‘Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart.’
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Brother Edmund’s telescope keenly scoured each the exhausted waves that made it to shore, his well disciplined and reliable right eye able to discern between useful matter and mere refuse. In his thirty years as Friar he had learnt that his Lord on High regularly set all manner of unidentified objects upon the shingle beach that led to the Monastery. All specimens he dutifully recorded in the Order’s Great Book of Observations, but he longed to one day be presented with something truly wondrous: perhaps an angel feather trapped in a bottle, or even a map detailing the location of Eden.
The object currently being scrutinised by the monk’s telescope, one Brother Anselm, was positioned at the prow of a small rowing boat and stared intently into the distance. He had once been known to all within the Brotherhood as a creature quite unable to see further than the few feet of space within his immediate field of influence. And even a full two years after Gerry’s entry into the church, the then reigning Abbot of Holy Isle Monastery had walked in on the young foreigner planting a far from brotherly kiss on the lips of his elderly companion, perfumer and chronicler, Brother Edmund. As expected, the younger of the two men had been commanded to leave the Island and return to his paternal friary on the Continent. But that was before the War changed Gerry, and others like him; indeed, before it changed the face of all humanity. The demise of the Abbot only last month now meant Brother Anselm made an expeditious and long overdue return to the Island. He was now a full thirty years in age, newly forged he thought, his long standing inability to see any further than the edge of his vision, tempered the moment he’d courageously tended to the legions of wounded and traumatised infantrymen lain here and there across the killing fields, Brother Anselm as exposed and vulnerable as the next man.
With no Abbot yet in place to officiate compline in the domed refectory, when old monastic lore stipulated that no Brother would speak at mealtimes save for the nominated friar giving a reading from the Holy Texts, numerous individuals chatted to one another with no especial regard for silence. Their hard-edged echoes reverberated between tabletop and rafters like the threshing wings of pigeons unable to ascend the heights of air. To them, Brother Anselm’s return symbolised how Good had triumphed over Evil, a testament to the struggles of distant armies who had so succinctly put an end to one tyrant’s vision for mankind.
The Brothers’ collective persistence paid off when Anselm stood from his stool and, spryly placing his hands before him as if entering into prayer, he regaled the company of men with tales of his and others’ soldierly heroics and how, in going out to meet Evil head on, he had learnt there was still much work to do as messenger of the Good Lord. As each his incredible sounding stories drew to a close he looked directly at Brother Edmund, that man curtly flashing his eyes in the opposite direction when given opportunity to re-new contact with his one time student. Hopefully, his return is to be brief, and not a word will be uttered to me, mused Brother Edmund to no soul except his dinner plate, an imperfect circle of pewter streamed with stew and dumplings. We must avoid one another at all costs, he next advised a heap of boiled carrots, knowing full well a world run rife with symbols and compelling, unfathomable forces had no room for a fiction of unrequited love.
It was a full day later, whilst many Brothers of the Order were processing a sizeable harvest of potatoes, when Brother Anselm managed to track down the old Friar. He found him hoeing hard, ruptured ground around the roots of a particularly stubborn set of plants. The task looked monotonous and unrewarding. Brother Anselm had been surprised at how the outfit no longer offered him anything beyond the pleasure of attending its various acts of collective worship, and with it a shared appreciation of the religious Scriptures. Earlier, he’d also noted how the once glorious, natural silence of the retreat had been replaced with ice-sharp whispers, many of them conspiratorial in nature, or the cottony patter of inane laughter. Yes, the repose of the monastery had vanished. No doubt the defiling feelers of the war machine had reached this and many more of the Islands off the coast of Mainland, wrenching open the mouths of fellow members of the cloth. Yet, had not Brother Edmund held steadfast to the tenets of his faith each time he removed himself from all company, demonstrating his lack of respect for those who classed speech as the new, all-important tool of the Brotherhood?
The young monk’s long, bevelled shadow fell across the backs of the old man’s hands. Flinching, Brother Edmund looked up and directly into the face of his visitor. The boyish charm of his companion was still evident in a pair of sunken, narrow shoulders, his trademark lopsided fringe, and most apparent in how his whole frame rose onto the balls of his feet. It gave the impression he was always reaching for ripened berries, or to remove cobwebs from the corners of ceilings. Brother Anselm signalled a greeting but no words followed. Instead, he entreated the old man to get to his feet, wholly aware several Brothers nearby were marking their every action. Infirm Brother Edmund required a guiding hand at his elbow to get to the vertical. Responding, Anselm cupped the ball of that joint in the compass of his palm, his vice-like grip searing through the fabric of the old man’s habit. Brother Anselm next wiped his lips. For the briefest moment the episode that had resulted in the younger man’s exilement came flooding back and with it a memory he still cherished: of placing a hand to his mentor’s pinched cheek and not having it pushed away. Indeed, had not Brother Edmund wanted him to continue with their joint crime against Nature, the old man reciprocating when finally their lips slid into place, locking them perfectly as one entity, like hummingbirds joined at the beak? That self same memory had often halted Brother Anselm’s flagging spirits as he trudged through mile upon mile of rain-sodden trenches, whispering prayers, or offering rags of liniment, his candle lamp a flicker of hope to fighters. Many of the soldiers had been younger than him, their lives tragically cut short by generals whose hearts maintained steady beats, like that of old, dependable drums.
