Blesok no. 45, November-December, 2005
Prose


Mapping God
(excerpt from the novel)

Fred Johnston


ONE

    Guido found her.
    Seaweed for hair, she lay like a broken shop-window mannequin on the black wet rocks. Guido looked at her, the sun off the water making his eyes squint. It was a beautiful morning, cold and full of sun in a blue, wide sky.
    They took Guido away. For hours they asked him questions. They took her body away too and the tracks of the ambulance stayed in the soft brown sand until the tide came in and washed their stain away. They let Guido go. Yes, he knew her, but that, discouragingly, was all. Everybody knew her.
    Guido sold chips and fried sausages and burgers from a white rusty van. How long are you in this country? They asked him. They were not friendly. Many years, Guido answered. My children go to school here. Well, just you be careful, they said. They moved around her broken unclothed body, touching, feeling, looking, taking photographs, and then the ambulance came and she was put in a black bag and taken away. Telling all of this to his Irish wife, Guido said: How she loved the beach! When his children came home, they said that everyone was talking about it. All their friends.

TWO

    Some of the village children thought Manny was a witch.
    She wasn't, but she wore her grey hair long behind her, her face was wrinkled like an old apple and she made her own clothes. And she didn't eat meat. She wrote poetry. Someone said that she was well-known, somewhere. Her German accent had dwindled over the years. She spoke some Irish as well as English. Once a week she held a Poetry Group in the back room of Maher's Pub on the quay.
    Some people said she was mad. All the foreigners around the village were mad or at least very odd. With their odd – mad – ways. Their poetry and middle-aged little girlishness about them, the women. The men handy at everything from putting in light-bulbs to mending thatch.
    Which went to show that they had been well educated and that meant they had money, so what were they doing pretending to have nothing. Living in caravans, while their cottages were being built. They had money. And they took drugs and their children, running around in knitted clothes of every colour in the rainbow, were to be pitied, with their oddly posh accents.
    The shop was full of talk about the girl's body on the beach. When Manny came in, the talking stopped. Manny looked up and smiled: Don't you mind me at all! She said.
    Which came out, to them, like a taunt. Manny said mildly as she paid for her candles and some other nick-nacks that it was a terrible thing, that girl, what had happened to her. And the women moved in, thinking Manny knew details they had not heard. They resented her for needing her. They looked at her angrily. What happened to her? one of them said. Was she, God spare us, raped? said another, rolling the delicious word around on her tongue so that her thin pale lips were wet. I know nothing of that, Manny said. I just think it is so terrible.Oh, said one woman.
    Yes, said another. They were disappointed. Manny had let them down. Which is what you could expect from these mad people. Manny had no electricity in her cottage. She kept her own poultry. And a cow. She seemed to do everything for herself. She lived alone. Woman her age, someone said as she left. Acting the hippy.

THREE

    The mountain lay its huge hand over the village. In the distance, its brothers and sisters huddle raggedly against a thin, cold horizon and in winter, they wore hats of snow.
    The sea lapped at the feet of the mountain. The village was here too. The mountain gave some meagre shelter against harsh ocean weather. Dirty white spots of sheep speckled the brown slopes. Around the mountain's waist was tied a thin yellow path where the pilgrims walked. Upwards they'd go, disappearing into the dripping grey cloud.
    Many years ago a French tourist had gone up that path and he'd never come back. The mountain, some said, gave out a low, monotonous moan, a single, sad note, from time to time. Some said it was the chant of wind and sea, courting each other. Seals came up out of the sea sometimes and they were the people who had died in the village in the old days. The tiny village graveyard, headstones blistered by lichen and cracked by age, was near the sea so that the departing souls would have no trouble going home. But the mountain was a benevolence, looking over everything. It was a holy place. For as long as tradition could tell.
    There were people who'd had visions of saints up there, under the clouds.

