I looked up and the dog was gone. I looked for a sign that it had been there, a print in the dust road, or a shit. Maybe I had imagined the dog? This is my second month in the hot country, and the heat is crawling into every part of me. I am out here with my cousin and her young son. I watch her with him and wonder sometimes what it would feel like to be someone’s son. I will probably never know now, I don’t suppose my mother will try to find me again, but for now I am wondering about her as I watch Clem form her son’s primary years in this absurd heat, in this forgotten wasteland, these dirt roads and this village.
I can never be sure whether I saw that dog or just confused something dark and dog-shaped for something living. My nephew is seven and will be a tall man; it’s difficult to tell who he will become. I can’t tell you he will always be someone who plays with Power Ranger figures and listens to the Spanish radio because he doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t speak Spanish, but Clem worries he’s picking some up. She doesn’t want him to use any Spanish once we leave here because she doesn’t want him to remember. I am of the opinion that at the age of seven he is unlikely to forget this part of his life, and to forbid him this memory will be to repress him. Grief is a callous thing. Soon enough she will say I am undermining her mothering by talking to him about these months at all. And when he wants to talk about them in the future I will be despised. And though I have never fathered a seven year old, or perhaps because I have not, this is something of which I am more certain than she can be. The heat is setting in I have sweat on my lip before breakfast. The midday heat is insatiable. I am a whiteman in the Spanish countryside; even the taste of this air in this parochial clan of time-forsaken villas is foreign to me. I do not ask for anything.
My cousin was raised as my cousin. Not as my sister, we knew our places. We played and shoved as any children do but we were not siblings in my aunt’s house. My mother was gone, my father unnamed, and I was forbidden to ask about things I could never have. I was told that if something was supposed to be, then it would happen, and I could see for myself that my mother never came to get me. I asked about her only twice, and after the first answer I received failed to satisfy me, I learned that a smack was as good as answer as I would ever get. From then on I understood it was bad manners to ask difficult questions.
My aunt was never cruel to me, she was no better with her own children, she was just cold, and very used to having things dealt with for her. But those early years of mine, living in my aunt’s house, seem so far removed from now, and the billowing yellow grasses of the heat-soaked afternoons, the buzzing parasite fiestas that swarm in the dark as we drink our coffee. I am removed from all previous lives. Nothing has prepared me for this. Clem needs a man around to help her out and to be around for Matthew. She didn’t write to me as a cousin, or as the boy she grew up with, she wrote to me as a man she could trust. But nothing which preceded this life continues to exist. Everything else is what we were. Everything else is gone. I wonder if she is even capable of missing him, or if all she feels is betrayal? Does she resent him for leaving her behind like this? Does she blame him for abandoning their marriage, their son, to die?
Matthew is out in the grasses now, he’ll come back with scratches all over his legs, and he’ll go again tomorrow. It’s easy to say children are naive but he isn’t making a stupid choice; he just knows what scratched up knees are worth. The joy of running through the grasses as the sky turns them brown. Matthew understands.
The heat is a sickness. It gets inside of me and continues to boil; it weighs me down, and slows everything down in me. Our blood swims slower here. I wonder what the heat does to my mind, that thumping vessel that guides every word I write. I’d have nothing without it, it’s uncomfortable to think how fucked I’d be if my mind turned to shit.
When I got older, I knew of it having happened to my mother, but it made little difference to me then. A mother’s defining characteristic is her maternal presence in her child’s life; so it’s difficult to credit her much at all. I bear no grudges; I’m only trying to be fair. I was told, as I looked down at my shoes, and the old man paced through the instructions as if I couldn’t handle it; I was told that honesty is the one thing they needed from me. Like I’m writing a fucking commission here. I’m out in Spain. The heat is pressing against every surface of my skin, the air is thick with wisteria and with dust. It refuses to settle in the relentlessly animated night- beetles fly and we become accustomed. Even Clem no longer shudders. No wind at all and still, admirable limbs of wooden bodies exhaust themselves in ways I find uncomfortable to contemplate. Dogs don’t stop their barking just because two English people sit out at night. You cannot wait long enough, there is no peaceful moment, no brief interlude where time and scents and beetles and dust and crickets and dogs and branches and mosquitoes rest! We sit out each evening, we are becoming Spanish, accidentally.
