A gay man's musical, mystical night at an old English inn...
approximately 3500 words
Revised April, 2008
The drum of rock music shook my soul. Memories danced in cadence to the remorseless beat, memories to torment my spirit.
Old English inns have a certain delicate flavor, a puff of musty effulgence. They fold themselves into the landscape, grasping at antiquity. They have no conscience, but remind those who stay in them of past times, of old triumphs, and especially of present regrets.
This one was no different. My room was comfortable, but for the thud of the music. The window opened on an expansive southern exposure, looking across first a lush garden, and then a vast lawn, and finally a wheat field in the golden distance. An old growth forest framed the entire view: birch and pines and maples and the occasional larch.
The party below spilled out into the lawn underneath my balcony. Dancing feet, indifferent to the damage they caused, trampled the grasses. The somber trees looked on in the twilight, awaiting...something, it seemed. If not completion, then at least the certain rush of eternity.
I had visions of druids dancing with the drunken revelers from the party, ghosts from another time. This land yet clutched at memories of hoary rites, never purged from the soul of the soil. I shook my head and the phantoms evaporated into wisps of fog. Twilight and gray ruled this old realm.
The music! A line or two from a forgotten ballad drummed away, just enough to bring aromas of remembrance floating upon my psyche. Then, as I embraced the tendrils of reminiscence, the music lurched to a new tune, jarring me to other memories. If only the tape player would finish even one song!
I needed to sleep. I was here in Mildenheath on business and must arise early tomorrow. I selected this inn hoping for a quiet, even boring, evening. The inn was so English in appearance as to be an archetype, something one would expect on a post card rather than in real life. Ivy crawled up the rough-hewn stone walls to the thatched roof and a refined garden of roses and lilac guarded the entry. A scarred tabby cat lolled on a chair in the entry hall, tail switching to and fro in her sleep. When I arrived, I paused and stroked her ears and she stretched in sinful pleasure, her eyes narrowing as she purred under my ministrations.
The innkeeper could have been the ancient mariner himself, wisps of gray hair floating across his skull and a sloppy shirttail exuding from beneath his ponderous belly. A web of fine, pink capillary lines peeked through gray and brown whiskers on his cheeks. His bulbous nose hung over his grinning mouth like a light bulb in a whore house. He wore a plastic tag that announced to the world that his name was Clyde; it had a ketchup stain on it. The faint smell of stout and hard labor clung to the air about him.
"How long will ye be stayin', Mister Crawford?" His voice had that sing-song lilt of the lower classes.
"Most probably just one night, thanks."
"Oi! So ye be a Yank, eh?" He squinted up at me from his perch behind the front desk. "Ain't had a Yank here in quite a spell, we ain't." He nodded at me, as though I were a side of imported meat, perhaps infested with Mad Cow disease.
I permitted an uncertain smile to toy with my lips. "Uh, do you need my credit card now?"
"Nah! We'll getch'ye in the mornin', we will." He winked at me.
I kept my sappy grin pasted to my face. The prospect of this decaying creature "getting" me in the morning or any other time brought appalling images to mind. "Well, it looks quiet here. I'm looking forward to a quiet night's sleep."
"Oi, don't worry matey. Nuttin' new happens here, that's for sure." He handed me an ancient skeleton key attached to a plastic tag that said "Lark." "The room's at the top of the stairs, matey. D'ye need help with your bags?" He scowled at my solitary cloth suitcase.
"No, thank you, I'll be fine."
I climbed the stairs to my room. In a fit of cuteness, the owner had named all the rooms after birds. Mine was the "Lark" – across the hall was the "Robin." Doubtless the room in the garret was called the "Raven."
Wallpaper decorated with gardenias and ivy covered the walls and lace doilies adorned the tables. A faint scent of lavender tickled my nostrils and mingled with the fresh summer breezes from the open window. A blue Wedgewood bowl perched on the dresser. An ornate landscape, crammed with wild flowers and nymphs, hung over the bed, its frame dark and filigreed. The plumbing, at least, was recent, no more than decade or so old, and the room even had a TV. There was a small balcony opening on that wonderful, peaceful view of the east Anglia countryside.
Outside, the music pounded.
The inn had promised calm and harmony, but instead it delivered this mad medley.
God! They played first a line from ABBA, then a verse of Freddie Mercury, then the Beatles, then Garth Brooks. A snippet here, a couplet there, nothing ever finished. And now the Village People! What demons drive these people? In the midst of this madness I longed for the quiet severity of the YMCA. A melody from the Go-Go's staggered up from below!
