Peter Hammill - The Madonna

He has no idea of the precise time, but the darkness and silence tell him that it is the middle of the night. Outside, a city alien to his slumbers. The hotel room into which he wakes is known to him: lumpy bed, ancient telephone, cramped shower, anonymous, peeling wallpaper. The bedside table is known to him, and what rests on it: toothglass, bottle of grappa, ashtray, packet of cigarettes. He has been playing a game of double patience in this room for some days, and his opponent has been time. Now, although nothing so annoys him as broken sleep, he is awake and restless. He rolls on his back and his mind is flushed empty even of annoyance. Adrenalin floods him.

Beside his bed, over him, there rises a shape almost that of a human being. In some dim and distant way, he feels he should know what it is, but cannot place it. He stares up for a seemingly limitless minute, his senses unable to focus properly, incapable of sending adequate messages to his brain. It is as if he has been dazzled by headlights, or suffered a mild concussion. Wherever he looks the centre of his vision has substance, but the periphery shimmers; it is as though the 'corner' of his eye has taken over all but the most direct line of sight. He could be looking down a translucent tube, all distortion save through the aperture at the opposite end; or staring at oily water into which a pebble has been dropped--at the centre stillness, but around it disturbance, insanity of shape and form.

He casts his eye in all directions. Eventually, he forms a comprehensible image from individual points of cohesion and focus. The figure is that of a woman, and she is dressed in black. Except for the colour of her garments, she is exactly like one of those plaster madonnas from tacky, materially pious religious shops. He feels something of church as he looks up at her, yet he does not react reverentially. Except to be dumbly astonished, he hardly reacts at all, and though the adrenalin rushes him to total awareness, he is strangely afraid.

Her face is the only part of her body he can see; when he does so he looks nowhere else. It hangs above him, framed in the cowl of her robe. The familiarity he had felt in her mere presence shines from her face. It is as though he has known it, been close to it, a day or a year before; or as though he knows that he will know it in the future; or that he has seen it, once only, in a dream. The features and line are almost unbearably perfect: sharp and smooth, cold as marble, flushed with fever. The expression is one of repose, but suffused with some inner calm, some deep purpose. The eyes are dark, intense, hypnotic, and he feels that if they meet his, head on, he will surely drown. But there is no chance of this: though she is only inches away, leaning over the bed, her eyes remain steadily fixed at the horizontal, as though examining something of surpassing interest on the wall opposite. She looks across and beyond, rather than at or through him. Not a single movement of her eye, head, or body disturbs the silence, the essence of the moment.

And yet he does not really see her, it is more than that; in some most sensory and sensuous of ways, he feels her in this moment. The instant seems to last for hours, as though, in order for him to absorb her presence fully, she has stopped time, or speeded up his rate of absorption, until now his every awareness is her. And now, only now, she speaks, her voice seeming to come simultaneously from every corner of the room and from one tiny vibrating point in his own brain.

''`Take good care of the knife, for you will have need of it.'''

She is gone. For a being of such tranquility and calm, her words, redolent of threat and violence, had been incongruous; this is lost on him in the awfulness of her sudden disappearance. For a moment, the utmost anguish of loss. But normality, the reality of the room, reasserts itself, and the brain begins to question. He raises himself on his elbow, shaking, and for fully five minutes searches out the shadowy corners of the room for her, her continued presence, her reality...or at least some evidence of her having been there. The room is empty and silent. He is unquiet with a feeling of otherness and the faint, unstated menace that it brings.

There is fear in his soul, but his mind races for comprehension and assurance. He knows about dreams; he thinks he might have been dreaming. Several times he has woken from one dream into another, and not known that it was so until, finally, he has woken up. But he is not dreaming now, and there has been no movement between dream and real worlds in all this. At one moment she had been standing over him, and at the next he was searching the contours of the room for her presence; throughout, he had been fully awake. He is awake now.

She was too real, he cannot accept that she was a hallucination, a projection from the dream world into the real one. He reaches for the sanity--albeit inconclusive--of a Vision, an Apparition, thinks of Saul/Paul, Bernadette... His soul, as it did long since to such things, demurs, and responds to the groped-for conclusion with questions. If there are dreams within dreams, worlds within worlds below the level of consciousness, could we not also imagine states of existences, and that from our position in it we can only see what lies below, can only guess at what towers above? Had she been from a higher step in such a system?

