Jethro Soutar is a translator of Portuguese and Spanish. His translation of By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He recently founded Ragpicker Press and co-edited its debut title, The Football Crónicas, a collection of Latin American narrative non-fiction.
Rachael McGill is a writer of theatre and prose fiction. She is also a literary translator from French, German, Spanish and Portuguese. Original and translated work has been performed in many UK theatres, broadcast on BBC radio and published by Oberon Books, Bloomsbury, Polygon, Steidl Verlag, Brand Literary Magazine and Litro.
Paradise must be the cessation of pain, said Elias Gro, as his end drew near. The man on the cross watched us with reverential silence, eternal compassion. Elias repeated the words, which were not his own, as his gaze fixed on a bird pecking at the window pane. We heard glasses overturn outside the stone house, the rumble of a coming storm. I was sitting in a chair, he was lying down, sick, as sick as a body can be, little more than a shadow. I ought to make it clear that I knew nothing of his illness until way after the beginning. The beginning? Yes, until way after all this began: it maybe makes sense to start here.
Or to start again.
He was sick, as sick as a body can be, and I, having woken rather late from a vicious dream, had chanced upon Cecilia and the man on the cross, and the two of them–in their infinite stubbornness–had shown me the way. In reality, there is no way, there is no path. We pretend there is, and that it makes sense to look for one, and we pretend until we end up convincing ourselves that there is one. Then we discover our tracks have been erased behind us, swept away like dust on furniture in an abandoned room after the windows have been reopened. We carry on, as best we can, with no notion of where we're heading and getting no help from what we’ve so far seen, for the memory is constantly melting away. That's what these words are for. For other, more prosaic things besides, but mostly for that.
The funeral was many years ago. I don’t live on the island now, but the memory of the lighthouse still troubles me. It sat on the top of a hill, with an escarpment beneath it that opened out into a magnificent cove with crags on either side; in between the crags was a small beach, tucked in there as if in a gesture of gratitude. The sand was dark, the waters warm. I’d come across the island in a magazine. Fewer than a hundred people lived there. Tourists visited only during the summer months, and in small numbers, for the place was only accessible by ferry. I called a friend who knew that part of the world and, after a fair bit of back-and-forth and some gentle insistence on my part, I found myself speaking to a German named Heinrich. He was brusque in his manners, but he told me he owned a lighthouse on the island, as well as a few other properties, and that the lighthouse had fallen into disuse due to changes to maritime routes. If I was interested, he could rent the lighthouse to me for considerably less than he could his houses. But it had one disadvantage, he warned me. It was three kilometres from the island’s only settlement, a distance which was difficult to cover at night or whenever the ground was muddy. That’s an advantage, I replied. It was February at the time and it had been raining non-stop for three months. From the window of the café where I sat, I watched an elderly woman carrying an umbrella get dragged along by the wind; on the other side of the road, a woman cursed as she hesitated over crossing at a red light; a huge queue of cars sounded their horns. Heinrich couldn’t tell from my voice, but the idea of removing myself from humanity consoled and terrified me. It was a fantasy many people entertain, but rarely realise. I asked him how long I could have the lighthouse for.
For as long as you like, he replied.
I promised to pay him for the first three months upfront and we settled on a price. Heinrich seemed pleased with the arrangement. I remember seeing, through a rough circle in the café window that had yet to steam up, a figure moving on the second floor of the building opposite. I’d been watching from the same place for weeks. This is how you go mad, I told myself, as I paid the bill and left. Five minutes later, I was outside the cemetery. Water streamed down my face, drained off my chin; my sodden clothes clung to my body until they were part of me, clothes and skin indistinguishable in the rain.
When I arrived on the island, Heinrich met me at the pier where the boats moored. It was a wooden walkway adorned with two giant flower pots. Geraniums, perhaps, I couldn’t say. I was surprised by Heinrich’s appearance. The voice on the telephone had suggested a rather gloomy character, but the man before me smiled, waved to the boatman, addressed him by name. He wore a cap and his nails were dirty. He told me he’d spent all day with his hands in the soil; when he wasn’t attending to his rental properties, he worked in the garden. I looked back and saw the blue and white boat that had brought me there, a small boat that held no more than five people, turn round and move away, back towards the peninsula. It was a dark day: a collage of greyish clouds gathered in the sky, threatening to storm. I’d arrived in the nick of time; any later and the boat journey wouldn't have been possible. A ferry made the crossing twice a day, but I’d chosen to travel on a private boat. At the time I lived in constant fear of my own dark clouds bursting, of tears pouring forth. It could happen at any time.
Difficult journey? Heinrich asked.
I live a long way away, I replied.
You speak good French.
Thank you. You speak good English, which, as far as I know, is what we’re speaking.
Oh, said Heinrich, and laughed. You’re right, I was distracted. We can speak French if you like.
English is fine.
We got into Heinrich’s car, an old open-topped jeep, and set off along a dirt track, bisecting a green field that stretched as far as the eye could see. I have to tell you, the only thing I remember about that journey is physical, my body's memory of the bumpiness of the road. Two suitcases, the German and me, bouncing up and down on crude benches in the sort of vehicle that wouldn’t look amiss with a couple of donkeys attached at the front. Only later, while walking about the island, would I notice the huge plantations of sunflowers, opening by day and closing at night; the white clouds that sometimes flew so low they seemed to sit on top of the island, like a hat on a head; the slope on the western side that led down to some fisherman’s shacks and skiffs; the cemetery where the island's inhabitants buried their dead; and the church, although it troubled me to look at it and I tried not to do so for quite some time.