FOUR

    O Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy upon us! O Sacred heart of Jesus, Have mercy upon us! I have sinned. I have blasphemed. I have killed. I have spat upon the most precious love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And I have been justly punished. And there will be no place of peace for me anywhere in the earth. And I will kill again.
    I have confided so many things to these small pages over the years. Things I would not confide, with any hope of forgiveness, in the dark anonymity of the confessional. To whom can such things be confessed? I do not hope for absolution; perhaps that is the greatest sin, black with pride. Heavy with pride, sick with pride. That I have taken the law into my own hands – whose law? What does the phrase mean? That I am above ordinary men, who must sin and suffer a torment of desire to repent. I have killed once, out of love. Love as red madness. And not a day, or a night, passes when I do not see the face of my victim. Sick with grief and love, I killed. A love I had no right to fee. A grief I did not earn. And cowardice! I concealed my crime. I had not the courage to deliver myself into justice. I pulled God down around myself and hid under Him.
    But now this killing is full of justice, almost glorious in its rightness! Anger, revulsion at my human kind, hatred – I feel all of these things. With these sensations come images of that first time. I cannot sleep. I do not have the strength I had that first time. I do not have the courage. Fill me with strength, Christ, that I may kill what has to be killed. And kill at the same instant, in the instant of the new death, the grief of years which has blackened and corrupted my immortal soul.



FIVE

    Reputedly, she had the cure. The Major, they called him. Neat as a pin, he sat on a stool at the bar fingering the stem of his whiskey glass. The cut of him. I've heard that, said the teenage barman, who tried to be older than his years. He wiped glasses unnecessarily. The air in the empty bar this early in the morning was empty and brown. The smell of disinfectant and perfumed spray, and the radio on, and terrible music. The Major was lonely in the empty bar so early in the morning. Sad thing to happen, he said. Shocking, shocking, said the young-old barman, wiping, agitated. The Major felt the seeds of a conversation swell in the midden air. He said, twitching his old, lined face and the shreds of a white moustache:
    I've seen some appalling things in my time. I'm sure, said the barman, wiping still. His neck had an acne itch.
    As he wiped, he thought of his girl and a modest erection grew in his fading black cord trousers. He hated himself. He was nervous, too. It's peaceful here, said the Major. Peaceful. Then this happens. Police all over the village, said the barman. He cleared his throat. You have a wonderful country, said the Major. He hated himself for being just a mite tipsy so early in the morning. Alone. It would be the same tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that. Oh, well, said the barman, thinking the Major very silly and old. After what we did to it, said the Major. Long time ago, now, Major, said the barman, in a voice his grandfather might have used, and with a dismissing laugh in it. You had to treat the old Major like a child sometimes. I think you are very tolerant of us, said the Major, considering. Ah, now, there's nothing to be tolerant of, said the grandfather of the barman in the barman's voice. A shadow crept over his mind.
    The Major finished his whiskey. It made him tired and irritable, however necessary it was. Noisily, he slipped from his perch on the stool, a shaggy bird of a man. Thin, tall, bent. He lived in a cottage outside the village. He grew lovely roses round the doors and windows. On his front gate was a plaque with the inscription, Heurtebise. At Manny's poetry group, he read the poems of Rupert Brooke and, when he felt very good, one or two of his own. Very well, then. I'm off, said the Major. He tried to sound jaunty. But he was very tired. And bored, of a sudden. Good luck, now, said the barman. He thought of the girl.

SIX

    Manny waved across the sloping street to the Major.
    The Major waved back energetically. Manny was glad he did not cross the street to stop her. She had a special momentum. She worked up to it and it sustained her. It should not be interfered with.
    The sloping main street of the village led to the harbour, past Maher's pub. The top of the street was a door into the greater country and above this, like a hand, a face, an enormous body, sat the mountain, which could see everything. In the old days, small sailed boats had left the harbour burdened with treasures of bolts of cloth and clods of turf and bottles of illegally distilled spirits. Especially at Christmas time. Now the harbour was quiet, save for the singing of lines on a small sleek white private yacht. There was a shop on the harbour which served teas in the tourist time of the summer and postcards of old views of the village. And some of Manny's knitted coloured scarves. And cheese.
    There was rain in the air. Salt sea-rain. There was no light in the clouds and the mountain had turned black.
    A smart, fast, Japanese car glided into the side of the kerb. A very young good-looking man called to Manny.
    I'm looking for McGuinn's Bed and Breakfast, he said. He consulted a small printed card. Manny looked at him but his face told her very little. Up this hill and you drive a mile maybe and turn right, she said. Up here and a mile and then right, the young man said, looking up the hill sadly. Manny waited. She was bent down to the open window of the shiny wonderful Japanese car. She had never learned to drive. She envied the young man because he was young and for his car. With sudden courage, Manny said: Where are you from? Smiling as she said it, so's not to frighten the young man. I'm from a newspaper, the young man replied. He looked up and saw an elderly, hulking, odd-as-bejesus woman smiling at him. With her grey hair ponied-tailed like a girl. She would tell the whole world.
    Ah! exclaimed Manny. Because of the poor killed girl.
    You're so far away out here, I'm probably the only one here, said the young man.
    I don't know that, said Manny. It is tragedy, so terribly tragic. Who could have done such a terrible thing to that beautiful child! All she did was help people.
    How do you mean, help people? asked the young man.
    She had powers to heal and cure, said Manny.

