Paris, 2007. Uncannily drawn together from the moment they first meet, Pierre and Ciara are lovers doomed by an entangled past life - inside Randolph Carson, a Viking-obsessed sociopath who may have also been a murderer. After their passionate yet troubled union, their dreams are crammed with ever more terrifying old memories and the sense of their Randolphesque selves seems to invade their waking hours. Pregnant Ciara thinks love alone will save their sanity, while secretive Pierre has other ideas for ridding themselves of the nightmares and misplaced guilt... culminating in a dangerous esoteric ritual at the scene of Randolph's death in arctic Norway.
My blue dress smells of the sea. Last night, down in that stifling salty darkness, it was the laughter of a dead man that saved me. He crept out from my unconscious and filled the black English water as if he wanted to make it clear that he was once a flesh-and-bone person. My thoughts screamed at Randolph that I wasn’t the dead one, he was, he was born in 1911. All I wanted was for him to stop. But if I hadn’t heard that laugh, forced and mirthless, I would never have come up for air. Each choke of it sharpening the urge to vomit. Stinging eyes, a dark pink stupor of sun. Spitting, spitting. Bring her back, said the tender rolls of the waves, bring her back, as the laughter faded, retreated to the folds of my hippocampus where remnants of Randolph have always lurked, with the odd nudge, as if impatient for me to sleep. Maybe I was close to dying under that sea; a deathly brain must do bizarre things.
The part after I broke through the surface dazzles with clarity: seabirds screamed as my arms ploughed on, saltiness lapping, hands and knees hitting the shore where the lifted sun had soaked the greys to sapphire and flesh and slubby beige. At my back the waves kept roaring, a mush of shrieks and the beat of a vast, watery heart. The bruises on my arms woke with colour as water trickled down like the stroke of a new lover. I stood up and faced the vast blaze of dawn over the sea, the long basking fingers stretching to the horizon. Effervescent, barren, a painted god-sky awake with promises. and abloom with wanting like the hands of this next man, the perfect one I don’t yet know but who is mostly made of oxygen, carbon, as everything is; I had turned around in time I might have seen the sliver of his image. I could almost smell him as I ran over those smudged footprints and the discarded jacket, tremors of heat on my skin as I took my blue bag from the cottage porch and raced with the sea-bourn wind, away from the trail of memories and bruises…
Now, boarding this plane, all the men’s hands lie dormant on the armrests. Is it me that’s different or is it the men? Everything is different, of course. I haven’t slept yet but if I did, even Randolph’s freckled fists would seem tiny. He’s always been like a yardstick of badness, because if his memories had never crammed every sleeping hour of my childhood, then I would regret my thousand little sins like the pointless thefts from bookshops (Randolph’s method is so perfect it would almost be a crime not to use it, quite honestly) or the other secrets I’ve learned from him. Something in me has always said: I’m not like him… much. Other times I wonder what stops me from being a far crueller person. If I had fought back, harnessed that misery, then I would not have wasted the last seven years.
I have three plane seats to myself here. I dread being alone, but can’t summon enough normality for human interaction. Here’s the notebook I stole from the terminal shop. During these hours in transit from Suffolk to Heathrow I decided to try and write everything I know of Randolph Carson, to work out why my lewd old hidden twin has invaded my waking hours when I have not dreamed him for a whole decade.
This is right, or partly so. I must’ve been around twenty, twenty-one perhaps, when Randolph got muffled. The pictures of his life became foggier until I only dreamed heavy black slabs, nothingness. And though I no longer harboured all his thoughts and memories that were so male, so desperately English wherever he went, and yet so normal because they’d unfold parallel with my own age, the conscious Ciara has always stayed kind of blurred. Yet since it is Randolph who brought me out from the sea and sent me spinning alone into the future, the contours of who I am have sharpened. Laughter, under the sea. It’s too weird. Maybe it’s to do with his death that I haven’t witnessed. Or it could be linked to the time his father threw him in that horse trough and held his head underwater to teach him better table manners. He would’ve been eight… It’s hard to capture those ancient fragments – the pressure in his ears, the block in his mouth and his nasal cavities. Brittle visions and dormant hatred swelling lungs as Father’s hands pushed, and pushed… Hair tugged from its roots… Long seconds before the release… The spluttering, the whiff of hay, equine dribble staining the trough edge, sticky under fingers. Father walking away, arms swinging and square-shouldered against the yellows of English autumn, the brown, balding trees...