It took a long while to cross the island. The car’s engine cut out every two or three hundred metres and Heinrich had to re-turn the key in the ignition to bring it back to life. At some stage he pointed out a valley in the distance where twenty-five to thirty houses with gabled roofs nestled together. Most were painted blue or red, a few were white. They were arranged in some mysterious order that seemed determined to avoid creating a centre. Some faced the sea, others looked out onto the road that led into the village. Others, older looking, gazed north, towards the point where the land tapered off, where green gave way to sand, sand to rocks, and the rocks were swallowed up by the sea. The car died for the umpteenth time.
There used to be a house there, Heinrich said, as he fiddled with the key.
See those rocks, jutting out from the water? There used to be a two-storey Victorian house there, built in 1886, or 1888. The sea gobbled it up a few years back.
Gobbled it up, I repeated.
It happens, said Heinrich. The car started again. It’s called coastal erosion. The sea comes closer and, bit by bit, what we thought was solid ground starts slipping away. By the time we realise what's happening it’s hanging by a thread and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The people in the village started a petition to have the house moved, but it was too expensive, and nobody really cared enough.
Who lived there?
No one for the last few years, Heinrich said. We were going down a hill, the road skirting the summit of the island to the left, the car leaning gently to the right. I held on to the door handle so as not to slide down the seat. The suitcases bounced up and down behind me like a couple of circus acrobats.
Or rather a writer lived there, Heinrich continued, but that was over thirty years ago, long before my time.
His name was Lars Drosler.
Never heard of him.
No one has. He was Danish. Or Swedish maybe. Anyway, he spent the last years of his life alone in that house. And now his house has sunk. You can dive down and see it if you like, though you need a suit, it's right at the bottom.
As we rounded the bend, the lighthouse came into view. It was at the end of a straight road, more than a kilometre long. The road licked a field of darker earth, volcanic perhaps. After that the land rose up into a knoll, concealing the sea behind it. The lighthouse was red and white, with a black cupola that served as an observatory and a nesting place for a gang of seagulls. The birds were unmoved by the squeaking of the jeep as it struggled up the incline. We parked beside the lighthouse and got out. Heinrich helped me with my cases.
Unlike my memory of arriving on the island, which can only be described as absent, my first impressions of the lighthouse are vivid. I remember the smell of damp that hit me the moment Heinrich opened the door, the floor covered in a snow of shiny white paint that had flaked off the walls, the swirl of vertigo I felt on seeing the spiral staircase that led to the roof, and most of all, the sudden sense of isolation that had, until that moment, been no more than a concept. The ground floor of the lighthouse was circular and empty, except for a pillar in the centre that supported the staircase, and an old desk pushed up against the wall. The desk had evidently served as some sort of reception back when the lighthouse still functioned. It was bitterly cold and when the door was closed, the only window to the outside world was a steamed-up porthole.
For a brief moment, I regretted my decision. I wanted to pick up my suitcases and get the hell out of there. I doubt anyone else would have rented the place: layers of dust had accumulated on the furniture, damp filled the cubby holes, half the lights didn’t work–Heinrich flicked a fuse switch on and off by the door, but nothing happened. Yet it wasn’t the insalubrious state of the place that filled me with dread. It was the unthinkable materialising before me. It was as if I’d made a choice from a catalogue, without realising it would ever become a reality. This upright tunnel perched on the edge of a cliff was now my home. Here, freezing cold and immersed in twilight, several kilometres from the nearest living soul, I would have to confront my past.
Heinrich started climbing the stairs with one of my suitcases. I followed behind with the other. My heart throbbed with sadness; I felt like a condemned man, that by crossing the lighthouse threshold I'd voluntarily laid myself down in a cave ready to die. All it needed was for Heinrich to shovel earth over me.
The second floor was a storage room, practically empty; the third the machine room, boiler and generator; the fourth was home to the lighthouse keeper’s living quarters; and the top floor, accessible through a trapdoor, was the circular tower, the balcony, and the light that had been dead for over a decade. Heinrich advised me not to go up there.
The fourth floor had windows on the north and south sides and, if you kept them open, the air circulated freely. I followed Heinrich into a very small room. There was a black and white television mounted on a ceiling bracket, a dark red sofa, a fireplace (though a gas heater also sat beside the sofa), a single bed, a gasoline lamp on a square table and an octagonal wall clock that had apparently given up on signalling the time. The walls were made of brown brick. An old dial telephone sat abandoned on the floor. A grey boiler suit hung behind the door.
In case you feel like getting your hands dirty and knocking this place into shape, Heinrich joked.
He couldn't make up his mind whether to leave the suitcase inside or outside the room. The space was so small that we couldn’t get in or out without banging into one another. I told him to put the case on the bed. As I came out of the room, I realised it was dangerous to do so quickly: one false step and you’d be over the iron rail of the spiral staircase and into what would probably be a fatal fall. Beside the bedroom was a bathroom and next to that a tiny kitchen. Across the landing there was a lounge crammed with furniture: an old fireplace, three chairs, various lamps, a riding saddle, a phonograph. On the left hand side was a bookcase. I picked out a few books at random. Two were by authors I’d never heard of, the other was a collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges. I put the first two back and kept hold of the third. I promised myself I’d tidy up the place and then sit down and read it.
