The Señor and the Celtic Cross
John Murray: Part One of a story
One way of describing his frightening progress would be to say that he moved from a big island to a smaller island to a tiny one. Then when he reached the tiny one he went to its furthest end and stood on a rock five feet out in the bright green Atlantic sea. Thus he was at a fourth stage of remoteness and felt almost securely positioned as a result.
This wayward man of twenty-four, let us call him Mr Stone, attained a fourth stage of subordination, and in doing so he found himself crumbling into a fourth layer of private weakness. For on his journey from the large island to the rock in the sea off the tiny island, he encountered a man who disturbed him, a sign which disturbed him, and a woman who took his breath away. Finally the woman departed, leaving Stone feeling for her with all his heart and soul, and the interesting thing is that before this Final adventure he was well nigh convinced he possessed neither heart nor soul nor memory of them.
It would be pleasing to fabricate that Stone had just escaped from prison, it would make his desperation plainer. The man he met, let us call him Dukes, saw this desperation plainly. Mr Dukes was a confident dabbler in the occult, in the somewhat democratic manner in which all sorts of individuals these days are confessedly ‘into’ Tarot, or interested in the Qabbala, or even claim to have inspected and made sense of the symbolism of the Revelations of St John of Patmos. Dukes was also sexually attracted to Stone – or Stone had been born yesterday if Dukes was not. Dukes had terribly vulnerable eyes which when they were hurt would fade over and grow misted with an affecting desolation. It takes a desperate man to spot another desperate man, thought Stone, when Dukes got to the significant stage of elucidating the desperation of Stone in terms of the fig-leaves of the occult.
Dukes was probably forty-four, certainly no more than forty-six. How does one know these things? He was short-haired, brown as a hazel nut, trim and remarkably upright of gait, almost as if he were an Indian village lady walking to the well with a water pitcher. He wore a dark, dowdy anorak in the Hebridean rain, a garment that was attractive in its spare austerity. His whole life was a tribute to the spirit of austerity. It was to be a week before he disclosed his spiritual side to Stone, but if Stone had been wiser than he was he would have forecast as much by that interesting devotion to simplicity in Dukes.
Mr Stone had left his abode for a month, four and a half weeks, and was on a directionless pilgrimage. He was also vacant, not in the pejorative sense, but simply empty as a water pitcher. He took route and moved north from what the Gaels call Sasainn. Then he took a second route from that town which the Gaels name Glαschu. He came to the noisy, colourful seaport with his bag and his small green tent, modelled after the slope and structure of a gypsy’s and hence called a tinker-tent. The lively port had been christened by Gaels an-t-Oban. He spent one night camping opposite the nearby isle of Kerrera. There were midges by the million but the weather was so warm and the view so comforting that he paid little attention to his constant scratching. It was a species of farm he was camped upon and the old farmer’s four ancient and reckless sheep-dogs raced about woofing and tumbling each other. There was a tin-sheeting roof next to Stone’s tinker-tent and those mad sheepdogs raced round and round on that rusting tin, making such a clatter that Stone’s heart reached up with joy. For what is more entertaining than to experience the anarchy of humble beasts engaged in the unsayable ecstasy of incalculable pleasure?
The next day he took the ferry over to Muile. On his path to the jetty he observed the irises and fuchsias stood like wayside shrines. They breathed, glistened and smiled in the drowsy sweat heat of late June. It was very hot. Heat is a drug that as a rule costs nothing. Mr Stone went up on the ferry and mingled with the passengers on deck. He saw two very attractive young women, four, six, about a dozen handsome young women. One of them took his breath away, but do not be gulled into thinking this is the same woman who really was to take his breath away. Yet she gave him dyspnoea and his heart lurched at the sight of such beauty. This girl, later she will appear under the name of Kate, had a smoothly-tanned face and that kind of glistening, fading liquidity of eye which arouses all honey-tenderness in the heart of a tender man. She had an oval face – then again boiled eggs are oval. She had a face like the slim egg of a delicate bird. Her hair was fair and fair beyond fairness. She made Stone’s heart bleed with desire, with a keening desire that feels like an impenitent ache. She was in conversation with a young man who was a dupe, a kind-hearted, innocent, naive young dupe, and another woman, later to appear as Jane, who would have been a fit companion for the dupe had the taken to his pleasant, companionable ways. He was shy and nervous, blond-locked and stammering and had just happened to fall into conversation with this beautiful woman who was the friend and travel partner of the woman called Jane.
Bonny Kate laughed with full knowledge of her power, upon the sunny deck of that steamer to Muile. She played with the dupe not cruelly, but capably. She knew at once how much his heart beat violently for her. Mr Stone picked up the accents of the lively trio and discerned that they were good ones. It was a well-spoken trio. Kate’s charm was easy and not the charm that appealed to Stone, yet he wanted her as others want the dawn or the drug.
Two or three days passed on the isle of Muile – for the man with his bright green tinker-tent. The weather stayed hot and the surroundings he found for himself were very strong. He parked his home only a few yards from the narrow road with its passing places and its small amount of traffic. To his right was the bay, a matter of a dozen yards down onto wrack-covered rocks and then the stony strand. The heat was baking and the sea was almost warm. Despite self-admonition he kept his eyes peeled for the passage of those two women, a recent rapid glimpse of whom in a small car being driven by the beauty had set his heart stabbing with undilutable power.
Happier he was, though, to want no one and nothing. The rich weather helped him in this and he was also pleased to sit reading from hour to hour. He was glad to just squat and respire like a stone in the sun. The bay was broad and bright blue and made him feel expansive as it was itself. Across on the other side, on the mainland, were the hills and cottages of Ard-na-murchan. Like a sleepwalker a ferry would glide to and from an-t-Oban every hour. People would wave at his tent from their cars, something about its size and its simple appearance seemed to impress them. Even solitary Stone seemed to strike them as worthy of a greeting this way.
Then one day it rained ...
It gave itself up to downpour. The Gaels know plenty about rain and make it the rhythm of their poetry. Stone was confined to his tinker-dwelling, where he sat in his solitude with only book for company. He also had food, chocolate, cigarettes, money, security for a month or so. After that, he had his abode in Sasainn and what? Plans to roam the earth, to create a stir? All was in flux, just as for instance the Buddha had denominated it, Why did Mr Stone find religion so embarrassing? Because he was like the rest of his contemporaries? Sat in his tent in the teeming rain no one knew anything of any of this of course. He might just as well have been invisible. It goes without saying that many a time Mr Stone experienced himself as invisible, unreachable, indefinable and beyond the laws of nature.
The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.