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Sojourn in Mantua (draft two)

by Adam 

Posted: 04 August 2003
Word Count: 3926
Summary: This is the latest draft of the story, and has transformed completely; not only the title (formerly 'The Lost Weekend') but also the content. I have been very busy lately, but have finally managed to finish the work. Please read and offer any constructive criticism that you may have. Also, feel free to read a little of it, and leave any comments on what you have read. Cheers, x

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This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

Sojourn in Mantua
by Adam Quayle

Part One

How first I enter’d it I scarce can say,
Such sleepy dulness in that instant weigh’d
My senses down, when the true path I left;
But when a mountain’s foot I reach’d, where closed
The valley that had pierced my heart with dread,
I look’d aloft and saw his shoulders broad
Already vested with that planet’s beam,
Who leads all wanderers safe through every way.

Dante, The Vision of Dante, Hell, Canto I


O! then, I see, Queen Mab hath been with you.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio, I.iv

Bleak mid-winter. The wind blew on the nothing new. The vast expanse of landscape shared in the barren nothingness, sprawling out in front of him in shades of grey; a mist enveloping the valley. The blank page stared up at him, accusingly. White. He could not find the word. The word to obliterate all words, leaving nothing to be said. It was trapped in the labyrinth of his head.

I awoke, with a startle. This dream, something of a recurrent one, had plagued the night many times before; an incubus, or rather succubus, which preys on deep-set fears, latching on to them, and magnifying each minute detail with inexorable cruelty. My room remained the same as the night before, and the day before that: an overflowing bin crammed with crisp packets, chocolate wrappers, beer cans, cigarette boxes, empty envelopes; all debris. I scraped the stubble from my face with a blunt blade, splashed myself with cold water, and fingered the lines forming under my eyes. I stared at my reflection for a moment, the familiar stranger staring back at me, and contemplated the dull eyes and listless expression. Another day.

I stepped outside to a grey sky. Eight o’clock, or near enough. I walked the usual ten-minute journey to the train station, alone and lost in thought. I felt, as I often do, somewhat outside of myself. I looked around me, at the decaying houses and cancerous faces. I saw a cat as it rummaged through an open bin brimming with rotting food. It was a mangy, black cat, no doubt flea-ridden and half-starving. It repulsed me, and I had an overwhelming desire to kick it down the street. I then looked above me, at the empty sky and residual sun, and below me I followed my shadow as it crawled along the pavement in its monotone palette. It was just another day; another day to lose myself in my vast cell, a dirty room with a view of a greyscale landscape. I felt sick, nauseous to the core.

I took out a cigarette – my final, lucky cigarette – as I waited for my train. You see, smoking momentarily alleviates the tedium and boredom of time unspent. The train arrived. When I stepped on, it wasn’t the usual faces. There were grandparents, mothers, fathers, children, teenagers; not the usual crowd for a Monday morning. I glanced at my watch. It was Saturday.

Swept by confusion, I decided to stay on the train, to wait and see where it would take me. The thought of somewhere new appealed to me; I craved seclusion. I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew me, my name, or the minutiae of personality attached to that name. I wanted to abandon my identity, to assume an entirely new persona, however briefly.


Go hence; good night; and here stands all your state:
Either be gone before the watch be set,
Or by the break of day disguised from hence:
Sojourn in Mantua.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Friar Lawrence, II.iii

I have always had a certain fondness for trains. I looked around me at the blank faces, as they stared aimlessly ahead. There were old faces crumpled with the lines of time, young faces rosy-cheeked and eager, and middle-aged faces indiscernible and tired. All types, all grotesques of one kind or another. It has always amazed me how you can share a fragment of time with complete strangers, playing a part in the tragic comedy of their lives. Maybe only an hour, or two, or even three; but still, a minor role. I looked out of the window. As we pulled out from the city, the ash-grey buildings and the black asphalt roads gave way to an entirely new landscape. The river flowed through acres of green; an occasional factory, junkyard or rural farm rising and falling from the fields and meadows as we slowly made our way south.