Heinrich watched me from the bedroom. He smiled. It seemed neither the weather, which had turned calamitous–gusts of wind flinging themselves at our stone cylinder–nor the poor upkeep of the lighthouse caused him the least concern. He held his cap in his hands. I ought to point out that I liked Heinrich, even though I found him, on this first encounter, a little simple. This was no doubt a natural enough reaction, but the long journey had also made me tetchy. In any case, I was of a mind to accept whatever I was being offered. I sought only protection from the elements and the volatility of mankind.
I opened one of the suitcases. My boxing gloves leapt out immediately, as if anxious for some fresh air.
You box! said Heinrich, enthusiastically. Do you fight?
I'm a professional prizefighter, I told him.
Now I must point out that I am not, nor have I ever been, a professional prizefighter. But boxing had become a hobby back then. I had no interest in watching fights on television. I knew the names of famous boxers, but watching them in action left me cold. However, in the months after my separation, I developed an interest in boxing for exercise. I was crossing the forecourt of a shopping centre one day, feeling utterly despondent, when I caught sight of a pair of gloves in a shop window. They were red and white, like the lighthouse. I bought them and started training in my flat, alone, placing a cushion on top of a cupboard propped up against the wall. I discovered that when I was punching the cushion I wasn't thinking, and not thinking was what I craved most. I needed a way of holding back the words, for if they were allowed to flow freely they brought more and more words, whispered words, as if every word secreted a thread linking it to another word, spinning a web of words around me, trapping me in a cocoon. All it took was hearing any word she'd ever uttered (and she uttered so many) come out of the mouth of another. Sometimes all it took was an image: a woman's hand resting lightly in her lap, gently scratching an ear lobe, the bend of a little finger, nibbled nails, hair gathered in a clasp, or a bun, slightly moist eyes, eyes whose colour fluctuated between brown and green, according to the weather, eyes that were alive on happy days and opaque on sad days, or whenever the seasons changed. A growing belly, incongruous on a thin body. These things and more, many more. Images that brought words with them–hands, hair, eyes–and words that brought other words with them; smaller ones, mere details, but hurtful enough for me to need to punch them away. I punched until there was nothing left, nothing but the fantasy that would be left over whenever we no longer had the stomach for the fight, whenever we raised the white flag and tried, exhausted and battle-weary, to rebuild the narrative of our life together from the wreckage of defeat.
I spent several weeks punching the cushion. Then I joined a gym and allowed myself to be punched by an amateur boxer. The sensation, unpleasant at first, became addictive. My days were spent in one of three places: my rented flat, the café from which I watched the second floor of the building opposite, and the ring where I punched and got punched three or four times a week. In truth, given how much time I spent there, I should add a fourth place: the whisky shelf at the supermarket. I was getting through a bottle a day, starting at lunchtime and never going to bed without two or three after-dinner measures inside me. It was only late in life that I understood the enigmatic relationship between man and drink. The euphoria of those first few sips that convinces us alcohol can soothe our pain, can help us transcend awareness of our insignificance. The bottle softens life's blows, dulls the sharp edges of reality. Glass follows glass, until, paradoxically, we lose all resilience to suffering.
I followed this routine for a long time or at least it seemed a long time to me. At night, sprawled on the living room sofa in my sparsely furnished flat, I began to experience a feeling of awe at what I glimpsed inside myself. Then I'd summon the whisky to cover it up again. My feelings popped up, then hid, like a child playing in a maze, revealing a leg here, a head over there, teasing and disappearing. What had me in awe was my own emptiness: a death and a separation had turned me into a vessel containing nothing at all. A heavy breath would have blown me away, sent me spinning through the air like a leaf falling from a tree until gravity brought me to rest in some forgotten corner. The bruises and black eyes I got from boxing reminded me of all of this; the thick lip I got every Thursday night reminded me of it: I was ready to be harvested, ripe as a grape bursting with juice. Yet I fought to keep myself intact, no matter how hard the punches.
Hands, eyes, hair.
On my second day on the island, I ran over a little girl. It feels strange to write that. But that’s what she was–a thin, ungainly little girl, her legs like spindly tree branches–even if it's hard to imagine a time when that's all Cecilia was. Someone I wouldn’t have given a moment’s thought to. Someone who, if she’d come to me in distress on a stormy night, I’d have grudgingly delivered to someone else who might help her. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to engage with her problems myself, the way she ended up doing with me. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
That morning I was walking along the path that led to the village. The path cut through a field of volcanic rock and when I reached the curve and saw the green meadows beyond the mountain, I realised I had to deal with the issue of how far away I lived from everything on the island. I looked behind me and saw the lighthouse, drowning in mist. It wasn't long after eight. I'd been tossing and turning in bed since six, failing to rediscover sleep. Sleeping in the lighthouse was like sleeping in an aquarium. Everything was amplified, from the creaking of wood to the sound of the wind as it hurled itself against the walls; it was like an echo chamber and the only means of escape was a twenty-metre high spiral staircase. The darkness was overwhelming, like nothing I’d experienced before, a physical darkness that clung to your body like sweat in a fever. At midnight I’d woken from terrifying dreams and staggered to the window seeking comfort. All I could see were waves breaking on the beach, unleashing themselves violently against the rocks. I realised I should have brought a bottle, but it was too late to think of that now. I watched the dark water for a while, felt the icy wind howling like a phantom across the cove. Then I closed the window and lay back down, trembling. When I woke again, I was grateful for the benevolent light of dawn.
