The Clairvoyant | Patrick M. Hare

 

I never met Thomas Calame. As he died in 1956 – well before I was born, much less interested in art – I came to know him as we do most artists: first through the lens of their works and only later, if at all, through stories, biographies and informational placards. With Calame, however, even his works are becoming less well-known with the passing years; so much so that a painting of him (Rene Magritte’s La Clairvoyance [1936], in which a man in a dark suit is depicted painting a bird in flight while looking at an egg on a side table) rather than a painting by him is the most viewed work with which he is associated. It is perhaps not surprising that Calame’s fame is waning; he was never a master painter nor a bold conceptual artist, the two requirements for lasting impact on the canon. Likewise, he has so far failed to fall into one of the accidental frenzies that grips the art auction world. No biographies of him exist and barely a line is devoted to him in the encyclopaedias. His paintings can be divided into two groups, distinguishable not by their different techniques – for he painted simply and realistically throughout his career, favouring simple colours and bold lines – but by their subjects. Like the surrealists with whom he is grouped, many of his paintings depict impossible things: gravity-defying cities, labyrinths that were also tigers, the corpses of mythical beasts in still-life. As surrealist works go, these are generally considered rather pedestrian. His other works depict the startlingly mundane: eggs, birds, landscapes. Within this group of prosaic subjects are several hidden depictions of the unthinkable – the future.  

Calame’s works are now scattered throughout the world, filling out the surrealist and modern galleries of provincial museums. The museum in Canton, Ohio has one and so I must have seen it growing up, but it wasn’t until I chanced upon one of his canvases (Self-portrait IV, a weedy lot with drifts of trash piling up against a peeling fence) in the Kunstmuseum Bern that I became interested in his works. A docent saw me puzzling over the painting one day during my lunch break and we fell to talking. She mentioned that one of the museum’s retired conservators, an Australian by birth, had known both Calame and several of his colleagues. In town for a conference followed by a week of vacation, I asked if it would be possible to meet the conservator for coffee. From that meeting and the several that followed it, I have assembled the following information/biography/sketch.

*

The Thomas Calame depicted in La Clairvoyance seems to be an accurate representation, for those who had met him described him thusly: tall, thin, even for the times, with a mushroom-like head, an impression only heightened by dark hair that seemed to have slid off his crown to lie clustered about his ears. The painting is also a good representative of his sartorial preferences – black suits with simple straight lines. While he and Magritte looked very similar at the time of the painting (which Magritte, with characteristic humour, described as a self-portrait), their appearances diverged as they aged: Magritte filled out, Calame did not. Magritte kept more of his hair, although it all whitened. Calame’s thinned and whitened on the crown of his head, but it stayed thick and dark below, giving his head its fungiform aspect. Among the things not captured in the portrait: Calame was partial to French cigarettes which he smoked continuously; he moved quickly with a very quiet step; talked little but when he did he would gesture emphatically with both hands. He was excitable, not given to socialising much. He had few friends, but he was fierce in devotion to those he did make.

Calame was born in 1907 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, a small manufacturing centre in the mountains along the French border. The only child of a reasonably well-off lawyer and distantly related to the 19th century painter Alexandre Calame, he showed an early aptitude for art. Unwilling to bring an instructor to their house because of the cost, his parents did begin sending him to study in town at the age of eleven. His education was challenging, as would be imagined of one with his ability, even though the precise nature of that talent would not be recognized for many years. Instead, adults described him as overly imaginative, prone to fancy, and unable to focus on the task at hand. His talent lay hidden so long because while he could easily draw or paint from his imagination, if asked to paint or draw from a model, be it a person, still life, or landscape, his brush or pencil would produce an image of the scene unlike that in front of him. Childish drawings of the view outside the classroom in the morning would depict a night scene during a different season. Houses in the distance would be shown in ruins, or new houses would appear in empty fields. Still-lives were grotesqueries, full of desiccated corpses and rotten fruit, or they showed bare tables, or piles of unrelated clutter. When asked if that was indeed what he saw, he could only respond with incomprehension. Demands to repeat his work would produce a different image. Thus obstinacy and stupidity were added to his list of character traits. Despite this, by the time he came of age, several of his paintings had made it into regional shows, and he developed a reputation as a promising young painter.

