UNREASONABLY WHAT? (PUT IN WHATEVER WORD YOU LIKE!)

UNREASONABLY … WHAT? PUT IN WHATEVER WORD YOU LIKE!

I’ve been suffering from a fairly mild cold/flu type illness whose main bugbear is that it is of a relapsing nature. Whenever you think you are a little better and rouse yourself off your sofa to do something as demanding as refreshing the water in a vase of flowers, or think about writing a long overdue letter or email, your throat fires up and you are once more prone on your sofa.

A mildish illness such as this shows you what levels of energy are required for relatively simple things.

This is the first writing – modest though it is – I’ve done for some days. I have to go searching for words that normally come leaping forward faster than I can process them, and after a few lack lustre sentences I think, oh I can’t be bothered, and who cares about this anyway?

It obviously requires energy for me, at any rate, to remain polite. I’m wandering around in a make-my-day snarl of irritability – babies cry at the very sight of me and dogs cringe. I cut in on some hapless seller of something nobody wants from Bombay (or whatever it calls itself now), “For heaven’s sake, get to the point, and could we speak English.” When the poor man replied, with dignity, “I am speaking my best English, Madam,” I felt sorry for my rudeness and apologised and said I was ill. “I will not disturb you further, Madam,” he said, “and I wish you a good – ” and then he could not remember the word for ‘recovery’ but I thanked him anyway.

As for clothes – can’t be bothered seeing they match. Jewellery – who cares?

People kindly phone me up or come to see me and I can’t think of anything to say to them. You realise your normal fizz and chat and what passes for wit does take energy.

Oh well. Doubtless I will recover. Meanwhile can somebody stop the sun shining in my eyes; people are wearing perfume that’s too strong; and somebody’s breathing so loudly I can actually hear them… (Now I think about it I remember exactly when this illness began, about a week before I recognised it, when I sat outside at a Maison Blanc in Winchester and got in an enormous stress because I could hear the man at the next table chewing. Actually I could hear the slow gear changing of his thinking as well, but I did retain enough sense of normality to think, what on earth is wrong with ME, and not, with him.)

John comes home late from a day at golf, laden this time with a trophy, bottles he has won, news of people, full of good cheer and I am glad to see him, so maybe the tide is turning. Besides which my washing which has hung limply on the line getting rained on for two days has miraculously dried today…

A few weeks’ gap coming up from me – no doubt this is A Good Thing!

 

 

 

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AN AUGURY OF PROPHETS

A combination of a relapsing flu like illness, a new computer, and a trip to Winchester, have conspired to keep me from blogging for the past few weeks.

 

I wrote a short story called, The Helmsman and the Navigator, which those of you who read it may recall ended ‘ but this is not a story about prophecy.’

 

Well, here’s a story which IS about prophecy.

 

AN AUGURY OF PROPHETS

 

There had been prophets (allegedly) in his family for generations. Not in every generation. Every so often the (so-called ) gift skipped a generation altogether. Dario didn’t think much of the supposed gift. In fact, he didn’t regard himself as a prophet at all. It wasn’t that he considered himself a prophet (if such a thing existed) or that he had any aspirations to the role. The problem was that other people saw a prophet in him.

 

It was probably because of his grandfather, who had famously prophesied the Battle of Bosky Hill and that the winner of that battle would go on to be king. Dario wondered sometimes whether declaring the prophecy itself shortened the odds on the event taking place. Would the opposing parties have fought so hard over the barren fields on Bosky Hill, if they had not believed that the winner would go on to be king? The winner had indeed gone on to be king, but much good it had done him,for six months later he had choked on a fishbone and died. His grandfather hadn’t foretold that part.

 

When Dario wondered about all these things to his father, a people’s prophet jobbing forecaster who made an adequate if not luxurious living, his parent would become irritated. “It’s our profession,” he would explain to his dubious son. “People need prophecies and we deliver them.”

 

“Do you just make them up?”

