© Clive Gilson 2016
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Before he opens the heavy wooden door that keeps the swirling winds of the courtyard beyond from raising dust spirals in the hallway, Signor Secretary Gabriele adjusts his black brocade outer vestment, straightening the hood across his shoulders and pulling down on the lapels. He twitches involuntarily at the neck and frowns at the ever-present shadows behind the door. The cuffs of his blouse are visibly fraying and it is too warm already this morning to warrant the wearing of his time served and now lovingly ink stained jerkin, but he is a man of undoubted habit. Signor Secretary Gabriele is now Second Scribe on the Listing Roster and he thinks that his stipend should at least afford him new cuffs more than once a year. It does not. He feels inevitably down at heel and frustration is a fundamental cellular component of his thin and shallow viscera.
And yet, as he pushes a wrought iron ring handle to the left to free a bolt from a splitting door frame and pushes ineffectually upon a studded door, he feels that he should not, on balance, complain too loudly or obviously. There are far too many ingrates and unfortunates beyond these courtyard boundary walls who would gladly, and most probably, he muses, violently swap his current state of boredom and his predictable sureties to assuage their own ravening hungers and hopeless disenfranchisements.
The Signor Secretary is indefatigably Second Scribe on the Listing Roster. It is not the most glamorous position, but neither is it dangerous or mutable. He is, he considers, as he lays his shoulder to the grey weathered planks of the oaken door, by and large content with his frustrations. What, after all, do frayed cuffs matter when set against the certainty of shelter and kindling and the thickly fatty roasts brewing in the hall kitchens? What are frayed cuffs in a world where he has attended the funerary rites of past secretaries and they are always laid out on their departure in new thread? Signor Secretary Gabriele is ultimately happy enough in the knowledge that with each day’s walk to and fro across this courtyard he brings the sad demise of Monsignor Secretary Cannavaro, his immediate superior, a few metres nearer. The door swings slowly open onto the heat haze rising from the flagstone floor of the courtyard. Signor Secretary Gabriele squints as he wipes a speckling of woodworm dust from his shoulder.
Signor Secretary Gabriele thinks of time in terms of distance rather than the cycle of sun and moon and star. As Second Scribe he greets the days some twenty minutes before the tenth hour of the morning so that he might travel far enough to be sitting at his desk exactly on the turn of that tenth hour. His work is like his walk across the courtyard. He places one word in front of another just as he places one foot in front of another. The hand drawn lines on the ledger pages mirror the flagstone edges that mark the lane that he chooses without fail every morning and every evening.
The Signor Secretary never deviates. He opens the door that leads from his dormitory hall and heads for an identical oak door set into an identically constructed work hall directly opposite and on the square. He does not look down or to either side as he walks. There is no point. He knows from long years at the quill that the boundary walls between the halls are equal and straight and set on that same square. These days, as far as he is aware from unguarded moments of peripheral leakage, walls and bricks and mortars remain as they always have been, as they are and as they always will be.
It must be forty years, Signor Secretary suddenly thinks, since he first walked through one of those outer dormitory doors, fresh and green and scrubbed, straight from the Maimed Brothers and their administrative academy. He had not trained with distinction, preferring then the glimpse of a pretty ankle and the thrill of weed in a clay pipe behind the academy stables, but such childish things are fleeting and frivolous and gad-fly. The then merely Duster Gabriele sobered. Those first years as a glorified house maid in the ledger stores taught him, albeit not without a smart and a tear or two, the meaning and the benefit of quiet order.
Where once he may have entertained thoughts upon the nature, pointless or otherwise, of a walking, working life, he now understands that there are too many points of blinding light set into the darkening skies above a simple man’s uncomprehending head. Not that he thinks himself too simple. Signor Secretary Gabriele understands the subtleties that underpin his work. The apparent tedium of transcribing ancient texts into new ledgers is actually an exercise in righteous continuity. Law is law is law. Without a safeguarding, without the constant battle cry of quill on ledger, without the endless plodding advance of the scribes in this war against time and rot and weevil, all will decay and despoil. Signor Secretary is a warrior of the word and his word is Canon Law.
His eyes adjust to the bright morning sunlight. He wipes away a little watering from behind his metal framed glasses, breathes in deeply and stares straight ahead at the door opposite his own. At this distance the walls to left and right seem to arrow in and drive his sense of perspective directly into the ledger hall. He is aware of the doors, each set into that far wall in the same proportion as they are here at the dormitory. He sets out upon his straight walk. A thought flies into his head, streaking across the empty skies of his mind like the swallows on summer wing above his head. Could he deviate his line?