Catalogues record 137 paintings and drawings by Calame, of which thirty-one have been lost or destroyed. Seventeen of these, comprising most of his early output, have the distinctly dubious honour of having been destroyed in the first V-2 strike on London in 1944. Of the remaining fourteen, most went missing during the war from friends’ homes when the home was destroyed, or were presumed stolen or sold. To date, none have resurfaced.

The painting of the bird shown in La Clairvoyance (egg III) was one of only two series of paintings he is known to have produced: eggs I – VII, and a series of works titled ‘self-portrait’ that were discovered posthumously. It is unsurprising that neither series depicts in an obvious fashion either an egg or Calame. Both series are now distributed among half a dozen museums throughout the world. The egg paintings (two of which were destroyed in the V-2 strike) depict, in addition to the mature bird in flight in egg III, an omelet (egg II), a fluffy chick (egg VI), a cat with the broken body of a bird in its mouth (egg I), and a single feather stuck in the crook of a tree (egg IV). It is not clear if multiple paintings depict the same egg or if each canvas was created from a different model.  This point would reasonably be considered vital, as it would settle at a stroke the debate between determinism and free will. Calame, though, seemed uninterested in the question, relying on servants to remove and do what they would with his models. The supposition that an egg, or the egg depending on your philosophical bent, ended up breakfast for the servants is irresistible. The series was produced in Paris between 1933 and 1936, where Calame had moved in 1928 to gain more exposure. There he met Magritte, Max Ernst, Miró, and others active in the surrealist scene. He found a ready home with surrealism and its depiction of realities that are impossible, or at least very improbable. It was an easy field in which to paint purely from imagination. It did not afford enough of an income to live on, though, so for a time he painted by commission. This came to an end after he spent three months in 1935 working on a portrait of a prominent Jewish family. He refused to paint portraits after this, and indeed no more paintings of any subject are recorded until he moved to London in 1936. He appears to have spent most of the intervening years closeted in his rented room.

In moving to London, Calame was following Magritte, who was living under both the patronage and the roof of the poet Edward James. It was there that Calame asked Magritte to paint him. It was also during this time that Calame exhibited the egg series, as well a number of typically surrealist paintings. When war looked to be inevitable, he fled England for Australia, where the unchanging nature of the landscape provided him with a chance to have his brush produce the same scene others saw.

It is not known when he produced the series of paintings titled self-portraits I – IV. Some have suggested that they were produced in Paris after his failure at portraiture, but there is no record of their storage or shipping to Australia. I believe it more likely that he only painted them after arriving in Australia, having had a chance to come to peace with what they would show. The series is composed of the following subjects: An an open packing crate with the lip of a dark green jar lid just visible inside; a single tree off-centre in a level grassy field with farm-covered hills in the background; a broken body in dark cloths lying, head at an impossible angle, at the bottom of a set of marble stairs, a pool of blood spreading to encompass the body; an empty, weedy lot in front of a peeling wooden fence. Many people assume that these were titled whimsically in keeping with the proclivities or of his early friends. Those sympathetic to New Age mysticism and certain forms of Buddhism assume they are meant to show the universal connection between all living things. They are not these things, though, at least not fundamentally. He was simply being honest in the naming.

