Authors: Glen Duncan
By the time Augustus reaches the village he's wincing every step. Despite the cold he's hot, dizzy, wet with sweat. The glands in his armpits and groin are up. He makes it to a bench outside the post office and sits down, breathing hard.
Marle, Calansay's largest village, is one short High Street and less than two hundred homes. Costcutter, the Belle Vue Hotel, the Heathcote Arms, a dozen shops and the ferry port bleeding its odor of diesel and creosote.
At the sound of the post office door opening Augustus looks up. A girl steps out. She has a small flinty face and soft dark eyes, maroonish hair tied back, and is in the process of rolling a cigarette, hampered by a heavy canvas bag that's slipped from her shoulder to her elbow. Mrs. Carr the postmistress appears in the doorway behind her. The girl registers Augustus in a sideways glance, hoists the bag onto her shoulder, turns back to Mrs. Carr.
“So there's nothing else you can think of?” Her accent's Scottish (“think of” is “thankuv”) but much diluted.
“Hen look at the place,” Mrs. Carr says. “You're better away to the mainland.”
“I know. Sort of sick of it over there though.” She licks the Rizla, rolls, seals, begins pocket-patting for a light. A man's leather jacket, Augustus decides, too big but maybe that's the fashion.
“Nip over an see the Lockes at the Belle Vue,” Mrs. Carr says. “And like I said you can try Ade McCrae at Costcutter just down-aways but a wouldnie hold yer breath.”
“Okay. Cheers for the info.”
Mrs. Carr stands holding her elbows while the girl crosses the street. Augustus sits still, piping hot and too exhausted to struggle out of his overcoat. The gun's a live coal against his ribs. On the opposite pavement the girl stops, lights her roll-up, turns and waves, half to the postmistress, half to him, then sets off toward the hotel. Mrs. Carr leans out and notices Augustus for the first time.
“Afternoon Mr. Rose. Y'all right there?”
“Just resting,” Augustus says. “Long walk.”
“Aye an it's bracin today.” Mrs. Carr returns to watching the girl, who's stopped to look in the gift shop window. It's new to Augustus to be in the postmistress's presence but not to be the center of her attention. Normally Mrs. Carr's consciousness manhandles him with impunity. The girl walks away up the street, leaning left to counter the weight of the bag. Where the ponytail was gathered up he'd seen the soft hair in her nape. His sexual self's dead but can still be consulted academically: yes, he would have desired herâwhich is vacuous except for a renewed sense of the hollow where desire used to be. For a while without it he'd been locked in a cycle of mourning and rage, as if the tenderest root of himself had been ripped out. Now like the other losses it's been added to the space inside himself that's sometimes a refuge.
Augustus struggles to his feet, pain sheet-lightning his hip, and has to clamp his jaws together to keep his teeth from chattering. Flu, maybe. And the two-mile walk back to the croft still to come. He imagines lying down at the cliff edge to die, damp turf tickling his nose and fingers, hallucinations swirling in from the sea.
The girl stops outside the Belle Vue Hotel and looks up at its Georgian faÃ§ade.
“She's after a job,” Mrs. Carr says to Augustus. “Not much chance here.” In this as in many of the postmistress's remarks is the question of where Augustus's money comes from. Calansay has an HSBC from which he draws cash with an ATM card. Beyond that his financial arrangements are a mystery. Left to him they'll stay that way.
The girl takes a last drag of her roll-up, tosses and stubs it un
derfoot, then goes up the three steps of the hotel's porch and disappears inside.
“Now what can I do for you Mr. Rose?” Mrs. Carr says.
hen there could be no argument that was philosophy. In his early teens he embraced it as if it was a lover from a previous life, acquired conceptsâentailment, necessity, contradiction, sufficiencyâand with them clarity and impatience. Everyone thought they had an argument for what they believed. But mostly they weren't arguments, just ignorance and chaos and things they'd got into the habit of repeating because someone else had said them. He showed his mother the Socrates example, which she got and which opened a little flower between them, but she couldn't understand why he was so lathered up about it. Don't you see what it
? he said. Don't you
it? She'd been sitting at the kitchen table peeling him an orangeâunder normal circumstances something he could watch her do all day. What? she'd asked him. What does it mean? It means you canâ¦It meansâ¦What it means isâ¦Jesus! What it means is that there's a way of knowing what's
. The unexpected difficulty of getting this out had made him physically squirm and his mother laugh. He laughed too now that he
got it out. Well there's a monkey boy in here who hasn't washed his hair in five days, Juliet said. I know
They were becoming people to each other, beyond mother-and-son. Six months after Socrates a little money had come (from her sister, who'd married into it) and they'd moved to a slightly better apartment. She was waitressing at a chichi Italian restaurant, Ferrara, on the Upper East Side and making good tips. There was
talk of taking classes. What about bookkeeping? She said. I'm pretty good with numbers. Maybe I'll learn to type. Can't you see me in a big office at the top of a skyscraper?
