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Poets and Other Animals

By Liam Connell

On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).

The theme for the 17th contest was Different Lives.

We’d been on Corfu for a month, perhaps two, when Larry discovered that he was not the only poet there. It was a hot summer’s evening, and the air seemed to burst with jasmine and bougainvillea. Mother had taken to having our dinners in the courtyard under the evening sun, with the table perched haphazardly on the unstable white cobbles and the drinks spilling every time someone moved their chair. When the food was half cleared away, Leslie would perch his chair back, kick out his legs and try to blow smoke rings. Margot giggled every time he descended into coughing, and I would drop morsels on the ground and watch as the ants carried them away. They were the most wonderful things, little black Atlases carrying entire worlds on their back. They knew what they were doing, which was more then anyone ever said for my family. Larry and Mother would argue about books. Mother would say that when she was a child in India she loved Kipling; Larry would give an imperious snort and say that of course she would have loved Kipling, but surely it was time to grow out of it. Then they’d argue, and quote verse at each other in much the tone other families threw vases. At this point, on a usual evening, someone would finally get up to go inside and we’d all fuss about who was meant to clear the table. This evening, Doctor Stephanides visited. He’d met Mother before, and Margot and I had encountered him on our excursions into town. Leslie too, maybe. He’d never met Larry though, and after doffing his hat and explaining that he’d been making a house call nearby and thought he’d pop in, he extended a hand to Larry who didn’t say ‘how do you do’ but: ‘My mother still likes Kipling!’ Larry shook the hand, then nodded at Mother. ‘She sits in Greece, land of Homer and Hesiod and she quotes Plain Tales from the Hills!’ The Doctor nodded gravely, as he might when a patient confided in him. That was the wonderful thing about Theo Stephanides; he was interested in all spheres of life and treated nothing frivolously. He laughed, of course- but he took things seriously. ‘All poets have their place. However, if you wish, I can prescribe her a course of the very best Greek medicine: Sappho, Palamas, Calafy. I can modestly vouch for the translations, as they are my own.’ ‘My tastes do not need treatment!’ Mother cried, and seized an armful of plates to march indoors. The table wobbled and threw more food to my ants. Margot and I went to help Mother, and by the time I returned to the courtyard Larry and the Doctor were deep in conversation. Leslie was still blowing his smoke rings, though now his feet were planted upon the table. ‘It is always good to have another poet on the island,’ said Doctor Stephanides. ‘Another?’ asked Larry, surprised that he was not the only talent in the Mediterranean. ‘You’re a writer yourself?’ ‘No. Well, yes,’ said the Doctor tolerantly. ‘Another Englishman, I should say.’ ‘Oh?’ said Larry. ‘Yes. He lives not far from here. Another patient of mine, from… oh, from the war actually. I met him when I was a volunteer on Skyros and he was trying hard to die of a mosquito bite. You poets! The things you make from little causes.’ Ants don’t make much noise, but I think the ones I was playing with were louder than Larry. He was giving the impression of a man trying to swallow his own lips. The Doctor either didn’t notice, or was enjoying himself too much. ‘Ah! There’s not much to do when an infection gets that bad- you give them the medicine, drain things before they pop, hope it works. I used to sit and chatter to him about Corfu- this was for weeks. Every time I did my rounds, I’d talk to him about this place. I must have made an impression. He got better, went off, got worse, and came back here! Quite a surprise to me, but he’s settled in. Practically part of the scenery now. Would you like to meet him?’ ‘It would be a pleasure,’ lied Larry. ‘When you say that he’s a poet- has he actually published anything?’ ‘A little. One volume twenty years ago. It was well received, but since then he’s written for himself.’ ‘Oh,’ said Larry. ‘Larry’s jealous!’ cried Leslie, and gave a bark of laughter. This is hard to do when inhaling deeply from a cigarette, and after a moment of coughing and wind-milling arms, he fell off his chair. ‘You squashed my ants,’ I said sadly, and went inside. * A few days later, we set off to meet the poet. Larry thought that he and the Doctor would head off alone. Then Mother announced that she was looking forward to speaking with another Englishman, and she’d come to. Then Leslie declared that it was a fine summer’s day, this villa they were going to was near the waves, the waves were full of fish, fish were meant to be caught on fine summer’s days, and, therefore, Leslie was coming too. I was perfectly happy to be left alone with the garden, but Mother felt that wouldn’t be responsible, so she left Margot. Margot wasn’t going to be left alone with me, so she announced that I could look at the Poet’s garden. It was all very logical. So we all piled into Spiro’s car (‘Of course I knows the English poet! He is top gentleman! But you are my favourites English, right!’) and off we went. The poet’s villa was a faded blue. The white undercoat came out in streaks, so that when the light hit it right there was a strange rippling effect, live waves rolling across the walls. The front of the house was immaculately kept, with the closest thing to an English lawn I had yet seen on the island. It was rather like a few square yards of Surrey had been carefully transported by an expert craftsman. I didn’t like it. Spiro stayed long enough to knock on the door and see that we were greeted. We were met, not by an Englishman but a young Greek- Peter, with big eyes, and a smile, and a mop of black curls. Margot squeaked, Leslie laughed, Margot hit him. Spiro seemed hesitant for a moment, as I’d never seen him before, but then he clapped Peter on the back. ‘These are the English! You treat them well, Peter, yes? I back this evening!’ As his car rumbled away, Peter smiled, and in quiet English that was considerably better than Spiro’s beckoned us in. It was a pleasant house, and very neat. I was already used to a certain air of chaos on Corfu, but no sailing ship was as squared away as this villa. I don’t just mean that it was clean, I mean that it was tidy- you didn’t see cups or books sitting abandoned on tables. Everything was in its place. There actually weren’t many books for a poet’s house, come to think of it. There was one small shelf in the hall, and I glimpsed a few names- Woolf, Owen, Strachey. But then we were taken through to the back garden, where the Doctor was sitting at a (much sturdier looking) table with the Poet. Behind them, the slope fell away down towards the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. The man started as we entered. He was like a bird, I thought. He moved his head this way and that, tilting it to one side or another. He was old, I thought with ten years judgement, but beneath the grey-brown hair his face was surprisingly unlined from life and sun. He was good looking, like a slightly faded painting. The Doctor sprang to his feet. ‘My friends! Good afternoon. Welcome to Dymock House!’ He laid a hand easily on our host’s shoulder, then beckoned us over one by one. ‘This is Louisa Durrell… Larry, Leslie, Margot, Gerald…’ We shook hands, one by one. When it was my turn, I looked up from the surprisingly firm grip. The man’s eyes were white and red, and I knew that he was blind. I’d met blind people before, but they had worn smoked glasses. The Poet didn’t bother. Perhaps I was wrong, and he could see. But if he could, it wasn’t anything on Corfu. ‘Charmed, I’m sure,’ he said, in a voice so cultured it rendered Larry a Thamesside costermonger. ‘Durrells,’ said the Doctor, ‘Rupert Brooke.’ * Larry used to visit him a lot. I’d come too, sometimes. Brooke liked to talk about English rivers and fields. We’d sit with iced juice and I’d tell him about the things I’d found in the fields and gardens that day. He told me about the South Seas, about the palm trees and blue waters and the most colourful fish you could imagine. Sometimes he’d mention a girl from there with a wistful air, and sometimes he’d reach up and pat Peter’s hand on his shoulder. Larry found it hard to talk to him. If we were in Spiro’s car we’d ride back in silence, but if we walked he’d sometimes explode. ‘Why doesn’t he write? Why doesn’t he live? I thought he was in a hospital somewhere, or maybe a graveyard, but he’s just… stopped!’ ‘He’s blind,’ I said, ‘he can’t write if he can’t see the paper.’ ‘Mustard gas doesn’t take the soul!’ said Larry, who had never been gassed. The later visits got tenser. I don’t think Peter liked Larry being there, though he never said anything. Sometimes we’d visit and Peter would be sitting beside Brooke reading aloud one of those slim volumes from the hall. Larry would occasionally bring something newer, something modern, but Peter would insist on being the one to read it. Brooke liked Auden, he decided, but not Eliot. Pound was out, as was Stein, but the new fellow- Thomas- him, Brooke liked. Once Larry brought a volume of Siegfried Sasson, but Peter simply said ‘no,’ and put it in the shelf. ‘Not the war,’ he said, and wouldn’t be budged. Eventually, Larry asked if he could take a turn reading. Brooke turned his blind eyes to him, and asked my brother if he had anything to read. Larry had his first book, and fumbled and stumbled through the first page so badly that Peter seized it from him and told him that he should stick to writing. Then Peter read, in that beautiful soft accent of his, the words floating out of the garden and onto the Adriatic. I was young enough to be bored when I tried to read my brother’s writing, but that was the first day that I sensed that his books were alive, hale and vital in a way alien but equal to the things I found crawling along tree branches. Peter had a good voice, Larry had words, and Rupert still had ears. Peter and Larry got along better after that, I think. For the summer, and perhaps the winter too. One evening in the spring I came back along the path by myself, with bared feet and mud to my knees. I was passing Dymock House, and decided that perhaps Peter would let me clean up before I returned to my mother’s gaze. He did, but I noticed that he was looking more subdued than usual. Later, a little nearer godliness, I went to say thanks and goodbye and found him staring out the window into the back courtyard. Larry and Rupert were sitting at the table. Rupert was talking, but quietly, and as he faced away from the house I had no idea what he was saying. Larry was listening, listening like he never did to Mother or any of the rest of us. On the table in front of him was a sheath of paper, and he was scribbling furiously. ‘He asks me to write his friends letters, sometimes’ said Peter softly. ‘Sometimes they write back. But not always. They don’t think he fits here, not anymore.’ ‘In Corfu?’ I asked. ‘Alive,’ said Peter, and went back into the house. I stood at the window and watched for a while. The poet that was, and the blind poet that had been. Rupert Brooke dictated, and Larry Durrell wrote, and maybe if I was close enough to listen I could have heard the words filling the garden and drifting all the way to England across a wine-dark sea.



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