On a day when there is legitimate fear over the future of democracy with the inauguration of potentially dangerous, populist pseudo-autocrat, I have decided to embrace the democratic spirit, sidestep literary capitalism, and share with you, dear readers, the first chapter of my manuscript, The Shadows of Paradise. For more information about the novel read my previous blogs:
The novel, a literary, book-club genre work, is in its final stages of drafting; this is the hard part, when a novelist has to obsess over the flaws of his child. But it’s feeling good, it’s sufficiently hedonistic, has plenty of good drink, travel and music, and underneath all of that lies scurrying along the theme of forgiveness and its supposed symmetry with happiness.
Celine poured the whisky blend with an end-of-life melancholy. She sat staring at the glass, at its indented grooves like stalactites, and through its prism the whisky looked like a rust snow-flake.
No! Don’t think. Just live.
She got up from the breakfast bar that looked out onto her yard, where the sun was cascading down like summer rain, and went to her laptop to put on the first song. She glided from ancient sunlight to modern technology as obliviously as a cloud through thundering skies.
Celine started the playlist, set it to shuffle, and moved languidly through the heavy heat back to her stool. As she sat she entwined her stooping body around the whisky glass, her falling shadow eclipsing the brightness of the liquid. She looked nowhere and everywhere, sweat getting between the hairs of her streamlined eye-lashes. The first song came on. It was reggae, a song that instantly reminded her of her childhood. Don’t think! Just live. She took her first sip of the blend. She closed her eyes and felt the liquid etch a burning trail in her reptilian oesophagus. She waited for the after-kick of pleasure but the back-forward, back-forward rhythm of the reggae song did nothing for her. She put the strands of her hair in her mouth and began chewing, thinking vaguely of eating herself into baldness. She should have known: good, handsome whisky blends don’t mix with reggae!
As she waited for the repetitive song to suicide itself, she sat staring at the glass and the clandestine sunlight licking off its foetal condensation. Outside the white walls of the yard were dry and white in the harsh sun. The plants looked cool and stoic like mountains under the sea. Summer isn’t the best time for an experiment with whisky, she thought. But she shrugged her shoulders like a whip-struck horse and lashed out a violent grin. The next song came on.
I’m just a poor, wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world below.
At this point she should have shouted out: Don’t think! Just live. But something about the violin in that song hypnotised her. It wasn’t a normal violin. It was an instrument played by the hands of death. And Johnny Cash’s voice rang out as if desperate for the grave. Poor, wayfaring stranger. The words struck close to Celine’s avian heart. She felt suddenly constipated. Thoughts were… No. She got up and changed the song as if it were a blasphemous insult. She waited, her hands like the grim reaper’s hovering over the laptop, for the next song to be born, to come out screaming; and then another violin came.
A violin as estranged from death as the cry of a new-born. She went back to the stool, her eyes shot open as if struck by rigor mortis. She sat down, asleep with her eyes wide open. Her hand lifelessly felt around for the glass. She found it and gripped it tightly. This was the violin of the New World Symphony. A van passed by outside and her stomach turned. The dust it raised came into the house and mingled with her tears like sand in an oasis.
Memories began to flood her primordial brain, you could see them welling up in her awe-struck eyes. She forgot to take another sip. The experiment was over. So soon. Celine gave up, she was no longer interested in what music made best accompaniment to Johnnie Walker Black. She let the song pass over her as she lay immovable, a plant photosynthesizing emotions from the sunlight.
But when the telephone cried its shrill call for a sixth time, Celine awoke from her stiff, constipated reverie with tears in her eyes. She downed the last of the whisky, switched off the music, and went to answer the phone. The house was dark like impossible autumn, the bright walls in silhouette, and Celine walked past it as if she had been living there a million years.
It was Maya calling her. Her best-friend. Her only friend. Celine’s propensity to solitude made it inevitable that she would only ever have the one friend. When she heard Maya’s voice, as if Celine had been made dog-brained by the New World Symphony, it registered no words, no verbs, no syntax; only a high-pitched, agitated back-forward, back-forward stampede of sounds.
