‘How many more indignities can be heaped upon the divine memory of R Kelly?’ A girl in a red coat running the aisles of an indoor market. Baggage collated from Flight 45. Dawn over the flooded wind farm. A blue car at sunset driving across a deserted seafront.
Morgan spent the next day working in the vineyard. He wore a straw hat to protect him from the sun. He’d found it in one of the rooms on the ground floor, a split yellow panama encircled by a red paisley band. He clipped grapes from the vines. His shoulders ached. He could hear the sea. The shift finished after two hours, but when someone came to replace him, Morgan refused to be moved. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay. I want to stay.’ He threw himself into the work. He tore the plump green fruit from the vines into a plastic drum. He drank water from a dirty cup drawn from a bucket. Sweat soaked his shirt. Pain spread across his shoulders, up his back. The vines surrounded him, the trunks elegant and atrophied.
He felt, for the first time, complete. My arms are hardening, he told himself. Each time I lift them above my head I develop the muscles. I am improving myself, daily, both physically and mentally, and when these too are combined, with attention and devotion, then I can truly say that I am feeding my self. The pale financial worker he’d once been disgusted him, like something poured from the inside of a bin bag, some pale piece of fetid life nourished on the dust upon old computer screens and the fibres of office furniture, on the crumbs wedged inside the keys of handsets, on stale bottled water, brackish, tainted and old.
It was growing dark by the time he walked back to the house. He could still feel the sun upon his skin. He had a splinter in his thumb. His palms felt dry, like sandpaper. He remembered when he was a boy, when minor wounds— the scrapes, scratches, and those cherished things, scars— were trophies of experience, the desecration of perfect skin. As he walked through to the dining room, he examined the marks upon his hands and arms— cookery burns, accidental nicks from knifes and broken glass— the banal details on a map of a life. He ate his meal alone. A man played the zither on the stage. Morgan had never heard the zither before, but he enjoyed the sound, it felt pure. A group of people at the next table were talking about Kant. Morgan ignored them. He ate beans with brown rice and drank iced mint tea. Lines for a poem formed in his head, but strangely, Morgan didn’t feel the need to write them down. A poem should stay in the mind, he said to himself; the mind, after all, is a poem.
He thought of Elena fleetingly as he climbed the stairs to his room. He hadn’t seen her all day. She had left hurriedly that morning, making excuses about a shift in the greenhouse. She’d seemed distant, almost awkward, missing her usual self-assurance. Morgan wondered if he had said or done something wrong. Wearily, he feared that he’d made a fool of himself. He lay down upon his bed, expecting to fall asleep immediately, but the exhaustion failed to overtake him. Instead, it remained immovable like a dog: a dog that could be shouted at, beaten and kicked, but which would always remain in place. Morgan stared at the ceiling. He saw the sun upon the white paint, even though the sun had now set. A man and a woman walked past his door. Their voices receded into the chasm of this old house, this old hotel at the end of the world. The gentle mellifluence of the voices affected him. He felt tears in his eyes. ‘I am alone,’ he said. ‘I face all of this alone.’ He thought of all the reasons that he had come to the retreat and none of them seemed valid. He wondered what he wanted to achieve. The examined life, which previously had been so important for him, now felt pointless. Probably, Elena was right. This is an illusion, he told himself. And this is all there is. He reached over to his bedside table and took a couple of pills.
Sleep didn’t come immediately. His mind wandered. It was almost like a dream, except that he could still feel the sunburn upon his face and the aches in his arms and back. He saw himself standing upon the hillside above a great city. Glass towers stretched into the sky, traffic steamed in the canyons, an advert chattered upon a billboard. When a great wave surged in from the coast, Morgan watched as people scattered from the fury of the surge, the primal, sacred power. He saw bodies falling from buildings, bodies crushed against brick, bodies pushed under traffic, drowned with other bodies. He saw people fighting, screaming, dying. It was hard to form any judgement on it all. He felt very cold: the wave brought with it a biting prehistoric chill. Something suddenly shifted. Morgan was standing in a room with his daughter. She worked at her desk, headset on, staring at the liquid light of the computer screen. In the window behind, sea water swelled amongst the buildings: a mountain range of simmering glass, quivering with a hesitant intelligence. Morgan watched it for minutes, maybe hours until finally it poured in upon them. At the very second before impact, before the building around them was obliterated into glass and concrete, his daughter looked Morgan in the eyes.
‘I am thinking of a way to make you less guilty,’ she said.