Last night was something of a disaster.
It started out well enough. Alexander and I had gone to see a play put on by his twin sister, Eleanor, at the university’s theatrical club. I remember him coming to my door and asking if I wanted to come along in his usual stiff, matter-of-fact manner. He kept his hands behind his greatcoat and rocked slightly on his brogue heels, evidently feeling faintly awkward but nonetheless maintaining his rigid posture and keeping conviction in his clipped voice.
They were strange siblings, him and Eleanor. He was aloof and often sequestered in his own head. She was worldly, popular, similarly pensive, but far more rooted in the world of reality than the world of forms. Still, they shared the same sense of seriousness, mystery, and perhaps arrogance. After only a small amount of time with the pair, even the most detached observer could see they were two sides of the same ornate, somewhat antiquated coin. She also happened to be his favourite philosophical sparring partner, and one of the few people besides myself who would tolerate him. I know many others found him quite ludicrous, but against my better judgement I couldn’t help but feel in awe.
To dwell on the play would make me too envious. Suffice to say that afterwards the twins decided on a little celebration, and after a long night we ended up at Eleanor’s flat that she shared with her own friend / shadow-dweller, Helen.
A skein of fairy lights around the ceiling glowed warm and orange. Against the pitch darkness through the windows, the light within was soft enough to make the room seem quite other-worldly, and it formed an exquisite chiaroscuro against the night without. The walls, replete with polaroid pictures from drunken parties, were softly illuminated. The carpet was slightly matted, the low table strewn with objects and loose tobacco, the sofas covered in colourful blankets. The smell of damp remained immovable beneath a haze of scented candles and incense.
Eleanor leaned on the little balcony, hardly more than a large window with a railing, stylishly blowing out pungent clouds from a joint she had just rolled. Alexander stood aside at a pointed disconnect, hands thrust into the pockets of his trousers, brooding. He liked brooding. He was predictably opposed to drugs; ‘Cato didn’t take drugs’. Cato did, however, drink wine, and so that was okay. Between sips and silences Alexander would pose a question to Eleanor on some thematic dilemma in the play. She would think, answer with confidence, and he would look at the floor in consideration, then stick out his lips and nod. Adequate.
Eleanor passed the joint to Helen, who after a while gave it to me with a polite, slightly sympathetic smile which seemed to say, ‘Oh, what can we do? Let’s just be quiet and leave the geniuses to it, shall we?’ I couldn’t help but feel a flash of resentment, and suddenly felt foolish and awkward whilst smoking. I was moody between perfunctory efforts at conversation. ‘I study Classics… Yes, that’s how I know Alexander… Oh, you do Physics, that’s cool…’ I fell into something of a trance, breaking out of it at one of Alexander’s suggestions.
‘Why, we’re here at a little party, drinking and celebrating a successful play. Is this not akin to Plato’s Symposium? What do you say we make a new version - a little symposium of our own?’
Only he could suggest reviving an ancient Athenian philosophical drinking party without feeling ludicrous, although I cannot pretend I disliked like the idea – the symposium, what seemed to my mind the height of culture and sophistication. How often had I dreamed of reclining in some villa and talking about things that were actually important, fancying myself one of those great figures who I worshipped almost as much as I knew Alexander did. These rugged, charming surrounds would be our columns and frescoed walls, the dirty, almost opaque glasses would be our oenochoe, and we would be Socrates, Aristophanes et al… Of the few people who would indulge such a suggestion, his sister and I were among them. Still, in the back if my mind I was quite unsure how I could compete.
Helen hesitated. ‘Oh, I don’t know much about philosophy…’
‘It’s okay’, I said. ‘Neither do I, really. You don’t really need to know anything.’
And so it was decided. We set ourselves up around the low table. Alexander and I sat on one of the sofas, him perched on the edge of the cushion and leaning forward, nose resting on a pyramid he made with his fingers. Eleanor was opposite, reclining like a Roman patrician, propped up by her elbow with her head on her fist. She dipped her chin and scrutinised her brother, smiling beneath furrowed eyebrows. Helen chose a cushion on the floor to the left of Alexander, supported by her hands with her legs outstretched. In the centre were two bottles of cheap wine, both corked haphazardly with dark red streaks bleeding down the white label. The candles were warm, hazy.
