Authors: Glen Duncan
Jon and Vicky
he room he wakes up in has the fraught stink of a phone booth, which in spite of everything evokes escort ads and brings a pang of loss, not for sex but for tenderness. The last woman was a young dark-haired prostitute in Barcelona he'd paid extra to lie with him for an hour postcoitally, his nose in her downy nape. Just lie here? Yes, if that's okay. She'd been palpably uneasy, as if affection was an edgy perversion, but what could he tell her? He was astonished himself.
Dry-mouthed, he lifts his head off his chest and feels a granular crunch in his neck. No idea how long he's been out. The handcuffs look brand-new, glamorous against his dark skin. Sikh men wear those steel bangles and often have showgirl eyelashes yet appear superbly masculine. He wouldn't have minded being a Sikh. Selina years ago said the turban had deep phallic allureâwhich was the sort of thing she came out with apropos of nothing. Naturally non-sequiturial, by the time he met her she was exploiting the trait having learned it charmed people. Their friends regarded her as someone enviably at ease in her own skin. He, privy offstage and after hours, knew her hung about with superstitions and fears, all the trinkets and bogeymen of her half-shucked Catholicism. Nonetheless she glimmered in the crowd: women knew to be at the top of their game, men made adjustments, maximized themselves. Standing at the bar he'd watch her and remind himself he was the one going home with her.
What the women objected to, aside from the standard injustice of random beauty, was her intelligence. Intelligence on top of the long legs and natural blond was sheerly immoral. That and having the guts to do what they stopped short of: publicly date a negro. Or half-negro. Or whatever he was. He'd stand at the bar and let the warmth of sexual ownership flow through him. Harry, languidly drying a highball glass said: You two are a profane enchantment, you know that? He did know it. Manhattan's streets met them with a murmur of outrage. Imperious amusement, Selina said. We return them imperious amusement and benign disdain. That's easy for you to say, he said. You're not the one they're going to beat the shit out of. You're not the one they're going to
. This was 1967. With her he thought the biggest thing his life could offer had arrived.
And since here he is almost forty years later it turns out he was right.
His wristwatch is gone. They removed it when they brought him in.
Carry nothing of sentimental value
, so he never does. An airport Swatch, $75. He's always loved the harried polyglotism of airports. Transit lounges suggest the great subversion: there aren't countries, only people, the secret everyone suspects and governments live in fear of. He remembers the brownstone doorway of his childhood in East Harlem, darkness framing the blistered stoop, the blinding asphalt, the smell of garbage cans and urine. You stood on the threshold and felt the world right there like the hot flank of an animal. There was one never-repeated visit to his grandfather ten blocks away, a straw-colored Santa Clausy man with a plump nose and huge sour pants who said get that nigger brat out of here.
Which thought turns out to be the last fluttering postponement. He strains against the handcuffs until his skull thuds, stops when the pain gets too much. Any pain now is an outrider for the pain coming. People use the phrase “the worst-case scenario,” it's always contextual. Not here: This is
worst-case scenario, the Platonic Form, of which all others are imperfect instances.
He can't remember which fake name he's been using, for a yawning second can't remember his
nameâthen it comes to him with his mother's face and a feeling of nearness to her. She was a supple dark-haired woman with green eyes and what he now realizes was a mouth so sensuous as to amount to a destiny. Juliet. The crazy wop broad with the nigger kid. In
Capitals of the Western World
Italy was Saint Peter's Square and the Trevi Fountain, white statues against a blue sky, but she'd never been there, she said. Born here. I'm an American. You're an American. When he took his childhood miseries to her she'd doodle gently on his bare back with her fingernails, her attention somewhere else. Along with the green eyes she gave him English, Italian, a handful of Dutch words and her own wrecked Catholicism, which naturally didn't survive his education's dismantling of dear things. Where the house of many mansions used to be is pointless space, scalloped by physics, not even infinite any more.
Somewhere in this simmer he's busy with the problem of getting out of his body. There's a simple but horribly elusive equation if only he can remember it. Elsewhere he's accepting the room's details as the last of itself the world can give him. You imagine it'll be a lover's face or an evening sky. Instead bare concrete, a shivering fluorescent, four plug sockets, stains on the floor.
