In a rather hurried phone call from my new boss Andrew Blaise I was told he’d been called away for my first three days at Belvedere, the retreat he ran a few miles short of Canterbury. According to him, his unexpected absence would prove a help rather than a hindrance, as his newest client, whose name was Marcus Fyer, was also due at Belvedere on Monday. In a sense we would help each other, forced in our different ways to adapt to a new routine.
Fyer’s father had called us several weeks ago (apparently), a man incredibly busy with commerce, and chairman, I gather, of some high-flying entity never out of the FTSE 100. He offered his own diagnosis, even before our sessions began, and knew before we did what Marcus’s trouble was. He couldn’t concentrate on anything, a condition fully revealed in Marcus’s final days at school. Then as now he had failed to keep to the same set of friends for more than a few weeks together, but despite that was always out and about with someone – which badly affected his student life.
New to Belvedere I might have been, but this was hardly an unusual case. A year or so on, Marcus’s problems hadn’t disappeared, for having almost failed his exams he was about to drop out of university. He was studying politics, and Fyer the elder naturally wished him to see it through, a point put less than delicately in the only background I had, an email from Blaise. In it he said we get these cases sometimes. Father has ambitions for son, son is reluctant, huge opportunity he doesn’t know he’s got – it slips away. The contradiction is, that while the father sees no need for intervention (his son’s an idealist, he says: nothing in the world is right), he is more than prepared to part with the sum that Blaise demands. In return Marcus is fitted in, at late notice, into group and solo sessions. But he’d need some looking after, being quite a bit younger than most of our clients.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but on the Monday morning did instruct our receptionist to page me the moment Marcus arrived. As it happened I was at one of the upper balconies, still not clear where I was meant to go, when I saw his taxi bobbing along the lane. After a pause at the entrance, the car veered off towards the parking enclosures, and not too many minutes after that the two of us were shaking hands, both of us slightly taken aback at how sparsely furnished Blaise’s hospitality suite was kept – a single settee, and on the window ledge a square translucent vase, host to a lone Delphinium. Marcus wore denims, a tee shirt – all very voluminous – and a reverse baseball cap. His features were open, honest, though didn’t hide
his resentment. Once he’d picked up and shouldered his bag, I showed him his room.
Marcus didn’t get on greatly with the first group session he attended. That might have been because it started on the morning he arrived, and he joined it late, having spent several hours settling in his room. That, as I stood outside his door, involved at least one call he made over his cell phone. When, eventually, he did come and join us, he took his place in the circle without real conviction. Beyond introducing himself – ‘Name, Marcus; occupation, student’ – he contributed nothing. I thought I understood. His eight companions during these sessions were women, the youngest of whom were in their thirties. Their debate wasn’t his, centred as it was on their relationships and careers. I was at a loss to know exactly what to do with Marcus, and out of desperation suggested, towards the end of the week, that he keep a diary. My one proviso was that he may not fill it with material he wouldn’t want me to read. That might have been a mistake on my part, as his first week’s entries show. I think you’ll agree, they’re notable for what they don’t rather than what they do say:
June 28th I shan’t see Adele for a long time now, and all I can do is explore this place. Today I have found an old attic room, which I think I’m going to use.
June 29th What I now find is a table and two chairs, and a box of unused candles, which weren’t in the attic before. Nevertheless, I think I shall rummage further afield, to see what else there is.
June 30th, six p.m. Have collected a rug, and a curtain for the small square window. Room is looking serviceable…
July 1st Now here is something strange. It seems someone else uses the room. Papers have appeared on the table. There is a bookcase against the far wall, which as the day goes on I see is gradually filled. There is also a mirror, whose reflections don’t seem real.
July 2nd Who is this other person? If, sometimes, I move things, he responds. For example there’s a sketch, which has appeared pinned to the wall by the mirror. There is also a calendar, which shows the 28th as a Monday, and progresses like this: Tuesday 29th, Wednesday 30th, Thursday 1st, Traumsday 2nd. There is also something peculiar about the mirror. My reflection is different every time I look, and ranges from well to worried.
I don’t know what fantasy I was expected to enter into, or why, and felt keenly ill-inclined to ask for an explanation (the key to which was probably that ‘Traumsday’). I have to admit I was tempted to ask around among the domestic staff for signs of unusual change to Marcus’s room, which was light and airy and south-facing, and equipped with an en suite and modern furniture. In no sense was it an ‘attic’, given Belvedere’s flat roof and its cocktail-era architecture. Then of course I wondered who this Adele was, not forgetting the elder Fyer’s assertions in that respect – i.e. his son couldn’t hold onto permanent friendships. Perhaps there was something his father didn’t know, and there was of course that call I’d heard him make on his phone. His next two entries cast no further light:
July 5th A sunny morning, with a dawn wind blowing across the gardens. I dressed hastily and went down to the drawing room, where I let myself out through the french windows. Eerily, a dog barked distantly. I paced out across the lawns to the orchards, and when I reached a lane only one, solitary car came by, whose driver hesitated but decided not to stop. Soon there were guns firing remotely, but I saw no one.