The paintings were not found until several years after his death, when a manager found them in a storage room he had taken out in Perth. He died in his small house outside Perth in 1956, following a fall down a full flight of stairs. He appears to have simply tripped. The fall broke his neck and fractured his skull. His will dictated that he be buried in his native Switzerland, but his estate was unable and his relatives unwilling to pay for transportation of his body from Australia. He was cremated, his ashes deposited in a small, simple urn, and this was shipped to his hometown. A proper burial was also out of the question. A cousin who had met him only once scattered his ashes on a field outside Columbier. I visited it before leaving the country, and while the field is intact and the tree is still standing, albeit with a number of rotten branches, it is only a matter of time until the growing town overtakes the field, leaving a peeling fence bordering a weedy, trash-filled lot in its wake.


Patrick M. Hare writes fiction and photophysics. He lives near 
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

He is on Twitter @NKUPMH

Bonnie | Steve May

Guess who came to the factory this morning…Steve McQueen. To pick up his new Bonnie. He had this girl, Maureen, from the office, sitting on the back for some photos. You should have seen her face. What a sight. Steve McQueen and our Maureen!

Me dad made motorbikes at Triumph Engineering in Meriden. He had a hand in the Bonnie from the word go. He’d come home knackered but buzzing from the factory and talk like a kid about this great new bike. He felt he had a stake in it even though he was only on the shop floor.

The original Bonneville, a thing of beauty, a classic. A work of art in tangerine and blue separated by a single hand-painted gold pinstripe. Stripped down fenders; 115 mph; a real hot rod for for the US market. “The Best Motorcycle in the World” said the blurb. Who could disagree?

I was never a biker, me, but in 1974 I bought an ancient Honda 50 that managed 50 miles from Stockport to Leeds in just under 8 hours then clapped out, kaput.

It was Honda that eventually killed off Triumph; too heavy, too expensive. Though the Bonnie lived on, it was never the same as in those early days, when me dad raved about its sculpted tank and sturdy frame.

The Triumph Bonneville, a mythical machine, famed for jumping that barbed wire fence in The Great Escape. McQueen on top and a little bit of me dad in its battered frame.

 The Triumph Bonneville was first produced at the Meriden works in 1959. Steve McQueen visited the factory to pick up his new bike in 1964.


Born in Coventry, UK,  Steve May has worked extensively in the field of drama-in-education, including winning  an Edinburgh Fringe First with Wigan Young People’s Theatre and leading a Performing Arts Department at Sunderland College. More recently, living in Sunderland, he has worked as an acupuncturist and returned to his original passion of poetry. He regularly performs his work around the NE of England and further afield. He has had poems published in The Writers’ Café and the anthology Mixed Emotions and won the 2019 Shelter Poems for Home Competition, judged by John Hegley. He is a Poetry Society (UK) member.

He is on Twitter at @s_may_uk

Count Your Breaths | Chris Wright

Fine dreams of sweets and the soft lilt of her fading lullaby are torn at the fabric; broken by a terrible wail, like a bird calling out a predator until I have no choice but to rise and gasp and plunge through the surface of a stormy sea. When the distressed caw doesn’t become another and the sound stretches into the distance I know what is coming.

The patter of quick feet, the swoop of the bedroom door, Grandmother’s warm hand resting on mine, just for a second, in a moment of pure peace.

We take off down the stairs, out into the biting November cold, towards the shelter at the end of the street.

“Count your paces,” she shouts and we try to beat our score from the night before and, despite knowing that another fleet of German bombers sweep in from the South East, I am safe as long as she’s at my back, tracing the steps of my small feet with her own.

The dust that clings to the city weighs her breaths and slows her steps, gifting me more time lingering in dreams. Slower and slower it takes until full minutes pass for her to shuffle to my room, calling out my name in increasingly strained tones, chased by rack and cough.

I guide her down the stairs and through the front door, the pinching air stealing her stride. I pull and tug with all my little muscles can muster. “Count your breaths”, I shout like she is in control.

She falls by the side of the road, slumping down the neighbour’s wall, looking up at me with a rueful smile. I count to three and count no more.


Chris Wright is from Northern Ireland. His work has featured in several publications such as The Bangor Literary Journal, The Belfast Telegraph, Panic Dots, Broadsheet.ie and Unsigned. Chris is a Politics Graduate from Queens University, Belfast and is currently working on his second novel.

