Authors: Glen Duncan
The fox is gone by the time Augustus drags himself up the bank onto the road and struggles to his feet. And miles to go before I sleep. Or one mile, but there remains the question of what just happened. The lane's ten feet to his right. How did he go so astray? The rain hammers down with continuous urgency. The downpour's added twenty pounds to his clothes. He suddenly realizes he's unbearably hot and begins wrestling his overcoat off, imagining himself seen through a thermal imaging camera, the observer going, Jesus this guy's on
At his second attempt the lane really is the lane, overarched with black mourning trees just the way the illusory version had been. The darkness at least is a comfort. His time with Harper had been brutal with light. You'd never think you could feel such grief for the loss of darkness. He'd thought of it then as a lovely young goddess who used to come and lie on him but never would again. Sometimes woken in the night by a dream (the same dream, always, that he's back in the interrogation room) he wraps himself in his sleeping bag and steps outside. Darkness now is pure phenomenon, nothing to do with him. This is the final relationship with the universe: you find solace only in things that offer none.
But his current state makes the darkness unpredictable, gives it an occasional twist or flake of light. The two new injuries, knee and shin, are rich power sources for the fever. At one point he wakes up on the cratered tarmac with no memory of passing out. His teeth and scalp are full of prickling confusion. When he reaches what he thinks is the second stile (in fact it's the wrong stile altogether) he's shivering so violently it takes him several attempts to grab the post and pull himself onto the step. Mud clutches and sucks, he twice loses his stick, falls, vaguely recognizes beguilement but wills himself down to a deep geography that corrects his errors and brings him as the last of his strength goes to within sight of the croft.
A hundred meters, he thinks, no more. That poor bastard who collapsed just before the marathon finish line and got helped up, made it, then got disqualified because of the help. What a dream the stadium must have been when he waltzed in, a softly roaring otherworld. These are gorse bushes. Those grayish masses sheep. And Maddoch leaves the key on the windowsill round the back. What happened to your eye? Well, son it's like this: I imagined them doing it and they did it.
The last thing he remembers before he collapses is Harper's voice in his head saying: The world's not what we thought it was, the world's what it's always been.
He wakes to the sound, smell and light-flicker of fire. For a moment he lies stillâon his back, dry, warm, with aching skinâknowing nothing, where he is, what happened,
he is even. His mouth's parched. He turns his head on the pillow, an animal looking for water.
It takes a second for recognition to gather (with it the rushed reassembly of his history) then he has the face and the name: Maddoch. The farmer stands in the doorway, rolling a cigarette. Beyond him blue-gray fleecy light that could be dusk or dawn. Dawn, Augustus thinks; there's a hint of burgeoning. The rain's stopped.
“How're you feelin'?”
Augustus swallows, tastes bile. He remembers seeing the croft pale and distinct against the dark hill and being surprised he'd thought
. “Thirsty,” he says, swinging one leg down off the cot. Bare leg: he's been undressed and put in dry underwear and a clean sweater, imagines the horror that would've been to Maddoch and the wealth of gossip the scars will provide. Scars like you wouldnie be
. There's a wad of toilet roll tied over his kneecap, same arrangement for the shin.
“Hold your horses, man,” Maddoch says, moving forward. “Stay put fra minute.”
“Just need some water.”
“Stay put, I'll get it.”
Maddoch goes to the sink, picks out and rinses the tin mug (part of the camping set Augustus has relied on since coming here) then fills it with water. Augustus remains half up, sleeping bag clutched over his loins. The drink, when Maddoch passes him the mug, gives him a joy so simple and pure he could weep.
“Another? Give it here. I'll ring the doctor's in a minute. Surgery doesnie open tillâ”
A shift in the light makes them both look to the doorway, where the girl from the bus shelter appears, peering in,
one hand on the door frame, the other in the leather jacket pocket.
“Oh, sorry,” she says.
Maddoch hands Augustus the refilled mug. Augustus stares at the girl.
