Excerpts from While Glancing out of a Window

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The Quality of Darkness by Deborah Bromley

It felt as if I had been waiting forever, but perhaps it was only a few minutes. When you are nervous, time seems to expand and stretch out. While I was waiting, I noticed the pale neutral tones of the décor. There was a cream leather sofa against the wall opposite. But I didn't feel like sitting. I paced, as quietly as possible, worried I might be disturbing someone in the adjacent room. Another person who needed therapy. Before I had time to gather my thoughts and prepare myself, the door opened a fraction and a warm, friendly voice asked me to step inside.

The interior of the consulting-room was similar to the waiting-room. She motioned me to sit down on another cream leather sofa. She sat on a low chair facing me. A large notepad lay on her lap.

"I'm sorry you had to wait. Are you comfortable there?"

"Yes, quite comfortable, thank you for asking."

"Good. I'm ready to begin if you are?" She paused and glanced in my direction, then continued. "So, in your own time, in your own words. Tell me why you've come."

I settled into the soft leather, wondering how to explain what had drawn me to this place. I had been over the problem time and time again, but now the words in my mind didn't seem to make sense. If I'm honest, I was worried about being asked about my feelings. It's a man-thing, I suppose.

The woman looked tactfully at her hands. I wasn't sure I wanted to have eye contact at this point. I'd have to relax a bit more before I could really explain my worries. But she kept her gaze lowered and waited for me to be ready, which I appreciated.

"I suppose I should start at the beginning?"

"That would be fine," she assured me.

"I can't seem to get over... no, that's not right. What I mean is... I'm having trouble moving on from something that happened. And I haven't told anyone about it. It's traumatic. But I guess you hear all kinds of traumatic things in your work."

"I do." She nodded gently in my direction.

I had a sense, in that moment, that she might be able to understand.

"It all happened about six months ago. October. During that stormy weather we had. I had always loved storms, until... "

"Go on."

"Well, I had to attend a conference. It was about IT risk management for small businesses. I had been booked to give a paper on current trends in disaster recovery. Exciting stuff. But probably only if you are interested in the subject. Anyway, I was going to be there for three days and that included the residential stay. All held at Henley Business School. Have you ever been there?"

"I don't know that area, no."

"Very leafy, lots of nice pubs. I explored a few. I gave my presentation on the morning of the third day. It was well received. I had quite a number of delegates coming to see me afterwards and I gave out lots of business cards. I was looking forward to a bit of a surge in business when I returned home.

“Over lunch I decided it would be sensible to leave early. The weather was filthy. I knew traffic would be bad later that afternoon. Roads are terrible around the M40 during rush hour. I checked out around two o'clock and set off back to Marlow to rejoin the motorway. I'm glad I did because it was already pelting down. It was like night, the sky was absolutely leaden. Black almost."

I could see the scene in my mind as I retold the story. And the same feeling of foreboding weighed heavy in my chest. I paused and took a few deep breaths, then continued.

"It was a good job I knew where to go. Around Marlow, it was chaos. Shoppers running for cover. Roads awash with surface water. I nearly knocked over a couple of women who dashed out on to a zebra crossing, trying to avoid the downpour. Stupid of them. Getting wet is pretty irrelevant if you end up squashed as flat as a pancake."

I paused again and tried to collect my thoughts. The next part would be harder to explain.

"I took the main A-road to Stokenchurch. It takes you to Junction 5. You'd never know it was an A-road. No white lines, no cat's eyes, just black tarmac. And it meanders around like a drunk. So I kept to forty miles an hour. But the road kept coming and the cars coming towards me were... sort of... aggressive. Bright headlights on full beam. Hogging the road so I had to swerve to avoid them. It was hard to concentrate. People are so inconsiderate these days.

“I came to the set of villages called Lane End and Bolters End. Dead-and-alive sort of places, if you ask me. And that's when I felt it. It may not make sense to you but I felt like an unseen force was behind me. Nipping at my heels. Not exactly making my hair stand on end, but I felt compelled to plunge on. I worried that if I stopped to get a coffee or go for a pee, it might catch me. Whatever it was."

