Sport 9: Spring 1992
He had left his door open to clear the air. For a while he rested with his knuckles on the desk, looking at nothing, listening to a growing constriction in his chest, feeling a wind at his cheeks which did not exist.
Bede had a deep, private awareness of his asthma's ability to kill him. When it attacked it imposed a condition as dark as it was airless. It impeded. It numbed. It starved. Bede hated and dreaded it. Thus, when it threatened, was broadening the bands of its gluey inhibition, Bede had trained himself to take twenty milligrams of Prednisone. He knew it would keep him awake and alter his mood. Time spent on Prednisone was time apart, of a subtly elevated kind of perception. It was a drug Bede welcomed, like alcohol. But, like morphine, it deprived him of the proper recollection of its bliss, its many kinds of euphoria, variously enjoyed, and he looked forward to using it again. Prednisone. Months might pass when he need not take it. When it became timely to resume its use, Bede was always a little glad. Its name suggested to Bede a holographic play of pastel geometries, the movement of thought across thought in gliding planes of transparency.
It had gone seven. The muted, tinny rattle of water beneath his window told him it rained, still, or again. He straightened. He must see Powell.
At a place in the passage where it darkened, became unfamiliar, intimated the possibility of trespass, Bede found Powell's door. He knocked. Powell wore a wine-coloured dressing gown in which seemed to move, at page 66 depth, other lustres and hues. Powell's room was his home. All of it. It had, therefore, a packed, orderly, complex character. and Powell was a travelled, well-read man. He had been reading in bed. A Penguin Evelyn Waugh lay face down on the carpet.
'Do you do much reading yourself, Bede?' he asked as he busied himself at a little Café Bar. 'Tea, coffee, chocolate? I can offer all three.'
'Tea, please. And sugars, two. Oh, I don't get much time for reading. Wilbur Smith, Laurens Van Der Post, that sort of thing. I think I'd like Africa.'
'I do. Hello, the sugar thing's gone bung. N'mind. There's more in the packet. Come to chat?'
'Not really. I need some medication. Lardwrist's left some tablets marked for me in the dispensary.'
Bede took one of two easy chairs. Here he felt a certain privilege, the pleasure of intimacy with things not his own. There were books, fish in a tank, the memorabilia of Air Force and cricket team. Powell brought their cups and sat down opposite Bede. In the present, abated light, Powell's cheeks seemed broader, more Slavic than ever. But this appearance of breadth belonged to his cheeks alone. The dihedral of his moustache suggested balance, an equilibrium of tensions.
They stirred their respective drinks. Powell, smiling, seemed content with the silence between them. Surfaces: Bede found one on which to rest his cup. A thin, wheaten light: he had almost decided to give something a try.
'I have,' said Bede, 'misgivings.' And sounded to himself abrupt, surprised.
'Oh? About what?' asked Powell. His eyes winked on and off like running water. His glance bent upward as if from a shelter, a carapace.
'I want to put something to you. I've tried to decide what this place is. I've tried to decide if I belong in it. And my feeling is that I'm trapped behind barbed wire here. I feel I have unfinished business, out there in the world.'
'I believe you've a brother in Sydney.'
'And money from the sale of my bike. There's already trouble about my seeing my daughter. I could be in Aussie tomorrow.'
'Aren't you going to try to dissuade me?'
'Me? I don't think so. It's never admitted, but there will always be people page 67 whose referral to these places is inappropriate. The question is, are you one of them. For me, the shame of all my past crimes keeps me sober. Where before it was a further reason to drink. I can't explain that. But because I'm sober I can exercise a choice.'
'Oh, yes, crimes. Social. Spiritual.' He smiled. They were both being sly, taking advantage of the paucity of light. 'At least, that's how I've made myself think of them. You see, whatever they were they diminished me. They made me feel that any further protraction of my life would be wildly undeserved, prodigal.' Powell leaned backward, distancing himself from what he had just said. 'There's no good reason,' he continued, 'why psychology shouldn't turn an alcoholic into a perfectly ordinary social drinker. But how often does it do it? And can you do this for yourself?'
'Look. I'm not like these others. If it weren't for the car smash, the break-up of my marriage . . .'
