At night Seth and I would drive through the limits of it, the plain of one- two storey buildings grouped around the squat stubborn chapel, the eerie hypnotic somnolence, the streetlights forever pink against the demented cloud-torn sky. Seth drove a little car which had been hanging around the bungalow for as long as she could remember, a rusted blue thing, automatic and Japanese. Neither of us would have trusted it to take us through the mountains, but there and then, for our purposes… Well. We are not lords or masons. There are no silver dollars beneath our pillows. (These sayings were Seth’s, repeated with an assumed consensus, like catchphrases from a remembered TV series). Since I blew that first million, I’ve decided to rein things in. I have already cracked the pottery pig.
I liked these late nights and early mornings, driving out into a terrain which was still mysterious to me, and so fertile with the possibilities of imagination. I liked the feel of giving myself over to Seth’s driving, the subtle erotic control of her hands upon the wheel, the way she would talk without ever looking me in the eye. I liked to hear about her life, woven into the pathways and alleys, the unstitching of a narrative from a place. I liked Seth to tell me about the plans she had for her crime stories, intricate murders in superficial small towns, her rapacious detective, who she’d modelled upon her grandfather. I liked calling in on her friends, a rare breed who would always be open and welcoming to us, no matter at what time we descended. The teacher of English and his open predilection for his students. The old couple who grew marijuana in a tin foil fish tank. The ufologist, the cook, the radical. A man who bred chinchillas. Here is the place I had my first drink, Seth would say, pointing out some obscure back alley or bus stop. Do you want to hear about it?
Yes, I want to hear about it.
You’re a hypocrite if you say you don’t.
I had come to the town for work, in a factory where men cut out holes from great sheets of metal, which I would wrap in cardboard. From my bench, these great parcels would be delivered to other sites around the country where their purpose became more apparent. The dust of sawn metal permeated the air like a malign pollen, and my nose bled endlessly from this steady erosion. People said that I would acclimatise, but I didn’t ever get the chance. The factory went bust only weeks after I arrived, the gates closed, an apology inside a plastic sheet to protect it from the rain.
Do you see those shops, Seth once said, pointing to a strip of sad businesses, a laundrette, an off licence, a bookies, a florist. In the flats above them, I saw a dead body. I was ten years old. I had a job on a paper round. The man was on my route. He had the Radio Times and The Sun. Everyone had The Sun. This is not a broadsheet town. I think you already understand that.
He once gave me a bar of chocolate for a tip, so I liked him. That day, the door swung open when I pushed his paper into the slot. He was lying on his bed. At the time I thought of him as an old man, he was bald, well bald at the top but down the sides it was quite long. He had blonde hair. Thinking about it now he can’t have been more than forty. He was lying upon the sheets when I walked inside, totally naked. His penis was pink, shrivelled and retracted. It looked like a baby mouse. He was clutching a star in one of his hands.
A star. Like from the top of a Christmas tree. Only it wasn’t Christmas, it was summer.
How had he died?
Isn’t it obvious? He was murdered.
Seth worked the bar in the only hotel in town. It was called a hotel but I never saw anyone stay here. A derelict nostalgia had inspired its design and construction, a furious misunderstanding of the currency of the past. Black beams, the black spreading its way into the white walls in crusts of spiders webs, desiccated flies, the warped rivulets of streaking paint. A lantern-like sign for a beer that was no longer sold. Seth was the illumination of this place, her long black hair ruffled and kinked like feathers upon an angry bird, her eyes the pale green of the inside of a lime. Her white skin, her thin lips. A tattoo on her upper arm, a triangle placed inside a circle, a symbol which I am still to decipher.
I would spend whole evenings watching her at work behind the bar, devouring the brilliant book of her magnificence. Somehow I managed to persuade myself into her life. And yes, deep within the dream of those weeks, I was happy. I could tell you about the waterfall and the blue stones. I could mention the time we cleared the back garden of bindweed and Seth found beetle pupae buried in the ground, wrinkled and sticky like black dates. The walk to the mountains. A fire in the wreckers yard, the shell of a silver Volkswagen erupting like a flaming skull.
