Authors: Glen Duncan
“I was thinking that if I applied for my job today I wouldn't get it,” Augustus says.
“Not good-looking enough.”
“You've got the Morgan Freeman thing. Gravitas. Gravitas goes a long way.”
“Not like beauty.” He used to get Selina to lie naked with her wrists crossed above her head then look down at her and say,
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
. Her nude armpits drove him crazy, the rise and fall of her breathing, her deliberate cold stare.
“I wish you were wrong, but you're not. Friend of mine's a publisher. These days they look at the head-shots before the manuscripts. You want a cigarette?”
The cigarette's options along with other things
flit about the room like sprites. Something in the ceiling directly above Augustus's head is edging into his consciousness: a pulley, a hook, evoking the waxy headless carcasses of pigs in the open back of a Hell's Kitchen delivery truck set gently swaying by the driver's jump down. You could see the terrible leftovers of their personalities.
“I'd love a cigarette.”
The handcuffs are fastened to a steel loop in the chair's seat, the ankle cuffs to a ring in the floor. Harper detaches the handcuffs from the loop but leaves them locked around Augustus's wrists, an intimate manoeuvre: Augustus smells aftershave, freshly laundered clothes, garlicky breath under a layer of peppermint. He could bite a chunk out of the tawny face but it'd come to nothing. That Harper's made the same judgment detonates fraternity when their eyes meet and flick away.
“There you go.” Softpack of Winstons from the shirt's top pocket, orange disposable lighter. You're supposed to think of the interrogator as a natural phenomenon, like the weather. Lightning. Nothing you can affect. Training, such as it was, seems a long time ago. He knows he shouldn't have taken the cigarette, let Harper light it for him. Sharing fire goes back too far.
“Even the girls in extreme pornography are beautiful now,” Harper says. “Animals, mutilation, feces. Download the other day, one woman shitting into another woman's mouth. Both of them absolutely beautiful. Could've been modeling L'OrÃ©al. Either depravity's losing its clout, or beauty is.”
Augustus thinks of Elise Merkete, a colleague he'll never see again. Feminism, she'd said in a conversation more than
three years ago, overestimated the power of diagnosis and underestimated the laziness of women. They'd been in a safe house in Washington D.C. drinking tequila, lit only by the lights of passing cars. The full diagnosis never really left academia, Elise said, and even given the bits that did it took only two generations before women couldn't be bothered anymore. She'd been an aid worker in El Salvador in the '80s when Augustus in his journalist incarnation first met her. They'd been harrowed friends for a few months as the bodies piled up under the music of flies, then news of his mother's illness called him home and they lost touch for twenty yearsâuntil Barcelona. Elise had begun the life out of disgust. That was the process, she said: One day you realized you were full of disgust. If you were made a certain way disgust spilled into action. Once it had happened there was no going back. Old constraints fell away like a rotten harness. That evening in D.C. the two of them had shared an intimation of death. The safe house boiler wasn't working and seeing their breath indoors brought a kind of despair. If death was your profession that was all it took. They hunted out extra quilts and piled them on the double bed, got in and with sudden miserable urgency made love. Augustus had never slept with her before. She'd been raped by a national guardsman in El Salvador. (What's the matter with you? the soldier had said. You don't like my technique? But I studied in America!) She revisited sex now as a ruined project she couldn't entirely give up on. Augustus hurried because her body's long ago violation rose up as if through her pores to confront him. She didn't come, told him she never did. He tried to hold her but in a few minutes they were awkward
again. He got up and made coffee in the dark kitchen. Outside the streets were gashed with frozen slush. When he came back she'd wrapped one quilt round herself and fallen asleep.
“Okay,” Harper says, exhaling smoke. “Let's talk about how this is going to work.”
n Calansay his resolution is to keep the gun with him at all times. Harper had said: “âIt's better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.' Tarantino.
.” The reference was lost on Augustus. Its sentiment wasn't. Therefore reinforced inside pockets in his jacket and overcoat. The weapon bumps his ribs when he walks.
