Brother Edmund’s telescope scoured each the waves that made it to shore – his well-disciplined eye able to discern between useful matter and mere refuse. In his thirty years as friar, he’d learnt 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.
The object being scrutinised by the monk’s telescope – one Brother Anselm – was positioned at the prow of a small boat and stared intently into the distance. He’d once been known to all within the brotherhood as a creature quite unable to see further than the few feet ahead of him. And even a full two years after Anselm’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 Anselm, and others like him – indeed, before it changed the face of all humanity.
The death of the abbot only last month now meant Anselm made an expeditious and long overdue return to the island. He was now a full thirty years in age, his long-standing inability to see any further than the edge of his vision, tempered the moment he’d offered to tend to the legions of wounded and traumatised infantrymen lain here and there across the killing fields.
With no abbot in place to officiate compline in the domed refectory, numerous individuals chatted to one another with no especial regard for silence. Their hard-edged echoes reverberated between table-tops and rafters, like the threshing wings of pigeons. To them, Anselm’s return symbolised how good had triumphed over evil. It was a testament to the struggles of distant armies that 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 – placing his hands before him as if entering into prayer – he regaled the company of men with tales of his and others’ soldierly heroics. As each his incredible stories drew to a close, he looked directly at Edmund.
Hopefully his return is to be brief, and not a word will be uttered to me, mused 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 harvesting a haul of potatoes – when Anselm managed to track down the old friar. He found him hoeing a patch of ruptured ground at the far side of the monastery. The task looked monotonous and unrewarding. 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.
The young monk’s long shadow fell across the backs of the old man’s hands. Edmund looked up and directly into Anselm’s face. The boyish charm of his companion was still evident in a pair of sunken, narrow shoulders, his trademark lopsided fringe, but mostly in how his whole frame rose onto the balls of his feet. It gave the impression he was reaching for ripened berries, or to remove cobwebs from the corners of ceilings, perhaps.
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.
Edmund required a guiding hand at his elbow to get to the vertical. Anselm cupped the ball of that joint in the compass of his palm – his grip searing through the fabric of the old man’s habit.
Anselm wiped his lips. For the briefest moment, the episode that had resulted in the younger man’s exile, 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 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? That cherished memory had often halted Anselm’s flagging spirits as he trudged through mile upon mile of sodden trenches, whispering prayers, or offering rags of liniment; his 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, Anselm retrieved a bundle. A mere five inches in length and five inches wide. Thick canvas, with oil-stained string wrapped around the bulk of the parcel, fooled Brother Edmund into believing he was receiving a gift of some kind. He knew presents were the symbols of ostentation – true markers of a man’s abundant wealth, and therefore frowned upon by members of the order.
At that moment, a brief rift in the clouds sent a column of light to Earth and illuminated both men. Edmund was enthralled by the scene, as if somehow his lord on high was with them both. He hastily undid the parcel to reach the contents housed within.
The twelve vials of liquid jostled for attention once they were given room to disband and their handwritten labels glistened from between the 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 it a recognition of such sadness that found expression in a flurry of tears that crept to the edges of his eyes. Edmund’s upper lip, stippled with day-old hair growth, quivered and became pursed, forcing the angle of his mouth narrower. The names of various binding agents, necessary to make possible the creation 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.
Edmund turned away from his companion. He was unwilling to explain the reason for his unusual behaviour and so, with it, quell the young man’s yearning to provide support. 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 Edmund’s pockets. The clouds above them sagged heavy and the youth’s mood soured.
The figure of Edmund was next spotted speeding across a landscape of upturned crops and towards the main buildings of the monastery. In the sky, a host of seabirds pitched their paper-white wings against a backdrop of cloud – minute particles of fizzing light reaching through from the heaven space beyond.
Later that evening, Anselm desired no company but his own. Kneeling at 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 best part of an hour. He sought solace in the antique words of saints and scholars, hopeful his 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 corridors, various friars were joining him in retiring, each man fully aware the first of the tomorrow’s masses was conducted as early as three o’clock in the morning. The raw chill of the room swiftly entered his bones and forced Anselm to rush for cover beneath the bed’s single blanket, although it refused to invigorate the young man’s spirits.
He quietly wept into the unforgiving chest of the bed’s old blanket. From that day, he would close his shutters before day’s end. He would hate the neutralising, dark night from this moment, too – forever dread espying the certainty of the cosmos and the its 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 Anselm favoured the masculine over the feminine.
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 and possessing 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, Edmund fell to examining the bounty of oils. 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 eye. They quickly set to re-igniting the cinders of some long-forgotten passion and imploring him to reprise his role as ladies’ perfumer – the trade of his beloved mother. Many of her best recipes were lost with her passing, but he’d committed a large sum of her catalogue to memory. And they might have died with him, had he never found an apt pupil to continue his work. He guessed Anselm was presently reading of the bomb that vaporised much of the monastery. Or how the sirens never sounded to alert the brotherhood of impending disaster. No-one heard the peal of bells from the old church sat perched on an elevation of cliffs. 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 its full might. To Edmund’s dismay, the bulk of the west wing was made a ruin. In amongst the charred rubble, whole fragments of the workshop where he and 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.
Edmund now understood the extraordinary lengths his young protégé must have gone to in order to smuggle these 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.
He 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. At first light, he would travel north – mass already attended and the statutory prayers of praise and forgiveness, recited. In an hour or two he would reach the Cliffs of Waste. There he was to fling the essential oils into the mouth of ocean water. The oils would 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 shatter 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 his Great Book of Observations.
A lone figure clambered through brush and undergrowth at the outskirts of known territory. His cheerful demeanour kept him buoyant against the ebbing darkness of a breaking dawn. Over one shoulder was slung a bag – within that bag a smaller bundle of canvas and its array of oils. 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 also transported a burden of sorts: a cloth bag, and in that bag the Order’s Great Book of Observations. A restless night had sent Anselm to the old friar’s cell, only then to have his mission sent in a new direction when he’d heard Edmund’s door close. He’d studied his companion’s shadow wend its way out of the dormitory building and into the cloisters. Yes, he’d felt compelled to follow, to reach the point where he 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.
At the cliff-edge, gusts of wind threatened to tug the uneven ground from beneath the old man. Opening his bag, he felt about in the darkness until his hands determined the weight of the vials.
A little way behind him, 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 utter fragments of a prayer before one frail hand was extended out across the great Cliffs of Waste. Anselm realised then the man was to dispose of the essential oils handed to him the previous day. Panicking, Anselm next took a single unsteady step forwards, determinedly making his way toward Edmund and beyond him, a new day.