But remembering is exactly what its literal etymology suggests – we add limbs to something from the past and we cause it to run, not necessarily in the way that it originally did, but in a manner that seems correct.
The steward is speaking. I am saying something back, which must make sense because his hands – hairless, somehow clinical – put a plastic glass, a tiny can and a tinier bottle on the tray in front of me.
“Le gustaría cubos de hielo con eso?” he asks.
“Hielo, por favor, si.”
He leans over with a set of silver tongs, drops ice cubes: clack, clack. I thank him and try to make eye contact. His clean-lipped smile glides over my head and then away. Maybe I wasn’t polite enough. I pour in half the vodka, half the can of tonic, rest of the vodka, take a swig and pick up my pen. Randolph never knew me. Nor did Pascal, though he would sometimes cry as he punched me. It feels like nobody can see me – not on this plane, not anywhere, not yet. And writing about the dead man in my brain could make more even more invisible. So instead, I write this:
Mexico Ciara will order drinks she never tasted before, buy different clothes. Pascal’s fists cannot haunt her the way a dead man does. She will be different from this vague woman who wanted to drown.
White Pages Waiting for Sense
Mexico City is rainy in July. Everything here is an odd mix of futuristic and vintage: from the barren, smooth-floored airport to the vast highway with a phalanx of beetly green taxis bumbling past giant advertisements, the taxi radio flooding my ears with marimba plinks and plonks, to the bouffant-haired receptionist in the hotel on Rio Calle Sena. When I hand her my passport, her grin – lip liner, peachish pigments, frosty gloss – makes me feel so horrendously fucked-up, so Randolphish, and the bright mass of flowers in the vase on her desk induce an odd sort of nausea.
I still haven’t slept but I take the notebook and head straight out into the city. I crunch toasted brown insects from the brown-handed waiters in the Zona Rosa; pass peso notes to market stallholders, accumulate embroidered smocks that I will probably never wear because they seem to belong to some nice, well-behaved woman that I’ll never become. The hubbub of Mexican Spanish spoken in these streets should be disjointed but the voices seem to fuse into a smooth, robot-like grumble. The vast museum has sculpture after sculpture encrusted with stone skulls, touch the glass in front of their teeth and imagine my own skull doing the same grin. Buy skull ornaments from the gift shop and then go back to my hotel room, where I place the skulls all around me, visibly. Put one under my pillow then feel stupid. A bit crazy, in fact. Maybe the Suffolk beach incident wasn’t about trying to drown, just some stupid stunt to show Pascal how mad he had driven me.
But that old Ciara, the one who wasn’t mad enough to leave him for good, she belongs behind a glass case now. Confined inside that museumish hush, she can weep away the last seven years but I won’t hear her.
Multi-Faith Garden of Remembrance
The food of RC’s country still aches my intestines as this train takes me home.
Yesterday morning he grew bigger in my head as I crossed the ugly grey carpet at the Waterloo terminal then he grinned at the electronic voices echoing all around, the escalators wailing: moving conveyor, please take care. London’s impersonal concern for my wellbeing – the clipped politesse was his tone exactly and I wanted to shout it fuck off. I was sure the taxi queue would be organised with the same you-are-all-stupid mentality, so I went outside.
The cityscape was mammoth, spread wide on both riverbanks. Not so bad as indoors London but the façades were mostly grey and drenched in corporate necessity: more thought to square metres than to an aesthetic. I shouldn’t be so tough on whoever built them; don’t I complain how my own creations become hidden behind wallpaper so bland it chokes your eyes? Yes, architecture is too much mausoleums for weeds on brown sites. I’m as guilty as anyone else, never knowing what will happen in the rooms we draft, no care for how the people will feel as they huff their crates and furniture inside. Ah, it’s a new building, they’ll say. It has low ceilings and no charm but at least the electricity won’t kill us.