 

A cautious expression briefly crossed his father’s face. “Not made up, no of course not…” He hesitated. “Sometimes you have to guess.”

 

Someone knocked at the door. His father negotiated a half price prophesy to be given by his apprentice. The man wanted a forecast for his daughter. Dario looked at her, a freckle faced, plain girl with lank hair and hard eyes. She looked back at him boldly, unafraid. Dario thought, does she understand the risks of prophecy? Probably not, but he was not going to teach her. As for her future, he had no idea, not a clue, and didn’t care either. “She will find a kind husband and have two children.” Given her lack of charm or any visible talent, he thought this was generous but the girl didn’t look at all impressed – perhaps she had expected something grander? He thought about adding, ‘but the first husband will die young and she will marry twice more and become a wealthy widow.’ But instead he withdrew into the garden where he took refuge with the pig. He heard his father having difficulty in extracting the fee. He was scratching the pig behind her ears when his father came looking for him.

 

“You could make more of a – a production of it: a performance.”

 

Dario moved away from the pig who looked disappointed. “When I looked at her, I had no ideas at all. She seemed a strong girl. But she wasn’t a looker, so I thought if I said she’d find a husband it would tip the balance in her favour – make her more confident. If I said she’d have a child, someone would be more likely to marry her. She looked strong; no reason why she shouldn’t have a child; and if she has one, she could have two.”

 

His father sighed but he couldn’t argue with the logic.

 

“I should send you to the School at the Lake of Shadows.”

 

“I don’t want to go to a prophecy school!”

 

“Well. I can’t afford it in any case. We could get a scholarship if we could prove you had a gift…”

Dario gave him a look.

 

“It is said,” his father told him, then corrected himself, “Your grandfather prophesied that out of the gates of the School at the Lake of Shadows would walk the greatest prophet our country would ever see.”

 

Dario snorted. “Did a member of the school’s finance board assist him with that prophecy? It must have helped no end when it came to jacking up their fees.”

 

His father shook his head and left his son to commune with the pig.

 

 

Some months later, as Dario set off on foot, alone, on the long journey to the School at the Lake of Shadows, he reflected (sardonically) that perhaps he had the gift of prophecy after all, for whenever he had set eyes on his new stepmother’s false and pretty face, he had known that here was a woman who would ensnare his father and oppose him.

 

She believed the gift of prophecy should be harnessed, and that if managed properly and in the right hands – hers, of course, she thought – it could and indeed should bring wealth, rank and influence to its owner. Dario had steadfastly resisted all her suggestions of ‘improvements’. But the point of their ultimate quarrel came a few months after her marriage to his father. Dario had noticed that his father seemed to fall into a deep sleep quite early in the evening. He suspected that his father was being drugged by his new wife, but did not perceive why until she arrived in her nightgown in his bedroom. He was both incensed and horrified and he declined decidedly. In the row that followed he lost his temper. Know this, he snarled at her. You will never have a child. You will grow fat and ugly and rancid and ever more mean and vindictive. She looked more angry than shocked and he was surprised how his voice had acquired resonance and power. As he ejected her into the landing, he hissed at her, ‘And you needn’t be a prophet to tell that either. Any fool who looks at your greedy, grasping face can see all that!’

 

What tale she carried to his father he never knew. He suspected she had accused him of the lust she had herself experienced. His father seemed neither surprised nor angry. In Dario’s view he had been foolish to marry her and too ready to excuse her faults, but it was clear that though he agreed his son must leave, he did not believe what she alleged and he refused point blank to throw his son out, penniless and disgraced.

 

“I’m sorry you two don’t get on, son,” he said.

 

“Why did you marry her?”

 

His father shook his head, and only said, “I had my reasons, and I knew what I was doing.” There was a short pause in which Dario wondered to himself what the reasons could possibly be. His father went on: “It’s time for you to go out and seek your own destiny. I’ve arranged for moneys to be paid to you from this bank account.” He held out a scrap of paper with details on it. “It’s not a large sum, but it will see to your needs for a bit.”