The land is three flat acres between a ridge of low hills and the sea, a pan of salt-scoured sedge and gorse dotted with yellow-eyed sheep, several daintily limping with foot rot. Maddoch's croft, or what's left of it, sits a hundred meters from a narrow cove of tarry pebbles and viscous lime-green seaweed. It's a littered beach: dented oil cans, rotting rope, three net floats that would have been bright red in their day now bleached pinkish white. Augustus's prowls have discovered desiccant condoms, beer bottles, a maxi pad, the scars of fires. Eco-death in microcosm. He pictures teenagers coupling here under the stars but the image immediately hauls in the universe's silence and emptiness.
There are birds. Crows lope away from him with a look as if he radiates atrocity. Black-headed gulls wobble midair with sunlit dangling legs. Oystercatchers scrutinize the tide line, beak-stab, generally come up with nothing. Maddoch's farm is on the other side of the ridge so Augustus has the landscape to himself. The place
speaks in Spartan declaratives: a blast of raw wind; a sudden stink of dead fish; an abrupt downpour. None of these utterances invites him beyond itself. More familiar landscapes would have persisted in evocation: God, spirits, purpose, meaning. He's done with all that. What's left is the contingent bones and meat and blood of himself, the paltry fact of his skull, the entropic drift of his organs.
Maddoch wasn't exaggerating the croft's dilapidation. There's a hole in the roof big enough for Augustus to stick his head through. Half the bare floorboards are rotting. Bracket fungus is growing in a corner of the kitchen. Damp maps the lime wash. The fireplace is home to a pile of rubble it appears to have vomited. Windowpanes are missing or flimsily boarded up. The three rooms smell variously of cat piss, dog shit, mold, dust, drains, wet earth. Barbed wire erected against teenagers has been cut and shoved aside. More condom remains, torn pages from porn magazines, cigarette butts, broken bottles, beer cans, a bong with the glass bottom smashed. Painstakingly (accrued damage but also ritualistic concentration he can't explain), Augustus has filled three garbage bags and dumped them at the side of the building, where what was once a vegetable garden is now waist-deep in nettles.
He can't face the labor of unblocking the fireplace but there is in any case a miraculously still-functioning wood stove on which he heats up canned soup or fish or beans. Not entirely without shame Maddoch tractored down a supply of logs, told Augustus to give him a shout when he needed more, nae charge. Word of the ludicrous rent has got out, village opprobrium has descended. Maddoch is now the villain of his own piece.
The boiler engineer took two weeks to appear, by which time
he'd achieved mythic status in the exchanges between Augustus and Maddoch. Then he arrived, pronounced half a dozen replacement parts necessary, and left. Parts to be ordered from the mainland: another ten days. Augustus washed in the brown-bottomed tub with freezing water and a bucket, a fierce business that shrank his nipples and balls.
When the parts arrived the engineer returned to install them. Several false starts and adjustments, then
and the sour smell of ignited gas; eventually a savage expectoration of first warm then scalding water from the kitchen tap. The engineer had manifestly been told to glean what facts he could but went away with not much to report. Most of the time Augustus left him in the croft alone, and when he was there answered monosyllabically. The old one-eyed black Yank was living all alone and doddery and the place stinkin like a toilet and if he didn't get that roof fixed soon it was gonnie come down on his fuckin
After his first hot bath in three weeks (he'd filled the tub, eased himself in, let the heat reduce him to animal blankness) Augustus sits wrapped in his overcoat on a rock twenty feet above the sea with a half bottle of Oban whiskey. The bath heat has lasted and these sips go into him with a different heat that joins it in his chest, belly, loins, creeps into his bones. This is good, the warm inside and the cold out. Like God, he sees that a thing is Good, goes into it, lets it be, without thoughts or complications. If nothing else what he's been through has freed sensual pleasure from mental interference.
If one of the islanders should pluck up courage to ask him directly: What the fuck are you doing here?â(imagination puts these words into the mouth of cotton candy-haired Mrs. Carr,
who's most likely never said “fuck” in her life)âwhat would he tell them?
He knows how it's supposed to be, a triumph of the human spirit. He can hear the movie trailer voice-over, picture the blurb on the novel.
The story of a man's spirit destroyedâ¦and of the love in which it's reborn
. A shy friendship with the postmistress. Laconic fraternity with Maddoch.