Signor Secretary Gabriele is startled and he momentarily hesitates. He immediately wonders if anyone can see him. Will they sense his predicament? He pulls down again on his lapels and focuses on the straighter path. He remembers where deviations lead and such a thing, such a second thing, would surely be an undoing. He stares at his destination doorway. Those other grey and cracked oak doors are things from a forgotten past and not for him now. He will not think about the who and the why and the how. He must concentrate on that which is perfect and formed and has purpose. The Signor Secretary cricks his neck once more and takes a deep, hot breath. He steps forward again, reaching for the safety of his chosen and well-trodden path. It is then that he notices the thin stalks of dry and whitening grass poking up from an unmortared crack between these usually familiar and well worn flagstones. Signor Secretary Gabriele is feeling quite unnerved.
His imagination is a weak and wasted thing, a gammy handed child born of incest, and he has buried it as deeply as he can under ink stains and candle soot, but still the creature fidgets. Under his wilting and grey-white collar Signor Secretary Gabriele feels the heat of the morning with manifest irritation. If he did not know better he might believe that he is again being watched this morning, as though someone has laid traps for him and expects him to falter and fail. He steps forward more briskly, feeling the first beads of perspiration form in his close cropped hair. He will be dripping by the time he reaches the far door. He feels as threadbare and darned as his clothes, and as the Signor Secretary runs a hand across his chin to feel for droplets of sweat he shudders. He has shaved unevenly. The fates are conspiring but he will not, he swears, give in. He ignores the first running droplet at his temple. Sweat or no, he will stride forward with purpose.
The Signor Secretary is long practised with the burying of speculations. He is, however, congenitally inclined towards memory. It is, after all, his daily purpose in the transcriptions. Unbidden but nonetheless clear and precisely formed, he sees again that page in the third volume of Di Matteo’s case studies, On Parsimony Amongst the Woollen Brethren. Yet again this morning he shudders. He can see the curl of the downward strokes on a note in miniscule in the transcribed margin. Another clerk of the Scriptorium had penned a temptation some two hundred years previously:
He, for twill not be she,
Who leans a paw upon this page
To write a law dull with age
Would leave another versed smile
To please a clerk this long while?
That feckless reader of uninspired jottings, that bored Clerk Gabriele, was as yet determinedly of the dreaming persuasion and still resolutely impressionable. Yawning, dull-eyed Clerk Gabriele felt the tug of disorder upon the sleeve of his writing hand, and was so deftly invited into the conspiratorial heats of youthful intrigue that he too had copied out that verse in the margin of the one-hundred and twenty-first page of the third volume of the Parsimony.
At that time in his fledgling secretarial career, Clerk Gabriele worked for Signor Under-Secretary Maldini. The Signor Under-Secretary was a precise old crow, trusting of no one under the age of fifty and convinced that all young men should be birched at the beginning of every day to purge what he called ‘The Twitches’. Signor Under-Secretary Maldini cawed in the treetops with the day’s final reckoning. He danced the spindle legged dance of the corvid upon these very flagstones as he called a certain young clerk back to the Scriptorium door, a stripling branch swishing in the old man’s right hand. Signor Secretary Gabriele can still smell the fresh sap upon his scarred shoulders.
It had taken Roberto Gabriele almost ten years to rise through the ranks of Runners and Inkers. He had trodden a sure path from humble Duster to become a man of emerging substance. He was young and fit and lithe. His nemesis was old and slow and reducing, but all it took was one look and the younger man meekly submitted to the twig and a bloody back. All it took was a signature and a moment of glee in the beady blacks of that withered crow, to see him, at twenty-five years of age, endlessly sneezing as he wiped skin flakes and rat droppings from the tops of ancient books once more in the deepest, darkest stacks.
That is why, whenever Signor Secretary Gabriele is nudged towards memory, he shudders and twitches and fidgets. He is ten years behind the curve of the moon. His celestial orbit wanes low. He too is on the cusp of mortality and yet he hungers for one more rung on the ladder. That is why he cannot falter on his path, sweat or no, grass stalk or no.
“Resolve, Roberto, resolve”, he whispers to the heat haze, breaking the silence this one time. He channels his thoughts. He focusses on his world in the here and now. That is the way of it. With the sun at his back he follows the vertical tramlines, making sure that he does not step upon the horizontal rungs of mortar. It is a superstition. He feels the soft patch on his right slipper where the leather sole wears thin and is stuffed with a dried out fold of spare book binding leather.
Signor Secretary Gabriele cannot help but look away from the door in the far wall and narrow his world view to the flagstones immediately in front of him. He will concentrate on each step and only on each step. Occasionally he glances up again to assure himself that he remains on course. He finds that he is strangely drawn to the evidence of decay that he sees upon the superficially timeless floor of the courtyard. Where once upon a time all seemed perfection, he senses with the seeing that there are spaces and moments of tension in this world.
