Authors: Glen Duncan
It's a windy morning of flaring and subsiding light. Though the effort nearly kills him Augustus sticks around and tries to make himself useful, handing up hip tiles, flashing, batons. In their eyes he's an old man, though he thinks he's probably younger than Maddoch. He registers them selecting only the lighter things for him to handle, registers too the laconic politeness summoned because he's black and has by his extraordinary presence on the island embarrassed a racism that would otherwise have remained barely conscious. The builder's burning questionâWhat happened to your eye?âgoes unasked, but Augustus feels it like a smooth pebble pressing the empty socket under the patch. I imagined them doing it and they did it.
Lunch brings awkwardness. The builder, having seen the state of the croft's interior, retires to his van. Augustus understands: Maddoch wants to join him but without offending his tenant, therefore hovers absurdly with Tupperware box, flask and tabloid.
the headline says. The four-year-old boy who's been missing for almost a year is still missing. The par
ents have become media staples, assimilated celebrity. Harper had said: Is anyone going to be surprised when they end up on a reality game show? Is anyone going to be surprised when a reality game show devised exclusively for the parents of missing children hits the screen? First prize is investigation funding for another year. Or one where the families of murder victims compete against the convicted murderers? Families win the right to execute, murderers win freedom. Who's going to be surprised? Who's not going to watch?
Augustus takes his stick from behind the door and shrugs his overcoat on. “I've got to go into the village for a while,” he tells Maddoch. “You don't need me here. If I'm not back just leave the keyâ¦” has to think because there's no precedentâ¦“on the windowsill round the back.”
His conviction, having set off up the track that leads over the ridge, is that he'll have to leave Calansay. People insist on involvement. He's been here six weeks but stand still a moment and there's the soft beat of the island's curiosity, its pulse of demand. A flame of anger wobbles up in him then dies. The fuel system for anger's gone. Like all his remnants it reduces to an aspect of exhaustion. Injustice gathers in his throat, tears well but recede. He has starts of feeling that can't come to anything. Especially injustice. The prevalence and scale of injustice let you dissolve into it anyway. The more you know the less you do. The truth
out there, Harper had said, but exposure disempowers it. Suspicion of atrocity is an aphrodisiac to the liberal conscience, proof of atrocity its climax. But the atrocity itself brings a kind of detumescence. It's the nature of horror: you've got to
see it for it to work. In
you don't see the shark until the eighty-third minute. Once you've seen it your fear goes flat. You know this is right. It had been one of Harper's catchphrases: You know this is right.
Shivering, Augustus struggles on up the path kept rhythmic company by the pain in his hip and the handle of the stick in his palm. Leaving Calansay's out of the question. He doesn't have the energy.
From the ridge the track runs down through a field of tan bullocks, long-eyelashed creatures with big-boned heads and a malty odor. They amble aside as Augustus passes, averting their eyes. Selina was easily fractured by the beauty of certain animals. There had been a trip upstate to her aunt's vacant summer house in Ghent, Edenic to Augustus, whose experience of greenery began and ended with Central Park. One afternoon he'd found Selina crying, silently, leaning on a fence, watching two horses in the meadow beyond. It's they way they were nuzzling, she said, laughing, when he came close and put his arm round her. I know this is pathetic. I know this is anthropomorphic idiocy but they were being so gentle with each other. Later that night she'd sensed him thinking about it. They were together on the couch, him sitting, her lying with her feet in his lap. They'd lit a fire, sunk into watching the flames. Through the stupor she knew he felt tender toward her. The thing with the horses, she said, out of the silence. (Love showed off with casual telepathy.) Correct, Augustus said. He'd pulled one of her woolen socks off and was massaging her foot. It's sentimentality, Selina said, I'm sentimental. It's a weakness. Augustus looked at her. The couch was dark brown cracked leather. She lay with her hands on her chest and a red corduroy cushion under her head, her blond hair spread glinting around
her. She could look at him with a lucid dispassionate intelligence, something old and female and divine, he told himself. He didn't know what to do in the face of it, was genuinely in a state of something like awe. It's no good, she said. I know it looks sweet but sentimentality's the flip side of cruelty. The Nazis for example: inveterately sentimental. Don't let it take you in. Augustus waited a moment then said: There's blond hair, and then there's
lit blond hair. (Love showed off with non sequitur and violent tangent.) Selina held her thought then let it go. She had a tense resistance to compliments he loved breaking through. It was an erotic delight to him to watch her yield to indulgence, the warmth of a bath, the first sip of whiskey. They both took intense pleasure in satisfying trivial desires. You know what I want right now? An Entenmann's vanilla doughnut. So he'd go to the deli immediately and come back with a whole box and the two of them would sit gorging in a trance. Augustus stared at her. Fear hovered on the edge of things for both of them that all their gratified greed for each other would have to be paid for somewhere down the line. This is
, Augustus said. Do you know it? It's one of Browning's dramatic monologues. Porphyria is the gorgeous blonde. The poem's speaker is this guy, her lover. They meet in secret at a cottage by a lake. He hasn't had sex with her yetâbut that evening, as he holds her in his arms and she looks into his eyes he realizes she's going to let him. The waiting's over. He can have her. Selina moved her foot so that it rested against his groin, very slightly exerted pressure. Augustus quoted:
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.
