Days are rarely dark for Percy Shelley, but how brilliant to stroll the sunlit embankment of the river Thames, Mary by his side. And despite a warrant for unpaid bills, it is a Sunday, and on Sundays even such attractive targets as Shelley, targets for seizure and incarceration for their debts, are free, as free as the day is long, because he can’t get arrested on a Sunday. No one can. Not in London.
And when is liberty sweeter than when we know it to be temporary?
Thieves, debtors, and gentlemen, could dine together, drink alongside each other. Unstated was the knowledge that at dusk, the one would slip into the night. It never occurred to the other to follow, it wouldn’t be sporting. One day a week, everybody could come to the table.
Love, like liberty, is to be clutched tightly, whether we can or not. Even though we cannot.
So it was that Percy and Mary gamboled, both spent and energized by their morning’s lust, their hearts this day free from the burdens of the previous six; the six to come still a lifetime away.
“See the shimmer of the surface, Mary. Oh, were I able to write the words for that trick of light – but even my pen is not yet equal to God’s private palette.”
“It is enchanting,” Mary replied. “One almost discerns His words writ upon it, or perhaps just an arm’s length below.”
“’Almost,’ as you say. And were it possible, what would you read?”
Mary paused, peered directly across to the Globe – Percy had called it “that wondrous ancient plant that has bloomed for centuries” — then allowed her view to recede, scanning the gentle whitecaps until she fixed on a still point a mere twenty metres from where they stood.
Percy followed her gaze before adjusting his stance to look upon her face. His right hand traced her delicate lips. No piece of her did he not treasure, but he breathed for this, to caress her smile. It was beyond the imaginal, and his for the taking. He was relentless in his taking.
Mary, eyes alive, shivered at Percy’s touch.
“Mon amour,” her words kissed his fingers, “I see not words but dreadful watery visions. I espy your lawful wife, her locks streaming behind her, her eyes ablaze and her mouth agape as if in wonder. Worse yet, I see your own beautiful self, equally adrift, and I look down to discover I am holding your heart in my hands.”
The poet stepped back in unfamiliar silence before he responded.
“My siren, neither God nor I dare compete with you. Harriet fears the river and will not approach it. You craft a remarkable scene. When at last we flee this tired city, promise you will dismiss yourself as handmaiden to my pen; rather, finally take up your own calling. For me. For the world.”
He touched her cheek, continued:
“But ‘sink or swim,’ as the schoolboys say, I pledge you my heart, for eternity.”
Tony Press tries to pay attention and sometimes he does. He’s been enjoying Halfway Down the Stairs since 2012 and he’d be thrilled if people found – and read – his recent story collection Crossing the Lines (published by Big Table).
© 2019, Tony Press