CHAPTER ONE

 

He gently closed the front door of his parents' house behind him and, pulling his scarf more tightly round his neck, set off at a brisk pace for home.  It was a rather cold night and, as he hurried along, great plumes of escaping breath were quickly dispersed into the chill air.  He was somewhat relieved that the once-yearly obligation to visit his parents for Christmas had been successfully dispatched and that he was once more a free man - free, that is, to please himself. 

     Not that their company unduly oppressed him!  On the contrary, they did their best to make his stay a merry one, having provided a copious roast lunch and a sufficiency of wine and/or sherry.  But, even so, it was a relief that the social pressure to be on one's best behaviour had if not entirely vanished then, at any rate, been temporarily relaxed, and he was accordingly free to be his usual informal self.

     One's best behaviour?  No, that wasn't entirely true!  More accurately, the pressure to tune-in, as it were, to one's parents' standard of Christmas and behave in a manner which suggested that no alternative standard was either possible or indeed desirable.  Yes, that was it!  He was escaping from the pressure of that, as also, if the truth were known, from the even worse pressure of having been in close proximity to his stepfather's wretched cold and of having had to pretend that it didn't really inconvenience him in any way.  But, really, what a gross inconvenience it had been!  It was quite a stinker the man was suffering from, a most objectionable stinker!

     For a moment Timothy Byrne was on the verge of cursing his stepfather for having had the untimely misfortune to catch a rotten cold at Christmas, but, mindful of the festive spirit, he stifled the thought as best he could and replaced it with a charitable commiseration towards Richard Briley for the rotten luck he'd had ... to fall victim to such a sordid fate at so inopportune a time.  In fact, he forced himself to feel sorry for the man and to offer him, in retrospect, what private sympathy he could.  Yet even then it wasn't possible for Timothy to ignore the self-pity which suddenly welled up, like flood waters, inside him at the recollection of his having had to sit in uncomfortably close proximity to Mr Briley on a number of occasions over Christmas and not only risk being infected with the stinker himself, but, no less distastefully, listen to the incessant snivelling which issued from the old man's snot-laden nose.  Really, it was enough to make one weep!

     Crossing over one of the busy main roads which prominently divided his part of Haringey from theirs, he hurried his steps along the north London streets still faster, as much, in effect, to escape the memory of his stepfather's threatening germs ... as to get back to his flat as quickly as possible, lest additional threats from unseen quarters lay in sordid wait for him!  Poor Mr Briley, it was really most unkind of nature to have inflicted such a bad cold on him during that brief period in the year when, birthdays notwithstanding, one least wished to suffer germs.  Most unkind!  Yet, unfortunately, that was generally the way with nature, which was unconcerned with human wishes and the sporadic attempts man might make to approximate to a heavenly condition.  Mindful, one might almost say, of its own wayward interests.  Ignorant of Christmas. 

     For what was Christmas, after all, but a concerted attempt by man to approximate to Heaven in the face, if needs be, of natural opposition?  A time when one remembered the birth of Christ and gave thanks for the spiritual example He was to set.  A time when one endeavoured to live more closely in Christ's light and refrain from sin.  But what did nature care about that?  Not a frigging jot!  It made no specific effort to emulate man and call a truce for a few days.  On the contrary, one was just as likely to catch a cold on Christmas day, if germs were in the air, as at any other time.  And if the weather had been particularly inclement before Christmas, it wasn't likely to improve just to suit men.  It could even get worse!

     Fortunately that had not been the case this year, and, as he continued on his brooding way, Timothy felt gratitude for the fact that the weather had remained comparatively dry and mild these past few days, thus discouraging the rapid spread of harmful germs.  Yet the fact of Mr Briley's cold was still bad enough, and even if he, Timothy John Byrne, hadn't caught it, nevertheless he had suffered from it in a certain sense, both psychologically and physically, and that was no joke!  His Christmas hadn't exactly proved to be the most congenial of experiences, even if it could have been a damn sight worse.  Still, his parents had generally been kind to him, and together, in spite of their temperamental differences, they had endeavoured to maintain an atmosphere of peace and joy whilst in one-another's persevering company.

     Yes, a kind of crude approximation to the heavenly Beyond had been achieved, in spite of whatever opposition the temporal world had contrived to place in their way.  Even with Mr Briley's constant snivelling and the consequent risk of infection, these past few days had retained a seasonal quality which, on the whole, was fairly pleasant, if a little lacking in excitement.  For there could be no question that Timothy had eaten well and, despite his customary abstinence, imbibed a bottle or two of quality sherry, not to mention sat in front of some interesting films on television and spent an hour or so profitably reading philosophy in one of his parents' spare rooms.  And, of course, there had been some conversation with his mother - Mr Briley being a rather laconic bloke who preferred not to enter into conversation with him even when he wasn't ill - which had proved more the exception than the rule, and passed the time quite pleasantly.

