The House Above the Bay
We had not come so far as we had hoped, but the house above the bay was the first real house we had seen. True, there had been flashes of brick and stone at intervals between the trees, but these were little more than impressionistic flourishes, hastily abandoned as we passed by, to leave windowless walls and muddy piles of red sand intermixed with leaves. The house above the bay was different, even if, in its own way, it was also incomplete. Beyond the gates, a gravel path wound sharply downward, at the end of which stood an enormous roof like a flattened beam, carved from a block of slate, one end almost touching the ground. It was raining, heavily and silently; an unbroken sheet of water slid from the base of the roof and folded on the concrete path beneath it.
"Shall we climb up?" I said, for, though there seemed little but that roof and the sky above it, I could see no other route into the house. But my sister was poking around the side of the building, looking at trusses or bricks or whatever else supported it.
"It's broken its own ethical principles already," she observed drily, and I realised this meant she could not enter the house — at least, not in this way. For myself, I scrambled a short way up the roof, if only to stake a point of difference with her, and juxtapose my faith against her resignation. But I could not reach the summit, and from the sides, where a few barnacles and pieces of seaweed had stuck, there was nothing but the foggy bay and the mute sheets of water heaping on the concrete below. Here, in a moment of stillness, I was suddenly aware of the precariousness, the inutility of my footholds in the world. Hard up against this hulk of rock which reared its head against all weathers, I had no point of purchase, and the feeling of humility and helplessness was so complete that, even once we had gained entrance to the house, I kept opening the windows and sticking my head out to experience it all again — the endless grey coves popping in and out the headland, the destiny of slate above us, the soundless rain that streamed without respite from a colourless sky.
She took out an address book: "There isn't much time. You need to call these numbers, then say these names." I saw that, against each number, there was a single name; most of them were women's names. I dialed the first number; there was a clock speaking to me in a foreign tongue.
"It sounds like a French speaking clock," I said with satisfaction. For an instant, I felt proud to reclaim for language, and thus for existence, something which otherwise might have been overlooked forever. Then I remembered that my sister was fluent in French, and that I had always been useless at languages. When I was drunk sometimes I kidded myself I could learn anything; but just now I dug my nails in my palms. With momentary clarity, I thought: How I hate the sound of my voice; how I hate the thoughts that move behind it.
"Oh," she said, as if she had no idea what I was talking about. Then she thought for a bit. "Yes, that would make sense." She thought a bit more: "Actually, that's quite clever," she conceded.
I dialed the rest of the numbers on the page; each call was answered almost immediately, and, as I spoke the name in question, sometimes the other voice responded "yes" or "no", invariably with bored resignation. Occasionally I was asked to repeat the name, which, knowing no better, I usually refused to do. Most often, though, the voices said nothing at all, and I wondered then about this uniform world into which my words had tumbled out, whose populace, it seemed, were destined to wait beside their handsets with disinterested avidity. Asleep or abstracted, my sister was sitting motionlessly at the table, her hand under her chin, staring across the bay. Almost in total silence, the pages of the address book turned, punctuated by names, the snap of the dial, the cicada sigh of its retracement, and, just once, by a dreamy monologue — "Buchan or Buchanan? Buchan or Buchanan?" — which, strangely unmoved, I listened to for half a minute or more.
I dialed another number, underlined in blue; the call connected. When I said the name, there was an intake of breath. Then: "I knew it," the voice said softly. "It's Circe, isn't it?" she added, as an afterthought.
"No," I said, not exactly sure what I sought to gain by this dissimulation. Perhaps nothing decisive was at stake beyond the doubling and dilution of a name. But in this rarified atmosphere — this colourless afternoon in which signs and symbols appeared inseparable — I wanted to reserve for it the same sensation of absolute autonomy I experienced as I spoke each of the other names, and they tumbled out across the ether as concrete forms of the distance between us. Circe may choose to answer, and, if she chooses so, her name will answer, I reflected; but I will not have her name answer on any other account, stripped of and lost upon herself. If truth were general in the world, maybe things would someday relinquish their prerogative to remain in the places they have fallen. But, living in uncertainty as we do, nothing can be given without forfeit, or earned without penalty.