'. . . you'd pass for someone else, someone without taint? I would have thought alcoholism, addiction to a sedative drug, a very ordinary, uninteresting failing. Indeed, it seems to have become quite a fashionable disease.' Under so expert, so easy a control, the annoyance in Powell's tone might be mistaken for gloom. 'I've watched you. There's something you're omitting, leaving out of the account.'
'Your despair. It ticks away like a Geiger counter. It's all the time measuring what you see as being the failure of others to love you. Have you, by the way, made any friends here?'
'There's Hart. We were talking just now. He's friendly, interesting. Behind his back they say he's mad, dangerous.'
'And what do they say about you.'
Bede saw something, Bede glimpsed something he thought peculiarly his own. He moved to claim it.
'Shall I tell you?' he asked.
'Sweet fuck all.'
'You're right, of course. If they did, what do you think they'd say?'
'How should I know? That I'm touchy, deep?'
'Neither, I think. I'm guessing that you're actually seen as being rather amusing and satirical. I feel that you evince a somewhat aggressive nihilism.page 68
I don't much care for that. Who is your counsellor?'
'He's right for you. Loud socks. Please feel you can come to me too if you feel I can help in any way. You're not sitting on a set of keys, by any chance?'
Relating to more than the whereabouts of keys, Powell's smile was one of conjecture. Bede stood. He swept his lap with his hand. Perhaps he dislodged or cancelled crumbs of engagement, of intimacy. Then he turned, inspecting his chair without interest.
'Nope. No keys.'
'As you were. They were underneath my book. Shall we go?'
They went together to the dispensary. Bede had taken his medication and was on, though not in, his bed reading when Snow made his final check at eleven.
'OK?' asked Snow.
'I'll probably not sleep.'
'Some medication I'm on. Doctor's orders.'
'I'll be awake myself. I see you're trying the book I recommended. You'll find this hard to believe, but the Super thinks we've got a prowler.'
'A what? All the way out here? Where would he come from?'
It was shortly after midnight when he returned. This time he sat. The skin of his forehead was taut and white as if once badly burned and mended now. He kneaded his pants where his penis might be.
'We've got a problem. I didn't want to mention it earlier, but Hart is missing.'
'He's becoming a fucking nuisance.'
Bede said nothing.
'He was in here earlier?'
Bede blinked his assent.
'Nothing eating him?'
It was as if Bede began a minor journey. He felt himself swung abroad by the action of the drug he had taken. The invisible vessel in which he rode got underway with a shudder of departure, of severance from the familiar. Yet the questions Snow posed, implied, warned of something. The medium page 69 on which Bede travelled seemed diminished, made palpably more shallow, by the news Snow brought.
'I'll phone the Super,' said Snow. 'He'll have instructions.'
The white of his blank, healed forehead burned an arc, a visible swathe, in the air as Snow went out. Bede closed his book. The slight, noiseless machinery of vigilance was in place, a clock of spinning baubles. It seemed to require of Bede some adjustment to himself, some action, perhaps, of circumspection and courage. His army-surplus jacket hung behind the door. Bede transferred his cigarettes and matches to one of its pockets, his handkerchief and Ventolin aerosol to another. (He had no keys. He had no flashlight.) Then he sat, to read again, this time at his desk, with a firm conviction of silliness, of his over-reaction to a threat not yet properly framed.
Mr Snow did not return. An hour passed. Bede made the occasional note, his pencil whispering.
'Tetrahydroisoquiniline acts, it may be said, as a trigger.' Bede read these words with wonder. If what they said was so, his study was advancing. Two small bricks of knowledge, recent and lambent, he had nudged together to form a critical mass. He felt for a moment the pleasure of making a deft, personal synthesis of ideas. His hand strayed to where his cigarettes had lain on the desk. His mind returned to the room. He must stand in order to retrieve his cigarettes.
Bede could not doubt . . . that he heard a knock, three knocks, on his window. Unlikely. Clear. As real as objects, they spaced themselves like knots, like knobs, in time. Wooden, though their medium was glass, they were round and textured and aspired to having hue.
Bede's unstirring curtains told him nothing. He must open them. He did so. He saw only his own silhouette, the more massive features of his room reflected. Leaning closer to the glass only obscured him from himself. Dewy and bleached by the light, the fronds of the ferns beneath his window seemed undisturbed.