     Yet even as he hurried across another busy road, Timothy reflected that this Christmas could have been a lot better, a much finer approximation to Heaven than theirs had been, and not only on account of his stepfather's cold, by any means!  No, on a number of counts.  But, alas, his parents had prevented it from being such by their emphasis on traditional, or sensual, approximations to the Beyond, and had thus made it virtually obligatory for him to follow suit.  The ideas which were now welling-up in his conscious mind, like molten lava, would hardly appeal to them, well-meaning though they undoubtedly were.  No, they couldn't be expected to appreciate what he now considered a higher way of celebrating Christmas, a way which, instead of emphasizing downward self-transcendence, put the emphasis firmly on upward self-transcendence and was accordingly closer to Heaven, to what Timothy liked to think of as the spiritual climax to human evolution in the not-too-distant future. 

     However, being average sensual people, his mother and stepfather could only celebrate Christmas in a fashion commensurate with their average sensuality, not in a fashion which he now regarded as of a higher and altogether more agreeable order.  Yet what was true of them was no less true of the great majority of people, who were likewise indisposed to change their habits and celebrate Christmas in any but a sensual way.  And as he neared his flat, a poignant truth suddenly dawned on him.  Like it or not, the majority of people's attempts to approximate to a heavenly condition at Christmas only resulted in their ending-up in a condition closer to Hell, in which their customary sensual habits were intensified to a point of gluttony and drunkenness, if not lechery as well!

     Yes, that was the ironic truth of the matter!  For the average sensual man Christmas was simply an intensification of his average sensual habits, and thus, in certain respects, an approximation not to Heaven but to its beastly antithesis.  Society hadn't yet evolved to a stage where the great majority of people were disposed to approximate, no matter how humbly or tentatively, to the heavenly Beyond through upward self-transcendence.  Consequently the only reasonable alternative to average day-to-day consciousness for a relatively short period of time lay, for them, in downward self-transcendence, in the gratification of the senses rather than of the spirit, and thus immersion in the subconscious instead of the superconscious.  For which, as Timothy well knew, food and drink were eminently suitable!

     And so, by a curious paradox, the Devil was arguably given more acknowledgement, by a majority of people at Christmas, than God, and a kind of sensuous approximation to Hell triumphed over the Christian world during that time.  Only in a minority of cases was it likely that the godly in man would be given its due and duly acknowledged, and as Timothy drew closer to his small flat he realized, with some regret, that he hadn't been among that minority of higher types this Christmas but, on the contrary, had consumed more than his customary amounts of food and drink! 

     Maybe next year - assuming he wasn't living in the same place and had the means to be more independent of his parents for Christmas - he would be able to celebrate Christ's birth in a manner more suited to his tastes, and thus become a part of that tiny minority who acknowledged the superiority of the spirit over the senses at Christmas, thereby upward self-transcending.  He hoped so anyway, since he had become somewhat dissatisfied, no thanks to his parents, with the traditional way of celebrating it!

     But what, exactly, would this alternative to sensual indulgence be?  He had arrived at the front door to his ground-floor flat and duly let himself in.  Yes, what exactly?  Quickly, almost impatiently, he removed his black leather zipper and matching scarf and hung them on the metal clothes pegs just inside the door.  Then he hurried into his small living-room and immediately switched on the electric fire there.  Its two coiled filaments were aglow in no time, and he gratefully sat in front of it and rubbed the cold from his frozen hands.  Yes, well, to approximate more to Heaven than to Hell at Christmas meant that one would have to reduce one's consumption of food and drink for a start, and thus avoid the temptation to become both a glutton and a drunkard.  Whether one went as far as limiting oneself to bread and water instead of, say, roast and wine was another thing.  But one could at least make do with a less sensual fare than one was ordinarily accustomed to, and certainly avoid alcohol, that leading enemy of the spiritual life!  Milk, tea, coffee, or some fruit juice was morally preferable to booze, though not perhaps as good as cola.

     Timothy smiled slightly at the thought of it and continued to gently rub his hands together in front of the electric fire.  He was still feeling quite bloated from the turkey-sandwich supper his mother had provided for him, and not a little conscious of the soporific effects which the last glass of sherry was having on his mind.  He was still thinking of heavenly approximations from the disadvantage-point, as it were, of hellish approximations, or so it seemed.  But he hadn't imbibed that much sherry in all, and was accordingly still capable of lucid thought, thanks in part to the sobering influence of the cold weather during his brisk walk home.  So, as a step in the right direction of upward self-transcendence, it would be necessary to minimize the part played by downward self-transcendence by curtailing one's sensual intake.  That much was obvious.

