Reporting for Duty

I curl my fingers around the stem of the wine glass. My fingers squeak on the crystal as they move up and down. The bottle is curiously warm to the touch as I trace my fingers along the edge of the label and run them around the swell, before picking it up with a swing of the arm. Music is playing through the speakers; I hum along regardless of who it is.

* * *

Sand has thickened the flag that hangs stiffly from the pole, lining the fabric and masking the Union Jack in a muted dirty yellow. Years of exposure have deadened it, although lines of soldiers still salute to it every morning. I salute with them, my hand shaking from exhaustion and doubt.

It used to remind me of home. Of quaint English habits and the trumpeting national anthem; the Queen’s weedy speech on Christmas day and bushy, dark moustaches on the mouths of men. Now it is part of my scenery, in sight from anywhere within the twenty five mile radius of the camp, blasting its obnoxious tune with oblivious immortality.

We get anxious out here for too long a time; with nothing to do, we end up pacing, snapping at our tails and whining like dogs, waiting on orders. To make us feel more at ease we have a steel tin trailer, marked ‘Pizza Hut.’ You can order a stuffed crust margherita from the middle of the desert and call it British. I get excited when it arrives and jostle in the queue with the others, but it is disappointing, all I taste is grease and grit. I wonder if it was any different back home.

* * *

The wine tastes bitter as it slips down my throat, but the effect is pleasant. I feel a gentle fuzz wrap itself around my brain, taking me into those familiar arms of a mother soothing an infant. It rocks me, back and forth, back and forth.

Back and forth.

* * *

In a distant corner of Camp Bastion is a football pitch. A rickety corkboard sign is propped up at the edge of the set rectangle, with clumsy letters painted in black.

KEEP OFF THE GRASS.

I like to watch the men play. I love the way their faces set into determination as they race after the ball and crack into a triumphant grin when it bounces past the unknown marker for ‘goal’. I sit on the side-lines and wait to be called in as referee; this happens often and is a near impossible task. In the thick of the sport, the sand is kicked up into a swirling dust cloud that pools around the players’ lower bodies. Within seconds all I see is disembodied chests and heads bobbing through the cloud, following no pattern and getting nowhere.

That was a foul, you must have seen it.

Hands in the air: I didn’t see anything, sorry. Try again. I’ll look harder this time.

But no matter how I squint, how deep into the cloud I wade, I see nothing and shrug my shoulders at the players. All’s fair in love and war, I say.

* * *

Turn the music up. I can’t hear it. No one ever talks about how wine deafens you. I poke my belly: the wine has filled it and pushed it outwards, I am a bloated, stranded whale on the sofa. When I try to stand my legs flutter as if filled with water from the thigh to the ankle; it is sloshing around inside of me. I shake my head, eyes rolling as if to clear the buzz: but my lids are heavy and my brain soft like candy floss – the pink kind, the kind that kids share on a first date at the pier.

All of this I have felt before. All of this I expect. But I had never realised how wine dams the ear canal with cotton buds and refuses entry of sound. I clap, trying to scare noise back into my body, imagining it as having crawled out of me in fear. Come back, I clap. Come back.

My pulse drums in my neck. In the mirror, I can see the throbbing artery pushing at my skin.

* * *

The Mastiff moved like a lethargic monster through the sands, beige, caged, prepared for any disaster. If you saw it from the outside, it looked blind, the slots where windows should be boarded up with white board, eyeballs without irises. Instead, the sight was electronic, streamed through cameras and fed to screens mounted in front of the noses of two drivers. I never understood why they needed two. Maybe the first would get lonely, seated by himself in the small compartmentalised front.

It was an afternoon of smooth transitioning, scouting the surrounding area, reporting back on sightings of Terror. Smooth, until –

BOOM.

The world was flung into disarray, my head smashed against metal, and all went black.

Fifty two hours later, I watched as the Mastiff, chest swelling in pride, rolled out of the repairs warehouse. The scorch marks were rubbed away, the dents popped out. It was brand new, ready to do it all again.

* * *

The faster I spin, the more I laugh. My arms are outstretched, brushing the prickly branches of the Christmas tree, the smooth oak of the mantelpiece, the steel stalk of a lamp. A beautiful man – really beautiful, just look at him – stands in the doorway. His arms are folded and he looks serious. I wish I knew why.