But these are only images, essential and abstract, lacking violence or tension. So this is how it happened, anyway. The end.
On my journeys to and from the factory, I had always passed the caravan park at the western edge. A long field, sloping upwards from the road, the caravans peering down like a line of cult members before the brink. In all of our late night drives, Seth would never bring us here, although I’d often mentioned it. I wouldn’t have thought this remarkable. It was late summer, that glorious deranged period that in this area was a season all of its own, filled with high pollen counts and aggressive incendiary storms. I remember we attended a party on old farm land, the electric fence still connected to a generator, the bird scarers cracking over fallow beds, the rusted tractor sleeping amongst nettles. A band played heavy metal upon a trailer and we drank iced summer punch loaded with cheap gin and strawberries. I was standing at the centre of a group of Seth’s friends when I mentioned the caravan park. I did this, as I often did, inspired by an unconscious knowledge of what would do me harm. Seth was standing away from us at the time, but eyelines clashed like pool balls, you could almost hear them. When Seth returned, nothing more was said.
I’ve been thinking, Seth said. We weren’t driving now, but walking. The town always seemed altered as we walked, larger and more ferocious. Men from the outer villages passed us in cars, their music, their faces behind windshields. About twists, Seth continued. It seems important to get twists right if you’re going to write the perfect detective story.
OK, I said.
The detective story boils down to the relationship between the victim and the murderer (Seth went on). This is its point. And really, this only represents the larger relationship between the writer and the reader. The writer lays a trail, leading from the victim to the murderer; the reader, along with the detective follows. Of course, if the reader is the detective, she is also the killer; this is a long standing and accepted doubling. The reader kills the writer’s work, filleting plot from the magic of expression, turning art into mere consumption. The writer is only ever a victim. Do I look like a victim to you?
A thinker, then, Seth, engaging with the archetypes. She took me through her idea on the way back home. The victim in her drama would have murdered a long lost twin, becoming both victim and murderer. A fight over money or property, prodigality being repaid, cherchez la femme fatale: Seth hadn’t worked on the details. What mattered was the theme of the malign twin: this would be the essence. I’ll admit, I was impressed. The victim as murderer, and therefore as detective; the writer as reader. This was the answer: self-regarding and reflexive. It was two o’clock in the morning. I took her hand. We were nearly home.
The subterfuge of the detective story distracted me only for so long. Over the coming days, I would try to guess what had happened in the caravan park to make Seth banish it from the geography of her life. We had dealt with lost virginity, a memory of her mother calling to her from the end of a lane, a slaughtered dog discovered by a roadside. Many times, while Seth was at work, I thought of exploring the caravan park, poking around for clues, tracking down the facts. But I was a poor detective. I was out of work, and all my life I’ve only ever longed to be out of work, to be idle, a dreamer, really, although I never remember my dreams. Sometimes people ask me whether it was this that doomed us. Perhaps it is accepted that we should look to blame wider insidious forces for what are, evidently, personal failings; perhaps I’m alone in wanting to possess my own disasters. I think Seth was Seth, and all of this was a part of her.
Anyway. You’ll still want to know about the end.
One night, I turned up at the hotel. Seth had told me that she’d be working a double shift. I decided to drop around because I was lonely, and because, honestly, I ached for her. Two men sat nursing beers at the bar. A brace of pheasants spilled from a canvas satchel between them, a shotgun broken on the pool table. The established laws of the country simmered beneath the surface of this town, but Motown could still play over the speakers. The men were talking about: football, oak leaves, place names, Jimmy Ruffin, the stink of foxes. The middle of the bar was empty, but this wasn’t unusual. The hotel was large and sprawling, with extension built upon extension. Sometimes, it would take an age to order a drink.
I sat down at the bar. What becomes of the broken hearted, one of the men said, and it seemed, really, quite reasonable. I pushed a cardboard mat around a sea of beer; when Diana Ross appeared over the speakers, I sang along. I really would have liked a drink. Clearly, my laziness had reached a point of decadence. I found it quite irritating that Seth was taking so long. The two men were talking about a poor dumb bastard. He occupied much of their attention. He made them laugh, although evidently they reserved for him a certain amount of masculine pity. I sat for about twenty minutes listening to the conversation. Tears of a clown, one of them said. When the landlord walked behind the bar, I realised what he meant.