“Well? No, don’t answer. I’m coming to pick you up. And don’t say you’re not coming. ‘Cos you fucking are.” Maya’s hoarse voice now came brutally to life.
“Golden Bay! Didn’t you hear me, Celine?”
“I said: last night a turtle came on shore and laid a batch of 60 eggs! We fucking missed it, too! And now everyone’s there – let’s get there and make sure no one makes a mess of it.”
In the car Maya talked to Celine about the eggs. She told her this was a once-in-a-generation event in Malta. She said that the freak storms that lashed the island last week might mean an early hatching. If it were to rain like that again it might put the eggs at risk. And you never know, it’s storming more and more in August these days, already two storms this year, and it’s not even Santa Marija. And the lights, the fucking lights at that raped bay! We’ll make them turn off the whole god-damn hotel, you watch, Maya barked.
“Maya, calm down. This is the most beautiful thing we’re ever likely to see in our lifetime. Stop being political about it. Please.”
Maya fell silent. She looked at Celine’s profile and bit back a smile. In that car, that road, that procession of cities, Celine looked so small, Maya thought.
At the bay the area where the eggs had been laid had already been cordoned off and a large crowd had gathered round like plebeians at the coliseum. It looked like a festa when the first food-trucks begin opening up in the early morning. Maya and Celine pushed through the crowd that had cameras for eyes and selfie-sticks for fingers, and found Geoffrey, head of an environmental NGO. Celine instinctively disliked Geoffrey. Maybe it was his long, unclean hair, or his skinny frame, or the way he talked about god and marijuana, how he was an atheist about the former and a worshipper of the latter (for Geoffrey, Celine recalled, marijuana had divine, cancer-curing powers). In short, Celine felt towards Geoffrey what she felt towards so many other people: she felt uneasy belonging to the same species.
But these weren’t her thoughts. She bit her lips and swallowed her dislike for Geoffrey. Don’t think. Just fucking live!
Geoffrey introduced Maya and Celine to the General Manager of the large hotel that dominated the beach. Filming their conversation were a few cameras from local media stations. The GM was tall, bald, and had sapphire eyes that were the font of all his cockiness – his harsh face’s only soft point. “You see,” Maya explained to him, “hatchlings are naturally programmed to, like, make towards the brightest direction. And you see, that’s normally the light of the moon reflecting off the sea. But if they go towards the hotel lights, they might be in danger of dehydration and predation.”
“I understand, I understand. But you’ve got to understand, we have full occupancy at the moment, it’s our busiest time of year, and turning down our lights would mean limiting our entertainments and our dinners.”
Maya could see Celine was about to interrupt – “Then do fucking candle-lit dinners!”
“Celine, Celine, walk with me.” Maya moved her away from the GM – the cameras following them like curious, robotic animals.
“If that son-of-a-bitch does anything to harm those hatchlings, I’ll fucking drown him!” Celine said to Maya, loud enough for the GM to hear.
“Leave him to Geoffrey, he’s good with people like that.” What’s he going to do, Celine thought, get him to switch off the lights by sucking him off?
“And these people, my god these people, don’t they realise that all this noise will harm the eggs?”
“We’ll put up signs.” Maya said as she subtly shepherded Celine away from the crowds.
“I’m staying the night.” Celine told Maya after she was calmed by the sight of the terraced waves rolling up the ever-shifting sands of the bay.
“I’ll join you. But first I’ll go get us some beers and pastizzi, we’ll make a night out of it.”
“Just don’t buy anything from the fucking hotel.”
Maya laughed, kissed Celine’s forehead, and went away.
When the night had fallen and blanketed the beach with its humane cosiness, the crowds had cleared and Celine sat alone on that dark, humid beach, with the gestating sand under her feet and the sound of waves rising and falling. With the lights of the hotel turned off Celine observed how the night sky suddenly erupted into starlight. It was the most sincere night sky she had seen in years. The band of stars, like flaming pearls, reached all the way down to the earthly horizon. As if, from the fixed North Star to the sea a few miles out, only a milky bridge lay between them.
