I awoke this morning in the middle of an incredibly powerful dream, and flung bolt upright in bed, reeling as if intoxicated by fumes, I almost capered off still in the company of its hallucinations, dressed for the day in their outlandish livery. Yet their cavorting amounted only to hideous contortions, for they were ideas which had slipped out of all the traction of reasoning which fixed them in place, and they were now rolling about shapelessly, in a disjointed frenzy. The first peeps of morning light arrested their flow and exposed their graceless incoherence. I began to feel a little abashed at having so nearly joined them.
The scenario in the dream was one which automatically replays in my mind during any quiet moment, like a screensaver appearing on an unattended computer. When watching something frying on the stove, or when curled in a ball on my bedroom floor listening to my wife making love in the next bedroom, or when washing my clothes (I always enjoy washing them by hand, and now rarely use the machine), my mind returns to that immortal picnic, which Marcin, Tori and I held on a summer’s day in the shell of a ruined mill.
The summer was new and fresh. We had been partying mindlessly – nightly drowning ourselves in the roar of the Cowgate – and resurfacing to the bleary stupor of late afternoons, the stale food and easy television. I was always fretting about reclaiming a few moments for myself, so that I could remember everything which had happened, as if all of my accumulated experiences would slip away unrecorded unless I had printed them firmly enough upon my consciousness. One night, Marcin and I were in a West Port brothel, and the whores were chatting to each other about Orlando Bloom whilst we fucked them, and I snarled at mine “please be quiet. How can I concentrate with this?” Marcin detached himself from his whore, rubbing impatiently at his penis to make it limp. “I’m bored,” he demanded, frowning at me.
I shook my head. “Only boring people get bored.”
Tori’s image appeared in the bedroom mirror – gaunt and with the remarkable, unearthly whiteness of a clear moon. She gazed into her face with fascination, as if it was a dead baby.
“I’m afraid to admit that’s me,” she despaired softly.
“Chill. We should just chill.”
“I feel like a child bicycling without stabilisers – the moment that I stop, I’ll fall over in a heap.”
Marcin tried to roll a cigarette, but the whores were suddenly in uproar, like quacking ducks. Marcin snuggled against his whore and shot off his most boyish smile, but it bounced harmlessly off her like a paper pellet. The cigarette was seized and annihilated.
“Let’s leave the city. Tomorrow,” Tori decided.
The next morning, we hired a car and drove out to the first green space on the map, which turned out to be Roslin Glen. The smell of the woods will forever be homely, the chattering of a passing river is like spreading, loving arms – a cosmic harbour for the careworn heart – and they remain like the dreams of memory; the kitchen of one’s childhood, or the clearing in the forest where sad children once rolled up in a bed of dry leaves and pretended that they were asleep or dead. Out there, everything becomes profoundly and uniquely clear – the dancing light, the wandering sighs in the woods, the splashes of deer in the path ahead – these are like loving looks or a hand slipping around a boy’s waist, when the world finally finds its voice and speaks a sleepy truth more real and haunting than all the lesser certainties which furnish our days.
We came across the shell of a mill perched over the River Esk. Tori lay with her head in Marcin’s lap. I stood on the bank like a statue, feeling utterly hollow and unable to tear myself away from the sight of the crashing foam, the river’s power and glory.
“I’m so happy,” Tori murmured. “How can we be so lucky? I sometimes feel like we’ve cheated – as if all the bad luck is waiting for us somewhere in the road ahead.”
The sun went in and we became restless with desire. Before I had finished undressing, I got a massive erection, and Tori squealed and tried to flick at the helmet. The roots of an old tree scraped against the soles of my feet, bumping like the knuckles of dead hands as they clawed protectively over their cherished grave. Marcin was kissing Tori’s stomach, while she stroked his hair. As the river rolled past, I imagined an equivalent gathering of fishes suspended in its waters, clinking their glasses, toasting the passing trees, and imploring them to slow down before they gave themselves a heart attack. We were then stoned and lay dozing stupidly. Eventually – in an eruption of ludicrous pinks and oranges – the sun went down like a battleship. The shadows began to gather up the forest and our bodies were suddenly tender in the night air.
Did we pack up our picnic and troop back to the car? Or did we remain there forever?
