Oxford fellow and John Milton expert, PROFESSOR HENRY FELL suffers from panic attacks and a gnawing fear that what he doubtfully refers to as his existence is much more out of his control than he realizes.
Newly arrived in Boston on an academic fellowship, Fell meets a variety of people who, in one way or another, expose him to true love, true death, and true poetry: the lovely and sharp-tongued JULIA COLLINS, a Ph.D. candidate struggling to survive in a male-dominated world, fellow Brit PROFESSOR GEOFFREY HEARNE, one of the University’s most popular and colorful lecturers, and the rather less-than-popular, equally British, PROFESSOR CHRISTOPHER MOBERLEY, whose vast bulk contains the darkest of secrets.
A coming of middle-age story, a metaphysical parable, a glimpse into literature from the inside-out, THE ENGLISHMAN AND THE BUTTERFLY is a tragicomic look at the differences between imagining a life, performing one, and becoming enlightened to the possibility that there is more to life than meets a reader’s eye.
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Professor Henry Fell is so overwhelmed by fear that he’s only barely able to register (with a certain sad, slightly surreal, satisfaction) that the plane is actually perfectly level, that there isn’t a single buckle in the currents of air about him, that he’s seemingly the only person on this flight feverishly clutching his armrests. His conscious mind knows full well that the airplane isn’t going down; it’s not even experiencing turbulence. But his body (more specifically every nerve in his body) rings out with the sort of anxiety that would be entirely appropriate in such a situation.
A cold sweat has broken out on his forehead, his brain has begin to feel clouded over by a fine mist, and a growing tremor suffers his legs and hands to tremble. Worst of all, a steady, insistent passion of terror begins to spread inside him, like droplets of blood added to clear water. It puts cruel fingers on his lungs and his heart, freezes his already stiffening will, forces his vision to begin rolling over into darkness.
Feebly, he calls out to a passing stewardess, forces a weak hand into the air to get her attention. She passes by him soundlessly, intent on something at the back of the plane. Henry whimpers, unheard. No one in his line of sight. Of the two hundred seats in coach, only ten are occupied. Outside the window, above the tops of the clouds, the sharply blue sky suspends in what Henry senses is something like judgment. He tries to inhale, desperate for oxygen, sensing a fatal numbness slip into the spaces where his reason, his hope, ought to exist. The back of the seat in front of him looms, and grows dim. The glossy magazines have lost their garish, splashy colors and quaver in a splotchy gray. Slowly, painfully, Henry drowns in his own being, into that nameless dread that haunts every man’s dreams. His teeth clamp down severely, his toes curl inside his polished, leather shoes.
In the final brutal seconds before he passes out, he wonders why he must experience this, what he has done to deserve it. He thinks he will probably die, that he is most likely having a heart attack from which there will be no recovery. Why else this almost palpable taste of finality?
Henry’s head lolls to his left side, his hands fall to his legs, and a kind of gentle mercy extends to his entire body, now limp and free of suffering. Henry faints.
From within the luxury of first class, a little girl whines for bottled water.
Henry at once realizes many things upon awakening: that he is still on the plane, that there are no passengers left on the plane, that he has inexplicably emerged from bad dreams, and that a stewardess (fairly attractive, no obvious cleavage) is wiping his forehead with a damp linen napkin. The feeling of wetness mixed with linen is not necessarily a pleasant one. He is now, irrevocably, on the other side of the “pond,” and the triteness of this cliché, combined with what he had just (how long ago?) experienced, makes him instinctively reach for his stomach.
“How are we holding up?” asks the stewardess, whose nametag reads “Marci.” “Are we gonna make it?”
Good question, even if set in the disingenuous third person. A recurring dream he has had for years now materializes in his mind’s eye. He is lying on a blandly beige carpet before a full-length mirror. The room in which he reclines is completely empty. At his side, curled up in the hollow of his lap, a younger self, his one-year old self, plays innocently, babbles. He watches this former self with great love and sadness, as, suddenly, it grows old in front of him at a frightening speed, like time-lapse photography. One to two years. Two to five. Five to ten. This prison stretch of time sprints on, until Henry at eighty, ninety, decrepit, impossible, glares back at himself. And this bent, wrinkled body of his, this withered thing that is both himself and not himself, turns to Henry with a mad gleam in its eyes and reaches for his face with gnarled fingers, bubbles of spit forming on its horrible lips.
He experiences this dream nausea now, fumbling as he is for a vestige of mental order. Marci asks her question again, retracting the clammy napkin, but the bright light from the window to his left and the hangover of the fevered dream make it difficult for him to hear.