"Sounds like you felt spooked. It would be understandable in those circumstances."

"You've got it. I did feel spooked. And an overwhelming desire to get home as quickly as possible. As if some force wanted me gone. Well, the feeling was mutual. And it stayed with me even when I got on to the motorway. I put it down to the weather. And I just kept concentrating on the road ahead of me which was awash with water by then."

"Yes, I've been caught out in those sudden flash storms, I do know what it must have been like."

"We should be used to it by now. Typical British weather. Anyway, soon I saw the signs for my exit. I was still feeling a little spooked, as you called it, by then. But I knew I could be home in forty minutes or less. At least that's what I thought.

“But, as I took my usual route home, I saw the Road Closed signs. I could have kicked myself because I noticed them on the way there. Road closures for major resurfacing. And the diversion would take me right back towards Oxford. Well, I thought, I can find a better way home than that. So I took the next exit off the roundabout and wished, for the umpteenth time, that I hadn't left my Satnav at home."

I paused again. I wasn't sure how much of the next bit was relevant. I'd already owned up to some pretty odd feelings – illogical feelings – and I didn't want to give her the impression I had lost the plot. But as I looked up, I saw she was looking towards me with such kind eyes. I sensed she accepted me; she didn't think I was unhinged or deluded.

"It's hard to explain fear sometimes, isn't it?" I said.

"You can only explain what you felt. It's subjective. So don't concern yourself with whether it sounds logical or believable. Whatever you say is valid because it's what you experienced at the time."

That was all the encouragement I needed.

"So I'm slowing down to about 20 miles an hour and the road is just a narrow single track but I'm sure it's going in the right direction. And all the time this compulsion to press on is eating me up. Even if I wanted to turn back, I had the nagging worry that some malevolent force was waiting for me to falter.

“I studied the signposts and looked for something, some clue, that I recognised. I even toyed with calling the RAC; I'm a member. But I didn't know where I was so how could I direct them? I was annoyed with myself for being so stupid but another part of me was sure I would soon find a major road and get my bearings. And then, suddenly, the road did widen and I felt quite relieved."

"That must have helped."

"No, not really. It wasn't what I thought it was. And the next part is a bit jumbled up. But it seems the road I thought I saw was some local flooding. I didn't notice until I was in it. And there were no hedges at the sides of the road so I could only see blackness. And feel the car shifting under me; it had lost its grip on the road. It was horrible, terrifying. I never want to experience that again. I was moving but I had lost control. Sliding, shifting, pulled by unseen currents. And in the back of my head I'm shouting to myself that I'm stupid. I should have turned back."

"And do you remember what happened next?"

"Barely. Because the engine failed and the lights went out and all I could sense was the drifting of my car on the water and the helplessness of it all. The aloneness. In that moment, I tell you, I knew despair. There was nothing to do but accept my fate. But it wasn't a peaceful acceptance. It was more a furious, agonising desolation. I can't even think about it. I don't want to think about it."

"Don't dwell on it, then. We can come back to that memory, if it's necessary, later on. Let's... move forward in time and you can tell me what happened next."

I couldn't speak for a few minutes but she didn't rush me. I latched on to the next solid memory I could conjure up.

"I was walking, drenched and weak and alone, across a field. I had nothing with me except my clothes. No phone, no briefcase, no identification. Then I saw some lights ahead of me. One of the tiny villages in that part of Oxfordshire, I suppose. There were a few houses bunched together around a crossroads.

“I thought I'd find a friendly face and get some help. I thought I could phone home and get my wife to come and pick me up. It took me a few minutes to find a house which was occupied."

"I suppose people might have been prevented from getting home, cut off by the local flooding."

"That's what I thought. There was nobody about, that's for certain. Look, I know I was in shock. I looked a sight. I probably had pondweed dripping from my hair, I don't know. But I found this house with lights on. And inside I could see this man. He was in his living-room eating his tea. I could see the butter dripping off the toast on to his chin, I was that close.

