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 she 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.
Soon the steam and the damp midges in his tent became unbearable. He donned his waterproofs and left the tent to take a breath of air. Still it teemed and Stone felt disconsolately that perhaps it might rain for the rest of his life. What had been glistening blue sea and yellow-black beatified rock only yesterday was just grey and wet and inconsequence today. God had run away from this place and left a void of damp and drear.
Then from the corner of his eye came a rapid message. There a hundred yards before him, parading down the narrow island road, came a short, thin, graceful figure muffled in a dark, plain protective garment. Even his hood was tied up to the nose. There was no excess, no extra to his dripping, confident appearance. This was Dukes on his way to the public house to fill his little water-carrier. Dukes the one who stopped and made a friendly, authoritative hello. Dukes who seemed to know his own mind, to speak as if appointed, to halt as if commanded, to relish in a modest way the presence of his own presence. At once he attracted and repelled Stone. For he walked so straight, so stiffly straight and perpendicular.
They made affable, attractive conversation. Dukes had a warm wit, a Lowland wit, that relished exaggeration, belittling, irony and dryness. Stone came from far enough north in Sasainn to appreciate the flavour of Dukes’ banter. They were racially close enough to taste each other’s sympathies in wit. One spoke, the other parried, one jested, the other laughed.
Dukes’ story was astonishing. He related it with pride, authority, yet modesty, and yet the pride informed the modesty. This man in his forties was walking the whole length of the coastline of Alba. He had been on the road for two months already, striding up from Galloway, across to the East, up around Banff, Sutherland, Ross, down through Moray, down to Argyll and now onto the isles. A small amount of hitchhiking the likes of tractors, the occasional ferry across a narrow waterway, living not by shops and cash but by hand and mouth, by hunting and fishing like some Neanderthal man. Even his tent was just a sheet of gardening plastic suspended over two handy sticks ...
Out of one of his, pockets he pulled a large, ugly catapult, which he explained he used for slaying rabbits. From another pocket came a small, green-coloured handline for angling his fish. He described how he pilfered farmers’ fields for potatoes and other trifling things. Then he pointed proudly to thick bracken reaching up the hillock that was half a mile off in the mist.
‘My tent’s in that lot,’ he murmured to Mr Stone. ‘Buried away. I like my seclusion, you see. I value my seclusion more than almost anything. Do you not yourself, son?’
This was said with an open uncomplicated humour. The elder man asked Stone nothing about himself during that half-hour conversation in the rain. Yet Dukes did not appear to hide anything. He seemed to be content and unhurried, glad of his solitude, strong in himself. He seemed to be the opposite of Stone, who was moody, impatient, restless, always wondering what lay next and the next after that. Mr Dukes took Mr Stone in hand as a matter of course. He exercised power and authority in a wholly invisible way. He invited him to go along to the nearby hotel-cum-public house that evening. The rain teemed down before Stone’s doubtful eyes, yet the friendliness and good nature of this elder man seemed a thing both strong and worth the gamble.
Soon Mr Dukes became a constant irritant contour of Mr Stone’s landscape. The day following that first meeting was as hot as the days that went before it. A second hot spell had set in. Ripe hot weather works steady miracles. Everyone feels his skin opening up, the bounty of the elements, the richness of sensual life to be found in the air itself but richest of all in forests, by roadsides, down by the weed-infested strand. Everything ticks in the heat, like a lazy old bomb, a harmless self-annihilation, a wished-for nothingness. And Dukes became gradually mysteriously inseparable from Stone, much as Stone attempted to prize himself apart ...
In the public house lo and behold beautiful Kate and less beautiful Jane were working as barmaids and general hotel servants. This raised Stone’s expectations to absurdity. Bold Dukes had a way of talking to anyone as easily and commandingly as if he were the world’s father. He chatted generously to Kate who wrenched provocatively those pints of heavy behind the hotel bar, a holiday job before she went up to the university in Sasainn to study of all things European Philosophy. She was such a gentle-contoured, wispy-eyed young woman. By virtue of the way she addressed the world she was one who could only herself be addressed either seductively or teasingly – the latter being the fatherly manner adopted by wise Mr Dukes. The sight of her melting, darting eyes was like the Koh-i-Noor to young Mr Stone, who attempted to sophisticate his attraction with a quiet and mendacious confidence. He talked to her with expanded lips and nostrils, talked philosophical matter as a superior gambit, with subtle communication of a special relationship, a prized potential which only ones like he and Miss Kate were worthy of. Without putting it into words, he intimated that he Stone and she Kate were of all the hundred souls inside this public house, special and exotic and exquisite.
