By blood we live, p.2
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       By Blood We Live, p.2

           Glen Duncan
 
Impossible.

  It might not seem much to you, but I have to repeat: I don’t dream. Categorically: I do not dream.

  Not since …

  Not since you were very young. Not since Vali died …

  Sadness swelled, suddenly—and I knew if I let myself I’d start crying. (I’d been prone to little weeps, of late. You’re a bit fragile, Fluff, Justine had said, not long ago, having discovered me in tears in front of a TV movie starring Lindsay Wagner dying of leukaemia …)

  I didn’t dream.

  I did not dream.

  But there it was. Last night, I’d dreamed.

  In the dream I was walking barefoot on an empty beach. It was twilight and the sea was black. There were a few lonely stars in the sky, as if the bulk of the constellations had been swept away. I was walking towards …

  Towards what?

  He lied in every word.

  Someone else was there, close behind me.

  That was all.

  Was that all? Wasn’t there something else …?

  My face tingled and my hands tightened on the Mitsubishi’s steering wheel. This had, actually, happened, no matter how much it seemed it couldn’t have. Millennia of empty sleep—now this. The last dream before this—seventeen thousand years ago (or was it sixteen? precision goes; epoch-edges blur)—had been of Vali. The night Vali died she appeared to me in a dream and said: I will come back to you. And you will come back to me. Wait for me.

  Tears welled again. Stunned and symphonic with new blood I might have been, but it made the feeling of forlornness worse, and before I knew it, there I was—yes, ridiculous, ridiculous—weeping. I imagined Justine saying, as she had when Lindsay Wagner had upset me, Don’t cry, Stonk. I liked it when she said that. I liked it when she put her hand in my hair or wrapped her limbs around me like a monkey. There were so many things I liked. That was the awful thing about being alive: there were so many things one liked. The awful thing about life was that there were so many things, full stop. You’re not waiting for Vali’s return, Mahmoud had bitched to me, shortly before his suicide, you’re just addicted to life. You’re not a romantic. You’re a junkie.

  I dried my tears with the heel of my hand, like a woman in a movie driving away sadly but bravely from a break-up, and forced myself to think back. With every hero from every pre-Seventies horror film I said to myself: Now just calm down. There has to be a perfectly rational explanation for all this …

  Last night had been, as far as I could remember, unexceptional. Justine and I had watched The Graduate and A League of Their Own (Geena Davis’s smile is one of the things I stay alive for, I’d said. Do you think that makes me an emotional moron?) then she’d gone out to the club and I’d gone down to the vault, drunk six O positive MREs from the cooler and read Don Juan for the last two hours of darkness until sleep took me just before dawn. That was all. Nothing unusual. Nothing to explain the dream, the wake-up panic, the pounding thirst, the conviction that I knew something without knowing what it was. Nothing, in short, to explain the overwhelming feeling that either I or the world had gone completely insane.

  Desert night flowed over the car. I was aware of my face, thudding, and of the Mitsubishi’s instrument panel attending to my mental wrestle with a kind of sympathetic innocence. The dream’s images tantalised: the empty beach, the sparse stars, the black water, the unknown someone walking behind me. Naturally I’d forgotten what this was like, the way a dream’s churned wake or slipstream left you groping after the dissolving fragments, what they meant, what they seemed to mean. They don’t mean shit, Oscar the analyst had said to me one night in Alexandria. Dreams are prick-teasers non pareil. They promise and promise but they never put out. Don’t waste your time on dreams. Oscar was dead, too, it must be seventy years. So many dead. I had not known death had …

  And, yes, back came the tears. Accompanied, this time, by the beginning of real fear, because what, what, what the fuck was wrong with me?

  I spent the rest of the journey going through the same amnesiac loop, but I was none the wiser by the time I made it—precarious, tender, horribly alive to my own confusion—home.

  Nor was home an end to the madness.

  Having parked the car out front I paused, arrested in spite of the unhinged nature of things by the Californian night, the scents of orange blossom and bougainvillea and the lovely odour of damp travertine where the sprinklers’ arc had rinsed the drive. My memory being what it is I got by way of association an open mass grave at Auschwitz, thrilled rats rummaging the pale limbs as if for valuables long since purloined by the master race. I stood still for a moment to let the vision fade. There’s nothing to do with these headflashes but wait them out. Which is what I would have done, had the reverie not been interrupted by a sudden human whiff, rich as a cured meats and pickles counter, that compelled me to turn and look back down the drive.