Now, emerging on the other side of the mountain, with the houses visible in the distant valley on my left, I understood that my terrible isolation would be less acute if I had my own means of transport: with transport, if I needed anything I could be in the village in a matter of minutes. I asked myself what exactly I thought I might need, given that my intention was to shut myself off from the world. I realise I meant if I needed a drink. If I needed a drink.
I looked down at my mud-caked shoes. Heinrich had told me the path would be slow-going; my feet sunk into earth still moist from the night before and now sprinkled with fresh rain. The fields to my left dipped down to the sea, an intense green slope, yellowed here and there by silage, or interrupted by a patch of white flowers. I left the road and headed across the fields. The village was still five hundred metres away and in this terrain it would take me quite some time to get there. I looked up and saw a spiteful cloud hovering over the island. In the distance, if I screwed up my eyes, I could make out the rocky pier. I thought about the Victorian house Heinrich had described, wondered if in fact I'd dreamed it, drained and sleep-deprived as I was after my journey. A house at the bottom of the ocean, I muttered to myself, stepping to one side to avoid one of the many piles of dung dotted the field. I calculated distances. The lighthouse was on the opposite side of the island to the quay where I’d disembarked, which made a quick escape impossible. I was going to need boots: now on flat land, my shoes sunk ever deeper into sand that was turning into mud in the rain. It was a few weeks until spring. Given that my survival would depend on making this journey regularly, it would be preferable to do so in dry socks.
The village had been built without any logic. Improvised trails followed the slope down to the sea and got entangled in amongst the houses; lower down, where the concentration of buildings was greater, a dirt road cut through the settlement. The houses were of more colours than I'd noticed the previous day. Some were salmon with blue roofs, others brown with red roofs. In the distance, to the west, was a huge grey shed. It was a strange place to walk around. If you broke into a run, you'd find yourself plummeting into the water before you knew it. The sea sat three or four metres below the highest point of a narrow cliff that skirted this side of the island. At the lowest point, the surface of the earth surrendered to the ocean organically, almost imperceptibly. Seagulls strolled on the sand or rested on the rocks, shaking their wings, staring out to infinity.
I set off along the dirt road. The rain had eased off, but I was already soaked. My shoes squelched and spurted water; under my coat, my shirt was glued to my body. There wasn’t a soul in sight. I wondered whether Heinrich lived round here, but soon forgot the thought. Further on, next to a sky-blue house, I finally saw another human: two men chatting. One smoked a pipe. He was very old, with a long white beard and dishevelled hair. The other had a stripy cap. He stood with his arms folded, listening attentively. I approached them and apologised for interrupting their conversation, then asked if they knew anyone who could rent me a car. The old man sucked on his pipe and looked at his companion. The younger man’s eyes were so clear and absent I wondered if he was blind. He said nothing. The smoker responded, in antiquated French:
There are three vehicles on the island. The bus, that only runs in the summer, the fire engine, and the German's jeep.
Four, the other man corrected.
Four? said the old man.
You forgot Pedersen's tractor.
Oh, yes. And the tractor.
The old man turned in my direction and removed his pipe. I could see his rotten teeth and the hairs protruding from his nostrils.
Which one would suit you best?
Both men laughed. They must have taken my silence for offence (in fact I was simply exhausted, and the dampness was making me impatient), because the younger one came closer. He groped in the air until his hand found my shoulder. He stroked my arm, like someone soothing a child who's fallen off a swing and won't stop crying.
Come, come, he said. It was just a joke.
Are there really only four vehicles here? I asked.
With a sweep of his arm, the old man indicated the entire bay.
We've got everything we need here. If we need things we don't have, we go to get them on foot, or we use this.
He walked over to the nearest house and picked up a bicycle that leaned against the wall. It was an old iron model, covered in rust, with bent axles and a broken headlight.
It's the latest thing, he said, climbing into the saddle. You work the pedals here and, once you’ve got your balance, it takes you wherever you want to go. Look, like this.
The blind man, his mouth open to show a row of uneven teeth, clapped as the other rode in figures of eight. I felt ridiculous watching their clowning. I walked away. When I glanced back, the man had fallen off the bike and lay sprawled in the wet grass, calling for help.
I continued on the road as it began to hug the seafront, then spotted a shop. The sign on the door said Épicerie Boulay. I went in. A man with a moustache and a checked apron welcomed me in. I explained that I’d arrived on the island the night before and needed boots, supplies, and a means of transport. He twirled one end of his moustache, as if he was giving my situation serious thought. The shop was a small grocery store (the vegetables were fresh, everything else was in tins) that also sold coal, firewood, cigarettes and alcohol.
You can get your supplies here, he said.
And I can rent you a bicycle. If you want one of your own, we'll have to order it from the mainland. But this is a good bike.
