The Miracle of St Michael’s
by Tom Morton
This short story was written to accompany Bocca Baciata, an exhibition of paintings of dinosaurs by the Danish artist Alexander Tovborg at the Overgaden Institut for Contemporary Art, Copenhagen, in 2014. Transposed to this issue of South as a State of Mind, which pays special attention to compass points, it might be read with the world of the dinosaurs in mind. In the Early Triassic era, climatic conditions, and even land-mass configurations, were markedly different from today. The most complex consciousness on Earth belonged (we think) to a reptile. There was no human concept of east and west, north and south.
From Left: Alexander Tovborg, Bocca Baciata LIX, LX, LVII, LXV, 2014 acrylic and fabric collage on canvas, 310 x 195 cm Courtesy of Galleri Nicolai Wallner
Photos by Anders Sune Berg
“Why is it,” said Zhongli Quan, as he primped the black silk wings of his bow tie, “that none of your great painters thought the dinosaur a suitable subject for depiction?” This question was spoken into the mirror that hung in Quan’s college rooms, quite the best available to Trinity’s undergraduates, but was addressed to Ken Carpenter, who had arrived panting half an hour ago, having cycled from his modest digs at modest Wolfson, and whose own bowtie was not silk, nor even really a tie at all, but rather an abbreviated polycotton sheepshank, black only in the way that a dust-strafed blackboard is black, and which girdled his Adam’s apple on a slackening length of elastic.
“1827,” continued Quan, shooting his cuffs at his own reflection. “The Reverend William Buckland becomes the first human being to describe a fossil dinosaur in scientific terms, giving it the genus Megalosaurus, and the species Megalosaurus bucklandii. This was new knowledge, so we can give the Romantics a pass – Delacroix, don’t you think, would have painted a wonderful Triceratops. But what do we get after that? Some smudgy sea monsters in late Turner, a few implausible Jabberwockies in Burne-Jones and the French Symbolists. Nothing, of course, from the Impressionists. And the twentieth century! Where is my Pointillist plesiosaur, my Vorticist Velociraptor?
Where, oh where, is my Cubist T. Rex? Now tell me, Kenneth, how do I look?’
“Very smart,” said Ken, from within his tired, hired dinner jacket. Quan was reading Geology, and he was reading Art History, but here on the evening of the Trinity May Ball, as on every evening they’d spent together in their three years at Cambridge, it was the Chinese boy who brought up what Ken’s father called, with beery disdain, the subject of “pretty pictures”. Perhaps it was Quan’s time at Le Rosey that caused him to do this; the patrician manners he’d learned there – alongside all those pubescent Rothschilds and Hohenzollerns, all those Glücksburgs and Hohenlohes – demanded that he cultivate his conversation always in the warm, pliant soil of his interlocutor’s comfort zone. Or perhaps this heir to the Shandong Mining Group (Non-Ferrous Metals) really was fascinated by Chardin and Courbet, Piero and Pontormo, or perhaps – and this was Ken’s dark wish – his real fascination was with Ken himself, the state-school kid who fell asleep each night in his lonely bed, semen cooling on his belly, dreaming of his Huángdi, his handsome, unhaveable Emperor. Not that he would ever find out the truth. Tomorrow, Quan would leave Cambridge forever, flying back to China, and the family business, and its mad, unimaginable wealth. Ken would remain here, taking up a place at the university seminary. Art History had, he thought, prepared him well for life as a vicar. The key thing wasn’t to believe (this was the Church of England, after all), or even to experience a better class of doubt. The key thing was to ache.
“Dinosaurs,” said Quan, crouching to tie his laces, and slipping a small, plastic bag into the top of his left sock. “Kenneth, I’m serious. Why would none of your painters touch them? Fascinating creatures – my father’s always unearthing them in his mines – and I understand they played a significant role in killing off your God.”
“Too modern, at first,” said Ken, ignoring the dangling bait, “and then not modern enough. Dinosaurs look a lot like dragons, and dragons were never going to fly with the twentieth-century avant-garde. They’re medieval. Worse, they’re Victorian. Think of the Futurist manifesto: cars running on machine-gun fire, propellers roaring like a fascist mob, violent electric moons. That lot wanted to flood the museums, not fill them with paintings of Diplodocus.” Briefly, Ken pictured water rising in a great, vaulted gallery space. Drowned canvases. A school of coelacanths swimming by. Sodden parquet floors.
