh and bone of his arm had all but disappeared and in its place a convergence of glistening, black dust began to form a wing, I stepped back from the brink. I wiped the sweat on my forehead with the back of my hand and suggested a brief stroll in the park.
‘A breath of fresh air,’ I said. ‘You never know, it might do us both the world of good.’
And now sitting on this park bench somewhere out in zone six – as good a place as any to contemplate one’s soul precariously hanging in the balance – I noticed we were all alone, all, that is, except for an old man and his dog. Then gloriously, the sun broke through a thunderous cloud, bathing us both in its early morning light and the eternal promise of rebirth. I felt a stirring in my groin, Lazarus-like, and turned to face him.
‘Are you religious?’ I asked and watched for any possible sign of unease. He didn’t flinch. Instead his tongue darted out with more than a faint reptilian resemblance and he seemed to delight in watching me watch him tease both me and his lower lip. But then again his lips were badly chapped and out here there wasn’t a jar of Vaseline at hand.
‘Good Catholic boy through and through, me. Is that your thing then, religion I mean? Turns you on, does it?’ he said.
I tried to crack the code, to decipher a deeper significance in his words and would gladly have dived to the bottom of the ocean in search of that elusive pearl of wisdom but, fearing death by drowning, decided to change tack. Perhaps his Christian name would offer up a choicer gem – Christiano, or just plain Chris as he’d suggested the other night before we bare-backed our way to nirvana, before he bone-throated me like a pent-up Minotaur out to prove his mythical reputation.
This is the opening of Bright Fire of Morning.
(Copyright 2011 Timothy Graves)
January. A new year. Nana’s burial. The service takes place in a tiny, unheated chapel in a crematorium on the outskirts of Essex. We sit on wooden pews in winter coats, our breath intermittently turning into vapour, waiting for the vicar to take his place at the podium. He is a portly man with a voice and manner of someone who appears to feel genuine compassion. He talks about Esme’s life: her children, her husband who died nearly forty years previously, the years she spent working for Avon and making homemade jams. He talks about the exciting times she’s lived through: two World Wars, the advent of mass tourism and technological inventions such as the aeroplane, the washing machine and the internet. Not that Nana had ever used a computer or even once been on an aeroplane. She’d never left the shores of the British Isles. Nor had she wanted to. And now, there she is, finally laid to rest inside that box which is strewn with wreaths of roses and lilies from her children, grandchildren, and Ida, her one and only friend. The vicar recites one of Esme’s favourite poems, Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as A Cloud. Part of me cringes inside as I’m taken back to the time when I had to sing the lyrics to that poem in school assemblies. We’re asked to stand and sing the hymn All Creatures Bright and Beautiful. There’s only a handful of us; the words, when they come, are slightly out of tune, barely voiced or simply mouthed.
Two men, dressed in black, carry the coffin out of the chapel. We dutifully follow behind, as it begins to snow, and make our way towards the burial plot. This is my first burial. All the other funerals I’d attended had been cremations – a simple curtain drawn to signify the snuffing out of a life. The first cremation was that of my other grandma when I was in my early twenties. This was followed some years later by the cremations of two friends: Orisca, a party girl with a joie de vivre who suffered from Crohn’s disease and, towards the end of her life, tragically contracted meningitis, and the well-known playwright, Sarah Kane, who ended her days by hanging herself in hospital.
The coffin is lowered. The vicar throws a handful of earth into the hole that has been freshly dug. It lands on the casket with a thud. The snow is beginning to settle and I think about granddad lying in the plot next to her – or what’s left of him. (It’s been nearly forty years.) And I think about the painting I did all those years ago at primary school, soon after he died. The one based on the Jacob’s Ladder story from the Bible. All that gooey, yellow-orange paint I had mixed in the palette with the thickest paintbrush from the jar. How I’d painted not just one mythical ladder that reached up to heaven but a multitude of them. A ladder, not just for granddad, but for other souls too, to help them on their way up. Or so I thought at the time. As my auntie and uncle clutch handfuls of earth and throw it onto Nana’s coffin, their faces crumpled with grief, I see that story for what it is: a children’s fairy tale.