 

Since this money could only have come from his stepmother, Dario was surprised his father could negotiate so well. He was quite willing to go really. But then the blow fell.

 

“And I’ve obtained a place for you and paid the fees for the first year at the School for Prophets at the Lake of Shadows.” He was silent, appalled. He had already thought what a relief it would be to leave all that behind him. And the terrible expense. No wonder his stepmother looked so bitter.

“Dario,” his father added. “You will oblige me by attending. If after a year you have no change of view, well, so be it.”

 

 

He had given his word. There would be no change of view, he knew, as he trudged along, a blister on his heel. He hated the very idea of prophecy. And besides if you were ‘a prophet’ you only spoke when the spirit moved you, and on whatever subject it chose. You were not a tame fortune teller, in someone’s pocket, forced to snatch a good fortune from the ether and present it to the almost invariably undeserving supplicant (or his agent, or mentor, or parent). He didn’t care at all whether these persons who passed before him lived or died, whether they were poor or rich, whether they attained their heart’s desire, or if whatever they feared over-whelmed them. Besides, it was all nothing to do with him. His other heel began to develop a blister.

 

Despite his disapproval of its very existence, when he first sighted the School at the Lake of Shadows, he was impressed. He stood on the path, the land sloping gently down to the Lake of Shadows below him. It was a beautiful stretch of water, the colours in it constantly changing. On an almost-island, joined to the shore by a long and delicate causeway, the white walls of the school gleamed like pearls; its turrets, catching the light. It made him think of a pointed crown. Dario sighed and limped on towards it.

 

 

They received him with indifference. His fees had been paid for a year but his appearance did not indicate either wealth or influence. They paused over his illustrious name, for his grandfather of course with his famous prophecy that out of their gates would walk etc etc was the source of much of their prestige (and therefore high fees); but he swiftly denied any close connection and said he was merely a distant relative. They believed him. He reminded himself that these people were all charlatans, and he ought not to be disappointed that they dismissed him so readily as the fool he pretended to be.

 

There was one very aged teacher who no longer took classes but wandered in the herb garden or slept in a wooden chair in the orchard. When it became apparent that the new student possessed no outstanding talents, he was allocated menial duties – cooking, cleaning, gardening – and generally treated as a servant. He enjoyed the gardening and often found himself avoiding the old man in order not to disturb his slumbers. He was weeding one day when he looked up to find that the aged

brother was awake and was looking at him.

 

“You’ve come back!” he said. “You said you’d never darken our doors again!”

 

Dario hesitated. The old man was not lucid. He had no wish to be hurtful, and he was uncertain how to reply, so he just smiled and picked up the old man’s blanket from where it had fallen to the ground. “Your blanket has fallen off, sir,” he tucked it in. “The wind is chill.”

 

The old man was still looking at him. “Too young.” he said suddenly. “What is your name, boy?”

 

Dario told him. The old man nodded and Dario prepared to move on. “You think I don’t know who you are?” Dario looked at him. The old man smiled. He looked young in the smile. Dario said nothing.

 

“Your grandfather was a man of few words as well. He used to say a prophet should save his words and not waste them on trivialities.”

 

“Maybe he WAS a prophet!” Dario regretted speaking the moment the words were uttered. But he might as well speak his mind now. “I’m just a nobody. I think prophecy is mostly fraud. There may be some people who have some sort of gift but there’s mighty few of them and I am not one of them; and what’s more,” (he might as well be damned altogether) “I haven’t heard a single person who’s foretold anything that prior knowledge or common sense wouldn’t have told you. Or else they couch their forecast in terms so obscure and vague, or set so far into the future, that they can never be proved wrong.”

 

The old teacher nodded in agreement. “True. Very true,” he agreed. “But I advise you not to say this to anyone else here.”

 

“I’d like to leave this place.” Dario looked again at the face of the old man. “I could just walk away.”

