I was generally fond of Tori’s husband, Ricardo, but it was truly an experience to witness his death and its aftermath, and one should always try to accumulate as many experiences as possible. After any worthwhile experience, one should be left feeling deeply impressed and grateful to have been granted yet another modest clue about the reality of our world.
Let us return to the top of the month. It was a Sunday morning and I had just walked the breadth of the Highland village of Kiltoch, where I was holidaying with Tori and her grandfather. My destination was the reconverted grange in which Tori’s nineteen year old nephew, Antony, was expecting me.
Antony is studying at Cambridge, rather than Edinburgh. Everybody in Kiltoch tells each other that Antony is a very clever young man, and one cannot fail to be struck by his acutely keen mind, which somehow reminds me of one of those bouncy dogs that always seems to end up waiting at your feet, however energetically you have tried to confound or escape it. But Antony’s cleverness was the opposite of wisdom; everything that he says is both remarkably ingenious and embarrassingly banal. When listening to him talk, I am always itching to contradict him and yet I am never able to do so. I sometimes wish that his head was a party balloon, so that I could lean forward and idly pop it.
In Antony’s kitchen, I had to sit at his breakfast bar and drink a little shot of rich coffee which came with a large green napkin. I wanted to avoid using the napkin, because I thought that this would be a terrible pity, but it would be impossible to successfully explain this feeling to Antony.
Antony was already chattering away like an avalanche.
“I went to a party yesterday near St Andrews. It was at Oscar’s, but there are no roads to his house and so he picked us up in his helicopter. It always makes me want to get drunk when I’m in a helicopter…” His eyes flashed at me, as if daring me to confess that I could not compete with this audacity, but I merely signalled for him to continue. “And there was a girl from school there, whose mother I had fucked once after I recognised her in this nightclub in Perth, and she had the same little dog that I saw with her mother, and the girl wanted to know how I knew her dog’s name. I could only say, “It just looks like a Meringue.””
I grunted, feeling that all of the life had drained out of my brain. Antony continued fiendishly.
“And, of course, Oscar hadn’t remembered to leave any of the lights on in his house, and when we were flying about in the darkness, we simply couldn’t find it. And then he had to stop because everybody felt sick. And I took this girl down to the beach and she was so drunk that she was trying to curl up in the sand and I eventually managed to pull down her jeans…”
I sat there and thought about the Eurozone crisis. Germany will increasingly need to export to the BRIC countries, but then there would be no incentive for it to bail out Spain and Italy. Antony eventually concluded his story with a predictable quip about first the mother, second the daughter, and so next will be the little dog. Perhaps we agreed that this anecdote had illustrated enough of Antony’s brilliance for today. I could now move matters on.
“I have some news about your Uncle Ricardo…”
Antony smiled with surprise. “Ah, I wondered why you were here. Have you brought the cash?”
“I suspect that you’ll be disappointed. Of course, I knew that you were… I suppose that the word is blackmail?”
Antony shook his head. “Blackmail is a criminal offense. This is like any business deal. If my uncle wants to put his hand down my pants – without my aunt finding out – then that doesn’t come for free. At first I said, “You can touch my bum, but leave my dick alone.” But there can be no rules with this man. Sometimes I’m terrified of him.”
I doubted it. “I’m just asking out of curiosity – I don’t want a brochure – but how much did you expect?”
“I think that he can pay five thousand,” Antony told me blandly. For a moment, I was almost impressed by this kid. He was not stupid.
“He’s dead, Antony.” I announced wearily.
For a moment, Antony’s eyes were as blank and uncomprehending as those of a dog. He looked the perfect picture – as magnificently astonished as a clown after the doors have fallen off his car.
“You should never underestimate how Catholic these people can be. A single evening behaving like a pig is always followed by days on end of weeping, self-recriminations, and swearing on the bible that from now on they will be a virgin again.”
“No…” Antony realised that he could not remain frozen for ever and so he laid his hands down carefully on the worktop.
“He lost his mind, I suppose. In the last days, neither Tori nor I could reach him.” By now I was almost lyrical. I suppose that I just wanted to thwart Antony’s raring spirit, to briefly wipe the smile off his face, to stamp on that balloon. “He tried to cut his throat, but he couldn’t do it. In the end, he found two biros and he forced them into his nostrils and then he slammed his face into a table. He died instantly.”
Antony was traipsing around his kitchen in a daze, clutching his empty coffee cup.
“It’s strange,” I remarked. “There’s never a pen to hand when I want one, but he had managed to find two. Maybe he had hoarded all of the pens.”
