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An excerpt from

In Exile

Alexandra Turney

Part I

 

The latter by no means declared the ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves, and by their diabolic arts, through lust and beauty, particularly through dancing and singing, lured to apostasy unsteadfast Christians who had lost their way in the forest.... – Heinrich Heine

 

I

A white pyramid. When he opened his eyes he could see nothing but bright stone, splitting the sky in two. For a while he lay in the grass, watching it through half-closed lids. The world was too bright, too real.

If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend that he wasn’t there, but his breaths betrayed him. He was alive. There was no smoke this time, no hand coming to grab him from the flames, but he was alive.

When the pain of his headache had softened a little, he tried to sit up so he could look around. Behind him, the grass was scattered with white tombstones. If he crawled towards them, he could reach the shade of the umbrella pines. Despite the early hour it was already hot. His naked skin was a deep gold, and he was in no danger of burning, yet the intensity of the sunlight was too much for him. He dragged himself into the shade, flinching at the sensation of the rough grass on his skin. He couldn’t bear to touch anything. He had been away too long.

Later it would dawn on him how unfair it was, how desperately unfair that he should be awake again for no reason. The others were long dead, yet here he was again. Why him? Why now? Why here? Wherever here was…

As his eyes adjusted to the light, he was still too dazed to think clearly. He drew his knees up to his chest and tried to remember, but everything was blank. No, not blank – just dim and distant, as if glimpsed through a dark cloud. The past could not help or release him, so it was better not to dwell on it. The first thing was to find out where he was. In a sense it didn’t really matter, but it would help him decide what to do next.

On his hands and knees among the tombstones – the columns, angels and mysterious doorways – he searched until he found a clue. At last, here were words he could read. Above the wildflowers, between the death and the date, there was the name of a city.

He remained crouched in front of the tombstone, whispering the name to himself. So he was here again. It had been a long time – four or five hundred years – but a century and a second were more or less the same to him.

The birdsong was joined by another sound, a distant roar that gradually grew louder. He saw the motorbike emerge from behind the pyramid, and then disappear when it reached the cemetery wall. The world was so old, he thought, and yet so new. As am I.

He stood up, using one of the columns for support. He didn’t know where to go, but he couldn’t stay here, naked among the dead. Wherever he went, there was always someone who would try to lock him up, often for the most irrational reasons. If he got caught this time, he wasn’t sure he had the energy to escape.

With the sun in his eyes, he took his first steps in the city that had once loved him.

 

II

The water had gone cold at least half an hour ago, but Grace didn’t care. She lay immersed up to her neck, entranced by the sight of the king being pulled down from the tree and the women, his own mother among them, tearing his body apart while the god watched. Even as she turned the pages she felt as though her eyes were closed as she dreamed the most extraordinary dream. She could hear the king’s screams and see the women running, leaping, covered in blood and ivy. It was just like a dream, only much more beautiful.

It was actually her homework, one of the many books on Miss Seymour’s lengthy summer reading list. Grace didn’t particularly like reading and she had mostly ignored the stack of library books on her desk, but on a whim, attracted by the lively, dancing figures on the cover, she had picked up The Bacchae. She had started when the water was still warm, and now she was so close to the end that she could not bear to put it down, even with the icy water and Barbara hammering on the door.

“You’ve been in there for ages.”

“I’ll be out in a minute.”

The mother carried her son’s head triumphantly through the streets of the city, thinking she had killed a lion. It was only when she looked at the blue sky that her mind cleared, and she realised what she’d done.

Horrible, thought Grace, eagerly turning the page. It was the most horrible thing she’d ever read. Then came the lamentation, the god returning to announce the family’s exile, black-eyed and imperious. Grace was transfixed until the very end, when the perfunctory chorus broke the spell.

Gods manifest themselves in many forms,

Bring many matters to surprising ends;

The things we thought would happen do not happen;

The unexpected God makes possible:

And that is what has happened here today.

She sighed and flung the book over the side of the bath, where it fell on the floor beside her towel. It was too soon to make sense of it, to know what it meant or what the message was, but perhaps it wouldn’t matter even if she never knew. She didn’t really want to understand. The imagery was enough. It had given her a vision of another world, a vision of mystery and violence unlike anything she had ever known.

It was infinitely better than Shakespeare. Everything ought to be translated into modern English. If only everything could be simplified, she might stand a chance in her exams.

Barbara was knocking on the door again.

“One minute!”

“You said that fifteen minutes ago.”

“There’s no clock in here. How am I supposed to know?”