His soul whirls in supposition. It does not change his knowledge of what he has experienced.

'''Take good care of your knife, for you will have need of it.'''

The urgency of search--first for her, then for reason--dies away; memory and emotion once more take hold of his uneasy spirit. Her words career, pin-ball like, around his head. They bounce from one potential though or meaning to another, flashing lights of recognition and presentience; then, under the impulse of their own gravity, they fall away, only to return again, stimulating the same thoughts, the same recognitions, the same uncertainties.

He is exhausted; sleep exerts its own gravitational pull, and sucks him down. The words still run through his brain as he falls, now made all the more meaningless to him through repetition. This is all there is: he can no longer keep the game of conjecture in motion. He has been awake--most intensely so--for barely twenty minutes; now the sleep into which he plunges, too, holds mysteries for him.

'The globe hangs in the air before me. I recognise it. I have seen it here before. It is at a distance, but seems so enormous that I can see no other detail of where I am. I can hear the sea. With sight alone, I can somehow touch the globe. I know how it feels, but it is like nothing. The surface is neither smooth nor pitted, neither hard nor yielding. It is like an amalgam of everything, of metal, wood and stone--yet none of these. It is dull and bright, soundless and thundering, acid and sweet. Implacable motion through alien sky; it comes towards me. Its mere presence crushes the air around it. It loses neither enormity nor weight as it approaches me, but all perspective is reversed; even now, only feet away, I can still see it all, though its true size can only be appreciated at a distance. It shrinks, but remains the same; perhaps I grow. If my limbs were not paralysed I would try to push it away. Only my eyes and brain are not completely numbed by its presence. It comes on, now towards my open mouth; I am powerless to clamp it shut. It yawns wide to receive the globe, wider, wider. Now the thing is on my tongue, I know its touch, and it is as my eyes saw it. It is the negative of all taste, of all tactility. Now it expands to fill my whole mouth, now it contracts to the diameter of my throat. It is still complete, it is still the same...I swallow it.'

So the first dream. He breaks the surface of sleep for a moment; it is just long enough for him to differentiate this dreamed experience from the real one of the Madonna, just long enough for the dream to lodge itself in his memory. Then once more into the darkness of unconsciousness.

He has had the dream before. It is, of course, well known, an archetype. In so far as these things can be brought forth into waking reality, it has even been fixed in paint and canvas, by who else?--Magritte. But he does not think of paintings as he memorizes the dream, nor of those others with whom he shares it: this time, it is specifically for him, and it is more than it seems.

There are things which must be understood. Since there are to be dreams following this one which we shall not see over his shoulder, eavesdropping on his slumbering speech centres, it is best that these things are understood now, in relation to his first dreams. They shall hold, also, for those which follow.

First, we have seen that his sensory perception is both acute and atypical. That his 'eyes' should 'touch' is not unknown in dreams: though only the brain is active in them, it 'receives' information, and the logic of the knowledge faculties requires that this 'comes' through the sleeping senses, even if these are sometimes confused or coalesced. But in this dream, and those which are to follow, these faculties play no such charade, and his references to eye, taste, and touch are only the obligatory dogma of speech-centre sanity. The sensations in these dreams are too strong for sensory evaluation: he knows every detail of the scenario the moment he steps into it; he perceives with a supra-normal clarity. This in itself would differentiate these dreams from 'ordinary' ones.

But there is something more, and more to the point. This dream has something else in common with those which are to follow: it is, in its brief, but unfragmented, way, a test. Some part of him had known this even in his sleep. In the case of the first dream, the test was merely to finish it: on the previous occasions when he had had it, notably in his childhood, he had never managed to reach the end, always waking, to vomit, at the first tongue-touch of the anti-matter globe. This time, in order to pass the test, to furnish the answer, he had had to find it in himself to swallow it--and, of course, since this was a dream, no amount of intellect or consciousness could help him to that action. The test was thus of pure self, of his spirit, and of a spiritual order. There was no possibility of cheating.