Straight away Alexander clarified that, unlike in Plato’s symposium, we would not be talking about love. He just said so, and that was that.
The discussion was stilted at first. First the stiff barriers had to be eroded, and upon Eleanor's effortless suggestion (how did she do it?) we did so with some soft questions which I cannot remember. Some scenes of this first discourse lodge in the memory, though. I recall Helen initially using a technique that all good shy people like myself have learned to employ, of swaddling every opinion – however valid – in light laughter and tentative language, lest someone should lash out, in which case you could escape lightly by appearing not to hold your opinion with much conviction. Heaven forbid being taken seriously.
It took some time for the initial reticence to subside, but it did eventually. I began to feel more relaxed, the atmosphere and the drink doing its work. The mental customs check on everything I said was becoming more lax, and I think it was for Helen, too. I poured us both another drink. ‘This is fun’, she laughed. ‘I’ve never really done anything like this before.’
‘I’m glad. Maybe now it’s about time we escalate’, Eleanor mused, smiling. ‘What is the meaning of life? Brother, you go first.’
He held a stylish silence, then affirmed, ‘To live honourably and virtuously’. One might otherwise expect elaboration, but this was Alexander. ‘What about you, Helen?’
‘Oh… I don’t know, really. Like… Just to be happy, I suppose.’
‘Do you not seek to be great?’ He spoke with the confidence of someone who hunts opponents in debates like this for sport.
She paused. ‘Why would I want to be great?’
He registered almost imperceptible surprise. He had not expected this. He existed in a world where greatness and goodness were synonymous. T.E Lawrence, Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great; to him, these were all good because they were great. Normally this preconception did not come under scrutiny, because the few people he spoke to felt the same, and he could normally blind other people into thinking this with his intimidating erudition, anyway. And yet ironically, despite studying and praising the Socratic genius of constantly asking why, few had ever actually asked him why.
He jutted his chin forward and regained his poise. ‘Because greatness means one is outstanding for virtue and intelligence. It also means one has achieved a good deal in their allocated time. Alexander the Great, for instance, was only 30 when he conquered the world, demonstrating immense prowess and bravery.’
‘Isn’t he just another aristocratic warmonger? How is that glorious? What was he like as a person?’
He was off balance again. ‘Because it demonstrates military genius, which itself carries qualities to admire. Nobody really knows what he was like as a person. His life was something of a mystery.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, really.’ A tactical withdrawal, perhaps, but she had landed some hits. For a second he had seemed ludicrous.
Eleanor joined in. ‘Helen is right. You should think more about what it means to be great. To seek it is a noble thing, but I think glory should come from enhancing humanity rather than destroying swathes of it’, she said. ‘But Helen, would it not be tantalising to have everything you say and do studied, marvelled over for years to come?’
‘Maybe. But in the lifespan of the universe humans are only around for the blink of an eye. After a while the cosmos will be dead.’
‘But humanity will still be here for a while to see what you have done. Maybe you produce a great work of art which helps others understand their emotions. Maybe you prove a theory or find a cure for something. You improve or assist our species in some way, and in doing so prove the glory of humans as a whole.’
‘I get that. But I’d be happy to do it on a smaller scale. I don’t want a statue or anything.’ She laughed again with this final comment, couching what had been a point of sufficient magnitude to severely shake all of our pre-existing assumptions. I too wanted to be great, to be lauded, but why?
All faces turned towards me. ‘What do you think?’
‘I think it varies. Some people seek it and others don’t’, I said, trying to be diplomatic. ‘I still don’t know why I seek it, but I do think that we should emulate great people, channel their qualities, even if we aren’t famous for it. And we should attain this by doing rather than just thinking.'