July 6th, about midday The same walk as yesterday, though on returning, on the lawn by the fountain, I met Adele.
‘I didn’t expect to see you,’ I told her.
‘I’ve arranged to meet people,’ she said.
‘Do I know them?’
She said that was possible.
‘I’m being watched, you know, Adele.’
She looked away.
‘By a man who leaves things in my room.’
‘What’s he like?’
‘I haven’t met him.’
‘That’s how life is sometimes. I’ve got a form for you to fill in.’
‘Well, really a questionnaire.’
She handed me a sealed envelope, and touched the badge on her lapel. Then she turned, and skimmed the dewy lawn, and went inside.
Let us take these two entries in turn. As I recall, there is no view of the gardens from Marcus’s window. The courtyard below him is flanked by several outbuildings, most of which are used for Blaise’s vintage car collection. On the day that Marcus arrived, the latest acquisition – an Alvis – was having its chrome polished up. Nor is it strictly the case that of Belvedere’s facilities there’s anything described as a drawing room, through whose french windows Marcus set off for his walk. There’s a bar, where most people meet each evening, a restaurant, a TV or reading room, a fitness suite, but apart from these there is no other communal leisure area. He was right about the orchards, but there are woods, and a meadow, and a nearby farm, and these you encounter before you reach the road. It’s almost as if this whole escapade is a symbol for whatever it is he carries, but conceals from the rest of us. Then there’s Adele – or rather there isn’t Adele, as no one here is called that. And I can’t very well ignore the badge on her lapel, and ask what does it denote? If membership, of something Marcus wanted to be part of? And should I contrast that with the group sessions he was supposedly a member of here, under my supervision (because in reality he hadn’t joined them)?
July 7th Have resumed my explorations of the house. On an upper floor I have found what appears to be the principal guest suite, which no one seems to occupy. Invitingly, the bed gave gently. I sat down, then I lay back – intending only a minute or so – but soon I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
I slipped away during our morning coffee break and roamed around on the landings, not really expecting to find this mysterious guest suite, and not venturing to open its door had I done so. In the process I passed Marcus’s room, when its sheets were being changed and the duvet shaken out. I invented a pretext – half-true, as it happened – and entered, and without detaining them overmuch quizzed the two ladies I found working here. What happened in the event of a fire drill – escape routes, stairs etc? I nosed around as much as I could, and saw no sign of those objects Marcus attributed to his anonymous roommate (papers, bookcase, mirror). Nor could I see where his diary was kept.
July 8th At last have begun to piece together certain fragments of the dream I had in that upper bedroom yesterday. It opened in a basement flat, at a time when my very worst days had gone. I was taking my time over breakfast, and had no plans. There was a knock at the door, from the postman, who had a parcel.
‘Happy birthday!’ he said, handing it over. I took it to the kitchen, where I snipped the string and tore away the brown paper. Someone had sent me a pair of snowshoes, with a note attached: ‘Pay a £400 fine, become a postman in Winnipeg, or go to jail.’ I seemed to have no choice. I didn’t have £400; I didn’t want to go to jail; so I would have to become a postman. In any case, I had the snowshoes.
The life and the job were solitary, trudging over miles of snow, and hardly seeing a soul. Occasionally I’d hear the ring of bells – a sleigh – but there was really nothing more. I pretty soon returned to England. Here I found my flat was falling apart, and I now owed £400 in rent. As I tried to think of ways to pay, I woke up.
By now Blaise had been back from his conference for the best part of a week, but was curiously standoffish regarding my dealings with Marcus – almost as if my observations of him matched my new boss’s scrutiny of me. Blaise was short and rotund with wispy hair, by no means as pompous as he looked. I told him about the diary, which he glanced over as far as the entry above.
‘Fascinating,’ is all he said.
I pressed him. ‘Surely it must mean something.’ For who was this ethereal Adele, so unlike the women in our circle every day? And no sign anywhere of the things they discussed – attitudes to money, sex, men, the workplace.