His conscious self observes and records the dreams in his memory, and has no more interaction with them than to know the total nature of the experience--even though this cannot help him come through it. He does not know what the penalty for failure in any of these examinations would be--not to wake, perhaps?--but he knows he must not fail. In one of his brief periods of consciousness between the dreams, he will think that he is under attack, rather than test, so frequent and intense will they be; but before he returns to sleep he will know that the examining force is one of strictness, not vindictiveness. On this night, the crux of his existence lies in his own spiritual hands: in his performance in the tests.

I hope that this is understood; as yet, he himself is too much embroiled in the present to be anywhere near understanding.

There are fifteen, twenty of these dreams of test. The pattern of dreaming becomes a routine: darkness; instant and all-embracing light: awareness, experience, necessary information; test; survival; waking; memory-retention; darkness. There is the finger-bloodying cling to the neck of a Pegasus, the knowledge of when to let go, to fall in perfect parabola. There is the walk over, then through, the pit, where one wrong footfall would plunge him into nameless horror. There is the balance on the beam, the linguistic puzzle, the numerical maze. There seems always another test to follow the last, each answer to be found in himself, his own capacity, with no other determinant to help him. At last, there is a finality to one of the dreams, and in his momentary waking recognition of it, he knows that this spiritual examination is done, at least for now. The next darkness is blissfully deep and quiet.

Dawn. He wakes, and the crumbs of comfort he had gathered to himself at the conclusion of the dreams are brushed from his bed by the illness which suddenly sits in his body. His head buzzes, rather than aches, with pain. Hardly a limb feels as though it belongs to another: all seem haphazardly swollen or dessicated by turn. A cough crouches on his chest, his nasal-passages are bone dry, his eyes water. There is fever in him, and intense, exasperating, thrashing discomfort.

At first he rages, thinking that this force of feeling will, by itself, drive out whatever inhabits him so cruelly. But he is not now in the world of dreams, and his anger aggravates rather than dispels the illness.

Now he lies on his back and tries to ignore it all: the sickness, the visions and trials of the night just past. He tries to concentrate on the fact that he is in a hotel room in a foreign city; that he is passing time, and that he must stiffen his resolve and do just that. But it is no use, the night has taken too much out of him. He has no further energy reserves on which he can call to bind himself together.

He stares at the musty ceiling, at the cracked lampshade gradually becoming visible in the grey dawn light through the shutters. He decides that he must make temporary truce with time, wait till the city is more awake, when its energy can be harnessed with his own against whatever is upon him.

Time is allied to silence, and silence is Judas to the heart. He remembers something he wrote, long ago, an adolescent poem which estimated the number of heartbeats he had left until his (average projected) death. 'Never the same', it had been called; now he knows that it is always the same, what is left, and that its number is both relative and irrelevant. His consciousness is drawn inexorably to the beating of his heart, the counting out of his time. It seems the only organ in his body which is not betraying him with malfunction; but, even in this truce, it is turned traitor, on the side of time. The rush of blood, the beat, his body-clock. He has no real thoughts or feelings, they have evaporated, gone into vacuum. He does not know if he lies there for two hours or ten minutes.

He can hear the street outside begin to bustle, but none of the hoped for energy seeps through the shutters or the room. He feels his fever increasing, his leaden limbs growing yet more weighty, his discomfort becoming excruciating. Somehow, he feels that both his illness and his inability to fight it spring from the same cause: his experience of the previous night. The energy so drained from his body was not really that of calories, but of will. He does not have the strength of mind to fight. So: he must bend, but not bow. He must go with the current, and strike land as and when he can; he must conserve and channel what there is of his energy. This means going into limbo once more.

But limbo offers mixed comfort: his mind is locked to daylight time. Now there burns in him a moment of full clarity, of realisation connecting the day and the night: this illness, too, is a form of test. His lethargy is jerked from him, but this inspired knowledge, or guess, or further hallucination, cannot really help him: time still has to be waited out, whatever the illness is or means. So now he lies still, and suffers, but does not resist. He goes with the tide, and to it surrenders his body; but not his spirit. He wishes for nothing, and tries to think of nothing. At one point, a treachorous thought comes: 'I could die in this room'. But it is only passing fear and conjecture: the resolution to accept without giving in returns to him. Time passes, begrudgingly.

