The Atheist

One or two comments have been sent in from readers who are annoyed that I offer copies of my early books for sale on this web site but then explain that they are “sold out” and therefore unavailable. My apologies. This is the short story anthologised in Winter’s Tales I, first published a very long time ago.

The Atheist

 On an afternoon in July, 1977, William Green was travelling south in a small aeroplane, en route from Bombay to Goa. The purpose of the journey, which had already brought him from London, was to eat a certain fish curry unique to the old Portuguese town. To this end, Green had fasted for 48 hours. At three pm the stewardess looked into the first-class cabin and gained the impression that her passenger was sleeping. He was, in fact, in the tertiary stasis of trance.

            The fasts of a great gourmet have always been occasions of hushed reverence in the global kitchen. When Herr Grosch prepared himself in this way all Vienna went tiptoe for days on end: the hooves of the cab-horses were wrapped in felt and the playing of the waltz forbidden by Imperial decree within a mile of the little house on Konstanzplatz, that no sound might disturb the concentration of the great man. In Paris also, though a hundred years earlier, it is said that Louis XVI was no less sensitive to the delicacy of his friend and mentor, Vicomte de Corse, even to the extent of outlawing the cooking of food over heat in the city during the time of vigil, lest any aroma corrupt the Vicomte’s nostril’s as he lay on his crimson day-bed in the Tuilleries.

            Green, however, and perhaps this is a measure of his greatness, disdained such external pressures. He relied on the ability of his own highly trained and supple mind to prepare himself, coupled with an unchanging methodology. Whether he was staying at the time in his rooms in London, or in his hilltop cloister in the Umbrian countryside, he set about his fast with an almost impudent cool. Seventy-two hours before the chosen dish was due to be eaten, he would take from a box a single cigarette, unfiltered and made from a blend of harsh Balkan tobaccos rolled in the finest Moskott paper. This he would proceed to smoke.

            Over the years, the timing of this heresy had become uncannily precise. For a day and a night following the cigarette his taste buds and olfactory nerves lay numbed and cataleptic. Like bees stunned by smoke, they had recoiled, stricken from their natural processes, leaving Green innocent of both taste and smell.

            Such sensory silence was of crucial importance to the gourmet. Now, free of distraction, he was able to cleanse his imagination and carefully reconstruct his critical apparatus. First, he established anew the compass points of flavour – sweet and bitter, salt and sour; secondly, he lifted them into three dimensions, in the manner of an astronomer mapping the infinite night sky, readying his olfactory planes of reference for new phenomena; thirdly, and here his tremendous self-discipline was stretched to the full, he sealed all memory of everything he had ever tasted temporarily into his subconscious. In this way, when the time finally came to eat, his palate would be free of any association, of every link, no matter how relevent, that might disrupt the present moment with an intimation of things past.

            The last stage was a period of tranquil rest. As sensation returned to his nose and mouth, he would remain in semi-trance, holding back the tide of memory. The dishes would be set before him. While his body absorbed the colour, texture, sound, smell and savour of each mouthful, his imagination led the food into his naked mind, allowing its identity to fill his consciousness. In that pristine laboratory, it would be measured, dismantled and analysed according to the precise rituals of gastronomic science until the great man understood it utterly. Then, at last, his pent-up memories were released in one adrenal roar to crowd around the new experience, comparing, questioning, pronouncing, finding the place for it to fit amongst his history. And when the last plate was carried away, he would awaken, as if from sleep. His eyes focused on the faces of those about him, his ears once again heard voices. The structure of sensory references was folded away and stored for future use and the gourmet smiled, blinking in the applause of those who had eaten with him, and accepted a little coffee.

            Green, then, was anything but haphazard where his vocation was concerned. Each time he was invited to evaluate some famous dish, some new creation, he set about it with absolute thoroughness, and because he was wise and aware of the danger of routine, and because he sought perfection and knew that it was not yet his, he embarked upon his fasting with an ever more profound concentration. Thus it was, as he lay back in the comfortable seat in the first class cabin, with the western coastline of India shimmering in the summer heat below him, that he first sensed the presence of the dish.

            A moment before, Green had been on the point of entering the fourth stage of trance. His mind was naked and clean of all memory of taste and smell. It was as if he had never eaten in his life before, when suddenly he became aware of the imagination of food. It lay just beyond the womb of consciousness, like a word on the tip of one’s tongue, a shape beneath the surface of mirky water, a ghost in the room. Green frowned. His initial reaction was that some thought of food had escaped from the prison of his subconscious, prompted perhaps by a chance aroma in the aeroplane, and he accordingly tried to force the fugitive back, not even bothering to bring it out into the light for study. But his memory would not accept it. He realized that the wall had not been broken. A flash of intuition: whatever it was was a fantasy, a will-o’-the-wisp formed by his ascetic mood, assisted no doubt by the altitude. It was not, thank goodness, that his grip was slipping, it was just a mirage, flitting across the desert of his hunger.