Blaise only commented that Marcus was a good deal more sophisticated than at first he seemed, and that his text might well be a system of opposites and absences, a written antiphrasis absorbed into a mental landscape founded on – and these are Blaise’s terms – ellipsis and synecdoche. It meant I was supposed to look at these ramblings for what was implied or wasn’t really there, or compare what was there to its concrete antithesis coexistent in their author’s world.
‘You make it sound like sleuthing,’ I said.
Blaise only smiled.
July 9th Back to my room. Papers, normally on the table, have been scattered on the floor. There’s no one here but me. My anonymous roommate must have called, but departed hastily. I have put it all straight, and now that I’m seated I remember the questionnaire. I tear the envelope and remove the document, and read: in as many words as I feel are necessary, state my reasons for being here.
I can see some obvious parallels in this, and almost wish I had not so underhandedly entered his room. Categorically, I have not asked him his reasons for being here.
July 12th Having thought about that questionnaire, I am going to write the following reply in the space provided:
My project is to protect my life from its outer manifestations – that enervating walk each day from my rented flat to the train, then to the college quads where I learn the deceits of politics. I am here to be purged.
To Blaise I declared a breakthrough. He looked at me sceptically, listened to what I had to say, then only commented that if I’d become so dependent on his diary, I would never coax him into meaningful conversation during our group sessions.
July 13th This evening I sealed up that questionnaire in an envelope addressed to Adele. When, a few hours later, a first few stars appeared above the woodlands, all of Adele’s friends – some of whom I’d met – assembled by the fountain. Adele herself came out from the house, and the whole party put heads together and talked in whispers. I turned from the window, and thought I could see a figure at my table, vaguely in the failing light. Then – an illusion – he disappeared.
I made my way down to the drawing room and stepped out to the fountain.
‘I’ve completed the questionnaire,’ I said, and I handed Adele the envelope.
She introduced me, formally, to her friends, who, with a number of others, formed a secret federation. Then she opened the envelope, and read my reply. One of her elders turned away, while the others watched for my reaction. The water from the fountain turned to a fine spray of ice, and the pond was gradually filled with icy purple crystals.
Adele produced another questionnaire, completed by my roommate. He had said: ‘I am here, and I wait.’ When I returned to the attic, his papers and his pictures had gone. But he’d left a pad of paper on the table, on which I was expected to write. I sharpened a pencil. I strode to the mirror. I looked, and it reflected my puzzled-looking face.
I have to admit I regarded this as a setback, a disappointment I was careful to keep from Blaise, and so avoided any chance contact with him. At that particular time he was organising one of his social events – or so went the whispers – and keeping out of his way wasn’t hard to do. That still left me with the problematic Marcus, and how to deal with him. I decided on a one-to-one, for which I booked the smallest room, for the dead period after midday. He seemed no more relaxed in this situation than among my group of women, and try as I may the whole session took too much prompting from me.
I might have been warned by Marcus’s demeanour – the boy was slumped in his seat, with his hands in his pockets. He allowed himself the least distraction through the window, of which there were many, mostly to do with deliveries for Blaise’s party. One that terminally caught his eye, and made me call a halt, was from Anita’s Farmhouse Pantry, from whose van several cartons of mushrooms were unloaded.
‘Marcus,’ I said, ‘I think we’ll return to this another day.’
‘Cool,’ was how he responded.
Hereafter his diary took a decidedly different turn.
July 15th Curious to find myself, after a journey I can scarcely remember, literally washed up here. I possess a single book, and have fingered it in my pocket, while walking along the beach. It’s a clear day, and looking out to sea there are ships, all of them a long way off. I suspect hardly anyone comes here. However, I can’t stop wondering about these ships, and the far-off places they sail to. Nor can I stop wondering about what I’ve left behind in England.
July 16th Today I strolled down the green slopes to the shore, and there, sitting on a rock, looked out across the sea. At the horizon, a shimmer of blue-green waves merged with the sky. I lay on the warm sand and closed my eyes.
July 17th I am a long way from the city – a long way too from Adele, who it seems has arranged my passage.
‘But why must I leave?’ I asked. ‘I like it here…’
‘You have to become.’
‘To become what?’
‘You have to become equal.’
I hadn’t understood, and on my arrival – with so little to do – I found myself reflecting on Adele. She had been my unofficial mentor, always setting some task or other. The hardest was the sword. It took a great deal mastering the blade, quite apart from the skills of combat. To begin I was given easy opposition. Later, with a dozen or so victories to my credit, Adele told me about Krzysztof Grindle, a fighter from the City of London, whose real identity had always been a secret.
‘One day you’ll have to fight him,’ she said.
‘How can you tell?’