In despair, I again scanned the channels on the TV, sparse in comparison with the plethora available at home. The most interesting thing on was a performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, but the mindless thump of the rock music pounding through the floor overwhelmed even Stravinsky's marvelous score. The revelers shouted to one another in the glade below, their words loud but inchoate. Out my window I spied them gyrating to their chaotic rock concert. I wondered again how they tolerated this incessant lurching from one incomplete tune to another.
The Battle of New Orleans. Grease. Hey Jude. Achy Breaky Heart. Peggy Sue. Whoever was responsible for this tortuous tape had no sense of wholeness. Unity was an unknown abstraction amidst this reeling from one song to another. Worst of all, one song barely started before the next trampled upon it. It was as though the tape maker feared that finishing a song would somehow finish him.
If only they would turn the volume down!
If only the tape maker would complete just one song!
It would not be so bad if my memory did not associate with each song a past tryst. The Battle of New Orleans – I was only twelve then, and Jeff and I were best friends. We hadn't quite realized what we were doing, except that it felt so very good. Grease – that was the summer of 1978 and Allen and two gloriously sensual nights in his arms. Hey Jude – that was spring break in the dorms in 1970 and Peter: politics and anger swept aside momentarily in youthful lust. Achy Breaky Heart – that would be Damon and the fun we had outside the skating rink in 1994. Peggy Sue – that was playing on David's radio that night we met in 1987 in Riverchon Park. Yes, I remembered David most especially.
There were so many men. I enjoyed them all. I remembered them all, more or less. My memories were deep and sensuous but somehow tentative as well. No man had lasted more than a few short months, some a few short hours. Tonight my life seems a disjointed array of memories and music and men, so like this insane and erratic concert that echoed below.
What was this party, what was this thunderous rock music, doing outside this ancient English inn in Mildenheath? It was as incongruous as the chaos of my life, as meaningless as the solitude in which I drifted.
Let's go to the Hop. Yeah, sure.
The clock showed eleven PM. I arose and took two sleeping pills. I must get some sleep tonight!
The concert continued its drunken weave. Knights in white satin. The drug weighed on my body, my limbs sank into the soft feather mattress. I'll light the fire. My chest heaved a sigh and I inhaled more melodic memories. Who wants to live forever? My mind drifted. Every sha na na na. Leaden weights seemed to press against my temples. California Dreamin'. My heartbeat slowed and my breath deepened. I got you, Babe. Time stretched, light dimmed. It's my party, I can cry if I want to. I hovered, not asleep, not awake, in a scattered hinterland of half-remembered songs and long forgotten embraces. Bye, bye Miss American Pie. Time dragged upon on my heart and memory washed across my soul. The first time ever I saw your face. The ponderous weight of the past was all that kept me from deflating into a mist of wasted atoms. Hello darkness my old friend.
I awoke to silence. A saturnine darkness shrouded my room, the concert finally over. My head ached from the blood that pooled between my scalp and my skull. Dry acid filled my mouth. I coughed, loose phlegm sliming the back of my throat. My eyes were sticky and burned. My muscles groaned.
I rolled to my back and pried open my eyes. The sky darkened my window, and a ruddy flickering glowed from the yard below. Sleep, even drugged sleep, had forsaken me. I was alone in this room with my memories -- so many incomplete memories.
I arose and staggered to the dismal little bathroom and washed some of the stale taste from my mouth. My reflection in the mirror, haggard and worn, stared back at me, a stranger to my eyes. Too much time, too many memories. I splashed water on my features, but the regrets would not wash away. I sighed and held my head in my hands, overwhelmed by the finitude of reality.
When I returned to my room, the ruddy, flickering glow outside drew me to the window. A small fire, perhaps a campfire, burned unattended at the near edge of the wheat field. No, wait! A small, dumpy figure in the shadows, dragging a tree limb, limped and paused, and then limped forward again, as if he were weary and his burdens were too great. Finally he arrived at the fire and tossed the branch upon it.
When the flames flared, I recognized poor Clyde, the ancient innkeeper who checked me in. The detritus of the party now covered the wonderful old English lawn and Clyde labored to restore it to its pure and unsullied state. His chest heaved and his shoulders slumped. Uncommon warmth filled the night and crowded against the night air. Clyde pulled his shirttail free and swiped at his brow. He gazed for a moment at the heavens, then returned to his chores.
