Authors: Glen Duncan
Eddie the landlord, having worked out the punter is trying to
him this device, is shaking his head and laughing. Och no I've had mine from MI5 a week ago. Jesus Christ. Charlie, c'meer an look at this wee gadget.
Augustus swallows the last of the whiskey, grips the head of his stick and pushes himself to his feet, feels the gun swing and bump like a giant pocket watch. There's a dip in the pub's murmur to accompany his exit. He's on nodding terms with Eddie, who this time incorporates a give-me-strength eye-roll to mark the hopelessness of the i-phone pitch. The landlord's one
of the few islanders who's accepted the black chap's story's not for sale. It's established something between them which in Augustus's old life might have become friendship.
Outside, surprised by a lash of cold rain and a sky darker than he'd expected he stops to button his coat. Street lamps are on in their first peach phase. The air tastes of the just gone ferry's steel handrails and diesel. He thinks of all the silvery fish that have been hauled out of these waters, creatures wrenched from their element suddenly naked under the sky. Vikings raided here, a thought which evokes a world so much less cluttered with people. Buttoning takes a long time. His hands aren't on form and his face feels as if it's wearing a beard of bees. A droplet of water falls from the pub sign and spends its little personality in a trickle down his neck. He decides the Costcutter carrier bag's redundant, transfers the items to his pockets.
Not the gun pocket
Only the gun in the gun pocket
. Safety's on but there's a recurring vision of accidentally shooting himself in the foot or shin. Whether his life will flash before his eyes is one of the things he still wonders about, though he tells himself that even if it does it's just the brain superheroically rifling its files for anything that might help.
The fever's no joke now. He's let it romance him among the whiskey blooms for two hours but out in the cold and these skirls of rain he can't imagine it allowing him home without trouble. The sky's low and soft and the hills beyond the village are dark. Black water
s at the jetty. The road back follows the coast before turning inland. Two miles and most of it uphill. Some miscellany to be found dead with: soap, toothpaste, tuna, rice, razors, a gun. He realizes he needn't have waited so long: the rain would have sent Maddoch and the builder back to the farm.
Marle's ferry port is also its bus terminus, a tarmac turning circle called for a reason he can't be bothered to discover “the banjo.” Buses on Marle are erratic and he's never inquired which one, if any, goes his way. There's a timetable in the bus shelter.
The girl's in there and he startles herâdisproportionately it seems to him until she plucks her earphones out. The light in the shelter's broken. She'd been sitting in the dark bent forward with her head bowed.
“Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you.”
One hand's spread over her heart. In her young face he sees shock at how lost in herself she'd been but also light-speed threat assessment that takes in everything from his possibly bogus bad leg to the nearness of Costcutter's lights and the half-dozen fishermen seeing to their boats in a dour trance. Factors flare around the core calculationâblack man; eye-patch; not localâbut she keeps them out until the priority work's done: no immediate danger. Her shoulders relaxâthen tense again: she mistrusts all her conclusions. The world shows you
then lashes out.
“No, it's me,” she says, laughing not genuinely. “Miles away.”
“Just wanted to check the schedule,” Augustus says. “I'm sorry.”
Consulting the timetable's impossible without the light, and in any case someone's sprayed graffiti over half of it. The girl stuffs the earphones in a pocket. Used to be if someone had gadgets they weren't homeless or broke. Now anyone can be anything. Impatient with categories, Harper had said. Augustus billows and shrinks hot and cold, wrists maddeningly sensitive to the coat's
cuffs. The thought of all the land between here and the croft empties his legs. The track down'll be waterlogged. Maybe just curl up on the bench here. Go out, go out, quite go out.
“Can't see a damn thing,” he says. “Guess I'll walk.”
“You American are you?”
The “guess I'll walk” was so he could turn and do just that but she got the question in. Nothing to stop him ignoring it except he finds himself wondering what “American” means to her, supposes rippling stars-and-stripes, limousines, Coke, the prongs of Lady Liberty's crown. He thinks of these images as a layer of cellophane spread over a dark sea.
“Yeah, I'm American,” he says.
“The accent,” she says. “'S great. Anyway sorry, sticking my nose in.”