‘I’ve been watching. I know…’
July the 17th, a Saturday, followed our closing session for that week, in which my group, in spite of the muted Marcus Fyer, discussed the social phenomenon of men, who owed their standing everywhere – in their families, their relationships, in the world they’d structured around them – to violence, a simple fact any reading of history can’t contradict. Whatever Marcus thought about that, he wasn’t prepared to say. I find it disquieting that in the person of Krzysztof Grindle he treats it all with such frivolity. Worse, his designated retreat is the allures of a lyrical dreamscape.
July 18th The smooth soothing rhythm of the tide has lulled me, and I have fallen asleep. As I dream, I am hearing heavy traffic outside, then, as I clonked my way up a flight of stairs, I heard the tinkle of conversation of two young girls. I knocked at the door, but there was no reply. I stepped inside. I found myself in a tiny hall with only one other door. I opened it into a narrow room, and squeezing up a narrow wooden stairway I reached a lighted studio – also very narrow.
The two friends made me sit down, and standing above me sprayed water on my hair. Next they applied some oil, and both began massaging my scalp. After a final rinse, they blew on warm air and soon had me neatly coiffured.
When they had finished, Adele arrived, and said I ought to do something about my clothes. Her friends vanished, and Adele took a look.
‘You’ll need a dark suit,’ she said. ‘And a lace shirt with frills and capacious sleeves.’
‘Whatever you say,’ I said.
I was soon looking very smart and alert. I admired myself in the long mirror, and saw her come up behind with my new sword.
‘It’s never been used before,’ she told me. ‘It’s very strong. Fashioned of finest steel. I hope it brings a lot of luck.'</p
‘Thank you,’ I said, and left, all set to meet Mr Krzysztof and do battle in the City…
I refuse to be drawn into Freudian connotations, with all this squeezing up narrow passages, where the objects of his libido, two to pleasure him, and one to bless his march to war, aren’t the metaphors I’m probing for.
July 19th Much the same as yesterday, except that now the tide was almost touching my toes, and I woke and slowly sat up.
It was getting late, and I had to be shuffling back to the caves before nightfall. On my way home, I stopped and looked in a rock pool. There was something glinting at the bottom. It was a silver signet ring, which bore the initial A. I dried it on my old shirt and tried it on my little finger. It suited, and much as I wanted to keep the little token, I decided to wear it only until I had found its rightful owner.
In one of the two adjacent caves now my home, I lit several candles and sat on my little wicker chair and read for a while. At twilight, I blew out the candles and stared through the mouth of the cave at the dark ocean. I could hear it gently lapping on the shore, swirling through rock piles and filling the little pools. But soon, when sights and sounds had melted into the darkness, I was slumbering again and going off to sleep.
July 20th The morning filled my makeshift home with shadows and pastel light. I steadily awoke. I heard someone singing. I sat still for a while when I’d opened my eyes, then gazed at the young girl at the mouth of my cave.
‘Are you Erato?’ I said, interrupting.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m a swimmer.’
‘Yes. Now I’m waiting for a ship to take me home.’
‘Do you know Adele?’
‘I know the name, but I don’t know her.’
‘I say that because it was Adele who sent me here. I’m wondering when I can go back.’
‘You’ll have to wait for your ship,’ she told me. ‘But the next ship is mine.’
I introduced myself. ‘I’m a swordsman,’ I said. Her name was Alicia.
‘Is this your ring?’ I asked.
‘Yes. But I didn’t know it had gone.’
I offered to return it, but she refused for the moment. She told me to meet her at midday in a bamboo house over the green slopes. Then she said she had to be getting along, but looked forward to seeing me later in the day. I spent the rest of the morning reading and walking along the beach. Much to my agitation, I finished my book. It was too early to begin it again, and I wondered what to do now. I saw a ship go sailing by. When it was almost midday, I left the beach, and climbed the slopes. When I’d reached a good height, I looked over my shoulder and out to sea. There was a ship coming in from quite some distance – but certainly sailing this way. Further on, I saw the bamboo house, high on a hill. I walked to it. I opened the door. I went in. Alicia was sitting at a writing desk and browsing through a notebook. It must have been important, because for the moment she didn’t look up. I had to amuse myself adjusting the cuffs of my old shirt, to see how long they’d remain folded back when I let my arms dangle, then readjusting them; then perhaps turning my attention to a broken button, to see what could be done with it. For a short time my old shirt became a fascination, and fortunately, when my interest flagged, I saw Alicia close and put down the notebook. She stood up and walked to the window overlooking the sea. She lifted a hand to her hair and swept it back on one side. There was a brief silence, so I played with my shirt again.