He went into the back of the shop and returned with a very old yellow bicycle. The handlebar was twisted, the saddle was half coming off. It was missing the left brake and the chain was rusted. But it did have a basket on the front in which I might carry my shopping. We settled on a price. I left with a bottle of whisky, tins of beans and trout, bread, firewood, firelighters and matches. The basket held everything except the firewood, which I carried under my arm wrapped in newspaper. I was anxious to get back to the lighthouse, to light a fire and eat and drink for the rest of the day. The owner of the shop had explained that if I carried on along the same path, towards the water, I could skirt around the bay and reach the lighthouse from the west side, rather than going back through the volcanic bog. I set off, gripping the firewood under one arm and steering the bike with the other. I passed a clump of houses facing the sea. Then, on my left, I noticed a tavern. A sign above the door read:
Le Calme Avant la Tempête
The girl came out of nowhere. That sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s how my brain registered it: she materialised so suddenly that even if I’d been unwaveringly attentive, even if my mind had been totally focused on the present instead of wandering off to who knows where, the crash still couldn't have been avoided. I hit her with the side of my wheel, as there was just enough time to swerve, but we both ended up on the ground. The girl fell on her right arm and cried out in pain. I landed tangled up with the bike and shopping, and banged my head against one of the logs of firewood. (Later, Cecilia would claim that I stared at her for several long seconds before colliding with her; I would swear this was not the case, that I was looking at the name of the tavern at the time of the crash, but she won the argument by demonstrating that the crash happened more than twenty metres beyond Le Calme Avant la Tempête.) There was a brief pause before I dragged myself to my knees, then forced myself up and went to inspect the result of my distractedness. A little girl, ten years old, maybe twelve, lying on her side, her mouth open but emitting no sound. I picked her up. She was very light. Her short, mousy-blonde hair stood up straight on her head. It tickled my mouth. She had freckles and very white teeth, the incisors longer than the rest of them. She gripped her right arm with her left hand and made a muffled murmuring sound. My shopping was scattered all over the ground; a tin rolled away down the path. I shuddered. A woman came out of a nearby house. Seeing my anxiety, she asked:
Was it bad?
And then, to the girl:
Very bad, replied Cecilia. She pretended to faint.
The woman took us inside. Her name was Alma. Still dazed, I apologised repeatedly. I laid Cecilia on the sofa and then noticed the blood on my hands. I saw my reflection in an empty picture frame leaning against some furniture: my head was bleeding. Alma came back with a basin of hot water, a towel and a bandage. She was short and round. She wore a boiler suit over denim trousers and a pink angora sweater. She had trainers and stockings on her feet. It was as if the blind man had assembled her outfit.
You clean your wound, she said. I'll take care of her.
She began to bandage the girl's arm. The room was simple and sad: two plastic chairs facing a switched-off television, the sofa, a dining table with a vase of white flowers, picked from the fields. I cleaned my wound. Alma went back to the kitchen and I heard her talking on the phone. I looked at Cecilia, who returned my gaze. Her bandaged forearm rested on her lap. I sat down beside her, hoping to make peace.
Alma’s not my mum, she said.
I'm not worried, I lied.
And don't cry.
I'm not crying.
She's Mr Pedersen's wife.
So she's Alma Pedersen?
That’s a nice name.
Her and Mr Pedersen are separated, but sometimes he sleeps here.
How do you know?
Because I come in the mornings, we go to school together. Sometimes I bump into him on his way out, looking tired.
Alma goes to school with you?
Cecilia laughed with her whole body. Her shoulders shook.
It hurts, she said.
So there's a school on the island?
We get the boat.
How many pupils are there?
Seven. Eight including Erland.
She scratched her face, which was smeared with mud.
Why don't you include Erland?
He only comes sometimes.
Were you on your way to school?
When you ran me over?
It was an accident.
Cecilia shrugged. This movement hurt her too.
You should try to keep still, I said.
No it's not.
It is. I can feel it.
If it were broken, you'd be screaming with pain.
I am screaming with pain, Cecilia replied. On the inside.
I stared at her, stupefied. Alma came back and told us she'd spoken to Cecilia's father, who was coming to collect her. She gave me an anxious look.
You should go and get your bike and gather up your things, she said.
I went outside without saying anything. I picked up the scattered shopping and put it back in the bag. Crawling on all fours, I found the tin of trout nestled in a puddle. The rain had started again. In the distance, the door of the big shed opened. I imagined my punishment being unleashed from inside. Without thinking any further, I got back on the bike and pedalled off. The bottle of whisky, by some miracle, had remained intact. My body asked for what it asked for. I forgot the incident as I left the town behind me and pedalled along the seashore, back towards the lighthouse.
I don’t have trouble remembering events, only remembering them with the sense that it was me there, rather than another character inhabiting my life. As a child, I would experience a phenomenon whereby the world would start to shimmer, as if I were underwater. It was a cold, indistinct world. The only sound was a distant echo, like the echo of the sea when you hold a shell to your ear. The bodies of people fragmented into wispy clouds. I experienced it in adulthood too, but less frequently; or perhaps it was so much a part of me by then I was only occasionally conscious of it. It happened when a night was too long and sad to bear, or when I opened a window and caught the scent of the changing seasons, like a flower freshly picked from a meadow. Moments like these opened up the void inside me. The void had been there a long time, and it was beginning to spread like a tumour. Sooner or later, it would engulf all sense of hope.
When I discovered boxing, these episodes increased. Castro, the amateur boxer with whom I sparred, was dogged and detached. Only at the end of each session did he show any sign of humanity, embracing me briefly, promising that next time my pain would be less. He had difficulty understanding my reasons for being there.