He donned his jacket. He freed his hair from his collar with snips of his fingers. Bede had been visited by hallucination before. The word 'visited' was apt. Hallucination had a talent for arrival, for interposition. Bede knew it to be plausible, ordered and complete, the Ames-room of reason. On Methidrine and hashish once, for a full half-hour at a party, Bede had been page 70 part of a conversation for which he might have known the script. He would always remember the essential sanity of the experience. His power to anticipate speech, utterance, had been unassailable. He had played, too, the hilarious game of trying to deflect, derail, the force of this astonishing temporary power of his. But he had been in the presence of people whose every syllable and thread of clothing had a starkly elemental profundity, a nude vividity. He had known himself to be in a classical state of psychosis, prodigious in his powers of anticipation, omniscient. And emptied by it of guile.
But out here in the country some small, nocturnal commonplace was poking out its tongue at Bede. A farmer might explain it. Some anomaly of night and recent rain would account for the sounds at Bede's window. He could not believe in prowlers.
Bede's fright went off like powder in his chest, the flash of photographer's lime.
'Je-sus. Christ. At this time of night. Cough or something, please , when you approach.'
It was Snow.
'Did I . . . ?'
'I've just heard noises, knocks.'
'Ah. So does the Super. Look, I thought I might check the out-buildings. In case I'm asked if I did when Hart fails to turn up. You follow?'
'Of course. I'll come too.'
'Why not. The rain's eased off. Follow me and I'll get myself a torch.'
They went to that room at the side of the building where weather-proof clothing was kept. This room was always for Bede like a somewhat cloacal air lock, a dank staging post en route to the outside world. They changed into gumboots. Snow selected a flashlight.
Bede could never get used to the completeness of darkness in the country. The night without lacked boundaries, sides. Snow's flashlight could touch none. It swayed about feebly finding the pendulous wires of a fence, a muddy, abandoned paint pot, the fleckless air itself.
They walked as far as the piggery. Here Bede remembered the rats, became conscious of his ankles. Soon, to Bede's relief, Snow led them away from the piggery. They began their return to the main building. Snow checked a tool shed, its medieval padlock. He scanned the fixed, flush door page 71 of another hut. Though the rain's cessation had left a residue of sound, of watery tinklings, all was intact and innocent of disturbance. The diffuse beam of Snow's flashlight, now bringing things close, now pushing them to remoteness, reached as often as not into vacancy.
'We'll have a fine day, you'll see,' said Snow. He had stopped again at a door. 'We haven't looked in here. I'd better open her up.'
They stood outside the facility's garage. Snow had keys. They entered through a door set in the door. There was room inside for two vans. Snow walked between them to a space behind. Here was a bench and a packing case or two.
'Ever drink meths?'
'Plenty of it in here. Untouched. Anyone drinking that inside would pong. Hello. Someone's left a knife out.' Snow picked it up from where it lay on a trestle, a carving-knife from the kitchen. From a spool on a shelf above, down to the level of the trestle hung some synthetic yellow twine. 'Someone has wanted some rope. Careless with our knife. Cook would have a fit.'
It was too long to pocket. Bede carried it instead. Snow locked the door in the door and they left the garage. They removed their gumboots in the room they had taken them from. They carried their shoes on into the main building. In the dining-room, at what would be Bede's place at breakfast, he left the carving-knife.
They reached the patients' kitchen. Its hatch's slide was up, as always, providing a window on the darkness of the lounge.
'Well,' said Snow, 'there's no sign of our friend.'
'Or anyone else.'
'I'll just check the lounge.'
Bede wondered why Snow had not yet done this. Snow extinguished his flashlight and switched the kitchen light on.
A dog with one leg missing had once struck Bede as being grotesque. To study the face of a child hanging upside down in a playground . . . This shift in perception was for Bede radical, unwelcome. In this regard, what perverse imagining could be more disturbing than that of an elderly woman walking on her hands and knees across a ceiling ?
Here in the lounge, it occurred to Bede that Hart was up on something, was standing, perhaps, on a chair. Bede saw only the shins of Hart's jeans page 72 at first. Why should they turn, thus, so slowly together, legs on a slow turntable?
But Hart stood in, on, vacancy. His loins were a clothed, lumpy representation of an erection. On a level with his waist, saintly, Hart's hands were extended slightly as if to intercept a bouncing ball. They had been at his throat, at the taut, inflexible rope about his neck, and were sticky with tea-coloured blood, what might be blood. They had been unevenly basted. Hart's neck and throat were the pinks and mauves of a faded cookbook photograph, a sun-blenched butcher's chart. His body turned, could just be said to twirl, a thing in water, its nature obscure, and moved by an almost imperceptible wash. It conveyed a disappointment, seemed frankly to admit its inability to reach, step down to, alight upon, the floor.