‘I’ve been reading our notes,’ she said.
‘That’s intriguing,’ I replied. ‘What do they say about me?’
She said I’d been a smart-looking student, because Adele had seen to that. Everyone liked my expensive clothes, and my hair was always oily and cropped. But here was the main thing. It was not a disguise I could wear for long. The world had found me out.
Alicia turned round. I coughed, and put up both hands to my face.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘I see my ship is coming in, and it’s time for me to go.’
‘Yes. My ship. You’ll have to wait for your own.’
Before she left, I returned the ring and wished her a pleasant voyage. I watched her walk down the hill.
I am not sure about this initial A, which seems to indicate, in whatever representation, the same elevated person, or rather falsified person.
July 21st Alone again. There is nothing very much to do, so I sit at Alicia’s writing desk, which has now become mine. I have the notebook and a certificate. The certificate says:
The swimmer Alicia has hereby passed her great test. Having met her task, she can now return to England.
It is signed by Adele. In the notebook, I read of how Alicia had swum the world’s oceans. I read also about me. In fact I read and I read, but my passage wasn’t booked.
I looked out of the window overlooking the sea and saw Alicia’s ship go sailing home. Then it occurred to me that I ought to return to the beach and write a message in the sand.
It’s my theory that Marcus is in denial. Then strangely I had the opportunity to put that to the test when, on the following day, a Thursday (for which he made no diary entry), we met by accident, out on the courtyard. Blaise had asked one of his ancillaries to carry out further work on the Alvis, which was parked in the open, and gleamed in the sunshine. At this precise moment the car had been abandoned, with the person at work on it called away, or in need of a tool he hadn’t got. Nevertheless he’d left the car radio switched on, tuned to a phone-in show, whose reception suffered as Marcus and I approached from opposite directions. The heat was terrific, a sensation almost overwhelming once I had stepped from the shadow of Belvedere’s main building. Suddenly Marcus stopped, and took a step back, and that had the immediate effect of restoring good reception to the radio. The programme compère – a man – was taking calls on male attitudes to the surrender of seats on buses or trains, and in what state or how old the woman had to be. A smile momentarily lit his face, as Marcus coaxed me to listen as he did, a hand to his ear.
‘Fodder for tomorrow,’ he said, perhaps assuming (wrongly) how difficult I found it, coming up with new discussion material every day.
Our exchange ended there, more or less – an opportunity missed, for so commented Blaise when, with the relative cool of early evening, I mentioned this episode to him.
I have to admit I didn’t see it in quite those terms.
July 23rd Now I am banished to a very hot place, miles from home, where I think of my life in England, and of the strange events that have led me to this. I met a caravan of Ausonians, who told me about their fellowship, and of the law of their fathers. What of me, they asked. I explained my situation.
‘I’m lost,’ I said. ‘Trying to get back home.’
A young Ausonian asked me where that was.
‘In England,’ I replied.
‘Stay with us,’ I was told. ‘If we can, we’ll help.’
I nodded, and noticed that ten or so old Ausonians remained quiet and touched their beards. That is how I joined the Ausonians.
We usually spend the daytime on the move, and whenever we reach an oasis it is due to the trackers. They know the desert – this has been their country for years – and without them, a journey like ours is unthinkable. Of course, that was a momentous occasion, finding an oasis. We unloaded the camels, we peeled off our hot sticky robes, and we bathed in the warm, refreshing water. Then it was time for music, festivities, and light sleep. If the celebrations didn’t go on, we resumed our travels the following morning, but that decision depended on the trackers. Everyone knew, disagreement could mean a schism.
July 24th I did say ‘schism’. As it happens, that eventuality is one I have had to witness, when several devotees wished to perform a religious rite. The trackers – old, wizened men – were keen to press on, and could see their glorious future slipping away. Their colleagues couldn’t ignore the obligations of their faith, and so now we decided to stay for one more day. The trackers adjusted our plans, and with no less dignity the ministers performed their service.
I wasn’t aware of any religious application in the lives of the Fyers, but on the strength of these two entries felt overwhelmingly I had overlooked something centrally important – Marcus in the deserts of his being, seeking for wondrous signs. I thought this over carefully, then visited our admin office and asked the filing clerk for Marcus’s completed application form, received in advance of his stay. I cast up and down its printed columns, until I picked out this one, RELIGION, whose adjoining box was filled in, puzzlingly, N/A, in bold, confident ballpoint.
This was slightly disappointing. Then a kind of explanation appeared the following day.