“You Westerners have a lot to learn about dragons,” said Quan, picking up a paper fan from his dressing table, and snapping it into its lacquered casement. This he tapped three times against Ken’s chest. “Come on, Kenneth. The ball’s already started, and I want to show you off. I don’t think anybody at Trinity has ever seen a Wolfson man in black tie before.”
Later, when the June sun finally set on the college gardens, and the marquees began to glow like yellow lanterns in the gathered dark, and everywhere there was the smell of honeysuckle and the shimmer of distant music, Quan led Ken down to the riverbank. They had each drunk, by Ken’s reckoning, a full bottle of champagne, and the English boy was unsteady on his feet. A rowing boat was moored by the water’s edge. Quan stepped briskly aboard.
“Is this thing yours?” said Ken, landing heavily inside the wooden hull. The boat rocked, then stilled.
“Punts are for tourists,” said Quan, by way of an answer. “Come on, let’s go on a little trip.” Settling Ken on the slatted seat, the Chinese boy let slip the rope, and pushed off from the riverbank.
“No oars,” said Ken, as the current caught them, buoying them past Trinity, past St John’s, on towards the Bridge of Sighs.
“Don’t worry, Kenneth, the river knows where we’re going.” Quan reached down into his left sock, and fished out the small plastic bag. “Now, open your mouth.”
As soon as Ken parted his lips, he felt his friend’s finger swipe along his gum line, scouring it with something granular and bitter-tasting. His drunkenness took on a sudden, unfamiliar edge, hard and bright and needful.
“What are you doing?” asked Ken, pulling away. It wasn’t the drugs that shocked him, although Quan, to his knowledge, had always shunned pills and powders. Rather it was the intimacy, the unexpected meeting of flesh and flesh. Other human beings had put parts of their body in his body (doctors, dentists, one disastrous girlfriend), but this was not the same, no not the same at all.
Quan raised his finger to Ken’s lips, first shushing them, then squirreling between their folds. That taste again. That texture.
“Ground dragon’s bones,” said Quan.
The boat passed beneath the bridge. Quan took Ken’s hand, and placed it on his thigh. Ken felt something firm beneath the soft fabric of his trousers. The fan. No.
Then Quan leaned in, and Ken’s heart opened up like never before.
The Reverend Ken Carpenter didn’t hate his job, or his workplace – rising from a recently gentrified corner of East London, the Gothic Revival St Michael’s had what he was pleased to call “good bone structure”. No, what the Reverend Ken Carpenter hated was his congregation. Like many English churches, his was affiliated with an excellent church school, and like many excellent church schools, this one had recently adopted a policy of only admitting children from families who made a “clear and regular demonstration of their Christian faith”. Over the past year, Ken’s usual sparse flock of septuagenarians, dry alcoholics and lost-looking immigrants had been joined, then quickly supplanted, by a new type of parishioner: the pushy middle-class parent, happy to feign supplication if it meant their kids could avoid the vivid horrors of London’s comprehensives, or the anti-egalitarian taint of its fee-paying schools. They arrived at his services in a spirit of bustling cheerfulness, belted out the opening hymn, sat tolerantly through his sermon, mumbled a few prayers, rallied themselves for the closing hymn (always, by popular request, the loathsome “Lord of the Dance”), and then applied themselves to what they obviously considered the really serious aspects of religious observance: discussing whether the parish magazine should be typeset in Helvetica Inserat or Akzidenz-Grotesk, or whether the cakes in the church bake sale should be lactose- and gluten-free. Everywhere in St Michael’s were the signs of their growing influence. The noticeboard pinned with flyers for Alpha Courses, Mindfulness Workshops and Hot Bikram Yoga. The Children’s Play ’n’ Pray Space, with its herd of donated Eames elephant stools. In a bruising putsch, responsibility for the flower arrangements had been wrested from a pair of elderly spinsters and was now the province of a lawyer’s wife who described herself to an astonished Ken as an “up-and-coming botanical artist”, much influenced by Japanese ikebana. The Bible study group was reading Khalil Gibran. A pilgrimage had been proposed to see the Chagall chapel at Assy, followed by a week’s snow- boarding in nearby Chamonix.