The door opens and three men walk in, two olive-skinned in combat fatigues, one white in pastel Gap casuals.
He wishes he still believed in God, checks the pliable air for His presence, but of course there's nothing.
onsidering he's Calansay's first black or even semi-black manâan American with jewelish green eye and piratical eye-patch to bootâthe islanders have assimilated him without much fuss. A few days of aphasic shock when he walked into the Costcutter, the warmth of stares when his back was turned, then they made the shift. Collective intuition says he's come to die among them so curiosity overrides: they want his story. The teenagers call him Captain Mandela, a handful of enlightened souls Mr. Rose, the majority That Black Chap, a tiny minority matter-of-factly The Nigger or The Coon.
Augustus Rose. His birth name's returned to him like a child he abandoned who against all odds is full of forgiveness.
You must be out yer heed.
I promise you Mr. Maddoch I'm entirely sane.
Mrs. Carr the postmistress had supplied Maddoch's name after Augustus had seen the ruined croft and enquired.
There's nae hot water. Christ man it's not habitable.
I could do a bit of work on it while I'm there.
Visible incredulity from the farmer. The two of them sat face-to-face over pints of Guinness in a snug of the Heathcote Arms. Heads had turned when Augustus thumped in on his stick, the room's dark wood and dull brass livened. It was late autumn and drizzling. The landlord had lit the fire. Augustus felt its heat on his cheekbones. Maddoch's donkey jacket released curls of steam.
Well I don't see why you'd want that when you can just as easy stay at the Belle Vue.
They'd circled this question via the croft's broken boiler and choked chimney, the leaking roof, the mold, the mice, the rot, the fundamental absurdity of the proposition. Maddoch rolled cigarettes with tea-ceremony precision, once reached down to stroke the pub's arthritic Labrador, who'd stood sadly absorbing the affection for a minute before turning and limping away. The animal was dying, Augustus knew, since like spoke to like. It looked lumpily taxidermed already.
I need my own company, Mr. Maddoch. You understand.
Exhaustion ruled Augustus but out of it sprang intuitive certainties: nothing new had entered the farmer's life for a long time. Now the man's curiosity was alert. Ditto the other islanders. They wanted the one-eyed stranger, believed he was something. Feeling this Augustus almost got up and left. The pain in his kneecaps prosaically stopped him; underneath it, a grander inertia. He saw how stupid he'd been to remain among people. Should have crawled into the Sahara or the Alaskan wilderness. Antarctica, the rough honor of being eaten by a polar bear, blood and guts in the snow, red and white, like Christmas.
Maddoch leaned back in his seat and sucked on a roll-up, eyes narrowed against the smoke. Curiosity notwithstanding there remained money-paranoia: a deal this good had to be a trick.
Augustus wanted to rest his head on the pint-ringed table, go out, go out, quite go out. The pub smelled of tobacco, spilled beer, furniture polish, unbeaten carpet all the way back to horse-drawns and powdered wigs.
How long are we talking about? Maddoch asked. I mean assuming it's for rent?
n Augustus's earliest years hat stands or clouds or wallpaper patterns or dogs or mere empty spaces in certain light blurted clues to the world's hidden meaning. He suffered many near-epiphanies. His mother's Catholicism was visceral, sporadic and inaccurate, but sufficient that out of the nebulous mass God, Jesus, Mary and the Devil soon hardened and descended with the grammar and math of sin and atonement. By the time he was four infancy's numinous anarchy had clarified into angels, miracles, souls, prayers and the everlasting horror-barbecue of hell. His mother was part of the cosmogony, though she didn't know it. Practically, her motherhood was unreliable. Augustus often found himself in the grudging care of neighbors, and there was a dark lipstick he didn't like on her, days she couldn't get out of bed but lay on her side with her mouth squashed against the mattress saying
every now and again, long periods when they never went anywhere near a church. Still, she was the center of his world. He carried the thought of her into everything he did, and everything he did he did with the passion he'd inherited from her.