You can find him on Twitter at @_ChrisWrites

The Great Courtesan of Henrietta Street | Olivia Marsh

1755

Everything in London is filling it to bursting and the men never more so; in their multitudes, men are as common as the wet, muddied ballad papers that cling to the pavements. They strewn, like the chair and carriage traffic that clutters its way to the epicentre. O, glorious epicentre, where all the world’s best and worst scramble for coin, for lust, for love, for life, for death, for success, for posterity. Choices for the taking.

But in all that choice, she desires only him. Second-rate version of an heir that he may be. A third son? A fifth? She does not remember. She only remembers that he has loved her, or has professed it in so many words. He has whispered on a morning: “My angel, take yourself off and buy a dress, a gown a la Turque, and later, I will kiss you and kiss you until you are quite dizzy.” Everything beautiful she sets her fingers on was paid for by him. Bottomless fortune, indeed. There ain’t no such things. Not for third sons on a cadet branch. And yet…

And yet, there is a pimp far back in her memory who thrusts up her chin and says “Pretty pet, come along now, I’ll have you set in no time. You’ll beg no more, child” and he had indeed made her Duchess, after a fashion. Aye, her coronet was a man’s mettle, all bitter and white, but the luxury was the same. Only those who sleep soundly in their beds each night declare that a mighty harlot cannot look a fine lady in the eye and say ‘Aren’t we sisters, dear?’ The difference between her urine-soaked alley bed of old, and the silk sheets and fresh linen of new, is startling enough to make her fear ruination to the point of shudders and flutterings; when there is so much danger in London for a woman to fear; that is her nightmare. A flash of cash is enough for her to open up, out of passion, out of fright. What care she for figures, for the strange minutiae of it all? Yet, men make promises they cannot keep all the time, and they close the breach with kisses and sweat-doused nights and sweetness. She knows this, somewhere. It’s just that, this time, her heart has quite staged a coup. It has taken over.

Her heart has been cautious but never closed. But she fears she has given it to him, in particular, too freely, as he now speaks the words she has dreaded, the words she has suspected but never quite let herself consider for more than a moment.

“I am tired of you”

And now he says she is a strumpet. A doxy brought high and mighty by other men’s money, hard earned fortunes tallied up since the Conqueror. He says “You ought to have remembered that you were mine and mine alone. Instead, you go gadding about the city, always open for business!”

Always open for business! She retorts, she says she has been touched by no other since he took his brief leave, that she has pined only for him. If men have admired her in the streets, that is no fault of hers. Surely, surely, he did not expect her to lock herself away until his return? Surely, my love…oh, she speaks sweetly now, close as she is to spilling tears, surely he does not mean for her to be cosseted and owned?

But he does expect it of her. He expects a biddable mistress, a wife of sorts, though not quite. All warm and inviting, with a mouth to fill and kiss deeply, and flesh so soft and rounded that he can cup it in his hands as he thinks ‘Now this is having my cake and eating it.’ A pretty face to covet, rule and brag on, but never ever be bound to. And in this, he is not quite so different from the others. All the men before, even the pimp who healed her smarting wounds with kindness, kindness that came at a ‘Do as I say or I’ll blacken your eye’ kind of price.

Do not leave. Do not go, she hears herself say, I am ruined. Who will pay my debts? Our debts? she emphasises, debts we trotted up together in our love, in our merrymaking, in our plans for marriage, but he no longer hears her, he abuses her, he shouts and yaps like a fussing puppy.

Hussy! Wench! Snake! Dishonest jade! Lured me in like all your other lovers, who even now make their leave to queue at her door. How can I make an honest woman of a trull? A notorious one, black mould on my family name?

Honest women are what lying, cheating profligates talk of incessantly. A bunch of rakehells predisposed to burning, pathological hypocrisy. In every single syllable, there are visions of maidservants debauched, brothels much used, and dust collecting Bibles much ignored. Who are you to sermonise to me? she must have said. Who are you to pull my conduct apart?