It was nearly ten-thirty when I arrived. The name, in four-foot lettering, was unfamiliar to me: Mantua. I relished those three syllables for a moment, letting them roll from the tongue, and stepped out onto the platform. The weather was no better here; if anything, it was a deeper shade of grey, as if an iron fist tightly clenched the sky above. There was an electricity in the air, the kind you get just before a storm. When I looked around me, I realised I was the only one to get off the train and that, in fact, I was the only soul in the station. I assumed this must be one of those unmanned rural stations; virtually abandoned and dead to the waking world.

As I stepped out of the station, there was a man hunched up and hugging his knees. His face was dirty, his clothes shabby and his shoes virtually falling apart. I could tell he was bald, but wearing a tatty trilby. One eye was closed up, sewn together so that his face was in a permanent contortion, fixed with a permanent wink. Another grotesque. I looked at what he had scrawled on the pavement, two poems; or rather, two haikus. The first was called ‘Solitude’:

A brief moment
Of silence, of stillness,
Amid the tumult of sound.

The second, ‘Erato’ was to its right:

Expectant lover,
Waiting by a stream,
Talks of unbegotten dreams.

He suddenly spoke to me, asking me for change. I rummaged through my pockets, but only found scraps of paper, a lighter and a dirty handkerchief. I apologised and tried to get away. ‘Have mercy on me’, he cried out. I could hear my footstep as it echoed down the cobbled streets. I wanted to get away as I fast as I could, but it was as if time had been stopped. It was nearly noon.

Part Two

Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans,
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e’en I wept at entering. Various tongues,
Horrible languages, outcries of woe,
Accents of anger, voices deep and hoarse,
With hands together smote that swell’d the sounds,
Made up a tumult, that for ever whirls
Round through that air with solid darkness stain’d,
Like to the sand that in the whirlwind flies.

Dante, The Vision of Dante, Hell, Canto III


Tut! I have lost myself; I am not here;
This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Romeo, I.i

‘Tis no less, I tell you; for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio, II.iv

I stopped at an old cathedral, a large imposing Gothic building, impressive in its sheer scale, with a dark ornate spiral on which a clock nearly read twelve. Noon and midnight have a certain resonance that goes far beyond their numerical value: twelve is only a number, but when twinned with the significance of time, it takes on an added quality; the heightened resonance of association. Preconceptions shape our every judgement, our every choice, and we can never escape them. I wanted to.

I wanted to abandon everything with which I had been conditioned, both nature and nurture. I wanted to recreate my essence, to reform my beliefs, to forget the unforgettable. I wanted to see the world in an entirely new way. But it was impossible, futile. But I wanted to fight against the dying of the light. As an actor alone on a dimlit stage, I craved the epilogue, the final soliloquy to atonement, a last chance to redeem myself for my sins, to resolve within myself the irreconcilable and inconsolable. The ultimate apology from a deathbed desperation.

On the stroke of noon, a blinding light momentarily surged through the black clouds, a flash parting the darkened skies. I heard the rumble of an engine behind me. Turning round, I saw a bus emblazoned in red with its company logo, Erebus. I smiled, recollecting Greek myths my mother had told me as a young boy.

Stepping on to the bus, I read the signs prohibiting this and that, advertising a new bus pass into the city, asking you to not talk to the driver. I paid my money and took a seat. A poster read: “This bus passes through the city of Loe and directly to the Terminus station”. It suddenly struck me I had no idea where I was heading; I had got on to the bus in a daydream, oblivious to the whys and wherefores. I was suddenly filled again with that feeling of exhilaration and excitement, a sensation that shuddered through my body. As we drove away from the cathedral, I saw a figure in a hat from the corner of my eye.