July 25th The point is this. The Ausonian fathers are lost. Years ago, they came this way, with a plan to rejuvenate a disillusioned fellowship, which even in their lifetime had flourished in many nations. I, of course, remain outside their belief, but its secular attachments have caught my imagination. When the young Ausonians recite their legends, their myths, their histories, I can’t have them leave it at that. A recurrent symbolism has to be explained, because with that comes the demystification of their rituals.
In the cool of the evening, before tomorrow’s departure, I have helped with the fire and filled the bottles. After supper we shall bed down in the glow of the flames, where as ever I shall dream.
July 26th And what of that dream? I saw the parting sands, and a traveller’s footfall, and a rising sun. I knew that in his bag were the airborne spores of a coming age, but he was uncertain as to the proper time to use them, and unsure of his own place in the desert. Looking east, then west, he took a handful and held them out on his open palm. He watched them float away. Then he turned, and walked south, and dissolved in the haze. This morning when I woke I couldn’t recall him immediately. I looked up and saw that my companions were up and dressed. When I joined them, they were still unable to settle their plans. The young Ausonians now overtly refused to leave. The trackers, having abandoned their usual tolerance, insisted on immediate departure. No one man, they warned, was bigger than the fellowship. No one must subvert its aims. Reluctantly, the dissenters fell into line, and soon we were filling our bags and loading the camels.
You will appreciate, I now went with caution. I tried to keep to myself, a little way behind the main body of the party. Then I looked up. I had a companion – a young Ausonian, sorry to have startled me.
‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘In fact this is quite opportune.’
‘I was hoping someone might explain more about these fathers.’
‘There’s nothing to tell,’ he said.
‘You surprise me.’
‘I don’t see why. It’s only the old trackers who regard them as important.’
‘But the myths, the legends, the histories! The rites!’
‘Ornaments. And part of our lives. As hard to shake off as any old habit.’
He had been travelling for many years, like most of his friends, and he was tired and bored and longing for home. I too was longing for home, and when I mentioned my country again he asked me to tell him about my life there.
‘That’s a long story,’ I said, and was glad of an interruption. The party ahead had stopped. We were near a city. The trackers wanted to go in and gather provisions. No one dissented now, and in another half-day we caught sight of the citadel. This was our beacon. Soon, we were striding along the hot white streets, and by a fountain in an open market we stopped to talk. We agreed to set out in small parties of two or three, and return here when we’d got our provisions. I stayed with the young Ausonian who had dropped back to talk to me. We jostled our way across the crowded market square, glancing over the wares, or were detained sometimes when traders handed us their goods and tried to barter. Later, we found a fortune-teller, who if paid spoke of coming good fortune, but otherwise had only a tantalising glimpse of the future. My friend was drawn, and wanted to stay, which I agreed to do – as it turned out, for too long a time. My own interest faded quickly – I fretted – and when our quaintly clad mystic drew symbols in the sand and prophesied, I looked on for the most part in silence. His sayings were a puzzle, a riddle, and it was clear to me that this could never satisfy the young Ausonian, who realised suddenly that our time had almost passed. We paid, and darted into the crowds.
I know I couldn’t have fallen behind, but I was too late at the fountain. The main body of the party had already gone. I washed my face and arms, and drank. Then I sat and waited for my companion, who never appeared. I’d lost sight of him shortly after leaving the fortune-teller, though never really doubted I would meet him here. But I was wrong, and now faced the daunting prospect of a hazardous journey alone.
What is an Ausonian? I had no luck with Blaise’s various encyclopaedias here at Belvedere, and the best I can offer is a dictionary definition, from his Oxford Interactive. Ausonia is a place, southern Italy, or in broader poetic terms it is Italy as a whole. Derivation is the Greek Auson, meaning son of Odysseus, said to have settled there. Ausonians are therefore natives or inhabitants of ancient central and southern Italy, shown here as well-travelled, and as Marcus renders them, as Odysseus, what with the desert, its oases, the camels.
July 27th I have now left that ancient city, and wonder shall I ever return? Then I see a mirage, of an old man in a tattered robe as he strides through the clouds and scatters seeds, which fall on stony ground. He turns and faces me, in a sort of valediction. Then he disappears over the distant horizon, where sluggishly I start to follow.
Blaise is organising another of his get-togethers, and this time I’m invited. He explained: he liked to bring together individuals about to enrol, with groups such as my own who were nearing the end of their stay, with all the obvious advantages of a relaxed social occasion. Attire, smart casual. Venue, the Fritz Perls Suite, which opens to garden and patio.
