The Flame

31st December 2022

The slim candle – about two inches in length – stands on a tiny brass plinth in the corner of a small shallow box. Behind the box, which is placed on the top shelf of a bookcase, is the letter rack that I purchased from the beriozka in Moscow in 1980, a souvenir of the Olympic Games that had taken place a few weeks before my visit. The rack contains a miscellany of bookmarks and used theatre tickets and (very) old golf scorecards – with pride of place, I think – the card and envelope (“Dear Stanta” (sic)) that my (then) infant daughter wrote to Father Christmas all those years ago.

After I bring a match to the candle and turn off the room’s electric light, the flame provides the only illumination. I take my seat, so that my eyes – spectacles removed and placed within reach next to me – are level with the flame at a distance of about two feet. The back of the bookcase is tightly adjacent to one of the softly painted walls of the room.

At first it seems as if the flame won’t take. There is a hesitation at the end of the wick, as if the fragility of the beginning of life will bring about its immediate termination. But then the flame grows stronger and I know that it will run for its full duration. 20 minutes are promised in which “to pause and reflect”, although, as it later transpires, the actual lifespan is shorter by a couple of minutes.

The flame dances slightly. There is no obvious draught in the room and the expulsion of CO2 from my light breathing does not extend across the full range between us but, nonetheless, there is a delicate movement in the flame as if, once lit, it can never stand perfectly still, but must always be in motion.

The flame grows taller and stronger. The face of the letter rack becomes brightly illuminated in stark contrast to the surrounding darkness – is it too much to compare this immediate scene with part of a masterpiece by Caravaggio or Joseph Wright of Derby? Equally striking is the sharpness of the silhouette generated by the rack and its contents on the wall: a clear definition of grey-black against the light of the background surface. Briefly, I turn around and see my own silhouette – a distant hulking grey – on the wall behind me. It is a question of position and perspective: there will be a variety of silhouettes around the room, depending on the surrounding architecture and the place of the viewer.

My thoughts are temporarily dominated by this perspective of cause and effect. I am the flame. The letter rack and its contents represent the events of my life – family, sport, culture, travel – and the silhouette is the totality of the wider impacts that have been left behind: on the lives of those I have loved and on the lives of those I have never known. I realise that this analogy is both painful and sad, for when the flame expires so will these broader impacts.

The flame flourishes. After a while, its length matches that of the remaining wax in the candle and then it exceeds it – double the length, triple the length… I find that if I screw my eyes up tightly, there appears to be a long beam of light that extends from well above the candle and through its length and then down towards the floor. At the two ends of the beam, the light seems to widen and split, as if attempting to replicate Newton’s experiment of pure white light refracting in a prism.

For a few moments, I replace my spectacles. Not surprisingly, the flame is much more sharply defined – I am short-sighted – with its sharper edges and clearer shape. But I prefer the softer, vaguer version, so I remove my glasses once again. Inside the flame, the wick appears to lean to one side, as if tiring from the effort of remaining upright. Its tip glows red, whilst the base of the flame shows blue.

The end of the flame’s life is action-packed. Its size diminishes slightly, as if prefacing a steady reduction in scope and brightness. But no, it recovers, attempting to restore its former grandeur. Then it declines again, this time without a recovery to its previous glory. For a while, it holds on again, before reducing in size once more. These variations in its life force are reflected instantaneously in changes in the brightness of the letter rack and the sharpness of the silhouette on the wall. In the flame’s inexorable decline, there is a constant shift in the subject’s breathing: heavy gasps followed by light exhalation.

The fullness of the flame is lost for the first time. There is still some light, however – or rather a collection of lights: small pinpricks of different colours, not dissimilar to the illuminations on the tiniest of Christmas trees. Amazingly, a small, short-lived full flame re-appears and then is lost again. The pinpricks re-appear. Finally, they also are extinguished. It takes me a few seconds to realise that I am staring into a darkness that, this time, will not be relieved.

I follow my instructions and continue to pause and reflect for another couple of minutes. Then, after getting up to switch on the room light, I return to the bookcase and examine the box. I see that part of its corner has been burnt away leaving a small open semi-circle, where the thin card had previously been.

The flame had left a permanent impact after all.


An Ordinary Spectator Returns: Watching Sport Again will be published by SilverWood Books in 2023.

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