Come and dance with me!

He doesn’t move, and so I ask again. And again. And-again-and-again-and-again.

He leaves.

* * *

The world is on its head. There is a shining boot swinging gently in front of my face and I know it is not mine. I wonder whose it is. My eyes feel as though they are about to burst from my sockets. That is how I know I am upside down.

Panic sets in.

I look around me, left and right. Three other men are suspended like me, two of them unconscious. The one other who is awake is bracing his body against the truck roof – or floor, I can’t tell which. He is gulping in air, his cheeks ballooning and collapsing in on themselves in a rapid rhythm. Blood is oozing from a gash in his head; he is blinking crimson rivers from his eyes and he has noticed me. He calls my name, asks if I am ok.

Silence. I fumble at my lap, trying to find the clasp to the straps holding me in. Be careful, he tells me. Brace yourself.

With difficulty, I wrench the belts from me and fall headfirst onto the floor – ceiling. It hurts my bones and I lie still for a moment, just one moment, waiting for it to pass. But I mustn’t stop for long. I shake my head, trying to ignore the screaming ache that is setting in, the thick muted noise that is playing ceaselessly in my ears, and move to help.

* * *

There is a picture of me in uniform hanging on the wall. I hate it. With unsteady hands, I remove it from the nail and tell it this. I tell it three times before I throw it at the fireplace and watch it smash into a thousand glass-shards.

* * *

The news that we are going home reaches me early in the morning. I feel a leaden feeling set in my stomach at the news and start packing up my belongings. It doesn’t take long. One pack; one pair of boots tied at the laces and slung over my shoulder.

A convoy of 31 trucks is lined along the main road through camp. I am pointed to my transport and climb aboard. Our packs are jammed against our knees, cramped in the tiny space. When we set off, my palms start sweating and I wipe them repeatedly on my trousers. I recognise the man sitting opposite me: it is the man from the Mastiff with the tears of blood. He is really beautiful when you look at him. I hadn’t noticed that before.

My eyes don’t leave his face for one second. We are going home. A loud clang sounds through the cabin as we jolt over a rock, and I notice his nostrils flare, the whites of his eyes expand in panic. He notices me watching and his mouth grimaces an apologetic smile before his faces realigns.

* * *

The sun is rising, its grey light seeping around the frayed edges of the curtains. I raise my head to it and stare. My tongue is dry and sticks to the roof of my mouth; I have a cut on my hand and I don’t know how it got there. The empty wine bottles have been kicked out of sight so I don’t have to look at them. Good.

Wincing, I hobble to the window and clutch at the curtain. I pause before I wrench it open and allow the light to blast into the room. The pain is unbearable, intense, blinding, but it is real. I am home.

I am home.

 

*****

This is a piece of fiction I wrote, inspired by real life stories and blogs I have read about soldiers during and after war. It is being published in the literary journal of my university and was written for the theme of ‘Now’ ; right now, we are in a position where we are witnessing men coming home from years of war, and I wish to honour them and remind others of their humanity and sacrifice with my words.

Extra-Terrestrial Relations

Let’s start with a cliche:

Everyone makes mistakes.

Never heard that before... Source: http://thetikitakalondon.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/interlull-half-time-boring-boring-yawn-boring/

Never heard that before…
Source: http://thetikitakalondon.wordpress.com

True, we all nod our head in a vaguely bored, accepting sort of way when we hear those three words. We use them as an excuse for when we slip up: I’m only human, we all make mistakes. And we do. There are times when even the best of us mumble along in speech, digging a deeper, colder, lonelier grave beneath our feet as we go. We insult, accuse, condescend. We misunderstand, misinterpret, mis-communicate. We reject, scoff, and scorn.

We have all been the victim to a lot of mistakes, especially in love. There are relationships where people say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it’ so many times it’s easy to lose track. This apology can work up to a point. It works because of the truth of the statement we started with. Everyone makes mistakes, so I can forgive you, you didn’t mean to. The problem arises however, not when it’s multiple mistakes that are made, but when it’s the same mistake over and over again. 