July 29th Almost home – at last – though I’ve had a slight scare. Let me explain. Some rain has fallen. I dashed away from the scene of a fearful accident, the light of the moon etching itself in the tall pines to my left, and dabbing its little silver beads in the lane ahead. I was at some point being chased, and felt anxious, not about this alone, but for certain documents I had pushed inside my overcoat. I even drew my hands up, to check if they were there. Then I ducked down suddenly and slid into the pine wood, feeling only then that now I’d be safe. The air is damp, and the ground muddy. It is midnight. The moon is high. Looking back, I see the dark tops of the pines against the inky night sky. I feel calm – but even so there is something, I think, that is not quite right.
I’d certainly echo that.
July 30th I have now crossed familiar fields, a stream, an old stone bridge, and have arrived at last at Aunt Anita’s cottage. It is night. I lift the knocker, which is in the shape of an elfin hand, and rap. The old lady opens up and looks at me. Inside, her fire is still alight.
‘I’m out of luck,’ I say. ‘I’ve had an accident.’
‘No. But I’m tired. Also I need time to catch up with my diary.’ I pull out those documents.
She allows me in and I walk to the fire.
‘This is very kind of you,’ I say, and I place my diary, the documents, on a low-lying table.
‘You can sleep here on the sofa,’ she says. She picks up her knitting from a rocker and goes upstairs to bed. I pick up those documents and pull the sofa to the edge of the hearth, where I sit, in the last glow of the fire. To my astonishment, I find that my diary – that record of my dreams – is up-to-date, though the last entry I recall making consciously was the 2nd of July (see above).
I do as prompted, referring back to that previous entry, asking myself precisely the questions he wants me to. For example, that mysterious shade, who shared his room just weeks ago (no further sign of him) – is that a dream of himself, committed to the same diary act, in a delusional state of consciousness? And is what I’m given every day a larding of the two? These circularities and parallelisms I’m afraid are just that, and will remain so – doomed to arrive at no destination.
July 31st I have received an unexpected letter from a firm of city lawyers. It refers to my accident, which resulted from my carelessness. The whole tone of it has that impersonal knack of demanding, on behalf of their client, that I accept entire responsibility for the damage done to his car – a vintage green Alvis. There is a bill attached, which I am expected to pay.
Before I do anything, I am going to settle down to write my diary. I am going to reconstruct the dream I had last night.
When I next had an opportunity, I stepped outside and strolled across the courtyard, where there was no sign now of Blaise’s Alvis. Self-consciously, I tiptoed around the low-roofed buildings where he kept all the cars in his collection, but was discovered by Blaise, who having seen me had followed me inside.
‘Something you’re after?’ he asked.
‘Just curious about the Alvis,’ I bluffed. ‘Nothing wrong with it, I hope?’
‘Why should there be?’
‘It was being worked on…’
‘It’s fine, apart from the radio. You like old cars?’
‘Old cars, absolutely!’
I couldn’t help but note how oddly Blaise now looked at me.
August 1st Something odd really is going on! I am reviewing my diary entry of yesterday (July 31st), and see that I have written the following, which I just cannot remember at all—
The water closed above my head. Something behind me snapped at my flailing legs. Somehow, I scrambled to safety, and lay exhausted on the beach, the departing tide all but touching my toes. I was safe, I was home, I was here in England again. The roar of the ocean echoed around me for several hours, and I couldn’t see straight. I seemed to be squatting on the crest of a shallow green bank. I lit a cigarette. I smoked in silence. I savoured its mixed, exotic flavour, floating up in my hazy consciousness. Then the sun slid away behind the woodlands. I stood, and turned with a new resolve, then walked down to a crossroad. Here I stole a car and screeched away along the middle of the road, overtaking madly, while any approaching bike or saloon swerved and flashed its lights or blew its horn. I lost my nerve, and veered into a lane, misjudging the curve, and drove helplessly into a swamp. I escaped, and watched the old car sink sideways slowly. I grabbed at the door handle, and tried to heave the car to safer ground, but it was slipping under quickly. I had to give it up. I continued on foot, and was cold and tired when I reached Adele’s house at last. I tapped on the kitchen door and stepped inside and blinked at the vacant darkness. Over in the farthest corner Adele’s pale face glanced up. She smiled.
‘It’s been a long time.’
‘Are you staying?’
‘No. I can’t. I’ve lost my car in a swamp.’
‘That is a pity.’
I left her, and ran through the moonlit trees.
August 2nd Now I know what’s happened! Somehow these vivid dreams I have live on briefly by extension into my waking life, which is sometimes very confusing. Anyway. Here I am at Aunt Anita’s, fully awake and ready for almost anything!
