I was very please to be awarded Second Prize for my entry A Bonfire of Vanities. A bonfire of the vanities in fifteenth-century Italy was a ceremonial burning of objects condemned by religious authorities as occasions of (i.e. encouragements to) sin. The best known was that organised by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, in which books and works of art were publicly burned by their chastened owners.
A Bonfire of Vanities
The notes of music emerging from the chimney, blown away like the cries of gulls, brought the watchers. For years they had watched the cottage of the man who carved notes from the chopping of wood, the passing of clouds, the bursting forth of spring flowers, the flowing of water. Carved them, and set them up on plinths, hung them in trees, for all to walk among, to run their hands over the shapely crotchets and quavers, peer through the staves and signatures. He carved them in materials that had sometimes the grain of wood, sometimes the taste of metal, sometimes were as silky as smoke. And never heard. No sound in the wood except the sounds of the wood. The notes were presences that intervened but offered no commentary. The watchers wondered if he heard the notes as he collected, carved, made. Always the sound from the cottage of making, never the sound of notes.
And then one day the notes began to disappear from the wood. He was seen carrying them under his arm like strangely-shaped ladders, dragging them heavy as loaded sledges, enclosing them in his hands with the deftness of a magician’s touch, as he took them into the cottage and closed the door.
And then from the cottage a terrific commotion, of chopping and splitting and rending. No sound except the chopping and splitting and rending. Those brave enough to approach and look through the small window panes saw him wrestling with the notes, in contorted agony, in hysteria-edged laughter and joy, in focussed deliberate action, breaking up the notes and throwing them piece by piece onto the mounting pyre.
And then the notes of music emerging from the chimney, blown away like the cries of gulls.
And then the cottage silent. And the wood bereft. And never the same again.
My other two entries were
I hadn’t seen Rosanne for years. Our affair had been brief, before she was married, but we’d kept in touch through her brother. Since my divorce she’d written more often, been more interested. Less in me, I realised, than in my situation, living alone, living my own life.
She showed me round the house. It was tastefully furnished, with a careful mix of the enduring old and the classically modern, an Eames chair next to a Tudor blanket box for example, each room finished, complete. Time standing still. Even the ticking of the long-case clock marked time. The boy’s playroom was formidably equipped and immaculately neat and tidy, uninhabited, silent. Mark was doing very well in his career, she emphasised. With not a little help, she implied, from herself.
Then she got out the photograph albums. Every photograph was dated and annotated. Monochrome gravestones and Kodacolor paving slabs from then to now. I was there, at their first party, pissed and glassy-eyed, looking at once naïve and corrupt, a fallen angel. And I’d thought I’d been one helluva guy, then. I can still feel the flashbulb exploding in my face.
Among the moments pinned down and named by Rosanne were the photographs Mark had taken in California, on his sabbatical, on his own. He showed them to me as Rosanne made tea. They lived and breathed. They rested on the page like butterflies. When he turned the page I felt them slipping away, living their own lives. Yet when the page was turned back, there they were, in place, glowing. He displayed a double spread that he was especially pleased with, proudly. The photographs were still. And then they were stirring, slipping free of the corner mounts, and fluttering up. The sun came out, a window opened, and the air flooding in was balmy and soft. The photographs rose up and fluttered around Mark’s head, dancing and shimmering. He sat, helpless and amazed, speechless.
‘Oh Mark, how wonderful!’ Rosanne exclaimed, approaching silently from the kitchen. She stood behind his chair. Then she moved her hand in a mesmeric circle and the fluttering photographs came to her hand. Very carefully she led them back to to the album, watched over them as they settled back into their places on the page, secured themselves under the corner mounts. Then she closed the album.
’Tea?’ she said, brightly.
He wrote about the sky in celeste, the sea in aquamarine and cobalt, trees in different shades of green with half words in brown. The sun was yellow, tinting red at sunset, passions were purple, girls pink with letters in citron and turquoise. On his desk was the full range of coloured pens and, head down, his hand reached unerringly for the right one as he wrote. Objects, moods, nuances, all had their colours and colour combinations. Every aspect of his writing was colour-coded. And each page he wrote, letter by coloured letter, made, like a pointillist painting, a picture. After a printer’s plate had been made of a page, the page was framed and given a title by his gallery, whimsical, fanciful, metaphysical, mystical, depending on how his gallerist judged it could be best placed in the market. There seemed little obvious – indeed unobvious – relationship between picture and title. ‘Enigmatic’, said the discerning. They sold for thousands.
He live in a house built like a galleon, and his bed was an enormous nest. He had a lawn in his office, and sat cupped in a hand-shaped chair, at a desk that was a toughened-glass LED screen displaying the google earth image centred on his house. Smoke came out of his chimney in musical notes.
His books were best-sellers, and each publication date was an event. People crowded around the displays. How wonderful they looked, piled up, copy upon copy. How seductive, to riffle through the display copies. Such excitement to buy and carry home a copy, shrink-wrapped and snug in its custom-made and printed carrier bag. How thrilling to exchange knowing smiles with others carrying identical bags as they travelled home. Such expectation as one settled into a favourite chair, with an appropriate drink – a new one for each book. To take it out of the bag, split open the wrapping, turn the pages admiringly, hold a double page at arms’ length eyes half closed, perhaps with a slight squint, and ponder – what is it? – the image. But one never got far, reading. His books demanded, dictated, confused, didn’t allow the reader to do enough. Soon the reader would put it down and, at a loss, turn on the television. They were books you left around for visitors to pick up, books you bought as presents. He became very rich.