From one of his pockets the young man retrieved a bundle, a mere five inches in length and five inches wide: canvas the fabric, and thick, oil-stained string wrapped adroitly around the bulk of the parcel, fooling Brother Edmund into believing he was receiving a birthday treat, a concept still thought of as abhorrent to each member of the clan. Celebratory gifts were the symbols of ostentation, a true marker of a man’s abundant wealth; everyone was in agreement that spare monies deserved to be forwarded to the truly needy.
At that moment, an immense rift in the cloud cover sent a column of evanescent light to the earth and illumined both men standing amongst the carpet of leaves. Caught in such dazzling sunshine the normally lustrous locks of the younger Brother shone all the more savagely, until it seemed it was a fleece of brilliant, untainted gold, requiring Brother Edmund’s full attention. He seemed enthralled by the scene, as if somehow his Lord from on High was suddenly with them. He needed no telescope to filter this moment, to have his mind record it for posterity, and encouraged by the occasion’s sublime qualities, Brother Edmund hastily undid the parcel to reach the contents housed within.
The twelve vials of liquid jounced and jostled for space once they were given room to disband and their handwritten labels glistened now and then from between the bullet-like slivers of cork and glass: Essential oils and a diverse range, too.
And yet, as each familiar name settled in the eyes of the old Friar, there came with such recognition a frightful sadness that soon found expression in a flurry of translucent tears that dashed to the edges of his eyes, there to be absorbed by a spray of crow’s feet that sat atop the limits of his cheeks. His upper lip, stippled with day old hair growth, quivered and became pursed, forcing the angle of his mouth narrower until the meat of his lips was taken inwards. The names of those binding agents necessary to make possible the concocting of ladies’ perfumes seemed to him now to invoke grief of the worst kind, as if they were the names of victims read back to him, of loved ones bitterly lost to catastrophe.
Brother Edmund about-faced from his companion. He seemed unwilling to explain the reason for his unusual behaviour and so with it quell the young man’s yearning to provide aid.
Brother Anselm reached out, as he had done many times during the war, a palm laced with sympathy and more, but his act was met with the old man’s disaffection.
Suddenly, the chinking of glass vials could be heard as they were netted together and plunged into the less congested of Brother Edmund’s pockets.
The clouds sagged heavy and the eyes of the youth fell dull. A zephyr of wind, fresh in from the monstrous ocean that lay on the far side of the island, blasted Brother Anselm, almost toppling him from his perch among the dying vegetation.
The charcoal-thin, soot-black figure of Brother Edmund was next spotted speeding across the canopy of crops and towards the main buildings of the Monastery. In the sky, a host of seabirds pitched their paper white wings against the backdrop of cloud, minute particles of fizzing light from the heaven space beyond.
Upon reaching his cell, Brother Anselm turned sullen and desired no company but his own. Kneeling at a wall adjacent to the door, a makeshift altar of candles and an unpretentious portrait of The Divine Mother balanced on a plaster sill beneath a narrow slit of window, he prayed for the better part of an hour. He sought solace in the antique words of Saints and Scholars, hopeful his urgent longing to be seen as wholesome and clean in the eyes of his Master would one day rid him of the desire to be intimate with other men. At the full term of his meditation he bowed reverently to the effigy of Christ’s Mother, and routinely disrobed. It was now mid-evening and all along the sweep of corridor various Friars were joining him in retiring, each man fully aware the first of the tomorrow’s masses was conducted as early as three a.m. The raw chill of the room swiftly entered his bones and forced Brother Anselm to rush for cover beneath the bed’s single blanket: a grey-skinned, thick-set beast that refused to invigorate the young man’s blighted spirits. The last tendrils of a fiery sunset flashed moodily across the stone slabs of his cell floor and in Nature’s utterance he registered his Master’s instruction:
At first light you must leave here and never return.