There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Romeo, III.iii

I decided to get out at Loe. I was tired of travelling, and thought this was as good a place as any to wander. I walked down the street towards what looked like the city centre. It was a dark, dismal place, a glorified shanty town, where blank faces peered from grey concrete walls. I could hear the general hum of people whiling away the hours, then suddenly a scream. There was something of the apocalyptic about it – I expected those nihilist horses to turn the corner at any moment, and start galloping towards me. I picked up the pace a little. I saw a group of beggars huddled around a large can, flames of fire licking the sides. It was an urban wilderness, a savage, cruel place; the decaying remnants of civilisation.

Finding a café down an alleyway, I decided to eat and take rest. It was a small, provincial establishment most probably run by a husband and wife partnership. He came to serve me. A stern man, somewhat receding, with a well-trimmed moustache that broke up his face and gave it definition. I ordered a ham sandwich, a bottle of beer and a packet of Lucky Strikes. When he had gone back into the kitchen, I reflected on how I had got here. It was so out of character, and yet filled me with a sense of freedom and elation. Yet, at the same time, I had a peculiar sense of foreboding, a feeling that I was being watched.

I was famished by the time my food arrived. A simple ham sandwich; how hard can it be? Did they have to kill the pig? Anyway, relieved by the sustenance, I lit a cigarette and finished my beer. It had started raining outside, the heavens opening as if Noah had missed the boat. I decided to stay in the café, for the time being at least, so I ordered a bottle of wine (I felt like getting drunk for no apparent reason, having been caught in the whirlwind of my sojourn). The clock on the wall read ten minutes past three, so I settled down to an afternoon of insobriety. He opened the wine with a short, sharp twist and a loud popping. He poured a little into my glass. I have never had much idea about wines, but it was red and wet, so satisfied my requirements.

Some time later, a way into my inebriation, whilst chatting to the barman (whose better-half was the culinary wizard), I noticed a redhead enter the bar. She sat down, took off her wet coat and caught my new friend’s eye. It was late in the afternoon, and I was quite a way into my second bottle. Alone, I began doodling on my beer mat. A figure began to emerge, then a face and a hat.

‘T’as un feu?’

Startled from my idle drawing, I mumbled, ‘sorry?’ The words suddenly sank in. I had seen her, not ten minutes before, lighting a cigarette with her own matches.

‘Pour ton nom’.

‘Angelique, ou Angie’.


I handed her the lighter, our fingers briefly brushing against one another.


‘De rien’.

After this brief exchange, her cigarette lit, she sat down and I asked the husband for a second glass. By the time he returned, we had decided to have dinner, and asked for a menu. I stopped for a moment. I was going to have dinner with a complete stranger, a redhead I had never met before. Another chapter in this increasingly surreal episode.

We talked until the early hours, fuelled by red wine and a sense of connection. Finally, we decided to leave and I invited her back to the room I had arranged to rent from the barman (a small apartment with a somewhat minimalistic feel – bed, desk, broken mirror). We stumbled up steep narrow steps and into the room, drunk on the night’s revelries, and poured ourselves another nightcap. We continued our conversations about the public and private Hamlet, about Dylan’s bittersweet love and rasping voice, about Sartre’s view of life and humanity, and about Dante’s dark vision. Then we fucked.

Part Three

When thus my lady: “Give thy wish free vent,
That it may issue, bearing true report
Of the mind’s impress: not that aught thy words
May to our knowledge add, but to the end
That thou mayst use thyself to own thy thirst,
And men may mingle for thee when they hear.”

Dante, The Vision of Dante, Paradise, Canto XVII


Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Juliet, III.v

In the morning, I awoke around dawn. My head was thumping in time with my heart. She was lying next to me, her hair splayed across the pillow, a storm of red hair. She was still asleep; her chest slowly rose and fell. I watched her. She was calm; her lithe body the very picture of tranquillity and serenity. She was so beautiful. I couldn’t stop staring, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Eventually, I decided to take a walk to get some fresh air. I stood, somewhat hesitantly at first, and felt the blood rush to my head. My eyes saw red and a momentary dizziness came over me. I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to nurse a hangover for the next few hours. It was a damage limitation situation.

