It’s not raining or cold. What winter is this? A storm broke the gate and swatted my flimsy shed, but the wind was a warm slap not an ice fist. Now it has turned to an emollient caress I want to shrug off. The cabbages are flowering, bumblebees about. “We have a good day,” the neighbour says. I mumble a reply. This is not a future I want and I feel violent.
Max doesn’t read. He insists it is better to live entirely in the present and calls every wafting off on the thread of an argument a dissipation of force and energy. To look into his eyes is to look into the eyes of a cat. Out of politeness I assent and ask him what he means but my mind is already working on the inheritance of his thought: Andreas, Perls, Buber and by one bywater up through the narrows of the Hashidim, by another Freud; even, in circuitous wizardry, my dear old Wordsworth, or by other twists through Zen and Basho to Buddha. He wants me to believe that real awareness is opening your eyes to the here and now, but I see a jumble of connections. “What is real?” I ask.
“You are drifting off,” he says.
“Where were you?”
“Nothing.” I have been fixated by one slightly longer hair sprouting from his almost bald head above the ear. The February light has caught it and hypnotised me.
“That’s it,” he says. “You were in a trance. You drift off into trances. Stay in the present. It is better.”
“What is better?” I ask. “I am a reader. A reader meditates on where things come from. A plant is not only leaves and flowers but shoots and roots as well. You. What do you aspire to be? For all your peace and love you are aggressive. Are you an insect hunting aphids in the leaf cover? Do you think that is a higher level of being?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he says.
“I’m talking about guru-dom and its sick-making authoritarian implications. My reading has made me a goddam egalitarian. There is no superior intelligence. You can’t meditate your way to sainthood, buddy. I hate this purist “awareness” shit, just like I hate those goddam idiots who want to shut down argument by being right. Just like I hate that pompous painter pushing back the frontiers of art. You have short-circuited confusion by attaining enlightenment. And you beam your fucking guru smile at the world as though that simplification were a betterment when it is no more than an impoverishment, wiping out the gritty world of greys by over-exposing the plate to an arc light of what you call love. Goddam I hate that. We all have entrails. Even you. Yes, you can’t meditate your way out of gut function.”
“I think you are passive-aggressive,” he says and smiles his imperturbable smile.
I look at him in exasperation. There is nothing passive-aggressive about my desire to sink a golf club in his forehead.
“Have another cup of green tea,” I offer. “Have a cookie.”
Peter the Painter comes in with seventeen-year-old me. I brought them both from Amsterdam in the freezing cold winter of thirty-five years ago. Those were the days when Ted Hughes was campaigning against the run-off from sewerage plants spoiling his fishing in Devon rivers. Ecological disaster was small-scale then. Posh toffs like the Prince of Wales could have private reserves where they kept the heaving multitudes out and congratulated themselves on their enlightened management of the land. That was nature conservancy in England. Ah, England! Huge batholiths of immoveable privilege and conceit with shark-faced politicians scuttling across the surface herding the shitting millions into efficient conclaves and ignoring the foul-smelling effluent.
It all seems petty and short-sighted now in this false winter that cold has not touched.
“What a lovely day!” my seventeen-year-old self says.
“It’s horrific,” I say with spleen. “The world is fucked up.”
“Ooh, bitter,” Jason says in a sing-songy voice. Peter looks at us both. I get the sense that, for all Jason’s teenage idiocy, he is a better companion than I am. At least he has a frank and honest smile when something amuses him and his penchant for throwing cultural references around like confetti is light and naïve. I can feel those flakes he casts off so lightly landing like fish food on the water surface while I look up from the bottom through an accumulated mass of brown goo. I can see the flakes spiralling down towards me. It is a pollution that makes me panic.
I have my hands around his neck and squeeze my thumbs into his windpipe. “Steady, old man,” he scoffs, but I see a spark of worry in his eye and he starts to thrash about. He pushes against me feebly. His skin is smooth on my forefingers. The vertebral column makes me feel an urge to push harder for a satisfying snap as surely the crack would do it. The pain would disappear when he sank into non-existence. I feel links give way in his throat and think how like it is to squeezing a plastic tube around electrical wire. The body is after all a mechanical device. A speck of snot shoots out of his right nostril as we crash through a chair onto the floor of C’s kitchen.
“She won’t like this,” is the last thing that passes through my mind as I lose consciousness.
My head aches when I come around. There is a humming group around me. Max sees my eyes open and winks. Peter is talking at the same time as Andrew and C is looking from one to the other. My neighbour doesn’t understand anything and is leaning on his axe with a wrinkled smile on his ancient face. He looks like the woodcutter from Little Red Riding Hood. To my right Jason is laid out on the ground just like me and returns my gaze. I might have expected him to be resentful, angry or sad, but he seems to be holding up well given the fact that I was trying to kill him. He makes me proud. I’d like to praise him but I find my throat constricted and there is not much I can say.
“Do you think it is really necessary?” C says.
“It is the only solution,” Andrew says. “He is a suicidal pest.”
“It works aesthetically,” Peter puts in. “And I have a feeling it is just what Jason needs.”
“It’s like pruning,” C says. She has a habit of bringing things back to the garden. “I suppose I’ll miss him.”
“You won’t,” Max assures her. “You won’t even know he has been here. This is the sacrifice of all sacrifices. It is a betterment.”
That hideous word makes me writhe. I can’t move my arms because I have been wrapped in a sheet. I kick my legs, grunt and try to communicate murder through the fire in my eyes. They all turn to look at me.
“He’s getting worse,” Peter says.
“So, I’ll lose him and I will gain another life I would have had without him?” C says. She looks out the window thinking about what that life might have been and then looks down at me. There is a familiar distance in them. She smiles and I notice the wrinkles at the edges of her eyes. “It will be better. It’s for the best,” she says.
They chopped down the weeping cherry in the garden so they could set up in the centre. I was trussed up on the grass slope watching as they prepared the space. Each spectator was standing in one of the quarters of the potager: Peter, Andrew, Max and Jason. C was sitting on a folding chair they had kindly brought into the vegetable garden from the patio. The onions and the broccoli were squashed by the movement back and forward but that all started to seem irrelevant as the sun approached the horizon of the far hills and evening birds began to call.
The stump was set dead centre in the garden and they counted down 4,3,2,1. My neighbour lifted his axe and swung it down into my forehead where I lay looking up at the descending blade.
“Is this the catastrophe?” I asked myself “Or is this putting off the catastrophe?”
A dew fell as darkness came and snails explored the lifeless body. There was no one else around.