Short stories do not ordinarily appeal to me, as sometimes they lack a sense of completeness and cohesion that only a novel can achieve in its depth and complexity. However, I find Nigel Hems’ short story ‘The Figures’ to be quite the opposite, at least in terms of complexity.
The strange, spectral figures are drawn to an equally mysterious man, whose visions are haunted by the aforementioned figures. He feels compelled to follow their trail, which leads to his name, his identity, his signature, being transferred and transmuted to these faceless, nameless figures, in so doing he loses sense of his own self-determination , but why do they want his signature, his name? What is a name worth? What constitutes his identity, his essential substance, if it can be so easily taken and manipulated by others? The figures want him to sign their ‘identity cards’; in this act we may see a metaphor of transubstantiation where the card and the signature represent the body and blood of Christ changing into the bread and wine of the sacrament, but in this very act of transubstantiation what is retained and what is lost, and what of the original act of Christ’s giving of his blood and flesh and the original act of the man relinquishing his name, his signature, his identity? How does the man change, how is he transformed? Is he transformed in any real substantial sense, or is it merely representational?
All of this is orchestrated by forces unknown and unknowable to the man, forces seemingly controlled, conducted by the Conductor, an alchemical priest-like showman, who presides over the spectacle or ‘celebration’ in the arena. Nevertheless, the conductor’s power is merely as a showman, his omniscience and omnipotence are illusory, as when the conductor’s image seems to merge with that of the lowly cobbler, and this delusion is also demonstrated in the instance of the shimmering, radiant gold of the arena’s stage slipping back into the greyish, muddy earth of the rest of the arena where the faceless, nameless figures are assembled like painted, lifeless figurines. And this is the arena where we think we find the Mercy Seat, the seat of judgement, but this too is illusory, we are never judged by an all-powerful, all-seeing God, but here in the dirty arena of life the judgement is always passed down by secular ‘gods’ , self-appointed and self-anointed, who condemn the man based on specious moral grounds, and to further their own aggrandisement and craving for yet more power, for what is the name of one man worth, and what is the worth of one innocent man among thousands, millions of complicit ‘figures’, who like musical notes are directed and shaped into a symphony of destruction and devastation by a conductor, by a great man, a man of history?