As I stepped onto the empty street, the harsh bright light of the incipient sun dazzled my eyes and, as I tried to shade the unwelcome daylight with my hand, I caught a glimpse of that mysterious figure in the hat. His presence was beginning to alarm me: I wanted to know who he was and why he was following me. When I looked up again, he was gone. Still bemused, I found a small bakery, just opened, and bought two croissants, two pains aux raisins and a bottle of orange juice. I wanted to impress the beautiful redhead.

The fresh air and prospect of food had revived my spirit and, as I opened the door to the hovel, I looked around but could not see her. All I saw was a piece of paper with what looked like a message scribbled on it. I picked up the paper with a mix of confusion and apprehension. I read the letter once, but only managed to further compound my confusion, so re-read the note.

‘I have gone out, mon chèri, for a walk to recover. You will find me on the mountain just outside Loe. Take the path to the left at the foot of the mountain and follow it up to the top. See you soon x’

The words relieved my disappointment and I was pleased that I would spend the day with her after all. I decided to eat breakfast, and to set off on a full stomach.

Picking up the final few crumbs, I gathered the two remaining patisseries and wrapped them in the paper bag, not forgetting the orange juice. I closed the door behind me, and began to descend the steep stairs. It was only eight o’clock, and I smiled with contentment and happiness at the thought of the day that lay ahead of me. What a difference a day makes.


Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing! of nothing first create.
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Romeo, I.i

I soon arrived at the foot of the mountain and took the path to the left. It meandered up through the face of the mountain, its stony soil a contrast to the lush green on either side. I continued upwards, slowly snaking up the slope towards the jagged peak now in sight. An immense pang of fear returned, a sense that I was once again being watched, as well as a new sensation: déjà-vu.

When I reached the summit, I knew why. A vast expanse of landscape sprawled out in front of me in shades of green. It looked different in this light, the valley flooded with colour, but was still recognisable. It was the view from my dream. I stood amazed for a moment, aware of each deep intake of breath, and listened to the tattoo of my heartbeat. I couldn’t quite believe it, couldn’t quite take it in.

On the very edge of the cliff, the very precipice that plummeted to the valley below, there she stood, a silhouette in the morning light. I approached her as if in a dream, no words of greeting, and slowly said, ‘What is this place?’

As she turned, a wave of fear swept over me again. I couldn’t quite pinpoint this feeling, let alone describe it, and took a step back when she faced me.

‘This is where I come sometimes, to take myself out of it, to watch the pageantry below, the little lives whiling away time. It makes me smile’.

I suddenly understood why she had brought me here, to a place instilled with so much meaning for her, where she could watch the people come and go from this height. I returned her smile. I sat down next to her and we sat there together in silence, enjoying the moment of wordless communion.


O! I am Fortune’s fool.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Romeo, III.i

Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Romeo, I.i

I woke up, somewhat drowsily, having drifted off in the gentle warmth of the sunlight. I looked about, but she was gone; no note this time. I stood up and looked around, scanning the mountainside and valley in vain. She was gone. I slumped back down to the ground, resigned to her absence and deciding that the best plan would be to sit and wait for her to return.

I took in her landscape of green, the little dots of life and the blue horizon beyond the sandy shore that defined sea and sky. I imagined myself sitting on that beach, looking out at the sea and up at the sky, time and space spread out in front of me. Words, fragments of phrases, began to take shape in my head, and I found myself scribbling them down on a scrap of paper. Each word seemed to have its own autonomous resonance, none superfluous, and I soon realised it was a sonnet that I was writing.

Here I am, alone, sitting on a beach
With a view of the sea spread out across
The sky, an infinite sadness and loss
In melancholic blues beyond my reach.
I am sinking, insidiously, down
Into the depths of the void, the sad sea
Unforgiving and cruel as it takes me
Into the whirlpool; no wave as I drown.
Here I am, alone, waiting on a beach
For faceless time to cease the ageless gong,
For answers to questions beyond my reach.
I wait, and wait, but sad hours seem long.
And on the cliff edge, people come and go,
Watching the waves from the rocky plateau.

