Short Fiction by Tom Carlisle
There used to be a portrait in the staircase of my grandfather’s house. He was aged fifteen, in a dark blazer, his hair neatly parted. It was smudgier and more abstract than some of his others, its background a flurry of indistinct marks, but one thing it captured perfectly was his expression. Serious, and yet somehow strangely fey: acutely aware of people’s expectations, even as he couldn’t meet them. For a long time, I hated that portrait, because I thought it looked like me. Now my face has thinned out, assumed its own shape. Still. I remember wearing that very same expression for years: an anxiety that I felt unable to show, and yet wasn’t really able to hide.
Every great man is motivated by a hatred of something: this is what made them great.
It is my contention that hatred is a necessary mark of greatness. That our attempt to strip it away from ourselves, to become somehow purified, has corrupted us irrevocably. There is no better way to establish this than to tell stories: to let those stories speak for themselves.
My grandfather collected paintings. For his 80th birthday, he commissioned a small oval portrait from a local artist of some repute to hang alongside his fireplace. A year or two later he did the same for my grandmother. I wondered, for a long time, if he thought the painters he employed might capture something of his true self – that when he looked at their work, he’d see himself in a new light. He put so much faith in art. Always praising the artistic connections in the family, seeking out those portraits of his ancestors that turned his house into a hall of mirrors. Endless shadows of himself, gloomy, inexpertly rendered, afforded value only by their place in his history. Or maybe I read him wrong. Maybe something else accounted for the lacklustre quality of those paintings: real art scared him, because through it people might see him clearly at last.
It is perhaps reductive to say that Dr King’s defining characteristic was hatred, but allow me to assert exactly that. Hatred of injustice, of inequality: this was what motivated him. Not love, not mercy. He saw a world that was not as it should be and hated it. Stood up against it and took action.
It is a testament to his character than when King made his stand, it was with gentleness and wisdom. But make no mistake: it was hatred that motivated him, hatred stronger than love. A hatred that awoke him in the night, that would give him no rest.
Once, when he came to visit, he found an essay of mine on the hall table, ready to be taken to school. It was about Beckett, on how Waiting for Godot was the music hall sketch of Pascal’s Pensées performed by the Fratellini clowns. For a while at dinner that night he was quiet, like I’d somehow offended him gravely.
I’d left it on the table so he’d see it. I thought my essay proved a point, showed him how little he understood my world. Thought perhaps he might even be impressed by my intellectual rigour. But I misjudged both my grandfather’s intelligence and his reaction. He was not offended, he was pensive. Learning a new language, a new way to reach me.
Not long after that he began The Book of Hatred. Back then it had no such name: it was just the project he worked upon in his study night after night, to which his painstakingly-labelled box files were assigned, and at which my grandmother used to roll her eyes.
‘It’s another of his hobbies,’ she said. ‘You know how devoted he gets.’
This was not like the watercolours, though, or his family tree. This was different.
Let us look now at Wilberforce. All those years spent trafficking slaves, only to see too late the error of his ways. Where then shall we locate the nexus of his hatred? Perhaps he too had a hatred of injustice, and that was his driving force – motivated, as some have claimed, both by the Almighty and the conviction of his faith.
I interpret his actions differently. Only one thing could have given him such drive, such force, and that is hatred of himself. A burning shame at the man he was, and a desperate attempt to put it right.
He was, in many ways, a gentle man. Never violent to my grandmother, not like some of his generation: he’d have scorned such things. Proud of his home, kind to his dogs, a certain type of Englishman. Back from university one summer I tried to tell him about Noblesse Oblige, which I’d come across studying the Romantics – thinking I’d finally found something that might connect with his sense of the family’s greatness.
He sat back from the table, folding his arms, and knitting together his enormous, wiry eyebrows. He didn’t meet my eye, didn’t speak for a long time. I didn’t dare interrupt.
‘What did you say it was called again?’ he said eventually.