It’s at this point that the apology grinds. Because there’s a hard nugget of pure honesty inside us all: you know that not everyone makes the same mistake over and over. You know that if the same mistake is made twice, then the apology becomes meaningless, because if it was meant the first time it wouldn’t have happened the second. You feel that if they loved you as much as you loved them that they wouldn’t be so human as to make mistakes. For when love is involved, you elevate the person you love to a state of more-than-human, held to unspoken promises and assumed rules.

(An eerie, alien state, not achievable with our puny human minds.)

Then comes the anger. It’s not evident at first, because you love them and don’t want to start a fight. But it’s there, waiting to be noticed. And when it does, you are faced with an impossible swell of feelings. You demand apologies that you know you won’t accept because you’ve been angry for so long you won’t believe them any more. You want gestures and touch and whispers to make it better – whilst hating being in the same breathing space as them. You fight all those fights you put off at once, and make it so much harder to pull through that you’re in danger of losing sight of that love you started with.

When reading this objectively, it’s easy to see where the thought process gets distorted and sets up impossible barriers. In fact, it seems so obvious that it’s almost a pointless thing to say. But when it’s happening to you, when you’re in the moment, there is nothing but acute betrayal and anger. There is no room left for forgiveness, not straight away – and that’s ok.

It is because we are human that we hurt and get hurt, and it’s that very same humanity that means it’s alright to be upset for a while after mistakes are made.

This is a lesson that has taken me a long time to learn. For years in my relationship, I have forced myself to shrug off repeated mistakes and hurts, to put them down as innocent error. To an extent, I believe I was right to do that, for there are times when pettiness and quarrels can – and should be – avoided if possible. But at the same time, I began to realise that I was doing that at the cost of tiny portions of myself. I would chip away at my own ethics, my self belief, my self worth, my passion and reactions. I would keep myself in check when an argument arose because I was so terrified of hurting him.

I was so terrified of hurting him that I forgot how much he hurt me in the process.

Everyone makes mistakes; we are all human.

We are all human; we all love.

We all love; we are always learning.

When love comes along it seems such a miracle, such a treasure, that we covet it. We cradle it in our hands and wrap it in cotton wool, swearing to protect it forever. But that woolly little bundle is made of everything we had and everything we were before we were in it: which means it can still be ugly sometimes, it can still be human despite our expectations of it. Those fights, those battles, those arguments, those tears and shrieked insults are what make love beautiful: surviving in the face of all that, and with acceptance of it is the true miracle.

So when that joyous bundle hurts us, we should say so. We shouldn’t balk from shouting out in protest or expressing our rage. Equally, we shouldn’t shy away from sitting someone down and calmly explaining what they’ve done and how it’s made us feel. We should do whatever we can to ensure that we don’t ever simply sit in silence and take it. You lose yourself to love in the silence.

And you’d be a fool to let yourself disappear.

Inkmen

When nib kissed paper, electricity fizzed outwards in a spider web of sparks and you were born.

You shocked me at first. You were thinner than I had planned, with a smudge of a moustache on your upper lip. A rumpled suit hung off your body; a pair of spades for hands poked out from the sleeves as if curious to see the world. When you walked, your chest curved inwards on itself, shy, despite the confident stride of your loafer clad feet.

Not a word was spoken until sunset. You sat in the margin and hugged your knees while I sat on my giant’s throne and squinted down at you. Mine. My tiny creation, perched on the edge. When you looked at me, I gasped: I had forgotten to give you an eye colour. Two dark coals were buried in your sockets, burning with a flameless heat. Who am I? you asked.

I haven’t decided yet. I think your name might be Jonah.

You rolled the name around in your mouth like an oversized marble, raising one eyebrow. Every move you made was beautiful to me. I picked up my pen again, eager to fill you out, but you stood up, shaking your head in fear. You hurled your thin body at me and tried to batter down the walls between us. Vaguely frightened, I looked on in wonder. The screams coming from your mouth were strangled, muted. There is no escape for you here, I tell you. This is the world I built for you.

I don’t like it. This is not what I wanted. Oil tears fall thickly down your face and silhouette hands press into your eye sockets. Your shoulders shake.

It is not what I wanted either. Heart pounding, I throw my pen to one side, slam the pages of the notebook shut and stuff it hurriedly onto a crammed shelf. Not only yours, but many muffled sounds issue from the long row of identical jotters: snippets of song, laughter, the miniscule taps of feet pacing. If I close my eyes, I can almost see every birth, every creation.

