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From the Trade Paperback edition.
Things could be worse.
Alone on Foal Island and waiting, Nathan Staples turned on his bed. He forced his chest flat to the mattress with a mild flex at his hips, then settled and calmed his breath. A familiar lack was stitching up his arms and then climbing further to jab at his brain. All psychosomatic, he knew, all self-inflicted, but all inescapable just the same. He exhaled with care, sidestepping the start of a sigh. Audible despair depressed him, most especially his own.
But things could, most assuredly, be worse.
The Persian Eye Cups, for example—they were particularly unpleasant, quite turned my stomach when I read about them, as I recall—they would be worse.
The Persian Eye Cups, yes . . . Person, or persons unknown, but presumably Persian, might whip out a pair without warning and fit them on snug. They’d prise back my eyelids and bed the cups right down against the nice curve of my eye and then they’d buckle all the necessary straps—I imagine they’d use quite a few straps, to stop me clawing. I would try to claw. But then I’m quite sure that they’d have their way with me, irrigate each cup with the correct corrosive dose and watch it bite.
I would naturally scream and jabber while my eyeballs both subsided into froth and the acid gobbled up my optic nerve. Tip back my head and my frontal lobes would swash about like hot, grey margarine. I’d be totally fucked. Eventually, all I remember would gargle clear out of my ears in two repellent streams and that would be that.
Which would be worse—of course it would.
He was waiting and didn’t like it. Never had. The wait, this par- ticular wait: it was always so demanding, so predictably calculating and lecherous—give it an inch or a moment and it closed on him in a tingling swarm to his warmer parts. It bit round the cartilage lip of his ears, breathed close to the bare of his neck, it was brazen at his armpits and the quiet joints of his thighs, it made him sweat. His body weight stung down unfairly against his tensing prick, while his thoughts sank and dressed to the left with a stocky tick of blood.
Rubbing an opened wound with living wasps. My wound. My wasps.
Or stapling my scrotum to the flesh of my inner thighs and then performing Scottish country dances until I feel my socks congeal.
I think that would be worse.
This was ridiculous. He was ridiculous. A figure of no fun at all, waiting for something which would not happen, could not happen, which should not be considered and surely to God had been set and settled a pathetically long time ago—put to rest on the much larger island near which his was fixed. Surely to God this was over with now, surely she was over with.
Being sodomised by an ill-tempered man using a plaster model of my own grandmother’s arm.
That would be noticeably worse.
He lurched himself up and off his bed. The bare board floor gave the standard, gritty shove at his naked feet and—now he was paying attention—he found he could hardly see. He couldn’t remember the sunset, but against the window, here it was—already night.
He felt for the doorway, the slope of the open door, and then stepped through and into the other room, peering and wary. Nathan was, as usual, far more accepting of imagined injuries than actual, factual knocks at his elbows or toes. Five steps to his left and he’d avoided the usual vicious clip from his table top, another two and he could safely shuffle forward to palm the wall and find the switch and then sway dumbly under the violent impact of instantaneous light. His dog twitched in its basket, but stayed asleep, eyes ticking and chasing behind closed lids. Outside, the lisp and murmur of the sea became a little more assertive.
Nathan gentled over to his bookshelves, eased a folder out, opened and dipped inside it, feeling for the photograph. There. The slick give of the surface, the catch of a corner, the touch of a border fast and thin enough to cut.
Want what’s worse? What’s really worse? Then let’s come and fucking get it. All the way.
The fully cocked and loaded photograph—tonight, he was going to look at it again. No need to be just sad when he could be truly, thoroughly suicidal.
As if you can choose. As if you can help it. As if you haven’t, just to spite yourself, been asking for it all night. No more games, now—if anyone deserves a head fuck . . .
I know—it’s me.
And don’t say a little bit of you won’t like it. After all, your head is your only private part that still has any chance of getting fucked.
So we part the mind wide open, spread the thinking till it cracks. Take in the view.
A snapshot view he knew so well now that he saw it quite imperfectly: either in rushes of terrible detail, or a kind of anonymous smudge. Here was the beach, still barred with weed and rock; the pale, refractive spill of pools; the green of algae; all aligned to make a neat perspective that slashed away to nothing and the edge of the frame. Lying along the horizon was a sliver of sea, much more confident and solid than the bleachy sky.
Had he ever been here? Inhaled the raunchy, dead salt scent of it all under that wincing sun? Leaned against the cool, fat sea wall? Chucked stones? Chucked anything? It looked like so many uneasy, unwelcoming Scottish beaches that Nathan never could put a definite name to it.
His attention began to scrabble at the image, hoping, in the customary way, that a proper mental focus would make the picture pliable, snap it out into three dimensions and comprehensibility.
From the Latin tango, tangere—to touch. Something tangible possessed the ability to be touched. Nathan had ambitions in that area, even now. Although, quite obviously, he was being touched already, in a way. His own imagination was performing a type of well-informed rape: penetrating him painstakingly with a ghost, with a time past restoring, an unreachable skin.
You’ve got a nerve complaining. You love it.
It’s all I’ve got.
But you don’t have to love it.
But I do. That’s what makes it worse.
Even so, he didn’t have the heart to look too long or closely at the picture, at its figure, at her. He couldn’t bear to pick out the soft curl of her body, pale in the rocks, and would only skip and brush across her, cradling the whole composition by its sides and staring beyond it to his dog, who was, undoubtedly, enjoying the gruff and healthy doggy dreams that gruff and healthy doggies tended to.
