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  • “Et dès lors, je me suis baigné dans le Poème
    De la Mer, infusé d'astres, et lactescent,
    Dévorant les azurs verts ; où, flottaison blême
    Et ravie, un noyé pensif parfois descend”
    – Arthur Rimbaud

    It was a time of many Jims. So many Jims, in fact, that for the sake of conversation it became necessary to create sobriquets for them. This particular Jim had something of the Pterodactyl about him and so became, unknowingly, Bony Jim.

    Bony Jim was in his fifties and ran a small poetry press from an antiquarian book shop in a seaside town in Kent. I used to hang around there quite a lot, drawn by the mugs of strong, muddy coffee and Jim’s unique perspective on writers and writing.

    One day I was hunting for a teaspoon in the drawer of his cabinet when I came across an unusual utensil. At first I thought it was one of those trowel like implements with which people slice and serve cake, but it was too small and had a pattern of holes across it that would have rendered it impractical for such a use.

    “The very fact that you have to ask,” said Bony Jim, “tells me that you have never attended an absinthe party.”

    He was right and, my interest piqued, we sat down with our coffee while he told me this story.

    “I once knew a young man whose parents died when he was a child, leaving him a sizeable sum of money. As an adult he became a connoisseur of erotica and I was able to procure for him a number of rare editions and prints. Out of gratitude he invited me to an absinthe party that he was hosting.

    The young man had invited, beside myself, ten other absintheurs and as I walked into the dining room I saw that they were already sitting in groups around absinthe fountains. “Please,” he said, “take a seat. You are the last to arrive.” As he spoke he gestured towards an empty place opposite him.

    As you have never seen an absinthe spoon before, I can only assume that you have also never encountered an absinthe fountain?” Jim asked.

    “When I was in Prague we dipped sugar cubes into the absinthe and set fire to them” I said.

    “An abomination” Jim declared, his mouth twisted in an exaggerated expression of distaste. “I am afraid that the only way to drink absinthe is to very slowly dribble iced water from an absinthe fountain onto a sugar cube that is itself balanced on just such a spoon as you are holding now. The iced water passes through the sugar and from there into the drink in a process called ‘louching’.

    Well, on this particular evening the young man had spared no expense and we sampled a range of absinthes from various regions of France and Switzerland. He introduced each one to us if it were a fine wine, explaining its origin and history and encouraging us to appreciate the complexity of the scents and flavours.

    Finally it was time for the piece de resistance and he held up for our examination a filthy, unevenly shaped green bottle, the label peeling and spotted with mould.

    “Ladies and gentleman,” he said reverently, “during the second world war a bomb fell onto a shop in Rue Saint-Jacques, Paris. As well as destroying the shop and the family who lived above it, the bomb uncovered a wine cellar that had been bricked up and built over many years previously. The cellar held little to interest the serious wine cognoscente but it did contain twelve bottles like this one. Seven were broken or open. The other four are all in museums.

    This is an absinthe unlike any of the others that you have tasted this evening. It is an unopened, one litre bottle of Pernod Fils, believed to have been distilled and bottled in the original Pontarlier factory sometime between 1850 and 1870. 1871 was, of course, the year that Rimbaud arrived in Paris to commence his affair with Verlaine. As if that were not enough to make it extraordinary, the cellar where it was found was within spitting distance of the original location of L’Academie, Rimbaud and Verlaine’s favourite café.”

    He cracked open the wax seal, pulled the cork and poured everyone a large dose. I was surprised to see that it was not as green as the earlier drinks and instead had a rich amber hue. As it was louched verdigris vapours began to burgeon and writhe in the liquid like lascivious spectres.

    Despite the large number of doses we had already consumed, up until that point in the evening I was feeling quite calm and lucid. After a couple of glasses of the Rimbaud absinthe, however, reality started to become rather messy. Colours and sounds melted together and dribbled across the field of my senses, leaving oboe trails and rainbow adagios in their wake. Enormous butterfly shadows jerked across the walls and were swallowed by larger shadows like rats by a python. Intense electric shocks pulsed through my bones and I felt my flesh melting, composing itself into some new form.

    At one point I came out of a reverie and noticed that our host had sat himself to my left and was staring at me, his eyes shockingly green and licking at the air between us like flames. He smiled and something tugged urgently at my groin. I leaned forward and kissed him.

    He jerked away and looked at me for a moment in horror. Then a smile slowly spread across his mouth and he started to laugh. It was an unpleasant sound, heavy with cruelty and power. One by one the other guests joined him and the laughter mingled with the heady scent of the absinthe, each amplifying the other until I felt as if I was drowning. Gasping and shaking, I stumbled from the room.

    I floundered down the corridor in the direction that I remembered the front door being in, but the house seemed to have expanded to a monstrous size. In desperation I threw open door after door until eventually I came across a room completely empty except for a crucified monkey.

    It was a small, male chimpanzee nailed to a tall wooden cross. I could hardly believe what I was seeing and wondered if this was some new absinthe hallucination. Moving slowly closer, I reached out a hand to touch his chest.

    Suddenly, his dark eyelids cracked open revealing eyes that were as amber as the absinthe. The terror that gripped me in that moment was unlike anything I have ever felt. It was the terror of a mortal man coming face to face with a god. Or perhaps a devil. I trust that you will not be too shocked when I tell you that I quite literally shit myself.

    And it seemed that in the depths of his eyes I saw the whole history of the human race spread before me like a carpet in a Moroccan souk. And the history of the race was also my own history. I have done some terrible things in my time, Chris. I saw them all then in his eyes, I re-lived them. The hypocrisy, the lies, the betrayal. Cowardice and violence. And the poetry, the poetry and horror of it all. Tears spilled from my eyes and streamed from the tip of my chin. Eventually I could stand it no more and collapsed, sobbing and begging for forgiveness.

    I’m not sure how long I spent there on my knees before him. It felt like days but must have been more like hours. At some point I must have started to sober up and when I looked at the creature that I was prostrated before I saw that it was, in fact, an extremely realistic sculpture.

    I stood, found my way out of the house and drove home. A few weeks later I left my wife and started the press.”
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