Read an Excerpt
chapter 1 May 2008 Howard Morgan was on the floor of the old pig shed in transition from Cobra to Locust when a blood vessel burst in his head. As his brain began to leak, a sudden cloud shift high in the sky cleared a gap for the sun; bluish needles of light from severalholes in the roof slanted through the amber underworld of the shed and landed in small, brilliant studs on the floor around him. He shook the hair from his eyes, lifted his chest, stretched his arms back, and wondered how he could have failed to notice thembefore: a myriad particles of stone and straw dust spinning in each slender column of light. He would be able to count every sparkling one, he thought, if he gazed long enough. Time slowed. Shining dust went on dancing in the air of the old pig shed. Howardgazed. Time stopped. Was it happening? Was he poised at last in yogic bliss, on a bridge between the physical and divine worlds, reaching through the one toward the other? If only Deborah could see him now. Just then another cloud passed in front of the sun, the light beamsvanished, and Howard’s bliss (if it was that) vanished, too. Of course the proper place of bliss was in the striving for it, he knew that; it lay in the virtue of the attempt. Nonetheless he felt a little cheated. Should a glimpse of eternity (if it was that)leave him feeling so sad and emptied out? The big hand of his watch beside him on the floor moved to seven minutes to nine, and pain began to pound in the left side of his head. Howard abandoned Locust, eased himself out of position and tried to sit cross-legged, but his body was slow, his limbs heavy and rigid. He tilted over and fell on his side, off the yoga mat. The next thing he noticed was that his cheek against the coolfloor was strangely loose and squashed-up under one eye, and it was partly obscuring his view of the watch, which was now just a few inches away. Several dry wires from his beard were caught between his lips and he could not push out his tongue to lick themaway. But he could hear a faraway snoring that was nonetheless coming from his own nostrils, and he could smell the stony, dank, animal scent of the ground where he lay. It was likely, he found himself thinking, that some time had passed since his face hadlanded there. He reached out his right hand and brought the watch up close. Through the tickling veil of his hair he saw that the numbers had gone and in their place was a circular tangle of unintelligible marks. The pins radiating from the center of the watchwere familiar but he could not grasp what they meant, either. He lost his grip and let his arm drop to the ground. The watch rolled away. There was always a reason for pain, Howard believed. It was a protest, some misalignment of mind, body, spirit, and cosmos, a disharmony for which the sufferer had to be, in karmic terms, responsible. But this pain wouldn’t let any such belief anywherenear it, never mind close enough to stick. This pain was simply itself. Howard couldn’t tell if the method of his torture was burning or freezing—whether boiling water was being poured through his ear into his brain or his teeth held clamped on a mouthfulof ice—but either way it was torment. And it was paradoxical, being both random and malicious: nothing to do with him, yet personal. Perhaps he’d feel this way about being struck by lightning—aggrieved at being singled out to suffer an extreme of some inescapablebut natural cruelty that was as pointless, in the end, as any chatter in his head about higher meanings for it. He couldn’t go on lying there. But when he tried to think about sitting up, he heard a thousand small voices firing disconcerting messages all around his body; back and forth they went through the circuitry of nerve and cartilage and muscle, checking, synchronizing, double-checkingthe effortful and blindingly complex work they were going to have to do to achieve the action of raising his torso from the floor. He lay listening to the clamor and for a while nothing moved. Then, babbling its interior commands, very slowly his body performedthe task of getting him to sit upright, for which, though the exertion made him nauseous, he felt grateful. He wondered what to do next. Stand up, obviously. But with his head pounding, instead he looked at his hands moving inconclusively in his lap and couldnot summon any certainty that they were his hands, or even hands at all so much as a pair of waving, clawlike objects, no more and no less than two weird objects among all other objects that were, had been, or ever would be in the world, present, past, or future.They existed. That was that. His control or ownership of them was a notion he no longer understood. In a universe newly revealed as transparent, indifferent, and timeless, they, along with any claim to be called anything as arbitrary as hands, had lost