THE RITUAL – PART III
By Paul Comrie | May 4, 2018
It’s hard to understand the living. It’s easier to deal with the dead.
After all, the dead don’t have motives. But what and how do you class a character then? What about the author of that character? Does the character live without the author once the author is dead? Does the character exist without the inspiration that gave birth to him?
These are all good questions. But Nic Knight is problematic to me for three reasons unique to our own world:
We have shared history.
Nic and I don’t see each other any more in any social or working capacity. I don’t run into him on the street. I don’t see friends of his. I don’t see his family. We don’t share experiences, pass along gossip. There is no news between us, no feeling, nothing. But the undercurrent of that time, those years ago, when we were in the fight together, are still there, still with us.
Now we share only the Writer/Character axis – ritual, discipline and form.
We meet Friday mornings, early; it is fluid – we are both punctual men, but circumstances providing, sometimes one is later than the other. Though I would argue Nic is more disciplined about timing than I am. Perhaps a neurosis in his character – perhaps a weakness in mine. Who knows, I don’t believe writing is psychotherapy so let’s not go down that particular rabbit hole. Whoever arrives first is the first to be shown to the library by one of the women working the desk of House 17. If it is cold, you leave your coat. The walls are white, the stair is vast and the bannister ancient and much worked, the wood creaks as you walk. There is no way to know if your counterparty is upstairs already, waiting for you to arrive. If they are, then they are sure to hear of your arrival. I always think there is some feeling of unexpressed joy at being the first to arrive, to seal the terrain for yourself, to ensure that the other man must enter on your ground.
Once we are both seated, after initial chit chat, a woman comes, dressed in elegant black. She asks us our order, though she needn’t. She knows it – they know our discipline, our routine, by now.
Coffee, two of them: one short and black; one tall and white with a faint Russian name that sounds like something a decadent gangster from The Crimea might drink when hiding in Monaco. We take two orange pressé juices, fresh pressed, so that the pulp gathers in at the base of the heavy tumblers from which we drink. If it is early and our conversation flows, then we take sparkling water too. A liter or more.
“Nic said nothing and then put the candle up to the wall. He is a man who professes no religion, no belief but ritual itself, nothing but the act of life, which is god and the negation of God to him at once.”
Something else is afoot – it will either make us or break us. Part 3.
I woke up this morning at dawn before the sun broke. I have been on the road for some time now. I was in South France and got in only the day before at 4 am. Maybe I am Tom Ripley, I was thinking. All throughout the journey to Cannes, Nice and Monaco. I was riding a boat with some socialites, the Great and the Good of the Grand Duchy, calling at port in a fifty-footer that carries the capacity for a lot of sail. Six days at sea, six nights sleeping in the berth next to the creaking mast. I could hear the boat beneath me working and stretching in the waters, as the crew slept. I was thinking throughout the journey about the journey I have undertaken with Nic. Would the others on the boat understand what we were up to? I don’t think so.
In the ride back from Monaco I was awake all night, driving with the crew. I was thinking where I had left things off with Nic. We were in the back garden with the lions howling at me, howling at us. It’s funny how travel, how movement allows you to go back to the truth of the incident, to establish the event so that you can get to it with some certainty. The biographer of the American Civil War, Shelby Foote, a disciple of William Faulkner, once said that fiction is about allowing you to ‘bend’ the truth, to ‘elongate’ the established facts and play with the dimensions of life. I think that it’s also about movement — movement and sleight of hand. Someone I knew back in the old country where I am from once told me a story is about what happens at the ‘bend in the road’, at the turn of events. The thing that happens that you don’t see coming. And Nic, an old pro at gamesmanship, has his game to play too.
We were in the darkness, the dogs about us howling. Nic said, ‘I think they’ve gone to bed’. The house seemed empty behind him, silent now, but the lights on, like one of those houses you see from the road when passing in a car speeding through a city in the dark. ‘Now is a good time to show you something.’
He put down his cup by way of letting me know I should follow his cue.
We stood and stepped into the house, walking quietly and going through the house with bated breath and silent steps. We passed through the barrier which keeps the family’s lions – their family dogs – downstairs. In some ways it was another barrier, another element I was passing through. I am a hunter you see and I am hunting my prey and what was important was that I was now inside the house itself. The devil must be invited in you know, and a writer is worse than that because the writer can actually publish. What can the devil do? He can’t write for one.
We upped the stairs, upped and upped. One floor, another and then a third. Nic pulled out a key, not unlike Bluebeard, and unlocked the garret door. A tiny stair and we were in his private studio, poorly lit with the roofline windows, the moonlight coming down. Nic stepped off into the darkness towards a bookshelf and lit a candle. I could see his ghostly face and he said, ‘Come in Lazar, I have something to show you.’
He turned his back to me and walked towards him. He reached up into the ceiling and opened the window, and below I could hear the greatest of Nic’s hunting dogs howling, angered at having been duped by the writer and the writer’s ghosts, knowing full well that I was in the house and there was nothing he could do about it. Nic said nothing and then put the candle up to the wall. He is a man who professes no religion, no belief but ritual itself, nothing but the act of life, which is god and the negation of God to him at once.
Black and Whites — stills of Nic and faces I did not recognise. Going back decades; I could see the faces of people on beaches; what looked to me like mountains and a little boy and a father and a mother.
‘Look,’ Nic said, pointing at it. ‘My mother,’ he said. ‘Montreux ’67. I still have a card from that era.’
Then he pointed to the wall and the photos, the religious shrine of it, held photos that ran the full length of the wall. Hundreds, thousands more surely in shoeboxes, but at least hundreds on the wall. Photos of Nic in his youthful prime. Nic with Margaret Thatcher at a party in London; Nic with the New York set in the hurtling Wall Street 80s.
Nic in the Twin Towers before the collapse, before the terrorists laid claim to the post-war order he had helped to live and shape as a member of the generation that lived the last best of earth. Then Nic pointed at the floor and showed me the shoe boxes. Old dilapidated things, bruised and bent, he tipped the top off of one with his toe. An expensive calfskin leather shoe, I noted. Old habits die hard. Inside were bunches of letters, tied together with string.
‘Here is the beginning of the story,’ Nic said.
Then he swept the candle flame over the wall, at all the images of the faces some alive, many dead and gone. Then Nic centred on a photo of himself in his lionised prime, in pinstripe and war paint, carefully made up, face like a man intent on taking your life.
He said, ‘I am not I, and He is not He. You can have the story, Writer.’