And Celine felt herself looking straight into the depths of the sky, as if her eyes were a part of the cosmos.
There was a kind silence filling the bay. The hotel was like a sunken ship in the distance. There was a northern wind passing through, refreshingly cool, and the sand at your feet felt pleasantly damp. And in the air the smell of sea spray hung heavily like scented needles.
Celine closed her eyes and imagined herself a bird, flying high into the nocturne; what must the stars look like from that bird’s-eye view? She could feel the icy winds of the celestial atmosphere get under her skin, but the rush of vertigo kept her remarkably warm – how lucky it is for birds to be so close to the cosmos and how cruel that they don’t even know it.
Cruel? Why cruel? Celine envied the ignorance of all animals. She yearned for that mindlessness, to be interested in everything but held by nothing, to live so long and never have to exist, to not love anyone except what you need to love about them, to be adapted to your environment but never to reality, to be faithful only to what you’ve been made – cruel? Knowing this and not being allowed to have it – that’s cruel!
Maya arrived somewhere near eleven o’clock with the belated beers and pastizzi. Celine watched her walking with an air of determination; she pitied her, the animal that doesn’t know it’s an animal.
“Sorry I’m late but god – that fucking GM!” Maya howled in the uncaring night, handing Celine her beer and sitting down next to her with a forced gentleness. “Can you believe he wants to set off fireworks tonight? He said it’s a summer tradition for the hotel, and the guests would be irate if we didn’t do it. I told him just fucking explain the reason for it – why’d you assume your guests are heartless capitalists like you? I didn’t use those words but I was this close, I’m telling you!”
Celine had a sip of her beer, leaving the pastizzi on the sand, and looked out onto the horizon.
“I wonder where Johnny is now.” She said in a sigh that made Maya’s skin stand on edge.
“Who cares?” Maya replied without conviction. A sudden wave came crashing, drowning out the human silence.
“You know what I was doing today, when you called me? I was listening to Johnny’s playlist and drinking his favourite whisky.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” Maya listened to the sound of the large wave receding.
Celine smirked aimlessly. “I was doing an experiment, you’d be proud of me. I was trying to match the best whisky with the best song, you know.”
“Why?” Maya said with a faked tone of pity that barely hid her exasperation.
“Why?” Celine let out a heartless laugh. “I’ve been asking myself that same question all day, but I think I’ve just figured it out. It’s so, when he comes back, and he starts telling me his grand stories about his travels and adventures; I, I’ll have something to tell him.”
“I don’t know why you’d bother. How’d you even know he’s coming back?” Maya said as she opened her can, took a sip and put it in the sand between her legs. She looked like she was incubating her beer.
“Because he told me.”
“And you believe the son-of-a-bitch?” Maya looked larger than the whole bay as she spoke.
“I believe him.” Celine shook her head with a paper smile. “I just don’t know if I want him back.” And Celine, she was a whispered echo crawling up the limestone cliffs.
“I don’t fucking blame you.”
At around three in the morning Celine had fallen asleep on Maya’s shoulder. Maya stroked Celine’s hair as if she were a doll. She felt so delicate, fragile, easy to break. Easy to break? To hell with that, she’s being stronger than anyone could be in her situation! I’d crumble, I’d just crumble, Maya thought to herself. Life’s so pointless, Maya sighed carefully. And yet, Celine doesn’t even have that luxury.
“Celine, wake up. Come on, I’ll take you home.”
“I was dreaming.”
When Celine got home she walked upstairs, drowsy, pale and closer to that state of animal-ness than she could possibly realise. She went into her quiet bedroom, got undressed, turned on the fan and buried herself under ghostly sheets. There was a freshness to everything inside that lonely room. She switched on the television and put on the first David Attenborough documentary she could find. Usually, routinely, this was her lullaby. Falling asleep to that aged, timeless voice, crowned by the lilting orchestra and the symphony of golden nature; it never failed.