SEVEN

    In the hideous cold of the bedroom, he squatted. He shat noisily into an ancient enamel commode. He exhaled. The relief was great. The smell of him rushed through the filthy room, the wallpaper hanging from the damp plaster, the floor linoleum with holes in it. He would have masturbated. But it was habit, not lust. He had not the strength. Not now. Things moved around him. The bedroom was alive. Shapes. Strange exotic colours lurked at the sides of his eyes. He stood up, wiped himself with a rag of newspaper. He shook, vibrated, in the cold air and the shock of alcohol leaving him. Beyond his window the sea wailed and fretted. He emptied the pot in the back plot somewhere, anywhere, with a toss. He made himself a cracked blue mug of pungent tea. He smoked from shivering, quivering fingers. He poured whiskey into the tea. Then he drank the whiskey neat. From the bottle. After a time thinking did not hurt him.
    You, he said out loud.
    The room he sat in was a bit of a kitchen and a bit of something else, with dead furniture and a crucified Christ on a wall and a picture of the Sacred Heart looking miserable. Miserable the scraps of everything in this room. The odds and ends of himself in this house. He felt sorry for himself. His wife had tried, but she was a whore.
    Fuck-fucking-bitch-bitch-whore! He said, punctuating each word with a thump of his fist, hurtingly, on the stained and gluey table-top. He opened his mouth and snarled, imitating a dog. Then he laughed. You're dead and gone, he said. Then he felt afraid. She was never mine, he said out loud, his mind taking another turn. He pounded his chest with the same fist that had pounded the table. Then he had terrible thoughts.
    On the road a few hundred yards from his front door, cars went by very fast. They made him afraid. He wept. Tears, unbidden, burst forth. Aaagh! he shouted at the cracked, peeling ceiling, with its maps of the heavens and the soul carved out in patches of damp. And how do you think I feel, Mister Detective! I told him! If it was your daughter, your only child, and she dead in front of you.
    Repeating this phrase in his head comforted him. He put his fingers inside his trousers. Nothing. He thumped his crotch hard. I'll cut you off altogether! He screamed, his voice thin and high. Like the noise a seagull makes.

EIGHT

    This is a nice house you've got, the detective said.
    Thank you, said Guido. His wife looked on, offered tea.
    No, thank you, said the detective. Another policeman moved, without asking anyone's permission, from room to room, looking, lifting things, reading things. Guido was glad his children were at school, not to see this. Fidgeting, Guido said: Have you any news?
    What sort of news is that? said the detective. He was a stout man in a green weatherproof jacket. A fat bald man whose eyes rested on nothing but flitted like tiny accusations around the room, over the furniture, over the photographs of Guido's dead mother and father, the photographs of his born-in-Ireland children.
    About the girl, said Guido.
    Oh, now, said the detective. Oh, now.
    Guido saw over the detective's shoulder how the branches and small leaves of the hedge around his house moved and twitched in the wind. And how quickly the low fat clouds moved. The other policeman came into the room.
    We have to make our enquiries, said the detective.
    Of course, said Guido's wife. We understand that.
    Sorry to inconvenience you, ma'am, said the detective. He had asked so many questions. He'd asked the same questions, over and over, and Guido had given the same, direct, answers.
    We'll not be bothering you any further today, said the detective. Guido's wife, ever polite, saw them to the door.
    When she came back, Guido hugged her for a warmth he needed suddenly.
    They make me feel that we did something wrong, she said.
    But Guido knew that, understandably enough, they made his wife think that he had done something wrong; but, not to upset him, she wouldn't say that to his face. In return, he didn't mention how some people in the village, gossips, looked at him. They always looked at him. To be a murderer or to be thought a murderer – which was worse?




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