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The Casket

wave on sea coast at sunset

The Dream Hunters, mentioned in my last post, is a novel about a society living on the edge of a desert. The desert contains the relics of a civilisation that was very advanced in technology, but perished a thousand years previously. The descendants of the few who survived are excavating the desert, both to find out what really happened, and to learn about such fundamental matters as telephones and motor cars. The chapter I chose to feature portrays their transition from a world of magic to a world of science.
To delve deeper into the nature of fantasy and magic, and their allure that continues to this day, it is worth distinguishing between two types of pleasures which I will call intrinsic and extrinsic. (Do not confuse them with extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, which are altogether different concepts.) Extrinsic pleasures are thought driven, and cover things like making money, preparing for a feast, or planning a new home. Much of the pleasure is anticipatory. If you get a buzz out of making money for its own sake you will probably have to keep doing it.
Against the extrinsic, intrinsic pleasures derive from the five senses and from relationships. They include nurturing or being nurtured, enjoying food, laughter, looking at pictures, or at scenes in nature. The thought component will be minimal, and at best secondary to sensory stimuli. The mind and body are relaxed, and actions are effortless.
One further kind of pleasure may be described. Here, the mind is passive and yet active, receptive and yet highly stimulated. This pleasure comes from the tale told around the campfire, or from music played, or some teaching that excites the mind with its possibilities. Thus we extend our boundaries of thought, and yet, while we are thinking we are largely absent from our bodies, and our senses. In stillness we are most receptive, and this is the allure of art, in particular the art of the story.
The following story involves two men who live solitary lives, together and yet apart, each wrapping the other in their own fantasy. The consequences of such a mismatch are seldom good.

The Casket

“As befits a commander of the navy,” the old man said with a chuckle. “Come, Stanton, look and learn.” The apprentice moved away from his workbench and stood beside the master craftsman. He studied the intricate patterning of wood and shell.
“Now that is marquetry as it should be! Those woods come from all over the world, Stanton; everywhere that Master Andersen went in his long career. And the shells, too. Oh yes, he was a great lover of shells. See, I’ve put in those little pieces of cowrie, here and here. So his name comes out clearly through the patterning: Jove.”
“Doesn’t he prefer Jo?”
“Jo? that would never do.”
Another thought struck the apprentice. “All this beautiful veneer going in the ground? What will happen to it?”
“Now what does that matter Stanton? Master Andersen will b e beyond caring, and nobody else will see. Look, funerals and burials are all about the occasion, the ceremony. Nothing else matters. What happens to the Casket? It can rot away for all I care. Everyone will have seen it, it will have been photographed many times, including for the newspapers, for the social media. Everyone will know about my work, our work, Stanton, when you’ve finished your apprenticeship … yes, I just want Master Andersen nice and snug underground.”
“It can’t be long, can it sir? Isn’t he coming up a hundred?”
“Yes, in two weeks. And guess what birthday present he’s getting from me?”
“There’ll be someone to pick them up, sir.”
What Jo Andersen remembered most was the eyes, the faces looking up, arms waving above heads, blood in the water.
“There’ll be someone coming to pick them up.”
Jo groaned and rolled over in bed. He thought about that memory that reached over so many decades. Eyes still looking into his own, arms still waving, although their owners were long dead. He had been ordered to continue pursuit of the enemy.
“Leave the survivors for somebody else, Captain Andersen. They are not our survivors.”
Jo had made a pact with those eyes, those arms: One day I will join you. I will go down into the deep. I will find you. I will explain.” Because few indeed were finally dragged from the water.
Jo had outlived two wives. The first had romanticised him, mistaking his moodiness, when on shore, for deep wisdom. The second had outraged him by not being like the first, not being compliant to his needs, and driving him to keep his naval career going longer than he had intended. Then when at last he was with her full time she was sick and dying. They made a kind of reconciliation.
Now there were five children and eight grandchildren, and Jo was, rather unwillingly, being dragged into the spotlight.