I have not told Clem I have noticed this yet. She wants Spain to disappear from around her, she wants to wake up beside her husband and find herself in an English house, with Spain only the fog of a nightmare behind her, she wants it all gone, more than anything. Except perhaps her husband here with her, and for it to have been Just A Holliday. That is one thing I know she is thinking about, as we wait out each night, for that still that never comes. I have other things on my mind mostly.
I think Matthew is scared to like it here too much. Clem’s behaviour makes him very aware that he should be grieving. He is a young boy however and, and he must grieve the way a young boy grieves for his father, not the way a twenty-nine-year old woman grieves the death of her husband. Neither is a lesser grief.
He plays, and she refuses to send him to school here, so he plays more. I play with him when he wants me to, it is understood that caring for him is part of my role here. He is turning brown in the sun. He has nothing much to do but play. But playing all the time conjures a malaise of its own. I watch him out there, those are the terms; if I’m not playing with him, I don’t take my eyes away from him. He’s not panting as he runs, like he did when I arrived. He’s acclimatising. This is Clem’s second greatest fear for him. She is scared he will accept this. Clem is not a neurotic woman. She loves Matthew and these are her conditions.
I am there, in the heat, watching Matthew run, effortlessly, while I boil in my skin. Matthew is running. He’s running, but never out of sight. He’s running. Clem calls us for bangers and mash. Matthew is forbidden to forget the home he knew before. I wonder if Clem’s passionate re-enactment of England will see him disenchanted with the real thing.
We wake early here. At first I slept while I could, even the nights can feel like a fever over you. The early morning is both the coolest part of our day, and the most difficult. Clem cries in the morning, waking up alone, still sleeps in the same double bed they shared here. She makes breakfast for three- and there is ruthless, unspoken bitterness as I receive the third portion, instead of him. Matthew will ask some mornings, though he has begun to less and less, what we will do today. His mother does not answer him, and as he goes outside to trudge around, I am expected to follow. Some days he will trudge until mid morning, some days we will play football, or hide and seek, or when it’s too hot for anything else, I teach him the little I know about chess. Some days are slower than others, and some days, as I stay with Matthew, I will catch sight of Clem looking out at us. When this happens, I catch her eye. I have never felt comfortable either smiling at her, in these moments, or looking straight off with feigned preoccupation, so we meet eyes with brief solemnity. I have, I suppose, since the afternoon of my arrival here, detected in her some terrible fragility that I fear my smile may shatter. Matthew too, knows better than to smile at her any more.
If we put the food on the table outside, at midday, it could be cooked through by lunchtime, if it weren’t for the flies that swarm. As it is, we eat very little for lunch; the heat is peaking, but it is impossible to sit inside. Conversation is sparse anyway, and we soon give up.
Clem, on one particular note, does not refuse the adaptation to Spanish life; she sleeps in the afternoons. If we were home in England, I’d have reason to worry, but out here there’s nothing else to be done about the heat. At that infernal stage of day, Matthew and I mostly go into the deserted pueblo for shade, or to play chess or the like, or else we go into the woods.
When I arrived here, I’d had a good job, and a girlfriend, and a life, but as I have said, the past has died and all we are is what exists in the present. Neither my job nor my girlfriend could be expected to maintain their loyalties to me under such pressures and I soon stopped missing them. It is something which occurred without my noticing. England slips away from beneath us. And when it resurfaces at its own whim, the most buried things appear. When Clem and I were children, she had a brother then, named Anthony, we used to play a game of our own invention, called shoot the messenger. Anthony never understood this game properly, and it was only years later, as I thought about its consequence, that I even realised, had Anthony lived out his teens, he might have had time to reflect, he might have worked it out. He might have despised us.
We probably didn’t play it as often as I remember. But memories are strangely truthful in other ways. We used to play while my uncle was off on a fox-hunt, or in London; we used his study as a scene. One of use would be the messenger, and that was always me. One of us would receive the message and that was always Clem. One of us would send the message, and by default, that was always Anthony. Anthony would stand outside, back in my aunt’s garden, back in England, on perfectly tepid, glowing afternoons. He would whisper a message to me, and I was expected to deliver it to Clem, who was waiting in my uncle’s study. It is difficult to place myself in that memory, because I have problems imagining a life where anything was complicated, or where anything was exciting.
The gun was Anthony’s. My uncle had given him a broken, and unloaded pistol, from his own armoury, earlier that year, and we had devised this game to incorporate our new toy. I would go into the study where Clem would be waiting. I would walk towards her, to whisper the message. She would pick up the toy gun, and shoot at me, the trigger making a ‘click’ as she flicked it in her act. I would fall down dead, and at some point outside, Anthony would hear through the open window, Clem yell ‘Bang!’