  It didn’t need night sight.

  He was standing between the gateposts, illuminated by the two outdoor lamps that sit atop them like twin full moons, a beggarly old man leaning on a single crutch. His bulk, I knew, came not from protein but from a dozen never-removed layers of clothing with an eco-system of their own. His face was gaunt—what there was to see of it amid the matted hair and health-hazard beard—and one of his large eyes was dramatically bloodshot. His hands were tanned and filthy. If one of my neighbours had seen him the cops were probably already on their way.

  He was staring at me, smiling.

  “You’re going the wrong way,” he said.

  For what felt like a long time I just stood there, looking at him. Then I said: “What?”

  But he swivelled on his crutch and hurried away.

  Angry now (too much bafflement eventually just makes you want to hit someone), I set off down the drive after him.

  But there was a delayed effect, apparently of his non sequitur, because after a few paces I stopped. I’m not sure why. A feeble but comprehensive intuition—that following him was not a good idea.

  Instead, throbbing, delicate, afraid, I turned and went back to the house.

  3

  JUSTINE WAS STILL out. I spent a wearying time locating my cellphone, which for some reason she’d locked in the study desk drawer. The phone had been switched off. Waiting the few seconds for it to power-up exposed the raw fact of my existence, terribly, as does standing waiting for an elevator with strangers. I had the feeling of just realising I was the subject of a reality show, imagined an invisible audience of millions thinking, Poor bugger, he hasn’t got a clue … He lied in every …

  Huge relief when I got the power symbol, the AT&T bars, the home screen (Botticelli’s Primavera, which in spite of everything—things of beauty, joys forever—still stole a vivid second to beguile my 24/7 aesthete). I called her cell.

  Voicemail. She’d changed her greeting. Gone was Bette Davis saying: I’ve been drinking all the way from California—and I’m drunk! Replaced by Justine herself, sounding remote: “You’ve reached Justine Cavell. Leave a message.”

  It occurred to me, as it has countless times before, that you can’t take your eye off this world for a moment. Smoke signals. You blink. Cellphones. Six thousand years of foot messengers—now this: instant access, everywhere. FaceTime. I wish they hadn’t called it that. Face Time. I can’t help seeing it as an implacable instruction.

  “For fuck’s sake, Justine,” I said. “Call me, will you? It’s important. Something’s going on. I’m a bit … Just call me as soon as you get this.”

  It calmed me, slightly, to be under my own roof, but the house felt subtly altered. I’d left in such a rush three hours ago I hadn’t noticed. Now here were my sweet walnut floors and high ceilings, the study’s amber lamps and red velvet drapes and twenty thousand books (one for each year of my life, I quip to after-dark guests) the hallway’s green and gold Persian runner and the kitchen’s copper splash-backs and black slate tops—but all possessed of a taut sentience, as if they didn’t know whether to let me in on what th
ey knew, whatever the hell it was they did know. Justine had tidied the TV room since our movie double bill. She’d washed and put away the glasses, got rid of the spent bottles, emptied the ashtrays, plumped up the cushions. Incredibly, it looked as if she might have vacuumed. My nostrils said recent frangipani incense and Pledge floor-wax. Why? Had she thrown up somewhere? Were it anyone else I might have supposed a lover’s visit, room-hopping sex, stains to mop, odours to expunge. But this was Justine, therefore that wasn’t a possibility.

  There was nothing to do but wait for her. I took a consolation shower in the vault. Not very consoling, since the dream leftovers wouldn’t stop burgeoning and vanishing in my head, with a little more—but no less maddening—detail. On the empty beach we’d walked until we’d found a small wooden rowing boat in the shadow of a wall of black rocks, blistered and barnacled and half-covered in sand and sun-dried seaweed. (We? Me and whoever was with me. The liar in every word, presumably.) When we found the boat I said: “It’s happening. Just as in the dream. I know what it means. Of course. I know now what it means.”

  Yes, well, I didn’t know now what it meant.

