David Keenan is a Scottish author, critic and musician who has penned four critically acclaimed novels: This is Memorial Device, For the Good Times, The Towers The Fields The Transmitters and Xstabeth. Taken from his forthcoming novel, the following extract is a rhapsody of lunar proportions, a single breath of human marvel
Book Three: Choir
1. The Gospel According to Frater Jim
The young boy, who was back wearing a regulation striped pyjama top after losing his smart denim jacket in a brawl, would ask me questions about the far future, about the possibilities of the fantastic, things that were beyond the reach of my own terrible powers, things that were outside the span of my own life, but nonetheless I would entertain his fascination with speculation that I would present as vision and soon we had two parallel futures that we spent much of our time in, one that would unfold and that would come around and that would pass just as surely as the sun would continue to shine, and one that we would never enjoy outside of anticipation and fantasy, a world where they landed on the moon, they really did that? the young man burst and yes, I told him, yes, they really did, the Germans were working on the technology in secret, I claimed, and after the war they moved over to the American side and they came up with a great saucer, a round disc with retractable legs, which could move so fast it was almost invisible and they kept it inside a mountain and it would take off vertically and soon they were sending fleets of these ships to the moon to conquer it, though when they got there they found there was nothing to conquer, that it was in fact just a dead stone floating there, but nevertheless it was some kind of achievement, but how did they prove it, the young man asked, how did they prove they were on the moon, and I told him that they took photographs, that films were made, and the young boy said, well, they can make a film of anything they like, he talked about a film he had seen where a race of aliens conquer the earth, and I said, yes, okay, but what happens is they put a huge flag on the face of the moon, a flag so big that it can be seen from everywhere on earth, that’s how they prove that they get to the moon, but what’s on the flag, he asked me, surely it isn’t just the flag of a country, surely people would protest across the world about having to look at another country’s flag every night stuck in the moon and towering over them, like an advert, an advert for a country, and of course he was right, and I had to think, what would they put on a great flag that wouldn’t even flap on the moon, a flag that would stand motionless, a flag that would, of course, attract attention from all sides, from out there in the solar system, in the depths of space, as much as from the people of earth, and I was stumped for a minute and then I said, well, what they come up with is, what they decide would best represent the achievement of man, what would best represent him to the cosmos, in a way, is, well, what do you think they chose, I asked the young man, who at this point had stopped shaving with a rusty razor that he would borrow from an emaciated Italian who described himself as a prisoner of conscience and had therefore sprouted the beginnings of a soft beard and who was also sporting a bloodshot eye and cuts across his hands as a result of the fracas over his purloined denim jacket, and the boy thought a while and said, well, a flag is ruled out, we know that much, people across the world don’t want to look at the same flag flapping every night in their face, even though you point out that it wouldn’t flap, I think we get the point, so I would guess that they would put something on it like a picture of a man, a drawing of an earthman, no, well, in that case, a man and a woman, you know, that’s how we get along down here, why not up there, any aliens can check us out, we can see ourselves in space, everyone wins, no, okay, I see, I guess there are many types of people on God’s earth so it was too hard to decide, you know, should they be fat, should one of them be fat and the other tall and beautiful, but who wants to look at an ugly fat person flapping on the moon, which I know they wouldn’t flap but you get what I’m saying, but I suppose the whole thing became too fractious, too complicated, like should the man have a beard, should the woman have long hair or short hair, this is the human race we are representing here, after all, and we’re all going to have to look at it, though in what detail I’m really not sure, could you make out their genitals from the earth, for instance, or would you need a telescope, should they even be naked in the first place, but you know if you put them in clothes that, well, fashion keeps on changing, they will be out of date in no time, but maybe that doesn’t matter too much as although in the short-term they will become a bit of an eyesore, kind of an embarrassment, with people looking up at the moon incredulously and thinking, did we really dress like that, I mean, we could get to the moon but we couldn’t figure out just how off the mark women’s fashions were, but of course eventually, in time, they will come to seem quaint and then historical and that of course lends them a certain air of gravitas, a certain authenticity that we can all be proud of, even if we wouldn’t be seen dead looking like that today, and of course how do they stand, do they stand like statues, heroic, mythic-looking, or is that all too much, should they slouch around, touch