A blue door flapping in a hurricane. Gordon Brown blowing a kiss. ‘Why Do You Continue to Love These Evil Doers?’ The surviving footage of the goals of Ferenc Puskas. A man in an orange jumpsuit beheaded upon a concrete floor. A golden beetle, crawling over a window pane. Eight solid hours of a Martian rock.
He met Elena that evening in the library, an attic room in the south wing. Morgan had been alone, picking through the small literature section when the door had opened behind him and she walked inside. Slowly, she moved around the shelves— through natural science and psychology, the weighty shelf of Jung— until they stood together. Up close, she looked younger than on the clips. She surveyed the collection closely, as though it were swarming over a screen and she was having trouble pinning it down. When he picked up a copy of Sorrows of Young Werther, she spoke.
‘Oh no. No, no, no.’ She reached out and took the book from his hand. ‘Anything but that.’
‘You don’t like Goethe?’ The question would later strike him as hesitant and absurd. You don’t like Goethe: a flavour of ice cream, a type of beer.
‘Goethe maybe. But this book has a lot to answer for.’
‘Like inspiring a whole genre of boring men who thought they were Jesus Christ when really they were Hitler.’ She gave the cover a derisory glance before tossing the book back onto the shelf. ‘That’s a lot to answer for.’
‘Self-examination,’ Morgan replied. ‘Isn’t that why we’re all here?’
Elena screwed her nose up. ‘Self-absorption. That is surely one of the things we want to escape.’
They headed down to the bar, and helping themselves to a bottle of a white wine, they talked about what had led them to the retreat. Born in Helsinki, Elena had worked as a consultant for a one of the large news portals, but she hinted at various other roles. Morgan guessed that she was active in green politics, perhaps as a fundraiser for the militants. As they sipped from glasses of the wine and picked at a bowl of sunflower seeds, she lectured him about his choice of reading (‘Fiction is the last thing you should be distracting yourself with in here’) complained about the organisational structure of the retreat, even bemoaned the loss of her handset. Morgan guessed that he wasn’t the only one to find Elena aggressive and prepossessing, but with her ready all-encompassing dissent, perhaps he was the only one to find her slightly lost. She lacked the blind enthusiasm of the other retreat members, their capacity to dissolve into whatever search they had set themselves. Still, she was enthusiastic enough about some of the tenets of the place: after they finished the bottle of wine, she asked Morgan up to her room. ‘They have some good pills here. I mean I’ve had better, for sure but…’
But Morgan turned her down. It was late, he was tired and, still struggling as he was with the after effects the hallucinogens, he was scared of humiliation in company. They walked up the stairs together, talking about what they hoped to achieve from the retreat.
‘I’m not hoping for anything remarkable,’ Elena explained as they stood on the landing outside of Morgan’s room. On the wall beside them, one of the original fittings of the hotel warned about fire. ‘I don’t think I’m even expecting to find any answers. I worked in country after country,’ she went on. ‘I travelled the world but I lost a sense of things. If I can start to pay attention, then, probably that will be enough for me.’