Thursday, July 14, 2011


Graveyards are like a book of fairy tales. Each story is book marked with a gravestone that hints at a story that begins with ‘Once upon a time....’ and in the end they all died, one way or the other, ever after

Alex tossed one way and turned the other in his sleep. Entangled between his restless legs, the blanket slid off his torso and fell to the floor to reveal rippling muscles that reached out from his waist, lean and sinuous, and then fanned out along the wide breadth of his back and shoulders... like a family of pythons slithering up the trunk of a tree and then spreading along its branches. He had made a pillow of his arms, and his head rested on those corded cables of steel. For a man of such strength, he looked surprisingly vulnerable in his sleep. As you drew away from him, you could see that he wasn’t a big man. In the dim light of the lamp by his bed you could now see the angry scars of old wounds from not too long ago running along his hands and his sculpted chest. There were beads of perspiration gathering on his forehead like the drops of dew gathering on the leaves outside his window. It was going to be a very important day for Alex when he wakes up but for now he was far away... Dreaming of a day from some years ago... It was the first great war, but it seemed so long ago...Alex was frowning. It was a dream he was trying to push away... But it wouldn’t go... that day, smoke and clouds and a reluctant sun made it seem like it was still dark as night. He couldn’t tell if it was thunder or machine gun fire.

While rain and German bullets kicked up the mud and wet grass around him, Alex pulled out his sabre and egged his horse on towards the enemy’s flank. He didn’t know if he would live to see the sun shine today or his home in the Polish countryside. His Cossack comrades had left him for another world, to live or die alone...

A bullet whistled past his left arm and another seemed to ram into his left thigh. But he didn’t feel the pain... Perhaps it was the saddle, maybe it was the adrenaline... He didn’t feel a thing. He just dug his heels into the horse... Blinded by the fog and the smoke he turned his horse towards the woods. But the horse wouldn’t run.... Alex turned to see clumps of grass and mud dancing up and down close behind him where the bullets kicked into the earth. He kicked his heels hard into the bay stallion’s flanks but the horse just buckled to ground. Alex realised it was the horse that was hit and he jumped clear.

He could run now. He had lost his comrades and now his horse was hit. He couldn’t fight. He’d escape. But his horse... If he left his horse behind, the Germans would cut up his one companion who carried him through this great war, and feed him to their dogs. He was alone now and he couldn’t bear to be any lonelier.

Astonishing his own self, Alex hauled up the horse by its broad neck and pulled him into the thicket, away from where the bullets were flying.

Between the trees, with his head on his horse, the exhausted soldier lay, aware of the footsteps that marched his way. He wished he could pick up his steed and run but for once that great vigour was spent. He lay there hoping that those who marched were friends not foe as he drift ed into a dream within a dream.

He woke up in a prison cell next morning. The Germans had got them. His horse was lying butchered in the trough where the German war dogs were fed and he was lying chained to the walls of his prison.

They told him he had fought like a mad man when they caught him. They had to bind him in chains. He saw his own body, one that he had forged at the anvil of his will into a work of art and strength unmatched amongst his peers, as it lay torn, twisted and shackled.

As days, weeks and months went by and his body healed, he taught his mind to believe that chains couldn’t hold him. He was tortured and told he’d never get out but he didn’t believe them. Every day, with all the might left in his 5ft 5in frame, Alex pulled against the chains. He pulled and pulled with every muscle and tendon in his body straining against the shackles and guards would look at him and laugh. ‘War horses can’t break those links and he’s only a little man... He must’ve gone mad with grief because we fed his horse to our dogs’ they’d laugh and Alex would only pull harder.

Then one morning when the guards changed positions, the new ones went to Alex’s cell to see the mad man pull some more, only to run back screaming ‘the mad one’s gone..!!’ The chains hung from the walls in shame, twisted and broken, like the man once was who they once held. And the bars of the cell too had given way to the might of the little man who had bent them apart. One of the bars was missing... They found it later outside the prison walls. Alex had twisted it into a hook to scale the walls.

It was a gloomy day like the day he’d been captured but today was different. He had always been strong but had never been stronger... Perhaps today he was stronger than any man had ever been. They won’t get him today. He ran... through lanes and fields to the river... He heard footsteps echoing behind him in the narrow cobbled streets... It was cold.... He ran towards the river. The current was strong. He jumped... The water... It was very cold... The current was very strong....

Alex woke with a start. The dream... It always ended with him in the water. And no they didn’t get him in the end. He had escaped to Paris where he joined a troupe of performers as a strong man. He bent bars, carried horses and broke chains in front of a cheering audience for fame and money. The fans marvelled at the ease with which ‘the Mighty Samson’, Alex’s stage name, performed his feats of strength and when asked him how, and the mighty atom just smiled.

Then Alex caught the eye of Sir Oswald Stall, the famous English theatre owner and film producer. Sir Oswald had invited him over to work in England, the centre of the world’s best circus acts. Th ousands would be queuing up to see Samson perform. It was his biggest night since his escape... It was time to wake up and live a new dream.

If you happen to be in London for a day without any place to be, or anyone to be with, you could take the short ride to Hockley.

Once there, follow the swirling autumn leaves and they will guide you through its streets to the tall spires of St Peter and St Paul’s Church. Don’t stop. Follow the leaves around the wall to the churchyard where they’ll lead you to the gravestone of Alexander Zass 1888-1962.

If you ask the old care-taker in the tweed cap sitting on a rock under the birch tree if he knows whose grave it is, he might, if he likes, nod his head and tell you ‘tis the Russian circus fellow... They say he was a spy too... Was a strong lad I hear...’. If you have a penny to spare and an ear for a story, you could invite him for a swig at the tavern once he’s done and he might even smile at you and tell you some more... Th at Zass trained wild animals for the circus when he wasn’t busy bending and breaking iron, catching human cannonballs and pulling back heavy horses. Leopards and those big African monkeys... ‘Chimpanzees?’ you ask.... He shakes his head..’ Gorillas?’ He shakes his head again... ‘Baboons?!’ And he smiles a wry smile and nods... ‘Yes baboons...! They got his wife...’ he says.’ Bit her to death during an act’. You look shocked and raise an involuntary eyebrow. He carries on unmoved... Zass loved her so.... Was a beautiful girl, not 20 yet.... Th at destroyed him... Wasn’t the same man ever since... ‘He disappeared after that...No one knows what happened next for a long time... And then one day he showed up here’, the caretaker would say before getting up wearily and walking away after tipping his cap...

You might wonder where could a man as famous as the mighty Samson disappear. He was as big as Brad Pitt in his time. His system of pulling against chains gave birth to the isometric workouts that became so popular in the after war years and his books inspired millions and made him some too...

And yet there’s no one to tell you the rest of his story.

But wait... Remember what I said about graveyards being like a book of fairy tales. So just trudge back from the tavern to the churchyard and go to that birch tree and sit on that old stone. Wait for the birds to stop twittering as they nestle in for the night and wait for the wind to warm up to you as the sun slides off the sky. Then the old wind will whisper into your ears, for ‘Once upon a time...’


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