It felt like we were all on sparkling form, even if I have taken the liberty of classical authors and polished the speeches somewhat. Still, this is exactly the kind of electric atmosphere I had hoped for. Time seemed a blur, although I can pinpoint the exact moment when it all stopped.
‘Is it alright if Brandon comes?’ Helen asked Eleanor, not Alexander. ‘All his friends have gone home. He says he gets bored on his own, I feel a bit bad.’
Eleanor glanced at her brother and floundered momentarily. ‘Yeah, of course.’
Helen leaned over her phone and tapped away with her thumbs, occasionally brushing hair out of her face. ‘He won’t be long. He’s only at Agora.’
And just like that, the delicate bubble we were in popped, and the symposium ended. The next five minutes were dull and awkward, and suddenly what we were doing felt ridiculous and pretentious as the prospect of a visitor pulled us back into the real world.
The aforementioned anchor arrived shortly after, and Helen disappeared into the adjoining hallway. The length, volume and enthusiasm of his greeting to her and the way he laughed suggested that he’d been drinking more than us. He rounded the corner, laughing and cheering a greeting.
‘You know Alexander’, Helen said. After that she introduced him to me; ‘This is Brandon, my boyfriend.’ He pumped my hand strongly with a bright greeting. He did that awkward try-not-to-knock-anything-over walk, lifting his knees high as he re-navigated the perimeter of the table and sat next to Helen.
The greeting ceremony died away and he settled down, turning to Eleanor. ‘How was your play?’
‘Oh, it went well, thanks.’ She had lost some of her aura. ‘Where did you go tonight?’
‘We’ve just been to Agora. Drinks prices are fucking mad down there!’
‘Yeah, they do take the piss.’ Eleanor was always good at this kind of convergence. Her brother was not. He remained silent. Some general chat ensued and then a stuffy quietude.
He looked at Helen. ‘Anyway, what have you been talking about?’
She seemed embarrassed. ‘Nothing much, really. Who were you out with tonight?’
‘Ah, come on, you must have been talking about something. You’re all behaving strangely.’
Eleanor bristled somewhat. ‘Actually, we’ve been talking about philosophy.’
‘Philosophy? Ah, I don’t really give much of a shit about that kind of stuff, to be honest. I just don’t find it that useful. They spend too much time in their own heads and think they know how the world functions without having done a day’s work in their lives.’ I shrunk somewhat. Maybe that was what we were doing. He looked back at Helen and laughed. ‘You don’t know anything about philosophy anyway.’
She reddened and laughed. ‘I wasn’t really… It was mainly these guys.’
‘Helen made some very good points.’ Alexander broke his silence.
‘Did she? Yeah, she can be too clever and sensitive for her own good, sometimes. Remember when you cried over that song the other day?’
Poor Helen. Her eyes wide and face flushed with embarrassment. How could I tell her it was alright? How could she have been so tactless as to invite him? I feebly tried to come to her rescue and change the subject. ‘How did you guys meet?’
‘She’s my high school sweetheart. We’ve known each other for years and decided to come to the same uni. She needs me to keep her grounded, she gets in her own head too much sometimes, all these theories and things.’
My diversionary tactics failed and so I was grateful when Eleanor stepped in. ‘Theorising can be good, though.’
‘Sometimes, maybe. But I feel like I can get enough happiness without thinking about it – through things like family and stuff.’
This was similarly reductive and disarming to Alexander’s rhetoric, only on the complete opposite end of the philosophical spectrum. I had already formed the opinion that Brandon was callous, which might be why I found it so disconcerting that he had again rumbled my outlook. What was wrong, after all, with simply enjoying life?
As I contemplated this, I looked to my left and was reminded of why Alexander had to exist in his own little philosophical bubble, away from conventional society. The symposium needed to end conclusively, we needed to move on, this was no longer the right atmosphere. I saw Eleanor look at her brother and shake her head. But he was too proud, too out of touch, too wrapped up in precepts of honour and social rules drawn from Roman codices not to rise to what he must have seen as a challenge.
‘As Socrates said, if you do not contemplate your existence then you are no different to a farm animal.’
