I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Ambrose Syme was a man of God and a superb classicist, perhaps the finest student of Petronious since Hugo Crub; but before I begin his tragic tale allow me to say a word or two on the subject of priest’s clothing. First, it’s been suggested that since the collar is worn backwards, ought not the same be done with the trousers? The idea is less absurd than it may at first appear, for the Catholic priest, if not his Protestant colleague, is bound by a very strict vow of chastity and has little call, urination excepted, for a system of buttons the sole function of which is to permit the member to be extracted with ease and rapidity from its subsartorial crypt. A rather more peculiar feature of priestly garb, however, is the sleevelike strip of material attached to each shoulder of the long black cassock favored by the Jesuits. These curious appendages, possibly a vestigial legacy of the days when the Holy Fathers had four arms and could distribute the body of Christ in two directions at once, tend to flap in the breeze when the priest is in motion and are for some reason called wings.
When I say, then, that Ambrose Syme stepped across the quad of an English public school called Ravengloom one very wet December morning not many years ago with the skirts of his cassock billowing about his long stickthin legs and his wings flapping, you will understand exactly what I mean. He was a tall young priest with a long face of sallow complexion and slightly pointed ears, and he held aloft in one hand a vast black umbrella. His arms were like pipes, and he had a way of branching from his shoulders at sharp angles so that the umbrella-bearing or umbrelliferous limb, for example, shot up on a steeply ascending vertical before articulating crisply at the elbow into a true vertical, while the other arm seemed to correspond precisely in the descending plane. His bony knees jerked like pistons in his swirling cassock and black baggy trousers flapped wildly about his skinny shanks. His feet were shod in stout black brogues, the leather soles of which would, in drier circumstances, have rung out loud and clear on the cobblestones; and against this rather dreary composition in clerical blacks and yellowish fleshtones only the stiff white collar stood out with any luster, gathering up what light there was in that dull day and reflecting it back into the murk with a pale gleam; and thus the figure of Ambrose Syme, agitating itself across the rainswept quad.
On three sides of him reared the high, inward-facing walls of Ravengloom, the gray stonework punctuated by serried ranks of narrow casement windows. Behind him two great crenelated towers flanked the main gates, beyond which the gravel driveway stretched straight as an arrow for half-a-mile before disappearing into the mist. It was at the top of one of these towers that Ambrose Syme had his lonely scholar’s cell, and for hours that morning the rain had flooded down the gray slate rooves all around, streaming into the troughs beneath the eaves and descending by drainpipes to the gutters below. The drainpipes were old, and several of them clogged with dead birds and tennis balls and the like, so that in places the rainwater overflowed the eaves- troughs and gushed down the walls, and in those places a greenish lichen had begun to colonize the masonry. The eastern wall of the quad was most heavily afflicted by these fungoid incursions, and against it now there leaned a high swaying ladder. Standing on the top rung, framed against the wild gray sky with a long barbed probing tool in his left hand, was a young man in a black plastic raincoat.
Were we to examine Ambrose Syme’s features at this moment, seeking some clue to his mood, we would find them locked, tense, and grim. We might detect there a quiet desperation. When he looked up, however, and saw the young man poised on the ladder, a startling change came over him. His high-step faltered. He gazed aghast at the poised probing tool and a febrile spasm briefly seized his long black stripe of a body. Then, as the color rose perceptibly in his cheeks, the young man up aloft suddenly plunged the probing tool into the mouth of the nearest drainpipe, hooked out a soggy mass of decomposing material, and deposited it in a bucket dangling from a nail on the side of the ladder. The purpose of the work was clear; why then did Ambrose Syme react with such apparent horror? We cannot know, not yet; but as we observe him resume his progress across the quad, we notice that his jaw is now hanging slackly open, his eyes are bright with shock, and something less than dynamic vigor characterizes the angles of his joints and the tempo of his moving parts. And it is at this point, as he ducks into the cloistered gallery giving onto Ravengloom’s east wing and with trembling fingers folds the flapping panels of his umbrella, that we must briefly examine the mind of Ambrose Syme, a piece of machinery rather more complicated than the simple system of jointed pipes alluded to above.