I tried to swamp RC’s image with these thoughts but the filthy pigeons pecking the pavements all walked like him. I dragged my suitcase to the high railing: a cage to separate mechanical carnivores in the middle of the road, and I got a taxi straight for the English government building where they keep the social registers for anyone to check. The driver asked if I was French and said he’d been to Euro-Disney. Then he talked about the Disney queues like they were my fault, so I gave him a five-pound tip. If I’d met him ten years before, I would have lectured this poor man about our beautiful French monuments. My old arrogance is so hard to kill completely.
That government records place was mid-80s, and minimalist by mistake. There was a metal turnstile then a long room with shelved aisles, and tables where people go to scan massive register-books. The workers – failed academics, I guessed – were all frowning as if death by old electricity was preferable to the long hours in that soulless place.
The old woman was right to send me here; I couldn’t deny it any more.
I took the registers for 1911 then went back and forth until I’d piled up all of 1909, 1910, 1912, and 1913. Babies’ surnames were set out alphabetically like in telephone directories but as expected, RC’s birth on a German train was not here. Then I took the registers labelled Deaths. Loaded my nostrils with the dusty oakish smell of the pages and still there was no mention of him – ah, of course, that didn’t happen in England either. At that moment I wanted to leave and forget everything, then I saw the registers of Marriages. All around me were silent people uncovering their own secrets and making me feel bad-mannered for standing too close.
For another hour my eyes drifted over the thousands of little typed words that meant so much to other people and waited for RC’s and Barbara’s names to appear. RC grew like he was going to burst my head. I could have made it stop: all I needed to do was run outside and pretend to be there for tourism, complain about queues and so on – but he was pushing so hard I had to keep turning the pages to find the man who married Barbara Willoughby. There: it was logged in just the same way as the other weddings, in a traditional black font with seraphs. As if they were ordinary. And then my blood went quiet but the words stayed on the page; the silent people did not flinch, the laminate floor did not shake. It was crazy to expect them to – here was the proof of my sanity, just like the old woman said it would be.
I don’t remember what happened after that but I do know that I never tried to discover when or how Barbara died. This thought is strange and new, so I can’t decide whether to keep it.
England was full of grey skies, mismatched buildings, and people with bad-fitting, wrong-chosen clothes. England got no less ugly as I drove the hired Renault from London to Tilehurst. Ciara told me she has lived in England; I tried to imagine her there and found myself mentally photo-shopping an angel over each filthy motorway bridge. “Chérie!” I called to her. “Please don’t jump… don’t let me ruin another life.”
Tilehurst was greener than London but I didn’t care. Everything got even worse when I reached the peachy-orange guestroom of the gastropub/hotel I had booked in the little town centre. I was choking with memories of Barbara’s ugly wedding dress that mortified her because everyone could see wasn’t white and this room would finish me. I tried to be polite about it, I pre-paid and told the receptionist girl that I needed air then went straight back down to the car and trawled the surrounding streets and lanes to find somewhere else, some kind of refuge from RC – but then I recognised the turning that leads to The Gables. It blinded me and so I had to stop, submit to the printed names from the register flashing through my brain. Thought I’d deal with it better the next day. For the time being, I would go back to the pub-hotel.
Although I was going crazier than ever, a disgusting part of me enjoyed all this being from the continent where colours are more tasteful and food is properly concocted.
“I’ve reserved you a table in the lounge,” the plump receptionist told me, smiling from under her crusty make-up. She made feel guilty so I went into her half-empty lounge then I sat and ate a fish pie with potato purée and some bad Bordeaux. Tried to ignore the blank taste, to find some merit in the grubby hunting prints on the pub walls then lose myself under the dark dress of wine. Eventually they put little towels on the bar taps, which meant the lounge was closing so I had to go upstairs to the peachy-orange room.
