My Salieri Complex
by Marina J. Neary
Several weeks went by. I remained faithful to my promise to work alone for the semester, spending my time in the mezzanine of the library, avoiding my fellow students and Handley in particular. The date of my graduation was approaching, which meant I needed to start thinking about my impending marriage.
Elizabeth had begun making wedding preparations, and I had no idea what that ceremony entailed. She had mentioned names of places, churches and reception halls I had never heard of. In truth, my knowledge of London outside Bloomsbury was rather sketchy. I rarely had any reason to leave the cluster of buildings that comprised University College.
One Sunday evening, after the library had closed and I returned into my flat, something unthinkable happened. Griffin emerged from his laboratory and actually spoke to me.
“Samuel,” he began with uncharacteristic softness.
I shuddered at the sound of his voice and pinched myself. Griffin had never addressed me, let alone by my given name.
“I was made aware of the inconvenience I have caused you over the past few months,” he continued. “I did not know until recently that my experiments were harming your health. You should have informed me at once. And then that horrid incident at the lecture hall! Handley took me by surprise. I suppose I haven’t grown accustomed to his antics. That buffoon of a man...”
I interrupted him quite coldly. “You were about to say...”
Did Griffin truly believe it would take only a few words of gossip to melt the ice?
“I was about to say that an apology would not be out of place.”
“An apology?” I asked, shaking my head in confusion. “From me to you, I suppose?”
“Samuel, I would be honoured to have you for a study partner. I was simply waiting for the appropriate moment to initiate you into my discoveries. I did not wish to do it before the entire class. Most of our fellow students are sheep. But you know that already, don’t you? Have I told you what happened to me in Cardiff when I was twelve?”
“No, Jonathan, you have not told me that story — or any other for that matter,” I said with a flaccid smile.
Griffin flicked his wrist at this vexatious oversight. “It happened in late May, shortly before the end of the academic year. I was hiding in the shade of a tree behind the schoolhouse, reading about the structure of the early microscopes, when my high-spirited fellow students ambushed me. They wanted to test the validity of the physician’s claims and see whether the sun could actually scorch me. So they gagged me, tore my shirt off and tied me to a pole with sunlight beating down on me. After two hours, my chest was the same garnet-red as my eyes. I was delirious, nauseous and half-blind.”
“Why, Jonathan, this is dreadful,” I stammered. “Such savagery! I never suspected...”
“Let me finish!” he snapped, squeezing his temples. “I did not care what those laughing apes did to my flesh. The nausea subsided, and the massive burn covering my body eventually faded. But they had also ravaged my book sack, torn up my journals and scattered the pages in the wind.
“I am not telling you this in order to gain your sympathy. I am merely attempting to explain the roots of my contempt for my peers. That incident six years ago made me extremely protective of my work. Now you know why I insist on keeping the door locked. The boorish mob must be kept out of my domain.”
“But Jonathan, you cannot possibly suggest that the fellows from Professor Handley’s seminar would...”
“Of course they would! They are still apes, even in tweed vests with pocket watches. It is a shame that Mr. Darwin is no longer with us. He would have concurred with my statement. He had a flat on Gower Street. Didn’t you know?” Suddenly, his glance softened. “But listen, Samuel, I’m very glad that I met you, even in a place like this, amidst this institutional circus.”
I opened my mouth, but no words came out, only a hoarse wheeze. The glass tubes on the shelf began to blur.
“We have much to discuss, Samuel. It will take some time.”
“Honestly, I’m flattered,” I muttered, wiping the sweat off my cheeks and neck. “However, I meant what I said in the lecture hall. It isn’t in our best interests to collaborate. You see plainly that I am in no state to argue with you. I simply don’t have enough air in my lungs. Let us leave things as they are. Please, excuse me.”
I turned around, preparing to leave, but Griffin, my idol, my tormentor, stepped towards me and caught me by the shoulders.
“I need one full night to work,” he continued, as if he had not heard my objections. “Come back in the morning, and I will be ready to share my findings with you. This will be the last inconvenience to which you’ll be subjected, one last favour. It will be worth your wait, Samuel. I promise.”
Losing my footing, I leaned forward and buried my face on his chest, convinced that I was dying. The fumes from his shirt and his white hair were poisoning me. It was the first time we had come into physical contact. Before then he had not so much as shaken my hand.
Even on the verge of a swoon I could not help noticing how hot his skin was. Any other human being would be delirious at such body temperature. The protein in the blood begins to curdle at forty-two degrees Celsius. It was one of the first facts I learned in my medical coursework. And Griffin’s temperature must have been close to forty-five.
But then, he was no ordinary human being. His body chemistry must have been different, either from birth or as a result of mysterious manipulations on his part. And now this alien creature was embracing me, trying to cajole me into his plot.
Terrified and jubilant at the same time, I threw my arms around his neck and clung to him, coughing and laughing.
Suddenly, I heard him whisper. “Collect yourself, Samuel.”
It was neither a plea nor an attempt to comfort me but an order. Of course, he had no time for this.
Still panting, I released him. He escorted me to the door and, with a slap on the back, pushed me into the dark hall.
“Good night, Samuel.”
* * *
When I came to my senses, I was walking down Gower Street, where every stone in the pavement was familiar to me. Over the last few months I had learned the pattern of the cobblestones. Those clusters of ovals and lopsided rectangles had turned into a mosaic of bewilderment and muffled fury. But that night I felt strange heat radiating from those stones, like the heat from Jonathan’s hands. Those stones were alive. They whispered to me, as I was still trying to make sense of the sudden reversal of fate.
He and I... How blind, how inattentive we both had been!
I must confess that the promise of partnership and camaraderie with Jonathan thrilled me more than my engagement to Elizabeth. Her acceptance of my proposal held no triumph for me. I never pursued her aggressively, and she never resisted.
One evening Professor Handley, as unceremonious a matchmaker as he was a peacemaker, simply seated us side by side at the dinner table. It was a marriage of reverence that we shared for her father. When we said “yes” it was not so much to each other but to Professor Handley.
Elizabeth was sturdy and well-mannered, though not remarkably beautiful, not in the same sense that Jonathan was. Before meeting him, I had never regarded other human beings as beautiful or ugly. My aesthetic sensibilities awakened fairly late.
Suddenly I discovered the desire to look at another face, marvelling at the clean, elongated lines of the profile and the exquisite translucency of skin. It struck me as strange that the elation, the source of which should have been Elizabeth, was instead sparked by Jonathan. Strange, but not in any way shameful.
Having abandoned my scientific logic, I occupied a front row seat in the theatre of my own imagination, where Jonathan was playing various leading roles. The image of a twelve-year old boy martyred by his mates began evolving, taking on epic forms. Jonathan appeared to me first as a medieval heretic, condemned to burn at the stake for the possession of forbidden books, then as Prometheus chained to a rock. Just like the hero of the Greek myth, Jonathan held fire stolen from gods, but unlike Prometheus, he did not wish to share it with all of humanity. He kept the fire only for the select few, and I was among the chosen.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Marina J. Neary