Page 13 - WTP Vol. VIII #3
P. 13

 The orgasmic sound was then repeated, several times. Its ectopic nature added to its strangeness: it seemed to arise from the very air. It was followed by malevolent mad laughter, as of disbelief. There was something existentially threatening about this. This laughter went on for several minutes. Then a figure arose, pushing aside the students. Then the dark laughter gave rise to a howling sound, completely inhuman, atonal, coarse and wild.
By this time students were shuffling about: the standing figure, clad entirely in black, wanting to get out as quickly as possible, trod on knees and thighs and laps, used heads and shoulders to support itself. (I myself experienced, for a fleeting moment, a feral hand laid on top of my head, like some unasked-for blessing: a curiously human moment.) And then the figure was making its way up the aisle. Literally it had to tread on people. There were cries. It fell, several times. And all the time it was making this howling sound on both indrawing and exhaling breath. I still couldn’t work out its gender. It had wild, shoulder- length black hair which partly covered its face.
Then it stopped. It looked back at the lecturer. I saw a narrow, death-white face with staring eyes and an open red mouth. The creature spread out pale hands and clenched its fists. And then it began its maniacal laughter once more, now in a very loud and surpris- ingly musical contralto. I have never heard such deri- sion in a voice.
And that was it, really. It left the theatre and we heard its laughter dying away into distance until, at last, at long last, it faded completely and all was silent.
I found it strangely affecting. The voice was so inhu- man: I could well believe that the black-haired un- known had been possessed by a cacodemon.
And then I asked myself: had the sound really ceased, or had it merely become remote? Is it still resounding even now in some Dante-esque interior?
Who was it? No-one seemed to know. Its identity was never discovered. Those who had been seated in its immediate vicinity seemed embarrassed, and would not discuss the subject. Its gender was never eluci- dated: perhaps the creature was a hermaphrodite. The very timbre of its voice suggested this.
But, unlike any other information retailed during that long and dreary series of lectures, it is the only thing
I can now recall. Were I to return and sit in that lecture theatre once more (if it still stands) I should
hear that anguished, mocking, angry voice again. It expressed, vicariously, but quite exactly, my own emo- tions. It had done what I had secretly wished to do.
I discussed the incident with my friend and colleague, Daisy Stifta, a mature student without whose help I would never have passed my first-year biochemistry examinations. Daisy is one of those spare, laconic women who are good at explaining things without wasting words. In ten minutes she could summarize an hour’s lecture to me, in simple terms, as to a child. I sometimes wondered if she would sit me on her knee. (Her nickname for me was, in fact, “child”.) She usually did this teaching in the White Harte after I had bought her half a pint of bitter beer. She was an Honours Biochemistry student with a naval fam-
ily background. Her grandfather, Admiral Benjamin Stifta, was in his time a household name. She effort- lessly got a first. We used to sail together (the boats being variously borrowed) on the Avon near St Anne’s Board Mills, and occasionally at Axbridge. (‘What are you doing on Sunday, child?’) Daisy was good to be with. She once told me that her rare and unusual sur- name comes from an Old Frisian word meaning agent or facilitator. It seems appropriate.
So we discussed the incident. Well, she had been sit- ting next to me in that lecture, and, like me, had had her head touched by the creature.
Daisy was of the opinion that the creature was not flesh and blood at all, but was a spectral or daemonic manifestation of the stressed group psyche against
a truly dreadful lecture: the intense humidity, the confinedness and the smell had added to the distress. This was why its touch had had a strange collective sensation about it: it had not been the touch of an individual. She told me that those who had borne the weight of the creature while it made its escape were amazed by its extraordinary lightness. There were ap- proximately equal numbers of men and women stu- dents: that, reasoned Daisy, would naturally account for the spectre’s appearance as a hermaphrodite.
To me this seems as good an explanation as any.
Wheldon is the author of The Viaduct published by The Bodley Head in 1983; it won The Triple First Award, from final judges Graham Greene and William Trevor. This novel was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award, and was published in the United States by George Braziller. The Course of Instruction, A Vocation, and At the Quay followed. Most recently he’s been published by Confingo, Nightjar Press, and The Woven Tale Press.

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