And I wonder if it was good.

Let me put you back together

Each thick piece of cardboard is tiny between my fingertips. I smooth along the swelling edge, and curl out the scoop on the other side. On the front is an indistinct brown line with dark shading. I bite my lip and consult the lid. It could go here… my hand hovers in the bottom left corner before, triumphant, slotting it into place.

I am practically done. A dated picture of a grinning old man behind a grocery store counter beams up at me, sitting proudly next to a ration booklet. I stroke his face fondly.

At the moment though, he is not quite finished. He has two pieces missing, both skin coloured: one for the hand, the other for the cheek. He looks eerie, like a reflection in a mirror distorted and gaping, and I want to get him finished.

My hand reaches out and scrapes the bottom of the box and finds nothing. The pieces are gone.

For a moment, I stare down at this cheerful man with his honest smile and wide eyes. But then my gaze is drawn to those gaping holes, those roughly-hewn chunks torn from his face and body.

And I burst into tears.

 

Life in a New York Minute: Part 4

By Day Four in New York I had got this notion into my head: I HAD to go and see the flower market. With no real idea of what to expect there, I was largely basing this whim on all the travel blogs and tv shows I’ve seen that display glorious pictures of endless fields of flowers. So we hauled our tired behinds out of bed and braved the sweating, heaving metro filled with morning commuters to get to 28th Street.

1239929_10200548478856111_360140350_nIt was one of the strangest streets I’ve ever been on. Here in Britain, flower markets aren’t generally a tourist attraction. They take place in the early morning and they’re predominantly for business men and women to trawl in the hopes of finding stock. Like fish markets, they don’t seem to make the list for ‘must-see’ destinations.

But if you are ever in New York, you should go along to 28th Street. The pavements are literally lined with trees; orange bushes and buckets of firecracker flowers I had never before seen screening pedestrians from the road. I found myself reaching out to touch the beautiful velvety folds of a plant, transfixed by the pure alien-ness of it. We entered shops 1233629_10200548481336173_200418687_ncautiously, with men calling out in an Italian tongue that lay heavy and fast on our ears, and found ourselves in warehouses that reached back further than we could see. The colours were blazing, the shapes twisted and elegant, the stalks thick, proud and covered with dew.

Just before we left the street, emerging amazed at the other end, I saw a small shop with buckets lined outside the front door – the picture is just to the right. They were my favourite flowers of the day. Like fireworks frozen in nature, they simply popped. 

From there we wandered around countless streets, through Chinatown, before finding ourselves in Little Italy. It looked like Christmas to me, with red, white and green tinsel dangling from one side of the street to the other: a city ready for Santa Claus. Tanned, dark haired men beckoned you in to their restaurants, promises of pizza and pasta and an ice cold glass of water difficult to resist.

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But there was no way we would stop here for pizza. We had another goal in mind.

Finally, after what felt like miles, we found ourselves at the Brooklyn Bridge, joining the throngs of people on bikes, tourists clutching cameras, and determined women striding forward in suits. It sounds corny and obvious but it was JUST like all the movies: one of those moments when being in New York really hits you.

I never imagined I would really be here. (The one with the beard and the camera is obviously not me)

I never imagined I would really be here. (The one with the beard and the camera is obviously not me)

It’s a much longer bridge than you’d think. The wooden slats under feet start to burn in the extreme heat, but every step closer to Brooklyn feels like a success. You find yourself forever looking up and around you, wanting to absorb every brick, every wire suspending the giant structure, every bolt in the railings. The well-known skyline of New York unfolds behind you (though more of that later).

SO worth it.

SO worth it.

Remember our seemingly foolish refusal of pizza? Frank Sinatra was a pizza man. He was actually quite famous for being a pizza man. In fact, he liked a certain pizza so much that when on tour he would order it and have it flown out to him. This pizza came from the restaurant we made a beeline for on entering Brooklyn: Grimaldi’s Pizzeria. And on trying some for myself, I have to agree with Frank. It was some of the best pizza I had ever eaten. And the fact that it was huge and conveniently placed before me after our five hour trek down through New York city didn’t hurt.