 

“You could.” The old teacher rubbed his hands together slowly. “My advice to you, young man, is to study your lessons well.” When Dario protested how stupid and pointless he found many of them, he raised a paper thin hand. “Watch and listen. When the moment comes you will know it.”

 

“How will I know it?”

 

The old man shook his head. “Your life, boy, will be spent studying and preparing for moments that you will never know are coming, nor what they will be about.” He looked at Dario with some sympathy. “It is a lonely and difficult path.”

 

Dario felt suddenly irritated. This was just all nonsense and another form of deceit.

 

“Did you find your life so?” he asked. But the old man did not take offence. “I do not have your gifts.” Dario made a gesture of dismissal. “What were your gifts, sir?” he asked.

 

“If you remain true, your gifts never leave you.” Dario nodded in acknowledgement of the just reproof. “I can see who people are.”

 

Dario laughed. “Was that a marketable gift?” he asked. “Everything here seems to be for sale.”

 

“You’d be surprised,” said the old man. “Now go quickly from me, for here comes a spy.” He closed his eyes and appeared to slumber and Dario slipped away among the fruit trees before another student, approaching from a distance, could reach them.

 

Dario didn’t know whether to be encouraged or depressed by the elder brother’s remarks. Any time he passed him in the garden again, he appeared to be fast asleep.

 

Weeks passed into months. He made no friends. His menial duties were increased so that it appeared that he would hardly have tine to complete his class work. However, he worked into the night and completed all his assignments. He scored high marks in Mathematics, History, Geography, Astronomy, the Sciences, Politics, Language Skills. But he was dismally unimpressive in necromancy, spells, curses or astrology. As for prophecy, he simply refused. He had no capacity, he said. He knew that pupils were permitted to opt out of classes if the teacher agreed they showed no aptitude. He was surprised that the Teacher of Prophecy did not dismiss him. Many other pupils were dismissed.

 

Eventually the Teacher of Prophecy requested that he remain behind, and he was hopeful that at last he would be dismissed.

 

The teacher sat on his desk with his arms folded. “I have been patient with you,” he stated.

 

Dario agreed.

 

“You have not tried.”

 

“Sir, I have no ability.”

 

“How are you so sure, since you will not attempt it?”

Dario said nothing.

 

“You know that pupils at this school are bound over for their good behaviour?”

 

“I have not misbehaved.”

 

“Silence. You will not speak when you are comanded to do so. Be silent now!”

 

Dario looked at him but said nothing.

 

“Unless you do as I instruct you, I will report you to the Headmaster as a boy who is arrogant and lazy and who seeks to mock our ancient arts.” He paused. “Your parents, if the Head dismisses you in disgrace, have already agreed that within a month of our invoicing them, they will pay the balance of two years’ fees in full. Every parent agrees to this.” He seemed irritated by Dario’s lack of response. “What do you think of that?”

 

“You have commanded me to be silent.”

 

“Speak then, wretched boy. What have you to say?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Will you attempt a prophecy?”

 

“No.”

 

The teacher swore a frightful oath in which he called upon gods Dario had heard of and some that he had not, to curse him and all his relatives in terms detailed and horrific. “The last boy I laid that curse upon was dead within the month.” Dario said nothing.

 

“Are you stupid, boy?”

 

“Evidently you think so.”

 

“Are you not concerned about your fate?”

 

“No.”

 

“Why not? The other boy – “

 

Suddenly Dario lost his temper. “The other unfortunate boy either had a suggestible nature and allowed your unspeakable malice to prey on his mind; or his death was merely a coincidence; or the account is untrue or misleading; or I suppose it is just possible that he had sinned against you and thus your curse could fall upon him. “ He eyed the teacher, who looked astounded, with extreme distaste. “Never the less, it was an unpardonable abuse of trust on your part, and your admission of it makes you unfit for your position. You must know also, learned as you are, that a curse once uttered must out somewhere, and if it fails in its original direction, it returns to the sender.”

 

The teacher stuttered, “How d-dare you, you ignorant youth – “

 

Dario smiled, an entirely mirthless smile. “Perhaps you’d care to prophecy on the outcome, Teacher of Prophecy?”