Dukes would regularly undo all of this, even though nothing patent had been uttered by Stone that could have been attacked on grounds of vanity. Whenever Stone was trying to alchemise subtle intimacy and induce desire by magical means in Kate, fatherly Dukes was always there by his elbow dropping a joke or introducing an aside that somehow brought everything down to quotidian, unmagical level. It was as if Mr Dukes was against magic. Perhaps he wanted Mr Stone to himself, perhaps it was as simple as that. Perhaps he was Stone’s protector, saw something in Kate that made him wish to hold the young man off for his own protection.
Jane was dull. She had the face of a startled, chubby Alice. She had no aurora. She had blinking nervous eyes and a rush and gabble caught-in-the-neck way of talking that reminded Stone of the anchors of class and origin. These little islands off Alba were full of rich, well-born people from Sasainn. Kate and Jane came from large houses in places like Surrey and Kent, for which no Gaelic words exist, being as – to reverse all logic – herring and oatmeal have little currency in Godalming or in Chatham. She seemed to be simply a chaperone to Kate, subordinate, the dull metric balance that is often to be found beside magnetic and over-beautiful women. Stone felt with irritation that Dukes was an equivalent ballast in his own case: even though he was an interesting, commanding and powerful person, he was still a barrier to intimacy with lustrous clear-faced Kate.
Dukes guided and annexed Mr Stone over the next few days. On the Sunday he took him handline fishing down by the old jetty, the one that was now disused but where in the old days the ferry from Lochaline had docked on route to Tobar-mhoire. All the while Mr Stone was keening for Miss Kate but in a quiet, concealed way. Dukes seemed to know as much, but as they fished kept up his flow of cheerful, informative talk. He told of a detailed and curious diary he was writing of his travels around Alba. He recounted a little of his rich past, mentioned pungently the Army and the National Service and the adventures he had had in foreign towns. Really his conversation was diverting by any standards, he was an intriguing man with an intriguing past. Why then was Stone only half listening and feeling importuned? He had had enough of Dukes’ company but Dukes would not let him go. On route to the shops and the public house he always called by the young man’s tent, dropped by as a close companion would. He seemed to have taken the meandering young man under his wing, as if he was a starving fledgling. Mr Stone saw that Mr Dukes in part saw, through to Stone’s marrow, that he had eyes which saw much. Also that Dukes was paradoxically blind to all sorts of things. Dukes dissimulated fatigue when he was bored, unlike obdurate Stone. Dukes patronised the most unpromising, helpless souls – in fact, spurned no one. He was human, he was kind, he showed charity. Stone shied away from pests. This much was all evident in among the loose network of campers, cyclists, walkers who used the nearby hotel as their meeting ground. He even befriended the young dupe, did Dukes, even was kind to the stuttering young toff who wormishly surrendered his little car to Kate and Jane on their afternoons off from hotel work. The dupe acted chauffeur for them around the isle of Muile every afternoon.
Yet as they fished Dukes soon perceived Stone’s distraction and preoccupation. He decided anxiously to push the harder with his anecdotes and humour. He told stronger adventures, curiouser items of country lore and animal sightings discovered by the solitary traveller. He became a little desperate. The sight of the younger man’s indifference to his tales at one stage seemed to cut him to the bone. Stone saw his face colour over with the grey hue of neglect, of year-long sorrows. He saw the sorrowing side of Mr Dukes. It was the flat grief of missing affections. What was that? That sudden accession of suffering in a man who always gave the appearance of strength and unselfish optimism, that did distract Mr Stone. For he saw the buried half of Dukes. He saw in Dukes’ face what he never bothered to disguise in himself. He knew now that Duke was not the self-sufficient one he presented himself as to the eyes of the public house – as self-sufficient in good humour as he was in victuals.
The public house fosters lies, as everyone knows. So does alcohol. Dukes was relating the story of his snake bite, one he had suffered in Spain when hiking there one year. How he had been utterly alone and had had to use his own penknife to slice himself and suck out the venom before hobbling in agony to the nearest town and doctor. A matter of life against ...
‘Weren’t you afraid of dying?’ asked Stone, at last showing interest.
‘No,’ said Dukes, more brightly, yet scornful of the question. ‘Not of that yan.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Yon death. Not of yon.’
He spoke of it like some ludicrous affliction, as others joke of haemorrhoids.
‘You see, I am afraid of dying,’ admitted Stone, keen at last to pursue the discussion.