Now it comes upon him in all its fury. He has been in greater pain before, has exhibited more alarming symptoms at other times, but never before has such a feeling of total sickness flooded his brain. It is as though it comes from cell level; from every cell aching, insistent torture. His bodily mind cries out for discorporation, his spirit screams against the illness; but it chokes him, and time drips into him like poison.

His cough has sprung deep into his lungs: dry repetitive and spasmodic. Fever sucks cold sweat from his pores, at a pitch where neither movement nor immobility, even in the defensive foetal position; assuage it. Exhaustion runs through his every fibre in deadening anaesthetic. It seems that his only functioning muscles are those which rack him in the coughing. His nostrils and sinuses feel as if they have been dusted with ground glass; his eyes and lids coated with mercury.

It lasts at this desperate level for three quarters of an hour; then, quickly, it is gone. He is left, soaked with sweat, drained, with the legacy of the heaviest of possible colds, with a rasping hoarseness in the throat. He is still uncomfortable, still ill; but this is as nothing compared to the convulsions of illness he has just been through.

Now he lies on the bed; attempting to read. He is in neutral, physically and spiritually spent, yet fully aware. Distanced now from the intensities of the illness and the dreams of the previous night, he has forgotten neither.

He does not have to stay alone in this hotel room. There are people he knows in this city: he could go to visit, to be comforted by, them. He makes no move, even in the knowledge that they would make him remember normality, forget what he had been through; no move, not even one tentative telephone call. He knows that he has seen and experienced something; he knows that, of all times, it is now important that he does not forget. So he waits, as alone as he has ever been, all the more so for the fact that company is only a six digit number away, a number which his own hand restrains the finger from dialing.

As, in some incoherent depth of self, he had known it would, it comes. It begins with an aching lightness in his chest, emotion sat physically over his heart. Now a yearning begins, nameless and causeless: the potent quintessence of hope and despair, of universal joy, of infinite sorrow. Now the emotions start to roll over him in vibrant intensity. They feed back on themselves and on him, running the gamut of their range. They vibrate in harmony, to achieve mind-shattering proportions. They crash into him in waves alternately icy and scalding, stick him deep down into their undercurrents.

Something of his mind had been prepared for this, but that is now of no use to him: his brain in overrun, explored to every extremity by nameless thoughts and feelings. He has no reason with which to hold them back, no choice but to go with them.

He finds himself pacing the room maniacally, threshing his hair with wild, uncontrolled fingers. He finds himself punching a doorjamb with all his strength: blood on the knuckles, blindness in the crazed eyes, darkness in the mind. He finds himself cast on the bed, face buried in the pillows, hands clenching and opening to some unstated rhythm. Irrational tears stream down his cheeks. Between sobs, he hears his own voice: ''`Oh, no, not again...not again...not again....'''

The waves of emotion subside; the madness withdraws in a steadily ebbing tide. The deafening noise of the blood rushing through his uncomprehending mind is gone; he is quiet once more, and almost understanding. His mind's turn to be tested, too, has come and gone.

He lies prone, finally and utterly exhausted. He has been too cruelly examined, but he is whole in mind, body, and spirit. Too soon, too tired now to ask why, to find--even if it is possible--any true comprehension. He thinks of something he once heard; it seems long ago, it seems that it has been in his head forever.

'''Take good care of your knife, for you will have need of it.'''

Now he drops into sleep, into the final dream.

'I am in a prison cell. Moisture, little light, no comfort. It could be Monte Cristo, the Man in the Iron Mask, de Sade. It is that time, that dark. No knowledge of crime. No knowledge directly of punishment. No idea whether I am criminal or innocent. This could be prison or private dungeon. It could be Kafka. It is that dark. This is not life. I have been condemned to lose my life, to spend what is left of it here.

The faceless man comes through the door. He is here to murder me. A secret execution. I crouch against the sweating wall beneath the window-slit. He advanced on me. Me, him, from many points in the room. The corner. He is over me. Still I cannot see his face. His form lurches over me, misshapen, hunched.

My hand finds the knife that it has been clasping. I do not know how long it has been there. Thrust into the knotted back, the side, the chest of the faceless man. He collapses on top of me, suffocating me. I force him aside. No blood, but he is dead. I am free. At least I am alive...I look at the knife in my hand.'

Russian Peter Hammill / Van der Graaf Generator Page
Sergey Petrushanko, 1998-2023