The smile drained from Brandon’s face. This was quickly becoming stiflingly uncomfortable, as the two began to sense that they were the antithesis of one another. The prig and the lout.
Stony silence followed. Where were the safe topics? Eleanor found one and we chatted awkwardly on some banality or other. But a line had been crossed. I was planning my escape during another lapse in conversation when Brandon started goading.
‘I heard from Eleanor you’re thinking of joining the army, Alex?’
Alex. Oh dear. He took a long swig of wine and stared at a candle the table. ‘I’m planning on going to Sandhurst to train as an officer.’ He said, disconcertingly quiet.
‘My friend is training in the Royal Engineers in Winchester and he says it’s hard work. I’m worried your books won’t help you. Have you ever fired a gun?’
‘I don’t need you to tell me how to be an officer, thank you.’
This was becoming surreal. People weren’t supposed to argue with acquaintances in real life. How could this be happening? I felt a bizarre mixture of sadness, surprise and curiosity at seeing someone who I revered crumble. Now he was not imposing so much as faintly ridiculous. I realised Alexander wouldn’t be a good officer. He would sit with his immaculate uniform behind a desk, pristine copies of The Art of War and Caesar’s Commentaries laying before him, and he would be convinced he knew exactly what he was doing when really he didn’t have a clue. He no longer seemed so invincible.
Brandon looked at him. ‘Ah don’t worry, man, it’s only a joke. Don’t you like jokes?’
Alexander’s sense of humour extended to things like the witticisms and wry observations of eighteenth-century prime ministers. So no, no he didn’t like jokes. He certainly didn’t like people asking if he liked jokes.
‘Don’t be so foolish.’
Silence again. 'I'm only saying. You need actual experience. Not all of us live with our heads up our own arses.'
'Some of us have the capacity to think.'
‘That’s enough.’ Eleanor was the first to address what we had all pretended to ignore, thus confirming that this ugly slinging match had escaped the depths of passive-aggression and was now an actual argument. By this point the opponents were staring at one another. I could only imagine the sickening adrenaline coursing through the pair of them, the rapid heart, hot throat, tingling hands. She continued: ‘We’re all tired. Maybe it’s time we called it a night.’
Brandon rose in a huff. ‘He started it. Can’t you teach him to interact normally with people?’
‘Don’t talk to my sister like that.’ Alexander too rose to his feet'.
‘I’m going to get my coat. Helen, where the fuck did you put it?’
It must only have been a slight shove as he walked past Alexander, but it was enough. Alexander’s arms flew up to Brandon’s neck and in a flash there was a great clamour of shouting and screaming as the two grappled into the wall. A sad plant pot was knocked and smashed, a carpet on the wall came tumbling down, and the two finished up on the floor. I scrambled across the sofa and did my best to pull Alexander away, but he was enormously strong.
Helen was screaming now. ‘Brandon!’ He had scrambled away a few feet, nursing his head. Alexander got up and made for the door.
‘I’m going for a walk’, he said. I think he was crying.
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Hi Alasadair! Congratulations on the shortlist! I love that you chose to use siblings to create conflict within the story. My sister and I have always been referred to as polar opposites and so this was a really interesting story for me to identify with. I thought the way that you created the intricate dialogue, and used it to tell the majority of the tail was incredibly vivid. I also really liked the poetic ending that you chose. I thought that it spoke very well of the diverse human hearts that created. Nice work!!
Thanks Amanda! Glad you enjoyed and thanks so much for leaving feedback :)
Having just worked on a story about twins, I dove right into this one. I agree with Gregory that I wanted more on Helen. Good job.
Thanks for the feedback Kevin! Glad you enjoyed :)
Congratulations on being shortlisted.
Great job setting the atmosphere for the story. It flows well, although there are times when I had to reread some paragraphs to get oriented. I would have liked a little more background on Helen to help visualize the character, but the twins are solid and with the addition of Brandon at the end to build the tension it was a nice finish. Thanks for the read.
Thanks so much for your feedback Gregory, I really appreciate you taking the time!