Reluctantly, she dragged herself out of the bath and reached for her towel.

 

She stood naked in front of the mirror in her bedroom, counting mosquito bites. Fifteen. One for each year of her life. She ran her finger over one of the marks on her arm and remembered how she’d been driven mad by them when she first arrived. Now she accepted them almost as a fact of life.

Similarly, she could now regard her reflection with a level of detachment. She was no longer overwhelmed with self-loathing at the sight of her body. Her breasts, as Caroline had pointed out, were something of a consolation. The worst thing was to be utterly flat-chested like Esther McDonald.

Grace turned to look at herself in profile, and then suddenly felt embarrassed. She got dressed and painted her nails with the red polish Caroline had stolen. She only ever painted her nails when she was bored, and she always did a bad job of it. As she waited for them to dry she paced up and down her room and wondered what had become of the summer. Every year she had these grand plans – learn how to sew, lose weight, have some kind of holiday romance – and they never happened.

The truth was that she was simply too lazy. She couldn’t even be bothered to do her Classics homework or keep her bedroom tidy.

It was a terrible mess. No wonder she could never find anything. There were clothes strewn everywhere, records out of their sleeves, dying flowers turning their water green, and former crushes coming unstuck from the walls. They had been cut out and placed there so lovingly, and now she couldn’t even bear to look at them.

She lay in her unmade bed, still blowing on her nails out of habit, and picked up an old magazine she found tangled in the sheets. An article on the styles boys hate failed to hold her attention, and she discarded the magazine with a sigh.

Then she remembered the postcards. She had already practically committed them to memory, but she would read them again. Thinking of her friends’ holidays always gave her a small pang of jealousy. It seemed that everyone she knew had left the city for the summer – it was the only sensible thing to do – and yet her mother had insisted on staying.

“You can amuse yourself here.”

This was patently untrue, as Grace had pointed out repeatedly. It was impossible to amuse oneself alone in such oppressive heat. Without her daily ritual of two-hour cold baths, she probably wouldn’t have survived the summer at all.

But now, at last, it was nearly September. Caroline and Sara would be back soon. Grace picked up the first postcard; the front depicted a lake and mountains of conventional beauty, and the back was covered in dense handwriting. There was barely space for the address.

Dear Grace,

                        It’s lovely here – so nice to escape, though there isn’t an awful lot to do. I’ve mainly been reading and swimming. M. says the water’s meant to be particularly good for you or something. I’ve made a couple of friends, some Americans from one of the states beginning with ‘O’, but obviously it’s not the same. I miss you and Caro lots, and also Charlie. It’s hardly worth going on holiday if you have to leave your dog behind. The hotel has a sweet cat though if you try to talk to it in English it runs away. The food is dreadful. I hope you’re well and not dying of heat. Wish you were here. M&D say no promises but maybe you can come with us next time. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I’m writing this on 1st August but bet I’ll see you again before this arrives, typical. No more space so lots of love, Sara.

The other postcard was a picture of one of the Buckingham Palace guards, and was comparatively concise.

Darling Grace,

                        England is heaven as always. Wish I could stay here forever and ever and have you with me. Is it beastly there? I bet it is. Stuff yourself with ice cream for me.

xxxxxxxxx

P.S

Just finished The Bacchae. Have you read it yet? I swear the Greeks were just as bad as the Romans.

 

Grace re-read the postscript several times; it made her impatient for Caroline’s return. She needed to discuss the play with someone, even if they didn’t feel as strongly about it as she did.

She opened the shutters, upsetting some pigeons, and was momentarily blinded by the sunlight. It would be horrendously hot outside, maybe forty degrees, but she suddenly had the mad desire to go for a walk. Why not? There were hours to kill before supper, and a walk seemed preferable to starting her essay on the industrial revolution.

The lift was out of order, as usual, so she took the stairs, listening to the familiar sounds of TVs, children and pianos. On the ground floor Grace held the front door open for an old lady with a face like a raisin, sinking to the ground under the weight of her bags of shopping. The old lady muttered something that was too long to be a simple expression of thanks, but Grace was used to not understanding most of what was said to her. When the door – twice her height and as thick and impenetrable as the entrance to a medieval fortress – had shut behind her, she put on her sunglasses and stepped out into the fierce light.

Most intelligent beings stayed inside at this time of day. There were only idiotic tourists, fanning themselves with maps in the church shade, and seagulls screaming over the ruins.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Grace muttered to herself as she took slow, languorous steps over the cobblestones, legs burning. Her family lay asleep in shuttered darkness in the cool breeze of the fans, while she walked in the white heat of two o’clock. It made no sense. She walked from boredom, that was all. She had spent all summer hiding in her bedroom, and now she had a restless, irrational urge to walk.