I want to feel, I told him, pointing my gloved hand to my chest. Here.
There may be a medical term for what I experienced for forty years. I told myself there were reasons for my remoteness, for that sense of separation anxiety that accompanied me always, encased me like a membrane. Providing the protection necessary for a narcissist to survive, perhaps. That's what A. called me one day. Narcissist. Seeing myself from the riverbank, the mirror fascinated me so much that everything else became but an irritating raindrop that distorted the perfection of the image (so Lars Drosler puts it). When A. used the word about me, I accused her of being melodramatic. It was our first year together. It was hard for both of us: we were trying to strip away the thick layers of skin that covered us, to live with our raw flesh exposed. It felt like the spring thaw must feel to a polar bear. I was emerging from the deep lair I'd been hiding in. She was doing the same. We argued constantly; it was rare for us to agree on anything. I forced myself to be nice; she did too. Two adults who should have grown out of neediness long ago, but hadn't, instead entering a second phase of neediness, this one even harder to escape than the first.
We met when a friend (my only friend) invited me to Vila B. one afternoon. Back then I rarely left the house. I had a difficult relationship with other people, which my doctor described as pathological. I worked all week. Evenings and weekends, I took my medicine and slept. But this friend insisted, so one Saturday afternoon I went to meet him at Vila B. As always after long periods of isolation, the beauty of things affected me deeply, made me feel I was on the cusp of an epiphany. The villa had a sunny internal courtyard, with a fountain in the middle, surrounded by very old buildings, external staircases and balconies exposed like dinosaur skeletons in a museum. A small café sold drinks. We sat down to chat. I can't remember what we talked about. I remember the children: three boys of seven or eight, another a little older. They ran up and down the steps of one of the buildings, the oldest giving orders. You, do this; you, do that. While I listened to my friend, I watched the scene unfold behind him.
One of the kids disappeared for a quarter of an hour and came back with a bag of shopping so heavy he had to drag it along the ground. Sweating in the summer heat, he swung it onto his shoulder like a saddlebag and lugged it up the steps. Another young boy entered the villa clutching a bunch of purple and yellow flowers. He too went up the steps. The coming and going died down for a while. When we were on our third or fourth drink, the child in charge came into the yard with his arms laden with cigarette cartons. He whistled up to the apartments. A few old ladies were at their windows: one hanging out washing, another slumped against her balcony rail. A window opened on the third floor and a woman peered out. Her hair was so black she looked Japanese, but her face was western. She shouted down in a shrill voice:
The one on the right!
She went back inside. The kid disappeared and reappeared a minute later with two packets of cigarettes. He went into the building. He wore shorts and flip-flops.
I interrupted my friend, asked him if he'd noticed what was happening.
I come here all the time, he replied. They’re always doing it.
I went back to Vila B. the next day, the night after that and three days later, whenever work allowed it. One or other of the children was always hanging around the door to the building where the woman lived. Roses and geraniums decorated the balconies. There was a bell at the entrance to the courtyard that must, at some point, have served as a doorbell. The first couple of times I sat in the café, hoping to see those black locks appear again at the window, hear that shrill voice shouting orders. All I got was a glimpse of one of her hands. It held a cigarette the way old men do, inside a ring formed by the index finger and thumb. Smoke drifted down from the balcony as the voice called out its instructions, the vowels clipped, the tone harsh.
The third time, I approached one of the kids. I was tired of my waiting game; I wanted to drink at home, alone, with nothing to bother me, not in this café. Or else I wanted to meet the woman. I handed the boy a note I’d taken from my wallet, made my request and watched him skip across the yard, lit up by the late August sun, and ascend the steps. The face soon appeared at the window. It was half hidden behind laundry that hung from the balcony, but I saw the knitted eyebrows, the wary look. I left the café and went up the steps. They were narrow: I imagined an escape tunnel from a prison. I knocked on the door. A. opened it. Her hair hung loose. It was very thick, and dishevelled, like the hair of a child who’s just woken up.
She had beautiful eyes. Greeny-brown and almost dull, as if they only shone once in a while. She asked me what I wanted, while drawing on her thin cigarette. Her voice sounded less shrill than it had from the café. I replied that, as the kid had presumably told her, I was interested in renting a flat in Vila B.
I don't rent flats, she said.
She wasn’t friendly. There was no smile, just the same suspicious frown. The smell of paint reached me from inside.
But maybe you know someone who does, I said. I noticed her hands. Are you a painter?
She looked at her hands.
I think you are.
It’s none of your business.
She was about to shut the door when one of the kids appeared. He skulked behind me, restless, tapping his sandalled foot on the floor. She noticed his discomfort.
You need to come in for a wee? she asked.
The skinny kid nodded. He wore tattered shorts. A. let him squeeze between her and the doorjamb and go inside.
I need to use the bathroom too, I joked.
She still didn't smile. She said:
I have to get back to work.
Me too, I replied. Can I just ask you one more thing?
Go on then.
She was jumpy, shifting from one foot to the other (her feet were bare and looked too big for her body) as if she was standing on hot coals. My presence clearly made her nervous; an unknown man almost inside her house.
Have you heard of the Baker Street Irregulars?
The reference seemed to calm her.
I have them waiting on me hand and foot.
So I see. I thought only great detectives had armies of helpers.
The case of the man who knocked on strangers' doors, she said.
