There’s a scream inside us all we save for death. Once it’s out, once it’s given to the world, there ain’t no going back on it. It’s time to let go, to release your fragile grip on life. Otherwise, God’s just going to wrench it from you.
If you’ve never heard that scream, I hope for your sake you never will. I, on the other hand, must’ve heard it a thousand times. I can hear it now. A woman somewhere over towards the rocks is squealing like an animal that’s just realised it exists to be butchered, her cries issuing out of the fog like blood through a bandage. Now some guy, probably her partner, has joined in. Shouting at them, telling them to leave her alone, as if he has some influence on the situation. But you know he hasn’t. Fear’s slicing so hard at his voice it’s cutting right through. Soon she’ll die, and so will he. And I can do nothing but lie here in the dark, listening to my frightened heart pounding; just as all around me, hundreds of others must be lying there, listening to their frightened hearts pounding. It makes you feel sick to do it. But we don’t seem to have a choice.
If I could have one wish in life, do you know what it would be? Do you? To be young again. To be thirty, no, shit, forget it, twenty-one.
Oh yeah, I know, "Age brings wisdom; each age has its own compensations." That ain’t nothing but shit. Nothing but whistling into the grave. There ain’t no dignity in getting old. Ain’t no honour in being forever sick and your body rotting and being reluctant to mend with you. And I’m weak, too. My muscles hang off my bones now like they’re melting, like they’re wanting to ooze on down to the floor. Once I could’ve shifted anything. Anything or anyone that stood in my way, no problem.
Not that I was mean. I worked for some mean sonsofbitches but I didn’t do that much myself. Just the sight of me was usually enough. This big, wide bastard, with a face off the side of a cliff, erupting with muscle. I was Vesuvius with muscle to burn. You’d see me come in through the door, blocking all the light and you’d say: "Yes, sir, whatever you say, sir. It’s a pleasure doing business, sir. But don’t set that big bastard on me."
Truth was, I was more of an actor than anything. A frightener. But I was strong if I had to be. Twenty, maybe fifteen years ago I could’ve taken hold of this sack of old bones wherein clanks my weary heart and crushed it like a bag of broken cookies. So don’t you believe any of this shit they give you about getting old. ’Cuz the truth is, it makes you want to weep, it makes you want to cry for the health and strength you once had. Nowadays, if I look in a mirror, there’s this old guy staring back at me. I don’t know him. His skin’s a size too big for his bones, his hair’s all dry and drained of colour, and there ain’t the slightest flicker left in those sad flat blue eyes. In short, he’s old. And for old read helpless. Read unable to stop all these terrible things that’ve been going on round here.
Jesus! What the hell was that? What are they doing to her to make her scream that way? . . . Leave her alone! For chrissake. Let her be. Block it out, that’s the thing. Seal off all the entrances and don’t let anything or anyone through. Just me in here, inside this tortured old head, surrounded by barricades of fading and fragile memories.
Maybe if I was to share them with you? Pass them on before they dry right up and blow away? Maybe it would help you understand how we all ended up living like this.
How far back do you want me to go? The past seems so far away now. I won’t bore you with my childhood. I remember only one thing about my old man: on Saturday nights he’d come home stumbling drunk and either start serenading my mother like a fool, or laying into her like a madman. A combination she apparently found irresistible, ’cuz when he died in his sleep one night she refused to admit it to anyone. Just carried on, getting up, going about her usual business, even sleeping with the body. I tell you, if it hadn’t been for me going in there one morning, jumping up and down on his blotched and bloated hide, this terrible stench suddenly ripping out of him, he’d probably still be there now.
It’s a sad thing to have to tell you, but, for myself, I never actually been married. Never even had a proper relationship. Don’t ask me why. I used to have a perfectly respectable career, working for one of the classiest criminals around, but do you know something, the big guy never gets the girl. Have you ever noticed that? It’s the same in the movies. Mind you, the movies are pretty unkind to us all round: the big guy’s always stupid, the dope who never gets the joke. My theory is that it’s little guys who make movies.
She’s making a run for it. Shrieking at the top of her voice, tripping over in the dark with them chasing along behind her. Laughing and teasing in that way they do, working themselves up for the kill. The man’s voice stopped some time ago. They must’ve finished him off already. Please. Don’t come this way, lady. I hate myself for saying it, but don’t come over here to do your dying.
Where was I? . . . Oh yeah. All this talk about the past, about getting old, you won’t be surprised to learn I’m an Island Detainee. Got sent out here almost ten years ago after being means-tested and found wanting. I have this little lean-to, in the middle of the Village, out towards the eastern shore. It ain’t a lot, just a few planks and some sheets of plastic, but it’s as much as any of us can hope for now. Damp, of course, which don’t go down well with my chest. And cold in winter, too. There’s a special kind of cold seeps off that ocean, like it’s being injected into your bloodstream by icicles.
Then there’s the rats. Thousands of them. I tell you, some days it looks like the whole island’s on the move. Bold as brass, too. They don’t take the blindest bit of notice, no matter what you shout or throw at them. All you can do is look on them as your fellow creatures, living, not so much alongside, as with you. Sharing your home, your food, sometimes even your bed. If you don’t, it’ll drive you crazy.
I guess that makes things sound pretty bad. Endless rows of makeshift lean-tos lurching this way and that, acres of sheets of multicoloured plastic flapping like tethered birds, flies constantly trying to suck the juices from your mouth and eyes. But that ain’t the worst of it. That ain’t the worst by far. The worst bit is the smell.
They say you get used to it in the end, but even now, after all this time, there are days when I feel nauseous right from the moment I get up ’til the moment I go back to bed. Sometimes I even wake in the middle of the night, retching, spilling my dry guts out across the ground.
A lot of it depends on the weather. Top of the summer, when it’s stifling and still, it’s more than you can bear. There’s a constant sweet and sickly fug so thick it’s like someone jamming their dirty fingers down your throat. It ain’t something I can truly do justice to, but if you’ve ever smelled a dead animal rotting on a hot summer’s day, well, times that by a hundred, by a thousand, and you’ll have some idea.
Garbage. Nothing but garbage. Acres and acres, heaped up, stretching and stinking into the distance like a flyblown corpse dried and contorted by death. Most has been combed out, dragged and checked for anything of value, then just left to rot. Year in, year out, ’til it subsides enough to be tipped on again – and again, and again.
Some places, you dig down deep enough you’ll come across the twentieth century. Antique garbage and, believe it or not, there are those willing to excavate for it. Course it’s dangerous. You gotta wear a mask. But that ain’t much in the way of protection from what’s down there. Cancer ain’t nothing on the Island. Dead cancer, walking cancer, distended bulges and weeping sores. We don’t even think of it as a disease anymore. Just a parasite. Like those flies you got to keep an eye on in case they try to lay their eggs in your cuts and grazes.