He remembers exactly where he must now be: Logan Airport, Boston, Massachusetts. The University. The appointment. “Distinguished visiting professor.” More deadly research on Milton as young upstart. Like books tumbling off a shelf, the titles of his life rush past his outstretched hands. Bad Men and Angels: John Milton’s Youth. His soon-to-be first, if only he can finish the last 100 pages. Harvard University Press is “fitfully” interested.
Tourist Oxford looms before him in a magisterial progression of spires and punts, pubs and pints. Henry has lived there for most of his adult life, and now it can no longer help, no longer serve as a board to which he can affix his being. Large, concentric circles quaver in front of him, making neon patterns against the inside of his eyelids when he closes his eyes. Oxford as a home drifts upwards like smoke, scattering to the east, above and away from the Wild West of America.
“Sir, are we gonna be okay? Should we call the medical crew?” A look of maternal concern covers Marci’s face and Henry, in that split second of registering, genuinely wants to feel appreciative of her care.
If my inferior hand of voice could hit
Inimitable sounds; yet as we go,
Whate’er the skill of lesser gods can show,
I will assay, her worth to celebrate,
And so attend ye toward her glittering state;
Where ye may all that are of noble stem
Approach, and kiss her sacred vesture’s hem.
All he does feel, however, is keen embarrassment and a desperate need to urinate.
“We are, thank you,” he replies as courteously as he can, and, without completely realizing he is doing it, breaks away from her, from that horrible seat and its serpentine safety belt, and bolts for the back of the plane to what he imagines will be the cool embrace of the onboard toilet. Grabbing the tops of seats for support as he makes his rough way down the aisle, he sees out of the right-side windows a pack of bulky men lifting brightly colored luggage. It seems a beautiful, blue day outside. A perfect Boston welcome on a perfect afternoon in late July, he thinks ironically, and then slams ignominiously into the not inconsiderable chest of a member of the ground crew, who himself is headed for the same bathroom with the same degree of urgency.
A series of clumsily executed steps. A loss of consciousness. A sudden cessation of progress. This is how it has always seemed, has it not? Henry Fell can think back almost as far as conception and find only a depressingly few moments, such as he can count on the fingers of one shaky hand, when instead of only slinking by, even outright disgracing himself, he had performed faultlessly as a character upon the world’s stage, despite his sudden circumscribed academic notoriety. With satchel and shining morning face, in public school he had crept unwillingly from class to class, a target for innumerable bullies with an especial liking for the tall and awkward. At home, a burden on his parents for reasons of higher intelligence and lower economy, he had lived in his cramped, stuffy room with an ever-growing pile of books, friends with which to weather the increasingly alien outside world. At Magdalen College, the story was much the same: Henry in his digs with the oak barred, studying for exams he knew he would pass with distinction, studiously avoiding other, more social, more penetrating, exams.
Of course, there were friends and loved ones, bright times when he had felt at peace with himself and the world around him. But, most of the time, Henry has felt acutely cut off from the rest of humanity, though he had never thought this was necessarily a bad thing. A certain acceptance has come over him in these last few years, at the beginning of his fortieth year, as a matter of fact. Hopes of a grand career in letters, or even of a wife and family, have been replaced by hope of a different feather: that small, somewhat melancholy hope that perches inside the gilded cage of the heart — where once Henry had nurtured the idea of being a Poet — that sings the song of settlement, of wanting only to lie down in reasonable comfort and be left out of the fray. The offer of a fellowship from an American university was like a jarring push to the edge of a precipice, and he had profoundly surprised himself by accepting it without hesitation.
And that was all… and yet, not really. There has been much more to his life than that. It cannot, he thinks, be so easily summarized, categorized, shelved. He owns a past, one that proves he had once been alive, no matter how imperfectly. A past full of patterns, digressions, amusements, moments of transcendence in a local mews, the swoop of a gull by the seaside as it snatches a chip out of your hand. As Henry looks around his neutered hotel room, a slightly down-at-heel Comfort Inn room fairly devoid of real comfort, regards the bland furniture, and senses with his sixth sense for sickness the unseen traces of prior hygienically-challenged occupants, he does not feel as diminished as he usually would feel in such an unwholesome environment. He does not, for once, feel like a footnote. Then again, he does not feel like a whole scene either, let alone a novel of dramatic import. He turns on his side and falls back to sleep, his jacket hanging on the desk chair, his luggage unopened on the other, surely-never-to-be-tried bed, while a stream of afternoon sunlight slips between the musty curtains to saturate the carpet.
Free download of Chapter One of The Englishman and the Butterfly