“You must wear your commander’s uniform.”
“Captain, not commander. I rose to be captain.”
His pension enabled him to keep a full time servant, who came in now to help him dress. He examined himself in the big hall mirror.
“It still fits me, you see. Well, I’m perhaps a little gaunt.”
“You’re a fine figure of a man, sir. Not like my old father. He was shockingly bent by the time he reached his ninetieth birthday.”
Jo turned and checked himself side on. He brushed down his lapels.
“I suppose they’ve got half the village out to see me.”
“They’ve done you proud, sir.”
“I’ve tried to know as little about it as possible.”
Jo followed his servant/chauffeur to the car, taking little steps since his knees were after all (and in spite of his fine figure) just a little bit delicate. When the car drew up at the big hall Ivor came hurrying out to meet him.
“Welcome commander, welcome!”
“The rank is captain, Dee. I rose to be a captain.”
“Oh, my apologies. Here, let me help you in.”
They made a strange couple: Ivor Dee, shorter, and slightly bent, looked more like the one who was being helped. A band struck up as they entered. The centenarian sat at one of the many trestle tables, while children and grandchildren rallied round. A queue of people formed, but were shooed away.
“Give him space, let him eat.’
Jo felt suddenly anxious. It would be just like that fool woodworker to do something silly. The old image had flashed into his mind that very morning: arms reaching out above the waves, eyes filled with fear.
“We all know what we are celebrating,” said Ivor Dee. “It’s the well-deserved long life our heroic Naval Commander here has enjoyed. He went out and put his life on the line, fearlessly, in order to keep us all free. No doubt later this evening he will regale us with stories of his wonderful life.”
Jo gave a snort, and turned it into a throat clearing exercise. The wood chipper probably wants a share in my will, he thought.
“The commander has said that he does not want any gifts. Well, sorry commander, captain, I do have a gift.” Ivor paused, while Jo glared at him. Ivor was wearing an expression that was close to being a self-satisfied smirk. “My gift is not for that last year or two of his life. Rather, it is for all eternity.”
With the air of a conjuror Ivor pulled away the cloth covering the trestle table where Jo sat, and two of the grandchildren ran forward to remove the table itself. Now revealed, the highly polished coffin appeared to glow with its own light. Everyone in the hall crowded round, but Jo did not move. He sat completely motionless, neither seeing nor avoiding what was in front of him.
“It’s beautiful, Mr Andersen. It’s beautiful,” said a voice close by. Jo at last stirred, and stood up.
“I am not going in that stifling little piece of ground, and I am not going in that suffocating little box,” said Jo. He turned on his heel and marched to the door. The people in the hall divided, most continuing to admire the coffin, while others followed Jo. They didn’t have far to go, because Jo returned almost immediately with an axe in his hand. He was deathly pale. For a moment there was absolute silence in the hall, and then Ivor gave a horrified cry and rushed forward. Jo was too quick. He raised the axe and struck into the centre of the coffin with all his strength. Ivor howled as if he himself had been hit, and a moment later he was. A flying chip lodged in his eye. Now the crowd were once more dividing; those who were scattering and those who were warily advancing, with a small group gathered around Ivor.
Jo’s arms were grabbed, but he was already collapsing.
He died in hospital two days later.
Ivor lost the use of his left eye, after which he found he could no longer do the work he loved so much. He did not consider Stanton was ready to take over the workshop, but there was no-one else. He approached Jo’s oldest daughter and offered a free casket ‘not quite as nice as the one your father destroyed’, but she declined.
“It’s very kind of you, but it seems my father did not approve of your wares.”
Jenny had her own problem with her dad. He had left instructions that he was to be buried at sea, but had not provided the money for such a venture. The navy were not helpful, but were willing to provide the service for a burial on land. So Jenny compromised. She had her father put in the cheapest box she could buy, and cremated. After the naval ceremony she hired a little boat, and along with the children, grandchildren and a few close friends, they sailed a little way out from shore, and all took turns scattering Jo’s ashes into the sea. Ivor did not accompany them, but he did make a plaque out of bits of the old coffin, to be hung up in the hall.

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