The irregular reappeared, relieved. She let the ash from her cigarette fall on the carpet. From her trouser pocket, she took out a note and handed it to the boy. He shot down the stairs like a rocket.
Can I come in? I asked. I promise I won't keep you long.
That was how I first went inside A.'s house. The living room windows looked onto the sunny courtyard. The room was filled with canvases of various shapes and sizes, some blank, others painted. A. painted the sky. Sometimes a dark sky, clouds massing one on top of the other, threatening imaginary storms, sometimes a cotton-white sky with a single weightless cloud. In some of the paintings, the nebulous forms resembled faces or winged figures. I saw a road in one, and said so to A.; in another, I saw a pack of dogs running towards a cliff; in a third a woman's face. A. lit a fresh cigarette. She followed me as I skirted the room, peering at every painting. The floor was covered in newspaper. An intense light infused the whole space. From the window, I saw a church in the distance, beyond it a calm river on a summer's day. In that room with A., admiring the things she'd made, I felt as if I'd emerged from inside myself, broken to the surface of a deep well. The fog had lifted, the echo was gone. And from her candid expression, the way she watched me looking at her paintings, I realised what it was, the distrust with which A. had greeted me, the hesitation before she'd allowed me to come inside, the impatience with which she sent the children to fetch the things she needed. It was not distrust, or hesitation, or impatience. It was fear. We had that much in common. Fear.
Standing at the window, we started to talk. She explained that she avoided going out on hot days because the heat gave her panic attacks.
What about cold days?
Cold days do too, she replied. But when it's cold, people notice you less. They’re too busy rushing to get somewhere.
And that helps?
Yes, if you suffer from hypersensitivity.
Hypersensitivity to what?
To everything. Other people. Life.
I boss them around. But I pay them well for it.
Aren't you ashamed to be sponsoring child labour?
A. shrugged. Her shoulders sagged. She stood with her legs slightly apart. She was thin. Her nails were bitten to the cuticles. She smelled of sweat and whatever she used to clean her paint brushes. Everything about her screamed isolation, everything was calculated to keep other humans at bay. She didn't want to know what I did, where I lived, how. I liked that. I thought her very intelligent. It was an intelligence that came from within, someone who lived in darkness, attuned to the shadows.
How long is it since you last went out? I asked.
She held her cigarette in the ring of her index finger and thumb, raised it to her mouth. She took a challenging step towards me.
Into the street.
To get some air.
I can open the windows.
I'm going to the zoo tomorrow, I lied. Why don’t you come? When did you last see an animal?
Animals don't like me.
She went silent, smoked. Was she waiting for me to insist, or did she want me to leave? I felt unsure: had I mistaken defensiveness for intelligence? The difference was subtle, though little understood. We tend to confuse standoffishness or reticence in a person with their being able to see into and through us, and so we retreat. I only had to look at myself to understand A.'s attitude before the world.
I bid farewell with a handshake and left. Like her, I feared discovering how similar we might be, how much of one there was in the other. As I walked towards the gates of Vila B., church bells echoed through the streets. A part of myself had been left behind in A.’s flat. I wondered if this might be the end of my solitude. I didn’t realise it was only the beginning. Because of the church bells, perhaps, I found myself thinking about the last days of Christ. Climbing the hill carrying the wood that would be used to crucify us all. Was he afraid, when the time came, of surrendering to God's will? Father, if thou be willing, take this cup from me: yet not my will, but thine, be done.
I heard knocking at the door, assumed it was part of my dream. I opened my eyes slowly, exhaled. My breath reeked of alcohol, my mouth was cork and fumes. The room’s only light came from a chink of white that escaped from in between the shutters and window. The knocking came again. The hands of the octagonal clock indicated half past three. It couldn't be that late: the weight of my hangover was too heavy, the congestion of fluids in my head too recent. The softness of the light suggested morning. On the table, beside the oil lamp, there were two fingers left in the bottle of whisky.
I got up, disoriented, and almost fell over. The logs in the fireplace remained unlit. Bending over to open my suitcase was a movement I felt incapable of, so, catching sight of the boiler suit hanging behind the door, I pulled it on over my T-shirt and pants. Down below, the knocking continued, less frequent now, but louder. The boiler suit was short and tight on me: whoever it had belonged to–the lighthouse keeper?–had been short and slim. I started down the stairs, feeling my way step by step, fearful of falling. I half closed my eyes to try to minimise the vertigo induced by the cascading spiral of the staircase; I felt that if I looked down too much, focussed too hard on the centre of the spiral, my body might decide it couldn't wait to get there. I clutched the handrail with my left hand. With my right, I traced the grooves of the tiles on the wall.
I must admit that everything I looked at that morning suggested death, as seen through the darkened prism of my heart, my dreams, my flesh. So when I opened the door, I did so devoid of all hope. I must have looked ridiculous in the ill-fitting boiler suit. A tall, lean man stood outside, bracing himself against the wind. He was dressed entirely in black, except for a white shirt under his coat. The wind played with his greying hair and beard. Its roar prevented me from hearing what he asked me.
What? I said.
He pointed inside the lighthouse. The waves crashed against the bottom of the cliff with a terrifying rumble. The sky was leaden.
We can talk out here, I shouted. What do you want?
The man signalled for us to walk around the lighthouse. Next to the bicycle I'd dumped in the grass the night before was another one, newer, with blue handlebars and two seats. It wobbled on its stand, assaulted by the storm.