Dukes typically was talking of something else by this stage. He had all the habits of the monologuist. In fact, he was resorting to patter. He was mumbling nervously about live fish being ready to bite here any minute now So far, after three hours, neither of them had caught a thing ...
That evening there was a ceilidh in the village, and Stone hoped Mr Dukes would not attend it. But Dukes did, he called punctually for Stone at his tent and accompanied him to the hotel and thence to the Parish Rooms where the drinkless entertainment began about ten o’clock. There was nevertheless much drunkenness, for people carried bottles of whisky out of the hotel bar. During the evening the two men had chatted with the two young maids and Stone had felt that with luck perhaps the four of them would end up partners at the ceilidh. He even perceived a courtly side to Dukes. He also perceived that the world might be curious about this friendship between two men twenty years apart. Did they think Dukes was his father, his lover or his guardian? He edged away from the other man and tried to capture Kate by daring proximity. She in turn flattered and fluttered but gave nothing away. She oscillated between the bar and their table for she was half on duty and half off it this evening. It was uncertain whether she was responding. It was uncertain and therefore unlikely, but Stone could not see that. In any case he hoped, he hoped with all his might.
The two women had had to absent themselves from the table for the last half hour before the ceilidh. Dukes had drunk a substantial amount of liquor and was grown more than a little maudlin. He spoke of Mr Stone moving his tent next to where his own lay, tucked away in the sheltering bracken. Did Stone see? In fact why use two tents when one was sufficient for both of them? Why not pool their resources? As plain as that. It was spoken in an open uncompromising way and for all the obvious lubricity of such a suggestion there was no way Stone could voice aloud that he was being propositioned by this man. In fact he was, anyone neutral could have discerned as much. Stone himself was probably shrewder in these matters than most ... And yet Dukes’ moral authority – for that was what it was, that constant dative cheerfulness – did not allow him to impute purely selfish sexual desire to the other.
Stone skirted the maudlin suggestion. He said that he liked his privacy. He was on firm ground there because it was Mr Dukes’ constant boast that he needed his own sure seclusion. That matter was dropped and without embarrassment on either side. Dukes perceived how the young man was unable to think ill of his suggestion, as if hypnotised by that something special that marked out Dukes among the rest of the men here in the hotel bar tonight.
The ceilidh came and the evening went. Before long, Stone and his bodyguard were dancing with Kate and her chaperone. Young Stone had his hard breast against young Kate’s and he was pissing out ecstasy, on fire with the delight of her sweetness. Such delight in him unnerved her, therefore she dissimulated as much. She danced with dozens that night in any case, a beauty such as hers being the target of the eyes of all greedy young men on holiday in Alba. Even dull Jane had more than her fair share of pursuers. Then Mr Stone blinked twice, perhaps he went to the Gents for a minute or so, and when he returned the two women had vanished from the scene ...
He was bitter with frustration. Bitterness sucked at his veins. He danced with all and sundry after that, defiantly, ready to court and mount the ugliest hag on all of Muile. If Dukes came by he kept away from him, for Dukes saw him chewing his spleen and knew the reason why, and that angered Stone for he was aware that Dukes realised how greedy he was for flesh no matter what spirit, so to speak, went with what flesh. He was aware of his own folly and yet he was annoyed that such as Dukes should stand afar off and contemplate wisely that undisguised folly.
After the ceilidh the dancers stood around in the warm and moonlit night, much laughter and drunken good humour passed around the deserted roads and sleeping township in this quiet island. Dukes was in rich, unquashable spirits and he was charitably pitying of Stone who was so obviously discontented, with his unfulfilled desires. It was a beautiful night, and he seemed to be intimating that everything was here to joy Stone’s heart if he could only forget about the Miss Kates of this world.
‘Where is she?’ asked Stone cravingly, desperately, a little drunk by now. ‘I thought we would have had those two.’
‘Eh?’ said Dukes indulgently.
‘Kate. I thought you and Jane had reached an agreement. I thought we all had. Where the hell did they go? Why the hell did they run off?’
Dukes only smiled, the answer being so obvious.
The next day Dukes attacked him. That is, he cut him down to size with the hatchet of his studies. Which was wielded relatively gently, for all it followed on the older man’s sexual frustration and also the bitterness he must base swallowed at the indifference of Stone.