‘Noblesse Oblige. It’s about privilege. Using what you have wisely.’
He shook his head then, just once, curtly. Like a dog flicking off a fly. ‘Never heard of it,’ he said. ‘Not the kind of language we’ve much use for up north,’ he said with a hard little smile.
I swallowed. ‘I thought it might be interesting, is all. For your research.’
‘No. I’ll leave that to you, lad, eh?’ He glanced over at my father next to me. ‘Noblesse Oblige,’ he said, his smile widening as he sought a co-conspirator. ‘Good to know he’s getting his money’s worth from that degree of his, eh?’
My father gave that affable, deflecting smile I’d learn from him, turned the conversation to safer ground. He didn’t need to tell me to pick my battles: I knew it already. Inside my grandfather’s giant frame lay a shaking, suppressed rage. A violence that hadn’t yet found its expression. Searching, roaming – hovering over the spirit of the deep. In me it found its ground.
To speak to a culture, you must first learn its language, and our culture speaks of ‘passions’ because it fears hatred. But there is no greater revelation of one’s passion than what one hates.
We know ourselves only by what we are not. We know we are healthy because we are not sick, know we are sane because we are not mad. All life is a process of defining self against other, light against dark. And so it is with us. We know ourselves only by looking at the shadow of what we are not – that which we loathe most deeply.
I remember a table in a York station cafe. Chairs pressed too close together. Everything plastic, bright, without contrast. My grandfather’s coffee half-drunk, a film of bubbles floating on top.
‘Just don’t get – carried away,’ he said.
I was silent. The same rage in me as in him.
‘It’s good to be interested in something, of course. Literature, history. But it’s important to keep your options open. To not become – obsessive.’
‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘I’m trying.’
‘Good, good.’ He patted my hand with his own, massive one. Like one might do with an elderly, ailing relative. A kind of condemnation: a sign he now felt he’d done his part. ‘That’s all I can ask of you,’ he said.
It was not all he was asking. Far from it. But he somehow couldn’t turn me into what he wanted – not when couldn’t even name that thing himself. ‘I just want to make sure you’re not getting trapped in something that you’re later going to regret,’ he said, giving me his warmest smile.
He didn’t know then that I was already trapped, had been for years. In a relationship with a shadow, this hollow thing with my grandfather’s face. All those years spent in books; I’d only ever really been looking for the name of what he was.
‘I appreciate you looking out for me,’ I said, masking my sigh.
Religion promises a world where all men will ultimately live together in perfect peace. That’s no kind of heaven: it is an impossibility.
Heaven is not the place where our hatreds are burned away but where they find their proper expression. It is where they’re pure and unsullied, where we see them clearly for what they are. Whether here or in the world beyond, that is how heaven will be built – in a redeemed people, a purified people.
Imagine every man working at a labour that is dear to him: working to end poverty, injustice, fear. Any great teacher would embrace such a vision.
Several years passed before I next visited the house and he told me he was writing a book. I was surprised to find myself jealous of him – I’d tried for some time to write fiction, but without any success.
‘What’s it about?’ I asked as casually as I could manage, leaning against the Aga in the kitchen, a gentle warmth spreading up my back.
‘It’s about the great men of history,’ he told me, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on mine. His gaze dared me to look away: I did not. I felt as though he were trying to impart some message, but I could not discern what. ‘I hope it’ll prove inspiring.’
‘And will you put yourself in there?’ I asked, semi-joking.
‘Oh no, no,’ he said, shaking his head. Took a sip of tea. ‘Although I suppose if somebody were to write a piece about me – ’
‘Hmm.’ I gave a small, forced smile. I knew he wanted me to offer, and I didn’t want to give him even the satisfaction of an excuse. ‘Have you been doing much research?’ I said, to move along.
‘Let me show you,’ he said.