If St Michael’s was, for its congregation, simply another corner of the world to remake in their own confident and smoothly tasteful image, then this didn’t seem to trouble the senior clergy of the diocese. Pews were being filled like never before, and when Ken had gently suggested to the archdeacon that something precious – a thing not subject to contract, a thing close perhaps to grace – had been sluiced from the church by this tide of new worshippers, he was swiftly and firmly rebuked. In two days’ time, a TV crew would arrive to film a documentary, The Miracle of St Michael’s, focusing, so the producer had told him on the phone, on “Christianity as a relevant lifestyle choice for the busy young professional”. Their visit would coincide with Michaelmas, feast of the church’s titular archangel, a day on which debts were traditionally settled and final reckonings made.
That night in the vicarage, like most nights in the vicarage, Ken lay down on his bed with his laptop bobbing on his belly, and trawled the hook-up sites for men who might summon the memory of his distant Quan. Five years had passed since the boat and the bridge, five years since love had tapped his hollow, echoing chest. Waking up the morning after the ball on an unfamiliar stretch of riverbank – his gums tingling, his awful dinner jacket muddied, his body pungent and pleasantly sore – Ken found that Quan had already left for his flight to China. There was no note, although his smartphone lay nearby, alongside the empty bag, its smashed screen the colour of a bluebottle’s wing. Back at Wolfson, Ken discovered that every one of Quan’s social networking accounts – even his Renren, even his Weibo – had been closed down. The Chinese boy did not return to Cambridge to pick up his degree.
Ken attempted to contact him, of course. He emailed every plausible address at the Shandong Mining Group (Non-Ferrous Metals), meeting only with error messages and silence. He sent postcards c/o the company’s HQ – images of great lizards by Uccello, Ingres, Moreau – all of them unanswered, and once called a woman he was sure, from his frantic web searches, must be Quan’s PA, only to be informed that he had reached the Qingdao Sheraton, and would he be interested in hearing about their conference facilities, or perhaps booking a treatment at their spa? Defeated, Ken took to spending long, listless hours contemplating Quan’s picture inForbes and Fortune and Businessweek (still beautiful, still brandishing his lacquered fan like a Daoist Immortal), and obsessively feeding the Cankao Xiaoxi’s wedding column into Google Translate, fearing that his beloved, surely against the true bearing of his heart, had taken some tiny, perfect bride. Alone in a darkened St Michael’s, he had even knelt at the altar, and prayed. None of these rituals served to call Quan to his side.
At one a.m., as Ken was about to log off, a message appeared in the chatbox. His correspondent’s profile picture was a close-up of single, slender finger. His username was Konglong.
> Kenneth, I think I may have finally found an answer to my question.
Ken paused. No. Just some guy. He waited for the chatbox to fill with the usual jpegs of waxed cocks and willing arseholes, the usual offers of this in there, or there. He wouldn’t do anything about it – he never did – but he would take some brief, dulled pleasure in the possibility that he might.
> Kenneth. KENNETH! I know you’re there, Kenneth, so do please pay me the courtesy of a reply.
Ken’s fingers moved to the keyboard. Typed. >> What question?
> The dinosaurs question, Kenneth!
> Zhongli Quan, BSc (Cantab), CEO of the Shandong Blah Blah (Non-Ferrous Whatever), and the boy who, if you recall, once made the future Reverend Ken Carpenter sigh beneath the Bridge of Sighs.
> Look, Kenneth, I haven’t got time to wait while you deliberate over what to type next. I’m sending you a delivery. Rather a big delivery. My courier will meet you outside St Michael’s tomorrow after evensong. Oh, and Kenneth?
> Close your mouth.
The lorry drew up to St Michael’s at seven, just as Ken had finally ushered the last few congregants from the church grounds. They had been more than usually pleased with themselves this evening, purring with anticipation at the arrival of the TV crew tomorrow. Matins would be full. With practised ease, the driver parked his vehicle with its back facing the church door. The shipping container fixed to the flatbed was bright red and marked with the Shandong Group’s logo. Whatever was inside it had travelled all the way from China. The cabin opened, and the driver stepped down, followed by two more men wearing overalls and peaked caps. They walked briskly up to Ken, bowed, and then straightened. The driver held out his hand.
“Keys,” said the driver.
Ken stared at him.
“Keys to church.”