  Naked, towelled dry, I stood in front of the full-length mirror. (Reflections? Yes. We show up on film, too, don’t let anyone tell you different.) Courtesy of the blood booze-up on Randolf’s tab I looked ludicrously healthy. My skin, currently the colour of a double-shot latte, was tight and smooth. I used to be darker. Much darker, long ago. I reached up to touch the little carved stone Oa that hung on a chain around my neck. Its small weight was a comfort, as was the image it conjured, of my father’s hands working it in the light of the cooking fire, his dark eyes full of calm knowledge, the smell of roasting meat, my mother digging a hole nearby for the offering …

  It’s a terrible thing to see yourself start to cry, as I did, just then. Not least because in spite of your misery there’s how funny your face looks. But here were the tears—dear God—again, and the feeling of something big and obvious infuriatingly just out of view—

  At which point I heard the door upstairs open and close. Justine was back.

  4

  IT’S MY NATURE to move silently. Therefore she got an almighty fright. She was standing in the study by the desk with her cellphone in her hand, staring into space with the look of someone trying to assimilate a shock. She was dressed in a short black suede jacket, red t-shirt, tight white jeans and red suede clogs. It’s taken her years to wear anything on her feet other than running shoes. Naturally. Her world being for so long a place where she had to be ready to run.

  “Jesus Christ.”

  “Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. You’ve had your hair cut.” The centre-parted jaw-length bob had been replaced by something short and snazzily chopped. She looked like the world’s prettiest schoolboy.

  “Oh my God,” she said. “Fuck.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  She sat down in the desk’s swivel chair, a cream leather ergonomic thing that would’ve been at home in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. The room was lit only by the Tiffany desk lamp, a delicate trapezoid of stained glass in green, gold and peach that threw a soft light on her pale hands and face. Turquoise nail polish. A big amber ring I didn’t recognise. She smelled, deliciously, of cigarette smoke and booze and dry ice. She’d been to the club, TCOS, three floors on Sunset Boulevard, which I’d given her as a twenty-third birthday present five years ago. The world having nothing better to do, there was endless online speculation about what TCOS stood for. Only Justine and I knew. The Comfort Of Strangers. Her choice.

  “You look different,” I said to her. “It’s not just the hair.”

  She let out the breath she’d been holding. “Yeah,” she said. “I would … Fuck.”

  “Will you for the love of Thoth tell me what is going on?”

  Pause.

  “Have you fed?” she asked.

  “Yes. Something’s wrong with me. I don’t … How come you vacuumed?”

  “What?”

  “The place has been cleaned since last night. How come?”

  She sat back in the chair, which received her with a maidenly sigh. Three floor-to-ceiling walls of books attended in silence. A little bubble of Randolf burst in me: him six years old, falling for the tenth time off a bike he was trying to learn to ride in the yard. His father’s big beer-flavoured mouth laughing. I had a feeling of something catching up with me.

  “That wasn’t last night,” Justine said. “That was two years ago.”

  5

  A CONFESSION: MY memory isn’t exactly the Rolls-Royce of memories. Memory full, the computers say, managing with machine pathos to make you feel you’ve force fed them, like those poor foie gras geese. But my memory’s never full. My memory goes in for violent clear-outs. My memory self-harms. It also makes wild boasts and risible claims, sends me absurd snapshots and improbable clips: the bodies of Amenhotep’s murdered tomb builders in a moonlit heap, for example, a poignant assembly of nipples and feet and grinning faces, covered in dust. Or Niccolo Linario on a red damask couch looking up at me and saying in Latin: They’ve arrested Machiavelli. Did you hear? Or my own hands, darker-skinned, thicker-fingernailed, winding gut around a worked flint. Oh yes, flint. I don’t expect you to believe it. For myself I’m beyond believing or not believing. For myself I just—as my darling and religiously commercial Americans say—deal. I decided long ago that the far from total recall is a coping mechanism. Who, after all, is built to carry twenty thousand years’ worth of recollections? Too much luggage for the hold. Therefore bags and cases must be continually jettisoned and replaced, jettisoned and replaced. Otherwise flight would be impossible. Otherwise we’d crash. Only yesterday I’d said to Justine: You know, Juss, I sometimes think that if I remembered everything that’s happened to me, I’d simply die. And she’d looked at me with disturbing gentle exhaustion and said: I know, Fluff. You’ve told me.