It occurs to him that things are much the same in the life of the Scriptorium. After Under-Secretary Maldini shuffled off his mortal coil he found that succeeding Under-Secretaries waxed and waned in their strict adherence to the beady-black exactitudes of the ledger. Not that the Signor Secretary ever wrote another piece of doggerel, but now that it is his turn to reckon the days, he does not begrudge an occasional ink stain or scratching out. He notes these marks and blemishes, but only as a means to know a clerk’s tendencies and through that to offer guidance on the path to improvement. It is also a way of stock piling evidence to prove that some young bright-eyed thruster is not yet ready to occupy another not quite dead man’s shoes.
Signor Secretary Gabriele muses on the solitary sound of his flapping slipper on the flagstones and wonders how long ice and thaw and rain and sun will take to reduce this place to the rubble of misunderstood monumentalism. He is ever alone in this walk and in these fusty musings. He is ever alone in his collared discomfiture, and yet, after all of these years of loyal and righteous service, he still fears the beady-blacks staring out from that windowless wall opposite. As he strides towards the middle of the courtyard, towards the point of no return, he believes that he can hear the faint scratching of quills on rough, hand-pressed papers. It must be that or rats at the corn stores beyond the courtyard walls. He almost smiles but stifles the urge. Nonetheless he thinks what monster rats they must be to be heard from here.
At the heart of the courtyard there is one huge single squared slab. Signor Secretary Gabriele has walked across that grey stone leviathan more times than he can recount but always with purpose and an unerring sense of direction. Today he stops. He still fears the ghosts of beady black but something stirs with his memories of long lost rebellion. He pauses and looks down at the weathered stone. As he does so the stubble at his ill-shaven neck catches on his wing collar. His lower lip pushes into his upper lip so that he pouts. His lips are a deep, ruby, heat stained red. He wonders why he’s taken so long to summon this shred of nerve.
As the Signor Secretary stares at the single slab weighing down upon the heart of the courtyard he imagines sets of calloused hands shifting flagstones into place. He sees an army of sunburned torsos and tousled, bleached heads. He marvels at the industry while sweetly aware that such a life of sinew and cracking bone would never have done for him. He wonders whether these masonic soldiers of his Lord Duke might have started their endeavours with this central installation and worked outwards or perhaps they worked in from the boundaries. His head starts to spin with the precision of such a pattern and he nearly swoons.
Signor Secretary Gabriele breaks off from his reverie and sneaks a glance at the dazzling blue sky that heaps warmth upon his black, fustian shoulders. He watches a thin wisp of white cloud drift lazily in the blue swell. Too random, he thinks. The Signor Secretary likes a puzzle based in predictable logic. During these summer evenings he often asks one or two of the more reliably intellectual junior clerks to set him anagram puzzles, which he spins round in his head as he sits on the veranda of his garden apartment in the Scriptorium hall while sipping at a small glass of pinot blushed rosé.
And there it is. Something that he has hitherto paid little attention to. A puzzle almost perfect in that it has lain here these hundreds of years and is now so worn down by flayed slippers and winter frosts that it is almost indecipherable. The puzzle is carved in full relief out of the giant slab and is made up of Signor Secretary Gabriele’s favourite things; random letters of the alphabet. There are worn but fully formed letters, hints of letters and cracks and dents and rubbings, such that they form a sort of grid upon which the decaying shapes of words hang now by a thread. The Signor Secretary squats down on one threadbare knee and traces out these letters and dents, marvelling as he does at how deeply ingrained is the black ink in the whorls of his finger prints. He forms shapes upon rough stone and stores away the pattern for his evening glass:
In carrying this new and yet ancient puzzle with him as he walks briskly towards the waiting Scriptorium door, Signor Secretary Gabriele senses a subtle shift in the nature of his worldly perceptions. In the years prior to tracing the inscription he has formed a view of this courtyard as a place of quiet, solitary perfection. All is on the square and neat and maintained and smoothed. This morning, one pace beyond the mystery words, he feels as though scales are lifting from his eyes. He wonders how an eye works. Surely he is seeing the same world that he has always seen. It is, he thinks, a question of vulgar anatomy. He is out of sorts and so sees impressions of lichen and scar and scrape and moss and breaking twigs and dust and desiccated leaves and a rodent gnawed chicken bone. He does not believe in any of it.