Ken patted at his vestments, found the heavy iron
ring. Wordlessly, he passed it over.
“You come back tomorrow, Mr Vicar. Seven o’clock.
Before morning prayers.”
Ken nodded, and turned towards the vicarage. The future was in Quan’s hands.
The first thing Ken noticed when he walked up to St Michael’s the next morning was that the lorry had vanished, replaced by a large, metal dumpster. Poking out from its top like periscopes, the trunks of the Play ’n’ Pray Space’s elephant stools – lime- green, baby-blue, a queasily surgical pink – shone in the new day’s sun. The church noticeboard, still plastered with ads for reiki therapists and silent retreats, had been broken in half and tossed in alongside several bushels of expensively Spartan floristry. Copies of The Prophet and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull lay scattered at the dumpster’s bottom, alongside a few items gifted by Ken’s congregants to the archdeacon’s Harvest Festival foodbank: one bag of brown rice, and another of quinoa, a pack of replacement BRITA water filters, some herbal supplements, an artisan rye loaf. Quan’s men had left the keys in the church door.
Ken’s phone vibrated. An SMS. The TV producer. The crew was on its way. He turned the key, and pushed at the heavy oak.
The pews had been moved to the side of the nave. Along its length, illuminated only by the sunlight that streamed steadily, unstoppably, through the church’s stained glass windows, stood the skeleton of a vast and long-necked dinosaur, its brown bones supported by a steel armature, its tail trailing through the crossing and the chancel and on into the apse, where its tip grazed the far-off altar stone. In the silence before morning prayers – those bland bargains blandly struck – it seemed to Ken that this fossil beast could always have been here, should always have been here: proof not of the folly of belief, but of the existence, in some unknowable time and place, of unknowable energies, and grandeur. Quan stepped from the shadows.
“Zingongosaurus fuxiensis,” said Quan, as he crossed the church’s stone floor towards the beaming Ken. “I did toy with the idea of sending you a Western dinosaur, a Brontosaurus or some such, but my family’s company seems to be digging an awful lot of these fellows out of our mineshafts right now, quite a surplus in fact, so we can afford to spare one for our poor gweilo cousins. Besides, a church named after St Michael simply cries out for a dragon.”
Ken was still looking, rapt, at the creature’s skull, at the way the stained glass glowed through its eye sockets, through its mouth, almost as though it were breathing fire.
“Kenneth, aren’t you going to say something?”
“‘He is risen, therefore he can be laid in the grave.’”
“Yes, yes. All that stuff. Anyway, the TV crew will
be here any moment, along with all those ghastly, grab- by people you’ve been ministering to. Time to leave, my pretty vicar. There’s somewhere we must be.”
“What about the answer to your question?”
“Oh Kenneth, you’ve always been such a literalist,” said Quan, taking Ken’s hand, and leading him towards the door.
As the boat drifted lazily down the river, past Queens’ College, past King’s, onwards towards Clare, Ken listened to a voicemail from the TV producer. In rushed, excited tones, she relayed the extraordinary events of that morning. The congregants gathering around the dinosaur skeleton, their sleek heads bowed in silent contemplation. The arrival of the archdeacon, who fell immediately to his knees and recited – against all sectarian proscriptions – the Orthodox Jesus Prayer. Once word of the dinosaur began to circulate on social media, more and more people flocked to the church: kids from the nearby housing estates, hung-over hipsters, the imam from the borough mosque, the local MP. News photographers held their cameras high above the crowd, the better to snap at the sauropod’s grinning maw. A palaeontologist was interviewed in the churchyard by a BBC outside broadcast unit and wrongly identified the creature as Apatosaurus. A bishop appeared and blessed its ancient bones. The Miracle of St Michael’s, said the producer, would surely be the highlight of her career. There was only one voice missing from the documentary. Would Ken – any time, no really, any time at all – please call her back for a chat?
Quan took the phone from Ken’s hand and tossed it into the river. The boat floated on, past Trinity, past St John’s. While it was dark, it was warm for September, as though each star in the Cambridge sky was beaming its heat across the countless parsecs, so that it might draw sweat from these Earth boys’ humming skins. Quan produced his fan and beat at the heavy air.
“Our bridge,” he said, pointing up ahead.
A few moments later, the sky disappeared. “Open your mouth,” said Ken. “Open your mouth.”