  Except of course it turns out that wasn’t only yesterday.

  Los Angeles Times. Monday, 27 August 2012. There were the facts, in black and white. I’d slept for twenty-one months. The better part of two years—gone.

  Justine had made me sit down in one of the study’s two obese armchairs—cowhide Thomasvilles decadently left behind by Las Rosas’ former owners—while she’d gone to the kitchen to fix herself a drink. (Eagle Rare seventeen-year-old single-barrel bourbon, my nose said. She’s come a long way from her days of Jack Daniel’s and Coke.) Now she perched on the edge of the desk facing me, tinkling tumbler in one hand, American Spirit in the other. I’d found the softpack stuffed down the side of the cushion and lit one up myself. Blood-drink your fill and nothing rewards like nicotine. I remembered seeing the first colour billboards go up: MORE DOCTORS SMOKE CAMELS THAN ANY OTHER CIGARETTE! Which detonated—along with chrome and fins and Elvis and ferocious canned laughter and Budweiser neons and the lady-shaped Coke bottle—the memory of a buxom stenographer’s dewey nape smelling of Elnett hair-spray and Pond’s cold cream, her tough-bra’d breasts filling my hands. Her apartment had a fold-out bed and an Alba record-player. In the bathroom cabinet hidden behind cosmetics and Band-Aids a flesh-coloured diaphragm in a plastic case like a scallop shell. She’d thought it was going to be a seduction. She’d thought it was going to be sex.

  “What do you remember?” Justine said.

  I felt the room tilt, intimate its mountains, cliffs of fall, got an inkling of how sick all this might make me feel, while all the Lears I’d ever seen went O, let me not be mad, not mad sweet heaven … So I said, out of my dry mouth: “Well, thanks for easing me in gently.”

  “This is what you told me to do if this happened. You told me … Jesus, I can’t fucking believe this.”

  I didn’t blame her. Every morning for twenty-one months she’d woken up hoping the coming night would restore me. Every night for twenty-one months been denied. The study’s book-surrounded atmosphere bristled with how tightly that had wound her.

  “Are yo
u even here?” she said. “I can’t believe it. Fuck.”

  I was very aware of my face, hot and overfull. In spite of the shock of twenty-one months gone I was still being ravished by the in-creeping sense of things meaning things. This is the gift of the blood: Slake the thirst and the world gestures beyond itself to an underlying blueprint. The world is a series of vivid clues to the riddle beyond appearances. The world has a purpose, a pattern, a story, a plot. The world has Meaning. Even Justine, standing there with the chunky tumbler and smouldering cigarette, backed by Tiffany lamplight and red drapes, her dark eyes and her mouth like a bruise, the schoolboy haircut …

  “For fuck’s sake,” she said. “Hello?”

  “I’m sorry. You look like a Vermeer. Girl with Drink and Cigarette.” Which winked its connection to the memory of the stenographer’s diaphragm. Vermeer, Dutch, Dutch cap, diaphragm. It wasn’t continuous, this blood-joke of design, but it was, once you were back on The Lash, continual.

  Justine shook her head. Feelings jammed. Too much, too fast. Meanwhile I blew the rich smoke bullishly through my nose. The thought of sitting still and letting all this take shape around me made me queasy. All this? All what? What was this?

  “Did you move out?” I asked her.

  “Of course I didn’t move out. Do you have any idea what this has been like? You told me you’d know if a long sleep was coming. You remember telling me you’d know, right?”

  “I imagine I would have told you,” I said. “I’ve always known before.”

  “Well, you didn’t know this time. I’ve been out of my goddamned mind. Two years. I thought you weren’t coming back.” Suddenly she got really angry: “You fucking promised me you’d know when it was coming.”

  “I’m sorry,” I said. “I truly am. I have always known before. I would never have promised, otherwise. You know that. This must have been awful for you. I’m so sorry.” It was a relief to concentrate on the way she was feeling instead of the way I was. I stood up and went to her. “May I?” I asked. She didn’t respond. She hadn’t decided if she was letting me back in. Me. This. All of it. “Please,” I said.

 
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