Brother Anselm quietly wept into the unforgiving chest of the old blanket-bear. He thought he would never again stare innocently into a sunset without hearing those ten words articulated by his Lord and Master. From that day on he would close his shutters before day’s end. He would hate the neutralising, dark night from this moment on, too; forever dread espying out of the corner of one eye the certainty of the cosmos and the plethora of divine constellations. For what came after the serenity of night but the desire to rise swiftly from blissful slumber and move on to the next village, and yet another the day after that? Rootless and forever shameful he would now be because of an inborn mechanism that meant Brother Anselm favoured the masculine over the feminine.
Idly reaching beneath the firm wedge of pillow his hand alighted upon an object. His eyelids flew back, the branches of his fingers suddenly enlivened with a desire to expose detail: a cover of supple leather, unadorned with motifs; thick panes of paper. And there, yes, a leaf of silk, to indicate a page as being different from a collection of less relevant pages:
Brother Edmund’s Great Book of Observations.
A mere fifteen feet eastwards along a corridor of diminished light, Brother Edmund fell to examining the fund of oils in their nest of canvas. Holding each of them up to lamplight, the reds and browns, the purples and oranges, the yellows and blues, all spilled downwards and were caught in his eyes, prism-like, set to re-ignite the cinders of some long forgotten passion, imploring him to once again reprise his role as ladies’ perfumer; the trade of his beloved mother. Many of her best recipes were lost upon her death, but he’d committed a large sum of her catalogue to memory. And they too might have died with him had he never found an apt pupil to continue his work. He guessed Brother Anselm was presently reading of the bomb that single-handedly vaporised much of the Monastery’s West Wing. Entombed in their Island haven, the sirens never sounded to alert the Brotherhood of impending disaster. Nor did anyone hear the peal of bells from the Old Church that sat perched on an elevated premonitory of cliffs, part of the Mainland and far south of the Monastery. The whirr of low-flying engines had merely been the lament of a distant thunderstorm, the bomber’s hail of mortar and dynamite, a heavy downpour of rain that would normally flood the arid fields, but not that night. In a single run the Enemy had bombarded the coastal populations with all its might. To Brother Edmund’s dismay the bulk of West Wing was made a ruin, in among the charred rubble, whole fragments of the workshop where he and Brother Anselm had laboured many hours to perfect a range of scents; fragrances for the sumptuously dressed wives of middle class men, and once a greatly valued source of additional revenue for the Order.
Brother Edmund suddenly understood the extraordinary lengths his young protégé must have gone to in order to smuggle such luxury items across half a Continent and get them safely to him; precious items too costly to ever appear in ration books! And this fact alone filled the old man with guilt at finding himself in possession of such rarefied stock. How could his conscience cleanly handle knowledge of such a bounty? He noisily fumbled with the edges of the canvas bag and recaptured each the vials, glass connecting with glass and each collision filling his cell with incriminating echoes. No, he was to ensure they were never recorded in his own Great Book of Observations and therefore never set down before the eyes of his Lord. Too often they would serve as a reminder of a world more at play than of a people at pains to redress the damage of a worldwide conflict. At first light he would travel North, Mass already attended and the statutory prayers of praise and forgiveness sent aloft to Heaven, to range far from the Monastery. In an hour or two he would reach the Cliffs of Waste. There he was to fling the essential oils into the ever-shifting, agape mouth of ocean water. His debris would indelicately crash against the mile long fence of jagged rocks far below, but what did that matter? Each glass vessel, replete with its own unique cargo, would burst into a thousand pieces, become one with the quantities of unidentifiable waste he’d long stored there: a horde of bad matter the sea threw up and he alone had determined would never be allocated so much as a single line in the his Great Book of Observations.
Brother Anselm drank in every detail his mentor had thought to record in the book. It even had a contents page:
-A Concise History
-Discarded Objects –useful and useless
-Order out of Chaos
-Some Personal Observations
It was in amongst the chapter titled A Concise History the tome’s slender marker ribbon indicated several passages of writing on how the War had directly affected the Brotherhood. It was with a heavy heart Brother Anselm read of how the remnants of one particular workshop had to be demolished for an area of land to be made safe following a bombing-raid. The old man had obviously intended for Brother Anselm to read his account of how their fledgling perfume industry had been stopped in its tracks!
Brother Anselm read on through the night, the wind for company and little else. The lamp deployed eaves of meagre light to the book’s various pages, many of which were illustrated with images that chronicled important visitors to the monastery, a comical cast of grotesque characters depicted in cartoon form. Yet, beyond such amusements the young monk was committed to searching among the diary until he located the entry outlining his own arrival at the Monastery, all those years ago:
Brother Anselm - newly arrived from twinned Friary on the continent – pleasant young man – well read it seems and bluntly confessed to one and all he harboured a penchant for Romantic verse – but Romantic spelt with a large R, he was at pains to point out when he gauged for himself the shock on our dear Abbot’s face!