First of all, a couple of facts about the setting. Ravengloom heaved up out of the damp Lancashire moors some 15 miles from a decaying industrial town called Gryme. Originally the country house of an eccentric Liverpool merchant with a fortune made in the slave trade, it had been appropriated by the Jesuits in 1867 and converted into a tortuous complex of cubicles and classrooms, wherein the priests had begun instructing the sons of the Catholic gentry in two dead languages and a Spartan regime designed to tone their physical and spiritual gristle.
When Ambrose Syme, aged 13, arrived at Ravengloom some 80 years later, it was with a gristle that cried out for the toning. The problem was, perhaps, glandular, or perhaps it was purely psychological; at any rate, despite his tender years the libido of this lanky boy was already monstrous, and showed no signs of abating. Matters were exacerbated by his disdain of conventional outlets—not for Ambrose Syme the furtive pleasures of the schoolboy’s bed! For having reached puberty at the age of seven he had quickly begun an active sex life and, spurning older persons, contracted a number of torrid liaisons with boys and girls his own age, his tastes as yet unfettered by any particular gender bias. When his father, an Anglo-Irish businessman with extensive holdings in Malayan rubber, had been sufficiently embarrassed by the amorous activities of his precocious son, he shipped him off to Ravengloom; and there the Jesuits set about diverting the stream of lusty impulses that rose constantly from some sort of erotic condenser deep in the hot core of the boy’s loins.
In the years that followed Ambrose Syme, having first been terrorized by visions of eternal damnation, was taught how to displace energy from the lower part of his body to the upper. The technique employed in his case was somewhat analogous to the operation of the common refrigerator, in which liquid is pumped up through tubes to the evaporator at the head, being turned in the process into gas. This transformation requires the absorption of heat, and thus is the temperature of the refrigerator’s contents lowered. Ambrose Syme did not turn his sexual urges into gas, exactly; rather, he learned to convert them into long, ponderous sentences of a verbose and bombastic turgidity which he then translated into Latin verse, after which he analyzed the form, function, and interrelation of the various parts of the verse, counting the accents and scanning the feet until the heat generated in his nether organs had been drawn off and the primitive thoroughly assimilated to the classical. And this, in a nutshell, is the psychosexual history of Ambrose Syme, a textbook case of compulsory sublimation in the literary mode. In the fullness of time he joined the order and after a long and rigorous novitiate was ordained a priest and returned to his alma mater to teach classics.
So far, one would think, so good. Each one of us has a cross to bear, and in Ambrose Syme’s case that cross was the cross of carnal appetite, of which he was seemingly cursed with an inordinately large amount. After more than two decades of successfully defusing his desires by aestheticizing them, it seems surprising that he should suddenly succumb to temptation once more. But succumb he did, for not even poetry can channel the flood forever; and in that moment of capitulation to the Satanic id the full force of his long-dammed lust was unleashed upon one ill-equipped to repulse it.
“Ambrose!” cried a feeble voice. “Who is that pygmy?”
By this time Ambrose Syme, his rattled nerves somewhat under control and his flushed cheeks paled to pink flecks on yellow, was hurrying along an unlit corridor in the east wing; and passing the rector’s study, his progress was once more arrested. The rector was an old priest called Mungo Stank, a tiny bald Jesuit whose mind was beginning to wander. In his youth he had been a missionary in central Africa, and in the oozing, swampy, malarial basin of the Congo and Zambesi rivers he had done sterling work and apparently still enjoyed a legendary status among the tribes of the region. Now he stood at the window of his study, wings quiescent and cassock at rest, and from the back his pink dome peeped over the hump of his shoulders like the sun going down on some ancient headland.
“What pygmy, Father?” said Ambrose Syme, entering the dark-panelled study and smiling into the gloom with a sort of obsequious anxiety. From a dozen display cases peered the masks and totems Father Stank had collected in his travels.
Father Syme joined the little rector and gazed at the landscape. The rain was coming down in a steady drizzle and visibility was limited. Beneath the window the ground fell away steeply then levelled off to a very muddy stretch of rugby pitches, the far side of which was lost in mist. Tramping rapidly across this morass and about to be swallowed by the mist was a boy in a school raincoat.
“I can’t tell, Father,” said Ambrose Syme, having laboriously extracted and fitted to his beaky nose a thick pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. “Not one of mine, I think.”