When Leum was six years old, a social worker came to his house and found him as drunk as a high court judge. His grandmother would give him a teacup of whisky whenever he became too noisy – a modest dosage compared to what she would usually prescribe for herself. Later, once in the privacy of a police car, the social worker had cried like a baby. Pawing over Leum, she wailed about how badly he had been treated. She would surely never witness the limits of human cruelty. Although Leum was only six and he was struggling to wear off an almighty hangover, he had already sense enough to know that he did not like this woman.
Leum’s new foster-father was an over-exuberant Pentecostal Christian named Jeff. Once he had signed the applicable forms, nobody could prevent Jeff from subjecting his new son to a vicious regime of Sunday schools and prayer camps. Leum endured these with the forbearance of a saint, but on the first day at his new school, he had bitten a girl’s ear off. Jeff had urged that the situation demanded openness, that Leum needed to learn to visualise his emotions. The school councillor had more practically suggested that the alcoholism from which Leum was still suffering was making him irritable. In the end, the school had decided not to expel Leum, but the other children, for their part, wanted nothing more to do with him.
It was a brilliant morning in early summer and Leum was not particularly anxious about going to school. He was waiting for the school bus with his only friend Donald: a stick of a kid with thick glasses who limped around on crutches, but who nevertheless boasted constantly about his latest feats at Taekwondo. He and Leum were the paupers of playground society – picked last for sports teams, learning the school gossip only when it was long cold, and effectively imprisoned together in a sort of social dungeon.
In the middle of recounting how he had broken his instructor’s leg with a power smash, Donald noticed that Leum was walking away up the road.
“Where are you going?” Donald spluttered, scrambling on his crutches.
“Fuck you dickhead,” Leum said. His schoolbag was annoying him, and he pulled it off and threw it over a hedge.
Leum walked across several neighbourhoods until the town had receded and he was approaching Roslin glen. He wanted to lie down by the river and sleep. Yet he was suddenly amused by the arrival of a squadron of ducks, who bombarded him with their shrill quacks. Perhaps they had news of some catastrophe. Leum’s grandmother had never allowed him to leave the house without a slice of bread in his jacket pocket and, retrieving the latest portion, which had now been there for several days, he tore it into lumps and the ducks gobbled them up.
Leum followed the river, which rolled slightly ahead of him, muttering to itself, until it reached a weir and broke into a furious little roar at being held back. The ruined mill waited, one wall standing, the rest of the structure strewn about in a sort of crater. The spot was full of the sound of the river, which, for the moment, tore through Leum’s mind like a stampede of escaping horses. Leum lay down in the grass and listened to the water.
Moments later, he was awakened by a voice.
“Who have we here?”
A second voice laughed. “It looks like a little man.”
Leum sat up, bewildered. A splendid youth was fixed overhead, amongst the branches of a beech tree. He was half naked in the sunshine and looked as merry as a cricket. Leum almost expected him to erupt into chirps. An older man was standing by the river, absorbed in the intricacies of its foam, transfixed by its bubbling chant. He broke away abruptly.
“You’ve come to join our picnic, eh?”
Leum was surprised by a bright laugh. A girl with shining blond hair and bare breasts was rummaging about in a plastic bag. She finally produced a bottle filled with a golden liquid.
“Care for some refreshments little man?”
Leum immediately understood that he had fallen into the hands of the good people. His grandmother had warned him darkly about this crowd. You must never get on the wrong side of them, you must agree to everything they say. The golden liquid caught the sunshine and became as beautiful as fire. Leum mumbled his assent.
The girl with the bare breasts splashed the liquid into four teacups. Each of the strangers solemnly accepted a cup and nodded to Leum to do the same. The cups were raised aloft, before bumping together with a rough little clink.
At first Leum was scorching inside, but then he felt suddenly bland and calm, and soon the familiar unsteadiness returned. His head was now too heavy for him and the others exclaimed as he toppled over with a dull little cry.
For a while he sat and dozed and listened to the others talk.
If Leum had remained conscious of time, he would have sensed that he and his new friends had sat there for centuries, even millennia, whilst the sun peeped in and out, and the river chattered to the woods, and the stones of the old mill blackened and bleached and sank into the grass. Once in eternity, his foster-father had found his body seated with an incredible stillness at the kitchen table, his face frozen with a wild ghastly smirk. He had died of a stroke. But if you wander down to the ruined mill at Roslin, you may come across this little man dozing in the shade of an old wall, and perhaps you will also encounter my friends and I, lost in the time of our lives.