Monday, March 16, 2009

Leaves - A Flash Story


When I first met Paula, I told her that she smelled like bergamot. Every time she moved her arms, every time her hair was caught in a light breeze, my senses would go into overdrive and all I could think of was a kettle of Earl Grey tea. She said she smelled that way because she spent most of her childhood in her uncle’s tea shop, wandering among the tall glass jars filled to the brim with exotic smells and delicacies from around the world. A pinch of oolong here, a dabble of British Breakfast there, some lavender thrown in for good measure, and voila!, she would say, raising her hands over her head as if she was a magician. She lived for the scents that awakened the senses, for it was in those scents that brought us to a moment of undiluted happiness.
One day I wanted to test that thought, so the two of us walked from my home to her uncle’s tea shop, the small ocean blue painted store at the end of the street with wind chimes at the door. When she opened the door, I closed my eyes without even thinking. It was here, all of it, ready and waiting for me and only me. Her uncle, a grizzled old man who somehow forgot that the 60s had ended a long time ago, came from around the desk and hugged his niece with happiness and pride. I stood back, giving them their space but also taking in the scents as best as I could. Her uncle then pulled away from her and introduced himself to me with a smile and a firm handshake.
“I give people happiness,” he said with a wink. “Too often, people come in here dull and grey. I let them see what they are missing.” With that, he walked back behind the counter to a small stove with a kettle that had just begun to whistle. From this kettle he filled three already prepared cups that stood to the side then waved at us to join him. When we reached him, he handed each of us a cup; Paula’s was the colour of blood while mine was a deep violet. He raised his bright white cup in a mute toast but smiled as we took a sip from our own cups. Once the hot liquid touched my tongue, my skin began to smell of jasmine.

Book Review - Asylum by Patrick McGrath

The Seduction of Madness

When I was younger, my mother and I visited a friend of hers who worked in a mental institution. Although the area was serene and peaceful, I still felt uneasy; several of the patients were out on the grounds as we drove through the main gate. As a published author, I have found that most of my recent stories have at least one character who is suffering from mental illness; my perception of them changed from ignorance when I was younger to eerie fascination now as an adult. I have also noticed that some of my favourite writers love to write about a mentally ill person functioning around others or within their own world. Such is the way of writer Patrick McGrath; his stories contain the most unstable of humankind and yet he does it with a morbid reality, leaving us with a want for more of what we fail to understand.
In the novel Asylum, we are thrust into a mental institution in the countryside of 1950s England, told from the perspective of one of the resident psychiatrists. Through his eyes, we are introduced to the new resident psychiatrist Max, his son Charlie, and his lovely wife Stella, who is clearly Max’s opposite in the extreme; she is full of passion while Max is not. During a dance at the institution, Stella discovers a new source of interest: a patient named Edgar Stark, who is not only a talented artist but a psychopath who decapitated his wife. To her, Edgar is forbidden yet someone who could nurture her passions that fall to the waist side by her cold and unfeeling husband. Once the mutual attraction is acknowledged by both Stella and Edgar, the affair begins and continues with intensity and desire. Stella knows that her actions are wrong but she continues to do so anyway because Edgar gives her what is sorely lacking in her own husband. However, it is through this affair that leads Stella, Max, and even the narrator down a dark path that has no chance of seeing a modicum of reason, leading to events that once played out, can never go back to being reasonable. The readers witness the results from choices tainted with madness and hatred, of loves fueled by jealousy and coldness. We ask ourselves if we could ever make such choices, or if we could ever succumb to levels of dark emotion that both Stella and Edgar face.
Then again, are we to believe any of it? Did Stella make up the entire story? Can we even believe the narrator who was also her therapist; at one point in their sessions, he asks her to marry him in the hopes that he can and will save her from herself. Were his reasons for trying to “cure” Stella commendable, or was it something else? Was Edgar the only one we could rely upon, since his personality was flawed from the beginning with no layers to expose? There is no right or wrong answer, only answers with variations of truths that hopefully can and will be appreciated. How far could we go down the rabbit hole before we realized it was too late? Would we even realize it? Would it be worth it in the long run? The line between madness and sanity is blurred through a skewed lens that is created by the individual who is faced with such a matter. It is easy to be seduced by madness but it takes willpower to find the truth.