     But what else?  What about the actual feeding of the spirit?  Would reading a paperback throughout the Christmas holiday suffice to take care of that?  An image of a painting by Daniele Crespi entitled The Meal of St. Charles Borromeo, in which the Saint was depicted reading the Bible whilst eating a frugal meal of bread and water, came soaring into his mind's eye and to some extent answered that vexing question.  Yes, reading would serve the needs of the spirit and contribute towards establishing an approximation to the heavenly Beyond, or Omega Point, as Teilhard de Chardin had called the projected culmination of spiritual evolution.  But a rather crude approximation to it, one had to admit, insofar as only the lower reaches of the spirit would be acknowledged and served - those reaches in which the intellect had its throne.  The greater and higher part of the spirit, the soul, would languish unfed, undernourished, and ignored.

     Thus while reading would be better than dozing, one could approximate more closely to the heavenly Beyond by meditating throughout the Christmas holiday, thereby allowing one's spirit to expand on a wave of blessed peace.  Stillness, quietness, alert passivity, joy ... all these consequences of Transcendental Meditation would bring one closer to heavenly salvation than ever reading could, even when the book in one's hands was of an elevated order, and so result in a finer Christmas.  Yet if a few days given-up to meditating still seemed too much ... well then, one could always divide one's time between reading and meditating, or meditating and watching some ennobling film or listening to some inspiring music.  As long as the spirit rather than the body was being acknowledged, no matter how imperfectly, one would be in alliance with that tiny minority of higher types.

     Yet what else?  Was there anything besides culture and meditation that could be indulged in over Christmas in order to approximate as closely as possible to Heaven?  Undoubtedly meditation was the best thing for any length of time.  But if, by any chance, one felt one had to have recourse to some kind of concrete substitute for alcohol or tobacco, what was there?  Ah, there was indeed something that could be indulged in but which wasn't legal at present, and that was mind-expanding hallucinogens like LSD, the acronym for lysergic acid diethylamide.  Whether LSD, for example, would be legalized in the near or distant future ... remained to be seen.  But, whatever its ultimate fate, there could be no denying that its synthetic constitution distinguished it from natural drugs, or drugs which either grew naturally or were less than fully synthetic, like tobacco, alcohol, opium, and morphine, rendering it an altogether different proposition from them. 

     For all the 'natural' drugs - in short, everything that grew from or owed their origins to the earth - were inevitably stamped with nature's imprint and were thus of a sensual essence.  Whenever one had recourse to them, in whatever doses, the result was an intensification of sensual indulgence and therefore a downward self-transcendence.  According to their strength and the amounts imbibed, they imposed varying degrees of subconscious stupor, ranging from the shallow in tobacco to the deep in opium or morphine.  Being of natural origin, they could only appeal to the senses, not the spirit, and thus were aligned with Hell rather than Heaven.  The deeper the level of subconscious stupor imposed by them, the more evil, it seemed to Timothy, they were, so it wasn't altogether surprising that society had sought to protect itself from the most potent natural drugs by making them illegal and punishing those who trafficked in them.  Only the relatively less evil ones, including tobacco and alcohol, were officially sanctioned and accorded a degree of social respectability, even though they were by no means without extremely serious consequences, as lung cancer and sclerosis of the liver made more than adequately clear!  Hopefully, a day would come when even tobacco and alcohol would be officially discountenanced, and all degrees of downward self-transcendence through natural drugs duly proscribed or, at the very least, discouraged.  But, at present, we were still living in an age when such evils were to a certain extent inevitable and somehow relevant to the times.

     However, perhaps there would also come a time when hallucinogens like LSD would be legalized, and those who wanted to use it could do so without fearing prosecution?  At which thought Timothy clicked his tongue and, ceasing to rub his hands together, sat back comfortably in his armchair.  Yes, for LSD was a synthetic drug, and therefore it acted on the superconscious rather than the subconscious.  It resulted, as a rule, in visionary experiences of a transcendent, translucent, and altogether mystical order, opening the door to the Beyond and thus giving rise to upward self-transcendence.  It was divine rather than diabolic, uplifting rather than degrading, enlightening rather than depressing.

     Yes, if sanity was to prevail in the world and evolution continue on its upward curve, then LSD would certainly have a role to play in the future as probably the drug of transcendental man.  The centuries of tobacco and alcohol consumption, not to mention the illicit consumption of dope and the harder natural drugs, would have to be supplanted by the centuries of LSD consumption, in which man aspired towards God, through expanded consciousness, rather than regressed towards the Devil in varying degrees of subconscious stupor.  Then perhaps Christmas, or some such equivalent festival, would be celebrated with LSD instead of alcohol or tobacco.  Then Christmas would approximate more closely to the heavenly Beyond for the great majority of people, and so be a much superior occasion to what it was at present.  For at present it was all too under nature's sensuous influence.  Only by overcoming nature, Timothy believed, would man eventually attain to God, since the mundane and the transcendent were ever different, if not antithetical, propositions. 