The sign which said QUEST CLINIC gathered light like dust in the shadow. Its aluminium letters seemed laminations, pairings of line and contour not quite matched. The geraniums near the entrance had achieved a degree of colour by the time the police arrived. They came shortly after dawn. Mr Snow was there to meet them, Bede stood near him. A thing of details and edges, the police car had a decked, betackled appearance. If as sombre as its surroundings it had at least the appeal of having been recently in motion. Two uniformstwo sets or examples of an exterior realityclimbed out of the car. The faces beneath the peaked caps were youthful. They evinced and invited interest. They would pass, Bede guessed, that test which was to come, of disengagement of death from the tangle of life, of extrication.
The policemen removed their caps. Now they could be distinguished. One of them winked at Bede. He was of Bede's age, had Bede's complexion. His eye retained the limpidity of newness, would take some sullying yet. His wink meant simply, Good morning, A bad business. For the moment there existed no one this policeman had ever suspected of error.
'The mortuary-van is on its way' and 'You've touched nothing?'Bede heard these things as if from over a wall.
He went to his room. Drawing them tight with a sort of desperation, Bede retied his laces. He took his wallet and bankbook from the desk. He put them in a pocket of his jacket, a jacket in which were pockets for hiding maps. He lay down on his bed. In spite of the Prednisone he had taken . . .page 73
When Bede woke he could not find his watch. He realised he wore it. It showed the bountiful addition of a wedge, a slice of time. It was ten o'clock, still morning, and his room was full of light, pervasive, scalding.
He was very much outside when he stopped walking. The clinic's buildings were behind him. He stood on a grassy slope with a view of the valley. In a distant saucer of habitations blossom and smoke crowded to completion the log cabin Bede had watched being constructed.
He had been too much inside. He smoked at work. He lay on his back beneath cars, his cigarette nodding like a beak when he spoke, when he called for tools to be passed. Asked his opinion of anything, pushing his palms down his thighs because they were soiled, he was full enough of charm and waspish frankness. But he practised his trade in darkness. To stand at the garage door on a Friday night, to sit with the lads over a carton of Foster's beer, was to strip as if for a swim. He was naked then, unarmed. After rain the road outside their garage might glisten. Though the larger brightness of neon was reflected, the pavement's surface had its own patina of light, of tiny lights. Perhaps it was light he sought. Or air. Or the absence of certain things. His future drinking would take place in the sun. On patios and terraces, on steps and in airy cloisters, anywhere that was lofty, he would toast strange harbours. The grime beneath his nails, as blue as his overalls, had been a source of pride. Let his pride take him abroad.
To fix the thrill of the moment, to freeze its evanescence, Bede must act. He straightened. He stretched up on his toes. Like a diver testing the end of a board, he balanced there, rocking. He formulated intent. His body dropped through the length, the line of its height, he assumed for an instant a crouchand he was off.
He was running downhill. He was running away from Quest Clinic. He was running before the sun.
He found it easy. As in a dream of running, it was very like flight. He might run to Sydney. The narrow carpet of his shadow pushed ahead of him, took objects large and small in its silent, skittering, tide. Noiselessly, closely, it conquered, it mastered terrain. Losing nothing of itself, it rippled across a grate for stopping cattle.
The path, the track, became firmer. It was summer he was cleaving, the very season itself, its unimpeding presence. As if brought forward like a date, advanced on the calendar like some fixture of release and celebration, today brought attainment. Bede moved swiftly through its bright prematurity. He page 74 was conscious of his body, his body's stature.
He impelled it with the modest force of his will. He felt elevated and broad. Carrying a wide, inclusive vision, he sped between fences. To his left was a gorsey bank, to his right the pines and willows which hid a river. Bede could see the rise which would bring him to the road. The air was sweet and warm. It was pooled, dammed-up in places, taking on the wobble of hotness. Ahead, where he was aimed, was the focus of its sweetness, the struts of a wooden sign and streak of asphalt, bending like allure in a captive heat.
Bede heard, at no great distance, the tall, buffeting horn of a logging truck.