Anthony would run right round the side of the house and through the kitchens, to get to us. Between the ‘click’, when I would fall down dead, and Clem’s ‘Bang!’, when Anthony would come running, something Anthony was unaware of would without fail, happen silently. Clem would kneel down beside me, on her father’s hunted rug, and she would bend over me and kiss me. Before Anthony would reach us, playing her role flawlessly, Clem would be stood, quivering with the gun still poised, aiming at the spot where I’d stood, her shadow draped over my rigid body, with her back to the pale English light that filtered in, through the tall windows of my uncle’s study. Anthony would discover us, call the police, and leave the room to renter in a new role as officer of the law. He would arrest Clem as she struggled, he would hold her hands behind her back. He would drag her backwards, and I would watch her leave through the study door, all legs and feet she seemed, as I looked up at her. I had to remain dead as I watched her go. This was our game that we played, at least seven or eight times that summer, and I don’t believe Anthony ever understood why we wanted to play it so much. Out here it seems absurd to remember this so clearly. It should be impossible to think of the England of my youth, being at all part of a life which has brought me here.
When Matthew plays I see in him a stranger. He is so happy to be alone some days, (I’m near, but not included). The local farmer sends his daughter with our milk, she always says how handsome he is, and how tall he will be, “perfect for husband” she says practicing her English on us, no measure of coyness. An English girl would.
I wonder if Matthew will ever escape this life, to reach one where a wife is a simple option, in the way I escaped a life of expensive partying, and excessive rudeness to those of lower orders, the friends I made at Trinity; all to come here, into this penetrating heat to live with my only cousin, who I have barely seen since we were eighteen. We used to write, and candidly, but the letters were quarterly or so. Somehow, after some terrible thing -a thing we do not name for fear of breaking her- I am living with her again. And with her son, the nephew I have come to love, and who still I can hardly pretend to know. He is a boy who is grieving, but the grief does not define him. He is forbidden to grieve in his own way, by the expectations he must bear as a male, as a child, and as a son. He is stuck between childhood and adulthood, he is stuck between the weight of the past, and the reality of what happens now.
Matthew is getting close to the age I was when I was taken on my first hunt. It was the begging of becoming a man, and I disliked it intensely. There is something weak about blood sports. I was a disappointment to my uncle for that, and still I did not even express my reasons fully. I let him to it. I didn’t need anything to do with it. That is why I never went again with my uncles hunting party, and that is why I was somewhere else when Anthony was killed.
I was not there when Anthony was killed. I have said it again. If Clem misses other significant things, she does not miss this. She is terrified of whatever may harm her son, but she can at least be sure he will not die like her brother, like a dog in the woods. We had played shoot the messenger that afternoon. Anthony had insisted, for the first and last time, that he be the messenger. We had allowed him this. I feel certain he expected to unearth the mystery there. He went into the room to whisper the message to Clem. As he went towards her, she did not shoot. He told her my message and left the room. Still she did not shoot him. When Anthony re-entered the room, immediately, he begged why she had not shot him. She replied, apparently, that she could not bear to see him die. Perhaps feeling jilted, he called out ‘bang’ himself, but stood frozen, waiting for me, and glaring at Clem. I did not come. By then I had run into the woods at the end of our grounds, and had hidden there to sulk; wretched in the belief that he would suffer the same death she had consistently afforded me.
Here, steam rises like ectoplasm off every living thing. The sun distils us and our moisture is lifted from our bodies, to purify us. It looks like ghosts, which I suppose it could be. I cannot decide if this is what I see, or if it is imagined, I don’t see how it makes any difference; it is only important that I believe it is possible. The heat is that powerful, it can stir the dead.
Matthew asks me questions that his own unfed mind cannot explain; why do cows need four stomachs, why can’t people keep peace over religion, what is the Spanish word for Spain?
When I did not arrive at the murder scene, Anthony came for me. When he found me, I offered nothing more creative than that I had mistaken it all for a game of hide and seek. I could see his jaw push forward, and in that moment I both hated him and pitied him. We played shoot the messenger once more, but this time each of us restored to our original roles. As I ran to the house, Anthony was distracted outside. My uncle found him in the garden and told him it was time to take him on his first hunt. He was much older than I had been, newly fifteen now. I went inside to find the study, with Clem in it, to tell her the message. As if no confused interlude of role exchange had ever taken place, her performance was brilliant once more.