But in the philosophy of it all, there is simply a woman (yes, a courtesan, but a woman all the same, lest, Reader, you be prejudiced against them and their trade) scorned, hurt, misled. A woman who trusted, who believed herself finally in the arms of a future, a new equal, a fine sweetheart to spark upon every night and day. She thought herself safe. She thought herself worthy. She thought herself out of all danger, of all instability past. She thought herself loved.

“I love you” she says, finally.

…and the phrase hangs on the precipice, uttered quietly, sounding monstrous loud, but it doesn’t quite account for the flaming sensation of joy she gets when she thinks of him or the feeling that her ribs might split open and pour out her heated blood every time she looks upon his face. Doesn’t quite cut it.

To be sure, her man is handsome, pretty even, in or out of his stark white wig, at this moment powdered as vigorously as anything he does. In a poem, they may not call him an Adonis but he is beautiful enough to her. And yet, at the declaration, the words that seemed to be a cat set amongst pigeons, he pulls a face so hideous, so reminiscent of one’s first scent of vinegar or of horse manure on a summer’s day, that she quite startles herself out of half-fantasy that he will change his mind.

“Love, madam?’ he says, ever so gently, “how could a harlot know the meaning of the word?”


Olivia Marsh is an aspiring historian, currently studying for a Master’s degree in 18th century history. She is specialising in the social history of Britain from circa. 1660-1820, with a particular emphasis on the history of sexuality and of sex work.

She loves to write both prose and poetry in her spare time, inspired by the everyday lives and emotions of past peoples.

She can be found on Twitter at @myladyteazle

If it pleases the court the accused is 28, married, unemployed, resides at Vauxhall Gardens | Anita Goveas

Maria Fernandez reads out bits of the newspaper to her husband every day, although ink catches on her soap-worn hands. Last thing at night, when the babies are sleeping so he has no excuses not to listen. He dwells on the successful arrests of criminals, she likes stories of royalty that take her back to her Goan childhood, but it’s something they do together. She looks forward to it every milk-soaked, nappy-scented, shriek-filled moment.

“Anthony, the Princess Sophia Duleep Singh’s in court again for not paying her taxes! I thought you said she’d learnt her lesson?”

The Princess is one of her idols, a god-daughter of Queen Victoria. She’d grown up in the spotlight, a debutante, a fashion icon, a child of the last ruler of the Punjab. Transplanted by the British Empire and a man’s promises, shining out like her father’s Koh-I-Noor.

Maria’s read stories of the suffragists, seen cartoons, but she doesn’t read those out. Anthony says they’re all dissatisfied women who haven’t found their proper place. She can’t imagine why a respectable woman would end up in court, what would be worth the shame.

She loiters outside Hampton Court in a fur coat with a placard. Votes for women! What would they do with it? Better they stick to recipes. She’ll give us Indians a bad name” He turns over, exposes his fat reddening neck, and snores.

His rice had been overcooked today, he’d pointed it out for her own good. She’d made it one-handed while soothing their 5 month old who had the colic. She’d learnt to be ambidextrous at the hospital in Goa where she’d nursed him back to health, before she’d followed his dreams of a different life.

She makes sure to burn his favourite dinner the night she smashes her first window.


Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fuelled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in JMWW, OkayDonkey and X-Ray lit. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, a reader for Bare Fiction and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer

Links to her stories can be found at coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com

Umple | Robert Boucheron

Over the centuries, Umple suffered more than its share. The documented history of the city is fraught with disaster: earthquake, famine, plague, and war. The tourist in the motorbus looks up from the guidebook surprised to see that anything still stands.

Located in the mountainous region of the Caucasus, amid a tangle of international borders and ethnic groups, Umple derives from the Greek omphalos or Latin umbilicus, meaning “navel,” as Gibbon explains in a footnote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The name suggests a relation to Delphi and its oracle stone, or an origin myth in which people emerged from the bowels of the earth.