Dukes had dragged Stone into Tobar-Mhoire that day. Mr Stone was rebellious at being press-ganged into companionship and in any case all he could think about was the breast and the cunt of Kate the barmaid. This June heat made him feel like a walking phallos. He was sick with sex and here he was with a middle-aged homosexual bursting his insides for him. He wanted Kate, Dukes wanted him, Kate wanted no one, no one wanted Dukes. Such chains, such fecund linkages, such holy bindings ...
They were sat in a café when Stone’s unremitting absence finally ruffled Dukes into his attack. For he had been telling the Sasunnach about the suspected ... albatross ... he’d sighted that morning as he took his dawn swim in the bay of Salen.
‘An albatross?’ exclaimed Stone, snapping into life again.
‘I’m sure it was,’ enthused Dukes gratefully. It’s just possible a bird like yon would be traversing these wee isles. You see ... ’
Then he went on vividly about birds, about his practice of rising at dawn, of doing a little Hatha-yoga, of tasting a solitude beyond solitudes. To no avail. There was slim, doubting, hungering Stone dreaming of blonde-haired women with heavy breasts and sweet behinds and bonny eyes. Dukes could see the teats and fannies in his eyes. Dukes’ power was negligible therefore. All that he’d done, all that he knew, all these wonderful tales that were his and all for Stone’s enjoyment and sharing – spurned!
‘So do you believe in any occult matters?’ he suddenly challenged the daydreamer aggressively.
Mr Stone jumped. Mr Dukes clenched his palms. At last! He knew where things stood!’ He saw Stone panic at the prospect of some strange intelligence.
‘What?’ he mumbled with a visible tetanus. ‘No. Yes. No.’
The Lowlander laughed. Kindness was still the master. He looked at Stone, like a loving father. To Stone’s amazement he noticed incredible similarity between this man and his own father. They had the same chin, same smile, same thinness, identical gentle manners. Who then was this bloody Dukes?
‘You sound doubtful.’
‘Why is that?’
‘It’s ... oh it’s easy to laugh at. Hocus-pocus. Hypochondriacs. Crackpots. People with axes to grind.’
Stone’s voice was aggressively on the defensive. He resented that look of placid omniscience in the other’s eyes.
‘I read the future,’ announced Dukes matter-of-factly.
Stone made no reply.
‘I have testimonials,’ he added, a little naively.
‘I’m no charlatan. I’ve helped so many people.’
‘Oh?’ blushed Stone. ‘What ... what do you use? Cards?’
‘Aha. The Tarot. I’ve helped young women stop their marriages break up. I’ve helped young men away from suicide. I’ve done it only for good, not for gain. White magic, not any hocus-pocus.’
Stone kept his peace.
‘I do a kind of theoretical, mental Tarot of everyone I meet. It’s like a compulsion. You know I can see auras, I can see the bodily aura around everyone I meet? It’s distinguished by colours. Grey is healthy, for instance. Other colours portend Death.’
Mr Stone shook.
‘Oh?’ he affected indifferently. ‘And what would ... what would say mine be then?’
‘Eh? Oh grey, grey. Yours is healthy all right.’
‘I don’t believe it ... ’
‘But you’re not a settled man. Am I right?’
‘My face would tell you that,’ assented Stone dryly. ‘I know that myself without the Qabbala.’
‘You’re eh ... for ever going from one thing to the next, never settling. Wanting this, that, the other. Am I right?’
Stone agreed to the obvious, while scratching around for some means of qualifying the tortuous, hence forgivable, nature of his unebbing greeds.
‘Wanting and craving is all to hell,’ Mr Dukes explained calmly. ‘It’s the wrong way to tick. You need to realise you have all you’ll ever have and to give up whatever you’ve got. Do you follow?’
Stone grunted cynically. ‘I have needs,’ he whispered, embarrassed to be talking so loudly in such a place. ‘Addictions, you might say.’
‘Drugs?’ asked Dukes commandingly.
‘No,’ scowled Stone. ‘Women. Every one I see. I want every woman I see.’
‘That’s crazy,’ opined Dukes.
‘I know. Of course it is.’
‘I cannot. How can I?’
‘Everything comes to the man who waits,’ muttered the tanned Kung-Fu. ‘You shouldna be so greedy.’
‘It’s all right for you,’ grumbled Stone pettishly. ‘People who don’t hanker, don’t hanker. People who do, do.’
‘Will power,’ asserted Dukes firmly. ‘Find some way of giving up whatever you have. Christ man, a man like you as tender and soft as a babbie – when have you ever had all the easy twat you’ve wanted? Aren’t you just all eyes?’
Stone flushed for shame.