His concentration goes, reeled back in by the fever. Peripherally he's aware of her consciousness settled on him. Their little contact demands a phatic exit line but he can't think of anything. He turns his back and takes two unsteady steps into the blowing rain.
Headlights dazzle him and he stops. A bus pulls up at the shelter. Its doors gasp open and passengers one by one alight with a processional quality that mesmerizes him. Time seems to stand still. The brightly lit bus remains stationary, doors open, engine running. The driver looks down at Augustus, nods, then turns his attention to a newspaper folded against the steering wheel. For a few moments this stasis feels dreamily hellish to Augustus, as if he's died and been assigned a mild damnation. Then he understands: This is the terminus; the driver goes by the clock.
“You go up near Maddoch's farm?” Augustus asks.
“Up to Marsh Hill,” the driver says. “You can swim across from there.”
Augustus's left hand in his pocket feels as if it's melting. Swim? What the fuck? Then he gets it: a joke; the rain. He knows where Marsh Hill is. From there a mile on foot back to the croft. This mile fever-filled with mischievous presences. He sees himself, clothes sodden, flailing at shadows. So be it. He has his stick. He glances at the girl, who's made no move toward the bus, finds her intent upon the rolling of a cigarette, which he reads as a little self-consolation for their abortive exchange. In the back of his mind, habit's been intuiting her history: too full of life, an indiscriminate force that should have been trained into athletics or math or the cello instead left to drive her into wrong adventures. Consciousness without structure, energy without direction. She's many times found herself sitting amid wreckage trying to understand how such good impulses and generous hungers bring down such catastrophe. Lonely, he thinks; still carrying the ruby of her genuine self no one wantsâthen feels lonely himself since such thinking's only habit and leads nowhere.
She looks up with a smile, which he after a moment of dizziness returns. It's obvious she's not getting on this bus, or any other bus. He plants his stick on the step, grabs the handrail and hauls himself onboard.
ou hold out for a length of time so disinformation will feel like a genuine yield. That you can hold out for a length of time is the central humorless assumption. Augustus doesn't know how long he's been holding out, or, with certainty,
he's been holding out. Time's been showing a schizophrenic side, rushing, stretch
ing, pooling, freezing, doing the opposite of whatever he wants. He's kept trying to make out the hands on Harper's wristwatch (the guards have removed theirs and left them on the table) but it's no use. In any case what good would it do? If the watch said ten o'clock he wouldn't know if it was night on the first day or morning on the third.
“I don't think you've been honest with me,” Harper says, easing himself onto his haunches and bobbing there for a moment until one of his knees ticks. “You've got the detachment method down.” The guards have been nodded back to their corner. One of them mops his face with a pale blue hanky so large it's hard to believe it fitted in his pocket. The other guard whispers something Augustus is convinced is a joke about the size of the hanky and which evokes for him a vision of the man at home with his wife and noisy indulged young sons, a ceiling fan above the dining table, bowls of spicy stew, large rosemary-flecked breads, a wall calendar, a TV with satellite channels. This is the betrayal: you want them to be other, monstrous, in forfeiture of love and humor, but commonality persists. The people who do this are people. Which truth is like a spirit of boredom in the room. Harper straightens up. “You make yourself the object of your own study,” he says. “As with meditation employ value-neutral awareness: now I'm breathing in, now I'm breathing out, now here's distractionâan ad jingle, a sexual imageânow a pain in my left side, now the resonance of pain, now pain subsiding, now fear of more pain etc., keeping all the while separate from yourself.”
Augustus remains silent only because it's all he can do to breathe. He's hanging from the ceiling hook, shackled ankles dangling. His wrists are on fire. A film of wet heat clings to his
face. The waistband of his trousers has slipped down to expose his pelvis and the sensitive zone above his pubes Selina used to deliberately dawdle over. That they haven't touched him there yet makes the area a screaming invitation. The predictability of his future adds to the room's bulk of warmth. He imagines a camera zooming out from him suspended hereâroom, building, desert, city, country, worldâhow quickly the details of his situation would get lost. Millions of television news reports: political reshuffles; sports results; quirky or heartwarming codas; the weather. Not long ago an item about a woman who prayed nightly to David Beckham.
“But if you know the technique you know its limitations,” Harper says. “Generally effective while the subject knows the injury's recuperable.”