By the time I had finished, it must have been about noon. I slowly wrote three words at the top of the poem: ‘Sojourn in Mantua’. I could hear her approaching behind me, her footstep crunching along the pathway. I stood up to greet her, but when I turned around, it was him, the tramp. I froze, looking directly at his solitary eye, his contorted face and malevolent grin. I was transfixed by this grotesque. He had me trapped in his gaze, frozen with fear, unable to look away from his sadistic glare. I could hardly breathe. From nowhere, I felt a sharp jab in the chest and, stumbling backwards, I felt him strike me a second time, throwing me off the cliff edge.

I could taste the air as I plummeted through the sky, as it rushed by me, pulling at my face and eyes. The ground beneath began to rise and everything was suddenly flooded in a pool of red.

Part Four

As a man that dreams of harm
Befallen him, dreaming wishes it a dream,
And that which is, desires as if it were not.

Dante, The Vision of Dante, Hell, Canto XXX


True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio, I.iv

From where I lay, I looked up at a sky of deepest summer blue. The sun shone, enveloping me in its warm caress, as the cherry blossom blew in the wind. I could smell spring, the ripe freshness of fallen rain. I smiled. But, I suddenly realised I was momentarily paralysed by a sense of inertia. I recalled everything that had happened to me in a stream of words and images. A cold chill seized me, shuddering through my supine body.

I gradually sat up a little, and looked beyond my skylight. My room was somehow different, somehow changed. I lay in my bed for a while. I felt refreshed, utterly transformed. I was happy. I felt like a phoenix, rising from the ashes. All hope had been abandoned, but from that wasteland, I rose. I suddenly realised I had been living for years in darkness when the light of creation, the light of passion, the light of life, flooded in through my whole being; pervading every fibre of my mind, body and soul.

I experienced an entirely new sensation, a post-coital, post-orgasmic spasm. For the first time, I felt absolutely, unconditionally free. I felt alive; the first person can never die. The sun continued to pour in through the gap in the curtains, as the cherry blossom carelessly floated through the window. I smiled.

It was a beautiful day.


We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Shakespeare, The Tempest, Prospero, IV.i

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Comments by other Members

Adam at 19:17 on 04 August 2003  Report this post
I'm sorry about the lay out - I cut and paste from Word. If you'd prefer it in that format, I can e-mail you a copy.


Adam x

Becca at 05:16 on 05 August 2003  Report this post
Hi Adam, I can see how this version is more polished than the first one. I'm out of my depth about the introduction of the poetry, I could not tell you if it gave it gravitas or atmosphere, I'll leave that to someone else. I'd be concerned about whether it broke up the flow of the story, becase the poetry sections are quite long sometimes.
I still sensed that slightly mesmeric quality about your writing, that did keep me reading, as if behind everything there was some disquiet. I tried to work out how you got that particular tone and decided it was something to do with the shortness of the sentences and the simply written observations.
But I found the two 'jokes' took me away from that dream like sense, 'A simple ham sandwich...' and 'What a difference a day makes.'
What I did very much like was realising early on that we were not in England, and I've no idea how I got that before the restaurant scene, but it's there somehow. But at the end, I guess it's all a dream? I couldn't, though, get a grasp on your main character, except that he was a sort of desolate man,.. how did he get from being depressed to being unconditionally alive, I wondered. Perhaps there's something in the poetry I haven't picked up on.

Nell at 08:22 on 05 August 2003  Report this post
Hi Adam,

It's early still, but having come to your story directly from Ralph's I feel especially happy to have read two beautifully written pieces already. All this and Shakespeare and Dante too.

Oddly, for all the desolation of the narrator, especially at the beginning of the piece, I found this was not depressing in any way, but rather mesmerising and strangely beautiful, and I have to admit to a weakness for beauty. Perhaps this was the effect of the poetry, I'm not at all sure, but I enjoyed the way you've interspersed verse throughout the text, and suspect that small tastes of the classics are perhaps more delicious than huge platefuls.