You're too fierce, darling, she told him one afternoon, drying his eyes. He was six years old. 128th Street sprang surprises on him. Today a punch in the mouth from an older boy, Clarence Mills, had left him fat lipped and throbbing.
You ain't no nigger, shortstop
Your momma's a wop got kicked outta her house 'counta you
. Augustus hadn't understood. Until this day his brown skin had been the only relevant credential. The Italian and Puerto Rican
kids were at war with the blacks (and each other) and wanted nothing to do with him. Clarence's excommunication left him in no-man's-land.
he understood: his grandmother's country (there were secret rendezvous with this worried-looking lady, candies stuffed into his pockets, her delicate watery-eyed face suddenly close and a hug releasing the scent of her perfume and raincoat) and the language he and his mother slipped into sometimes. The red-white-and-green flag of Italy was on the spaghetti packet, held by a fat-faced chef with a mustache and a big smile. That was
. But kicked out of her house? 'Counta you. How on account of him? He went inside and stood with his cheek against the wardrobe. His mother at the sink with her slender back to him had carried on talking as if nothing was wrong until his subdued replies alerted her.
It's good to have big fierce life in you, Juliet said, but it means when they hurt you it's twice as bad. Come here, let me look. Augustus stood between her bony knees losing himself in her glamour. The older medium, touch, was passing away; now he had to see her, the big-eyed face full of what he didn't know was still her girl-hood. She was wearing her dark hair in princessy ringlets then. It means you're going to do something big in life, she said. The people who do something big in life are like you, have a hunger,
passione per la vita
, like a fire inside them, here.
Fuoco dentro di te
. She put her hand over his chest and he imagined a version of the burning oil drum the bums stood around in the vacant lot at the end of the street. She could turn anything into something special. His special-ness was a secret between them to be guarded and gloated over. In these moments he passed into her and looked out at the world from safety behind her eyes. He could feel sorry for the other kids, even
Clarence, because whatever they had they didn't have this. On the other hand there was a junk shop a few blocks east displaying in its dusty window a funny little brown plastic doll with a grass skirt and a spear and eyes made from green glass. You wound it up and it did a wobbling dance. That's you, dummy, Clarence had said, and everyone had laughed because of the green eyes.
Okay now give me a kiss, Juliet said. He had to undissolve himself from her to do it, felt his soul reassembling in a rushâthen there he was, sufficiently separate to get up on tiptoes and press his lips with passionâ
he man in the Gap casualsâ“Harper, by the way, in case you need to ask for me”âis in his mid-thirties and has an American accent even Augustus who's been everywhere can't pin down. Mostly the
s are Manhattan rhotic but occasionally the long
, he saidâslides them into pure New England. He's Redfordishly good-looking but that's no surprise to Augustus. Since television all specialists have got better-looking: athletes, classical musicians, politicians. Expertise used to be sufficient, now beauty's criterial. Harper's body says gym work, skin care, manicures, Caligulan excesses ferociously redressed the morning after. The man wants pleasure but he wants to last.
Nothing's happened yet, though the room's packed with dry energy. The two in combat fatigues (Augustus has them as Egyptian though they've yet to speak a word, perhaps have been ordered not to) have gone out and come back in with a folding table and three chairs, also a soft and clanking canvas bag he doesn't want to think about and can't stop thinking about. He's still not
sure why they want himâor rather, he's not sure which of the two reasons they might want him is the right one. He's two kinds of terrorist, after all.
“So,” Harper says, pulling up a chair opposite Augustus, “what's on your mind?” There's a controlled brightness to the interrogator Augustus knows will mean transcendent implacability. Harper sits hunched forward, elbows on knees, alert, receptive. In the movies a young man arrives before his date's ready and has to pass an awkward ten minutes with her father. This is how he sits. Well sir, I'm thinking of switching my major at the end of the semesterâ¦Maybe this is the alternative world Augustus will escape to, a TV drama of the young Harper's first love affair. They used to say think of your loved ones but it was a bad technique. You ended up hating your loved ones because they couldn't help you. Pain revealed the paltry dimensions of love. The paltry dimensions of everything, in fact, except pain.