Authors: Glen Duncan
“You were nineteen,” Harper says. “So we're talking Sixtyâ¦what? Seven?”
The arithmetic's beyond Augustus. His face prickles, his feet are bags of blood. “Sixty-seven,” he says. “Yeah.”
“Now they're saying the sixties only happened in Haight-Ash-bury and the King's Road. The rest's just wishful revisionism.”
Harper closes his eyes for a moment and Augustus risks a glance at the guards. They're actually
cards with the porn deck, which presumably requires a weird concentration. He gets his eyes back on Harper just in time. Don't suggest these interludes are wasted. “Well there was a lot going on in New York,” he says.
“The Vietnam party and the miracle of contraception. Must have been something to be able to fuck strangers without wondering if you were signing your own death warrant. Don't you
think it's laughable there's only been one window in history from the 'thirties to the 'eighties when sex wasn't a potentially lethal activity? Syphilis at one end and AIDS at the other and between them fifty golden years of trouble-free fucking. You were lucky.”
Selina dug out a bottle of Jack Daniel's from somewhere and rolled them a joint. It was March, Manhattan's nothing season, everyone reluctant to uncurl from winter's searing. While they lay together talking about the world the apartment's radiators hissed and tonked. Augustus, trying and failing to hold the feeling of cunning conquest, was in shock. For the first time since
therefore Socrates is mortal
a new reality raised itself into view and he realized it had been embedded all along, waiting for him to be ready to see it so it could shiver free. You saw the word
all over the place then suddenly got your license for it. A delicious panic filled him. He daren't wonder if it filled her too. Maybe it did: there was something displaced about their conversation nowâthe latest bombing campaign; the absurdity of Ronald Reagan becoming governor of California; Jack Ruby's death and the reawoken migraine of the Kennedy assassinationâthis was their mÃ©tier but the new reality (once the word
was in there was no getting it out) was a pulse of mockery behind it all. They'd done this thingâafter weeks of mutual stalking and the building expectation of the Harry's cliqueâfucked each other, and what emerged from it shrank everything else. Ludicrous that a whole world could be washed away like that, but here it was, a new heaven and a new earth. He imagined the ten-thousand-strong rally crowd standing in stunned silence having watched the two of them at it on the mattress. You go to bed together and discover disloyalty to every
thing else. Exceptâhe caught himselfâhers to her brother.
He did it to spite me
. No doubt she'd done this to spite him in return. Her eyes had had plenty going on. She'd wrapped her legs round him and pushed her breasts up for his mouth but he knew she was moving dreamily between motives. Even without the shadowy presence of Michael there was the giant fact of her father and fucking Northrop Aircraft. Earlier, when Augustus had walked her to her door and she'd slipped her hand into his and looked at him in the way that meant yes she'd said: I should warn you, I'm trouble. So am I, he'd said, the kind of trouble that eats trouble like you for breakfast.
“It was a good time,” Augustus says, seemingly involuntarily since the sound of his own voice surprises him. “We thought we were shining.”
“But you're not using it now. The memory of love.”
Augustus coughs up something ironish and pulpy, retains it on his tongue for the moment it takes Harper to say with a nod he can get rid of it, then turns his head and spits it into the corner.
“Wouldn't be any point,” Augustus says. “You need something that hasn't already failed.” Telling this lie feels sacramental, a small victory. In Barcelona just before the bombing Selina had said: Everything's better now. Coffee tastes better. Breathing feels better. Talking, waking up, watching a movie.
feels better. Her body had kept its shape though naturally not its tension. That first hot afternoon she'd been nervous, closed the hotel room's leaden drapes. Three decades take their toll on a gal, she'd said. You'd better prepare yourself. They'd stood face to face. He'd opened her robe and slowly covered her with kisses. He wanted to
get down on his knees and thank the Lord. In fact he got down on his knees and tenderly kissed her cunt. On the morning of their second day, after they'd made love and were lying together she'd said: Are we really to be given this, so late in the day? And in a state of complete muscular and skeletal peace he'd smiled and said: Yes, we are. God's got a romantic streak after all. She slid her leg over his, nuzzled his chest, pinched the soft flesh under his ribs (as if every moment required its own proof that yes, here they were, after all these years together again) and said, If He's responsible for this I might consider giving the old bastard a second chance. How do you feel about ordering up a couple of Long Island Iced Teas, by the way?