A fog had discharged throughout the town, a great seminal cloud. I walked out from the bar, heading towards the caravan park, on my way to find Seth. Even then, I still could not quite comprehend the location of the town, utterly featureless except for the logic of its weather. Some days it would be impossible to judge what season sat in residence over those mountains. You’ll think I’m lying when I say that during July a sudden storm fell down, and from the heights of summer we were pelted with hail. Amazed, the whole population emerged onto the streets, allowing themselves to be stung by the immanence of a miracle. But this happened. I have told people. I was there. Clearly we were occupying a small corner of the geography of magic.
I walked towards the one illuminated caravan, across grass littered with black pine cones of shit. Sheep from the hills grazed these outskirts, claiming every patch of green. You would see them, occupying orchards and riverbanks, the allotments and playgrounds, and it was surprising how this sense of wildness hinted at a kind of decay. The light from the caravan glowed orange against the thin material of the curtains. Through where they parted, I could make out Seth lying upon a fold-out sofa next to a man. They were both naked. Light spiralled in tiny points from a central source, illustrating constellations, the ceiling decorated in a galactic blue. Smoke diffused the air, either from a cigarette, or some sensual incense. I was able to itemise everything about the scene in one glance, like the long frozen moment preceding a disaster. My heart lay down with the shit.
Perhaps she sensed that I was nearby, but Seth had sat up from the bed. The man lay upon his side in front of her. Although his face was obscured, I could see his long dirty blonde hair fraying from a horse shoe of baldness, the skin of his back mole-flecked and delicate. I watched as Seth pointed out one of the lights, stretched out an arm above her head. The universe span over her, the light blue over her pale skin, the glimmer of a strange star. It took a moment to account for what I was seeing. Seth’s arm was bare and pure where only that morning I had seen the tattoo.
You’ll know immediately what I thought. Twins shuffled by design: didn’t the easily penetrated lie suddenly make sense? It occurred to me that I was intended to be the murderer, lovelorn and furious, that I was the victim, that I had been living inside Seth’s crime story from the start.
But can you believe she had a twin without ever telling me? Even I couldn’t allow myself the insulation of that particular dream. It was a trick of the light. Or the dark. Or I had mistaken the arm. Whatever, the tattoo was there. Later, much later, I discovered that the man in the caravan was the son of the murder victim Seth had discovered all those years before. It was all convoluted and strange. They had met by chance in the old hotel. The son had come to the town to pay his respects. Seth had served him in the bar. It began to feel rather personal.
But rather than be wounded or distraught, I was left only with a kind of fatalism. That these narratives have an independent energy. That however impossible they appear, they connect with our lives with a momentum which is almost like hunger. That they have a vengeance. That they seek us out.
That night, I walked back through the town. The fog lay about me, a great z-axis, fizzing and corrosive like the complex gas from a ruined star. I returned to the bungalow. I didn’t stay long, putting a few things together, this shirt and this book and this photograph, the odd decisions of leaving. I decided to steal the car. This was my right. I drove out to the mountains, saying goodbye as I went. The bungalow. The old hotel. The predatory sheep. The chapel. The factory. The stories they’d made, the lives. The car struggled on the journey, as we navigated potholes and gradients, but it coped, it survived. Clouds arched like talons: they pulled at us, but we made the brow of the hill. For a long moment we were high above and it felt like gravity had a hold behind and in front, that there was some judgement on which side we would fall, a vast spectacular scale.
But if there was a judgement, we were temporarily beyond it and what we wanted, we made happen. I glanced back over the town drowned by the fog, an orange light flickering at the centre of the mass. Perhaps it was a signal, but I wouldn’t get a chance to read it. Already I was plunging onwards, the night and the road ahead, the whole even glory, on the way to find a new place to live.
© Daniel Bennett