She gave the columns she loved only a momentary glance – they were too white, too bright to look at now – and then lingered at the edge of the square, shielding her eyes from the dazzling wedding cake of a monument and waiting for a break in the traffic. They were always in such a hurry, these mad, lawless drivers. Despite the rosaries dangling from their mirrors, if Christ himself attempted to cross the road, they probably wouldn’t stop for him. But at last a nun appeared, and with a sandaled foot on the faded white lines brought the flow of traffic to a halt. Grace followed her, and reflected that the art of road-crossing was only a matter of confidence. Caroline never had any problems, after all.

On the other side she slipped into the divine shade of a narrow street. Any vague notions of destinations that might have existed before had now all been replaced by the desire for shade. These were the streets where she always got lost, thwarted by dead ends. The mental compass that usually served her so well inevitably broke down, so east became west and churches moved mysteriously.

She stopped to drink from a fountain and then, because there was no one to see her, splashed water down the front of her dress. She already felt disgustingly sweaty. She walked on, past shrines and barred windows, through alleys smelling of rotten fruit and something even more unpleasant, beneath flags and herbs on precarious window-ledges. A tiny emerald lizard sparkled on the pavement, and then vanished into a crack. On a nearby cobblestone Grace spotted a small golden coin and impulsively picked it up.

Standing in these lovely, lonely streets it was almost possible to believe that you were alone in the city. Grace traced the carved initials on a church wall with her finger, and wondered if H. N. had ever felt like her. Probably not. There were moments when she felt utterly unique, the first, the only one to walk down a particular street. Only the street name spoiled the illusion.

And the man. At first she didn’t see him, sitting so still and half-obscured in shadow. He might have been a statue, slumped beside his pedestal. Grace continued walking, watching him out of the corner of her eye. The homeless always made her nervous. If you had nothing, she reasoned, you had nothing to lose. She had visions of men attacking her, demanding money. This one didn’t look desperate, but he was young, and for some reason that made her feel more nervous and guilty than usual. She took the golden coin from her pocket and flung it at him.

“You can keep your money.”

Grace turned around, startled. He had rejected her money and addressed her in English. This had never happened before.

“Don’t you need it?”

“No.”

They stared at each other. Grace saw that his brown eyes were almost black, and felt a sudden chill come over her. She usually found dark eyes beautiful, but his were hollow, shallow – she didn’t know what, but something wasn’t right. His golden skin had a kind of pallor, and his lips were pale and dry. He must be ill. An alcoholic, she guessed wildly.

“Don’t you need anything?” Grace asked, preparing to make her escape as soon as she had done her charitable duty.

“I want lots of things,” said the man in his peculiar, lilting voice. “But I have everything I need.”

“Sorry for bothering you.”

Grace knew that she could walk away, but something in the man’s stare held her. It was not the carnal stare of the men on buses, but rather a penetrating gaze that looked right through her body and saw what lay beyond. She could not remember ever having felt so afraid and uncomfortable in the presence of a man, yet she could not leave – not while so many questions threatened to spill from her lips.

“Where are you from?”

“Everywhere.”

“Where do you live?”

“Nowhere.”

“What do you mean?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

Grace blushed, suddenly aware that her conversation with the stranger had gone on for too long. She turned to leave.

“Wait.”

He was not smiling – there was such a hard, mirthless quality about his lips that a smile was unimaginable – but a certain dark amusement flickered in his eyes.

“Watch.”

Grace watched. The young man ran his finger over a crack in the pavement. A second later, a white liquid bubbled up from the gap and streamed across the stone where the rejected coin lay.

“What is it?” asked Grace, eyes widening in wonder.

“Milk.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“If you don’t believe me, maybe your tongue will convince you.”

Grace made a grimace of disgust. But even as the street ran with rivulets of milk, the stranger was performing another miracle. He brushed an idle fingertip over the wall that he leant against, and then held up his finger for Grace to see. The nail glistened with a sticky, golden substance.

“Ugh,” said Grace. “Before you suggest, I’m not tasting it.”

“That’s a pity,” said the man, sucking his finger. “Honey is delicious. And perfectly natural.”

You’re unnatural. Grace shuddered and quickly walked away before he could trick her again. As she turned the corner she thought she heard him laugh, but it was such a strange and savage sound that it was more likely a dog’s bark.