 

“Do not provoke me, boy. You are only fit to be a pigherd or a digger of manure.”

 

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Besides, better men than ourselves have laboured at these offices.”

 

The teacher looked as if he could hardly believe his ears, and indeed Dario knew that in all the months he had spent in his class, he had never uttered so many words. The teacher of Prophecy stretched out his hand as if to seize hold of his miscreant pupil, but although Dario did not move out of the way, he steadily regarded the hand and it was withdrawn.

 

“Get out of my class! Do not ever enter it again! The Head will hear of this.”

 

Dario spoke to him quietly “Sir. This is unfair and unworthy of you. However much you may dislike me, you know that I do not deserve this treatment. Prophecy is a grave and holy business, and surely it is wrong to attempt to coerce an unwilling pupil to trifle with what he knows he does not understand? I urge you, for truth and justice, merely to dismiss me from your class because of my lack of ability in this field.”

 

But the teacher only sneered, “Do not attempt to teach me my business. Why don’t you try cursing me – you might exhibit a talent there?”

 

Dario shook his head. “I do not need to curse you – you have already done it to yourself.” Then he turned, without further salutation to the teacher, and left the classroom.

 

He was surprised that there was no instant summons. He considered leaving. But he had given his father his word, and it was possible, he supposed, that the teacher had repented of his actions privately, and had decided not to attempt to publicly disgrace him.

 

The summons, when it came, was not what he had expected. He was to present himself at the Head Master’s office at noon on the next day.

 

When he got there, two older students were waiting for him. “You’re to come with us to the Great Hall.” The Great Hall had a stone floor, pillars and a raised dais. Already seated on the dais were the Headmaster, the Teacher of Prophecy, a thin weaselly boy whom Dario recognised as a prefect, and a clerk at a desk with a great book. His escorts gestured to him to mount the dais, and led him to one side where a huge stone stood, like an alter. With the ease of long practice, one distracted him by talking to him while the other swiftly secured his hands in leather cords behind his back and anchored him to a ring on the stone. From the front it would just look as if he was standing before of the stone.

 

“Let them in,” said the Headmaster and the doors at the bottom of the hall were opened and Dario could see that a vast gathering was waiting to be admitted. It appeared to consist of the entire school. They trooped in and seated themselves – a veritable augury of prophets, Dario thought, looking at them with contempt.

 

Eventually everyone was seated.

 

The headmaster, a tall thin individual whose face was dominated by his long nose, rose majestically to his feet. “We are present to hear the charges against junior student, Dario; and to pass judgement against him. What are the charges?”

 

The clerk at the book intoned: That he was arrogant and lazy in his work, refused to attempt prophecy when requested to do so; that when his teacher discussed his difficulties in an attempt to help him, he became abusive and first cursed and then struck his teacher.

 

Dario thought, these are lies about me.

 

“Let us hear the Teacher of Prophecy.”

 

He duly stood up and gave an utterly false account of the interview. In it, he the teacher had warned Dario of the risks of cursing and had proposed to help the boy attempt prophecy again, but his pupil had become abusive and struck him.

 

The head looked smugly at Dario. Then he nodded to the weaselly student, who testified that he was in a storeroom at the back of the classroom in which the interview had taken place and that he had heard and seen everything just as the teacher had recounted.

 

False witness, thought Dario. He bears false witness against me.

 

The Head nodded to the clerk. “Judgement of the case…”

 

Dario said, “Sir!”

 

The headmaster paused.

 

“This famous school has a reputation for fairness, justice and wisdom, I believe. And you yourself, Headmaster, are accounted wise, fair and learned, and people come to you for counsel.” The headmaster nodded, magisterially. “Surely, then, you will accord me the right of reply?”

 

The headmaster hesitated. The Teacher of Prophecy had represented this boy as stupid, practically illiterate and certainly with no skill in public speaking. His eloquence and clarity of both thought and tone were unexpected and decidedly unwelcome. But how could he accept the tributes for his fair judgement, and then decline even to hear the defence?