"I always knew it would come to this, Circe," the voice repeated, with a certain proud bitterness, so that it wasn't clear to me whether it was reproaching me for this evasion, or whether it was instead alluding to some broader, less personal situation.
My sister had opened the glass doors behind me; beyond them I could see a long wooden table and some chairs.
"Who's Marianne?" I asked. She turned and looked at me blankly.
"Oh, Marianne..." she said at last, working her way slowly around the chairs toward the sideboard at the end of the room; she hadn't turned on the lights: "She and I used to kiss together."
I dialed again, and abruptly the phone began to do things by itself. The dial revolved; something scurried about inside, fusing synapses with its feet; it started to ring; I answered it. From somewhere — from some number it had invented or made its own — a man's voice declared coldly: "No more answers."
With a premonition, I turned about. My sister was standing in the doorway between the two rooms, holding a champagne glass in her right hand; in her left she held a rose. The next moment the bowl of her glass had vanished; it simply wasn't there at all. Like a long glass pin the headless stem slipped between her fingers, and something clattered among the skirting boards.
"You see the way things are," she said: "You do understand what we are dealing with?" And I realised she was too tired to be afraid. She walked slowly toward me, and her exhaustion took on a different form. Like a thick, well-starched smoke, it hung about the floor, and with an effort her ankles forced its folds apart.
"They're like children having a tantrum," she added. "They don't know what to do next."
Then, still slowly, she sat down on the sofa, and rolled over onto her side.
I touched her shoulder; I couldn't see her face for hair. At last she turned the other way and slipped her hands under her cheek.
We're going to be murdered. Like an unknown word, the thought rippled through my mind, unsure of the extent of its freedom, unsure even how to sign itself.
"What is this, Circe? What are these numbers and names?" I said at last.
"They are answers to questions people have asked."
"People better than those who answer now."
"And what happens when they've all been rung?"
"I give two hundred and fifty pounds three times a year to the church," she said gently. "That's seven hundred and fifty pounds."
"Yes, I know how much it is." Both of us were looking now toward the window through which that shot must have come; we were looking out into the sharp, shiny blackness of the bay, within which there must be a hundred vantage points, a hundred indecipherable intentions, a hundred reasons not to speak the truth. Suddenly I realised: my sister is a dot. She was conceived as a dot; she has always been a dot, and even if the dimensions of that dot have varied with her circumstances, the conclusive relationship in which she stands to everything that precedes her has not. Whatever set of principles she implies only forecloses a different and equally valid set of quite alternative principles, founded within another world, and this peerless stance of hers is only possible because she stands in precisely the place she does. She is the dot of life; nothing runs past her.
"You say you know how much it is, but how much of what — when you yourself give nothing away?"
"Do you mean because I reveal nothing, or because I give nothing?"
"Aren't they the same?"
"Possibly so, but even if they are, I remain free to choose which question not to answer. And from the point of view of the question left unanswered, it does not matter if they are the same. It does not matter if everything is the same."
"You live in abstractions," Circe observed, even more softly. Her piety exasperated me.
"Yes, I do," I said brusquely. "Everything that exists will die, but the essence of things — the essence at the heart of each thing — will not. I believe in the only things worth believing in, the only things that will endure." Half provocative, half afraid, my own light strayed about the room, coloured alike by past and present, seeking a place to settle.
"That sounds to me like the sort of thing a very young person would say."
"I'm thirty five. People have accused me of that since I was a youth. When, exactly, am I expected to grow up? How long, exactly, must I wait for their perception of me to change?"
"But it isn't a question of anyone's perceptions; it's a question of feeling confident in yourself."
"You're wrong; confidence has nothing to do with it. I have no doubts at all about the veracity of art. But I doubt the world very much. I doubt it both in its outward manifestation, and even in its ideal form. You understand? I doubt its ideal form."
"You doubt its ideal form," she repeated dispassionately. "Yes, I understand. That's not complicated to understand. So answer me this: at what point does the final bell ring?"
"At what point does the final bell ring?"
"Yes, the final bell."
She was unassailable; it was as if it were her own mind I had been grappling toward, as I searched for footholds on the roof. What did I need to say or prove to gain admittance? And even if I found that chink, that purchase, that path, wouldn't it somehow be arbitrary and irrelevant? Could we even remember ourselves, could we even remember who we were to be here, what it was that had found this way of ours, how this room held us here, the two of us, together?