He sat down on his bed, suddenly unable to read on. He was regretful he hadn’t asked after Brother Edmund, or the state of their business venture, prior to his return. And felt regret too for the gift of essential oils! It seemed that Gerry and his childish inability to tend to anyone’s needs except his own never lurked far from the surface. Evidently, he had learnt nothing about how to behave beyond the difficulties of war. He thought he’d returned to the Friary a man of stature, Brother Edmund’s equal in matters pertaining to Scripture Law, if not his elder’s superior in matters relating to the heart. He also suspected his companion had read much into the bombing of their cherished workshop. No space would be made for folly and extravagance in a world changed utterly by the last War. And no consideration either for sexual love between men, for it was the natural connection between members of the opposite sex that had always been favoured by the Good Lord Above, and such a ruling was doubly important now with so much work to be done rebuilding depleted populations of people. Brother Anselm wept. The pursuit of sweet fragrances had united them, yet their God had torn their dream asunder to prove a point about the barrenness of homosexual longing! How could he ever hope to re-forge a connection with Brother Edmund, the one man he had met he was certain he could spend an entire life loving?
A lone figure clambered headfirst through brush and undergrowth at the outskirts of known territory. His cheerful demeanour kept him buoyant against the foreboding darkness of an un-hatched dawn. Over one shoulder was slung a bag, within that bag a smaller bundle of canvas and its array of oils. Brother Edmund allowed no distractions to prolong his journey to the Cliffs of Waste.
A second figure traced a makeshift footpath newly made by the first man, his lithe body coping well with the pits and brows of untamed landscape. He too transported a burden of sorts: a cloth bag, and in that bag the Order’s Great Book of Observations. A restless night had sent Brother Anselm to the old Friar’s cell, only then to have his mission sent in a new direction when he heard Brother Edmund’s door ease to. He next studied that man’s shadow wend its way out of the dormitory building and into the grim, shadowy cloisters. Yes, he’d felt compelled to follow, to reach the point where he too now squinted at the far horizon, to the first strains for morning light and with it the instruction that he must today resign from his post within the Order.
The last time they had spoken, almost twelve years ago to the day, shortly before the younger man retreated to his friary on the continent, Brother Edmund had entered into a heated exchange with Brother Anselm on the true meaning of the kiss that had passed so easily between them.
‘It was your doing,’ were his words to the boy, but his voice seemed to break and the accusation burrowed into the ground between them like a terrified mammal.
The youth cast an awkward glance his way and replied, ‘If it hurts to admit you harbour feelings for a junior in your care, then so be it.’
‘The bond between us was unsullied prior to your advancement.’
‘I would never have kissed you in the way that I did if I thought you would react thus.’
Brother Edmund brushed the sentiment aside with the raising of his eyebrows, answering,
‘You misread my fondness for you and that is all there is to it. At all times I have acted most decently and I refuse to be drawn into a world founded on gross exaggerations.’
Gerry rushed to the surface and broke through the formality of the exchanges, coolly yelling, ‘I love you Brother and with God as my judge I know you love me, too!’
In the tortuous hours preceding the youth’s departure, Brother Edmund had been mindful to avoid being seen alone with the boy. And when his oblique form finally disappeared from the sphere of his telescope lens, the old man breathed a huge sigh of relief and organised the workshop to re-establish it as his own, discovering only then a selection of their more successful perfumes, Summer Rain, Falling Stars and Misty Passions had disappeared. The old man’s imagination filled with an animated story: of how his protégé would repair the deflated spirits of soldiers, cleverly replacing ghastly smelling salts with fragrances fit for a salon, or a boudoir. The gangrenous troops would rise passionately from their disease-ridden ditches with great gusto having sampled a whiff of the sweetheart they hadn’t romanced since departing for the battlefront. The War won, Brother Anselm, saviour and perfumer extraordinaire, would be hailed the true hero of the resistance and decorated with all manner of medals for his cunning and valour!
At the cliff’s edge, upward gusts threatened to tug the uneven ground from beneath the old man’s sandaled feet. The distressed cloth of his habit flung rivulets up and down the length of his body, yet he remained steady on his heels. Opening his bag, he felt about in the darkness until his hands determined the full weight of the vials.
A little way behind him, Brother Anselm watched the scene in awestruck wonder. A dawn chorus of birds piped up as more solid threads of daylight streamed the pink sky. He heard his mentor mutter fragments of a prayer before one frail hand was extended out across the great Cliffs of Waste. Brother Anselm realised then the man was to dispose of the essential oils handed to him the previous day. Now might come the time for us to communicate in words, and with it end the awful drought that has been allowed to flourish, thought the younger of the two men. Brother Anselm next took a single unsteady step toward the cliff’s edge, determinedly making his way toward Brother Edmund and beyond him, toward a glaring, half-realised sun.