 

“Make what defence you can then, boy.”

 

Dario thought, what defence can I make? He said, “The distinguished Teacher of Prophecy requested that I stay behind. He then advised me that because I, having no talent or ability in this field, have declined to deliver what I know would be fraudulent, and have not participated in his class, he was going to report me to you as lazy and arrogant and despising of your ancient arts. You, he alleged, would dismiss me in disgrace and fine my parents a further two years of fees. I told him that with your excellency’s reputation for fairness and justice, I did not believe you would deliver so unworthy a judgement. As for assaulting him, I did not do so.”

 

There was utter silence in the Great Hall. The head stared at him. Finally he asked, “Are you saying that the Teacher of Prophecy and his student are liars?”

 

“I have not said that. I have said that the statement that I assaulted the teacher is untrue.”

 

“How do you account for this – er – error on the part of the Teacher?”

“We can all make mistakes,” said Dario.

 

“And as for the student?”

 

“I have nothing to say about him.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“He was not there.”

 

The headmaster shook his head as if in disbelief. “In view of your lack of respect for prophecy – “

 

“Stop!” said Dario. “I have no lack of respect for prophecy. Whereas on the other hand, this school’s treatment of the subject is insulting -”

 

The headmaster looked astounded at the unbelievable impertinence of the pupil, and was just opening his mouth to continue with his judgement when Dario noticed out of the corner of his eye a student approach the stage, a ruffian, large and muscular, with a thin rod in his hands, and realised that among other penalties in store for him, the Headmaster had decided that he would be beaten, and unexpectedly and suddenly Dario was engulfed by rage. He spoke out clearly. “To be a prophet is to speak the word of God, without fear or favour, for no reward. Prophecy is not to tell fortunes, or to soothe the egos of kings, or reassure adventurers that the odds are still in their favour. A prophetic utterance cannot be bought, nor can it be secured at a time regarded as convenient.”

 

He looked straight into the Headmaster’s eyes.

 

“Know this.” he heard himself begin, and found himself listening with interest for he had no idea at all what he would say next. He could hear his voice gaining in resonance and power so that with no effort at all on his part it seemed to fill the large room. “Before the sun rises in the morning, you, Headmaster and the Teacher of Prophecy will be dead men, and your school will be nothing but ruin and smoke.”

 

Then, with no great physical effort on his part, he yanked his hands and the bonds restraining him fell away. He walked past the men whose doom he had foretold; past the clerk at the book; past the thug with the rod; past the weaselly student who had borne false witness. He found that as he looked at each one they seemed to be frozen into inactivity, so never altering his pace he marched through the assembled gathering. As he approached the great doors he nodded to the guardians and like robots they swung the great doors open and he marched through the open portals and the sun and the wind struck him in the face. On he walked, not stopping to collect his few possessions, out through the gates, steadily, one foot past the other, never looking back. No-one followed him, but he maintained the same steady pace for several hours and it was only as the sun fell that he began to feel the pain in his feet, the ache in his back, the hunger in his stomach, and he wondered where he would spend the night. Now that his rage had ebbed away he began to think what a fool he was, doing the very thing he had refused to do, uttering a prophecy just to get himself out of a tight corner. True, he had not known what he was going to say, but even so…

 

He stumbled, then halted, and slowly turned around.

 

Behind him the encroaching darkness was illuminated by a great glow on the far horizon and as he stared at it in wonder he realised that the School at the Lake of Shadows was ablaze and the fires of its consumption leapt high in the evening sky.

 

The school was being destroyed before his eyes, and contrary to his grandfather’s useless pronouncement, no prophet greater than all had ever emerged through its pretentious gates.

He felt cold, exhausted, almost ill. He had no money on his person, no food, he had no idea where he was, and he didn’t even have a cloak on his back. He had better put all that business with the school behind him and concentrate on his own survival.

 

He had always known that prophecy was bunk.