Antony phoned me late on Monday evening. I have always had some mysterious quality that makes people want to confide all of their troubles in me, as if I was a common pit into which everybody hurled their misfortunes. Without apparently registering my utter disinterest, Antony told me how he had lost his nerve with Ricardo’s death. He had phoned his parents to come back from their cruise trip, which had been implicitly understood as permanent, because he could not bear to be in the house alone. He had spent the afternoon sheltering in the village post office. With incalculable satisfaction, I remarked that I was very sorry for him, before dropping the phone back into its cradle.
Tori and I finally put our heads together. I had been previously too cowardly to face her. Like staring directly into the sun, meeting Tori at the height of her grief could have blinded me. I was mortified that we would end up like animals, simply howling at each other, but by now she had reached some civilised stage of her grief and everything was smoothly ceremonial. I told her how sad I was about our loss and she accepted my condolences. She spoke freely, as if she was a normal person, but as I was ushered into her living quarters, my eye fell on to an object on the coffee table and the horror was once again on the rampage.
“Err… is that a new piece of art?” I broached.
I knew that it was not a piece of art.
A replica of Ricardo’s penis stood on the coffee table, cushioned on two strikingly realistic-looking testicles. Tori approached the penis and removed a stray hair from its glans.
I wondered how I knew that it was Ricardo’s penis. I had never seen the original before. It is strange how you can know somebody for years and never set eyes on one of the most cherished parts of their body. It waits hidden away like the monster at the end of a computer game, the final secret.
I listened to Tori talking for a while about how she had commissioned the penis. Oddly, Ricardo had died with a massive erection, and so it was easy for the paramedics to exact an impromptu plaster cast. She began to unthinkingly stroke the penis whilst she was talking, until I had finally decided that this really had to stop.
“Tori, Ricardo has gone. This object can never be a substitute for him. You will only be disappointed if you try to replace your husband with this… thing.”
For a moment, she looked incandescent. “You don’t get it. If somebody is here every day and then suddenly they have vanished, it is too much, too difficult. I wish that when he had been here, I could have looked at him more, to burn more of him on to my memory. He’s like a ghost that is fading away in front of me and I can’t stop it. I have to cling to this…” she waved at the penis. “It’s all that’s left.”
I marshalled my rhetoric like a lawyer who was closing the prosecution’s case against this penis. I cast aside the consequent mental image of a judge peering down at the penis as it protruded from the dock. “But this penis is nothing. It expresses nothing of Ricardo’s personality and all of his exuberance. You do Ricardo a disservice by dedicating this thing to his memory. Indeed, any true memory of him will be lost in its shadow.”
Tori glared and shook her head, but I was relieved to sense that she ultimately agreed with me. Perhaps she recognised that creating this penis was not the brightest idea, but she wanted me to take responsibility for its destruction, so that she could then blame me for no longer having it.
We decided to destroy the thing as respectfully as possible. We did not speak as we walked down to the river that ran through the meadows at the edge of the village, Tori gripping the penis around its shaft. I was glad that there were no dog walkers about.
At this juncture in the river, under the branches of two great elms, the water gulps steadily, like a man downing a pint and never reaching the bottom. I let Tori drift apart from me. She stared angrily into the water, before taking a long look at the penis. Her body was suddenly taught like an archer’s bow, and she released the penis with such force that she spun around to stop herself from falling forward. “Goodbye!” Tori’s cry died in her throat as she found herself unexpectedly facing me again. Her penis slapped the water.
We gazed at the penis for a bit.
“Tori?” I said finally. “It doesn’t seem to be sinking…”
The thing was obviously hollow. It had shot up erect in the water, its testicles bobbing in the waterline. Tori watched the penis gradually sailing away, protruding from the water like the fin of some monstrous, lurking fish.
I began to chase it but the path soon separated from the riverside and I could not break through the thickets.
The sun came out and the penis was racing merrily along in the sunshine, the river singing as if to give it heart.
A weir was waiting some way down the river, and after tipping over the edge, the penis seemed to have been sunk under the froth. But it re-emerged a little up river and then it was on its way again.
A class of primary school children, all dressed in identical fluorescent jackets and wellington boots, were “pond-dipping” in a little bay under the riverbank. Murky jam jars of frogspawn were lined up on the bank and an old coffee mug without a handle held their most priceless treasure, a tiny speckled fish. The classroom assistant had instructed all of the children to keep their eyes peeled, and they were now bumbling about in the water, ineptly hunting for inconsequential creatures.
The classroom assistant had retreated to the riverbank to check her text messages. When she looked back at the children, she dropped her phone in horror.
The children were scattered about in the shallow water, all absorbed in scrutinising the bed of the river, unaware that a gigantic penis was now floating in their midst.