* * *

Tummies full and hearts heavy with glutted sin, we left Grimaldi’s and wandered over the river bank. I loved this place. From here the skyline of New York spanned from left to right across the blue rippling ribbon. Yellow taxi boats skimmed from one shore to the next. Grass lined the bank where couples and students and families lounged back on their elbows with food scattered around them. And along the way, in the shadow of the beautiful, breath taking, industrial Manhattan Bridge, a dainty bride took the hand of her new husband and stood on the shore line for photos in front of an excited crowd.

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* * *

That evening was our last one in New York City. We spent it the way it should always be spent: in the front row of a broadway show, singing our hearts out and dancing for an encore.

Late that night, we strolled our way through Times Square and back to the hotel, the harsh lights of the plaza blinking behind our eyelids as we slipped into sleep.

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A word on Love

1170874_10200383389848989_674311840_nThis Valentines day seemed to spark a lot of interest. By this, I don’t mean the happy smiling couples (see left) and their overtly flamboyant messages of love to each other that were inevitably plastered all over social media sites. I mean I read an awful lot of negative blogs, articles, statuses and tweets about the day – and those that weren’t openly disparaging of it, were subtly condemning it, labelling it as ‘any other day’.

The thing is, it WAS any other day. It was a friday – and where I was, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant friday, with gale force winds and torrential rain storms – but my point is, it was a friday, just like any other friday. Lessons were finishing for the week, people were driving home for the weekend, families were hunkering down with a movie. Just any normal day.

Except.

Except people used the day as an excuse to shout their love from the rooftops or stuff it in an anonymous envelope, cheeks blushing. People wrote statuses and tweets and blogs about that special someone. Couples went for meals, to dinner, or watched a film with a shared bag of sticky popcorn. For some, it was the first night in weeks that both managed to put aside for each other; conversations were caught up on, and people were reminded where their love for each other sprung from so many moons ago.

Which is why I want to respond to all those people out there pointing out that it was just another day.

Because so what if it was?

Moaning about the fact that it is a constructed holiday for profit, that it has no real roots in heritage or history, is meaningless – true, but meaningless. Whining that there are sickening messages all over your facebook homepage – selfish. Scorning those people foolish enough to buy into the holiday and suggest that they shouldn’t have to have a day set aside for love – well, no they shouldn’t. But equally they shouldn’t have to hide away from it because others don’t like being a part of it.

Negativity over Valentines Day is like complaining that its not your birthday instead of someone else’s. Your time will come, and when it does, you can choose to spend it how you please, but until then, be respectful of others and their choices. We have days put aside for mothers and fathers, days put aside for chocolate and presents. Surely a day put aside for love is the most universal of all of these?

531551_4577213350028_856751058_nThe way I see it, Valentines Day doesn’t have to be about the sexy kind of love, or the soul mate kind. If – as so many note – it is a socially constructed holiday, then make of it what you want; do with it what you want to do. I know someone who renamed it PALentines Day. They bought heart shaped pizzas and watched movies with a group of friends. A couple I know doesn’t enjoy Valentines, in fact they go out of their way to avoid it – but it didn’t stop them celebrating each other by watching a horror movie and going to a bar.

There is always so much campaigning for peace, sharing, and for love in this world – and on the one day everyone makes an effort to promote these very things, it only fuels the flame for the criticism that every day is a day for love.

And I hear you – some people go overboard. Some people sicken even me. I would be HORRIFIED if my boyfriend went to the lengths of some of the guys and gals out there. But that’s not my decision to make. That’s their day; mine was mine.

I spent it with the man I love – the man I plan to love forever. We put aside our friday and made time for each other in the exact way that fits us.

Isn’t that what love is all about any way? Does one little day really need to offend so many people?

For just one day, I ask that we put opinion and prejudice and jealousy and bitterness to one side…and just be glad it’s a day to celebrate love and not hatred.

I love Love. THAT’S what my Valentines was about.

What was yours?

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La Traviata!

The world – the one around me now – has stopped. This is my photo-still. This is my fragment in history. Placing one deliberate foot in front of the other, I walk calmly on stage.