August 3rd I begin to remember having arranged a rendezvous with a forester. At the time he was looking westward out to sea. After I had spoken to him, he turned, and pointed to a cabin. Inside that cabin, a disconsolate middle-aged man met me by his old green Alvis. It had been hauled from the swamp and repaired. He ran a hand across its new paint.
‘It’s cost me thousands,’ he said.
‘It looks very good.’
‘That’s all very well, but…’
‘I mean newish, gleaming.’
‘I’ve had to walk a lot,’ he said, pouting.
‘That’s surely not so terrible.’
‘You might think so.’
‘Well, yes, I do…’
‘And what about this radio!’ He switched it on, but found it impossible to tune.
‘Mm,’ I said. ‘I can’t really help you there.’
He frowned. ‘Of course you can’t! It’s irreparable!’
He expected something I couldn’t give, therefore I left him, still pouting, his hands in his trouser pockets.
If that Alvis owner was supposed to be Andrew Blaise, he was nothing like the charming host we all saw on the night of the party. Quite how he put names to faces I can’t imagine, because, with an endless succession of newcomers, all colliding randomly with the people already here, he never tripped or faltered once – not even slightly. Skills like these I envy.
A buffet-style supper was laid out in the Fritz Perls Suite, its patio doors open to the heady scents and seductive russet sky that blessed our summer nights. Did Marcus Fyer appear? I had my doubts that he would, though I did notice him several times, once the party had spilled over among the softly lit blooms of patio and garden. Here, I learned, a kind of open invitation was one of the perks the domestic staff enjoyed in working for Blaise. These, curiously, were the only people I ever saw Marcus in conversation with, who numbered a girl from the admin office, the kitchen staff, the afternoon cleaner, and Belvedere’s handyman – the same who’d worked on the Alvis. In fact Marcus seemed quite animated with these people, though I never got close enough to hear what they talked and joked about.
No matter. My time was more profitably spent getting to know some of the new people I’d soon be leading as a group, which I’m sure is what Blaise would have wanted. And what a marvellous selection of wines he served.
August 4th That old problem seems to have resurfaced, if yesterday’s entry is anything to go by. Sometimes I can’t haul myself out of this dream, or is it a nightmare? I wanted to think about this, so went out walking. I met the forester again. He told me he’d seen three ships go by. He pointed to plumes of smoke across a fence, and when it had cleared he pointed to a grove of oaks. In there was a church, and in a box by a gravestone someone had put my documents. He said they were safe.
Suddenly my closed, familiar circle was about to give way to the next new intake, and I felt a pang of guilt and contrition at not having done my best for Marcus. I had cause to reflect on some of the things I could have done. And what really had I gained from his diary, other than the general impression of a man who didn’t quite feel he fitted the world?
I went up to his room on his day of departure, hoping to have some quiet, apologetic words with him while he packed his bag. I found him still in his towelling robe, his face foamed ready for a shave, though he admitted me nevertheless. Thereafter we talked through his bathroom door, not an ideal situation for the subject I wanted to broach, which became impossible anyway once he stepped into the shower. I bellowed out a best wishes and farewell, to which he replied, above the slash of water, telling me his last diary entry was on his bedside table, waiting. Also there was his cell phone, still switched on, and open at his address book. I felt a delicious sense of deceit, cascading through its list of names, but disappointment ultimately on finding only one female among them – not the Adele I expected, nor any of its diminutives. The entry instead was Gail.
I picked up the last of his diary, and left. An hour later, I happened to see him climb into his taxi, heading for his London train. That was the last I saw of him.
August 5th I stretched and yawned and sat up on the sofa, then recovered my documents where I had been reading them by the hearth. Old Aunt Anita was moving about upstairs, and when she came down I asked if I could stay a little longer.
‘I need to do some writing,’ I said.
‘You can use the back room,’ she told me.
There I sat down to write, and saw through the small square window woolly clouds as they tumbled overhead. Some overhanging leaves caught the sunshine. I made adjustments to my papers, and wrote a letter to that firm of city lawyers, hoping to catch the early post. I made my apologies to Anita and walked across the fields and along the lanes to the village, but on my way back I met the forester again. He told me to give myself up. The police were out looking. It would do no good to run.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I give up. Where are they now?’
He pointed to a church – there, in a grove of oaks, where my documents were safe – but already I had my hands to the papers inside my coat, knowing that where they were no one else could really find them.
Peter Cowlam is a writer and critic. His brief stint as a commissioning editor saw two issues of The Finger, a journal of politics and literature. His latest play, Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?, is a satire on literary celebrity. His poems and short stories have appeared in a range of journals and litmags, most recently The Liberal, Horizon Review and Epicentre Magazine.