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Septimus's Poem (a short story, tweaked) by Mark J. Howard

© Mark J. Howard

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Septimus's Poem
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A short story.
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by Mark J. Howard
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Rain fell all day; fat, cold drops fizzing against the college windows like old-fashioned tv static. The stubborn autumn sky, tormented by a westerly gale, continued to darken like a cuckold's mood and lights burned inside the classrooms all morning and into the afternoon, lending the place a gloomy and depressing atmosphere. Septimus, who began the day puffed up with his own importance, deflated in sympathy with the day as it sank further into misery. Now, sitting in the Incident Tent and smoking, he leaned back and tried to pinpoint where it all started to go wrong.
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Septimus, an important writer of some modest renown (as he enjoyed admitting), remembered making a show of pondering his friend and neighbour Danny's request to address his creative writing classes. Here, he thought, lay the fountainhead of his travails.
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Danny, whom Septimus credited with a canny if somewhat relaxed mind, admitted that over-exposure could be bad for serious and respected authors but said it was worth the risk. Septimus hummed, Septimus aahed and, finally, Septimus agreed. It was, he said with resignation, only proper to waft some small fragrance of his aptitude over those students of the written word in need of his encouragement and inspiration. It was, he further conceded with a sigh, his moral duty to the future of literature. He would inspire Danny's students, he promised, a finger rising along with his enthusiasm.
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"I will ignite in them a fire of passion! A conflagration of love for the written word no editor, agent or publisher shall ever extinguish!"
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Danny clapped and smiled with delight, saying he was very excited to provide such an opportunity for his students. He then asked Septimus to give him a lift into college that day as his Citroen would be in the garage and, of course, the magnanimous author agreed.
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Things started well as Septimus boomed out his lecture to the first class of the day with all the theatrical power of William Shatner punching Klingons. His performance rolled over the various comments, sniggers and questions of his audience like thunder, heedless of any man-made noise.
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Indeed, so engrossed was he in extolling the virtues of Homer and Virgil, Dostoevsky and Hugo, Dumas and himself; so effusive in his ideas concerning the modern applications of grammar, punctuation and spelling; so vociferous over the "conflict indexes," "narration matrixes" and "character spreadsheets" of his own design; so transported by his personal theories of quantum-grammar and elasticated plotting he barely noticed his audience at all. Thirty or so bemused students littering the classroom were nothing more than unfinished tarts into which Septimus poured the heated custard of his opinions.
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As the morning unfolded, however, the booming author became aware he was receiving no applause or cheers and the students before him appeared increasingly bored and belligerent. As the miserable proceedings dragged on and Danny's groups of creative writing students wafted in and out of the classroom, Septimus fell ever deeper into distemper.
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"They have no appreciation of me," he wailed to Danny between two early periods, "they sit uninterested and in disdain of my genius. Do they not realise the platinum opportunity presenting itself to them merely by having me here?"
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Danny smiled and said the students were young and so might not appreciate the relevance of his lectures until some future time. Septimus pondered this and brightened, remembering how much wisdom he eschewed as a young man only to rediscover with age.
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The following lecture transpired to be another thunderous affair, more like a fire and brimstone Evangelical sermon than anything else. It seemed Septimus had overcome his demons until the students drifted out of the classroom without comment. It was by this time midday and Danny steered him to the dining hall, where a free luncheon of steak and kidney pie and chips, followed by a hearty steamed pudding, cheered him no end. Thus replete, and with more words of encouragement from Danny driven like securing nails into his mind, Septimus set about the afternoon sessions with renewed gusto.
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The situation remained unchanged and Septimus felt the students regarding him with the same distaste they might reserve for Fourteenth Century dental procedures. No matter how much passion and insight he piled onto the heads of the students his words evaporated like snow falling onto uninsulated rooftops. The visions conjured up the night before of being borne from the classroom on the shoulders of adoring students were dead and he began to hope against reason for the seeds of his wisdom to take root in just one student. But not a single, precious spark of inspiration did he detect in the stream of dead eyes trickling past him. Hardly any of the students were taking notes and few of them possessed either writing pads or pens.
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This observation almost unbalanced Septimus altogether. How could these buffoons call themselves creative writers when they lacked even the most basic tools of the trade? How would they jot down character sketches, plot thumbnails, interesting facts, character vectors, conflict co-ordinates or snatches of dialogue when all they had to hand was chewing gum, lip gloss and i-phones?
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Septimus found himself praying to John the Apostle, patron saint of writers, publishers and poison sufferers, for the strength to save just one soul from literary damnation. To fire just one imagination. The disciple whom Jesus loved was, however, presumably busy transcending space and time in mysterious ways and so his prayers were diverted to the celestial voicemail.
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The penultimate class of the day dribbled out past Septimus and Danny without comment and the seething author steeled himself to get through the last lecture as quickly as possible. He then planned on driving home in an exceptionally high dudgeon, never to set foot inside this hellish place again and leaving Danny to find his own way back.
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Fate, however, decided to place a student by the name of Brutus Muldoon in the final class of the day. Brutus was that most despicable of specimens; a clever student.
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All of Brutus's tutors knew he was clever but, to their combined frustration, also bone-idle. Brutus possessed an instinctive understanding of every subject to which his mind was exposed but could never be bothered to properly exercise or hone his understanding. He was the kind of person who would drift through life in a mellow fog, never achieving anything but constantly humiliating his betters by displaying a deep understanding of complex subjects or dropping words into general conversation necessitating the furtive perusal of a dictionary.