Augustus had acquaintances but no real friends, lived his life through books. After the first flush of joyâall
; therefore: all
âhe'd begun to see the scale of the effort that would be required. Required for what? He didn't know, but something big still awaited him. The
endured. He read, daydreamed, read, walked the streets, read, became known as The Professor. A shocking discovery was how many fiercely held beliefs he hadâthat there was a point to being alive; that some things were absolutely right and others absolutely wrong; that he had a soul; that life was a mystery to be solved; that it didn't end with deathâshocking because philosophy revealed these as mere articles of faith, assumptions, hunches, instincts. Belief was inferior to knowledge. A truth wasn't something you believed in, it was something you knew, and a truth wasn't a truth unless it could be proved. It astonished him that those around him went about their business as if the worldâas if
âwas uncomplicated and unmysterious. An old white-haired black guy went door to door with a little foot-pedaled grinding machine to sharpen knives. How long had he been doing that? What was the point? He looked eighty. Had he ever wondered if his whole life was an illusion created by some wicked scientist, a dream from which he'd one day wake up on an operating table in shock? How could people
wonder these things? One evening in the kitchen slicing an apple, Augustus visualized himself turning and sticking the knife through his mother's throat. No reason; they were talking about Cassius Clay. There's something princely about that
man, Juliet said. It's like he's embarrassed by his own nobility so has to do all that swaggering and clowning. I'd marry him tomorrow if he asked me. Augustus was seduced by the idea (for him too Cassius Clay rang with the force of The Other Realm) but in the middle of it had this vision of himself turning and knifing her in the neck. What would happen if he did that? Obviously he'd go to jail, but what would it really mean? And why in God's name would he ever
of doing something like that? Was he crazy? Where did evil come from?
He read his way through the bulk of the school library in a year. His mother held down the job at Ferrara. Then a big change: She started seeing the restaurant owner, Gianni Cardillo.
t doesn't have to be like this,” Harper says. “And other clichÃ©s. But what's the alternative?”
Pain leaves room for nothing other than the wish for it to stop. If Augustus had the information Harper asked for he'd have delivered it. It's absurd that he genuinely doesn't have it. Harper could have started practically anywhere else and got something of what he wanted. Ironic gods are running the show.
“Come on,” Harper says. “Get your breath.”
Augustus remembers the day he discovered crucifixion had been a common method of execution.
The Illustrated Roman World
in the 112th Street library. What was he, ten or eleven years old? In his chest he'd felt the expanding heat of injustice; he had a vision of all the people who'd been crucified before Christ had made it famous. Naked, they thronged a hellish landscape, wailing and holding their wounds. It was as if he was the first person who'd
noticed them and now that he had they were demanding something of him.
Harper uncouples the cuffs from the loop in the chair again, lights another Winston and passes it to Augustus. Augustus thinks he'll vomit if he tries to smoke but it'll mean respite the length of a burning cigarette. The first drag tells him his mouth's swollen. He has to deduce and infer since discrete neural signals are lost in the conflagration.
“What's your method?” Harper asks, resuming his seat opposite Augustus.
“What you hold onto for this.”
“I'm not holding on to anything,” Augustus slurs. “I just don't know the answers to those questions.”
Harper pushes his shoulders back, holds them for a moment as if to ease tension, then slumps forward. “I imagine going the Hemingway route,” he says. “The old man and the sea. Hold on for just five more seconds, then five more, then five more and so on. Break it down furtherâone second, half a second, quarter of a secondâeventually you get to the Zen thing of inhabiting the now. Get that down and there's neither the pain you just felt nor the pain you're going to feel.”
“Just the pain you're feeling.”
“No, you slip it. Pain's a reaction, every reaction takes time. Eliminate time, you eliminate the reaction. Remember the Buddhist who set fire to himself in Saigon, burned to death without making a sound? He wasn't feeling any pain. It's the only explanation.”