Dr. Delahanty’s archaeological investigation reveals a past that stretches back to the Neolithic Age. Stone substructures in the crypt of the cathedral, tunnels and vaults formed by massive slabs, resemble dolmens in Brittany and megalithic tombs of the western British Isles. Were the vaults erected by a pan-continental prehistoric civilization? This theory is debatable. Until Dr. Delahanty publishes his work in a format open to scholarly review, we have only his notes and rough field sketches.

In the fifth century, the Byzantine monk Euphemius mentions a fort or walled village, a primitive outpost on the distant frontier, peopled by barbarians of doubtful loyalty, and certainly not orthodox. As Gibbon relates, chronicles in Greek of the eastern empire are a horrid series of sieges, cruelties, brutal slaughter, lightning raids, forced conversion, conflagration, oppressive taxation, and denial of basic human rights. The list of attackers and bloodthirsty hordes includes Gauls, Persians, Scythians, Huns, proto-Germanic and Slavic tribes, Vikings, Tartars, and Mongols. Moslem warriors mounted on horseback and armed with flashing swords joined the battered city to their vast world empire. More recently, the Russians gobbled it up, only to disgorge it when their empire collapsed.

This tumultuous history of conquest and cultural disarray has left its mark. The architecture of Umple is a palimpsest of erasure, insertion, overlay, whitewash, and ambiguity. Is the city Western Asian or Eastern European? Old buildings that withstood the ravages of time are solid stone with minimal hints of ornament and style. They look like blocks of masonry anywhere, gray and mute, with casement windows like bright little eyes, peaked tile roofs like indomitable hats, and chimneys like fingers that stubbornly point upward. A stone arcade surrounds the marketplace in the center, ponderously vaulted to shelter buyers and sellers from the weather, and formerly from arrows and flying rocks. The carved fountain is a restoration of the medieval one. The heroic statue of St. Durans is modern, based on a grainy heliograph.

Parts of the city wall survive, especially where later buildings engulfed them. They show a variety of building techniques from several centuries, with obvious signs of rebuilding, repair, and reused material. Of special interest are the stones taken from houses destroyed one way or another. The Round Tower undoubtedly enhanced the defensive circuit, and the Gate of Martyrs may be the one mentioned by Euphemius.

Armed with a guidebook and a pair of sturdy shoes, the tourist will have to search for these landmarks. The Umpali do not bother about the past. They dispense with bronze plaques and interpretive signs. Few historic artifacts or works of art remain from all the carnage. There is no museum as such. The city is a memorial, they say.

The Caucasus was once considered the source of white skin, freckles, and flaxen hair, but racial theories clash with facts on the ground. Did each invader leave a memento? Whatever their complexion, the Umpali are light-hearted and grounded, nimble on their feet, and quick to tell you what they think in a dozen languages. Not because you will spend money, but out of the goodness of their hearts, they welcome you with open arms. They shower you with kisses, and they escort you to lodging, dining, and shops that feature curious handicrafts. After all they have endured, they maintain a cheerful outlook. They have gone through the worst, and the best is yet to come. In this, they resemble the Hyperboreans:

Beyond the ice and the north wind,
Beyond death, they have won
The exit from the labyrinth
To everlasting sun.

Nominal adherents of several religions, they believe in themselves more than anything else. Each home has a shrine of family portraits, framed and assembled on a fireplace mantel or the lid of a piano. Among the ancestors and children are objects—a lock of hair, a gold watch, a clutch of baby teeth. A mother places a bit of food from the family meal in a saucer there. She may light a candle.

If you ask her about this, she is wary and evasive. These are her loved ones, living and dead. They do not consume the food. She blinks away a tear. She begs you to accept another cup of the fragrant tea grown only here, on the rugged mountain slopes.


Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Porridge Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.

He can be found on Twitter at @rboucheron