“Off for a smoke in Blackburn’s Bog, I suppose,” murmured the old man, turning to him with an impish twitch of his silvery eyebrows.
These words seemed to produce another brief spasm in Ambrose Syme, and the pink in his cheeks flared anew. Father Stank’s watery old eyes narrowed knowingly as they fixed on the reddening priest.
“What’s the matter, Ambrose?” he said. “You look feverish.”
Ambrose Syme shook his head. “Yes, feverish. You’re unwell, Ambrose. Near delirious, I’d say.”
“Just hurrying, Father, is all,” said Father Syme, glancing uneasily about the room. Lesser gods and mojo men eyed him with menace from all sides. The old priest was waggling a thin finger up at him, his pouched and wizened face seeming suddenly to resemble a monkey’s.
“Feverish!” he cried with a shrill whinny. “Seen it in the Congo! Quinine’s the thing!”—and he began to talk then in Swahili, and Ambrose backed away, colliding with a bookcase in his haste. All at once the old man fell silent and looked about him with perplexity. He had, for a moment, been in Africa. He glanced up sadly at Ambrose Syme. “Get on then,” he said, with great weariness, and ran a spotted old hand across his pate. “And send a prefect after that pygmy. I want to see him.”
“Yes Father,” said Ambrose Syme. Glancing over his shoulder as he left the room he saw the rector sink with a sigh into his chair, and turn again to the window. Once in the corridor, Ambrose removed his spectacles and fingered his pulse. Then he collared a small boy and sent him off to find a prefect.
The land attached to Ravengloom was still leased to the farmers who had grazed their sheep and cattle upon it for centuries, and of these tenants the oldest and most durable was the Blackburn family. Their holding included a stretch of low-lying, heavily wooded country about a mile-and-a-half from the school, a damp pocket of the moors which had always been known as Blackburn’s Bog. Generations of schoolboys had found in its wild and dripping heart a welcome refuge from institutional existence, and these occasional outlaws would generally gravitate towards the pond in the middle of the bog; for there was in its black depths—its shadowed and unmoving surface—its swampy banks of drooping bullrushes and nodding convolvuli with trumpet-shaped flowers of pale blue—a sort of darkly exotic aura of tragedy that proved irresistible to the gothic soul of the Ravengloom boy; and the nameless lad who had cut so boldly across the rugby pitches was just such a boy. By this time he was over the gate that gave onto the lane leading to the bog and sloshing happily through rut and puddle. The sky was gray, and the rain continued in a steady drizzle. To either side of him stretched the rolling, soggy moors, intersected by low stone walls and scrubby, bedraggled hedges, and over in the east the great brown back of Broadmoor Pike reared up dimly through the misty film of rain. Ahead he could make out the first trees, vague, leafless, skeletal structures whose slender dripping branches he imagined to be the dendroid limbs of some bewitched and denatured army of lost Arthurian knights. As he tramped into the wood and down the narrow quagmire of a track that wound through the soggy bracken he could hear no sound but the steady plash of rain on dead leaves and the damp squelch of his boots in the mud. Gently descending into the heart of the bog, he caught a glimpse between the trees of the black water ahead, and a few moments later he was standing on the bank beneath the withered branches of a blighted old willow. An eerie, dripping silence seemed to lay upon the place, and the only motion the spreading ring of ripples about each drop of rain that touched the dark surface of the pond. The boy smoked quietly, leaning against the tree, and watched each set of ripples become the epicycloid of a new ring, until that ring was subsumed by a third, and it by a fourth, and so on, such that the whole expanse of water resolved to a patterned flux of constant transformation more complex and geometrically perfect than the eye could for more than an instant comprehend. And then, as his gaze wandered over the water toward the mist-enshrouded forms of the birches and willows on the far side, he realized that the pattern was disturbed. A thin stream which drained into the pond amidst a copse of silver birches seemed to be tugging at something caught in the weeds in the shallows, creating a series of swirling vortices that eddied outwards and ruffled the patterned ripples to a turmoil and aroused in the boy an urge to know its nature; so he made his way around the pond and through the copse of silver birches till he was standing at the outlet of the stream; and there in the shallows of the black pond he found the cause of the disorder. He gazed unbelieving for a moment then trembled violently and stepped back into the dripping trees, where with shaking hands he lit another cigarette; and then a voice spoke, and the boy’s blood froze and the hairs stood erect on the back of his neck.