each other, appear casual, and of course we haven’t even brought up the race thing, never mind what age these two should be, should they be at their peak, which I read somewhere for men it’s twenty-one and for women thirty-two, which puts us out of sync, I’ve always felt, and a twenty-one-year-old man, let’s call him, with a thirty-two-year-old woman on a flag on the moon, well, that’s too much reality for anyone, I fear, should she expose her breasts, of course, being a breast man I would say yes, and wouldn’t that be a healthy attitude, there’s a voluptuous naked woman on the moon for all to see at any age, but then I’m a freethinker, well, I regard myself as one, and there are lots of religious people who would not be happy with a buck-naked woman on the moon, never mind a guy with his penis hanging down, that’ll inevitably offend someone, you can imagine whole areas of the world where they would have to lock themselves in at night just to make sure they didn’t catch an inadvertent eyeful, religions that would be forced into fear of the moon, which is fear of women, if you think about it, which would give women a nice feeling of revenge for all that they’ve had to put up with over the years, yes, I’m rather coming round to the idea of a giant naked woman on the moon, if women were able to be reasonable with each other and agree on basics then they all could get a lot out of a development like that, but I know, as I say, I’m a freethinker, and there are men to think about too, aliens might think it was a race of women, for a start, and think we were a pushover or an ideal conquest, more likely, and of course men would feel left out, it wouldn’t be the whole story unless, of course, you could plant a flag in the sun and have the man on that, but that’s never going to happen, let’s face it, and of course what colour skin should the woman have, should she have oriental eyes, should she have those hips, those great wide hips, or what about the women with the longs necks and the eyes all askew, I’m partial to those myself but what’s wrong with a blonde, a traditional blonde, or a Scandinavian blonde, if you really want to push the boat out, and of course what about South Americans, what about Latino women, the most beautiful women in the world, some might say, and sometimes it’s hard to disagree, at least that is until you get into Eastern Europe and then it’s all over, for me anyway, at any rate, it’s all over when confronted by the beauties of the near East, Polish women, oh my God, the women of Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Romania, okay, hear me out, this could be out in the realm of fantasy but how about a painting, a painted flag, with five women on it, a Japanese woman, an African woman, a great Eastern European beauty, a Latino honey and an Arabian woman – a Persian would be my first choice – and the painting, the way I’m seeing it right now, which is with my mind’s eye, it looks like something by Marc Chagall, do you know him, he’s a great Russian painter, though God knows where he is now, with all of this turmoil, what has it done for the arts, who knows, will they ever recover, though the arts are resilient, we all know that, you didn’t know I had a background in the arts myself, I’ll bet, you took me for one of those kids that run off to the army straight from school, well, no, not quite, but I was that oddity, a patriotic artist, well, not so odd if you think of it as an artist with a social conscience, if you twist it like that, but that was never me, I kept politics out of art but I loved my country, loved England, and of course loved Poland and loved the women of Poland, which is what drove me to enlist, those terrible animal Germans stomping all over Poland then threatening England into the bargain, what a thought, and so I abandoned my painting, which, as you might have guessed, was very influenced by my discovery of Chagall, and so I’m imagining this flag, this flag on the moon with a painting by Chagall on it, a painting of five women and the women are standing in a ring in a garden and they might be dancing, they might be twirling around, a leg is lifted here, a heel kicks out, a thigh curves in the way that only Chagall can make a thigh curve, the quality of his brushwork, which is what makes a great painter, ultimately, look closely and tell me I’m wrong, and if you think about it, Chagall’s paintings, if you’ve never seen them let me tell you, they have the quality of moonlight, that is of reflected light, that is of the memory of the sun, the memory of colour, they are illuminated, like stained glass in the cold dark of an old church, something that he also dabbled in, or so I heard, so I was told at art school where we would marvel at his works, how they were illuminated from elsewhere, the colours like a fantasy of colour, an uncomplicated supernatural aspect, that’s what they said, and of course Chagall was a Jew, which makes me wonder if he is still alive, after you told us of the fate of the poor Jews in this war, have we lost Chagall with his wonderful light, even more reason to memorialise him and his women on the moon, though I’m sure, like myself, he would have opted for five women from Eastern Europe, five dark beauties with pale skin like the light of the moon itself, translucent skin and dark eyes and with their breasts exposed, let’s say, let’s compromise, with their nipples of scarlet and of darkest brown, dancing in a circle, of course what would have been even better, if you ask me, would have been