Dreams are powerful things - some affect me for hours afterwards - one does feel changed - and I can easily understand and empathise with your narrator.

I enjoyed this very much and look forward to more. It's wonderful how many excellent writers there are on this site.

Best, Nell.

stephanieE at 11:17 on 05 August 2003  Report this post
Adam - an interesting tale, and one that was beautifully told.

I have to say that I skipped over the Shakespeare and Dante sections, as I was interested in the story itself. I wonder about those... they're obviously key to the story's inspiration, and I can see that in some sense they explain what's going on, but I find them too distracting personally (particularly when you're constrained by the limits of a fixed format page, I guess).

Some neat characterisations, and some lovely prose, but just one thing jarred for me: when he 'got on' the bus - I don't know, I have a thing about the word got; I go out of my way to avoid using it because I think it sounds ugly. Anyway, it seemed out of place in otherwise elegant sentences. THe other thing about that section is the fact that he has money for the fare, despite not being able to find anything for the tramp earlier... perhaps that's just me being picky.

Good stuff, though, and good luck with it.

Hilary Custance at 21:32 on 06 August 2003  Report this post
Hi Adam, I missed Mantua 1, so this relates to this draft only. I read this straight through and agree that it has a mesmerising quality. I am a sucker for poetry, especially the stuff you have picked. For me this is a story about the way poetry inhabits your mind and creates it's own reality there, so that the rest of life is seen through this glass. It pulled in all sorts of literature from Milton to the tales of King Arthur in a pleasing dreamlike way. Since you are using this language, even when in the story itself, the sentence 'Then we fucked.' hit a jarring note. It takes you out of the dream scenario into one in which brutality rather than strangeness or wonder is implied. If you had been using more everyday language it might have fitted more comfortably, but here it didn't work for me. I particularly liked the paras about your arrival in Mantua and the stopping at the old cathedral. Cheers, Hilary

Adam at 09:54 on 07 August 2003  Report this post
Thanks everyone! I really appreciate all your excellent feedback!

Becca: I think I'm going to leave out the quotations in the next draft.


They certainly break the flow, and I'm also a little worried they give an affected gravitas, an attempt at an "intelligence" which is far closer to pretension. I've just finished an English degree and so still clutch at my idols in hope of some inspirational effect. I think I'll limit myself to just one quotation at the start (perhaps Dante's Beatrice one at start of Part 3, or the actual 'Sojourn in Mantua' one). I agree with your opinion of the 'jokes' - I was trying to make the character a little more human and real, but they jar with everything else.
As to the protagonist's metamorphosis, I was struggling to create a believable change, and why, within the limitations of a short story. I suppose I was hoping to convey it through the purgatorial aspect of dreams as well as the allusions to Dante. But, I still think I need to make the change more tangible and real - any suggestions?

Nell: Thank you for the encouraging words. Please read the new draft (I'll finish it asap...) and tell me whether you prefer it, or think it has lost something - I'm thinking of cutting out (or down) the literary references, amongst other changes.

Stephanie: I think you're right about the Shakespeare and Dante - I NEED TO STICK TO THE JOB IN HAND, WITHOUT "HELP"! I think it detracts from, rather than adds to, the story itself.I'll have a look about 'getting on' to the bus... Also, thank you SO much for pointing out the sudden appearance of money - I hadn't realised! Might keep it in (hint at dream, etc), or might make him decide to not give the tramp anything... What do you think?

Hilary: Thank you for your kind comments. As to 'Then we fucked', I was trying to create a human and physical reality which does jar with the poetical and metaphysical aspects of the story. I wanted to make the character more believable, even possibly likeable, as well as parodying my self-indulgence for language (if you look at the sentence before, it needs a big prick to deflate the pretension of it all). Also, I don't know how to write a sex scene without entering into Mills and Boon...

Anyway, thank you all so much for your encouragement and constructive criticism. I'll get the next draft out asap... Please continue to read and offer your views!



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