Then why bother with the recuperable injury phase at all? As if telepathically tuned Harper says: “On the other hand escalation teaches nuance, and the longer this goes on the more important nuance gets. I need to be able to read you properly.”
The information Harper wants isn'tâHarper believesâtime-sensitive. He wants names, places, the infrastructure, the
. There's no hurry. Augustus has been fighting this thought since they brought him in but now without warning his resistance goes, a tiny violence like a loose tooth tweaked free. When he closes his eyes his body knows what a drop into darkness sleep would be. Lying with InÃ©s after sex he'd felt himself drifting off, it was so quiet and still; resisted because her waking him would have brought transaction back. If Harper lets him fall asleep now (he pictures his head's galaxies and nebulae going out as if their plugs are being pulled) he'll never wake up again.
“Tell me something,” Harper says. “Have you ever been in love?”
Augustus opens his eyes. Harper smiles and says, “Academic interest only. Here, rest a minute.” He slides the chair back under Augustus's feet so he can stand and take the strain out of his arms. The blood in his shoulders begins unpacking itself, draining joy into him. Harper sits down, puts his hands in his pockets, stretches his legs. Come on, seriously, if you talk I'll listen. Augustus doesn't doubt it. This is the other thought he's been avoiding, that Harper wants more than just the information, that his life's gone a certain way and he can't resist the opportunity to test the choices he's made. The man knows himself but rarely gets the chance to take a sounding. By now Augustus knows he's one such chance. Knows too that if he wants this over as quickly as possible he should keep his mouth shut or tell Harper to go fuck himself. He sees the sort of courage that would take, the cleanliness of it, could laugh at how filthy he is with fear.
“When I was young,” Augustus says.
“You know all about it already.”
“You're black, you grow up with a white girl myth. You're too smart and handsome not to have got one. How old were you when you met her?”
“Nineteen. Same as her.”
“Was she beautiful?”
“And you were full of what, brilliant shame?”
Augustus hears the question but is detained by the previous one. That rat-faced little bitch, his mother had called Selina
once, suddenly revealing the jewel of jealousy having until then inveigled her into wry sorority in the matter of their shared burden, namely him, His Smartass Highness Who Always Had To Be Right.
showed him for the first time it was partly the hint of meanness in Selina's sharp nose and chin that drove him crazy. As a little girl she'd tripped running with a glass jar of pennies and nickels. The accident left her with a scar like a sickle under her bottom lip. Your sexy scar, he said, which annoyed her at first because she assumed he was performing the standard romantic inversion, force-loving the bit of her he hated. Then she saw the cruel white woman was part of his fantasy and subsided, enriched. Augustus remembers going to bed with her that first time. She shared a sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village with Vera, a bony white girl with small face and a mass of dark hair like a Cossack's fur hat who wrote songs and worked at the ACLU and chain-smoked Virginia Slims. The apartment, on Eleventh Street between Second and Third, was a mess. Television said nice white girls were clean and tidy but the chaos and dirt here looked feral. Certainly both girls hated their parents but what might have started as juvenile rebellion had revealed innate laziness. Augustus, stunned, wondered if they were going to do it standing up, since there was no visible room to lie down, until Selina began slinging things off what turned out to be her bed, a mattress on the floor under the window. She went to the record playerâthen as if she'd caught his thought that this was too big for musical accompaniment changed her mind. The Harry's consensus was you fucked without batting an eyelid but there was no fooling themselves: they were full of catastrophic potential. The months of flirting and fencing suddenly fell away, left them
a nude insistent reality. In reverential silence they went to the bed. For a long time kissing was a way of avoiding looking at each other since their eyes when they did gleamed with fear. Augustus was so preoccupied by the fact of having got her that he found himself trying to pretend she was someone else so he could get hard. For the first few minutes both of them faked hunger out of terror that their instincts had been wrong. It was nearly a disaster. But between them they got her blouse buttons open and the exposure of her breasts stilled him for a moment. He lifted himself to look at them, then at her. For a second or two he thought she was going to cover herself or roll away. But she calmed and looked back at him with something like amoral curiosity, and that was that. There was no going back. Once he was inside her it was a terrible effort to slow himself down, and every time he did there was her stare of collusion.