“Hey,” Nathan whispered, meaning no harm, “hey. Rabbits. Rabbits,” and his dog’s left forepaw shivered once or twice with a tiny desire to chase. Nathan softened his voice, barely murmured, “Not now, though. Not now.”
Nathan lifted one hand to his forehead tentatively—as if his skull might really be as fragile as it felt, as liable to flatten into uselessly thoughtful mush. When he edged his right thumb over in a minor exploration, its joints began to ache distressingly. He’d staved it a couple of weeks ago, punching Joe Christopher, and it was now a constant reminder that one should never punch one’s friends or that, if one did, one should first check the proper positioning of one’s fist.
“Nathan, you’re not being serious.”
“Am I ever anything but?”
“Nathan . . .” Joe had drolled out his name with an unmistakable note of sympathy. Joe was always full of sympathy and understanding—that was a lot of what made him such an irritating shit. “Nathan . . . you don’t mean it.”
“Of course I mean it—who wouldn’t mean it? I don’t fucking trust him. Like I don’t fucking trust anyone. Actually. Now that you ask . . .” He’d known he was being too loud here—it was the wine and the Sunday lunch—all that starch and protein and gravy-flavoured sweat. “Jesus.” Joe hated religious swearing, so Nathan had tried that again. “Jesus fuck.” Joe’s mouth had given a prissy little twitch—serve him right for being so uptight. “I mean—you grow up and you get a bit of common sense, right? Caution.” Nathan’s hands had lifted in a kind of wavery, Al Jolson plea and had begun to infuriate him. He’d known he was looking silly and hot and drunk.
“But you’re not.”
“Like what?” Some people went deaf when inebriated. Nathan was not that particular brand of person—he had simply been faced by a man who refused to speak with anything even approaching comprehensibility.
“Untrusting. I mean, you trust us. Don’t you?” Joe had smiled, gleaming with group solidarity.
And the group had, of course, been solidly there and watching. They’d surrendered their own conversations, the better to gawp: Richard, Lynda, Louis, Ruth: all of them waiting for Nathan to slip into something more florid, aggressive, bad.
“Now, you know I’m not talking about . . .” He’d felt himself obliging them, becoming more idiotic with each unsteadied breath. “That’s just not . . . When you make this to do with everyone else . . .” He’d frowned fuzzily.
“But who don’t you trust? Here.” There’d been no malice in the question—Joe, being Joe, was never malicious, only implacably and precisely curious. Also, he liked to take hold of a person’s thinking and pat it about like butter, square it up into something neat and digestible, if mildly sickening. But Nathan was never the buttery type—that afternoon, in fact, he’d tried steadfastly to suggest he was nothing but bones and malevolent gristle and increasingly bad blood.
“You’re mispere . . . misrepresenting me again. It’s—”
Nathan hated it when Joe interrupted. He did it so generously, as if he’d just slipped in, quite humbly, to remind the other speaker that their sentence had outlived its usefulness.
“And denying us all your trust would not be equally unfair?”
A thuggish impulse had broken out in Nathan and he’d indulged it happily. “Well, why not. Why not do that? You couldn’t stop me.”
“But why on earth would you?”
“To avoid disappointment.” Nathan had been trying not to take this personally, but fury had, nevertheless, bubbled up in his torso and made his colour rise. “Everyone disappoints me in the end.” There was no doubt that he’d started to look irate. He’d felt himself begin to bristle beside his ears. Anyone staring at him—as all of them were—would have assumed he was about to lose it. So then, of course, he’d wanted to lose it and fucking show them all, even though he really, probably, hadn’t been going to before.
“So you’ve stopped trusting anybody?” Nathan had heard that comfy purr Joe stroked through his voice when he was winning. “You don’t, for example, trust Jack Grace?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Jack Grace? The man is a foreskin with feet.”
“But you trust him.”
“J. D. Grace? Are you serious?”
“Yes. Quite.” Joe had stood, complacent with whisky, smiling companionably and setting out that single, certain syllable again. “Yes.” He’d grinned. “You don’t have a problem with J.D.—you have a problem with yourself.”
And that’s when Nathan had punched him.
The impact had made the disappointing, nothing-too-much-happening celery snap that punching did, while it stunned and shuddered up Nathan’s arm remarkably. He had watched the whip of motion in Joe’s neck. Then, before a gentle broiling had begun to seize Nathan’s hand, he had been able to think, for an instant or two, that he was, almost certainly, going to feel an extraordinary pain in his fist. Then, quite naturally, he had.
He’d tried not to give a toss what Joe was feeling.
Now when he looked at the two of his thumbs together, facing them towards each other across the photograph, they were definitely differently shaped. This was a worry. In his right thumb, the joint near the meat of his palm made a markedly sharper angle than in the left. This wasn’t to do with swelling, because all the swelling had gone. No, this was to do with bone. This was permanent.
He couldn’t recall if his thumbs had been this way always, or had only recently started to make a bad match. Things didn’t look right here, but maybe they never had. Perhaps he had fumbled through all of his life, oblivious to this constant, if rather trifling, manual deformity. Perhaps other people had noticed and never said.
Staring at both thumbs for any length of time proved nothing and made him feel slightly insane—like a cautionary illustration of what ills might befall an otherwise sturdy fellow who turned foolishly to vice—Thumb Staring. He shouldn’t do it.
But then, Nathan was full of the things he shouldn’t do. He shouldn’t look at the picture, he shouldn’t think until he hurt, he shouldn’t sleep flat to the chill of the wall and let it seep into his brain, or hug himself round the small purgatories of an utterly pointless wait. He shouldn’t be Nathan Staples, shouldn’t be barefoot and demented and comparing the shape of his thumbs.
From the Hardcover edition.