Once we were round the side of the lighthouse, I noticed the man’s bright eyes and heavy eyelids. He looked like a child just woken from a doze.
It's years since I last saw that boiler suit, he said.
I looked down at my body. My testicles were pressed against the cloth.
It's not exactly my size, I said. What time is it?
He lifted his wrist, pulled back the sleeve of his coat.
Eight thirty, he replied, looking at his watch-less wrist.
How do you know?
Ignoring me, he said:
Have you lived here long?
Since the day before yesterday.
This was Xavier's tower. A man called Xavier lived here for many years. Since as far back as my memory goes, at least.
Listen, I interrupted. It's freezing and I'm tired. Can I help you with something?
The man sighed. He clasped his hands together in front of his body. He stared at his shoes.
You ran over my daughter yesterday, he said.
I listened to the silence of the waves and the storm that whipped around us. I took a deep breath; a typical bout of morning nausea seized my stomach, climbed up my throat. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out.
Don't worry, he said. She's all right. She's probably got a fracture. I'll have to take her to see the specialist tomorrow. But I enjoy the boat trip.
Please forgive me, I said, finally. She came out into the road and I didn't have time to stop. Before I knew it we were both on the ground and she landed badly. Then the lady took us into her house. It all happened very quickly.
Yes. Let me go inside and get you some money for the doctor.
He grabbed my arm: not forcefully, but with enough pressure to keep me where I was.
Don’t worry about it. The cost doesn't matter. When you have children you’re prepared for such things. Do you have children?
No, I said.
Hmm, he nodded. Kids are a way of life. They're forever leading you a merry dance. We look round and there they are, hanging upside down from some scaffolding. Or crossing the road without looking both ways.
I'm sorry, I said again.
It wasn't all your fault, he replied. He brushed the hair off his face. Alma told me how it happened. Cecilia is naturally absent-minded. As you seem to be too.
He gazed up towards the top of the lighthouse.
One day I’ll tell you the story of the lighthouse keeper. I think you'd like it.
Great, I said. But right now I need to go back inside.
I was busy doing things.
Are you going to get the lighthouse working again?
You're dressed for it.
No. Nothing like that. But I do need to go.
You say that a lot, don't you?
I need to go. I'm busy. I've got things to do.
I don't understand.
We’re never satisfied with where we are, what we've got. We say, let me just go and see what it’s like over there. Then when we get over there, we realise life was happening back where we were. But now we're over here and we can't go back over there, because life is happening here now too.
He pointed at the ground with his right index finger.
Life, right now, is happening right here. Do you ever think of that paradox? I do every day, when I have to get up to take my daughter to school and I want to stay in bed. But if I allow myself to stay in bed, I feel guilty about not getting up. People always seem to appear precisely when I want to be left alone. But if they don't appear, I get anxious that nobody wants to see me. Does that ever happen to you?
What I mean is, I don't know why everything seems so urgent to us. Why are we like that?
Because we're dissatisfied?
Yes, and restless.
It's probably to do with evolution, I said. If we were always satisfied with what we've got, we'd still be living in caves. Instead of a bicycle, you'd have come here on a donkey.
You might be right.
I looked around me. The island seemed to be controlled by an outside force, borne of the convulsing winds and tides.
So right here, right now is what's best, I said dryly. At the mercy of the squall.
Right here is pretty awful, he replied. But you were the one who didn't want me to come inside.
I didn't know who you were.
If you'd known I was the father of the girl you'd run over would that have made any difference?
I must have looked startled, for he started to laugh.
I'm joking, man, he said. Don't take everything so seriously.
He patted me on the shoulder. I shuddered internally. If I didn’t lie down soon I would keel over in front of him.
I really must be off, I said.
There you go again.
I tried to smile, but all I could manage was a grimace. I waved an inelegant goodbye and turned to go back to the lighthouse. The man stuck out a foot and tripped me up. He caught me by the arm before I fell.
Ah-ha, he laughed.
He's insane, I thought. I stared incredulously at him and pulled myself free. I walked quickly round the lighthouse. I was about to go inside when I remembered my bike. I doubled back to go and get it. It wouldn't be long before the leaden clouds let loose their deluge.
Look, he called. He was walking behind me, very slowly, hands behind his back, the hem of his coat dancing. I don't want you to pay the doctor's fees, he said. But I think you owe Cecilia an apology. Not for running her over, that was just one of those things. But for running away from the scene of the crime without saying goodbye to the victim.
What a ridiculous exaggeration, I thought. My temples throbbed; a small earthquake was starting to rumble inside my head.
I'll apologise next time I see her, I said.
Why don't you come over tomorrow?
Come over where?
There's a church on the south side of the island. It's easy to find. It's the only one. Go down that road, he said, pointing in the opposite direction to the volcanic field, and follow the coast until you see a spire. We'll be there tomorrow afternoon, for five o'clock mass.
I don’t go to mass.
Did I invite you to give the sermon? Just turn up around that time with a bunch of flowers. She'll be happy, and she’ll stop thinking of you as the kind of scoundrel who runs over a person and then disappears.
He got on his bike, waved, and rode off down the slope, unexpectedly quickly for a man of his age. I went inside, slamming the door shut behind me. The noise echoed around the lighthouse and burrowed into my brain. I dumped the bike, climbed the staircase aching for the bedroom, and passed out on the unmade bed.