     But, in the meantime - no, one couldn't expect overnight miracles.  The majority of people were simply not ready for LSD and, consequently, it had to remain illegal.  Only a comparatively small number of people would be capable of using it profitably and sensibly, whereas, for the average sensual man, it would probably prove either a blank or a danger.  And not only to himself!  One shuddered at the thought of what might happen if a crowd of football thugs or other hooligans were to get their coarse hands on the divine hallucinogen!  Why, they were bad enough under the influence of lager!

     No, it was pretty obvious that the one drug seriously capable of effecting an upward self-transcendence would have to wait a while yet for official approval.  There was no sense in casting pearls before swine!  When society as a whole had progressed to a higher stage of evolution, a stage transcending anything we now knew, then perhaps an official change-of-heart would be possible.  But, in the meantime ... ah! one would just have to make do, in a majority of cases, with alcohol for Christmas.  And if one found that infra dignum?  Well, one could always meditate or read a book - which was exactly what Timothy Byrne intended to do next Christmas, all being well!

     Getting up from his armchair, he ambled over to the windows and pulled their floral-patterned curtains across.  He had quite overlooked them when first entering the room, but it didn't really matter too much.  Few people would have been interested in staring-in at him and, besides, the low wall and front-garden hedge provided his room with a certain amount of seclusion anyway.  Yet he was reminded, by the sight of a large Christmas card standing on the small table just to one side of the windows, that he had been invited out to dinner on New Year's Eve, so he hastened to pick it up and re-read its contents.

     Yes, this late card, only received on Christmas Eve, had come as quite a surprise to him, particularly since he had met its sender but once, and then rather briefly.  Yet the man had shown what seemed like genuine interest in his philosophy, and suggested the possibility of their dining together some time.  So it looked as though he had meant what he said.  Here, however, is what he had written:-

 

Dear Timothy Byrne,

     Just a brief note to wish you a Merry Christmas and invite you down to Rothermore House for dinner on New Year's Eve.  You will recall that we discussed your most recent publication together, earlier this month, and that I was quite impressed by it.  Perhaps you would like to offer me some further enlightenment on its difficult subject-matter in due course?  If so, then come down by early afternoon train to Crowborough in East Sussex, and join the select group of cultured guests whom I have also invited to see-in the New Year with us.  I hope you don't have any prior engagements?

 

Yours sincerely

Joseph Handon (Viscount)

 

     Timothy re-read the invitation through twice and then replaced the rather picturesque card on the table.  He was really quite baffled by it, not having received any such invitation before.  And the fact that Handon was a viscount came as something of a surprise to him.  He hadn't realized, at the time of their first encounter, that he was dealing with a peer of the realm.  Maybe that explained why the invitation made mention of a dinner rather than a party?  It seemed to him quite posh really, not what he would have expected at all.  But, still, what was he to make of it?  Should he accept?

     He returned to his single armchair and involuntarily began to warm his hands in front of the electric fire again.  Crowborough?  No, not a place he had ever been to before?  And Rothermore House?  He smiled at the thought of his arriving from the station by taxi at a large country house with fluted pilasters surmounted by Ionic or Corinthian capitals on the façade, and a large central pediment, with or without relief sculpture, over the architrave.  Maybe, on the other hand, it would be less classical, more baroque or even gothic?  He hadn't the faintest idea.  Nevertheless, it was almost bound to be large, imposing, spacious, and surrounded on all sides by plenty of open land.  Country houses were usually like that, after all.

     Again he smiled to himself and sat back in his armchair.  He wasn't sure whether or not to accept the invitation, especially since he didn't know much about Joseph Handon and had absolutely no idea who the other guests would be.  It wasn't as if he were exactly enamoured of country houses either, though he had retained a certain rather narrow aesthetic interest in one or two of them, compliments of some informal architectural studies in the reference division of his local library, several years before.  Yet, all things considered, perhaps the experience would prove rewarding, confirming him in his suppositions and further enlightening him where aristocratic lifestyles like Viscount Handon's were concerned.  Yes, maybe he would learn a thing or two from first-hand experience, as it were, of country houses and their inhabitants that contact with reference books had denied him?  It was certainly worth considering anyway.

     Still smiling, he vacated his old armchair again and proceeded to slot an audio cassette into the tape-deck of his modest midi sound-system.  Boxing Day still had an hour to run and he was determined to pass the remaining time in as cultural a fashion as possible.  Some synth-based modern jazz would, he supposed, enable him to do just that!

 

 

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