to erect a church on the moon, a church with huge panels of stained glass that could be seen from the earth, one that stood on the surface of the moon as a sign that mankind had been there with reverence, which is the correct attitude with which to approach the moon, I believe, and the windows filled with dancing women in the style of Chagall, in the style of the late Chagall, I almost said, and who can say for sure that he hasn’t been murdered already, shot in the back of the head with a single bullet, thrown into a communal grave, what a loss to mankind, will the world ever really be the same, tell me, think of all that we have lost, a holocaust of books and paintings and ideas and thoughts and visions and great buildings rising up on other planets, all the different colours, all the gradations of light, that we will now never experience, people call the light in Chagall’s paintings otherworldly and of course that’s understandable, I said myself that it resembled bright moonlight, but moonlight is of the world, Chagall’s colours are of the world so completely that there is something ridiculous about them, it’s colour reflected through a small eye, a tiny pupil that longs to be the size of a planet, that longs to have the surface of the ocean at its disposal, that longs to reflect the expanse of the sky but that is hemmed in, that is concentrated on a tiny surface, and of course Chagall’s paintings, forgive me my passion for him, but Chagall’s paintings have no depth of colour, his paintings place colour next to colour, never so much colour on top of colour, everything has risen to the surface in a painting by Chagall, everything has risen in the paintings of Chagall, which again is a good enough reason to have his paintings on the moon, in a great church on the moon is how I would have done it, and of course there is something simple about the moon, in my opinion, something that is happy just to be, but even so it makes its demands, it makes its demands of women and of the oceans and of gravity too, there are days of the moon when you can move faster than others, days of the moon when you can jump higher, days of the moon, as we all know, where you can make love all night, days of the moon where you can go a bit crazy and drink yourself till you’re poisoned, it makes demands of birds and of moths and, who knows, of insects too, I’m willing to bet, and wouldn’t that be something, a painting of a moth, a great moth landed on the moon, wouldn’t that be humorous and kind of touching too, the dream of every poor raggedy moth fulfilled, would it confuse the moths of the earth, though, that’s impossible to say, and a moth painted by Chagall, inevitably, if he’s still around in the future to paint them, and I pray that he is and I pray that as well as women, as well as Chagall’s dark and, inevitably, tragic women, that he lives to paint moths, who better, who better to paint their translucent wings, their splashes of eerily simple colour, the way they too become besotted by the reflection of light and fly towards it and burn up, and think of all the light that’s burned and buried already, but we go to the moon anyway, we never lose that attraction, that’s reassuring, somehow, that we have enough leisure time, that there’s a cessation of conflict long enough to facilitate going to the moon and planting a big flag there, even if it doesn’t have a painting by Chagall on it, even if it’s not, inevitably, a ring of happy and sad women dancing on the moon, or a great moth hovering in happy silence above it, even if it took a war and a holocaust to get there, even if it took a battlefield to invent a UFO, which according to what you are telling me is how it went down, that the Nazis invented UFOs as weapons, at first, and then afterwards for a short trip to another planet, and of course there’s the matter of your new face, which came to you through the experiments of the Nazis, so some good came out if it, as least that’s how it seems, we’re still waiting to hear how that goes, though it would seem like the possibility of a fresh start, and that’s something, that’s something we would all love to have, a life all over again, rising up, like the colours in a Chagall painting, how incredible, but first, okay, put me out of my suspense, what was it that they put on the huge flag that they raised on the moon and that everyone could see from space and from down here on the earth, it wasn’t the earth itself, was it, the earth in space, no, okay, that might have been too uncomfortable, like looking in a mirror all the time, plus you might get vertigo, depending on the scale, okay, in that case I give in, what did they decide in the end, after all the back and forth, the inevitable complaints and pressure groups and special interests and lobbyists and international law, I’m sure that must have come into it, as the moon knows no borders and so the flag would have to reflect that, wait a minute, wait a minute, a perfect reflection, of course, after all is said and done what else could they possibly do, don’t tell me, I think I have it, it’s outlandish, but I think I have it, in the future, when they land on the moon, in order to prove they have been there they erect a huge flag that has a picture of the moon on it, am I right, yes, am I right, wow, okay, I guess there was no other option, really, though I don’t suppose it was painted by Chagall, was it, that’s asking for too much, isn’t it.
Illustration Dror Cohen
This extract is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here