alltheir Howardness, somehow. Meanwhile, his head hurt. But as he went on staring Howard felt more of the boundaries between himself and the rest of the world dissolve, and soon he could not tell where the matter of his—or the—hands (or the wrists or arms or legs) ended, and thematter of the floor (or the roof, or the lately departed shafts of light shining through the holes in it) began. Even so, the part of Howard that couldn’t tell any of this was aware that it couldn’t, and was also aware that it seemed itself to be expandingand filling a space somewhere above the spot where the rest of him sat half off his yoga mat, unable to stand up and mesmerized by a pair of hands. It came to him again: everything in the universe, including himself, just was. Then he felt joy—ineffable, entire,surely the whole world’s joy—surging into him and swamping him, not unlike (if he only knew it) the tides of blood that were simultaneously flooding the interstices of his brain. It was a splendid agony, enough to knock him off his feet had he been on them;instead it pulled all the breath out of him in one long, surprisingly distressed and high-pitched squeal that he’d intended more as a song of praise. No matter—he was drowning in joy and pain, and oh, where was Deborah, whom at this moment he loved utterlyand who ought, no, deserved to be with him and drowning, too? The detached and euphoric part of Howard floated on, observing the other part of himself stupefied by pain and incapable of pinpointing the nature of his agony, but quite possibly in a dialogue between himself and all Creation. More time passed, probably. Howard drifted closer and closer toward disembodiment, ageless, weightless, and free to roam where nothing was required of him save his surrender. Then a practical, hurrying voice no less his own would wrest him away, remindinghim that he had a biting pain in his head and it was necessary to go somehow and announce this trouble to Deborah. That was when, trying to get himself on all fours, he realized his left arm wasn’t working. As it folded under him he had time to register anothernew idea: the possibility of damage. Levering and yanking his left leg this way and that, he managed to drag his body across the floor to the wall. His eyes weren’t working properly, either. Using his good hand and the side of his face, he scraped his way alongto the open doorway. In the morning light of the yard, he sensed that the world was carrying on as usual. The day itself came back to him. It was a Monday and there was work to do; they were painting the outside of the house. He remembered that things were not going well.They were supposed to be getting the place in a fit state for the Bed and Breakfast season and were running late—Easter and the first May Bank Holiday had already been and gone—and he was also trying to appease Digger, who’d been around the place waving thelease under his nose and threatening court. The exterior painting was supposed to be done by the tenant every six years and Howard had managed it three times in twenty-seven, the last time eleven years ago, and what did Howard think the district judge wouldmake of that? His vision cleared a little. Across the brick-cobbled yard two ladders led up to the familiar homemade scaffolding he’d fixed against the wall. Two or three hens meandered underneath pecking in the sodden leaves that had lain all winter around the baseof the down pipes. Up on the scaffolding, buckets sat along the plank that ran under the upstairs windows, and that was where Deborah was standing with her back to him, ten feet off the ground, slapping whitewash on the pebbledash. But as he opened his mouthto call out, it struck him that the Deborah on the scaffolding was not the easy, openhearted, adored Deborah who’d come to his mind in the pig shed. Somehow in the disorientation of his headache he’d forgotten that years had passed, and that that Deborah hadgone with them. He recalled, in a way that made his heart shrivel with sadness, that the Deborah on the scaffolding was part of what was not going well. The fight they’d had first thing that morning came back to him, too, bursting with filmic exactness uponhis frayed mind as another of the many for which, he also recalled, she was to blame. Through the deranging throb of the headache came an extra thud of annoyance, and he closed his mouth. His throat felt clogged; he had an idea his voice wouldn’t work. She’dbeen in her overalls at the kitchen sink, gazing out of the window and complaining that the whitewash was too thin. She said it wouldn’t last, it was another false economy. Then she’d gone on about the hens being all over the yard again so he’d have to fixthe fencing properly this time or the fox would get them overnight. All he’d done was point out that her negativity was counterproductive and ask why couldn’t she