Charming, Selina said. He strangles her? He strangles her. No sex, just strangling? Just strangling. Wow. I knew there was a reason I put out on the first date. Maybe I should get a crew cut just to be on the safe side. Augustus pulled off the other sock, kissed her bare sole, the soft pads of her toes. (He'd entered the phase where nothing of her could be allowed to remain alien to him. I'd eat your shit, he'd told her. Nothing of you isn't sanctified. I know, she said, but let's not, okay? Not until we've absolutely run out of things to do in the sack. Plus think of the sheets.) The point of the poem isn't the murder, he said. It's the absence of Divine or Natural justice. After he's strangled her the guy waits for something to happen, some sort of retribution from aboveâbut nothing comes.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!
In bed that night she said to him: You don't want to strangle me, do you? He was on his elbows above her. They'd left the curtains open because there was a full moon. An oblong of its light lay on the bedroom's bare floorboards. They'd made each other take turns standing in it. Augustus was quietly stunned that these elemental thingsâfirelight, moonlightâwere still around.
His world was buildings and leaping ads and the flanks of cars. Meanwhile out here all this weirdly alive indifference reduced civilization to a fleck. Selina's eyes and teeth and earrings glimmered beneath him. No, he said, I don't want to strangle youâwhy are we whispering? I just mean, she whispered, that I know you probably do want to strangle me, but I'll need some time to work myself around to it. I don't want to strangle you, he repeated. Truly I don't. You don't? I don't think so. He watched her eyes blinking. I think I might like to strangle you, she said. I mean not to death, but there's no doubt it'd be exciting. Anyway we can take some time to work around to that. There's no point pretending about these things. I do want to kill you sometimes, stab you repeatedly or rip your throat out with my teeth That's all right, isn't it? I guess, he said. She kissed his bottom lip. It's fine, she said. I won't kill you and you don't kill me unless I ask you to. Okay? Okay. I love you. Fuck me. Fuck me nice and slow.
Sixty-eight, that would have been, they'd turned twenty-one. She said it was deflating to be legally an adult, your last entitlement to imagination gone. Through the winter they'd marched in Manhattan, scarved and booted, ears and noses raw. Kenneth d'Elia had burned himself to death in protest outside the UN. By the time the lovers slunk north to Ghent, exhausted, neurotic from hash and booze (both of them had had such terrifying hallucinations on their two or three acid trips they'd determined to leave LSD alone) Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy had both been murdered, the Tet Offensive had devastated Saigon and NBC had broadcast footage of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese police, summarily shooting a VC prisoner in the head. Selina had had one of her controlled toxic exchanges with
her father over the phone: Did you see that? Did you see it or not? These are our allies in Vietnam. These are the guys on Michael's
. Her father was someone important at Northrop Aircraft. Yeah, Selina said, he's the guy who makes the planes and the bombs. I'm the ethical rich girl who'll get bored with politics and take up batik. The book she'd taken to Ghent was Updike's just published
. Augustus came down one morning to see her toss it on the fire. She was standing on the hearth wearing only a T-shirt, her bare limbs pink from the heat. Two hundred thousand corpses, she said, and I'm reading about bourgeois bed-hopping. She watched the book curl as the flames caught it. Firelight picked out individual golden hairs on her mons. If we're going to have art, she said, let's not have art that's done like a
. Then the irritation passed and she looked sad. I'm losing my sense of humor, she said. This is what happens when you've got a small mean soul. Never mind all that shit, Augustus said, having learned to handle these plunges brusquely. The main question is: Is there enough bread and eggs for French toast?