Clyde traipsed back and forth across the lawn, gathering trash, loose leaves and tree limbs together, throwing all into the fire which leapt and blazed. The more rubbish he cleansed, the more energized he became. His step grew firmer and his back was no longer stooped. The flames danced high and bright and the sheen of sweat on his brow reflected their ruddy glow. Then Clyde slipped off his shirt and wiped his face again.
Shock thrilled through my core and tingled out my fingers! How could I have thought Clyde was old and decaying? Shirtless, upper body rippled beneath his lean flesh. Muscles flexed on his flat abdomen where I had earlier seen a beer belly. He turned and retreated to the shadows of the glade, gathering more of the waste from the tumult of the night. With each step he seemed more solid, more sure of himself, as though it were his age and his past that fueled fire.
As the blaze brightened, I discerned that Clyde was not alone. Others huddled in the shadows, near the forest and in the wheat field, flickering in and out of the gloom. Here there shimmered the glint of eyes, there the brush of a hand. These visions riveted me to my window and left me wondering what might play out tonight in this far land.
The fire no longer flickered, but roared. It's redolent glow illuminated the whole of the genteel English lawn. Those others hovered there too, passing in and out of vision, hiding in the forest, first retreating amidst the wheat, then silhouetted in the darkness. Clyde stood now in the wheat field, the fire between him and my balcony. He raised his arms high above his head and I noticed for the first time how broad his shoulders were, how narrow his hips! How can this be same Clyde I saw earlier?
Then I heard it, the barest suggestion of his Song. I could not quite make out the words and the tune eluded me. But surely Clyde stood there, raising his voice in praise and glory to the flames. Or to God, or perhaps to the Devil. Who could say, in this ancient land, what he might have been invoking! I strained my ears. Surely I have heard this Song before; if only it were louder, just a little louder, I might sing too!
Clyde Sang, and the shadow figures in the forest and the wheat field swayed in rhythm. Their forms, so ambiguous moments ago, coalesced now to clarity. Men, so many men swayed to the Song, their eyes focused on Clyde, listening so intently to his voice. I too listened, but only a faint murmur hustled against my ears. I could sense the rise and fall of his chorus, the allure of his cadence, the ghosts of his syllables. Almost I could hear his Song, but not quite.
One of the figures crept forward, coalescing from shadow to light, then back again to shadow. Tentative, so tentative, crouching, then crawling, the figure snaked its way across the grass from the safety of the trees toward Clyde. The Song! I know it would be the most beautiful thing I've ever heard, if only it were just a tiny bit louder! I would have given anything to hear this Song!
Now the lone figure knelt between Clyde and the fire. A soft croon still passing his lips, Clyde opened his arms. The figure hesitated, then arose and edged forward, toward Clyde's embrace. Startled, I saw for the first time that the figure was nude, aroused and longing for the passion of that proffered caress. Somehow that lithe form, those supple limbs, possessed a familiarity that tickled my awareness...I peered more closely. The face of the man – if only I could see, if only the veil of darkness would part!
Clyde Sang and the naked one danced before him and then danced with him. They swayed together in an elegant pas de deux, not yet quite touching yet ever so full of passion. In the song, in the dance, there floated a mutual delight I have so longed for but never found. I yearned to dance with them. If only Clyde would Sing louder! If only my ears could hear! If only my eyes could see!
As they danced, the fire flared, now dimmer, then again brighter. At one of these moments of brightness and clarity, the face of Clyde's naked companion glowed in the darkness and recognition stunned my heart. No! It was impossible! It was my first lover, Jeff, grown to manhood! He had fulfilled the wonderful promise of masculinity I found in him those many years ago. Why did I forsake him? I cannot remember; it was someone new, some novelty of a boy who stumbled into me and diverted me. I longed to call to Jeff, but I could not bring myself to interrupt Clyde's Song. "Jeff," my silent lips called out, "Jeff, come dance with me!"
As they danced, another figure coalesced out of the shadows. His approach was distant, still afar from Clyde and Jeff, but the darkness did not hide the hard yearning in his lithe, male body. I knew then that all the other figures, the shadow figures, were men, nude men, also craving to dance to Clyde's Song. Unsurprised, the same desire consumed me as well. The Song was too faint for my ears but still it beckoned me, seducing my innermost longings.