take things more in her stride. “My negativity? Counterproductive? And you spending half the day on yoga, that’s productive? I’m to take that in my stride as well, am I?” “It’s not half the day, it’s an hour and a half,” he’d said. “You’re free to join me. It might calm you down.” She’d burst into tears. “Free? That’s your idea of free?” she’d cried, and banged out of the kitchen. She looked calmer now. Howard was exhausted by the journey from the yoga mat to the door of the shed, and for a few moments he did nothing except lie and watch the bending and rising of her back and the slow stroking of paint on the wall from the brushin her hand. Just as he’d been mesmerized by the swimming dust motes in the light beams and the fleshy, fringed appendages that were his hands, he felt an impersonal desire to go on watching forever. Woman. Brush. Paint. Wall. He didn’t want to get up again.Please could he not just lie forever on the ground, emptied of all belief, emptied of the need for any? But as he watched, the notion of Deborah as woman detached itself and departed, and his mind filled with an even more restful contemplation of Deborah asorganism, her body beneath the overalls animated by the same involuntary and more or less marvelous zoological impulses that compelled the hens beneath the scaffolding to dip at the dead leaves in the drains and the banded bodies of earthworms to wriggle intheir beaks. He had never before felt so objective and curious about his wife, and so certain she had no meaning at all. Like everything else, she just was. But he also needed Deborah, as wife, to come and put right the matter of this pain in his head. Concentrating hard, he instructed his lungs to produce the breath to speak. He managed to call out but the sound he made was not her name, nor a word at all.He tried again. His second attempt was no nearer to speech but it was louder. Deborah turned, saw him, and called back, but she was not speaking words either, as far as he could tell. She dropped the brush. Her feet were thumping along the plank, too fast,in the direction of the ladder. Howard summoned all his will to cry out to her to slow down, but all he could let loose were urgent, broken noises. At the sound of them Deborah turned too sharply from the top of the ladder. It shook, swung outward on one legwith the weight of her body, crashed back against the scaffolding, and began to slide. The hens scattered in a flurry of splayed wings. Howard closed his eyes and did not see Deborah fall, did not see how heavily she landed. But he heard and understood herfear and pain, even though she was using words he no longer knew. July 2011 Long before the stroke something had been saying to me that we couldn’t go on. I was accustomed to the way we had to live, of course, but even so I kept hearing a voice, fading but not quite drowned out, and seeing in my mind, like glimpses through a pinhole,pictures of an easier time. Although not of a time I’d actually known, not of a time past. Our years at Stoneyridge wouldn’t have withstood even sentimental retrospective scrutiny, at least not from me; Howard would probably have pasted a false glow on it, right up to the momenthe was unable to speak. Howard and his cheap paint, Howard and his tardy reparations—Howard now wordless and purblind and for all I know still in search of riches of some sort: truth, enlightenment, love. But I’ve never been nostalgic—it would help if I were. Long before I met Howard I knew the difference between how a thing was and how you could make it seem to yourself when you looked back on it, so it’s not just Stoneyridge I don’t get romantic over.My Scottish upbringing, for instance, that Howard liked to imagine as all that mists and mountains nonsense, I’ve always held inside myself as a memory of what it actually was, seventeen years in Auchenfoot, a featureless lowland town. Even in the summer of1979, when the one thing I was sure of was that falling in love with Howard would set me free of it all, I still didn’t recast in a softer light the childhood Sundays I spent in the chill of the tin-roofed church under the trickling of rain, whispering myprayers of dread and longing through aching, steel-braced teeth. I didn’t forget that all other concerns about life had been marginal alongside my love for God and my minister father—a crushed and crushing love that amounted, really, to a powerlessness totell them apart. Until, it turned out, the March of that year, when in the course of a four days’ illness as sudden as the onset of the Spring, my father and God together faded and fell away from me, the one dying of peritonitis, the other disintegrating inthe shadow of that death. I was inconsolable, not just for their loss but for the certainty their invisibility brought, that neither of them continued anywhere beyond life. Their going was absolute.