“I banged on his window. I shouted for help. He hardly stirred. He was so wrapped up in his own comfortable existence. He couldn't be bothered to help a fellow human being in need. I was so annoyed with him! If I could, I'd have walked right in on him and given him a piece of my mind but both his doors were locked. I know because I had a good try at breaking in. That would have shocked him out of his selfish couldn't care less attitude."

She didn't say anything but I felt her empathising with me, so I carried on.

"Then I found a shop. A little village shop with newspapers and food and drink and it looked so welcoming. The lights were on but, with hindsight, I suppose the weather had caused them to close early. The door handle wouldn't turn and I couldn't get anyone to let me in even though I knocked and shouted as loudly as possible. I think maybe the rain drowned out any racket I could make. I felt pretty despondent at that point. But I didn't give up.

“Rather, like a vagrant, I found a barn to sleep in and wait out the weather and the night. At least I had shelter. But I assure you, I have never, ever, felt so alone, so separate, so inconsequential. It brings it home to you, you know. Something like that. My own personal 'series of unfortunate events'. You really understand how small you are, how irrelevant. Without your family and friends, you really are nobody."

"At least you can talk about it now."

"Yes, hindsight is a wonderful thing."

"Then tell me. What happened in the morning? They say everything looks better by the cold light of day. I assume you made it safely home?"

"I did get back to my home town, yes. My house, my wife, my friends and family."

"And you recovered from your awful experience? Once you were home safely and could get a sense of perspective about it all?"

"Well, no. That's why I'm here. That's why I need your help. The traumatic events of that night have changed something inside me. I'm not sure I can explain it properly."

"Like you don't fit anymore?"

"Like I don't belong anymore. Whether it was that desolate feeling of aloneness that changed me or the fear and panic I suffered. I don't know."

"And your wife, your family?"

"It's not the same. I feel they don't know me anymore."

"And your business? Work can be a great healer."

"I haven't been able to work."

"I see. Yes, I can see now what is wrong."

"Can you? Can you really?"

"Now I have the whole picture, I know how to help you."

"At last. Someone who understands."

"I do understand."

"And can you help me now, today, or... "

 "All I need to know is that you are ready."

"I am. Now I've told my story to someone who is prepared to listen, a great weight has lifted. So I'm happy to have whatever treatment you think will help me."

"Good. I'm glad. Now just rest and let me take over."

It was a blessed relief to let somebody else do the talking. I did as she asked and I lay down on the comfortable sofa, feeling like I was floating. Soon I was listening entranced to her soft voice guiding me and leading me towards a more relaxed way of feeling. I had been too tense and stressed. She helped me to let go of those feelings. It was a really pleasant experience.

Then she asked me to open my eyes and look towards her. I moved my head and noticed what she was talking about.

"Look into the space behind my head," she said.

Her eyes were glowing. The room seemed to crackle with energy.

"Very soon you'll notice a bright tunnel of light appear behind me. The most warm and comforting sight you have seen in many months. This light will be shining and vibrating with healing energy, designed to make you whole again. You can forget all the trauma and pain. You can use the light to heal you."

It made so much sense. She definitely had a real gift. I felt better already.

"Continue to concentrate on the light. And when you are ready allow yourself to rise up off the sofa and move towards the light. Soon you will see loved ones, family members who have already passed over. They will come to greet you and take your hand. It is now time to go."

She was right.

Light, love and acceptance. And a feeling of freedom like no other I had ever experienced.

I was going home, after all.

---- THE END ----

 

it is both mad and moonly by Michael J. Richards

Vice Chancellor, my lords, ladies, colleagues. Friends. I end this, my valedictory lecture, on a personal note.

It is well documented that I have dedicated my career at this university to the question, “What is love?”

In my early years, I postulated that love is the emotional bond tying human beings together to become a force for good, causing me to pass a decade swimming in the dark fathoms of meanings of the word “good”, never appreciating that greater and nobler minds than mine have failed to sail across that semantically shark-infested ocean.

I progressed, if “progressed” is the mot juste (I fear it is not), to the proposition that love is the one sentiment separating us from God’s other sentient beings. Yet, if that is so, why do gibbon apes mate for life? What prompts one black vulture to attack another black vulture caught straying from his partner? Within the human species, how can feckless celebrities declare eternal love only to acrimoniously separate a short time later?