“'S'yer guardian angel there,” Maddoch says. Which doesn't move them forward. Despite everything Augustus is aware of the fire shimmying in the hearth, its claim on a radius of domestic life from a contract forged half a million years ago amid a ring of red-lit moist faces. The change it makes to the croft's interior hurts his feelings, as if he's been cheated: a transformation like this should have been his decision.
“What happened?” Augustus says. “Where are my clothes?” He's seen his mud-spattered trousers draped steaming over a chair near the fire, his filthy overcoat on the back of the door the gun the gun the gunâbut neither Maddoch's face nor the girl's says they know about it.
“She found you,” Maddoch says. “Pole-axed, legs stickin out the door. Thought you were deed!”
The girl takes a step inside. “Only for a sec when I first saw you lying there,” she says. Her eyes flick from him to Maddoch and back again.
“Let me get dressed,” Augustus says. “No need to call the doctor. I'm fine.”
“Take it easy, Mr. Rose. You've had a bad turn there and a nasty knock. You seen the state of your legs, man?”
People here, the fire's transformation of the room, his feeling of overfullnessâthe world's done all this behind his back. He forces himself to speak calmly. “I'm sorry. I'm grateful for your help. Mr.
Maddoch, if you could just pass me my bag there I can put something on.” Pointing, he realizes he's still visibly, comically, shivering.
“Hen, just give us a minute will you?” Maddoch says.
“Oh aye, sorry.”
When the girl withdraws Maddoch slides the rucksack over to Augustus then turns his back and busies himself with the unfinished roll-up. “I'll tell you what,” Maddoch says. “You're lucky she came along there.”
“What time is it?”
“What's she doing out here at this time?”
“Lookin for work if you can believe it. Lassie's half cracked if y'ask me. Anyway we've nothing. Christ knows why she's not away to the mainland.”
Putting the clothes on hurts. Augustus clamps his jaws to stop his chattering teeth. By the time he's got the sneakers on he's faint, knows if he tries to get up he's asking for trouble. He sits holding the edge of the cot. Give her something. The figure fifty pounds suggests itself. He has a fifty, unbroken from God knows when, in his wallet. Assuming the wallet's still in the coat. And the gun, Jesus he could have dropped it anywhere. There'll be the tedious clambering of her saying no no I don't want that and him having to persist. He could get Maddoch to do it if he didn't see the farmer pocketing the cash.
“You'll need a whatsit jab,” Maddoch says. “Quack doesnie come out now that I think of it, but I can run you in later.”
“It's fine,” Augustus says. “Don't worry. Tell me what happened?”
“Best ask herself,” Maddoch says, going to the door and opening it.
The girl's not, Augustus decides, “half cracked,” but something's not right. Too much energy and not enough education, yes, but also a flipping between awakeness and abstraction. How old is she? Nineteen? Sixteen? He infers prematurely swallowed chunks of experience. The pull on his dead interest's like the itch in a phantom limb. He could groan and roll away.
“Prob'ly shouldna been walkin down here but I just thought there was something funnyâyou know how you get a feelin? Anyway sorry.” She says “sorry” a lot. She's got instinctive generous curiosity but there's some painfully ingested knowledge that checks it. “Recognized you from yesterday at the bus stop when you gimmie that fright.” Pronounced
. She laughs easily but it's always partly a plea not to be hurt. She can't stop looking at him but looks away if he looks back. After dead loss in the village Maddoch's was the first farm she tried for work. On her way to the next she'd seen the croft and wandered down to take a look. Augustus, unconscious, soaking, had been sprawled across the threshold, legs bleeding. She'd run back and got Maddoch.
“Lucky for you, Mr. Rose,” Maddoch says. “I was just about to go in for the wife's prescription.” Throughout he's avoided Augustus's eye. The scars have unbalanced him, confirmed the croft arrangement's a mistake. Augustus foresees the clipped attempt at eviction, the thought of which, the effort it'll require to talk Maddoch down, makes him dizzy.
“I came here f'ra holiday when I was little,” the girl says. “Always thought I'd come back one day.”
“I've told her,” Maddoch says. “There's no work. Summer, maybe, but not now.”