The new figure edged closer, passing in and out of the light and shadow. Clyde Sang then for both, his attention diverted from Jeff to the other, then back again. Jeff became more frantic, reaching to touch Clyde, but Clyde slithered away, toward the new figure. When Jeff persisted, only then did Clyde finally touch him. His touch seemed gentle, but there was a glint in his hand and a crimson sear as it crossed Jeff's torso.
The Song pulsed. I could almost Sing with it. Its rhythms were the rhythms of life and death, seductive and threatening at once. Jeff fell to his his knees, his hands reaching out to Clyde. And what was that? Jeff was wounded! Blood gushed from the point of Clyde's touch. The glint I had seen! It was a knife! Jeff, my love! Sing with me! But no, it was not to be...Jeff faded, dying, his elegant body severed by the cruel brutality of Clyde's touch. Clyde's Song went on, relentless, indifferent, and alluring.
Jeff crumbled to dust before the fire, his remains consumed by the crackling flames. He sang no more, but his ashes and his dust, these still Danced. They whirled about Clyde and his new partner, and then settled in a tired, grateful heap, to the earth. The dancer's feet trampled upon the dust and smashed it into the wheat. The dancer's steps ground the ashes into Clyde's discarded clothing.
Clyde and the newcomer generated a new Song – at once similar to and different from the one with Jeff. If only I could hear it! And the newcomer, so lovely, so seductive, so familiar! The Dance and the Song went on. Though I peered into the gloom and my vision was imperfect, I was trapped. I could do nothing but listen and watch. I dreamt that I joined in the Dance, that Clyde Sang for me.
The blade glinted in Clyde's strong hand once again.
This time I was not surprised when the fire flared and I recognized the newcomer. It was Allen, he of those summer nights so many years ago. Somehow I knew that Clyde would consume and then sacrifice Allen, too, even as another of my forsaken loves appeared. The men of my past came to devour the night, even as Clyde devoured them. Tonight Clyde and his Song would dispose of the detritus of my existence. Perhaps the Song, so captivating, would make these losses bearable. Perhaps, with Clyde, I could find sustenance in releasing the remnants of the past. Perhaps tonight will be my ending and my beginning.
In a mist of sensuality, I heard the Song and I saw the Dance. The night lasted an eternity, the night lasted an instant. In this night I longed for the pathway to freedom, the pathway to infinity, the pathway to forgetfulness. If only Clyde would Sing for me! If only I could Dance with Clyde!
The phone rang at six in the morning with my wake up call. The sheets knotted about me in a sweaty tangle. I have a vague recollection of last night's party and then, later, of unwholesome nightmares. I staggered through my morning ablutions, and dressed for my business appointment. I hate waking after taking sleeping pills.
When I descended the stairs to check out, old Clyde again sat at the desk. If anything, he was even more decrepit than yesterday. He needed a bath, and I smelled stale beer on his breath. His clothes were filthy, as though he'd spent the night rolling in dirt and soot.
"So ye're leaving us, are ye matey?" Clyde stirred himself and accepted my credit card. We waited for the charge to clear. Technology had invaded even this ancient place. "Didja hear, matey? There's crop circles this mornin, there is, in the wheat field out back."
"Crop circles?" I dimly recalled reading something about these things. "What..."
"You know, matey, the crops gets beaten down in patterns, they do. Some says it's ghosts, some says it's space aliens. Me, I think it's something else, I do. A dance of the spirits, it is."
"Patterns? What kind of patterns?"
"Last night they left a figure eight they did. If you look at it from the Inn, it's on its side, though. A sideways figure eight it is. Here ye go, mate, jest sign roight here." Clyde held out my credit card slip.
Crop circles. Inchoate rock concerts. Bloody half-remembered nightmares. I was most glad to be out of this place. Then I heard Clyde humming a tune. It was familiar -- I could almost recall the words. It was most captivating. I started to turn back to him – I wanted to sing this song too! But no, I hesitated, and then turned away. Whatever it was, Clyde's song was not the song I wanted to sing, certainly not the song I wanted to finish.
I pressed the preset on my car radio to an easy listening station. Joan Baez and Amazing Grace soothed my memory as I departed, leaving behind Clyde and the promise of forgetfulness.
In the late 1990's I taught a short course at the US military base in Lakenheath, UK, and I stayed at the inn described in this story. Everyone at the inn was delightful and made my time there relaxing and comfortable. One evening there was a wedding party with somewhat disjointed music that provided the inspiration for this story. I'm happy to report my sleep was not disturbed by nightmares, nor were crop circles anywhere to be seen!
If you enjoyed this, you might check out some of my other short stories in