But that night, it wouldn’t work; Celine was barred from re-entering the kingdom of sleep like an exile refused entry back home. She should have ascribed it to being over-tired, but instead – her atheistic mind hopelessly switched off – she blamed spiritual woes. She couldn’t stop thinking about the letter Johnny had left her. A letter whose words were now mingled with the very letters of her DNA. And yet, in that cruel early morning, she felt the unyielding need to read it all over again, every single word. She got out of bed, her naked feet feeling the cold of the old ceramic tiles, and walked into the studio where, tucked away in the book Johnny had given Celine on their first anniversary, the letter awaited her like some relic. She read it with the eyes of an apostate.
What I’ve done is a crime up there with the likes of Caligula, or, so as your soul can better understand it; a crime akin to that committed by the pirates who fin sharks and dump their living carcasses back into the ocean. And you know what’s frightening about it: it’s been a long time coming.
This wasn’t an accident, I can’t say that. This was planned out, obsessively, my every step was a measured climb bringing me closer to the summit of perversion. And you deserve to know this:
I’ve been planning this ever since I was a boy. You know how my family was. We barely had enough money for food, we had ghetto-style curfews, our lives were lived in postmodern black and white. But, and I’ve never told you this, there was one bright light in my life then, one source of radiance. Ms. Edwige. The woman was milky-white, her skin somehow edible-looking, just a piece of starlight moulded into the ideal female form. She taught me English. She was well-dressed, kinky, wild, and caring. I was thirteen then and my life was fuelled by my lust for her. I was a blob of kink back then. And please understand this phrase, Celine: she was the only pillar of light in the ruins of my life.
I know what you’re thinking: what does she have to do with anything? I didn’t sleep with her.
But I slept with her daughter.
Yes, Livia Calleja Jameson, sixteen-year-old daughter of Ms. Edwige. As Fate would have it (and really, I am a victim of Fate here) she was employed as a waitress in my restaurant – it was her first job. And the minute I saw her name on her application I was a teenager again, obsessed with just one thing, one woman, hell, one girl.
And it wasn’t hard to manipulate her. I’m not absolving myself of blame here, merely serving it up in just portions. She was horny, brazen, and she thought by sleeping with me she could control me. But I was beyond control. I knew, one day, she would send you, yes you, not the authorities – the Hitlerian bitch – naked pictures of her and me together (I don’t remember her taking them, I’m not that daring, you know that). What she didn’t know is, I didn’t care. Victory would still be mine.
I acted like an animal, I know. I succumbed to my instincts. And can I really be blamed for it? Think of people who are born disabled, those with down-syndrome, autism or worse; don’t we take care of them because they are, let’s face it, victims of evolution? And aren’t I the same, a victim of my evolution? Can you really blame a dog for biting the hand that tries to steal its bone? I beg you, Celine, to consider this.
And now, I’ve laid all my ghosts to bed. And victory doesn’t feel like victory. Not because of the shame or the recriminations. But merely because I might lose you. And I know you can’t love someone like this monster. And you won’t have to.
Celine, I’m leaving you – for now. But moreover, I’m leaving myself. I’m going to travel. I don’t know where, just anywhere. I’m starting in Italy then I’ll see. I want to see how people live, how they find meaning and purpose in life, and maybe I’ll steal it from them. And when I’ve learnt how I can be yours again, I’ll return.
This I promise you. In fact, I’ve taken nothing with me. Only a reading book, a notebook and a few cigars. Everything else I’ve left in our wardrobe. I’ll be coming back for them, for you.
And I can only hope that when I return, you’ll want me as much as I want you.
All of my love my celestial Celine;
As she finished reading the letter the sun had dawned in the violet sky, and Celine felt the long-burning growl of pain pupate into something altogether new and strange: the howl of instinct.