‘Find a good woman,’ advised Mr Dukes sharply. ‘To hell with the rest. You know women like Kate? She’s a player! She plays! You want love and she only wants to play with weakly men.’
‘How do you know?’ objected Stone indignantly, though his quivering voice belied his grumble.
‘Folks never change,’ Dukes explained assuredly. ‘Let’s say if by a miracle you was to marry yon Katie lass tomorrow, she would still be ... yon Katie. She’d still be flighty, fooling, all for the good time. She would drive you stark mad within a week.’
Mr Dukes led them back to the quay, Mr Stone as good as tottering. The Qabbalist had been throughout his analysis gentle and pitying. Stone was shaken from tip to stern. Here he was judged, metrication undergone, his motives laid bare, his fancies seen for the follies they were.
‘But what are your beginnings?’ asked the Lowlander curiously, as they leant against the harbour rails. ‘Where did you come from? You were no born with a spoon in your maw like Katie?’
Stone explained his origins, his roots. The village, the small house, the small parents, the small past. He related it as if it dealt with someone else. Such was his relationship with himself, in fact.
‘Do you keep in contact?’ asked old Dukes, touched by the picture Stone painted from his amnesia.
Mr Stone shook his head and said with conviction that he hated them. Dukes clicked his tongue with disapproval. He asked him why on earth. Stone admitted he had forgotten exactly why but there was good reason whatever it was. Disagreements, disaffection, treachery in the name of concern. What was kin but enemy? Wasn’t that true for everyone too, he asked Dukes sharply.
Dukes’ eyes greyed over again with pain. His own youth was rising up before him. What desolation! Stone’s own churning innards could not help but be moved by that suffering aglow in old Dukes.
‘My ma was a whore,’ Dukes grinned weakly. ‘And my pa was a drunken fool. You see while you – by the sounds of it – was squashed and coddled in the name of love, I was left to live on fresh air.’
‘Neglect,’ said Mr Stone.
It’s a word,’ agreed Dukes. ‘It’s just a word. So is hell. Hell’s just a word eh? You should taste the experience, son. You should taste what it’s like for a wean to be neglected.’
Dukes steadied himself. He lit a cigarette and then advised Stone to seek reconciliation and to dissolve his hatreds. The occultist recommended the written letter as the best means. He said that a man who gave tit for tat was not a good man, two wrongs do not make a right, and so on. All this made Stone melt more and more until he felt he was simply liquid. Meanwhile Dukes was leading him back by food to the village where they both were camped. It was ten miles and they walked it all bar two. On route Dukes came out with his metaphysics and Stone listened far from credulously. Nevertheless he kept saying over and over to himself: The Road To Emmaus ... Dukes talked of auras, how they were elastic and left the body during sleep and at death. How oak trees were rich in aura-substance and hence their vivifying shade. He believed that the Bible had been written by someone only intent on giving allegory, a fable world, not the scientific truth of things. He conflated Mohammed, Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tse, and then went on to a theory of extraterrestrial governance by fully aural spirits. Stone might have been melting throughout but his intelligence told him he was listening to drivel. This Dukes was a mixture of savvy and nonsense, of discrimination and absurdity, was how he interpreted. Stone might be having all his chocks pulled away, the corks pulled loose in the name of charity and generosity, but the wisdom of the mechanic involved was of a crankish, cosmic sort. It was too cosmic, too easily universal and all-embracing by half.
Mr Dukes invited the young man to his lair in the bracken where he anxiously prepared him a supper of vegetable stew. They had walked eight long miles and their legs were weary and their skins both tanned like furniture. There was no more any hint of sexual overture from Dukes. The Lowlander whittered nervously with speech as he peeled the vegetables and brewed some coffee. Here in his seclusion he was a little pathetic, more than a little broken. He was a lonely middle-aged bachelor. He was a solitary homosexual. His anxiety was lest his guest depart unannounced. Thus he coddled Stone and would not let him stir nor help him in any way. Stone was the laird and Dukes was his manservant. Over and above that the evening was of such fine clarity and beauty. They were sat by the enormous, frozen cerulean bay, its belly as great as the belly of God. It was so immense they melted into speeks. They were cut off from all view, the road invisible, the traffic and by-passers dissolved. Here they had their nook and the smell of wood fire, the scent of salty stew in the odour of cooling bracken. There was a richness to life and to its possibilities that made young Stone melt even further. Everywhere he looked were miracles. And yet the miracle was he was literally dissolving like this day itself.
The story will be concluded in the next issue.
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