"I can't answer that," I said at last. "I can't answer it, because I don't understand it. I don't know what the final bell means."
"I wasn't asking you to know. You don't have to know anything; you said as much yourself. You simply have to care, that's all. Don't you care about these things? The final bell. The ringing. Aren't those the nagging questions that demand redress? Let me repeat: At what point does the final bell ring? It's conscience, nothing more. The question doesn't have an answer; but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be asked. You aren't even curious, are you? You accept all things as given, however strange they seem."
"But what else can one do?"
"Why does everything you say seem to begin with but?"
"Because nothing ever connects; everything demands qualification, and I'm too old and too bored to wonder why," I said drily.
"That's not consistent. You said you only cared about art." Coming into my ear, from her lips, the word "art" disgusted me, as though its inability to defend itself when spoken out of context, somehow mortalised it, somehow derogated from its fundament — if such verbs or nouns existed. These are my words, I said to myself, experiencing them not as possessions, but as helpless kin I had a duty to protect: they are open and guileless, the closest thing to children of one's own, and I despise those who try to use them against themselves.
"I don't care about anything," I said, sheltering any thought that chose to conceal itself behind me. "Maybe I care too much about everything. I'm not interested in the answer to whatever it is I believe or know, or am supposed to believe or know."
"Supposed? By whom?"
"I don't know. Or care," I affirmed, abiding by the terms of my contract.
"Then I want you, in turn, to know that your not caring concerns no one," she said carefully.
"You want me to know it, nonetheless?"
She was silent. In the dusk, in a house that had come from nowhere, along with all that was hidden and alone, we stood as close to one another, as close to one another's discovery, as we would ever stand. We stood together in the place where names began, among pieces of broken glass and the smell of old roses, with the same rain, gentle and continuous, smudging an ever darkening sky. This is how things must be by night, I reflected; this is how starlight must fill this room — with just such an intensity and just such a sense of alienation, in which everything answers — all things offer back their answers — but to people and dynasties we cannot comprehend.
"It is better, in the great scheme of things, " I concluded, "that your kind survives, not mine. For your kind, when you are born, look to the potential of the world and say "I eat," whilst mine behold the same things and hunger. You multiply the world only with what that world already provides, and when death comes you give it back itself. But my kind scuttle away into the dark places, and cannot be found."
"You do know that I've worked very hard, for very long, don't you?" she countered, as if to justify something: "I've done my best; there's not much more I could have done."
"You're twenty eight," I said, trying to make a joke of it.
"Yes, I'm twenty eight. I'm twenty eight, but now I'm going to bed."
"You're going to bed?"
"Yes, I'm very tired."
"But you can't go to bed."
"Listen. Nothing we can do can change anything."
"But why are you going to bed?"
"I'm going to bed because I'm tired."
"Don't you think there are things we should talk about? You and me, even Marianne? How did we come to this? You're my sister, Circe. I don't even know what sister means," I demanded, hypnotised by the sharp yet uncertain outlines of the bay, by the emptiness roaring within it.
"There's time enough for all that in the morning," she said. "And if, by chance, there isn't... Well, there was never enough time in the first place for us to become those people."
"Ourselves." She was shaking her head, so that by turns I saw my sister's face, and by turns only a kind of dot: "Lifetimes aren't like lives," it went on: "You can't just add or take away a day where you want. Lifetimes are exactly as long as they last; every day missed is a day pared away at the bone. Even so, you had a lifetime to get to know me — a lifetime," she repeated with weary incredulity. The light went on in the corridor; there was the sound of feet and a door closing, somewhere. But a long time after all sound had ceased, I was following the memory of her footfalls, trying to find a definitive place for them, trying to find a definitive place for our minds — a place to set them down, a place to give them over, a definitive place that is worth fighting for, whether we succeed or not, so that we no longer need to need to explain, or want something to be remembered by. We point, we are. We have come such a distance without provocation; what right has the spite of our souls to urge us further? Where is our home?
Ali Hildyard studied English Literature at Oxford. He lives in London, and a first collection of stories in Spanish, “En dirección de Circe y otras historias” is forthcoming September 2017. He remains open to representation by UK, EU and US Literary agents. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org