‘Click’ said the gun and I fell. This time she did not yell bang. Through the open window, we heard her father talking to Anthony, and promising that today he would take him with him on the hunt. Clem did not yell bang. Instead I watched her fingers unfastening the top three buttons of her summer dress. I lay dead on the floor. Anthony left for the hunt. My uncle had a small horse waiting for him, and the dogs were ready too. Anthony would fall from his horse that afternoon. The dogs would swarm him loyally, and his father would bend and kiss his forehead, and hear against a silent world, his son’s last gasp.
It was not instant as is often said about breaking spines, falling on heads, and winding oneself. It took moments, slow, almost silent moments. And for all the slowness time took in the woods, amidst the red jackets and the small dogs and the old men, time sped faster in my uncle’s study, too keep equilibrium.
I was sent to boarding school that September. Clem married an unapproved of man, a friend of a friend, who she met in her late teens. He was a plumber with his own business. I was one of three relatives to attend Clem’s wedding. And now with her husband gone, her familial bridges burned, I was the best she could ask for. She didn’t want her friends from London to douse her with their sincerest. She wanted someone with whom to not speak of these terrible things. Only I would do.
Matthew has learned this from us. He understands what is or is not available for discussion. He can sense moods, and he will one day be able to avoid the elephant in any room. This is the gift we have bestowed upon him. This is how he will become an adult.
Today, Matthew is beating me at chess. I feel inclined to teach him each piece another’s moves, we could play together and later I would say I had been joking, and I would teach him again. Maybe just to pass the time. But enough of him belongs to me already. Matthew is getting good at chess, he likes things he can concentrate on. There is not a lot here to concentrate on. When Matthew was younger no – there is no need to get talking about the past. Always dragging it up like it is so important. What matters is what is here, and what is now. I am ashamed of nothing because there is nothing left. I am in a Spain and I am alive, despite the heat. These are the only truths. Clem is living also, and she lives parallel to her son and to me, her course is always alongside us and always at a safe distance. There is no certainty greater than that. I cannot reach her. She does not try to reach us. This is our silent pact.
Seventeen days she has been told. Seventeen more days. A fixed date has put her on edge. I took the phone call this afternoon; when she woke up she was at first in shock. Then angry I had not woken her. It was beautiful to see her move. She actually raised her voice at me. It was like anaesthetic being drawn from her bloodstream, it didn’t just wear off; she was up. It was beautiful to see her angry. I took the abuse like a swinging leather sack. I took it. Now she’s more difficult than she’s been for weeks. She has taken the paper I wrote the date on, and stuck it to the fridge. The way other parents do with their children’s drawings; she has made a home, she has drawn all attention in this rented kitchen towards this set of numbers. Now we cannot avoid it. He will be coming home with us. I will bring her family home. Though it’s too much to hope she will book flights. False hope has killed her once. When the doctor spoke in English he said “well done for bringing him so quickly. He has the best chance you could give him”. The bastard should have said something else. He should have said he doesn’t remember seeing a patient survive a rabid bite, he should have said this dog has killed him already. It was cruel to let her hope he would live.
First she must sign the papers. Then she will book the flights. She will savour that, and wait a few days more to do it. And back again. She will break. As she discusses her husband’s requirements. But she will still find relief in this act. And still it will be fearful to her.
So now we are no longer waiting to wait. Now we are just waiting. We can nearly go back to that nearly forgotten place. I wonder if she will grieve again when she climbs into the bed they shared there, in that home they made for each other. Will the path to London torment her, in a taxi, empty handed. Will Matthew feel the cold, will Clem realise it is November for England?
Maybe the heat will take a day or two to leave our bodies. I can’t imagine ever feeling cool again. Gentle nights, pale faces, soft, wet grass. Seventeen days and this now will only exist inside us. I’m starting to picture it better. Cold stone, suited men, manners and grumbles, a palm out of the window and my fingers comb the breeze. I wonder if there is even enough air here to sustain us till then? Clem called a friend from university, to meet us at the airport. She believes in it all. It’s flawless. We are just waiting. Our hopeless lunches, our hungry nights, our miserable breakfasts; each one is in dwindling supply. The mosquitoes won’t fly with us to England. The crickets won’t be heard. The grazes on Matthew’s knees will heal and be recast by English things. I never want to see another dog again. The heat will drain from our bodies. We will be in England soon.
[originally posted in April 2011]