“Matthews!” Being named, he was subjected; for there, advancing upon him with a bicycle, was a Ravengloom prefect. Matthews threw the cigarette behind him, but the gesture was futile. It landed on a fallen trunk and continued to burn, the thin drifting trail of smoke indicting him beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“Smoking, Matthews,” said the older boy. “Father Stank wants to see you.”
“Look Lewis, there’s a body in the pond.”
“Don’t push it, Matthews.”
“See for yourself!” cried the boy. And he splashed forward through the weeds to the place where it lay.
“I say, Matthews,” said the prefect, following him, “it’ll be the worse for you—” Then he too saw it, and the pair of them stood in silent contemplation of the puffy little body turning back and forth, back and forth in the thin sluggish current of the discharging stream.
Lust, cruelty, despair, guilt, and terror—these were the sins of the mind committed by Ambrose Syme immediately prior to, during, and after his brutal transgression; and now before him toiled his class of boys, their clever, impertinent faces nodding negligently over their Ovids, and some demon asked: and what use was Ovid in your hour of gravest temptation? And the answer came back: none. Ambrose Syme saw in his mind’s eye then the man with the probing tool etched sharp and black against the sky, and he shuddered. He left the class in the charge of a prefect, and made his way rapidly through the east wing to the cloistered gallery giving onto the quad. As he passed the rector’s study the old man was bent over a Mashona carving of a river god; he glanced up in some alarm and, fearing delirium, followed after the quick young priest.
Ambrose Syme, bareheaded and without umbrella, reached the cloisters and dashed across the rainy quad, and as he had feared the man with the ladder had made steady progress along the east wall and clearly would soon be unblocking the drainpipes of the towers. It was into the tower to the left of the main gate that the wet and panting priest now let himself, entering a musty little hallway, dimly lit and festooned with cobwebs, at the rear of which could be discerned a spiral staircase. He was quickly on the first metal rung of the staircase and ascending the great twisting shaft, his eyes as wild as his mind and blazing furiously in the gloom. Reaching the top of the tower he ignored the door to his own small room and instead clambered up a steel ladder fixed to the wall of the landing and pushed open a trapdoor in the ceiling, whence he heaved himself into the attic. He glanced about the cluttered and neglected chamber for a moment, then, seizing up a wooden fishing rod from amongst a pile of ancient cricket bats and billiard cues, he crossed the room, ascended a shallow flight of wooden steps to a metal trapdoor the bolts of which he pulled back, and with the great steel flaps rising slowly on either side of him emerged onto the neogothic battlement of the tower. He crossed the battlement and peered over the side onto the slate roof below, then began carefully to maneuver the fishing rod into the trough that ran along the top of the wall. But the mouth of the drainpipe lay beyond the reach of his rod, so as the rain drizzled down upon his gaunt black form and the wind plucked at his hair and his wings and the skirts of his cassock he climbed over the edge of the battlement and gently lowered himself onto the wet roof where, with one arm hooked about the outcrop of stone, he crouched upon the slates probing at the dark mouth of the drainpipe with his rod.
Father Stank had by this time reached the cloisters and scampered across the quad with an umbrella hastily requisitioned from the east wing boot room. On reaching the main gate, however, he did not follow Ambrose Syme up his tower. Instead, he stood transfixed beneath the great clock on the arch between the towers and observed a most curious procession emerging from the mist upon the driveway. For Lewis and Matthews were returning not by the muddy lane behind the school but by a paved road that gave into the driveway. Lewis, the prefect, held in his arms the limp body of a dead child, and Matthews, beside him, was wheeling the bicycle, and thus they approached the priest beneath the clock like a figment of some ancient myth, knight and squire mournfully bearing the dead, violated virgin child; for this limp body was the body of Tommy Blackburn, youngest son of the present tenant. His misfortune it had been to absorb the shocking violence of Ambrose Syme’s breakdown.