I got into the bed and turn out the lights. Once I shut my eyes I remembered the brioches I made Daniel toast in my study at St Guillaume’s and the cheese-buying errands I sent him on… Oh Daniel, why did you let me, why did you feed my venom with your terrified eyes? Even RC was never such a school bully – though he never was a prefect, never had the power I did.
There is no escaping that vile old rapist. Especially not in England: the land that bred him, the nation he tried so hard to embody. Then the dreams came harshly. He was showing an English girl how continental he could be, telling her that in fact snails were delicious. The girl worked in a flower shop and he was smiling because the dinner he bought her was cheaper than what his favourite prostitute charged. The flower shop girl was surprised when he got into the taxi with her and silenced her mouth with his as the sweat gathered on his back. She was so naïve, she said: “So you live near me, then?” and then she let him into her apartment for a glass of water… Poor, poor girl.
In the morning I knew I couldn’t stand to set eyes on The Gables so I drove straight to the local cemetery. RC’s body would have been brought here from Norway, identified with a cold nod from Barbara, perhaps. The graves here were laid in long lines not very different from one another; they calmed me though I still wasn’t sure why I needed to see his name a second time.
Systematically I looked down every row of headstones to find the one that Barbara would have danced along. English names, short and long lives, slower and slower I took to read them.
Lucy’s. Old grass and no flowers in front of it. Carved: Lucy Carson, Safely Risen To The Great Hall…
Memory rained down hard because of course I’d known all along the exact location where hers would be and I remembered the night he came walking here, spade and pitchfork in hand and thinking that Hell was Berkshire. Two men trailing beside him with their irregular gaits and shifty gazes. They also carried spades. The sun had set to their right, just over that same English church spire.
Move on, deal with all that later, move on, don’t listen to him crying because his tears were only ever for himself… The wind slowed, then, and I held my guts calm as I told her I was sorry because Here lies Lucy Carson, Safely Risen stopped being true at least thirty years ago.
No tombstone for RC. He never deserved one so it was strange how the sweat slipped down my back. Then, next to the chapel beside the exit was a new arch that I never saw in my dreams. The Multi-Faith Garden of Remembrance: said the white plaque on a lectern. I walked through that arch, down the path through the rose-beds and saw five crows rising ahead; I think I read his name before my eyes did, on the wall constructed of many tablets, one for each set of ashes. At my shoulder height in this crowd of cremated people was:
RANDOLPH CARSON – 1911-1965
I didn't want to touch his epitaph – it came from an impulse. The instant my fingers brushed the stone, a scorch hit them and the sting of burning shot up my arm so violently that I shouted, turned and ran. The ends of my gloves smelt singed, so at the cemetery gate I threw them into a bin containing dead flowers and bits of green sponge. Nothing but grey ashes left of him. Dust. How could dust hurt like that?
RC really lived. All fifty-four years of his disgusting life really happened and so did his bizarre death. He wasn’t just a nasty amoeba, as I sometimes used to hope. This – this heroin-addicted monster was a link in the human chain, a pre-requisite for me to be born. When his soul, when Ciara and I flew out of him, we took more than just his memories. I had to sit there in my hired Renault and accept it. Atoms can be split, so why not souls.
The pain was still in my arm. I tried to tell myself how RC’s physical particles were trapped in a casket and burned, so they would have infected me less than if they’d been buried the normal way. Just a scorched glove, that’s all he could do to me now. I should start the engine and hurry back to Paris with no more doubts, just tranquillity. I didn’t need to poison my eyes with The Gables. Remember that the dead only last as long as the living allow. Ciara would still be the right person to help me finish with RC – if I could find her. I am stupid to be so cowardly. And then I looked up at the chapel with the tall chimney behind it. Slow, faint smoke was rising.
I still think of RC’s floating ashes with every cigarette I light. They remind me to become serious about Norway. The old woman is completely right about what I must do there and I am too weak to go alone.