“Children!” The classroom assistant’s voice was shrill. “Look up at me. Don’t look at anything else. Just look straight into my eyes.”
Stunned by the drama in her voice, the children gazed up at her in wonder.
“I want you to walk very slowly out of the river towards me.”
Robotically, the children began to follow this command. The water rocked and snapped as they all filed out of the river. As they approached, the classroom assistant began to jump on the spot. “Run children run! Don’t look back! Just run for the car park!”
The penis tumbled on down the river. As with a ladybird climbing up somebody’s arm, who knew where it was bound? It glided under a small bridge, to the disbelief of the two anglers overhead. For a while, it came to rest amongst some weeds, and it remained bobbing there for several hours until a subtle readjustment in the water liberated it again.
Half a mile onwards, and the penis was scooped up in the jaws of a shaggy dog who was leaping about in the water. The dog scrambled back to his mistress and eagerly presented his prize.
“You filthy swine!” the lady exclaimed, swiping at the dog with her umbrella. “You filthy filthy swine!” Mildly perplexed, the dog tore off again with the penis, his tail wagging. He dropped it beside a picnic table and, insofar as a dog has a mind, he did not give it another thought.
There was now a distinct chill in the air. The sun had ducked out of view, as if only keeping an eye on the world from around a corner.
Somebody approached the picnic table. A young girl, about fifteen, but dressed very pointedly, as if furnishing proof to a sceptical world that she was really an adult. Her arms were mere bones, she shivered in her skinny clothes, and her sad face could not seem to bear the weight of all its aggressively affected maturity. Her hands were clenched into little fists, but they were probably always like that.
Antony appeared, stinking of beer and wearing such a wretched, furious expression that his greatest friends would have needed a second look to recognise him.
“C’mon, I’ve been buying you drinks all evening…”
“You’ve been fucking buying me orange juice. Nobody drinks that shit.”
“I’VE TOLD YOU BEFORE,” Antony thrashed his arms about like somebody abruptly silencing an orchestra. “I can’t buy you alcohol.”
“Whatever…” The girl seemed to be wary of him, and determined not to let him get too close. A thought struck her. “Why don’t you go home? You’ve been following me all day.”
“You said we could fuck,” Antony mumbled, looking up at her sharply.
The girl was bemused. “I would never say that…” Laughing, she closed her eyes, but this proved a disastrous mistake. As fast as a cat, he was on top of her, his knees pinning her down.
“Just help me wank. Please just watch me have a wank…” He was fumbling with his jeans and his cock slopped out. He saw that it was not erect, and for a moment he was bewildered.
“Get off me! Seriously get off me!” The girl tried to find a convincingly serious voice, and she grimaced as she hit the wrong note. She tried again. “Get the fuck off me!”
He was pinning her down, his cock flapping about in the disorder, like a single arm waving from a car crash. She resolved not to look at it and her eyes settled on somewhere across the river. She relaxed for a moment, and then pushed back with everything she had.
Antony found his arms empty and then he was clawing to recover. There was a brief messy interlude in which they were frozen in combat, like two creatures locked in each other’s jaws. Straining against each other, they were both suddenly surprised to find themselves listening to the melody of the river. Then the girl weakened and she was once again defeated.
She began wearily to beg. “Please leave me alone, please get off!” She was momentarily surprised at the sound of ripping fabric. Antony tried to laugh, as if this was just horseplay. The girl then panicked and the panic seemed to lift her up as if on a great wave, a gigantic energy that was poised to break.
“Please get off. Please leave me alone. Please…” She tried to snatch at him, but he forced her arms down until she was spread-eagled helplessly. She spat at him and he snarled. His body was now in her face, its unexpected warmth and smell veering into her. The girl gave one last futile push and then her left hand had suddenly found something hard and heavy in the grass. This swung the world back in her favour. There was a great rip, a massive exhilaration, and the girl was incredibly tottering on her feet, her muscles loose and sweet. The object was above her head and then it crashed down with all of the impersonal efficiency of a blow necessary to safeguard life and extinguish death.
She stepped back. There was a great mark across her arm and then she saw that it was blood.
“Ah!” The cry rattled hoarsely somewhere in the grass. “I’m fucked! I’m fucking fucked.”
He was trying to staunch the blood with his hands, but it simply poured through his fingers. “Pull it out,” he gibbered. “Pull it out!”
The girl slid Ricardo’s penis out of the hole that it had made in his nephew’s body. She registered the blood without interest, as if it was merely a spillage that somebody would have to clean up. Antony caught sight of the penis and dismay shot through his heart. It was all too much. He wanted to faint, he would have given anything to faint, but unconsciousness refused to come.