Arrayed in front of me are the thousands of egg-shell faces, neatly packed into their velvet rows. A glaring veil of light separates me from them, smudging their features and smearing the details of everyone beyond the second row. Although I cannot see them, I can hear them. There’s a thrumming force pulsating outwards as they wait for me to begin; a sound like a distant vacuum presses against me as they breathe as one. From behind me I sense the stage hands who, plugged in to their headsets like excitable droids, have stopped unnaturally in their tracks, waiting.

They tell you to breathe when you panic, as if the simple act of inflating your lungs will quiet your nerves. You see it countless times in television dramas: a brown paper bag is cupped over the mouth of a startlingly red-faced victim, crumpling in on itself before expanding again at a comedic rate. The ruddy face drains of harsh colour as calm is restored, an embarrassed smile apologises to the screen, and the world is reset.

There are no paper bags here.

Nervous air judders past my lips and my chest heaves – but then I spot an old man in the front row with wrinkles around his eyes so deep that they look like two balls of crumpled tissue. He isn’t looking at me: in fact, his eyes are closed and he is resting his head against the back of his seat, as if he is about to fall asleep. The only reason I know he is paying attention is because of the soft smile twitching at the corner of his lips. The rapid panic ebbs away and filters through my veins; now it is a mere tingling in my fingertips. I raise the soft palette, imagine a cavernous hall in the back of my throat, and open my lips to inhale. The air slips down my throat with the cool silky touch of water, trickling into every limb and blossoming in every muscle.

This breath and the breath of the vast crowd before me is like the ocean: an endless, surging, effortless tide that washes over and in and around. There is a magnetic reflux to it, tugging and releasing, rising to crescendos and dipping to pianissimo in silent unison with the moon. It is an unthinkable act, inconceivable in its very existence. We suck in the salt water of the air and crash it onto private pink shores.

Just when I feel full, I inhale a fraction more. The breath burrows deep into my lungs, nudging at the diaphragm, inching it into expanse, and I am ready. I am pregnant with air from my collar bone to my womb.

The familiar grip of the rectus abdominus provides the foundation, setting like a well of cement in the contact with oxygen. I am buried in the slatted stage; I can feel the tactile reaction of it against the balls of my feet, feeding strength up and into my softened knees. From the waist down, I am solid, steely, pushing outwards and downwards. The breath squats like a bunker deep underground, anchoring the store of oxygen in a concrete box that fastens the balloon breath billowing out the rest of my body. Slowly, I begin the release, and feel the air rising in me, a warm cloud waiting for transformation.

Up to the diaphragm, this arched dome under my lungs where the air sits like a rubber ring around my waist. It is grazing against the sacks of my lungs; I can almost hear a grating squeak as they rub together. Sque-eze. It is a drawn-out, exhaustive movement that saps the strength from me and squashes the air into a concentrated flow, steering it with purpose. Drawing on the lift from the bunker store below, it funnels the air higher up towards the larynx, the colour of the muscle pinkening, before releasing duties over to the lungs.

They are still fat with oxygen. The branched bronchioles bulge against the air sacks as if seeking more, greedy for the sweet taste; the main store in the lower lung is a sunken treasure trove, rich with product and pompous in its surety that soon it will be in demand. The ground beneath them shifts: this is their cue. Reluctant to let it all go at once, a slow release ensues, a battle of control as all three litres of air whistle back up the bronchi and into the trachea in a victorious race for freedom.

In a wild rush, the air flirts past the vocal chords, revelling in the journey’s disturbance, twanging on them like guitar strings and pocketing the vibrations on their way. Atomic couriers, they whizz through the vocal flaps on humming mopeds, one note clinging to the exhausts in an anxious state of pre-delivery, before re-entering the cavity under the soft palette.

This place is now huge, rounded. It opens up through the nose and billows out the throat; externally, a new chin has appeared. It is like a rouge ballroom, the tongue as rough flooring, the palette a soft, gathered ceiling. The couriers delight in this place, dancing around the pearl columns, gathering each atom into a mass of sound ready to dance their way across the tongue to freedom.

A slit of light bursts into the space as the lips are parted. The mass is released in a perfect, smooth stream; vibrations fill the mouth, tickle the tongue, swirl around each tooth, and burst with triumph into the world. An A, two octaves above Middle C. It pings in the listeners ears, a crystalline drop in the vast ocean of opera.

The old man in the front row, his comforting tiny eyes gummed shut with old age, grins.