Irony, Augustus knows, refuses to lie down and die. His in
structor at the first
, Saeed, had been obsessed (erotically, Augustus thought) with the likelihood of torture and death in the prosecution of
“I'll bear it in mind,” he says to Harper. “Don't think I'm there yet.” He hasn't taken more than three drags but already the cigarette's halfway to the filter. Harper leans back in his chair and laces his fingers behind his head. In the movies this calm would have rage just beneath it. Modernity demands such psychologies derive from breakage, trauma, delusion. The closest Augustus can get is imagining Harper feeling a slightly above average level of irritation when browsing in a microelectronics store and finding two models of something both of which do almost all the things he wants but neither of which does all. (In Augustus's vision Harper's accompanied by an equinely beautiful young woman who with constant low-level annoyance is one of his mistresses. Though mildly aphrodisiacal the experience depresses her these days since like everything else it's become self-conscious, situated, ironic. It reminds her that she sits on a nest of things she knows about herselfâthe exact formidable degree of her beauty, the exact formidable degree of her intellect, the exact formidable degree of her corruptionâand isn't likely to shift from it now. Shopping, with the ample resources she has, outlines the dimensions of her unsatisfactory life, alternatives to which she knows she'll never explore.) Augustus sees all this because a version of Harper's consumer irritation is familiar to him. He lived for years in Manhattan with the urban malaria of precision dissatisfactions. But whereas for Harper the condition segues into a feeling of well-being, for Augustus it was always a failure, proof of vague yet giant loss. The part of him in mourning for all that was gone
required ceaseless distraction: television; work; doomed affairs; fine-tuned consumer preferencesâdespite which the mourning went on, in dreams, in the small hours, sitting on the can or waiting for the kettle to boil. At moments his own face in the bathroom mirror conceded the worst, that he was still suffering from the loss of the old gods and stories, that he was still, with the confused center of himself, looking back. Harper doesn't look back. He's something different, a new type that can turn nihilism into buoyancy. As he moves forward the past drops away behind him like a crumbling bridge.
“Listen,” Harper says, leaning forward to reforge the earlier intimacy. “You're still a man. Don't make me take that away from you.”
The sincerity and reason of this hurt Augustus in his heart. Tears well and fall, which he knows is the first hairline fracture. He thinks again of all the people crucified before Christ. The demand they'd made was for his recognition of how alone they'd been. Any second this interlude with Harper will end and he'll be alone again. He starts to construct a comfortâthat the murdered millions of history will be with himâbut it dissolves into nothing.
ecause he can't face Maddoch and the builder Augustus kills daylight in Marle. In Costcutter he picks up supplies he doesn't needâsoap, toothpaste, a can of tuna, a small packet of rice, disposable razors and at the checkout ambushed by a sugar-craving a bar of Galaxy milk chocolateâthen spends two hours over three large whiskies in the Heathcote Arms, shivering between swallows, some sort of blood noise bothering not just his ears but his
teeth as well, as if his fillings are picking up radio. The dog lies by the fire, raises its head from time to time but doesn't get up. At the bar someone's showing Eddie the landlord the latest thing, an i-phone. Not on sale here yet; this one's from America, retails at $600. It does everything. Augustus's skin prickles: Harper had one, demonstrated it during the hours in the medical unit. You see what this means, right? he'd said in a tone of neutral enquiry. Augustus's morphine was wearing off. They'd had him swimming in drugs, all fathom of hours and days gone. It means not having information on demand's no longer acceptable, Harper continued. There's no standing on the street wondering what year Kevin Spacey won the Oscar, it's there in your hand, instantly. It's going to shut down a big neural chunk. Memory'll go. The optimists' corollary will be that it'll free up the brain Ã la Einstein never memorizing anything so as not to take up space. Maybe we'll all become geniuses. What do you think? Augustus couldn't answer. The remnants of the drugs and his mouth plump from the beating. Some of his teeth were gone; his tongue had given up confirming their absence. It was no surprise to him that he didn't hate Harper. Once you saw there was no escaping the relationship you brought to it whatever gave it bearable shape. At moments Harper had been a father he'd disappointed or a lover he'd betrayed, once or twice a primitive deity seeking vengeance for all the gods abandoned by history. Imagination was condemned to make something of things. There was a narrow strip of barred glass just below the room's ceiling letting in what Augustus believed was natural light, the first he'd seen in a long time, which soothed him, or rather which had been soothing him until he began to feel the morphine wearing off. These days, Harper said,
unwrapping a peppermint and popping it into his mouth, technology's realized it can't surprise us any more. When a woman realizes she's given you all the sex tricks in her repertoire and now it's only ever going to be more of the same, panic sets in. All she's got left is quantity so she throws more and more at you knowing it's diminishing returns. Technology's got the same problem. It's getting desperate. There's the fusion of hardware and organic life coming but that's not going to surprise anyone. We're there already with pacemakers and all the optical stuff for the limbless. He held up the i-phone for Augustus to see, dexterously with the lightest touch of thumb and forefinger drag-enlarged a photo of a smiling blond girl on the little screen. You show teenagers one of these gizmos and they go, Yeah, does it come in any other colors? Microelectronics was the last revolution and we're antsy for the next one. Mass clairvoyance maybe, alien invasion. It's hard to imagine. This is why we're crazy for climate change: Give us something new and big. Melting ice caps, Biblical floods, anything as long as we haven't seen it before. Genetics is the thing, I guess.