Now, on an island at the edge of the world, he must learn to live againâ¦.
What's happened to him hasn't killed him so it must have made him stronger. (Selina said: If you don't believe the Nietzschean maxim when you're eighteen there's probably something wrong with you. If you still believe it when you're twenty-eight there's definitely something wrong with you.) He knows art's job in God's absence, to make beauty out of ugliness, good out of evil, meaning out of chaos. Suffering, yes, brokenness, yes, despair, yesâbut survival, healing, hope. The movie trailer will use a sequence of single-shot fades, each accompanied by a heartbeat: a prison door opening; a bare lightbulb; his terrified face covered in sweat; Harper smiling; Selina slipping her robe off; an explosion; a lone figure in silhouette on a darkened beach.
Harper had said: We're suffering representational saturation. We've written too many books, made too many movies. By the time you're eighteen you've already encountered representations of everything important, you already know the scripts. It's no wonder we're so limp. The twenty-first century's the century of the definite article. You don't need to describe or evoke, you just name it and put “the” in front of it. It's like compressed data files: The suburban nightmare. The dirty war. The mom who knew.
The torture victim who
â¦one way or another transcends, finds
God or love or the violin or forgiveness of his torturer. That's what art's complacency expects of him, Augustus knows. That's how it's supposed to be but that's not how it is. How it is is an assortment of facts: He wakes up drenched in sweat. He's come here randomly. He has no hunger for life beyond immediacies. He spends hours in the fetal position. He assumes someone's coming for him. He thinks of death constantly. Despite which his own triviality's a perpetual tinnitus. Despite which he suffers stretches of boredom, the image of his life as a heap of dirty clothes that'll never, now, get laundered.
s a child Augustus believed huge revelation awaited him. He and Juliet were the protagonists in a mystery, two adventurers lost in a world of tantalizing clues. But at the same time
was the mystery. There was a secret to which he wasn't admitted, the dark lipstick and her going out. This wounded him, but no matter how much he hardened his heart to her she always drew him back. Hey kiddo, what shall we do today? I've got a headache like the end of the world but if you could climb up and reach me that Alka-Seltzerâ¦Deep down he believed it was because they weren't the same color. Yes, this is my
, he kept hearing above his head. The weary emphasis was damning, gave him a vision of himself and Juliet hand in hand in outer space after death, her suddenly torn from him and pulled upward toward milky light while he drifted on alone. Many nights he fell asleep praying he'd wake up white. Sometimes in his dreams he
white; there was his astonished and delighted face in the mirror, same mouth and nose and eyes but with her fair skin and the relief of having come at last into his
inheritance. Hope for this transformation drove his relationship with God, Jesus, Mary, even the unnerving Holy Ghost. Water was turned into wine, wine into blood, bread into body. Jesus could miracle anything into anything, so why not a brown boy into a white one?
Ask, and ye shall be given
. Yes, but he knew there was more to it than that. To get what you prayed for you had to be good.
Whomsoever striketh thy left cheek, offer unto him the other also
. This was how God spoke, Juliet explained. It meant if someone hit you on one side of your face, you shouldn't hit them back but let themâ¦but instead you shouldâ¦She wavered. I guess it means if you offer them the other side of your face they'll feel lousy and ashamed and you'll have won because they won't want to hit you again. Is it being good? he asked. Juliet chewed her lip a little. Well it's what Jesus did, she told him. Augustus was determined to do whatever it took. He began meticulously behaving himself.
Then, on the summer afternoon Clarence Mills obligingly whacked him across the face with a rolled-up comic book, everything changed.
It had been a lousy day for Augustus from the start. Juliet had left him with Mrs. Garner and wouldn't be back till six. All morning her attention had been elsewhere. It wasn't her going out he hated but her mind giddily on something else before she left. Jeez, kiddo where's my purse? You seen my purse? Her dark ringlets bounced. He was peripheral, something like a cushion or a coat hanger. Nothing crushed him like seeing her not really seeing him. At Mrs. Garner's she'd forgotten to hug him, hurried back, administered a distracted embrace, then gone.