She lived resigned to her internal contradictions. To her social and political animal, God was dead. The species had decisions to make, no room for fairy tales and hocus-pocus. In the public arena she was acidly rational, secular, iconoclastic, an existentialist committed with light self-ridicule to progressive liberal democracy. But someone at a party produced a crucifix and said if she really didn't believe in God she'd have no trouble spitting on it. Go on, the guy said, do it right in Jesus's face. Of course she couldn't. Wow, the guy said, guess you won't take a shit on it then. That was going to be my next test. It was laughed off and soon forgotten by the crowd but walking home with Augustus in the
small hours she'd said: It's true, I'm hopeless, still riddled with all the rubbish, still scared I'm going to get my comeuppance. Do you know I still think about my guardian angel, and how sad he must be that I sent him away? Augustus laughed, remembering his own childhood belief. The problem with
guardian angel, he said, was that he was white, flaxen haired, with a look of slight disappointment that he'd been given a black kid to guard. I always suspected he wanted me to fall off a cliff so he could get reassigned. Eventually we agreed it was best if we went our separate ways. They were walking down Third Avenue in rain so fine it seemed not to be falling but hanging in stasis. When he stopped and kissed her her face was cold and fresh but her mouth tasted sexily of the evening's liquor. His cock stirred. Selina felt it, pressed herself against it, gave him the look of collusion. It was a strange look; she deadened her eyes in some way that drove him crazy. Anyway fuck them all, she said, as they walked on, holding hands in her coat pocket, my soul's none of their business. It's what I vote for that counts.
But she was plagued by nightmares about Hell and the Devil from which she woke on big indrawn breaths, covered in sweat. One in which the Devil had stuffed her and thousands of other people into a glass bottle. The bodies were so tightly and randomly crammed that many had broken legs and arms. Satan, giant, kept peering in, saying, Look, I'm going to squeeze another one inâand he'd shove another person in and the weight and heat and suffocation would get worse. She laughed about it in the morning, but waking from it she'd whimpered and thrown herself off the mattress. You dream about the Devil because you identify with him, Augustus told her. Your essence is rebellion. Look at
you: You're against the Church, against your parents, against the government, against convention. He's your guiding archetype. That's sweet of you, she said. But if he's my guiding archetype why's he stuffing me into a fucking jar? I dream about the Devil and going to Hell because I'm terrified of the Devil and going to Hell. Pathetic, but there you are. My soul's stained with sin.
The shadowy sin was hers and Michael's. Augustus never pushed. Whatever there was to tell he'd resolved on letting her decide if and when. He believed he didn't care anyway, told himself all that mattered was whether she was screwing him
, which since he was down at Parris Island waiting to get shipped to Vietnam, was moot. Augustus told himself this (adopted a businesslike mental tone and reduced the problem to one of maximizing sexual profit) but his heart or soul or mind or wherever it was love resided hurt with the thought of a competitor. Father-daughter or mother-son couplings were creepy; brother-and-sister affairs had the glitter of doomed romance. He wished Michael had never been born. Sometimes it seemed Selina did too. She'd grown up withâor rather acquiredâan abiding fear that Something Bad was waiting to happen to her. I feel like I sold my soul then imperfectly erased it from my memory, she said. I get these intimations. I know Lucifer's coming for me, sooner or later. It's just a matter of time. This is my idiot self talking, by the way. I'm aware of that. Maybe it's just cancer I'm scared of. There's a lot of cancer in my family. I'm just warning you.