“This is the crux,” Harper says. “The failure of the scripts. Love, justice, equality, salvation. There's a script here and now failing, right? Several scripts. The conversion script. The epiphany script. The reversal script, in which by interrogating you I end up interrogating myself.”
“I was hoping for the rescue script,” Augustus slursâand after a pause Harper chuckles, their eyes meet, the connection's sweet, demands acknowledgment.
“The humanist script says humor trumps everything,” Harper says. “You go with that?”
Augustus has acute pins and needles down his left side. The body persists in such things regardless, which consistency is the real horror, not Sartre's Nature-gone-crazy and people's tongues turning into centipedes. “No,” he says. “We're past fairy stories.”
“Hollywood's pushed us past them, ironically. On-screen psychopaths now are Wildean wits, charismatic wisecrackers, above all empathic: They
it. We're over the delusion that if only these
people could share a joke with us they'd be incapable of doing what they do. Now it seems incredible we held on to that delusion so long.”
Laughter was absent from the
meetings in Barcelona. Jokes were tacitly taboo. The cell's culture was one of fierce po-facedness and cocked anger. In the first weeks and months it wasn't a problem for Augustus, since in the wake of the bombing he'd lost his ability to laugh anyway. But as time passed the capacity for seeing the funny side began to reassert itself. There were moments of terrible temptation, rich ironies and juicy puns the act of resistance made doubly delicious. Several times he had to pretend visits to the bathroom so he could sit with his shirt stuffed into his mouth to smother the sound of his laughter. Eventually he understood. Humor destroyed literalism. The
's silent proscription made perfect sense.
“Humor's the gap between what we are and what we'd like to be,” Augustus says. “Same gap conscience operates in.”
Nodding, Harper gets to his feet, paces away, reaches up and squeezes his left trapezoid with his right hand. It's not the first of these tension-easing gestures and in spite of himself Augustus grasps at the theory of imperfectly suppressed compassion surfacing in another form, like referred pain.
Presumably at a signal from Harper the guards put down their cards and get to their feet. Everything goes from Augustus except the knowledge that he won't be able to stand any more. He realizes he should have spent the interlude readying disinformation. Fear comes up so fast from soles through knees belly chest and there it is filling the back of your throat and the space behind your brain so you can't talk, no room for anything.
t Marsh Hill Augustus gets off the bus into the night's soft tumult. He's sorry to see the vehicle pull away. In the few minutes from Marle its bright interior befriended him with local ads and the muted conversation of the three lady passengers at the back. Trundling through the dark it had had the feel of a last unit of civilization. He'd sat sweating and shivering and being in ten thousand spider bites eaten by the fever but also knowing the bliss of having his fate in the driver's hands. A great nobility attached to drivers if you were in a bad way. Declining celebrities presumably fell for theirs, the silent pilot, the dependable silhouette. Take me home, oh please just take me home.
Augustus watches the taillights disappear. Certain reflexes of the imagination still fireâthe wind is God moving His handsâbut come to nothing. The world's emphatically literal. Appositely literal since he's leaving it soon. You know where you're goin' now, Mr. Rose? the driver had asked as Augustus alighted. Yeah, I've got it, thanks. But alone in the billowing rain he's not so sure. Without the bus his sense of direction dissolves; he feels it goingâthen it's gone. Is the lane on his left or his right? He takes a few steps up the hillâthen catches himself, shocked at how crazily the fever's working him: The road hugs the coast; for Christ's sake there's only
on your left. The lane's across the road on the right. Follow for a quarter of a mile, then the stile on the right, dry stone wall, footpath, another stile and you're on Maddoch's land. Come to the croft from the opposite side. Go now beforeâ¦go now and get the stoveâor even light the fire if they've finished theâ¦go now.
The wet road passes under him in many more steps than he
would've thought necessary, but still, there's the lane in front of him where the trees meet overhead (mourners consoling each other, Selina said in the preliteral days) or so he thought but is wrong because with no idea how such a thing could be possible finds himself pitching forward in what feels like slow motion (he has time to equivocate between reason's
and the fever's
portal to another dimension
) before sudden contactâa terrible flash of pain in his left knee and right shinâbrings physics back.