I concluded there are as many explanations and theories to this seemingly unanswerable question as there are people providing them. As critiques of Hamlet tell us more about the critics than the play, those explanations and theories tell us more about the writers than love.

If that is true, then what do my attempts to unearth the secret of love tell us about this man who stands before you? You see an aging Professor of Philosophy. You see a man who dallied in his youth with demoiselles of sure or uncertain virtue with wobbling effect, who for a protracted period, believed he might, underneath his apparent savoir faire and despite himself, prefer handsome hirsute young men. Failure to connect with either brought equal dismay.

I sought. I bought. I failed to find love. Not until my fiftieth birthday did it dawn on me that I would not recognise love if it came on a bright summer’s evening bearing a bouquet of red roses, a bottle of 1893 Veuve Clicquot and a bed the size of the Giardino Giusti in Verona, where Romeo and Juliet were said to have met.

How does one know when one has found love? However much philosophers rant or theologians rail, it is poets to whom we turn for eternal truths. Shakespeare has Romeo tell us:

“Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;

Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;

Being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears.

What is it else? A madness most discreet,

A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.”

Love is not, as St Paul would have it, seen through a glass darkly. It is as the poet e e cummings wrote:

“it is most mad and moonly”

When I first read these words, I did not understand them. But I knew they were true.

Compared to the love of a young man or woman, an academic’s life is sterile. While the philosopher flails about in contrived words for baseless meaning, the lover searches his or her heart, the organ that keeps us alive and breathing. Love is not what we mean. Love is what we feel. Love is a prism through which we see the world.

Yet I have published to great acclaim. Amo, amas, amat: on the meaning of love was that rare phenomenon, a philosophy book that sold a million copies. My No sacrifice can be too much: reflections on love, language and Wittgenstein earned me the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy. The most surprising of all – to me, at any rate – Where is love? A philosopher wanders the desert of the psyche became a $74m film starring Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence and Alex Pettyfer.

And then, two years ago, after thirty-two years of barren searching, I declared myself redundant of my quest to find why the human heart needs what Cole Porter calls “this thing called love”.

Instead, I turned my attention to the significance of death. To my Beckettian dismay, the questions were identical to those I had posed about love.

Why does the human race attach such weight to part of the natural cycle of all things? Planets, stars, rocks, insects come into being, exist, atrophy, transmute, cease. Why must we feel the need either to refuse to take responsibility for our own life-cycles or to accept that we are nothing more than a mote in the eye of the gargantuan, Heideggeresque Being and Time? Why is there an interminable need within us to ascribe our miniscule grubbing about to an unknown, unseen, intangible, unnameable, indescribable qi?

But, in the course of my research, I met Carina, a funeral director from Sydenham in Kent.

Through her, I experienced the swirling headiness of compassionate care, a baffling need to please, a constant urge never to be parted. But most of all, I felt – felt –  beauty. It is the sun rising over a buttercup meadow. The smile in the eyes of a puppy at play. A liqueur and cigar after a French chef’s tasting menu. The inner glow after a rainy Wednesday afternoon’s intimate and secret love-making.

“it is most mad and moonly”

I now understand it and embrace it. I am bemused to declare I fell in love and married this most beautiful, wondrous, wise and caring woman.

In my life, I never embraced love, only tried to define and capture it, possibly in so doing, to smother it out of existence. Now, my life shrinking into mellowing dotage, I have become the hunter trapped by his prey.

Surrounded by death, I find life. How can it be, I ask myself, that when searching for love, I never found it? And the moment I stop, love attacks me, fells me to the ground and takes me hostage?

Were I to live the infinity of the universe, I will never dream that love could be like this.

What has my life been worth if at its nearing end, I deny everything I have stood for? What is my new life worth if for all of my previous life I sought to prove it has no worth?

For my years at this university, I thank you all. For my coming years of fathomless happiness, I thank Carina, whose name means “beloved”. For a life of pointless anguish, I apologise.

---- THE END ----