            Amused, Green reached out to see what it was his mind had conjured, but the thing eluded him. And it continued to do so. For the remaining hour of the flight he played cat and mouse with the untrappable taste and smell of the thing, chasing it around the three-dimensional scaffold of his graph of primary flavours, only to feel it slip away again as he lunged. It was as if it were attached to him invisibly by a distancing rod, a carrot before a donkey, never to be reached. Only it wasn’t a carrot.

            At the little airport near Goa a car was waiting to take him to the hotel where the curry was to be made next day. He remembered nothing of the drive, only dimly noticed the chefs and managers as they greeted him with low bows in the hotel lobby, smiling as he hurried by. In his room, he lay down on the bed and tried again in the helpful silence to reach the mocking phantom. He could not.

            Green remained in his room for the rest of the day and night and had still not emerged by the following morning. When an anxious manager knocked and said that the chefs were waiting to begin he told him that he needed further time to prepare his mind and body for the feast, and asked him to deliver a crate of bottled water. The manager bowed and left, explaining that he understood; his brother was a brahmin and the importance of meditative renewal could not be denied.

            The gourmet sank back onto the tortured sheets of his bed. The challenge of defining the thing within his brain was assuming the proportions of obsession. In all his life, such a failure had never happened to him before. Here was a dish, a simple plate, he sensed, of something that his entire arsenal of critical gastronomy could not even approach. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes against the sight of the spinning fan above the bed and set to once again.

            Now he extracted with aching care a series of flavours from his memory and attempted to measure the phantom. The notion that it was something he had never before encountered was incredible, but the elusive ghost responded to nothing. It was like attempting to describe an entirely new colour, not of our spectrum. If he could only elicit the beginning of a match, produce one faint echo… After many hours he was forced to abandon the application of primary flavours as useless.

            “This is absurd,” he muttered, startling the silence of his room. “To be beaten, evaded, outwitted indeed by a flavour. I who am master of all flavours.” A small part of his mind now begged him to desist, to leave Goa and the pomfret curry for another time, to forego the chase. He ignored the suggestion disdainfully and turned his attention to the compound flavours. First he despatched the basic mixes into the void where the phantom lurked, mixes that were easily separable, like a fine sauce whose individual ingredients can be detected in each mouthful upon the spectrograph of the tongue. Then, the combinations that result from a more molecular merging, as in the unity of a blended whisky. Nothing led him the least bit nearer to the answer, no echo yet returned from where the presence waited, hovering in the darkness, beyond the edge of his understanding.

            The days passed and he began to abandon altogether the tried and tested method of his science, but still he believed he would be able to explain the mystery if he could only taste the dish. Now he lunged at it wildly, or turned his back then spun round very fast and dived into the darkness, but the phantom was no nearer. He found himself imagining that if he ran, hard and fast, he must eventually capture it. He ran.

            So complete was Green’s concentration that he failed to notice the symptoms of starvation as they seeped slowly through his body where it lay in that foetid little room. His stomach started to ulcerate and his abdomen was knotted with pain, but he paid them no attention. His already lean body grew weaker and more emaciated, but he was racing deep, in the benighted tunnels of his soul, pursuing.

            He started to hear voices now: a thin high repetitious accent, intoning over and over again that this was the primal dish he was chasing, the first created union of two flavours. Then there was the other voice, low and soothing, murmuring that it was in fact the last and final meal, the ultimate congress of matter, the entrée of Armageddon. Both he felt, as he hurtled onward, were lies, and he dismissed them. I will catch you, he called, and look upon you, taste and savour you, and know your origin. You shall not defeat me.

            In another country, perhaps, he might have been saved; but the manager whose brother was a brahmin had determined that the great gourmet should not be disturbed until he wished to be. He too had read the diaries of de Corse and knew the value of the trance anticipatory. It was an accident therefore that led to the discovery of Green. A maid returning to work from a lengthy illness entered the room independently of the manager’s wishes. She unlocked the door then stepped back gagging into the corridor, clutching her apron to her mouth. Green had been dead for days, of homeostatic dehydration. His weakened fingers could not open the bottled water.

*          *          *

            Surges of emtion swept his body with the violence of nausea: fear of failure, hatred for the unseen food and need of it, terror that it might disappear as quickly as it had come, leaving him alone in the great universe, and finally, at first quietly, then building up from the deepest bass until the sound of it filled him utterly, an all-pervasive adoration of the meal that stood beyond human description, impervious to the remotest understanding of mankind.

            Let me see, he cried, let me know. I am not worthy, but I would know you. I am your prophet and your vessel. Teach me. I love you.

  1. I found this story in an anthology at a used book store years ago, misplaced it, but have never forgotten it. I was afraid I had lost it forever when I asked a librarian friend at the university where I work if she could help me locate it. She sent me this link an hour ago. Thank you James Chatto for writing this exquisite piece and thank you librarians everywhere for the wonders that you are.

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