Upstairs, the walls of his office were covered in sheets of paper, taped up alongside each other. The faces of old men staring out from them. Often only a couple of paragraphs beneath, about Wilberforce, Churchill, Da Vinci. It looked like a school history project. On the edge of the desk sat a stack of typed pages, at least a hundred of them. Mussolini looked down on it. Next to him, H.G. Wells.
‘It’s been very interesting,’ he said. ‘I’ve learned things I never expected.’
‘I’m sure,’ I said, but truthfully all I really wanted was to get away.
My father was a hard man, with little understanding of his emotions. He raised up his own manufacturing business from nothing, making the components for power stations – and when he died, I was just twenty-one. I took over the firm, a boy, barely even trained. It was the making of me, running that enterprise, commanding men of such experience, and yet I have never truly forgiven my father for putting me through it.
Our lives are lived in the shadows of those who went before, but not our days. Had my father seen me in that setting – entirely alien to me, one I’d never desired – he might have marvelled at the gravity with which I conducted myself, the strength of my will. He might have assumed I did it to make him proud, but he would have been wrong. I simply wasn’t prepared to give him the satisfaction of breaking me.
Well might you ask, did you hate your father?
The answer is no. My hatred lies elsewhere. A hatred of failure. From that day I resolved I would not let myself falter or fail, there would be no whisper of such a thing in my actions. If it took everything I had, I would make a success of that business; I would command those men. History will tell the story of what happened next.
He rang me up to tell me of his publishing contract. Only the third time that he’d ever broken out the Champagne: the first, his knighthood for services to UK manufacturing, the second, my entrance to Oxford. There was a big family celebration, a meal at a four-star hotel in the Yorkshire countryside. Private room, candles in silver holders on the tables, menu without any prices.
The steak was dry that night: bone-dry, chalky, inedible. Everyone knew that we should complain, but we weren’t sure how. Whose job was it? Was it ours, so as not to spoil my grandfather’s evening? A quiet word in the back corridor, this really isn’t acceptable, you know? Or was it his place, he whose words we’d all read by then, with his hatred of failure? Would he relish the opportunity to set the manager straight?
We found that we no longer knew, and so we stared at the desiccated meat on our plates, unable to lose ourselves in conversation, until finally he folded his napkin on the table and stood up and strode out. I think we must have known he’d do so eventually.
There is another name worthy of mention in these pages. My grandson, hardly a great man, but without him this book would not exist. For all his talk of Flaubert and Eliot, the works of literature he devoted himself to always seemed to me detached from reality. Once, in a moment of frustration at our kitchen table, he muttered that he’d like to see me write something as good as Middlemarch. I knew then he underestimated both me, and my knowledge of human nature. Those moments have always been where I’ve thrived.
It is only since undertaking a project of my own that now I understand. One needs to make sense of one’s place in the world. Only by looking at others have I come to make sense of who I truly am. It is by looking first at my grandson, and at then Dr King, Verne, Lincoln – so many great men – that I finally know the truth. I hope that shows in these pages.
He didn’t tell me he intended to thank me in the book. I believe he meant well, but I’ve never truly been sure.
Last year he passed away, without warning. He went out for a walk after dinner, his usual mile-long circuit with its view of the moors, and got caught in a thunderstorm. When the search party from the village found him later that evening he was sitting under the canopy of an oak tree, in almost the same pose as Rodin’s The Thinker. Only the cuffs of his trousers were wet. I think he’d have enjoyed us telling people he died in a storm, even if it’s only true on a technicality.
He always hoped to leave a legacy, but all that’s really lasted since are his words. Somehow, they’ve crystallised the man I once knew: made his edges sharper, his mannerisms clearer. Many nights since he passed, I’ve returned to The Book of Hatred, poring over it, reading and re-reading passages, letting it invade my dreams. I’ve even started speaking like him, a little more brusque, a faint Northern burr behind my words.
All those years I never saw his story for what it was.
It’s a masterpiece: a book I’ll never stop reading.