Meanwhile, high above the astonished old man the frantic Syme still fished for the incriminating little fetish he had so foolishly carried with him back from the bog; which fetish he had flung from his window in fear and guilt in the night, and seen land in the guttering of the roof below. Now he frenziedly flicked up sodden lumps of dead leaves, aware only that if he did not find it before the man on the ladder did, he was lost—as if he were not lost already! And now he had slithered forward down the roof, digging and probing with the rod, and below him a sheer drop some seven stories to the flagged terrace of Ravengloom’s front. Lewis and Matthews plodded on towards the school, the rain plastering little dead Tommy’s clothing to his small pale limbs, his thick green jersey and his stout gray flannel short trousers; and Mungo Stank stepped forward to meet them. At the sound of his feet on the gravel Ambrose Syme at last looked up and in that moment, as he gazed with horror upon the sorry procession, the soles of his great black brogues began to slip forward on the wet slates and he clutched for the battlement to which he had been clinging—but he had slipped too far. Waving the fishing rod wildly and emitting a scream that seemed for a moment to swirl about the rooves of Ravengloom like some hideous banshee curse, he turned, still sliding, onto his front, to clutch at the slates and flap with the fishing rod against the slope. No fingerhold could he catch, and his feet, then his legs, slid off the edge of the roof and into the void. His fingers scrabbled furiously at the roof and somehow managed to fasten onto the eavestrough, and thus was his descent arrested. He came to rest dangling by his hands from a trough of old tin seven stories up. The strain upon his arm sockets was terrible and the tin cut agonizingly into his fingers. He doubted he would have the strength to hang there many minutes.
In the time that remained to him Ambrose Syme became quite lucid. He reflected on his life and judged it, on balance, ironic, particularly the freezing of his libidinal fluids in middle childhood. He turned then to the sin itself, and to his surprise found no remorse springing up in his heart, nor any thought of God, with whom he had ceased to have intercourse after several minutes with Tommy. Instead, he felt that old familiar stirring beneath his trouser buttons, and by force of long habit he began to compose:
Peccavi! Libido non potest curari,
Sed semper ministran. Ego, perditus sum—*
And then the guttering creaked ominously and sagged beneath his fingers, and he abandoned both verse and hope. In front of his eyes, upon the old pocked stones of the front wall, a patch of discoloration formed the exact configuration of the map of Africa, its heartland colonized by a clump of lichen and a thin stream of rainwater dribbling down the eastern side like a perverse and backward-flowing Nile.
“Ecce Nilus retrofluens,” murmured Ambrose Syme; and that made him think, as the pain in his fingers became almost intolerable, of Father Stank, who was still remembered with awe and affection by the pygmies of the Congo. The awful weight depending from his fingers was now too much to bear, yet such is the tenacity of Eros that he would not let go. The fishing rod had slithered into the trough close by, and far below Father Stank—”African Stank” as he had once been known—was seeing to the body of the boy while Matthews and Lewis ran for the ladder of the young man in the black raincoat.
Finally, though, he dropped. He fell straight as an arrow down half the wall, wings and cassock billowing out about him, and then he began to tip, every limb rigid as ever, and he landed badly on his left knee. Death came instanter, thankfully; then, as the shattered body settled on the flags like a pile of broken sticks, a drainpipe hard by belched softly and discharged a soggy mess of rotten organic material in which could be detected a little balled up clump of something white.
The rain eased soon afterwards, and a few minutes later a buzzard was aloft and circling the area. From on high it spotted the tiny figures of an old bald priest, two boys, and a young man with a ladder and a probing tool, gathered about the black-clad body of Ambrose Syme. Off to the left, stretched out upon the grass by the driveway, lay the body of little Tommy Blackburn; and close to the foot of the tower, unnoticed in the voided lump of sodden muck, the spot of white cotton that had once been his underpants.
The mystery of the two deaths was never solved. The members of the community, suspecting no evil, found none; Mungo Stank was silent. Little Tommy Blackburn was buried in the village graveyard, and Ambrose went home to Cork, and there, we may hope, his soul found the peace that at the last eluded him in life. His long bones lie there to this day—moldering gently in the rich soil of Cork.
*I have sinned! The sexual urge cannot be cured,
But it can always be managed. I myself am ruined—
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.