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Brutus would never amount to anything, not because he was incapable but because he simply couldn't be bothered. He would be offered all the best promotions and positions but would fail to see the need for accepting any of them. Because of this, people who struggled and studied hard to get on in the world would hate Brutus with a passion for all his life, and Brutus would further annoy them by not caring one whit whether they hated him or not.
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During the section of his lecture relating to the poetic dimensions of writing, the real trouble began. Septimus rattled out a section of his own poem "War! Oh War!" to make a point upon which he was attempting to impale his audience. The portion he gave to the students was this:
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Rivers of mud,
Bespattered with blood,
'Neath the thud,
Of bomb and scud.
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The poem was, Septimus explained, a searing condemnation of the First World War and went on for a great number of verses. While some of it was quite moving and other parts rather harrowing (the work, Septimus announced with ill-concealed pride, held the Whithering Prize), the only reaction it received here was silence from the students and a loud and disparaging "Pfa!" from Brutus Muldoon.
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This 'Pfa!' heralded the commencement of hostilities proper. Septimus glared at Brutus. Brutus sneered at Septimus. Septimus seethed. Brutus basked.
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Even at this stage, disaster could have been averted by an experienced tutor's intercedence but Danny was engrossed in an article concerning the suitability of Mongolian spattergolds for domestic rockeries in the latest Gardener's Thumb magazine and was oblivious to the deteriorating situation. Only when Septimus and Brutus began exchanging barbs did Danny look up and by the time he sprang from his chair with a raised finger it was far too late. Septimus had called Brutus an ignorant mollusc and Brutus had called Septimus a pretentious, floppy-hatted poltroon.
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As any teacher knows, there can be no return from such a full and frank exchange of views.
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Before Danny could properly interrupt, threats had been made and challenges issued. Brutus pointed out with an air of careless superiority the Scud Missile mentioned in Septimus’s poem had not existed in World War One and Septimus himself was a poor researcher if he thought this ignorant re-writing of history was acceptable.
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Septimus responded by explaining, as if to a mentally challenged pig foetus, the scud mentioned referred to clouds and battlefield smoke *scudding* over the corpses of no-man’s land. It was, he said, an expression of the shadow cast by the Shadow of Death upon the fields of death and had been known to draw tears from the most hardened and jaded of poetry experts.
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Brutus said this was bollocks and suggested the word was shoehorned into an already egregious verse because it rhymed with mud, blood and thud. Septimus’s response to this stinging insult was to reel out a long list of all the poetry prizes he’d secured over his decades as an important writer. Brutus snorted and dismissed them all as meaningless, populist marketing devices. Septimus then produced from his shoe a hand-written transcript of what Melvyn Bragg had said about him on the South Bank Show and read it aloud like God pronouncing judgement.
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Brutus said a blind monkey tearing words out of a child's dictionary and casting the fragments to the four winds could arrange a better poem than Septimus and that Melvyn Bragg ('whoever he is') must be a complete idiot. Septimus intimated Brutus would not recognise fine poetry if it were painted fluorescent orange and eating his eyeballs. It was the work of seconds for them to challenge each other to a poetry writing contest. But, on which subject?
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"Peace!" Danny suggested, finally seizing his chance to step in with relief. "Write a poem about peace. You have fifteen minutes and I shall judge the winner."
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Septimus fell upon a piece of fine vellum paper and, under the heading "Peace! Oh Peace!" began to scribble and jot with a blazing intensity. For his part, Brutus leaned back in his chair, folded his arms and, for a full ten minutes, gave every indication of being enraptured by peaceful daydreams.
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With five minutes of the challenge left, Septimus threw down his pen with a triumphant flourish while Brutus picked up the stub of a borrowed pencil and began to write in a leisurely manner the heading "The Doves of Fabled Agincourt" and then the main body of his ode upon the back of an unfolded cigarette packet. He finished with a full minute to spare and then Danny read out both poems to an uncaring class.
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* * *
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"And then what happened?" the sergeant asked, regarding Septimus through a face made threadbare by too many years of idiotic interviews like this one.
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"Well, then we thought it best to sound the alarm and summon the fire brigade, for Mr Muldoon's terrible poem burned rather more willingly than I'd anticipated and various blazing fragments found their way into the ceiling space, where I surmise several decades' worth of scholastic fluff was encouraged into combustion."
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"And Mr Muldoon's eye?"
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"Ah well, that just couldn't be helped, I'm afraid. The blow I rendered upon him was entirely instinctive, stemming as it did from a collision between his boot and my nethers. I cannot say I blame the young man, however," Septimus announced in a most generous tone of voice, "for the writing of odes to peace is as difficult as the achievement of peace itself. Any great statesman or poet can confirm this," he said, as if all the sergeant had to do was stick his head through the flap in the Incident Tent and stop one to ask.
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The smouldering author swung back in his plastic chair in an amicable fashion, as if he had imparted to the sergeant one of the Seven Great Universal Truths, and the tent grew thick with silence. Noticing yet another patch of smoking velvet on his purple writing jacket, Septimus patted it out with his fingers, making 'tsk, tsk' noises as he did so.
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The sergeant gave Septimus a thin look, wiggling his threadbare moustache as if to dislodge biscuit crumbs before returning his attention to filling out the police report. Septimus let him finish before enquiring after the current status of the conflagration plaguing the college.
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Although he would never advocate the practice of arson, Septimus couldn't help feeling the dusty halls of academe could only profit from the occasional application of fire.
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* * *
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The end.


Copyright © Mark J. Howard 2006/2015

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