But then it occurs to him that even this thought is a memory and unreliable. The Signor Secretary feels the heat rise once more. He wants no more of this. He has a puzzle to solve and a day to reckon. He tries to focus on each step, but as he does so he sees bare, childish feet patter across cobbles and winter muds. He is wrenched away from the skirts of a rosy-cheeked, bumptiously dimpled woman by the beady blacks and the Ducal Guard, a promising and lively child ready for the grim beaks and the cold flow of letters . He is destined the spend his years upon dusting and thin gruels and maggoty meats on Duke-Days.
The Signor Secretary reverts to his natural antipathies and shudders in the heat broiling up from the flagstones. His regular pattern is divided and diverging. He feels thin, as though his usual deep blacks are being washed out by some other artist’s watery brush. He fixes his gaze on the door and takes one last, long breath. His usually measured gait starts to twist and take on aspects of the grotesque. Roberto Gabriele breaks every rule by which he has lived these last thirty years or so. His steps quicken. He breaks into a shallow trot. Beads of sweat run down his neck and turn the discomforts in his collar to the tenfold. He cares not. All that matters is the closing of the door and the candle light and the smell of ancient paper and the scuttle of the silverfish and the pungency of ink. The Signor Secretary is an old man accustomed to habitual slowness. To run is to debase one’s self and yet here he is, hell bent on closing that far Scriptorium door with the most extreme sense of prejudice.
It is the twig and the frost scar and the chipped flagstone edges and the scattered Olive leaves that describe the world that will be. Where Signor Secretary Gabriele might think his world revolves around an appointed order, he is mistaken. This world of words, one placed after another in logical, grammatical sequence, is as much a myth as a childhood barely remembered. Signor Secretary Gabriele has lived with pipe rolls and ledgers and laws and debentures and precedent since he was five years old. As his slippered foot finally betrays him and wedges a sliver of old book binding in a crack between the flagstones not ten metres from the Scriptorium door, he falls to the floor and cracks his head on stone. With the mists closing down upon his eyes he understands that rules are worth no more than a salt shaker at the bottom of a deep blue lake.
Signor Secretary Gabriele is dazed but remains conscious. He sees his prone body from above and notices that the blood that runs from a cut on his forehead is nowhere near as black as he thought it would be. He is surprised at how thin and insubstantial he really is. He closes his eyes. He feels the tether holding his out-of-body self pull tight, but then, as his head starts to clear and the nerves begin to register pain, he pulls the would-be escapee back towards his bosom. He completes the task just as he feels that iron blood run across his ruby red lips to singe his tongue with shaken sea-salts.
Signor Secretary Gabriele should get up, dust himself down, and pass quickly into the darkness of the Scriptorium. Instead he lays upon the stone flags and lets the blood slowly congeal upon his forehead and cheek. All the while he is spinning the shape of a puzzle through the empty halls of his closeted, beady black mind.
It starts with a smile. A smile becomes a smirk becomes a hissing intake of air. Signor Secretary Gabriele’s cheeks burn bright red with the blood on his forehead and the heat on his lips. He snorts. He gasps. He shakes. His ribs strain cartilage. A volcano erupts in the courtyard of the Scriptorium. Roberto Gabriele laughs out loud for the first time in nearly thirty years. He guffaws. A door opens and a pale young head peers out into the bright sunlight.
“The old crow… was… wrong” splutters the Signor Secretary in between fits of violent laughter. He tries to stand. He falters and young hands help him to his feet. The tears upon his cheeks wash away the traces of blood that fell from the drying cut at his forehead. He looks at a young duster.
“Quite… quite… wrong.”, Signor Secretary Gabriele says, flushing with excitement. “It’s been… there all… along. Every… day…”
More heads in more door ways. A few of the black clad Dusters and Runners venture out into the courtyard, forming a semi-circle around a weirdly and obviously deranged Signor Secretary Gabriele. One or two of the Under-Secretaries dare to hope. Signor Secretary Gabriele no longer cares. He has solved the puzzle. He spells it out, tapping his foot for every crack, dent and rump of a letter:
“Don’t you see, boys… don’t you see?” he asks. He looks at each of them in turn and sees that they don’t understand a word that he is saying. He laughs out loud again and starts slapping them all on their shoulders as he walks among them. “Don’t you see, boys. It’s always been there… So simple… the flagstone… so simple… it says… WRITE IN THE MARGINS…”
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A life spent dusting books has finally amounted to something for Signor Secretary Gabrielle... All is order. All has purpose... This is another new story by author Clive Gilson, available here for free until Clive's new collection is ready later this year, when all of Clive's new stories will be made available in print and eBook format here on Smashwords and on Amazon. Individually Clive's stories have been downloaded over fifty thousand times since the end of 2012. Clive's stories mix a love of traditional storytelling with magical realism. There's a lot of reality here, good and bad, but you're never going to be far away from the odd, the horrific and the mysterious...