“Best be off anyways,” she says, standing suddenly. “Just wanted to make sure you were okay, you know?” This is her catching herself. She relaxes into things, makes quick friendsâthen snaps awake, remembering you don't relax into things, the friends turn out to be not friends. Best be off anyways.
Augustus knows the timing for the fifty pounds has to be right if he doesn't want Maddoch interfering. He waits till they're both out of the door then gets up and, after a moment's adjustment to the floor's pitch and swing, goes after them. Moving's a succession of cattle-wire shocks, dull bites in the bones. The wallet's in the overcoat where it should be, as is the gun. At the croft's threshold cold air surprises his face, neck and hands, sets the fever's pins-and-needles off again.
“Just a second, Miss.”
Her face when she turns shows a reflex fear that she's to be called to account, smothered quickly in a smile. Augustus beckons her, aware as he does so not just of Maddoch observing, realizing he's missing something, but of the wet land and low gray sky, the sheep nibbling the hill. This place avers the planet going on without people, the giant facts of rain and sunlight, the sculpted bulk of deserts, fish-heavy oceans, a wealth of spectacle for no one and nothing.
“Have a drink on me, okay?”
“Och don't be daft,” she says. It's her natural attitude but there's no disguising the double take and scurry for adjustment when she sees it's a fifty. Suddenly Augustus knows she spent last night not in a hotel. All these things he knows and doesn't want to, survival's gift of vacuous penetration. He shivers.
“Go ahead, take it. I insist.”
She shakes her head but her hands sing from the jacket pockets. He wonders if she's on drugs. Doesn't look like a user but you can't tell these days. “If it makes you feel better,” he says, “I'm loaded.” A gust of wind whips her ponytail forward and what feels like a wet bedsheet against him. He sways, rights himself. Her head's down, shoulders up.
She lets out a laugh then sniffs and he wonders if she's crying. It only lasts a couple of seconds but in that time he suffers a surge of claustrophobia, caught between the hot room and her bowed head.
“You don't look loaded,” she says, not looking up.
Whatever's trying to form Augustus doesn't want it. The room's heat presses his back. Everything has to stop and he has to put the fire out and lie down and them not be here.
Maddoch cranes his neck, owl eyebrows raised.
“Here,” Augustus says. He takes her hand (the cold knuckles are prominent) and forces her fingers around the crumpled note.
He doesn't want to look at her but she says, “Okay, thanks,” and lifts her head so he gets one glimpse of her face that suddenly looks exhausted before she turns and walks away.
hey've left him alone. Harper sent the guards out for a break, followed them to the door but hung back. For a moment it was just him and Augustus. “Information's the map,” Harper said. “Disinformation's a tracing of the map held over it in the wrong place. Right picture, wrong coordinates. You think I don't know
the difference?” Augustus couldn't answer. He was still in the pain furnace where there was nothing but the paradox of knowing you couldn't stand it and standing it, the extremity from which either annihilation or transcendence must follow yet neither did; only your loop of incredulity and no scream loud enough. “You're a mystery,” Harper said, smiling. “I'll give you that. I don't know what you're holding on to but whatever it is you're going to let go. You know this is right.” No rancor, just the limber body calmly alert. After the cheerleader Augustus imagined Harper would have switched to less cooperative girls, since seduction better served contempt. There was a narrow rich margin of things girls didn't want to do that you could with relentless coercion get them to do. The prize was their awkward mastery of disgust or fear. Someone Augustus couldn't see came to the doorway, exchanged a few quiet words with Harper, then Harper left, closing the door behind him.
Augustus lies on his side on the floor, hog-tied, his bare feet in a congealing puddle of blood. Pain sends its giant repeated signal from his beaten soles up through his shins and thighs and chest into his head where he can't stop the futile frenzied attempt to make it something he can sidestep or shuck. A scream's an attempt to open yourself wide enough to accommodate what's happening. He remembers the day Clarence Mills got knocked off his bike and broke his arm. The snapped bone came through. There it was:
, the thing dogs gnawed, in case you'd ever been in any doubt, your inside bits only God knew all about. Clarence screamed, but every few seconds stopped screaming and stared at his injury. The anesthesia of disbelief. Fleeting. These moments are just pain adjusting its grip.