At his first convulsive reflexâto get to his feetâthe pain sears, yanks a cry from him, a pure sound of himself he hasn't heard since Harper, who for a split second he expects to see standing over him. Don't try to get onto your knees because the knee and the shin are pressed against something sharp and can't take any weight. The knee and the shin now have the luminous importance. Despite the pain he has to think the maneuver through. Use your hand to feel where the edge of whatever it is is. Farm tool or car part. Some sort of blade. There. That's the edge. So now you roll, take the weight on your elbows.
The ditch bottom's flooded but for a few moments he has no choice but to lie with his right side partially submerged. No idea how he could have gone so wrong. And so many more opportunities for going wrong between here and the croft. Is this it? Found dead in a ditch? Why not? Why's he come here if not to discover the manner of his dying? Isn't this earth and water, iron and stone? What other graces was he expecting? He imagines Maddoch's black-and-white collie tomorrow morning drawn by its nose, never smelled a dead man before, then Maddoch coming up,
get ewt there Sam
assuming fox or sheep or badger or whatever. The dog not sure how to be, what signal to give, circling away and
back as Maddoch's long owl face registers. Fuck me it's the
, which he'll pronounce
. And there the farmer will stand in the silvery morning amid the sunlit puddles, breath visible, hands hot in his pockets, already around the core shock the vague fear that this, whatever the explanation, won't be good for him, for his scheme of things. Christ almighty. Christ al
Augustus breathes easier, locates his stick. No denying the temptation to lie still, close his eyes, go out, go out, quite go out. The ditch smells of waterlogged earth, an unbankruptable freshness, the planet's thrusting monomania for renewal. If the dead weren't dead this is the force they'd feel pushing through eye sockets, ribs, jaws, the upheaving freight of microbes and nitrates. Sorry, can't stop: life.
Suddenly the rain comes down harder. He rolls onto his side, gets up on one elbow, shivering. Footage of the sun reveals fire tearing itself off in giant strips; this is the fever now, agitated and profligate. He's not, apparently, to be given peace. The pain in his knee and shin is as if the blade or whatever it is is
in there but when he reaches down feels only a small tear in his soaked trousers. Lean forward and grab a fistful of grass, haul and use the stick to take as much weight off the legs as possible, but even so it's going to hurtâ
With a twist he rights himself flush to the bank that slopes down from the roadside. Possible fracture of the shin, possible chipped bone in the knee, nothing broken but enough damage to double the distance home. There are times when the islanders send out their collective spirit to harass him. Look at you: old one-eyed black man lying in a ditch at the edge of the world.
What the fuck are you doing here?
Tell us or die but for God's sake put an end to this.
A sodden fox trots past, a vision of urgent purpose from tail-tip to snout that hasn't changed since the species arrived. Without God there's only the richness of the accident and it makes no sense to praise accident; still, creatures have the beauty of being undividedly themselves. The restaurateur, Gianni Cardillo, who fell in love with Juliet, and who was a very peripheral Mafioso, had a passion for animals, and for wild animals an infantile rapture. This is the glory of God, he'd say, watching television lions strolling the savannah. How can anyone say there's no God when you see somethin' like that? Jesus, people are fuckin'
. Augustus had of course begun with and for many years maintained a hatred of the man whose money supplemented him through college (my mother's
is putting me through college, he told Selina, in a tone that conceded his own disgusted willingness to take the arrangement if the alternative was having no life on a scholarship) and whose connections after college spared him the draft. But eventually in spite of himself came to see there was more to it than that. Cardillo went to women for the answer to the question of his secret worth, to be told whether, apart from the knack for getting on in the world, he was any good. Once she'd given him that, there was nothing he wouldn't do for her or those she loved. In his honorable moments Augustus knew casting his mother as whoring strategist was bogus. She was genuinely drawn to Cardillo, who had warmth, quick understanding of people, delight in the world's contradictions and a doglike nose for pleasure. Augustus could see the change in his mother, that for the first time in his life she wasn't worried. I know this is going to be hard for you, baby, she said, once it was apparent Cardillo wasn't going away, but all I'm asking is that you give the guy a chance. You want him
to be a lousy bastard, I know, but remember just because you want something to be true doesn't mean it is. He wants you to be a lousy bastard. Doesn't mean you have to be. Augustus had had a dreary feeling she was right, that his soul was being confronted with a signal to grow, and, with bizarre clarity, that Cardillo's was too. Still it took years for both men to see the war between them was a reaction to the shock of having liked each other from the start.